Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Don't punish players for defining their relationships - implications of True Friend

One night before playing with our group, the GM and I had a discussion about Vampire the Requiem that made its way onto discussing the True Friend merit and what it implied.

For those that don't know, True Friend is a merit in Vampire the Requiem 2nd edition that gives the PC a person that they can truly trust. Someone that will under almost no circumstances betray them, one that cannot be killed by the GM for "plot reasons", etc.


While in itself it's a bit of an innocuous merit, its very existence seems to imply a thing or two about how some GMs might be treating their PCs and their relationships.

A lot of the design that went on between Vampire the Masquerade, Vampire the Requiem 1st edition and now the 2nd edition is focused on addressing various issues that came up from actual play. The systems did away with creating multi-splat characters (no more Abominations!), addressed minmaxing, heck, it even massaged out small niggles with things like Sanctity of Merits.

This implies that True Friend was probably a reaction to some GMs crossing the line a few times too many, stuffing PC's loved ones in the fridge or making them betray the PC for the sake of a twist that wasn't even a good story. This of course disproportionately targets players that have gone out of their way to build a backstory, fill it with people their character cares about, engage with the NPCs and get invested in them, etc. In other words - it mostly punishes people that might care to get the most invested in the world, vs "Joe the Orphan" that has no family, no one to care about, etc.

So here is my request to all GMs that care:

  1. Talk with your players about potential boundaries and what are they comfortable with happening to their character. Some players might be on-board with being betrayed and stabbed in the back, but others won't.
  2. Foster trust in your group. Respect what the players are putting forward, and talk with them if something doesn't fit - don't just kill off some player's NPC because they don't fit in with the story.
  3. Be mindful when you aim to kill off or hurt NPCs important to the players. It might not sit well with everyone if they are not on-board with it.
  4. Don't punish your players for getting invested in your story, your world and your NPCs. You want them to get invested, so you should reward that behaviour, not punish it.

Monday, 8 July 2019

The Goblin Brain in RPGs

Every now and then, each tabletop RPG group will come up with a solution to an issue so bizarre and appalling that will leave the GM gobsmacked in horror or in laughter. Not sure if there is a proper term for this, but my group calls it the Goblin Brain.

Goblin Brain


Goblins don't think like people. They are ruthless, direct, and have no moral qualms about anything. Finding the simplest, most direct solution to a problem, consequences be damned, is the way of the Goblin, and this frame of mind is the Goblin Brain.

There are many stories out there about Goblin Brain's way of thinking, some are even cannon to the RPG sourcebooks. Let me tell you a few of them.

Puffin Forest's goblin brain in action - a student figuring out a peculiar way to solve an issue...

Heists, fire and heads on sticks


Recently, my group has decided to play a one shot using San Jenaro Co-op's The Roleplayer's Guide To Heists preview. We were playing a scenario about stealing a priceless movie reel from a cinema event. The theatre was heavily guarded by mob goons, the display was under constant surveillance by 4 guards, under a bulletproof glass dome and secured by an electronic security system that locks the entire room down instantly. We had only two players playing the game, so we had to punch way above our pay grade in order to have a chance of pulling off this hit.

In preparation for this scenario, our Goblin Brains kicked in. Some of our plans included burning the place down, chloroforming the entire room, kidnapping people, killing all the guards and anyone else who might be in the room, locking the cinema down and smoking people to death, etc. All very direct and horrible methods of solving the issue. In the end, we figured out some less gruesome way of solving the issue, but some fire was still involved...

We glanced at another scenario in the preview - one where you have to steal a space shuttle. After figuring out that pretending to be the astronauts with visors down would be suspicious the Goblin Brains kicked back in and said "what if we kill them, put their heads on a stick and walk in their suits holding their heads up so nobody would notice?". That's when we knew we had to stop ;) .

Exalted and Dragonblooded Breeding Camps


Exalted is a game about playing mythic sword and sandal heroes. There are two main types of Exalted heroes in the setting, Celestial Exalted (Solars, Lunars, Sidereals) which are directly empowered by gods, and Terrestrial Exalted, aka the Dragonblooded, which derive their power from the five elements and a strong lineage. The former have a fixed, limited number to them, the latter don't - hence why they are called the Ten Thousand Dragons.

