Friday, January 29, 2010

Leftovers at OrcCon

I'll be running two sessions of Leftovers at OrcCon next month up in Los Angeles (I say "up in" like it isn't only 40 minutes away, but whatever), for anyone who might want to check it out. Here's the blurb for the game:
Leftovers: Bell, Book, and Tentacle
Suzanne may be young, but even she knows better than to leave the Trench by herself. There's no telling what might find her out there - - could be violence-crazed Grafters, unspeakable Horrors, or worse... the Order of St. Eurosia. Whatever it is, time's running out.

This is an open playtest of Leftovers, a roleplaying game of post-apocalyptic survival in a horrific world -- but with a heart.
Like I said, two sessions, one Friday the 12th at 8:00 pm, and the other Saturday the 13th at 9:00 am. Each session takes four players, and at this point will probably include character creation. The minigame of "How Horrific am I?" is a pretty important part of the game, so I don't want to cut that out. (Bonus: I don't have to make pregens!)

Event pre-registration starts tomorrow the 30th, so if you're in the LA area and not planning on going to OrcCon, well, you should, because it's a good con. Check out the scheduled games on the website if you don't believe me. There's always a good mix of mainstream games like D&D or Storyteller and indie titles like Dogs in the Vineyard and Burning Empires (and FATE!).

UPDATE: Pre-reg opened at noon; both sessions filled up by 1:00. So yay for me having four friends going to the con!

Monday, January 25, 2010

EN World Contest: Down to Business

Hey, January's almost over! It's already the 25th, which means I have but a few days to get this Discovery game together if I want to submit it for that contest. I'm not especially worried about it, because there's so little to the game to begin with, and most of the big pieces are in place. Sure, combat needs some way to track damage, but that's a detail that can surely be worked out in the next few days. Right?

(Disregard for the moment the total lack of playtesting. I know I am.)

I've spent some time lately re-reading Agon and Beast Hunters, two games which have definitely had an influence on my thinking for this one, particularly with regards to putting the GM on a budget. In Agon, it's Strife; in Beast Hunters, Adversity. Regardless, the idea is the same: Limit the GM's resources, and, in the process, make him a sort of player too, in active opposition of the others.

Each of these games goes about this in its own way, and with varying levels of detail. Agon budgets Strife based on the number of players and how many objectives they'll need to overcome (usually three). Spending Strife is pretty cut-and-dry, starting from a baseline of 2d6 for zero Strife, and bumping up each die a step for each point spent (i.e., 2d6, 1d6 1d8, 2d8, etc.). And that's the only thing you're really tracking -- the strength of the opposition, handled in one abstract roll. Keep in mind, though, that in Agon, beating the opposition isn't enough. You also want to beat everyone else at the table. That's the real point of the game. The GM's mostly there to give them reasons to fight for the spotlight.

Beast Hunters is designed as a two-player game -- player and GM -- so concerns about number of players and all that stuff from Agon just aren't an issue. Instead, the player tells the GM how many Adversity points he has to work with, based solely on how challenging he wants the game to be. Moreover, spending Adversity is a much more involved process for the GM, involving minutiae like initiative and rather specific combat abilities (at least, "specific" in comparison with Agon). It's interesting to me how these two games execute the same basic idea in such contrasting ways.

I find it unlikely that I'm going to implement some radically different method for this as-yet untitled Discovery game (although in my head I call it A Wizard Did It). Indeed, something akin to Agon looks like the way to go, for two reasons. One, the simplicity of spending points on a single "stat" meshes well with the way PCs are fleshed out. The more detailed I make the opposition, the more detailed I probably have to make the PCs, and I want to avoid that at all costs. Two, it just makes sense to budget points based on the number of players involved.

