Monday, July 24, 2017

The New Alternity

(Note: If you are playing the Alternity playtest materials, this post contains minor spoilers for Escape From the Institute.)

Now that the Alternity 2017 Kickstarter has long funded (though you basically have the opportunity to get in at certain pledge levels through Sasquatch Game Studio's online store), I've decided to review what I can glean of the new version's mechanics through the beta test quickstart PDF (available for free at DriveThruRPG through the link) and the materials included with it, especially the three adventures. Specifically, Escape From the Institute, the tutorial adventure, provided much information for reverse engineering.

What is Alternity?

Alternity was a science fiction roleplaying game released by TSR in the late 1990s, just before it was acquired by Wizards of the Coast. It was a novel product for TSR. It used a unified set of mechanics to resolve all tasks, but without using a color chart. Its extensive skill system allowed character customization while only using four broad classes. Furthermore, it included a lot of advice for how to customize the system for different subgenres of science fiction, or even for superhero games.

Alternity was supported mostly through two settings: the default StarDrive setting and Dark Matter. The latter was probably the more famous of the two, since StarDrive was a fairly generic space opera setting and Dark Matter had a distinct tone. However, the StarDrive setting book introduced a bunch of new mechanics for citizens of its universe, including cultural traits for humans from different sectors of the galaxy.

I have no personal experience of Dark Matter, but the Wikipedia page says that the setting book introduced expanded rules for FX (especially magic). This makes sense because Dark Matter was a transparent attempt to cash in on the popularity of The X-Files by creating a conspiracy-oriented present-day setting. Dark Matter is also notable for its two writers: Wolfgang Bauer and Monte Cook, who both now own prolific RPG companies.

Task resolution in the original Alternity game was handled with a d20 roll-under system, in which you tried to roll equal to or under the character's skill or attribute score. You rolled a d20 and then subtacted or added a "situation die." Situational factors that made a task easier or harder moved the roll down or up a series of "die steps," each of which changed the situation die. An easy skill check could move the second die from "+d0" (meaning no situation die) to –d4, –d6, –d8, –d12, –d20, or minus multiple d20s, depending on how easy circumstances made the check. Difficult checks had the same sequence of situation dice added to the roll, and the sequence was open-ended on both sides. Having a huge negative or positive situation die affected more than your chance of success, since there were multiple degrees of success and failure.

The game had four classes, called professions: combat spec, diplomat, free agent, and tech op. Combat specs were the soldiers, mercenaries, and other people who armed themselves to the teeth. Diplomats were mediators and leaders. Free agents were the equivalent of D&D rogues/thieves, people who specialized in stealth, infiltration, and deceit. Tech ops specialized in advanced applications of science and technology. Each class gave you a special ability and a list of "professional skills" which you could buy cheaper than members of other classes. Diplomats had the unusual special ability to treat another class's skill list as class skills. Thus, a military officer was built as a diplomat with access to combat spec skills.

The original Alternity copied D&D by having a set of a few standard races in the core book, some of them representing common sci-fi alient tropes and others which appeared to be created for the Star Drive setting. The fraal were the Communion aliens, who came to Earth in the 20th Century and abducted and studied many humans. The cybernetic mechalus are obviously inspired by the Star Trek franchise's Borg (though the mechalus didn't have a hive mind). The T'sa are your standard issue lizard people. Finally, the seshayans are a low-tech race of flying squirrels (though possibly reptilian) who appear to have no antecedents in literature.

The most notable feature of Alternity, at least to me as I read it back in the '90s, was that it took great pains to make the system flexible. While its TSR contemporary, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition, sported published settings as diverse as Greyhawk, Dark Sun, and Spelljammer, the rules for these different spins on fantasy were contained in the setting books, and that kind of flexibility wasn't really hinted at in the core rulebooks.

Alternity, on the other hand, allowed you to play anything from space opera to a gritty near-future setting by playing around with the tech level and the kind of FX allowed in the campaign, as well as the kind of stats you allowed the PCs to have. The GM's book gave the system a quality I call "transparent hackability," and it influenced my ideas about how all rulebooks should be written.

So I was really excited at the news that a new version of Alternity was being Kickstarted. Now on to my evaluation of what I know about the new game.

The New Alternity

Sasquatch Game Studio has aquired the Alternity IP from WotC, and they have successfully funded a new version of the game through Kickstarter. The full rulebook will not be released until later this year, so the only material available is the quickstart PDF of the beta rules and a couple of adventures. This scarcity means that we lack certain things.

First, we have no idea what alien races (if any) will be featured in the new game. Sasquatch has clearly acquired the Alternity trademark, based on the title pages of its materials. However, that doesn't necessarily mean that they own the rights to races like the fraal, mechalus, etc. WotC has used some of the old Alternity setting material in D20 Modern supplements, so they may be holding on to those materials.

