5e total conversions and game balance

On a whim I backed a Kickstarter for a cyberpunk 5e “total conversion”. It got me thinking about how you do deep system balance.

Somewhere there has to be a set of rules – a spreadsheet, a Perl script, something – that TSR and now WotC uses to work out game balance.

There’s back-of-the-envelope stuff in the 5e DMG, buried in the back (the part no one reads, I imagine – but you should, it’s some of the best stuff!). But, it’s very abstract and intended more to just get you into the balance ballpark.

So for example, what I’m wondering about is a small piece of math like:

  1. For every spell level, base damage is 1d10.
  2. automatic hits drop damage to d8 per level
  3. for every 3 point save DC interval above 10, add +1 to damage

And so on. Some sort of balance algorithm.

A friend of mine tried once to reverse engineer this; he had a Perl script and a spreadsheet. He got pretty far into it; mostly enough to decide what he had worked well enough for his own games. Whatver math didn’t work out, he’d just eyeball and improvise in the context of the session.

TSR, WotC, and other D&D publishers don’t get to do that; you can’t improve printed materials. So it stands to reason there’s at least some way to 1)assure balance before press and 2)verify empirically (better than a guess) the balance of submitted materials. Right?

My eternal quest to “fix” D&D

I’ve been playing TTRPGs for, oh, 37 years or something. I was exposed to Tolkien as a child, via the Rankin and Bass movies, and shortly thereafter a trip to a hobby shop exposed me to this strange board (?) game with lead figurines and weird dice and hobbits and dragons.

I was not allowed to play this strange game. Not because of the “Satanic Panic” of the time. Instead, my parents – inveterate spendthrifts – easily spied it as an activity that required money, which to them was far more pernicious and awful.

So I’d go to the hobby shop with my mom – I was, like, 8 – and sit and read the manuals while she shopped for craft supplies.

(I suppose I should explain to any younger readers that at the time, a “hobby shop” often contained a strange mix of what would now be separate Hobby Lobby, comic book, and toy stores. One part of the store was silk flowers, another was model rockets, still another needlepoint and fabric, and then a little corner with D&D books, minis, and paint. Also at the time, my main source of comic books was the grocery store.)

Then, I’d go home, and attempt to transcribe what I’d read into some meaningful semblance of a game. I didn’t have polyhedral dice, so I’d try to work out how to make it all work with the 5 6-siders I’d taken from the family Yahtzee game. I didn’t have minis, either, so I used army men.

It was an exceptionally unplayable game, but having never actually played D&D, I didn’t really know that. It was one of the first time I sat down and tried to create a mechanical system. I was hooked.

I’d eventually go on to play real D&D. I remember one DM thought hobbits only had 1 arm, because they couldn’t wield 2-handed weapons. Another couldn’t figure out THAC0 so he just rolled the first die at hand and made the player guess if the result was odd or even.

Over the years, I’ve probably seen hundreds of homegrown and commercial optional rules for D&D; mostly combat and spell casting, but also weird things like random weather tables and managing ones castle.

D&D is an at times frustrating mix of game and simulation. If you’re into that sort of thing you can do an incredible deep-dive on just what all that means, but if you only want the nickel-tour version: a game lets you survive what looks like dozens of sword blows, falls from a great height, or impacts from massive objects; a simulation carefully details just how incredibly fucking dead you are from just one good sword wound (or, how if you survive it, you lose use of a limb or whatever, in other words, permanently maimed).

The other day I was thinking about how to bolt on a system to core D&D combat that allowed for “glancing blows”; that “hits” should be split into solid and meager hits. The damage system doesn’t really allow for that well; if you have a sword with a magic effect, it fires if you do 1 points of damage or 10. And don’t get me started on armor classes and hit points …

When it suddenly occurred to me. I have a bookshelf (and now, digital one) laden with games systems that aren’t by-God D&D, with often novel mechanics to resolve these and many other “problems” with D&D. It’s not just that we want a particular flavor of fantasy world; we want the mechanical resolution to reflect that world.