However, I also want a slider to control the length or difficulty of the game (e.g., 10 Mystery/player for a short game, 15 Mystery/player for a standard game, and 20 Mystery/player for a longer or more-challenging game). If each player starts with 10 potential split between Physical and Mental, the GM generally needs to start with a bit more Mystery than that, because he'll potentially (ha!) be spending it not just on antagonists, but on establishing, altering, or deleting player-generated details as well. Of course, not everything the PCs encounter will be their equal, but you get the idea.

As for the rest of the setting, well, I really want to leave that up to the GM and players, although it'd probably be a good idea to have a random-generation method of some kind to get things going in a hurry (hey, something else Agon does!). That's good, because I loves me some tables and randomly generated nonsense, so I should enjoy putting that together.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

A Cure for Seventeen Stab Wounds in the Back

Hey ho there -- I've been a little FATE-crazy lately, but that doesn't mean that development on other games has stopped.

In Leftovers, healing by conventional means isn't easy. It's a lot more reliable to cut something off a defeated Horror and stick it on yourself than to rely on the medical skills of your comrades. And the more Wounds you've taken, the harder it is to heal any of them. For example, if you've only taken 1 Wound, it's relatively simple to take care of it, but if you've taken 5 Wounds -- i.e., you're at death's door -- even healing one of them is a daunting task.

Sticking on a Graft, though, auto-heals Wounds. The bigger the Graft, the more Wounds are healed. This is how people end up with Grafts against their will -- simply put, sometimes it's the only way to survive.

The question is this: Since Grafts generally replace body parts like arms, legs, and eyes, how many Wounds does it take to actually lose an arm, leg, or eye? I mean, if you haven't had one of those things cut off, ripped off, or gouged out, does it make sense to, say, cut off a hand just so you can justify a Graft and heal a couple Wounds?

So as I see it, there's a choice between two options. One is logical but requires bookkeeping, and the other is less logical but simpler.
  • Track individual hits. A 2-Wound hit justifies a Minor Graft, a 3-Wound hit justifies a Lesser Graft, and a 4-Wound hit qualifies you for a Greater Graft.
    • This makes sense, but keeping track of how many Wounds each hit did is a potential hassle. Also, it might suck if you've been hit for 1 Wound five times. Healing with Medical might prove fatal.
  • Don't worry about how damaging any single successful attack, and just treat Wounds taken as a slush-fund to "pay" for Grafts, using the same 2/3/4 cost structure as above.
    • This makes less sense -- if you've just taken a few 1-Wound hits, it's hard to believe one was just a scratch while another meant losing an eye, even though they each only dealt 1 Wound -- but it doesn't require tracking anything except your total Wounds, which you're doing anyway.
I lean toward the second, just because it's faster and not so fiddly, but I can't deny how intuitive and internally consistent the first option is. It just makes sense. But at the end of the day, Leftovers is much less about sense and reality than about having fun, so the quicker, more-fun option should win out. If that means retroactively interpreting your 5 Wounds as having lost both your arms sometime during the fight, then go ahead and do that. The bigger point, I guess, is that you need to have taken at least 4 Wounds to justify something like that. Surely that much verisimilitude can live side-by-side with loosey-goosey fun.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

More on This Discovery Idea

So far we have two stats: Physical Potential and Mental Potential.

The dice mechanic is probably going to be something along the lines of 2dX + Function (+ Specialty) vs. a target number. As arguably uninteresting and commonplace (from QUERP to Doctor Who!) as that mechanic is, it's ideal for two reasons. One, it's simple and accessible, especially if we're talking d6s. The premise doesn't really call for complex dice mechanics; instead, something straightforward just feels right for a game about discovery. Two, it meshes seamlessly and intuitively with the potential pools: Spend n potential on a roll and get a function of +n. It makes a lot more immediate sense than, say, adding dice to a pool or fiddling with a roll-under number. Plus, it works well with some other stuff below.

Anyway, for the time being, let's make it 2d6. 4dF would work too, as would d6-d6, but I'd rather stick with all-positive results. Depending on how things shake out, 2d8 or even 2d10 might be better. We'll cross that bridge if we come to it.

