To End an Era of Exp, Part 3

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Experience points started off the hobby as a necessary (or at least convenient) tool for allowing characters to grow. But the evolution of systems has trended towards the more granular and the evolution of game play has trended towards more coherent stories. It’s questionable why many games still rely on exp for advancement, but first we need to understand the power of advancement itself.

Conditioning

Back in 2005, Dan Bayn wrote a very persuasive article about Advancement Addiction. To sum up: psychological conditioning theories potentially indicate that linking character rewards to game play makes players increasingly crave these rewards and associate them with fun. Experience (and advancement in general) isn’t just a convenient counter to justify a character gradually growing more competent, but is a powerful psychological driver in itself. Players of games with any form of classic advancement begin to confuse the advancement with the fun. Try an experiment at your game table:

  1. Run an all-out, dramatically exciting game session that hits stated character in-story goals, but claim that kind of session doesn’t count for advancement rewards.
  2. Run a pretty slow and mundane session (maybe a combat slog with boring foes), but give out a bunch of advancement afterwards.
  3. Get your players to give their honest assessment of perceived fun and which type of session they’d like to see more of.
  4. Now do the same thing again but flip which session gives rewards and see how that changes opinions.

Clearly, you’re hoping your players are cool enough to realize the trap you’re setting and admit that the better game was better. But even excellent players having an excellent time still miss the thrill of building up their characters, as Harbinger of Doom mentions in his Spirit of the Century actual play writeup. There’s anecdotal evidence that players that primarily focus on indie games without much in the way of advancement can get over the urge, but I think it’s pretty reasonable to suggest that most players of classic RPGs are conditioned to expect rewards in the form of our characters kicking more ass the more we play. Somehow it doesn’t feel fun to have a character that doesn’t get more powerful, even if the character started out with tremendous power to start with (start a Nobilis game with double the suggested character build points and then count the sessions until the players start asking when they can make their literal demigods more powerful).

So advancement addiction is a hard thing to overcome, and you may not even want to. But why does exp make everything worse?

Reinforcement Schedules

Experience, by its nature, is designed to make advancement more granular. You don’t get a level or even just a skill point, but a collection of experience points that can be traded for such once a certain accumulation is reached. Experience is generally, by virtue of being so granular, designed to be awarded at variable rates. In classic use, you defeat a goblin for X exp and an orc for Y. In more story-based games, you get X for a slow session and Y for a session where a lot was accomplished. Experience awards explicitly reinforce doing the stuff the game/GM wants you to do vs. doing other stuff (potentially more fun stuff, if experience is not correctly synched).

The classic example (exp for monster defeats) is the one that frames all understanding of exp awards. Awarding experience for more difficult defeats implicitly creates a world in which defeating challenging opponents is the most valuable teaching tool. This is not necessarily wrong, but leads to all player characters essentially being violent thrill seekers each looking for the next challenging fight. Sure, they prioritize threats for all the classic reasons—stealing treasure, defending innocents, pursuing a villain—but the classic style means that it’s a completely valid choice to rough up targets that could be just as easily left alone (i.e., who runs from random encounters?). Classic experience awards incentivize making every PC a bully.

Variable rewards certainly have their uses, of course. Sometimes a GM has to rely on the exp card to get players to tackle a challenge in a way that’s probably more fun for everyone (e.g., face the tunnel of challenges or hire a pack of sherpas to guide you safely to the other side of the mountain?). It provides a carrot for players when there’s no reasonable in-story justification for doing things (always remember. though, that the stick version of the same behavior is often called “Railroading”).

Ultimately, however, most GMs cheat, especially when there is a big change in power with each level. If the next big part of your campaign involves a lot of challenges appropriate to 5th level characters, you probably don’t want to let the characters get much past or short of 5th before they get there. So monsters get added if the players are falling behind and taken away if they’re getting far enough ahead, all based on some kind of dogmatic interpretation of how many encounters the game designers thought was appropriate between each level.

