Friday, December 14, 2012

Torg Zone Types

I haven’t played Torg for a while but it used to be one of my favorite RPG’s. For those not familiar with Torg, the story involves alternate realities overrunning various portions of Earth; each of these realities represents a different genre of roleplaying (fantasy, pulp adventure, and horror, for instance). The adventurers, known as Storm Knights, are assembled from all the different realities to fight the invasion. There are different types of zones depending on how thoroughly the new reality has replaced the old reality – mixed zones, dominant zones, and pure zones. Eventually I noticed we didn’t really use the zones the same way they are described in the rules, so I came up with a new scale of 5 zone types: mixed, semi-dominant, dominant, semi-pure, and pure.

Mixed Zone: Both realities operate side by side. In an Ayslish mixed zone, magic and technology are both fully functional, and can even be combined in ways not possible in either reality alone. This equality only applies to realities which are part of the mixture, other realities are excluded as usual. The laws and styles of the two realities are merged; only the chosen one can defeat the dark lord, but not without the help of a massive air strike in the nick of time. Ords in the zone are able to perceive that things have changed and the new reality is different, but soon acclimate to the new reality and think of themselves as having previously been ignorant. Landmarks of the old reality either still exist in their original form or it is noticed even by Ords that new landmarks stand in their place.

Semi-Dominant: The new reality is in the process of supplanting the old reality, which is falling before it. The old reality still works – the laws of physics are not totally rewritten – but it tends to break down, disappear, and become harder and harder for Ords to access. There are no factories to produce the guns, they run out of ammo, they corrode or are broken, eventually nothing is left but useless relics. Ords retain their identities at first, but over time they slowly “go native”, eventually their previous lives are nothing but an unimportant memory. Landmarks of the old reality still exist but decay into ruins as they are replaced by the new reality.

Dominant: The new reality has replaced the old reality. Landmarks and people of the old reality have been transformed into new reality equivalents, unless they are hard points or possibility-rated, respectively. Ords who enter the zone from outside are transformed. Ords are aware that things have changed in terms of politics and events, but perform their new jobs and use their new knowledge, no longer understanding their old jobs and old knowledge. Ords are aware of the invasion / reality-changing situation, but can’t think in ways inconsistent with their new reality. Storm Knights can use their foreign reality powers normally as long as they don’t disconnect. Ords comprehend that the Storm Knights come from strange places and have strange powers, they don’t refuse to believe their power and back story just because they are impossible according to their own reality. But this is mainly when dealing with Storm Knights directly, Ord society overall operates as if Storm Knights did not exist.

Semi-Pure: Storm Knights who enter the zone are not transformed, but their powers only work to the extent that they can be made consistent with local reality (barring a reality bubble). Their possession and appearance may be slightly adjusted (living plant spears are no longer alive), but in general they look foreign and different. Ords understand they come from the invading realities, but think of those more as exotic new places with exotic new cultures rather than really perceiving them as different realities. So an Ayslish mage in semi-pure Cyberpapacy is identifiably using a different style of magic but lacks her full powers; if she complains she had greater powers in Aysle, locals may interpret Aysle as being “closer to Hell” and full of black magic rather than really treating it as fundamentally different. Ord themselves have back stories fully consistent with their new reality.

Pure: Storm Knights who enter the zone are transformed into local equivalents (a Core Earth tough cop might become a valiant Knight of the Realm, for instance), gaining and losing powers as appropriate. Their back stories change as well, although as Storm Knights they are aware that they have been transformed and are involved in a reality war. Ord society does not grasp the reality war concept, it is interpreted in terms that make sense in their reality (Egypt has been taken over by the leader of a powerful crime syndicate, not by a supervillain).

This grew out of the way we played Torg. Dominant zones were supposed to be the most common so that is what we played in. Most of the time, the concept of the scenarios I created was that the Storm Knights would go on an adventure consistent with a specific reality; a bunch of characters from different realities all going on a classic fantasy adventure. So I was treating Aysle as a classic fantasy realm rather than a realm being slowly converted from Core Earth to a fantasy realm, which is what the Torg rules implied. I could have had the adventures occur in a pure zone, but we never wanted to adventure in a pure zone because you can’t use your cool powers in a pure zone, and where is the fun in that? So my concept of a dominant zone became one where everything but the Storm Knights was fully transformed to the new reality.

Other adventures, however, were meant to deal specifically with the concept of foreign realities invading Earth, and worked better with a different type of dominant zone. This is most especially true of the Living Land. The Living Land’s genre suffers from being rather limited and weird (a dinosaur-infested land of primitives, covered by a creepy mist that makes you lost, unified by one all-encompassing religion which grants great power to the faithful). The interesting aspect of the Living Land storyline is how super-powered primitives backed up by mother nature conquer areas of the United States (funny how this sounds similar to the plot of Avatar). Fully in-genre adventures would involve human savages with divine powers fighting lizardman savages with divine powers. The adventures I wanted to create for the Living Land involved trying to rescue pockets of civilization from being consumed by the mist, running low on supplies, and ultimately going primitive. So for Living Land I was using a different interpretation of a dominant zone, more consistent with the game’s original definition.

So my idea was to change the “less dominant” type of dominant zone to be called a semi-dominant zone. Then I had the idea that since we didn’t like playing in pure zones, but they were supposed to exist, I would change the original description of pure zones to “semi-pure” zones, and make a new type of pure zone. It always seemed odd to me that in Torg, when you disconnect your technology stops working, but still remains identifiably something that does not belong in the local reality. Hence my idea that reality should usually transform completely to local reality. Having characters do so in a pure zone seemed really cool. I have to admit that we never actually used this rule, and it isn’t exactly practical to make a new version of your character when you enter a pure zone. But the idea of trying to figure out what your character would be like in a different reality really appeals to me, I love trying to imagine “what is the Nippon Tech equivalent of a half-Elf, half-Fey elemental sorceress?”


Sunday, June 24, 2012

Defenders and Offense/Defense Character Types

When I saw that D&D4 had made defender powers, I thought it was a neat idea because I remembered that in the games my gaming group used to play – like Champions, Star Wars, and Torg - we used to have powerful bricks who wanted to attract more than their fair share of enemy firepower, and I thought it was cool that there was a rule to force this rather than just relying on GM discretion.

However, I have some problems with the implementation of defenders in play. I tend to feel the defender powers are much more effective at hosing specific enemies than at generally drawing attacks towards your defender and away from vulnerable members of the party. A fighter can really frustrate an enemy by “locking him down” and preventing him from using ranged attacks or powers requiring movement, but that enemy tends to be the one that would have attacked the fighter anyway, so it doesn’t protect the group much unless that enemy is some sort of unusually powerful “boss” enemy.

A second problem, commented on by a friend of mine, is that a balanced character would need to be rather warped in order to be tough enough to take on their own foe and somebody else’s, so (unless the fight is easy) either you aren’t balanced, or you aren’t tough enough and you act as a heroic sacrifice while you friends tear down the villains, or you are tough enough but have toothless offense, or you are supported by an awesome healer who is either unbalanced or has a toothless offense to compensate for all that healing power. I wondered how defender-like characters used to work in the older RPG’s I used to play.

Even if you successully implement a tank, MMORG-style, the problems that came to mind for defense-oriented tank characters in a tabletop RPG setting can be summarized as: having low offense is boring, getting thrashed so that an offense-oriented character can deal damage feels like you are a meat shield for someone else who gets all the glory.

The model D&D claims to be going for, which seems based on MMORG concepts, involves defense-oriented tanks, backed up by healers, distracting foes and sucking up damage so that offense-oriented strikers can destroy them. I thought I’d compare this to how offense-oriented and defense-oriented characters used to work in my pre-D&D gaming groups. I’ve included the actual character names from my gaming group; the wider audience can ignore these.

Most of the characters were just intended to be balanced. These characters just expect to take on their fair share of the opposition and go at it one-on-one. The strong characters would tend to take on the strong foes and the weak characters the weak foes; but if the weak characters were still sometimes outmatched, that’s OK, it’s part of their character conception. Examples: Hotshot, Starlight, Gravlock, Lance Benthar, Farukka, most of the Torg characters.

