Tuesday, October 29, 2013

On Repeated Skill Use: An Addendum

Several weeks ago I posted an article on why I dislike repeated skill use in RPGs.  Last night's game of Edge of the Empire caused me to re-examine the issue.  I still think the general argument stands, but it bears clarifying that it's exactly that - a generalization.

Early on in the campaign my character stole a swoop bike.  A really nice swoop bike (the Obligation was totally worth it).  So naturally, when the planet we land on is hosting a big swoop race I'm going to enter it.  Unfortunately, my character is the only PC that actually owns a swoop bike, and the only one who is a decently focused pilot, so this was my time to shine with a minimal amount for everyone else at the table to do.

The GM set it up by sketching out the track, and numbering 4 different points where Piloting checks would be called for.  The race was 2 laps, so that's 8 Piloting checks in a row, which could potentially get tedious.  I was certainly wary going in, when he was describing the set-up.  But it actually ended up working really well, for a few different reasons.  Most importantly, the narrative was at the forefront.  Each number on the track was a distinct obstacle (a slalom, a canyon jump, a corkscrew down-ramp into the canyon, and a narrow, one-lane choke point), and so the results were going to be interpreted differently based on which obstacle was being navigated.  Obviously there was also the jockeying for position by the other racers.  And I must admit that I couldn't have done it if our assassin droid hadn't been running interference on the leaders from a covert sniping position just off the track.  Mechanical reasons why the excitement kept flowing included a torrent of Destiny Point use, and the constant fear of what a Despair, or even a large number of Threat, might mean.  This was a tricky run at high speeds with a lot of competition, so there was a lot that could go wrong!  Fortunately, thanks to the Droid's help and luckier rolls than I'm used to getting, I actually placed 1st (I expected 4th or 5th).

Aside from the details of the task itself, there was also a lot riding on this race.  My sponsor (I certainly couldn't foot the bill for that entry fee!) works directly under the Hutt that we're trying to make nice with.  He's also the same guy that just entrusted us with a smuggling test-run (a few "freebie" crates of Booster Blue, on loan, to make sure we were reliable).  Bungling the race could negatively affect the smuggling job, and there is potentially a LOT of Obligation riding on both tasks.  Oh, and the only reason we're even trying to get into this Hutt's inner circle is because the corrupt sector ranger responsible for my Blackmail Obligation from char-gen smuggles for him, and I'm looking for a way to expose the dirt-bag (or more likely to turn the tables and blackmail HIM) to reduce my Obligation.  To make matters worse, our group was teetering dangerously close to 100 Obligation total.

So, yeah.  Aside from making the descriptions of the task itself creative and interesting, with a lot of variation between the different rolls, it helps when the scene is high stakes from a big-picture point of view.

Ultimately, the big difference I see in the above example compared with the examples from my earlier post is that despite the fact that the same skill was rolled multiple times in a row, each distinct roll represented its own mini-challenge.  The scene was the swoop race, whereas the task was a canyon jump, or a choke point, etc.  I'm glad my GM ran it this way.  When he was setting the stage for this, I was thinking "I wonder if it'd be better to just roll a single Pilot check for the race, or for a lap?" but in hindsight that wouldn't have been NEARLY as exciting.  A scene like this needs the constant jockeying for position, the tension of knowing that the GM still has X Destiny points, which makes a Despair that much more likely, ample opportunities for Advantage and Threat to be interpreted, and enough screen time to do it justice.

So I guess the point I'm driving at is that it's important to know when to "zoom in," and by how much.  Definitely do so if there's a lot riding on the scene, or if you're prepared to offer up a lot of juicy description and meaningful consequences.  The point of the game isn't the rolls you make, but the fictional details that are sometimes adjudicated with rolls.  Don't let rolling dice get in the way of the story, and if rolling the same skill multiple times enhances the story feel free to do it, keeping in mind the potential pitfalls (as outline in the previous article).

Monday, October 28, 2013

Revising the Archaic d20 System

There were two very intriguing articles posted on the Gaming Security Agency recently - Die, d20 die and its follow-up, Extreme Makeover, d20-ish Edition.  When I first read them I thought "huh, that's interesting, and the arguments certainly have merit," but it didn't go much beyond that.  During last week's Pathfinder game I remembered these articles again, and it brought to light how the d20 system is actively impairing my gameplay.

