dorchadas: (Arrow to the Knee)
I wrapped up another RPG game!

There's a couple blog posts about it in the Warhammer RPG tag, but I haven't written that much about. I took [personal profile] schoolpsychnerd's wood elf treesinger, [livejournal.com profile] oddsboy's Arabyan [note spell] warrior-poet, and [facebook.com profile] aaron.hosek's innkeeper-turned-berserker from a prison underneath an apple-farming village filled with cultists, to a small Imperial town under siege by goblin bands, to a roadside inn under attack by bizarre creatures in the swamp mists, to glorious Middenheim, where the PCs went through the original WFRP 1e corebook adventure and then through a modified-to-unrecognizability version of Ashes of Middenheim, foiling a cult's attempt to taint Middenheim's water and mutate large parts of the city and then skipping town in search of the wood elf's sister and hoping that the remaining conspiratorial factions didn't burn the city down while they were gone.

The Warhammer tagline is up there in the subject, but there wasn't really that much that was grim about this game. I did play up the uneasiness that the humans of the Empire treated wood elves, especially ones with tattoos on all visible skin and feathers braided into their hair, but I didn't have the nobility or cops harass the PCs, I didn't get them thrown out of anywhere for being miscreants, and I didn't play up the disadvantages of a wandering lifestyle. Part of that is because the game took place after the Storm of Chaos, so the roads and Middenheim were packed with refugees and heavily-armed vagabonds were more the norm rather than something that the nobility would want to stamp on right quick, but the other part is that the PCs were very lucky.

The dice favored them in nearly all circumstances, and when they weren't getting good rolls, their opponents were failing too so it didn't matter. WFRP is famous for the critical hit tables, but the PCs suffered two critical hits over the whole game--both of them hit the innkeeper, and one of them was a critical to the head that stunned him for one round. The other was a critical to the leg that cost him half his next action. No flying limbs to be seen, at least on the PCs' side, and this despite the fact that I'm not sure the innkeeper ever rolled a defense during the whole game.

And while one of the oft-discussed problems with nonhumans in RPGs is that it's nearly impossible to maintain their mystique when humans have to play them, the dice were so good to the treesinger that the other PCs started introducing her as "Tallana Deathdealer" for her skill with a bow. She repeatedly succeeded in Ride rolls to do horse tricks with her horse familiar despite not possessing the Ride skill, and as for her treesinger skills, she won the final cultist battle almost singlehandedly with a casting of A Murder of Crows that did maximum damage.

I've said I learn something from every game I run to completion, and what I learned from this Warhammer game was--don't force a mood. I bet you'd find a lot of people online who would say I'm playing Warhammer wrong, that we should go back to D&D, blah blah blah, but we had a ton of fun with our Comedic Game of Reluctant Adventure. I've seen it said that there's no point in a GM adding humor to a game, because the players will provide plenty of it no matter what the tone is, but here I think it improved things. It turned out a lot better than if I had artificially tried to make the game more grimdark.

There's another of the games I've wanted to run for years down. Next up, I do an actual short playtest adventure of Warlords of the Mushroom Kingdom!
dorchadas: (Pile of Dice)
Monday was another session of my relatively long-running WFRP game--if I'm counting right, it's the 16th session--and the entire plot may have just been unraveled by an NPC critically failing a single roll.

In my last post about the game, I mentioned that I was planning on running my players through the basic plot of Ashes of Middenheim but with all the idiocy stripped out, and that's what I've been doing. I took out the Skaven, ignored the BLOOD BLOOD BLOOD Khorne-themed dungeon, and brought things down to a more mundane level. From what the PCs have figured out so far, there are factions among the cults of both Ulric and Sigmar who want to use the societal upheaval of the Storm of Chaos to spark an Ulricite/Sigmarite religious war. They aren't clear how much of either hierarchy, if any, is in on it, what the end goal of the war actually is, or whether either or both sides, or a third party, is framing someone else.