Module series are forced to do this shamelessly: if Module 1 starts at 1st level and Module 2 expects the characters to be around 4th level, you can count up the exp awards from every fight in the book and see that the module writer made sure you’d get pretty much exactly to the right spot for Module 2. If your players skip fights, you’ll need to make up the exp somewhere. If you add any improvisation on your own part, you may want to scale back something from the official text. In many ways, the GM is trapped using a mathematical system to attempt to justify “this is a 4th level adventure so I want you to be 4th level now.”

Maybe you buy into the math, and you carefully arrange it all to add up. I know I frequently just start going holistic: “it feels like it makes sense for you to level up now.” The GM may or may not continue the fiction of experience points and their relationship to character advancement, but, in a tabletop game, it’s actually not really that big of a deal. A competent GM will make sure to lay out challenges that feel reasonable and give out experience or just pure advancement when it seems appropriate. In a GM-run game, I feel like experience points are generally an unnecessary complication for an already worrisome addiction to advancement, but it ultimately doesn’t matter because the GM can compensate to make the fun and the advancement continue to line up.

The real problem is that video games don’t have a GM.

Skinner Box

To paraphrase a quote of forgotten attribution, “Gary Gygax doesn’t have to let you keep fighting goblins if it’s not fun anymore, even if they’re still worth exp.” When a GM is running a game, it’s very unlikely that the players will be able to experiment fighting with a bunch of different monsters and then choose to only fight the monsters with the best risk to reward ratio until they level up and then start going after bigger targets with an even better risk to reward ratio. You can’t decide goblins are an easier fight than kobolds and then only fight goblins until you feel capable of moving on to the easier of ogres and worgs.

In video games, players do this all the time.

As mentioned in the first post in this series, “adding RPG elements” to a video game almost always includes exp. Computers are great at counting things. If a goblin is worth 1 exp, a computer can give you an accurate exp count after going through a whole warren of goblins without missing a beat. Theoretically, computers are also way more impartial than a GM, so the exp numbers that would likely get fudged in a tabletop game can be rock solid. Hell, there’s often a benefit for letting a player keep fighting stuff at the current level until he wants more challenge and moves on.

But the problem is that computer games automate the problem too well. A variable reinforcement conditioning that is debatable behind a tabletop game is so obvious as to be a running joke about video games, especially MMOs like World of Warcraft. Click the attack button a few times and you get a reward! Click it enough and you get a big prize! It’s very clearly a Skinner Box, and a lot of that is due not just to rigid interpretation of the awarding of exp, but due to the capacity to choose targets.

That’s right, we’re talking about grind (and we have been this entire series!).

Just to pick an example that fits my MMO of choice at the moment, City of Heroes features a wide variety of high-level enemy groups. One group uses a lot of crowd control and stays at range. Another has lieutenants that are completely impervious half the time and all of them drain endurance when they die. Still another turns invisible and always drops piles of slowing effects at your feet until you can barely move. Then there’s a group that does basically normal damage, automatically clusters up for area effect attacks if you’ll let them, and their major trick is that, when you defeat them, they sometimes resurrect themselves with less powers so you can defeat them for exp again. I’ve never really been in a pickup group where the members wanted to fight anything else but Freakshow if they could help it.

As a designer of video RPGs, particularly MMORPGs, the use of experience points has the subtle and invasive effect of causing your player behavior to flow like water seeking the lowest point: an unfortunate mass of your players will eventually hit on the behavior with the best time or risk to reward ratio in the game, and perform that behavior far more often than the fun inherent in the behavior supports. They can’t help it, everything in the game told them that leveling up is fun, and, in fact, implied that it’s the whole point. They’ll murder Freakshow, Earth Revenants, or your game’s grind-mob du jour for hours and hate you for how boring it is, while hundreds of more interesting fights await them. With exp in play, you can’t make players participate in things because it’s more fun unless you also make it worth a better exp ratio. Sure, you can write quests, but that just shifts the goalpost. As soon as you have one category of quest that gives better rewards no matter what it’s about, watch the players do that category more.

At the end of the day, if your game has exp your player has a number on his screen (perhaps represented as a colored bar). You have taught that player not only that making that number go higher is fun, but that it is implicitly the point of your game. It doesn’t matter how well written and scripted your quest or how interesting the AI is on your monster, its success and failure will really come down to whether there’s anything else comparable that makes the exp number go up faster. The only solution is to discard exp entirely.

