System Review: Microscope, Conclusion

Comments Off on System Review: Microscope, Conclusion

No, you didn’t miss a week; I did.


Scenes are what theoretically makes Microscope an RPG, instead of just a collaborative history-building system. They’re the opportunity to take on characters and engage with one another. In theory, they’re not too different from the freeform roleplaying of Fiasco: a little setup up front, a little debriefing at the end, and a lot of agency in the middle.

In practice, they fell flat for my group. We played two out, then wound up dictating the rest. And this group was all players that have happily participated in story games with minimal rules before, so the problem was not inexperience with the medium. Instead, I think it had to do with a lack of real stakes. In most such games that I’ve read, you each have one main character that you’re portraying. There’s an investment in seeing how the story of your character and the other players’ characters turn out, even for a short game. In Microscope, you’re usually inventing an entirely new guy each scene, and it becomes a struggle to find a character and a motivation, even with the setup.

Compounding this is that the “real” game puts pressure on scenes to rush. In the time it takes to roleplay out one scene, you could have done a whole round with dictated scenes. There’s a fair chance that before one person added a scene and decided to roleplay it out, everyone else at the table was thinking ahead to the cool thing they wanted to add next. There’s an urge to answer the question as quickly as possible to move on.

That’s not to say roleplaying out a scene isn’t superior, because it is: you get much more interesting results through the other players doing the unexpected. In the long run, once you’ve played a few times, it’s probably possible to get into the groove and have a lot of fun with scenes. But the bulk of the mechanics seem to support your phenomenal power to write entire epochs in broad strokes. Really, scenes seem similar to what it would be like to play a Nobilis game where every time you do something in public, you have to turn around and play a scene where normal peoples’ lives on the street are interrupted by the miracle; interesting, sure, but a distraction from what the game really seems to be about.

Ultimately, I feel like scenes are missing a real mechanical hook to make playing them out feel superior to just dictating them.

Collaborative History-Building

What I keep alluding to is that Microscope doesn’t necessarily have to succeed as an RPG, because its mostly undocumented feature is its strongest: it provides a structured framework by which a group of friends can generate a backstory for any setting you’d like that they’re all interested in. You can fill it in over one or more sessions as deep as you’d like, and then you can set any other RPG you want in it.

It’s Smallville’s Pathways writ across the entire backstory of a setting. A GM could roll up with a general campaign idea like “I want to do a gritty supers game” or “I want to do a game about magical Vikings right after Ragnarok” or “I want to run transhuman space opera.” The group then can, in a couple of hours, turn out the framework for a history that they’re all invested in for the GM to use as the skeleton for the game’s backstory and plots. My group ended the session with the general consensus of, “that was pretty fun… but what I really want to do is start a regular RPG set in this world.”

The one caveat is, like many story games that give players a ton of agency, you have to watch that the ridiculousness bar doesn’t get set too low. One player adds a dinosaur planet, and then hopefully nobody else thought that they were playing a game where a dinosaur planet would be too silly. We generally felt like we should have added more Yes and No details to the palette at the start, and if you’re using this to prep for a game there’s probably room to establish a social contract up front establishing the general tone/seriousness you’re going to try to stick to.

A Zillion Noises Whimper

Of the four targets I mentioned in part 1, Microscope certainly hits them all.

  • It was easy to explain with only one person knowing the rules (though really getting everyone to buy into scenes might have benefited from more rules knowledge) and provided a fun time for several hours.
  • When we were finished, there were certainly areas unexplored that we could have reconvened to fill in; I don’t know that we would have been interested in doing more than a couple sessions more, but we could have certainly continued past one.
  • No GM was required (though a bit more GM-like powers handed to the player framing the scene might have been one way to help make them more interesting to roleplay).
  • It’s an awesome tool for collaborative setup before a more traditional RPG.

It’s short and easy to pick up. It’s probably less intimidating to more traditional gamers than a lot of other story games (since you can enjoy it as a shared invention tool even if you don’t like the freeform RP). It’s a neat way to get a game in when you’ve got a couple hours and a stack of notecards. And it’s a really interesting way to prep a traditional campaign. Check it out.

System Review: Microscope, Part 1

Comments Off on System Review: Microscope, Part 1

As We Watch It Fall into a Modern State

I became aware of Microscope a few years ago via its creator’s blog. After several years of really good advice for a variety of games (e.g., the group initiative I’ve used in my games for several years was borrowed directly from there), he spent a while explaining the mechanics of his open-table West Marches game. That seemed to percolate through the blogosphere as part of the Old School Renaissance, encouraging lots of people to take up the classic D&D concept of doing dungeon and wilderness exploration in a semi-competitive style where there are several groups of players potentially after the same treasure (only semi-competitive because the groups would often trade members based on whoever showed up). Interestingly, the experience of hosting a game that can take on a bunch of players that show up unpredictably on a game night seems to have flipped his focus from classic systems to lightweight story games that can even more easily accommodate a variety of players with different skill levels and a short window of playtime.

Microscope is his first entry into the genre, and it’s hard to think of a bigger divergence from a crunchy D&D game. It’s a collaborative history-building game, that uses some simple rules to allow players to invent a complex timeline for a setting they invent on the spot. It has some freeform roleplaying elements and a nod to long-term play, so it’s essentially trying to hit three targets:

  • Provide a few hours of structured fun for players with potentially no rules knowledge
  • Have potential for an ongoing campaign spread across multiple sessions
  • Be a GM-less roleplaying game

In addition, there’s a fourth target it’s not trying to explicitly hit, but which may be its greatest strength: create investment in a setting via giving players authorial input before using it in a traditional RPG. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Core Mechanics

Microscope is completely diceless and statistic-free. The rules largely consist of a turn structure to determine which player currently has near-total authority to create a game element within certain guidelines and a way to assign characters and frame scenes for freeform roleplaying.