So, how do you make an army of Dragonblooded, heroes that are born from a strong lineage? Well, the Goblin Brain kicks in and your answer is "breeding camps!" - make the strong blood multiply and create more Dragonblooded this way. You can bet this idea came about soon after the first Exalted book was published and has remained an infamous meme in the community ever since...

Vampire the Requiem and the Hungarian Marriage


In Vampire the Requiem there is a vampiric Covenant called Ordo Dracul. They are essentially transhumanist vampires looking for ways of overcoming their vampiric weaknesses. Rites of the Dragon even describes how two weaknesses are pitted against one weakness to overcome it. With this practice, they have developed the Coils of the Dragon, rituals that transform the vampiric bodies. In the 1st edition specifically, under the Coil of Blood you had the power "Perspicacious Blood", which let you gain more blood points than you drank from someone else (you get 3 points per 2 blood you drink from a mortal, or 2 per 1 for vampire blood). The power is simple enough, letting you feed more efficiently, but then the Goblin Brain kicks in...

In the Ordo Dracul book the writers describe a practice known as the Hungarian Marriage. You would have a pair of vampires with the power feeding from one another to produce infinite blood points. However, those that know their Requiem already realise there are two problems with this - Vinculum and blood addiction. Blood addiction means that a vampire drinking other vampire blood gets addicted to the sensation and may crave it more and more. Vinculum on the other hand is a blood bond forming in someone that has drank from the same vampire repeatedly, making them a thrall to the vampire. This would result in a lot of strong, conflicting feelings in those two vampires that may cause problems to a lot of other people around them. Needless to say, this practice can be severely punished, such as by throwing the two "lovers" in a metal coffin into the sea while they remain awake and able to feed off one another in perpetuity...

Slave worship and making your own followers


Once again in Exalted - in the setting, gods derive their power and wealth from being venerated. The bigger the god's cult the more prominent figure they become and the more money they have to bribe other celestial bureaucrats with. On the flip side, a god that doesn't get any prayers loses power and can even go insane.

Here is where the entrepreneurial Guild comes in. As any world-spanning merchant organisation it seems, they deal with slaves. So their Goblin Brain says - what simpler way of making easy money than to sell the gods the service of being worshipped by the slaves? Coincidentally, a player's Goblin Brain might also chip in analysing how much money can you make laundering prayers and conclude that a person worshipping for a whole day produces more wealth than one working all day, hence all the economy is a sham.

On a similar note, in our Godbound game, Evicting Epistle, we had a god of Artifice and Fertility. Since in that system you get more Dominion points each month based on the amount of people that worship your character, the simplest Goblin Brain solution was to make more followers. So the character went ahead and created a race of Units, smallest creatures capable of having a soul and producing worship, then putting them in a life-sustaining cell where they could worship them all day, every day for the rest of their lives. The cells were self-replicating too!

Rick and Morty's Microverse Battery, used as a literal prototype document for the Units' enclosure

I could be going on and on about more Goblin Brain examples, but I think you get the point by now...

Conclusions


When players come up with the most blunt, straightforward solution to a problem that would be appalling to a normal human being, you know they were thinking with their Goblin Brain. It can be fun to theorise, sometimes it can be fun to actually carry out, but keep in mind that a Goblin Brain might not be thematically fitting for all sorts of games. 

Monday, 1 July 2019

Unstable combat systems - taking wargaming out of RPGs

As everyone knows, D&D has roots in wargaming. Combat is an important part of D&D as well as many other RPGs. However, after playing a lot of different games, it seems most of them suffer from an "unstable combat system".

What do I mean by unstable? Balancing encounters usually feels like trying to balance a ball on top of a hill - it tends to fall one way or the other with ease, while keeping it in balance is a feat. In RPG terms, you either end up throwing something way too easy at the players and they end up roflstomping it, or the encounter is too hard and the player characters end up dying. Ideally, you want the characters to pull through but at a cost.

For example, in our most recent Godbound game, Evicting Epistle, in 24 sessions of playing we had about 2 good encounters - one army v army, and one 3v1 brawl. A lot of other battles were either PCs wiping the floor with the enemies, or running with their tails between their legs not to get murdered.

So what issues contribute to a combat system being unstable?