So then -- the new stuff.

In addition to the potentials, we have two other resource pools: Duty and Discovery.

When you fail a roll and a die matches the current total of your relevant potential (Physical or Mental), you gain a point of Duty. Spend Duty to add 1d6 to a roll. Conceptually, a temporary setback merely girds your resolve to see your mission through. What are the ramifications of this mechanic?
  • If you let potential accumulate too high, you're not going to earn any Duty. You're encouraged to define functions and specialties on a regular basis.
  • It's possible to be rewarded for failing a roll, but it isn't an automatic thing.
  • You're encouraged to take a chance on a task that's likely to result in failure.
  • If you're out of potential but have a few points of Duty, it's possible to attempt tasks for which you don't have a relevant function and still have a decent chance of success. You're powering through on sheer willpower and determination.
When you succeed on a roll and a die matches the current total of your relevant potential, you gain a point of Discovery. Discovery isn't spent on die rolls. Instead, it's a meta-currency that players bid to help define the gameworld. Players can use it to declare, distort, or deny details. (See? Alliteration, cause unknown.) Each of these uses of Discovery requires a minimum bid. Unless you bid at least that much Discovery, you can't add or change a detail.
  • Declare: Add a detail to the world. Example: Goblins respect shows of strength.
    • Minimum Bid: 1 Discovery
  • Distort: Change a pre-existing detail. Example: Change "Goblins respect shows of strength" to "Goblins respect cunning above all else."
    • Minimum Bid: 2 Discovery
  • Deny: Eliminate a pre-existing detail. Example: Remove the "Goblins respect cunning above all else" detail from the game altogether.
    • Minimum Bid: 3 Discovery
When you want to declare a detail, bid at least 1 Discovery. Go clockwise around the table, and follow the usual bidding process used in auctions. Whoever has the winning bid gets to declare the detail. That player marks off that many Discovery points, writes the detail on an index card, and puts it in the middle of the table. That detail is now a part of the gameworld.

Distorting or denying a detail works the same basic way, but with a higher initial bid: 2 Discovery to distort or 3 Discovery to deny. The winner of a distort auction gets to alter the detail in question, but not beyond all recognition. For example, "Goblins respect strength" could become "Goblins respect cunning" or "Ogres respect strength," but not "There are three moons." The winner of a deny auction gets to remove the detail in question -- just take the index card off the table, and it's gone. The winner of either of these auctions also has the option to keep the detail as-is.

If the detail is successfully distorted or denied, the player who first declared the detail receives 2 Discovery (if distorted) or 3 Discovery (if denied). Messing with someone else's details lets you refine the world to your liking, but it also empowers them to declare, distort, or deny further details -- maybe (probably) even yours.

So what are the ramifications of this mechanic?
  • Tying this into successful rolls means that you're rewarded for using your best functions and specialties. That's okay -- if you're doing that, you're acting in accordance with your purpose. That's what you're supposed to be doing anyway.
  • Again, you don't want to let potential just build up, because if it goes too high you'll never gain Discovery. However, neither do you want to use it all up. I'm not sure how I feel about that, but neither am I going to worry about it. It does encourage you to turn successful rolls into failures when using your other potential, though, and that seems good.
All this "detail" stuff is intended to directly address the theme of Discovery, in that nobody (not even the GM!) can be sure of what's actually around the next bend in the road.

Speaking of the GM: The GM's part of this process, too. He has an analogous resource pool called Mystery. The GM can bid Mystery to distort or deny a detail declared by a player, just like a player would bid Discovery. However, the GM never has to bid anything to declare a detail. In essence, just about everything the GM says is "declaring a detail," so we don't want to bog down the natural GMing process with a bunch of unnecessary mechanics.

