So on recommendations from peers, I’m going to relook at Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA). This is going to require quite a bit of reading and then some hacking, creating and writing until finally some playtesting!
I really hate flip-flopping but while I love FATE it doesn’t quite capture the heist-y feel that I want and hence the lack of drive of this project on my part. Also FATE probably wouldn’t work well without a serious hack of the system which was the point of going to FATE in the first place!
That being said my main reservation of needing playbooks (from my Blades in the Dark experience) is apparently largely unfounded. This is what I meant when I said I wasn’t massively confident with the system and didn’t want to have to create write and balance a half dozen playbooks in an unfamiliar system but apparently playbooks aren’t needed for PbtA. So I have rekindled hope in the system.
So just before Christmas we wrapped up the Red Hand of Doom with an epic 10 hour session. The party had the help of a Bronze Dragon that they’d somehow managed to extract and ressurect in a cave outside of the last dungeon.
The battle with the high priest of Tiamat was tough because I wasn’t pulling punches and there were respawning minions. Unhallow effects also didn’t help make it easier. Basically a slightly stacked deck. However they prevailed and then fought an Aspect of Tiamat. This is basically the weakened Tiamat from the ‘Rise of the Tiamat’ adventure which makes her supposedly CR15. However the PCs had a dragon with them plus a bonus dragon from a boon of Bahamut that they had earned. This enabled them to put some consistent damage on the aspect.
Additionally I made sure to telegraph the Aspects breath weapons (“she’s inhaling…”) because while rolling 16d6 for a breath weapon is fun, a TPK that the party can’t stop *isn’t*. I was essentially thinking of ‘MMO Raid’ for this encounter. That included cheats like ‘health gating’ – so there were triggered events at 50% and 25% and 10% HP. The last of which was a ‘wipe mechanic’ (her flame breath which would probably KO or Kill 3 of the party). Despite some hairy moments the party prevailed, banishing the aspect back to hell.
Firstly ‘cool trumps rules’. This isn’t to say let players away with taking the piss and trying to invent unreasonable advantages for themselves, but that if they do something imaginative and consistent within the rules of the system then it should have a reasonable shot of working if it promulgates the story.
Second 5E boss fights using standard rules as written suck. Simply put that 4 characters have multiple attacks, items and bonus actions. That could be 12 distinct rolls or effects or attacks. Few monsters get that within a round. Tiamat has multiple reactions and legendary actions which makes her a bit more challenging but she’s a deity. Most bosses in 5E aren’t quite that advanced. Both of these points have made me think of other ways to resolve combat and vanquish foes.
So to this end recently I’ve been stealing ideas from looter-shooters like Borderlands 2 and Destiny 2. Both of them are similar to TTRPGS (kill stuff, get XPs & get loots!) and are clearly influenced by traditional RPGs as well as MMOGs. While many people wanted to get away from 4th edition’s ‘computer game’ style mechanics, from a DMs point of view 4E was a lot easier to run with a lot of nice overlapping and interactive rules. There were 1hp minions, mobile flanking skirmishers, HP slab brutes, ambushing lurkers, debuffing and manipulative controllers, long range damaging artillery and slightly stronger and tougher soldiers.
With that in mind concepts such as powerful bosses having ‘wipe mechanics’ (or in the case of D&D just mass AOE damage), limited periods when they could be damaged (DPS Phase) as well as waves of minions (‘Adds’). However this isn’t suitable for most medium sized humanoid foes at low level. Often they just have regular class abilities or the like and it’s not until the PCs are facing much more deadly foes that you can implement these sorts of mechanics.
A lot of these are very 4E in their approach. Many good 4E encounters combined a difficult (or impossible!) combat with a skill challenge (puzzle or ritual to solve) which would render the combat a bit more manageable. Don’t be afraid to look at older 4E resources and steal/borrow/adapt them for your game!
Use Seige Equipment – as outlined above, PCs must fight and capture seige equipment to turn it on a more powerful foe that they couldn’t hope to defeat normally. Examples would be using ballista to injure a dragon, or trebuchets to destroy seige towers.
Disrupt the Ritual – a monster coming through a portal. By smashing the focus stones or killing the ritual chanting cultists the portal weakens and this also damages or weakens the monster to the point where it becomes a fair fight.
