As I talked about last week, rolling a big dice pool and choosing the best result does what I intended it to do so well that it causes a whole new set of problems. Namely, the range of likely rolls shrinks so much at high dice pools that it's very hard for characters to cause much damage to one another. For now, my plan is to try to tweak the rules slightly so that the dice pools drop without making major changes to how the game works and how the characters are defined. I've come up with a few ideas that would require big rules changes, but that would require a major rewrite and most of them feel like they'd be moving backwards. So here are the options I'm focusing on (and waiting for playtester feedback about) right now:
Option 1: Arbitrary Dice Pool Limit
With this option, we basically just declare that you can’t roll more than X dice. Most of the other rules stay the same, but changing the definition of “Penatly Dice” to “remove a die from your pool before rolling” would probably be a good idea to avoid confusion. Since under the current system characters get at least 3 dice for anything they’re at least vaguely competent in before you add situational bonus dice, hero props, etc., X would probably need to be 5. If you’ve got more than 6 dice for a roll, anything beyond the first 5 just offset penalty dice. You can’t roll more than 5.
Option 2: Change Tropes from Dice to Roll Modifiers
With this option, characters just get the free dice and the Concept Die for most rolls. Some Special Effects, Hero Props, or situational modifiers may give them additional bonus dice, but usually it’ll be in the “5 or less” range we’re shooting for and most of the time players will just be rolling 1 or 2 dice. Instead of giving bonus dice, Tropes give the character a roll modifier, so a “Kung Fu” Trademark would give you a +3 to your roll and your “Bad Hearing” Drawback would give you a -2.
Option 3: Make All Tropes 1 Die
All Trademarks and Drawbacks are worth 1 die.
Option 4: Roll Tropes into Hooks
Just get rid of Tropes entirely and base your roll entirely on Concept. The artist formerly known as Tropes become a variant type of Hook.
Option 5: Single Trope Die, No Modifier
In this version, you have a list of Trademarks and a list of Drawbacks and have a Trope Die that works more or less like the Concept Die.
Option 6: Single Trope Die With Modifier
Same as option 5, but Tropes have roll modifiers and you get the Trope Die and the modifier.
When I started running the math (in the expanded version of this I posted to the playtest group), I realized that option 3 could theoretically be min/maxed to work out about the same as either the current system or, a little more easily, Option 1 (the 5 die arbitrary limit), so I've mostly taken it out of the running. Right now I think I'm leaning toward Option 2. My main concern is that it expands the range of rolls by 25% (since you're adding a Trope modifier as well as Hero Factor), which means re-working things like target numbers, but at the moment it seems like the option that best fixes the problem without radically changing the existing system. You just get a bonus to the roll instead of an extra die for skills.
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So, as I've mentioned before, rolling a lot of dice and picking the highest reduces the range of likely rolls, which means that in a system where damage is determined by the difference of the rolls, if both sides of the fight are rolling a bunch of dice, they're not going to cause much damage. My first attempt to fix this was by tweaking the damage system so that it didn't take as much damage to beat an opponent, but the first playtest used really high dice pools and blew that fix out of the water. Too many hit points was part of the problem, but it wasn't nearly as problematic as large dice pools.
The extra dice also don't really help you very much. At 5 dice, the average roll is 17.5 and the typical minimum (average minus standard deviation) is 14.69. Both of these increase fractionally up to 10 dice (the highest I did the math for), which has an average roll of 18.46 and typical minimum of 17.0. If both characters are rolling 5 dice, the maximum damage one can cause is 6. If they're rolling 10 dice, it's 3. Unless you reduce the hit points to such a low number that less powerful characters start dropping like flies, the current system makes for very long fights on the high end of the power scale.
My first instinct was to see the problem as a feature, not a bug. The less two combatants know about combat, the more the fight relies on somebody getting off a lucky punch, so big ranges in possible results (like the 1-20 range of a single d20) make sense. If both combatants are equally skilled, the fight's going to last longer because they both know what they're doing and are going to have to work harder to cause damage to one another. When you get up to super-heroic levels, a fight with very little damage makes perfect sense. If Thor and the Hulk just stand there and punch each other, they can keep going for days before someone gets bruised, much less knocked out. In fiction, of course, they don't just stand there and punch one another until one of them dies, because that makes for a boring story. Instead, one of them comes up with a brilliant plan, or achieves whatever objective he was fighting the other guy for in the first place, or they realize they should be working together, or whatever. I've already mentioned how I want the game to include some guidance (and maybe even mechanics) to encourage getting away from the "punch him until he dies" school of fight scenes, so my first thought was that a system that makes it hard for very powerful characters to hurt one another was exactly what I needed.
Then, of course, reality set in. Even though characters in fiction rarely fight until the opponent (or everyone on the opposing team, for group fights) is a bleeding puddle, the unfortunate reality is that "punch him until he's dead" is so ingrained in RPGs that a system where the mechanics preclude the possibility of doing that is going to look broken, even if in my mind it's not. I do want to encourage moving away from the "kill everything in the way" style that's the default in RPGs but rare in actual fiction, but I don't have enough hubris to think I can single-handedly undo a 40-year-old RPG default setting. So I'm looking for ways to trim down those dice pools without completely rebuilding the system. I'll probably talk more about that next week.
