As a form of inauguration for this, I’d like to present an old creation, slightly updated for increased playability: The Fop. It’s not entirely original, rather this is a class I designed for Dungeons and Dragons, Fourth Edition… but it is a delight, provided you don’t want to aspire past level one. It would be far more hassle than it’s worth to design more powers unless some mad GM would actually let me play this beast…
On the other hand, it would be neat to come up with a few paragon paths for the old boy. Hm. Regardless, I present:
“That is such a fascinating sword you have there. I’ve always admired Elven craftsmanship. It’s a shame they’re never the same once you get blood on them.”
In large cities, where the rich get inevitably richer and are thus allowed to be idle and the only escape from the excesses of hedonism or terminal boredom is in attending dinner parties, fops are inevitable. They come into being unbidden, trained in the most difficult social obstacle courses, they have raised the process of attending dinner parties not just to an art, but to a competition. Fops are experts on seeing, being seen, and seeing how others are being seen.
As a fop there are innumerable ways you can influence people. You could be a lesser noble with the most fashionably-cut frock coat and definite opinions on what is Done or Not Done in society, or the upwardly mobile in a neat black suit most concerned with making sure you’re out of the way when it would behoove you to be, or even a trusted servant practiced in high society long enough that he can be all things to all people to get his master’s, or his own, way.
Put on your finest clothes, read up on all the scandals in the neighborhood, put on a little more make-up (just a touch more blush, honestly, you can never overdo it), and venture forth, little fop, into the world.
Depending on their background and the particular nature of their social identity, fops tend to fall into one of two categories: sniveling or scandalous. All fops rely on Charisma to get their voices heard, secondarily Intelligence or Dexterity, and perhaps Constitution (as they tend to be slapped a lot).
Sniveling Fop- You prefer staying out of the way, holding on to your social situation through professionally applied cowardice. Oddly, this tends to make you the center of attention, as enemies would prefer to gang up on the weaker opponent, but you take advantage of this by making them feel bad about themselves for hurting you. Charisma is your most important attribute, followed by Dexterity (which will help you in avoiding attacks and taking potshots with your crossbow if the opportunity avails itself). Since you’ll be hit a lot, you may wish to make Constitution your third best score, because you need all the healing surges you can get. Pick the pathetic recovery class feature, and use it often. Keeping enemy eyes on you keep them off your allies, so don’t be afraid to select powers which work to your disadvantage.
Suggested Feat: Fetal Position (Human feat: Extremely Friendly)
Suggested Skills: Bluff, Perception, Stealth
Suggested At-Will Powers:Plead Excuses, Shriek of Terror
Suggested Encounter Power:Feign Death
Suggested Daily Power:Insufferable Wag
Scandalous Fop- You enjoy playing people against one another, manipulating situations to your advantage and creating a bloody pile-up out of which you will emerge unscathed. In battle, this means you get others to do the dirty work for you. Charisma is your most important attribute for manipulation, followed by Intelligence, which is necessary for making all of the most cutting remarks. Dexterity should be your third best score, for those rare times when you need to stop making catspaws and actually hit somebody. Pick the aggressive recovery class feature, and remember that you may need to dissolve one of your friendships in order to latch onto somebody more useful, which is in the finest fop tradition. Select powers which benefit from your false friendship.
Suggested Feat: Schadenfreude (Human feat: Clinginess)
Suggested Skills: Bluff, History, Insight
Suggested At-Will Powers: Baseless Accusations, Snide Aside
Suggested Encounter Power: Advice
Suggested Daily Power: Backstab
Fops have the following class features.
Sartorial Appreciation- Fops care a great deal about their clothing, and have a capacity for preserving it from damage which borders on the uncanny. A fop gains a +3 AC bonus when wearing cloth armor which he considers to be extremely stylish. In addition, because weaponry does so ruin the line of one’s trousers, a fop who does not have a weapon equipped gains a +2 AC bonus.
False Friendship- A fop may, as a Standard Action, pay a multitude of compliments to an adjacent opponent who can understand him, in order to befriend that opponent. Fops may only have one befriended opponent at a time, and may only befriend an opponent who they have not attacked this encounter (though a fop may befriend someone who has attacked him). The befriended state lasts until the fop befriends a new opponent or attacks his friend with a non-friendly attack. A befriended opponent is more vulnerable to certain attacks; in addition, a befriended opponent who attacks you, whether successful or not, takes 1d6 non-lethal psychic damage (increase to 2d6 at level 11 and 3d6 at level 21) for daring to hurt his friend.
Social Recovery- You have learned how to save face in social situations, and are able to use this knowledge to bolster yourself even in battle. Choose one of the following social recovery methods.
Expressive Expressions- Your long history of bohemian socialization has given you lots of experience communicating with people you cannot, actually, speak with. You may perform attacks with the keyword social on enemies whose language you cannot speak at a -5 penalty to hit.
Your powers are technically martial in nature, built off of a lifetime of socializing and using your naturally silvered tongue. Fop powers are called epigrams. Some attacks use the keyword friendly: friendly attacks can be performed on befriended opponents without losing their friendship. Most attacks use the keyword social: social attacks may only be performed on enemies who can hear and understand you. Additionally, if a social attack were to reduce a target to 0 HP or below, it will instead leave them with 1 HP. Social attacks may not be made on opponents with 0 HP or less.
Level 1 At-Will Epigrams
Plead Excuses (Fop Attack 1)
You drop to your knees and explain, in heartfelt and teary detail, why, contrary to all obvious evidence, you aren’t actually aligned with those dreadful adventurers, you weren’t even supposed to be here at all.
