Posts tagged RPG Theory
Recently, Pinnacle Entertainment Group released Hell on Earth Reloaded, the Savage Worlds version of the post-apocalyptic western setting and sequel to Deadlands. It’s a pretty neat book, but to the surprise of many fans neither the Guts skill nor Fate Chips are used.
For those of you not familiar with them, both of these mechanics have been important mechanics of Deadlands since it was first released in 1996 and they have been part of every iteration of it and its sequel settings until now. The Guts skill is used to resist fear and keep yourself together in terrifying situations (of which there are many in the Weird West). Although some see the Guts skill as a point-sink, it thematically makes sense to use that rather than just plain Spirit because the average person should be terrified by the horrors on the high plains whereas the heroes need to steel themselves up to deal against them.
Ever since Savage Worlds Deluxe was released, the Guts skill has been reserved only for horror settings. Given that Hell on Earth has many horror elements and that previous iterations included a Guts skill, it was expected that Hell on Earth Reloaded would use one too. But to everyone’s surprise, it didn’t. The reason that was given was that unlike in the Weird West, everybody is exposed to the horrors of the Wasted West and people are generally jaded to all but the worst of it. Thus resisting Fear with a Spirit check was deemed adequate. Makes sense, but it was a strange transition and some people weren’t as happy with it.
Fate Chips are a special variation of bennies drawn at random during the start of the session and come in three types: the common white ones that work like regular bennies, the uncommon red ones that can optionally be used to add a d6 to the result of a roll (but the GM gets to draw a Fate Chip), and the rare blue ones that behave like a red one (but the GM does not get to draw a Fate Chip). Fate Chips make bennies slightly more powerful and also provide a bit of the “poker” feel of the Weird West.
But to the surprise of many, Fate Chips didn’t make it into Hell on Earth Reloaded. The reason given was that the powers that be weren’t there to help the heroes, as represented by the more powerful Fate Chips. Nonetheless, many fans disagreed with the reasoning and decided they would houserule in the Deadlands Fate Chips because to them it was an integral part of Deadlands. For comparison, an informal forum poll (started by yours truly) found that a supermajority of responders wanted to see the upcoming Deadlands Noir, another sequel setting to Deadlands, include Fate Chips. Ultimately though, the author revealed that they would not be used.
The strong feelings that came from this debate made me think: are there game mechanics that are actually “part” of a setting? Hell on Earth Reloaded and Deadlands Noir took away some of the integral game mechanics and there was some fan backlash, with many people wanting to houserule it back in to make it “feel” like a Deadlands game.
I imagine you would have a similar response if a new version of Shadowrun came out that didn’t use a dice pool of d6s or Savage Worlds dropped card-based initiative. Especially with the former, it’s a pretty arbitrary mechanic that has since become an integral part of the “feel” of the setting. You could argue that this is why why some fans felt that Dungeons & Dragons 4e didn’t “feel” like Dungeons & Dragons: because many of them viewed certain mechanics as being linked to the feel of the setting.
When I run Urban Arcana, I wouldn’t think of doing it for any system besides Dungeons & Dragons for this very reason. Of course, you could certainly try and come up with interesting situations like the Savage Worlds version of Greyhawk.
So, at the end of the day, I would say that yes, arbitrary mechanics are part of a setting’s feel. It probably has to do with how unique that mechanic is, how loved the mechanic is, and how long the mechanic has been around.
Too often it seems special items are seen as simple tools. Magic weapons give an enhancement bonus to attack and damage rolls, magic wands are basically spell batteries, and so on. Technological oddities tend to be much the same, if not more so.
I’d like to see this change. Magic items, technological marvels, mechanical servants, magical constructs, mental structures, they all can be fantastic. In fact, I think they should be.
This pretty much describes how I think that magical creations should work. They should not be obligatory components purchased at MagicMart as part of the character Christmas tree, but should be special, revered, and fantastic. (And as a corollary, I don’t think that magic items should make those without them obsolete, as described here).
I could go in a lot of directions with this blog post, including talking about magic items in my Elder Scrolls conversion for Savage Worlds (shameless plug!). But instead, I’m going to show an example of a truly magic item by taking a detour from tabletop gaming to talk about one of the best adventure games of all time: King’s Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow by Sierra Entertainment (and in case you were wondering, all the King’s Quest games had puns in their titles). There are several magic items in the game, most notably a magic map that lets Prince Alexander teleport between islands. But the one I hold as the gold standard is the “Mirror of Truth.”
