Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Hyphen-Con VI Debrief and... So On

Hola, amigos! I know it's been a while since I rapped at ya, but you wouldn't believe what I've been going through lately. First of all, I lent Ron the Festiva for a beer run last week, but he got pulled over on account of a busted tail light. I'd totally forgotten about it. I'm not even sure I knew about it in the first place, since it's in the rear and I never see it back there. I don't know how it's legal to give a guy a ticket for something he can't even see, but that's the pigs for you. Anyhow, turns out the vehicle registration expired two years ago because I never got around to renewing it during the Christmas rush of '08 when I working at the tree lot, and that plus a few bogus unpaid parking tickets meant they impounded the old girl right then and there. I had fifty bucks' worth of scrap metal in the back seat, too. That's the last time I ever let Ron drive stoned.

No, seriously, none of that happened. I'm just a Jim Anchower fan, that's all.

Last weekend was Hyphen-Con VI (Believe the Hyph!) in San Diego, which was, as always, a good time. I ran Leftovers in the evening slot (6-ish to question mark) for five players, and what with one thing and another the PCs ended up being Denise Richards, Neve Campbell, Steve Irwin, Neil Patrick Harris, and, for some wonderful reason, James Garner. (Desmond unwittingly named his character Denise Richards without realizing who Denise Richards is, then it spun out of/into control from there.) The plot involved raiding a Humanist encampment for guns, ammo, and anything else the PCs could lay their hands on. The action culminated in confusion, blood, and lots of gunfire, so... success!

The combats in the Humanists' compound raised an interesting point: The players would much rather fight Horrors than humans. Why? Because you can't stick a human arm on yourself to heal your injuries, that's why. S'kinda funny. Nothing objectionable or problematic -- it just amuses me.

Another thing that came up: Hudson (playing Steve Irwin, the party's token d12 Human Nature guy) noted that Bonds with Allies don't necessarily have to be positive, and asked why anyone would want to take a Bond with another PC that wasn't. My response was, basically, "because roleplaying!" That's a perfectly cromulant reason, but cromulance without mechanical backing bugs me.

So I was thinking of instituting a slight change: Taking a negative Bond gives you +1 step to that Bond's die. This reinforces the idea of the dysfunction of the post-Horrors world extending even into personal relationships. The benefit of a bigger die is balanced somewhat by the lessened utility of the Bond -- but I guarantee you that if you had a negative Bond with a fellow PC, you'd find ways to use it. Also, I'd guess that those with Grafts would be more likely to take at least one negative Bond; the bigger die size and the lessened utility are actually beneficial there, in a way, because you'd probably just burn it with a Graft-related roll rather than use it as a Bond on its own. That may be a problem, but I'm still mulling it over.

Anyway, it was a good time, and the three new players liked the system, the setting, and their characters (we did chargen at the table), so I don't think I could ask for anything more than that. Hudson stretched the system a bit by taking a pet dog as a Contact, which sort of challenged the whole notion of how Contacts are used (e.g., in general, Contacts don't travel with you anywhere) but also amply demonstrated that the system is flexible enough to handle something like that with ease.

Another great moment for the system was when Hudson (again with that guy!) wanted to use Resourceful to try to lay his hands on a map of the area, which ended up giving him a d4 Map Tool (hey, MapTools!). Anytime he did something that might benefit from having a map, he got to add another d4 to his pool. This came into play most prominently when they were negotiating with Grafter gangleader DJ Beastly to get his support in their assault on the Humanists (which the Grafters might want to do anyway, since they and the Humanists are sort of natural enemies). Steve Irwin threw that map down on the table and said, "Here's a map to the nearest Humanist camp," which let Hudson add a d4 to the party's pool for their Friendly roll. Good stuff -- a nice non-standard use of a Tool. Similarly, Neil Patrick Harris (the party's resident doctor and evil scientist) gave the Grafters a couple home-made smoke grenades to sweeten the deal, which meant another d10 for the pool.

