Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Aftermath Factions

I took the long bus that loops around the upper Haeundae area after work this evening on my way to a private lesson.  While on the bus, I took notes for seven different factions for my GamMarvel World game in planning.

One thing I really enjoyed about Justin's Vaults of Ur was encountering different groups and trying to befriend, oppose or outwit them to our own ends.  So I figure I'll do the same in this sandbox setting.  I didn't want to just use the Cryptic Alliances from the book though.  I've used them before, and they build conflict into the setting. 

The problem for me is that I want this game to start a bit less understood than previous GW games I've run.  So I won't be posting the factions here.  There may be some rumors of them given to the players when I start the game, but discovering them will be part of the exploration process.

Only two are based on stuff from comics.  The rest are my mental babies.

The next step will probably be figuring out details of two or three Wizards.  I may need to watch a bit of Thundarr and Masters of the Universe for inspiration.

Monday, November 17, 2014

What's the point of different classes?

Again, thinking about 5E spell casters. 

Classes exist in the game to allow players to do different things.  In OD&D, Fighters fight.  MUs use magic.  Clerics do a little of both.  Yet even here, MU spells and Cleric spells are not the same.  Cleric spells help us.  MU spells hurt them.  OK both have utility spells and some of the other's main type.  But to break it down simply, the analogy works.

In 5E we get Bards, Clerics and Druids whose spells on the whole "help us" and Sorcerers, Warlocks and Wizards whose spells mostly "hurt them."

Do we really need this?  Would 2 caster classes be enough?

Friday, November 14, 2014

A look at the 5E Magic-Users

At the beginning of this month, Gavin Norman of The City of Iron blog made a couple of posts about the necessity of the classes in 5E, and how the "subclass" options of each of the non-4 core classes could be reassigned to the core 4.  I'm starting to think he might be right.

I've gotten involved in a PbP 5E Arena game on RPOL.net.  So far, we've gone through a short series of combat encounters as Level 1 characters, and now we're jumping to level 3, which is when every class now has a special subclass path available (a few classes get them earlier).  I played a Halfling Barbarian, but now I'm thinking of switching to a Magic-User class (Wizard, Sorcerer, or Warlock).

There's not really a whole big difference between the three classes, since they all are focused spellcasters, and they have very similar spell lists.  Mainly the differences are in the fluff associated with the classes, and the mechanics they use to gain/prepare/cast spells.

Wizards prepare spells from books, classic Vancian magic.  They specialize into schools of magic, gaining greater proficiency when casting one school's spells, and some related abilities.

Following 3E, Sorcerers have innate magical ability.  They only know a handful of spells, but can use a special reserve of magic points to cast more spells, or modify their spells with metamagic effects (greater effect, greater range, silent/still spells, quick spells, etc.).  They can either gain some "draconic" heritage traits, or be "wild mages" (yeah, old school style random effects going off!).

Warlocks are quite different, in that they get a very small number of innate spells they can cast, but they are always cast at the "highest" spell level the class can cast.  (Scare quotes because technically they ONLY cast spells of one level, so superlatives can't be used).  They gain some benefits from pacts with powerful magical creatures (Fey, Fiends or Great Old Ones), and gain some special magical feats that give them special abilities or at-will spell-like abilities.

For the RPOL game, I first converted an old character I created for a 3.5 game that never took off, a Half-Elf Sorcerer.  At first, this seemed to be a good choice for 5E, as Half-Elves get a boost to Charisma, extra skills and languages, and a few Elf traits.  But when I got to the part where I chose his spells and traits and metamagic abilities, I stared to see just how limited the Sorcerer class is in this edition.

I'm planning to rebuild the character as a Half-Elf Wizard, and I think even with the less than optimal racial ability score adjustments, he'll be more powerful (and for an Arena game, there's no reason not to Min-Max).

When 3E came out, I immediately liked the concept of the Sorcerer.  They had the same spells as the Wizard, but could cast MORE spells per day, although they had a more limited repertoire to draw from.  The weakness of the class design was that they were otherwise identical to the Wizard, so suffered from poor skills (Wizards got 2 from the class itself, but since Int was their primary ability, they were guaranteed to have plenty, whereas Sorcerers use Cha to cast, so Int was a dump stat and they only got the 2 from class, for example), poor hit points, poor armor class, etc. 

