System Review: Next Gen MMOs, Part 2

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Active Combat

One of the things that virtually every new MMO is trying is some variation on active combat. Effectively, attacks aren’t predestined to hit a target; if you get out of the way, you can avoid the attack.

Now, in a lot of ways, calling this a new development is an exaggeration. MMOs have featured AoEs that you can dodge for years; that’s why “don’t stand in the fire” is a meme, and tanks have long practiced trying to turn the boss away from the group. However, for the vast majority of single target attacks, there was no way to dodge. Due to latency issues, your client and the server might disagree on the precise location of each character in the world, so determining whether someone was in a small area in a brief moment was a much harder calculation than determining whether you were somewhere in a big AoE. So you’d frequently see ranged attacks bending to hit you no matter how you moved: it was predetermined to hit as soon as it was fired, and all you could do was force your client to recalculate the animation.

I’m still not entirely sure how the newer games are getting around this limitation. Likely it involves a lot more processing power and bandwidth spent on minimizing latency issues. In the betas I’ve been playing, the occasional lag spikes do make fights suddenly far more difficult than they would be in an older school game with automatic hits. Regardless, they all seem to be featuring the ability to get out of the way of attacks by moving (and the related effect of making you hit enemies in between you and your actual target).

Another thing all of these active combat systems seems to be featuring is the addition of an active dodge. I personally first saw this in Star Trek Online, basically added as an homage to Captain Kirk, but I think that system was not technically active combat: while you were dodge rolling, the game would just increase your defense stat against attacks. However, in TERA, GW2, and TSW, the dodge roll is a way to move more quickly out of a big attack. All of these games limit pretty heavily how often you can do it, as it can fling you much further away than your normal movement speed would allow. However, I’m not a huge fan of the effect for a crucial reason: most of these games bind the dodge to double-tapping a direction. So I frequently find myself accidentally expending a dodge roll when I start to move in a direction, pause for a moment, and then continue.

And, in general, I don’t wind up using the dodge roll a lot intentionally because simple circle-strafing is often sufficient. My TSW fights with a gun-based character seemed like they should have the Benny Hill theme as combat music: every one of them featured my character running around and around melee targets firing pistols at them point blank. GW2 is a little bit better, simply because more enemies want to stay at range and there are often other players around to body-block melee opponents; you’ll still want to keep moving, but it’s at least in a more believable fashion.

Ultimately, the active combat systems do accomplish a cherished goal of making fights feel more dynamic. Keeping your character moving is almost always a good idea, and you’re trained from very early on to watch out for enemy wind-up attacks and AoE markers so you may not have to wait until your raid leader is is screaming at you to learn to stay out of the fire. And more moving players means more moving monsters, which makes the whole thing feel even more dynamic. However, given that the tradeoff is a complex system to account for latency and that fights can suddenly become impossible with a bad connection, I’m not totally sure this generation of MMOs is going to be able to pull the feature off as well as it would like. It feels more like a gimmick than a really necessary feature, and it remains to be seen whether it will survive to the next generation as a thing that all MMOs must have.

Part 3

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Alternate History Song of Ice and Fire

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This text potentially contains MAJOR SPOILERS for ASoIaF/Game of Thrones. Read at your own risk if you’re not up to date on the books.

This is an alternate take on the history of the books to set up an unpredictable starting point for a player party in the RPG. It assumes a few truths that haven’t been 100% proven in the books yet, but mostly proceeds from revealed canon.

It all starts with Jaime Lannister.

Who knows why he finds his backbone so many months earlier? Maybe Selmy reveals a distaste for what Aerys has become, giving Jaime tacit approval. Maybe Aerys goes on a rant about Tywin, remembers Jaime is his son, and heaps an unusual amount of problems upon him. Maybe Jaime just remembers Brandon from a tourney, kind of liked the guy, and figures that killing him because Rhaegar was in the wrong is beyond the rights of the king. Or maybe he just had a bad day.

Regardless, the night before Brandon and Rickard Stark are to be tried by fire, King Aerys dies to Jaime Lannister’s sword. That, of course, is never conclusively proven, but Jaime is the Kingsguard on duty and flees King’s Landing before the body is found. By the time they begin to track him down, he and his sister have fled across the Narrow Sea.

Rhaegar, let it be said, is a smart and competent guy when he’s not totally wrapped up in his drive to FULFILL THE PROPHECY. He’s called back from the Tower of Joy within days and realizes that his kingdom is on the knife’s edge of rebellion now that his own impulsive actions have upset an already dangerous regime caused by his father. He cannot produce Lyanna, claiming she has sadly caught some sickness during their travels, but that she left willingly. Concessions are made to House Stark, and, as Ned has just arrived with her angry fiancé, Robert, both are allowed to visit her at the Tower of Joy to confirm this fact.

