Monday, September 6, 2021

Are reddit self-promotion policies inadvertently hampering the creative RPG blog community?

[EDIT: I asked for discussion, and I got it! The conversation has helped me assess the points I made. I stand by my blogger's perspective-points (as have a number of you in commenting) but I can see too that our points are counter-balanced by equally valid concerns about spam that could have an even more negative effect on idea transmission. I'm noticing that many bloggers seem to be agreeing heartily whereas many primarily-redditors aren't. :-) There are places online in the hobby that I think are excessively restrictive for responsible bloggers, but at r/osr, the status quo is probably a workable balance/necessary evil between different pitfalls. So take my complaints with a grain of salt, but please also hear the bloggers' perspectives described here, too. Thanks, all, for weighing in, and thanks for supporting a healthy blogosphere, however you do.]

I seem to be snarky today. 

So, grain of salt, etc. All that follows is offered with constructive intent. I'm sort of on the fence about posting this at all. But...oops! 


One often hears that OSR blogging is not what it used to be (note a recent, popular r/osr thread listing numberous helpful blogs that have fallen silent or 'dead' over the years). Of course, many of us only started blogging in the few years since G+ went away...there might even be something of a blog resurgence going on in some quarters. That being said, I think most would agree blogs are important and useful for the health of the OSR community, and many would agree that blog culture isn't always easy to maintain, and could be stronger than it is today. 

In fact, blogs may be THE BEST place for long-form, sustained, deep consideration of creative ideas for our hobby (or, perhaps, tied or just behind published long-form games and resources in terms of their impact and usefulness). There is certainly an important place for short, snappy conversations about gaming questions on more fleeting social media, but blogs contribute something that shorter media just...won't. 

So, blogs matter, but many of us carry out much of our online rpg-community interaction these days on sites like Reddit or Discord (or MeWe or Discourse or...ahhh, gasp for air!!!!). Are those sites helping blogs stay creative and active, or not? Discord...look, I've had some great conversations there, but the thing is a total nightmare for asynchronous conversation. Someone might drop a really killer idea and then 7 hours later, when I wake up in my different time zone and idly check the boards, that idea has been submerged in an 87-comment string because someone else LOL'd on something else. Or if I picked that week to try to be a healthy person and not obsessively follow social media every four hours in Fear of Missing Out, it's essentially an entirely lost cause. 

So, Reddit...I may be wrong, but I believe that Reddit is the most active and rambunctious single site (off Discord) for advancing new OSR-related ideas. 

Now here's where I want to advance a contentious idea: 

I think r/osr's current self-promotion policies may be detrimental to blog culture, and therefore detrimental to the vitality of the entire OSR community. 

Before anyone takes my point as overly hostile, let me clarify that I don't think this reflects some failing among our r/osr moderators! In fact, the same issue affects other gaming subreddits, too. Frankly, this isn't an OSR issue at all; I think it's about the peculiar dynamics of subreddits in general. I also don't have any particular beef with the idea of regulating conversations or keeping microphone-hogging off the threads. But I do think there are some inadvertent, unintended negative consequences at work for the blogosphere.


WHAT AM I TALKING ABOUT? SUB-REDDIT POLICIES

Two years ago, r/osr got a top-pinned post containing rules for self-promotion. Interestingly, the top-level stated intent was "so we [moderators] don't get overwhelmed by 'this is spam' alerts for things that aren't really spam." In other words, as I read this, the mods were getting bombarded with unnecessary, unjustified complaints about legitimate posts, to the extent that they articulated clearly what was acceptable, so complainers would leave them alone (and, of course, it is obviously helpful to have clear expectations to prevent any of us from actually abusing the system, too). 

IIRC, however, this new guidance didn't shut down complaints. I vaguely remember reading a commenter pointing to this new guidance while again complaining about behavior that was perfectly fine according to the guidance. 

The guidelines cover a lot of things (Kickstarter and product announcements, for example), but the piece I'm thinking of here now is the rule that one should only post their own blog content once per week. R/osr also now offers a dedicated blogroll for collecting/boosting blog posts. In a section below, I'll address why this might be hurting as much as it's helping. 

Again, I want to make this painfully clear: I've no beef with our mods. 

Mods, thanks very much for the work you put into such a fun and often helpful resource. 

My beef is with ... the unintended consequences of choices we're making to manage chaos together. My argument today is that the unintended consequence  = blog culture is hampered under the current system. 

Two hot-takes follow, one from my own point of view, and one quoting voices from a completely different RPG sub-reddit.


IMPACT: FROM A BLOGGER'S POINT OF VIEW 

Whew...at risk of sounding like a whiner, I just want to say that blogging sometimes feels like a lot of work alone in an echo chamber. 

Whaa, poor me. In my own experience, Reddit is very useful for getting people to engage with blog ideas. To talk turkey, there is something of a familiar cycle...if I make a dedicated post on a couple of relevant Reddit boards about a new blog piece, traffic to that blog post increases significantly, and every now and then it just explodes. This tells me that people are, in fact, finding what I have to say relevant and worth reading. But if I just drop a new blog post and trust in the blogrolls to advertise for me, things generally stay pretty quiet. 

So there's an obvious incentive for me to advertise my blog posts on Reddit. Yet, in the past year, I believe I've only announced 5 of 24 blog posts in top-level r/osr posts (to be clear, I've also mentioned some in comments, when they seemed on-point for existing discussions). Some of that's because I used the blogroll (but, again, see below), and some of that's because the content didn't seem particularly suitable to r/osr in particular (as opposed to some other RPG sub-reddit). But some of them, too, have been because I had advertised another blog post recently, or because I just didn't feel like counting up the days since my last posting, worrying about whether I was complying with the self-promotion policies, or what have you. 

But the real kicker, for me, is this: there have been times (including this morning) when I thought:

Me: hey, self, I've got some time available to write for the blog! And check out these cool ideas I have for some new blog posts!

Self: ok, sure. But cool your jets, pal; you can only advertise one of them this week. Better postpone the others.

Me: oh, yeah, thanks. Which ones should I delay? Boy, that's kinda discouraging. Um...just never mind. 

Given that blogging already too often feels like an echo chamber, it's a drag to feel that the audience tailor-made for each new blog post prefers those who write for them to make blog posts less visible (but more frequent! Always more frequent!). So sometimes I just postpone writing at all, and we all know how procrastination is a friend to creative writing, right? 

For example: I'd like to write a blog post today about the wonderful campaign send-off we finished last night, in which we used a mashup of Matrix gaming and FKR 'rules' to play out the domain-level multi-season conclusion to a mid-level campaign, which ended with two characters ruling their own kingdoms and the political map of Mystara re-drawn. Sure, I'd like to write that, but I've also been sitting for ages on ideas for a long-form piece about why Merovingian Francia (as opposed to later feudal societies) might offer an outstanding alternate template for a 'vanilla' D&D sandbox, but then again maybe I should type out a micro-setting illustrating that concept, blending some real Oldhammer fun with real late antique history; or, alternately, I could tell you more about the fun co-op swashbuckling skirmish rules that I might co-publish this coming year. I could, sure, but what really got my goat today was thinking about blog culture in general (thanks a lot, DwhizKhalifa!). So I wrote this. And that means that I can either just publish it and consign it to ignominy in the blogrolls, or I can promote this post via reddit, and delay all that other cool stuff for some other day when my time and inclination to blog have aligned once more. 

I guess they'll have to wait. 


IT'S NOT JUST AN OSR ISSUE

Part of the reason this is on my mind is that I just read a discussion of similar issues on r/DungeonWorld. They've got a top-pinned, 6-month-old post discussing new community rules. They initially banned memes, and then took that back after protest. But they also implemented a rule that blogs should only be posted to their subreddit once every 30 days. 

That led to some discussion. Jeremy Strandberg, one of the really prominent creatives in the Dungeon World-adjacent community today, pointed out (see link above) that:

I'm obviously biased, but I feel like links to blog posts--at least ones that are directly relevant to Dungeon World--are a different beast than links to Kickstarters, Storefronts, DrvieThru RPG pages, etc. If I'm posting something on my blog and sharing it here, it's a invitation for discussion, or a resource for folks to use, rather than shilling product.

A mod sort-of agreed, but argued that many blogs aren't inviting discussion. Huh. 

So, there was talk of creating a recurring monthly thread for people to discuss what they're up to (but apparently distinct from blog content?). Comments on that idea included these criticisms:

Except monthly threads like that tend to just die and have a ton of unanswered top level comments. It's basically just reinventing reddit, on reddit.

... 

I hate single threads. I can’t tell what is in the thread without digging through and I don’t know if I want to dig through with knowing what’s in it. I would rather scroll past individual posts on the main page than war through a single thread. All the single thread does in create the appearance of organization by hiding everything in the closet of a single thread. 

Reinventing reddit, on reddit. Hmm. I think there's something to that. I also think there's some parallel here to our practice at r/osr. Blogs are generally funneled toward the blogroll, which will either limit discussion (who wants a 14-thread response to a single blog in the middle of the community blogroll?) or STILL divert traffic away from Reddit. I realize that reddit communities shouldn't be super-keen on existing merely as a springboard to other websites, so the optimal reddit placement for a blog post should welcome discussion right there on reddit. But wouldn't the best way to interact with a blog post on reddit be a dedicated thread on reddit, that disrupts nobody who chooses not to click into that thread, while allowing the motivated to engage at length in related conversation?


SO WHAT MIGHT WE DO INSTEAD? 


So on the one hand, I feel there is a constant drumbeat of pressure from the community to blog more often (which is great, but bloggers have a lot of other things to do too). On the other hand, one can sense a subtle recurring message that sharing creative ideas on social media specifically dedicated to the games we're working with is somehow self-indulgent and insulting to other readers if we came up with those ideas ourselves. So what are we visiting reddit for, if we don't want to encounter other people's creative ideas? Is the problem self-promotion, or is the problem frequent promotion of ideas that aren't really contributing anything new to the RPG community? 

But, by flagging self-promotion as the tag that defines content that should be limited, what have we ended up with instead?

