Thursday, October 15, 2020

Some Random House Rules for 5e D&D

I tend to run games pretty close to Rules as Written.  Part of that is because I like many different kinds of games, and I like to see the ways in which their design translates into the play experience.  But the bigger part of it is that I'm not incredibly interested in being a game designer, and I don't feel like that should be part of my job description as a GM/DM--I'm paying you for this game so I don't have to do the design work.

The exception to this seems to be D&D 5e.  I don't view myself as a 5e Hater.  I like a lot of what the game does.  But there are a handful of things that really bug me about the rules, things that reflect some (I think) weird and kinda inexplicable design choices.  But because I like the game, I want to try to fix what I see as problems, without throwing up my hands and going down the road of "5e Bad."

To that end, I figured I would put out some of my house rules for 5e that I have been working on, along with a explanation of my thought process.  There are four of them--the Rest rules, XP, low levels, and Inspiration.  

Rest Mechanics

Let's lay out the basic problem with the rest mechanics as written in the Players Handbook.  PCs can take a Short Rest or a Long Rest, and every class ability in the game that requires a recharge refreshes on either a Short Rest or a Long Rest.  Because the Short/Long Rest system is so deeply grounded in all player-facing mechanics, it is extremely difficult to change around the actual mechanic itself without rebuilding the class mechanics completely.  For example, if you have a Warlock in the party, the effectiveness of the Warlock visa ve the other classes is heavily dependent on  there being opportunities for Short Rests, as the Warlock's more limited spell selection is balanced around the idea that spell slots refresh on a Short Rest as opposed to a Long Rest for the other spellcasting classes.  Meanwhile, we are told that encounters are balanced around the idea of six to eight "medium" difficulty encounters between Long Rest, and two encounters between Short Rest (so encounter, encounter, Short Rest, encounter, encounter, Short Rest, encounter, encounter, Long Rest).  To activate a Short Rest, the PCs must take one hour of in-game time to rest, while a Long Rest requires eight hours of sleep by the PCs in-game.

The interface between the last two elements means that there is an expectation that PCs will engage with six to eight encounters in a 24 hour period.  That makes some sense in a pure dungeon crawl scenario, but its hard to justify in most other story contexts.  In an urban exploration scenario or a wilderness travel scenario, it's pretty easy for the PCs to take rests between every encounter (at least Short Rests), which means that the PCs will be at or near full strength for every encounter.  Which requires the DM to throw tougher challenges at the PCs, which makes combat more swingy, more unpredictable, and more of that "rocket tag" phenomenon that was a big issue in previous editions.  

So, what do you do to solve this problem?  One idea is to borrow from the rest mechanics for 13th Age.  Whereas 5e requires you to take a particular amount of time to rest (one hour/eight hours of sleep) to trigger the recovery, 13th Age ties recovery directly to the number of encounters completed.  In 13th Age, this is balanced around the idea of a Quick Rest (the 13th Age version of a Short Rest) after every encounter and a Full Heal Up (i.e. Long Rest) after three to four encounters.  This way, the PCs never get out of sync with the encounter balance guidelines built into the game.  If you were to import this over the 5e, you would simply say that PCs get a Short Rest after every two encounters (no matter how much time passes in between encounters) and a Long Rest after six.

The objection to this approach is that it makes rests an entirely dissociated mechanic.  You are keeping the rest economy consistent with the gamist encounter design principles, but there is no consistent thing happening in the world that is triggering the recovery of PC resources--no consistent amount of time passing, no consistent PC action.  The degree to which this bothers you is a matter of personal taste.  It never really bothered me running 13th Age, but I see why people object to it on principle.  It also removes any sort of tactical thinking on the part of the players with regard to rests, as they just happen automatically.

On the other side, there is the "gritty realism" approach described in the Dungeon Masters Guide, which requires eight hours of sleep for a Short Rest and 7 days of rest for a Long Rest.  My problem here is with the 7 days for a Long Rest, as I think it creates a new set of pacing problems for stories.  If the PCs have to stop cold their adventuring for an entire week to heal up, it's hard to maintain any sense of tension and urgency.  And if you as the DM contrive to prevent the PCs from taking Long Rests in the name of maintaining tension and urgency, I think players will eventually become resentful, as at the end of the day 5e is about using your cool character abilities.

The final approach I've seen is in Cubicle 7's wonderful (but, at least for now, out of print) Adventures in Middle Earth, which is built on the 5e chassis.  AiME keeps the basic time lengths for rests, but adds the restriction that a Long Rest can only occur in places where the PCs have "safety, comfort, and tranquility."  In other words, no Long Rests in the wilderness, or in dungeons, because those environments are unsafe/uncomfortable/disturbing.  In other words, you can basically only take a Long Rest in a protected place like an inn, or (in Middle Earth terms) some place like Rivendell or Lothlorien.  I like this a lot, and it makes perfect sense (and is very thematic) for Middle Earth stories, but I think it is also a little too punishing for most standard 5e campaigns to say no long rests at all during wilderness journeys.

So, taking all of that together, here are my Rest rules.  

  • A Short Rest is eight hours of sleep, as per the gritty realism rules;
  • A Long Rest requires: 
    • 48 hours of uninterrupted rest or
    • 24 hours of uninterrupted rest if the PCs are in a place with "safety, comfort, and tranquility" as per AiME--their homes, an inn, a castle of a friendly noble, etc. 
What I like about this scheme is that it incentivizes players to look for places of safety, without making it completely impossible to get Long Rests in a wilderness or other unfriendly environment.  It has the advantage of being very easy to explain in-game--it's not hard to see why resting in a place of comfort and security is more refreshing than camping in the wilderness.  It also keeps things moving in-game--"you've rescued the daughter of the local baron and returned her to her family.  After a day off to recover while taking advantage of the hospitality of the baron, you are off to continue your quest for the Crown of MacGuffin.  Reset to full health and spells."  Finally, I think this hits a good middle point between the base rules on one hand and the "gritty realism" or AiME rules on the other.  

Experience Points

There are two basic problems with XP in 5e.  First, RAW, the only thing you get XP for is killing things, which strongly incentivizes "murder hobo" play and disincentivizes the other "pillars of play" that are much talked about in 5e but not really mechanically supported.  Second, while 5e is better about this than previous editions, counting out XP from different enemies defeated by the PCs is a pain in the ass for the DM, with little obvious upside to anyone.

On the flip side, many folks (including the Adventurer's League, 5e's organized play campaign) have abandoned XP altogether and have gone with a story milestone approach, in which PCs gain levels after progressing through a pre-set amount of story content (FWIW, 13th Age works this way as well).  Story milestones are, in my opinion, lazy design, as they don't really reward anything other than showing up to play the game.

So, here I would borrow some ideas from other fantasy games.  This particular scheme is based on Dungeon World via Adam Koebel, and it happens to be similar to the approach used in Forbidden Lands (which I reviewed here).  At the end of the session, the DM asks each player six questions about what their PC did during the session.  For every question that the player answers "yes," the PC gets 1 XP.  The questions are:

  • Did you overcome a challenging enemy? 
  • Did you gain a magic item or other significant treasure?
  • Did you discover a new location, secret, or piece of interesting lore?
  • Did you gain a valuable NPC ally?
  • Did you express a unique element of your Race, Class, or Background?
  • Did you express your Bonds, Flaws, Ideals, or Alignment in a way that complicated your life?
The first four questions are group oriented (i.e. the PC doesn't have to overcome the challenging enemy alone to get credit), while the last two are more individual.  You can only get one XP per category per session--so, if you defeat two challenging enemies in a session, you still only get 1 XP.

To advance to a level, PCs must acquire XP equal to their current level + 6.  Once they hit that mark, those XP are "spent" and the PC level's up, with any left-over carrying over as a head-start on future advancement.  I find that the simplest way to handle things, but if you wanted to keep the D&D standard of constantly increasing XP, you could easily do that (i.e., Level 2 requires 7 total XP, Level 3 requires 15 XP, Level 4 requires 24 XP, etc.).  "Current level + 6" is also a flexible metric that the DM can tweak to control the speed of advancement.  One note here is that because you can only get 1 XP per category per session, if your sessions are short, the PCs will gain XP faster relative to story elements, so it might make sense to increase the thresholds in that case.

I think this system does two things.  First, it rewards, and thus incentivizes, a wide variety of player behavior and play situations.  A tense diplomatic negotiation with zero combat and heavy RP can earn just as much XP as a kick-in-the-door dungeon crawl.  Second, it allows the DM to completely abandon the tedious task of adding up all the XP from all the monsters and then dividing it by the number of players, especially if the DM is doing that with an eye to maintaining some kind of advancement pacing.  The questions take 5 minutes at the end of the session, the numbers are small and easy to keep track of, and players know exactly what the need to do to gain XP.

