Wednesday, February 27, 2013

What Weapon Skill Should I Train?

Until recently I had just assumed that heavy weapons were the way to go in Edge of the Empire.  Both skills use Agility, so assuming you have equal access to both Ranged Light and Ranged Heavy nothing really holds you back (from a character building perspective) from going with the higher damage weapons.  If you're willing to invest in a Weapon Sling, even a Brawn 2 character isn't prohibited from using a Heavy Blaster Rifle (yay Autofire!) because of the Cumbersome rating.  I mean, if you had a choice between a weapon group that deals 5-7 base damage vs 9-11, which would you choose?

The problem, of course, is that the Blaster Pistol is an iconic weapon that's ubiquitous in a galaxy far, far away.  Are you really gimping yourself by choosing to go the Ranged Light route "for roleplay?"

Even putting aside the fact that some characters might have Ranged Light as a career skill but not Ranged Heavy, the answer isn't so clear-cut.  While dedicated ranged combat specialists are probably better off with training Ranged Heavy, light weapons do have their own advantages.

The strengths of heavy weapons are obvious; they deal higher base damage, they have superior range, and the best have neat qualities like Auto-Fire.

One of the most readily apparent advantages of blaster pistols, however, is that you can wield 2 of them.  You'll sacrifice a bit of accuracy (don't forget that an extra purple die might cancel out a point of damage by reducing uncancelled successes, or an Advantage!) but you're probably at shorter range anyways so this might be a wash.  This allows you to spend 2 Advantage to get a second shot in, even if you have to spread your bonus damage between the two hits.  Essentially what you get is the base damage from your second weapon.  Against typical enemies with soak of 3-4 this puts you on pretty even footing damage-wise with heavy weapons (assuming a lack of Auto-fire), though obviously against high soak enemies the extra damage from your second shot will result in fewer wounds.  Point being, dual-wielding can mitigate the damage gap between light and heavy weapons somewhat.

Then there's the corner cases where having a free hand might come in handy.  Keep a blaster in one hand and a melee weapon in the other for combat flexibility.  Given that drawing/stowing a weapon counts as a Maneuver, this will usually directly translate into a mechanical advantage ("hey, I can actually Aim or take up a Guarded Stance even though my Engagement status has changed!").  Pilot a speeder bike or a landspeeder while shooting at someone with your pistol.  Shoot at someone while halfway up a cliff face or a ladder.  Play the game long enough, and situations like this are bound to come up.

Also worth noting is that grenades are based on your Ranged Light skill.  This is probably the biggest balancing factor between the two skills, especially if you're flush with enough cash to end up with thermal detonators.  Even your basic Stun Grenade can be a pretty powerful tool, though, and anyone who chooses blaster pistols over rifles and carbines would do well to keep them in mind.  Just imagine the crazy narrative antics you could get away with when you roll tons of Advantage (or a Triumph!) with a GRENADE!

Finally, there's an often-neglected story-based disadvantage to heavy weapons that really SHOULD be taken into consideration at least every once in a while:  they might not be welcome in public (or in the local Hutt's palace, etc.).  Light weapons can be concealed, and won't draw any attention when you're walking down a city street.  In most civilized areas, walking around with a rifle slung on your back is probably going to be frowned upon, if not outright illegal.  Putting yourself in a position to attract Imperial attention will usually run counter to the party's objectives.

After putting some thought into it I don't feel bad about the idea of favoring light weapons, even from a character optimization standpoint.  The two ranged weapon skills are actually balanced fairly well even if they occupy different niches (as they should).  It's tough to make a direct comparison, but it's clear that the comparison goes beyond the raw stats of the individual weapons.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Icons in Action (1)

My 13th Age campaign based on the Dungeon World Front "The Great Wyrm Axtalrath" is still going strong.  I believe we're something like 4 sessions in; I just haven't been in the mood to write session summaries.  Instead of doing so, I think I'd rather use my own play experience to highlight the narrative mechanics of 13th Age.  Hopefully this will be a regular series (hence the parenthetical "1" in the title) which explores not only how Icon rolls are being used in my games, but One Unique Things (OUTs), and potentially Backgrounds as well. 