And if you’ve followed me along this far and are now screaming, “oh yeah, even if I buy that it’s a good idea to kick out one of the core features of every RPG video game, what would I do instead!?” then I ask for only one more week of your patience. Next week, in the final installment of this series, I’ll talk about things you might do instead to replace exp with something less conducive to grind.

System Review: FATE 3.0, Part 2

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1920s Pulp

As noted last week, Spirit of the Century was the first iteration of FATE 3.0. In addition to a very nice printed edition (especially for an indie publisher without a lot of prior print experience), publication was followed shortly be a full, OGL-compliant version of the system, free online. Shortly after that, the Evil Hat Wiki began including variant rules sets. As mentioned in the introduction, this would lead to the system getting used and modified in games from other publishers, such as Starblazer Adventures and Diaspora. All of these playtested additions would be considered for inclusion in Dresden Files.

But what about the original Spirit of the Century rules? What did they do right out of the box, and what could use some tweaking (hopefully incorporated by Dresden Files)?

Bias and Experience

I got my copy of Spirit of the Century as a preorder, and have been taking pieces of it as inspiration for other games ever since. My experience on the player’s side of the GM screen is limited to one short con game. I ran several long sessions of the game as a GM last year. Suffice it to say that my play experience isn’t as thorough as I would like, but is more than sufficient to test of the system in a variety of ways (especially since the sessions I ran were deliberately varied to try out different system aspects).

Part of the issue is that pulp isn’t truly in my comfort zone as a GM or player; I lack sufficient historical knowledge of the 20s to really feel comfortable riffing. A large part of the reason I only ran for around half a dozen sessions is simply the difficulty of doing enough research for every session to feel like I was doing the setting justice. Functionally, that meant, for me, that a book advertised as a “pick up” game wound up being more work than I had expected. I can’t fault the system for that at all, and the book even includes some very helpful GM advice for setting up games that significantly eased my load (though I can’t technically praise the mound of GM advice as a virtue of the system, as it’s all very system-agnostic; but it is, IMO, worth the price of the book and not included in the provided System Reference Document).

Despite my need to put more work into running a game than seems intended (and, most likely, because of it), I feel comfortable discussing how the system plays. However, as one final caveat, my preferences (and the preferences of most of my players) tend towards the toolkit rather than the designer styles of play. Some of the rules I’m not fond of may play far better in an “author stance” than in a “player stance” (as I believe the parlance goes).

Fate Points, Aspects, and Refresh

As I discussed last week, the core of the FATE system is, unsurprisingly, Fate Points. These are a variation on what is becoming increasingly common: Inspiration (from Adventure!), Drama Points (from Cinematic Unisystem), Plot Points (from Cortex), and even Action Points (from d20). Functionally, they’re an out-of-game mechanic representing all the fortune, inner strength, and dramatic power that would normally be given to a hero out of authorial fiat in a novel or movie.

Without any Aspects in play, Fate points may be spent to gain a small bonus after rolling (+1), insert a favorable coincidence into the narrative (make a declaration), or (in the most blurry situation between in-game and out-of-game-resource) power certain potent special abilities (stunts). In practice, Fate points rarely get used for these effects, because their use through Aspects is so much more potent.

An Aspect is, as discussed, the system’s replacement for attributes. Instead of a consistent, numerical bonus, characters have a list of (hopefully interesting) adjectives, nouns, and short phrases that define most of the character’s non-skill competence. Not only player characters have Aspects: NPCs and even locations have them as well. Most of the time, an Aspect is the X in “because of X, I can do Y:” they’re justifications for the character doing better than skill and luck would indicate.

Aspects are generally powered by Fate points: they don’t do anything beyond giving the GM a rough idea of what might interest a character unless a Fate point is expended through the Aspect (Invoking it if it’s on the character’s sheet, Tagging it if it’s anywhere else). Characters that use an Aspect in this manner may choose between a bigger bonus to a roll (+2), rerolling entirely (statistically less useful than the +2 unless you rolled really low), or making a declaration with more narrative “oomph” (e.g., it’s much easier to justify the coincidence of being armed with an aspect like “I always have a gun”).

