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., 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).

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Green is the color of my true love's exoskeleton

Still on the Gamma World kick. 

Looked through Mutant Future again, and remembered that since it's based on 2E GW mostly, the rules for mutated plants and animals are pretty slim, basically boiling down to "if you want some animal/plant type with special abilities, run it by the GM."

But since GW4 has a nice long list of animal types, and a short but adequate list of plant types already sorted out for this GM, I'll continue to use those.  [If and when I ever run this game, that is...]

One thing I especially like about the animal types is that for physical stats, instead of rolling 3d6 (or 4d6-L), they have a base number for Strength, Dexterity and Constitution, and roll 2d4 to add to that roll.  This way, a mutant gorilla, for instance, is likely to have above average strength.

More so than the ability scores, though, is the fact that certain abilities possessed by the actual animals are listed out as bonus mutations. 

Also, the list covers 45 animal types or so, which provide plenty of guidance if someone wants to play Perry the Platypus or a chinchilla or something not on the list.
Plants are simpler: there are six or seven general types that your plant will fall into.  While not as specific as the animal types, it seems to work.  There's no mechanical difference between an apple tree mutant and a sequoia mutant, or a saguaro mutant and an agave mutant, but that hasn't been much of a problem in any games I've run or played in. 

There is an urge to simplify the animal types a bit.  The list presented has too many great cats, for example.  Mutant tigers, lions, cheetahs and cougars may not all need separate stat types.  But since the work's already been done, I don't mind sticking with it.

One last thing I may keep is that Pure Strain Humans get to roll 4d6-L for all their abilities, with Int, Con and Cha each getting a +3 bonus.  Mutated humans and plants roll straight 3d6 for each.  Mutated animals roll 2d4+set bonus for physical abilities, and straight 3d6 for mental abilities.

So, to sum up, I'll likely go with GW 4th for determining character type and ability score, but straight up Mutant Future for everything else.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Dangers of Gamma Terra

Man, it's a week before Halloween, and I haven't done ANYTHING for it, except working on my son's costume.  But we may not have a party to take him to this year.  One of the crappy parts of living in Busan is that Koreans don't celebrate Halloween.  Another is that they don't drink root beer, but that's another post for another day.

Instead of working on ideas for a Castlevania themed Retro Phaze game (something I do plan to do eventually), between researching a paper I'm thinking about that Gamma World game I posted about last time.

I finished up a map this morning using GIMP, but I won't post it here yet.  Too many of my potential players read the blog and I want the map to be a mystery.  When I get a players' map done, I'll post that.

I'm also thinking about the sorts of dangers and opponents that players may face.  Of course, GW (and Mutant Future, which I will probably use actually) have plenty of mutant beasts and robots to throw at players.  And it's not too hard to reskin D&D or other games' creatures for the setting.  Game stats are easy.  I'm thinking about flavor.

In Light on Quest's Mountain, one of the encounters you can have is with a gardening robot.  The unspoken assumption is that if there had been a mutant plant character in the party, the robot would have tried to prune, weed or transplant the mutant against its will.  But the protagonist is a Pure Strain Human, and his companions are a lizard mutant and monkey mutant.  Anyway, I like the idea of robots that may help the party, except for that one guy over there...

And so, in this game, there will be
Altered Humans beware!  PSH, mutated animals and plants, you're fine.  In fact, it'll probably help the PSH along the way.  But if you're a human mutant, be prepared to be captured and sent to the camps!

Once I decided on this, though, I got to thinking.  Was the cataclysm the Days of Future Past timeline events?  Or the Age of Apocalypse?  Do I want to set a Gamma World/Mutant Future game in the far dystopian future of the Marvel Universe?  It would sort of explain where all these beneficial mutations PCs tend to have come from. 

And that power armor the PSH characters are after? 
Yeah, that would be cool. 

So, I don't know if my game will be in the Marvel Universe's future, but I may take some inspiration for "artifacts" from them.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Enter the Wastelands

After some discussions with two of my professors, I think I'm on the path to my dissertation finally.  There may actually be a Ph.D eventually for me, which will make the past two years' effort (four years if you count the Masters work as well) more satisfying.  As it is, I'm not gaming much due to my academics.

