Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Bio-Weapons Again

What I Am Working On Now
We have a pretty big list of bio-weapons. Claws, teeth, stingers, horns, and so on. Each of these is slightly different from the others--and several of them come in some different 'varieties.' What do I mean by that? Well, there are a few users of bio-weapons. Let's look:

  • Animals: In this case, if you are creating a real-world animal you want the animal to function as 'realisitcally' as possible. Also: as simply. If you create a lion you want a bite that can (with some worrying) kill an antelope and you want a claw-swipe that is better at range (and offers a defensive position) and can rip up a human. You are not worried about the "combat profile" of the animal--you just want something that ball-park works.
  • Mutants:Whether they be post-apocalypse wasteland mutants or non-human super heroes ... or aliens / fantasy races (who are not properly mutants at all--but are the same thing for now) you want (probably) some basic attacks ... and some mildly fantastic ones (armor-piercing or poisoned claws, short range energy pulses, maybe the ability to set your body on fire?). Again: a key thing here is to make the set of attacks work for the race, not be too expensive, and fairly easy to work out.
  • Monsters: Monsters are complex. The "combat profile" for a monster may be very different than for a standard PC (remember: a monster can be a PC--so it has to work in the game). Things that a monster may want are: attacks that are only operational on some Rounds (so they change up what they do). Also we have the concept of "Quick Strikes" for some weapons (like claws) so that you can get a 1 REA Claw Strike with another Claw-Strike that Round (giving the monster a Claw-Claw-Bite attack profile with a reasonable amount of REA).
Monsters In General
I've written about this before--but I'll lay some extra information out here. Monsters are generally looked at in the "fantasy game" context: we expect JAGS to create creatures which a group of fantasy adventurers will have a fun time fighting. This implies a few things:
  • They need to be able to be hurt but have a huge amount of variance in how hard they are to kill. This implies Ablative Damage Points (ADP) which give you "DP" that 'goes away' but doesn't increase your Minor Wound to the point where no one can inflict one on you. ADP is the solution to how you make really big things that are hard to kill--but can be killed by a group of reasonably low-damage attackers over time.
  • Lots of Attacks--But not Much REA: Monsters may need to be able to lash out at a lot of PCs but we don't want them all to be lightning fast. This means (see above) 1 REA strikes where appropriate.
  • Variance In Attacks. Having a dragon that can breathe fire once every two rounds or a giant scorpion that'll get to attack with its venomous tail sometimes is, we think, good for the game. In some cases recharge or charge-up times for attacks means you don't have to face that dragon's breath every round (and it can be dramatic when it happens) but also some things like "activation rolls" that turn on attacks on a given Round will make there be some variance (and drama) as you go from one Round to the next.
  • A nod to the Agile. We believe there's a role for the "acrobatic" character in monster-battles. If you buy Acrobatics at L3 you can Dodge for 3 REA--just like a Block. However, since Acrobatics is a combat skill most combat characters don't have it: it's expensive and they'd (usually) rather put more of their points into their combat skill ... which gives you a Block too. So we've designated some of the attacks "easier to Dodge." You still block them normally--but if you have a dodge you get +2 against it. Maybe there's a 'Monster Slayer' GAT that increases it to +3? Something like that? I'm not sure.
  • Other Stuff? Monsters usually can't block a huge swarm of incoming attacks. They won't have the REA for it. I've thought about "scales which deflect blows" giving them "free blocks" but mostly normal character armor doesn't do that so why would 'monster armor?' Maybe it's magic--but I prefer to give monsters a lot of ADP and let them eat the incoming attacks. Being blocked a lot isn't fun for players anyway. There's also issues of Grapple Defense. A dedicated PC grappler can grapple a LOT better than most monsters will be able to. Maybe they get "Grapple Defense" for being 'a monster.'?
Anyway--that's the current thinking on Monsters.


Tuesday, May 24, 2011

How do you know when you're done?

What I Am Working On Right Now
I have just about completed my investigation into TAP Generic Archetype Traits (TAP GATs). It seems that for the most part the system does work. Oh, sure, there are margins for error and a few of the combinations came out way off--but (a) those were combos with a lot of stuff crammed into them and (b) we can include those with their tested cost. We'll do that as much as possible.

However, I am more or less convinced: the system works.

What Is Next?
I am going to run the current-thinking test against our list of bio-weapons. I will spot-check the Big List of (Ranged) Attacks ... and I will re-evaluate Size. If all of that checks out? I start putting this stuff into InDesign to build the book.

Of course it's not "all complete." Just having a good list of component abilities for GATs doesn't mean everything is covered (and there are a few things like Success Point Pools that I need to do some more work with). However, that brings us to the question: How do I know when I have the right list of abilities?

What do I even mean by that?

What I Mean
So imagine I'm looking at a finished JAGS Revised Archetypes book (it fell back through a time portal) and I'm playing a Fantasy campaign. Now, I don't have the JAGS Revised Fantasy book--I just have the (big, thick) JAGS Revised Archetypes book--so I'm missing some things, probably. But I think I have enough to go on. After all, it hits almost all the major archetypes in their component pieces doesn't it (I'll have to do something about magic, of course--but I can fake that, I think).

So what are the Fantasy Archetypes? Well, we know they kind of go Fighter, Magician, Healer, Thief. I mean, that's the basic list, innit? When I look at MMPORGS I see the "trinity" of Blaster (ranged), Tank (heavy armor), and DPS (damage per second) as the three "lobes" that someone might have.

I can certainly look at D&D 4th Ed and see that there are also Area of Effect guys as a specific sub-class of, er, 'blaster' and there are Buff Guys (outside of the 'Healer' category) who can give people extra bonuses and "Buff" their friends.

What am I missing?