At-Will | Martial, Friendly, Social
Immediate Reaction | Ranged 10
Trigger: An enemy successfully attacks you
Target: The triggering enemy
Attack: Charisma vs. Will
Hit: 1d6 + Charisma modifier psychic damage.
Increase damage to 2d6 + Charisma modifier at 21st level.
Pathetic Recovery: Twice per encounter, when you successfully use this power, you may spend a healing surge.
Baseless Accusations (Fop Attack 1)
You explain, through supposition and hearsay, just what one of your friend’s allies has been saying about him behind his back.
At-Will | Martial, Friendly, Social
Standard Action | Melee touch
Target: Your befriended enemy
Attack: Charisma vs. Will
Hit: Your target, as an immediate reaction, performs a standard melee or ranged attack against the character of your choice. If this attack hits, the target takes a -2 penalty to hit any target except your befriended enemy until the beginning of your next turn. Agressive Recovery: Twice per encounter, when you successfully use this power, you may spend a healing surge.
Shriek of Terror (Fop Attack 1) Taking in the situation, you yelp and quiver and moan in fright. The sight is so pathetic even your enemies want to protect you, though they hate themselves for it. At-Will | Martial, Friendly, Social Standard Action | Close burst 3 Target: Your befriended enemy Attack: Charisma vs. Will Hit: 2d4 + Charisma modifier psychic damage and you may shift the target one square closer to you.
Snide Aside (Fop Attack 1)
You offhandedly comment upon upon the cut of an opponent’s coat, the state of his armor, or the fashion of her hat. The comment is cutting precisely because it’s so true.
At-Will | Martial, Social
Standard Action | Ranged 4
Target: Any enemy in range
Attack: Charisma vs. Will
Hit: 2d4 + Charisma modifier psychic damage and the target takes an AC penalty equal to your Intelligence modifier until the start of your next turn.
Pathetic Flailing (Fop Attack 1)
Is that how you think a weapon works? If you hit anyone with that it’ll either be because you’re very lucky or extremely skilled at looking like you have no idea what you’re doing.
At-Will | Martial, Weapon
Standard Action | Melee
Target: One creature
Attack: Dexterity vs. Reflex
Hit: 1[W] + Dexterity Modifier Damage
Level 1 Encounter Epigrams
Feign Death (Fop Attack 1)
As you see the deadly blow approach, you fall to the ground, explaining as you go that that last wound truly was the last one you could bear. Your opponents, over-eager to believe you out of their hair, buy it entirely.
Encounter | Martial, Healing
Immediate Interrupt | Personal
Trigger: An enemy’s attack would take you to 0 HP or below.
Effect: The attack does not take place. You are considered to be dead for all purposes (including immediate reaction to an enemy or ally dying, as well as effects for which you would make ongoing saves) until the start of your next turn. At the start of your next turn, you may regain hit points as if you had spent a healing surge, and spend a healing surge. You begin your next turn prone.
Pathetic Recovery: you gain additional HP equal to your Intelligence modifier.
Advice (Fop Attack 1)
You create some sound advice which your friend can’t help but see the logic of.
Encounter | Martial, Friendly, Charm, Social
Standard Action | Close burst 1
Target: Your befriended enemy
Attack: Charisma vs. Will
Hit: Your target does not take his next turn; instead, you move him his speed, and make a ranged or melee basic attack.
Aggressive Recovery: your target gets a bonus to its attack equal to your Intelligence modifier.
Unfortunate Implications (Fop Attack 1)
“So, at the end of the day, how exactly is the money being split? I mean, if you’re willing to kill us for it, who’s to say you won’t kill each other?”
Encounter | Martial, Friendly, Zone, Social
Standard Action | Close burst 6
Target: All enemies in range
Attack: Charisma vs. Will
Hit: Targets take 1d4 + Charisma modifier psychic damage
Effect: Targets do not get a bonus for flanking until the start of your next turn.
Cower (Fop Attack 1)
You cringe, and shake, and beg for mercy, and otherwise make an embarrassment of yourself. The phrase “not in the face” may be involved. It’s very distracting.
Encounter | Martial, Friendly
Standard Action | Close blast 3
Effect: All allies in range gain a +2 power bonus to all defenses and you take -4 to all defenses until the end of your next turn. In addition, anyone who attempts to attack you before the start of your next turn takes 1d6 + Charisma modifier psychic damage.
Level 1 Daily Epigrams
Insufferable Wag (Fop Attack 1)
During an opportune moment, when a momentary hush descends upon the battlefield, you let forth the joke which you’ve been holding in all evening. Your opponents are less than amused.
Daily | Martial, Charm, Healing, Social, Friendly
Standard Action | Close burst 10
Target: All enemies in range
Attack: Charisma vs. Will
Hit: 2d6 + Charisma modifier psychic damage. Each target must shift half its speed directly toward you if possible. Until the end of your next turn, targets take 1d4 psychic damage every time they attack a target who is not you.
Miss: half damage, and the targets are shifted one square.
Secondary target: All allies in range
Effect: Targets gain temporary hit points equal to your Intelligence modifier.
Backstab (Fop Attack 1)
Just when they thought they could trust you, your friend finds your dagger in their ribs, and that same ingratiating smile on your face.
At-Will | Martial, Weapon
Standard Action | Melee
Target: Your befriended enemy
Attack: Dexterity vs. Reflex
Hit: 3[W] + Dexterity modifier damage and the target is stunned (save ends)
Miss: Half damage and the target is stunned until the end of your next turn.
