Thursday, 6 June 2019

Silent Titans Review


Silent Titans is the latest adventure module written by Patrick Stuart, delightfully illustrated by Dirk Detweiler Leichty and published by Jacob Hurst.

The game was Kickstarted in December last year (2018), and is now available in print and pdf. I backed this as soon as it became available. I’d like to think I backed it based on the prestige of its creators in the OSR community, but if I’m honest I think it’s the art that sold me. Rightly so I’d say, I mean just look at it…

Digital images don't easily convey how bold and colourful this is in person.

This stuff would not be out of place hanging in on my wall or in an art gallery, even the maps look this good! Before we get into the content though, let’s start with a quick overview of the physical product that was delivered..

The Product


The book is near identical to the mock-ups displayed on the Kickstarter page, which in itself is an impressive feat. This is even more impressive because the book is just such a beautiful object to behold. Jacob has spared no expense in making this thing top quality, and it pays off in spades with the bright and bold colours in Dirk’s work.

The book sits flat on the table, uses thick, high quality paper, and fully utilises its inside covers. Even the dust jacket has a search the body table and a gorgeous map of one of the dungeons of Wir-Heal on the inside.


If your splashing out on the book, I would recommend getting the bonus pack too if you can. It includes a map book and a booklet of cut-out minis (yes a battle maps and minis in an OSR artsy game). Also a bunch of index card character sheets for the Into the Odd rules, a bookmark with most of those rules on it, and some stickers, all as good a quality as the book itself. The minis are very thick cardstock, the battle maps are thick glossy paper and everything is as vibrantly colourful as the book itself. Absolutely A+ job from Jacob here, I cannot praise it enough.

Everyone likes a few goodies!

What little I can fault is fairly nit-picky. The front map appears to be missing some labels. I’m unsure if this is intentional as something of a player map, but as the pdf isn’t missing those labels I suspect it may be a mistake. Not a huge issue, but it is slightly inconvenient when these things are referenced in the text. The Map book is staple bound, and while will sit flat with a little bending, it's not perfect for using with paper minis. What may have been nicer is simply each map printed as a poster, and folded together. The bonus pack comes in an envelope anyway to hold it all. But none of this can take away from the shear beauty of what has been produced here.

The Content


Now let's take a look at what’s inside. At time of writing, I haven’t run Silent Titans as is. I have run one of its dungeons as a one shot however, so I have a feel for the game.

The Rules & Characters


The game is pitched as “…a bizarre nightmare adventure setting … built to run on the ultra-light Into The Odd rules”. What this means is the game provides stats, challenges and effects for the Into the Odd rules by Chris McDowell. These  “ultra-light” rules are based largely on D&D so converting everything  to something like 5th Edition D&D could be done on the fly without much trouble, though your mileage may vary.

What wouldn’t be such a simple job would be converting it’s pre-generated characters. These are a part of the Into the Odd rules, whereby a character’s randomly rolled stats determine what equipment and abilities they get. Silent Titans takes this one step further and this also determines your name and rough personality. This is an interesting choice, one that certainly helps fit player characters neatly into the setting. Each character is very distinct, and Patrick states; “Anything not specified you can make up yourself.”


This is the first of many design choices that run contrary to conventional OSR wisdom, but I like it. I think is speeds up an element of the game that is usually quite slow and challenging for some players. This does make Silent Titans much harder to drop in to an existing campaign however, though considering how the rest of this game is written, I think that’s probably intentional.  We will get into this later, but suffice to say for now, If you’re going to run a Silent Titans game, it’s certainly most effective to use all the included rules.

The rest of these rules are presented in the mechanics of the dungeons, environments and NPC factions. They mostly consist of telling you which stat to use for saves, something a GM could make a judgment call on themselves, should they be using another system.


Everything else comes in the form of narrative or roleplay effects. Things that affect a character’s senses, damage over time effects or things that affect character memory. None of these are really defined explicitly by Into the Odd, which makes the majority of the supplement fairly system agnostic. Whole dungeon’s, locations and factions could be pulled out and run in any system without much trouble. A lot of the mechanics are neat, and I can certainly see them producing some pretty fun situations to play out. Certainly the ones I came across in the dungeon I ran were great.

In summary, what rules exist in Silent Titans fit nicely, and tend to get out of the way, allowing the GM to focus on why we are all really here, the fiction!

The Fiction


With the fiction, I feel like i have about as much criticism as I do praise.

Firstly, Patrick’s writing reads like GM notes. Lists of things and ideas, with sub-points branching down as you read. They do a great job of sparking ideas, and imagination, but are pretty poor at conveying a scene at a glance. At the table, I like to be able to flip to a page, read a thing and get a good sense for the situation, but that is pretty impossible for the most part in this book. You really do have to read the whole thing, and only then does the world coalesce from Patrick’s flowery descriptions and Dirks abstract drawings. To be clear, the rooms are well described, often with inspiring details that can help you describe these bizarre location to your players. However, they are not very descriptive of the activity within, nor of their connection to wider whole. To really get a sense for what is going on in this bizarre place, you need to read the lot.


