Borrowing from Video Games: Spelunky’s Sadism

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Spelunky is a fun little platformer with an Indiana Jones theme. You travel deeper and deeper into an increasingly bizarre underworld fighting off wildlife and even stranger creatures. It’s a Nintendo-hard type of game; when you die, you start all over again. You have only a few hit points, they’re very hard to recover, and a lot of things in the game can kill you pretty much instantly (or start a series of pratfalls that damage you over and over until it was like dying instantly). That kind of thing seems like it has some lessons to teach about tabletop games that want to have death be a common occurrence.

Strategy vs. Tactics

While you face the levels of Spelunky in a standard thematic order (mines, then underground jungle, then ice caves, etc.), the actual layout of each level is procedurally generated each time. This means that you can’t just learn the sequence (jump here, pause for the bat, drop down, etc.). Instead, you have to learn tactics for individual creatures and keep an eye out for situations that might kill you or which you might turn to your advantage. Spiders are initially very scary: they drop down off the ceiling on you and then proceed to jump in your direction in a way that’s hard to kill with your whip until they’ve already damaged you. But then you realize that you only set them off by walking under them, they take themselves out all the time on floor spikes and dart traps, and their jump is a standard distance that means you can just take a step back and whip them after they land.

Particularly in D&D, which is the game where it’s most common to see a deadly playstyle, much of the old mystery is lost. In the early days, monsters were added with exactly this kind of tactical mastery in mind. A chest can grow arms and teeth and try to get you, that weird rust colored giant bug can destroy your gear, and that floating eye covered in other eyes will turn off your magic and disintegrate you. Over time, we’ve added an increasingly complex palette of monsters, and become increasingly genre savvy about each and every one.

This style of play would advise GMs to go back to the well and completely alter monster design each campaign, only keeping them consistent within a single set of scenarios. The goal is to create monsters that totally blindside players with a bizarre set of tricks, all of which can be countered once players have seen them in action a few times. Even if a character dies to the trick, now the players know how to deal with it the next time.

Nothing Is Inconsequential

Spiders become less scary once you figure out their pattern, but they can still damage you the same if you aren’t paying attention or can’t get out of the way. You’ll be trying to run away from one monster and not looking up at the ceiling, or several will get triggered at once and stagger their jumps so there’s no good time to hit any of them. They never become inconsequential.

A lot of games with a strong power curve (again, D&D in particular) tend to let you “outlevel” certain threats. Your AC, HP, or saves are so high that a particular kind of monster couldn’t even hurt you in its best case ambush. A Spelunky style of game requires either an elimination of the steep defense scaling for PCs, or that the dirty tricks monsters use largely be outside of the traditional defense economy. The weird red goblins pop when they die, knocking adjacent opponents back three squares with no way to avoid it, and suddenly you’re in a room full of red goblins and deep spiked pits.

Quick to Power, Quick to Die

With a lucky combination of treasure and shops, ten minutes into the game you can be flying around on a jetpack, shooting a shotgun, wearing spiked boots, throwing sticky bombs, and using the compass and eye to navigate around and find even more treasure. You’re not going to get much more powerful any further in the game, but it’s not power that makes you immune to falling onto spikes.

Part of the move away from high-lethality tabletop has to do with character attachment. Character creation takes forever, and leveling one up takes tons of playtime. If that character is killed, you’ve wasted who knows how much time getting him to right where he was getting interesting. Telling players that they have to start over again in that situation is a great way to actually tell them, “maybe you should just quit the game, because you’re going to have to slog through a lot of game before you feel like you’re having fun again.”

In this style, you give out levels and treasure quickly, and make sure that character options and gear are largely random. Original D&D had part of this with the 3d6 in order character creation, where every death was a chance to roll again, but it didn’t have fast advancement. If you had randomized chargen, advancement choices reliant on chargen rolls and things that have happened in game, and quick accumulation of loot and experience, you might wind up with players extremely happy to die and get a chance to try out a completely different set of options.

