Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Old Witch of Riga, Part II

From the Riga Municipality website:

It is prohibited in the territory of public property:
to engage in fortune telling and magic;

This is first on the list, before the interdictions against open alcohol on the streets or driving a vehicle on the ice of the canals.

I guess the old girl gave them some trouble in the past.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Connectivity Calamity!

Bad news, Hauntheads! Internet at the Casa de My Place is out-ish again! Expect fewer and smaller updates.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Workshop Yesterday: Playmobattle Creator's Commentary

Let me explain. Three years ago, I worked at a toy store.

That store sold the popular European toy line Playmobil. When I was young, I considered Playmobil to be Lego for chumps and babies - an opinion I hold to this day. The store organized its Playmobil along a massive shelf that constantly needed adjusting, front-facing, and aligning.

Playmobil is identified by a four-digit serial number in a coloured lozenge. The colour roughly corresponded to the theme of the toy. I saw a grid of modular pieces with printed information. I saw a pre-built resource system - the price tags. I saw an excuse for employees to keep going over there. I saw a game.

The previous post is the complete text, unedited from the product of that one fevered evening three years ago when I banged this out.

I played once, but it proved too difficult to manipulate the pieces on the shelves without rearranging everything. It was also too hard to identify which pieces were whose. It kinda choked and died - like most of my first playtests - and we never returned to it.

I note now, on reviewing the piece, that no victory condition is included. I assume it's when a player destroys all his opponents' pieces, but I should have wrote that down. I also should have defined a few terms. I present it here, in lieu of original content, for posterity's sake.

In an ideal world, where no one minds Post-It notes on their toys, I think this could have been an awesome game.

Workshop Yesterday: Playmobattle

First Draft
The once-tranquil town of Playmoville has been torn asunder. Rents through time and reality have turned the quaint metropolis into a warzone. By now, previous allegiances mean nothing; emergency workers, warriors from across history, and common citizens fight side by side to determine who will control the Playmoville of the future. But at this time, there is only playmobattle.

The Rules
Playmobattle is a simple strategy game using shelves of Playmobil as pieces and board. There is one rule that deserves mention above all others: THIS GAME CANNOT AND WILL NOT EVER EVER EVER INTERFERE WITH THE OPERATION OF THE STORE. DO NOT PERMIT THE GAME TO DISTRACT FROM YOUR JOBS! This is so incredibly important that I will elaborate further. If there are customers in the store, cleaning or restocking to be done, or if closing is within one hour, the game is done and forgotten. As an extension of this, no part of the game can upset the organization or neatness of the shelves. Failure to follow this, Rule One, will result in immediate and permanent cessation of the game and all future games. Understand?

Beginning the Game
Players begin the game with an agreed-upon sum of money. Games using less of the shelf should begin with less money. Randomly determine a player to make the first purchase. Players take turns purchasing units until all players pass consecutively. Then the first round begins.

The Round
1. Refresh all units- Remove activation markers from all units.
2. Determine first player- The first player is the player with the most money in reserve in this step. Play proceeds in alphabetical order by last name.
3. Perform Tactical actions with Locked units- Starting with the first player, all players may perform one Tactical action with each of their Locked units in any order. This does not grant an activation marker.
4. Unit actions- Starting with the first player, players activate units one at a time. Activated units may perform up to one Tactical Action and up to one Attack action with the active unit. Play progresses to the next player in the turn order, who may activate a unit or pass. Once all players pass consecutively, the recruitment phase begins.
5. Recruitment- Starting with the player with the least reserve money, players may take turns purchasing new neutral units. Only neutral units adjacent to friendly units may be purchased. Once all players pass consecutively, the round ends. Repeat from Step One.

Each of the four digits of the part number is a statistic. In order: Influence, Combat, Agility, and Willpower. Each statistic has an associated Tactical and Attack action. Attack actions require a “Test”. A Test is successful if the acting unit’s relevant stat is higher than that of the target unit.

