System Review: FATE 3.0, Part 11

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Magic

While it’s not exactly a core FATE system feature, it’d be weird to review a game that models books starring a Wizard without mentioning the magic system. In the Dresden Files universe, magic is typically divided into Evocation and Thaumaturgy.

Evocation

In the novels, Evocation is the domain of fast-cast magics, typically of an elemental variety. Harry tends to prefer flinging around gouts of fire and blasts of wind as well as defending himself with pure force. Other wizards prefer water (good for disintegrating things and grounding out magic) or earth (useful for both manipulating the ground and messing with magnetism, electricity, and gravity). The theory behind evocation is that it places Power before Control: the wizard summons up a mess of magical energy, forms it into the element he wants, and then tries to control it on the fly. Harry is pretty terrible at evocation: he’s got a lot of Power, but very little Control, so without a focus item to help him channel his evocations, he tends to waste magic and set buildings on fire. More experienced mages demonstrate that they’re far better than him: even if they don’t have as much raw Power, they can use their Control to focus it precisely to great effect.

The RPG models this via the Conviction and Discipline traits to represent Power and Control. A character can automatically generate Power equal to Conviction more or less for free (see below), and can pull more if willing to take Mental stress (equal the the excess). The player must then roll Discipline to try to Control the spell generated; if the roll fails, the excess Power either becomes Backlash (damaging the caster but not reducing the effect of the spell) or or Fallout (damaging the environment and reducing the effect). The result of the Discipline roll is also the attack roll for a magical blast.

Using Evocation gives a wizard access to quite a lot of the system’s verbs, described in relation to whatever element is used in the attack. It can be used to Attack (the Power becomes equivalent to a Weapon), to Block or create Armor, to create a Maneuver, or to generate a Counterspell (undoing another spell effect). Even more versatile, attacks have rules to hit multiple targets or zones by exchanging shifts and blocks/armor can be extended past one turn or to protect allies. Just as Harry is better with familiar effects and items, the system supports Focus items and Rote spells, which trade versatility for reliability: foci give a Power or Control bonus to a specific type of effect and rotes allow the wizard to pre-set a certain spell and treat it as rolling a 0 on the Control check (i.e., the character can cast a spell equal to the lower of Conviction or Discipline with no unexpected surprises).

In practice, the Evocation rules do a pretty good job of modeling the books. Wizards, like Harry, with higher Conviction than Discipline will regularly waste energy (or have to suck it up as Backlash) and miss targets unless they have a focus item. Wizards with better Discipline than Conviction will rarely fail to control their power and will hit more often. Since hitting with a lot of shifts is at least as good as having a larger Weapon rating, having a high Discipline instead of a high Conviction mirrors the books and the cool things more senior mages (even with less power than Harry) can accomplish.

That is, at least, until Conviction gets used as a dual-axis stat. Conviction is not just the stat that represents a wizard’s power, but also the generic system stat for increasing the mental stress track. A character with Conviction 5 can take 2 more mental stress and one more mental consequence than a character with Conviction 0. A high-Conviction wizard will not just be able to channel more power for “free” but will also be able to soak up more Backlash than a lower powered caster. This wouldn’t be that big of a deal, except that all evocation deals 1 Mental Stress in addition to other penalties. Effectively, every spell (except those for pure flavor) deal damage as if it were +1 further over Conviction (to a minimum of 1 even if cast at way under the wizard’s actual limit).

This seems to have been an addition to the system fairly late as a way to create a balancing limit on wizard characters: with the ability to potentially cast spells forever (as long as they used power equal or less than Conviction and could be controlled each time), a wizard character could dominate play pretty fully via easy access to a lot of high-powered magic effects. But it has some pretty big impacts on both the ability to model the setting and player behavior:

  • Given the nature of the FATE damage system, even a high-Conviction wizard will probably only be able to cast eight spells in a scene (four stress boxes and four consequences without taking an extreme one). While Harry does tend to stay within that range of spells in the novels, that is often due more to pacing than any kind of hard limit; there are several scenes in the books where he seems to do even more casting than this without anything else special happening.
  • More problematically, any wizard with less Conviction than Harry will be able to do progressively less evocation. In the books, this also doesn’t seem to be a problem for skilled but low-powered casters. This immediately removes the modeled advantage of control over power: any wizard planning to do Evocation is well advised to buy Conviction as high as possible for the increased stress track alone.
  • Most problematically, this is the weird interaction with the shortened stress track I mentioned last week. One damage at a time very quickly overwhelms the stress track. Moreover, it doesn’t do it any faster than bigger hits: a canny player might as well juice a spell past Conviction if he thinks he can control it. Once your first two stress boxes are gone, a Conviction +2 effect is identical in cost to any effect equal or less than Conviction.

The system does include sponsored magic and self-powered magic items to give wizards more options than being totally out of juice after half a dozen rounds, but suggesting using these to avoid the fixed cost of the evocation system doesn’t really seem in line with the novels. It also feels like gaming the system rather than using magic as described in the books.

Ultimately, the Evocation system feels like a really good fit for the magic system in the books, except that it has a strange governor bolted on. I fully believe that play with the 1 minimum damage per spell feels more like the books than allowing wizards to cast forever, but I don’t believe that it’s a rule without its own flaws.

