Saturday, August 24, 2013

Playerwoes: Why I Don't Reroll an Imperfect Character

I believe there is a sort of maturity that comes with extensive playing of tabletop RPGs, a hard-learned lesson that players more familiar with computer/console games needs to learn before they truly enjoy themselves in true roleplaying.  Something even I've only recently grasped.
Tabletop RPGs are designed to allow you to create an avatar for yourself, unfortunately there is often the assumption that this avatar is a perfect creation, even when dice rolls dictate otherwise.  I mean, it makes sense.  Why would you want to pretend to be a fallible being in a fantastic setting?  We've all read books or watched movies where the main character never loses, or at least never loses for long.  And in games, the only time the player loses canonically is when control is stripped from us.
In Final Fantasy VII, any time a party member dies, you can use an item called a Phoenix Down to resurrect them.  Unfortunately, you're unable to do this very simple, system-canon approach when Aeris is killed.  Every other time, you are in control, and you win.
Tabletop RPGs are different, though.  Because they depend on dice rolls and chance instead of automatic success or infinite retries, you can never make a character that can hit a target at one hundred paces, one hundred percent of the time.  Your expert marksman will, eventually fail horribly.  He'll also likely be terrible at other things.  Those skills he attained to become a crack shot mean nothing in delicate social situations, where saying the wrong thing could have far worse repercussions than missing a target at a competition.  Your circus strongman will not be able to make heads nor toes of the Dewey decimal system.  But those are to be expected.  What isn't expected, when you make this character, is that the marksman will miss, or the strongman will be unable to lift something, or that the mathematical genius will be unable to figure out a simple Sudoku-style puzzle that is locking a door.
Let me tell you the story of Sir Blaen of the Pendragon RPG.  Sir Blaen was an able horseman, strong with the lance, better at hunting.  He 'graduated' into knighthood, assumed control of his heritage household, and was sent to various tourneys, where he was utterly trounced in the joust.  After perhaps ten to twelve sessions of playing as Sir Blaen, he ended up having the absolute worst tourney record in the game setting.  Sir Blaen is the type of cursed character that would have failed in a joust against a small child armed with a piece of driftwood and a toothpick, seated on a rocking chair.  He was routinely trounced in the melee, and in his only duel he lost all will to fight before his opponent had even drawn his sword.
Sir Blaen was a knight of constant sorrow, is what I'm saying, and I occasionally had a horrible time playing him, because when I created him I was envisioning a master horseman, unparallelled with the lance.  He could track a hawk on a cloudy day, if he could only roll well enough to.
Which brings us to the issue.
With dice rolling, there is no 100% success rate.  No one stays on their horse 10 out of 10 times at the lists.  That gallant knight I created, ended up being covered in shame (and likely horseshit) by the time our campaign finished.  The times I arrived for the game, I came for the story, because I knew what would happen with Sir Blaen.  He would fail, and I wouldn't have any enjoyment from his failing, because I desperately wanted him not to.
This hope was different than other types of hoping for good rolls.  Occasionally there will be something important in a game, and you'll need to roll.  And you'll want that roll to succeed.  Imagine arriving to a game, and rolling, and hoping that any roll will succeed.  Sir Blaen was a fun character, and I got some enjoyment out of roleplaying just how much of a failure he really was, but I still wanted him to win, because that is what I created him to do.
Let's talk about another character now.  A portly, dorky, uncoordinated virgin named Jordan Antimonius Baxter of the Solar Patrol.  Jordan was born-or created, if you will-to be an utter failure.  His back-story set him as a middle child of a military family, underachieving in his life, and being a disappointment to a father who, in desperation, sent him out to die in the Solar Patrol.  As a black sheep, I had no expectations for Jordan to succeed consistently.  In fact, I had set up his character in such a way that I deemed it a success every time he lived to the end of a play session.
His occasional successes suddenly became points of pride for me.  Every time he failed to fail at a task, I was enjoying myself.  Every time he failed, I enjoyed myself, because the dice were roleplaying to the character.  This character was an absolute success for me, because I never expected him to succeed.  My conceptions about him colored the bad rolls and skill checks in an understanding light, and every time he exceeded my expectations I felt like I was watching a Mighty Ducks film.
However, neither of these characters was ideal to play.  First of all, no one wants an aspiring loser like Blaen as their character, or even a whole party of Blaens.  And likewise, no one wants an entire party of Jordans.  Or an entire party of Eeyores.  Or Chris Farleys.
With characters like Blaen and Jordan, you never get your hopes up during play.  You're always expecting failure, and being "pleasantly surprised" when you get success instead.  Gameplay needs tension, and risks, and that hope that this dice roll will succeed.
There needs to be a balance, not just in dice rolls, and not just in character traits, but in the player's perception of his character.  Perfection is, without cheating, impossible in tabletop games.  Therefore, creating a character that is meant to be perfect is an exercise in self-induced slow burn insanity.
Instead, think about creating characters with realistic flaws, similar to what exists in the real world.  You'll be better off for it, I think.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Call of Cthulhu 7th Ed. Quickstart: A Listed Preamble

