Thursday, April 30, 2009

Rifts and Exalted

Rifts was the very first game I ever played, and as we all know there exists a soft spot in a gamer's heart for that first game. It's that soft spot that lets us look back with fondness at even the most contrived, frustrating and poorly arbitrated scenarios with the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia.

Now unlike some, I hold very few illusions to the ultimate suckage of the Palladium Rule set. That system needs more then house rules to make it function. It actually lacks the basic mechanics to do a spot check (or awareness roll) which in my mind says the designers are as oblivious as the characters that are made in the games. Rifts mechanics are so outdated and so full of inconsistencies, imbalances and oversights that I consider it completely unplayable these days. Having said that the books are a blast from the past full of inspiration and imagery that still makes me want to play it. I want to play that Juicer, even though all those cords sticking out of him are just begging to be yanked out and shoved up his ass. I want to shoot those CS soldiers in their fancy armour that has varied soak-ability in different areas even though the combat system doesn't have a hit-location mechanic. I want to play that great Coalition Wars story that they published... if only their system actually worked.

I see hope for Rifts as the last few books for the Exalted 2nd Edition system are released. I've actually had friend's criticize Exalted in that when the Warstriders, and Powered Armour starts to come out it feels like Rifts, which might not be their thing but to me it says that it would be an easy conversion. Exalted already has a nice tidy ruleset for cybernetics they call clockwork limbs. They have rules for walking war machines, power armour, and enough powers and critters to accommodate the rifts setting. There are a few holes that I had to plug with some rules of my own, Juicer conversion has been a small pet-project of mine for one, and rules for Automatic weapons is a wholly original creation that I think is way more realistic than anything White Wolf has ever managed to work out.

Unfortunately I don't think I could ever throw anything I ever created out for the world to consume. White Wolf and Palladium would probably throw a party just to BBQ my ass, especially now that I've actually admitted that this is a project I'm working on. I'm currently waiting to see if the Autochothonian book offers any final bits of technology to finish up any conversions yet to do and then I'll probably throw together a book that looks like Rifts but has the Exalted system in it and just keep it around for game sessions with friends, then maybe I could play some Rifts again.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Coming Back to Alpha Omega

In the "before-time" or about a month ago before I started this blog I'd found out about Alpha Omega through one of the RPG Bloggers. I liked what I heard so I bought the PDF. I read through it and while being immediately impressed by the books lovely artwork and fantastic setting the dice mechanic turned me off and I reviewed it on an old blog stating that the dice mechanic was the equivalent to something both stinky and off-putting. But a part of me liked the game too much, I wanted to play this game no matter how bad the dice mechanic was so I passed the book around to a few close friends to see if they could find some redeeming qualities that would make it worth a second look. One of my friends found that quality, or more accurately he pointed out that the dice mechanic wasn't as bad as I'd made it out to be.

So currently I'm adding a bit of pepper to a crow stew that I'm preparing as I work on a try-out character. I'm determined to give this game a fair shake, it deserves that much.

A few observations currently: The navigation layout is great and I am a fan, but this book desperately needs some interactive PDF links. I don't know why they weren't included, it would make navigating through this game so much easier and I could operate entirely in Full-Screen PDF mode without having to zoom out to make use of the (admittedly very good) bookmarks. With a game this complex this would make things a lot easier. I'd put them in myself but the PDF is secure so I'm not able to.

Anyhow, back to this character, I'm thinking a Seraph Nephalim will be fun to try out. More on this later.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

An Intervention

I need to talk to you, yes you, the tabletop gaming bloggers. You're my friends, my mentors, my inspiration but I right now I need you to listen. The relationship you have with Wizards of the Coast and Dungeons and Dragons, it's not healthy, and it's not right, they're abusing you and you need to realize it.

Dungeons and Dragons is successful I won't deny that, it's dashing and still looks good even now, I know it's got lots of fans and lots of players, but you the blogging community it treats like crap. Ever since 4th edition came out I've heard about Wizards sending out legal notices to it's most adamant fans as they post material just trying to drum up some enthusiasm. They've brought out a sub standard product that even the most enthusiastic of you is starting to question the wisdom of, and now they've yanked all the PDF's away from you, even the old editions which are out of print now, and they do this while one of the original founders a man that started this great hobby lies in a hospital bed!

