September 12, 2014

In defense of the cinematic (Damage and Quick-Shooting Bows)

I do a lot of posting about "realistic" stuff, and increasing the verisimilitude and simulationism achievable - hopefully at minimal cost - for GURPS.

An example - instead of being able to accelerate from a standing stop to full Move in one turn, if you halve your acceleration (so on turn one, Joe average can go 2 yards, on turn 2, he can move 5 yards) it actually makes a huge difference in the ability for not unusual guys to break the 100m dash record.

That being said - there's a reason to use a bunch of cinematic rules (and some of RAW falls in that category) even in otherwise realistic games.

That reason is, quite simply, player engagement.

Real might just be boring

Consider a fantasy archer. His ability to influence a combat in a game is basically in proportion to his ability to do two things: the first is do damage where no one else can, the second is to plain-old contribute to bog-standard combat. For most cases, it's the second one that will come up most often. This means that to have fun with a character that has sunk, in all probability, a crazy amount of points in Bow (frex) to be good at it, he wants to be effective.

But typically, without lots of "cinematic" skills, you draw an arrow, ready a bow, and then either shoot, or aim. You can, with the right skills, Fast-Draw that arrow, as well as Quick-Shoot the bow, knocking (nocking?) two seconds off of a typical 2-3 second pause between shots.

For this archer, effective means projectiles on target, and fun means you want each shot to be meaningful. While "damage per seccond" really has no place in GURPS, you do have certain expectation that shooting once every third turn or so will be fun.

So the payoff for going less than 1/3 as often as the other guys better be huge (I might not hit every round, but when I do, you're *going down*).
Makes up for three seconds of loading the thing

Part of this is the frenetic pace of GURPS combat, with none of the normal lulls that would make that time to draw, nock, aim, and fire disappear into a few turns of "I evaluate!" or "I step back and catch my breath."

But the RAW make it pretty darn attractive to "hit hit hit hit hit hit hit hit-with-extra-effort! hit hit" as a melee fighter. Possibly with worrying about deceptive attacks, hit locations, wounding modifiers, or whatnot. And if you're really good, doing it all more than once with Rapid Strike.

Compared to all that, "I ready my arrow; I aim. Still aiming. OK, now I shoot!" is boring and relatively speaking, unhelpful, especially in a DF context.

So even though (for example) bows might be darn powerful when compared realistically to a 9mm pistol or even a .45 ACP (2d+2 pi and 2d pi+), as your ST 15 composite bow (1d+4) imp will penetrate as well as the .45 - and wound better! - both guns can shoot three times per turn, only reload every few turns. A guy with a sword and good skill can swing twice for 2d+1 cut, which is more damaging than the .45 as well.

Finally, speaking of melee and muscle-powered ranged weapons in a world of guns

Seriously: if you're going to spend the time and shrapnel addressed to occupant to get up close and personal with a bunch of guys with killer hardware. If that's you schtick - you might as well be able to punch through body armor while you're at it. Because most of the time you'll get messily eviscerated on the way.So once you get there, you're going to deserve to be able to rip the guys arm off and beat him to death with it, powered armor or no.

Is it realistic? Hell no. But it's fun. And I strongly suspect that this is a case where the payoff of all that risk to get next to the guy dual-wielding MP5SD5s with drum magazines, your reward should not be "and then you break your sword and your left hand on his trauma plate."

Sure, I totally get why that's not realistic. Hell, I'm a card-carrying member of Realistic University, maybe even on the faculty. But when I play in a game where RAW is not altered to make such thigns stupid . . . I have a really great time

September 9, 2014

Games I'd like to play

Right now I'm in basically two games. I play a weekly Dungeon Fantasy game that used to be running through the Jade Regent Adventure Path, but with GURPS. The other is a monthly-ish Swords and Wizardry game.

I used to play in a Pathfinder game as well, and a brief dabble with Trail of Cthulhu.

But there are other games I'd like to play in, to experience them for both how they flow mechanically and narratively.

So, what games would I like to experience?


