D&D/Pathfinder: Legend Points

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This is a fairly simple system to combine a hero-point mechanic with a balancing mechanic for passive bonuses. It’s a mixture of inspirations from Earthdawn to Fate but I started thinking about it based on these posts.

Legend Points are a persistent resource pool available to heroic characters. They can be temporarily expended for a short term bonus (expended points eventually refresh) or invested in long-term effects (and will not refresh while invested).

A character’s Legend Point total is generated by the following methods:

  • At character creation, if you use random rolls for ability score generation, calculate the value of every PC’s scores as if they had been made in point buy. The PC with the highest value stats gets 0 bonus Legend Points. Every other PC gets bonus Legend Points equal to half the difference between their value and the highest PC’s value. For example, if the highest value PC rolls 17, 16, 16, 14, 13, 10 (41 points) and another rolls 15, 14, 14, 13, 13, 11 (24 points), the difference is 17 and the lower value character gets 8 bonus Legend Points.
  • Every character gains 2 Legend Points at each level (including first level). Adjust this number up or down to alter the power level of the campaign.
  • The GM might award bonus permanent Legend Points for completing challenges or other side-quests (particularly if using an exp model that doesn’t reward optional goals).
  • The GM might award ad hoc bonus Legend Points to character classes or races that feel underpowered in a given style of game (e.g., as a balance for a perceived disconnect between Fighters and Wizards in high level dungeon crawls).

Characters can expend Legend Points to achieve a temporary bonus. Use your favorite hero point mechanic (e.g., Action Points, Bennies, Fate Points, etc.) for these mechanics. Expended Legend Points refresh when characters level (and you can have them refresh on a more frequent basis, such as each session or when Aspects are compelled, if you want a more powerful game).

Characters can invest Legend Points in long-term effects. In particular, this applies to permanent magic items. In order to “add the item to her legend” the character must invest Legend Points equal to the effective pluses on the item (e.g., a +3 weapon with a +2 value effect costs 5 Legend Points while a +4 ability item costs 4 Legend Points). Compare permanent items without a plus effect (like a ring, staff, or rod) by cost to a similar-level weapon, armor, or wondrous item to figure out how many pluses it should count as.

Characters that don’t invest Legend Points in an item may use it in the short term, but are forced to sell it over downtime between adventures: it either turned out that the character didn’t like it that much and let it go, or it was stolen, misplaced, or seized with a windfall of some kind making up for the loss. Characters that eventually give up a permanent item recover the Legend Points invested in it.

For classes such as Wizards and Sorcerers that are less reliant on several items with permanent bonuses, GMs might assess a temporary investment or require an expenditure to use some other powerful but non-permanent items if the effects are significant enough to unbalance the math. The GM might also offer the possibility of investing Legend Points to learn more powerful non-core spells or even research new ones.

If the GM likes a game where the party has lots of miscellaneous wondrous items that get used every so often, he might choose to not assess a Legend Point investment for items of only situational utility (as these items will otherwise probably be largely discarded with this system).

System Review: Mage: the Awakening, Part 3

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Miscellaneous Rules

Welcome to Paradox

Earlier, I described this game as “Mages in Trenchcoats” with the intention that this game has a far lower gonzoness cap than old Mage. Superficially, it’s set up so starting characters don’t have access to the really exciting spells until quite a while into progression, and Paradox is easier to come by. The tone indicates that you’re meant to really try to keep all this stuff secret.

But then one might look more closely at the rules and realize that Highlander was big on trenchcoats, too: gonzo swordfights in trenchcoats. In particular, Paradox isn’t nearly as bad in this game as it was in old Mage. There are several ways to mitigate it outright (from magical tools to spending mana), and when you do take it you still have options. The first is to take it as backlash and soak up a couple of points of bashing damage; it can’t be healed with magic, but it will be gone on its own pretty quickly. IIRC, Paradox damage in old Mage lasted a lot longer. Even if you choose to let the Paradox flow into the world and cause havoc, it’s more on the order of cool special effects like electrical storms, temporary insanity to roleplay, and scary eyes than real drawbacks. For most characters, they only last for a scene. Eventually you start summoning antagonistic spirits, but the lower order effects aren’t actually that terrible.

