Mage the Ascension: Resonance and Hubris

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Image credit: http://wiki.wodgotham.com/index.php?title=Mage_101

Recently I hosted Session 0 of my first Mage the Ascension chronicle in…years. Maybe 10 years? Mage is a game that I played a lot in college and with my college group in the couple of years after, but since we’ve all moved away from each other Mage has fallen by the wayside.

There’s something about Mage that fits really well with undergraduates. It’s all about ideas, and focused on the self, and changing one’s beliefs. It was a blast, and when I was talking with gamer friends now it turns out some of them were interested in a Mage game. So here we are again.

I’ve already written out my my opinion that M20, the recently released 20th Anniversary Edition of Mage, is inferior to the Revised edition of Mage released 17 years ago. Basically, it takes twice as many pages to accomplish less clarity, and mashes together multiple sets of sub-rules without putting as much effort as I’d like in streamlining them and making them consistent with each other. In addition, they cut out a rule that I really liked, that was the center of an important house rule I’ve had for Mage: Resonance.

In the Revised version of Mage, Resonance is a way that your magic is expressed to the outside world. It is like a smell, or taste, or color that marks your magic as yours as opposed to anyone else’s. It might be Dynamic, Entropic, or Pattern Resonance, and the Resonance is kind of like a fingerprint. The more Resonance you have, the stronger and more obvious your fingerprint. At a certain point, it’s probably like a calling card that anyone, magical or otherwise, can sense.

In the RAW, the downside of Resonance is that the more you accrue, through things like Paradox backlash, the more obvious your magic becomes, making it easier for enemies to find you. It can also have an effect on places where you use magic a lot. For example, if you have a lot of Entropic Resonance, plants might start dying around you when you use your magic.

Now, Mage the Ascension has always dealt with the theme of hubris, a particularly powerful temptation for Mages. There have also, from the beginning with 1st Edition, been particular Mages known as Marauders, who have fallen into a madness which not only corrupts all of their magic, but even their minds, bodies and surroundings.

In my Mage the Ascension games, a house rule developed which connected this idea of hubris, which didn’t have mechanical teeth so to speak, with Marauders, who were interesting but who seemed somewhat disconnected from the system. Any time a player rolls Arete, she can also roll Resonance along with it. If she does so, her character takes an automatic point of Paradox, and her Resonance is considered to be more powerful and noticeable.

For me, this house rule solved two problems. One was to make hubris, the “quick and easy path” in Jedi terms, truly tempting. Extra dice! The other was to connect this to the fall into Marauder-hood – you draw on this power again and again, accruing more and more Paradox (in addition to what you’d normally accrue), which results in more Resonance, which further twists your magic, which also tempts you with more dice for your effects, etc.

The end result is that arrogant, reckless mages are incredibly powerful, and also on a swift slippery slope towards madness and self-destruction. This simple house rule seemed to connect themes of Mage, to add teeth to some of its core ideas, and gave players an interesting choice to make every time they rolled their few, precious Arete dice.

I recommend it in your own games.

There, I Fixed It: The Wish Spell

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Something that the System Mastery guys love to harp on, all the way back to their very first episode: Dungeons & Dragons’ wish spell (and similar spells in the wish tradition from other RPGs as well). As written, wish spells, or wishes in general in TRPGs, are almost always explicitly ways to disrupt players’ expectations and, in a word, screw them. GMs and DMs are often encouraged to find any possible loophole, any interpretation in the player-character’s wish that might justify screwing with them.

In 5th Edition and 3.5 as well, other than that, a wish spell is for the most part just a catch-all for replicating an 8th level spell. There is otherwise a list of possible effects that are clearly defined and limited in scope. Part of the problem is that wishes in the folkloric sense should not be spells – the simple solution here is to excise wish from the list of arcane spells entirely. But if you want to keep it, or if your game is going to feature a significant number of genies, then there must be something better than punishing players with it. (If you want to punish a character, hand them a Deck of Many Things and stand back).

