RPG Mechanic Round-Up #2

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More of the snippets of mechanics that I thought were worth sharing – to add to your own games, or hack into the games you’re running, or provide a jumping-off point for your own design.

Generalized Saving Throws

This is a bit of an OSR-related thought. As I look at the saving throws from OD&D or other OSR games, they strike me as very…specific. Like, a save versus wands? That is different from a save versus spells? All kinds of spells? All kinds of wands?

I think that 3.X had a great response to this, one of the best aspects of that redesign, which was to reduce those down to three saves: Fortitude, Reflex and Will. The question becomes – what are you defending against, if not a physical attack (which Armor Class handles)? Roll that save.

I thought about generalized saving throws, that would cover most situations that would come up in OSR games but aren’t quite as generic as the 3.X saves. Same question – what are you defending against? Or, what are you trying to do? The ones I came up with are: take cover (avoid blasts, area of effect attacks, breath weapons, etc.), remain calm (resist attempts to control emotions, enrage, instill fear, etc.), retain control (resist attempts at mind-control), break free of restraints (covers things like being turned to stone as well as ensnaring attacks).

last night in a conversation with a friend, we also came up with the Danny Glover Saving Throw, or the “I’m getting too old for this shit” saving throw. It would based entirely off of the character’s level, and would represent the fact that you’d only really learn to survive these extraordinary circumstances through experience. But it is just a measure of the character’s canny-ness and self-preservation, built up through an adventuring career as opposed to something you learn in adventurer school.

Debts Tracked Like Wounds

I had the idea that it would be interesting to list a character’s debts right on their character sheet, especially in a game that is heavy in social economy like Vampire the Masquerade. I think some extended character sheets from White Wolf might have had a “Boons” section, but I like the idea of debts right there staring you in the face when you look at your character. Very often, especially in most traditional games, what you have is real, whereas what you owe, or who you are connected to, is ephemeral. I think that the game becomes about what is on the character, or at least it should be about that for the players, and so putting debts on the character sheet like wounds or other conditions would potentially make an interesting change in a game and how players approach it.

To color the game a paritcular way, it would be great to start the game in significant debt. That’s definitely something everyone but Baby Boomers at the table could relate to, if nothing else. And in a game like, again, Vampire, it makes sense that you would start play indebted to the Prince (for letting you be Embrace) and to your Sire (for teaching and protecting you) and maybe even a Clan Elder or Primogen (because unlife is unfair).

Hold Person Revisited

Few spells are less fun in a D&D game than the hold person line of spells – spells or abilities that immobilize the victim. When used on a player-character, in particular, it just means, “Sorry player, you get to sit there doing nothing for a half hour while we work this whole combat out. Grab a snack?” Recent iterations of D&D have tried to address this by allowing a save every round to break the effect, but often this just means that hold person is almost never used. It doesn’t provide the crowd-control advantage, and PCs often have really good saving throws and get out of it quickly. But it’s still basically “save versus not having fun anymore.”

I was thinking of how to adapt hold person. Maybe what it does is enable a single attack, with advantage from 5E or the equivalent from your system of choice, that does damage as if it was a critical hit once, and then the effect expires. Basically, it holds the victim still long enough to really smash them, and then ends. I think this could be preferable because there is some tension – the player has to watch helpless as the monster closes in on their character, knowing a huge hit is coming. The PCs see the NPC freeze up when they fail the save, and call in the heavy hitter to take them out in one epic hit.

At the very least, it is a little bit less “save versus not having fun anymore.”

Still More to Come

I have more where these came from. I’m keeping these posts relatively short and sweet, and probably have material for at least two more. So, keep an eye out, and as always feel free to share your own ideas…

RPG Mechanic Round-Up #1

I have a notes app on my phone, and a Google Document as well, that are full of little snippets of ideas for game mechanics. Some of those could be applicable in many different systems, while others have grown into games of their own or full-blown hacks.

Some of them are worth sharing, I think, and so periodically I’m going to put up a post here explaining some of these mechanics and how you might want to use them in your own games. Or maybe they’ll be a springboard for your own ideas, which I hope you’ll share in the comments!

Magical Healing and Scars

In a recent podcast interview, John Adamus, editor extraordinaire and author of the recently-Kickstarted Noir World, eloquently echoed a thought I’d had for a long time – that in most fantasy games, magical healing removes an interesting roleplaying opportunity. Adamus’ point was that violence should matter – that the consequences of violence should matter – especially in a noir game.

