Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Newbie friendly games - using probability

My last post was inspired by how my friend had a horrendous strike of unluckiness, which made his game nights less than fun. He is after all a seasoned gamer and while an experience like that might sour him on a game, it would not make him run screaming from the hobby. But, how about someone who never played a RPG before? Maybe it is actually more newbie friendly to use a game with a bell curve instead of a flat probability when introducing new people.

So would I use any of the games mentioned in my last post, or the systems mentioned in the comments to introduce a newbie?

The Fantasy Trip
This game has one big drawback, it's out of print. If you want to get it, you will have to search on eBay and be a bit lucky to get a complete set in nice condition. Luckily there are clones and derivatives out there. My favourite is Heroes & Other Worlds, which is an attempt to take some cues from B/X D&D and fuse it with TFT.

As most of you know, fantasy is the most popular setting for RPGs and TFT fits the bill. Also, there are only a few stats (one extra in HOW) and it's fairly easy to make a character in a short amount of time. Nothing weird, nothing fancy, just swords and sorcery.

Even though it's not as visible as it used to be, this is still a game supported and published. Since it's a generic system it can be used for whatever setting, making it easy to run a game set in whatever setting you newbie favours. The flipside of the coin is that a adapting a generic game to a specific setting will take some work.

Character generation can be overwhelming, to say the least. Since there are so many options it's very easy to get analysis paralysis. Then, even if you as the GM do your homework, and you use a template system, the game is detailed enough to cover any eventuality. That can very easy bog down a game. But, it's extremely versatile.

In my basement I have a big box with nothing but Traveller books. Science fiction is not a popular as fantasy, but considering how popular Star Trek or Firefly is, it's not exactly weird or exotic. There have been a ridiculous amount of stuff published for this game system, and many different editions of rules available.

Mongoose Publishing is a company that I would generally advice people to stay away from. They have a terrible track record of games with awful layout and abysmal quality control. But, their little black book of Traveller is really neat. It takes the classic Traveller and packages it in a very sweet package.

There is one thing that's less than ideal of Traveller for newbies. Since it uses a life path system where you take terms in different careers, and you can get thrown out of said careers on a bad dice roll, you never really know what kind of character you will get. As a mini game on it's own, it's quite fun. But, I imagine it could be less than ideal if you as a player had your eyes set on a specific kind of character with a specific set of skills.

Tunnels & Trolls
Everyone who looked at the text on the top of this page, or followed the blog, might know I have warm feelings for this game. It has some neat features, like a generic resolution and stunt mechanic. It also have a slightly comedic, or at least less than totally serious, attitude which I personally like.

If there's something this game does less well is probably the fact that it uses really big piles of dice, especially in later editions. Thus it can take some time to gather all the dice, roll, sum and subtract. It can be a bit slow.

HERO System
Everything I said about GURPS is valid for HERO, even more so. This is ridiculously adaptable. But, compared to TFT and GURPS which have a small set of stats, this game's character sheet can be intimidating. If I have to choose between GURPS and HERO, I'd choose the former, as it's as clunky to make a character, but it's more smooth in play.

Over the Edge
I have played this game system twice. Once was in the original setting, and once was a free adventure for Harn I found online and ran with the OtE system as I did not own Harn, and I did not really fancy it anyway.

In the original, and very weird, setting this system is just right. You have so much oddity to keep straight that the game system has to be very light and narrative. If it has a problem, it is probably the same as Fate. Both game system suffer from the fact you can make a Trait/Aspect out of anything, and that can make you stumble before you understand how it works in play.

It's a quite expressive system and I think the fact you can just ask a potential player to describe in a few words what they envision, and then put dice to that is a big win.

The D6 System
Most players of this system have probably used it for Star Wars. I have only played it once, and then it flowed very freely and the action was exciting. Since then I've read how the piles of dice can be cumbersome, and that there are some rules that are fiddly. The latter case would be the target numbers, that can be chosen from a range, but probably just works best if you just have a set interval of 5.