Wizards got versatility from being able to fill up spellbooks with as many spells as they could buy, beg, borrow or steal.  Their limits came from having to select their spells in advance to fill their more limited spell slots.  They also got bonus feats for metamagic or item creation feats.

Now, in 5E, it's sort of been switched around.  Sorcerers get easy access to metamagic, and still cast at will, but instead of having higher numbers of spells per day, they have the same number as the Wizard.  And the Wizard actually comes out ahead, because they have an ability that lets them get a few spells back with every short rest!  Also, they can prepare a fairly good number of spells, and cast them as needed with their spell slots, giving them greater versatility.

So the Wizard now has more spells per day and greater flexibility with casting.  The Sorcerer gets metamagic.  That's it, really.  I think the Sorcerer either needs the same "regain some spell slots on a short rest" ability as the Wizard, or else needs more of their special sorcery points to make them more viable.

Still not sure about the Warlock (or the Bard, which is also now a 9-levels worth of spells arcane caster class).  Maybe I'll analyze those two a bit more later.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

System Matters, but System Familiarity Matters More

Jeremy asked a very good question in my last post about my proposed Gamma World (or Mutant Future, really) crossed with Marvel Comics game.

Why not use the old TSR Marvel RPG (or the 4C clone of it) for the game?

I've played the Marvel RPG a bit.  You remember it, right?  The FASERIP system with the color-coded resolution chart?  Yep, that one.  I've played as a player in it a few times, but not extensively.  And I've never run the game before.  So I'd have some learning curve issues.  Maybe not extensive, but in order to run with that system, I'd at least need to read all the rules and get a better feel for them than what I have now.

In answer to Jeremy, I also said that I think that the game wouldn't be the best fit for what I want the game to do.  What do I want the game to do?  I want the game to be about neo-primitive tribesmen venturing out into the scary, dangerous, irradiated (and worse!) ruined world in search of the fabled ancient technology of the Ones Before, and running into mutated creatures and robots and such, and a lot of the robots and leftover tech would resonate with comic book readers.  Not everything in the world would be "Marvel" stuff, but there would be Sentinels and Doom Bots, you might find a wrist-mounted device that shoots webbing, or find a damnation van with a red octo-skull emblem on it, or a red and gold metal glove that shoots blasts of force, along with all the badders and orlen and spider-goats of normal Gamma World/Mutant Future play.

Marvel RPG is suited for a heroic action game, where villains are up to no good and you the heroes need to stop them.  And the Karma system (both XP and hero points, not to be confused with Ron Edwards's "karma" resolution mechanic, see below) as written enforces a Comics Code Authority style of play in order to advance and improve characters.  Now that could be modified, but then we fall into the trap that Ron Edwards discussed in his (in)famous article, "System Does Matter."

How much work will it be fore me to adapt FASERIP to what I want to run?  What benefit is there to using a super hero RPG to run a semi-supers game in a post-apocalypse version of a super hero universe?

Would it be easier for me to use Mutant Future, which I know well enough by proxy (Labyrinth Lord/Classic D&D are no sweat to run, and I'm plenty familiar with Gamma World)?  Definitely.  Would Mutant Future give me the style of game I want to run?  Definitely.  Would there be some work for me to adapt the game to have more "Marvel Comics" stuff in it?  A little, but it would be less than trying to learn and adapt a less well-known game system.

I agree with Edwards's article to a point.  I think he started off from a mistaken ontological stance regarding RPGs.  The three themes he outlines are there, but there's a lot more crossover in actual gaming and in actual gaming styles than he conceived of 10 years ago.  I'm not sure how strongly he believes in that now, so I won't put words in his mouth, but I think he was off-base a decade ago.  Also, he seems to believe that the system should do all of the heavy lifting for the GM and players.  This may be nice, but it ignores one thing -- all those anecdotal accounts of good GMs who can make any type of game work with their system of choice.  It assumes a priori that the work load of the GMs to make their game of choice "work" must be burdensome, and that they'd have more time to make the game awesome if they had a system in which the heavy lifting had been done.

But then look at my situation right now.  Look at the d20 boom of 15 years ago.  Look at the OSR, coming out with untold variations of D&D in all sorts of niches over the past five years.  Is D&D the best framework to run a space opera game, or a steampunk mystery game, or a post-apocalyptic survival game, or a cowboy gunslinger game, or a wandering hero wuxia game?  No.  There are other games that are tailor made to those genres, and I'm sure many of them do the tropes and settings well.

