Friday, February 25, 2011

Recent Game

I've been thinking hard about how to write this up. I'd like to do blow-by-blow Actual Play examples but I simply don't have the time to do it right now. If I wait my memory of the game will fade. So here's what I'm going to do: I'm going to give a sort of overview with some notes about what we learned or how we approached several elements of it.

We'll see if that's satisfying.

What I'm Testing Right Now
Thunder Strike--a damage blast (area/explosive) that comes with a sort of Flash-Bang effect. This is a case of mixing a Resisted Attack (Flash-bang) with damage-dealing capabilities. As I've said before, this is something that a lot of games I've played handle in ways I didn't find satisfying (Champions being an exception). The fact that we can link non-damage effects (the flash) to Damage Points is, I consider, a serious strength of JAGS.

On the other hand, the handing time for these attacks is high. So you don't want too many of them.

The Game
We've had a history of playing academics ever since the early days of Call of Cthulhu and found that playing professors (or journalists) had a certain appeal to it. For this game we considered being college professors but scaled it back to High School teachers at a New England school. The setting was modern-day and we knew the scenario would fall into the paranormal genre.

The set up was that we were:

  • 40 CP, 0 AP teachers
  • We were trapped in terms of being forced to teach at a dismal private school. We couldn't "just get fed up and leave." The GM left it up to us as to why that was.
  • We understood there would be some element of us gaining paranormal abilities but we didn't know of what sort.

I played Winston Crawford an ex-journalist who'd worked for Rolling Stone (amongst others) who had had a psychotic breakdown (barricading himself in a hotel with alcohol and firearms and having a standoff with the police). After that, he was pretty washed up since he tended towards the "Conspiracy theory" of reporting anyway. After realizing he would go by "Mr. Crawford," in deference to Ozzy Osbourne I changed his last name to Crowley. I decided my character was large (12 PHY) and obese (20 BLD). It's one of the vanishingly few times I have played a fat character. I was teaching History and Journalism.

The other player (K) played Dr. Stacy Peril MIT Bio-Chem genius who was a student of a for-real (now dead) 'mad scientist' that had experimented on people and created spontaneous human combustion. She was considered dangerously unethical in the scientific community and had come to the school having few other options. She was teaching Science and some language classes (she had Linguist skills).

Best Practice: Have the PCs Know Each Other
We believe there are sets "best practices" (consulting speak for "good ideas") that you can keep mind of during games. For this one our best-practice was: Have the PCs have a relationship before the game starts. We think this saves time and establishes the PCs as friends even if their personalities might not jive all that well.

I decided I had broken the Human Combustion case but, until it was obviously real, no one believed me. I had met Dr. Peril and we had become friends. We decided I followed her to the school as a friend when I realized my career was washed up as well.

Best Practice: Establish Boundaries Before Character Creation
If the GM wants to set up some kind of boundary (in this case: "You are stuck at the school") the best-practice is to simply state it and have the players determine why this is the case. It prevents someone from going "my character is so brilliant she'll just go into business for herself!" or "I made a guy who's rich--I just quit the school and retire young").

Getting this kind of agreement at the person-to-person level before the game starts is, we think, usually the right approach.

Player-Generated Content
We were asked to come up with some activity we were involved with and also to name our favorite and least favorite students. I came up with a plot around the students provoking a response from a land developer. The other player, K didn't really have any great ideas so we let that slide until later.

NOTE: Player-generated content can raise the energy of play a lot if players can come up with things they like that work well with the GM's vision. However, it doesn't always work and even great players can have a bad day. In the game K had the idea for breeding mutant frogs. This wasn't an electrifying idea since it didn't involve any other NPCs to a great degree and, I suspect, didn't much fit with the GM's vision for a mundane (if viciously petty) academic life.

Best Practice: NPCs
There were 13 teachers (including us) and the principle. The GM gave us the list of NPC names. I think a best-practice we didn't really use is for the GM to give us printed sheets of major NPCs with one-line descriptions. It helps with the learning curve. As it stood, I was next to a computer so I took notes on screen during the game.

The Game Opening
I started out in the principle's office (Principle Birdthistle--a great act of naming) getting chewed out about my students news-paper causing problems in the town. While sparring with him I discovered that he had a plan (I palmed a document on his desk) that showed that half the teachers were getting kicked out of their (kind of nice) offices to take up work in the open-plan library.

As this was a 'fate worse than death' and the people picked to retain their offices smacked strongly of favoritism, it was scandalous.

Our opening act of play had us meeting other teachers and interacting with them. All of them were "losers" in one sense or another (some less than others) and I had a good time disseminating the data about the up-coming office move to try to have a preemptive mass-complaint block the de-officing.

We were also introduced to some students who were bad sorts and ran a paramilitary drill-team off campus with people from the town. They were kind of ominous (smart, fairly crisp, and definitely dangerous sounding).

