System Review: D&D 5e Playtest Impressions, Part 1

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(This review is for the original playtest packets from 2012. If you’re looking for reviews of the 2014 release of D&D, I suggest reading Harbinger’s posts on the subject.)

I played in a D&D 5e (or D&D Next if you want to use the marketing speak) playtest over the weekend. It’s a little bit early to do a full on review, but I think the playtest gives enough insight into where the designers are going to speak to some core design principles. My biases are:

  • I played a lot of 2e as a teen, but have never really played any earlier editions. I don’t have much in the way of OSR nostalgia for them.
  • I’ve been playing 3e variations since it came out. It’s got some flaws, notably in time to prep nonstandard NPCs and complications in high level play, but…
  • I didn’t find that 4e solved these problems as well as I would have liked. Further, I found the powers structure to be too limiting to creativity at the table and cumbersome to manage.
  • So I’ve mostly been playing Pathfinder for the past few years when we play D&D.

My major questions about the new edition basically revolve around whether it addresses my problems with the previous two editions without introducing some new dealbreakers.

Core Mechanics

Unsurprisingly, this remains “roll a d20, add modifiers, try to meet or exceed a DC.” The major difference from the last two editions is an increased focus on ability scores. The new paradigm is that most rolls are an ability check, to which you might get a bonus, rather than a skill or save bonus that happens to include an ability. In particular, saving throws are now keyed directly to ability scores rather than the Fort/Ref/Wis construction of the last two editions. To mitigate a fireball, you just make a Dex save.

An initial worry with this is that the mental abilities are not very well differentiated as to when you should use them for rolls, particularly for saves and perception-style checks. They’ll eventually need to build in some pretty strong precedents about which effects target Int vs. Wis. vs. Cha to make this system workable.

Another potential issue is that it’s going to again be useful to min-max your core abilities: you can suffer a couple of points off of abilities that you’re rarely going to use for skills and saves to get a higher bonus on the stat you’re going to be using all the time. But it looks like there’s a hard cap of 20, at least, so you’ll get to your max and then maybe diversify a little.

Ultimately, the six ability scores are sacred cows to D&D vs. an industry that’s increasingly moving away from attributes. Since they couldn’t get rid of them, it makes sense to make them carry as much weight as possible and eliminate contingent systems that added complexity.

Scaling or the Lack Thereof

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the playtest materials is the obvious move away from extreme level-based scaling. In general, it looks like classes get one die (with no bonus) worth of extra HP each level and new special abilities, but few or no scaling bonuses to attack or skills. Effectively, if a DC 20 is hard to hit at 1st level, it will probably remain hard to hit for quite a while (possibly for your whole career). A higher level character has more HP and tricks, but may not have the overwhelming advantage enjoyed in previous editions (where creatures a few levels lower than you weren’t really even speedbumps).

I’m tentatively very enthusiastic about this change. One of my core problems with D&D, which I’ve mentioned before, is how hard the rampant scaling makes it to design a consistent world. A compressed system where higher level characters get new tricks but don’t become demi-gods relative to the start of their career makes it way easier to create an internally consistent world.

Conversely, I worry that I’m one of the few players that’s bothered by world building issues (particularly with all the players trained on MMOs and other video games where extreme scaling is a given). I expect this to take heavy fire later in the playtest if players at high level don’t feel sufficiently, increasingly awesome over time. Hopefully the designers will be able to give out enough benefits on level that provide options and feel cool without having to geometrically scale the math.

Modularity

One thing bandied about in the early discussions of the engine is the concept that it’s built to be modular. The intention seems to be to provide a pretty simple core game engine and then offer a ton of modules to change the feel of different elements (e.g., “by default, HP represent a fairly short-term mechanic that allows you to relatively quickly recover to full between sessions, but here are some ways to make damage last longer or heal even faster…”). Effectively, it’s enshrinement of house ruling with a clear instruction book.

I was fairly dubious about this, as D&D, while the most house ruled system ever, has long had so many contingent systems and assumptions that you need to be pretty experienced at modding the game before you stop making minor house rules with overwhelming impact (e.g., removing magic item exp costs in a high-downtime game drastically powers up the crafting PCs). The claim that D&D 5e would be everything to everyone obviously made me skeptical.