Thaumaturgy

The ritual magic of the Dresden Files, Thaumaturgy places Control before Power. Unlike fast casting, a good ritual allows the wizard to use props and diagrams to get the intention of the spell completely locked in his or her head, and then push in power with the knowledge that it’s unlikely to go haywire (unless it’s super complicated and the ritualist left a flaw or gets interrupted). Harry regularly points out that he’s excellent at Thaumaturgy for exactly the reason he’s bad at Evocation: he can take his time marshaling his less refined Control to set up the ritual, and then can cut loose with his Power and get a potent ritual energized faster than a weaker but more skilled wizard could. The actual things that can be done with Thaumaturgy are far more nebulous than the limits of Evocation in the books: rituals summon extradimensional entities, track targets, alter fortune, and make magic items for a start.

In the game, Thaumaturgy is effectively used as a replacement for other non-conflict skill rolls: divination for Assessments, summoning for Contacting, fortune for Declarations, or anything else that seems reasonable. Effectively, the GM is encouraged to set a difficulty for something magic could do as if it were being accomplished by an appropriate skill. Some rituals can do things beyond the normal difficulty chart: typically black magic things where the effect level is equivalent to “do so much stress in one shot that all of his stress boxes and all of his consequences won’t save him.”

Once the player has a difficulty, the ritual enters the Lore phase: if the difficulty is equal or lower than the wizard’s Lore rating, the ritual can begin immediately. Otherwise, the character can start building up bonuses from invocations, generating free tags, blood magic (taking consequences to add bonuses), or even just sitting out scenes doing research, prep, and purification. This continues until the character’s Lore + Bonuses equals the difficulty.

As soon as the difficulty is met, the wizard can begin what’s effectively a series of Evocation rolls to fill up the ritual with power. As with Evocation, the wizard can put in power up to Conviction (or more by taking damage) and then must control it with Discipline, with the shifts generated each round getting totaled towards the ritual difficulty. Unlike Evocation, there is no minimum 1 stress per roll. However, also unlike Evocation, a missed control roll must be taken as Backlash, and the Backlash dealt is equal to the total power built up so far (including on the current roll).

Thaumaturgy seems like it’s a worse simulation of the novels’ magic than Evocation. It includes Lore to model the setup and purification stages described in the books, but that effectively makes Lore into the Control skill in this sequence (used to define the ritual framework). The novels seem to specify that, once a ritual is created, it’s not really equivalent to Evocation to pour power in. Effectively, the novels point out that low-Lore, low-Discipline, high-Conviction Harry is very good at Thaumaturgy (much better than at Evocation), and the system in the game doesn’t really back this up. The inclusion of Lore to model prep is a nice touch, but it feels like the trio of wizardly skills are used in the wrong order.

Additionally, the system is very light on real structure for setting difficulties in the first place. Probably because the boundaries of Thaumaturgy in the books are so vague, it relies on a lot of GM fiat to figure out whether something is possible and, if so, roughly how many shifts accomplishing it is “worth” (to set a difficulty). In the case of enchanting magic items and making potions (a big use of Thaumaturgy in the books), the system abandons the Thaumaturgy system entirely for a slots-per-character-based system (even though it’s listed as a specialty of Thaumaturgy, you probably shouldn’t use Crafting for your free specialization). Of course, my own system tastes for this exact thing tend towards the complicated and simulationist, so I may be the wrong one to judge the system as designed for a more narrative game.

Thaumaturgy in the Dresden Files RPG will likely allow you to basically do ritual effects as described in the books, and the trappings of the books will make sense in the context, but I worry that the expression in the system isn’t fully in line. In particular, it’s going to be very hard to make a wizard who’s bad at Evocation but good at Thaumaturgy.

Overall

To finally sum up an overly long post:

The magic system created for the Dresden Files RPG does a really good job of allowing players to model the magic from the novels, but may not feel completely authentic to hardcore fans due to balance decisions and integration with the system as a whole. The magic described in the novels is idiosyncratic and occulty, and could easily support a hugely complicated standalone system designed specifically to just focus on magic. Though it pains me to say it, many of my issues may boil down to the magic system being too elegant of an implementation within the framework of FATE.

Evil Hat made the decision to take the complex Dresden Files magic, streamline it, and hook it into the verbs of FATE. While the system may not feel 100% accurate to a dedicated fan who’s a systems nerd like me, it’s a testament to the skill of the designers and the power of the game engine that they were able to create something that’s not hard to learn, is easy to remember in play, hooks into the language of the rules, and yet still allows you to pull off more or less anything you might see in the books. You could probably make a system to model the setting’s magic more closely, but it would take way more page count, create lots more player confusion, and still probably only have slight gains in utility.

Conclusion

Combo! (4e + Dragon Age)

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Harbinger’s post reminded me of a couple of the things I don’t like about D&D 4e’s power structures: combats become samey as you blow through the same encounter powers each fight, and it’s annoying when you miss with them. I also really like the way powers tend to work in the Dragon Age video games, so here’s an attempt at a hybrid (examples are changed as little as possible from the core for illustrative purposes, though I’d probably make additional changes were I to actually use this idea).

Basics

All player characters have an Energy score that’s depleted by using special abilities. It replenishes to full during a short rest, and certain actions during combat can recover one or more points. Persistent powers can “reserve” a certain number of Energy points, essentially requiring the character to expend that many points and lower the maximum number of points until the power is turned off. Energy is equal to 5 + 1/2 level (number obviously subject to much playtesting).

