Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Turns Out I Hate The Skill Guy

3rd Edition D&D, including 3.5 and its successor Pathfinder is pretty clear on how it deliniates the focus of a character. Ignoring specific class features, each class relies on a specific part of the game mechanics to define its role in an adventuring party. For instance, fighters have the best Base Attack Bonus and are the "Feat" class; mages and clerics are the "Spell" classes and rogues are the "Skill" class.

At first glance, this seems reasonable. Of course fighters have the most options in combat. Of course, wizards and priests solve problems with spells. And of course, when it comes time to pick a lock or disarm a trap, you are going to rely on the skills of the thief. Makes sense -- each class has a role and gives up some other important abilities to excel in its role.

But, over the years, I could never shake the idea that there was something inherently wrong with this mechanical split. The first thing that struck me was the fact that if the rogue was the "Skill Guy", there wasn't much room for anyone else in the party to have skills. At 2 skill points per level (plus intelligence bonus, of course), once you take spellcraft and maybe knowledge: arcane, there isn't much room for the wizened wizard who wants to be a history buff. Priests have it even worse, since they likely won't have INT as a primary stat. Because the rogue's niche is skills, the other classes just don't have enough skill points to go around, leaving wizards and clerics among the most uneducated characters in the game.

Then there is the concept of "class skills" which seriously limit which skills can be reasonably taken. The fighter’s class skills are climb, craft, handle animal, intimidate, jump, ride, and swim. You can take other skills, of course, but only at a penalty... and as noted before, skill points are already at a premium. Good luck if you want to be a warrior who is also a diplomat.

Certainly multiclassing helps with this situation, but it too comes with its share of pitfalls. In the case of mages and clerics, taking a level of rogue for the skill points makes no sense at all. Stylistically, it does not work for many characters and mechanically, the spellcasting level is inifitely more valuable than 8 skill points... especially when you take into account that many of the rogue's skills can be made obsolete with the proper choice of spells.

But still, your party probably needs a rogue, if only to gather information and deal with trapped chests and locked doors. And let's say your party is heading into an adventure littered with stuff for the rogue to do. There are NPCs with which to negotiate. There are traps to disarm and locks to pick. There are dangerous dungeon corridors with lots of listen checks and stealthy scouting...

All of which is a lot of action for the rogue. In the meantime, everyone else sits aound and probably waits for a blundered stealth check to thrust them into combat.

I call it the Netrunner Syndrome. When cyberpunk games were popular, almost all of them had a fairly detailed set of rules for hacking virtual reality computers. Netrunning was almost its own minigame, complete with skills, gear and mechanics. It was all very cool... for the player who was playing the netrunner. Everyone else's character sat around waiting for JimmyL33t to either return from his solo adventure with the ciritcal piece of data, or for his head to explode into jelly. Either way, all but one player was bored.

Scouting and other rogue duties aren't as bad as netrunning, but they can come close. When it is the rogue bartering and the rogue scouting ahead and the rogue listening at doors and the rogue disarming the traps and the rogue searching the room... it can get boring for the other five people at the table.

So after running Pathfinder for a few months, it turns out I hate the "skill guy" as a class concept. What would happen if we got rid of the rogue (and probably ranger) class, gave everyone something like 5-6 skill points each level and got rid of the idea of class skills. Class features for rogues would become feats (possibly with a limitation on the armor worn). That way, everyone would have part of the "skill guy" job. Mages and clerics could take many of the skills and knowledges they really ought to have. Scouting, stealth, negotiation and trap duties could be more evenly distributed among the PCs in a party and those wanting to be sneaky, fast killers could still do so by taking the proper feats.

Would a rogue-less Pathfinder game work? I'm not sure, but I may certainly try it.

Monday, June 21, 2010

D&D 4th Edition the next great supers game?

As I was chatting with a friend about the pros and cons of 4th edition D&D and how I could not possibly run a fantasy campaign with it (I will get into that later), an interesting thought struck me. Out of the box, 4th is remarkably close to a superhero game! All of the trappings are there. You have tons of powers, all of which are very mechanically similar, but with lots of status effects to differentiate them -- thereby simulating guns, lasers, claws and mutant powers with the same set of rules. With healing surges, you have very resilient characters (though you would have to find some way to activate them without a healer archetype). You have minions!