There are two special uses for the Mirror of Truth depending on which ending path you choose. In one, you arrive at the wedding of your true love, Princess Cassima, only to find that not only is she going marry the evil Grand Vizier, but that she’ll happily give him your head as a wedding present! Just as the guards are about to kill you, you can pull out that Mirror of Truth:
It’s not Princess Cassima, it’s the Grand Vizier’s genie in disguise! The illusion immediately breaks and the guards are ready to arrest the Grand Vizier for treason (of course, he runs away and you’ll have to chase after him to save the real Cassima).
Now maybe you’re thinking that the outcome was fairly predictable. It was a mirror that showed who a person truly was, even if they had a powerful magic illusion to disguise themselves. But the thing is, the mirror is not limited to just breaking illusions (or in D&D terms, being a Wondrous Item that grants True Sight on self). And that’s where the beauty of it lies.
In another possible ending path, Prince Alexander goes into the underworld to rescue Princess Cassima’s parents, who were murdered by the Grand Vizier. In order to win back their souls, Death gives Prince Alexander a challenge: Although he has heard every sad tale uttered by human lips and seen every atrocity the world has ever known, he has never once shed a tear. Alexander will win back their souls only if he can make Death cry.
Although the nearby spirits lament that it would be easier to turn fire into ice, you can have Prince Alexander choose the right weapon. Pulling out the Mirror of Truth, he exclaims “If your existence has been all you say it has, then Truth alone shall be my sword!”
That is what makes this a truly magic item. Not fancy stats or cool special abilities for your character, but a sense of mystery and the ability to aid the heroes in truly epic tales.
I can imagine many other possible uses for a Mirror of Truth. Perhaps it shows abstract representations of oneself, or who one will become. Perhaps it shows the chains of damnation (like Jacob Marley had) that they unknowingly carry. Maybe it shows the truth about how one is destined to be king. Or perhaps it shows the inevitable death of the hero who wants to be immortal. The key is that it’s not completely understood. You can’t read the item’s statblock and know everything that it is capable of doing. It’s not that it’s undefined, it’s that it can’t be completely known. That’s what makes a magical item a truly fantastic creation.
Due to changes in my schedule, I’ve decided to move my “new post day” from Saturday to Wednesday. This should result in a much more reliable weekly posting schedule from now on.
Combat has always been the heart of role-playing games. After all, Dungeons & Dragons evolved from miniatures wargaming where there is nothing but combat! I’d estimate that 95% of the role-playing games out there have some sort of rules about how to handle fighting and combat (with the remaining 5% being either aimed at kids or deliberately made so as to avoid combat). Although the GM has a lot of say into how much combat there is in a game, I think that there are definitely some external factors that encourage or discourage avoiding combat during gameplay. I would say that the big ones are the expectations of the setting, the expectations of the system, and the danger level to characters.
Expectations of the Setting
Here are the first lines in the “Makin’ Heroes” chapter of Deadlands Reloaded:
Strap on your six-guns and saddle up, amigo. It’s time to make your salty gunslinger, mysterious huckster, or savage brave.
And here is an excerpt from the “Characters” chapter of The One Ring: Adventures Over the Edge of the Wild:
Whatever their motivation or purpose, most characters created for The One Ring are individuals who have chosen to abandon their day-to-day activities and become adventurers. They are not soldiers or captains following the commands of a lord, nor are they subtle wizards trying to weave the threads spun by fate: they are bold souls putting themselves in peril by their own free will, sometimes simply for the love of adventure itself.
Notice something? They each describe the characters in their games very differently. The quote from Deadlands provides three archetypical characters, all of which are typically combat-oriented (even though you can play one that is not). The preceding sentence even makes pretty broad statement about Deadlands characters having six-guns. The One Ring however describes characters in terms of their love of adventure and specifically says that they are not soldiers (even though there is a “soldier” career). It’s quite conceivable that characters in this system would not be combat oriented, and indeed many of the characters in the source material, like Bilbo and Frodo, are not.
