System Review: White Wolf, Part 2

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Three Toggles

As mentioned at the end of part 1, the thing that many of the White Wolf mechanic’s opponents dislike the most is that it’s unclear how much changing various features will change the chance of success. On any given roll, a GM:

  • Can modify the character’s trait total, letting her roll more or fewer dice.
  • Can vary the difficulty of the roll up or down, to alter how many dice are likely to come up as a success.
  • Can set a threshold for how many successful dice are required to actually count as a success (and could even give free successes, essentially setting a negative threshold).

At difficulty 6, each die will come up a success roughly half the time. So -2 dice is similar to +1 threshold. Going from Difficulty 6 to Difficulty 8 nearly halves the number of expected successes, so its equivalence to dice and threshold varies by how many initial dice the player rolls. It’s complicated. It’s so complicated that every system after Old World of Darkness went to a fixed difficulty number, to at least make the probabilities slightly easier to calculate by limiting them to modifiers and threshold.

But, like I said, I’m a huge fan.

My enjoyment of this triple system is that, if used consistently, it creates a language for modeling the world that systems with a more defined interplay of probabilities can’t touch. Specifically:

  • I use modifiers for effects limited to the character. Wound penalties already subtract dice when the character is injured. Enhancements in personal capability result in bonus dice (though this is applied inconsistently with merits). Effectively, when multiple player characters are attempting the same action, and one has situational modifiers, that’s accomplished by changing the size of the dice pool.
  • I use difficulties for elements of the task/environment itself which should make things harder or easier. This is a pretty straightforward reading of many game systems, such as rolling against an opponent’s trait total as a difficulty. If something would be harder or easier for anyone, the difficulty changes.
  • I use thresholds for situations where there are varying degrees of failure. If the threshold is 3 successes, getting 2 successes should be at least narrated differently than getting 0. Thresholds merge very well with extended actions, as a threshold may be nigh unreachable with a single roll, but successes accumulate over the rounds.

Ultimately, the thing to understand about the White Wolf dice system is that it’s rarely binary. 4-5 dice is a common pool for any action a player might willingly attempt, and that pool is statistically likely to get at least one success even at very high difficulties. The entire system creates a very interesting curve where the top and the bottom are always equal to total dice and 0, but the sweet spot in the curve varies based on difficulty.

In short, it’s not a system that expects characters to either simply succeed or simply fail. It’s a system where even minimally competent characters will almost always do something that resembles success, and it’s up to the GM to decide not how hard the task is, but how awesome the character needs to be to complete it. A GM in the system most effectively decides how to set the requirements for a task by asking:

  • What is the minimum competency required to get an unqualified success on this task with an exceptional effort (e.g., is this something someone with 4 dice should be able to succeed at, even only a fraction of the time)? Set the threshold at that number.
  • How often does that minimum competency succeed at the task? Set the difficulty low if it’s often, high if it’s rarely.
  • What are the effects of getting successes but not quite hitting the threshold? If it’s exactly the same as completely failure, this task might not be interesting enough to roll for.

Well, at least you can do all that before 1s and 10s get involved…

Part 3

Threat-Dice Based NPCs

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The new Smallville RPG (using the Cortex Plus system) includes a concept called Threat Dice for most inconsequential NPCs and other hazards; effectively, they replace the character sheets for anyone not important enough to rate one (and can be spent to make NPCs that have sheets more powerful). The size of the threat pool organically goes up and down during a session, varying the challenge to the players.

It strikes me that this might be a useful concept for virtually any game that’s willing to model a generic “how screwed are the player characters, in general, right now?” instead of a more accurate variance of power between threats. Essentially, it’s a really neat idea for people like me that hate statting NPCs in intimate detail, but would like some kind of system to model how threatening they should be.

