Monday, April 23, 2012

I Love Mechanics Monday: Making NPCs Matter

Over on System San Setting Mass Effect 3 is brought up as a way to make NPCs matter - have them grant some sort of in-game effect, i.e., rescuing Baron Gets-Lost-A-Lot grants you access to his cavalry for future endeavors, or Bailing Sir Never-To-Do-All-That-Well out of a tight spot makes his sister, who is married to the king, give you a bonus to all your attempts to convince the King of your plans.

What caused my head to snap was the line "there are few elements of player psychology more powerful than the act of putting something on a character sheet," and I went really? Cause my players are fully capable and have ignored such items. But I think that says more about my players' engagement with the system (there's a reason why that attempt lasted so little time) than anything else.

But assuming you have buy-in, this sort of NPC so-and-so requires a certain amount of gamification of the arcs. Where players know going in what the stakes are "Well if you do this, you'll get this sort of reward," and feeds best into something beyond the straight kill monsters for the glory and safety - where there's a larger meta-game at play of various power groups.

Combat and wargaming are the easy ones because social conflicts are so nebulous to describe and to provide tactical advantage for. It is easy to make the Baron's cavalry more impressive and useful, but how do you quantify boons? (Okay some games, such as Cortex+ where the boon would be an asset to improve the roll it is easy, but there's more than one reason why the Cortex+ line is seducing me with its siren call.)

Eclipse Phase does it with Rep gains, which are basically currency in the post-scarcity age. I could see Fate doing it with an Aspect with a free tag or two to hit to shift a crucial roll.

But I'm sort of stymied at this point. Cortex+'s solution, a persistent asset seems to be the most reasonable one of the bunch; however, it is tied into the system tightly - I come back to "And there needs to be some sort of secondary game where these resources come into play" which brings me back to the system of Reign, which while it did not work for my group, did provide a nifty state actor versus state actor venue to play in.

Monday, April 16, 2012

I Love Mechanics Monday: Social Conflict

I'm a sucker for social conflict resolution mechanics. I mean really, a "here take my money, I heard this game had an interesting way to resolve social conflict" type sucker.

Diaspora, which I mentioned last week, probably had the most variety on social mechanics; however, while portable to other systems fairly easily, the idea of drawing maps and social boundaries is very much rooted in the base mechanic.

However, over at Division Nihil a while back the idea of describing social conflict as a chase rather than combat came up from another blog. And it is a neat idea - the two parties start somewhere between two boundaries, and depending on which side shifts the weight of the chase to their side "wins".

And really as I write this we get down to the heart of the problem - combat is relatively easy to simulate because we allow ourselves to reduce things down basic tasks (generally) "Do I hit?" "How much damage do I do?" And because of that simplicity, for whatever other stunts come along the way, it makes it easy to adjudicate. Unfortunately, this simplicity allows for some problem areas to come up, such as every fight being a fight to the bitter end because running away isn't generally a successful option.

However, chase mechanics combined with a compromise/concession mechanic allows for a slightly different visualization - instead of it being combat where you are trying to beat down the opposition first, you are instead on a teeter totter trying to move the weight of the argument.

Now, Marshall, has an interesting idea where the stake setting for the chase is dependent on the importance of the conflict to both characters. If one person ("the prey") sets their importance at 2, and another ("the predator") sets their importance to 5, we have a dedicated predator chasing after a prey who doesn't much care. I think Marshall's plan fails due to over complication - too many rules and modifiers.

I'd probably go with something along the lines of "The worst penalty you can take is dependent on what you risk." So the guy who goes all in at a maximum importance is risking his entire ego, while the other guy at a 2 is only risking a little. Sure the hell fire and brimstone chap will be probably win because they have more staying power; but if he does lose, he'll be devastated.