The potential problems with wishes should be obvious, and there are plenty of folkloric stories about well-intentioned wishes going wrong, or at the very least not having the effect that the wisher intended. On the other hand, these problems are usually ways of moving the story forward so that the protagonist can learn something or change in some way. All too often in TRPGs, wishes are simply opportunities for the DM to punish a player for trying to be creative, when it’s the DM’s decision whether to allow wishes in the first place. For those DMs whose players are not masochists, I have some other thoughts.

The first is that a wish should be fun. Here I’m thinking of Aladdin’s first (official) wish in the Disney animated adaptation of his story regarding a certain lamp. He basically gets what he wishes for, and if anything, Genie goes overboard (as Robin Williams invariably did) in embellishing the whole scene. Rather than being a stingy saboteur, one pictures Aladdin’s DM just throwing cool things at the player-character until the player’s head spins. There are complication, of course, as “Prince Ali” draws the attention of a sinister visier and is suddenly plunged into court life having been a fruit-stealing street kid not long ago, but the story moves forward with the wish fulfilled at face value, plus interest.

Wishes should be fun. D&D should be fun. It should never be a DM power trip, or about ‘punishing’ players.

Second, a wish should indeed have a cost or an unforeseen complication, but this cost or complication should be something that is part of the story moving forward and continuing to be fun. The street rat suddenly lifted to Princedom has no actual idea how to be a Prince. No history, no family, no connections, no homeland, nothing. And as mentioned, he draws the attention of the sinister vizier. I would even recommend discussing possible complications with the player who is making the wish. I know this is not everyone’s play style, but in my experience this doesn’t diminish the fun – you kind of trade surprise for a higher guarantee that you’ll all enjoy the twist.

Third, a wish should take context into account. I still think that DMs should just eliminate wish from all spell lists where it might appear, and keep wishes as a story element. Obvious options are powerful fey or genies whom the PCs have worked to befriend. Maybe the goal of a whole campaign could be to earn a wish from a powerful entity, and then to use that wish to restore the kingdom, or end a curse, or cure a plague. But remember that the wish is interpreted in context. If a PC makes a wish granted by the genie, that genie will interpret the wish, and a wish granted by an ifrit will be very different from one granted by a marid, or a djinni. Rather than a chance to punish players, this is a chance for a DM to show off her creativity. To use this example again, a wish granted by a genie voiced by Robin Williams will be one thing – one granted by a stingy cantankerous fey quite another.

Remember that a wish’s fulfillment does not need to be immediate (unless maybe the PC adds that to the request – in which case, it could rain gold pieces or cause other upheaval). Feel free to take a moment in game when the wish is finally made (which again should be a huge story moment) to go think through what it will look like when it is fulfilled.

Discourage players from gaming the wish. A player might be tempted to go off and write out a page-long run-on sentence as her wish, full of legalese and dependent clauses. Depict the wish-granter getting bored and starting to wander off. Understandably, players will anticipate the DM trying to twist their wish against them, and will try to avoid that eventuality. Maybe reassure them, if necessary, that this is a big story moment and you’re not going to sabotage it.

So, to summarize the wish spell – don’t make it a spell at all. Make it a story element. Make it fun. Have a cost or unforeseen complication, but make it one that moves the story forward in an interesting way. Take the context of the wish, and the wish-granter, into account. And push the players not to lawyer the wish, even if you just have to reassure them.

Do you have any stories of wishes going well, or poorly, in your campaigns? If so, share in the comments. 

Mage Core: Mage the Ascension in Fate Core

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I’ve seen plenty of discussion of how someone might adapt Mage the Ascension to Fate Core’s rules, but I didn’t find someone who had actually laid out how to handle the hack. I like the idea, and I wanted to present something that’s immediately usable. So, what follows is my own hack, which I think you could just take and run with if you wanted to.

First, changes to the baseline metaphysics. I’ve narrowed Mage down to seven spheres rather than nine. I dropped Entropy because I have always thought that it probably just reduced down to Time, and didn’t think that both were necessary. For a Fate Core adaptation of Mage, I decided to drop Prime, because the Quintessence/Paradox economy is doing to work differently in a Fate game than it does in Ascension. The Fate point economy mimics the Quintessence economy somewhat, and I decided to make Paradox into a stress/consequence track alongside the mental and physical tracks.