The opening came to a head when one of the senior teachers apparently vanished leaving his office locked and a trail of clues that led the two PCs down to the un-lit basement with old water-damaged classrooms where the power was out.

We discovered he'd had a secret workshop where he was examining two artifacts:

  • A crown of steel with hammered gold leaf and fake glass gems. It had 12 horses inscribed on it.
  • A triptych (a painted cabinet with three illustrations that tell a story) which indicated several scenes of mass-slaughter including the Aztec Consecration of the Great Pyramid where perhaps 80,000 or more people were sacrificed over four days.
We found his notes and a card to the faculty: he had discovered these artifacts on the school ground and fled because of them. His examination of them suggested that:
  1. There was a 52 year cycle (more or less) that involved great bloodshed
  2. We were coming up on the next one (one of the first had been the Consecration of the Great Temple)
  3. The remaining 12 faculty were "involved"
  4. There would be a mass-death and this time, at the end of the cycle, the 5th world would end (the Aztec mythology held that there were four dead worlds before ours and we were the 5th and last).
In short, he believed that the school was created (originally, in 1908) to help usher in the end of the world through mass-slaughter. We, the 12 faculty--indicated by the 12 horses--would facilitate that.

We hid the artifacts and told no one.

The GM hit all the right notes with the faculty conflicts making us losing our offices seem like the worst indignity a person could suffer. The triptych was also interesting from a pacing story: each picture (one of which was Cossacks burning a town full of people with a weird star representing the 1908 Tunguska Event overhead) involved History and Art Appreciation rolls to discern the meaning from it. When we got to the bloody-slaughter of the Aztec Consecration of the Great Pyramid it made for a high point.

The counter-point was that the crown was "junk"--it was missing the velvet coverings and the notes said that although it once had real gems of some sort the teacher who had vanished felt they had been sold off at some time in its history.

However: the 12 horses represented us. And the image of the crown had good symbolism. The crown itself had two rings (one for the forehead, one around the top to hold up the upper half) and the second was decorated with the horses.

Act 2: Flight
In a dream I saw the crown, grown huge, sitting out in the marching field but the horses were between the two rings like a carousel. 

Both of our characters begin experiencing a sort of "awakening" where we became far more perceptive to the world around us and yet strangely apart from it. We felt good

In a scene I found myself encouraged by an inner sense to go up in the bell tower--to get to a high place. I couldn't open the (locked) door. But I was able to pull myself up ... effortlessly. When I reached the balcony, climbing (impossibly) with my hands, I realized I could step off into space. I did--and flew. I flew at around 1000 miles per hour, accelerating almost instantly. 

It was a matter of perception: like I'd always been able to fly and now remembered how. Flying was kind of like seeing one of those 'magic eye' images. As long as we were flying we were able to keep the perspective.

I called the other PC and met her out on the balcony of her on-campus apartment. She couldn't see me until I almost landed in front of her (some kind of "cloak" filed). I reached out to her and when she saw me flying, she was able to--and I helped her up.

When we landed in the field we both lost the perspective and had to walk back to campus--more than a little disappointed.

Now, with a sign, we researched and found the missing teacher and called him. He was able to give us a bit more information: The crown was created by people following an ancient ritual. You kill people, you get power--kill a lot of people and you might, I don't know, wind up in charge of Russia. Or all of Central and South America. But if you do it at the wrong time--which is now--the world ends.

Someone ... here ... is going to do it. And somehow we're going to be a part of it. There are 12 of us--like 12 disciples. He left because he wanted no part of that. He told us that the artifacts were in a hidden safe in the gallery above the old auditorium.

I checked it out--it was true, the safe was there (empty).

Other people were having strange dreams. One of the teachers lost it, pounding, somehow on the roof of his apartment (he was flying in his sleep). He dreamed he was being chased by an evil horse. We were all worried because everyone seemed to be under more and more pressure.

That night I saw "something"--my perspective came back--I could see the gravity wells around stars and the orbital plane of the moon and airplanes overhead. I could see something hovering above the school about 10 miles up. I flew up to it. Another teacher was there (the 'Failed Maestro'). The artifact was, however, a fully developed carousel floating in air with four rings of 12 horses and other things (chimera, a grand piano, and so on). It was partially lit hovering in the clouds.

I got the other PC and the flying teacher (we explained what we knew) and went onto the carousel. There was a throne flanked by black horses. There were five levers and written in Italian the names for Mercury, Venus, Earth, the Moon, and Mars.

We threw the control for the Moon. The carousel lit up and started playing music and turning. We rose at impossible speed--far faster than even we could fly--into the sky--and then space. We saw the earth in half-shadow. Then the sun naked in space. Then the moon. We were coming down and "landed" in a crater. There were trees ... a small Italian looking villa. Nothing moved.