The next day, I met with my layout artist to sort through some outstanding layout and art issues. I've given up on trying to make a finished product available on by Gamex (Memorial Day Weekend). I'd rather we all got to do a good job instead of forcing us all to do a fast one. I have no doubt that Leftovers will be a beautiful, well-designed book. I keep telling people I want the layout to be better than the game itself, so even if the game is poorly received by the public, they'll have to admit that it's at least a good-looking book.

In other news, I'm shifting gears for this Simian Circle d10-based contest. The initial idea I had is simply bigger than a 20-page mini-game, and I want to give it all the room it needs. Plus, I love the dice mechanic, and it's something I'd rather develop independent of any other artificial constraints. So in its place, I think I'll finish up [CLASSIFIED]. It has a lot more potential as an anthology game than Last Resort does (that's the name -- Last Resort), in that it requires virtually no setting for it to be understood by the average gamer. It has a cool resolution mechanic of its own (IMO, anyway) and a bit of retro charm without straying too far into high-crunch territory.

Monday, April 12, 2010

[CLASSIFIED]: Damage Redux

I've never written anything quite this... uh... math-intensive before. It's not especially math-intensive in play -- there's a table lookup, a d100 roll, and the multiplication of two single-digit numbers -- but figuring out everything on the front end has been a challenge. I knew I had a solid concept with the way I wanted to do damage, but sorting it out so it all makes sense, and works in a way that makes sense to provide results that make sense, has taken a lot of trial, error, and math.

Most of the original idea is still there. On a successful attack, there's a roll for hit location that doubles as a damage roll -- every location has its own damage rating. Multiply that number by the weapon's Damage Factor (DF) to get the total damage dealt. Compare that number to the target's Toughness:
  • If it's less than his Toughness, he shakes it off. No big deal. This is only likely to happen with run-of-the-mill unarmed attacks. Bullets, knives, clubs, etc. can't be dealt with as easily as fists.
  • If it's between Toughness +1 and three times Toughness, the target gets a 1st-Degree Injury (1DI). The exact effects of this vary by hit location, but in general these are single-round effects: a penalty to actions (something like -4 skill -- modifiers always affect the skill, and never the roll itself), or dropping whatever that hand was holding, and so on.
  • Between three times Toughness and five times Toughness, it's a 2nd-Degree Injury (2DI). These are more serious: broken bones, ruptured organs, severe bleeding, and the like. Penalties associated with these injuries are longer-lasting, usually for the length of the scene, if not longer.
  • More than five times Toughness and it's a 3rd-Degree Injury (3DI). These are debilitating, up to and including death. They're scene-enders for the victim, more or less, but still location-specific. A 3DI to the hand is a lot different than one to the head, but either one's going to ruin your day.
That Toughness score? It's the total of the character's Brawn and Focus. That means it's likely to range between 2 at the minimum and, say, 7 at the maximum. A Toughness of 7 would be remarkably high. You'd pretty much have to devote your entire character to just being "the tough guy" to get that.

Yeah, exactly.

It's important to remember -- I had to keep reminding myself, in fact -- that we're not dealing with anything along the lines of hit points here. All we care about is how the hit location times the DF compares to the target's Toughness score. That's it. Thus, it's not as easy as saying "A shot to the head is almost always going to be worse for you than a shot to the hand." In fact, that's almost an irrelevant consideration.

What happens when you stab someone in the head? It's real bad for them, sure. What happens when you stab them in the hand? It's not as bad for them overall, but it's still going to jack up that hand. In mechanical terms, hands should take 2DIs about as frequently as heads do, but the difference is that injury's holistic effect. The head injury has a greater effect on the target's ability to function and even stay on his feet, whereas it's not totally inconceivable that he could completely lose that hand and still be in the fight (albeit distracted by the bloody stump where his hand used to be).

Another issue is that I can't ignore the different threats posed by fists and blunt weapons and those posed by edged weapons and firearms. Keeping in mind the above stuff re: head and hand, being punched in the hand is highly unlikely to be a big deal, but a fist to the face is another story. Even a club to the hand won't be a huge matter -- you can break it, sure, but odds are slim that you'll render it useless forever. However, a .45-caliber round to the hand is going to be pretty devastating as far as that hand's future is concerned. So's an axe blade. You might lose the hand altogether.

