Monday, November 24, 2014

Virtual Tabletop

I ran a 13th Age game online yesterday. It was pretty slick.

First off, playin' with the guys from long ago was nice. Only two of them, but I think the small group was just fine. There's something about the small group that makes it a bit more personal than a 5+ player group, and I don't think its just the speed at which you get to take each turn.

It is more exhausting as a GM though. You're almost always on, though not quite as bad as the 1-on-1 type game, as the players can chat a bit about things, but it wasn't enough time to let folk chat while you sneak away for a drink or bathroom break.

The virtual tabletop was a slight adventure in and of itself. I think it worked relatively well, though we did need to refresh the browser a few times to keep our audio connected, and that was after ditching the video feeds. I'm thinking I should try connecting with a cable next time to see if that helps a bit or not. But the software worked pretty well for a first try. I can see how if you keep playing it could be decent, though their 13th Age sheet is a little lacking, and it looks like you'd need to pay to adapt it. With only two characters, we might be able to calculate some things by hand (charisma modifiers) and write appropriate macros, or just type /r d20+3 instead of #melee...

Prep wise, doing a 13th Age module requires a bit more flexibility than I was ready for, which basically means I needed to write down a bit more of the info from the book into an easily accessible format. Of course, I didn't know which NPCs I'd want to use or Icons that would be involved until the game started, so when we finish this up next week that'll be much easier. For the tabletop, I need to pick out a few more maps and tokens beforehand to speed things up. I think 15-30 minutes putzing with tokens would have gotten me hitpoint bars and the like set up right away, plus possibly finding come decorations for the map layer, like the corpses. I'm not yet sure how much the actual map pictures helped versus just having tokens and the white background: we've done wonders with that wet-erase battle mat.

Rules-wise, I think it went pretty well. Despite my love of rules and love of enforcing them, I'm of the opinion that you use what you have at the table, make a ruling, and can go back and look up the specifics later unless they seem pretty important. So I think I made that work, though I still want to re-read the icons and combat sections. I even didn't really need to loosen the definition of Sneak Attack as I thought initially, as the rogue gets some powers that let them break their own rules for when they can apply sneak attack. But, eff it. I don't play a game where common sense won't let someone do something, I'd rather err on someone doing something nonsensical (garrote or prone an ooze) than not be able to use the powers their character is built around.

Character creation took longer than expected, if we had only spend 1 hour on it we'da probably finished the module. But I think a good chunk of our character creation was also spent on chit-chat and the players reading their 10 pages of character info. I didn't want to insist on everyone coming with a character already made as I've talked a lot about group dynamics and making a party while you create a character, so it meant the players had each skimmed about 4 classes and then choose from them then and there. The nice thing about 13th Age is most classes are contained within about 10 pages (that's levels 1-10) and for any future game I'd definitely print those 10 pages from the PDF (or SRD if I don't have my fantabulous free color printing) for each player to keep along with their character sheet. I should make a similar rules summary to this 5e one. I also really loved when Z asked if it was ok to take Swashbuckling for his rogue, and I had to respond that I'd be disappointed if he didn't. Some of those class talents just add a lot of flavorful awesomness that is missing in the new sanitized D&D.

All in all, a few things that we could have done differently. There was only one point where we probably had to refresh for a second or third time where I was feeling like the virtual tabletop wasn't going to work out, but now I'd definitely like to try it again and finish the adventure next week. And, foolishly, I've been tricked into figuring out why the various icons in play thus far (and one or two that aren't) are all making the moves they have, such that I could easily run this from level 1 to 10 if schedules and interests aligned. Because I'm a fool, a foolish fool.

At least this time I was tricked by hicks into cleaning out a barn.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

5th Edition: I am the goddamn healer...

So, in this 5th edition D&D game I showed up to a couple months ago, I was told that the party could use a healer. Being a good team player, I whipped up a cleric. But the type of cleric I might be more into: gnome trickster domain cleric. I had just read War for the Oaks and felt like I might have a good handle on playing a trickster cleric. Though we didn't discuss everything and a few players picked pre-gens when they showed up, so we weren't building a cohesive party. Otherwise I should have gone with a Knowledge Cleric or Sage Bard because we could have used the encyclop√¶dia role (no actual wizard in the party originally). I'll judge these people as Pathfinder players and they mostly want to do cool things and deal tons of damage.

But last week, it happened: I was going to cast Pass Without Trace for the party so everyone would be able to sneak and we'd do well at it with little risk.

"How many heals with that cost us?"

Eff you.