This seems to be a step back as well for both Patrick and Jacob, both of which have produce two of the most gameable books that exist! (Maze of the Blue Medusa & Hot Springs Island respectively) Silent Titans does use the repeated information trick used in both previous works, one short summary on a general dungeon map, and another in a more detailed description on a following page. However, unlike the previous books, these summaries are rarely anything other than description. No wider interweaving narrative is conveyed between the moving parts, everything feels independent until you have a picture of the whole in your head.

Also, it's really quite hard to parse. On many occasions, I would read a passage, totally not understand it, read it several more times, look at the art, still not get it and move on, only later to discover a key piece of information that made the whole thing clear. Patricks advice at the start of the book of “Like all my stuff, read it front to back first” needs to be taken quite literally, and even then will take multiple re-reads and flicks through to really solidify in your mind.
On top of all this, once you do get to grips with what is going on it’s... kind of a railroad. It reminds me a lot of the “choices” in many modern open world video games. A multitude of mostly unrelated side quests are available along with the main “plot” quests (the dungeons) available to be done in any order, but you still have to hit all those same beats. The conclusion is going to be mostly the same for everyone. I would even argue that in all likelihood your going to do the dungeons in order, because they are laid out on after the other on the map!


One of the dungeons for even takes this to the next degree. It's all about players waking up from dreams, and Patrick advises you to use unfair rules, scene shifts and “naked railroading” to keep the players on track. I think I get what Patrick is going for here, the idea behind this dungeon about going mad, and imprisoning the characters in these dream scenes until they go along with them. The problem with this  is that it ends up making any player choice pretty meaningless and I can see players getting frustrated when they have to replay through the scenes if they mess up. This does not seem fun to me. The first time they encounter each scene I think would be a fun roleplaying exercise, but once you have figured out how to “beat” the scene and navigate around it, it become more of a mundainity than something enjoyable.

This seems very odd when looking at MotBM and Hot Springs Island, both very much open world adventure settings that really can be explored any which way, and produce exciting unforeseen situations as a result. This is another element of the game that goes contrary of common wisdom in the OSR. A defined and pre-determined story just feels dirty to me. I suspect this is intended, but one quote from the dungeon described above makes me question this, when speaking about the “naked railroading” in the dungeon, Patrick writes; “This [Dungeon] is completely different to the rest of the game, where you should absolutely not do this.”

One of the battle maps provided in the booklet.

So is this intentional? The front of the book does state that this game is about loops, about time travel and the player characters almost having a “do over” of their previous mistakes. I really don't know. However, what I do know is that this, all of it, the art, the fiction, the mechanics, they WORK. They work really well. They are effective at conveying a very particular and compelling aesthetic and this is...

Why Silent Titans Is Actually Incredible


What makes Silent Titans special is how seamlessly the art, the fiction and the rules interweave. To the point where I cannot fathom what inspired what, and I’m starting to question if there is even such a distinction to be made.

While fascinating, this is a marvel to behold in game. Mechanics, art, and rules align perfectly into what i can only describe an an Aesthetic, with a capital A. What Patrick asks you as a GM to portray and what your players to envision, match toe to toe with what Dirk has drawn.
In fact, at first glance, Dirk’s illustrations seem chaotic and meaningless, like abstract doodles. However, once you read Patricks writing they come to life, you recognise characters, monsters, even “architecture” so to speak.


The reason I would recommend the bonus pack so strongly is that this game presents a GM and their player a very distinct, and pervasive aesthetic to the game. It's really what I think makes Silent Titans a groundbreaking supplement. Everything works so well together in creating a very unique and immediately recognisable look and feel. One that doesn’t rely on fantasy tropes and a common understanding on what a dungeon, medieval village or even person is!. As Patrick has done in his previous works, he takes the limitations of the tabletop RPG as a medium, and instead of fighting them, embraces them and builds them into his setting and game.

The clearest example of this is the nature of Wir-Heal (the name of the land in Silent Titans) itself. The idea being that this land is distorted and nonsensical. Space doesn't totally make sense here, and it's difficult for characters to get a clear sense of space while exploring these bizarre lands. That is exactly how it can feel to a player when exploring imaginary spaces. Everyone has their own internal model of a scene, no two of which are going to align perfectly. Thus, Patrick has worked this natural limitation into the fiction of his world. This is again complemented by Dirk’s abstract isometric art style. The art provides exactly as much spatial information as is important in the rules, no more and no less. Patrick's room descriptions provide the GM with high level details and more descriptive information for the GM to riff on. Dirks room drawings provide the players with visual analogues to those key elements. The minis then provide visual reference for the player characters and enemies for combat and navigation, where exact distance is unimportant, only relative positioning and distance matter. This is true both fictionally, and mechanically!

I have yet to be brave enough to take scissors to the minis...

In play this is perfect. Showing the whole dungeon map to the players doesn't spoil anything, because the art is so abstract that its nonsensical to them at first glance anyway, it serves only to tease them with possibility. Then, when they enter the room and those elements are described, they pop out. Suddenly they can see, “Oh, that mass of tubes there is the Cephalopod Prime!”, “All those red circles are Face Crab Keys!”, “That pillar is a GUN?!?!”.