Ultimately, the point of the game is to fill out a timeline. At the highest level, there are Periods, these contain Events, and those contain Scenes. Nothing has any actual dates attached, because players can add these elements totally out of order. For example, you could go for hours on a timeline and then suddenly someone adds an entirely new period right near the start. As long as the new element doesn’t contradict early information or appear outside the agreed-upon start and end Periods, you can fill in your history in whatever order interests the players. The tabletop version expects the players to put information on notecards that can be easily move to accommodate new entries, but it also works very well online using a shared document.

Each round, one player is the “Lens” and gets to decide a focus for that round (e.g., “this round, everyone’s entries have to have something to do with ghosts”). That player gets to add an element or linked pair of elements at the beginning of the round, then again at the end after all the other players have gone. When a player gets to go, he or she can add an entirely new Period, attach an Event under an existing Period, or attach a Scene to an existing Event. The major agenda of play is adding things that are interesting enough that the other players want to explore them further; you’ll be sad if, at the end of the game, you see a bunch of stuff you added sitting without an other elements attached. After the round, one player gets to define a “Legacy,” and pick something that was invented that round to call out, then add one more element about that Legacy or any of the other ones currently on the table. Then the next person becomes Lens and play continues.

If the element that was added was a Scene, it triggers a brief, well, scene of roleplaying. The acting player determines a question that the Scene has to answer (which should give more context for the linked Event), where it’s set, and requires or bans characters. Every player then picks a character, invents a thought for that character on entering the scene, and they all freeform roleplay until the question is answered. Any player’s free to invent new details and describe his or her character’s actions as long as these choices don’t contradict anything or take away agency from other players over their chosen characters. If there’s a disagreement, or someone wants to contradict an idea with one they think is better, the whole table votes and then proceeds with whichever idea won. If you’re pressed for time or just want to preserve authorial control, you can skip the roleplaying portion and just dictate the results of the Scene.

The crucial rule of the game is that players aren’t supposed to directly collaborate: you’re supposed to save your best ideas until it’s you’re turn or they make sense to introduce during a Scene, and spring them on the other players. The results you get are, thus, each player’s sharpest ideas undulled by compromise. If you think something is cool, and it doesn’t contradict anything or interfere with another player’s agency, you add it and it becomes a part of the history that the other players can react to.

Next week, I’ll talk about how all of these come together at the table.

System Review: Nobilis 3e, Conclusion


You Thought You Could Feed on My Soul

I never read Nobilis 1e; the “Little Pink Book” was well out of print by the time I got into the game. But I suspect a lot of the stuff in 2e’s “Great White Book” was revision, editing, and improvement on 1e; specifically, what I’ve heard about 1e doesn’t suggest there were nearly as many major additions and adjustments as between 2e and 3e.

3e is an ideas edition; the previous one was sufficiently stable that it made sense to add a bunch of new things rather than just refining what was already there. Some of the things that were added, like Treasure, are entirely workable, but could potentially be described more clearly and concisely. Others, like Persona, feel like a really cool idea that hasn’t been 100% finished yet. Still others, like the Mortal Actions system, are robust and immediately useful.

If I was to make up numbers, I’d say that 3e carved away the weakest 20% of 2e’s engine, and added maybe another 70% in updates, additional ideas, and entirely new systems. A lot of that wasn’t iterated sufficiently to feel done, but it’s still a much more robust engine than what was available previously. If the game eventually gets a 4e, and that’s to this edition what 2e was to 1e—a cleaning up of existing systems—it will be an amazing game. As it is, it’s merely really, really good.

The Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine looks to partially be that edition: it’s set in the same universe and has a chance to really expand on and test the mortal actions and advancement systems. As of this writing, it’s got only a couple of days left on its Kickstarter, and many of the reward tiers include the PDF of Nobilis 3e as a bonus. Anyone interested in the system after this review series would find it well worth his or her time to check it out.

There is really no other RPG on the market that compares to Nobilis. One of the biggest limitations of 2e (other than selling out every single print run its publishing houses could bring to bear so it eventually became very hard to find) was that it was hard to get started. It was a really engaging read in a really pretty book that was really hard to wrap your brain around and actually use at the table. I managed a fairly long campaign, but only after getting to play a one-shot of it at a con that finally made it click enough to run. I suspect many others got it, read it, and left it on the shelf.

3e is much easier to run. It encourages action rather than navel-gazing, provides context for cool things a god might want to do, and ensures that each PC rolls off of chargen with a pile of interesting quirks and hooks for the GM. It’s got a handful of systems that require additional research to clarify and others that might need a little house rule love to make them as useful as intended.

But doing so is worth it.

There are a lot of games on the market where you have fantastic powers. There are a lot where players get handed a lot of agency and narrative control. But none of them is Nobilis.

It’s a game where the hardest part about shooting the sun out of the sky is explaining why you had to do it to your angry friends, and the setting and mechanics completely back that up. It’s a game where all the Power of Rain has to do is convince people to start seriously using the phrase “It’s raining sunshine” to dramatically increase her power and not need you to kill the sun after all. It’s a game where the Power of Rain is only trying to do all this in the first place because the Power of the Sun was rude to her at a party.

Seriously, check it out.

System Review: Shadowrun 5e, First Look


This is a little off my normal schedule, but I received an early copy of Shadowrun 5e to review, and it made sense to get the review out before the game is generally available later this week. As the title indicates, this is a high-level review from reading only; I hope to do an in-depth playtest review when time and player availability allows.