1st and 2nd Level

As I previewed here, I don't like low-level 5e play very much.  Bounded accuracy means that you can use the full spectrum of enemies at 3rd level than you can at first, except that fights at 3rd level are more fun and more consistent than they are at 1st.  Plus, a PC doesn't get the full scope of character abilities until (depending on the class) 3rd level.  To be fair, everyone from Mearls on down says that 1st and 2nd level are basically the D&D version of a video game tutorial, except that the rules don't really reflect that if you look at how much XP, and thus how many fights, it takes to go through those levels.  *Shakes Fist at the Sky.*

So, I would handle 1st and 2nd level the following way.  If I was playing with an experienced group of 5e players, I would skip it altogether and have them make 3rd level characters.  If I was dealing with people new to 5e, I would start at first level, but make the first two sessions explicitly tutorial by setting the XP threshold for advancement at 1 XP, and awarding 1 XP if the PCs did any of the things on the normal XP list.  So, a campaign would basically have two tutorial sessions to slowly on-board the new D&D players to the game and their characters, and then when they get to session 3/level 3 the real game begins.  I would also allow unlimited class rebuilds through the end of 3rd level for new players, so that a player is not stuck with a suite of options they don't really like.  So, if a new player who starts with a wild magic Sorcerer and then decides after a couple of sessions they don't like the Sorcerer or wild magic mechanics, I would let them just pick something else at any time before hitting 4th level.


Last one is inspiration.  My problem with Inspiration is that I hate mechanics that empower/require the DM/GM to grade a player's roleplaying and give some benefit based on that grade.  I think it is disempowering to players, while putting the DM in a weird power position--after all, the players don't get to grade how well the DM is roleplaying the NPCs.  In addition, if the concern is getting PCs to role-play at all and/or making Ideals/Bonds/Flaws meaningful, the XP mechanics I sketched out takes care of that problem while putting the judging in the hands of the players themselves.

The simplest thing to do here is just cut Inspiration out altogether, which is what I normally do, as PCs in 5e are pretty robust for the most part and don't really need the free Advantage.  Instead, I would port over a variant of the "Fight in Spirit" rule from 13th Age.  When a PCs is unconscious or otherwise unavailable during a combat round, on what would be their turn (in addition to rolling Death Saves, if necessary), the player of the unconscious PC can narrate how they are or have bolstered one of the other PCs in their current situation.  The bolstered PC then gets a floating Advantage that they must use sometime in that encounter or it is lost.  An out-of-action player can only bolster a particular PC once per encounter, but if they are out of action for multiple rounds they can bolster multiple PCs.

What I like about this rule and the original "Fight in Spirit" rule is that it keeps players of unconscious or otherwise non-participating PCs engaged in what is going on at the table.  Rolling a Death Save takes a few seconds, and otherwise their turn is skipped.  Now, they have something to do.  It also somewhat cushions the death-spiral that tends to occur when one PC drops in a combat. 

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Scattered Thoughts on Rime of the Frostmaiden, and One of My Big Complaints About 5e

The newest tent-pole product from Wizards of the Coast, Rime of the Frostmaiden, is out and the reactions to it have been. . . rather mixed.  Some of that, I think, has to do with what I perceive as a growing, if diffuse, dissatisfaction with the direction of 5e and 5e products generally over the last year or so.  But I was scrolling through Sly Flourish a/k/a Mike Shea's Twitter feed last night, and he posted this:

What he was pointing to is that the first major fight has an opponent who is going to be really challenging for 1st and 2nd level PCs, set up by potential side quests with equally challenging encounters for those same first level PCs (there is also a discussion, along with Justin Alexander, about how railroad-y and bizarre the lead in is).

In response, Sly Flourish got the response that basically always seems to come up whenever someone notes that an encounter is going to be very challenging, which is that "you as the DM are not obligated to only use balanced encounters!"  This response is unhelpful, to the point of being borderline trollish, but it also, I think, misses the point of what is really going on within the design of 5e that creates these problems.  Because this sort of thing (alongside how the rest mechanics are broken) is my biggest complaint with 5e.

From a game mechanical point of view, I think the engine that is driving the problem here is that 5e combat is very swingy.  Because bounded accuracy reduces the range of bonuses that are in play, much more of the outcome is determined by the dice roll.  Others have referred to this as the "chaos plateau," and it is a feature of all d20 games to a certain extent, but I think 5e, certainly among more recent editions of D&D, is the most chaotic.  As a result, you can run the same encounter with the same sides multiple times and get wildly different results, depending on how the dice land in a particular iteration.

Again, this is a feature that is hard-coded into 5e via bounded accuracy.  But it really manifests itself at low levels, because low level characters lack the pool of hit points to absorb the consequences of bad die rolls.  In my experience, there really is no such thing as a "medium danger" combat encounter at low levels in 5e, because any fight is only a few good (from the monster's point of view) dice rolls away from being very deadly.  Once you get to higher levels, characters can ride out the bad rolls long enough for most fights to revert to the mean outcomes, so combat becomes more predictable.  But at low levels, almost every fight is basically a crap shoot.

As a DM, I hate that.  Not because I believe I am somehow obligated to provide a perfectly curated experience for the players, i.e. a "balanced encounter."  There is nothing wrong at all with throwing very difficult challenges at players and seeing how they do.  But I as a DM want that to be a considered, motivated choice on my part, one that fits into my broader session goals.  Having what I think is going to be a set-up encounter turn into a TPK (often very quickly) derails my whole session plan.  For example, I ran Waterdeep: Dragon Heist with my group, and the first encounter is with some Kenkus in a warehouse.  A round and a half of combat in, and it becomes abundantly clear that this is going to be a TPK.  So, I pulled the plug on the fight, and had everyone get captured and eventually escape.  Now, was it a big deal at the end of the day?  Not really.  But I had to scramble to save the adventure path in session #1, and I would rather not have to spin plates right from the get-go.

It is likely that many people will read this and say "gee, I/my group didn't have any problems with the Kenkus in the warehouse."  And that's my point.  It's pretty clear to me that the designers were not trying to put some super-tough encounter in the beginning; it just so happens that the dice were bad for my group in that particular encounter.  On the flip side, my players crushed the later encounter in the sewers, clearly designed to be a tough chapter ender, with a bunch of excellent dice rolls.  So, it's not that the encounters are "unbalanced," it's that they can't really be predictably balanced, because the variance in the outcomes is so wide.

Also, you have to situate this in the context of running an adventure path-based game.  It is one thing to have high variance combat outcomes when you are playing a grindhouse-style game like Dungeon Crawl Classics, or other intentionally high lethality games (see, for example, my recent review of Forbidden Lands).  Everyone knows the score, and bad dice rolls leading to bad outcomes is kinda part of the fun.  But when you sit down to run a long, story-based campaign, having the thing derail early on from a not-that-consequential fight is totally contrary to what you are all trying to do.  If I spent a couple of weeks hyping up and getting buy-in for Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and its city-based premise, had everyone go through a full Session Zero to design interesting characters, and then had said to my players an hour and a half into our first session, "well, your characters are all dead from these random Kenkus.  What do you want to play next week?" my players would have justifiably looked at me like "WTF, Mike?"  They, and me too, were in this for the long haul, as promised by the product itself.  Having high variance early combat outcomes is contrary to what people are buying into when the sit down to play the adventure paths WotC is making.

All of which is compounded when, as it seems here, the designers on Rime of the Frostmaiden decided to ratchet up the difficulty intentionally.  Now, instead of having unpredictable outcomes, you have unpredictable outcomes weighted against the players.  Again, I am sure that some groups will do just fine, and maybe not even notice what the big deal was.  But for other groups, maybe most groups, it will be a meat-grinder, because all low level 5e play can turn into a meat-grinder at basically any moment.  And while I know that this adventure path is pitched as being a difficult challenge, TPKing the party at the first major fight seems counter-productive if everyone is there to sit down and play through the whole thing.  I suppose you could pitch it as a grindhouse style game where players are going to lose multiple characters a la the classic Call of Cthulhu adventure paths, but you can't even really promise that, either, as you are only a couple of good dice rolls away from wiping the floor with your enemies, and everything becomes much more consistently survivable around 4th level or so in general in 5e.

At the risk of engaging in edition warring, I have to say that this whole issue is one of the major reasons I prefer 13th Age to 5e.  First off, 1st level 13th Age characters are much more durable than 5e characters simply by having more starting HP (high teens or twenties).  As a result, you avoid much of the particularized problems of low level 5e play altogether.  But, more to the point, I find the underlying encounter math of 13th Age to be far more predictable than 5e.  If the encounter table in the 13th Age rulebook says that a particular fight is going to be a moderate challenge for a particular party, it is very unlikely to be a shock TPK (if anything, the table leans on the side of fights being a little too easy, especially if you use the slightly but consistently underpowered monsters in the corebook).  I feel more confident in the encounters I run in 13th Age because I have a pretty good idea how it is going to go, whereas with 5e I am often more in the mode of "well, hope this doesn't wipe out my players."  I prefer the control 13th Age give me as a GM.     

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Thoughts on GMing, Part 3--Forbidden Lands, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the OSR (Kinda)

If you engage even a little bit in the online ttrpg scene, you will encounter the term "OSR."  I have struggled with the Discourse around the OSR, because it has been hard to figure out precisely what it is and what it stands for.  There is even disagreement over what "OSR" stands for--does it mean "Old School Roleplaying" or "Old School Renaissance"?

Maybe in part because of this ambiguity, nothing that I have encountered from from the OSR has really grabbed me.  There is a segment of the OSR that in embodies an aesthetic position, trying to recreate the feel and look (often through the art style) of late 70s/early 80s ttrpgs, more specifically D&D.  Probably the best example of this is Goodman Games' Dungeon Crawl Classics, with its Errol Otis art and focus on short character life spans, but there is also the more horror-oriented and sex-forward Lamentations of the Flame Princess.  These games do a very good job at doing what it is trying to do--I fully acknowledge the craft of both DCC and LofFP--but playing them left me cold.  That style and aesthetic was not the feel of D&D that I remember from first getting into the  hobby, as I am a child of 2nd Edition AD&D, Forgotten Realms, and Dragonlance, all of which come after the early-80s touchstones of the DCC and LotFP aesthetic.  So it didn't work for me on the level of nostalgia, and it doesn't really work for me on its own merits.