So would I use these games to introduce a newbie to rpgs? Well. I think the fact these games all use multiple dice, and thus probably have a more even spread of successes, yes that is a point in their favour.

Would I use one of the more generic ones, like D6 System, GURPS, HERO or OtE? No, probably not. I think fantasy is popular for a reason, and even though it's the game on the list I am least familiar with, I lean toward TFT/HOW.

You would maybe expect me to champion T&T, but I think that maybe for once I have to agree with those who think the names of the spells are less suitable. Also, the free flowing stunt system of SR are not very easy to handle even by seasoned gamers.

So, who knows. Maybe I get to try to use one of these systems to bring new gamers to the fold. Maybe I actually will try to use TFT/HOW! Today I started to read HOW and I really felt like I wanted to play it. We'll see.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The value of bell curves

A while back I started talking to some friends about starting up a regular game again. To fill some time, after realizing that it would need some discussion to find a game everyone agreed on, we picked a game we had played before as a starter. 3:16 Carnage Amongst the Stars was that game.

For those who have not played this game, I can summarize a key point of the rules system. All rolls are one 1d10, roll under but high is good, against a Trait. I guess you see what this means. Right. No bell curve.

We started to play and since it is very much driven by black humour and creative narration by the players, it worked quite fine with some cynicism and beer. But, after a few sessions a pattern started to emerge. One of my players rolled really shitty. Like some of us say, he storked it, repeatedly. The thing is, he rolled maybe 10 dice rolls a night and missed all but one. Even after changing dice, we are not superstitious, he kept rolling like that in session after session. It just was not fun any more. In the end the game was not just a chore, it was actively un-fun to roll dice for him.

Now, I guess you have all heard of games where the narrative is as much in the hands of the players as the GM? You would imagine that maybe that would alleviate the problem, maybe? The problem here is that 3:16 is just such a game. I as the GM could only limit the stiffness of the opposition, and the players still had to sit there and narrate the hell out of repeated failures. Kind of sucks after a while.

We decided to fade to black after a few missions, and now I had pitched a new game which all seemed to like. It was all down to the weird imagination of Ken Hite, since who can resist a game with both nazis and the Midgard Serpent? Savage Worlds it was.

I guess you see one thing that differs from 3:16? In Savage Worlds you roll multiple dice, and if you fail you can spend a token and roll again. Once again you roll multiple dice. Multiple dice, i.e. more chances to succeed, since you get to pick which to use.

That choice of game system was intentional.

As you probably know, there are more than one way to skin a cat. The cat I wanted to skin was player enjoyment. While I do not subscribe to the school of design that say encounters should be "balanced" and that the players are entitled to this or that, I do believe game system matters for how much fun you can have.Clearly linear probabilities do have some potential to screw up your game night.

Savage Worlds and Fate are two game systems that have decided to let you have all that wild and intense fun you get by rolling dice, but have also included some way to take the edge of Those Nights(tm). I think that is good game design for a game for modern adults, for whom game night is time you clawed back from all the necessities of family, work and other obligations. Narrative control is one thing, but getting to describe your failure yourself over and over again does not make it more fun. Maybe the first time. I think some game mechanic that works as a "safety net" should be in your mind when you design a game for my kind of gamer.

Are there other ways? Let's go back to those dice, and our subject line.

I know I am not the first one to notice that some games are really swingy, and D&D with its d20 based to hit roll is one of those. As those of us than own a AD&D 1st ed DMG know, there are more ways to roll dice, and one of them produce a bell curve. Such a probability distribution skews towards the middle, making it harder to get those extremes. On the other hand, it also makes it likelier to get above that first hump of lower target numbers. Is this possibly the way to increase player enjoyment? I will leave off dice pool systems, since I find the probabilities of those headache inducing, instead focusing on rolling multiple dice and adding them before comparing to a target number.