Rickard and Brandon return to Winterfell upon word from Ned that Lyanna is, indeed, ill but a victim of her own impetuousness rather than having been kidnapped against her will. Robert returns to Storm’s End with no clear person to blame, and it is uncertain what Lyanna told him or what he deduced at the Tower of Joy. He has, however, lost his ability to treat Lyanna as the martyred love of his life.

A few months later, the story is that Lyanna died from her illness despite the help of the best maesters. Ned returns to Winterfell and will not speak of it, and none are sure whether he is simply broken by his sister’s death or unwilling to lie for the King.

Meanwhile, Tywin has expended most of his political capital on distancing himself from the actions of his eldest son, and Casterly Rock sits quiet, still rich but largely friendless in the current regime. He plots…

Present Day (Time of Game of Thrones)

King’s Landing

King Rhaegar still sits the Iron Throne. His son, Prince Aegon, is soon to become a squire, and his daughter Rhaenys is a beauty grown. It is a running question whether the King plans to wed the two to one another, or split them up to further stabilize his kingdom. The King’s brother and sister, Viserys and Daenerys, and his steward, Sir Willem Darry, hold Dragonstone until the Prince is old enough to hold it himself. As with his own children, it is uncertain what the King plans to do with his siblings, as they are both nearly marriageable age… though rumors suggest that Viserys has something of his father’s madness and may be far less than a prize.

A few years ago, Queen Elia finally succumbed to her lifelong poor health. It is worried that the health of the heirs is similarly fragile. The King has not, as yet, seemed to have any interest in remarrying. Instead, he appears to be quietly planning for something much larger and more important.

The Hand of the King, Jon Connington, is married to Lysa Tully. They have a formal, loveless marriage, and no children.

The rest of the small council consists of:

  • Lord Commander Arthur Dayne, who was appointed to the position after Lord Gerold Hightower retired due to age
  • Grand Maester Pycelle, who many believe owes more loyalty to the disgraced House Lannister than to his office
  • Petyr Baelish, who was given a chance due to the Hand’s wife and has proven to be adept at monetary matters
  • Varys, the spider, who continues to weave his webs as he has done since the previous administration
  • Stannis Baratheon, who holds his position as Master of Ships as one of the King’s concessions to Storm’s End many years ago
  • Eddard Stark, who is much more than the Master of Laws, but unofficially serves as the King’s general in matters of dire import, such as putting down the Greyjoy Rebellion several years ago

Though he is on the small council, Ned is rarely at court. When he is not putting down small rebellions for the king, he spends as much time as possible with his family at Winterfell. He is married to Ashara Dayne, sister of the Lord Commander, but their marriage has been childless. He has a bastard son, Jon Snow, that he acquired prior to his marriage, and seems to treat his ward, Theon Greyjoy, more as a son than a prisoner. For her part, Ashara seems to be tolerant of this behavior, as she genuinely loves Ned and cannot produce sons of her own. Fortunately, Jon Snow clearly takes after Ned, or there might be more rumors about the keen interest the King takes in him when he is at court…

Another frequent guest at court is Tyrion Lannister, the imp. It seems to amuse Tywin to make the mild insult of sending his dwarf son as his representative to the King. And none can gainsay him, for Tyrion technically is the Lannister heir. However, rumors continue to persist of the other Lannister children trying to find allies among the Free Cities and Dothraki, always one step ahead of the assassins sent by the throne.

The North

Brandon Stark and his wife, Catelyn Tully, govern the north. Lord Rickard died a few years ago; he had never truly recovered from his imprisonment in Aerys’ dungeons. Fortunately, counter to Ned’s problems producing heirs for the family, Brandon and Catelyn have produced several: Robb is the eldest, and his young brothers Bran and Rickon follow, as well as two daughters, Sansa and Arya. All of the children but Arya take after their mother’s Tully coloration, and all worship their heroic Uncle Ned. His visits are the high point of their lives.

For his part, Brandon is a decent but unexceptional leader. He retains the loyalty of the North, but is not well loved. There is a running rumor that the Boltons and Karstarks may have gained far more popular support than ever before, and were it not for the wealth of heirs, Winterfell might be in danger of a revolution.

The South

Robert Baratheon remains an amazing fighter in good health, and he has planted many bastards while never taking a wife. He’s never completely given up his anger at the King, but neither has he been openly disloyal. He frequently leaves Storm’s End to his brother, Renly, while traveling across the world to fight in tournaments. When he is at home, he has distinguished himself in many small wars and rebellions, and is frequently called upon for aid by his friend Ned Stark. He has become so popular, in fact, that there is some worry he could be a danger to the throne itself if he should decide to rebel. Some suggest that the King should marry Rhaenys or Daenerys to Robert to ensure this does not happen.

Part of this worry has to do with the Tyrells. Their dashing son Loras is the best friend of Renly Baratheon, and there are rumors that they might further cement the alliance by offering Margaery as wife to either Robert or Renly. The alliance of these two great houses, coupled with their friendship with the Starks and potential alliance with the Lannisters, could prove disastrous for the throne.