Aspects

A high concept Aspect, a trouble/Paradox Aspect, an Avatar Aspect, a Tradition/paradigm Aspect, and a mundane Aspect.

Starting with a high concept, of course, I like the idea that the trouble Aspect could be rooted in Paradox if that makes sense. If I was running Mage Core I would recommend that to players. Then there is the Avatar Aspect, which I think should be a source of plenty of compels during the course of a game as the Avatar pushes the Mage to grow and change. A Tradition or paradigm Aspect also makes sense as a way to further define the character. Last is the mundane Aspect, as I like the idea, especially early on, of reality-bending Mages trying to hold down jobs and raise families.

Custom Skill List

Awareness (includes Empathy and Notice)

Contacts (includes Rapport)

Drive

Expression (includes artistic Crafts)

Fight

Investigate

Lore

Manipulate (includes Deceive and Provoke)

Resources

Shoot

Stealth

Streetwise (includes Burglary)

Tech (includes technical Crafts)

Will

In Mage Core, the top of the Skill pyramid is +4. I noted what I changed, in terms of combining or splitting up Fate Core default Skills to help with finding Stunts.

Spheres as Extras

OK, so, here we go. As mentioned above, I’ve narrowed Mage down to seven Spheres: Correspondence, Forces, Life, Matter, Mind, Spirit and Time. Time absorbs Entropy and Prime fades away because it isn’t as necessary in Mage Core, as it is mostly a meta-Sphere in Mage itself.

I’m taking from Ryan Macklin, and setting difficulties for Sphere use at intervals of 2, for the same reasons he lists in his own post about “Mage the Coreing.”

Here’s what I have so far: each Sphere is an Extra, rated from +1 to +5. Basically the same scale as in the books. But the difficulty for various magical effects varies from +0 to +8. This is to help adapt to how Fate points change the math, and also to force situations where mages succeed but take Paradox. For effects that require two Spheres, base the difficulty on the highest Sphere and then increase it by 1 for each additional Sphere. A character begins with 6 Extras to spend on Spheres, just like the initial 6 dots in Ascension. Following are example effects for each level of each Sphere:

Correspondence

Use of a Sphere at a distance requires Correspondence

+0 Perfect spatial perceptions

+2 Clairvoyance/clairaudience into nearby space, create a ward, pull a small object through space

+4 Create a pocket of space, scry/search through space, teleport, quick/slow travel

+6 Create doors/portals between locations, colocate two places, create space from nothing, destroy space

+8 Perfect co-location, step outside of space, create a permanent portal

Forces

Forces effects deal +1 damage

+0 Sense energy

+2 Increase or decrease present forces

+4 Transform or destroy a force

+6 Change properties of force (so electricity grows and consumes like fire, fire is attracted to metal, light is smothering like pressure, etc.), create force from nothing

+8 Create new types of force, so you can make plasma that passes through all matter, drop a room to absolute zero, eliminate friction temporarily, cause fission or fusion reactions, make atomic bonds fall apart, or change Earth’s magnetic field.  Affect exotic types of forces, e.g. dark matter and dark energy, plasma, gravity

Life

+1 damage to living things

+0 Perceive living things, sense health

+2 Treat a mild physical consequence, speed or slow recovery, Skill bonus, clear physical stress, affect simple life like plants

+4 Treat a moderate physical consequence, increase physical stress boxes for a scene, deal damage to living things, augment a Skill for a scene

+6 Treat a severe physical consequence, transfer properties from one form of life to another, create life from nothing, shapeshift between plant and animal forms

+8 Complete transformation, imbue life with unique properties, transform into a mythological creature

Matter

+1 damage of objects

+0 Perceive matter, including composition, chemistry, etc.

