Friday, November 1, 2013

The Big E

I've already taken a few posts to talk about approaching alignments among the player characters and their world, but what about supernatural alignment?

While the Rifts setting has lots of room for moral grey, there's also been tons and tons of big, black evil. Supernatural Evil. Cosmic Evil. The Big E.

Which is something that has never really sat well with me. For one thing, Supernatural Evil has always struck me as "evil for evil's sake," or "mustache-twirling evil," the sort of thing that works on Saturday morning cartoons but doesn't really hold up under inspection. If your villain every says anything remotely like "I love being bad!" I'm going to have a hard time respecting them.

That's how I see most of the Evil Intelligences of the Rifts setting. Some of the things they do in pursuit of evil are cool, but their sole reason for doing anything is to be evil and show everyone how evil they are. I'm not trying to suggest that every Evil Intelligence has to have a tragic backstory. Just that they have goals and motivations that are understandable.

(Yeah, I know the Evil Intelligences are supposed to be from dimensions beyond our understanding. Then why are they all inherently evil? Why not just let them be amoral, adhering to moral codes that are, like themselves, beyond our understanding? They can still be horrible and destructive, but they do it because they don't care or don't appreciate what it is they're destroying. Which is actually how I understand Lovecraftian cosmic horror to work.)

The other thing about supernatural evil is that it implies the existence of supernatural good, which is notably missing from the Rifts multiverse. I admit to not having every Rifts book, but what I do have features a good number of demons and deevils (Which always makes me chuckle. I'm sure it started as a typo, but then it probably became an excuse to tell the Religious Right "See? Our game has deevils, not devils!") and I'm having a hard time spotting anything resembling a good divine entity.

I've got Dragons & Gods for Palladium Fantasy, which does cover both good and evil dieties in the Palladium Fantasy setting. But in terms of divine servitors (being more likely to interact directly with mortals), demons and deevils again dominate.

There are a couple of understandable reasons for this that I can think of.

1) The PCs are supposed to be the heroes. If supernatural good were as powerful as supernatural evil, there would be little need for the PCs to go rushing off to thwart demonic schemes.

2) God is supposed to be a mystery in the "Real World." Fantasy worlds can have fantasy gods out the wazoo (and many do), but once you start encroaching on the real world (like far future Rifts Earth), talk of dieties goes vague, quiet, or both. This is probably a holdover from the Satanic Panic of the 80's, but it does also respect the potentially deeply held beliefs of some players.

Even though it has its reasons, it still has the ability to rub me the wrong way. Like the Coalition War. One of the justifications for the Coalition winning over Tolkeen is that Tolkeen summoned demons and was therefore morally corrupt. The problem is that they didn't have much choice. Not just in the "needed big fighting power quickly" sort of way, but also because they never had the option to summon good creatures, or even neutral entities to fight for them.

All of this does bring up the question of how supernatural good and evil will be presented in the BTR setting.

Gods: Are there gods in the setting? Are they gods that we know about and have worshipped on Earth? Do they grant divine powers of any kind? Or do we go with something a bit more "ancient astronauts"? i.e There are entities out there that inspired our myths and legends, but they're not exactly as advertised.

Angels, Demons, and Elementals: What sort of spirits and entities exist in the setting? Can they be summoned by magic? Where do they live when they're not in normal space? Do they have an inherent morality to them? Why? What are their goals and motivations?

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Getting a Re-Alignment

My last post on alignments got some interesting comments that got me thinking. Which is good. I want a well-thought out system.

So what does a good alignment system need?

1) It should be descriptive, not proscriptive. That is, it should represent what a character actually is or does rather than what they should or shouldn't be. And there's nothing to D&D's alignment system that really forces it to be one way or the other. It's just that all of the horror stories of gaming paint alignment as a tiny inflexible box that your character has to live in.

