Fantasy Combat Energy Types

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Rob Donoghue had a cool post last week about using different classes of mana to power 4e-style powers. The idea is that your more powerful (“encounter” and “daily”) powers cost mana that’s generated by using your less powerful (“at will”) abilities. In addition to nicely solving the problem with alpha strikes, or just people using up their cool powers and getting bored when they get down to at wills, it also removes a bit of the metaness of such powers. That is, instead of something arbitrarily usable only once per day or per combat, it’s at least now something that has an in-story rationale (even if that rationale is a mostly gamist mana pool).

I haven’t played much Magic, but I’ve been playing a lot of Guild Wars 2 and some Warhammer Fantasy lately. Thus, the following energy categories leaped almost fully formed into my brain.

Fury/Rage/Adrenaline

The purview mostly of heavily armed and armored warriors, this energy is powered by battle lust and adrenaline. It is used for abilities that allow the user to hit harder and shrug off pain.

One point is generated whenever the character is hit by an attack (even if the damage is reduced to nothing). At-will abilities that generate this energy include Power Attack (trading attack for damage) and Wild Blow (trading defense for damage).

Momentum/Initiative

Meanwhile, lightly armored physical characters tend to rely on the “energy” of motion and staying ahead of the opponent. It is used for abilities that allow the user to hit more easily, maneuver the opponent, stay out of harm’s way, and act sooner in the turn order.

One point is generated whenever the character is missed by an attack (or saves against a spell). At-will abilities that generate this energy include Careful Strike (trading damage for attack) and Combat Expertise (trading attack for defense).

Blood

The province of dark mages, this energy is drawn from the power in blood itself. The types of effects it powers vary based on how evil blood magic is within a given setting, but it is a natural fit for vampiric effects.

One point is generated whenever the character takes slashing damage (possibly of a minimum amount based on level), either dealt by an opponent or self-inflicted. At-will abilities that generate this energy tend to require a bladed melee weapon and cut an opponent to bleed freely.

Life Force

Both forces for good and forces for evil can find great power in the energy of the soul itself. It can power effects that control, heal, or blast with the very force of consciousness.

One point is generated whenever the character willingly expends life energy (in the form of a minimum number of HP). At-will abilities that generate this energy are either psychic drains (for unsavory users) or less effective attacks that nonetheless allow the (more savory) attacker to fan the flames of his or her own soul.

Grace

Harder to come by than life force, the direct energy of a deity is useful to all manner of priests. It can be used to replace any other type of energy in any ability taught by the character’s church.

One point is generated by fulfilling one of the character’s ethos requirements (i.e., a list of deity-specific actions that grant Grace). There are no at-will abilities that grant this energy, but certain abilities powered by other energy types may grant Grace on an exceptional/critical success.

Elemental

Mages and some priests have the ability to absorb and channel the very power of the elements. This energy fuels extremely large and explosive magics.

One point is generated whenever the character takes elemental damage. At-will abilities that generate the energy are cantrips with limited effect and targets.

Note: Some settings may track each elemental type separately, with some in opposition. For example, unleashing an at-will Cold attack may create heat energy that the character can use to launch a Fire attack.

Arcane

The rarest of energy types, arcane power is the pure, unspecialized energy of the cosmos. This energy can replace any other type in a mage’s abilities, and can also be used to enchant items.

It is only generated by willingly destroying a magic item or having access to a rare, naturally occurring source of power.

Willpower/Chi

Certain martial artists and psions can deliberately expend their own personal mental energy. This energy can be used for a wide variety of physical and psychic effects.

It is generated by meditation. Unlike other forms of energy, a character will often start a battle with several points of it, but be unable to generate more easily during the fight.

Other Notes

I envision this as generally following a couple of simple rules. If you have more of any energy type than your level, you lose a point of each overfull type per round. If you have less than or equal to your level, you lose a point per minute (and generally won’t have to start counting until out of combat). So a fifth level character with 7 Fury and 6 Momentum loses one point of each on the next round and one point of Fury the round after.

