Tuesday, May 6, 2014

RPG Social Mechanics, Player Agency, and the Fantasy of Free Will

 I was listening to the most recent episode of Happy Jack's RPG Podcast while walking in to work today, and once again the topic of social mechanics in games came up. Specifically, the conflict between player agency, through their characters, and using social mechanics on other player-characters. On the one hand, if someone creates a socially adept character, you don't want to make that decision dependent on their own roleplaying skills, or make it a far less valuable choice than creating a character who is adept at magic or combat. (Of course, in almost every RPG ever written, the social stat is still the dump stat). On the other hand, there is a concern about a player's agency - that if their character loses a social conflict over something important, and has to act against their wishes, then that is a serious problem.

Full disclosure: I don't think it's a problem for a player to lose control of their character periodically, and I think it's odd that we focus on social mechanics in this discussion. I mean, if your D&D character is critically hit by a Dragon and dies, or by a Beholder and is turned to stone, no one complains that they have lost "player agency" or anything of the sort. Those are the rules, the dice were rolled and that's it. Similarly, if a character is chasing an NPC and the NPC uses a spell to become invisible and escape, no one complains about player agency. The character wanted to catch the NPC, but they couldn't, because rules.

But then, in a game with a social mechanic, a character gets into an argument with an NPC, and the NPC wins the argument, and suddenly if the character has to behave any differently, that's a big problem for many players. When I'm a player, I just roll with it, and it doesn't bother me at all. I come up with a reason my character is convinced, s/he acts against their better judgement, and the game goes on. Maybe later there will be a reckoning and maybe not, but the story moves on. We do things against our better judgment all the time, and one big reason for this is the influence of other people close to us.

As I was thinking about this, I thought about free will. Specifically, what philosophers call libertarian free will, which is not something to do with Ayn Rand, but rather the term for fully free will in contrast to determinism. Basically it says that free will cannot exist in a deterministic universe, and therefore determinism is false.

Inside all of us, I think, is a sense of someone in charge of everything. There is an inner sense that we deliberate and make choices and remember and so on. We think of this inner sense as our true self, or soul, or free will, or mind, etc. Particular with regard to punishment, we have an intuition that people make free choices, and that it is fair to punish them for those choices.

This is in direct contrast to actual research on the topic. There is a lot of research that shows how free will is limited, and may not even exist. Our brains make some decisions before we are even consciously aware of them. Our perceptions are filtered unconsciously. Our memories are re-interpretations rather than recordings of past events, and they change over time. We are primed to see what we expect to see.

And while we have the intuition of a decision-making self, we also all probably have had experiences where we have not been able to choose what we wanted to choose. We've consciously, or semi-consciously, made the wrong choice. Maybe it was because of an altered state, or because of the influence of others, or being in the grip of a strong emotion or whatever - but there are choices we are not able to make, even if we theoretically have the capacity to make them.

This should also be true of our characters - they aren't just sitting back making rational decisions. And I think this should be reflected in play and in the use of social mechanics. Libertarian free will does not seem to be the reality we experience, but I think the fantasy persists in the way we play games. We want total control over our characters even when we do not experience total control of our own lives.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The One Ring: Rohirrim

I'm getting ready to run a campaign using The One Ring by Cubicle 7, and my wife insisted on being able to play one of the Rohirrim. I got some good leads and resources from Cubicle 7's forum and used fan-created material as a starting point - but it wasn't quite right. Here is my take, 90% done.

Men of Rohan

"They are proud and willful, but they are true-hearted, generous in thought and deed; bold but not cruel; wise but unlearned, writing no books but singing many songs, after the manner of the children of Men before the Dark Years. ''
—Aragorn, The Two Towers

The Rohirrim are descended from the Éothéod, a race of Men who lived in the vales of the Great River Anduin, but that removed to Calenardhon, which was granted them in perpetuity by the Ruling Steward of Gondor, Cirion in reward for the assistance that they offered Gondor at a time of great need. As a result, they were lifelong allies of Gondor bound by the Oath of Eorl. At that time Calenardhon was renamed Rohan (Horse-land) after their many horses. By the Rohirrim themselves Rohan is usually called The Mark.

They are ruled by a line of kings descended from Eorl the Young, who had first brought them to Rohan, and in time of war every able man rode to meet the Muster of Rohan.

The people of the Mark, men and women, tend to be tall and fair, and usually wear their hair long and braided. They often have beautiful singing voices, and know many songs, which is how they pass on lore and history from generation to generation. They are the culture that has the closest bond with their horses. They are accustomed to fighting the Dunlendings in the west and fending off goblin-raids from the north and east when they come seeking to steal horses and slaves.