There are many, MANY useful threads on reddit. I've seen some really thought-provoking ideas and inspirational comments, pieces of art, and discussion there. Please take what I'm saying with a grain of salt; I seem to be in a snarky mood today. 

On the other hand...the more the blogs get squeezed out of the limelight, the more an average week on r/osr starts to fill up with repeat cycles of the following:

Folks, I'm new here. Does 'little brown books' mean the same thing as 'rules cyclopedia?'

Look, I took a photograph of the hardcover game I'm running/reading/found at a yard sale! 

If U don't luv BX moar than BECMI UR STOOOPID, lol [ok, maybe this one's rarer, but it shows up]

I'm running a Lvl 1 session for newbies in 13 minutes. Recommend a dungeon? Oh, TotSK? Thanks! 

There is a rightful place for every one of these. I've contributed to conversations just like those, and might again soon. Not too many years ago, I was the one needing clarification on what differentiated weird terms like Holmes, BX, BECMI, ODD, 1e, 2e, 3.5 etc. (I cut my teeth long ago on BECMI and 2e, but didn't really carry around that language). 

But, I can't understand why the door is wide open to things that aren't adding new depth to our conversations, while we build a hedge around the medium that regularly produces new ideas - blogs. 

So, let me end this rant with a hopefully constructive list of questions.

+ Am I missing something here? Why are redditors pushing blogs to the (functional) margins? Is there something we bloggers need to do better at?

+ Am I out to lunch? Fellow bloggers, does any of this match your experience/perspective? Or have I made Mt. Doom out of a Level 1 5-room dungeon? 

+ Should we consider revising self-promotion guidelines? Might we better distinguish between "self-promotion" and "promotion of ideas you came up with yourself"? Should, perhaps, we have policies *encouraging* blog discussion on reddit, but requiring such posts to invite and facilitate discussion right there on reddit? (As a blogger, I'd have no problem including a comment on my own blog post page with a link to an ongoing discussion on reddit). 

Thanks for hearing me out, and best wishes to all. And, really, thanks again to the mods; I don't envy their task. 

Happy Gaming, and - sure! - happy redditing! 



Thursday, July 22, 2021

REVIEW: Savage Worlds: Pathfinder (Part 2 of 2)

 Here's the second half of my review for Savage Worlds: Pathfinder

This follows on from my introductory comments, which you can find here, in part 1. As noted before, this review reflects running the game, not just reading it (gasp!). The game materials were provided as free .pdfs in exchange for a fair, thorough review here on the blog. 

Worth noting: as of early today, the July sale is on at DTRPG.com, and now you can get this game for a few bucks off: HERE for the Core Rules and HERE for the Bestiary (please note those, and any other DTRPG links below, are affiliate links - which help support this blog's activities at no added cost to you. Thanks!). 

Alright! Let's get this review out the gate. In today's post:

+ How does the game handle magic?

+ What else comes in the Core Rules?

+ How's the Bestiary?

+ What were my reflections after RUNNING the game?

+ How does SW: Pathfinder compare to other fantasy-genre SW products?

+ What are my overall thoughts? Final recommendation? 


HOW DOES THE GAME HANDLE MAGIC?

Quite nicely! 

First, there's lots of it. As the rules state (p. 167), "magic is everywhere in Savage Worlds: Pathfinder," as befits "the magically-charged world of Golarion." Of the 11 class archetypes offered for characters, only 3 don't have (or gain through advances) some sort of arcane or mystic powers (the 3 are Barbarians, Fighters, and Rogues). When you consider how easy multi-classing or extra arcane edges are to pick up over a character's career, you can expect plenty of fighty-sneaky characters to end up with some magic, anyway. 

So, magic is important. But how does it work? 

By my read, the game treats magic as narratively somewhat Vancian (mages squish spells into their brains through arcane study, but casting the spells exhausts the magic words from the caster's mind). Ok, fine...but in practice, mechanically, magic does NOT follow Vancian assumptions (which is music to my ears). I think I prefer this game's mechanics for magic to most iterations in D&D. 

You can get a bit of a deep-dive into the game's wizards here, but I'll offer a quick synopsis. Instead of a massive library of spells divided by class/archetype, there is a core group of Powers (about 60, I believe?). These are about as robust as a semi-grognard like myself might be used to in a lighter OSR ruleset, though of course it's peanuts compared to a full-fleshed magic system in one of the leading modern games. The beauty of SW: Pathfinder's system comes in the way the Powers get built out. 

See, that list of ca. 60 powers just offers some core templates, on top of which your players can build easily. 

Powers are modified, first by Trappings. What the game calls "Bolt" might stand-in for a traditional Magic Missile or Lightning Bolt; "Blast" could be Fireball, Prismatic Spray, or many others. When you first choose a Power, you assign it a default Trapping that fits your character's concept. So, my "Blast" might involve fire, but yours might involve a hailstorm of sharp ice fragments. On the one hand these just provide narrative color - until that color becomes meaningful. Are we fighting a troll? It's going to suffer more from my fire trapping, but your hailstorm damage will get regenerated. On the other hand, are we fighting some kind of fire-mephit? I'm probably out of luck. Each Power in the game comes with a small menu of optional, suggested Trappings, but the sky (and GM permission) is the limit (in our trial game, for example, a mage's spells allowed him to cause giant sticky goo-globs to burst out of the ground to entangle foes, whereas some other caster might have used accelerated-growth vines, ice, or who knows what for a similar effect). In short: Trappings offer customization and color, and they get out of the way completely until they are directly relevant. Well done. 

Second, Powers can be modified using a one-page menu of extensions and adjustments. Each caster has a pool of Power Points, which are expended to cast Powers (they recharge a little bit like hit points, except that this game has no hit points) ;-). You can spend extra Power Points to modify your Power on the fly at the moment you cast it. This includes things like adjusting the Trapping, expanding or limiting the normal scope, range, or duration of the spell, adding extra damage, adding armor-piercing to damage effects, etc. 

Finally, you can choose to cast more than one Power per turn (even the same Power - non-Vancian, remember!) so long as you have enough Power Points. In fact, you can even 'short' a spell, attempting to cast it under its normal cost, if you risk negative consequences should this fail (to be honest, the negative consequences are seriously tame - nothing like Dungeon Crawl Classic's failed magic results here!). You do have to 'ante up' 1 Power Point to attempt to cast a spell, which you'll lose even if you fail the attempt. 

In play, this all worked really nicely. Magic was a useful utility tool and a fun way to express a specific character, with reasonably minimal bookkeeping. 

The game also offers rules for crafting magic items - there's a short-term system, in which a caster 'deposits' some of their Power Points in an item, and a longer-term, slower system, for crafting in a way that doesn't burn through your Power. 

Thumbs up on the magic stuff. 


WHAT ELSE IS IN THE RULES?

There's a fair bit of other content. This is a pretty packed core rulebook. A few highlights:

+ Quick Encounters, Social Encounters, Mass Combat, Interludes, etc.: sections dealing with sub-systems for these. The Quick Encounters system offers (for example) a way to handle a random encounter along the road that might have minimally negative or positive consequences. Not the kind of thing you necessarily just want to hand-wave, but you don't necessarily want to spend half a session playing through these sideshows, either. This offers a little mini-game to sort them out. 'Interludes' offers a little mini-game for adding narrative depth to 'what we were all doing on that journey, or between sessions, or in downtime, etc.' Mass Combat is ALSO kind of a mini-game. It's a pretty decent system, though for some reason (I think based on comments on SW forums) I was expecting something a bit more integrated into the normal play procedures. Don't get me wrong - this mass combat system does reflect the core rules, and it allows players an integral role in shaping how battles go, without sacrificing a core emphasis on which side thrashes the other (the characters are important, but they support the army, not the other way 'round). All in all, these look like decent sub-systems. I didn't try them out in our playtest game. 

+ Some other cool combat elements: unlike the items just referenced, these aren't separate mini-games, but optional tweaks for the game's central rules. There's an intriguing random-roll tale for incapacitation effects (Injury Table, p. 126) when a hero gets taken out. Depending on how well you roll at this critical juncture, you might end up dead, you might be permanently scarred by one of these effects, or you might be debilitated by one until you've had time to heal. They're not pulling punches here, which delighted my evil old-school GM heart. Possible results include brain damage, "Guts - broken," "Guts - busted," "Guts - Battered" (each with different mechanical effects), or the most squirm-worthy: an injury to the "Unmentionables." There's ALSO a fun little table for 'creative combat.' No, we don't need a table of pre-generated results to be creative in combat, but these are some useful ways to spice things up. One of the game's key concepts in combat is the Support or Test roll - instead of making an attack, you do something narratively suitable to help a friend or distract/hinder a foe, and then roll to see whether you earned a mechanical benefit. This short table offers some colorful bonus effects for when a character pulls off a Support/Test roll. The intent, I think, is to encourage this kind of colorful and tactically nuanced behavior (and, aargh, I forgot to use this table during our playtest. But we did a bunch of Support rolls). Using this would make those characters who aren't great at fighting, per se, even more useful as they help their allies (and share a little bit more of the combat spotlight with them). It also adds to the dynamism of the combat system and its unexpected results. 

+ All the expected core manual stuff, of course - detailed gear lists, magic items, GM tips, etc. 

+ A mini-Bestiary: ok, so ... sigh. This mostly includes mundane animals and a few basic human types you might encounter. I understand that the base SWADE genre-neutral rulebook offers a very detailed Bestiary toolkit that lets you customize your own things. This isn't really doing that, at least not in any robust way. More to the point, there is a separate Bestiary volume. I am not really sure why this mini-mini-mini Bestiary is here, because it's not really adequate as a Bestiary. Just ... if you want this game, DON'T use this mini-Bestiary as a criterion for the game; you basically need the separate Bestiary

...well, if you want pre-made critters. There is a substantial list of special abilities here, and you can use them to put together your own monsters or convert existing ones from, say, Pathfinder (remember, in Savage Worlds, there's no HP, so you aren't crunching CR numbers and hit dice, you're deciding whether something is an Extra or a Wild Card, and then adding special abilities on top to suit the fiction and needed role for your adventure). 


