Monday, August 26, 2013

RPG Expertise

CV of Aristotle Bancale
Malcolm Gladwell popularized the "10,000 hour rule" in his book Outliers. The book makes the case that an investment of 10,000 hours in an activity can make you reach master level in an activity. While this is disputed in some cases (natural talent, activities requiring very unusual capabilities, and certain innate limits) the basic idea that "practice makes perfect" (or, perhaps that "perfect practice makes perfect"--or even that consistent practice leads to improvement) should not be alien.

I have been gaming for roughly 35 years. As I have almost unquestionably put in over the 285 requisite hours per year, I am now Gladwell-qualified to be a Master Roleplayer.

If such a thing were even possible what would that mean?

Expert GMs? Expert Players?
Someone once noted that, when it comes to "growing the RPG hobby" the problem isn't a lack of players--it's a lack of GMs*. I don't think it's controversial to say that Game Mastering has recognized levels of mastery or excellence. It's my observation that we generally don't for players with the exception of players who evidence a mastery of a game's rules--and often this isn't a compliment.

When asking if someone's an "expert"--I'm asking myself if I'm an expert--we need to start with our criteria. How would we judge? Let's look at a few axis of potential expertise.

Rules Expert
The first and most obvious place to look is the game rules. If you spent 10,000 hours playing Game-X and were hard-core using the rules (looking them up, referencing them, memorizing them), by the ten-thousandth hour you would likely evidence "mastery" of them. You would know where that hit-location chart breaks down if you use a pole-arm at close range and then can't hit anything but the groin.

You would know that if charging the auto-cannon with 21 people the auto-fire rules for it don't allow anyone to be hit.

You'd know what page to find the Healing Tables For Fire Damage (With Disease) but you wouldn't need to look because you'd have memorized them.

Certainly, if there is expertise in a given game, the 10,000 hour rule works.

But that's a boring question. What does it mean to be an expert player or GM for any game? Can such a thing exist? And, let's be real, there are a lot of games out there where the system just isn't that deep or fiddly. I might get my master's-worth out of Rolemaster--but The Window? I think not.

Expert RPG Theorist!
A great deal of electronic ink and Internet battle has been spilled and waged over the idea that there are several different "types" of play and that these distinct experiences, goals-of-play, and 'agendas' can be used as a sort of set of 'requirements' for your play experience. This is interesting from an engineering standpoint: Quality in the engineering discipline is described as adherence to the requirements.

Generally these categories are something like:

  • Game-ist: you are looking for overcoming a challenge and demonstrating mastery with the rules-system. You want a competitive experience (not necessarily with the other players). You want (to a degree) to "win."
  • Dramatist / Narrativist: You want the game to feel / play like a story. In the Narrativist category you want, as a Player (not a GM) to have the plot turn explicitly on your decisions (No railroading!!). 
  • Simulation of Some Sort: You want the game to feel like "real life"--possibly "real life in a fictional world" or even genre. In other words, things don't happen because they are more exciting or move-the-plot-along--but rather because "that's what would happen in real life."
  • Experiential: that people play for a variety of specific experiential reasons ("I want to feel like I'm an elf!") and while that may map to one of the above categories, really, there might be a number of different modes that could achieve them. 
Needless to say, all of the above are gross simplifications of ideas that some people think are very complex / important. The question I'm posting here, however, is this: if you were given one of these theories--read all the Internet posts on them--did all the research--could you then run a game to those specifications? Would they be "actionable?"

I think the answer is more-or-less 'yes.' After all, while the above theories all break down (in some cases, immediately) on contact with reality they are passable at the 30-thousand-foot level to dictate how a game might play or look.

The problem is, despite what people have said, I think that as a manifesto of "how I want to play" any of these will, in practice, be a warning label. If someone comes to you and tells you they're an X-ist, unless you are a member of that tribe and describe yourself as an X-ist, my experience is that you ought to run.

Why is that? I think it's because most play that I've seen that's been fun is not designed by trying to adhere to a specific set of conventions of play and most of these categories are, in practice, negatively defined ("Don't do THAT to me!! NO! NO! NO! Bad GM!"). They are also subject to a lot of different approaches and not all of them will work for a given person.

Expert Improv
RPG-Play has been compared to Improvisational Theater. The idea that everyone is (a) playing a character and (b) to a degree, at least, making it up as they go along is pretty interesting. There's also an element of having things thrown at you whether you are the GM or a Player. Which ever side of the GM's screen you "sit on" it's generally better to "roll with it" than to be inflexible (in the GM's chair this leads to railroading--for the Players, it's usually power-struggle).

What if being an expert RPGist meant you were really, really good at interaction with others?

What Do I Think?
I've played RPGs with indie groups. I've played Hero Quest online with Mike Holmes. I played Forward to Adventure down in Uruguay with The RPG Pundit. I've played--for well over a year--online with Clash Bowley. I've played at cons. I've run games for church groups. I ran a game for my parents in 2004 when we were trapped in their house after a hurricane knocked out South Florida.

I think (blows on fingers), I'm an expert.

I think, online, almost everyone thinks they're an expert (and not just at RPGs--at everything--read a message board sometime!). 