Many attack powers reference [Weapon] damage. Unlike normal 4e, this is the entire damage expression for a standard attack: for example, a first level fighter with Strength +4 and a +1 longsword would have [Weapon] = 1d8+5. The purpose of this is to reduce having to constantly update damage calculations for each power; in most cases, only the main damage expression should have to be updated as characters level and gain gear. Characters choose a class-appropriate ability score to assign to attack and damage bonus and that remains consistent across all uses of powers (rather than bonus being variable based on power).

Most powers have a trigger and an Energy cost. The trigger is an event that causes the power to become available; when triggered a character may choose to pay the power’s cost to initiate it.

Many powers can be upgraded (with upgrade points coming from leveling up). Each point spent on upgrading the power increases its potency by the amount described in the power listing.

Example Powers (Paladin)

Basic Attack

  • Trigger: Character spends a Standard Action
  • Cost: 0
  • Effect: Attack vs. AC, on hit: [Weapon] damage
  • Upgrade: Damage changes to 2 x [Weapon] (only upgradeable once at level 21)

Critical Hit

  • Trigger: Character rolls a natural 20 on any attack roll that successfully hits
  • Cost: 1
  • Effect: Attack deals damage as if all dice had rolled their maximum (player does not roll); magic items may add additional dice that are rolled
  • Upgrade: Each upgrade increases the “threat range” of the attack (e.g., first upgrade makes criticals usable on 19-20)

Charge

  • Trigger: Character spends a standard action
  • Cost: 1
  • Effect: Character can take an additional move and then immediately gains a free Basic Attack against an adjacent target
  • Upgrade: Each upgrade increases the attack bonus of the Basic Attack by +1

Divine Challenge

  • Trigger: Character spends a minor action
  • Cost: 0
  • Effect: One target within 5 squares (with clear line of effect) is Marked (with the usual game effects); in addition, the first attack the target makes each turn that does not include the character immediately subjects the target to 6 Radiant Damage
  • Special: The Divine Challenge expires at the end of the character’s turn if the character is not adjacent to the target and did not make an attack against the target this turn; if the Divine Challenge expires in this way, it cannot be used on the following turn
  • Upgrade: Each upgrade increases the damage dealt by +1

Bolstering Strike

  • Trigger: Character spends a Standard Action
  • Cost: 0
  • Effect: Attack vs. AC, on hit: [Weapon] damage and attacker gains 3 Temporary Hit Points
  • Upgrade: Damage changes to 2 x [Weapon] (only upgradeable once at level 21)

Enfeebling Strike

  • Trigger: Character spends a Standard Action
  • Cost: 0
  • Effect: Attack vs. AC, on hit: [Weapon] damage and target takes -2 penalty to attack rolls until your next turn
  • Upgrade: Damage changes to 2 x [Weapon] (only upgradeable once at level 21)

Holy Strike

  • Trigger: Character spends a Standard Action
  • Cost: 0
  • Effect: Attack vs. AC, on hit: [Weapon] Radiant damage (+3 if target is marked)
  • Upgrade: Damage changes to 2 x [Weapon] (only upgradeable once at level 21)

Valiant Strike

  • Trigger: Character spends a Standard Action
  • Cost: 0
  • Effect: Attack vs. AC (+1 to attack roll for each enemy adjacent to the character), on hit: [Weapon] damage
  • Upgrade: Damage changes to 2 x [Weapon] (only upgradeable once at level 21)

Fearsome Smite

  • Trigger: Character hits with Enfeebling Strike
  • Cost: 2
  • Effect: Add [Weapon] to damage, target takes an additional -1 penalty to attack (-3 total) until your next turn
  • Upgrade: Each upgrade increases the attack penalty by an additional -1

Piercing Smite

  • Trigger: Character attacks with Valiant Strike
  • Cost: 2
  • Effect: Attack targets Reflex instead of AC, on hit: add [Weapon] to damage and mark the target and up to 3 adjacent enemies until your next turn
  • Upgrade: Each upgrade adds a +1 bonus to the attack roll

Radiant Smite

  • Trigger: Character hits with Holy Strike
  • Cost: 2
  • Effect: Add [Weapon] to damage and target becomes the subject of Divine Challenge if it was not already (thus gaining Holy Strike’s bonus damage against marked targets)
  • Upgrade: Each upgrade adds a +1 bonus damage

Shielding Smite

  • Trigger: Character hits with Bolstering Strike
  • Cost: 2
  • Effect: Add [Weapon] to damage, one ally within 5 squares gains a +3 power bonus to AC until your next turn
  • Upgrade: Each upgrade adds a +1 AC bonus

On Pain of Death

  • Trigger: Character spends a standard action while a target is the subject of character’s Divine Challenge
  • Cost: 5
  • Effect: Attack vs. Will, on hit: target takes 3 x [Weapon] damage (treat weapon damage as 1d8+Cha if unarmed) and takes 1d8 damage after making an attack on its turn (save ends), on miss target takes half damage and 1d4 damage after making an attack on its turn (save ends)
  • Upgrade: Each upgrade adds a +1 attack bonus

Paladin’s Judgement

  • Trigger: Character hits with any Smite power
  • Cost: 3
  • Effect: Add an additional [Weapon] to damage and one ally within 5 squares can spend a Healing Surge
  • Upgrade: Each upgrade adds a +2 healing for the surge

