Author Archives: thehydradm
Full disclosure: this will be a very high-falutin’ theory post. It will not give you actionable material for Saturday’s game, but it may prompt in you some thoughts of your own that may yield results many weeks down the line. Your mileage may vary.
One of the reasons I originally followed @TheIdDM on Twitter (and one of the reasons I regularly took the premises of some of his posts on his blog and ran with them on my own) was not only the fact that he did for a living some of what I found very interesting as a hobby (behavioral psychology), but also that he tends to prompt some very interesting questions. One such question he prompted on Twitter went as follows (hashtag included for completeness’ sake):
It’s interesting that so many people have replied “the people make the #rpg” and yet so much time is spent discussing systems. Unbalanced?
And he’s right. What is the deal with that? For my own part, by far the majority of the content on this blog is about systems and not about people even though the people are the most important part of RPGs. Well, turns out 140 characters (or even several 140 character chunks) simply can’t be enough to express my thoughts here, so let’s begin… and hopefully by reading this you can begin to think about it, too, whether you agree with my thoughts or not.
Systems and People
Perhaps separating these two things into their own categories is something of a misnomer. After all, if we come to the logical (though disconcerting) conclusion supported by causal determinism, we can figure that a person is actually just a system with a lot of imperfect information involved. That thought is perhaps worthy of its own post, but probably on a philosophy blog and not a gaming one, so I’ll move on and leave the thought at that. For our purposes, we’re going to assume that, at the very least, the difference in degree of complexity of a human system and a tabletop RPG system turns into a difference in kind, and we’ll treat them as separate.
The first thing we need to realize here is that the tool (the RPG system) and the tool user (the person) are actually relatively inseparable, even if we don’t consider them both to be systems of simply different complexity but instead as distinct entities. Consider for a moment the martial artist wielding a sword. The sword is his tool, and if he sets it down it remains a tool but it performs no useful action. For sake of defining terms let’s consider tools that perform actions when left alone to broadly be considered automated tools (and, while we’re provoking thoughts about tools that only do things when they are used let me point you, dear reader, towards the delightful problem of the prime mover; tangential, but lots of fun to think about). In contrast, we are going to be interested in tools like the sword rather than the high-frequency stock trading machine, in that our tool of choice – the tabletop RPG – is largely non-automated.
The fact that the sword does nothing without the input of the martial artist is very much like the fact that the tabletop RPG does nothing without the input of the player(s). If nobody is there to try to take and resolve fictitious actions then the system is nothing but a pile of symbols printed on paper gathering dust in your garage (or, for the more digitally-inclined among us, a set of bits gathering e-dust on your digital storage device of choice).
There is another fact that this analogy illuminates: the martial artist can fight both with and without the sword, and while many principles are the same, the specifics of execution are generally very different. This points out that we can use many different systems, and while each of them will give us something different and worth having, at the same time the ability to play an RPG (or defend yourself) lives entirely within the player (or martial artist). Put more simply: a sword and your hand (and D&D and Call of Cthulhu) are different means to the same ends, and the skilled user can use both. Confused yet? Sorry.
Basically, the fact that you can do something different with D&D than with Call of Cthulhu is no different than being able to do something different with a rubber mallet than a steel clawhammer, or a sword than a spear. Using this knowledge, then, let’s try to look at things from a simpler perspective.
Systems as Tools
Let’s change our analogy for a minute and discuss firearms, a topic hot in the mind of the United States and around the world. If you go to a forum for firearm enthusiasts, and you say “I want a firearm to shoot at things”, the very first question you’ll probably be asked before anyone helps you decide what to buy is “what things are you going to be shooting at?” If the answer is “people breaking into my house” the gun you want is different than if the answer is “a deer in the woods”. Why? Because different guns make certain gun-centric tasks easier than others. This is the principle behind specialization: a specialist tool will beat a generalist tool at the specialist task.
The same is true of tabletop RPGs. Running a game set in the Cthulhu mythos is probably easier with Call of Cthulhu than it is with GURPS: specialist vs. generalist. Given that running an RPG at all is generally a specialist task (given how niche the hobby is, and how fragmented it is), it is probably no surprise that discussion about what system to use is the first thing that comes up. Just like the gun enthusiasts, the RPG enthusiasts assume that you are a constant and the tool is the variable. What’s up with that?
Systems as Variables and Affecting People
The answer is in the title, really: people are harder to change than systems (or at least they are systems that are harder to change than other systems). What is quicker, generally: establishing a new habit or making 30 dollars to pick up a new RPG book? Usually effectively making habits takes about a month of performing a task routinely (I speak anecdotally, but I think it’s pretty typical that it takes a few weeks before you can truly begin to do tasks on autopilot). Meanwhile making 30 dollars to get a new RPG book takes, in the US, at most a fair chunk of a day of work. If it’s 30 times faster to get a new RPG book than it is to make new habits, is it any wonder we’re obsessed with the quick fix? And really, shouldn’t we be? Why do things the hard way? More on that in a minute.
The difference between learning to shoot accurately with iron sights on a rifle at 400 meters and putting a telescopic sight on your rifle is the exact same difference between learning to use D&D in the horror genre and buying Call of Cthulhu. This is because, as I’ve established, it’s a lot faster to spend the cash and get the specialized tool for the job that makes your life easier. But… why does it make your life easier? What’s going on?
As it turns out, just as much as the person affects the tool (that is, without the person the tool will not function), the tool also affects the person. If you are using a certain tool, you will be doing a certain thing. Ever hear the saying “if all you have is a hammer every problem looks like a nail”? This is what that’s talking about. If you have a pistol you really shouldn’t be shooting at targets 400 meters away, and if you have a sniper rifle you’re really better not walking inside a house and shooting somebody right in their face from 10 feet away. By simple virtue of having a specialist tool you are going to use that specialist tool for its specialist task. If you have Call of Cthulhu out on the table, chances are strong that you’re going to run a horror game. If you have Ars Magica, chances are you’re going to be running a game about wizards in the late middle ages. And on and on.
What that means is something I picked up on as soon as I first played Spirit of the Century after only having played D&D: a good system is going to manipulate you into doing things, even things you ordinarily wouldn’t think to do, that fit the experience the game is trying to help generate. At the time I referred to its character generation method and use of Fate points, compels, invokes, and aspects as “tricking you into roleplaying well”. It felt very clever, that a game through clever use of incentives and the rules can make you do something well even if you suck at it to begin with.
This means, in fact, that we come around full circle. If you want to hit distant targets, and you’re bad at shooting at distant targets, you may want to invest in a telescopic sight. But once you get used to hitting targets at a far distance, you’ll find hitting them without the sight much easier than it used to be. If you can’t fight at all, learning to fight with a sword is going to make you suck less at fighting unarmed too (although perhaps not to a great degree). And so, with RPGs, if you can’t do horror games at all, Call of Cthulhu is there to instruct you, consciously or not, on how to do horror games.
So, at the end of that 1500 words, here’s what I’ve concluded. People are more important than the tools they use. But, despite this, the people and the tools are inextricably linked. There’s a reason forums across the internet discuss the best gun, or the best hammer, or the best RPG system: the tool is incredibly important, and it is also the easiest thing to change. And, by changing your tool, you can also change yourself. Slowly. Two birds, one much easier stone.
There is one thing I noticed that didn’t really fit with the flow of this post, and that’s how damn easy it is to change the tool of a tabletop RPG. Just about anybody who’s played one for a couple of hours can start changing the rules willy-nilly and at no real cost to themselves. Consider audiophiles, or car enthusiasts or any other hardcore fandom of tools, who spend thousands and thousands of dollars to acquire the perfect tools. Now consider how much gamers spend on dice and minis – again, thousands for tools in many cases. But now consider that the most critical tool to the tabletop RPG gamer – the game system – is exceedingly inexpensive. There is no real barrier to entry to start talking about how to improve an RPG system, and indeed by their very nature RPGs require their users to tweak the rules in at least very small ways (custom monsters, traps, whatever). Compare this to, say, firearms, where only licensed professionals are even allowed to make most of the changes to those tools (while they may not apply the telescopic sight, they made it, and they made the gun it’s on, too), and you have a serious recipe for endless discussions on the system rather than the people since basically anyone can contribute (though not always well). Just something to think about, I guess.