So behind the surface caveat to avoid going vulgar whenever you can, because it will cause Paradox, there’s an actual realization that it probably won’t be too bad until you do it a lot. I’m not sure whether this is a case of the rules not supporting the intended feel of the game, or just the intended feel of the game being unclear from a superficial reading.

One Permanent Willpower

One thing the game does, just as an aside, that really bugs me is rely on “spend a permanent dot of Willpower” for anything that needs to be lasting. In particular, making a spell permanent or creating a magic item is based on this cost, as are other things like inducting apprentices into your magical legacy. This reminds me of the old joke from 2nd Edition D&D about the poor foolish wizard that used up all his permanent Constitution to make a bag of +1 sling stones: the enchant an item spell consumed a permanent resource there as well. Since restoring an expended Willpower is a fixed and fairly expensive experience cost, this system pretty much implicitly makes permanent items or effects not worth it unless they’re incredibly powerful. Cool little magical doo dads that perform one minor function can’t cost less to make than world-shaking items of power, so PCs are unlikely to fiddle with them. Which makes me sad.

Rituals, Durations, and Spell Limits

An area where new Mage has a pretty significant leg up on old is structure for non-instant casting. Old Mage likes to talk a lot about rituals, but I can’t recall much support for them since there wasn’t a real limitation against making an extended casting in regular combat rounds rather than over hours. The newer game has a fixed divide: if you want to make more than one roll toward a spell, you have to go to a ritual casting mode with some fixed timing (hours rather than seconds).

Even with the greater focus on the difficulty of a ritual, you could still build up a lot of successes with an extended casting. In particular, it’s not hard to make any spell with a base duration of a scene last a long time. To counter this, the game makes a big deal about how many active spells you can have at all, and how many buffs you can have on yourself before taking major penalties. To be fair, old Mage didn’t make having a lot of buffs nearly as attractive as new, but it was pretty easy to stack stuff up if you had a mind to, and that could have been troublesome. I still remember a rote concept of mine that I think would have been legal that would have allowed ritually building up a pretty obnoxious pool of aggravated damage blasts to be used at will. New Mage at least puts some structure on that kind of game breakage.

Organization

On reading back though the rulebook for these reviews, I have to admit that part of my problem with the game is just that there’s a lot of cool stuff that you may never notice if you don’t make a concentrated effort to read the book cover to cover again once you have a firm grasp on the basics. Old Mage, as I’ve noted before, had some teething pains for new players, particularly with grokking paradigms, but once you got over a few conceptual hurdles you’d have players operating at a pretty high effectiveness as far as being able to make full use of the available rules options. New Mage has a lot of cool stuff that’s just buried in the text. You can chant in the language of magic to make spells more potent. You can bind spells to sigils to make them last longer. You can weave spells together to cast a multi-purpose effect or have multiple minor buffs only count as one for spell limits. All of these are cool things that will probably drastically change how I interface with the game system now that I’ve found them, and they’re all mixed arbitrarily throughout a pretty dense rules chapter.

A large part of the problem is that the headings are in a hard-to-read cursive font in reflective bronze ink (and the sidebars are often in the same ink). But even were the text easy to read, the information is not at all organized well. There are several pages of charts for modifications to spells that are mostly a complete reprint (one’s for fast cast spells and one’s for rituals, but the only difference is that “drop 2 more dice” is replaced with “spend 1 more success” all the way across). Some things are called out in sidebars that break weirdly across pages. The spell effects listings are in three columns with minimal column breaks (the text wraps as it will for the most part).

If this game had been given to an editor and/or layout designer more focused on making a whole raft of fiddly but interesting rules easily accessible, rather than going for graphical style and dense prose, this could have been a better game. Even if it would have been technically the same game… layout is more important than a lot of people seem to realize.

Conclusion

Musing: Grappling

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I went to see Haywire yesterday, starring MMA celebrity Gina Carano*. Apparently, these days Mixed Martial Arts is all about various forms of grappling, and the movie features quite a lot of it. It got me thinking.