WELL SHUCKS, SPEAKING OF ... HOW IS THE SEPARATE BESTIARY???

It works fine. For a separate purchase, you get a 132-page .pdf file with plenty of color art. The table of contents lists (I'm estimating) about 150 different monster entries, which doesn't include the various sub-entries as well. You get all the special abilities for monsters listed again (if I'm not mistaken, this time that content is just a little, little bit longer, suggesting that there might be a few new abilities wrapped into the Bestiary volume). 


Many monster entries include sub-entries for variants. In the picture above, the two centaur variants at the end of that creature's main entry show what a LESS-DETAILED variant would look like; other entries offer more detail for some critters' variants. 

I used several Bestiary monsters in prep (and a couple in play) for our playtest. The entries were fairly easy to run. The file is layered, so you can manipulate the .pdf to make it much more printer-friendly if you just want to print directly the pages you need. 

I only had a few quibbles with the Bestiary. I happened to notice that one of the Spectre's notes (on p. 112) refers instead to the Shadow, but I know PEG has been soliciting Errata on forums, and it wouldn't surprise me to see this tiny error vanish in a near-future update. The organizational choices didn't always agree with me; I first thought that the Bestiary lacked an entry for that classic,staple of D&D combats: the giant rat! It turns out that "Rat, Dire" is on p. 84, in the "Lycanthrope" section, as an adjunct to the "Wererat" entry - even though it isn't listed with other "Giant Animals" (pages 61-65), like the "Giant Stag Beetle," "Giant Leech," or "Giant Spider." On Ye Interwebs, there has been a little snarky howling that the Bestiary cover includes a Marilith ... but the book doesn't have an entry for that creature.

Ok, those quibbles aside, I found the Bestiary perfectly functional and a decent, probably even necessary resource for getting much play out of this game, unless you want to create/convert most monsters. If you DO want to do monster conversion, the Abilities described here and the attendant Size chart should let you sort through that without too much trouble. 


NOW TALK ABOUT RUNNING THE GAME!!!

I ran one quick combat scene with my kids, and then ran a proper full session with my adult gaming group. For that full session, I heavily expanded on a recent One-Page Dungeon contest entry (thanks, reddit user u/derekvanzarovich2 !!!), adding my own monsters, extra rooms and plot elements, etc. In my version, the PCs were sent to break up an assassination-and-abduction ring that had sway over a local governor. The bad guys ran a murder-for-hire racket with a deluxe option for customers: for an extra fee, they'd kidnap the victim, and make them fight to the death in an underground slave fight pen - while the person who paid to hire the 'hit' could come watch or even gamble on the outcome. The catch is that the ringleader was secretly a Doppelganger, who had magically gained the surprising cooperation of an undead serial-killer revenant, a Mohrg, making it willing to sometimes abduct victims to increase their net personal suffering as gladiator pit-slaves, instead of just killing them. Ok, weird premise, but it worked to pull a session together. The underground lair was under an abandoned abbey; the PCs were a paladin, a monk (battle nun!), and an elderly wizard (all with only 3 advances). They had the option of bluffing their way in as 'customers' for an evening fight at the ring, or staking the place out and trying to infiltrate it earlier. The players chose the latter option. 

Here is a shotgun-array of various impressions from different moments running the game.

+ Hindrances are awesome! SW: Pathfinder characters can take on a few of these drawbacks or vulnerabilities at character generation. As you Advance, you can buy them off, but I think I'd strongly advise AGAINST getting rid of hindrances - they're that useful for the story and characterization! Don't use that knife! Hindrances. Our three characters included a martial Paladin who is literally afraid of the dark (Phobia: Minor), which meant that he had to muster his courage and face his own fears before going off to smite real foes in the darkness. The wizard had the "elderly" hindrance, with its attending penalties to many physical actions. The monk had taken vows never to touch money (thanks, St. Francis of Assisi!) and never to wield a weapon. Why were these useful? Well, for one thing, they immediately reveal interesting sides of these 'archetypal' characters. Moreover, these problems became directly relevant in play ... which meant that they helped earn the players new BENNIES (basically re-roll tokens on steroids). 
    For example: the heroes found the outline of a secret door in the ruined abbey, but the door obviously opened outward, and had no handle facing them. They tried to pry it open. The wizard used a dagger as a crowbar. The quite strong monk offered to help the weak wizard with a Support roll ... Now, why wasn't the quite able Monk the one attempting to pry open the door? Because she had taken a vow never to wield a weapon, and was therefore unwilling to use a dagger, even as a tool for ingress. So she just tried to tug at the door with her bare fingertips (penalty on the Support roll). Unsurprisingly, she failed to Support her ally adequately. Making things worse, the wizard rolled a critical fail (double 1s) on his roll to pry open the door ... so his dagger snapped. A bitter argument ensued between the characters (just in roleplay...the players are married to each other quite happily) :-). That was a bit of small drama mid-game that perfectly fit the characters but wouldn't have happened without their Hindrances - and the Bennies-for-hindrances system actively rewarded them for playing into it. 

+ "Can I use Stealth to climb down the well?" "No, you can't. You can use a rope to climb down the well. I'll tell you if you need to roll for anything." After failing to enter through the secret door, the players instead descended an old well-shaft. Just before, the conversation above occurred between a player and me. I noticed a recurring temptation for a player to see MECHANICAL SKILLS as the answer to in-game problems, rather than imaginative thinking about the fictional situation being described in-game. This is a problem (well, I see it as a problem) that I usually push against actively when running games. Here, again, you can see an artifact of my old-school/rules-light style of running games. 
    That being said, I was chatting with a local friend who GMs 5e games, and we agreed that this could just be a symptom of a player adjusting to a new, unfamiliar ruleset. I think that with further play, a GM could wean players of SW: Pathfinder away from seeing the Skills list as the actions menu, but a game like this, with Skills and Edges up-front, may require care if that is an approach you want players to avoid. 

+ Yes, the dice will explode! As I noted in Part 1, Savage Worlds uses exploding dice (a 6 on d6 is kept and re-rolled, over and over again if you keep rolling the max #, so you can potentially roll a very high number on a low die). Some of the most memorable moments in our game involved exploding dice. First, the monk blew a Stealth check out of the water via exploding dice (yeah, that time I did call for the Stealth roll!). Faced with a really spectacular success, I allowed the player character to accomplish quite a lot of active infiltration around several corners while 'riding the high' of that one roll. Later, the same player rolled a melee attack against the villain, and ... exploded a d8 with 3 rolls of 8 in a row. JAW DROP. I think the mathematical odds of that happening are 1:512! Well, it happened. This gave a result that was technically enough to earn 10 Wounds against the BBEG in a single hit. Now, the game actually says that no single attack can cause more than 4 Wounds, so this is capped. Even with that cap, this was enough to kill off the villain in a single hit. But...

+ To soak, or not to soak? The GM gets a few Bennies too, and 'wild card' (significant/powerful) NPCs have their own mini-pool as well. This allows the GM to roll to 'soak' (basically, nullify) Wounds for a BBEG, just like a player with Bennies can for their PC. Well, I've seen recommendations online that GMs should use their Bennies to re-roll missed hits, etc., etc., doing what they can to keep up pressure on the PCs, but NOT pay Bennies to Soak Wounds - in order to prevent fights from dragging on forever. In light of that recommendation, and because our spunky monk had just dished out UBERDAMAGE on the villain, I faced a little dilemma. At that moment, I had about 5 Bennie tokens available to spend on the villain's behalf. 
    I decided to soak just enough to leave the villain standing, but unable to take more than one further hit (the monk hit him again when he tried to run away, and killed him). 
    All good, and pretty easy to adjudicate, but this did leave room for a lot of subjective interpretation of the best strategy to take as GM. That's probably a net positive, in the end - had this been earlier in the session (if the PCs had made it initially through the secret door and dropped right into the villain's bedroom, for example), then I probably would have Soak, Soak, Soaked away. 

+ More on Bennies...I was apprehensive, before our game, about the Bennies economy. Would I give out enough? Would I be too stingy? Bennies are often described as the real currency driving the action in a Savage Worlds game. I think I agree. Again, this is something that will reward GMs who want to keep a finger on a game's pulse and adapt to changing situations, but it might frustrate GMs who only want a really by-the-book, rigid way to run. In my case, I found that the Benny economy just kind of fell into place in the game, though (as noted above) this was a lot easier because of the Hindrances. 

+ Multi-action turns are sweet - PCs can push beyond their normal action limit, performing up to three actions per turn if they accept dice penalties to ALL rolled actions that turn. This opens the door to some pretty frantic action now and then. Right after our elderly flubbed an Athletics roll to jump over a pressure plate (when I say 'flubbed,' I mean 'rolled a critical failure'), he face-planted right onto the pressure-plate, opening a hidden cabinet with a vicious undead killer waiting inside. Melee time! As the other two players got busy fighting, the wizard pulled off a really sweet 3-action turn...he successfully rolled to cast a spell weakening the monster, then successfully rolled to cast a spell that damaged the monster, and then he calmly stood back up. Nice turn, but good thing he made those rolls. 

+ Player reflections - we did a little debrief at session's end. Overall, all three players said they enjoyed playing SW: Pathfinder, and expressed interest in trying it again (with more advanced characters next time). One thing that really struck me about their comments was how they echoed a lot of the overall vision (hype?) for Savage Worlds: fast, furious, fun ... my players really felt that this is a game system for pulpy, unpredictable action. Memorably, one player said, "I feel like if we wanted to run a 'space cowboys' kind of game, this would be perfect for it." The flipside, of course, is that they weren't sure this is ideal for a more subdued, deliberate kind of play. 
    They commented on the importance of exploding dice and swingy results. "Because you can't really predict how things will turn out," one player said, "you kind of just have to 'go for it' with your actions, and see what happens."

I'll come back to those reflections in my final wrap-up below. But first: 


HOW DOES SW: PATHFINDER COMPARE TO OTHER FANTASY SW OPTIONS?

