Monday, June 30, 2008

d20 Rethought: Skill Training

Today I'll be explaining how skill proficiencies work in d20 Rethought. I've mentioned before that skills work in a similar fashion to the Saga edition of the Star Wars Roleplaying Game (and thus to 4E as well). However, there's a little more to the story than that.

I've mentioned before that every d20 roll in the game will either be a skill check or an ability check (With one exception, but that's not relevant here). That ties into the first thing you need to know: Every type of skill check in d20 Rethought has a Proficiency Rank of one, two or three. This is roughly the equivalent of the "untrained" and "trained-only" labels in 3.X, with a middle ground:

-Proficiency Rank I applications of a skill are the "normal" skill checks, and can benefit from all relevant bonuses.

-Proficiency Rank II applications of a skill are made as ability checks, meaning they can only benefit from the character's ability score, an expenditure of Action Points (kinda-sorta, that's something else I haven't gotten into) and/or any relevant circumstance bonuses.

-Proficiency Rank III means your character is incapable of making this type of skill check.

Training can reduce a check's effective proficiency rank, making it usable. The d20 Rethought equivalent of becoming "trained" in a skill is handled entirely via three feats:

Basic Training (skillname)
gives me a +2 bonus on all applications of a skill and lets me treat PR II and III checks as being one proficiency rank lower.

Specialized Training (skillname) gives me a +4 bonus on *one* application of a skill and lets me treat it as PR I.

Advanced Training (skillname), which requires one of the above feats (but not both), replaces these benefits with a +4 bonus on *all* application of a skill while letting me treat them all as PR I.

Make sense? I'll try to have an example up soon.

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EN Rethought: Skill List

Here is an alpha list of the d20 Rethought skills for the Elysium Nebula campaign setting. The majority of these skills would be reused in roughly the same fashion for a d20 Rethought writeup of different setting.


-Vehicle Group
--[Ship Crew]




-Weapon Group
--[Long Arms]


-Ley Lines










--[Fringe Humans]



--[Eldritch Devices]
--[Technical Devices]



--[Starship Engineer]
--[Construction Worker]

-Treat Injury

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Monday, June 23, 2008

D&D 3.5: Statistics for Guts from Berserk

An old classic I did a year ago for the /tg/ board on 4chan: A conversion of Guts and his equipment to the D&D rules. (If you don't know who this man is, he's the protagonist of an incredible manga series called Berserk that I highly recommend. Graphic sex and violence are involved, but they have roles in the story rather than being pointless titillation.) These stats are meant to represent him immediately prior to the battle to escape Vritanis. Against a normal D&D party, I'd say his dearth of magic items makes him about CR 17.

Male Human
Alignment Chaotic Good
Fighter 12/Barbarian 7/Frenzied Berzerker 5

Str 24 (+2 prodigy, +1 4th, 8th, 16th, 20th)
Dex 16
Con 18 (+1 12th)
Int 14
Wis 13 (-1 armor)
Cha 12

Hit Points 233, Current 233
AC 23 (10+3 dex+9 armor+1 shield), Touch 13, Flat 20
Init +3
BAB +22/17/12/7, Grap +??
Speed 30 (base 40, load 0/33, medium armor)
Fort +22, Ref +10, Will +9

+34 Melee, Dragonslayer, 3d6+14, 17-20/x2
+30 Melee, Dagger, 1d6+7, 19-20/x2
+30 Melee, Prosthetic Hand, 1d6+7, 20/x2
+26 Ranged, Repeating Crossbow, 1d10, 19-20/x2, 60’ r
+26 Ranged, Darts, 1d4+7, 20/x2, 20’ r
+26 Ranged, Dagger, 1d6+7, 20/x2, 10’ r
+21 Ranged, Arm Cannon, 6d6, 20/x2, 10’r
+25 Ranged Tough, Fire Bombs, 3d6/1d6 splash, 20/x2, 10’ r

+48 hp, AC 21, Will +11
+36 Melee, Dragonslayer, 3d6+17, 17-20/x2

2 lethal damage per round, AC 22, Ref +12
+40/40/35/30/25 Melee, Dragonslayer, 3d6+23, 17-20/x2

Rage and Frenzy:
+48 hp, 2 lethal damage per round, AC 20, Ref +12, Will +11
+42/42/37/32/27 Melee, Dragonslayer, 3d6+26, 17-20/x2