Well, there's probably the "Intel" guy who can see what's coming, knows where enemies are, and pretty much gives you a strategic advantage in finding or avoiding trouble. I might conclude there are several kinds of "Fighter" such as the:

  • Strength-based fighter
  • Skill Based Fighter
  • Agile/Hard-to-hit fighter (also, probably very quick)
  • The highly-defended fighter (the 'Tank')
I can break down Healer types into things like:
  • Defensive tactics guy (heals in combat in real-time, gives you armor buffs, etc.)
  • Offensive Buff guy (augments your 'front line' in terms of damage or maybe things like movement?)
  • Stops You From Dying guy (prevents really bad outcomes--probably a more minor ability)
If I'm looking at the "Blaster" Type then we see:
  • The 'archer' (mundane ranged attacks for a lot of damage)
  • The street-sweeper (area of effect or explosive attacks--good against multiples)
  • The gun-boat: a long range heavy-hitter who will have a few "capital" attacks in a fight but these are either charge-based or slow to fire. Much of the guy's attacks will be lower powered so they have to be marshaled
  • The Exotic Attacker (lightning, fire, frost attacks--maybe attacks based on specific weaknesses of enemy classes)
Some of these (Exotic Attacker) are likely done with magic rules or Mutant Power rules or something--so okay: they might be a bit out of scope for my "basic list of Generic Archetype Traits" (although there could be something in there like that--nerve strikes? I mean, I don't need the whole list).

So what's that mean I need? Well--let's see. I need:
  • Ways to buy more outright damage, skill, and agility/speed.
  • Ways to buy more armor, DP, ADP and other such defenses
  • Ways to "lend" defensive material to other characters
  • Ways to "lend" offensive material to other characters
  • Ways to hit more than one target (either with ranged attacks or in hand-to-hand). Some kind of "back-swing" or "follow-through" strike?
  • A few exotic attacks that break some of the normal rules
  • Some "power-strike" type things that hit hard (either at range or in close) but have limits on how often they can be used (1x per Round, every other Round? Not on the First Round?)
And, hey: for the most part I've got that (the "lend stuff" is shaky--more on that later).

But then: that's just for Fantasy. What about post-apocalypse? Is it any different?

And then there's modern day. Sure: the combat stuff may all be covered more or less but how about:
  • Face: the guy with all the mad social skills who can talk his way out of or into "anything"?
  • The Inventor: solve a problem--even bizarre ones--with SCIENCE!
  • The Investigator: Find a clue--you're a great detective. Maybe no one can lie to you?
  • The Hunter? The Survivor? The Driver/Pilot--the character has some niche skill-set where they excel
  • The Zero: you have no obvious skills but can help other characters out (similar to the buff-guy above but may apply to non-combat stuff as well and the look-and-feel is different).
And, uhm, etcetera ...

How do I know when I'm done?

What Else Might I Check?
Well, there's clearly a never-ending list--and not all those things need Archetype abilities. Stuff like Level 4 skills or just normal skills and Traits can do up a lot of that. The AP abilities kick in when you need to give the character extra juice and paranormal-level talents. So what do I look at?

Well, one place to go is TV Tropes (warning: Time Sink) and go through the massive list of archetypes there and see what jumps out (note: many of these are how the character fits thematically into the story such as "Strongest Man In The World"--it is possible to be very strong in JAGS but there would be no specific trait to make you 'The Strongest In The World'--if that was your intent you'd work it out with the GM).
  • There's a page of Archetypal Characters. It's not that useful--but it's worth looking at. If you had to make a character like this could you do it? Some of it? Maybe.
  • There's the Five Man Band which is a format/formula for teams that's proven successful again and again
  • There's a list of Stereotypes, which is more about situation (and stuff you'd probably want to avoid) than characters per-se.
However, this shows the type of thinking that we're looking at. How do you make a mad scientist? How do you make a character who's a "chessmaster" and can manipulate other people (can they manipulate the PCs?). Is there a way to make someone who can "predict the outcome of events" and be one-step ahead? Is there a way to play a character who does everything wrong and still comes out ahead?

These aren't easy questions. We're still trying for several, several revisions to incorporate a meaningful Luck trait. We think there are ways to predict what NPCs can do--but not what PCs do--they are by nature unpredictable. As the game will not be 'scripted' in the sense that a story is, I don't think anything could "guarantee you'll come out ahead" but maybe we could have seem traits that drive things in that direction.


Friday, May 20, 2011

How To Win ...

What I'm Working On Right Now
I'm testing various combinations of Generic Archetype Abilities that use Total AP Cost as their metric for pricing (as I've noted: they are a % of your Total AP or TAP). Each TAP GAT has a % cost expressed as a decimal number like .21. To find out how many AP's you'd pay you'd look at the chart--but if you were doing the math in your head, you would multiply the Cost Mult x Total AP (so if you are a 32 AP character buying a .21 Cost Mult GAT the cost is .21 * 32 = 6.72 = 7 AP).

Right now, if you get several of these for your character you just add them up and go with the cost. However, close testing indicates that when you have more than one of these and you "just add the points up" the empirical (tested) cost of the group is off by some number. The rules seem to be:

  • The more TAP attributes you combine the greater the deviance from what the estimated cost would be.
  • If you combine some of the really expensive ones (like -8 Damage Modifier or +8 REA) then your chances of being off are much greater and by much more
  • On average you are over-paying ... but in a few cases you under-pay by quite a bit (but over-paying is much more common).
What Am I Going To Do About This?
Well firstly, I'm going to test all the combo-packages that we're listing and include them in the book at their tested point values. 

Secondly I'm going to allow players to buy "a la carte" from a chart "in the back" (I don't know where the raw data will go--probably in the back of some section) if they want with a note saying "you might be over-paying." The GM will have discretion to audit that.

Thirdly: this won't solve the problem of combining packages which should still cause the points to be off--BUT the amount of deviance is pretty small. If I use all the tested packages thus far (27 of them) and I leave in the outliers then the deviation is that the character over-pays by 1 AP, 3 AP, or 4 AP base on their point cost of 16 AP, 32 AP, or 64 AP. That isn't bad at all. In fact, I'd just plain not care even a little if the outliers where problematic (in some cases overpaying by 15 AP in other cases under-paying by 6 AP).

So I'm going to continue with the testing (there are about 10-20 more to do, I think) and we'll put those in the book with the theory that even if the characters come out a little off it won't matter.

