Friday, August 29, 2014

Revising B/X Ability Scores (Oh, Boy!)

Ah...ability scores. Love 'em or hate 'em, you just got to have 'em don't you?

Well, actually, no you don't. If I remember correctly, FATE (and its derivatives) don't use "ability scores." Neither does Tim Morgan's Ellis: Kingdom in Turmoil (a more traditional RPG, it defines characters mainly through skills selected from a finite list).

But most RPGs have some sort of "set attributes" that describe their characters. Even something as abstract and narrative-y as Rod Edwards's Trollbabe uses a number that helps describe/define the character's capability (the number in Trollbabe simultaneously describes the character's fighting ability, magic ability, and effectiveness in social interaction). This idea of having a number or numbers that express a character's basic abilities is as old as...well, as old as D&D. And no matter how "innovative" we get, game designers are always throwing it out there as part of character creation, sometimes even to the point of redundancy in game play: does Dungeon World really need ability scores at all?

Abilities are a useful tool to have, though, and not just from a mechanical perspective. It's valuable to be add some structure to an imaginary construct, to codify the archetype in your mind. Even very imaginative people who have little trouble coming up with crystal clear character concepts might need a little help every now and then. And it's useful to have a trait against which character's can measure each other (is Jill stronger than Bob? Is Rick smarter than Phil?)...we establish all sorts of pecking orders in real life (even if only in our own minds for our own benefits), and doing so with the members of an "adventuring party" just increases the "reality" (i.e. the immersion/escapism) of the players as they take a normal world behavior (gauging themselves against others) and transplant it in the fictional world.

[what, you think that's a stretch? I've seen this behavior in all sorts of games with all sorts of players. Kids are especially straightforward about it, but even mature adults will give each other a "good-natured ribbing" about whose character has the most pathetic ability trait]

I like ability scores (as they're called in B/X...I prefer the general term attributes from my old Vampire days), when used in moderation. Since most of my game designs of the last few years have started off a B/X base, I generally start with the standard B/X scores ("The Big Six"). The most recent heartbreaker, a kind of Holmes/BX mashup with a specific objective of play is no different, but in "building from the ground up" I took a really hard look at the ability scores, not just because I wanted to make sure they were appropriate, but in how they interacted mechanically with the game.

So once again: welcome to my thought process.
: )

First you look at where the Big Six came from: OD&D, yeah? There were no ability scores in Chainmail (the game Arneson originally used as the mechanics for delving Blackmoor). Characters were defined by class, but class was pretty much limited to fighting men plus (maybe, with expansion) wizards and elves (not necessarily in that order). To me, the ability scores in OD&D reflect this history: they feel "tacked on." They don't do much.

That is to say, considering the RANGE of possible ability scores, they don't do much. A score of 3-18 for each, and yet the prime three (strength, intelligence, and wisdom) carry no bonus aside from an XP bonus, and the other three carry a (very small) assortment of additional bonuses. The designers could have easily said:

"Roll D6 for the following traits:

  • XP bonus (regardless of class)
  • Missile adjustment
  • Health (HP) adjustment
  • Reaction adjustment

"If your XP bonus is a 1 or 2, you have a penalty to earned XP; if it's 5 or 6 you have a bonus. For the other scores, you only receive an adjustment if the score is a 1 or 6 (down or up respectively)."

Right? I mean, there's no other mechanical bonus. Oh, sure...number of languages. But that's easily addressed by saying, "roll D8 for the number of languages you speak. The first one MUST be common, the second MUST be 'alignment' language." Easy shmeezy.

[though I have to admit that in recent years, I've come around to Alexis's thinking on the whole issue of language barriers in D&D, i.e. "not very interesting"]

Anyway, that's OD&D where the main purpose of ability scores would seem to be flavor. Are you a strong adventurer? A smart one? What's your fitness look like compared to your fellows? Since then ability scores have become much, much more important with mechanical bonuses and blow-the-top-off escalating scores (ability scores go up and never come down). The most recent edition (5E) seems determined to scale this back with its maximum limit (hey, 5E...already done that), but also seem bent on removing the flavor by reducing ability scores to their straight mechanical bonus.

Where's the soul in that?

Haha...just being facetious, folks (kind of). In recent years, I've felt B/X to be a nice "middle ground" for ability scores. You get the nice flavor range (3 to 18) with only minor adjustments (+3 or -3 maximum)...not over the top and yet more than nothing. Lately, though, I've still found myself dissatisfied, and here's why (four things):

Breakpoints, first and foremost. As B/X stands, the adjustments for ability scores can be summed up as follows:

3 = -3
4-5 = -2
6-8 = -1
9-12 = 0
13-15 = +1
16-17 = +2
18 = +3

A character with a Strength or Intelligence of 15 is just as smart as a character with a score of 13, even though only 4.5% of the adventuring population achieve the former score as opposed to nearly 10% of the latter. Sure, it's a matter of expedience to have breakpoints, but when you are able to self-adjust prime attributes (as you can with B/X...drop 2 points to raise your prime 1 point) you end up with a lot of adventurers sporting 13s and 16s because those are the breakpoints for "the next bonus." And that lack of variety grows tiresome to moi.

There's also the issue of people being disappointed when they can't achieve a particular breakpoint. "I wanted to play a fighter, but the best I can raise my strength to is 15...and I'm already at 13. And all my other scores are 'average' or worse." Been there, done that, pal. There is a certain lack of variety that comes with baseline B/X play (one of the things I tried to address in The Complete B/X Adventurer. What you just thought it was all new classes and spells?).

Utility is another issue. There's just no denying that, while every ability score can be useful, not all of them are as useful as others, or as useful to all classes. It depends a bit on the style of play, of course. But usually any B/X PC is going to appreciate a high strength or dexterity over a high charisma at low levels of play, even for players determined to "talk to every monster they encounter" (you still need to speak the monster's language, and there's a LOT of languages out there).

No Helmet = Low WIS
And wisdom? Just about outright useless at low levels. Considering their quick rate of advancement, people rolling traditional "fighter stats" (high strength, constitution, etc.) would do well to consider the clerical class...without worrying about raising the prime requisite.