I'm still not "happy" and I'm not sure what will make me happy. I want a relatively impartial die mechanic to resolve my social conflict, the same as I want a relatively impartial die mechanic to resolve my physical conflict, and as one of my favorite quotes on the matter goes,"You can either let the dice decide or let the GM decide, this goes for any type of resolution from social mechanics to hitting with a sword to finding a trap" therefore I need a way that works for my players to resolve them using words and not fists/swords/eldritch hell blasts/explosives to solve their problems, and something that gives narrative weight to the conflict beyond a single roll - we know combat is important because combat frequently gets the screen time; well in my games social conflict frequently gets the screen time, ergo, I need something that'll give me what I want for that conflict.

I'll definitely need to be talking more about this later. Especially, the Weapons of the Gods implementation, which is probably my favorite system for describing "influencing" someone versus convincing them flat-out.

Monday, April 9, 2012

I Love Mechanics Monday: Resources and Wealth

I have a love hate relationship with resource mechanics - I either find them annoying to deal with (mind your coppers and silvers) or they are broad enough they reduce the ability to grant awards - "So how much is he willing to pay us?" "Uhhhh....resources 3."

Kaiju had a two part series on money starting with the an abstract wealth system and moving to more detailed systems used elsewhere. This got me to thinking about wealth systems and what it means to the stories and tales that we tell - and how they are dependent on the mechanics.

In an abstract system, the importance of money is diminished in the game, in my experience. Rarely is the story about whether there'll be enough money to buy bullets, food, or keep the ship in the air, but instead generally about favors and obligations instead. Because generally there's a limit to the amount of things Wealth can do, for example having five dots in Resources means there's no where else for a character to go for money. It makes tales about hard scrabbling difficult, one because there's little granularity in the system, and second because you bump into a case of not really having a good reason to do a job for cash - "well a $500 bucks isn't going to actually boost my resources score, so why am I doing this again?"

In a dollars and cents system, the stories tend to be more about acquisition because there IS no finite limit to the amount of wealth you can have. You can always hit another dragon's lair for more treasure, or raid an arcology for another piece of hot tech for Mr. Johnson, or some other mad money making scheme with your free trader. But it involves a lot of book keeping, especially if you use multiple currency, and also inflation is a problem.

Coming up with a solution that works in all situations is a bit of a holy grail - as Marshall noted at Division Nihil, where he says
A wealth system should be able to handle several important story functions. The characters should be able to be stripped of their resources and forced to scrabble to survive. Common, everyday expenses should be able to be easily ignored. (These two goals are very difficult to reconcile.) The players should feel strongly rewarded when they either find a large treasure or get paid a large fee. A character should be able to be designated as "rich" mechanically, with significant bonuses as a result. The economy of the setting should either make sense within the rules, or be abstracted to the point that the characters have relatively little impact on the wider economy.

Diaspora, which is based on Fate, got around some of the problems of the granular system by introducing a "Wealth" stress track, basically large purchases caused damage to the track and and eventually caused the characters to suffer consequences, consequences which then made it subsequently easier to take a character out of a conflict. Yes, being behind on your bills could make it easier to knock you out of a fight. The joys of a narrative system.

As Kaiju noted - Conan d20 got around the inflation point by causing the heroes to spend 50% of their wealth in "high living" -- drinking, wenching, feasting, repair and equipping. Shadowrun did something similar with different standards of living.

I prefer the abstract wealth systems - mostly because it stops me from having to care about figuring out how to separate characters from their wealth. Without some sort of mechanic inherent in a granular system to remove wealth from the players just continues to grow until it reaches preposterous amounts (aka fundamentally the "wealth has ceased to be a motivating factor" issue within abstract systems).

But an abstract system does force the game to be about different things - as a rule hard scrabble existence will not be a driving motivation for the characters. Equipment, outside of special gear, will not be a driving force because the conversation goes along the lines of: "I want to buy this." "Are your resources high enough?" "Ayup." "Done."

So what can you do with abstract systems to make them motivate - there's making buying the next level cheaper. "So what do we get paid for this?" "Enough for me to give you a 1 xp discount on buying the next level of wealth." Yeah, it is a conceit to the system, but it works well enough for me.