Having solved the mystery of the murder of Father Morten and the theft of the portrait of Sigmar, and found that a devotee of Ulric appeared to be behind it, the PCs consulted priests of both Sigmar and Ulric about what to do next. With somewhat confusing information and the knowledge that they were being watched, they returned to their ramshackle tenement and went to bed, making sure to set up a watch.

In the night, I called for Awareness rolls. The elf treesinger sleeping downstairs failed, her familiar animal also failed, the Arabyan duelist-poet who was awake also failed, and I thought that this was where the next phase of the game unfolds. Then I rolled Stealth for the intruder who was sneaking in the downstairs window and rolled 100. WFRP is a blackjack-style percentile dice system.

As the intruder knocked over a chair and table, making a tremendous racket, he leapt out the window while the elf grabbed her bow and leapt after him in hot pursuit. Because elves are faster than humans, and because the intruder kept failing his Athletics rolls, and because the elf's familiar is a horse that she jumped onto as it ran up next to her in pursuit, she was able to ride him down, knock him prone, and hold him prisoner with her bow until the other PCs caught up with her.

I say "derail" above, but I think this is really more an example of why trusting the dice is a good idea. I wanted the intruder to [REDACTED] and then escape, and I could have ignored the roll. Even if he had failed, I would have let him get away with it since the PCs all failed their Awareness rolls as well. But with that 100 staring me in the face, the game went off in an entirely new direction and now I have to figure out what's going to happen when the PCs question their mysterious prisoner.

That's one of the best part of RPGs, though. It's the same reason I love procedurally-generated CRPGs, but with the added depth of interaction with other people. Running that kind of game means that I'm writing a story where I don't know how it ends or even what's going to be on the next page, and that's not something you can easily get in other forms of media.
dorchadas: (Pile of Dice)
I realized recently that while I write a lot about RPGs I want to run, or RPGs I'm tinkering with, I write very little about RPGs I'm actually running or playing. Other than the Flight of the Phoenix AP posts I did and a single post on Fallout, I can't think of any. But I just finished running my Warhammer FRP group through The Oldenhaller Contract (PDF warning) the last two game sessions, and that's at least worth a post.

"The Oldenhaller Contract" was the adventure included in the first edition of WFRP, and has a somewhat mixed place among WFRP fans because it's a basically a dungeon crawl against cultists and a lot of people like WFRP for its tendency to deal with creeping horror and intrigue. "The Oldenhaller Contract" has a mine cart ride fleeing from swarms of ravenous rats, a three-sided gang war, a cult of the Lord of the Flies, and a sewer level. Not exactly subtle.

But I think it all went pretty well! The PCs managed to avoid the worst of the gang war, showing up after the aftermath. They successfully bluffed their way past the surviving gang and followed the trail of blood left by the murdered leader, leapt onto the mine cart and escaped the rats, arrived at the area where the cult ritual was taking place under Middenheim, killed the cult leader with a couple well-placed arrows, avoided getting hit by the summoned daemon, killed most of the rest of the cult in melee combat after scaring the daemon away with their torch (there was a note in its stats that fire causes fear, and despite a high Willpower it failed its roll when they beat it around the head and shoulders with a torch), then shot the daemon from a distance with arrows as it advanced on them again and banished it back to the realm of Chaos. [personal profile] schoolpsychnerd is playing an apprentice wood elf treesinger, so she managed to notice the aura of corruption around the gem they were sent to retrieve, preventing the other characters from handling it too much and thus contracting Neiglish Rot. Also, one of the PCs suffered the first PC-side critical hit in the game...and it was a "stunned for 1d10 rounds" against someone who had the Iron Jaw Talent, so it only ended up being a one-round stun.

Overall, the PCs got really lucky. Even the Arabyan duelist poet, who kept failing all his attacks against the daemon or the cultists, still made almost all his defenses successfully. I could easily have seen a couple Fate Points being needed if even a couple more attacks had landed on the PCs, or if the daemon had hit them at all. But they got away easy. This time!