Initiative: What is it? And what are the different ways to do it?
Initiative is the general term used first by D&D (and probably taken from earlier wargames) to describe what thing (individual, team, army, whatever) acts first in a turn based game that involves action resolution. Because it’s difficult to do real time systems without some kind of computational engine to handle abstract task resolution, turn based is basically how we have to do it.
There are several categories of initiative for action decision, and they don’t always pertain exclusively to combat. Here are the ones I’ve heard of -
- Individual determined – through some statistical (i.e. mechanical) method you determine which singular entity will go at what times in the turn order.
- Group determined – through some statistical method you determine which group of entities will go at what times in the turn order.
- Individual/group non-determined – through some arbitrary non-statistical method it is determined who goes when.
The first one we are probably mostly familiar with from modern (3e, 4e) D&D. You roll your individual roll, and you go when it says you go. The second comes in a few distinct flavors, such as “side” initiative, or “chunked” initiative. This was the original category under which 1st edition AD&D operated, whereby each side (the heroes and their retinue vs. the monsters as a team) either went first or not as an entire group. The third kind of initiative we should all be familiar with if we’ve played RPGs before from the times when we weren’t fighting anything. You just kind of determined who did what on an ad hoc basis without much of a resolution system in place until it seemed important that speed was a real factor, and that’s what this category represents.
In addition to these categories, there’s also something inherent to initiative systems, which is their flexibility. Systems that let you act later than the system says you should on purpose, or that let you interrupt the order due to some special clause in the rules, or that recalculate initiative each round (as 1st edition D&D did, for instance), all have some measure of flexibility. Having the right kind and amount of flexibility is important if you’re concerned with making what is a turn based system resemble more closely the reality of simultaneous resolution.
Speaking of simultaneous resolution, that’s the final part of initiative systems. While what I’ve described up until this point is the system under which you determine who decides what to do first, also part of initiative systems is deciding who acts on their decisions first. In individual initiative systems this is generally the same order as the decision-making, while in group initiative systems it’s usually left to be murkier about who acts when. Some systems explicitly try to replicate simultaneous resolution (war gaming is especially a place where you might find this) to some degree, and others don’t.
Different kinds of initiative: why should you use them?
This is a question to which you can probably already begin to guess the answer, given just about every RPG ever published has a different take on initiative, both in and out of combat, from every other RPG ever published. Basically, the way initiative works determines at the absolute most basic level how players interface with the game in different situations. And, if everything you do is filtered through some kind of initiative system, it’s probably a good idea to think about that system!
Some historically important initiative systems follow -
1st edition Advanced D&D
The critical elements of 1e AD&D’s combat initiative system is that in combat it is side based (though it says it could be individual based it specifically mentions that often that would be too cumbersome), is resolved at the beginning of each round (so the order of combatants who go first can regularly change), and has a system whereby spell-casting is basically decoupled from normal initiative (declare spell prior to initiative resolution, then see how long it takes and if you’re interrupted while you do it via normal initiative actions).
You can read more here about why this system might be interesting.
Critical elements here are that surprise is no longer resolved statistically, while initiative is by default individual based and resolved only once. You can, however, shift the order of the combatants by passing on your normal turn in order to act later, or in some cases (particularly in 4th edition) break into the initiative order through various rules-exceptional actions that can trigger based on certain conditions being met. This is probably what we mostly think of when we hear “initiative”.
5th edition Ars Magica
Acts mostly like the above later editions of D&D, except you can also designate several characters as a “party” (often composed of hirelings or their equivalent, rather than the powerful mages around which the game revolves), and they can determine their initiative as a group in what is otherwise a (relatively) permanent determined-once-at-the-start and individual combat initiative system.
Notable in that, like Ars Magica, it can determine initiative both individually and as a group, but also that over its course of versions has waffled between using a roll + stat for initiative order, or just using the stat.
The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen
Notable as an example of not only a GMless RPG, but also an RPG that uses a non-statistical initiative system that is still determinant, like so -
“The player to start is the member of the company with the highest rank in society. Standard rules of etiquette apply : religious titles are always deemed greater than hereditary titles, and those higher than military titles ; if of similar rank then compare subsidiary titles, number of estates or centuries that the title has been in the family ; youth defers to age ; when in doubt the highest military decoration takes seniority ; and for the rest I refer you to the works of Messrs Debrett or Collins.
If by some mischance of birth or the poor organisation of your host you are all commoners then the first player shall be he who was wise enough to purchase the most recent edition of my game. If several have, then I thank them all ; if none have then I worry if you possess sufficient understanding the nature and responsibilities of nobility to play a game such as this, relying as it does on good judgement, generosity of spirit, proper understanding of the necessity of the patronage of worthy artists, writers and publishers, and not being a pinch-penny. If this manner of beginning is not agreeable, then the player to start should be he who was last to refill the company’s glasses.”
No list of notable initiative systems would be complete without Dungeon World for a very simple reason: it uses the same initiative system both in combat and out of combat, which is something most fantasy RPGs don’t do. And, what’s more, it is a non-statistical system based on the whim of the group or orchestrated by the GM’s whim, which most RPG players would be familiar with as to how you handle initiative outside of combat in most games.
So what are these all good for?
Each of these systems of determining who acts when and in what capacity gives a slightly different spin on the way you interact with the world. I could go on and on listing more and more systems you could rip off and steal, but these should suffice in terms of training you, the reader, to recognize what an initiative system does for you given each of the different methods. Acting strictly individually tends to have the benefits of somewhat modeling the confusion of fast-paced action – you don’t really get a few minutes to discuss what you plan to do if bullets are flying by your head right this very instant (and it also tends to speed up play by focusing more on the doing and less on the planning). It can also lead to bigger surprises the less input others have into each others’ actions (which you can see at work in GMless games for the most part, like Microscope). Acting in larger groups, with more opportunity for discussion, tends to slow the game down, but also make it more engaging as you solve problems as a social unit.
These are especially true if individual initiative has congruous action decision and action resolution, and if group initiative has diverged action decision and action resolution as discussed above in the previous section.
Some initiative systems are more realistic, allowing constant interruptions and simultaneous action resolution, but they tend to suffer in terms of pacing what they gain in terms of verisimilitude.
Having initiative systems determined by whim rather than statistics is another road, usually less travelled as far as RPG combat is concerned, but it can bring with it a strong sense of natural flow and momentum when the group is well-coordinated or well-conducted by a game-master.
The House Rule Test
- Is the game better off with this rule than without it?
- Does this rule do what it sets out to do?
- Is this rule as simple as possible?
Like in the last entry, these questions are best answered by you, not by me. The initiative systems I’ve presented here are but a small sampling of the kinds that exist, with what I hope was a pretty comprehensive overview of the different categories and what they’re good for. If your game isn’t in danger of going too slowly but is way too rigid feeling and needs some more player engagement and social focus? Go ahead and get some group initiative going and decouple action decision and resolution. If your game is going way too slowly? Maybe focus on individual initiative with closely coupled action decision and action resolution, verisimilitude and social problem solving be damned. Try using mechanical initiative where normally you use fiat initiative, or try using fiat initiative where normally you use mechanical initiative. Try recalculating initiative each round when normally you don’t, or try not doing it when normally you do. This is one of those things where you’re probably going to want to experiment, and all the while ask the three house rule test questions – they work just as well in retrospect as in prospect!