1. Influence is a unit’s social power and pull in the world of Playmobattle. The Influence actions are Collect and Manipulate: “Tactical: Collect this unit’s Influence in dollars”, and “Attack: Influence test: If successful, place an Activation Marker on an adjacent unit.
2. Combat is a unit’s capability to survive and succeed at physical violence. Combat actions are Guard and Strike: “Tactical: Give an adjacent unit this unit’s combat value for the purposes of resisting Combat checks”, and “Attack: Combat test: If successful, deal this unit’s Combat in damage to the target.”
3. Agility is a unit’s speed, wits, and maneuverability. It can be used to Move and Evade: “Tactical: Make one valid move with this unit to a space within (Agility) spaces”, and “Attack: Agility Test: Move the target a number of spaces equal to the amount the Test succeeds by.”
4. Willpower is a unit’s strength of spirit, and conviction. Willpower actions are Focus and Intimidate: “Tactical: Distribute a number of points equal to this unit’s Willpower among this unit’s statistics”, and “Attack: Willpower Test: Reduce the target’s statistics by a total number of points equal to this unit’s Willpower, distributed as you choose.

Additional Rules

Adjacency: Units are adjacent if they touch at points along the sides at any point. Units touching exactly at corners are not considered adjacent.
Movement: Movement results in exchanging with the unit in the target space. This cannot break Rule One. If either the moving unit or the unit in the target space does not fit in the intended space, the move is invalid. Movement paths may only be drawn across adjacent spaces. Movement paths may not cross themselves or backtrack. If a path results in unusable movement points, the acting player may choose to Lock the moving unit.
Hit Points: A unit’s hit points are equal to its cost in dollars. They cannot be recovered.
Locked Units: Locked units may not perform or be targeted by Agility actions. At the beginning of each round, all Locked units may perform one Tactical action. This does not require activation.
Specials: Specials are considered adjacent to all units. Any Attack action targeting a Special returns them to Neutral status.
Mercenaries: Units on sale cost their sale price, but have hit points equal to their regular price. In subsequent recruitment phases, other players may attempt to outbid the unit’s current owner. The unit will switch sides only if the owner’s bid is beat by $5 or more.
Large Units: Large units on the top shelf are considered adjacent to all units directly underneath them. Large units are permanently considered Locked for all purposes, but may not ever move or be moved, even by a Red unit’s Authority ability. Large Units may perform two Tactical actions when activated.
Customer Activity: Units moved by customers count as moved. An honour system is the only mechanism for ensuring that when shelves are cleaned, a player will not twist positions to his or her advantage. Units purchased by customers are considered casualties and are gone for good.

Special Unit Abilities: A unit’s colour determines its original intent, and grants it a special bonus.
1. Red units are often emergency personnel or other legitimate installations. They have the power of Authority, allowing them to use Evade actions on Locked units normally. Locked units that would become Locked again are destroyed and become neutral.
2. Orange units are construction vehicles. They have the power of Fortification; they are always considered Locked, no matter where they are. They may be affected by a Red unit’s Authority power. Furthermore, Orange units have an additional Tactical action: “Tactical: Lock or unlock an adjacent friendly unit”.
3. Yellow units are equipped with rapid vehicles, capable of the power of Mobility. This grants an additional Tactical action: “Tactical for the remainder of this turn, this unit may use Attack actions against units two spaces away instead of one.”
4. Green units are masters of the outdoors: farmers, forest rangers, even wild animals. Their mastery of resource management expresses itself in the Logistics ability. When a Green unit uses the Focus Tactical Action, the bonus points may be spread among adjacent units as well as the acting unit.
5. Purple units are the fiercest warriors history has to offer: pirates, knights, Napoleonic legions, and Roman legionnaires. They have the Ferocity power; they are always counted as having Combat 9 for the purposes of Combat Tests only. This ability does not enhance damage or the Guard action.
6. Pink units are the aristocrats of Playmoville. Their wealth and holdings ensure that their power remains undiminished in the era of Playmobattle. A Pink unit’s Resources power allows it to earn $10 each time it uses the Collect Tactical Action.
7. Grey units are the blue-collar workers and possess the majority of the industrial resources in Playmoville. Their Infrastructure power reduces the cost of purchasing adjacent units by the Grey’s Influence rating. Multiple Greys can discount the same unit, but the minimum cost is always $1.
8. Blue units are the common folk of Playmoville, mobilized in an effort to cleanse the chaos from their beloved home. Though seemingly weak, their spirits are strong. Through their Solidarity power, they add one to the difficulty of Attack actions targeting them, plus an additional one for each adjacent friendly unit.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Hollow Tooth Diaries: Employment and Un