The last copy of Shadowrun I’ve owned and played was second edition (with a light skim of fourth edition for a game that didn’t happen), so I may give praise or blame for certain rules features that may have been introduced in previous editions. But that seems fair: praise for keeping a good mechanic into the new edition and blame for not removing a bad one. I’m pretty well-versed in the background for the game, via various friends that are mega-fans, so I feel like I have a pretty good idea of the world the rules are trying to model.

In general, this review will probably serve more of a purpose of “if I haven’t really gotten into Shadowrun before, is this a good edition to jump on?” than “is this edition an improvement over previous editions that I have loved?” (I suspect the people that are likely to ask the second question are going to buy the new edition no matter what I say).

General Impressions

On reading through the book, I had a number of consistent impressions:

  • This is a really, really complicated system with lots of fiddly subsystems.
  • It’s probably not nearly as complicated as 2e.
  • Nearly every system is accompanied by an excellent example of play sidebar that immediately clarifies anything that was confusing about the mechanic.
  • Mechanics are repurposed whenever possible, and even very different mechanics are defined and presented in consistent ways. This means that the many disparate subsystems, while daunting on a first read through, are probably something you’ll be able to remember easily after a few sessions.

This book is almost all crunch, with huge systems for combat, hacking, driving, magic, gear, and all kinds of other things. It’s nearly 500 pages of these in fairly dense text. And yet, though I’d expect to grumble and have to look up and reread sections the first few times they came up, I don’t doubt that I’d be able to find the right mechanics and apply them consistently and fully at the table as a GM. That’s a pretty big win, just for a start.

Core Mechanics

Shadowrun 5e uses a dice pool system:

  • Add Attribute + Skill + other Modifiers.
  • Roll that many d6s.
  • Count dice that show 5 or 6 as successes (“hits”).
  • Compare total hits to a difficulty (“threshold”); if you exceed the threshold, margin of success (“net hits”) usually means enhanced success in some way.

Obviously, this is very similar to the dice system in the most recent World of Darkness games, only using d6s instead of d10s. Unlike nWoD, you only reroll 6s for extra successes in certain occasions, but the smaller dice range should make the success probabilities pretty similar at 33% per die. In general, it seems that you’ll probably roll somewhat more dice than you would in WoD, with players potentially getting up to the 20s of dice totals with really high attributes, skills, and modifiers and likely starting new characters around 12 dice for their focus capabilities. Fortunately, d6s in large numbers are more easily available and useful than d10s, and they’re less likely to go flying off the table in a big double-handful of dice rolling.

While sometimes rolls are against a fixed difficulty list that suggests that focused characters are very likely to succeed at most tasks, it seems like rolls are more often intended to be contests where both actor and defender roll a large pool of dice and compare hits. I’m not sure I’m totally happy with this system, since it seems like it’ll make many things very swingy (with random rolling on both sides of the action) and slower than they’d need to be (with two players having to total successes). It does make it possible to make difficulties more granular (each die is on average a third of a threshold) and gives defenders more opportunity to use tactics, but I suspect you could just divide the defender’s total by 3 to get a fixed difficulty that’s very similar to rolled results with less swing and time at the table.

One thing the game introduced that I’m really not fond of is the idea of glitches: if you roll more 1s than half your total dice pool, you glitch (and critical glitch if you have no hits). The main thing that bugs me about them is that, due to requiring more than half your dice to be 1s, the probabilities are very odd: if you add a die to an even die pool, you more than double your chance to glitch (e.g., it’s easier to roll three 1s on five dice than on four). Statistically, the chance to get a glitch is almost nonexistent if you’re rolling anything close to a competent die pool, so except for annoying bad-dice-luck events they’ll really only mess up your low-pool desperate rolls (which are more likely to get no hits and be critical glitches). They’d be easy enough to just pull out if you don’t, like me, think a fumble mechanic adds much to the game, but they’re used pretty consistently for various systems and it’s unclear how much of a balancing mechanic they’re meant to be. At the end of the day, it’s probably a fine mechanic if you feel like adding a chance to screw up due to dice luck adds to the game’s grittiness, though I wish they’d smoothed the chance of it so adding a die to an even pool didn’t increase your risk of glitch.

An interesting key mechanic used throughout the systems is the idea of a Limit; if you get more hits than your Limit for a roll, you lose the excess. For many rolls, the Limit is a derived physical, social, or mental trait; if you make a character that’s uber-specialized, your limit for those specialized rolls might be lower than if you’d raised your attributes more consistently. For combat rolls, the Limit is usually based on the Accuracy of your gear; highly expensive, aspirational gear is much less useful to you before you have high enough traits that you’re bumping against the Accuracy of cheaper gear. For magic, the Limit is usually a risk-vs.-reward tradeoff; you decide up front that you’re going to risk higher drain or other penalties by setting a high Limit, rather than risking that you’ll lose hits to a low one. This idea should allow characters to grow more naturally in power over time than is typical for a skill-based game (usually you can shoot to the top of a single skill and begin to threaten the biggest problems of the setting).

Specific Mechanics

Character Creation

Character creation has returned to a priority system (which had disappeared in 4e) where you have to rank your race, magic capabilities, attributes, skills, and resources rather than going middle of the road on all of them or dumping a couple and being excellent at a couple. Unlike the priority system I’m familiar with from 2e, races and magic are more finely grained so it’s no longer “if they’re not your highest priority make them your lowest priority.” Specifically, even a human gets some bonus points for raising race above the minimum priority and there are a bunch of gradations of magic such that you have some minor magical talents unless you put magic as your absolutely last priority. In general, the priority system should encourage players to make somewhat less min-maxed characters than a completely point buy version would.