How To Win A Battle In JAGS
Having looked at a lot of combats I've wanted to talk about the way that battles are won or lost. Here's how it looks to me (All of these are presumed against a "balanced" opponent).
  1. Kill Them Quicker: If you can deal enough damage to kill an opponent quickly then you can kill your opponent before they can kill you. In this model you take a lot of damage when they do hit you (and they will--one shot kills are rare)--but you hit a lot harder. This is a model I've seen in a lot of games but especially GURPS where it was hard to absorb damage no matter who you were. Battles in this model will be short and fast, usually one or two Rounds.
  2. Out Last Them: If you have a lot of Armor and DP you can absorb damage pretty well and out-last your opponent. In this model you might or might not take a lot of damage depending on how your defenses are structured (Armor or Force Field will tend to result in less damaged characters than a ton of DP). The battles will tend to be long at four or more rounds.
  3. Get Lucky: In JAGS you can do catastrophic damage if you get lucky with a PEN attack. A really good hit and a blown armor-save will often result in a game-winning hit that could come at any time. There are a few ways to maximize your chances of this (Vital Strike, extra skill, Armor Piercing weapons) but mostly it's a matter of luck.
What Does This Mean?
There are a few learnings from this. The big one is that some abilities radically change the profile of the target. For example, Force Field pretty much prevents PEN attacks from Penetrating. If you match that against a Type-3 character you will win. On the other hand, Force Field degrades so if you are against a #1 type character you are in trouble.

Mixing defenses was a bad idea until we improved DP totals and now it's one of the best. Being "balanced" actually pays off in the current model. On the other hand, if you have everything invested in a defense you often wind up getting an advantage in some battles (Full Armor is now often the worst defense--but against lesser attackers it is so much better than anything else it's not funny).

This is exactly what I'd hope for.

ALSO: I left out cheap-shots. Some attacks (Resisted Attacks, Armor-Ignoring Attacks) can radically change how a target responds (armor-ignoring bullets are great against the full-armor guys even if regular bullets aren't). Our costing for cheap-shots needs to reflect this. The fact that DP and ADP will both help against these attacks is a big saving grace. It means that PCs with a good component of Damage Points won't be walking around fearing one shot from an exotic weapon.


Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Buying Attacks ... The Rules ... I Think

We're implementing a computer program to purchase JAGS attacks (and other abilities that include attack powers). There are, to be frank, a lot of rules around this. I was asked to send an email with them--but I'm listing them here for everyone.

Part 1: How Is It Sold?
There are three ways that attacks are 'vended':

  1. Raw: You just buy 10 AP of Power Blast or something. In this case the ability has an A-Cost ("Attack Cost") equal to its cost. A 10 AP Power Blast has an A-Cost of 10 AP.
  2. Packaged: If you buy Built (being big and strong) you get DP, extra CON, Strength, and BLD (which translates to extra damage). In this case the "attack part" of the Package is noted because the package has an A-Cost ("Attack Cost"). So Built has a cost (per level) of 8 AP and the A-Cost per level is 5 AP.
  3. Additive: Some "attacks" simply add to other attacks. So for example, the Generic Archetype Ability Cleave gives extra damage with one attack once per Round. This power, by itself, isn't an attack--it has to be combined with something (even if that something is just a regular 0 AP punch). Things like Vital Strike (more damage when you hit by 6+), Cleave (more damage once per round), and so on are additive. NOTE: everything that adds to physical hand-to-hand damage can be considered additive. If you buy Extra Strength for 3 AP, a Sword for 4 AP, the Cleave move (with the sword) for 4 AP, and Vital Strike (with the Sword) for 4 AP, your attack is now 3+4+4+4=15 AP.
Part 2: What Category Is The Attack?
A character will track their highest A-Cost because it's important for doing some cost tricks (see below) if you have more than one attack--however, before we get there we need to know the attack's "category." There are three (as of now). They are:

Standard: The attack can be used as many times per Round, every round, as the character has REA. 
Periodic: The attack takes some time to charge up or cool down after use. It may also have a Rate of Fire of 1 or some other strange number. It might have VERY limited shots. It may cost REA 'to charge' (or just charge for free). Whatever the case, it is substantially limited in how often you can use it.
Exotic: An attack listed as Exotic does something like ignore armor or otherwise have effects that circumvent normal defenses. Things like Explosives aren't Exotic--but "Mind Blasts" are.
The character will keep track of their highest A-Cost for Standard and Periodic and Exotic attacks. That's three A-Costs you need to keep track of if you are buying a large battery of attack powers.

NOTE: When computing your "highest A-Cost" you add up all the additive elements. If an additive element is of a different Category than others, the attack itself has the Category of whatever the most expensive parts are. If there's a tie, the category is Periodic.

Example: As with the above case a character has 3 AP of Strength (S), 4 AP of Sword (S), 4 AP of Cleave (P), and 4 AP of Vital Strike (S). The character's HTH Sword attack is considered Standard for 15 AP even though 4 AP of that is Periodic (the 1x-per-Round Cleave).
Part 3: Getting A Cost Break
You are now ready to start applying the rules for a cost break. These are the rules:
The Rule: You only pay full points for your most expensive attack. All other attacks should be reduced (either 1 AP if it's the same Category as your most-expensive attack or 1/3 the A-Cost of your most expensive attack if it's a different category).

  1. For Attacks of the Same Category: You only pay for the most expensive. All other attacks (in the same Category) cost 1 AP.
  2. For Attacks In A Different Category: You can buy an attack in a different category as your "most expensive attack" for 1/3rd the cost of the Most Expensive Attack (and it will be at the same AP Cost)
  3. Exotic Attacks Never Cost 1 AP: They always cost 1/3 the cost of the most expensive (unless they are the most expensive attack).
  4. Weapons (or Attacks) That Are Completely 'Eclisped' By Other Attacks Cost 0 AP or 1 AP at the GM's Option. If you paid points for a rifle you can (probably) get a smaller caliber handgun for free. If the nature of the game makes concealment and ease of use a big thing, though, it might cost you 1 AP.
  5. Attacks in a Package May Be Reduced to 1 AP but Will NOT be Modified by 1/3rd AP. If you have 2 levels of Built (8 AP each, 5 A-Cost) that's an A-Cost of 10 taken together and a total cost of 16 AP. If you then get a 12 AP Power Blast (A-Cost: 12 AP) the A-Cost of Built's drop to 1 AP making the character's total cost 12 (Power Blast) + [ 16 - 9 (two levels of Built with their 10 A-Cost reduced to 1) ] = 19 Total AP. Whew.

Example 1: In the above case the character has 15 AP Standard Sword Attack (including Cleave, Extra Strength, and Vital Strike). The character then wants to buy a charge-up "Ultra Blast" (or something, I'm making this up) which requires 2 Rounds of Charge up (combat) before it can be used (it can be used on the 3rd Round of combat and then again on the 6th Round).

This attack DOES NOT add to the character's other damage (if it did, it would just be added in as above)--it is separate.