Too many types of energy could be prohibitive to keep track of, particularly for the GM. Most characters will only have abilities that use and generate a couple of types, so can disregard the others. For example, a wizard hit by an attack is technically owed a point of Fury, but if he doesn’t have any relevant abilities, he doesn’t need to track it. Meanwhile, NPCs should probably by eyeballed by the GM rather than tracked precisely, unless you’re up for the bookkeeping.

I really like Rob’s suggestion that “utility” spells are just a quicker version of a ritual that you use in combat. The energy types above would probably phrase the long-term casting of such a power differently for different sources. That is, a Fury, Momentum, Elemental, Willpower, or Grace ritual may simply have a level requirement with the assumption that the character can typically generate the requisite energy easily in non-combat rounds and only the size of the personal “battery” is important. Meanwhile, a Blood, Life Force, or Arcane ritual might have very specific energy costs, as those energy types tend to require a sacrifice in items, personal health… or the blood or energy of others.

Serial Numbers Filed Off: Firegivers

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ASoIaF RPG: Dangerous Archaeology

I’ll tell you one thing about the war of however many kings there are this week: it’s the perfect setting for a lot of off-the-books excavation. Most of the time, the lords take a dim view of strangers wandering around old ruins that happen to be on their land with a bunch of sturdy men with shovels. These days, Winter is Coming if you believe the Starks. Hard not to, with what we’ve seen. The lords have bigger problems, and the brigands tend to go after easier prey. A band just big enough to be dangerous but just small enough to hide can wander far unmolested.

In the past few months we’ve made half a dozen digs. We’ll show those jerks at the Citadel that wouldn’t let us finish our chains who was right after all. All of this is pointing to a bigger picture than those hidebound relics would ever believe. The seasons. The red star. The children of the forest. All of it will be explained once we breach the secret tomb of the First Men. What secrets we’ll learn about our history!

What we weren’t expecting to find was a sheet of ice blocking the entrance. Sure, it’s far enough underground that it could conceivably stay solid even in Summer, but it seems worked. One of our Northmen said it looked a lot like the Wall before he swore us off and left. Superstitious tree-worshipper. He won’t have his name added to the books they’ll write about our discoveries.

Tomorrow we take our small band and we cut through the barrier. Tomorrow, we’ll be the first for thousands of years to see the original works of our ancestors. Tomorrow, we’ll learn so much…

An Ultimate Supers RPG

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And by “Ultimate” I mean in the style of Marvel’s Ultimate line of comics and other comics reimaginings. I’m a huge fan of these, as they allow modern authors to syncretize the coolest elements of years of continuity and use them essentially as a mythology for making new stories. It also allows them to create more elegant causes for elements that were previously one-offs; for example, in the Ultimate Spider-Man series, most of the previously unrelated villains now tend to get their powers from a small stable of locations (based on whether they’re tech or biologically powered). They’re effectively taking a huge setting down to individual building blocks and making a new structure.

In an RPG, this is an awesome way to have a lot of starting player investment in the setting while still leaving the GM room to innovate and create surprises. And you could very easily create your own rebooted RPG continuity for any of the many existing supers universes. But what if you want that player buy-in but don’t want to have any reliance on commercial settings?

The idea is pretty simple:

  1. Get Microscope.
  2. Get your group together.
  3. Play several sessions of Microscope to establish a comics history.
  4. Have one of the players become the GM.
  5. Let the GM break the history down and make a “reboot” of that setting.
  6. Set up the PCs as “rebooted” versions of each player’s favorite hero from the history.
  7. Play as a standard Supers game in your system of choice.

Theoretically, the Microscope history can be based on a completely in-setting time scale, or treat it as the history of publication. That is, your timeline might run from “Superpowers discovered” to “Event causes alternate timeline” or “First comic published by new publisher” to “Line rebooted due to editorial decision.” An in-setting timeline probably has more internal sense, but could result in characters aging and dying. A publication timeline allows you to do all the crazy things with compressed time and retcons that will really make your setting feel like a comics history.

