Balance: Persistent vs. Triggered Powers

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I played a hell of a lot of the Guild Wars 2 beta over the weekend. In a sea of slightly different choices from the vanilla MMO, one of the things that stood out was Signet Skills. The way the game is designed, like in GW1, you have a lot more character abilities than you have ability slots, so you actually have to choose which abilities to take into a fight (unlike the standard MMO where your major choice is just where you’re going to fit all your powers on your skill bar). Most skills are similar to normal MMO skills: trigger the power to produce an effect, and then it goes on cooldown. When you slot a Signet Skill, however, you get a persistent minor buff until you trigger the skill for a bigger effect. Then, while it’s on cooldown, you don’t have the buff. Presumably, the triggered effect is less impressive or has a longer cooldown than comparable non-Signet Skills, in tradeoff for the buff when it’s not in use.

I love these things. With normal powers, around about 20 seconds of cooldown, and getting worse as the cooldown gets longer, I start having decision paralysis about when to use the power. I never want to use it, because then it won’t be available when I actually need it. Of course, since I always save it for emergencies, I don’t get in the habit of using it, so I paradoxically forget to use it in an emergency. And I’m even worse when it comes to potions. In general, I’ll go for the persistent effect if it’s a choice over a triggered effect, just to make sure I’m getting value out of the power. The Signet Skills allow me to have my cake and eat it too.

In general, this could be a cool thing to borrow for tabletop games, particularly high-granularity games like D20 that can make a reasonable tradeoff between small buff and big surge effect. For example, Fast Healing 1 is kind of a joke in combat (even though it breaks hit point attrition out of combat if it’s persistent). What if monsters with Fast Healing 1 could take a free action to heal 5 all at once, and then disable their healing for a minute? Would basic plussed weapons be exciting enough to make them competitive with Flame and Shock if you could expend the bonus on a successful hit to deal +6 damage per plus, but then it was just a minimally magic weapon for the rest of the combat?

Of course, the downside is that a computer is much better at tracking lots of small effects than a person is. The classic limitation of persistent effects is that they have to be calculated into a lot of other math, and they become headache-inducing when they go away or get added in the middle of a fight. Pathfinder has added a lot of these, such that  several of the players in my current game get a lot of small, triggered bonuses. Every fight now has at least one long moment of trying to figure out if a bunch of small effects add up to a near hit or a near miss (“Okay, -2 for Rapid Shot, but +1 for Point Blank Shot, +2 for Justice, +2 for Bane…” or “+2 for Flanking, +2 for our Teamwork Flanking feat, +1 for Haste…”). It’s why 4th Edition moved a lot of effects to triggered, one-round big bonuses from smaller buffs (i.e., the “Nobody likes recalculating Strength on the fly” rule).

However, the benefit of a small, persistent bonus is that it’s far more predictable than a commensurate effect that essentially fires all persistent bonus at once. Take, for example, the classic gauntlets of ogre power. Let’s change them from a simple +2 Strength (and, thus, a +1 to all STR rolls including melee attack and damage ) to a +5 to a single STR-based roll or attack and damage for a single attack roll, usable as a free action once per four rounds (not five, because you’re already shafting the guy that gets multiple attacks per round). Over the long run, this is probably about the same as +1 all the time: the player’s average damage dealt looks similar. But in actual fact, the player can save the surge for targets that are hard to hit (a +1 may add up over time, but a +5 is for something you want dead right now). And, out of combat, that +5 is pretty much available all the time because, as noted earlier about Fast Healing, something that’s pretty limited in the micro-time inherent to combat can become way more powerful when you stop tracking rounds.

So I’m not altogether certain what my ultimate point here is, other than just rambling about an effect I found cool. To sum up, I guess:

  • Small but persistent bonuses are annoying to calculate at the table, particularly if they come and go, but they’re unlikely to break the game balance until you start stacking a lot of them.
  • Large but triggered bonuses are way easier to calculate, because they just apply once and then can be forgotten, but they can create unexpected game balance issues by allowing rolls to spike very high.
  • It sure will be cool when computerized game assistants become competent enough to help track fiddly stuff at the table without a lot of messing around with your phone or laptop.

System Review: WFRP 3rd Edition, Part 3

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Character Creation

One of the elements of classic WFRP that even I know about is the concept of progressing through careers, the first of which is randomly generated. It’s key to the unfairness of the whole setting: one player might start off as a noble’s agent, another as a highly-trained assassin, and a third as a broke peasant. That peasant may eventually work his way up by carefully trading to better careers along his progression path, but he’ll always have that social stigma.