This marriage of mechanics, fiction and art is something I don't think has been done so fully in a supplement before, and I doubt will happen for a long while yet. All that Silent Titans provides, pushes a GM into using them in a certain way, a way which is emphasised by the fiction, codified in the rules, and conveyed in the art. Total unity, something modern game designers both in digital and tabletop struggle with consistently.

I truly think Silent Titans is something special. It has its flaws, yes. As mentioned earlier, it's going to take a certain kind of GM to be able to use what Patrick writes, and a skilled one at that. It also requires players be willing to not necessarily be railroaded, but certainly guided in a certain direction, and have compatible motivations with the setting. I would argue this is true for almost every adventure anyway, but I don't think its something OSR players will be so keen on. Push past those initial reservation though, and I think its aesthetic, outshines all of them.

I’ll certainly be bringing Silent Titans to my Table at the next available opportunity.

Thursday, 18 April 2019

The Forgotten Abbey

For the past year I've been toying with ideas for using decks of cards in RPGs, but none of them have ended up condensing into anything usable. That is until this years One Page Dungeon Contest roused me into putting my ideas into action!

The Forgotten Abbey aims to provide a GM with a simple procedure for tracking four core components to a good dungeon delve; the map, random encounters, treasure and time.



The idea is to use the physical properties of the cards to track these elements mechanically. The club cards can be laid out on the table to map the rooms. Discarding the spades keeps track of what monsters have already been dealt with. A hand of hearts and diamonds that the players pick from at random simulates rummaging amongst the ruins, revealing treasures or simply wasting time.

A perfect excuse to show off your fancy decks of cards.


















To ensure the time wasted has consequences, the dungeon itself reshuffles if the players dawdle for too long. This has an additional benefit of providing the players with a difficult choice. The deeper they go into the abbey, the more treasure they may find, but the more likely it is that the dungeon resets and the dangers they faced on the way in ressurect.

It has a couple other cool things going for it I hope! The dungeon is broken into three levels, each getting progressively more spooky, dangerous and lucrative. I think the magic items are pretty neat, if nothing else!

The whole idea kind spawned from putting the three decks along the right edge there.






























This this was a layout challenge for me, having a lot of idea and very little space! I'm trying to get better at it, but i'm pretty happy with the final result. The page is busy, but the intent is that all the information is just there, and hopefully it's clear where to look for the bits you need as you need them. Feedback from better minds that mine is always appreciated!

I feel like this system might lay the groundwork for a dungeon delving card system. I'm keen to experiment with this idea on another dungeon and see if it works outside of this specific theme.

As mentioned above, I have entered this into this year's One Page Dungeon Contest. The contest is still open until Midnight on the 1st of May, so get writing and you can still get that entry in the door!

Otherwise keep an eye on their site or Twitter for when they release all the entries into a compilation, it always produces a mountain of fantastic material for your game!


P.S. I'm trying to become more active on Twitter following the death of G+. I have even written a little bot that tweets out the latest blog posts from across the OSR blogosphere if that sounds useful!

Saturday, 2 February 2019

The Will of Rot

As part of a campaign i'm currently running, I needed a forest to house Mother Mohln of the Mohln race from my very first post on this blog. 

I thought about using Dolmenwood which there is a lot of content for. However, a lot of it is split up between a lot of the Wormskin Zine Issues and I wanted something I could bring along to every session for reference. Plus, its fae aesthetic wasn’t exactly how I envisaged the home of the Mohln.

So, in true OSR fashion, I decided to do it myself! I’ve been wanting to put time into producing another one page adventure location since the One Page Dungeon Competition as I found it so much fun. I’ve also been eating up all the amazing content from Michael Prescott of Trilemma Adventures as i find his stuff so useful at the table its incredible.

I ended up creating The Will of Rot - small hexcrawl adventure set the the Forests of Mohln. I have put it up for pay what you want on itch.io, so click the button below to download it for free.


If you like it, throw me a buck! If your from the UK like me, that’s like 76p! I’ve seen chocolate bars more expensive than that! It ended up being 3 pages, mostly because I have little self control, but also because I created some Maps and a couple tables for use in play. It definitely wears its inspirations on its sleeves, as i've been consuming a large amount of community content lately! Can you name all the OSR creators that I have unashamedly ripped off here? If you end up running it, let me know! Its already inspired viscous hatred of the townspeople of Timberwick and casued the forced adoption of a young Vash in my games. What will happen in yours?



While we are on the topic of self promotion, I’m currently writing an article for a Kickstarter Silver Swords: An RPG fanzine as part of Kickstarter’s Zine Quest initiative. If you like RPGs, especially DIY, OSR and Indie stuff, check out Silver Swords and the other projects that will be running this month!

Tuesday, 23 October 2018

[REDACTED PER PROTOCOL 4000-ESHU] - A Dread Scenario

I wrote a SCP themed Dread scenario to run as a spooky one-shot.

