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Fate scaling: Embracing the power of "No" [Mar. 10th, 2015|01:22 am]
Labcats, the RPG Blog

I've played a fair amount of Fate at this point -- plenty of games and playtests at Metatopia, playtesting various official fate versions from Kerberos Club Fate to Atomic Robo to Dresden Accelerated, and playing through entire campaigns of Dresden and Kerberos Club Fate.

In general, Fate's an amazing system within its idiom, which is an idiom I particularly like--one where narrative artifacts are front and center, but player vs player arguments are not. Instead of players arguing over who has the high ground (or the better argument), the Fate Point economy exists explicitly to moderate wins and losses -- take a narrative loss or accept a narrative complication, and you get Fate Points -- spend Fate Points and you get to make a narrative declaration, ignore a narrative complication, or receive a big bonus in a conflict. Nice and simple, and since it always ties back to the narrative through Aspects, the flow is directed into the overall story rather than just creating castles in the clouds that never connect back to what's really going on. But the biggest problem I've seen in a number of Fate hacks is scaling.

My favorite fictional scaling example done right is the 90s TV show Lois and Clark. In the show (which was groundbreaking in other ways as well), Lois was a normal human, albeit a smart one. And Clark was, well, Superman. You might think that Lois would be completely useless in this situation, with Superman able to do, well, anything -- but in fact, the show was nicely evenly matched in terms of screen times -- with Lois investigating crimes (and Superman) and psychologically facing down anyone from CEOs to Lex Luthor, while Clark would either investigate in his mild mannered reporter guise, or take on far larger foes as needed (like Lex Luthor) as Superman. Sure, Superman could do a lot more than Lois could -- but the narrative was balanced, because in general, Lois would have around the same outcome spread as Clark had, and thus the same amount of screen time and narrative weight (functionally, she was as important a character to the story as he was).

Scaling can be a big issue in other games, but I've certainly seen it mess up Fate games. In Kerberos Club Fate, being at a higher scale didn't just let you do narratively more impressive things (like lift 100 tons with your "physical force" facet rather than just a few hundred pounds). It -also- upgraded your dice, each point of relative scale (with 5 different scales available, mundane, extraordinary, supernatural, ascended, and godlike) turning one of your fate dice into a d6 -- an average of a 3.5 improvement in ability, and a frankly overpowering, if unreliable advantage. While you could have PCs of different scale, this ended up being a nightmare in practice, as drcpunk, our ever-suffering GM, had to make sure her foes could challenge the highest scale PCs -- but that meant that a foe designed to stress a higher scale PC would typically crush PCs designed to be more versatile; a realistic possibility, but also one that didn't reward creativity much unless the GM made sure to also give them an appropriate weakness (the game's anti-scale mechanic, but a very much optional one). This meant that even a moderate amount of experience would encourage players to break out of the box of mediocrity -- buying key abilities up to Ascended (where only one PC started) to stop being effectively second string PCs.

And because the higher scale classes (past Extraordinary) were designed to represent those with more than human abilities, this meant that when any PCs picked up a Supernatural or higher social ability, it would allow them to crush social challenges that by all rights should have been a real challenge--unless (as she had to), drcpunk put equivalent barriers in their way. In the end...scale was a -problem-. Having higher scale didn't just give you higher narrative scale -- it also gave you higher narrative weight (the power to succeed on your actions and have a greater effect on the narrative). Buy more scale and your screen time was worth more.

In the Dresden Accelerated playtest -- well, to start with, it bears repeating that this was an alpha playtest. I'm absolutely sure that they're going to change things and I entirely expect them to improve this for later iterations, not to mention the finished product. But in the meanwhile--there, the scaling system isn't a giant mechanical foot that crushes you if you aren't big enough to lift it (or that requires the GM to design a separate foot for every PC to make sure they all have the right size foot: note, if we ever have a sequel to our KCF game, there should be a giant mechanical foot as an NPC/villain/ally/whatever; that would be awesome!). Instead, when you act against something past your effective weight class (and here, at least, a weight class has limits on what it effects; if you are a troll it is defined in the weight class, not in the skills you choose to associate it with, that it helps you lift stuff, not win arguments (unless you can be very intimidating, but that's of limited use)), you discommoded in multiple ways, and if the difference is great enough you basically can't do anything useful. The problem -here- is first that you can be in a situation where you basically can't do anything at all (see "can't do anything useful"), and second that the standard method of overcoming a weight class difference is to team up or do a ritual -- both of which tend to seem overly mechanical and non-narrative. Much better (if more complicated) than Kerberos Club Fate -- but still not ideal.

The thing is, as far as I can tell, vanilla Fate (Fate Core or Fate Accelerated, certainly) already have a rule that handles difference in scale perfectly. I like to call it the power of "no."

Sure, Fate is generally a game of "yes." Once you're rolling dice, the GM is pretty much required to let your action succeed if you make the difficulty number, and while they can refuse any number of Aspect invokes if they don't make sense, it's only a jerk who won't help you find Aspects you -can- spend against if you're willing to spend the Fate Points -- as I mentioned above, the point of requiring Aspects for invokes isn't to limit you (that's what not having infinite Fate Points if for) -- it's to require that spends of Fate points point back to elements in the narrative rather than being disconnected from it. The GM doesn't even get to assign arbitrarily difficulties, for the most part, in most Fate games -- once you're rolling, they have to give you reasonable static opposition, or ideally have a NPC or PC in the scene oppose you, and they can't just throw in arbitrary bonuses (because narrative bonuses is what -their- fate points are for invoking).

