Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Zilch's first alpha test

Just finished the first Zilch play-test. Played with B. online using OpenRPG, so it doesn't quite capture the full experience, but it probably tested the mechanics well enough.

B. created a character named Max, a human cleric (Death) / fighter: 11♦ 9♥ 10♣ 6♠. Max knows 1 rune (since we were focusing on the combat system): E.

To provide a little backdrop, I used my rough-draft/in-progress fantasy-western setting, Columbia. Max is trying to break into the underground bloodsport competitions in New York City. He approaches a tavern keeper at the Frog and Bean to sponsor him in the local tavern fights, which Max has heard is the first step into the illegal bloodsports.

As an audition, Max spars with the Frog and Bean's bouncer, Anders. This was a basic trading of blows, with Max's magic saving the day, bringing Anders to his knees.

The first fight of the actual competition didn't go quite so well, though it was very close. Max managed to blind his opponent with some kicked sand, though Max was caught in a flailing grapple in the same move. Although Max escaped the eventual pin, he lost consciousness before he could deal the last 2HPs of damage to his opponent.

The fights were a bit tedious... but then such turn-based trading of blows usually is. Overall, things were pretty balanced--Max held his own and dodged well enough, considering his paltry 6♠ was up against some 10 and 11 ♣. The Threatened mechanic worked pretty nicely, I think (as an alternative to numeric penalties).

B had some good minor suggestions, such as call stance and draw a domino, but don't actually reveal all the dominoes until everyone has called their stance. Also considered some sort of cleave/extra attack option for the fighter.

As GM, I often found myself waiting for B. to roll... when no roll was required! The dominoes were already on the table. With practice, the mental math will probably go a little faster.

While it probably went about 2x as fast as an equivalent D&D combat, it still had the same tedious turn-based feel. I guess that can be a good thing or bad, depending on your game preferences. I think my part of my DMing angst comes from a need to generally work on my DMing skills, rather than the underlying gaming system.

We'll see where Zilch goes from here...

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

z20 Reviewed

For nearly three years now, I have had a love-hate codependent relationship with D&D. In short, I can't live with it, but I can't seem to live without it, either. When I come back to it after a break, I feel rejuvinated and excited by this old comfortable friend I know so well. But after a couple weeks, all the old irritants come back, and I'm driven away to some other gaming system thread... until I eventually come crawling back again.

I have come to think of "z20" as describing the history of this abusive relationship, including all my attempts to change d20 (rather than love it the way it is). It includes Drudge, mini20, d20house, etc.

Hyperbole aside, it is time to review z20 (again) to see what I'm trying to get out of it. What is my goal here? Is z20 meant to be a simple tweak of d20? A conversion of d20? Or a whole new system simply inspired by d20? I'm hoping that, if I can decide what I want out of it, I can then move past the tensions it's causing in my design work.

z20 is not meant be a whole new system--though it often seems to drift in that direction. There are other existing systems I could use if that was my goal. But instead I want to retain all my existing d20 content. Basically, I'm too invested, with hours and years of learning and a number of existing storylines and worlds defined in terms of D&D. I can't easily let it all go. (I would say zilch has been strongly inspired by d20, but compatiblity was never a concern there, and so zilch is largely separate from z20... except that now it is starting to feed ideas back to into z20.)

But z20 is not a simple tweak, either. It has gone too far for that. I've tried to throttle things to back to this level as d20house--which approximates a relatively normal level of house rules or the degree of changes made by Pathfinder.

So, if z20 is more than just a tweak, but not a completely separate and independent system, that means it's a conversion. It is a kind of bastardization: no longer the old d20 system, but not a new truly system with a life of its own either.

Other such hybrid/conversion systems already exist--such as True20 fantasy or Microlite20 (both of which have served as inspiration). So why not just play these then?

Mainly, because I don't feel the conversion goes far enough to capture all the content. Microlite20 actually caused the revival of z20 and serves as its core. But, while it simplifies characters--attributes, skills, feats, etc--it doesn't simplify the rest: conditions, special abilities, spells, magic items, monsters. This is frequently a problem: a d20 conversion system essential streamlines the first half the Player's Handbook, but neglects to do the same for the second half (the spells) or the other two core books.

And, I've come to realize, it's not really the character sheet that's my problem. Yes, it takes a long time to develop a character. But 1) this is usually fun in and of itself and 2) this is relatively minor investment in terms of a campaign that will take months or even years to play all the way through. Simpler characters really only help for one-off games or similar quick start situations with new players.

