Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The One Ring Official Updates

As some of you may know, several months ago Cubicle 7 announced that they were printing a revised version of the core rulebook for The One Ring.  Well, pre-orders are now open and the PDF is available right now as well.  Whereas the original printing was a boxed set with two softcover books (an Adventurer's Book and a Loremaster's Book), the new core book is a single hardback volume.  It's not quite a second edition, as it's been mostly re-organized so that the two books are now combined into one, and individual topics are not split up and difficult to find anymore.  Considering that the book's organization and index were the biggest criticisms of the system when it was released, this is a huge improvement.  If anyone has been on the fence about getting into TOR, now is the time to jump on board.

Even if it's not a second edition, there have been some errata incorporated into the new printing.  A few specific player options have been re-balanced (i.e. the notoriously underpowered Beorning Cultural Blessing has been given a boost, and the even more notoriously overpowered King's Blade has been hit with the nerf bat, bringing it down to parity with other Rewards and eliminating the "Hobbit uber-swordman" issue).  Preliminary rolls have been simplified into a unified mechanic between the three heroic ventures (Journeys, Combat, and Encounters), which was admittedly a houserule that the game's designer, Francesco Nepitello, had posted on his blog for a while.  Now it's official.  Favored skills are cheaper to upgrade, Fatigue from traveling gear has been increased, and the effects of the Intimidate Foe and Rally Comrades actions have been given a boost, making them more competitive options in combat.  Hazards have been re-worked, as they now trigger when an Eye is rolled on any Fatigue test (succeed or fail), and the consequences have been streamlined into a table that you can then narrate (instead of having dozens of narrative examples scattered everywhere with sometimes similar effects).

All in all, it polishes up what is one of the most well-designed licensed RPGs I've seen.  If you already have the original boxed set and don't plan on purchasing the new core book, never fear!  All of the updates have been posted as a free PDF.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Fate Accelerated Edition: Thoughts After Playing

I picked up the PDF for Fate Accelerated Edition a while back, and wrote a "first impressions" review of it.  As I said in the review I couldn't see myself running the game in the near future, largely because I've got so many other things I want to run.  But one of the players in my group was intrigued by it, bought it, and decided to run a three session mini campaign to test drive it.

The setting was a modern day alternate universe where the Cold War never ended, and recently Russian terrorists launched nuclear warheads at many major cities across the globe.  The twist is that it was combined with a bio-weapon, and the resulting disease (called RadPox) wiped out most of the global population.  The PCs began in Missoula, Montana.  We had an interesting array of characters, which is perhaps to be expected from a modern game without a tight thematic focus (i.e. spies, or dungeon delvers, or fringers trying to get by under the radar of the Empire/Alliance, etc.).  My own character was an old man (under description I wrote "current Harrison Ford") with the aspects Retired Border Patrol Ranger - Canadian Border (high concept), I'm Getting Too Old For This Shit (trouble), Sucker For a Pretty Face, Bruce Collins Is My Oldest Friend (refers to an NPC), and My Dead Brother's Shotgun.  The other PCs were a large animal veterinarian and a quirky accordion player (part of a duo with an NPC mandolin player; like I said, quirky).  The premise was that we were leaving Montana because of the imminent onset of winter, headed south to pursue rumors of a "holy land."

Approaches are a great narrative "shortcut," but they definitely have their limitations.  While it's easy to liken them to ability scores in D&D, they feel a bit more like watered down backgrounds in 13th Age.  That is to say, they represent a philosophy or broad thematic archetype much more than a physical trait (and I say "watered down" in that it lacks the specificity and detail of a good 13th Age background, which isn't to say that it's "worse").  So having a high Sneaky approach doesn't just make you the stealthy (Dex) guy, but you're good at tricking people or lying to them in social situations as well.  One big strength is right there in the name: it encourages players to think about different ways to approach a situation.  Different GMs will draw the line differently insofar as how much they'll allow a PC to justify a shaky or borderline approach; it seems like too much leniency can lead to approach-spamming, whereas strict adherence to the GMs vision can stifle creativity.

There are two big issues that I have with approaches in play.  The first is that sometimes (at least once per session) a PC will try something that doesn't neatly fit one of the approaches.  It might not even kind of fit one of them.  At that point you just have to try to shoehorn it into a category, which can feel like fitting a square peg into a round hole.  It's awkward.  It also means that certain approaches (Clever, Careful, and perhaps Forceful) tend to be more useful because it's easier to justify "off" actions as being one of those.  Sneaky and Flashy seemed to be noticeably more limited than the others.  It's worth mentioning that my character's highest approach was Sneaky, and the accordion player's was Flashy, and we both ended up using them less frequently than we would have expected.  In contrast, the vet had Clever at the top and probably used it about half the time.

