Sunday, August 28, 2011

Far Trek character sheets

Yup just like Roguish and every other game I make, the character sheets are book marked size.  I might goof around with doing a note card version as well at some point, but for play testing these worked just fine. I intentionally left off equipment because Trek isn't about hording and hauling.  Everyone has a phaser, a communicator and if you are a blue shirt, tricorder or med kit.  Anything you need is a transporter call away (assuming you can use your communicator) or on board ship (assuming the Turbolift works).

The neat thing I have found in refereeing Far Trek is how much more I focus on creating a cool story and not so much on is this creature too tough or easy?  How much treasure is enough and will that item ruin my future campaign plans? Will the players have enough challenge? Those mechanical considerations are gone and instead I am more interested in story and plot.  Yes there are mechanics involved and phaser battles, but (rightly or wrongly) there isn't the same feel to these events in the game.  They are more plot devices that help resolve or increase plot tensions rather than mechanical game grinding for all or nothing resolutions.  Well at least that's how I play them in the game when I run it.  Your warp speeds may vary.

Beyond Mike Berkey's orginal document for Microlite, I have a stack of FASA's Star Trek RPG stuff, Last Unicorn's, and ADB's Prime Directive (GURPS) books.  The one thing I find interesting and similar about all of the professionally published stuff is how much intricate detail is included.  It's impressive (almost like a tech manual in detail) but also stifling and not necessarily in line with a TV series based RPG.  Kind of like most RPG's in general now, they tend to overly rule and over explain everything in detail to do away with ambiguity.  In my experience it's the ambiguity in RPG's that makes the referee's job the most fun, the player's experience the most harrowing, and the game play in general the more memorable.

Note none of that applies if playing with "rules lawyers and munchkins."  If that's your group, I'm sorry and I hope you find a new one...SOON!

UPDATE: posted original "class based" play test sheets.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

These are the continuing voyages of the Far Trek RPG...

This has become quite a rework.  It's sort of like deciding to repaint a room in your house, and then realizing crap, now I have to change every room in the house to match.  I realize it sounds strange comparing home improvement to fantasy gaming...sigh..well that's how mixed up my life is right now, plus a blizzard of a year at work has kept me swamped.

Meanwhile, back on the bridge...

I have retained a lot of the spirit and text from Where No Man has Gone Before 2.0 because it's really good!  At the same time I have tried to make it feel more like a game I'd want to play and mashed it up with some of my own game rules. In addition I have tried to make FAR TREK into a more cinematic playing experience to match the feel of TOS rather than a number crunching, hit point tracking, and damage detailed RPG.  So to give you a quick idea of where things are headed:

Things you will not find in Far Trek:
Hit Points
Weapon Damage rolls (like knife 1d6, phaser 4d6, photon torpedo 100d6...nope, not in here)
Armor Classes
d20 and other D&D standard polyhedral dice

Things you will find
Four Attributes (ST, IQ, DX, CA)
Classes (Gold Shirt, Blue Shirt, Red Shirt)
Special Talents

I have had a lot to do (and continue to do a lot) of cutting pasting and redesigning to work Far Trek into the game system (d6 based) and play style which I think will fit the spirit of Star Trek.

Will Far Trek succeed or EPIC fail? You can beam a copy up in a few weeks and decide for yourself.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Adventure Design Lessons from the Roguelike game genre

No secret I love roguelike games.  I came upon an article discussing 8 key design points for making a roguelike and surprise, they are just as applicable to pen and paper gaming (IMHO).  Sometimes I think we can all get a little too "inside baseball" regarding adventure design so its important to read stuff outside your normal haunts to expand and add to your views.  Below are 8 Roguelike design rules by John Harris.  While they may not all apply directly to table top, I think there is a lot of good food for thought.  Here is John's article:

Back in November, in the previous @Play column, I mentioned a number of proposed rules of roguelike design, and promised soon to describe them. It's taken a bit longer than I expected, but here they are.

I call these rules for rhetorical purposes only. I don't think there are any inviolate laws of game design. But given we are talking about roguelikes, there are certain properties that have been important to the genre. 

Maybe not to all roguelike games; some of these have to do with designing a good item identification system, for instance, and many of the more recent games do not use that. I'm fairly outspoken in my appreciation for item-ID systems, so please calibrate your wonk-o-meter appropriately.