We exited the carousel ... and went in.

During the elapsed time the GM set up several developing conflicts. A couple were between NPCs and my conflict with (a) the developers in town (being born out through the Journalism class) and (b) the spooky drill-team kids who were smart and hostile. The other player's character had some interactions but didn't engage with a lot of non-investigative drama but did interact.

Audio-Visual Gimmicks
The GM had his laptop with him and used it during the adventure. He played the Eagle's Journey of the Sorcerer when we flew the first time and had a different classical musical piece for each of the planets when we went on the carousel (the moon was the creepy "Carnival of the Animals: Aquarium").

When we landed on the moon he had an image of a Medici Family Vila to show us.

Done correctly (and it was done well here) it is quite effective. I don't think every game should be an A-V extravaganza however with a small group--with good pacing--you can create a sense of mystery so long as the music doesn't go on too long or doesn't go over the talking (content). I think the game has to be strong enough to stand on its own with just the words before this is a good idea. Also: if a player really isn't on board with a brief musical interlude (he only played a few moments of the pieces, not the whole thing) it really kills the mood.

With not-a-lot happening during the beginning of the session in terms of solving the mystery the GM was required to do some serious pacing. He did a good job: the drill team (which would've, later, become a major antagonist) was developed well--and there were a few conflicts that didn't 'go anywhere' but gave us an opportunity for roleplaying and had a good "academics" feel to them (including the overpowering smell of marijuana in the teacher's complex--leading to "who's doing it!?" questions).

Final Act
The Medici Villa was exactly that: it bore the family crest and seemed to have been transported to the moon. It was mostly empty: there was a chapel with five windows telling a story of the five worlds. One destroyed by rocks falling and breaking open into fire. One was destroyed by floods. One by jaguars (terrible dark monsters with red eyes), one by earthquakes, I think.

Then there was Earth as all that was left.

In the creepy, empty villa we encountered a "ghost"--a horses head with glowing turning 'planets' for eyes and 13' long spiders legs sprouting from its neck. It gave us scrolls to read (they were in Italian by K's character could decipher them given time). The villa looked to be hundreds of years old and only somewhat magical. Our senses were now honed--we were drawn to a full crown in one of the villa's towers--surrounded by mechanical spear traps.

The ghost never got close to us--but we were afraid of it (it seemed fully corporeal) and we had feelings of being watched. We retreated (my character had a handgun).

Back on earth we deciphered the scrolls, visited Venus (another villa) and massive rolling dark clouds. A giant predator's skull the size of a station wagon. 

The scrolls told us more of the story: there were "accountants" that the Medici family had been in contact with. There were several 'sacraments' that an adept would go through before being able to speak to these "celestial accountants." The first was flight, the second lightning, the third we interpreted as "stronger" or "maturity." After that came the ability to make a crown.

The other planets were the previous dead worlds. Everything had begun on them and then ceremony had happened and they were ended. Each as the story foretold (one in rain, one in flood, one in jaguars, one in earthquakes).

Apparently many groups had known about the blood-magic. The Russians had tried it unsuccessfully. The Medicis had perfected it, building the crowns and the carousel and being able to move between the planets. It seemed that the "accountants" were some kind of divine left-overs from the creation of the universe and the people, like us, who would be able to interact with them went through a progression of gaining abilities.

It seemed that performing the slaughter ritual would build even more power. Perhaps that was what had been done ... if you built too much, the world ended? We weren't certain. However:
  • Several of the other teachers were flying
  • Two of them had developed the ability to fire lighting bolts (8 AP in Standard, 8 AP in Exotic or Periodic from the Big List of Attacks)
I talked to the teacher who had left and realized he was flying too--so there were 13 of us--meaning one of the teachers at the school was not one of us--but something else. I concluded that one of the teachers was a plant from the schools' creator or some other force that would lead to the destruction of the world.

It turned out I was right. One of the teachers--the business teacher (whom I suspected, stopped suspecting, and then suspected again) felt he had been inspired by his dreams and would "elevate the world" to his vision. He was determined to wear the crown (he knew it existed--but didn't know where it was--I had it hidden in my closet) and marshal his power (he didn't fly--but he was very strong and very hard to hurt). He told me this because he felt I could help him.

I got the others.

The game ended in a show-down wherein we faced him down (he was a bit more evolved but didn't have the energy attack powers). We had 8 AP Force Fields--he had a 10 AP Force Field and a bunch of ADP.

When it was over, we took him to Mercury (which was the planet of Jaguars--which were, we learned in the after-gaming Q&A session, terrifying creatures that, if you saw them, would "get inside your head" and continue to hunt you through dreams and then into reality--they could follow us back from Mercury) and dumped him there. The fortress-like villa stood intact on a nightmarish Mercury-scape plane but we didn't think he'd last long even inside its walls.