For 5 AP (1/3rd the cost of the character's Sword Strike) the character can get 15  AP worth of Ultra Blast.

Example 2: The character then is going to get a gun as well as the sword. The gun is a Standard Attack so for 1 AP the character can get 15 AP of Gun. Note that the character can do

Example 3: The character then decides he wants "Ghost Bullets" which are fired from the gun and ignore armor . Ghost Bullets are Exotic (E) so the character can pay 5 AP for 15 AP worth of Ghost Bullets.


Tuesday, May 17, 2011

More Theory: Transparency

What I Am Working On Now
I have created a slew of "packages" of TAP abilities and am testing them against their estimated costs. It seems to correlate that the more individual pieces that go into a group the larger the deviation from the estimated cost. However, in a few cases where there are few but they are very expensive, the deviation is also big. A few are right on the money or very, very close ...

So I'm looking for trends.

Theory: Transparency
I'm using the word 'transparency' here to refer to how much of the GM's knowledge is shared with the Players (on the assumption that the Players may use that data within certain parameters in the game). Let's take a look at some possible configurations:

  1. Example of Very Low Transparency: In this case the GM rolls dice "behind a screen" and Players are not aware of things like the results of their attacks, whether their rolls are actually successful (they may roll the dice--but the GM can have hidden modifiers that the PC isn't aware of). Incoming attacks are simply described in-game and the Player won't know what the attack is until it hits (and, possibly, not even then if there are effects the character might not be aware of). Things like the Base Damage of the attack (or, in another game, the 'number of damage dice') are kept secret/rolled behind a screen so the player won't know. If there is a "book of monsters" the Players are forbidden from reading it lest they learn the stats! Success numbers for things are never declared (so if you are sneaking up on someone you will not know if you succeeded until either they notice you or you assume they didn't).
  2. Example of Medium Transparency: The GM rolls dice behind a screen but the players are aware of their own rolls and modifiers. They may be aware of the 'stats' of an opponent if they have faced it before (the GM may share that material or they may have read the book). Damage amounts and effects are declared openly once the character is hit. Success numbers may be hidden in a few cases but are generally declared up-front.
  3. Example of High Transparency: All rolls, GM and player, are on the table. Modifiers are declared before-hand. The kind of incoming attack or success numbers are all declared up front. The stats of an opponent may be presented, in full, before a fight--but even if they are not, things like amount of armor or damage of an attack and (always) type of strike can be assessed either "by sight" or "after a hit." Usually the GM will declare the numbers when working out a mechanic.
Before we go on, I want to be clear that all of these have their place and my games are a combination of them--not absolutes (I'll discuss that in a moment). Lest the Very Low example seem like a draconian abuse of GM power, I want to point out that there are a few things I admire in it. Let me be clear:
  • The Warhammer Fantasy Bestiary does something awesome: the front half is done like a medieval tome with data about each beast that might or might not be correct. The stats are then in the back. This is wicked-cool to me from a player standpoint. Firstly because it mimics real texts in an appealing manner but also because it creates an environment where a player (at least until they read the back of the book) can behave like a "real expert" on the creature from "having read the book" and have that actually work rather than having read the stats and basically really knowing everything.
  • I once ran a Champions game where (a) the players described their character's powers to me and I created them. I kept their powers-sheets hidden and did all the dice rolling behind a screen. I also (secretly) added an extra D6 Killing Attack to any weapon making them significantly more dangerous than the book suggested. This was an interesting and successful game for the players which involved them both trying in-game to figure out how their powers worked and what their limits were and out-of-game trying to determine how I'd modeled their abilities (I was scrupulous about following the rules so they were pretty sure they could work them out--and did).
So the take-away here is that any of these styles (and combinations) can work for the right game and the right group.

Our Preference: High Transparency
That said, most of our gaming is high transparency and it suits our preferences will. There are a couple of reasons for this. The first is that a lot of the play I do these days uses the JAGS Online Dice Roller and that presents all dice-rolls to everyone. There is no "screen" (although, when I play face-to-face I don't use a screen either). Secondly I am interested in having the players do as much of the mechanical lifting as I can: so if I say "The bad-guy hits for 8 Base Damage PEN" the player can then calculate their own Armor Save and roll it without me having to do anything.

Finally, for tactical soundness, it is beneficial to have the Players know as much of (most of) the battle-field as they can. If someone is using a Once-Per-Round attack on them I'm highly inclined to say that. I might not always say how much damage an incoming attack does--but that's usually not for purposes of deception ... it's just more talking. 

I would certainly be inclined to tell a Player if an attack was being launched that did way more damage than the norm ("Doctor Randomizer is firing a plasma beam at you--and this looks like a killer!"). Giving the Players the tools to make tactical decisions (that is: the information) is something I generally value.

I'll withhold information in a few cases--usually when I think it'll be pleasantly dramatic to do so. If the PC is sneaking up on someone I might not state whether they made their perception roll or not (in an extreme case, I might roll it in 'secret' somehow). I'd certainly give some indication of a negative modifier or a range if I wanted an attempt to be more dramatic before the attempt started ("The wall looks really slick--it could be from -2 to -4 ... you'll have to chance it") but mostly I do this with a reserve of trust built from years of playing with these people.

When I meet new people I usually just play it straight until we know each other better. When I first met Jeff and Bee (husband and wife) and their gaming-friend, when it was my turn to run a game, I did a sort of sleeper-cell secret agents game where the PCs were Fast Company operatives who lived mundane lives until activated for secret missions. They'd been trained by a secret government organization since a young age and their memories had been somewhat erased ... I considered having an episode where they would "lose their powers" (dodging bullets, super martial arts, etc.) as a result of enemy memetic warfare--and have to decide if, as they'd be told, they'd been delusional all that time ...

I decided against it since we were fairly new to each other and that plot development could be frustrating. That's the same sort of consideration I'd weigh before trying anything fishy with hidden rules creating 'drama' (I could well get the, uh, wrong kind of drama).

A Note On Dysfunctional GMing
One of the more prevalent discussions in Internet RPG-theory is around whether GM's are commonly dysfunctional in their use/abuse of power. Certainly the Low Transparency mode of play creates many situations where the GM could "cheat" by ignoring rolls or whatever. I've always found these discussions somewhat problematic (IME they are usually overly-generalizing 'all, many, or most' GM's--or opining un-scientifically on the likely ways GM's will use their power).