I use the term "reasonable play" several times here. It refers to being in a neutral state in terms of danger. For example, almost any bad effect from using an item can prove fatal if the player uses it at the wrong time. Discovering the potion of confusion by quaffing when a troll is attacking you is dangerous—so don't do that! 

f you're down to one hit point, even slight damage could kill you, and some games have items that do piddling damage, so don't do that either. Most of the time in a roguelike the player is not in immediate danger. That is the fact on which the idea of reasonable play rests. Unknown items are possibly dangerous, so there must exist times of lesser danger in which to try them. A game built on the idea of literally constant peril would have different design demands. You are on your own in figuring those out.

Now, while a bad effect is active, it's possible for a previously out-of-sight monster to walk up and start hitting the player. That is a less obvious case, but the player could have test ID'd the item while in a large, lit room, decreasing the chance that an unseen monster could reach him before the potion wore off. This helps to make it okay. In fact, the most effective roguelikes purposely make it difficult to always know when it's safe to perform dangerous actions. If there were a hard-and-fast rule about test-IDing potions of confusion, then an argument could be made that they shouldn't be in the game!

Of course game design is not a science. I tend to rebel whenever I hear someone tell me about features that "obviously" should never, or always, be present in a game. The following rules are no different. They are useful, however, when talking with respect to the default state of roguelike play and design, which I will define here as being that of Rogue itself. But they all apply, with different strictness, to all the other major roguelikes: Nethack, Angband, ADOM and Dungeon Crawl.

So here is a list of eight rules. Each leads with a name, in quotation marks, to facilitate discussion, followed by the rule itself in around a sentence, followed by discussion, and then finally followed by both examples of games using it well and "reverse examples" of games doing it badly. I apologize in advance for there being a lot of Nethack in these examples, but, well, it still has many features worthy of discussion.

1. "No beheading rule." Provided reasonable play, the player’s character should not be killed or harmed too greatly & permanently in one attack.

Example: In Nethack, cockatrices can't immediately kill the player through a single attack. They can initiate delayed stoning, but that gives the player a few turns to cure the condition.

Reverse example: In old versions of Nethack, Medusa was a random monster that appeared in a random room in the deeper dungeons. Since merely seeing Medusa kills the player, this breaks the rule unless the player had a way of knowing Medusa was there before stepping into sight, and the game was random enough that there was no reasonable chance of that happening. This was arguably bad design, which may explain why more recent versions of Nethack put Medusa on a special level, where at least experienced players will know where she lurks. Still, Medusa always appeared on a specific level of the dungeon, and it was always on the downstairs which were never generated in the same room as the upstairs, so a player could conceivably be prepared for her. It's still rather more reliance on spoilers than anything in Rogue requires.

There also items that can be wielded by monsters that can kill with one hit, such as Vorpal Blade or the Tsurugi of Muramasa. But the chances of running into a monster wielding the first in the dungeon are vanishingly rare, and the second is in a specific location like Medusa, and only appears in the Samurai quest anyway. There are also other difficulties with monsters with wands of death, Touch of Death spells and disintegration beams and the like; after a certain point, the game requires that the player be proactive in protect himself from sudden instadeaths.

Reverse example: Shiren the Wanderer. Shiren is mostly really good at this, but its Skull Wraiths may be a little too strong. Their distance attacks can inflict amazingly dangerous status ailments that could conceivably result in Shiren dying before he gets to make another decision. With careful play this can be negated mostly, but there is still a chance on the last wide-open level that the player could face a situation he cannot escape.

nhsunsword.png2. "No cyanide rule." No unidentified item should be immediately fatal upon use given reasonable circumstances, otherwise the player should never try to use-identify.

