Saturday, December 9, 2017

Genesys Science Experiment

Last night I got together with the Saturday night group for a bonus RPG session - a playtest of Genesys, with the specific intention of comparing magic users to weapon users.  While the game itself was fun, the comparison itself left me pretty unsatisfied, in that I don't think I got any more insight into the relative power differences.  This was because we weren't recording the session or tracking any data quantitatively. 

There were a lot of spellcaster attack rolls that failed, and there were players that voiced their apprehension at the higher difficulties necessary in order to use magic.  I will say that the "Strain Tax" for casting spells was less dire than I thought it had been - sort of.  I did have a string of "spammy" healing rolls where I racked up strain REALLY fast for no benefit (out of 3 rolls, I had 1 total advantage that I used to heal 1 Strain).  But I don't think that the other spellcasters felt strapped for Strain, although they also tended to use fewer second maneuvers compared with the melee characters.

Ultimately, I didn't think that the playtest really contributed as evidence in any arguments I was making, either for or against my hypothesis that Genesys magic is too punishing.  Unsatisfied with the anecdotal experience that we had, as soon as I got hope I started randomly generating some rolls.  I finished that experiment tonight.


I wanted to compare a magic attack vs a weapon attack in as equal a way as possible.  I gave both characters a 4 in their relevant attack characteristic, and 2 ranks in their attack skill.  This resulted in a YYGG dice pool for both characters.  For the purposes of extra abilities, I assumed that the mage had 2 ranks in Knowledge.

I wanted to use a spell that replicated the function of a Greataxe as closely as possible.  For this purpose, I used the Attack spell to roll Disintegrate (a classic!).  I assumed the mage was wielding a Staff for maximum base damage (and a free range upgrade; this is a ranged beam of destructo-force, after all).  I added the Deadly and Destructive additional effects, which bumped the total difficulty of my check up to 4 purple dice.  The difficulty of melee checks are set at 2 purple dice.  I also assumed that the hypothetical enemy had one rank in Adversary, just so I could put a red die in the mix.  So here's what we've got:

Greataxe:  base damage 8, crit 3, engaged range, Pierce 2, Vicious 1.

Disintegrate: base damage 8, crit 2, medium range, Pierce 2, Vicious 2, Sunder.

Both of these attacks are designed to do decent damage, have nasty crits, and Pierce through soak.  Disintegrate is the slightly more powerful attack, in that it crits with one fewer Advantage, goes out to medium range, has one more point in Vicious, and has Sunder.  I would argue that the range is roughly a wash, though.  Sure, the Greataxe wielder needs to spend maneuvers to engage the enemy, but they also have higher soak to make up for that, and on the flip side of an enemy engages with the mage, the mage has to either add another purple die to make Disintegrate close combat, or spend a maneuver to back up.  So really, we're looking at slightly better Vicious and Crit rating, and Sunder.  Is that worth spending 2 strain every time you use the spell, and the higher difficulty, and worse threat results?  Probably not.  But at this point, the question is almost rhetorical.  How do these weapons actually perform?

I made 100 random rolls, and entered the results into a spreadsheet.  I'd recommend taking a peek at the Genesys Magic Test Rolls data if you're interested in the specific results.

Because I wanted this comparison to be as direct as possible, I rolled the Greataxe attack first.  After recording the results, I then simply rolled two extra purple dice for Disintegrate.  This way, both attacks are effectively using the same roll.  In this way I was able to track exactly which rolls would have hit with a Greataxe and missed with Disintegrate, and which rolls generated enough advantage to crit with the Greataxe vs. Disintegrate. 

After the results columns, I tabulated how much damage each attack did and what their Threat/Advantage Factor was.  For T/A factor I recorded a positive number if there were net Advantages, and a negative number if there were net Threat.  I didn't worry about comparing Triumph/Despair between rolls because they'll never be affected.  Both characters were rolling the same number of yellow and red dice, and these symbols never cancel. 

Finally, I calculated Mean, Median, and Mode for both damage and T/A Factor, and I highlighted all of the rows in which the Greataxe succeeded and Disintegrate failed in yellow.  Then, I highlighted cells in the Triumph column and/or T/A Factor column that allowed each attack to crit. 


The Greataxe had an average damage of 8.5 and averaged just over 1 Advantage.

Disintegrate had an average damage of 6.36 and averaged 0.5 Threat.

I don't think that the median really tells us much, and I basically just calculated it for shits and giggles.  Not surprisingly, median damage is lower for Disintegrate (9 vs. the Greataxes's 10), and median T/A Factor is straight up 0, compared with 1 for the Greataxe. 

The results for Mode really surprised me.  In case you don't remember this infrequently used statistic from math class, the Mode is the value in a set of numbers that occurs most often.  I think this is actually really valuable information for roll results in an RPG.  This might arguably be a more significant representation of actual play experience than average.

The mode for Greataxe damage was 10.  So the most likely result of any given die roll with this weapon is that you're doing 10 damage.  The mode for Disintegrate was 0.  I honestly went back and double checked that I did the formula correctly when I saw this.  As much as I've been skeptical of the balance for magic in this system, I didn't expect that the most likely result of any given die roll would be a flat out miss.  But it actually makes sense when you track how many individual rolls were a hit with the Greataxe but a miss with Disintegrate.  These rows are highlighted in yellow in the spreadsheet, and there are 18 such rows.  Because I made 100 random rolls, this means that 18% of my sample rolls generated a hit with the Greataxe and a miss with Disintegrate.  I'd recommend going into the spreadsheet and looking at the specific results for those highlighted rolls.  You might be surprised at how few of those rolls are tempered with high amounts of Advantage.  In fact, a lot of those generated Threat

As a visual exercise also pay attention to the Threat/Advantage columns for the two attacks as you're scrolling down.  Predictably the Greataxe generates more Advantage and Disintegrate more Threat, but I was actually pretty surprised at how stark that difference was.  For anyone who thinks that mages can reliably heal Strain with Advantages, you might be in for a rude awakening.  And for any GMs who adhere strongly to the enhanced Threat/Despair table specific to magic users...ouch.  In terms of the mode for T/A Factor, it was 1 for the Greataxe and 0 for Disintegrate.  So the Greataxe typically nets Advantage, while the most common result for Disintegrate is a wash on this axis. 

Alright, let's close out this analysis by looking at crits.  Both of these attacks are designed with crits in mind.  First, we'll take a look at Triumphs.  The results for Triumphs were more equitable between the two attacks, and we expect exactly that.  They're never cancelled out, and both attacks roll the same number of Yellow Dice.  Indeed, since I used the same rolls, the two attacks got the same exact Triumph results.  However, the Greataxe can generate 13 crits from Triumphs in my sample, whereas Disintegrate can only generate 11.  You have to hit to activate a crit, and there were two rows highlighted in yellow that had Triumph results.  Still, not a huge difference here.

This actually surprised me considering Disintegrate crits with 2 Advantage whereas the Greataxe crits with 3 Advantage, but the Greataxe generated a lot more crits through Advantage.  This is simply because that weapon generated a lot more Advantage to begin with.  Out of 100 rolls, only 1 roll resulted in a crit using Advantage with Disintegrate.  Let that sink in for a second.  Meanwhile, the Greataxe was able to crit 9 times out of 100 rolls using Advantage.  I think those results speak for themselves.

Closing Thoughts

This is a comparison between 1 spell, with 1 specific set of extra effects, vs 1 weapon.  I've observed that the balance between certain spell effects can vary (i.e. Blast being useless and Ice being much better than Paralyzed, once difficulties are factored in).  Therefore, your mileage may vary when using different spells with different effects!  I chose Disintegrate because I personally think those extra effects are pretty middle-of-the-road, and most importantly because it allowed my spell to mimic the function of the Greataxe as closely as possible. 

