Archive for October, 2022


Game Hype: Speed Rune

October 30, 2022

I downloaded Speed Rune and it’s definitely gone on my “play in the future” game list.

While I wasn’t as big of a fan of RuneQuest’s mechanics proper, I was a fan of the idea of a game where your culture, your spiritual practices, and your community mattered and formed an interconnected web of effects that change the world. We can see this sort of thing appear in movies again and again; from Dark Crystal to Princess Mononoke to Pan’s Labyrinth and so on. This seems to be a light-medium game that cuts straight to that while not getting bogged down into “must replicate the system” or the specifics of the (unfortunately often racist) Glorantha setting.

For years I had wanted to run HeroQuest minus Glorantha but it had the double hurdle of a) generating enough cultural touchpoints to set up for play and b) (more importantly) having to clarify a lot of mechanics that were not well explained.

Speed Rune lets me skip the second part and it looks like it makes the first part easier just by virtue of not trying to be and do everything.

If you are an RQ or HQ fan, or like the idea of mystical/mythic world overlapping with your “naturalistic” fantasy world, go check it out.


Designing Strategy 3

October 27, 2022

(series links: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, upcoming part 6)

Let’s talk monsters and threats.

To recap our principles for tactical play in RPGs:

  1. Force players to change tactics
  2. Make the enemy’s weakness or flaw a central pillar of your design. Plan TO lose.
  3. Look at your game’s mechanical levers to force different strategies, and use them in breadth and variety.
  4. Use negative levers for only 1 or 2 players at a time; at the same time try to have a positive lever available as well. Shift this focus every encounter so everyone is has to adapt, and adapt differently.

The Openings

Repeating Principle 2: Make the enemy’s weakness or flaw a central pillar of your design. Plan TO lose.
What is the monster weak to, or rather, how SHOULD one fight this thing? often the immediate question after I kick a general concept together. What kind of openings and weaknesses does it present?

Note these aren’t the only way to beat them – if players come up with something else that makes sense or would work, give whatever advantage or damage bonus would make sense.

  • Weapon Type (piercing, blunt, slashing, etc.)
  • Timing (“Takes double damage from melee attacks the round after it uses it’s breath weapon”)
  • Condition Effect (“When blinded, the monster will rush straight ahead in a fury, including into walls, hazards or off cliffs.”)
  • Formation Break (“The anti-magic effect only works when 3 SpellShield Guards stand next to each other.”)
  • Elemental (“Takes extra damage from poison”)
  • Serious Injury (“If you do X damage to the wing, they can’t fly anymore”)
  • Bad Tactics (“These things are barely aware, they just rush forward, easy to bait, easy to lure into traps.”)

Remember to give some kind of telltale indication or telegraph as to what weaknesses monsters may have, generally.

The Attacks

These are generally abstracted versions of whatever your game mechanics do, however you should be thinking a bit in these terms as this is what will make attacks more interesting.

  • Set Up / Attack (“This round his hands glow with magical power… /next round/ he fires a spell!”)
  • Forced Movement (“The plant monster’s vines drag you across the floor”)
  • Grappled/Entangled (“The rat swarm overwhelms you, they’re weighing you down, slowing your movements”)
  • Restrictive Effect (“These wind gusts make physical ranged attacks impossible!”)
  • Zone Control (“It’s leaving a trail of slimy poison behind it. You shouldn’t touch that stuff!”)
  • Teamwork Call (“Someone ELSE will have to make the strength check to get you out of the pincer”)
  • New Options (“The ethereal effect means you are in the Ghost Plane, but now you can fly.”)
  • Action Economy (“You can either do half actions or you can do your full action but only if you go last in the turn”)

Now, the point is not to make something “unbeatable”, it’s to make it a pain in the ass in a specific way. That’s more important than doing damage. In fact:

Principle 5: Damage and death are the least interesting options. Incapacitation is right up there with it. Strategy is about making different choices, not having no choice to do anything at all.

Generally, if you do less damage but have more of these pain in the ass effects, players will feel more threatened in ways that have meaning. (There’s times for damage, too, but they’re so much rarer than you think). There’s two qualifiers to this, however. 1) The bigger the restriction/pain in the butt, the shorter the effect should last, 2) Be mindful to yourself as a GM and how many effects you might have to track. If you come up with something very complicated, it might be tough to remember and run in the middle of combat; every monster rule you build, is homework for future you in the middle of an encounter.

An Example – the Star Cultists

These are basically “slightly better zombies” that I came up with for my Errant game. Concept wise I wanted players to consider the positioning of these things and be concerned about breaking up their formations.