Of the above list, it's that the last--the Improv one--that is the closest to the truth. Gaming is a complex interactive dynamic and having a spirit of openness and a willingness to compromise (at least to a point) is useful at home, at work, and at the gaming table. What I "get out of play" is a multifaceted thing. If I were trying to use RPG Theory to tell someone "What I wanted" I would have a hard time of it--and I've read pretty much all of it

When I'm playing with someone it turns out that what I want from them is always the same anyway: the best they've got at that moment. I expect a certain degree of adult team-work. I want to be able to call a time-out and talk about things if it feels like the game is going to fall apart (this happened once in the IRC game Clash was running--to dramatic effect--maybe I'll blog about that some time). 

I'd like to have feedback from players when something is working--or when it isn't--but mostly? It's my experience that, just like life, if everyone is doing the best they can then your odds of success are the highest. 

Next Up: What Would You Pay For A Great GM?

* In some formulations the response to this has simply been to do away with the Game Master role altogether--many indie RPGs do this. This is fine so far as it goes--but the resultant game is not a traditional RPG and is outside the scope of this post.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

What I Learned From 'What I Learned From Getting Shot'

Here are some points on a line:

Many Years Ago
Before JAGS was up and running I was told a story by my mother: a son of a friend of hers was shot by a random man at an intersection. Apparently the shooter, perhaps thinking the son was involved in some kind of drug violence, fires a shotgun at him through the door of his car. The son apparently thought "He threw a rock at the car" and drove off. He later looked down, discovered he was bleeding out--and barely made it to the hospital in time.

During The Development of JAGS
I got my hands on a book called Handgun Stopping Power. The authors had tried to definitively address the question of 1-shot-stops with handguns of various types. They had collated records of shootings as well as taking inch-by-inch segments of the human body and asking doctors the question "If a bullet went through here would it instantly stop you?" Part of the conclusion was that 9mm guns resulted in 1-shot-stops more than .357's.

While (as I recall) the authors gave no explanation for this, the rationale to me seemed that the kinds of people who carried 9MMs  (professionals) were more likely to effect a 1-stop-shot than the kinds of people who carried .357's (usually not-professionals).

In other words the likelihood of a 1-shot-stop was all about placement.

One of our favorite games, The Morrow Project, had done a great job of simulating this (for humans--how would it work for a Hydra?).

Yesterday: What I Learned From Being Shot
Brian Beutler writes about the experience ... of being shot:
The kid opposite Matt drew a small, shiny object from wherever he’d been concealing it and passed it to his accomplice, who was standing opposite me. A second or two lapsed — long enough for me to recognize they weren’t joking, but not long enough for me to beg — before it discharged clap clap clap; my body torqued into the air horizontally, like I’d been blindsided by a linebacker, and I fell to the ground.
I stood up right away. Strangely I felt fine. Something had knocked the wind out of me, and my shoulder hurt a little bit, but ridiculously in hindsight we concluded it was an extremely effective prank.
And then ...
Half a block later I didn’t feel so good anymore. I removed my T-shirt (a red one, inconveniently) and realized it had masked a badly bleeding shoulder wound. My adrenaline-fueled defiance gave way to the gory injury staring me in the face, and some important things dawned on me: I’d been shot. 
They run--and call 911--but:
We turned north onto 17th Street and made it another 30 feet before I couldn’t run anymore. Couldn’t breathe very well either. That was the moment I realized I’d suffered more than just a flesh wound on my shoulder. I slumped down against a fence on the east side of the street, in pain, but mainly just winded and growing sleepy. No good. I noticed intricate metalwork on a fence across the street and forced myself to focus on it.
The paramedics get there just in time ...
They found an exit wound in my back. They ran fluid into a vein in my left arm to revive my sinking blood pressure, but it worked too well. I no longer felt like I was on the verge of unconsciousness, but for the first time I could feel the full extent of the pain wracking my upper body. I’d strongly advise against getting shot. It hurts very badly.
He'd collapsed a lung. They had to remove his spleen.
In my case there were three bullets, including the one in my shoulder, and the injuries were pretty severe. Punctured lung, punctured diaphragm, punctured stomach, ruptured spleen, broken ribs, a hematoma on my kidney. One bullet tunneled harmlessly around the bones and muscles in my shoulder and remains lodged in a back rib on the upper-left side of my body. Doctors removed another with my spleen. The third missed both my aorta and my spine by an inch or less, exited my back and landed on Euclid Street. 
 He spends a week in the hospital--he's lucky to be alive (slight misses to lethal or paralyzing vital locations).

Optional Rules For Shock / Adrenaline 
How would we model this in JAGS? One way to do this would be to have each attack have an "immediate impact" based on its base damage and to-hit roll. Often that could be "nothing." But it could also be "knock down" or "degrade" (other possibilities, like losing the use of a limb would make sense).

Then, after the combat, start rolling for each wound on the long-term damage effect chart. The GM might even keep these rolls secret if the character didn't have certain traits, medical skills, etc. This would create vast uncertainty about the future (you take a sword blow to the torso--how bad is it? Wait until combat is over to find out!). It would, assuming it was modeled on "real life" be far more deadly than most RPGs.