Ultimately, of course, you can probably subscribe to the simple notion “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. If you and your group don’t think you need to make a change then don’t! But if you feel like, hey, yeah, maybe the way we do initiative could use some work? Hopefully this has been a help.
Abstract Inventories: What are they?
Abstract inventories are essentially ways to reduce what your character carries to something that is more manageable than planning a real backpacking trip. This is a very diverse field, but some examples include the slot-based systems of Torchbearer and Dungeon World, or the “just use what seems reasonable” system of Fate. Many people already usurp the latter for use in their D&D games, but I’d like to talk about the former methods in particular.
Traditionally, the calculation of a character’s encumbrance in an RPG relied on two major factors: weight (or mass, which on Earth or an Earth-like-planet means basically the same thing for our purposes) and volume (or size). If you look back as far as 1st edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons you’ll find the former factor at work, while it takes only a few years more for 2nd edition AD&D to add the latter, with various bags being listed with given volumes and of course items being listed with weights in tenths of pounds, itself a practice dating back to 1e’s listing of weights in coins, which were themselves tenths of pounds.
While it is really interesting, as a sidebar, that a game primarily about thieving treasure out from under the guard of dangerous monsters would give you an item’s weight literally in gold coins so you could tell, indeed, if the item was “worth its weight in gold” or not, it is also problematic for the reasons I’ll give next.
This turned out to be a bit of a problem. Volume quickly became finicky and was for most people the first thing on the chopping block, as people hated doing Tetris in their heads. Soon afterward, weight followed, and for many it probably even went first during the time of 1st edition. The game of D&D quickly became about “just carrying what seems reasonable”, a house-rule adopted by nearly all players of D&D today and the beginnings of abstracted inventories.
However, as mentioned above, there are other ways to abstract an inventory out that are more than just based on the fiat of the game-master to say “you can/cannot carry that”, which I’d like to talk about more.
My own first encounter with abstract inventories was from The Alexandrian’s encumbrance by stone system (follow the link at the header of the article to the OD&D version to get the gist of what it’s all about, that’s a hub article), whereby you bundle items into ~10-20 lb blocks (in the case of OD&D, 15) and only ever interact with them via those blocks. Items that aren’t sufficient to warrant their own block are bundled together into a fifth of a stone, and from there you add them together into a full stone. Basically, while it ignores volume for the most part, it turns weights in tenths of pounds (meaning you’ll regularly carry around a 3 digit number, sometimes a 4 digit number if you’re rather encumbered) into weights in whole numbers that for the most part stay under 10. This is a pretty good way to do it, but I wasn’t convinced it was as good as it could be, and so I carried on looking (at the time I was in need of some encumbrance-based-gameplay for thematic reasons).
Later on I found Matt Rundle’s Anti-Hammerspace Item Tracker, which really opened my eyes to the problem of ignoring volume – you start cramming everything “in your bag”, even if it wouldn’t fit. One particularly poignant example was a story I once heard (fictitious or otherwise, you decide) of a DM who showed his player there was no way to carry 150+ arrows in his backpack by going out and renting/buying (I’m fuzzy on that detail at this point, I heard it long ago) that many arrows and dumping them on the game table. While encumbrance by fiat for volume while still using weight seems like it might be realistic enough for most purposes, in reality people make this kind of mistake all the time. Humans are generally poor at visualizing 3 dimensional space, which is why mechanical and civil engineers are put through training in that regard. The anti-hammerspace item tracker hopes to fix this by cementing items to a specific location. This means not only can you interact with them (“your backpack flies open and your rations fly into the gaping maw of the purple worm!”) better than by fiat, but you have a pretty clear limit on how much to carry. Its slot-based design is very visual. Speaking of slot-based design, that’s also what Dungeon World uses – turning weights and volumes into an arbitrary number of “slots”, which you may have X number of.
Finally, I came across Roles Rules and Rolls’ Putting Two Great Ideas Together and I was in love. It had abstracted weights and volumes into simple to use, low value, whole numbers, and it also had a sheet by which you could have definite interactions with those items. It was simple and easy to use as well as visual, and also about as realistic as one could hope for. It says a lot, of course, that a game specifically about dungeon crawling (Torchbearer) from those who gave us Burning Wheel and Mouse Guard uses a very similar system.
An addition I came up with for many of these systems is that it is very easy to use physical tokens, like poker chips or beads or whatnot, to track consumables. Having 30 poker chips in front of you makes it easy to simply discard as many as arrows you shoot – much easier and much more visceral than erasing a number on a piece of paper!
Abstract Inventories: Why should you use them?
Abstract inventories are all various ways in which you can simplify encumbrance from “pack a real backpack full of this stuff and carry it around” at one end towards “just carry what seems reasonable” at the other end. Along the way are varying levels of realism and detail, many of which I’ve discussed above, including what each of them are for. This is a more general list, which I’ll keep shorter since this article is getting quite long:
- Reduce the complexity of tracking what you’re carrying so that you can maintain momentum when you bring it up in gameplay.
- Find the right level of realism for the theme of the campaign you’re running. At one end are things often better suited to a more realistic simulation of travelling, while at the other end are things often better suited to improvisational games.
- For some, simply get the concept of “you can’t carry that much” back on the table in the first place! Lots of people ignore encumbrance thoroughly in games where it might be fun, if only it wasn’t so complicated!
The House Rule Test
- Is the game better off with this rule than without it?
- Does this rule do what it sets out to do?
- Is this rule as simple as possible?
This is a hard one for me to do within the scope of the article because so much relies on picking the right version for the game you want to play in. Ask yourself these questions in regards to making each of the above methods fit your game if the game’s encumbrance system as written doesn’t seem to do as good a job as you would like. Make sure that it fits the theme of the game (detailed encumbrance by weight and volume in a superhero game probably isn’t going to go over very well, nor is fiat in a hexcrawl), make sure that it actually seems like it would make things better, and make sure that you’re picking the version that is as simple as possible that still does that job.
Skilled Backstories: What are they?
Several games use this mechanism, including two I’ve already covered: STALKER: The SciFi Roleplaying Game and the Fate system games like Spirit of the Century, Dresden Files, Fate Core, and more. What I refer to as a “skilled backstory” is the mechanical coupling of your character’s backstory with the skills that you use in some way (for Fate this is via Aspects, while for STALKER it’s via skills, for instance). Traditionally the association is a skill or two for early life, a skill or two for your teenage years, and a skill or two you’ve picked up since then, but the exact matching of time period to number of skills varies (and that’s a good thing for us!).
A Skilled Backstory mechanism creates a forced link between a character’s backstory and their skills – where did they learn to be a doctor? A priest? A martial arts expert?
Skilled Backstories: Why should you use them?
Often times in the modern conception of a narrative-based PC-centric RPG, the GM will lack the proper kind of entities to grab on to in order to create a dramatic situation that can spin you all off into hours of improvised fun. Traditionally this is solved by creating a backstory for the characters – a way to ground them in the reality of the world by giving them a past that can be called upon for adventure fodder. This particular method of creating a backstory based on the skills you want, or choosing skills based on the backstory you want, gives this kind of purchase for the GM to grab on to.
Furthermore, it also helps to resolve the “dropped into the world fully formed from the head of Zeus” problem that tends to afflict RPG characters. By showing how they arrived where they are today you have one of the more useful kinds of backstories – one that is relatively concise and to the point.
- Grounds the characters in reality. You know how they got where they are.
- Provides hooks for the GM to grab and use in crafting adventures. If you learn a skill chances are it was through contact with society in some way and not navel-gazing, which means whatever part of society the character contacted can show up for an encore performance.
- Provides an opportunity for guest-starring or drawback implementation, as per the first two posts of this series.