The argument that the versatility of magic is a strength I haven't been valuing enough is a valid one, to be sure.  However, much of that versatility comes from extra effects that can be added onto spells, and many of these extra effects require Advantage to activate (Burn, Blast, Ensnare, etc.).  My test rolls demonstrated that Advantage was even harder to obtain than I had assumed.  Also, the relative scarcity of Advantage and the fact that you'll be using any Advantage you get to fuel those effects you increased your difficulty for means that you'll be less likely to recover Strain than non-mages.  This is on top of the "Strain Tax" that you spend every time you cast a spell! 

Sure, you can opt to add fewer effects and bring down your difficulty.  But Disintegrate was as comparable a spell I could get to a weapon's statistics, and in order to get to that level you're rolling against 4 purples.  There may be some exceptions, but by and large if you cast less impressive spells you'll be underperforming compared with weapon users, and you'll be spending Strain to do it.  Consider if I'd opted to leave off the Destructive quality to Disintegrate.  Using my 100 sample rolls, you can consider the Greataxe rolls to be equivalent to a roll with this de-powered Disintegrate, since the difficulty would be 2 purples.  In fact, in that instance Disintegrate would crit more than the Greataxe.  A lot more, actually.  TWELVE additional times, for a total of 21 crits generated through Advantage!  However, you're giving up Pierce 2 to lower that difficulty, so the Greataxe effectively has two extra damage on you.  And crits are more for their debuff effects (unless you're dealing with minions, or roll high enough) than they are about killing things.  It's hard to say which version of Disintegrate is "better," but that alone makes me scratch my head.  It's not very intuitive to "upgrade" you spell to get something worse. 

Ultimately, I think the magic system is a little more nitty gritty than what I would have preferred, partially because of the obscurity of your statistical likelihood of success when you pick up a dice pool.  The "good" options and "bad" options seem difficult to assess, since difficulty adds another variable and will adjust your odds of not only succeeding, but rolling Advantage/Threat.  I guess this is just a complicated way for me to say that I'm not claiming my sample rolls are representative of the entire magic system.  But I think it was a useful exercise, with a suitably large sample size, that illustrates why I'm apprehensive about the drawbacks that magic users suffer in this system.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Common D&D Spells Converted to Genesys

If you haven't already read my first impressions of magic in Genesys, I recommend doing so for some context.  In short, I'm not happy with the magic rules of Genesys because the drawbacks are too harsh for what you get.  I think it might be instructive to convert some basic D&D spells to Genesys to showcase exactly how the extra effects adjust difficulty, and what you're getting for your trouble.

I'll be a little more generous to the magic users this time, and assume that they have a 4 in their relevant spellcasting characteristic.  In the years I've been playing Star Wars, I've personally only created a couple of characters that started with a 4.  I'd much rather have 3 in half of my characteristics, but that's personal preference and I tend to enjoy well rounded characters more.  But mages need all the help they can get, and a 4 will help achieve that. 

Also, I'll assume that the magic user is using a Staff, for simplicity.  You can game the system a little bit by swapping out implements to suit your spell, but since the same is true for weapon users (everyone will ultimately be limited by how much gold they have) I don't consider it an inherent advantage of mages.


To start with, a classic.  Arguably the most iconic D&D spell.  You're obviously going to use the Attack spell, and we're going to add Fire to it (duh) for +1 purple.  I'll also add Blast for another +1 purple, even though Blast sucks and probably isn't worth using.  The problem is, you can't really have a fireball without Blast, so the fact that it sucks just shows that Genesys doesn't do a great job at replicating fireball.  Finally, I think we need to add +2 purple dice for Empowered.  Fireball is about damage, and it's about a BIG blast.  A blast that only hits things engaged with the target isn't really Fireball, it's more like a puny little Scorching Burst. 

Fireball winds up being a 5 Purple check (Formidable).  It's worth mentioning that even high level Star Wars characters rarely have to make a Formidable check.  Thanks to the Staff, we can cast Fireball at medium range for free.  In D&D it's typically a longer-ranged spell, but I don't think adding a 6th purple die to the difficulty is remotely worth it.  You could also argue that since Fireball targets Reflex (or, in Dungeon World, ignores Armor) that it might be worthwhile to add Destructive to it.  But that's another +2 purple and no character can really handle that.  It's not as integral to the spell as Fire, Blast, and Empowered.

You end up with Base Damage of 12, Medium Range, no crit rating, Blast (probably 2-4, depending on ranks in Knowledge), and Burn (2-4).  Keep in mind that Blast and Burn both require 2 Advantage each to activate.

For fun, I'm going to do some test rolls to see how our hypothetical, Fireball flinging Wizard fares.  Two ranks in Arcana are assumed.  I'll assume the main target has Adversary 1.  Our dice pool is thus YYGG RPPPP.

Roll 1: 1 Failure, 3 Advantage.  We can activate Blast!  It will probably only be 2 or 3 damage though, and only the the primary target.  An Adversary 1 enemy probably has more soak than that.
Roll 2: 1 Success, 3 Threat, and 1 Triumph.  13 damage isn't too shabby, and with the Triumph we'll activate Burn or Blast (Burn is better).  In a couple of rounds, our primary target is probably toast.  But with 3 Threat, the GM can decide that an ally was caught in the Fireball, too!  13 damage to a friend.  Ooops.  Or the GM can be a real dick and cause the Wizard to lose 6 more Strain (on top of the 2 spent to cast the spell), or take 3 Wounds (maybe the Wizard got a little singed). 
Roll 3:  1 Failure, 0 net Advantage/Threat, 1 Despair.  Cool, Mr. Wizard just spent 2 strain to either fry a friend (and just a friend), or become unable to cast spells for the rest of the encounter.  Great.
Roll 4: 2 Failure, 0 net Advantage/Threat, 1 Triumph.  Well, I guess we're triggering Blast again, but unless the enemy is a glass cannon we won't penetrate soak.  Better to come up with something creative.
Roll 5: 2 Success, 3 Threat, 2 Triumph.  Holy dice luck, Batman!  This is probably the best we could have hoped for!  Those 3 Threat are REALLY nasty, though.  Ok, so you hit the primary target for 14 damage, and we're DEFINITELY going to Burn that guy.  He probably won't last another 2 rounds, even if everyone else ignores him.  And we're going to Blast everyone else (but for a measly 4-5 damage).  Depending on your enemies, the Blast might ACTUALLY do something!  But keep in mind that Stormtrooper equivalent mooks will have 5 soak.  Let's mix it up and spend 1 of those Threats to deal 2 Strain (for a total of 4 this turn), and then we can either crack Mr. Wizard's Staff, or say the Fireball takes an extra round to go off.  Neither option is particularly appealing, but it's worth mentioning that the GM can be a REAL dick here and if the blast is delayed, have the mooks clear short range so Blast does nothing. 

So out of 5 rolls, 3 were failures.  One of the failures was tempered with Advantage and one with Triumph, but nothing inherent about the Fireball could be triggered to useful effect (shame about Blast sucking).  Just come up with something cool and creative.  One of those failures had a Despair, and what a garbage roll it was.  Adversary is a dangerous thing (so are Story Points).  Of the 2 successful rolls, one was actually pretty awesome!  The other wasn't terrible, but that nastier Threat/Despair table reared its ugly head, and proved to be one cost too steep for magic users.