High numbers with high variance


Humans are not machines, they have problems conceptualising large numbers and doing two digit arithmetic on the fly. How much longer a 65HP character will survive against an opponent that deals 8 damage than a 47HP one? Hard to tell when you have to make up an encounter on the spot.

This issue gets compounded when there is a high variance between the results (the possible range of numbers and how probable they are to appear). If an enemy does 1D10 damage, you can kill your 50HP character in 5 hits, or 10, or 37, etc. One or two bad rolls and you are out of there, or you can still be around 20 crappy rolls later, who knows? Prey to your luck deity of choice.

Having low, somewhat predictable numbers is generally better. For example, in Fellowship, characters usually have 5 levels of health and possibly a few points of armour and healing items. Enemies usually deal 1 damage. You can roughly prepare an encounter based on such small numbers easily, and players can see ahead of time if their actions will expose them to the danger of getting taken out or not.

Similarly, in Chronicles of Darkness, health and damage output of characters is usually in single digits, so you know that "this enemy that can deal 5 damage" will kill you in about two successful hits. The variance is a bit higher, but the outcomes are usually somewhat predictable and still small enough to wrap your head around.

Action economy and focusing


A lot of RPG combat revolves around everyone taking turns to perform actions. Usually the side that can take more actions (by say, having more characters) is at an advantage. If you compound this by focusing many actions against a single character (remember to always "cap the pointy hat" and go for the wizard...), you can start unbalancing the action economy more and more by removing characters from the equation. This feels particularly cheap if used against PCs since it's a cheap yet effective tactic, and it feels as if the GM has a gripe with them in particular.

In general, a lot of Powered by the Apocalypse avoid this issue by making the enemies act when a PC fails. This means enemies don't have an action economy at all, so there isn't much to unbalance, beyond figuring out how much health / damage the players have in total vs how much health / damage the enemies have, in aggregate. Five players have five times the health to soak with after all!

High lethality


Another contributing factor to unstable combat is the high lethality of said system. If a character or enemy can go down in one or two hits, you are not only throwing the action economy out of balance, but you can potentially upset a lot of players by killing their characters unceremoniously.

Sure, some systems can embrace and run with it. Cyberpunk's firefights usually were one hit one death scenarios where the players knew what they sign up for whenever they drew their guns. 

If you move away from "losing combat means losing a character" systems, you can open up new roleplaying opportunities - perhaps the PCs get captured / put in prison and now they have to escape, instead of just rolling up new characters.

AoE and force multipliers


Area of Effect damage dealing abilities and other force multipliers can further throw things out of whack. Instead of fighting 1-on-1 you have to deal with someone potentially hitting a group of enemies and applying the same damage multiple times. Suddenly the you have someone taking on 5 enemies and killing them off while the rest of the group gangs up on the remaining straggler.

I have ranted about this before, how in Godbound you can have a character that wipes out entire armies with a single attack, but most of the characters there can tap into an AoE smite that becomes quite powerful at higher levels. Not only that, but you can easily bring a small army with you to combat and have them attack everyone, etc.

Setup time and iterating


A perhaps less obvious factor contributing to unbalanced combat is how much time it takes to set up and how easily you can iterate on it. This somewhat ties to asymmetric character complexity. If it takes 10-20 minutes to prepare an encounter and it's over in 5 minutes, something's probably wrong. Same if it goes on for two hours, then it becomes a slog.

Ideally, you'd figure out what worked for a given encounter and try iterating on it as time goes on - "3 guards weren't a challenge, maybe 5 will work better next time". However, if your next encounter uses completely different set of enemies that rely on completely different mechanics ("2 beholders!"), you may not get to iterate on the encounters too much.

If this gets compounded, you may not get too many encounters per session due to how long they take, and you may not iterate on the same encounters too much due to wildly disparate enemies, you may never perfect your encounters.

Fellowship generally has an easy time with this - most enemies have the same amount of health points and their powers mostly differ in flavour. So encounter to encounter a similar amount of enemies will usually be a similar challenge, and encounters themselves take a few minutes to set up at most, so you can easily iterate and tweak things to get pretty much what you'd expect out of it.

Combat vs non-combat PCs


Party composition can also affect combat stability. If you have some PCs that are very combat-focused and some that are very much the opposite, it's hard to have combat encounters that challenge one group and don't outright kill the next. This is further exaggerated if characters can grow to multiply their effectiveness, while others fall behind on the treadmill.