Then there are the games that are very self-consciously about the mechanics of early editions of D&D.  Gotta say, I have even less interest here.  It's not that those rule systems are bad or necessarily unplayable, but there is so much good design out there going in every conceivable direction that I don't really see the point of locking into a forty-five year old design as a core commitment.  

Finally, there are a set of ideas about the play experience.  The best articulation of this game-play focus is expressed by Ben Milton in a compilation called the "Principia Apocrypha":

"The more of the following a campaign has, the more old school it is: high lethality, an open world, a lack of pre-written plot, an emphasis on creative problem solving, an exploration-centered reward system (usually XP for treasure), a disregard for 'encounter balance,' and the use of random tables to generate world elements that surprise both players and referees. Also, a strong do-it-yourself attitude and a willingness to share your work and use the creativity of others in your game."

This is all very interesting, but none of these ideas never particularly fired me up and got me excited about running or playing in that context.

That is, until I found Forbidden Lands, by emerging Swedish juggernaut Free League (Fria Ligan) PublishingBen Riggs of the Plot Points podcast called the Forbidden Lands the "perfect rpg product," and that seemed crazy when I first heard him say it, but I get where he is coming from.  

I mostly want to talk about the mechanics, because that where I think the game really shines, but I want to say a few things about the lore and setting.  First off, the trailer video that Free League put together is pretty close to being the perfect introduction to a setting.  Check this out:

Evocative, atmospheric, moody, informative without being overly long and expository--that video is great.  Beyond the trailer, the setting walks the line between providing familiar fantasy RPG tropes (so it is accessible) and being distinctive and unique (providing a compelling reason to check it out).  It also walks the line between fun-dark and obnoxious-dark.  Here, I think there is something to the fact that this comes out of Sweden, and is the product of Swedish fantasy writers.  I don't have deep experience with the Swedish fantasy scene, but Forbidden Lands feels different from English-language dark fantasy like Warhammer, and I like this version much better.

But the setting and lore of Forbidden Lands can be swapped out for other fantasy tropes without too much trouble (as, to be fair, the game acknowledges).  The real magic is in the mechanics.  Forbidden Lands is a gritty, survival-oriented wilderness exploration game at its heart.  The boxed set (itself an old-school touch) contains a hex map showing the land forms of the titular Forbidden Lands, and a set of stickers for placing down cities, towns, dungeon ruins, and other examples of what the game calls "adventure sites."  But, in between the adventure sites, the PCs go from hex to hex, deal with potential random encounters, and have to maintain their supplies.  There are very clear systems for handling pathfinding, foraging for food and water, hunting, making camp, even sleeping.

These sorts of systems are not new--early D&D products like the "BECMI" Expert set had similar systems.  But Forbidden Lands puts a subtle twist on each of these elements, reducing the grind and fiddly-ness for the players and GM, grind and fiddly-ness which caused those mechanics to go out of fashion in the first place.  For example, instead of counting individual units of resources like rations and water and torches (and arrows, too), those resources are expressed as a die--d6, d8, d10, or d12.  Every time you have to eat or take a drink or light a torch, you roll the die; on a 1 or 2, you step down to the next lowest die type (i.e. d10 to d8).  Roll a 1 or 2 when your resources are at d6, and you are out of the resource.  Not only does this cut down on book-keeping, but it adds a dramatic tension to resource consumption--failures increase the chances of future failures in a downward spiral, and the more operationally-minded PCs will not be tempted to (or able to) tediously micromanage away resource scarcity.  

While in exploration mode, the GM is encouraged to let events play out according to a well-designed set of random tables.  What sorts of random encounters to do the PCs come across?  What animals are available to hunt?  What happens when they camp at night?  No need at all for the GM to prep any of that--let the tables decide.  The key feature here is that the random tables and systems-oriented, player driven action removes responsibility from the GM to craft a curated game experience for the benefit of the players.  As the manifesto quoted above says well, I think, the outcomes of play are a surprise both for the players and the GM, in a way that doesn't happen in a more standard GMing experience.  Also, and I think this is a key feature of Forbidden Lands, exploration mode in Forbidden Lands requires literally no GM prep.  Between random encounters and the various (mis-) adventures of wilderness travel, it is possible for a GM to run an entire satisfying session with zero prepared, and not feel like he or she has to be constantly improvising and keeping the plates spinning.    

But Forbidden Lands departs slightly from the old-school formula by mixing the procedural elements in with modular adventure sites.  If the players and/or the GM get bored of wandering through the wilderness, the GM just plops down an adventure site and play focuses there.  But, even here, the models we are provided in the core rulebook and in the expansion materials (I currently own the Bitter Reach campaign and the Crypt of the Mellified Mage adventure set, but there is also the Raven's Purge campaign as well) show off sand-box style design, with competing factions and goals that the PCs can insert themselves into.  "The Vale of the Dead" in the boxed set could easily have been a rather boring paint-by-numbers dungeon crawl against a giant, but instead it has four or five different competing groups that can be allied with, and/or played off against each other.  And each adventure site is set up with a rumor that is given to the PCs, which is a great touch for world building, but also allows the GM to situate these adventure sites into a broader narrative without forcing players into a narrative railroad (the Bitter Reach campaign is especially excellent at creating a overarching story while maintaining a truly open format).  And it should be noted that there are robust random tables for generating adventure sites, though I would suggest rolling up the site prior to the session.

All of this is layered over Free League's "Year Zero" game engine.  Forbidden Lands is likely the most complex and mechanics-driven of the Year Zero games, but the underlying dice pool system is easy to learn and easy to teach.  The heart of Year Zero is the push mechanic--you basically have two chances to succeed on every check, but going to the second roll is going to cause some consequences for the PC.  In Forbidden Lands, the consequences of pushing rolls is damage to your equipment and/or to your character.  That might seem awfully punitive, especially as a PC is going to have only a handful of points before the character is "broken" and really bad things happen, but in return every point of damage from pushing rolls nets the PC a willpower point.  Since Willpower points are the currency that powers most Talents (including all spellcasting), this creates an interesting feedback loop, in which players are incentivized to put their own characters through the wringer in order to do more powerful things.  It also incentivizes PCs, especially spellcasters, to get "stuck in" to the other elements of game play, so that they can generate Willpower points to power their magic.  So, in good old-school fashion, PCs in Forbidden Lands are in for a rough ride; unlike other old-school games, much of pain is going to be self-inflicted.

I'm still not super interested in most of the OSR games.  But I am all-in on Forbidden Lands.  For me, it takes the best ideas from that play style--especially the random tables and open sandbox-style play--and presents them in a thoroughly modern, innovative format.  If you, like me, are or have been an OSR skeptic, this would be the place I would start to maybe change your mind.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Thoughts On GMing, Part 2--2d20 and Conan

In the last post, I talked about the idea of limiting the GM's freedom of action as a way to engage the GM in play.  When I was writing that post, I had a number of games in mind, but primarily I was thinking of Modiphius's Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of.  Conan is interesting in at least two ways--one as a particularly strong implementation of Modiphius's "2d20" system (though it's worth mentioning that fellow 2d20 games Star Trek Adventures and Infinity are both excellent and worth consideration on their own merits), and thus shows off the ways that 2d20 pulls off the creative constraints on the GM.  The other is the way that Conan engages with and emulates genre material, especially problematic genre material, but that's going to have to wait for another post. 

Before getting into Conan and the 2d20 system, I want to give a shout out to the Complex Games Apologist and his Youtube channel.  He has a very interesting channel that discusses a variety of ttrpg topics, but relevant to this post he was the one that convinced me to give the 2d20 system a shot with his series on Star Trek Adventures.  I was skeptical/uninterested in Modiphius's products prior to watching his videos, as I was strongly in the 90s-era mode of licensed property + "universal" game engine adapted to that property equals forgettable shovelware. Modiphius's stuff is anything but shovelware--it's some of the best, most thoughtful licensed adaptations I've seen.  I wouldn't have checked out these games without CGA's prompting and showcasing, and his game analysis, and especially his analysis of the 2d20 games, is some of the best out there.  Check out his stuff.   

So, let's look at Conan.  There's a lot of interesting design in this game--I love the "zones" system for handling distances and the battle space, for one, as well as the very genre-savvy set of mental attacks that include things like brandishing the severed head of your enemies to intimidate your remaining foes.  But the real heart of the 2d20 system, in my view, is found in two things--scene framing, and the push-pull of Momentum and Doom.  These two elements, working together, both constrain the GM's freedom of action in a way that increases player buy-in, while providing the GM with an "mini-game" that keeps him or her engaged in the play experience, all the while still allowing the GM to be a GM and express his or her creative and narrative freedom.

As to the first element, Conan instructs the GM to think about the game narratively in terms of a series of set-piece scenes.  It's the job of the GM to frame those scenes, and the GM is basically given unlimited discretion in this framing.  A key component of this framing is to provide the scene with a series of what you might call in video game terms "interactive elements"--different things that can be triggered or activated by different players in the scene.  The most obvious form of interactive elements are NPCs, but Conan also includes like terrain effects and other sorts of non-living elements as part of the tool-box for the GM to be included in a scene.  [Here, it's worth mentioning Infinity's "psyops" or social interaction rules that provide a very robust platform for running non-combat encounters in a way that doesn't just turn into an unstructured/freeform pure roleplaying experience.]  Once the GM frames the scene, the players and their characters are let loose into that space, and the action begins.