Meanwhile, Dorne remains enigmatic. It is believed that the King broke his vows to Elia of Dorne with the daughter of the Starks. Though she was never mistreated, her death has left the Martells with limited power in King’s Landing. There is no telling what they might be planning in the deserts to reclaim some of this power, but it is rumored that Quentyn at the very least desires a seat on the small council.

Winter is Coming

In the North, increasing Wildling raids have made it more and more likely that the King’s general will need to return to help defend his homeland. The crown’s armies would be much more vulnerable to a rebellion without Ned Stark in the lead.

Rumors come from across the Narrow Sea that Jaime Lannister is the first Westerosi to so impress the Dothraki as to be admitted into their ranks, becoming a blood rider for Khal Drogo. Many wonder what this could mean for the Kingslayer and the designs of Casterly Rock.

For his part, the King becomes increasingly distant, cloistering himself and periodically sending out strange orders, escalating years of odd preparations. His recent obsession has sent numerous agents scouring Essos for dragon eggs.

Governance is left to the Hand of the King, but Jon Connington seems to have come down with a wasting malady. Every day, he fades a little more, and none can determine the source, or what will happen to the stability of the realm should he die and the King remain distracted.

System Review: Next Gen MMOs, Part 1

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So I’ve fallen behind on trying out new tabletop systems lately, but I have been playing the betas for a lot of MMORPGs coming out this year. This includes TERA, Guild Wars 2, and The Secret World. I also played Star Wars: the Old Republic for a while. Finally, I’ve been hearing a small amount of buzz about the systems for upcoming games like The Elder Scrolls Online. And there are some interesting similarities to the systems for these games that may mark them as “next gen” more than just better graphics. So I’d like to talk in general about those mechanics, which games do them the best, and what I think they might mean going forward.

Use of Cutscenes

MMOs have been using cutscenes for a while. Both City of Heroes and Guild Wars 1 have had them for over half a decade, and I’m sure a bunch of other games from the same era also have them by now. They’re particularly common in major storyline missions, where the value proposition of custom scripting to maximum number of eyeballs pays off.

But what I’ve begun to see in newer games is the use of cutscenes not just as something interesting in a major mission, but as a replacement for the quest text when you get that mission in the first place. SW:TOR is obviously the champion of this right now, with virtually every mission started and ended with a voiced conversation. Secret World has voiced cutscenes for its major story missions, but relies on text for secondary ones. GW2 voices all personal story quests, and has done away with mission text in general for most other purposes (because it’s done away with the standard concept of missions, which I’ll probably talk about later in the series).

The utility of this is very simple: most players don’t like to read. If you actually want to tell a story to your players, you’re going to go way further with a voiced scene that has interesting action and camera movement, than just presenting them with a dense paragraph in a dialog box. The effect was so powerful in SW:TOR that it went a long way to making me excited to play even though most of their other mechanics were similar to ones in World of Warcraft that I was long burned out on.

However, the downside of it is that it’s very expensive to do, and hard to do well. Voice actors are expensive, sound editing is labor intensive, and voice files make your game download huge. Even if you can handle all of that, the process could create problems for the designers down the road. What if you realize that you made a mistake and need to change dialogue? What if you want to add new content post-launch involving a character that was originally voiced by someone no longer available? What if your players don’t like the voice actor you’ve hired to play their characters?

SW:TOR handles this the best, with lots of fully voiced choices and plenty of (class-based) vocal selection for your PC, but rumor indicates that they spent a ton of money on it. The Secret World seems to have decided to punt on the player voice mismatch question and just not voice the PC at all in these cutscenes: your PC just stands there mute staring dumbly at the NPC’s soliloquy. GW2 is walking a middle road: they’ve based player voice on race and not given nearly as many choices mid-dialogue as Star Wars, but provided enough variety to keep the player engaged.

Ultimately, I keep waiting for someone to come up with a reasonable text-to-voice synthesizer that will work in MMOs. Voice acting, even more than quality 3D engine and art, is becoming the key differentiator between AAA MMOs and the rest of the breed. And it’s a huge, expensive gamble that makes it harder to enter the space.

Part 2

Fate: Fading Suns, Misc Rules

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The following are miscellaneous adjustments to/replacements for standard Fate rules to fit the setting, the online medium, and just to try a few things out with the social and stress systems. This is meant to support the previous posts on skills and character creation.

Stress

Character Stress tracks are done in the old pyramid-style from Fate 2: characters have more boxes for lower-Stress hits than for higher ones. Effectively, characters can take a few minimal-Stress hits before they start rolling up to serious damage, and taking Consequences to reduce Stress is more likely to find a spare box at lower levels to check off.

A standard character’s Stress track looks like:

  1. OOO
  2. OO
  3. O
  4. Taken Out

If a character has a bigger Stress track (such as from the Grimson mutation), one box is added on each level:

  1. OOOO
  2. OOO
  3. OO
  4. O
  5. Taken Out

Obviously, increasing someone’s track makes them much harder to take out, so it should be reserved for benefits on the same order of “I am a seven-foot-tall mutant designed only for war.”