Radiant Delirium

  • Trigger: Character spends a standard action while a target is the subject of character’s Divine Challenge
  • Cost: 5
  • Effect: Attack vs. Reflex, on hit: target takes 3 x [Weapon] damage (treat weapon damage as 1d8+Cha if unarmed), is dazed until the end of your next turn, and takes a -2 penalty to AC (save ends), on miss target takes half damage and is dazed until the end of your next turn
  • Upgrade: Each upgrade adds a +1 attack bonus

Astral Speech

  • Trigger: Character spends a Standard Action (can be activated out of combat)
  • Cost: 2 (Reserved)
  • Effect: Characters gains a +4 power bonus to Diplomacy while power is active
  • Upgrade: Each upgrade adds a +1 to power bonus

Martyr’s Blessing

  • Trigger: Character spends a Standard Action (can be activated out of combat) and designates a target
  • Cost: 2 (Reserved)
  • Effect: Whenever the target is adjacent to the character, the character may choose to be hit instead by any attack that successfully hits the target
  • Upgrade: Each upgrade reduces damage suffered from this power by -1 per hit

Sacred Circle

  • Trigger: Character spends a Standard Action (can be activated out of combat)
  • Cost: 2 (Reserved)
  • Effect: Character and all allies within 3 squares gain a +1 power bonus to AC
  • Upgrade: Each upgrade adds a +1 square to the range of the circle

System Review: FATE 3.0, Part 10

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This week, the last of the direct comparisons to SotC. Next week, discussion of the unique systems of Dresden Files.

The Damage System

The damage system is perhaps the most altered system between SotC and Dresden Files:

  • Stress fills in only the number rolled (this remained the same).
  • Characters have far fewer stress levels than in SotC (roughly half as many).
  • Taking a Consequence is done voluntarily to reduce incoming stress (rather than only happening when stress exceeds the stress track).
  • Characters can wear armor that reduces incoming stress by a fixed amount.
  • Characters can use weapons that increases stress by a fixed amount on any hit (even a minimal success that would do 0 stress without a weapon).

The third point is perhaps the biggest change (though it formalized an early optional rule) and requires a little bit more unpacking. Effectively, there are four severities of Consequence from “this will be healed after a scene” to “this changes my character forever” with a scale of -2 to -8. If you take a 5 stress hit you can take a minor Consequence to reduce it to 3, a moderate Consequence to reduce it to 1, or a severe Consequence to get rid of it entirely. Effectively, taking a Consequence happens more or less at the same time it would in SotC (when a hit is too big for the stress track or would roll up off of it) but is more granular in its application: a 6 stress hit when you have no other damage is very different from a 6 stress hit when your stress boxes are full.

When you take stress that exceeds or rolls off your stress track and you can’t or won’t reduce it with consequences, you’re taken out. As in SotC, being taken out allows the attacker to dictate (within reason) what happened. Also as in SotC, whenever you take a Consequence you can concede and determine how you leave the fight. Since there’s more control over Consequences in Dresden, if you thought you were totally outclassed you could even take a minor consequence and concede on the first hit.

As mentioned last week, inflicting a Consequence explicitly gives a free tag to the attacker. Also, at the end of combat, GMs are encouraged to give a Fate point to the player for each Consequence suffered (which certainly does a good job of modeling why low-Refresh Harry is always getting beaten up early in the novels).

In practice, Dresden Files does a full 180 on damage from SotC: you immediately go from barely being able to even deal stress to the PCs to really hoping the players remember they can concede rather than die.

This is, of course, appropriate to the setting, but it does require the GM and PCs being on the same page as to how dangerous the system can be. It also inherits a lot of uncertainty from the low granularity of the skills: an attack that barely threatens a character with armor and a high defense skill can instantly drive a less prepared character to Consequences. Sometimes this in the same PC: in my pure combat playtest the high-Weapons/low-Athletics PC went in about two rounds from unscathed to horribly injured when the NPCs decided to stop trying to fight her in melee and instead use manuevers and ranged attacks that were defended against with Athletics.

Effectively, the onus is on the GM to design interesting fights that have useful ramifications between “Total victory,” “Some enemies defeated,” and “PCs routed,” and on the PCs to accept that and be prepared to concede rather than constantly taking long-term Consequences on losing battles. Standard RPG combat encounter design where players and GM both require the fight to be won after a decent level of challenge have the potential to be highly disastrous. This is all to the good in the setting, as most of the novels feature quite a lot of incomplete victories and losses where neither Harry nor the enemy are completely defeated, but neither gets out unscathed (and the plot is advanced either way).

While the system still uses the roll up method that I wasn’t pleased with in SotC, the drastic reduction in available stress boxes goes a lot way towards removing the problem: it’s uncommon that a target will take small amounts of damage that accumulate and invalidate high amounts of damage (except in one particularly notable case that I’ll discuss next week). For most fights, I’m pretty convinced that the combat will feel right for the setting once both GMs and players internalize the potential tactics involved.