[Originally posted Sun, 25 Jul 2010]
Part one in an X part series. It would behoove you to know how 4E is played first, but I’m not going to stop you from reading anyway.
SO. Here I am, trying to cobble together a 4E setting. Why? Well, why the heck not? I like Dungeons and Dragons, I like 4E for all its flaws, and I think role playing games are awesome in general, but I hate dungeon crawls. Really, I just don’t like them, and if I’m playing D&D I want it to be a setting as devoid of dungeons as I can possibly make it. And to that end, I’m attempting to create a hack which will turn D&D into a cop show.
Why cops? Well, five reasons:
So, I think that should make the whys self-evident. The hows are still a struggle, but one which I’m going to go into more depth over the course of this X-part series. Today, part one, the general setting, I’m just going to bless you with the flavor text I’ve come up with for the setting (and, of course, give you the general idea of the concept). In future posts, I’m going to go into more detail on the handful of specific hacks I’d need to make the setting workable (and the few houserules I’d be using to make the game a tad more fun). So, the introduction to the setting:
Welcome to Kaerlud, the jewel of the kingdom, the greatest city in the world! Once, civilization was measured in points of light in the wilderness; nowadays, these points have grown larger and more all-encompassing. It’s a different sort of age… the dungeons have been explored, the dragons have been slain, and those determined to seek out adventure may find it’s not as easy to set out with a few allies and a ten-foot-pole and come home draped in magic detritus and dragging chests of platinum.
But all is not goodness and light and complacent mediocrity. A large enough village becomes home to crime, a complex enough town develops an underworld, and a powerful enough city begets conspiracy. And no city is larger, more complex, or more powerful than Kaerlud. And fighting to keep order: the City Watch. Drawn from all walks of life… powerful warriors, brilliant mages, unscrupulous thieves… some seek money, some thirst for power, and some only want to do their part for the city they call home. All they share is a badge, a code of conduct, and the knowledge that, if adventure can’t be found in points of light in the darkness, it might be found in the points of darkness in the light.
…slightly corny, perhaps. Slightly awesome, OH YES MY FRIENDS.
[Originally posted Mon, 26 Jul 2010]
Life is cheap in the current incarnation of Dungeons and Dragons. Seriously, resurrections cost 500 gold and you wind up sick for like a day after… this does not jibe with, say, a murder investigation. Because seriously, I’m cheap, but if scraping together a month’s salary to set aside in the event that I’m killed by accident or foul play is an option, then I’m going to do that. Obviously, not all of a police officer’s adventures are murders, and of those occasional humanoidicides it’s entirely reasonable that some involve petrification, others be over a month old, and still others have a missing body… but the fact remains that the existence of cheap and available resurrection would put a crimp on most traditional policing plots.
Tied to that: murder is trivial in Dungeons and Dragons. There is no pacifist run of D&D, really… especially 4E which is utterly combat focused. Oh, you can be a dedicated healer/buffer/debuffer… but you’re still existing in a combat-focused universe with a team which is killing dudes left and right. Of course, this is, after all, a universe where resurrection is cheap and ghosts exist, it’s not surprising that killing someone is generally ignored. For a murderer to be scary he needs to be either focused entirely on innocent bystanders or just committing outright genocide; or,if you want to go beyond the pale in terms of evilness, committing various forms of soul trapping, or straight-up torturing folks. Still, this leads to a team of PCs who would be considered serial killers by any earthly rubric, which is hardly the tone I want in Kaerlud.
Life is cheap. Which makes policing almost meaningless. How do we make life more valuable? How do we make murder an issue again?
Step one, get rid of resurrection. A few options: make it illegal (good for the criminals!) or expensive (good for the super rich!) or literally impossible (good for me, but disappointingly arbitrary and frustrating for those few instances where it would be really, really necessary). Or, we make it extremely difficult, through the “cell phone reception” analogy.
If you are using a cell phone, you will find that there are points where the reception is crystal clear and wonderful, and, radiating out from those points, areas where the reception is increasingly fuzzy. You can still hear, generally, but the words get dropped and your call may not go through at all.
So it is with rituals in Kaerlud (and indeed, the world around it). There are areas where they work as per normal, but everywhere else they become… fuzzy. If the rituals create a stable, physical item or perform a specific, concrete action, very little is changed. If the effect is ongoing, then it’s going to sputter and drop… scrying is unreliable, and if you’ve cast a ritual which forces someone to tell the truth, you won’t be able to say for sure if it worked, only that it seemed to. These aren’t useless, but they are about as reliable as, say, long-distance surveillance and lie detectors. (Likewise wards can be trusted as professional alarm systems, and secret writing as a pretty good code, et cetera.)
The biggest problem is in binding something which should not be on this world. Things like permanent magic portals, summoned entities and, yes, the souls of the departed. It’s not that these things are impossible, it’s just that they appear and disappear, and (always a problem when dealing with the extraplanar) they may re-connect WRONG.
So, just like a poor cell connection might pick up your neighbor’s signal, a magic portal to the next city might sputter and reconnect to the Knife dimension. If you are lucky enough to raise the dead then good for you, he stays raised. That said, most of the time you’ll end up grabbing the entirely wrong soul, if you get something you could consider a mortal soul and not a demonic possession, if you manage to get a whole soul and not shear some poor bastard’s etheric essence in twain. Icky stuff. To that end, there’s a fairly universal cultural taboo against raising the dead which has nothing to do with honor and everything to do with practicality.
