February 10, 2013

A Tribute to Player Agency, part trismegistos

So far we've gotten a closer look at Attributes, Defense, Plot Armor, and Skills. There's only two holes left to fill concerning those - Resources and Miracles. And then we can move on to Traits and their ilk. The reason I've left them for last is because their creation is closely linked! You see, early on Resources was going to be Mana Ether Spirit Soul, and it was going to be exclusive for use with Miracles.

That did not work out too well. It would be an extremely important stat to characters who used it, and absolutely worthless to everyone else, and that's not what a supportive attribute (like Awareness and Willpower) is supposed to be. In addition to that, Willpower just got hit by reducing the four layers of Plot Armor to three, so I figured - hey, maybe we could use Plot Armor to fuel off your superpowers! Sure, why not.

The Damage mechanics were always the same from the moment they had a track of their own to their final version, since I wanted the use of Miracles to be unpredictable. As is right now, the average character can use one Miracle per Scene more or less safely, while someone who invests into Willpower will be able to use two. Combat Miracles are unfortunate in that their use will probably take you into the second or third Layers of Plot Armor earlier than you'd like, but they do far more damage to the enemy than they should do to you with each use anyway.

I really didn't have a sixth that anymore, but I did not spend long looking for (or even wondering if I should have) another. But why Resources? I mean, Resources is a thing that you could easily abstract entirely and never have come into play meaningfully to an entire long-running game, and yet sometimes someone's wealth or contacts can be campaign defining. You know, it is not exactly the same thing as the function that Awareness or Willpower serve, but that sounds like secondary stat material to me. The question now was how to implement it.

In addition to having Resources be a thing you could Test when in a pinch, to see if you can obtain an item or to ask a friend for help, I decided I would use them as the workhorse for Equipment, which was previously very vague and almost ignorable. The rules for Equipment might be a bit prohibitive right now, all things considered, but they give you a reason to pay attention to Resources, which in turn gets people thinking more about their character's position in the world, which cannot be bad. That said, I'd like to make items more desirable and accessible in general.

This brings me to Traits! Let's rewind to the pre-1.6 version for a second and explain why they were like that. Because I wanted starting characters to be competent, and because Traits had to match up to Attributes and Skills in terms of XP, I made them very cheap, but they could only be obtained during chargen. Now fast forward to the present, and starting characters are a lot more competent now than they used to be, therefore Traits can afford to be more expensive, and can be obtained after the creation of a character. That said some of them need to be recosted or buffed, not by much but at least a little.

There was one piece of the puzzle I was missing, and that was to make some cheap customizable abilities that could be used to fill up space, in the same way that you can make backup custom weapons for your mecha with leftover UP. Since everything in general was more expensive now, and since even cheap attributes could scale up quickly to costing 5+ points, pilots were in dire need of something to bank their XPs in when they were done getting the big stuff and had some spare PP left. Something more interesting than the old Plot Armor, hopefully. This led to the creation of Deathblows and Assets.

Deathblows came to be as they are for a variety of reasons. One of the things that didn't work so well in the previous version of the rules was combat, mostly because it was a slow drawn-out affair without many of the interesting tricks that mecha combat brought to the table. Fortunately I already knew I wanted to make personal battles a lot shorter than they used to be, but there was still the issue that it wasn't very interesting. I came up with the idea of active modifiers to regular attacks, kind of how like even in JRPGs it makes no difference whether you use excalibur or a folding chair as a weapon, save that sometimes special weapons have a special command you can use with them. The end result left me pretty satisfied, you can use Deathblows to make energy whip attacks distinctive from say a rocket launcher, without bogging down the game with tons of complex rules.

Next there's Assets, which you might be surprised to hear are one of the game's original mechanics waaay back when it was a humble .txt file - albeit with some tweaks because Resources was not a thing. Back then there weren't as many rules for pilots as there are now, so every PC had a free Asset to use as a get out of of jail free card, in a sense. As the rules expanded, Assets weren't so necessary anymore, and I rolled most of them into Traits of their own (Such as Ally and Resourceful) or discarded them entirely. What changed? Well, Resources happened! And since there is already a stat designed to handle these things, I figure there's no harm in bringing them back, though now they would have a cost. As the book itself explains, the idea behind them is that you turn to your Assets when you have no idea how to advance further and want the GM to give you a hand, with the drawback that you will likely have to pay the favor back to the Asset later. They are a panic button with an in-built hook for future developments, and that is a nice thing for both the Player and the GM.

But why are both Deathblows and Assets so limited in their use? I mean, sure, mechanically it would be because they're cheap, but why can't I say, spend 10 PP to to let my character use them all the time? Wouldn't that be awesome? Well, no, it would not be. At least not after the first few times. It would take both Deathblows and Traits from being this awesome thing you use to turn the tide of combat or advance the plot against all odds to a gimmick. Now I do get that, in practical terms, putting enough points in them basically lets you use them every time you get the chance - but you still don't know if you will need them again later, so you always have to think about when the most effective time to use them would be.

And that's that for our look behind the scenes at 1.6 and its changes. As mentioned above, there are a few things I would like to adjust or expand for 1.7. I don't want to approach the levels of 'equipment porn' some systems indulge in (You know who you are) but I do want to expand the list of fancy equipment with more interesting toys. I have no idea when that one would be coming out, perhaps sometime in April. There is a lot of work to be done!

February 3, 2013

A Tribute to Player Agency, part deux

Last week I went over how Awareness and Willpower came to be, with a little bit on how the three types of Defense and Plot Armor converged into a single substat each. Right now I would like to elaborate a bit on the specific execution to this, and specially the math involved, but that needs a preliminary explanation of how stat values more or less doubled in number.