Many of the characters I would think of as defenders – our classic Champions bricks, for instance – were, in fact, characters who were very powerful overall. They had strong offense and very strong defense. They were tough enough to take on more than their fair share of opponents and be happy to do so, and had plenty of offense making them fun to play. Even if they were forced to deal with more foes than they could handle, it was hard to complain when you knew you were so awesome that they couldn’t defeat you without teaming up. Examples: Atom-Smasher, Hellspawn, Monstrosity, Cutlass, Surge, Dr. Sandar, Solan Ionescree.

There were characters who had strong defense but mediocre offense, theoretically the equivalent of a "tank". But these characters did not feel or work at all like the D&D fighter or MMORG tank. Rather, these were scrappy characters who liked that even if they couldn't win the combat, they wouldn't be taken out of it; they would always get to be present, doing their thing. They might try to take on tough opponents to give the rest of the party breathing room, but more as a special stunt than a routine combat tactic. Mostly, they just liked knowing they would be the last one standing in the group. Examples: Blitzkrieg, Charm, Psi-Knife, Olan (the Star Wars Gambler).

On the opposite side of the spectrum, those characters we made to have relatively poor defenses were usually characters who were not very powerful overall. Since these characters were weak, they merited less than their fair share of opponents, and it wasn't a big stress on the rest of the party if they hid in the "back ranks" and weren't engaged at all. Everyone was happy because the weak characters survived, the party was glad their solid offense was being made good use of, and the front line didn’t feel like mere meat shields because they knew they were more powerful and important than the back ranks. Examples: Backlash, Troubleshooter, Colonel Quar.

There were characters who were arguably high on the offense with relatively average defense. It seems to me that these characters didn’t want to take on more than their fair share of opponents, but would be quite happy to take on one opponent. If that opponent was pretty strong, the fight might be over more quickly than usual but would certainly be fair and entertaining; if the opponent were normal, the powerful hero might be expected to win, then help his scrappy allies who have been holding off the remaining foes. This involved a little GM cooperation (it isn’t much fun if the villains all join up to stomp you into the ground), but everyone ends up more or less happy; since the high-offense character is still taking on a fair share of the enemies, the other characters don’t feel so much like they are being used as defense for a wizard that gets all the glory. Examples: Predator, Shock, ATHENA.

Some characters had average-to-mediocre defense and weak offense. These were typically skill-based characters. They had various ways of dealing with combat. They might find a weaker opponent to go one-on-one with. If forced to take on a fair share on the enemies, they would take on a mindset of being outmatched and take pride in tying up their opponent as long as possible until the cavalry could arrive. The lack of glory in this was not a problem since the skill-based characters got all the glory they needed outside of combat. Sometimes they would decline to take part in combat at all and concentrate on mission objectives, relying on their relatively good defenses to survive crossing a dangerous battlefield. Examples: Psyk-Out, Troubleshooter.

One other type of defense-oriented character is one who has good defense and low offense because they are powerful but incompetent (either due to inexperience or general comedy). These characters don’t mind being somewhat ineffective on offense because that is part of the character conception. And they usually feel pretty dangerous when they get lucky and really do something effective. Examples – Acme, Valkyrie (w/o Einherjar)

Interestingly, I really did not find any characters built on the “tank” model – weak offense, mighty defense, and a “hit me please” mentality – or the “wizard” model – mighty offense, weak defense, uses friends as meat shields. Probably because our early experience with RPG’s had been that such characters do not work, so we made sure not to make any.

I’m not sure what my conclusion here is, except for the observation that the kind of polarized characters designed for the MMORG team dynamic, are exactly the sort of characters that did not work at all in a regular RPG. That might explain why I’m finding that combining the two approaches does not work quite right.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Dominion Non-Aggressive variant – version 1

Me and my wife like to play 2-player Dominion. But my wife does not like using Attack cards, and gets upset at me whenever I play one on her. So we don't use them. Which I don't mind too much, except that I never get to use tactics and strategies related to being attacked – such as using cards to trash Curses. So I decided to modify all of the forbidden cards so that they would be usable without actually attacking the opponent.

What I decided to do was to have the Attack cards become Consequence cards. Instead of attacking the opponent, they attack the person playing them. Of course, this doesn't make them very appealing to buy and play. So to compensate, I rewrote the cards to give them much stronger positive effects, better than cards without Consequences.

For version 1 of this concept, I tried to make the Consequence be as close to an actual attack as possible:

Consequence Rule: When you play a card with a Consequence, it acts like a duration card from Seaside. The part of the card that would normally affect you still happens when you play it. But the part of the card that would normally affect other Players becomes a Consequence and does not occur immediately. At the start of your next turn, before any other duration effects, you suffer the Consequence – the portion of the card that would normally affect other players, affects you instead. You can then respond with any Reaction cards in hand, as if you had been attacked. If there are multiple Consequence cards in play, they affect you in the order in which you played them.

This means that Consequence cards affect you at the same point in play as Attack cards – after you draw your hand but before you play it.

Here are the new rules for the cards that work in just this way – the exact same Attack that used to be applied to the enemy is now applied to you. I have listed the new, updated positive effect on each card – this replaces the previous non-attack effects of each card (for the first 5 listed, these were: put a Silver on top of your deck, +2 Coins, +2 Cards, +2 Coins, none, and +3 Cards, respectively). I decided to start with the Attack Cards from Dominion, Intrigue, and Seaside, just to keep the number manageable, even though as you will see I make use of the victory point tokens from Prosperity, as I think they are cool.

My general preference is to improve what each card already does, to invoke its feel more strongly. First I describe what I did to some of the more straightforward cards to modify:

Bureaucrat: Instead of putting a Silver on top of your library, put it into your hand. That didn't seem strong enough, so I had it give you a victory point token to balance it out.

Cutpurse: First I tried making it give you +3 Coins instead of +2 Coins. That didn't seem enough, so I tried +4 Coins. But that seemed too strong. So I compromised with +3 Coins, +1 Buy.

Ghost Ship: I tend to like Action cards, I think they make the game more fun than just getting Treasures, so I like to encourage them. I had an inspiration to give you +1 Action for every Action card you drew with the +2 Cards the Ghost Ship gives you. Since that is clearly not strong enough by itself, I added +2 Coins as well.

Militia: At first I gave this +4 Coins, +1 Buy. This seemed too strong, so I reduced it to +4 Coins.

Saboteur: This had no positive effect at all, so I had nothing to work from. Obviously I needed a really strong effect to compensate for losing a good card from your deck. So I decided to try having it grant an extra turn, as this effect is not especially common and is clearly very strong. Now, Outpost already does this, so Saboteur has to be much better than Outpost. I decided to have it give you a full extra turn with the normal 5 cards instead of the 3 that Outpost gives you. It is very hard to decide how powerful this is, but it seems to play OK.

Torturer: I added +2 Actions to make this card into a Super-Laboratory. This can be pretty cool for making your deck explode, but if you play more than 2 in the same round, next round you can be forced to take curses because you don't have enough cards to discard. I don't know if it is balanced, but it is fun to play with.

New Rules

Bureaucrat: Gain a Silver and put it into your hand. Gain a victory point token.

Cutpurse: +3 Coins, +1 Buy.

Ghost Ship: +2 Coins, +2 Cards.

Militia: +4 Coins.

Saboteur: Take an extra turn after this one. You can only take one extra turn in this fashion.

Torturer: +2 Actions, +3 Cards.

Next to consider is the cards which give Curses. The problem with these cards is that gaining a Curse is phenomenally bad, to the point that it is very difficult to compensate for since adding a Curse to your deck is likely to wipe out any benefit you might gain from adding any one other card to your deck. Rather than amp up the regular benefits of Curse-granting cards to the nth degree, I decided to just make a standard rule that when you gain a Curse, you gain a Gold as well. By my estimation, these should roughly cancel out to be of neither benefit nor harm to your deck. To give my reasoning, consider that a Curse and a Gold give you +3 Coins and -1 VP, so they are only slightly better than two cards each giving +1.5 Coins and -0.5 VP. Copper (+1 Coins) is generally a bad card you want to get out of your deck, while Silver (+2 Coins) is clearly a good card. +1.5 Coins and -0.5 VP is a lot worse than Silver and not much better than Copper, so I estimate it to be neutral, leaning towards a negative.

Sea Hag: Since this had no positive benefit it needed a lot of help, so I had it put the Gold right into your hand. That means it gives +3 Coins, which seems like a reasonable benefit. But the Curse goes on top of your deck, which is bad. So I added a victory point token (from Prosperity) to compensate.