One thing that the system does feature is the current level conundrum: you spend points out of your priorities to raise things on a one-for-one basis in character creation, but then raising things with experience (“karma”) costs more for higher level traits after character creation. You’re really incentivized to raise all the attributes that matter up to their racial max and all the skills you want to excel at up to the level six chargen maximum. Given that you already spend karma rather than freebie points to finish your character, and chargen is already pretty complicated and involved, they could have made the whole character creation process use karma if they wanted to make higher traits cost more. Conversely, since the game features a detailed training system that already requires time investment so you can’t just rocket up skill ranks, they could have made karma costs not inflate based on trait level. With the system that exists, I foresee experienced players make a lot of idiot savant characters with as many important things as possible maxed out rather than with a more even spread of starting traits.


Like the general systems, combat in 5e has a lot of the elements of previous editions but streamlines them a great deal. They’re still deep and complicated, but less daunting that previous editions. The high points are:

  • Initiative is rolled every turn, and for every 10 points of your total you get an extra action. Interestingly, defensive actions and other interruptions eat into your total initiative, and having the extra actions are meaningful but not completely overpowering. One of the cool things about this kind of initiative is that you can do things that take an action and last for one combat round that still benefit you, because you rolled high enough to go again this round.
  • Damage divides between Stun and Physical based on weapon type. The way this interacts with armor is actually really interesting: you have to roll your armor to reduce incoming damage, but if its base rating was higher than the damage, the deadly physical damage gets reduced to much less terrifying stun; one of the more elegant ways of modeling bullets and blades getting blunted but still bruising that I’ve seen in a game engine.
  • There are lots and lots of situational modifiers and deep subsystems. For example, to make cyberware that augments your aim in various ways, there need to be lots of different penalties possible for aiming that those cyberware upgrades can reduce. These are generally well-thought-out and used consistently, but you’ll still probably be flipping around in the combat section for your first several fights to make sure you’ve captured all the necessary modifiers.

On the whole, combat seems like it’ll run pretty slow at the table until you really internalize the modifiers that apply to you most often. However, the game is also fairly lethal and features characters that would prefer to get in and get out without having to fight, so the slow combat might work fine for a few small encounters per session before the run and then the big “drek hits the fan” setpiece battle that finishes it off.


One of the rolls specifically called out for a group of ‘runners is a social primary character, the Face, so the rules need to support that guy not feeling like he wasted his build. The game has foregone trying to build an elaborate social combat system, and instead created several specific niches for social skills:

  • Social skills are integral to negotiating higher pay (and cash rewards for gear upgrades are major portion of character advancement).
  • High social skills are necessary to do social scouting: a high-social character will be able to con his way into a location to get intel and possibly even provide another way to break and enter for the group.
  • The Leadership social skill allows the Face to give out combat buffs to the party.

In general, the Face will probably have as much to do as any of the other specialized group roles, all while following a traditional “we roleplay a conversation and roll dice once” method of table interaction rather than a more social combat-style blow by blow.

And, as a bonus, the social skills aren’t locked into the traditional lie/persuade/intimidate model.


There are two flavors of hacker now: the traditional decker who uses a hacking deck and programs to defeat security, and a more Neo-style mage that can access wifi with his mind. Both look very different on initial inspection, but thankfully use a consistent set of traits for most actions affecting computers (though each has a variety of add-on options in the form of programs or technomantic abilities).

The majority of hacking is done via standardized actions using the consistent four traits. Access to these actions is purchased in a pretty straightforward manner, which is very nice since my last experience was needing to have real life desktop software to manage all the purchases deckers had to make in second edition.

Apparently in 4e there was a big push to move most hacking to an augmented reality space so the party hacker wouldn’t disappear into a mainframe to have a solo session with the GM every game. 5e has re-instituted the importance of virtual reality and getting your hacker deep into a building so he can connect directly to the device with the paydata on it, which seems liable to recreate the problem of the rest of the players sitting around while the hacker does his thing. I suspect that this is less of a problem than it was in earlier editions for a few reasons:

  • The hacking systems are pretty straightforward, so the hacker’s spotlight time ought to be only a few minutes once you’ve got them down.
  • Hackers can still do a decent amount of stuff wirelessly and in real time, so they can attempt to hack enemy equipment and drones in combat.
  • Many of the party roles get things that demand a solo scene, so you should be able to give spotlight time to the other players equal to what the hacker gets.


I never really got the point of the Rigger in earlier editions: he’s a guy that controls his car with his mind. This edition does a few things to make the Rigger cool:

  • The car chase rules are some of the best I’ve seen, and the party’s Rigger is going to be the best at doing car chases.
  • Small flying drones are easily available, so your Rigger has something to do in combat and a reason to go into the building rather than staying with the car (since wireless control degrades over distance).
  • In general, Rigging uses a lot of the hacking rules, so Riggers have a lot of interesting things to do in conflict with rival hackers and Riggers.

I’m still not totally sold on the Rigger’s appeal over other roles in the game, but, then, I never play the engineer in Team Fortress either. People love that guy, so I can see why people might love the Rigger and all his wonderful robot toys.


I didn’t make it all the way through the magic chapter at more than a skim, but, like most of the other systems, magic seems like a cleaned up version of earlier editions. Spells seem much more straightforward to purchase and use than previous editions, and they’re arranged into groups that have consistent overall mechanics (e.g., all the combat spells figure their damage in a consistent, scaling way). Physical adepts are still awesome.

Final Thoughts

I came to the realization while reading this edition that Shadowrun really is conceptually what you’d get if you took most of the tropes of classic D&D and created a sci-fi setting to support them. It’s a game about mostly amoral oddballs that pit their skills and magic against a dungeon to come away with treasure. There’s lots of room to grow in power, and having more money means that you can get better and better toys to improve your ability to then go get even more treasure.