The House Rule Test
- Is the game better off with this rule than without it?
- Does this rule do what it sets out to do?
- Is this rule as simple as possible?
This rule is pretty short and sweet – a couple of sentences saying where you got to be so darn proficient at something in trade for giving your character a history that the GM can use is the very definition of an affirmative to rules 2 and 3. In many cases, when running a PC-centric narrative RPG, this idea of locking the characters’ skills to their backstories works really well. I definitely recommend giving it a go if that’s the kind of game you want to run but the system you use doesn’t have an equivalent system available.
Drawbacks: What are they?
Drawbacks are a mechanism taken from the FLOW system’s “STALKER: The SciFi Roleplaying Game” based on the universe inspired by the Strugatsky brothers’ novel Roadside Picnic (to date also including several video games and a widely acclaimed film), with other minor inspirations listed from literature, cinema, and video games as well.
In this iteration of the FLOW system, characters are created by taking competencies in ability areas (like Fitness or Intellect) through specific skills within those areas (like Strong or Journalist). Depending on how many of your 10 skill trainings you devote to each ability area you gain a rating in that area that is then used to help determine your success at actions. It’s not unlike if you put your training/skill points into your skills in D&D first, and then determined your ability scores as a function of how much training you held in the skills related to that ability score.
Each of the skills you have selected to have trained, however, is meant to be a competency you gained through real world experience and training, and every time you gain competency in a skill in real life you are giving up something else in order to have it. This is the core notion behind drawbacks.
A drawback is essentially the downside to having training in a given skill. If you’re a trained thief you probably have had some jail time, or perhaps as a cat burglar you’ve injured yourself and walk with a limp because of a failed escape. If you’re a journalist, as above, you may have all of the excellent benefits that brings (like a variety of informants), but you’ll also have made some enemies for the stories you’ve run, or have a rival from another magazine who constantly haunts you. Whatever they are they’re up to the players (implicitly with the approval of the GM, of course, but I’ve yet to see a player misbehave in terms of acquiring drawbacks without enough bite).
Drawbacks: Why should you use them?
Drawbacks solve a common issue that characters have, especially in modern D&D with point buy ability score systems – they’re just too perfect. The literary trope “Mary Sue” is often a term ascribed to a character that has no flaws, and if you look at games like modern D&D you’ll often find characters without many flaws, if any. While this serves the power fantasy that tabletop RPGs often try to give the player it often doesn’t seem to gel with a more modern conception of roleplaying tough problems and following a player/character driven narrative experience.
Drawbacks are here to fix all that. They offer a sense of groundedness for the character that will help to keep them from floating away by showing that for every advantage they have there was a price they had to pay. Here’s why Drawbacks are worth using:
- Having guaranteed negative facets grounds characters in reality rather than falling prey to “Mary Sue-ism”.
- They flesh out the character’s backstory in a meaningful way by telling us how they got to where they are today in terms of their fields of expertise.
- They also flesh out the character’s backstory in a way that is useful for the GM: it gives you ways to get to the characters to spur them to action or to complicate their lives by providing all manner of foils.
The House Rule Test
- Is the game better off with this rule than without it?
- Does this rule do what it sets out to do?
- Is this rule as simple as possible?
Does this rule save characters from being Mary Sues? It does. Is the rule as simple as possible? It’s pretty simple, I can’t think of an easier way to go about it, although I can think of different ways to go about it (which will be the subject of future articles). Is the game better off with it than without it? This depends on the system you’re using and the game you’re running. I find that, at least in terms of modern D&D, it gives me a lot of leverage to run the kinds of stories a lot of people want to play. Other games can benefit too. It can flesh out Fate characters by attaching drawbacks to their skill pyramid, or any other skill-driven resolution system in a similar manner.
At the end of the day this rule is a good fit for any skill-based system where you want to give the characters a bit more groundedness and to get more leverage for running the game in a compelling way.
Today I’ve decided to roll out my first new post to completion in more than 6 months. As the briefest of status updates I’ve had several posts simmering on the back-burner for a while now, but this is my first crack at a good series in a long time and they should be pretty regular updates. They’re also going to be a lot shorter than most of what I tend to write because I struggle with that and the practice of being concise is good for me.
What is this series about?
I’ve read a lot of RPGs. Even more than I’ve played or run, and I’ve played or run a lot of RPGs. One of the advantages to being widely-read is that you come upon ideas all the time. This is pretty usual advice given to a GM who wants to make more cool adventures: if you aren’t publishing the adventure feel free to steal the premise of a story you already know and love and just change the trimming a bit. The title of this post in fact is based on a much more pithily phrased piece of advice offered by the author T.S. Elliot – good authors borrow, great authors steal.
This advice, however, rings true not just for adventure design, but also for campaign mastery. There are some things that some games do that I’ve outright liberated from their respective works and continue to use in most games that I run regardless of what system I run them in. I’d like to go over as many of those as I can while pointing out their exact origins.
Co-Starring: What is it?
The Fate system was created many years ago as an offshoot of Fudge, and rests roughly in the smack center of crunch vs. fluff, GM vs. player narrative ownership, and improvisational vs. prep driven. As a system it’s given rise to one of my all-time favorite mechanics: co-starring.
The first example of this in the Fate game lineup that I can think of was created for Spirit of the Century and goes a little something like this -
- Most of the player characters have met before.
- Each player writes (most of) a short (paragraph length or so) story blurb about one of their previous adventures.
- Then one or more of the other players adds a sentence or two to that story that incorporates how they were involved, too.
That’s it. It’s a paragraph length cooperatively authored (very) short story about a previous adventure that involved at least two of the player characters. Simple, right?
Co-Starring: Why should you use it?
This method solves a common complaint that has existed as long as roleplaying games have: how do I get the player characters to join together in a way that feels natural? The oldest solution to this problem is “dump them in a tavern, say ‘go’, and hope they cooperate for the sake of the game”, but this is a much more elegant method. Here’s the breakdown of the goods -
- As it’s a story it will have at least one antagonist if it’s done properly (and if it doesn’t you should be helping the player to create a more exciting story with more conflict!). It’s not only less work to use that (those) antagonist(s), but also you have less fear of player rejection since it’s their own creation. The same goes for any other established NPCs, antagonist or not!
- The player characters will for the most part know each other already, which means they’re all at most a single “I know him and you can trust him” away from total group cohesion in a natural way once the game itself begins.
- It’s short enough that even the most crunch-oriented players won’t mind giving it a go.
The House Rule Test
I have a very simple test I use for house rules. I ask three questions:
- Is the game better off with this rule than without it?
- Does this rule do what it sets out to do?
- Is this rule as simple as possible?
There are some overlap in those questions, of course, and the first one probably has the most precedence, but the other two are critical for making sure it’s the best house rule it can possibly be. In most cases of narrative-focused games, however, lifting this concept nails all three questions. It’s extremely short, taking at most 10 minutes for each one and being very easy to understand, and it definitely does what it set out to do: make the beginning of the game more natural than plopping a bunch of characters into a story as if they sprang fully-formed from the head of Zeus.
The only question that’s left, then, is if it benefits the particular game you’re playing. In most cases of a traditional PC-centric tale of high adventure I’d have to say it definitely does.This is the first of a series of posts on general mechanics you can take from one RPG system and use in another. You can find further entries as follows: #2: Drawbacks #3: Skilled Backstories #4: Abstract Inventories #5: All About Initiative
Fear not, my few loyal readers (that I can only hope exist) and many passers-by, the towel isn’t about to be thrown in on this blog, but rather this is a post about when giving up on something you’ve designed is a better plan than not.
