How Monstrous: Mothman

Introducing a new feature, wherein I create monsters for 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons, which will be based on both creatures of folklore and my own twisted imaginings. Now, without further ado:

A Creature Of Myth And Legend

Most know little about the mysterious Mothman, and the vast majority of those who do consider it to be a myth. Still, these strange creatures appear in many stories, usually in the prelude to a great disaster with terrible loss of life. A bridge collapse on a busy market day, a fire in night in a small town, or the cave in of a mine shaft could all come in the wake of this strange observer.

A Non-Human Watcher

Standing over six feet tall, a Mothman is proportioned not unlike a normal human albeit one with a massive set of moth like wings protruding from its back. Its entire body is covered in moderately iridescent light-grey fur, although its most prominent feature is a pair of glowing red multifaceted eyes. It is said that anyone who meets it’s gaze is filled with dark premonitions of their impending doom. None can remember what they’ve seen when the gaze turns away, but the chills remain.

An Inscrutable Plan

A Mothman has no discernible agenda, and it is unknown even whether their presence at the site of an impending disaster is meant to be warning, although popular theory is that they cause the disasters themselves. They are normally solitary and non-aggressive, and if attacked they will usually attempt to flee before engaging in combat. Occasionally, they are found in the company of the impressively cruel, who use the Mothman’s reputation and gaze to cow their enemies. Alternatively, some more cowardly individuals chase Mothman sightings hoping for the opportunities brought on by the tragedies of others.

Mothman

Medium Humanoid, unaligned

Armor Class: 13
Hit Points: 85 (11d8)
Speed: 30 ft., fly 60 ft.

STR       DEX       CON      INT      WIS      CHA
10 (+0)  16 (+3)  11 (+0)  5 (-3)  15 (+2)  10 (+0)

Skills: Stealth + 5, Perception + 4
Senses: Darkvision 90 ft., passive Perception 14
Languages: –
Challenge: 3 (700 XP)

Portentous Gaze. When a creature that can see the Mothman’s eyes starts its turn within 60 feet of the Mothman, the Mothman can force it to make a DC 15 Wisdom saving throw or be frightened for 1 minute. A frightened target can repeat the saving throw at the end of each of its turns, with disadvantage if the Mothman is within line of sight, ending the effect on itself on a success. If a target’s saving throw is successful or the effect ends for it, the target is immune to the banshee’s Portentous Gaze for the next 24 hours
Unless surprised, a creature can avert its eyes to avoid the saving throw at the start of its turn. If the creature does so, it can’t see the Mothman until the start of its next turn, when it can avert its eyes again. If the creature looks at the Mothman in the meantime, it must immediately make the save.

Actions

Claws Melee Weapon Attack: + 2 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target.
Hit: 9 (2d8) slashing damage.

 

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Strength And Dexterity

Today I want to talk about statistically influenced mechanics.

In a game of any kind, mechanics control the methods by which you as a player interact with the game world. This is as true in a color matching block game as it is in Football Manager, but I have a very specific topic I wish to discuss today.

Specifically, I am going to talk about the different ways in which accuracy and power are presented in games, especially role-playing games, and what they mean for the players. We’re going to be using Dungeons & Dragons as the ur example, but this is applicable in what should be a fairly obvious array of cases.

In Dungeons & Dragons, a character possesses six statistics, including the eponymous Strength and Dexterity. Strength purports to be a gauge of your character’s aptitude at at tasks requiring physical power, while Dexterity measures your character’s natural talent in challenges that require speed and coordination. You may not be surprised to learn, then, that Strength is the traditional purvey of a melee focused character, while Dexterity more greatly benefits a ranged combatant, as in both cases the single statistic does a fine job of seeing that character through their allotted tasks.

So, this clearly works perfectly well. But why does it do so, and how might it work differently?

Well, traditionally, most games with a more complex set of data for the player to consume benefit from streamlining when they can, as long as it is not at the expense of the experience. Accessibility is a wonderful thing, and any veteran of gaming knows that any game with any RPG elements at all benefits greatly from the ability to say “This is my strong guy, I put all his points in strength, now on to the next fellow”. It also makes things easier on new players, as a character who possesses a great deal of information but relies on a central attribute is one that can be explored at the player’s leisure, absorbing information in their own time.