My second issue is unavoidable given the abstracted, streamlined nature of approaches, and it's simply that sometimes suspension of disbelief can be strained.  Skill systems imply previous experience at a given task, but with approaches your potency with the same task will vary depending on which angle you're coming from.  For example, I ended up using no less than 4 different approaches at different times to shoot a shotgun.  Charging in guns blazing was Forceful, an ambush was Sneaky, a "quick draw" type situation was Quick, and most of the time it was assumed shots were aimed, and so Careful seemed most appropriate.  Now I don't know about you, but I tend to be more accurate when I actually aim.  Problem was, my PC's Careful was only rated at +1, and so I ran into this strange situation where I was more effective making more reckless shots.  Fortunately the GM awarded us a milestone after session 2, and so I boosted Careful to +2.

Aspects and The Fate Point Meta-game
At its heart this game is all about the Fate Point economy.  Oftentimes it would be necessary to invoke multiple Aspects in order to succeed at a roll, and so having more Aspects is useful, even if they're redundant.  Indeed, redundancy can be really useful if the Aspects apply to common situations!  I think more ideally though is that PCs should make judicious use of the Create Advantage action to get more Aspects into play, and while we didn't do that as much as we probably should have it probably becomes habitual the more you play.

The extent of the meta-game, and how players and their characters might have very different goals, really clicked for me in session 3 last night.  The climactic final battle was an EPIC firefight, and I honestly thought it would end up being a TPK.  Anyways, at one point I got shot at and hit for 1 shift, and decided to compel an Aspect against myself to turn it into a 3 shift hit so I could get a Fate Point out of the deal that would help me out with offense later.  Yep, that's right, me as a player wanted my character to get more hurt, and the game actually rewarded me for it.

While a +2 bonus might not seem like much, especially if you come from a d20 background, Aspects (and sometimes Stunts) will determine whether you succeed or fail more often than what you roll on the dice.  The results for a pool of Fate dice ends up being between -2 and 2 most of the time.  We calculated a result of +4 on the dice as happening 1.25% of the time, which is sobering considering a natural 20 on a d20 happens 5% of the time.  Exciting rolls are the exception (such as when I rolled +4 on my attack when the enemy's defense roll was -3), and so you really have to embrace Aspects as your primary "success currency."

What hit home in that third session, when I tried to get my character hurt to give him more Fate Points, is that the player's job is to orchestrate the tempo of their character's story as much as it is to roleplay them.  The player can contribute to deciding when the character gets beat down, all so that they can come back swinging later, when the stakes are higher.  It's an interesting twist, for better or worse, that can really only occur in a game with Fate Points (or Plot Points; hopefully I'll get to play Cortex+ Firefly soon!) as the game's major currency.

I wrote up my first Stunt using the guidelines in Fate Accelerated Edition, but I found that implementation really dull.  Yes, a +2 bonus is a pretty big deal in Fate, but when everything of consequence boils down to "another +2!", my interest starts to wane.  Sure, the game is more about how you use the elements that give you the bonus, but there's already plenty of that with Aspects.  If something is called a "Stunt," I want it to feel cool.  Besides that, I find the "fill in the blank" statements of the FAE stunts to be pretty clunky.  And the +2 modifier makes it feel like part of a skill system tacked onto the more abstract approach-based system.

The easy solution is to port in some of the ideas from Fate Core and the Fate System Toolkit when you're making your Stunts.  Some of these also boil down to a situational +2 bonuses, but at least the wording is more free-form and so the stunts feel more organic.  In addition to the modifier, Fate Core also outlines examples for creating rules exceptions, using balancing mechanisms like "once per session I can..." and for creating Stunt "trees" with effects that build off of each other.  The Fate System Toolkit really goes into detail with Stunt costs, broader Stunts with smaller bonuses, triggered Stunts, combined Stunts, and tying Stunts to Aspects.  Essentially as long as you keep in mind the refresh equivalency you have more flexibility in creating balanced Stunts.  While some of these options might be considered to crunchy for FAE by some, others are just as simple (if not moreso) than the default FAE Stunts.