Icon Rolls
I've admittedly struggled the most with how to best implement Icon Rolls, to the point where for the first session I didn't use them much at all, and didn't even really think about them.  They occasionally even stressed me out a little bit, but after last session they finally "clicked." 

I won't go into every example I've had so far, but I will go over many to get started.  First of all, until tonight I've exclusively been using the "roll all of your Relationships at the beginning of the session" method.  A few weeks ago it occurred to me that while I was using the rolls as plot element generators, I wasn't being at all transparent with my players about what their rolls were doing.  So I sent them a message via our campaign's group on Facebook explaining how I'd used each roll for that session.

Each player got a magic item, and each one was the result of an icon roll.  None of these items were loot; they were gifted to the PCs by NPCs.  The Paladin was gathering information on the Dragon Cultists in town, and instead of having him roll a "Streetwise" type skill check I simply spent a result of 5 that had been rolled for The Three.  After publicly expressing interest in the Cult, I later had some undercover cultists pass him a coin later on the street.  The complication was that the etchings on the coin needed to be interpreted, and a correct interpretation revealed the location and time of their next meeting.  Well, the players didn't readily interpret it, but the Fighter took it to an acquaintance at the temple to see if the head priest had any insight.  I spent a roll of 6 for the Priestess and had him guess the exact right answer they needed, explaining his thoughts on the different marks.

When I needed a random quest for the PCs to go on, I used a roll of 5 to have Derro show up in the mining town of Rockbreak (soon to be under siege by the fire-elemental-esque Magmin) hoping to find someone to retrieve a drill for them (which the Magmin could use to wreak havoc on the town).  Cool, this drill ended up driving tonight's session and veering the campaign in a new direction.

The PCs ended up using the drill to get back to the surface of a sea-cave dungeon, unfortunately in an area where a small army of Magmin were camped out.  The clearly-magical drill melted rock that it touched, but it still made a lot of noise when it surfaced.  Fortunately, I had a result of 6 for the Emperor that I needed spent, so I had the Magmin be out on their pumice rafts to destroy an Imperial yacht that appeared offshore.  Perfect time for a clean escape (I had vague plans for if the PCs decided to search for survivors, but they headed directly north with the drill instead). 

At this point I should mention that after my initial Facebook message explaining my Icon Roll decisions to the group, I added that they too were encouraged to "spend" rolls to gain narrative advantages of their choosing.  In tonight's session the Fighter lamented that he didn't have an active result for the Great Gold Wyrm to aid him in pursuing a problematic assassin who has been harassing the party, so I let him roll (unfortunately he rolled a 4, but I'm sure that just means the inevitable is delayed). 

Finally, what I was most pleased with was that the party decided to cut through the Lizardfolk occupied swamps to shortcut their journey, and the Paladin (with the "Ambassador" background) asked how the game handled languages and what the Lizardfolk might speak.  I told him "I'll tell you what, if you want to spend that result of 6 for The Three, I'll say that your character can speak the language of the Lizardfolk."  He accepted, and I'm sure that little fact will have an impact for sessions to come.

I said earlier that Icon Rolls finally "clicked" for me recently.  I think this was largely a combination of reminding my players that they could spend results, and me mentally comparing the mechanic to Destiny Points in Star Wars:  Edge of the Empire.  I had a player make an awesome use of a Destiny Point to introduce a narrative fact in our last session, and it hit me that Relationship Dice were 13 Age's version of that.  I think that's the strength of pre-rolling each relationship at the beginning of the session, actually.  It's great if the players know their narrative currency, and can simply say "this works" because of a prior roll.  It's less awkward than rolling RD on the spot and possibly (most likely) not rolling a 5 or 6.  I find the idea very empowering from both a player perspective as well as the GM's, and it's not often that a mechanic can pull that off.

So far I've really only made use of this once, in tonight's session.  The Cleric has a mish-mash suit of armor containing random metals because metal sometimes speaks to him (when that happens he usually incorporates it into his gear).  I had the drill say to him "I have a mission, and it's not with the Derro."  Cool stuff!  The PCs have successfully completed their mission, and now they needed to decide whether to make good on their assignment or to comply with the drill's wishes.  It's always fun when party members disagree with what the best course of action is, but then compromise.