However, on seeing the playtest materials, I’m not completely sold but I at least begin to think it’s possible. The core systems are, indeed, pretty simple and don’t seem to be overly bound to one another. And, in general, there seems to be a solid move away from core math assumptions where X players should have Y encounters per level that last Z rounds. You want to fight an ogre at first level? Its attack and defense is still on the same scale as yours, even though it has way more HP and dangerous abilities, so good luck. You want to fight a bunch of kobolds at fifth level? They aren’t individually much of a threat, but each of them can still reliably hit you, and you might still miss them on occasion, so it’ll be pretty easy but not a complete given.

So I’m really hoping they’re able to keep everything distinct and easy to mod. It certainly seems like a goal within reach at this stage.

Part 2

Evolving Redshirts

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In my group, we have a tradition of the “Lucky.” In any game where our PCs are part of an organization where we might have a lot of filler NPC help running around, eventually one of those NPCs manages to survive surprising odds or accomplish something else really useful by dint of the GM’s dice luck rolling for him. That NPC now gets named “Lucky” (whether or not the GM already had a name for him) and becomes our most important henchman, trusted to help out way beyond his NPC levels in the hopes his dice luck will hold out.

I’ve been watching a lot of Archer lately, and one of the cool thing the show does is round out the personalities of upwards of a dozen paper-pushers at the spy agency that were initially just one-note jokes. Similarly, Avengers features an Agent Coulson who’s evolved significantly over his appearances. The following system is designed to accomplish that kind of outcome. It’s heavily inspired by D&DwP’s multidimensional NPC advice. It’s intended to create NPCs over several sessions in any game where the players have nameless, low-level helpers running around (from the followers from Leadership to the crew of a starship). By participating in the growth of these NPCs, players should become more attached to them (and maybe remember their names) than if they’d just been prepped totally in advance by the GM.

This will be most useful in three types of game:

  • The PCs are lacking anyone with several useful skills and need to rely on NPCs to shore up their deficiencies.
  • The PCs will frequently need to delegate NPCs to perform essential but non-core functions (e.g., pilots, security staff, medics).
  • The system gives a good bonus for having lower-skilled help on tasks (encouraging a player to bring along an NPC buddy with his or her skills).

Setup

Prepare cards that are easily distinguishable for the following groups:

  • Core Competency: The NPC’s major role in the organization (e.g., security, driver/pilot, diplomat, engineer/crafter, etc.)
  • Cross Training: A skill package that any member of the organization might be encouraged to pick up (e.g., hand-to-hand, ranged weapons, languages, mental fortitude, etc.)
  • Name: The name of the NPC (implying or including sex, race, and nationality)
  • Hobby: A skill package potentially useful to the organization but non-essential that the NPC has as a hobby; detailed enough to create color (e.g., freerunning, MMA, stunt driving, movie reviewer, etc.)
  • Quirk: A foible of the NPC’s that is often a slight drawback but might sometimes be useful; mostly for easy characterization, but might be an aspect/distinction if the system supports it (e.g., smoker, pedantic, neurotic, effusively cheerful, etc.)
  • Specialization: Another hobby or cross training the NPC has picked up since palling around with the heroes (copies of the other two groups focused on generally useful abilities)
  • Home Life: Something interesting about the NPC’s time away from work that might eventually be an asset or hindrance; mostly for easy characterization, but might be an aspect/distinction if the system supports it (e.g., three kids, just moved into a fixer upper, swinging single, dating a musician, etc.)

Make sure that there are enough core competencies to cover as many NPCs as you expect to be available during adventures (e.g., if there are only a dozen such NPCs, split them into core competencies and only make a dozen core cards). Create the same number of names to fit the sex/race/nationality breakdown you want for the organization. You can create more than that many of the other cards, but don’t create an unlimited number (e.g., if the players are looking for someone with piloting cross training, there may be only one such card so they’re stuck with the first NPC that gets it).

In Play

When the players are taking NPCs with them, lay out the core competency cards that represent them. These should have basic stats for the NPC in your system useful in situations that are expected to come up (e.g., combat).