However, the GM is under -no- obligation to let you roll for any given described action. If you say "I take over her mind" and you don't have mind control as an aspect of your character, the GM is going to tell you that you can't (possibly rudely) and to try an action that's possible instead. By the same token, if you aren't playing a character who can lift multiple tons, "I catch the building as it falls" just isn't going to be a possible action for you (even assuming you're using comics physics); if a building is falling on you, an Overcome Obstacle is going to be a lot more appropriate than a Create Advantage most of the time.

This is, frankly, a perfect way to handle scale. Sure, you're not at a mechanical disadvantage if you end up in a situation you couldn't reasonably take on head to head -- but you're going to have to pick actions that make sense in the narrative (if the GM is willing to embrace the power of 'no' and not let you ignore the narrative facts on the ground). If you -can- figure out something that makes a direct opposition plausible (switch the field to a social arena, or grab a power suit or bulldozer) then suddenly you can take actions that are now plausible even if they weren't before. And above all, it's simple.

Best of all, if a high scale character ends up facing a relatively minor situation, sure, the GM isn't going to present obstacles that don't make sense (the other side of the power of no is the power of "yes") -- no door forcing for Superman. But within those limits, the GM has an easy time coming up with plausible challenges for them, because they're following the same rules as anybody else.

And meanwhile, if Lois Lane ends up switching foes with Superman, the player isn't going to be facing a quick and ignominious loss (and a decision that it's time for Lois to pick up some superpowers). Instead, while the intrepid reporter is in a sticky situation, she's going to have plenty of wiggle room to decide on a valid course of action (perhaps hiding, or calling the authorities and hoping to out-wait the enemy, or the old standby of engaging in witty dialogue) without breaking idiom.

By using the existing rules of Fate -- including the rule that things have to make sense, it's possible -- and desirable -- to handle difference of scale in ways that make sense on a narrative level; both in how they affect things and when they stop mattering. Adding extra rules just to handle the issue, all too often, just gets in the way.
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Intercon N report (some spoilers) [Mar. 7th, 2014|01:26 am]
Labcats, the RPG Blog

Using a cut tag, as there are at least mild spoilers.Collapse )
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GenCon Overview [Aug. 19th, 2013|09:35 pm]
Labcats, the RPG Blog

Two weekends before GenCon, we did a local dance event, Nocturne Blues. I was also proofreading for Golden Goblin Press.

The weekend before GenCon, we went to Nelco. Josh and Gaylord Tang did the Write a Game in 26 Hours or So, along with Team Leader Jeff Diewald, Chris Amherst, Melanie Saunders, and Alon Levy, who was under the amusing impression that he'd get to sleep by 2 or 3am on. Saturday night.

I was the official morale officer this time, with food and a fresh eye. By eleven or so, half the characters were written, so I started reading. By about 4 or 5am, I'd looked over all the characters, made comments, and tumbled into bed. I was slotted into the larp when it ran a few hours later, and then, Gaylord, Josh, and I hit the road. Between dramamine and an early night, Josh and I were mostly refreshed on Monday.

On Tuesday, I arranged for car service at 7am on Wednesday.  We got to sleep at 5am. I had pants to hem, and a zine to finish, as I was determined to get my zine in before GenCon, since I now need to prep for Necronomicon this weekend. We also had packing to do, and as Josh was in one larp and I was in two, costuming. We knew who we were in the Carnivale Arcane larp, which meant Josh packed his top hat in a box that formerly contained reams of paper, and his spiffy green Regency tailcoat. I was the fortune teller, so I packed a skirt and two piece blouse ensemble, and a friendly Robin Wood tarot deck. Casting was not done in advance for my other larp, so I dithered and packed something flexible.

I woke up at six, and Josh woke around 6:30. The driver was punctual, and we got to the airport and through security quickly enough. Traveling with a single tablet and zero netbooks or laptops makes it faster for me, and I only need two bins, not three or four, at least in summer.

We deplaned and took the $1.75 bus to the JW Marriott. Originally, we'd been in the Crowne Plaza, but the wing with our room was being renovated. GenCon Housing staff contacted Josh to explain this and asked if he wanted the JW Marriott or the airport Crowne Plaza. Naturally, we wanted the former. It was somewhat pricier, and a bit less convenient in terms of distances, but it was also a very nice hotel with a large room, a 24-hour fitness center, and good service. It also did have skywalk access to the convention center.

We then gathered people, resources, and tickets. Josh and I were rooming with Gaylord Tang, who was already at the con, and who met us in the room. Tristan Goss was en route from Australia, and while we got our badges and tickets, we coordinated with Jen Midkiff, a local musician who had an air mattress to loan us. Hotels often won't move a cot in, citing fire code rules, but, the JW Marriott, like the Crowne, had no issue with us bringing in an air mattress, and staff assured us that it would be fine to leave it for Jen at the front desk, after the convention. She'd have liked to attend, but other commitments and budget considerations got in the way.

We shifted the beds slightly to make room for the air mattress, and the housekeeping staff left it in place all weekend, treating it as they would any other bed. We met up with Tristan, who showered us with gifts from Australia, then he got his badge and tickets, while I exercised, and Josh played a game in the hotel lobby. After, Josh, Tristan, and I went to The Tilted Kilt. It didn't have a full menu, but the pizza was good, and the portion of garlic fries was generous. We went back to the hotel and crashed.

Thursday morning, I got exercise, then went to the ICC (convention center), room 110, where Cubicle 7 games were being held, at least for that slot. I was in a 3rd edition Victoriana game, and Tristan was in a laundry game.