But D&D, and its variations, have a big leg up on any of those systems.  Familiarity.  Most gamers, although not all, began with D&D in one form or another, or have at least experienced it if it wan't their first game.  It's comfortable.  It's flexible.  It's well-known.  And it can easily be shifted without much effort to a gamist (3E), narrativist (2E) or simulationist (1E) stance while retaining a core of familiar rules and mechanics.

I'd argue that someone who had played and run lots of FASERIP games could easily use it to run this idea of mine, and make it work beautifully.  Not me, however.

System design matters, but it isn't the only factor in the "good gaming" equation.  How familiar everyone, especially the GM, is with the rules counts just as much, or maybe more.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Ruins of the Ancients

Considering my idea to run a Gamma World game set in the far future of the Marvel Comics universe.  Most of the potential players in any campaign I would run tend to read my blog, so I figure that cat's out of the bag and I might as well go full bore with this idea whenever I get around to running a game again (and I am in serious gamer withdrawal right now, but no relief in sight).

Now, if the players know that this is the future of Marvel Earth, here are a few of the things I think I'll need to do to pull off a game like this:

  • No traces of anything "Marvel" in the post-apoc society where the PCs start, with the possible exception of religious figures or tales of legendary heroes of old
  • Ruins, on the other hand, will typically have a theme based on some organization or power-center in the comics.  So S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarriers half buried in the silt of the river delta, Friends of Humanity fallout shelters, Oscorp research and development centers overrun with badders and obs, etc.
  • I'll use artifacts from the book, re-skinned to match stuff in the comics when possible, and make up other stuff from the comics.  I'm not sure if I'll definitely figure out just what the "apocalypse" was, but it will probably be post "Marvel 2099" so there would be other high tech stuff than whatever Dr. Doom, Reed Richards, Tony Stark, Hydra, etc. had developed, and more common as well.
  • Magic exists.  Does this mean I'll bolt on Labyrinth Lord classes to the PCs?  Probably not, but the Thundarr-esque "Wizards" and "Sorcerers" won't all just be relying on recovered tech and Clarke's Law.  There will be spells and magic items.
 Finally, I think I mentioned this previously, but for awarding experience points, I plan to create exploration based awards similar to the system developed by Jeff Rients.  There will also be XP for recovering artifacts and information; also returning "junk" for the tribe (XP for treasure).  I plan NOT to give out XP for combat.  So the game will focus on exploring the wilderness to locate ruins, exploring those ruins, and bringing stuff back home.  Fighting mutants, creatures, robots and aliens may be necessary, but the rewards of combat will be access to the things that provide XP (and surviving, if you're lucky).

I may make an exception to the "no combat XP" rule if the players get involved with the machinations of the Wizards, and decide to take one (or all) down. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Chanbara: Coming Together

I've been making some mental notes about how to put together a "running the game/GM advice" chapter for Chanbara, as well as introductory text.  This was actually inspired by some of my academic reading, so maybe studying for a Ph.D wasn't such a crazy idea after all.  It's making my game writing better.*

First of all, considering the audience (likely to be primarily experienced RPG gamers), I think the introduction will have even LESS "what is an RPG?/How do you play?" stuff than Flying Swordsmen did, and I cut a lot of that out of FS.  Instead, I'm probably going to go straight to the heart of the style of game and the goals of play (as I see it).

The goals (what the game is about in Story RPG terms) is two-fold.  First of all, the game lets you emulate Medieval Japanese hero tropes battling against traditional creatures from Japanese folklore (and/or Medieval Japanese villains).  That's the surface level game.  Secondly, the game is about exploring social bonds, duty, responsibility, and reciprocity.  This is the deeper game.

Chanbara can be played at a "beer and pretzels" surface level, and hopefully will be fun.  "I'm Hattori Hanzo, you're Abe-no-Seimei, together we fight Orochi."**  Killing monsters and taking their stuff, D&D in funny hats, katana and sorcery pulp action, call it what you will.

But with the Allegiance system, every character will have a family bond, a patron or lord, and possibly another group or professional organization (trade guild, religious affiliation, etc.).  This replaces alignment in the game, and is heavily influenced by the Allegiance system in d20 Modern, but not identical.  Characters will earn XP for defeating monsters and overcoming challenges.  They can also earn XP for treasure acquired IF they donate it to one of their lieges***.  And this is where the deeper game can come into play.