The Rohirrim share a close ancestry with the Bardings of Dale and a more distant ancestry with the people of Wilderland.

Standard of Living
The people of Rohan do not live extravagant lives - their horses and wide lands constitute the majority of their wealth outside of Edoras. They are a Martial people, eschewing outward wealth but always well-equipped for war.

The people of Rohan speak Westron as well as their own tongue commonly called Rohirric, distantly related to that spoken by the people of the Vales of Anduin to the north.

Rohirrim Adventurers

Suggested Callings
People of Rohan living in Rhovanion are far from home, and this makes the most sense for a Slayer who has taken on a quest of some kind, to hunt a legendary beast or avenge a long-forgotten wrong, or a Wanderer, who is simply struck by a desire to see distant sights in Middle-Earth, and followed the Anduin north from his homeland.

Unusual Calling
It is highly unusual for one of the Rohirrim to live the life of the Scholar. Most Rohirrim are much more interested in glory than in lore.

What Their Chieftain Says…

Bard’s people have returned to their homeland, we have heard, though we know little of how things fare with them. Some trade has come south down the Great River, and we have returned in kind. Time will tell whether the line of Girion will return to its former glory.

We know nothing about these strange folk apart from rumors - that they take the shapes of bears. Our oldest songs speak of such things, but they have not come to the Mark.

Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain
We know of Dwarves, but seem little of them. We have our own smiths and stonemasons, and the only creatures living in the mountains to the north are Orcs and Goblins. We know them to be doughty warriors, but what we know is from ancient songs and stories.

Elves of Mirkwood
We do not trust Elves nor their sorcery. Some of our own have come under the shadow of the Lady of the Wood, or so she is called, and have been enchanted. They never return, or they return changed. Elves are best left alone, and they seem to prefer it that way for their part.

Hobbits of the Shire
We know stories of the holbytlan, the hole-dwellers, from before the time of Eorl the Young. We once lived near them, or so we believe, but we have not seen any of them for many generations, and most now believe them to be a fairy-story told to children during long winter nights.

Woodmen of Wilderland
It is said that Eorl the Young and the first Eorlingas came from the people who are now called Woodmen. Perhaps they stayed, preferring the woods to the open fields. Sometimes a group of them comes south, seeking to explore, and now and then riders go north to learn of our history for themselves, but while we share some distant relation to them Woodmen, we share little else.

Cultural Blessing
Rider of the Mark: When mounted, all weapon skills and movement skills are considered favored.

Starting Skill Scores
Awe 2
Athletics 2
Awareness 1
Explore 1
Song 2
Craft 0
Inspire 1
Travel 3
Insight 2
Healing 1
Courtesy 0
Battle 2
Persuade 0
Stealth 0
Search 0
Hunting 2
Riddle 1
Lore 0

Weapon Skills
Bow 2, Axe 1, Dagger 1
Spear 2, Sword 1, Dagger 1

Choose two Traits from: Beast-Lore, Fire-making, Herb-lore, Horse-riding, Leechcraft, Riddermark-lore, Story-telling

Backgrounds (aimed at why they would be in the North)

1 - Shieldmaiden
While the men are called upon to defend the Mark, it is the women who are often called upon to defend the homestead, and there are no reinforcements coming to the rescue when reavers and raiders come. Some women eschew a family entirely, devoting themselves to martial training, and they will often fight alongside the men as well as in defense of their homes. You are one such, and you had to prove yourself more skilled and more fierce than most men - but you will see that your name is remembered. You do not fear death, but rather to be bound by any will but your own. You have left your homeland to make a name for yourself in the wider world.

Basic Attributes
Body 6, Heart 6, Wits 2

Favored Skill

Distinctive Features
(choose two traits from the following)
Bold, Determined, Fair, Fierce, Forthright, Proud, Secretive, Wilful

2 - Fell Deeds Awake - Ride to Ruin
You were not there when they came to your village in the Eastfold, raiders from the shadowy East. You were not there when they slaughtered families, including yours - when they burned farms and fields and took only the horses with them. You were suddenly awakened to a wider world around you, and to a looming Shadow that seems to be growing despite the courage of your people. You have sworn to hunt that Shadow - the least your village deserves is revenge.

Basic Attributes
Body 5, Heart 6, Wits 3

Favored Skill

Distinctive Features
(choose two traits from the following)
Determined, Elusive, Grim, Hardened, Patient, Vengeful, Wrathful

3 - Emissary of Edoras
You were chosen by King Fengel to ride with a small group North and re-establish relations with King Bard and, if possible, King Dain of the lonely mountain. You are not so sure that Elves are to be trusted, but any information about them might be helpful to your King. You are to remain in the North. Each spring a rider will leave the north for Edoras, and each fall he will return to exchange news. Do what you can to learn of these distant relatives, and represent your own people to them well.

