Sunday, October 25, 2009

Vampire: Reading List

There are more books in the WoD line than you can use, intentionally, as it's become rather GURPS-like in its modularity. Thus, you have to pick and choose the books you want to include. Mine:

Vampire: the Requiem: For obvious reasons
World of Darkness: Ditto

The Book of Spirits
The Book of the Dead
WoD: Inferno: Demons
WoD: Slashers: Not all monsters are inhuman
Damnation City: City workbook, don't leave home without it
Belial's Brood: Just because you're a vampire doesn't mean you can't enjoy killing bad vampires, amirite?
Mythologies: A big book of mysteries
Ghouls: Because, damn, it's a great book.

More Vampire

The real reason I create games, beyond the fact that they're fun and I like to entertain my friends with them, is that I can't get them out of my head. I have three bouncing around right now, WotG, GURPS Space Opera (So much so that my next session is practically planned out already), and now Vampire.

I'm catching expected crap from unexpected sources, which leads to explanations and ideas floating around in my head all the damn time. Well, blog, that's what you're for, giving me a chance to let these things out (and, apparantly, to wake Bee in the middle of the night with the sound of my tapping keys).

So here's why I want to run it, restated in slightly less dramatic terms of my last post:

Survival Horror

The core of a good horror game is the challenge to survive. On this challenge, Roomie, Shawn and Walter thrive. This is why they want to play Horror. Any horror game will do this, and all of the WoD lines touch on this at some level, but none of them underscore it quite like Vampire does. A vampire is a perfectly normal human whose life has been turned upside down by a dreadful curse. How would you survive such a thing? After we discard the common "I'd kill myself!" serious questions arise. How do you keep the sun from burning you alive? How do you get a meal without violating your own personal code (you can chase after animals for about a century, but after that, what? Do you kill criminals? Do you find someone willing to donate their blood and try to be sparing?)? How do you do all this without rousing suspicion from others? And how do you maintain social ties, talking to humans you want to eat and vampires who want to eat you, to keep yourself from going mad? And how do you tame the yammering beast inside your head?

It's a challenge. Vampires have great power, but great weaknesses, forcing a player to struggle to figure out how they will live. It's just as challenging as playing a human with a shotgun hunting down werewolves, except here, the challenge is as much internal as external.

Occult Mystery

The World of Darkness is filled with mysteries, which is one of the reasons I like it so much. Each line has their own things to explore: Mage has its inner sanctums and worlds of the mind, Werewolf has its Shadow and the convoluted nature of spirits, and vampire has its tangled social interactions and long and messed-up histories. All of them have their occult elements, their worlds within worlds filled with strange dreams, dark ruins and unexpected twists, so any of them would work. Someone might ask "Well, then, why not run one of them?" To which I say "The rest of the reasons given in this entry." They might further reply "But... it's vampire," to which I reply "Bias much?"

The one thing I want to add: The Underworld. Ever since I figured out how Wraith really works, I've wanted to touch on the dark, strange and creepy world of the Dead in WoD. I've wanted to give Cass and others the chance to explore a world of broken memories and hurt emotions. You can do that in the other games (though I'm not sure why you'd bother in Werewolf), but Vampires have a special tie to the Dead, and the Book of the Spirits even grants them a new Discipline called the Blood Tenebrous which allows access to the Shadow. Hopefully, the upcoming Book of the Dead will offer more insight into this.


You can't run a personal horror story without allowing Dave and Roomie to engage in some serious carnage. That's why they love Werewolf, and that's honestly why I think they would love Vampire. In the nWoD, a werewolf and a vampire are closely matched, which suits them, in my opinion. A vampire can regenerate, can fuel his physical prowess with blood, and every last vampire clan has access to their own physical discipline. While it's true that vampires tend to be beautiful and social, I think the combat-fans forget that vampires are monsters first. They have sharp fangs, unnatural hungers, alien eyes and strange complexions. In their disdain of Twilight, they forget Van Helsing and Legacy of Kain. Vampire: the Requiem makes a point of highlighting how strange elders become, such as Unholy, the signature gangrel, whose hands have permanently become bird talons and who constantly hungers after the blood of vampires, no longer able to sate herself on human blood. She is a whispered legend among vampires, a boogey-man to boogey-men. There's no reason players can't be the same, eventually.

Social Intrigue

Vampire is a very social game, the most social of the three core lines, which is why I imagine several players object. Yet I point out that gaming is built on compromises, and the above three should be reason enough to, say, Roomie to allow, say, Cass to have her fun. Like 7th Sea or WotG, much of the action of driven by social interplay, though Vampire's social play tends towards the vicious.

Social interaction has two major sources. First and foremost, like in WotG where every character has his master, every Vampire has his sire, who directs his childe, instructs him, and bestows his allies and enemies on his inheritor. Second, vampire is custom designed to let you play with your food. Like with Changeling, you are driven to interact with people, because they form the basis of your supernatural food-chain. You must either find wicked men to kill, find good people who will let you sip, starve, or lose your humanity as you slaughter the innocent. Given the benefits of the first two, it pays to get to know the wide cast of NPCs a vampire game inevitably brings.

These two interactions coalesce to create 90% of the social intrigue of a game, as the elder's enemies and allies will swirl around you in a dance that has gone on for longer than you have existed, trying to steal your mortal assets from you as you try to steal theirs. But with my addition of the Underworld, I hope to add an interaction with the Dead too, both out of guilt ("You killed me") and redemption ("and you have laid me to rest, so I will no longer haunt this world.")