2) It should include a carrot more than a stick. Rather than punishing players for breaking alignments, reward them for sticking to them. FATE's Aspects and Burning Wheel's Beliefs, Instincts and Traits do this by awarding the player with a metagame cookie when they stick by their statements.

3) The carrot should not be exclusive to the metagame. One of the hallmarks of an old school game is that there is very little separation between the meta-level (where the players and GM are playing a game) and the narrative level (where the characters live). Some games have even gone so far as to incorporate ideas like classes and levels in ways that lets players talk about them in-character.

4) It should be open to change. One of the things with my media examples from my last alignment post was that they demonstrated a character growing and stretching outside their particular alignment "box" without shattering it completely. So an ideal alignment system should allow us to see characters grow and change in outlook as they're also growing in power.

In the comments on that post, Tedankhamen mentioned the Stormbringer RPG, which I happen to have on my shelf. It fits all the criteria listed above. Rather than telling the player what they can or cannot do, the Stormbringer rules instead provide something of a journal of their accomplishments. By courting one Power over another, characters gain cool abilities from that Power. And these Powers exist in the universe presented in the setting, so the mechanic is not meta at all.

The only downside to the mechanic is that it is functionally overseen by the gods of the setting (as played by the GM). I'm not planning for there to be major divine influences in the BTR setting (though the possibility does intrigue me), so I'm probably looking for something a little more mundane.

I'm thinking of a reputation mechanic. But not just a simple measure of fame or infamy. When you advance your reputation, you create one or more narratives about yourself. I might go with specific categories of reputation, or I might allow players to choose epithets for themselves (i.e. Choose between being Sir Robin the Brave, Sir Robin the Coward, or Sir Robin the Terrible). I kind of like the epithet thing because it would encourage player to make their reputations simple, clear and punchy.

Just like everything else in the system, make it percentile based. So if you have 1 reputation point, you have a 1% chance of being recognized, and it will be for whatever you got your reputation point for. If you have, say, 10 points being "Sir Robin the Brave" and 10 points of being "Sir Robin the Terrible", you have a 10% chance of being known for bravery and a 10% chance of being known for atrocities. To make it a little smoother and quicker, let's build a little reputation "mini-table": 1-10 "Brave" 11-20 "Terrible" 21-00 No recognition.

But what happens if you get 100 point of reputation? In that case, it seems that everyone has heard about something you've done. What happens if you're at 100 and you do something else awesome? In that case, whatever reputation you earn "squeezes out" a point of some other reputation. So if you picked up some "Coward" reputation early in your career, you can apply a newly earned point of "Brave" to increase your "Brave" total and reduce your "Coward" total so everything stays at 100 points total.

What do you think?

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Classes and Stuff

I'm looking over my Rifts Core book (The original, not the Ultimate Edition) trying to get a sense of how the classes are balanced. And I'm realizing that there are some interesting balancing factors involved.

One of them that is of particular interest to me is the use of stuff as a balancing factor, as in having classes that are designed around items. The Glitter Boy is an obvious example, as the primary feature of the class is the unique and special Glitter Boy powered armor. Juicers and Crazies are also in this category, as their powers are more or less purchased.

On the one hand, this sort of thing doesn't seem worthy of a class. There's nothing that really says "This is my guy and this is what he does." But if you want to prevent players from piling stuff onto their characters, putting them in mutually exclusive classes is an effective way to do it.

I'm designing BTR to be a classless game, so the ability to incorporate that sort of pigeonholing is rather limited. So how do I go about letting one guy be the big mecha guy without letting everyone be the big mecha guy?

1) Money. Even if the options aren't mechanically mutually exclusive doesn't mean that players really can have them all. Your starting money might be enough to purchase a badass set of power armor or the Juicer upgrades, but not both. Or you can be a dude with a really big gun, or a Crazy with a smaller gun.