I'm playing a Bard with 10 Wisdom and no ranks in Perception, so I'm rocking a +0, yeah!  For two levels a running joke has been that I might as well not even bother rolling Perception.  Aside from the fact that my d20s all hate me, often I won't even be successful if I take a 20.  For a while I just went with it, accepting that it was one of my character's weaknesses.  But then I got to thinking - isn't a score of 10 explicitly stated to be the human average?  Why am I running around like a blind guy just for having an average ability score?

The answer, of course, is due to a mechanical quirk exemplified by the Druid in our party.  He has a +20something in Perception (23 or 28 come to mind, but I honestly don't know for sure).  Granted he's specifically specialized in Perception, but that's a pretty big gap for level 5.  His static modifier is noticeably larger than the randomizer, and thinking about it THAT way really brings the point home.

Though the Druid is on the extreme end of the spectrum, the other PCs probably have modifiers around +10 for Perception, with no specialization other than putting ranks into it.  And that's already HALF of the randomizer.  Basically, the DCs have to be set pretty high to challenge PCs skilled in that area, but pretty soon every task you go up against is one in which your average guy literally stands no chance of succeeding.  This is an inherent problem in systems that represent increased skill by increasing the maximum result.  It's an archaic piece of game design that many modern games have abandoned.

The fix presented in the GSA article essentially turns a d20 roll into a d10 dice pool mechanic.  Instead of rolling 1d20, you roll 2d10.  Skill training, feats like Skill Focus, etc. all add an additional d10 to the dice pool instead of providing a static modifier, and you keep the best 2 results.  No need to project DCs into the stratosphere, smaller numbers equals quicker math, and you model that fact that skilled characters are still more likely to succeed while still giving unskilled characters a chance.

I like this.  Because it's no fun eliminating an option because my chance of success is slim to none.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

My RPG Person Profile

So apparently this is a thing now, a thing that a lot of people are doing.  So I figured I'd join in.  This was started on the Playing D&D with Porn Stars blog.

I'm currently running (at home):  Nothing, although it's probably going to be my turn to GM again around the new year (Edge of the Empire, with the Age of Rebellion beta allowed).

Tabletop RPGs I'm currently playing (at home) include:  Edge of the Empire and a Pathfinder game that has some 13th Age bits included.

I'm currently running (online):  The One Ring.  Superb system for Play By Post.  The game is here, but if you want to view it you'll have to request lurker status.

Tabletop RPGs I'm currently playing (online) include:  Nothing; I've tried playing in a couple of PbP games but they fizzled out pretty quick.

I would especially like to play/run:  13th Age will continue to be a go-to game for me, in addition to Edge of the Empire and The One Ring.  Games I don't run/play regularly but would like to try include Savage Worlds, Night's Black Agents, Dungeon World, and old school D&D (just to see what it's like).  I'd also like to return to D&D 4E, but probably not for long-term games.

...but would also try:  Trail of Cthulu, Buffy/Angel, Firefly, Vampire the Masquerade (which I've actually played a long time ago), Dungeon Crawl Classics, A Song of Ice and Fire, Spellbound Kingdoms, Smallville, Ashen Stars

I live in:  Cleveland, OH, though I've been known to live elsewhere for seasonal work.

2 or 3 well-known RPG products other people made that I like:  In an effort to not just say "duh, the core rulebooks for the systems I play regularly," I'll go with Savage Worlds Deluxe Explorer's Edition (because it's $10), and 4E Enhanced: Combat in Motion.

2 or 3 novels I like:  The ones I re-read regularly are The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series.  To throw a less cliche one in there, The Monkey Wrench Gang.

2 or 3 movies I like:  To keep up with the cliche, Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings.  Jurassic Park.  And because it's getting close to November, I'll throw in Home Alone as my bonus 4th pick.

Best place to find me on-line:  I post halfway regularly (not as regularly as I'd like) here on this blog.  I'm also on G+ and Facebook pretty often, and a handful of different forums (rpg.net being the most general one).

I will read almost anything on tabletop RPGs if it's:  something with elegant, flexible, transparent mechanics that I can fiddle around with if need be.