Note that I haven't played the other options described below, I've just read a bit about them. 

When you dive into SW: Pathfinder, you aren't just choosing to play fantasy Savage Worlds; you're choosing one particular approach to fantasy in Savage Worlds. The core SWADE system is, again, genre-neutral (aside from that general suitability for big, pulpy action), and is designed explicitly for customization to whatever type of game you're running at the moment. There is a Fantasy Companion that offers genre-specific options, but 1) the current one dates back to the edition before SWADE, and 2) PEG is at work right now on a follow-up Fantasy Companion for the new edition. Additionally, there are several setting-and-game packages for running fantasy SW of different flavors ... to cite some leading examples:

+ Beasts & Barbarians - Conan-esque sword-and-sorcery, heavy on the loincloth art. 

+ Gold & Glory - tips and tweaks for running old-school-flavored dungeon-crawls in SW

+ Tyrnador - a high fantasy setting and campaign, tonally somewhere between Mystara and Dragonlance.

I can't speak to those others, but the point should be clear: again, SW: Pathfinder offers a specific kind of fantasy for Savage Worlds. Relatively high fantasy; class-based archetypes dominate; magic items are plentiful (though I'll say 'when you want them' - you don't really need to load your characters up with them in this the way you might in normal Pathfinder). And, to put it frankly, it's mid-edition D&D as Savage Worlds, with all the pros and cons that might entail in your mind. 


FINAL THOUGHTS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

So where does all that leave us? Is this a good product? Who will most appreciate it? 

In short, I think this is a very good game, with a growing list of resources (PEG is at work on a bunch of things from the Kickstarter that are pending release, apparently soon!). 

The catch is that this may or may not be the right game for you, or for this moment

If you don't want to play a game that puts classes front-and-center (though they can be tweaked easily), don't get this. 

If you don't want a high fantasy, D&D-style system, don't get this. 

If you don't want a game that will surprise you frequently with BIG plays by heroes and villains alike, don't get this. 

And the flip side:

If you want a game that feels like 3-ish ed. D&D but is much simpler, check this out. For that matter, if you actually want to play some Pathfinder material, but you want to finish a combat before real-world humankind achieves insterstellar flight, try this out. 

If you want D&D classes front-and-center, but you'd like easy room for fast character customization, this is a great option.

If you want to run something that fits a dynamic, pulpy style, this is a great fit (I've seen comments online that some prefer running D&D's fantasy pulp setting, Eberron, in Savage Worlds instead of D&D!). 

If you like having competent characters who have cool abilities, check this out. SW: Pathfinder produces characters who are marginally more competent than regular SWADE characters, but it doesn't require you to produce 'superheroic' characters (unless you're trying to). 

In fact, I think that if you really want to 'play D&D' but in the Savage Worlds 'fast, furious, fun' style, and if you'd like to take solid resources off the shelf and not have to invent everything yourself, then you're likely better off with SW: Pathfinder than with other SW fantasy options, or even with SWADE. If you prioritize your own content customization or other approaches to fantasy, look afield. 

Finally, for myself? 

There is some chance this will become my next ongoing campaign system, though it faces steep competition. The fact that this one system builds player familiarity with simple rules for many genres is a big plus, since we switch stories and even systems...oftener than I'd care to admit. :-) 

When I want to run something 'fast, furious, fun,' I will probably still reach first for Dungeon World or another light game, especially for one-shots, but will reach for this instead if I want that dynamism with more mechanical crunch. 

And, surprisingly, this might fill in on those rare occasions when I feel like busting out 4th edition D&D for some precise fantasy skirmish boardgaming, because underneath everything, Savage Worlds remains an evolution from a skirmish wargame, perfectly capable of running gridded movement, counting squares, etc. But by avoiding the hamster-wheel of slow hit point ablation, and by dropping a lot of unnecessary administrative encumbrance, SW: Pathfinder makes possible that kind of fantasy battle, with unique and memorable characters and foes - but fast. And, yep, furious. And fun. 

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

[REVIEW] Savage Worlds: Pathfinder - a Rules-Light GM's Perspective (Part One)

Not too long ago I had one of those "wait...what?" moments, as my DTRPG.com feed showed an unexpected but intriguing new product: the Savage Worlds: Pathfinder core ruleset. 



I was only familiar with each of those systems from a distance, but I knew enough to find the mixture surprising. That being said ... my ongoing Iron-Age Mystara campaign has just wrapped up a long trek across the Isle of Dread, using an OSR-influenced hack of PbtA rules like Freebooters on the Frontier, Dungeon World, etc. ... and as we consider the possibility of continuing our main campaign with higher-level characters, I'm pondering whether an alternate system might be better for handling such advanced-level play. And so, as I thought about various options, I wondered about Savage Worlds...and the new kid on the block, Savage Worlds: Pathfinder

So I asked the folks at the Savage Worlds subreddit whether this, or 'generic' Savage Worlds (the Savage Worlds Adventure Edition, or SWADE) would best suit me. They stressed SWADE's flexibility, and I initially leaned toward that. But ... but... SW: Pathfinder just looked so neat and shiny, and - as I'll discuss below - it really did offer some interesting bennies (that's a Savage Worlds in-joke, yo). I wrote to the folks at Pinnacle Entertainment Group (PEG), and they kindly agreed to send free review materials (core book, bestiary, and some other accessories in digital form) in exchange for a fair, thorough review here. Et voici

Although this product is pretty new, I'm sure the interwebs will soon be awash in discussions of this ruleset. This particular review should offer two more specialized contributions. First, I was able to get a group together to try this game in action, so I can talk about how the game plays, not just how it reads. Second, as regular readers of my blog know, I dabble in a lot of different game systems, but I tend to favor running quite light systems that rely on GM rulings over 'crunch' (in the early years of grad school for ancient history, as my day-job routine came to involve excruciating amounts of analytical activity, my gaming tastes rapidly turned away from highly complex rulesets). But every rule is made for its exceptions, right? I also enjoy running the occasional skirmish encounter in 4e D&D (played as tactical wargame rather than story-telling RPG). So I can hang with the big dogs when needed! Most of the time, though, I'm running OSR, PbtA, narrative, or even free-form games. 

So ... what does a rules-light GM like me think of this new SW: Pathfinder ruleset? Does it have anything to offer in my world? Short answer: yep, and my players want to play it again! Long answer: please read on! 


WHAT'S THE ACTUAL PRODUCT, HERE?

I'm reviewing a 260-page .pdf of the Core Rules. The file is large (a bit slow to open), but works fine once open. It's bookmarked, indexed with hyperlinks, and has layers, so you can make it more printer-friendly. With the layers visible, the book is visually appealing and extensively illustrated (with existing Pathfinder artwork, as far as I can tell). Printed copies will be available. Currently, you can buy the .pdf rules from PEG, or on DTRPG.com. It costs USD $24.99 for the .pdf, which - let's be honest - will give some customers sticker shock. Whether it's worth it is part of what I'll be reviewing, of course! (Advance notice: I do think the cost is a real issue, but I am going to offer an overall positive verdict on these rules). The Bestiary is a separate volume, available in .pdf for USD $14.99

[NOTE: links to DTRPG.com in this post are affiliate links, which help support this blog's activities at no added cost to customers. Thank you for any support!]. 


SO, WHAT HATH ATHENS TO DO WITH JERUSALEM? AND WHAT HATH SAVAGE WORLDS TO DO WITH PATHFINDER

Guilty confession: Pathfinder was sort of responsible for my adult re-entry to the RPG hobby. Well, actually, it was the Wayne Reynolds art that drew me in;  reading up on the actual game system turned me off really quickly (so I went and discovered Dungeon World instead, and then later found OSR games; the rest is history...)! Pathfinder, by Paizo, is actually an adapted version of old 3.5 edition D&D, and was long the giant behemoth dominating the RPG industry (until WotC clawed their way back on top, I believe, with 5e). Anyway. As a game, Pathfinder itself (not the SW: Pathfinder under review here) is profoundly crunchy, offering a simulationist focus and enormous scope for character customization ... at a cost of wildly bloated rules and a character-generation process that takes more time than carving the Grand Canyon or naturalizing as a citizen of a new country. 

The game's default setting is the kitchen-sink fantasy world of Golarion. In my understanding, Golarion (compared to, say, WotC's Forgotten Realms) offers a wide-open canvas for whatever kind of adventure you want to run, tinged by elements of both mundane and cosmic horror, in which player characters - i.e., NOT ELMINSTER!!! - can decide the fate of nations. All that being said, Paizo's "adventure path" campaign super-modules offer interesting premises, but they take heat (in my parts of the internet) for tendencies toward railroady narratives and filler fights that serve no purpose beyond grinding for XP (they also get some love, if under severe constraints). 

Savage Worlds was released back in 2003, building on earlier foundations. That date is worth noting: SW's motto is "Fast! Furious! Fun!" but the median game complexity back in 2003 was a lot higher than is the case today. The SWADE edition is a much more recent update, and the game certainly still produces "fast, furious, fun" play right now in 2021, but it isn't rules-light by modern standards; it's a more complex and 'crunchy' game than the lighter end of the spectrum, even if it's light-years more simple, still, than Pathfinder. If you want a quick intro to the rules concepts across SW, I'm not going to re-invent the wheel here: just go read this two-page comic-strip summary. Boom. That being said, the game has some significant differences from any version of D&D, differences that involve more than just a sliding scale of complexity. Some of these differences were summed up very nicely in a recent text interview with the design team behind SW: Pathfinder. One of the most notable differences is that characters have no Hit Points. "Wild Cards" - PCs and the most significant NPCs - can take 3 wounds before they're incapacitated; most 'extras' can only take 1 before being knocked out of action. Dice used in combat and task resolution may also explode, which means that you can get some very unpredictable, but easy-to-administer, outcomes during combat. In effect it means that a bandit with a short sword is still, potentially, a threat to a high-leveled character (I really like that! I hate the 'that peasant aiming at my face can only do 6 hp damage, so who cares...' phenomenon that often pops up in D&D). Overall, I'd say that Savage Worlds offers more precision, crunch, customization, and explicit tactical options than the lighter games I tend to play, but without too high a cost; it also offers a much looser, more flexible, and more dynamic approach than the big crunchy games. The game is often hailed as a great choice for pulpy, swashbuckling games with big action. [Interestingly, I've seen several comments in forums from people who consider Savage Worlds a superior system to D&D for adventures set in Eberron, WotC's pulp-noir fantasy setting].  After our playtest, my players agreed that the game is a great fit for that pulpy playstyle. 