Latvia was one of the countries hit hardest by the economic crisis. A severe real estate bubble and the failure (and eventual nationalization) of a large Latvian bank did a lot of damage over here. Unemployment shot to (I think) the highest in Europe (I've seen several conflicting statistics).

You can see that here, not by unemployed people hanging around (though they exist), but in the people that are working.

Basically every low-paying job that you might see once in a while in North America is filled. Ice cream vendors (in city centre, more than one per street corner, and they work even in the rain) and security guards (everywhere, even in grocery stores - also deemed important in high unemployment to prevent theft) are very prevalent.

There's also a plethora of jobs in the 'unofficial entrepreneurship' sphere, like bicycle taxis, flower sellers, and minibussses. Also, extensive use of carpooling.

When people are desperate for work, employers who can afford it can fill a lot of otherwise extraneous jobs.

EDIT: I forgot performers! There are lots. Buskers are plentiful, and the outdoor beer garden affairs seem to engage live acts every night. I also saw one of those places that had hired a magician to circulate through the tables, doing card tricks.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Old Witch of Riga

A few weeks back, I saw her. Waiting for the tram outside the grocery store. Wrapped in many coats and scarves despite the summer heat, eighty if she was a day, and sporting a genuine hunchback. Furthermore - and what initially caught my eye - she was clutching a pair of gardening shears - a perfect folkloric witch prop.

She looked fully capable of dicing up naughty children and trapping their screaming faces in the old tree behind her cottage, only her cottage got bulldozed by the Soviets, and independence did nothing to restore her to her ancestral home over the ley lines, and the tree got cut down and chopped into firewood that drove the family that burned it mad, and now she has to take the tram into town to shop for gingerbread and prunes.

Things Get Worse Wednesdays - Spycraft

It should have been amazing.

A game based on espionage should not make it as difficult as it is in Spycraft for Things to Get Worse. You're spies. If they already knew how bad Things were, why would they send people whose job it is to find stuff out?

Spycraft is a well-made game, if you're into that sort of thing - namely lots of planning, preparation, and a system for everything. It even resolves the classic modern action game problem of gear. How do you have a wealth system that reflects lifestyle? Put another way, how do you stop the first level rich doctor spending all his starting cash on a Blackhawk helicopter with attached minigun while still making it possible to get one of those when it's appropriate?

Spycraft solves this problem quite handily - you have a small amount of gear as personal possessions and fancier stuff you can requisition if the mission's severity warrants it. The problem is when you don't know how severe the mission is until you get there. And what spy mission, I ask you, what spy mission worth a damn goes exactly as planned? Need to get a thing? It's missing, it's not what you thought it was, the person you're supposed to get it from is dead. Need to talk to someone? That someone is not who they appear to be, kidnapped, or dead. This is basic stuff. Regrettably, you have to get that briefcase full of anthrax from that rogue KGB splinter faction with the same Walther PPK and set of lockpicks you were issued when you thought you just had to pick up Mission Control's drycleaning.

Spycraft does allow for requisitioning gear in the middle of a mission, but it still can't exceed the threat level of the mission and, if I remember correctly, is prohibitively difficult and time-consuming. Changing threat level in the middle of a mission only works if players have the time to reequip somewhere and if they don't abuse their privileges by burning up all their ammunition and limited-use items knowing that a reequip was on the way.

Another possible workaround is story-based. If the hook is "Some anthrax is missing. We need you to find the anthrax", then you can get away with one threat level. But you can't phrase all your missions like that. At least, and not have the game stay fun. It's a damn shame that a solidly built game like Spycraft has in-built, systematic opposition to Things Getting Worse. Especially as an espionage game.

