A Song of Fading Suns

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With only very minimal changes to the setting assumptions of Fading Suns, one could run a game of it using the A Song of Ice and Fire RPG. While such a campaign might not have quite the same breadth of available adventures as the more toolkit-style Victory Points system, it would gain the genre emulation tools inherent in the ASoIaF RPG engine: specifically, the intrigue and mass combat systems. Since one could set A Game of Thrones in the Fading Suns setting without changing much beyond a few house names and adding in a few sci-fi features, it seems like a very good match.

Setting Changes

  • Rather than being monolithic families, the five great houses of the Known Worlds merely serve as the figureheads for a collection of banner houses closely tied to them by oaths and blood. A “Hawkwood Knight” may actually be from a smaller house that rules a large section of one of the Hawkwood worlds in the name of his lords.
  • Energy shields work more like the ones in Dune: they dampen inertia and energy, and work much better against bullets and other attacks that deal damage by being very energetic. They are also one of the Second Republic technologies that are readily replicable in the new dark ages. Consequently, melee weapons are used far more heavily that seems logical in a setting with high tech firearms: a couple pounds of steel swung as fast as a human can swing it will rarely trigger a shield, while a gun will almost always set it off.
  • Spaceships are rare and hard to replace, fortresses are often dug deep and protected by massive energy shields, and the Church has declared orbital bombardment a sin (as it tends to wipe out the countryside and risk upsetting terraforming while leaving the actual fortresses intact). Wars are, thus, often fought by infantry and ground vehicles.

Rules Changes to ASoIaF RPG

Skills

The Animal Handling skill is changed to the Driving skill. It is used for most of the same kind of thing (particularly for “cavalry” actions), but is focused more on how to operate vehicles than on befriending horses. Players need a special Quality to operate spacecraft.

Knowledge is used for understanding technology, but players need a special Quality to operate Think Machines or work with really high tech items (virtually anything more complex than 1950s tech).

Status means different things for nobles, churchmen, and guilders:

Status Nobility Church Guild
1 Servant Petitioner Freeman
2 Retainer Novitiate Apprentice
3 Squire Canon Associate
4 Knight Deacon Chief
5 Baron Priest Fellow
6 Earl/Marquis Bishop Captain
7 Count Archbishop Consul
8 Duke Metropolitan Dean
9 Prince Patriarch
10 Emperor

Noble Skills: Agility, Deception, Fighting, Persuasion, Status, Warfare

Church Skills: Awareness, Healing, Language, Knowledge, Persuasion, Will

Guild Skills: Cunning, Driving, Endurance, Knowledge, Marksmanship, Thievery

Non-Entered Skills: Agility, Athletics, Endurance, Stealth, Survival, Thievery

(PCs start with their group’s skills at 3 and all other skills at 2. Raising skills from 2 to 3 costs 30 points, instead of 10, and all other costs are increased appropriately.)

Qualities

No Fate Qualities from the standard list are allowed except: Cadre, Cohort, Famous, Head of House, Heir, Landed, Sponsor, Ward, and Wealthy.

No Heritage Qualities from the standard list are allowed (though a GM might want to invent some for different planets).

The Braavosi Fighter and Water Dancer Martial Qualities are renamed Duelist and Fencer, but their effects are the same.

The following new Fate Qualities are available to Guild members:

  • Spacer: You can pilot a spaceship (use Driving).
  • Technologist: You can understand how to assemble and repair high tech devices (use Knowledge).
  • Hacker: You can operate a Think Machine (use Knowledge). Requires Technologist.
  • Banker: You can manage money without being bred to it (use Cunning instead of Status for Stewardship checks).

Theurgy, Psi, Changed, and Cybernetics are purchased as new Fate qualities. Use the Pious and Third Eye Qualities as a basis.

House Creation

Create stats for different planets to replace the Westeros regional statistics. Land 100 is roughly the size of a planet, so most PC houses will control somewhere between a country and a continent in space.

The rough area controlled is found by squaring the Lands number and multiplying by 5000 square miles (Lands^2 x 5000 sq miles).

The rough population of these lands is found by cubing the Population number and multiplying by 1000 citizens (Population^3 x 1000 citizens). At population 100, the PCs are responsible for a billion souls.

The house’s first founding is rolled normally and provides the same number of historical events, but is compared to the following list:

  1. Ancient (The Diaspora, c. 2500)
  2. Very Old (The Ukar War, c. 2855)
  3. Old (The end of the Second Republic, c. 4000)
  4. Established (The death of Emperor Vladimir, c. 4550)
  5. Recent (The beginning of the Emperor War, c. 4956)
  6. New (The ascension of Emperor Alexius, c. 4993)

Equipment

When awarded in character creation or as treasure, 1 Gold Dragon in ASoIaF is worth roughly 100 Firebirds in Fading Suns.