Like most things, the new edition handles this with cards. There are a large number of careers that players can start with (and a few others that you can only advance into). Players randomly draw a few starting careers and pick one that’s appropriate to the race they’ve already picked. Each career lists attributes, skills, a starting stance track, and a list of ten potential advances. At character creation, those elements limit what the player can buy with chargen points. If Education isn’t on your list, for example, you can’t start knowing how to read.

The player then spends a handful of creation points to upgrade attributes from racial and class minimums and buy extra skills, talents, actions, and wealth. As noted, skills can only be trained within the current career’s list. Talents can be purchased outside this list, but you can only actively use talents for which your career has a slot (e.g., if your career is all about Reputation, you’re better off buying Reputation than Tactics talents). Actions are more open, but are often special uses of attributes and skills: if you career doesn’t focus on archery-related traits, you probably shouldn’t buy archery actions. Finally, buying extra wealth and gear may be a waste of permanent character potential, but really, really helps out in your early years.

Once you start playing, like most games you’ll get exp. Experience is traded off one-for-one for advances. As mentioned, each career has ten advances, which are things like “raise your wound threshold” and “train a skill.” You can’t repeat one unless it’s listed twice, but you can mark off several and buy up one of the career’s attributes instead. Anything else is more expensive, and goes into non-career advances. Once you’ve bought all ten, you’re basically done with the career (and also get the bonus of being able to permanently keep that career’s special ability once you transfer out).

At any point, you can spend exp to switch to a new career. Doing this costs less if you’re going into a career that is similar to your current one (i.e., it shares keywords on the cards). Once you’re in the new career, you have a new list of ten favored advances, a new career card (possibly with different talent slots), and a new career ability.

I rather like the system. It’s a little gamist (but no more than the rest of the engine) in how it limits what you can buy, but it does offer the option of buying other upgrades as a higher cost. It’s potentially not as unfair as previous editions, as every career is built around the same number of upgrades, but special abilities can certainly make it feel like one career is cooler than another. It does do a really good job of imposing class on a skill-based system: an Agent and a Mercenary, for example, feel very distinct in that one is socially focused and the other on melee. In a more freeform skill-based system, characters are more likely to focus on the same kinds of useful things unless they make a conscious effort at niche protection. The careers system keeps players from having to do that.


I’ve already basically explained the way the rules interact with combat. It really is a typical turn-based, mitigation-based, hit-point-based system once you get past the cards and the weird dice. But I want to call a few interesting things out.


The game uses a hybrid of a modern D&D-style fixed initiative system (everyone rolls and goes in order) and an older-school, team-based system. Effectively, initiative rolls are made to organize the two (or three, if NPCs are helping) sides, and then the players and enemies decide among themselves who will actually go on an initiative tick. So, for example, if your party’s archer wins initiative, he’s basically just given the party access to going first. Any party member can claim that initiative tick on any given round, even the member who rolled lowest.

I still like a simpler system of just alternating between sides, but this is definitely preferable to an in-order system while preserving its trappings for those that like them. It certainly makes it more likely that the entire table will stay engaged in what’s going on instead of individual players tuning out until their turns come up or they’re attacked.


I’ve explained the movement system and my reservations about it previously. I appreciate what they tried to do with making a fantasy game that doesn’t assume the use of a battlemat, but I don’t think it was accomplished as thoroughly as they’d hoped.


I really appreciate that, in a heavily-structured, card-based combat system, one of those cards is Perform a Stunt with some basic guidelines for doing something cool that there’s not an existing card for. This does a really good job of softening the formality of the action system and letting players know that deviating from their action cards is allowed (even if it’s not often optimal).

Wounds and Healing

As mentioned, wounds are tracked with cards. Once you get more than your wound threshold, you go unconscious, one of the wounds flips to a critical wound, and you check to see if you’re dying (more likely if more of your wounds are crits). Other game effects, largely based on attack results, can also give you critical wounds.

Healing is pretty hard unless you have someone trained at First Aid, and even then it’s no walk in the park. Healing someone at all is one challenge die of difficulty, and if they have any crits it goes up to two dice. And failing the roll might make the wounds worse. Even if you have a priest, divine healing is very unreliable until rank 2 (at which point it just becomes expensive). You can also buy healing draughts which are really expensive.