I suspect a great deal of combat would resolve to ambush where the PCs would refuse to fight unless the odds were heavily in their favor. This is real--but would it be fun?

A better question that would it be is could it be?

For that, don't have to wonder. A game called Bushido Blade came out in 1997 and it featured a combat system where most hits were instant death. You could cripple arms and legs and such--but mostly? If you got hit in the torso? That was it. There were no time-limits or health bars for the duels. It was considered a hit and got rave reviews.

While it didn't have the uncertainty effect, the common instant death result didn't turn it into a market failure.

What About RPGs?
RPGs, though, are different.

For one thing, if you die there's no start-over button. For another, the average UFC fight takes several minutes and has dozens of blows--if you were to simulate that, even with a single die-roll per blow (combine to-hit and damage in some way and have no roll for how well they take it) that's still orders more than the average JAGS battle has.

There certainly is a place in RPGs for ultra-deadly combat systems. Morrow Project, The Riddle of Steel, and a bare bones military system called Recon had this feature. There are different ways of modeling realism too. Certainly what happened in these cases was more of an anomaly than not. It may not be an extreme-edge case--but according to the stats, most people shot go down and stay down.

Friday, August 16, 2013

JAGS Fantasy Heartbreaker

In 2002 game designer and theorist Ron Edwards published an article titled Fantasy Heartbreakers. The crux of the article was more or less this:
Boy, there sure are a lot of games that "try to do D&D better" and while they may have an innovative element or two (or think they do due to the designer's lack of experience in the field) they (A) are more labor-of-love than a serious game and (B) don't significantly improve on D&D, overall, in a meaningless fashion. This breaks my heart
He lists a lot of games you (likely) have never heard of (Hahlmabrea, Pelicar, Darkurthe, etc.). To be fair to Ron he does suggest you play one or more of these--if only to check it out and think critically about it--and part of (or maybe all of?) his broken heart he ascribes to pity for the author(s) for producing games that will fail in the marketplace.

Fair enough, I guess.

On the other hand, as with all things RPG-theory, a huge amount of bullshit both accrued around the stated idea (i.e. people using the term X-Heart-breaker* to apply to any game they think is derivative and don't like--while claiming their dismissal is sorta 'scientifically based in theory') and, potentially, lurked behind it, unsaid (example: these games support a traditional mode of play Ron doesn't think much of. Ron's advice to play them is in an anthropological go-amongst-the-natives-and-see-their-simple-ways type of engagement. The player is expected to have a jarring time trying to play these gems).

I'm not too fond of the presentation here--largely because of the anthropological stance the articles and Ron's RPG-theory in general takes (a lot of so-called RPG-theory is used to say "we roleplay--they/you roll-play--but in fancier language).

For better or for worse Fortunately a lot of the RPG-theory dialog died out when The Forge (a site dedicated to independent game design) closed its doors so you don't have to deal with that theory ... all that much.

On The Other Hand: JAGS Fantasy Heartbreaker!
I've been reading, and enjoying, Jacob Poss's FATEsy Heartbreaker series of posts. He's taking FATE and doing "everything he hates with it"--making a fiddly, complicated, fantasy game with lots of off-shoot rules and definitely sort of 'referencing' D&D as its 'source material' rather than, say, Tolkien or whatever.

Would his game qualify as one of Ron's Fantasy Heartbreakers? Ron's second article lists these requirements:

  1. the imaginative content is "fantasy" using gaming, specifically D&D, as the inspirational text;
  2. the publishing context is independently produced as a labor of love, essentially competing directly with D&D in the marketplace;
  3. the rules design recapitulates either D&D or innovations made immediately after D&D, i.e. early 1980s.

So, no. It isn't actually published. It doesn't 'reform D&D's rules' (it uses FATE, an entirely different system), and while I'm not sure it claims homage to D&D, the lampshading of the Heartbreaker theme means it's clearly not just ripping it off.

We've talked about doing a JAGS Fantasy Heartbreaker (and I wonder if we could get away with using that actual name without people thinking we were crazy. Probably not. We'd discussed having iconography of "broken hearts" throughout the illustrations ... )

What Would It Look Like?
The point of making a JAGS Fantasy Heartbreak (JFH) would be to mine the gonzo weirdness that was D&D--along with some of specific flavor of playing D&D (classes, levels, etc.), while still keeping some of the JAGS advantages (such as how combat works or having a skill system or whatever). In other words, it would be to try to "do D&D better."

As we'd, you know, actually publish it we could hit #1 and #2--but hitting #3 would take some work.

I also wouldn't quite be interested in copying D&D exactly--the point of making the book wouldn't be as a theory exercise--but rather playing something that gave me a similar feel while still keeping a lot of the stuff I otherwise like (this could be its own article, really).

Here are some things I'd want to try to do:

Classes -- Especially Weird Ones
I loved The Dragon (magazine's) NPC classes. You'd get an article that was clearly supposed to be a playable class but was listed as NPC only because, hey, Gygax didn't approve of it. I'd like to have something like "starting classes" and have them expand to other classes of stranger natures. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay does this well.

Maybe there could be rolls to see if certain "prestige classes" were available to a given character (even if, in the end, they were all balanced).

