Do I need anything else to the title of this post?
I’ve just had the chance to complete my first read through of the Starter Set box contents and the free D&D 5e PDF – which you should take a moment to download and read if you love RPGs and haven’t done so yet. Let’s not call what follows a review… let’s call it an exploration of my perceptions as I move through the material. I’m mainly going to focus on the Starter Set and occasionally reference the more complete PDF rules.
A disclaimer: I did not follow the playtest very closely. I kept it at the edge of my awareness but I did not play any games with rules, etc. I mention this only to say the new material was very new to me and not tempered by the playtest experience. Also, what follows is my own meandering ruminations and should be considered in that light…
The Short Version
If you just want the really short version… I like it. I enjoyed reading it and think that some of what has been done here is amazing, some of it is derivative, and some is “meh.” But overall, I really like what I’m seeing so far.
I have a friend who hates using the d20. He pretty much hates any version of the d20 system. His primary gripe – although there are many other well-founded ones – is rooted in the randomness of rolling a single d20 to determine outcomes. Basically, no matter how good he is, bad rolling can ruin that at any time.
My own gripes with the d20 system(s) trend toward a different direction but ultimately, the randomness of these activities really grates on me as well, sometimes doing a disservice to another convenient part of many d20 related games – Niche Protection.
This is a follow up to my last post concerning the nature of character skill vs. player skill at the gaming table and the various interactions that entails. Several comments on my last post raised specific points I intend to address as I write this, Part Two, and I have some additional ideas I hope to develop here.
This is a small post and I’ll say up front, I’m covering some well trod territory here… but it’s something that was on my mind recently as I began thinking about how to put together a toolkit for encounters.
At the con this past weekend we had several conversations about the difference between old school play and more modern “D&D” play, specifically thinking about how frustrating encounters are to create in a game like Pathfinder. It can take hours to plan a single encounter in Pathfinder. More importantly, we were discussing the idea of planned/balanced encounters vs. story-driven encounters.
I started thinking about the games I’ve played the most and how I GM, how I create encounters. I find that the more rules-light and the more well-defined the setting, the more capable I am of improvising and feeling good about it. I think back to running Star Wars D6 system in the Rebellion era and it was incredibly easy to run on the fly. I could improvise details and encounters easily. Amber DRPG works the same way for me.
Part of this comes from the fact that the whole group of players are very comfortable with those settings. They know the details and so they are not thrown off when encounters are not “balanced” because the expectation exists that they could run into odd but appropriate stuff at any time. Some other games really emphasize the encounter-mechanics-based method over the idea that encounters make sense for the setting. I think this is why my return to old-school, open-world style gaming has really been a boon. Sure, it’s sometimes a pain to make up treasure hoards and I am still getting my players familiar with the setting I’m running in, but the feeling of freedom has invigorated my desire to GM.
I’d never really thought about this from the player side before, and how it affects the play experience. I’m going to keep ruminating on this more, but it’s a thought that might show dividends at my table.
When I was younger I was really a system guy. I played tons of systems, read tons more, and really enjoyed working up ways to cross from system to system. I found an old notebook a while back where I’d done a complete conversion guide for Star Wars D6, 2nd Edition AD&D, and GURPS. Looking back – I was much cooler 15 years ago than I am now.
My first car was a 1972 Dodge Dart. It was a shade of green that I’m not sure how to even describe. It was a monster. My high school girlfriend called it, “the Monster.” It’s also safe to say that I really miss that car. I had the 2 door Swinger. It was beautiful. (Note: mine did not look this good… it was old by the time I got it.)
Even though the new Dodge Dart and the old Dart don’t look anything alike I’ve been a really big fan of the new Dart commercials. Particularly this one:
And really, it’s just the first few lines that I’m a big fan of:
Wanna make a great car interior? Stop looking at car interiors. Get inspired by other stuff.
And it’s surprisingly hard. Sometimes in gaming there is this painful feeling that, “it’s all been done.” I mean, whenever I look at a game I find myself making the same old comparisons… “oh that’s just a D&D clone” or “well, it’s just FATE the way FATE wishes it was.” You know, that kind of thing. And with Edition wars all the rage in so many games it’s hard sometimes to remember what we’re even annoyed about. I mean, I already hate Shadowrun 5th edition and I know next to nothing about it. And I will give it a read when it comes out, to be fair. But I’m off-topic.
