System Review: Nobilis, Part 2

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The Miracle Scale is a lot like the Richter Scale

As summarized last week, the core mechanic of Nobilis is, in some ways, not that revolutionary. It could be described in terms of any roll-and-add system: GM sets difficulty, player attempts to meet or exceed difficulty with result + modifier. The difference is that the result is generated by spending points, not by rolling a die. In theory, you could do something similar in d20: +8 vs DC 15? Spend 7 points.

In practice, the Nobilis system has some other interesting things going on beyond replacing dice rolls with resource expenditures.

Firstly, the game’s scale is of sufficient low granularity that points remain relevant to base modifier in a way that can’t easily be replicated by dice: attributes are on a 0-5 point scale, so even the smallest commonly available die, the d4, threatens to overwhelm the trait with randomness. In my experience, only FATE is on a similar low-granularity scale and has to use special Fudge dice to account for it. Even in FATE, a discrepancy of 2 levels can often by overcome by a dice roll; in Nobilis, having a trait two higher than your opponent is a significant, possibly even overwhelming advantage. An attribute of 4 isn’t just twice as good as 2, it’s almost on a Richter Scale degree of improvement: the character with a trait of 2 can maybe pull off a half dozen of the miracles a character with a trait of 4 can do every round forever.

Secondly, the 1/2/4/8 minimum for expenditures creates some very interesting effects on the game. Not mentioned in the summary, and germane to the damage discussion next week, is that spending 8 points also requires the character to take a major wound. This breakdown essentially means:

  • Characters with a 0 attribute cannot use level 9 miracles at all, and have to spend massively (and take damage) to do things that characters with a 5 attribute would consider trivial.
  • Characters with a 5 attribute reach a level where they can do level 9 miracle without taking a wound or spending massively, unlike every lower attribute.

Really godlike miracles start happening around level 4 and 5, and truly world-shattering effects are possible at 7+, meaning that a high attribute, coupled with the way the cost minimums work, set definite tiers of magnitude between attribute levels. Higher attribute characters can do things trivially that lower attribute characters have to work for, they can accomplish things with mild effort that require great expenditure from lower attributes, and they have a higher threshold for miracles that are hard but not exhausting.

As an added wrinkle, miracle points are intended to be fairly limited and hard to get back. Most characters start with twenty of them: five for each type of miracle, and a lossy exchange rate between the categories (i.e., a normal, fresh character can probably only bring up to 10 miracle points to bear on a single category before being completely out). By the book, miracle points mostly only come back from being hindered by flaws or some fairly labor intensive rituals (which will often piss off rivals). A miracle point is intended to be a precious resource: you don’t spend them unless you really care about an outcome. Otherwise, you just try to figure out how to get what you want using miracles you can do for free.

Ultimately, a character’s attribute level becomes a bright line that is unusual to cross. In actual play, characters are constantly doing all variety of miracles within the scope of their attributes, and only very rarely going beyond. When a character does start spending miracle points, it’s either a point here and there for important things where the character’s attribute was just shy, or a short series of overwhelmingly flashy miracles attempting to utterly annihilate the challenge.

And the scope of what “annihilating the challenge” means will be covered more next week.

Part 3

The NPC Tarot

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Stuck for an idea to spice up a scene? The PC’s wandered off alone and needs someone to encounter? The scenario has grown muddled and needs the insertion of some new characters to restore energy and get the PCs moving? Pull a card from the NPC tarot! All entries below are associated with standard playing cards for ease of making your own.


AH          Robin Hood:
This ally is unfortunately engaged in justified but dangerous actions to which the PC is invited. Helping out will risk the current goals, but may pay off in the long run.

2H           Enthusiastic Apprentice:
This ally is young and overly willing to help out, and will likely get in over his or her head unless carefully managed. Cultivating this child may be worth the effort.

3H           Amateur Investigator: This ally is only partially clued in on the PC’s agenda, and cannot be fully brought in. He or she chafes against this secrecy, and may get into trouble trying to learn more.

4H           Slumming Aristocrat:
This ally is well-intentioned but overconfident, possibly from a life of wealth or book-learning. He or she wants to help, but takes a lot for granted and assumes control.

5H           The Crush:
This ally is attractive and friendly, a worthy romance for the PC, but has no idea he or she exists except when in danger. Alternatively, it may be a well meaning stalker-type for the PC.

6H           Untrustworthy Ally:
This ally is ostensibly well-intentioned, but does not engender trust for some reason. Can the PC rely on the ally for aid, or is he or she co-opted by the enemy?