I've been hearing about your frustration, your dissatisfaction, your reminiscence about the "old days" when DnD loved it's fans, you're obviously not happy but still you return to them whenever they make a paltry attempt at reconciliation with another sub-standard supplement. Wizards doesn't deserve fans like you, and it's becoming more and more apparent that they don't want your loyalty and your encouragement.

Look at how Paizo and White Wolf are treating their fans, and their fans aren't half as loyal as you are to DnD. Those companies would bend over backwards to have fans as loyal as you.

And don't give me that crap about how they're just misunderstood, that pulling PDF's is just a sly marketing move. That's BS and you know it, if they actually gave a crap about you guys then they would have announced an alternative source for digital material AS THEY PULLED THEM. They didn't.

So please, take a good long look at the relationship you have with DnD and decide where you stand because frankly I'm sick of seeing this cycle of abuse played over and over again across the internet. Dungeons and Dragons is not the only Role Playing product out there and the sooner you and Wizards of the Coast realize this the better it will be for us all.

How I Role: Gaming Online

I have another life, a life that isn't filled with magic, but has lots of adventure. A life where I venture out into the wild unknowns and work with my allies to bring forth a great energy from the bowels of the earth. It's kinda weird explaining that I have "another" life to role-players, usually the explanations like that are the other way around. (Not that I'd EVER explain Role-Playing as "another life" that's just creepy.)

In plainer terms I work out in the Canadian oilfields most of the time and as you can imagine, being out in the mountains 200 miles from nowhere for a month at a time makes it pretty hard to keep a regular game scheduled. But I've been at this for nearly a decade and I'm proud to say that my gaming has hardly missed a stride.

The wonders of technology - my beloved macbook, a cellular modem, and a cell booster - have allowed me to take my gaming to a new medium and I've been at it long enough that I can honestly say; when it comes to gaming on the internet my shit is tight!

It must have been a bit surreal when I contacted one of the RPG Bloggers over the internet and asked him if he wanted to play in one of my games out of the blue. Even to the most net-savvy gaming vets, the idea of gaming online doesn't hold up to the traditional method and the idea of gaming over the net still strikes most as decidedly "experimental". Something few long-time acquaintances in the blogosphere might take a stab-at to see if it might work, rather than something a relatively new online acquaintance would just offer out of the blue. Regrettably I think schepticsim won-out and he graciously declined my offer, but I'm a persistent stalker so I won't give up. He will be mine oh-yes!

Creepy internet stalking aside, to me online gaming is the norm, not the exception. The tools of my trade are honed to a fine edge, the method of choice: text-based chat over Skype, using a web-page die roller that has a running log of the rolls it makes for everyone to see so to keep us honest. Many might think that text-based IM chatting would be slow, and it is, but that's the only drawback. The benefits of IM chatting over skype are numerous and easily make up for the ponderous speed:

• Skype lets you make rooms with any number of players and allows you to make as many as you want so side rooms are simple, allowing an out-of character room, private discussions, a main room for everyone and a side room for just a few to all be going on at once.

•Skype keeps your history forever!!! Even if you're not online. Game rooms don't vanish at the end of the game either so one game room can span multiple games. If a player misses a session the history will refresh it's self for that player the next time another member of that room is online at the same time as him. Search functions will let you look back at any point in a game as far back as it ever existed. Can't remember the name of that elven innkeeper you encountered 3 years ago? Looking back through the history will find it.

•Skype doesn't limit post size. You can post huge pre-written descriptions of the new kingdom the players entered and the client doesn't balk at all. Got a pesky rules lawyer that won't shut up? Copy the rule out of the book and post it in an out of character room to shut him up. (Rules-lawyers: attempt this on your GM's at your own risk.)

•Skype has FANTASTIC file transfer capabilities. It rarely ever drops a transfer, even if one party has a crappy dialup connection that cuts out often. Skype will simply wait until the connection comes up again and continue transferring the file. Great for sharing game data or passing character sheets.

•I generally use the IM client because out in the mountains my connection can be sketchy and some of my players have similar problems, but if you have a good connection and a microphone on your computer there's no reason why you can't supplement your IM role-playing with some VoIP when the situation requires.