Weapons

Use the ASoIaF stats for melee weapons and bows.

Slug Guns use the following table. All Revolvers and Shotguns have the Reload (Greater) quality. All other slug guns have the Reload (Lesser) quality. Each gun has a number of shots (obviously) before a reload is required. Improved ammo can be purchased for most slug guns to gain the Piercing quality.

Gun Specialty Training Damage Qualities
Light Pistol Pistol Agi + 1 Close, Fast
Medium Pistol Pistol Agi + 2 Close
Heavy Pistol Pistol Agi + 3 Close, Slow
Imperial Rifle Rifle Agi + 3 Long, Two-Handed
Assault Rifle Rifle Agi + 4 Long, Fast, Two-Handed
Sniper Rifle Rifle 1B Agi + 5 Long, Slow, Two-Handed
SMG Medium Slug Agi + 2 Close, Fast
Shotgun Medium Slug Agi + 5 Close, Two-Handed

Energy Guns use the following table. Laser guns and Flameguns do not trigger energy shields. Blasters bleed through energy shields (see the Energy Shield description.) Flamers continue burning on a successful hit for 2 damage per round for 1d6 rounds (or until smothered).

Gun Specialty Training Damage Qualities
Laser Pistol Laser Agi + 0 Close, Fast
Laser Rifle Laser Agi + 1 Long, Two-Handed
Assault Laser Laser 1B Agi + 2 Long, Fast, Two-Handed
Blaster Pistol Blaster Agi + 4 Close, Fast, Piercing 2
Blaster Rifle Blaster 1B Agi + 6 Long, Two-Handed, Piercing 3
Blaster Shotgun Blaster Agi + 6 Close, Two-Handed, Piercing 3
Flamegun Flamer Agi + 2 Close, Slow

Shields and Armor

An energy shield triggers automatically against all slug guns and blasters (and anything similarly energetic), but does not trigger against melee attacks and anything else going much slower than the speed of sound. When hit by a gun when wearing a shield:

  • Reduce the shield’s charge by the base damage of the weapon + the armor worn’s bulk rating (e.g., a character in half plate (bulk 3) hit by a Sniper Rifle would reduce the shield’s charge by the attacker’s Agi + 5 + 3).
  • For slug guns, deal 1 damage per Degree of Success (mitigated by any armor worn under the shield). At some areas of the body the shield is thin enough that some force from the slug will make it through.
  • For blasters, deal 2 damage per Degree of Success (also mitigated by armor). This represents the energy and heat bleeding through the shield even if the plasma was dissipated away from the body.

Energy shields can also soak up falling damage if the character falls far enough to generate enough speed to trigger the shield (greater than 20 yards or so). Doing this reduces the damage to 0 but has a 50% chance of shorting out the shield (and reduces 30 points of charge even if it doesn’t short it out).

Different shields have different battery sizes:

  • Standard Shield: 50 charge
  • Dueling Shield: 100 charge
  • Assault Shield: 200 charge
  • Battle Shield: 300 charge

Armor in the Known Worlds is generally better than in Westeros. Use the following chart for armor:

Armor Rating Penalty Bulk
Jerkin 2 0 0
Studded 3 -1 0
Mail 5 -2 -2*
Half Plate 5 -1 -3*
Scale 6 -2 -3*
Plate 9 -4 -3*
Ceramsteel 14 -7 4
Synthsilk 3 0 0
Stiffsynth 6 -1 -1
Adept Robe (Powered) 14 0 0**

* Plastic has -1 Bulk
** Adept Robes also add +2B to Athletics

System Review: Marvel Universe RPG, Part 3

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Fight!

So this is a superhero game, so you’re going to want to know how well fights go. It’s a game that, in fact, suggests that a “Brawling” style of play—where two players just make characters and go at it GM-free—is totally valid. So how is the combat?

The stone-based nature of the system means that there is no randomness to add excitement. Instead, all drama comes from hidden knowledge of how your opponents are planning their attacks. A lot of games talk a lot about declaring actions in reverse initiative order, but in actual play it’s simpler to just go in order of initiative, losing the faster characters a huge tactical bonus (because the slower characters get to allocate their actions based on what’s already happened). This isn’t true in MURPG: the GM and players can hide their stone arrangements and then reveal them all at once. The fight then goes in order of Agility for initiative, and the slower characters may be completely screwed if they guess wrong (e.g., a lot of energy devoted to a Close Combat attack when the faster character spent stones to move away and use a Ranged Combat attack).