Strangely enough, there are few games I can think of where you roll multiple dice of a similar kind and add them, as a basic mechanic. Sure, it's used for damage, but more seldom for other things. Off the top of my head I can only remember five game systems that use this, and two of them are closely related.
  • The Fantasy Trip (TFT) - roll 3d6
  • GURPS - roll 3d6
  • Traveller - roll 2d6
  • Tunnels & Trolls (T&T) - roll 2d6 for Saving Rolls, in combat roll weapon dice and add stat bonus.
  • HERO - roll 3d6
Maybe these games are actually kinder to gamers who just want to succeed once in a while?

Next topic: Are these thus newbie friendly games?

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Thanksgiving, pumpkin pie and Back to Future!

Thanksgiving turkey and then some pumpkin pie looking at Back to the Future with the family. Quite a good day!

Soon some more gaming topics as well on this blog.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Happy Birthday, Dave!

In case you did not know it, today is the birthday of the guy who invented many of the concepts we might consider central to our hobby. I mean little things like the concept of a individual player character, experience points, dungeons and so on.

He was also one of the inspirations that made me start this blog (Yeah, I know I have not posted much lately. There will be more one day...)

Today I raise a glass to the memory of Dave Arneson!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Ron Edwards talking about how to run old school games

I just found this very good review of Ron's game Sorcerer. It highlights how the core of the game goes back to The Fantasy Trip, and Wizard and some other game mechanical details I had missed. I especially like how the reviewer praises the initiative system for the kind of free wheeling action D&D was always intended for. Maybe something worth importing? Likewise, the GM advice in Sorcerer is definitely worth checking out, especially for someone of old school bent.

When I got my copy of the new Sorcerer books, I found the annotated edition a bit hard to read, as the flow of the text being interrupted by the annotations. This review, and the fact I got my copy of Ron's new game Circle of Hands, made me want to take it down and read it some more. Maybe I might even play it.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

DragonQuest Combat houserule

I got a comment on my last post, mentioning playing DragonQuest without a battle map. Personally I have nothing against miniatures with my rpg, unless it slows down play. If you count hexes or squares it will slow down play is my experience. Playing online I find it a bit fiddly. So, I always look if I can do without them.

Thinking a bit about DQ I realized that the big thing is if you are engaged or not, and if you can get engaged after doing a half move. With that in mind, and inspired by the classic Traveller rang band system for combat I present the following:

The dividing line down the middle is separating Team A from Team B, or Attackers from Defenders. Well, you get the idea.

All placed in the green fields are Engaged and play according to those rules for initiative and if you can Trip, Disarm and so on. If you are in the blue fields you are disengaged and far away. Here you can only do ranged attacks, and you need more than half of your TMR to engage. In the areas in between you only need to do a half move to be Engaged.

That sheet can be printed and laminated and you can write on it, or you can use actual pretty miniatures. But, you skip the analysis-paralysis of counting hexes.

I think this i how I would try to run DQ if I did run it online.

If you have any ideas or response, I'm all ears!

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

I bet I could use these rules for...

Longtime readers of this blog knows I am a nutcase when it comes to collecting some games. I have multiple copies of the 2nd ed. DragonQuest rules in addition to the 3rd ed. copy I own. It's a very old school game, quirky and fiddly like the best of them. I have been charmed by it since I first read it, but have yet to play it. One reason for that is the fact it's designed to be played with a hex map for tactical combat, and that is a bit of a hassle in a Hangout session.

Now I caught the bug again, since I took down my Kingdoms of Kalamar books. KoK is a fantasy world that is a bit like Greyhawk in that it's medieval fantasy without any special twists. There's nothing to get "weirded out" by like in Tekumel och Glorantha. Just plain fantasy. For some a bit too plain, even.

What would be better pairing then than to play it in that world using the down to earth and deadly DragonQuest system? I have now spent some days thumbing through books and pondering how it could be done. God knows if I'll ever be able to convince anyone to try it, but it was fun to think about for a few days.

So, this got me thinking.

How often have you encountered a book, a film och a tv-series and felt it just had to be turned into a rpg? Quite a few times I'd guess.

