Monday, August 31, 2020

Undying in Cypher System - Alternate Take

 There's another way to do the Undying Vampire, which is more basic to the rules of Cypher System. My table came up with this idea:

1. Take the vampire racial descriptor for Alternate Origins (a supplement for The Strange which works equally well with Cypher System)

2. Use that descriptor, then apply two additional modifiers:

Corrupting Touch - any time the Undying makes flesh to flesh contact with another creature for any reason (including a bite) this initiates an Intellect attack against the target. The target if injured receives -1 Shift against charisma and influence based checks for 24 hours; these can be cumulative, and are addition to any other effects applied as a result of the skin to skin contact.

Inability – Memory Fugue: Most undying appear to have no realization of their nature, even as they commit their acts of destruction and murder. Very ancient Undying may become acutely aware of their condition and embrace it, while young and new undying seem to “black out” when they commit vampiric acts, and go into violent rages if confronted with hard evidence of their actions. This selective memory loss seems to be due to the inability of the fey ancestry to reconcile their necromantic transformation due to the loss of their immaterial afterlife in the feywild. All Undying suffer from this inability to reconcile their natures when it is demonstrated, and suffer -2 shift penalties to intellect defense tests when trying to remain in control or reconcile such evidence when confronted with it. Very ancient Undying may spend 3 XP to reduce this to a -1 penalty, and ancient undying  may spend 10 XP to remove the penalty (but must be at least tier 5).

Additional Equipment: one relic weapon of up to expensive rarity and one relic item from your living years as an elf.

Initial Links to Starting Adventure:

1. you are an ancient undying recently awakened by your fellow PCs from some grave, and now wandering the land with a memory fugue, trying to remember who you are.

2. You were awoken by tomb robbers whom you killed, and you wandered off, met the PCs, and have been traveling with them while recovering your wits.

3. You were slain by orcs or other creatures in battle recently, but have no memory and are oblivious to your condition. Your PC companions assumed you simply had good luck to escape death.

4. You were killed by another undying elf and left as a husk who came back to life. You have one or more PC allies taking care of you who may or may not realize your condition.

By using the Vampire descriptor it covers the blood drinking and vampiric limits. The corrupting touch encapsulates the ability of the Undying to drain charisma, and the inability covers the distinct madness that corrupts the undying. 

This looks like the way we will go. 

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Undying Elven Vampire Descriptor for Cypher System

   The Realms of Chirak has a class of elven vampire called the Undying. The key traits of undying are that they are elves who died horribly or suddenly, and for whom their spirits, unable to ascend to an elven afterlife in the feywild, find themselves trapped in the mortal realm and unable to leave. The only reasonable way to put an undying down is decapitation; elves of Chirak practice decapitation of their dead as a matter of course.

   The etymology of the undying goes all the way back to 2nd edition's Ravenloft, which introduced a version of vampires (originally tied to Dragonlance, I think) which drained beauty instead of life. I loved that concept and made it a core conceit of the undying; they not only drain blood, but the literal physical appearance and sense of well being of their victims!

Undying (Descriptor)

    There will come a time when a player character suffers a demise as an elf, and by virtue of bad luck, GM fiat or storyline requirements he will return as an undying. This descriptor can be used to simulate those who return from the dead.

    GMs interested in some old school randomness may require a freshly deceased fey player character to make an “Undying check” at the terminus of their character’s life. For Cypher: a check against the level of the creature or effect that killed the PC; alternatively, this could be due to GM Intrusion. 

    This descriptor works just fine for NPCs as a template; particularly insidious GMs could apply it to satyrs, nymphs and other unusual fey as desired, to really surprise his players!

Requirements: Any fey type; must have been killed in some fashion that did not also lead to dismemberment or immolation.

Attributes: +2 Speed (as elf)

Vision: dark vision (can see in the dark as if it were daylight)

Racial Skills: gain training in thievery and stealth

Undead: Undying are undead. Like most undead, undying do not age and are effectively immortal, until someone slays them. Damage done to a vampire's weakness (damage dealt while exposed to sunlight, fire, immersion in running water or decapitation) cannot be healed normally and requires blood. Decapitation is permanent for Undying. Immersion in running water does 1 point of damage a round regardless of armor until stopped.

Bite: Undying are still vampires and can drain blood with a bite. Their bite must do damage to work. A vampire deals 4 points of damage with a bite, and if damage gets through may gain one recovery or improve the damage track by one.

Wilting Grasp: The Undying can cause a Wilting Grasp with an unarmed melee attack. This damage is dealt directly to Intellect and bypasses normal non-magical armor. If the Undying crits, it can choose to also induce a -1 shift penalty to all charisma related actions on a 19, or -2 shift penalty on a natural 20. These penalties do not lift until the intellect damage is fully healed.

Corrupting Touch: When you touch your bare skin to another willing target in an attempt to heal or aid someone or be healed in turn, inducing healing by any power, any other effect which induces a healing in another, or using the Heal skill, the corrupting touch happens. Must be adjacent to the target in question. You must make an Intellect Defense Check against the target's level (or if a PC they make an Intellect Defense check against your Rank) or the target suffers a -1 shift Intellect penalty to all charisma related checks for one day and takes 2 Intellect of damage; must get a full recovery to restore to normal. This can happen more than once, with cumulative effects. Dealing any damage lets the undying restore on recovery.

Inability - Discomfited by Sunlight: The undying finds sunlight painfully unpleasant, and must shield himself from it if possible. If unable to provide some reasonable cover (such as a thick cloak and hood) while in sunlight, then the undying suffers -1 shift penalties to all Might and Speed actions.