Witch: +2 Cards is pretty far behind what you would want for a 5-cost card, so I added 2 victory points.

New Rules:

Sea Hag: Gain 1 victory point token. If there is at least one Curse in the supply, gain a Gold and put it into your hand.

Witch: +2 Cards. If there is at least one Curse in the supply, gain a Gold and 2 victory points tokens.

Finally, a number of Attack cards involved choices about how to carry out the attack, such that they would not actually be detrimental if you attacked yourself and made the choices. You could have an opponent make the choice, but that would break the spirit of the non-aggressive concept. So in most cases I decided to accept that the Consequence was, in fact, a positive rather than negative Consequence, and make custom modifications to each card accordingly.

Swindler: The card mostly seemed well suited to turning the Attack into a positive Consequence – the ability to trash a card and replace it with a card of equal cost is handy. One thing I missed, though, was the fact that this is normally a minor curse Card, since it turns Copper into Curses. So I decided to encourage turning Copper into a Curse by giving you a Gold if you do so.

Spy: Another case where turning the Attack into a positive Consequence works just fine; you get to look at your top card, and keep it or discard it, both this turn and the next turn.

Thief: Although the Thief gives you a choice about what to do with your Attack, normally you would want to steal Treasure greater than Copper, and leave Copper alone. So I had the Consequence be that you draw two cards and trash any Treasures you find other than Copper. However, the benefit obviously can't be to give you that card back – that would be pointless. It could give you that card back twice over, but I felt that would violate the spirit of what the Thief does to the game, to discourage players from purchasing expensive Treasures. So I figured I should have the Thief encourage Action Card decks. But how? I never actually figured this out in version 1, I kept fiddling around with different ideas. One idea was to reveal an Action card in your hand, then gain a card with a cost up to 1 greater than the revealed card. The idea was that a real Thief is more useful later in the game when the other players actually have valuable Treasure cards for you to steal; so this version of the Thief would be better later in the game when you have a supply of valuable cards to reveal. Since using an Action card which doesn’t grant an extra Action to reveal a separate Action card is very awkward, I added +2 Coins as well. Then I realized that letting you get Victory Cards would make this a powerful end game card in a way Thief isn't, so I forbid that. To counter, I let you reveal Victory cards. As mentioned, though, this is just one version of the idea, I never did zero in on the right balance.

Pirate Ship: While theoretically similar to the Thief, the Pirate Ship is weird. With the Pirate Ship you actually want to trash the opponents' Copper, even though that usually helps them, in order to gain Coin tokens for yourself. I don't really have a good grasp on exactly how the balance of this card really works out. I decided to make the Consequence work this same way – you draw two cards and trash any Treasure you find, Copper or not. Since this isn't that bad, I added only a small benefit of +1 Coin to playing the Consequence form of the Pirate Ship.

Ambassador: As with the Thief, keeping this card unchanged would make it self-negating and thus pointless. I decided to go with the idea of making the positive effect unchanged and modifying the negative effect instead. So I decided to give you +1 victory point. This seemed weak compared to the Steward, so I changed it to +1 victory point for each card you return. Making this a delayed Consequence would just waste time, since I decided to give the benefit immediately and make this no longer a Consequence card.

New Rules:

Ambassador: Reveal a card in your hand. Return one or two copies of that card in your hand to the supply pile. For each card returned, gain one victory point token. This is not a Consequence card; ignore the old text about other players drawing cards from the supply.

Pirate Ship: Choose one: Gain a number of coins equal to the number of Coin tokens on your Pirate map. Or +1 Coin, gain a Coin token, and Consequence: Turn over the top two cards of your deck. Trash any Treasures you find and discard the rest. If you choose the second option, the Consequence takes place at the start of your next turn, as usual.

Spy: No changes. So at the start of the next turn, you look at the top card of your deck, then choose to put it back or discard it.

Swindler: No changes, except that if you trash a Copper and gain a Curse, you gain a Gold. So at the start of your next turn, you trash the top card of your deck, then gain a card of your choice with a cost no greater than that card.

Thief: +2 Coins. You may reveal a non-Treasure card in your hand. If you do, gain a non-Victory card with a cost up to 1 greater than the revealed card. Consequence: Draw two cards. Trash any non-Copper Treasures you draw, and discard the rest.

Finally, the Reaction cards. Because of the way the Consequence affect you, they should be able to work unchanged. The one exception is the Lighthouse. The predictability of the Lighthouse is normally a disadvantage against Attack cards, but it becomes an advantage against Consequence cards. So I decided to weaken it by having the Lighthouse only affect one attack against you, rather than all of them.

New Rules

Lighthouse: +1 Coin, +1 Action. At the start of your next turn, +1 Coin, and you may cancel one Consequence pending against you. Obviously, this effect kicks in before you suffer Consequences at the start of your next turn.

Rules Summary:

Consequence Rule: When you play a card with a Consequence, it acts like a duration card from Seaside and is not removed from play at the end of the turn you play it. The part of the card that would normally affect you still happens when you play it. But the part of the card that would normally affect other Players becomes a Consequence and does not occur immediately. At the start of your next turn, before any other duration effects, you suffer the Consequence – the portion of the card that would normally affect other players, affects you instead. You can then respond with any Reaction cards in hand, as if you had been attacked. If there are multiple Consequence cards in play, they affect you in the order in which you played them.

Ambassador: Reveal a card in your hand. Return one or two copies of that card in your hand to the supply pile. For each card returned, gain one victory point token. This is not a Consequence card; ignore the old text about other players drawing cards from the supply.

Bureaucrat: Gain a Silver and put it into your hand. Gain a victory point token.

Cutpurse: +3 Coins, +1 Buy.

Ghost Ship: +2 Coins, +2 Cards.

Lighthouse: +1 Coin, +1 Action. At the start of your next turn, +1 Coin, and you may cancel one Consequence pending against you. Obviously, this effect kicks in before you suffer Consequences at the start of your next turn.

Militia: +4 Coins.

Pirate Ship: Choose one: Gain a number of coins equal to the number of Coin tokens on your Pirate map. Or +1 Coin, gain a Coin token, and Consequence: Turn over the top two cards of your deck. Trash any Treasures you find and discard the rest. If you choose the second option, the Consequence takes place at the start of your next turn, as usual.

Saboteur: Take an extra turn after this one. You can only take one extra turn in this fashion.

Sea Hag: Gain 1 victory point token. If there is at least one Curse in the supply, gain a Gold and put it into your hand.

Spy: No changes. So at the start of the next turn, you look at the top card of your deck, then choose to put it back or discard it.

Swindler: No changes, except that if you trash a Copper and gain a Curse, you gain a Gold. So at the start of your next turn, you trash the top card of your deck, then gain a card of your choice with a cost no greater than that card.

Thief: +2 Coins. You may reveal a non-Treasure card in your hand. If you do, gain a non-Victory card with a cost up to 1 greater than the revealed card. Consequence: Draw two cards. Trash any non-Copper Treasures you draw, and discard the rest.

Torturer: +2 Actions, +3 Cards.

Witch: +2 Cards. If there is at least one Curse in the supply, gain a Gold and 2 victory points tokens.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Examination of the ICONS RPG

Today I’m evaluating the ICONS RPG, a superhero RPG that is based on the FATE RPG system.

ICONS differs substantially from the FATE system. It is not, like the other FATE role-playing games I’ve looked at (Spirit of the Century and Starblazer Adventures), an expression of the FATE system adapted for a specific genre. Rather, the designer took the FATE system as inspiration and tinkered with it to create a new game system. My particular interest today is in calling out what changes the designer made.

First, what I found most entertaining about ICONS is that as I read the rules, I realized it was actually a merger between the FATE system and TSR’s old Marvel Superheroes RPG, and most of the variation from FATE can be explained in this context. I have a sentimental fondness for Marvel Superheroes, and I was very amused to see its old rules coming back again.

However, I should note that while there were certain aspects of Marvel Superheroes I thought were pretty cool, even when it first came out I was never too impressed by the way it played; I found it clunky and primitive compared to Champions. So being amused by the parallels doesn’t necessarily mean I think that they make the ICONS system good.