If you don't know about The Foundation, I'm sorry about that thing you wanted to do today, but I'm also not sorry because you get to read all of these for the first time!

Player packets ready to go.
This scenario is based on the SCP article Taboo, written by PeppersGhost. It recently won a contest to be SCP number [REDACTED], so I can only hope this scenario does this fantastic piece of fiction justice!

The idea behind this game is to split the required information needed to keep everyone safe between the players, then sit back and watch the inevitable chaos as they attempt to survive not knowing quite enough to stay alive.

Here is a link to all the documents needed to run the scenario - Including digital, and print copies. (Even in letter size for you Imperial heathens.)

I'm very excited to be running a game of this for Halloween this year. If you end up running it, please let me know! I’m really curious to know how it goes for others. 

Monday, 1 October 2018

Fantasy Heartbreaker Retrospective Part 3 – Mage & Priest Classes


Let’s talk Classes. This is a breakdown of my design and process for coming up with the classes for Myth & Malice, my fantasy heartbreaker RPG I designed some time ago now. This is part 3, find part 2 here and part 1 here. I have posted a discussion thread on this topic, on the r/RPGDesign subreddit like last time. Onwards!

Classes

The classes were where I began with Myth & Malice. I was frustrated with the spell caster classes I was playing/running in my games and felt I wanted to provide players with more control over the magic they cast. Enter; The Mage, (AKA the Arcane Magic User originally) my first foray into RPG design, a custom class for Lamentations of the Flame Princess.


Dug up from the archives, this is the original hack I wrote for Lamentations.

The Mage

The core concept behind the Mage is a character who doesn’t cast pre-defined “spells” from a book, but instead can construct their own unique spells by combining different predefined components. I settled on a system that asks a player to pick from a base set of elements to define a spell’s overall theme, and a selection of effects to define its general function, then leave the rest up to player and GM fiat.

The idea here is to provide just enough rules and structure as to produce “balanced” or at least consistent spell power levels, while leaving enough space for creativity and imaginative problems solving.

The incarnation of the Mage in Myth & Malice is a refined and attempted “simplification” of the original Arcane Magic User class. The class’s core mechanic remains the same, and uses a pool of dice, the size and composition of which is dependent of level. Called Power dice, these are the class’s “spells per day” equivalent. Each dice represents a spell the Mage can cast, with bigger dice representing more powerful potential spells.  The mechanic is fairly simple, though requires a few steps;
  1. Pick a dice
  2. Pick one or more Aspects
  3. Pick one or more Forms
  4. Roll equal or over the number of Aspects + Forms
If the roll succeeds, the spell works and the player describes the effect. If the roll fails, nothing happens, and the player keeps the dice. The “Effect” can be mostly anything the player wishes, so long as no direct mechanical benefit is gained. However, if the player wants a mechanical benefit, the value of the mechanical benefit is determined by the size of dice they used to make the roll.

Already, re-reading what is laid out in Myth & Malice, this isn’t very clear. Instead of breaking down these steps clearly, the rules are spread about through the various paragraphs, interspersed with “fluffy” description. Also, I refer to a spell “Difficulty” which is effectively the number of Aspects plus the number of Forms in the spell. This is certainly a hold over from a time when the Forms had different costs, something that should have been caught in an edit.

Now that I hope you have a decent grasp of the concept, let’s talk about its execution

The Mage Breakdown

My aim with these mechanics was to make the “power level” of a spell determined roughly by the dice the player chooses to use to cast it. Thus, my conceit was that the more complex a spell was (that being the more things it was doing) the more powerful the spell was. So, I set about deconstructing what a spell could do into a series of components for players to recombine later.



Inspired by Ben Milton’s Maze Rats, I split spells into the two core components; Aspects (A spell’s overall theme) and Forms (A spell’s purpose or effect). Aspects determine what kind of effect a Form might have based on common sense or GM/Player fiat.  I.E., a spell with the Fire Aspect will burn things, a spell with the Light Aspect will provide illumination. If the meaning isn’t 100% clear, that comes under fiat, a part of the OSR playstyle the Myth & Malice system already leans into.

Forms were a little more difficult to design. I tried the make my list is as exhaustive as possible, while remaining fairly short. I’m fairly happy with the result, but I understand that I’m inherently adding soft limits to my spells providing a defined list, a conceit I was willing to make for the sake of simplicity.

This is probably the only area of the game where I actually considered probabilities. Something which I very likely should have done for other areas. My goal with the spells was for a “reasonable” spell at each power dice size should have a ~75% chance of success. I think I just about achieved this. The below table shows the probabilities of 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 components (that’s Aspects and Forms) added to a single spell, and rolled using each of the power dice sizes.