However, after meeting with my adviser today, I had some time to kill and started jotting down some notes for a Gamma World campaign.

My first introduction to GW was through the Endless Quest book Light on Quest's Mountain.  I was aware of Mad Max and some other post-apoc stuff, but Thundarr the Barbarian was the show that really made me want to run a game.  When I picked up the '91 Fourth Edition of GW, I was sort of surprised that the assumed culture of the PCs was a Renaissance tech level in those rules.  Of course, flintlock and matchlock weapons are fun, as are random mutations, so I just went with it.  But the semi-Stone Age village in Light on Quest's Mountain, and the "barbarian" aspects of Thundarr have always left me wanting something a bit more savage from Gamma World.

Anyway, the setting notes I jotted down would be more LoQM/Thundarr.  It would be a sandbox game.  The map would draw inspiration from LoQM.  There would be a variety of terrain types, with some "clean", some "dirty", and some "wastelands."  The starting village would be in the center, in a "dirty" area to encourage adventure.  Sprinkled around the wilderness would be other settlements, ruins, and strongholds of Sorcerers (a la Thundarr).  In a way, it sounds like bog standard D&D sandbox, just with mutants and leftover tech instead of magic items.  Well, so be it.
I may have to use some of these ideas, too...

If I ever get to run this, I'll work in lots of rumors.  Some of the ruins will be known (as will some lairs of creatures or robots), some will be rumored.  Others will be unknown at first, but clues to their existence will be scattered around the lands.  Or if the PCs just manage to wander in the right direction, they may find them by chance.

I'm enamored of the idea of the PCs starting out at a semi-Stone Age tech level and working their way up to the high tech stuff while their home base is still neolithic.

Maybe in a year or two, after the dissertation...

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

You can never have too many monsters

I think my monster chapter for Chanbara is almost finished.  I've got all the monsters I need (OK, I'd love to add more, but to keep space reasonable this is probably enough).  Monsters fit into three categories: NPCs, Normal Animals (including giant animals with no magical/special powers), and Monsters (everything else).  Here's the list.  Most of the names of NPC types and monsters are in Japanese, so they may be nonsense to some of my readers without the descriptions.  I did include type tags for Spirit and Undead monsters as those are the only tags relevant to game mechanics.

Human NPC Types
Genin/Kunoichi Ninja

Normal Animals
Bat, Giant
Beetle, Giant
Dog, Guard/Hunting
Jellyfish, Giant
Lizard, Giant
Octopus, Giant
Rat, Giant
Snake, Constrictor
Snake, Poisonous
Spider, Giant
Wild Boar

Ao-andon [Undead]
Bakemono [Spirit]
Dragon [Spirit]
      Jade Dragon
      Mist Dragon
      Pearl Dragon
Fish Warrior [Spirit]
Gaikotsu [Undead]
Gaki [Spirit, Undead]
Giant Carp
Ghost [Spirit, Undead]
Gozu Oni [Spirit]
Hannya, Grandmother
Hitotsume Kozo
Jikininki [Undead]
Jorogumo [Spirit]
Kami, Minor [Spirit]
Kami, Lesser [Spirit]
Kami, Greater [Spirit]
Kitsune [Spirit]
Mezu Oni [Spirit]
Mujina [Spirit, Undead]
Mukade [Spirit]
Oni [Spirit]
Shikigami [Spirit]
Ushirogami [Spirit]
Yasha [Spirit]
Yuki-Onna [Spirit]

Monsters whose name is indented (Dragons, Kami, Ghosts) use the master stat block, but have varying descriptions/powers given.  That's 60 stat blocks, and counting each variation (Ashigaru is different from Bandit, Minor Akuma Kami is different from Lesser Akuma Kami is different from Lesser Enso-no-Kami, etc.) that gives us well over 80 monsters.
Of course, Japanese myth is full of all kinds of funky monsters.  Some more would be interesting to encounter, either in combat or just for a strange encounter or role play, but I think the book will get too long if I try to be too inclusive.  This list covers a lot of ground, from odd low-level spooks to fairly powerful monstrosities, creatures that must be destroyed and ones that can be reasoned with or tricked.  The list contains what I consider to be the most iconic Japanese monsters, plus some lesser known ones that I thought could be interesting.
If you're reading through the list, and find there's something missing (Hey Lord Gwydion, how could you be so stupid as to not include XXX?), feel free to chime in in the comments.  I could probably spare another page or two on monsters.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Feeling Good

Despite the more negative tone of my last post, I'm actually feeling pretty good about things these days.  No, Flying Swordsmen didn't turn out the way I'd like it to have turned out.  But it was a pretty solid effort, I think. 