By the end of it, you should have a bunch of player investment in various aspects of the setting such that when it comes up in the reboot, they’ll be impressed by the reimagining and have useful expectations about how to interact with the element.

System Review: Next Gen MMOs, Conclusion

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The next crop of AAA MMOs are largely ones that started development before the recession and before World of Warcraft finally started to lose subscribers, but weren’t far enough along to be totally locked into their designs. The advances in game systems probably have a lot to do with the fact that “just copy WoW” has been proven to not be a great way to make back your multi-million-dollar investment. For the first time in a decade, it’s no longer necessarily the safe bet to keep your designers from innovating too much.

But it’s also the first time in a decade that investing in MMOs seems like a huge risk. When Everquest had a few hundred thousand subscribers, it was tremendously successful. But then WoW got into the millions and that set expectations accordingly. We’re now in a realm where AAA games cost so much to make that games with hundreds of thousands of players paying their $15 a month are considered flops, and will soon find themselves converted to a freemium model to try to get more than $15 out of the hardcore and draw in a bigger audience willing to kick in a couple bucks here and there. Star Wars: the Old Republic had quite likely the highest-population MMO launch ever and it wasn’t nearly enough to actually count as a success, given the costs of production.

And even if your investors take the long view that a decent launch will pay back the game eventually, that doesn’t account for so many games hemorrhaging subscribers after the first couple of months. These days, there’s too much competition, and you can’t lock in your players for years the way WoW and prior successful games did. Players buy your game, play it for a while, and then move on to the next thing. The next thing might not even be an MMO: it’s possible part of SW:tOR’s problem was just its own sister game, Mass Effect 3, coming out shortly after launch and dragging people out of the MMO long enough to lose inertia. That’s certainly what happened to me.

While it’s been predicted before many times by smarter industry analysts than me, what I’m saying is that this next generation of MMOs may be the last generation of them in the sense we’ve come to expect: an immersive 3D action/adventure/RPG with a ton of content. Creating something that can even compete on that front costs millions and millions of dollars that it might never make back, and the smart money these days is in Web and mobile games. Investors are scared, fans are burned out, and developers are shell shocked from the frequent layoffs.

I’m really hoping that there’s enough innovation in this generation to get players excited again. Because if there’s not a big hit that keeps its audience long enough to make its investors happy, the next generation after this one is going to have a nigh-impossible time getting funding. I think there’s still a lot of cool things MMOs could do that other genres can’t, particularly now that they’re finally out of the decade long shadow of trying to emulate EQ and WoW. I’ll be very sad if we never get to see them.

The Raid: Pre-Chosen Stunts

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One of the interesting things about The Raid: Redemption is its cavalier attitude toward weapons. Our hero does a half dozen cool things with his tonfa, is disarmed, than then totally refuses to pick it back up again when he has plenty of time after the fight. Obviously, he’s done all the cool things there are to do with it, and it’s done. That got me thinking about traditional stunt systems, which are all about trying to describe doing something cool with your attacks in the moment. In my experience, this is neat at first, but inevitably leads to repeats as the session goes on, because most players are going to want to stick with their best attack. What if it was flipped, The Raid-style?

In this system, each weapon, scene, and fighting style can have a short list of stunts associated with it. These are chosen before the session by the GM and/or group collaboration, and focus on being as different as possible.

When anyone, player or NPC, uses the stunt during play, it’s marked off. Others can do that stunt again, but it won’t grant a bonus. The list refreshes each session or at the beginning of a new scenario.

In systems that give a large advantage for specializing in a weapon, the stunt bonus should be attractive enough to tempt the player to try something different that isn’t used up (perhaps giving out a Fate/Hero/Action point instead of a direct bonus on the attack).

The goal is to get the players switching up their action style regularly both to get a bonus and deny that bonus to their enemies.