Limited Options

In Spelunky, you can only carry one thing at a time in your hands. You can carry the shotgun, boomerang, or just a pot or rock to make ranged attacks. You can carry a machete for better-than-whip melee damage. You can carry a key to unlock a special chest. Or you can carry a trapped civilian (and getting them out safely is one of the only ways to regain HP). And you can’t use your whip attack when you have any of those items carried, so each strongly limits your options.

Several classic-inspired games, like Torchbearer, have moved to a much stricter inventory, and even modern editions of D&D are trying to get rid of the Christmas Tree Effect. Having only a small handful of items, each of which can do multiple things, but the collection of which can’t let you do everything, is a great way to get players to make interesting choices. You need the adamantine sword for golems but the silver axe for lycanthropes… and you can’t carry both.

Deep and Varied Interest

I imagine the meaning becomes different once you get good enough to beat the game and you’re just trying to beat it with style, but Spelunky’s initial draw is getting deeper and deeper into the dungeon with each restart. Just as one level starts to become easy to beat, you find a new one with new items of interest, and get the feeling you’re drawing further and further down to something amazing.

As long as you don’t TPK too often (or don’t sweat metagaming about what the last group knew), the story of a particular campaign can still draw the players through even though their individual characters are dropping off like flies. Sometimes, many Bothans have to die to forward the plot, and as long as that plot is intriguing and expands with each death-won revelation, your players will keep going. Character attachment doesn’t have to be the only motivating force in gaming.

Design Results Roundup

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I’ve had a chance to actually playtest some of my systems posted on this blog in the last few months, so here’s some additional lessons learned and other notes on using them.

Shadowrun: Alternate Cash Rewards

This system has had immediate, positive results at the table. The book system is very abstract:  you roll Negotiation and the Johnson promises you an indeterminate amount of money for your success, but you won’t know exactly how much until you collapse the wave form and finish the mission. Now I can tell them up front what they can expect on the run, and they’re excited when their good work (or unexpected additional hardships) means that they can demand a bonus. Last night, the face told a teammate, “We’re getting paid 16k for this job; let’s get it right.” You can’t get quotes like that with a system that doesn’t suggest up front what the run will pay.

Shadowrun: Crafting

This system, though, may need a little more work, primarily due to the swinginess of a dice-pool-based system and the diminishing returns of the SR5 extended tests system. Trying to get a cost break on gear with the system results in pretty high hit thresholds (24 hits needed for a rating 12 item). Statistically, you’d need 12 dice to make a 24 hit item, but that’s just with the total average third of a success per die; with a lot of luck, that many dice could hit the threshold in the first three rolls, and with no luck, you might not get anywhere near it.

Also, the interaction with Edge is problematic. With the time frames involved, do you not let the player regenerate edge during a downtime spent crafting? What if the crafting has to pause for a mission? If you’ve limited Edge for the duration, you still have the issue that it’s best used early (when there are more dice, and thus more 6s to explode), than later (when the player will start thinking about Edge since the successes aren’t yet close to where they need to be).

The prototype system does make the swinginess more palatable, though, as it allows giving the player something for an expensive crafting project that didn’t get enough hits. But it probably needs a much smaller number of times it has to glitch before providing a bonus; 12 glitches to have a better chance on the next rating 12 crafting job is a lot of bad luck to count on.

But, on the other hand, in a tightly-constrained Nuyen game, having an option to get something expensive at half cost maybe should have a lot of chance at minimal success. And plus I get to play a glitchy prototype Agent (that my group’s decker half-successfully programmed) as a demented Clippy, which is a lot of fun.

Shadowrun: Shadowville

I enjoyed this, as I enjoy all of my Smallville chargen hacks, but the system has one glaring flaw: if most of the party takes Resources primary, very few NPCs make it onto the map early on, and that means the few NPCs that are there in the first round have way more tags and connections than ones added later. My group only had one non-primary-Resources character, and wound up with a super-connected NPC dominating the center of the map. It was interesting in the situation, but not really ideal as a general rule.

D&D/Pathfinder: Level Compression

I haven’t been using this super formally in my latest Pathfinder game, but I have been using it as a rule of thumb for recurring NPCs. Since it’s Kingmaker, there are a lot of NPCs that get signed on as allies and support staff, and it’s nice to have a consistent way of leveling them up as the party increases so they don’t lose relevance.