The game ended when the GM had to return to work. I estimated it at about 18 hours of play time over three days.

The game seems much more stark on "paper" than it did in actual practice. It had a creepy organic feel to it with its nod towards real world conspiracy theories (the five-worlds thing is real--as are the ends of the four worlds). The images of Medici villas had a dream-like quality to them (they were taken from a Wikipedia website on Medici villas--no people were shown and the terrain around it seemed bare of any animal life--which contributed to the "dead worlds" effect).

My character, an investigative reporter turned teacher was perfectly suited for the game. K's character, a mad-scientist inventor type really wasn't. If we'd had more time up front we would've fixed that (as it was, I was planning to run something and was feeling too exhausted at the last moment to put it together). K took more actions than I've illustrated here but in terms of the over-arching plot the character wasn't as significant.

The characters were: 8 AP of attack, flight, 8 AP of Force Field, and eventually 8 AP of GAT (which we would've gotten if we'd played longer). The game was designed to continue running past that battle. There were a bunch of conflicts (the mob-land developer guys, the drill team that was planning to take over the school if they could get guns, etc.) that would've developed fully once we had grown into our full abilities.

Each of the dead worlds also had interesting things on it--Mars had a remaining civilization there. There were "dungeons" to explore out in the wastes. Each world had its own kind of monster (the worst being the "Jaguars") and its own ghosts with their own designs--all of them could get to Earth to follow us back.

I'm sure this write-up leaves a lot out and may not make any sense. I'll be happy to answer questions.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

On Playtest

This is going to be a series of articles written about playtesting JAGS. I think there are three major elements of this train of thought:

  • Philosophy: What, why, and how do we playtest? What do we hope to gain by it?
  • Specific Games: What was a game we ran like? What'd we learn? How'd we do it? What do we think this says about JAGS in general vs. that game in specific?
  • How Do We Structure Games: We believe there are a set of best-practices for constructing games and playing JAGS (and, likely, other games of a similar sort). In these posts we're talking about the way we structure games and approach them (and play).
Stuff We're Doing Right Now
Big List of Attacks. Did Quantum-Beams and now working on some Resisted Attacks combined with standard damage beams. I'll note that this is something that I've wanted in many, many other games and have not felt they were especially well handled (and, to be honest, JAGS's approach is pretty complicated--but with luck it can be balanced which is good).

On Playtesting 1
My attention is called to This post on Vincent Baker's blog in which guest blogger Ben Lehman tells game designers: Stop Playtesting. Now certainly he's writing (as we all are) for a specific audience ("indie game designers"--possibly people he knows) but I know or at least suspect his observations are meant fairly globally. They might even apply to JAGS. Here's his table of contents and my paraphrases:
  1. Textual Errors: You won't find them from playtesters--no one reads RPG texts! The question will be how well your game's rules are similar to other games they've played!!
  2. Rules Problems: You won't find them because playtest isn't all that exhaustive. Do careful textual analysis of your own rules and thought experiments.
  3. Mathematic Probabilities: Uh, no--do the math. Playtesting won't tell you anything about probabilities.
  4. Marketing: As far as I can tell he assumes you either hit your target market or not and you can't "test that" with a play-test (sample size is too small).
  5. Development: If you change rules in playtest because of playtest you are doing the wrong thing. Playtesters are too invested in the moment to have a clear view of how the rules should work and you, even if you aren't playing will be equally influenced by the state of the specific game rather than things like the vision of the rules or goals.
  6. Finishing Your Game: If you playtest more than a year it's bullshit. Think of it like being proposed to be married--leaving your time table open-ended and over several years ... means you lack commitment.
What About These And JAGS?
Although over the years I've found a lot of RPG-Theory dialog to be stuff I disagreed with (either vigorously or just somewhat) I'm on-board with the essay*. Let's take a look.

Textual Errors: Over the amount of time that JAGS has been written and re-written I've gotten far enough away from it to have to re-read it as a person who doesn't know the rules (let's be fair: I don't 'just' know the JAGS Rules--I know about seven versions of the JAGS rules. That's for starters, and it's not including the multitude of things I've forgotten). So, yes: playtesting does eventually find things. I've re-read sections of the rules and gone "ooh--that's not clear. What the hell was I thinking there."

That happens--but mainly? The way to catch textual errors is two-fold:
(a) Editing -- and you need a 'rules editor' to do this. Someone who understands the game and/or RPGs in general and can give a really literal read in an editing context --and--
(b) Careful writing. It's hard to do a first draft that's even reasonably clear and accurate. So having to re-write things over and over--forcing yourself to do best-practices of telling people what you are going to tell them before you say it and, especially, breaking down rules into component steps--listing them as steps--and then giving concrete examples? That's a way to catch textual errors.

