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.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Blast From the Past

I stumbled on a printed-out manuscript of some old house rules I made up for Pathfinder. That project started out as a bunch of small changes I was going to make to the rules, but the changes grew to the point where I figured I might as well write my own game instead of expressing my changes as a set of house rules. That's when I started work on my own personal d20 heartbreaker, combining elements of Pathfinder and True20 into an unholy mishmash.

Over the last few years, I've refined some of the assumptions behind those house rules. However, since I'm trying to get back into blogging and other forms of writing, I figured I'd do a series of posts on those old rules, the good and bad points about them (as I see it), and some new rules incorporating some ideas from those house rules. I hope to do a post on each chapter of that manuscript. Following the sequence of chapters, the topics, in order, will be:

  1. Character Creation (die rolls, point buy, and default arrays)
  2. Classes (with an emphasis on the core classes)
  3. Gamemastering (encounter and NPC design, plus character advancement, for reasons to be discussed later)
  4. GM Tricks (ways to make these house rules waaay more flexible than the standard game)
The first post might be coming later this week, and I'm going to try to get these posted in fairly rapid succession (at least compared to my usual turtle-paced writing).

Monday, February 22, 2016

Session Recap: Running an Instant Adventure

(Note: This post contains massive spoilers for the adventure "A Shadow Out of Innsmouth" from the book Strange Revelations. Anybody who is playing or might be playing this scenario in the near future shouldn't read any further.)

One of the GMs of my Friday night gaming group recently decided to take a hiatus from running games, so now the group does one-shots and/or boardgame nights every other week. I got to run the first one-shot, and I chose to run "A Shadow Out of Innsmouth," one of the adventures from Strange Revelations: Ten Instant Adventures for The Strange. I chose that particular adventure because 1) It's set on Earth, so I didn't have to introduce a bunch of novice Cypher System players to the concept of different character mechanics for different recursions, and 2) it's really Lovecraftian, and the group has played a fair amount of Call of Cthulhu.

There were a few challenges to staging and running this adventure. First, there was the matter of creating pregenerated characters. Though Strange Revelations comes with six pregens in the back of the book, this group has 9-10 regular players at this point, so I had to create four more. Creating extra pregens is a little more problematic in Cypher System games than in others because every character must have a connection to the other PCs. So I didn't have to just create the mechanics of the characters, I had to create a cohesive team of four people with preexisting relationships.

The second challenge was dealing with a group of people who mostly had little experience with the Cypher System. I had run a Numenera instant adventure as a one-shot when one of the GMs had to cancel at the last minute, but only three of the players who started this one-shot had played in that game. That meant I had to try to briefly explain Cypher System mechanics for the uninitiated. Unfortunately, I'm not very good at explaining these things verbally in an engaging way, so I eventually just had to promise the players that the system plays much better than it sounds or even reads and start the game. They did have several copies of the cheat sheet in the book to help with the basics.

The actual gameplay went pretty well. The only glitch was that completing the adventure took two nights instead of one, but that was because the roleplay-heavy investigative phase of the adventure turned out to be so much fun that it stretched out for a while. This meant that the players didn't really interact with the system very much. They made maybe 3-4 die rolls in the entire session.

The accounts of the session will make more sense to readers who are familiar with the Cypher System in general and with The Strange in particular.

The First Session

The adventure began when the PCs were assigned by the Estate, an organization devoted to combating threats to Earth from other recursions (alternate worlds usually spawned by leakage of fictional ideas from Earth into the dark energy network known as The Strange), to investigate a rash of suicides and weird happenings in the town of Duvall, Massachusetts. After arriving in Duvall, they decided, on the advice of their Estate handler, to begin at the local police department. Because one of the PCs was a police officer, they were able to use his uniform to get easy access to the officer on the case as a task force sent from Boston to help on this unusual case. The sergeant on the case was convinced that it was just a coincidence of a cluster of suicides coinciding with teenage pranks creating strange lights at night. However, the PCs were able to convince her to lend them the severed, mummified amphibious head she had on her desk, which she was convinced was a fake created by prankster teenagers. One of the PCs, gifted with the ability to detect Strange phenomena by concentrating, had determined that the head radiates Strange energy, so the head was tested by one of the group's paradoxes using his field science kit. That testing determined that the head was in fact made of shrunken or mummified flesh.

