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How I Spent My Gen Con Vacation

Drinking with Game Designers.  Full stop.

Yeah, that’s a piss-poor entry, even my by admittedly loose standards.  Let me see…

Let’s go with a loose, overall set of impressions, shall we?  This way, I can cover some ground of what the various game publishers have been doing, and in the process, I can talk about things as they come up.  Have no expectations about the content or quality, and you shall be less disappointed than otherwise.

First off, the con was slammed.  The press release from Peter Adkison (nice guy, met him once, and he also happened to attend my friends’ wedding) that immediately followed said that it was up 10% from last year and has more than doubled over the past five years.  It was wall-to-wall people, everywhere you looked, and yet, I was still able to hook up with many old friends from years before, just happening past in the aisles.  The con personnel are getting crowd control well in hand, and even picking up my badge from the Will Call line took no time at all.

What’s more interesting is that Paizo is starting to get a handle on how popular their booth is, seeing as they always used to run out of their pins within a couple of hours of the exhibitor hall opening.  This year was literally the first time I have ever been able to pick up all four days’ worth of commemorative pins.  (Don’t ask me why this matters to me; I don’t have any real answer.)  They had to run a line outside of the hall, out in the main corridor, but when I wandered in to look at some of the years’ merch, it moved pretty fast, all things considered.  I didn’t go at exactly peak times, but there were plenty of people waiting with me, and it only took twenty minutes, all told.

And while I love Paizo dearly, they still have occasion to let a mistake past, despite otherwise having raised the bar to nigh insurmountable levels for most other publishers.  It’s oddly amusing to see this happen, precisely because they hold themselves to such standards.  This year’s new hardcover release was the the Advanced Class Guide, where they meld the basic classes into what amounts to being hybrid classes.  It’s a nifty book, well worth the time and money (this is where I could bitch about how one should only pick up a book of theirs if it’s Advanced, while carefully steering clear of the Ultimate ones; it’s a topic for another time), but the first print run is listed as being an Adventure Path on the cover.  It’s a simple logo switch that happened some time in production, but there it is.  The second print run will be rid of the offending text, so snatch up your ‘collectible’ copies while you can.

Competing with Paizo for the long lines is Fantasy Flight.  Unlike Paizo, they couldn’t route people out into the outer corridor, so they had people snaking around their booth and demo area for most of the con.  They managed to get people through that line pretty quickly, assisted by a ‘get to know the people in line with you’ card game.  In theory, there was a prize for managing to collect the right base of cards, but that was well beyond the ten or twelve people we were in line with.

I didn’t pay much attention to the rest of the booth at Fantasy Flight, since I had a singular mission, but they did come out with a number of new minis for the X-Wing game, a new fleet tactical game for Star Wars and the new edition of Dark Heresy.  I might have considered a YT-2400 – I’ve always had a soft spot for Dash Rendar’s Outrider and we managed to make it our main ship in Edge – but they were already sold out by the time I got to the line.  (The same holds true for AEG’s Limited Edition wooden box release of Doomtown.  I want badly to get hold of the game, but not at the original price of $120, let alone the notably multiplied eBay markups.)

The Beta for Force and Destiny is a fine thing, as it captures all of the flavor and variance of the old Knights of the Old Republic video game, between the character careers and the lightsaber modifications.  I’m sure that some new stuff will be thrown in for the final edition, being that this is merely the Beta, but what I have in front of me is enough that I’m already jonesing for a proper game to go.

I picked up my backer copy of Primeval Thule at the booth.  They made a couple of interesting design choices in the book, just from my initial perusal.  Since they managed to get the support for three different editions of the damned thing, between 13th Age, Pathfinder and 4e, they had to make some editing decisions in the process.  What this boiled down to was a choice to make an appendix that the relevant parts of the book referred back to in-text.  This way, only one part of the book needed to be changed between the editions.  I’m still debating if this was an elegant or lazy way of doing things.  And in doing so, I’m sort of leaning toward elegant, just on the basis of the novelty of it all.  We shall see if this judgment holds.

They did commit a cardinal sin with the book, however, by including in-text adventures.  Over the years, I’ve found that I would rather have such things appear as web enhancements, like D&D 3.5 did with many of their products.  (A practice that I feel started with Deadlands, back in the day.)  Rather than waste valuable pages on an adventure that may only be run once, if at all, I would much rather have the illustrative introductory adventure show up in some other form, when I’m paying for the book to have as much reference material as physically possible.