Instead, my problem is with the modifiers, the numbers to track, all the little details that are going on during play: basically, the reason it so often takes 3 hours to play through two minutes of combat. And this is not easy to simplify because of how entangled all these rules are. Monsters rely on all the special ability rules and spell-like abilities; spells rely on the possible character conditions; the combat rules inform spells and conditions and feats. Simply touching one of these systems ripples through all the others.

Another insight I've had is that a "conversion" is a temporary state, not a finished system. If the conversion is not completed, then it is simply an elaborate tweak--which is worse than the original system in terms of quick use. Even if the conversion ultimately simplifies the rules, it must still be applied on the fly. Each rule lookup now requires the DM do the lookup in d20... and then apply the conversion (hopefully without also having to look up the conversion rule). This is why I prefer finished system documents where all lookups need to be directed to only a single resource.

But, if I apply the necessary conversions throughout the system, I end up with a new system! Any additional d20 material must undergo the same conversion to be used. Furthermore, this is a massive undertaking. I'd have to touch every monster and the over 600 spells in the core rulebooks. While I've thought that some of this could be automated, it is really just not worth the effort. This much effort could instead be spent loosely converting existing material into a completely new/alternate system.

In short, keeping z20 compatible with d20 is only useful if the content can all still be used without conversion. But, since all the rules are form an interdependent system, more than a few tweaks breaks the system or makes it a new, incompatible game.

I've now slept on this, and I think the conclusion is clear. z20 is essentially a new game system, but it does not offer enough new or exciting differences from d20 to make it worth a lone-man translation of all the core content. I can think of z20 as Zludge for d20: an assortment of modular rules, sort of like Unearthed Arcana on steriods. As such, much of the work I've done could rollover into any future work I do on a new fantasy or generic rules-heavy RPG.

But I think my time and effort would be better served by searching for (or even developing) a new system unfettered by vague d20 "compatibility" or "equivalence" constraints. I could then translate only the necessary content of my world--a handful of characters--rather than all the d20 core content.

Therefore, my current plan is to shelve z20 indefinitely. I may be able to use the work for later Zludge Prime efforts. In the mean time, I'll play my existing d20 lines through to their ends (or at least to a good conversion point) as d20. I'll probably still poke at zilch, since that has a neat boardgame aspect to it. But, between d20 and zilch, I don't see a real need for a third fantasy RPG in my life. My game system design efforts would be better spent elsewhere.

For the curious: This is where z20 stands now.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Recent Threads

The spring semester is drawing to a close. It's been a busy one, with me actually focusing on my dissertation/implementation for a change. Sadly, this has meant less time for gaming. I hope to continue implementing into the summer, so there probably won't be too much of a gaming resurgence for a while. But, despite a grading backlog to still get through this week, the coming summer has stirred me to look through my various gaming threads once more:

d20: I've been brushing off d20house and my Tellurian Tales characters and trying to get back into d20 again. The two players I actually have await me in two other D&D storylines. So I'd really like to get out of my current d20 doldrums.

In brushing off my characters, I'm reminded once more of the huge "character creation" side of D&D. As I was explaining to S., it has some of the same draw as Magic: The Gathering: There is a collection of different abilities that can be combined to form awesome combos. And, thanks to WotC's prolific publishing schedule, the library of possible components constantly expands. So there's this draw to familiarize myself with all the possible components and then flesh-out the "perfect" combos in accordance with some initial character (or deck) concept.

While this is still fun, sometimes of late I find it a bit tedious. Specifically, prestige classes annoy me. Many are close to what I want but none are "just right". So I've been designing a couple custom classes--but, since there's no real mechanic for this, it tends to take me hours of thought.

Caligo: I poke at this occasionally and I'm quite happy with how it's coming along. So far it's staying pretty simple, which is good. I have a few different one-off story ideas I want to try... someday.

Dark Heresy: A break-thru here in that this week I decided to drop my Zludge translation of this. While I'm sure the work already done on this will inform eventual Zludge Prime work, I decided to just leave Dark Hersey as it is.... because it's actually quite a nice system, especially now that I've come to appreciate some of the advantages of a roll-under die mechanic. I have lots of story ideas here, and I'd like to move into some serious campaigns with this once my d20 lines end. So I'm trying to shelve it again until then (and focus back on my d20 threads!).

zilch: I was thinking about this yesterday and this morning. I was refocusing on it's mission: a boardgame-like dungeon-crawling RPG. Some elements of it--such as the spell system--I think could be used elsewhere (like in z20). But I really need to get back to a boardgame sort of focus. This morning, I started sketching out stuff on that: particularly, how I might generate a story/dungeon on the fly so no pre-game GM planning is required--only some (potentially collaborative) refereeing. We'll see where this goes...

z20: Now I'm turning my eye to z20 once again... that old sore tooth that I can't stop poking.