And 5e does a really great job with all of that: the rules reward deep player investigation with unfolding power and options, there are lots of mechanically interesting and varied things to pit your ‘runners against, and there’s a potentially endless use for more money to buy shinier and shinier gear. It’s the kind of thing that you could play for a long time as a regular game without getting bored. I’m looking forward to giving it a real playtest, even though my own tastes tend to run to more lightweight engines like Technoir for my dystopian sci-fi, and I think anyone that’s interested in the genre and would find fun in a crunchy, mechanically deep system might find a lot to love about Shadowrun 5e.

System Review: Nobilis 3e, Part 3

Comments Off on System Review: Nobilis 3e, Part 3


In addition to providing a ready source of Strike and additional MP, for each Bond a characters has, she can have one Anchor (ideally one that has something to do conceptually with the Bond). An Anchor is a living being, item, or more esoteric noun (such as a magic spell, a personal symbol, or even a group of people). These are important people, significant animals, personal items, etc. that make up the regalia of the Noble; the accoutrements that make up your myth. Many of them will be Ordinary; friends, relatives, and enemies from mortal life, possessions of significance to you, or your personal sigil. They become extraordinary by association with the Noble, exemplifying their skills or qualities. Often, a Noble will acquire Wondrous Anchors, which have an innate power of their own: magical creatures, items of power, and spells. Sometimes, Nobles will Anchor individuals or items of Miraculous power; other Nobles, or things of similar power. All of these things become background elements of the character’s story, and will, by default, avoid availing the character of their powers, or if they do so it won’t have a significant impact on the story. That all changes when the character uses the Treasure attribute to manipulate and empower the Anchor.

I write all of that in such detail because it took me the core book, the fifty page supplement on Treasure, and several detailed forum posts to understand what the Treasure attribute was for. One of the things you’re in for when reading a Nobilis book is that all the prose is beautiful and amazingly creative… but has a hard time getting to the point. The book really needs a small section (near the Bonds chapter, for preference) explaining the need for Anchors and giving guidance on how to invent interesting ones, because if you have a bunch of really cool Anchors, Treasure becomes an extremely useful attribute. If you don’t get the point of them and just put down “I guess, like, my parents?” you won’t be able to make full use of it.

Levels 0-2 of the attribute let you improve ordinary Anchors and possess any of your anchors (something that used to be the province of the removed Spirit attribute). Levels 3-6 allow you to use your wondrous Anchors in various ways, activating their special powers for use with Aspect or Mortal actions or pushing them conceptually to attack and defend in high-end miraculous combat. At level 6+, it makes sense to have miraculous Anchors, as you can get them to use their own miracles for major effects (potentially replicating a huge range of capabilities with a single attribute), and even synthesize with your own Domain to pull off something amazing, possibly even beyond the fantastic power normally available to Nobles.

Treasure takes 2e’s Sandman-esque concept of investing some of your power in a focus item and its use of mortal anchors and combines them into something really neat. It’d just be cool if this fact was more succinct and obvious within the text.

Character Creation and Projects

At root, character creation for 3e is the same as 2e: you buy attributes, gifts, and additional MPs from a pool of character points, and pick all the other things (like skills, bonds, and estate properties) from a fixed total in each category.

But before that, you go through the new lifepath system.

This is a pretty fun and innovative way to get you into the right mindset for playing a mortal that has been turned into a demigod. You pick two “keys” from a list of 16. These are short concepts with a “heart” and a “shadow.” They’re things like Key of Something that Hasn’t Changed: My Identity vs. Crisis, Key of Rage: My Hatred vs. What Lets Me Oppose It, and Key of Something that Must Be Hidden: A Dangerous Secret vs. …That Hurts to Keep. During the lifepath, you fill in short blurbs when instructed under hearts and shadows, further defining them.

Over eight steps, you choose various things like your origin, your Estate, your contacts, and your affiliation. Each of these comes from a list of suggestions. The interesting feature is that each element of the list is mapped to one or more keys. If you pick a list element that synergizes with one of your keys, you get to add a blurb to that key’s heart section (defining the good things about your character). If you pick a list element that doesn’t synergize, instead you add a blurb to one of your shadows (further expanding and defining your character’s troubles). Ultimately, there’s no mechanical penalty for choosing one or the other, just whether you want to play a Noble that’s mostly in tune with her concepts, or deeply conflicted. But what’s cool about the system is that it results in really interesting character ideas that can easily make your modern demigod a more robust individual, with interesting backgrounds and quirks.

On the other end, Nobilis now has an advancement system. Called Projects, these system encourage you to think of your goals in a structured format, and tells the GM how to award progress towards them. This seems like it shouldn’t need a system, but for a game where your character goals are things like “let all the damned souls out of Hell,” “Break down the gates of Heaven,” or “Discover what’s really outside of reality,” it’s important to have rules that everyone can wrap their heads around. Nobilis can tend towards solipsism and too-small goals, where the characters just lounge around dealing with the small problems of their home until they’re forced to react to GM plots. Knowing that you can do really universe-altering things and the GM has a system to let you should encourage the players to be sufficiently proactive for a game where you play gods.

There are a couple of minor problems with the system. The first is that the lifepath system is supposed to output your first Project, and visually it creates something similar, but since Projects are points-based and lifepaths are not, it’s really unclear how a lifepath result becomes a Project. The second is that it’s also the advancement system, but doesn’t put any real mechanical diligence behind that goal. Specifically, there’s one section that mentions that you can buy any character trait as a 75 point or less personal Project (specifically calling out Immortality, which costs 6 points in character generation), which follows a section suggesting it’s a 150 point long-term project to grow “from Pawn to Baroness of my Estate” (something that would cost you 3 points in character generation). I know I come off like a buzzkill for games that want you to just do what feels right for the story, but the gaming circles I run in would generally prefer feeling like the system isn’t encouraging them to try to make optimized choices in character generation (e.g., “if it’s easier to buy gifts that attributes after chargen, I’ll buy all the attributes I might want now and save the gifts I’d rather have for later.”). Something on the order of, “if you’re trying to improve a trait, multiply its cost at chargen by 15 to figure out what size project improving it is,” would have been appreciated (and would be how I’d run it in practice).