+2 Change shape of matter, make it malleable

+4 Alter density, destroy matter, alter properties within constraints of the material

+6 A blade can be light as air, or a metal can be almost indestructible, or a shirt can be bullet-proof, create matter from nothing

+8 You can now give objects and substances unreasonable properties, allowing them to pass through walls, or have edges only a molecule wide, batteries that recharge themselves, or a body of liquid metal that can change forms and hunt down John Connor

Mind

+1 emotional stress when dealing damage

+0 Detect minds, read emotions

+2 Command, read surface thoughts, increase or decrease emotions

+4 Enter dreams, see Dreaming, read thoughts, destroy thoughts, change memories, bonus Skill for a scene, alter perceptions in target and create illusions

+6 Project into the Astral Plane, possession, create an illusion over an area, create a personality trait from nothing (with Prime), create a basic intelligence 

+8 Sever mind from body, open a portal to the Astral, create an illusory world and plunge someone into it, recreate personality (rewrite Aspects)

Spirit

+0 Spirit sense (Umbra, Dreaming, Shadowlands)

+2 Reach across the Gauntlet, affect spirits

+4 Step across the Gauntlet, strengthen or weaken the Gauntlet, bind a Wraith, heal/rend spirit-stuff, let a spirit manifest

+6 Open a portal in the Gauntlet, bring a spirit across into the material world, awaken the spirit of an object, open a portal from one spirit world to another, shapechange in the spirit world

+8 Awaken the spirit of a place, co-locate the spirit world and material world

Time

+0 See fate and probability, perfect time-sense

+2 Increase/decrease probability, augury – see into the past or the future

+4 Create/destroy probability, slow/speed time for one target, reach into an immediate past/future

+6 Determine fate, create a pocket of time, grant extra actions, hang an if-then effect, travel into a future or a past

+8 Change a timeline permanently, rewind or fast forward time for an area, create a portal in time, go outside of time

Paradox

Rather than impose Paradox for particular magical effects, I think it makes sense in Fate Core that Paradox is a way to succeed with a cost when using magic. You throw more hubris into the effect, draw on your resonance, try to force it, basically, and you still succeed but at the cost of Paradox.

In Mage Core, Paradox is a stress track, and also has it’s own dedicated consequence track, apart from the mental and physical. Paradox is its own thing in Mage, and Paradox consequences result in things like Quiet.

The Paradox track would start with two stress boxes, of course, and there isn’t currently an obvious choice of Skill to add additional boxes. That doesn’t seem like something a Skill should do, really. Maybe higher Sphere levels could add boxes – three boxes for a +3, four for a +4 and five for a +5 in your highest Sphere perhaps.

Rotes

I have a special rule that I’ve used with Fate Core in the past that I want to adapt to Mage Core. When a character makes use of a rote, and describes it, then the player can set aside one Fate die and set it to “+”. This is similar to a +1 to the roll, but also means that there will be less volatility in the result, which will now range from -2 to +4 instead of -4 to +4. This will, just as in Ascension, encourage players to come up with plenty of cool rotes and procedures for their characters. At least that’s the goal.

Traditions and Other Setting Stuff

I backed the 20th Anniversary Edition of Mage the Ascension, and it is superb. The work they did updating the setting and game assumptions for a 21st Century audience is good. The problem is, when I sit down and want to run a Mage game, especially with people who are not already used to OWoD, it’s daunting. WoD games made a lot of sense in college and after, when we all had way more time, no matter how busy we thought we were, to do things like soak damage and memorize magical effects and so on. I just find that I need a game that is faster and more loose, and I think that the fluidity and flexibility of Fate Core lends itself very well to Mage the Ascension.

What did I miss? Anything you want to add? 

D&D Hack: A Scarlet Letter

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Previously I posted about adapting D&D so that combat is no longer fatal, which I have yet to test, but I thought of a deeper idea to add to that hack: a scarlet letter. Obviously I’m referring back to the Hawthorne novel, but in this case, a different letter with a different meaning.

First, start with D&D and the additional hack or house rule that combat is no longer fatal. When a character or monster is beaten down to 0 or negative hit points, what it represents is that they are defeated, but not necessarily dead. But in conversation with my friend and collaborator Aric, we thought that this house rule would make it more interesting when a foe or monster did want to fight to the death. It would be all the more threatening in a setting where the players had gotten used to these non-lethal combats as the norm.

