Player Agency vs. Narrative Control

Player Agency is when as a player, your decisions matter… they have weight and consequences, and play out into the future in the game.  Narrative Control is when the player can control what goes on in the world, including what the consequences are or whether to accept them.

As I view them, they are incompatible despite the fact that at first glance they’re both about allowing the players to have input.  The problem is that the kinds of input cancel each other out. Weighing the decision whether the character should do X or Y in the game hoping for consequence A or B becomes pointless as soon as you can control whether it’s A, B, or something else.  And if you’re controlling the consequences, whether creating it from whole cloth or picking from a list, any time spent on the decision that led to that point is a waste…you’re just slowing the game down by pretending to consider probabilities and chains of causation which in the end will actually be decided by you choosing the one you like (understanding that like might mean what you feel is dramatically satisfying and not necessarily what the character would choose).

Now, if you’re very careful and aware of the distinction it may be possible to have a game where you shift back and forth…only having narrative control over things that aren’t the consequences of the decisions you’re making, and only pondering and planning out your decisions in areas that have been placed beyond your narrative control.  That’s actually kind of how SFX! games work: players have a lot of narrative control over details of the environment, but only as long as they don’t really matter.  If you’re in a bar and want to hit somebody with a bar stool, that’s mechanically the same as hitting with your fists, or a chair, or a bottle so you  have narrative control over whether there are suitable bar stools in the place.   It matters only insofar as hitting them with a stool might insulate you from their electric shock power, say.  On the other hand, whether hitting them is actually going to hurt them is completely out of your control and in the hands of the GM and the dice, so the decision you are making to try to hit them instead of any of the other things you might attempt (grab them, knock the gun out of their hand, distract them by throwing a drink in their face, run away, etc) is an important one that bears assessing and reasoning about the probable consequences.

This is why as a player I have very little interest in games that emphasize giving the players a lot of narrative control: it’s something that actively interferes with my favorite part of RPGs.  I want a lot of player agency, but only narrative control in very limited circumstances, such as when creating a character, or perhaps between sessions deciding what’s been going on in the character’s life off-screen.

Niven’s Law and Fantasy Roleplaying

Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology – Niven’s Converse to Clarke’s Law

In my last post I discussed the application of Clarke’s Law to SF Roleplaying, and how too zealous an application can mar the SF feel of an ostensibly SF setting, by making tech seem magically limitless.  It might be objected that in good fantasy fiction, magic does indeed have limits, and omnipotent magic is just as problematic to Fantasy settings as  omnipotent tech is to SF settings. I think that’s true, but the kind of limits that seem magical differ from the kind of limits that seem scientific.  I’d go so far as to say that a too-literal application of Niven’s Converse is as bad for Fantasy as a too-literal application of Clarke’s law is to SF.

The kind of limits that seem scientific/technological are limits that at least seem like the limits we observe in physical laws:  the square-cube law, exponential decay, the laws of thermodynamics.  In SF settings for instance we tend expect that just making something bigger won’t make it more effective (if a robot the size of a house is good, a robot the size of a sky-scraper is even better!), that effects drop off with range (no pistols that shoot from the Earth to Proxima Centauri), that there’s no such thing as a free lunch (you can’t just get unlimited power for your ship by using your antigrav drive to create a perpetual-motion pump).  It doesn’t really matter if the phenomenon is entirely fictional, like hyper-drive, or psi powers: if it seems to follow some of the same basic principles that we’re familiar with, we’ll give it the benefit of the doubt.  An example might be Psi powers being blocked by lead or strong electromagnetic fields.  There’s no particular reason that they should be, and nothing in particular in real-world accounts of people who claim to have experienced such phenomena that suggests it should be true, but we’re used to other physical phenomena being constrained in exactly that fashion so it makes it seem more plausibly a physical/biological phenomenon instead of purely supernatural.

Magic, on the other hand, at least in fairy tales and legends tends to have completely different things that serve as stereotypical limits.  Magic usually has very narrow limits on the circumstances in which it can be invoked, such as requiring hard-to-get materials, being cast in the dark of the moon or at a solstice, not being effective against a virgin or a man not of woman born, requiring a special status to attempt (genii or fairy, having sold your soul to the devil, being the seventh son of a seventh son).  Within those limits, magic doesn’t seem to be at all concerned with mundane physical limits. Transformation of a human to a toad, or to a dragon, doesn’t need to account for different masses. Nor is distance any obstacle: if you can fulfill the conditions under which the spell can be cast, such as requiring a drop of the victim’s blood or a lock of his hair, it doesn’t matter how far away the target is, or how many intervening barriers. Transportation all the way across the world requires no greater expenditure of magical effort than across the room, nor is doing it in the wink of an eye more taxing than a more sedate pace, say as fast as a horse can gallop. Above all, magic is about getting something for nothing, or at least something concrete and physical here and now for something metaphysical and down the road, such as your soul, or some years of your life–or somebody else’s.

In fact, even thinking of magic as requiring “effort” or some amount of “power” tends to put it on a physical basis that is at odds with the magic of legends and fairy tales, though it’s become extremely common, if not the default mode of thinking about it in modern day fantasy tales and especially fantasy games.  This is where Niven’s Converse starts to bite, and I think rob fantasy of a lot of its magical feel.  Once you start to think of magic as being a sort of technology, perhaps with slightly different rules but having the same sort of underlying assumptions as mundane tech, it’s hard to stop before you’ve essentially turned magic into its own sort of electricity, powering devices that might as well be from an SF story as a fairy tale. The fact that it’s super-convenient to do so when it comes to writing game rules that balance character types against each other and keep the magic users from just waving their hands and solving all their problems makes it even more tempting to the game designer/GM.