Beyond the weirdness of blind allocation, the way combat works is pretty straightforward:

  • Allocate stones to one or two actions (or more if you’ve twinked out your power armor) up to a maximum of the action total or your available energy.
  • Move stones out of actions into defense, if desired (i.e., you can’t just roll stones into Defense; each stone allocated to Defense functionally reduces the maximum stones that can be assigned to your attack).
  • Add free modifiers (from weapons, armor, and special modifier powers that are always on like energy resistance) to your attack and defense totals.

On your initiative, compare your total attack against the target’s total defense. The difference is damage. If the target isn’t taken out, he’ll get to do the same to you on his initiative. Repeat next turn.

Keep in mind that some characters can’t even make full use of some attacks with a full energy pool, and almost no characters recover energy fast enough to attack full on every round. Most characters have to choose between investing close to their refresh rate in attacks every turn (and keeping on this way indefinitely) and making one big attack followed by several turns of investing less than refresh to get back to a good total.

This creates a combat system that’s very close to an iterated prisoner’s dilemma, in that there are often four results determined by binary player decisions:

  • The character and opponent both invest in an attack and neglect to roll any stones into defense: both take heavy damage and the character with the higher Agility might just take the other one out before he can act.
  • The character invests heavily into attack and the opponent rolls heavily into defense: both take minimal damage.
  • Vice versa to the previous one.
  • Both characters roll heavily into defense: neither takes damage but both have probably wasted energy.

The only other variable (assuming energy totals aren’t completely mismatched) is when the player risks dumping in a high amount of energy. Do it too early and you might be on the ropes the rest of the fight if it doesn’t work out. Do it too late and you might have already been plinked down to low HP even if you win.

Plinking brings up another interesting aspect of the system: damage is divided by 3 and rounded up before being applied. Effectively, beating the target’s defense by 1 is as good as by 3, 4 is as good as 6, and so on. If you can correctly predict the target’s defense, you can save two energy on every attack by dealing just enough that nothing will be lost to rounding. Since even taking one point of damage probably reduces the target’s energy recovery, plinking can add up pretty fast.

In practice, the drama of combat with anyone on roughly the same power level comes down to gauging when the other guy is going to spend big and when you should do the same. If you’re fighting someone of lower power level, you can probably take him out without ever taking damage if you’re careful. Conversely, a more powerful target means that hopefully your allies can all focus fire and spend big before you start dropping like flies.

That is all to say that the MURPG combat system is interestingly different from other games, but lacks a lot of tactical combat options that are present in more complex and more random models. You can get actions that give you interesting tools like armor piercing, AoE, double damage, etc., but if you have these they’ll get used over and over and if you don’t have them your tactical options are often limited to trying to scoop up GM fiat bonuses from using the terrain. It really all comes down to whether you can risk enough stones in attack to beat your opponent’s defense without the same thing happening to you (and starting your inevitable death spiral as your recovery drops due to lost HP).

And since having a higher energy total effectively means a guaranteed greater level of damage and defense each turn, fights are often inevitably in favor of the guy that bought more energy.

Conclusion

Yet Another D&D Skill System, Part 3

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Example Skill Checks

The following challenges give an idea of how the system is supposed to run. A couple of things to keep in mind when designing your own:

  • A  player with a decent ability score in the skill will average 5 HP damage on a successful check (3-4 average on the d6 plus +1 or +2). A player that has a +4 or better ability score will be able to do 10 damage on a good roll. Therefore, multiples of 5 HP on a task are a good default.
  • A skill challenge with several distinct elements, each with their own small HP pool is good for general party members: when they eventually get a successful hit, they can see an immediate difference. A skill challenge with a big pool of HP and a big payoff at the end is good for skill specialists, as fewer of their rolls will be wasted by rolling over a small HP pool.

Criminal

Checks are typically per round.