Examples:

Pistol

  • Pistol-whip to the throat
  • Spin and shoot from behind the back
  • Dive and shoot in midair
  • Shoot following up a melee attack
  • Roll along the ground and shoot from a sitting stance
  • Pistol-whip to the joints

Tonfa

  • Incapacitating strike with the back end
  • Block a barrage of attacks
  • Hook target behind the neck and smash into something solid
  • Hook leg to trip
  • Spin out the long end for a sudden attack
  • Throw across the room

Narrow Corridor

  • Run up one wall and tackle into the other
  • Throw someone to smash through a door
  • Hide in the ceiling and drop attack target
  • Dodge flanking opponents so they attack one another
  • Impale someone on shattered props/environment
  • Fill the hall to keep someone from getting past

System Review: Next Gen MMOs, Part 4

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Very Public Quests

Public quests aren’t really new at this point. Warhammer Online was the first AAA MMO that made a big deal about having them, Champions Online quietly introduced them not long after, and Rift made them a focal point of the game. The concept is pretty simple: anyone who walks into an area where one of these things is happening gets a quest goals pop-up and sees it increase as everyone in the area completes the goals. Instead of one person killing ten rats, you might have twenty people killing 200 rats. Once the quest is completed, you get a reward based on your contribution level, but everyone who tried to help generally gets something.

The running problem with the existing model is long-term scaling. A zone-wide quest that’s fun when there are 200 people in the area due to launch may be unplayable if you’re the only one in the zone six months later. In CO, I almost never saw anyone at some of the more out of the way public quests after the first couple of weeks. Some public quests don’t properly scale down to one player and aren’t really completable unless you have a group.

But what the move to public quests seems to have done is to open the question of the value of private quests.

In most MMOs to date, other players are competition most of the time: every creature they kill and object they interact with is one less available for you. Games have long struggled with whether to have a tagging/locking system (the first person to hit the creature gets credit when it dies) or give all rewards to the last person to damage the creature. Either case can be easily manipulated by players who don’t mind taking from others to get ahead. And either way injects a heap of antisocial sentiment into a game based on multiplayer and community.

Some of the newer games are relaxing this limitation significantly. In The Secret World I was pleased to note that everyone seemed to be getting quest credit when ganging up on quest monsters; it made the beta rush bearable as you could effectively team up without having to formally create a team. And that methodology is extremely core to Guild Wars 2 where there are very few private quests. Instead, events happen in an area and everyone that participates gets rewards (and it’s pretty easy to get the maximum possible reward). Further, everyone that hits an enemy, even for minimal damage, gets full credit for it.

The change in mindset, other than technical developments, primarily comes down to quantifying player effort. Older MMOs have often been somewhat obsessed with what is “fair” in a zero-sum sense. If I did 90% of the damage to a creature and you did 10%, you certainly shouldn’t get the same rewards as me. But while that does seem fair in an absolute sense, it causes all the problems with kill stealing, antisocial multiplayer behavior, and other unnecessary competitiveness.

The contrary view is simply setting up a game where people getting equal rewards for not quite equal contributions don’t cost you anything. Sure, the guy only doing 10% of the damage is benefiting from you, but you’re still getting your rewards 10% faster for his help. And in most cases he’s probably not a parasite out to make you do all the work for him, but just genuinely someone that’s not as good as you but still wants to have fun. Removing the competition will, in most cases, make things more social and fun for everyone.

I do have some worries that GW2 is betting too heavily on what are, still, essentially the same public quests that aren’t as fun once zone populations thin out, but I really like the experiment they’re trying in player behavior. I don’t like pickup groups, but I do like being able to play in a multiplayer game without feeling that other players are the enemy. And, so far, the games where big groups of players can all do stuff in the same without hurting one another’s fun is a definite win. I really hope this mindset survives to influence future MMOs, even if the particulars of public questing don’t pan out.

Conclusion

Troupe Unlimited

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I got the DVDs for the old Justice League Unlimited show recently. The gimmick of the show is that it features every DC hero that anyone on the staff liked as members of the Justice League. Most episodes feature one or two of the main seven League members on a team with up to four more obscure characters. In-universe, the arrangement is based on whether each character’s specialty is applicable to the threat of the week. It’s also set up due to the dramatic potential of the characters playing off one another.