All of the Victoriana characters had both a male and a female version, with only pictures and names differing between the two, afaik. Walt Ciechanowski, the GM, said that this was not only to let player have the character of whatever gender the player wanted to play that slot, but also to drive home the point that even if you want the Victoriana setting to be sexist, the game itself should not be. PCs are extraordinary folks and can exceed societal expectations.

After the game, I went to the exhibit hall to shop. I had my wheeled suitcase, and I shipped most of what I purchased back home. I got a bit of food and went to my next game, Mystery Solving Teens, using Gumshoe, but not Bubblegumshoe. The GM had tried to contact Pelgrane about getting a draft of Bubblegumshoe, but as that hadn't happened, we used a somewhat modified Gumshoe that took into account players who were Scoobies -- er, teenagers on summer break, and their dog. Like the Victoriana game, it started with a smaller adventure before the main plot.

After the game, I met up with Josh, and we had dinner. Normally, we do Ruth's Chris on Saturday, as it isn't usually crowded, but this year, we tried it on Friday, and it was booked for the VIG event. So, we ate at McCormick and Schmick's. After dinner, we went back to our hotel for exercise, a shower, and some sleep.

Friday, my first game was in the JW Marriott. Josh and I had breakfast there. Then, I played in a Kerberos Club game that used the Savage Worlds system. Peter Hildreth came by to say hello. His game started an hour before mine ended, and he needed to explain to a few adults that his was strictly for children. I think this was in the event description, but I guess they missed it.

After that, I did more shopping and hung out with Josh. Then, he went to a Shadowfist tournament, while I went to the Dresdenfiles larp. They were a few folks short, but I was able to recruit Gaylord. There were a lot of fun moments, and I don't recall feeling at loose ends.

Josh and I wandered the exhibit hall Saturday morning. He was in full costume. We got food from a food truck and went to the Carnival Arcane larp. I changed. The game was fun, but despite having sold out, had many empty spaces, one of which Gaylord filled. It was fun, and I never had time to be bored, as plenty of folks wanted to talk to or get help from the fortune teller.

After that, I managed to get a boarding pass for the 6pm Games on Demand slot, but did not get the game I'd hoped for. On the other hand, I had a great time in the Fate Accelerated Game I did get into. On the whole, I like the boarding pass system, though I did not like the lights dimming every hour or so, to remind folks of the time. After the game, I caught up with Josh, and we slowly made our way to the hotel, where he helped me pack, packed his things, and then did a bit more gaming while I got some sleep.

Sunday, we all checked luggage. JW Marriott set aside a very large room, likely a ballroom, on the third floor, for checking luggage. It was always manned and folks were helped quickly. I very, very much appreciate that. Josh got Jen's air matress to the frot deak as I went to the Hyatt, where three players, including me, waited for our 10am game until 10:30am. After that, I got a boarding pass for Games on Demand, did more shopping, and got into a 2 hour Dungeon World game.

After that, I went back to the exhibit hall, finished shopping and saying goodbye to folks, and met up with Josh and Gaylord. After the final cheer of the dealers, we went to the JW Marriott, got our luggage, and tipped. I hope others did as well, as the hotel did an excellent job of making this process easy for us.

The JW Marriott has some kind of arrangement with some company, as our rate to the airport was less than we generally pay in metered cabs. We checked luggage, had dinner, went through security, where we got to go through the metal detector, although Josh got selected for a random check to make sure he hadn't handled explosives. This was relatively quick. We got onto the plane, and I fell asleep, waking up only long enough to confirm I wanted cookies. We landed and collected our luggage. Then, Gaylord took a bus to a subway, while Josh and I cabbed home.

The weather in both NYC and Indianapolis seemed cooler and less muggy than in the past two years or so.
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The Theory, aka My GenCon 2013 Schedule [May. 20th, 2013|02:43 am]
Labcats, the RPG Blog

Wednesday: 10:15 am - 12:46 pm: Flight to Indianapolis

Thursday: 8 am - Noon: RPG1343895: Victoriana: The Undersea Conspiracy. My first choice for this slot. Victoriana's getting a third edition, and I'd like to see how it plays. Also, Cubicle 7's been supplying me with much material for my Kerberos Club game, a lot of it via Victoriana.

Thursday: Noon - 5 pm: Time to Shop! Also, time to make sure I have enough food with me. And, time to ship off purchase with UPS, if they're fairly bulky.

Thursday: 5 pm - 9 pm: RPG1342022: Gumshoe: Mystery Solving Teens. I don't know if this will be using the new Bubblegumshoe system. The GM hadn't intended that to be the case, but that was because the GM didn't know it was currently in development. The GM's contacting the appropriate people to see if it will be possible to get and use those rules, which would be awesome. My first choice for this slot.

Thursday: 9 pm - sleep time: Currently, nothing. Possibly an oddly sane early night.

Friday: 9 am - 12:30 pm: RPG1343822 Savage Worlds: Kerberos Club: All the Queen's Men. I run Kerberos Club Fate Edition, so I'm always interested in Kerberos material. Savage Worlds is likely close enough to Fate that I can do mental translations, and anyway, I'd like to see how Savage Kerberos plays. My first choice for this slot.

Friday: 12:30 pm - 7 pm: Time to shop, nap, or maybe drop by Greg Stolze's Better Angels game from 2 pm - 6 pm to see if he's got an opening.