Second, as with most quickstart rule packages, there are no explicit character creation rules. However, one of the released adventures, Escape From the Institute, allows players to create their characters during the adventure using a simplified system. We can extrapolate some idea of how character creation is going to work from that information.

Without further ado, here is my evaluation of the new rules, to the extent that we can know them at this point.

Task Resolution

Fortunately, the quickstart PDF details the new task resolution system in detail, since these rules are necessary to play the game at all. The new game still uses the same d20 ± situation die mechanic as the old one. Even the die steps are the same. The major difference is that, in an adaptation to the post-d20-System era, you now try to roll equal to or over, instead of under, your skill score. This means there is more math involved, since you have to subtract your skill score from 20 to find the target number to roll against for each skill. However, much of this work can be done during character creation and advancement, leaving the final result on the character sheet to look up during play. It also seems, based on the tables in the quickstart pdf, that the situation die can never be greater than plus or minus 1d20.

Of course, the new system inherits the most problematic trait of the old one: that darn d6. It's a bizarre hiccup in the math. To explain why, here's a list of the average rolls of each die used as a situation die:
  • d4 = 2.5 average
  • d6 = 3.5      "
  • d8 = 4.5      "
  • d12 = 6.5    "
  • d20 = 10.5  "
The jump from a situation die of +d0 to +d4 adds an average of 2.5 to the d20 roll. Then each subsequent roll adds an average of one to the bonus of the previous die until the leap from +d8 to +d12, which adds two to the average. Obviously the last two steps steeply increase the average bonus, but that isn't as big a problem as the decrease in utility built into the beginning of the scale. It looks like the dice in the scale were chosen just because they are all Platonic solids (no d10 for you!) and not out of any solid mathematical foundation.

The obvious fixes for this problem are to either add a d2 at the beginning of the scale or eliminate the d6. You could also have fun eliminating the d6 and adding Zocchi dice to smooth out the curve. However, d2's and Zocchi dice* are unfamiliar to most gamers, and the designers must have felt that the d6 was a familiar element that must be part of any game sold to the general public.

However, I still like the idea of the die step system. While D20 System games often rely on the player to keep track of an extensive list of modifiers of different types which may or may not apply to the current situation, figuring out which situation die to roll involves a back-and-forth with the GM. Thus the GM will end up helping the player figure out the appropriate situation die. More eyes on the calculation increases the probability of an accurate outcome and decreases the likelihood of situations like this.


Combat may have changed more than any other aspect of the system. Alternity 2017 makes innovations both to both initiative and damage.

First, the initiative system is cyclical. Every round is divided into eight phases (called impulses). Combatants first act in either the first or second impulse of the first round, depending on whether they succeed or fail on their initiative check. From that point on, when a character acts again depends on the action they took on their turn. Every action has a speed, and a character who takes a given action must wait a number of impulses equal to the action's speed before acting again. Thus, a character who acts in Impulse 1 of Round 1 and chooses to attack (a 3-impulse action) acts again in Impulse 4. Another innovation is that initiative is not reset at the beginning of each round. A combatant who takes a 3-impulse action in Impulse 8 acts in Impulse 3 of the next round even if they took their first action in the combat during Impulse 1 of Round 1.

This system is more complicated than initiative is in an average RPG. However, it may be part of a well-considered tradeoff. Alternity 2017 has much less stringent spatial positioning rules than D20 System RPGs, and the designers may have decided to move the tactical complexity from space (in the form of miniatures combat) to time (in the form of calculations of the effectiveness of an action vs. time taken). In fact, instead of a battlemat, the major visual aid for the Alternity 2017 rules is an initiative tracker to remind people when characters are due to act next.

Second, damage is calculated in a unique way. Characters have a "durability track," which has a number of check boxes for multiple wound severity bands labeled from "Minor Wound" to "Mortal Wound." When damage dice are rolled, the result determines which severity band gets a box checked off. If all the boxes in a severity band are checked off, further "hits" in that band result in checking a box in the next highest band. A character suffers penalties to his or her actions depending on the highest band that has a box checked. The quickstart rules give the following "Typical Hero Durability Track" (format simplified for this post with penalties but without labels:

Band          Wds.           Effects
1-3         [2 boxes]        No ill effects
4-6         [2 boxes]        No ill effects
7-9         [2 boxes]        1-step penalty to all checks
10-12     [2 boxes]        2-step penalty to all checks
13-15     [2 boxes]        3-step penalty to all checks
16          [1 box]            Incapacitated

However, the pregens in the adventures have different durability tracks, and EFtI gives three durability tracks for Vitality scores from 3 to 5. The "typical durability track" is the one for a Vitality score of 4, a key bit of information for the next section.