Godbound and Stars Without Number have pretty much been like that for us - having one or two characters that are all about combat, and then inevitably you'd have someone that can't hit enemies and does nominal amount of damage, getting frustrated in the process.

On the other hand, Fellowship once again shines by making playbooks that always have some offensive capabilities, as well as having a system that is versatile enough for everyone to be able to contribute ("I may not be able to kill them, but I can run around screaming to distract them while someone else takes them down!").

Conclusions


To make a somewhat stable combat system for an RPG, you generally want to:
  1. Operate on small numbers for health and damage that are easy to comprehend
  2. Keep damage somewhat predictable
  3. Minimise the effect of action economy on balance
  4. Manage the lethality of combat
  5. Avoid AoE attacks
  6. Make encounters quick to set up and somewhat consistent (be it point-wise, challenge-wise or something else)
  7. Give options for everyone to contribute or do something meaningful, even if they didn't build the character for combat
Now, not all of those are always necessary and sometimes you will want to create some conscious exceptions, but they are good to keep in mind when designing a fun combat system.

Wargames might be all about besting your opponent and winning at all cost, but that may not always make for a good tabletop combat. You want to challenge your players, not outright kill their characters.

Monday, 27 May 2019

Make every roll impactful

Efficiency in a tabletop system is a nice thing to have. The more systems I try with my group, the more I'm bothered by rolls that don't affect the story on their own - either ones that you need to chain together, or ones that don't carry consequences with them.

Chain rolls


When my group started looking into playing some Exalted vs the World of Darkness, I started getting flashbacks to my old days of playing Vampire the Masquerade and the old mechanics that are still in that system. Of them, the most pertinent to our discussion today are the attack rolls.

To attack someone in Vampire the Masquerade, you roll your Dexterity and say, Melee. If you succeed, you take however many successes over 1 you got, add your Strength and the damage of the weapon you are using, and roll that again. That is the amount of damage you do. Now the enemy makes their soak roll and subtracts the successes from your attack roll. So you roll three times in order to get the result you want (you can also start adding the cost-benefit analysis of various manoeuvres like "if I strafe with my assault weapon and get +10 to hit but +2 difficulty, is that a net gain for me?" but let's keep it simple...).

Now, let's compare that to Vampire the Requiem. You roll Strength + Melee - your opponent's Defence. The amount of successes you roll is how much damage you do. Done. In one roll you accomplish everything you used to in three rolls.

This type of rule design can really speed up how you resolve each action in combat without lowering the depth of character builds. You can still make glass cannons, soak tank and what have you.

Try, try again


A thief walks up to a lock. They roll to pick the lock, and they fail. They roll again, and they fail. Someone else from the party decides to give that same lock a try, they roll, and they fail. Then the thief rolls again, succeeds and the party moves on.

A lot of you could probably think back to something like this happening in your game, probably even the exact same scenario. It's an example of a roll that's not impactful if you fail it. Sure, if you only had one chance to pick that lock, that would be something, but if you're picking a lock that's the only way through to continue your adventure, failure is not really an option.

There are two ways of addressing this issue - either ignore the roll entirely if the characters are skilled and equipped enough for it to not be a challenge, or think of some meaningful consequences for failed rolls.

The first approach can be found for example in the Vampire the Masquerade games - if your dice pool for a roll exceeds the difficulty of the roll, you automatically succeed at the roll (under certain conditions). Even if your system doesn't support it, you can usually tell when some roll is beneath your player's character - just roll with the fiction and move on.

The second approach is very prominent in the Powered by the Apocalypse systems like Fellowship. Each time you fail a roll, either there are set consequences to be had, or the GM can use Cuts against you. Maybe they'll "Show signs of an approaching threat" - you made noise and attracted the guards to your location, or "Use up or take away their resources" - your lock pics gear breaks and now you have to batter the door down, etc.

At any rate, you want the roll to be important, whether it succeeds or fails. If it's not important, it's not necessary.

Conclusions


If you can help it, try making every roll in your game be meaningful and impactful. Sure, sometimes it's fun to ace a roll you're really good at, but you can just as easily narrate how awesome you are when you auto succeed. Try giving your rolls weight for failure beyond "nothing changes" - that outcome is the most boring of them all.