That said, the GM can explicitly declare a detail by writing it on an index card and slapping it down with the others. There's no bidding process for that, but what it does is make that detail susceptible to distortion and denial. Why would the GM do such a thing? If that detail is distorted or denied, the GM receives 2 or 3 Mystery, exactly like a player would receive Discovery.

The GM doesn't just use Mystery for this detail business; it's also a pacing mechanic for the opposition the players face. More on that later.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

EN World Contest: First Thoughts

A friend of mine pointed out this contest running on EN World right now, and I was like, "Look, I have a lot of other game-design-related stuff going on here. If it sparks any interesting ideas in me, I'll think about it."

Turns out it did, and now I am.

The parameters are really simple and open, which normally wouldn't appeal much to me. There's just a theme -- Discovery -- and a few "sub-themes," plus, of course, a deadline (February 1st). However, as a theme, I really like Discovery, and the brief treatment of it by Wik, the judge/organizer:
Discovery. Exploration, the discovery of the unknown, and unraveling mystery. An "Old school" theme of RPGs that sometimes gets overlooked in the modern era of RPGs. Let's bring back that sense of discovery in RPGs! How? Well, that's up to you!
The sub-theme that jumped out at me was "Sentient Constructs," which made me think of some alternative uses of "Discovery" besides, y'know, hacking your way through a jungle or sailing uncharted seas. Not that there's anything wrong with that -- it's just that I don't really see the need to come up with a whole new system for it. And if I'm going to make a game centered around Discovery, with a capital D, then I want the mechanics to strongly support -- and focus on -- that theme. I've also had a weird desire lately to make a game that's intended to do one thing and one thing only, that has a very tight, narrow purpose, like My Life With Master or Don't Rest Your Head Maid. Something that couldn't handle a different kind of game without significant alteration. I'm not sure why I want to do that, but there's definitely an attraction there.

That led me to this idea: A wizard has created a bunch of constructs, because that's what he does. Then he disappears for reasons unknown. In his absence, the constructs "wake up." They know nothing about themselves or each other -- their own abilities and purpose are a mystery to them. The only thing they know is that they have to find their master.

Characters would start off consisting of only a few components, called potentials, and then "evolve" abilities over time as they realize those potentials. Right now the potentials are Physical Potential and Mental Potential, although there's certainly room for a third.

Potentials represent pools of points to spend on failed rolls (the dice mechanic is up in the air right now, but there will definitely be dice). Doing so lets the player define a function -- something the construct was intended to do, or relating to its purpose. A function is a permanent bonus to relevant tasks; the bonus is commensurate with however much potential was spent to create it in the first place. It's a sort of retroactive skill purchase -- like "Oh, I succeeded at this -- I must be meant to do it."

Example: Glosk is attempting to decipher a scroll written in an ancient language (a Mental task). He fails his roll, but spends X Mental Potential to succeed instead. This lets him define an appropriate function -- say, Linguistics, but it could just as easily be Ancient Languages -- at a bonus of +X. The next time he deals with a language, he'll get the benefit of his Linguistics function.

Spending potential on a failed roll that's already gotten a bonus from a function lets the player define a specialty within that function. The specialty, like the function, must be relevant to the situation, but more narrowly focused. Again, if you're able to do it (by spending potential), then it must be because it's part of your purpose. 

Example: Glosk finds himself in the middle of a negotiation between some hostile goblins and his companions, and accurate translation is essential. He rolls the dice, applies the bonus from his Linguistics function, and... fails anyway. So he spends another Y points of Mental Potential to succeed and defines a Linguistics specialty: Goblinese. The next time he needs to translate, speak, or read Goblinese, he'll apply the +X bonus from his Linguistics function and the +Y bonus from his Goblinese specialty. Note that if Glosk hadn't applied his Linguistics function, he could've defined another function, such as Diplomacy, instead of a specialty.

It's also possible to unlock hidden potential by voluntarily failing a roll. That is, the roll succeeds, but you choose to fail. When you do this, you gain a point in a potential that's isn't relevant to your current task. You're failing because this sort of thing is not what you're intended to do -- it's outside your purpose, and that's why you've failed. Your potential clearly lies in another area. 