As for monsters and NPCs, they appear to get custom damage tracks based on their roles in the story or encounter.

Character Creation

Honestly, I don't remember much about character creation in the old Alternity, since I never got to create a character for it. However, I do remember that it was point-based. The new version appears to also use point-based character creation, and I'll try to infer some of the mechanics from information in the quickstart and adventures.

First, "Escape From the Institute" has the players distribute 2 5's, 2 4's, and 2 3's among their six attributes. I think it's safe to assume that this is the standard default array for quickly creating Alternity characters.

Some of the pregenerated characters in the adventures have that array of attributes, but others don't. The most common variation is a set of 6, 5, 4, 3, 3, 2. Since the "typical" durability track given in the quickstart rules is for Vitality 4, we can infer that an Alternity PC is supposed to have an average attribute score of 4. An average score of 4 in 6 attributes would add up to 24 points, assuming increasing an attribute score by one costs 1 point. The "standard" array given in EFtI adds up to 24. However, the arrays with a 6 and a 2 add up to 23. From that I infer that a 6 costs more.

These deductions lead me to conclude that characters get 24 points to buy attribute scores. Scores from 0 to 5 cost a number of points equal to the score, while a 6 costs 7 points. While the quickstart rules say that attribute scores range from 0 to 10, there's nothing to indicate whether human PCs can have scores above 6. It's possible that such scores are reserved for extremely high-powered campaigns or nonhuman PCs (who are not covered in the quickstart).

It's hard to determine the procedure for buying skills. EFtI has the players assign scores to three combat skills and five non-combat skills (not including Athletics, in which everyone is given a 4 in one of the scenes). However, the pregens in the other two adventures don't seem to have a set number of trained combat and noncombat skills.

Likewise, we can't determine the rules for buying equipment, since EFtI allows the characters to basically 3-D print any equipment they want (within reason) for free.

The last major mechanical feature is archetypes. The major mechanical function of archetypes is to give a character talents, special abilities analogous to modern D&D feats. The pregens in "The Wreck of the Magellan" and "Thunder Run" have preselected talents, and EFtI doesn't give the characters any talents, so we have no clue how talents are chosen, though a 1st-level character seems to start with four.

The four archetypes in Alternity 2017 don't have any relation to the character's job, unlike the professions of classic Alternity. Instead, the archetypes appear to be more like the roles of Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition: an indicator of what you do in battle. The four roles are Battler, Survivor, Striker, and Leader. The Battler, Striker, and Leader seem analogous to the Defender, Striker, and Leader from D&D 4e, while the Survivor is like a Defender who defends himself (or herself) instead of allies.

My Impression

I look forward to seeing how this system fleshes out. It would probably be a better fit than the Cypher System for a campaign set in the Babylon 5 universe, the sci-fi setting I've most wanted to explore in a game, now that the proprietary B5 games are out of print.

I also really want to see how the initiative and damage systems play out in actual combat, especially the pace of combat with cyclical initiative. I look forward to the release of the full rules to find out how to create aliens and how the rules handle FTL travel.

I'm also still tempted to smooth out the die-step progression with those Zocchi dice.

*Except for the d10, the original Zocchi die

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

House Rule Review #2: Experience Points

Update 10/2/2016: Added subsections on monsters with fractional CRs, monsters whose CR is less than APL − 8, and an alternate method for awarding XP for parties with mixed character levels. Also fixed Table 1 so it includes XP values for every relative CR covered by Table 2.

This is the second in a series of posts analyzing some house rules for d20 fantasy gaming that I wrote and later abandoned. The planned scope of the series was initially four posts, then was reduced to three. Now it may prove a little more open ended, since I've found a more recent copy of the house rules in question, which is giving me more food for thought.

The first post in this series, on character creation and point-buy systems, can be found here.

All text after the first paragraph under the heading "My New Solution" is open gaming content under the terms of the OGL.

Eternally escalating experience point totals have been one of the annoyances, albeit a minor one, of D&D and its offshoots for a long time. In any game where characters could advance to 20th level or beyond, XP totals could add up into hundreds of thousands, or even millions. Of course, these numbers aren't as big a problem today, particularly for players, because every cell phone has a calculator. However, it can be an inconvenience for GMs designing encounters in PFRPG, since they have to sometimes add and compare these large values, and could have to do this for every encounter in an adventure.

My Old Solution

In my old abandoned house rules, I actually tried to make a more systematized version of an optional approach to leveling up in D&D 4e. That approach had the DM give the PCs another level after about 10 appropriately challenging encounters. Easy encounters (as defined by the DM) would count as only half an encounter, while hard ones could count as two or three. However, there were no concrete rules for how to value encounters, and I wondered if a more rigorous version of this alternate rule could be used in PFRPG.