  • Open Lock (Disable): The DC for the skill check is equal to the Break DC for the door (unless the lock is just horribly mismatched to the door quality). The HP is effectively the complexity of the lock (1 for a simple hidden catch, 3 for a 3-pin lock, and up to 10 for something that uses a really strangely shaped key). The lock provides hardness against skill checks equal to its quality (0-5).
  • Disable Trap (Disable): The DC for the skill check is from 10-30, based on the deviousness of the trap (use trap level + 10 as a rough guideline). The HP is based on how complex the trap is (1-30); in general, simple mechanical traps will have low HP and complex magical traps will have high HP. Traps also have a hardness rating: this isn’t for the skill check, but is the amount subtracted from actual attacks if players just try to destroy the mechanism of the trap, dealing direct damage to the HP (traps where just bashing it with an axes won’t keep it from working have a very high hardness indeed).
  • Use Magic Device (Improvise): The DC for the skill check is equivalent to the listed UMD difficulties in the player’s guide (don’t add any kind of spell or caster level). The HP is equal to the caster level of the item or effect.
  • Sneak (Stealth): The HP for the skill check is equal to the number of feet that must be crossed between areas where guards cannot see, +5 per extra party member moving with the group (but every member of the party can roll a sneak check each round). For example, trying to get 3 party members across a 60 foot open space visible from a guard tower would be 70 HP. The DC is equal to 10 + the highest Perception save among guards that might notice the group. Every round where the challenge retains HPs after all PC stealth checks, the guards can oppose a Hide check (see below). If the characters reduce the challenge to 0 HP, they can ambush the guards (gaining a surprise round) on the following round.
  • Hide (Stealth): Each round a character is hiding, guards that are paying attention can make a Perception save to notice the hiding characters. The DC is equal to 10 + the lowest Stealth among the hiding characters + situational stealth bonuses (+2 for dim light, +4 for full darkness, +2 for 10%-30% concealment, +4 for 40%-60% concealment). If all guards fail their perception save, the hiding characters can ambush them (gaining surprise round) on the following round (or may simply decide to continue sneaking).
  • Shadow (Stealth): As Hide, but the DC increases by +1 for every 5 feet the shadowing character hangs back from the target. The shadowing character gets a bonus for a good disguise check and a penalty for looking distinctive.

Wilderness

Checks are typically per day.

  • Forage (Find Sustenance): The DC for the skill check is equal to the prevalence of food in the region (5 for a well-stocked forest or jungle up to 25 for a desert). The HP is equal to 5 per party member per day. Each day the HP total is not met, the remaining HP are deducted from days of rations (e.g., with 5 HP left, deduct 5 days of rations). If there are no rations to meet the remaining HP, the characters begin starving.

Mundane

Checks are typically per week unless otherwise noted.

  • First Aid (Heal): This check is per round. The DC for the skill check is 15. The result of the damage roll heals the target up to a maximum of 0 HP. Any successful check stabilizes the target.
  • Long Term Care (Heal): The DC for the skill check is 15. The result of the damage roll heals the target (to a maximum of total HP).
  • Treat Poison/Disease (Heal): This check can be made once per period of the poison/disease. The DC is the save DC of the effect. The damage is a bonus to the target’s next save against the effect.
  • Create Mundane Item (Craft): The character must provide half the value of the item (this is the “cost”) in materials. The DC of the check is 5 if the item’s cost is less than 20 CP, 10 if the cost is 2-19 SP, 15 if the cost is 2-19 GP, and 20 if the cost is 2+ PP. The HP is equal to the cost (in whatever coin the DC was based on) rounded up (e.g., an item that costs 25 GP/2.5 PP would be DC 20 and have 3 HP). When the HP are reduced to 0, the item is completed.
  • Earn a Living (Profession): Choose a DC from the chart below. Once the listed HP are reduced to 0, the character earns the listed GP.
DC HP GP
5 15 5
10 20 10
15 26 20
20 33 40
25 41 80
30 50 150
35 60 300

System Review: Marvel Universe RPG, Part 2

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Building a Hero

Like nearly all superhero games, the MURPG features a complicated method to try to balance characters with wildly divergent powers. In this system, it’s through the concept of actions and modifiers and, in many ways, the game was ahead of its time: a superpower is pretty much directly analogous to a skill. You buy an action for fighting in melee, you buy an action for sneaking, and you buy an action for blasting flame from your hands. This isn’t too far out from many modern games that roll things like resources or status—traits that would traditionally be separate from the skill list—into the same big bucket of character abilities. Unlike many modern games, though, which tend to treat things in the same bucket as basically the same cost, MURPG has a system that binds theoretical power to cost.

Effectively, there is a concept of a “basic action” that maps to a chart. A basic action at 4 costs two of your chargen resource stones to buy, at 6 it costs four, and at 8 it costs nine. Every action in the game has a modifier that indicates its relative utility relative to this platonic basic action: Shape shifting is +3, Inventing is +6, Drain Energy is +1, Business Skills is +0, etc. This modifier effectively increases the cost by shifting it up the chart: Inventing 1 costs the same as Business Skills 7. On the surface, this seems like a relatively simple way to balance things. Having a low action means you can’t put many stones in it and won’t meet many difficulties. Sure, Ninja gives you way more options than basic Close Combat, but the guy who is capped at putting 3 stones into Ninja could be putting 8 into Close Combat.