‘DPS Phase’ – The PCs must survive the monsters attack for a couple of rounds which then exhausts it or it needs to recharge or similar. This provides opportunities for the PCs to inflict damage without fear of its fatal attacks being used on them. Obviously if the PCs get greedy and try to press their attack, the creatures attack will recharge and they will not hesitate to turn it on the over-eager PCs. Don’t forget to summon in low-level minions to keep the pressure on and to telegraph the ‘wipe’ attack before it happens.
Bait & Banish – The monster is all but invincible (but very stupid!) The PCs need to lure it onto specific locations (magic circles, trap triggers or similar) in order to render it vulnerable or to allow the traps to inflict damage. To make it more difficult the locations could be depleted or destroyed once the monster has taken it’s damage. Of course as the creature takes damage it gets more angry and the monsters minions could accidentally trigger the traps, using them up.
Air Strike – This is similar to the endgame plot of Out of the Abyss. Basically a beacon/trap/bomb or artefact or similar is planted in the enemy’s lair which then calls down whatever fire/monster/wrath of the gods to weaken the enemy.
In closing – just remember that typical initiative and combat isn’t the only way to defeat enemies. Often unique enemies require unique solutions!
A brief update : I’ve recently been in hospital with acute abdominal pain and while experiencing morphine for the first time was nice it still doesn’t make me want to repeat the experience. I also managed to miss some major Pokémon events too so poke-post hasn’t seen an update in ages.
Consequently I’m a bit fragile and have a massive backlog of housework to deal with as well as other real life stuff. So right now life is just a bit harder than normal at the moment. But ho hum – evolve, adapt & overcome!
During all of this I’ve managed to update my mobile is to a snazzy blackberry keyONE – which I’m hoping will facilitate a bit more productivity and help me return to producing game related content as well as possible future published pieces. It really is great for typing away on it like a mini tablet.
In terms of the YouTube I have a nice background cloth prepared (cut and hemmed) as well as better technology setup for mic+camera on top of optimising my workflow for the edit. So when I get a moment to write script topics I’ll be back to producing more videos. In the meanwhile EN world are making a podcast about RPGs so check them out if you need a fix of RPG news.
It’s not all doom and gloom, I’ve managed to spend a little time playing dungeons & dragons online (DDO) with my other half. Set in ebberon (and about 10 years old) it’s given me some interesting ideas and thoughts for actual D&D dungeons and methods of linking adventures. The lack of MMOG grind is nice too.
In real world I’ve managed to run the Secrets of Cats which is a FATE based system and despite not running fate before it went well and was enjoyed by all.
This then led me down a path whereby I’ve decided to switch hAccess to fate rather than PBTA for the simple reasons that I have limited experience with PBTA, it requires more bootstrapping to make a distinct yet playable hack which I don’t think I could manage without a dedicated PBTA group. FATE also allows for narrative framing of the level of detail depending on what sort of ‘adventure’ the players undertake. In short while I am enamoured of Blades/PBTA I don’t know it well enough to be able to make it do what I want. Whereas I do with FATE.
Finally in terms of TTRPGs we’re almost concluded in our side quest to save the sky whale and the group are really cool and have arranged too meet up and try a 1 shot of something. I’m going to bring FATE/ cats as well as some D&D I think. I’m enjoying the story and characters we have in the spin off but am looking forward to the getting back to the much bigger scale Red Hand of Doom.
We’ve also decided that we like miniatures for combat so I’ve spend a whole tenner on ebay to get about 60 lord of the rings uruk hai which work great as militarised hobgoblins. They’ll require stripping and painting too. More things for which I’m too tired to do *at the moment* but I’m sure will eventually get done.
Anyway if you’ve read all of this thanks for bearing with me while I continue to recover.
Following a wholesome exchange on Twitter I took a little plunge and got a webcam which arrives tomorrow. It might be the anxiety but my stomach is in a bit of a knot at the thought. I know that by making a commitment via buying it (and money isn’t exactly abundant!) that it will force me to at least try this.
This is also something a good friend mentioned to me a while back and resulted in me making a couple of videos about assembling metal miniatures for wargames using my partners dSLR. However I’m not that enthused by wargames and haven’t been for a while, and it felt a bit forced. Most videos are about painting, so assembly was a bit different but isn’t really something people struggle with.
Anyway, as pointed out on the Twitterverse people like Matt Colville and Critical Role are thebut are not a bar to making D&D/RPG related content. Another point raised that was it takes ego – I end up thinking ‘who would want to listen to me?’ But maybe someone will and that would be good.