It's no secret that I LOVE the Background system.  It's so intuitive that I don't anticipate there being much to say about it most of the time.  I am finding the Cleric's "wanderer" Background a little awkward, though.  It's so easy to justify most any skill check with "I've done/seen/learned about this on my travels" and I'm finding it tough to draw the line regarding what's acceptable or not.  It's not that the player is arguing its applicability with me; most of this is on my part!  I think in the future I might have players refine very generic backgrounds like that quite a bit more. 

Bonus Section:  Rituals!
Our group saw its first use of Ritual Magic today!  In transporting the drill across the swamps the Cleric decided to enhance its wheels with the Shield of Faith spell.  This was to effectively turn it into an "all terrain" drill to speed up travel, but when an unlucky D% roll determined the Cleric (who was pushing the drill) as the target of a kobold trap (two trees were blasted and felled his way), I got the idea that while the Cleric deftly dodged out of the way but the trees landed on the drill.  It sank in the mud a bit, but was unharmed thanks to the protection of the Ritual (normally its wooden wheels would have shattered). 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Making Sense of the Argument: "It's Like an MMO!"

Yes, this is a common subject in the infamous Edition Wars.  No, I'm not trying to throw flames in that fire.  I'm merely going to examine the argument, hopefully in a logical, organized, and objective fashion, because to be honest I've never been able to wrap my head around this criticism (of 4E).  Hopefully writing it all out will help.

What Makes an MMO an MMO?
The first thing that needs defining is MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game).  Next, we need to ask:  What is the core of the MMO experience?  This one's tough for me, because I've never been able to get into MMOs.  I love The Guild to death, and I did try a free trial of WoW a few years back so I'm not flying totally blind here.  The experience of actually playing just leaves me dry, though.  While that may be a subjective point, the "why" of it is not.  Here's a list of MMO "characteristics" (subject to refinement), with the reasoning for my subjective opinion at the top.

  1. Your actions, and the plot, are inherently restricted.  There isn't a GM at the helm to adjudicate the crazy "off-rails" stuff you attempt.  All of your options are coded in.
  2. Character-building is a mini-game.  It's all about your character's stats and what spells/powers/whatever you choose.  It has to be, because there's no incentive to create backstories, motivations, etc.
  3. The goal of the game is advancement.  Why do you fight things?  To get to the next level.  To get better stats.
  4. A subset of the previous point, there's an equipment treadmill.  You need to keep getting better and better treasure.  Accumulating this treasure is part of point 3 above.
  5. Zooming from the individual scale, we reach the "multiplayer" component.  Party building is a big deal.  Everyone has a job, and the group is designed by recruiting characters of a certain role.  They are expected to perform that role on raids.  Generally speaking, you've got DPS (damage per round, the heavy hitters), tanks (the guys who can take hits), healers, crowd control, and potentially buffers/debuffers (arguably a sub-set of crowd control and/or a side job for the healer).

That sounds good for now.

Remember Your History!
So this is a point that bears mentioning early on, and deserves its own subheading, and should be kept in mind throughout this whole exercise.  MMOs are a derivative of fantasy tabletop RPGs.  D&D came first.  An argument can be made, therefore, that the whole topic of this post is moot.  It is MMOs that are like D&D, not the other way around!

While I personally find a lot of truth in that statement, I'll add in some grey area for good measure.  MMOs are an offshoot of D&D.  The very existence of editions means that the game is constantly evolving, and MMOs are one of the forms that it's taken.  Many of the advancements made in MMOs naturally serve to tailor the experience to the electronic medium.  Therefore, iterations of a tabletop game like D&D can certainly incorporate elements from MMOs.  Tabletop games borrow ideas from each other all the time, and this is no different.