I had to modify the beginning of the adventure from the one listed in the book, due to moving it from Nuln to Middenheim and due to the PCs being given the hook by a mysterious hooded old man in an inn. It was cliche, but I justified it by making the man a Bright Wizard trying to stop a threat to the city in the wake of the Storm of Chaos and having him seek them out specifically because I'm pretty sure they've bragged about their exploits to all and sundry in every single tavern they've been to so far in the game. Emoij smug face

If I were to run it again, I'd probably tone down the daemon. As written, it's nearly a TPK situation--it has a permanently Toughness-reducing aura (which I didn't notice until after they had killed it, so I didn't retroactively apply it), has a chance to cause Neiglish Rot on every single attack (effectively Save or Die), and has as much damage reduction as a dwarf in full plate. Several of the PCs attacks did no damage at all, and coupled with being outnumbered by six cultists I'm kind of amazed the PCs did as well as they did. They were saved by that well-timed failed Willpower roll, by me ruling that having all cultists fight to the death is idiotic and making some of them flee, and by the elf having a Ballistic Skill of 48 and hitting with every single arrow she shot. I think the smart choice is to run if the cultists successfully summon the daemon, but nearly everyone I've ever run for or played with views running as equivalent to defeat and will fight to the death against overwhelming odds, so that was pretty unlikely. The arrows banished the daemon right as the two PCs with zero Wounds remaining were running back into combat with it, as an example.

Next up is a heavily-modified version of Ashes of Middenheim with almost all the silliness I complain about there stripped out and it turned into a more mundane power struggle. Or is it? I haven't actually done much reworking yet, so I guess I'll find out!
dorchadas: (Pile of Dice)
I've written before about how I don't like percentile systems, and while that's not really that true any longer, I think I've realized at least part of where my dislike came from. It has a lot to do with the way the information on the character's skills is presented to the player.

The typical benefit for percentile systems that I've seen when people ask online is that they're transparent and easy to explain and understand. "Shoot Dude 47%" is intuitively obvious in a way that "Run Away •••" or "Gibber Insanely +12"[1] isn't, and it's easy and fast to intepret the results of the dice, too. Rolling two d10s and comparing to the skill is much faster than, to pick a kind of system I use pretty often, rolling from 1 to 15 d10s, looking for 8s and 9s, counting those, looking for 10s and counting those and adding that to the 8s and 9s, then rerolling all the 10s and starting from step 2. And all that is true and reasonable.

The unreasonable bit on my part is why D&D's dice system doesn't bother me even though it works much more similarly to percentile systems than to the dice pool systems that I usually prefer to play with. Each has a randomizer that produces a linear result, each increments up an equal amount when the character improves, and games like Rolemaster even have the same roll-high resolution system that D&D does. This was really driven home to me lately while I was working on converting Only War's system of Aptitudes to Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and thinking about the odds. Characters in WFRP tend to start with a ~20-50% chance to accomplish actions, depending on their stats and what skills they have. And if you just look at the page, that seems really low. I've seen research--though don't quote me on this because I can't find the article anymore--that the average person feels competent at a task when they succeed at it at least 80% of the time, so obviously seeing the numbers on the page can be demoralizing, and that's demonstrated by doing even some cursory Googling of WFRP+whiff factor.

The thing is, that never bothered me in D&D, even though the underlying math is similar. A starting AD&D fighter with no other bonuses attacking an orc in chainmail has a 30% chance to hit--15+ on a d20. Using ability checks as a substitute for an actual skill system, a guy with average Dexerity has a ~55% chance to jump across a chasm. The complaint can come out through experience--the last AD&D game I ran, I converted the thief skills into roll-high on a d20, and the thief got really frustrated with constantly failing at his thiefitude[2]--but I don't see the same kind of initial impression of incompetence that a WFRP or a BRP character can generate.