Inability – Memory Fugue: Most undying appear to have no realization of their nature, even as they commit their acts of destruction and murder. Very ancient Undying may become acutely aware of their condition and embrace it, while young and new undying seem to “black out” when they commit vampiric acts, and go into violent rages if confronted with hard evidence of their actions. This selective memory loss seems to be due to the inability of the fey ancestry to reconcile their necromantic transformation due to the loss of their immaterial afterlife in the feywild. All Undying suffer from this inability to reconcile their natures when it is demonstrated, and suffer -2 shift penalties to intellect defense tests when trying to remain in control or reconcile such evidence when confronted with it. Very ancient Undying may spend 3 XP to reduce this to a -1 penalty, and ancient undying  may spend 10 XP to remove the penalty (but must be at least tier 5).

Hunger for the Beauty of the Living: Undying do not heal normally. They must drain the life and beauty from the living in order to sustain themselves. At the beginning of each day in which the undying has not fed on beauty he loses one recovery roll (starting from shortest to longest). If the Undying reaches zero recovery rolls then he may go in to a frenzy at the sight of beauty; each time a creature of sufficient beauty (assessed by the GM) comes within sight of the undying, he must make an Intellect check (at the level of the target plus 1 per week he has not fed) or immediately try and feed! He will not stop trying (by attack or deception) until he has gained at least one surge.

Special Death Requirements: Undying don’t die like regular characters. If an undying reaches 0 recoveries and is then reduced to damage track 3 and is decapitated, he is destroyed. Otherwise, he will return from the grave once again at an unspecified later date. This is usually a minimum of a few months, but can be years or even centuries. Roll 1D20 for the number of months the undying is in torpor. On a 19-20, re-roll and treat it as the number of years; if you roll 19-20 a second time, re-roll for the number of decades, etc. Finally, an undying can always be prevented from returning by means of decapitation.

Additional Equipment: one relic weapon of up to expensive rarity and one relic item from your living years as an elf.

Initial Links to Starting Adventure:

1. you are an ancient undying recently awakened by your fellow PCs from some grave, and now wandering the land with a memory fugue, trying to remember who you are.

2. You were awoken by tomb robbers whom you killed, and you wandered off, met the PCs, and have been traveling with them while recovering your wits.

3. You were slain by orcs or other creatures in battle recently, but have no memory and are oblivious to your condition. Your PC companions assumed you simply had good luck to escape death.

4. You were killed by another undying elf and left as a husk who came back to life. You have one or more PC allies taking care of you who may or may not realize your condition. 

Thursday, August 27, 2020

"But does it have VTT Support?"

 This is becoming an important factor in deciding to pick up or invest time in a new RPG. Once it was only a matter of generating player interest (and the GM being enthusiastic) but these days, there's a compelling need to make sure that the system shows evidence of support in Roll20 or your preferred VTT environment. I've been playing a game in Astral as well, which runs rather nicely from a player perspective so far.

For a game to catch the attention of the VTT market it needs to show at least some of the following (for Roll20 for sure, and to some degree also Astral):

1. Can I play this game in the VTT environment with minimum fuss? 

2. Does the VTT have character sheet and rolling mechanics support for my system to make it easier to mess with?

3. Does the VTT store/environment provide support that will benefit or directly aid my game? And secondarily, is this support vital to the play experience or optional (but desired)?

4. Will the cost to accomplish this be too excessive?

Important questions!

Take three recent examples of games I have looked at or considered running: Scum & Villainy, Mutant Crawl Classics, and Mongoose's Traveller. In Roll20 I have figured out that there are character sheets available for only one of the three (MCC is not on ROll20 yet in any form), and of the three only Scum & Villainy has any material support in the Roll20 store with an introductory module package (Evil Hat has thrown all in on supporting VTT through Roll20, FYI). 

This means if I rely on Roll20 for any of these, then with Mutant Crawl Classics and Traveller I have to figure out how to work the Charactermancer to create a character sheet; for my limited time this is a no-go. For Traveller there is a Classic original edition character sheet, very basic. Although Goodman Games has a basic introduction to Dungeon Crawl Classics in the Roll20 store, it hasn't done anything on the platform for MCC yet, which is a shame. As for Traveller....I suspect there are worlds of complexity in the licensing behind getting official support to any VTT due to Traveller's ownership. I am honestly not sure where Traveller players go if they want good VTT support....Fantasy Grounds?

This pretty much means Scum & Villainy is the only viable option for a time strapped virtual GM. They offer a nice introductory campaign module with support materials for the Procyon Sector and tons of useable content. The fact that the other two games don't even have this basic support is kind of shocking...if I were a publisher of some means and wanted to insure sales of my game stay robust in the market of 2020, getting some VTT representation seems like a no-brainer.

Item 4 in my list isn't a factor with Scum & Villainy....the cost of the campaign pack is $14.99 which is worth it to me to get a game running. But for the big stars (Pathfinder, D&D) it can be a major factor. I will admit, I haven't seriously considered running D&D on VTT because I know if I do I will want to buy those enormously expensive rulebook packages on Roll20, and I already spent that cash on Pathfinder damn straight, PF2E it will be!

Astral is interesting in how different it is from Roll20, while still being similar in execution. Their shop is mostly tailored to markers and maps, and doesn't near as I can tell focus on providing you with elaborate module packing or rulebook encyclopedias you can access on the site. I imagine there may be entirely different approaches with other VTTs.....I know for sure I ruled out Fantasy Grounds alone, for example, on sheer cost. 

Another factor to consider, one which I imagine is quite important, is how much cost is required for players vs. GM buy in. With Roll20 for example I can subscribe as GM but players do not need to. I am enjoying Astral as a player without a subscription as well, but if either required player expenditures they would stop being viable. 

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

The Wild World of Handheld CRPGs

Technically I'm actually juggling between a combination of Nintendo Switch RPGs and an aging but vintage level of quality PS Vita RPGs. While playing a conventional JRPg (or even an isometric American RPG like Pillars of Eternity) on the PC or other console might feel a bit out of place, a really large number of these games feel right at home on the handheld consoles. Even though the PS Vita is dead, it's corpse lives on with occasional obscure digital releases and a host of classic titles stretching all the way back to the PS1 era. Thanks to my penchant over the years of picking up random stuff I find on sale, I realized I had a lot of PS Vita content yet to be properly explored....and likewise for the much more contemporary (and alive) Switch.