One last note is that the inclusion of subtractive Consequences, weapon bonus, and armor bonus does make damage way more math heavy than in SotC. It isn’t at all uncommon to hear something along the lines of, “his total roll is 4 between his score, his roll, and his free tag, and you rolled a 3 on your defense, and he has Weapon 2 and Supernatural Strength +2 so you’ve got 5 damage incoming. Your 3 and 4 boxes are full so you’ll need to take at least a moderate Consequence to not get taken out.” I think a couple of times I let a player spend Fate points to improve her defense score after totaling and just reduced the damage by 2 even though 2 points of defense would have actually made the whole attack miss. But I’d lost track of the margin of success vs. incoming damage number by that point. You might want scratch paper.

The Tactical System

The use of zones, border, barriers, and movement in Dresden Files is pretty identical to SotC to the best of my knowledge. I didn’t have any problems with them before other than lack of appropriate 1920s maps, and Dresden Files being modern removes even this issue. The book suggests using a few fairly large zones in general, though I fully suspect you could make the game highly tactical by slicing zones up in a particular way around obstacles. In particular, a simple border between zones can have a huge impact depending on the range of attacks involved: any combatant that has to cross a border is effectively giving up an action, which can be handily capitalized on by someone who doesn’t.

While it’s equally valid for SotC and I didn’t notice it until running Dresden Files, my only complaint with zone-based combat is that it doesn’t map well to social combat (and the book suggests mostly ignoring it for such conflicts). However, I feel like the system would almost be to the point that it could use zones for social combat (and have a social combat system that was easier integrated with roleplaying the conversation) if it just ditched the standard RPG breakdown of social skills and used ones that mapped more directly to the skills used to navigate and utilize physical zones. As it is, it wouldn’t make sense to say “Intimidate can be used up to two zones (topics of conversation) away, and Empathy is used to change zones,” but it feels like something like that could be very fun. Maybe I’ll work on that for an upcoming Monday post…

Part 11

Evil… but D&D Evil

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I recently started running the Pathfinder adventure path Curse of the Crimson Throne, which is set in a city that’s technically Lawful Neutral but really trends Lawful Evil. And so you get to benefit from my rambling thought process as to what that even means.

The History of D&D Alignment

Original D&D only had one axis of alignment: Law vs. Chaos. Law represented civilization, order, and all that was right in the world. Chaos represented the dark gods and their minions that wanted to tear it all down. It was a fairly simple way of organizing the world cribbed from a lot of early 20th century fantasy series, particularly ones that featured bastions of culture in a sea of barbarism. Chaos was bad because it was all about pulling down the works of humanity (and demihumanity) for selfish and psychotic reasons.

At some point (was it the divide between D&D and AD&D?), another alignment axis was added: Good vs. Evil. Maybe there was a miscommunication as to the point of the Law vs. Chaos axis, or maybe someone felt that it unfairly equated rightness with imperialism and wrongness with indigenous cultures. Either way, suddenly the issue was terribly muddled in a way that’s been hard for gamers to wrap their heads around for decades. Chaos isn’t Evil, because Evil is Evil. But Lawful Good is still the kind of Good that gives you paladins. Chaotic Neutral characters are an excuse to play psychopaths. Most PCs without an alignment restriction are just Neutral Good anyway. It’s a mess.

The D&D cosmology evolved to embrace this new arrangement, however. Each alignment represents a different constellation of afterlife dimensions. The devils from the Lawful Evil Hell hate the demons from the Chaotic Evil Abyss. The Lawful Neutral Mechanus has robot people while the Chaotic Neutral Limbo has crazy lizard people. Lawful Good beings are traditionally angelic, while Chaotic Good beings are more animalistic angels. So despite still not making a whole lot of sense, alignment is deeply tied to the cosmology of many D&D settings in a way that makes it impractical to ignore.

Evil’s Ultimate Destination

Before even trying to conceptualize what Evil might actually mean in a dual axis alignment system, one must first consider the major ramification of all of this: to quote Ringworld, “There ain’t no justice!” No matter what one’s actual beliefs, modern human cultural norms inherit a hugely pervasive concept from many religions: if you’re a bad person, you’ll suffer for it after you die. Whether it’s being tortured in hell or just getting a bad reincarnation, humans have long justified that people that are terrible in life, no matter how much fun they seem to be having, will pay for it when they die.

In D&D, this is manifestly untrue. The core concept presented in the Great Wheel cosmology is that, when you die, you’re reborn as a spirit in the plane that best matches your living alignment. If you were Evil, you do, in fact, go to one of the hellish dimensions. But you don’t go there to be punished for all eternity: you go there to become an entry level devil or demon. Maybe it will be terrible for you for a while, or for all eternity if you aren’t strong willed enough to rise in the infernal hierarchies past Lemure, but over the centuries the best evil guys will get to become the awesome Balors and Pit Fiends of the world. Life is essentially a sorting hat for what kind of afterlife you’d prefer.

In D&D, when you finally kill off that terrible bad guy, from a certain point of view you just did him a favor. He was at the top of his game and went out doing something memorably villainous, and his soul is burning with a thirst for revenge that will potentially propel him downwards through the unholy ranks until he’s a mover and shaker in the Blood War. About the only thing you could do to actually make him pay for his crimes would be to capture him and make him suffer through a long and boring incarceration until he finally died broken and old. Once he dies, the only thing that’s bad about where he ends up is that it’s full of jerks just like him. Jerks who will promote him if he pays his dues and proves ruthless enough.

D&D villains aren’t failures of socialization, they’re the inheritors of a completely valid worldview trying to get in a good practice run before moving on to the real game of eternity.