There's some cinematic-type consideration here, too. Yeah, sometimes the most mundane and unlikely attacks will totally incapacitate a person, or extraordinary circumstances will intervene when double-barreled death looks like an absolute certainty, but I'm drawing inspiration from movies that aren't exactly sticklers for realism. This is Connery and (God help me) Moore, not Brosnan and Craig. I don't want every tire-iron to the arm to result in a broken limb, nor do I want every head shot to mean instant death for everyone. I want fists and clubs to have the potential to cause serious injury without guaranteeing they will, and I want bullets and blades to tend to be brutal without losing the possibility that they won't be. It's a fine line to walk, I've found.

So blunt and -- for lack of a better word -- "lethal" attacks have different location-specific damage ratings. Same probabilities, same basic table, different associated damage numbers. Likewise, instead of DFs ranging from x1 to x5, as I previously had wanted to do, now they go from x1 to x8, roughly following these guidelines:
  • x1: Unarmed attacks using the Brawl skill.
  • x2: Unarmed attacks using the Martial Arts skill.
  • x2 to x4: Bludgeoning weapons.
  • x4 to x6: Edged weapons.
  • x5 to x8: Firearms.
So edged weapons and firearms will always do greater minimum damage than blunt weapons' minimum damage, but a blunt weapon's maximum damage can be equal to or greater than their minimum damage, depending on the hit location.

For example, on the non-lethal hit location table, the head is 8 damage and the hand is 4. You hit someone in the hand with your bare fist and he's likely to shake it off -- his Toughness would have to be 2 or 3 to take an injury from that. However, you punch him in the face, and he'll feel it, because an 8 Toughness is highly unlikely. It'll only be a 1DI, of course, but it's something. Hit him with a crowbar (DF x3), though, and it's another story: 24 damage to the head means a 3DI (i.e., unconsciousness) for anyone with a Toughness below 5, but that 15 damage to the hand is usually going to result in a lesser injury. You might break that hand (a 2DI), but it'll heal.

Compare that to lethal damage. If that attack were with a knife or a pistol, for example, the head would mean 6 damage and the hand would mean 5 -- the difference between the two is much less, because the hand is more vulnerable to these types of attacks. With a pistol, typically DF x6, that's 36 to the head or 30 to the hand. That'll disable the location in question unless your Toughness is 6 or more (you'll still die to the head shot, but at least the hand will still be partially usable).

Yes, it's brutal. I don't have a problem with that.

That's where some resource or other comes in. I've been calling it Cool, but it might be something different. I dunno. Anyway, spend Cool to reduce the DF of an incoming attack. If you can get it down low enough, you can turn a 2DI into a 1DI or even into a "0DI" -- and just shrug it off.

After a bunch of test rolls, I have to say... it works. I'm utterly convinced there's an easier way to do it, mathematically speaking -- surely it isn't really necessary for lethal attacks to have both higher DFs and different damage ratings, for example -- but I'm satisfied with the system as it works now. I may be the only person who'll ever say that about [CLASSIFIED], but that's another issue altogether.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

[CLASSIFIED]: The RPG That Came In From the Cold

So for some reason, fresh on the heels of the relatively rules-light Tales of the Glass Slipper, I've made significant progress on a modern-day espionage game that uses:
  1. Percentile dice.
  2. A big 20x20 table to resolve everything.
  3. Nine stats.
  4. 34 skills in five different categories (plus one derived stat!).
  5. Skill points, the exact number of which depends on your stats.
  6. Multiplication.
  7. Hit locations.
Who would play this game? Man, I have no idea. But I am so taken with it right now, I can't even tell you. I'm dying to see it in action.

It's called [CLASSIFIED] -- the name's an homage to Top Secret, but I also think it has a nice ring to it all on its own. Like I said, I can't imagine interest in it would be very high. It's like a Jurassic Park velociraptor: Recreating a dinosaur's an interesting accomplishment and all, and people might be curious about it, but not many are going to want to get too close to it. What do you call a fantasy heartbreaker than isn't a fantasy game? Is it just a heartbreaker at that point?