Pretty much all of the significant game rule variations from FATE which I want to call out are based on making it more like Marvel Superheroes. Here is my list:

The system for ranking skills and difficulties is a 1 to 10 scale instead of the –3 to +8 scale of FATE, and each ranking corresponds to an MSH rank from Feeble to Unearthly. I’ve always had a peculiar fondness for the MSH ranks and I’ve used them in my own games on occasion, so this really amuses me. I also like how ICONS improves on the system by matching each rank with a sensible number from 1 to 10, and how ICONS renames the top two ranks (I was never too fond of the naming of the rank “Monstrous” in MSH).

A big change from the FATE system is that ICONS is attribute-based rather than skill-based, and the attributes are based on the Marvel Superheroes FASERIP system, but with different names. Psyche has been replaced with Willpower, which incorporates the Presence statistic from Champions. Endurance has essentially been merged with Strength, and the new Stamina value replaces the old Health value.

If you look at what this change from FATE really means, it is that the medium-sized skill list from FATE has been merged into 6 uber-skills. You can then buy Specialties, which like Skills in MSH, increase your attribute by a fixed amount in one specific area, equivalent to a single FATE skill. But basically, the ICONS system is much more coarse-grained than FATE; the team genius is the unquestioned master of all intellectual skills, rather than splitting the skills more evenly among the party as you might expect in the other FATE games. I think the assumption is that your characters will be defined much more by their superpowers, and skills are streamlined and relegated to a secondary role.

The recommended character generation system is based on random rolls and has nothing to do with the skill pyramid system of FATE. I don’t recommend random character generation as a way to create balanced and personalized characters, but random character generation is fun to do and can give you interesting ideas.

The combat system is more traditional and less abstract than in the FATE system. Instead of just opposed rolls, you actually roll to hit on your turn and have separate accuracy and damage values. The most interesting part is that it pretty much exactly replicates the old MSH system of having 3 different success levels which mean different things for different damage types. It just does so by using the value of your roll rather than the silly color table of MSH. So, for instance, a bashing attack can slam or stun the opponent.

Mercifully, it does not imitate the MSH quirk that all characters are equally hard to hit. But it does imitate the annoying MSH feature that “body armor” type powers are incredibly effective and can make you nearly immune to normal damage.

I find the movement system confusing and I don’t understand how to use it. It appears to be abstract, like FATE, but it also has references which seem to refer to moving increments of distance, which is a tactical movement concept.

Fate points have been renamed Determination. You earn and spend them using Aspects, just like in FATE. But the way they work has been modified to match how Karma worked in MSH; you declare what you are trying to achieve before you roll, then the amount of Determination you spend is based on the discrepancy between your actual result and you desired target, with success guaranteed if you have enough Determination.

The way that Aspects work is mechanically identical to FATE, but the suggestions for how to choose them are significantly different. In the FATE systems I’ve looked at, it is pretty much up to you what kinds of Aspects you pick, the primary advice is to emphasize that every Aspect should have clear negative consequences – ideally both postive and negative consequences. In ICONS, the recommendation is that some of your Aspects are Qualities, which are mostly positive, and some are Challenges, which are purely negative. Challenges are equivalent to Disadvantages / Complications from Champions, as the list of examples makes clear. Qualities are divided into helpful categories with suggestions on how to pick them – you can pick a Motivation, and Identity, and Epithet, and so on. Seems nifty, I like the suggestion of thinking up an Epithet for your hero.

Finally, the tone of some of the GM’ing advice is a little bit different. Something I’d call out is the note that, in ICONS, the concept of tagging Aspects to do things is really “just for fun”, to add a bit of color to the game; you only need to tag one Aspect to spend as much Determination as you need, and the GM should be lenient in allowing characters to match an Aspect to the action they want to perform. A bit different from FATE advice, which tends to stress Aspects as important mechanical elements, and emphasizes the importance of the GM adjudicating attempts to tag Aspects to make sure he or she considers them appropriate.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Hero System 6th Edition – Notable Ideas

Continuing my analysis of the changes in Hero System 6th edition, I'm writing down some of the notable "toolkitting" or rules suggestions I thought were interesting. Many of these aren't actually concrete rules, they are just comments that the GM might want to change the rules in a given situation, or invent new rules to solve a certain problem. Since these suggestions are optional, I didn't bother to analyze suggestions I didn't like.

Notable Ideas I was positive about:

You can now specialize a skill for half cost, or buy limitations on skills. Limitations on skills were technically allowed in 4th Edition, but they required GM permission and I never saw anyone use them except for the most obvious cases. It occurs to me that you could use these changes to do a much better job of customizing your character's skills by purchasing bonuses in specific areas you specialize in, or using limitations on skills which would otherwise give you more than you need.

I like the "Skill Combinations" idea a lot. This is the idea that you could take a bunch of specialized skills and bundle them into one meta-skill. Note that this is only a suggestion, not a really formalized rule, but I like it. I don't know how far they intend to go with this in their sourcebooks, but I'm tempted to run pretty far with it. One of the problems of Hero System has been breaking down the skills into far too much detail for campaigns not based on those skills. For instance, Cryptography skill. In a game where everyone is an espionage agent, having this skill be separate allows one character to be the cryptography expert. But in a superhero game, this skill is just something the secret agent character ought to have but will rarely use. So you end up having to pay lots of points to give your secret agent a laundry list of rarely used skills that clutter up the character sheet, or you skip some of the skills but then you don't have them in the rare cases that you need them. Giving the option of breaking down espionage skills for espionage games, but then combining them into an overall "espionage" skill for superhero games, is great. The combination can cost less than the individual skills, so you can put a bunch of highly specialized skills into one skill combination for a reasonable price. This is like an extension of the rule that useless skills cost nothing; in this case skills of very limited use have a small cost and don't clutter up the character sheet.

There is a suggestion to the effect that you if you want a power to work a certain way that doesn't exactly fit within the rules, you just buy the closest power you can, then say it works that way. This sounds like a good suggestion to me. It is often a lot easier to match a complex character conception by designing powers with custom rules. But typically it is very difficult or impossible to assemble these powers by combinations of the standard powers, advantages, and limitations – it is either illegal or prohibitively expensive. This suggestion could be interpreted to let you just find an equally effective legal power, and redefine it to work the way you need. Also, this rule could really help when transferring complicated characters from one GM to another. In the past, you had to worry that the GM would rule that your power didn't work the way you wanted it to under his rules interpretation. Now you can just tell the GM how the power works, and he just has to decide that the power isn't unreasonable and that the point cost is appropriate. However, I have to point out that this suggestion is just a small one that I'm reading a lot into.

The absolute effect rule covers the problem that you can't purchase immunity to specific effects. It says that the GM can define a certain amount of defense against a certain special effect, and if you get it, you become totally immune to the effect. The only problems involve things like determining how you buy "immune to poison" when many different game powers can have the special effect of poison. And, of course, that the cost is likely rather high for some types of effects. But at least there is a rule to do it.

Cool idea – get rid of the points from complications and give out hero points whenever a complication appears in the story and is overcome. Actually, I'm thinking this could be simplified to "whenever a complication hinders the character". This is clever, I don't know if this comes from another game, but I really like this idea, it takes the onus of the GM to find ways to make a complication actually be worth its point cost. I really have to think about this, I've never thought of doing this before (at least not for Champions – Torg's Nile Empire sourcebook had a version of this rule, but the execution of the rule was quite awkward and didn't inspire me to transfer it to other games). I should point out, though, that this idea is presented as a throwaway concept, not something fleshed out into proper rules.

There is a helpful suggestion that the GM should only let PC's wake up from unconsciousness, not NPC's. This is one solution to the annoying problem that under Champions rules, after you knock someone out you have to hit them again to keep them out, a rather unheroic thing to do.

There is a suggestion that objects should be easier to break in superhero campaigns, and that the GM may want to have "real weapons" cause less damage in superheroic campaigns. This is exactly what I have done and always thought Champions should do. In 4th edition the recommended power level of tanks and guns was reasonable for heroic campaigns in which you want big guns to be totally lethal, but way too strong for superheroic campaigns. I was always annoyed that tanks were far, far tougher and more damaging than any superhero, it just didn't fit the comics at all.

There is a nifty optional rule for critical hits and fumbles.