Chanbara is coming along more smoothly, although more slowly thanks to all of my grad school work.  In fact, I should be writing up a reflection to a chapter in one of the books right now, but I'm blogging instead. 

For one thing, I'm much more familiar with Japanese jidai-geki (period piece) and chanbara (samurai/ninja action) film/TV.  A decade in Japan can do that.  The tropes come to me much more easily than wuxia.  Don't get me wrong, I've watched plenty of Chinese fantasy action movies and read some of the books.  I know it well.  I just know samurai/ninja stuff better. 

The other thing is that Chanbara is really lending itself to more D&D style play.  It won't play exactly like D&D, but since the conceit is "fighting monsters to take their stuff and give it to your lord" it plays similarly to standard D&D.  Without the treasure hunting element, Flying Swordsmen has the potential to bog down unless the players are active in seeking their own adventure, or the DM has a good system of hooks/events/complications to use to draw the players in.

A couple of weeks ago or so, I read some good things from the dreaded two-some of RPG Pundit and Zak S. (yeah, the "5E consultants from Hell," cue ominous music!) via G+.  Pundit pulled a quote from one of Zak's art history posts that really resonated with me.  Something along the lines of "don't let your inexperience with a genre hinder you, just take what elements of it you enjoy and rock them hard."  [Sorry, I find G+ too ephemeral to track town the actual quote from Pundit.  Zak's post is here.]  Zak was discussing art.  Pundit was discussing his RPG, Arrows of Indra. 

That's one of the things that inspired me to write my last post.  Flying Swordsmen has enough in it for someone like me to take it, identify the things about wuxia that I think are cool, and play the hell out of them. 

Today, Dariel at Hari Ragat posted something relevant.  So did Bedrock Games about their upcoming wuxia game, Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate.

I used to worry about the people who don't like OA/Al Qadim/whatever non-Middle-Earth/Hyboria/Westeros mashup because they think it's "D&D in Funny Hats."  As a player or DM, I wanted to get more into the setting/characters/tropes that make these settings distinct.  Then I got over it.

But as a game designer, I was still worrying about that.  I wanted FS to be more than that.  I still want Chanbara to be more than that.  And Dariel's post is spot on about that.  Use what works in the D&D system, if that's what you're basing your game on, but find some mechanics that will reinforce the setting tropes.  I think I fell short in Flying Swordsmen on that account, but I've got it covered in Chanbara.

But like Pundit said and Bedrock Games also, so what if Flying Swordsmen is really just D&D in Funny Hats?  No, it's not the best system for emulating the personal drama that is key to wuxia.  But it gets the surface details right, IMO, and with the right group of players and right GM they can run it with all the character drama necessary for a satisfying wuxia campaign.  It's not baked into the rules, but in a way that can be a good thing.  People who don't know the genre except in a more surface manner can find things they like in it, and use them in their own way. 

I thought this was going to be a short post.  Getting rather long, wouldn't you say?  So I'll just wrap things up.

There are no RPG police.  There are no genre police.  Yes, I hope that eventually I'll get around to revising Flying Swordsmen, and add a few genre specific mechanics to better emulate wuxia fiction.  But until then, I do have to say I'm happy with how it came out, warts and all.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

In Retrospect

I've been thinking a bit about Flying Swordsmen.  You know, that free OSR game I made, a retro-clone of a little known freebie from WotC just prior to 3E launching named Dragon Fist, all about wuxia fantasy Chinese martial arts magical action?

Yeah, that one.  Probably you downloaded it.  Maybe you even read some (or all?) of it, and thought it seemed pretty cool. 

But did you play it?  Probably not.