But despite those issues, the Project system is a very welcome addition to the game. My 2e campaign tended towards reactivity, which isn’t especially desirable for a game where you start out being able to shoot down the sun. A game where you start the players off with amazing power to affect the setting from the word go comes with the expectation that they’ll be proactive in their use of that power. The Projects system, though I didn’t really get to use it in a short playtest, seems like it should be the impetus to get the players really thinking like higher powers.

System Review: Nobilis 3e, Part 2

Comments Off on System Review: Nobilis 3e, Part 2

Aspect and Mortal Actions

Aspect is the attribute that you use to do things that mortals can do, if only when translated through the most permissive of fairy tales. The lower levels let you turn in feats of Olympic athleticism, Nobel Prize intellect, or Hollywood charisma. The middle levels let you pull off wuxia-style physical performances, computer-level mental calculations, and mythical persuasiveness. The top levels let you do crazy things like drink whole rivers, deduce the future from a mountain of disconnected data, or persuade the sun to set at noon. But it won’t let you do outright magic, because it has to have a basis in things that mortals can actually do, if exaggerated to ridiculous levels.

In 2e, the problem was that the things that mortals could do were pretty nebulous. Especially since the first few levels of the attribute were on a mortal scale, you could get into situations of “he’s supposed to be really good at this… so I guess he’s good enough to beat a Noble using Aspect 1?” One of 3e’s major additions was a system for using mortal actions, so you could actually resolve those situations.

Characters tend to get 8 points worth of skills and passions, which can go up to 5 like miraculous attributes. Passions are more like Fate Aspects: things you care about enough to do well no matter what your actual skill is like. Skills are things you can do well no matter how you feel about them. They don’t stack (even though my players desperately wanted them to); if you have Passion: Protect the Innocent 3 and Skill: Fighting 1, you fight with 1 point unless an innocent is in danger, then you fight at 3. You can also spend your points on Inherent Superiority traits instead if you want to design a magical but not miraculous creature, and they work like Skills and Passions for the most part (though are a little better).

Like miraculous actions, you determine the effect of a mortal action by adding points of an expendable pool (Will) to your relevant skill or passion. Like miracles, there’s a 9-point difficulty chart that you compare your total against to figure out what you accomplished (at 1 point you just make yourself happy without accomplishing much, while at 6 points you do something really impressive that makes your life better). If you’re in conflict, you compare totals and there are similar ways to apply penalties like with miraculous conflict.

There are also a couple of special skills: Shine and Cool. Shine gets bonus points from the Persona attribute, and represents your skill at leadership. Anyone who’s helping you can use your Shine instead of their own skill. Cool gets bonus points from Aspect, and represents your general awesomeness. Anyone who’s trying to hurt you has to take your Cool as a penalty. I’m not totally happy with Shine, just because there’s probably someone in the group with it fairly high and everyone else starts to ask if they can claim their action is for that person to use the higher total. I do like Cool, because it’s one of the whimsical, interesting things about Nobilis; the natural consequence of Cool is that large-scale non-miraculous attacks on civilians are rarely successful because the more people you target, the higher your chances that there’s someone really cool in the bunch that reality won’t let you take out like a mook.

Low-level Aspect miracles now hook directly into the mortal actions system. An Aspect 2 miracle will now give you a mortal action as if you’d spent 5 Will, so it can potentially peg out the scale if you’re already highly skilled. You can also use your magical Treasures to always take mortal actions with them as if you’d spent 3 Will. Since the action economy allows Nobles to generally take an essentially free Mortal action every time they do something, characters will wind up bothering with these actions a lot more than they did in 2e, since there’s a quantitative result for doing so.

The strength of the system is that a highly skilled mortal now has a system for defeating a lightly-invested god. It also does some interesting things with classifying mortal actions as “intentions” that may or may not succeed depending on effort and conflict, to contrast miracles that by definition always change the world (though possibly mitigated by other Nobles). And it actually gets players thinking about mortal actions in an interesting way.

The weakness of the system is that it’s kinda confusing exactly how it interacts with miracles. It also may work better when framing pre-written examples than guiding players in actual play (“My Intention is to study and enjoy lunch” is great for an illustration, but not something I’d see people using). Finally, it’s unclear on scope (even more than the player-written elements in the rest of the system); since you’re writing your own skills and passions, it’s easy to have one guy spend spend for Skill: Pistol while another buys Skill: Combat, one picks Passion: I want to be the best singer in my town and another picks Passion: I always win! Some more guidance would have been appreciated.

It seems like it’s going to be the core of the systems for The Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine, so maybe without having to be a footnote to miraculous actions it will really shine there.

Domain, Persona, and Estates

One of the changes to the core of the game is that you’re now encouraged to make up several statements about your Estate (the noun around which most of your miraculous powers and duties revolve). This encourages you to give the GM ideas on exactly what about your Estate is important to you. One power of Fire focuses on the destructive qualities, one on the boon it is to civilization.

These are especially important because now there’s a new attribute, Persona, which lets you manipulate these individual qualities in a lot of ways, blessing or cursing various things with elements of your estate. This attribute now covers the more nebulous “cool things I should be able to do with my Estate” areas that aren’t directly related to Domain miracles to create, destroy, or move elements of it.

This is one area, unfortunately, where the game might need another revision cycle before the rules really feel robust and useful in all situations.