Heck, if you just renamed the classes and powers, you might be able to pass 4th Ed as written as a superhero game.

I wouldn't do that though. I think some modifications are in order to truly complete the transformation. I would likely ditch the concept of a single class/character and go for some kind of dual-spec system for a more mix and match approach to characters. So you would not be a "Fighter". You would be a Superstrong/Fire Blaster. I think this would allow more flexability and synergy in character builds. I think a slick way to handle super stats would be in order as well... not sure on that one though.

Otherwise, most of the rules would work as written. Sounds like a side project!!!

Monday, April 19, 2010


I have a guilty habit of occasionally Googling my name... probably a bit out of narcissism (though as I near middle-age man, I am not sure there is much left to be narcissistic about), but also due to a morbid curiosity about the intellectual debris I have left in cyberspace, especially because I generally use my real name in my posts. Indeed, there are posts and questions on technical forums and gaming forums that strike up a twinge of embarrassment today.

Now keep in mind, my name isn't all that common. There just aren't that many Magouns in the world. So, I was a little surprised to find that there is in fact another Chris Magoun out there, living out west and working in various capacities in the gaming industry.

I was amused until it dawned on me: this dude is in his 20s, is single, living in California and working as a game designer... My God, my namesake has my ideal life!!! Stranger still is the fact that at this very moment, the other Chris Magoun is writing a blog post about how his namesake, the 40-year old programmer with four kids, is dragging him down!

Or not.

But that would be pretty funny, wouldn't it?

Friday, April 16, 2010

What is Wrong with The New X-Com?

Recently, 2K Games announced that they would be releasing a new X-Com game. At first, this sounds like great news. X-Com is a beloved franchise and its mix of base building and turn-based man-to-man combat has never truly been matched. Certainly, in a market filled with sports games and first-person shooters, a modern version of one of the best turn-based tactical games ever made will be an exciting release.

Except that it seems that the modernized version of the best turn-based tactical game in history would just happen to be a first person shooter!!?! Huh?

Yeah, the new XCOM game (hyphens and lower case are soooooo 1990s, or British, not sure which) will be a heavily story-drive FPS, along the lines of 2K Marin's last title, Bioshock.

Now, of course, this news tweaked the old, crotchety gamer in me and elicited the usual rants about "ruining the franchise", "dumbing down" and an old standby, "kids these days". But then I thought, "Well, Bioshock was an ok game, maybe a good game with the X-Com label, whatever the genre, will be neat."

Then I thought about X-Com Interceptor and Enforcer and threw up a little into my mouth...

Seriously though, there is nothing inherently wrong with a top-notch game maker scooping up an old franchise and reimagining it. If you think about it, the highly enjoyable hit, Borderlands, is pretty much Diablo skinned as an FPS. It is a great game because it is an FPS, written by a dev studio that specializes in FPS games, and it adds other elements that twist the formula just enough (looting and character development) to put the game over the top. So ultimately, it is ok for 2K to rethink XCOM and the result might be a pleasant surprise.

On the other hand, to those of us who know this venerable classic, the announcement of the new genre is still disappointing and part of me can't get over the fact that this seems like a cynical attempt slap a known franchise on a game that would otherwise have a hard time competing in a glutted market with the likes of Gears of War and Modern Warfare. Certainly the buzz of the licensing announcement... good and bad... cannot hurt the future sales of this game.

And the name XCOM sure beats Yet Another Shooter as far as titles go.

Perhaps someday the tables will be turned and someone will buy the rights to the name Modern Warfare and remake it as a puzzle RPG. Until then, it seems someone IS creating an honest-to-goodness remake of X-Com. Check out and hope they make their release date of Christmas of this year.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

After Action Report (PCs at War Part 3)

I spent last Thursday night running through some tests on my Risk-like battle system and we ran the game the next night. How did it go?