But the PCs still had nowhere to go with this information, so they began interviewing the survivors of the suicide victims and found that they all had some connection to an abandoned scrapyard at the edge of town. One of the victims had worked at a store near the scrapyard and reported nonspecific nightmares. Another had reported nightmares about "lizard men" in the salvage yard. In the third case, a survivor had reported having her own nightmares after her daughter's suicide, involving a metallic monster with car headlight eyes in the scrapyard. I had to make up a lot of details during this phase of the adventure, since the instant adventure format leaves out a lot of ordinary detail to allow the GM to absorb the outline of the adventure in a short time. This resulted in a lot of inconsistencies -- or at least oddities -- as I made things up on the spot or went with assumptions the players made. For example, thought neither the module nor I assigned ages to the suicide survivors, the players decided that one of them was very old. Eventually, they even settled on a specific age: 83. I went along with these assumptions because I had no other concrete information, so I ended up in the middle of a debate about whether an 83-year-old man would be strong enough to hang himself.

In any case, unsure whether they were dealing with the Iron Giant, the Creature From the Black Lagoon, or a "Mongolian death cult," the group decided to head to the scrapyard. There, they met Gavin Pearce, a blogger and conspiracy theorist who has become obsessed with the site and the strange lights and odors that sometimes emanate from it at night. One of the PCs, a spinner specialized in pleasant social interaction, tried to ingratiate herself to Gavin by pretending to be a fan of his blog. Something she said about the blog that was a little bit off prompted Gavin to ask her more detailed questions about what she liked about his content. Gavin is a Level 4 character for most tasks, so with her specialization in play, our spinner only needed to roll a 6 or better on a d20 to bluff him. However, she rolled a natural 1, triggering a GM intrusion. Since Gavin is always on the lookout for "the feds" or other hostile/skeptical organizations, I decided that she failed to bluff him in a way that put his guard up and made him unwilling to trust her.

Fortunately, other PCs were able to talk Gavin down, especially when the paradox with the field science kit mentioned his engineering skills and interest in scouting the scrapyard remotely. At that point, Gavin mentioned his new drone, which he intends to fly over the barricaded scrapyard to see what's inside. The paradox offered to replace the drone's camera with a smartphone with a video webcam, increasing the drone's flight time. At this point, I called the session because it was late and I wasn't sure how to handle the attempt to modify the drone.

The Second Session

This was where things started to get real. While the first session involved few die rolls, this session would involve combat, meaning lots of rolls and lots of mechanical information coming into play. However, first we had to get through the PCs' attempts to scout out the scrapyard by drone. My better-rested self decided to make the Difficulty of the attempt to modify a 4, assuming it was something that would be hard for the average person but not hard for any kind of tech geek. The player rolled a natural 20, so I ruled that he found a way to increase the flight time to 45 minutes from the 30 I had originally given for a success.

One of the PCs flew the drone into the yard and discovered a monstrous humanoid-sized rat with tentacles protruding from its mouth, a man with a mohawk drawing weird symbols on the walls of an abandoned warehouse within the yard, and a group of green humanoids holding some kind of animated discussion. Those among the PCs trained in Strange lore determined 

Armed with this information, the PCs couldn't agree on which direction to go once inside the scrapyard. So one group of PCs headed to the back left corner of the scrapyard to deal with the "discussion group" of monstrous humanoids, while the other headed for the building with the symbol-drawing man.