That's it. Four solid reasons to play, I think, ones that hit every point on most of my players' lists of wants and needs. Walter wants and needs a survival mystery game. This will provide it. Roomie and Dave need violent survival games. This provides. Cass and Byler need violent, mysterious social-intrigue games, and this is perfect.

Perhaps the most appealing aspect of Vampire is its flexibility. Between clan and covenant, you can customize your character far more than you could with the other lines. All werewolves are violent, and all mages are good at solving mysteries, but vampires are pretty good at both of the above. The Lancea Sanctum and the Circle of the Crone grant access to Blood Magic. The Ordo Dracul digs deep into the mysteries of the vampiric condition and reward research with power. Invictus and the Carthians grant social benefits. Everyone has a reason to fight.

Don't beleive me? Lemme show you how I think the Clans would break down by player: Roomie: Daeva, Gangrel or Nosferatu (all great warriors). Dave: Gangrel or Nosferatu (monstrous warriors). Walter: Nosferatu or Mekhet (lurking mystery-solvers). Byler: Daeva, Ventrue, Nosferatu (Scary social power-houses). Cass: Ventrue, Daeva (social power-houses). Everyone can bring their own needs to the table, and have those needs met, in a way that I don't think Werewolf or Mage would do (alas, especially for the latter, as I'm quite a fan, but I really think it would be Walter and I rooting for it, and nobody else understanding how to make it work)

Thursday, October 22, 2009


It's dark outside. It's dark, and it's cold, and the wind tugs at the trees outside my window. It's night, and I cannot sleep, because I am obsessing on the forbidden.

I am obsessing on Vampires.

You don't talk about Vampire: the Anything with the Newton group, because they have already decided they are dumb: Dumb, pretty, whiney and weak. Why play as something that bemoans its awesome state when you could be ripping shit up as a werewolf or a changeling? But Vampire: the Requiem is different. Vampire: the Requiem is not Twilight. It's not even Vampire: the Masquerade. And I think it'd be perfect for our group.

Speaking to Cass one day, she commented off-hand that while she loved to play "dark" creatures in her online games, she never played one in my games because "we always play as heroes." Further, Walter and Roomie have yearned for a good horror game, a challenge to their skills and smarts. The two desires have led me inexorably back to the World of Darkness, which I must admit is quite solid in its current incarnation.

World of Darkness has many possible roles we could play. We could play as mortals, struggling to understand the madness of the night, or we could rage as howling werewolves. These, I think, would not appeal to Cass as much as Vampire would, giving her a chance to collect my NPCs for real, and an opportunity to revel in her darkside. Byler, too, fits better with vampires than I think he realizes. He always longs to play a man who has transcended and discarded his humanity along with his morals. He tried his hand at werewolf, and found them too boxed in, too samey. Vampire would give him a chance to lord it over mortals (if he was careful) and explore his own power his own way. Finally, Vampire has the "mystery" and "combat" that appeals to Walter and Roomie.

At its core, Vampire is about transgression, and you can boil these down to a few specific examples: my favorites are sex, drugs and violence. The connection between vampires and sex has been belabored in things like Twilight, and is probably the primary source of my players' disaffection. After all, vampires are languid, decadent pussies who drape themselves in silk and half-naked women, right? Sometimes, though, I think they fail to remember the appeal of the latter (my games are legendary for their steaming-hot NPCs, and this would give them a chance to be wicked with them), and moreover, the vampires of the WoD are sexy because it gives them a predatory edge. The girl with the bright red lips and the long, lowered eyelashes has the same effect on a human that an angler fish has on other fish with its gleaming bait: they attract their prey and lull them into a false sense of security. Violence is slightly less obvious, but vampires are monsters, predators, killers. A beast hammers at the back of their mind, demanding blood and death, and their blood provides them with the power to kill kill kill kill kill! As for drugs, the blood itself is that. Vampires are addicted to it. They need it. But moreover, they can make other people addicted to it. It becomes a game of control, possession and corruption.

I think all three of these things will appeal to my players.

Unlife has consequences too, and these will appeal as well: Despair, Madness and secrecy. Despair, again, it what drives some of my players away. Why play a whiney bitch? But I think they fail to see how this despair comes about: there's an inherent conundrum in the Humanity mechanic. On the one hand, you are driven by pragmatism to do "bad" things, and by idealism to refrain from such. Some people assume this means the system moralizes and preaches at you, but I think the point is to pull you in two different directions at once: Would you kill a man who needed to die even if it made you drop in Humanity? Madness follows naturally from despair, as the character descends slowly into inhumanity, but Vampire has even more, with other vampires messing with your mind, and your own dreams haunting you during torpor.

Secrecy, though, is probably what drives most of the fascinating gameplay of Vampire. A vampire must hide. If people knew what he was, they would kill him. So they cloak themselves in paranoia and mystery, lurking in the night, behind a veil of minions, carefully picking off their prey. The only thing tastier to a vampire than a human is another vampire, so vampires aren't even safe among their own. As a result, you have tangled politics, but you have lies, deception, trickery and completely fabricated histories. Vampires live a long time, so just exploring the truth behind an array of elders would take up entire sessions, never mind the other mysteries the WoD has to offer.