Example: In Rogue, probably the worst item is the potion of blindness, which makes the game nearly unplayable. Not only does it give all spaces on the level a vision range even worse than that of dark passages, it is impossible to find secret doors while blind, which state has a good chance of stranding the player until the blindness wears off of he drinks a potion of extra healing. But there is not ring of blindness, because for such an item to have bite it must be initially cursed, and if the player put on a cursed ring of blindness he might not have any means of curse lifting available, and if that were true and he was blocked from the exit by a secret passage he would not be doomed to starve. The effect would be to make it unwise to try to test-identify rings because of the chance of death. One might qualify this by saying it'd be unwise to test-ID rings if no means of curse removal were available, but considering all curse-lifting in that game is from random sources it might be considered unreasonable.
Example: In Nethack, there is a random item that can kill in normal situations just from ordinary use: the Amulet of Strangulation. However, it is a delayed death, and prayer can get the player out of it. However, what if the player has recently prayed and his timeout hasn't expired? What if he's in Genhennom and can't effectively pray? What if his luck is negative, making it impossible to pray effectively? These aren't the more common states though. In Genhennom, the player should know enough lore to know not to test amulets there.

Example: There are other items in Nethack that can kill instantly from use, but not by their most common uses. The Wand of Death, if zapped at self, kills instantly if the player isn't magic resistant. But players don't usually zap random wands at themselves, so one might consider this to be reasonable. Reverse example: Note that there _are_ cases in Nethack where death might be considered unreasonable; every random egg has a chance of being a cockatrice egg, so eating eggs is an unexpectedly bad idea.

Reverse example: Dungeon Crawl has a potion of poison with a long-lived effect. This one plays carefully with the line, since it could well prove fatal to a very low-level character, but usually by resting during that time it has a chance to wear off before death ensues.

Rules 3 and 4 are about item identification. Many recent games don't include this feature. Here I give my reasons for suggesting such a system. While item identification in roguelikes does aid in presenting the world as a mysterious place to figure out, and in giving the dungeon itself a dangerous character as opposed to just the monsters, there is also a game design reason. It disassociates the player's progress from the random number generator: the player could find all of the best items in the game on the first level, but he'll still have challenge figuring that out without wasting the resources. The items found are not a gift to the player; he must still expend some effort to properly understand what he's found.

The identification game in roguelikes is one of the least considered by designers. Even to this day, it's probable that Rogue has the best ID game, although Nethack's isn't bad (although mostly irrelevant as soon as the mid game). Rogue's is designed so that scrolls of identify cannot be relied upon, for players almost never find all the scrolls they want. Plus, since no random items are guaranteed, the player never knows if he'll find another item of a type. A few items are extremely good but easy to waste. The best of them all (scroll of scare monster) shows unusual care in its design; using it in fact wastes it, but it is the only scroll that can be identified without even picking it up.

3. "Item masquerade rule." Items should be difficult to identify even for spoiled players, due to similarities between items of the same type.

It is best if this rule is not perfectly adhered to; giving observant players some benefit for their insight is in keeping with roguelike gameplay.

Example: Yes, another Nethack example. Both Potions of See Invisible and Potions of Fruit Juice generally have the same messages upon use. 

Example: In most games, the effects of most rings are vague and can only be deduced through close observation, if even then.

Example: Nethack and Shiren both take steps to obscure item identification through shop pricing by offering many items that sell for the same amount. Example: ADOM clearly marks the weights of items on the inventory screen, in "stones." A few random items and artifacts have distinctive weights, which an observant (or heavily spoiled) player can note and use to pick those things out.

4. "Situational ID advantage rule." When unknown, item effects in a category should overlap in such a way that use in some situations would be good to discover, while others simultaneously would be bad.

If no potions provide combat disadvantages, then it's in the player's best interest to test them out while fighting. If none do direct damage but one does heal, then the player should only test ID when below maximum hit points. It is easy to go overboard in eliminating these kinds of situational ID advantages, but a good designer will still be cognizant of them and devote a little thought to lessening their influence on the game.

Example: Rogue has items that can be very useful when used in battle (extra healing) and very bad (confusion, blindness). When zapping wands at monsters, it's possible a monster to be slowed (very good), hasted (bad), teleported away (generally good) teleported directly to the player's side (somewhat bad) or polymorphed (potentially game-ending at early levels, more beneficial as the game continues). Study of the items included in the game make it clear that some thought was put into providing a healthy amount of risk in most situations, to provide fewer "no brainer" situations to using unknown items.

5. "Item enchantment rule." When known, items should as much as possible present interesting decisions.