Grappling is historically one of the most difficult-to-implement combat systems in RPGs (famously so in the case of D&D 3.x). People naturally look at all the crazy stuff that goes on and want to make sure it’s accurate. But accurate wrestling is not necessarily cinematic wrestling. In the movies, when two characters wrestle, the language of the fight requires that there is a constant shift in control of the grapple. In a lot of grappling systems, it’s pretty hard to lose dominance if you’re even a couple points better at it than the opponent. Making a system to account for frequent turnover could wind up being even more complicated.

But do most players that want to initiate a grapple really want a dedicated and complex ruleset? Or do they just want to accomplish a few of the things that grappling gets used for in the movies, namely:

  • Keep the target from getting away
  • Keep the target from using a deadly weapon on you
  • Disarm the target of said deadly weapon or other carried item

Anything else that goes on in a grapple is probably something that can just be played out with the normal combat system and different descriptions. The back and forth of control of a grapple is pretty easily handled by the normal back and forth of attacks during a fight. Theoretically, in any given system, you could model grappling mechanics much more simply if you just came up with an easy way to accomplish the above three tasks.

So my main questions are:

  • Am I missing any other important reasons why a player might want to start a grapple?
  • How much additional complexity do those important reasons above justify in the grappling rules? That is, is the advantage of locking down a target and control of wielded weapons significant, or could it just be something that a grappling-focused martial artist is just allowed to do?

 

* The way Soderbergh cuts movies is weird, so I’m still digesting how much I liked it. But the action was pretty good, as you might expect when casting an actual martial artist as your lead. If you’d like to see more women in action movies that aren’t 100 pound models using waif-fu, there are probably worse things you could do than see this so Hollywood’s more willing to look to female leads like Carano.

System Review: Mage: the Awakening, Part 2

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Magic Basics

For those that haven’t played old or new Mage, a brief primer: all spellcasting revolves around a collection of nine or ten conceptual groupings of magic (“Spheres” in old, “Arcana” in new). You raise these elements in a similar fashion to any other power group in WoD: by spending character points to fill in dots. The groupings are:

  • Correspondence/Space: Teleportation, scrying, and more strange manipulations of positions
  • Entropy/Fate & Death: Manipulating probability and decay (this is two arcana in new Mage, splitting Entropy in half and each gaining a few new tricks)
  • Forces: Manipulation of physics, particularly fire, cold, light, sound, and electricity
  • Life: Manipulation of biology, including transformations and healing
  • Mind: Anything having to do with mind reading or control
  • Matter: Manipulation of chemistry, letting you affect basically any non-living matter
  • Prime: Tricks to let you get more mileage out of the quintessence/mana resource of the game
  • Time: Speeding up time, precognition, postcognition, and trying to time travel if you’re really powerful
  • Spirit: Interacting with and summoning the spirit world (both nature spirits and ghosts in old Mage, but ghosts moved to Death in new)

These are conceptually sound, and basically survived intact through two revisions of old Mage and into the new edition. The important thing to consider is that they do strongly define how mages break down in specialization. The guy with Correspondence is going to scry and teleport all the time. The girl with Life is going to focus on buffing herself physically and healing. In typical WoD style, it will be a long time before you have a broad base of competency, so often the game breaks down to using your “hammer” of specialized magic type to turn your problems into nails.

The other major similarity across both editions is the idea of Paradox. Effectively, reality thinks magic is wrong, and punishes mages in various ways for using it in an obvious fashion. If you throw a fireball or teleport across town, you’re going to take Paradox as either damage or other nasty results. So you can’t go all out very often. Instead, magic is meant to be subtle (“coincidental” in old, “covert” in new): magic that would either go completely unnoticed or could be justified easily as something weird but possible.

While I’ll probably talk later about how there’s actually a pretty big difference in how the two editions handle this, the takeaway is that it sets a pretty strong limitation on player character behavior. Mages will spend a lot of their time doing research (sensory magic is usually totally fine) and building up subtle buffs, and may never get to flinging around fireballs unless things have gotten very dangerous. In either edition, a player that attempts to walk in and play a classic fantasy mage is going to quickly be beaten down by Paradox.