If a player asks whether one of the NPCs has a skill not in the core competency, pull cross training cards equal to the available NPCs that don’t have a known cross training. If the skill is on one of the cards, add it to one of the NPCs that doesn’t currently have a cross training. If a player just takes an interest in an NPC, allow the player to pick from three cross training cards to assign to that NPC.

As soon as an NPC gets a cross training card, also allow the players to pick one of three name cards to assign to that NPC. You now have a named NPC with a core competency and a cross training.

If that NPC gets called on again at a later session (likely because the PCs specifically requested him or her due to a known cross training), at an appropriate juncture pull three hobby cards and three quirk cards and allow the players to choose which to assign to the NPC. Begin playing up the quirk (if it’s different from the previous session’s attitude, it’s because the NPC is getting comfortable enough around the PCs to let his or her real personality show).

After a few more sessions of using the NPC, allow the players to pick from three specialization and three home life cards. The NPC is now a fairly fleshed out individual that the players are likely to take an interest in. If they do, at this point the GM can flesh out his or her stats and backstory further.

Once cards are pulled and combined at all stages, paperclip them together into a packet. This effectively becomes the NPC’s character sheet (and ensures that traits don’t get back into general circulation).

Example

This is done in FATE to keep the system simple. It’s for a SHIELD- or ISIS-style spy organization.

Core Competency:

  • Analyst: Empathy and Investigation +1
  • Junior Field Agent: Contacting and Deceit +1
  • Operator: Alertness and Burglary +1
  • Scientist: Engineering and Science +1
  • Security: Alertness and Guns +1
  • Transport: Drive and Pilot +1
Cross Training:

  • Counter Interrogation (Resolve +1)
  • Covert Ops (Stealth +1)
  • Defensive Driving (Drive +1)
  • Flying (Pilot +1)
  • Languages (Academics +1)
  • Krav Maga (Fists +1)
  • Range Certification (Guns +1)
  • Wilderness Survival (Survival +1)
Name:

  • Conti, Giada
  • Hall, Sebastian
  • Hassani, Taufic
  • Mikhailova, Irina
  • Munoz, Carmen
  • Roux, Kevin
  • Schafer, Luis
  • Taylor, Sienna
Hobby:

  • Bodybuilding (Might +1)
  • Camping (Survival +1)
  • Freerunning (Athletics +1)
  • Heavy Reader (Academics +1)
  • Magic Tricks (Slight of Hand +1)
  • MMA (Fists +1)
  • Model Trains (Engineering +1)
  • Mystery Fan (Investigation +1)
  • SCA (Weapons +1)
  • Superlight Planes (Pilot +1)
  • Target Shooting (Guns +1)
  • Track Days (Drive +1)
  • Urban Exploration (Burglary +1)
Quirk (Aspect):

  • Barely passed psych review
  • Doesn’t like heights
  • Extremely competitive
  • Mildly claustrophobic
  • Militant agnostic
  • Perfectionist
  • Perpetually late
  • Recent vegetarian
  • Slightly agoraphobic
  • Spoils movies
  • Thick accent
  • Trying to quit smoking
  • Very religious
Specialization:

  • Back to School
    (Academics and Science +1)
  • Best Not to Talk About It
    (Burglary and Drive +1)
  • Detective Training
    (Alertness and Investigation +1)
  • Deep Wilderness Missions
    (Pilot and Survival +1)
  • Gunsmithing Class
    (Engineering and Guns +1)
  • Hitting the Dojo
    (Endurance and Fists +1)
  • Infiltration Training
    (Sleight of Hand and Stealth +1)
  • Influencing People
    (Deceit and Empathy +1)
  • Kendo Training
    (Resolve and Weapons +1)
  • Making Friends
    (Contacting and Rapport +1)
  • Working Out
    (Athletics and Might +1)
Home Life (Aspect):

  • Dating a musician
  • Just had third kid
  • Married to the job
  • Nice apartment in a bad neighborhood
  • Perpetually single
  • Recently inherited a reasonable sum
  • Sleeping on a friend’s couch
  • Spouse is a teacher
  • Still lives with parents
  • Swinging single
  • Trying to have first child

System Review: Fiasco, Conclusion

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I Swear I Never Meant for This

Fiasco is an interesting mix of extremely rules light and crunchy that I haven’t seen before. While the actual system is so simple you can write it on a single sheet of paper with lots of room for graphics, it requires input at the beginning, middle, and end from fairly extensive charts. These charts are largely “setting,” but they dig directly into the heart of the system. Given how many lightweight games don’t really have much utility to the book once you’ve gotten a firm hold of the rules, it’s pretty neat that Fiasco retains value as a repository of charts.