Basic Attributes
Body 3, Heart 5, Wits 6

Favored Skill

Distinctive Features
(choose two traits from the following)
Bold, Curious, Fair, Fair-spoken, Generous, Lordly, Proud, Tall

4 - Exile
You had a rival, or outright enemy, and the conflict between you escalated over the course of your adolescence until it finally came to blows. You fought, a duel like your ancestors used to fight, but it turned bloodier than you intended. It was meant to be to first blood, but the first wound you inflicted was fatal. Your foe was of higher standing than you, and had many friends. Your family, disgraced, had to pay the weregild, bankrupting them, and you were exiled. There was not enough evidence of malice to have you executed by the Marshall, but you doubt you can ever come home. You heard that some of the peoples in the North share ancestry with your people, and so you have made the long and arduous journey there to try and make a new life.

Basic Attributes
Body 7, Heart 3, Wits 4

Favored Skill

Distinctive Feature
(choose two traits from the following)
Elusive, Grim, Hardened, Merciful, Reckless, Suspicious, Wrathful

Rohirrim Names

Male Names:

Female Names:

Adventuring Age: 16-30

Endurance and Hope
Endurance 22 + Heart
Hope 8 + Heart

Cultural Virtues
Wise but unlearned
One of the Rohirrim with this Virtue can roll Song in place of Lore. If she also has Lore, then she can roll an extra advantage die.

Your understanding of horses is such that you can speak to them simple phrases, and understand their responses.

When rolling Insight to discern whether someone is being honest, roll the Feat die twice and take the best result. When using Courtesy to speak the simple truth, do the same.

Proud and willful
When rolling a Valour check to resist fear, roll the Feat die twice and take the better result.

Cultural Rewards
White-plume Helm
When making an Awe or Inspire roll wearing the helm, roll the Feat die twice and take the best result.

Bow of the Mark (easier to use from horseback)
This is a recurve bow designed to be used from horseback, and imposes no penalty for being used thusly.

Named Blade
You have inherited a well-known blade, one that has been named and will be remembered. The edge rating for this sword is one better than normal.

Horn of the Mark
If the Horn of the Mark is blown during the opening volley of a skirmish or battle, all foes nearby lose 1 Hate.

Horse of the Mark (you are not assumed to start with a warhorse - they are very valuable, especially in the North)

Grave-Mound Spear
The spears that ring a burial mound of one of the Kings of Rohan are left to rust and moulder, but this one did not. It carries the blessing of one of the kings of old. Whenever you inflict a wound with this spear, your foe also loses one Hate (or Hope).

Fighting from Horseback
When attacking from horseback, all weapon skills are considered to be favored. In addition, when the hero would take a wound, the wound can instead be taken by the horse. Horses have two wounds, so if wounded twice, a horse is near death.

During the opening volley between two groups in a skirmish, a mounted character can charge to a Forward stance and make an attack with a bonus advantage die.

It is assumed that a warhorse is trained to lash out with bites and hooves during battle, but that these will not deal significant damage - they just provide the rider with an advantage over foes on foot.

A mounted fighter who is unobstructed (not in the middle of a melee or a battle line) can move from a forward to a rearward stance with one move.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Simplifying Combat in Vampire the Masquerade

My V20 game that I'm currently running seems to be coming to a head. Multiple Sabbat packs will be attacking an ancient vampire and his minions, and a second ancient might join the fray. In the past, this has been the point where we have a whole session where two hours or more are all one fight.

One big culprit here is Celerity. Probably the biggest. Each round of combat involves multiple turns for a number of the characters. Not only does Celerity make it less fun to be in a fight when you don't have it, but there is more time spent as a player sitting on the sidelines messing with your smartphone or whatever while everyone else has multiple actions.

A second issue is that resolving a single attack requires at least four dice-rolls: the attack roll, a defense roll, damage roll and soak roll. One thing I really like about NWoD is that this is all simplified to one weighted roll per attack. I used to like the variability and flexibility of the OWoD system, but that was also back when I played with the same group every week, and we had tons of hours to devote to gaming minutiae.

Fix 1: Celerity
In the past I've adapted the LARP rules for Celerity, as I actually like them better than the V20 or previous rules, but in writing them up for this game, I realized they would just add another layer of complexity. We have two players who don't give a damn about the system and would rather it not get in the way, one who is in his very first tabletop RPG, and a fourth who is up for whatever, so I decided to go with simplification.

