Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Low Level Characters with Nothing to Do

Over on MeWe (yes, I'm on it, not sure I like it though...), Steven Fowler in the OSR community posted about how older players see newer edition PCs as superheroic, while younger players look at older edition PCs and see them as powerless (aside from the Fighter).

Apparently the complaint is that the 1st to 3rd level PCs have only a few spells, poor skill chances, and next to no combat ability, so what should they do in a fight?

IMO (and judging by the types of comments I get, most of my readership is likely to agree) that's a feature of older editions, not a bug.

Of course, we older folks know exactly what you're supposed to do in a fight at low levels - find a way to stack the deck in your party's favor, stay back and support the front line, or just get out of the way. When combat's over, there's time for all characters to participate in exploration, NPC interaction, and problem/puzzle solving (or not if the player doesn't want to).

My son, and the other kids in my 5E game, have been pretty creative overall. They're learning from adults with a mix of experiences and preferences for games, and it's been pretty good for them. They don't instantly look to the character sheet to solve problems, and they try interesting things in combat. The two girls in the group especially enjoy turning dangerous animal encounters into a chance to collect more pets. My son is a creative problem solver, thinking about the creatures we fight and the environment, and trying to come up with interesting solutions (or just smiting things - he is playing a Half-Orc Paladin...).

If anything, it's the other adults in the group who focus a bit too much on what skills they have trained, what spells they have prepared, etc.

In combat, 5E allows every character to be competent, which is fine. But the game is not only about combat.

Every character isn't expected to contribute to a role-play encounter. Sometimes it's best to have the drunk, aggressive, crude Dwarf Barbarian just stay quiet in the back while the party negotiates safe passage across the Withered Wastelands with the Duke of Death. Why should everyone be expected to pull equal weight in combat?

Saturday, October 20, 2018

How to Design an RPG (work in progress)

First attempt at putting some ideas in my head out for public consumption. Please feel free to give feedback, this is very much a work in progress.

Part 1: What I've done wrong in the past.

In the past, I've started working on RPG ideas from the ground up often by first thinking of the genre/setting, then moving to character creation rules, then moving to action resolution mechanics, then moving to advancement mechanics. Once all that's done, color/details can be filled in for areas where it's still lacking.

I now think this was a mistake. I had the first step right, of course. But most of the other steps I had out of order. I think I did this because many games are presented in more or less this order. To be a good game manual, it helps to inform you of the genre/setting, show how to create a character, discuss how to handle resolution of character actions, then show how by completing actions in the game the characters can advance and improve.

For game design, however, that's not the most efficient way to go about it. At worst, it ends up with a design that is incoherent (not in a Forge sense of incoherent, in the regular sense of the word). At best, it ends up with a game that is mechanically sound, but lacks something. It's one of those games that rests on the strength of the setting or genre, but the play itself is lackluster.

Part 2: How I think it should be done now. 

Step 1: Genre/Setting

Is this game going to be set in a certain genre (heroic fantasy, space opera, noir detective/crime, romance), a certain era (Ancients, WWII, the Age of Sail), a specific fictional world (made up by the author or borrowed from other media)? That will inform all other choices.

Realize that trying to design a generic or universal game system is a valid option here. The choice NOT to pick a genre/setting informs the other choices just as much as picking a specific genre or setting.

Step 2: Advancement Mechanics

Yes, you read that right. The second step in designing a game should be deciding what types of play will be rewarded and what types will not. This can be informed by genre/setting, or may be free from the constraints of the genre/setting.

To do this, you need to ask yourself what you think the players are likely to want to do, and what you would like them to do, depending on the setting/genre. In D&D, collecting treasure gains XP, as does fighting monsters. So the decision was made somewhere along the lines that this is what players are "supposed" to be doing. It doesn't mean you can't do other things, and doesn't mean you can't reward players for doing those other things. It's just the default assumption. If players have no other idea about what to do for a session, they can find a dungeon and try to bring back treasure from it.

Other games have other assumptions, so reward XP in different ways. White Wolf Storyteller System games reward XP by answering questions about the session when it's completed. And the questions inform players what they are expected to do and how they are expected to play the game. The more questions you can answer after a session, the more XP you gain.

Next, you need to consider how to apply the advancement. In class/level games, it's usually pretty simple (following the precedent of D&D). Just keep a running tally of XP, and when you hit certain milestone amounts, you gain a level. In skill/power based games, XP translates into points that can be spent to improve different aspects of the character. In a few games, advancement is randomized, making it its own little mini-game.

Step 3: Game Resolution Mechanics

Once you know what you want the players to do to get rewarded and advance, you can then design the resolution mechanics you will need for them to do so. Again, the setting/genre will affect these choices. If the game is set in a war setting, combat rules are a must. If it's set in a high school, social interaction rules and ways to track your popularity make sense.

I don't have advice on how to decide on what sort of mechanics are best for what sorts of settings/genres, or for achieving certain play goals for advancement. Whether you like the d20, or a % system, or a 2d6 system, or a playing card drawing mechanic, or a mixture of various mechanics is pretty much up to you.

Step 4: Character Creation Mechanics

Now that we have the general idea for the genre/setting, what we expect characters to do, and how we expect characters to do them, we can finally get down to the question of who are the characters and what defines them. If it's a class/level game, we need classes and levels for them to advance, and need to decide what abilities/powers they gain along the way. If it's a skill/ability based game, we need lists of skills and abilities to purchase, and point costs for them. If it's a randomized advancement game, we still need a system to determine starting abilities and a way to add more random abilities or determine what abilities improve when advancement occurs.