There is a section discussing the problems about how the Hero System rules cause minor opponents to be rather tough and hard to kill, and in particular how they all tend to be unconscious rather than dead at the end of a battle, forcing the players in heroic campaigns to break the dramatic conventions shoot all of the unconscious opponents to finish them off. I like the discussion of the problem, and they have some suggestions for how you might fix it that are sketchy and primitive, but probably workable.

There is a revival of the old 3rd edition idea of a discount for multiple enhanced senses, in the form of an optional suggestion. This directly acknowledges that the high cost of many enhanced senses is based on their usefulness in avoiding sense-affecting attacks; once you have one, the rest have diminshing returns.

Notable Ideas I am positive about, with reservations:

The GM is advised that he may want to forbid use of martial arts to do other ridiculous things like break out of steel prison cells. This suggestion exemplifies what I feel about a lot of the little "toolkitting" type rules suggestions they have. On the one hand, it is a revealing and intelligent observation of a problem that can arise when you use the rules literally. On the other hand, this is pretty far from being a rule to fix the problem. I mean how do you decide what he can break, and what he can't, and what to do when things are on the edge? You would need to improvise, as this is basically a GM'ing suggestion.

Optional Healing rules has a nice preamble about how inconvenient it is for players to take BODY damage in a campaign that lacks magical healing, and all the problems this causes. The suggestions for fixing this seem weak, however – they are most effective at helping characters with heavy armor, which isn't very appropriate for many of the genres which have this problem.

Notable Ideas I am neutral about:

There is a "toolkitting" suggestion that you could have skill rolls be derived from your characteristics divided by 3, for instance, instead of by 5. This would solve the problem that there is very little "granularity" for statistics like intelligence – very few values that are actually different from one another, since the only really meaningful values to buy are 8, 13, 18, and 23. However, this is just a sidebar, it doesn't give actual rules for how to change point values to match. And it makes your skills tied even more closely to your stats, an effect I don't like. Although they have a contrary suggestion in the same section that the GM could untie all skills from statistics completely – they have a lot of interesting little ideas for how skills could work in a game.

One of the many ideas for skills presented is to base skill rolls off of different statistics depending on how you are using them (as is done, for instance, in the Storyteller system of Vampire). Interesting, but this adds to complexity and I would prefer to just purchase the amount of skill I want and stick with it.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Hero System 6th Edition – Key Changes

Last article I described the major changes in Hero System 6th edition, changes that were general in nature. This article I'm describing changes which are specific, but which are likely to affect many characters or come into play in many adventures, or otherwise are pretty likely to be noticed.

Key changes I feel improve the game:

Elemental Control is gone, replaced by the limitation "Unified Power". This is good, because Elemental Control was really just a random way to save points if you had certain specific powers and certain special effects, and clearly didn't belong within the logical Hero System framework, especially the 6th Edition view of that framework. The Unified Power limitation causes adjustment powers which affects one of your powers to affect all of your related powers. This seems like a very minor limitation (drains vs. specific powers are really rare), so Unified Power still looks like a random point break. But it is a much simpler, small rule, and is a more blatant point break, easily banned by the GM if necessary, so I think it is a great improvement. The one small advantage to Elemental Control was that it tended to give a point break to Energy Projectors, who were overpriced compared to Bricks and Martial Artists. But I think the other point cost changes in the system have already addressed this issue.

The rule that combat skill levels can be used to boost damage is now a general rule, not limited to hand-to-hand attacks in heroic campaigns. I've already been doing this for quite some time; it is more fun and not unbalancing.

The rules are clear that pushing can only be done in heroic situations, not just any time you have the extra END to spend. I've always used that rule in my games, I think this is was a fairly common interpretation. But the 4th Edition rules weren't really specific about this.

Sense-affecting powers (like Flash, Invisibility, and Darkness) are now much cheaper (usually half cost) when they only affect non-targeting senses (i.e. when they don't affect sight). This is great, making powers cheaper when they are less useful. Actually, the truth is that affecting non-targeting senses is usually far less than half as effective unless you have some sort of devious power combo; but half price is much better than full price!

There is a rule for untrained skill rolls! Previously, there was no real rule for what happens when you need to make a conversation check and you don't have the skill. This issue occurs in certain other game systems as well, and leads to a common problem. The general solution for the lack of a defined skill roll was that characteristic rolls be used. But characteristic rolls are quite high compared to the pitiful 8- roll for a familiarity in the skill. Unless the GM was really on top of this, it was all too easy for characters who were familiar with a skill to end up less capable than characters who were totally untrained, because the GM would say "make a driving roll" if the character had the skill, or "make a DEX roll" if he didn't. Even a DEX roll at -3 would be better than the 8- for a familiarity. With the new rules, an untrained character has 6-, fixing this problem. However, it does present a small trap for the unwary GM. Mathematically, the 6- roll works fine. But it means that whenever a character tries a skill roll which an untrained person should have a decent chance of succeeding in, the GM needs to give a huge bonus (like +5). Since Hero System skill rolls are presented as an "absolute" ("13-" instead of "+3"), GM's who don't know the mathematics well may have a tendency to ask for unmodified skill checks. This can result in situations in which ordinary characters are treated as comically incompetent because they routinely miss their skill checks by 5 or more.

The VPP rule explicitly allows you to buy a control cost for more active points than the real cost, so you can have a variable power pool with 30 real points that allows powers of 60 active points. This is something I have always allowed and used, it is mathematically logical (it is as if you bought a 60 point power pool and declared that 30 points of it are fixed in place). This is very useful in practice when you want to create a VPP of attack powers, something quite common. With attack powers, you usually only want one power in the pool at a time, and trying to create an interesting power with advantages and limitations didn't work because the limitations only saved you real points, and you couldn't do anything with these real points. Now you can buy up your active points and have more options for playing around with your VPP.

5th Edition merged Public/Secret ID into a new, more general complication called Social Complication. I like this idea, and the new symmetry of having physical, psychological, and social complications. There were definitely some complications that were hard to represent properly before. Most notably, "subject to orders" was previously represented as "watched by military", which isn't really the same thing.

Martial arts are now fully effective when used with weapons. In previous editions martial maneuvers gave only half the damage bonus when used with weapons, so a fencer would get the same combat penalties for performing an offensive strike as a hand-to-hand fighter, but would only get half the damage bonus, and thus fencers would avoid this maneuver most of the time. This change evens the playing field.

There is no more Package Bonus – you don't get a point break for basing a characer off of a standard template. I didn't particularly object to the package bonus, but this changes seems reasonable, why reward characters for being standardized and penalize creativity. The main justification for the package bonus was that you got a point break for having to buy useless skills, but 6th Edition has fixed this problem by specifying that useless skills no longer cost character points.

Find Weakness is gone. I didn't hate this power, but I never used it either. I found it way too extreme; one roll would determine whether you were devastating or impotent against the enemies. And the game mechanics for how the power worked were rather fiddly and didn't seem to match any power of any character in any genre I was familiar with. It was sort of a funny Hero System-specific gimmick, and I won't miss it.

Many powers and modifiers have been broken down into much more detail, allowing characters to be crafted more precisely. Examples include how you can now use invisible power effects to make something inobvious instead of fully invisible, or how the value of the Linked limitation depends in more detail on exactly how the linking works. These changes are individually small, but overall, I like the breakdowns and added power modifiers, they usually make a lot of sense, and they increase the richness of the character creation system, which is at the heart of the Hero System.

A lot of rules sections are much larger than the corresponding sections in 4th Edition, and in a good way. A lot of things which were unclear before are now explained. Examples of expanded rules sections, include perceivability of powers, constant powers, Adjustment Powers, and Mental Powers, but there are many others. I think a lot of work has gone in to making the rules more clear and comprehensive, and I found the expanded rules sections enlightening on many points.

Key Changes about which I am positive, with reservations:

There is a big new rule, the Multiple Attack rule. Finally, there is a way for a character to make multiple attacks simultaneously – to shoot a gun in each hand, or to trip a foe and headstomp him without letting him get up in between. The maneuver is quite powerful but requires a high OCV and gives you 1/2 DCV. I put the maneuver as a positive because it lets you do something that you just couldn't do before, and sometimes wanted to do. But I have reservations about whether I'd really want to use or allow this maneuver in a game. First, I feel like the characters who would thematically most want to use this would be highly skilled characters fighting minions – but these are exactly the kind of characters who would really hate being reduced to ½ DCV and wiped out by counterattacks from all the remaining minions. Second, it seems like a new way to beat on the poor fools who have been knocked prone or otherwise reduced to ½ DCV. It is bad enough getting auto-hit by normal attacks when you are on the ground, but potentially taking triple damage from a massive multi-attack seems just cruel.