That said, there ARE a handful of points where the static isn’t so bad… for the time being, consider them the convergences of ley lines, and Kaerlud has more than most (which is to say, about five in the entire city). However, remember when I said we didn’t want our permanent magic portals to reconnect to the Knife dimension? Haha, yes. These convergences are both small and in use for portal purposes, which are essential in this modern economy. If you want to raise the dead, without the risk of Horrors Unknown, then you need to shut down one of these portals for most of a day.
Unsurprisingly, this is not an easy task to accomplish. It GETS accomplished in certain extremely important situations (like whenever the king is assassinated), and there are a few points floating around which are not publicly owned (though if the government knew about them, they would be), but death is 99% likely to be final. Because the math bears out: losing a day of trade is more damaging to the people and the city than losing nearly any individual. Imagine if a real-life murder investigation required shutting down, say, O’hare International Airport for a day. There would be PAPERWORK and people would be VERY UNHAPPY. Death is not absolutely final (how can it be, in a D&D universe?), but it is certainly serious.
(The obvious follow-up question: do spells and enchantments likewise sputter? My answer is yes, but in a way which is generally decorative. A fireball which flickers out of existence at the last second is called a miss, and there’s no real reason to have to deal with it on an especially direct level. Besides which, spells and enchantments are fast-acting and relatively simple, rituals are long and complex. Returning to the phone analogy: consider redundant monosyllables shouted over the static… even if it flickers, enough of it gets through that you can treat it as having been heard).
[Originally posted Fri, 30 Jul 2010]
In the previous post, we made life hard to get back. Now, let’s make sure lives are valuable. Why don’t people go around murdering orcs like good adventurers? And more to the point, what’s stopping our PC PCs from casual killing?
On the one hand, the answer is simple: we make it illegal. Someone who commits a murder, be they cop or not, will be hunted and arrested… justified “in the line of duty” sort of things can be explained away, but too much of that and you will go to jail, which is good a reason as any to roll up a new character. So, we just have to make sure all our characters use exclusively non-lethal damage WAIT A MINUTE! I forgot for a second that the way 4E handles non-lethal damage is amazingly facile.
No, really. A character is reduced to 0 HP, and whomever last hit them decides if that counted as lethal damage or not. What? What is this? I have punched you, and as you fall, I decide whether you land on death’s door or merely in the land of nod? This isn’t just a matter of “where’s my immersion?”, it’s an issue of making decisions matter… in policing, there should be a hard choice to make between doing the job the noble way and doing it the effective way. Light side and Dark side shouldn’t be a toggle, basically. Especially when (in vanilla D&D) there’s no reason to bother being non-lethal because it just means enemies will get up later, or (in Kaerlud) there’s no reason to bother using lethal damage because you always need to take prisoners. Of course, I’m not worried about regular D&D, so I’ll concentrate on my little universe.
To that end: Difficult Non-Lethal Damage.
When attacking, players must declare whether it is lethal or non-lethal (or, I suppose, it will be assumed to always be lethal unless otherwise specified). Attacking in this way incurs a -2 penalty to your attack rolls, because you’re avoiding their vitals, and you drop a die size with your attack, because you’re pulling your punches; 1d8 damage becomes 1d6, 2d12 becomes 2d10, 1d4 becomes 1d2, and set damage (such as the 2+INT of the new Magic Missile) is reduced by two (so it would not be just INT). Critical non-lethal hits do max damage, but with the reduced die… that said, additional damage retains its original die size. A weapon that adds 1d6 when it crits adds 1d6 even non-lethally, and hunter’s quarry or sneak attack damage are treated normally, only the attack itself drops.
(This gets a little fuzzier when considering spells, especially arcane ones. Physical attacks translate easily, and divine or psionic energy being modulated makes a certain sort of sense, whereas declaring that you are firing a non-lethal fireball, which sets someone on non-lethal fire, is a little silly. That said, balance is important, and we can assume that the fire is, say, aimed at the legs. It’s still less silly than the present system.)
Now, here’s where things get a bit complicated, so bear with me. As you attack with lethal damage, you reduce a character’s hit points, from whatever their starting value down to zero. Well and good. As you attack with non-lethal damage, you increase the target’s pain points, from zero up until their hit point value. Pain points are like hit points in basically all respects… temporary hit points work as normal, healing spells and items and surges can apply to either decrease pain points or increase hit points (though not both with the same action, that’s going a bit far) and a character who has reached his bloodied value in pain points is considered bloodied for all intents and purposes. So why track these things differently?
Because, you aren’t fighting enemies until their hit points reach 0, you are fighting them until they have more pain points than hit points. You soften them up with some lethal blows, then raise their pain until they pass out. More specifically: if your attack causes their PP to rise above their HP, they are unconcious. If your attack causes their HP to drop below their PP, then they are dying… they get a save against death, and if they fail it, they are gone.
(I’d say that they should die instantly, but I want the PCs to have to suffer the similar dangers; I say one save instead of three because I still want fatal damage to be a big dang deal. ALSO, it means that having a “heal” skill is totally useful, ‘cause you may need to stabilize a villain in a HURRY.)
Of course, the penalties for having corpses on your hands will be left to the DM’s discretion, but they should, in general, be awful enough that you really, really don’t want to have to deal with it.
[Originally posted Tue, 27 Jul 2010]
Critical hits have been a part of gaming for, eh, ever. Wikipedia suggests 1975, with Empire of the Petal Throne, which I have never heard of but sounds, really, fantastic. Some sort of Asian-influenced swordplay game? Must find out. Anyway, crits, attacks which deal a significant amount of damage, above and beyond what a character can normally do, and their evil double the critfail, which does something awful to the attacker, are fun ways to spice up a battle and can create epic gaming moments, but they are also, in some games, be a great way to define a character.