Rote Learning

Perhaps the biggest surprise transitioning to new Mage from old is the rotes. Old Mage always toyed around with the idea of a rote—a predefined “spell” that you could use more easily than making it up as you went—but the mechanical support for them was always somewhat incomplete. The thing was, the rules at their base level really wanted you to be coming up with crazy things to do with your magic on the fly, so you weren’t really punished in any way for doing so. You could say, “Hey, can I combine Life and Time to lock onto that guy and rewind to see where he’s been?” and if your GM bought it, you could do it. If you wound up doing that a lot, you might buy it as a rote and get a small bonus for using it, but the watchword was experimentation.

New Mage still allows this, but there are much more extensive breakdowns of what can be done at each level of each arcana, and they’re pre-packaged as rotes. Each of these often has a special case rule: this effect gives you armor equal to X for Y duration, that effect allows you to generate strength equal to X and dexterity equal to Y for concentration duration. In old Mage, the spheres would often give you several big ideas of what you could do, but they weren’t broken down with as much granularity and, more importantly, they generally referred you back to a single chart for things you could do with a given result (as far as damage, duration, range, targets, etc.).

It used to be a big learning curve for players to figure out how to interface with the system. Old Mage was daunting. The inclusion of extensive lists of predefined cool things you can do and exactly how you do them is almost certainly a boon to new players. I do wonder if it’s ultimately a limitation to experienced players, however: in old Mage, you could very quickly memorize the conceptual space available to your spheres and then you only needed the two page global chart to basically figure out the results for anything you wanted to do (and even that was pretty easy to remember for simple things). Nearly twenty sessions in with new Mage and we’re still having to look up the particular effect description to figure out how it works.

But what really bothers me about these rotes is that they’re very arbitrary. The proudest nail on that front is mana costs. Some rotes require you to spend mana to use them or allow you to spend mana for a special effect. Others are completely free. In almost every case, this seems to be purely a game balance decision without any real justification in the world fiction. Armor spells let you spend mana to raise the duration to a day so they can be fire and forget and you don’t have to work out the successes to duration chart. Invisibility requires you to spend mana to use it, even though every other effect at that level is free to use, probably because GMs don’t want their PCs to be invisible all the time. Fireballs are free (at least as often as you want to suck up the Paradox), even though in that case you’re actually creating energy such that spending mana might be justified.

Further, the rotes listed in the book use the arbitrary skill combinations that I disliked so much in Fading Suns and original Changeling: when you don’t have a rote written on your sheet, you just roll your arcana rating plus your Gnosis (your central magical “level” stat), but when you do have a rote you replace the Gnosis with an attribute plus ability. This attribute plus ability is usually very arbitrary: though they do try to make the ability one of the ones that is the specialty of the mystical order that invented the rote, each effect is seemingly randomly assigned to an order. Manipulating light has a rote combo used by group X, but manipulating sound (at the same level of Forces) uses group Y’s justification. And even if the ability is germane to the order, the attribute is almost completely arbitrary: one of the players in our group was annoyed that his magical archetype told him not to worry about mental attributes, but then all of the effects for that archetype’s favored arcana used mental attributes in their rotes.

Even if you happen to find a rote where the combo is something you’re decent at (or the GM is nice enough to let you find a custom rote that deliberately plays to your strength), the benefit is often marginal. Given that characters start with fairly limited points and spend the same experience pool on arcana, attributes, abilities, and rotes, but have a secondary experience pool that’s used to raise Gnosis, replacing Gnosis for an effect with an attribute plus ability is often going to be a fairly minor improvement unless it happens to be something you’ve focused on. With similar rates of increase between my normal and Gnosis exp, my character is very close to getting four dice from Gnosis, but still has only a small handful of attribute plus ability combinations that are better than four dice. So there’s a huge part of the game that I’m unlikely to interact with very much beyond the rotes I got as a bonus at character creation unless the GM keeps ignoring the book and letting us learn rotes tailored to our focus traits. Which isn’t really ideal.

Part 3

The Worst Adventurer’s Guild in Town

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This system for Pathfinder outlines a method for creating an Adventurer’s Guild as a shared character (in the style of a Song of Ice and Fire noble house, Nobilis Chancel, etc.). It’s inspired in large part by the house upgrades in Skyrim.