It's my feeling that while it's undoubtedly true that some people will have very bad experiences with 'cheating GM's' (or, depending on how the group approaches the game, just plain cheating GM's) for the most part some adult discussion will clear things up.

I have certainly seen ... and think I can often tell ... when the GM is invested in a particular outcome somewhere (and I've seen situations where the dice have led to outcomes the GM didn't want and seen GM's make calls to try to mitigate them--something I think is certainly fair). Given this basic level of human-interaction skills and (ideally) a small amount of communication ... I don't think that Low Transparency gaming is any more likely to lead to real problems than anything else.

A Recommended Best-Practice
There's a lot more complexity here than I care to try to capture in explicit detail--but at a high level, this is what I recommend for the construction of games around Transparency.
  • Provide sheets for the players that list major character names and roles even if they haven't been met yet (unless they are seriously a surprise). Although this may mean the player knows "there's a king's adviser named Sir Lawthman" before they see him, this is counterbalanced by the Players being able to keep everyone straight.
  • Allow the players to handle as much of the mechanics as possible by giving them the data necessary to do so. In JAGS this means telling them Base Damage amounts when they are hit so they can calculate damage. It means giving them modifiers so they can roll and report success or failure--it means giving them Target Numbers (for Dramas) so they can keep track of when/if they succeed.
  • Share notes and secret maps after the game (assumed: after they've 'left the dungeon' or whatever) so that (a) they can marvel at your cool-map-making skill and (b) they can look over your cool badguy and (c) they'll have a much better idea of what your perception of the situation was. NOTE: I can't ever remember having been asked for a bad-guy character sheet ... but I certainly did a bunch of Monster Write-ups for Have-Not and would be thrilled to have a player talk to me about how cool the C-Rex (Cybernetic T-Rex with .50-cals and rockets) was.
  • Roll on the Table. State what the roll is for before doing it. Don't make a habit of ignoring the dice results ... so ...
    • Do not run games that require rolls to 'find the clue' in order to advance. Try to make clue-finding either automatic or, if there is a roll, it's for "some vs. all" the clues (or based on time: a failed roll means you have to keep searching, etc.)
    • Try not to run games where combats 'must go a certain way.' In some games a Total Party Kill is an acceptable outcome and it should be possible but don't run battles where "The PCs will get captured" or "They'll face the big-bad early on but, uh, won't be able to kill him because he's so awesome--" or anything like that. Run the combats straight and be prepared to deal with it either way (if the PCs are not captured think about what that'll mean before hand).
    • Structure games that are not supposed to be heavy on the in-game mechanical challenges so that the PCs are fairly (or very) empowered in terms of abilities and information. An example is: Raiding an installation where you don't know the location of the guards or have a map vs. one where you do have a map and guard locations--in the latter you get to plan and execute the plan. In the first you have to explore and the odds of making a catastrophic error (running into guards and having them raise an alarm early on) can be quite possible even if the PCs act perfectly within their knowledge.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Some Notes on Game Mastering

What I'm Testing Right Now
I'm testing combinations of Total Archetype Point GAT's still. We are going to probably have sixteen levels of GAT (8 AP through 128 AP of character). I can't test 16 spot-checks for each of maybe sixty TAP GATs (including, now, Fast Company, Science Agents, some other Cybernetics, and some Mutations). However, I want to take some sample points for extrapolation and see what I can learn.

Things I want to know:

  • How does "minimum cost" work for things that are a % of Total AP. I know that it happens: some combinations of test win against 16 AP with 0 AP in attack and defense (just the normal character jacked up with extra bullet rounds, AGI, and so on). But the question I've yet to answer is just how do I rate performance when the damage amounts are so low that they cannot penetrate even minimal armor? If the mix is winning handily against targets it can hurt--and never against targets it can't, what does that mean (especially keeping in mind that some game types like Chi games won't have a lot of armor). I need to understand this better in the context of real games.
  • How do groups of GAT's combine? If I add enough of them it seems there's an inefficiency but is that stable? What is that?
  • What is the reduction in %-cost from 64 AP to 128 AP. My testing suggests that if you take three samples (16 AP, 32 AP, and 64 AP) and you test how much of those AP something like, say,+8 REA (2 extra attacks, always going first) is worth you get numbers like: .63, .47. .38 (so it costs 16*.63 = 10 AP at 16 AP characters, if you are a 32 AP character it costs 15 AP, and if you are a 64 AP character it costs you 24 AP). This is validated through testing--but why is it? Part of the reason is that the amount of Armor relative to "unarmed base damage" goes way, way up. The character with weak attacks at 64 AP isn't winning hardly at all but on 16 AP even with nothing in his attacks he can still beat some of the armored characters). Another part of the story may have to do with attack powers vs. defensive powers (Force Field starts being the worst of the four defenses by a little--but is usually the best at 64+ AP).

Some Other Stuff: Running A Game
In order to think about how to make a game at some point you have to think about how to run one. Clearly there's a huge body of thought on traditional-RPG game-mastering (where the term traditional is being used, by me, to distinguish between games ranging from Gamma World and AD&D to stuff like Hero, GURPS, or Exalted--but leaving out stuff like Dogs in the Vineyard ... which is pretty close to a traditional RPG ... or shared story-telling games like My Life With Master or Universalis). For the games I'm talking about, I think that we should consider the model as something along the lines of: "The GM runs the world and the players play their characters."

There's a lot that I have to say about this but I want to start with something small.

In the original boxed set of Gamma World--TSR's post-apocalypse masterpiece--there was some GMing advice. Here is the quote:
The referee is the participant who is willing to provide the mental and physical labor of completing the game within the framework provided. He will also provide of the actual play of the game itself. 
Before I dig into this let me preface it by saying that I do not hold with "textual analysis" of RPG texts as any kind of deep evaluation of truth as to the thinking of the creator(s). I've worked on an RPG and I can tell you that what I wrote in any given area is (a) what sounded good at the time (b) got proofed (hopefully) and revised and whatever and (c) was generally not studied from a variety of perspectives to try to meet the standard usually held by Internet RPG Theorists.

However, I'm calling this out because I really like it and it reads the way I think about this. Whatever the author(s) meant by the quote, I think that my read of it is interesting: the referee (which eschews the questionable Dungeon Master term--although they correctly--both grammatically and demographically--assume the Gamma World referee will be a 'he') completes the game. That is: you bought the box (yes: this came in a box--those were the days) and you got a "framework" and the game itself had to be completed.