I think back to the odd-or-even DM, and how while I was perpetually annoyed at “why bother having a magic sword if it’s all just a 50/50 chance to do anything”, what was fun was not the deep, careful, intellectual manipulation of a mathematical/mechanical system, but the game itself. Suspense, action, chaos, heroism, adventure, and discovery; that was the fun. The fun with maths what just what I did when I wasn’t actually playing D&D with my friends.

So I’ll get these ideas, and think, this would be fun for 5E, but, ugh, hit points. But I think now that’s wrong. Mechanics are fun and important, but should never outweigh the value of the game itself.

Programmers lose sight of the business value of the programs we write, instead thinking about the elegance of the algorithms or the utility of some set of libraries. I think I’ve spent a lot of time losing sight of the game itself by spending my idle time thinking about the simulation.

ICRPG Stress/Sanity: Take 2

The rough draft was a little far afield of the core ICRPG mechanics; it works great as a direct port, but it’s not ICRPG.

So, take 2:

  1. When you take stress, roll vs WIS (base difficulty 12)
  2. if you fail, you take all stress inflicted by the attack.
  3. If you succeed, roll d10 effort. Final “stress damage” is attack – effort.

Loot and other factors may protect against stress, offering a higher effort die.

The 0-100/101-200 scale and rules remain the same as before.

think that fixes the basic mechanic to be closer to ICRPG than before, while retaining the same kind of “attack/resist” system.

ICRPG Sanity Rules (rough draft)

By way of Darkest Dungeon, I drafted out an idea for Sanity rules for ICRPG.

Sanity (aka stress) is a “double scale”, from 0-100 and 101-200. The first segment is “temporary” and the second is “permanent”.

Every time you accumulate stress – even a single point – you roll d%. You want to roll over the new value if your stress scale (meaning, if you have a stress of 25, and you gain 10, you want to roll 35 or higher).

Success means you’re OK; nothing happens. Failure means you gain an affliction. Make a note at which score you gained the affliction; you might want to note it something like “(52) Hydrophobia”.

When your stress goes over 100, things change slight. You still roll to gain afflictions against d% (but on a 1-100 scale, eg stress of 125 equals a target of 25). You do not need to remember the score, though; you can note them something like “(permanent) fear of breakfast”.

Afflictions gained above 100 are permanent. Lowering your stress does not make them go away. At 100 or less, any afflictions are temporary and as soon as your stress level goes under the level at which an affliction was added, it goes away.

You may reduce stress by plain ol’ rest, prayer, carousing or other vices, or some other activity (noted on your character sheet). Rest removes d4 per week, more advanced methods d6. Advanced stress methods may also require coin; if visiting the brothel helps, you gotta pay. You cannot use ALL methods of stress relief; you must chose vice or virtue. Those choosing vice cannot pray to remove stress; those choosing virtue cannot engage in pleasures of the flesh to remove stress. Other methods (eg loot) exist to remove stress and restore sanity.

(You don’t have to pick virtue or vice ahead of time, but once you pick, you’re committed!)

As above, anything gained as permanent cannot be removed through regular methods. It requires loot, coin, or something special to remove afflictions gained as a result of permanent stress.

If your stress level hits 200, you die or go irrevocably insane; your choice.

TODO: List of afflictions.

Modifying Uncharted Worlds ship combat to resemble “The Expanse”

Uncharted Worlds has a Move called “Shields Up”. It’s a pretty simple move to resist damage. But ships in The Expanse don’t have shields. So what the heck do we do?

PDCs to max!
Attempt to shoot down incoming torpedoes; roll 2d6.

On a 10+, you eliminate the most dangerous torpedo attack pending.
On a 7-9, you defeat the incoming attack but the next attack takes -1 (include any previous negatives).
On a 6-, the PDCs have failed to protect and the torpedo hits.

But what about railguns?

Defensive Maneuvers
Roll, pitch, and move along the thrust vector; roll 2d6

On a 10+, you dodge the incoming railgun attack. Yay!
On a 7-9, take half damage.
On a 6-, you take full damage.