There were many reasons behind this change, but I would most likely not have bothered if I also hadn't noticed a small problem with the previous Stat + Skill system - Attributes gave you too much of a bang for your buck. Sure, they were more expensive, but higher stats carried a lot of benefits, not the least of which were being one half of your Defense. What is more, there were only three Attributes, which once increased helped you a great deal to all Tests. Skills, on the other hand, were about a dozen and each had very specific applications. It was clear that just giving Skills half the cost of an Attribute increase wasn't really keeping them balanced to each other.

Now I could have looked for a way to make Skills more important, but it just seemed like it would be a lot simpler to make use of my Advantage/Disadvantage system and just admit that Attributes are the buiding blocks of a character. As an aside, I really like Advantages and Disadvantages, they're simple yet tactical, they diminish the element of randomness to tests your character is good at, yet also let you take a risk by sacrificing some of that stability for a potentially much higher result. As an aside to this aside, I am going to integrate that sidebar (the one with rules for the conversion of stacking Advantages and Disadvantages to additional dice/DN) to their regular rules entry. Anyway, moving on, or rather back to, Skills.

I actually wanted to have only two Skill Levels in Adept and Master early on instead of four, and they would work off just like the current ones do. Since each Advantage is, roughly, a +3 bonus it meant that Skills got a lot stronger than they used to be - having five levels and each one of them being a +1. Specializations and PP Costs would not solidify until much later, but this gave me a good working foundation for what I would need to hammer next: The Actual Attribute Numbers.

I was going to have to rewrite what an Attribute score meant fluffwise, and each Nature's starting values with it. The former part was was mostly a copy and paste job with different numbers, but the latter proved trickier. See, characters are meant to start off as above average with one third of their stats, rather bad at others, and par for the course with the last chunk. But if I make the average a 4-5, then that means they succeed automatically at things that the same characters from the previous version of the game would have needed some luck (or Skill!) to overcome. Not only that, but just having Master Level skill at anything gave you a shot at something of the highest Difficulty Number in the game (20) even at an Attribute value of 0, let alone a much more likely 6-7 at it.

Clearly I was going to have to rewrite all the standard Difficulty Numbers to make everything tougher (by 5, or maybe even 10!!!) and oh my God how do I make weaker characters even stand a chance to get anything cool done when I'm trying to make things HARD for them!!11oneone.

I was trying to reconcile opposite ideas.

Now don't get me wrong, I think things being easy by default takes away from your choice of what you want to be good at, but this would be only one half of the rules - the less important half at that. So I made my choice, and it was to make things generally easier for everyone by keeping the same Difficulty Numbers. All PCs are now a little bit better at doing mundane things than before just by default, because as I like to say, games are more fun when things are happening than when they aren't. All Hail Player Agency.

With that issue solved, I made some quick math and wrote in numbers that seemed reasonable for each Nature. Consider, the average starting value for Attributes is 4, that plus a roll of 6 (or 5 and a Tension of 1) beats a DN of 10, the basic DN for things that are more or less difficult. An above average Attribute at 6 can meet a very, very difficult DN of 15 by rolling 9 or higher, a thing that is considerably easier with Advantages from Skill training. Being terribly incompetent at what you are doing (Failing a DN of 5) now requires you to have a low stat and to roll poorly so it happens less often, which takes it away from being frustrating to making it hilarious when it happens instead. Reaching DN of 20 is possible, but never guaranteed, not even if you go all the way and spend 40 points to get your highest starting Attributes to 11 and gain two Advantages - the result averages out at 23, which is more than enough, but you could also get a 19.

All in all, the numbers looked pretty nice. So this was a good time, I felt, to tackle the specifics of Defenses and Plot Armor. I added a flat 5 bonus to Defense because it is a number that lets people automatically shrug off some Damage if their Awareness is low and gives them a chance to resist if it is high. It is the equivalent of any Offensive Test having an automatic two Disadvantages to their roll. Then came Plot Armor, which I decided I would actually nerf a bit by taking away one Layer because that fourth Layer (or rather, the first one) never made too much sense anyway.

But wait, last time I said that characters were squishy with just their Willpower as Plot Armor, and that was with four Layers! What changed between now and then? My outlook on things, mostly. Instead of making Pilot combat a back and forth deal like it is with Mecha, I figured I would rather it be quick and brutal for anyone who isn't up to being a fighter at the ground level. I decided I would ditch Consequences because they made it harder to come back from the brink of defeat than they needed to, and instead added Willpower Tests to not be knocked out.

As another aside, this lines up with everything I've been saying since 1.4 about making your choices matter more. You can tank very well for as little as 12 PP (assuming you are not a Coordinator) but you have to make it a thing you want to do, rather than expect it to be the default. You choose where your agency lies, and not being able to fight enemy soldiers on foot doesn't make you any worse at actually piloting, so unlike in other games it is perfectly fine to be a wimp that would pass out from a strong breeze.

The last mathhammering that needed to be done was concering Specializations. It seems obvious in hindsight, but I had no idea what to do with them at the time. Then I figured out I could adopt the 3-5-7-10 Upgrade cost scheme and make them cheaper than the Adept and Master Levels but only a little bit worse, and all was good. While I was at it, I renamed, clarified, or rewrote some Skills, split up a couple into separate ones, there is not much of a story to that.

It gets more interesting in the part where I brew Miracles into this hot mess. So we'll take a look at that next, as well as the various Traits and the last of the six stats in Resources. Plus some discarded mechanics that didn't see the light of day, and maybe some of the new toys I would like to add later.