Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Monster Design

Having fun playing around with my tempo-based game touched on in the last post.

You really get a completely different feel for monsters depending on the system you use. A lot of people design monsters "in generic" - for "any system". Or, more or less equivalently, they design monsters for a standard combat system (d20-ish).

But if you have a different set-up, you can have very different monsters.

For example, take the humble zombie. Talking about "rrrrrhhhh..." slow zombies, not one of the scarier fast ones we see these days.

In a generic combat system, you'd design a zombie by saying something like "low speed, high health... takes half damage from bladed weapons... let's give it a chance to bite on a successful attack..."

In my tempo game, a zombie is more of a dangerous puzzle piece than a simple enemy. This makes sense, as that's the role slow zombies play in most non-tabletop-RPG settings. They're a horde you have to struggle with.

At tempos 1-4, the zombie cannot attack, only shamble, which increases the tempo as they close in. At tempo 5, the zombie can attack. Although their attacks aren't hugely powerful, zombies have a few advantages. First, if they attack someone who has already taken their turn, they get an extra die on their attack. Second, if the target has already been attacked by a zombie, they gain another die. Third, if they choose a zombie to go next, that zombie gains an extra +1 on their attack. This stacks.

So if there are 5 zombies and they all go in a row, the last zombie has +4 to attack and, if the players have taken their turns, perhaps two extra dice. This makes him very dangerous.

This means the players have to take a couple of precautions. Against small numbers of zombies, you want to try and keep the tempo low. The zombies will raise the tempo, but they can't actually attack except on tempo 5. So if there are five zombies and you pass them the baton at tempo 1, only the very last zombie will actually get to attack. The other four will have to spend their turns closing in. (In a cinematic shot, this would be the players jumping when they see a zombie, and backing into another zombie.)

The edge of the turn is also critical. Players will generally want to let the zombies go at the beginning of the turn, to avoid the die bonuses. This means wrangling to be ready to give them control at the beginning of the turn.

If there are a lot of zombies or the players don't want to maintain a low tempo, they'll need to be sure to break the zombie attack chain. This can be done in a variety of ways. A tempo trap can grab you a turn as the zombies reach a certain tempo, but since the danger is in them staying at tempo 5 very long, counters are a better option. Take your turn when they attack you, and even if you give the baton right back to them, their bonuses are lost.

Zombies don't have very high health in this game. It's not a prolonged assault by N zombies. Instead, it's a matter of killing them off fast enough to survive (often with a continuing flood of incoming zombies). So attacks which hit multiple enemies or allow you to take another attack after killing an enemy are great in this situation.

The whole point of the tempo system is not to lock the players into a specific role, and this is a good example of what I mean. In this situation, none of the players are required to play striker or healer or buffer or anything. Instead, the focus is on taking actions while not screwing up the tactical situation. All the players will want to contribute by keeping the tempo low, which limits their tactical options but doesn't write any of them out of the combat.

For example, a rogue wouldn't rush in and perform his close attacks, because those are high-tempo attacks. Instead, the rogue would hang back and use a pistol or maneuvering abilities, since those keep the tempo low. The rogue is still perfectly useful, he just has to focus on one side of his character rather than the other.

Zombies are just one example. Virtually every enemy can be made into an interesting tactical situation. Combining enemies into packs is also very interesting - and sometimes actually less dangerous.

Zombies act to raise tempo and cannot do anything at low tempos. But ghost-class enemies like banshees lower tempo and (in the case of a banshee) perform best at low tempos. So if you combine them into a pack of zombies-and-banshees, their tempo control conflicts and they trip over each other, tactically speaking.

This can even be done by including NPC ally effects, such as fire support from a nearby city, or a holy blessing that does nothing but spend its turn gently healing a small amount of health while lowering the tempo.

And all of it is a steady learning curve. You don't just jump in with summons and tempo traps and complexity. You jump in with zombies. You begin to understand as you play, instead of having to have someone around to go "wait, you need to take your half step like this so you get a +1 next round when I do this..."

You grow into that complexity.

That's sort of what I'm thinking.

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