What I decided was that Celerity would simply add to all Dexterity rolls. I had changed initiative to Dexterity + Wits (rather than Wits + Alertness), so Celerity would also add to initiative rolls. This would be the equivalent of the LARP preempt ability that Celerity grants, and it just makes sense that characters with Celerity would act first. This would also add to pretty much all attack rolls, move around rolls, and so on. I decided Celerity would cost no blood, since frankly this is quite a nerf. I have also not been allowing split actions, and so the extra Celerity dice would not be useful for that either.

So far, the players seem to be happy with it, though one player moved her Celerity 3 point to become a Fortitude 4 point (from out of clan to in-clan), which was fine by me. When I make a change like this (and I don't seem to be able to resist) I always give players a chance to adjust accordingly.

Fix 2: Fortitude
I also wanted to nix the soak roll, and so I had to address Fortitude first. I decided that Stamina + Fortitude + Armor would be the difficult of damage rolls, but this meant that Fortitude would be less useful overall. (You still roll it to avoid fire and sunlight). So I decided that for a blood point, a character could add their Fortitude to their normal Health levels temporarily. These would be health levels that you couldn't heal, but would be a buffer between you and real damage.

Again, so far, so good.

Fix 3: Defense and Soak
As mentioned above, there is no longer a soak roll, but the difficulty of a damage roll is the target's Stamina + Fortitude + Armor. I also decided that the maximum for this difficulty would be a 9. Beyond that point, the extra health levels help, and you have dice to roll against fire and sunlight, but I found that my players had a lot more fun if they could at least bruise powerful NPCs in a fight.

Similarly, I got rid of the defense roll by simply having the difficulty of an attack roll be the target's Dexterity + Athletics + Celerity. Again, with a maximum of 9. This really short-changes my super-powerful Elders, but also makes dealing with those Elders a bit more fun in this game, at least so far. This could easily be adapted to another house rule (or is it a house rule?) that for difficulties over 9, you simply need more successes. So difficulty 12 = difficulty 9 with three successes required for the first success.

Problem: Stakes, and other attacks that are more difficult than normal. Not sure what to do with this, but it basically makes staking a bit more likely and common in the game, which frankly is not a problem so far.

Again, players are liking the rules change, I have to explain rules much less often during the game, and fights go a lot quicker overall.

Mass Combat
The next session of my game is going to be a big-ass combat, with more than 20 named NPCs. Obviously, this is nuts, but the players are feeling it and are excited about it, and it is kind of what has been set up to happen. They are attacking an ancient vampire and his minions, and have the assistance of a couple of NPCs in their pack as well as a Black Hand cell. Late in the fight, another ancient might jump in with her minions to try to diablerize the PCs target, her enemy for the last 3000 years.

So, cool stuff, if it goes quick enough to be at all interesting.

First thing, for the most part, I'm going to hand-wave NPC vs NPC parts of the combat. I have a very good idea of who would win in a given fight and how long it would take, leaving me to focus on the PCs. For the NPCs vs NPCs, I just note what the PCs would see (she tears him up with claws; he empties his clip into her, etc.) and move on. If they want to get detail, they have to go look. Otherwise, it's a mess, as fights should be.

Second, I have to have a way to keep track of NPC dots and numbers without having a fat stack of character sheets. Even the 3x5 cards I usually use for NPCs are a bit too large, as I want to have them out on the table so I can move them around. I decided to cut the 3x5s in half, and to have some notes for the combat only. What I have on the lined side of each card:

Name, Type (ghoul, clan, generation, etc.), Nature/Demeanor if they might come up in a fight
Physical, Social and Mental dice (these are just average pools for rolls of each type)
List of powers and level
Primary attack
Secondary attack
Special effect (if any - for example, Majesty with the Courage roll difficulty, an aura, etc.)
Path (if any) and Willpower
Blood pool total/Blood spent per round
Any other little note

Then, on the un-lined side of the card

Initiative number (I rolled ahead of time)
Boxes for the health levels, assuming that everyone has activated Fortitude who has it

And that's it. We'll see how it works on Sunday night.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A Shot in the Dark

Let's see if I can write a thing. This seems like as good a venue as any, since at this point posting to this blog is similar to talking to myself. I think the pageviews I get each day - which are very few - are simply the Brownian motion of the Internet. Digital presences bumping into this node, and then wandering away, without an apparent order.

I went to the doctor a little over a month ago because my depression symptoms were getting worse. This was also just before things at work got really bad for about a month (and are not what I would call 'good' now, but I'm still here). I have a superb doctor, and we talked a bit, and she asked how we would know if the new regimen was working? I thought about it - one of the things that happens is that you lose interest in things you otherwise love and enjoy. So I said that a measure we could use is writing. When I'm writing again, that will tell us that the regimen is working.