For my first playtest, none of the PCs has First Aid trained, and they took crits in their first fight. The chance of success for First Aid was less than the chance of making things worse, so they dragged themselves around beaten up for the rest of the adventure. The next playtest, they made sure they had someone trained and the first fight’s damage was easily overcome, but there were no crits (which would have made it harder). It was actually perhaps too easy, because, outside of combat, there seems to be no official limit on how often you can roll First Aid on the same character (but I honestly could have missed such a limitation).

The wound system seems to mostly do a really good job of capturing how gritty the game and world are supposed to be: getting wounded more than a little bit is really terrible for your characters. I think the rest of the system makes getting into combat too much the default, which can cause problems once players realize how screwed they are once they take damage, but that’s not the wound system’s fault.

The wound system is just there, being perfectly appropriate, wondering why PCs keep getting into fights all the time. Seriously…they could die.


Flashbacks vs. Exp Progression

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As last week’s post might indicate, I’ve been playing a lot of Assassin’s Creed lately. The game itself is, of course, entirely framed as a flashback as Desmond explores ancestral memories. However, even within this framework, the game has introduced the concept that it’s glossing over certain memories until they become relevant: it will sometimes feature sequences much earlier than the current date of the main narrative (e.g., the story of what happened to Ezio’s girlfriend who was in his introductory scene then never mentioned again). This is, of course, not that unusual for fiction: TV shows, in particular, have time to periodically do long-form flashbacks to give context to the current situation (and if your show’s about immortals, they might do that every week…).

Despite their utility in other media, long-form flashbacks are really hard to do in tabletop games. A lot of games have experimented with short-form flashbacks, in the sense of player-directed 30-seconds-or-less statements to get a bonus on a roll, but asking players to spend the bulk of a session (or more!) in a flashback has a couple of hurdles:

  • If the game features exp progression, it’s often really hard to figure out how to use stats from earlier in the characters’ careers without accurate record keeping.
  • Many players aren’t going to want to play their characters earlier in their careers (i.e., with worse stats) for extended periods.

Obviously games that eschew progression are going to have an easier time of this, but my group’s never been happy without numbers that go up, and I’m sure a lot of groups are in a similar boat. And, besides, an interesting vignette about something that was previously glossed over has just as much place in D&D as it does in SotC. So here are a few ideas on how to do that in a way your players might enjoy:

  • Get in the habit of giving out and taking away cool things (powers, gadgets, etc.). Take away some of them in downtime with the explanation that you’ll eventually run the flashback explaining it. Periodically introduce cool things that have been mostly used up (such that they were much cooler at full power) with the explanation that you’ll explain how they got it in an eventual flashback. The goal here is for players to look forward to flashbacks where they’re potentially less powerful in stats for the joy of playing with toys that they don’t otherwise have access to.
  • Since you’re primarily running long-form flashbacks when they’ll provide some kind of expanded context for the current situation, include a mechanic in the flashback to provide benefit in the present based on success. For example, “Let’s flash back to the time you were trying to gain treaties from the barbarian tribes which would now be a big help against the Dark Lord.” This creates resources that the players have theoretically had access to for a while, but which weren’t relevant (and, thus, weren’t quantified) until the flashback.
  • Keep flashbacks extremely rules light and just let the players succeed without rolling on just about everything within reason that they try. After all, they clearly survived the events none the worse for wear such that it wasn’t even relevant until now, so might as well let them have unusual success. Don’t even reference stats unless you have to. The session should mostly resolve around revealing more information about something, possibly even something that the PCs didn’t realize until now that they hadn’t shared with one another (possibly because it happened before they even met; see Leverage’s The Rashomon Job).
  • Just let them use their up-to-date stats and get exp normally. Gloss over how a player is using a power he just got last session in a flashback set years ago as imperfect recollection.
  • Everyone had AMNESIA! And didn’t know it! Until NOW! (Don’t actually do that, it’s overused.)

Anyone else have tricks for running long-form flashbacks that players are happy to participate in?