% Success4681012
275%83%88%90%92%
350%67%75%80%83%
425%50%63%70%75%
50%33%50%60%67%
60%17%38%50%58%

Deciding how many power dice a Mage gets at each level was a little trickier however. To do this I initially used the LotFP’s magic user spells per day and D&D 5e’s Wizard/Sorcerer as guides but the results were not received well during playtesting. Players simply felt they had too few spells, and wanted more to do. This is why Mages don't lose Power dice unless the spell succeeds, and why the number of d4 Power dice a Mage can use are unlimited. Both of these changes I’m not happy with now I’m looking back. I think I too easily caved to my players’ demands. I should have stuck with my initial design decisions and simply tweaked the numbers until it felt fair. Outright changing mechanics as I did destabilised other elements of the game too much in the end, and the Mage began to feel too powerful in my later playtests.

Deciding on the lists of Aspects was fairly straightforward. The classic 10 elements seen in most D&D-esk Fantasy works well and I liked the symmetry they provided. Looking back, the extended table of Secondary Aspects by combining Aspects is probably fairly redundant. Most GMs would probably be happy to rule these themselves.  As presented, the table takes up a lot of space and probably overwhelms an already confused new player even further. On the point of redundant information, the referenced Clash tables here do exist, and were intended to be in the GMs guidelines I so often refer to. In truth however, they never came up during play, so I’ve no idea if they were any good.

The list of Forms was produced using a bit more of a scattergun approach. I stole a load of words I liked from the aforementioned Maze Rats tables, before refining them again and again based on existing D&D spells, trying to isolate core themes like “Transport” and “Harm”.

My goal was to provide a fairly comprehensive list, so that players were able to make a vast array of spells. In many ways I think having a defined list actually encourages more inventive spells, as I’ve heard it said before that creativity can be stoked by limitations.

Ideally I also wanted a bit of overlap between the Form’s functions, as I wanted players to be able to create the same effect with different combinations of Aspects and Forms. An example may be a flight spell;

One way of producing it could be Air + Transport, which could move a person with air, perhaps with a gust of wind. Alternatively, Insects + Bind could have a character grow bug wings and use them to fly. Both produce the same end result mechanically, but the in fiction context may make one favourable over the other.

The final table for this class is the Form Mechanics. The intent behind this part of the design is to provide another limitation on spell power. By aligning the Power dice size to the actual numbers of a mechanic, the idea was that effectiveness of a spell is reigned in. While it doesn’t ensure players cannot exploit these loose rules to produce “overpowered” abilities, it does force them to be more inventive.

Overall, I think my solution is still too clunky. There are too many tables a player must consult to produce a spell, the Form Mechanics feel fairly arbitrary and also too specific compared to the rest of the system. 20 Forms seems like too many. I think fewer, with more overlap is potentially more easier for players to digest, and could create more instances of players producing similar spells with different fictional positions.

The Mage Playtesting

I ran a few playtests with the Mage class in a couple of dungeon crawls and a wilderness exploration. I received positive feedback overall for this class (more than the others), and people very much liked the freedom of creating their own spells.

What I found was that people approached the ability in a couple different ways. Some wrote down a list of spells themselves beforehand, and others just made things up on the fly. I hadn’t initially thought players would create spells in advance, but it ended up working just as well, but gave more of a traditional D&D wizard feel to the class. The first playtest quickly found that the number of spells was far too low, this was an iteration that started with 2 d4 spells and 1 d6. In the second playtest I increased the number of spells, and had them only expire upon a filed roll but found people still felt like they had too few spells.

Having spells only expire of a successful casting has its problems however. It meant that there was basically no downside to simply re-trying the spell. Something I did not try was to use the “Clash Tables” hinted at in the text. If I rolled on this table on a failed spell casting, it would provide more gravitas to a player’s decision to cast them, and potentially solve the issue.

I settled on an infinite number of d4s but I’m not certain that was the correct call. Giving the class such a powerful ability makes balancing the other classes to feel as powerful difficult, if not nigh impossible, something which we will cover when we see the Warrior and Adept classes.

The Priest

Next let’s look the priest, I'll do these in the order they were designed for the sake of chronology.
If it's not already clear, my approach to class design is to provide each one with its own “core mechanic” that defines the class’s special ability, unique to it. For the Mage, that was the Power dice system. For the Priest, we have Favour dice.

This class was largely inspired by Mystics from Logan Knight's blog Last Gasp Grimoire. In contrast to Logan’s class, I didn’t want the Priest to require a separate playbook that defined their abilities, unique to each religion. Instead, I lifted the core concept from the Mage, of constructing unique spells from a series of components.

However, the difference is where the restrictions on the spells lie. Mages run out of spells as their Power dice are used. The Mystic by contrast can cast any number of Prayers, and is limited instead by how favourable their God views them, and their Religion’s themes.
At least that’s the idea.

The Priest Breakdown

Instead of a player constructing spells from well defined Aspects and Forms, the player is a devout follower of a certain deity. This Deity has a collection of core beliefs or “Principles”. These work in much the same way as Aspects, but are intended to be more specific to the Character’s religion. In place of Forms, we have Invocations, similar but with a more “miracle” like flavour. Also, in theory any Priest can use any Invocation at Level 1 (however practically, that’s not possible).
In terms of actual mechanisms, casting works totally differently. Priests have a pool of dice, the number of dice is determined by level, and the size of all the dice (from d4 to d12) is dynamic, and has a maximum again determined by level. The “dynamic” element comes from the ability to lose and gain “Faith” through play. “Faith” is the in-game term for the size of dice with which the player rolls. By performing priestly duties, and witnessing holy events, the Priest increases their Faith, and can cast more powerful miracles. However, by witnessing their Deity misunderstand them, or perhaps neglecting their religious duties, this power decreases.