So What is Evil?

With all that in mind, it seems like the natural response is: an Evil character is someone you could easily see becoming an Evil outsider when he or she dies.

Devils get characterized as the suave, manipulative evil. They want you to sell your soul, but that may just mean they want you to commit to being a direct report on their org chart when you die. They’re the evil of slavery, of belittlement, of deprotagonization: they get what they want not necessarily by killing you, or even hurting you, but by making you subservient. They yoke your potential and bend it towards their own whims, treating anyone weaker as chattel to be used and discarded without a second thought as long as the trade is profitable. Lawful Evil means that the world doesn’t really have people, it has tools and it has obstacles, and the former are merely there to get past the latter.

Demons get characterized as the raging, brutal evil. They don’t care about your soul in particular, except maybe as a snack. They’re the evil of mindless destruction, of the strongest destroying the weakest, of pure inevitability: they think it’s fun to hurt you, to have their way with you, to devour you. Their insidiousness is that it’s hard to fight them without in some way becoming them, as they won’t stop for anything other than superior, ferocious force. They see what they want and they take it, leaving a path of broken bodies on the way. Chaotic Evil equally means that there aren’t people, but simply playthings and threats. Playthings tend to break. Threats are best dealt with by main force and then maintained in their place with constant reinforcement.

Daemons are the hardest to characterize. If Devils own your mind and Demons destroy your body, Daemons exist to rend your very soul. A Devil will draw you into his sway gently, or at least without obvious malice, bending you to his worldview. A Demon will come after you with furious abandon, forcing you to become like him or die. But a Daemon will hurt you. A Daemon isn’t making you into tool or a toy, but is simply trying to break you. He’ll come after you with charm if he can, but not to recruit you. He’ll come after you with force if he needs to, but not for his own pleasure. Neutral Evil means being at the nadir of the cosmos and wanting to cut the whole world down to your own level of depravity. They’re potentially the only Evil that recognizes the concept of “people;” that’s because it’s hard to succeed in the goal of making people inhuman like you without recognizing their humanity in the first place.

A City of Devils

Thus, a Lawful Evil city is an almost literal Hell on Earth. It’s enviably efficient. The bureaucracy is competent, the rules are firmly established, and crime is firmly dealt with. But a lot of things that are criminal aren’t necessarily wrong. Gaining power is a labyrinthine process that digs one deeper into a web of favors. Becoming obligated means constantly working to avoid being expended. It’s a place where, when you finally lean back on your throne of respectability and wealth, you barely care anymore about all the people you crushed beneath your boots to get there. And, in a few more years of using up your employees to fend off your rivals, you won’t even care at all.

System Review: FATE 3.0, Part 9

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Skills

Skills in Dresden Files work pretty similarly to Spirit of the Century. The major difference is that they don’t have a pre-set pyramid, but rather allow you to purchase them gradually as long as you maintain a pyramid of sorts (i.e., you can’t raise a skill if doing so would mean you have more skills at one level than any of the levels beneath it). The only weird thing about this is that you can make some skill arrangements at character generation that you couldn’t buying skills up 1 point at a time (e.g., at character generation you can use 30 points to set it so you have two skills at each level 1-5. This arrangement wouldn’t be possible stepping the skills up gradually).

While only the highest powered character generation allows you to start with a character with skills on par with a Spirit of the Century character, it’s inevitable that a long running game will eventually get to that point. However, in theory the organic nature of the skill array gives players that forget to take vital skills a bit more of a chance to have moderately important stuff at decent levels. So there’s a mild fix to my issues with SotC’s skills, but they remain mostly the same.

The Standard Roll

The method for rolling and the use for shifts remains pretty identical between SotC and Dresden, as befits a core system. I still tend to think the Quality component is unnecessarily ambiguous in play. In my demo sessions I tried to make the Time and Subtlety functions take up the slack for unopposed, non-conflict rolls: I tried not to call for rolls at all unless there was time pressure (and rolling well could get something done faster) or there was a chance someone might want to undo the effect later, and it worked pretty well. Ultimately, I’d like to see Quality turned into a less arbitrary divider and key more directly into other systems.

There might be a better section to mention it, but I did notice one thing that seems like a big system flaw regarding rolling in Dresden Files that’s carried over from SotC: research. In both games, knowing a fact can start with an initial roll to have it be known off the top of one’s head. If this roll is failed, the character researches question in a library, and the difference in shifts between the roll and the target alters the time spent based on the time chart. So far, so good. However, if you have to research, you have to have access to a library with a rating equal to the difficulty of the question: if your target for the knowledge roll was 5 and you fail, you have to research in a library rated 5 or better.

This isn’t so much of a problem for Academics rolls in SotC, because there are a wealth of public and university libraries that could easily be rated very highly and that the characters can use. It’s a big problem for Lore in Dresden Files: the novels haven’t mentioned any kind of non-personal supernatural libraries, in keeping with the insular nature of wizards. According to the rules, a character can have a general supernatural library with a rating equal to (Resources – 2), and taking a stunt can give that a +2. Given that Lore is an important caster skill, it’s very likely that, if the roll to know things fails, the difficulty is higher than any available personal library (because Lore is likely to be higher than Resources). It seems like such plot-dump rolls will either be instant successes or hugely time consuming tangents to find a library in which the topic can be researched, and the GM won’t know until the player rolls. Either way mostly bypasses the library system.