Leveling is an interesting pacing mechanic. You have these specific, step-wise, demarcation points where the nature of the game can change a lot or a little. Leveling up can be fun. It can drive play all by itself (your motivation is totally meta). We have played with our leveling mechanic in the 2-year-long Have-Not game and it was a riot.

Non-Human Races
Having a set of non-human races available would definitely fit the D&D mold. If you combine races and classes you get a pretty good 'pre-fabricated' character concept right out of the starting gate. Of course none of these races would be, actually, alien. After all, very few people I knew played D&D with 1st level Elfs with the same grandeur that the Lord of the Rings movies had (nor, for that matter, the competence).

Essentially everyone is mostly human with a few stereotypes blow out of proportion.

I think I'd have a set of races that were "standard" and then things you could do to get some "unusual races" (possibly including random rolls to see if they were available to you).

Random Roll Character Generation
JAGS is point-based character design--but as you can see in the JAGS Supers, it's possible to combine rolls and point-buy in interesting ways. I think having some random-roll / life-pathy type stuff at the start of the game to give you some "raw material" with which to start your character off and then have you make some character design decisions might be interesting..

Like rolls for choice of races? Some starting aptitudes?

Equipment Tables!
We love detailed equipment tables. Random-roll Pole-arm creation chart? We're there. A dozen different kinds of torch and lantern? Might be too much: half-a-dozen is good. Two different kinds of 10' poles? Cool (is one collapsible). Equipment is interesting as part of a challenge: you have limited resources and need to take stuff that will get you through the dungeons--how do you do that?

Dungeons! Wacky Monsters!
The basic concept of the dungeon is genius. It combines a free-wheeling chaotic and dangerous environment with a sense of mystery and exploration. There's absolutely zero question about what your goal is, what your role is, or how to approach them. Done well it's a "sandbox" environment with a number of possible routes / decisions open at any time.

Wacky monsters can be absurd, exciting, and dangerous. A Gelatinous Cube makes no sense--but it's scary and cool. Rust Monster suck. Elementals are awesome.

Guidelines for using existing web-based dungeon generation tools are a must: random dungeons are great (especially "to start with"--and then the GM can customize them and add specific cool stuff).

Treasure Tables!
Remember that "mini-game" in Gamma World where you rolled to figure out items? I could see something like that for magic items. I'd like to see a mini-game where you actually rolled for treasure itself (possibly where players could spend their character's Success Points to change rolls!).

When you find a horde you determine its age and you know the bad-ass rank of the monster. So you start rolling: for each 'age' the monster accrues treasure based on its kills. The treasure (especially magical treasure) has a lot of stuff about the world encoded into it.

So when you find a haul, you break out the tables and flow-chart and dice up some treasure. Maybe there could be a player-based element of gambling as well ...

Optional Rules
I'd probably deploy the JAGS Critical Wound rules (where you can mitigate a damage effect or even actual DP-loss by choosing to roll on a "permanent damage table"--so if you took a Dying result you could roll on a table and get "Lose an Eye" and that would take the place of losing your character.

I think there are other optional rules that we might use as well (lower Initiative for wearing armor?).

One of the reward systems JAGS has is Success Points. If you could get SPs for "acting within your Alignment" that might drive some interesting play. Especially if we could come up with weird or clever alignments (maybe 'subheadings' under the major ones) that could help drive some fairly strange or funny behavior (Chaotic Annoying: Scold. You get a SP for any scene where-in you scold another PC or Named NPC for 'not doing it right.').

Who Would Play This?
Well, us, of course. The point here though isn't that "I want to play D&D--but just use some other system--" but rather that D&D did, in essence, a lot of things right. Taking those things to heart--even if we modify them somewhat in translation or change them more to our taste--is a best practice.

And one other thing: the (currently hypothetical) JAGS Fantasy Heartbreaker wouldn't be a non-serious game. Our Have-Not game had "Success Points" as floating spinning coins, bizarre nonsensical dungeons, really weird monsters, levels, classes (we could not 'equip and use' the Emperor's Sword-Guns despite being able to pick them up), and so on. There was more than a little meta-gaming going on there. But we had a serious, engaging, satisfying adventure anyway.

* JAGS has been called a GURPS Heartbreaker. It totally is--but it was a Hero Heartbreaker first, eh?

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Magic and Super Science

How do you handle Magic--or super-science inventor types? Or are those the same things?

Rules Only The Character Knows
One way to make magic "magical" in fiction is to have rules to it that the reader never really sees. This is the case of, for example, Gandalf (at least to my reading of Lord of the Rings years ago) where I wasn't really sure what he was capable of--but man, did he have some tricks up his sleeve. He was mysterious.

In something like Harry Potter, there are clearly some hard-core rules* around how magic works--but we never really learn them. As a result, the characters can sometimes pull a surprise on us--a new spell or some new effect or whatever.

With super-science gadgeteers / mad-scientists, it's much the same: we don't know exactly what Doc Brown is capable of building (besides a time machine) but while we wouldn't believe he could put together and launch an International Space Station using household goods, we'd probably believe he could turn a microwave oven into some kind of ray-gun. Again: there are fictional rules or guidelines that we don't know the limits of--but presumably the characters themselves do.