The World of Darkness is very flexible nowadays, and I'm going to take advantage of that. One thing that I really would have liked from Werewolf was the spirit world, a surreal place of interesting horrors. But the more I think about it, why can't I have that anyway? Vampires gained some Spirit Manipulating disciplines in the Book of Spirits, so why not feature them in the game? Plus we add some Hallows, some haunted ground where vampires might cross over into the "nightside" of the city. We'll color it in shades of death, though, make it an Underworld filled with the victims of murder, mayhem and, of course, the players themselves. Plus interesting things to buy, trade for, discover. Shades of the Hedge from Changeling, only as designed by Tim Burton.

So that's what I want. A sexy game with savagery, secrecy and madness. A twisted city that crosses Blade with Van Helsing, stretched over the surface of an underworld straight out of the mind of Tim Burton and Neil Gaiman, like a cross between the Nightmare before Christmas and Don't Rest Your Head, in a world peopled by luscious ladies and doe-eyed boys with tragic pasts, while the players struggle for power, held back only by their consciences and the curses of the night.

Oh, and I'll have to give out tons of experience, since the standard WoD goes far too slowly for my tastes. But yeah, I think I can do this.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Joys of Online Gaming

I started gaming online because I had to. With my favorite group of gamers an ocean away, I could game once a year on a rare vacation that inevitably involved me spending too much time sleeping on someone's couch, getting into arguments with my host, and so on, or I could start gaming online. I started online after reading about telepresence, and it has slowly changed from a necessity to a pleasure.

Cameras and Microphones: Of course, I needed to see and hear my gamers, or it wasn't really a game, and thus I sent my cam and microphone. Interestingly, at first, these were the only camera and microphone available to the group. Now, though, these are hardly necessary and we have several people playing on one computer. This connection has allowed me to watch children growing up, to interact with friends an ocean away in real-time, and really brought the game back. Technology has reached the point where these calls are like being in the same room. I love it.

It's also begun to move away from "almost as good as the tabletop" and towards the realm of "as good in a different way." Roomie can stay at his house, provided his connection is good. Our gaming can decentralize and shift from house to house without anyone needing to host anything. More, the centrality of the computer to the social interaction provides an added level of fun. Sometimes we "just hang out" talking on our microphones, sharing pictures, sharing youtube videos and so on. This is, to me, far more fun than watching Tony play video games, especially since those of us with the proper software can up and start playing a game together, if we wanted.

PDFs: This is a big one for me. I started collecting PDFs for two reasons: first, GURPS quit trying to publish most of its material in dead-tree form and started publishing most of its cool stuff in PDF, so I delved into the game with Dungeon Fantasy and Action like many of my GURPS compatriots. But more, crossing the sea with a thumb drive and a laptop was far easier than taking my entire collection (which often resulted in fees for excess weight). Since then, online gaming has pushed me to gather even more PDFs, and I've begun to prefer them to hard copies.

First, PDFs are far more searchable than hard copy books. If someone has a question about an advantage, rather than stop, dig up the book, flip through the pages, flip back and read it off to him, I just type in the name of the advantage and hit "next" until it shows up, usually two clicks. The amount of time it takes me to find a reference with a hard copy is measured in minutes, as compared to seconds with a PDF.

Second, PDFs are far more handy for computer gaming. I can have my notes on one side, Maptool on the other, and all of my PDFs at my fingertips in the bar below. I could not possibly show up at the Hobby Center with a stack of 20 books, but I can do so with my computer, easily and casually flipping from one to the other without ever moving my eyes from my screen.

Finally, PDFs are really portable and... I already talked about that. Uh... oh! PDFs allow me to gain access to little games I never would have heard of otherwise. Gone are the highschool days of hearing tales of cool games like Werewolf. Now, I'm at the forefront of totally sweet gaming, enjoying minisupplements and obscure games.

Maptool: Walter has demanded visual representation of all characters on the battlefield. When I pointed out that this was the first time he had ever asked for this, he didn't really have much of an answer as to why. I think, though, that it's become so easy, so cheap, to represent our characters online that his proper response could easily be "Well, why not?" It's totally changed how I see GURPS. I used to skip the tactical combat section, but now I find myself lingering there (Roomie hit a guy with 5 out of 15 rounds. Never occurred to me before to check to see if he hit anyone else down range). I used to miss NPCs and I could only handle so many of them. Now, they're just chits on a board, so it's easy to remember each and every guy, or to note how many characters you've killed, or to show you the sheer volume of enemies you face. I just discovered I can have tables at my game, something I can just click and have, say a hit location show up. Maptool makes complicated gaming easy and available in the same way that PDFs do.

I donated 5 bucks to them. I encourage everyone else who has enjoyed it to do the same.

The Computer itself: This isn't strictly limited to online gaming, but I noticed it then. My Exalted and WoD game existed primarily in notebooks that I have, since, lost. I can tell you the names of many characters, such as Lathe, Brand, Mithra, Sarah, Ashes and so on. There are several I have forgotten (Roomie's love interest. I can picture her, but what was her name as a Dynast and what was her name as an Abyssal?), little details that have been lost. Our WotG game, however, has every note, every NPC, statted, saved, archived and backed-up on several computers. I can't remember the name of the cute-sad eunuch-boy, but if I need to, I can look him up. This also allowed me to stat up people I never would have in the first place.

I'm pleased with computer gaming and it occurred to me the other day that running on tabletop would miss alot of this, which kinda makes me sad. I can keep the computer and the PDFs, but I'll loose the portability of the camera/microphone and the utility of Maptool and friends. Interesting how much technology changes your life and your hobbies.