So, the idea with SW: Pathfinder was apparently to make it easier to run Pathfinder adventure paths using the SW rules framework. Personally, I don't have a ton of interest in running those APs...but I am very interested in new ways to play D&D that don't over-burden the GM, but offer a bit more rules content for players to engage with. And this is definitely a full, coherent ruleset. After reading the rules and running this game, my initial take is quite positive. In various online forums of yesteryear, many Savage Worlds fans have recommended against shifting D&D veterans to a fantasy game on your first outing with Savage Worlds, since they say going in with expectations shaped by D&D can lead to trouble. Well, no more...this version of the SWADE toolkit is designed explicitly, from the ground up, to evoke a mid-edition D&D 'feel' without the associated simulationist baggage. That's a real plus in my book. Reading and running SW: Pathfinder, I keep feeling reminded, oddly enough, of a modernized, streamlined AD&D - a big expanded toolkit ready to support you with a million little special rules (that nobody fully utilizes all at once), but perfectly capable of collapsing smoothly down to the very basics when you don't want all that cruft to get in the way. 

Hmm, I guess that was a bit of a TL;DR already! Lots more though ... in what follows, I'll more closely address some aspects of the game that stood out to me. 


Art from the Core Rulebook (this one by Wayne Reynolds, I believe). I'm not crazy about ALL the art in the book, but some pieces - like this one - really make me want to go run a game right now. The Savage Worlds ruleset is a good fit for this sort of small-party-vs.-hordes-of-thugs action!


MAKING CHARACTERS

Character generation uses a point-buy process for Traits (Attributes and Skills) supplemented by Edges (like Traits) and Hindrances (which may have mechanical effects, and can also earn you bennies, or re-roll tokens, when your hindrance makes life rough for you). SW:PF lets you build the kind of characters you'd expect in a mid-edition D&D game: humans and the leading 'demi-human' ancestries are present (dwarves, elves, gnomes, half-elves, half-orcs, and halflings). You also get (as a free Edge) one of eleven archetypal classes (barbarian, bard, cleric, druid, fighter, monk, paladin, ranger, rogue, sorcerer, or wizard). It sounds like PEG may more of the other Pathfinder classes in future, too. You aren't FORCED to play one of these classes, actually - if you really want a fully customized character, you can get a bonus Background or Professional Edge in lieu of a Class - but the archetypal classes are really one of the important things this version of Savage Worlds contributes. Don't think, however, that you are being pigeonholed into a narrow archetypal box. It's also really easy to get a couple of other Edges, which means that your free Class Edge isn't cutting too much into your personalization options. You've got room here to min/max toward a special design vision, but it's quite easy instead to make characters who feel unique and colorful. For example, when designing sample characters, I whipped up a Paladin on the run from powerful enemies, who has the Streetwise Edge thanks to a life hiding in the shadows (so, Batman, kinda...). In the game I ran last weekend, one player ran another Paladin who is literally afraid of the dark (a phobia Hindrance), who had to challenge his fear of unlit environments in order to go destroy the evil within them (using his cool Paladin Edge abilities). You could make a Barbarian who happens to be something of a scholar, etc. Character design feels very customizable, without too much work. 

Every few Advances, you're going to go up in Rank (from Novice to Seasoned, Veteran, Heroic, and then Legendary). Most of these Rank advances grant a new little package of powers to each Class archetype. This means that over a PC's career they will keep getting more powerful in their chosen archetype (duh!) while still having tons of room during most of the advances between Ranks to round out the particular, i.e. 'non-archetypal', vision the player has for this character (like boosting skills, buying a new Edge, removing a Hindrance, etc. - though I find many of the Hindrances quite helpful for play, ironically, and might discourage players from dropping them). 

I found that designing a new character from scratch currently takes me about 20 minutes. That's longer than I'd like, but not too long. I think that greater system familiarity would speed this up quite a bit. Additionally, the game comes with a sample 'iconic' character for each Class archetype, showing a suggested advancement scheme for their full career. That means that if you just want to play NOW and you aren't worried about customization, you can pick an archetype, pick a number of Advances/Rank, print, and go (PEG has also released some archetype cards with further options for quick character pregens). Each class archetype takes up just 1 page of the rules, plus 1 more page for the sample character (with a few, justifiable, exceptions, like extra information on sorcerer backgrounds). 

How about those class designs, anyway? 

Each of the Class Edges offers a compact, evocative distillation of a D&D class vision, emphasizing cool stuff you can do in-game, without a lot of needless chaff to clog it up. Let's talk about the classes that made me sit up and take notice ... usually, but not always, in a positive way. 

BARBARIANS are fast, hit hard, and rage. If things go poorly, they might hit their friends by mistake, or run out of steam prematurely. A solid combat build; certainly a functional and evocative design that fits current tropes. That being said, I'm glad SW:PF makes it easy to round out a character with extra flavor through other Edges. 

BARDS gain power points, the way Clerics and Wizards do, (more on that, later) along with 3 starting powers -- but they choose from a more limited menu of powers. Upon advancing a little, they gain 'inspiration tokens' that grant re-rolls to friends and allies in a fight. The Bard seems like a flavorful but mostly combat-centered class, albeit one that favors a supporting role. 

CLERICS: They all get Healing for free, and then choose other powers from a limited menu supplemented by a chosen Domain. Note that in Savage Worlds, you don't really need to have a cleric or designated healer to the extent that you do in most D&D games - you can spend Bennies to try to Soak/prevent Wounds in combat. Letting EVERY cleric get Healing for free is a nice boon on top of this, but clerics also retain good room for customization beyond being the 'adventure ambulance.' 

FIGHTERS: Hmmm. Hmmm. I really like Fighters, usually, but I had a very bittersweet reaction to this Class. The Fighter's base ability lets them activate any one of the Combat Edges in an encounter, even if the Fighter doesn't have that as one of their assigned edges. In other words, the Fighter has full access to the game's menu of Combat Edges ... that's a 4-page menu! (about 1.5 pages in the abbreviated summary list). This means that a Fighter is really good at adapting on the fly to each new encounter's tactical situation, better than any other kind of character at having just the right trick available to excel in combat. The downside is that this calls for extensive player system-mastery (did I mention '4-page menu'?). It only happens once per encounter, but I imagine this could lead to players spending most of an encounter delaying their choice, thumbing through the list looking for juuuuuust the right Edge to employ...If this were a boardgame, I would love, love, love this design choice. However, in RPGs, I (personally) am firmly in that school that encourages players to think about the fictional reality emerging in play MORE than the list of mechanical options available. This is kind of a staple of OSR approaches to gaming, spawning the dictum, "the answer isn't on your character sheet." What I'd really value would be a Fighter that enables cool combat maneuvers and makes characters really good at them ... without requiring that character's player to break narrative immersion in order to thumb through pages of rules options. Not saying it's a bad choice, but it's the one choice that most disappointed my own play-style preferences. 

I'll note, though, that Savage Worlds lets you custom-build Fighters on your own, already. If I run any Fighters, I may just offer them an extra 2 (or even 3?) Combat Edges instead of the book's base ability. 

PALADINS look really fun to play and aren't complicated. They are good at identifying whether someone/something is evil, they are good at smiting things that are evil, and they can encourage their friends when they face fear (at higher levels, they gain a loyal steed, mystic powers, etc.). One of my players ran a paladin in our trial game and seemed to have fun. As noted above, customizable Edges make it easy to escape the cardboard-cutout stereotypes typical of many paladins in simpler systems - if you want to. 

RANGERS are likewise cool and straightforward. Notably, they aren't primarily wilderness warriors; they're hunters and stalkers of *some* specific environment. They pick a favored enemy from a list of 13 broad categories (like 'undead' or 'humanoid' or 'aberration,' so you don't have to worry about those 'Oh no, I hate orcs but not hobgoblin' moments). Fighting a favored enemy, the Ranger gets a free reroll on combat attacks; fighting on favored terrain, the Ranger gets an extra initiative card (Savage Worlds uses cards dealt each round to determine initiative order, and some abilities/edges key into these cards). I will confess that I wasn't sure whether this extra card grants an extra activation, or just another chance to go earlier in the round. Like Paladins and several other classes, Rangers end up with a limited range of mystic powers once they've advanced a few times. Here is the note I made to myself upon initially studying the Ranger archetype's advancement benefits: "The advancement structure here remains quite simple, but really tracks a progression not unlike that of a classic OSR or 1e D&D character - but maybe feels even simpler. Or maybe simple isn't the right word...it's more focused on stuff that's actually cool."

ROGUES have a dirt-simple base ability: extra chance to cause Wounds on sneak attacks (Ye Olde Backstab). Later advances involve Notice rolls for spotting traps, and then it's all Agility, Agility, Agility, for dodging Area of Effect attacks or making better opportunity attacks against retreating foes. The SW:PF Rogue struck me as a bit flat as a starting character, but later in the advancement they look more like a balanced 4e D&D Slayer Rogue.

SORCERERS and WIZARDS look really fun! Sorcerers have fewer powers but more Power Points; Wizards, the opposite (so, depth vs. breadth). Wizards can be generalists or specialists, and there are simple rules for familiars and bonded magic objects, like a wizard's staff, which grant a +1 to spellcasting attempts. The player who ran in a wizard in our playtest had a good time. 

MULTI-CLASSING looks really easy, at least on paper! IIRC, you can take another class Edge once per Rank (not once per Advance). I've seen on forums, however, that this can cause some issues with conflicting class Armor restrictions in weird, unexpected ways. 


PLEASE STAY TUNED FOR MORE...