Except that most actions allow you to tie them to an attribute, and just add that in. If you tie your action to your Agility 8, it becomes an 11 Ninja vs. 16 Close Combat. And Ninja can also take a weapon modifier (which Close Combat can’t when it’s taking an attribute). So it’s actually something like 14 Ninja vs. 16 Close Combat. And Ninja does a ton of things: close combat, ranged combat, stealth, etc. And you’re rarely going to have 16 stones to apply anyway.

In conclusion, Ninja is terribly broken and… wait, no, I got off track. That example got away from me by virtue of my hate for the brokenness that is Ninja. But it’s just an obvious wart on a superhero system that’s easier to minmax than most (and in a field that includes every superhero game ever made, that’s saying something). In the tiny, thin book, they encourage making your own actions based on the examples, and it’s pretty easy to come up with actions you don’t have to buy very high because they attach to attributes and give you lots of other cool options.

But, really, all of this plays second fiddle to how you get energy in the first place.

As noted last week, energy typically comes from your stones of health. If you don’t have a lot of energy to spend, a high action is functionally meaningless except in situations where the GM gives you a high difficulty barrier to entry: pity the character with a 16 action and only 3 energy to apply each turn. Energy is the life blood of the system; you’re practically limited in what you can do by how much your total is and how much you regenerate each turn. And player characters can easily have widely varying amounts of it.

Energy doesn’t just go down as you lose health, it’s directly locked to it. If you buy up your health (via the Durability attribute), you just have more energy than less robust characters. Full stop. Of the example characters, the Blob starts with 18 energy while many other characters start with 9. His fatness allows him to bring twice as much effort to bear on literally anything in the game. The Punisher and Venom both have higher Close Combat skills than they can ever apply in a fight. Jean Grey can’t actually use her whole Telepathy. But the Blob can max out his ludicrously high Close Combat and still have energy left over for a little Black Ops or Social Skills. Because he’s tough.

Beyond being fairly arbitrary (and, in fact, so arbitrary that they had to introduce an optional rule where you have a lot of energy because you’re smart), the problem with this is that it creates a system mastery learning curve that makes new players drastically less powerful than old hands, even with the same level of starting points. You make your street brawler with high Close Combat, Acrobatics, and Agility. I make my assassin with Ninja linked to high Intelligence (as an energy source). My buddy ties his Elemental Mastery to his massive Durability. I hope you enjoy playing our sidekick.

MURPG… the story of how quick, agile, or strong people are not as good as smart or tough (and possibly fat) people…

Okay, I’ve done nothing but bust on the ability to minmax a superhero game system for 800 words. Fish, barrels, shooting… yeah. Anyway, if you make the simple decision to fix all your players at the same energy total and exert effort to keep your old hands from setting themselves up to be an order of magnitude more competent than the new players, how does the system run? I’ll talk about that next week.

Part 3

Yet Another D&D Skill System, Part 2

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So you’re rearranged the skills down to a handful of broad categories as discussed last week. But you’re not done yet: now it’s time to use that to make skills work even more like the combat system. Why? Because the combat system is fun and the standard use of skills aren’t often as much fun.

This system takes inspiration from this Rob Donoghue post and my previous attempt at a skill revision.

When should you make skill checks and skill saves?

When using this method for skills, it’s important to ask yourself some questions before asking for a skill check from your players:

  • Is there a limited amount of time to accomplish the task before something happens?
  • Does something negative happen regularly until the PCs accomplish the task?
  • Does accomplishing the task have some independent benefit to the PCs that would be useful to get sooner (even if there’s no ultimate time limit)?
  • Will degree of success at the task create a difficulty for opponents?

If none of these things are true, you probably don’t need to roll a skill check. Either the thing is possible, and the PCs accomplish it after a reasonable amount of time, or they quickly realize that it’s outside their competency for now. This is the essence of the typical Take 20 rule as well. For this system, pretty much every skill check is effectively a skill challenge, and it might feel cumbersome to assign HP to every task. So don’t: only make skill rolls when it’s actually interesting, and just allow players to succeed after what seems like a relevant amount of time for their skill bonus if there’s no time pressure.

This advice also applies to skill saves, even though they’re comparatively more simple. In particular, what has become Athletics saves were previously skills that were almost always rolled. It may be a reflex action to ask for a Climb check, or a Jump check, or whatever any time the PC tries to do something. Again, resist this urge and only ask for skill saves when the consequences of failure are interesting. You probably don’t need to make a roll to climb up a 5 foot wall with a lot of handholds outside of combat. Even in combat, you could probably just assess that it counts as difficult terrain and make it cost double to climb. The idea of making these things saves implies that they’re only rolled when something has gone wrong: “You’re halfway up the face of the mountain, then suddenly BEES! Make an Athletics Save to hang on and keep going.”