The Joys of GURPS Gaming

We're in the third session now, and this is clearly the most extensive game of GURPS I have run in ages, certainly the first extensive 4e game. Some of the character of GURPS has begun to stand out to me.

GURPS Is Very Powerful: The first thing that stands out to me is the sheer power of the engine. When Walter complained about the lack of Vehicle support, I delved into the book and found the vehicle support. The same was true of our pop-up question. If we want to know something, the rules are there, just waiting to be found. GURPS effectively covers every situation I know of. It does miss out on some more obscure situations (designing guns for Quetzali is a little difficult), but it provides more support in those situations than most games do.

GURPS Is Reality Based: This is an obvious one to anyone who has played for awhile, but many games handwave rules and slip into a narrative mode. If a WotG character wants to carve his initials on someone, well sure, why not? In GURPS, though, the GM will ask "Did you take a skill for that?" Likewise, you cannot expect your character to just wade into battle and walk out alive. You have to think carefully. Most of the complaints I've seen in the game so far have erupted from arguments over how something would really work vs how it should work in a narrative game (I've been on both sides: Walter's complaint about the lack of vehicle support was reality based, Byler's complaint about being unable to just fling around a guy with a Judo roll before he got shot in the temple was narrative based). You don't have to stick to this model, but it's certainly GURPS's default mode, and if you don't explicity change things, this theme tends to leak back in.

GURPS Rewards Deep Investment: One thing I've noticed: most of my players don't know much about their technology. Roomie has probably researched the most about his character and actually knows at least one ammunition type by name (and uses nothing else), and knows what his drugs do. Nobody has really investigated or invested in the possibilities of the Radar system ("You mean the imaging radar can resolve people at a one-mile range?"), or the Computer system ("Can I get software to boost my Electronic Ops (Sensors) skill?"). You need to know what your character can do, all of his little powers and perks, like the back of your hand. This, incidentally, is what gives rise to accusations of GURPS twinkery: the average player just plays, while the twink investigates everything in the books, and thus comes up with ideas that nobody else would have come up with. It's also why having one well-behaved twink is a good thing, because they teach the rest of the players how to use the system. I'll have to remember that.

Corrallary of the Above: GURPS really is Complicated: Given that you need to spend lots of time figuring out how everything works, the reality of the situation keeps slipping in, and GURPS has so many little rules at your disposal that it can easily overwhelm someone. Compared to, say, the WoD, I'm still learning new things about GURPS, still working hard to gain full mastery of the system. WotG, I think, is comparable in complexity.

Fortunately, GURPS is Resilient: Obviously, I don't know the system, but even not knowing it, even making mistakes every session, the game is still very fun. Most of the games that I dislike, that I point to as problematic, easily break down if everything doesn't go exactly to plan. GURPS is designed without an explicit plan, so tends to cover a variety of situations well. You can't just walk into it and have it work like, say, WotG, but a relatively small amount of knowledge and a little GM fore-planning will ensure you can miss most of the book and still run a good game.

GURPS takes alot of Paperwork: Fatigue, Hitpoints, character points, lots of skills, facing, retreating by one step, when you can and cannot use Luck, and so on. It's no worse than WotG (which does most of its record keeping with Dice and Beads, but still), but I'm glad we're playing GURPS on the computer.

GURPS Rewards Patience: This is true both from a meta-gaming and in-game stand-point. One thing I note is how seldom players bother to aim, lock on and build up their modifiers. If they were, they would gain a huge benefit (the NPCs do this, and that's when they get scary). Likewise, I put Shawn on hold for his character so I would have time to design his loadouts and his template. Once those are designed, they are useful for anyone and everyone. Taking a little extra time before a game to get things set up really rewards the rest of the game with smooth, thoughtful play.

I Like GURPS: I've liked it for a long time, but much of that was based on the quality of supplements, rather than actual gameplay. Someone once asked us to compare RPG systems to women, and I likened both WotG and GURPS to girls I really liked alot but never had the time to date. I'm kinda glad I've taken the time to really get to know both, that I'm playing both, and that neither has failed me.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Frozen War Session 3 After Action Report


Another solid session, I dare say better than the last.

The session consisted primarily of PC/NPC interaction for like 90% of the game, with a wild, swift and very bloody battle at the end (2.5 seconds of complete and total death for the other side). I find it interesting that my players respond best to these, as the first session reminded me much of that, while the second session was far more mechanics and had less of a visceral response, in my opinion. Even so, some players commented that it was "alot like NCIS," by which I believe they mean "It has a mystery!"

We're starting to hand out "Whiney" awards, and Byler earned it this time, though honestly, it wasn't as bad as last sessions. Even so, I note a trend: My players, while they most certainly love the hell out of this game, and others express interest in joining, they sure find alot to complain about during the game. Today, we had a gun against a player's temple, he attempted to throw the guy, and was shocked when he discovered that a man with a gun at your temple can pull a trigger faster than you can position your entire body for a throw. Fortunately for Byler, the guy liked him, so lowered the gun last minute and hit him in the shoulder (They were trying to recruit him). This did not stop Byler from wishing death on him.