I'm terribly curious about how this one would run. I ran through creating Thor in my interview with +Leonard Balsera  and I would be interested to see, in the hands of an experienced group, how the game would go. Not just "oh, I played this one session, and it sucked/was awesome," but a real min-arc at least, so I can feel what it's like to experience a variety of challenges and see what character growth feels like.

Now, saying "I want to play a game of FATE" is like saying "I want to play a game of HERO, or GURPS." It's a ruleset, not a genre.

So I'd probably want to try it out in a genre that traditionally GURPS does less well - full-on four-color superheroes, for example. Making Thor was so easy with FATE Accelerated that I'd like to try something in a similar vein.

Night's Black Agents

Again, this one was brought on by my interview with +Kenneth Hite. I'd been pointed to the system before, and grilled him pretty hard about the mechanical choices in a GUMSHOE game. I left feeling very impressed, and with a much greater understanding of how that system is supposed to run, and what point spends mean.
Ironically, or perhaps not, in rereading my interview with Leonard, I see it was he, core designer of FATE, that turned me on to NBA. Small world, small world.
There's an entire post in that - how not to fight the mechanics - but for now, what I really want to do is run through a campaign of NBA. Experience how a Vampyramid/Conspiramid unfolds. See if I can make my own web of intrigue, like the interactions board we saw in Chuck (I wonder if Zachary Levi kept the Tron poster?).

Playing Jason Bourne fighting vampires sounds like my kind of game.

Dungeons and Dragons, 5th Edition

I've been enjoying the S&W game, and frankly D&D5 feels a lot like that to me, but with more options and what is certainly going to be copious support. As a creator, if you're going to write for something, you can do worse to try your hand at D&D, also.

But it is how I got introduced to RPGing, with the Moldvay Basic set and the awesome splendor of AD&D. I've played a bit of Pathfinder. So I'm familiar with some of the forebears to what is still (lumping WotC and Paizo together) the only force in the market, if you're going to be honest.

So I'd love to experience what the new D&D is at the hands of someone who loves it. Maybe +James Introcaso can hook me up.

September 8, 2014

Exploring HP variations in D&D

I'm quite aware of the many, um, dynamic arguments about the concept of Hit Points in the various Dungeons and Dragons games. Are they physical injury (the answer seems to be 'mostly not')? Are they a good way to represent injury (jury out, but very, very heated)? Are they realistic (clearly not, nor are they supposed to be).

For DnD-type games, how do they work at the base? 
For the record, why do I even ask? Just to level set things, including myself. It never hurts to start from a common point of reference.
Swords and Wizardry

 Hit Points are described simply as "the amount of damage one can handle before becoming incapacitated." 

Also: "When a character (or creature) is hit, the amount of damage is deducted from hit points. When total hit points reach 0, the character is unconscious, and if hit points are brought down to –1 or lower, the character dies."

An interesting note, and relevant to the rest of this post, is a box-text immediately after the above quote (p. 43 of S&W Complete):
A good potential house rule is attributed to Gary Gygax’sgaming table, a rumor that might or might not be true. Itallows a character to remain alive (although bleeding to deathat the rate of 1 hp/round if no assistance is rendered) until thecharacter reaches negative hit points equal to the character’slevel. In other words, a fifth-level character actually dies onlyupon reaching -5 hit points.
Comments; Well, you're really at the razor's edge in S&W. You're hale and robust until you hit exactly 0 HP, and then you drop unconscious. Any negative points and, rules-as-written, you're dead.

Dungeons & Dragons, 5th edition

This latest version of the D&D rules is more verbose about what HP are, as well as what losing them means. Quoting from the Player's v0.2 rules:
"Hit points represent a combination of physical and mental durability, the will to live, and luck. Creatures with more hit points are more difficult to kill. Those with fewer hit points are more fragile."
It's pretty hard to outright kill a character, though:
Dropping to 0 Hit PointsWhen you drop to 0 hit points, you either die outright or fall unconscious, as explained in the following sections.
Instant DeathMassive damage can kill you instantly. When damage reduces you to 0 hit points and there is damage remaining, you die if the remaining damage equals or exceeds your hit point maximum.
For example, a cleric with a maximum of 12 hit points currently has 6 hit points. If she takes 18 damage from an attack, she is reduced to 0 hit points, but 12 damage remains. Because the remaining damage equals her hit point maximum, the cleric dies. 
Falling UnconsciousIf damage reduces you to 0 hit points and fails to kill you, you fall unconscious (see appendix A). This unconsciousness ends if you regain any hit points.