Each family/organization/master will have different goals and desires, threats they must overcome, etc.  They can easily provide adventure hooks to players.  Also, when players donate treasure to them, they can advance their goals, and there should be rewards in it for the characters.  However, it's hard to serve two masters.  Donate all of your wealth to your daimyo, and the head of your family clan may turn against you.  The master of your shinobi clan's goals may contradict those of the trade guild you also serve.  This is built in conflict, and that's a good thing!  Not only does it give the GM and player something to use to spur adventures, it is something players can negotiate with the GM to make the game more fun.

Players that wish to explore the deeper game will hopefully get an experience closer to a lot of the fiction I'm drawing on as inspiration.  Players will go on adventures (sometimes of their own choosing, sometimes at the behest of a patron/liege.  When they're successful, they then have to make choices about which patrons/lieges to support, if any!  After all, in order to build up their own social/political power, they'd want to keep as much treasure for themselves as possible.  Duty, responsibility, loyalty, honor -- some of the main tropes of Japanese fiction right there, folks.

Or at least that's the goal.  We'll see if I can pull it off.

*I kid.  The Ph.D course has been great, actually.  I've learned a lot and actually enjoy learning more about teaching English to non-native speakers.  Even if I never get a position as a professor, it's been worthwhile.

**Hattori Hanzo - famous ninja (historical)/Abe-no-Seimei - famous onmyoji (historical)/Orochi - 8-headed serpent (mythical)

***Thinking of changing the name to Patron as it's an easier term to use, but that's not an exact fit.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Save vs. Suck

I'm on about saving throws again tonight.  And why not?  Previous posts about saves seem to have been popular, or at least generated good discussions with people (links later).

Jeremy sent me a few links to potential products I might want to use when running a Gamma World game, and suggested I try Swords & Wizardry with a .pdf of random mutation tables.  And really, I didn't even consider it enough to look at the .pdf (which may be cool, if it has mutations beyond the GW/MF lists) because of how saving throws are handled in S&W. 

I really don't like the single save.  If you're going to have saving throws, IMO (and JB gives some good reasons why you might want to ditch them -- link to final post in series, with internal links to all the posts), I feel having different saves versus different types of situations is preferable. 

As I mentioned in this post which inspired JB's series, saves can be evocative and help focus players' imaginations on what's going on in the shared fiction of the game.  The categories are random and not necessarily well thought out.  They may not even make sense.
This is a Save vs. Wands.  There is a different Save vs. Spells. That does not make sense.
They do make for interesting moments in game play.  Where everyone sits up, puts down their smart phones or the Doritos, and takes notice as the DM says, "Alright, save vs. death ray."  Suddenly, everyone's paying attention because there's actually a death ray involved in the game!  And they could be next! 

S&W loses me because while I suppose you can say "Save vs. death ray" while playing, there's no need (unless one class has a bonus against death rays, but I don't remember seeing that).  You can just say, "Make a saving throw."

WotC's versions of the game also lose me with saves because (as I mentioned in the post linked above from last month) they focus on the PC and how you resist whatever effect it is, rather than on the effect.  I know a lot of gamers like that, and maybe it's because I'm not so egotistical, but I don't need the focus to be on me when I'm hit by a special attack. That makes it a not-so-special attack if it's all about me, right? 

Old school D&D sets the target number by my class/level, so I'm still in the equation although the focus is on the source of the attack, but newer D&D versions reverse that.  The special attack's source sets the target number (and can then be forgotten unless you fail the save), and then the focus is on me and how quick/tough/resilient I am as the dice are rolled.  This is not necessarily terrible, but the math screws it up
3E/5E D&D isn't so bad, when the saves aren't screwing it up.
4E...um, they don't really have saves.  Monsters get to attack different armor classes based on the 3E saves, with a generic "death save" that 5E retains and is sort of pointlessly bland.  So we'll just skip that.

Now, don't get me wrong.  I'm not saying the old school five saves with arbitrary categories are the only way to do it, or that I'll only play a game with those types of saves.  But if I have a choice (say, between the Labyrinth Lord-based Mutant Future and Swords & Wizardry with mutations bolted on), I'll choose the variety of save types.  Because they may not make sense, they may be arbitrary, but they add flavor (and the math works).