The advantage of many of these titles on a handheld console is that they tend to necessarily constrain their design to more bite sized experiences. It's not universal, but many more games on the handheld generation of titles tend to auto-save or allow for instant saving at any time with a much greater frequency than you might see in prior years. If you've ever been trapped in an hour-long cutscene in a Final Fantasy game, this can be a painful experience to simultaneously be faced with a great infodump in a game and also realize you don't really have time for it....again, not (always) a problem on many of the handheld editions of various RPGs.

This, however, is all about saying that earlier this year I was reviewing random Switch titles I was enjoying during the COVID-19 social isolation experiment--an experiment which is still ongoing, of course--and I thought it might be fun to get back to that. This time, with the eye on various RPGs on the console, and their merits as handheld experiences. Some of the titles I am playing on PS Vita are also available on Nintendo Switch or other consoles, so if I review one from that handheld's roster I'll mention where else you can find it since the PS Vita is sadly out of production as of March of last year (a 7 year lifespan).  

Some of the titles I'm working on include Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel (PS Vita), Persona 4 Golden (both PS Vita and PC), Fire Emblem: Three Houses (Switch), Xenoblade Chronicles (Switch) and Octopath traveller (Switch). Older classics remastered such as Star Ocean: First Departure R have also been in the bevvy of RPGs I've been checking out.

Some of these games have a lot of merit. Octopath Traveller, for example, is a weirdly beautiful game which takes the sensibilities of 90's era JRPGs and merges them with eerie, 3D style graphics that make amazing use of lighting and perspective to make the pixel universe it depicts feel like you are looking into some sort of weird snowglobe, or maybe a miniature city in the window of some Christmas store. By contrast, Fire Emblem: Three Houses is one of the most impressive games I've seen on the Switch, mixed with addictive gameplay and compelling stories with shockingly good voice acting. 

As I see it, for any good RPG on a console (handheld or otherwise) needs to meet the following criteria for success (with me, at least):

Remain Fascinating Beyond The Intro: Most CRPGs and especially JRPGs tend to have the first 1-3 hours down really, really well as solid and engaging experiences. They want to hook you on their game. However, the game needs to not only do well in conveying its world, style and overall entertainment value in the first two hours of the game, it needs to keep doing so. If you've played (or tried to play) a lot of CRPGs in the past you might also have noticed a lot of them give you an amazing start to reel you in, then dump you out into their considerably less exciting open world, or even worse, narrow closed world but with no obvious direction or focus to aim for. A CRPG which has a great start and then fails to deliver after that is a bad choice to go with. Examples of games which avoid this pitfall include just about any Final Fantasy (and more than a few I am currently playing). 

Advertises Expectations: Sometimes, knowing where to go in an RPG after the initial setup is dependent on experimentation and possibly some genre familiarity. Other times, it's possible there are some unanticipated pitfalls which the game sets you up for without adequate explanation. In my recent playthrough of Star Ocean: First Departure R for example, after the game's initial setup (which is a great story about an isolated, backward planet which unexpectedly comes under a gruesome interstellar plague which turns its victims to stone), the story abruptly gets more relaxed and lets you start wandering around, and it is quite possible to actively go to a cave which the game tells you about via a member of your group only to die a gruesome and immediate death. It may take two or three tries (ahem) before you decide to look up online to see what you're doing wrong, only to be reminded that the cave might require me to be much, much higher level....this is an artifact of the 90's design strategy, which was far less forgiving back then, and something I am fine with  --if I know about it! So once I adjusted my expectations to "not all areas of the map should be ventured to just because I can," I was good with it.

By contrast, Fairy Fencer F (a game I might never have tried under the assumption it was yet another super-goofy teen-focused JRPG but turned out to be quite fun) also has some "don't go here too soon" zones but oddly they are positioned right outside the main city. I am thinking the game is telling me I need to do something else first, but still unclear on what that is. Luckily the comedic, almost satirical fantasy world keeps me going on figuring that one out.

Coherent Mechanics and Optional Agility Tests: This is super important. If you can't figure out why things work the way they do in the CRPG's underlying system it could spell doom. As it happens, most handheld RPGs tend, on average, to skew to slightly more traditional mechanical designs. You are less likely to encounter really bizarre or nonsensical mechanics, which can become annoying or inexplicably frustrating. Most JRPG designers have this down: they often lead in with really simple mechanical processes for combat that are easily understood, then begin layering on the complexity over time.

The second part of the equation is the Agility Test, sometimes also known as a Quick Time Event, though not often described as such in RPGs. This is where the game gives you an extra perk or effect (or punishes you) if you do a button press (or presses) in time with a specific action in combat or the story. Sometimes its fine; other times it can make the game unplayable, especially if you're not the most dextrous person, or the mechanics are somewhat opaque, leaving you unclear on why or when you should be pushing the right buttons. Or worse yet, it's a genuine QTE meaning you have to take some visual queue and hope you do the sequence right and on time. An example of an egregious offender here (with a good solution) is Legrand Legacy, a western homage to traditional JRPGs like classic Final Fantasy titles. It includes a QTE mechanic to get the best effect in combat....and most people who leave reviews online love to complain about it, myself included, because it is so difficult to get the timing and randomized button presses down right. Thankfully Legrand Legacy includes an amazingly simple solution: the ability to turn the QTE event off and have it default to "you always succeed at the QTE" mode. If they hadn't included it, I would never have gotten as far as I did in Legrand Legacy, which is a really cool title with great graphics and story design, I might add. 

