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.
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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.
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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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