This is a sizeable book, and it's giving me plenty to say. I'm going to break this into a couple of posts, rather than try readers' patience too much at once. I'll aim to have the rest of the review up within the next week, or sooner. 

Still to come: 

+ How does the game handle Magic? (It's pretty cool!)

+ What else is in the Core Rules?

+ How's the Bestiary?

+ What were my reflections after RUNNING the game? What feedback did my players offer?

+ How does SW: Pathfinder compare to other Savage Worlds fantasy options? 

+ What are my overall thoughts and final recommendations? 


MEANWHILE...if you have questions based on what I've written so far, or if I need to clarify anything, comment away! 

Happy gaming. 


Saturday, July 10, 2021

GMing Knacks: some tricks that save me time & headaches when I run games

 When running RPG sessions, almost regardless of the system I'm using, I've found that several little tricks save time or hassle and increase the fun at the table. These aren't original to me - I've picked them up from a variety of sources - and experienced GMs might not learn anything here. Still, I thought I'd share these ideas as useful bits to slot into your mental toolkit on game night if you haven't encountered them before. 


ONE: MULTI-THRESHOLD ONE-SHOT MINIONS

Many games and/or hacks of games include simple rules for 'mooks,' minions, and the cannon fodder players love to mow down on their way to the BBEG. Some kind of category of 'one-hit wonder' foes are common in simple games, and in not-so-simple games, too: 4e D&D, for example, included rules for minion versions of monsters that were identical to normal monsters, but had only 1 hit point. Such rules allow for foes who pose a threat to PCs, but die quickly and with minimal book-keeping. All good. Yet I've found that stacking up your 1-HP goblin next to your 1-HP peasant, 1-HP orc, and 1-HP ogre can get a little flat. 

The way I typically handle minions now is to treat them as killable in a single hit, still, but varying by how strong that single hit needs to be. So I'll throw down some truly puny cannon fodder, like kobold minions with 1 HP, that can be killed by any hit. Elsewhere I might present a gang of 3-HP orc minions that only take 1 hit to slay, but shrug off any hits that do only 1 or 2 damage. In my most recent sessions, my players faced a sinister group of fanatical, agile fighters who were just the gatekeepers for the really scary monsters. I wanted to highlight that the fanatics were no pushovers, but leave the number-crunching and bookkeeping for the monsters themselves. Solution? I made the fanatical fighters 6 HP minions. Any hit that did 6 or more damage took them out in one blow; weaker hits just inflicted flesh wounds as the agile fighters danced away. And I could throw hordes of them at my players without breaking a sweat over the math.

Note that an intermediate option exists, too: use these rules, but treat any minion that takes a hit too weak to kill it as Wounded. Any hit, no matter how weak, kills a Wounded minion. 

[EDIT: perhaps obviously, variable Armor Class offers another way to distinguish between minions, even at just 1 HP. The method I use is particularly helpful for games like Into the Odd or Dungeon World, where armor levels are less variable and tend to involve damage reduction instead of a statted Armor Class. In these cases, I factor armor into the Minion HP level and then ignore armor completely in the combat itself.]

TWO: THE 1d6 ORACLE DIE

I think I first saw this in John Harper's World of Dungeons. On first sight, I was like, "um, what's the big deal?" - but now I use this CONSTANTLY. 

Ready? It's super-complicated.

When a player asks you a question about the game world and you don't have an answer prepped, or when something unexpected happens and you're not sure how well things should go from there, just roll 1d6 and interpret high rolls as answers favorable to the player. 

For example: in our ongoing campaign, one PC has a magic sword that allows him to see through the eyes of a nearby creature. Recently, the party was traveling overland and noticed a dust column rising from a distant party of travelers, coming from a direction that was of concern to the party. The player with the magic-sword-wielding PC very cleverly asked whether there were any birds of prey flying overhead at the moment. I rolled a d6, got a high result, and confirmed that there was indeed an eagle overhead. The PC was able to get an eagle's-eye view of the approaching travelers. 

Don't get me wrong - I constantly make my own yes/no decisions throughout each game sessions. But there come times when I want to let go - 'disclaim decision making,' in the words of Dungeon World - and let something other than my own whims or preferences shape the options. Regular use of the oracle die trains my players to think creatively, without requiring me to nay-say or approve all their ideas. 

It also makes things a bit more fun for me as GM, because I'm genuinely more surprised at the stories that emerge in play. 


THREE: ASK WHAT YOU'RE ASKING BEFORE YOU ROLL - THEN MIX BINARY/NON-BINARY RESOLUTION METHODS

Of the three, this is perhaps the trickiest, but it really helps me. 

When I run PbtA games like World of Dungeons or Dungeon World, I appreciate the system's baked-in dynamism and the way it enables me to cut through a lot of things to grab a coherent narrative outcome. However, there are times when setting up the classic PbtA 3-fold "Success, Success with a Consequence, or just Failure and Something Bad Happens" scheme does feel a bit forced. In other words, there are times when I just want to know whether something worked, and I really don't want to be bothered to come up with some new, edgy, 7-9 mixed-results consequence.

On the other hand...when I run a more traditional game with a binary task-resolution system (like pretty much any form of D&D), I find myself appreciating the system's greater mechanical precision, but sometimes I really start to miss the dynamism of the PbtA approach. 

So...what? Just switch back and forth between systems all the time? 

Well, yeah, that works, but there's another way to handle this too. 

At some point over the past few years, I had a really empowering insight: since I know how to run games in multiple systems, and I have some understanding of the consequences of fiddling with pieces of said systems, there is no reason not to carefully jump back and forth as needed. 

To put that more simply: just because I'm running a PbtA game, the U.N. Game Police aren't going to kick in my door if I occasionally call for a straight up-or-down task resolution roll. And if I'm running some vanilla OSR game with traditional mechanics, nothing stops me from whipping in a more complex and dynamic roll when it seems appropriate.

As I thought over my options, I realized that at different times when I call for a roll from players I'm actually interested in answering different questions. 

A lot of times, I really do just want to know: so...did it work? In those cases, a traditional, binary pass/fail roll is called for (the normal kind of D&D roll). 

At other times, I'm interested in a more holistic sense, asking: so...when you tried that thing, how did it all work out for you? PbtA pros will normally talk about task resolution vs. conflict resolution. To be honest, I'm not fully convinced by this approach; for some reason, I've found it much more helpful to just ask myself, "am I asking whether it worked, or how well it worked out?" When that subjective, looser, qualitative element is important to me, then I need some kind of variable-results roll. 

All this theory stuff aside, it's actually pretty easy to mix these elements within a single game. 

In my PbtA games, I sometimes just tell players to roll a save, 2d6 + STAT as usual, but treating an 8+ result as a Pass and anything lower as a failure. For example, in the Isle of Dread campaign we just finished, I wound up treating rolls to test for tropical diseases while traveling overland as pass/fail affairs. I just wasn't interested in messing around with intermediate results when all I really cared about then and there was "did you get sick, or not?" Who cares whether my system really said that was called for? I'm running the table, not the game's author. 

In more traditional games with binary task resolutions, it is trivially easy to adopt a PbtA-style mixed-results tests instead, so long as your roll only requires a single die. If your player is rolling a single d20 (or other die), make them roll twice. Two successes = a full success, one success = success with a consequence (or 'partial success,' depending how you're thinking about that), and no successes = failure and something bad happens. [If you're running something with a dice pool, this probably gets trickier, but dice pool systems often have variable levels of success built in, anyway].

To sum up this third point: a GM is free to ask what they want to determine at each point in a game, and it really won't break the game to swap in some unusual approaches when they're better suited for the moment.


CONCLUSION

I hope these tips prove helpful to somebody out there. They have saved me time and hassle, and made me feel more empowered and capable at the games table. What tricks save you time and enliven the GM experience? 

Saturday, June 26, 2021

Update on the Super-Fast-Rules, or: Friends, don't let Gundobad name his new minigame FEORHBONA

 Thanks to those who expressed interest in my new hyper-light rules for fast combats in dungeons, etc.! This post will offer a peek at the core rules, some of my design thoughts, and maybe even a little sample of play. 

Typing this all out felt less clear and short than this all runs in my head. Let me know which aspects here do not seem clear, or make no sense. Then, I dunno, maybe I'll post a sample combat walkthrough. EDIT: I've added an early solo playtest report at the end, but I could do a shorter, clearer example.


WHAT'S THE POINT?

As I reported in a recent post, these little rules allow for things like a party of four PCs fighting 7 trolls, 2 giant water monsters, and a score of goblins in just over an hour (that led to a TPK, but I won't say my young playtesters made the best tactical choices) :-). Again, I aimed to create something light and fast that would facilitate solo play, play-by-email/post/forum, or just quick play in general. Key inspirations were Tunnels & Trolls (here, I wanted to keep the opportunities for individuals making a difference in combat, but shave off a lot of the unnecessary number-adding), PbtA/Dungeon World (variable success, fictional positioning), FKR/freeform gaming (again, leaning into GM rulings about freeform/fictional positioning), and I guess some Troika! (skill system). 

I have not yet decided on a suitably pretentious title. If nobody has the decency to stop me, I'll end up calling it something utterly ludicrous, like FEORHBONA (Anglo-Saxon for 'Slayer'), or even FETHAN OND FIFELCYNN ('warbands and monster-kind'). Or, you know, maybe just HOARDS & HORDES

Yeah. Moving on. 


CHARACTER GENERATION

New characters start at Level 2. I'll explain levels in a bit, below. 

These rules make it easy to run a pool of multiple characters per player, so feel free to generate more than one if the GM says that's fine. For each character, you just need to choose their role, assign some skills, and write down two Stats (FORCE & DMG).

+ Choose whether you are a Warrior, or not (primarily) a Warrior. As you'll see below, non-Warriors can still be designed to fight well in certain situations. Think of Warriors as experienced line troops who do well in the general fray of combat. Non-warriors might be rubbish in a fight - or, instead, they might just be specialists, like keen-eyed Archers, or perhaps Duellists more comfortable fighting lone foes in isolation. 