Because we have a warlock and no one else is really benefiting from short rests except via hit dice, the DM has been kinda stingy at letting us take short rests and the party hasn't thought they're as valuable perhaps. And why should they: the gnome (Candide Voltaire, yep, reusing that name) can heal them.

I'm a little sad at this because in 4e the healer was doing other things while healing, and the encounter-based healing meant that the healer also didn't really have to use as many daily resources. Now, I could exchange Cure Wounds for Healing Word and still be making some attacks, I suppose. And I think I just might start doing that now. Though I was also tempted to multiclass wizard soon to grab some illusions or rogue to solidify some sneaky skills with sneak attack. I could have picked a life cleric and maximized my healing potential, or a bard or druid or something else. But if we've returned to "Don't waste your spells if it isn't healing me..."


I was just a little taken back by the comment. Next time I'm just going to cast the damn spell anyway. A good few good sneaks and surprise rounds is totally worth one second level slot for a heal-up. And I just might consider a dipping into Wizard or Rogue to grab some other sneaky trickster powers besides my cleric spells.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Renaming the Alignments in D&D

I've been thinking about revising the alignment system of D&D. Not really revising, but just renaming. Because when I think about it, the system isn't unclear per se, just a bit... stale. This comes out of playing that Temple of Elemental Evil video game where you had to choose a party alignment. I think its a good system, but terms like good and evil are somewhat nebulous, to say nothing of 'lawful' and 'chaotic'. They don't quite describe what's going on in the game as well as maybe they could. So I wondered if they could be renamed to be a bit more... well... evocative.

The thing is, we often think of D&D as a heroic game, at least since 2nd Edition focused on that. The opposite of heroic is villainous, and has been pretty well established. Asking the players if they want to be a heroic or villainous group is pretty descriptive of what will happen in the game, and maybe a bit easier to grasp than good or evil.

There's other options though. I think mercenary pretty well captures the neutral alignment. A mercenary party might not be heroic, but they'd certainly be adventurers. Its also clear that a mercenary party might be selfish, but not really evil.

This gives us a pretty good notion of what sorts of characters might be at the table if you know if your party is heroic, mercenary, or villainous. But D&D has two or three more alignments. The big ones are law and chaos.

Chaos can be described as anarchic. With some of those political implications, an anarchic party doesn't believe in authority figures. You can imagine that Orcs and Goblins are anarchic because they have shifting power structures. While might might make right for them, another anarchic group might be elves who lack a high king or queen but have groups of respected elders: who have earned their places and don't govern from some divine authority (like a Dwarf king might). This has that Robin Hood, libertarian, or wild west sort of feel.

I'm having a harder time with a term for Law. Lawful isn't half bad, nor is Law-Abiding. The idea is a lawful party is possibly authoritarian, or possibly deputized into the governing hierarchy. At any rate lawful groups or characters believe that laws, regulations, and rules are necessary for society to function. Lawful groups will have a chain of command, a clear leader (or group of leaders), and possibly some organizations in place to ensure that the laws or rules are followed. Laws need not be codified and written, but sometimes can just be the tradition of the community. Disciplined or orderly are also reasonable terms here, but I haven't quite picked one that I think really applies both to describe groups and individuals well.

The last alignment is the other neutral, balance. I have kind of a hard time with this alignment when applied to good and evil: because in a way its admitting that there's an unseen order to the universe and being in harmony with it is the way to be. So that begins to sound pretty lawful to me, even if its not law as defined by mortal governments. This druid-alignment is often used as a way of opposing both the law and chaos of civilization in favor of the neutrality, harmony, or balance of nature. It would be a pretty specific type of party, so I'm not quite sure its needed. I also think someone who legitimately thinks the world needs evil in it is kind of a dick. I mean, yeah, there can be philosophical arguments about it, but its sometimes hard to fathom. Which is odd, because I've labeled that as mercenary (i.e. don't care). But the balance between law and chaos is just some sort of pragmatism perhaps, if it doesn't have cosmological implications. I'm not sure that axis needs some hard-to-grasp label when no label works just as well. If you want to do the druid pro-nature story, labelling a party as druidic might be just as evocative as long as players are experienced. I'm not sure if there's a better term but I'm not inclined to mull it over much finding a great term I'd never intend to use.

So, five terms to (mostly) replace the old alignments. The group might choose to be Heroic, Mercenary, or Villainous. They might also be Lawful or Anarchic. I could see a group just choosing one of those, however, and allowing "evil" characters in a Lawful group: the bad cop who uses the rules for personal gain.