7H           Managing Mentor:
This ally is a stay-at-home intellectual such as a scientist or academic whom the PC can frequently turn to for advice or inventions, but who might have his or her own troubles.

8H           Blood Tie:
This ally is related to the character in some way, and the two acknowledge this family bond. However, blood ties do not mean the ally is not a jerk or otherwise trouble to deal with.

9H           Friend in Need: This ally is a friend that has been through a lot and is totally trustworthy. However, that doesn’t mean the character isn’t constantly in danger and asks for more help that he or she gives.

10H        Burdened Hero:
This ally would be an amazing help in the current situation, but is currently engrossed in his or her own problems. Can the PC help in exchange for the ally’s assistance?

JH           The Comrade in Arms: This ally is a shining example of the PC’s agenda, and will support the PC with whatever is needed to accomplish it. But the ally might wind up getting all the glory.

QH          The Love Interest:
This ally is the PC’s love interest, or could easily become so if circumstances allowed. Like all such relationships, the benefits demand time invested and enemies could threaten it.

KH          The Trusted Leader:
This ally is in a leadership or otherwise respected position over the PC, and is ideal for the role. He or she often has a task for the player, and expects him or her to accept unquestioned.


AD          Deep Throat:
This NPC claims to have secrets to share. Is he or she on the level, or is this just a ploy? How does the NPC know this secret information anyway, and why is his or her identity hidden?

2D           Crazy Person:
This NPC is acting oddly and drawing attention to him or herself. Should the PC be interested in the cause, will it draw attention to the PC, or is it just a harmless weirdo?

3D           Endangered Civilian:
This NPC is a normal civilian, likely a stranger or a very vague acquaintance, who is suddenly in danger or crisis at an inopportune time for the PC to lend help.

4D           Attractive Distraction:
This NPC is a very attractive stranger of the PC’s preferred type. Is it suspicious in the context for such a good match? Can the PC waste time looking at or chatting up the NPC?

5D           Mercenary Prodigy:
This NPC is young and highly skilled at a useful trade, but just as useful to the enemy. Should the PC take the risks of getting the kid’s aid, or risk leaving him or her unhired?

6D           Eccentric Aristocrat:
This NPC is wealthy, interesting, and in the way. He or she isn’t trying to annoy, and might even be an asset in other circumstances, but right now his or her activities are hindering.

7D           Local Law Enforcement:
This NPC is a representative of the law, and something has brought the PC to his or her attention. Will this result in unexpected assistance or an even greater fiasco?

8D           Government Agent:
This NPC is an operative that isn’t after the PC, but is present for a reason that may be related. Should the PC try to get help from him or her, or stay under the government’s radar?

9D           Retired Hero:
This NPC was once a staunch supporter of the PC’s agenda, but has lost the fire or simply can’t fight any more. Is the NPC’s potential aid worth stirring up bitter memories?

10D        Mad Inventor:
This NPC is brilliant, perhaps dangerously so, in science or another studious field. He or she has created something germane to the plot, and it is up to the PC to get it.

JD           The Hero at Cross Purposes:
This NPC should be a valuable ally, but his or her current goals makes the PC’s life more difficult. The problem is that the NPC’s goals are laudable to the PC.

QD          The Entitled Enticement:
This NPC is aggravating and spoiled, but has something the PC desires: simple beauty or something specific the PC is seeking. Will the PC put up with the NPC for the cause?

KD          The Powerful Problem:
This NPC is a man or woman of power, neutral between the PC and enemies. Should the PC attempt to sway the NPC to the cause, or simply keep him or her neutral?


AS           Oliver Twist:
This foil is a young, talented thief, of goods or information, that has happened across the PC and caused affront. Can the PC punish a child? Is it worth turning the kid to the PC’s agenda?

2S           Antagonistic Civilian:
This foil is a common stranger, unrelated to anything, but something the PC has done causes loud and aggrieved offense. How will the PC deal with a pointless, escalating situation?

3S           Unhelpful Resource:
This foil is a source of valuable information or aid for the PC, but is very reticent to provide the necessary aid. Convincing the NPC to help out will require serious effort.

4S           Incompetent Hero:
This foil is aligned with the PC’s agenda, deadly serious about helping, and has the support of other allies. He or she is simply trouble, though, and would be more useful elsewhere.

5S           Amoral Mercenary:
This foil doesn’t care either way about an agenda, and will simply work for either side, whoever pays more. He or she is powerful enough to be risk if left to work for the enemy.

6S           Allied Opposition:
This foil share’s the PC’s agenda but deeply dislikes his or her methods. The NPC will work almost as hard to stop or change the PC as to deal with the enemy.