Although I don’t think I have a massive ego I do like helping people and playing D&D so if others can learn from my experiences and the process is at least somewhat enjoyable it could be something I keep up.
With that in mind the 5 topics I’ve decided to hash out and then see from there.
I’m going to review random RPGs that I encounter, and I’ve started to encounter more than I otherwise would in my little D&D bubble thanks to our local RPG club. So long story short; I attend a weekly RPG group in my hometown and have been doing so since I formally stopped teaching – roughly the last 3 months although they’re nearly a year old now. I knew about it because my partner is on the same college course as the founder – small world but with the teaching stuff I couldn’t make the commitment. However that died and I really love RPGs and need external social contact so off I went after an old friend invited me to join his game.
I started out playing Blades in the Dark for a whole 1 week and then on week 2 got co-opted into running D&D for some newbies ( thanks Harry!) However it proved rather popular so it’s still going even after finishing the Lost Mines of Phalandelver – we’re now on the Red Hand of Doom (another thing I’ll need ot review at some stage!) I initially joined as I used to DM a lot and Harry’s invitation gave me an option to play, but as it stands my weekly RPG at a friends house has had me playing for the last 2 campaigns so I don’t mind DMing here. It’s all part of the karma circle or something.
Anyway, the ‘Millenium Falcons’ RPG group is sponsored by EN World – you may have heard of them. Accordingly, every month/6 weeks or so we get a couple of RPG books or accessories which are raffled. Each paying attendee in the previous month/6 weeks gets an entry while DMs get an extra entry for each week that they DM. It’s a really cool system and it’s nice to get a little kickback for supporting a club. As I’ve DMed and attended a lot (14/15 weeks or so!) – I’ve won twice! Firstly the Starfinder core book last month and now this week I won something called ‘Space 1889‘.
While I’ve heard of Star/Pathfinder I’d never heard of ‘Space 1889‘ using the Ubiquity system, – published by Clockwork Publishing (Abranson & Götz) and distributed in the UK by Mophidius.
Space 1889 Review
So I guess reading a lot of different types of RPGs is part of the criteria for attempting to write an RPG system and improve myself as a DM and storyteller? At the very least this one proves to be rather different than anything I’d normally pick up.
Interestingly all the rules are at the back, and all 137/241 pages of the fluff is upfront. It’s marketed as a ‘core book’ so in theory should be all encompassing from what I can tell. This was my major criticism with Starfinder – you still need adventures/encounters as well as enemies since there’s relatively few free resources at the moment. So short of making it up – which is totally OK by the way – I worry that in a finely mathematically tuned system (like Path/Star-finder where the numbers get bigger and bigger) it can be hard to accurately assess what numbers are the right ones for something as top heavy as a 3.X d20 system.
Looking at Space 1889 it seems ‘vaguely specific’. The rules cover a lot of options, but aren’t bogged down in details except for the setting and fluff. so the rules are vague but the setting is extremely specific. Generally anything with a date in the title is probably going to be specific. The history is quite detailed and from what I can see largely accurate but obviously has space travel and ray gun turrets and mech-robot things, along with lizardmen on Venus and alien/goblin/bat-things on Mars.
Meanwhile the earth is as screwed politically as it was in the real 1889 and there’s all the issues that go with colonialism, racism and the other general ignorances of the era. This isn’t to disparage the real people of the time – like all of us we are partially products of our time; I’m sure in 100 years, I’ll be seen as some ogre by comparison to future-people. However this is partially alleviated by the presence of aliens which is good, although I worry that it’s just a way of transferring biases and hatereds to non-humans. I guess that depends on what sort of game you run and what themes you want to explore.
The rule system is a pool based system using odd/even to determine successes – the ‘Ubiquity’ system. This is nice because the actual type of dice doesn’t matter (as long as its got an even number of sides) which I found novel enough. A typical 7 or 8 dice polyset gives you all the dice you’ll probably need, as does a block of D6. There’s options to boost your rolls with ‘style’ points which encourages roleplaying panache.
Character generation is a simple points buy with varying levels of power – from ‘unlucky fellow’ all the way up ‘Herculean’ with archetypes that remind me a lot of Vampire the Masquerade. This helps you set the tone from Cthulhu grade bumbling in the dark all the way up to Indiana Jones and beyond. In addition there’s a virtue/vice system which again has that feel of World of Darkness lurking about it although the setting seems to lean towards one of optimism and exploration.
