Monday, October 28, 2013

Living on the Edge is a Flawed Feat, and Other Traits That Have Merit (part one of many)

Feats, Traits, Edges, Merits, Flaws, Powers, Weaknesses, Strengths ... Different games have different names, but most games have some iteration of these descriptive characteristics that have mechanical effects (i.e. have a tangible influence on die rolls or whatever device is used for determining your ability to succeed or fail at a task). Some games will limit you to just one or two, some will flood you with so many choices you could never possibly use them all. For some games, it's the only mechanics you get.

The value of, we'll call them 'descriptive traits' in a general sense, is that they allow you to both define the character with something that has more than just roleplaying value. Don't get me wrong, for some games and some groups, the roleplaying element is of greater value. While I can recount almost all of the exploits of my characters from games in the last six years, the most fun I've had has been doing things that a) had nothing to do with the plot; and, b) had little to do with the clearly defined skill numbers listed on my character sheet.

Want an example? Of course you do! Picture a small party of barbarians, one of whom was played by yours truly, entering a sophisticated border town, with walls and everything. Now, nothing in my skills said that I needed to subvert the local gang culture, attempt a coup vs. the governor, and then when that failed, burn the city and make off with a herd of cows. But Traefon [character] did have a descriptive trait labeling him as a 'opportunist', and when we thwarted a local gang's attempt to mug us, it was just too good an opportunity to pass up. I was very rarely able to use the exact benefit granted by that ability (it had something to do with tokens), but I didn't let that stop me from role-playing a character who jumped at every opportunity for gain, letting circumstance guide him to new heights.

And cattle wrangling.

Granted, that character's life was cut dramatically short when he saw an opportunity to save a teammate (quite heroically, thank you very much, and totally unappreciated) and ended up impaled on a lizard-person's spear. I should've made my next character a hunter with "lizard-person" as his favored enemy, in memoriam. Too little, too late.

Yes, I'm vindictive, even in another life.

Spycraft 2.0 is one example of Feats Gone Wild! I was advising a player on level advancement based on some of the class skills and feats he would gain for different options, and made a comment that anyone who could memorize the effect of every class ability and power in Spycraft would deserve a medal. And probably psychiatric treatment. Spycraft feat selection is so complex, they have (working off memory here) 10 different feat categories, each with at least 10-15 feats. If you work your multiclassing right, you can easily pick up 16-18 feats by level 20.

Iron Heroes is another example, but unlike Spycraft, the opportunities for picking feats is much more limited. Iron Heroes creates long Feat Mastery chains that allow your character, whose fighting style is already very limited by your class choice, to specialize even more by choosing a particular feat chain. Whereas in Spycraft you could be an awesome mixed martial artist, able to fight using a dozen different styles (wrestling, boxing, brawling, etc.), in Iron Heroes you'll be the girl who can do one thing so marvelously well it works every time ... except when it doesn't. The worst thing in the world is to be an Iron Heroes Executioner fighting someone with sneak attack immunity. It gives new meaning to the word "impotence".

Not necessary an important meaning, but new meaning, still.

But what about Flaws? Sorry, this blog post has gone on long enough. I'll save that for another day.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Style Sundays: Talking the Talk and Walking the Walk

How do you decide how characters talk, walk, and move? What makes them unique in that respect?

Do they need to be unique? Yes!

What's the point of playing an average person who behaves average in every way? I'm already average, and I'm playing these games to be something different. For developing a character's outward appearance/demeanor, I consider the following acronym: SAGE STOP.

Social Status
Self-Perceived Wealth

Okay, I don't really use that acronym, but those are the things that I consider. If I can place a character in each of those elements and think of how it affects his speech mannerisms, accent, walk, dress, or appearance in even one way, I've got eight factors that I can use to make my character an individual.

Let's walk through this using Professor David Edson, a teacher a Wildburry Academy (school for teenage spies), and one of my favorite NPCs I've ever made.