Now, do these new terms really do enough to replace the old ones? And how do we get "neutral good" out of the mix? I think players will have a better idea of the type of game they're playing if they know its a Heroic or Mercenary game rather than good or neutral. And the neutrality between chaos and law can be dispensed with if a group need not pick two descriptors: Heroic is good enough and could include Lawful or Anarchic characters.

I think certainly labelling a party as heroic, mercenary, or villainous will give the right impression of a game to players. I can tailor my character idea easily given those labels. Lawful and anarchic might also be doable, but you kinda wonder what an anarchic party's goals are, so those two lose a little. But I think its worth giving players something like this to think about while myopically building their characters or giving the players the agency to decide what sort of game they're interested in playing by choosing the label themselves.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Psychological Stats

As I've been looking through a couple games lately and playing some 5e, I've noticed that the psychological stats are a bit lackluster or hard to use. I think the GUMSHOE system gets stuff pretty close to right, however.

What are these "psychological stats"? In traditional D&D, you have alignment. In the World of Darkness games, you select a nature and demeanor (mostly). 5th Edition D&D has Ideals, Flaws, Bonds, and Personality traits. DungeonWorld has bonds and alignment. Fading Suns actually has opposed traits (ego/faith, passion/calm, etc.) which kinda do some of this. But these are all basically little descriptions of how your character is supposed to act. The problem I see, is they don't always accomplish much.

Older edition D&D alignment basically let the DM punish characters who acted out of character. World of Darkness games let you regain willpower by acting in accordance with your nature, which is a bit nice, though demeanor generally did nothing. 5th Edition D&D has the inspiration system which gives you a tiny bonus if the DM agrees you're acting in accordance with your psych stats, but my current GM hasn't overtly used it since the first or second game. 13th Age doesn't even really have a psych stat at all.

What I really like, however, are the drives of GUMSHOE (e.g. Trail of Cthulhu) and passions of ORE (e.g. Reign). With ORE, you have three passions but you only have one thing that drives you to investigate in GUMSHOE. You could easily adapt this to your drive to adventure in a more traditional fantasy game. With ORE, when you act in accordance with one (or more) of your three passions, you can claim a 1 die bonus per passion, or the GM can levy a similar penalty if you're acting against them. Your drive in GUMSHOE can similarly affect your stability whether you're acting in accordance with it or not. GUMSHOE also suggests drives be used to edge characters into the adventure.

Why do these seem like better systems? For one, its a relatively small bonus and easy to track. I think GUMSHOE does a little better than ORE for simplicity, but they're fairly similar. The great thing is you can keep applying this minor bonus constantly, unlike inspiration in D&D 5th. Advantage is a small bonus when applied sparingly, but its rather huge if it were constantly in effect. So a drive or passion bonus in a d20 type game would need to be something smaller, like just a +1. An issue there is these little bonuses nickel and dime the game towards a big mathfest. I'm curious if a "lesser advantage" system of rolling d20+d12 choose the highest would actually be any advantage or not. Mathing it out looks like its about a +1 since your average result is higher with this than just a d20. However, given that a roll of 10-12 is still going to be a failure, I'm not sure if it'd really be enough of a small, constant bonus. You could do something similar with a d4 in Dungeonworld: instead of 2d6 for your roll, it'd be 2d6+1d4 keep the two highest. You'd be a little less likely to fail, though not much more likely to get that grand high roll. Dunno if that really maths out well, but people like rolling extra dice. Another option with DungeonWorld is changing the system to 2d8 (9+ is ok, 13+ is exceptional) then a reliable +1 isn't quite as big as it is in the normal system. 

Advantage in D&D 5th basically puts you at the mercy of your DM as to your good roleplaying. Passions or drives, on the other hand, are easier to sum up and you can remind your GM that you might merit the bonus: that seems crass in D&D 5th and possibly in some other systems. So the size of the bonus matters (gotta be small so it can be more common) but also the method of bringing your psych stat into play.

An alternate bonus would be awarding XP. That doesn't work in modern D&D when characters just end up leveling at the whim of the DM. In 13th Age you could at least hand out an incremental advance, I suppose. In a game like WoD or Fading Suns where XP works differently, you can easily give XP for adhering to your nature or suffering from your flaws. TSR era D&D could certainly get a small XP bonus (+5%?) for adhering to your alignment each session which might be enough for motivation and to inspire some roleplaying. 

I'm not sure that psych stats would necessarily fix everything, but if they were better implemented in some systems they just might help a bit. Adding a Drive to DungeonWorld or D&D (old or new) wouldn't be too difficult if it had almost no mechanical effects, but it seems that the real benefit of these psych stats is to help people play their character and give them a benefit for doing so.