I’ve been working on a diceless game for about a while now. I took a break from it because of job-stuff but I’ve been diving back in. I’m thrilled that there are some other folks out there other than me who still love diceless gaming… The Lords of Gossamer and Shadow kickstarter just ended and I’ll say that I ended up as a backer. It’s a good feeling to support diceless games hitting the market.
But even as I’ve been pondering my game that I’m trying to create I was blown away to see this (from another kickstarter as it happens…) and the short version is, Exalted 3 combat is going to involve combat momentum and the gaining of advantage to allow for the combat to move forward in novel ways. I sat there and shook my head in wonderment. This is exactly what I was writing (from a diceless perspective) and far from feeling cheated or any sense of outrage I was in awe of how ideas come into focus over time and people who read a lot of games and play a lot of games start to have this feeling that something is… missing, weird, could be done a different way? I think this happens in our hobby quite often. I mean, just look at the whole “story game” revolution. Look at the GM-less games that have cropped up and call themselves RPGs. [Aside: I am biased against this notion, but they are entitled to call themselves whatever they want.]
Here’s the first part of my notes about momentum as I worked to think my way through it’s usefulness as a game mechanic… these are incredibly raw but clearly going in the same direction as the Ex3 idea.
Idea of Momentum
Combat Momentum works such that players build up MP (momentum points) that can be spent to accomplish tasks.
• MP can be spent against any enemy. One pool per character used as they see fit.
• Opponents have different MT (momentum thresholds) representing what break points allow Knockout.
• Soft Opponents can be auto-knocked and generate no momentum
• MP gained from Hard Opponents can be spent to eliminate soft opponents.
• Damage is all equal.
• Armor is still in question(?)
• PCs must spend MP to disengage from an opponent or the opponent can take a free attack.
• MP can be spent to do more than be banked for knockout – they can be used to disarm, to psych out an opponent, to disengage, to protect a friend, to knockout out soft targets, perform heroic movements… and other stuff (what these maneuvers do is still up in the air).
• Total momentum can be pooled between PCs to hit a total on a tough monster but PCs must all act in the turn of the slowest initiative to do it.
• MP are earned by doing “damage.” Basically, weapon damage + margin of success.
• Instead of momentum adding up to eventually KO an opponent – each opponent has a certain number of “thresholds (?)” and these must each be met to defeat that opponent. Tougher opponents have higher thresholds for KO.
It might be useful to have players track pools of Momentum with tokens of some sort. This would be one of those ideas about making players feel like they’re participating in the combat – passing tokens back and forth – but of course, tokens are not required. Scrap paper will do just as well.
A couple of other things to keep in mind. How does poison work? How does this fit with ranged attacks? And I have this idea that momentum can be spent on defense – but you can’t generate new momentum with defense.
My primary worry is how to set thresholds for defeating an opponent that don’t simply encourage taking an opponent out as quick as possible.
It’s possible that gear/fighting styles/fatigue/stuff… could change the thresholds – which encourages a PC to spend energy (momentum) disarming opponents or messing up their gear or fatiguing them to make it possible to KO them.
This has merit.
Soooooo…. Here’s an idea. Or, a pair of ideas (ish).
First, what if Momentum doesn’t build up into a pool? What if you have to use whatever momentum you build up each turn as you gather it (or you lose it)? This would make it a much more “use it now” resource.
The maneuvers they spend the lesser momentum on each turn though could be the “building blocks” I want – they can be used to improve your ability to generate momentum in following turns… so, for example, feigning, or bluffing, or acrobatics, or small wounds, could improve the ability to generate further momentum – along with having other special effects. This would be building toward a maneuver called “Overwhelm” which would be the equivalent of the final killing blow or knocking the opponent out… or some sort of “Decisive Moment.”
Also, maybe (maybe) allow PCs to carry momentum from one turn over to another (but only once) and they might (?) lose a point for delaying? Or some other penalty for not using momentum as it is earned.