In addition to their positive uses, Aspects are subject to “compels:” the GM offers the player extra Fate points to do something counterproductive but in keeping with the character’s background. A character with “Solace in a bottle” might be drunk at the worst possible moment, another with “I can take ‘em” might start up a fight scene when talking is wiser, and one with “Hey, that’s my sister!” might abandon a fight to save an important NPC. Compels are designed to reward the player for making the game more interesting with the character’s flaws and are pretty much the only way to recover Fate points spent during a session.

I’m a huge fan of Aspects. Ever since FATE 2.0, I’ve been house ruling some variation of them onto every game I run where I think I can get away with it. They’re simply a highly effective way of encouraging roleplay: the player is more effective when pursuing the character’s personal strengths, and the player gets rewarded by playing up the character’s flaws. They’re easy to add to a game and tend to improve it in ways that simply adding a generic hero point mechanic doesn’t.

That said, their implementation in Spirit of the Century has a few flaws:

  • At its core, the biggest problem is that players simply have too many Aspects. SotC characters get ten of them. Players have enough room to tailor at least one Aspect to count for virtually any situation the character might willingly undertake. It’s easy to make an Aspect that will almost always be relevant for any of the character’s good skills, include a couple of Aspects useful in a variety of conflict situations, and still have a couple of Aspects to spare. Meanwhile, this many Aspects means that it’s almost impossible for a GM to really keep track of them all. In a group of four players, the GM has 40 situations that can be Compelled.
  • This flows directly into the second problem, which is the flow of Fate points at the table. SotC characters have a Refresh of 10: they start each session with ten Fate points (more if they saved up during the last session). Meanwhile, it can be terrifically hard to keep track of what can be Compelled, and game advice is that Compels shouldn’t be easy choices (the character should actually suffer a decent bit from accepting a Compel). In my game, this resulted in a really disastrous pattern of Fate point usage. In the first session, the players saw this huge stack of tokens and started spending them freely on rolls that they found interesting (as they should have). But the points didn’t come back as fast as they’d expected (due to my difficulty remembering to Compel in the middle of running a game, and trying to keep some constraints on keeping player-suggested Compels from having no teeth). So they started hording them in later sessions, afraid to use them early in the session for fear of running out, then each having at least half a dozen left to trivialize the climax of the session.
  • The third problem (a distant third) is simply the assumption that all locations and NPCs have Aspects as well. Perhaps I’m not as good at running by the seat of my pants as I like to think, but coming up with interesting and relevant Aspects for everything in the world on the fly wound up being pretty challenging. So using them correctly wound up intensifying my prep work for each session. And, having done this work, it made locations and NPCs less disposable, so it was a constant effort to avoid railroading my players to make sure they got use out of them. The sad thing was, due to problems one and two, the players almost never tried to use Aspects on locations and NPCs (unless the Tag was free): they didn’t spend Fate points freely, and, when they did, they likely had relevant personal Aspects.

Long story short: Aspects and Fate points are an amazing mechanic, but SotC hands out too many up front and makes it too hard to use them as intended during the game. Perhaps a lot of my problem had to do with running for five or six players and trying to cram a whole adventure into an afternoon session, but I think these problems would simply be reduced, not fixed, by more breathing room during a session (fewer players and less impetus to hustle).

When they work, they work beautifully, but SotC’s implementation of Aspects and Fate points generates a lot of headaches for the GM.

Part 3

To End an Era of Exp, Part 2

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Last week, I gave my (potentially ill-informed) explanation of why the concept of experience points entered the hobby at its earliest moments. Exp was simply the best solution for the design goals at the time. But times quickly began to change…

The Rise of Story

Anecdotes tend to point to Dragonlance as one of the (if not the) first official module series that included a story. Players had likely begun playing that way long before, but modules had always been much more focused on simply providing a venue for play: here is a dungeon, here is how your players can get into it, here are things they will find when they explore it. It didn’t need much of a story to be useful, as it provided an interesting place to fight bad guys who had treasure.