I really do not want to hear about:  Cheesy, character optimization arguments that hinge on strict, rules-lawyer-y interpretations of the Rules as Written as if tabletop RPGs weren't a medium with inherent flexibility and GM/Player discretion.  If a rule or rules interaction doesn't make sense, you can IGNORE it!

I think dead orc babies are ( circle one: funny / problematic / ....well, ok, it's complicated because....)  I guess the last one, because it depends on the situation and the tone of the campaign.

I talk about RPGs on _G+_ (social media site and/or RPG forum name) under the name __Brian Slaby__ 

I talk about RPGs on _pretty much any other forum_ (social media site and/or RPG forum name) under the name __alien270__

Friday, October 25, 2013

On Fairness and Rolling for Ability Scores

Ah, the age old question that comes up when first starting a new campaign - "are we rolling for ability scores or using point buy?"  There are good arguments for both camps, with many gamers having a strong preference for one or the other.  Rolling for ability scores is more organic, and it can be quicker and less fiddly.  Unfortunately, it can also lead to some pretty significant power disparities.  It sucks to be the guy who rolled 15, 13, 13, 12, 10, 10 (huh, that looks an awful lot like my Bard's array in the Pathfinder game that I'm currently playing...) when everyone else in the party has at least one 17 or 18 (pre-racial), and much stronger secondary abilities than a mere 13.

Granted, this isn't a problem for everyone.  Indeed, a lot of players really like taking up the challenge of playing whatever array the Fates have granted them, which goes hand in hand with being ok with a weaker character.  The flaws can be what makes the character fun and memorable.  But a lot of players prefer as much balance between PCs as possible.  What gets really awkward is when you have both types of players mixed in the same group.

I usually lean more toward preferring a balanced starting point, as there are other ways of roleplaying flaws than having gimped ability scores.  But I noticed a funny thing while building several characters for 13th Age playtesting: I was building them using point buy, without even looking at the sample arrays in the back of the book, but they all ended up having the EXACT same array.  16, 14, 14, 12, 10, 8.  How boring.  Flipping through the sample arrays in general there is a heavy preference for even numbers, which makes sense because it's optimal starting out, but when you hit 4th level that ability boost that's supposed to be so awesome and meaningful ends up doing exactly nothing.  I found myself yearning for more "organic" arrays with a mix of odd and even numbers, and even looking back at those ability-rolling days with fondness.  Until I joined that Pathfinder game.

What I've come up with is a hybrid of the two methods.  Below I've listed 20 arrays, many of which are from the sample arrays in the core book, but I did some tweaking to provide more odd values.  You might also notice that some arrays are repeated, and I left out certain types of arrays that I personally find extremely unappealing (anything that starts with 18 pre-racial, anything with three 8's, or even two 8's).  Anyways, the idea is that when you create your character you roll a d20 to determine which array you get.  It's random and organic, but it's still relatively balanced as every single array uses the standard 28 point buy found in the 13th Age core rulebook.  I think it could potentially be a very nice middle ground between the two camps.

  1. 16, 16, 14, 10, 8, 8
  2. 16, 15, 14, 10, 10, 8
  3. 16, 14, 14, 12, 10, 8
  4. 16, 14, 12, 12, 10, 10
  5. 15, 15, 15, 10, 10, 8
  6. 15, 14, 14, 12, 10, 10
  7. 14, 14, 14, 14, 12, 8
  8. 15, 14, 13, 13, 10, 10
  9. 15, 14, 13, 13, 9, 11
  10. 16, 15, 13, 12, 9, 8
  11. 16, 14, 14, 11, 11, 8
  12. 16, 13, 13, 13, 10, 9
  13. 16, 13, 13, 12, 10, 10
  14. 15, 15, 14, 12, 10, 8
  15. 15, 15, 13, 13, 10, 8
  16. 16, 14, 14, 12, 10, 8
  17. 16, 15, 13, 11, 11, 8
  18. 15, 15, 14, 12, 10, 8
  19. 15, 14, 13, 12, 11, 10
  20. 16, 14, 13, 13, 10, 8
Again, this list of arrays is specifically for 13th Age, though it would seem perfectly at home in D&D 4E or 3.x/PF.  For older editions where ability scores tended to be lower you'd obviously want to tweak the list.  And of course you could make tweaks based on personal aesthetic preferences as well, including running a "low-powered" or "high-powered" game.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

