Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Ghost Dance

So we have the capability to test some fairly exotic things. Right now I am testing in-combat healing where in you have a limited number of charges per fight and when you burn one you (a) ignore the wound result you just rolled and (b) regain either a Minor or Major Wound's worth of DP (in the Chi Martial Arts spectrum this is 'Round 2: FIGHT!' and 'Round 3: FIGHT!' depending on the number of charges).

I can also test "Ghost Dance" which is immunity to bullets--I just run a simulation and then manually set each battle against a gun-user to 100% victory. The bullets just "pass through you."

However, there are some problems with this--and Ghost Dance points these out.

1. In the same game where someone is likely to shoot you the are unlikely to also stab you (at least not with a sword)
Oh, sure--you might face a knife--but if a character is immune to bullets in a modern day (one where guns exist) the other 1/2 of the attack types are very uncommon (sword and blaster are uncommon). Now, granted, that changes if people know you are weirdly immune to bullets--but again, that's a weird game.

2. If you are immune to bullets you are usually a very good combatant in some other respect
Most of the characters I can think of who are immune to bullets would be warriors of some type--and usually not using guns (martial arts? swords? super powers?).

This further exacerbates the problem: if you take away guns from most modern attackers and you are a kung-fu master you further open the gap.

What Do We Learn From This?
The key learning (which we already knew) is that although the simulator treats Blaster, Punch, Sword, and Gun as equals (and Armor, DP, and Force-Field too to some degree) they, in any real game, are not. Since the attacks and defenses are theoretically balanced and relatively interchangeable that is okay until you do something like isolate Gun and then treat it like the artificial environment of the simulator is actually correct to real games.

But we can do things. What things?

  1. Arbitrarily increase the cost. Let's say that immunity to gun wound up costing 1/4th your points in the simulator. We could increase that to 1/3rd and decide that in a real game that's how much it's worth. This is, as I said, arbitrary--we do some mental calculations and decide that for-real immunity to bullets is likely to appear in Chi Martial Arts and (some) modern-day magic games and it means you are largely immune to "the police" (the guys in those games who'll use guns) and we think that's worth (on a social level) a little more. Or, maybe it's not (who cares if your modern day magician is immune to bullets--they're supposed to be freakin' magic). 
  2. Actually decrease the cost. Maybe the real question is: is any PC in these games (or named NPC--an important points-balanced character) buying Gun? If not then maybe it's worth less. As noted above, if no points-built character would spend points on Gun then what are you "balancing" the PCs against? There's an argument that this should be free--but even entertaining this approach I wouldn't go that far.
  3. Increase the "incidence" of Gun from 1/4th of the attacks to 1/2--use Blaster as well. A fairly canny approach might be to say that in most gun-using games guns 'fill the role' of Blasters so Guns represent 50% of the attacks and Blaster 0%. This is, to my mind, pretty good thinking but in light of the above argument it might not be the most play-balanced approach.
  4. Do nothing but make sure the GM limits the purchase of it. The GM (and the other Players) have ultimate say over what's available for any game (in a modern-day detectives game players are prohibited from buying mutant powers and cybernetics). This might go further: there could be some Chi martial arts games (lower powered ones) where you want the PCs to be vulnerable to bullets so they can't just invade and take over a police station (that might be hard anyway with all the nightsticks and non-gun weapons--but the point remains). On the other hand, if the PCs are 150 CP, 40 AP, Scale 4 Chi Martial Artists, giving them access to standard cost Immunity to Guns isn't going to change how they could rampage in a police station--it just now means they could likely take on an army base. That might be fine so long as the GM and other players are aware and okay with it.
  5. Price it differently for different games. This is a can of worms to be sure but we could do it and it would make some sense. There are already some clear precedents for this being a good idea (being a huge naturally strong in a Warhammer 40k Space Marines game isn't worth nearly as much as it is in a fantasy game) but we've really tried to avoid that (and, to be fair: if you are allowed to be "as strong" meaning 'as many points spent' as 'were spent' on your heavy melter then you will be just as effective punching as using the heavy weapon).
What do I favor?
Good question. Right now it's the forth. However the third seems (as I said) like some good thinking. The important thing to keep in mind, of course, is that just because the simulator prices something some way doesn't mean that's the way it is.


Monday, April 25, 2011

Update ...

Working On Right Now
Some of the costs around "Does not take Injured and Hurt Condition" as well as extra Con and Armor-Blocks (blocks that provide extra Armor if the block itself fails). Armor Blocks (and blocks that provide negative Damage Modifiers) are interesting because the character has to decide whether or not to spend the REA for the extra defense.