Typically, percentile systems I've seen handle this by changing the base for a roll. If a character has climb 45%, then that's not their chance to climb a brick wall under a sunny cloudless sky, it's their chance to climb it in the rain. A sunny cloudless sky adds a 20% bonus, and maybe gale-force winds would subtract 20%. But again turning to Google, you find that in practice a lot of people don't do that, and so complaints about character incompetence mounts. In Dark Heresy, they even had to expand the range of possible bonuses up to 60% in the errata and note that the general difficulty is actually Challenging, so Average tasks should be rolled with a 10% bonus. Obviously, that's not a super-elegant way of dealing with the problem.

I personally fixed this in WFRP by letting people pick the 10s and 1s on percentile dice after they roll, which turns the normal linear distribution of percentile dice into my beloved bell curve and stops the whiff. That does have it's own problems, though--the most obvious being that it's not a "percentile system" anymore because a 50% on the sheet is actually more like a ~75% chance to succeed. There's also a weird stepped progression system: for example, going from 50 to 54 doesn't improve your odds at all, because you could already switch the dice (50->05, 51->15, etc.) so all those numbers are already successes for you. One could make the argument that this is realistic, since people tend to hit certain skill levels, plateau there for a while, and then jump up to a new one instead of improving linearly once they've attained the basics[3], but invoking realism in an RPG discussion isn't just opening a can of worms, it's ripping the roof off the worm factory.

Anyway, realizing that the problem was one of presentation for me was a big part of why I stopped hating percentile systems and stopped trying to hack WFRP into some kind of hybrid monstrosity. And also why I sunk a bunch of money into Runequest 6. I still prefer dice pools, but I'm much more in the camp of "different tools for different game types" now.

[1]: One thing I really do like about Call of Cthulhu is that it uses skills like this to provide character information. For example, you'll have a cultist stat block that says something like: "Skills: Pistol 39%, Fist 60%, Dodge 65%, Laugh Maniacally 50%, Persuade 25%, Credit Rating 20%, Function in Normal Life 05%." Obviously some of those will never be rolled and probably don't exist anywhere else in the game, but it's a great way of telling you information about that NPC.
[2]: And now I wonder if this would have happened if I had left them as percentages. Does 20% chance of Hide in Shadows cause more negative reactions than Hide in Shadows 17+? It does for me even though I know they're the same if I take a moment to think about it, but for other people?
[3]: As can easily be demonstrated with my own Japanese ability. Grr. (>_<)
dorchadas: (Great Old Ones)
I was going to do more on the subject of sandbox vs. plotted games, but I can't organize my thoughts properly, so this one goes first.

One thing I often say about my GMing style is that every game I run turns into a horror game regardless of what it started out as. But that's just based on the fact that I like Lovecraft and like including cosmicism, the insignificance of humanity, vanished pre-human races, and creepy monsters with tentacles, not really based on the mood my games are trying to evoke.

The problem is that invoking a horror mood, as opposed to just using horror tropes, is really hard and almost entirely relies on player buy-in. In a passive medium, it's easier to evoke the kind of dread that horror requires because the narrative is entirely under the control of the author, but that's not the case in most RPGs. The addition of the dice means that it's harder to maintain a consistent feel, barring GM intervention. Sometimes the axe murderer gets a lucky hit. Sometimes the player gets a lucky hit. In a book, it's easy to put the protagonist in continuous danger without actually killing them, making you worry about their safety and thus invoking the connection that actual horror requires.

To demonstrate what I mean, here's an example the other way. One of the inspirations for Delta Green was that John Tynes played a game of the infamously-deadly Call of Cthulhu campaign Masks of Nyarlathotep in university and...well, it was infamously deadly. So deadly that they went through all the various family and friends of the original characters who could have reasonably gone to investigate what happened and started bringing in people on the street and random guys they found in bars. They basically zerg rushed Nyarlathotep with such luminaries as Backwash McJesus and his brother Bastard, two hobos the PCs randomly found on the street and later roped into saving the world. I think it was a triple-digit death toll by the end.

In essence, horror without an investment all too easily becomes farce. Then again, that's pretty true of roleplaying in general.

Assuming you have that investment, though, there are still better and worse ways to go about it.