Now, the addition. I thought it would be interesting if only monsters who could be killed were able to kill. And I thought it would be interesting if this was marked out on the character sheet somehow. So, for example, if a player wants their character to be able to kill a monster or another NPC, they just wrote “Monster” on the character sheet, or checked the Monster box or something. Then I thought it would be even more interesting if this mark was literal, in the game world itself. The character marks themselves with a red “M.” If a foe or monster is marked with a red “M” then you know ahead of time that this is a fight to the death. Only creatures with a “M” can kill. It’s definitely a meta-game element, something akin to a creature having a red outline in a video game, or some other visual marker that is obvious to the player but not literally part of the fictional world.

I thought this was really interesting. You have to take that step, identify yourself as a monster, in order to kill your enemies, but you are vulnerable to any creature with the ‘scarlet letter.’ Is this too heavy-handed? Maybe. It could be interesting for a convention game, maybe, or a game with kids. I like, as an experiment, that it is a visible distinction that you have to make. It’s a clear choice, and of course, there is probably no way to remove the “M” once it’s in place. (Maybe an atonement spell? That would give that spell a really cool purpose)

How to explain this mark? Maybe the PCs are part of a simulation, or an alien experiment on violent behavior, or inmates in a magical prison. Who knows? Maybe it’s just a weird thing about the world, like aboleths and Vancian magic. I mean, it’s not like D&D makes sense to start with. But I like how this plays with the old D&D trope of some intelligent creatures being “monsters” – having something intrinsic about them that makes them stand out as threats. I like applying this to the PCs and non-“monster” races. I do have to think more about how to implement it, though.

It makes me think of Mist-Robed Gate, an indie rpg by Shreyas Sampat with a mechanic whereby, if you want to try to kill another character, you literally stab their character sheet with a knife. There are other games I’ve read about where you point a knife at a character at the table if you are attacking them, or outwardly mark lethal intent in other ways, but I like the idea of an obvious move that opens up the possibility of lethality when that isn’t the norm. The ‘scarlet letter’ M is just another way to do that.

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Backgrounds as 0-Level Classes

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Image credit: http://geekrampage.blogspot.com/

In AD&D 2nd edition as well as 3E, there were rules for characters who were lower than 1st level. These “0-level” characters were like pre-adventurers, meant to symbolize children or apprentices. I’ve played in a couple of games that began with us playing zero-level characters who would then develop into 1st level characters. For my taste, 1st level characters are already incredibly weak, famously vulnerable to the attack of a house cat in some editions.

But I was thinking of a way to address some of that vulnerability. In 5E, of course, every character chooses a background which grants them proficiencies, equipment, and often some kind of story-based ability. I realized that it would be a logical step to let the background also provide a hit die.

Most of the sample basic NPCs in the MM have two or three hit dice, making them slightly tougher than some first level player-characters. And the impression I’ve always had of D&D is that characters aren’t really adults until around 3rd level. This is reinforced by the fact that in 5E, you usually don’t choose an archetype until 3rd level.

One option here is to just let each background grant the d8 hit die that medium-sized creatures get, or a d6 in the case of a small-sized PC. I kind of like the idea that the d10 is reserved for mighty heroes, fighter-types, and that the d12 is the boss die. Possibly even bawss. But, if you don’t want to just use a d8, here are suggestions ranging from d4 to d8, based on how tough I think a given background would make you.

Acolyte: d4

Charlatan: d6

Criminal: d6

Entertainer: d4

Folk Hero: d8

Guild Artisan: d6

Hermit: d6

Noble: d4

Outlander: d8

Sage: d4

Sailor: d6

Soldier: d8

Urchin: d6

These hit dice, whether variable or d8s, should function the same way that normal hit dice do. As to whether you roll them, or take the average, or take the maximum, just do what you’d normally do. If you want PCs to have lots of hit points at the beginning, take the maximum. Otherwise, roll or average as usual.

