Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Fantastic Racism

One of the issues that has plagued the Palladium system has been balance between the races. Well, balance in general, but we're taking baby steps here.

For the most part, races seem to be either overwhelming or underwhelming compared to humans, with very few of them hitting that sweet spot of simply being whelming. Overwhelming is practically a Rifts trademark. Underwhelming is generally the province of Palladium Fantasy, but it does have some exceptions.

As I'm designing BTR, the question comes up: How do I balance races against each other?

Balance everything against humans: Since most of our real life experience has to do with humans, this is the "default" race in most games. So fantasy and alien races are often compared against that standard. Under this scheme, most of the races will only have an advantage over humans if they have some balancing detriment.

Balance humans against everything else: This is the route that most modern versions of D&D use. Every race gets something cool, even humans. The downside is that this requires that humans get something. But while the bonuses that elves get are intended to make them feel more "elvish", it's damned difficult to come up with bonuses to make humans cool. Because there's that need to treat them as "generic" so whatever they get has to be completely flavorless.

Give the races a cost: Many point-based systems do this. Being human costs 0 points, while other races must pay for their abilities. So non-humans will have abilities or bonuses specific to their kinds, humans have the advantage of spending all of their points on personal abilities.

Palladium has currently given little thought to balancing humans against other races. It's not as bad in Palladium Fantasy, where the bonuses that the other races get are not so overwhelming, but it can still be an issue. In old school D&D, humans could take any class and ascend to the maximum level within that class, while non-humans were limited in classes and levels. When Palladium Fantasy did away with these restrictions (which many people considered an improvement), they failed to offer another way to make humans a compelling choice for PCs, leaving them somewhat behind the curve.

Rifts does try to make humans a compelling choice, but does so in a rather ham-handed way. The Coalition's paranoia regarding non-humans and supernatural powers means that anytime your party has to do business with the Coalition, they have to send in the human. So in order to make humans a compelling choice for players throughout Rifts Earth, the Coalition has to be everywhere. (It also makes sure that your money is good wherever you go) Which is one of the most unrealistic elements of the setting: The idea that this upstart government in this post-apocalyptic world has such a vast influence.

My current plan is actually "A little from Column A and a little from Column B". Each race will have a modest set of bonuses at character creation, and will also have advancement options to give more flavor to their race. Race specific milestones, spell lists, and such.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

It's The Little Things That Matter

The good news is: it seems that I am able to resume my monthly schedule.

The bad news is: That means that I'm going to have to start coming up with some actual content here.

While some of the bigger ideas are flowing, one thing I'm realizing is that some little things still need settling before things can begin taking shape.

15 second melee round: While it allowed for finer detail than OD&D's 1-minute combat round, other games have since eclipsed it. D&D 3.x used a 6 second combat round, the D6 System uses a 5 second round, and World of Darkness uses a 3 second round. GURPS takes the cake with a 1-second round.

I'm sure there's a contingent out there that doesn't care. As long as the round is long enough for them to do their thing, they're okay. But the ability to convert an abstract unit, like a round, into a real unit, like minutes and seconds, does have its uses.

The Metric System: Palladium started publishing back in the '80's, when there was a push to convert the country to the metric system. We tried it for a while, but never fully made the move to metric. So apparently Palladium's style guide is frozen to the time when "dual-statting" measurements was the (experimental) standard. (Yes, I know the food industry loves the metric system. That way, they can get people panicked over grams of fat who don't have a solid idea of what a gram is.)

Do any Palladium players care about the metric system? I do seem to recall a push toward the metric system in science-fiction games in this same period. It was likely an attempt to create a more "scientific" feel to the game. Most of them were games I'd never play anyway, so it's hard to say.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Hit Point

As I've mentioned at other points on this blog, the Palladium system is an advancement and refinement of old school D&D. One of those advancements was in the field of hit points. You see, before the 3rd edition of D&D all hit dice were rolled, even the first one. Which meant that if you were unlucky, it was possible to enter the dungeon with only one hit point.