I started with the PRD Encounter Design chart and assigned a "challenge point" or "encounter point" value to each difficulty.* An encounter with a challenge rating equal to the average party level minus one had a value of half a point, while an encounter with CR equal to the APL +3 was worth three points. This system was simple, but it didn't match the proportions of encounter math in PFRPG very well. This was another of the problems that led me to abandon the house rules.

However, another concept that sprang from this system has lived on in my d20 heartbreaker project, and it's a concept that I think is worthwhile. What if, instead of a giant table listing different XP requirements for each level, there was just one XP value for advancing to whatever the next level was, whether it was 2nd or 20th?

*I switched back and forth between these terms throughout the manuscript, and never did a thorough find/replace to settle on one.

My New Solution

Introducing Rollover XP. The version presented here is not as simple and elegant as the one in my PFRPG houserules or the one in my unfinished d20 heartbreaker, but it uses numbers and methods that are more familiar to the average Pathfinder GM.

This system uses Fast, Medium, and Slow experience tracks like the standard system given in the PRD. However, it takes a constant amount of XP to gain each new level. This amount is equal to the number of XP needed to advance from 1st to 2nd level under the standard rules: 1,300 per level for the Fast track; 2,000 for the Medium track, and 3,000 for the Slow track.

And now for the feature that gives this system its name: the rollover. Instead of keeping track of an ever increasing running total of XP earned throughout their character's career, a player only needs to keep track of the XP earned during the current level. When the character earns enough XP to advance to the next level, the XP total is set to zero + the difference between earned XP and the amount needed to advance. For example, if Althar the Ranger is playing in a Medium track campaign and has 2,050 XP, he advances to the next level (whatever level it is) and his player resets his XP total to 50.

Monster XP Values and Encounter Design

To make this system work, monster XP must be calculated differently from the standard encounter design rules. In the standard rules, a monster's XP value is a constant number based on its CR. In the Rollover XP system, that value changes based on the difference between the monster's CR and the PCs' APL. Table 1 gives the XP values for monsters based on that difference. It covers relative CRs ranging from eight below the APL to three above it and gives values for both total XP and individual XP.

Table 1: Monster XP Values

Monster CR vs. APL
Total XP
Individual XP (1-3 Players)
Individual XP (4-5 Players)
Individual XP (6+ Players)
APL − 8
APL − 7
APL − 6
APL − 5
APL − 4
APL − 3
APL − 2
APL − 1
APL + 1
APL + 2
APL + 3
APL + 4

To design an encounter under this system, follow these steps:
  1. Determine APL. Use the method from the standard rules, but do not adjust the APL by the number of PCs. That adjustment will be factored in as part of Step 2.
  2. Determine CR. To find the proper CR for the encounter, decide how difficult you want the encounter to be for the PCs, and then consult Table 2. Find the column with the number of players in your group. Then look up the desired encounter difficulty to find the appropriate CR.
  3. Determine XP Budget. Look up the XP budget for the encounter CR under the Total XP award column in Table 1. Even if you are using individual XP awards in your actual game, you should use the Total XP values to build encounters because those numbers are more mathematically consistent than the ones for Individual XP.
  4. Choose Monsters. Choose any number of monsters whose XP values on Table 1 add up to the encounter's XP budget, based on their CRs relative to the APL.
Table 2: Encounter Design

CR (1-3 Players)
CR (4-5 Players)
CR (6+ Players)
APL − 2
APL − 1
APL − 1
APL + 1
APL + 1
APL + 2
APL + 1
APL + 2
APL + 3
APL + 2
APL + 3
APL + 4


Jill wants to build an encounter for her party of six 5th-level characters. She consults Table 2 and finds that an average encounter for a party of six or more players is equal to APL + 1. Thus, she needs a CR 6 encounter. Looking at Table 1, she sees that she has 600 XP to spend on this encounter. She could use one CR 6 (APL +1) monster to fill the entire budget at once, or she could use any combination of multiple monsters whose XP award adds up to 600. She decides on a two-monster encounter, using a troll (CR 5, equal to APL; 400 XP) and an ogre (CR 3, APL − 2; 200 XP).

Creatures With Fractional CRs

To use a creature with a fractional CR, find the difference between CR 1 and the APL, and use Table 1 to find the appropriate XP value. This XP value applies to a number of the creatures equal to the denominator of its fractional CR (two for a CR 1/2 creature, three for a CR 1/3 creature, etc.). If you want more creatures than that number, use the CR Equivalencies table from the standard rules to find the appropriate XP value.