Skill Damage

Each skill has a base damage of 1d6 + Ability Mod. For example, a successful use of Knowledge rolls 1d6 + Int bonus.

Skills can get critical hits in the same way as attack rolls: roll a 20 for a threat and then succeed on a second roll against the same DC. Skill specialties increase the threat range to 19-20 for that particular use (e.g., a character with specialty Religion make general knowledge rolls at threat range 20 but Religion-based Knowledge rolls at threat range 19-20). Skills double their base die and bonus on a crit, but not bonus dice (see below), just like combat criticals.

Skills can make iterative attacks similarly to attack rolls. When the base skill hits 6, 11, and 16, you get another skill roll at the regular penalties whenever you can make a “full skill check.” In combat, this works the same way as attacks: on any given round, the character can either move and make one skill check, or make multiple skill checks with only a 5 foot step. Out of combat, particularly for checks that represent more than one round of activity, it’s a little more nebulous what counts as “having to move.” In general, assume that a character that is distracted and/or doing other non-skill things while working on the task gets only a single roll per check, while a character that’s fully dedicated to the task can make a full skill check and take the iterative rolls.

When iterative rolls are allowed, the character can do multiple things that count as the same skill, but cannot mix skills. For example:

  • A Rogue with base Criminal 6 attempts to remain in Stealth while working to Disable a trap.
  • A Wizard with Knowledge 6 attempts to Research in a library where he needs Linguistics to translate the books.
  • A Bard with Social 11 attempts to Perform and entertain the crowd but also Persuade them and also Sense Motive to see how he’s doing.
  • A Cleric with Mundane 11 uses Heal to manage his infirmary while working two separate other Professions.
  • A Ranger with Wilderness 11 is trying to Track a target cross country while helping his party Orienteer and Find Sustenance.

Magic items or spells that would normally give a skill bonus instead give a damage bonus for that application of the skill:

  • If the bonus is less than +5, add half the bonus to the damage (e.g., a skill bonus +2 translates to +1 damage for that type of skill).
  • If the bonus is +5, add 1d6 to the damage (that isn’t multiplied on a crit). Add an additional +1d6 for every +5 (e.g., a +15 is +3d6).
  • If the bonus is greater than +5 but not evenly divisible by 5, combine the two methods (e.g., +7 becomes +1d6+1).
  • For bonuses that apply to saves, add half the usual bonus to the save (e.g., Jumping +10 translates to a +5 bonus to Athletics saves related to jumping).

Finally, GMs may wish to award permanent increases to the size of a skill’s base die as a reward for various accomplishments. For example, the party gains titles in a small kingdom and the GM gives the spymaster Criminal 1d8, the warden Wilderness 1d8, the royal librarian Knowledge 1d8, and everyone else Social or Mundane 1d8.

(Next week, my intention is to provide example challenges.)

System Review: Marvel Universe RPG, Part 1

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Spider-Man’s Web-Swinging Woes

2003 was the beginning of the era in which Marvel began really start milking its licenses. Spider-Man and X-Men had just proved that the Marvel comic properties had a moneymaking role outside of the four-color page, and X-Men Legends was in development and soon to be a very well received video game compared to previous Marvel, well, shovelware. With a massive surge in the gamer population generated by D20, it was a no-brainer to re-enter a market where the Marvel Super Heroes RPG had previously done well relative to the last surge in D&D.

The result was the Marvel Universe RPG. The interesting thing about the MURPG is that it set the precedent for Marvel’s later move to exert extreme control over its properties, forgoing being licensed to another RPG producer in favor of in-house development. The title credits page is simply a list of the Marvel principles, with the actual staff that worked on the book squeezed in at the very back just before the appendix. Perhaps Marvel thought this was for the best, as none of them were “name” designers; Dan Gelber worked on various Paranoia editions (and little else) and none of the others turned up in a search of RPG credits (before or since). I actually seem to recall this as part of the marketing promotion at the time: they were using unknown designers without any preconceived bias toward making a standard RPG.

This is certainly made apparent almost instantly on reading the rules. The typical “what is an RPG?” intro seems to spend as much time making subtle jabs at traditional, dice-based RPGs as it does explaining what RPGs are for new players. In the minds of the designers, a dice-based RPG is clearly one where Spider-Man could fall to his death at any moment based on a bad roll. They were determined to avoid the pitfalls of a game where “figuring out the percentages of success and failure are what the game is all about.” Instead, they’d created a resource-based, no-luck system because, after all, “Many people like resource-decision games more than probability-based die-rolling games because they more closely mirror real life.”