Otherwise, Stress works basically normally (i.e., it resets at the end of a scene, but Consequences persist). A special modification is that most intrigue-based social situations should immediately advance the “scene” as soon as a target is Taken Out. This is explained in more detail below, but often being Taken Out by a social attack starts out with minimal consequences but serves as a method to start on a bigger social attack soon after. Effectively, an attacking social character should never get a benefit from taking a target out and then immediately get to use that benefit to attack an already damaged social Stress track.

Physical Conflict

Other than the difference in Stress tracks and skills, combat works about the same as in Dresden Files. To wit:

  1. On your action, compare the result of an attack skill to the target’s defense skill.
  2. If the result was equal or greater, add your weapon bonus to the shifts of success to generate a Stress number.
  3. Reduce that Stress by the target’s armor bonus.
  4. Whatever number is left, check off that box on the target’s Stress track (rolling up if all boxes on that level are checked).

Weapons

Weapons have standard damage ratings. However, scene aspects might be tagged for attacks with appropriate weapons (e.g., tagging a “Confined” aspect for a bonus when attacking with a knife).

  • 0: Unarmed or using an unwieldy improvised weapon
  • 1: Knife, Club, Light Bow, Slug Pistol
  • 2: Sword, Mace, Axe, Heavy Bow, Slug Rifle/Shotgun, Energy Pistol
  • 3: Two Handed Melee Weapon, Energy Melee Weapon, Energy Rifle/Shotgun

Armor

  • -1: Unarmored (Light clothing or less): target actually takes +1 Stress on successful physical attack
  • 0: Synthsilk, Spacesuit, or Heavy Clothing
  • 1: Stiffsynth, Half-plate, or Scale
  • 2: Chain, Full Plate
  • 3: Ceramsteel (full suit)

Energy Shields

Energy shields cannot typically be worn with armor heavier than 0. They work similarly to armor. Melee attacks and energy/fire attacks can only be reduce to 1 Stress, not to 0, by an energy shield. Most shields can only trigger a limited number of times before running out of power.

  • 2: Standard; 10 hits
  • 3: Dueling; 15 hits
  • 4: Assault; 20 hits, can be worn with Armor 1 (applied after Stress is reduced by the shield)
  • 5: Battle; 30 hits, can be worn with any armor

Note that assault and battle shields effectively require either overwhelming force or the attacker to rely on maneuvers. Against a full-out frontal assault, heavily shielded troops are functionally invulnerable until the power runs out.

Social Conflict

These are heavily borrowed from the Song of Ice and Fire RPG.

All social actions can include a bonus or penalty based on the target’s friendliness/disposition:

  • -4: The target despises you
  • -2: The target doesn’t like you and would rather work against you
  • 0: The target has no particular opinion about you
  • +2: The target likes and trusts you
  • +4: The target loves you and places your needs above his or her own

This effect is flipped if you’re trying to Provoke the target to try to harm you or Convince the target of something horrible about yourself.

Many players may balk at losing a social conflict and having to believe something or take certain action. The GM may wish to deliver these as Compels, allowing the player to either pay Wyrd to avoid the action or get bonus Wyrd for playing along.

Bargain

Bargain is used to establish an exchange of goods or services. It is mostly a straight contest between both parties’ Bargain skills plus modifiers. However, other social skills might be used before bargaining (e.g., Entertain to make the opponent friendlier or Convince to inflate the value of an item for trade).

In addition to the disposition effect, modify your Bargain total by the following chart:

  • -4: Your offering not only has no value to the target, accepting it would cause some kind of harm
  • -2: Your offering has no value to the target
  • 0: Your offering is valuable, but not overwhelmingly so
  • +2: Your offering is something that would significantly help the target/something he or she really wants
  • +4: Your offering is something that the target would literally risk death or worse to obtain

Compare each side’s Bargain total. If they are unequal, the higher side can reduce what is being offered or the lower side must figure out a way to increase the value of what is offered.

If the conversation is a simple monetary exchange, don’t use the chart above. Instead, modify Bargain by Disposition and then compare the buyer’s total to the seller’s:

  • -4: Pay double what the item is worth
  • -2: Pay half again what the item is worth
  • 0: Pay what the item is worth
  • +2: Pay 2/3 what the item is worth
  • +4: Pay 1/3 what the item is worth

In any kind of Bargain contest, either side can choose to walk away from the deal: the ratio of Bargain scores merely indicates the best deal you’re going to get if you do trade.

Entertain

(Note: On consideration of the system and similarities to Provoke, I replaced Seduce with this skill here and on the skills post.)

Entertain is used to make friends prior to influencing people. It represents being witty, fun, and engaging, and also figuring out how best to loosen up the target.

