Thursday, February 10, 2011

Building a system for a new world, part 1

Earlier in the week, I spit out of lot of things I would like to see in a system that would work for the world I have in mind. The first major problem with a gritty combat system is, well, combat. Hit points just don't really do it, even low numbers of hit points seem wrong for something like that. However, a hit location table top game seems...distinctly terrible to want to play. Getting in combat, while it should be rough, should not be instant murder if a sword glances off a tree limb to catch you unaware. Well, I mean, it might have been in the Real World, but whatever.

I was thinking of a party combat system that might work out alright and give me the answers that I want. So let's talk about what I WANT to happen, and then I will see if I can get on the right track. First things first, I will outline what I WANT to happen in combat, the goals, if you will.

1) Combat should be quick.
2) No numbers should ever reach triple digits.
3) Armor as being representative of mitigation and ablation rather than avoidance.
4) More skirmish style in groups.
5) Magic as a game changer.

This is where I want to start. Before I worry about what numbers are assigned to what, I need to worry about how the system should work overall. I have five overall BIG GOALS. That's not too bad. Why these five things? Speed of game play and pacing. Combat being a big feature can be fun, but there should be more to this game setting than hacking and slashing. Combats might break out with almost no prior warning, and it's important that the person running the game has the option to spontaneously generate and resolve combat in a way that is organic.

Taking a look at the first point outlined: Combat should be quick.
What slows down combat, to me?
1) Action Choices
2) Mathematical Calculations
3) NPCs
4) Chatter precipitated by long combats and players going off topic

Those are the Big Four, if someone was asking my opinion. Four is a direct result of numbers one through three. Three is really a result of complexity with numbers one and two. So that leaves two big issues for combat speed.

1) Action Choices
2) Mathematical Calculations

In 4e, you have five types of actions you can take: Standard, Move, Minor, Free, Opportunity. That's a lot to keep in mind all the time, then you have the problem that all actions are not created equal. Leaders and Defenders often very much desire Minor actions. This leads to the gameplay style of deciding whether or not to call down your actions and forgo something else. Previous editions of DnD didn't have this concept, so something like healing was all you did on your turn. 4e makes healing important, but it makes it a secondary thing that every leader can do, and it's sort of glossed over. Leaders perform other roles, and they also heal. I like that model, healers get to do other stuff. However, healing in combat is something that I don't want. It slows down the pace of combat, and it doesn't fit the way magic works in the world, particularly healing.

Resolved: First step to speeding up combat, no healing in combat. So what do healers do? I will address that later on, it works out for them.

The other big use of Minor actions in 4e is the use of a Marking mechanic for Defenders. This is a "keep hitting me, I'm a tank!" mechanic that sort of makes sense realistically, but sort of doesn't. I like to think it's dedication to attention and the Defender does little things to try and hinder his opponent if he diverts his attention elsewhere. This is all rationalization though, and I know it. The idea of being a guy that takes all the punishment is interesting, but I think it can be supported in other ways. So let's go ahead and get rid of this conceit as well. Minors are used to sustain Magical effects as well. Do we need this? Probably not, but I might come back to it when I talk about Magic later on.

So that means I have effectively removed Minor actions. All of a sudden this looks a lot like 3rd edition, rather than 4e. Well, let's hold on and see what else we can get into. Let's talk about the Move action. Movement in 4e has really irked me, pretty much for ever. You have a couple of styles of movement, and all of them seem woefully underwhelming for my purposes. You can move your speed in squares, you have alternate forms of movement (teleporting, phasing, etc) you can Shift one square, you can Run, you can stand up, you can fall down.

I don't think there is any real reason to re-invent base movement. Redefine it maybe, sure. Let's face it, this game will use miniatures.