So which is more likely to avoid a typical combat, the “salty gunslinger” or the “adventurer.” Probably the adventurer. Why? Because that’s what the setting expects them to do. The setting also creates an expectation for what the characters’ default behavior will be when coming up against something hostile. In Dungeons & Dragons, the default behavior when confronted with a dragon is probably to fight it, not talk to it, and to only run if the fight is unwinnable. But in The One Ring, the default behavior would probably be to riddle with the dragon or run, but to fight it as a last resort (like if it’s burning Lake Town to the ground).
Expectations of the System
There’s a pretty easy litmus test for how much combat is expected in the system: how much of a character sheet is devoted to combat? Here’s a Dungeons & Dragons 4e 5th Level Dragonborn Rogue I found online using the standard D&D 4e character sheet. Aside from the sections on skills, senses, character info, gear, and arguably ability scores, the entire character sheet is devoted to combat (including 2 out of 4 pages devoted specifically to cards describing combat maneuvers). I estimate that about 85% of the character sheet is for describing stuff about combat. You might extrapolate then that 85% of D&D 4e is about combat, which in my experience (especially considering the official Wizards of the Coast convention games) is about right.
In fact, one of the big criticisms from D&D 3.x fans when D&D 4e first came out was that it was too focused on combat and not enough on role-playing. Often times they cited the fact that there weren’t profession skills or other non-combat character options. I won’t take either side on this, but I do wonder if part of the reason was that the D&D 3.5 character sheet from the PHB had about 60% of it devoted to combat, implying that combat only featured in 60% of the time.
So what does that mean for combat avoidance? With more space on the character sheet for non-combat related items, it would make sense that characters have more things to do to avoid combat. In D&D 3.x, you might have the means to avoid 40% of combats whereas in D&D 4e, you only have the means to avoid 15% of them. Now I’ll be the first to say that this is not a definitive measure and there are no doubt many factors, like GM play-style, that have a greater influence. But the fact remains that in a system where the important parts of your character are what they can do in combat, then it is less likely that it will be avoided.
On a more practical level, combat is typically avoided if there is a lot of danger of a character suffering ill consequences because of it. In Call of Cthulhu, investigators almost always avoid combat because there is a very good chance that they will die if they fight (or they will go insane, or both). Contrast that with a system like Hollow Earth Expedition where there is little danger of getting into a fight with Nazis, even if they have guns and you are using your fists. If combat is the most direct means of achieving your goals (as it would be if there are Nazis in the way of claiming the lost treasure) and there is little danger, then combat avoidance is very unlikely. The risk is small compared to the reward. But if there is a lot of risk, you might try some safer alternatives to avoid combat altogether.
I’ll reiterate once again that at the end of the day, the GM probably has more influence than these factors in determining how much combat there is. For instance, I’ve seen sessions of D&D 4e run without combat. But you might want to think about these external factors if you are wanting to encourage or discourage combat in your game session.
I’ve discovered something about how I GM: I hate to see the players lose. I love throwing enormous challenges in front of them, having characters make a noble sacrifice for the greater good, and beating the odds to pull out a tremendous victory (the Death Star trench run is one of my all time favorite movie sequences, largely for this reason). When all goes the way I’d like it to, it creates the sort of story I love to see: a story where a small group of individuals defy the odds and come out heroes.
Unfortunately, role-playing games don’t always go that way.
My long-running Necessary Evil campaign finally came to a close the weekend before last with the villains earning a hard-fought victory agains their greatest enemies with the odds stacked against them. And then in a final showdown with the Overmind, they had several very lucky rolls and pulled out a surprise victory, saving the world and saving the galaxy from the evil threat of the V’Sori. I loved it!
Since we had one more good weekend of gaming, I decided to run a Deadlands one-shot for the group. Originally they wanted me to run Night Train, which is so deadly that rumor has it the author gets royalties for every character killed in it (not really, but it definitely is a character killer). I had my misgivings about this scenario and with a few players saying they couldn’t make it, I ultimately decided to run Independence Day, in which they investigate several mysterious murders in Dodge City by The Butcher.
Last time I ran that scenario, it went well overall, but I had some issues with it that I planned to resolve the next time I ran it. I didn’t use the Adventure Deck and attempted to have a fight earlier in the scenario. (But the characters just wound up talking themselves out of it, which was good I guess. Note to self: next time start the game in media res with a small fight that gets them noticed by Earp and then starts the scenario.)