Redundancy. Just no real way around it. Do you need a "strength" AND a "constitution" score? Considering my recent Blood Bowl post on the difference between "strength" and "durability," well, maybe...but dungeon delving in a pseudo-medieval setting isn't really the same thing as suiting up on the football field. Considering the lack of "sport science" (as one of my readers pointed out), I'd just as soon consider strength and constitution to be an overall measure strength.

I mean, unless you really want to nuance your ability scores...have a "manual dexterity" and an "agility" and a "speed." Have a "knowledge" versus "common sense" versus "linguistic talent" (or whatever).

But, of course, combining strength with constitution (and the associated bonuses) just makes an "uber ability" (see utility above)...the overall usefulness of strength is one of the reasons it received more weight in racial bonus consideration (see D&D 3rd Edition).

Penalties. Last but probably not least. I've just decided penalties ain't really fun for anyone...not even a cackling, sadistic DM like myself. The penalty adjustments applied from low ability scores simple mean characters become less effective...and low-level characters are already pretty ineffective

[consider this: even with a 16 strength, a fighter of levels 1st through 3rd only hits AC 5 - chain mail - on a 12 or better. That's less than a 50% chance, meaning the character is going to spend more than half of all combat rounds "whiffing," on average. Kinda' sucks, don't it?]

Why make a hard life even harder? Besides, aren't these characters supposed to be heroes?

Oh, wait, no. "Scurrilous rogues" is, I believe, the proper OSR term for adventurers. Except for DDC in which you're even a step below THAT to start (goat herders and whatnot). Well, in my new heartbreaker (designed for "basic" play) I've made the design choice that characters ARE supposed to be heroes. My other two games currently under construction (and based on a B/X system chassis)? Characters are just supposed to be 'really proficient' types...not shmoes.

[my shmoe game uses a different system]

Still, I like the 3-18 range for humans...I just prevent player characters from having ability scores in the low end of the range. We'll get to that in a second.

Hmmm...but now that I'm looking over the length of this post, I might need to do a "part 2." Um,'s what I'll do: I'll outline my thoughts or, rather, objectives when it comes to retooling ability scores. They were:

  • Breakpoints: if a high ability score can be defined as 13+, each point of the ability should show an increased measure of effectiveness (not just 13, 16, and 18). Every point counts, diversity is good, at higher is better.
  • Utility: every ability score provides bonuses cool enough that all players will want high abilities in every category, regardless of class.
  • Redundancy: all abilities adhere to a different and distinct arena of mechanical adjustment that makes sense within the setting.
  • Penalties: don't like 'em for heroic types. You're either average or better.

Got it? Oh, more thing:

  • Don't tread on class abilities in major ways. We'll talk about that one, too.

But all that's for the follow-up post. I'm sorry folks...I had an extremely busy day and it took me a while to find the time to post all this. I'll try to get the next part up before the end of the weekend, but don't count on it.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Revising B/X Combat (for, like, the Upteenth time)

Actually, I might as well call this "revising B/X period," but whatever. Here's a look behind the curtain of something I'm currently working on.

It is a sad state of affairs that when you start to tweak one thing, you end up needing to tweak another and another and another until pretty soon you're game only superficially (or thematically) resembles the one you used to be playing. For examples, check out D&D 3E forward, and perhaps games like, oh, Palladium Fantasy, or any other number of "fantasy heartbreakers" marketed as "new, innovative" entries into the RPG market. What starts out as a tweak or two ends up snowballing into a giant ball of house rules that might as well be (well, pretty much is) its Very Own Thing.

This is the way hack game designers (like myself) are created.

So, as usual, the original idea for a game I'm building "from the ground up" comes (in part) from some "fixes" I was making to the B/X D&D game. It's unfortunate that so much had to be revised, but c'est la vie. You've got an idea, or thought, or philosophy, and sometimes it's implantation requires redesign. In this particular instance, we're talking about a shift in paradigm with regard to variable weapon damage in small scale encounters.

In Five Ancient Kingdoms, my combat system is very, very different from what you find in B/X because it is based in the root combat system of D&D, namely the Chainmail wargame system. For those who haven't been following the blog too closely (or for those who have gotten completely lost in the meandering of my rambling thoughts on football and whatnot), I'll try to sum up quickly:

- the current system of D&D combat (D20 attack vs. armor class, roll damage, subtract from hit points) is based on an ALTERNATIVE combat system presented in the OD&D books. It went from being an "alternative" to being de facto in part because (as Arneson wrote in Blackmoor) players didn't like getting one-shotted in combat.

[I'm paraphrasing]

- Chainmail did not allow for heroic staying power in were wounded (and out o action) or not. Large monsters (like ogres) could sustain more wounds (i.e. had more hit dice) than a human. You'd have to wound the ogre four times to kill it (unless your character was of an especially heroic type or using a magic weapon). Makes for short, sweet combats.
- What I did with 5AK was to make hit points a part of being an adventurer (PC type) only...PCs take HP damage (rolled randomly) from monsters, but monsters just take wounds. In other words, I took the same approach to my "monster manual" as was the case in early editions of D&D: a monster's profile is just plain different from a player characters (this is not the case with 3E/Pathfinder where monsters have ability scores, feats, skills, etc.). If monsters exist as challenges to be overcome (however one chooses to do that) then why the hell do they need to be all statted up? A ridiculous excess, in my opinion.

The added bonus here is that, being based on a war game (Chainmail) the 5AK combat system is easily extrapolated to mass combat situations (if you want your Arabian horde to go to battle against the northern barbarians or whatever). Small scale and large scale combat can both be handled easily.

But, okay, not everyone is interested in playing out epic sagas on the sand-swept plains surrounding Baghdad. Some people just want to go down into dungeons, yo.

SO...I began writing a new heartbreaker of a game, one with a specific objective (because, you know, objectives are good for games) but whose objective requires the plunging into the depths of the earth with small bands of adventurers. A more basic fantasy adventure game, if you will. And one that uses all sorts of dice, not just six-sided ones (maybe I'm tired of writing up all those D66 random tables).