So, why change it? For a different, more thoughtful, more balanced sort of game, of course. Imagine, if you will, a game of Dungeons & Dragons where all bonuses to strike the enemy were derived from Dexterity, and all bonuses for damage were derived from Strength. Ignoring the more recent invention of Finesse weapons (which can be disregarded if you haven’t heard of them), think of what this does to the landscape. The Ogre, a tremendously strong brute with a previously unerring club, is suddenly a lumbering thug whose strikes spell death for those it hits, if only it lands one. Suddenly, the man mountain in armor and the nimble rapier duelist are on an equal footing, one dodging war-hammer blows by a hairsbreadth and the other trusting armor and luck to save him from death by a thousand cuts. It brings a certain air of Robert E. Howard fantasy to the concept, and is at least a departure from the norm. It also encourages a broader array of abilities than previous, as a warrior with moderate speed and strength will likely prevail over one solely focused on either.

White Wolf actually makes use of this concept in some of their World of Darkness games, in fact. A character needs a solid combination of Strength and Dexterity to stand a chance in combat in Scion, for example, where a strength focused hero will find they cannot land a blow. However, White Wolf also often makes use of an interesting mechanic wherein a well aimed strike gains additional chances to do damage, providing further incentive for improving your character’s Dexterity to prepare for combat situations.

In conclusion, the most important thing to keep in mind is what you want the effects of your mechanics to be on your game. Decide what you want the player to be able to do, and what you want the game to feel like, and then work backwards to create mechanics that support that feeling.

Parallel Paths: Or, Why Dishonored Needed A Club

This week we’re going to talk about player choice, and making sure that you’re prepared for the ones they make.

For starters, I want to clarify that I’m not talking about choice as it pertains to letting the players do whatever they want. If you’re running a D&D campaign and the players decide they want to open a ladder re-purposing Ten Foot Pole Emporium rather than actually play out that cool story with the dragon and the intrigue and the world ending terror you have prepared, then you may as well just ignore them, because they clearly did not show up to play the same game you did.

What I’m talking about is making sure that your game, be it a video game, tabletop RPG, or board game, supports a reasonable number of parallel paths to victory. These are all fairly straightforwards, so I’m going to touch on each of them in turn. I’m also going to focus largely on single player or cooperative games, as with multiplayer games this strays more into a discussion of game balance.

So, to finally get to what could easily have been the opening line of this post, the most important part of presenting a game in which parallel paths are implied is to make sure they are all supported. They don’t have to be equally difficult, but they have to function.

Let’s talk about Dishonored for a moment, if only because I put it in the title. For those of you who are unfamiliar, Dishonored is a first person stealth and action video game about betrayal, revenge, and absentee parenting. The core choices of the game, the ones presented during every moment of game-play and not just during the major moral choices towards the end of each level, are whether you are playing a stealth game or an action game, and whether you are a big murdery murderer or not. Overall, at least in the experience I had, the game does a good job of making both of these choices a great deal of fun, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t let itself down in a few key areas, notably by rather limiting to player to being an action murderer or a nonlethal sneaker. By and large most of the choices the player will make in the game, from the use of either normal crossbow bolts or more limited sleep arrows to the decision of whether to stab a major villain in his neck meat or decipher a fairly elaborate puzzle to send them to a nonlethal fate worse than death, the dual focus design rewards more murder prone players with a quick and easy solution while providing nonlethal players with a more complex but perhaps more rewarding alternative. There are two notable exceptions to this ethos, however. When presented with an unaware enemy, one has the option of loudly and messily stabbing them to death while simultaneously alerting all nearby enemies or quietly strangling them into a restful sleep. While the murder option is quick to reward the player with more murder, something the player may or may not be thankful for, it is something of an issue when the nonlethal option’s only downside is a minor increase in the time it takes. So you have the potential to be spotted, which is a moot point with the other option is to always be spotted. Simply allowing the stealth kill to actually be stealthy would have solved this discrepancy, although combining that with making the strangling somewhat alarming to nearby guards would be more in keeping with the game-play philosophy, if not as balanced.