Five Interesting Places - Snooty Sounding Words!

The esplanade.

The opera house.

The plaza.

The veranda.

The vestibule.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Five Interesting Places: Modern!

A freighter dry-dock.

A stopped elevator.

A waterfront mansion miles from civilization.

A CDC hot lab chock full o' eradicated diseases.

The grocery store.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Hollow Tooth Diaries: Beyond Riga - Sigulda

Sigulda - the Switzerland of Latvia. Friend Geoff says that whenever anything is described as "The ______ of Latvia," one should prepare for disappointment. In Sigulda's case, this is a little unfair. It's pretty nice. Sigulda gets the name from its not-uniformly-flat terrain and its castles. Of course, what the tourism bureau wants you to know about is its various 'adventure' attractions - bungee jumping, bobsledding, an arboreal obstacle course called 'Tarzans'.

The castles are quite an eclectic mix. The run the gamut from tumbledown Dark Ages ruin to baroque summer home converted to a swanky restaurant. I spent the most time at Turaida, a castle that was steadily expanded from its foundation in the 13th century until its destruction in the 18th. It has been reconstructed as a park and museum, though its shiny new bricks (bricks!) do lessen the sense of verisimilitude. The park includes traditional Latvian statuary, lovely gardens, and a memorial to the Rose of Turaida, a legendary woman who died to preserve her honour. The memorial is now a destination for newlyweds to pledge their love. All good castles should have local lore like that.

Sigulda also hosts a charming river valley hike, occasionally broken up by the need to follow a main road for a time. Along the walk is Gutmanis Cave, the largest cave in the Baltic states (about 20 feet deep), which is much more interesting for its engravings from visitors - going back centuries. The cave is also the site of the death of the Rose of Turaida.

Recommendations: a nice spot for hiking and sightseeing. Well worth the hour train ride out of Riga (though do check the schedules or you'll end up waiting at the train station forever like I did). Don't go bobsledding.

Big Rolls and Little Rolls

Something to consider in RPG design is the size of the average roll. I use the term 'roll' pretty loosely. Whatever conflict-resolution mechanism - cards, resource expenditure, whatever - is fine.

The dimensions in which a roll can be big or small are:
  1. Absraction - the more of a scene gets resolved in one roll, the bigger it is.
  2. Player Control - the more the players can affect the roll, the bigger it is - especially if players can affect it at the time of the roll.
  3. Side Effects - bigger rolls often have consequences that extend beyond a strict determination of success or failure.
Let's take some examples. The biggest roll I know of is in Don't Rest Your Head. You only roll the dice in that game when it's really important, as each roll involves the chance of madness or death. The roll also resolves an entire scene or antagonist. Fights, escapes, explorations, are all abstracted down to one roll. The roll is also complex. Besides the level of danger inherent in the roll, characters have control over the amount of risk and effort they're willing to take on in exchange for success.

The smallest roll is a coin flip for a single action. Heads or tails, success or failure. Neither players nor GMs can affect the probability of the outcome, the 'roll' itself only affects one action, and it doesn't 'mean' anything beyond the very minimum required by a roll in an RPG - does the action succeed?

Another game with large rolls is the new Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. All the bits and non-standard dice govern not only success and failure, but your character's approach to the situation and positive and negative side effects. The result is fairly baroque, but intuitive enough at the table to do complexity well. WFRP3E's rolls are still as common as a smaller roll - less abstract - but are still large in their level of implication.

Other ways of enlarging rolls (without using funky types of dice) are degrees of success (Alternity, Dark Heresy); complex, multi-roll challenges (D&D4E, both Spycraft editions); and Cool Points or Effort Points or the like (Shadowrun, 7th Sea, even HERO System, with its rules for 'pushing').

Conclusions? I don't really have many. It's just worth thinking about when designing a game. These are gross generalizations, but more abstract rolls tend to favour games less about combat and more about story. Rolls with more player control tend to favour characters that succeed through style or inner strength, rather than strict competence. Side effects can add levels of mechanical or tactical depth, as well as mechanical representations of more story-based consequences, but side effects can also easily be handled inelegantly.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Hollow Tooth Diaries: Beyond Riga - Jurmala

Gorgeous natural seaside overdeveloped and overexploited by tourists and wealthy Russians. But in a good way.