4E = MMO!
This is where the arguments started, as far as I know.  Others have covered this better than I plan to.  For my purposes, I'll simply refer back to my initial list of MMO characteristics.
  1. Your actions, and the plot, are inherently restricted.  There isn't a GM at the helm to adjudicate the crazy "off-rails" stuff you attempt.  All of your options are coded in.  There is no edition of any tabletop RPG that this will be largely true for.  But there will always be a little truth here, because a game has rules.  Rules define and restrict to a degree.  This isn't free-form storytelling.  For 4E in particular, players often instinctively turn to the options presented on their cards (or power stat blocks).  I've heard of this "picking powers from a list" being likened to "pressing buttons," but if that's true then the same can be said for any game with a list of options.  Perhaps it plays more true in 4E when players stick to the cards, which are very efficient at mechanically defining exactly what happens.  Still, the option for improvising is inherently present, and advice from the DMG (including the infamous page 42) combined with VERY transparent math allows DMs to adjudicate fairly.  The key is to make things equivalent to an option from a power.  I get the sense that many 4E DMs don't do this well enough.  Work on it.  The game's already pretty low-prep from the DM side of things.
  2. Character-building is a mini-game.  It's all about your character's stats and what spells/powers/whatever you choose.  It has to be, because there's no incentive to create backstories, motivations, etc.  Characters will exist in the DM's world, and if the players want a roleplaying experience then characters will certainly be more than just stats.  That said, the tactical nature of 4E combat does encourage playing around with different combinations of options and making sure you have the proper tools.  Conversely, the dynamic nature of 4E's tactical combat means that the specifics of the decisions you make matter.  You can get creative with whatever tools you have, especially working with fellow PCs, to make any combination interesting.  There's a lot of room for creativity here, MUCH more so than an MMO or even previous editions of D&D.
  3. The goal of the game is advancement.  Why do you fight things?  To get to the next level.  To get better statsThis is going to vary by group, just as it always has.  With 4E specifically, the power gap between poorly built and optimized characters is smaller than it has been in the past.  Classes are designed with parity in mind, so your choices in-game matter more than your raw numbers.  The fact that you have access to the core abilities of the class starting at level 1 also suggests that advancement isn't the focus.
  4. A subset of the previous point, there's an equipment treadmill.  You need to keep getting better and better treasure.  Accumulating this treasure is part of point 3 aboveThe equipment treadmill is one of my biggest criticisms of 4E.  Magic items are expected for advancement, and I find that restrictive as a DM and a player.  Fortunately, the DMG2 offers Inherent Bonuses, so this "problem" could be patched for groups that prefer a different style. 
  5. Zooming from the individual scale, we reach the "multiplayer" component.  Party building is a big deal.  Everyone has a job, and the group is designed by recruiting characters of a certain role.  They are expected to perform that role on raids.  Generally speaking, you've got DPS (damage per round, the heavy hitters), tanks (the guys who can take hits), healers, crowd control, and potentially buffers/debuffers (arguably a sub-set of crowd control and/or a side job for the healer)Here's where 4E gets the most flak, and it's primarily because the roles are very well-defined.  But the thing is, all classes have 1-3 secondary roles so gaps can be filled, making party composition LESS important.  Everyone is fairly sturdy (no Wizards with d4 HP!) and have access to defensive options so the tank isn't "needed."  Everyone can deal damage, even while doing other things such as healing, so DPR isn't "required."  The tactical nature of combat gives everyone access to status effects so you can get by without a controller.  Finally, not only do you not need a Cleric because there are other classes in the leader role, but you don't even really need a healer thanks to the healing surge mechanic, second wind, and fairly common access to self-healing or off-healing abilities.  Different group compositions will definitely play differently (a group of strikers will favor fast, swingy, guerrilla type combats whereas a group of defenders might win through attrition, and a group with a lot of control ability might shut down the enemy to near-uselessness).  You don't really have to consciously build the party; you can make it work regardless of what everyone brings to the table.  That said, it's always nice to know what your party will lack so that you can plan to shore up those shortcomings with your own character.

3.0/3.5/3.75 (Pathfinder) = MMO?
This might come out of left field for some, but hear me out.  It began when I was wrapping up my last 13th Age session.  The group (minus me), which normally plays Pathfinder almost exclusively, all agreed that a party should ALWAYS have a Cleric.  One of the players is especially put off by Recoveries (Healing Surges) because he doesn't want everyone to self-heal; he wants the Cleric to do the healing.  So I'll go over the MMO list with 3.x to see what similarities the two exhibit.