And then there’s the club I teased you with. Or, rather, there isn’t the club. There is no nonlethal melee weapon in Dishonored. This seems like a severe oversight when every other piece of game-play has a lethal and nonlethal option (for the sake of this argument, the sleep darts from the crossbow are also an alternative to the pistol). It seems like a rather easy fix, simply giving the player a nonlethal melee weapon usable in the same manner of their sword, possibly with a reduced reach and definitely with requiring them to land a few extra blows, and thus not completely removing the nonlethal gamer from the action half of an action stealth game. It could even be upgraded, as with all the other equipment in the game, perhaps adding taser like stun charges and such.

Alright, so that was video games, but what about tabletop RPGs, I hear you ask. Well, the good news, is that I’m not going to ask you to completely rewrite all of your favorite systems in order to cater to as many potential player actions as possible. That way lies madness, and as such has already largely been done. I’m also not going to sit here and tell you that if you were planning a game of courtly intrigue, you have to let Krod the loin-clothed barbarian swing from the rafters and throw axes at the punch bowl. The object isn’t to cater to the players, but to create a story with them. If you’re playing a game of courtly intrigue, and the viscount is holding a piece of important information, make sure that it’s not kept in a mental chest with a single lock. It makes no sense if a character would spill their darkest secrets for five gold, but will resist weeks of torture or the threat of a scary man standing over them with a knife in the middle of the night. If the players want to get into the ancient tomb of a long dead king, and the front is guarded by living statues who ask you three questions about your deepest fears, it’s understandable that they might want to just figure out around where the tomb is laid out and start some exploratory strip mining. Remember, the important thing is not that the players follow your story, no matter how cool you think it is. If you build a world and it reacts to the players actions appropriately, you will find all manner of fun and exciting role-playing opportunities crop up over the course of game-play. Maybe Krod wasn’t a good fit for courtly intrigue, but if he’s allowed in as an amusing oddity, he might just overhear some interesting rumors from folk who don’t believe he can understand them.

In conclusion, make sure that when the player has a choice of paths, each one is worthwhile to walk.

Edition Wars? Huh! What are they good for?

Alright, I’m going to talk Fifth Edition D&D. Hold on to your hats, it’s going to get old school in here.

First question, just to get it out of the way, is 5E a good system?

Yes.

Second question, will you like 5E?

Yes, again.

Third question, should you switch over to 5E from your current system?

And there, mysterious hypothetical questioner, you have hit the nail on the head. 5E brings a lot of really good, really fun stuff to the table, but whether or not it’s for you and your group remains to be seen. I can break it down for two groups who are going to absolutely love it, but otherwise it’s going to be a case by case decision. First off, if you’ve never played D&D before, or your group is going to have a lot of people who are new to tabletop, this is absolutely the game for you. Second, if you’re in a D&D group, or you have friends who enjoy D&D, but you cannot decide on an edition to play, pick this one.

Fifth Edition plays smoother than absolutely any other version of D&D or similar RPG while still retaining the freedom that makes pen and paper such a marvelous method of mutual entertainment. Streamlining efforts have been pushed to the brink, tying almost every action directly into a stat roll, one way or another. Stats pour directly into attacks, skills, and saves, without any intervening stage such as Reflex Saves or Pathfinder’s Combat Maneuver Bonus, making number crunching far simpler. Most bonus and penalty stacking has been replaced with an intuitive advantage/disadvantage system that translates to rolling twice and picking the higher or lower dice depending upon whether the circumstances are favorable. In fact, there are fewer steps all around between the player declaring an action and the results being known. There’s also a straightforward system for replenishing abilities, as resting for a day tends to put everything back to normal. I was initially skeptical of this, but upon experimentation, players burn hp at an alarming rate, and playing well enough to survive to rest is worth the benefits of resting.