As a statement of fact, this isn’t false (though using “many” instead of “most” is something of a giveaway that little actual research was done, as many paper-writing college freshmen know). Indeed, Nobilis had, with its second edition the year before, created a huge exploration-space for the resource-driven RPG. The world was ready for experimentation, and Marvel had hired a fresh staff of undiscovered talent to set the tone for the rest of the decade’s RPGs. Unfortunately, just maybe, the best RPGs don’t come from writers making their sole lifelong foray into design.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Core Mechanics

The core of the MURPG’s Action Resolution System (ARS) is the concept of “stones.” Every number in the game is meant to translate to a tactile representation. White stones represent health and high-cost items during character creation. Red stones represent energy and lower-cost items.

In play, white stones are hit points. Red stones are energy, and, for most characters, they’re limited to three per white stone (so characters lose maximum energy as they take damage). Additionally, spent energy refreshes at one per white stone per round (called a “page;” individual character actions occur in “panels”).

Characters determine trait totals in a way not unusual for RPGs: attribute (“ability”) + skill (“action”) + modifiers. What’s unusual is that the attribute + skill total is essentially a container that indicates the maximum energy that can be spent on a challenge. If the trait total is 7, the player can choose to spend up to 7 stones from his or her energy pool toward the action. Modifiers are free increases to the total (and, thus, way more valuable). If the player can’t afford the energy (or just thinks the challenge is of lesser importance), he or she can apply less than the full possible total to the action. This is the only way to do less than your absolute best at a challenge.

This results in an interesting alteration of the concept of difficulty: the difficulty of the challenge is actually a barrier to entry, not necessarily the total that must be met. If the difficulty is 7, a character with a trait total of 6 can’t even apply stones toward the action unless he or she finds a +1 modifier somewhere. With lack of time pressure, pretty much any challenge can become an extended challenge (and many standard challenges are given a “resistance” number way higher than the difficulty): as long as you meet the difficulty prerequisite, you can spend stones up to your trait total each round until the resistance is overcome.

Ultimately, with all results really coming down to whether you have enough stones of energy to spend, the overwhelming importance of this resource (and its potential imbalance within the party) becomes a problem that cascades throughout the rest of the system…

Part 2

Yet Another D&D Skill System, Part 1

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A few weeks ago, Harbinger posted about skills in D&D and got me thinking about them again. As I’ve noted before, the skill system introduced in D&D 3e feels a bit tacked on. Attacks and Saves in D20 are typically a simple check against a target number (AC or Save DC), with success potentially allowing you to roll damage but margin of success never being important: checks are primarily binary pass/fail (with the exception of criticals). Meanwhile, skill checks very often imply that there is a margin of success component: even with a fixed DC, there is often a difference between failing by more or less than 5. Knowledge challenges are frequently broken directly into MoS, with each staggered success giving more information.

Additionally, the skill system doesn’t progress at all similarly to the attack and save systems (though 4e makes them more similar): it’s possible to completely neglect a skill or twink it to absurd levels in a way you can’t with attacks or saves. This makes it very hard at higher levels to set a reasonable skill DC. Even by 10th level, a silver-tongued Sorcerer or Bard could have a Bluff check well over +20 while a Cha-dumping Fighter or Wizard could still have it at a penalty. It’s next to impossible to plan a challenge where all members of the party will have to roll the same skill, and it’s even hard to accurately gauge a good DC for a skill only a single player needs to roll: the difference between a skill specialist and someone who’s merely good at it is also huge.

So this time through, my first step is to combine down all the skills into eight categories and alter their progressions to work like attack bonus and saves. (Hopefully) next week, I’ll look into ways to use this modified skill system to move even more in line with the other D20 systems to provide a more consistent out of combat experience.

Skills

Most non-combat actions are covered by five broad skill categories, each with approximately six skill specialties. A character may attempt any of the actions within the skill category, but a character might have a greater bonus in a particular skill specialty (e.g., A rogue might have +10 to Criminal in general, but +12 to Disable and Stealth). Skills are typically active: the character chooses to attempt them rather than being surprised by the GM. Further, in the full system, skills will often require a series of rolls to accomplish a task (much as it often takes a series of attack rolls to defeat a target).

