Archive for July, 2011


Focused Stats vs. Spread Stats

July 22, 2011

Let’s assume you’re playing one of the many roleplaying games that gives you a character, with stats and skills or abilities on your sheet, and these things have ratings, and when you want to do something in the game, these things get involved.

Some games have very few of these stats to choose from, and some have a lot. I’m concerned with ones you actively choose between using, during play, so stuff that’s passive (hit points, encumbrance, etc.) doesn’t really count for this discussion.

Anyway, there’s some interesting things that come up when you decide to have a game have a lot to choose from vs. a few and I wanted to talk about that.

False Choice

First, the reason to have stats is to actually produce some kind of effect in play. If you have stats like, “Fight Monsters” and “Paint Wagons” and the game has a lot of fighting monsters and no time to be painting wagons, it’s not really a choice of what you’re going to use in play.

This is true whether you only have 3-5 stats/skills/traits/whatever, or if you have 50 of them.

A lot of games include a lot of stats for the sake of “completeness” but no other reason, which means you end up with a lot of false choices, which is generally not a good thing in design.

Non-optimal Choices

Second, if a character has a single or few stats that are really strong, is there any incentive for them to use a non-optimal choice (other than, being forced to by circumstances)?

If there isn’t, it’s also a non-choice. Unless you have some kind of mechanics or other things pushing players to do so, what you end up seeing is that players have incentive to only do the same things, over and over, with their characters.

Spread Stats – features

When you have a game where your character has many, many stats to choose from to use in any given instance in play, several things commonly happen:

Requires Regular Engagement

If you have 20 skills on your sheet, and only roll 3 of them the whole night, guess what the other 17 skills are? Kind of a waste of space.

This is especially bad if you had to spend 45 minutes or more making a character that, effectively is mostly colorful description in the form of numbers that you could have written out in 3 sentences.

For games with a spread of stats, you need to use a lot of engagement with those stats to make them worth the effort.

Helping Stats

A useful trick is allowing stats to help or augment other stats.

Maybe having “Read Latin” isn’t such a useful skill by itself, but being able to use it to increase your “Casting forbidden Magic” skill makes it useful.

Hero Wars/Hero Quest, Burning Wheel, Agon, and Sorcerer are all examples of games that use this trick.

Degrading Stats

Some games have stats that get “used up” or reduced or “damaged” over play- which means having multiple options is a useful way of staying capable even as you get weakened. Agon is a prime example – each skill can be damaged, so spreading out your ability keeps you effective.

Alternatively, maybe each skill can only be used once or a few times during play- so having multiple options allows you keep doing stuff.

Decision Paralysis

A key problem with spread stats is that you can give people too many choices- both in building characters and during play.

For character generation, some games give you a limited set or group of stats, so you don’t have to make as many decisions (Burning Wheel does this with skills). During play, though, it can become difficult to decide, especially where there is overlap.

Overlap, what to do?

A lot of spread stat games give you a lot of choices which overlap – “Is this Brawling or Boxing?”, “Is this Navigation or Map-Reading?”

The question then becomes, who decides what goes and what doesn’t?

A lot of games leave it to the GM, but again, if the GM always rules one way, then the other skill is useless, and if the GM flips back and forth without any idea which one to use, the players can’t make choices about how to build or use their characters.

Some games leave it to the players, but that also brings up the question of why a player would ever use their weaker stat.

Focused Stats – features

When you have a game where your character only has a few stats to choose from, some things regularly come up:

Clear division vs. Overlap

While Spread Stat games suffer overlap from having tons of skills, Focused Stat games sometimes suffer overlap for having too broad categories or fuzzy definitions.

These feel even more problematic because choices are supposed to be more clear, not less so – so it becomes important to make stats and what they do very clean.

Color Differentiation

Games with few stats need to consider -how- they make characters feel different, even if their stats are close in effectiveness.

Sometimes this is as simple as having a few descriptions that come up in play – “Describe how being Red-headed helps you in the conflict and reroll the dice” etc. Dogs in the Vineyard does this kind of thing- your character mostly grows by adding color and history.

Trickier Reward cycles

When you have fewer stats, you can’t just cause them to jump all the time. These games need a different sort of reward cycle to work well.

Otherwise characters tend to max out/break limits quickly and easily and that can be a problem.

What choices do these provide?

Focused stats means there’s less to choose between- so what makes these meaningful choices? The stronger the differentiation, the stronger the difference in choice.