Okay, enough general time I'll discuss a few of these titles in more depth. The good old days of sitting down and playing a CRPG through from beginning to end over a week or two* are long gone for me, but the ability to play on the go for 30 minutes here or an hour there is critical these days to my continued enjoyment of the genre, so I'll focus my reviews with that "short term" playability in mind.

*Looking at you, Final Fantasy VII!

Monday, August 17, 2020

Monsters! Monsters! is Here!

The recently kickstarted Monsters! Monsters! RPG in a brand new edition is out, and my copy just arrived. Loaded with cool stuff....figure flats, The Toughest Dungeon in the World and a GM Screen, this is a really sweet package. Best of all is Ken St. Andre's signature, who remains one of the best things to happen to gaming, period. Without Ken much of my gaming life would have been a very different and likely less interesting story.

Cool things about the new edition of M!M! RPG: it's not a huge book; the multi-hundred page Deluxe T&T was awesome, but for many fans of T&T we tend to think of the smaller editions such as 5th as the "definitive ideal size." M!M! RPG sticks to that approach, and covers the length and breadth of the rules in about 30 pages of the 64 page book, with the rest encompassing a solid module for the monsters to explore (rampage) in. 

The book looks like it would serve admirably as a complimentary expansion to Deluxe T&T as well, with plenty of details on rolling up monster PCs that you can use with regular T&T. Likewise, while the core M!M! is based on the abbreviated T&T rules, Deluxe could give you lots of extra optional content to expand on.

I'd also like to mention the amazing art and layout...Steve Crompton is the best there is at what he does, and that is making high quality, amazing old school gaming products. I wish other OSR publishers out there would take note of Steve's approach, he's got this down perfectly.

The Toughest Dungeon in the World looks cool, will have to sit down and play it (unless my kid takes it from me first, which he might). The figure flats look awesome, and should I ever get an opportunity to play at an actual game table again I shall definitely use them. 

Anyway....if you backed it, keep an eye out! If you didn't, but you love all things T&T and Flying Buffalo (and  Trollhalla Press!), you should try to get your hands on a copy for sure.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Evaluating Pathfinder 2nd Edition after One Year - Balance and Threat Ranges In Play

 It is a sound argument that a game reviewer should have played the game he is reviewing first, and it is rare for a reviewer to have played extensively, but after one year with Pathfinder 2nd Edition I can safely say that any review I offer will be based on approximately 350 to 400 hours of actual play time, in a campaign which ran from levels 1-19 (with 20 imminent) over a 50+ story arc. In the course of play I think the following are fair observations on how balance and the unique crit/fumble range in PF2E works. 

I feel like there's a subtle, hidden learning curve with Pathfinder 2nd that will make for a refined experience with the next major campaign arc. As you can probably guess, if I am planning a second campaign arc then I must like it. So here observations of Pathfinder 2nd Edition after a year of weekly play between a campaign that ran from 1-20 (with 20 about to hit), and three shorter side campaigns on Wednesday running from levels 1-5, 5-9 and a fresh level 1 campaign that is still underway (just as soon as our Wednesday group exausts our Call of Cthulhu side trek).

Extremely Balanced

PF2E is an extremely balanced game. More so than any modern iteration of D20 over the last 20 years of design, PF2E has achieved something no other system has really pulled off. High level play in D&D 5E felt better than in its predecessors but could still be a slog (chiefly due to hit point bloat). PF2E manages to make high level play feel very similar (and at a similar pace) to lower level play. I simply have not worried about our level 19 game getting stuck in a multi-hour long combat like I used to in the pre PF2E days; that can only happen when you throw a signficant and deadly high level threat at the group, and even then if you design within the encounter parameters you still shouldn't see long combats that often.

The upside is this means the GM has a high level of control and understanding of how an encounter will play out. This is a strength for sure, but also a weakness; savvy players will get comfortable with encounter range expectations, and if you break those expectations it can be jarring to them. Likewise, the ranges are so tightly defined that as GM if you are throwing anything in to an encounter that is more than CR -4 out of range then you might as well just roleplay the encounter: "Okay group, seventy challenge 1 orcs attack you level 10 group, tell me how you wipe the floor with them," is a perfectly valid way to resolve that encounter in PF2E*. Conversely, if you as GM throw something more then CR +4 at them then you should do so with full warning that they might as well flee for the hills.

Some of the reason for this tight range of balance is due to the next design element....

The Crit Range Mechanic Changes Everything

In PF2E, you have a +10/-10 range of success that profoundly impacts play. If you run a couple random sessions of Pathfinder 2E without really understanding the mechanic it can feel extremely swingy at first, but in fact the opposite is actually happening: the math is extremely precise and predictable in PF2E, and it creates a unique set of what I are assumed intended consequences in the encounter design and combat experience.

When you get 10 better than your target to hit then you land a critical hit. When you roll 10 under you fumble. Saving throws often default to what is called a "Basic Save" which in most cases means spell and hazard/trap effects also define what happens when you fail or succeed by 10 or more with greater effect. In many ways its simply a codification of a mechanic which had style elements back to classic 3rd edition D20 mechanics, but now extrapolated to a near universal rule in PF2E. 

One you get used to the notion, the result means that you can figure with a high degree of accuracy the odds of success and failure leading to dramatic success or dramatic failure against threats in the game. When a group that is fighting a gang of foes that are challenge rating -4, for example, they are not just four levels better in terms of skill, but four levels higher in their degree of achieving a critical success. Likewise, if you are placed against a foe which is challenge +4 (four levels better than you), then you are actually equally more likely to achieve critical failure by four degrees. This is why I feel that the balanced encounter range of -4 to +4 degrees is a bit deceptive; it's accurate, but much of the risk (or ease) of the combat is attributed to the margin by which you achieve a critical success or failure. 