These features allow for a much more fluid gaming environment then most are likely used-to. The history saving and asides, and the fact that the rooms don't go away allow players to casually role-play outside of set game sessions, and the fact that the GM can look over the history later can keep him in the loop. This allows players to get further into character than would be comfortable in a more traditional game because they don't have to use up valuable quest time chatting about how they prefer their steak done. They can carry out in-game romances in private, allowing the GM to capitalize on the dramatic tension by having villains threaten the ones they love. And most of all it keeps the player clearly separate from the character he's playing allowing for much greater immersion.

My games over Skype are supplemented with excel character sheets, online group drawing for tactical maps, I edit blueprints with photoshop, and have been known to put together little setting booklets on PDF for when my players enter a new city. I'm available off hours if a player has a question or wants to do the occasional side quest, and quite honestly I type more eloquently than I speak. So when I say; "my shit is tight" I mean for you to be impressed because somewhere between the massive modern MMO's and the archaic PBEM's of yesteryear is what I do, and it is a sublime place indeed.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Issues I Have With Exalted and Their Fixes: Martial Arts

As I've explained previously, my current favorite tabletop RPG is Exalted. I started playing exalted back just before I graduated and fell in love with the epic setting and Wuxian feel. I've often gravitated to more restrictive rule-sets and settings where characters have to survive by their wits rather than any particular edge they might have, but Exalted is the exception to that, while you still need to survive by your wits, the main characters are often vastly more powerful than the average person in the game world, this new perspective was refreshing to me because it allowed me to escape into a power fantasy without feeling guilty for breaking the game. Over time I abandoned playing in Exalted games because those that I did play in felt like they were arbitrarily limiting what the characters were supposed to be doing with all that power, and I started running games that were as epic as I thought they should be.

One of the major Wuxian aspects of the game are the powerful martial arts available. Martial Arts meld mysticism and combat to create combat like Dragonball Z mixed with Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. Mechanically the different Martial Art Styles are available to a wider array of character types and offer exceptional versatility in combat while allowing for you to customize the style your character fights in with a particular weapon. The down-side is that the power trees are quite large and often to gain full effectiveness of a given martial art you need to spend more Experience Points to yield the same capabilities that would be gained from a more focused combat ability much cheaper.

Martial Arts are a pivotal part of the game and they add a lot of flavor, however Second Edition has a few anachronisms carried over from first edition that I think should have been addressed. One of them is the fact that a lot of Martial Arts effects step on other Ability's toes. There's a Martial Art that is based entirely on Singing, and some of the higher-level Martial Arts do Occult-Based abilities like countering magic far cheaper and more effectively than even the Occult charms can. The fact that Martial Arts also allows you to use particular "form" weapons with the Martial Arts ability means that it makes other combat abilities such as Melee, Thrown and even Archery and Dodge somewhat redundant allowing for min-maxing to an extent. There are also certain weapons that are deemed solely "Martial Arts" weapons for no reason other than common association rather than any particular ergonomic reasoning.

These issues though they might seem like they would require a vast overhaul of the Martial Arts rules are actually easily remedied with a few simple tweaks. One of the things I constantly preach is that game design needs to be based on solid fundamentals, and for the most part, Exalted's fundamentals are solid which means minor changes are often all that's needed. The first thing to do is change the Martial Arts ability to Unarmed and detach all the Martial Arts charms from any one particular ability. Martial Arts are depicted as versatile power sets that defy boundaries so we don't need to tie them to any one ability. With no Martial Arts ability anymore I have to reassign the Martial Arts weapons to other Abilities. I choose to make my choices based on ergonomics, any weapon that requires swinging like a staff or hook sword is now under Melee, weapons that are an extension of a fist or kick attack such as iron boots or tiger claws are still governed under unarmed, (knives too are part of this). And any rope or chain weapon are governed under the Thrown ability. Clinching attacks from rope weapons are rolled as unarmed attacks.

After those two solutions are implemented all that's left is to change the Ability prerequisites for the Martial Arts charms to whatever abilities are most applicable. If the charm supplements an unarmed attack then it's prerequisite is the Unarmed Ability, if it Supplements a Unarmed Attack and has an Occult-based effect as well then the prerequisites are Unarmed and Occult and so-on. The designations are pretty clear cut and don't require much interpretation, so they're quite easy to implement on the fly. Lastly while Melee, Archery or Thrown might not be part of the prerequisites, if the style has a "form weapon" that is governed under one of those abilities, to use the charms with that weapon the character must still roll the appropriate skill. This cuts down on min-maxing and allows for the ability charms melee, archery and thrown to be less obsolete and actually supplement the Martial Arts charms allowing to supplement the often more esoteric MA charms with the effective straightforwardness of the Ability specific charms, something the game designers always intended but has been a bit of a grey area within the rules.