Dragonlance was a departure. It wasn’t just a setting that had novel tie-ins featuring stories set in the world. It was a module series specifically intended to make playing through the novels possible. The Dragonlance novels are a well-regarded fantasy epic, and you could produce a reasonable approximation of the events within simply by playing through the modules. Within the modules there were villains, and countdown timers, and quests, and other techniques that were fairly uncommon at the time to mold the play experience into the feel of a fantasy epic.

The modules did very well and became the model for most subsequent printed adventures. Quickly, the official examples of what constituted an RPG session became less Howard and more Tolkien: treasure and glory more and more became side effects of the pursuit of much grander goals. The PCs weren’t just trying to get rich and level up, they were trying to save the world, or at least accomplish much more character-specific long term goals than wealth and power.

By the 1990s, this had become so much the default method of play that a series of games that flat out replaced the moniker of “dungeon master” with “storyteller” became the new hotness in RPG circles. Most games abandoned the concept of levels entirely, instead relying on more granular improvement that was easier to map to non-game experience: in fantasy stories, characters rarely improve all their skills at once (save perhaps between novels). In fact, the core assumptions of the hobby had changed pretty drastically:

  • Advancement was largely granular, increasing stats individually
  • There was a renewed effort to balance characters mechanically against one another (even, perhaps especially, in games that still retained levels)
  • PCs in-game tracked progress by their accomplishment of goals set before them, be they personal or for the good of civilization; characters might even come out of chargen with all the wealth and glory they’d ever want
  • Death became less and less common, as allowing a character to die unexpectedly would ruin all the plot threads the GM had invented to tie that character and his or her goals to the world and story

But, despite these shifted assumptions, almost everyone still used exp…

System Review: FATE 3.0, Part 1

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The Most Mainstream of the Indie Game Producers…

Around about 2005, Evil Hat Productions announced that they’d received the license to make the Dresden Files RPG. To me, this seemed like an amazing match of both systems and timing, as I’d recently discovered both FATE 2.0 and the Dresden Files novels, and was a big fan of both. Prior to this announcement, Evil Hat had just been a couple of guys releasing a free rules set on the internet, who, it turned out, happened to be friends with an up-and-coming modern fantasy novelist that could think of no one better to translate his baby to an RPG. Between an already well-received first system and a license with major geek-cred, Evil Hat seemed to overnight have to turn into a full production company.

There were more than a few roadblocks in this transition, by the developers’ own admission. They announced too soon, started with a rules set that wound up needing more development than they’d realized, and just plain weren’t ready to become a mainstream RPG publisher as fast as they thought they’d be. When the Dresden Files RPG finally came out in 2010, they had gone through quite a lot of changes in both their company and their game engine, but were still straddling an interesting line between mainstream game studio and indie press.

Regardless of the classification of the studio, the interesting part of the transition is that it was bookended by two distinctive versions of the FATE 3.0 rules set. The first of these, released the year or so after the announcement, was Spirit of the Century. A well-received pulp action game in its own right (getting a cover blurb touting its superiority by the designer of the previously best received pulp-action game), it was also a stealth playtest for the new rules engine. It was released as mostly open source, featured a wiki incorporating lots of developer suggestions for alternate rules, and was used as a basis for several other indie games. The feedback of what worked and what didn’t informed the eventual development of the DFRPG over the next few years.

So, beyond any other elements of game design, FATE 3.0 is an amazing example of system design in progress. Version 2.0 is freely available on the internet. The first version of 3.0 is available under the OGL even if you don’t have SotC. The DFRPG is theoretically the culmination of around four years of the most widespread and democratic playtesting ever undertaken in the tabletop industry.

This review series will be longer than normal, as it will begin by analyzing the system present in Spirit of the Century. I’ll then take a comparative look at the Dresden Files RPG to determine what seems to have been learned, what was improved, and what still might be lacking in a system that is now more widely used as a basis for tabletop RPGs than anything but d20.