For example, Jill wants her six 5th-level PCs to be attacked by orcs (CR 1/3) in an easy (CR 5) encounter. CR 1 is four below the APL of 5, so three orcs are worth 100 points. Because she wants the entire encounter to consist of regular orc warriors whose leader isn't around, she consults the CR Equivalencies table from the PRD and finds that four creatures combine to make one creature of four times one creature's CR. Since each "creature" in this situation is three orcs, it takes 12 orcs to fill out the encounter.

Using Weaker Creatures

If you want to use creatures whose CR is less than the APL − 8, use the CR Equivalencies table mentioned above to find a number of creatures of an appropriate CR that is covered by Table 1. If the creatures are extremely weak, you may have to chain together multiple uses of the CR Equivalencies table to find the desired number of creatures.

For example, if Jill's PCs have advanced to 10th level and she wants to create an average (CR 11 for Jill's six-person party) encounter involving bugbears (CR 2), she would look on the CR Equivalencies table and find that two bugbears are equivalent to a CR 3 monster (APL − 8 in this case), and the table covers up to 16 bugbears at CR 9 (APL − 2). Jill could fill an entire average encounter for this group (CR 11) with bugbears by using 32 bugbears (CR 9 + 2 = CR 11; 16 bugbears × 2 = 32 bugbears), or use that number of bugbears as part of a more difficult encounter.

Optional XP Award Method

This system can make it impossible for PCs who are behind the APL to catch up, except in groups where different players often miss sessions for different reasons. Therefore, if the PCs are not all the same level, you may want to use the following method instead of the one in the standard rules.

This alternate method has one version when using Total XP and another when using Individual XP. If you are using Total XP for experience awards, look up the amount of XP for the encounter CR in relation to each character's total level, not the APL. Then give each player the Total XP award for his or her level divided by the number of party members.

For example, if a party consisting of four 5th-level characters and one 4th-level character (for an APL of 5) defeats a CR 5 encounter, the GM gives the four 5th level characters 80 XP each for the encounter (400 XP for a CR = character level encounter, divided by five party members). The lone 4th level character gets 120 XP (600 for a CR = character level + 1 encounter, divided by five party members).

The Individual XP method is easier. First, find the row in Table 1 corresponding to the encounter CR in relation to the character's total level. Then, give the character the Individual XP award for the number of characters in the party. For the party above, the four 5th-level characters would get 100 XP each, while the one 4th-level character gets 150 XP.

Benefits of Rollover XP

The Rollover XP system offers more than just smaller XP budgets for high-level encounter design. Because the number of XP required to advance is the same for any level on a given XP track, Rollover XP allows a group to smoothly switch between XP tracks in the middle of a campaign. Thus, a GM who likes to get players through the first couple of levels quickly could decide to use Fast advancement for Levels 1-3 and Medium advancement for the rest of the campaign. Or a GM whose group prefers mid-level play could use Medium advancement until 5th level, and then switch to Slow advancement. Other GMs or groups could combine both these approaches, or use other complex sequences of advancement rate shifts over 20 levels.

I feel that this new level of flexibility is the major benefit of Rollover XP. While the standard PFRPG rules do a good thing by giving groups multiple explicit, defined rates of advancement, this advancement system gives PFRPG GMs total flexibility in determining how fast they want the PCs to advance.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

RPG Review: Romance of the Perilous Land

Trollish Delver Games has published a new OSR game called Romance of the Perilous Land as a pay-what-you-want PDF.  I decided to download it, and tip Trollish Delver a buck, because of its promise to recreate the world of British folklore, as opposed to the generic fantasy setting presented by all the various editions of D&D. In this setting, magic is rare and wondrous and subtle (no Olde Magick Shoppes or fireball-slinging archmages) and monsters are unique and terrifying creatures. I immediately thought that this game could be tweaked to model a number of low-magic, high-wonder settings that have never worked well with D&D as written. The game mostly delivers on its promise, though it would take a lot of work to adapt it to Middle Earth.

Character Creation and Options

Like all the old D&D editions and the OSR games inspired by them, RotPL relies on random attribute generation. The only option given in the rulebook is 3d6 in order, but any experienced GM can substitute their own favorite methods. I would personally recommend steering clear of high-powered methods like 4d6-drop-the-lowest, because characters get increases to their attributes several times during their careers, and there's a risk that many tasks related to their best attribute could become impossible to fail. However, allowing some freedom in arranging the stats is probably a good idea if your players are experienced or have definite ideas about what they want to play.

The biggest departure from other OSR games is that there are only five attributes, not the six everyone's familiar with. They are Might, Reflex, Endurance, Mind, and Charisma. Might, Reflex, and Endurance are the equivalents of Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution respectively. Charisma is exactly what you would expect it to be, and Mind is Intelligence and Wisdom rolled into one stat.

After rolling your attributes, you choose your class. There are no races in RotPL; nor are there BD&D-style racial classes. All PCs are assumed to be human, probably because races like elves and dwarves are so rare in the default setting that they would be deemed monstrous by humans who ran into them. There are six classes: knight, ranger, thief, cunning folk, barbarian, and bard.