… and just like that, I find myself standing at the brink of a Wick hole.

This is a lot of the problem I’m finding I have with Wicked Fantasy, overall.  There’s a lot of wasted space in the book that might have been used for actual interesting things.  I don’t need to know what the Orkish word for blood is.  I want to know what sort of vaguely Klingon-inspired weapon they’re going to use to spill it.  What do their villages and family units look like?  What is it about this world that makes these orks darker and edgier and more dangerous than the orcs of pretty much every other D&D game?  Instead, we get … words … about words.  There are between fifty and seventy wasted pages of bad fanfic that serves no concrete purpose and does nothing to illuminate the world.  The page count on this idiot book could have been cut in half, and I would have come out better for it.

Man, I hate that book.  I would burn the damned thing, if that didn’t go farther to illustrate the wasted money.

Anyway, my point remains.  If you’re going to insist on an adventure to properly introduce a game, then it shouldn’t have to take up real estate in the book itself.  Especially not in this day and age, when a good portion of book sales seems to come in the form of digital copies anyway.  It’s almost enough to make me want to invest in a tablet PC to be able to carry even more reference material wherever I go.

I invested heavily in Fate books, finishing out my Dresden Files collection (of two books; I know…) and picking up a copy of Fate Core.  My main bill at the IPR booth was acquiring materia for other people, including a copy of Tenra Bansho Zero for one of the guys.  In doing so, I accidentally ran into Andy Kitkowski, the translator for TBZ and the upcoming Ryuutama.  He had come back from Nihon for the sake of Gen Con, dragging along Atsuhiro Okada, the actual writer and designer for Ryuutama.  It was an interesting chance meeting, and I took the opportunity to have him sign a couple of the post card GM handouts for me.  Alas, since Ryuutama has yet to hit print, there was nothing for me to have Okada sign, alas.

The final note, as I’ve largely lost the thread of where I was going when I started this post, was that I saw something truly fascinating at the greater DriveThru booth.  As has become usual for White Wolf/Onyx Path, there was no actual product of any weight to be had at the booth.  It’s Print on Demand and digital distribution, after all, why bother with trying to sell it at the convention?  They did have some product on display, but very little of it seemed available to sell.  One thing, in particular, did catch my eye, however.

And this is so much gaming esoterica, I grant.  It was a copy of the oft-lamented BESM 3rd Edition, the final product of Guardians of Order, after the weird horror that was the Game of Thrones RPG that everyone seemed to have tried to buy yet no one ever ran.  BESM 3rd was the full sized red cover version of the rules that somehow ended up in the hands of White Wolf for distribution.  It came out in January of 2007, got snatched up by the fan base and has never been seen since.  Naturally, it’s still ridiculously expensive (to the point that a copy of the original printing, even this long out of print, is only about twice as much), but it’s once again available.

All in all, there was a lot more that passed outside of my perception at the convention, since I had specific goals and aspirations.  There were events for D&D 5th that I blithely ignored, there were new products from publishers I have nothing to do with, and there were games running that I didn’t attend.  But the things I saw were worth my time, and some of them will even merit further study in future entries.

On Getting What You Don’t Want

In talking about the upcoming Deadlands TV series, I touched on the idea that the property was experiencing a bit of a comeback.  It’s finally getting some long overdue exposure, and some of the things that made it great back in the day, like the Doomtown CCG, were returning.  This is mostly true, but part of what I implied is seriously misleading.  Deadlands never truly died as an RPG.  It just died as far as I was concerned.

Deadlands was first published in 1996, with a much needed 2nd Edition revision coming in 1999.  When Wizards of the Coast released Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition in 2000, they did so with the OGL, allowing whomever wanted to use the broad concepts of the D20 Rules as they saw fit the ability to adapt it into their own publications, thereby strengthening D&D’s brand.

And D&D 3.0 went huge.  It was impossible to ignore.