Social Status: Within his daily life, he's at the top of the food chain. He has superior intellect and skills, as well as a position of high power within the school. He has enormous authority, but also the responsibility of making sure each student comes out of the school totally self-reliant. This makes him come across as arrogant, stubborn, and cryptic, because he's constantly pushing the students to figure everything out for themselves. TANSTAAFL - There's No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.

Age: He's middle aged, so he's still got plenty of energy, and dresses like a professional. He's got a medium-tone voice which hasn't yet dropped into the baritone range as a result of old age. He has some strands of gray that's really starting to pepper up his black hair. He doesn't have wrinkles, but only because he never smiles. Speaking of free lunches, that high calorie food the school serves to make sure the students have the energy they need for daily physical training is starting to take it's toll. He's put on a little bit of weight - not enough to really slow him down, but enough that it shows in his face, his neck, and his waist.

Gender: He's a white man in a world dominated by white men. This gives him power, confidence, and privilege. He has a lot of cultural experience and has worked with many diverse people, but there's still a blind-spot there, and he realizes it. This might make him behave differently to students of color - maybe he pushes them harder in some circumstances, maybe he goes easier on them in others.

Education: He has a Ph.D. in Russian Literature from the University of Moscow during the Soviet era. No matter how hard he tries, whenever he speaks Russian he's going to speak with a Moscovite accent. It's going to color some of his word choices, even in English. His background in literature means that he is very well read, cultured. He has a broad vocabulary, and won't be afraid to use it.

Self-Perceived Wealth: He sees himself as a rich man. He has unfettered access to the resources of a powerful organization. This will make him ambitious, and sometime incautious. He's willing to sacrifice things, including lives, to achieve his goals.

Time: He grew up as a double-agent in the Cold War. Born British, but raised Russian. He sees himself as an embodiment of the best of both cultures - stoicism, unrelenting ambition, sharp intelligence, and morbid, dry wit.

Occupation: He's a consummate spy. But not only that, he's a teacher of spies who are still children. He has to be withdrawn enough to allow them to flourish in their own unique way, while still showing them that he is a force of nature and not to be toyed with. Children often fear what they don't know - so he doesn't let them know anything about him.

Place: For Edson, this one is pretty well covered by Time and Occupation. Place for him covers his birthplace of England, his formative years in Russia, all the operations he did across Europe for both the KGB and MI-6, and his current place in remote Romania. He dresses in layers, knowing that at any moment he may have to travel across the world. He knows that it's always more comfortable to take your coat off before sitting down in the airplane. He wears a mix of fabrics, and solid colors to be able to blend as unimportant in any climate and circumstance.

All-in-all, I visualize him as similar in appearance and speech to Jeremy Clarkson, host of Top Gear. But smarter. Sorry, Mr. Clarkson.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

A Rose By Any Other Name ...

I asked myself a question today:

What makes a character I've made stand out from the pack? With twelve to choose from, why do I choose that special someone?

At first, I thought it was all about striking that perfect balance of skills and stats, where I get the most I want out of the system. But, no, I realized that was almost imppossible, so that can't be the answer.

No, after a few more seconds of reflection, I realized the answer was all in the name. The character name, to be specific. For example, I'm going to play a Deadlands game with a character who is the son of a puritan missionary. His name is, in the traditional puritan fashion, God-Said-To-Joseph-Let-My-Will-Be-Done Orkin (or Joseph God's-Will Orkin, for short). It has the combined benefit of a crazy long over-the-top fire and brimstone first name with a punnish last name (he's an assassin, or exterminator, if you will - don't get the joke? That's what Google is for).

How could I not play him?

Saturday, October 19, 2013

And Back to Spycraft

I just last night put together a few new characters for a Spycraft 2.0 one-shot, i.e. the intent is for the game scenario to last one night's worth of gameplay, and no more. Ha, not with my friends. Regardless, I'm going to give it a shot and see if I can kill them all in one night. Also not particularly likely, but I'm not going on easy on them this time.

