Monthly Archives: July 2008


The use of that word is, in and of itself, an act of pseudointellectualism.

Deeply Struggling With My Game

Crossposted to the Forge.

Almost a year ago,  I had the same doubts I am now experiencing.  In the past year, my system has crawled along.  I’ve worked on it, but it doesn’t feel like it’s any closer to being finished than it was a year ago.

The question that eats away at me, that ate away at me then, was Is My Game Worth Writing?  See, Warriors is a reaction to my play of Exalted and Weapons of the Gods (and to a lesser extent Qin), which left me disatisfied with the kung fu action.  I wanted a tactical game that really felt crisp and fun to play.  I still want this.  I am not sure if I have the tools to write it.

Here were my design goals a year ago:

*Have lots of cool special powers.

*Have tactical and engaging combats.

*Compel the players to action.

*Result in dramatic play.

*Be easy on the GM, as far as prep time is concerned.

*Feel like awesome Kung Fu wuxia action.

None of these has changed.  There are some unspoken goals- “focus on the players,” for example- but there was also a big big one that I didn’t write down.  I wanted to make one of the best (perhaps definitive) gamist games out there.  There wasn’t a lot available at the time that really hummed along.  (There was John Harper’s Agon, but it was a very different experience.)  I wanted to use indie-techniques to design a gamist game.

Now 4th Edition D&D is out.

It’s not Wuxia, and the mechanics are pretty different than what I had in mind, but it’s providing the same core gaming experience I was trying to create.  It nails pretty much all my design goals except the genre one.

So, here’s my questions-

Those of you who are at least passingly familiar with the work I’m doing on my game- am I writing a Wuxia heartbreaker?  Or is this just self-doubt?  Is the game as is worth writing?

The game, as currently envisioned, is supposed to feature lists of talents and kung fu techniques, which are essentially feats and powers.  When I try to write these, I am paralyzed with dread and fear.  I can brainstorm them all day at work, jot down ideas in my pad, but when I sit down at the computer, I can’t make the ideas go.  Everything seems redundant and pointless.  How do I cope with that?  How do I write the massive game that I want?

And here’s just a blanket question:  What can I do to get out of this slump?

The New Math Behind Skill Challenges

Recently, Wizards put out some new errata for D&D 4th Edition. I wholeheartedly support correcting games where they’re wrong. While the internet community’s focus seems to be on Blade Cascade and whether it was nerfed enough, the biggest change presented is skill challenges.

Here’s the official changes:
All DCs went down by 5.
The +5 modifier for skill rolls was removed.
(It was poorly implied that this didn’t apply to skill challenges. Or maybe it was supposed to. In any case, I had been using the baseline DCs.)
Help in skill challenges is limited.
Skill Challenges end after three failures.

Let’s examine this objectively, shall we?

There are basically four statuses one can be compared to any given skill- Unskilled, Fairly Skilled, Skilled, and Min-Maxed.
(Note that the numbers used are for 1st level. As your character gains levels their pluses increase, but so do their DCs. With ability score boosts, utility powers, and certain magic items, skill totals will likely climb faster, which will push people Unskilled People into Fairly Skilled people up to Skilled.)

An Unskilled person has put no effort into being good at the skill. They might have an Ability bonus, they might not. The range here is from -1 to +2, but we’ll be using +0 for the math.

A Fairly Skilled person might not have put any effort into being good at the skill, or they might be a bit of a generalist. They probably have a good appropriate Ability Score, or a decent score and a racial boost, or the Jack of All Trades feat, or training with the skill but no bonus. The range here is +3 to +5, but we’ll be using +4 for the math.

A Skilled person has training with the skill, an good modifier for it. This is probably the character’s primary skill. The range here is +6 to +10, but we’ll be using +8 for the math.

A Min-Maxed character has put a large deal of their character into being the best they can at a given skill. They start with a 20 in a score from racial modifiers, with skill training and Skill Focus in a skill their race gives a +2 bonus to. This gives them a +15 to skill checks with their favored skill. (Obscene? Not really. Remember, they’re sinking an 18 into one attribute and spending their starting feat at first level. This is what the character is all about. Every race but Humans can do this. Some can get a +17, but how to do that is left as an exercise to the reader.)