Regardless, I'm going to post about it anyway, because I'll enjoy it, and that's what this thing's for, right? (Answer: Yes.)

So where to start? Well, I already posted that awesome table the other day -- that's central to all of this. Just about everything in the system comes down to your skill rating (1-20) vs. either an opposing skill or a difficulty rating (also 1-20). For example, trying to punch someone is a skill vs. skill contest; trying to shoot someone is a skill vs. difficulty contest (specifically, a weapon-specific and range-specific difficulty). The percentage chance for you to succeed is X/(X+Y), where X is your skill and Y is the opposing skill or difficulty rating. The nice thing about this is that even with a 20 skill, your odds are never greater than 95%, and that's against a 1 skill -- which is, like, not especially likely. Against a 10, you're still only looking at a 67%, so the min-maxing factor is reduced a bit.

The nine stats are divided into three categories: Physical (Agility, Brawn, Dexterity), Mental (Awareness, Brains, Focus), and Social (Charisma, Empathy, Style). The skills are divided into five categories: Combat, Balance and Coordination, Subterfuge and Infiltration, Interaction and Deceit, and Academics. Characters start with a number of skill points, also divided among those five categories; the amount you have to spend in each category is the sum of the category's two key stats. You also get additional Background skill points equal to Brains + Charisma + Focus to regardless of category. This is stuff you either picked up before you became a spy/assassin/whatever, or learned on your own time since then.

Each skill starts with a base rating equal to the sum of two stats. Advanced skills, like Explosives and Medical, halve this base rating. (I figure this is easier than charging double for them or something.) I've tried to consider both game balance and verisimilitude for each skill's two stats. Usually, every skill within a category will use at least one of that category's two key stats. For example, most of the Combat skills involve Focus, which is all about willpower and discipline, because I think it's interesting to address, in mechanical terms, the guts it takes to wade into combat or pull a trigger. Marksmanship is Awareness (sensory perception) and Focus, Martial Arts is Agility (bodily control and coordination) and Focus, Heavy Melee Weapons is Brawn and Focus, and so on. At character creation, skill points improve skills on a 1:1 basis.

As for combat, damage is the product of two factors: hit location and the weapon's Damage Factor (or DF, because a game like this needs all the acronyms it can get), which ranges from x1 to x5. Most guns would be around a x3 or x4. Unarmed attacks are x1. Melee weapons are x2 to x4; if your Brawn's higher than the weapon's DF, increase it by +1. Each hit location comes with its own damage. Multiply that by the weapon's DF to get the damage dealt by the attack. Believe it or not, there are no hits points. (I know, I'm surprised too.) Injuries come in three degrees: 1st, 2nd, and 3rd. The higher the degree, the worse it is. The degree is determined by your Toughness (Brawn + Focus).

If the total damage is less than your Toughness, you shrug it off -- you're just too much of a badass to be affected by it. If it's more than your Toughness, but less than three times your Toughness, it's a 1st-degree injury. From there up to seven times your Toughness, it's a 2nd-degree injury, and if it's more than that, it's a 3rd-degree injury. If a location already has an injury of a particular degree and you take another to that location of the same or a lesser degree, you take the next-highest degree instead -- so if you already have a 2nd-degree injury to a hand (either one) and you take a 1st-degree injury to that same hit location, that hand now has a 3rd-degree injury. First-degree injuries are relatively minor, and often do nothing more than take up an injury slot -- it might leave a mark, or you might drop your gun, but other than that the main danger is that you can't take another one of those in that location without it getting worse. Second-degree injuries are things like fractures and significant bleeding. Third-degree injuries usually involve whatever's hit being rendered useless. If that's your head, then... well, you get the idea.

That's why you need to be Cool. Cool is a resource spent to adjust an attack's DF. Spend it on your own to increase DF; if you're the target of an attack, spend Cool to reduce the attack's DF. Thus, a punch has potential to do a Houdini-killing amount of damage, and a head shot from a 10-gauge can be reduced to a glancing blow.

How do you earn more Cool? I dunno yet. Put that on the list of to-dos.