Making “Failure” Interesting in RPGs

Image credit: https://www.fantasyflightgames.com/en/news/2012/11/19/at-the-core/

I had an idea come to me as I was listening to a review of the Fantasy Flight Star Wars RPG. This particular review was from someone (Dan Repperger of Fear the Boot) who was enjoying the game he was playing in but was simply baffled by the game’s mechanics – specifically, the custom dice mechanic.

I feel like I have an OK handle on it, having run the intro adventure for friends and read through the Edge of the Empire book. The dice system is complex, giving six different interacting results: Success, Triumph, Advantage, Failure, Despair, Threat). Basically, when you roll dice, the result of the roll gives you a lot of information:

  • Do you succeed or fail in your intended purpose? (Success and Triumph versus Failure and Despair)
  • Does your success or failure cost you any stress, or allow you to recover stress? (a use for Triumph and Despair when there isn’t something else to do with it)
  • Does the situation overall get better or worse? That is, you could succeed but the situation could worsen for you overall, or you could ‘fail forward’ where you don’t succeed but your situation improves through some unforeseen windfall. (Advantage and Threat)
  • Does your success or failure trigger some kind of special effect, like the equivalent of a critical success or failure perhaps, or a special ability. (Triumph and Despair)

But this post isn’t primarily about the dice mechanic in Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars RPG. Rather, it is about failure, and how to make failure more interesting, which is a challenge in any RPG that features a success/failure mechanic.

The thought is a simple one, derived from the complexity of Fantasy Flight’s dice system – that a failed roll can either mean 1. you don’t get what you want, or 2. you succeed and get what you want, but the situation worsens for you. This is a variation on the “succeed with a cost” mechanic, but it is rooted in the narrative, in the player’s decision to accept greater overall peril in exchange for succeeding on a key roll. In the FF dice system, this is kind of like rolling Success and Triumph paired with Threat, but without all of the complexity of six different colors of dice with multiple custom symbols on them.

For example: your fighter is surrounded by a gang of goblins. She activates her special ability that lets her attack a group of lesser targets with one roll – you roll, and miss. So, instead of just whiffing on your cool ability, your ability succeeds, but just as you mow down the fourth goblin, you look up to see that the fighting has drawn the attention of the Goblin King…and he looks angry. 

What do you do in your game to make sure that failure is still an interesting part of the story?

Profiles in Positive Masculinity: Mister Rogers

Rev. Fred Rogers is one of the greatest people who has ever lived. Before I get into a few reasons why I believe that, here is a manly picture of Mister Rogers testifying before the Senate Subcommittee on Communications:

No, he isn’t tearing a telephone book in half or bench-pressing a bunch of weight, but do you have the courage to testify before the Senate because of what you believe? The story behind this image, and event, is amazing, as Fred Rogers did a huge amount to sway a Congressional committee and save PBS’s budget. He does this the same way he does everything – through the kind of gentle persistence that lets water cut through stone:

It is an easy thing, to confuse gentleness with weakness. And there was certainly nothing about Fred Rogers that cut a traditionally masculine figure – singing while he changed into loafers on TV; wearing sweaters his mother knitted for him; playing make-believe with puppets. His was a kind of strength you could only see over time – the strength of integrity, of consistency of vision and character.

Not only was Fred Rogers committed to improving the lives of children, he was committed to speak unflinchingly to those children about topics that most parents shy away from with their own kids. He spoke to children about death, and grief, and war, and divorce, in the same voice he spoke about what a postal worker is, or what various characters were up to in the Land of Make-Believe. I challenge anyone, man or woman, to do that, on national television, for decades.

Children sense fear and hesitation. They can often sniff out a fraud much more quickly than adults can, though they probably can’t articulate what it is that they’re seeing. When a child falls to the ground, she will often look up at an adult she trusts before she decides whether to cry or not. She can see, immediately, in the adult’s face if what happened is serious or not. And if the adult is fearful, then the child assumes something bad happened and they cry. If the adult is calm, then the child often just gets up and keeps playing.