Again… At least that’s the idea…



The intent of Faith is two fold:

Firstly it is to provide another alternative to the “Spells per day” Vancian magic system from traditional D&D. The Priest can make any number of Prayers per day, the limit instead is how much they are willing to risk, and how well they can convince the GM that what they want is in the interests of their religion.

Effectively, when a Priest prays, they choose a Principle and an Invocation like a Mage would choose an Aspect and a Form, and come up with their desired effect. Then, they roll all the dice from their Prayer Pool and count the number of dice that roll equal or over the Target (determined by the Invocation), and tell the GM. Depending on how well aligned with the Characters religion the GM rules the request to be, the Prayer may succeed or fail.

By having better Faith, the Priest is rolling bigger dice, and is therefore more likely to succeed a Prayer Roll, and may try asking for something less aligned to their Religious beliefs. However, as Faith dwindles, the prayers become less and less likely to work, thus the player is reluctant to ask for things outside their religion’s direct desires for fear of rejection.

The second intention was, to give the GM an interesting way of framing failed Priest Prayers, as either their Deity misunderstanding them, or simply snubbing them. This brings the Character of Gods into the forefront much more directly than in usual play. I intended to make “Misunderstandings” much more thematic that is demonstrated in the rules. Again, inspired by the Mystic class from Logan Knight, a misunderstood prayer could be horrific and hilarious; such as a snake god causing their Messiah to vomit forth several snakes instead of spitting venom.

I wanted this to encourage a certain way of roleplaying. I wanted to make the Priest feel more like a religious character, pining for their deity’s attention, but fearful of the repercussions of upsetting them.

In actuality, the priest felt thematic, but as a result of the Prayers, not because of the mechanics I’d built around it. As I discovered when playtesting…

The Priest Playtesting

I did a fair amount of playtesting of this class, more than the others. I had the same 3 Playtests involving the Mage, in addition to a character in an on-going campaign running the class before I moved to a different system. In all cases, the results were the same. Thematically, they were adored. Players loved how much they were embodying the religion, and creating spells was enjoyable and often hilarious. However, the actual mechanic was often misunderstood, or felt disconnected from the fiction.

I created a few religions for the class myself, outlined in the rules. I wanted them to be used as templates, as I think the class is most effectively used when the GM has a good idea in their own heads how the Deity behaves and what it represents. That way, coming up with fun misunderstandings or required religious rituals is easy to improvise. However, any guidance on how to GM the Priest isn’t covered in the rules as is which is a problem.

A Failure of Execution

Re-reading my design notes, and what I put into the actual ruleset now, I can’t help but feel like I pretty heavily missed the mark with this class. The idea behind it, of a very thematic character based almost exclusively on their religious beliefs still excites me. However, I do not think what is presented in the rules comes close enough to evoking the feeling I wanted.

Let’s break down where I think I went wrong, and what I could do to improve it.

  • The Mechanic

It’s needlessly complicated, and unlike any other part of the game. I should unify this with the other mechanics in the game, and make it more robust. Currently, Prayers feel too similar to Mage Spells, and are in some ways far more limiting, with little benefit compared to them. (Especially since Mages get infinite d4 power spells now.)

  • “Misunderstandings” need to be more explicit

I think these are key to making the class feel different. If I let the Prayers be more powerful, and make misunderstanding a more interesting and enjoyable risk-reward system, Players have a tougher choice as to what prayers they may ask for.

  • Gaining and Losing Faith

This needs a rework and a rethink. Currently at low levels it doesn’t have much of an effect in play. Heck at levels 1 & 2 it’s literally pointless. Faith needs to have harsher consequences for losing it, and better definitions about regaining it.

  • The Religions

I loved the ones I came up with. However, that’s not terribly useful for other GMs. I’ve already said that to most effectively use the Priest, a GM needs to have a good “headcanon” about the Religion of their Priest Player(s). Thus, they should really create their own unless they get really inspired by my own. I should make this clear, and create better defined rules around their creation. (More tables, etc.)

To be continued…

Wow! Ok, I had a LOT more to say about these classes than I thought. Hopefully this breakdown was insightful.

As always, please do tell me what you think, discuss this on Reddit, in the comments below, or just think about it a bunch.

Last time again had a great discussion on Reddit, so do check that out if you haven't already.

Next time, we shall continue to clamber through the Classes, and have a final thoughts summary on their interactions!!

Tuesday, 28 August 2018

Fantasy Heartbreaker Retrospective Part 2 - Combat

It's time to tackle Combat in my breakdown of an old Fantasy Heartbreaker I was working on. This is part 2, find part 1 here. I have posted a discussion thread on this topic in the same place as the last post, on the r/RPGDesign subreddit. Anyway, let's get into it.