You can use a simple check of Entertain to keep a target from leaving a social situation (so you have more time to make other social attacks). Make an Entertain check (modified by Disposition) against the target’s Empathy. The target may receive a bonus of up to +4 for legitimate reasons to leave the social situation (e.g., +2 for being tired and wanting to sleep, +4 for needing to make it to an appointment). If you succeed, the target must stay for at least one more exchange of social conflict.

If you take out the target with Entertain attacks, you gain a +2 bonus on social attacks for the next scene (as if his or her disposition had gone up one step). If you don’t immediately trick the target and otherwise maintain the new friendship, this disposition increase may become permanent. Entertain attacks can target either Empathy or Poise, depending on whether you’re trying to work up to manipulating the target (Empathy) or genuinely trying to make friends (Poise).

Convince

Convince is used to establish beliefs. A simple check is used to convince the target that you believe something. A social combat is used to make the target believe it. This can be used for lying to the target, establishing things that are actually true, or intimidating the target by presenting a lie or truth that scares the target.

All Convince rolls take modifiers based on the following:

  • -4: The target is holding inarguable proof that what you say is false (possibly a really good forgery if what you’re saying is actually true)
  • -2: The target has a firmly held belief or previous evidence that what you say is false
  • 0: The target has no firm evidence about what you’re saying, but is disinclined to believe it automatically
  • +2: The target would really like to believe you
  • +4: The target secretly already believes what you’re saying

If you’re lying, your rolls are opposed by the target’s Empathy. If you’re telling the truth, they’re against a base number of 0 (still modified by the target’s beliefs and disposition).

Provoke

Provoke is used to get the target to take action rather than sitting idle. You can generally only Provoke the target to do something that he or she (perhaps secretly) wants to do anyway. Thus, if your target isn’t already primed, it’s often prudent to only Provoke after you’ve successfully Convinced. If the target does not want to take the action you’re trying to Provoke, you cannot make a roll (and attempting to do so may lower the target’s disposition).

All Provoke rolls are a social conflict, with “Taken Out” indicating the target taking the action you specify. However, they might be “one shot” attacks if the target is already primed and ready to go (e.g., the +4 bonus to get your enemies to attack you means that you’ll have a good chance of taking them out for this purpose on the first roll). They are made against the target’s Poise (and the target can use Empathy, if higher, if he or she suspects you’re trying to be manipulative).

Provoke rolls generally take modifiers based on the following:

  • -4: The target believes taking that action would result in death or worse
  • -2: The target would get in serious trouble by acting
  • 0: The target would face consequences, but not major ones, by acting
  • +2: The target has no reason not to act other than inertia
  • +4: The target secretly was already planning the action and just needs a nudge

Provoke rolls are also a great place to use compels (if you can get the target “Drunk” or “Impassioned” before an attack, it makes it way easier to get past the danger).

Intrigue Examples

Baroness Erica Decados is trying to set up a perfect patsy. She uses Bargain to arrange for a small contingent of Brother Battle church knights as security for one of her enterprises. While they’re unable to abandon their posts, she spends a great deal of time working to Entertain them and overcome their native distrust of her house. Meanwhile, she uses Empathy to try to figure out which holds beliefs most helpful to her cause. These she keeps in contact with after the posting, maintaining her new relationship. During this time, she gradually uses Convince to drop facts about various individuals she suspects of perfidy within her house. Once they believe her, she uses Provoke to convince them to deal with the problem. Weeks later, when her rivals are removed by the Inquisition backed by church knights, there is very little to tie her to the deed.

Jonin Skorpios Ben-Hadir of the Scravers is trying to get some leverage within the Byzantium Secondus nobility. He manages a meeting with one of the secondary sons of a Hawkwood functionary, and uses Convince to get him to believe that they should continue the conversation over drinks, and that it will be purely business. He makes use of Entertain to keep the noble around for longer than he would otherwise plan to, Empathy to get a sense of what he’s interested in, and Provoke to convince him to drink more than he’d planned (maneuvers to place Aspects to be tagged later). At the end of the night, the final Provoke challenge with tagged Aspects places the noble with some Scraver-owned courtesans with sufficient recording equipment for later blackmail. Future Bargain challenges will be a lot easier for the Scravers…

System Review: D&D 5e Playtest Impressions, Conclusion

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I was really excited about 4e before it came out. I’d been running variations of 3e for most of a decade, and was keenly aware of the flaws in the system. Games were time consuming to prep and, at mid to high level, to run. I was eagerly following all the Legends and Lore articles in the lead up and started incorporating mechanics into my 3e game in preparation for switching when the time came. But somehow, when it came out, it wasn’t what I had hoped. Increased speed in prep-time came by sacrificing a ton of simulationism. Playing the game eventually felt very samey: powers became, for me, an MMO-style optimal attack sequence that I’d use in nearly every situation. Most damning, GMing at mid to high levels, I didn’t actually seem to save any time during combats, and the preponderance of interrupts and weird specials made enemies annoying to track.