Writing Estate qualities becomes difficult. You’re not just trying to define how you conceive your Estate, but to do it in a way that gives you sentences that would be useful with the Persona attribute. The attribute can transform those sentences into Afflictions that benefit you or others.

Persona makes way more sense for tangible Estates than idea-based ones. It’s fairly easy to establish a difference between using Domain to create Fire and using Persona to curse someone with the metaphorical qualities of Fire. It’s much more nebulous what the difference is between using Domain to create Curiosity and using Persona to curse someone with the qualities of Curiosity.

Finally, the rules description itself seems to have run out of ideas past level 6; the rules text is just a single sentence for levels 7 and 8 that you can do things “more powerfully” or “on a larger scale” than the level 4 and 5 miracles. It’s hard to figure out exactly what cool things you could do with those levels they way you can with the high levels of the other attributes.

On the whole, Persona is a neat idea: it’s certainly more active than 2e’s Spirit attribute (which Persona largely replaced), and provides useful options that were previously missing to players that chose more tangible Estates. But I think it could do with a deeper look, or at least more robust examples, to make it as good a buy as the other attributes.

System Review: Nobilis 3e, Part 1


I’ve Got Them in My Garden Now

So way back in my second review series, I covered Nobilis 2nd Edition. The 3rd Edition came out early last year, and I finally got a copy and got to do a brief playtest. This review will build pretty heavily off of the previous edition, so catching up on that review might be worthwhile if you find yourself lacking total context.

Nobilis 2nd Edition seemed to have a very strong late-80s-modern-fantasy feel. It was a lot Sandman and a little Prophecy and Hellraiser. Or at least that was how my group interpreted it. Nobles couldn’t really affect one another directly, using any obvious miracles was a great way to drive all mortal onlookers insane (the Dementia Animus), and driving mortals insane was one of several very serious prohibitions (another of which was that all love was forbidden). The Excrucians, the major villains of the setting, were overwhelmingly powerful in physical conflict, but they’d mostly attack you with a philosophical trap where you had to discover and unravel a paradox or other corruption within your Estate via an exemplifying situation. Most of the art was stately and classical, depictions of modern gods. It all led to a more introspective style of play (and, anecdotally, a hard time for a lot of people that tried to run it).

The new edition, even before the system, makes some very serious stylistic changes to the way the setting is framed. Nobles can now target one another directly. Dementia Animus is still a thing, but seems like it’s only meant for the most outrageous breaks in reality. Lord Entropy is framed more as a bully whose laws are nearly impossible to follow; it’s all about remembering to cover your tracks, not actually trying to follow the rules. The Flower Rite that the Excrucians used to unweave Estates is no longer explained in the core book; they seem like they’re just as likely to be foils as major antagonists. The art is manga-style and full of aggressive, active, smiling characters. It feels a lot more like modern fantasy anime (and the followup game in the same setting is a Miyazaki-inspired pastoral fantasy Kickstarting right now).

This is no longer primarily a setting of lonely gods trying to unravel metaphysical machinations while avoiding the lure of love. It’s now also a place where sometimes you might totally ninja kick a guy into the sun. And if nothing else, that might make it an easier sell to a people who couldn’t really figure out what to do with 2nd edition.

But does the system fulfill these goals?

Core Mechanics

The root mechanic hasn’t changed much since 2nd edition:

  • It’s still diceless.
  • You still have pools of Miracle Points locked to four attributes with a lossy conversion between them.
  • You still spend MPs (in stacks of 1, 2, 4, or 8) to add to your attribute level to achieve a difficulty level.
  • You can still do anything with a difficulty equal or lower than your attribute for free.

The major change to the system is an addition of concepts that make conflict more deliberately fiddly. In 2nd edition, conflict was basically just a game of cosmic chicken: will you bid enough MPs to have the higher total this exchange, and if you spend them will that wipe you out for minimal gains in the long run? In 3rd, there are more levers on a conflict so you have more options than to outspend your opponent. The three major additional levers are Edge, Auctoritas, and Strike.

Edge is the simplest and weakest of the three. You can get it from a variety of things as a one-off, and if you have a high Domain you can spend MPs to get several points of it that last a whole scene. When you’re in contention with someone, you can subtract your Edge from their Miracle total before comparing totals. For example, if you have 3 Edge on a level 5 Miracle, you can beat someone with a level 7 Miracle but no Edge. Edge is, thus, really useful, but it’s also fairly weak because penalties don’t stack; if you’re reducing someone’s Miracle level for other reasons, your Edge might replace the penalty, but won’t add to it.

Auctoritas used to be a persistent benefit from the Spirit attribute (which no longer exists). It still works mostly the same way: if a target you’re opposing with a Miracle has Auctoritas, you fail to affect it unless you can totally overcome its Auctoritas total. Against a guy with as low as 1 Auctoritas, even a level 9 miracle will just roll off if you didn’t work in a way to get past it. The new edition’s take on it is more interesting than the persistent, unvarying level you used to get. Now, while you can spend on Persona (one of the new attributes) for Auctoritas (similarly to getting Edge from Domain), you primarily get it from Afflictions. Afflictions (which are not always bad, despite the name) are basically truths about your character than the GM enforces, and if anyone tries to contradict them miraculously, they have to overcome the Affliction’s level. This means that you can’t just zero in on someone’s defense level, because it varies, which makes fights more interesting. However, since Strike is also pretty easy to come by, Auctoritas serves mostly to make fighters change tactics rather than being a universally strong defense.

