Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The final level 1 test

I ran a short adventure I wrote for Heroes By Trade on Monday.  So far I have run three Level 1 groups through the adventure taking between 3-4 hours each time.  The first group was aggressive (might I suggest crazy?) in the spending of their health to power abilities and ended up with one death in the final fight.  The other groups had some serious damage taken but both ended up clearing out the adventure with no deaths incurred.  The lesson I learned from this is that my monster balance guidelines are pretty solid.  The final encounter was supposed to be quite challenging and people that entered into it injured were in extreme danger - exactly as its difficulty rating would suggest.  I am really pleased with the system overall and the combat in particular but there are a couple things that I really would like to fix.

The first problem is the way skills work.  In DnD people are all allowed to roll their skill checks for various challenges.  If you need to recall something with History everybody rolls, same with listening at doors, picking locks, etc.  I hate the system of 'everyone at the table roll and take the best result' because it feels utterly ridiculous to have all the characters crowding up to a door to listen just in case somebody rolls particularly highly.  In HBT the person with the best check rolls instead.  This makes the rolling a little bit simpler and emphasizes talent over luck but it has the problem that if Flavius has a +10 to Tools and Georg has a +11 to Tools then Flavius never gets to roll at all because Georg takes care of every Tools check.  I really want to find some clean, easy way that allows people who are fairly skilled to matter even if they aren't quite the best.  It does reflect real life in a lot of ways - in a small team having people specialize in different tasks is definitely the best way to go when you know you will encounter a huge variety of situations.  Being the second best driver in a four person bank heist team is not so useful.

The other issue is positioning doesn't feel quite impactful enough.  People either were in melee range of a given target or not and there wasn't much in the way of other states.  Unfortunately in all my tests everyone ignored positioning abilities and went with defensive or damaging abilities instead.  This sort of bias in ability choice means that I really lack good data on how I could potentially adjust things.  If everyone is crazy and should have been using positional abilities all along I don't want to buff them but if my playtesters intuition on what they should take is correct it seems positioning just isn't important enough.  It is a hard thing to determine.  I definitely want to get away from the annoying attacks of opportunity that most systems seem to incorporate and let people move around more freely but if I make positioning too simple then a lot of interest goes out of the combats.

Aside from those two problems though everything feels awesome.  The next step is to write a new adventure for higher level folks and see how things change with more interesting and flexible enemies and when characters have more selection in terms of abilities.  I guess I will do level 10 first and see how it goes.  Hopefully my simulators continue to get enemy stats in the correct ballparks.


  1. Are positioning tricks attractive enough?

    I am spoilt by 4e, and love powers with slides, pushes, teleports, steps... but that is fairly uncommon. Even 3rd does positioning with a lighter brush (5-foot step for flanking?) and out of there very few RPGs care about tactical positioning.

    I would gravitate towards a richer tactical combat and that means positioning tricks for me, but maybe the big market is right and it is not interesting enough to the majority of players.

  2. About skill rolls. In shadowrun, if you have a skill test with multiple people working on it only one person "really" rolls. The others make a roll, but success for them gives the main person a bonus. (The main person is usually the one with the highest skill, but isn't necessarily.)

    Shadowrun has a lot of bad mechanics, but I think this one works fairly well.

  3. @Brent Yeah, I definitely considered that. It just seems likely to force a lot of rolling and people trying to figure out what the final total might be. It is good in theory and seems good in a computer game but I am really trying to pare down the amount of time that rolls take. Not sure I will find a good way though.

  4. If there is no logical significant in-world punishment for trying and failing, it isn't a skill check.

    Examples: Looking for someone stealthy. The cost to do this is usually trivial (especially out of combat), and that is the only punishment for failure. So this is *not* a skill check -- there is no point in rolling 1d20, because there is no in-world reason why you couldn't do it again, and again, and again, and again.

    Same for listening at a door.

    If it isn't a skill check, what is it? Well, there is 4e's passive perception: which is basically "perception defence". The environment "attacks" and rolls the d20, you just notice it or not.

    This is very similar to the "only the highest person rolls a d20 for a given situation" (as 10+Skill vs 1d20+Difficulty is the same distribution that 1d20+Skill vs 10+Difficulty has), but it makes clear when multiple people doing something make sense, and when it does not.

    It might make sense to roll perception as you walk down a trapped corridor, because the punishment (the trap goes off) is clear from a failed check. Here, marching order makes sense -- each player in turn might roll perception to see if they spot the signs of the trap as they pass it: if it goes off on the first character, only one player gets to roll perception.

    To provide situations where everyone can roll and participate, what you need to do is generate at the very least a trade off, or maybe do it at a higher level.

    As you go through the dungeon, maybe you can break things down into roles, delimited by skills. Arcana, Monster Lore, Perception, Tactics, Morale: As you explore the complex, you spend your time concentrating on one thing or another over the entire period.

    In order for there to be a consequence for failure, these checks represent continued concentration over significant periods of time: this is what you can afford to do while proceeding though the dungeon (or wilderness) at a decent pace. You can go slower in exchange for rolling more than one skill as you travel, or rolling twice and taking the best result at your one skill.

    Describing your actions consistent with your skill check can give you a bonus: so if you are focusing on perception while exploring, and you reach a door, saying "I listen at the door" gives you a +X bonus to your perception check to see if something is on the other side (maybe in exchange for the added risk you generate by listening at the door).

    In effect, the dungeon or wilderness exploration becomes a psuedo-4e-skill challenge, or a cooperative skill check, where each character contributes to the parties success via skill rolls, and (like a good 4e skill challenge), someone doing nothing is almost as bad as someone failing every check.


    If that seems too abstract (and I think it might be), you could make listening at a door a risky thing. Maybe you have to roll stealth to see how much noise you made, with such noise *accumulating* somehow, risking alerting the other side of the door. Someone rolling perception repeatedly works exactly the same way, they get to roll stealth for each perception check.

    But that could get boring.