Aspect Manipulation

Maneuvers, Declarations, and Assessments remain functionally the same as in SotC. The major change that I’m aware of is in codifying as explicit that any creation or revelation of an Aspect comes with a free tag. Particularly, if you cause a consequence to someone in a conflict, you can tag that consequence once for free. This is, on the whole, a good thing to make explicit when it’s in the player’s favor. However, I do have some concerns that it creates a bit of a death spiral effect for PCs: if a character is hit once for a consequence, the next attack is likely to carry a +2. If the player took enough damage to take multiple consequences (which I’ll explain with the updated damage system next week), the enemy might suddenly have two free tags. Effectively, free tags on consequences means that concessions are very important unless the attacker just had a fluke high roll or the party is likely to take out the opponent before the tag can be used. Sticking in the fight once you start taking consequences will likely mean you’re messed up very badly on the next round.

Another, smaller change is that Maneuvers are codified as to when they make a Sticky Aspect (i.e., one that will stick around for longer than a round). Effectively, the shifts on the Maneuver roll past the target’s defense become the difficulty of removing the Aspect. For example, if a character is knocked Off Balance with 3 shifts, that target will remain Off Balance until making a difficulty 3 roll (probably of Athletics) or something else happens to logically remove the Aspect. This is a neat change that further codifies Maneuvers; unfortunately, my worry about having enough Fate points to really take advantage of taggable Aspects beyond the free tag stands. If players were more likely to get a benefit out of knowing what Aspects could be tagged on an opponent, a really good Maneuver that’s hard to shake off would be its own reward.

Declarations still use the SotC system of difficulty 0-6 depending on the GM’s determination of quality. With the change to Maneuvers, I suspect that it should be possible to deal with Declarations in a similar manner instead of relying on complete fiat. I’m not sure what that system might look like, though. Declarations are also especially weird in Dresden Files whenever the GM is using a standard critter instead of something invented new. For example, “it’s a creature of Faerie, hit it with iron!” is not really a Declaration, but an Assessment based on knowledge of the setting. And, since hitting it with iron is already the Catch that makes the target easier to hurt (bypasses its defensive powers), it’s strange to give doing so an additional +2. (When this happened in the session I ran, I wound up using it as a free invoke for effect to find a useful iron weapon nearby rather than give a +2.) Ultimately, while effectively making scientists and academics into the “buff class” in combat is a really neat idea, I’m not convinced it works as well in a more fully established setting like Dresden Files as it does in open-ended pulp like SotC, and in either case I’d like to see a system less reliant on GM discretion.

Part 10

Players would prefer to be SAD…

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Something I’ve noticed in Dragon Age 2 that I didn’t in the original is that rogues are way more MAD than any other class… that is, they’re Multiple Attribute Dependent. Warriors want Strength for their attacks, Constitution for more hit points, and, as a far tertiary, Willpower for more energy. Mages want Magic for their attacks, Willpower for more mana, and, as a far tertiary, Constitution for more hit points. Rogues want Dexterity for their attacks, Cunning for their damage and unique skill (opening locks), Willpower for more energy, and Constitution for more hit points. Building either of the first two classes means keeping the first two scores high (with which one is higher dependent on build) and sometimes tossing a point into the tertiary score. Building a Rogue means a constant fight to keep Dexterity high enough to wield the best weapons, Cunning high enough to open locks at that stage of the game, Willpower high enough to have enough energy to use your skills, and Constitution high enough to not die all the time.

This is a classic problem in game design, and D&D in particular gets a lot of flack for classes that are highly MAD. Classic examples in 3rd edition are the Paladin and Monk, which both have only two of four ability scores that aren’t in some way essential to various class features. So Paladins tend to be stuck as clumsy idiots, and Monks as boorish idiots, by virtue of what stats they have to dump to keep the others high. Meanwhile, other fighting classes don’t really require high mental scores at all, and can generally deprioritize at least one of the physicals, making them way easier to make effective with comparable ability scores.

The problem has a pretty simple source: once you’ve created a meaningful array of attributes and abilities, you’re essentially written into a corner by simulation logic, despite what it does to game balance. If you have a Constitution attribute, it should be involved in any system where a healthy guy would logically do better than a sickly one. If you have a Dexterity attribute, everything done better by a quick and agile guy should use it. If you tie any of them into important derived scores, you’ll have to work very hard to justify why different classes derive that score a different way.

One way to avoid the problem is the way used in Changeling: the Dreaming, Fading Suns, and Mage: the Awakening: have all the abilities within one power group use a different (almost random) combination of scores that are at least superficially related to that particular trick. This effectively makes every character MAD, limiting them to either being universally mediocre at their special powers or good at some tricks while terrible at others within the same specialty. This does make the system a bit more balanced (unless a player finds a powerful combo of tricks using a small pool of abilities), but makes your system less elegant: everything is a special case that players will have to look up to remember anyway.

The other way is to continue the trend that both tabletop and video games have been pursuing for the last decade or more: package all of your game rules into the final expression of your system (the fun), and allow players to decide for themselves what that means about their character in context. That is, for example, do you really need to use a magic or intelligence attribute as a prereq for sorcerous abilities, or can you just let the player buy the abilities and roleplay being a powerful savant/towering intellectual? Keeping players from cherry picking can just as easily be accomplished by putting good abilities several steps down a feat progression as by tying powers to different attributes.