Friday: 7 pm - 1 am: LRP1341767: Larp: The Dresden Files Present: Invitation to the Ball. The combination of description and name of the group running it makes me think my odds of enjoying this are reasonable. My first choice for this slot.

Saturday: 1 am - 1 pm: Possibly sleeping in. Possibly that and shopping.

Saturday: 1 pm - 5 pm: LRP1343483: Larp: Carnival Arcane. One of the GMs is Gregory Nagler, who ran the two Buckaroo Banzai larps I loved. We got a link to the website for the group and an eddress so that we could email in our first three choices of characters from a list. (Mine were the fortune teller, the snake lady, and the bearded woman -- I own a fake beard from when we ran a circus larp with its own bearded woman.) This was my second choice in the slot, my first being Greg Stolze's Blacksat for Delta Green.

Saturday: 6 pm - 10 pm: RPG1343850: Rocket Age: Lost City of the Ancients. The only item not originally on my list. Originally, I got my second choice for the evening slot, but then got email about the game that indicated that, while it might well be a fine game, it wouldn't be to my taste. Someone who'll enjoy it more than I would should get the slot.

Saturday: 10 pm - sleep time: Possibly Cardhalla. Packing. Maybe hanging out.

Sunday: 10 am - 2 pm: RPG1340295: Night's Black Agents: Operation: Eagle Eye

Sunday: 2 pm - 4 pm: Probably last licks in the Exhibit Hall, aka last chance for shopping.

Sunday: 6:59 pm - 9:09 pm: Flight to NYC LaGuardia
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Kerberos Fate Thoughts [Apr. 5th, 2013|10:34 pm]
Labcats, the RPG Blog

I have been running Kerberos Club Fate Edition since 2011. It's an interesting system, with a lot of cool features, and with some features that have been problematic in a long campaign. (Short version: Scaling becomes a problem.) (Slightly longer version: We started in game year 1837. It is now the end of 1840. If the players spent all the points and refresh they've gained, they would be more powerful than the sample Late Century PCs in the book.)

Kerberos Fate predates Fate Core and Fate Accelerated. Unless one of my players feels strongly motivated to do so, we're not likely to redesign the system. And, I'm not expecting Mike Olson to do so, as he's got other projects. So, we've been improvising as needed, while still keeping to a combination of the main Kerberos Fate rules and a Gentlefolk's Agreement not to grow the characters too quickly. (Yes, I'd prefer to have mechanics helping us out here, but that's a topic for a very different post.)

The conceit of Kerberos Club is that, within the club, all are equal, but society is still society. We want to play this way. We love the social drama, the comedy of manners. A glance at the bits that I manage to transcribe to the wiki, or the rather large bite-sized chunks I post to Story Game threads demonstrates the joy we all take in not having the PCs try to overthrow society's norms.

Kerberos Fate has Social Conflict, as well as Physical and Mental Conflict. Social Conflict is a little odd, because it isn't about witty one liners per se. For example, Josh's PC, Lady Alice Beauchamp, and her cousin, the NPC Winston Beauchamp, fight Mental conflicts. Alice's cousin wants her to mind her manners. He does not want to destroy her socially. That would not be in his best interests. He did use social conflict to spread the rumor that she'd be marrying an earl, although she soon corrected him on that score.

More recently, I was trying to figure out how to do a social conflict to make aristocratic society accept the idea of Consulting Detective Victor Knight (PC) marrying the younger, highly eccentric (she's becoming a _doctor_!) NPC daughter of a minor nobleman. We decided to create a long stress track (25 boxes, but I can shorten it if we think things are dragging) and give Society As A Whole a skill at social conflict of Supernatural +6, and allow a limited number of rolls per session to move Society towards accepting this particular marriage. Every five or so boxes, there should be an Aspect reflecting Society gradually softening towards it. I'm guessing the first one should be At Least He's Trying, given that Victor's got an Aspect of Truth Before Tact.

Having started to watch Phineas and Ferb, I am pondering how to create the cast in Kerberos Fate terms. Clearly, Agent P is already a member of the club. Candace is obviously worried that her brothers will jeopardize her chances of marriage. I am thinking that the brothers' Trouble Aspect is Easily Bored, which explains why they do the weird and wonderful stuff they do and why they never do anything twice.
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On GUMSHOE [Feb. 3rd, 2013|01:37 am]
Labcats, the RPG Blog

Or Why the GUMSHOE Investigation System Isn't Doing What Everyone Thinks It Is Doing But Is Actually Doing Something More Amazing

In an episode of the podcast _Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff_, they discussed a situation where an innovation in game design is first reviled and then dismissed with "I've done it that way all along." The innovation they were discussing was the GUMSHOE investigation system, and Simon Roger was understandable a little perturbed by these reactions to it.

I like Simon. He's a great guy and one of the folks in the industry who really, really understands good customer service. (Fred Hicks is another one, but I digress.) Nevertheless, my first reaction was a mental "Er, I'm sorry, Simon, but I _have_ been doing it all along. Really -- since before there was a GUMSHOE system." And this is perfectly true, but it misses the point.

Actually, it misses two points. The first, if less important, point is that Simon is probably not thinking of individual GMs who have been doing this for years. He is probably thinking of companies whose staff claim that they have been selling games that do what GUMSHOE's investigation system does all along. Simon, Robin, and Ken are all correctly skeptical of this claim.

When it comes to investigation in a Call of Cthulhu scenario -- and, likely, in scenarios in most other gaming systems -- I think there will be one of the following two situations:

1. The scenario calls for a Find Clue roll. Maybe the author has solving the mystery hinge on making a Cthulhu Mythos roll, which is extremely foolish, as the odds of an entire party missing such a roll is great. Maybe the author calls for one or more Spot Hidden or Idea or Know rolls, where the odds of at least one person in the party making the roll is great -- but it is still possible for everyone to miss the roll and the clue.