Strike is how you get through Auctoritas. It used to be called Penetration in 2nd edition. It still works pretty much the same way: if you equal or exceed the Auctoritas rating with your Strike rating, your Miracle has its full effect; if you don’t, it doesn’t affect the target at all. However, Strike now also comes with equal points of Edge, so it is probably the most powerful of the three; if you have 5 points of Strike, you ignore nearly any Auctoritas and also reduce the opponent’s Miracle level by 5 for comparison. Like in 2nd edition, you can spend extra MP for Strike on a per-Miracle basis, but the best way to get it is through Bonds. Bonds are the counterparts to Afflictions, in that they’re negative or positive statements about the character; unlike Afflictions, the player generally chooses whether or not they apply. When they seem to indicate that you should be awesome at something, they give you Strike equal to their level.

Afflictions and Bonds ultimately work a lot like Fate‘s Aspects, and there were several comments in the playtest about Nobilis 3e feeling a lot like “Fate Diceless.” The traits are, like Aspects, player-written blurbs about the character that serve to constrain you to actions that support your stated characterization intentions: you get MPs when they inconvenience you, and can use them to gain Auctoritas and Strike when it’s in character for you to be awesome. Their interactions are a little complicated and mathy, particularly when you have a lot of players trying to decide what they want to do in a fight, but I feel like they’re a valuable addition of variability into an otherwise totally deterministic system.

In 2e, your Miraculous conflicts could wind up feeling a lot like unstoppable force vs. immovable object. In 3e, with the addition of these three new options, the trick is to convince one of the sides that they’re not really so unstoppable or immovable after all before they even collide.

In the coming weeks, I’ll talk about the attributes that let you generate said unstoppable forces and immovable objects, and the mundane actions system where sometimes you can skate under unstoppable and immovable things altogether.

System Review: Next Gen MMOs, Conclusion

Comments Off on System Review: Next Gen MMOs, Conclusion

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.

System Review: Next Gen MMOs, Part 4

Comments Off on System Review: Next Gen MMOs, Part 4

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.


System Review: Next Gen MMOs, Part 3

Comments Off on System Review: Next Gen MMOs, Part 3

Limited Skill Deck-Building

Most MMOs have traditionally been of the model that every skill your character learns is available to you at will. Certainly, some skills require a particular item to work. And some MMOs don’t really give you that many in the first place. In fact, most MMOs have a very hard time giving you convenient access to more than a dozen skills, because once you have one bound to every number, the rest generally have to be accessed via binds, macros, or clicking an icon with your mouse. WoW and now SW:TOR are the champions of this last fact: by max level you can easily have over 40 power icons on your screen, each of which is useful frequently enough to leave it there.

But, given the way your hands work, the only ones convenient to use are the ones within easy reach of your fingers. In games with dozens of useable powers, high-level encounters might be balanced to need a lot of them. So your ability to play the high level content really comes down to having an amazing spatial memory for your skill bar, good recall about what each of your abilities does, and tricks for getting there fast. I’m sure there are people that love this type of player competence being required to play well, but it’s not really that friendly to a mass audience. I suspect the vast majority of players almost never use more skills than fit in their first row of quickslots.

The first place I saw this directly supported was Guild Wars 1: you can only have eight skills active on your character at a time (accessed with number keys 1-8). You might know literally hundreds of skills, but you have to pick eight to take into an adventure (you can freely arrange them in town). Theoretically, not many skills are drastically better than other skills, but each varies in cost, time to use, cooldown, and effects. Some skills are better if you can use other skills to cause an effect (e.g., a skill that does extra damage to burning characters, but doesn’t, itself, set them on fire). Others are more valuable based on party composition (e.g., a skill that gives bonus HP to every party member for each enchantment is more useful in a party that uses a lot of enchantment buffs). Still others are more useful if you know what you’re fighting (e.g., armor against earth elemental damage is incredibly useful against specific enemies but completely useless against most others). So choosing your skills is a lot like building a deck in a collectible card game: you’re looking for synergy and strategy over raw power.

It’s not surprising that Guild Wars 2 is keeping a similar system. But it’s not the only MMO of this generation that’s doing so: both TERA and The Secret World use a similar mechanism as well. GW2 has changed it up from the previous game: you still only have a limited number of skills, but half of them are based on equipped weapon, one is always a heal, and one is always a high-level elite skill (reducing the deck building complexity considerably). You also often have different class-based effects on F1-F4. This theoretically gives the player less freedom, but probably makes balancing content significantly easier for the designers (currently in GW1 there are skill decks with synergy so good they can allow a prepared player to safely solo elite group content). Meanwhile, TSW is much closer to GW1, in that you have complete freedom to choose your skill deck. Their variation is that skills are unlocked via a tree structure (rather than just captured or purchased individually) and you have an additional bar of skills that aren’t activated, but give you passive bonuses. But all evidence points to skill synergy being at least as important as in GW1. Finally, I only played TERA briefly, but it seemed to be using a similar system more for ease of access than anything else: I recall that you could only put abilities on the first six number keys and the first four F keys, ensuring that you’d never have to reach across the keyboard to use a power.

In general, I really like the trend that seems to be happening. Having lots of skills available at once really makes it necessary to pay more attention to the UI than to the 3D world, even if you can manage all those abilities. It also seems to make a “gotcha” encounter design more common, where you’ll normally be fine with just your first quickbar of skills, but you’ll periodically hit a wall of difficulty if you don’t remember some skill buried on bar six (“Oh, right, I can stun droids! That encounter could have been a lot easier!”). Knowing that you can only have a small number of your total skills available at one time makes it much easier to just pay attention to the 3D game and feel safe that, if a skill selection is doing well in an area, there will probably not be something you forgot to use in a later encounter.

The one downside to it is that it has no particular simulation rationale: it’s entirely a game mechanic, and there’s no explanation for why your character can’t use any learned skill in a pinch. But, given that most MMOs have hugely more severe violations of such immersion, that’s probably not worth getting annoyed about.

Part 4

Older Entries