2) Make it part of their character. Even though all this stuff is technically gear, it is also part of the character. So find a way to give it a cost in terms of character ability, skill picks or whatnot. While there's a temptation to make this a generic rule (trade x skill picks for y credits), I think it should be reserved for specific cases. Just to prevent a player who trades in all of their skill picks for gear, tools and computer-assisted systems that compensate for their lack of ability in any area. Also, what items can be acquired with skill picks should set up the flavor and feel of the setting.

On the subject of power armor and mecha, one thing that's bugged me with the current Rifts system is that there's no system for creating your own mecha. I'm not saying you can't. I'm not saying people haven't. I'm just saying that there's no system for it

To my understanding, that makes it unique in the mecha genre. While a mecha RPG will generally include some "standard designs" that are intended to mesh well with the setting and get you playing faster, the rules that were used to create that design can usually be found in that book.

But this is par for the course when it comes to Palladium. Whenever stats for something are needed, they are generally pulled out of thin air. While there may be some attempt at internal consistency ("This thing is tougher than a Glitter Boy, so make sure it has more MDC than that."), it's never really consistent.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

If You Have No Use For Alignments...

...then I have no use for you.

This is not really a discussion about alignment systems or other personality mechanics. It's about the people who think they don't need them. "Alignments are for people who don't know how to roleplay" and all that twaddle.

Because I think what those players are really trying to avoid is accountability. They don't want to be bound to any hard and fast rule about who their character is. Maybe it's so they can freely crap all over their GM's world. Or maybe they want to be open to whatever plot hook the GM throws their way.

But by avoiding making statements about your character's inner life, you lose a lot of opportunities to actually roleplay. Even if alignment is a straightjacket, the character always keeps a key under their tongue. It's the moments that you break your alignment that make the game interesting.

A prime example is the movie "Hot Fuzz". Simon Pegg's character is a by-the-book "supercop". Since we're talking alignment here, it's fair to call him "lawful good."

The turning point of the entire film is the point when he realizes that his alignment was holding him back and the only way to beat the bad guys is not with paperwork and warrants, but good, old-fashioned, cliche-ridden violence.

For a slightly more geeky example, look at the Original Series Star Trek episode "The Galileo Seven." Spock, a Vulcan, and therefore eminently logical, leads the crew of the shuttlecraft Galileo as they try to escape the planet that they have crashed on. By the time they are able to repair the Galileo and achieve a weak orbit around the planet, the Enterprise is forced to leave the star system on another mission. Spock then comes to the logical conclusion that he must do something desperate if he wants to get back to the Enterprise, so he ignites the remaining fuel to act as a flare that Kirk can see.

In both cases, the defining moments of these stories are not when the main character plays strictly to type, but the moments that they realize that they need to break out of their boxes in order to reach their larger goals. And that's what alignment and similar mechanics can enable in your game if you let it.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Skeleton of the System

I've been away for a while, but I'm still alive, I still exist, and I'm still thinking of things.

Some people have been wondering what sort of progress I'm making on the system and how far I've gotten. So here's an overview of the decisions that I've made so far and some of the decisions that I still need to make on this project.


A character will have 8 Attributes: Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Speed, Intelligence, Wisdom, Charm and Savvy, rated on a scale of 1-30. Players can roll 3d10 8 times to generate them, though I think a point buy method should also be available.

Skills & Milestones

Starting characters will start with 10-15 skill picks. Each pick gives a 10% bonus to a skill. Skills are based directly on stats now, so putting a pick into a skill means you start with stat + 10% in the skill. You can put multiple picks into a single skill.

Skills improve by being used. Every time you fail a skill roll, you get a skill point. 5 skill points raise your skill by 1%. So skills will grow quickly, then reach a plateau.

I don't have a skill list in mind, because a lot of how things will work will depend on how nicely it plays with the milestone system. You see, every time you gain 10% in a skill, you get a milestone, which is basically a D&D-style feat. (Even the first 10%, so a starting character will get a milestone with each skill pick they put into a skill.) So every skill needs hooks for milestones; It needs somewhere to go. Skills that don't go anyplace will usually find themselves merged with other skills until there are enough milestones to make it interesting.