Missile Deflection is gone, replaced by a rule that anyone can block ranged attacks based on special effects. And the rules for Block are nicely expanded. The key to my commentary here is to understand that I'm always thinking of Block as an alternative to Dodge. And the truth is that if your OCV and DCV are equal, Block is only slightly more effective at avoiding a single attack than Dodge, and has many more limitations. It does let you go first next round, but only in certain circumstances. So I feel that the ability to Block isn't worth that much, since you could have just dodged instead. So I am quite happy that Missile Deflection no longer costs a large number of points. And I think the new block rules are swell. My reservations are two. First, since I never really used Block much at all, I'm just not that excited by all the page space spent on it. Second, under the new rules, you can only block range attacks (i.e. Missile Deflect) if you have an appropriate special effect. My opinion is that if you think Block is useful enough to devote all that page space to, why isn't it useful enough to cost at least one point to be able to block ranged attacks? It seems tempting to say "Oh, my character carries around a trash can lid just so he is eligible for this extra combat maneuver".

The Grab rules are much more detailed and better described, and make a lot of sense. A character who is grabbing someone is now at ½ DCV; the -2 DCV penalty only applies if you miss. The grabbed characters have -3 OCV, which seems rough, but the grabber is still ½ DCV against their attacks. If you grab one target, you are ½ OCV against other targets. There are scary optional rules about letting super-strong grabbers really dominate weaker opponents. It is clarified that most martial maneuvers aren't allowed when grabbed. My only reservation is that some aspects of the new rules seem even more favorable to bricks and less favorable to martial artists, and I had already thought that grabs were too good for bricks and not that great for martial artists.

Mega-Scale is a new advantage that lets you create powers with immense area, range, or speed, at a cost that is large but not overwhelmingly huge. I like this idea, it makes it straightforward to buy certain powers that were awkward to buy before, such as the power to fly at the speed of light, or turn an entire city into zombies, or purchase a spaceship with guns that fire millions of kilometers. This acknowledges that in many cases, once you pass a certain amount of scale, increasing the scale of a power is largely for color and shouldn't cost an overwhelming number of points. After all, a sleep spell that covers an entire battlefield is enough for any combat use, increasing it to cover an entire county is probably just something you do when making some special magic ritual for storytelling purposes. However, while I think this is useful, I have reservations about the cost structure. I think the power is great improved over the 5th edition rules, in which it was absurdly cheap, but had annoying little limitations that often forced you to create a multipower for it. Now the cost is much more satisfying. But the cost system is still really weird. The first strangeness is that there were already ways to logarithmically increase the scale of powers, and megascale isn't integrated into the existing system. This is most obvious with area effect; you can get an area effect of 4m radius, or pay more for 8m or 16m; but once your power is 64m radius, you can just decide to make is 4000m radius for the same cost. This probably won't hurt the game balance if the GM is careful not to allow abusive megascale constructions, but it sure is weird. What is really odd is how megascale works with movement powers. Say you have 60m of teleport. It you buy megascale on top of it, you pay a staggering number of points to be able to teleport 60km. Or you can buy a small teleport with megascale in a multipower and be able to teleport anywhere on the planet for a handful of points. Megascale is a clear example of just how arbitrary the Hero System point costs really are; mega-scale is either very expensive or dirt cheap. And in particular, even if the GM and players are trying hard not to abuse the rules, it still isn't obvious which way is the "right" or "fair" cost. The planetary teleport multipower seems unfairly cheap, but if you use the megascale rules totally "straight up", then characters with large amounts of combat teleport pay far more points in order to have the same amount of noncombat teleport, and this seems pretty unfair the opposite way.

Key Changes I am neutral or conflicted about:

The ability to use EGO to defend against PRE attacks is now an optional rule. I don't have much opinion on this either way. In any case, if you really wanted your strong-willed but quiet character to resist PRE attacks, you could buy PRE with the limitation "only for defense".

Haymaker is substantially changed. First, it now gives a fixed damage boost of +4d6. I think this is good as it matches the way martial maneuvers work and reduces that massive benefit of haymakers to super-strong bricks, although my reservation is that it is weird and awkward that characters of ordinary human strength gets such an overwhelming benefit from the maneuver. The second change is a more of a clarification. A haymaker takes extra time between launching it and landing it, and if the foe moved out of range it would miss – but what if they just moved to a different place in your range? Now it is specified that if the foe moves at all, the haymaker misses, even if you have stretching or can otherwise still reach the target. I like this clarification. Third, and most importantly, any power can now be Haymakered, even if it is ranged! I like this because in the past, Bricks were much better at performing finishing blows or damaging inanimate objects than Energy Projectors, and now this evens the playing field. My big reservation is that I have never liked the Haymaker rule and never use it in my games, I don't like how it is far more effective than a regular attack unless the opponent has the correct meta-game knowledge of how to defend against it, in which case it is totally neutralized. So I'm not really thrilled that far more characters can now use it!

Flashes were changed in 5th edition to give you twice as many dice for the points, but the effect lasts for segments rather than phases. I can't decide if this change is good or bad. It means that 5 points of flash defense doesn't neutralize almost all flashes completely, and makes it more straightforward how long flash lowers your DCV and Perceptions, and makes flash slightly less devastating, and doesn't give as much penalty to low SPD characters. But what you really care about with Flash is how many phases you are affected for, and now that varies based upon arbitrary meta-game considerations: the segment your foe goes on compared to you. And the idea of a delaying your action when you are flashed to a later segment in which you are unflashed seems odd and slows the game down.

Breakfall lets you stand up as a zero phase action. Hmm, I foresee a lot of characters with breakfall skill. This rule isn't bad, it has the advantage of creating a way to ignore the prone effect, makes people with breakfall skill feel more distinctive, and gives breakfall a benefit even when you are knocked into obstacles. But in practical terms it makes me uneasy in two ways. First, I find the ability to delay people by knocking them prone feels appropriate, but don’t much care for the ability to reduce them to ½ DCV just long enough for your friends with reserved actions to annihilate them. The new breakfall rule takes away the first part without removing the second, I'd rather have it remove both or neither. Second, this is one of those rolls you have to make a lot but won't likely fail very often, and my experience with activation rolls is that such rolls can be somewhat of a nuisance.

The simulated sense group rule. When you buy an enhanced sense, you can say what sense group it is part of (such as sight or hearing) and it gains some of the benefits of the natural sense in that group, for free. The biggest effect of this rule is that enhanced senses which allow you to ignore sight-group flash, darkness, and invisibility cost more than those that don't, since senses based on sight get Targeting for free. This is good, because the ability to ignore sensory attacks is often the primary combat effect of an enhanced sense. On the other hand, the rest of the rule just seems awkward. You have to pay a bunch of points to make your mystic treasure sense ranged, but the ability to "smell" treasure is ranged for free, this just seems arbitrary to me. It seems like this whole rule would be more naturally replaced by limitations or advantages when you buy senses that are more more or less affected by sensory powers. Another point I should make is that it seems like it would be very common to imagine some sort of special vision that is affected by sight-based flashes but not affected by sight-based darkness or invisibility. The simulated senses rule doesn't cover this, it assumes flash and darkness/invisibility work the same way.

Dive for Cover makes you prone, and you suffer extra knockback if you try to dive for cover and fail. This makes sense if you think of the maneuver as literally diving to the ground to escape a grenade blast or an exploding car, and that sort of thing certainly happens in the movies. On the other hand, I'm somewhat skeptical of the literal interpretation. When you are diving from a grenade, you want to land prone because being prone inherently protects you. It seems a little odd that under the Dive for Cover rules, you run 8 meters, then decide to fall prone even though it doesn't protect you in any way under the Hero System rules. I liked the idea that Dive for Cover could be used to simulate the fact that it is difficult to hit fast-moving superheroes with area effect attacks. But the maneuver is rather difficult to use in superhero combat (they can just throw another area attack next phase), and the changes just make it even less effective. But perhaps I'm asking too much of the maneuver, and should just consider it to be designed to simulate characters trying to avoid single massive explosions by running away, leaping, and landing on the ground.