Look at the combat tracker in JAGS Revised for a good example of this. If we'd done a third example with the characters grappling we'd have caught textual errors there too.

Rules Problems: We've caught rules problems a-plenty during playtesting however we don't fix them then. Sometimes using a rule--especially enforcing a careful read of it--can and will find stuff that doesn't work right. What I agree with Ben on is that trying to fix a rule during playtest isn't even nearly the best time. On the other hand, rules that looked good or made sense when you wrote them often don't work so well on review during play (and, especially, play can bring up edge-conditions that even a well-realized set of rules didn't address).

Mathematical Probabilities: Our extensive work with the simulator means I'm right on-board here. I suspect that, despite what he says in the essay, I'd need to pay someone serious bucks to do the statistical analysis I'm doing with Monte Carlo techniques. I don't think playtesting is at all viable for this sort of thing.

Marketing: We don't market and have only basic ideas of who our target market is so this doesn't apply to my thinking.

Development: I don't think playtesting "to develop" works. We try to reverse engineer our rules when possible by determining how we think they should work and then working backwards to make the rule. Sometimes things do come up during play, however, that change our mind about this. Playtesting is good for shaking your vision up. It isn't good for creating it and 'refining it' needs to happen after the fact.

Finishing Your Game: With about five years and counting on JAGS Revised Archetypes I have to say that I don't think his one-year limit is going to work for us. On the other hand, we aren't spending this time "playtesting" JAGS Revised Archetypes so much as simulating it. We're still learning things--valuable things--about the rules-set that we didn't know a year ago. Changing how we test things is giving us a new perspective on things. So long as that keeps happening I think it's awesome.

* His tone is provocative, I think--and I'm not supporting that--but being able to rant is a major motivation for  blogging to begin with.

Armed vs. Unarmed

Thomas wants to know when you take "Armed" Strength vs. "Unarmed." Let's explain what that means: When simulating super-strong characters we tested them "barehanded" and "with a sword." When we tested them with the sword we'd deduct the 4 AP the sword cost from their strength--but the combination made the whole strike PEN damage at Medium Reach. Because the test character were L3 they were all as fast as a punch.

It turned out that having a sword + Strength was better than 4 AP of STR + Strength. In other words, adding a sword to your character was better than the cost implied. On the other hand, having a sword without strength was the right cost so just increasing the cost of Sword didn't work.

So we came up with the concept of "Armed" Strength vs. Unarmed Strength. The rule-of-thumb is this: if your character will commonly carry an edged weapon or deal PEN damage of any sort then you pay the Armed cost. If not? Unarmed.

The most clear cut cases of Unarmed STR are:

  • Chi Martial Artists who fight emphatically without weapons
  • Superhero 'bricks' who never use weapons of any sort
  • Club-using barbarians or giants who don't "know how" to use a sword
The most clear-cut cases of Armed STR are:
  • Super-strong swordsmen (duh)
  • Cyborgs with cyber-claws or cyber-blades
  • Animals with claws or teeth or other PEN-damage bio-attacks
The gray areas are:
  • Everything else.
So what do you do if you are in a gray area? Do you pay the Armed cost as a matter of course?

Short answer: yes.
Long answer: yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeesssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss.

Real Answer: The first position you should take is this: if you take the Unarmed STR then you cannot arm yourself. This is a meta-game rule and it's simple and you can dance to it. However, we can, of course, see how you might find that uninviting. So there are some Advanced/Optional rules you can use.

1. You can track and, uhm, switch strengths (so you use the lower value when armed). This is more complex and might "make no sense" but, hey, balanced.

2. You can use a bladed weapon or, for that matter, any weapon up to and including a 'nuclear cannon' if the game allows it--and not pay AP. However, if you are using our suite of optional rules then named NPC and PC targets can use one of several "special defenses" against any weapon you didn't pay AP for. One of these defenses is, for example, 'automatic dodge' (you pay the REA and the attack misses--no roll) so if you do carry the nuclear cannon ... or arm yourself having taken 'Unarmed STR' then when you go up against a serious foe they'll have some very effective defenses. Again, this is is advanced/optional so you don't need to go to the back of the book to make this work unless you're interested in using these kinds of rules.

3. There are some games (think "Super Agents") where the PCs will pay for innate abilities but get gear (including weapons) issued to them or otherwise free with respect to AP-cost. In this case you could take Unarmed STR because your fellow super-agents (or whatever) might be carrying assault rifles or something and if you've got a katana and super strength you might not even "keep up with that" anyway (of course you could also have an assault rifle but presumably they spent the AP you spent on STR on being more effective with theirs).

So there are several options around this--but if you are not interested in going into the complexities of JAGS games and gear (there's a whole section on this) then you just make the decision: will I ever arm myself? And if you decide 'no' then you aren't gonna do it--and you can take Unarmed STR.