7S           Millstone Celebrity:
This foil is important to the PC’s allies in some way, very notable and spoiled, and will cramp the PC’s style in every way. Can the PC tolerate the celebrity long enough to meet the goal?

8S           Interested Officer:
This foil is a law enforcer or other authority that has taken a deep interest in the PC’s methods and activities. If the PC is above-board, he or she has a mistaken bad impression.

9S           Fatal Attraction:
This foil is attractive, the PC’s preferred type, and tempting to romance, but is committed to the enemy’s agenda. Can he or she be suborned, or will doing so be a distraction?

10S         Aristocrat Criminal:
This foil is a privileged criminal nominally against the PC (either through alliance or as a target of opportunity). But, given something more interesting, he or she might change sides.

JS            The Chief Rival:
This foil should by the PC’s perfect partner, but he or she is more interested in glory and acclaim, and will go out of the way to hurt the PC to gain the greater share from their leaders.

QS          The Forbidden Fruit:
This foil is the child or spouse of a disapproving ally or the enemy leader, but very attractive; attempting to woo or just befriend him or her may deeply hurt the PC’s agenda.

KS           The Problem Superior:
This foil is in a position of authority over the PC or his or her allies, and is incompetent or otherwise terrible to work for. Can the PC suborn his or her control to succeed?


AC          Moriarity:
This enemy is no match for the PC in a direct confrontation, but is incredibly smart and manipulative. He or she always has a plan and often has many minions for protection.

2C           Dumb Mook:
This enemy is the least of the opponent’s troupe, and is only dangerous if carefully directed by a smarter foe. Alone, he or she can easily be outwitted.

3C           Lazy Thug:
This enemy is simple support for the enemy, not lacking in brains but lacking in ambition. He or she is not much of a threat unless motivated by other foes or harming the PC is easy.

4C           Distracted Guard:
This enemy is typically placed between the PC and his or her goal, but either is unaware of being in the way or not paying much attention. Getting by through stealth should be easy.

5C           Angry Enforcer:
This enemy is a fairly potent member of the enemy’s agenda, though not powerful enough for the big time. He or she has something to prove by harming the PC.

6C           Cowardly Sycophant:
This enemy is highly placed amongst the PC’s foes, but primarily through bootlicking. Very petty while in power, the NPC could be easily intimidated when alone.

7C           Evil Scientist:
This enemy is a brilliant intellectual with his or her full powers turned towards helping the PC’s opposition and supporting its agenda. He or she will probably have unusual resources.

8C           Turn Coat:
This enemy is either currently pretending to by the PC’s ally, or was an ally until recently. He or she is optimally placed to backstab and reveal secrets if not dealt with in time.

9C           Sacrosanct Foe: This enemy has some quality that gives the PC pause in direct opposition, but is unlikely to be turned to the PC’s agenda. Destroying this foe will destroy something in the PC.

10C         Silent Killer:
This enemy works through stealth and competence, and the PC may be unaware of the threat until too late. He or she will avoid an open confrontation, instead waiting for the right moment.

JC            The Enemy’s Champion:
This enemy is the greatest asset to the PC’s opposition, and unflappably loyal. He or she may be more than a match for the PC, making direct antagonism a difficult proposition.

QC          The Antagonist’s Aide:
This enemy is a highly placed trusted advisor and/or lover of the PC’s chief opponent. Suborning or seducing him or her might seem attractive, but is harder than it looks.

KC           The Ultimate Foe:
This enemy is PC’s true opposition. While perhaps not directly more powerful than the PC, resources close the gap. Defeating this individual is ultimately required to meet the PC’s goals.


J1            The Enigmatic Problem:
This stranger appears from nowhere and works very hard to derail the PC’s plans, despite not being allied to the enemy. Who is this new foe, and what is his or her agenda?

J2            The Unexpected Ally:
This stranger appears with an important bit of wisdom, assistance, or material aid, despite the PC not knowing who he or she is. Why has this individual chosen to help?

System Review: Nobilis, Part 1

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Shooting down the sun is no problem, but you’ll piss a lot of people off…

Nobilis is the kind of game that people think is more for looking at than for playing. I’ve had people see me in my Nobilis t-shirt at cons and make a point that they thought the game was unplayable. I wasn’t originally concerned so much about playability as much as how one might actually GM* the thing, until I was able to play in a con game run by someone else. I then ran a very successful game for over a year. The next time I tried to run it, I couldn’t actually come up with a plot that made sense for the characters made. Nobilis is like that: if you can wrap your head around a game session starring a group of dysfunctional modern demigods existing in a world of metaphysical philosophy made concrete, you can, in fact, play the game. If you don’t really have an idea for a session where the multiverse is your dungeon crawl, it’s a lot harder.