Yeah, I know I said I didn't buy into the "[insert TTRPG] = MMO" argument, and that I didn't want to throw flames into the edition war fire, but I figure if I'm examining 4E for similarities to MMOs I should give 3.x the same treatment (it being the edition that 4E is most commonly compared with, at least in my moderately extensive exposure to the subject on the internet). 
  1. Your actions, and the plot, are inherently restricted.  There isn't a GM at the helm to adjudicate the crazy "off-rails" stuff you attempt.  All of your options are coded in.  Again, players will have a substantial amount of freedom since a DM is at the helm.  But how do the rules of 3.x differ from the rules of 4E with regard to restricting options?  Well, for one improvisation itself is restricted more harshly thanks to a greater leaning toward the "rules as physics" approach.  While playing, I was often told (in very different words, of course) "you don't have a button for that."  Sure, I could attempt to trip, bull rush, whatever untrained, but it was so tactically inferior that the options might not even have existed.  By contrast, 4E powers give you a million ways to trip people, most of which involve attack + prone.  Transparent mechanics allow DMs to make fair rulings (with the possibility of "rulings over rules" being the biggest strength of tabletop RPGs, after all).  In 3.x the rules are written in a way that basically says "you can't unless x" (x being the improved trip line of feats).  Now, you may be saying that a good DM will create a good experience regardless.  This is true.  But with the tools as presented (there's not even an equivalent of a page 42), 3.x makes it more difficult for players to be creative outside of what is already written on their character sheet, and it makes it much more difficult for GMs to adjudicate it when they try.  Restrictions are more MMO-like, even if the system has less of a "push these buttons" feel.  That was by no means the full picture, but merely an alternative point of view that I haven't seen expressed before.
  2. Character-building is a mini-game.  It's all about your character's stats and what spells/powers/whatever you choose.  It has to be, because there's no incentive to create backstories, motivations, etc.  With 90% of a martial character's choices being "I full attack," the numbers, feats, etc. used to build the character mean that numbers take just as much precedence as in MMOs.  Unless the DM has made some tweaks, and is really good at making rulings that are roughly equivalent to existing options (tough with the system as presented, but possible).  Again though, a story-driven experience is certainly supported as with any TTRPG.  For spellcasters, the emphasis is placed on having the right tools prepared moreso than making the right choices with what you've chosen.  A difference of style, and notably spell selection is NOT necessarily tied to character creation or leveling (i.e. divine casters have access to the whole list, arcane characters can find new spellbooks/scrolls).  So, uneven resemblance to an MMO?
  3. The goal of the game is advancement.  Why do you fight things?  To get to the next level.  To get better statsAgain, depends on the group.  There's no question that 3.x rewards system mastery though, so even if "advancing" isn't a primary goal the characters numbers/feats/skill ranks likely weigh more heavily on the player's mind.  Combined with more "crunchy" rules, 3.x encourages mechanical thinking more than narrative thinking.  I would argue that this is similar to the thinking of an MMO player, but not having extensively played MMOs I can't say for certain.  The biggest similarity between 3.x and an MMO on this front, however, is the tendency for many classes in 3.x to get core abilities at higher levels (thus making advancement a very important thing in the minds of the players).  Wild Shape at 5th level, feats representing distinct new "powers," spellcasting for Paladins and Rangers, etc.  
  4. A subset of the previous point, there's an equipment treadmill.  You need to keep getting better and better treasure.  Accumulating this treasure is part of point 3 aboveBoth 3.x and 4E are bad about requiring equipment for advancement.  With less clear guidelines for encounter building (the CR system is a mess that doesn't always work) it's theoretically tougher for DMs to predictably scale down encounters to account for low magic, but this won't be a problem for experienced DMs.  Newbies might find it problematic, though.  Also, while it's easy enough to implement 4E's system for Inherent Bonuses, as far as I know the option isn't presented in any of the 3.x rulebooks.  Which doesn't mean it's not there, since it's been a while since I've played and I've read very little of the Pathfinder books. 
  5. Zooming from the individual scale, we reach the "multiplayer" component.  Party building is a big deal.  Everyone has a job, and the group is designed by recruiting characters of a certain role.  They are expected to perform that role on raids.  Generally speaking, you've got DPS (damage per round, the heavy hitters), tanks (the guys who can take hits), healers, crowd control, and potentially buffers/debuffers (arguably a sub-set of crowd control and/or a side job for the healer)Now we come back to the point that I made at the opening of this section.  Everyone needs a Cleric is the argument that my group made, and if you're playing with the rules as intended that's possibly somewhat accurate.  In practice, a wand of [insert level-appropriate Cure spell here] is really all you need.  Bad game design?  I'd argue yes.  But like an MMO?  It depends on how your group handles the Cleric vs Wand issue.  Regarding other roles, the biggest point that separates 3.x from 4E (and presumably MMOs, though again my experience is very low) is the absence of a true "tank."  3.x characters can be built to take hits, but it's very difficult for them to encourage enemies to attack themselves instead of their squishier allies.  You can play the mobility denial with threatening reach (and enough feats), but there's no marks/defender auras/etc. that punish enemies for attacking the squishies once the distance is closed.  "Tanks" are not sticky or retributive, and are only rarely capable of mobility denial (with the right build).

