Archive for the ‘Design’ Category

Marvel Caper!

June 30, 2014

I’ve recently embarked on an experiment to modify the Caper! rules for a superheroes game— specifically a game of superhuman private security contractors in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Some of us in our Boston extended gaming family had played Marvel Heroic Roleplaying last summer, and sadly the rules just never really clicked for me. I liked a lot of what they were trying to accomplish thematically, and the books were absolutely gorgeous, but as a player I never quite groked all of the various mechanics for dice pool builds and Opportunities, Assets, Distinctions, Complications and whatnot. And I know Chris (who was GMing that campaign) also had some problems on his side of the table, what with the Doom Pool, the nuts & bolts of building opposition, etc.

(Chris & I may have further muddied the waters a bit by attempting to bolt on a Smallville-inspired life paths system to the character creation session, adding Values, Relationships & Resources to the mix, but that’s neither here nor there…)

I decided that this summer was going to be the Summer of Marvel Caper! We’ve played two sessions so far, and it is going pretty well. The rules themselves are a work in progress, but what is amazing to see is when the narrative control widgets really click for a player, and when they really grok how to leverage the framing and storytelling of the various Letter mechanics and whatnot… it really takes the stories in very unexpected directions, which is really gratifying for me as a game designer, and I think for the rest of the players as well. This game, more so than any other rpg I think I’ve ever played, makes us all into an audience that can be genuinely surprised by some really clever plot twists and turns.

(Also incredibly refreshing for me as a GM is that the game is essentially zero prep, which I honestly think is a must for me now that I’m in my dotage.)

My first passion being character sheet design, I pulled out all of the stops for this, creating a line of 2-sided sheets that include pretty much all of the rules to the game. However, being the perfectionist/completist that I am, I ended up customizing sheets for each PC for the second session, with art of the players’ characters which I created with HeroMachine (or yanked off of the web if they’re playing a Marvel canon character… apologies in advance to the copyright holders!)

Bunny Hanlon's character: Commander Grace Chopra, ex-SHIELD agent and current Heir of K'un-Lun.

Let me tell you about Bunny’s character: Commander Grace Chopra, an ex-SHIELD agent who is now the current holder of the Iron Fist Legacy. (Photo Credit: Bunny Hanlon)

Rules-wise, I still have some more tweaking to do. After the first session and an overuse of Letters of Introduction— that mechanic works great for heists, but in supers I found it a bit genre-straining— I came up with an alternate use for face cards: rather than going to a contact and having them perform a bonus action on your behalf, you can now instead play a face card to perform an additional “power stunt” during your turn. I freely admit I took a page from Marvel Heroic Roleplaying for this, and I call this mechanic a ‘Letter of Intent‘. Thematically the stunts worked great, but mechanically I feel like they only worked okay— I think having yet another formula for success might have been a bit too confusing for some of the players. (As was the use of Spades/Wild Cards, but that’s always been a real source of confusion for first-time players… and annoyingly I’ve yet to craft the right spiel to adequately explain the rules out loud… hence my summarizing all of the rules on the character sheets!)

Anyways, yesterday’s session was also the first time I’ve ever played the 21 System with an actual GM (and not as a GM-less Caper! session), and I also think that worked out pretty well. There were only a couple of times I had to take over narrative control because I had some specific plot points I wanted to touch upon (when a character consulted some old SHIELD contacts to learn the big bad’s secret identity, for example). Otherwise, I felt like the players were able to sandbox and scenery chew to their hearts’ content.

I’ve always liked to jokingly say (okay, it is not a joke) that I designed a game system using cards as the randomizer because dice hate me. But the ironic thing during yesterday’s session was that my cards hated me! I perpetually had nothing but twos through fours in my hand, punctuated by the occasional seven or eight.  I don’t think I ever had a single face card the entire session! And I *know* I was never graced with an ace… the players gobbled those right up. And an ever-elusive Joker? Ha! Forgetaboutit!

Anyways, this dearth of heavy hitting cards essentially led to a total rout, as my hordes of MGH-fuelled favela kids couldn’t touch the PCs. This’ll necessitate tweaking the mook rules a bit, but I’ll need to avoid going too far in the other direction if the worm turns and I ever find myself with a killer hand… because that’s the other thing I hate in games: swingy math.