Now try doing that with millions of children you can’t even see.

Gentle, constant pressure can leave a deep mark on the world. Fred Rogers ended his life living for the same values that shaped his career from the very beginning. He fought, in his own quiet and relentless way, for a better world. He made his own life about making the lives of others better. He ennobled others; reminded them, reminded us, of our better selves.

His ideas and his convictions are still as radical today as they were when he was alive, when his show was being watched by millions of children. The idea that people are of immeasurable value, in and of themselves, totally apart from how others view them, or how they have been treated, or whether they are good consumers, or good workers – we still do not understand what Mister Rogers understood.

We are still not the people he believed we could be.

For demonstrating, over the course of his life, the power that lies in gentleness and patience, Rev. Fred Rogers is today’s Profile in Positive Masculinity.

 

 

Thoughts on Vampire the Masquerade 5th Edition PreAlpha

Image result for vampire 5th edition pre alpha berlin

What It Is

In a word, interesting. This is touted as Vampire the Masquerade 5th Edition, coming from White Wolf instead of Onyx Path. Remember, Onyx Path has been the publisher for the Requiem materials, as well as V20 a few years ago. (There is a kind of tangled history with White Wolf and Onyx Path, a failed MMO, and some other things, but I don’t want to get into all that). Clearly, they are counting VtM Revised as 3rd edition and V20 as 4th, and they are skipping ahead to 5th. As a lead designer and writer, White Wolf has brought on Kenneth Hite, who I personally think is amazing, and a very intriguing choice that wouldn’t have immediately come to mind. His game design skills, and deep knowledge of history and the occult will serve him well however.

What I Like

The feel I get from reading the design goals written in the PreAlpha rules packet is that White Wolf is going for something of a 5th Edition D&D type of coup, drawing elements from all previous editions of the game (including Requiem, as we’ll see) into something that will resonate with all Vampire fans. When WotC said that was their goal for D&D, to take 40 years or D&D rules and mash them together in a way that made their wide variety of fans happy, I thought it was impossible.  In retrospect, I called D&D 5E a coup for a reason – they got about as close as possible to their stated goal.

They are also going for a simpler, more streamlined system that is easier to learn and play. Some choices they’ve made are along these lines, while others are not, as we’ll see.

I like the streamlining of attributes – now there are only 3: Physical, Social and Mental. Each can have a specialty, which would be one of the previous Masquerade attributes like Strength or Appearance. These specialties add one die when they apply. The system is still an attribute rated 1-5 added to an ability rated 1-5 and then rolled as a pool of d10s. The ability list is very similar to previous incarnations of Masquerade, with a few additions like Physique functioning just as it does in Fate Core.

Damage rolls and soak rolls are both out, and I approve. They’re using the Requiem system of an attack roll against a defense, with the remainder being damage applied against the target’s health. I like this – I much prefer an attack resolved in two dice rolls compared to four. And generally speaking, this idea of mixing some Masquerade with a little bit of Requiem, the best parts of it anyway, runs throughout the PreAlpha rules.

Blood and hunger will play a more central role in V5, it seems. There is no longer any blood pool. Instead, you track your degree of Hunger, rated from 0 to 5. Your Hunger has a chance to increase every time you use a vampiric ability – instead of “spending blood” the term is now “Rousing the Blood” in order to power disciplines, appear human, etc. This leads to one of the PreAlpha’s big weaknesses, discussed below, but I like this change. Abstracting blood and hunger out, while also making them central to your dice-rolls, is a strong thematic move. Instead of blood being a resource you manage, hunger is a threat you deal with night after night.

One of the things that Hunger does in this rules set is mess with your mind. Hunger afflicts different vampires in different ways, and one cool thing they have added is Clan-specific hunger afflictions. So a Malkavian, for example, might have an extreme mental illness episode due to Hunger, while a Gangrel might be made paranoid and have to obsessively see to her own security. There are general problems that Hunger could cause, and then each Clan has three or so of their own specific ones, and I really like this. Not only does it make hunger front and center, but it also brings Clan to the forefront. Both good things for a Vampire the Masquerade rule-set, I think.