I’d been getting the Pathfinder modules for a while, and switched to that. Running primarily from modules helps a lot with 3e’s prep time issues. Combats still take a while, but, after over a decade, we can often run completely book free except when unusual spells happen, and that does make things faster. It’s like living in a run down house with an inconvenient floorplan: after you’ve lived in it long enough, it turns out with a little renovation you’re able to live there comfortably, and kinda prefer it to moving into a new house that you worry has hidden flaws.

All that’s to say: the D&D I’m playing still has a lot of the flaws it had before 4e, but I’m just not nearly as excited about 5e. It looks fine, it’s doing some neat things, and it’s trying to fix some major issues of mine. I’m just skeptical: 4e looked cool too, until I played it for a while and realized it was the wrong fit. I’m interested to see more stuff, but I’m not sold yet.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the whole process is just the ever-escalating brand cycle of D&D. Other supplement-heavy RPGs have received revised editions more frequently, but generally not to the same scale. For example, if I want to run Mage: the Ascension’s 3rd edition, I can still find useful resources in 1st edition supplements that are fully compatible with the rules or demand only minimal changes. But it seems impossible to update D&D without completely invalidating the utility of previous resources. Even Pathfinder, with the core goal of compatibility with 3.5 (so it can still be used to run the first several module series), made enough changes to things like combat maneuvers and available powers that it’s often worthwhile to do the work and update stat blocks in the modules. Maybe it’s how thoroughly integral and fiddly the math is throughout the system?

There seems to be buzz that the design goal of 5e is to end this cycle: one simple core of rules with systems to easily and modularly enact house rules. I think it would be awesome if that proves true, but it seems naive to rely on it. Most, if not all, of the systems that were able to create a continuity of rules through editions were games owned by a consistent creative team. You might disagree with their vision, but you would have a hard time denying that it was theirs. D&D is (has been for a long time) bereft of a core vision that’s guided it through editions. Its only consistent creative team is effectively “everyone that has ever played.” And it’s hard to get a consistent vision when you’re trying to get so many people to verbalize what they think they want, much less be right about it.

So if 5e is extremely lucky, it will be the D&D edition to end D&D editions. More likely, it will appeal to some fraction of the players, and everyone else will keep on playing whatever of all the many past editions they’re happiest with.

It’s doing some really cool things. It’s just hard to get excited.

Fate: Fading Suns, Chargen

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Character creation is divided into the same areas as typical Fate: Aspects, Skills, and Stunts/Powers.

Like in Dresden Files, a character’s Refresh rating is used as a basis for purchasing traits (this is described more fully below). Fate Points are referred to as Wyrd, per the original setting. This energy is poorly understood and hard to quantify, but does exist in-setting rather than just as a story currency: it represents a certain power of the spirit that can fuel supernatural effects and, for those that don’t have them, be used unconsciously to bend reality to one’s ends. When several points of Wyrd are spent in the same scene, it invokes the Destiny Effect: something about this scene becomes extremely important, or at least symbolic, for the rest of the characters’ careers and possibly to the fate of the universe.

Aspects

Player characters have five Aspects divided into different categories: role, destiny, failure, and blessings.

Each character has one Role Aspect. This is similar to Dresden Files‘ High Concept. It is a slightly flavored rendition of the character’s house, sect, guild, etc. Examples include “Hazat Knight,” “Reeve Lawyer,” and “Avestite Inquisitor.” It is not meant to be invoked for anything related to the concept, however, but speaks specifically to actions revolving around the character’s role in society. For example, the Hazat Knight might invoke to get preferential treatment in the courts, intimidate lessers, or any other situation where being a noble would create a clear and inarguable distinction over another character, but shouldn’t be used just to get a bonus on a swordfight. Similarly, the Aspect might be compelled when the character is out of her element, such as when attempting to hide among the lower classes. Ultimately, this Aspect is intended to highlight the politics of the setting rather than being an easy invoke in a pinch.

Next, each character has a Destiny Aspect. This is a short statement about where the character’s personal story is heading, at least in her own conception. This Aspect might change fairly frequently as the story progresses and forces a reconsideration of ambitions and priorities. Examples include “A piece for my house’s game,” “Demanding answers from the Pancreator,” and “Proof that only sinners need fear the Inquisition.” It can be invoked in any situation that is clearly making progress toward the destiny, or as a defense in life and destiny-threatening situations. It can be compelled to encourage the player to take a foolhardy action in pursuit of this goal.

To complement the destiny, each character also has a Failure Aspect. This is the character’s biggest flaw: the thing most likely to complicate pursuit of the destiny, and possibly life in general. Like Destiny, it might change throughout the course of the game (often at the same time). Examples include “Desperate for personal agency,” “Terrible health,” and “Too free with scriptural interpretation.” It isn’t usually invoked except in rare situations where it can be worked into a strange flaw-Judo. It is meant to be frequently compelled, and a major source of Wyrd for the character.