There will probably be quite a few combat skills, because there are lots of places to go with combat. but science skills will probably be squished into relatively few skills, with specialties being represented by milestones.

One of the challenges of designing the milestones is that I want to keep things from being too artificial. I want players to be able to say "I want to do X" and not have the GM point to some milestone and says "You can't, you don't have the milestone." In some cases that's appropriate. For things like magic and stuff. But if a character wants to try something wacky and difficult, but physically possible, let them try. Maybe put in milestones to make things easier, but avoid creating the idea that "you must be this tall to ride this ride" where it doesn't belong.

Magic & Psionics

I've mentioned before that I want magic to be specialized, while psionics will be crude and powerful. Here's how I plan on implementing that.

Lets say you have the Telekinesis skill. The basic power would be, let's say, spend 1 Magic Point (As I've explained earlier, magic and psionics are the same force with different applications) to lift 1 pound for 1 turn. The next time you pick a milestone, you can increase the amount you can lift or the duration, or some other factor. A maxed out telekinetic might be able to lift tons, carry the weight all day, or make 10 objects dance around each other and pick your pocket without looking. Or some combination of this.

The typical magical skill is a "spellbook"; A list of thematically linked spells. A character can cast every spell in a spellbook they know using that spellbook's skill. Depending on the complexity of the spell, this roll will have a penalty (a Light spell might have a -10% penalty, but a bigger spell might have a -50% or even more). The default milestone will allow you to buy off this penalty for specific spells, so even if two casters have the same spellbook, they can be focused in different spells (Not sure if this will also give you more Magic Points, or if that will be a separate milestone). If you put an extra 10% penalty cancellation (it never turns into a bonus) the spell can be cast with no roll at all. (Since spells in Palladium are cast without a roll, I wanted that as an option, but it still had to engage with the advancement mechanic in order to, you know, advance.)


Most of my thoughts on the mechanics of combat are here. The big wrinkles to sort out are armor and damage scaling (AKA Mega-Damage).

One of the few mechanics that I genuinely like from the Palladium system is how SDC works for armor. It not only added a dose of realism to the system (as compared to D&D anyway) in that armor will not last indefinitely. Attacks that don't beat your armor's AR are held against your armor's SDC until it is gone. Puny little goblins who keep attacking your armor are eventually going to get through to the creamy nougat center that is your hit points. This also made for interesting decisions on the part of a player. "I know this attack isn't going to get through my armor, but should I try to parry or dodge in order to protect my armor's SDC?"

The problem that comes with Rifts is that there's no longer the choice between hit points and armor. Unless you're a Juicer, your hit points will never survive a MD hit. So your armor is your life. So once you hit MDC scale, it seems like your character's gear matters more than the character does. Unless your character picks the right race or class to become innately MDC, at which point it becomes a slightly different arms race, but still an arms race.

Technology and Setting

One of the main things I want out of both the setting and the technology is that they be livable. Rifts Earth as it stands is designed for the convenience of wandering adventurers. The GM trying to run a "stationary" campaign, where the characters have jobs, obligations and roots has their work cut out for them. I want a setting that not only allows for, but encourages a number of approaches.

In terms of technology, I'd like to do a little more extrapolation regarding how the various cool technologies interact with the world. Atomic Ray guns and jet packs are cool, but what about atomic toasters? One of the things that I feel is important in a sci-fi setting is defining what "normal" means. That's how you measure exactly how awesome something really is. If everyone in the setting dressed like they were in an '80's hair metal band, it's Mr Suit who is shockingly different.

I know I've made some posts about a Magical Space setting, and I am planning on using it, but the universe is a pretty big place. Do I put my focus on space itself, making it a fantasy space opera? Or focus on a frontier world with a more Old West feel? Or do I go to one of the homeworlds of one of the races, humans elves, or whatever else I come up with?