There are a number of games that focus on scene framing and scene elements.  7th Sea 2nd Edition was the first one of these I encountered, and my understanding is that FATE works this way as well.  But the key thing is that once the scene is framed by the GM, once it is "released into the wild" as it were, the GM is constrained in the manner in which he or she can manipulate or change the parameters of the scene.  In other words, once the GM sets up the scene and puts the pieces in place, he or she is now bound by the rules of the scene and is truly "playing the game," albeit with a different palate of options than the other participants.

The game that the GM is playing is defined in terms of the GM's Doom pool.  In an abstract sense, these pools are a quantized version of the "hard moves" of the PbtA games, as the GM spends points out of his or her pool to either boost the actions of the NPC antagonists, or to activate elements of the scene in a way that makes the players' lives harder.  So, the GM can, for example, introduce enemy reinforcements into the scene, but only by spending points out of the pool.  Likewise, the GM could activate an environmental element in a scene (say, the trees in a forest catching on fire) by spending points out of the pool.  The things the GM can do via Doom are, like PbtA hard moves, broad enough as to allow the GM to basically do anything he or she might want to do in a particular situation, but always constrained by the number of points that are in the pool that could power the GM's ideas.  Moreover, the pool system is transparent--the players know how many points are in each of the pools at any time, and all of the spends are constrained by the rules, facilitating player buy-in.

Even better, the source of the Doom pool is the actions of the players themselves.  The basic dice mechanic in 2d20 is that you roll a series of d20s (and, as the name implies, the default is 2), and try to roll under a fixed target number based on your attributes and skills on each die to get a series of successes.  Any "extra" successes can either be spent immediately to generate some bonus effect, or can be banked for future use.  In the case of the players, the bank is called Momentum, and can be used for, among other things, buying more dice on particular tests.  This creates a feedback loop--more dice spent on tests means more successes, which can mean more Momentum to be spent later to generate more successes.  But the players can also engage in "deficit spending" by giving the GM Doom points instead of spending Momentum on a 1-for-1 basis.  So, the players can buy the chance to do some big cool thing, or buy a chance to set up some cool thing down the line, by handing the GM the tools to make their lives harder at some point in the future.  And the Momentum pool usually starts at zero at the beginning of a scene, so the players are likely to "jumpstart" their efforts by buying Doom, especially early on in the scene.

This back and forth creates a natural escalation effect.  The players doing something cool usually requires the players to give the GM the tools to up the stakes and match the efforts of the players.  But, because this is embedded in a very transparent mechanical framework, it doesn't feel like the GM is screwing over the players or just "treadmilling" the adventure to keep things interesting.  The GM is playing the game "by the book" and according to the rules, and I think this aids in getting player buy-in.  And I think the constraints make it more fun for the GM, who gets to throw things at the players will more abandon, knowing that the players have some degree of mechanical control over the escalation.  If the players decide to wipe out the henchmen by loading up the Doom pool, the GM shouldn't feel bad about turning around and spending that Doom to cause more henchmen to appear, or making the bridge collapse under the players--after all, the players handed the GM the stick with which to club them.

The GM section of the Conan corebook goes out of its way to emphasize that Doom is not an adversarial tool, pitting the GM against the players.  That's true in a macro sense, as I think Conan is ultimately a game with a strong narrativist agenda, focused very tightly on the players and the GM working together to recreate the feel of the original Conan stories by Howard.  But in the context of a particular action scene, there is a sense in which the GM and the players are adversaries, and I think that's a good thing.  GM/Player adversarial play is usually seen as a problem because, as I mention in the previous post, it is by definition not a fair fight.  If the GM can just press the "I win" button at any time, then a competitive relationship between players and GM is ultimately no fun for anyone.  But if you give the GM rules and limitations, all set out transparently for all involved, then adversarial play can work, and can be fun for everyone involved.  After all, competitive board games are fun even though the participants are adversaries, or at least they can be.

This structure works particularly well in the specific context of a game that is trying to emulate the Howard stories.  I am in the process of reading these stories now, and the two things that jump out at me about them is (1) how scene-based they are, with cuts from set-piece to set-piece; and (2) how many setbacks and reversals they contain.  A GM who pours on the Doom and puts the characters under strong pressure in a scene, and then cuts away to another scene is staying well within the genre emulation dimensions of the game, so the narrative agenda and the mechanics support each other.

Ultimately, the real benefit for me of the 2d20 system set forth in Conan is that it allows the GM to feel like he or she is still playing a game, while also still getting to be a GM.  Yes, the GM is a story-teller, but he or she is also a player, and can feel free to push the Doom pool all the way to the redline, and thus correspondingly push the PCs to the redline.  Limiting the GM's freedom of action via the amount of Doom in the pool also takes away a big part of the sense of obligation on the part of GMs to dictate the play experience.  If you are getting burned out as a GM with the "story concierge" experience I mentioned in the previous post, then I think Conan or the other 2d20 games provides a nice antidote.   

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Thoughts on GMing Theory, Part 1--Quest, Rules-Light Games, and GM Restraints

This was going to be a review of Quest, the new hotness in the tabletop RPG scene in the last month or so.  Quest is a game that takes a number of big swings, biggest of which is having the designer announce that their goal was to "overtake D&D" as the ttrpg fantasy leader.  And, having reviewed the rules (which are mostly available under a Creative Commons License), I came pretty quickly to the conclusion that Quest is a game that very effectively and skillfully creates a play experience that I am not particularly interested in.  It's here, on the level of goals, on the level of what this game is trying to do and why it is trying to do it, that I think Quest is incredibly interesting, notwithstanding my personal tastes.  And so, rather than review Quest in the normal way, I would like to use it as a jumping off point to talk about the design theory that it embodies.

The first thing you see immediately in looking at Quest is how rules light it is.  There are no attributes and no skills, and all checks are resolved using a single die roll that is read according to a fixed chart that is reminiscent of Powered by the Apocalypse games, with added "critical success and failure" levels tacked on to either end.  There are classes and a list of powers that drive play, but that's more or less it--the combat rules in the CC License doc is, by a generous count, two pages long with lots of white space between the columns.  I wracked my brain to think of a lighter game system than Quest, and the only thing I could come up with John Harper's Lasers and Feelings.  It truly pegs the meter on the light-weight side.

What interests me about this is what the designer, TC Sottek, is saying about ttrpgs by and through Quest.  If you make a game this light, and you say that your goal is to overtake D&D, what you are saying is that you think the overwhelming majority of that rules structure in D&D is unnecessary and should, or at least could, be discarded.  What's interesting about this claim is that, at least to some degree, the designers of 5th Edition D&D agree, or at least identify with the sentiment behind it.  Here's what Mike Mearls said about the design goals of 5th Edition:

“D&D’s 3.5 and 4th editions were very much driven by an anxiety about controlling the experience of the game, leaving as little as possible to chance,” Mearls explained in a Twitter thread. “The designers aimed for consistency of play from campaign to campaign, and table to table. The fear was that an obnoxious player or DM would ruin the game, and that would drive people away from it. The thinking was that if we made things as procedural as possible, people would just follow the rules and have fun regardless of who they played with.” . . .

“With fifth edition,” Mearls explained, “We assumed that the DM was there to have a good time, put on an engaging performance, and keep the group interested, excited, and happy. It’s a huge change, because we no longer expect you to turn to the book for an answer. We expect the DM to do that.”

The design team referred to the goal as “DM empowerment.” The phrase may be misleading, because the goal of DM empowerment is not to tickle a DM’s power fantasies. DM empowerment lets DMs fill gaps in the rules—and sometimes override the rules with their own judgement. DM empowerment lets your wizard use spells outside of combat, among other things.

In other words, having a robust rules-set, and especially having a robust set of rules that bind the GM, hamstrings the ability of the GM to run the game, tell a fun story, and have a good time at the table.  And there is no question that the wrong sort of rules can be an impediment to all of those things.  But, as I think about my experience of running games of late, and looking at some systems that push in the opposite direction, I think this line of thinking is misguided.  I don't think fewer rules and more "DM empowerment" leads to a better play experience, perhaps counter-intuitively especially for the GM.

What do I mean by that?  Let's start with the experience of playing a board game.  In this context, it doesn't matter whether it is a competitive board game like Monopoly or Twilight Imperium, or a cooperative style game like Pandemic or Gloomhaven--the basic experience of play is that each person is trying to achieve the best outcome possible as seen from the perspective the posture that the game puts them in, within the constraints imposed by the rules.  So, if I am a player in Twilight Imperium, I am attempting to achieve ten Victory Points (or 14, if we are all masochists) for my Faction before any other Faction gets ten VP, according to the structures the game establishes for how VP are earned in play.  Getting the best outcome I can under the rules is where the "game" part of playing a game lies, and is where the fun of the game is found, distinct from the social enjoyment and other externalities of playing a board game.