There's going to be no holy grail - therefore, I look for the system that lets me tell the story I run - ones where wealth is merely a tool for clearing out common obstacles and let the rest of the problems be ones that money can't solve. Admittedly, this eliminates as a rule the idea that characters shall be "stripped of their resources and forced to scrabble to survive" but I'm okay with that, it isn't a story I want to tell, often, and when I do, I can arrange it so that benefit is unavailable when I do, rarely, run a plotline that calls for wealth to be unavailable.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Mile High Ways: Wounded and Limping Along

So my Dresden Files game is teetering and tottering to ending. The vagaries of being adults with jobs, families, and life events happening just got to be too much; making it no one's fault. This stuff just happens. We're still discussing what to do, whether to try and add 1-2 new players and figure out how to integrate them (do we just slot them in, do we redo some city creation) or do we just call it a good show and end it here and maybe try something different in time? Still not sure.

However, I wanted to put some lessons learned so far from  running the game:

Monday, April 2, 2012

I Love Mechanics Monday: Grappling Subsystems

Grappling. Is there anything that slows down combat more? (Okay, outside of a Zenith Exalted not knowing their charm set or a wizard not knowing their spells?)

It is infrequently used, it is either drastically over- or under-powered in the system and is almost always too complex because it is trying to model too closely the drama. Over on System Sans Setting, this issue was brought up, and the principle of working from the goal oriented modeling basis was raised - instead of trying to model the process, start with the goals and work backwards from that point.

So what is the goal of grappling someone? In my view there are 4 points, some of which are covered in the above post:

  1. Keep the defender from escaping.
  2. Limiting or directing a defender's movements.
  3. Use the defender as a shield against other opponents.
  4. Remove options from their combat arsenal, either by limiting movement, or by removing weapons, whether they are effective attacks or removing actual weapons.

The question though is how to model this?

And every time I try to write something down I find myself getting tied in overly complicated game mechanic knots. So I'm going to try and write something for a Fate based system without looking up the rules.

A grapple is basically a Block combat action. It is a long lasting block that applies against all maneuvers applied against it. As blocks are reduced when bypassed this simulates the guy getting free. Sure there's the oddball case that you could have a highly effective grapple that's easily broken, but that's life within the system.

So what about moving someone (such as throwing/shoving them), using them as a shield, or other items? Well some of those are just attacks or maneuvers, and other parts are stunts (especially the using a grapple victim as a shield).

So let's just see how my 30 second "in my mind" rules set matches up against how the Dresden Files RPG deals with grapples:

  1. Grapples are blocks that need an aspect to justify. (Major difference - in my mind, grappling is just another maneuver, here it is a special maneuver that requires justification to be executed.)
  2. Roll Might skill. (No real problem there, I never specified the skill needed.)
  3. Establishes a Block against all actions that a target takes in a round. (Okay so far so good)
  4. On subsequent rounds, you may make a follow-up Block attack and take a -1 penalty for a supplemental action to either attack, move, or maneuver. (No real problem here, a free 1 stress hit isn't too bad; I'd probably use a stunt to enhance this, but that seems a decent compromise to allow a MMA/ground fighter something to demonstrate their skill.)
Heh, not too off, so that means I've either read the book too many times or internalized the system

And here's the issue discussing systems, each system has a purpose built by its creators. Fate is designed, I'd like to think, to simulate the narrative of the action, so this sort of action works. Something like GURPS, on the other hand, tries much harder to simulate 'reality'. Now how about something troublesome like D&D?

In 3/3.5 edition, I'm not sure what I'd do. It has been a long, long time since I've even looked at the rules. The principle would be ensuring that the opponent's actions are limited, so an attack that instead of inflicting damage inflicts a penalty instead would probably be appropriate, but not sure where to go after that.

4th Edition it is a little simpler. They made a grab condition that limits actions and the ability to get away from the attacker, and it looks like, after some research, some Fighter powers and feats to make a brawler possible. So there you go. 

Edited: So it is a bit late, still on a Monday.