Having just received Chaosium's 7E Call of Cthulhu Quickstart rules, I've been reading through them in order to see the modifications* to the system.  Thus far, things feel very familiar, but there are some distinct modifications to the formula, which may result in improvements or disappointment.  I'll go through a few of them here, giving my first impressions as a Keeper, without having run anything on the revised rule system yet.
*Note that these are Quickstart rules, and as such, any modifications are subject to the same revisions that Call of Cthulhu's 6E Quickstart experienced.

Putting the Focus on Percentages. (Mixed)

The first thing I looked at in the Quickstart was the new Investigator Sheet.  On it, what popped out to me immediately was the way that skill and characteristic entries were spit into three parts, a larger section for an entry, then two more to its immediate right, split into two, one stacked on top of the other.  Essentially, everything is now focused on a starting percentage, then half that, then 1/5.  Those familiar with BRP know that success with rolls traditionally falls into three categories:
a) Regular Successes (Less than or equal to skill percentage)
b) Impale (Less than or equal to one-fifth of skill percentage)
c) Critical Success (01 showing on the dice)
This revision means that we're focusing on difficulty of skill challenges, rather than level of success.  A hard skill check is usually one made at halved ability.  An difficult skill check is one made at 1/5 ability.
What this means for veteran BRP players, is that when you create an investigator, he will no longer have a STR of 3-18.  It will now be a STR between 15 and 90.  When someone asks me, as a keeper, how attractive a character is, I'll have to respond, "Oh, he/she is an APP 75, rather than an APP 15."  I'm of two minds about this.  Obviously, the higher number really only has to do with skill checks, which makes things a bit easier on the player end, as they no longer have to know what an Effort roll, or a Stamina roll, or an Agility roll is.  I can just ask for regular DEX rolls, and they already have that percentage without multiplying by 5.
On the other hand, I'm really going to miss rolling a 3d6 in front of players and saying, casually, "Oh, she's an APP 18.  You all now have the hots for this random, smelly, beggar woman in the street you've been accosting."  I now have to multiply that by five.  I just don't like it.  Though, I may just modify it to fit my own ends.  An APP 18 is basically a 9/10.  Which works out semi-well.  Still.  On the fence.  Mechanically it works well.  For flow...I'll have to see.
From the look of the investigator sheet, this focus on the three numbers is not likely to change, however, I'm hoping they reinstate rolling for characteristics, as it adds a more intimate thought process in creating investigators.  It's likely, though, that they will stick with choosing starting percentages and add rolling as an alternate form of CharGen.

Additional dice for rolls (Approve)

As something that was described to me months prior to this release, I was very excited to see how the mechanic developed.  I'm happy to see that things haven't changed.  Essentially it is an evolution of the d100 dice roll mechanic, this time including bonuses for player ingenuity or lack thereof.
Essentially, if an investigator needs to make a skill or characteristic roll and their player has set up a way to give them some kind of advantage, they are given an extra 'tens' die as an advantage die to roll along with their standard skill roll.  The player is then able to choose the lower dice roll from the two 'tens' dice.
Of course, along with advantage dice, there are also disadvantage dice.  If an investigator is experiencing a situation where they would be handicapped somehow in their actions, an additional 'tens' die is rolled, and the player must now choose the higher 'tens' die.
I'm a fan of this mechanic for a few reasons, but primarily it encourages players to strategize beyond "I shoot this guy," or "I interrogate this woman."  It adds incentive for gameplay beyond dice rolling for the storyteller players, while incentivizing hardcore dice-rollers with a bonus should they try to think around corners or outside the box.
It's also ambiguous whether or not a player can roll multiple advantage or disadvantage dice at once, but for Call of Cthulhu, I'm seeing a likelihood of multiple disadvantage dice.  I'm looking forward to them, personally.