A Simple Hack: Non-Lethal D&D

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I was recently listening to an episode of Saving the Game, in which they described an issue they had with their Pugmire play group. Normally in D&D, there is tons of violence and killing, and that is the norm. The majority of problems are solved with weapon attacks and abilities that deal damage, or make it easier for your allies to deal damage. D&D is designed to be played this way – and of course individual groups will have more or less violence in play, but you go down into Dungeons to fight monsters and you face Dragons to kill them and take their treasure. That’s the game, at its core, and always has been.

The issue in this case is that, in Pugmire, the protagonists and antagonists are mostly dogs and cats, and one player was really disturbed by dogs and cats, even anthropomorphic ones, being killed the way goblins and orcs tend to be in other D&D settings. It had increased emotional impact, the way that the death of a dog can be in a movie where there are innumerable human deaths (just ask John Wick).

Hit Points become Morale

I’d like to draw on an MMO I used to play regularly, Lord of the Rings Online, to recommend a simple hack of D&D that retains almost all of the mechanics but enables combat to be non-lethal a majority of the time, while still giving the lethal option if you want one. Basically, cross out “Hit Points” and write in “Morale.”

LOTRO uses morale as the hit-point system, and for an MMO set in Middle-Earth it was a very intelligent fix to the problem of handling the constant death and resurrection that is a mainstay of pretty much every MMO out there. There is no fictional support in Middle-Earth as a setting for a party going on a raid to attack a boss, getting killed, resurrecting themselves and jumping back in. As much as that is goofy and makes no sense, it is necessary to how MMOs are currently designed. In order to make this system make sense, hit points were changed to morale. This changes the fiction of what healing and resurrecting are, without changing the mechanics at all. In LOTRO, when you drop to 0 morale, your character flees the battle to a safe point nearby. Then, when she calms down, you can meet up with the rest of your group or run back into the dungeon or combat. Minstrels are healers in LOTRO, bolstering their comrades morale without having to supernaturally heal them, another element common to MMOs that would not make much sense in Middle-Earth.

So, back to D&D. If we change hit points to morale, and leave it at that, the game functions in a similar way. Healing spells become magical encouragement spells. Long rests where you recover all of your hit points make more sense, not less. Melee attacks beat down an opponent’s will to fight, and spells terrify and demoralize. All of these things can also injure your opponents, but the injuries are non-fatal. Bruises and fractures and cuts and burns, but nothing life-threatening.

With the classes as written, hit points can be morale. Fighting classes will have more morale, with the most going to the barbarian. This makes perfect sense – the barbarian is basically frothing at the mouth, full of rage, and really hard to bring down. In contrast, a wizard is more cool and collected, and probably easier to take out of a fight. They’d be less willing to risk losing a finger or an eye, or receiving a brain injury, than a fighter type. Again, it makes sense.

Dropping to Zero

The big difference with this hack is what happens when a creature reaches 0 or fewer morale. Obviously, there are no death saves. What I imagine happening is the creature tries desperately to flee or, if that is impossible, collapses in exhaustion and surrenders. The defeat should be total – weapons thrown down, cowering, etc. In theory, the PC group now gets what they wanted – defeating their foes, or being able to take their treasure, or exacting an oath that they will never trouble these lands again. Whatever it is that the violence was supposed to solve. I’d also make sure that whatever happened leaves marks on your foes. They don’t come through this unscathed. They are physically and psychologically unable to fight – however that looks based on what has happened.

Coup de Grace

This hack still leaves the opening for the coup-de-grace, of course. Once you’ve beaten down your foe, you can still finish her off. I find this interesting because you are given a moment in between in which you can choose not to. In military terms, your opponent is a casualty but has not been killed, since a casualty is just a soldier who is taken out of a fight.

The Truly Monstrous

Some monsters are not intelligent, or cannot be negotiated with. There are implacable aberrations driven by hunger alone, or undead animated by necromancy, or constructs who follow their creator’s commands until destroyed. In these cases, I don’t see nearly as much of a problem with morale meaning something much more like hit points. But I think this is something that the DM and players can easily decide ahead of time, and it opens up new roleplaying possibilities.