Core Mechanics

In all of its incarnations, FATE rests on two major components: Fate points and their relationship to Aspects, and a FUDGE-derived skill system.

The use of Aspects and Fate points changed significantly between 2.0 and 3.0, but still retains a lot of core motivation. Effectively, FATE proposes the theory that character attributes are not nearly as omnipresent in fiction as they are traditionally used in RPGs. The signature example in 2.0 is that, in The Three Musketeers, while Porthos is described as quite strong, it doesn’t seem to give him nearly the advantage it would in a swordfight modeled under most RPG rules for Strength. Instead, FATE relies on Aspects instead of Attributes: adjectives or phrases that indicate something about the character that can provide an advantage or drawback only when it is interesting.

This is managed, in the 3.0 versions, by the wedding of Fate points to the Aspects on a character. Whenever a character’s Aspect is germane to a situation, a player may spend a Fate point to gain a reroll or bonus to a roll that is more significant than spending the point without a relevant Aspect. A character with the “Strong” Aspect can do better than expected on contests that could be considered strength-related, but only if the player is willing to spend a Fate point. Meanwhile, the primary method to recover Fate points is to be hindered by Aspects: a character with a “Weak” Aspect isn’t constantly inferior to stronger characters in a fight, and will receive a Fate point from the GM if his weakness actually provides a hindrance. Interestingly, players are encouraged to come up with Aspects that can be both beneficial and detrimental in different circumstances. A character with a “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry…” Aspect receives Fate points for going into a berserk rage and can spend them on combat rolls during that rage, both through the same Aspect.

The rolls themselves are based on the FUDGE system. Characters select a single skill to represent competency at a task. It is not generally added to anything else on the sheet, though may by modified by special abilities, situational modifiers, and related skills. Skills range from 0-5 (and are pegged to a scale of adjectives from Mediocre to Superb that I have a really hard time remembering, don’t find terribly useful, and find annoying when rules reference the adjective instead of the number). During a challenge, players roll four dice with equal numbers of minus symbols (-1), blank faces (0), and plus symbols (+1), which are added together to produce a range of -4 to +4 (with an identical curve to rolling 4d3-8). This result is added to the skill. So, for example, a character with a skill of 3 that rolls + + 0 – gets a final result of 4.

Effectively, barring modifiers, a player will average towards the skill level: if you have a 3, you’re regularly going to get a result of 3, with 2 or 4 slightly less commonly, and anywhere from -1 to 7 on outlying rolls. The FUDGE dice are very heavily center-weighted, such that even small score differences and modifiers can make a big difference to a contest: over 60% of rolls are between -1 and +1, so clever use of modifiers makes a much bigger difference overall than the range of the dice. This means that the +2 bonus for using an Aspect is deceptively powerful, as what would be a nearly trivial bonus in most systems with a higher range of scores and rolls is a big deal in FATE.

So FATE has a fairly simple dice mechanic that can be heavily modified by clever action and prudent expenditure of Fate points. Next week, I’ll start talking about how that is leveraged into the other systems.

Part 2

To End an Era of Exp, Part 1

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There is no rules concept more thoroughly tied to RPGs than Experience Points. They’ve been with the hobby since the earliest editions of D&D and are the first thing added to give “RPG-elements” to a video game that didn’t have them before. If your RPG features character advancement at all, chances are that advancement is tied to some variation of exp.

Why?

In the beginning…

Anyone running a game blog focused on the return to old school D&D can tell you that the earliest forms of gaming don’t really match the assumptions of most modern games. Whether or not that’s a failing, it’s pretty obvious that some things have become significantly different as the hobby has evolved.

The first editions of D&D (and experiments that led to it such as Braunstein) were iterations of the concept of simply zooming in on the individual units in a wargame and playing them rather than acting as their commander. That is, the first RPG characters were operating on game engines modified from wargames. This is another thing very obvious to those that have been in the hobby a long time: anecdotes indicate that the earliest versions of D&D relied heavily on players also owning a copy of TSR’s wargame, Chainmail, as a reference.