Now apply that to a tabletop RPG.  The same basic framework, at least at this extremely high level of generality, works for the players of a ttrpg--I want to succeed at my objectives as I define them, within the constraints of the rules, limited perhaps only by the (often unspoken) caveat that I must work and play well with my fellow players.  But, for the GM, it doesn't translate at all.  If a GM approached his or her job the way you are supposed to approach a game of Twilight Imperium, the game would break down almost immediately.  This is because, in large measure, the GM is wholly unconstrained in terms of what game play elements he or she can introduce into the narrative of the game.  "Rocks falls, everyone dies," is a cliche of GM dickery, but it's not against the rules.

On the other hand, this unconstrained ability of the GM to introduce narrative elements is the thing that makes ttprgs so interesting, and is the thing that can't be replicated in other game forms.  You don't need a fixed scenario, because you have a live person behind the screen that can react dynamically to what happens as the game goes forward.  If you constrain that freedom of action of the GM too much, then you might as well play Gloomhaven, and let the GM have the fun of being a player.  There is, and their needs to be, a power imbalance in ttrpgs, at least those that use a GM.  

[As an aside, I think this discussion of power imbalance is separate from the important conversation about safety at the ttrpg table.  It is certainly the case that GMs can use the inherent power imbalance as part of creating an abusive situation, but even GMs are perfectly respectful to the players at all times still have a measure of power that the players don't have.  I think this is important to say, because Quest puts the safety issues at the forefront of its presentation, and nothing I am saying here is a criticism of those efforts.]

So, the GM needs the freedom to design the world, but you don't want the GM to be a jerk and blow up the play experience by trying to "win" in the normal way.  What do you do?  Well, in a sense, the GM plays with his or her hands behind the back, crafting an play experience that is not about "winning" in the normal way, but one that rides the line of challenging the players while keeping the game going.  That is, or at least can be, a very fun experience for the GM on its own merits.  But it is not really the same experience as "playing a game" in the way that playing Twilight Imperium is, or even the experience of being a player in a ttrpg is.  Rather than think about "playing the game," the GM in this context is more of a "story concierge" for the rest of the table.  Notice the way Mearls frames it: "We assumed that the DM was there to have a good time, put on an engaging performance, and keep the group interested, excited, and happy."  Other than "have a good time," which is undefined here, all of the other elements are player-facing and service oriented--the job of the GM is to do stuff for the players, not for himself or herself.

Again, being a "story concierge" can be a lot of fun.  But so is playing a game.  And while you don't want to constrain the GM's freedom of action altogether, one way to maintain the experience of playing the game for the GM is to constrain the GM's freedom of action in certain respects.  Yes, the GM can decide which monsters to put into an encounter (constrained by story concierge considerations), but once that decision is made the way the monsters play in the fight is constrained by the rules.  I tie my hand behind my back by only selecting level-appropriate enemies to oppose the PCs, but having done so I now do everything within the rules to play those enemies for maximum challenge.  Once the pieces are on the board, it is a game between the GM and the players in the context of the particular combat.  And that's fun.

All of which filters back to why I think the Mearls quote is wrong-headed.  Not all restrictions on the freedom of action of the GM are good, but the good ones create space to allow the GM to "let loose" and play a game.  Conversely, taking away all of the restrictions and giving the GM unlimited creative freedom force the GM into 24/7 story concierge mode.  If you want to say that the way 3rd and 4th edition tried to constrain GM freedom of action via rules, then I get that.  But I think the idea that restrictions on the GM imposed via rules are a bad thing to be avoided in toto is one I can't agree with.  Restricting the GM with rules can make the game more fun, especially for the GM, because it makes it more like a game.  

But that of course leads to the question of what sort of constraints on the GM are good ones, ones that make the game fun for the GM will still holding on to enough narrative freedom to make the game work.  There are many examples across the different game systems, but in the next post I want to talk about three of them that I really like and I think are really interesting--Modiphius's 2d20 system (Conan, Star Trek Adventures, and Infinity are the games in that series I am familiar with), Torg and Torg: Eternity (more specifically the Drama Deck), and the neo-OSR experience of Forbidden Lands.  

Saturday, March 21, 2020

How Dark Is The World of Darkness?, Part 2.1--Vampire: the Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition

In the intro post, I set up three framing questions for these reviews--(1) do these games speak to me in a way that they didn't when they first came out?; (2) how do the mechanics hold up in light of 25+ years of tabletop RPG design evolution?; and (3) how does the lore land in 2020?  I think it makes sense to tackle these questions in reverse order, so let's begin with the lore, at least in Vampire: the Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition (hereafter "V20") form.  Because this got long, even by my standards, this post is just going to deal with the lore and aesthetics, and 2.2 will talk about mechanics and overall impressions.

The Premise
This might be basic to the point of ridiculous, but the premise of V20 is that you play a vampire.  Vampires as presented here are more or less a pastiche of the vampire myths--they drink blood, they are immortal, they have cool powers, sunlight burns them, a stake through the heart puts them into a state of suspended animation called torpor (the first of what is an extensive list of specialized terminology, something that the World of Darkness is known for), etc.  Critically, being bitten by a vampire does not make you a vampire--you must have all of your blood drained and then be fed a portion of vampire blood in order to transform into a vampire, a process known as "the Embrace."

The core mythology of Vampire: the Masquerade is that all vampires are lineal descendants (via Embrace, not by genetics) of Caine, as in "Cain and Abel" in Genesis chapter 4.  The "mark of Caine" bestowed by God on Caine for murdering his twin brother Abel is the curse of vampirism.  The power of a particular vampire is defined by his or her "Generation" from Caine, with 13th being the default for PCs.  Caine and his immediate children lived in a city called Enoch, until the 3rd Generation rose up, overthrew Caine and the 2nd Generation, and then were scattered when the Flood (again, as in Noah and Genesis) destroyed Enoch.  Those 3rd Generation vampires are known as the "Antediluvians" (literally, those before the Flood), and are the founders of the Clans, about which more in a bit.  Caine and the Antediluvians are truly mythological figures, treated in explicitly religious terms by some, and viewed as fictions by others.

Another core concept in Vampire: the Masquerade is the Beast.  A vampire is, unambiguously, a monster, expressed in both the fiction and the game mechanics as the Beast.  When a vampire is hungry, or is put into fear from fire or sunlight, or just gets angry, there is the possibility of slipping into Frenzy, which is basically what it sounds like.

As far as feeding on blood goes, one of the more engaging concepts is the idea of the Blood Bond.  Taking a drink of a vampire's blood creates an emotional connection to that vampire; take three drinks, and you are Blood Bound to the vampire.  This applies both to humans and vampires, and so Blood Bonds are a key element of vampire politics.  As I read it, to be Blood Bound is to be forced to love the vampire you took the drink from, and the implication is that on some level you know the love is fake, but it is nevertheless compelling.  It's also, by definition, entirely one-sided, as the party you love has no similar feelings for you (unless they too are Blood Bound).  This works for me on basically every level, as a metaphor for every kind of distorted and dysfunctional romantic or sexual relationship, as well as for addictions and compulsions of every sort.  And, since this plays on some of my personal fears and insecurities, I found this to be one of the most horrific ideas in the book. 

In terms of V20 specifically, all of this material is presented in an easily accessible form in Chapter 1.  There is a useful pull out box that talks about themes and mood, mixed in with the presentation of the lore itself.  There is a lot of terminology and concepts to take on board if you are unfamiliar with this material, but it is logically organized and easy to digest.  Speaking of terminology, I was a little surprised that I found the bespoke terms for common gaming terms (the gaming group is a "troupe," a campaign is a "chronicle," the GM is the "Storyteller," etc.) to be evocative and flavorful, as opposed to forced and affected.  This, I am certain, is a change from when I first encountered Vampire in the 90s.  I don't know--I think it sets a tone and expectation for the play experience in a subtle way.  It's a small thing, but it's fine.

It's also worth noting that if V20 is deeply immersed in the metaplot developments from the history of the line, I can't detect it.  I mention this because Mage: the Ascension puts the discussion of the metaplot developments front and center, whereas here, if it is there it is tucked deeply into the background.  For newbies, this is clearly to the benefit, as there is no confusion as to what the current state of things actually is.  That's not to say that there is not depth here--I felt like I had a solid sense of what was going on and who the major players were.  But it was also accessible for someone like me who was not deeply immersed in the lore already.

Clans and Sects
The political dimension of the game is set up on two axes, Clans and Sects.  The Clans (of which there are 13, plus some "bloodlines" in the Appendix which seem to be mini-Clans) are the heart of what attracts people to Vampire, as the Clans are generally speaking reflections of archetypes of vampire fiction.  So, you have punk, Lost Boys-style Brujah, the animalistic Gangrel, the Nosferatu from the classic 30s film of the same name, the beautiful people Toreador, the aristocratic manipulator Venture, the charmingly monstrous Tzimisce, and the darkly religious Lasombra.  These Clans with a clear theme and antecedent are great--very evocative, and easy to latch onto when developing character concepts.  Some of the other six, however, are interesting concepts but lack a clear thematic hook.  Vampire sorcerers (the Tremere) and crazy vampires (Malkavians) is OK, but not as flavorful as the others.  The remaining four are weird grab-bags of ethnic stereotypes and play concepts that don't really work for me.  I mean "what if the Mafia were also vampires, and also necromancers?" is too many moving parts to be a coherent idea, in my opinion.  There is also the trickster, Romani-associated Ravnos and the Islamic assassin (in both the original and modern meaning of the word) Assamites, both of which come pretty close to line of perpetuating problematic ethnic stereotypes.
The 13 Clans

Despite some missteps, there is a lot of good stuff here.  Most people, I suspect, resonate pretty quickly and strongly with one of the Clans, in a way that makes character creation, at least the conceptual part, easy.  [I always make a character when evaluating a new game system, and it didn't take long to come up with the Irish former priest of Clan Lasombra].  The Clans are different enough that there is going to be significant diversity of characters in a group, and with a few exceptions each of the Clans is broad enough to create space that characters are not going to be pigeon-holed into boring, predictable archetypes.  Though I suspect some of the 90s-era designers of Vampire would bristle at this, the Clans are basically character classes, and generally well-designed character classes.  And it works for all of the reasons that character class work in D&D and other similar games--it's a flavorable, easy to internalize hook for making a character.