Finally, each player character gets two additional Aspects that work more like those in standard Fate: they’re meant to be invoked in a fairly broad range of useful situations, but might also be compelled when it makes sense. Note that this implementation doesn’t have any way to get unusual wealth, equipment, or rank without making an Aspect that’s relevant. Otherwise, all PCs are expected to have the rank and accoutrements appropriate to the story. Similarly, any unusual abilities should be based off of an appropriate Aspect: you can’t take Psi, Theurgy, or Changed features without one. Finally, cybernetics is basically just an Aspect (unless your GM wants to make a more granular system). Suggested basic Aspects are based off of Fading Suns Blessings and Benefices and include:

  • Artificer
  • Changed
  • Confident/Valiant
  • Cyborg
  • Duelist
  • Handsome/Beautiful
  • Heir/Groomed for Promotion
  • Psychic
  • Relic/Artifact
  • Soldier
  • Theurge
  • Tough/Indomitable
  • Quick/Instinctive
  • Wealthy
  • Wise/Savant

Skills

Each player character picks a class and career, and starts each of those ten skills at +1.

Each character starts with 12 Refresh. This Refresh can then be spent to buy pursuits (it will also be used for Stunts/Powers and as actual Refresh). The limitations on buying pursuits are:

  • The character should generally be at least [Pursuits x 5 + 10] years old. For example, a character with 2 pursuits should be at least 20.
  • A character cannot raise the same skill twice in a row, even from two different pursuits.
  • A character cannot buy the same pursuit (i.e., the same group of three skills, by whatever name) within two purchases (e.g., a player could alternate three pursuits with all different skills but not two).

The first rule allows players to make an older, skilled character whose spirit has dimmed, or a younger character with a lot of potential. The second and third rules keep characters from becoming too specialized.

As an example, a player might make a 32 year old character with 4 pursuits purchased:

  • Diplomat
  • Fighter (at this point, the player can’t take any pursuit with one of the same skills as Diplomat)
  • Traveler (at this point, the player can’t take any pursuit with one of the same skills as Fighter, and can’t take Diplomat again yet)
  • Diplomat

If the character was originally a Noble Duelist, she would now have Acting +2, Bargain +2, Block +2, Convince +2, Dodge +1, Empathy +2, EVA +1, Fight +2, History +1, Intrigue +1, Linguistics +1, Poise +1, Provoke +1, Vigor +2, Warfare +1.

Stunts/Powers

The player can spend remaining Refresh, to a minimum of 1, to buy Stunts and Powers. There are no limits on age for these. For Powers, the player must have an Aspect that references the ability. Suggestions for Stunts and Powers include:

  • Melee
    • Riposte: Spin on Block gives +2 on followup Fight attacks instead of +1
    • Counter Parry: When using Fight, opponent’s Block is limited by Fight
    • Compound Attack: Can use shifts on successful Fight attack as bonus on next round’s attack (instead of dealing damage)
    • Feint: Opponent must defend against Fight attacks with lower of Dodge or Block
    • Florentine: Treat Block as +1 when using an offhand weapon
    • Pierce: Spend 1 Wyrd to treat opponent’s armor as 0 on successful hit
  • Martial Arts
    • Confuse Foe: Can make a Provoke attack against target’s Empathy; shifts on success are bonus on next round’s Fight attack
    • Rooting: Treat Block as +1 when you have not changed position for at least one round
    • Tornado Kick: Spend 1 Wyrd to make a Fight attack against multiple opponents within reach (compare one result vs. individual Block scores)
    • Iron Body: Can use spin on Block as damage dealt to unarmed attacker
    • Leaping Kick: Can roll Vigor instead of Fight for unarmed attack after a run up
    • Martial Hold: Can use Fight instead of Vigor to grapple
  • Psi
    • Far Hand: Use lesser of Psi and Provoke to move things at range; 1 Wyrd for major actions
    • Omen: Use lesser of Psi and Empathy to get visions of past or future; 1 Wyrd for major prophecies or postcognition
    • Psyche: Use lesser of Psi and Empathy to read minds; 1 Wyrd to attempt to insert thoughts or mind control
    • Sixth Sense: Use lesser of Psi and Empathy to read aura, see in the dark, etc.; 1 Wyrd for long-range clairvoyance
    • Soma: Use lesser of Psi and Vigor to provide minor physical bonuses; 1 Wyrd to heal self or shapeshift
    • Vis Craft: Use lesser of Psi and Provoke to sense or attack with electricity; 1 Wyrd for major actions
  • Theurgy
    • Blessing: Use lesser of Theurgy and Empathy to provide minor bonuses to skills; 1 Wyrd for long-term or several people
    • Healing: Use lesser of Theurgy and Physick to perform miraculous healing; 1 Wyrd for wounds beyond mundane healing
    • Censure: Use lesser of Theurgy and Convince to enact a geas on a subject; 1 Wyrd for long-term or extremely binding
    • Protection: Use lesser of Theurgy and Vigor to erect miraculous defenses; 1 Wyrd to ward large area or several people
    • Consecration: Use lesser of Theurgy and Convince to prepare/cleanse a space or object; 1 Wyrd for large areas or deep corruption
    • Revelation: Use lesser of Theurgy and Research to find details of target; 1 Wyrd for deep scans
  • Changed
    • Flyer: You have wings and can glide; if they are too obvious to hide, you can fly
    • Infiltrator: You release pheromones that give you a +2 to all Social skills against targets that can smell you
    • Metonym: You can adjust your muscles and tissues to alter your physical appearance within the scope of you weight and height
    • Survivor: You are virtually immune to diseases and poisons, can digest most organic compounds, and can hold your breath for an extremely long time
    • Attacker: You are always considered armed with a +1 damage weapon; if these weapons are too obvious to hide, you treat them as +3
    • Sneak: You have enhanced senses (can see in the dark, smell like a dog, etc.) and can adjust your skin color like a chameleon
    • Grimson: You are inhumanly large and have a higher wound threshold than most humans and +1 to contests where size would give you an advantage