So now let's look at shifting and why I think it's just a sad, sad member of the movement family. Shifting is for repositioning, but it doesn't really allow you to reposition in any meaningful way. Some Defenders care about shifting, but most people do not. One square doesn't get you much. You can't avoid getting attacked in this way without then using your Standard action as a Move action, and then only sometimes does that help. It also leads to strange options where charge is king, and having powers you can substitute for charging is the way to go. When things appear that get increased shifts, or powers that allow shifting, it's clear how important movement really is in making combats change their course. Of course, you can just eat opportunity attacks and get somewhere, but is that the ideal way to make combat flow? I firmly believe the answer is no. Movement and use of a battlefield is so important to combat in just about every other medium, why not in a table top game too? On the party level it just falls to the way side a lot, and becomes a slogfest. That is not what I want. I want dirty, horrible urban fights with sprawling countryside skirmishes. I want people to be moving all over the damn place for one reason or the other, and not just because of Fantastic Terrain. How can I achieve this?

1) Shifting is a good start, but it's not enough movement.
2) Too much of this type of movement is not good either, because why would you ever move normally?
3) Adding more types of movement seems to be the answer, and getting rid of some also.

What to drop? Charge probably needs to go. Prone/Getting Up/Squeezing, they all probably don't need to be different. In-place movement. Run? Run can probably stay. Shift becomes different. Alternate forms of movement get simplified. Alternate forms of movement require concentration to sustain so their value in combat goes way down, once combat has started. This refers to magical alternate movement only. Mounted movement just needs to follow a couple of rules that change based on standard movement. Overall, some consolidation, some removal from combat, some outright removal.

Why get rid of charge? It doesn't really work as intended, and it's explanation is poor. In-square movement takes your movement, pretty easy. No real reason to make them all different things. Run giving a penalty to defense and increasing movement is solid. It should probably give a bonus to attack or damage, and serve the role of charge as well, if used this way. That makes things a little more equal. Now shifting, you clever bastard. Shifting should probably be half of the base movement speed, and can be used offensively or defensively. So if you are defensively shifting, you gain a bonus to defense until your next turn, but take a penalty to attack. If you are offensively shifting, you gain a bonus to offense until your next turn, but take a penalty to defense. A balanced shift changes nothing. Now, this make shifting more complex, but I think it adds a lot to the skirmisher feel. More quick movement with pros and cons. It makes things a bit less static, but messing with math can cause problems, so this needs to be looked at when math is covered.

Resolved: No Charge or Run. It's all one thing. Shift becomes better and more important. Little things spread out become In-Square movement. Alternate Movement Methods are primarily out of combat concerns or Full Turn actions, so it matters less and causes less frustration.

Ok, so that takes care of minors and moves. I still have Free actions, Standard actions, and Opportunity actions to cover.

I will quickly cover Free actions and what I am looking for in Opportunity actions before calling it quits. Free actions are probably fine. You can use them whenever you would be able to use them. A better list of what falls under this is needed though, to limit what can be done in a way that makes sense. Without a better sense of everything else though, this waits. Free actions are tricky and deserve more consideration than it seems to warrant at first blush.

In Opportunity actions I am looking for some of the following things:
1) Not slowing down combat
2) Not discouraging movement
3) Doing away with vs. opponent and per-turn styles of opportunity/interrupt actions. This is an area that has been split wide open in 4e and needs some suture to make it a little less ridiculous and more wieldy.

A long rambling tale of ideas, to be sure, but hopefully it's an intriguing start.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Scales and Simulationism

I like running games and telling stories. I usually pick up whatever edition of any game I am most familiar with and then run something in that rule set. I might or might not bother to write my own setting. Generally I take an existing setting and modify it to fit my needs. The last setting I bothered to write from the ground up had gnomes and halflings as the horrific enemies. Elves were the dominant race, treating humans and dwarves as slaves, which most of them were. Orcs were the bastions of freedom, and seen as the only ones able to fight the elven oppressors with any sort of success. The world was also on the cusp of evolution, all races were beginning to have children with genetic defects that allowed them to change their physical features, even appearing as different races. I didn't bother coming up with my own rules for it, I just picked and chose from available 3e DnD materials and went from there. I only ran a scant few games of the setting, but it was pretty fun. The system just never felt right. In this instance, I want to run games in a setting without any pre-existing game systems.