I don’t have sufficient knowledge of Chainmail to speculate on whether it used an exp mechanic, and would welcome any input on that in the comments. Unit advancement in early computer war sims leads me to believe it must have had some impartial way to advance, or at least differentiate, units from novice, to trained, to veteran. This is an abstraction that works very well for wargames: it’s pretty much impossible to track the individual capabilities of units when you’re managing dozens, so it makes sense to divide them into fixed tiers of competency.

It was only natural that the earliest RPGs did things the same way, based as they were on wargame rules. Most early systems were heavily level-based, and D&D even used titles for levels clearly defining the gradual improvement of competency tiers. The question was how to discretely allow characters to progress from one level to the next.

An interesting facet of level-based games that didn’t really even go away until D&D’s third edition was that character classes weren’t explicitly balanced against one another. In a straight up fight, a fighter was simply better than a thief, and a mage would eventually become powerful enough to exceed them both. There needed to be some mechanism by which balance could be achieved, and it made sense to do that by speed of gaining levels. A class that was half as capable as another would level up twice as fast, thereby using higher level to compensate for less effectiveness at the same level.

Finally, old school play was dominated by the concept of the adventurer in the style of Conan or Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser: a charming rogue that used wit and combat savvy to improve his place in the world. These were not superheroes, gamely laying down their lives for the good of a community, but whirlwinds of disaster separated from villains mostly by a preference for preying on other predators rather than upon the innocent.

This ethos expressed itself in gaming revolving around the dungeon crawl: your character’s primary goal was the discovery and robbery of hidden places guarded by creatures whose deaths no one in civilized society would mourn. Certainly, these warrens of monsters were often a significant threat to the surrounding humans and demi-humans, but the player character’s primary motivation was treasure and glory. Life as an adventurer was difficult and deadly: the monsters were going to do everything in their power to beat you, and you were going to do everything in yours to ensure an unfair fight in your favor, or to bypass the monsters entirely unless combat was absolutely required to take their treasure.

All these assumptions cascaded into the need for experience points:

  • Advancement pinned to across-the-board upgrades with levels
  • Classes not balanced in capability against other classes at the same levels
  • Roguish and often competitive PCs seeking to minimize effort and maximize wealth and glory
  • A high chance of dying and having to start a new character fresh

With these four inputs, exp simply made sense as a concept. It provided a somewhat objective method to determine when character could advance in level. It allowed weaker classes to advance faster than stronger ones. It gave players a carrot for clever play by allowing them to improve faster. It gave players a stick for incautious play by providing something that death would take away (either via resurrection penalty or simply starting a new character at nothing). It was an excellent fit for the needs of the era.

But those four assumptions have less and less of a place in RPGs every year…

System Review: Cortex Plus, First Look

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I haven’t had a chance to play either of the newest games from Margaret Weis Productions, though I have and have read both of the new rulebooks. Additionally, they’re different enough that each will likely deserve its own review. However, I’d like to briefly talk about the system in general.

What Has Gone Before

As I mentioned in the Cinematic Unisystem reviews, Margaret Weis Production has, in the past few years, become the RPG publisher most involved in producing licensed games. They’ve put out games for Serenity, Battlestar Galactica, Supernatural, Smallville, and Leverage. Each uses an evolving variant of their in-house system, Cortex.

My initial impression of the Cortex system was not favorable. The system used a stepped dice system similar to Earthdawn: bonuses to a roll increased the size of the dice used (or added more dice), and there were no flat adds of any kind in the system. Since players would often be limited to two dice (one for attribute, one for skill) until they had very high trait totals, the results of any given roll could be very swingy. In the Serenity game I played, the pilot, who had a very high piloting score, managed to dramatically fail nearly every important piloting roll: his 2d12 was in no way prevented from rolling 1-2 on both dice.

Additionally, getting such a high pair of dice almost encouraged min-maxing in chargen, as the character creation system had a huge problem with the Current Level conundrum. Raising a d10 to a d12 in chargen cost as much as buying a new skill at d2, but was something like 6 times as expensive to raise with exp. The initially-interesting-seeming practice of requiring a skill specialty above a d6 made this even more of a problem (e.g., once you raised Guns to d6, you’d have to begin raising Pistols, Shotguns, Rifles, etc. as independent skills that started at d6 with no discount for other specialties).