There are three types of skill DCs- Easy, Medium, and Hard. Under the old rules, the baseline DCs were 10, 15, 20, +5 if it was a skill check, resulting in 15, 20, or 25.

The DMG doesn’t define what Easy, Medium, or Hard actually mean. The PHB mentions that these are all extraordinary situation rolls- if it’s mundane or trivial, it’s not a roll.

Easy Rolls
To me, an Easy Roll is something even the Unskilled guy should have a shot at. The Fairly Skilled guy should succeed the majority of the time. Skilled characters should worry about failure rarely, if ever. Min-Maxed characters should never fail at an Easy roll.

Medium Rolls
To me, the Unskilled guy should still have a shot at Medium rolls, but they’ll fail more often than they succeed- maybe much more often. The Fairly Skilled guy should still suceed the majority of the time, but it might be dicier. The Skilled character should usually succeed, but might have to worry about failure. For a Min-Maxer, failure at this level is a grave loss of face.

Hard Rolls
The Unskilled guy should have a shot, but it’s a long one. The Fairly Skilled guy should have a shot, but he’ll fail more often than he succeeds. The Skilled Character should have about even odds. For a Min-Maxer, failure is now an option- but success should be more likely than failure. This is the character’s raison-d’etre, after all.

At DC 5- success rates are 80% (Unskilled)… 100% (Fairly)… 100% (Skilled)… 100% (Min-Maxed)
At DC 10- success rates are 55% (U) 75% (F) 95% (S) 100% (MM)
At DC 15- success rates are 30% (U) 50% (F) 70% (S) 100% (MM)
At DC 20- success rates are 5% (U) 25% (F) 45% (S) 80% (MM)
At DC 25- success rates are 0% (U) 0% (F) 20% (S) 55% (MM)

Looking at this, it’s clear the old skill DCs of 15/20/25 were far, far too high. However, I think the new DCs of 5/10/15 are far too low.

10/15/20 seems about right for non-skill challenge skill rolls. Maybe the Hard DC could be nudged down a point or two, but for the most part the probabilities are right where I want them.

Now let’s take a look at skill challenges.

A change to skill challenges was to set the number of failures needed at 3, rather than based on complexity. A complexity 1 challenge now ends after 4 successes or 3 failures. A complexity 5 challenge ends after 12 successes or 3 failures. (Before it was 2 and 6.) This is an interesting change- it’s a three-strikes-and-your-out, but it changes the ratio of success needed from 2:1 to a varying ratio based on complexity.

At complexity 1, the ratio is 4:3 (roughly 57%)
At complexity 2, the ratio is 6:3 (roughly 67%)
At complexity 3, the ratio is 8:3 (roughly 73%)
At complexity 4, the ratio is 10:3 (roughly 76%)
At complexity 5, the ratio is 12:3 (80%)

The percentage number is the skill success level needed to expect to come out on top. Vagaries of probability being what they are, failure is still possible, but success is likely. Get above that number, and success swings in your favor.

This ignores things like bonuses or automatic successes for creativity, or funky challenges with special rules. Success shouldn’t be dependent on that. I have no problem with the odds flying way in the favor for a creative group of players. Special rules are hard to examine generally.

There are basically three party skill levels- Fairly Skilled, Skilled, and Min-Maxed. It should be rare that you can’t find a skill that you’re at least Fairly Skilled with for a given challenge. Parties that are on their game should be Skilled. Min-Maxed parties should eat Skill Challenges for breakfast- but you shouldn’t have to specialize to that level to defeat a complexity 5 challenge.

I’m assuming most rolls will be made against moderate DCs.

If that is DC 10, then a Fairly Skilled party (75%) will blow through level 1 and 2 challenges, probably beat level 3 challenges, have some trouble with level 4 and 5 challenges. A Skilled party (95%) should easily get victory in all of them. DC 10 is an insult to the Min-Maxed party. I mean really now, is that all you got?

If that is DC 15, then a Fairly Skilled party (50%) is in trouble, no matter what the challenge level. They might be able to beat the level 1 challenge. Most parties should be Skilled (70%) though, and will beat level 1 and 2, have a shot at level 3, but probably lose at level 4 and 5- unless they have less skilled members use helping, in qhich case their default bonus is +10, the chance of success on a roll jumps up to 80%, and all the challenges are feasible. The Min-Maxed party skill scoffs at your challenge.