In an industry like this one, a success story like D20 did not go unnoticed.  Seemingly overnight, every company that had available resources placed their chips on some variant of D20, hoping to catch a little of the same lightning in their very own bottles.  For a lot of companies, this meant coming up with compatible products.  White Wolf, for example, licensed both Necromancer Games and Sword & Sorcery to come up with sourcebooks and material.  AEG put out a line of mini-adventures, as well as GM toolkit books.  Green Ronin and Guardians of Order started taking the system apart to see how it ticked and offered systems hacks for D&D players to use.  There was a lot of great material available for D&D players to modify their home games, one way or another.

Other companies, like Holistic and Pinnacle, started to convert their products over to D20, thinking that this was the wave of the future.  Deadlands D20 came out a year later, and there was such a push to support it for the gaming community that they started releasing books that were dual-statted between Classic Deadlands and the D20 version.  They made a brave face of it, releasing seven books within 2001 in order to be able to properly play the game, but the interest simply wasn’t there.  Whether or not the investment into a new system ended up bankrupting the company, production on the original games ceased shortly after the D20 books were deemed a failure.

Pinnacle did release one original product during this time, in amongst converting their original stable of products over to D20, but given its eventual resting place in the cheap bins of the gaming shops and conventions, I can’t say that it did any better than any of the Deadlands conversions.  Weird Wars did an admirable job of building out Horror in World War II, but given that most of the source material for the game was lodged in somewhat obscure DC Comics fare from the 1970’s era, it’s not surprising that the game didn’t hit everyone’s interests.  (That said, I realize that much of Deadlands owes its origins to the Weird Western Tales that DC put out at the same time.  The difference is that in this day and age, a lot more people are familiar with Jonah Hex as a property than they are with the Haunted Tank stories.)  From my own experience, I’ve come to believe that the Weird Wars RPG fared a lot better amongst gamers than the Deadlands D20 games did, but this is also from the response within my extended network of contacts.  Like Deadlands D20, enough sourcebooks to play the game fully were released before the line died.

A few years later, Shane Hensley came out with the Savage Worlds rules, based on his perception of what had made Deadlands a failure of a system.  According to his dev notes, he’d driven around to various player groups, gaming with them to get a feel for a new rules set based on the Great Rail Wars miniatures rules.  Once he solidified these rules to his liking, they became the basis for all future games from what remained of Pinnacle Publishing.

Then once Savage Worlds had become enough of a mainstay in the industry, Deadlands was released with these new rules, adapting the concepts into the greatly simplified system.  The classic Weird West setting was followed with Hell on Earth (the post-apocalyptic setting) and Deadlands Noir (the newly minted Pulp setting).  Noir is specifically built with Savage Worlds rules in mind, where the other two settings are converted into the new system.  As yet, there’s been no sign of the much maligned third setting from the original run, which set the action in space.

As a sidenote, it still strikes me as weird that Deadlands: Lost Colony went over as poorly as it did.  At the time, the general reaction was that no one could conceptualize the idea of ‘Western in Space’ as a game concept, even though strange coincidence had it hit the market shortly before Firefly hit TV.  Both products were cancelled before they were able to fully find their voice, but these days people actually remember Firefly.  (And as RPG’s go, the Firefly derived products have a wider product base.)

So, while Deadlands still exists as an RPG product, it does so in a form that I’m not even remotely interested in.  And if the Deadlands TV show takes off, it will be the Savage Worlds version that will get sold in the rush to see the origin of the world.  While I could hope for reprints of the Classic Deadlands material, I’ve heard from enough sources that Shane Hensley himself has no interest in making those books available again, likely in favor of making sure that the Savage Worlds books stay in the limelight.

To say that I hate Savage Worlds is to minimize my distaste for it.  And I appear to be alone in this thinking, if the internet is any arbiter of taste.  I could go into specifics, but I’ll save that for its own subject, rather than tack an RPG review onto the end of a different commentary.

On the Idea of Adaptations

Recently, one of my friends linked me to an article on the upcoming Deadlands TV series, such as it is.

Apparently, it’s one of a second wave of new programming that’s being built for the XBox.  This is all part of a move by Microsoft to create original programming for their gaming consoles in an effort to bring in a wider audience than they are currently holding sway over.  Their philosophy is that they built both the X360 and the XB-1 as entertainment centers rather than simply platforms for video games, and this is the best way to showcase the idea.

As things go, it’s not a horrible plan.  There’s going to be some stuff based on Halo, as it’s the main draw for a lot of people, and there’s going to be exclusive content for things like Bonnaroo.  Microsoft has the money and influence to be able to swing exclusivity, so why not try to pull it into a new arena.