I have to admit that I only gave the book a cursory flick over a couple of in terms of the first several sections of fluff. It is really dense on the setting and fluff, then light on the crunch. Additionally, there’s also no sample adventures included, although several developed example characters are included. There’s an assortment of extras available on Mophidius’ website. Artwork is reminiscent of 90s era WoD (minus boobs) and prior pulp-style comics which fits the theme nicely.
The custom alternate history is rather meaty and despite an A at GCSE, History to me is a subject and not a hobby to that level. I’d prefer to read the ‘history’ of Dragonville, with an eye to how I can use that information in a game rather than have a confusing mix of fact and fiction about an unreal timeline that I have to keep straight in a real world. I think it’s because if I’m reading say D&D or Starfinder ‘history’ it’s all ‘true’ because it’s all also all not real. In essence the pretend history is as real as it’s going to be. Whereas if I’m reading alternative history I have a dissonant meta-awareness that it’s all fake and need to take more steps to keep it mentally separate. However I know some people just love alt-history/diesel-/steam-punk stuff, I’m just not one of them.
I guess the word I searching for is verisimilitude; I find that ‘alternative’ settings don’t really tickle my fancy in that I find them too radically unrealistic. To scratch that itch I’d rather something like Vampire or Cthulhu which are also arguably ‘alternative’ (vampires and monsters exist) but are also ‘real’ in that day to day things like science and animals and stuff generally work how you’d expect. EG; Queen Victoria is queen and empress as opposed to England having becoming a republic after the Martian scuba-commandos attacks of 1847. Even Malifaux is alternative but is in a different dimension, again where all the weirdness is sort of contained and separate but parallel. Maybe I just need to get over this hump but as I’m not a fan of alt-history stuff it’s not something I encounter a lot of.
As mentioned this RPG is ‘vaguely specific’ so if you really want a setting about the early 1900s, that features pulp sci-fi, including space and aliens then this is certainly for you. The system is streamlined enough to avoid pointless complexity – the bane of the old storyteller system or d20 3.X – and looks simple enough to run. I don’t think this is something that I’ll end up playing because it’s so specific, however I am very interested to steal the Ubiquity system and give it a try to see if it’s good for other things! I already have Spirit of the Century – a FATE based system I really like the idea of but have yet to actually play -since it can cover alternative history but doesn’t have to.
I feel that the crunch is great, the fluff:crunch ratio is great, but unfortunately the fluff isn’t of a genre that particularly makes me want to play it which is purely a personal thing. That’s what’s frustrating, I just know I’m not a fan of victorian/steampunk the same way I’m not a fan of Hip-Hop, Guiness or Soccer which in some ways is worse because I know there’s little I can do to make myself enjoy it.
This isn’t the typical ‘your should roleplay more’ or ‘how to get your players involved in the world’ type stuff that you see around the internet. This is using in-game storytelling as a narrative framing device within an established campaign in order to facilitate a deviation from the usual pace or style of play.
Beginning at the End
Why do this? I had this idea while looking at the nascent D&D Beyond forums . Someone was having difficulty getting their PCs to a particular adventure. I suggested that the adventure had already happened. You tell the story in ‘flashback’ – the adventures are in the pub/adventurer base/quest hub after having succeeded at the previously inaccessible quest, and new hopefuls come along looking for tales of adventure. The PCs dispense their wisdom with the DM as the ‘narrator’ or the story.
I think the flashback/storytelling is a good storytelling device because we’ve already established that the characters are (still) alive so even if they die in the ‘story’ we ‘know’ that they didn’t/got ressurected. This adds a layer of security which means that the players might take risks that they otherwise wouldn’t. Players might not want to risk their precious PCs on a tangential one-shot so by framing it as an in-universe story you can overcome some of those hurdles.
If you’re looking to shake up your campaign and shake up your players you could do worse than get the Tales from the Yawning Portal. (If you buy via Amazon from the link I get a little kickback at no additional cost to you!)
What i’m trying to get at is that RPGs are about telling stories and, just like stories from books, TV or other media, they do not need to be linearly narrated. You can exploit novel narrative techniques that we see in film or theatre. Although, while these techniques can keep things fresh and are good now and again, you would rapidly get annoyed if your favourite TV serial was always relying on such tricks to make stories work. So use sparingly – when the narrative calls for it!
