Thursday, September 29, 2016

Lawmen Of Borlo: Reflections on Gameplay

I just finished a campaign: Lawmen of Borlo. Its an interesting time when you finish a campaign and move on to a new one, and a good time to consider what went well and what didn't. This is also a big learning experience for me, because its only my second roll20 gurps campaign.

The campaign premise was:
The planet of Borlo was a backwater for over 40 years. Then about 3 weeks ago, a citizen found alien ruins-- the first alien ruins to be had in humanities long and lonely search of the stars. Now there is a rush like has not been seen for centuries: men and women are flooding into a formerly barren wasteland in search of wealth.
The PC's were planetary marshals given cases to solve, spread out over the planet. They solved two cases, each with multiple stages of finding suspects. They did pretty well, all things considered: of the 9 criminals they chased, one was left with a warning and remained a police informant, three got comparatively light sentencing (all in exchange for names and  or testimony), one got away, and four got hit hard.

Things the Players Enjoyed

Negotiating with prisoners was a large part of the game, and one the players really seemed to enjoy. A lot of the time you never know if an NPC is going to grab their attention or not, but each time they picked up a batch of crooks, one of them grabbed the attention of the PC's, and they connected with a string of criminals, and actually cared about what happened to them in the end -- even if  'cared' means 'I want to make sure you don't get off with a lite sentence'! A good part of this was how much work they put into figuring out who the NPC was before they ever met them. PC's generally connect with NPC's they remember, and making the goal of the adventure finding someone is a good way to make them memorable.

I insisted that players come up with the questions to ask, rather than just rolling against, say... computer operation and finding out everything they needed to know. This was intentional stylistic choice for a cops game. It really helped to bring the world to life -- players cared about the details, and we had lots of fun extrapolating what WOULD be known in a given science fiction situation.  It also helped to keep players involved -- one player usually had the spotlight, but everyone else was thinking of questions they wanted asked. This isn't for every game, but I highly suggest it for a mystery game.

GMing Lessons

This game saw a bit of player drama. And I finally bit the bullet and realized that my job as a GM is NOT about merely presenting adventures, but about balancing personality issues, ensuring that everyone else speaks up, and generally being the social grease. This is not something that I wanted do. I wish I could just play a character called "The world" and present challenges for the players.

I'm glad I bit that bullet. Its helped with the game a lot, and its helped build that camaraderie between players I've always assumed was natural. If you are trying to GM or looking for a GM, you are there as much to help the players get along as you are to present a world. The good news is that gaming culture gives you the tools to make that easy, and it actually hasn't been that much work. It was just essential for me to realize that its my job, no one else will do it, and when you have a grab bag of players off the internet, it needs to be done.

Why didn't I pick this up before? Well, my prior GM experience is either on PbP, which tends to minimize personal issues in favor of the game (typing is much more expensive than talking), or with my relatives. And with the relatives I played with, I'm pretty much the alpha by dint of age and longstanding relationships. And everyone knows each other really well.

I also started keeping track of time this game. It worked really well, added an aspect of management, and helped in organizing NPC actions. I'll probably continue to do it.

The other big lesson was: Play what you want to play. When I started playing on roll20, I intentionally went with 'popular' (meaning common) options with the intent to switch to something I personally wanted more later. I don't think I got more interest with the generic, and I certainly had a lot more. So I'm going to play what I want to play.

This isn't to say that "bad games" don't exist. Many ideas won't be valid, or will require extra out of your players.  Before you go ahead and play, make sure its a good idea that will be fun for everyone. but that has very little to do with setting, and more to do with making sure the focus is still on the players and they can have fun. So from now on, I'm saying goodby to generic and playing in whatever setting I please! (which is not to say that players don't get a say. I've been vetting multiple ideas and giving them a choice first).

Things I enjoyed

I learned that I get tired of playing in the same setting for too long. Last game I played I was all played out by the end. I still needed to finish the mission, and if you're tired of a game, it can really drag. This time I watched for that effect, and ended the campaign before it got old. This let me do a proper ending, and we had a nice 30 minutes at the end where we talked about what happened to each of the characters after the campaign.

The PC's had lots of decisions, and the combination of "you can do anything" and "you're supposed to be doing this" was fun to watch. They tracked down people out of order, caught me by surprise, and completely missed possibilities. This was entertaining to watch in a way that combat just can't match.

It was also really nice to watch players get immersed in the setting, and understand where they were and what the world was like. I think the key was to make those things matter to the plot.

Last of all, and I'll talk about this in a later post, I ran a game with two minor combats that still remained tense and engaging. I don't enjoy slaughter fests, and I consider doing a non-combat-oriented game in real time with multiple players to be a personal success. Ironically, lives WERE at stake. They just weren't decided by who had fancier gun-play.