System Review: WFRP 3rd Edition, Part 2

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Fiddly Bits

WFRP uses the following components:

  • Career cards (both a large sheet with details and a small card with a power)
  • Small special ability cards (talents, tactics, reputation, and caster order)
  • Large action cards (double sided, giving you a single special action in either stance)
  • Stress/Fatigue tokens (gained via various elements and key to going insane)
  • Wound cards (with critical hits on the back)
  • Insanity cards (each with a different derangement)
  • Casting side-effect cards (for when you screw up a spell)
  • Mutation cards (and tokens to track mutating energy accumulation)
  • Puzzle pieces (for building stance tracks and progress trackers)
  • Hourglass tokens (for tracking whether you’ve acted)
  • Party sheet (gives the group special abilities and penalties for arguing)
  • Miscellaneous tokens (for tracking fate, position, cooldowns, etc.)
  • Module-specific elements (like NPC reference cards or house crest tokens)
  • Character portrait pogs (with stands)
  • Dice

That’s a lot of stuff, and I actually think I’ve missed a few component types.

The components provide an easier way to deal with certain classic types of play. In particular, cards replace random tables: if you take a critical hit, you just flip over one of your wound cards and take that effect. Nearly all elements that would have to be a chart without the components are instead just a shuffled deck of cards. Even randomizing starting career is handled with the cards.

Unfortunately, they do have a couple of significant downsides.

The first, as alluded to last week, is that they make it annoying to add your own material to the game. Even if you go to the trouble of trying to replicate the format and printing on cardstock, the elements you make aren’t going to feel like part of the set of professionally printed and sealed cards. That may be less of an issue if you’re not as OCD as I am, but I suspect your players will notice and treat the new elements differently than the base ones.

The second is that they’re challenging to keep organized and deployed. One tackle box/organizer tray is insufficient even for the base set, and every new set adds more stuff. Many of the elements are meant to be deployed in specific ways relative to the others: special ability cards attach to character sheets and party sheets, puzzle pieces need to be arranged into tracks, tokens need to be placed on all the other elements, and so on. At my last playtest, it took me the better part of an hour to get everything set up and in easy reach for use during play. Again, your level of OCD may make this a lesser or greater problem, but at best you’ll find a lot of time being eaten up by component management compared to standard games where as soon as you slap down character sheets and pour out dice, you’re ready to go.

Yet they are fun to play with, once you’ve gotten past those downsides. The components lend a very tactile feel to the game, and do make it easy to reference the status of play (e.g., how much stress, fatigue, and wounds your players have). In general, maybe I’d be more satisfied if not everything had to be a card or token, and they were saved for the more core, generic elements of the system.

Three Act Structure

One thing the game tries to do is build story structure into the rules at a core level. Adventures are intended to break major segments into three sections, with a pause in between at a major shift or break. These pauses are called the Rally Step, and give the players a few refresh benefits and a free action between major scenes. Some actions and special abilities directly reference the Rally Step, making it more or less required.

Unfortunately, the structure is built into the rules deeply but not broadly. It mainly seems to apply to combat scenes, with roleplaying scenes handwaved as “story mode.” There are very precise rules for removing negative tokens, taking actions, and shifting stances in combat mode, but only minimal guidelines for story mode. The rules read like the designers had a cool idea for baking acts into the rules, but couldn’t quite conceptually bridge the gap between combat scenes and other scenes. The result is some significant unevenness in play, particularly since even the modules don’t always use the three stage structure for combats, often having a one-off, single-stage fight. I’ve spent significant parts of the playtest trying to find justification in the rules to keep players from just completely refreshing anything but wounds during story mode (and to figure out how often they can attempt first aid on those wounds).

I like what they tried to do, but I would have liked it more if the rule was either fully integrated across play or less integrated into combat. As it is, combat and story are more firmly firewalled than even other fantasy games. It also results in combats becoming set pieces: the players are almost certainly going to get into this carefully balanced fight. But, given that this is Warhammer and not D&D, combat is very dangerous (which I’ll likely discuss more later) and your players would probably rather you weren’t wasting a lot of planning for combat if you allow them to circumvent the fight with roleplay and cleverness. That is, when you spend time in your prep designing a combat encounter, you’re probably going to have to fight an impulse to railroad it into happening even if your players have a good plan to avoid it.

I did eventually hit on the concept of overlapping action scenes, where some of the action scenes were extremely long (e.g., each round of the investigation takes a few hours, so the investigation action scene may take several days, but combat can happen during these scenes without ending them). So it isn’t hopeless that the structure could be extended across the whole play experience. Out of the box, though, there’s not a lot of support.