Predictably, there’s already a token amount of nerd outrage on the blog front.  A few sites I skimmed over have the anticipated froth over ‘being forced to buy an XBox’ for things they want to watch, replete with the ‘I’ll just pirate it instead’ motif quickly following.  I wish I could say that I was surprised by the reaction.

So, where do I stand on any of this?  After all, I’ve made a point of selling Deadlands as one of my favored systems, partly because it stands as a solid example of horror role playing (usually a good sign, given my tendencies) and partly because it captures the flavor of the Old West with its cards and mechanics.  The friend that linked it became an instant convert when I started running the game back in the day, and to see it rising again seems like something that should give me a cautious amount of joy, right?  Especially since the announcement back in March that AEG was bringing back Doomtown, the Deadlands CCG from back in the day.  It really seems like it’s a food year for Deadlands, crawling its way back from the dead like its signature Harrowed.

Well, that’s the thing.

On one hand, I’m glad that someone is finally recognizing Deadlands for how good it was.  I’ve lamented its death in the early 2000’s, and it’s always seemed like there was a lot more that could be done with it.  It was a good game, and everyone that has ever played it has raved about their experience of it.

But on the other hand, I don’t think the TV show is going to do anyone any good.  There are simply too many factors working against it for it to hit big, and even if the writers manage to work some sort of unforeseen magic, the net effect of the publicity is going to do the exact wrong thing.

Let’s start with the obvious.  Deadlands is a Horror Western, with Weird Science.  This is an extremely narrow niche for source material.  There have been a number of movies done with some of these as a theme in a Western, but they tend to rank as low as possible on the scale for movie quality.  The high end of the scale will have movies like The Missing (which has vague supernatural elements) and possibly From Dusk ’till Dawn (if you rebuild the original into a proper Western, instead of the modern setting it has), and even these aren’t universally acclaimed like some of the more regular Westerns.  From there, you have a whole slate of fairly awful movies that more or less fit the aesthetic of Deadlands.  There’s Wild Wild West, which is probably the closest to the RPG, and no one thinks well of that one, save possibly for Deadlands players.  Then there’s Ravenous, which actually deals with the supernatural in the form of a Wendigo and these days, I’m embarrassed to admit that I saw in the theatre.  There’s Jonah Hex, Hangman’s Daughter, Tremors 4Gallowwalker and so on.  I will admit that I liked The Burrowers, but at this point, it stands as an outlier.

So, given the track record of Horror Westerns, it’s going to be a hard sell to get anyone to pay attention to Deadlands in the first place.  Granted, it will be a captive audience of a sort, given that there will be a limited selection of new and exclusive content for the XBox users, but that’s hardly a draw to bring new people in.

There’s also a likely fear that it might not stay true to source.  If you take the example of Jonah Hex, you have the title character being altered in the script to somehow have the power to speak with the dead.  Part of the original draw of the comics was that Hex was simply a man with a grim history and a knack for surviving against heavy odds.  There had been a well-regarded comic, Two Gun Mojo, that pitted him against zombies, but rather than adapt that, whomever worked up the script chose to do something notably different.

On the other end of the scale, there’s the fear that it might remain too close to source.  There aren’t a lot of success stories when it comes to adapting RPG’s into movies or TV series, and one only has to look at the end result of trying to adapt Dragonlance into a cartoon to see where it could go badly.  It’s worth noting that the guy responsible for getting the Dragonlance movie out was the same one that had tried to sell Dimension Films on a Deadlands movie back in 2001.  For better or worse, he’s not involved in this venture.

And I’m specifically avoiding talking about the Dungeons & Dragons movie.

The best that can be hoped for is that whomever gets hold of the property has the sense to keep it subtle and paint it with a lot more of the Western aspects, rather than diving directly into the Horror parts.  When it was first marketed, Deadlands took great pride in the zombies and the implied gore that went with it.  “The Spaghetti Western With Meat” served as the tagline throughout 1st Edition, and I’m hoping that this isn’t the idea that sold Microsoft on the concept.

