Sunday, April 27, 2014

Musings on Turning 13th Age into a 2d10 System

I was once again thinking about how one might add more of a bell curve to a d20 system, and specifically the problems associated with doing so for 13th Age.  I often mentally reference two articles from the Gaming Security Agency when I'm thinking such thoughts - Die, d20 die! and Extreme Makeover, d20ish Edition.  If these sound familiar, it's because I referenced them in a previous post about revising d20, a post that specifically addressed the problems associated with increasing the maximum value via large modifiers, especially in Pathfinder where such modifiers get really out of hand (and where skills you don't invest resources into don't automatically advance, increasing the "skill disparity" even more as you level).

While the comments of that post did touch on whether or not this is as much of a problem in 13th Age (compared with Pathfinder, it's not), there's still a lot to be said for trading in the uniform distribution of a d20 for the bell curve of 2d10.  But in 13th Age this makes characters with flexible attacks, like Fighters and Bards, problematic.  Even if you don't have those classes in your game, the GM will still have to worry about this issue since most monsters have triggers based on the natural result of the d20 roll.  So how can you get around this?

The solution I came up with (which is very much theoretical) requires differentiated d10s.  Different color dice will work, but considering that your standard set of dice already includes differentiated d10s to be used as percentile dice, it's not much of an issue.  You designate one d10 as the primary die, and the other as the secondary.  The primary die alone can handle a lot of the more common natural die roll triggers.  A natural even or odd result works just fine with the same probability as a d20 roll.  But what about a natural 16+, which has a 25% chance of occurring on a d20 roll?  Or for that matter, critical hits that normally have a 5% chance of triggering (usually on a natural 20)?  Critical hits are important for some classes, like Fighters (most of which pick up Carve an Opening since it's a rare odd-roll trigger) and Rangers.

I think a viable solution for such scenarios that would preserve their relative probabilities would be to combine the result on the primary d10 with a high/low (coin flip) on the secondary die.  In other words, a result of 10 on the primary die would count as a natural 20 if the secondary die is 6 or greater, or a 19 if the secondary die is less than 6.  A natural 9 would count as an 18 if the secondary die is greater than 6, and so on.  Of course the secondary die doesn't necessarily have to use a high/low dichotomy (evens or odds would work just fine, too).

To use another example, a natural 16+ would include a natural 9 or 10 on the primary die, but also a natural 8 if the secondary die is "high."  Therefore while you're totaling 2d10 for the purposes of determining success/failure, any given roll can also generate natural result triggers in 5% increments just like a d20 roll.  Granted it's not the most elegant or intuitive fix, but for those who dislike the probability of a d20 roll and would prefer a dice pool mechanic to get more of a bell curve, it might be a tradeoff worth making without changing how specific options in the system work.

The GSA articles also suggest adding dice to your pool instead of piling on static modifiers, keeping the highest 2 results for your total.  This results in skilled characters tending to get results at the high end of the distribution and getting fewer low results (the bell curve shifts to the right), but without increasing their maximum results.  In other words, skilled characters succeed more reliably than unskilled characters, but don't hit DCs that are unreachable for unskilled characters.  One possible way to integrate this into the 13th Age background system while still allowing some flexibility when designing backgrounds would be to assign each character 4 background dice.  While this results in less granularity than 8 background points distributed as you see fit, most PCs typically have between 4 and 2 unique backgrounds, with 3 being quite common.  Having 4 background dice allows you to have 4 single-die backgrounds, 2 backgrounds that would add 2d10 to your pool (again, keeping only the highest 2 results to total), or 1 background with 2 dice and 2 backgrounds with 1 die.  This roughly parallels having four 2 point backgrounds, two 4 point backgrounds, or three backgrounds with two at 3 points and one at 2 points (odd that a 3 background character will have 1 good background with the dice pool system vs 2 good backgrounds with the point system, but it's not a deal breaker).  Further Backgrounding would give you 1 background die (as would any talent or other ability that grants you 2 background points), while the higher-valued background talents like the Ranger's "Tracker" would give you a 2d10 background.

Obviously once you start rolling more than 2d10 it becomes a lot tougher to model the natural d20 result triggers, but such triggers don't come up on skill checks.  If for some reason you were to add one or more dice to an attack roll that has triggers, you'd simply need to complicate things a little more.  You'd need 3 or 4 unique, individually identifiable d10s and you'd need to rank them.  Then whichever two dice came up with the highest result, you'd use the higher-ranked die as the primary and the lower one as the secondary.  For example, I have a light blue percentile set and a dark blue percentile set, so the dark 10s die could be ranked highest, and then in descending order would be the dark 1s die, the light 10s die, and light 1s die.  For "roll twice" effects like Barbarian Rage I'd simply keep the two light dice together as equivalent to one d20 roll, and the two dark dice as the second roll.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Improvised Chases (System Neutral)

For gamers coming from a D&D background, chase scenes are often overlooked.  Many D&D players simply don't run chases, or when they do they resort to speed comparisons, or counting squares while taking potshots with ranged attacks or spells.  Many powerful control spells will outright end a chase by immobilizing one side or slowing them down.  In other words, when chases do come up they are dry and soulless affairs.