How often have you taken down an old favourite game, like that less than loved rules set you love that don't get the love on the blogs and on g+, and felt it should be cool to use it for, that thing? For me it happens all the time. My version of the classic gaming ADD is strongly connected to that behaviour. Last time I counted I owned 103 different rules system (counting separate D&D editions as different games), so that could be why.

Maybe it's just me being odd...

Monday, December 29, 2014

Legends of the Wulin - It exists!

A very elusive game for those of us who are crazy about wuxia is Legends of the Wulin. Eos Press made a game a few years back called Weapons of the Gods, based on a comic I have never been able to track down. The next step in the evolution of that game system have been mentioned in hushed whispers, but sightings are few and far between. The publisher does not even sell the game from their own website!! I went so far as to pledge for a Kickstarter where one of the bonuses on a higher pledge level was not only the board game the crowd funding campaign was all about, but also a copy of the hard to catch RPG. Now it's mine! Noble Knight Games suddenly had a copy, and I grabbed it as fast as I could! Yah! 

Nothing is so sweet to a collector as finding that thing you have been looking for. The system looks interesting, but a bit fiddly. It's very clearly made by someone who knows a thing or two about Chinese culture, and the visuals are quite impressive with glossy paper and a lot of art. This baby increased the shipping weight and costs quite a bit!

Now it's mine. It will be interesting to see how it stacks up compared to Tianxia.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Playing in Tekumel, with Fate

I have been quite curious about Tekumel a while now. More and more Tekumel texts have assembled on my sagging shelves, and I have decided to take a dive into the deep end and run a game in the new year. Bethorm arrived and I blogged about my impressions. Having read a bit more in it I'm now pretty clear I wont run that game. It's a bit too fiddly for me. But, the game system I have been using lately, Fate, might do the trick.

Fate is a very different game. Different from almost all other traditional games I've been playing for all these years. Trying to adapt Fate for Tekumel I've found one of the reasons for that. If you were to become enamoured by Savage Worlds or GURPS and wanted to convert your old game to that new system, is would mainly be a question about how to map the different systems to each other. Magic works in one way in the original system, and then the question is how to make the target magic system to behave that way. Fate is different. I have found that when I started to do a "generic" conversion it felt a bit rough in places. It turns out that the game you want to play will strongly influence how you do it.

My first idea for a Tekumel game centred around a clan house. I figured it would be easiest to keep the game within one clan, within one location and centre is around interaction between clan siblings.

It turned out to be harder than I thought to model this by figuring out how to make the rules for the usual cabal of magic-user, cleric and fighters. I dived deep into the intricacies of Tekumel metaphysics and magic and suddenly I had a game where magic way more complicated than anything else in the game. But, magic was not intended as the big focus of the game! I found out it is very easy to use the so called "Fate fractal" to take that literally and recursively deep into a tailspin of complexity.

That was when I realized what I wrote above, the game you want to play will strongly influence how you do it. Fate is a game system that change depending on how you handle it. Once again I had been fooled. Once again the strangeness of it all had exposed how I had approached the game I was planning with an approach that the rules was something I brought to the game, not something that adapted to the game. I wonder if I will ever feel comfortable with that!

Now I have a set of Fate rule guidelines for a Tekumelian game, and once I have written it all down from my handwritten notes I will put them up for perusal.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

A solution to echoing empty rooms in a dungeon

Some people might remember that I have written before about the empty dungeon. For some people that is not a problem. They like the exploration of the dungeon environment to be a resource management challenge. Personally I like the idea of the challenge, but I have been thinking of "compressing" the experience a bit. If nothing else, it's variation. Right?

Ken St. Andre posted this on his blog a while ago. I had opened it in a tab on my browser and did not get around to reading it for real until now. That is a neat idea on how to do the "compressing" of your dungeon.

For those who want the executive summary, the idea is to make each room a index card, shuffle and deal a matrix of cards and those are the levels of your dungeon. Nice idea.
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