System Review: D&D 5e Playtest Impressions, Part 2

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Four Character Elements

Based on the pregen characters, which represent the majority of the information about how character creation and advancement works, there are four major choices made at character creation: race, class, theme, and background.

All of these things seem to have, at least within the three-level preview shown, a pretty similar method of operation: they provide a bunch of elements at character creation, and then might give a modular ability at higher levels. Unlike 3e, there don’t seem to be a ton of scaling or conditional bonuses to keep track of as you level. Instead, characters so far seem to be getting one-off abilities that provide new options. These options might have synergy with your previous options, but they don’t require them or alter them.

I’m tentatively very happy about this. I currently maintain electronic copies of all my players’ sheets for Pathfinder without the use of a calculator program like PCGen. At mid to high levels, having to remember to check the numbers on special abilities and feats every time a PC levels to see what rate the bonus improves at is a chore. Further, while there’s no evidence that multiclassing has been considered in the playtest rules, it seems like it might be pretty straightforward to allow with modular abilities.

On to the elements themselves, the first choice is, as usual, race (though you might back-select it based on what class you want). There aren’t a lot of surprises here, other than the whole ethos of even more explicitly treating racial abilities as small, modular bonuses. Some of the races seem clearly meant for certain classes, but this isn’t exactly unusual in the history of the game. And given the compression of combat and skill bonuses, it might actually be possible to create some unexpected synchronicity (e.g., a halfling stealth-based fighter may be suboptimal, but interesting). One thing that there’s not evidence of is any additional racial abilities past first level. Again, this isn’t exactly a surprise, but it was an idea that 4e promised but didn’t deliver on in core that seems like it might be easier to do here.

Classes do seem to present a few scaling bonuses (such as the rogue’s sneak attack increasing each level), but they’re simple enough that they seem like they’ll be easy to keep track of. In addition to these bonuses, it seems like class periodically just has you choose from a short list of options for a new ability (rather like 4e or monk and ranger feats in 3e). For example, at 2nd level a cleric chooses a new Channel Divinity option. So far, these options seem like a hybrid of 3e and 4e in that some are reusable limited effects while others are more powerful with an arbitrary cap on uses per day. It remains to be seen whether they’ll feel too disassociated to some, but their modularity means they should be easier to tune (rather than uses per encounter and per day being built into the core of the system).

Themes are a new character creation mechanic. They’re effectively subclasses like kits from 2e: is your fighter a slayer or a guardian? The interesting thing about them is that they don’t seem to be hard-locked to class: they’re probably best for a small range of classes, but the language of the ones on offer seems to indicate you can apply them to any character. For example, the Healer theme possessed by the cleric is mostly based around making and improving potions, with an eventual addition of a buff to healing spells. It’s obviously best for a cleric or other character with cures, but you could retain most of the benefits of it on any character. This is a neat feature that will, of course, be swept away in general use by optimization almost immediately, but I expect to have some fun with less powerful but more versatile characters at my own table.

Finally, backgrounds are a new mechanic that allows you to personalize your character’s origin and give him or her a few tricks that make sense for this history. Mostly, this involves giving a few skill bonuses that might not be available to your class (so it helps a lot to give classes like Fighter something interesting to do outside of combat). It also tends to include a limited special ability related to the theme (e.g., commoners can craft, knights get accommodations from the local nobles, etc.). Like race, based on the limited information available, a background doesn’t seem to improve after first level. Hopefully something like that does happen or, more interestingly, more backgrounds can be picked up later (possibly even independent of levels; it would be cool to be able to give players a new background as a quest reward related to new status in the world). Unfortunately, like theme, even the small list of backgrounds includes some with more utility than flavor (like soldier for the fighter), so I expect optimization to quickly disregard some of the more fun but less generally useful ones. Hopefully I’m wrong, and they’re able to come up with a lot of backgrounds with both flavor and utility.

Overall, I’m liking what I’m seeing from character creation and advancement so far.

Conclusion

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