Smallville uses a dice pool system, so threat dice would convert most easily to something else dice pool-based, like White Wolf, but they could be converted to a “threat bonus” on a more linear system. The basic rules for them in Smallville are:

  • The GM starts with a certain bank of dice, and can never have fewer than a minimum number (I believe it’s 2d6 for Smallville) so there will always be something to roll.
  • Whenever a 1 shows up on a PC’s die, the GM may pay that player a plot point and add a die of the same size to the threat pool (in addition to narrating something bad happening as a result of the action that raises the general tension). This roll doesn’t have to be a failure: the 1 results in a complication to a success just as easily.
  • Whenever a 1 shows up on one of the threat dice, the players may ask for a similar complication to impact the enemy in question, as well as removing that die from the GM’s pool
  • Threat dice can be voluntarily removed from the pool to add a die of the same size to a statted NPC’s roll.

Effectively, as things go wrong for the PCs, the opposition gets more powerful across the board. But, the more powerful the opposition gets, the more likely its rolls are to result in complications that benefit the PCs. Since Cortex uses dice of different sizes, the threat pool may soon contain lots of d4s and d6s that are just as quickly lost, while the rare 1 on a d10 or d12 creates much more danger in the pool that lasts longer.

As noted, this maps very easily to White Wolf, where it could replace the standard 1s mechanic (and may or may not require the addition of plot points to pay for complications, depending on how dark the chronicle is meant to be). It’s not much of a stretch to map onto an additive system, however, as the threat pool simply becomes a straight number that’s added to a standard dice roll: with fewer dice being rolled, however, the GM might want to tag complications to a wider range than just 1 on the die.

As in Smallville, threat dice can be entirely for non-statted threats (spending them to buff bigger enemies), or enemies could be completely based around a threat die. For example, instead of giving an enemy fixed stats, he might have Melee +2, Alertness +1, Dodge -1: if the threat pool is currently 5, he rolls 7 dice for Melee, 6 for Alertness, and 4 for Dodge.

Additionally, the current threat pool might be used as a base target number (possibly with a fixed modifier, depending on dice type) for any potentially dangerous actions taken during the game. Want to leap the pit to get away? Difficulty is equal to threat pool.

Care should be taken to make sure the base number of dice still provides the intended challenge for the party, or players may steamroll through the game.

System Review: White Wolf, Part 1

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I’m Dark and Evil… are You Dark and Evil?

White Wolf achieved its position in the RPG industry by a single expedient: making a game that cool people could play without having to admit that they were nerds. Despite a substantial overlap in interests, for the entirety of the 90s, no self-respecting and self-identified goth would admit to playing D&D (well, maybe Ravenloft), but White Wolf managed to convince them that “Storytelling” games were an entirely different animal, appropriate to black lace and clove cigarettes. And, once they had the only game in town that you might convince pretty but abnormal girls to play, the market was sure to follow.

In high school, my friends and I wore a lot of black (and I still do, but that’s mostly because wearing all black as a teen means you never learn how to match colors). D&D was a tough sell to that crowd, but there were many flavors of White Wolf, and so that’s what we played. Suffice it to say, I’ve played this system quite a bit, in many of its permutations.

The luster had started to fade by the time D&D 3e came out and became the newest, easiest sell in the gaming world, so my experience with the New World of Darkness system is, consequently, less. Thus, this review will focus on the different core systems for the old World of Darkness, with mention of Exalted and the Aeonverse where appropriate.

Core Mechanics

Part of the allure of White Wolf over D&D and other traditional RPG systems is that it is very math light. The core mechanic is very easy:

  1. Construct a trait total by adding together a very small number of traits (represented by dots so you can add them visually).
  2. Pick up that many d10s and roll them.
  3. Keep all the dice with a number that equals or exceeds the difficulty that the GM told you.

There are a few interesting permutations, of course, but, at root, it’s a very straightforward dice pool system.

Since the beginning, die-hard systems geeks have been ambivalent about the whole thing. This is largely due to the system, while being very easy to explain to new players, being very hard to accurately gauge for difficulty. How much practical difference in success does adding a die mean? Is it the same as lowering the difficulty? What about requiring a minimum number of successes? Systems where traits are numbers that are added to a roll (either flat or curved) are much easier to calculate: if you’re rolling d20, each +1 to traits makes the action 5% more likely and each +1 increase to the DC makes it 5% less likely. Conversely, White Wolf’s dice pool results in a hugely complicated series of curves. If a GM judges that an action should be roughly 50/50 for a character with good skill, it’s very hard to figure out the requisite difficulty and threshold on the fly.