+ Allocate Skill Points. Warriors start with 5 Skill Points. Non-Warriors start with 10 Skill Points. You can never have more than 7 Skill Points invested in a single Skill Tag (and you'll never apply more than 1 Skill tag to a roll). 

Skill Tags for a new character might look like this:

    Lore-Master +4
    Persuasion +3
    Crossbow Shooter +3

Skills can be freeform, but GMs should not allow excessively broad categories. "Fighter" and "Wizard" are poor choices for Skill Tags; pick something with a bit more specificity, something that won't apply in ALL situations, but may illustrate well why you're quite good dealing with certain situations. "Archer" and "Imperial Fire Wizard" make good choices.

When you Advance, you'll get more 2 more Skill Points each time, but remember that Skill Tags can't ever go past +7.

+ Write down your Force of Arms (FORCE) and Damage (DMG), from the Fighting Levels chart below. Numbers (in parentheses) are for Warrior PCs.

    LEVEL    FORCE    DMG

    1                1 (2)        1 (2)
    2                3 (4)        2 (3)
    3                5 (6)        3 (4)
    4                8 (10)      4 (6)
    5                10 (12)    6 (8)
    6                12 (14)    8 (10)
    7                15            10

There are no Warrior Stats for Level 7, because Player Characters max out at Level 6. I may still tweak the Fighting Levels chart, but as initially imagined, you flesh it out by placing peasants, goblins, etc., at Level 1, and then placing the most dangerous kind of opponent possible in your campaign setting as the Level 7 standard. The ratio between the numbers might need to be tweaked from campaign to campaign; the chart above doesn't have a really high power curve, but it's trivially easy to create a higher range by boosting these numbers - or just continuing the scale past Level 7. If I develop these rules any further, that's probably one of the things I'll keep tweaking. 

+ Tell the GM what kind of Equipment you'd like. Don't start with anything magical. You can basically carry whatever the GM says is reasonable, and you get to choose whether you are Not Armored, Lightly Armored, or Heavily Armored (the benefits and costs of each are described below, under Combat). Weapon choice does matter, but only in the 'fictional positioning' it enables for relevant Skill Checks. For example, the weapon you're wielding won't really matter for a generic Combat Fray roll. However, if you need to make a Skill Roll to keep enemies at bay in a narrow hallway, you will find that it suddenly becomes very important to know whether you're carrying a club, dagger, or spear. 

+ Last of all, think of some cool frou-frou details about your character. Or just send them off to fight were-bats. 

Ok, now here are two examples of completed characters:

Broag, Level 2 Human Warrior
FORCE 4
DMG 3
Swordsman +3
Wilderness Survival +2
Gear: Light Armor, Longsword

Kel, Level 2 Elf (not a Warrior)
FORCE 3
DMG 2
Magic of Smiting Evil +7
Ancient Lore +3
Gear: No Armor, Staff, Holy Symbol 


SKILL ROLLS - ACCOMPLISHING STUFF

As usual in such games, GMs should let characters accomplish actions that don't seem risky or uncertain. However, if you need to determine the outcome of a risky, consequential action attempt, make a Skill Roll. 

1d20 + one relevant Skill Tag bonus. 

6+ = Success for Easy challenges.
11+ = Success for Normal challenges.
16+ = Success for Hard challenges. 


COMBAT

As in Tunnels & Trolls, combat has two halves. 

+ 'THE FRAY' - this is the general swirl of melee combat. It is handled abstractly and involves variable levels of outcomes based on a dirt-simple die roll.
+ 'SPECIAL ACTIONS' - these involve Skill Rolls when a player tries to tip the odds of Fray combat in their favor, or do something else to modify battle conditions. 

Here's the basic turn order in combat:

+ GM describes the current situation, clarifies who is In the Fray, and comments on any tactical notes/expected odds.

    - Count up the total FORCE of PCs In the Fray, vs. the total FORCE of foes In the Fray. If the totals are equal or within 1, the next round of combat will have even odds. Otherwise, it will involve rolls at a Disadvantage or Advantage. Note that certain circumstances may let specific PCs roll at a higher or lower level of risk (see below). 

    - "Ok, so the Fighter and Ranger are still down on the boatramp holding off the fish-men, so they're both In the Fray. They're still outnumbered, so they'll be rolling with Disadvantage - but the Fighter is still standing on top of the cargo-pile, and so I'll give him a higher-ground benefit; he'll roll at Equal Odds. The Archer is up on the shore and has a chance to fire down at the enemies, or to run down and engage in the Fray. What do you all want to do?" 

+ Players announce whether they will attempt a Skill Roll. 

    - Generally, you get 1 shot at a Skill Roll before each round of the Fray. 
    - GMs, think as freeform as possible here, but also be realistic and logical. If you think the player could realistically pull of what they're suggesting in about 10 seconds, and you think it plausibly could affect the battle, let them try for an Advantage. Otherwise, just tell them No. 
    - PCs have pretty good odds of pulling off Skill Rolls, but failure brings consequences (1 level of Disadvantage for this round to the player who failed). 
    - Here are some examples of things players might reasonably attempt:
            - "I want to goad the troll to focus on me, so that he and I can fight our own duel, leaving the weaker members of the party to deal with just the goblins." 
            - "Aaah, I need to get out of the fray! I want to maneuver around to the door and get up the stairs. Hopefully I can shoot down into the fray next round." 
            - "I want to use my Smiting Magic to blast the troll with a bolt of force." 

+ Resolve Skill Rolls, applying any DMG as relevant. 

    - Failed Skill Rolls impose 1 level of Disadvantage this round on the player who failed.
    - Attempts to Damage foes use the Skill Bonus used for the roll as the DMG. For example, a character with Archer +6 deals 6 DMG to a specific foe on a hit. Any excess DMG is wasted if the foe dies. Alternately, a character could rain arrows across multiple enemies, but this only inflicts 50% (rounded up) of the Skill bonus as DMG.  

+ GM considers whether Skill Rolls changed who is In the Fray and who has Advantage. Next, players take DMG or roll for combat In the Fray as relevant. 

    - ok, this is where things start to get really fast. Players roll 1d6 for each of their characters located In the Fray. 
    - If you rolled with Advantage, then: 1-2=Mixed Results, 3-4 = Success, 5-6 = Great Success. 

    - If you rolled with Equal Odds, then: 1-2 = Failure, 3-4 = Mixed Results, 5-6 = Success.

    - If you rolled with Disadvantage, then: 1-2 = Awful Failure, 3-4 = Failure, 5-6 = Mixed Results. 

   Great, but what do those do? 

Ok, so characters are going to end up dishing out their DMG, possibly mowing down large numbers of foes per round. On the other hand, they can take DMG quickly, and if they suffer enemy special attacks, things get ugly. 

'Inflict Damage' - reduce the foes' FORCE by the amount of DMG your character inflicts In the Fray. If you're fighting a composite force of multiple foe-types with different stats, the GM should kill off enemies from the bottom or top of the list depending on how you rolled. 

'Take Damage' - if you're up against 10 goblins, you take 1 DMG, because Goblins have DMG 1. Temporarily reduce your FORCE to account for any DMG. 

'Tactical Advance' - this means that the enemy push forward in some way disadvantageous to the players - not mechanically, but in the fiction. Maybe the fighter standing on some cargo gets pushed off and loses that higher-ground benefit. Maybe the foes isolate the wizard in the corner so that he's in danger of fighting his own mini-Fray against some of the goblins. Maybe the barbarians push you all back from the gatehouse. 

A 'Foe Special Attack Effect' can vary by foe type. Think things like:

Troll: On Special Attack Effect, a troll regains 1d6 lost FORCE. If all trolls present are at full FORCE, rip a random limb off a character who incurred the special effect. 

Or, maybe:

Dark Charmer: On Special Attack Effect, the affected PC must immediately pass a Skill Roll or they switch sides, coming under GM control until the Dark Charmer is killed. 

Things like losing limbs don't effect your mechanical FORCE/DMG but they do inform the fictional positioning around Skill Checks, making Hard or even Impossible checks more likely. Don't worry, GMs: by the time a player is losing limbs, they're losing plenty of FORCE anyway. 

Note that getting a Great Success means you can cancel ONE Tactical Advance or Special Attack Effect incurred by a team-mate in the same round. This has a nice feel in play - a player groans as they roll that 1 or 2, and then sighs with relief as another player gets the 5 or 6...


WOW, THIS LOOKS DEADLY. WHAT ABOUT ARMOR?

Yeah, Armor helps. 

Having No Armor...doesn't help.

Having Light Armor means you reduce each instance of Damage by 1. When you attempt a Skill Check that would be hampered by wearing Armor, take a -2 penalty on your roll. 

Having Heavy Armor reduces each instance of Damage by 2. When you attempt a Skill Check that would be hampered by wearing Armor, take a -4 penalty on your roll.

Two important caveats:

+ Armor does NOT prevent Foe Special Attack Effects. A troll that can rip off your leg can rip your metal plates off, too. 

+ Whenever Armor would reduce an instance of Damage to a player to 0, roll a d6. On a 4-6 result, you take 1 DMG instead of 0. 


URK. Um, CAN WE HEAL? 

Yes. Refresh up to 1/2 (round up) your MAX FORCE every time you take a short rest. Roll a 1-in-6 chance random encounter check whenever you rest. 

Refresh to your full MAX FORCE after a full night's rest. Re-stock at least 1 group of foes per dungeon after a night's rest. 

Recover from relevant wounds and Special Effects after a full night's rest in a Safe Haven, after a week-long rest, or between sessions. If you lost a limb, etc., it ain't growing back on its own. 


DON'T THINK YOU'RE LEAVING THIS POST WITHOUT A BESTIARY...

Well, ok, a tiny one. For now, at least. 

Goblins: Lvl 1. FORCE 1 (per goblin), DMG 1. Special Attack: remove 1 gear item from affected player. If the PCs win this fight and control the ground afterward, the player can reclaim the item, but roll 1d6: 1-2 it's broken, 3-4 it's fine, 5-6 it's fine, but somehow already covered in filth. 