I won't do sample rolls for every spell, because I think I've made my point.  You end up failing a lot, despite the fact that you had to spend 2 Strain to cast the dumb spell, and hopefully you didn't make 2 maneuvers that round for a grand total of 4 Strain (before Threat) to do nothing.  Also because of the large number of negative dice in your pool, you end up getting a lot of Threat!  Which is worse for mages.  And along those same lines, you DON'T generate much Advantage (so good luck recovering Strain from your rolls).  I did roll a lot of Triumphs, which is great, but it would be even better if Blast were more useful.

Hold Person

Ok, I used this example in my last post.  I'll be quick.  You use the Curse spell (one of those pesky 2 purple base effects) and add Paralyzed for +3 purple.  It's a good thing we can already cast at Medium range with the Staff, because we can't really afford to add anything else to the spell (nor do we really need to). 

This is a 5 purple check, and for 1 turn the target loses 1 point from one of their Characteristics and can't take actions.  It's in your best interest to spend several turns Concentrating (even if you have to pop strain for a second maneuver) to keep this effect sustained! 

Ultimately, if you're trading your turn to make an enemy lose theirs, the enemy should be stronger than you for it to be worthwhile.  Expect at least a couple ranks of Adversary if you're using this strategically.

Wild Shape

The only spell that can make this work is Augment.  You want to be a bear?  I know you do!  The base effect is 2 purples, and we're going to use it to increase our Brawn.  Probably from 2 to 3, or maybe we built a Druid focused on combat shapeshifting, in which case we're going from 3 to 4 Brawn.  Magic isn't necessarily reliant on just 1 super stat. 

Primal Fury is the obligatory add-on to this, for +1 purple.  You get a halfway decent crit rating (3), and can add damage to unarmed attacks equal to your ranks in Knowledge (2-4 probably, we'll use 3 as our average).  I honestly wouldn't both adding any other effects to this, to keep it at a hard (3 purple) check.  But think to yourself, are the enemies you're engaged with likely to try to run from you, or face you head on?  Haste might  be worthwhile if you think they'll run, because you're going to be spending a maneuver Concentrating to maintain your form each turn.  You'll burn through a lot of Strain if you have to chase people down.  If there are nasty terrain effects in place, you might also want to consider Swift, and fluff it as the bear just powering through everything.  But again, these are situational.  Are the benefits worth adding more purple dice, and possibly failing the check?  You're already spending 1 turn just casting the spell even if you succeed, while Mr. Greataxe Guy can wade right in.  I'd suggest that if you roll 1 or 2 Triumphs (depending on how generous your GM is) saying that you cast the spell quick enough to go maul stuff this turn.  Also, if you're planning on playing a Druid who specializes in shapeshifting, you should probably create a custom implement that lets you not have to Concentrate every turn.  You could even tweak the Druidic Circlet to support Augment instead of Conjure. 

What you end up with is a 3 purple check that lets you be a bear, so next turn you can use your claws to deal Brawl damage that's worth a damn.  With the upgraded 4 Brawn that's 7 base damage (with Knowledge 3), and you should probably make sure you have ranks is Brawl in order to get yellow dice when you do this.  You can crit with 3 Advantage, and don't forget that Brawl attacks have Knockdown by default!  Flavorful for a bear, too! 

Augment works ok for Wild Shape.  It can pretty easily replicate turning into a wolf or a bear, but what if you want to do the cool, creative stuff with Wild Shape?  You know, turning into a hawk to be able to fly, or an octopus so you can latch onto someone's face in the middle of combat and ink the crap out of them, or something like a crocodile or panther that is useful in combat, but also has some utility (can swim or climb well).  I guess you can use Swift as a baseline to get swim or climb speed.  And flight is probably not going to be a combat form anyways, so go with the suggested Hard difficulty for flight or invisibility in the base description.  Not sure about that octopus thing, though.  I did that in Dungeon World and it was REALLY cool, but at best if I tried it in Genesys it would stall the game as the player and GM try to figure out how to represent it. 

Overall, it's a strain-heavy way to turn yourself into a brawler, that costs you a turn.  Tough to say if it's actually worth it, but I would say that if the player were really creative about narrating Advantage/Triumph rolled while fighting in animal form, it could be a lot of fun.  And Threat could be a cool way of having inconvenient animal instincts kick in.  I'm cautiously neutral on whether Genesys could make a Druid both fun and effective.

Lightning Bolt

Fireball's cousin.  It was VERY similar to Fireball in D&D (blast vs a line), but in Genesys it'll work pretty differently.  Attack is our spell, obviously.  Let's keep this simple and just add Lightning to the basic attack for +1 purple.  If you really need to, you can add another +1 purple to bump the range out, or I can even see someone wanting to add Deadly, Impact, and/or Destructive to emulate some possible consequences of getting hit by lightning.  I'd recommend against Destructive since it's +2 more purple. 

Our difficulty is actually a little deceptive here, because Lightning gets us Autofire.  If you're not going to use it, you might as well not even be adding the Lightning quality, so right off the bat the difficulty gets increased by 1.  That brings us up to a hard (3 purple) check to cast this thing at Medium range.  That's actually not too shabby.

Base damage is 8.  We didn't take Empowered like we did with Fireball, because we don't care about Blast, and the extra 4 damage probably isn't worth making this a 5 purple check.  Remember how many sample rolls failed for Fireball?  Anyways, 8 damage, no crit, medium range, Autofire, and Stun 3 (for our assumed average 3 ranks in Knowledge). 

Pro tip - unless you're fighting a mage who is also burning through Strain (just like you!), don't bother using Stun.  Actually, even then it's probably not worth it.  Why?  Because it costs you two Advantage to use.  And if you have two Advantage, you should be triggering the extra hit from Autofire.  Which can trigger multiple times.  Assuming you have enough Advantage for it.

Here's the rub.  Compare Lightning Bolt to an Assault Rifle from the Modern setting.  Same base damage of 8, but it crits on a 3, goes out to long range, and only has Autofire, no Stun.  But we already decided Stun wasn't worth triggering when you have Autofire.  Ok, so technically it MIGHT be worthwhile if your opponent has 8 or 9 soak, but that probably won't be the case.  The Assault Rifle is better (because of its crit and long range) and doesn't cost strain to use!  Interestingly, the difficulty in this example is the same (3 purples at medium range, both can opt to add a purple to shoot at long range). 

I guess if you're playing fantasy it might be tougher to find weapons with Autofire, but you'll also probably have more melee guys getting up in your face (requiring you to add a purple for close combat or spending a maneuver to disengage), and magic weapons tend to go along with fantasy settings.  The only magic item in the core book is plate armor, but I'm sure we'll get magic weapons in future splatbooks, and GMs can probably make them pretty easily.  Point being, one of the tropes of fantasy is that the basic equipment isn't what you're going to stick with, so I can imagine bows or even melee weapons being enchanted with Haste spells to gain Autofire.

Cone of Cold / Ray of Frost

Hmm, I realized after typing "Cone of Cold" that the Attack spell doesn't have an option for multiple targets.  You have to make due with Blast or Lightning, or if you're really into the idea of multi-target/AoE spells you can just use an Orb instead of a Staff.  Although it's unclear if the orb allows you to affect multiple targets when it's not on your list of additional effects.  Basically, talk to your GM to see if they'll allow it. 

Ray of Frost really just needs Ice, and potentially Ranged.  The whole point is to get melee fighters stuck away from anyone they can attack.  You can do that pretty easily with a 2 purple check (or 3 for long range), if you're willing to deal only 8 damage, not have a crit rating, etc.  But this seems like a great way to hold off a melee guy.  Technically, even if they have a ranged weapon they can't draw it, because Ensnare prevents you from using maneuvers.  They'll waste at least one turn trying to break free of the ice with an Athletics check.  You can also use this on ranged guys to get them stuck next to your melee friends. 