The encounter with the discussion group was a straightforward combat. Once the PCs saw how green and scaly the participants were, one of them opened fire at the most charismatic of the group. He missed, but alerted the monsters to the PCs' presence. Fortunately, two of the PCs beat the monsters in the subsequent initiative checks, and the "charismatic" monster was dealt a great deal of damage before the monsters got to act. This meant that only five of them charged into melee range of the PCs, while the charismatic one hung back and urged his comrades on. Thus, there was no danger of one of the PCs being swarmed by a full half dozen attackers. This group of PCs was able to defeat their adversaries with minimal damage, easily recovered through cyphers and recovery rolls. They were rewarded with a bag on the body of the charismatic monster, which contained three cyphers and a copy of the Pnakotic manuscripts, a book of magical rituals, one of which could close a gate to a recursion.

Meanwhile, the other group approached the warehouse with the symbol-painting man by skirting the right edge of the scrapyard. Unfortunately, the ratlike monstrosity noticed them and charged them. Two of the remaining three PCs (two others in this group had to leave early) fled; but one, the paradox who had increased the drone's flight time, stood his ground and used his Exception ability to fire at the thing. His first attempt missed, but his second hit for extra damage. However, the monstrosity was tough and it was still standing. The paradox bypassed his last chance to flee and the monster closed on him. He rolled badly on his Speed defenses to dodge the three simultaneous tentacle attacks the monster brought to bear. The 15 points of damage left him in bad shape, but he took one more shot with Exception and missed. The monster's next attacks left him barely alive. Fortunately, the monster wasn't hungry, and was only attacking intruders out of instinct, so it left him to make recovery rolls and slink off.

When this group got to the large warehouse, the found the man drawing the symbols. They encountered him and discovered that his skin was green and scaly. He asked if they were "new recruits" to his cause of summoning "the Great Lord" to this world. The spinner who had earlier offended Gavin Pearce decided to play along. She was much more successful this time, partly because the cult leader was a megalomaniac and fanatic who will believe anybody who kissed his ass and professed devotion to his cause. However, she had to work her diplomatic chops extra hard when members of the other group of PCs showed up and immediately tried to shoot the green, scaly man (named Ratliff Mason) on sight. Fortunately, she rolled well and convinced him that the violence against him was the result of problems the characters needed the baptism of "our Great Lord" to relieve.

The next issue for the PCs was whether to undergo this baptism in a pool of rusty water, which would turn them into scaly monstrosities, in order to get Ratliff to let them into the building with his summoning gate. The PCs were able to get some time alone, during which the ones who encountered the discussion group showed the others the spell in the Pnakotic Manuscripts which could close the gate. Knowing they had the proper tools to solve the problem, they decided to split into two groups. One group of four would create a distraction in front of the "gatehouse" to bring all the cult members inside out into the open. The second group of three PCs would then, disguised as transformed cultists (one of my extra pregens was trained in disguise), would slip into the gatehouse and try to close the gate.

The distraction worked to perfection, as one of the PCs, a melee specialist with Looks for Trouble as her focus, charged a cultist and screamed at the top of her lungs about "lizard scum." In response to this provocation, our deceptive spinner shouted "Heretics!", charged the other PCs, and pretended to be so cowed by a miss from the melee brawler that she cowered behind Ratliff for protection. This fracas brought out all the cultists from the gatehouse, and "Team Gate" sneaked in as planned.

Once inside, Team Gate had to contend with a creature's tentacles protruding through a hole in time and space. Once one of the PCs began chanting an incantation from the Pnakotic Manuscripts while holding the mummified head from the sergeant's desk, the tentacles tried to attack her. Unfortunately, her two teammates were ineffective at harming the tentacles, so she took the brunt of all three of them on the monster's first turn. In fact, one PCs attempt to shoot the tentacles resulted in a natural 1, and I decided that his shot had somehow enabled another tentacle to grow out of the creature's mouth.