As I mentioned in the previous post, my Elves and Espers setting does that good and hard, but I do it knowing full well that it makes magic in the setting seem more like SF…that’s more or less the point of the fantasy/SF mash-up. Unfortunately, I think, I also tend to do it in settings that are supposed to be pure fantasy, and I think they feel less magical for it. It’s just so easy to think of spells in physics-ish terms as having range, area of effect, duration, requiring more “power” the larger the target or greater the duration, having power for magic be as interchangeable as electricity, weakening with time or distance, and so on. Doing so also automatically makes it easier to compare against abilities that are based on nothing more than physics, such as firing arrows, riding horses, or digging tunnels.

As time goes on, I have a greater appreciation for some of the features of the original D&D magic system. Leaving aside the peculiar Vancian “memorizing” of spells (which I covered elsewhere), it had some magical seeming properties:

  • Spells were sui generis: each had its own rules and properties.
  • The “power source” of a spell was unique to that spell, you couldn’t trade them off or increase or decrease them except by using a different spell.
  • There was no real balancing of the effects of spells against physical “work”.  Spells were graded by level, but within a level it wasn’t, say, harder to create something out of nothing than to influence somebody’s emotions or gain some information.

For instance, take the 5th level spell Teleport:  “Instantaneous transportation from place to place, regardless of the distance involved, provided the user knows where he is going (the topography of the arrival area). Without certain knowledge of the destination teleportation is 75% uncertain, so a score of less than 75% of the percentile dice results in death.”  To me that is a ton more magical than 3rd edition’s rule that you can teleport 100 miles per level of caster, with 15 paragraphs and a table detailing how much you can carry, how familiarity with a locale is rated, the chances of arriving off-target and so on.  But even that is more magical than, say, Hero System’s Fifth Edition, where Teleportation is just a movement power with normal Endurance cost, and with a maximum range of 1 scale inch per 2 character points, to any location within range that can currently be perceived with a “targeting sense”.  (In its defense, the Hero System is supposed to be generic, but that naturally comes at a cost of losing flavor when it comes to specific genres.)

To be sure, there were other features of white-box D&D magic that undercut the magical feel, and made many spells seem just like a special ammo load (precision about ranges, a legacy of its miniatures war-game heritage comes to mind), but I think many later efforts to rationalize the system, including my own, went off in the wrong direction, falling afoul of Niven’s Converse. Instead of just removing the inconsistencies and arbitrariness of the war-gamey parts of the magic system, but leaving the inconsistencies and arbitrariness of magic operating by a completely different set of rules than physics, FRPG magic systems tended to both make expression of the rules concerning spells more voluminous, consistent and precise and make those rules much more like the rules of physics, or at least SF physics.  At the end of the day, there was little discernible difference in feel between spells cast by a wizard, spells cast by a priest, psionic abilities of one kind or another, or “spell-like” abilities from using a hi-tech item.   Magic had become sufficiently “advanced” that it really was indistinguishable from technology, at least from the point of view of the game and its players.

This isn’t an original observation, and there have been many attempts over the years to address the problem, such as trying to create magic systems that reflect more clearly the “Laws of Magic” gleaned by anthropological study of magic as real-world cultures have believed it to have worked. John Kim has a rather lengthy essay Breaking Out of Scientific Magic Systems that’s well worth reading (btw, I was the player of the character mentioned in Example 1 of Section 5). One problem with modeling your FRP magic system too closely on real-world magic is that real world magic doesn’t work, and some of the stuff that’s “true” according to real world magical tradition is there to make it harder to test and verify, or to give an easy out to the practitioner when it doesn’t work. Most of the time in an adventure-oriented FRP game, you want magic to be practical, so for instance death spells that take months to cast and if they work appear to be coincidence, aren’t what the players are looking for. Fairy-tale magic is a lot better for settings where there is overt magic, but fairy-tale magic is often so potent that it’s only found in the hands of NPC antagonists or sometimes mysterious mentors. It can take a lot of work on the GM’s part to create magic for the players to use that doesn’t end the adventure with, in essence, “and I magic us out of trouble.”  Giving players one or two specific abilities, like being able to talk to animals, or a pair of seven-league boots, can be a lot easier on the game than letting a player be a full-fledged sorcerer–but doesn’t really answer for the player who wants to play fantasy so he can play a sorcerer.

There’s also the factor that, after thirty years of D&D, and countless stories and games derived from it or influenced by it, some second or third hand, there are a lot of people including some who’ve never actually played D&D whose conception of magic and what feels magical is much more influenced by D&D than by earlier sources. To them being able to throw a fireball is the hallmark of a wizard, even if you’d be hard-pressed to come up with a pre-D&D source in myth or legend. When it comes down to making magic in your game feel magical to your players, you may have to include fireballs if that’s what’ll give them that fantastic tingle.