Of these six classes, the knight is the closest to the traditional fighter, but it has more defensive abilities than that old archetype usually does. The ranger, thief, barbarian, and bard are about what an experienced D&D player would expect them to be, but the text takes more pains to explain that thieves are not necessarily bad people. In fact, Robin Hood is the only named iconic example of a thief. Cunning folk are the only spellcasters in the game, and their spell selection looks more like a cleric's list than a wizard's because of the subtlety of magic in this game. However, the spellcasting mechanic is much more flexible than standard Vancian magic.

In addition to a hit die and armor and weapon proficiency, each class gives the character three skills, which can be used to give a bonus to any die roll that the GM decides is related to the skill.

After choosing a class, you can pick a background if you want. Each background gives the character two more skills and some free starting equipment. Five backgrounds are given: artisan, outlaw, priest, seafarer, and aristocrat. Personally, I would have liked to see more backgrounds, and I plan to add a few if I ever run this game.

Finally, you buy your character's equipment. This works like it does in most old-school or OSR games. You get 3d6 x 10 gold pieces to spend and a list of equipment and prices to part you from that gold. The encumbrance system is innovative, though. Instead of having a weight allowance, each character can carry a certain number of items, with heavy armor and weapons counting as two items each. Some equipment, like sacks and backpacks, allows you to carry extra items.

Task Resolution

One of the best things about RotPL is that every action that requires a die roll uses the same kind of roll. This isn't anything earth-shattering for people used to systems like GURPS, Basic Roleplaying, or the d20 System, but it's not necessarily a given in the OSR. 

The success or failure of any action is determined by a d20 roll-under check against a target number. That is, the roll is a success if it is equal to or lower than the target number. For PCs, the target number is always one of their five attributes. If the action is opposed by another creature, the opponent's level or hit dice is subtracted from the target number. For faceless NPCs and monsters, a single target number for every action it takes is given in its monster entry. Though the formula for the target number is never explicitly spelled out, it's easy to deduce it by looking at the stat blocks. Like D&D 5e, RotPL uses advantage and disadvantage, which have the player roll an extra die and take the higher or lower of the two results, instead of bonuses and penalties to the die roll.

In combat, PCs make attack rolls against either their Might (for melee attacks) or Reflex (for ranged attacks) . Monsters make attack rolls against their target number. Since all attack rolls are opposed, they are modified by the target's level (for characters) or hit dice (for monsters). Initiative is determined much like in the Cypher System, with PCs rolling to determine whether they act before or after their opponents. However, in this game, the target number is the character's Reflex score instead of a property of the opponents. Like Castles and Crusades and D&D 5e, RotPL has saving throws for each attribute. These saving throws are rolled against the relevant attribute minus the adversary's level or hit dice if the attack comes from a creature.

Unlike in many old-school and OSR games, casting a spell requires a roll from the casting character. A cunning folk who wants to cast a spell rolls against their Mind score minus the spell's level. If the roll succeeds, the spell takes effect and the caster loses its cost in spell points. If the roll fails, the spell fizzles and the caster loses half its cost in spell points. If the spell was of a higher level than the caster (yes, casting such spells is an option in this game), there's a chance of something bad happening on a failed roll. Spells of the same level can also cost a different number of points to cast, allowing some balance between strong and weak spells of the same level.

Other Combat Rules

The rules as written for the length of rounds are confusing and imply that rounds can have different lengths based on the number of combatants. I would suggest using standard six-second rounds instead.

The rules for movement and combat ranges echo 13th Age and the Cypher System, with three ranges: close (<5 feet), near (5-25 feet), and far (>25 feet). A character can move one range step per turn (for example, far to near), though the rules don't specify whether or not the character can also attack that turn. If you are using a grid, a character can move 20 feet per turn.

Armor works differently than in other OSR games. Instead of making you harder to hit, armor absorbs a certain amount of damage. This is not the amount it absorbs per round, but the total amount of damage it can absorb. Regaining armor points takes an hour of rest, presumably spent repairing the armor and shields. And the number of armor points mundane equipment gives you is in the single digits. Thus, low-level combat looks deadlier in RotPL than in most OSR games, and magic items that grant extra armor points are incredibly valuable.

Overall Impression

Romance of the Perilous Land is an ambitious game. Its goals make it my kind of OSR product: one that tries not just to clone an old ruleset, but to redefine old rules for new kinds of settings with different default assumptions.

Overall, there is a lot of promise in this game. It offers the possibility of exploring a lower-magic world than that offered by standard D&D (particularly from 3rd Edition on). It would take quite a bit of houseruling to make it fit Middle Earth, but it could probably be done. However, the system's greatest potential lies in allowing GMs to create fantasy settings without fireball-slinging wizards while still using a relatively simple ruleset. 