Ray of Frost functions similarly to Hold Person, but the difficulty is so much lower.  Sure, it's a little more situational and takes a little more thought to use, but I'd say it's worth it to have a lower difficulty.  There's really no reason for these two effects to have such a large difficulty differential.

As a bonus, I'll suggest another ice themed spell.  Something called Blizzard, Icy Wind, Icy Terrain, or something.  Basically, you can add the Manipulative effect onto your spell for +1 purple and, if you get enough Advantage, you can move your target before freezing them in place!  That's really awesome for when they're already engaged with your ally, but your ally is hurt and just can't stand to take another hit.  You could theoretically also add Close Combat for +1 purple and push targets engaged with you away before freezing, but it's probably not a good idea.  It's a cool concept, but Close Combat is another one of those effects that's probably not worth it.  Better to just spend a maneuver to move away instead of adding a purple die into your pool.  It is, however, situationally useful for those times when you, yourself, are Ensnared.  Or maybe you just have other things to do with your maneuvers.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Genesys Magic: First Impressions

Wow!  It's been over two years since I've posted anything!  Time sure does fly.  I could spend a ton of time discussing what I've been up to and the things I haven't been posting about, but it's going to be a long post.  Suffice to say I've been co-hosting a podcast about (mostly) RPGs, so if you're interested check that out (we're also @SplitPartyPod ‏on Twitter).

I'll state up front that I'm not thrilled with the magic system in Genesys, at least not on paper.  That said, I think it has some neat potential but the mechanics are kind of all over the place, balance-wise, and in general magic seems to have too many drawbacks that aren't justified by (some) of their effects.

The way that magic works is pretty straightforward, and doesn't really borrow anything from the Force powers of FFG's Star Wars RPG.  Other than the differences between magic and the Force, Genesys is pretty much a universal version of Star Wars.  Magic in the Genesys core book is split up into three different skills: Arcana, Divine, and Primal.  Many of the specific effects also make use of the spellcaster's ranks in the Knowledge skill (which, depending on your setting, may be a single skill or broken up into different types of knowledge).  While this works for most characters, it doesn't really fit the fluff of something like a Sorcerer or a Warlock that well.  However, I see this as a really easy fix (which is NOT addressed in the core book, because the core book seems like a somewhat incomplete toolkit in general).  Obviously the intent of the designers is to prevent magic users from having one, single "super skill" that does everything.  So swapping ranks in Knowledge with ranks in another appropriate skill doesn't alter the balance.  I imagine Sorcerers using their ranks in Resilience to determine how powerful their extra effects are (their bodies are fonts of magic), and Warlocks might use Charm or Negotiation (how much extra power were they able to talk their patron into giving them?).  I think this is really cool and flavorful, and the designers missed a chance to include suggestions like these in the core book.  Not all mages are bookish, after all.

So what does a magic skill roll actually look like?  The book suggests that using magic narratively will require a skill roll, with the GM determining the difficulty based on whatever the outcome of the task would normally be.  However, they recommend stepping up the difficulty by one purple die compared to the difficulty for a mundane roll.  This is a theme in Genesys, that magic should be more difficult.  It's a valid drawback to having flexible, magical powers, but it's FAR from the only drawback.  I'll get to that later, though.  Other than just general narrative results, the book provides eight "spells," which are not really distinct spells at all.  Rather, each "spell" is a general category of magic that the player can use to construct a specific effect.  These "spells" are Attack, Augment, Barrier, Conjure, Curse, Dispel, Heal, and Utility.  Each of these has a base effect, and then a table of specific supplemental effects.   The supplemental effects each will increase the difficulty when tacked onto the basic effect.  It's also worth noting that not all "spells" are available to every magic skill; for example, you can only Dispel using Arcana, but Healing can only be done by Divine and Primal.  Finally, magical implements function essentially like weapons for spellcasters, often enhancing the damage of your spells and also allowing you to incorporate one or more supplemental effects without increasing the difficulty (these vary depending on which implement you're using).

The Cost of Magic

Before getting into a commentary of the individual spells, I just want to say that in general I think the designers went too far in trying to "reign in" magic.  Maybe they had bad experiences in 3rd edition D&D?  So what exactly are the drawbacks to magic in this system?

  • Any time you make a skill roll using a Magic Skill (Arcana, Divine, or Primal), it costs you 2 strain.  Not every little thing requires a skill roll (one example in the book is magically lighting a torch), but any time you cast a "spell" you're losing 2 strain, no exceptions.
  • There's a table of Threat/Despair results that are specific to magic users, with harsher penalties than the typical results.  No, there's no corresponding Advantage/Triumph table with better effects for magic users.  Magic is supposed to be dangerous.  To give you an idea of what this looks like, 1 threat will cause you to lose 2 strain (instead of the usual 1 strain), or suffer 1 wound.  Coupled with the strain cost that you're ALREADY taking just for casting the spell, it's obvious that mages will burn through strain, FAST.  And sure, you can recover strain with Advantage, but it's an uphill battle since Threat will drain your strain twice as fast as Advantage will recover it.
  • As a corollary to how strain-heavy casting spells is, you're obviously going to be much more limited in terms of spending strain to use talents or take a second maneuver.  It'll be that much harder for you to use Dodge or Sidestep, or even duck behind cover.  It's also worth noting that spellcasters have a maneuver called "Concentration."  Many of the spells require you to use a Concentration maneuver in order to keep the effect going.  You probably won't be aiming, aiding, moving around, or interacting with the environment very much.
  • Spellcasting is difficult!  Actually, the base effects usually start out as an easy or average check, but considering their effects are lackluster (the base effect for the Attack spell is weaker than a comparable weapon) AND that they'll cost strain to might as well modify them with as many additional effects as you're willing to risk.  I'll go into this more when I discuss the individual spells, but overall in order to exceed what weapon users are doing you're going to be rolling harder checks, taking strain (even if you fail!  And remember, your checks are harder...), risking worse threat/despair results (which you'll be getting more of...because your checks are harder), and you won't be able to utilize extra maneuvers or talents as often.  
Now, I've already been voicing these concerns on social media, and I've already gotten back the response of "magic is more versatile!"  While this is true to an extent, I don't think the versatility is worth the steep costs, for two reasons.  The first is that the narrative dice system is really awesome in that it gives ALL characters a lot of versatility.  How is spending advantage to shoot a steam pipe with your pistol any worse than casting a fog cloud spell?  Second, compared with other more narrative systems like Fate, Dungeon World, or Masks, Genesys magic is fairly crunchy.  You get versatility in that you have a bunch of mechanical bits that you can tack onto your spells, but they're still defined mechanical bits for the most part.  You just happen to get a lot of them.  With crunch comes inherent limits, especially considering the escalating difficulty.

Commentary on Magic Spells

Attack:  This is a straightforward spell that allows you, as an easy check, to deal Brawl-level damage (base damage equal to your spellcasting attribute) to a target at short range (but not engaged).  Brawl attacks, however, get a critical rating of 5 and the knockdown quality.  The attack spell has no crit rating (but you can still crit on a Triumph), and no additional effects.  But it sure will cost you 2 strain to use!  See why you're going to want to modify your spells?  

