Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Fast Company

In a lot of ways Fast Company--a world-book dedicated to action-heroes in JAGS--was the genesis of the new Archetype Rules. The original framework was created by K, a player who had thought a lot about how to handle certain types of tropes he saw in action movies.

Download: JAGS Fast Company
Download the Scenario: The Fall of New York

His primary set of innovations were as follows:

  • Fast Defenses: Fast Company characters get -8 Damage Modifiers vs. PEN attacks but only -4 vs. Impact attacks. This means you'd often rather hit them than shoot at them. They get a further -10 DM vs. Rifles and explosives so trying to use rifles or bombs is even less likely to work. Thus, you get a situation where they might start a battle by shooting at each other ... but eventually wind up hitting each other.
  • Extra Unarmed Damage: The idea was that a Fast Co character could use either their bare hands or a gun or, like, a samurai sword and be equal. This meant more unarmed damage than normal (we treated swords and guns as equal--something still basically true today).
  • AGI and Dodge Work Vs. Range: You get your full AGI and a dodge at no modifier (and 8 CP in Acrobatics) against ranged weapons making dodging a bullet the same as dodging a fist.
  • Extra DP and REA or Initiative: The characters were faster than normal.

The second set of innovations was that you got a certain number of "packages." These were what eventually became Generic Archetype Traits (GATs). These were "atomic particles of action-hero" or, if you will, various component pieces of 'The Batman.' There was stuff that made you a better driver (and gave you a cool car or bike or something), packages that gave you extra REA or WIL or STR or whatever. You could use these to build a guy who hit really hard and/or had mad skills with various combat techniques. You could also get weird gear and weapons (We had a method for trying to customize gear).

There Were Four Levels
After some initial work we had four levels of Fast Company. These went from a Jason Bourne like guy to Watchmen level super-heroes. At the upper levels you got a "Bullet Time Round" which allowed people with the Bullet Round to take an entire round before anyone else could go each new Round (you had 2 Rounds to normal people's 1). The characters also got extra Initiative or REA (or both) for more attacks and faster reaction speeds.

Over all, this approach really worked: the negative Damage Mods meant that you could be shot at but would take limited amounts of damage from lethal weapons. You could get beat up pretty good but were very resilient, and you were able to act first and deal damage.

The Interesting Part Came In When ...
When I was re-tooling the rules I migrated the "packages" to Generic Archetype Abilities making them effectively available to everyone with APs to spend. Then I tried to come up with comparative costs for things like Mutant Abilities (pincer-claws, poisoned spines), super-hero attacks (plasma torpedo, Power Blast), and Wonderland Twists and the Fast Co packages and such.

I discovered: it was nearly impossible. If you added Fast Co to an existing character of some sort (like a mutant) they got much better than if you just took them at original levels.

What was happening, of course, was that the stuff they had (extra REA or Init, Negative Damage Mods, Bullet Rounds, Blocks against Ranged attacks, extra Dodge, etc.)--these were all TAP based costs: how good they were were heavily based on how good the rest of your character was.

Until, well, now, I wasn't able to come up with a good way to rationalize the points.

That brings us to today ... where ... I'm still having problems. Let's take a look:

Adding Up The Points
So, okay: today we have the concept of TAP costs--each element can be expressed as a percentage of your Total Points. So if I somehow "know" a character is 64 AP then I can say that a Bullet Round is .43 x 64 = 28 AP out of that.

I got the number .43 by taking the herds at 64 AP and giving the Test characters a Bullet Round and then reducing their points in attack and defense until they averaged out to around 55% POV (percent of Victory). I then went the other way and added a Bullet Round to the full-points character and checked to see if his current POV (around 88%) was equal to what he'd win if he had that many points (28) in extra Armor. When those numbers matched (hey: truth is beauty!) then I knew I had a pretty good estimation of what a Bullet Round was worth for a 64 AP character. 

If you had 64 AP and had the choice of a Bullet Round or spending 28 AP on Armor or DP or something (or more or less attack) then the points were pretty much fungible (and, in fact, this is largely true: there are some variations that are more effective than others but not by much--taking the 28 AP out of attack or defense is usually roughly the same decision!).

So okay: that's a pretty good way to assess the cost. Right?

The problem comes on a few fronts ...

The First Problem
The first problem is actually the easiest to solve: Gear. Gear is an issue for all point-based games. How do you handle guys with guns in Champions or GURPS? It's easy in GURPS--there is no way to point-cost a gun (at least in GURPS 3rd). In Champions, though, you can (I seem to recall in DC Supers you could point-cost a spoon or something). Do you charge your super agents for their gear or not?

