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.
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