Anyway: here's the philosophy I wanted to instill in the game design (which required tweaking of the "basic" system/chassis I was using):
  1. Combat should be fast. The game is not solely about combat and should not take hours to resolve.
  2. Damage should be variable. In small scale (skirmish level) conflict, some blows are more telling than others (this gets into a change in philosophy with ability scores, but that's a separate post), and players should experience both the agony of inflicting "only a flesh wound" or the rapture of carving out a big chunk from their opponent.
  3. Randomness should be minimal. We want to cut down on the number of dice rolled...ideally, one die roll per player per round of combat (with the exception of possible "resistance" rolls, i.e. saving throw).
[the game is not narrative based, so "scene resolution" is not what I'm going for here...I want to play the back-n-forth of combat, even if it's still quicker than your average 3E throwdown]

In order to accomplish all this, I needed to find a way to combine the attack roll with the damage roll. Or (more specifically) make the attack roll the measure of how much damage is inflicted (rather than an additional, random throw of the die, which I hate).

What exactly is an attack roll? Well, it's a fortune (random) method of determining whether or not an attempt to hurt one's opponent succeeds. The target number (and, thus, the percentage chance of success) is based on two factors:

- the opponent's defense (how hard is it to damage this dude?)
- the attacker's skill (how easily can I inflict punishment?)

In D&D, the first factor is boiled down into one short hand called "armor class" which includes not only armor but magical protection, shield use, agility ("dexterity"), and other assorted bonuses. The second factor is determined by class/experience (one's "attack bonus"), certain enchantments, ability bonuses (depending on edition and type of attack), and perhaps a couple other random bonuses.

This final target number is the minimum number an attacker must roll to succeed...that is, the minimum number needed to successfully inflict damage on an opponent. If I roll under that target number, I fail (i.e. do not inflict damage), whether I miss it by one pip or 20. If I roll the number exactly, I have (just) managed to succeed in inflicting damage. If I roll in excess of the number, I have managed to...well, in normal D&D you haven't managed anything more than the bare success of rolling the target number exactly.

Do you see where I'm going with this?

Here's the new way of looking at combat: if you roll your target number exactly, you inflict 1 point of damage on your opponent...the bare minimum damage for a bare minimum attack roll. For every point over your target number, you inflict one additional point of damage up to the maximum damage that a weapon is capable of inflicting. If I need a 14 to hit and I roll a 20, I've inflicted one + six (since 20 is six more than 14) for a total of seven points of damage. This is, of course, assuming that I'm using a weapon capable of inflicting seven points of damage.

"Ooo...that was a good roll!"
In my game, one's Strength score increases the maximum damage a weapon may inflict (you still have to roll a good hit to inflict that massive damage, though).

In my game, a magic weapon both increases the maximum damage a weapon may inflict, and reduces the target number (thus making it more likely to inflict said extra damage).

Creatures with a higher AC are harder to damage. Creatures with a lower AC are easier to damage. Fighters (with a better chance to hit) inflict more damage in combat. Other classes (with a lower chance to hit) inflict less damage in combat. That all seems to make sense to me.

Of course, PCs are heroic in my game so the way monsters dish damage is a little different from how they take it: no PC hero should go down just because the DM rolls a 20 in combat and is only wearing leather armor. However, a split between the way monsters fight and the way PCs fight is nothing new (neither to me, nor to the basic editions of D&D), and only the DM is responsible for learning both types of combat so, you know, no big deal.

All right, that's enough for now. Perhaps I'll talk about my changes to ability scores tomorrow.
; )

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Ok, ok...Just A LITTLE Blood Bowl

I spent way too much time the other day brainstorming ideas for making Blood Bowl more like an actual football game. I found that it's easiest to approach it like a war-game (and, of course, there are quite a few superficial similarities between war and football), writing up a particular turn order for each "snap" of the ball...something like:

- Determine results of line play
- Determine execution of route running
- Execute play (resolve run or pass) with (defensive) response

You can create "yards per play" and "time off the clock" based on the results of the dice rolls, and it can be quite streamlined/quick.

The problem, unfortunately, is the amount of time it would take to run a game. NFL teams run roughly 60-70 plays ("snaps") during the average game, so you're talking about resolving close to 150 turns of play. Compare that to Blood Bowl's standard turn count of 32 (eight turns per team per half)...some of which get lost because of illegal procedure penalties, and you're looking at spending a LOT more time at the table. Even if you're not resolving individual blockers actions (in streamlining line play, I found Chainmail melee resolution a good base on which to build).

Maybe compress the time (five minute quarters) like the Madden video game? I haven't played Madden in years (not since Michael Vick was on the cover), but I seem to recall you could play games a lot quicker than a full game and still get a comparable score and stat-line. Which is, of course, what I'd be shooting for (being a big ol' football fan). If the average clock run-off per play was 30 seconds, you could finish the game in 40 turns or less (remember there's clock run-off on kicks, too). And that ain't much more than BB.

Well, like I said, I already spent too much time on this the other day. But still, it's worth looking at for other reasons...mainly ones relating to game design.

For example, Blood Bowl boils down the characteristics of a player into a four stat profile (at least, starting with 3rd edition...previously they had six). These are:

Movement (MV)
Agility (AG)
Strength (ST)
Armor...or maybe it's Armor Value (AV)

The baseline average for a human player is 6-3-3-8. For BB, this is just fine and dandy: it uses a D6 system based on "normal humans" with other species' capabilities determined by their relative comparisons to normal humans.

For example, with regard to agility (catching, throwing, dodging tackles), a "3" indicates an ability to succeed 50% of the time (a D6 roll of 4-6). This is modified by comparable difficulty of the action (catching an accurate pass gives a +1 to the receiver's die roll, as does dodging to an open field space). Agility scores above 3 grant a +1 bonus to success (per excess point) while scores below 3 give the same penalty. While elves are spry (AG 4), large monsters are clumsy (AG 2), and zombies and mummies are abysmal (AG 1)...the latter can only succeed at an "average" skill check on a D6 roll of 6 (don't throw the ball to the zombie, dude).