Monday, 20 May 2019

Asymmetric character complexity - cardboard cutout NPC stats

A lot of RPGs use the same complexity when describing NPC stats as they do PC stats. It's understandable - you spend a lot of time developing and polishing how PC-facing mechanics work, you write up a lot of cool powers and so on, so why wouldn't you use the same system for your NPCs? On the other hand, there is such a thing as information overload...

Godbound and simplified powers


In Godbound, the players control demigod PCs, complete with a suite of divine Words containing many Gifts. The PCs use these powers to up their damage output, do some cool stunts, synergies and what have you. By mid-game you can easily have 15 different Gifts bound to you and have access to some 15 more, taking a few pages of possible things you can do.
A page like this times three,
that's a rough approximation of the amount
of different things every Godbound PC can do

In contrast, NPCs can usually be described in one paragraph with a few key stats:

Typical Godbound NPC

Some more important NPCs also have access to a handful of divine miracles, but those are usually more limited.

To balance the challenge between PCs having access to a lot of powers and NPCs being a lot more simple, the game just gives the NPCs higher stats. While a PC might use a gift to get low AC, a gift to do 1d10 damage, and another one to attack twice, an NPC just gets low AC, two attacks and a high damage instead. All of the complexity and word count that would normally go into a set of gifts get instead distilled into raw stats. This way the GM doesn't need to internalise 10 different powers, instead they can just hand-wave "this NPCs has powers to support their stats".

What this design approach does is it allows the GM to much quickly introduce new NPCs and throw challenges at the PCs without having to keep too many powers in their head and forgetting half of them.

Similarly, scaling encounters up into battling armies just means giving the enemies more HP and more attacks per round. This way you can introduce 10 or 1000 enemies at once just as easily and not have to worry about tracking individual stats and positions.

Fellowship and simple threats


Fellowship (and many other Powered by the Apocalypse games) follow similar philosophy, only they take it even further. While a player character might have a a few pages of moves they can do, five different stats to roll and a bag of equipment, the NPCs might not even roll, instead being very reactive with what they do.

A PC wizard

An NPC wizard

This can further reduce the complexity of any encounter. Bigger groups of enemies are also rather simple - they just gain one extra stat and one new mechanic.

And honestly, even with this level of simplicity, you can still have interesting encounters and give your enemies unique powers to challenge the players with.

Conclusions


Complexity can be a fun thing, but it can also be a burden. It's fun to have options as a PC to what you can do, so you do want extra complexity on that side of the table. However, if you are a GM and you have to juggle many NPCs and enemies at once, you ideally want something simpler instead so you don't get lost. This way everyone around the table generally operates at a similar information load - players can keep a lot of intricate details about their PCs on their sheets and in their heads, and the GM can instead commit to managing a number of NPCs by themselves. Expecting one person to potentially deal with the same information load as 5 other people can be daunting.

Thursday, 16 May 2019

Pointless labour multipliers and time as a resource

My group and I have played a lot of Godbound in the past, and I've always saw one Gift standing out as at the same time particularly useful and useless at the same time - Ten Thousand Tools. It's a "labour multiplier" type of power, where the work put out by your character counts as 1000 labourers per character level. I've come across similar powers in other RPGs, but this one is by far the highest multiplier:




On one hand, you can see these kinds of powers as pretty good - you are able to accomplish much more than a normal person could. Having this kind of power in real life would be really cool! However, there are a few problems here as well.

First of all, how do you compare the performance of a normal person to someone that is already supernaturally good at their craft? Do you multiply your supernatural output by 1000, or is your output equivalent to 1000 normal people?

Secondly, what can you do with that labour? Are there some time tables of how much effort it would take to construct a building? A palace? Make a ship? Not really, since generally you don't care about such minutia. Generally, you won't be playing Traveller where you can track how fast you can load cargo into your freighter down to an hour:

Traveller's cargo loading time

Thirdly, even if you had the breakdown, you mostly wouldn't care. I personally find the concept of time in most RPGs to be a bit distorted - what does it mean for our session that a character can finish their day's work in 2 hours if it's still one character out of a party of four? Does it change anything if instead of a month to do something it takes the PC a week? Even with Godbound's 1000+ times multiplier, you are already dealing with demigods working physical labour. A lot of things are generally hand-wave-y, since we usually don't play in a game where a strict deadline matters.