But in role-playing we are the characters. So what do you do?

The Problem
The problem with modeling magic or super-science in fiction is two-fold. The first issue is that magical / mad-scientist characters can do a vast variety of things given the "right conditions." The second issue is that they are (generally) fully aware of their limitations and know a great deal more about the domain that we, the players / readers are going to.

One solution to this is the Noun-Verb method of magic where characters learn "component pieces" of magic (this could work for technology too) and then combine them in ways that are (mostly) sensible. If you know 'Burn' and 'Person' you can probably immolate someone or maybe cast body of fire on yourself. Maybe both?

Another solution is Hero's Variable Point Power Pool which allows you to "spend points" at will on a large variety of effects. Hero's excellent list of generic effects works for this--although it can result in some fairly bland results depending on exactly how the spending is allocated and works.

Are There Other Solutions?
There are. In the original JAGS magic book we opted for a huge (300+) list of spells that was, really, pretty darn 'complete.' A mage might not have many of them (compared to the total) but you could have a fair number--and the rules around them made it so that you could be pretty versatile for "not that many points." We were explicitly trying to 'simulate' computer games (and AD&D, to a degree--which is also what those computer games were simulating) so that was okay.

JAGS Wonderland's magic system is even better: It's a magic setting. The rules about different levels of reality are fixed / explained and then your degree of training allows you to bend them. You can do Truth or Place / Person by channeling your Shadow a few chessboards down (if this makes no sense go download the free PDF for the Book of Knots and look in the back).

The fact that a few chessboards down places and people display their "essence" is established: allowing you to 'see it' while being in reality is just a matter of training. To someone who doesn't know the rules, a player using those abilities would seem kind of random and plenty mysterious: for someone who has read the book, though, it makes a lot of sense.

Another Possibility
JAGS does not have a list of mechanical effects--instead we have something like 400+ individual powers. The degree of coverage with Hero is not all that different (although, to be fair, you can build powers with Hero that we don't cover--we do have power modification rules, though so, you know, maybe ...).

How might a super-science system work in JAGS? Like this: you spend APs on "Super Science gadgets" and, immediately, take both a reduction in effectiveness (having points that can be re-allocated during play to almost anything is an advantage) but you get some back because it takes time and requires a lab (presumably).

We then have a Super Science Drama: this is where you make your science skill rolls (three rolls) and try to beat a target number (each point you make your roll by counts--so if you have a 13- skill and roll three 10's in a row, that's 9 points). If you meet your number you get a power boost of some sort--so if you are going for a very powerful device you might want a Target Number of 20 (so you'd have three rolls to try to get a sum-total of 20 success points--good luck if your roll is 13 or less).

But we have a way to have you mitigate that: Between rolls, if things aren't going well you can roll on "drawback tables." These tables lower your Target Number (making you more likely to succeed) but give you some random drawback to the device (such as the Freeze Ray Gun has a 6-second charge-up time).

This produces some uncertainty about what the final result will be--but allows the player to have a decent amount of control over the process.

We can also allow for Mad Science effects where a roll can tell you things like "You need a human brain to complete the device."

For magic, the rules would be similar--but you could roll on the Black Magic table and get things like corruption of the self or 'causes mutation.' The point would be to have magicians who are exceeding their power-limits be able to take risks or simply degrade their spell in some meaningful way (such as, again, charge up time) to accomplish their goal.

Things Man Was Not Meant To Know
If I had infinite time and patience I would have a book of "drawback charts" that players would only get to read some of (and note, this would just be for some games where everyone was onboard and thought this was cool)**. The chapter the characters would read would be the "in-game rules" for the charts.

Such as: a chapter on aligning your mage with extra-dimensional entities. A set of chapters could be about these shadowy, untrustworthy entities who you could call on for help. If you do, you get your power-boost--but you get a roll on the hidden 'cost chart.' The GM then describes to you (maybe in private) what the effect was.

To the other players this is VERY mysterious (they may not have read the chapter at all--and they don't know what the effect was). To you it's still somewhat mysterious (unless you are very experienced with the hidden chapters)--but you do know a lot of the basic terrain.

We could do the same thing for super-science: have a chapter that describes the break-through and then if the character learns that break-through, they can then experiment with the hidden tables ("I'll use dimensional gateways technology to power my super-car ... oh, crap: Red Spider Invasion!!"). This would be a way for players, during the act of actual play, to explore the system and the world ...

* In Harry Potter, in a wizard battle, it is possible to connect with a punch or push when you flat out can't hit the target with a ranged attack spell. Presumably either protective wards don't stop "attacks that won't really hurt you" or else magical duelists are really missing out not having death-touch spells they can fire up.

Also, in HP, what exactly can you do without a wand? Clearly powerful wizards can do something without a wand--but it's never really described how that works.

And how does Quiddich scoring work anyway!?

** Warhammer Fantasy did this wonderfully with their bestiary: the book (the first part) is wonderful old-style text and illustrations that describe the monster. The back of the book then has the stats. This allows players to go through a bunch of it and learn cool things--but not entirely look behind the curtain when it comes to the monster's performance in game-mechanics terms. When we do a fantasy monster's book, I'd like to (at least partially) mimic that.