So I’ve decided on Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) which is the system behind Blades in the Dark. I figure that the clandestine nature of Blades lends itself towards hACCESS compared to FATE. While FATE is more open ended, it is better for shorter, more hands off type games and Blades borrows enough from FATE to keep that part of me happy. Blades skips over minutia to focus on the dynamic actions that directly effect the outcomes.
That said, I am still extremely inexperienced with Blades so feel unsure if I should be writing a system hack, even though I know that it’s the best system to cover the source material and capture the feel of the game. Though the reality is that I need a place to start from, if in time I end up revising the main system to a different one or a bespoke one so be it.
Anyway I’ve been looking over the System Reference Document for Blades in the Dark, which itself is using the ‘Powered by the Apocalypse‘ system of mechanics. To utilize the Blades variant of PbtA, the licensing is referred to as ‘Forged in the Dark’. Most of the derivative systems seem to make light of the name such as ‘Glow in the Dark’ (Post Apocalypse) etc.
Mechanics of the System
They say the best way to understand something is to explain it so here goes: The system is a d6 based dice pool. You roll a number of dice equal to a skill or attribute rating, choosing the highest single outcome. 1-3 is a failure, 4-5 is a partial success and 6 is an outright success.
Depending on the complexity and danger of the task the protagonists may suffer setbacks or take injuries. Any of these can be bought off by paying with stress which can also be spent in advance to gain bonus advantages or rewrite minor details via flashbacks. In this way its quite similar to Fate points.
So to use this system I need to, at a minimum, reframe the 12 core skills and corresponding attributes (probably into insight, logic & physique). In addition the Playbooks for each ‘class’ and type of crew (working name: collective) need to be run. Then the additional world building aspects such as gear and types of jobs. But that’s par for the course. The main take away point is that I don’t need to reinvent the wheel in order to start fleshing out my RPG and I can build on the mistakes and experiences of others who have made their own hacks via the Forged in the Dark licence.
Even the writeup licence allows one to essentially copy over their core rules and system, and then chop and change it. I have started but the main difficulty is keeping it all organised – it’s about 15,000 words and that’s without any of the worldbuilding, fluff or unique mechanics that I need to tie into the system.
Finally, it’s taken a little bit of time to get here and to have the courage and conviction to actually start working on this in an organised fashion. I couldn’t have done it without the encouragement of my good friend Simon, who’s an aspiring author. If you want to read some interesting sci-fi (and other stuff) check out his blog.
By far the most difficult part of attempting to craft an RPG is deciding on the resolution system, aka the ‘mechanics’. I’ve encountered many varieties of systems using different dice, cards or other ways of resolving issues. There are systems which rely on narration and don’t have dice all the way up to massively crunchy systems where there’s a dice and chart for almost everything!
Part of the reason for writing this is to help me flesh out and clarify what makes each system unique, and analyse their strengths.
Generally there’s 2 main approaches involving dice in an RPG; a pool or a variable target number. The major approaches are succinctly covered here.
Dice pool methods involve rolling a number of dice depending on the situation and counting some results (say all values over 5) as successes. Depending on the specific system, a player may require as few as one success or perhaps as many as four or five are required to mean total success of a task. Some systems allow for varying the target number -so in a d6 pool 4+ might be a success in a normal task, whereas only 6+ are successes for a very difficult task. Others change the number of successes required to moderate the difficulty but leave the value for success untouched. An example of games that use this are Vampire/WoD (d10), Shadowrun (d6), and Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA – d6).
The other general system, variable target number, is again determined by rolling one or more dice which are (usually) summed along with modifiers and then the total compared to a value. The most well known example is D&D; a player rolls a d20 adds modifiers and the total is compared to a target number (such as armor, or a spell’s save difficulty). If it equals or beats the target number the sword hits or the action succeeds. This has the advantage that bigger numbers are generally better (a +9 to hit is much better than a +4 to hit) and that modern game theory ensures that sane control is kept over the target numbers. (Bounded accuracy!)
Variations on this method include percentile systems (d10/0) which again are calculated with modifiers and compared to values (often the users abilities), a 3d6 system (Song of Ice & Fire or Dragon Age) where you simply sum the dice and compare to a skill or value as well as the FATE system which uses bespoke dice (+1,+1, +0, +0, -1, -1) known as dF, to give a nicely bell curved range of results from -4 to +4, with +0 followed by +1 or -1 being the most common occurrence.