Well, the playtest went OK. I printed out some hex paper and cut-and-pasted two sheets together to make a map of the battlefield. I grabbed some color counters from my old copy of Stellar Conquest and started moving pieces and rolling dice.

The first lesson is that if you are going to use minis, you need BIG hexes. I printed 1" and 1.5" hexes and neither of these could deal with the number of units on the board. Ultimately, I went with counters and that worked fine on a 1" hex.

I played the first 6 or so turns over and over again, trying to get a turn sequence that worked. What I came up with was this:
  1. Alert Phase -- In my particular scenario, the defenders are unprepared for the attack and are generally undisciplined. I divided the city into zones and every turn, I rolled to alert a different zone. For each hex in the zone to be alerted, I rolled a d6. On a 3+, the hex got a unit. When all zones had rolled to be alerted (after about 4-5 turns in), the palace would alert and the King and his guards would head out to battle.
  2. Initiative -- Both sides roll a d6 and the highest roll can move its units first.
  3. Move/Pin -- Each side can move all of its units one hex. The advantage to having initiative is that if you are in a hex with an enemy, or move into an enemy hex, you can choose to pin that enemy stack and they would be unable to move that turn.
  4. Combat -- Any contested hex has a combat round. The combat is resolved in a Risk-like fashion. Each side gets a number of dice and then you compare dice highest to lowest. Maximum number of casualties in a round is 2.
  5. Reinforcements -- If your side is eligible for reinforcements, you roll a number of d6 and on a 4+, you get a unit. For instance, if the allied forces attack through the main gate, they would be eligible for 4 dice and up to 4 new units each turn.
PCs could move and resolve an encounter any time during stages 2-4. Thus, they could wait and see how things progressed before moving, or they could preempt the larger units and move first. Each hex, I would also roll on a random encounter chart to see if they encountered anything "special" during the battle.

Thinking about it now, I think that pinning is a little too powerful, since a single unit can pin a whole stack. Also, there is a tendency for the forces to blob up a little too much. The most effective tactic would be to gather your forces into a single hex and just pound through your opponents' separate stacks. I think both of these issues could be tweaked out with a few small changes.

Friday's game, I have to admit being a little hesitant about my system, but decided to go with it in any case. The players decided to attack the harbor and the allied forces took two stacks -- one went straight toward the palace and the other protected the flank and the way back to the harbor.

The PCs traveled ahead of the flank protecting stack and hunted lone enemy patrols, each patrol we played a little battle using the Pathfinder rules. To scale the battles, I determined that the first enemy unit would be 1d4+2 enemies and that each additional unit would add 1d6 to that number. The PCs stuck to lone units (remember the enemies were alerting piecemeal) and moved from hex to hex, killing them... but using valuable spells and healing bursts in the process.

One thing that I like about this simple mini-game is that it does produce interesting situations. In our battle, the main force heading to the palace got stalled and bogged down, forcing the players to consider how best to support that stack and protect it from being overwhelmed.

Ultimately, the King and his cohort stormed out of the palace and forced the allied forces to pull back and regroup before throwing everyone into an epic final battle. We broke up before resolving that battle and we will resolve it next session in a giant Pathfinder battle...

Enemy Force
  • Admetus the Corrupt -- 4th level fighter, riding a chariot drawn by 2 Shadow Hounds
  • 2x Commander -- 2nd level fighter
  • Commander -- 2nd level mage
  • 46 troops
Allied Force
  • 5 PCs
  • Peter -- 2nd level cleric
  • Orc Commander -- 3rd level fighter
  • 55 troops
We are playing this man-to-man scale... should be fun.

Ultimately, I was happy with how it went. I think the weakest part was the individual encounters had by the PCs. The fights with the patrols were quick, but not very compelling and not enough interesting random encounters really appeared.

I do think the overall system is worthwhile as an easy way to put characters in a war situation without having it overwhelm the game. I will put together a copy of the rules and post them soon.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Where D&D Meets Risk (PCs at War Part 2)

Yesterday, I talked about the difficulties of putting PCs in the middle of a larger battle. I have such a situation coming up during this week's game and ideally, I'd like to give the players the feel that they are part of a large, chaotic battle involving hundreds of combatants, but still keep the game focussed on their characters.