[I apologize to my readers that my blog is so often a review of threads or a whining reiteration of the same points over and over again, but this blog is really sort of my gaming journal. This is where I come when I need to record (or, frequently, reaffirm once again) some gaming insight or goal.]

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Too Many Systems, Too Many Settings

I'm back today to re-read my New Year's resolutions. It seems I've strayed from the path.

The big two projects of the past couple months (aside from working on my dissertation implementation more than in the past) has been zilch and Caligo.

zilch (which deserves a better name, but stands for "Zach's Implementation Lies Cold & Hoary") is what the domino die mechanic idea turned into. It's a sort of board-game-style dungeon crawling RPG. It's actually pretty sweet. You represent characters with 4 playing cards (one of each suit), roll d6s for skills, use dominoes for an exchange/stance-based combat, track details with poker chips, and use Scrabble tiles to track and cast magic spells.

Yes, I finally have a decent Scrabble-based magic system! This time I started with the ~600 D&D spells and distilled them down to 26 schools/tiles, rather than starting with the noun/verb approach of most rune-based system. Tiles are often still combined to produce the more powerful spells, though.

Anyway, the intention of zilch is to have a lite, "paperless" play style for one-off dungeon crawls or short campaigns.

Caligo (the Latin word for misty darkness) started a week or so ago when I got a free PDF version of World of Darkness from a DriveThruRPG sale. While overall I found WoD to be yet another standard, solid, reliable table-top RPG system, there were a few little rule nuggets that intrigued me. I started putting together ideas from DRYH, QAGS, etc, pulling together a very lite, narrative-focused system for descents into darkness.

As you can see, I've drifted from my goal of "no new threads."

In other news, today I bought a Warhammer Fantasy Grotek and Felix omnibus. These stories are good fun! As I've mentioned before, I often get overwhelmed in the bookstore: so many great stories, so many worlds! How do I play them all? How do I build something better myself?

Upon waking from my nap, I realized I don't have to. As GM, we often rely on pre-packaged adventure scenarios. Why don't I allow myself to expand the use of such aids to include other creative works? There's all these great adventure short stories out there--recently Conan, Elric, and Grotek & Felix for me. What's wrong with "borrowing" those? Or maybe blending a couple together? Roleplaying is not a public presentation; it's a private, intimate sharing of tales. If my player's haven't read the stories themselves, the ideas are new to them.

I know this is certainly not a new insight. In fact, I'm sure I've read it a number of times in DM advice chapters: take ideas from your favorite shows or books! But I guess today I was ready for it, open to the idea that I am really only obligated to provide a fun afternoon for myself and my player(s), not produce a whole new creative vision for the world.

And this insight spills over into the rule design too. I'm getting overwhelmed here too. There are so many systems out there when you look past the handful of large publishers. And each one has some novel, intriguing aspect to offer. Yet there is no way to combine all these little gems, because each works because of it's home system. Lately I've been coming to appreciate even the advantages of different die mechanics. So many cool things are possible with only certain die mechanics; yet, each also has its drawbacks. But, in the end, you have to pick only one of them and play it.

It seems we all want, to some varying extent, to produce our own system: to tweak, to touch, to make the rules we play by our own. But, taken to excess (as I am always wont to do), this becomes divisive, producing a babel of systems so that players cannot move from game to game because each requires its own system. Obviously, there is a balance here. There must always be a bazaar of ideas and system options available; but it can be hard to decide to work towards system harmony and synthesis, rather than just throwing out one more discordant voice.

So, once more, I come here to put in writing: I need to focus my efforts on what I already have going!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Domino-based Combat Mechanic

I currently own two sets of dominoes. Every time I reach over them to get to some of my other gaming supplies, I think, "Surely I could use these for some RPG-related purpose!" Well, today I woke up from a nap with just such an idea: using dominoes as combat rolls.

This mechanic would work best for a simple exchange-based combat system. Each player draws a domino, orients it horizontally, and then flips it face-up. Just like a Magic: The Gathering creature card, the value on the left side is the offensive attack modifier (power) and the value on the right is the defensive or armor modifier (toughness).