+1 Balance (0+2 synergy-4 acp)
+21 Climb (10+4 prodigy)
+6 Diplomacy (10cc)
+28 Intimidate (27)
+35 Jump (26+4 prodigy+2 synergy-4 acp)
+9 Ride (10-4 acp)
+9 Spot (16cc)
+11 Survival (10)
+13 Swim (10+4 prodigy-8 acp)
+14 Tumble (26cc+2 synergy-4 acp)

-Weapon Focus (Greatsword) (H)
-Power Attack (F1)
-Cleave (F2)
-Destructive Rage (3) (CW)
-Weapon Specialization (F4)
-Intimidating Rage (6) (CW)
-Great Cleave (F6)
-Monkey Grip (9) (CW)
-Exotic Weapon Proficiency (Repeating Crossbow) (F8)
-Endurance (12)
-Diehard (FB 1)
-Iron Will (18)
-Indomitable Soul (21) (PHBII)
-Improved Critical (Greatsword) (F10)
-Greater Weapon Focus (24)
-Epic Weapon Focus (Greatsword) (F12) (ELH)

Human Traits
-Bonus Skill
-Bonus Feat

Barbarian Class Features
-Fast Movement
-Rage 2/day (9 rounds)
-Improved Uncanny Dodge
-Trap Sense +2
-Damage Reduction 1/-

Frenzied Berzerker Class Features (CW)
-Frenzy 3/day (7 rounds)
-Supreme Cleave
-Deathless Frenzy
-Improved Power Attack

Special Qualities:
-Prodigy (Strength): Guts gets +2 to strength and an additional +4 on all strength-based skill and ability checks. (DMG II)
-Sacrifice: Guts has been branded with the symbol of sacrifice. Evil outsiders and undead can sense his presence and general direction as long as they are within five hundred feet. Additionally, whenever an evil outsider or undead comes within a hundred feet of Guts for the first time that day, the brand gives off a sharp pain and bleeds profusely, causing him to lose one hit point for every four hit dice the creature possesses (rounding down).

• The Dragonslayer, Mastercraft Large Greatsword .
•• The Dragonslayer is treated as a Holy Ghost Touch weapon for the purposes of bypassing DR and determining whether an attack hits. This is an extraordinary ability.
•• The Dragonslayer’s size provides a wielder of medium size with a +2 bonus to AC when they fight defensively and cover in the direction of their choice when they take a total defense action.

• Berserker Armor, +1 Mithral Full Plate
•• While wearing the berserker armor, a wielder with the ability to enter a frenzy must make a will save to avoid doing so every round in which they engage in melee combat, even if they take no damage. In addition, they may not enter a rage unless already in a frenzy.
•• While the wielder is in a frenzy, the berserker armor is treated as a +2 Mithral Full Plate of Medium Fortification that cannot be removed by normal means. The wielder themself gains an additional +6 to strength and dexterity as a well as an immunity to fear, stun, nausea and death from massive damage. However, the damage they take every round is lethal instead of nonlethal, and the frenzy does not end normally as long as there are living or animate creatures within the vicinity. At the end of a frenzy, the wielder takes 1 permanent wisdom damage.
•• If the wielder has the deathless frenzy ability and would die at the end of a frenzy due to hit point loss, they instead heal to -9 hp and stabilize while permanently reducing their maximum number of hit points by the same amount.

• Prosthetic Arm
•• When equipped, the prosthetic arm can be used to hold metal items or help wield two-handed weapons. It also functions as a mastercraft gauntlet.
•• Arm Cannon, Exotic Medium Ranged Weapon (10’ range, 3d6 fire and 3d6 bludgeoning damage, 20/x2)
••• The arm cannon is a concealed weapon, requiring a DC 25 Spot or Search check to detect. If an opponent is not aware of the arm cannon, they are treated as flat-footed for the purpose of the wielder’s attack.
••• Reloading the arm cannon requires two full-round actions, each provoking an attack of opportunity
••• While in a grapple, the wielder may make a grapple check to attack with the arm cannon. If the attack hits, it automatically threatens a critical hit.

• Ammunition and Gunpowder for ten shots.

• 10 Fire Bombs, Splash Weapons (10’ range, 3d6 fire damage/1d6 splash, 20/x2)

• Rickert’s Repeating Crossbow
•• This crossbow functions as a mastercraft light repeating crossbow with two exceptions: The range is halved, and the magazines hold ten shots instead of five.

• 60 Bolts

• 5 Mastercraft Darts

• Mastercraft Dagger

• Flint and Steel

• 4 day’s trail rations

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Sunday, June 22, 2008

d20 Rethought: What is Min-Maxing?