Palladium starts you off with hit points equal to your P.E. score +1d6. Then gives you physical skills that can improve P.E., offer S.D.C. upgrades, and so on. Then armor provides its own pool of SDC (or MDC) to protect you. This means that your character has a better chance of surviving first level, which is good. But it also means that characters can very quickly wind up with unrealistic amounts of durability.

Stories circulate around the Palladium community of players exploiting this superhuman durability in interesting ways. Shooting themselves with assault weapons to intimidate a foe. Leaping on a grenade and expecting to walk away with only a small portion of their SDC gone. If you've got a fun story to share, feel free to drop it in the comments.

The important thing to remember is that, in D&D, hit points are an abstraction. They don't represent actual injury. D&D characters really only have one hit point (their last) and all their other hit points represent the character's ability to defend the one that matters. A friend of mine gave this concept a very clever name: "Ablative Awesomeness." When you make a successful attack, you're not hacking away at the other guy's spleen. You're hacking away at his ability to defend his spleen from later attacks. This is why experience (generally gained from fighting) grants more hit points.

The Palladium system doesn't seem to believe in Ablative Awesomeness even as it looks for ways to add more. The description of SDC in the main Rifts book describes a character taking an injury, but shrugging it off. The justification for increasing hit points as the character levels is that the character actually got tougher. Taking a hit in combat is apparently all about being a manly badass.

But with characters having all of these hit points and damage absorbing resources, the things that are supposed to kill them suddenly aren't scary enough. So you make up new stuff that is scary. In Palladium Fantasy, this is magic weapons, going all the way up to rune weapons. In Rifts, this is MDC.

But MDC adds a new wrinkle to this arms race. In Rifts, your MDC armor is your hit points. Without it, you are a 1 hit point mook. So as the weapons get scarier, you look to buy more powerful armor. Once you get more powerful armor, the GM has to look for tougher monsters and tougher weapons to fight you with. Leading to a little thing we like to call "power creep."

My current plan for BTR does include the potential for increasing hit points but nowhere near to the generous levels that Palladium provides. They will be available as a milestone attached to a character's combat skills. This should provide a balance, as there will be many other combat milestones to acquire as well. Playtesting will tell.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Magic & Technology

I touched a little on the way I want magic to work in the setting of BTR while talking about elves. But after reading a couple other blogs, I want to go into a little more depth on this subject.

There seem to be two major schools of thought regarding how magic and technology (specifically science) would interact.

1) Magic would supplant science & technology. Since spells can do wonderful things that medieval technology can't, everyone who wanted to do something cool would learn magic rather than science.

2) Magic would accelerate science & technology. Magic is an extra set of tools for discovery and experimentation.

So which option am I choosing? Both, really.

My current concept for elves fits rather closely to #1. They are highly proficient with magic, to the point where magic is their technology. But this doesn't mean medieval stasis. They have developed a starfaring culture and have colonies and outposts on several worlds. But they did it all using magic that could do what science can't or won't do easily. (For one thing, I'm thinking that they use stargates that are actually giant teleportation circles for FTL travel)

Humans fit in #2. Recall a few posts back that I used the word technomancer. While the Rifts setting does include Techno-Wizards, I'm actually thinking of something a bit different. Techno-Wizards seem oddly limited. Their main gimmick seems to be the creation of Techno-Wizard items, or converting technological devices to run on magical power.

That's cool and all, but they don't strike me as very techno or very wizard. While they can learn spells, these spells are reduced in effectiveness unless they are using them to power a device. Their techno side is limited as well, since they have a hard time picking up the skills that actually let them play with technology.

To me, a technomancer is a character that either uses their magic to do science or uses their science to do magic. Like casting a spell to detect radiation, or enchanting a Geiger counter to detect magical emanations. Maybe in later supplements, Techno-Wizards get something that is like this, but the main thing they seem to get in the core book is flying skateboards.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

What Palladium can do to re-invent itself

1) Stop buying first drafts. While we've all heard the stories of writers who got screwed because KS had to re-write their work, one horrible implication that hasn't really sunk in is that KS pays writers for their first drafts. Any other publisher would blue-pencil that draft and send it back to the writer for a re-write rather than spend valuable executive time on that sort of work.