As far as the Sects go, there are a couple of smaller ones that are given limited presentation, in the form of the enlightened, detached Inconnu and the conspiratorial Tal'Mahe'Ra.  But the groups that get the most presentation are the Camarilla, the Sabbat, and the Anarchs.  The Camarilla are the Establishment, trying to maintain a stable, quasi-feudal society of vampires while keeping the prying eyes of humans away from their activities.  This effort of secrecy is the titular Masquerade, and becomes the first and greatest commandment for the Camarilla.  By virtue of that focus on staying in the shadows of mortal society, the Camarilla promotes a dark mirror version of human virtues and morality (more on that in the mechanics section).  They also represent rigidity and stasis, as the leadership consists primarily of very old, and thus very powerful, vampires.  This represents a bit of a conundrum, especially as the Camarilla appears to be the default framing for campaigns. . . excuse me, chronicles.  Because of the power disparity between the folks running the Camarilla organization in a city and the PCs, it's going to be hard for the PCs to take over and run things, which is perhaps the most obvious premise for a chronicle.  The leadership in your city is The Man, and you are very much not, and so you are pretty much a permanent underclass.  That's certainly dark, and not inconsistent with the themes in the rest of the game, but I think it limits the creative freedom of the players and Storytellers.

On the flip side, you have the Sabbat.  They are organized around two big ideas--we have to kill the Antediluvians before they kill us, and being a vampire makes you a superior form of life to the mortals.  The Sabbat are, very explicitly, a religion in addition to a political faction, and are organized around a series of religious rituals (including one in which a group of vampires more or less Blood Bound themselves to each other to form cohesive strike teams).  They, too, have a hierarchical structure like the Camarilla, but it's a little more open and fluid than the Camarilla, providing more political opportunities for PCs.  The challenge, however, is that the Sabbat are not at all bound by any sort of human morality, and view mortals as animals to be exploited at will.  So, while the Sabbat present some interesting ideas, a Sabbat chronicle is likely to drift into some pretty brutal and morally challenging territory.

Finally, the Anarchs are the rebels, either trying to overthrow the Camarilla or Sabbat in their particular city, or having done so, trying to govern things on more egalitarian lines.  The Anarchs are the least clearly delineated of the Sects, but also the one that provides the most freedom of action for players and Storytellers.  This gets to one problem with the Sects--they are basically mutually exclusive, as the Camarilla and the Sabbat are at war, and the Anarchs are trying to overthrow both of them.  So, you basically have to pick one of the three as the basis for a particular chronicle, as they don't really work or play well together without some serious contrivances.  As a result, no matter which way you go, a big chunk of the material in V20 is going to be relegated to background or antagonists.

Art and Aesthetics
Probably the most famous of Bradstreet's
Vampire pieces
Vampire always had a distinctive visual look, defined by Timothy Bradstreet's pen and ink pieces.  Of late, I have become more plugged in to the way games communicate the ideas of the game via a unified visual approach--Fria Ligan is the current king of this.  But Vampire and the World of Darkness was ahead of the curve.

V20 blends three different visual approaches--Bradstreet-esque black-and-white pieces, digitally-altered photography, and some more standard painted pieces.  As to the third category, there is a piece on Page 2 of V20 (I couldn't find it on line, otherwise I would have included it here) that shows Caine killing Abel that I found to be particularly striking--it feels like a genuine piece of religious art.

I also really like the photography-based pieces.  They are recognizably grounded in photographs, but the filters made them walk the line between aged photographs and faded portraits.  There is something ethereal about them, and they fit the mood of the game perfectly (my favorite is the woman in red on Page 4 of the V20 book).

The bottom line is that it's a beautiful, evocative book, and it communicates what the game is about, and more importantly how it is supposed to make you feel.

OK, let's turn to the rules. 

How Dark Is The World of Darkness?, Part 2.2--Vampire: the Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition

Part 1 of this review was about lore, and this will be about rules and my overall thoughts.  As far as the rules go, it is probably worthwhile from the outset to articulate what the general objection to the design of Vampire and the other World of Darkness games is.

Vampire, says this critique, spends a great deal of time talking about and promising to deliver a deep immersive role-playing experience, in which the players explore what it means to be human as their characters lose their humanity.  But Vampire delivers little in the way of mechanical systems that actually create that sort of play experience.  Moreover, it doesn't seem to be mechanically trying to create a particular play experience at all, instead engaging in a kind of self-negation at every turn by telling the reader that the rules are not really all that important, and that they (especially the Storyteller) should throw them out at the first sign that they are not working.  This is, by this school of thought, bad game design, as the goal of ttrpg game design is to build a mechanical system that generates the play experience you want.  If you as the designer is not putting in the work to make the system do the thing you promise in the lore and fluff, then why am I paying you for your game design?

Having now gone through V20, I think this criticism is completely fair, but only insofar as you accept the underlying premises.  If you believe that the job of a game designer is to engineer a play experience at the table, then you will find lots in V20 that will leave you scratching you head.  But, having gone through the book, it is clear to me that V20 are working off of a very different set of goals and a very considered understanding of what it is doing.  It doesn't engineer the play experience because it is not trying to engineer the play experience, as part of an intentional design ethos, not because of incompetence or laziness.

At the beginning of the very short "Rules" section (Chapter 5), the designers lay down a very interesting marker for what the rules are there to do: "Game rules exist to impart a sense of fairness  among story participants."  As the section goes on, it becomes clear that the mechanical components of the game are there to do two things (1) inject fun uncertainty into the story (after all, rolling dice is fun); but primarily (2) to make sure that the players don't feel like outcomes are being rammed down their throat by the Storyteller.  On the next page, there is a discussion of the difference between an investigation scene (where the advice is to forego rolls and just hand out the clue a la GUMSHOE) and a combat scene (where players would likely be very unhappy if the Storyteller just dictated the outcome to the players).

I can't help but see the strong influence here of the massive LARP community surrounding Vampire, in which game rules primarily exist to adjudicate intra-player disputes or potential disputes.  Here, the game systems are really there to avoid or negotiate player vs. Storyteller problems.  In this light, the complaint that the rules of Vampire have a disproportionate focus on combat relative to its role in the lore comes into focus--there are lots of combat rules because combat is going to be a pain point and place for disputes.  Whereas, if the interaction can be resolved without rules engagement, and everyone is going to be OK with that, then it should be done so without rules engagement.  Rather than "say yes or roll the dice," the ethos here might be "come to group consensus over what is happening, or roll the dice."

None of this is likely to sway the people who believe the goal of ttrpg game design is to engineer a play experience.  But, to be honest, I found the approach set out in V20 to be something of a breath of fresh air.  Games, and especially those games informed by the broad "indie"/Forge tradition, have become hyper-focused on a specific play experience, and as a result become very narrow, and even a little overbearing.  As exciting as I found the ideas in the Powered by the Apocalypse games when I first encountered them five or so years ago (hence the title of the blog), I am finding them (especially in their more recent incarnations) to be confining, a bit too much of a straight-jacket for the players and especially for the GM.

I'm also thinking about the time Critical Role played Monsterhearts.  Mercer and the gang (or, at least, some of the gang and some other folks in the broader Critical Role orbit) did a one-shot of Monsterhearts last Valentine's Day, and there was some loud backlash in the fan community that Mercer "didn't play the game right."  And, I think on a strict reading of the rules of Monsterhearts, those critics were right.  Monsterhearts, maybe moreso than any other PbtA game, is very aggressive in pushing a very specific play style, with very specific play experiences and outcomes.  To pick one example that I think best reflects the game's ethos, by rule an NPC or other PC can cause a particular PC to be turned on, regardless of how the player running that PC thinks his or her or their character would react.  This is usually talked about with the idea that "by rule, everyone is bi," and that's true but it is much broader than that.

So, I think the people saying that Mercer was "doing it wrong" are right.  But, would "doing it right" have made the overall play experience better?  Everyone was really into their characters, and I thought the session was very entertaining.  I don't think anyone at that table needed any of the mechanical elements of Monsterhearts that Mercer et al. admittedly glossed over.  Watching that game made Monsterhearts feel over-engineered and over-determined, full of systems that aren't ultimately all that necessary, or at least not necessary with that group.

Maybe they would have been better off just playing Vampire.

The Basic Mechanics
V20, like all of the World of Darkness games, is a dice-pool system.  The trend in dice-pool systems appears to be toward fixed target numbers--you need to roll a certain number or better on each die, every time, with difficulty set by how many successes you need.  This is the approach taken by Fria Ligan's Year Zero engine, and it is also what Vampire 5th Edition goes with.  V20, however, sticks to its roots by keeping the variable target number model--difficulty is modeled by sliding the number you need to get on each die up or down (with 6, i.e. 50% chance of success, as the default).