In coding projects there’s generally a tipping point for the more complex ones, and that tipping point is betwixt two goals: patching the code to fix a problem versus scrapping the code and doing a fundamental re-write. Writing projects of most varieties often work the same way, where eventually when you aren’t getting the result you want sometimes it’s just better to throw it all out and start over. What “all” means, though, can vary in a gaming context quite dramatically, from an entire campaign right down to a single problem. Like most people, I find that scrapping concepts is extremely hard once you’ve begun to invest energy in them. Psychologically, this is known as the sunk cost fallacy, and it results when people are willing to throw good money after bad because “not getting a result after investing so much already would mean the investment went to waste!” We can see this around us every day, from stock traders who won’t admit a stock is just going to keep going down and it would be better to jump ship while they can still make back a fair amount of their investment, even at a loss, all the way to wars where because lives have already been lost in pursuit of a goal more must be spent so those losses weren’t a meaningless mistake (note: I’m not referring to any war in particular here; I have no opinion on such current ongoing wars, but such things have definitely occured in the past at the very least). Yes, indeed, this even happens at the gaming table.
The most iconic example of this problem that I’ve encountered is an iconic example at all primarily because I was something of a third party, and so I could recognize the sucking black hole of a fallacy from the outside, rather than inside of its event horizon where it is much more difficult to detect. An acquaintance of mine had designed, for my use, a simple puzzle based on the premise of the characters of my RPG campaign at the time taking water from one basin, depositing it in the other basin, and thence from that basin back to the original, so causing the water of both basins to be mixed with that of their opposite. The problem here was that, besides one basin containing hot water and the other cold, there was absolutely no clue as to the fact that this might be the solution except the very most tenuous story link using information that the players were not yet aware of. In other words, it’s one of those “guess what the GM is thinking” puzzles. As I was running the puzzle I looked on in dissatisfaction at how hard a time the players were having, and after some minutes wasted with plans that came close by coincidence (mixing water from one into the other, but not the other into the first as well), eventually I simply recognized the puzzle for what it was – a bad one – and had to step back, break suspension of disbelief, and explain to the players that I had in fact gotten this one wrong and it was a stinker, sorry for wasting your time, let’s just skip right to the good bit where you’ve just solved it.
Had the puzzle been of my own devising I’d like to think I would have avoided the mistake in the first place, but, no matter what inflated opinion I may hold of myself, eventually we all screw up, even on things that we think we’re good at, not unlike rolling a natural 1 and getting a critical failure. Although the campaign I was running at the time was an open sandbox game centered on exploration, meaning the players could’ve taken off and gone elsewhere, ignoring the bad puzzle for what it was (a waste of time), I still took the time to note my error, explained to the players that I was sorry that one kind of sucked, and that I’d do better in the future, and then by way of making it up to them I gave them the solution and the swag that went with it (a powerful magic felling axe, which became the favored weapon of one of my most engaged and frequent players, along with a bit of cryptic exposition from a magic mouth).
The lesson in all of this? Don’t be afraid to give a serious critical eye to your own creations, and try to be very critical of when you have screwed the metaphorical pooch. What’s more, don’t be afraid to simply cut your losses rather than trying to endlessly patch the situation like a leaky boat. Remember that it becomes harder to be critical as things grow – a session is easier to cut short than a campaign – and that things of your own devising suffer an equally great clouding effect on your judgment. A lot of the time some creativity and elbow grease can salvage a bad situation and even turn it into a winner, but sometimes it’s better to just throw out your leaky boat and buy a new one instead of constantly buying rolls of duct tape.
Until Next Time,
The Hydra DM
This is a straight-up response post. I had too much to say to submit a comment to this article by The Id DM, and so here are my thoughts.
I feel it’s necessary, first of all, to explain my unique point of view that would make such a thing worth expanding beyond a simple comment and worth the time spent reading. I’m one of the few GMs that runs games almost exclusively online. Play by post games a bit, but more often combined with what I excel at, which is running games on virtual tabletops in real time. For a while now, my drink of choice has been Map Tool, and the majority of my experience has been with D&D 4th edition. The part about a virtual tabletop that makes my position unique, however, isn’t my credentials. What makes a VTT unique is that its random number generating functions, practically speaking as random as the best gaming dice outside of Vegas, are not even a little bit concerned with the logistics of dice rolling. It’s the work of mere moments to type something to the effect of /roll d20+d18+d74+24+108+1d12r3*d100 to get results from a mechanic that was surely so complicated it would’ve been laughed out of FATAL.
(For those curious, that would be equal to a brutal 2 d12 (reroll 1s and 2s) times a d% resulting in a quantity added to the static modifiers 24 and 108 in addition to a d20, d18, and d74 for good measure. Having just done it I got a result of 481).
The fact that the above dice expression can be calculated faster than you can type it, and you can type it in under ten seconds, coupled with the potential for linking to a button to repeat as often as I like, means that dice logistics are absolutely meaningless on a VTT; that’s right, dice logistics on a VTT are like the points on Whose Line. With that in mind, let’s examine the questions Iddy posed to the readers:
What are damage dice even FOR? What do they do for the game?
Damage dice, simply put, are the analog to “to-hit”s digital. Well, okay, they’re pretending to be analog, but they do a much more convincing job of things (not least of all because analog circuits often use ranges to represent discrete values rather than actually being used as the continuum they are). In some games, like Ars Magica or Spirit of the Century, the “to-hit” expression is a determining factor in damage every single time, not just on a critical hit. If you exceed the DC more you do more damage – makes sense, right? Not so in D&D, which is why having a more analog array of damage possibilities is important. Why is this sort of “analog” nature important in the first place? A few reasons.
- A game that involves very digital quantities, that is “on or off” quantities, is easy to predict and easy to “game”. Dice were purposely included in D&D as an element of luck, or fate, or whatever. I’ll get into that later, but for now all that matters is that it’s the case. A lot of people have said “I’d rather instead of a minion doing 6 damage on a hit it just did 3 damage automatically and that’s that”. Now that’s great for conserving your wrist muscles and saving some time at the table, but it makes the system eminently more game-able, which is something that was supposed to be avoided in the first place. Changing the amount of dice allows wider or narrower ranges of predictability to taste.
- A “feel-good” roll, or at least more of one than “to-hit” is, is good for player (and GM) morale. If you roll a 1 on your attack 3 turns in a row that’s some serious sour grapes, but if you roll a 1 on your damage 3 turns in a row while it may suck compared to max damage at least you haven’t missed and wasted your turn. Damage is the “everybody’s a winner” roll, even if some people are bigger winners than others.
- Finally, it should be noted that all of D&D’s original offensive and defensive jargon originated from an attempt to make a fun and fast facsimile of combat in a fantasy environment with too many strange variables to account for. Gygax, being an avid fan of tactical miniatures games, could’ve easily included more sophisticated rules, and said as much in his time on ENWorld, but felt that it was important to not do so. That to have a score that represents blocking, parrying, dodging, etc. (AC) against a roll for effectiveness (“to-hit”), and thence to have an abstract representation of physical hardiness, luck, and skill in slipping blows that seemed destined to connect (“HP”) to shield you against the actual damage if it is not entirely avoided would be sufficient.
Regarding point #3, the system could’ve just as easily been “did the blow hit you? Okay, you died because you have a sword in your gut”, but that was deemed, I suppose, too abstract. The “effective/not” and “degree of damage” system was selected as a good middle ground. It should also be noted that in Gygax’s eyes an RPG without dice would be more amateur theater than an RPG, so we should also keep that in mind whether we agree or not.
Why are we as DMs spending precious time calculating complicated damage rolls that can take over eight dice plus a static modifier to compute?
In this instance I am proud to say that, in fact, I am not spending my precious time calculating these; the VTT is doing all the calculating and it can do this trick in the blink of an eye where it would take me a few seconds at least. Presumably we are doing it for the above reasons, though for me the doing it is much easier than for people using pencil and paper with real dice.
Why not build monsters that deliver specific damage based on whatever attack they use against the player character(s)?