The Hollow Tooth Diaries: Beyond Riga - Rundāle Palace

So, despite spending over a month here, I've let these posts slide. I'll try and recap in future entries, but here I'll do a quick piece on places around Latvia outside Riga that I've visited.

Rundāle Palace is really neat - a bargain-basement Versailles an hour or so outside the city. The exterior courtyard is a particularly striking tableau. When we arrived, the courtyard was entirely empty, the clock was chiming 5:00, and swarms of small songbirds were flitting about between perches on the baroque moulding and windowsills. An interesting juxtaposition of opulence and desolation that you wouldn't get at a more tourist-y palace - enhanced by the fact that past the French gardens are nothing but rundown farmhouses and Soviet-era, decaying brick buildings.

The interior was characterized by a few nice arcades and stairwells, rococo decorations on almost every available surface, and a few truly atrocious paintings. Well, they might have been very good paintings of a large number of women sporting five o'clock shadow.

Much of the palace was undergoing restoration, but the rooms that are open more than adequately get the point across. A few hints around the edges also speak to an interesting recent history for the palace as well. Restoration began in the Eighties and halted in 1992 or so - following the newfound independence of Latvia. It picked up again in recent years, thanks to the generous donations of Boris something, whose name is all over the informational placards. I don't know anything about this man (like his last name), but it seems like it would be an interesting subject to pursue.

Recommendations: If you make it to Latvia, Rundāle is well worth a look. The museum charges for the short tour, the long tour and a walk of the garden, as well as extra for photos or video cameras. I'd recommend only the short tour - the extra rooms are basically more of the same - silk wallpaper, bad paintings, naked babies carved out of stucco. All the really impressive rooms are in the short tour. The gardens are nice, but we got there too late in the day to really explore them.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Things Get Worse Wednesdays - TGW Versus High Concept

This was supposed to go in the last post, but it got too long and - fine, you caught me. I forgot - I forgot all about it. It was supposed to be in but I didn't remember. Happy?

High concept - a storytelling feature perfectly suited to RPGs - can act against Things Get Worse. High concept is what you get if you ask a student of the geekly arts for a story that's never been seen before. Literary crossovers, supernatural creatures in mundane lines of work, and groups of people with superpowers that don't lend themselves to dressing up and fighting crime - these are some basic 'formulas' for high concept, but as one might suspect, it's hard to nail down. A brief and arbitrary list of examples in fiction would be Chew (heretofore unexplored superpower) The Five Fists of Science (historical figures in fantastic situations - impossible to describe without giving a full plot summary), and everything Tim Schaeffer has ever done.

For lazy or poor writers, or for those too blinded by the power of the concept, high concept can be a crutch, or even a liability. In the drive to show off the concept, stuff like characterization, plotting, and pacing can be left behind. As can Things Get Worse. If you start with a crazy concept, it's hard to get either the build or twist necessary to keep the story punchy. If your concept is good enough, you can sometimes power through, but that shouldn't be something to plan for.

One great example of TGW versus high concept can be seen in My Favourite Thing on the Internet, MS Paint Adventures. This is a webcomic written like a text-based adventure game, where the transitions between panels are written commands to the characters. He has two stories worth talking about: Problem Sleuth (completed) and Homestuck (ongoing). Problem Sleuth leans on its concept pretty hard. Things still Get Worse, but through build, rather than twist. It doesn't subvert your expectations, save your expectations that one person could come up with all this cosmic, world-shattering raw creativity. It stays fully within the domain of its concept - The Adventure Game that Could Never Be.

Homestuck by contrast, is constantly taking your expectations and hurling them through brick walls. Aside from the more superficial additions, like characters with personalities, actual dialogue, and shiny Flash animations with music, Homestuck asserts its superiority to Problem Sleuth (which, don't get me wrong, is still amazing) even more by having everything go wrong. It retains a concept at least as high as PS's - a group of children in a world governed by video game logic play a game that can affect the realities of their fellow players. Them going through the game, building each other's houses and levelling up their skills and gear would have been interesting, but the repeated instances of everything going completely off the rails turns it from a neat and well-done little comic to a badass epic.