On the other hand, the strength score is a bit more granular in scale and a bit more wishy-washy in application. ST for players range from 2 (hobbit) up 7 (treant), but is only used in comparison to opponent when blocking to give them a greater or lower number of dice to roll. The blocking dice are unique to the BB game giving results of:

  1. Blocker falls
  2. Defender pushed back
  3. Defender pushed back
  4. Both blocker and defender fall (unless one has the block skill)
  5. Defender falls (unless he has the dodge skill)
  6. Defender falls

Which in practice looks like the average human falling down one-third of the time when attempting to block another human. Little guys (like goblins and hobbits) can't usually get the "block" skill, and so have around a 55% chance of falling down when throwing a block at a human...or a black ork (which is, like, a really big ork). The penalty for falling down when throwing a block (in addition to risking injury) is that your turn ends...making the actual procedure in which you resolve blocks an important part of your turn, tactically speaking (resolve your stronger blockers first, so as to increase the likelihood of extending your turn).

However, as with turn-based initiative combat, this fails to accurately model real life. People don't wait around to see what their buddy is doing before taking action...they just go man. It seems to me that the 2nd edition of BB allowed all players to take an action before moving to the other team's turn, which is slightly better (I prefer simultaneous action myself), but led to loooong protected games (there was no time limit, either!) due to the need to resolve every action individually as opposed to resolving action as a unit.

[yes, comparing BB with actual football is an apples-to-oranges thang (BB is more like two warbands taking the field and attempting to move a ball while subduing/killing the opponent)...but as I said, I'd prefer the game more closely model the sport]

And in football, when looking at the "production" of the line play, you look at the unit as a whole. Did the D-line get adequate "push?" Was the opponent "breaking through to the second level" of play? How was the O-line in "pass protection" compared to "run blocking?" Often an offensive line is only as productive as its weakest link(s)...if the defensive end is going around the right tackle and sacking the QB every snap, it doesn't matter whether or not you've got All Pros stacking the rest of the line.

Anyway...besides the actual system in Blood Bowl, the stat line is pretty weaksauce for actual football. Have you ever seen an "average sized" human playing as a lineman? Maybe in PeeWee football where all the kids look like bobble-heads, but certainly not at the high school-college-pro level. A better strength model might be:

1 - sickly human
2 - human average
3 - athletic human (average player or warrior)
4 - really big human (average lineman)
5 - really strong, big human (exceptional lineman)

Then start building the other team players relative to that. An athletic goblin player would be a 2, while an athletic hobbit would only rank a 1 (a normal, sedentary hobbit might be a 0 on this scale). Depending on your perception of orks, they'd probably be one scale up from humans...and I'd probably limit elves and dwarves to a maximum of 4, even though the scale/average would otherwise be the same (they lack the diversity of humans with regard to size and strength).

Strength 4 blocking Strength 3.
This new way of counting strength would be factored with a new method of determining where both sides compare die rolls. If I throw a block, there can only be three results: nothing happens (the other guy's too big/strong/skilled), I push him (the objective of blocking), or I "pancake/de-cleat" the guy (he ends up on his back).

Could a sickly human (or hobbit) push an NFL lineman? No. Could an average human? Probably not. How about an athletic human? Maybe...especially if he was quicker and executed good technique. Skill and quickness...also "athleticism" are more important factors than strength. At least, they are once strength has set the bar of "what is possible."

[and tackling a ballcarrier is a very different thing from blocking, just by the way]

Movement Value makes sense in the Blood Bowl game because you're using a board that's divided into squares, but on a real field all but the slowest players can run the length of the field in a few seconds. Quickness is the key...explosiveness ("sudden acceleration") off the line of scrimmage, agility to make directional changes, reaction time (coupled with intelligence to "read" the play)...these are the things that will determine whether or not a guy goes for a big gain in yardage or is stopped short by a defender. Yes, yes, Percy Harvin (and a few others) have the "breakaway speed" to outrun everyone on the field (because it only does take a matter of seconds to run its length), but the number of individuals with that talent is so small as to better make it a skill (like "speedster") than a stat.

Likewise, Armor Value is a convenient saving throw for determining whether a character's injured or not, but it's not a great model for football...even fantasy football with ogres and trolls and whatnot. On the battlefield, armor is used to stop weapons from killing its wearers...but weapons aren't being used on the Blood Bowl pitch. On the football field, armor is worn to minimize trauma that occurs from high impact (with other players and with the field, in general). Injury occurs from things against which armor isn't a factor: pulls and strains and sprains and dislocations and twists and torque that break bones. Yes, concussions and broken ribs occur (things the helmet and kevlar padding are supposed to prevent), but the things that really keep you out for weeks (like a pulled hamstring or groin muscle) can't be prevented by the armor you wear. Durability is the real "stat" that will determine whether you stay on the field, or are hauled off on a stretcher. Some guys (like Brett Favre) can play through the pain for years without missing a game, and some guys never make it through practice.

Anyhoo...boy, I went from talking a "little" Blood Bowl to spending waaaay too much time on this stream of consciousness post. Sorry about that. However, as I just completed a new, kick-ass magic system for the most recent fantasy heartbreaker (last night...was up till after 2am), I feel like I'm entitled to at least a little breathing space. And reflecting on BB is always a ton o fun.

Later, folks.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Mandatory Pre- (NFL) Season Post

Yes, I'm back in Asuncion (Paraguay). The trip was as quick (relatively speaking) and uneventful as one could hope for and it feels good to be back with my family. A few days in Seattle were fun, but...well, it's good to be back.

Hopefully I'll have a chance to get back to writing and posting soon, but with the NFL season just around the corner I'm hard-pressed to NOT have football on the mind. Walking through the Miami airport Saturday night, it was so refreshing to see football on every single television. You get down to Paraguay and there's nada...despite an overabundance of sports channels (I've got nine or eleven on my TV). People are, like, NFL what? I had to spring for the NFL package so I can stream the games on my computer in order to get ANY games with my team (at least, till the play-offs start). It's just like the MLB: though you can find the occasional game on TV, the only ones they show feature the Yankees and Orioles.

SO...I've been trying to get into my own "football shape" (mentally, anyway) the last couple weeks: watching games, reading the news, figuring out who's switched teams/coaches/whatever. Preseason can be fun for the fans, though we really shouldn't take it too seriously.