OK not exciting, but that’s about all they do in the show.

Alternate skill resolution systems

I was thinking today about different ways to implement a skill system.

The question I asked myself was: how often did I “fail” a “test” at work?

Ok, I get it, developing ecommerce software in Perl is hardly an epic adventure that our PCs regularly face, but there are parallels:

  • A fantasy group haggling with a merchant
  • A scifi group working on fixing the stardrive or whatever
  • A cyberpunk group fencing stolen data

So relative to those sorts of tests, I thought about the Powered by the Apocalypse “success with complications”. That’s pretty interesting, but not quite what I was thinking about.

The mechanic I was envisioning probably exists in many systems: it’s a question of time. How long does a task take to succeed?

This goes back to my thought about work. I rarely failed but some of the time, it took me a considerably longer time to complete the task. Still other times, I had a sudden flash of inspiration or just a solid work day and knocked out whatever was on my plate. Similarly, adding more people to a task often helped (and sometimes hurt – you can’t have 9 women birth a baby in a month).

I think this resolution method applies mostly to professional or vocational skills, not “instant” actions (although, if you’re a professional locksmith …).

Still, something to think about when working out how your PCs tackle a task.

Motivations of the Big Bad

Another thing I think about a lot of the time is the motivations of my Big Bad. I’m running out of ideas for something new.

An example is Justice League. (Spoilers, I guess.) The motivation of Steppenwolf is to find these 3 magic mcguffins, and then use their power to “terraform” the planet into his. (His ecology is apparently lots of fire and yelling, none of those awful plants or animals)

This is really dumb, because it presumes that for some reason there’s not a lot of interesting places to terraform. We’re talking about a universe with both Old and New Gods, and dimensional travel and all sorts of other things, AND probably the Drake Equation. So … why the hell does he even need Earth? Just find a rock in the habitable zone you need, and use the boxes to “clean it up”. No muss, no fuss, and no pesky Atlanteans and Amazons messing with you.

In other words: this is an example of a Big Bad whose motivation is dumb. He’s a garden-variety sadist with a magic McGuffin. That’s boring.

Another funny thing to think about is how any attempt to bring forth some “new dark age” will always end up creating a boring, bureaucratic empire. Your glorious dark legions will run out of things to conquer, and will spend most of their time trying to get those layabouts in the GleepGlorp mountains to pay their goddamned taxes. I mean, what else can happen, once you’re on the throne? What the hell else would happen had Sauron won? He’d have plowed over the gentle agrarian Hobbits in favor of factory farms, and you can’t just kill them all because those Orcs of yours are hungry.

So I’m thinking a lot about the idea of a kind of aging Dark Lord. He conquered the known world with fire and steel and his evil magics, every hero fell before his loathsome might. But now, it’s a thousand years later. The players take the role of higher-ups in his regime. They have to deal with all sorts of unusual problems: reports of a rebellion (turns out it’s just a play, but the regime refuses to listen – and wants the “rebels” exterminated), politics (those pesky taxes and the functionaries who collect them), and what happens when your death-dealing shock troops run out of enemies. As a kind of complication, the players may work for a kind of Chaotic Evil regime but they themselves are not really evil at all.

It might get boring, or it might be hilarious. I can’t decide.

It’s the end of the world as we know it

Post-apocalyptic settings are numerous in RPGs: here’s a good feature on quite a few of them.

They mostly feature the “fun stuff”: mutants, dungeon crawls, weird tech, a nuclear war, and so on. Something awful happened; the world changed; I need to dress in leather, chains, and old tires, and fight to survive against waves of bloodmurder fuckvikings.

Rebuilding the “world that was” is a central theme to a few of them: The Morrow Project, for example, and in a roundabout way, Traveller: The New Era.

One of the themes I don’t see explored, and wish I could, is the idea of emptiness. How do you build and populate a meaningful game world that is empty, and cold, and lifeless, and barren?