The other question is whether these stats provide choices before, or after you’ve initiated engaging with the mechanics.

Apocalypse World has you say what your character is doing in the fiction, which then engages the mechanics- you don’t sit around choosing between mechanics after you’ve started things. In comparison, Dogs in the Vineyard has escalation rules that forces you to choose if you will do certain things to bring out other stats.

The former is a choice going into a conflict, the latter is a choice after starting one.

Although this is also true of Spread Stat games, it’s much more pivotal in Focused Stat games.


Dresden Files… hmm, maybe I’ll pass

July 7, 2011

Random folks have mentioned I should check out the books, and maybe the RPG.

Of course, red flag #1 is that it sounds like the books use the classic “ZOMG scary people of color!” trope while not actually having POC characters.

Of course, that’s just the usual cluelessness, but then, there’s always white privilege defensiveness that nails the coffin:

Jim Butcher tweets:

Why do some people not understand than I’m the real person, and that the fiction I write is… well, fiction?

Fiction means make-believe. I’m not a goddamned socioeconomic historian

I did respect them, actually. Up until the “fuck you Jim Butcher” part.

I take that back. Up until the part where they play the racist card. 🙂

Ah, yes, the racist card. Because a book in modern, urban America which only has white characters, and people of color are non-characters, shadows scurrying in the dark, who live in urban Mordor, where agony and suffering hangs in the air like the glare of Sauron is totally a reasonable accident.

Naturally you’d need to be a socioeconomic historian to not trip over that one!

And it’s totally exploring new fictional space and not at all related to real world racism how people of color aren’t people but actually just dangerous threats who live in scarytown… oh wait.

I think this wry observation might explain his response:

….we must first explain to you something very important about white people. When we are asked to talk about race, we tend to freak the fuck out all over the place. The reason, of course, is that talking about race is dangerously close to acknowledging the existence of racism, and if white people acknowledge the existence of racism, we might have to DEAL WITH racism. SOMEONE MIGHT EVEN CALL US RACIST. Which is actually the worst thing that can happen IN THE ENTIRE WORLD. It is worse than meteors of fire falling from the sky and eradicating the entire earth, worse than a lake of magma opening up and swallowing the North American continent, worse than an army of demons emerging from the depths of hell bearing many hot pokers with which to poke us. THAT IS HOW BAD IT IS. Surely it must be worse than EXPERIENCING racism, right? RIGHT? IT’S TOTALLY WORSE.

Naturally, some folks will go, “But you didn’t give his books/game a chance!” and I have to wonder why I should be putting money towards creators who can’t be bothered to have me, folks around me, or people like us, in the biggest collective sense, as people?


4E: Designing Monsters for the DM

July 3, 2011

Right now, I’m busy remixing stats for 4E monsters. A couple of things are occurring to me as I’m doing this…

Tracking in Play

4E is set up to have players have 3-4 viable options every round. This makes sense for players, since they play the same character for extended periods of time- it gives them something interesting and fun to do every round.

The DM, on the other hand, is in no danger of being bored- she’s tracking at least a half dozen monsters, with different powers, and will probably have new monsters and NPCs nearly every encounter.

In other words, the DM doesn’t need more choices- they need less. They also need rules that reduce how much they need to track at any given point in play.

Decision Time

When it’s a monsters’ turn, it’s decision time. The DM has to decide what the monster does. I’m finding it works best when the monster either only does one thing well, or only has 2 options. It reduces the time I have to spend thinking about what to do.

You might think this would make monsters “too predictable” but typically in games, there’s usually only 1-2 good options to do anyway, as far as core mechanics go. The interesting part of monsters isn’t the variety of powers, it’s the combined effect of the monsters working together and the environment they’re in.

Resolution Time

When the DM is rolling the dice to see if the monster’s attacks hit, and what effects they have. How much does the DM have to track and add up? How many modifiers or effects do they need to keep in mind at one time?

Reaction Time

When the players are taking turns- what does the DM have to track? What powers, abilities, modifiers does the monster have that the DM needs to consider in response to the players?

The reason I’m pointing out these 3 categories is this:

It’s easier to have a monster with one thing to track in each category than it is to have a monster with three things in one category. It’s easier to keep 1 thing in mind, 3 times successively, than it is to keep 3 things in mind at one time.

This is actually a big deal as far as designing your monsters’ powers go- because it makes the rules easier to use.