Conclusions - What All of This Means
Well, I'm honestly back to the "it's a silly argument" stance.  Maybe writing this all out solidified that, though.  The more pertinent argument is good game design vs bad game design, and catering to X style as opposed to Y style.  MMOs are designed to function within an electronic environment, and their design reflects that.  The most important differentiating aspects of TTRPGs are present regardless simply because the DM says so.  I'd argue that 4E gives DMs better tools to adjudicate rulings on the fly, but my experience has been that 3.x DMs and players tend to be very loyal to that system, and are more than content to operate within its confines, viewing its rules as an implied "reality."  In other words, it tends to make rules lawyers happy (though admittedly I've seen 4E be rules-lawyered to death, notably on the Character Optimization threads of the WotC forums).  Which honestly, while it usually goes hand-in-hand with a mechanically-minded thought process like an MMO, is simultaneously nothing like an MMO, which cannot apply its rules to unconventional circumstances (or any circumstances out of combat, at least in my experience). 

The fact that people equate 4E with MMOs is a real phenomenon so it can't be discounted, but I think the more important question to ask is "why?"  To say it "feels" like an MMO isn't enough, because what an MMO feels like to me is sitting in front of a computer by myself, being constrained by the game's programming, which isn't the case for TTRPGs.  Parallels to MMOs can certainly be drawn regardless of edition, but it requires a certain mindset.  An expectation that the experience will be MMO-like. 

It would be much more prudent and constructive to examine the intent behind a specific rule or style that happens to be shared between a given MMO and TTRPG, and to ask what that rule or style accomplishes in those very different media.  Which is beyond the scope of this (already long) post.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Long Arm of the Hutt (part 1)

Several weeks back (when I still had an appendix, the loss of which delayed my face-to-face gaming), I ran the Edge of the Empire Beginner's Box.  We played through the entire adventure from the box, and then the first part of Long Arm of the Hutt (ending just before the Krayt Fang lands on Ryloth).

Fair warning, MINOR SPOILERS ahead.

I began the session with a recap, and quite a lot of exposition.  The player who originally controlled Pash was absent, so I said that he was very sick after eating what Trex had left them in the galley.  This meant that Oskara was the new pilot extraordinaire (the other characters being Lowhhrick and Mathus), and she drove the landspeeder at full throttle even through the dangerous, rocky passes on the way to New Meen.  Everyone failed their Perception rolls before the bounty hunter fight, which turned out to be very brutal.