The Current Incarnation

While I haven’t played any of them yet, the newest variants of the system, dubbed Cortex Plus, seem to fix most of my concerns with the system. Currently, this system is available in Smallville and Leverage. Both of these games included design work by respected indie designers, and the level of experimentation they show makes this obvious. Both games have become designer systems specifically engineered to reflect the style of the shows rather than toolkit systems with setting-specific flavor. While I normally prefer toolkit systems to designer ones, I can see the utility in designing a system precisely to capture the feel of an IP.

Regardless of its designer vs. toolkit nature, the first fix that I really like about the Cortex Plus system is the idea that you will often roll three or more dice, but only keep the best two in most cases (some special abilities allow you to keep more dice for certain rolls). My intuition is that this should drastically reduce the swinginess of the system, resulting in characters with better dice consistently getting good rolls. Additionally, both systems feature the idea of adding Complications to the story for any dice that roll 1. Thus, even if the dice roll exceptionally low, the story is at least made more interesting by the result (and, in Smallville, the GM is expected to reward the player with a plot point for each complication added). Finally, more special abilities and other options (like the aforementioned plot points) exist to recover from failing important rolls than did in previous versions of the system.

The character creation system is, additionally, much improved by the simple expedient of making the cost of increasing a die’s size flat: going from d4 to d6 is valued the same by the system as going from d10 to d12. Both games include mechanisms to prevent min-maxed characters, but an increasing cost to raise each level with exp is not one of them (neither system really uses exp or even advancement per se, but the core assumption of the system is for increases to be equally valued across the board).

On the whole, I’m expecting to enjoy playing both systems whenever I finally have time in my gaming schedule for them. I have to give massive kudos to Margaret Weis Productions for avoiding the trap of putting out an initial system and then only incrementally improving it, as most publishers do. MWP has not been afraid to hire talented designers and let them go nuts innovating within a loose framework of the system to do what is best for the property in question, and the results show. Hopefully, both Smallville and Leverage sell very well, and we’ll continue to see ever-evolving systems out of Cortex.

Half-Baked System: FATE Supers Chargen

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This is largely based on the chargen method in Dresden Files.

The GM sets a refresh level of fate points.

Players can choose that many stunts (minor mundane tricks) for their characters. (Unlike Dresden Files, buying stunts and powers does not reduce refresh normally, only for powers with special knacks.)

Players can trade stunt choices for powers:

  • Some more versatile powers may cost more than 1 stunt.
  • Powers at level 1 are similar to a stunt in effectiveness (or equivalently multiple stunts for more versatile powers). Powers at level 6 are around 10 times as effective as a level 1 power.
  • If the player chose a specific power, roll 2d6 and keep the lowest die. That becomes the power’s rating.
  • If the player chose a random power, roll 2d6 and keep the highest die. That becomes the power’s rating.
  • Many powers require a special skill to use effectively (e.g., Energy Projection for blasts, Toxin Tolerance for regeneration, etc.).
  • Powers cannot normally change in rating by character advancement, only by in-story changes. However, raising associated skills can make powers more effective by increasing control over them.
  • Characters can choose to add one or more knacks to a power (unusual tricks that most users of the power can’t duplicate) by lowering Refresh by one per knack (e.g., a fire shield effect for Fire Blast, a psionic resistance for Invulnerability, etc.).
  • Characters can choose to add one or more limits to a power (unusual limitations that most users of the power don’t suffer; e.g., no increased speed for Physical Prodigy, no resistance to cold for Ice Manipulation) at no cost. Whenever the lost effect would be particularly useful in a situation, the player may request a fate point.

Characters that take no powers gain +2 Refresh and +2 stunts.

For each stunt a character retains, the player can spend 4 skill points.

For each Power:

  • If it is rating 6: No skill points
  • If it is rating 4-5: 1 skill point (per stunt spent on the power)
  • If it is rating 2-3: 2 skill points (per stunt spent on the power)
  • If it is rating 1: 3 skill points (per stunt spent on the power)

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