Meanwhile, "Team Distraction," after a couple of rounds of successful attacks followed by maulings from multiple cultists on each target, decided to trigger a gravity inversion cypher, allowing them to huddle together in a 10-foot sphere while gravity within 20 feet outside that sphere inverted, raising all the cultists into the air for the duration of the attempt to close the gate.

Inside the gatehouse, the chanter's teammates had used a cypher to heal some of her damage, but it was looking like a close call as to whether she would finish the ritual before the tentacles killed her. Then she remembered that one of her cyphers was a smartphone app that would blind the area within immediate range of her to all senses. She had one of her teammates fish out her smartphone and use the app for her. At that point, it was a matter of waiting a couple of rounds while the ritual was finished. Once that happened, the gate closed, the horrific creature was trapped in its own recursion once more, and the transformed cultists turned back to regular human beings. Unfortunately, since all the surviving ones had fallen upward a great distance, they all died once the gravity inversion effect ended.

That left only Ratliff Mason, who charged into the gatehouse when the gate closed, knowing what must have happened. Team Gate was able to deal with him relatively handily, since he had lost his ability to cast magical spells like Horrify when the gate closed.

At that point, the PCs left, giving minimal information to the waiting Gavin Pearce, and returned to the Estate, where they found out that the being on the other side of the gate was H.P. Lovecraft's horrific creation Cthulhu, and that Ratliff Mason had discovered a recursion based on Cthulhu's home city of R'lyeh and was trying to summon him through an inapposite gate which leaked magical and psionic energy into the scrapyard. This energy would have allowed Cthulhu to function normally inside the scrapyard, instead of disintegrating as he normally would in a world based on Standard Physics.


Once the players got into the action, the Cypher System mechanics seemed easy for the players to grasp in play. This matches up with my experience playing in a Numenera demo vs. reading the books. Furthermore, combat went faster than it would in many other games. In fact, one of the players remarked that we would have had to carry the adventure over into next week if we had been doing these combats in a d20 System game. 

The speed of combat was a definite advantage for this game when playing with a large group (especially when running two simultaneous combats at the end). However, the Strange has some peculiar disadvantages when running with 8-10 players. First, the Cypher System's rule that no two players have the same focus, combined with the Strange's limits on which foci can be used in which recursions, can lead to few choices for players. I had to go to the supplement The Strange in Translation to find appropriate descriptors and foci for my extra pregens. The problem gets worse when you consider how few foci are offered for some recursions in both the core rules and supplements. If I ran a campaign for a group this large, I would probably have to dig into supplements for more foci for some recursions, should the PCs go there.

With that caveat, I feel the adventure went pretty well. My philosophy is that character death should be rare, but the players should feel like their characters might die any time. I think this session fulfilled that goal. One PC would have died if it was a campaign and they could spend the rest of the session working on a new character. The others were often impaired and had to use healing cyphers and recovery rolls to keep themselves relatively healthy. The PCs were challenged enough to use their cyphers relatively freely, and innovative cypher use helped to resolve the final encounter.

My only regret was that I didn't have Ratliff call on his Iron Titan to assemble and scare the crap out of Team Distraction at the end. However, the party was already in enough danger at that point.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Movie Analysis: The Force Awakens

I won't call this post a review of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens because most of it will be of little use if you haven't already seen the movie. After the first paragraph, I will post many spoilers, including major ones, because it's hard to discuss my impressions of the movie precisely without referring to these plot elements. So if you haven't seen The Force Awakens but intend to do so before it leaves the theaters, here's my quick take on it: it's a good movie, but not worthy of the hype it's been given.

It's prevented from achieving greatness by a knee-jerk reflex on the part of writer/director J.J. Abrams and his co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt to echo Episode IV of this saga at every available opportunity. This movie is executed well enough, in terms of both acting and cinematography, that it would be great if its script was a little less derivative. However, it is still better than the prequels and not nearly as stupid as Prometheus. In fact, children and people who haven't seen the "original" Star Wars movies (Episodes IV-VI) will love it, so feel free to introduce people to the Star Wars franchise with this movie. Just don't expect to be as overjoyed as they are.