The setup for the show is almost like a troupe-style RPG, except even in a game where each player has multiple characters, the array is usually more stable than the JLU episodes. You could do it in Capes very easily, but I’ve mentioned before my difficulties getting buy in on long-term GMless games. But what I can get buy in on is Smallville-style group character creation and a systematized shared party resource (ala SoIaF houses, Nobilis chancels, etc.). So the following is based on that (with a little inspiration from Microscope).

This is probably best for a very lightweight, fast chargen system like Over the Edge, as you’ll want to be able to create secondary characters quickly. But it’s theoretically playable with anything given enough dedication of time to making these characters.

As a group, the players create a shared resource that represents their team. Elements of the resource include practical things (like financial resources and base upgrades) as well as intangibles (like fame and respect). This resource is meant to improve in play.

Each player makes a primary PC. This character belongs to that player and will always be portrayed by him or her. Each PC has a relationship statement about each other PC; these don’t necessarily need to be numerically rated like in Smallville, but should create the possibility for drama with each other PC. For example, Wonder Woman is “distrustful of Hawkgirl” and “interested in Batman romantically” while Batman is “worried the government is right about the danger of Superman” and “bothered by the Flash’s immaturity.”

Each PC should also have several Aspect-style statements about unresolved background or current character hooks. These are designed to change in play, so should be things the player is interested in resolving or exploring further. Superman has “I don’t believe Luthor has changed” and the Flash has “Why don’t I get any respect around here?”

Finally, each PC should have one or more Truth statements that are the opposite of the background hooks: they never change, but the player is trying to find situations where they’re proven correct. Both Batman and Superman have “Killing is never justified,” for example.

Using a full Smallville-style pathways character creation is recommended but not required.

During play, the group is awarded points toward the shared party resource (and some exp, if you have character improvement) every time a primary PC:

  • Changes a relationship based on the events of a session
  • Resolves, changes, or adds a background/hook based on the events of a session
  • Holds firm to a truth in the face of an NPC or secondary PC’s opposition

And how do you accomplish these things? A game where the players are all trying to advance their personal elements might be interesting in the short term, but could become overly competitive before too long. Thus, most sessions feature secondary PCs that don’t have points-granting agendas. Instead, these characters are deliberately subordinate, dramatically, to the main PCs. If they have character elements in opposition to the main PCs, they are often expected to start a conflict on the subject but then lose.

Each session:

  1. The GM picks a primary PC to be the star of the show. Likely, something about the plot ties into the PC’s backgrounds or truths in a way that isn’t evident yet.
  2. That PC chooses a relationship with another PC. The player of that other PC can choose to play the PC in this session OR a secondary PC that can progress the relationship. For example, if Wonder Woman wants to focus on her (potentially romantic) relationship with Batman, Batman’s player might instead choose to portray a hero she had dated previously.
  3. The remaining players then pick secondary PCs that are practically or thematically relevant to the GM’s mission briefing and/or one of the focal PCs’ character elements. For example, a nano-tech plotline calls practically for The Atom’s expertise, a story about war is thematically perfect for Hawk and Dove, and Green Arrow’s character traits that make him a poor fit with the league often call for characters that are bigger iconoclasts than he is.
  4. Any secondary PCs that didn’t previously have stats have them created now. It’s common for characters that have only appeared briefly to have more depth given to them in subsequent appearances (possibly adjusting previously picked stats to fit). Previously played secondary PCs might be picked up by a different player if no one objects.
  5. The GM runs the game as normal for the system used, with the players looking for opportunities to put the focal PC’s traits into conflict.
  6. At the end of the session, the focal PC is offered the opportunity to change relationships and backgrounds, and/or to provide evidence that a truth was upheld against opposition. Points are awarded accordingly.

Major plot sessions that make it relevant to get together the core group of primary PCs should either proceed similarly (there is one focal PC whose traits drive the awards) or not feature interpersonal drama (with the GM being trusted to call several backgrounds and truths into conflict). One-off sessions may sometimes feature everyone playing a secondary PC to see what some favorites get up to when they don’t have a main protagonist looking over their shoulders.

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