The problem, I think, is that they have grown used to very high powered games: 7th Sea, Marvel, Weapons of the Gods, where character point totals would range from 500 to a couple thousand points. Let's be honest: putting a gun to Spider-Man's temple wouldn't slow him down, but putting a gun to James Bond's temple would (he'd surrender at that point). At 200 points, the players aren't even on James Bond's level, but I think they have a hard time grasping that mortality. GURPS is not a happy happy feel-good system, it's a lethal, scary system where mistakes can get you killed (and the thrill comes from repeatedly not dying as bullets are flying, as Roomie commented on as he waded through partisans completely safe in his armor. A critical hit might have killed him, incidentally, but I'm sure he'd point out that he could be struck by lightning too). So there's a tendency to approach every problem with a sudden, awesome act of violence or a big speech, and that doesn't fly as well in this game as it does in a supers game, and so there's a disconnect.

As Roomie mentioned, the players are still getting into their characters. They're still getting into the world too (Byler was far more conscientious of this during the first two sessions. It's easy to forget this sort of thing after a month of not playing). Still, the complaints lasted until he had a smoke, then he was fine, even happily commenting on the fact that even with, what was it, four bullets in him (He's taken the most damage in the entire game so far), he managed to subdue his attacker. If he hadn't passed out from blood loss, he probably could have kept going.

No serious rules problems. We used Maptool as an actual minis game at Walter's request, and it went rather well. I'm a little leery of getting too dependent on Maptool, but I must admit, it really highlighted some things well: I didn't forget anyone, provided they were already on the map. I was able to show the players how many enemies they faced, and they more cleanly stated things like "I spray my fire at those four guys," and the players got to see how fast a Quetzali in power armor really is (though I made a mistake: He attacked with his full skill, and that was a move-and-attack. I believe you can make that a Heroic Charge, which would have exhausted him even more, but that would also just highlight how much less endurance a Quetzali has, which I'm fine with).

There was a debate about Luck, though. Byler and Roomie both have a tendency to call out "Luck!" whenever a roll goes bad, and I called him on it, and there was a disagreement. The roll in particular wasn't that important (do you go unconscious now or later? Once you get out of combat time, it's basically certain a negative HP character will pass out), so that didn't matter much, but what about next time? What if I'm wrong and I disallow someone their luck roll in the middle of the battle because I mistake one player's use of luck for another player's use? I need to find a way to mark this. I'll look in maptool, and when someone calls luck, note on their character the time they can use their next one. Since maptool is already there, that's not very hard (just glance to see if they can).

Shawn wants to play. He claims he didn't make a character because "he heard this was going to be a one shot." I think the real reason is, as usual, a hypothetical game is less appealing than a game right in front of you, and listening to people battling and falling in love and kicking ass made him yearn to join in again. In a couple of weeks, the game returns to being hypothetical, so this fervor might not last. We'll see. Even so, it was very nice to hear him laughing and hanging out again. This is more the Shawn I remember from years back. Perhaps he's getting his groove back and pulling out of the depression that has been haunting him for awhile now.

EDIT: Woah, strange error. Anyway: Seems like I can add notes to PCs during Maptool, provided I add them to tokens. I'd rather add them straight to "characters," but this will have to do. This way, I just mark the time when their luck recharges, and if there is a question, check the time. If it has elapsed, they may use their luck again.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

My Crimson Fists

You guys have been asking to see my minis for quite awhile now. They're not finished yet, of course, and my camera has something wrong with it (the focus is off, for some reason), but Bee did manage to snag a few decent pictures of them. Alas, seen from the camera-eye view, I can pick out minute flaws I never would have otherwise. And for some reason, we can't seem to get a decent picture of the actual marines. I'd love to show off some details if I could otherwise, but for now, this is what I have.

So no, not on par with Walt's, obviously, but worlds better than my Templars or (shudder) my space wolves, I'm sure you'll agree.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Anatomy of a Broken Game

I have a mysterious commenter *waggles brows* who's always anonymous, and mourns the loss of 7th Sea from the gaming table. I've been responding to his comments in various posts, but I've never received a reply in turn. Thus, I almost responded to his comment with a comment of his own, but the more I thought about 7th Sea, the more I realized it needed a post of its own, as this sort of encompasses many arguments I've had with people about their pet broken game.

First, let me start by expressing my boundless love for this game. 7th Sea tackles all the awesome sub-genres of swashbuckling and stitches them into one, awesome whole. You have the fairytales and knightly adventures of Avalon, the backstabbing political intrigue of Vodacce, the grim hyper-reality of Eisen, and the Zorro and Musketeer inspired antics of Castille and Montaigne. It allowed us to explore Enlightened Europe with everything turned up to 11, never forced to stop and let historical facts drag us down. Montaigne was more french than France could ever hope to be, for example, and got to be the big bad guy, which is way more fun than beating up Spaniards. In fact, alot of people criticize Theah for being historically inaccurate; I think they miss the point, as Theah isn't even close to historically accurate. It's theatrically accurate.

Plus it had loads of neat ideas, like Swordsman schools, magic that was about more than just combat, the awesomeness of drama dice (many people complained that they shouldn't be worth experience, but in my games, nobody hesitated to spend them. Awesome now or awesome later, works out the same). My bookshelf space has become very precious, as I have far more books than shelf-space, but 7th Sea still holds a proud space on it, as it was the first game that I really sat down and played (as opposed to run) and loved to death. Sigmund still has a special place in my heart, just as I know that Tru has a special place in Jenny's heart, and Walter still loves his Montaigne accent.