Part 3

Borrowing from Video Games: Assassin’s Creed’s Area Control

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One of the core mechanics of the Assassin’s Creed series is the concept of the viewpoint: a tower or other high vantage from which the character can survey the nearby area. Getting to a viewpoint is typically a climbing puzzle. When the viewpoint is triggered, the map in a nearby radius is filled in: not just with terrain details, but with waypoints for different missions and other interest points in the area. It’s difficult to find your way around the game without gaining access to these elements.

In the sequel to the sequel, Brotherhood, the concept was expanded with the idea of Borgia Towers: many of the viewpoints are on fortresses that allow the game’s main enemy to project power around Rome and intimidate the populace. Not only do you need to get past the guards to use the viewpoint, you can’t interact with many of the elements in the area until you kill the guard captain and set fire to the tower. Until this point, map elements show up as locks, even if you can see them, indicating that the citizens are too afraid of the Borgias to help your protagonist. But once the Borgias are evicted, the entire neighborhood becomes awash in new options.

This is a pretty elegant way of solving a few problems with sandbox games.

The first is the fear of overwhelming your players with options; choice paralysis is a thing. By initially breaking the hundreds of interactive places in the game down to a couple dozen towers (and only a few near the starting location), the player can choose from a much smaller list of goals. Only once a major goal is completed do a bunch of smaller ones become apparent, and they are given out as if they were rewards for accomplishing the main goal.

The second is that each area of the map becomes a black box, with limited interactivity until the major goal is completed. This is a huge boon for GMs like me that would love to run a sandbox, but are daunted by the sheer amount of work required to prepare for the players to go anywhere. It’s entirely possible that this mechanism would allow a GM to come up with only high concepts for a handful of areas, and drill down on them once the players have expressed interest. Until then, it’s just a few notes and maybe a chart of encounters that it generates in nearby areas.

And, given that borrowing from Assassin’s Creed even further means that these areas are completely hostile to the players, you could profoundly govern the rate at which the players require unplanned new content. They have limited information-gathering and traveling abilities within the restricted area until they engage with the central conflict and try to open it up. And when they do, they’ve begun a potentially multi-session scenario that may be difficult to wander away from. After the area is opened, new opportunities in the area (which the GM didn’t fully develop until the scenario began) feel like rewards and are more likely to keep the players in the now fleshed-out section of the world for long enough to justify the time spent on preparation.

While this setup lends itself most easily to the same style as the video game—city-based areas where whole neighborhoods are outright controlled by a villain—it can be used for other types of sandboxes as well. A wilderness hex crawl is almost as easy as a city sandbox: groups of hexes can be assigned to some minor villain or other organization that patrols, intimidates nearby villages, and makes long-term investigation problematic until handled. The concept can even be expanded to a more metaphorical level: it’s not the physical space that’s firewalled, but the investigative paths through the story. Information may be gated by improving relationships with key NPCs or beginning other quests, at which point the information the players were after becomes available, as well as more plots related to the group the PCs just expressed interest in.

Ultimately, this mechanic may have the possibility of feeling railroady if used poorly, but if used well it should be an excellent way to maintain sanity for players or GMs daunted by the vast array of possibilities inherent in a sandbox. It also lets you make a map that you can update with tangible player victories.

Players love it when you update a map based on their victories.

System Review: WFRP 3rd Edition, Part 1

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They’re Gonna Eat Me Alive

Warhammer fandom mostly passed me by. The wargame came onto my radar around my cash-strapped college years as something it costs a hundred dollars to even start playing. I read one of the Dan Abnett novels on recommendation and (very) briefly played a Dark Heresy game, but find myself completely baffled by the attraction of the 40k setting, where the principle selling points are that it is grim, it is dark, and there is only war. It’s hard to get attached.

However I’ve been more intrigued by the fantasy setting, which is at least grounded in a world similar enough to historical Earth that there’s something to hook onto. Plus, evidence suggests that it takes itself a good bit less seriously than the future setting. But the crucial alignment of “the rules for the RPG are in print” and “I have a group interested in playing” always seemed to pass me by. Then the new edition came out.

The first thing to know about Fantasy Flight’s Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying is that it’s a strong inheritor of the “costs a hundred dollars to even start playing” factor of the wargame. In fact, the core set costs about a hundred dollars even (though you can get it on pretty steep sale these days) and I felt compelled to drop around a hundred more on a couple of GM sets and a module before I really felt like I had enough materials to give it a fair test. Fortunately, I’m not a cash-strapped college student anymore, but damn.