Monday, August 12, 2013

JAGS Supers: A Victim of It's Own Success

As I said last post, one of the books I was most interested in writing was a "Villains and Vigilantes"-style super-system. We actually took a first-stab at it.

It was so successful ... we might not actually produce the book itself.

What the hell does that all mean!?

Villains and Vigilantes-Style Supers System
One of the tests we did for JAGS Revised Archetypes was to make a list of characters we'd put in a world-book. These were some of the "greatest hits" from our several decades of gaming that we'd migrate to the JAGS format (some of them were already done in earlier versions of JAGS too). Going through them, I noticed something: almost universally these characters had very similar construction parameters.

They were 'balanced' meaning in a "mirror match" with themselves it wouldn't be a 1-shot deal. They were built to "normal humans given powers" specifications (where appropriate--where the original character was a normal human)--rather than some of the super-fast-just-because characters we'd seen (and played) in, for example, Champions (where many characters were very, very fast compared to normal people even if there was no specific justification for it).

Not all of them had an attack, a defense, and a movement form--but many did. Most didn't have more than one attack period.

In short, these characters were the product of a similar set of mechanical systems over many years that had produced characters within a set of parameters that were designed to meet the "standard play environment" we had adopted over time. In GURPS, for example, it was cripplingly expensive to give a character multiple bio-weapons (tail, teeth, claws ... and horns!? You must be joking!?) so we generally had characters with just one.

We expected to fight "at or around" our power-scale and there was, for example, in Champions, no powers that would, usually, instantly win a fight--where the concept didn't exist (or wasn't well represented) we didn't usually have characters that met that standard.

On the other hand, if a game did, for example, contain a "magical petrification gaze" that would take out anyone you looked at--unless they had specific magical defenses--which were rare--in a point-buy system you'd see an awful lot of both.

I want to note that this trend was neither a bad thing--nor was it an entirely unconscious thing. All games promote some sort of thoughtful design even if it's just simply a choice to play that specific game over another. The lack of 'rare' cheap shots, for example, that would take out 'anyone' might be a bit limiting in super-hero fiction--but in an RPG you don't want every battle to come down to 'who fires first.' The GURPS bio-attack thing was kind of a problem for us--but it was simple to just say "extra bio-attacks after you best one are nearly free" and house-rule it.

That said, we had always liked V&V for its tendency towards quirky unbalanced characters. We also felt that "rolling up a character" (usually done by the group at the start of play-time) was a lot of fun and a good way to generate energy.

So we wanted a randomized system for powers ... of some sort.

The Basic Idea Of The System
What I'd envisioned for the JAGS V&V game was a set of random-roll tables ... maybe a "cybernetics table?" Or an "Energy Manipulation Table" or whatever. We could enhance that with rolls for "character's job" or a life-path system that would give you super-siblings or nemesis's or whatever. We'd seen examples of these in other games and more or less liked them.

We were also going to do this: Give you four rolls for powers and, for each roll you elect to drop, you can get 1 level of "Fast Company Action Hero" ability. This would, we felt, lead to Batman at one end of the spectrum (Fast L4) and Superman (no bullet-dodging acrobatics--just raw super-powers) at the other.

A lot of characters would come in somewhere in the middle--and we liked that.

Our twist, though, was going to be that instead of just rolling up a power you would roll a "group of powers" and could spend your points on anything within that group. So if you rolled 'Mutant Appendage,' 'Gravity Control,' 'Super Senses,' and ... I don't know--something else--you could decide to drop Something Else and Mutant Appendage and go Fast Level 2 with one or more Gravity Control Powers and maybe a Super Sense. Or you could just buy Anti-Grav flight from Gravity Control and spend ALL your points on some kind of mega Mutant Appendage ... or whatever.

The same set of rolls could generate very, very different characters.

We'd tried something like this with an earlier set of JAGS Archetype rules and liked how it came out (it was very primitive--with almost none of the powers "actually written out"--but by now we'd turned those place-holders into actual powers).

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The World Book
What happened, though, on our test launch, was this: we took every secondary heading from the JAGS Revised Archetype book and put it into a spreadsheet. There were 89 of them. Each L2 Heading is a group of powers like 'Gravity Control' or even 'Tails' -- stuff like that.

What I'd done in the intervening years between the first playtest and the almost finished product was to intentionally group all these abilities into logical blocks so that the (eventual) supers game would make more sense. We'd also grouped them into chapters based on commonality--which helped a lot too.

So when we used the spreadsheet's randomize function to give us "four rolls" on the Master List ... we were stunned.

It worked. I mean, it worked so well that we could find no modification (such as breaking up the list artificially into, say, Energy Manipulation--which, in this, was part of Domain Control) that we felt sure was a value add.

We did an Iron Chef test where the same set of rolls was used to make wildly different characters. It worked. We considered making some abilities more common than others (to get to 100 slots, no one has an 89-sided die). It didn't seem to add to the experience.

We sat back: Hmm ... could that be it? Give people a randomization of the Table of Contents--and some general rules (play on 128 AP, if you roll GATS you can spend as much on them as you want--but if you choose Fast Co you only get to choose up to the listed GAT points for that level--unless you go Fast Co L4, in which case ALL GATS and GEAR powers are available to you).