The D&D Prisoner Problem

One significant problem I can see with this hack in a D&D game is the prisoner problem. When D&D characters take prisoners, at least in my observation and experience, there is always a big debate. The Paladin wants to chain them up and transport them to the nearest magistrate for a full trial. The Fighter wants to beat them up for information. The Rogue wants to slit their throats and take their gold. (Or however this plays out at your table) I think that to use this hack and make it work, you have to just agree on a meta-game level that when reduced to 0 or fewer morale, your foe is done. They aren’t going to lie to you and then go off and rejoin your enemies so you have to fight them again. They are terrified and beaten and at your mercy, and if you let them go they will limp away someplace else and try to take up a different life. If you meet them later, they will just run away or beg for mercy. I think that if this is understood as just how the game will work, most problems should be easy to solve.

Gaming with Kids

As we gamers get older and have little proto-gamers of our own, it can be hard to introduce D&D to them, at least for some of us, because it is such a bloodbath. But with this simple hack, you can still, I think, have all of the swashbuckling adventure without all of the killing.

Thoughts?

Share what you think of this hack. Add your own nuances or modifications. Have you tried anything like this in a D&D game? How did it go?

Fixing the Merit/Flaw Issue (Somewhat)

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I’ve been listening to a lot of the System Mastery podcast lately, and one thing those guys hate is merit/flaw systems. And they have a good point. It is something that Burning Wheel seeks to fix by simply charging you for flaws as well as merits.

The issue is that many flaws fall into one of two categories: 1. the flaw doesn’t really matter and is for min-maxing, and 2. the flaw is actually a merit because it means more screen-time or attention for the player during the game.

The Flaw Doesn’t Matter

GURPS is a major example of this problem, but any merit/flaw system that I’ve seen has it. There are always flaws (or Disadvantages in GURPS) that a player can take that the player doesn’t care about so that they can take some merits that they do want. For example, if your GM forgets to use reaction rolls then Disadvantages in GURPS that reduce your reaction rolls are basically free points. Another example would be in-game-only flaws, like the idea that this particular race has great stat bonuses but people in the world hate them. Supposedly this balances out, but in play it is just a benefit with a hand-wavy, occasional problem. But really, if your half-orc has their huge strength bonus and encounters hatred, judicious use of the strength bonus can address the intolerance pretty readily in most games.

The Flaw Is A Benefit

World of Darkness games are a major culprit here, and the two big examples of this problem are dark fate and enemies. A character’s dark fate is almost always something that will happen after the main campaign is over – it is a way of creating a big problem but putting it off so you can front-load your character with lots of juicy merits that’ll count for almost the entire game. The worst example of this would be a dark fate that affects the rest of the party, so you screw everyone and get points for it.

The other problem is with taking an enemy as a flaw. An enemy means more attention for your character – your agenda, your story, drives more than your share of the overall story. And 10 times out of 10, your friends will end up having to fight this enemy too, just like every enemy you face. And in exchange for this increased creative influence and attention, you get character points. It wasn’t long before every White Wolf player I gamed with realized that taking an enemy was the way to go, every time.

The Fix: Flaws Are Foes’ Merits

Taking an enemy as a flaw still exerts influence on the story, but in this reworked version of the flaw, what happens mechanically is the enemy has an advantage against the character who has taken the flaw. As a generic example, a PC has a 2pt flaw that gives them an enemy, so whenever they come up against this enemy, the enemy gets +2 dice against them (or +2 to rolls, or to damage, or whatever would hurt). This makes the enemy worse for the PC than for the rest of their party at the very least. The GM has to integrate the enemy into the storyline as before, but now when the enemy comes up, the PC pays for their extra points by getting their ass kicked. This one NPC just has their number, it seems.

This can be extrapolated out, and I like it being a general bonus. Maybe if you are a hated race or species, then all prices are doubled, and everyone does +1 damage to you in combat. Now that flaw has teeth that will matter in the two situations where most players care – combat and shopping. The important thing to think through is how to make this Flaw bad for the character in a way that isn’t bad for the whole party, and in a way that doesn’t just thrust the character into the spotlight.