This is not necessarily an easy task. My Pathfinder players are not interested in a wargame scenario and I am not excited about a "Covert Ops" scenario. I am hoping that somewhere in the middle of those two ideas is the right solution.

What I intend to try is to merge the concept of a super-light, Risk-style boardgame with a string of encounters for the PCs. So, this gives the players an idea of how the battle is progressing, where they are in relation to the fighting and where they are in relation to the major NPCs in the scenario. However, the underlying mechanics of the battle at large will be highly abstracted and the game will play out just like a series of encounters in a module.

As I write that, it strikes me as either a very cool idea, or a horrible failure waiting to happen... So, onto some specifics.

The map of the battlefield will be divided into 16 hexes. The allied forces can enter the board at one of three spaces, each one having certain advantages and disadvantages and each one requiring different levels of PC intervention. For instance:
  • Main Gate -- Requires PCs to sneak into town, have an encounter with the gate guards and open the gate for the main force. This approach is the best from the standpoint of getting the most troops on the board quickly, but is farthest from the main goal, the Palace.
  • Scale the Wall -- Requires PCs to fight a "Protect the Ladders" encounter with guards on the wall. This approach puts the allies in a tough starting position, but is very close to the Palace.
  • Sea Approach -- Requires no PC intervention, and puts a number of allied troops on the board, but also alerts the enemy and gives them the ability to react to the allies very early.
Each turn, both forces place reinforcement units and move units on the board one hex. All special units and the PCs (which are represented by a single figure) can then move. The PCs draw or roll a random encounter and resolve it and then all other combat is resolved.

The random encounters are the meat of the scenario. They are based on whether the PCs are in allied, enemy or contested territory and they have the potential to change the disposition of the battle by adding or removing units from the map. PCs might ambush an enemy patrol and thus remove a unit from the board, or they might come across civilians willing to take up arms against the corrupt king, adding an allied unit.

I am going to write up encounters this evening and do a quick run through to see how it works out. Unfortunately, I have given myself only a single night to determine how this is going to play. We'll see...

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

When The Caissons Go Rolling Along (PCs at war)

In my Friday Pathfinder game, my PCs are working with a group of priests and mercenaries to liberate a small island from the clutches of its evil and corrupted king. The culmination of this part of the campaign is going to be the battle for the main city on the island and hopefully the destruction of the Cannibal King, Admetus.

It certainly looks like it is going to be a great conclusion to the opening storyline in my new campaign. I am excited and I think the players are as well. Not only are they going to participate in a huge battle, but the outcome will determine the fate of an island kingdom and will have big repercussions on the game world.