The reason for this is that WFRP 3rd involves a huge number of special dice, tokens, and cards: Fantasy Flight is primarily a board game company known for making full use of heavy sheets of die-cut card stock and plastic components, and they took this behavior into the RPG. I’ll go into the details more during the review, but there’s a lot of fiddly bits involved. Interestingly, this makes it more or less the first DRMed (or, technically, ARMed) tabletop RPG: even though the game is expensive enough to bring the pirates out in droves, it would be a hell of a lot of work to reproduce the necessary components from a torrented PDF. Unfortunately, this also means that it’s really hard to create your own material for the game, but I’ll probably talk about that later.

I would say that I’d expect more major RPG producers, like WotC, with access to economies of scale big enough to justify producing the special components, to get into this racket, except Fantasy Flight itself has backed off. They’ve recently begun releasing pure book versions that seem to have a lot of stuff that was previously only on cards incorporated into the text. I don’t have those editions, I have the one with all the fiddly bits, so the review will focus on that. I’m honestly not even sure the game makes sense without all the toys…

Core Mechanics

The game uses specially made dice. There are blue, green, and red d10s for characteristics, yellow d6s for skill expertise, white d6s for miscellaneous bonuses, purple d8s for opposition/difficulty, and black d6s for miscellaneous penalties. Each of the dice has some constellation of symbols: hammers for successes, crossed swords for challenges (which cancel successes), crests for boons, skulls for banes (which cancel boons), comets for awesome luck, chaos stars for awful luck, and then a few more that won’t come up much. Any die face can have no symbol, one symbol, or two symbols (I don’t think any have three). The bad symbols are mostly on the purple and black dice, and the good ones are on the others.

You build a die pool based on a fairly universal process, despite the variety of the dice:

  1. Take blue d10s equal to your applicable characteristic.
  2. Exchange blue d10s for red or green ones based on whether your character is currently in a reckless or conservative stance (and how many steps into the stance you are).
  3. Add one or more yellow d6s if you’re trained in the applicable skill.
  4. Add white d6s if you have a characteristic or skill specialty, spend Fortune points, or have some other misc bonus.
  5. Add one to four purple d8s based on how hard the GM says the task is.
  6. Add black d6s if the opposition has something special going on (like a shield) or there are other misc penalties (like darkness).
  7. Roll all of those dice.
  8. Add up all the symbols.
  9. Cancel out successes/challenges and boons/banes.
  10. Spend the leftovers on whatever your action says you can do with them (though having at least one hammer uncancelled is always a success).

This speaks to what I mentioned earlier, in that it’s hard to make your own stuff: this is very much an exceptions-based, somewhat disassociated system. If you have an attack card that says three hammers does +3 normal damage, that’s what you do if you have three hammers leftover. If I only have a success line for one hammer on my attack card, my three hammers are wasted (but my card might have some cool uses for excess boons or comets that yours doesn’t have). This is not a system where you’re encouraged to make your own house rules and new stuff; you could very easily come up with something that’s so broken your players will fight over the card or so inferior they’ll never buy it.

It’s also a system that can be very swingy. Good and bad dice don’t cancel out before you roll them, but their symbols do after the roll: a black die and a white die will average zero, but they might be a pure positive or a pure negative based on your roll. In my first playtest, Harbinger rolled something like 15 dice for a single action and wound up with a complete wash between rolling blanks and cancellations. It can be weird.

But, it also means that even the basest roll can mean a pool of half a dozen dice. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that there are few thrills greater for players than rolling a big fistful of dice.

Part 2

WFRP Alternate Range System

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The new Warhammer Fantasy RPG uses an abstract method of ranges and movement. The basic idea is:

  • Extreme range is really far away and only certain ranged weapons can attack from this far. It takes three move maneuvers to get to Long range.
  • Long range is the maximum range for most ranged weapons. It takes two move maneuvers to get to Medium range.
  • Medium range is the standard ranged attack distance. It takes one move maneuver to get to Close range.
  • Close range is basically “just outside melee reach” and is common for spell ranges. It takes one move maneuver to Engage with another opponent at Close range.
  • Engaged means you’re in a melee scrum with opponents (or just adjacent to allies). It takes one move maneuver to safely extricate yourself back to Close range.