If for some reason the standard skill challenge DC is 20, everyone but the Min-Maxed party should go home. They still only succeed 80% of the time, so with some bad rolls, victory isn’t even guaranteed for them.

Clearly, 20 is too high. 10 is too low. 15 seems about right.

Based on this math, I’m setting DCs for skill rolls at 10 for easy, 15 for Moderate, and 20 for hard. This is about half-way between the rules as written, and the errata. I might end up nudging down the Moderate and Hard DCs by a point after using challenges in play, but for now, I like the looks of things.

GNS and Exploration

I posted this over on Grumblingdwarf, and it seemed like a useful thing to keep around. So here it is.

According to the Big Model of RPG Theory, there are three Creative Agendas of play- Gamism, Narrativism, and Simulationism, often abbreviated as GNS.

These three agendas describe what play is about. Gamist play focuses on challenging the players and competition. Narrativist play focuses on creating a compelling or dramatic story, often exploring issues. An important part of Narrativist play is that no one participant can forsee the outcome or path of the story in advance. Simulationist play focuses on exploration for it’s own sake.

What is exploration? Exploration is basically imagining a thing, giving it ‘screen time,’ and having the same shared imagined experience amongst multiple people. Different games, different sessions, and different people will focus the Exploration on different things.

There are five areas of exploration. These things are present in any roleplaying game, no matter what the creative agenda is. These things can be dialed up, making them the focus of play, or dialed down, making them less important, but still present.

Character is the first area of exploration. Exploration of character can involve character motivations, personalities, quirks, etc. When exploration of character is dialed up, character motivations and playing one’s character is a major focus of play. When it is dialed down, the character is still present, but characters are likely to be static, or perhaps a stand-in for the player.

Setting is the second area of exploration. Exploration of setting involves examining the world the play takes place in, whether it’s a published game setting, one created by the gamemaster, or one collaboratively created by all the players at the table. Setting-focused play often treats the setting itself as a ‘character,’ or the premise of play itself may be based on a fact of the setting, or play may involve travelling through the setting to see and experience different aspects of it. When setting is dialed down, it is still present, but play is more focused on specific elements that aren’t really tied to a specific place- the story could be set in Chicago, or Prague, or on the Moon, and it wouldn’t make much of a difference.

Situation is the third area of exploration. Situation is what’s going on, often a situation that threatens or challenges the characters in someway. Situation is an event that requires a response. Situation is particularly paramount for Gamist and Narrativist play, though for different reasons. Play with heavy emphasis on situation involves lots of flashpoint scenes, events that are in flux, and action. Low emphasis on situation will often have a slower pace, and perhaps more focus on interaction rather than action.

System is an interesting area of exploration. Anytime a player interacts with the game system, they are exploring it. Some game systems encourage, or practically demand greater exploration of system, others encourage rules-light approaches. At the high-end, interacting with the system is the whole point of play- perhaps from a gamist approach to use mastery of the rules as an avenue for competition, such as optimizing characters in D&D or HERO, or interacting with the system might be the reason for play for simulationist ends- perhaps you and your friends have written the ultimate system for modeling ballistics, so you have a game with lots of gunfights, but the point of that is to play with your really cool ballistics model. At less high levels, but still with a focus on system, the system plays an important part in the game- perhaps aspects of the system direct the path of the story, and as players you want to be aware of that, or the players find tinkering with the system and making characters enjoyable in and of itself. (Perhaps to make an ‘optimum’ character, or to use a wide open system like HERO and see what kind of strange characters the system can model.) At the low end of exploring system, not using the system is a play priority, and hand-waving results and/or GM-fiat are common.

Color is the last area of exploration, and the one I find the hardest to explain. Color is basically all the little details. Suppose you’re playing in a Battlestar Gallactica Game. If exploration of color is dialed all the way up, you might often call attention to phones with cords, non-networked computers, and eight-sided pieces of paper. If it’s dialed all the way down, you probably don’t think of those things quite as much.

I’m Better Than You

Because I’ve played Polaris.

Hell yes, I’m elitist.