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.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Tempo and Initiative

I've been throwing around some basic tabletop RPG rule ideas in different settings and with different parameters, and I'm starting to settle on an approach.

I'm really enchanted by the idea of each person choosing who goes next in the initiative lineup. IE, everyone gets one turn per round, but whoever is going now gets to choose who goes next from those that haven't yet gone.

I think this is one of the most brilliant mechanics to come up this century. However, to make it interesting, you need to make turn order matter in a more complex way than "earlier is better".

I've tried a few ways to do this, but I think the ideal method is to have a shared value that can be pumped. Lemme 'splain.

In this game, there is a concept of "battle tempo". Each battle's tempo ranges from 1 to 5, as marked by chits in the center of the table. At tempo 1, most of the combatants are at moderate ranges and combat is marked by deliberate and measured attacks. At tempo 5, the combatants are embroiled in a frenzied, zero-range melee.

Every player's actions are separated into those that raise tempo, those that lower tempo, and those that require a specific tempo. The classes are all close-combat classes, but they accomplish these things in very different ways.

For example, at tempo 5, a rogue's extreme short-range speed makes their melee attacks brutal and their defenses quite good. At tempo 1, rogues use maneuvering, stealth, and thrown weapons/pistols. But rogues need to be careful in the middle tempos, because they aren't close enough to get inside the enemy's range and aren't far enough away to have room to maneuver.

On the other hand, consider a knight. She doesn't have any additional passive defenses - she doesn't take less damage or have more health. But she has a number of active defenses. For example, she can "press" with her shield, closing range and forcing an enemy to target her at a significant disadvantage. This is a good way to raise the tempo (by closing) without actually using an attack.

This means that the knight might act at tempo 4 with a press, drawing the attention of a ghoul and raising the tempo to 5. Then the knight might pass the turn on to the rogue - since it's at tempo 5, the rogue attacks the distracted ghoul (or another enemy) with perfect speed and high defense.

On the other hand, if it's at tempo 3, the knight might do the same, but pass the turn to the ghoul. The ghoul, forced to target her, attacks and does little. This increases the tempo to 5, and the ghoul is forced to pass their turn to the rogue, since there are no other people left this round.

I think this has a lot of potential, especially in the world I've designed for it. Most enemies fall into one of two categories in my world: ghosts (which reduce tempo when they act) and ghouls (which increase tempo when they act). Since you can rely on the enemy to move tempo in a specific direction (and have specific abilities at specific tempos), you can actually pass turns to them with the knowledge that they will give you your turn back at a higher or lower tempo, useful for your plans...

Friday, December 07, 2012


I had a bit of a chat and a bit of an essay and thought about it, and I realized something:

Nobody likes playing the support characters.

Nobody picks endurance if they have a choice. Speed, range, stealth - anything but a tank! Similarly, nobody wants to play a healer. I mean, sure, if the party needs one, you'll take it for the team's sake. But nobody goes "wooo! Stand around and get hit!"

Both tanks and healers are support roles. In oldschool games, tanks were combined with offensive capabilities that made them acceptable ("warrior"), but that's steadily been eclipsed by the concepts of strikers and glass cannons. The classic D&D "cleric" was a combination of both support roles - boring healing combined with boring damage-sponging.

If we dissect party combat roles, we can see that most party combat games have a few specific tactical concerns.

1) Dealing damage. Often, there are multiple types of damage, or damage of varying focus. So you can have a lot of different "damage-focused" classes that are all unique.

2) Tactical manipulation. The most obvious is the tank, who draws the enemy fire, since he's so much better able to survive it. However, there are plenty of others, such as the rogue that gets free movement, or the skirmisher who gets a second attack if his first kills an enemy, or even just someone who can dominate turn order.

3) Statistical manipulation. The obvious example is a healer. However, boosts and hexes of all kinds apply - berserkers, mage armor spells, leadership bonuses... these are most common in MMORPGs, but have migrated into all sorts of other games.

My hypothesis is that tanks and healers are not boring because of their role: they are boring because they are a boring version of that role.

In most games, the classes are split into a few simple categories. Tank, striker, support. A lot of effort is put into making tank and support interesting to play, but there's an easy way around that issue: don't have them. Come up with new roles. Roles that are all interesting right from the start.

So, fun challenge: can we create a tabletop RPG where the character classes don't specialize in any of those three groups? Where all the classes have all three kinds of utility? But, of course, all the classes still have to feel different and interesting and mesh well in combat.

I think one key would be in allowing the players to migrate between tactical roles on the fly. So Anna and Barry might be dealing damage, while Jacob and Kelvin are doing tactical manipulation. Of course, these aren't the same at all: Anna is burning stats to deal out massive damage to one target, while Barry is providing baseline disruptive damage against the mooks. Jacob is drawing enemy fire while Kelvin is popping the initiative stack so that the enemies can't get their team attacks working.

And they all have the same base amount of HP and armor.