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Sorry to post so late today, but I just realized it was Friday. The good news is that my father is back home, but he's still very weak from being in a hospital bed for 3 weeks, so he still needs a lot of help. Hopefully I'll have new content next week. In the meantime, the Round 2 winners of the Thought Eater Tournament at Playing D&D With Porn Stars have been announced, and it looks like I get to move on to Round 3. So this week I'm posting my round 2 essay.
Reading Tolkien Is Like Gaming With A Bad GM
My first attempt to read Tolkien was in middle school, when I read the first book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I didn’t want to finish it, but I’d picked it for a book report or something and by the time I realized I didn’t like it, it was too late to switch to something else. A few years later, I read The Hobbit and really enjoyed it. I decided maybe I was just too young the first time around, and started the trilogy again. This time I got about halfway through the second book before deciding The Hobbit was an anomaly and giving up on Middle Earth. Many years later, the movies were announced and I decided that if the guy who made Dead Alive and Meet the Feebles was willing to dedicate the better part of a decade to these books, I needed to give them another try. Once again, I made it about halfway through the second book before getting bored with it.
The Middle Earth books have good characters, a good story, and a richly-detailed setting, but I just can’t get through them. Part of the problem is Tolkien’s writing style. I tend to prefer writers who embrace Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” so Tolkien’s overwritten prose just isn’t my thing. To his credit, at least Tolkien uses one unit of well-written (if overwrought) prose to describe one thing or aspect of a thing rather than spewing a bunch of repetitive nonsense in the apparent belief that the more words you use, the smarter you are. I gave up on Game of Thrones when I hit a sentence that used three adjectives, a couple of adverbs, two similes, and a handful of metaphors so inapplicable even Dan Brown wouldn’t try to pass them off as legitimate that each informed me that blood was red. Tolkien’s writing style is kind of pretentious, but at least it’s not bad writing.
While Tolkien’s writing isn’t my bag, the reason reading his books is like gaming with a bad GM is that he had a tendency to tell rather than show. You don’t feel like you’re reading an adventure story, you feel like you’re reading a history textbook or a series of encyclopedia entries. There’s no momentum to the story. The same thing happens in a bad game, but in a different format. You burst through the door, sword in hand ready to bash some orc...and then you have to stop and wait for the GM to read a purple-prose-filled description from a grey box in the module (or worse, his own bad writing), often in a droning monotone. Or you spend an entire contrived scene dealing with a character, landmark, or other game world artifact that adds little or nothing to the story but is shoehorned into the session because the GM (or whoever wrote the supplement) created it and by God it’s going to show up in the story. Or the game grinds to a halt for 20 minutes while the GM looks through his notes for some detail nobody cares about. Or the GM (especially during character creation) tells you “you can’t do that” for some obscure game-world reason.
Basically, my problem with Tolkien is that Middle Earth is so over-designed that he spends more time telling the reader about the world than telling them the story. The Tolkien school of over-design, which has been embraced by most gamers, tells you that more detail means a better world, but in my experience it’s more likely to slow the adventure to a crawl, limit character options, and bore the players with minutia. It’s not the quantity of details that’s important, it’s the quality. A few telling details that help the players (or readers) visualize and understand the flavor of a place will make it seem more alive than a whole book full of detailed information about its system of government, imports and exports, demographics, and history and telling them who would play an NPC in the movie gives them a better sense of the character than giving them a Wikipedia-style entry. The players need a few details they can latch onto, not huge piles of data that make their eyes glaze over.
Another problem I’ve seen with overly designed worlds, especially in games, is that when someone puts that much time and effort into something, they don’t like other people breaking it. As a result, the players may feel railroaded because the GM resists any course of action that might cause a major upheaval that isn’t part of the storyline the GM planned for. If the players do manage to change the status quo, the GM immediately goes into damage control mode to contrive ways of returning everything back to the way it was (or as close to it as possible).
You can really see the Tolkien’s over-design when you compare him to someone like Robert E. Howard. When Tolkien mentions some far-away place, he usually gives you a lot of detail that’s mostly irrelevant to the current scene or story. By the time he gets back to the action, you’ve forgotten what was happening. When Howard mentions some faraway place, he may give you a short and evocative description, but then it’s right back to Conan and his mighty thews. The reader only learns more when and if Conan ends up there, or when more information is needed to move the plot along. This difference is in part due to economics: Tolkien was a well-off Oxford professor, so he had plenty of time to spend designing his world. Howard was grinding out stories to pay the rent, so he didn’t have the luxury of wasting on unnecessary world building. The unintentional result is that Tolkien’s world feels like a museum where you can look at exhibits and hear lectures, while Howard’s feels like a living world full of mystery and adventure.