In a ‘traditional’ fantasy game I think this is still true, though in a lesser sense. The idea here is simple – for magical healing to leave a scar. That is, the healing is magically fast, but does not erase every mark as if the wound never happened. The body heals up, good as new as far as the rules are concerned, but the scar is still there. Now, I wouldn’t propose every single instance of damage leading to a noticeable scar – that would make every D&D character a scar-riddled monstrosity by level 3 or so. Rather, I think that serious injuries could be handled this way. Critical hits that the character receives from opponents, for example, or any injury that drops her below 0 hit points. I like the idea of scars as a lasting reminder – something of the character’s story written on their skin. And you can get cool scar-comparing scenes between heroes, like it’s Lethal Weapon or something.

Community Leveling, Or the Actual Hero’s Journey

As far as Joseph Campbell is concerned, why does the Hero undertake the Journey? Almost everyone forgets this question, I think, especially when discussing RPGs. But at the end of that big Hero’s Journey cycle is the return of the hero to her community, bearing the ‘elixir’, or the essence of what she has learned and how she has grown in her journey. The purpose is to return to where you began with everything you need to make things right. It’s why, for instance, the Scouring of the Shire has to happen at the end of the epic Lord of the Rings story.

What we get in most fantasy games are truncated, hobbled hero’s journeys because it is almost always only the heroes who benefit. I mean, in theory you are saving the world by defeating the Big Bad, but normally you’ve absorbed millions of gold pieces worth of treasure and magic items and made hardly a ripple in the world around you. You have leveled, but on one around you has.

I take this idea from The Fifth World, among other places, but I propose the idea of letting communities level up along with the characters who originate there. There is something of this in AD&D, where high-level characters end up automatically building things like towers and churches, presumably in or near their home town or home base. These things concretely change the local world, rather than saving the cosmos but leaving the local world untouched.

I would like to see this carried even further – that part of the treasure that characters would receive, they receive in the form of their improving community. This can form something of a virtuous circle, as your adventures and rescues mean that your little hamlet becomes a thriving town with even more resources and adventure seeds available for you.

Any decent GM or DM can of course make this happen, but the trick is making this part of the game’s rules, or part of the hack you create.

Random Scatter With A D8

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I don’t know whether this mechanic already exists in games – it probably does, as I think about it, but it’s a good one. This is for cases when, for example, you throw a grenade and it bounces around a bit, or miss your shot and want to know where it went wide, etc. Basically, you roll a d8 once and possible twice. For the first roll, you assign north, or forward across the table from the point of view of the GM, as 1, and then go around clockwise to the other eight cardinal and intermediate directions, around to where ‘northwest’ is 8 and then due north is back to 1. If you want, you can roll another die to randomize how far the attack scattered from the center, with 1 being near the bulls-eye and say 6 for a d6 is at the edge of the range you’ve determined. Say, for example, you can roll d8 for the direction and d6 for inches, so with a roll of just two dice and a glance, you can determine direction and distance of a miss.

With a little Googling, I found that scatter dice also exist – so you can buy d8s with the cardinal and intermediate directions on each of the eight sides. But this is nice because you can determine scatter in a moment using the d8 you already have in front of you. It’s something I do at the table all the time.

More Mechanics Coming…

I have about a dozen more of these little notes to expand upon in the future, so keep an eye out of this kind of thing interests you. And feel free to comment with cool mechanics you use, or have come up with, that could work in lots of different games.

Large-Sized Characters In 5E D&D

As it stands, making any large-sized playable race in D&D 5E is more of a problem than is likely to be worthwhile. According to the DMG, a large-size playable race would deal double weapon damage at level 1, and with the way hit dice work in the MM, it could be argued that their class hit dice would be upgraded by one die type, meaning a large-sized fighter for example would have d12 hit dice instead of d10 due to size.

These huge advantages would be balanced out a bit by the fact that a large PC would have to squeeze in a lot of common situations – traveling through Dwarven tunnels or visiting the ubiquitous pseudo-Medieval taverns. I’d assume, though, that the DM would just have to adjust for that, reducing the number of five-foot-wide corridors and so on in a given adventure, or else the player playing the large PC would just be left out. Somewhat balanced, but definitely no fun, leaving a situation where the PC would have all the advantages and probably few, or none, of the constraints of being large.