There are also hybrid systems – the one that springs to mind is Mophidius’ 2d20 system which combines a pool of d20s (not always 2!) compared to a derived target number. While the system has it’s own issues – it seems to draw a lot from FATE in terms of feeling but implements it with a pool system – it is an example of both a pool based system combined with a variable target system.
However dice alone do not a great game make. Without classes or races or equipment you couldn’t generate the numbers required for D&D to run smoothly. By way of contrast, dice pool systems often tend to lean away from classes and equipment for a less detailed but more fluid skill based narrative system.
My main concern with a d20 or even percentile based system is that there are a lot of details and modifiers which I would not only need to write, test and balance but that players would also need to record and remember. An example that springs to mind Starfinder by Piazo. On the surface is this is another d20 system similar to D&D, but it has an almost impenetrable level of class features, feats, and abilities to the point where I struggle to imagine how I would ever play it, let alone GM a game.
In Starfinder there are a myriad of dense options for each class which make the game quite ‘crunchy’ which I’m sure appeals to some, but makes me concerned because you’re constantly having to reshuffle your numbers every time you get new equipment or abilities. Equipment is also level scaled so it is necessary to be constantly upgrading gear or risk falling behind.
Contrast this approach with 5E D&D where the numbers are more restricted due to ‘bounded accuracy’, where character options are more streamlined (restricted?) and you’ve got a system which is easy to pick up, scales well and doesn’t require massive amounts of bookkeeping.
Because the system is well established the game is easier to run which to me contributes to the most important thing about any game – playability.
Another question is which dice to use? Rolling dice is a very tactile experience and in a game that occurs ephermally it might be the only physical ‘component’. Certain dice are easier to roll in large numbers (d6, d20s) whereas others are quite difficult to roll en masse or read (d4s, d8s).
D20 – have a wide range of values allowing modifiers to be calculated according to how much impact you want them to have in 5% increments.
d12 – unfortunately there’s very little that a d12 brings mathematically that a d6 or d20 doesn’t really bring. I guess unless you want to go for a 7/12 ratio for success or something, there’s really very little reason to use a d12. There is a Lord of the Rings system that has a special d12 ranging from 1-10 with an evil and good symbol – presumably some sort of special effect.
d10 – have the advantage of being decimal, being easy to roll in a pool system and by being in 10% increments makes the maths easier to calculate
d6 – easy to roll but with limited outcomes and so needing a number (2d6,3d6) to distribute out but at that point you might as well use a d20? Great for pool systems though where more dice = better.
dF- hard to find (and expensive) but providing a nice distribution of results tending around +/-1 or 0.
I am strongly leaning to a pool based system since it is less ‘blow by blow’ and can be a slight bit more abstract giving players and GMs room to forge story elements without being too constrained. I do like the FATE system generally since it’s highly narrative although logicistally the bespoke dice can make the game hard to access. A variant D6-D6 system might be an option (ranging from -5 to +5) but the numbers aren’t as good as 4dF.
PbtA systems like Blades in the Dark seem to strike the balance between adding dice and pooling them, but Blade hacks need ‘playbooks’ to be written and defined. While I’m not shying away from work, I’m concerned that it pigeonholes players into stereotypes which defeats the point of being able to ‘hack’ and redefine your character.
To that end I’m leaning towards a classless/skill based system (like Vampire) with narrative elements (like FATE) – so right now a toss up between PbtA (of which I have very little actual play experience) and FATE. The plus side is that these systems are both ‘open source’ which is a great thing in terms of RPG advancement.
A bit of context: Since 2009, before I even lived in Southampton, I ran a game of D&D there and made friends with some people, one of whom I consider a close friend and who I still meet with weekly to play RPGs.
Usually we play D&D (4E, now 5E) but after unsuccessfully ending our excursion into Ravenloft in a TPK (Every time he DMs the party dies!) we opted to try out the relatively new Star Trek Adventures by Mophidius.
I must admit that I was slightly offput by the Mophidius affiliation. I used to play Infinity a lot, and saw their alpha/kickstarter preliminary release for that as an RPG. Frankly I thought it sucked. Clunky and generic, it didn’t inspire me to even give it an attempt at playing so I didn’t bother with the kickstarter.