Example: All of the major roguelikes, to some extent, use scrolls of enchant weapon and enchant armor to do this to a degree. When you use a scroll, its enchantment bonus becomes a permanent fixture on the one item it's used on. If a better item comes along later that the player would rather use, maybe one that already has a high enchantment, it could be that the scroll was wasted. However, the longer the player waits to see if something better comes along, the less total use he gets out of it. All the major roguelikes feature this to a degree, but it's Rogue that makes the best use, since as stated previously, the player has no idea if he'll find a better weapon or any more enchantment scrolls.

Example: Also in Rogue, armor has an extra wrinkle. The weakest, Leather Armor, has the special property of being immune to the rust caused by rust traps and rust monsters/aquators. If the player uses all his enchant armor scrolls on leather, he can be sure of never losing those enchantments, but he probably won't be able to get the suit enchanted up to the heights of plate mail. The player can overcome this a bit waiting until after the aquator floors before using his scrolls. All versions of Rogue offer rings of maintain armor which allow the player to not worry about having his armor weakened, though at a cost of food.
Reverse example: Later versions of Rogue also provide scrolls of maintain armor, which, if one appears (they are fairly common) make the decision pointless.

6. "Two-sided coin rule." Given perfect knowledge of identifications and uses, items should never be completely useless.

In fact no roguelike that I know of does this perfectly, but many of them show a lot of effort has been expended towards reducing the prevalence of completely useless items. The reason for this is not just to reward player wit and knowledge; if no item is entirely bad, then the player is additionally insulated from the caprices of the random item generation. This does not mean that all items need be great.

Example: In Rogue, even potions of blindness are useful when fighting medusas, which sometimes confuse on sight. Bad potions can also be thrown at monsters to possibly affect them.

Example: In Shiren the Wanderer, most bad items will affect enemies when thrown at them, making few things completely baneful. This can even be used to get a last use out of depleted wands.

Example: Nethack is pretty good about this, and has shown special care in making sure many bad states have hidden upsides. Hallucination protects against "touch of death" magic. Confusion is sometimes very useful, providing most scrolls with alternate effects (which also makes some bad scrolls into good ones). Thrown potions break and provide vapor effects (which are, sadly, usually negligible). "Bad" wands that help the monsters can be zapped at yourself to give you their benefits. Conversely, there are also good items, such as Wands of Cancellation, that can be very bad if used incorrectly.

adomtension.png7. "Reducing grind rule." The mere act of spending time should deplete some finite resource, forcing players to keep those resources up, while also limiting the amount of "grinding" he can do.

Example: Historically, this is done through a food timer. Rogue has the best of these: food only ever enters the game through item generation, which is tied to generating new levels. Technically food can be created by killing some monsters, but that's fairly rare, random, and suitably dangerous.

Example: Dungeon Crawl's food timer, while not as strict as Rogue's, still serves its traditional function of forcing a hard limit to the player's activities. Dungeon Crawl is explicitly designed to reduce grinding, an admirable goal.

Example: ADOM does this okay for the most part. Although food is not limited as strictly as in Rogue or Crawl, its corruption timer serves much the same purpose. There are loopholes in its item scarcity, however, that can give particularly clever players a way out from under the weight of the clock. Look up "ADOM wish engine" on Google sometime….

8. "Race you can't win rule." The game's monster difficulty should increase slightly faster than the advancement of the player, given average stats and default equipment, so as to force him to rely upon items and tactics.

The reasoning here is that if the player doesn't have to rely on randomly-found stuff then they become unimportant to play. However, if it's required to have specific items to be successful then many games will be outright unwinnable. The balance between these two poles is what makes random dungeon generation difficult, but it's also part of what makes random dungeon gameplay interesting.

Example: Rogue is, again, best at this. Even with excellent equipment, you can't just pound through all the monsters; starting around the time you encounter trolls, you'll need to use some tactics or resources to survive more than one fight, and griffins up the ante even further, not to mention medusas, ur-viles, and of course dragons. Shiren is also pretty good at it; more enemies in that game have special attributes, which in practice means you can get further on strategy.


Thursday, August 11, 2011

Eldritch Roast

I am not sure if I could challenge Starbuck$ but I think I have a new fall blend for them, or possibly a whole new endeavor for myself.  A 1920's like coffee shop, slightly gloomy filled with books and built at odd angles, counters a bit too tall, or short or slanted.  Just enough to make one feel uneasy.  Hmmm, where to begin...