The set of parameters was so simple this wasn't a source book: it was a blog post.

Why Did This Happen?
As I noted above, the reason this worked out the way it did was because during the creation of the actual rules I had already organized the powers in a way that was designed to facilitate the system we knew we were going to build. I'd done the work--I just hadn't realized that the work was complete enough.

Is there anything we could add?

Yeah: firstly, characters tend to work better in our games when they have either one attack at a moderate level or two attacks at the same level (which, due to the way the rules work is cheaper than 2x the points). If we could find a way to encourage that--with the random roll rules you rarely get two attacks you might want--that might help.

We could add life-path stuff. Why not? It's easy enough to ditch if you don't want it.

We could add a Power Modification Table which you could choose to roll on and it would give you some enforced rules for modifying your abilities ...

Right now Weaknesses is one power-slot. We could make it it's own thing and make it an optional roll ...

So there's a little. But mostly?

If you want the randomization spreadsheet, it's in Google Docs. Let me know and I can share it with you.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Game Design Goals

With JAGS Revised Archetypes slowly cruising in for a landing I'd like to take this blog-space to do more gaming theory / best-practices posts. We'll see how that goes.

A Question For Game Designers
How much effort would you put into your mechanics to make sure they could "realistically" model (and distinguish from one-another) the actual human players who will be sitting around the table playing the game?

How much do you think this kind of detailed mechanical modeling would contribute to the "fun" of the play experience?

Several Points On A Line
Here's some personal history.

Point 1: Villains and Vigilantes
Before we were playing Hero and GURPS almost exclusively we were playing a lot of things. One of these--one of our favorite games--was Villains and Vigilantes:
Nobody Does 'Anatomy' Like Jeff Dee
Amongst other things, one of the givens in V&V was that you played yourself. That is: the GM was supposed to kind of tell you what your stats were (I saw commentary asking how the game master was supposed to tell the guy with the 18 Strength he had a 3 Intelligence--I doubt that would be a problem in most 80's Roleplaying groups ...).

We tried doing that about once (mostly we just did what Dungeons and Dragons did and rolled dice for our stats--usually, I think, 4d6 and drop the lowest ...). It wasn't a great success. We weren't sophisticated enough to map our lives as high-school students into something interesting in game terms and the idea of the Game Master running, like, our parents and stuff seemed (to me, anyway) a bit creepy. Also: our stats would've been pretty average (save for INT--I'm sure we'd all have demanded high scores there)--but there just wasn't much guidance for mapping things. The game petered out. We never tried that again.

Point 2: A Hero Experiment
Now THAT Was A Cover!
By late high school we were playing a lot of Hero-System (Champions, Fantasy Hero, Danger International). We had moved to this, over time, almost exclusively as it seemed to meet more and more of our game-system needs. One night in the summer our group decided to "stat ourselves." This was done in the worst possible way: each person would make out the stats for another person and then we'd share with the group and tweak it. This had the potential for amazing cruelty--however, thankfully, that didn't happen. What we did learn was this:
  • The resolution level of Danger International was pretty low. Was the strong guy in the group an 11 STR? A 12? A 13? What about the smart people? The only numbers that made a difference on skill rolls were divisions by 5 (with rounding). Who was a 13 or a 14? How arrogant did you have to be before you got points for Overconfidence?
  • I'm not proud of the fact that there was actually a debate as to whether the black guy got extra (intimidating) Presence for being black. I am moderately proud that we had a black guy in the group (two, actually--and we got hassled by the cops driving through their neighborhood to drop them off more than once). I'm also pleased that I came down on the side that while the guy (John), would have a high PRE score, it was not for being black. I'm also glad that despite having the discussion, no one (even the black guy who was there for it) got offended.
  • Our characters came out fairly sparse: we were RPG-geeks and trying to cleave to the actual rules meant none of us had really spectacular stats or skills (just because you could drive didn't mean you got a good driving roll--and none of us were stunt drivers).
Point 3: GURPS
This Is A Terrible (and Boring) Cover. Look At It: A 'Universal' System--But Everyone's In Their Own Bubbles!!
When we got our hands on GURPS 3rd Edition, while it was in some ways worse than Hero (Hero 5th Ed was not out yet) we moved to it, again, almost exclusively. By the time GURPS came out we were no longer especially interested in playing ourselves--but we were playing a lot of lower-level more "mortal" characters (One could argue that GURPS 3rd wasn't especially elegant for anything else). 
  • GURPS' advantage over Hero, for us, was in terms of 'Verisimilitude'--which usually gets described as "realism" in RPG-talk. I prefer verisimilitude as I don't honestly think any RPG systems are "really realistic" in what I would describe as the clinical sense. For us, verisimilitude means "what happens in the game more or less usually meets my expectations of what would happen in either (a) real life (b) in a movie or TV show that didn't break my suspension of disbelief or (c) what would happen in genre fiction of the sort the game falls into. Thus, a blow to the back of the head could (a) cause pain and damage with a knock-out causing lasting harm (b) cause a knock-out to a lesser character but might not take out a bad-ass or (c) could cleanly and otherwise harmlessly take out anyone. These would all be acceptable (so long as they more or less fit the profile) but if, for example, a direct hit with a LAW Rocket won't take out a gorilla (Marvel Super Heroes 1st Edition) I have a problem with that. 
  • For "very low level characters" (such as normal high school students) the system still had a reasonably good "resolution."
  • There was more variation in "low level" or "basic" hand guns than in Danger International. One of my favorite game books of all time is The Armory--but its 'stats' section was filled with identical guns which, while fine was less than inspiring. GURPS' High Tech, on the other hand, had a lot of weapons with very good distinction.
We never tried playing "ourselves" in GURPS--but we did play people kind of like ourselves from time to time and had a good experience with it.