Or, you know, you could calculate both numbers and write the "Armed" number on the side of your character sheet and not worry about it too much ;)


Saturday, February 19, 2011

One Makes Smaller ... Size In JAGS

Thomas asked about how size works in JAGS.

There's a complex story here--but rather than doing what he asked (explaining how the rules used to work) I'm going to try a quick-hit and show the current rules. Here are two graphics that show how size is now purchased:

For getting bigger this is the formula: decide if your character commonly uses an edged weapon or not (this includes bio-weapons) and if so, go with the Armed numbers. If not, go with the Unarmed numbers. The first 8 points (or 4 if you are just buying a half-level) use the L1 numbers. After that, use L+.

I realize this isn't fully easy to understand--but hopefully it's more clear than the original rules. I'll do an example later when I have more time.

To be smaller:
Use This chart. Choose a size class and you get AP's back based on how small you are. Apply the listed modifiers to your character.

A couple of notes:
1. Size is something many RPGs do very strangely. It's usually possible to be quite big without having the damage or defenses one would expect. In other cases there's simply no good provision for it.

2. There has to be some ancillary data around "how big does JAGS think an elephant is?" so you know if you are buying multiple levels if you are in the right ballpark. We'll provide that in the book. Originally our approach was to say "You decide 'I want to be as big as a horse' and then buy that level of size." It was good for some games and not so good for others. That's one reason why the rules are confusing.

3. There is another trait called "Monster Size" that gives ADP instead of DP--this is good for making monsters that'll fight a horde of lower-damage PCs since it doesn't jack the monster's Minor Wound score up so high they can never score one. I'd use it for dragons in games where I wanted huge dragons that a small group of relatively 'normal' characters had a chance to bring down (also note: the way JAGS performs when you can't score a Minor Wound number is a lot of the target being endlessly Stunned and Dazed for a long time--being "on the ropes" for several Rounds. This might be dramatic once in a while but would get old fast as a staple--hence the need for ADP).

Edited: Here is the size chart. If you hit one of the sizes listed you get the effects on the table (including the to-be-hit modifiers and CON bonuses). There are some more rules around this (the TBH modifiers are NOT treated like AGI modifiers ... and two really big things hit each other normally rather than at huge pluses--so there's some special cases there--but this will get you started).


Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Science Agents: 32 AP

I decided to make a batch of 32 AP Science-Agents and see how they performed in the simulator against 32 AP Herds. There were only a couple of 32 AP examples in the book--but we knew a bit about how this point-scale performed because Level 2 Fast Company is supposed to come in reliably at around 32 AP if the character rates "Low Damage" (meaning 1/8 or fewer of their AP are spent on attacks).

I created two new packages and modified them until they "balanced." Here's the table of the results:

Okay, it's small--but I think it's readable. I want to note a few things:

  • For both Beck and Kamman the final stats that were "balanced" turned out to be both better and way different from what I had originally. I haven't tried to 'cost-out' these packages yet, however.
  • The Damage listing is what Damage Level (Normal, Low, or Very-Low) they were tested at for purposes of simulation. All of these guys could carry a more heavily-hitting gun in the game I'm running (and, indeed, they are issued rail-gun side-arms. They just can't take 1 REA attacks with them if the gun is more than 8 A-Cost (LD) or 4 A-Cost (VLD). In fact, the gun is around 16 AP--so a Kamman Science Agent build in my game would use his normal REA to fire the gun but could still take 2 attacks each round for 1 REA if they were hand to hand (since his Overdrive is rated at VLD).
  • The listing of 16-Apr for Science Agent-2's armor is supposed to be 4 (Damage Reduction) / 10 (Pen Defense). Thank you excel. I think, however, I'm motivated to make a world book where a character can actually have April 10th as a defense. It'd be a very, very little bit like Nobilis, I suppose :)
What Have We Learned?
Well, for one thing: these guys are a bit "over-defended." The battles took 4 or 5 Rounds on average which isn't a big surprise since the "regen" effect should wake them up to keep fighting.

The second thing is that the number of DP you heal with a regen doesn't seem to be a linear value (this is learned from the testing and thinking about it--not from the chart above). Remember: when a regen charge goes off you ignore the wound result you just took. This is really the biggest impact. Then the # of DP means that's how much you heal back.

So here's the thing: any DP healed over (a) your max and (b) what you are likely to sustain before you suffer an Unconscious result are wasted. So where as we were pricing Regen at 1/3rd the value of the DP it healed (so a heal-charge for 24 DP would cost what 8 normal DP would cost) I think that's just plain wrong. It's a TAP cost for sure (the expected value of any healing is proportional to the expected DP of the character--which is directly proportional to the AP cost of the character--under 'standard build conditions').