For example: as a player, you may realize that if you have a +10 to hit (a reasonable chance for a level 3 fighter with 16 Strength and expert training in his weapon), and your foe is AC 23, then you will on average need to roll a 13 or better to hit the enemy. You can only crit against that foe on a natural 20 since you can't roll 10 higher than the target number (AC). But if your foe is AC 15, that means you will only need to roll a 5 or better to hit, and that means you will also crit anytime you roll 15 or higher. So against an AC 23 foe you crit on a 20 only (5% chance), but on an AC 15 foe you crit on a 15-20 (30% range).

In PF2E an example of an AC 15 monster is a giant rat (challenge -1, meaning it's a weak foe against level 1 PCs, or worth level-2 for XP). By contrast a challenge 4 monster (werebear) could have AC 23. So....if you do the math, our hypothetical level 3 fighter would find the werebear to be CR+1 vs. a group of 4 level 3 characters, and the giant rat would be CR-4 against the same four adventurers. That werebear would be a dire threat one-on-one, and it would take a small army of giant rats to make an impact against the group (though they could still nickel-and-dime a solitary PC to death).

To further emphasize how critical this threat range is, the werebear has a +13 to attack while the giant rat  has a +7 to it's attack. The well-armored 3rd level fighter might have full plate, giving him an AC of 21 (base 10, with +6 for the armor, and +5 for training). So our rat will hit this guy on a 13 or better, and only crit on a natural 20. Our werebear will hit him on a 7 or better, and will crit on an 18-20 (15% chance). 

Those +/-10 ranges make a huge difference as the challenge level gets further from the level baseline. Furthermore, in PF2E if you roll a natural 1 you fumble anyway, and crit on a natural 20, unless you happen to have been unable to otherwise hit without rolling a which case the crit converts to a normal attack! This is logical, but it means that, to use another example, a group of typical level 3 characters like in the above example, when facing a challenge 7 opponent (so level+4, the max difficulty advised in the game) may be in dire straights. A typical challenge 7 foe is the Ogre Boss, who has an AC 25 and +19 to hit. Against our puny level 3 fighter he will hit on a 2 or better, and will dish out a critical on a 12 or better on the die (45% chance)! He normally hits for 1D10+11 piercing but against a level 3 foe almost half the time will deal 2D10+22. 

At level 7 that same fighter will find the ogre boss a tough but fair fight.....but at level 3 that ogre boss will clean his clock. 

Anyway, the crit/fumble range has a profound impact on how you must consider challenges in PF2E. It really does mean that you must take the rules seriously. In consideration, though, the rules scale experience with difficulty. That Ogre Boss is worth 40 XP to a group of level 7 foes, but is worth 160 XP to the group of level 3 adventurers. Under the encounter design guidelines, that means that 4 ogre bosses are an extreme encounter for a group of level 7 PCs, and 2 werebears are a severe encounter for a group of level 3 PCs. One werebear should be a sufficient "low" threat for 4 level 3 PCs however, as would one ogre boss for the level 7 group. In theory up to 4 giant rats would be a trivial threat, and by XP budget alone 16 rats could pose a extreme threat but in reality they really don't. Likewise, the giant rats would be worth exatly zero XP to the level seven group and are best described as a descriptive one off, such as "You killed a bunch of giant rats," rather than waste time killing them. The rats pose zero threat....they can't even crit against the level 7 group, and will barely have a chance for a normal hit.

One consequence of all this is that leveling up impacts the game's pace more. If you want, for example, kobolds, goblins and giant rats to be a meaningful threat for a while then don't let your PCs level quickly....they will outstrip those foes by level 4-5 and consequently a 20-session arc in the giant rat warrens will quickly become a merciless slaughter as the PCs earn the exterminator achievement!

*Using swarm rules to simulate an orc horde as a threat for high level PCs would be a way to do this, as well....

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Regulation Space for White Star

 Here's an excerpt on my precis for the setting I will use for White Star. It's got all the things I love in a SF setting: dangerous superluminal travel, a galaxy poised on the edge of war, cosmic old ones and lots of opportunities for free lancers to make their fortune.

Regulation Space Campaign Setting for White Star

Premise: it’s 2550, and humankind has spent the last four centuries expanding outward into the solar system and now into neighboring star systems thanks to the power of the hyperdrive. With the hyperdrive comes the discovery of other burgeoning civilizations and humanity’s introduction to a thriving alien cluster of civilizations. As the Hyperspace lanes expand, so does humanity’s connection to the diverse worlds of other species. Humankind arrived on the scene conveniently right around the time a warlike culture called the Volmath were attempting to conquer the diaspora of civilizations, and thanks to humankind’s timely intervention the Volmath were driven back into the void.

The Star Knights and Void Knights: this is an ancient order dedicated to a force known as the Blood Star. The Blood Star is a semi-mythical location shrouded in secrecy from which the Star Knights gain their unique powers to bend physics to their will. The Volmath use their shock troops called the Void Knights to similar effect, and it is suspected they have access to a system with a sun similar to the Blood Star, called the Void Star by their ranks. The exact nature of these stars and what they do to change humans and aliens alike into powerful psi-wielding agents of peace of war is a mystery to most.

Thematically the star knights and void knights might be closely comparable to the guardians of Destiny (the video game), poised between the light and darkness. Their powers clearly stem directly from the enigmatic stars they serve, and much of the mystery of their orders lies within exactly what the Blood Star and the Void Star are. 

Hyperspace: this dimension may tie to the mystery of the Void and Blood Stars. It’s a transitional fifth dimension through which ships can travel at extreme superluminal speeds without experiencing relativistic effects. The technology is ridiculously simple once understood, but does require antimatter as a fuel source to bend space enough that it “breaks” and allows the ship to enter. For the duration it is in hyperspace a ship must maintain a magnetic shield envelope around itself; if the shield falls before the ship leaves hyperspace it can be destroyed, spread out over multiple light years. Hyperspace is also dangerous; there are fifth dimensional beings which exist and for which no one wants to draw the attention of, as all encounters with these fifth dimensional entities have proven disastrous or fatal.