Things I Could Have Done Better

We had a player than kept notes. It was in many cases a life-saver: we'd start each session by reading the notes that he took and that would usually be enough to jog my memory. I could have kept my private notes better. A GM has a lot that he's doing, but in this case, I think we would have had a stronger game if I had kept more than the most minimal of notes. This became very apparent when our note-keeper couldn't make a session, and we had to remember what happened earlier.

I also have come to the conclusion that player knowledge of numbers matters. Secret rolls may be ominous, but there is a strength to declaring exactly what a PC needs in order to succeed or fail. In some ways hidden rolls can make GMing easier, but I'm realizing its a crutch. Game-play is about making decisions, and without information, there is no decision.  So I'm going to need to work on that.

In Conclusion

I learned a lot, and I enjoyed the campaign. While I pride myself as a setting builder, I'm a newbie GM. I'll soon be putting up info on setting, and a few more thoughts inspired by the campaign.

I hope you can learn from my mistakes.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Seige Crab

Siege Crabs are massive beasts bred, cursed, enchanted, or who knows what else by some wizard as weapons of war. They're actually a fairly practical design if one wishes to take a castle. They look like your typical great hulking monster with too much armor and too little speed, but adventurers not expecting them are in for a few surprises. The first, and this really shouldn't be a surprise, is that while they move from place to place slowly they're quite agile in hand to hand combat. The second is that they climb walls like a much smaller creature. The third, and nastiest, is the reverse missiles spell they generate. Most adventurers will think "Big Slow Ugly" and start shooting at the thing, only to have their attacks fly back in their face.

Seige crabs  are territorial and generally try to drive intruders off. They'll happily munch on the remains of foe, but for the most part they'll leave fleeing intruders alone. They do have an instinct to get to high ground and to assault heavily fortified positions, so Adventurers who think they're safe for the night may find a crabby monster trying to drive them out.

ST30         HP30          Speed7
Dodge      8Parry12DR10
Slice (14): 3d+3 cutting, -1 to defenses. Is considered a grapple against a foe that it hits.
Pound (14): 3d+3 crushing, -1 to defenses.
Traits: Constriction Attack, Reverse missiles Spell, Extra Attack 1, magic resistance 2, 2 strikers (reach 1,C)
Skills: Brawling - 16, Climbing -18,
Class: Dire Animal
Notes: Not Sapient. Seige Crab carpaces can fetch $200 dollars as raw materials, and they have Prothoratic Mana Organs that power the reverse missiles effect. If you can get these out, they're worth $ 1000, but the thaumatology roll is at -2. Its a tricky job! Siege Crab eggs are worth about $100 a piece, but transporting them back requires precautions not to stunt the magic of the creatures (Thaumatology roll), and odds are that half  or more of them are dead already! A successful Naturalist or Thaumatology roll can identify which ones are good and which ones aren't.

But bigger. Much Bigger

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Thoughs on Realm Magic

Realm magic promises simplicity. But requires some GM work. It sometimes feels like a different game. Does it deliver? Is it balanced?

I'm looking at a number of different ways to use realm magic, and comparing it with some of the other systems gurps has.  I have the thought process behind very small magic system I built using the stub of a realm system (phage magic), the skeleton of a much larger system I've used in the past, and thoughts on realm magic on the wing. I also compare realm magic with the standard system and look at how 'Gurpsy' the whole thing is, and how its really at the root of RPM.

Phage Magic

When I built phage magic for Stornuso, I had a very small subset of magic I needed a price for.  In the post I 'estimated the number of realms at 12' and moved on. Here is the actual thought process I used in the estimation:

All of my realms so far were energy based: light, heat, and motion. Rather than come up with every single realm, I figured I'd do the realm of energy and then figure just as many categories in each 'sister' category of energy. I divided up into Energy, Matter, and Mind/knowledge. I felt confident I could put any effect into one of these. Then I tried to think of other categories in energy. At the time, All I came up with was electromagnetism. I debated using life energy, but threw that out. Looking back, I would have done it the other way around, but the point is we had four energy realms, and then two more categories (presumably) the same size gives us a total of 12 realms.

Then I had to decide on levels. I noticed the limits I had placed where that the magic took time, had to happen right next to the mage, and no creation of energy was allowed. That was 3 upgrades that theoretical future levels could give, for a total of four levels. So I decided my 40 point total would be split up into four pieces, and assigned each ability the cost of 10 points each.

Did it deliver? well, it gave me a number, and all things told, the number wasn't that hard to get and it doesn't look unbalanced 

Standard Magic

An interesting comparison is comparing standard magic to realm magic. The standard magic system is divided up into colleges -- 24 of them to be exact. This is well over 12, which means we use 60 x 1/2 = 30 points for each category. 30 points to know every spell in a standard magic college, plus any that may be made up.