Anything Else?
I think I'm going to do a 64 AP Science-Agent package group (there aren't any in the rules right now) and see if I can sort of "graph a line" for these eclectic groups of abilities. The idea here isn't so much to try to come up with a "cost for any level of Science Agent" but instead to see if these conglomerations of TAP abilities and extra attacks scales in some reliable way that we can learn something from.

I'd like to have a "build your own Science Agent" section and, in fact, that chart of TAP costs further back in the past of this blog comes pretty close (everything else they have is, more or less, costed: LD attacks seem to be worth about 8 AP reliably across 16 to 64 AP tests. VLD Attacks are worth maybe 4 AP each). However right now the math would be moderately far off (by a point or two on 16 AP--and I haven't done the math for 32 AP). 

So we'll see.


Monday, February 14, 2011

A Question To Readers

The purpose of this blog is to discuss the development process of JAGS. Playtesting is, of course, key to that process. I have been somewhat circumspect about writing about the games we're playing because (a) the players read the blog, (b) I haven't been running the games mostly of late and (c) I'm not sure there's a huge amount of interest in how we set up and play these games--the craft of them.

However, seeing a bunch more people following the blog I'm going to put out the question: do people want to hear about the games we're running and see materials, get actual-play updates, stuff like that? It is topical since understanding the conditions the game is play-tested under is possibly one of the most valuable things you could know about the intent behind an RPG design (on the other hand, I can see very credible arguments that the intent behind and RPG design isn't all that important to begin with).


Science Agents!

After returning from a week of travel I've got some tests running. We're trying to work "push back" effects into the simulator so we can test Force Beams. These attacks have the result of, in addition to doing damage, knocking the target back to Long Range if they hit by 4+ (it's a little more complex than that--you can't knock Godzilla back--but for purposes of the simulator this will work).

Force Beams are one of those things it's great to have the simulator for because it gives us a good way to test something that's very hard to test with thought experiments: how badly does forcing a target with a hand to hand weapon to charge back in really hurt them? Sure--it's a pain in the ass--but by what factor? We can calculate it 'fairly easily' with the "everyone always rolls a 10" simplification but it helps to see it in an actual experiment.

But that's not what this post is about.

We interrupted our MMO-style Have-Not game (levels, random treasure, 'dungeons' in a post-apocalyptic society where we are going down into the massive, massive 'GC Complex' to test our fortunes) to do a game for a time when just two of our players could come. I ran it. I wanted to test Science Agents.

Science Agents are part of the new cybernetic rules. They are wet-ware and gene-mod characters who have a variety of special abilities. While each package differs some, these are some examples:

  • Overdrive. The name comes from the under-rated 1980's comic Cy-Cops where the characters could go into super-strong, super-fast combat mode (but it burnt them out). Our rules are a little different (you don't get faster--but do get stronger) and it takes an action to fire-up the strength.
  • Regenerate. You can, with a certain number of charges per combat, ignore a wound result up to and including Unconscious (but Internal Damage will still take you out) and recover a certain amount of DP. This gives you more staying power in lengthy fights.
  • Pain Dampers. Stuff like "Doesn't Take Hurt Condition" or "+8 to Hurt Condition" is a staple of Science Agents.
  • Other Stuff: Extra Con, Extra AGI, extra Initiative or REA, Character Points in "built in combat skills" and the like--as well as extra DP--round these guys out.
Our original testing didn't involve the concept of TAP so we had to go and re-eyeball the scores. We also didn't have some of the stuff like "Regenerate" in the simulator (a big one) and some of the Pain-Damper stuff wasn't fully implemented either. 

So the Players made their characters using a set of rules that wasn't bad but wasn't complete either. I took a look at the characters and the new estimated costs ... and I decided to fire up the simulator and test the 16 AP build against the 16 AP Herd. 

The 16 AP Shinjin Bio-Ware Scion got beaten to a pulp. Seriously: it had like 26% wins when 60% would be "about right." So what gives?

First Things First
One of the first things that I want to note is that there is a concept in point-based character design that you can just "add up everything" and that's the 'value' of your character. This isn't true: it's the cost of your character--but the effectiveness--even if every individual piece is costed correctly--is almost necessarily going to vary from that sum. In most games things multiply or divide or add some factor rather than adding a straight up linear cost. This is very true in JAGS--but it's also true in GURPS and Hero and I bet it's true in things like Savage Worlds.

Just because something is a bad build vs. an opponent doesn't mean much--but "the herd" represents a pretty conservative build that is deemed to be "not that effective" under most configurations--hence the estimated 60% chance of victory. If something is losing to that herd it's very likely a really bad buy in a real game.