The biggest problem I had with the scenario last time was with the way The Butcher had invulnerability. I wound up just changing it this time to “he regenerates one wound each round” unless his weakness is exploited. I decided not to have him have a free soak roll because I had so few players. So far so good.
But this time when I ran it, the players were having a lot of trouble. After they had gathered all of the clues (knowingly or not), I told them that they needed to piece together the mystery and figure out who the culprit was. After about a minute of thinking, one of the players proudly declared “it must be the undertaker!” I nearly face-palmed myself right there. I had just offhand mentioned the undertaker picking up one of the bodies and apparently they thought that made him a suspect.
Had I been an evil GM, I might have let them arrest the undertaker and have them enjoy the night, only to have The Butcher strike again and get the heck out of Dodge (literally). Instead, I had the undertaker help them make some connections between clues, thanks to his love of mystery novels. It got them back on track at least.
They split up in search of The Butcher and unfortunately, one of the characters got a critical failure while trying to make a Notice check to find him. The Butcher got the drop on her and sliced off her arm to add to his collection (yup, really). With one arm severed, she tried to shoot with her off hand, but missed. The Butcher sliced her other arm and let her bleed out on the dirt. The other Huckster made it to the scene then, but in the first round suffered an ignoble death when The Butcher made a called shot to the head, and dealt 5 wounds, none of which got soaked. The Butcher had murdered two more people and could have walked away into the night, ready to continue his reign of terror in the next town.
The players were about to pack up, having failed to stop The Butcher, but I hated to leave them on such a tragic note. At first, I contemplated making both of their characters Harrowed until I decided having a Harrowed Huckster with only a head was just a bad idea. So I offered them my other pregenerated characters to come in as reinforcements. The Blessed was just lucky enough to stay alive, but the Mad Scientist wasn’t. Yet another replacement character came who I said had some ideas about The Butcher’s weakness. With a lucky shot, they exploited it and defeated The Butcher once and for all.
Unfortunately, this victory seemed hollow to me. They didn’t identify the culprit without help and went through three replacement characters before I more or less told them what The Butcher’s weakness was. I did it because I really hated to see the players lose. But in making sure that they didn’t lose, I made it so that they didn’t really win. Or at least it wasn’t the same.
It’s a lesson I had to learn: that even if you really want to see the players succeed, sometimes the stars aren’t right and they will fail. It makes the true victories more meaningful, I think, even if we hate to see the failures when they happen. And it’s almost just as bad to blatantly tilt the odds to prevent the players from losing.
What about you all? Have you had similar thoughts or do you have a different mindset when it comes to players failing?
I’m a big Doctor Who fan and picked up Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space from Cubicle 7 about as soon as it came out. Since then, I’ve GMed the game many times, including at Origins 2011 and at GenCon 2011. But this is one system that I had never got a chance to play because I could never find a GM. Consequently, I think that I kind of got burned out with Doctor Who because I ran it too much (I also retired my scenario involving Blackbeard the Pirate after having run it 8 times).
Fortunately for me, The Wittenberg Role-playing Guild had their weekly “Friday Night One-shot” and this week’s game was Doctor Who, run by Amber. Finally, a chance to play a game I’ve only ever GMed! Although she was borrowing my set of the books, Amber chose one of the sample adventures (Arrowdown) which I fortunately had not read. So I sat down and got a chance to play the Tenth Doctor alongside Martha Jones, Jack Harkness, and K-9.
And you know what? I absolutely loved every moment of it!
Even though I consider myself to be a fairly skilled GM, I think there’s something to be said for playing in the games that you love the most. I love Doctor Who and have really enjoyed presenting some great stories to the players, but I think I found out last night that I kind of missed being one of the people on the other end not knowing the answers and trying to figure out the mystery. I think it also reignited my excitement in the game after having been burnt out by it. (And I’ll be running “A Timelord in King Arthur’s Court” at Origins this year).
It made me think again about if a requirement of being a good GM is to be a player every once in a while. Not only do you have someone to compare your own GMing style to, but I imagine it also helps a GM stay in touch with what a player is actually experiencing. It also seems to help you get passionate about your own setting. I suppose if you have a good experience playing in a game, it helps you want to give that same experience to other players.
So I’ll pose two questions to my readers: Are there any settings that you’ve always wanted to play in, but have only gotten the chance to GM (or vice versa?). And does a good GM need to be a player every once in a while to improve?