This is the situation that those who write for and run and play GUMSHOE loudly proclaim that GUMSHOE solves. If the choice is between Find Clue and Game Stops Dead In Its Tracks, in GUMSHOE, you will always Find the Clue. And, this is as it should be.

Yes, for years, I and any other GM worth his salt have done essentially what GUMSHOE claims to do. Perhaps this means that the GM winces, but says, "All right, I'll give it to you anyway." Perhaps this means that the GM decides that whoever rolls best finds the clue. This is generally what I do, as I have only rarely run Call of Cthulhu scenarios with the BRPS system. I used a homebrew version of R. Talisorian's Stat + Skill + d10 vs eyeballed difficulties for my first Cthulhupunk campaign, and I used Over the Edge for my second. For my third, I eventually just stopped calling for Find Clue rolls and either maneuvered players to ensure their PCs would find the clue (e.g., "Do you eavesdrop on the conversation?") or just tell them outright (e.g., "As you walk away, you notice...").

But, this is what we all, as individual GMs do to fix something that is broken. The fact that we are all extremely talented individuals who have quietly patched a faulty system so that we all have a good time does not change the fact that, in this regard, the system is at fault.

I know that there are some people who don't believe that it's a problem to have everyone blow the Find Clue roll, and that the correct thing to do is to let the group founder. There are probably even some groups that enjoy this sort of thing. But, I do not, and I think that the majority of gamers do not. More likely is a case where players and GM alike think that they must stick to the system as written, even if it makes the game suck. And, here, the Indie movement has a point.

I do not believe that RPGs can be equated with board games, but I do agree that if a particular application of a rule will often produce an undesired result, changing the rule so that this application does not come up and does not produce an undesired result is probably the way to go.

2. The scenario has nothing hinging on a Find Clue roll. Yay! And, there are some scenarios like that, though I suspect many of the ones I'm thinking about merely have so many possible ways to roll for Finding a Clue that, statistically, one of them will come up. But, let us assume that we've got a scenario that actually does not depend on anyone ever making a Find Clue roll.

Hey, it's just like GUMSHOE, right? Well... actually, no.

What's happening is that the scenario author, like the GM, is patching the system, or working around it, or perhaps gracefully working so that the system uses its strengths, not its weaknesses. And, for the purposes of creating a workable mystery scenario, this is fine. It is completely understandable that I assumed that this was all there was to the GUMSHOE Investigation system, because this is what all GUMSHOE's stout defenders praise.

Actually, there are two lines of defense for those who have issues with the GUMSHOE Investigation system, and this does not help matters.

First, we are told, GUMSHOE is Completely Different, for never again will an adventure come to a screeching halt because your Investigator missed a Find Clue Roll. Next, we are assured that GUMSHOE is Completely the Same. The player still has to specify where the PC is searching, and IF the investigator is searching in the right area, and IF the investigator has the appropriate skill, then and only then does the investigator find the clue. Those who are now thinking, "Oh, great, so it's a game of 'read the GM's mind'" can be forgiven, I think, for this _is_ what that second argument says.

Mind, when I talked about my doubts to Ken and Robin when I first purchased Trail of Cthulhu, they explained that one is by no means supposed to make the players guess which skills are necessary. The GM should tweak the adventure so that the skills required to Find the Clue are the ones the Investigators have. If your PC has Art History, then, by gum, Art History should be useful in scenario after scenario in finding clues.

And, many of the better GUMSHOE scenarios are written in just such a way, saying, essentially, "Okay, the Core Clue is X. Here are some examples of how to phrase the PCs discovering it based on what skill gets used, and if your group has different skills, then use this as inspiration to figure out how to phrase it. But, make sure they get this Core Clue."

So, okay, GMs are supposed to fit scenarios to their groups, which is what good GMs always do. No matter how good a scenario is, it's likely any GM will have to do some customization. And GUMSHOE helps keep the plot from coming to a screeching halt because the investigation system says, "Don't let the plot come to a screeching halt."

The creators and authors and fans of GUMSHOE make it sound as if that is all the system does. This led to a conversation between myself and Bill White which I suspect has been had many times. Bill said, "GUMSHOE is answering the wrong question," and I agreed.

The question we _thought_ GUMSHOE was asking, the question all of the PR about GUMSHOE indicates that GUMSHOE is asking, is "How do you keep the plot from grinding to a halt when someone blows a Find Clue roll?" And, too often, any time someone starts to phrase a critique of GUMSHOE, before the criticism or question has left the speaker's mouth, GUMSHOE's defender answers this question -- even if it isn't the one asked -- with "You use the GUMSHOE Investigation system!" For me, the answer to that question is, "Don't do that, obviously!"

But, honestly, if that truly were the question GUMSHOE was asking, there would be no need for GUMSHOE. All anyone would have to do would be to take Call of Cthulhu or whatever their system of choice for running mystery scenarios is, and stick a post-it note on the cover of the book, and write on that post-it note: "Never Let the Plot Grind to a Halt Because Someone Blows the Find Clue Roll!"

That's all you'd need to do, no extra rules, no nothing. But, that isn't what GUMSHOE is really correcting for. That isn't the question it is really answering.

The main question it's asking is, "How do you write and run an investigation scenario where it is a given that the PCs will find all of the clues?"