Part of what makes Nobilis both amazing and confusing is its game systems. This is not demigods writ with dice pools much larger than mortals and fantastic powers that do up to a dozen well-defined amazing things. Instead, the system is designed from the ground up such that mortal concerns aren’t even on the scale, and the limits of a player’s actions are based entirely around character concept and semantic creativity.

Plus, it totally was the first system I ever saw that paid you when your flaws actually hurt you in play rather than just giving you extra points at character gen. And all the cool kids are doing that these days.

Core Mechanics

Nobilis uses two fairly unique core mechanics: task resolution and damage. Of the two, task resolution is more complicated, but damage has some very interesting effects on the system. I’ll discuss them in detail over the next couple of weeks, but in a nutshell:


  • Anything you might want to do is rated on a 0-9 point scale within one of four attributes. Whenever you want to do something, simply compare it to the other examples of actions and see approximately what number it fits at. The levels generally vary between “do something fairly impressive for a mortal” and “shoot down the sun” across 10 numbers, so there’s often a pretty clear distinction between whether what you’re trying to do is a 4 or a 5.
  • Compare your attribute to that feat. If your attribute meets or exceeds the rating, you can do it for free. You could do that feat literally ever round for effectively forever with no problem. If the difficulty is 4 and you have a 4 attribute, game on. Player characters can have attributes up to 5, so that means there’s generally one type of thing that a character can do on pretty epic levels pretty much all the time.
  • If your attribute isn’t high enough, you have to pay the difference from a limited resource pool associated with the attribute. If what you’re attempting is Aspect 5, and your Aspect is only 3, you have to pay 2 Aspect Miracle Points. If you pay the difference you can, again, perform the action without incident; but, since those points are limited, you can only exceed your limits so many times before looking to recover points.
  • The difference between your attribute and your difficulty rounds up to the nearest of 1, 2, 4, or 8. If you want to do something that would cost you 3 miracle points, you have to pay 4. If you wanted to do something that should cost 6, it actually costs 8. Once actions get more than slightly out of your comfort zone, they can become very expensive.


  • Characters have three categories of health level, from mortal injuries to flesh wounds.
  • Characters cannot take flesh wounds if they have not taken major injuries: a totally healthy character must be seriously injured before being threatened by lesser sources of damage.
  • There are many character options to make it very hard to deal a mortal wound to a character.

And I’ll discuss the ramifications of these systems in the coming weeks.

* or HG (Hollyhock God) in system terminology; the game in some ways justifies its accusations of pretension and obtuseness.

Part 2

Purchase-Based Social Conflict

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As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a huge fan of social combat as it has so far been implemented in RPGs. Inevitably, it either forces play into author stance (where players describe their actions with minimal actual RP) or results in RP with bizarre pauses to roll dice (“You should do this…” “He still has social HP left” “I mean, you should really do this…” “Okay”). As someone who likes to have persuasive conversations in a game happen entirely in character, but still realizes that it’s important to give some tangible bonus to characters that actually invest in social skills, this has always put me in a bind. Hopefully this system is one step of the way to a numerically-based system that causes minimal delay on actual play.

This system is based on FATE’s compels. In a conversation where two parties are trying to convince one another to take action (even if one side is simply trying to convince the other “stop asking, I won’t do it”), this system can be used to base resolution on character statistics.

At the beginning of the conversation, both characters make rolls of a relevant social skill (see examples, below) against a difficulty based on the opponent’s perceptive skills + modifiers (also see below). This is an indirect conflict: both sides can wind up with successes. Each success gained translates to a Persuasion Point (effectively, a FATE point that can only be used for compels within the boundaries of the current conversation).

Each side’s Persuasion Points should be represented by colored counters, with a different color for each side to more easily determine where the points came from. When one side of the negotiation asks the other for a favor, that side must offer the other a number of Persuasion Points based on the following chart:

  • 0 Points: The favor would create a minimal inconvenience for the target (he or she is not in danger and will not suffer noticeably from granting it).
  • 1 Point: The favor creates a noticeable inconvenience or a very minor chance of harm or loss. The target will remember granting this favor for some time, and may be set back somewhat on other goals by granting it.
  • 2 Points: The favor creates a serious inconvenience or a definite risk of injury or loss (but not death). Doing this will be problematic for the target and will certainly impact his or her life.
  • 3 Points: The favor will almost definitely result in the target losing something of minor importance or taking an injury, and has a small chance of death.
  • 4 Points: The favor is extremely risky, and has a good chance of ruining the target’s life or causing death if everything doesn’t go well.
  • 5 Points: This is a suicide mission; almost guaranteed to cost the target his or her life and/or everything that matters to him or her.