Comparing GMs to authors is always a dangerous analogy, as players of course have input into how the story of a game session develops. Also, players can tend to be cautious when threats to their beloved PCs might arise. Even so, GMs out there, plan to drop a little something unexpected - a new type of challenge, a shift in objectives, a conflict of interest - before the climax of your adventures. Done right, everyone has a better time.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Things Get Worse

Okay, I'm already three days behind on the July Vow, and that's assuming you count the post where I made the vow, as well as that one about bricks. I have a whole bunch of stuff to write worked out in my head, so all I have to do is write them out for my literally some of readers.

Today, I talk about Things Getting Worse.

This is a critical part of any story, and the easiest one to forget. Part way along, something happens and the problem set up in the initial hook isn't the most important problem any more. Or it is, but it's only part of the problem. The Sceptre of Oroborous you're after has been stolen from the Tomb of Shattered Nightmares and bugbear tracks lead into the Forest of Misery. The villain you're battling fires a slow-moving missile at your daughter's piano recital. The ambassador you're supposed to escort to a rendezvous with the Duchess of Montellico slipped away, then died. And so did the Duchess.

In improv theatre, they call this 'raising the stakes', as the central problem of the story has its importance to the characters increase. Junior High Language Arts class calls it the 'rising action'. For RPGin', I like to call it Things Get Worse, as the problems the GM poses to the players start to mount up (speaking strictly in the traditional, semi-adversarial RPG model here - if players give themselves problems - whether for the sake of dramatic tension or Cool Points, good on them). The twist adds tension, danger, drama, or ideally all three.

So why wouldn't a GM do this? There are a couple of reasons why a twist is easy to leave out in RPG plots. First, an adventure structure and a story structure aren't exactly the same. The end of an adventure might be right when Things Get Worse, and the story arc gets wrapped up one or more adventures down the line. Also, it used to be that 'threat of serious physical harm to the main characters' was sufficient Worseness to create tension. In most games out there, action is a given. No one thinks that recovering the Sceptre of Oroborous is not going to involve exterminating a small village of snakemen. You need something else, something plot- or character-driven to get the tension and excitement a proper Things Get Worse needs.

Things Get Worse is about messing with expectations. For that reason exactly, you can't as a GM do it every time. Or, at least not the same way every time. If every authority figure and quest-giver turns on the players once they bring back the Jewell of Mak Guef'n, it'll stop being a surprise and start being a bore. Not every Things Get Worse should aim to be a Usual Suspects-style mindscrew; just punch up the tension in the second act somehow.

In future posts, I'm going to write about stock plots, and how Things can Get Worse in them. I'll also review some games that as-written have features that encourage or discourage plotting like this. Probably on Wednesdays, as to have Things Get Worse Wednesdays. Weak alliteration's still cool, right?

Saturday, July 3, 2010


I know I said I'd write about social combat today. But I only have about five minutes of me and my computer in the same room, so instead, I'm going to write about bricks.

Bricks! Bricks are great. Bricks don't get the press of your other building materials, like your stones or your woods, which is a shame because bricks can do a lot of great things. Let's talk versatility. Bricks can do stately, Olde Worlde class (like this or this) or they can do slummy urban decay. They can be used in pre-modern, industrial, and even contemporary buildings. New bricks look sharp, if conservative, while old bricks capture perfectly the post-industrial urban wasteland aesthetic. Cover bricks in plaster and they can look like anything. (You get all of these and more in Latvia.) Brick walls are great when stuff smashes through them, because they crumble and break in great geometric fragments. Loose bricks are great places for hiding small items. Bricks make pretty good thrown objects, though they don't have quite the same resonance as a paving stone. That movie, Brick, it was pretty good.

Next time you need to describe a fictional building, don't forget about bricks. I have too many times.