That's... actually not too bad. Particularly if we're using the 6 level system the book provides. Its probably a little more expensive than buying all of the spells you actually want individually, but you get the benefit of the doubt on what you can do. And at 5 points per level per realm, character building is looking pretty simple. It also provides us with what is probably better balance than the standard system, with cherry picking spells no longer on the table. Spell energy cost, the primary balancing component of the standard system, remains pretty much the same or exactly the same if you use that option.

Is Realm Magic Still Gurps?

In some ways, realm magic feels like a cop-out to many (including sometimes to me). Gurps has traditionally been about being able to both do everything and retain concrete effects and prices. Gurps is good at the blow by blow detail oriented aspect of gaming. In matters when someone gets punched in the face as opposed kicked in the stomach. So does realm magic betray us with its fluffy 'any effect within this range'?

I'm going to have to say that its very much gurps.  Realm magic still requires discrete, distinct effects. You still pay energy for those effects, and it still takes a distinct amount of time. In fact, RPM, which feels like a gurps-like system, is based in part on realm magic. Actually, the crunchiest part, the building of the cost of a ritual, is the part that takes the most from the rules for realm magic. Does it still sound wimpy and fluffy and narrative-based? It certainly earns its way back.

No, its not as developed as RPM. RPM is a worked example with the realms per-chosen, a lot of options toggled, and with a more robust pricing system, but it still has as one of two main roots realm magic. The great difference between RPM and proper realm magic using energy gathering is that you don't pay for the realms, but the skills are harder than you'd expect and quite difficult to raise. Which means that RPM is generally more finicky about balance than proper realm magic. So if you love RPM, at least go back, look at the realms, and see if it doesn't change the way you feel about one system or the other.

As for whether crunch means gurps, no it doesn't. Its not the powers system, but only one powers system really is, or two if you count sorcery seperate from magic as powers. And realms gives you all you need to build a much more complex system.

Techno Magic

When I first got Thaumatology, I was exploring gurps and I somehow got the feeling that the technomancer setting should use the standard magic system. Yes, I know, I maligned the poor system and tried to replace in in an area where it was literally the base of the setting. And I got my hands on realm magic.  Actually, I was pointed towards it by Faolyn on the GURPS Forum.

I had three types of realms:
Energy: Heat, Motion, Electromagnetism, Fuel, Mana, Life
Matter: Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, Metal, Synthetic, Elemental
Thought: Mind, Computer, Demon, Measurement, Meta-Magic

I forbade prediction of the future and creation, added magery ability that decreased distance costs, built some tables for converting between various forms of energy and the various difficulties of doing different things, and so forth. I ended up with the following costs:

magery (raw power): [5/level]
energy : [4/level]
matter : [4/level]
Intellect Magic: [3/level]
Measurement Magic: [3/level]
Meta Magic: [7.5/level]

I've used it in various places, and it feels modern, complex, and reasonably balanced. The thread where I did it is here, though I may do a proper write up in the future.

Just Winging It

Recently I saw a thread on how to stat up stone-age gods without everything getting too complicated. It was suggested to just use realm magic. My first thought was 'that sounds perfect'! The person actually running the game shied away from using it, but its still worth considering realm magic when building fast and loose characters.

I've never actually run or played a game where that happened. But it sounds like something that would work really well. The biggest problem is figuring out the right point cost for realms. You don't have time to figure out the entirety of the realm system, because you're winging it. Estimate the size of the realm, and then think about how forgiving the realm is. In some cases its helpful to think in terms of colleges from magic. Is the realm bigger than a college? how about 4 colleges? remember that colleges usually overlap. If the realm includes transmutations or effects that would be cross college, you may need to expand your estimate. When you have your estimate, divide 24 by that number and you have a number of realms to base the price on.

Did it Deliver?

We've looked at 4 different ways realm magic can be done. Were they simple? I would say they're simple enough. More to the point, they did things no other system let us do. Just as they give flexible effects, they also give a flexible set of parameters to work with. At the same time, they're at least as balanced as standard magic or RPM ... and probably more so. These aren't exactly the Gold standard for balance in gurps, but they are "good enough". And when you get down to the details, yes! this is gurps. Stats in real numbers, point costs, and oodles of customization.

So Why Don't People Use it More?

I would say simply because its in the least accessible part of a very dense (but awesome book). I did not pick up on realm magic the first time I read it. I was too excited about threshold magic, book/path magic, and ritual magic and too disinterested in noun-verb magic to really soak in this system. Which is really a gem. Its rules are worth getting to know, quite simple, and quite flexible. Most interestingly, its generic. The only system that comes as close in customization to it is the powers system.

Another reason it doesn't get used as much is because its a terrible source of inspiration: it needs an idea before it becomes useful. While it adapts well to source material, its poor source material itself. This is in contrast many of the per-existing flavor-rich systems gurps can offer. This is a feature -- because of this it can handle lot more source material, but be aware going in that you need to provide fluff and setting. 

So next time you need a magic system, ask your self if realm magic will work. You may be pleasantly surprised by the answer.