The system does not really interact well with the Leadership feat. I’m running into issues where the players’ cohort NPCs are supposed to remain two levels behind them, but the compression chart suggests that several of their other friendly NPCs should be only a level or two behind them, and it feels like I should slow the levels of the non-feat-powered NPCs down. Also, the feat gives out a bunch of followers that are meant to be extremely low level. At level 10, it’s weird to have a bunch of feat-granted followers that are arranged into a specific array of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd level when the compression chart says everyone should pretty much be 5th level by that point. But the Leadership cohort is already probably too good for a single feat while the followers are essentially useless except as color, and I get the impression most GMs ban Leadership anyway… so it’s probably not a big deal if it conflicts.

D&D/Pathfinder: Fantasy Human Resources (and Part 2)

I finally got to try this out at my last couple of sessions. They’re entering the section of Kingmaker where they need to fight with armies. Also, as mentioned, they have a ton of NPC allies and cohorts at this point (and a bunch of alternate PCs that join the core group when someone else from the office wants to play). So while I was looking at using one of my more formalized mass battle hacks, I remembered I’d written this one and was keen to give it a try.

The first part, with individual allies going on missions, was a lot of fun. With a lot of allies it becomes fairly time consuming; the players became very focused on optimizing their allies’ time usage to make sure missions were completed in the most ideal way. But they seemed to be having a great time doing it. I might try to standardize the time per cycle for a given game; having some missions updating weekly and others updating monthly made the time calculation even more complicated at the table.

The second part, the simplified mass combat system, went very well. The whole group seemed to be really enjoying working out through discussion how to match their cards to their enemy’s for their greatest advantage, while moaning about their individual PCs’ units being put in situations where they were guaranteed to break to accomplish another tactical goal. They didn’t really think it felt a lot like D&D… but had a really good time regardless. One thing to be careful of with it is to make sure Morale tends to not get too high; if only units that double up or have a named character leading them can break other units, the battle can turn ugly quickly. If one side has a bunch of units break, there’s really no point continuing the next round, so battles would probably be more interesting if roughly equal numbers of units on each side could break each round. Conversely, doing damage at the cost of some broken units (as can happen when fielding a lower-strength but higher-morale army) is actually interesting, assuming the army can retreat effectively.

In general, a no-surprises numerical comparison where the gameplay is in correctly deploying troops to take out the maximum number of enemies with the minimum losses to your own army winds up being intriguingly strategic as opposed to the more on-the-ground tactical combat of D&D and the wargames it inherits from.

SR5: Point Based Resources

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I’ve been running Shadowrun for the last few months, and one of the rules elements that’s a little too old school for me is the cash management aspect. First, there’s the giant lump sum at character creation that requires a spreadsheet and several hours to negotiate, making chargen a giant accounting chore (particularly if the player’s and GM’s totals don’t add up the same). Second, there’s the fact that cash expenditures are actually pretty solidly firewalled into three types without any real acknowledgement: ‘ware (which is essentially alternate character powers and progression to magic and which already have an additional solid limiter in Essence), lifestyle (which is theoretically a huge social limiter but doesn’t actually have any solid rules attached), and tools (which are used directly to accomplish a run).

So this is my first pass at a system that dramatically simplifies and abstracts the resources system, as is the current trend in game design. Long term, I would probably convert item costs directly to point ratings, but for now I’m using the lazier method of using digits in the price plus ranking (as described below). More experienced Shadowrun players feel free to let me know what hilarious exploits this will create in the comments 🙂 .

Priorities

Convert your Resources priority to the following:

Priority   Major Resource Points   Minor Resource Points  
A 7 20
B 5 13
C 3 7
D 2 4
E 1 2

‘Ware

As per the normal rules, ‘ware is limited to an effective availability of 12 at character creation (so characters with access to alphaware may still use standard for rare stuff to be able to get it to 12 or less). Also, per normal, it is still limited by your Essence. Beyond those limits, you use Major Resource Points to pick a whole class of ‘ware, and any of your upgrades can be that class or less.