Once this favor is asked, the negotiating character must also offer something in compensation. Based on the significance of the compensation, the target must offer Persuasion Points of his or her own to reject the favor. The cost to the target is based on the compensation:

  • 0 Points: The negotiator did not offer compensation. This favor is obviously and purely to the negotiator’s benefit, with nothing in it for the target.
  • 1 Points: The compensation is present, but not measurably equivalent to the favor.
  • 2 Points: The compensation is roughly equivalent to the difficulty of the favor; the target will be paid a fair amount for his or her time, or believes granting the favor will be personally lucrative.
  • 3 Points: The compensation is measurably greater than the favor; the target will actually profit from granting this favor over any other uses of his or her time currently forseen.
  • 4 Points: The compensation will be a tremendous boon to the target, dwarfing the risk of the favor; only an idiot would not take this deal.
  • 5 Points: Even an idiot would take this deal; the payoff for granting the favor makes the risk of it completely negligible.

If the target offers points to reject the favor, the negotiator can offer greater reward in an attempt to force the target to offer more points to buy out of granting the favor. However, once the negotiator has stopped offering, and the target still wishes to buy out of the favor, the matter is done and the negotiator cannot ask the target for basically the same thing until circumstances change (likely not within the same conversation, or even the same session).

If the target decides to grant the favor, the negotiator gives the targets the required number of points.

If the target rejects granting the favor, the target gives the negotiator the required number of points.

For example: 

Anthony wants to get Brenda to describe the men that were in her establishment the night before. There is a small chance, in her estimation, that the men might find out or she’ll gain a reputation as a snitch, but he’s offering $100 and that’s still pretty lucrative, even given the risk. Anthony must offer 1 Persuasion Point, and Brenda would have to spend 2 to reject the offer.

Cassie is attempting to convince Dominic to accompany her on an attack against the men she believes killed her parents. Dominic thinks this would be terribly dangerous, but her parents were old friends, so his desire for vengeance is almost as strong as hers, and she’s offering to pay him well for his time and has an even greater amount in escrow that will go to his family if he doesn’t make it. Cassie must offer 4 Persuasion Points, and Dominic will only have to spend 2 to reject it.

Only Persuasion Points of the negotiator’s own color can be spent to ask for a favor (e.g., the negotiator can’t ask for a favor, have it rejected, and then use the points from the rejection to ask for an even greater, though different, favor). Points of either color can be used to reject a favor (though, obviously, rejecting a favor with points already gained from the opponent does create the possibility of more requests). Unless in-game circumstances intervene, either character can prevent a conversation from ending if he or she still retains points of the original color by asking for one last favor.

Once the conversation ends, any character with points from the opponent may record them as a bonus for future social conflicts (as the target now owes him or her one). These points work as a direct modifier to subsequent conversations, but may atrophy over time (and may need to be traded in on an X for 1 scale for a less granular system like FATE).

The social skill used to initiate the conversation guides the tactics available in the conversation:

  • Persuasion/Diplomacy/Rapport: The character intends to deal honestly. Anything offered to the target is genuine, so an accepted offer should result in no hard feelings: the target knew exactly what he or she was getting into.
  • Subterfuge/Bluff/Deceit: The character is running a con, and is either under-representing the threat to the target or over-representing the potential rewards. If the target finds out the reality of the situation, he or she may exact retribution (or stop in the middle of granting the favor). For the duration of the conversation, though, the negotiator’s offers seem genuine.
  • Intimidation: The character is offering an implicit or explicit threat to the target in addition to other compensation for the favor. Rejecting granting the favor costs 1-2 points more, but future attempts to influence the target will be much harder for all involved (i.e., the relationship worsens). The imbalance of power in the situation also serves as a modifier to the target’s difficulty for the initial roll (e.g., modify the character’s defense trait by +2 if he has two friends while the target is solo).

If a group is able to coordinate, use the social skill of the active speaker for the roll, but the highest defensive trait of the entire group for the opponent’s difficulty (e.g., if the speaker has Sense Motive 10, but his friend has Sense Motive 15, use 15).

Example: D&D

At the beginning of the conversation, roll Diplomacy, Bluff, or Intimidate. The DC is equal to the target’s Sense Motive + (0-20, based on whether the target is Helpful through Hostile).