The last thing that came to mind as I read through the rules was that more things are returned to the 1-5 scale. In particular, Willpower is now rated 1-5, which I like. It’s just more consistent. There is now a companion to Willpower, Composure, which like Willpower can be spent. It isn’t quite clear what the difference between the two is precisely, but I look forward to seeing more. My intuition is that they will be to similar and will be collapsed back down to one, but I could be wrong. For now, it seems that Composure is used to resist frenzy and Willpower functions a lot like it did in Masquerade.

When I moved from the rules document to reading the playtest scenario, I found another blood-related rule that I thought was interesting: blood from different mortals will have slightly different effects on those who feed from them. Feeding from a drunk person might give you a penalty, while feeding from a baby (I know) might make it easier to appear alive in the following scene, giving you the blush of health. Feeding from an anxious or athletic person might let you activate Celerity once without having to Rouse the Blood, and most of the benefits were along these lines – letting you use a Discipline once without having to take the risk of increasing Hunger. I like this idea, but I also note that it will involve yet more bookkeeping for the player, which is a weakness. Something they can fix, or work around, but there it is.

Not So Much

One change is a pet peeve of mine in RPGs. For the love of God, don’t make dice-rolls into coin-flips. This PreAlpha pack places the target number for all d10 rolls at 6+, meaning every die-roll is a 50/50 chance. Since they also remove the rules that 1s subtract successes and 10s can be rolled again, the d10s literally become coins. The only remaining reason to have d10s at all is legacy – they lose every interesting element as dice. This is always a design choices I dislike, even in games I otherwise love, like Mouse Guard.

I mentioned the Hunger/Rousing the Blood mechanic above as strong thematic move linked to a serious problem with the system. That problem is that in what should be a move to simplicity, the Hunger mechanics as written actually add a huge amount of bookkeeping to the game. Every time you use an ability that Rouses the Blood in a scene, you note it. At the end of the scene, you roll d10s equal to the number of marks you have, and that determines whether your Hunger increases. First, this will mean that Hunger will be increasing pretty much every scene, which means that frenzying and hunting will happen much more often in V5 than in previous editions. Second, this is an incredible amount of bookkeeping that will constantly take players out of the moment. Each scene has to end with accounting before you can move on. This is just a poor design choice, but again, this is a PreAlpha playtest rule-set, so presumably they will have tons of time to fix this.

Unfortunately, V5 takes it’s inspiration from Requiem’s version of Potence, which was terrible. You still have to ‘Rouse the Blood’ every turn that you use it, making it an incredibly expensive discipline. The reworking of Fortitude is actually similar to Fortitude from Mind’s Eye Theater, which I think is a good move compared to Masquerade and Requiem Fortitude, which is by far the most boring Discipline. But Potence was the only Discipline that stood out to me, as it does in Requiem, as something I would almost certainly never spend experience on. (And, like in Requiem, that’s easily fixed with house rules)

In Conclusion

I keep reminding myself that this is a PreAlpha playtest document. It is far from done. And I haven’t mentioned most of the Disciplines or some of the other things that are in the Appendices because, for the most part, the Disciplines seem very similar to previous versions of Masquerade, with the exception that activating them always requires that you Rouse the Blood. Again, I can see how this might result in a frenzy-fest with so much less room for error in the Hunger system, but we’ll see.

Overall I like the direction they are going – taking things from Requiem like simplified combat rolls and working to simplify and to place thematic elements like blood and hunger in the center of the system itself. I imagine it might result in more monstrous vampires who are less like blood-fueled dark superheroes. (I would not be surprised if Ken Hite was central to this move)

This is a strong showing, and if this is their new direction for V5, I’m on board.