The effects of the Enlarge/Reduce spell in the PHB suggest another interpretation, a bit less advantageous than what the DMG and MM imply. An enlarged creature deals +1d4 damage with their enlarged weapon and have advantage on Strength checks and Strength saves and that’s pretty much it. Presumably, the DM just improvises the effects of being enlarged where it would be a detriment rather than an advantage, and obviously a savvy caster would not enlarge an ally in the middle of a cramped room or hallway designed for medium-sized species.

I don’t think either approach to a large-sized playable race is particularly good, whether taking our cue from the DMG and MM, or from the PHB. That being said, I like the idea of a large-sized playable race a lot. I think it adds something to a setting and to the options available to players, and there should be a way to balance things out. In 3.X this balance came in part with a penalty to Armor Class and stealth checks, and I think that makes sense conceptually.

So here is what I think a large-sized race or species in D&D 5E should include: +1d4 damage from large-sized weapons, advantage on Strength saves and Strength checks, disadvantage on Dexterity saves and Dexterity checks, +1 hit points per level, and a cost of living multiplied by four (including meals, water skins, clothing, equipment, etc.).

An Example: Dark Sun’s Half Giant

Ability Score Increase. Your Strength and Constitution score both increase by 2.

Age. Half-giants live about twice as long as humans, becoming adults around the age of 25 and often living to 170 (for the few who die of old age).

Alignment. Half-giants adopt their alignment from the people they spend the most time with, or fear or respect most. This means that their alignment will be more subject to change than others, though one axis till tend to remain consistent. So they might be consistently Good, but sometimes Chaotic and sometimes Lawful, or consistently Chaotic, but sometimes Good and sometimes Evil.

Powerful Build. Half-giants have advantage on Strength checks and Strength saves.  They also have disadvantage on Dexterity checks and Dexterity saves. In addition, their build grants them +1 hit points per level.

Size. Half-giants are Large sized creatures. They occupy a 10′ by 10′ square, and have a 5′ reach. They also deal +1d4 damage with all weapons, in addition to the listed damage.

Speed. Half-giants have a base speed of 35 feet.

Upkeep. The cost of living and all equipment for a half-giant costs four times the usual amount.

Difficulty Settings in TRPGs

It’s a common thing for video games to have variable difficulty settings. Usually it’s some kind of slider you can move from easy to hard, or maybe hardcore, or insanity mode. There might be a setting that includes permadeath, or removes the ability to save your progress.

Very similar things exist in a lot of RPGs, whether they are noticeable or not. It occurred to me clearly when I was explaining Mage: the Ascension to players who had not played it before. They asked about Avatar – an optional background in the system. In MtA it represents the ability to absorb Quintessence, magical energy that makes doing magic easier, and also provides hints as to how a character can advance. The Avatar Background is, in effect, a difficulty slider for Mage the Ascension.

I thought about Vampire the Masquerade’s Generation Background, which functions in a similar way. More points allocated to Generation give a vampire character more blood to spend, the capacity to spend more blood at a time, and even limited immunity to one of the vampiric Disciplines, Dominate. As with Avatar, more points in Generation is like setting Vampire the Masquerade to easy mode. Without points in Generation, and especially taking a Flaw like Thin-Blooded, is like playing Vampire on hard mode.

Many other classic games have difficulty settings built in. D&D 3.X fixed a lot of the flaws with AD&D 2nd Edition – one of which was to un-break thieves and make them rogues. Rogues remained a more challenging choice, however, needing to focus on skillful play in a lot of cases. Tactical play to make use of the sneak attack ability and planning ahead to make effective use of character abilities.

Previous editions of D&D did this the wrong way, I think. Both editions of AD&D punished thieves by making them terrible at being thieves, and punished metahuman players by adding arbitrary level caps (I’ve read the arguments in favor of level caps and they’re just not convincing).

Why is this the wrong way? Because it is the wrong design choice to simply make some choices poor ones. Every player in a Vampire game can take points in Generation, but not every player in a D&D game can normally play a cleric. Having a difficulty setting and having some choices simply be less fun are two very different things.