Final Thoughts
I can see why Fate is so popular, but it definitely requires a different mindset to play than most traditional games (even traditional/narrative hybrids like 13th Age and Edge of the Empire).  We had a bit of a rocky transition period that made me really glad that my GM went with a 3-session arc; the first session was a messy disaster where we struggled to fully use the system (half the group are new to RPGs, having just played one campaign of Edge of the Empire that lasted a few months), the second went fairly smoothly, and in the third session things really started to click.

I don't see Fate becoming my go-to system (I prefer medium crunch, hybrid narrative/traditional games), but it was definitely an interesting change of pace and it makes me excited to try out Firefly (Cortex+ seems very similar to Fate).  This also wasn't the last time I'll play it, though.  In fact, I'll GM the next mini-campaign for this group, and at some point we'll probably have the main group try it out.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Number Inflation in 13th Age

Considering how frequently I write about it on this blog (with the exception of the past couple of months; blame a creative dry spell), it should come as no surprise that 13th Age is one of my favorite RPGs right now.  My first long-term campaign went up to 5th level (barely), but it stretched each level out over a long period of time.  An Incremental Advance every 2-3 sessions.  For our current campaign (which features rotating GMs), we've been awarding an Incremental Advance every session, and after the 3rd one we gain a level.  We've just now reached the same point at which I ended the last campaign - level 5 - but one of the explicit goals has been to experience high level play.

I already dislike it.  Granted I've never preferred high level play in D&D, but 13th Age is especially egregious with its number inflation.  Unfortunately, it's sort of a double-edged sword because the numbers scale the way that they do precisely to maintain an even progression over the course of a PC's adventuring career.  In other words, damage scales at about the same rate as HP.  Since you gain a weapon die for damage every level, HP has to become pretty inflated to keep up.  While I haven't crunched the numbers in detail, my experience seems to be that PCs will drop after suffering around the same number of hits from an appropriately challenging foe regardless of level.  In most editions of D&D it seemed like low-level characters were quite fragile, but at higher levels they could soak up more attacks due to their increasingly-inflating HP (to the point that high-level combat skewed even further toward "rocket tag" of save or die/suck abilities to bypass HP entirely).  This smooth-scaling in 13th Age is desirable to me, but I really wish it could be more tightly bounded (like, and I can't believe I'm saying this, D&D 5E).

So why is this even a big deal?  Well, mostly because when you start dealing with bigger numbers, the math gets just a tad slower.  I've noticed that my PC's turns go a little slower than at low levels (though at least one player doesn't think it's a big deal), but the real annoyance has been GMing.  I've got at least as many monsters to run as there are PCs in the party (and usually more), and I like to get through NPC turns quickly to maintain momentum.  I feel like those few extra seconds per NPC (per turn) starts to add up, and I occasionally find that it distracts me from interesting tactical and narrative embellishments in combat.

A Possible Solution

Obviously I'm not going to stop playing 13th Age because of this.  And as much as I prefer the alternative of "bounded accuracy" espoused by D&D 5E, from what I've seen of 5E so far 13th Age simply hits way more of my other preferences in an RPG.  Besides that, my group has been instictively negative toward 5E despite knowing little to nothing about it.

Thus, I'd like to try to make high-level play in 13th Age more manageable.  Based on the numbers that were being thrown around in last night's session (again, this is at level 5), I'm considering simply rounding monster HP and player damage to the nearest 5.  None of this "always round down in D&D" legacy crap, either.  Standard rounding rules simply make more sense because theoretically you should be rounding up about as often as you round down, and so your rounding would effectively "cancel" each other out.  Obviously results will skew slightly up or down in any given combat, but is this really any different from earlier editions of D&D where monsters got variable HP by rolling Hit Dice?


Barbarian: "I crit for 94 damage" (because that literally happened last night, on the first attack, vs a 200 HP dragon)

GM: mentally rounds that up to 95 and notes that the dragon has 105 HP left

Wizard: "I deal 32 damage with Ray of Frost."

GM: Rounds that down to 30, so the dragon's at 75 now.

Multiples of 5 are easy, because we deal with them every single day.  I have to think for a couple of seconds longer when I subtract 94 from 200, and if I'm starting from a value that's not an easy multiple it takes longer still.  Like, say, subtracting 32 from that dragon that now has 106 HP if tracked by RAW.  In my head I would generally do this in 2 steps by first subtracting 30 from 106, and then subtracting 2 from 76.  Which is tougher if I'm dealing with odd numbers, and tougher still when one or more players is talking (especially if they're correcting their damage, whether that's from math errors or forgotten bonuses.  Sometimes I have to start the mental math over from scratch when that happens).