Friday, July 2, 2010

I Hate Social Combat

... I really do. But that doesn't mean it can't be fixed.

I like the idea. It's a roleplaying game. Why not have a game-y bit that supports roleplaying? Why not make talking at least as mechanically interesting as combat? Why reduce the complex cut-and-thrust of a discussion to a single roll? Not to mention the classic argument "My character can do a whole bunch of stuff better than I can. Why can't he talk better too?" Which is a solid argument. I've just never seen it work in practice.

Why is that? As far as I can tell, it's for a couple of reasons, but they mostly stem from the fact that the basic assumptions of RPG combat don't really apply to conversations. They don't necessarily proceed in a logical order, they don't always involve the whole team, and most importantly, it's hard to synchronize the roleplaying aspect of them with the mechanical aspect.

The problem basically comes in when you have to break up a conversation to roll dice, and the dice deny the logic of the conversation. Of course, you can just ignore them, but then why have the system at all? For example, and this has happened to me, a player spouts a perfect, cast-iron argument in a social duel, amasses all his Rule of Cool bonuses, and still rolls garbage. The GM has no comeback; the NPC just says "Nuh-uh!" Utterly shatters the whole roleplaying immersiveness and leaves everyone feeling let down. The GM in this scenario was adept enough to make the next social 'hit' on the NPC basically do what the total flub should have done, but it was a jarring experience.

The attempts at doing a social combat system that I've read or played all had these problems, though some were smart enough to attempt to address them. Some games simply use the same system for physical or social combat. Examples are Mouse Guard and Spirit of the Century, aka My Favourite Game I've Never Played. These games are both clever enough to know that conflict, in whatever form, has consequences other than getting battered into the dirt, and both encourage the players to consider what 'losing' a conflict means in the circumstances of the conflict. This is a good start. They still have the problem of running out of things to say before the conflict is over, break up the conversation with arbitrary initiative rules, though do okay at incorporating multiple participants.

By contrast, and those who know me knew this was coming, Exalted has the most execrable excuse for a social combat system. A single attack is apparently five minutes of back and forth, so is therefore impossible to roleplay (which is the whole point, isn't it?) and doesn't need to follow any sort of objective set from the start. You can imperiously command some schmoe to go fetch your slippers from your affordable studio apartment in Great Forks forty times until he's out of social hitpoints, then, as long as you can hit his social defence value and keep him from punching you for five minutes, he's your willing slave. One could make the excuse that the book is supposed to include a table describing how much willpower people are willing to spend on single issues, but asking for clemency based on something the authors forgot to include in the book is a bit of a weak argument - no stunt bonus to MDV there. On top of Exalted's generally bulky dice-rolling mechanics, you have a social combat system that actively disrupts in-character roleplaying, arbitrarily governs the discussion with its '2 willpower per topic' rule (a necessary evil to prevent assholes from making the same arguments over and over - though it does also mean that the arguments that don't work are the ones that get repeated more in the conversation), and makes little to no logic when it comes to the endgame. Also, though this is more an issue of personal taste than an inherent flaw that makes things less fun, physical combat is fully incompatible with social combat. If a character makes a remark so cutting that someone pulls a sword on them, it doesn't sound to me like the conversation's over. It sounds like that character is winning, though. Why punish them for pushing the right buttons?

Friend Kris over at Glitterdust just took a swing at social combat for 4th Edition D&D, which I'd love to discuss, but this is getting a bit long. I'll look at his system, as well as attempts from my game design projects - one of which is based on 4E as well - tomorrow.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Back on the Bloggerhorse

So I've been silent lately. Apologies. Due to poor internet connectivity, business, and laziness when I'm not busy, I've not been taking this blog thing very seriously.

That changes tonight.

I hereby issue this challenge to myself: one update per day for the month of July. I've got tons I want to write about - RPG stuff mostly, plus of course more Riga news (in case anyone's concerned, I'm having a great time), with Sourcebook Corners to fill in the gaps. Hopefully, I can get into a groove, and be a King of the Internet by the end of the summer.

Hope I haven't lost all of you, my loyal readers.