JAGS Goals Model
Partial JAGS "Goals Model"--The Lower Goals 'Support' The Higher Level Ones
What's pictured above is a partial "Goals Model" for JAGS. The idea is that the highest-level circle (goal) is supported by the lower level ones. This means that "to make the game fun" we think you need to have reasonable handling time-mechanics that meet player expectations (for outcomes) and provide a "rich experience" (whatever that means).

In order to have "meet expected outcomes," for example, we think you need to base game mechanics on research (what fall, from what height, is usually fatal? How much weight does it take to crush someone using Gravity Control ... or rocks? How fast can a wasp fly?). We also think that the mechanics need to model "normal people" before they can model "heroes." And so on.

This is certainly partial (part of Reasonable Handling Time would also be things like limit the math, provide charts and tables where possible, don't proliferate dice rolls or systems that require interaction between players, and so on--anyone who has looked at JAGS will wonder how we could think those things and still produce the mechanics we did ... I encourage you to look at the 20 year old first-drafts!)

Our Answer
As the personal history shows, looking for a high degree of mechanical resolution around "normal people" actually drove our choice of games and systems to a powerful degree. Even today, when I look at anything on the market I mentally model it in GURPS, Hero, and JAGS. This isn't to say there isn't room and need for a vast array of rules and systems--but within certain parameters (such as the style of play the above goals-model meets) focused mechanics--game rules that zero in on a specific set of play assumptions and support those to the exclusion of all else--can be a drawback compared to a more universal system with add-ons for specific characters.

Also: Here is a picture of me just after I qualified for 12 STR.


Sunday, August 4, 2013

Where are we NOW!?

Current State

Complete (proofed, typeset, most artwork added in):
.- First Chapter.
.- Generic Archetype Abilities
.- Innate Powers
.- Psionics
.- Cybernetics.

In Process:
.- Domain Control Powers

To Do
.- Gear / Ability Modification
.- Back of Book

Total Complete Pages: 200

On Master TODO List
This will be somewhat cryptic--it's from my files so I'm not amplifying a lot here.

1. Add vehicle gat
2. Warlock/witchcraft (add male name)
3. Justify followers with domain control
4. Color biker pic
5. Color super size pic
6. Add 3 energy attack pics (Santiago)
7. Commission 5 - 10 more innate power pics (elance)?
8. Add 'missile/rocket' to gear
9. Figure out staff / tonfa gear 
10. Check RA values for Psionics
11. Add table for combat mods to power mods
12. Add indirect fire to power mods (several levels)
13. Check for sensory link / driver / drone for battle beast (if you must drive it, it's cheaper)
14. Commission several characters (5-10?) with "action shots"--color foreground, black and white action background for Psionics and domain control
15. Add benchmark to back of book
16. Figure out scale grapple score rules (put them in back of book)
17. Add resisted attack mods for negative damage mods to back of book
18. Add parabolic hearing to cybernetics 
17. Several pics for gear (weapons, armor, etc.) elance?
19. Several (3-5) pics for power mod (elance)?
20. Two covers (think this is 2 books)

To consider:
1. Shotgun squid for cyber?
2. Oracle gear for cyber?
3. Total communication compromise (quantum decrypters) for cyber
4. Sensory drones for cyber? Will "drone" work?
5. Cyber Built, etc (plastic surgery bronzed)   How does this work?
6. Time control RA to slow people down? How would it work? Would time slowed ppl take less damage?

1. Note that Fast Co bonus adds to grapple
2. Fix Seduce L4
3. Gray out SHARP's 2nd line
4. Gray out BRAINIAC 2nd line
5. Fix Bullet Time Cost (GAT List)

Define rolls / results for Mysticism.
.- Total Knowledge: made roll (skill-5) is like a PER roll made by 10.

Add  banishing to Warlock.

'Lying to Telepaths' should be -1 per point of RES-10

1. Get Mod Points out of Cyber and Fast Company (Cyber Eye and FC gear)
2. Get Mod Points out of "Cool gear" in GATS

The book is very, very close to completion. Using Worm characters to "playtest" supers was very effective at finding weak-points in the rules. We could keep doing that indefinitely. I'd like to do "a few more" character builds--but we're in much better shape than I thought we'd be by this point. 

This work has been on-going for ... perhaps ... six or more years. In a sense it's been underway since I first tried to "rationalize" the set of JAGS printed rules back in around 2003 or '04 and failed spectacularly. This will be a major personal accomplishment / milestone.