My too-clever-by-half XP mechanic was an abject failure. I think. Upon further consideration today, I can’t help but feel that there’s some there there. Essentially, all of the chips the PCs cashed in during the session would get thrown in a box, which represented the ‘boffo box’ that the movie we’re collaboratively creating would earn… get it? ::groan::

Anyways, at the beginning of the session, each player secretly wrote which color of chip they’d want to claim as a share of XP at the end of the session (each chip being worth 1 XP). Which color they choose to claim should be based on how they envision playing their character during the session— if they’re going to be going on the offensive, they’ll want to claim reds; if they’re going to be helping/healing leader-y types, they’ll want to claim whites. Blues are for those who’ll alter the physical and human terrain of the story by creating temporary props & set pieces, retconning parts of the story, etc.

Well, at the end of the session, the box ended up having forty some-odd reds and only like a dozen each of the blues and whites. And once I looked at the slips of paper to see who had claimed what, only one player had claimed red, one player claimed blue, and three players claimed whites. Now, where’s the fault in this mechanic? How much of this chip disparity was caused by my piss-poor hands of cards and never successfully landing an attack on the PCs that they then needed to recover from by spending white chips? How many of the three choices of white had to do with two of those players having never played the game before, so the chip mechanics were entirely new to them?

Even Chris— the sole player to claim red chips as his take— immediately said he shouldn’t get 40+ XP for the session, while the rest of the players only got a pittance. We ended up just doing an even split, with the remainder getting awarded to Bunny, who was voted MVP (she had devised a really cunning plan that totally carried the day and gave both sides— including the “villain”— a win.) So, chalk that one up to the social contract, I guess! [1]

Anyways, maybe its my Caper!-centric ruthlessness, but I can’t help but feel there remains something to this “box office” mechanic. I mean, isn’t a trope of the superhero genre that you reap what you sow? That you get back what you put out into the universe? That with great power comes great responsibility? Like I said, I can’t help but feel there’s some there there, and that with a group of players who’ve played before, who fully understand what the chips do, and are also familiar with each other’s character, their powers, backstory, and what they bring to the table… this mechanic will add an interesting wrinkle to the roleplaying, the storytelling, and will narratively reinforce the chip-cashing that mechanically drives both.

There were some other rule changes that we kicked the tires on for the first time yesterday: an initiative mechanic, I had tweaked the stats for the Letters of Introduction, and I added a new “Previously, on red23…” opening scene mechanic that gives the players an opportunity to introduce their character and enter the session with some chips in their back pocket. All of these seemed to work out fine… or at least I didn’t hear any complaints about them after we wrapped and jawboned for awhile. But that may have been because the XP box office gag dominated the conversation. 😉

Anyways, I’m really looking forward to session three! I’ve already decided its going to be a PvP ‘Danger Room‘ session so I can really see how the combat rules work.


[1] Call it sour grapes if you will, but even now— nearly eight(!) years after I designed Caper!— I still fail to understand the complaint I heard from some critics that they didn’t like the game because it led to backstabbing and ruthlessness since— unlike most (if not all) roleplaying games— it has an actual ‘win condition’. Methinks those folks need to play some Diplomacy.

The DM’s Role/Rule in 4E, Organized Play, and Beyond

February 27, 2012

As a D&D child of the 70’s and 80’s, I’d never questioned the rule of the DM.  It’s our shared game, but the DM is the glue that holds it together.  The DM makes up the adventures (or prepares the published modules) and runs them, adjudicating both the players’ actions and what response the adventure has in store for them.  Players know the rules, but don’t have perfect knowledge of how those rules are applied in the game world for any particular situation.  In other words, the role of the DM is to rule.

But that’s not necessarily true these days. (more…)

D&D Next – Future Plans

January 11, 2012

So, the shoe has dropped.  D&D Next is announced, and I’m not even finished with the Heroic tier for my bi-weekly Keep on the Borderlands 4E campaign!  Not that I’ve been pushing them to advance, as my group has just reached 8th level and I see from my older posts they were reaching 4th at the end of 2009.  Granted we’ve had a few breaks for other games (my SotC Jazz-era LoEG game and a short-lived Arthurian D20 Modern game), but I’ve also been throwing a LOT of inter-related stuff at them in game, and since we get at most 3-4 hours per session, progress has been slower than I expected.  I think everyone has been having fun, though,so it hardly matters.

Still, since I have plans now into at least the early Epic Levels, considering a transition before I reach mid-Paragon is not something I look forward to.  And likely won’t consider, for this group, at least.  Since WoTC is talking about an extensive public playtest (or at least more so than in years past), it sounds like I’ll have at least another year and a half to make the decision.  As with many others, I figured something of this ilk would be announced for 2014 and the 40th anniversary of the game.  I was figuring at D&D Experience in January 2014, but now it sounds like that is being rolled into GenCon starting next year, so GenCon2013 appears to be the odds on favorite guesstimate of the ‘Next’ launch.