Implements definitely help here.  The staff is the implement that increases damage the most (+4), and allows you to bump the range band up by one for free.  But you're still underpowered compared with someone using a weapon.  Assuming your spellcasting characteristic is 3, you're looking at 7 damage, no crit rating, medium range, and no additional effects.  Compare that to a carbine, if you're familiar with Star Wars, which does 9 damage, crits with 3 advantage, shoots to medium range, and has a stun setting.  And doesn't cost 2 strain to shoot.  If you want to replicate that carbine more, increase your difficulty by two purples to bump the damage up to 10 (double your spellcasting characteristic, plus your staff), and you can increase the difficulty by another purple to either do stun damage, or maybe you'd rather have an actual crit rating of two instead (each one of these effects would increase the difficulty by 1).  Say you went with crit rating, because that's probably more useful (unless you're fighting another mage!).  Your check is now 4 purples (ouch!) to deal 10 damage (only 1 more than the carbine), at medium range, and you can crit on 2 advantage (one less than the carbine).  Your damage and crit are slightly better than the carbine (by 1 each), but your check is twice as hard (shooting a carbine into medium range is two purples), you're taking 2 strain just to use the spell, and you're risking worse threat/despair results.  Oh, and since you're so strapped for strain, it's probably worth mentioning that you're going to want to use any advantage you gain on critting, because you increased the difficulty of your check to do that, and so you probably won't be recovering strain through advantage.  

It's worth pointing out at this point that I chose the highest-damage implement (staff) for this comparison, and a relatively low-damage ranged heavy weapon (the carbine).  Heavier blaster rifles will EASILY outperform a mage.  

If we want to stick with fantasy, a non-magical greatsword does 7 base damage (assuming you have a Brawn of 3), crits on a two, has the Defensive 1 and Pierce 1 qualities, and won't cost you strain to use.  Oh, and you're only rolling 2 purples.  

My assessment is that the designers didn't want the Attack spell to be outperforming weapons.  In doing so, I'd recommend mages not even bother using it at all, unless you have a magic orb (you'll be doing less damage than with a staff, but can affect more targets) or a magic wand (depending on the type).  

I've also heard arguments on social media amounting to "hey, you always have your magic, but a gun or sword can be taken away!"  Not only is this highly situational, but your implement can also be taken away!  Now you're dealing brawl-level damage, but so can the melee fighters.  They can also grab an improvised weapon and probably still outperform you, unless you really ramp up your difficulty for some extra effects.  But they're not burning strain.  Seeing a pattern here?

Augment:  Make an average check to increase a target's characteristic by 1, for 1 turn (unless you pump maneuvers into Concentration every turn).  Considering there's a whole magic skill devoted to making Druids (Primal), THIS is what we're getting for shapeshifting?!?!  If you want to go a little further on that front, add a purple for Primal Fury (Primal Only), which lets you add damage equal to your ranks in Knowledge to unarmed combat checks, and gives them a crit rating of 3.  Cool, you're spending a turn making a hard check to get slightly better brass knuckles?  And spending two strain to do so?  Actually, you might as well make that a 4 purple check to tack "Haste" onto yourself (you can always spend 2 maneuvers without using strain).  Because one of those maneuvers is going to be sucked up by concentrating on maintaining your shapeshift.  Yep, this sucks.

The base effect is pretty similar to the control upgrade of the Enhance Force power, but with Enhance you need only commit a Force die.  With Augment you take two strain, have a risk of failure, and then need to spend a Concentration maneuver EACH TURN to maintain your increased characteristic.  Given the choice, I think I'd rather play a Jedi than a Genesys mage...

There's also a passing mention of using this spell to grant invisibility or flight, but this should be "at least a hard check."  Presumably instead of the normal base effect.  I guess that's alright for an Invisibility or Fly spell, but fairly useless for tacking flight onto the base effect to shapeshift into something that flies.  Again, I'm focusing on Druid stuff here because they built a whole skill around having a Druid.  And yet, the main schtick of the Druid (shapeshifting), is not really supported in a useable way.  Augment is worse than the Enhance Force power in every way, and while it's more flexible, it's still not flexible enough to do Wild Shape well.

Barrier:  This spell basically sucks unless you apply Reflection (Arcana only) to it for 2 extra purple dice.  It reduces incoming damage by 1, for 1 turn (unless you keep using Concentrate maneuvers), and it takes TWO extra uncancelled successes to bump up the extra soak.  You better hope you get lucky with a huge difficulty after applying extra targets/range to make this worthwhile (base power only works on one engaged target).  Empowering this spell (every ONE uncancelled success adds to the extra soak) might be worthwhile, but increases the difficulty by 2 purples (reducing your likelihood of actually getting uncancelled successes).  

Conjure:  Depending on how your GM runs it, this spell might actually be overpowered.  This is another Concentration spell, so you're spending a maneuver each turn that you want your creature/object to stick around.  The base effect is an easy difficulty and can summon a silhouette 0 creature.  Adding purples can obviously increase the size of the creature and/or how many you summon, but it's also worth mentioning that they're NOT automatically your allies!  You can add a purple die to make them your allies, and if you succeed you can use a maneuver to direct them in combat.  Notice something interesting there?  You're spending a maneuver to concentrate, AND a maneuver to direct allied summons.  That's pretty harsh, and I said this spell could be overpowered, right?  

The thing is, there aren't suggested stat blocks which means that the GM is probably going to have to make something up on the spot, until a greater variety of adversaries is published.  The potency of this spell will likely depend on which creature(s) you summon, and how your GM chooses to represent those stat blocks.  Also, it might be worthwhile to NOT make the creatures your allies.  Depending on who/what they are, they may start attacking your enemies anyways.  Injecting a little bit of chaos into the battlefield might not be a bad thing!  

Here's where this spell really shines, though.  The Druidic Circlet is an implement that allows you to make your summoned creatures allies without increasing the difficulty.  Boom, done.  The creature also lasts the rest of the encounter without requiring you to Concentrate.  Oh, baby!  So now you only need to spend one maneuver to direct them, but even if you decide you can't do that they're still your allies, and while they might not do exactly what you want them to, they'll probably at least protect you, if not outright attack the enemies (and they certainly won't be attacking you!).

One more noteworthy detail is that until the summoned creature dies, it can attack (probably better than your base attack spell) without an absurd difficulty and without requiring you to spend strain.  Cool, you've gained some offensive firepower, but remember how the Barrier spell increases the effective soak of target(s)?  Wouldn't it be better to have the PCs not get attacked in the first place?  Any damage that a summoned creature takes is damage avoided, and it might end up being more damage than the Barrier spell would have prevented.

If there's a potent spellcaster in this game, it's a summoning Druid.

Or, you could have players who haven't thought about the rules well enough fumbling around, using two maneuvers each turn, and depleting their strain really fast.  Just because this spell can be powerful doesn't mean I'm calling it well designed.

Curse:  This is the opposite of Augment, and likewise the base effect is 2 purple dice.  As you might expect, it reduces one of the target's characteristics by 1.  This spell actually has some neat additional effects.  However, it also has a pretty egregious example of how the designers seem to just hate magic.

Hold Person is a pretty staple spell in D&D (and fantasy in general, though it might not be called that in every setting).  It's not even a particularly high level spell in D&D.  After all, the magic user is spending their turn to potentially cause an enemy to lose their turn (and maybe future turns).  Considering there's a chance for this to fail, in order to make this spell worth your turn it should always be cast on enemies that are significantly MORE powerful than you.  Otherwise you're trading your turn for an equal (or lesser!) enemy's turn, and you might as well just do something else at that point.  D&D Wizarding 101, right?  

Perhaps it's because status effects are less common in Genesys than in D&D, but the designers seem to REALLY value this effect.  You have to add THREE purple dice to stagger a target with the paralyze effect, and you're not allowed to combine it with the additional target effect.  That's a FIVE purple check to stun ONE target at short range.  And you're taking strain, risking enhanced Threat, yada yada yada.  If the opponent has ranks in Adversary (remember when I said spells like this are really only useful when the target is stronger than you?), it's even tougher.  