But it has problems. The typical response to pointing this out is "Well then, fix it." The same has been said of many games, from Scion to Rifts to the old World of Darkness. My typical response is "I shouldn't have to," but let's face it, no game is perfect. I've broken my rules and fixed WotG and nWoD as well, so why not 7th Sea? Well, I tried. I sat down, dug out my computer programs, my calculators, proceeding to rip the system apart and look for the basics, so I could revise accordingly.

What did I find? Beneath all that fluff there's a hamster running in a creaky wheel and strange bits of voodoo, none of which do what they're supposed to. The more you examine it, the more it becomes clear that they had a bunch of "neat ideas," and tossed them together without bothering to worry about the implications.

Let's start with the basics: the Task Resolution system. 7th Sea uses the "roll and keep" system, where you roll a bunch of dice (Attribute + Knack), but only "keep" some of those dice (the Attribute), which you add up. Thus, if you have 5k3 and you roll 3,6,8,9,9, you'd keep the 8, 9 and 9, and you'd have... What? I'll let you work it out while I point out the first flaw: it's got lots of adding. Humans suck at adding. We can't glance at numbers and make them fit. This is why most systems look for successes. GURPS is bad enough with its 3-die addition, but 7th Sea regularly gets into 4-5 die addition, plus exploding dice. This is a minor quibble, but let me ask you this: 8k2 vs a difficulty of 15, how likely are you to succeed? It's not obvious. So inobvious that dice-probability buffs online have to really struggle to come up with a formula to figure it out. I just ran lots of simulations. The result? Not good. But a player can't possibly be expected to notice this. This is a problem, when you approach a problem without knowing whether you will succeed or fail, and I think it also hid alot of 7th Sea's flaws, allowing those who loved it to keep pretending it was working, because they couldn't see where it wasn't.

But a wonky dice system is far from a death sentence. Let's move to the next, more obvious problem: The Knack System.

Players in 7th Sea purchase big skills, which represent overall categories, and then purchase "subskills" called "Knacks." Thus, you might be a courtier who is particularly good at Fashion and Etiquette, while another is more a Seductive Orator, or whatever. These knacks add to your roll as unkept dice, and they cost target-number x 2 to buy with experience. Attributes add kept dice, and cost target-number x 5. That seems fair, right?

Wrong! If two players both spend X xp on different traits, they should both, at the end of the day, be equally useful. I mean, 100 xp is 100 xp, right? You shouldn't have to hunt for the "good" purchases and ignore the "bad" purchases, right? This is the route to twinkery, where happy players buy what they like and smart players buy what's useful. In a good system, both end up cool, in a bad system, one is vastly better than the other. All systems have some amount of imbalance, generally in the form of strategy, but it's a rare and special system that traps you with an entire aspect of it's gameplay being a bad buy, and Knacks are those.

If X xp must be the same in various traits, then we must look at XP to Usefulness Ratio. In 7th Sea, that's easily measured by how much a given trait will improve a dice roll. Improving an Attribute somewhere between +5 to +7 to your roll (It depends on how many unkept dice you have). The value of this drops as you increase your attribute: A single +1 to your roll costs about 2 points when you go from an Attribute of 1 to 2 (as it costs you 10 points to get that +5), while raising from 4 to 5 costs you 5 points per +1. So you get diminishing returns, which is fine. Also, incidentally, Finesse is your single most useful combat trait, with Panache, Brawl and Resolve holding together (after many many many combat simulations with various combinations) and Wits at the back of the pack. Outside of combat, it's anyone's guess, but my experience showed that Resolve, Finesse and Wits tend to be called alot, with Brawl called less, and Panache called rarely, making Finesse far too useful in the game, and panache a little on the weak side, but the rest, surprisingly, well-balanced.

Knacks, however, do not follow the above progression. The first dot adds between +2 and +3 to your roll, as it allows your dice to explode, which is a Big Deal. After that, they quickly start to drop off, on average, to +1 to +0.5, as the higher they get, the less they add... and the more they cost. So buying your fifth knack dot costs you 10 xp, and gives you something like +0.5, which means you're paying something like 20 points for a +1 to your roll, which is absurd compared to the attributes. Knacks give you less for more.

And there's more of them! There's a grand total of five Attributes. Maxing them all at 5, when you started with all at 2, would cost you a total of 300 experience. The price of raising all your knacks... incalculable. There are 135 (counting duplicates) Civilian Knacks in the core book alone. They add even more in later books, and there's also the Swordsman and Martial and Magical Knacks to consider. Even if we cut that number down to 100, you're looking at a price of nearly three-thousand XP to get all those civvie knacks to 5, and guess what? Such a character, despite having spent far more Xp than the guy with the Attributes all at 5, would be pwned by him in every way.

It's like they wanted it to be GURPS. The skill list is peppered with useless, pointless skills. Knotwork? Seriously? I mean, yes, it's important for sailors to know how to tie a knot, but doesn't that fall a little below the resolution of the system? Or how about the fact that they have a knack for Gambling, Cheating AND Gaming. What, pray tell, is the difference between Gaming and Gambling? And what happens if I take one and not the other? What if I don't take Knotwork. Does that mean I can't tie a knot? If I must have each and every knack to be effective, I'm better off buying more attributes. If I don't, then why clutter the book with so much crap (and I'm still better off buying more Attributes). This is particularly depressing when you consider Athletics (Wait, to swing, jump, roll, and do crazy stunts, I need to spend XP on each different trick?). You can see Wick's idea here, that putting these on your sheet made you more likely to use them... but forcing you to pay for them made you LESS likely to use them!

And then there's the martial knacks, which brings us to Combat.