[having said that, I admit to a little glee at watching the Seahawks dominance the last couple weeks and the 49ers complete least, with regard to their "first team" players]

But what's utterly tragic is seeing players go down with season-ending injuries even before the start of the regular season. Darnell Dockett's loss is going to make it very hard for the Cardinals to duplicate the same success on defense that they had last year (he's been a perennial anchor and force on their D-line), and San Bradford's injury...I mean, what terrible, terrible bad luck for that cat. He spends his first couple seasons without much help (from the rest o the team) and then goes out two years in a row with a torn ACL. And for the Rams (and their fans) it's especially devastating: their investment goes beyond the huge money and salary cap hit...they haven't bothered to sign, draft, or groom anyone as a (franchise) replacement for Bradford.

"Not again!!"
Not that I'll cry a lot of tears if the Rams' season tanks or anything: they are a division rival, after all, and still the only team that has ever beaten a Seahawks playoff at the new stadium (back in 2004). But I feel for the guy...the amount of rehab needed to come back from last year's ACL injury (and Bradford was playing excellent at the time), just to have all that work negated with what looked like a (relatively) light hit? That's tough. Injuries and dealing with injuries are part of football (even small injuries, due to the need of players to function as high-precision instruments) but Bradford's, examined in context, is especially sucky. It's unlikely he'll ever take another snap for St. Louis (can they trust him to stay healthy?), and who knows how motivated he'll be to do the rehab a second time (can he trust his own body?)?

Okay that's all I've got to say at the moment (sorry, no Blood Bowl stuff)...I'm back to my usual schedule, which means I'm running late (as usual)!

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Whirlwind Continues

Sitting at SeaTac about to board my (first) flight back to Paraguay. Had a good time in Seattle (great 'Hawks game last night), and will miss my friends and family here.

Ah, well. Got to get home to the wife and kids. Later!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

A Reason to Kill (Addendum)

Well, I can’t sleep. Which is unusual because I can usually sleep anywhere at the drop of a hat. However, I either drank too much coffee today or (more likely) I’ve just been wound too tight because of the stress this whole trip has caused me. Anyway, I might as well throw some follow-up thoughts to my last post.

When I say, look at the conflict you want to portray as central and build around it, I’m not (necessarily) saying you need to write “Raising Kids: The Role-Playing Game” or something. And I’m not saying you need to give up combat systems, either.  I’m just saying:
  1. You need a way to engage the players besides “ooo, this is a neat setting (or story/plot/arc) that I want to explore, “ and
  2. Make that “engagement thing” central in your design priority.

And I’m saying it to myself as well.

All that interesting exploration stuff will appear (if you want it to), in the proper amount, IF you can engage the players. At least, that’s my theory.

Look at the movie Star Wars. I’m sure most of the readers of this blog have watched the original trilogy a couple times. In the first movie, what have we got for a driving conflict? We’ve got this small band of misfits/adventurers fighting against a tyrannical impossible force, yeah? One ship, half a dozen characters (a couple of whom are noncombatants) against hundreds of soldiers, fighters, the Death Star, Darth Vader…even when they get “the Rebels” involved, it still boils down to the main characters’ actions (those other X-Wings are just set-dressing pyrotechnics for all they accomplish in the assault).

The challenge here is finding your courage. It’s something most B/X players might relate to.

The second movie (Empire) is different. Now, the characters are certifiable war heroes. They’ve proven their courage. The war (and the fighting of said war) is backdrop for the real story, the real challenge, namely “can you sacrifice what you hold dear for something that will bring you greater satisfaction?”


Or something like that (it’s after 2am, cut me some slack, folks). Let’s look at the characters:

Han Solo: cherishes his freedom. Is he willing to give it up to begin a relationship with the princess? This is his conflict through the whole film. In the end, he literally loses his freedom in semi-permanent fashion.

Leia: cherishes her role in the Rebellion. Is she willing to give it up to begin a relationship with a scoundrel/rogue like Solo?

Luke: has achieved his childhood dreams of becoming a fighter pilot, joining the rebellion, and becoming a respected hero. Is he willing to give that up (his status as a “great warrior”) to pursue a more mystic journey towards peace and knowledge on the Jedi path? He finds he can only meet the sacrifice halfway, and loses a piece of himself because of it.

Lando: has become a responsible, respected (and apparently wealthy) leader. Is he willing to give it up to “do the right thing,” fighting against the Empire?

[yes, Lando is a main character…he’s like the dude who shows up to the gaming table late and has to bring his PC in halfway through the session]

All these characters in the story face this challenge, and they all meet it with varying degrees of success. It makes for a richer (in terms of character) movie, if not one with the same “wa-hoo” as the first film. It’s still fantasy adventure, it still has fights, but the fights aren’t the focus of the action. That’s not the challenge that’s engaging the protagonists.

Lukas had a lot of disagreement with the director of the 2nd film, by the way (and was unhappy with the profits compared to the costs of the over-budget opus), and returned to his “original recipe” when doing Return of the Jedi. The result feels a touch slap-dash as it ties up the character development of the 2nd while sticking with the action formula of the 1st film: a small band of heroes facing overwhelming odds (Han and Leia against “a whole legion of troops,” Lando against a Death Star and a thousand fighters, Luke against giant monsters, armies of goons, and two Sith Lords).

[*sigh* how many days has it been since my last post mentioning Star Wars? Re-start the tally tracker]

None of this, by the way, is about saying one path/film is better. I’m using these films as examples of potential RPGs due to the way they model inherent parts of RPGs (fantasy adventure + multiple protagonists). If they were RPGs, not films, you could see that film #2 is either “heavily drifted” (to use a Forge term), or else a different game system from films #1 and #3. Film #1 is definitely the most “Old School” of the three: you have a main adventure site, you have encounters with bad guys, you have challenges to overcome, etc. Film #3 is still pretty “Old School,” though with a little extra “role-playing” thrown in (Film #1 doesn’t have much role-playing, only the jocular “in-character” banter).

Film #2 (if transported to the tabletop) has a different set of rules and objectives.  No game role-plays “training”(well, except for Ars Magica). Few RPGs deal with player-to-player romance.  But in the end, it’s neither the Dagobah Boot Camp nor the sweet-sweet-love that is the point of play…the challenge is the characters’ own inner journey/transformation. The shooting of things is pretty much an afterthought.