If the roll beats the difficulty, gain 1 Persuasion Point. Gain +1 Persuasion Point for every 5 by which the roll beats the DC (e.g., a roll of 30 vs. DC 15 would be 4 Persuasion Points).

For Intimidation, each equal CR to the speaker on his team adds +2 to the Sense Motive difficulty, while each equal CR on the opponent’s team subtracts 2 (e.g., in a typical party of 4 all intimidating a given target, the speaker receives +6 for the three assistants. However, if the target is a boss creature with a lot of lower-level flunkies sufficient to raise the EL two points higher than the boss’ CR, penalize the speaker by -4). The target’s attitude worsens by one for subsequent conversations after being intimidated.

Example: Dresden Files

At the beginning of the conversation, roll Rapport, Deceit, or Intimidate. The target is equal to the opponent’s Empathy.

The number of shifts is the Persuasion Points gained.

For Intimidation, add the difference in the Conviction scores of the speaker and opponent to Empathy (e.g., if the speaker, using Intimidate, has Conviction 3, and the opponent has Conviction 1, add +2 to the Speaker’s Empathy), then + or – 2 for the relative imbalance in power in the situation.

System Review: White Wolf, Conclusion

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White Wolf is not a system to use for binary results. A halfway competent character will get at least one success, on average, on a roll of almost any difficulty. Some systems will allow the GM to set a difficulty where failure is an option, success is not assured, and it takes a really exceptional character to get better than a minimum result. That isn’t White Wolf. It’s not hugely improbable that someone with four dice can get just as many successes as someone with eight.

Instead, White Wolf’s system does a good job of modeling the kinds of games that White Wolf makes: no character is an order of magnitude more competent than any other character, almost any action willingly undertaken will be successful to some degree, and victory hinges on luck, tactics, and access to wicked cool powers. In short, it’s a game where characters increase in robustness but don’t become drastically more potent; unlike in many other systems, a specialized starting character differs from the same character after months of play only in degree, not in magnitude.

Straight out of the box, it’s not a great system to use for high fantasy or epic superheroics (though Exalted and Aberrant added enough wicked cool powers to tilt the balance) simply because enough opponents with minimal attack skills remain threatening throughout a character’s career in a way they don’t in linear systems. Instead, it’s a perfect fit for the street-level games that the World of Darkness was built on, where a rag-tag band of PCs really can take on the establishment and succeed in a way they couldn’t if more experienced opponents were completely out of their league. It’s ideal for stories about competent individuals that nearly always succeed at the tasks they’ve set for themselves, but just might not do so well enough or in sufficient time to gain the outcome they were looking for.  These are the kind of stories the World of Darkness was built around, in my opinion, and the system works better to tell them than a roll and add system ever would.

Plus, rolling fistfuls of dice is incredibly fun.

D&D 3.X/Pathfinder: Cooldown Casting


Most MMOs these days use cooldowns for abilities. While this is almost entirely a nod to how the pacing of video game combat is different from tabletop combat, a cooldown system could still work for tabletop. This system has not been tested at all, and probably drastically changes how casters play in D&D.

Characters receive spells the same way as normal: spontaneous casters receive a list of spells known, and prepared casters essentially create a different list of spells known each morning.

Casters should have space on their sheets (or on an extra sheet) to have a different area to track counters for each spell level castable. They should also, of course, have counters of some kind (coins, chips, or beads).

When all spaces are clear of counters, a caster may cast any spell he or she knows/has prepared. After casting a spell, place counters equal to the spell level on the appropriate area (e.g., if casting a 5th level spell, place five counters on the “5th level spell” tracking area).

If a spell level has at least one counter on it, no spell of that level can be cast. For example, if there are three counters on the “5th level spell” area, the caster may not cast any 5th level spells. The caster can still cast spells of levels that do not have counters on them, and then adds the appropriate number of counters to the area.

Once per round, at the beginning of the character’s action, the player may remove one counter from a single spell level:

  • Wizards, Clerics, and other caster classes that would normally have fewer spells per day cannot remove counters from any spell level until the next lowest level is clear of counters (e.g., if both levels 4 and 5 have counters, the counters on 5 cannot be removed until the counters on 4 are all gone).
  • Sorcerers, Bards, and other classes with more spells per day can remove counters from any level, regardless of the state of lower level spells.

Remember that there are 10 rounds per minute: out of combat, a caster with 9th level spells that is completely exhausted will refresh all levels in less than five minutes.