In a game about advancement, it is a poor design choice to put limits on some player-characters’ opportunities for advancement and not others. Really, this is true in any game that features advancement at all. Level caps, or experience point caps or whatever, are a terrible way to add difficulty to a game. A game shouldn’t be challenging because it is more fun for the other players than it is for you.

Difficulty Settings in Your Games

Many video games have difficulty settings. These are easier to include in single-player games, and are probably not the right choice for competitive games. But tabletop roleplaying games are different, obviously. Each person at the table can be playing a slightly different game. We know this is true in terms of preferences – some might be playing a tactical combat game, and another might be playing a storytelling game, and another might be playing a skill-based puzzle game.

Further, the actual game they are playing might be slightly different. This is already the case with Mage players whose characters have high Avatar ratings, or Vampire characters who have lots of dots in Generation.

There needs to be some cost to setting the difficulty to “easy.” In Vampire and Mage, that cost is that Background dots are placed in Generation or Avatar rather than something else; some other advantage that is still an advantage. It’s important for the players at the table to know that the difficulty settings exist and that they are an option.

So look at your game, or your game design (assuming it isn’t a World of Darkness game, or another game that has a difficulty setting built in). See where parts of the system can be flexed one way or another. If you have classes, are some classes clearly easier to play than others? If you have races or species, do some have killer special abilities or advantages?

There are three things I’ve noticed that can affect the difficulty of a game: damage resistance, immunities, and extra actions. You can look for these three things, and others, keeping the following in mind.

Damage resistance is powerful, especially in a game where it is rare. It is a big advantage in GURPS, and in 3.X D&D, and is rare for that reason. Damage resistance is like multiplying a character’s health by the number of times they are struck in combat. It’s like sparring with pads, and exists for the same reasons pads do.

Immunities are even more powerful than damage resistance. Immunity provides not only protection but also new story opportunities. A fire-immune character can walk into a burning building, or cover themselves in fire and hug people to death. It is a point of leverage that almost no one else will have. (Example from above – lots of dots in Generation makes a vampire immune to Dominate, most of the time)

Extra actions, as has been pointed out many times, are game-breaking in a game with an action economy. Speaking of Vampire, Celerity is a nightmare. The haste spell in D&D, and similar spells, have to be nerfed, or carefully managed, because they easily double the effectiveness of anyone it is cast upon. In Mage, it’s the Time sphere. But one thing for having extra actions, it is a way of playing on easy mode. The downside is that players interact with the game through their characters’ actions, and giving one player more actions than the others is just like doing the same in a game of chess – it might very well cross the line into unfair.

Why Choose Easy Mode? Hard Mode?

Difficulty modes exist in TRPGs for the same reasons they exist in video games. A player might want a more story-centered experience, or might be a new player who isn’t confident with the game.

Players who want more of a challenge, or who want to demonstrate their skill in play, can set the difficulty to hard for their character. A character overcoming difficulties and limitations usually makes for a more exciting and interesting story than those who are played out on easy mode – and it gives players something to aim for when they play the game a second time, or a third.

Building in a difficulty setting can increase the replay value of your game, same as video games. That’s part of the fun, and it is one of the values of such a system, to be compared to other values, such as game balance. But I definitely see value in having ways for a player, in character creation, to signal what sort of game they want to play – easy, or hard.

OSR-ing the Old World of Darkness

So, the OSR. It’s a thing. I’ve read a lot more about Story Games, though I don’t say that to be like I’m picking sides. I have a lot of experience playing ‘trad’ games, some experience playing Story Games, and almost no experience playing OSR games, though I’ve read a few. My friend Mabel is really into the OSR, and is designing an OSR game right now called Strange Roads.

We got to talking about how there are so many OSR games that are riffing off of old versions of D&D, but we couldn’t think of one example of an OSR take on the Old World of Darkness.

So, of course, now that’s what we’re doing. We’re working on an OSR take on Mage the Ascension 1st Edition.

But what the heck does that even mean? Simplifying a bit. Rulings over rules – and in part we picked Mage because it already has an incredible number of places where the ST needs to make a ruling: on coincidental versus vulgar, on the effects of the spheres, on what earns a player the right to raise their character’s Arete, etc. But also some random tables, because that’s definitely part of the OSR idiom.

