Sorry about not posting last week. I've was busy working on a couple of Brainfart Press projects and tilting at windmills over at my non-game blog, so the game blog kind of slipped through the cracks.
After a longer delay than I would have liked, I think we've got a workable solution to the core mechanic/combat system problems with Cinemechanix that showed up in playtesting. The basic plan is to limit the dice pool to three dice: the default die everybody gets, a Concept Die (which is always a bonus die) for things that are central to the character concept, and a Context Die (which may be a bonus or penalty dice) that basically covers everything else. Instead of adding dice to the pool, Tropes will be modifiers to the roll. This should get rid of the problem of roll ranges so limited that nobody gets an advantage without a loss of scalability. A couple of our GMs are running Cinemechanix games at GenCon, so hopefully I'll have some feedback on how things work in the near future.
An early version of the system (when it was still QAGS 3.0) included a similar mix of bonus dice and modifiers, but I dropped it because (not yet having noticed the problem with large dice pools) I thought that leaving modifiers out altogether would eliminate temptation for "fiddly" modifiers that add complexity to the system without really adding anything to the gaming experience. Unfortunately this led to a different kind of fiddliness. I've known it was there for awhile, but kept trying to ignore it or improve upon it (in ways that probably just made it more fiddly) because admitting to it would require rewriting the way characters are defined. Knowing that I'm going to have to rewrite big sections because of the core mechanics changes just made it easier to admit.
The fiddliness comes from that weird class of character traits that are somewhere in the middle between game stats and story elements. Things that are clearly character abilities (like the character's marksmanship skills or super strength) are easy; they need game stats. Things that are pure story (like the character's eye color or favorite Stooge) are also easy; they don't need game stats. The problem comes from the stuff in between that are story elements that seem like they need to have game mechanics tied to them--things like contacts and resources and reputation. Up until now I've been trying to include these things as a sorta-kinda-mechanic under the character concept as something called "Hooks," but it's created a lot of confusion since Hooks can easily overlap with and even require repetition as other game traits (especially Drawbacks and Special Effects). This has led to what I sort of think of as "Storygame fiddliness" where game concepts have such precise meanings that it makes things confusing in a way that's just as off-putting and inaccessible as multi-page femoral artery integrity check rules.
A lot of the tendency to try to turn "damned" (to borrow from Charles Fort) character traits like these into game mechanics tied up in the myth of game balance, which is hard to get away from because some of the things done in the name of game balance are useful for reasons that have nothing to do with the "problem" they're trying to solve. For example, some of the damned character traits that led to all the fiddliness need to be accounted for because they can affect both the story and the game mechanics. The question is how to do it without an obnoxious level of precision.
The other thing that's led to fiddliness is a tendency to think in terms of generic game system standards (which are the norm, especially for "universal" systems) instead of adaptable game systems (which is what I'm trying to write). I'm sure I've gone into the difference (probably at length) here before, but the quick version is that a generic game system is a blueprint, an adaptable game system is a toolbox. Generic systems say "here are the rules for magic"; adaptable systems say "here are some rules concepts you can use to create the magic system that works best for the game you're running." A lot of the fiddliness I was creating was creeping in because I was still thinking in terms of generic game system (in my defense, the distinction between the two is something that I've been developing along with the system, so it's not like I've got a handbook to refer to). If you're playing a fantasy game using Cinemechanix, you should be able to say "I'm a fighter" and have a generic bonus for "fighter stuff" or create D&D style advancement tables that enumerate specific fighter abilities and bonuses by Hero Factor, whichever works best for your game. In an adaptable system, the best way for dealing with damned traits is something the players need to figure out when they're building their game. By trying to force certain kinds of traits into specific mechanical bins like generic games do, I'm taking away the players' ability to customize the system to the game they're going to run.
Long story short, I'm re-writing the character creation chapter right now, and it's getting a lot clearer and simpler all the time.
Your Patreon sponsorship reduces the time I have to spend poking through the trash bin of the gig economy looking for scraps. Less dumpster diving means more game writing!
Since people seemed to like last week's Dumb Table, and since I've got jujitsu chauffeur duty soon, I'm going to do another one this week. There's been a little forward momentum on Cinemechanix in the last few days, so hopefully I'll get back to the design journal next week. Just like last week, I'm going to link the Wikipedia entries so you can read them for yourself and figure out the best way to fit the character into your game. Most of these characters fall into the "colorful eccentrics" but some may just serve as conduits for introducing conspiracies, magic, fringe science, and other wierdness.
1. Charles Fort
6. Jack Parsons
9. Hetty Green
10. Jesco White
11. Speedy Atkins
12. Phoenix Jones
14. Kim Philby
15. Jon Ronson
16. Alan Moore
17. Vermin Supreme
18. Hasil Adkins
19. Utah Phillips
It's been a while since I did a dumb table, so that's what I'm going to do this week. Swiping characters from history and folklore is a common trope in RPGs (I'm pretty sure that Rasputin was a vampire, a werewolf, AND a mage in the original World of Darkness), partly because it can save the GM a lot of time. You can use these characters in their traditional context, transport them to your game setting via time travel or magic or immortality, or file the serial numbers off and create new characters inspired by them. I'll include Wikipedia links for each one if you need to do further research before plugging them into your game.
2. Stagger Lee
4. Sawney Bean
10. Hassan-i Sabbah
11. Mad King Ludwig
12. Lucky Luciano
13. J. Edgar Hoover
14. Mike Fink
15. Baron Samedi
16. Sack Man
17. Mock Duck
19. Allan Pinkerton
20. Gilles de Rais
Prove you're one of the good guys by supporting me on Patreon!