A few years ago, some friends and I were talking about the difference between Tolkien-style fantasy and American fantasy. During the conversation, I mentioned my theory that Tolkien’s meticulous world design actually detracted from his stories and that part of the appeal of the pulp stories is the sense that so much of the world is unknown and therefore full of potential. The conversation led to a pick-up sword & sorcery game that turned into an occasional ongoing campaign (we’re spread out over several states and have conflicting schedules that so far haven’t allowed us to play online). In part to test my theory and in part because it made taking turns as GM easier, we decided that all world design had to happen “on-screen.” You can brainstorm all you want, but nothing’s cannon until the characters encounter it themselves during a session. We’ve only played the game a handful of times, but since everyone’s still excited about the game despite the long (sometimes a year or more) hiatuses between sessions, it seems to be working. The things we know about the world wouldn’t come close to filling a typical D&D sourcebook, but the things we don’t know about the world are infinite, and those are the parts we can’t wait to discover.
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You probably (hopefully?) noticed that I didn't publish a new post here last week, and this week is just going to be a quick note to let people know what's up and why things may be sporadic here for a little while. My father was sick last week, and my brother finally convinced him to go to the hospital on Wednesday. It was a good thing, because he probably wouldn't have survived much longer without medical care. The doctor said he's never seen anyone with pneumonia so severe come into the hospital still conscious. They've worked out that he has Legionnaires disease, but are still trying to figure out how he could have gotten it; there's another case in the other hospital in town, and apparently it's rare enough that two cases is considered an outbreak. He's on a ventilator right now, but hopefully that will come out in the next few days. My brother and I have been taking shifts at the hospital, which is why there was no post last week. They have wifi here, but it's iffy and when it works I've been focusing on gig work since it pays off quickly and doesn't require too much mental effort. Once Dad starts getting better, I'll get back to regular blog posts and working on Cinemechanix.
Speaking of Cinemechanix, since I'm going on 3 weeks behind schedule on the latest update (I'm halfway through and have posted what I've got so far to the playtest group) and will probably have less time to work on it in the next few months, we're going to have to reschedule the original plan of an October release. I'm not sure when yet, but we'll discuss it at the next Hex Skype meeting and I'll post updates as soon as we have a definite plan. Given the bigger-than-expected changes in the latest draft, expanding the playtest period is probably a good idea anyway. Keep watching this space for more info.
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As I mentioned last week, we noticed a few problems with the damage system for Cinemechanix. Namely, that fights were lasting a really long time. At first I thought the main problem was that I had unintentionally doubled Hero Factor (which is sort of like level in D&D--basically the overall measure of a character's badassitude). In the original version of the rules, character's subtracted their Hero Factor from damage. So if a character with HF 6 takes 10 points of damage, he soaks 6 of it and only takes 4. Unfortunately, since players also add HF to every roll, Hero Factor is basically getting applied twice.
Here's an example: Say Angel has a HF 6 and Demon of the Week has a HF 3. If Angel rolls a 5, he adds his HF to the roll for a total of 11. In order to win the roll, DotW has to roll a 9, since he only adds 3 to his rolls. But if Angle also gets to soak 6 points of damage, the demon really needs to roll a 15 just to cause one measly point of damage. If the demon rolls 15, his total with HF is 18. When you subtract Angel's total of 11, you're left with 7 points of damage. Then Angel soaks 6, leaving 1 point. So yeah, that doesn't work.
The simple solution, of course, is to drop the HF soak, which is no problem. That helps when the fights are uneven, but when two opponents are roughly equal, the fight still takes a really long time due to another problem that Josh had noticed: when characters have higher Dice Pools, the difference between rolls tends to shrink. This hadn't occurred to me since I suck at math; I had a gut feeling that more dice would mean higher rolls, and some sample rolls and playtesting bore that out, but I didn't realize how much rolling more dice affected the results. I found a site that could do the math for me and saw exactly how much the range of likely results shrinks when you roll more dice. Because of the narrowing of this range, the difference between rolls for two characters rolling around the same number of dice--and therefore the damage--gets pretty small. If both combatants are getting a 12 or higher on most rolls an Hero Factor is the same, damage maxes out at 8 points. Since I'm used to the potential 19 point range of a single d20 and I was trying to make the system less deadly than QAGS, I gave characters way too much Stamina (hit points).
The 19 point range I was thinking in also caused me to overcompensate in another way: originally, a player added +1 to his roll for every die in his pool beyond the first. So if you had a 5 dice pool, you add 5 to your roll. The idea was to give characters who were really skilled less chance of losing to some yutz who got a lucky roll. What I didn't realize was that rolling extra dice and taking the highest did that well enough without any help. Since adding up the bonus for the leftover dice was kind of a pain anyway, I didn't mind cutting it one bit.
As I was working through the system changes, I ended up writing a combat simulator so I could test things out and make sure things were working the way I wanted to (take out the "2" at the end if you want to see the version with the +1/die bonus included). Now that I'm satisfied with the results, I'm back to the rules revision, and hope to get it finished up in the next week or so.
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