Combat


As I alluded to in the previous post, this was an area I put a lot of work into, and had a large focus on during the design. I knew I wanted a combat system that felt “crunchier” than regular D&D style combat of roll attack, roll damage, passive defence.

This was one of the few areas of the game where I had clear design goals in mind before I began work.

What I set out to achieve was to provide players a set of mechanics they could exploit to give themselves advantages in combat that lead to flavourful decisions and more tactical choice without having to resort to a grid.

The key dichotomy I kept focusing on was the idea of a single, high damage attack, versus several low damage attacks. This would be a trade off between a single target high potential damage attack and more consistent, multi-target attacks, with a lower average damage.

This leaves plenty of room for rudimentary tactics, some that are regularly employed in videogames. With a single enemy with high hit points, a higher potential damage attack may be more desirable, but with several low hit point enemies lots of weak attacks is probably more effective.

I imagined certain characters would be better at different kinds of attacks, thus complicating the decision further. In that space I saw the potential for some mechanical depth, something I think is lacking in most TTRPGs.

I however don't think what I produced in Myth & Malice gave the desired effect, so let's discuss the design as it's presented.

Design Goals


I decided early on to do away with the traditional roll for attack, and roll for damage separation we see in D&D-a-likes. I wanted a single roll for determining both. Considering my core mechanic is roll under a stat, this does not immediately cause problems.

If a Character has a high stat in something, they are more likely to hit, which I want. This also means a higher stat allows for a higher roll to be successful. If the number directly corresponds to damage, then a higher roll, deals more damage. With a low stat, Characters are less likely to hit, and even if they do, they will inherently be doing less damage.

There is nothing wrong with this design, but it is a kind of positive feedback loop. The more likely a character is to hit, the more potential damage they can do.

What I also wanted was to use dice of various sizes, based on player choice. This presents a player with options in terms of how a character “feels” when in combat. Rolling a dice with fewer sides is more likely to succeed, but has lower potential damage.

That is, rolling on a d4 or a d6, you have a lower range of potential numbers rolled. But a higher (sometimes guaranteed) chance of success. On bigger dice like a d10 or a d12, you have a higher chance of failure, but with the potential to roll a bigger number.

In the case of fighting, this was meant to be a trade off between a quick jab or a heavy slow swing.

The System




Lets quickly summarise how the combat system works as it is presented in the rules.

I never wrote rules for initiative or starting combat. I intended to outline in a GMs section how to deal with situations involving two opposed agendas using the Opposed Check rules outlined in the Mechanics section, but i never finished writing those rules. Thus, rules as writ, there is no defined way to enter combat. During playtesting, if who goes first was not fictionally obvious, i would use an opposed Move Check (both sides roll move dice under the most relevant Ability Score) highest success wins and goes first.

In Combat, time is dealt with at at an Encounter level (we will cover time, and the action economy in more detail in an upcoming part), meaning second to second action is important. It is up to the GM to determine what is possible each turn, which lasts around 3-10 seconds.

The rules define three types of distinct actions that are most likely to come up; Attack, Defence, and Maneuvers.

Maneuvers allow a character to forgo an Attack or Defence action in favour of an additional in fiction benefit. These are fairly standard in most D&D-alikes.

Attack and Defence are both sides of the opposed roll mechanic outlined in the Mechanics section, in the context of combat specifically.

So, each side rolls a dice, and succeeds if they roll under their most relevant Ability Score. Whoever rolls highest, and succeeded, wins. Combat takes this mechanic, and adds some complexity.

To start with, the dice rolled depends on what the Character is using to perform the action. In the case of an attack, this will almost always be a Weapon Dice. In Defence, this could be a Move Dice, Weapon Dice, or other equipment dice (namely a Shield Dice). All these dice will be anything from a d4 to a d12.

The complexity here is added when it comes to determining what Score the player must roll under to succeed. That is, they roll under all of them.

Depending on what a Character is doing, rolling under different Scores provides different benefits. For an Melee Attack for example, if a roll is under Might, the character can do damage equal to the roll. If the roll is under Dexterity, the character can make another attack, immediately after this one is resolved. Finally, if the roll is under Focus, they deal Damage equal to their focus, instead of the result rolled.

The intent here, is that each of these conditions are not mutually exclusive, Its perfectly possible for a character to roll under all, some, or none of these scores, thus each character, depending on their makeup of Scores in combination with the dice they roll, will feel slightly different to play.

A Character with high Dexterity, low Might and high Focus, is not likely to hit on any individual attack, but will be likely to attack multiple times, and if they do hit, will do a large amount of damage (equal to Focus).

In contrast, a Character with high Might, low Dexterity and low Focus, is very likely to hit, and has the potential for high damage, but is unlikely to get off multiple hits.

This should inform a Player how they want to kit out their character as well. A Weapon with a large weapon dice, has higher potential damage, but will roll over their Scores more often if they are lower than the dice’s max value.