That’s just mechanics, and while mechanics are important, they aren’t why we play these games. So let’s talk about narrative. 5E bakes narrative right into character creation, with every character picking a AD&D-style background that grants both a non-numerical mechanical ability (such as contacts in the underworld for a criminal) and forces the player to think about who their character is and was. This also benefits the canny game master who can use their player’s actually existent backgrounds as a source of plot hooks and immersion as characters interact with friends and family from their pre-adventuring days. The Monster Manual includes at least a full page of background and setting detail on every monster, the Dungeon Master’s guide is as bountiful in role playing advice, alternate rules, and magic items as it’s AD&D 2E grandfather, and, this is the kicker for me, the DM screen has a random name and random “Something happened” table on it.

If you’ve got a favorite previous edition, you’ll recognize the bits in 5E, like a much saner version of 3.5’s feats or spell casters keeping one or two tiny spells they can cast forever, a la 4E, and if you’re new, this will come easier to you than any of the other options.

In conclusion, this isn’t my new favorite system, but it might be yours. I’m glad I picked up the books either way.

You win some, you lose some

Ok, there’s something I want to make clear, as I feel like it has been falling out of favor.

Loss is story.

As a player, it’s natural to want to win. People play games for an myriad of reasons, but I think it’s safe to say that a large amount of people play games to win them. But the thing is, the difference between a game and a puzzle is that you can lose a game. A puzzle, for instance a sudoku or a jigsaw puzzle, you can sit in front of and systematically try every possible solution until you finally succeed. Given enough time and effort there is no way to lose a puzzle. Not so with games. Games tend to require a player to compete, either with other players or with the game itself, and it is possible to reach a section of a game you cannot beat without getting  better at the game.

The problem, in my mind, comes from turning a game into a puzzle. Using an example from my own life, I’m guilty of this with regards to the Fire Emblem games. For the unfamiliar, it is a turn based strategy game series chock full of swords, sorcery, and interesting characters. Fire Emblem has a number of interesting facets, but the two that are of interest for this discussion are the support conversations, that unlock additional story and dialogue between units, and the fact that units who are eliminated from a battle are permanently removed from the game. Together, this could make for interesting and poignant story, as characters develop interpersonal relationships and have to deal with the tragedies of war. The problem arises with the trivial ease with which a level can be restarted if things go wrong, to the point where it is more a matter of dedication and patience to beat the game rather than skill. When you can try any action an infinite number of times, the statistics that determine success lose all meaning.

Loss is meaningless if it can be immediately reverted.

This philosophy is already prevalent in most pen and paper role playing games, but it occasionally gets subverted. Let’s look at D&D. In, say, 3.5 D&D, if a character is killed after a certain level, it is actually more likely for them to come back than not. Once the players have access to high level divine spells, they will not stay dead. They just won’t, unless their enemies go significantly out of their way to make it so, either by disintegrating every part of every party member, or killing everyone who might eventually raise them, or any equally outlandish solution.  Once a player knows for sure that if they die they’ll come back the next day, what is death but a nap, occasionally paired with XP loss? It serves a story’s tension to have some measure of chance for failure, It serves a character’s humanity to have some fear for their own mortality. Life or Death engagements have little meaning when Death is just time out. By the same token, the story itself should be able to survive the death of a character. I’m not saying there should be no means of reviving a character, if it serves the story you are all telling, but there’s a difference between finding the right horn of the fabled blue minotaur to trade to the queen of the fairies to get her to fulfill the death oath sworn between her court and the father of the PC and going to see Jim’s brother, who’s a decently high level cleric of Pelor and will probably even spot us the gold if we tell him the quest is epic enough.