One major resource point gets you minimum access to ‘ware. At that level, you can only afford Used Legal Cyberware. You can get as much of it as you want, but your Essence is likely to fill up quickly.

Past that, you can spend major resource points on a one for one basis for the following upgrades:

  • Standard/New: You no longer have to buy Used
  • Alphaware (Requires Standard): You can now get Alphaware in addition to Standard
  • Bioware: You can now get Bioware in addition to Cyberware
  • Restricted: You now have access to R availability ‘ware
  • Forbidden (Requires Restricted): You now have access to all legalities of ‘ware

For example, two characters with Priority C both decide that they’d like to spend all three of their major resource points on ‘ware. The first decides to be able to get New Legal Bioware, while the other chances access to Used Forbidden Cyberware.

You can spend minor resource points as major resource points for one piece of ‘ware. For example, you could spend six minor points to buy a piece of Alphaware Forbidden Bioware even if you have no other ‘ware. If you were one of the characters in the example above (and had already spent three major points) it would only cost three minor points per piece of Alphaware Forbidden Bioware.

Lifestyle

You spend major resource points to purchase your lifestyle. This counts as a permanent purchase, but the GM may feel free to deduct rewards (see below) if he feels scraping together rent is a major portion of play, and game activities might cost you your lifestyle. However, the player is spending a major portion of her character creation budget to be rich, so that should be respected as much as other chargen decisions are.

  • Streets (0 points): Purchasing Power 2, Influence Group -3, Acting Group -1
  • Squatter (1 point): Purchasing Power 3, Influence Group -2
  • Low (2 points): Purchasing Power 4, Influence Group -1
  • Middle (3 points): Purchasing Power 5
  • High (4 points): Purchasing Power 6, Influence Group +1
  • Luxury (5 points): Purchasing Power 7, Influence Group +2, Acting Group +1

The group bonuses or penalties are to any skill tests for that group (Etiquette, Leadership, and Negotiation for Influence; Con, Impersonation, and Performance for Acting). Feel free to waive the penalty for social rolls against characters of equal or lower social standing, but the group’s Face will have an uphill battle in polite circles while reeking of squalor, and even a good clean and costume change isn’t enough to hide mannerisms ground in on the streets (i.e., this is not a commentary on poor people, it’s a mechanic to keep your players from shorting their lifestyle because poverty doesn’t keep them from being an awesome cyborg).

You can spend or receive minor resource points for the normal lifestyle options:

  • Special Work Area: 2 minor resource points
  • Extra Secure: 3 minor resource points
  • Obscure: 1 minor resource point
  • Cramped: +1 minor resource point
  • Dangerous Area: +2 minor resource points

You can also spend minor resource points to obtain a safehouse/backup residence. Spend minor points equal to the major point cost for that level of lifestyle, and you can’t exceed your main lifestyle rating. A safehouse doesn’t adjust your purchasing power or social mods, just gives you an extra place to stay. You can purchase options for it in the same way as for your main lifestyle. For example, you could buy an Extra Secure, Obscure, Cramped Low safehouse for 5 minor resource points (assuming your main lifestyle was at least Low). You cannot gain net minor points from a safehouse, drawbacks can just reduce the cost (e.g., you can’t claim you have a cramped squat in a dangerous area for +2 minor points).

Purchasing Power

You cannot buy ‘ware with purchasing power. You can get anything else.

When you buy an item with purchasing power, you can get something with digits in the price equal to the purchasing power rating. For example, purchasing power 5 can get you a 45,500¥ Erika MCD-1 cyberdeck, because it has a five-digit price tag.

  • If multiple similar items share the same pricing tier, you get the cheapest within that tier. For example, the character got the Erika cyberdeck even though the Microdeck Summit was also five digits, because the Erika was the cheaper option.
  • You can spend minor resource points to move up the options within a tier. For example, purchasing power 6 and three minor points would get you the Renraku Tsurugi cyberdeck (fourth on the list of 100k+ decks).
  • You can go down a digit to get the highest item in a tier. For example, a purchasing power of 7 would let you get the Fairlight Excalibur with no minor points spent (because it’s the highest six-digit deck).