Time as a resource


If such kind of powers are to be useful, time needs to be somehow quantifiable in the game. For example, if a character only has 8 hours to pilfer a library they just broke into in the dead of night and each of their rolls takes an hour, that is a very solid use for the labour multipliers. Maybe every session counts as a week of time passing with something bound to happen in X months unless the characters finish their project. Or it could be as simple as "everyone gets a time slot for their projects, and if you have this power you can take two time slots".

At the same time, most of such scenarios are usually quite specific. I am yet to play in a game where such things would come up on regular basis.

Conclusions


Labour-multiplying powers, while at first glance very useful, end up only really applicable when paired with in-game time being a precious resource, and only for actions that already take a fixed amount of time to perform. Unless a system has both of these, such powers often end up being too nebulous to be useful.

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Flat shared XP and Geist's Beats per minute

In the past we have discussed a few topics related to what I'd like to bring up today - how Chronicles of Darkness improved the game experience with small tweaks, how it almost fixed minmaxing, how it failed with some Beat systems, and the general discussion of various ways of handing XP in RPGs.

With that in mind, today I heard Geist The Sin-Eaters 2nd Edition was doing away with the choice between Individual and Group Beats you could use in Chronicles of Darkness, instead making Group Beats the only option.

I don't have the PDF, so I'm going off what was mentioned here...

Personally, I think it's a good idea, but the reason for this needs a bit more explanation.

Beats mechanics


In Chronicles of Darkness, XP is awarded to the players in form of Beats. Five Beats make 1 XP. Those are earned in a number of ways - you can get a Beat for fulfilling your aspirations, for dealing with trauma, botching a roll, getting beaten up, and dealing with something that shakes your character's Integrity. All in all, whenever your character faces an important or pivotal moment in a scene, you earn a Beat.

Of course, the system can be gained a bit. You can build characters more for farming Beats, and if you play them right, you can get double the amount of XP other players do, which just can breed resentment at the table - never a good thing.

It becomes less pronounced when you just use the Shared Beats system, but that creates another problem...

Beats per minute


Under the Shared Beats system, whenever a player earns a Beat, it gets put into a shared pool. At the end of the session, you take the Beats and divy them up between all players equally. Everyone advances at the same pace and everyone's fine, right?

Well, there is a small issue with that. Tabletop games are a shared past time - you share the story and the time between a group of friends. However, the groups can be small or big, and that can affect the Shared Beats.

In any game session, you will usually have the flow of the game focus on and spotlight different characters at a different time. With how the Beat system is structured, if your character is in the spotlight you will usually get about a Beat or two per scene. However, it's usually harder to have scenes with multiple characters where everyone gets a Beat, unless you are fighting or facing off some horror (unless everyone starts to have the same encounters, same aspirations and so on, which detracts a bit from the individualism of the characters).

In other words, if this was a TV show, the more characters you have, the less spotlight each gets, and the less character development that is happening. Every session you will usually get a similar amount of story points (and thus Beats) no matter the amount of characters, but the more characters you have the more you have to divide the Shared Beats pool.

This is a similar issue to one discussed under "XP by practice" - there are only so many actions you can take in a scene, so many scenes in a session, so the more players you have the fewer XP you get.

Geist's solution


The solution to this issue is fairly straightforward - don't scale the XP to the number of players, make it more flat. Whether you scale it to "5 Beats and everyone gets 1 XP" (same as Individual Beats), or tweak the number a bit to hit some sweet spot, it's still going to be more enjoyable than "punishing" larger groups of players. This way if you have a scene where only one character is present, working away on their plans or dealing with a personal moment, you can take more time and focus on what's going on than trying to fit some time quota to make sure everyone had time to gain their Beats.

Honestly, I had this idea for this solution and this blog post for awhile, and I'm glad it was put into the system.

Conclusions


Geist's approach to dividing Beats / XP flatly between all the players at the table, without adjusting for character count is an interesting one. It alleviates the pressure to increase the game's "Beats per minute" to compensate for larger number of players at the table, while still keeping a similar per-session character progression for everyone involved.

This puts the game more in-line with systems like Broken Worlds or Fellowship.