What Went Wrong?
I'm not certain yet--but here is the original package with [Estimated AP Cost]. NOTE: the [Estimated Cost] is based on what I think it's worth (roughly) now. Prior to our level of sophistication with the simulator this package came to 15 AP. Here's the breakdown:
  • 4/10 Armor under the skin [4 AP]
  • +8 to Hurt Condition [.25 AP]
  • +2 Init [1.5]
  • 1x Heal (ignore up to Unconscious result) gain back +10 DP [~2.25 AP]
  • +5 DP [2 AP]
  • +7 STR Overdrive [3 AP]
  • Total: 13 AP
Now, I'll note this wasn't far wrong. I also want to point out that we estimated getting +10 AP back at worth  about 1.5 AP when it is more likely worth a little less than 1 AP and we thought +8 Hurt Condition was worth a lot more than it is. Additions to Hurt Condition are worth almost nothing in a pitched battled.

Right now this package tests "balanced" at the 16 AP level at:

  • 4/16 AP [4.25 AP]
  • +8 to Hurt Condition [.25 AP]
  • +3 Init [1.75 AP]
  • 2x Heal for +15 DP [3 AP]
  • +10 DP [5 AP]
  • +12 STR Overdrive [5AP]
  • Total: 16 AP [Adds up to 20.25 AP]
Let's compare this to three other "16 AP Science Agent Builds" that I created to test side-by-side:

Bio-2: Gives the character negative damage mods and a slightly better healing factor. 
  • +2 Init [1.5 AP]
  • +12 STR Overdrive [5 AP]
  • -4 DM [4 AP]
  • +10 DP [4 AP]
  • 3x Heal for +20 DP [3.25 AP]
  • Total: 16AP [Adds up to 17.75 AP]

Bio-3: Extra REA, AGI, and ability to apply AGI and Dodge/Block against bullets. Must stick to LOW DAMAGE (no more than 1/4th of AP spent on attack powers). 
  • +7 STR Overdrive [4 AP]
  • +3 REA [8 AP]
  • +2 AGI Bonus (Applies fully vs. Ranged attacks) [3 AP]
  • Dodge/Block applies vs. Ranged Attacks --
  • 2x Heal for +15 DP [3 AP]
  • +2 DP [1 AP]
  • Total: 16 AP [Adds up to 19 AP]

Bio-4: Armor again and enhanced CON/Survivability. 
  • +2 CON [2 AP]
  • +12 STR Overdrive [5 AP]
  • 4/16 Armor [4.25 AP]
  • +6 DP [2.67 AP]
  • Does Not Take Hurt Condition [2 AP]
  • 2x Heal for +15 DP [3 AP]
  • Total: 16 AP [Adds up to 17 AP]
Against Each Other:
The best overall performer was Bio-2 winning 65% of the fights against its brethren. The original Shinjin was comparatively weak winning only 38% of its fights against the other 3. Bio-2 and Bio-4 were middling (55% for Bio-2 and 44% for Bio-4--which in the grand scheme of things is okay).

It's not surprising that the extra attack (and hardness to hit) ruled the day--but I'll note that in the battle against the herd the Bio-2 winner (against the other Science Agents) was actually the loser with the lowest win % of 58.19% (all the others were 59.5 to 61.94 with the best being Bio-4!).

So it's a wash as to which you "have to have." That's good.

On the Other Hand
None of these add up to 16 AP either exactly or especially close. It appears we are consistently over-charging for the elements in this make-up given these specifics. What do we do about that? Nothing right now. We re-evaluate and consider things.

Right now I'll note that the builds without armor would get "more DP for the money" than our builds currently give them. On the other hand, that won't change them that much. The other thing to note is that these guys have a lot of TAP Costs (for new readers: TAP = Total AP Cost. The cost of certain types of defenses like negative Damage Mods is not a fixed number but is based on the Total AP the character is built on--so Godzilla pays more for -8 Damage Mods than a Batman-like super hero ... and he should: -8 Damage Mods effectively multiplies your investment in other defenses. So does +2 CON and Doesn't Take Hurt Condition and things like that).

Because we "round up" on TAP costs it's possible that the heavily invested Science Agents come out a few fractions 'behind' on every TAP buy and we're seeing the results here.


Thursday, February 3, 2011

Got the fraction wrong

My tests were, thankfully, set up so that if you are getting an additional attack of a different Profile the cost is 1/4 A-Cost, not 1/3rd.

That's fortunate and (actually) intentional when I set the test up. One of the reason that JAGS uses so many powers of 2 and numbers divisible by 2 is because it makes fractions simpler. Why would I then go and factor the balance testing for 1/3rd?

I was like "Did I really do that?"

No, I didn't--I just wrote it wrong in the last post.

Here's an example scenario: A character has spent 16 AP on powerful fists (Profile: Standard) and wants Dragon's Breath (Profile: Periodic) as well. For 4 AP they can get 16 AP worth of Dragon's Breath (a different profile: Periodic). If they then want a smashing tail with a Profile of Standard, they can get it for 1 AP at 16 AP level because they already have a Standard attack.