The exercise jogged my memory of standard and special NPC creation. As previously noted you don't have to use the full character creation rules for creating NPCs. Standard NPC stats in Spycraft are assigned calibers from I to X (1 to 10 for those of you not hip on the roman numeral lingo). Instead of having to pick values for stats that don't get used very much by thugs and security guards (like, for example, intelligence), they give you a set of very useful stats, including but not limited to Initiative, Attack, Defense, and Resilience (covers all your standard d20 saves like reflex and will).

It's quick and easy, and allows you to focus on the important things like, "what type of dog is the guard dog?" and "does the guard dog prefer the hard dog food from the bag, or the soft stuff from the can?" or, my personal favorite, "does the guard dog particularly care about what it's guarding, or is its life a little more existential?"

Here follows a rant, which you are not obligated to read. Skip ahead for more entertaining stuff:
But, you ask, how do I know if my NPC will be any sort of challenge for the players? Ah ha! Easy, say the geniuses at CraftyGames. We make the actual value of those stats scale depending on the "threat level" of the players. Essentially, you make a guard dog. The guard dog will be equally(-ish) difficult for the players to face whether they are all 1st level, or all 15th level. Well, if they're that much tougher when the players are 15th level, shouldn't they be, like, fire-breathing dogs or something? NO! I've seen this complaint on at least a couple forums (and no, I'm not linking to them because reading them were hours of my life I'll never get back, and I'm not going to put anyone else through that), and it's foolish. The guard dog facing the 15th level characters is obviously better trained, stronger, and more alert. But they're still just guard dogs. Not all dogs are the same. If you didn't already know that, you should go to YouTube and watch the "20 Dogs" videos my 2 year old loves.

Last night, though, I was faced with a real dilemma. How do you take a bit-part NPC from a past campaign and turn them into a murderous, conniving bitch who would kill you for your shoes but is being forced to help you (or is she? Ooo, mystery ... yeah, she's here to help, guys, I promise)? Mechanically, it takes only five seconds in Spycraft, throwing in a few extra feats (garrote basics, garrote mastery, garrote supremacy - that's right folks, she's really fun to have at parties) and maybe bumping the "attack" caliber up a few notches. But the flavor of the character ... she has to be comfortable with her role as someone important.

Is she really ready to be a diva? The rogue special ops solder choking in the corner seems to think she is.

No, the honest truth is that I'm not sure I know what to do with her. She's been great for popping in and out of scenes, glaring, and dropping the occasional cryptic one-liner, but it doesn't take much "getting into character" to pull that off. Now she actually has to be a person, and I can honestly say I've never met anyone quite like her.

Here are the questions I ask myself to make her a little more real. They're essentially the same questions any good researcher asks when surveying people:

  1. What is she doing? She's on a covert rescue mission.
  2. Why is she doing it? That's classified. No, just kidding. Her boss told her to.
  3. How important is it to her? Given how incredibly powerful her boss is, and given how painfully unhappy said boss will be if she fails ... still only moderately important.
  4. How long will she put up with the player-characters' nonsense until she chokes someone? That depends on how long it takes for Vacile to open his mouth. Add 2 seconds to that. More, if she's already had the opportunity to choke someone.
While researchers, generally speaking, don't ask that last question, I know it's central to this character's mental state.

Ultimately, I try to make any key character like her serve at least three purposes in the story:
  1. A way out if I back myself into a corner
  2. A source of useful information if my clues suck, but that information always leads to...
  3. A moral dilemma.
Obviously, in a "hero" setting like I've got here, the players are (almost) always going to choose the moral path, and not the easy way out. But giving them the choice allows everyone to go home feeling good about having made it. I like my NPCs, even the good guys, to be about as far on the amoral scale as the players are on the moral scale. The parallelism appeals to me, but it also allows the players to shine brightly in comparison.