Comments: This basically means that if you're hale and robust, you will fall unconscious at 0 HP, but must take damage that would bring you "fully negative" in a single blow to kill you instantly. However, the next section, "Death Saving Throws," shows that if you have 0 HP, you will be making a Saving Throw each turn, and if you fail three of them, you die. On the average, then, unless you get a massive blow delivered, you will last about six turns before you die or stabilize.

In D&D5, then, HP are quite explicitly more than just physical injury, and include mental durability and toughness as well as luck. S&W leaves this implicit, if it's meant at all.

Pathfinder Core Rulebook

It wouldn't do to talk about HP without dealing with the other 800-lb. gorilla of the RPG industry, Paizo's Pathfinder Core Rulebook.

In Pathfinder, HP "measure how hard you are to kill. No matter how many hit points you lose, your character isn’t hindered in any way until your hit points drop to 0 or lower."

They go and define what they are, too: "the ability to take physical punishment and keep going, and the ability to turn a serious blow into a less serious one."

If you hit exactly 0 HP, you're disabled. When you go into negative HP territory (0 or lower), you're disabled, unconcsious, and dying. Unconscious and Dying are both 'conditions' in Pathfinder, technical terms of art.

If you hit negative HP equal to your CON, you're dead.

Comments: Still a bit of the razor's edge, with the disabled thing starting at exactly 0 HP, but you have a buffer zone of HP equal to your CON where you're KO'd, and then you're dead. But KO'd isn't really a way to stay - you're dying and lose 1 HP per round until you actually die or are stabilized.

All D&D Variants

You gain HP every level, with a bonus for having high CON. So by the time you reach (say) 10th level, if you have (say) a 14 CON, you'll have (as a bog-standard fighter) 75 HP in Pathfinder (on the average), 52.5 HP in S&W, and 75 HP in DnD5. 

At that level, you risk death or automatically die by taking 52.5 HP in S&W, or 75 HP in D&D5 (150 HP for 'instant death!'), or 89 HP in Pathfinder.


What? GURPS isn't DnD. 

No. No it is not. But it's an interesting counterpoint. You only get more HP if you buy them, and your HP start equal to your ST. More powerful fighters avoid death by putting on armor (equivalent, sort of, to increasing AC), and having better Active Defenses (parry, block, dodge). But two characters of disparate skill and equal ST are equally easy to kill if they just stand there and don't defend.

Edge Cases and Explicit Karma

So, with all that, what's the point? I wonder if it would be useful or fun to hack at these concepts a bit, borrow from the best of all the systems, and come up with something that enhances the game.

Let's start with . . . 

What's a HP anyway?

I'm going to propose separating HP into two pools. I will call them Body and Karma. 


Your Body pool is your physical self. It's not grit, will, skill, or luck. It's bone and meat and represents blood and pain. You start with Body equal to your CON.

Option: Trying to decide if I should add the character's level to this; I think yes. 

So your first level fighter with a decent CON score (say, 14) might start out with 15 body. If you don't have level, use Hit Dice for monsters.

If these body points go to zero, you risk unconsiousness. If they go negative, you die.

Option: That rule, while simple, effectively gives more total HP. Might want to split it in two. You have Body equal to half your CON+Level (round up). You fall unconscious when you hit 0 Body. You die when you hit negative Body equal to half your CON + Level (round down). So your CON 14, first level fighter has 8 Body, and dies when he hits -7 body. A 16th level fighter with CON 16 has 16 Body and dies at -16 Body. Even that fighter is two sword strokes from KO, and four from death.


The other pool of points does represent luck, grit, skill, and mental toughness. Call it Karma, for lack of anything better. 

This is the conventional version of HP. Roll 1dWhatever just as normal, and that's your karma pool. It gets the usual CON bonus (grit) and you get more HD per level as normal.

Why Have Both?