Formulas for easy tracking

So, with that in mind, there’s actually a few ideas you can fall back on in monster design that will naturally produce these results…

Basic Attack + Tactical Condition

An easy road is to give the monster a decent basic attack, and then a power which improves it when certain tactical conditions are met.

Extra damage when flanking is a classic example (“These monsters do an extra 2D6 damage when they flank a target”)- you’re still using the Basic Attack rules, but now there’s also a situation that you try to set up as a DM, while the players are trying to thwart it.

Common tactical triggers:
– Flanking
– Allies adjacent to target
– Target is prone, helpless, immobilized
– Target is blinded (or other condition)
– Opportunity Attack
– Target is Bloodied
– Attacker is Bloodied
– Attacker is charging
– Attacker was attacked by Target last round

You’ll notice that a lot of the Player Character classes in Essentials use this kind of set up for their Stances.

One-Two Combo Attack

An At-Will attack sets up for a special, more damaging or condition inducing attack. The classic example would be a giant monster grabbing a character then applying crushing damage each round until the character escapes.

Again this sets up a situation the players will try to avoid and also keeps the decision making simple- you’re not choosing between two actions, you’re just doing part A or part B of the same strategy.

I like One-Two combos to target different Defenses – it rewards players whose characters are well rounded and also makes some characters more fearful of certain monsters than others- if the follow up attack does a lot of damage but rolls against Will? Your heavy armor fighter might be more wary of rushing in.

Group Modifier Power

The Group Modifier does something that affects the monster’s allies- it makes monsters work better in tandem- maybe it lets other monsters move about, do extra damage, etc. Think of the classic “Holy Aura” or “Protection from Evil” stuff that gives adjacent allies bonuses to AC or similar things from older D&D editions.

These are particularly nasty if they can stack bonuses- for example, getting a +1 to hit for every ally adjacent to the target can end up giving 8 monsters +8 to hit!

Counteroffensive Powers

These powers happen in response to the player’s actions- they might be stuff like a free attack whenever an enemy is adjacent, or they might be a counter-attack of some sort. These are easy to track, because you don’t have to make choices about these- they have triggering events and you simply resolve them.

Also- counteroffense because powers that DO something to the PCs are more interesting than powers that prevent the PCs from doing things.

The most obvious powers do attacks or damage- Opportunity Attacks are a universal example of a counter-offense ability. But you can get more interesting by allow the monster to inflict conditions, push, pull, or slide a character, or inflict a penalty. (Other nice benefit, because this affects the PCs, it becomes the players’ jobs to track these, not yours).

Think of what you don’t want the players to do, and build your power around that.

Example: Kobolds remixed

Level 1, weak

HP 12 AC 14 (16 w/shield) Fort 12 Ref 16 Will 12
Speed 6 Contests: DC 8 (strength) DC 12 (most things), DC 19 (speed, engineering, traps)

Basic Attack: Spear +8 vs. AC 1D4 +3 (avg. 5/crit 7)
Basic Attack: Sling (range 20) +8 vs. AC 1D4 +5 (avg. 7/crit 9)

Trap Ingenuity
Any target afflicted by a condition produced by a kobold trap is -4 to Saving Throws to shake off the condition.

Overwatch (Standard) Aura 5
Until the beginning of the kobold’s next turn, any foe within range and clear line of sight, attacking an ally with a melee attack gets hit with a sling stone for 4 points of damage.

**DM caveat** – This assumes normal encounter numbers and not mass lines of troops. Overwatch can inflict it’s damage on 5 different targets in a turn, and any given triggering melee attacker can only be hit by 5 different Overwatch kobolds per attack.

Notes on design

So, you’ll notice that kobolds have two powers that only take effect on the players’ turns- one involving Saving Throws, and one involving melee attacks.

The Saving Throw effect is designed to give kobolds some advantage with traps- it makes conditions stick around a little longer, which, at low levels isn’t actually all that deadly – just really annoying.

The Overwatch power skips attack rolls, which would be broken in other situations, but it’s easy to circumnavigate (use ranged attacks, make melee attacks from behind cover, etc.) and mostly forces players to think a little harder about where they want to stand when they fight.

It’s more annoying damage than serious damage, and the powers highlight the general monster concept- cunning little guys who set up traps, fight dirty, and then are a pain to chase down after the fact.

During my turn, I’m only deciding between basic Attacks or doing Overwatch.

Anyway, more to come as I stat up monsters.

ETA: I just ran across this great example of tracking overload for the GM as an example of why this kind of design is necessary.