As a further option, each player can declare an offensive or defensive stance before flipping the domino over. If offensive, they rotate the domino so the higher of the two values is on the left/attack side. Similarly, for a defensive stance the larger value should be moved to the right. (Actually, this should perhaps be the standard procedure so as to avoid any questions about some players' flipping technique, since the pips on a domino can sometimes be felt while the domino is still face down.)

Of course, each domino end gives a +0 to +6 modifier. Or, at the expense of a little -3 math, a linear progression from -3 to +3 (including 0). Doubles could perhaps allow for some special effect--such as the option to use a certain feat or combat stunt.

I'm not quite sure where I want to use this mechanic yet, but I quite like it--especially for an exchange-based combat system where each character is supposed to "roll" only once per round/exchange. For melee combat, this works pretty well using a single die roll--the higher roll between two combatants deals damage to the lower. However, things can get a bit fuzzier with ranged combat, multiple combatants, or when you'd like the option of two combatants injuring each other in the same round. This domino approach still means only one "roll", but you conveniently get two values. Very slick! Can't wait to try it somewhere...

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Die Mechanic Flavors

Yesterday on the bus I started mentally comparing Dark Heresy's roll-under d100 die mechanic to that of Zludge's 2dF. In particular, I was curious how much such a conversion would affect the percentage likelihood of success in different situations. But I came to realize that this is too low-level of a comparison. Instead, it's more important to consider the assumptions behind a mechanic and the resulting "flavor" that it imparts.

Here's what I mean in terms of 4 different die mechanics I've been working with lately:

d20: linear skill variation. Here, the die roll just provides a random bonus to the skill. The average d20 roll is about 10 (10.5, actually), so against a DC of 10+skill, there's about a 50% chance of success or failure. If using critical success (natural 20) or critical failure (natural 1) rules, there's a 5% chance (for each one) each roll, regardless of the character's skill level. Because the roll distribution is linear, you are just as likely to roll at the extremes of the range (+10 or -10) as you are at the character's actual skill (+0).

Zludge: curved skill variation. As for d20, this just provides a bit of randomness centered on the character's skill level. However, a curved roll distribution is weighted towards the skill level: there's a 33% chance of rolling +0 on 2dF, but only an 11% chance of rolling +2. If +0 is sufficient to succeed, this gives a 66% success rate.

I feel this curve limits some of the "gambling" flavor of d20, especially since the range of possible roll values is so small. It's almost like playing diceless--it's unlikely you'll get very "lucky" with a roll. But this goes the other way too: it's more unlikely you'll fail miserably just due to a bad roll. Instead, you have to intelligently play based on your character's skill level.

Dark Heresy: linear roll-under. Here, you roll d100 and roll under your skill value. The degree of success is determined by just how far under you roll. Thus, as your skill level increases, so does both the likelihood of success and the possible degree of success.

In Dark Heresy, the average skill starts at about 30, so this gives only a 30% success rate (though this can be modified based on the circumstances; it seems DH's default curve center-point is for a pretty challenging task). Since the distribution is linear, each skill improvement gives the same return: +5 skill increases your chance of success by 5%, regardless of whether you purchase the increase at a low or high skill level.

Assuming few characters ever achieve the max skill level of 100, there is always a chance of failure on a roll. It feels that your fate is controlled much more by chance with this mechanic: your skill only sways the likelihood of success, but there are no guarantees here. Every roll is a gamble. (I actually like QAGS's "the Price is Right" spin on the linear roll-under mechanic a little better, but it produces the same results.)

GURPS: curved roll-under. As a roll-under system, this too seems to have a bit more of a gambling feels. For example, you're just as likely to roll an 18 on 3d6 when you have a skill of 8 as you do with a skill of 16. However, since the distribution is curved, at least most rolls will be centered around 10.5. The chance of rolling an 18 is only 1/216. Skill increases at higher levels provide increasingly limited returns.

After considering these differences, I think I am correct in going with the Zludge die mechanic, since that is the flavor I want in my games. As applied to Dark Heresy, this may reduce the "grittiness" a bit. However, I do still plan to try QAGS a bit, to see if my expectations for a linear roll-under system really do bear true.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

New Year's resolutions

The past few months have been rather slow with the gaming as I've been busy with my PhD work. Now the pressure is really on to finish that up this Spring semester. So it looks like the RPGing will be scanty for the next 6 months or so. However, since it's my addiction, it's unlikely to be completely non-existent...