It's a philosophical question and can/should change on a per-campaign basis. For JAGS we have a solution: we have the concept of Expected Wield/Wear (how much weapon and armor you are expected to have). So I expect Fast Company characters to have a basic weapon (a 9mm, a sword, or bare-hands) and I give them "points" in that attack accordingly when it comes to balancing them.

This, it turned out, worked wonderfully. I'll see if I can discuss it more later--but for now: problem solved.

The Next Problem, However ...
When it came to Fast Level 1 and Level 2 things were good. The numbers added up. But by Levels 3 and 4 (where the Bullet Round is introduced) things stopped being so pretty. What happened?

First off, what happened was that Fast Company characters tend to do relatively little actual damage compared to their theoretical point costs. Assuming that you spend your GAT points entirely on doing damage a Fast Co Level 4 character will have 16 AP spent on damage-dealing and carry a 4 AP weapon for a total A-Cost of 20 AP (expected Wield 4 AP). As a Fast Co Level 4 character "ought" to cost around 80-100 AP or so that's pretty light weight (now, remember: they hit you with it six times a Round or more ... but still).

So what do I do about characters with a ton of armor they can't hurt?

Our original solution was to declare characters with low amounts of AP spent on dealing damage to be "Low Damage" or "Very Low Damage" and give them extra benefits but it turned out with better testing we didn't need to do that--the way point balance was/is working is that you can simply turn them loose. What we do, however, is take out the Full Armor characters and see if the POV is around 60-70% against the "soft bodies." (mixed armor, full DP, and the 2:1 characters). If that's the case, even if they win around 35% against Full Armor, that's considered a reasonable trade-off. So, okay. We can live with that.

That's, in fact, what we saw, after ...

The Problem I Don't Have A Solve For Yet
The problem I don't have a solve for yet, however, is that "the points don't add up." Remember: the Fast Co character is a slew of TAP stuff, a few APs in GATs, some DP, and some "Expected Wield" for their gun or sword or whatever.

When I take the TAP costs for L3 Fast Co it looks like this:
TAP L3 0.27 Fast 0.43 Bullet 0.05 Init 0.06 vs. Range 0.05 Dodge 0.86 TOTAL (that is .27 for Fast Defenses, .43 for Bullet Round , and so on). The TAP portion adds up to .86 of the character's Total AP. When I add in the straight costs (21 AP in Expected Wield, GATs, and DP) I can apply my formula to see that the cost "ought to be" 104 AP.

When I do this for L4 the TAP costs come up above 1.0 and the formula doesn't work. So that's not good.

The problem with either of those is this: When I test Fast Co L3 and L4 I find that Fast Co L3 is 'about even' with 64 AP characters. Level 4 Fast Co characters test around 88 AP's worth.

When I try to "reverse engineer" the TAP costs based on that they, well, they don't really add up either. I mean assuming the ratios are about right (that a Bullet Round is worth a little less than half your AP, whatever your AP are--something that kind of makes sense as you get to go twice as much as everyone else) then I should be able to get a "better cost" for stuff like Fast Defenses and Bullet Rounds and ... it doesn't quite work out.

What This All Means Is
I can empirically test what L3 and L4 (L1 and L2 do add up nicely) are worth by themselves but it's very hard to figure out what they're worth if added to some other character (like a battle-mutant). Furthermore our formula--which kind of works (it produces almost 'right' values when tested with individual TAP Traits) over estimates the cost when you have a bunch of them and does not work at all when your TAP total is more than 1.00. 

What To Do?
Well, the first thing to do is probably not to freak out. The fact that L1 and L2 work beautifully means that the process is probably largely correct for reasonable TAP values. It's when you get a load of them (the Bullet  Round is very expensive combined with Fast Defenses) and when you do really low damage compared to your DP, that things start breaking down.

This is not entirely unexpected so I'm not overly concerned.

The second thing to do is to try to understand what it means when the TAP multiplier is "above 1.00" (meaning, in effect, the cost of your character is more than 'the cost of your character.') As that doesn't make any sense, what's really going on is that the points you've spent just get multiplied by some value. I need to do some exploration to see what that is.

Finally: All this TAP stuff effectively multiplies your points in attack and defense. Most of the TAP stuff is defensive (almost all the Fast-Co traits are defensive in nature) and their attack points are also pretty slim; a L4 character has 6 AP spent on Damage Points and 20 AP spent on Attack (really 16 AP and 4 AP expected Wield). This is out of an estimated 88 to 100 AP total).

These conditions were not how I ran the costing tests wherein I would take the TAP ability (like Bullet Round) and then reduce both Attack and Defense until it balanced (and then mix it up a bit). This usually left the character with an even split.

It's no surprise that a character who is heavily invested in TAP-style Defenses might wind up "paying too much for them" since they are comparatively very light on traditional defenses.

So I need to try to figure that out.


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