The first RPG I can recall relegating combat to a (very) subordinate system was the vastly underrated, out-of-print game Maelstrom. Maelstrom (of which I thought I'd blogged before but apparently haven't) is about as fantasy adventure as you can get and is all about the exploration…I’d like to read (or write) books on the game’s setting. Unfortunately, that doesn’t give a GM much direction as to what to do with the thing, and there’s no engagement that comes from that exploration (*sigh*). BUT the Story Engine’s neat game system (and the thing that makes Maelstrom one of the grandfather’s of narrativist RPGs) was it’s imperative that scenes must be about something, and players resolving the conflict inherent in the scene with a single roll, rather than using multiple die rolls to determine the effectiveness of individual actions (i.e. you didn’t roll “to hit;” you rolled to see if you were successful at the scene “objective”). It was all quite brilliant, in a meandering, primordial narrativist ooze kind-o-way.

*ahem* ANYway. Why am I even talking about this shit? Um…besides the fact that the ix-nay on exploration was kind of a (mild) epiphany this evening/morning? Well, I was just thinking about my son. We play a lot of “pretend” games together, including a lot of games with superheroes who “fight” bad guys…but, of course, D has been taught not to actually “fight” other children himself (except when pretending, natch), and often our games involve non-lethal conflict resolution. If someone gets “hurt” there’s usually a pause in play to have the doctor fix them (and to put the injured party in bed and feed ‘em soup, etc.). Sometimes the bad guys get talked into (or spontaneously decide) to become “good guys.” Sometimes everyone just wants to dance. We do a lot of things besides pretending to karate chop someone’s head is the point.

I’ve been working on two games the last month or so, and making good progress on both. One is a post-apocalyptic fantasy based on B/X that has a bunch of new rules designed to encourage more collaboration between players. The other game is A Very Fantasy heartbreaker that is my homage to Holmes Basic (in much the same way as 5AK was my homage to OD&D). The latter is aimed at a “younger” audience, and (I think) has a younger tone. No, not so young as my son (he’s three), but definitely more Susan Cooper than Michael Moorecock.

But I did ask my boy’s input and let him pick most of the monsters that would be included. And yet, as I write the game I keep thinking “neat as this innovative new combat system is (I wouldn’t mind using it in a B/X game)” do I really want to resolve conflicts with the sword all the time? And if the game is not about “battling evil” than what IS it about? Turning evil “from the Dark Side?”

[actually, I know for a fact that’s NOT what the game’s about, since it has a definite objective to play]

Anyhoo…more musings at 3am. Oh, look: they’re serving breakfast! (do they know it’s 3am?)

Yak at ya’ later.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A Reason to Kill

[somewhere in the air, halfway to Miami]

Much as I prefer RPGs (tabletop) to video games, there is one area (or potential area) where the video RPG excels and where the tabletop RPG falls short: exploration. And that is to say, exploration for the sheer joy of exploration.

In many video games, whether you’re talking Super Mario Brothers or Mass Effect, one of the things that instill a sense of wonder in the gameplay is the opening of new areas and seeing the graphics that the designers have created. Even if there was nothing to DO in the game except “run around,” you could still have an enjoyable time exploring different areas, seeing the flora and fauna and marveling at the fantasy world. I know that when I played the game Fable, I spent a lot of time just wandering around villages and forests, not necessarily engaging in combat (or the plot) just wandering in a fantasy land. That was cool way to blow a few hours.

[maybe that is the appeal of the Sim games. As I’ve never played them, I don’t know]

But just “wandering around” in a tabletop RPG is, well, kind of boring. No matter how elegant the description provided by the GM, there’s no real engagement until the players have something with which to engage: a problem to solve, a challenge to overcome, an opponent to defeat. Old adventure modules that have many paragraphs of boxed text just bore the players…at least that’s been my experience over the years. Tell me I’m in a desert and its hot and ask me what direction I want to go…don’t describe the endless hills of bone white sand and the shimmering of the air and the blah blah blah. Tell me that in the light of my torch I can see the corridor goes left or right and ask me what I want to do, but don’t waste my time describing the type and coloration of the stone and mold in loving detail.

With a video game, part of the reason why folks play (and why they keep upgrading their hardware and why each new piece of software is judged by what’s come before) is to see how far our technology has advanced and just how lost we can get in the beauty of gameplay.  But a picture is worth a thousand words, and since the RPG GM has nothing but words (and an occasional illustration/handout to give the players), it’s going to take many, many thousands of words to try to duplicate the wonder one would get from the latest vid. And that’s just f’ing tedious.

Action…that’s what the tabletop RPG thrives on. LARPing may be different (I haven’t LARPed but from what I gather Camarilla folks aren’t biting each other), but even those drama-filled story games that are the antithesis of an Old School dungeon crawl has something happening in them. There is conflict and there is resolution in all RPGs, but the game begins to fall flat in the exploration for the sake of exploration.

But okay, so what? Why is this interesting? Well, just look at how much adventure fiction involves exploring new things…and how much the enjoyment of the adventure comes from enjoying the marvel of the exploration, in all but the most fast-paced of pulp action.

I just finished reading Doyle’s The Lost World (it’s a long flight) about a group of explorers that set out to find an isolated plateau abounding with a mix of prehistoric life: dinosaurs, ape-men, etc. Yes, there is action that takes place a couple-three “encounters” with monstrous antagonists. But most of the book is just wandering around, getting lost, looking at neat stuff, and trying to get un-lost. It’s still an adventure book…it’s still interesting and exciting. But you couldn’t run an RPG like that. There’s just no way to make a game that translates a scientific expedition…even one in a fantasy realm…into an exciting role-playing experience.

“Make your zoological skill roll to identify a thought-to-be-extinct insect?” No, that’s just silly.

When I consider this, I suddenly see why combat takes precedence in so many RPGs. Yes, yes…it’s an accepted trope of RPGs that descends from their wargaming roots, I get that. But, it’s also a very easy and straightforward method of injecting conflict and action into the imaginary game world. Things getting boring? Throw an encounter at the players and watch them engage.

Maybe this is elementary school stuff to others but I see it as a big stumbling block of the (fantasy RPG) genre. I’ve asked before on this blog “Is it all supposed to be about combat?” considering the answer to be “no.” But while the enjoyment of fantasy RPGs may NOT be all about combat, that doesn’t mean they can go without action, drama, and conflict. Those things are necessary to engage in gameplay. Otherwise, what are we doing at this table listening to this GM guy yak at us about his/her wonderful fantasy world?