Video games find it harder to implement this idea, simply because a player who loses will restart, most of the time. That said, players have been trained to accept a win ending and a game loss, or at most a plethora of win endings based upon their morality choices. But what about basing the ending on their qualitative choices? The S.T,A.L.K.E.R. games embrace this idea to an extent, offering the player a number of epilogue scenes depicting the consequences of their actions, ones they may not have thought twice about. Fallout games also generally do this, although the game itself generally makes it clear which actions are choices that will effect the course of the game. The trick is to give the player choices during game play, and not show the effects until after the game is finished. A game wherein you fight the final battle and that decides whether you win or lose can have an epic finish, but a game in which the entire shape of the final battle is determined by the outcome of a hundred skirmishes you breezed through earlier is a game whose story the player has an impact on, and vice versa. It’s also a where the player will be incapable of simply skipping back a checkpoint and saving that one NPC who matters to the story.

It’s worth noting that this advice can easily be applied to traditional writing as well, as writers should not be afraid to kill characters, break objects, or destroy places that haven’t necessarily served their narrative purpose if it serves the story. It’s much more jarring to lose a character in the middle of his quest than once he’s finished all his relevant story functions.

So remember, plot armor is your enemy, and make your story strong enough to survive breaking.

What Makes a Game a Home

I want to take a minute and talk about the way mechanics influence the feel of a game.

The way a game plays mechanically affects the way a game feels emotionally. Hopefully that made sense, but if it didn’t, what I’m talking about should become clear pretty fast. Let’s discuss specifics and how you can change the mechanics of your game to make it feel different. To use the grittiest, most granular examples of this possible, I’m going to start talking about the various RPGs from fantasy flight we’ve seen in recent years, specifically Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader, Deathwatch, and Only War. If you’re familiar with these games or the Warhammer 40,000 universe, you shouldn’t have trouble following along, but stay tuned if you aren’t because this should be pretty easy to swallow

All four of the games I just mentioned run off the same core mechanics. You roll the same dice to shoot people with lasers, you have the same stats and skills, and you exist in the same universe. That said, they are all very different games. Dark Heresy is a game about being the most expendable possible pawn in a shadowy world of intrigue and corruption, as well as the core game of the series. Characters in this game start at the lowest point power wise of any of the games, and have the life expectancy of a cat in a blender. In fact, a lot of people play this game just for the messy and interesting way your characters will go the the great reroll in the sky. Next up we have Rogue Trader, a game about being interplanetary nicknack merchants and privateers in possession of a massive ship and thousands of loyal(?) crew. In Deathwatch, you’re super soldiers wearing armor better suited for starships than people and firing warcrimes at uncountable waves of gibbering alien monstrosities. And Only War treats you as a single cog in a massive warmachine weighted down with bureaucracy while you reach into an increasingly large number of piles of goo that used to be your best buddies faces.

Fluff aside though, how are these different games? Couldn’t you just buy one of them and use it to run all the others? Well, yes, clearly, but that’s not the point. The big difference, oddly enough, is the way NPC’s treat the character and the manner in which equipment is requisitioned. In Dark Heresy, the players are given a monthly wage, and are expected to live off of that and whatever they can beg buy or steal. The characters are often on their own for extended periods, and are expected to be able to survive autonomously, for the most part. This is represented both by the very specific monetary system, where every dollar counts, and in the predilection towards non combat skills and roles presented for character creation.

The opposite of this is Deathwatch. You are given a suite of bionics and implants, a suit of basically invulnerable armor, and the massive weapon of your choice when you create your character. There’s very little in the way of interpersonal skills as the most you’ll ever have to talk to an NPC is a well delivered one liner or a demand that they get the hell out of your way. If you want extra equipment, you ask nicely, and an army of municipal drones fall over themselves to bring it to you. This is a game that is all about murdering enemies. It even has a special suite of rules devoted both to how well your party’s supersoldier are working together and another explaining exactly how to kill hundreds of aliens in one round.

Then we have Rogue Trader. This game is very focused on the acquisition of filthy lucre, but in a nontraditional way, in that you’ll rarely have to fight a dragon for it. During character creation, the party collaborates to create the space ship on which they will be traveling. Note: Never, ever underestimate the positive effects on party cohesion of collaborating in the creation of something. Anyways, this gives the players a joint sense of ownership, a mutual interest in eachother, and access to a vast, VAST fortune and a massive cadre of loyal minions. It’s a big spaceship. You might imagine that having a massive fortune would make most equipment trivially easy to acquire, and you’d be right. The challenge in Rogue trader comes from keeping your ship alive and running in the vastness of space and acquiring even more filthy lucre to add to your vast fortune without getting shoved out an airlock.