One known fifth dimensional threat from Hyperspace is called the Deluge. It is a cosmic mind-altering “essence” which some speculate is a living neural network of energy; its name derives from how it appears to “pour” like a flood from hyperspace rifts into the physical world in waves of varicolored superfluids. Its first appearance on the colony of Riven led to the entire world being quarantined as it mutated and drove the colonists mad.

Known Space: this is a vast swathe of unclaimed territory, ostensibly of neutral civilizations, star empires and other groups which exist independent of the Volmath Consortium and Regulation Space. While Regulation Space is estimated to be around 110 worlds in size and the Volmath Consortium consists of at least six united groups and over 900 worlds, the region of Known Space is pretty much “everything else” and charted territories so far have mapped out 32,000 worlds! No single power dominates in Known Space, though there are threats (such as the assimilants and Cannicks) lurking in its darker corners.

Regulation Space: this is the name for the Terran colonial expanse, the vast network of roughly fifty colonies plus Earth as well as another 60 alien civilizations which have petitioned and joined Regulation Space to benefit from the protection of the Terrans. Regulation Space is policed by the Regulation Authority while the military defense is handled by the Terran Frontier Defense Navy.

Alien species living under the auspices and protection of Regulation Space include the Alureans, falcon men (Sholdarak), Kath (rawrarrs), Procyons, crocs, space ducks (Un’hadani), thronks (calling themselves Vaadeer, but humans jokingly call them Martians), uttins, wolflings (Bengada),  

Volmath Consortium: Despite its perception as an evil empire, the Volmath is actually a Consortium of several species with like interests. These include the volmath themselves, who are close human analogs and appear to have either a common ancestry to terrans or close parallel evolution. They have within their ranks the client states of the Qinlon Hegemony, the Cabal of the Ickes, the Vaskagar empire of Felinoids, the Mecistops DIaspora and the Sketh (wellsians).

Galactic Threats: There are other species out there which are inimical to or seek to undermine, conquer or destroy both Regulation Space and the Volmath Consortium. These include the greys, the assimilants, the cannicks, frostines and mindoids. Some, such as the frostines and mindoids seek to protect their own territory while preying quietly on their neighbors. The assimilants however are an invasion force in the making, a vast swathe of galactic space being under assault near the galactic core by their kind, and the cannicks are an ancient machine race which wiped out their creators eons ago and are beginning to appear in the region once more, as their kind is found on the swathe of dead worlds left in the wake of an ancient galactic war. Finally there are the Sindrat, a race of humanoid spider-like insectoids that also appear to have access to the powers of the Void Knight and are focused on infiltration and sabotage. They seem to operate from flotillas of ships residing in the void between stars, where they are almost impossible to find.

Classes in Regulation Space:

The following are considered Core Classes: aristocrat, mercenary, pilot, robot, star knight, alien brute, bounty hunter, combat medic, cypher, deep space explorer, gunslinger, two-fisted technician, uttin, rockstar, alien mystic, star pilot, alien star knight, and mecha jock. Other classes may be acceptable but less common.

Affiliations: Each PC should pick from one of the following affiliations at the start of play:

Regulation Authority: you are a former or inactive member of the Terran police-keeping force which maintains rule of law in Regulation Space.

Syndicate: you are a member of the intergalactic criminal consortium of guilds called the Syndicate, an organization which was present in Known Space long before the Terrans arrived on the scene.

Merchants Guild: the Merchants Guild seeks to insure fair laws and trade across Known Space.

Free Lancers Guild: the free lancers are a collection of independent mercs, traders and couriers who seek to maintain their independence from authority and megacorporations, having loosely united into a guild in Known Space to protect such interests and provide resources and aid to one another.

Terran Defense League: comprising the combined power of the navy, marines and ground forces, the TDL is where many spacers served time learning useful skills before mustering out to make their own path. The TDL maintains stations in most Regulation Space ports and provides an excellent network for assistance to veterans.

The Star Knights: you are a member of or worked for the Order of the Star Knights, an independent peace-keeping force which was founded by the Old Coalition in Known Space before Terrans arrived on-scene. Many Terrans have since joined the order, which maintains its headquarters in the Orion III System.

Volmath Infiltrators: the Espionage branch of the Volmath Consortium is effective and runs deep into Known Space, gathering intel and reporting back to their masters.

Void Knights: The Order of the Void Knights is secretive and militaristic, but those who joined or served in its ranks are determined to rise to power. More than a few Void Knights are former Star Knights who were seduced by the even more potent teachings of the Void Star. A few were even Star Knights who sought to infiltrate and discover the secret location of the Void Star, and yet they too succumbed to the power of the Void.

Opportunity Sector

A major hub of activity is located in Opportunity Sector, a large area of space where Regulation Space and Known Space collide. It is also one of the regions with the shortest distance to the Volmath Consortium, which is a paltry 80 light years away on the other side of a stretch of Known Space. A century ago the Terran-Volmath War was fought to a near standstill in this region, and when the Accords were carried out it was on the local garden world of Sperlian, following the destruction of the Volmath super weapon dubbed the Sun Crusher. The ruins of the Sun Crusher are still in orbit around the now diminutive brown dwarf star of Cholos M44 (570 LY from Earth). The Coleopterans of M44 were almost entirely wiped out, though colonies exist in the region (including on Sperlian).

As a result, Opportunity Sector is a cold war zone between the two powers, and local independents profit from it as much as possible. Coleopteran dissidents still plot revenge against the Volmath, and war profiteers continue to ply their trade, seeking salavage for resale from the great war era. Amidst this tension the Regulation Authority seeks to make some headway even as rumors that the Assimilant Empire are approaching is bandied about in shady bars by distressed Deep Space Salvagers claiming to have seen assmilant scout ships patrolling. Lastly, rumors that the origins of the Sun Crusher can be found on one of the forgotten Old Worlds where the Cannicks destroyed their creators abound, and that the lucky salvager who finds the source of the machine’s design plans will be the richest (and most wanted) man in the galaxy is a laudable goal for those with no honor.