At character creation, you may have:

  • One item at your Purchasing Power; spend additional minor points equal to your Purchasing Power for each additional item at this level
  • Two items at your Purchasing Power -1; spend additional minor points equal to half (round up) your total Purchasing Power for each additional item at this level
  • Four items at your Purchasing Power -2; spend one additional minor point for each additional item at this level
  • A reasonable stockpile of items at your Purchasing Power -3; the GM will tell you when you’re going nuts
  • Functionally unlimited items at your Purchasing Power -4; at High Lifestyle, you can buy all the bullets you want

You still have to spend minor points to go up items in a tier, even for additional purchases, so it’s often wise to spend the minor point cost for the next purchasing power up, if available to you. For example, at a High Lifestyle with Purchasing Power 6, it might often be worthwhile to spend 6 additional minor points for another six-digit item, then drop down to the highest five-digit, than to spend points to upgrade a five-digit item in a packed tier.

You can’t spend minor points to exceed your highest purchasing power. If you live on the streets, you’re going to have to beg your rich teammates to kit you out if you don’t want your contribution to the team to be your fabulous knife.

Run Rewards

Runs should award minor resource points instead of cash (and in addition to Karma). Why do these rewards go further for those with better lifestyles? Because money management is their superpower, maybe. Minor resource points should probably be given out at a similar rate as Karma (with fluctuations for good feelings vs. total bastard runs).

After chargen, you can spend minor resource points for the following:

  • Buy a single piece of ‘ware (using the rules above, but you can finally dispose of the 12 availability limit). You can theoretically go higher than alphaware, for 1 point for each step up, but it’s up to the GM whether you have access to better grades, and it may be a run reward just to get access to purchase a single piece of betaware or better.
  • Buy additional gear (using the purchasing power rules; e.g., minor points equal to total purchasing power to get an item at your max rating, one per item at rating -2, etc.).
  • Permanently increase your lifestyle. This costs ten times your current maximum Purchasing Power and upgrades you to the next lifestyle step. Yes, for the low cost of 20 minor resource points, you can finally abandon your life on the street for a nice squat. Remember, it’s not just about buying the apartment, but making investments to keep you there.

D&D/Pathfinder: Simplifying Trash Encounters

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Background

The Encounter Level system that was instituted for 3.0 and carries through 3.5 and Pathfinder is based on a very simple concept: an equal level encounter should use up about a fifth of the party’s resources. The first encounter of the day has very little chance of resulting in failure, but each successive one becomes a little bit more dangerous, and five equal level encounters should have ground them down and have a real chance at killing one or more party members.

Of course, judging an encounter level is far less precise in practice, and you can go up and down in difficulty in various ways, but the consequence of the system is that modules tend to include, in MMO parlance, trash encounters. These are fights that are not particularly hard, and have an almost negligible chance of seriously impacting the party, but serve to wear down the party a little bit to make later encounters more of a threat. Even an encounter that doesn’t successfully damage a single PC may have caused one or more players to blow a per day ability or expend some spells, leaving less resources available for later encounters.

The problem with these things is that 3.x combat is not particularly zippy. Even if it’s a foregone conclusion that your players are going to kill the creature in the first round with very little effort, there’s still a chance that it’ll manage to do something before it dies. So you have to set up the map and minis, roll initiative, and have the players start making tactical decisions as if this was a major fight (which, as far as they know, it might be). Even a total rout, thus, takes session time.

Geek Related has a post on experience points that suggests a neat idea: have the players level up on a schedule fixed on real time (where they meet the max level for the campaign in about as much time as you want to run it). If they’re having a hard time with a section, they take it slow and level up earlier than the adventure series expects, thus making it easier to get through difficulties. If they’re having an easy run, they’ll get ahead of the expected level and start having to slow back down as they become increasingly underleveled. But all of this assumes that outleveling something would allow you to “catch back up” due to the ease of encounters, and I think there might be a point where the minimum time to set up and play out even incredibly easy encounters may put you further into the hole than you’d like.