Finally – my other thought was to potentially allow a maneuver that reduces a fighter’s ability to generate momentum in following turns. Or specifically – a maneuver that allows a fighter to remove momentum from a fighter who carries it over from a previous turn?
This has actually spawned another thought… since Momentum isn’t about “hit points” or “life force” then it’s entirely functional to have maneuvers based on social or mental rolls… so you could have “tactical” maneuvers or “insults, goads, taunts” and other stuff that can build momentum while at the same time having specific effects in turns… This is good, need to keep ruminating. Thinking this way would also make the “roguish fighter” or the “smart fighter” have a bigger range of options in combat while still generating momentum. I like it.
Ultimately, I worked back through this idea and scrapped most of it because it seemed that “momentum” based combat actually exacerbated the worst aspects of gaming combat rather than improving them. It will be interesting to see what the Exalted 3 combat system ends up looking like. I’m excited at the possibilities. I’ve been ruminating on how to use “Momentum” for about two years now and it always comes back to the question, for me, of the hit point problem. The reason hit points work is because hit points are simple, can represent in a narrative, abstract fashion what this will do in a systematic and mechanical fashion, and ultimately – in games where stats turn every encounter into a math problem – it always seems that the best course of action is the one that ends with the enemies dead the fastest.
Nonetheless – I’m fascinated by the way we often see new ideas trickle into gaming. I’m fascinated by the way ideas come to life and we end up with new ways of doing the same things over and over again. It’s not a bad thing, it’s one of the most amazing aspects of our little hobby.
Thanks for reading.
PS… Oh, alright, I’ll admit it, I was a little bitter when I read that post… but just a little.
So, I’ve decided to give running Arcanum another go. It’s a good game to run over a summer and it’s a perfect fit for my “Blighted World” setting I made up a couple years ago. But as I’ve been rereading the game I’m stunned by the number of things I simply didn’t remember, didn’t understand, or completely ignored when I was younger.
First off, don’t get me wrong, this game is a constant favorite and is always in the back of my mind. It’s just full of really random stuff sometimes. Sometimes when I’m reading this I can hear the author almost talking and sometimes I’m reading and asking myself… is that really how that’s supposed to work? As is, in my experience, common with games from the early days of the hobby, especially D&D-types, it’s interesting to get that sense of what the author thought important to cover in their game. It’s so difficult to get any sort of authorial voice in most modern games (well, the mass-produced ones) because they are: 1) mass produced, 2) team efforts, and 3) have multiple departments they pass through before they ever get to the printer. Reading this game is a very different experience.
I’m a big fan of the occasional asides where the author compares notes with the real world. The discussion of longbows, for instance, is awesome. But there are some very interesting bits tucked away in this game that are alternately awesome and confusing.
Take the Charlatan class, for example. The Charlatan is this wacky hodge-podge spell caster who is also part thief and part performer. A Charlatan can acquire a ridiculous number of abilities along with spell casting (though their spell casting is never at greater than level 1 ability). I completely misunderstood this note for almost the entire time I’ve been playing the game, by the way. Charlatans are a little less awesome now, in terms of raw ability, but are still my favorite class in the game. Ignoring their spell casting ability, you also find that…
All first level charlatans begin with the same abilities as a first level magician. Thereafter, a charlatan may become proficient in any 1 additional thieving or performing skill per level of ability gained. Optionally, a charlatan may forego the learning of any two such skills in favor of gaining first level skill in any magical field of study (except Divine Magic). In lieu of any single performing or thieving Skill, a charlatan may also opt to acquire proficiency in any new weapon, or may acquire a + 1 to hit with any known weapon (see Skills: Weapon Training).
How is that not awesome?
Nowhere does it say that those +1’s to hit don’t stack either… so it’s possible you could become really, really accurate if you wanted. And there’s all kinds of stuff like this in the book. Just little pockets of crazy ****. It’s actually refreshing.
Of course, you might be accurate but how hard do you hit? Well, that’s actually a question for everyone. In the Atlantean system fighters are rated as Highly Trained, Skilled, and Untrained. It says in the explanation of Highly Trained fighters that…
Highly trained fighters (such as warriors, paladins, etc.) gain bonuses of +1 to hit and +1 damage per every two levels of ability gained.