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Magic and Science

One of the things that makes talking about science and magic and how they interact is that people often mean different things when they say "science." For the most part, they're talking about 3 different things which I will call Science, Technology, and Physics. The words may not be technically accurate, but they'll do for discussion purposes.

Science: By Science, I am not referring to our bulk of scientific knowledge (that's covered in the other two areas), but instead the scientific method. The method of poking and prodding at some phenomena or other in order to learn more about the universe we live in.

Technology: Technology is specifically the plethora of devices that we create utilizing scientific principles. From the electric can opener to the Large Hadron Collider, this is what I'm talking about.

Physics: By Physics, I'm referring to the physical laws of the universe and how we perceive the physical world to work.

For the most part, I believe that magic should respond to Science. Even if it doesn't bow to the same physical laws, it does follow some rules. Especially if we are trying to encapsulate it in game rules. If magic doesn't make sense, or is overly capricious, no player would ever use it.

Magic does not have a special relationship with Technology, anymore than it does Science. Some designers and novelists like to invoke the idea that magic and technology are not compatible, having one or the other start to fizzle out in the presence of the other. Usually magic frying technology, but I have seen instances of magic fading in the presence of technology. But I don't see a strong need to reinforce this. One of the fun parts of a gonzo setting is taking all the varying bits and seeing how they fit together.

Magic and Physics are where things get tricky. Especially when finicky players try to incorporate their knowledge (or at least strong opinions) about Physics in order to get some extra effect out of a spell. Ultimately, I want to design the magic rules for BTR so that they will stand up to that kind of scrutiny, while at the same time allowing for the Roger Rabbit Effect ("Do you mean to tell me that you could have slipped out of that cuff at any time?" "Not at any time! Only when it was funny!").

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Spock Effect

Sean "Dr. Kromm" Punch coined the term "The Spock Effect" while discussing the psionics rules for GURPS. Specifically, his reasoning for the significant revisions to those rules for the 4th edition of GURPS.

The Spock Effect, bluntly put, is when a character or character type has significant abilities or powers that are supposed to be balanced by behavior restrictions or other elements of characterization. While it works fine in a story, it tends to be a real pain in a game. Because all the upsides are things that show up on a character sheet as things that a player can use (and expects to be able to use) while the downsides of the character type generally don't show up on a character sheet at all. (While GURPS actually gives points back for taking a mental or social disadvantage, none were required to use psionics in previous editions. So the balancing elements that they were relying on didn't really exist.)

The standard fantasy paladin is actually a good example of this. Lots of cool powers predicated on the character maintaining a particular alignment. And we've all heard the stories of the player of the murderous and otherwise evil paladin, who wanted all of the power but none of the responsibilities of being a paladin.

A couple of the major character types in Rifts also grant awesome power with some fairly minor or avoidable costs. Juicers are a pretty good example of this. Incredible physical abilities balanced by a fairly limited lifespan. I wonder if anyone has ever actually had a Juicer character end up dying of natural causes. Between GMs that might not keep strict calendars, campaigns that don't last that long, or all of the other things that are trying to kill you on Rifts Earth, I can easily see this 5 year limit as no big deal.

Dragons are another example of this sort of not-really-limited power. As near as I can tease out, the primary restrictions on dragon characters are that they are supposed to be really young and therefore played with a touch of naivete, and also the fact that the Coalition is anti-magic and even in human form a dragon would set off all sorts of magic detectors.

Here's what I'm looking for from the peanut gallery: Are these "soft" downsides actually useful in your campaign? Any horror stories of characters ignoring the restrictions and running roughshod over your campaigns? Have you strengthened any of these restrictions to give them more weight (I read somewhere about a GM who required Juicer characters to have to continually replenish their drug supplies)? Or you ignore them entirely with no ill effect on your game at all?