I think in some ways--in a lot of very important ways--being a GM is like being a game designer. It's like collaborating with the actual game designers to create a finished product ... for that night of play. Then you do it all over again for the next (or even that minute or second of play, really). I think this is one of the reasons we see a limit on adoption of RPGs as a means of entertainment: there's usually no shortage of players--I got my parents to play. But try to take someone who doesn't get it and force them to GM? It's not going to be an optimal experience IME.

Secondly, there's this question of The Framework. The wonderful Grogonardia blog has a magnificent series of posts on Gamma World and the one I've linked to has a few excerpts from the rules--specifically mutations with minimalistic descriptions--and notes:
In each case, there are questions either left to the referee to answer or completely unasked (like how long a mutant with infravision is blinded by flashes of heat). The funny things is that, at the time I played Gamma World, I don't think I even noticed this aspect of the game and I honestly can't recall any significant cases where much hinged on the rulebook's lack of specificity. Now, maybe it's because we were just stupid kids who didn't understand how vital it was to have built-in subsystems for determining when the bones of a mutant with body structure change would break, I don't know. But, looking back on the game now, I can't help but feel we weren't really missing out on anything by just making stuff up on the fly as it was needed.
As you can see, in JAGS, we're kinda going the other direction: if we give you a power we want to tell you everything you can think of about how it quantifies.

But I think the Gamma World approach is right--for Gamma World. It's all about the framework: Gamma World's mechanics are not complex as these things go (veteran gamers will remember the multi-page fold-out flow-charts for Aftermath combat) but they are pretty sufficient to get you there. The Referee in Gamma World has, I think, enough to go on, that, so long as the group is more or less socially working (i.e. not arguing every rules call) it'll work.

JAGS, of course, has a much more specific framework (with things like actual distances and measurable time events ... real weights ... and so on). It's also made for groups where a depth of character design and combat tactics are meant to be relevant. This is something that had little relevance to Gamma World in most cases (although there would be strategy in how you use limited resources like ammo and grenades).

So the take-away here is this: While I'd expect JAGS and Gamma World to produce some very different experiences at the level of contact with the rules and how much work the group expects the game system or referee to do in order to reach their optimum experience, I think that my way of looking at the creation of game rules is very, very in synch with what the Gamma World creators were thinking.

If there's a train of thought that carries through from 1978 to 2011 I think that's pretty cool.


Friday, May 13, 2011

An Interesting Metric

Working On Right Now
I am testing "packages" of TAP attributes--groupings of stuff like Fast Company or Science Agents to see what they empirically test at vs. what the apparent "additive" cost comes out to.

What I Discovered
I've discovered a few things in this process, nascent as it is.

  1. Buying in Bulk Pays: That's the nice way to put it. The other way to put it is this: the individual costs of the TAP attributes such as a combination of, say, -4 Damage Mod, +1 to Dodge, AGI and Dodge both work vs. Range, and +5 Initiative test at, let's say, 50% of your AP (so 16 AP for a 32 AP character). However if you "buy them off the list" they add up to around 18 AP or so. I'd seen this before--but testing it more rigorously it seems that there is some "overlap" or "rounding" or something going on. It is also possible that for these large groupings the remaining APs are so low that something else is at work. What could that be?
  2. Sometimes An Extra Attack Ain't 'Worth Anything.' This was the shocker. An extra attack (a full-force strike for 1 REA, allowing the character 3 strikes in a Round instead of the customary two) is one of the more expensive things you could buy. When I ran the numbers for a group of TAP attributes (Fast L1 + Cyber Dodge and Fast L2 + Cyber Dodge) I discovered something: the Fast L2 had the extra strike and it just came out with an identical win-percentage to the L1. I was like that isn't possible. Examination showed nothing broken. The Fast L2 character was, indeed, striking more often. Both of these were around the 32 AP range so while most of the points were spent on the Fast (defensive) attributes they weren't, like, down to 0 APs for an attack--but: then I realized: the Fast L1 character was winning as often as the Fast L2 character but they were taking, on average, 4 rounds longer to finish the fight. What that meant was that our metric (Percent of Victory--PoV--was simply missing another key element: how long did the fights take).
I believe--on examination of the fights--that the issue was this: because the damage for the AP level was so low the two characters generally won whenever they could hurt their opponent (they won almost never against the Full Armor guys--like 0 to 17%). However, for the most part, the fights weren't in doubt percentage wise (they won, each, about 54% of the time)--however, the guy with the extra attack simply won faster.

Now what do we do about that?

The first answer is "not much"--that was a hypothetical test and it's not an actual package we're vending. But that same scenario could come up again and the real answer is: we'd manually adjust the costs to take into account the longer battles (probably by making the Level 1 version cost 10-25% less than it currently tested at). The exact number we'd choose would be based on thinking about what extra long rounds really "cost" the character (more attacks from other parties primarily).


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Knife Tax

What I Am Doing Right Now
I'm plowing ahead with the (3rd time) revised TAP GAT list. This one is more structured than ever before and I am now tackling an unpleasant question: what happens when I stack several of these? Do they add "normally" or does something else happen?

The reason this is unpleasant is that it is highly unlikely that we will ask JAGS Players to do anything other than "add up the points." As such, if the effect of having several of these is not equal to the sum of the points then, well, things are going to be wrong in some direction. I've decided to do some spot-checks to determine 'by how much' if that is indeed the case.

Thoughts On Knife
Another problem has plagued me for some time: what to do about Knife Skill and Archetype Abilities? We do not, as a rule, change your AP-costs of things based on how you spend your CP. If you spend enough CP to have a 14 REA and a L3 combat skill you can take 3 attacks per Round with any attack without paying extra AP for it (on the other hand, if you use AP to buy the extra REA, well, that costs AP--obviously).

This is all well and good: the rules are very strong on charging a lot for things that give you extra attacks (and they will become even more precise on it when we adjust the basic rules). There's only one hole: Knife skill.

In the basic game Knife Skill gives you an extra knife-strike at L3 for 1 REA. This is the cheapest extra attack in the game. The reason is obvious: in the realm of weapon-using characters, a knife is about the weakest there is. In games with armor, a knife will almost certainly not penetrate and may not even breach the DR.