Now, I thought I'd go easy on the players and have the two humans use their Stun Setting.  But not wanting to go too easy I had the Gand hang back at long range to take advantage of his superior weapon.  Well, the players insisted on doing the straight-up firefight thing (at least they made judicious use of cover!).  I thought they'd be captured when Oskara was the only one left standing on Team PC while all 3 bounty hunters were fine (ok, so the two humans were each pretty high on wounds, but whatever).  She pulled a risky maneuver by running up to the cave entrance, firing (with a Destiny Point) at the (now Medium range) Gand, then spending two strain to duck back behind cover.  A very solid hit!  And luckily, one using the last PC initiative slot.  With both of her companions down, she then took her turn at the top of the order to do essentially the same thing and bring down the Gand.  The bounty hunters retreated after the tide of battle was turned (though one of the humans revived the Gand with a stimpack).  They returned later while Mathus was repairing the landspeeder, and after having their own speeder shot down were basically forced to then fight to the death.  The danger of using a crashed vehicle as cover:  advantage can be spent to have the attacker hit the fuel tank.  Good thing it was one of the bounty hunters that got blown up this way!

Like I said last time, I don't like published adventurers and the more I try to run them, the more frustrated I get by them.  So after last session I simply summarized each Act of LAotH using bullet pointed notes on a single page.  I used detail and specific mechanics where necessary, but it was largely a matter of "reminding" myself of what I pictured in my head when I read through the adventure.  Reference points that I could expand upon later, freeing me up to improvise more.  It worked wonders!  Especially considering the crazy plan the PCs pulled when they got to New Meen.

They managed to get on "friendly" terms with Angu's thugs, basically just hoping to get access to his compound.  Which is all well and good, except the players suffered from some pretty severe option paralysis once they were in.  Nobody really had any great plans, and when a plan was suggested the other players generally thought it wouldn't work and/or was too risky.  Granted, some were downright absurd (after trying to gain access into Angu's fairly well-fortified residence undetected, Oskara's player asked "can Wookies dig like dogs?").  Good old-fashioned snooping around to see what happened ended up being the order of the day, and I got to exercise my DungeonWorld-inspired "play to see what happens" muscles here.  You know, for a game I haven't played yet I sure have incorporated a lot of its elements into my other games.

Some of the other players in my group who take turns at GMing usually have a lot of trouble with the idea of improvising.  I'll be the first to admit that I'm not super comfortable with at much of the time either, but I'm getting better.  I think going into the session with the expectation that I'd have to improvise helps quite a lot.  All I knew going in was that Angu Dromb would have a fenced-in compound atop a bluff.  I didn't even re-read the adventure for its suggestions about what was up there, aside from the fact that I remembered there was a cantina.  I wasn't sure if the PCs would ever see the place, so I didn't even really picture it in my own mind until they were at the front gate with their speeder, attempting to schmooze their way in via the intercom.  I provided details as the PCs saw them, almost seeing the story unfold myself as if through their eyes.  Granted I don't think my players are all that comfortable with sandbox-style games, but I plan to break them of that.  I'm sick of running games with a railroad planned out, regardless of whether or not I can disguise the rails.  Planning improvisation into the game makes GMing feel a little more like being a player.  Which works for me, at least, because the player type I most associate myself with is Explorer (to use D&D 4E DMG terminology).  If I can still "explore," even while GMing, I'll be all the happier.

To return back to the session's narrative, toward the end of the evening the PCs decided to try to break into the two warehouses where they suspected the stash of glitterstim lived.  Oh yeah, Angu's thugs were all partaking in that spice while in the cantina.  Anyways, after breaking into the warehouse Mathus goes snooping around inside (in the dark), but Oskara and Lowhhrick never really specified what their characters were doing.  Aside from the fact that they did not want to go inside.  So some thugs spot them standing their with the highest-security door in the whole place opened.  They call in reinforcements (did I mention that the PCs weren't allowed to bring their weapons in, except for the holdout blaster that Mathus was able to conceal and later give to Oskara?).  Four thugs enter the building, and Mathus makes a brilliant DP-empowered Coerce roll.  He took some parts from his Repair Kit and bluffed that he was holding a Thermal Detonator.  It was quite a good roll, and the thugs dropped their weapons (as they were told) and ran out of the building screaming.  Which freaked out the other thugs.  But not as much as when Mathus threw his "thermal detonator" out the door while Oskara and Lowhhrick dove inside.  Those terrified thugs took off as well.  The distraction didn't last too long, but it didn't need to.  The PCs spent their last light side Destiny Point to have some lockers contain more guns and grenades (which they'd been wishing they had since the bounty hunter fight), so I gave them some frag grenades.  They blow up the crates of glitterstim, jump into their speeder, blow up the front gate, and then hightail it back to Nabat (with some evidence against Angu, even if it wasn't quite all that they could have gotten).