These changes allow the Martial Arts to retain their significance and great Wuxian feel without making other abilities irrelevant but are by no means necessary to make the game fun. They do help though.

Issues I Have With Exalted and Their Fixes: Linguistics

As you might have guessed by now, I have a slightly inappropriate man-love for White Wolf's Exalted game which borders on the mildly obsessive. It's not the only game on my shelf, but it's the one I have the most experience with and feel most comfortable running. That's a big thing for a lot of GM's I know, comfort, it's why D&D is so popular, because people are comfortable with it, it's familiar and safe, and being that I've ran my longest running games in Exalted that's what it is for me.

However I do have some issues with the game, and some of those issues can be resolved with a few house rules. I don't usually house rule the games I run, my opinion is that if a game is so bad that I need to overhaul it, I should just run a different game. There are plenty of great games out there and I have money so why not spend it on a product that doesn't suck I say. So in-general my house rules aren't implemented because something doesn't work, but more about personal preference or that I believe my way might capture the feel of the game more effectively.

The first house rule I ever implemented in Exalted was to do with Languages. As written, the game makes it impossible to learn every language in the game. The number of Languages a character speaks is tied to the Linguistics skill which ranges from 1 to 5. You get 1 native language off the bat and 1 additional language per dot in Linguistics, meaning at Linguistics 5 (a legendary level) you know exactly 6 languages. Languages in Exalted are organized according to the overall geographical area they encompass while individual territories have their own dialects of these languages, it's assumed that once you know the main directional language of a region you can understand all the individual dialects. The main available languages are High-Realm and Low Realm (basically noble and peasant languages of the central continent), Skytongue, Seatongue, Forestspeak, Firetongue, Riverspeak, Guildcant, (a secret language of a worldwide merchant organization) and Old Realm (the ancient tongue of lost civilizations). Which means there are 9 languages that can be known in the game, not counting any of the barbarian languages or the secret claw runes of the beast people (not common but it does suck up a Linguistics dot).

So my solution was this, it makes sense that nobles and peasants in the realm would speak differently, but Exalted was a game about exceptional folks so for the High Realm and Low Realm languages I decided that if you had a dot in linguistics and spoke either High or Low then you spoke both. If a character had no linguistics training at all but was native to the Realm he would only speak one. To me this made sense. After that I decided that the 4th and 5th dots in Linguistics would be worth 2 additional languages respectively. That would mean that a character with linguistics 4 would know 6 languages, or 7 if one of them was a Realm Tongue, and a character with Linguistics 5 would know 8 or 9, which would effectively allow him to know every language in the game, which I think is appropriate for someone with an epic level of ability.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Either You Die the Villain or You Live Long Enough to Become the Hero

I don't see morality in black and white. To me everyone has a reason for what they do often to them that reason is justified. This worldview permeates everything I do, my politics, my writing, my sense of justice, and my gaming. Some players struggle with the games I run because the villains are not clear cut bad-guys, especially the ones at the top, and often the challenge in killing them isn't the formidable power that they have, but the moral quandary that's presented once the scope of their plans are laid out before the PC's.

Along with Burn Notice, Farscape is a show that I find continual gaming inspiration from and one of the reasons for this is that I love how they do villains. Every major villain in Farscape that survives inevitably helps the protagonists at some point later. Even the minor adversaries have been known to be useful from time to time. I've always enjoyed the standoffs during grudging alliances and I've even let my heart strings become tugged at as a former villain redeems himself in an act of martyrdom. To me it seems like a more complete victory than a simple bullet to the cranium for the heroes to actually convert the villains to seek redemption.

On the flip side often allies can be duplicitous and self serving even as they aide people. Good people have been known to do bad things for good reasons, and often a person who becomes too good becomes so egotistical that they ignore the small sufferings in their pursuit of the higher good.

I've found these grey moralities fascinate me. My favorite character to play was an egotistical drug addict with enough chips on his shoulder to file diamonds, but his redeeming quality was loyalty and that he stood up for the little guy. My favorite villain NPC was a Scorpius clone from Farscape. A corrupted god who had two forms, one a mass of writhing maggots and the other a sleezy man in a white suit. He was a corruptor and a manipulator, exalting his adversaries as heroes as he undermined their goodness and slowly steered them towards his own ends. The players hated him because he messed with their heads, and I loved him because as much as they hated him they often did what he wanted anyways.