 

Profiles in Positive Masculinity: Neil deGrasse Tyson

I thought it would be interesting to use, as Neil deGrasse Tyson’s manly picture, an image that he brought up while being interviewed by Joe Rogan (as well as in other instances) from his time as a heavyweight college wrestler:

…in part because I don’t necessarily think of Tyson as…swole. But there you have it. He was an undefeated wrestler and team captain in high school, and went on to wrestle as an undergraduate at Harvard. On the list of astrophysicists you wouldn’t want to fight, Tyson is probably at the top. He may also be the only name on that list.

But it’s been a while since he last wrestled. Obviously, I need to look at Tyson as a scientist, educator and public figure, and for the purposes of this profile, I’ll be looking at the second two.

He founded the Department of Astrophysics at the Museum of Natural History in NYC in 1997, and has had his position as director of the Hayden Planetarium since 1996. He visited the Planetarium as a kid, and that visit was a big part of what got him initially interested in astronomy and astrophysics. Neil deGrasse Tyson is gifted with an amazing voice and eloquent mind, and he was an excellent choice to take over as the personality behind the remake of Cosmos, following in Carl Sagan’s footsteps. He is an effective communicator and educator, with that combination of presence and his enthusiasm for what he has to teach that makes a person compelling.

Tyson has become a public figure primarily through debates over science and religion over the course of the past decade or so. I’ve watched him in debates a number of times, and one thing that stands out to me is that he doesn’t take crap from anyone. He isn’t acerbic or self-absorbed or unnecessarily harsh; he is direct and clear and uncompromising. He is able to acknowledge and speak about what some might call the spirituality of science without leaving room for anything he feels lacks sufficient evidence to justify belief. That is, he can talk about the numinous without having to refer to the divine, nor even leave grey area where others might want to reference god or the supernatural. For Tyson, the natural is more than enough.

For being uncompromising while remaining gracious, for serving as an example of more than one kind of strength, and for being someone who has become a public figure because of his intelligence, eloquence, and integrity, Neil deGrasse Tyson is today’s Profile in Positive Masculinity.

Changeling 20th Anniversary Edition (C20) Review

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Overall

Changeling the Dreaming has always been a beautiful, broken game. The 20th Anniversary edition is less different from the 2nd edition than I’d expected. It is somewhat less broken, and still beautiful in its way. Lackluster kithain art detracts from it, and I would have preferred a bigger focus on new art in a game that is so driven by imagery (and so flush with new cash from the Kickstarter).

The metaplot is reiterated and updated, but it holds less interest for me than it did 18 years or so ago, when I first started playing the 2nd edition with my friends in college. It remains very US-centric, which is unfortunate, and the rise of David Ardry still comes across as someone’s first brush with fantasy worldbuilding.

All that being said, this remains a game I would run or play, and enjoy. There are solid updates to the rules to help with this, though it remains broken and in need of some house-ruling. If you love Changeling the Dreaming 2nd edition, you’ll love C20. If you already have the various splatbooks, though, I actually think you could skip buying the Anniversary edition. Many of the rules changes can easily be part of house rules, and the stunning new art that I was hoping for in a 20th Anniversary edition just isn’t there.

This is just after a single read-through. I haven’t had a chance to play C20, and I’m sure I’ll find more on subsequent read-throughs. I’ve focused on the main kiths, Arts and some setting updates. I’d like to give more attention to the Hsien updates and other details as well in the future. Still, here is what I found.

Art and Design

A lot of classic Changeling the Dreaming art is carried over, and there are some new pieces. I thought that the new art for the clans in V20 was lacking, and I think that the new art for Changeling often falls flat, especially for the kithain. (For a tutorial in how to do new art for a OWoD line, I recommend M20).

The book is well laid-out and easy to read, and the table of contents has a few, but not enough, links in the PDF version. I prefer M20’s PDF, where all of the page numbers in the table of contents are links – in C20, only the chapter titles are links, which makes navigation a bit more cumbersome than it needs to be.