Now, on to the detailed reasoning behind that assessment....

Spoilers Below---------------------------------------------------------------

I only saw one of the prequel films (Episodes I-III for the Lucas nomenclature purists) in the theater, and I was late enough that I walked into Revenge of the Sith in the middle of the first scene. So it had been over thirty years since I had seen the opening title sequence of a Star Wars movie in the theater. I admit there were some chills when that card saying "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away..." came up, followed by the main title and the John Williams music. 

And the echoes continued. The first shot after the traditional opening crawl was of a Star Destroyer filling the screen. Okay, this time the image was not followed by rebels scrambling to defend their blockade runner. Instead, we had shots of stormtroopers scrambling into transports for the attack. So, basically a mirror image of the opening of Episode IV. Then we get a confrontation between a villain dressed in black and an aristocratic person who gives them guff, and an important piece of information entrusted with a droid. At this point, I was wondering if this was going to be a beat-by-beat restaging of Episode IV with minor deviations.

Fortunately, The Force Awakens turned out not to be quite that derivative, but there are repeated callbacks. For example, a shot of the Millennium Falcon leaving a large spaceship's docking bay under fire is composed almost exactly like the image of the Falcon leaving Mos Eisley in Episode IV. Then there's the plot element of a chase across a desert planet in search of a droid.

Fortunately, there are enough original elements to keep things interesting, like the character of Finn, a stormtrooper who rebels against his conditioning when faced with the brutal reality of combat and the First Order's indiscriminate shooting of civilians afterward. His determination to get away from the First Order but unwillingness to directly confront it echoes a couple of different character arcs from Episode IV, especially when he interacts with other characters, but it feels genuine and not like a stale repetition.

Two of the most obvious echoes of Episode IV are the Starkiller base and the death of Han Solo at the hands of Kylo Ren. The first is a muddled attempt to make a bigger, badder Death Star. The second is an echo of one of Episode IV's most iconic scenes and is too obviously foreshadowed for viewers of Episode IV who are paying attention.

The Starkiller base is the worst-conceived, worst executed idea in the whole movie. The entire sequence in which it "destroys the Republic" is bizarre. We're never told exactly which planets it destroyed or why everybody on the planet where the heroes are can see the bolts travelling through space and figure out exactly which planets are being destroyed.

Then there's the whole technical explanation of how the Starkiller base works. The act of charging the thing's batteries creates an apocalypse in and of itself. Any organization other than the First Order would have just taken it around the galaxy draining stars of their energy. The new would-be Empire, on the other hand, decides this is not enough and figures out how to use that stellar energy to destroy planets from across the galaxy. The logic is never really explained.

Finally, there is the death of Han Solo, which closely mirrors the death of Obi-Wan in Episode IV. In both scenes, the hero (Luke in Episode IV, Rey in Episode VII) sees his or her mentor figure (Obi-Wan in Episode IV, Han Solo in Episode VII) getting killed by the main villain. Because of the script's careful foreshadowing, I could predict the end of this scene from its beginning. The resonances with Episode IV were just too carefully constructed and pointed out. That killed the impact of what was supposed to be the most shocking plot twist in this movie. It's a shame, too, because in some ways the scene itself was better than its inspiration in Episode IV. There are higher stakes for both audience and characters. While Obi-Wan was somebody we had just met in Episode IV (for those of us who didn't watch Episodes I-III first), Han Solo is somebody we have a long history with. While Obi-Wan is just trying to get past the apprentice who disappointed him and onto the Millennium Falcon, Han is trying to redeem his wayward son so he can face his estranged wife without feeling like he failed his whole family. This scene should have been an unqualified triumph. Instead, it falls flat because of its obvious setup.

Still, Episode VII is a solidly executed film that sets the franchise back on solid footing. I just wish it wasn't using its predecessors as a crutch.