But then, what does it say about me that I'm able to come up with 50 characters who are finding different ways to do the wrong things for the right reasons?

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Deadlands Reloaded

I know I promised to cover Spycraft NPCs, but honestly, I didn't say it would be right away. Be patient!

Deadlands: Reloaded is set in the Weird West, a horrific alternate history where magic and madness have led to a stalemate in the US Civil War. The frontier is short on law and heavy on spooky, and the player characters usually aren't exactly saints either.

There is more than one version of Deadlands, each using different rule sets. Reloaded uses the Savage Worlds core rulebook, one of many flexible systems that have lots of different settings that customize the rules to create new worlds. SW is not a d20 system - each skill and characteristic has a different die type, from four-sided (d4) all the way up to twelve-sided (d12). All you need to win is to beat the Marshall in an opposed check or, if unopposed, just get a 4 or better. Of course, in the Weird West, not rolling a 4 or better sucks major monkey poop. Yeah, that's an image you wanted.

So, this does mean that to play DL:R (and more importantly, create a character!) you need to have both the SW or Savage Worlds Deluxe book (cheap) AND DL:R player handbook (cheaper). Oh, and you need the Marshall's guide, for whoever is going to run the game.

But not to create characters.

The Deadlands setting is a dream come true, particularly for someone like me who has always despised American history as being particularly boring. Don't get me wrong, I love me some history - throw a Roman emperor or Latin American revolution my way and I'll be all over it. But the Civil War (even worse, the American Revolution) just doesn't do it for me. But Deadlands is great, taking history right up to the brink and then giving it a steel-tipped boot kick to the ass, right off a cliff of crazy.

Want to play a mad scientist who has sacrificed her sanity just to build a parasol that deflects bullets? Want to play a happy-go-lucky con artist who dances with the devil just to pick a pocket? What about a Chinese immigrant working hard on the railways and making a little money on the side boxing, while no one in America knows you've studied with a great martial arts master back home?

No problem.

What truly addicts me to this game, though, is that you get so little out of character creation, but you have so many options. You can't possibly take points in all of the skills, and you only get ONE edge (special ability-ish) to start with.

Oh, and it's not just a lot of options at start, but also options farther down the line, with some powers requiring pretty hefty prerequisite skill and power sets. So I'm here thinking, "I know I want to be a Texas Ranger some day, but I can't as a Novice (starting character). I don't have to pick up all the skills and stuff now, but I need to plan out my next few advancements to make sure I can make it there." Not that I ever will. Three or four game sessions down the line, when I've picked up that cherished advancement, I know I'll just blow it on increasing my Fighting skill because I'm just fed up with getting punched in the kidney every ten minutes. I'll never learn.

Even worse is when I'm asked to generate a character that doesn't start at the Novice level, but who already has a few advancements under his belt. Having played Deadlands, I have to think, "Who could possibly survive long enough in this world to have learned a thing or two about not dying?" Thankfully, I don't have to play as myself, because that would really be bad. Oh look, there's a 8-foot tall robo-DEAD.

Right now, I've got a missionary's son, protected by his father's faith for many years. He's seen it all and survived some horror thanks to his father's miracles. However, having no faith of his own, he isn't going to waste his time trying to convert the natives. He's in life for the $$$, and there's plenty to be had in the Weird West. To quote Leverage, he "picks up where the law leaves off" and the law does such a poor job of tracking down some of the meaner criminals in the land. Yeah, that's right: I'm a bounty hunter, bitch. Yee haw!

But is that really what I want to play? I mean, what about a "huckster," one of those clever magicians who have unlocked the secrets of Hoyle's Book of Games. There's really nothing more unique in a game than playing a character who plays poker in a duel of wits against demons to access their powers ... and you actually play a hand of poker! C'mon, how cool is that? And it's totally not a waste of time, guys, seriously. It's fun. Okay, fine, I'll play the bounty hunter.