World of Darkness has very boring combat. You stand there and roll and see how much damage you do to your opponent, and then he does the same back to you, and this goes on and on until someone dies. It's very easy to calculate, but also very predictable. WotG, on the other hand, has such a wild combat system with so many variables that it's almost impossible to model without inserting some tactical assumptions, making it highly unpredictable and constantly surprising. Guess which 7th Sea is like?

Assume two characters with 3s in all traits and 3s in their combat knacks. You have two basic combat options: attack, or defend. Defending generally costs 2 dice (though you can "wait" and only spend 1), while attacking costs 1. If you attack and you hit, you threaten your foe with X amount of damage. He may spend 2 action dice to attempt to parry your attack, but he has to beat your roll, which means he'll only do so 50 percent of the time. Thus, you have a choice: you can spend 1 action die to inflict X damage, or you can spend 2 action dice to have a 50% chance of preventing X damage. Obviously X > 0.5(0.5X), so it's better to just attack... and attack... and attack. Which is depressing.

Thus, your combat knacks have to compare to basic Attack. A Swordsman Knack, for example, should be better, pound for pound, than attack, or you'd never bother to use fancy tricks, right? Well, some are. Pommel Strike, for example, if you get a hit you inflict some damage, and then, if you have a die saved up, you can immediately use it to slash at your foe who is suddenly VERY easy to hit. Suddenly, you have an interesting tactical option and flowing combat. Someone who uses nothing but Pommel Strike is better than someone who uses nothing but Attack. Excellent. Likewise, Riposte is quite nice, as it doesn't sacrifice your attack to make a defense, and thus someone who uses Riposte all the time is actually a little better off than someone who uses Attack all the time. Interestingly, someone with Riposte makes for an interesting fight against someone with pommel strike: Let them pommel strike you, waste their next die to get that big attack in, then you riposte against them (since their attack value is likely lower), thus parrying their more dangerous attack, and getting in a dangerous attack of your own, all for one action die, while he wasted two on his combo. Sweet! And actually fairly balanced, and a fight worth watching!

But how about Feint? I increase your defense by 5 times your Wits and if I beat it, you can't defend. But guess what, if your defense is already 30, and your wits are, say, 3, that's a 45. If I can get a 45+, you're not going to defend anyway. Setting aside the fact that active defense is basically useless, as we've already pointed out, getting a 45 takes alot of work, making it even less worthwhile. Someone who just straight up attacks could also make three raises (raising your defense to 45) and get +3 unkept damage dice, and still be just as uselessly hard to defense against. So why feint? Or Tagging, which seems soooo cool. You have to struggle and fight to get past your opponent's defenses, and when you do you get... one drama dice. I famously argued that collecting all those drama dice would make you more dangerous in the long run, but the math shows that isn't so. You will finish the fight more quickly if you just stab the guy. And then there's Double Parry, which has all the uselessness of a normal parry, except it doesn't give you a passive defense, requires two hands, and it gives you a drama die that will vanish in less than a turn. Wooh.

Guess who has all three of those knacks? Valroux! Guess who has two of the useful knacks? Ambrogia! Yeah, that's balanced. Some people argue that it isn't worth the points to even take a swordsman school, as in addition to giving you useless knacks, it makes you vulnerable to people who know how to fight your style (+5 unkept dice on top of your already huge pool is nothing to sneeze at). I think they can be, when they are schools like Ambrogia, but should there even be a question? If you want to be a skilled fighter, being a swordsman should make you one of the best! Instead, it's highly likely that you'll waste your points if you pick the wrong school! Not to mention the fact that it gives you more knacks to waste points in.

I mentioned Raises, but let's discuss them a little further. Despite my previous statement of the system being obtuse, the fact that an attribute is worth about +5 isn't lost on most players (it's the knack's value that's the source of confusion), and thus most players get a solid idea of what they can and cannot do. If you keep 3 dice, it's rare that you'll get below 15. If you keep 5 dice, it's rare than you'll get below 25. A raise increases the difficulty, with the theory that you'll come closer to defeat by choosing to do awesome stuff. In practice, however, it's basically free. If you keep 5 dice, and you face something with a difficulty of 10, you can make a raise without worrying about the consequences. When it comes to opposed rolls, making raises has no drawbacks at all, because it just makes it harder and harder for your opponent to defend against your attack. It's a "false dilemma" because it's not really a dilemma at all.

The worst part of all this, with the swordsman schools, the skills, the knacks, the magic schools, is that the typical response is to eliminate knacks, but you can't. The entire system revolves around them. If you ditch swordsman knacks, it becomes pointless to take a swordsman school, and you have no way to rate what your swordsman skill is. Likewise, it becomes "too cheap" to be a non-swordsman as opposed to a swordsman. You end up rewriting the entire system. So the better option is to make all those pointless shit knacks more useful, but that's an exercise in futility. I have the carpal tunnel syndrome to prove that!

Then there's an array of minor issues. Reputation is lost for being a villain (murdering children) or being rude (getting drunk and being loud). Reputation is gained for being heroic (saving children) or by being polite (knowing to lift your pinkies at dinner). Because it's all on one continuum, if you want to be a loud drunk who saves children, you end up with a reptuation of zero, and thus miss out on all those cool reputation dice. Further, you lose your character when you drop below -30 reputation. This makes sense for murdering children, but it makes sense for being a loud drunk! Moreover this is a game about being pirates. Why are they taking our characters away for attacking ships and kidnapping wenches and singing loudly when drunk??