A Momentary Glance at Deadlands

I had intended to cover the ‘chip’ system from Deadlands in my post on Character Points, but lingering cold that I’ve been annoyed by over the past week fogged up my connections enough that I was lucky to be able to get through the basics of Torg and Star Wars without lapsing into word salad.  So rather than try to stretch a quick discussion of one aspect of one game into 1,000 words, I might as well talk about the entire game of Deadlands for bit.

Deadlands was first published in 1996 by Pinnacle Entertainment, the brainchild of Shane Hensley – a former West End Games and TSR writer.  According to the lore surrounding the game, the cover art by Brom of the undead cowboy managed to both precede the game line and serve as the inspiration for the game itself.

And I’ll be honest, based on the industry at the time, it was a really weird decision to publish this game in the first place.  Westerns have never been popular as role-playing games, and steampunk horror western seemed even less likely to succeed.  For my own experience, it’s always been a hard sell initially, since there isn’t much in the way of movie or book source material to compare the game to.  (And the movies that do exist are universally considered to be awful.  No one outside of a dedicated Deadlands fanbase went to see Wild Wild West or Gallowwalkers.)  But for whatever reason, it caught on.  It didn’t hurt that the game had an extremely solid internet presence at the time, which had a stock of one-night adventures easily available on the web.  For my own part, that was enough to keep me playing and running the game as I learned the rules.

The dice system is extremely solid, using mechanics that recognizably derive from other dice pool-based games with exploding dice.  Attributes are rated from D4 to D12, with skills that note how many of the dice you throw.  (There is a weird, counter-intuitive bit where the attribute has its own rating of number of dice thrown, which has no bearing on the skills it governs.)  Any dice that roll their maximum ‘ace’ or explode, allowing that die to be rolled again and added to the previous.  The highest result of the given dice is then compared to the total.

Being a western game, Deadlands hews close to its genre, putting as many of the mechanics that it can into poker themes.  Character generation is handled by drawing twelve cards from a deck.  Initiative is rolled, but the player draws a number of cards from a deck based on the roll, with actions passing in order of card value and suit.  Magic is handled with dice to determine how many cards are drawn, and the player has to assemble as high a hand as they can from the cards they are dealt.  And finally, experience points and luck are handled using poker chips.

Whatever faults you can find with Deadlands or Pinnacle, you can’t say they didn’t stick to their themes.

Characters started each session with a draw from the pot, randomly selecting which chips they’d have to influence their rolls.  They could also carry over any unspent chips they had from the previous session and any amount of experience they had earned, as well, up to a maximum of ten chips.  Anything above that was automatically turned into ‘bounty,’ which was the untouchable well of experience points.  If a player chose, they could convert all of their extra chips into bounty, but it tended to be a poor idea.

Naturally, chips came in three essential colors – white, red, and blue.  They all did similar things, but white chips were mostly worthless.  Red chips were a lot better, but they allowed the Marshal to draw chips of his own to help the adversaries of the scenario.  Blue chips were the best, functioning like red chips, but without the drawback of letting the Marshal make things worse.

Chips could be used to boost rolls, avoid wounds, and activate powers.  Depending on which sort of personal mojo a Deadlands character was using, it often hinged on their ability to activate it with chips.  This allowed the powerful stuff to be limited accordingly, as it was eating into potential experience, but it also offered a different economy than games like Star Wars or Torg, where the points had to be rationed out between skill rolls and powers.  And for the most part, it worked really well.

There were exceptions, however.

As far as games went, Deadlands was not terribly well balanced.  The two most egregious abuses of power that I found in the course of play were Harrowed and Blessed, oddly enough.  The damned and the sainted were able to fuck over the experience system in ways that probably should have been accounted for.

Harrowed were the setting’s resident undead.  Generally pretty zombie-like in appearance – although that was just the flavor most people were familiar with, as there were other options – Harrowed were the unquiet dead that had been brought back from beyond for some reason or another.  There was a mechanic in the game (card based, of course) that allowed a character slain in the course of a session to randomly determine whether or not they were able to rise from the dead and return to play with a host of new powers.

The problem was that, by becoming Harrowed, they no longer worried about being killed the same way the rest of the party might have to.  And on the surface, this seems wildly obvious.  The problem is that, for a lot of people, chips in Deadlands were used mainly to reduce wounds.  If wounds are no longer an issue the same way, the player that’s got a Harrowed character suddenly has a vast surplus of experience coming their way.  It doesn’t take long for a posse of characters to be quickly overshadowed by the guy with the undead cowboy.