…but in the class write-ups the warriors, paladins, etc. only list a +1 to hit, mentioning nothing about damage. I’ve actually never used the +1 to damage bonus – but looking at the Weapon Specialization skill, it also grants a bonus to damage that increases with level (which means that high level Martial Artists would be terrifying). I’ll admit, I’m conflicted about which way to rule this and how I feel about it.
I could go on… there is so much to love and so much to ponder as I prepare myself to dive into this game again. I’m deeply looking forward to the experience and when I get it a little more put together I’ll throw some of it up here.
It’s gonna be a fun ride. Welcome to Arcanum.
I wrote my first game back sometime around 1988. It was this weird class project I packed in a JCPenny’s shirt box for a class project. It was called Slang Wars and it was a cardboard chit, Avalon Hill style wargame that had to do with the battle between “proper speaking” and “slang.” I was in love with the Afrika Korps game from Avalon Hill that was the first “real” wargame that I ever played and so it trickled into my game design. Of course, I was also still very young and my experience with other games consisted almost solely of Moldvay D&D and Monopoly. Thanks to my Granny I also loved Kismet – and the D6 is still my favorite die type…
Seriously though, I am not a professional game designer. I don’t even consider myself an amateur game designer really but I have written a few games over the years and done a LOT of tinkering with other games. Some of that tinkering I’ll be writing about in my next few posts (I’ve been working with some of my old notes from Arcanum – thinking about running it for a short term game). Digging for those notes led me to some of my other old game design notebooks and I stumbled across this little bit that I would have written sometime around 2000-2002 (when I was working on the first incarnations of what would become Legends of Ryllia), “A roleplaying game needs two basic things — an action resolution system and a more specific system for combat.” And underneath this I wrote, “BUT, what if you are building an epic fantasy RPG?” I went on to answer my own question…
The same elements apply but they need to inspire that epic feel. The game system itself should inspire the players the way the imaginary world inspires their characters.
At this point I was fairly disgusted with my younger self… I remember this period that I was deeply under the fanboy sway of designers like John Wick and I feel like I’m parroting him here… but I was redeemed! On the next page I found this…
I’ve run Amber for years and learned that game system means next to nothing when compared to the power of the interaction of player and gamemaster.
And that was the beginning I think, of my shift in thinking as a gamer. I realized that I really didn’t like system. I really don’t like mechanics… and this thought has continued to this day with some modifications.
My thoughts continued (and I’m probably boring the heck out of all of you but I find my past ruminations somewhat illuminating considering my current gaming funk) to evolve here and things were going swimmingly…
I want heroes leaping rooftops, I want swords flashing in the moonlight, I want demons, and slavers, and violence, and glory, and romance, and quiet lonely trails. In short, I want them [the players] to know what it feels like to be a legend.
I was proud of myself for this until I read what I wrote on the next line, “So how do I do this with my game system?” and then the notes turn into a series of diagrams as I try to plot out the complex interactions of a system that could give me what I want… I missed my own wisdom it seems. System cannot give me what I want. Only engagement gives me the gaming experience that I want. But it seems I was still more under the influence of Wick and the Storygamers more than I thought I was. (Wick and the Storygamers should totally be a geek band.)
Speaking of John Wick, he recently published another of his Play Dirty videos and he makes the statement, “most roleplaying games, the character sheet protects the player from the gamemaster.” Now, I may not be a fanboy anymore but I’m still a fan of John Wick. He’s doing his thing, he’s successful, he’s good at it, and even if I’m not a fan of his mechanics or his motives, I still love to read his stuff because his worlds and creations are always so fantastically passionate and just plain interesting. But his statement there rubs me wrong. And I’m not sure if it’s because I disagree that what he says is true or that I know it is and that’s what upsets me so much…
That little tidbit from his video was part of what inspired this post because, well, one I wish I was brave enough to do some video posts – they look like fun, but also, because I’ve always had a really different vision of a character sheet.