This is all well and good if there’s one big burly brawl that all the melee guys are trying to get to and all the ranged characters are firing into, but it quickly becomes confusing if there are multiple engagements, enemy ranged characters spaced differently around the fight, and other difficulties. Even if everyone is in a straight line, it’s hard to answer questions like “My ally and I were at Long range and he just moved to Medium range from the enemies. Can I still target him with a Close range buff spell?”

This system converts the ranges to a less abstract system to answer these questions more easily. It still uses the same distance measurements and movement rules, but requires either a ruler or a grid (preferably a hex grid to make diagonal movement easier).

One move maneuver allows a character to move two spaces, except when extricating from an Engagement, in which case it only allows once space.

Ranges work according to the following chart:

Spaces Range
0 Engaged (and all other characters contiguously based are in the same Engagement)
1 Close
2 Medium
3-6 Long
7-12 Extreme
13+ Out of range



Ranges for WFRP

System Review: Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, Conclusion

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The Best of Them Bleed It Out

Superheroes is probably the number two RPG destination after swords and sorcery, though modern horror and sci-fi would be strong contenders. Nearly all supers games, though, spend quite a bit of effort on mechanical simulation, which can make it harder to capture the feel of supers in play. A player often wants to fling a car at a villain without checking a complex algorithm for lifting, throwing, and damage. Systems that are highly granular and simulationist tend to make a lot of comics tropes possible, but only with a multi-step process.

Even the systems that make this easier to do are often simplifying without shaping. That is, they basically run the same, just faster, as the more complex engines, because the effects are less granular. But the engines are fundamentally a mechanical sim underneath, interested in preserving and extending the physics of the real world. They don’t often give the GM and players a lot of tools for making the game feel like a comic rather than any other modern game in spandex. There are often a few nods to genre emulation, like hero points awarded for following tropes, but they aren’t generally integral. You can easily play these games off-tone if you’re not fully versed in the language of comics and interested in playing along.

MHR is doing something I haven’t seen before. It superficially resembles some of the other low-granularity supers games out there. Unlike most of them, though, it’s not just a simplification of a more complex engine, but each rules element is in place to make genre emulation easier. Rather than a set of attributes, there are elements to make you think about your role on the team and your character’s attitudes and backstory. Powers are arranged around generating thematic sets and include voluntary limitations for flavor. Skills require you to think about allies and other resources to use them optimally. And the entire action sequence is designed to model comic panels rather than clock time.

That’s not to say that other games don’t have various similar elements or answers to these things, but none of the ones I’ve played have done as good a job of making it feel like you’re playing in a comic story. They make sacrifices on that front to differentiate power levels and effects, or to provide a world of rational physics extended to the power of supers. MHR perhaps does some of these things less well, but it’s all in the interest of feeling like you’re playing a comic rather than feeling like you’re playing in the real world, with supers.

It does it all with a system that’s variable enough that it doesn’t feel hand-wavey when you stat a character, but in which it’s pretty easy to stat and run characters. And you can try lots of random stuff without breaking the engine. It’s ultimately pretty easy to run once you’re comfortable with the fundamentals, does a good job of modeling supers and a great job of modeling comics, you can tweak it without fear, and a lot of its systems are modular enough to steal for other games. The next time I think about running a supers game, this will definitely be at the top of my list for engines.

So check it out. ‘Nuff said.

Auteurship and RPGs

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If you don’t pay much attention to the video game world, or are just aggressively avoiding spoilers while you finish the game, you may not have heard much about the controversy surrounding the Mass Effect 3 ending. To try to put it in a way that gets you up to speed without creating a spoiler: the point of view of a lot of angry players is that it was not just unsatisfying, but actively dissonant to the themes and tone of the entire trilogy up to that point. That is, it wasn’t good and, more importantly, it didn’t make sense. This video explains the controversy in extensive (and spoilery) detail.

Players on the internet are livid. Massive petitions have been made to try to get Bioware to change the ending, some to the point of rage-donating to charity. The blowback was sufficient to get the company president to issue a press release indicating that they’re considering acquiescing to the fan demands and changing the ending via DLC.

Whether or not the entire situation is overblown, the results are inarguable: we’ve reached a point in video game development where we have to seriously ask the question of whether interactive media are in some way democratic. Do consumers of a game have the right to, as a bloc, demand a portion of the artistic control of that game? Will major game franchises have to begin extensively focus testing their products not just for engagement, but for satisfaction? Does the principle of director as auteur in film translate to the lead designer as auteur in a video game?