There’s no easy answer to preventing magic from feeling just like another technology, if that’s your goal. We’re so steeped in technology that even for things that aren’t technological in origin in our world, we often think about them as if they were technology, or try to treat them like technology. (Insert long rant about social engineering and/or modern management practices here, if you will.) Next time I try it, here are some approaches I’m going to consider:

  • Make spells sui generis. The way one spell works may not imply anything about any other spell, including spells of similar effect. Perhaps depending on where you learned it, Magic Missile is a physical arrow that needs a to-hit roll, or an unerring blast of light, or something else.
  • Make many spells the results of negotiating with sentient entities: you summon a djinn or elemental and it can do whatever is within its powers, but you actually have to role-play out the process of cutting a deal with it.
  • Have spells have no common source of power. No mana, or end cost, or magic points. If the conditions are right to allow you to cast the spell, including restrictions on ingredients or time of day or what-have-you, you can cast it. If certain spells do require power, have the power be the result of a specific action such as sacrificing an animal or praying in the sacred grove at the full moon, and have the source of power be thematically appropriate to the type of spell.
  • Design spells so they employ magical reasoning (effects resemble causes, contagion, similarity, etc.).
  • Grant characters specific magical abilities, without necessarily allowing them to learn new abilities…new abilities have to be gained through adventuring or deals with magical creatures, if at all.
  • Downplay physics-like considerations in spell-casting such as range, volume, density, duration. Spells should mostly cause permanent effects until reversed voluntarily or through being broken (spells should always have some way of breaking them built-in, such as a kiss from a prince).
  • Emphasize conditions for casting/breaking spells that have mythological or fairy tale resonance, including what John Kim calls morality, ethics and intangibles.  Spells that cannot work on the true of heart, or that can only be cast by evil creatures, or the seventh son of a seventh son, or can only be broken by true love, etc.
  • Do not allow the commodification of magic items: even if you have Ye Olde Magic Shoppe, each item in it is unique and has its own story.

Clarke’s Law and SF Roleplaying

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. – Clarke’s Third Law

Any technology indistinguishable from magic might as well be fantasy. – Macy’s RPG Corollary

Old-time SF author E.C. Tubb died on September 10th, 2010, which prompted me to begin reading his most famous series: Dumarest of Terra.  Dumarest was the inspiration for several  features of the early SF RPG Traveller, most notably the concepts of “Low” (risky but cheap cryogenic suspension) and “High” (expensive but safely awake) passage on starships, but a lot of the feel of the setting as well, with humanity spread out so far among the stars that there’s no central political control and Terra is just a legend.

Dumarest is entertaining enough in a pulpish way, but one of the things that strikes me when reading it is how much it feels like science fiction, despite having no recognizably “hard” science elements. The mechanics of interstellar travel, for instance, isn’t explained at all, not even in the hand-waving way of “hyper-space” or “FTL” drive.  All you really know about it is that it takes a long time: not so long as to make interstellar tourism impossible, at least if you’re rich enough, but long enough that even  in “High passage” people have to take a drug called Quick-Time to slow their metabolism and perception to endure the journey.  Worlds exist with unusual features such as not rotating that aren’t worked out at all, let alone with Hal Clement-style rigor. So what makes it feel science-fictional, in a way that many modern SF stories and RPGs do not?

I think the thing is that even without any attempt at explanation or justification in terms of real science, the technology is portrayed as having limits and inconveniences that give it a distinctly un-magical feel.  Cryogenic suspension isn’t a Sleeping Beauty spell. Besides having a 15% fatality rate per trip and being incredibly painful to wake from, such that without pain-killing drugs passengers will scream their lungs raw as they wake, low passage takes its toll on the body.  Low-travel passengers such as Dumarest have used up a lot of their body’s reserves, and are literally half-starved.  High-travel passengers, no matter how wealthy, even be they princes of their home planets, must endure side-effects from the Quick-Time drug slowing their reflexes fractionally for days afterwards.  Solar storms can make travel impossible, even for the most heavily shielded starships, high winds on a planet can make air-travel impractical even though there is anti-grav technology, and so on.

It further seems to me that this sense of the limitations of technology and science is something missing from a lot of recent SF and SF RPGs.  It’s as if people have taken Clarke’s Third Law too much to heart and decided that if any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, the best way to go about imagining advanced technology is to treat it as if it were magic and anything is possible.  This may be exacerbated by movies, TV, and computer games, which powerfully influence our imaginations when it comes to picturing SF worlds. Advances in CGI mean that anything we can imagine depicting can now be shown on screen, with no real constraints.  A space-station the size of the moon is no harder or more costly to depict than a space-station the size of an oil tanker.  Or maybe not: it was always possible to write about a space-station the size of the moon with no more effort than a more reasonably-sized one.  And yet I wonder…did convincing the reader take more effort before people were used to seeing photo-realistic depictions of such wonders, moving in real time?

It’s not that I think SF games are better if you have to plot realistic Newtonian orbits, or if they have no tech that you can’t point to at least a pop-sci article in the paper to justify…Heaven knows Dumarest doesn’t even make gestures in that direction. It’s that what’s missing is the sense that the physical universe places constraints on technology that cannot be overcome with “sufficiently advanced” tech.  The result is that all these SF worlds feel as if they’re taking place in a virtual reality, and if that’s the case then for all practical purposes they might as well be fantasy games instead of SF… the  difference coming down to nothing more than the style of accompanying illustration.  There’s nothing wrong with playing fantasy with SF trappings, after all that’s more or less the point of my whole Elves and Espers campaign setting, but I can’t help feeling that a steady diet of it isn’t taking full advantage of the unique features of SF as a genre.