The player characters are the core members of an Adventurer’s Guild in a large city that sees enough income from treasure-seekers to have such a thing (think Ptolus). They’re either starting a brand new charter or are a previously decent guild that’s fallen on hard times. It’s up to the PCs to build the guild up to a political entity within the city and really get those dues flowing in.

Unless the GM starts the guild at higher level, this is intended to present a fairly farcical take on D&D: the players don’t just start at first level, but as first level commoners with classic 3d6 stats. They’re going to die. A lot. However, with each unlikely victory, they bring dues and prestige back to the guild, leveling it up and allowing it to attract a better class of adventurer. Eventually, new characters come in with a much better chance of survival and the game might transition to a more traditional style with a strong core of a guild with high player investment… and who knows how many of the earlier PCs might have gotten lucky more often than expected and still be kicking around?

Basics

The players should collaborate with the GM on a name for the guild and a location for the guild hall. Everyone will also collaborate on a floorplan for the hall: it should start out at roughly 40 five foot tiles (1000 square feet). The living accommodations in the hall are Poor for those PCs that choose to bunk there.

The guild is treated in many ways like an extra player character. It has a level and experience total, special abilities, skills, and feats. When the guild chooses feats and skills, the players collaborate on the decision of what to buy.

Experience to level for the guild is on the same scale as for the PCs (e.g., if they’re on the medium progression track, so is the guild). When the guild gets enough exp, it levels up, but the guild’s total exp cannot exceed that of the highest-exp PC currently in the group (except in the case of the death of said PC, in which case the guild can’t get any more exp until a PC again equals or exceeds its total). A guild gets exp from:

  • Player Character Dues: Each gold piece a player character pays into the guild vault counts as a point of exp. PCs are expected to donate 10% of treasure earned from adventures, but can donate more if they feel the level of the guild is falling behind.
  • Prestigious Accomplishments: Whenever the PCs get a quest award of exp in a way that would reflect well on the guild, the guild gets an equal award (e.g., if all PCs get 100 exp for rescuing the baron’s child, the guild also gets 100 exp).

In general, the guild should be about a level or two lower than the average party level if the PCs contribute only 10%.

Level Progression

The guild gets 2 skill ranks per level and 1 feat each odd level (including one at first level). It gets the following special abilities that influence PC creation and advancement:

  1. -1 Point Buy Commoners
  2. NPC Classes
  3. 3 Point Buy
  4. Basic Adventuring Classes
  5. 7 Point Buy
  6. Core Adventuring Classes
  7. 11 Point Buy
  8. Advanced Adventuring Classes
  9. 15 Point Buy
  10. Prestige Classes
  11. 19 Point Buy
  12. 23 Point Buy
  13. 27 Point Buy

The Guild Vault

All dues donated by the PCs are stored in the guild vault and effectively tracked as another score on the guild sheet. Gold pieces removed from the vault should be tracked as experience debt (new dues or quest rewards must erase this debt before the guild gains exp again); they’re assumed to be used as investments to maintain guild benefits. Any feats that have a prerequisite of a GP minimum in the vault become inactive if the vault drops below this level. Malevolent GMs may choose to threaten the guild vault with theft or taxes.

The PCs may choose to track on the guild sheet a “non-exp” pool of shared GP, and players can also donate equipment to the guild (generally hand-me-down or otherwise unusable gear) that is not tracked as exp. Some feats generate additional GP revenue that can be tracked here as well.

New player characters can be equipped out of these vaults.

PC Creation and Advancement

The level of the guild determines available player character build methods and advancement as outlined above. A PC is generally locked into his talents upon entering into the guild (e.g., a Commoner made at the guild’s first level can’t begin taking Fighter levels if he survives until the guild’s fourth level), but the GM may extend the option of respecialization in this circumstance (i.e., replace all of the levels or former ability scores with newly available options). However, in the case of a respec, the player forfeits the experience bonus (described below).

New PCs start at the level of the guild with the minimum exp necessary to meet that level. They have 10% of their suggested Wealth by Level (they might raid the vault for additional gear or funds). Replacement PCs might be elevated NPCs that were previously second tier guild members or might be completely new faces that come highly recommended to the guild from allies.