And finally, Only War. I’d almost say Only War is a toned down version of Deathwatch, but that isn’t quite true. You start with a predetermined pack of items, to be sure, but instead of giving you everything you can ever need, the municipal drones hate your thieving, equipment losing, paperwork generating, needy, selfish guts and want you to die in whatever manner leaves your equipment intact so it can be put back in the storehouse with a minimal of fuss. Suddenly, interpersonal skills are important for things like convincing the commander you’ve always had this powerfist, or that your squad deserves to be one of the ones with armor instead of one of the ones providing ablative biological cover to the tanks. The focus is on the people, instead of the combat, and your party is even given a passel of NPCs to herd around, in the form of the remainder of their squad, who provide both mechanical benefits tot he party members they are assigned to as well as many intangibles, such as spotting sniper bullets with their faces.

So that was a long and unruly talk, but the point I was trying to make is that it’s important to think about more than just combat mechanics in your game. Where the PC’s gear comes from and how people treat them is just, if not more, important to making a game fun and deep than a well thought out system for shooting faces. A character with a support system, however inept or insular, feels very different to one floundering on their own.

So remember, the way characters interact without murder is just as important as the way they do with it.

Down with classists!

Ok, I talked about the reasons roles exist and how to define them, now I’m going to talk about how to present them to players.

For this to work, first you need to figure out what level of freedom to allow your players. The spectrum runs from games that allow a player to build whatever character they see fit, as exemplified by games like the Elder Scrolls series and GURPS, or force them to progress along a very specific route, showcased nicely in games like pretty much every game ever without those nebulous “rpg elements” in it that still has power progression. If you’re making one of those, that’s awesome, but this isn’t the post for you.

So let’s look at an example of the middle point. Pathfinder (and several editions of D&D, the game it was based on) has a system in which players choose a class that defines the basic nature of their character. A fighter fights, a wizard casts magic, a rogue stabs people in the back and takes their shiny things. But within that structure, there exists a lot of customization options. Some classes allow you to select from a suit of abilities, and all classes receive a number of skill points to be spent on non-combat related skills, like opening locks and professional home decorating, and a number of special abilities, called feats, that they can choose from a largely universal pool. Characters are also free to combine classes, gaining additional benefits at the cost of not increasing their starting class.

The question becomes, as a designer, how much do you trust your players and yourself? A game of complete freedom might make for very interesting character creation and some very interesting characters, but you run a grave danger of players creating characters who are completely unsuited for the game ahead. For an example of this, the latest Deus Ex tried to follow it’s predecessors freeform progression system, but had segments where a character without significant combat capabilities could not progress. This could have been solved by toning down those sections, allowing a way around them using the same methods the character had been using to progress through the rest of the game, or (and this is the game design aspect we are focusing on here) they could have separated the progression of the character in such a way as to not force the players to choose between competence with weapons and the ability to read your boss’s emails.

The more freeform your creation and progression system, the more hand holding you need to do. Shadowrun does an excellent example of this by providing a series of premade characters with descriptions of how to play them and why they are effective, and the player can use these characters straight off the rack, customize them, or just use them as inspiration for their own characters. Alternatively, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (the second edition) forces characters to progress in very very straight lines, and only needs to provide one sample character who is only used as an example to show how to apply the character creation rules.

The opposite of this, of course, is the more constrained your character creation and progression is, the less unique and interesting the characters made in it are. Rules exist, in GURPS, the Generic Universal Roleplaying System, to allow players to create magic using dinosaurs who, over the course of the game, learn how to hack computers and craft elegant herbal teas. The level of player freedom can be as great as the player’s imagination, which simply cannot be said about Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. But if the focus of your game is supposed to be very tight, that might be fine for you.

So remember, with great freedom comes imagination and occasionally stupidity and with great focus comes reliability and occasionally boredom.