I don't think the variable target number system is inherently more complex or difficult to internalize than fixed target number system.  I think the problem comes when you do both--where there are two different difficulty sliders (TN and # of successes) and the relationship between them is complex and/or opaque.  We will come back to this issue in a big way when we get to Mage: the Ascension, but here I will point out that V20 doesn't do much with number of successes except as a narrative device--one success is a "marginal" success, two is "moderate," etc.  Some specific abilities (especially the Disciplines) have fixed success-level scales that are pretty easy to apply, though you are likely to be referencing the chart pretty often.

Most rolls are a pool equal to Attribute + Ability (i.e. Talents, Skills, and Knowledges--Skills in other systems).  One of the better elements is the concept of Feats--specific combinations of an Atrribute+Ability, a difficulty, and an outcome for a particular game play scenario. So, there is a climbing feat, a pursuit feat, an awakening (meaning vampires waking up from sleep) feat, and about two dozen others.  This is conceptually much like Moves in PbtA games, in that it is a discrete, self contained mechanical system that is triggered by the fiction.  I like it, especially since the rules go out of their way to say that these are basically a cheat-sheet for the Storyteller, one that the Storyteller can always modify or ignore at will.

PCs have two resource pools--Blood points and Willpower points.  Willpower points are probably the closest to Hero points or Benes in other systems, and do big things like give you a bonus guaranteed success, or overcome a compulsion or derangement (which, given that this is Vampire, comes up a lot).  It's also worth noting, given the discussion of tying setting and roleplaying to mechanics, that one of the core ways to refresh Willpower is to take actions consistent with the PC's nature.  Blood points power Disciplines, and heal damage, and as you might expect are recovered by feeding on blood from humans (or, other vampires, though as discussed above that can be a risky move).  The pools are relatively small (5-10 for Willpower, up to the low teens for Blood pool), so they are not all that difficult for a player to manage.

One of the things that is noticeable from a brief look at the character sheet is that a Vampire character has a lot of stats and characteristics.  In addition to Attributes, Abilities, the Disciplines, and the Blood and Willpower pools, there are also Backgrounds (things like Status and [higher] Generation), Merits and Flaws, and Virtues.  The character sheet is very busy.  Here, though, I think the convention of expressing stats using dots as opposed to numbers actually works and pays off.   Yes, three dots is the same as a numerical 3, but if V20 and the World of Darkness games used numbers, the character sheet would like like an accounting ledger or lines of code.  I think the dots are more accessible and visually appealing.

Disciplines and Combat
Cool vampire powers are a big part of the appeal of playing a game like this, and the V20 book devotes almost 120 pages (a bit under 1/4th of its total length) to Disciplines.  The Disciplines are the definition of a mixed bag--some are very broad like Animalism (both controlling/manipulating animals and also the Beast), some very narrow like Serpentis (various snake-related powers).  Likewise, some of these Disciplines are associated with multiple Clans, and others are specific to the themes of a single Clan.  Each Discipline is rated on a scale of 1 to 10 dots (though, only 1 through 5 are accessible to PCs using the base rules), and each tier unlocks a new ability.

More importantly, given that there are 17 Disciplines and more than ten entries for each Discipline, the power levels and utility of the different powers are all over the map.  Many of the 6 to 10 dot powers are OP, but they are supposed to be kinda broken powers for antagonists, so that's OK.  The bigger problem is that you have to ascend the chain of each individual Discipline, so you have to spend points on some of the lamer powers to get to the good stuff.  It's also worth pointing out that a PC vampire is not likely to have the full range of Dracula's iconic abilities, as they are spread over multiple Disciplines that would take a a ton of experience points to gain.  Instead, PCs will have a couple of the Dracula tricks, or a group of PCs from multiple Clans will have all of the Dracula tricks collectively (and a few other weird ones thrown in).

As far as OP Disciplines go, let's talk about Celerity, which requires us first to talk about combat.  The combat system shows off the fact that this game is 30 years old.  I don't mean that in a dismissive way, and I don't even mean that the combat is bad; I mean that you can see that certain ideas have become ubiquitous in ttrpg design via their absence here.  For example, it's been a long time since I have seen a game that uses turn-based combat that doesn't use some variation of D&D 3rd edition (and its successors)'s "action economy," in which a character gets a hierarchical suite of actions on your turn that can be used for various purposes.  By contrast, in V20, the default notion is that on your turn you get to do one thing.  You can move, or your can defend, or you can attack.  If you want to do more than one thing, you have to "split your dice pool"--you must declare which actions you are taking, use the smallest pool of the selected actions, and then literally divide those dice between the various actions.  While this provides a lot of flexibility on a turn, splitting your dice pool is very punitive.

Celerity lets you add your dots in the Discipline to your Dexterity, which is good because Dexterity is going to be the base Attribute for most combat actions.  But, even better, you can spend a Blood point to convert one of those bonus dice into an extra action.  And, when you get that extra action, you don't have to split your dice pool between them, but you get full dice for each of them.  This is crazy good, and my brief internet research shows that this is toned down from the original presentation of Celerity.  To be fair, basically every ability in every game that allows you to break or bypass the action economy is OP, so it's not like this is some unique problem for V20.  And the number of extra actions is limited by the need to spend Blood points, so it's less broken than, say, wired reflexes in Shadowrun.  Still, it's hard to see how a vampire with Celerity isn't going to wipe the floor with non-Celerity opponents, unless the Celerity character is vastly outnumbered, as each Blood point spent with Celerity more or less doubles a character's dice pool.

Putting that issue aside, one thing about the combat rules is that they seem to play very fast.  Since each participant gets only one action, the round moves very quickly.  Plus, in something that surprised me when I saw it but I remembered was exactly the way it worked in then-contemporary AD&D 2nd Edition, you roll initiative each round and declare actions at the top of the turn.  All of this reinforces the speed at which combat is occurring, as well as pushing players to make choices for their PC as quickly as possible.  There is a frenetic quality to the combat, one that I think that fits well with the tone of the game--especially since combat is likely to be less frequent than in many ttrpgs.

Humanity and Paths
I should say up front that I am very uncomfortable with the idea of the GM/Storyteller grading the choices and roleplaying of the players and dealing out rewards and punishments based on his or her assessment of said roleplaying.  It feels to me like a power imbalance, as it's not like the players get to vote on how the GM/Storyteller is doing in playing the NPCs.  Plus, the GM has enough on his or her plate as it is, without having to take a discerning eye to the characterization of the players.  So, I don't like systems that require the GM to give out XP or Inspiration or what have you based on the players' choices and implementation of those choices.

So, I am not inclined to like the Humanity system.  The basic notion, set forth on page 309 of the V20 book, is "[w]henever a character takes an action that Storyteller decides is morally questionable, the character may suffer degeneration--a permanent loss of Humanity."  And then V20 doubles-down:

A Storyteller has carte blanche to monitor character morality in her chronicle.  This is a huge responsibility for the Storyteller, but one that ultimately makes for a great deal of tragedy and horror, as the characters gradually descend into a state of utter monstrosity though they desperately rail against it.  Storytellers, beware--players should never feel that you are screwing them out of Humanity, or consequently, their characters.  Use degeneration checks consistently but sparingly, lest the tragedy erode to an incessant series of failed rolls.

(Page 310).  Ehhh.  I get that moral degeneration is a key part of the themes of the game, but this is exactly the kind of power dynamics that make me uncomfortable.  On the flip side, it's presented as having such a central role in the game that there is a strong case for informed consent on the part of the players--if you agree to play V20, you are agreeing to let the Storyteller make those calls about your PC's moral choices, so you have no room to complain.

Mechanically, the degeneration rolls are tied to a Humanity scale of bad actions.  If the PC's action is below the PC's current Humanity rating on the scale, they have to make a Conscience check to avoid losing a point of Humanity.  This makes further degeneration less likely, but low Humanity has game mechanical effects--most importantly, it caps the rating of your PC's virtues, with means that Frenzys are going to be more likely.  This requires that the Storyteller keep track of all the PCs' Humanity ratings, in order to evaluate whether a particular action triggers a degeneration check.

Complicating things are the Paths.  Paths basically replace Humanity with an alternative moral scale, tied into a particular philosophical position held by the PC.  The Paths are conceptually interesting, in that they bring out some unique points-of-view that raise interesting roleplaying opportunities--the Path of Caine treats Caine as essentially the vampire Jesus, the Path of Cathari is actually a reversal of the views of the actual historical Cathars, etc.  The problems are two-fold.  First, the diversity of Paths means that the Storyteller has to keep track of multiple morality scales and the particular PC they are associated with if the PCs are part of different paths, which sounds like a nightmare (and something that I know myself well enough to know I would completely butcher).  Second, some of them are set up in a way that makes it hard for the PCs to violate, leading to what commentators have dubbed "Path of What I Was Going to Do Anyway."  Given how much the early part of the Morality chapter emphasizes the importance of these systems to gameplay, it's a little weird for players to be able to bypass the whole system with Path choices.