Take Firefly, for example.  There’s nothing the least bit realistic about some of the basic features of the setting, such as all the terraformed asteroids and moon-lets of the ‘Verse, or the ease with which ships travel between them or run across each other while travelling (c.f. Pournelle’s Those Pesky Belters and Their Torch Ships), but there are features that give it a strongly SF flavor despite it being largely and unapologetically a Western in Space.  The biggest thing is that ships require fuel and constant maintenance, and both of those require money.  (This was an important feature of Traveller, as well.)  Even Star Trek, which makes worries about fuel and maintenance irrelevant except for the occasional plot-point, and which introduced truly fantastic tech such as transporter beams at least took the trouble to include limitations such as being unable to beam through shields which made it feel a little more “grounded”–even if the limitations were really there to plug the plot holes that having an instant “Get Out of Jail Free” card would have introduced.

I think this gets exaggerated in SF RPGs, because there is a tendency to gloss over such limitations and difficulties that are implied to exist in the technology as being irrelevant to, or worse detracting from, the sense of adventure.  That tends to happen even in fantasy games, where logistical rules such as encumbrance or spell components are often the first things to get tossed aside in the pursuit of more “heroic” feeling games, but at least there the typical low-tech setting implies constraints that the characters tend to live with.  Without a spell, nobody tries to converse with somebody in a city hundreds of miles away; in a modern setting, people think nothing of pulling out a cell phone… in a future setting, players now tend to assume that they ought to be able to do at least that much, but without stopping to consider whether that implies infrastructure such as cell towers and satellites that the world they’re exploring might not have.  Surely whatever far-future they’re in where they’re exploring worlds ought to have licked whatever technical problems that might present?   The recent Doctor Who series (in)famously introduced a cell-phone that could make calls not only across whatever planet they are on, but even across time itself.  That’s a bit magical even for Doctor Who fans.

I think that, especially for RPGs, even if you’re really aiming for SF with no hard science at all along the lines of Star Wars or Doctor Who, it’s helpful to avoid falling back on Clarke’s Law to justify all your tech doing whatever is most convenient at the moment.  Think about some limits that might be implied by the fact that this is dealing with physical objects in a “real” world, and not CGI or magic, and enforce them.  Consider whether the items require power and how much,  or have limitations on range, reliability, maintenance, and so forth.  RPGs are about making interesting decisions, preferably ones informed by your character’s beliefs and personality, but at least ones with tactical and strategic trade-offs  It just strikes me as more interesting if your communicators can only contact the ship as long as it’s in line of sight above you and not when it’s blocked by the bulk of the planet, unless you take the trouble of dropping a bunch of geosynchronous relay satellites in orbit first.  Even more so if they’re expensive enough that it’s worth the trouble to retrieve them when you leave, and it takes time to do so, so that one day you might be faced with the choice of cutting and running when some enemy shows up or leaving your comm net satellites behind and it’s actually a hard choice.  Every game should have interesting decisions the characters face, but game that aim to be SF should make an extra effort to make those decisions feel like they’re grounded in the science of the setting however outre.  Bonus points if the players can reason about the “science” to arrive at true conclusions and workable plans…such as by tricking the enemy into thinking the landing party is still on the planet by programming the abandoned comm satellites to keep pretending to relay messages.  Avoiding the reckless application of Clarke’s law is, in my opinion, a big help in keeping your SF feeling like SF.

Kapow! Playtesting Continues

We’ve been playing Kapow! and overall I’d say it’s going well: the players seem to be engaged and having fun.  At the end of one session, in which as a result of one of his character’s Complications it was revealed that unbeknown to him, his character had a 20-year old daughter, Doug gave it a big thumbs up and said “This is a great comic!” And Wendy has praised the clarity and concision of the combat cheat-sheet.

One thing that hasn’t gone quite as well, or at least has caused me to rethink one of the basic rules, is what happens to a character’s defenses when they are Hindered.  Where other games like Champions have status conditions like Stunned, Knocked Down or Blinded, Kapow! has the more generic Hindered.  It’s simpler, in the sense that it’s one status condition to cover everything instead of separate rules for each kind of thing that can interfere with the character’s ability to act effectively, and it’s less debilitating than some in that you can still act while Hindered.  Losing a turn due to a status condition gets boring pretty quickly, particularly if as in most games it can happen over and over so you end up spending all your turns standing back up or recovering, only to be stunned again on the villain’s turn (sometimes called “chain-stun”).

I wanted to avoid that, and to avoid the “Death Spiral” effect where getting stunned or damaged makes you more likely to get stunned or damaged in the next round, so that once you start to lose you’ll probably be defeated if you don’t run away.  So in Kapow! not only can you can still act while Hindered, albeit at a penalty,  being Hindered doesn’t reduce your defenses.  For many, if not all, superhero defenses that makes a lot of sense: if you’re  invulnerable, even if you’ve been temporarily blinded or glued to the spot with webbing you’re still just as hard to knock out.  And in play it means that just because you’ve gotten hit and are suffering from a penalty to your attack, you’re not on the verge of losing.  For some defenses, such as acrobatics where if you’re tied down or dazed you really ought to be easier to clobber completely, it makes less sense, but sometimes playability trumps what passes for realism in comic books.