I’m a simulationist at heart, and I enjoy the idea of having numbers on the sheet saying, “my guy is this strong, this smart, this fast, etc.” But in a lot of modern games (particularly video games) those numbers aren’t really meaningful from a system point of view: all the really important verbs (the ones that your players will want to use most often) are hidden behind special abilities. We’ve been gradually moving from an era where players could try most anything they could think of and then roll against their attributes to one in which interesting options are prepackaged as abilities to give players ideas and an instant niche (but that, de facto, prevent a player from doing that thing without the ability). Kewl powerz have gone from being rare seasoning to being the dominant flavor of many game engines.

So if you’re making a game where special abilities make up the majority of the things your players might want to do (particularly a video game where thinking outside of the pre-scripted options isn’t even possible), consider very strongly if you still have any reason to include attributes and abilities. You may find that you’re holding onto them purely out of nostalgia, and that your game will be far easier to balance without them.

System Review: FATE 3.0, Part 8

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The first step in reviewing Dresden Files is to hit the high points on what changed and what stayed the same from Spirit of the Century.

Fate Points, Aspects, and Refresh

Perhaps the biggest change in the systems comes right up front in two major changes:

  • Player Characters have 7 Aspects instead of 10. One of these is a High Concept, typically constructed from the player’s supernatural type (if any), and profession (e.g., “Malvora Mystery Novelist”). The second is Trouble, a mostly-negative Aspect signifying what the player expects to be Compelled about the most. The remaining five are secondary Aspects that come from the five phases of character creation (much as SotC gave out two for each phase of creation).
  • The amount of base Refresh changes as the power level of the game increases. More importantly, players essentially spend Refresh to buy Stunts and supernatural Powers. So a player might have lots of Refresh, but few permanent special abilities, or vice versa.

Aspects

As I noted in the replies to the SotC post on this topic, the Trouble aspect is pure gold, as it gives the GM instant feedback on what type of, well, trouble the PC wants to have come up the most. It’s really easy to see that the player wants some more Fate points and use that as a starting point for a Compel.

The High Concept I’m less sold on. It seems to be designed as a summation of what’s cool about the character. This essentially means that it can be invoked by the player for anything within a very broad sphere of “stuff that the PC initiates.” Wizards automatically have one Aspect they can always tag for magic. Other creatures should be able to spend on all their powers. And it’s also probably paired with a mortal profession. If the PC has Fate points left, it’s almost always justifiable to invoke through the High Concept.

Meanwhile, the five additional Aspects still seem like too many. In the off chance the player can’t justify using the High Concept, there’s probably one of the secondary Aspects that will fly if the player has used any kind of foresight as to “what I want to do a lot” when designing them.

This wouldn’t be such a big issue if the examples in the book didn’t constantly reinforce that Assessments, Consequences, Declarations, and Maneuvers are meant to provide Aspects that can be tagged more often than just with their initial free tag. In my experience, there are enough Aspects on the player’s sheet to invoke at least once for a bonus of almost any kind (and invoking is preferable to tagging, because it doesn’t mean giving a Fate point to the opponent at the end of the exchange/scene). So players will only bother with what is, in my opinion, one of the coolest parts of the system (the vast array of ways to determine and create Aspects on other stuff) if they have a free tag or they’re totally out of their comfort zone.

And in that case, they’re highly limited by available Fate points anyway…

Refresh

The theory behind how Refresh works in Dresden Files is an awesome way of simulating the setting: since Fate points allow you to buy off compels, they represent a de facto currency of Free Will. Characters with no Fate points have to act according to their natures, at least for the first Compel (and then they have a Fate point). Therefore, having no Refresh means you’re a monster. You lose Refresh as you gain more and more cool powers. Pure mortals have tons of free will (and even get a bonus +2 Refresh if they go entirely without Powers), powerful supernaturals have little or none. I’m very pleased with how this works on paper.

In practice, it’s very easy to spend yourself very low by taking just the few Powers and Stunts that seem necessary for your character. And players can become terrified to spend these at all early in a session: you risk being out whenever you really want to alter a roll or being unable to buy off a Compel you hate. This hording reflex can cause players to essentially never use Fate points, especially if they’re not being constantly forced into situations that they can’t bypass on skill alone, because they simply get out of the habit of relying on them.

The counter to this behavior seems to be that the GM has to Compel often. Like, at least once per PC per scene. The new points need to be coming in at least as fast as the GM expects the old points to go out. Admittedly, the scenario design advice encourages writing scenes where this will be easy, and the Trouble Aspect is a big flag, but without constant GM effort the whole system can atrophy. And the GM needs to be generating quality compels that present meaningful choices rather than feeling like using the mechanic to railroad. All of this while providing difficult but entertaining situations on which the players will want to expend Fate points in the first place.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is that the mechanic is a good fit for the setting, and is awesome when correctly used by a GM on the ball, but is still missing something to make it easy enough to use for everyone. Even for a GM that fully gets it, it creates a lot of mental overhead. And even when being used perfectly, the players will rarely have enough spare Fate points to bother with the tagging system.

All that said, the implementation as a whole is a clear improvement from my issues with the system in SotC. I’m confident that future games from the system will continue to tune the ratio of Aspects, to Refresh, to Compels until it creates something that works well for most players.

Part 9

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