I see the character sheet as two things. First, I see it as a wish list. When you pick out the stuff that you put on your character sheet I see it as saying, “Look at me, this is what I want to be able to do in the game world.” I see it as your best chance, before play begins and the world and your experiences begin to shape you (as they inevitably should), to have a little alone time with your character and really put some thinking into what you want out of the experience of this game. You want to be a super-athlete, you buy a lot of physical skills and jumping and stuff. You want to be a grim-eyed warrior you do that… and so on. This is probably not that surprising to most gamers. I bet I’m not alone in this part of how I see a character sheet. The second function I see a character sheet serving though is a bit different (maybe, who knows?). I see a character sheet as a contract with the game – and with the other people at the table – that you are planning to play a certain way and be a certain way. They need that information to be reliable to you so that your representation is reliable to them. If you play a chaotic good rogue with an 8 Wisdom in a Pathfinder game then I certainly don’t expect you to be the calm, slow-playing, careful member of the group who is always the first to slow down the action and make the deep plans. Maybe that’s just me – but I feel like you’ve set an expectation with your choice to deal away your common sense and willpower (lower Wisdom) for advantages somewhere else and by taking a Chaotic alignment. That’s just a quick example off the top of my head and maybe not the best one but it makes something of the point.
I see the character sheet not as a defensive wall but as the first, most honest point of interaction between the player and the game. And I realized that when I designed my game, Legends of Ryllia, I deeply tried to accomplish that – but I failed because I kept letting mechanics get in the way without considering the message what I was doing might be sending. By making everything about “bonuses and penalties” I failed to connect the dots on the exactly what I wanted to accomplish.
And now, with about a decade more of gaming behind me I find that I’ve moved even farther in the direction of engagement over rules – but I still have no idea how to make that idea live. Like I said, I’m not a game designer…
As always, thanks for reading (especially today!)
Everway is a game with a very odd and special place in my heart. Everway came out in 1995 and it was firmly in what I think of as my “second phase” as a gamer. I started playing OD&D in 1983 and pretty much played nothing but D&D until about 1992. I mean, I had picked up a clone or two – like Bard Games’ Arcanum – but it was mostly D&D. In about 1992 I started going to cons, had a reliable gaming store (or three), and had a couple new groups to play with other than the guys I started playing with. And suddenly, gaming as a hobby really grew for me. And I discovered diceless play. Everway was my second diceless game – after Amber – and I learned more about gaming than I really expected. Everway was both fascinating and disappointing in equal measure – and so I’d like to explore with you the fantastic reality that is Everway.
A Quick Overview
First of all, Everway is not a game with a defined setting (well, maybe it does but let’s table that). Everway has all the settings. PCs in Everway travel the worlds (called Realms) and have adventures in many different places. You can have any kind of vibe you want in Everway – dark, light, fantastical, faery-tale, whatever, it’s all there. Everway challenges the notion of setting by being open-ended in that regard. I fell in love with Everway a little because of this open setting approach. I was already indoctrinated by Amber into the concept of Shadows and D&D had a demi-plane of well, everything, so this open-setting was familiar and also refreshing.
Everway is tradition in the sense that you have players and a GM. The roles are clearly defined and you get all the standard injunctions at the beginning of the player book, “Don’t read the adventure,” “Don’t look at the Quest Cards,” and all that. And, oh, right, Everway uses cards. A lot of cards. I should probably have mentioned, Everway was produced by Wizards of the Coast. Wizards of the Coast is good at cards.
When writing these, it is always a challenge to balance writing at length about the system for completeness and clarity vs. writing more narratively about what the system does… in Everway’s case I think I’ll be better served with the second approach, so apologies. Everway characters are built with a Name, a Motive, a Virtue, Fault, and Fate, four Elements (think Attributes here), and then various Powers and Magic. It was the 90’s after all, so all that Virtue, Fault, and Fate stuff fits in perfectly.
The Elements are further described on the character sheet (the sheets are very pretty and visually interesting as well as useful) and provide a player with ideas about how the elements interact. The junction of Earth and Fire, for example, includes words like, Power, Active, and Passive. Fire is Action and Earth is Might. It’s a fascinating piece of gaming communication, reinforcing the game part while keeping story and possibility forefront as well.