Here, I’m thinking about Team Fortress 2, my favorite game that I don’t play. I’m fascinated by this game because it manages to tell stories in SPITE of the medium. It’s a team-based online multiplayer FPS! What story could there possibly be that’s not “shooty shoot der other guys”? And yet, it grows; in bits and pieces, these character classes have become characters in their own right, and even if you don’t follow the story as it unfolds via Valve’s vaguely ARG-like updates, and even if you don’t bother watching the varied and sundry “Meet the Team” videos, these people are still characters, and as you watch them in action you can see them acting in character.
Which is INSANE because these folks aren’t WRITTEN they are being PLAYED by THOUSANDS of different people!
(Admittedly, if you don’t follow the videos or the releases you are missing out on a lot, including the storied history of Redmond and Blutarch Mann and the very, very screwed-up bunch of crazies they employ in their quest for world domination. It’s rather brilliant in its off-key wackiness, much like TF2).
How? How do characters who aren’t characters act in character? Through the art of “rewarding players for playing how we want them to play”. Which is to say that players who are acting properly, for a Valve-defined value of proper, do more damage. Let us talk about CRITICALS, my friends. Specifically, let us look at the Sniper.
The Sniper is cool, calm, collected. Watch the Meet the Team video, and see that he is a man who takes his job seriously… he’s a craftsman of shooting people in the head. What stops players from being in the fray, stabbing with reckless abandon? Technically, nothing, but where’s the advantage in doing this? Oh, it does damage. Oh, there are random mini-crits… there are always random mini-crits. But if he uses the sniper rifle… and if he waits for it to charge up… well then boom, headshot, as they say, and he does massive damage. Indeed, a headshot via-charged or charging rifle is the only way to GET a crit, and the most damaging thing a sniper can do. The charging mechanic is a means of enforcing patience… Vavle could make the reloading take arbitrarily long, or the focus take time to work when zoomed on, or have the gun jam if fired too rapidly. There are any number of ways of slowing the sniper down, but they all punish him. The critical damage for patience does not… nothing stops the sniper from shooting from the hip as required, but he is better off acting in character… being cool, collected, et cetera.
His is only one example of several where critical hits or instant kills are rewards for playing in character; the spy’s backstab is pretty obvious (instant-kill if I’m sneaky enough? I think I’ll try to be sneaky!), and the very existance of the Medic’s Kritzkreig, which allows him and another player several seconds of pure mini-crit action IF he does a lot of healing, emphasizing both his role and his need for protection and team synergy (thus rewarding players who protect him… especially the Heavy, whose high damage output is most benefitted from this, AND who has the most inherently protective personality). Other crit synergies: the Pyro’s Axestinguisher, which crits when he hits someone on fire, and the Demoman’s Eyelander sword and Chargin’ Targe sheild, which only crit when used in tandem to take off heads. Why are the last two interesting? Because they use crits to CREATE a sense of character in someone who has little to speak of (now the Pyro is someone who burns, follows, and attacks, making him/her just a little more vengeful and, yes, hotheaded) and someone who’s character needed adjustment (the Demoman, who tended to be used defensively in a manner at odds with his mad Scotsman persona, is now encouraged to be a kill-crazy attacker).
Again, it’s important to note that these aren’t punishments for acting out of character… the player is still in control. And there are Pyros who hit and run away, and Demomen who stay on the back lines, and even Medics who like to attack… but if you’re playing, and you’re doing well, you’ll tend to see players being their persona. Compare this to, say, Left 4 Dead, which punishes players for not acting appropriately. If you leave the team, you aren’t merely less effective… you are singled out and killed (in effect, the random number generator which creates more powerful monsters becomes skewed against you… you critfail more often, so to speak). This creates a very different tone, which may be why L4D is much more of a slog than TF2… it’s riddled in threats and failure, rather than surprise successes and rewards.
(Left 4 Dead has shouted quotes which create hints of characters, but everyone plays the same… it can create a team dynamic, and it does tell a story, but it has one major benefit: unlike Team Fortress 2, the player already knows the story he’s watching and the characters he’s interacting with… it’s zombies, it’s a variation on a theme. TF2 is its own thing entirely… though it still has shouted quotes which re-enforce the characterization).
In summary, Valve uses many means to convey a story… the dialog, the set design, the character models, and the external bits of information in the proverbial manual. But more than anything else, the mechanisms themselves, which re-enforce, through positive or negative feedback, the characterization they want you to have.
They aren’t the only ones to do this, of course, but they are VERY good at it. Mirror’s Edge comes to mind as a game which lets you act out of character but punishes you for it: you can be shooty and fighty, but you will die many times in the attempt. A very similar game which utterly fails at this: Assassin’s Creed, the first one at least. You can be sneaky, yes, but you can also get into a fight with dozens of guards and kill your mark in front of everybody and come home drenched in blood. Unlike, say, the Grand Theft Auto series, in which the same is generally true, the assassins are explicitly supposed to be masters of stealth. Between sneaking and rampaging, one is obviously preferred, and yet the game does not in any way enforce this! If anything, the extremely forgiving fighting controls (including the fairly broken counterattack system) make life easier on you if you just run up and hack your way out of trouble. Yes, Altair is supposed to be cocky, but he’s not a damned psychopath!
(Not that Assassin’s Creed isn’t tremendously fun. It’s just a fun drenched in, you know, the possibilities of what could have been. As of this writing, I haven’t played the sequel, so I cannot comment on it.)