13th Age SRD

The 13th Age System Reference Document is live!  All the crunch you need to play the game.  While I'd still wholeheartedly recommend the book, this is great for groups where not everyone has a copy (now nobody has an excuse!).  It's also extremely useful to know what's fair game for public use.  A big step forward!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

On Skill Lists and Split Perception

Skill lists are a tough mechanic to design in an RPG.  Having a longer list of skills increases granularity and can fine-tune character concepts, but it also has a tendency to increase specialization to a point where it's tough to build the kind of character that you have in mind.  For example, in D&D 3.x if you want to be stealthy, you need to sink points into both Hide and Move Silently.  If you're physically fit, you'll probably want Swim, Climb, and Jump.  This might leave few available skills left for other aspects of your character concept.  Contrast that with 4E, where Stealth is one skill, and Athletics is the counterpart to the latter skill group.  A short skill list has its own problems though, with the reduction in granularity limiting customization and resulting in certain actions being "forced" into a particular skill.  A good example of this is the 4E Nature skill, which encapsulates not only the Knowledge skill, but also things like Survival, Handle Animal, and possibly Ride.  In 3.x, these used to all be separate skills, using Int, Wis, Cha, and Dex, respectively!  So now you need to have a good Wis in order to be good any all of those things.

What does that have to do with Star Wars?  Well, it highlights that, by and large, the skill list in Edge of the Empire is a nice middle ground between the two most recent editions of D&D, and is possibly my favorite skill list of the games I've played or read (with the caveat that I still like the freeform Backgrounds of 13th Age better than any skill list).

Social Skills
The strongest element of the EotE skill list is the granularity of its social skills, to the point where it's actually interesting to build and play a "party face."  Going back to D&D, you'd usually just bump up Cha as high as it would go, and most of the social skills were conveniently tied to that ability score (with the exception of the Knowledge skills that often help when going into social encounters).  In EotE social skills are widely spread amongst the different Characteristics: Intellect for the various Knowledge skills, Presence for Charm, Leadership, Negotiation, and Cool (which opposes certain social skills, and may be called upon as a "defense roll" as opposed to the NPC rolling the skill), Willpower for Coercion and Discipline (which opposes the social skills that Cool doesn't), and Cunning for Deception, Streetwise, and possibly Perception (if you're wrapping Insight/Sense Motive into that skill).  Now it's a lot tougher to shortcut that "face" build!

The social split encourages teamwork in social encounters, since no PC is likely to have equally high values in 4 of the 6 characteristics, and that's a lot of individual skills to keep up with.  Rather, the system seems to encourage PCs to pick an aspect of social encounters that they can contribute well in, so everyone can feel the need to participate in some way.  Of course you can still make a more focused "face" character, but they'll still be better in some areas than others depending on their highest Characteristics (likely Presence), and it will be XP-intensive to keep all of the requisite skills high.  More important are the Talents, especially in specializations like Politico, which give the "face" a huge edge while still letting anyone else with a decent dice pool succeed (if, for example, the party is split).

This works because humans are social creatures, and there are a lot of different ways that we interact with each other.  Very few people can say they're equally comfortable talking with anyone; a senator, a scientist, a drunk at the bar, and a black market arms dealer are all going to be very different experiences which require very different approaches.  By comparison, I'd say that the D&D social skills (or, more accurately, the Charisma attribute) are overly abstracted and thus less capable of modeling these nuances.  Of course it helps that EotE is designed as a game where you survive on the fringes of the Galaxy, probably by navigating various social opportunities, whereas D&D can support social adventures but is ultimately built on the premise of killing monsters and taking their stuff.

"Split" Skills
There is one area where this increase in granularity can cause problems, though.  Specifically, some of the skills have a great deal of overlap, with the biggest offenders being Cool/Discipline and Perception/Vigilance.