As covered in question 1, this is because it would be not only too gamey, but also treading dangerously close to “not an RPG”, much less “not D&D”, in the eyes of the creator. In terms of monsters, of course, GMs probably appreciate that feel-good roll, too, though likely less than players do since GMs get to roll a lot more attacks than the players do, so being on a cold streak doesn’t hurt so much.
Why is the SOP in D&D one roll for attack and another for damage?
This is where I shall, as referenced above, call on the great creator. Typos and other such things have been preserved for posterity:
AC is the measure of how difficult it is to make an effective attack on a target subject. One might broaden it by including dodging and parrying, but those are subsumed in the single number, as is indicated by the addition of Dex bonus, thus obviating the need for a lot of additional adjustments and dice rolling. The game is not a combat simulation, after all.
Hit points for characters are a combination of actual physical health and the character’s skill in avoiding serious harm from attacks aimed at him that actually hit. This is a further measure of the defender’s increasing ability to slip blows and dodge, as mentioned above in regards AC. While AC increases mainly by the wearing of superior protectionm HPs increase with the character’s accumulating experience in combat reflected by level increase.
In combination the two give a base protection and survivability for the beginning character and allow that base to increase as the character increases in experience. It does not pretend to realism, but it does reflect the effects of increasing skill in a relatively accurate manner while avoiding tedious simulation-oriented considerations and endless dice rolling.
As someone who has designed a number of military miniatures rules sets, I could have made combat in the OAD&D game far more complex, including all manner of considerations for footing, elevation of the opponents, capacity to dodge, parrying skill, opponents using natural weapons, etc. Knowing that the game was not all about combat, I skipped as much of that as I could by having the main factors subsume lessers, ignoring the rest. It is a role-playing exercise where all manner of other game considerations come into play, not just fighting.
Oh, least I forget, when magic is mixed into the formula, getting anything vaguely resembling reality becomes wholly problematical
There you have it, straight from the horse’s mouth: precisely why D&D’s SOP is two rolls: to-hit, then damage. The TL;DR version (if such a thing could exist for a quote of Gary’s) is above under question 1 as reason #3.
How is it helpful to read about unique home rules by WotC staff who were prominent in building, designing and playtesting the game system?
I’ll answer this with another quote from Gary:
That calls to mind the incident that occurred when I was giving a seminar on AD&D to a large audience of dedicated players at a GenCon. Someone asked me howI’d handle a specific situation, and I responded. One fellow in the crowd objected, ‘but that isn’t what the DMG says…’
To that I respnded to this effect: ‘I don’t care what the book says. I wrote it, and I am not infalable. In the case just before us the material in the DMG is wrong–as it is anytime the DM over-rules it.’
The WotC staff are just as, if not more, fallable than the original. We may have learned a lot about RPGs and designing them since Gary’s pioneering journey into uncharted territory all those decades ago, but I’d be willing to bet this piece of wisdom still rings true. The WotC designers doubtless feel that their own rules may be wrong in places, but the majority disagreed at the time, or perhaps they were one of those who agreed but later had second thoughts, but for whatever reason the rules aren’t officially amended. Designers having house rules has existed since Gygax himself holding in disdain the rushed state of the psionic material, weapon vs armor tables, and weapon speed tables and stripping the lot from his home game of AD&D – if not from earlier!
So, now that I’ve gone on a bit of a tear, here’s the short answer: they’re helpful because it shows us what RPGs are all about, and have been about since their inception.
Didn’t you say something about “it’s not an RPG without dice”? What’s up with that?
Oh, right, sorry. Gygax was indeed noted to say that diceless RPGs were not RPGs (though they were still games where some great fun could be had), and whether I agree with him or not the point is that luck through the form of rolling dice is integral to D&D if not necessarily the RPG genre as a whole. Don’t believe me? Read for yourself:
Diceless and “storytelling” games are not RPGs, but that is not to say that they are not games, nor to claim they lack high entertainment value–fun! My complaint has been that these games hould not claim to be RPGs, nor should those that tour them claim any “adult” or “sophistication” merit becasue they have no random chance.
As for PA’s calling attention to the fact that many an RPG session has little or no random chance element interjected into a play session, this is so. However these RPGs can include that when needed or desired. In a private email I called his attention to this, and the fact that the “diceless” game can not to do, as it is not an RPG, has been emasculated by the excision of random chance
It ain’t an RPG without chance entering into play
And now to add one of my own…
Is Perkins’ idea good or not and why?
The ultimate litmus test of any rule tweak in an RPG is dead simple and two-fold:
- Is this rule as simple as it can be, but no simpler? And,
- Does this rule emulate the intended effect in a way that is at least as fun as what existed previously to emulate that effect?
Going back to the beginning…
Is this a good way to randomize damage? It’s fairly good, yeah. I’d tend towards slightly bigger die sizes than a d6, but having never really tried it I’m not sure if that’s really necessary. It obviously reduces your ability to tweak probability curves, but a similar effect can be achieved by simply varying die sizes. A smaller die size means a lesser variation than a bigger one, and that’s effectively similar to creating probability curves with multiple dice of varying sizes.
Is this a good way to maintain a feel good roll? Sure! Fewer dice slightly reduces its effectiveness, since rolling more dice means a higher chance to avoid minimum damage, but at the same time max damage’s likelihood is increased as well, so a bit of bad with the good.
Is this a good way to abstract the amount of damage that a character could take or avoid from a hit that is “effective”? Sure. A tighter range of results than what a fistful of dice is capable of producing may even be more realistic – if you’re hit “effectively” shouldn’t it consistently hurt an awful lot rather than swinging all over the shop? Possibly. I’m no expert in combat that involves magic, and I don’t think anyone else is, either. It seems as good as any other way in the abstraction department, with the exception that perhaps you feel it’s “too” abstracted… but as we already know, Gygax had a certain measure of degree that he enjoyed in abstraction, and other people probably have their own. This one is down to personal taste, I think.
Lowering the amount of dice obviously is reducing the complexity, so I guess the only question there is as above: does this reduce complexity too much in your taste?
My answer? It depends. In real life there aren’t any “magic bullet” solutions. I love using ridiculous dice expressions I could never even get a grip on in a game at a real table using real little plastic knobs with numbered faces because the logistics simply wouldn’t be there. For me this solution doesn’t really offer much in way of being compelling. Clicking the “roll the dice” button will be just as fast whether it’s “/roll d20+d18+d74+24+108+1d12r3*d100″ or “/roll d6+536″ in my case – I really have nothing to lose by using these ridiculous fistfuls of dice and everything to gain in terms of precise number curve control. However, in the real world, at a real table, the trade-off is extremely compelling. Saving yourself some time doing math without any average numerical effect on the game? Aside from the psychological wonder of dropping 200 dollars worth of dice on the table to represent how potent an attack really is, is anything of value truly lost greater than the value gained in time saved? I would say no. This seems to me to be, at the very least, a fair trade-off that every “real table real dice” GM should at least consider.
Adopting it, of course, depends on if you “care what the book says”…
The Hydra DM
Let’s face it, guys; when you’re fighting undead, sooner or later you’re going to want to run away screaming like a little girl. Well, alright, maybe “want” is the wrong word – “must” is perhaps more fitting. For a long time in D&D there hasn’t been anything approaching a robust system of fight or flight – only fight. No more! I present to you now, officially, my Spirit of the Century Chase Hack for D&D 4th edition.
What makes a chase good?
Foot chases, especially, all have some very common themes:
- They don’t last long in the game. A terror-induced sprint can only last for a short while, especially when you’re burdened by adventuring gear, armor, and weapons. Beyond this timer, generally the terrain and actions of the chaser and chasee result in one side catching or losing the other in short order.