The game is played like a very narrative RPG. Most of what happens is give and take with the GM and other players and occasional pause in the action to determine successes and failures. For most simple tests the mechanic is really a fairly straightforward “how high is your X?” And action resolution is what I really want to spend a little time discussing as I transition into the next part…
What Excites Me About This Game
What excites me the most – in terms of my memories of this game and the joy of rereading it again – is the thoughtfulness put into action resolution. Action resolution in Everway follows three laws. To be fair, these “laws” pretty much apply to just about every RPG out there – but the way they are approached in Everway makes it worth mention.
The first law is the Law of Karma. This law of action resolution is the basic “how high is your X?” with a twist. The idea of this form of resolution is that the GM looks at the abilities of the character and determines if they are high enough – much like the Cthulhu Live system I discussed last time. The twist is, the Law of Karma also includes a dose of cosmic justice. In some ways, this is similar to the Good Stuff/Bad Stuff rules from the Amber DRPG but instead of players setting that number (initially) it is incumbent on how you play. If you are a villain, the universe begins to treat you like a villain. If you are kind and heroic, the universe begins to treat you like you are kind and heroic. Not always – and not in all ways – but well, sometimes what you do will come back to you… you know, Karma.
The second law is the Law of Drama. This is the bugbear of all players, it is the dreaded “needs of the plot” Law. Well, sorta. The Law of Drama is the game’s explanation and tacit approving nod to GMs to do what they need to for the sake of moving the story along – but they are also cautioned and given interesting guidance in applying this power. To be honest – invoking the law of drama is pretty much how I run Amber. I will constantly invent ideas on the fly and fling them at the characters. I’ll see what sticks and what doesn’t and see what works and what doesn’t and then start all over again. It’s quite satisfying and I’ve rarely heard complaints from Amber players – but the advice in this chapter, while not groundbreaking, is comforting for a GM who may not feel as safe working without a net.
Finally, the third law. This is the Law of Fortune and is the game’s concession to randomness. Everway comes with a deck of cards called “the Fortune Deck” which in many ways resembles a Tarot deck with cards having meanings and reversed meanings. Players may draw from the Fortune Deck (one card only please) to shape and determine outcomes. You are trusting to fortune that what you draw will be in your favor… and well, sometimes it isn’t. I was a fan of this when I read it. I used it for a time, got caught up in the fun of it. It’s not how I roll now – but it’s still an intriguing concept. I genuinely believe that an Amber game using some form of Trump reading to offset the truly diceless nature of the game would be interesting. Don’t get me wrong – I prefer purely random-less games, but with the central nature of the Trumps to the story and the family, this could have been fun.
Between the pages of the game taken up by the discussion of the Laws (and it’s quite a chunk of the book), I found a game that spoke to the budding diceless nut within me. I was emerging into the player I would become. I didn’t roleplay to check my skills – I wanted my skills to exist to help me tell a story. I wanted my skills to give me a guideline for play, not set limits. It’s a fine distinction – but I was feeling it already then.
There is a short bit at the beginning of the book, under the heading, “In What Way Is It a Game?” that I want to share (and I’ve omitted some bits for space, but this is the meat),
Like any game, Everway has rules. These rules let the people playing know what to expect from each other and how to interact with each other. When playing Everway, however, nobody wins or loses. the point is to play and to keep playing… Indeed, many of the rules are simply suggestions for how to play… No one loses when the players win. Indeed, any victory is followed quickly by another set of challenges so the story of these heroes and their adventures can go on indefinitely… Much of the joy of roleplaying comes from portraying a character or imagining new worlds and possibilities, regardless of whether the hero defeats the villains or is vanquished by them.
For a young player, emerging from D&D and GURPS into Amber and Everway, those words were like a breath of fresh air. Not that D&D is bad mind you – I still play and love D&D today – but this, well, it’s what I’d been looking for ever since I sat down with the Last Unicorn and heard Schmendrick say, “there are no happy endings, because nothing ever ends.”
If you ever have a way, check out Everway – you might never play it but it is a fascinating part of the story of gaming and a great read. And as always, thanks for reading.