But that’s kinda why I love this system…

Part 2

“You’re going to die… badly”

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Watching The Losers reminded me of an action movie staple: mouthing off to the bad guy from an inferior position, making an outrageous claim of how you’re going to win, and then pulling it off to his great surprise. Now, a lot of players will do this anyway in a game with a reasonably correct tone and memorable villains, but why not incentivize it to make sure such banter takes place?

This is a modular system that borrows heavily from FATE. If a +2 bonus is not significant (or doesn’t make any sense) in your system of choice, change it to a comparable modifier that’s relevant.

Any time during a game session, any player can mouth off to an enemy, suggesting something entertaining that he or she is about to accomplish. The mouthing off portion is important: the enemy must be informed of the PC’s intent, whether or not it is believed. The GM awards the player from 0-5 tokens based on whether:

  • The PC is in a dangerous position or otherwise outclassed.
  • The stated course of action seems difficult to accomplish.
  • The stated course of action suggests interesting results.

These tokens can be spent by the player any time during the scene to make this statement become a reality. Effectively, the statement becomes, in FATE-parlance, an Aspect placed on the enemy, and the tokens are equivalent to FATE points that can be spent to tag that Aspect. The player may spend a token to:

  • Reroll any roll (the PC’s, an ally’s, or an opponent’s) where the result makes success at accomplishing the goal less likely.
  • Add 2 to any result (the PC’s or an ally) that would affect accomplishing the goal, or subtract 2 from the result of an enemy if doing so makes accomplishing the goal more likely.
  • Narrate a minor contrivance that is reasonable to the characters and current scenario but which has not been previously established (e.g., “Our sniper has a clear line of fire to the target,” “The van in which we have the rest of the explosives is next to his escape route,” “They missed one small knife when they searched me for weapons,” etc.)

There is a downside to making these statements: if the statement is not accomplished by the end of the scene, the PC has a -2 penalty to all actions until the end of the session (or the goal is accomplished). Further, if the bonus is being abused, the GM should feel free to offer fewer or zero tokens (while retaining the penalty to failure) when players aren’t actually using the system at dramatic moments.

System Review: Introduction and Biases

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Introduction

This is the new Wednesday content for as long as I can keep up steam on writing it.

These posts are not about a game in general. You can find many fine reviews of any game of your choice at RPGnet. Instead, these reviews are focused on two questions: what are the core game mechanics, and do they accomplish their intended design goals? I’m not really concerned with layout or presentation (though I may complain if this makes it hard to learn the system), or any kind of prose elements. Instead, I’m simply looking at the system and whether it’s interesting, appropriate, elegant, and functional.

My belief is that, while a game in a pretty, well-written book is a clearly better read and will sell better, the longevity of a game primarily depends on the quality of its systems. Eventually, your game book will only be opened when the players can’t remember a rule, and your system will be used every time the dice come out. (Unless your primary focus was a really cool setting, of course, but, even then, it mostly takes one read to internalize that.)

I’ll try to focus these posts only on games I’ve had the opportunity to play, as, sometimes, the utility of a system isn’t obvious until it happens to come up in a game. However, sometimes I’ll feel confident enough in my ability to intuit how a system will work out in play to visit an untested system. I’ll call those out specifically to give people an opportunity to tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about. Speaking of which…

Biases

As I’ve mentioned before, when I run games, I tend to prefer toolkit systems over designer systems. Specifically, I’m a simulationist at heart, despite my situational enjoyment of gamism and narrativism, and prefer game systems that I can internalize as a GM. Ultimately, when running a game, I want to describe the world, have the PCs roleplay with each other and my NPCs with minimal need for systems, and be able to quickly resolve any other scenario that comes up by a small number of core systems. The system should clearly guide the kind of actions that are appropriate to the setting and genre, but the actual mechanics should be non-intrusive.

However, as a purely abstract concept, I enjoy a well-designed system, even if I wouldn’t want to run it. I can visualize other play styles than my own, and many of the games I review without playing may simply be based on whether I imagine the system working for a group that is not mine. In particular, I intuit that a lot of indie systems actually expect the players to be at arm’s length from their characters, describing what goes on within their sphere of control in much the way the GM describes the rest of the game. I don’t really enjoy that mode of play, but I can wrap my head around it, and don’t intend to unfairly dock systems that support it.