Example: Unfortunately, things with the goblins don't end up going so well, and Glosk finds himself locked in desperate combat. Forced to fight, he takes a swing at a goblin -- and hits! However, Glosk's player is so dedicated to making Glosk a mental powerhouse that he chooses to miss instead. That gets him a point of Mental Potential he can spend later.

An important part of this is making failure interesting and significant. If you defy the dice and say you can't read that scroll after all, whatever's on it just became that much more important.

Like I said, I'm not sure what the dice mechanic will be, but I'm digging what I've got here. I also want to include a system for letting players add details to the world -- possibly only for each other, instead of for themselves.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Ah! The Real Problem

After a relatively good night's sleep, it occurred to me that the real problem with the issue in my last post isn't about the number of dice rolled or anything -- it's about how Hits are generated. If you're dealing with high Traits on either side, you need a margin of success of at least 5 or 6 to obtain more than one Hit, and that's where the grind comes in.

This is actually a problem with pretty significant ramifications for the system as it pertains to degrees of success. The Hits element works fine as long as the participants aren't evenly matched, but when they are, it suffers from a common problem in RPGs: "Evenly-matched" translates to "consistently comparable rolls." I.e., grind and stagnation.

Whatever the solution is, I don't want to create a complicated special case for contests that doesn't apply otherwise. I'm inclined to say that you score one Hit for every two points by which you exceed the opponent's roll. You could call that margin of success divided by two, but people hate division, so I'm trying to avoid that particular operation wherever possible.

The only problem with this is that while it might work well for closely matched participants, it might be a little much if the two sides are a little more... uh... differently abled, as it were. But hey, this isn't for combat, so maybe it isn't a problem to be able to "one-shot" the opposition if you're in a chase or a negotiation.

Regardless, I'd keep the stress track for things like chases; there's no reason for that to change. The only problem is with the Hits, and the danger that they might not, as they say, keep on coming.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Leftovers' First Playtest

Unbeknownst to me, some of my San Diego gamer friends gave Leftovers its first test-drive tonight! Very cool of them. They brought up a lot of good points and have given me a lot to think about. The biggest issue is this:
Contested conflicts, especially at high trait levels, could take a long time. We tested out one where both characters had the same dice pool and it took nine rolls before we got one "hit." If the contest required 3 or 4 hits, it would've taken a very long time.
Hmm. Not sure what to do about that. An initial instinct is to say that identical dice on either side of the conflict cancel each other out -- that is, if one guy's rolling d6 + d8 + d10 and the other guy's rolling d8 + d10 + d10, it'd actually be roll of d6 vs. d10. If all dice are identical, just roll Nature. It's certainly simpler, but I'm not sure if it really makes sense, or would actually be fun. Have to give it more thought. Anyone have any ideas on that?

Also, I was excited to see a complete Leftovers PC for the first time -- Andy's Grey Smith:

Grey Smith
Human Nature: d10
Horrific Nature: d6
1 Minor Graft: a red eye on the back of his neck (d6)
Traits -
  • Stealthy (d12)
  • Deceptive (d10)
  • Combative (d8)
  • Resourceful (d8)
  • Driver (d6)
  • Horrors (d6)
  • Athletic (d6)
  • Strong (d4)
  • Perceptive (d4)
  • Intimidating (d4)
  • Resolute (d4)
  • Educated (d4)
Bonds -
  • I trust Jimbo because he fixed my car (d6)
  • I distrust Dr. Ido because she's too perfect (d8)
  • I'm loyal to Dr. Ido because I know she can fix me up (d10)
  • I'd betray DJ Beastly for his nice gear (d6)
Tools -
  • Lockpicks (d8)
  • Pistol (d6)
Physical Defense - 11
Mental Defense - 7
Vigor - 3
Spirit - 2