Key Changes I feel are detrimental:

The cost structure of combat skill levels has changed in a negative way. In 4th Edition is was noticeable that combat skill levels in highly limited areas were too cheap and versatile skill levels were too expensive. In 6th Edition, the cost of versatile skill levels was made even more expensive and the cost of limited levels stayed the same. Now a skill level in all combat costs 10 points! This means that the ability to gain +1 in OCV or DCV costs as much as buying both +1 OCV and +1 DCV! The combat level does allow you the option of increasing damage, but this is a small benefit compared to doubling the total combat bonus. Yet a level that applies to your 3 favorite maneuvers you use almost all the time is still a measly 3 points. Basically, 6th Edition increased the cost of levels in all combat or all h-to-h combat so that "1 level in martial arts" could now cost more than a level in 3 specific martial maneuvers and less than a level in all hand-to-hand combat. Inserting this new level is logical, but the specific way the costs were changed is not.

Also, the cost of mental combat levels was changed to work differently from physical combat levels, to match the fact that +1 OCMV is cheaper than +1 OCV. So gaining +1 in one mental attack is now half as expensive as +1 in one physical attack. This makes no sense. It isn't clear whether OMCV really should be cheaper than OCV, but if it should, it would be because it covers fewer powers. Once you are restricting your level to only a single power, +1 to hit is +1 to hit, it should cost the same to get +1 with a single mental power as it costs to get +1 with a single physical power, as they are both equally useful. Certainly it isn't like mental powers are weaker than physical powers – quite the opposite, at least for mental blasts.

The killing attack STUN multipliers for hit locations were NOT changed, even though the general STUN multipliers for killing attacks were changed. This means that killing attacks do far more stun damage if you are using the hit location rules. I find this very puzzling, especially since a few pages later in the rules is a discussion of how it is a problem in heroic campaigns that killing attacks tend to knock foes out instead of killing them. It is as if the hit location rules (indeed, almost all of the optional combat rules) were simply copied verbatim from the previous editions without being re-edited.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Analyzing Hero System 6th Edition – Major Changes

I've been hard at work reading and analyzing the rules for 6th Edition Hero System. I've played Champions for a long time, and it has traditionally been what I consider to be my favorite roleplaying game, though I haven't played it a whole lot recently. I remember how pleased I was with the 4th Edition, and I played that for a long time. I wasn't too pleased with the 5th Edition; while it was not without its good points, it seemed "fiddly", and had twice as many pages without much improvement to the game. I played it a bit, but didn't really see it as supplanting the 4th Edition rules. Now the 6th Edition has come out, and I have to say I'm much more pleased. This seems like it really is an improvement to the game, something that could make me want to put away the old Big Blue Book of 4th Edition.

It should be understood that while there are substantial changes, the game was not "recreated" in the sense of 4th edition D&D, this is an evolutionary modification and most of the rules are still the same as 4th edition Hero System. So I think I shall analyze it in terms of how the system has changed. Since I was not that impressed with 5th Edition, never wrote an analysis of the 5th Edition changes and have many friends who never played 5th Edition, I shall compare the changes to 4th Edition Hero System, with maybe a few mentions of 5th Edition here and there.

For this article, I will be looking at the really broad changes to the game, those changes you would be likely to notice regardless of what powers or maneuvers your character uses.

First, since I will be using these terms later, I'll mention the major nomenclature changes.

  • Ego Combat Value is now called Mental Combat Value (MCV), and in general the word "Mental" replaces "Ego" when referring to mental combat, rather than your Ego characteristic. I think this change is great. I always felt that the use of the word "Ego" instead of "Mental" was a bit of Hero System-specific weirdness.
  • Disadvantages are now called Complications. I never had a problem with the old term, but agree that the new term is just as good or better.

Major changes I feel improve the game:

  • The pricing system for characteristics was changed to remove the concept of secondary characteristics from the game. This is a big change, and is just a good thing. A well-known strangeness of previous versions was that purchasing STR and CON actually gave you more points worth of figured characteristics that you paid for the primary characteristic. This meant that, in some sense, these characteristics had a negative cost – increasing them could make the character cheaper! To deal with this, it was necessary to put limits on how many figured characteristics you could buy down, artificially limiting your character design. There were other minor drawbacks as well related to the fact that the "active points" of these characteristics were not equal to their "real cost". The one minor advantage of the old system was that it gave you a nice simple way to compute default values for your REC, END, and STUN, so that you didn't have to think about them. But in my opinion, the new system is far superior.
  • OCV and DCV are now characteristics, rather than being calculated from DEX. I highly approve of this, and in fact, had been moving strongly in this direction in my Champions house rules. When designing how a character will work in combat, it was cumbersome that base OCV, base DCV, and base Dex roll were all inextricably linked together. Sometimes I would want to make a character who was very skilled in combat, but not necessarily a great acrobat. You could do this with levels in OCV and DCV, which was OK, but levels and base CV are not quite the same thing. Other times, I would want to make a character who had been gifted with superhuman reflexes but didn't really know how to fight. There was no elegant way to do this (you would have to simulate it with a complication), but now it is easy. Also, it is quite normal to want a character's combat "style" to be more defensive or more offensive, and as mentioned above, having this be represented by setting your base OCV or DCV directly is more natural than buying levels in OCV or DCV. There is one tiny downside to this – Adjustment powers that affect your "agility" are more cumbersome to purchase, as adjusting DEX no longer adjusts OCV and DCV. But this is a very minor drawback.
  • The separation of OCV and DCV from DEX also has another potential benefit. An old Champions tradition is that superhero characters have much higher dexterity than their conceptions would indicate. If you wanted to be a slow, clumsy brick, you would have DEX 18, and if you were just average, DEX 20. Yet these would be considered quite high values for normal people. And superhero characters had normal, conception-appropriate values for other characteristics like INT and STR, so the high DEX was an oddity. The high DEX was actually a good thing for balance purposes. Some superheroes really do have good reason to have superhuman DEX. But if some characters had DEX 30 and others DEX 10, this meant some characters would have CV 10, others CV 3. This is way too much difference in a combat system in which even a few points of CV have a huge effect. Also, the high DEX meant that superheroes had a much higher CV than normal people. This isn't essential, but was part of the game balance and had some nice effects, letting characters do some fancy things and really feel impressive against ordinary mooks. The problem with the boosted DEX was that it also meant that superheroes had very high DEX rolls regardless of real conception. It was just weird that a superhero of average intelligence and average dexterity would have 11- in his intelligence-based skills and 13- in his dex-based skills, for no really good reason. With this new change, it is finally practically to really fix this strangeness; you can give superheroes abnormally high DCV and OCV but give them DEX on the same scale as INT. They don't do this with their sample superheroes, but I plan to with my campaign.
  • OMCV and DMCV (the mental combat values) are also characteristics. Not only does this have the benefits listed above for OCV and DCV, it also has point benefits. DCV and ECV used to have the same cost when you factored out the points of SPD given to you by the DEX. Now MDCV costs less than DCV, which is appropriate as it is less often useful. And in the past, EGO was expensive because it was a key statistic for mentalists, so characters without mental powers were really charged a lot for it even though all they wanted was to be strong-willed to fit their conception. Now characters who don't have mental powers don't even have to pay for OMCV, only characters who actually gain benefits from OMCV have to pay for it. There is, however, a drawback to the new system; mentalists can refuse to buy OCV and actually end up cheaper than non-mentalists, which is peculiar because mentalists are usually more effective than OCV-based characters, not less. And it sort of puts a high price tag on characters whose multipowers include both mental attacks and normal attacks, and thus need both OCV and OMCV. But overall, I like the new system.
  • The Comeliness characteristic has been replaced with the Striking Appearance advantage. This is interesting because I'd been thinking for a long time that if I wanted to rewrite Hero System, I would do exactly this. Nobody really cared about Comeliness too much, so it shouldn't be a characteristic. And the numbers had little game meaning anyway. It makes a lot more sense to either say "my character has average appearance" and forget about it, or to say "my character has an extraordinary appearance" and actually describe what game benefit you want to get from that.
  • The way that the base points for characters is described has been changed. In previous editions, a standard "250 point" Champions character was described as having 100 base points plus up to 150 points of disadvantages. Now such a character would be described as a 250 point character with 150 points of matching Complications. This works the same way, but better matches the fact that Champions players have always described such a character as 250 points rather than 100 points. Also, all powers and abilities which refer to the point cost of a character (such as Followers or Multiform) refer to this total cost, 250 points, rather than making a hard-to-remember distinction between base cost and total cost.
  • A longstanding complaint of mine has been that Champions demands that you take enormous numbers of Disadvantages, more than most character conceptions would naturally want to take, and more than most players or GM's would really want to use in play. 6th Edition has met this complaint straight on the nose! They directly acknowledge in the rules advice the problems of having to take too many Complications, and the recommended Complication points for a superhero has been halved, from 150 to 75.
  • There is now a rule that "background" powers and skills which don't really have any game effect, don't cost any points. I love this rule (just as I loved it where I first saw it, in 4th edition D&D). I have often noted that background skills, like being a master violinist, are way overpriced because they very rarely come up in play, and thought they should be far cheaper. Making them free certainly simplifies the situation! I also like how they mention that even skills with clearly listed values, like Bugging, can cost few or no points if the GM doesn't expect them to come up in the game. This is exactly what happens in real games. You are making some superhero whose background is that he was a secret agent, and you figure he ought to have bugging. But if you buy the Bugging skill, it is a waste of points, because it never comes up in your superhero adventures. But if you don't buy it, then there just might be one point every 5 years that you actually need Bugging – perhaps in some minor way – and you won't have it, even though it would be so cool to finally use your spy skills. The new suggestions are entirely on point to fix this problem.
  • The frequency concept for Complications such as Hunted has been greatly improved. In previous versions, you were supposed to make a random roll every adventure to see if the disadvantage showed up. I never played with anyone who actually followed that rule. First, the randomness would screw up your ability to create properly planned, believable adventures. Second, the hunters would show up far too frequently; the "medium" freqency would have them show up in more than half of the adventures! 6th Edition has done a great job addressing this. The random rolls are gone, and the recommended frequencies have been reduced. And the repetitive attacks by hunters are reduced even further by helpful advice that even when they do "show up", it doesn't have to mean they attack or directly interfere with the character, or even that they show up – it may just mean that the character's behavior is influenced by his knowledge of being hunted.
  • Another longstanding complaint of mine about Champions has been the ridiculous randomness of the stun damage caused by killing attacks. It meant they were just as good as normal attacks of the same point cost at causing stun damage – and better if the target's defenses were high. And they were certainly much more likely to stun the opponent. A rifle bullet could be more effective against a bulletproof superhero than an energy blast, directly contrary to the comics. This has been fixed in 6th edition by making the stun multiplier for killing attacks 1d3 instead of 1d6-1. They are still very random, but they are now clearly inferior to normal attacks at causing stun damage, with their advantage being that they cause more body damage. I still find the killing attack rules awkward in various respects, but I think this is an improvement.
  • Also, there is no longer a rule that you have to have at least one point of resistant defense in order to use your non-resistant defense against the stun damage of a killing attack. Now you can always use it. It was silly that there was a "magic cutoff" between having one point of resistant defense and having none – characters who took zero resistant defense were hosing themselves and not getting any points back in return. Now, it must be said that the old rule seemed like a logical way to prevent totally unarmored characters from shrugging off the stun damage from small killing attacks. But the truth is that the rule that you always take at least one STUN for every point of BODY damage already prevents this – and with the new killing attack rules, you don't necessarily expect killing attacks to cause a whole lot of STUN damage anyway.
  • Heroic Action Points. Champions is a very old RPG, and it did not have any form of "hero points" to give the players some sort of narrative control over the luck of the dice, save their characters from disasters, and let them rise to heroic occasions outside of the rather limited-purpose pushing rules. This became a noticeable omission when newer games had hero points, and Hero System didn't, despite the fact that the core of the Hero System has always been the sort of dramatic, cinematic adventures in which hero points are most appropriate. Well, now the Hero System has hero points! They are called Heroic Action Points, and they let you do a variety of things, most notably to retroactively modify your dice rolls. The rule isn't too sophisticated, but I'm not inclined to critique it. It seems like a perfectly workable rule, and it has been added to a game system that never had it before!
  • 4th Edition suggested restricting characters using active point limits on their attacks, and 5th Edition really took this to heart (their sample superteam, the Champions, seemed to have a 12d6 attack for every single character!). I was pleased to see that 6th Edition makes an about face, and has a very realistic discussion of the disadvantages of this approach, how it encourages sameness and discourages creative powers, how not all advantages that increase active points really count as boosting the combat effectiveness, how powers may be more or less powerful than their points indicate, and how the GM may be better off evaluating the real effectiveness of powers.
  • The Hero System has a history of good GM suggestions, and 6th edition definitely keeps up the fine work. Aside from the usual fine material about making campaigns and running games, I was impressed to find sections that explain how certain game mechanics really work and what they do to the game – just the sort of things I write about in my blog. There seems to be real understanding of the implications of various game mechanics, and even explanations of some of the weaknesses of the system and how you might work around them.

Major Changes about which I am positive, with reservations:

  • The characteristic costs were changed around. Some of the old primary characteristics had to be changed due to the removal of the figured characteristic concept, but it is interesting how they changed. STR was not made cheaper at all, despite the fact that it used to give you enormous numbers of figured characteristics. DEX had its cost adjusted appropriately to 2 for the removal of the SPD benefit, but got no discount at all for losing its most important function, providing CV. CON was reduced appropriately reduced to cost 1 after losing its figured characteristics. BODY was adjusted to 1 for losing its Stun benefit. EGO now costs the same amount if you want only the Ego roll and DMCV benefit, but costs more if you also want OMCV. Finally, the cost of REC, END, and Stun was just flat out chopped in half. Why I think this is positive: While it may be odd that no-range STR is as expensive as ranged Blast, Bricks get all sorts of combat maneuvers and benefits that energy projectors don't have, so this seems plausible. DEX is a skill stat just like INT, and also gives you some extra combat benefits, so it is reasonable that it costs more than INT. Mentalists are really, really effective, so charging them more for their EGO is not a bad idea. People rarely bought up REC, END, and Stun very much, and they were a bit pricey compared to Def. That isn't the case anymore! My reservations: Ego rolls are fairly rare, and I always felt EGO was too expensive for non-mentalists, so I think EGO should be cheaper. STR is now more fairly priced for bricks and fantasy warriors, but is now overpriced for characters who don't use it for their combat attacks. Stun was a bit pricey compared to super-efficient point expenditures like increasing your PD, Dex, or STR, but it was actually quite reasonably priced compared to most expenditures, like buying skills or life support, so I'm not all that excited by making it just as dirt cheap as the other optimum ways of increasing your raw combat power.
  • The minimum cost rules are gone, or rather are relegated to a note that the GM can optionally impose whatever minimum costs he thinks are appropriate. This is good because there are many perfectly valid power constructions which require less than the minimum points from a power, and the minimum points rule was just getting in the way. My only reservation is that there are a few cases in which having a power at all gives you some fixed benefit, and now that benefit can be had for really cheap. For instance, 1" of flight lets you walk on air, and 1" of teleport lets you escape from grabs automatically. But the minimum cost rule wasn't the mathematically correct solution to this problem anyway, so this really isn't much of a reservation.
  • The new rules have a number of sidebars about "Toolkitting". These are suggestions for how you might want to change the game to create house rules to address certain problems that might crop up with the regular rules. I think it is great that the game openly admits that its rules may have imperfections or need to be changed based on the situation, and encourages the use of house rules. I'm certainly a big fan of house rules! And I like the suggestions for what to do, many of them are fairly sensible. My only "reservation" is to note that many of the suggestions are pretty vague, and suggesting that you might want to solve a problem is not the same as actually having rules to fix the problem.

Major Changes I am neutral about:

  • The entire system for measuring distance has been changed from "game inches" to meters. Actually, I quite like getting rid of "game inches", that was confusing. But the change could have been to use the term "hexes", and instead they switched totally to "meters". I view this as a stylistic change, neither good and bad. Measuring in hexes is better for tactical combat, measuring in meters is better when you are playing without a map. It is more pleasing to read everything being described in meters, but the tactical rules are still the same underneath and are easier to play with hexes. As a side note, I find it interesting that D&D 4th edition made the exact opposite change – from feet to squares.

There are no major, sweeping changes which I dislike. They seem to have done a pretty good job with 6th Edition!