The problem that play-test revealed is that the players really expect to be able to soften up the villain’s defenses by Hindering them so that follow-up attacks by their companions stand a better chance…but that’s not how the rules work.  One of my design principles is that if players keep misremembering a specific rule, that probably means you should change the rule to match their mental model of how things ought to work instead of trying to beat it into them that they’re playing it “wrong.”  Fixing it to match the way the players think it works, though, could cause a ripple effect through the rest of the rules in order to balance things out (for instance, I don’t want to make Powerhouse characters, who are designed to have fewer but more powerful actions weaker than fast, nimble Jack of All Trades characters…but if they had to keep spending their limited actions on shoring up their defenses they could be).

What Doug suggested, and we’ll probably go with at least to test next session is that we make what the players are attempting one of the combat maneuvers.  So the rules for defense would stay as they are, but the players would have the option of deliberately trying to weaken a target’s defenses just as they were (repeatedly) trying in our play-test sessions… but there would be a built-in penalty for doing so since trying to weaken the target’s defenses would preclude trying to KO the target with the same attack.   In addition, Weakening the target’s defenses would only last for the next attack (or maybe the next round, we’ll have to experiment); that way Powerhouses wouldn’t have to spend all their time undoing the weakened defenses.  The characters could act deliberately to set them up for a more devastating attack, but they would have to keep doing it to continue to get the benefit, and the slower characters wouldn’t be unduly penalized by forcing them to spend their time recovering from being weakened.

I may also emphasize that certain defensive powers (like acrobatics, or heightened senses, or super-speed) really ought to be taking the Disadvantage “Can Be Hindered” to represent the fact that they’re much easier to interfere with than, say, being invulnerable, or being able to become intangible.  It’s possible I should swap it so that by default defenses are affected by being Hindered, but you could take an Advantage “Can’t Be Hindered” for characters with defenses that don’t really involve being maneuverable or having heightened awareness of attacks…my gut is that being really tough and able to withstand a beating is a bit more common as a defensive superpower, particularly when you include villains, than being really nimble or having great reflexes, but I could be wrong.  Comments are welcome.

Super-Simple Combat Maneuvers

I’m a fan of players being able to do more things in combat than just tick off damage against opponents.  Things like disarming, tripping, forcing the opponent to yield ground, binding their weapon and so forth add a lot to the feel of combat and the tactical options.  I’m not a big fan of most of the rules that I’ve seen to do things like this, including various rules I’ve come up with over the years, because they either add too much complexity or accomplish too much or too little, or both.   Sometimes certain maneuvers become surreally effective, particularly if you’ve optimized your character; other times there’s no point in trying: you’re strictly better off just hacking away, and the heck with flavor.  It’s hard to strike a balance, particularly if you’re concerned with not just whether the combat mini-game has no clear dominant strategy but whether the results seem plausible and entertaining for the kind of genre you’re playing.

I think, though, I’ve come up with a solution that finesses most of these problems nicely, and can be bolted on to a wide variety of systems and genres.  I give you Super-Simple Combat Maneuvers:

  • The attacker declares that he wants to attempt a combat maneuver, such as disarming an opponent, forcing him back, knocking him down, etc.
  • He makes an ordinary, unmodified to-hit roll.  A miss means it failed.
  • On a critical the maneuver is a complete success, and the declared result occurs.
  • If the to-hit is a success, but not a critical, the defender chooses whether to accept the results of the declared maneuver or just take damage as if it were an ordinary hit.

That’s all there is to it.

So why would a defender choose to take the effect, rather than the damage?  Well, because it seems like a better option at the time.  It’s going to be hard to push somebody back into a bubbling pool of lava, or make them drop their only weapon, but it’s not impossible (thanks to the crit=success rule) and a lot of the time it may beat taking damage.  In systems, like D&D at higher levels, where a character can take dozens of hits before being in trouble you may have to wear them down a while before this sort of maneuvering for advantage starts to have bite…but that’s a feature of being able to take oodles of hits.  If you allowed maneuvers to be a cheap way around that, then you would lead straight into the kind of balance problems this is designed to avoid.  To the extent that you’re satisfied with characters being able to shrug off hits, you should probably be satisfied with them shrugging off other combat effects–at least until they start to be worried about taking the sword-blow to the arm instead of dropping their weapon.

In more lethal games, it should be a big temptation to go with the maneuver instead of toughing it out, particularly if doing so doesn’t obviously equal defeat.  That puts a premium on maneuvering when you have a cunning plan, such as setting somebody up for a flank attack or clearing a path for a comrade, instead of a cheap way to bypass the normal combat procedure.

On the attacker’s part, there’s no real penalty for trying something interesting.  The opportunity cost is just losing the chance at whatever the normal critical effect is, plus giving the foe the chance to avoid damage.  But presumably you’re attempting the maneuver in the first place because you think that under the circumstances you gain a greater advantage from whatever you’re trying instead of damage from a normal blow.  If they agree, then at least you still get your damage…if they don’t, well that’s what makes for tactically interesting decisions.