Examples
By far the best system I've seen for representing madness is the Madness Meters that I've mentioned before, but while they work just fine for a modern-day occult horror game like Unknown Armies or the excellent Delta Green, they make much less sense for a fantasy game--even a dark fantasy one. Penalizing adventurers for killing people or stealing things or seeing weird monsters might work okay in some kind of meta-game about how adventurers are crazy because no sane person would come out of a underground cavern system laden with enough treasure to set them up for life, only to walk to the Mages Guild, blow it all on even sharper swords that go *ting* and armor that glows, and then go back underground, but for a typical fantasy game about hardass murderhobos it's not that great. That cuts out the Violence, Unnatural, and Self gauges right there and doesn't leave much of the meat left.

Ravenloft is pretty clearly a topical example. I'm only familiar with the second edition version, but there are three different mechanics there: Fear, Horror, and Madness Checks. Fear is when the ghost jumps out and shrieks in your face, horror is when you hear children laughing in the decrepit old mansion, and madness is pretty obvious. Failing Fear checks makes you have a short-term freakout, and failing Horror or Madness Checks have long-term consequences. Horror can give penalties on Fear Checks, and Madness is CoC-style with permanent disorders. That's workable, if a bit tailored to the heavily Gothic overtones that Ravenloft has.

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay has something similar, though it's oriented differently. Fear Tests give you a dice penalty if you fail them but don't constrain the PC's actions, Terror Tests make you run if you fail them, and Insanity Tests give you insanity points. Anyone who hits 6 IPs needs to make Willpower Tests to avoid getting a disorder, and if they stave it off until 12 IPs, they automatically get one. After a Disorder, IPs go down to zero and the counter starts up again.

Call of Cthulhu, of course, has its Sanity system that are basically mental hit points. Lose too many at once and you freak out.

Dread is one of those new-fangled indie games, but it's the only game I've seen that has an mechanic that directly invokes apprehension. Take a Jenga tower. When you do something dangerous in game, pull out a block. If the tower falls, your character dies at the end of the scene. It wouldn't work for a hexcrawling fantasy game, but it is a mechanic that perfectly does what it's designed to do.

Finally, this isn't really a rules example, but the entire reason level draining exists in D&D is to make undead actually scary on a metagame level. I'm sure everyone's familiar with players treating all monsters as bags of HP and special powers regardless of their appearance or capabilities, but if they can suck out your levels? That's scary. Undead being immune to morale served a similar function back when battles were PCs + hirelings vs. tons of monster and most battles lasted until one side broke and ran, but undead always fought to the last.

Implementation
Honestly, I'm tempted to just rip off the WFRP system. I like the idea of encouraging a sense of creeping horror à la the Ravenloft mechanic, but I actually think that giving it mechanical weight works against that in the worst way. Horror, as I said above, is more of a mood thing determined by investment in the situation and the characters, and attempting to induce it mechanically just draws attention to the artificiality of the game and works against the end goal.

But fear is easily represented, especially stealing the Conditions I mentioned from my social post. Fail a Fear Check, and you get a choice--run away, cower, Conan-style berzerk rage to wipe out the unnatural, etc. Maybe penalties if different options are chosen, like automatically gaining an Insanity Point if you go berzerk but hey, you can fight the monster from beyond.

I'm currently leaning towards using this system I'm thinking up to run Sun and Storm, since my other idea of sword-and-sorcery Romans in the jungle would be better served by Runequest, and using fear/insanity there would fit perfectly, since the game is about a civilizational collapse after being conquered by an army of the undead. Though oddly, the original game has no sanity or fear mechanics. I'd think that having to fight your friends and family who now serve the Storm Legion is way more psychologically damaging, even to the generic adventurer, than fighting goblins.

Wait, who am I kidding. Everyone knows that murderhobos don't have family or friends.

Anyway, Fear Checks and escalating insanity points, resisted with Willpower. Simply, nonintrusive, and it already works in another game system.
dorchadas: (Pile of Dice)
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That was a lot. I think I'll end it here. If I have any more thoughts about it, I'll obviously write another post. Otherwise, next up will be social mechanics. (^_^)v

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