My wife is an artist and has a passion for coffee and coffee mugs.  We have a shelf in our cabinet filled with various coffee mugs.  I have 3 at the house one is Red Sox, one is Portland Timbers and one is a Prisoner (TV show-not crimes) inspired one I made.  The rest have cats and flowers and other feminine things.  Well my wife has an absolute crazy love for the clip below from Portlandia.  It is funny, BUT I am sick to the back of my teeth of being told to 'Put a bird on it." First the clip

Now my wife has decided I just need to chill about being told to put birds on things. So every morning I am informed and reminded via a coffee mug with the following sentiment
The smile and laugh of my wife are infectious and lovely, yet mischievous as well.  This cup, filled with coffee and its message to me is her morning motivator.  Sigh...well for better, and possibly worse, she married a guy who is not only able to take the constant shenanigans...but to surprise her with my own comeback.  Lovecraft, the elder gods, and all things H.P. are especially spooky and icky to her...with that in mind I have a mug coming with the following
I am looking forward to our morning coffee on a cool rainy morning a few weeks from now when the sleeper will awaken...
Hey Starbuck$ give me a call, let's talk.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The way forward is back in the past...Basic D&D revived.

As the D&D RPG is in a state of flux and the way forward is yet to be determined I thought a bit about how I would make changes.  The following suggestions assume that one would want to use Basic D&D to grow a player base by acquiring new players, it is not the end all be all of a full plan, just focused on new player acquisition .

Goal: Remove barrier to entry on playing, price, and presentation.  No boxes, no hard back tomes, nothing above $5.

Plan: Create a simplified instant play adventure series.  Each with 4 pre-made characters.  Individual adventures should be comic book sized in page count and presentation.  These are cheap to print, easy to stock and impulse purchase friendly. Ideally create a monthly adventure series meant to guide characters from 1st to 3 rd level over a year of play.  This is the new Basic D&D and adventure series year one would be "The Caves of Chaos"

The center page of each issue would be the map for each adventure.  Each comic would have an unlock code allowing you to go online and unlock a digital version of the adventure, and a online comic book version of the whole adventure played out by the pre-gens featured in the adventure. Every 6 issues would be combined into a book (graphic novel sized and priced $20 and would contain the adventures and the printed online comic series)

2) The core adventure rules would be part of issue one (double sized issue!) and could be downloaded for free online after that.

3) A basic (all red) dice set could be made and offered cheaply ($3 or $4) or if you subscribed to a years worth of issues you get a deluxe set free.  These could be pearl or glitter or something else with a dragon image on the d6 and a set of exclusive pre-painted figures (old D&D mini sculpts).

4) The year end annual would have a final adventure and rules to create your own characters (4 basic classes)

Impossible? Preposterous? TSR did something similar before, but I think it was a bit unfocused and random.

This would be the starting point for entry into the D&D system.  One might even allow this Basic D&D rules system to be OGL to stimulate the comic and game industry supporting this vehicle of game play/ comic combo.  That way they support and spread the growth of your entry rules broadly.  Imagine a Batman, or Spider man adventure comic.  Now tie your basic rules set to a super hero movie comic?  That's gold Jerry!  Nintendo used to allow 3rd party games but they had to be reviewed for quality before publishing.  The infamous Nintendo seal of quality.  Why not do the same and requires a D&D approved logo on every "action comic" that is licensed and approved.  They did ads in comics back in the day, why not do more.

 Anyway, there is a lot more but what do you want for free?

Thursday, August 4, 2011

More Trek? Fascinating...

Well it's officially a full on trek-palooza at Sword & Shield.  My wife and I watched the animated episodes (really cool) I scored a ton of the olds FASA trek stuff on the cheap (original game, deluxe edition and 15 modules and source books for $60)  Now I find some cat has made 15mm miniature trek guys...and these cosplay images are fantastic!

You know between these images and the web-isodes, I keep wondering why they mess around with other eras?  I can also recommend highly the Star Trek book series Vanguard. It is set in the original era, but focuses on a star base.  Kind of an original series Deep Space 9...but better.

I have to do some roof work this weekend, but hope to crank out my Trek game by the end of August.

Viva TREK baby!