This helps differentiate between what is effectively fatigue and injury. If you have your AC overwhelmed by a blow, you have failed to dodge, your armor has failed to shrug off the blow. Reducing your Karma pool says that you managed to turn away at the last second (Pathfinder's turning a real blow into a less serious one), got lucky, Legolas 'clenched up' (in the words of T. Stark) and just took it, or whatever. Burning karma won't kill you.

Body, on the other hand . . . will. Getting knifed in the back by a thief? Shot from afar with no warning? Fall from a height? Yep. Bad juju, and those attacks hit Body directly.

Trading Karma for Body, and vice versa

One interesting thing would be to allow attacks that would otherwise be just applied to Body to be traded for karma. A lot more karma. 

You may reduce body injury taken down to as low as 1 Body (but never zero). Whatever the fraction you reduce the Body by, increase karma loss by that much!

Example: A 5th level fighter has CON 14, giving him 10 Body, and he dies at -9. He also has 38 karma points. He's been fighting a bit, and is down to 34 karma points, and thanks to a poison trap, 4 body. A nasty, sneaky ninja knifes him in the armpit - this is an attack normally applied directly to Body. He rolls 2d4 damage and scores 8. Our fighter doesn't feel like taking this much injury directly; he wants to stay conscious, and 8 body applied to his remaining 4 would leave him KO'd. Instead, he shifts it, taking 2 body (a 4x reduction), but to do that he has to take 4x8 = 32 karma points. He's alive, conscious, and fully functional, but he's at 2 Body and 2 karma remaining - his luck is about to run out.

Excess Karma

Once your karma runs out, you take damage 1:1 into your Body. If you have 10 karma and 8 Body, and take 12 HP damage, you're at 0 Karma and 6 Body.

This might make the "trade body for karma" example above a math exercise, though. If you have the choice of taking 4 Body, 2 body and 8 karma, 1 Body and 16 karma, it's a steady dose of "how much karma can I give up at the cost of diminishing returns in Body loss?" 

Maybe that's not a bad thing.

What does Body?

Certain damage types should do straight-up body. A backstab, poison, falling damage, certainly. It would make spells like a 1d4 Magic Missile terrifying if they applied themselves directly to Body.

Parting Shot

The characterization of HP loss as sometimes due to injury, sometimes mental grit, sometimes luck bothers some people - I got the feeling during +Jonathan Henry's Giant Dragon Gamer Chat on Saturday night that +Gerardo Tasistro despised that vagueness with the fiery passion of 1,000 suns. 

My initial thought - not much different than what's on this post - was that an explicit separation of "these points represent grit and skill; these others are your flesh and bone" might bridge this divide in a way that provides an acceptable balance.

It would also be quite interesting to look at the intersection of damage type (Pathfinder and D&D, for example, includes bludgeoning, slashing, and piercing) with Karma and Body. A bashing weapon might be 1:1 - you take body and karma in equal measure. Slashing weapons like swords might soak karma a 1:1, but any remaining body is doubled. Piercing weapons might get triple or quadruple body!

That would make the usual club, mace, sword, axe, spear, arrow thing look like this (let's assume 3;1 for piercing) using the figures in the D&D5 book, against an Orc (CON 16, HD 2. Body 8, Karma 15).

Weapon          Usual Damage     Hit Karma       Hit Body      Max First Hit          Max Second Hit
Club             1d4 bludgeon    1d4              1d4            4 HP karma          4 HP karma
Longsword    1d8 slashing      1d8              2d8            8 karma               7 karma, 2 body 
2H Battleaxe 1d10 slash        1d10            2d10           10 karma             5 karma, 10 body
Spear            1d6 piercing     1d6              3d6             6 karma              6 karma

In this paradigm, if you can actually strike home with a thrust spear, the 3:1 piercing multiplier makes it a serious threat, equal to a sword or two-handed battleaxe at the high end.

Obviously this would require playtesting to see if it adds to the fun. But having two different pools like this would allow some interesting trade-offs. You could perhaps spend from your karma pool to do extra damage, for example. You'd not do it to avoid a blow - that's what losing karma is already - but it might be a buy-in for certain Feats, too.