And even if you’re not using a system like that, playing with limited time for a session means that you’d probably like to end on something interesting for the night. I frequently find myself running into “well, we have about half an hour left, and that’s probably not enough time if you start a fight in the next room, so let’s break until next week.” And that’s often due to “wasting time” on trash encounters.

So this is a system that attempts to abstract encounters that are only threatening in the aggregate so they have an effect on the PCs’ resources without taking much time to play out.

The System

As a GM, you can use this system for any combat in a module that you feel would take more time to play out than it justifies. That is, it’s not particularly interesting, doesn’t advance the plot, and/or is little more than a speedbump to the PCs. This uses Encounter Level and treats the entire combat as that single number, rather than using the individual enemies and CRs in the fight (and if the EL isn’t attached to the encounter for you, you’ll need to use your edition’s math for determining the EL from multiple creatures’ CRs). It will usually be used for ELs lower than the Average Party Level (APL), but includes notes for equal or higher ELs (for if the fight is really boring and unlikely to seriously hinder the party).

Subtract the APL from the EL:

  • -4 or worse: 0 checks, no experience points (this isn’t even a speedbump)
  • -3: 1 check, half experience
  • -2: 2 checks
  • -1: 3 checks
  • 0: 4 checks
  • +1: 6 checks
  • +2: 8 checks
  • +3 or greater: You should probably play this out, even if it’s boring

The checks listed are per party member, and represent a chance of that party member taking damage or expending resources.

For most monsters, they’re simple attacks vs. AC, using the EL as the attack bonus. If the attack hits, it does twice the EL in hit point damage. Like normal attacks, it misses automatically on a 1 and automatically hits and has a chance to crit (doing double damage) on a 20 (don’t use expanded critical threat range, as that’s probably paid for somewhere else in the EL).

Before they are rolled, party members can choose to take attack checks due other party members onto themselves. For example, the party tank might choose to just have all the checks rolled against him. The balancing factor is that, in their normal distribution, the checks are usually unlikely to kill any one party member unless already seriously injured, but if you take a bunch of them thinking your high AC and HP will save you, you could still die to a string of lucky rolls.

If there are enemies in the encounter that use spells or abilities that call for saves, you can have one or more of the checks instead be an appropriate saving throw. This is rolled by each player, and is made at a DC equal to 10 + EL. A successful save means only half damage (equal to EL), while a failure is normal damage (double EL). Evasion and similar effects apply normally. Party members may not choose to take one another’s checks for saves (as they often indicate AoEs or ranged attacks that are hard to interpose against).

For both attack checks and save checks, players may choose to expend resources instead of taking the checks:

  • Highly limited per day abilities (such as Smite Evil or Wild Shape), remove one check from all party members.
  • Abilities with many uses per day or rounds per day (e.g., Bardic Music, Rage, Ki Pool, bloodline/school/domain basic attacks) require that the players spend uses/rounds equal to the EL to remove a check from all party members.
  • Casters may expend total spell levels equal to the EL to remove a check from all party members.
  • Players can mix and match between these options, each contributing uses, rounds, and spell levels to total up to a certain number of checks removed.
  • If there is a mix between attack and save checks, the players can specify which they’re removing (but have to remove the same ones from all players).

For example, the players are fighting a single Gorgon (EL 8) when they are 9th level. It’s -1 to their APL, so they’re owed three checks. The GM decides that two of those are attacks, and one is a Fortitude save from the breath weapon). The paladin expends a Smite Evil* to reduce that to two checks (removing the save check). The bard uses two rounds of music, the barbarian two rounds of rage, and the wizard a 2nd level spell, a 1st level spell, and a use of his school ability to eliminate another check. The party is left with one check each, and the paladin and barbarian each take two attacks, leaving the bard and wizard to take none.

This system may not always make perfect sense on a per-encounter basis (e.g., a monster with only single-target attacks that would probably focus on one target manages to do a little damage to everyone), but it should even out in the long run. The goal is ultimately to provide some kind of structure to: “this is boring but somehow related to the balance of this adventure so we can’t skip it entirely; so lose some resources, gain some experience, and let’s move on.”

* The paladin in your game doesn’t blow his smites reflexively on seeing a scary monster even if it’s not evil? The one in mine does.