But how much experience should go into powers, and how much should go into skills? What's the relative benefit of increasing a skill (or two) by a die type (d4 -> d6, d6 ->d8, etc.) versus giving that same skill a +1 bonus? I'm pretty good at statistics ... okay dad, stop looking at me like that. Fine, I'm moderately average at basic statistics. I know the chances of rolling a 4 or better on a d6 is ... 4,5,6, so that's 3/6. 50%! But it's not that simple with Savage Worlds. Players always get to roll a d6 in addition to whatever their skill die is (it's a wild die). Also, if you roll the maximum result, the die "explodes", meaning you get to roll it again and add the new result. So, if you roll a 4 on a d4, you roll it again. This time you get a 3. Your total result is 7! So now the statistics get a little more complicated. What's the probability of getting a 10 when rolling a d8 and a d6? Fortunately, I don't need to do the work myself, since there's this and this and this and ... you get the picture. Or I could just ask our Marshall - he always knows, almost like he's a really smart guy or something.

But again, I'm incorrigible and, regardless of what the Marshall says, I'm just going to pick whatever I feel a whim for. And then change my mind at least three or four times before the next game session. Ahh!

Okay, fine, I'll raise Fighting another die type. Seriously, you have no idea how much getting punched hurts.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Spycraft 2.0 Full Character

I'm going to start with the game I know the most about. I spent two years being Game Control (GC) for a Spycraft 2.0 game.

The setting: A high school for spies in mountainous Romania. My friends played five new students at the school. (small aside: I've written a full-length Young Adult techno-thriller novel based loosely on this setting and these characters - thanks to my friends for letting me run away with them. And, you know, if anyone knows of any agents or publishers interested in picking me up, I'm looking to publish ...)

Spycraft 2.0 is an amazing d20 game system, and I could spend all day singing its praises. If you game and don't own a copy, go now and buy a copy. Seriously, stop reading and do it.

Don't worry that 3rd edition is coming out sometime soon, it won't be the same. Better, in some ways, but 2.0 is a force of its own. More on 3rd edition later. Go buy 2.0.

Okay, so now we're assuming that you own a copy of the game. For a GC, it's great because it provides you with three tiers of non-player character (NPC) creation:

  1. Standard NPCs (animals, minions, other "obstacles" - groups of characters)
  2. Special NPCs (the real movers and shakers, individuals)
  3. Special "full" NPCs (unique, one of a kind, not recommended for NPCs)

We're going to start at #3 today, and we'll move backwards through #s 2 and 1 in the future.

Special "full" NPCs
I'm starting with this classification because these NPCs don't actually use Spycraft's detailed, simple, and straightforward NPC creation rules. In this case, you get to use the full player character (PC) rules for creating your NPC. It's unnecessary, pointless, and a complete waste of time, which is why I made probably 30 of them for my game. Obviously, deep in my heart I wanted to be playing in my own game. Since I'm terrible at keeping secrets, that would ruin it for everyone, so I had to settle for second best.

PC creation in Spycraft 2.0 is a 10-step process. While some 10-step plans help you get sober, this one results in a fully actualized spy. The steps cover everything from basic attributes and backgrounds to classes and skills, to choosing equipment from 50 pages of gear tables. My personal favorite part is in Step 9, where you get to roll for height and weight, if the GC chooses to make you do so (damn right I do). This, of course, leads to some great comedy: the 7'1" 16-year old Japanese student who is a master at blending into crowds and the Israeli krav maga soldier who is barely 5 feet tall. It's the kind of thing that could only happen thanks to a lucky roll of the dice.

I'll reiterate: there is absolutely zero (0, nil, nul, zilch, nada) benefit in this system to making NPCs using the full PC creation system. In fact, it tends to screw you over quite a bit because it takes you away from the strong-armed, devil-may-care flexibility of the NPC creation system.