I'm not sure whether this will strike people as staggering or just staggeringly obvious, but I'll just come out and say my thoughts on the matter:

Min-maxing is gameplay.

Just as coming up with a character's personality and background is a creative endeavor in the same sense as roleplaying, the act of character optimization is as much a part of "playing" D&D, Shadowrun, etc. as the combat is.

And when I look at the process of min-maxing in 3.X as a type of gameplay, it lets me come to a few conclusions.

-Character optimization needs to be easy. Or rather, foolproof- damn hard to do wrong. A beginning player should ideally be able to create a viable character, one that won't automatically be overshadowed by the creation of an experienced min-maxer so long as said min-maxer isn't deliberately trying to break the system (i.e. exploiting poor wordings and other "bugs" the game designers failed to catch).

-Character optimization needs to be less important. The question the game designer has to face is: How much importance do they want to lend to the act of character optimization? To what degree should character optimization be the key to victory? I would say 3.5 D&D is an example of a game that goes too far- beyond a spellcaster's ability to choose which spells to prepare and come up with creative uses for them, the *only* major key to victory is a characters underlying bonuses paired with sets of maneuvers that were planned out before the game ever began. And one thing that will be necessary to fix that:

-There need to be more significant in-game tactical decisions. It's only natural; for decisions made *prior* to the game to be less important the mechanics will have to make player decisions *during* the game.

Having had a chance to look over 4th Edition, it's interesting to see how it accomplishes these goals (I'll bet they didn't phrase them the same way I did, but it seems like they worked along similar lines). Character optimization is made easy by presenting you with a pair of probably-can't-go-wrong choices (race and class) and then having ensuing choices be based on those two initial ones. (You're a dwarven paladin? Well, here are the racial feats, here are the class feats, here are the paragon paths, and if you want some of what he's having there's a feat chain that will provide it in a way designed to not screw you over optimization-wise.)

Powers, meanwhile, are used to place an emphasis on "in-game" play via abilities whose uses are flavorful, conditional and/or otherwise limited in use- you have to pay attention and plan out when and where you're going to use them. The limited number of powers works from a gameplay perspective. . .it's just that the kind of gameplay it provides doesn't quite jive with me.

We're now dealing with two major subjects here- "in-game" gameplay and character optimization. The next two posts will delve into how these aspects of 3.5 were deconstructed while developing d20 Rethought. It'll take alot of playtesting before I can offer any definitive opinion with regards to the results of my approaches vs. those taken by the 4th Edition design team, but it's interesting to compare and contrast what's been done.

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Friday, June 20, 2008

On GNS Theory

I used to think that I would simply avoid mentioning GNS theory on this blog. The reason being that I have some strong feelings on the matter, which in turn would lead to my thoughts on the topic manifesting as the sort of opinionated flamebait rant that I feel one should avoid on principle. Especially since that's not the point of this blog.

But since it turns out people are actually interested in my thoughts on game design theory, and I do hope to start a discussion on this topic, it's gonna be healthy to get this out of the way now. GNS theory is one of the premiere works of "roleplaying game theory", and the terminology it popularized still sees common use today because it fills an essential niche: It identifies several ways a game can be fun. But that's about the limits of its practicality.

And when the author goes on to argue that "building the system specifically to accord with one of these outlooks is the first priority of RPG design", that's when I start gnawing on the linoleum.
Maybe an analogy will help. What if I told you that all video games were created in accordance with one of three agendas?

-Presentationist games, which focused on providing the player with high-quality graphics and sound.
-Gameplayist games, which focused on providing a player with challenging play experience.
-Storyist games, which focused on providing a compelling narrative.

"I guess that kind of works," you say. "But don't 99% of video games include all 3 of those things?"

Why, yes, Timmy! Nevertheless, these are three separate outlooks, and people who make video games operate based off only these three agendas at a time.

"My name's Justin."

Or at least, that's what they should do. Unfortunately, many designers fail to recognize the inherently separate nature of these approaches, and attempt to cater to two or even all three of them simultaneously!

". . .That's a bad thing?"

Oh, yes. I'm afraid that the potential for crossover between these outlooks is ultimately too small to be justified by the complications that arise from trying to pursue multiple separate agendas at the same time.

"So if I designed an enemy that was highly lethal, both in order to reinforce the fear the player is supposed to feel as a part of the horror story and to provide an interesting "miniboss" opponent to spice up the challenge the game provides. . ."
". . .or designed the graphics of a game to be both visually pleasing and provide a way for players to easily identify necessary information regarding one another at a distance. . ."