I'm still not sure that this will count, but I had to try to force something out.

A friend of mine put together a G+ group for writers and game designers who also struggle with depression. It shouldn't be surprising that there would be some significant overlap there. We share a hobby that involves tons of sitting by ourselves and thinking, which is exactly the kind of environment in which depression thrives. Or maybe it's a self-fulfilling prophecy - sitting alone and thinking encourages depression, and then depression encourage sitting alone and thinking. Voila.

I'm at the stage now where it seems that everyone around me is doing well and accomplishing things and growing as persons while I am a sack of garbage slumping my way through a dreary life. That probably sounds over-dramatic, but over-dramatization, or 'catastrophic thinking', is a symptom of depression, so there you go. Subjectively, that is what it is like. The things I do and say seem, to me, like abject failures to achieve anything I want to achieve - so much so that it is pointless to try.

One of the survival methods that I have learned is to try to ignore these intuitions. To trust, somehow, that they are false, or, since I am not good at really trusting, to just move forward as if I trusted. To identify those thoughts as symptoms rather than truths. This is a challenge in a career where my intuitions about other people are very important to how I proceed. I often have to trust my intuitions about other people, to rely and act on them even, and on the other hand ignore my intuitions about myself.

For example, I am so certain I am rambling like an idiot that I actually feel a faint nausea. So I'm just going to hit "Publish" and see how I feel later in the day.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Back to Some Game Design

My obsession with Tolkien is well documented. There has been a recent lull in editing activity on my other projects, and one of the things that happens at such a time is I dust off an older project and put some more work into it. In this case, that project is Servants of the Secret Fire, my Middle-Earth RPG. It is a cool game, and I hit a point where I had enough new tweaks and ideas that I wanted to put down another draft. So far, so good - about 5,000 words have rolled out in the past few days, partly by way of iPhone while watching a friend play Red Dead Redemption, so clearly my mind is in this space.

I was recently invited to write for my friend Pete Figtree's blog, and he gave me a blank slate, so of course I wrote about Tolkien. I have also been reading about Tolkien and listening to the Aldasaga podcast, which is about Tolkien and Norse myth. I think these things build up to a critical mass, and one of the main ways I discharge this extra intellectual payload is through gaming. Since I haven't yet found a group to play The One Ring with, this is what happens.

It's also a hell of a lot easier than dealing with a new city, new job, toddler, moving and bills.

The One Ring is hands-down the best Middle-Earth RPG out there right now. I love running it and would likely love playing in a game as well. I can still do better. Now I just have to prove it by actually doing better. If I finish SotSF, I will be of course be giving it away. If anyone reading this has any interest in reading or paytesting it, please contact me and let me know. It probably won't be ready for beta playtesting for a while (I haven't even had an alpha playtest yet, honestly), but obviously that'll need to happen.

Maybe other people have fewer of these, but this is one of those projects that I work on simply because I enjoy thinking about it and working on it. I don't make it a priority over actual work - Never Pray Again and writing for my new job come first, no question, as do the couple of editing gigs that I have. But there is still time when I can squeeze in even more writing and thinking, and this is it. My fantasy heartbreaker.

I don't know whether it is better or worse that I realize that and still work on it.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Whose Story Is It?


As I write my way into this fiction attempt, I've had some time to reflect on my approach - present tense, multiple viewpoints. I think that I was bouncing around, wondering whose story this actually is. One of the characters emerged, and I think this is his story. He's one of the more interesting characters, to me anyway, with lots of internal and external conflicts currently and coming his way. He has interesting relationships with the other main characters, with some nuance and potential conflict there too. He's also one of the few characters I'm sure will survive the story (not all the main characters will).

Looking ahead, I don't think he will be present for every event I have sketched out, and some of the events he won't be present for are a big deal to the story, so I may need a second POV. I'm not sure who that should be.

Writing in first person continues to open up challenges and opportunities. It's odd to be writing fantasy, which always has the artifice of being "once upon a time" to some degree in first person. It is happening both in a legendary then and yet the reader's now. There's no room for things like an imaginary manuscript history for the story, or the idea that a storyteller is setting things down on paper that happened long ago in their own life. It is cinematic, and I'm actually not even sure that this technique plays to what strengths I have as a writer (which in fiction are very few and underdeveloped).

Still, it's worth continuing. This is practice. I am still enjoying writing my way into this story, and I'm approaching 40,000 words without feeling fatigued with it. As long as I continue to learn, it's worth it.