Getting away from pre-gen characters in Lady Blackbird, and using it to play D&D

February 10, 2011

So, it appears the bloom may be fading from 4e. If you read my bio on this site, you’ll see why I’m not terribly broken up by these rumblings coming from amongst my various gaming groups. While Dungeons & Dragons will always be my first love and entre into gaming– and to this day many of my favorite settings, tropes, and themes are to be found amongst that cargo cult (Forgotten Realms, Spelljammer, Planescape, Birthright)– I fell off the wagon during the 3e years, totally ignored the 3.5 years, and reluctantly came back recently to play 4e because, well, it literally became one of the only games in town… If I wanted to continue to game with and hang out with folks whose company I enjoyed, I had to take the bitter medicine.

And honestly, as a player, there were some things I did come to enjoy about 4e. Man, can you play the ultimate sneak thief sniper from hell in that game!

But as an erstwhile DM, I was frankly horrified by the amount of labor that seemed to be involved in prep, and then the herculean task during the game session of keeping tabs on all the moving parts and widgets for not only all your NPCs but also trying to ::ahem:: help keep the PCs honest.

Anyways, as I was saying (talk about burying the lede), lately there have been some rumblings of dissatisfaction with 4e amongst various and sundry in the remaining Boston loyalists of the Ephemeral Circus. Hopefully I’m not outing anyone when j’accuse the founder of this site– Chris Tatro himself– confided in me that he’s toying with the idea of possibly thinking about perhaps looking in to maybe moving his campaign (which is about to enter Spelljammer territory) to something that “better suits his DMing style.”

Maybe nothing will ever come of this, but never being one to shirk from any consideration of rules toolboxes and tinkering with fiddly bits, I began thinking about it. One of the first games that came to mind was Lady Blackbird, an indie steampunk skyship game that crossed my desk a year or two ago. I honestly only skimmed it at the time, but it stuck with because the graphic design is gorgeous.

I hit Story Games for the first time in many months yesterday, and saw some of the great things people have done with those rules in the meantime, and was duly impressed and intrigued. Could one truly step down from the precipice of 4e rules bloat, play ersatz D&D in a rules light indie game, and at the same time breathe new life into all those bookshelves worth of sourcebooks by recycling their simulationist widgets as narrativist ‘tags’ and ‘aspects’? It seems so!

However, the one thing that gave me pause was Lady Blackbird’s seemingly baked-in conceit of GM pre-generated characters. I don’t know if that’s a relic of the game being a convention one shot or something… or perhaps because of some narrativist need for touchy/feely inter-party story hooks… but it strikes me as incredibly odd that in their quest to liberate the grognards from the shackles of DM railroading and ‘bad’ “I kill and loot the body” storytelling by introducing player narrative control, that they’d shackle those same players to being unable to roll up and create the character they want to play and evolve through said enlightened storytelling.

(And yes, before anyone yells at me in the comments that I’m being insulting, simplistic, and ad hominem, I am being deliberately hyperbolic and obtuse here for *hopefully* comedic purposes. Deal with it.)

So anyways, if you are still bearing with me, let me share with you some ideas I’ve come up with for addressing this gross oversight and crime against not only the hobby, but affront that cuts to the very core of what makes us human.

Taking a page from Spirit of the Century, I can envision the first session of a prospective campaign being one in which the DM pitches the overarching plot he’s got in mind (“in this game, you’ll be pirates in arcane space,” “in this game, you will be agents for a decadent and increasingly paranoid King”) and the players then make up their characters and build hooks to each other by writing up some of their prior off-screen adventures together; basically replacing SotC‘s pulp novel conceit with D&D‘s adventure module one.

So, mechanically, here’s how I’d run char gen for Dungeons & Blackbirds:

  1. Each player names 4 Traits for their character. These Traits can be pretty much any tried and true D&D trope like race, character class, prime requisite ability score, class feature, skill, AD&D non-weapon proficiency, 3e feat, signature weapon specialization, magic item, alignment, patron deity, 4e character role, etc. etc.
  2. For each of these Traits, name 2 Tags that further build upon and describe what that Trait means and does.
  3. Now, each player will come up with a title for one of the modules/adventures their character took part in. There will be one module for each player at the table. And feel free to dust off dimly remembered chestnuts from your childhood… who wouldn’t want to have their new character to have been in the Expedition to Barrier Peaks? 😉
  4. They will write up a few sentences describing a pivotal scene their character had during this adventure. Based on this scene, they will come up with 4 more Tags that further flesh out their developing Traits and character advancement. These can be four Tags under one Trait, one Tag under each of the four Traits, or any combination thereof.
  5. Once everyone has done this, they should pass their adventure page to the player to their right. Now, they will write a scene their character performed as a member of the party in this other adventure. Based on what they describe, they will come up with a further 3 Tags for their character, again under any combination of Traits.
  6. Keep passing the adventure sheets off to your right until everyone has had a part in every adventure. For each of these additional scenes they get 2 more Tags due to character advancement. Once your adventure has finally returned to you, you should have several Tags for each Trait (it appears the pre-gens in Lady Blackbird each have between 5-9 Tags per Trait). It is time to move on to:
  7. Coming up with Keys. Keys are the motivations, problems, connections, duties, and loyalties that pull on your character. Each character will have three Keys.
  8. Each player should read aloud the final write-up for their adventure module. Based on what transpired in the story (and rather than choosing from pre-fabbed laundry lists of Keys which I honestly don’t have the time or desire to do right now) the players should discuss and brainstorm and come up with some ideas. Again: character classes, origin and background feats, alignments, prestige classes, magic items and relics, Forgotten Realm secret societies and Planescape Factions… they can all provide possible fodder for Keys. From the crowd sourced list that arises from their module, the player will pick one Key for their character and one Key for the character of the player to their left– the last person to add to their adventure module (and the one who ostensibly wrote the exciting climax).
  9. Once everyone has two Keys (one they picked themselves, one given them by the player to their right), the DM will assign each character their third and final Key. This can be something left over from the brainstorming session lists, something new that they want to see explored by the player during the campaign, etc.
  10. Finally, each character gets 2 Secrets. Secrets are extraordinary powers, abilities, rituals, magic items, etc. Dust off your D&D and AD&D sourcebooks and find some spell, artifact, prestige class, etc. that you want to be your character’s big guns. Mechanically, it appears Secrets are supposed to work in one of two ways:

* You can re-roll a failure once per session, or give someone else in the party this benefit.
* You have a power or ability that automatically accomplishes something storywise, and you get to narrate the scene of this success.

It all seems fairly straightforward, but never having actually *played* Lady Blackbird, I can’t quite be 100% sure that it is this simple. I think I may want to try and use this rules hack to run that Planescape police procedural I’ve always wanted to do (Law and Order: Sigil?!?), so if I can ever make that happen, I’ll let you know.

[4e] Solos and Big Bosses

September 27, 2010

In my tabletop game last week, the players got themselves into a situation where I needed to drop a dragon on them.  True to form for them, they’d gone and done something I wasn’t entirely expecting so I didn’t have the encounter prepped beyond knowing that it was an Adult Red with a Githyanki Sword Seeker riding it. I opened the MM1 to the page on Dragon, Red, Adult and the fight began.  Within a few rounds I realized there were serious problems here and that I needed to look at some of the Solo redesign philosophies that have come out in the 2.5 years since MM1. (more…)

I’m the map, I’m the map, I’m the map, I’m the map, I’m the maaaaap!

March 25, 2010

I’m running a one-shot 4e session on Saturday, one of the Chaos Scar adventures (perhaps another post coming along about this series. Long story short: the ones I’ve read so far are really good!).  And of course, I knew I’d need the maps.

I’ve got a Chessex battlemat, but it has a map drawn on it that we’re using in my long-run game and I don’t want to erase that. I have a bunch of the sets of WotC Dungeon Tiles but after looking at them apparently not enough/the right ones. I’ve got a crapload of Descent board pieces but looking at the maps I didn’t have exactly what I’d need. I dug around online for a while and found some scanned tilesets but laying them out in a Word or Paint Shop Pro document was a big pain.

But then I stumbled across the Dungeon Tile Mapper on WotC’s site. I don’t remember them promoting this much at all. It’s a program that lets you lay out digital versions of four of the older pre-4e WotC tilesets. Took me a bit to figure out how to make it work (note: under “Settings” tell it you have multiple copies of each set or you’ll be frustrated) but overall it is a good “quick and dirty” tool for putting together and then printing some nice looking maps.