There were some vague ways to try to remedy this imbalance of points, but none of them did much beyond taking the character away or forcing the player to try compensating through role played angst.  The dead guy may end up with long scenes lamenting his cursed state, but he’s also the best and fastest gunslinger in the group.

The other end of the scale has the Blessed breaking the game.  Most of this came from the specific splatbook on the characters, but they were pretty good even in the main game.  Blessed, logically, are the preachers of the setting, who are dedicated to smiting evil in a world gone wrong.  They have a good stock of powers to back them up, and unlike the wizards of the setting, the Hucksters, they don’t have any real mechanical drawback to their powers.  Where the Hucksters risk physical or mental damage in casting spells, the Blessed don’t have to deal with much more than a code of conduct that guides them.

Where it becomes game breaking, however, is when the less obvious setting rules come into play along side the new rules presented in the book for the Blessed characters.  In the context of the setting, Blessed are usually preachers in the Old West.  As such, they’re based mostly on their Spiritual abilities to power their supernatural effects, but they also have to be able to command an audience.  (This falls into my usual contention that Social Combat in most role playing games is either poorly implemented or ignored, leaving it open to abuse by players that understand the system.)  And buried in the rules are the effects of trying to fight back against the main villains of the setting with stories.  Specifically, every time a story about triumphing over evil (y’know, what the characters did last week?) is told to an audience of specific size, the party is rewarded with a special kind of chip being added to the pot.  And this chip can be used to invoke Old Testament styled Acts of God.

This is the high end of abusive power for Blessed.  The more readily available perks allow them to substitute their Faith score (usually their highest stat) for most combat defenses, become empowered by their god to resist damage naturally, and gain spare experience points simply for converting people to their cause.  A properly tweaked out preacher can have scores of experience points just for walking around money.  When they add in the Acts of God nonsense, they become vaguely intolerable.

I say this from a position of experience, as I have played enough Blessed characters to give Marshals a lasting sense of dread.  Yeah, I liked my characters well enough, but they weren’t especially fair to the other players.

The Risky Nature of Character Points

For whatever reason, the Carrion Crown review took on a life of its own.  I’m assuming that I’ll be able to wrap up what I want to say about the Adventure Path with another two entries, but rather than run the ragged edge of burning myself out on the subject, I figured to deviate into something that had been picking at my mind the last couple of days.

While researching some other reviews of Torg, I ran into a couple of reviews that talked negatively about the way in which Possibilities were handled in the game.  I will admit that this surprised me, not because I think that Torg is perfect in its execution, but because the mechanic wasn’t specifically that unique.  In the broad context of the game, Possibilities are simply the local term for the concept of what I’ve generally called character points.  There’s a larger in-game reasoning behind why they’re called Possibilities, as well as some strange ‘bending of reality as it happens’ examples in the game’s fiction, but that’s just flavor.  For the sake of this discussion, I’ll call them character points, as that was the terminology used in Star Wars, where I first used them.  A lot of other games use the same concept, but  the terminology and the specific rules that are attached to them are tweaked for whichever system you’re dealing with at the moment.

Briefly put, a character point represents a chance to recover from a bad roll at a critical moment or to guarantee some basic success as necessary.  Most modern games have this concept embedded within their rules one way or another, as the tendency is to move a certain amount of control of the game away from just being in the hands of the game master.  Most Storyteller games allow a character to expend a Willpower to get a single automatic success.  Savage Worlds offers you a couple of starting ‘Bennies’ at the beginning of each session, with more as rewards.  CthulhuTech has a pool of ten (or more) that refresh at the beginning of each game session.  So on and suchwise.

What makes this mechanic different for Torg and Star Wars (and Deadlands, with its chips) is that these points also serve as your character’s experience points.  By guaranteeing your momentary success in a given encounter, you were limiting your character’s ability to advance their skills and abilities over the longer run.

A lot of this philosophy came as a result of being the first mechanic of its sort to give players more control over the game in general.  Given the unforgiving nature of the classic era – where games like AD&D and Call of Cthulhu were prone to high character mortality and letting the dice fall where they may – it only made sense to balance the ability to save your character’s ass with some sort of penalty.  If the choice comes down to whether advancement is slowed or stopped completely, it’s not a hard decision to make.