One nice feature is that there’s very little chance that some clever rules-monkey (hi Doug!) can use this to break your game, at least any worse than it’s already broken, since whereever it might be abusive the defender has the option of defaulting to the regular system.  The weak point that I can see is that if “criticals” are too easy to get in the default system then you might have too many battles ending with the defenders pushed off a cliff…but that should be easy enough to tweak (e.g. by require a crit and a “confirmed” crit, with the confirmation roll tailored to exactly how often you think the attacker should be able to force the issue…which depending on your style of play could be never).  In the worst-case, you end up using the default combat all the time, but at least it’s cost you no effort or extra complexity.

So what counts as a maneuver?  I’m inclined to say that players should feel free to make stuff up as they go, perhaps with GM veto.  If players keep trying to shoot guns out of their foes’ hands, a la an old TV Western, that should be taken as a hint that they’re happy with that as a style instead of making it a tug-of-war with the GM over which genre conventions the game adheres to.  If they want to try to knock a guard out with one blow as a maneuver, why not?  On the other hand, if that’s just too loosey-goosey for your play style, perhaps because you worry that in pursuit of momentary tactical advantage or even humor, you all might try too many things that undermine the feel you’re going for, it would be simple enough to make a list of the “standard” maneuvers such as

  • Disarm
  • Knock Down
  • Force back a pace
  • Grab and pull forward
  • Bind weapon/grab weapon arm
  • Pin arms
  • Prevent attack on comrade
  • Switch places
  • Slip past opponent
  • Unhorse

I’m going to add this to our game tonight.  I’ll report back on how it goes.

Randomized Initiative

Randomized initiative is a hold-over from wargaming that I’ve never particularly cottoned to.  Originally D&D didn’t even have it.  Turn order wasn’t even specified, leaving it up to the referee to figure out.  I’m sure Chainmail had rules, but the d20 vs. AC “alternate” system that was in the books which everybody actually used made no mention of it.  Basic D&D officially had turn order alternating between the two sides, players and NPCs.  In that context it made perfect sense to roll at the beginning of combat to see who went first.  For some reason, though (at least by the time of the Mentzer Basic D&D) the rules called for rolling each round, which had the bizarre property that a side might go twice in a row.  Unfortunately, strict alternation by sides is a) very “gamey” feeling, b) can convey a huge advantage to the side that goes first, or the side that goes twice in a row, leading to a lot of combats where one side or the other doesn’t even get a chance to react before being defeated, and c) doesn’t leave much room for having one character being noticeably faster than another (though Zombies did always lose initiative, no roll needed).  Individual initiative feels more natural, and gives a much more fluid feel to combat resolution, allowing characters to react to changing battlefield conditions–perhaps unrealistically so, but a much better fit for adventure fiction.  Oddly, to my mind, many systems with individual initiative rules nevertheless include a large, even overwhelming, random component.  That puzzles me because it still feels very much like a game, and it inevitably leads to layers of extra complication to try to shoehorn character ability back in…plus slowing play down with extra die rolls and modifiers to arrive at a result that is arguably much less true to either reality or genre fiction.  I grudgingly use Savage Worlds’ random initiative system when I run that, in part because the Edges that represent one character being quicker are fairly substantial, but in all my own games turn order goes strictly by the character’s speed.  Usually that’s Dex or the equivalent.  I’ve toyed with using Int (to represent “quick thinking”) and even incorporated it into a game once…but nobody who’s spent much time around my friend Russell–who is quite literally one of the smartest people on the planet–can take the notion of a strong correlation between brains and fast reaction time seriously.  It’s probably better to represent quick thinking as taking some specific advantage (along the lines of and Edge or Feat) regardless of attributes.

Karma Points, or Payback is a Botch

There’s a discussion over at Robertson Games about using Luck points or the like to reduce the impact of a series of bad rolls resulting in character death.  I’m not a big fan of them, preferring explicit script immunity if the game isn’t going to just let the dice fall where they may.  I totally get why not every game needs to challenge the players and have character death or significant defeat be a live option, or at least give the players veto power to avoid stupid or anticlimactic deaths, but I think that Luck Points in the sense of a small finite resource than can be spent to reroll or force a roll to a certain outcome aren’t an adequate response.  On the one hand, they’re too little: they don’t actually guarantee that unacceptable outcomes never occur.  Eventually the party runs out of do-overs, and then they’re stuck even if another unacceptable outcome occurs.   On the other hand, they do too much, since the players will almost certainly come to consider their presence (or absence if they’re running low) when evaluating their options.  If you don’t want a TPK when the party foolishly attacks a sleeping dragon they happen across while on some unrelated quest, giving them Luck Points may actually encourage them to attack it; in effect Luck Points subsidize them making game-mechanically foolish choices.

Generally I prefer that the GM and players either agree in advance that they have script immunity, or they take up situations where a run of bad luck has derailed the game or killed a character on a case-by-case basis, deciding whether to live with the outcome or retcon it as an extraordinary measure.   I’ve long felt it to be a mistake to roll for something if you’re not willing to abide by the roll; if I really don’t want characters to die as a result of bad rolls in combat, I take the option off the table, for instance by making less than 0 HP mean incapacitated, fate to be determined.   It occurs to me, though, that it might be possible to craft a mechanic that answers my objections.