And the charts are really cool. They’re basically several hours of play (with a high degree of straight up replayability) in a few pages, which is a ratio that modules for heavier systems can’t beat. Particularly for nights where you don’t even have enough prep time to read a module, high-density playsets for games are awesome. Fiasco is right up there with Technoir in expandable, easily-digestible module content. I get the impression that, for groups that have played it, the game has become the go to system when you have a couple hours to game and no clear plan what to do.

Admittedly, it’s the kind of game that works best if you’re comfortable with a high-improv, cooperative, GM-free environment. There aren’t really many rules to keep a problem player from ruining your fun. Even someone that’s not trying to be difficult, but just isn’t comfortable without a clear GM, goals, and character stats could provide a drag on the game. So it’s probably important that you play with people you trust to provide a good time in such a situation. That said, I’ve played the game with the member of my group least likely to go in for freeform improv, and everyone had a great time: the setup phase really is good at getting investment from people you wouldn’t expect.

And, as noted previously, even if you absolutely can’t see your players enjoying rules light or GM-free games, there’s a lot of utility in the rules that are there. In particular, the setup phase (with the attendant chart structure) can be easily lifted and applied directly to other games where you want to shake the players out of their usual roles in the party or just want to help them come up with pre-game intra-party relationships.

It’s easy to read, quick to run, and can give you some new GM tricks even if you never play it again. So check it out.

Dirge (D20 Zombie Game)

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I threw together a short, lightweight D20 implementation for running zombie apocalypse games with a core of the morale and control dramas from the last two weeks’ posts. You can get it here.

It should work with any 3.x implementation; I had Pathfinder in mind. Assume the regular D20 rules unless explicitly or implicitly contradicted.

System Review: Fiasco, Part 2

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Character and Scenario Creation

The group character/scenario creation system is the most mechanically complex aspect of Fiasco. It is also largely dissimilar to normal RPGs (though shares some overlap with Smallville).

Before starting, the players agree on a playset: a half dozen or so pages of charts detailing thematically related elements: objects, locations, needs, and relationships. The playset determines the high concept of the caper, such as a small town or a mall at Christmas. Examples are available online.

All the dice are then rolled (four per player) and serve as a limited-choice pool for selecting items off the charts. For example, if you didn’t roll any 3s, you can’t pick any of the 3 results from any of the charts. If you only rolled one 4, only one 4 result can be assigned.

Each chart element has two tiers of decision: a category and a specific element. This becomes immediately important as it makes almost every decision a shared decision between two players. It also gives the player that will be assigned the decision more of a chance to select something palatable. You see, each player takes turns assigning one die at a time to elements, and they might be elements that don’t even pertain to that player.

Ultimately, each player will have a two-step relationship with two players (the ones to either side) and that relationship will be associated with a two-step need, location, or object. On one side, your Gambler/Bookie relationship is associated with the Chicken Hut fast food restaurant. On the other, your Former Spouses relationship is associated with the need to Get Rich through political back-scratching. And those relationships and elements loop around the table, forming an unbroken circle of relationships and desires.

The rest of character creation is entirely description based via discussion with other people at the table. In the above example, you might decide that you’re the town mayor and you’re trying to get your ex-wife to help you in a scheme to pay off your bookie. Or, you could be the bookie, and it’s your ex who has some crazy scheme to use your connections to get rich. The goal is to use pure improv brainstorming to come up with several flawed people and one or more schemes. The system doesn’t care if you make a super-wealthy, celebrity, martial artist power trip or a shiftless layabout with no money or skills to speak of. All that’s important is that you have relationships to the other players that will allow you to drive the story in some way.