I fail to see how this spell will EVER be worth the risk, unless you're rolling 5 positive dice and most of them are yellows.  The only silver lining is that IF you manage to succeed at this formidable (literally) task, you can use the Concentrate maneuver to ensure that the enemy stays paralyzed for more than one turn.  In fact, it's pretty much mandatory to sustain this.  Otherwise you're just trading turns with an enemy.  But is the ability to stun-lock really worth such a high difficulty?  Couldn't the difficulty have been lowered but while giving the enemy an opportunity to shrug off the paralysis on their turn?  That's what D&D does.  It works fine.  This doesn't.  I know you can always house rule, but aren't I paying for this book to get well-designed rules?  

I feel really bad for the newb who tries to use this on a low powered rival, or even a minion...

Dispel:  Super straightforward, you can make a Hard check to end a magical effect.  There are range and additional target upgrade options, and that's about it.  I have no problem with this spell, but obviously you're only going to want to spend your turn doing this when the spell effect is pretty nasty.

Heal:  This spell is actually pretty good.  It's basically like making a medicine check, but the base difficulty is easy.  Sweet.  It doesn't work on incapacitated targets unless you increase the difficulty by 2 purples, but Medicine checks are also Hard if the target is above their wound threshold.  This is balanced out by the fact that healing critical injuries is ALWAYS at least Hard with this spell (regardless of the injury rating).  However, the spell can affect additional targets and cure status effects (by adding purples), which I think makes this a great example of magic done well.  The added flexibility compared with a Medicine check (and in some cases lower difficulty, i.e. current wounds > 1/2 WT) actually seems to be more or less worth the 2 strain it costs to cast.  I'm still a little wary of that nasty increased Threat/Despair table for this spell, but overall I don't think it makes or breaks anything in this case.  Easily the most balanced, well-designed spell in the game.

Of note is the fact that you can resurrect a dead character by adding 4 purples to your check.  It's unclear whether a dead character also counts as "incapacitated."  If so you'll have to add 2 more purples for a total of SEVEN.  Considering the designers took strides in reducing the size of dice pools though, I'm guessing that's not the case.  Still, if you want to make resurrection REALLY difficult in your campaign, that's an easy thing to add to make it so.

Now, compare the resurrection spell difficulty (1 purple base plus 4 additional purple equals 5 total) to our Paralyze effect in Curse (Hold Person).  It's the frickin' same!  They're both 5 purples!  How on earth is raising the dead even remotely equivalent to temporarily paralyzing a person?  

Utility:  This is a catchall, "minor magic" spell.  Apparently the difficulty should always be easy, and there aren't options for upgrading it in combat.  I suppose that's cool and all, but there isn't really any guidance on where to draw the line between this, and narrative magic so minor that it doesn't require a skill check.  Magically lighting a torch is given as an example of not requiring a roll, but some of the utility spell examples are levitating a book or transmuting a pebble into a butterfly (among other, more useful examples).  How are those two things more useful than magically lighting a torch though?  Why are they worth two strain?  In a wet, dark dungeon I think lighting the torch might be more useful!  Though in adverse conditions, I'd probably say it falls under the umbrella of utility magic anyways.  

I think this "spell" is largely redundant.  The general rules for magic already say that you can do narrative stuff and if it's worth a roll, it'll require a roll.  This spell is quite literally pointless as far as I can see.  

Closing Thoughts

Other than that, the only thing I haven't really covered is the Counterspell maneuver, which upgrades the difficulty of all spells within medium range of the caster for a turn.  A neat addition, I suppose.  

What struck me as I was going through the magic rules is that they take up a total of 10 pages in this 256 page rule book.  Not that I'm pining for most D&D Players Handbooks, where magic is often around 1/3 of the page count, but I can't help but feel the Genesys magic treatment is pretty sparse.  And while it's sparse and touted as narrative, it sure is composed of a lot of crunchy bits!  Which isn't a bad thing, by itself.  It just feels like the crunch is limiting for the sake of balance, while at the same time seeming pretty imbalanced.  This magic doesn't feel particularly magical, although that might change in play when players are combining these pieces together in a way that represents the spell they're describing.  Of course, they'll most likely fail the roll.

There are a lot of ways to represent magic in an RPG.  D&D gives you hard limits on the number of spells you can cast per day.  I don't think that's ideal, especially considering how low that number is at low levels, and how unmanageably high it gets at high levels.  13th Age gives you a mix of spells you can cast once per day, once per encounter, at-will, or on a random recharge system where if you roll a certain number or higher on a d20 after the encounter, you get your spell back.  That system has variety, and accounts for varying power levels between spells really well.  Dungeon World balances the fact that you can use magic as often as you want by the consequences that happen when you fail (or partially succeed).  When the GM makes a move, it can be harder or softer depending on how potent the magic was.  Using the Force in Star Wars depends on the roll of your Force dice, and you can always choose to pay the consequences of using the Dark Side if you really want to succeed.  

Genesys magic taps into a resource that characters already depend heavily on: strain.  It's not a hard limit on the number of spells you can cast, because there are multiple ways of recovering strain.  But Genesys also uses escalating difficulty to represent riskier magic use.  In theory, I actually like both of these solutions!  However, I don't think they're implemented well.  I don't think ALL spells should cost strain.  Most games post-3E D&D have given magic users some form of at-will spellcasting (even Pathfinder!), so that they can always feel at least somewhat magical and don't have to carry around backup weapons for when their juice runs out.  And these at-will options are usually less powerful than weapons, because the mage obviously has the option to "go nova" when necessary.  It seems to me like it wouldn't be unbalanced to have Genesys mages not spend strain for unaugmented spells which, as I discussed, are less powerful than using weapons or other mundane means of solving problems.  Most other games are doing it these days.

Consider also how frequently strain is already used.  Most of the time when I'm playing Star Wars, my characters are taxing their strain pretty heavily simply through the use of second maneuvers, talents, and rolling Threat.  If mages in Genesys are less able to make use of second maneuvers and talents, then that's a hidden cost that they're paying for having magic.  And they already have so many obvious costs, like more dangerous Threat/Despair results.  Imagine a hypothetical turn where a mage dives into cover, decides that his enemies are dangerous enough that he should pop his two ranks in Side Step for some extra defense (that's 2 strain for the second maneuver, and 2 to fuel the talent), and then casts a spell (now we're up to 6 strain).  Uh-oh, he got a Threat on his roll.  Most characters aren't too concerned about a measly one Threat, but the GM decides to give the mage 2 strain for it (because that's the first option on the table).  In one turn our poor mage has burned through 8 strain, which is likely more than half of his threshold!  How many more spells can he afford to cast?  How many Concentration maneuvers will he be able to make?  This isn't that extreme of an example.  My Star Wars characters do stuff like this all the time (minus the spellcasting), but receive less strain for it and generally roll more advantages (due to lower difficulties) that can be used to recover that strain.

I'll almost certainly have to house rule some of the drawbacks of magic, but there are just so many of them that it'll take some experience with the system to see which ones are best to ignore, and to what degree.  And this entire post obviously has the caveat that these are my initial impressions.  I've read the magic rules, but have not actually played Genesys yet.  So take everything I've said with a grain of salt.  That said, the numbers on the paper are pretty telling...

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Firefly Redux

The title of this post might not make much sense since I haven't really posted about the Firefly RPG before.  Well, that's not because I haven't played it, I just never got around to posting about it.  Sometimes it sucks being really busy because there's always something you don't have time for.  I have a lot of hobbies so there's already too much competition there, and when it comes to RPGs I'd rather my blog suffer as opposed to my play time or GM prep time.

But I digress.  I first ran a couple of Firefly sessions when the book first came out.  I'm just now getting to running a second mini-campaign.  One of my players recently posted about it here.  We actually talked about the very topic of his post after playing through our second session (after finishing up "Thieves in Heaven" from Things Don't Go Smooth).  It was a really interesting discussion, so I figured I'd throw in my two cents regarding that topic, and some other general thoughts.