There are also elements that could be mined for use in other games. With a little tweaking, many of this game's classes could be used as OSR low-magic versions of AD&D standards like the ranger and bard. The magic system could probably be adapted for other OSR games, and well-thought-out point values could correct for the fact that sleep is so much more powerful than magic missile at low levels in standard D&D-like games.

The major weaknesses of this product are the ambiguity of some rules and the relative lack of GM guidance on creating adventures.

The very first version of D&D suffered from similar rules ambiguities. These were probably caused by a combination of the novelty of the RPG genre, Gary Gygax burning a lot of midnight oil while writing the rules, and Gygax assuming that he was writing for seasoned wargamers who shared certain understandings and conventions of gaming with him. I worry that one of the flaws of the OSR is a tendency to fetishize ambiguity as a feature, not a bug, with the idea that the rules don't have to be clear because everybody's free to change them or make up their own. I'm not sure if RotPL's ambiguities come from deadline pressure or from the latter cause, but a GM has to put in some work determining what interpretation of the rules works best for his or her game.

While the book includes material about the default setting and a lot of text about what makes an RotPL campaign different from a standard fantasy RPG campaign, there's not much material about how to design adventures around these assumptions. If the PCs aren't going to find a lot of magical treasure, how do they become invested in the adventure? How rare should magic items be? Should the PCs find a magic sword once every 5-6 adventures, or only once in the whole campaign? These questions can be easily answered by GMs who are used to more narrative-based campaigns, but what about those who have eaten, slept, and breathed the traditional dungeon crawl for years (probably a substantial part of the target audience)? Those GMs may need a helping hand.

Despite these reservations, I still find Romance of the Perilous Land well worth downloading, especially at the PWYW price. For GMs willing to put extra thought into designing adventures and making the rules work for their group and game, it offers a different kind of fantasy game than what many of us are used to and perhaps bored with.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Movie Review -- Ghostbusters (2016)

Like many people, I first heard of the new Ghostbusters reboot because of the internet backlash, starting on Day One, before anyone had seen a single frame of the movie, from sexists on the Internet. It was funny how a pretty good movie from the '80s became an untouchable, perfect classic the second somebody decided to reboot it with all female leads.

Though I hated the backlash and those behind it, I knew that the new Ghostbusters wasn't guaranteed to be good just because I didn't like the people who hated it, so I waited to see what sources I trusted on the internet thought of the finished product. All the genre blogs I follow that reviewed the movie thought it was at least decent. So when my cousin asked if we should see it, I had no objection.

Overall, I thought it was a pretty good movie, much like the original. It was better than the original in some ways and worse in others. From here on out I'm going to give my more detailed impressions, which will be spoiler light. However, if you're a member of the "no spoilers" crowd and haven't seen this film, you can stop reading now.

Detailed Review

Fortunately, the writers of this version of Ghostbusters, Katie Dippold and director Paul Feig, decided not to do anything close to a shot-for-shot remake. Instead, they repeated many of the motifs of the original film in a completely new story. Like the original, much of the humor in this movie is low-key and character-based, which means it delivers laughs but not always big ones in every scene. The characters played by Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, and Kate McKinnon embody all the personality traits of the Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, and Bill Murray characters from the original, but not in the exact same combinations.

The character-based humor requires good performances and chemistry from the actors, and the cast delivers. In fact, I think the interplay between Wiig, McCarthy, McKinnon, Leslie Jones, and Chris Hemsworth as the himbo receptionist may be better than that between the cast of the original. Their reactions to each other seem both natural and funny. Well, this occasionally isn't the case with McKinnon's Holzmann character, but that character is over-the-top by design.

A couple of characters get much more screen time than their analogues in the 1984 film. Jones, as the one black lead character, gets a meatier role than Ernie Hudson did in the original. The writers play around with stereotypes by having her sell herself to the others as someone who "knows the city," but having that turn out to be a different kind of knowledge than one might initially suspect. She also gets her fair share of good lines. And one of the ironies of this female-led remake is that the handsome man steals the show. Hemsworth seems to get a disproportionate share of the good lines and bits, and his performance here seems like more of a star turn for him than his bland portrayal of Thor in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The only major problem with the script is a tendency to try to improve on the original by inserting extra or more extreme action sequences. And to facilitate these action sequences, they need more different kinds of crazy gadgets. The proton guns and ghost traps aren't enough any more in the current Hollywood action arms race. It also seems to have trouble deciding how quirky and surreal it wants to be at times. However, none of these nitpicks detracts from the overall experience of the film.

Overall, this is probably not the best movie of all time, but neither was the original that is now being held up as an exemplar of film-making. Both are enjoyable summer blockbusters, nothing more or less.