Opportunity Sector is also the location of the failed human colony of Riven, where the enigmatic being called the Deluge destroyed and mutated the colony. The Regulation Authority along with the Star Knights have cordoned off the world while trying to determine the Deluge’s intent, fully aware that if it escapes the planet it can spread its transformative disease to the rest of Known Space.   

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Picking an SFG RPG Part 2: Generic Systems vs. Implied Setting Systems (plus how Tone and Flavor Matter!)

 My talking about the SF RPG of choice for my short campaign refresh and the subsequent reader comments got me to thinking about a design element that affects system choice: generic systems vs. systems which contain an implied setting. Secondary to this is the notion that a given system will also contain some tone and flavor; flavor might reflect the implied setting, but it doesn't need to. 

For example: White Star has a setting that it has provided some support for, but the book itself is fairly setting neutral; it's got lots of content that might at times even seem contradictory (you have mecha jocks, space squirrels, star knights and embittered old preachers on the space frontier all in the same game system, for example). White Star's implied setting is schizophrenic; it's really a kitchen-sink universe if run exactly as presented, but the intent is to instead give you tools to make your preferred brand of cinematic-inspired scifi.  

Contrast this with Stars Without Number, which on the surface seems to be a toolkit game. However, the foundation of SWN is written around a specific universe which has a defining moment called The Scream within it. All of the implied setting content (and SWN Is loaded to the gills with it) has this core conceit baked into the premise. If you run SWN with a different concept in mind it either limits the content of the book to your own vision or requires you to modify or ignore large chunks of the story content. By contrast, with SWN if you don't want Star Knights in your universe you just tell players they are off the table; the rest of the system won't break if you exclude them, and indeed some story bits might even feel more consistent as a result....that's because White Star isn't building you a toolkit for an implied universe like SWN is; it's providing you a toolkit for a flavor of gaming (cinematic scifi). 

Contrast this with actual generic systems such as Cypher System, Savage Worlds, GURPS and even FATE. These systems might come with some inherent tone/flavor due to the underlying game systems, but each tries to support a wide range of settings without any implied content. GURPS can run both cinematic scifi and (if you were so inclined) the SWN universe in which The Scream happened. Savage Worlds is aimed at it's motto of Fast! Furious! Fun! but it more than amply tries to cover every SF genre it can within its own toolkit within the 3F parameters. Cypher System's underlying flavor is one of deceptively simple mechanics that are player facing with resource management baked in, but the Stars are Fire sourcebook spends half the tome giving you a vast array of ideas for any conceivable SF idea you can think of; it's selling system with a certain tone and flavor and the only implied setting are those which most benefit from the contrivances of Cypher's mechanical design.

The downside, as any gamer with full time work and family knows, is that generic systems often take a lot of time to prep. The seductive point of a game system with an implied setting like SWN or Traveller is that it does some of the work for you; if for example I simply didn't have a campaign vision in mind (and this is where I always trip myself up as I like designing my own settings rather than using existing content), then SWN would actually work really well for me, as I love its world/adventure chart design process. Likewise, Traveller is insanely processual in charting out its own implied setting through the rules, and you can run any universe you want with it so long as it involves dudes who muster out and start life as middle aged adventurers travelling using something like Jump Drive in a bizarrely flat hexagonal galaxy.

All of these systems are great, of course, and I've run all of them except for FATE (which I almost ran, but ultimately decided it's core mechanical conceits are just not my cup of tea). So when I am looking for what I need at the moment I am thinking of what my goal is....and it sort of follows this thought:

1. I want a system which can give me a 5-10 session arc that feels fulfilling but doesn't feel like we have to be obligated to keep playing (so, progression within 5-10 sessions is meaningful); any of the systems we're talking about could theoretically do this well, but I'll rule out GURPS because the setup will take too long for 5-10 sessions and Traveller because its progression is flighty at best.

2. It needs to fit my vision of a "realistic" space opera idea I have in mind with specific conceits for how stuff like hyperdrives and human expansion into the galaxy happened (and lots of aliens); this means it needs to be a good toolkit game with lots of premade stuff that fits the setting; that eliminates GURPS and Traveller (would have to build it all), SWN (implied setting would have to be redacted), and leaves Savage Worlds, Cypher System and White Star (all three have enough content, bt of course SW requires some conversion work).

3. It needs to be easy to run without a lot of rules adjudication, because part of the "palette cleanser" is I want a break from a system with a rigorous three-action mechanic and a 600 page rulebook. Yes, PF2 is remarkably easier to run than PF1 but it's still not "Swords & WIzardry" easy, you know what I mean? This conceit is the most important part! 

With those three criteria in mind I could readily narrow the list down to White Star, Savage Worlds and Cypher System. As I identified in yesterday's post Cypher System would be ideal but the Roll20 randomizer for dice seems to actively hate my players so in the interest of sanity I decided not to go with it. Savage Worlds requires some (admittedly minor) conversion to work properly right now so I want least amount of White Star it is.

There is one element undiscussed: The explicit setting systems. Eclipse Phase, Star Wars RPGs, Star Trek Adventures....these are all games you play specifically for the detailed setting. They are in their own ballpark, as you will never likely want to use them for something that isn't a total riff on the actual universe the system supports. 

Monday, August 10, 2020

Thoughts on the Best All-Purpose Science Fiction RPG for the Moment

 Lately I've been thinking about how I'd like to run another SF campaign soon. As my year+ long Pathfinder 2E campaign winds down, I can sense that I need a palette cleanser in the mix before tackling the next mega campaign in PF2E, and science fiction generally does the trick. The problem, of course, is that what I most need right now is a game system which will support the particular vision I have in mind.