Faster combat (Approve)

The most surprising aspect of the 7th Edition rules update is the way combat is being streamlined.  The DEX system is still in effect, even the way it's now utterly bloated by changing DEX ranks to reflect your percentagized Dexterity, rather than the standard lower numbers.  This, however is an easy homebrew fix.  No, what I'm loving about this update is the way that combat exchanges have evolved.
It used to work that each turn you were attacked, you had a chance to dodge the attack.  Now, you can either attempt a dodge, thus avoiding the attack entirely, or a counterattack which, if successful, negates any damage that would be dealt to you and deals damage to your attacker.  There are some issues with this, specifically that most players will now utterly ignore the dodge skill in favor of their chosen combat skill.  It seems like there needs to be some sort of incentive to avoid attacks entirely, rather than simply parry/counter all the time.
I can see this becoming an issue more in combat-heavy BRP games rather than Call of Cthulhu, but it is definitely something that needs to be addressed.  It's also ambiguous if the counter ability is a hand-to-hand option only or is applicable to long-range/firearm attacks as well.  The way it looks right now, it's something that is going to be one of the most house-ruled new options being presented in this update.  It's also something I'm going to test tonight in my BRP game, because it has the ability to speed combat up drastically, which is something I am always 100% in favor of.

Revisions to Luck (Mixed)

The Luck roll has become one of the most popular mechanics in Call of Cthulhu, appearing in a multitude of scenarios, and is one of the most important rolls to make in the game, along with Sanity, Spot Hidden, and Dodge.  The way things have changed, is that Luck is no longer based off a character's POW attribute.  It is rolled at the end of investigator generation, a [3d6]x5 roll, creating a percentage that is recorded much like SAN in previous iterations of Call of Cthulhu.  On the positive side, this serves to create a variation between characters, in the sense that a high POW investigator can now be unlucky or lucky, a decision before which made every veteran player interested in survivability choose POW as their highest attribute, as it was indeed, and with no pun intended, overPOWered.  Ouch.
My only issue with this, thus far, is that while Luck is now recorded like SAN, the Quick-Start rules do not list ways for Luck to be reduced, only used.  This seems like a significant oversight on Chaosium's part, as Keepers now have to homebrew rules for Luck reduction, as well as having the option to give off Luck rewards at the end of campaigns as well as SAN rewards.

Credit Rating and Income Elimination (Approve)

Compared to Luck, in most of my Call of Cthulhu games, a Credit Rating check almost never occurred, despite many of the games occurring in the 1890's/1920's settings.  Most players simply rolled exceptionally well on their income d10 and ignored Credit Rating.  It seems now that the two have merged in a beautiful, synergistic way listed on the left.
I'm unsure how the actual rulebook will associate dollar values with this table, but most of the time, players ignored their numerated cash in favor of their wealth levels, anyway.  I think that looking at it this way, giving players the option to choose their wealth level through skill points, rather than blind luck, is a more meaningful choice.  Adding it to class skills is another good move.  Do you want to be a better Author/Professor/Scientist, or do you want to sacrifice some of your initial skill for wealth and recognition?  It's just another way of forcing potentially unconscious players into making informed choices in investigator creation, which is always a plus in my book, as it adds to immersion, and puts stories in the player's head.
Why does my policeman have a 60% in Credit rating but only a 20% in Law?  Oh, it's because he's crooked as all hell.

Going Crazy (Approve)

Ah yes, the ultimate destination of any investigator: the loony-bin.  The overall mechanics have changed very little, and it's likely we'll see a return of the d10 Temporary Insanity chart with the official rulebook release, but I'm liking the concept of what the Quick-Start rules have written down.  When a investigator suffers 5 or more Sanity Point losses at once, he is given a temporary insanity in 6E.  A d10 was rolled, and the investigator had to act out how they went crazy.  The problem with this was that players never wanted their avatars to do something suicidal or too dangerous with this roleplaying.  Now, the Keeper takes control of the investigator for a certain period of time, acting out the insanity.
At the same time the system has been streamlined by possibly eliminating the 1/5 sanity loss - indefinite insanity ruling.  Now, whenever you suffer a temporary insanity, you gain a phobia.  These will obviously stack, and I'm looking forward to homebrewing a tic system where multiple phobias of the same type stack to give investigators extra disadvantages while exposed to their fears.  This will hopefully eliminate some of the scrambling through rulebooks my group experiences when dealing with insanity.


Obviously a Quick-Start guide can't be all-inclusive: that's what a Core book is for.  However, there are some aspects of Call of Cthulhu I'm hoping experienced some modifications.  The Magic system, for one.  It's pretty bloated as-is, and hopefully some of the streamlining taking place in 7E will carry over.  A better listing of Mythos Tomes is also something I could stand to see.  The bestiary can pretty much carry over, it's got a good system already, but I'm guessing it will see a similar revision to its numbering system as the investigator sheets are.  Lastly, I'm hoping to see a new Scenario at the back of 7E.  The Quick-Start has the Haunting, a solid Call of Cthulhu introductory game that has been a series staple, but I definitely want to have some fresh meat in the new book.
Overall, I'm definitely looking forward to the updated rules, and I'm going to see how some of them play tonight in a non-Call of Cthulhu setting.