Point Buy

PCs can be made with the player’s choice of a point buy using a particular size pool or a corresponding dice generation method:

  • -1 Points: Roll 3d6 six times and keep the results in order (old school generation)
  • 3 Points: Roll 3d6 six times and rearrange the results to taste
  • 7 Points: Roll 3d6 four times and 4d6 (drop lowest die) two times
  • 11 Points: Roll 3d6 two times and 4d6 (drop lowest die) four times
  • 15 Points: Roll 4d6 six times (standard method)
  • 19 Points: Roll 4d6 four times and 2d6+6 two times
  • 23 Points: Roll 4d6 two times and 2d6+6 four times
  • 27 Points: Roll 2d6+6 six times (heroic method)

PCs gain a 5% bonus to all experience gained for each step in between their ability method and the current maximum available (e.g., a -1 Point Buy character gains +10% to all exp once the guild is level 5 and 7 Point Buy is available). New PCs can use a worse ability score method to gain this bonus.

Class Access

PCs can choose from certain available class options based on the level of the guild:

  • Commoners: PCs can only be of the Commoner NPC class. They will probably die a lot.
  • NPC Classes: PCs can choose from Adept, Expert, and Warrior (and multiclass between them). Commoner PCs gain a +10% bonus to all exp gained.
  • Basic Adventuring Classes: PCs can choose from the adventuring classes the GM thinks should be most common (typically Fighter, Rogue, Cleric, Wizard). If the GM wants to make all core classes available at this level, the next tier should open the option of the alternate class builds (e.g., from the Advanced Player’s Guide). Commoner PCs gain a +20% exp bonus and other NPC classes gain a +10% bonus.
  • Advanced Adventuring Classes: PCs can choose from the non-core basic classes in expanded material, as approved by the GM. The bonus remains the same for NPC classes and Commoners.
  • Prestige Classes: PCs can take GM-approved prestige classes if they meet the other prerequisites. Characters made before this tier (even NPC classes) can take prestige classes if they meet the other requirements.

Guild Skills

The guild gets 2 skill ranks per level. No skill can be raised to two ranks until the guild is at least level 5, and no skill can ever exceed two ranks. The guild can buy any Craft or Knowledge skill. With sufficient justification, the GM might allow the purchase of non-Craft or Knowledge skills.

  • One Rank: The guild hall includes the basic tools to practice the craft or a small reference library for the knowledge.
  • Two Ranks: The guild hall includes masterwork tools for the craft or a large reference library for the knowledge, sufficient to impart a +2 bonus to rolls of the associated skill made at the hall.

Guild Feats

The guild gets 1 feat at each odd level. Example feats are:

  • Alliance*: The guild is allied with another guild or organization in the city. In addition to the political benefits, all PCs gain +2 to Charisma-based rolls when socially engaged with members of the ally organization. This can be taken multiple times for different allies. The GM may require the PCs to justify the alliance in play before purchasing this feat.
  • Armory: The guild keeps basic equipment in stock for a nominal fee, and has a good relationship with local suppliers for crafting. Mundane weapons and armor can be purchased for half cost (or materials for crafting purchased at half the already discounted price). These items would be sold at half value as well by any guild entrepreneurs, as the guild keeps a cut to maintain the relationship.
  • Security: The guild has improved the locks and fortifications. Locks on all doors are DC 15 to pick, and defenders of the hall gain +1 AC.
  • Enhanced Security (requires Security): Locks are DC 20 to pick and defenders gain +2 AC.
  • Magic Security (requires Enhanced Security): Locks are DC 25 and defenders gain +3 AC. Alarm spells can be assumed to protect the vault from theft and residents from assassination.
  • Average Accommodations (requires 600 gp in the guild vault): The guild hall has been decorated, keeps a decent larder, and is a comfortable place to sleep (PCs staying in the guild hall can assume the Average Cost of Living for free).
  • Wealthy Accommodations (requires 6,000 gp in the guild vault and Average Accommodations): The guild hall is lavishly appointed (PCs staying in the guild hall can assume the Wealthy Cost of Living for free).
  • Expanded Space (requires 2,000 gp in the guild vault): The guild hall has built out or taken over nearby propery. It now has 3,000 square feet (120 tiles).
  • Huge Space (requires 20,000 gp in the guild vault and Expanded Space): The guild hall is now effectively a mansion in size, with 9,000 square feet (360 tiles).
  • Known (requires level 4): The guild has recruited non-PC members of some significance. Assume 2d10 such members at any time (max level of the guild’s level -3). For every donation to the guild vault made by the PCs, add +2% from these members.
  • Popular (requires level 7 and Known): The guild now has 5d10 relevant NPC members at any time (max level of the guild -2). The PCs’ donations now earn +5% to the guild vault from these NPCs.
  • Famous (requires level 10 and Popular): The guild now has 10d10 relevant NPC members at any time (max level of the guild -1). The PCs’ donations now earn +10% to the guild vault.
  • Specialist* (requires level 4): The guild employs an Expert to provide a particular skill set (such as a smith, sage, entertainer, or chef). The character is built as an NPC Expert with a level equal to the guild’s -3 and 7 point buy, and should be designed with high ranks and possible skill focuses in the relevant skills. This specialist can use any relevant bonuses from guild skills, and will use his or her skills for the party’s benefit as if they were PC skills (i.e., will not charge extra). The feat can be purchased multiple times for multiple specialists.
  • Guards (requires level 4): The guild has 1d6 NPC Warriors hanging out at any given time (day or night) who will come to the defense of the guild hall if necessary. They are built at guild level -3 with 7 point buy.