It would be my hope that my best villains inevitably come to redeem themselves. Or at the very least if they're killed by the protagonists that the do-gooders eventually come to continue their old adversary's "good" works out of necessity.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Start of a Design Manifesto for Social Rules

Social mechanics in Role Playing games is a touchy subject. The idea of having a system of numbers and dice to dictate how effectively your character talks while the player himself is in-fact already doing the speaking comes across as arbitrary and in the worst cases could force players to role-play their characters in ways they do not wish to. There is also the instance where the Player might give a very flimsy argument but the dice roll indicates that it was very effective.

Many long-time tabletop role-players believe that social mechanics actually impede roleplay, some even go so far as to rebuke and ridicule those who might believe otherwise. I've been on dozens of blogs where a Dungeons and Dragons advocate has attacked a commenter who laments Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition's lack of definitive social rules as "not a real role-player". I disagree with the sentiment, logic, and lack of respect for a fellow hobbiest that those attacks bear. I've been known to be somewhat inflammatory in my time but I won't attack a peer's personal opinion, though I may attempt to sway it. Nonetheless I do take heed of these role playing purists' arguments when I look at Hardkore's social mechanics and how I want to implement them.

The first thing I started to look at is how do people play out a social interaction and when does the result of that come into contest?

Some games, especially those conducted over a Play By E-Mail or online Chat thrive on long-drawn out conversations and debates where every nuance of the Character's actions are described in graphic detail. Other times the cut-and-thrust of a social debate is bundled into a quick, abstract summary and subsequently resolved by a die roll. Both of these approaches are completely valid and both have their place in all games, and of course there are degrees between the two that exist as well. Ultimately the emphasis of one technique over another depends on the type of game it is. A game of political intrigue would likely contain more of the first technique, while a series of dungeon crawls punctuated by short trips into town to negotiate the sale of the group's spoils would certainly do fine using mostly the second one.

From that logic there comes a design choice; should a designer create two sets of social mechanics to resolve either kind of play or will one encompass them all? I lean to the trend that one mechanic to resolve both techniques is best but that mechanic needs to be of solid fundamentals and versatile.

So we'll start with the fundamentals, and the first question we need to ask ourselves are what are the mechanics going to effect? If they make a character behave a certain way how is this going to be enforced? And lastly what are the mechanics for resisting?

To me the things that social mechanics need to effect are; deception, manipulation of both emotions and rationalizations, leadership and guidance, and ingratiating people to you (or etiquette). Or in simpler terms; lying to them, convincing them to do things or react the way you want, leading, teaching, and making people like you. All of these can be influenced by variables beyond simply describing what a character is doing or conducting a dialog. I can't think of anymore but any suggestions to what I might have missed are welcome.

Next comes enforcement. Enforcement of a deception is easy, you simply tell the player or determine what it is that the NPC believes to be the case. Manipulating people socially is harder, many players don't like the GM telling them how their character thinks so there has to be a way of bypassing social influence at a cost. The cost can be a penalty to dice rolls due to the internal conflict of the character, or a loss of a temporary expendable trait. The question is how severe this penalty is and how long should it last and/or how precious is this expendable trait really and does it have other purposes? If the game incorporates personality mechanics and/or morality mechanics there can be additional modifiers due to those. The penalty idea is one that we'll likely use, though I'm open to ideas for other methods of enforcement if anyone's seen ones they like.

The last is resistance, which is trickier than you would think because it often depends on play-style. Often times it's hard to distinguish who is attacking and who is defending in a debate, which makes it tricky to resolve ties. Social play isn't like combat where the attacks can be the result of the die-roll, instead the die roll has to supplement the role-playing rather than become it. Timing becomes important if you do a "social health level" system such as Exalted's but if enforcement comes from a penalty system then timing doesn't mean as much as simply determining the modifiers that are applied to the role-playing and then seeing if the character's social agenda is carried out successfully or not. To that end I believe the "attacker" is the person rolling to carry out his agenda while the defender is the character rolling (or using static values) to maintain his current social orientation.

This of course needs refining but I think here is the groundwork for a good system to implement for Hardkore, it's going to be more complicated than I originally expected so I'll have to streamline it once I get the basics down.