Monday, July 18, 2016

House Rule Review #1: Character Creation

This is the first in a series of posts analyzing some house rules for d20 fantasy gaming that I wrote and later abandoned. I debated how to approach this topic and what information to include, so it took longer to finish than I initially promised. In the end, this post became more complicated and the series will now be only three posts. This is because the material from the fourth chapter, "GM Tricks" works better when integrated into the other posts than when presented in its own post.

When I first read the D&D 3.0 core books, I liked the fact that the designers included a point-buy system for ability scores. D&D 2e was designed on the assumption that everybody would roll their characters randomly, and it was hard (even for the designers of Player's Option: Skills and Powers) to come up with a point-buy system that didn't make life miserable for classes that had ridiculous entry requirements, like the ranger and paladin.

However, my excitement was tempered by the fact that the number of points given to create a character in this system seemed too low. It just seemed like 25 points was too few to make a really heroic character. The characters I made with 25 points in that system also seemed to pale in comparison to most characters I randomly rolled using 4d6-drop-the-lowest.

The internet agreed with me. In a thread on the old WotC boards dedicated to crunching the character creation numbers, one user ran a computer program that found that, when the 3.x hopeless character rule was taken into account, the average rolled PC's stats were worth 29-30 points on WotC's table.

When WotC moved on to 4e and another company took up the mantle of "traditional" d20 fantasy gaming, I was eager to see what happened to point buy. It turns out that the PRD "purchase" system uses a table that scales more harshly than the old WotC table. Furthermore, there seems to be no relation between the default random method and the Standard Fantasy point value. In other words, 15 points on the PRD table is as bad as 25 on the D&D 3.x table.

My Old Solutions

In my abandoned house rules, I wanted my random and planned character creation methods to be roughly equal in power level. The goal was to have different power levels, each with a random method, a point-buy number, and a default array, with the point-buy value and the array roughly equal in power to the average character created by the die roll method. It was an ambitious undertaking, and I did a lot of math and a lot of online research into sites like this one to make things match up.

In the end, I got frustrated trying to come up with default arrays, especially after I decided to try to give two per power level: one with no weaknesses and another with a weakness and a higher top ability score. I decided it would be easier to accomplish this design goal in a system that didn't have the 3-18 range of scores, and at that point, I was basically making another game, and not just houseruling an existing one. Of course, I was almost going down that road anyway, since I made my own point-buy table for those rules.

I abandoned the idea of making my own point-buy table for my potential campaigns, since I didn't think I'd ever find a group of players who would try it. I also abandoned my first system for figuring out how many points to give for each power level. However, I've since come up with a new system for that.

My New Solution

The key to my new system for finding point buy numbers is calculating the cost of a spread of ability scores centered on the average for a given random method. The weakness of even the most thought-out point-buy systems was that they calculated the cost of buying the average ability score six times, and rolling a character rarely gives you a set of scores that close together. Thus, those systems create radically underpowered characters.

The system I finally settled on is described here. As an example of the system in action, I will find the point value of the standard 4d6-drop-the-lowest method for the PRD Purchase Table (spoiler alert: it's not 15 points). However, this method works with the SRD table or any other point-buy table for a d20 game.

  1. Find the average die roll of your random method. You can use any number of online tools to do this. A simple tool can be found here. If you're comfortable writing code, you can also use AnyDice. The average die roll for the standard 4d6 method is 12.24.
  2. Add the point values for the whole number part of the average and the three scores above and below that number. For 12.24, we drop the .24, keep the 12, and add the point values of 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, and 15. These values are -1, 0, 1, 2, 3, 5, and 7. The total is 17.
  3. Multiply the result of Step 2 by 6/7 and round the result to the nearest whole number. In our example, 17 x 6/7 = about 14.57, which rounds up to 15.
  4. Repeat Steps 2 and 3 for the number above the one you used in Step 2. In this case, the next higher number is 13, so we add the point values for 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, and 16. Those values are 0, 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, and 10, for a total of 28. Twenty-eight x 6/7 is 24.
  5. Multiply the fractional part of your average die roll by the difference between the numbers from Step 4 and Step 3. The difference between 24 and 15 is 9. Nine x 0.24 = 2.16.
  6. Add the results of Step 3 and Step 5 and round the result to the nearest whole number. In our example, 15 + 2.16 = 17.16, which rounds down to 17. Our point value for the standard character creation method (4d6, drop the lowest) is 17.
This method has a couple of potential weaknesses. While it generally gives more accurate point values than official sources for any d20 game, it still somewhat underrates point values when used on a steeply scaling table (like the PRD table). However, depending on how highly you rate the power of picking your scores, you may see this quirk as a feature, not a bug.