And on a related note, I was in the bookstore a couple days ago, flipping through RPG books and settings. Though I was intrigued by a few setting images, I realized that I really could fit some of these into my existing worlds. For example, there's the whole "jungle filled with vine-covered temple ruins where savage lizardmen worship dark gods yet lost laser guns can still be found" milieu. I realized such a planet could easily be placed in a Warhammer 40k universe (along with a separate Shadowrun-like hive city planet, etc.). Similarly, such a jungle (sans laser guns, perhaps; though with Magic Missile wands available) already exists in the extreme south of Tellure. So I don't need to build a whole new campaign to run an adventure or two in these worlds.

So, with these two insights in mind, I'm figuring out which of my many threads are important enough to keep open, and which should be shelved for now.

Rule systems [OPEN]

These two are merging somewhat, as z20 becomes complex enough to support d20 PCs. In short, I can run z20 rules as DM while players are still working in d20. The core of z20 is pretty close to done, though. That's good! And I'd like the combat system--particularly possible actions in combat, etc--to (mostly) mirror Zludge Prime. It's already close, so that should reduce duplicated work between these two threads.

Dark Heresy/Zludge Prime
I'm converting DH a bit, and using it as the basis of what I want Zludge Prime to be. I need to decide if I want to play it with its own d% mechanic for a while, or some QAGS-like variant, or straight Zludge 2dF. But this should eventually become my heavy-weight simulation-gaming system.

I just downloaded the QAGS quick-start last month and it seems pretty cool. I'd like to play around with it a bit (as is only; no tweaks for now!) with a few one-offs adventures.

Along with one-off games, I'd like to explore this way of generating stories on the fly.

Rule systems [CLOSED]

This primarily means finishing the narrative-based combat system I've started. But I also need to figure out how exactly Huffy varies from Fluffy.

This too needs to be clarified.

Zludge Prime, Fluffy, Huffy, (and even z20 to some extent), distilled into modular rules and a collection of GM tools. Is this still worth doing?

System reading backlog
I have a number of free and quick-start PDFs downloaded, nearly all gaming/simulationist in nature. Most of these boil down to essentially the same thing: a collection of attributes/skills/feats to define PCs, a die mechanic, and a list of combat moves. In the process of clarifying Zludge (above), it'd be good to skim through these for more comparisons and ideas to filch.

Campaigns [OPEN]

S.'s line. Decent testing ground for z20.

B.'s line. The place for d20house (though it may become more z20 behind the screen).

Tellurian Tales
My original, primary line. I'd like to get back to some solo play on this again. It's been way too long... Should perhaps be a d20 PC test-bed for z20, with a focus on story. (Now that I've got the d20 rules down, I'm finding solo combat to be rather tedious...)

(Warhammer 40k)
This is my own tweak/compilation of Dark Heresy and Rogue Trader. The story has only be slightly sketched so far, so more notes, sketches, or even testing solo one-offs would be good. (However, real play should not start until after the dissertation or one of the other campaign threads closes!)

If they truly are one-session games... (but see below).

Campaigns [CLOSED]

Interludes & Ailithorn & (solo Planescape)
Shelve these solo Tellurian strains for now. The Planescape Gith monk thing is meant to be preparation for Dragonwars after the end of RHoD, but that'll be months yet, so don't worry about it now.

Columbia: Fantasy in the New World
This started as a "D&D western" idea, but has expanded to include Carribean pirates, lost Atlanteans, and dark jungle ruins in the jungles of South America. But, as mentioned, versions of these things could captured in my other settings (at least for now).

Squirrel Attack! & Mouse Guard
I'd like a little anthropomorphic animal action, but I should leave this be for now. The official Mouse Guard RPG looks really good (and a little more narrativist than I'm used to), and so I wouldn't mind reading/owning it at some point though.

I enjoy this system, and have a few ideas on more insomniac stories, as well as other forms of madness (including something along the line of JAGS's Wonderland). But these will keep until after I finish my dissertation...

God's Dogs
Except for the one adventure I already have prepared for B., this is too similiar to Dark Heresy to have a separate campaign (especially right now).

Heavy Metal Atomic Wasteland
Nothing planned in this at the moment anyway.

I think B. needs to take the lead on this one before it'll move ahead.

(As-yet-unforeseen world ideas)
My one-offs rarely stay that way, but tend to become full campaign worlds instead. Beware those! Jot the ideas down, but don't spend more than one writing session on them.

Well, with all that in black-and-white, it seems pretty clear: focus on playing my main/oldest 3 D&D lines. To that end, tweak z20 as necessary. In preparation for the future, play around with Zludge Prime and Warhammer 40k. For lighter gaming, try QAGS and Mythic in some one-offs. Other ideas--whether rules or worlds--should be jotted down for future exploration and expansion, but no new lines should be started for now.