More modern games have done away with the risky nature of character points, preferring to simply give a limited amount of control to the players without trying to offer a drawback to offset this ability.  Somewhere along the way, it feels like a game designer sat up and said, ‘Losing my experience points to keep from getting killed sucks.  Let’s make it so I can save my character from a bad roll, and it doesn’t affect my ability to improve his stats.’  And so it was.

I can sympathize.  It did suck to have to weigh how lucky I was feeling with the dice against being able to buy up my character’s gun combat or dodge skills.  But it was part of the game.  If it came down to it, both games offered ways to get around this expenditure, in the form of Force Points in Star Wars or cards in Torg.  Neither of these were ideal, as they could usually be put to better use, but they were a little easier to refresh than your character’s advancement.

But the thing of it is, there isn’t a good method to replace the risk and reward aspects.

Any game that just gives you the character points for free, no strings attached, tends to cheapen the mechanic.  My most recent example is CthulhuTech, where the points are simply refreshed at the beginning of each new session.  For the early parts of the session, I’ve watched players treat the character points as they might in Star Wars.  They keep them and conserve them, weighing their usage against whatever is going on.  Is the situation bad enough to merit this expenditure, or can my character survive a little longer without having to burn these points.

Then in the last hour of the game session, the psychology breaks down and the simple economy of time kicks in.  My players see that things are winding up to a final confrontation and blow through the points nearly as quickly as they can spend them.  After all, they’re not being paid to take them home, so they might as well toss them at whatever seems likely to finish the session that much faster.

An argument could be made that this is the final dramatic moment, the climactic battle that matters.  Unless it isn’t.  I’ve seen sessions end at a midpoint in a given plot arc, with the players deciding that these points may as well be spent seducing a waitress at their favorite restaurant or trying to evade the police while driving home from the grocery store.  It doesn’t really matter, because the overall thought is that they might as well spend them rather than lose them.  If there are points left over, they don’t carry to the next session.

I’ve found that, over the years, I’ve tried to compensate my players’ usage of character points with enough of a boost to allow them continued advancement.  If it’s a harder than normal session, where they had to dip into the pool of points that were going towards an attribute boost, I’d see fit to make sure that the reward for that session made up for it.  It had the net effect of not slowing down the advancement by any significant amount, and the perception of  a larger bonus at the end made the sacrifice seem worthwhile.

The Merits of Skill-Based Games

I have an odd perspective on things.  It is a known quantity for most people that have encountered me, either online or in real life.  Perhaps it stems from weird brain chemistry, perhaps it’s a result of my upbringing, or maybe there’s a bit of mercury poisoning along the way.  Short of dissection, I doubt there’s much way for any of this to be answered.  And while I’d love to know why I think the way I do, I’ll hold off on the vivisection for the time being.

So when Dave comments about how different it is to create NPC’s for a level-based game like Saga Edition Star Wars, compared to WEG’s D6 edition, it’s something I’ve honestly not considered.  I’ve spent so long working with various, unrelated systems that it doesn’t occur to me that one is harder or easier to deal with.  It’s just a different procedure to get from point A to point B.  I’ve played both sorts of games so much that most of the rules nonsense is internalized, and the creation of NPC’s is just another step.  This is my experience, and as any social theories class will tell you, my experience is not universal.

A lot of what makes WEG’s D6 Star Wars so quick and simple for NPC generation (and really, that’s key to the whole discussion; creating adventures is the easy part) is that, at the end of it all, you only need to detail a couple of basic stats for an adversary, and everything else can sort of be glossed over.  Sure, that Stormtrooper might have a rather advanced understanding of sociolinguistics or botany, but at the end of the day, it only really matters if he can hit your heroes or if he can avoid being hit himself.  Those extra dice in ancillary skills are interesting, but they’re only going to come up in extremely rare occasions.

At different points, I’ve been accused of abusing skills-based games out of laziness.  I’ll go out of my way to prep the details of an adventure down to the careful details, but more often than not, I’ll half-ass my way through the stats of an adversary.  Most often this show up in the encounters when an opponent goes to attack one of the PC’s, and I thoughtfully pick up a couple of dice for their attribute, a couple of dice for the skill in question, and give them a brief moment of consideration before rolling.  In the case of D6 Star Wars, it’s an internal discussion of how high the base attribute is (on a scale of two to four, where does this guy rate?) and where his skill rating goes from there (on a scale of one to five, where is this guy’s level of training?).  If I’m running a White Wolf game instead, it’s the same sort of internal monologue, with only the numbers shifting a little bit.