And it works really well for the freeform, one-shot nature of Fiasco: it’s basically a first start at getting the players all on board and thinking in terms of how to work together to make a plot without a GM.

It’s also very easy to borrow for more traditional games. While I’ve been kitbashing Smallville relationship creation onto everything for months, this is theoretically a much more lightweight method of pre-connecting PCs that would allow the GM more control over the kinds of relationships that emerge (after all, he could write his own playset tables). In general, I find that a few broad pre-selections on available PC types focuses player creativity, and defining relationships and certain elements to two or more PCs before chargen could be a big help.

Tilt and Aftermath

As alluded to last week, the two other times besides chargen that dice are rolled is midway through the game (the Tilt) and at the end (the Aftermath).

At the Tilt, all the players roll their available dice (earned from the first half of the scenes) to see who gets to help select the Tilt. The two players with the highest white and highest black results then collaborate to select a Tilt: a pair of complicating elements that will influence the second half of the story. These are both also two-stage elements picked from a chart via pre-rolling dice (just like chargen elements). One player picks the category and the other picks the specific, and then vice versa for the second element. So the second half of the game may have to deal with the complications of “Innocence: Love rears its ugly head” and “Paranoia: The thing you stole has been stolen.” The group then works these problems into the rest of the story.

At the Aftermath, each player determines his or her character’s fate by rolling the kept dice and comparing to a chart. The main action was likely resolved in the last scene, so the Aftermath mostly serves as an opportunity for denouement: the final scenes in a film or the closing crawl on a reality crime show. Interestingly, the Aftermath, since it is at the whim of the dice, can totally change the feel of the final scene. The last scene of the game could end with one character riding into the sunset with the stolen money, and then a death result on the Aftermath might require the player to narrate how he was shot to death by thieves a week later. Conversely, a character that lost everything over the course of the story might get a very good result, allowing a description of how he turned it all around after his wake up call. Or the dice could favor the winners, and let crime totally pay.

Both systems are useful elements to turn structured improv back into a game. At the Tilt, control over the complications gives you a shot of extra control to pull the narrative in the way you find entertaining. At the Aftermath, clever management of wins and losses for your character gives you a better shot of getting to give him a happy ending. They do a good job of keeping the players focused on the meaning of when to end a scene.

Conclusion

D20: Ablative Morale

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This is largely meant for a low-level, gritty D20 game (like that mentioned in last week’s zombie post), but could be useful in any game that needs a morale system.

Each party (or group of enemies) has a Morale rating.

The party’s Morale cannot exceed the party leader’s Leadership bonus (i.e., level + Cha bonus; if the leader has the Leadership feat, add the same additional bonuses for retainers). If the party leader is incapacitated or another leader must otherwise be chosen, immediately lose all Morale in excess of the new Leadership bonus. For new parties and enemy encounters, start Morale at half the Leadership rating.

When Morale reaches 0, each member of the party gains the Shaken effect (which stacks with other sources of Shaken to build to Frightened or Panicked). If Morale is 5 (and for every additional 5 points of Morale), all members of the party gain a +1 Morale bonus to attack rolls, saving throws, skill checks, and ability checks (i.e., reverse Shaken). Morale has a minimum of 0. For higher-level games, the GM might want to raise this bonus threshold so the maximum is effectively +2.

During play, a party can gain and lose Morale.

The party gains a point of Morale when:

  • Any member defeats an enemy or challenge with a CR equal to or greater than the current Morale
  • All surviving party members are healed to full HP the first time after a fight that resulted in at least one lost Morale (i.e., you can only get this bonus to repair lost Morale, not raise it)
  • An incapacitated/dead party member is returned to positive HP
  • The party accomplishes something the GM deems particularly heartening (but which doesn’t have a CR); note that for a lot of games this will be a primary source of positive Morale, and the GM should award points with a frequency governed by how dark the game is meant to be

The party loses a point of Morale when:

  • Any member takes damage from a single source/attack equal or greater than the current Morale (cumulative if multiple members take damage from the same attack)
  • Any party member is incapacitated (cumulative with taking damage greater than current Morale)
  • Any party member is killed (cumulative with being incapacitated)
  • An enemy uses a full round action and successfully makes a successful Bluff or Intimidate check at a DC equal to 10 + current Morale

If the party is part of a larger force, Morale might also be tracked separately for the army and the individual squad. In this case, squads should be treated more or less as PCs for the purposes of the larger Morale (i.e., Morale is not adjusted for every single individual character). The army’s Morale stacks with an individual squad’s Morale (i.e., a positive bonus from one might counteract Shaken from the other, and if both army and squad are at 0 Morale, all members of the squad are Frightened).