This system should create a natural rhythm to spell use in combat, as casters move around spell levels while other levels are recharging. Access to higher levels spells means more options at the beginning of a fight, and an easier ability to cast while previously expended levels are recharging. Ultimately, even in a protracted fight, all casters should be able to cast first level spells indefinitely (or alternate between spells and other actions to allow bigger spells to recharge). Theoretically, the ease of using lots of medium-to-long duration buffs should be compensated for by having to devote lots of prepared slots to those buffs; unlike standard D&D, lower level spells may see a lot of use in fights, so low level slots might not be advantageously devoted completely to buffs and miscellaneous spells. While this system essentially allows casters to “nova” every fight, it provides drastically fewer spells of the highest levels to do this with; i.e., the caster can cast max level spells every fight, but can’t cast multiple max level spells every fight (except in longer fights).

System Review: White Wolf, part 3

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Rolling 1s and Botching

One of the systems that varies the most across iterations of the White Wolf system is what happens with dice that roll a 1. Off the top of my head, permutations include:

  • Every 1 counts as -1 success. If total successes are negative, the roll counts as a Botch.
  • Every 1 counts as -1 success. However, if any successes were rolled, a negative result is just a normal failure.
  • Rolling 1s does not subtract successes, but if a result has no successes, any 1s indicate a Botch.
  • Rolling 1s doesn’t mean anything.

Botches are expected to generally screw the character and be worse than failures in all ways.

If each 1 subtracts a success, the system normalizes much more towards a binary state, in that it is more likely to have outright failure at all difficulties. This does, however, tend to make calculating probabilities much harder.

The interesting thing about all the variations of botching and 1s (save for ignoring them all together) is that they have odd effects with larger dice pools. Each of them means that a higher dice pool makes a higher percentage of your failure a botch (because you fail less often, and have more dice that can be 1). At certain difficulties, they may even mean that higher skill makes you more likely to botch, overall, than lower skill, at certain difficulties (again, because you have more dice that might roll a 1). This is generally considered dissonant by all system-minded players, and nobody ever much seemed to like having their dice betray them, so botching became progressively less important over the editions. I don’t believe the new WoD games feature it.

Rolling 10s

In most versions of the original White Wolf systems, rolling a 10 might allow you to roll an additional die. While the feature itself was little changed until the new WoD, the trigger for it varied significantly across revisions. Effectively, 10s worked similarly to games like Deadlands or Earthdawn that featured exploding dice, but only if you had an applicable specialty (later, quality) that fit the situation at hand. A character with Melee (Swords) would not explode 10s when wielding an axe, for example.

Like 1s, the special rule for 10s played merry hell with calculating dice probabilities. Essentially, it meant that, under variable circumstances, each die a character rolled had a (100% – ((difficulty – 1)  x 10) ) chance of rolling at least 1 success, the same chance divided by 10 of rolling at least 2 successes, that chance divided by 10 of rolling at least three successes, and so on. Exploding dice quickly make probability calculation very complicated.

Exploding 10s generally 0nly happened on rolls where the player had at least 4 dice (because you needed a 4 attribute or ability to trigger the explosion), so the permutations of possible results were always quite complicated.

Unlike 1s, players really loved having something special happen on a 10, even if it really only amounted to a 10% chance for an extra die on a roll you already succeeded at, so the system has remained in place in some form or another throughout the system’s lifespan. It’s interesting to note that just rolling an extra die for a specialty was mechanically superior in many ways up to 10 dice, and, once you’re over 10 dice, exploding 10s becomes time consuming, so, of course, Exalted (which invented the standard of a double fistful of dice) was the first White Wolf system to switch specialties away from exploding 10s.

White Wolf’s use of 1s and 10s as special cases seems to have inspired a lot of later systems, or at least evolved in parallel. The new Warhammer Fantasy RPG uses a lot of dice where the special cases are hard-coded as symbols on the custom dice, but which could be easily represented by a die where each number was special based on a table. The new Smallville RPG triggers special complications on every die that rolls a 1. Ultimately, though, in White Wolf, these special cases were fairly time consuming to adjudicate, made the probabilities much harder to determine, and added very little overall. The use of 1s got dropped gradually all together, and the use of 10s has increasingly changed to happen only in very special cases. Even the designers at White Wolf seem to agree that the core of the system is more interesting with a cleaner mechanic.


Ramble: Auction vs. Consignment


I recently started playing City of Heroes again to check out Going Rogue. One of the first things I noticed on coming back was that various changes to how money is earned, the merging of the markets between heroes and villains, and the growing number of max level characters with nothing better to do than farm currency meant that my assumptions about how much it should cost to “gear up” a character were out of date. I started reading some market strategy guides out of self defense, and found them very interesting… primarily in that my assumption about how the player to player market worked was fundamentally incorrect.