I am finding more and more that the ideas I have just don't translate to any one system, or even any two systems. There are a lot of strong options, and a lot of systems that seem like they would meet the goals, but they ultimately fall short. The problem is that I want to run a squad combat game. I don't mean like DnD where your adventuring party runs around and does things, but something akin to Dawn of War, Company of Heroes or even Myth: the Fallen Lords. It's a pretty simple concept, but one that doesn't lend itself to any easy resolution. Players would spend a session or two playing a normal, if gritty and harsh, adventuring style game, and then one session resolving the military campaign from that battle. Each player would take ownership of a company and guide their company through the battle. Survivors from previous battles would be better than fresh troops who hadn't seen battle, and military founds could be spent on boosting certain companies with better weapons, better food, or even creature comforts.

The Black Company D20 setting that came out years ago first spurred this, but I haven't had an inclination to stop being lazy and actually do something with it until recently. The situation is further complicated by wanting to run squad combat while adventuring combat is also occurring. Of course, getting across gritty realism coupled with flexible magic is not something that's easy either. I had been inspired to think of healing as a two part process, mainly from playing Arkham Horror. Physical wounds are one aspect, and the mental anguish caused by those physical wounds is the other aspect. That way, even healing wounds has a side effect, making combat not always the right answer, but not so incredibly perilous that a stray lance spells your death. There has to be the appropriate balance.

This had lead me to think of partially co-opting the Earthdawn (don't run away yet) system of Wounds in some way, or maybe the WW system of degrees of Wounds, but again, not so complicated. I don't like tracking hit points really, it's a great way to track your character's power and all, but I think there can be a more fun and less math heavy way to go about it. Which has led me to a dual wound system. There are only two types of injuries, superficial and serious. Superficial wounds would tick over into serious wounds if they either go untreated, or enough of them accumulate. This number might grow as a character increases in power. The number of serious injuries able to be sustained might be flexible as well, but again, probably a low number. Armor helps to determine the type of wound receive. Each attack is an either OR sort of thing, accepting SERIOUS WEAPONS, like magic or siege weapons or the like.

Magic poses a potential problem, but I think it's manageable. Magic again cribs from Earthdawn a little bit, and a little bit from a crafting system. Please don't run, I think it's ok. I will go into specifics about how it works later, but the gist of CASTING magic is as follows:
1) determine strength of access
2) determine effect
3) decide if you are keeping access for later use
Magic has advantages and disadvantages to keeping it ready to access.

Some spells, if the player wants to make it really complicated might go on for several turns, or have side effects to channel them. Most spells would be instant duration. Most people cannot access magic, and rarely do people choose to access one specific type of magic. Though accepting and being trained in the magic goes a long way to efficacy. Priests gain access to the same types of magic as magi, only though prayer and devotion and adherence to rituals and rites, magi do not need to do this. The other option is bargaining with souls. Only those born with the ability may do this, though they can sometimes allow other people to do it.

How would you advance? Well two ways:
1) Trained skills just take time. Learning weapons, riding a horse, farming, whatever. Different skills take time.
2) Sessions/Stories gives the players feats, aspects, or tricks they can learn and perform. The rough rate would be upon completion of a session for lesser rewards, or upon completion of a story for greater rewards. This is very rough still. I don't think experience and levels is really necessary in this type of game. Probably lesser rewards for most things, greater rewards for the military conflicts.

Death? Death is serious. You almost never get back up if you are dead. There are exceptions.

Tarot Cards. I would like to incorporate the use of Tarot Cards into the game somehow, I am still thinking about it.

Large scale combat. Each squad would have a superficial/serious rating. When they take a serious wound, someone bites it. If the squad has veterans, this might be prevented by expending one of the veteran points they receive. Commanders can do the same, if the squad has any ranking officers. I haven't given this section quite enough thought yet, but I want it to be simple and dirty.

Anyway, I haven't posted in a long time and this is just something I have been thinking of for a long time.