Mindless creatures (like zombies) and zealots don’t worry about Morale (but also don’t get the bonus for high Morale).

Large enemy groups might be broken into multiple internal groups for purposes of Morale. This is especially useful for monsters that have minions and don’t much care if they die: the minions might well be Shaken while the main threats are not. In this case, the same creature’s Leadership might serve to set the Morale limit for both groups.

For the PC party, Morale is persistent through sessions, potentially leading to long stretches of positive or negative outlook.

System Review: Fiasco, Part 1

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They Move Right Through You

What do you call the genre that includes films like Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, Burn After Reading, and Layer Cake? It almost certainly includes most of Guy Ritchie’s other films, and might include entries like In Bruges and Reservoir Dogs. It’s effectively the counterpoint to the caper genre (e.g., Ocean’s 11): a movie about crime where the protagonists are so interestingly flawed that watching their plan begin to self destruct from the word “go” is a whole movie’s worth of entertainment.

Fiasco is a story game that seeks to model this kind of movie with its system. The players make characters that are tangled up in a web of alliances of mutually assured destruction and then are given a situation that causes them to start pulling on the strands. By the end of a session, the point is to have each protagonist either broken completely by the events of the story or whole only through dumb luck.

Unlike most games I’ve reviewed so far, I was able to play in a session hosted by the game’s designer. A primary source on how the game’s supposed to play is very helpful for this kind of thing. Unfortunately, that also means I can’t be sure that the game plays the same way if you just have the text. But, given that the book includes a very thorough example of play, and players that weren’t in the designer-hosted session seemed to pick it up without issue, I don’t believe that’s a concern.

Core Mechanics

While Fiasco uses dice, they spend most of the game being primarily used as counters for the pacing mechanism: they’ll be rolled only three times during a session.

Each player initially puts two black and two white dice into a central pool (which is used for character and scenario creation, described next week). Each scene, one die leaves the pool and is kept by an individual player, and the session concludes when there are no more dice in the pool. This is one of the most key features of the game: it’s fast paced and quick to play because there are only four (often pretty short) scenes per player and everyone can see the pile of dice dwindling so they can move more aggressively toward the end.

There is no GM: each scene, another PC becomes the focal character, passing around the table. In a focal scene, the active PC must be present, but other players might portray either their PCs or NPCs created on the fly to round out the scene. No characters have specific stats, so making new characters and situations is quick, basic improv.

On his or her turn, the focal player has the option to either set the scene or ask the rest of the players to set up a scene for his or her character. If the player sets up the scene, thus describing a situation related to his or her goals for the character, the other players will ultimately get to decide whether the end of the scene goes right or wrong for the focal character. Conversely, if the rest of the table collaborates to set up a scene, the player of the focal character gets to decide whether it concludes as a win or a loss for the PC. Wins are signified by white dice and losses by black, so there are a limited number of positive and negative outcomes: if everything is going wrong at the beginning, it has to start going right toward the end, and vice versa.

In the first half of the game, the player immediately gives whichever die was received away to another player. In the second half, the player keeps it. At both the midpoint and the end of the game, it’s better to have an unbalanced mix of dice colors. When the dice are actually rolled, they cancel out: a roll of 8 on the black dice and 3 on the white is a net result of 5 Black. So there’s a decent amount of strategy involved in passing around the dice and deciding whether to frame or conclude a scene to try to keep your dice tilted toward one color while mixing the dice of the other players.

At the end of the game, the net roll of each player’s dice is compared to a chart to determine how his or her PC came through the scenario. Low rolls equal death or worse, while higher rolls indicate the character somehow got out of the fiasco intact, or even ahead of the game. During a final montage, each player takes turns counting off the good or bad dice in the pool and explaining how that outcome happened.

Part 2

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