Video games are (almost) inherently goal-based… kill the guys, get to the next level, save the world, whatever. Mechanics which further those goals, by making characters killier, or prevent them, by blocking the next level, serve to manipulate characters into what the author wants them to be, while still letting the player feel his semblance of creative control.
[Originally posted Sat, 31 Jul 2010]
Because this is D&D, there will be combat, and because we have made life valuable, it will be difficult and exciting. There will be people to fight, and, yes, there will be monsters as well (giving our investigators the option to not pull their punches at all, because there’s Beholders about, or something like that. BUT, on the City Watch, it’s not all combat… investigation is important as well. And interviews. And stakeouts. And chasing down a perp. How do we handle all of this business?
In this instance I’m looking to Bethesda (and many many other computer RPG designers, but I’m particularly thinking of Fallout 3) and the use of minigames. In a game which is primarily devoted to one thing (killin’ der monsters) there are two basic schools of thought with regards to doing something entirely unrelated (pickin’ der locks). This is utterly simplified, of course, but you’ll forgive me because I’m smart and handsome. One can either let the dice handle it entirely (I have 25 points in lockpick, which means I’ll have a 50% chance of picking the lock, 10% of breaking my lockpick, and 1% of critically failing and stabbing myself in the eye), or throw in a subgame which represents the activity, (which may lead to cognitive dissonance). Neither is inherently better than the other, however the latter is a bit more compelling to play, because it makes failure something you can sense your involvement in and appreciate happening, rather than being based on the utterly unfair machinations of Arengee, the God of Chance. That said, it does occasionally mean that a player talented at clicking rapidly or playing Mastermind can just not put any points into these skills; a designer’s “solving” this problem by requiring a minimum skill level in order to access these minigames is arbitrary and frustrating… why must I have Science 25 to hack Easy computers and science 50 to hack Medium ones? It’s the same game!
That said, for all my problems with Oblivion’s persuasion minigame (and I have many!), the need for the skill is worked organically in: the higher the skill, the more powerful the results; it nicely combines the dice and the the game, a synthesis in which failure is understandable and success requires… well, in this instance no more than the willingness to perform the game over and over and over until you get what you want or you level up to the top, but in theory it would require some measure of sacrifice.
So. What the hell does this have to do with fantasy policing? Glad you asked! While the luck of the die is required to do things, I do not want a single roll to be all that stands between knowing where to go next and having no idea, ever. Worse, I don’t want it to be all that stands between getting their man and not! Thus, I’m designing a few investigative minigames, which (theoretically) reward clever gamesmanship, whilst still demanding good dice.
Now, 4E has Skill Challenges, in which you must get x successes before y failures in order to accomplish a task. This is… well, honestly, this is pretty on point, in that it requires character skill and yet is drawn out enough that failure doesn’t generally seem like massive unfairness. It is a go-to minigame for many purposes… interrogating a perp before he breaks, for instance, or sneaking through a room without alerting a sleepy guard.
However, as implemented, Skill Challenges can be… stupid. Specifically, in instances where failing a few times should by no means cause you to bootch the entire affair. Also, it seems that they tend to follow the format:
“You can do this thing you want to… it’s a Skill Challenge and you need 3 successes before 2 failures.”
“Okay, I’m really good at Insight, can I use that?”
“Yes. Success. Now what?”
“I use insight again.”
“Success. Now what?”
“I use insight again.”
“Congrats, you did the thing.”
“Good. Can we fight now?”
In short, metagamey, not role-playery. A problem, yes, but utterly, utterly fixable. Hell, I’m not even close to the first person to yammer about this, so I’ll be brief (too late!): create a few specific alternatives built on the Skill Challenge skeleton, reward player creativity in the challenge, and punish metagaming. Remember, the GM’s Best Friend… if someone tries a neat and unexpected but feasible angle, they get a secret +2 to their roll. If they fall back on their best skill more than, say, twice in a row, when there are logical other options, they get successive secret -2s.
Oh, and declaring “I use athletics” or such automatically fails. “Okay,” the GM would say, “You use athletics, but despite jumping rope vigorously for a few moments, you are no closer to the top of the cliff.”
Anyway, Minigame one: replace the abstract values of success and failure in a Skill Challenge with abstract values of physical distance, and we have a Chase Challenge. That’s right, we chasin’ the perp. What’s great about this is you have a battle grid right in front of you, making for easy display of the arbitrary physical distance. Set the villain on one square, and the PCs a short-ish distance away… call it three squares, give or take.
Each “step” of the way, a PC can either do something which gets them one notch closer to the perp, or one notch further, something which we can easily represent on the battle grid by moving one square closer or further away. Every step of the way is a scenelet… in some cases the obvious response will be physical (the perp has leapt across rooftops), some will be mental (the perp has vanished entirely) and some will be social (the perp has run into a big crowd). The PCs get a description of the scenelet; they’re in hot pursuit, so everyone gets to take one action to respond… maybe it’s the same as the other guy used, maybe not. This may well split the party… that’s okay. Passing the scenelet moves you a step further, failing it outright moves you a step back, but you might stay in place for a moment… asking for more information, for instance, is a perception check, which MIGHT tell you something useful (for instance, will reveal a ladder just around the corner, which will make their next step count for triple. Something like that).
Because it will take more failures to end a chase, there’s one big angry change I’m adding: the DCs of the challenges will increase as the PCs get more tired. After every two steps, the difficulty of any activity increases by one. We can’t keep chasing forever, you see.