The Good

Birthrights and Frailties for each Kith are updated, and I like almost all of the updates. No big changes have been made, but they have been cleaned up overall. There are now no Chimerical-only attribute bonuses, which is something that I actually thought made sense for the Sidhe and Trolls, though I might be in the minority there. You can still create a troll with a Strength of 8 (max out Strength on a Grump Troll, add Strength of Atlas merit), but it is all mundane, meaning your Troll is far stronger than the strongest human ever to live. Similar with a side with an Appearance of 7 – so I guess people just collapse screaming in ecstasy in the street wherever you go? I preferred Chimercal attributes that you could manifest by Calling on the Wyrd in 2nd – the sudden reveal was made all the more significant. In actually running Changeling, I would keep those attribute bonuses Chimerical I think.

Arts have also been cleaned up. There was talk, when the rules discussion started on the Onyx Path forums, of eliminating Realms, which I would have preferred; in C20 Realms remain, but it is possible to spend a point of Glamour to cheat and use a Realm you don’t actually have, which is a big bonus to the way the system works. Realms are an element that adds constraints that sometimes drive creativity, but can also easily drive players crazy as they find out their character can’t do what they assumed she could do with her Arts. It’s an annoying element that isn’t present in any of the other supernaturals’ abilities. But the fix of being able to just spend Glamour to affect an Art you don’t have is a step in the right direction.

There is a much better crafting system, which makes up for Infusion being removed from the game. It now makes more sense, how one would create Chimerical objects in-game, something that was profoundly missing in 2nd. Now any Changelings can create Chimerical objects, Nockers are just a bit better at it.

And many things are now under one roof. Gathered up are all the added noble houses, and there are a few new ‘standard’ kith added to the lineup (Clurichauns, Piskies and Selkies) from splatbooks, and they streamlined the Hsien and added them as well. Elements of various metaplots have been brought into C20 together, and I’m not sure they all fit together, but that isn’t a big concern for me.

I like that they kept Naming, though I miss Dreamcraft. The new Contracts Art feels like it was borrowed from Changeling the Lost, but with good effect. It lets you do things that fae are supposed to be able to do, in my view. I think it could have used another pass in development, but, again, house rules.

There are also four new seasonal Arts, clearly drawn from Changeling the Lost, and I like the addition. Autumn, Spring, Summer and Winter each bring different things to Changeling. (As an aside, I personally think the sweet spot for Changeling is somewhere between Dreaming and Lost, but that’s me) Each seasonal Art expands on the idea for that season well, though again, I think they could have used another once-over in development.

The Not-So-Good

Already mentioned, the setting remains US-centric. Understandable, but not good. I mean, it isn’t America of Darkness. Also already mentioned, I don’t like that the Chimerical attribute bonuses are now just attribute bonuses. I get why they did it, but I could see that easily causing problems. I mentioned the poor art for many of the kithain.  The general rule that Changeling abilities are more costly, and have fewer dice, and are less powerful than the abilities of other supernaturals remains true.

Infusion and Dreamcraft both get the boot, among the Arts. Dragon’s Ire is now an Art, and it looks like it would not be a great choice since other arts help you in combat. I prefer the Dragon’s Ire as an ability, since I liked that different kiths got a reduced difficulty to call upon the Ire in different situations. I thought this was a great thematic element – suddenly the boggan is frightening because she is defending her home. Most of the Arts got a once-over at least, and are a bit better balanced with one another, and also stick to their themes more closely (no more using Pyretics to find lost things, that’s Soothsay now).

Unleashing, which is an awesome idea I think, is just not designed well enough. More examples would have been helpful, as there is a lot of hand-waving involved in figuring out what exactly happens. I like the idea of Unleashing – to ‘kick the door open’ to the Dreaming – but the execution isn’t well thought out enough. It’s like a tiny taste of an indie game, where you roll dice to see who narrates the result, and it just doesn’t work as a part of Changeling. Definitely another place where house rules would be required.

The Bad

Bunks that do not take an action are now impossible, which I definitely don’t like. Even the simplest bunks require that a character split their dice-pool for the Art activation roll, Given that Arts are now difficulty 8 base, and that dice-pools will be tiny because of Realms, splitting seems like a non-starter. I see no reason why basic -1 bunks would require one to split their action, and this means that every Changeling fight will be as follows:

Round One: everyone does something silly and waits.