Suppose instead of a pre-figured supply of Luck Points which could be used to overrule or reroll a bad situation, you had an unlimited supply…but each time you invoked the rule you gained one Karma Point.  The GM could then spend one Karma Point to overrule or force a reroll some time down the line, negating some good result you had rolled.  That clearly solves the problem of a finite supply just kicking the can of reckoning down the road, giving the players a form of script immunity when it was just notably bad luck that screwed them over.  It might also address the problem of the players counting on their immunity to let them try dumb things, since they would know it would cause them potentially serious trouble down the line.  Yes, they could know in advance that whatever happens they can survive the dragon’s first breath attack…but at the risk of turning an otherwise easy situation later on into a fiasco.  It wouldn’t anwer for players who really need script immunity so their fun isn’t all bashed out of shape by random die rolls, but it might do for players who were generally interested/willing to subject their character’s fate to the dice but wanted some measure of veto power over extremely inopportune rolls.

Unlucky 13

I generally like the idea of fumbles in games, being both true to life and literature, although they can be a problem if they’re too frequent or severe.  A fair number of published systems would have a tenth or more of an army incapacitating themselves over the course of a battle. Another thing that I think is a problem, albeit a minor one, is that most systems tie fumbles into failure, so it’s impossible to both succeed at a task but have something go awry.

Here’s the system I’m currently using in my D&D-esque game:  whenever rolling a d20, a roll of a 13 means something unlucky potentially happened.  Roll a Luck save (luck is a Stat in this system, but you could substitute some other sort of save).  Success means nothing happened, failure means something bad but relatively minor or recoverable (weapon twists in your grip and you can’t attack next turn, sun gets in your eyes, etc.).  A second roll of 13 means something quite unfortunate happened, such as dropping your weapon or falling down.  Roll again and keep rolling if 13 keeps coming up, making the result more severe the more 13’s you get.

Obviously you can adjust just how bad it is to taste; I feel that dropping a weapon one in 400 times is probably bad enough, but you might prefer that to be the result of failing the luck save, and have the roll of a second 13 be more spectacular, such as a broken weapon.  You could also make it more severe, so that e.g. a weapon breaks on a failed save after the initial 13, if you want things to be more chaotic; I lean against that, in part because in most RPGs that sort of thing can really make the PCs seem like klutzes.  During a campaign players tend to make many times more roles than any individual NPC they encounter, so a 1 in 20 or 1 in 40 shot may well turn up for each character at least once a night; if the failures are particularly memorable that can be a problem.  1 in 400 is more like once a session or less for some PC or NPC…enough to add flavor without being overwhelming.

I like this because it’s an easy mnemonic, which can be important for something relatively rare.  It’s a pain to have to, say, check each roll to see if it missed by more than X if it’s only going to really matter 1 in 400 times.  I also like it because it makes it possible to both succeed (if 13 was good enough) and still have something untoward happen, such as hitting a target but having your weapon stick.

D&D Alignment

Advanced Gaming & Theory: Pet Peeve: Detect Alignment

I THINK THAT EVERY body has a “pet-peeve” or something that bugs them about a game system itself. For me, that pet-peeve was largely spells used for detecting alignment. Now, this stems from playing the game incorrectly when our group was still learning, and not detecting our error, thus never fixing it. But this spell still bugs me to this day. It just seems like one of those things which was put into the game to make the Dungeon Masters life miserable.

Tim Ripper goes on to talk about how he deals with alignment, basically by neutering it. NPCs and PCs don’t actually know their own alignment, good characters can do bad things and vice-versa, the Detect Alignment spell is basically useless: easily fooled, obvious when it’s cast, considered a hostile act or even a prelude to an attack, and so forth.

But I have to ask, why have alignments in your game, then? What’s the point if they’re secret even from the players, you have to nerf certain spells to keep them that way, and even the GM can’t use them as a guide to behavior? I think it’s far simpler to just remove it from the game, which is pretty much what we did back in the day. Trying to keep alignment in the game without making it actually useful or having noticeable game-world consequences strikes me as more trouble than it’s worth.

Generally, there seem to me to be two and a half standard fruitful approaches to really using D&D alignment as part of the game world without running into the problems of having players run around casting Detect Alignment and short-circuiting any kind of real moral reasoning or thinking about the motives of the NPCs.

Approach 1 is that Alignments are sides in a cosmic war. Your alignment says which side you are on in the war, and nothing more. There can be honorable, maybe even admirable people and creatures on the Chaotic side, though perhaps few and far between, just as there can be complete rat-bastards on the Lawful side. Your alignment in particular says nothing about how you treat people in petty day-to-day things, whether you lie, cheat, give to charity, keep your word,  and so forth. Alignment detection spells detect which side’s uniform you’re wearing, as it were.  This was easier to pull off without confusing modern sensibilities when the alignments are just Chaos and Law, instead of the two-axis AD&D Law vs. Chaos and Good vs. Evil, but is still possible.

A subset of approach 1 (the “and a half”) is that humans and most other creatures don’t even really count in the cosmic war. Only supernatural entities and magic actually have concrete alignment, and that’s what spells detect. Ordinary mortals might have tendencies, but they’re really weak stuff compared to the real thing, and don’t register even when they’re conscious allegiances.

Approach 2 is that alignments are the Gods’ eye-view score card of your behavior: how the Gods view your actions according to their moral lights.  This makes Alignment, though perfectly concrete and detectable, more like having a prison record or past citations and medals for good works.  “Past record is no guarantee of future performance.”  Still, you’d have to be willfully stupid to ignore the evidence that alignment offers when deciding whether to put someone in a position of trust.  None of this namby-pamby alignment detections exists, but there are social taboos against using it guff.   You want a position of trust, you submit to the alignment check, just as today you submit to a background check in any kind of sensitive position.