There's an ancillary issue here too, which is constraining choices to fit a group. I honestly liked the constraint from the Temple of Elemental Evil vidya game, which was you picked a party alignment and then created characters. Back when alignment at least constrained some classes, it meant Paladins could only be in a LG, NG, or LN party. Barbarians couldn't be in a Lawful party, while Monks couldn't be in a chaotic party. Binning drives into similar themes might not be necessary, but its worth thinking about building the party as well as the characters.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Sometimes, the rules make all the difference.

Now that the Vampire Dark Ages kickstarter is over, I'm getting back to thinking of my own not-yet-implemented vampire game and vampire stuff in general. I'm struck by the differences in the different editions. I must really be a rules lawyer, because sometimes the differences in the system make me not want to play a certain character concept.

First off, I've always been intrigued by some of the minor bloodlines, particularly the Baali and Salubri. Call me a special snowflake, but I see nothing wrong with being something uncommon in my fantasy games. How the rules implement these guys, however, makes a huge difference.

I'm going to pick on the new larp rules for vampire as an example here, but that shouldn't be to say that they're bad or have the same goals as tabletop rules. But let's say I wanted to play a Baali or Salubri in a local vampire larp and the ST allowed it. I would be quickly discovered and killed, because the medicine skill allows you to determine a vampire's clan. What tyrannical prince wouldn't test the veracity of someone's claims to clan given the ability? I was super impressed that the Auspex telepathy power didn't let you just rip this info from someone's mind, or that even the Tremere blood magic didn't quite just give this info away, but then I found it in the medicine skill?!? Ugh.

Yeah, you can house-rule that, but it basically says that impersonating a vampire of another clan is unfeasible given the larp rules, so you just couldn't do those characters in a Camarilla setting (Sabbat would be awkward, Anarch might be fine). But already I'm adjusting the character I want to play to the particular game, or choosing a character mostly based on the rules since its just too easy to be found out. In the same vein, the Baali are explicitly demonic in the rules. Daimoinon explicitly requires a demonic pact. Not only does that go against some of the story the Baali have, but it makes them much harder to play.

Now, the larp rules are obviously trying to keep rare things rare and overpowered things to a minimum since a game with 30-60+ PCs is very different than a game with 3-6 PCs.  But their system of merits is really odd too. Even if I purchase a Salubri character (a 6-pt merit for the healer type in most settings), I can't also purchase the Golconda Seeker merit (a 5-pt merit) because of the merit limit. No exceptions. It seems like a little oversight there, because you can never have more than 7 points of merits.  And merits are what allow everyone to be a special snowflake in the larp rules. I guess Salubri is so special you can't also go the golconda route.

I'm picking on the MET rules, but I think there are similar issues with how a particular discipline or clan weakness is instantiated by the rules. Also, merit/flaws. I always want to play a Malkavian oracle, but the oracle merit and auspex/dementation don't often seem to add up to a real prophet (note: the MET oracle merit is actually good, while the V20  and new Dark Ages stuff is wishy-washy and lame). In a table-top game the ST can really make or break the Oracular Ability merit though you could almost just as easily play an oracle character without buying that merit by making a deal with the ST.

Anyway, in my brainpan, this sort of stuff fits in the broader discussion of what rules are good and what aren't. Ideally what I'd like to see for some of these things is a discussion in the books about how to interpret powers and abilities. If you allow telepathy to rip anything from a character's mind and the power is common (either repeatable regularly by the PCs or a broader slate of NPCs) then keeping secrets will be impossible. If the Medicine ability let you recognize if two individuals were of the same clan (require two samples) instead of just identifying the clan, that's a world of difference. Should caitiff register as 'no clan' or 'caitiff' or 'unknown clan'? Could you choose one clan (or two?) per dot of medicine that you can identify easily and then have to do the comparison for the others? It makes for a different game if you can't tell the difference between Tremere and Salubri than if they're easily distinguishable with a ritual, path of thaumaturgy, or medicine skill use.

Ultimately it makes me yearn a little for the Gumshoe rules, or perhaps gumshoe-inspired rules where magic (along with other special abilities) has some limits. But the problem is broader: one rule impacts another until there's a whole system. I think a few more games should follow ones like 13th Age or Reign -- which explicitly call out some of their assumptions and intentions. Knowing why the designers of the MET rules decided Medicine should let you determine clan would help me decide how to implement or change that rule.

Or, I'll just not play my Salubri or Baali character in a larp. Not that I'll get much of a chance to play one anyway in the near future.