Usually the character will have some REA that is usually devoted to a defensive move and so if the ability just augments that move it'll be "free." But if you have a block that, say, gives you a lot of armor, then you start having to figure out if it's worth an attack or not.

What Else Might Be Interesting To Talk About?
The Character Creator. We have a very, very cool java-based character creator that we use heavily when making characters for JAGS. It was created by Jeff Strazheim (who also did the online dice-roller) and it's awesome.

What are the current (new) needs for JAGS Archetypes Revised? Let's see:
  1. Bug fixes. The character generator is written in Lisp (a JVM based version of it) and uses Jeff's Data-Log implementation as a database. It currently has code-based "data files" that essentially hard-code the elements of character creation. This makes it hard for me to edit since I (a) do not know Lisp and (b) do not know Data Log. It would be good to have it read from some kind of basic data file like, say, an Excel spreadsheet ...
  2. It doesn't handle TAP costs (where the cost of a Trait is a % of your character cost). This is because when he wrote it, we weren't doing that. We hadn't worked that out yet.
  3. It doesn't handle abilities that add +X to an attack where that attack can be of an arbitrary type Example: I have a General Archetype Trait--a GAT--that adds +8 to firearms damage. What if I have a Disintegration Beam? It should only add +2 to that--so how do I know? Well it's Advanced/Optional math in the book (multiply the + by the modifier for Disintegration Beam) but if I have a computer? It should do it auto-magically, shouldn't it?
  4. I'd like breakdowns of points spent (negative Traits, skills, etc.)
  5. I'd like as much auto-calculation of stuff as I can get. So if I have Karate and Cleave (ROF 1 extra HTH Damage) I'd like to have an option to get that on my character sheet without having to do the math myself.
  6. Scale: one of the more interesting options is to take a character and multiply "all scalar values" by some number. This is an interesting way to make more (possibly much more) powerful characters without expanding the AP cost beyond all reason. It's math heavy so that'd be nice.
  7. Track and publish A-Cost. If I know my A-Cost (points spent on Attacks) I know things like how much I should pay for back-up attacks and how other abilities get their points reduced. This is something best done by a computer.
So what are we doing? We're thinking on that. Expect an answer in this space soon-ish. ... I hope.

Making This Material Available
I intend to take a stab at revising the website when I am back in town. The purpose will be to make a lot of the stuff I have (old and new) more easily available as well as giving visitors navigation so they can understand what's what.

At this point a vistior interested in the NEW stuff would probably get:
1. The Revised book as available now.
2. J-Arch 1.7 (with a note that it's /really/ out of date)
3. Some PDF Excel files with the new stuff in it and some minimal explanation
4. Links to the character generator and online dice roller in one place.
5. A Pay-Pal donate button 

(Our award winning JAGS Wonderland cover art just got its rights purchased for an Australian skateboard company and I got 80 Euros out of it! So I'm happy to provide a PayPal donate button. It might even get point releases out faster since I'd be interested in providing more immediate value for the money).


Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Answering a few questions

What Am I Working On Right Now?
I'm still re-aligning the GATs. As I said before we've separated out the stuff that "effects your rolls" (be they CON rolls, skill rolls, Init rolls, etc.) and the stuff that "adds to scalar values" (like armor, damage, damage points, etc.).

So in the old rules you had stuff like "Archer: +2 damage per level and +4 Character Points to ranged weapon skill"--now it's in two pieces: Archer -- for extra damage (and some DP) and Expertise (for pluses to weapon skill). The first has a fixed cost (4 or 8 AP per level) and the second is based on a % of your total points (you don't calculate that--it's done for you in a table).

The result is a little more complex but appears to be very balanced.

It's also a lot of work.

What Else?
I plan to start a parallel effort (presumably on my secret 8th day of the week) to start re-doing the web-site to get some of this material up and available even if it's just Excel files with some PDF descriptions.

Let's Talk About The Web Site
The original JAGS Website was run out of a Linux server in a NYC apartment. This is back in 2001. It was all hand-coded with a Java chat-applet and some very basic forum software dropped in. It used a PostgreSQL database (we wanted triggers so we selected it over MySQL--yes--THAT long ago) and it was /awesome/.

However, it was complex to administer and hosting out of an apartment sucked (it was often down). So we moved to "real hosting." I also moved to a variety of PHP-based Content Management Systems (CMS).

My experience with these has been nothing short of abysmal. Oh, they're great: we got a custom theme and it was wicked looking. The forums worked pretty well--and it was easy to administer. It was also easy to hack and I could never keep up with the security updates.

I tried Simple CMS, a PHP-based system that was supposedly more secure because it didn't rely on a database--just flat files. It got hacked.