System Review: Mage: the Awakening, Part 1

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The Sun Is Out for Another Day

The accounting is difficult, particularly over a decade later and including crossover games, but I think I wound up running or playing in more sessions of Mage: the Ascension back in the day than any of the other World of Darkness line. Vampire is up there, given a particularly long Giovanni Chronicles run in college, and Changeling probably stands out as the game I’ve run most, but it’s hard to compete with Mage for player buy-in. Distilling all the narrative power of Hackers, The Matrix, Kiss of the Dragon, and more into a single RPG where you get to play modern-day wizards was pretty much like crack for a late-1990s gamer.

So when Harbinger started running the new WoD version, Mage: the Awakening, earlier this year, I was down. We’re nearly twenty sessions in at this point, and I’ve mostly reached the point where I’m not constantly wrong about my expectations about how a rule should work. Awakening is a pretty different game than Ascension, despite significant shared terminology and rules structure. A lot of the differences are in the setting, of course, as the game is clearly shooting for a low key mages in trenchcoats feel as advertised in the pre-1993 products, rather than the sometimes gonzo Matrix-esque battle of occult misfits vs. their technological overlords that was Ascension. But rules follow fiction pretty heavily in this edition, so the impact of the setting has had a pretty profound effect on the rules.

I’m a huge fan of Ascension, but I understand that it had its own problems. I’ll do my best to take off the rose colored lenses and give Awakening a fair shake. Will I succeed? I guess we’ll find out.

Core Mechanics

The very basic dice mechanic for new WoD is the same as old WoD: combine attribute and ability into a big fistful of dice and let fly. Then count dice that meet or exceed a target number and consider those successes. Use those successes to produce a result.

Most significant is that, like some of the older non-WoD games like the Aeon-verse, the dice go up against a fixed difficulty rather than the GM altering the target number based on the situation. For most of the older fixed-target games, that target was 7. For new WoD, it’s 8.

I didn’t really understand how much a normal DC of 6 had made on my old assumptions about White Wolf’s dice engine. A fixed difficulty of 8 makes a pretty profound difference in the probability of success. To wit, even without a “1s cancel successes” rule, even a big handful of dice is likely to roll few successes. You’re still statistically likely to get at least one success on 3-4 dice, but additional successes are more elusive. We have a common quote at the table: “look at all those 7s.”

This creates the first profound difference between old Mage and new Mage. In the previous game, at least the way I always saw it played, there was a huge meta game for spellcasting rolls of always trying to scrape together enough situational modifiers to lower the target to the minimum difficulty of 3. This was balanced by the fact that you usually weren’t going to be rolling many dice for your casting rolls. Awakening has to turn this on its head: the new mini-game is trying to roll as many dice as possible for an effect you want to succeed.