Granted, this might not be everyone's experience, but these are the solutions that make the most obvious use of the rules of the more recent editions of D&D.  I'm sure plenty of GM's ignore the square counting and go for a more skill-challenge type solution.  But skill challenges (as presented in 4E D&D) have their own set of problems, namely that the strict number of failures vs number of successes doesn't necessarily match the narrative description of the scene.  If a skill should end the challenge even if the requisite number of successes hasn't been reached, the GM will usually either fudge it and say that the players succeed, or you'll get frustrated players who don't feel like their specific actions mean anything more than "checking a box."

I know I never really had many chases in my games, but recently I've been sprinkling them in.  In general, I've been using a modified version of the Thriller Chase rules of the Gumshoe game "Night's Black Agents."  The framework works really well for virtually any system, ignoring of course the Gumshoe-specific rules.  The result is a narrative, fast-paced system for resolving chases with skill checks.

  • First, create a chase track.  I like to have the PCs start at a value of 0, and track lead by going up or down on the track.  A good default is to cap the track at +/-5.  If one or more PC gets to 5, they win.  If all PCs get to -5, they lose.  This works regardless of whether they're pursuing or pursued (just inject whatever narrative description fits the scene).  
  • Most importantly, describe a dynamic environment and let the PCs react to it.  Picture each round as a leg of the chase that takes place in a discrete scene.  Running through a busy city street, a pursuing NPC might make a check to convince guards/police (or upstanding citizens) to stop the PCs.  The key here is to not let the chase devolve into "I sprint," "ok, roll Athletics," etc.  That's the equivalent of fighting generic orcs in a featureless 30x30 room.  As a GM, you'll probably have to play the NPC as a proactive party, actively creating problems/opposition that the PCs are forced to react to.  
  • Each "leg" or point of lead is a narrative unit; it doesn't have to equal a specific number of feet or squares.  The chase is broken up into units of "interesting scenes," and each scene should be summarized with a single skill check for all parties involved.
  • As a baseline, a successful skill check will bring the PC up 1 step on the chase track.  A failure will drop them down 1 step.  Conversely, a success by the NPC (or group of NPCs) might bring all PCs down 1 step, and a failure bring all PCs up 1 step.  Depending on the narrative, multiple NPCs might only effect one or some PCs.  
  • If the difficulty of a check is going to be harder than typical (i.e. the action is riskier), reward that by letting a success increase the lead by 2.  Don't get too generous with this option, and typically only use it if there is an easier alternative and the contrast between the options is noticeable.  A failure doesn't necessarily have to drop the PC down by 2, though.  Equally interesting is a penalty to their next skill check, or even a penalty to an ally's check.  Feel free to adjust the "pacing" of the track if the chase stalls or seems to look like it's going to be a back-and-forth for a long time.  
  • The option of increasing/decreasing lead by multiple increments could also be used if the system has a "degrees of success" mechanic, even if it's as simple as a "crit" (natural 20) in a d20 system.  Things like succeeding with style in Fate, great/extraordinary successes in TOR, or getting a raise in Savage Worlds would apply here.
  • If the system uses a resource-management mechanic (like Vancian spells), feel free to grant an auto-success for the expenditure of resources, or at least force the NPC to make a difficult skill check that can benefit the party (will increase their position), but won't set them back if the NPC succeeds.
These rules/guidelines don't necessarily have to represent an obvious chase.  In an Edge of the Empire game that I ran, I had the PCs racing to a base along a fortified ridge top so that they could grab a ship and escape the planet they were on.  Meanwhile, moving up the canyon below them was a battalion of Imperial walkers that would surely destroy the base if they got their first.  The PCs were being tracked by a large native cat-like creature, and had to contend with turrets and patrols on the way to the base (the PCs were a "third party" in this conflict; in other words, both groups were out to get them!).  Then once they were inside, they had to fight their way to the hangar as the walkers got there!  For some scenes (or "legs" of the chase) a quick combat encounter took the place of skill checks.

So give it a try next time you have to run a chase scene.  If it's completely on-the-fly, consider dropping the chase track down to +/-4, or even 3, because that will keep the number of scenes that you'll need to come up with to a minimum.  Note that a +/-3 could be resolved in as few as 2 "rounds," but if there's more back and forth it might take longer.  If you need to adjust the pace, make the next scene harder if the PCs are doing better that you anticipated, or easier if they're floundering (especially the latter!).  If it starts to get repetitive or you run out of scenes, better to end the chase in an exciting way (some sort of complication?) than slog through the chase track just for the sake of finishing it.  This isn't meant to be a hard-and-fast resolution system; it's more of a tool for the GM to ballpark their pacing.