Does This Game Work for Me?
The short answer is yes, V20 works for me.  Themes that held no interest for me back in the 90s have much more resonance for me now.  In particular, I found the Caine framing myth to be very compelling, especially in the way it interfaces with theological considerations.  I won't get off on a tangent here, but the Cain and Abel story is a touchstone for Girardian-inspired approaches to Christianity (which is my primary approach to Christianity--you can read more on my other writing project).  So, the idea of Caine's curse as the foundation for corrupted civilization, violence, and exploitation is right up my alley now.  Sixteen year old me didn't really have any experience with obsession and distorted love, but now 42 year old me resonates much more with the ways you can explore the concept of the Blood Bond.  More generally, though, I think I'm less afraid of exploring dark themes and moods now than I was--and it feels genuinely dark, as opposed to performative and edgy-for-edgy's sake.  Maybe I just resonate better with what V20 is providing than I was before.

I also found the three page spread of testimonies about how Vampire affected their life to be compelling.  People clearly found community and safety and belonging from this game, and now reading the game, I get it.  In fact, it makes me a little bit wistful that I didn't try out this game and this community at the time when it was so big.  I absolutely looking for a place to belong and be accepted at that time, and I think if I were more open I might have found a positive experience.  Reading V20, I feel like I missed out on something.

As far as the rules go, I think they are perfectly serviceable.  I think the complaints about the game, while not unfounded, do not tell the full story.  The game makes some very intentional choices, and its systems are much more considered than the indie critique would suggest.  It's probably one standard deviation more complex than it needs to be, but it's not over-the-top or unplayable.  Moreover, it is designed in something of a modular fashion--you have a core, flexible dice system, some central mechanics, and then a series of take-it-or-leave-it systems that the Storyteller can add or ignore.  It doesn't do the things that a part of the ttrpg zeitgeist says games should do, but it works if you take it on its own terms and don't get bogged down in insisting that the game by "played according to the intention of the designers."  The designers intend you to use the rules as you need them; just do that.

V20 is an excellent compilation of a game that is a classic.  And, moreover, it deserves to be a classic.  I'm glad it's back.  If someone asked me to play V20, I would be in, no questions asked.  If someone asked me to run it, I would hesitate a little more, but I'm likely in if the group was all on the same wavelength.  Basically, I was wrong about this game.

Monday, March 16, 2020

How Dark Is the World of Darkness?, Part 1--Pre-Conceived Notions

Everyone, or at least everyone who is likely to be reading this post, is likely aware that Dungeons & Dragons is in the midst of a renaissance.  The renaissance has reached the consciousness of people who are not ttrpg fans, several of whom have mentioned it casually to me in various circumstances.  This D&D renaissance, one hopes, will lift ttrpgs as a whole, such that the benefits of it are not simply limited to those who are part of the Wizards of the Coast ecosystem.

Vampire: the Masquerade [5th Edition]
But, of late, I have also noticed that there is a discrete renaissance in another ttrpg--Vampire: the Masquerade.  In a way, this is perhaps not surprising, as Vampire is probably the second most popular, and second most important historically, tabletop RPG behind the collective versions of D&D.  If we are in the midst of a tabletop RPG renaissance (as opposed to simply a D&D revival), you would expect it to reach Vampire eventually.  But I think there are other factors in play.   One is the release of the 5th Edition of the game, which despite controversy has generated broadly positive reviews from what I can see.  Another is that its own "Critical Role"--a streaming game that showcases the ideas and style of the game in a stylish and accessible package--in the form of Geek & Sundry's LA By Night.

This rise has gotten me to re-examine my position on Vampire and the entire World of Darkness game line.  Despite getting into this hobby in the late 80s, I was never a big fan of Vampire, and was only somewhat more interested in the World of Darkness games.  The majority of that, I think, was where I was, and who I was, at the time.  With Vampire, I found the themes to be off-putting, but I think more importantly I found the aesthetic to be very off-putting.  Young me was desperate to fit in, to be seen as normal, and so the very intentionally outsider-ish and provocative posture of Vampire was the opposite of what I was looking for at the time.  I wasn't ready to be seen as any weirder than I already was, and so I avoided those spaces.  Now, with the benefit of being able to look back, I think I missed out on something that might have been very enjoyable, and even beneficial, to the person that I was at that time.  Be that as it may, I basically became convinced that I was not a "Vampire person," and maintained a healthy distance from the World of Darkness and especially Vampire.     

Vampire: the Masquerade
 [20th Anniversary Edition]
In the interim, there has been another layer of ttrpg discourse, one that asserts that the World of Darkness games are bad games.  The basic version of this argument is that World of Darkness games promise deep, character-driven play experiences, but don't provide sufficient mechanical support for that style of play.  Indeed, many of the folks in the "indie" ttrpg design space will point to Vampire and the other World of Darkness games as, while perhaps a step in the right direction, an example of what not to do.  And yet it certainly seems like the folks who have been playing these games have been having character-driven play experiences.  So, one of the things I would like to do is to dive into these games with the benefit of modern rpg design "tech" and concepts.  Maybe they will feel clunky and discordant, or maybe some of the negativity is overblown.

Finally, there is the thing that really hooked people on these games in the first place--the lore.  My perception is that the lore is perhaps second only to the aesthetic as the reason people get "hooked" on the World of Darkness games.  And these games had a lot of lore.  This lore was also, intentionally, something of a moving target, as the World of Darkness was firmly planted in the 90s ttrpg love affair with "metaplot."  For those who did not live and play games in those days of yore, the 90s was the apex of the idea that ttrpgs were about story, and designers understood stories move and progress.  As a result, ttrpg designers would release a game that would set out the lore of the game world, and then release supplements or adventures that would introduce events that would move things along and change the circumstances presented in the original book, often rather dramatically.  This ongoing story made up the "metaplot" of the game.  The concept of a metaplot has been essentially abandoned by the ttrpg world now, on the grounds that it makes it difficult to onboard new players and GMs ("yeah, I know it says in the core book that Mr. Jones is the Prince of this town, but as it turns out Mr. Jones is dead"), restricts GM freedom of action, and makes much of the books you buy retroactively out-of-date and useless.  But, in the 90s, everyone was doing it, not just White Wolf Publishing for the World of Darkness--TSR was particularly aggressive in adopting metaplot via its novel tie-ins for its D&D campaign worlds, making the Dark Sun boxed set out of date in less than a year.  So, I am interested to see what the lore and metaplot looks like now, after it has all been wrapped up.

Mage: the Ascension
[20th Anniversary Edition]
It will also be interesting to look at this lore on its own terms.  While many people passionately loved the World of Darkness lore, even at the time some people had complaints and problems about some of the material.  The World of Darkness was trying, I think, to be edgy, and being edgy is always a hit-or-miss proposition.  On the flip side, there were issues raised about the less-than-sensitive-and-aware treatment of religious and ethnic themes (I hear that the book on the Romani people, titled with a name that I believe is now considered a slur, is especially bad).  And then there might be stuff that just doesn't work anymore, or seems especially dated.  Because the World of Darkness and its corresponding lore was very unique at the time, I imagine that things that seemed creative and fresh in 1994 may not seem so in 2020.       

I want to figure all of this out.  As weird as it might be to "review" games that are as much as 30 years old, I am going to do a series on the World of Darkness games as they stand now.  At 16, in 1994, I decided that the World of Darkness was not for me, but how do I feel at 42, in 2020?  How do these games hold up, particularly in light of the changes to the approach to tabletop RPG design that have occurred in the intervening years (changes that, in many respects, were generated in reaction to the World of Darkness games)?  How does the lore land now?

To make this a little more coherent, I am going to limit my look to the three "core lines"--Vampire, Werewolf, and Mage.  Each of them have robust "20th Anniversary" editions that collate and streamline the original games, and my reviews are going to be working off of those texts.  I am also going to take a look at the Vampire 5th Edition book, since it is an attempt to repackage the material in a modern format.  In looking at these books, I'm going to focus on three things (1) do these games speak to me in a way that they didn't (or I wouldn't let them) when they first came out?; (2) how do the mechanics hold up in light of 25+ years of tabletop RPG design evolution (fun fact--when the 1st edition of Vampire came out, ttrpgs as a whole had barely existed for 15 years)?; and (3) how does the lore land in 2020--still edgy and fresh? cringeworthy?  blah?
Werewolf: the Apocalypse
[20th Anniversary Edition]

To that end, a brief note on terminology.  In 2004, White Wolf "rebooted" all of their game lines with a revised rule system and (more importantly, given the nature of these games) new lore.  This "new" World of Darkness has become officially known now as the "Chronicles of Darkness," as distinct from the original [old] World of Darkness.  I have even less familiarity with the Chronicles of Darkness games than I do with the World of Darkness--I played two sessions in a Changeling: the Lost game almost 10 years ago, and that's it (verdict--genuinely creepy and disturbing, would play again with a good GM/Storyteller).  I hope to take a look at the core games of the Chronicles of Darkness--Vampire: the Requiem, Werewolf: the Forsaken, and Mage: the Awakening--at some point, but definitely after taking a full look at the World of Darkness games.  And, to keep things from becoming impenetrable, when I refer to "the World of Darkness" in this series, I am only talking about the pre-2004 games and those games who are derived or share setting with the pre-2004 games (i.e. the new edition of Vampire)--not the Chronicles of Darkness.

Part of me wants to start with Mage, as (despite my anti-World of Darkness attitude back in the day) I always thought the lore of Mage was very engaging.  But it seems silly not to start with Vampire, which is really the jewel in the crown of the World of Darkness.  So, I think the order is going to be Vampire [20th Anniversary], Mage, Werewolf, and then the new Vampire.  So, let's get to it.