The dovetails directly into the next major mechanic difference between old and new WoD: dice penalties. Difficulty in the game is now only rarely a success threshold (because getting more than one success isn’t reliable even for large pools), and never a change to the target number (except maybe in extremely rare circumstances). Instead, difficulty is often in the form of a penalty to your dice pool (e.g., “-4 dice to try this because it’s hard”). This is another pretty significant change: dropping dice against a target number of 8 is far more likely to produce completely failure than raising difficulty to 9 or 10 ever could in old WoD: 10 dice still had a 90% chance of success against difficulty 9, but a steep enough die penalty can reduce an expert to unreliable pretty quickly.

Finally, the least significant but perhaps most exciting difference in the two dice engines is rolling 10s. In old WoD, you could often reroll 10s for extra successes on your best attributes or abilities. In the new system, every 10 explodes in this way. This is exciting when it happens, but does have the downside of making successes periodically very swingy. I’ve frequently seen two players roll for a task and the one with a lot of dice gets a success or two while the one with only a couple gets a series of 10s and lots of successes. Does the excitement balance the reduced predictability of the results? Probably, but mostly because I doubt there are many GMs banking on “he only has 5 dice, so he can only get 5 successes.”

Part 2

Musing: Hit Roll vs. Hit Points

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A perhaps divisive assertation: The use of hit points has always been one of the chief stumbling blocks between D&D and true genre emulation. They’re a rough and ready way to make combat something that is desirable rather than extremely risky (as it often is in systems that attempt to model health more realistically), but fantasy isn’t exactly full of statements like, “Aragorn saw that the orcs were wielding swords, so he knew he could withstand at least three blows, even with their strength, before his life would be in jeopardy.” Particularly at the rate hit points inflate as you increase in level, the use of them tends to either force you to use them as a complete abstraction or bend heavily the physics of your world. I’m thinking, in particular, of a scene a module I’m running expected me to narrate where a luminary that’s known to be at least of mid level doesn’t die when struck with a crossbow fired by a non-assassin attacker, and that’s supposed to be surprising to the players.

The classic attempt to have one’s cake and eat it too is to consider hit points to mostly be an abstraction of not only health, but agility and luck as well. That is, high level characters aren’t necessarily much tougher than lower level characters, but they’re much better at getting out of the way of attacks and turning a serious blow into a negligible one. The classic argument against this tactic is that it still doesn’t account for why a Cure Light Wounds spell that can bring a first level character from the brink of death to full health can only salve a few scratches on a high level character. However, that moves the genre emulation stumbling blocks to the healing spells, so in my mind it’s not a problem inherent to considering HP to represent ability to avoid or reduce damage.

Instead, my new concern is the attack roll. If HP represent, in large part, getting out of the way of an attack or otherwise reducing it to harmlessness, what’s AC? Isn’t it a little redundant to score a lucky hit against an elusive (high AC) opponent only to describe that he still dodged most of the way out of the way, only this time it cost him something? Straight up damage reduction is one of the hardest things to get in the game, but To Hit vs. AC is effectively a total DR that has a random chance to fire every round. Could we, in fact, make combat somewhat less swingy if we eliminated the attack roll entirely and moved its rules elements directly into the damage system?

Obviously, doing this to D&D itself is a bear of a project with a whole periphery of externalities to handle even if you could find players that don’t balk because they dislike such sweeping revisions to D&D. However, consider a system designed from the ground up to have only a damage roll: characters always “hit,” with the actual effects of such a hit managed by the hit point system (as opposed to a lot of non-HP systems that add attack MoS to a flat damage number and functionally have only an attack roll). In a straight up fight, eventually an opponent gets worn out from dodging/blocking and is struck by a vital hit, or is gradually worn down as powerful hits connect lightly.

In my mind, the benefit of such a system is that it allows a steeply-inflating “HP” pool with a more realistic set of wounds that can be used to represent real damage and be taken by attrition or surprise attack (similar to the Star Wars d20 Vitality system). It also reduces the chance that bad rolls or high defenses will make it feel like no progress is being made (as even a bad roll will generally take away a few points of the HP pool).

My major question is whether the complexity and time saved by going to a single-roll solution justifies increasing complexity on the division of damage. To wit, is it worthwhile to implement dodge and armor traits that establish how much damage can go to the HP pool vs. rolling over onto the core wounds?

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