(Ed - Or you can play a child-murdering villain who observes all the niceties of proper society and stay at reputation zero as well: be a wicked murderer and keep your character, while the drunkard loses his! Wooh)

Or Virtues and Vices. Vices grant you -10 points, so everyone takes them. Nobody takes a Virtue, which costs you 10 points for the privilege of spending a drama die on a bonus of dubious value, like Altruistic, which states you can spend a drama die to reroll a test you made to help someone else. Or, you know, you could spend that drama die to improve the roll in the first place. I mean, if your roll was already close to victory (because it's not like a reroll is going to change a roll from 10 to 50, right? It's going to change it from 10 to 15. Maybe.), why not just do that? Oh, and Altruistic can only be used once per roll, because we don't want people using a useless power too often! It might become useful!

Or Magic. Some of it's really cool, like Glamour, Rune Magic and Shapeshifting, but the rest are same-same. All Porte Sorcerors are exactly the same, so why bother with a knack system at all? The same is true of Fate Witches, though their power is at least cool enough that people still take it. Porte just ends up being travel magic, which is a shame.

And then there's the setting itself. This is a game that bills itself about being about piracy and sailing on the grand seas. This is so true that Walter invested in a ship. And yet, setting aside my complaints about reputaiton, there's no place to go. The neat places, like Cathay, can't be reached at all, or, like America, have been removed completely. So you just sail around Theah, dealing with continental politics, wondering where the Carribean and the entire source of piracy in the real world went. And thus, it's a great game for the Muskteers, and crap for piracy.

Can this be fixed?

I have 6.75 Megabytes of material I put together in my vain effort to fix it. Some simple stuff works quite well, like a renewed Repartee system, a new reputation system, a new Raise system (you give up dice, rather than increase difficulty, which incidentally also makes knacks more useful), charging 3 XP per knack dot, and some fixes on the weaker swordsman knacks. Changing the knacks themselves was an exercise in futility, though, and what ultimately broke me. That and I was essentially rewriting the system from the ground up.

That's the problem with broken systems, when they tell us to fix them. They ignore the harrowing amounts of work involved. Games like Rifts, Scion, the old World of Darkness and 7th Sea are so evocative that we want to love them. We want them to work, and so we pretend that they do. You can even sort of make 7th Sea work if you just play a bunch of continental heroes (squeaky clean heroes at that, no anti-heroes here) who don't bother with knacks beyond flavor, pretending it's a game with 5 traits, drama dice and nothing else, which probably explains why it appeals to people who want to keep things simple (because if you try to let it become complicated, the system collapses, breaks down and dies), but none of this really fixes the fact that it's broken, broken, broken.

As our anonymous poster pointed out, it already takes alot of work to make a game work. My current GURPS Space Opera takes about 4 hours of planning per session, plus the studying of rules I need to remember and the writing of templates and NPCs I want to include. If GURPS didn't work, on top of that, I simply wouldn't have the time to be running the game at all.

I spent several months fighting with 7th Sea. If it had been working in the first place, I could have been spending all that effort towards running it. I always feel guilty for abandoning games my players love. I miss playing with Jenny, and I know if I reached for 7th Sea, she'd be tempted to come back. Bee still resents me for abandoning Exalted, a point that continues to cause tension. If I could just "get over" my "problems" and "stop being a wuss" I could run these great games, right? Except it's not me that failed. It's the games that failed.

They call them Heartbreakers for a reason.

This is why I don't run 7th Sea, Scion, Rifts, Exalted or oWoD anymore. I can spend my time better elsewhere. I hope you guys understand.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Weapons of the Gods

Someone offered me one of the nicest things one gamer can offer a game master: a seat at his table as a player in one of his favorite games. In this case, I had inspired someone with my WotG oneshot who has since purchased the books and begun to run the game, much to the acclaim of several players. He wanted some help with the Secret Arts, so I whipped up my own character (rather similar to Grey Lotus, actually, except less medical skill and more White Crane. Mmmm. White Crane)

I've tried not to touch WotG since I finished our last campaign, fearing that I would "burn out" on it like I burned out on Exalted or 7th Sea, but after re-opening that part of my life and feeling the utter exhiliration of the game again, I wonder. Did I burn out on Exalted and 7th Sea because I played them "too much," or because they sucked. Forgive me if you loved those particular games, but their systems certainly could have been better. Walter, for example, wanted very much to love 7th Sea even while the reputation system was graphically violating his character concept and encouraging all the players to waste their points in useless knacks (Fortunately, everyone wasted their points the same way, so we didn't see discrepencies. We should probably thank our stars that Roomie wasn't playing, or he'd have dissected the system and put everyone's characters to shame). Was I tired of Exalted because of running it so much, or because I got sick of sifting through 50 charms whenever I wanted to make a powerful NPC and hassling through endless, pointless fights with eternal perfects, insurmountable defenses and absurd armor that resulted in miniscule chances of anyone involved taking even a single HL of damage?

I mean, I'm not tired of GURPS yet, or World of Darkness (the new one, which is actually pretty good), despite years of playing them. Maybe the problem isn't that I get sick of a game, but that I get sick of doing all the mechanical heavy lifting and pretending a game is good when it isn't.

What I'm reading

Or just finished, as the case may be: House of Suns, by Alistair Reynolds.

Very nice book, one of his better, though not connected to the Revelation Space series.
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