Things are slow on the Cinemechanix front this week. so let's do one of those blogs where I sketch out a one-shot adventure using my handy One Shot Generator Script (adapted from some of the tables in The Book of Dumb Tables and its sequel). As always, I have two options, since each Book of Dumb Table had a different way generating random one shots. My choices are:
The PCs are legendary heroes who work as space pirates who are opposed by Nazis.
A Western version of Die Hard as directed by George Lucas.
I usually tend toward option 2 when I do these things (which makes sense given that I'm the one who came up with the tables for the original 2nd formula), and Die Hard in a silver mine or something does have a certain appeal, but the first one has space Nazis, so we're doing space Nazis. "Legendary heroes" might sound vague, but here at One Hex Tower it's the "line" name we use for books like The Adventures of Sindbad, GILGAMESH!, and Beowulf vs. Grendel; so basically mythological characters.
When humanity finally abandoned Earth, they assumed they were done with Nazis. The 8th Reich had fallen nearly three generations earlier and even the Nazis who'd extended their lives through scientific means were thought to have been killed when South America was obliterated during the Coffee Wars. But Nazis are like herpes, and right now the 13th Reich controls most of the developed planets in the Sol II system. There is a resistance in the form of both clandestine groups on the central planets and ragged bands of rebels hiding out on desolate chunks of rock on the outskirts of the systems.
Second only to the Nazis' persistence is their tendency to dabble in occultism-tinged fringe science. From turning elite SS soldiers into actual werewolves to building an army of cybernetically enhanced super-apes to the tantric supercomputer that gave rise to Der RoboFuhrer, there's nothing that Nazi scientist won't try. One such experiment involved using DNA samples obtained from ancient Terran artifacts to clone the greatest heroes from Earth's past. The experiment worked, but the Nazis didn't count on was the heroes climbing out of the vats with their full memories intact and very little appreciation for the tenets of National Socialism. They promptly escaped from a maximum security laboratory facility to the frontier planets. Today, still wanted by the Nazis, they make their living as smugglers and soldiers of fortune on the outer edges of the galaxy. If you're in trouble, if nobody else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire the Argonauts.
The PCs' ship is obviously the Spaceship Argo. If I'm making pre-gen characters or giving the players suggestions, I'm going to go with Sindbad as the captain/pilot with Gilgamesh as first mate and Beowulf as hired muscle. Noah is the ship's engineer and Prometheus is the "security expert" (thief). Robin Hood is the gunner. Since the space Nazis are actively looking for them, the Argonauts have avoided contacting the organized resistance, preferring to act as freelance guerilla fighters whenever they get a chance to interfere with the Reich in ways that won't get them caught (which often involves killing every Nazi they encounter).
Obviously, the Rebel High Command is very eager to recruit the mysterious band of smuggler who reportedly routinely convert Nazi ships and space stations into floating mausoleums, and since this is a one-shot we might as well go right for the big target: Der RoboFuhrer. When the rebels track down the Argonauts, they explain that Der RoboFuhrer is currently conducting some kind of unholy experiment in a secret bunker on an obscure moon. The moon is far too heavily-secured for the rebels to mount an assault, but the Argonauts may be able to infiltrate the bunker and take down the RoboHitler. In addition to the expected space panzers and cybernetic Nazi gorillas, there has to be a complication, so when the party gets into the bunker they'll discover that Der RoboFuhrer has somehow managed to clone Odin and is currently draining his power. If he succeeds, he'll gain both Odin's immortality and his vast knowledge, which will make him unstoppable. The PCs will have to decide whether to confront the Nazi robot overlord directly or race against time to destroy the base before he steals the god's power.
If you really hate Nazis, support me on Patreon!
I should probably write some kind of big cool blog to celebrate the 20th installment of the design journal or something, but I'm revising (or maybe "completely rewriting" is more accurate) my third essay for the Thought Eater thing, so this one will be quick.
As I've mentioned before, I want combat that gets away from the "fight until everybody on the other side is unconscious" standard and leans more toward the way fights actually end in fiction. A lot of that has to be done by storytelling (giving fight scenes "victory conditions" that making continuing to fight impossible or pointless), but I'd also like there to be a mechanical component to give characters (PC or NPC) a reason to choose to leave the fight. Making unconsciousness the natural end for a fight (especially for PCs) brings up all kinds of story problems unless you're running a game based on The Big Sleep (or The Big Lebwoski) where getting knocked out is the main engine of scene changes.
In the current system, characters who drop below 0 Stamina can still fight, but suffer a penalty to all rolls equal to their current Stamina (so if you're at -7 Stamina, you have -7 to all rolls). I thought maybe that would help characters reach the "we can't win this" point through sheer force of math, but from what I can tell most of the playtesters seem to be working under the impression that everybody will fight until they're dead. I plan to include a note in the GM section about how most NPCs will flee when they drop below zero unless they're really committed or don't have the option of running away, bu that still doesn't help convince PCs to leave a fight that's going against them and come back with bigger guns or a better plan.
I'm wondering if the problem is that a penalty doesn't provide the right incentive, and if players might be more likely to see 0 Stamina as the point where you need to find a way to win fast or get out if there was a cost involved with continuing the fight. I'm thinking the solution might be to charge a point of Acclaim to take any action that requires a roll once you're Stamina is negative. That way characters are still conscious and I don't have to come up with a justification for the henchmen not shooting them in the head, but they have a clear limit on how long they can keep going (once they're out of acclaim, they can't do much but bleed) and a real reason to fall back and try plan B.
If you want context for this (in the form of the current rules draft) or want to join in the discussion, join the playtest group.
And if you want to give me money, sponsor me on Patreon!