I was also afraid at the rate of which they seemed to be acquiring licences to various IPs and churning out RPGs based on them using their ‘2d20 system’. It’s not that I have anything against them as a company, I just wonder how focused a small company can be when they’re producing new games at a rate of knots! However despite my apprehension the system looked interesting. It seemed to draw on mechanics from FATE and used a d20 pool based system which in itself is a bit novel.
Aside from D20s the game uses special 6 sided effect dice that are marked 1/2/-/-/*/* You can get a set of 4 of these and 3 d20s for about £18 retail which is about twice what a sensible price point should have been. I made my own using blank dice and a handheld engraving tool. I get that it’s got the Star Trek licence, but at the same time it’s not an excuse to gouge prices.
Additionally despite the sexy LCARS computer style of the layout and design, the game lacks Klingons which is clearly being held for a future splatbook. Considering they are a protagonist race I was surprised. I understand that they’re not in the federation but again they must have realised that players would want to play a Klingon – although it would probably require a lot of exceptions and become the ‘drow’ of the system!
Anyway onto the system – the core mechanic – an attribute + a skill to determine the target number which you have to roll equal to or under is fine. It’s all of the other stuff stapled on – there’s values, momentum, determination, talents and traits. All of these are basically FATE aspects and fatepoints with a different name and made much more confusing. Momentum is something you get by achieving more successes than you need and can be used to buy extra dice or re-roll damage and other effects. Basically FATE points. But they are applied in a very metagaming heavy method.
Case in point are the skill challenges – some of them are literally unachievable unless you have maxed out stats and the corresponding focus and pump a lot of momentum into it. They get easier as you succeed but the odds of succeeding initially are extremely low. Add to that a time factor and if you screw up the first roll you might as well be toast!
Ship to ship combat is a nightmare too. We have been playing pre-written adventures so it’s not a case of a bad GM.
That being said, I really like the setting and it tries to incorporate a lot of Star-Trek like themes. However, we’ve decided to axe the system and use FATE instead because ultimately that is what the system obviously was based on before it got ‘2d20’ stapled to it’s face!
You might have noticed the slight Deus Ex theme. I recently managed to finish the game on the uber-hard, perma-death, one-save-only mode aka ‘I never asked for this’. So in this post I’m going to discuss the game theory and key differences between computer based RPGs and tabletop RPGs (ttRPGs)
What has this to do with regular RPGs you ask? Unlike tabletop RPGs, video games usually have a save game feature, if you die, make a mistake or regret a choice you can undo it by reloading.
For some, this mentality has carried over to ttRPGs. I can specifically recall a game of Deathwatch where a players reaction on meeting a merchant was to kill him and take his stuff (which was worthless compared to his equipment). As another player it was frustrating for many reasons. Needless to say it didn’t end too well for that character (or game) but wasted a lot of time. This sort of behaviour is generally known as acting like a ‘murderhobo’.
Whereas computer games can sometimes render player decisions meaningless, ttRPGs usually result in decisions that are important and have in-game consequences. I’m a firm supporter of the games theory which believes that meaningful choices (that at least give an illusion of choice) are what make players happy. In a tabletop RPG if you kill a dragon in a lucky few hits, it is still dead when you leave and return the the area.
Computer games are riddled with funnels, railroads and invisible walls to force players to be in the right place, which we accept because computers have limited options. If the game doesn’t want you to kill that dragon yet then you simply won’t be able to. Similarly if that door is unopenable yet there’s almost nothing you can do to open it earlier. If we come up with ingenious solutions (stacking boxes to jump over a wall, or taking massive steps to defeat a much superior foe) then we’re more surprised if they work than if they don’t.
That being said, a poor GM might also heavily fudge things and shift the goalposts behind the scenes to overcome player solutions, although one hopes it’s to keep the game and story fun. We’ve all heard of the ‘DMPC’; author-insertion fantasy style NPCs that are invincible mary-sues which ultimately ruins the fun of the players. On the other hand a good GM can roll with the punches and use what the players throw back to challenge and change the game for the better.
This all leads me, in my quest for better RPGs, to always consider the choices available and to help players with their decisions. Players by mission of action generally want to influence the world their characters inhabit. Even slaying some goblins is changing the world in a small way, so similarly their bigger decisions should have a bigger and more meaningful impact on the world.
This isn’t to say that every time they hit the tavern post adventure that there needs to be an earth shattering choice, but simply that overall players exert some influence on their situation. Even in dark RPGs like WFRP or Darksun, where things are more ‘grim’, players are special and that should mean something.