(That said, if you have a utility spell or other power which you can substitute for a skill, then you totally can. Teleporting two squares won’t move you up two spots on the chase chart, but it will count as a success against anything which could be overcome in such a manner, and moves you a square forward no questions asked.)
Anyway, a modified Skill Challenge is the first of the essential minigames. More to come.
[Originally posted Wed, 11 Aug 2010]
In games which are going to have a sequel, how does one deal with multiple endings?
Fallout 2 assumed one of its precursor’s endings to be the “right” one, and went from there, and had about a hundred different endings. Fallout 3 circumvented the problem by taking place well on the other side of the country. New Vegas uses time and distance to keep the precise end of 2 vague, though it does still make certain assumptions.
Mass Effect 2 assumes you’ll have a save file from its precursor, and if you don’t, lets you construct the end that will be the new beginning. Effective, especially in terms of treating the series as one huge game.
The Elder Scrolls series opts to put as much time and distance as possible between its games… but it’s also steeped in lore, and does one of the most interesting things ever: Daggerfall has eight endings, all of which are considered to be canonical.Time itself, you see, was sundered by the ridiculous goings-on at that point, and somehow, every possible event which could not possibly coexist, coexisted. This is neat. This is strange. This is a fascinating setting.
Parallel universes are not unheard of. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is the earliest example I can think of off the top of my head, and it’s pretty awesome tooling through similar but not quite identical geographies in search of justice or whatever. I want more of this. Why only two? Consider this situation from Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magic Obsura (technically there are spoilers here, but only the vaguest sort):
Based on the choices of the player character, Tarant, the largest city in Arcanum, can be overrun by gangs, can be destroyed in a war, can usher in a new age of peace, can take over everything it can grab, can become a technological powerhouse, can become the capital city of evil, can become a complete wasteland. All of these are possible, but if a sequel to Arcanum were to exist, one would have to be declared “correct”. Which is well and good (and honestly, if someone were to make a sequel to Arcanum, I would be so happy any of those options would work for me)… but what if they were all correct at the same time? What if I could jump between these Tarants? What if a quest in the technological powerhouse universe needed a magic artifact I can only find in one of the Tarants where the steamworks stopped running? What if there’s a gang leader known for his cunning brutality, and the only way to make his gang more useful is to substitute him with his counterpart from the peaceful utupia-verse, where he’s a politician known for his brutal cunning? Obviously, there will be many sidequests which exist entirely within one universe, because sidequests, man, sidequests. But they’d be beefed up with universe-crossing quests of grand import.
Other reasons this would be awesome:
Sometimes, investigating police officers aren’t interacting with perps. Sometimes, they’re collecting clues. Scene of the crime or interacting with the body, they need to do a little forensics. Time, then, for a Evidence Challenge.
Investigation, like chasing down a perp, is basically a Skill Challenge, in that the player suggests what they’re doing, and the GM decides what skill that relates to, and then a die is rolled. The difference being that the limiting factor isn’t the number of failures, and successes aren’t necessarily useful; one can peer as hard as one wishes at the bed fibers, but if there’s nothing there, one won’t find anything. Likewise, there may be fibers of some sort, but finding them and understanding their significance are entirely different checks (though the latter can be greatly aided by returning to the station and spending a lot of time).
The limiting factors here are patience and time… the patience of the players to keep looking, and the amount of time things take. Each action a player takes is assumed to take some amount of time; assume any act of perception takes ten minutes or so of solid looking, and using religion or arcana checks on convenient papers takes about the same amount of time because of reading and thinking, and using nature on the footprints by the door or something like that likewise involves close study. Fifteen minutes, out of, what, four hours to look over the scene? Less? Almost none if it’s public. If you’re willing to take more time you can look carefully, which reduces the DC by 2 or so per ten minutes of looking. If you’re looking at specific areas, DCs are reduced, if you’re scanning the room as a whole, DCs are high. Every crime scene has lots of evidence, but not a lot of useful evidence, in general.
Collecting evidence has three benefits to it:
Once again, the battle grid can be used as a convenient marker… you are here, your time will be up here, what are your plans for the intervening steps? Look at a thing, move up a square. Look at a thing especially well, move up two, et cetera. Players need not use it all, but if it runs out, they will have to answer to their superior.
[Originally posted Mon, 06 Sep 2010]
I wouldn’t say I’ve played an uncouth number of computer RPGs… I wouldn’t even say I’ve played many, though I think society as a whole might disagree with me on that. However I’ve played a few, and I don’t think I’ve ever come across a system of character advancement as compelling and useful as Fallout-style perks. Every X levels you gain a new power, often something which changes the way the game is played in a small but significant way. Oh sure, some of them are of the “suddenly your Repair skill increases 20%” school, which is useful but boring. On the other hand, “Animals will not attack you anymore” is pretty great, and can be upgraded to “animals will attack your enemies for you”, which might do nothing in big cities but does wonders in rat- and ghoul-infested sewers, for instance. Perks can chance the way you’re playing, and change your understanding of your character AS a character, and this is fantastic.
That being said… if I emerge from a Vault which has no animals in it, and go immediately to the nearest settlement, and then down to the biggest city on the map, having no notable encounters on the way and only seeing one dog which I promptly kill… how did I earn animal kinship? Oh, I see, it’s because my charisma is above six. Cool. Cool. Wait no that’s ridiculous!
Yes, the Fallout universe has earnable perks, perks which come as quest rewards and such, but I’m suggesting that ALL perks be so earned. Or at least, let us have to option to take a perk be based on accomplishing something in the story, rather than having specific stats. Like an achievement! You need not even be informed of its happening, though when it comes time to level, it would be nice if the game explained what happened to unlock the available perks.