". . .or used graphical staging and gameplay elements to reinforce a key plot point in a story. . ."

". . .I'd be shooting myself in the foot?"

Ultimately, yes- the complications introduced by trying to serve separate agendas simultaneously would lead to you creating a weaker game than you could have.

Does it make a little more sense now why I consider this aspect of GNS theory to be wrong regarding what should be a matter of common sense? Enjoyable gameplay, a believable setting, the tools to tell a compelling story. . .these are all concerns an rpg designer must take into account. It can be difficult to overcome complications that arise when you try to have your cake and eat it too; but it's not impossible, and these different elements have just as mouch potential to support one another as they do to stand in each other's way.

I'll use GNS terminology if it proves a practical way to describe a particular motive behind a particular decision. But so help me, if you try and label anything I do as "belonging" to one of those "categories", I will hunt you down.

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Monday, June 16, 2008

Warhammer 40,000: Are You My Warboss?

A ork waaagh lands on a desolate necron tombworld, and the soulless automatons quickly arise to eradicate the infestation. Every single one of the boyz is vaporized, and sterilization fields are activated that kill off even the spores. But through mutation and sheer luck, one spore grows so quickly that it escapes the sterilizing fields. A single ork is born.

He acquires a choppa and pistol from the ruins of the orc's encampment, but there aren't any boyz to be found. The ork looks about uncertainly, then smiles and with a tentative "waagh!" runs off in a random direction- the boyz left without him, so he'll just have to track them down.

He wanders the dusty wastes for weeks. Once he sees smoke, but it turns out to be the remnants of some spilt fuel containers. He plays with the fire for a while, but moves on- after all, the real fun will be when he catches up with the boyz.

Then, to his joy, he finds one of the entrances to the tombs. Down in the vaults, he gazes across row after row of inert necron warrior. He runs through the halls for a while, roaring and firing his bolter, trying to liven the place up a little. Eventually he walks over and punches one of the warriors in the shoulder; it simply tips over. The tomb remains inert.

Since he's the biggest, the orc figures it's his job to whip these funny-lookin boyz into shape. He gathers a bunch of them together in a pile, then stacks a few more to form a nearby podium. Standing on it, the ork gives a rousing speech about how this is a sorry lot but he'll get them shipshape soon enough. He tries all sort of things to get a waagh going- insults, violence, praise and flattery. . .He tries hobbling around on folded knees, thinking that if he's smaller someone else might go and do a better job of starting a waaagh.

Eventually he goes up on the surface again. He heads off and after much searching manages to find the camp. Nothing there has changed. He grabs up as much dakka and choppa as he can carry and hauls it with him as he spends several weeks looking until he finds the tomb entrance again. Staggering over to where all his boyz are, he dumps the huge assortment of weaponry down and looks up hopefully. The moment stretches out as he stands there, looking on with a tentative smile. Eventually he starts picking up choice bits of weaponry and offering them to the necron warriors. None show any signs of interest.

He tries fitting in for a little while, by standing in the same posture and not moving. He pretends to leave and then sneaks back and peeks around the corner to see if any of the necrons move.

He wants to fight with somebody, just once. He wants to get shot up, to ride shotgun, hooting and hollering. He wants to meet a weirdboy or a nob or a dok. He wants to chant and pound the ground in unison with a massive crowd, to sail through the stars to a new world, to play catch with another ork using gretchins.

Just once, he wants to hear somebody call him something. Just one time; then he'd have a name.

He wishes he knew why the boyz left him behind.

He knows he'll find them. Some day...

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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Ask, and I shall provide

New poll up. I've posted all kinds of work on this blog, but these days I'm focusing alot on some of my larger projects, so I thought I'd check to see what sort of things people want to see more of. In other words, this is an excellent time to make your voice heard; feel free to use the comments section for this post to elaborate on what you'd like to see from me.

Sample PCs: Backgrounds, stats, etc.
New Character Creation Options: Feats, classes and so on.
Sample NPCs: Villian, ally or just ways to inject flavor into a game.
Elements for Existing Settings: Organizations, cities, etc.
New Settings: I could offer some new concepts or elaborate further on some previous ones.
Encounters: New monsters with tactics, a detailed scenario, or I could try to offer some unusual encounters that one doesn't normally see in D&D type games.
Adventures: An outline of plot, encounters, and so on.
Campaigns: Either collections of quick ideas or longer, more detailed outlines.
Full-Fledged Games/Systems: At the moment, this would mean work on d20 Rethought and Trigger Discipline.
Fictional Anecdotes: I'm not about to write a novel, but short segments of fiction can be a very effective tool.
Game Design Theory: Ruminations on what makes games fun and how to distill it.