For purely mechanical biases, my main tick is that I despise “swinginess.” Any system that uses one die (or two big dice) to generate a result can fall into the trap of mistaking probability for actuality. In play, I’ve seen too many experts fail when the chips are down and beginners get lucky time and time again. Many gamers enjoy this fickleness of the dice, but I don’t consider it a virtue. I will probably be extra hard on systems that I don’t feel adequately compensate for their swinginess (one way is to make certain GMs are encouraged to make vital tasks rely on a series of rolls rather than a single one).

And that’s all I can think of that’s important for now. Next week, we start with a system that certainly can’t be accused of being overly swingy, as it’s the great gothic-punk granddad of fistfuls of dice.

Alternate Encumbrance System for D&D/Pathfinder

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Nobody likes managing their exact weight when playing D&D. The new Warhammer Fantasy RPG has switched to a more abstract system of encumbrance with smaller numbers. Here’s how to convert D&D/Pathfinder to the same scale:

Basics

A point of encumbrance is roughly equivalent to 3-5 pounds (for Medium equipment). If the item is particularly bulky, that number should be closer to 3. If it’s compact or otherwise easy to carry, it should be closer to 5.

Each character has an encumbrance threshold equal to Strength plus Str Mod (if positive). When equal or less than that threshold, the character is Lightly encumbered. Up to 2x the threshold is a Medium load, and up to 3x the threshold is a Heavy load.

Characters treat gear sized for them normally and multiply or divide by 2 for each category changed (e.g., a Medium Longsword is 1 encumbrance for a Medium character, 2 for a Small character, 4 for a Tiny character, and less than 1 for a Large character). Quadrupeds have a +50% threshold.

Gear Equivalencies

Weapons

  • Light weapons have negligible encumbrance (though they add up if stored, see below).
  • One-handed weapons have 1 encumbrance.
  • Two-handed weapons have 2 encumbrance.
  • Particularly bulky weapons (like hammers and axes) have +1 encumbrance.

Armor and Shields

An armor or shield’s encumbrance is equal to (non-magic) AC bonus plus Armor Check Penalty (e.g., a Chain Shirt has +4 AC and -2 ACP, so has encumbrance 6). Add +1 for spikes or other adornments.

Gear in Containers

Other gear is rated primarily by the containers in which it is stored. The player and GM should agree on how full they think various storage items are, and assign encumbrance accordingly. For example, a knapsack is 0/3/5 encumbrance, depending on whether it is mostly empty, partially filled, or completely full.

Container Empty/Partial/Full Max Weight (Medium Sized)
Small Pouch 0/1/2 5-10 lbs.
Knapsack/Large Pouch 0/3/5 15-25 lbs.
Large Pack 1/6/10 30-50 lbs.
Small Chest 5/10/15 100 lbs.
Quiver/Case 0/1/2 20 arrows/bolts
Bandoleer 0/1/2 10 daggers

Other Gear

If the item does not fit in a container, assign it an ad hoc encumbrance amount equal to half its weight in pounds (because, presumably, if it can’t fit in a container it’s being carried awkwardly and uncomfortably). This is meant to reflect carrying the item for an extended period: it shouldn’t be used to determine the character’s ability to manhandle things short distances.

If the player specifies a number of items that could fit in containers but are attached to various belts or pieces of clothing, feel free to assign extra encumbrance as appropriate.

The character’s worn clothing is not encumbering unless it is especially bulky, in which case add up to +2.

Selected Game Design Blogroll

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I’m working on a new feature to run on Wednesdays now that my actual play from Rise of the Runelords has completed. Dragon*Con has resulted in a delay getting that implemented, so, instead, here is a list of game design blogs to which I am subscribed:

Video Game-Focused

Each of these primarily focus on video games.

Developers

Reviewers

Tabletop Game-Focused

Each of these primarily deal with tabletop game related topics.

Designers

Old Schoolers

GM Advice and General Commentary

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