However: if you are building an Archetype character you could build the "nuclear knife"--it would be just like the "nuclear sword" but cost less because it has less reach. Oh, and you'd get an extra strike each Round with it. It'd ... 'balance.' (the nuclear knife would be much, much better).

My original thinking on this was to force players to buy a special +1 Attack Archetype ability (possibly at a slight discount) if they also had Knife L3 (or L4) and had any AP-base powers that used the knife. This was ugly, but it was balanced.

The problem was two-fold: (1) it was ugly and (2) what if the game was a Have-Not post apocalypse game and I find the "Proton Knife"? I don't actually pay points for it--so does my character have to pay points to wield it? That could be the case--but it's odd and at odds with the rest of the game system.

So today it hit me: I don't make the character pay points for Knife Skill--I make the Knife itself cost more points. Because we assume L3 combat skills for PC-grade characters then the cost to take an effect and "make it into a knife" would include the cost of an extra strike. This would make Knife super-powers cost more than Sword super-powers ... which is counter-intuitive but makes game-balance sense.

What about found treasure? That works out too: our work suggests we can correctly 'cost' Treasure in terms of AP and, indeed, need to in order to make the levels system balance out (characters in Level-using games have an 'Expected Wield' for weapons and 'Expected Wear' for armor that is presumably bought or found). So the Proton-Knife simply isn't "first level" treasure.


Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Armor Blocks

I'm burning through all the TAP GATs (that Generic Archetype Abilities where the cost is based on Total Archetype Points). One of the interesting ones is "Armor Block."

Armor Blocks
Armor Blocks are a special kind of block (for exotic martial artists, usually) where, when you perform a Block (spend REA) you wind up with extra armor if your block fails (if it succeeds the attack misses and so you do not need armor). There are several of these (negative Damage Modifier Blocks, ADP Blocks, and maybe some others) that all work the same way: you pay the REA, you try to block the attack. If it fails, you get the armor.

The good news, for exotic martial artists, is that if you just have the basic version it's pretty cheap: firstly it doesn't even apply against half the attacks (you don't try to block bullets) and secondly, each block costs 3 REA so if you do more than one you lose an attack.

However, the bad news (for the game system designer) is that we'll rarely see one of these "in the wild." What we'll see instead are blocks where you can block bullets and other ranged attacks (due to a separate special cost) and we'll see characters with Quick Blocks (1 REA Block/Dodge actions) gravitate towards something like this since it's pure gravy if you have a 1 REA Block you can use against anything--at it's worst, it's paying 1 REA for extra armor!

This raises some concerns ...

The first concern is that if you have the "basic version" of the Block (not vs. Ranged--even the armor won't work) and costing 3 REA (out of an average of 12 REA) then it turns out that even if the armor you get is like 100pts of armor the real value of the block is fairly limited. It'll really shut down a 1-on-1 HTH fight--but it won't do anything against ranged and if you're fighting 2 on 1 or more your REA will go fast. So the "basic form" of the power gives a lot of armor for not-too-many points.

The second concern is that of "stacking." In JAGS, as much as is possible, we want you to be able to mix and match things for good effects. So if you have some ability that gives you 1-REA Blocks (which is pretty cheap) and you have another that gives Armor Blocks (kinda cheap) then if you have both we want you to be able to throw Armor Blocks for 1 REA (at least once or twice a Round). That dynamic makes character creation fun. But how do we cost for it? That, I think, is a philosophical question.

The Philosophical Question
The question is: do we cost it assuming the character will max out their effectiveness? Do we cost it based on the character having median effectiveness (i.e. works vs. Range but not for 1 REA?). Do we cost it based on the character not doing anything fancy?

The way to look at it is: what's the damage in each case?

  • Cost Based On Max: in the 16 AP herd fight the maximal effective form (2 blocks for 1 REA with 8x Level Armor if the block fails, the block works vs. Range) gives you a super-high 94% POV. This is something like 14 AP out of 16. If we costed based on that a character without all those benefits would wind up broke if they purchased an armor block compared to ...
  • Cost Based On Nothing Special: The cost for just the straight 8 AP Armor Block at 16 AP is around 2 AP. That's a massive difference. If we just went with the straight cost? Then either all those extras cost around 10 AP (which they do not--each one taken separately gives you around another 1 or 2 APs worth of cost) or else we really reward characters who sexy-up their Armor Blocks.
  • Cost Based On Median: What I could do is split the difference and cost it around 7 AP (about right in the middle). This would reward sexy Armor Blockers to the tune of about 7 AP and would screw basic Armor Blockers to the tune of about 6 AP. While it seems like a good solution it might actually be the worst.
What Else Can We Do?
Well, the obvious answer is this: an Armor Block can never be 1 REA unless you buy it special that way. If you get some 1 REA Blocks because of [whatever] that's all well and good--but they will not work with your Armor Block.

The good news is that we can cost these things separately and we can sell the "combos" with a fair amount of ease. It removes some of the possibilities from the game--but it prevents degenerate designs. What have we learned from this?

What Have We Learned?
The key thing we've learned, I think, is that we need to think carefully about how much work we want/expect the Player to put into character design. One of the most demoralizing things I've seen video games do is create the opposition so that you need optimal builds to compete. This sucks for me because (a) I will never play enough to figure out the maximal strategies (b) the maximal strategies may not be fun for me anyway and (c) I hate having to go online and "do homework" to figure out how to play a game.

So I don't want to do that.

On the other hand, we can't ignore that some builds are going to be better than others and that will effect play. I think that having character-design be interesting and more than skin-deep is cool but I don't want to force it on people. So what can we do about that?

The ultimate thing to do from a balance perspective would be to have character cost be empirically determined you'd build your character using a computer tool (a web-site or desktop app) and it would run that character build "against the herds" and would tell you the cost. You'd change things and it would re-adjust. This would give you a "real cost" (assuming the herds were picked by the GM to be relevant to the specific campaign) and unless you could do some very complex math in your head, character creation would be trial-and-error ("Oh, I added an armor block and shot up 50 AP ... hmmm.").

The next best thing to do is to simply put in rules where necessary to prevent degenerate situations but try to keep the points as fungible as possible. If we do things right, 5 AP in "Armor Block" should, most of the time, really be as good as 5 AP in Armor or ADP or Force Field or whatever. It should be as good as having 5 more AP in an attack (but 5 fewer in defenses). That's the goal.