It would also allow the short rest thing to make a lot more satisfying sense. A short rest - a psychological siesta plus time to chill out - would certainly bring back karma . . . but not body. For that, you need healing potions or real time to mend.

September 7, 2014

I backed a Kickstarter - Dead Men Tell No Tales

I'm a sucker for games with cooperative play, and have enjoyed the heck out of Pandemic. When I saw Dead Men Tell No Tales on the G+ feed, I decided to pitch in.

Because hey . . . pirates.

September 6, 2014

S&W: Mad Overlord returns: The Plastic-Covered Hell

We started with the usual hour of random banter, which is frankly utterly awesome. We also discovered that our two fighters have the lowest Armor Class. Peter and I happened (or DID we?) to both wear red shirts.

We felt it was apropos.

Seriously - there's absolutely no replacing the banter and bulls**t that happens when gamers and friends get together. Swapping old misinterpretations of DnD, discussing whose parents tried to help them game, and whose (ahem) tried to pry us out of the hobby with a crowbar.

Good time.


OK, now it was time to game. +Erik Tenkar brings the pain.

We get to it, with the traditional mocking of the 5% slope. It's like a ritual.

We never did open up the doors to "room 160," so freshly healed, we kick it in and go through. We find a room full of smoked fish, "meat," and other stuff. Some sentient shishkabob. Alas - Donner, party of five. Four. Three.

We exit, and head down a corridor. There's a door, and a number in the middle of the hallway. Which happen to be stairs.

We kick in a door, and find yet another room full of animal dung. Recent dung. We wade through it. Actually, there's only a little dung.

We continue on, and find two lizard men with a series of small dinosaurs on leashes. It's like a crazy dog-walking thing. But with velociraptors.

Immediately +Joe D casts sleep, and puts down four of eight dinosaurs. That's a lot of velociraptors, plus two lizard men with whips and shortswords. Clearly Gor fans. Leather and creatures on leashes.

Rul misses, Mirado crits and injures himself, and +Tim Shorts casts another spell putting the rest to sleep.

We kill everything, naturally. The Lizard Man we leaave alive only speak Parseltongue. So we try and figure out what he's saying, since Joe speaks so many languages that he can sort of understand him.

We make some qustionable moral decisions and move on.

After some meandering, always going right in honor of +Erik Tenkar being called the Rush Limbaugh of the OSR, We're still pushing the poor Sleestak in front of us.

We find a teleporter. We bounce to some other location on the map. We head the only direction we can. We basically go somewhere and beg the GM to take us to something interesting.

We wander around some more, and finally arrive at a room with a faint phosphorous glow. The equivalent of torchlight, which ain't exactly faint, but here we go.

We're not surprised to find beetles. Four of them. We call them John, Paul, Ringo, and Bob. Poor sacrificial Lizard Man.

Joe casts Monster Summoning 1 just to muck with Erik. We roll to summon allies, but only summon 1 - but they only appear 10 minutes later. We decide that was a total waste of time, retconn the thing, and cast another web spell.

They're trapped, so Rul riddles them with arrows. We burn 'em up, but there's nothing worth keeping. Gah.

We keep going and find another fight. Six beetles . . . which become the targets of our first fireball spell. 5d6 for 23 damage (not bad!), and he deep-fat-fries three of six. Two of tje remaining are basically leaving body parts behind. They charge Joe, and roll 21, 21, and 16 vs a Mage AC 19 (!).

They nail him for two hits. Joe swings at one of the quite-wounded ones with his staff, killing one, cleaving, and then rolling a 20 for another! The last beetle misses. Rul nails for 6 HP with his bow, and Mirado hits hard.

We kill 'em all quickly, and find a body wearing plate - and the remains of a bone scroll case and a remains (burned thanks to Joe) of a scroll inside. And there used to be a pouch, with four gems, two shattered with the heat. Mirado ( +Peter V. Dell'Orto ) takes the plate with him ("isn't he already wearing plate?" "It might be magical." "Let's mass-cast the spell at the end!")

Again we return to wandering looking for new rooms. Old rooms are dead to us.

Oh, look. More beetles and-non-glowing fungus. Two beetles.