For me though, episodes like this always bring up the same question: How do you deal with a party of PCs participating in the context of a larger battle?
In our Friday game, there will be hundreds of combatants fighting throughout an entire city. How do you capture the ebb and flow of such a battle? How do you make the PCs' actions central to the game, but maintain that feeling of being part of a larger conflict? Over the years, I have GMed lots of these "mass combat" sessions and I have tried many methods of bringing PCs into the midst of a large conflict. Let's talk about some of these.
Shutting Down the Generator -- I always call this the "Covert Op" or the "Special Forces Adventure". In this method, there is a huge battle raging near or around the PCs, but they are not really a part of it. Instead, they are a small group of specialists with a mission. The outcome of the battle hinges on the success of this mission, but is somehow separate from the bulk of the fighting.
So while the forces of good engage the orc menace, the PCs have to sneak through the front line and recover the Lost Sword from the Wizard's Tower. If the PCs can recover the sword, then the Orc Champion can be vanquished, otherwise the forces of good will surely lose.
The main advantage of this method is that you are just running another standard adventure. You don't need to consider the effects of the battle on the PCs' situation because the battle is merely a bit of flavor text designed to get the PCs to the real action -- the dungeon. This type of war-time scenario is easy to prepare and run and both the players and GM should be familiar with it. It's just that this time, instead of the old wizard in a tavern giving the PCs their marching orders, it is the General of the Armies of Man.
Of course, this familiarity is also the main disadvantage of this style of adventure as well. I don't know about you, but to me the whole, "trudging to Mordor to drop the One Ring into Mount Doom whilst being trailed by some homeless guy, and having my manservant cast longing glances my way" was the boring part of Lord of the Rings. Given a choice, I'd rather be at Helm's Deep fighting off hordes of orcs beside those bad-assed (and impeccably coiffed) elves.
There is something epic about a huge battle and so given the chance, I'd like to get the PCs involved directly in that battle. Avoiding the battle seems a tiny bit like a cop out, or at least a missed opportunity.
Leading the Charge (maybe) -- Another option is to put the players directly in charge of the battle by using some sort of mass combat system. You use a game like Warhammer, or Battlesystem, or you use mass combat rules tailored to your rpg of choice, or you write your own. The players split the forces of the good guys and the GM takes over the bad guys and you battle it out old-school-hex-and-counter-style.
The advantage here is that the entire battle unfolds in front of the players and their input affects the outcome directly. I've seen players get very invested in these battles, groaning when their last unit of spearmen gets routed and their carefully crafted lines begin to crumble... and cheering when their cavalry makes that decisive charge throwing the armies of the Dark Lord into disarray. These sessions can be a great change of pace from your normal, weekly rpg games.
Of course, that is also the problem. Presumably, if your players were into Warhammer, they would actually spend their evenings playing that game. Not everyone likes wargames, and in today's gaming climate, I would imagine most GMs have at least one player at their table that would be unhappy giving up their gaming night for a rousing evening of Advanced Squad Leader.
Another issue is the fact that unless your wargame of choice accounts for it, it might be hard to get the player characters involved in the battle. Few PCs in most campaigns have a lot of skills relating to the command of armies and few games account for the actions of a single individual among hundreds of soldiers. If this is the case, your players might feel cheated because their characters really aren't doing much to alter the fortunes of their allies.
And what if your players just plain suck at wargames...?
String of Encounters -- Many years ago, a British gaming mag published a set of light rpg rules and adventures for those rules. I remember that at least two of these adventures had some sort of mass combat aspect. To resolve these combats, they used something they called the "Quick and Dirty" method.
Essentially, the Q&D method consisted of drawing cards, or rolling dice and consulting a table of random encounters. In the course of the overall battle, PCs would come across these situations and play them out, one after the other. Based on the outcome of each scene, players would earn points moving them closer to that final, climactic outcome, or they would lose points, bringing them to the brink of defeat.
The beauty of this method is that it is as simple to prepare and run as the covert op, but it gives the players more of a feel of being part of a larger battle because in this method, the battle is the dungeon.
The key here is writing good, compelling encounters. Each encounter card not only has to give the PCs a task, but it also has to give them the feel for the conflict of which they are a part. Think of all the misery and chaos that would fill site of a battle. Your PCs would stumble onto ongoing battles between their forces and the enemy. They would save civilians from a burning house. They might come across looters, or injured soldiers, confused and looking for their unit.
In general, this is a nice method, because it is easy to prep, it stays firmly on the rpg side of gaming and keeps the PCs as the center of attention. However, you still aren't representing the battle in any interesting way. The battle is some blurry, abstract thing going on around the players and the individual encounters are just filler until you can get to the big bad guy at the end. There is no chance that a daring charge will break the line of orcs. There is no chance that one squad can hold a guard tower until help arrives. Unless, of course, these events are scripted into your encounter tables.
I use this method a lot to represent PCs in larger battles and it works fairly well. I recommend it. Still, there are times when I want a little clearer picture of the battlefield and the PCs' place in it.
Friday, I am going mix it up a little bit... my players don't seem interested in a wargaming night and I don't want to do the "you are on a special mission" route. So, I am going to mix a very, very light, risk-like wargame with a string of random encounters and see how that goes... I will try to publish the "rules" for this battle tomorrow.