- They shouldn’t last long at the table. A chase is fast, and it should therefore be mechanically simple so that you can keep up excitement at the table. There’s not a LOT of strategy here compared to something like a fight, but there is a lot of involvement.
- Speed helps, but it isn’t the MOST important thing. Relying on speed alone might simply make you run into the cart of cabbages the heroes flipped behind them.
- Innovation is key. A good chase scene is driven by actions besides “I run some more”, like parkouring over rooftops, throwing down caltrops, or swinging across a chasm on a rope.
So, what mechanics can we use?
As mentioned, these mechanics are lifted as closely as possible from Spirit of the Century, since they got chase scenes (admittedly for vehicles) pretty much correct from the get-go. Adapting it to the generally-on-foot nature of dungeoneers is surprisingly not very difficult. Here are the rules of the chase scene in handy bullet point format.
- Select a Trailblazer for both the PCs and their enemies (in the case of the PCs, let them choose their own). The Trailblazer of team monster will probably change over the course of the chase, but so far I haven’t had much luck with re-arranging who gets to lead on team PC (once you select a PC Trailblazer for a given chase scene you should probably just keep them unless you know the terrain is going to change drastically). Those of you shooting for irony can ask for a Pathfinder instead, but be warned that players generally react aversely to bad puns.
- The Trailblazer for the team being chased selects a primary skill. A common choice is athletics, but alternatives that also often come up are acrobatics and endurance, or sometimes even stealth. It is possible to switch primary skills between exchanges, but I haven’t seen it come up very often. Remember that skill rolls in a chase scene are predicated on good roleplaying of what the skill roll entails from a character perspective. The roleplaying drives the mechanics of the chase scene and vice versa - neither functions without the other.
- The party of the Trailblazer on the side of the PCs (the monsters do not do this, they’re not heroic enough and since they’re all played by you anyway there’s no need to enforce teamwork) can select one of their members besides the Trailblazer, who will be able to designate another skill as the secondary skill. The Trailblazer cannot be aided by the same person two exchanges in a row. They will, same as the primary skill, give a snippet of roleplaying for why this skill applies to the situation and how their character is using it.
At this point the rules diverge slightly based on whom is being chased and who is doing the chasing. If the PCs are being chased -
- The Trailblazer sets a single DC that applies to both skill rolls, then both he and the party member contributing the secondary skill roll make their skill checks. Remember, if they describe great success and the rolls come up as flubs, the opposition was just that much better and your description should match that fact. If either of these checks beats the DC then the PCs experience success, otherwise they experience failure (described below). Remember to apply any miscellaneous modifiers (described below).
- The monster Trailblazer (generally the monster with the highest bonus to the skill still in the chase since most monsters have low bonuses to most skills and will provide little challenge otherwise) attempts to roll against the DC using the primary skill. Remember this isn’t a one way street – you have to give a description, too! Again, below the DC results in some degree of failure, while above the DC results in some degree of success.
If the PCs are the ones chasing -
- The monster Trailblazer sets a DC and selects a primary skill. Again, remember that your skill check requires a description to work. Make a check against this DC, with matching or above being some degree of success, and below being some degree of failure.
- The Trailblazer and the secondary skill contributing member of the PC team will make checks, with the Trailblazer using the primary skill as designated by the monster team and the aiding PC using a secondary skill designated by himself (again, this needs a good description – don’t be afraid to say “that makes no sense”). The usual successes and failures apply.
These are some recommended values and methods for handling successes and failures. To wit I have used these in my West Marches sandbox campaign, which features generally only one or two combat encounters per session (if that), which means the penalties are a bit harsh in order to have a challenging game. If you want a longer chase scene, or you want to adjust it so that the penalties to the PCs aren’t as bad so they don’t need to take an extended rest as soon afterwards, you can easily do that by simply adjusting the number values.
- If the PCs are being chased and equal or exceed the DC they set with at least one of their two checks they take no immediate penalty and (probably, see getting caught below) continue to flee at top speed. Top speed is assumed to be five times overland speed (speed 6 characters would be running at slightly over 15 miles an hour – something that I think is suitable for heroes at a dead sprint with gear, but you can adjust this to suit your own personal preferences), and a single exchange takes one minute. If you are in a small area and are afraid the chase might go outside of the area, you can reduce the amount of time an exchange takes to a matter of seconds rather than the full game minute, or alternatively you can reduce the movement rate due to it being a confined space.
- If the PCs are being chased and both checks are below the DC, the higher check result is used. All PCs in the group lose a number of healing surges equal to the difference divided by 2 rounded down to a minimum of 1 surge. Adjusting this divisor to be higher can make chases less punishing on PCs, or lower can make them more punishing.
- If the PCs are being chased and the monsters equal or exceed the DC with their one check, PCs each lose healing surges equal to the difference divided by 2 rounded down to a minimum of 1 surge. Again, adjusting this divisor to be higher can make chases less punishing on PCs.
- If the PCs are being chased and the monsters do not equal or exceed the DC, they will take damage on their stress track (see The Stress Track below) equal to the difference divided by 4 rounded down to a minimum of 1. Adjusting this divisor can make monsters easier to catch or escape as you please, and will have much the same effect as changing the divisor on lost healing surges.
- If the PCs are chasing, and the monsters equal or exceed their own DC, the monsters will continue to flee at top speed (probably, see getting caught below) where top speed is determined the same way it is for the PCs.
- If the PCs are chasing, and they equal or exceed the DC with either or both checks, the monsters take damage to their stress track equal to the difference of the larger result and the DC divided by 4 rounded down to a minimum of 1.
- If the PCs are chasing, and both of their checks do not equal or exceed the DC, the PCs will lose healing surges equal to the difference of the larger result and the DC divided by 2 rounded down to a minimum of 1.
- If the PCs are chasing, and the monsters do not equal or exceed their own DC, the monsters will take on their stress track equal to the difference between the result and the DC divided by 4 rounded down to a minimum of 1.
The Stress Track
Monsters, unfortunately, do not REALLY have healing surges. I mean they technically have one per tier, but that’s a pretty lousy amount of surges to use as a progress bar. Therefore I have lifted the concept of the Stress Track directly from Spirit of the Century. Each 4 minions contributes one box, each standard monster contributes one box, each elite monster contributes two boxes, and each solo monster contributes five boxes. Each box is sequentially numbered left to right starting with 1. When a monster team takes damage to a stress box, that number box is filled in. If the box is already filled in, the empty box with the next highest number is filled in. When the “box” above the highest actual box on the track is “filled in” the monster team is defeated (see below). As an example, if they take damage to the 1 box, the leftmost box is filled in. If they take damage to the 1 box again, the leftmost EMPTY box (2 box) is filled in. If they take damage to the five box, but their stress track is only four boxes long, the monsters are considered defeated. Additionally, if all of the boxes are filled in the monsters are considered defeated (since each box correlates to a remaining monster, with no boxes left there should be no monsters left). If you want to be really involved mechanically you can have monsters give fewer boxes if they’re injured, but I’ve never found that to be necessary.
The PC team is considered “caught” if any of their members takes at least surge value HP damage from losing surges with no healing surges remaining (contrary to normal surge loss, losing surges in a chase will eventually result in losing surge value hit points if you have no surges to lose). Running yourself ragged like this is obviously a measure of desperation, and it is often advisable, if it looks like you will be caught, to simply end the chase as a PC. You can stop fleeing at any time, and begin to fight. Whenever you are caught or choose to stop and fight, you must complete a full round of combat before deciding to attempt to flee again. Aside from this stipulation of a necessary round of combat, the PCs may choose to flee at ANY TIME it is a PC’s turn (and so the same for monsters respectively). You may flee at zero surges remaining, but if you take surge value or more damage from losing surges with none remaining you are once again caught. Monsters are considered completely caught when their stress track overflows or is full (as described in the last section). It is recommended that for inconsequential monsters (i.e. not solo monsters, or named villains) that when their contributing stress box is filled they are overtaken and defeated in a manner you allow the PCs to describe to you, or, if the monsters are chasing rather than being chased, that they fall too far behind or otherwise give up or are taken out. If powerful monsters or named villains are overtaken it is advisable that you use personal discretion in figuring out a reasonable impairment to their combat ability, similar to how PCs would need to engage in combat with fewer or no healing surges remaining. Spending their “big punch” powers such as recharges, encounters, or dailies and having those unavailable, or else having them take automatic damage (like bloodied value as an example) or suffer some other disabling condition like weakened or dazed (until short rest) is what I’d recommend, but really it’s up to you and your best judgment for what would make the best dramatic conclusion to the chase scene in such a case.