Or, if you want to take a step further back, it is, "How do you emulate the genres of investigation where there is no real possibility that the PCs will fail to solve the mystery in such a way that this failure makes them miss the plot?"

You write a scenario differently when you start from the position that no rolls will be necessary to find clues. You are not trying to find specific ways to give clues to the players. Oh, sure, you may have some ideas, but ultimately, you're providing the core clues in such a way that any GM can tweak the delivery of information.

I'm not getting into a question of railroading here, given that there are good and bad forms of railroading, that there is some debate on what truly constitutes railroading, and that we all know that Call of Cthulhu and other systems can produce railroad scenarios just as easily.

The fact that the clues will come out also allows GUMSHOE to play an emotional game. Horror after horror is revealed until the final horror shatters the fragile mental balance of the investigator. This is the assumption for the Lovecraftian story of Call of Cthulhu and Trail of Cthulhu, of the more action oriented Night's Black Agents, and of the conspiracy and horror games of Esoterrorists and Fear Itself, as well as of the other GUMSHOE games I am not familiar with, such as Ashen Stars and Mutant City Blues. The various GUMSHOE games are trying to emulate their chosen genres both intellectually and psychologically.

When I playtested Eternal Lies, I fell in love with the content (or at least, with as much of it as I had access to). Josh fell in love with the Investigation system. It did what it said on the can, and he never had to deal with the frustration of not finding a clue.

This is why I get impatient whenever anyone praises the Investigation system of GUMSHOE as if it needs defending. Yes, I have issues with the GUMSHOE system -- but with that part of the GUMSHOE system which is everything that isn't the Investigation system. I do not grok the General Skills system. I do not understand the pacing. I've read an article that has what I think is probably terrible advice -- or, at least, I'm fairly certain my PC would not have survived the Night's Black Agents tournament if I'd tried to play that way, and if the GM and players _do_ play that way, then the General system feels a little pointless.

All of this may be obvious to other folks who've read GUMSHOE. I was bouncing my thoughts off Rob Donoghue, who nodded vigorously, having obviously thought about GUMSHOE a lot and come to many of the same or similar conclusions as I had.

Josh's take on the General system is that it's too flat. He proposes a solution here.

Will Hindmarch said that Gumshoe's General system, including the combat system, worked great, except when it totally sucked, and that there should be a way to explain how to make it not suck.

The folks at Evil Hat will be coming up with their own solution and working on two Gumshoe games, Revengers and Bubblegumshoe. Fred Hicks describes what he sees as the problem with the resource allocation system that is the General system here. More details on Revengers and Bubblegumshoe are here. I'm looking forward to both of these, especially Bubblegumshoe, but not holding my breath as yet. Evil Hat has a very full plate.
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Fixing Gumshoe [Jan. 9th, 2013|04:49 pm]
Labcats, the RPG Blog

So, I've long had some problems with the Gumshoe system, which underlies Gumshoe, Ashen Stars, Night's Black Agents, and Esoterrorists.

It's not the investigative subsystem -- despite the megabytes devoted to defending that system, -that- system is well set up for exactly what it wants to do, both in handling "this clue gets found; who found it" questions as well as "this clue might get found; is it worth it to people, or do they want to conserve their resources for other clues they find more interesting?" I like it, and engage with it. Sure--to anyone who has played a lot of investigative games with good GMs, it duplicates what a good GM will do in an investigative story anyway--making sure the PCs maintain a route to the story and adding extra redundancy to core clues (on the fly, if necessary) while having other clues affect the story, but ringing changes depending on how much the PCs do further than the necessary investigation. But there's nothing wrong with codifying what "good GMs" do, and everything right with it, as that's one of the better ways to train potentially good GMs into actually good GMs.

No, my issues are all with the General system. The approach seems good enough on the surface, at least for those who can stand some resource management. Whenever you make an action, determine a target number (between 2 and 8), then spend as many points out of a relevant skill as you like (you don't always know the target number, but you usually know it within a point, and the system gets wonky when you don't, so let's just say you do). Then roll a d6 and add it to your spend; if the result equals or exceeds the target, you succeed. If not, you fail and the action is wasted.

Now, there are some issues here that are a matter of personal preference. I'm not fond of systems where being good at a particular thing is only valid if you can spend resources being good at it (but here, the sting is somewhat removed by having many skills grant a special abiltity if you have more than 8 ranks in them). And on principle, I I'm not fond of systems where to get an extraordinary result, you have to bet that an extraordinary result will happen--I have the issue here, in Deadlands, and in L5R; I think one of the joys of rolling dice is that unexpected and extraordinary things happen -- but here, you decide what "unexpected" is before you try to roll the dice, and they never exceed your expectations unless you aim high (and you have little reason to do so much of the time, but see below). Neither of these are issues that need to be fixed -- they're just ways the system doesn't appeal to my particular tastes, and it -does- appeal to my tastes in other ways.

No, my issue is that the system is just incredibly binary. For the most part, the Investigative skills are the ones you use to find the adventure; the General skills are the ones that make sure things happen as you desire once you do--including your characters not dying. This means that for the most part, you can divide General rolls into two categories: Ones that matter, and ones that don't really matter.