This extends to defence, and ranged combat, but the benefits are slightly different, with the intent being no Character can be good at all types of combat, they must specialise.



Why it doesn’t work


There are multiple reason why this system has failed to embody my design goals, and to be honest, their intent. Let's break them down, point by point.

1. Score Generation 


My decision to use random score generation, means, it is perfectly possible to have a character have high Scores in all Abilities, and be likely to succeed in all areas of combat. It is just as possible to produce a character who is bad at all areas of combat.

In my opinion, this is bad design. Making it possible to create objectively worse or better characters is one thing, but making this not the result of player decision, but just random chance is not fun, and is not satisfying.

2. Score Scale


In a last ditch attempt to make the Warrior class more relevant, I reduced the scale of Ability Scores from 2-12 to 1-6. The idea being Warriors have the ability to add a value of 1-6 dynamically. We will cover this decision in more detail in the Class Breakdown, but what this does to the mechanic is catastrophic.

Players are (in theory) rolling anything from a d4 to a d12, thus they can roll values from 1-12. This means for most Characters, any dice above a d6 is basically irrelevant, they cant use them.

This is sort of intentional. This puts a soft cap on what weapons/shields/etc, a character should be using. A weak character will little Might will not perform well weilding a huge Greatsword.

However this just makes the player’s “choice” an irrelevant one. Nobody in their right mind would use larger dice when all it does is make a Character less likely to hit. There is absolutely no benefit, as opposed to producing an interesting tradeoff.

3. Equipment Dice & the Move Dice Problem


So all equipment has a dice rating which determines the dice rolled when performing actions with it. As mentioned above, this is meant to provide player a choice when it comes to kitting out their character, and how they fight in combat. Equipment with small dice are more likely to roll under Scores, and gain the benefits, but have lower potential damage.

What i found in playtesting however, is that for players, this is a non-choice. They just pick the biggest dice they can, that means they cannot fail rolls. Nobody picks the bigger, higher damage weapon because it simply won't hit at higher damage values anyway, so there is literally no upside.

This is poorly thought out, and does not invoke my intended play.

And while we are on the subject of dice size, lets discuss the Movement Dice. The intent with this mechanic, is that each player has a Movement Dice rating used to roll any check involving Opposed Movement, like chases, initiative, or dodging in combat. The dice goes down in size as a Character don’s Armour, thus making a trade off between damage reduction and damage avoidance.

Characters with “better” movement, use a bigger movement dice. The logic here being they can roll higher potential values. However, what this means practically, is that Characters with better movement, fail more often, because they are more likely to roll over their Ability Scores. Urg. I have few words for this decision other than it is a terrible design choice, that caused unending problems during playtesting.

The Lesson here, is rules cohesion. My Combat system, my Scores system and my Equipment system, are at odds. They do not produce the desired effect in combination.



Summary


In summary, perhaps this system could be reworked. I got a lot of positive feedback during playtesting about rolling one dice under all scores, and determining the outcome.

It produced varied combat rounds, and sometimes, an interesting choice as to what enemies the party decided to approach with what characters.

However i also got a lot of frustrated players who felt they could not produce the desired fighting style they wanted from their character. I also saw a couple characters who were clearly out classing others when it came to combat. This on its own was not a huge issue, but in combination with the Warrior class not feeling much better in combat than other classes, ment players felt a disconnect with what a character was and what they could do.

I have mentioned this before, but I do feel, this easily the worst part of the game, and who's surprised really? This is by far the most complex and central part. Looking back, I immediately ask myself; Why? Why do the legwork for your first game, when you could make a hack?

Good question! I started the design process by slowly replacing parts of The Lamentations of the Flame Princess, so technically it evolved from a hack, but I always knew I wanted rid of the mechanics from that game, so I wasn't kidding anyone.

All in all, if I were to return to this project, I would certainly gut this area of the game, and replace it with a much more familiar system. I'm too inexperienced as a designer to produce something that can stand up to the current zeitgeist that is D&D style combat.

That's it for Combat. In all likelihood we will return to this subject later when we cover Equipment, Classes and other areas of the game in later posts.

Last week had an informative discussion of Reddit, so do check that out if you haven't already.

As always, please do tell me what you think, discuss this on Reddit, in the comments below, or just think about it.

Next time, my Favourite part - The Classes!



Sunday, 12 August 2018

The Gemstone Archive

About a week ago FM Geist posted a challenge on G+, after finding an amazing map in an old Ravenloft adventure.

I decided to give it a go, feeling inspired by the idea of a dungeon within a gemstone.

The idea here, is its something player characters can find within the world, and carry it with them as they adventure. Then they can enter it whenever they wish, solving its riddles, and gathering its treasure as and when they wish.



This was a lot more work than I anticipated! A lot of fun, and something that challenged by dungeon making skills.

I'm only really 100% happy with the Amethyst room, being an interesting puzzle to play out IRL.

I may revisit this later, as I cut the scope of the adventure down drastically from my initial plans.

Regardless, if you end up using parts of it, let me know! Id love to hear how things turn out. Ill certainly be using it at least one of my ongoing games.