Can you play Star Trek without phasers? Maybe…but you probably can’t play it without the misunderstandings and random conflicts that occur when the landing party encounters a strange, new cultures. What if Kung Fu’s Kane just wandered around the Old West without getting into fights or conflicts due to discrimination? Would that be interesting to anyone? What would Robotech be like without the Zentradi?

RPGs need conflict to engage the players. It’s why ElfQuest is such a damn, hard game to use to emulate the comic books. Yes, you can use the Chaosium system to pick fights with trolls and humans and MadCoil (good luck with that!), but trying to play something that looks like Cutter’s “quest?” It’s real, real tough. You might as well just go back and reread the comics.

That being said (and I really do want to wrap this up and sleep a bit before landing), I have a feeling that giving precedence to a combat system is kind of a lazy way of injecting conflict into your RPG design. And count me among the guilty parties (many of my concepts for games come out of a spontaneous “neat combat system” idea…but then, felling foes with a mighty axe is my daydream of choice). Maybe we just need to kick out the idea of “exploration” (of setting, of character) as a design priority, and instead focus on what kinds of conflict we want…which may not be oriented on “killing stuff.” Maybe the KERNAL of fantasy RPG game design should be taking that conflict and building around it.

People are already doing this, by the way…consciously or not. Look at Hillfolk and its main conflict system of seeking emotional concessions. Look at Sorcerer and its goal of resolving the character’s “kicker.”

RPGs without conflict and challenge…even the simple one in Traveller of making money to pay off your ship and fuel…are boring. Games that leave the injection of that conflict in the hands of the GM (hello, White Wolf!) as opposed to putting it front-and-center in the design are just lazy.

Anyway, that’s my thought of the evening (or rather morning, since we’re well past 1am). Maybe I’ll feel different on the next flight.
; )

22 Straight Hours of Travel...

...will really wreck a person. I might need a day or two to recover.

I wrote a couple little thangs during the flight that I've scheduled to post. I was pretty loopy at the time, so you might want to ignore them. But I'll throw 'em up anyway so you have something to read while I sleep for the next 24 hours or so.

Later. ZZZzzz...

Monday, August 18, 2014

In About Eight Hours...

...I'll be on a plane headed back to Seattle. For some reason, I'm nervous as hell.

I need to pack. Later, folks.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

I Hate Technology.

I have managed to update my Google+ profile, and fix my blog account so that it's separate from my "normal, everyday" accounts. Not that it matters terribly, but now I can share blog posts on Google+ (for the folks that follow me that way) without messaging all my non-gamer friends and family (who could care less whether I'm hating on 5th Edition or have devised a fantastic new method of calculating hit points).

*sigh* I hate technology.

Which is to say, I hate that I am so uncomfortable with it. I prefer to only participate in things that I'm...well, if not "good at" then proficient, at least. And managing social media devices is not an area in which I'm even mediocre.

Just trying to climb out of the Dark Ages here. I think I need a nap.

Just a Test

Sorry to intrude. Trying something here...

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Quantity versus Quality

[warning: probable "nerd rage" on the horizon]

Well, it would appear my self-imposed hiatus is winding down, as things have gotten more organized around this neck o the woods. We'll see...I'm not promising to come back in "full force" but I've definitely started poking my nose back into the blog-o-sphere. And I've got one hell of a shnoz.

This post was originally going to be called "Monsters, Monsters Everywhere" but I've already got a blog post by that title (waaaaaay back a few years ago) and I try not to duplicate; however, for folks who were hoping for an NFL/Blood Bowl, this one's going to be about D&D.

Back in 1981 or '82 when I started playing D&D, my introduction to the first rule set...was the Basic book edited by Tom Moldvay. Much of my love and appreciation for this particular game has been documented on this blog, but allow me a quick summary: the book gave me everything I needed to play D&D, and in doing so it changed my life. I can say this honestly with the hindsight of 30+ years to look back on.

I'm not going to pretend I follow what WotC does with the D&D brand all that closely. I don't. I'm just not interested in most of their revenue streams and I don't read or frequent their forums. I have a curiosity about 5th Edition, both as a person familiar with the play of most editions of D&D and as an active game designer interested in other folks' work. And it's because of this curiosity/interest that I've bothered to download and read the (free) PDFs of WotC's D&D Basic Rules. I grew up playing something called "Basic" D&D, and I still find it an elegant piece of craftsmanship. I'm interested in seeing how WotC handles the same task given to Moldvay and Holmes and Mentzer...namely, making a simplified game that "was designed to be easily read and used by individuals who have never before played a role playing game."

[that's from the Foreword of Moldvay's Basic book]

My first impression of the new Basic rules was not a good one. As an obvious work-in-progress, an incomplete game, I wondered at why WotC would even bother to release such a thing. As I wrote at the time:

"There's no information on running the game, no information on creating adventures, no information on running NPCs ("monsters"), no information on treasure, and (perhaps most basic of all) no information on how XP is earned/awarded. In other words, no information on what the objective of the characters are, or what they're supposed to do."

There are other things that were left out of the 110 page (now 115 page) rule book that Mike Mearls said was "the equivalent of the old D&D Rules Cyclopedia," like how a DM was supposed to award inspiration (a new mechanic that I have not seen in prior editions)...but then the new rules were only in their "version 0.1" (now "0.2") stage and a little digging in past press releases found that the rules needed for adventure creation, running the game, etc. would all be released in time.

Welp, last night I stayed up to read the new, 61 page document that is the "Dungeon Master's Basic Rules Version 0.1." Most of it (59 pages) is content. It is divided into the following four sections:

Monsters (51 pages)
Non-Player Characters (3 pages)
Building Combat Encounters (3 pages)
Magic Items (2 pages)

The Non-Player Character title is a little misleading: there's no information on creating or using NPCs, simply additional stat blocks (with light description) the equivalent of the monster entries. In other words, it's three pages of additional "monsters" that can be used to further describe (or add abilities to) humanoid NPCs encountered.