Vile Pile (a decaying mass of organic filth...magically mobile and hungry): Lvl 3. FORCE 5, DMG 3. Special Attack: Nausea. Pass a Normal Skill Roll or suffer Disadvantage for the remainder of this combat. 

Trolls: Lvl 4. FORCE 8, DMG 4. Special Attack: a troll recovers 1d6 FORCE. If all trolls present are at full FORCE, rip off an affected PC's random limb. 

Fire Fiend: Lvl 6. FORCE 12, DMG 8. Special Attack: Roll 1d6: 1-3, Fear-Spear (affected PC must pass a Hard Skill Roll or fall sobbing to the ground for 1 round); 4-6, Feel the Burn (PC is wreathed in flames and will take extra 1 DMG now and every round until they spend the whole round putting out the flames, which also requires a Normal Skill Roll). 


FINALLY, AN EARLY PLAYTEST REPORT

Below are some lengthy notes in which I typed out a solo playtest using some sample characters and a map by Dyson Logos. This may interest nobody, but it does illustrate some of the flow of the game, and its capabilities. I could write up a shorter, clearer combat example if that would interest anyone.


Sample Characters:


Ardvan, Lvl 4 Human noble warrior

FORCE 10, DMG 6

Swordsman +7

Courtier +4

Heavily armored; has a longsword and a short sword


Yulus (his apprentice), Lvl 2 Human Archer

FORCE 3, DMG 2

Archer +7

Woodsman +3 

Lightly Armored; has a Bow and an axe 


Osk, Lvl 4 Elven Mystic

FORCE 8, DMG 4

Magic of Smiting Evil +7 (freeform; may harm up to skill level, may try to push away, etc.)

Lore +4

Healing Magic +3 (may heal 1d6 on seen target, +Adv if touching)

No Armor; has a stout staff and a short sword 


Koth (his apprentice), Lvl 2 Human rogue

FORCE 3, DMG 2

Sneaky Thief +5

Climbing +4

Ok shot +1

Has a short sword, light crossbow, and no armor


1 1 (2) 1 (2)

2 3 (4) 2 (3)

3 5 (6) 3 (4)

4 8 (10) 4 (6)

5 10 (12) 6 (8)

6 12 (14) 8 (10) 

7 15 10


ENEMIES IN THE CAVERNS: 

In the outer chambers, 3 squads of 10 Norkers with clubs and spears, FORCE 15 (1.5 each), DMG 2 

In the dark waters: 

2 Cave Horror Fiends each FORCE 10, DMG 6 hiding in the water

In the back chambers across the lake, with boats:

20 more Norkers, FORCE 30 (1.5 each), DMG 2 


[EDIT: deleted some stuff here dropped in from a second playtest, which didn't belong here] 



The party enters the complex from the stairs at bottom left. Koth, the rogue, sneakily checks out the place, avoiding the gaze of watchers up the hall - but the rest of the party triggers a Norker alarm (Yulus’ armor juuuuust made him fail his check to sneak in)! The party flees to the square room with 3 doors near bottom left, where they are attacked from 2 directions. 2 Norkers have run off to alert reinforcements. 

The first wave of Norkers assaults the party, but the heroes have the advantage against only 8 Norkers (FORCE 12). Ah well…Ardvan and his apprentice Yulus get only mixed results; the other two (wizard and rogue) win great successes. 

All the Norkers here are cut down; but Yulus takes 1 DMG (Ardvan’s armor protects him from the damage). So Yulus is now FORCE 2, and the full party’s FORCE = 23. 


The foe also gain a tactical advance: 11 Norkers (FORCE 17) are now streaming in from the south! (these were the ones forming east, nearer the pools). The sound of a third group hooting and screaming to the north draws closer. 

Yulus will try to snap off some shots at the Norkers as they charge in. He opts to fire quickly and spread his damage widely. He hits, inflcting 4 DMG on the Norker squad. (now they’re FORCE 13). New melee round: 

All heroes fight with the advantage. 

Ardvan: success!

Yulus: mixed results. 

Wizard: mixed results.

Koth: success. 

So, all heroes deal damage and the second group of Norkers is wiped out entirely. But Yulus takes another damage - now he’s at FORCE 1, gulp - and the wizard Osk takes 2 damage and drops to FORCE 6. 

Meanwhile - tactical advance - the third group of Norkers has sped in from the north and is already bursting into the room atop the heroes! 

New round, but first, attempted skill rolls:

Yulus really needs to fall back to safety and ideally get some healing. 

Ardvan will try to swing in wide circles as he falls back, buying space for the rest of the team to flee into the room south of them. Then Ardvan will try to hold the door all by his lonesome for a round! Hmm, the Norkers are already right there so I’m imposing a Difficult rating, but he’s swordsman +7, so … oh dear, he rolled a 2, and not only fails but he will be at a disadvantage this next round. Osk the wizard will give up his turn to try to heal Yulus in a hurry. He fails too…groan….

In this next round of combat, Ardvan gets a simple failure and Osk the wizard gets an Awful Failure…oh boy…But Yulus and Koth do get to fight at advantage since they didn’t boff a roll and the team has FORCE 22. 

Yulus gets a great success (whew!) and Koth gets a simple success. Together they inflict 4 DMG on the Norkers, who drop to FORCE 13. 

But Ardvan takes 1 DMG; Osk takes 2 DMG and is gut-stabbed by a spear (aaahhh!), a nasty wound that will give him disadvantage to pretty much anything until it heals. Now Osk is at FORCE 4. and Ardvan is at FORCE 9. The team is at FORCE 17. 

It gets worse…tactical advance for the baddies…Osk the wizard is isolated in a corner of the room by 3 Norkers (FORCE 5), leaving a FORCE 9 to deal with Ardvan, Yulus, and Koth (together, FORCE 13). 

Ardvan: success. 

Yulus: Great success!

Koth: mixed results…He drops to FORCE 1!

Osk: Failure. (he drops to FORCE 2). 

Now only 3 Norkers are left, in a ring around Osk. 

Yulus and Koth fall back and withdraw from the Fray. 

Ardvan will try to engage all three and intimidate them from dealing with Osk. HE DOES! 

Ardvan hacks mercilessly through the last 3 Norkers. Silence falls. 

Wow. 

Ok, time for a rest-break for the party (who just fought 30 Norkers, good grief…). 

So, on a short rest, all will heal naturally up to half their max FORCE, rounded up. 

Ardvan: stays at 9 FORCE.

Yulus: now has 2 FORCE.

Osk: has 4 FORCE.

Koth: has 2 FORCE. 


Right. Koth really needs to use some healing on himself and the 2 apprentices. Koth is the priority, with his gut wound. 

The wound gives him disadvantage, but the self-proximity gives advantage, so it’s a straight roll for an 11 difficulty. Aaaaand he rolls a 2 again. Good grief.

Ok, so failed magic rolls need some kind of consequence…hmm. WORK ON THIS. 

Ah, the GM ‘secretly’ decides the consequence: the cave horror fiends in the water sense his efforts and are now aware of the party’s presence. They set up an ambush from underwater for now. 


Well, depending on the campaign circumstances this might be a good time to fall back and rest up, but let’s say time is tight and the party must press on. 

Ok, so they head onto the wooden planks on the lake…and they’re ambushed by cave horrors leaping from the water. 

[HOW DO SURPRISE ATTACKS WORK?] Either make a perception check to avoid automatic damage, or make a roll/‘dex save’ to avoid an attack. Let’s go with the latter. [I later decided to just say Skill Roll or take 1 round of Dmg].


Oh schnarf; both cave horrors attack the wizard as they spring from the water and try to rend him and drag him back down underwater. Gulp. 


So Osk fails both rolls and takes 12 DMG. THE WIZARD IS DEAD, CRUMBS!!!!

The monsters rise again, all too happy to kill the other interlopers now. 

(Huh - that’s neat - I realize now that it would have been a prudent move to keep the archer on shore, standing overwatch, so that he would be safer AND would be in position to launch skill-roll shots at these guys. Lesson learned! Be wary! Yeah!)


Huh; can Koth use ‘sneaky thief’ to attempt a backstab on one, doing his skill level (+5) as damage? I’ll rule that he must spend a round sneaking around and can try it next turn. yeah, he fails the roll. 


Yulus the Archer tries to bug out and flee back to bowshot range. Nat 20! Success. 


And Ardvan starts hacking at the monsters, against overwhelming odds…he suffers an Awful Failure (but the die ALMOST landed on 6, grr!). He takes 4 DMG, going down to FORCE 5. He also … let’s see, gets an arm ripped off or gets dragged in the water…oh, it’s his left arm that gets ripped right off. Waaaa. Wait, tactical advance too…stay tuned….


Koth also suffered an Awful Failure and simply gets swallowed whole and killed. Buh-bye! 


Ok, the last thing is the tactical advance…on of the horrors breaks the planking so that Ardvan is now stranded on his little floating platform. 


New (and final?) round: 


Yulus aims a shot at a horror. Ol’ one-arm keeps swinging with his sword-arm. 

Yulus hits, dealing 2 DMG (woohoo). 

Aaaaaaand Ardvan suffers another Awful Failure, dropping to Force 1. Oh, and his other arm is bitten off. 

Well, that’s curtains. 

Yulus the archers flees from the blood-soaked dungeon, gibbering in terror and grief. He makes it alive back to the Stronghold, where he tells of the nightmare encounters beneath the earth.


Another party assembles….


Impressions:

SO that was fun. It kept combat pretty abstract but actually allowed for a bit more nitty-gritty than I expected, which is nice (probably similar for T&T). The party was totally trounced, but on the other hand they were 4 adventurers (including 2 starting-level characters) agains 30 Norkers and two hideous monsters, so … they did pretty well for a non-balanced encounter. 


I do see that the abstract combat allows/requires careful thought about tactical positioning and options. Putting archers where they can do the most good is important (as is covering fire in real life!). 


For the next encounter, how about 2d3 trolls have taken up residence in the outer halls, then re-run the restocked dungeon with a new team of heroes (stronger ones, or no?)