We win initiative, and Rul lets loose with an arrow, hitting but still up. Same with Mirado, 17 HP between the two. The freakin' magic user wades into the fight. He does 3 HP, befitting a mage.

It's +Tim Shorts' turn to roll a 1 . . . but he rolls 19 instead, and nails the beetle for 8 HP.

The quantum roller misses both

We  have a short series of awesome rolls, and kill everything in it, making beetlejuice. There's a body of a fallen elf in it; Joe searches his fallen brother. 45 gp, 2 potions, and a longsword that glows when you touch it.

We establish that Rul gets all the magic swords, perhaps, needing a golf bag full of swords. We pass it around a bit, but nothing cool happens.

We find a few more beetles. We go after 'em. Mirado and Minster do 21 HP between them, killing one. A couple uneventful rounds pass. With a few hits here and there. Outcome inevitable. Searching the room, we find a nice mace. And a large locked metal chest. It contains 10,679 sp. We're only 100 coins to the pound, so it's only 100 lbs of silver.

We decide to seek out larger challenges, but we have no easy way to level 4. So we try and seek out some unexplored areas, looking to kick in doors and find a fight.

A room, a secret door, and onward! 10 skeletons charge! Rul changes to his 3-iron of undead slayage.

Minister rolls a natural 20, turning them all. Rul, out of spite, hits the dust with his sword of undead slayage. There's a locked chest. Mirado examines the chest - rolls a 1 - and decides that the key to any chest is a f**king crowbar.

"How far away is everyone?" says the GM.

We gird our loins, and resist the Fear glamour on the chest. In the chest are 3,345sp, 2,428 gp, and 3 pieces of jewelry.

We continue on; there are a crap-ton of doors and we kick 'em all in as we can. We are endlessly confused by the one room in the entire dungeon without a room number, despite the presence of room numbers in hallways. We figure it's some sort of Dungeon Zen Koan - if there's a room in a dungeon with no number, can you kick in the door?

We find a room full of furniture with sheet on it. Each piece weighs about 200 lbs, and we hear the echoing sound of a child crying - and we find a kid's skeleton. We enjoin Minister to perform Last Rites or the equivalent - which does nothing. Alas. We try and destroy the skeleton, but nothing helps. Apparently it's possessed by the same spirit that occupies my infant daughter.

We find a rag doll on the floor. We're not idiotic enough - no. We are. Minister gives the rag doll to the skeleton, which stops crying. We are NOT sitting on the plastic-covered furniture, though.

We kick in more doors. The room is decorated with a bas relief of frickin' clowns.



We move on, and try and explore all the doors that enter into the interior of the room.

OK, more fungus in the first room. We close the door and leave. The GM assures us that's the best thing we could have done.

We explore and explore, and finally hit a room where the actual room goes down a level. Guess we wanted to go down a few levels anyway, but now we're on level 7.

We decide to wait a while, the room ascends. We find one room left, cause what could go wrong.

In this last, final, "what could go wrong" room, we see 50 empty earthenware jugs. We play beer pong for a while, then head back to town. And we do detect magic on our loot.

Plate armor isn't magical (75gp). The longsword is +2, minor empathy power (unaligned, almost animalistic intelligence). The nice mace is not magical, nor are the gems/jewelry. Potions of invisibility and levitation.

The gems are worth 250gp and 500gp; the jewelry 300, 750, and 1,250.

Experience for rooms and killin', plus loot, was well over, 10,000 XP. Nice.

Rul is at 6th level, +5 with normal weapons to hit. Not bad.

We end there.

September 5, 2014

Gaming Ballistic's Firing Squad welcomes Steve Jackson

Last weekend, I interviewed +Steve Jackson!

I tried to get this on out on GURPS-Day, but the editing ran me past midnight and spooling the video took two freakin' hours.

During an interview that was about 50 minutes long, we covered Ogre and the Kickstarter, Munchkin, his recently released 2013 Stakeholder's Report, and of course we talked a bit about GURPS.

Thanks to Steve for taking the time to join me on the Firing Squad!

As always, a text transcript of the interview will be made available . . . when it's done. For now, enjoy the discussion!