Criminal (Dex; suffers from the Armor Check Penalty)

  • Disable: Break a device or open a lock (Disable Device and Open Lock)
  • Disguise: Change appearance of self, others, items, or text (Disguise and Forgery)
  • Escape: Get out of bonds or imprisonment (Escape Artist)
  • Improvise: Make use of unknown magic or devices (Use Magic Device)
  • Legerdemain: Hide or filch objects (Sleight of Hand)
  • Stealth: Prevent detection (Hide and Move Silently)

Wilderness (Con)

  • Dungeoneer: Prepare for threats underground (Knowledge: Dungeoneering)
  • Find Sustenance: Hunt or gather food in the wild (Survival)
  • Gather Components: Find useful items in the wild (Survival and Knowledge: Nature)
  • Handle Animal: Train or persuade an animal (Handle Animal)
  • Orienteer: Know directions, predict weather, and find shelter (Survival and Knowledge: Geography (Practical))
  • Track: Follow a trail of a specific target (Survival)

Knowledge (Int)

  • History: Reference historical facts and significant locations (Knowledge: History and Knowledge: Geography (Theoretical))
  • Linguistics: Decipher writing and languages (Decipher Script and Speak Language)
  • Magic: Identify and interpret magical information (Knowledge: Arcana and Spellcraft)
  • Religion: Explain religious and dimensional theory (Knowledge: Religion and Knowledge: The Planes)
  • Research: Find additional knowledge with access to a library or find clues in a room (Search and New)
  • Science: Understand architecture and mechanisms (Knowledge: Engineering)

Mundane (Wis)

  • Appraise: Ascertain the value of an item (Appraise)
  • Craft (Specific): Create a certain category of item (Craft)
  • Heal: Apply medical techniques to injury or disease (Heal)
  • Profession (Specific): Engage in a particular trade (Profession)

Social (Cha)

  • Bluff: Convince others of lies and partial truths (Bluff)
  • Perform: Engage in various kinds of artistic expression (Perform)
  • Persuade: Make others do what you want (Diplomacy and Intimidate)
  • Rumors: Keep abreast of the lower classes and their knowledge (Gather Information (Common) and Knowledge: Local)
  • Sense Motive: Understand the secret intentions of a person or group (Sense Motive (Active))
  • Society: Move among the upper classes and know their ways (Gather Information (Noble) and Knowledge: Nobility)

Saves

Some areas that were previously skills are now expressed as three additional saves. Unlike skills, saves will typically be reactive: the GM will request a roll when something unexpected happens. In particular, this changes how athletic challenges are framed: a character doesn’t explicitly need to make an Athletics check to climb a wall or jump a pit if it’s a reasonable size and there is no time pressure, but may need to make a save based on external difficulties (such as wind or unexpected slipperiness) or if there is an impending threat that may break concentration.

  • Athletics (Str): Physical activities that rely on strength and stamina rather than agility (Climb, Jump, Swim)
  • Perception (Int): Avoiding surprise, countering stealth, and other reactive awareness (Listen and Spot)
  • Grace (Cha): Resisting social attacks, making a good first impression, and impressing when dancing or otherwise acting poised (Sense Motive (Reactive) and Perform (Dance))
  • Normal Saves: Balance, Ride, and Tumble checks become Reflex saves; Concentration becomes a Will save

Figuring Saves and Skills

Saves

  • Good: Level/2 + 2 (as Rogue Reflex)
  • Bad: Level/3 (as Rogue Fortitude)
Class Athletics Perception Grace
Barbarian Good Good Bad
Bard Bad Bad Good
Cleric Bad Good Good
Druid Good Good Bad
Fighter Good Good Bad
Monk Good Good Good
Paladin Good Bad Good
Ranger Good Good Bad
Rogue Bad Good Bad
Sorcerer Bad Bad Good
Wizard Bad Good Bad

Skills

  • Fast: Level x 1.0 (as Fighter BaB)
  • Medium: Level x 0.75 (as Cleric BaB)
  • Slow: Level x 0.5 (as Wizard BaB)
Class Criminal Wilderness Knowledge Mundane Social
Barbarian Medium Fast Slow Medium Slow
Bard Medium Slow Medium Slow Fast
Cleric Slow Slow Medium Fast Medium
Druid Slow Fast Medium Medium Slow
Fighter Slow Medium Slow Fast Medium
Monk Medium Slow Medium Fast Slow
Paladin Slow Medium Slow Medium Fast
Ranger Medium Fast Slow Medium Slow
Rogue Fast Medium Slow Slow Medium
Sorcerer Medium Slow Medium Slow Fast
Wizard Slow Medium Fast Medium Slow

Skill Specialty

A Skill Specialty is a +2 Competence Bonus to a skill that increases to +4 at 10th level. It replaces the Skill Focus feat.

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