HP 15 / Attack 1d6 / Move 1 / Morale 10

  • On a 6+, tentacle crush – Phys DV4 to escape, otherwise you are grappled, your attacks are impaired and attacks against you are enhanced..  If a second cultist also gets a tentacle crush on you, you lose 1 action per turn and the DV6 to escape.
  • Keening damage (range 20 squares) 1d6 – When 3 or more cultists stand adjacent, they can shriek in harmony and do a ranged sonic attack (ignores armor except for large shields).  For every 2 extra cultists in the group, Enhance the die by 1 size (5 – d8, 7 – d10, 9 – d12, 11+ – d20)

Let’s start with the weaknesses, even though they’re not necessarily apparent from just the stat block:

  • Zombie level smarts/senses – simple tactics, easy to trick, lure, and don’t have a large “visual” range
  • Slow – makes it easier to escape them, and harder for them to gather if they get split up
  • Not actually zombies – while they’re basically bodies that are parasitized, all the usual stuff like poison, or asphixiation, will still hurt them. They have a lot of the disadvantages and not really the advantages that zombies get.

The weaknesses by themselves don’t shape the players’ offensive tactics deeply, but they are forgiving, which is what I need these types to be as a contrast to their potential snowballing attack methods.

When it comes to fighting them, you just don’t want them to gather together. Up close they can do the “drag you down” effect and at a distance if there’s enough of them, they do quite a nasty amount of damage. Both suck, just in different ways, but it sets up a number of choices for players – doing area attacks with spells, trying to lure a group to break apart, pushing attacks to move them apart, and so on. The strategy of staying at a distance and hoping to wither them down will only invite their ranged sonic attacks and rushing in without backup will get you swamped.

Now, normally, this is more complex than what you probably want for minion/filler type enemies, but you do want encounters to lean towards this, mostly shaped by 2-3 types of monsters and/or environmental effects playing off each other. Since in this dungeon they’re the only filler types, so I wanted a little more complexity to them. They also form a nasty compliment to any of the boss monsters if the players are unfortunate enough to get involved with both the minions and the major threats at the same time.

Principle 6: Look to build synergy with openings and attacks, and also, the environment, terrain, hazards to force players to consider and alter tactics.

Next time: Terrain and Hazards (Spoiler: consider if the terrain could produce Openings or Attacks upon characters).

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Designing Strategy 2

October 21, 2022

(series links: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, upcoming part 6)

In Designing Strategy 1, we talked about the point is that the designer (and the GM) is creating situations where the players will win, with some effort. The strategy part comes out when they have to think and adapt, which you do by giving a good variety of situations to push them out of their routines.

(Mind you, this isn’t about denying them the opportunity to EVER be in their preferred pattern, just that it is disrupted enough they can’t always fall back to it.)

Mechanical Levers

RPGs built with a tactical core often have a rock-paper-scissors sort of logic built into the mechanics; certain methods and options have benefits, and weaknesses – and the strategy is knowing which ones to use when. This could be realistic things like terrain, range, and weapon type, or it could be fantastical things like elemental damage or holy/unholy magic and so on. This also includes stuff like status effects and temporary conditions like being knocked prone or grappled and such.

I call these “mechanical levers” because they are clearly built into the system, and you can effectively “pull” them to alter how people will engage the situation. If the system is well designed, all you really have to do is go through the variety of existing levers and it will naturally force players to try different tactics. (If your game… doesn’t have these… well. This isn’t really the best system to look to do strategy.

Go with variety!

The rather overly simplified version of this shows up in videogames; “the ice level, full of ice enemies”, “the lava level, with fire enemies”, “the poison swamp, with poison enemies” etc. However, I find it works better to use less fantastic issues 70% of the time and weird fantasy/sci-fi stuff 30% of the time (it grounds the situation and also helps players try to think of ways to engage/utilize it – if it’s all fantastical then they can forget that the rather mundane stuff is an issue too):

  • A tight hallway where swinging weapons suffer great penalties while short weapons do just fine.
  • A sudden rainstorm, rendering fire attacks useless
  • Thigh deep mud, which penalizes any kind of dodging or movement.
  • A cavern that has constant gusts of wind, making physical projectiles useless and area effects like fire, acid, etc. dangerous in terms of what they will target.

Carrots and sticks

You can look at these levers in terms of doing 4 things, tactically:

  • Encourage – encourages more of a given strategy
  • Discourage – discourages a given strategy
  • Forbid – makes something completely useless
  • Addition – gives the player characters a new ability or option they do not normally have

In general, it makes sense to set up situations where the default patterns are Discouraged or Forbidden, and to Encourage less used tactics or set up Additions to open up new things the players may not normally access.