And what does this have to do with tabletop RPGs?

I don’t think it’s coincidence that the first video game to create this controversy is an RPG. There has been more than one AAA game franchise where players were largely unsatisfied by the ending and didn’t petition for a change, but they were typically less customizable experiences. The problem for ME3 is that it succeeded too well at making the player feel invested and in control of the actions of a fully customized Commander Shepard, such that any ending that wasn’t note perfect would generate this problem on a lesser or greater scale.

It’s pretty similar to the potential fallout from a poor ending to a long-running tabletop campaign.

There are, to oversimplify, three major beliefs about the role of the GM in a tabletop game:

  • The Old School Renaissance (OSR) tends to think of the GM’s role as setting up a sandbox and then impartially arbitrating it in play according to player intentions and actions. The goal of the GM is not to tell a story, but to simply create an environment in which story can emerge naturally from player activities. The players have complete control of the progression of the game from the beginning of the first session, but must exercise this control via the medium of their character skills, clever play, and lucky dice rolls.
  • The Story Games movement tends to think of GMing as fundamentally democratic. A number of games like Capes, Fiasco, and Shock have no GM whatsoever: the power of the GM is distributed among the players based on various rules to govern narrative control. Even when there is a GM, his or her control of the flow of the game is often constrained by various mechanics, and the players have systems to seize narrative control outside of the in-world skills and actions of their characters.
  • The Storyteller mindset (which is not a movement) seems to make up most of the mass market, and is exemplified in nearly every module released (for any system) that is not a true sandbox. The GM is expected to not just set the stage, but provide a basic script for the direction the plot is meant to go. Player cleverness can greatly drift the story, depending on the creativity and improvisational ability of the GM, but there is expected to be serious GM (and mostly GM-only) effort to mold the game to feel like a story.

Presumably, an OSR campaign ending that felt completely out of tune with the rest of the game would result in players demanding to see the GM’s notes to prove that they’d missed something that was added fairly. A story games ending almost couldn’t be something that the majority of players hadn’t bought into, as democracy is assumed by the rules. But what happens if a long-running game in the standard storyteller mode ends on a complete misfire? Keep in mind that this is a style of play where “it says right here in the module that I have to…” isn’t necessarily encouraged, but is accepted. And I strongly suspect that the majority, possibly even the vast majority, of gamers still play this way, free of the game theory of the internet until it makes its way into a mass-market publication. It’s accepted fact that the GM models not just a world, but a world with an intended narrative.

Further, the motivation behind this is why the OSR and story games movements are ends of a spectrum rather than just two ways of limiting GM power. My sense is that a lot of gamers crave both a story and a sense of a world simulated in someone else’s head. They’d be unsatisfied with the pure sandbox method of play exalted by the OSR, desiring a much more thorough amount of story instead of the responsibility of driving the game’s agenda. But they’d be equally unsatisfied with a true division of GM authority among the group, as there’s a definite allure to having a single arbiter of reality to make victories feel earned. While I expect the middle to continue to absorb innovations from both OSR and story games camps, I also expect story-driven games with a single GM to be the norm for the foreseeable future.

So had Mass Effect been an epic series of tabletop modules instead of video games, how would the ending play out at tables around the world? Would players suck it up and quietly resolve to try to get someone else to GM next time? Would they be open about disliking it, but accept that it stayed happened? Or would they proceed to order their GM to tell the ending right, and they’re not leaving until he does? And would the last option come dangerously close to shattering the illusion of a world independent of the players’ own imaginations?

Someday, though probably not soon, we’ll achieve some reasonable approximation of the holodeck: a video gaming engine that can interpret a wide variety of player input and react to it with an AI sophisticated enough to respond more like a human GM than a rigidly programmed tree of options. The ME3 controversy may mean that, by the time we get there, it would be unthinkable to not have its core behavior skew much more toward the sandbox of the OSR or the player authority of story games. We could be on the verge of strictly limiting the power of the video game designer in a way similar to those espoused by tabletop theories, eliminating the ability to tell a story that takes away agency from the player. We could be on the verge of losing the core elements that give video games a chance of being acknowledged as art by the mainstream (in the same way movies are art) anytime in the foreseeable future.

But, given that a lot of tricks taken from movies tend to remove the fun of actually playing the game, maybe it’s just a good time to deeply rethink our principles of video game design, in the same way the OSR and story games movements are deeply rethinking the tabletop RPG.