I know there are others out there as well. I looked at Campaign Cartographer once but couldn’t get my brain around it. Same for Dundjinni. Also, those cost but the WotC one is free (and doesn’t even seem to be behind the D&D Insider wall). There’s another one based on the same program as on the WotC site but, well, it feels like there’s some serious intellectual property issues with the tilesets it uses so I’m loathe to write its name here but that one is also really awesome. But as a web-based tool that I can access from work get to wherever I am, it’s a good thing.

Any others people like for doing print maps?

(and Bryant – I’m finally using the foam boards I took from you when you guys moved! Have to paper over some of the Keep on the Shadowfell, but so it goes)

More 4e Supers

March 11, 2010

More thoughts going back to this post.

-I really love the mechanic for the Psi classes (except the Monk). That feels how Supers should work – having an Augmentable pool so you can really push to have a big effect when you need it. I immediately think of Cyclops for some reason, putting points in to make weird bank-shots or for massive damage effect or something.  Or those things could all just be his various Encounters and Dailies I suppose.

-Travel powers. Bill and I hit upon this while looking through PHB3: handle them like the Skill Powers. You can swap out Utilities for them or use a Feat to buy more of them. In some ways I like this and in some the “everybody gets an At-Will for free” works better. Not entirely certain there.

-With the now 5×4 grid of Power Source/Role (and some doubling up) there still doesn’t feel like there’s  a good pattern to use to map onto supers genre conventions as neatly as I would like. I think Race and Class are probably going to be individually determined and may not bear any consistency from one character to another (I mean, look at Mutants or Aliens or Robots. They don’t really have much in common from one character to the next that can easily map onto “all aliens are Deva and all Mutants are Gnomes”). I’d really like to not have that kind of looseness, but that’s just me. I would sit down and ask someone to describe the kind of character and powers they would want and try to find the best match. Role is the primary foundation here, so once someone decided they want to be a Controller, for example, then the differences between Wizard, Invoker, Druid, Seeker and Psion dictate the class (have to work up a chart to define the differences more concretely. I think of a Wizard as more pure AoE status control and an Invoker as doing more AoE damage and debuffs but that may not be accurate). I think I just have to let go of my Bert-like control issues on this one.

-One of the most important things is to be able to use the Character Builder. The damage types and flavor text are entirely handwaved but the powers and feats themselves should remain constant. Equipment largely goes away thanks to the DMG2’s Inherent Bonuses (thanks, Bryant).  Doing the travel powers as outside at-wills wouldn’t interact with the Builder at all and would allow for skill-monkey Batman-type characters to really shine.

I think I may well be at the point where I want to get some people together and try making up some characters, and then FIGHT! just to see what it looks like.

[4e] Not Your GM’s Keep on the Shadowfell: SWARM(s)!

November 17, 2009

Like the particle/wave duality of light, this week’s rules adjustments come from the understanding (or lack thereof) of how 4e swarms can act as both a single creature, and a series of tiny creatures acting in concert. The issue began when the party attempted to explore a web-covered chapel to a dragon god, buried deep in the caverns of the  kobold lair behind the waterfall in H1.  Turns out I wasn’t the only one who thought the provided map indicated a more extensive cave system – our DM has set us on his first completely original series of encounters exploring those caverns.  And with webs covering the ceiling, it’s no surprise that we were attacked by spiders and ettercaps and scorpions (oh, my!).


[4e] Not Your GM’s Keep on the Shadowfell: (Mostly) Minor Actions

November 9, 2009

This week’s change is short and sweet.  Which is appropriate, since it concerns Minor Actions.  Before the start of play this past week, our DM announced that if we wanted to trade all of our actions down to Minor Actions in a round, he would grant us a bonus of an additional Minor Action for our trouble.  In other words, instead of a maximum of 3 Minor Actions per round, we now potentially could use 4.  I expect this was in reaction to having a few of us unable to grab and drink potions fast enough to keep up with the beat down we had taken the week before (once our Second Winds were gone).  The increased threat level born of unbridled rules changes begins to rear its ugly head!  But nothing another rules tweak can’t fix, eh?


Ripping off PTA

October 29, 2009

I think the brilliant thing about Prime Time Adventures is the fanmail rule. It’s not mechanically amazing; it’s socially superb. It creates a sense of fellowship among the players because that’s what giving someone a gift does. Since it happens over and over again during the course of a game, the sensation’s intensified. Read the early actual play reports: you get a lot of people talking about how the game magically drew them together.

So let’s rip that off for D&D, or any other game that has some sort of fate point or action point or what have you.

Here’s the D&D version of the hack: you can only spend action points to give another player an extra action. Nobody can benefit from more than one AP per encounter, and you can’t ask for an AP. The AP must be used immediately.

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