Here's, vaguely, without infringing on CraftyGames' prerogative to teach you how to make their characters, is how it works:

  1. Establish your characters basic attributes, using the traditional d20 set of Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, etc. using a point-buy system;
  2.  Establish your character's origins by giving them a talent and a specialty. These affect your attributes and provide you bonuses to narrowly defined skills and saves that increase as you level up. They can also grant you feats or special circumstantial uses of skills;
  3. Pick your class from 12 (in the core rules) basic classes. While the class names are based off traditional spy tropes, the abilities defined within could potentially be applied to other settings;
  4. Spend your skills points, based off your Intelligence and the class you picked. We're not going to get into skills because, as crazy-detailed as the equipment tables are in this game, the skill system puts it to shame;
  5. Choose feats based on what you want your character to do and whether they meet the prerequisites;
  6. Choose interests. These have very little impact on the overall game, other than to encourage role playing. Character needs to destress a bit? Well, they have an interest in alpine skiing, so they'd better get a plane ticket to Switzerland ASAP! There's more to it than that, but not much;
  7. I never gave my NPCs subplots - side stories within the main plot line. *sigh* Okay, that was a lie. They totally had subplots, and they were all either "nemesis" or "romance";
  8. Do some math;
  9. Be a roleplayer and make your character more than just numbers on a sheet;
  10. Spend hours trying to figure out why staying in a hotel is a Security gear pick and not a Resource.
Yes, I went through this many, many times. Every professor at the school was made into level 10 characters, and quite a few students as well (not level 10, that would've just been mean). Not only did they have feats and skills, but they had hopes and dreams, too. Poor Professor Edson, that cold-hearted bastard, wanted nothing more than to make the world safe for his son. Carl, the hardened third-year student, was desperately looking for a girl he could trust with his heart. Neither Edson nor Carl needed to be full characters to have those hopes and dreams.

So why did I bother?

I liked the challenge of taking a character I've already made - backstory, nowstory, and futurestory - and trying to figure out how the rules can make them tick. Through character creation, the rules give me new ideas for things that they can do. Sure, the hacking professor has lots of levels of hacker, but he started off as a scientist, which opens new opportunities I hadn't thought of for game-play.

Ultimately, I just felt better knowing that the sheets were there. I think I enjoyed a perverse sense of delightful guilt when I ignored the sheets completely and just made things up, under the guise of "rolling a bluff check." If I had only followed the book's suggestions and made them proper NPCs, I wouldn't have had to fudge half the rolls I did.

But I probably would have anyway. Like I said, I'm not a terribly good role-player.

Rules Tutorial

I'll be clear from the start: I don't care what kind of game it is, I love creating new characters. I'll be 70 hours into Dragon Age for the PC, and I'll still pop back to the start and create an city born elf thief. I'll make ten new characters for a one-shot, Halloween Deadlands:Reloaded game. I'll spend hours- nay, days- building incidental NPCs (non-player characters) into fully actualized characters while being Game Control for Spycraft 2.0.

Why? I'll never play any of those characters. Well, maybe one of them, but I'm not going to waste my time actually playing the elf thief when I'm only a few scant hours from actually beating the game. Those NPCs are going to get maybe 10 minutes of screentime in a 2 year campaign. With a one-shot Deadlands, the only way more than one of those characters is going to get played is if I'm really unlucky.

I just love the thrill of being someone new. I love the chance to start a new life, with fresh new choices and a new perspective on life. I love the backstories that explain how they got to be what I've written on the character sheet. I love the challenge of exploring the game mechanics to their fullest.

I'm not going to pretend that I have any actual skill at character creation. I've been repeatedly told that my characters are not min/maxed, optimized, balanced, or, in many cases, good.

That's okay. I'm not a terribly good role-player, either.

But I do have fun bringing new life into the world, in the form of sheets of paper, names on pages, and avatars on a screen.