Step 5: Fill in all that Color

Surely some color or detail to match the setting/genre has worked its way into the game already, but there's still got to be more. This is the step where you can design the spell system, tech system, monsters, magic items or technological loot, etc. It's also where you can flesh out the default game world, if there is one. Or you can add in all those notes for adjusting things in your universal system to fit specific genres.


Like I said above, this is still just a rough idea. It's been rolling around in my head, and this is my first draft attempt to write it up. If I get some good feedback, and spend a bit more time thinking about it, I'll edit and clean it up.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Back to Blogging? Plus Chanbara content!

The OSR blogosphere lost a lot of energy five years ago or so, when most people migrated to G+. To be honest, the G+ system, while better than Facebook, was something I found lacking. Yes, you could more easily have a discussion about your gaming ideas. But it was so hard to search through the hundreds of posts every day to find stuff. Blogs are convenient in that what you want to read will be there where you look for it.

Now, most people are moving to different social media platforms. I'm on MeWe now (and keep calling it WeMe because the name is lame) but not sure I like the setup. It's like a cross between a Facebook Group and a KakaoTalk (the must-have app for chatting in Korea) group chat.

And since there are so many people posting on it, and I'm getting notifications of how much I'm missing by not being on it 24 hours a day, I'm not sure if I'll stick around there much. It's good to keep in touch with people I've come to consider friends through blogs and G+, but I envision myself posting even less often to MeWe than I did to G+.

So, will I move back here and start posting more often? We'll see. I'd like to. It's just that I have a LOT less free time than I did back in 2010, the height of this blog's output. But hopefully I can get some more quality posts up.

This one is obviously a navel-gazing post, so I'll spice it up a bit. People don't seem to talk about the JOESKY TAX anymore, but here's some gaming content for you:

Three Chanbara Lieges

 Lord Isenoumi

Want: The family lineage scrolls of the Isenoumi and his six vassal families, which were stolen by a lone wolf ninja named Ichikawa Goemon.

Need: To prove he his honorable to the Miyasuzu Shrine after its protective bell was stolen by monsters.

Secret: Has secret inside knowledge about the curse of Ghost Castle Hasegawa.

Description: Isenoumi Hatsumi, Daimyo of Enzan Province. Medium-size clan with six vassal families [Hasegawa, Ito, Oikari, Tosanoumi, Tanikaze and Enokido]. Principles – honorable yet ambitious, willing to buck tradition if they see some advantage in it. Long Term Goal – to see their heir, Tatsusuke, married to a high-ranking member of the Tokitsukaze Clan. Short Term Goals – to thwart the rise of the Kasugano Clan, to stamp out a rebellion by ikko-ikki religious fanatics, to reopen the Tama silver mine which was overrun by monsters a generation ago. Opposition – the Kasugano Clan threatens their borders, several vassal family magical heirlooms have gone missing, incursions from the Spirit Realm are increasing in Enzan Province.

Rewards Table:
500 mon: Command of 2d6 footmen
2,000 mon: A sizable stipend (100 mon/month)
5,000 mon: A magic weapon or armor
10,000 mon: A minor position of authority
25,000 mon: Command of an outpost or garrison
50,000 mon: A large grant of land
100,000 mon: A major position of authority

Azuma Shinobi

Want: To serve honorable lords and prevent corruption and decadence by the powerful.

Need: Funds to defeat the villainous Lord Takanohana

Secret: Has been cursed by the Kappa Queen to live forever but continue aging physically.

Description: Led by Master Jin, who is now 230 years old and very decrepit, although still mentally sharp. Their organization is based in ??? Province, but they have operatives all throughout the Jade Islands. The local contact Chunin for the PCs is known only as Yuukichi.

Rewards Table:

50 mon: Access to special equipment
300 mon: 1d4 specialist retainers
Completion of a Mission: A job-enhancing magic item
8,000 mon and Completion of 3 missions: Promotion to Chunin
12,500 mon: Named an instructor
15,000 mon: Command of 3d8 Genin
50,000 mon and Completion of 6 missions: Promotion to Jonin

Kawabe Jinja, Head Priest Miyazaki Shingo

Want: To impress the other local shrine priests with the glory of this shrine.

Need: To gain influence over the Miyazaki clan elder, Sugako, who opposes plans to renovate the shrine (her plans involve setting up a monopoly over the dried seaweed merchants).

Secret: Has influence over Lord Isenoumi for several deeds done in the past to aid the lord and his mother.

Description: The largest shrine in Enzan province, dedicated to the Kami of the River. The shrine employs six priests in addition to Miyazaki Shingo, and over thirty shrine maidens to assist them. The populace always visit the shrine at year's end to get new good luck charms, and at to sacrifice offerings to the River Kami at planting and harvest time.

Rewards Chart:
100 mon: Free travel papers
1000 mon: Access to a spell book
2000 mon and one mission: A minor holy relic
Thwarting Sugako's plans: Assistance on a quest
5,000 mon: Appointed proctor of the inner sanctum
25,000 mon and 3 missions: A major holy relic
100,000 mon: Named Head Priest(ess) in waiting