That last bit made up for the fact that the whole middle of the session was slow.  Moral of the story: every RPG player needs to express a little bit of the Instigator player type (going back to 4E terminology).  I've been guilty of playing cautious, pragmatic characters myself, and played to "realistic" extent it bogs the game down.  Nobody remembers the session where you slowly, painstakingly do everything right with the smallest amount of risk.  The payoff is cool, but it's all pretend money.  The fun part is the crazy stunts you pull along the way, assuming you were crazy enough to try them in the first place.  You don't have to be a hyper reckless kick-in-the-door style player, but don't be too quick to dismiss the plan where lots of stuff gets blown up...

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Dragon Age RPG

I just watched the most recent episode of Wil Wheaton's YouTube show, Table Top, and it featured the Dragon Age RPG.  It definitely looked like a neat little system even though my familiarity with the setting is nearly zero.  It actually reminded me that many months ago I had downloaded a quickstart version of the rules, but after skimming through them never really got around to testing them out. 

The quickstart rules look like an ideal entry point into the game as the rules are pared down pretty well (and I understand it's a pretty rules-light system to begin with), so it won't require much reading to get prepared.  There's also an adventure (which I haven't read) and several pre-gens (which I did skim through). 

The core mechanic is simple and quick, basically boiling down to "roll 3d6, one of them is the Dragon Die (a different color), then add modifiers."  My growing preference for gridless combat is realized in this game, which defaults to Theater of the Mind style (personally I prefer the middle ground of using minis without a grid, and that's certainly easy enough to do as well).  I thought the Elf with the "Smelling" focus was really cool (in the Table Top episode).  The "armor as DR" is also a nice feature; I'm cool with AC as a target number in RPGs, but using damage reduction or protection tests (as in The One Ring) certainly make for a more realistic differentiation between light and heavy armors. 

Finally, I think the stunt system is phenomenal.  It calls to mind a blog post that I recently read on monsters in 13th Age.  Namely, the idea of roll information density, which to put it simply means that a single roll generates more information than a simple binary "success" or "failure."  The same hold true for the narrative dice in Fantasy Flight Games "Edge of the Empire," the new Star Wars RPG.  In 13th Age, certain die results ("natural even hit," "natural 16+," etc.) carry additional effects as specified in the monster's stat block.  This gives a single roll more meaning, but it also saves time by reducing decision-paralysis.  Instead of deciding when you'll use a specific ability, that ability is triggered by the die roll.  In Dragon Age, rolling doubles triggers a stunt, and you get a number of "stunt points" equal to the value of the Dragon Die.  You can spend these stunt points however you want, with better stunts obviously costing more points, but you can also stack smaller effects.  It provides meaningful tactical choices while still being quick to resolve at the table.

The biggest downside are that there are only 3 classes (Mage, Warrior, and Rogue), and characters seem to be a little "same-y" based on my quick scan of the pre-gens.  Most differentiation seems to be narrative, and while I like narrative elements to have a big impact they don't seem to be terribly well-supported with mechanical consequences.  Granted I haven't seen the character generation rules so I'm not sure how stats and focuses are allocated, but as far as I can tell what your good at seems to be determined in very broad strokes ("I have high Str, grrr!  I can smash things and hit things and climb good!"), with a very limited number of Focuses.  Furthermore, a Focus is pretty narrow and is tied to a certain Ability (of which there are 8).  I think I would just prefer a greater number of Focuses, a shorter list of Focuses, and/or Focuses that were more broad.  There's also disparity between focuses; for example, compare what is essentially weapon focus (axes, heavy blades, etc.) with Calligraphy, Etiquette, or Rowing.  The result I predict is that with 3d6 a +2 modifier is going to have more of an impact than it would on a straight d20 roll, but you get that modifier in such a hyper-specialized area (or with every attack roll in the case of the no-brainer choices) that for most tasks every character feels more or less the same.  Anyways, I hesitate to criticize this too much without seeing the full rules or even playing the game; it's just something that jumped out at me.