But first, keep in mind that the dominant player market system in MMOs is World of Warcraft, which has an auction system. Unless it’s changed a lot from when I played a few years ago, it works a lot like eBay. A player lists an item along with the minimum he or she will accept for it, whether he or she is willing to let it go for a “buy it now” price, and how long the listing will be available. Players see the current winning amount, and know that, if they want the item, they will have to beat this amount and hope no one else comes along offering more money before the listing expires. Impatient players can spend the “buy it now” price and get the item immediately, but for potentially far more than it could be had if they were willing to wait for the auction to expire. Players have to rely on 3rd party sites or their own research to track what the current average sale price for the item is, or, if it’s a common item, they can simply bid on the one that’s cheapest at the moment.

Most MMOs that I’m familiar with use a similar auction system, though often less polished or complete than WoW’s.

City of Heroes is different, in that it uses a consignment system. Players that want to sell an item simply list it and the minimum price they are willing to accept for it. Players that want to buy an item select it from a list of all available items and enter how much they’re willing to pay for it. For slow-moving items, there may be only one person buying or selling at any given time. If you’ve listed an item, as soon as a buyer requests it at a price equal or greater than your asking price, it’s sold and you receive the amount spent. If you’re a buyer, as soon as someone lists your requested item for equal or less than you’re offering, you get it for that price. There’s even a list of the last five sales to show both parties what the going rate is for an item (this is far more accurate for rare items than for common ones: if an item is selling in huge amounts, the last five merely displays a constantly shifting snapshot of current demand, and can easily skew the perceived value of an item by a single person paying too much for several of them).

What I hadn’t understood about the consignment house until reading the market threads was the method the system used to match buyer and seller when there are a lot of bids and/or a lot of sellers. When something only has 1 buying or selling, it’s very easy to (barring listing fees for the seller) figure out through trial and error whether the seller is willing to sell for the price the buyer is willing to pay, even though the transaction is completely anonymous. Things get more complicated when things are selling briskly: you may have to bid 1,000 to immediately get something that has a thousand for sale and usually goes for 100. Meanwhile, you might be able to bid 20,000 for something currently selling for 100,000, and get one in a few minutes. From a seller’s perspective, you’ll sometimes list something for what appears to be the going rate, and fail to sell it for hours or days even though the sales are still turning over at roughly the rate you listed, sometimes lots more, and sometimes you’ll list something for a pittance and receive way more than you expected to get.

I had assumed that there was something complicated going on with first in/first out based on time of listing being compared to amount offered. The common wisdom on the forums is that it’s much simpler than that: bids are sorted from highest bid to lowest, sales are sorted from lowest list price to highest, and the two are paired off until the highest bid no longer is enough to get the lowest list. If there are three people bidding 5,000, 4,500, and 4,000, the item listed at 1,000 will get 5,000, the item listed at 3,000 will get 4,500, and the item listed at 5,000 will get nothing (because the remaining 4,000 bid is insufficient, even though it would have matched perfectly to the original high bid). This goes a long way to explaining how there can be certain items that will have hundreds of the same item both listed and bidding: high bids don’t peel off the high list prices until all the cheaper items are sold. Meanwhile, theoretically you can list an item at 1 and get the maximum amount currently on offer (though you may have no real idea how much that is).

I’m genuinely curious why the market was designed this way. If I’d set it up, as mentioned previously it probably would have had something to do with priority: earliest listed item goes to the first person to bid at least that amount. Another way to do it would be to try to match highest to highest: If there are items listed for 5,000, 4,000, and 3,000, a bid of 4,500 takes the 4,000, then a bid of 4,000 takes the 3,000, and, finally, someone will have to bid over 5,000 to take the 5,000. Either method would seem to make it less likely that the situations of lots for sale and lots bidding would happen, but I wonder if the current method doesn’t have advantages. My first thought would be that the load on the server/database is less severe by doing a simple sort of two tables and matching the top rows; anything even slightly more complex might add up over the presumably millions of transactions hitting the system each day. Another benefit is adding in a risk vs. reward scenario: a low-listed item might sell very quickly for the going rate, but just as easily might sell for a pittance if the demand suddenly drops.

To sum up: City of Heroes has a very unusual player to player market system, and I’d be interested in seeing more games attempt a consignment system rather than an auction system, possibly with different rules for matching players to see what variations do to the overall model.