A huge thing that Firefly players should keep in mind is that Complications shouldn't be scary.  The characters don't want to deal with Complications, but the players should have fun with them.  Complications are a major design goal of the system, which is meant to emulate an episode of the TV show.  Shit goes wrong from the crew of Serenity all the time, and that's part of what makes it interesting to watch.

When you think about it, it's really not all that different from most RPGs.  On the one hand players generally try to avoid bad stuff happening to their character, but on the other hand the game would be really boring if nothing bad ever happened.  Firefly is just really up front about it, and gives players a lot of narrative control outside of simply roleplaying their character.  It's a trend in modern RPGs to give players more narrative power, but it isn't always so blatant.

A Firefly player shouldn't think of Plot Points as having net zero effect when you earn one to roll a jinx just to have to spend one to later to step it down when the GM rolls an Opportunity.  A player will earn a Plot Point for every Complication the GM buys, but shouldn't feel the need to buy every Opportunity that the GM rolls.  The game has more drama if some of those Complications stick around, but that's not to say that Opportunities are useless, either.  They should be bought when there's a Complication with a high die value that risks forcing a PC to be Taken Out, or when the Complication is especially tough to deal with (whether it affects a lot of actions, has the potential to stick around, or will require a Recovery Roll using a skill nobody is great at).

In other words, with regard to rolling 1's the PCs should be getting a net positive amount of Plot Points.  Characters are hindered in some way now with the possibility of being more awesome in the future.  It's up to the player to decide when the best time for their character to shine is, making concessions to earn Plot Points which they can use at critical moments.  Big Damn Heroes will stumble and fall, but they'll get back up, too.

The same principle applies to Distinctions as well.  The Plot Point economy assumes you'll step your Distinctions down to a d4 to earn Plot Points early on in the episode when the stakes are lower, so you'll have a big pool of them to work with when the stakes are higher.

That said, I understand where my player is coming from regarding Complications being generated by "positive dice."  It's a little jarring in particular because we play a lot of FFG's Star Wars, where Threat and Despair (the best analogue to Firefly's Complications) are possible results on the negative dice.  But in Firefly it makes a little less sense to do things that way.  You could theoretically house rule that Complications are generated when the opposing dice pool rolls 1's, but that makes even less sense to me personally.  First of all, they're often opposed rolls so why should things get tougher for you when your enemy rolls especially low?  Second, it creates a disconnect when you want the GM to roll low, but not too low.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the way GM dice pools are built the PCs often have the advantage of a bigger dice pool.  In that way Complications are an interesting pacing tool because a bigger dice pool means players will have a greater chance of success (in other words, it's less challenging).  But if you're awesome at something you generally want to showcase that by overcoming more challenging obstacles.  Complications let that happen naturally, without the GM having to tinker with the difficulty of NPCs and scenarios.  Later on you're going to have to face a bigger GM dice pool, and in some cases it might make narrative sense that showing off your prowess might attract more trouble than you'd have otherwise.  What's a better story, shooting the bandit trying to get away with your hard earned cash, or limping forward on your sprained ankle, coughing as you try to see through the cloud of steam you just vented out when you shot that pipe, and still managing to make the shot?  And even if you don't buy the argument that more drama and challenge makes for a better game (maybe you're a power gamer?), there's still the fact that from a pure mechanical standpoint rolling 1's is good for your Plot Point economy.  Most players should find Plot Points more valuable than Complications are detrimental, so increasing your chances of rolling a 1 (by virtue of a larger dice pool) can be thought of as a good thing.

Maybe Obi Wan was right about that "certain point of view" crap.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Roll Under/Over Micro Systems

We recently had a session where one player didn't show up for an Edge of the Empire game, and the previous session had ended on an important scene right before a combat encounter.  So the GM surprised us by showing up, tossing some gum on the table, and announcing that we'd be playing a quick one-shot of a game called All Outta Bubblegum (a quick search couldn't locate the rules, but follow the link to a relevant blog post).  This turned out to only last about an hour and a half, leaving us time to test out another simple game I'd been interested in, Lasers and Feelings.

Both of these are extremely simple RPG systems less than a page in length.  Both have a binary mechanic where you roll a single die and in certain situations you want to roll over a certain number, whereas in others you want to roll under.  In All Outta Bubblegum that number changes over the course of the session creating an interesting pacing mechanism.  In Lasers and Feelings it stays the same, defining your main "stat."

All Outta Bubblegum starts you with 8 pieces of gum and you roll under (on a d10) to do something mundane, roll over to do something kickass.  You can spend a piece of gum for an autosuccess.  Once you're out of gum you can only succeed at kickass tasks.  Check out the blog post linked above for the nuance this provides.  We didn't really see that in play, but we did emphasize the resource-management aspect of it, and the game did tend toward an arc that made it easier and easier to be kickass.  There was an interesting meta-game wherein you try to make sure you have some pieces of gum left at the end just in case, but you still want it to be relatively easy to kickass.  It creates a tension unique to this system, and it was an interesting change of pace.  If you're intrigued, I'd suggest playing it as a beer-and-pretzels game.  Yeah, I know I didn't link the rules, but based on my experience that blog post is really all you need to play.  There's also an episode of the One Shot Podcast (episodes 20-21) that inspired my GM to choose this system (I also listen to this podcast, but I haven't personally listened to that episode).

Lasers and Feelings has one mechanical stat for each PC, which is their number.  The number ranges from 2-5, with 2 being slanted heavily towards "Feelings" and 5 being slanted heavily towards "Lasers."  3 and 4 are for more balanced PCs.  Basically, if an action falls under the broad category of Feelings then you want to roll over your number on a d6.  If Lasers is more appropriate to the action, you want to roll under your number.  You can get more dice by being prepared, being an expert, or having someone assist you.  If your exact number is rolled then you have Laser-Feelings, which doesn't count as a success but does allow you to ask a question about the situation to gain some more insight.  Since you'll often be rolling multiple dice you can also get multiple successes (1 success has complications, 2 is great, and 3 is a critical success).  For our session we played a Futurama game, where I played Professor Farnsworth (number 5), and the other two PCs were Dr. Zoidberg (number 3) and Fry (number 2).  The system supported that setting thematically, and resulted in a lot of slapstick, ridiculous humor.  We ended up shrinking Fry down to enter the bottom end of Kiff's digestive tract where he battled worms who were trying to mind control Kiff into destroying the Professor's latest doomsday device, destroying the quantum tunnel in the process.

Whereas All Outta Bubblegum's core mechanic created an interesting pacing and resource management meta-game, Lasers and Feelings offers a really simple but surprisingly flexible party-game that self-generates character development, more strongly emphasizing the "roll-playing" part of a Roll Playing Game.  All in all, both were interesting experiences.

In the back of my mind I'm often thinking about what would be a good RPG to play while backpacking (I have yet to actually play an RPG while backpacking, but it's still something I'd like to have in my back pocket).  Either of these would make strong candidates, and seem far more practical than any other alternative I've thought of so far.  Especially Lasers and Feelings, considering those mini D6s that are pretty easy to find, and weigh almost nothing...

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Brief Update

Yes, it's been a good long while since I've posted anything.  No, I haven't fallen off the face of the earth.  I haven't stopped playing/running tabletop RPGs either.  In fact, with 3 weekly games and an online PbP, I'd say I'm still going pretty strong.  But this combined with a more time-intensive job and various other hobbies means that the one aspect of gaming I've had to cut down on is writing about it and reading about it.  I really should try to at least get some short posts in every now and then, though.