I think I've made my peace with the Cool/Discipline split.  They could certainly be combined into one skill pretty easily, but explanations for the reasoning behind the split on the Order 66 podcast brought me around to the designer's line of thinking as well.  Actually, it was encapsulated best by the memorable quote from a listener in the chat: "Han Solo has Cool, stormtroopers have Discipline."  In other words, Han Solo projects a certain cocky confidence, and it lets him do some pretty daring stuff like chase a couple of stormtroopers down a hall on the Death Star, but once he sees a room full of reinforcements, he panics, crumbles, and runs the other way.  Stormtroopers, on the other hand, probably look pretty awkward in most social situations, and don't project much beyond simple uniformity.  But when a firefight breaks out, they've got the military training to not panic, and to just follow their orders.  From a general gaming perspective most systems would wrap both into a single concept, but for modeling a particularly iconic scene, I think it works for a Star Wars game.

Cool is ultimately more social; making yourself look like you belong, and also being able to read everyone else in the room well enough to take advantage of opportunities (which is why it's also an initiative skill).  Discipline is just having that inner, well, discipline; you stick with what you've got to do despite what's going on around you.

My group (somewhat erroneously) has been oversimplifying this dichotomy into Perception = active, Vigilance = passive.  It's easy to fall into that trap, partially because the case for splitting Perception into two different skills is, in my opinion, the weakest of the "split skills."

I get some of the reasons for the split.  It provides more freedom with Characteristics for a character that wants to be perceptive, since you can achieve the concept with a high Cunning OR Willpower.  There's also a LOT to be said for splitting it up when you're using one of the skills to determine initiative, especially considering that many gamers already consider Perception to be a "super skill" in most games.  But there are also a lot of negatives that go along with the split.

For one thing, Perception already covers a lot of what Vigilance is supposed to represent.  Perception is stated to be applied when looking out for a potential ambush.  And yet, Vigilance is supposed to be a sort of passive perception with regard to sensing imminent danger (which is why it's used for initiative).  But that basically relegates Vigilance to initiative rolls proper, and the little side example of ret-conning that a character brought along some small piece of gear (which Destiny Points can already do).

More importantly (since EotE is a narrative game), it can be tough to explain why a PC that's terrible at noticing things in general (low Cunning, no ranks in Perception) is all of the sudden amazing at noticing certain situational things (i.e. danger), especially if Perception is also useable for detecting danger.  For example, I've done a lot of invasive plant control (walking around the woods searching for a specific shade of green, shape, etc., often at a distance) and bird surveys (mostly by sound).  These activities require a lot of active concentration, and would fall under the umbrella of Perception.  But the thing is, I'm generally more alert to what's going on in my environment (I notice a lot of small details while out hiking) precisely BECAUSE I have prior experience focusing on very active perception.  The more you do something, the more it becomes second nature, and you can do it without thinking about it.  I just can't imagine anyone being particularly vigilant if they didn't have that kind of awareness that would fall under the Perception skill, and that's a pretty big narrative disconnect to me.

Obviously re-combining the skills is not going to be an effective solution at this point.  Vigilance is too tied up into the initiative system to get wrapped up into Perception.  Perception + initiative would be too much of a no-brainer pick that no PC would be built without it.  Plus whichever Characteristic you didn't use would go down in value, as both Cunning and Willpower are already associated with relatively few skills.  So I think the biggest tool for dealing with the issue is probably awareness of the issue.  If the skills are so tied together anyways, why not ask the player to "roll a Perception or Vigilance check," embracing the fact that they're often interchangeable?  Or you can go the opposite route, and in the case of spotting an ambush you can houserule that it's actually more appropriate to use Vigilance than Perception.  Maybe it might help to think about Vigilance as the "Resilience" of Perception; it applies when you're exhausted or distracted, and being good at Vigilance but bad at Perception simply means you have a lot of mental endurance (or you just get really paranoid when you're tired).  And, of course, there's no harm in favoring Perception over Vigilance since initiative is such a high stakes roll.  Viewing it from the initiative lens, you could even think of Vigilance more like having fast reflexes - you didn't notice the attack before anyone else, but you sure can react to it faster.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

On Prolonged Actions (Or Repeated Skill Checks)

I was playing Edge of the Empire with my group yesterday, and after several sessions of being unable to catch a breather and repair our ship's Hull Trauma, the party finally scrounged together some funds and some downtime.  Naturally, our Wookiee Mechanic wanted to assist the repair crew that we hired since his Solid Repairs talent would essentially let us repair a "free" point of HT, which is crucial given that we're strapped for credits.