The other important factor is that linear "1 point equals +1 on the roll" mechanic -- with (with the exception of points you spend to get success onto the d6 if the target is higher than 6, which are worth less) every point you spend out of a pool being worth 1/6 of a success (and, if you do, say, an average of 4 damage per strike, each point you spend is worth 2/3 (that is, 4/6) of a point of damage). Essentially, every point you spend is worth an exactly equal chance of success with everything -- in fact, the optimal strategy would be to spend enough to make every roll a guarunteed success, if it weren't for the healing mechanics (which let you spend a set of different general pool items to heal yourself, or more efficiently, your allies between combat) and the fact that not all tasks are equal in importance. Instead, tasks in Gumshoe divide into three rough categories:

1. Tasks that are crucial, which you spend enough to guaruntee a success (if it's worth that first point, it's probably worth the one that gets rid of the chance of failure, too).

2. Tasks that are fun/useful, but not worth spending any points on. You don't spend any points on these. (there are some cases where multiple PCs are trying the same thing where you might spend a point or two here to make the math work out better, but...usually not so much).

3. Tasks where you'd -like- to guaruntee a success, but you don't have enough points to do so. So you spend what you can and go from there. Or more likely, you don't try that task; you try a task using a pool you still have points in, reducing us to the first two options.

The problem I have might be obvious with that breakdown, but to put it plainly: In Gumshoe, played efficiently, I find that the only results that have any variability are the ones you don't care about -- the exception being if you are out of all relevant pools, in which case you're at the mercy of the dice and will probably lose/die unless there isn't much adventure before another refresh.

The reason this is an itch I feel compelled to scratch is that as problems go, it's an annoying wart in an otherwise servicable system--and one that once you've seen, can be hard to ignore.

The core problem is the linaarity of dice rolls/spends. That's the thing that means that once you're "in for a penny", you might as well buy the whole bank--why make a favorable bet when you can make a pile of bets and reduce any loss chance? I've in the past, looked at various ideas for solutions--you could use a bigger die and have different spends grant different bonuses, for instance. The problem is, any solution I've tried before now either fails at some crucial points (throwing off basic chances of success in one fashion or another), requires too much manipulation of the existing numbers in the game, or is simply too complicated. Often all three.

However, I think I've managed an elegant solution that handles the whole issue nicely: Instead of "1 spend = +1," replace this with "1 spend = +1 or roll +1 die, keeping the highest". The nice thing about this is that +1 die is actually strictly worse than a straight +1 (adding a die and dropping the lowest increases the likely result by +35/36). But Gumshoe isn't about your maximum total; it's about your chance of failure, and there the first +1 die (but not so much the rest; extra dice have a steep diminishing return) drastically drops your worst cases -- changing the chance of a 1 from 1/6 to 1/36 (although there you'd rather go from 1/6 to 0/6), a 2 or worse from 1/3 to 1/9, and a 3 or worse from 1/2 to 1/4.

This means that with my hack, there's a strong incentive, if you're spending on a roll, to spend first point on +1 die rather than +1. Sure, it doesn't help you guaruntee success at all (and if you're going to do that, you're not going to buy the die), but on a non-guarunteed roll with a 2/6 or better chance of success, it's got more bang for the buck than just buying a +1 (ok, for 2/6 chance, it's exactly the same, but spending one on a +1 and one on an extra die is much more efficient than spending both on a +1). And once you're buying at least one extra die, spends stop being linear--on the same roll where you'll avoid a 1/6 chance of failure, it might not be worth it to mitigate a 1/9 chance of failure instead. Of course, in theory, this significantly (but not massively) favors the players -- they're spending less but getting more bang for the pools they're spending. On the other hand:

1. They're actually accepting chances of failure, and occasionally failing.
2. The big bonus for that first spend encourages spending on rolls where you might not spend for a +1. So while they have more effective points, players are likely to not keep them for much longer.

So, what you you think?
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Fate, Fate Points, and how Fate is like a video game [Oct. 6th, 2012|06:12 pm]
Labcats, the RPG Blog

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[Current Mood |accomplished]

drcpunk and I have a running dialogue regarding how many Fate Points PCs should have in her Kerberos Club Fate game, and really, in Fate campaigns in general. It goes something like this:

DrC: Do you think you guys have too many fate points?
Mne: Nah. I think we're fine.
DrC: Are you sure? I mean, you have 20 points now, and got 5 the last session; I don't think I can throw a challenge against you you can't simply blow away.
Mne: Sure, but I only had 3 three sessions ago. Remember? I had so few Fate Points that I got FPs back from Refresh. That's never happened to me! (It did, and it hadn't. That was weird! But I'd spent a bunch at one point).
DrC: Are you sure you're not getting FPs too fast, then? You guys don't take consequences often enough*!

...And so on. But here's the thing: I don't think players should be worrying about how many Fate Points they have -- I just don't think that should be a thing. Yes, sure, you want the Fate Point economy to mean you have points leaving the game as well as just accumulating -- but it should be an "easy come, easy go" -- where it's more likely that you're staring at the situation trying to find more Aspects that you can justify helping you than that you're down to your last Fate Point and thinking you're out of luck.

As for why, well...

There's a guy named Shamus Young. He's the guy who did the DM of the Rings series. But he mostly now writes (and does a video series with some other folks: Spoiler Warning) about video games.

One thing that's been a running theme in recent Shamus writing is scorn heaped upon games, particularly MMOs, that fail to keep your eyes on the center of the screen. The thing is, when you're playing an MMO, there are a lot of things to keep track of. There are your powers -- usually on cooldown, so you're going to want to watch them and figure out when to use them again, like a complicated tactical rhythm game. There are the little icons saying what status effects you and whatever creature you've targeted are, and how much life you have left. If you're grouped, there are little pop-ups with your party members, telling you whether they're alive and how many hit points they have, what status effect -they- are on, and so on, and often there's an overhead map showing you where you are and where your friends are (and probably some other details too). And so on, and so forth.