KS really needs to learn to be an editor, rather than a writer and designer. One of the things keeping Palladium back is the fact that so much of their output is from his sweaty fingers. If he would just let his people innovate, Palladium could keep being an industry innovator.

2) Playtest. Every other game company does internal playtesting. If a Palladium book gets playtested, it is because the writers took it upon themselves to do that. But then it gets the KS re-write anyway, invalidating about half that work.

And a writer's playtest is,. by necessity, limited. One group, maybe two if they're industrious. Enough to help the book conform to one playstyle, one set of house rules. But not enough to bang it into greatness.

Open playtesting (like Paizo does) could help Palladium go viral, but even closed playtesting with select volunteers has the potential to generate more buzz than KS can on his own.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Space Elves That Don't Suck

It's funny. Now that I have that basic idea of Magical Space, a lot of ideas are just beginning to flow.

One thing I definitely want is elves. There are a couple of reasons for this:

1) I want BTR to be able to handle classic fantasy as easily as the big wacky gonzo stuff, and elves are a pretty good testbed for that.

2) They make a good "starter race" for first contact. Being very human-looking, they will be easier for humans to interact with than some intelligent slime mold. Slime molds can come in a supplement, but for the core product, it's good to keep things recognizable.

3) When I started brainstorming setting ideas initially, one of the images that jumped out at me was an elven druid piloting a tree like a mecha and fighting some technological (presumably human-built) mecha.

Space elves, and elves in general really, are a tricky thing to pull off and make cool.

Things that I want to do with Space Elves

1) Bio-tech. Elves have a long association with the natural world. But I don't think the whole "hippy-dippy elves" thing would stand up too well. Especially when you compare them to a technologically advanced human civilization. So they use magical DNA sculpting spells (shape changing spells, but the results are genetic as well as physical) to induce Lamarckian evolution.

2) Magic. Elves are inherently magical creatures. My thought here is to borrow a page from the Burning Wheel RPG. The elves provided in that system do not cast spells, but instead have a number of magical skills that they use to enhance their mundane skills. So in BTR, I'm thinking of including a number of elf-specific milestones that draw on a characters PPE supply to enhance mundane skills.

Magic items will exist, but they do not conform to economies of scale. Meaning that they cannot be mass produced. It is no more efficient to produce 100 magic swords than it is to make 1. Most magic items that exist in the setting will be custom made or civic-scale, like the magical monorail in Eberron. Although the elves will have enough of a history that magic items might even be common to a degree.

3) Spaceships. While there are many fantastical elements in this outer-space setting, this is not Spelljammer. I want to avoid magical "handwaving" as much as possible. I want elven spaceships to have to solve the same problems that human spaceships do (holding atmospheric pressure, moving in space, recycling air) but in ways that fit what's been established about elves. I want them to have bioships that are derived from plants. Elves are not above manipulating animals, but animal-based bioships seem a little too full of squick and elves are elegant beings above all.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Wacky setting idea

As I'm running through ideas for the setting to use for BTR, I come up with some interesting stuff.

I was watching a documentary recently on the idea of "ancient astronauts" and how people are meshing the description of various mythological events with our modern understanding of the sciences.

Many years ago, I read a book by a French UFOlogist whose name I don't recall in which he describes certain encounters with "fair folk" and "little people" that meshed rather well certain aspects of the UFO phenomena.

Why are we looking at this stuff with such a scientific/technological perspective? What if our ancestors knew magic when they saw it, but us modern people try and force it to mesh with our own ideas of the universe?

What if the universe is magical? What if our science and technology is considered "backward" by the rest of the intelligent beings of the cosmos because everyone else is simply ignoring the physical laws that we are forced to live by?

Though I think humans would have an advantage in this scenario. Our inquisitive minds would start looking at magic as another science for us to master. And we would incorporate our existing scientific knowledge, as well. So humans would be the universe's first technomancers.

What do you think?