Did you make a Flying Swordsmen PC and run it through a FLAILSNAILS game?  Never heard of anyone doing that, and I was pretty much too busy with grad school stuff and our local games to do it myself (although I wanted to).

Did you at least throw one or two of the monsters into your megadungeon just to mess with the expectations of your players who are jaded from years and years of the same old Monster Manual listings (which they know by heart because hey, they're often DMs too)?  Why the hell not?

Anyway, the point of this post isn't me trying to guilt trip you into trying to actually play my game.  There are lots of pdfs of games and supplements and adventures that I've downloaded, maybe looked at and thought it was neat, and there it sits on my hard drive collecting virtual dust.  It's actually sort of the opposite. 

A confession.

I've tried to run it several times, and while in theory it should be a lot of fun, something about the game just doesn't work the way it's intended.

Flying Swordsmen is about emulating all of the awesome wire work/CGI stunts you see in Hong Kong martial arts fantasy action movies.  Dancing over the helmets of a troop of warriors.  Fighting across a crowded inn while balancing a tray of dim sum on your head.  Standing on a swaying bamboo branch and fencing with a master who outclasses you.

But what happened when I ran the game?  "I roll to hit." [clatter clatter] "I roll for damage." [clatter clattter]. 

The problem wasn't that the system didn't support the desired actions.  Flying Swordsmen, and Dragon Fist before it, both do.  The problem is that neither game rewards such play.

If a player is fighting a villain, they can make a risk-reward analysis each round of combat.  Should they attempt something flashy just because it's cool?  Or should they just make an attack to whittle down the villain's hit points?  In my experience running the game, they choose the latter.  And why not?  The only thing going for the first one reward-wise is bragging rights.

Flying Swordsmen needs to reward players for having their characters attempt crazy wuxia stunts.  Something simple, like a 5xp times your level for attempting and failing a stunt, and 10xp times your level for achieving your desired result.  When I finally get around to revising FS, this is going in the rules.  If I ever get a chance to run the game before it's revised, I'll use this.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

A few annoying things about 5E

While I'm for the most part positive about the new edition, there are a few things in it I'm not sure I like.  I'm withholding judgment until I get more time playing the game.  For now, though, I'd like to point out a few things that annoy me when I read the game.

First is something I picked up on in the Basic Rules .pdf (or maybe it was in the final playtest stuff even), and just read again in the PHB yesterday.  In the section describing spell levels, we get this fluffy text:

Every spell has a level from 0 to 9. A spell’s level is a
general indicator of how powerful it is, with the lowly
(but still impressive) magic missile at 1st level and
the incredible time stop at 9th. Cantrips—simple but
spells that characters can cast almost by rote—
are level 0. The higher a spell’s level, the higher level a
spellcaster must be to use that spell.
 (from Basic Rules pdf page 78, but it's the same in the PHB)
Emphasis added.

Looks like someone has a bit of a problem deciding how to describe spells to new players.  Us old hands know what levels of spells are all about, so this is for the new player.  What does this tell us?  A 1st level spell is both lowly and impressive?  Oxymoron alert.  And 0 level cantrips are simple and powerful.  While linguistically inoffensive unlike the magic missile description, I'm not sure if I like the idea of cantrips being powerful. 

Anyway, whoever wrote that passage must have been thinking something along the lines of: "I need to describe how higher level spells have greater effect than low level ones, but we can't let players of spellcasters feel like they're weak and ineffective at low levels.  It might hurt their feelings."

Another annoyance is how it describes movement as if it's some accounting procedure (or maybe that Common Core Math I keep hearing about?). 

Every foot of movement in difficult terrain costs 1
extra foot. This rule is true even if multiple things in
a space count as difficult terrain.
 (from Basic Rules pdf page 70)
Is it so hard to say that movement through difficult terrain is at half speed?  I just said it.  See, that was easy.  There are a few other lingering "tactical board game" phrases like that in the rules that sort of bug me, especially since this edition is making a determined effort to show that "theater of the mind" play is appropriate and encouraged.

At least it does lead to some interesting effects, like a double penalty reducing speed by 2/3 rather than 3/4. 

So, nothing wrong with the rules per se, more the presentation that I don't like.