There are five choices in my repertoire: Traveller, Cypher System, GURPS, Savage Worlds and White Star. For various reasons I have narrowed the list down a bit: Traveller is too formal and comes with a heap of stylistic baggage; GURPS would be cool but GURPS Space is too complex for what I need; Savage Worlds would be fine but I am waiting for the Sci Fi Companion to get revised to the SWADE edition; Cypher System with The Stars Are Fire expansion is looking like the best choice overall, but there's a problem: Roll20 seems to hate my players, and when you have three sessions of Cypher System in a row in which failure rates even on level 1-2 tasks are approaching 90% it becomes enormous dispiriting for the players (and as GM I got tired of the constant grouching about the failure rates and simply ended the game). I love Cypher System, but there seem to be two issues at hand: it requires a bit of system mastery to play the odds and reduce the levels of difficulty, and it also requires accepting the dice where they fall when the time comes. 

In fact....the brutal honesty of the Roll20 dice randomize might be so offensive to some players for reasons that I can only speculate on in my head, but I do think ultimately that when the game requires resource management to improve your odds of success, that puts more demand on the player to actually understand the mechanics and work to play them in their favor. Spend those points when you need them, and often!

So what about White Star? With White Star I might just have a good balance. The biggest problem I can identify is that the Galaxy Edition is almost Too Much Kitchen Sink....if you don't want uttin*, yabnabs, novomachina and brimlings in your campaign, for example, then you as GM better go into the book with a big hatchet. But other than that, it's a great system with a tight and easy old school aesthetic. I have run two prior campaigns with it now (using the original rules with some supplements) and I feel like this might indeed be the perfect palette cleanser. A Short 5-10 session White Star campaign would be a lot of fun.

There's a new setting sourcebook out for White Star on now called Heart of Varrul, which I just might check out. White Star, like all OSR games, continues to have its groundswell of support and remains in many regards timeless. I think I'll need to see how much support it has on Roll20 now....

*I'm actually cool with uttin, the grittier and dirtier version of ysoki; but to hell with yabnabs! And Brimlings are a halfling too far for me. 

Monday, August 3, 2020

Sticking with Campaigns - the Sorts of Players and GMs who Can and Can't Run Long Term Campaigns

After forty years of gaming I've come to realize that there are really two kinds of players:

Players that stick to the bitter end; and
Players that do not

This is in regards to the idea of long term campaigns. Those elusive white whales that many players would love to see, but which few actually do: you know, the kind where you start at level 1, and then by means of normal rules progress over 1-2 or more years to level 20 (or in the case of classic D&D go for as many years as you can stomach). Then rinse and repeat!

The players that stick to the bitter end, in my experience, tend to fall into these categories:

Old friends within the group; if you know each other and have known each other for a long time, you are more likely to keep gaming together (so long as you also have a GM who offers a consistent time and space for it);

They can put up with each other; I don't say "tolerate" because when you're friends that terminology doesn't quite fit...tolerate is what you do to people who you must associate with but not necessarily by choice. The friends in the long group may have quirks and eccentricities, but you put up with those because you all actually enjoy meeting and gaming together far more than any annoying traits you may have.

It might be possible to achieve a long term group without these traits, but you likely will run into some problems, including high turnover (a group that runs a long term campaign may have players come and go, but if you reach the end of the campaign and none of the original players are the same you are faced with a Ship of Theseus scenario). You could theoretically have a group go for years without being friends but that's...well....that's pretty sad, actually. If you spend 4-6 hours at least once a week gaming with people, you ought to get to know them as humans and not just players, right?

Players that do not stick with it are both more numerous and easy to quantify. They include the following base groups:

They don't find the group style/personalities a good fit; this is easy, and applies to anyone who for whatever reason decides that spending the next X number of years gaming the same game with the same people is not gonna fit their needs.

The reasons this happens can be varied. It can include these traits:

Short attention span (I call them "buffet samplers"; I admit that as a player I am one of these)
Personality quirks (can't stand --or be stood by-- the rest of the group)
Confused about the idea that gaming is more than just a sport or activity (people who don't realise that making friends with your fellow players is important)
Earnest but time limited (the saddest group, who are restricted from enjoying the hobby due to mitigating life factors but really wish they could be present; a subset of this in today's age is the "I want to log in by my internet is crap" crowd)

Needless to say, to get that campaign you always wanted from level 1 to level 20 with at least enough core players throughout the experience to reach level 20 then you need plenty of the former type of player and fewer of the latter types. You also need a GM who's going to pull it off. GMs have their own range of issues as well, which I tend to quantify as follows:

GMs who can pull off long term campaigns tend to be:
Focused (can stick to the same game and campaign for the long haul; this is harder than it sounds);
Dedicated (realize that they must eschew distractions);
Rewarding (must both feel rewarded for the dedication and recognize that a long term campaign must also reward the players with relevant plot details and interactions that make their characters relevant over time);
Consistent (simply put: you show up at the same time, same place, and run the same game, preferably weekly; just getting this down alone will at least insure you game weekly, even if you can't quite manage long term campaigns).

GMs who can't pull this off tend toward the following:
Unfocused (likes to play the New Game of the Week and tends to understand short-run scenarios and mini campaigns better; or has a vision which is best realized in 10 sessions rather than 60);
Easily Distracted (the GM has too much going on and can easily get distracted by other systems, ideas, or unrelated stuff);
 Unrewarding (the GM falls into storygame traps such as railroad style adventuring or enters the campaign with a plot conceptualization that did not leave room for players to enter into and change things by their deeds and action; tricky, because the GM may feel rewarded then wonder why her players abandoned her);
Inconsistent (no regular time and place for a game, no dedication to insuring it happens like clockwork; this of all things is the failing of most GMs; you need the discipline to show up at the same time and place for months or even years).

Without a GM who holds the good traits and none of the bad, a campaign will never last six months let alone six years.