I've been playing Star Wars Edge of the Empire a LOT lately.  I'm running a game that will probably start winding down here soon (most of the players have long since maxed out their build concepts), but despite the larger-than-I-prefer party it has a good outer rim feel to it.  It seems like every time the PCs make some progress some complications sends them off on a new adventure.  But it's getting time that I bring home their personal arcs and let them retire on some moisture farm on Tatooine.  They probably won't do that.  Tatooine hasn't been kind to them.  Kinder than Nar Shaddaa, though.

I've been having an absolute blast as a player in another Edge game playing a Gand findsman.  He hasn't acquired enough notoriety to earn the use of his real name, so like any humble Gand he refers to himself as Gand, in the third person.  But when two Gands talk to each other they can of course tell the difference between these (proper?) nouns.  Playing a subtle, non-Jedi Force Sensitive has been a lot of fun.  Gand has Foresee and Enhance, the two force powers that I see findsmen using to augment their bounty hunting ability (I'm staying away from Seek until Force and Destiny is officially released; of course this campaign will have ended by then).  This campaign has developed its own brand of slapstick humor as well, and hilarity ensued when two of the regular players couldn't make it to several sessions in a row, and we took a third on temporarily.  This turned the party into this:  Gand (Bounty Hunter: Survivalist, Force Sensitive Exile), Khan (Sullustan Bounty Hunter: Gadgeteer), and newcomer Mara (Bounty Hunter: Assassin).  And those sessions mostly entailed buying pants, bribing police chiefs with nerf steaks, and getting the autograph of Jorje Lu'cas, producer of the Star Wars holiday special (the reel was destroyed by Khan, but fortunately Gand has a pirated copy on his ship....which was stolen by his rival, whose kids were just murdered in the custody of an NPC companion of Gand's....Gand doesn't think he'll ever see his favorite movie again).   Go figure.

Finally, I just finished running my Saturday group through Tales from Wilderland, the first adventure compilation for The One Ring.  This system didn't click with my other group, but these guys had a great time with it.  I started them off with Kinstrife and Dark Tidings (I wasn't sure if it would be a two-shot test of the system or if we'd play longer, and that was my favorite adventure just from reading it).  Then we went back to Of Leaves and Stewed Hobbit, we skipped Don't Leave the Path (we were already on this side of Mirkwood) and Those Who Tarry No Longer (it's an interesting story but I'm skeptical of how it would play), and played the remaining adventures pretty much in order.  And the PCs (just three of them) survived (although poor Peter Lochlan, formerly bland Hobbit, went back to the Shire with four permanent shadow points and flaws).

The One Ring was the first non-D&D system I introduced to my gaming circle, and I suppose I didn't have enough experience with a variety of systems to make it work really well the first time several years ago.  The one group still doesn't like it despite being weaned off of Pathfinder by this point, but I'm glad I got this opportunity to actually run it well for a group of fairly new, narrative-focused gamers.  I was quite pleased with how the system ran when it was run and played well, and hopefully we'll play it again in the future.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Epic Tier 13th Age

This past week my Tuesday group finished our 1-10th level campaign of 13th Age.  I've talked about this before, but for this campaign we rotated GMs every adventure (3-4 sessions) and allowed a roster of multiple characters per player, choosing PCs at the beginning of each adventure.  Our goals for this campaign were threefold: 1) to give more of our group a feel for GMing 13th Age, 2) to play around with different combinations of characters (particularly the new stuff in 13 True Ways), and 3) to see how Epic Tier plays out.

For what it's worth, I've never liked Epic Tier in D&D.  In 3rd and 4th Edition once a character got into the teens, which wasn't even Epic Tier yet, things got too complicated and/or balance suffered.  On paper 13th Age seems like it might avoid the worst of this.  Most notably, balance suffers a LOT less than in D&D, but it still wasn't perfect.

The 13th Age encounter building chart is a nifty thing, though it does have its quirks.  It didn't take me long to realize that "fair fights" weren't particularly dangerous.  Last year in my campaign that ran from 1st to 5th level I got into the habit of starting with double-strength encounters, but I'd go up to triple-strength and the PCs managed to win those.  "Fair" fights would end up being handily dispatched before the Escalation Die even hit 3.

But a strange thing happened as we started gaining levels.  The encounter building chart says that in Champion Tier a "fair" fight is an equal number of normal monsters of character level +1 (instead of character level).  In epic, this becomes character level +2.  Odd, to be sure, but certainly this accounts for the fact that while PC numbers and monster numbers keep pace, PCs get more toys with more synergy, which give them an edge.  Except that's not quite how I've found things to work.  A lot of higher level monsters ALSO get improved nastier abilities, and it's explicitly stated that the encounter-building math only takes into account raw numbers and NOT special abilities.  It's what makes a 4th level dragon better than a 4th level hobgoblin.

Using the Champion tier guidelines as-is, I noticed things getting a lot tougher.  My double-strength fights, which were baseline in adventurer tier, really put the party through the ringer.  Encounters of 1.5 strength were more reasonable.  Then came Epic.  One of the first Epic encounters that I put the PCs up against was a pair of leveled-up Frost Giants from the Bestiary (all damage was scaled exactly using the monster's percent damage compared with the baseline stat chart).  It was a "fair" fight exactly, and less than what I'd planned on having them face (they bypassed a lot of potential enemies and didn't raise any alarms).  Within one round the wizard was dead.  The (optimized, animal companion) ranger didn't last much longer.  That's half the party down, and only the chaos mage's Unsummoning spell allowed the rest to actually win.  I was pretty shocked, to say the least.

I talked this over with the group and we agreed that whoever was GMing would use the Adventurer-tier challenge levels from the chart.  That is to say, a "fair" fight at 9th level would be a number of normal 9th level enemies equal to the PCs, instead of 11th level monsters.  For the most part things worked pretty much as they had in Adventurer tier.  The "fair" fights usually weren't too much of a problem, but double-strength encounters were pretty challenging.  Anything over that was potentially campaign-loss-worthy.

In other words, the Epic tier math still works great from a balance standpoint; it's just the encounter building guidelines that are off.  And I can live with that.

That said, I still don't like Epic tier.  Number inflation is a huge problem for me (I've written about this from a GM's perspective before), with the disclaimer that most of my group doesn't have a problem with it.  Everyone's turns simply take a lot longer to resolve, with the end result being fights that last about as long as they did in 4E.  No, really, we've had 2 hour long fights in 13th Age, and a lot of the PCs are playing "simple" classes.

I'll use my own archer ranger as an example.  Her baseline attack damage with double ranged attack is 10d6+18.  I've simplified it further to 4d10+39 (ever since Champion tier I've been rolling 4 dice at even levels, 5 at odd levels).  There's more than a trivial pause to add everything up, especially when damage starts to get added from improvisational stunts, crits, or other PC abilities, not to mention the fact that most of the time she gets a 2nd attack off.  It simply takes longer than adding 2d6+4.  I can do that almost instantaneously, and then add some narrative description to boot.

Worse is that almost everyone else in my group refuses to use dice conventions.  They'd rather roll 10 (or more, for certain abilities and spells) dice and that takes even longer to add up.  That might be a problem specific to my group, but it's still something that kills Epic for me.

In some ways I'd rather run a campaign from 1st to 5th level, awarding incremental advances every OTHER session and having it run the same amount of real time.  But on the other hand, I really like a lot of the higher-level abilities that PCs get without being an unbalanced mess.  Characters have enough options to feel like they can deal with almost anything, but the choice-paralysis and never-ending interrupts and minor actions of 4E are nowhere in sight.  I suppose it's fair to say that I have a conflicted relationship with Epic level 13th Age.