One of the other players asked "is that +1 per day of repairing the ship, or just +1 to the total?"  This player's system-of-choice is Pathfinder so he tends to lean toward system mastery (gaming the system), and I immediately replied that while it's not spelled out exactly in the rules and thus is open to GM interpretation, repairing the ship should be a single "action" regardless of how many days it took (which the GM agreed with).  The answer was pretty reflexive to me, but it got me thinking about the deeper issue at hand here: I really dislike the concept of repeated skill use in an RPG.

This includes things like making a skill check for each hour of work on a multi-day repair job.  Failing a Lockpicking check (in D&D, usually) and immediately saying "can I try again?"  Encountering a room full of half a dozen traps and being tasked with rolling to disarm Each.  One.  Individually.

The One Ring actually has a rule for this, called Prolonged Actions.  It's always been one of my least favorite rules in the game, to the point where I've never even considered bringing it up.  Here's the justification in the rules (pg. 22 of the LMB, emphasis mine) - "Prolonged actions are particularly suited to evoke an atmosphere of tension, but may also be employed when the acting characters want to tackle a difficult task with caution, and have the time to do it."  Basically, they're rules on how to take a single skill check and break it into multiple skill checks.

I would argue that such a game mechanic is completely and utterly pointless.  Why would it benefit cautious players to attempt Prolonged Actions?  Because the result is not at the mercy of a single die roll, but rather the more rolls you make, the closer your end result is likely to be to the average.  At that point, why not just "take 10" (to use a D&D term) and dispense with the skill check altogether?  After all, by allowing multiple rolls you're already establishing that the situation is one in which there is plenty of time for "repeated attempts," so you're going to make it anyways.  Why not just cut to the chase?

There's a fundamental rule that's usually called out in most RPG books but is easily forgotten by some players, and that is that a skill check should only be rolled when there is a risk for failure or when there would be some otherwise dramatic consequences.  If you can try something as many times as you want, there is implicitly no risk for failure.  Let's go back to the examples above.

  1. So the Wookiee helps repair the ship, along with a retinue of professional mechanics in a proper facilities.  Is there any question that the ship will get repaired?  No?  Well, there's not even a roll required (in our game, the GM wisely did not ask for a Mechanics check for that very reason).  It's worth keeping in mind that the talent doesn't give you +1 HT for each Mechanics check made, but rather "whenever he repairs a vehicle or starship."  That's whether or not a roll is required.
  2. If the Rogue (or insert similar archetype based on the game in question) goes up to a lock to pick it, just let him do it if there's a reasonable chance of success.  Because he'll just try again anyways.  Now, it's another story if there are alert guards standing just on the other side of the door (for example), in which case failure on the first attempt probably means that too much noise was made in the attempt.  That's FAILURE, as opposed to "I didn't quite get it...this time."
  3. There's nothing that annoys me more than a dungeon crawl where the Rogue scouts ahead and there's 20 minutes of the GM saying "make a Perception check.  Ok, you see a trap there, roll to Disable it."  And the room is full of traps.  It's boring, even if it means the Rogue is filling his niche.  I'd rather a single Perception check notice all of the traps, with a single roll to disable ALL of them (unless there are different types of traps of varying difficulties, that are described narratively to keep things interesting).  Honestly I'd rather go the old school route of describing all of your actions in detail (because skill checks didn't exist yet) and succeeding when your idea made sense.  Potentially tedius in a different sort of way (stopping every 10 ft to probe with your wooden pole, anyone?), but at least the game tends toward more immersive detail.
I would be remiss if I didn't make note of a possible exception to my aversion to Prolonged Actions (in whatever form they take depending on the game), and that is the classic Time Limit (though there may be other situational exceptions).  For example, you've got 4 rounds to disable this trap and then open that lock and get through the door, while being attacked by zombies, GO!  Stressful situation + time limit means that every roll has an implicit drama attached to it.  You fail a check, that's another round that you have to deal with complications.  Or someone less skilled has to drop what they're doing to make an attempt.  The results are interesting.  Ultimately, go with the Rule of Cool whenever possible.  If something is so routine that the results aren't all that interesting one way or the other, let it happen.