We’ll simplify but still use the basic OWoD attribute system, just how games have simplified or adapted but still used D&D’s system. Not sure yet what to do with abilities and backgrounds. We’re looking at Over the Wall style playbooks for each tradition, as well as a more blank and flexible one for Orphans, and another fully blank one for customized characters. But I really like the idea of Tradition playbooks for Mage, as I think that they can be used to good effect to get you quickly into the head-space of the character and setting.

Most fun so far: writing up random Paradox backlash tables for each sphere. Right now I’m running a Mage the Ascension (Revised) chronicle, but working on this OSR-ification makes me want to try running this instead. I imagine my players will be confused enough, however, since this is the first time they’ve played Mage, so I should probably try to hold off.

What do you think would need to be part of an OSR version of the OWoD?

Fighting Class Obsolescence

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Clearly, not all classes are created equal. I remember playing AD&D as a kid, and wanting to play a thief. I read through the thief class description where for the first 10 levels or so, my thief skills would be abysmally low. I’d have a less than 50% chance to do the things that thieves are supposed to do – pick locks, pick pockets, that kind of thing. As a result, I never played thieves in D&D, because I didn’t want to be consistently terrible at my character’s wheelhouse.

Melee classes in fantasy games that include spell-casters often suffer from being under-powered, especially at mid and higher levels. While the spell-casters are traveling to other planes, raising people from the dead and incinerating their foes, the fighter is still swinging her sword once or twice per round. The druid shapechanges into a huge cave bear – the fighter swings her sword.

I get that fighters are a good option for players who want a simple character to play. Playing casters, or classes with a lot of special abilities to juggle, is challenging. 4th Edition D&D, designed to help address problems like this by giving all classes special abilities that functioned in similar ways, ended up striking some players as repetitive. Your function in combat mattered more than your class, and the differences were boiled down to fluff and flavor. Previously in 3.X D&D, and then in Pathfinder, they attempted to address this issue with feats and feat chains providing special abilities like Great Cleave and Whirlwind Attack.

Then there is the “dirt farmer” class that some older games include. The System Mastery guys love going off on these kinds of classes that are clearly not fun at all, but included because of misguided ideas of “realism” or “history.” Why be a cleric when you could be a merchant?

Point is, for forty years of character classes in TRPGs, it seems there are almost always some classes that are clearly less fun than others. At high enough level, that class is normally the fighter. So, what to do?

Fix It In Design

4th Edition’s attempt – replace class with role. 5th Edition D&D – give them all magical abilities. Fighters with superiority dice. Look at level capabilities that other classes have and try to give the weaker classes abilities that, if not equivalent, are at least comparable, while in line with their theme.

If your 10th level mage is flying through the air lobbing lightning bolts at her foes while your fighter is still trundling across the ground waving a sword around once or twice a round, that’s a design problem. Not because “balance” is intrinsically valuable for its own sake, but because in a game based around a group of adventurers, all classes should be able to contribute to similar adventures. It’s a problem if some classes become luggage for their more powerful, versatile allies.

Fix It With Equipment

This is especially an option in games like D&D that become dependent on equipment at higher levels. Often, fighter types (who are usually the under-powered ones) have more equipment ‘slots’ than other classes, wearing armor and bearing shields and often able to simply carry more.

Think about the things that other classes can do in your game, and give the fighter, or equivalently limited class, the ability to do similar things. Of course you don’t want to impinge on what makes other classes special, but just make it so the fighter doesn’t have to be accommodated or left behind every time.

Fix It With Hacking

Go into the game you’re playing, lift the hood, and mess around. Talk to anyone playing a class they feel is under-powered or just being left behind by the other characters. Find out what your player sees as a win, and give them a bit more of that. See when the story slows down because she has to be accommodated somehow, and figure out how to keep her going.

Play Better Games

Not all games use classes at all, and not all games with classes are created equal. If you’re frustrated with the incompetence of your AD&D thief, maybe check out an OSR game that emulates AD&D but benefits from 30 years of design insights.

5th Edition D&D is a pretty good start here. I think that 4th Edition also did a good job, but in essence your combat role replaced your class, and then class became a source of color and some customization options, like a sub-class from previous editions.

Obviously, other games get rid of classes altogether, relying on point-buy systems or using other methods to describe characters.

The idea, of course, is for everyone to be having around the same amount of fun, and engagement with the game, each session. There is just a lot of sub-optimal design out there that gets in the way.

 

Mage the Ascension: Resonance and Hubris

Super Massive Power Surge by stylage.jpg

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.