It is highly recommended that you include some miscellaneous modifiers in your chase scenes. If the minimum speed of one group exceeds that of the other, the faster group should get a +1 to all checks for each unit of speed they are faster. A speed 7 group entirely made of elves, therefore, against a speed 5 group made of plate armored fighters would give the elves a +2 to all checks. Alternatively, you can match the average speed of the groups together instead of the minimum speeds, although I find minimum speeds to be easier. If you want speed to be more of a factor, such as in open terrain like a field, you can increase the potency of speed, but I wouldn’t put it above +5 per unit no matter what the terrain is like. Speed is important in a chase scene, but not the MOST important. Heroes escape guard dogs all the time, after all, and dogs are pretty fast compared to humans!
Other modifiers include the familiarity with terrain type, and perhaps even plusses or minuses depending on the primary skill selected and how well it suits the terrain. Miscellaneous modifiers is your way to adjust the basic framework presented here to fit whatever situation it’s placed into.
Using the Spirit of the Century modifiers for group size (2-3 = +1, 4-6 = +2, 7-9 = +3, 10-12 = +4, etc.) for the monsters seems to work well, too, since monsters are usually only trained in one or two skills and tend to have lower modifiers than the PCs at that. In the event of solo or elite monsters you could consider giving them modifiers based on number of boxes contributed to the group (so an elite counts as two for purposes of group size, or a solo as five). Whether minions grant bonuses for size based on the individual number of them or based on the amount of standards they are worth/boxes they contribute is up to you, but I generally base it on the amount of standard monsters they should be worth, same as elites/solos.
I recommend, further, that the spending of a daily power should allow the person expending it to make a check of a skill related to that power even if it doesn’t make a lot of sense in the chase scene. A good example would be a wizard who wants to use Arcane Whirlwind, his level 1 daily power, to roll an arcana check as a secondary skill check. Consider giving better modifiers, such as +1 per level of the power, for higher level expenditures. I also considered allowing encounter powers for this, but there were simply too many encounter powers versus the length of the chase so I wouldn’t recommend it unless you want your players to go hog-wild with checks that don’t make a lot of sense.
Chases using Mounts or Vehicles
These will function in an identical manner to the above framework, although the skills used will probably be different, or at least the roleplayed descriptions. Athletics can be used to adjust the main mast, acrobatics to avoid falling off the rigging as you climb to the crow’s nest to get a better view, or nature to coax your horse into jumping across a pit.
Example of Play
Eravan the Eladrin Wizard, Rhovan the Human Warlock, and Lilac Sear the Human Blackguard are adventuring together when they’re set upon by a handful (3) of Maydeath Ghouls. Knowing that they are unable to combat such terrible foes without the divine protection of a Cleric or Paladin they immediately turn and flee the cliffside temple they had been exploring.
Eravan: Oh, hell.
Lilac: Right, we run away. I’ll be Trailblazer.
(The DM doesn’t have much of a choice here since all of the ghouls are the same; he selects one at random to be the Trailblazer for the monsters).
Rhovan: I’ve got a killer Arcana check, I’m going to shoot my Flame of Phlegethos daily power at the Ghouls to help cover our retreat.
Lilac: Alright, well, since this is a caldera I’m just going to say that we run as fast as we can across the overgrown garden and back to the entrance hallway, where we can start climbing back down the ropes we left from the ascent. DC 21.
DM: Go ahead and roll, guys.
Lilac and Rhovan (simultaneously): I got a 23!
DM: Haha, alright, the Ghouls come after you with their supernatural speed hungering for your flesh! (Knowing the Ghouls are speed 6 and Lilac’s armor slows her down to speed 5, the Ghouls get a +1 bonus to their check, and since they are a group size of three they get another +1 bonus). 16! Ah, looks like the Ghouls take a hit to the (21-17=4/4=1) 1 box. (This DM is being transparent about the mechanics, you don’t need to announce which box is struck if you don’t want to). The flames of Phlegethos carve into one of the Ghouls and it’s too busy being on fire to chase any further, but the other two are right behind you! Your minute long sprint takes you across the garden and back into the entrance tunnel full of graffiti – you can see the door out to the cliffside from here. (If the Trailblazer was the one that was removed from the chase, the DM will need to select a new one).
End of First Exchange, beginning of Second Exchange
Lilac: Hm, well, we’re going to have to climb down the ropes; athletics is generally the skill used for climbing and I’m not good at much else that will be useful so I say that we’ll descend the ropes as fast as we can, hoping that the Ghouls don’t know how to climb. DC 22.
Eravan: Is there any way I could maybe use Perception to find the quickest way down? (Eravan has a very high modifier to perception and wants to try to use it in a reasonable way).
DM: No, the ropes are anchored where you left them – you’ll have to just use them as they are unless you fancy a free-climb down the cliff-face.
Eravan: Well, that is definitely not something I fancy. Hrm. Alright, I’d like to use Nature to try to figure out if Ghouls can climb after us so we’re ready to jam when we hit the bottom if they can?
DM: That seems reasonable to me. Roll ‘em guys.
Lilac: 21, drat!
Eravan: 20, not really any better.
DM: Alright, you guys each lose 1 healing surge (22-21=1/2=.5, minimum 1). When you reach the bottom of the cliff, however, it seems as though the Ghouls aren’t interested in pursuing you outside of their lair (they decided to stop chasing, which they can do at any time just like the PCs). You’ve escaped… for now, at least.
I find that the above framework tends to work very well, and so do my players. It’s very fast since it only involves a small handful of rolls, it’s roleplaying rich since roleplaying is required to make a check, and unlike a skill challenge there is no contrived “X before Y” designated ending point with the heroes instead in full control of how much effort they want to devote to running or chasing. Speed is a factor, but not the most important one, with innovation (roleplaying your checks) being at the forefront. The chases don’t last too long at the table (generally only about ten minutes in my experience), and they get everyone involved due to secondary skills. They let the dumb muscle character get his chance to shine - a fighter only gets three trained skills, but chances are two of them are Athletics and Endurance, which are both perfectly suited for a chase scene and use either his primary ability score or a secondary one. What’s more, the use of secondary skills allows the PCs to not just follow the villain’s footsteps, but to employ their smarts to cut him off at the pass using a different skill. And, not only that, but the seemingly useless monster skills are finally relevant! Hooray! Finally, they don’t penalize characters who are naturally bad at running, like a wizard, since the wizard doesn’t need to be the one rolling Athletics as Trailblazer.
That’s it from me, but I’d love to hear how people use and adapt this framework to their own games when chases occur. I had to use it about a half dozen times to narrow in on the divisor values that worked for me in terms of Stress Track and Surges lost, though, so I’d recommend the first time you use the system you keep in mind that you may need to step in as the DM and say “alright, these values aren’t correct, I’m just going to narratively end this chase scene and we’ll adjust them after the session to something we like better.”
This post is part of the May of the Dead Blog Carnival. For more great content regarding Halloween in May, head over there ASAP!
May your undead have the PCs flee in terror,
The Hydra DM