Principle 3: Look at your game’s mechanical levers to force different strategies, and use them in breadth and variety.

All together, but not all at once

Now, here’s the key point; you want to create variety, not constantly BLOCK players from doing the thing they love. You can discourage stuff for one type then set up the next situation or encounter the for a different group, and so on. Likewise, encourage for one type or another each encounter. Everyone gets some encounters where “I have to do something different” and everyone gets some where “this is perfect for me!”.

Of course, when you throw in a few encounters with… nothing extremely favored one way or another, it’ll still feel fresh because everyone will be like “oh wait, yeah, we can ALL use our favored strategy.”

And this is fine even if you’re doing a dungeon or hexcrawl type game; you just alter up enough threats around the map so that it’s impossible to get through any major portion without running into a lot of different situations and conditions.

Principle 4: Use negative levers for only 1 or 2 players at a time; at the same time try to have a positive lever available as well. Shift this focus every encounter so everyone is has to adapt, and adapt differently.

Next time: Monsters, Threats, and synergy!
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Errant – the Shifting Winds Afterplay podcast

October 15, 2022
Image for Errant The Shifting Winds Afterplay – a sword over a planet backlit, forming a sharp crescent halo

Since we started playing Errant, we set up a little afterplay podcast to talk about the game. We’re hoping to run 6 sessions or so and see where it goes from there, but since it’s a neat game with a lot of good stuff I want to give a little love and promotion to it.

First episode I just talk a bit about the system, second episode some of the players come on and we basically ramble about it. Later episodes we’ll actually get to story recaps and all that.


Designing Strategy 1

October 11, 2022

This will be a series on principles that go into setting up encounters and stuff in “fighty type” games, which, honestly, is a lot of RPGs. I had wanted to write a single post on designing monsters and after a half dozen tries, I realize I can’t do my usual “here’s one giant word mountain, I’m done” but I’ll have to break it up.

So, part one. (series links: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, upcoming part 6)

Challenge in RPGs

If you play sports, chess, go, most boardgames, the goal is generally to have a fair challenge where, if the ability of the players is equal, then things are 50/50, a toss up. That is absolutely not how you want things to work in RPGs. RPGs operate more like most videogames; the point is for the players to win, but to work at it in the process. There will be challenge in getting to win, but the game is built around the space and room for you to win.

So the game designers and GM are basically building systems and situations to facilitate that.

Unlike videogames, it is not assumed that you can simply reload/respawn and solve things by trial and error; there is an expected persistence of events and narrative, so you have an additional challenge that players are expected to not lose completely, and also unlike videogames, if you are a GM you probably don’t have people playtesting your scenarios.

So hopefully some of these principles in this series will help you mentally frame the way to do things in the game of your choice and get better outcomes for your group.

What is strategy?

Let’s start with a gross oversimplification, but a useful one, at least for the sake of game design and running tactical RPGs.

Strategy is what happens when players are forced to think, and make different choices than what they normally would.

Again, comparing to videogames – if you can buttonmash your way through a problem, you’re not having to apply strategy. If you have to think about combo, order of presses, timing, resources or recharge times, you’re having to start to think about it. If you can’t fall into your usual pattern, but you have to change it up? You’re also having to apply strategy.

Most RPGs generally set up characters to be very good at One Thing and players get into the habit of doing that One Thing all the time.

So your role is basically creating situations to bump people out of the One Thing, often (not always, not all the time, just often). And that isn’t to say the characters need to be doing What They’re Worst At (TM), just that they might have to change patterns sometimes.

Principle 1: Force players to change tactics

Be the architect of your own downfall

So, tying back to the beginning, the point is that the players will win, eventually. So when you design encounters or threats, you should be building them with an idea of having one of their vulnerabilities or a weakness available. That might be an obvious “fantasy style” weakness like “here’s a fountain of holy water, 2 rooms later there’s undead”, but it also includes things like terrain that is more favorable to the players than the monsters and so on. (edited to add, MOOMANiBE’s post on The Recognized Opportunity is a great example of what I’m talking about.)

Underutilized in most games, is to consider not just the general “morale” roll, but rather what happens when creatures panic or make bad choices and whether that can be a weakness as well. The classic evil sorcerer with minions might find themself having a hard time casting a spell when their freaks out and knocks them down running back from the heroes.

Principle 2: Make the enemy’s weakness or flaw a central pillar of your design. Plan TO lose.

Next time: Mechanical Levers and Decisions

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