The last two sections each have highlighted sidebars noting they are Works in Progress! and that additional material will be released as the new DMG gets written. Which is probably a good thing because some folks might be prone to panic (or scoffing) when they see the hot mess that is Building Combat Encounters (not, um, "designing adventures" or something) or the small handful of items (18 total) that comprise the Magic Items section. No, there are no randomized tables in the latter section.

You know, it's fascinating: Moldvay gave us 50+ magic items in 4 pages (including the random tables). Is it possible (I'm not being sarcastic or rhetorical here) that the new "Basic" is over-thinking itself?

ANYWAY...monsters. That's the bulk of the new Basic "DM's Guide." Stat blocks for monsters and information on how they fight and information on how to set-up combat encounters because, you know, while Mearls talks about three broad categories of activity (exploration, social interaction, and combat...see page 5 of the Basic Rules), really people only give a shit about fighting.


Back in March of last year, I wrote a piece on cosmology (and paying attention to it in design) that no one seemed to give a rat's ass about, probably because it was attached to a series exploring clerics and their inclusion in fantasy adventure games and "been there done that." But I was writing about more than just clerics...I was talking about putting a little forethought into the whole creation process, especially with regard to monsters. But yeah...murderhobo doesn't care.

For me, I put a lot of thought into what "monsters" I include in the (B/X-style) games I design. Mine is not a "kitchen sink" approach...I make lists, I consider what fits and what doesn't and then I write it up. It's one of the tougher parts of the game creation process...I have more than one work-in-progress currently on-hold due to the "NPC" section. And it's not like I write paragraphs and paragraphs of text for each entry! The entries for monsters in my B/X Companion are positively "wordy" compared to the entries in Five Ancient Kingdoms. For comparison purposes:

B/X Companion: 16 pages, 67 entries (roughly 4/page)
Five Ancient Kingdoms: 17 pages, 86 entries (but on half-sized pages!)

The new Basic has a total of 159 entries in 51 pages (or 169 in 54 pages if you count the NPC section...which I do). Regardless of the number per page (WotC can make their books as big as they want...this is their precursor to a new Monster Manual, after all!)...regardless of the amount of space they take up, 169 entries is a LOT of monsters. More than both my published works combined (and for the record, there's only nine or so shared entries between the two, so the total count is still over 140 in 20-30 pages). Maybe you're licking your chops at the prospect of all the combat encounters you can build with such quantity...but maybe we should look at what that quantity consists of?

Mearls and Jeremy Crawford (who are listed as the "lead designers"), have statted out each individual monster as its own entry, regardless of similarity to monsters of its own ilk. For example, in my B/X Companion, I count Animals of Legend as one entry, even though it lists four different creature profiles (and gives notes for creating others). I count Ruinous Powers as one entry even though there are five unique creatures. My entry for Giant includes both Half-Giants and Mutant Giants, but I count it as one entry.

It's a space saving device to group monsters together...something I learned from Moldvay's Basic book (see Cat, Great for panthers, mountain lions, lions, tigers, and smilodons; see Bear for black, grizzly, polar, and cave). I use the same tact in 5AK (Vermin, Giant all fall under one category regardless of bat, rat, whatever. Same with giant insects, donkey/mules, etc.)...I don't need or want to "pad" my word count...I'm trying to cut down on the pages I'm sending to the printer to reduce my costs and that of the consumer.

Mearls and Crawford don't seem to buy this idea. We have separate entries for brown bear, black bear, and polar bear. There are separate entries for draft horse, riding horse, and warhorse. There are separate entries for fire elemental, earth elemental, air elemental, and water elemental. And the thing is organized in strict, alphabetical order so it's not like the horses or elementals are even grouped together (air elemental with the "A" monsters, water elementals with the "W" monsters). You want to find the stats for an adult red dragon? It's not under "D" (for dragon) or even "R" (for red) but under "A" (for adult). Looking for a "Frog, Giant" to put in your swampy temple? You'll be searching in the "G" section of the document under "Giant Frog," right between "Giant Fire Beetle" and "Giant Goat."

Giant Goat?

Yes, a classic monster...surely you've encountered many in your D&D games over the years. In 5E, it's worth 100 XP and has a "Sure-Footed" feat that gives it advantage on STR and DEX saving throws that would knock it prone. It has a Challenge Rating of 1/2, you will have to include 3 to 6 when building an encounter for your party of 1st level adventurers. But if you're worried that a small herd of giant goats with their damage range of 5-11 will be too tough, you can always use non-giant goats.


Yes, the's a medium beast, unaligned and it's CHA is only 5, but with that STR of 12 it has +3 to its Ram attack roll (only 2-5 damage). And that's a LOT more than the damage done by a normal frog.


Yes...a tiny beast, the frog only has a STR of 1 (WIS of 8 however!). It has 1-3 hit points and the following special abilities:

Amphibious: the frog can breathe air and water.
Standing Leap: the frog's jump is up to 10 feet and its high jump is up to 5 feet, with or without a running start.

The description states:

"A frog has no effective attacks. It feeds on small insects and typically dwells near water, in trees, or underground."

Wow...thanks for that! Now I know how to use that frog entry when building my combat encounters.

These are worth 10 XP a pop! Eat all three for 30!

There's a lot of bullshit filler like this in the book. Some of the entries you might find less than useful for  Building Combat Encounters include the Badger, Bat, Cat, Crab (blue shell, I think), Deer, Elk (really? do we really need a separate entry between deer and elk? Where's the reindeer and the moose?), Hyena, Jackal, Lizard, Mule, Owl, Pony, Rat, Raven, Spider (not giant spider...just a spider), Vulture, Weasel. You might get more mileage out of the giant versions.

Oh, here's a good one: the Awakened Shrub. It's a small plant, animated by magic. With its 3D6 hit points, it's a lot tougher than it's friend, the evil Twig Blight, which looks like a dead shrub but has 2-5 hit points and is (for some reason) of a higher challenge rating than the Awakened Shrub (25 XP instead of 10 XP).

There's a lot of weirdness with the stat blocks. Since when does a Medusa have 17 hit dice? Same Challenge Rating as a Mammoth (6), though the latter, huge beast, has only 11 hit dice (the medusa is a medium monstrosity). I mean, not that it matters terribly...I'm just curious.

Okay, this is getting long and I'm already late to pick up my boy. Maybe I'll write more later. Maybe.