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Battleships Forever: Fleet Construction Rules

For those of you not in the know, Battleships Forever is an excellent freeware space combat game by Sean Chan that features an impressive amount of quality single-player content and even more importantly (at least in the eyes of everyone I know) allows you to make your own ships. Word is that the developer will be including multiplayer functionality in a future revamp of the game; for now people (including my friends and I) are making do by pitting custom, A.I.-controlled fleets against each other. I had figured we would use the rules followed by participants in the various tournaments that had already occurred, but for me the existing rulesets turned out to be a huge disappointment. So here's my attempt. Read on for an explanation of what this ruleset does differently and why I felt it was necessary.

The single-player aspects of Battleships Forever are highly replayable thanks to the wide variety of ships players can use; the different options are well balanced against one another while still offering markedly different tactical approaches. Unfortunately, the existing rulesets throw all that out the window in favor of a much narrower class of designs. My goal with this ruleset has been to instead set the rules up so that the ships we see in single player are all perfectly viable examples of design- not the work of a moron who shot himself in the foot the second he neglected the obligatory deflectors/cheap weapon buy option.

Basically, I want to have ship design be an actual part of the game, and that's very difficult without a balancing ruleset. Since a game is any experience where you have fun by overcoming challenges, there has to be more of a challenge to design than "aegis deflectors and every weapon in the game one every section". Hopefully this ruleset successfully emulates the balance model Sean Chan followed when he made the ships for this game, consciously or unconsciously.

As always, criticisms and suggestions are welcome, though I might also be persuaded to admit a compliment if it was specific enough.

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Friday, June 6, 2008

The Ghost Blades

Boy, here's an old one- over a year old, in fact. Someone on the /tg/ board had been reviewing the preview material for Assassin's Creed (which at the time was just a handful of tantalizing hints and preview media, including a nicely staged CG trailer) and wanted suggestions on anything along the lines of what we'd seen so far that would make for a memorable encounter/campaign/whatever in a roleplaying game. After giving a good read-through I had a list of elements that I found interesting and worth holding onto:

-A cult-like organization whose workings are shrouded in mystery.
-Kills not for money, but in pursuit of zealous religious ideals.
-Uses skills to avoid innocent casualties and collateral damage.
-Intentionally builds fearsome reputation, allowing for the use of intimidation and threats instead of additional killings; primarily accomplishes this through public demonstrations of power.
-Fanatical devotees that seek martyrdom and follow orders with absolute, unquestioning devotion.

Basically, this gave me an idea for an organization that the players could fight off, seek to overthrow or even be a part of: The Ghost Blades, a secretive order of assassins that worships the Silver Flame.This post will describe public knowledge of this organization in areas where it is active; metagame info can wait for another update.

Potential targets of the Ghost Blade's wrath include clerics and prominent worshippers of the Blood of Vol or any other religion that happens to be increasing in popularity, corrupt officials of the Silver Flame, fiendish beings and lycanthropes of all types, government officials who oppose the spread of the Silver Flame's faith, etc. The organization's level of involvement with the church is unknown and the subject of much speculation; most members of the church would likely denounce the organizations activities if not for the fact that doing so would almost surely cause the Ghost Blades to identify them as a "corrupting influence".

The organization is VERY good at sending clear messages to the public at large. Their signature weapon (a dagger made entirely of flametouched iron) is common knowledge, as is the implications of finding one in your household- say, on your pillow when you awake. It is a warning, and if you don't want to be found dead in a week's time with that very dagger lodged between your ribs (so the legends say) then you must "change your ways", as well as placing the blade in a prominent location so that any visitor to your household will notice it.

The daggers of the Ghost Blades bear a unique version of the Everburning Flame enchantment, one that burns bright silver even in magical darkness. It is said that activating or deactivating the enchantment requires a secret code word that only the order's members know; there is no manner of remote activation, if a dagger is alight it means that a member of the order was there in person. If the dagger in your household is alight, then the warning is beyond serious- the ONLY reason you are alive is that if you reverse your ways and take action now it will be beneficial to the cause of the Silver Flame.

And when the warning is ignored, or the dagger hidden or sold or thrown away, or the subject is simply seen as not worth warning. . .the kill will surely be done in a way that strikes fear in the heart of all who bear witness.

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