Some people might be faster at mental math than me, and others still might not be but don't mind the cumulative time lost.  For me though?  Rounding seems like a really promising solution, because those huge numbers are just an unnecessary amount of granularity.

The Gumshoe Precedent

After coming up with this solution, I was reminded of a rule from the Gumshoe game "Night's Black Agents."  To quote from page 215 which is a summary of Hit Threshold Modifiers: "In games using the full range of options and tactical rules, Hit Thresholds can vary widely.  Try to rebalance those values if you can: if one combatant has a Hit Threshold of 7 and one has a Hit Threshold of 9, run their combat as if they had Hit Thresholds of 3 and 5, respectively.  This keeps fights shorter and more dangerous, and therefore more exciting."

This is particularly useful to keep in mind in Night's Black Agents because the die that you use to resolve actions is a d6.  The principle isn't as mechanically necessary in 13th Age, but it sure helps to simplify that math.  You're effectively treating each increment of 5 as a value of 1, turning a 100 HP creature into one with effectively 20 HP.  That 30 damage attack becomes 6 damage.  14 out of 20 is the exact same ratio as 70 out of 100.

Once you get into Epic tier and the numbers get higher still, it will become practical to mentally round to the nearest 10.  I'm not quite sure where the best cut off points will be (I haven't playtested this yet), but I'm thinking it will probably feel pretty intuitive once you start dealing with numbers of a certain size.

Also worth noting is that you don't have to necessarily institute a sweeping house rule for this.  You don't even have to tell your players you're doing it.  Just do the conversion to simplify the math, and they may never be the wiser.  It's the best of both worlds, actually:  your players get to feel uber powerful by throwing around high damage attacks, but by rounding the values you don't have to deal with the mathematical challenges of quickly adding and subtracting high value numbers to the nearest one.

Magic Item Vault

Here are a handful of magic items that I worked up for the PCs in my game.

Champion Tier Magic Items

Dwarven Cloak
+2 to PD

You can enter stone and walk in it as if it were a very thick fluid, but you can't "swim."

Quirk: You season your food with sand and small bits of stone.

Lifedrinker (sword)
+2 to attack and damage

Recharge 11+: When you kill the target the blade absorbs its soul, which you can use to either heal using a recovery, or you can animate a corpse* that you touch.

Quirk: Your beverage of choice: blood.

*When you animate a corpse you create a zombie mook of the same level as the original creature.

Level  Attack  Damage  HP  AC  PD  MD
1          +5           3          10    14    12    8
2          +6           4          12    15    13    9
3          +7           5          15    16    14    10
4          +8           6          18    17    15    11
5          +9           8          23    18    16    12
6          +10         10        28    19    17    13
7          +11         16        33    20    18    14
8          +12         20        42    21    19    15
9          +13         18        52    22    20    16
10        +14         34        61    23    21    17

Demonbane Axe  (axe)
+2 to attack and damage

Always: The axe blade glows red when demons are nearby, and its surface depicts a compass that points to the nearest hellhole.

1/battle: +4 to attack and +1d12 damage (hit or miss) when attacking a demon.

Quirk: You talk to fire.

Deflection Staff  (staff)
+2 to attack and damage

Recharge 16+: When you're hit with an attack, take half damage and the attacker takes half.  If the attack inflicts a condition, roll a normal save; on a success, the attacker suffers it instead of you.

Quirk: You constantly admire yourself in mirrors.

Coatl Ring

Recharge 6+: At the start of your turn roll a save against one effect.

Always: When falling from a great distance, you float to the ground unharmed.

Quirk: You adorn yourself in bright feathers.

Iron's Will (Hammer)
+2 to attack and damage

Recharge 11+: As a quick action you can magnetize the hammer and pull a metal weapon out of a foe's hand, or pull and enemy wearing metal armor into engagement.

Quirk: you like to grab objects out of people's hands.

Captain Crow's Glaive (2-handed reach weapon)
+2 to attack and damage

The first time you roll a natural even miss each battle make a magi's lightning chain attack:  +11 vs PD - 15 lightning damage and each natural even attack lets you target an additional creature.

Quirk: The glaive wants to be returned to the hands of an ogre mage...