Without the requisite bloodmurder fuckvikings (or whatever) is it just a series of “collect food and clean water” skill checks, until you die? Could all that emptiness be turned into a kind of meta-mystery?

ICRPG: nearly perfect

So I picked up ICRPG a while ago, but haven’t had the time to really sit down and digest it. I’m pretty peeved I didn’t, because it’s amazing.

ICRPG can be thought of as 3 things:

  1. a broad methodology for tabletop gaming (“the index card method”)
  2. a set of rules, suited to but not required for, the above
  3. a bunch of actual gaming (tabletop and online) assets for #1

The rules itself are solid: a roll-over, d20, bonus-based minimalist system. If you’re used to a system like 5E or Pathfinder, you’re going to be a little lost – ICRPG has very little in terms of rules, preferring to let the basic mechanics and group decisions drive everything.

It also assumes you have a fair amount of existing material to adapt; there are plenty of good spell lists in 5E, after all.

Players/groups who expect great detail are going to be disappointed: there’s a basic “everything does the same damage” system, for example (shared by the brilliant WFRP). I consider it a feature, but some will see a bug.

The “index card method” is another great idea. In brief, it tries to bridge the gap between highly detailed tactical play and purely abstract theatre-of-the-mind. In my opinion it succeeds perfectly. Perfect foot-by-foot maneuvering and range calculation slows down gameplay in any group that’s not already committed to wargaming.

You can break down a large area into “sectors”, you can represent groups occupying said sectors, and still have “champions” and individuals occupying space. It works really well!

The art design and quality of the materials is excellent. I can see the argument that the art style may not be your thing – it’s kind of abstract – but I dig it and I think it’s really, really good value for the money. (If you want extremely detailed and specifically designed art, it’s going to cost you!)

Anyway, it’s really good and worth a look, especially at the price. http://www.runehammergames.com/index.html

A review: Dungeon Fantasy (powered by GURPS)

On the surface, Dungeon Fantasy (hereafter, DF) is pretty simple:

  1. Take GURPS
  2. Remove anything not relevant to a generic fantasy milieu
  3. Remove anything that’s not, well, generic
  4. Streamline and simplify any rules you have left
  5. Bundle together a bunch of stuff into generic fantasy tropes (e.g. a “bard” class)

As they point out, the entire game is fewer words than Volume 1 of 4E. When I say “remove” or “simplify”, I mean it.

Most of it is easily and quickly recognizable as GURPS; the edit job is very good. Anyone with a few games of GURPS under their belt will quickly and easily make sense of it all. The streamlining is also very good, so people who were intimidated by GURPS will have no trouble picking things up.

It makes you ask the question, though: who is this for?

Experienced GURPS gamers have little need for a generic rules-light fantasy game.

[Sidebar: I struggled over the term ‘rules-light’. Even in its slimmed-down form, DF has more rules than what usually passes for rules light in the latter half of 2017. That said, compared to GURPS is practically Apocalypse World, so maybe rules-light is the best descriptor.]

A very experienced GURPS group might be doing something like a big custom setting with massive customization. GURPS makes one-shots very difficult. If nothing else just telling everyone the parameters for character creation can take a ton of effort! DF takes all that and lets you do simple exploration/dungeon crawl fantasy games.

Inexperienced gamers in search of more crunch but hesitating to take the plunge into the very heavy game system of GURPS will benefit from the simpler rules, that they can later switch to if it pleases them.

Overall, I like it, but I’m uncertain just how much staying power it has compared to a full-fledged GURPS game. Once you’ve run a few one-shots and leveled up a few characters, what then?

Edited to add: I forgot to mention a couple of points. First, production design and quality are as you’d expect from SJGames: really good. The books have a somewhat minimal style with good (but not great) art. The text is clear and readable, “scannable”, and everything is indexed and easy to find.

Second, the more I think about it, the more I like it. My initial “what then”, the more I think about it, gives way to an organic “sandbox” style of gaming instead of the big, up-front games we’re used to. Maybe that’s good.