Level based games, like the bulk of D20 products, don’t offer the same leeway.  There are a whole host of different calculations and factors to keep in mind, especially for D&D and Pathfinder.  First off, there’s ECL, which is factored against and encounter’s intended CR.  Then you have to build out the NPC’s, taking into account level adjustment from the monster type, especially if the monster has been advanced through class levels or monster levels.  Once this is taken care of, there needs to be skill and feat selection, hit point adjustment, factoring of magic items based on general CR, and so on.  Logically, a game with a heavy base of magic gets pretty arcane in its rules.  If you needed an NPC that had 12 Ranks in Diplomacy, you had to justify how he got those points.  If you needed a character in a game like D6 Star Wars that had an equivalent amount of skill, you just gave them that skill and moved on.

A lot of it comes down to the basic history of role-playing games.  D20 comes from AD&D, which in turn comes from the older Chainmail miniatures rules.  (And so on, back to H. G. Wells.)  D&D broke ground on the industry, giving us rules for the baseline of RPG’s, and we’ve grown accustomed to that level of rules arcana.  Since it is such a mainstay in the industry, everyone has played it here or there, and for a lot of the older players, it’s the standard.

That’s not to say that skills-based rules are anything new or surprising.  Off the top of my head, the first example of a skills-based RPG that went anywhere is Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu, which debuted in 1981.  It used a lot of the same mechanics that D&D had codified (namely hit points, base attributes, and a scale of weapon damage), but all of the relevant mechanics centered on a percentile system for task resolution.  (And yeah, RuneQuest pre-dated C of C by three years, but I’d argue that it never managed to get much beyond niche status.  Love Glorantha as I do, it’s not a game that casual gamers are terribly familiar with.)

Chaosium gave us a template to work from.  The character generation rules were still pretty heavy, requiring you to factor your pool of skills from your Intelligence and Education.  From there, you’d apply them to basic assumptions of skill levels, with certain guidelines, etc.  Yeah, it was a huge step forward, but just like D&D, it thrived on its deep rules minutiae.  It wasn’t until the late 80’s or early 90’s that game systems started to simplify.

Oddly, the two games that carried the industry forward, Ars Magica and Star Wars, were published around the same year, 1987.  And oddly, they’re both games that refuse to die.  Star Wars has gone through three separate publishers, with West End Games, Wizards of the Coast, and now Fantasy Flight.  And Ars Magica started life out with Lion Rampant, which became White Wolf, got sold to Wizards of the Coast, and eventually ended up with Atlas Games (who had been instrumental in its early years).  The difference being that while Star Wars has gone through three (arguably four) different sets of rules over the years, Ars Magica is still largely the same.

Both of these games shifted the industry forward by working with a dice pool (it can be argued that Ghostbusters, published shortly before Star Wars and using very similar rules, was what did it, but given the almost footnote status of the game, it only really exists in very comprehensive collections these days) that was based on the individual character’s skill ratings.  In their own way, they set the stage for the way games would develop throughout the next ten years.  The Ars Magica system would become the Storyteller System, which formed the basis of White Wolf’s World of Darkness games.  It would later be modified for New World of Darkness, Exalted, Aeon/Trinity and Scion, all of which use very similar mechanics.

Star Wars, in the mean time, directly influenced such games ass WEG’s Torg/Masterbook system (which, despite being a far heavier maths-based system, still uses a similar scale of difficulty) and Pinnacle’s classic Deadlands system, which took the dice pool mechanic and broke it out of being a single type of dice.  It’s no coincidence that Shane Hensley, the designer of Deadlands, was a WEG alumnus.

These days, skill-based RPG’s are a lot more common than their level-based predecessors, even though 4e D&D and Pathfinder are still industry mainstays.  They’re a lot easier to use for the more casual gamer, they don’t require the same suspension of disbelief that level-based RPG’s necessitate (characters improve incrementally, rather than just suddenly learning something new), and they’re friendlier to GM’s who have to prep for their weekly sessions.  (Of course, with enough practice in a system, prep becomes second nature, even with extremely complex systems.)