Round Two: the fight actually starts, as everyone’s Art goes off.

Changelings using magical powers would easily be overcome by, say, jock

Combining the fact that Arts require Realms with the fact that no Art can be used spontaneously just feels like a bad relic of the past combined with a nerf. Splitting your first action hardly seems like a viable option, considering how tiny Art dice-pools are to start with – that’s a lot of work to end up rolling 2 or 3 dice at a difficulty of 8 for your magic power.

There are also always issues with the Satyr’s Gift of Pan, and those issues remain. Under their effect, if one fails a difficulty 8 roll (easy to do with low starting Willpower, and Willpower costing twice as much as it does for any other denizens of the World of Darkness), they cannot resit giving in to their secret desires. They just seem to be unable to get away from consent issues with Satyrs, and I can think of plenty of players who would make this until an un-fun evening.

Overall

If you loved Changeling the Dreaming 2nd edition, you’ll also love C20. If you actually played 2nd, you will have plenty of house rules to make the game work, and house rules will still be required for C20, though perhaps fewer of them. You’ll need to figure out what to do with Unleashing, and what it means to have a Strength of 8 or an Appearance of 7 in the mundane world – or house rule those things.

In the end, I love Changeling the Dreaming, and C20 doesn’t change that. I would still play it. Reading through the book still gives me ideas for stories. C20 brings things that were scattered across a couple dozen splatbooks into one tome, and updates some of the metaplot to 2015 or so. On the other hand, I think that someone who already has those splatbooks, and already has some house rules, and could maybe add Unleashing into their game…I’m not sure that person needs to buy C20 at all.

Profiles in Positive Masculinity: Aziz Ansari

It seems appropriate, having just binge-watched Master of None Season 2 (which I cannot recommend enough), that I should present the second requested Profile in Positive Masculinity: Aziz Ansari. First, a manly picture of Aziz:

Image result for aziz ansari

Complete with pocket squerr.

I first found out who Aziz Ansari was while falling in love with Parks and Recreation, a show that featured another masculine phronemos, Nick Offerman. (And yeah, there’s a decent chance Chris Pratt will show up in one of these too someday) Like the other main characters in Parks and Rec, Ansari plays an exaggerated version of himself: a perennially stylish hype-man who works incredibly hard at goofy projects throughout the series. Somewhat like his character Tom Haverford, Ansari wears many hats: author, stand-up comedian, actor, director and producer. He even does occasional charity work…

When I think of Aziz Ansari, I think of style. He is a very fashion-conscious person, which despite being a fat slob myself, I respect. He puts a lot of thought into how he comes across, and always seems deliberate in what he says and does. He’s also highly creative and hardworking – amidst his work on television and in film, he has remained active in stand-up for the past decade and a half, releasing multiple comedy specials and headlining more than one tour. But what stays with me is his intentionality.

Master of None is one of the few shows I’ve ever seen that doesn’t address masculinity by vapidly playing to stereotypes. His character, Dev, is not plagued by insecurities about his masculinity. Humorously, he’s the sort of person who would be uninterested in the conversation I’m trying to have through these blog posts. He never questions himself in that way, nor does he do anything to make himself more masculine. He’s a small-statured guy with an enormous best friend Arnold, and the two of them are more interested in brunch than working out. They have this great un-self-conscious friendship. Neither one of them seems to have any trouble meeting or talking to women – rather, then issues that come up for them are in maintaining relationships, understanding themselves, and understanding others. Regular human stuff.

So many other story-lines are driven by male anxieties – anxieties around (ahem) size, strength, sexuality, how others perceive them, daddy issues and so on. These stereotypical anxieties drive a lot of character actions and relationships, and a common crutch for humor; a cheap shortcut to get the attention of viewers, and star-writer-director Ansari has none of it. One can only assume that, since Master of None originates primarily in his mind, it reflects a lot of what Aziz Ansari is about. And perhaps for this lack of masculine anxiety, more than anything else, Aziz Ansari is today’s Profile in Positive Masculinity.