I looked into WordPress. It has regular security updates.

So we defaulted back to "basic HTML" --which was fine anyway--the forums and chat never got much play--and it's fast--but editing basic HTML is a pain.

However, there are some "Desktop CMS" applications that "publish" flat-HTML that you can upload. The most famous of these is abandon-ware--but with a good deal of searching, I found one (name escapes me and I'm not at home) that looks like it'll suit my purposes. The conversations can happen here and I won't have to worry about patching things constantly and we can sort and edit the site as necessary.

Like I said--all I need is that 8th day of the week.

What's Top Of Mind Right Now?
Vital Strike. Vital Strike is a kind of attack that does more Base Damage if you hit by a certain number or more. Ideally that would be "you hit by 4+" however a good deal of testing shows that an attack that does more damage if you hit by 4+ is worth as much as an attack that just does "that amount of damage."

This doesn't make sense to me and we're looking into it--but it seems that over time, the significant hits (that decide a battle) are usually hits by 4+ and, as a result, having attacks that /only/ do "full damage" on hits by 4+ doesn't make the attack all that much cheaper (like maybe it does a point more damage).

This doesn't make logical sense to me--but we're looking at the code and output and it all seems to be working correctly.

So right now Vital Strike does its extra damage on a hit by 6+.

What Else?
One of the original problems with the abilities was that most of them gave extra Damage Points (this was very true for the GATs but was also true for things like "super strength" which gave you not only STR but also DP and sometimes--depending on which version you bought--BLD and Armor).

When we tested these we got some balanced values and dutifully encoded them but when we applied our "cost table" it didn't work. The numbers didn't add up.

This was because our cost table came from the original testing where: (a) Damage for attacks was purely linear (our findings, remember, was that the first few points of any attack are worth less than later points so the effective cost for an attack changes when you buy more of it) and (b) we had fixed DP and Armor costs against artificially fixed attack costs and then applied a "best fit" curve to them (a fancy way of saying we squinted at the numbers for 64 AP attackers and said "this is balanced enough ... I guess.").

As a result we had 1pt Armor = 2.5 DP instead of 1pt Armor = 4 DP ... which it turns out is a lot closer to the truth.

When I realized what was going on and made the change (recent) it suddenly became possible with the new (correct) costs for attacks and DP to actually have the component cost and have them add up correctly.


Friday, April 8, 2011

Looking at Generic Archetype Traits Again

It's been a while since I updated this because I wanted to get my thoughts in order. They're still not completely there--but here goes.

When I changed DP from 2.5 Damage Points per Archetype Point to 4 DP per AP it changed the way we looked at everything. The Generic Archetype Traits are (or were) generally 4 or 8 AP Traits that had some significant effect on your stats or abilities. Some gave extra skill points for combat skills (or other skills). Some gave STR and DP and things like that (CON). A few gave negative-damage mods and so on.

They were the architectural basis of the new rules. Most of them you could buy in "levels" so you could have a character who was Level 2 Speedy and an Level 4 Gunslinger or something like that.

The GATs were put together from a number of places--originally taken from the Fast Company rules which were used to design action-hero types. There were a bunch of things floating around that had unusual effects (+1 CON when nothing else gave you CON) and so on. We had / have GATs that give you social status and wealth ("Baron") and Success Point pools for vehicle operation (Stunt Driver) and so on. They are a way to make your character "super good" without being Super Good at something (being Built makes you something like Zangief from Street Fighter. It doesn't make you Superman).

However, after we changed the DP costs and had come up with the realization that some things (TAP) were based on a percentage of your total points ... I went back and looked at the GATs--and realized they all (almost all) had to change.

Firstly the ones that were straightforward and gave out things like DP, STR, ADP, and so on were reasonably correct. However, even most of them didn't incorporate what we'd learned about the "first level" of an attack being balanced by doing proportionally more damage than subsequent levels. But a lot of the GATs gave out benefits that were based on Total AP's (TAP-Cost) and those had to be completely reconstructed.

So that's what I'm doing now. The good news is (a) it's going much faster thanks to me creating a much, much more sophisticated spreadsheet for creating these things--and that minimizes mistakes and (b) the thinking is much more 'polished' this time around. Finally (c) things are just plain much more balanced.

The bad news is that I need to re-do everything there. Additionally some things (namely the TAP stuff) will not get infinite numbers of multiple levels--there's no way we can currently think of to allow multiple levels of "Black belt" which gives you CP for martial arts skills--that, as far as we can tell, is based on your Total APs and thus it needs to be explicitly based on exactly how many levels you have--how many CP you get).