Mr. Fixit: Repairing the Necropolis’s water pump has taught you some technical minutia. +20% to Repair and Science.
Animal Friendship: You took care of Phil’s dog problem without hurting the mutt. Animals will not attack you unless attacked first.
Quick Pockets: You’ve accessed your inventory during combat over thirty times… you’ve learned to pack things a little better. It costs one AP less to access your inventory.
Rad Resistance: You’ve spent over two weeks trekking across the wasteland and have built up a tolerance to its ills. Radiation resistance increases 15%.
Mysterious Stranger: You mentioned your quest to… someone… somewhere… who thinks your cause noble enough to help out… sometimes. Small chance a stranger will assist you in combat.
And so on and so forth. From doing major questlines in certain ways, performing optional quests, doing random stuff, wasting enough time, or just being lucky. In this way the perks you get are tangentially related to stuff you’re actually doing, which is fun, and you rarely find yourself having to choose from perks which you wouldn’t use. If you never sneak, for instance, you’ll probably never get a perk which benefits sneaking. If you like to sneak but get caught all the time, you’ll trigger an ‘increased awareness’ or similar.
Most of those perks which have stat requirements will still, essentially, have them; your strength will have to be X or higher to do task Y, which earns you the perk… that sort of thing. Level-based balance is a little more wiggly… either perks have an arbitrary level limit attached or those which would be limited to higher levels are the result of achievements in locations low-leveled players shouldn’t go to, or events which can only occur after a major quest-line has taken place. A determined min-maxer might be able to get a really good peak really early, but our job isn’t to deter the power players, it’s to entertain the entire audience, and to that end, I can’t think of a major negative, except the possibility that a dedicated grinder might not acquire a perk at all one level, a problem which can be remedied through a small pool of boring but dull automatically obtainable perks, or declaring that the player might opt not to choose a perk until they have unlocked some more.
I’m not the biggest fan of experience points. You do a thing, you get XP, you get enough, you level up… it’s a tried-and-true system, and it seems like a necessary evil in a level-based system, but I’m inclined to think that it’s not, actually, necessary at all. Y’see, a while back, I was calculating XP for a D&D group, when a player explained that, when he was a DM, he skipped the minutia and maths altogether. A properly balanced series of eight to ten encounters will level up a party… regardless of the actual nature of the encounters or the size of the party, if they are balanced, the party levels up. So why count XP, when you can just say that the party levels up every eight to ten encounters?
… seriously, why? No good reason. Or, rather, while there are reasons, none are spectacularly compelling enough to justify converting encounters into XP which are then directly converted into levels. Given that encounters are just about the only way to get XP (in practice, if not in theory) it’s pointless conversion. Of course, this is in a system that generally doesn’t care to award XP for successfully cracking a lock or performing first aid or other minor things like that; in Fallout, say, these dribs and drabs of XP add up in unexpected ways.
But wait, do we need that lock cracking XP? Isn’t the reward for cracking a lock the fact that it was cracked? And isn’t there something… less than rewarding about picking a lock SO HARD that you level up, whereas stabbing fifty wolves in the brain half and hour ago did nothing? It lacks a certain narrative verve. And that’s what I’m after here… killing a monster and then levelling up, that’s better. The sense of accomplishment is tangible, which makes the “after so many encounters, you level” feel worthwhile. But it can get vervier than that.
Finishing a quest and immediately levelling up has a fantastic narrative verve; if you’ve had it happen you know the feeling. Even if it’s a minor quest: you return the dolly to the little girl who dropped it down the well, she thanks you profusely, and suddenly, bam! Fanfare, glowing light, and an announcement that you are a measurably better person than you were a moment ago. It’s great, it amplifies the warm fuzzies, and it also means that you aren’t DOING anything right now so you’re free to suss out your new character points without feeling like your rampant wolf-slaughter is being interrupted.
So, uh, why not do things that way in a computer RPG? Ensure that you only ever level up after completing a quest? Divide up the world into Major Quests, which are plot-relevant, Minor Quests, which are not so much but still big, and Side Quests, which are wee little things. And make satifying THESE the basis for character advancement. Indeed, they can reflect different types of advancement… satisfying a Major Quest might be the thing that nets you a perk or a new stat point or some other game-changer boon. A Minor Quest earns you some skill points and HP, nothing to sneeze at. A Side Quest offers you non-character-based rewards… money, weapons, and the ability to access or progress in major or minor quests.
This will make grinding boars for levels literally impossible, and gets rid of those tricky situations where the most effective way to solve a quest is to kill everybody in the dungeon except one dude, then talk to him in order to secure the “peaceful” ending, then reverse-pickpocket a mine into his pants. Functionally it will work out about the same… the more quests you do, the more you level up, but without the boring bits. Oh, you can still kill the questgiver, but that’s just for bad karma and lulz, not to game the XP system.
Final thought: if we’re down for added complexity (so, most likely as a computer game) the rewards for competing a quest in different ways might be different but equivalent. For instance, defeating the dragon in noble combat gives you a burst of light animation, some hitpoints, and 10 points to spend on your combat skills. Tricking him into attacking a more powerful rival gives you some generic sparkles, an improved reputation modifier and points in charismatic skills. Sacrificing a child in some dark necromantic ritual to burst the dragon asunder will surround you in a shroud of darkness, from which you emerge with a slightly higher armor class and more reliable magics. Or something like that. This should probably only apply to a few Major Quests, but the different animations for different play styles should totally apply to everything. EVERYTHING.