What you don’t want to do, in my opinion, is make alignment exist, but be useless.  Either figure out the ways it plays out in the game world and deal with it (perhaps just giving up the cliche of the vizier “secretly” being evil), or strike it from the books and say that in your game world people steer by whatever their own personal moral compass is… different religions and philosophies advocate different things but there is no one universal measure, magical or otherwise, that can be applied.  Keeping it but figuring out all kinds of reasons that nobody does or should do the obvious things given its existence just magnifies its flaws.

RPG Rules and the Direction of Causality

There are two ways you can view causality flowing in terms of RPG rules: from the game-world to the rules, or from the rules to the game world. Either game rules attempt to describe a game-world, or they define the game-world.

In the first view, game-world effects have game-world causes, and the rules are just a model or approximation of the factors and chain of events from cause to effect within the game-world. They’re there to make adjudication more consistent, predictable, or speedier, but they’re intended to be sacrificed whenever they don’t accomplish those goals. It’s taken for granted that the rules are only approximations, and they need not be consulted if the results are obvious to all the players (or perhaps just obvious to the GM), and they need to be overruled whenever they yield a result that doesn’t make sense in terms of the game world.

In the second view, the rules are in effect the physics of the game-world, and it’s impossible for them to yield a result that doesn’t “make sense” in the game-world. If there’s any flaw, it’s in the players’ improper grasp of the way the game-world operates and their invalid attempt to apply ordinary ideas of cause and effect or probability imported from our world into the game. The rules are there to tell the players what is and is not possible in the game-world.

The choice is a matter of taste, but the two views are mutually exclusive. Even if you switched back and forth from one view to the other, or used one view for certain rules and the other view for different rules, you can’t simultaneously hold both views of a single ruling. If they are temporarily congruent you might not be able to tell which you were using, but when they conflict you have to come down on one side or the other: conform to the rule despite the apparent illogic, or conform to the logic overriding the rule. (You might subsequently adjust the rule to try and make clashes less frequent, but at that moment, you came down on the side that the game-world trumps the rules.)

Game systems tend to favor one view over the other, even if they don’t make it explicit or apply it consistently across all decisions. Even the same rule often can be viewed one way or the other by different gaming groups. In original D&D, for instance, the game explicitly took the view that the rules were approximations but in every case the referee was the final arbiter; nevertheless there were rules such as Magic Users being forbidden to wear armor which weren’t explained in terms of game-world logic, leaving different groups on their own to either come up with explanations to justify the rule so that causality still flowed from the game-world to the rules (e.g. “armor is too restrictive, MUs can wear it but any attempt to cast spells will fail”), or to reverse the direction for that rule and say “Magic users can’t wear armor because that’s the rule. There is no why.” (Or perhaps by an appeal to a meta-game consideration, such as “MUs can’t wear armor because that would be unbalanced.”) Note that if the group followed the first tack, there would be further in-game consequences that flow from it, such as MUs having their companions carry armor around so that when they ran out of spells they could armor up. If the group took the latter tack, there’s often an awareness that the world is operating in strange and arbitrary ways. Much gaming humor (such as in Order of the Stick) comes from making the characters as aware of the flow of causality from the rules to their world as the players are.

Some games simply make no sense in terms of the first view: you cannot really regard the rules as an abstraction of game-world causality without it becoming a gonzo humor game. For instance, in the PDQ (Prose Descriptive Quality) system used by games such as Truth & Justice, when a character takes damage in a fight, the damage can be applied to a trait such as Accounting. So Spider-Guy getting hit by a truck thrown by the Blue Boar makes it more likely that some time later in the campaign, some complication will crop up having to do with his Accounting, such as being audited by the IRS. But even the most pronounced rules-first, game-world as a result system such as Truth & Justice, Dogs in the Vineyard, or D&D 4th Edition will have fairly large areas of the game that can be decided not by interactions of the rules, but consultation with the logic of the game-world, such as ordinary conversation between the PCs and NPCs (at least where the PCs aren’t trying to “win” a conflict with the NPCs or gain information that the NPCs do not wish to divulge).

On the other hand, unless you’re running system-less, there are probably no “rules as model” games where the rules never yield a somewhat implausible result that’s nonetheless taken as the actual game-world result, if for no other reason than to speed the game along and not make each ruling a source of debate.

Nevertheless, there is a clear distinction between games which aspire to the view of game-world causality as primary and those that take the opposite approach, and not understanding which approach the game is taking can lead to debates, frustration, and anger.  Players and GMs may be seen as trying to twist  or undermine the rules or even cheat in a group that expects causality to flow from the rules when they reason from game-world causes to game-world effects; in the opposite situation they may be seen as stifling creativity, being rigid, or power-gaming when they reason from rules causes to game-world effect regardless of game-world logic (another common form of gamer humor, as epitomized by The Knights of the Dinner Table, particularly Brian).

When you GM and when you play you should try to remain aware of which direction causality is supposed to flow in the game you’re playing, so that you can keep it clear whether the rules are the alpha and omega, or are they, as it were just guidelines…suggestions, really.