We're never going to get there, of course--this is too complex (and we're not even balancing against normal character builds--although we've done a good deal of testing)--but it is the goal.

We're marching towards it.


Monday, May 9, 2011

What Now?

We're going to be running our Have-Not game tonight (it was canceled by Mother's Day--which is somehow ironically appropriate in a way I'm not sure I can quantify). When last we left our characters they had gone to see an oracle who told us we could go down into "the clock of fate" and have our fortunes read. If we decided to, after the reading, we could go down into the GC complex for an unorthodox adventure.

We, of course, decided to--and we had a pretty epic time of it. The Clock of Fate was built around a 'demon' created by a group of pre-disaster "haters" who had tried to take down a major sports champion (the greatest sport of man was called T-Ball and involved, it seems, a sentient thermonuclear device as "the ball"--it also involved poetry, body armor, and flying out-of-phase motorcycles ... we haven't figured out all the rules yet).

Down there we got "tarot cards" which were normal and gave us a good if somewhat mundane fate-arc. But then there was a schism in the machine and we got Aces of Pin-Ups: 1940's bomber-art girls with cursive legends like "Welcome Intruders, The Complex is Trying to Kill You" (or something like that). This spoke to a totally abnormal fate and the complex tried to correct itself.

The correction was to send us through the Tower of Swords if we didn't hand-back-over the cards (turning our backs on the unusual fate). Of course we refused and had to do an intense Mario-like series of challenges with moving platforms, placed gun robots, flying fireballs you could block to send flying at other opponents, and instant-death bladed pendulums that you had to win a drama to climb on top of.

We battled our way through (the prime opponent was a massive 'Giant Squid' N-Dexer which used it's "empty eyes" to suck in targets and catalog them. The massive super-arena was full of people sucked in by the N-Dexer who were all clamoring for our deaths. You can read about the N-Dexer in the Have-Not monster's book. Thankfully we didn't have to fight that). We went up two levels (16 AP--half of which I got, the other half of which is "expected" in terms of weapons and armor).

So now we're at--almost at--a cross-roads: The characters were not made with the TAP rules and I only very recently have a cut of the excel spreadsheets that contain that data. So what we are doing is this:

  • I and Kenton have re-made our characters using the new rules.
  • Todd and Mike are still using the old rules
  • I plan to do the conversion by hand in the future.
The interesting thing about this was that although my character was somewhat invested in TAP-items (extra initiative and, now extra attack skill) the point costs for things were remarkably similar to what I'd have paid in the old system.

On one had, this is a surprise--why'd it work out like that? On the other hand: not so much: the old costs were estimated with a whole lot of math and some decent thinking and a good deal of experience. I also didn't go for any of the really iffy things like large negative Damage Modifiers or super-dodges or stuff like that. But within certain tolerances? Looks like my original thinking was okay.

Also: How Much is Initiative Worth?
In JAGS Initiative determines when you are likely to go in a Round. Each point of Initiative increases the chance of you going first. The problem is that in the simulator everyone always has the same Initiative: 12 or less roll. If you get a few points above that (say 14- roll) you're often going to go first. The simulator tracks that advantage nicely. But above that? Going first is just going first (okay, and you get a free step action if you make your Init roll by 5+ ... and you are harder to block--but not by that much). 

After a time having a 25- Initiative (super high) and a 17- Initiative (high but not astronomical) are, in the simulator, the same thing. In most games they are the same thing too unless you are up against other very fast characters. Then each point of Initiative becomes an arms-race again.

So how do we price that (considering that my very fast character clocks in at a 19- Initiative for an estimated 4 AP)? The answer is that I don't really know yet. I know that there's a serious diminishing returns to buying Init even in this game (where some things are fast)--but going first amongst the other (fast) PCs is a game-time issue: if you are always or usually first you kind of get more play-time than other characters (battles will usually be over before the slow guy goes for some Round). You also get more over-sight of the battle (you can always choose to wait and then interrupt someone else's actions).

So despite the fact that the simulator peters out, I think that there should be a flat cost and I need to determine what it is.


Thursday, May 5, 2011

Getting a Larger Can ...

They say when you open a can of worms the only way to close it is to get a larger can. I started analysis of what was going on with the TAP stuff with respect to Fast Company and came across an unpleasant realization: the % of points an ability is worth usually varies as well.

Thus +8 REA balances at 10 AP for 16 AP characters, 16 AP for 32 AP characters, and 24 AP for 64 AP characters.

What I'd done was take the values and average them to produce a single double-digit decimal number (.51 for +8 REA). You'd multiply that by your Total AP and get the cost for that ability at whatever AP value your character was.

But that was only (clearly) an estimation.

When I tried looking at L3 and L4 Fast Co characters (evaluated at 64 and around 99 AP respectively) I discovered something: When I used the actual tested values the 64 AP character (L3 Fast Co) added up perfectly. The 99 AP character added up to 90 AP--about 10% off.

That was too close for comfort.

So what I'm doing now is going back and using the real tested values in the table so that the % of your Total AP that an ability costs shifts along with your Total AP (these abilities are a larger fraction of your AP when you are a 16 AP character than if you are a 64 AP character).

This technique seems to produce better numbers--of course time (and further testing) will tell--but here's a few things it does improve on and one place it could go very, very wrong:

  • Improvement: We always knew there was some kind of "minimum cost" for these abilities (+8 REA doesn't cost 1 AP if you are built with 4 APs no matter what the math says). While this doesn't completely fix that problem it does give almost all of these abilities a higher point cost earlier on. This mimics what we see with attack powers (in reverse, however) when they give you more damage in the first levels. Still, having the cost be more balanced for lower point totals is nice.
  • Averaging: I'm not going to run a test with every AP level from 1 to 64 (or infinity) so I have to pick my battles. I'm averaging the test values for the 8 AP Levels between 16, 32, and 64. This, of course, re-introduces a margin of error but I think it's a much smaller one.
The Potential Problem
Because the TAP multiplier goes down as your AP value goes up there is a possibility that a higher level will cost less than a lower level. If the math is right this, I think, should not happen--but if there's something wrong, it could. Thankfully: for the testing I've done that is not the case. Although the 64 AP multipliers are almost across the board less than the 16 AP multipliers for the same ability the gradient is always correct (there's one case--with a defect: SLOW where this isn't the case ... and I need to look at that more closely).

For now, though, this is producing sane numbers. It just means more work.


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.