The thing is, the game really needs to be structures such that you're only looking at that other stuff rarely, if at all -- instead, you want to be looking at the center of the screen--where the action, the story, and all of the interesting stuff is. That means having mechanics that display status effects by showing them visually on characters (or if they're on you, on your character or as a screen effect) rather than simply expecting you to be checking the status icons; it means showing how hurt you are and your opponents are by having wounds or at least having your screen start turning red once you get into the danger zone, and so on. It also means having the action matter -- the difference between a game like the soon to be resting in peace City of Heroes and a more modern MMO like Guild Wars 2 is that in GW2, when you knock a guy down while he's in the middle of launching an attack, the attack stops happening; when you put a wall between you and an attack he just launched, the attack bounces off the wall, and so on -- the environment and your situational awareness -matters-.

Getting back to fate, then -- I don't want how many Fate Points you have left to matter. Sure, it's an issue; I want some motivation for you to screw your character over by taking compels you really shouldn't (and as a player, I want a reward that matters when I decide to go alone into a dark alley or slap my good friend in the face). But if you're playing correctly and willing to have your character get into the sort of trouble that RPG characters should get into, I don't want you looking at the situation and thinking you might not have enough Fate Points -- that's not what it's about (exception: If it's early in the story block, I could see having you look and say you don't have enough FPs and want to lose to get more, to reflect the fact that's it's early enough in the story for things to mostly be going wrong. But that's a complicated feature -- and anyway, usually the players can tell). Instead, if things are going badly, I want it to be hunting around for more Aspects to -spend- Fate Points through -- for more aspects of the situation -- the thing in the middle of the screen -- that can favor your character.

This -does- mean I think that in some situations, the GM should get more Fate Points -- or make a stronger opponent -- than the games default to when they assume the players are making starting characters rather than gaining experience and holding onto large stockpile of points. But a limitation on Fate Points simply shouldn't be a factor -- because that's not in the middle of the screen!

(*): We don't, in fact, take enough consequences -- which is true, and is a problem, but IMO isn't really about how many fate points we have, and isn't entirely germane to this essay--let's just say that the problem there, IMO, is that the game doesn't reward you enough for accepting consequences, which since it's a voluntary action, it bloody well should. And that's with Kerberos Fate rewarding you with a Refresh if you take, and then clear an Extereme consequence--though that's a start.  I think I'd start with saying that you get a fate point for every consequence you end a conflict with -- win or lose -- because functionally you've handed thaose fate points out to your opposition, so you should get to use them too.
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Fight: The Secret World vs Guild Wars 2 [Sep. 27th, 2012|06:12 pm]
Labcats, the RPG Blog

I posted a detailed comparison of the two MMOs I've played recently (and, really, my first two MMOs): Guild Wars 2 and The Secret World.

You can see it on Dreamwidth here
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Intercon K Larp Preparation Notes [Feb. 22nd, 2011|12:15 am]
Labcats, the RPG Blog

So, it is T-10 days until Team Straightjackets Optional heads to Intercon K, and T-12 days until our game, Ghost Fu, runs again.

And we have revised the game, sent out costuming hints, character sheets, and blue sheets, printed everything out, and stuffed the envelopes. We have two copies of a GM manual. Oh, sure, there are fiddly things to do, and we may tweak minor details right up until the last minute, but basically, we are ready to run this.

We usually are not at this point until a week later. But, 60% of Team Straightjackets is going off to Dreamation, so we needed to be done by, oh, now. And we are. And it feels so good.

Things we have learned:


Dedicating a three day weekend to larp prep a week before the last weekend really rocks. We should try it more often.

A lot of fiddly tasks that don't really need to be done, like organizing the material so that we can find things more easily, or re-writing the program that generates the cards so that it will be easier to cut them, really are worth it.

Factoring in a half hour for clean up time, so that one starts winding down a half hour before nominal stop time for the night is a very good thing to do. Get all the garbage tossed, all the materials you're working on out of trip range and drip range, somewhere easy to find and organized to pick up with minimum of fuss the next day. If the game is de facto boxed, put it in a box. Literally, put it in a box, or in boxes, if need be.

If you factor in that half hour, pushing just a little bit to finish organizing the GM Manuals will work. It's also a good idea because it means that all of the loose paper has been put away where it belongs.


Unless you pay for a rush job, a copy shop will not prioritize your job, so don't send it to one if you cannot fill up the time in between with other useful tasks. Also, watch your timing. If we'd made Staples on Saturday night, there would have been no hold up. Having missed it Saturday night, we couldn't leave copying overnight there, and we couldn't buy cover stock to copy at our place. What we should have done was copy the non-cardstock things at our place, or at least the character sheets, gotten the cover stock the next day, and maybe given Staples the Blue Sheets to print.

Staples is not primarily a copy shop. There were some sloppy errors, like printing only one copy of a couple of files that needed multiples, and reversing direction on double sided copying so that some sheets had the same orientation on both sides and some did not. Also, there was some confusion about whether Staples was to cut up the cards on the cardstock -- we hadn't intended this to be the case, and that was cleared up, but it was nice to know that Staples can do that, for an extra charge, which might well be worth it. Well, in theory, Staples can. In practice, one of the staff was very apologetic, but could not figure out how to cut the cards without chopping off words. I don't understand what the issue was, as our Designated Cutter had no problem doing this with the paper cutter we had to hand. The staff was universally friendly and tried to be accommodating, but this seems to have been a more complicated job than is usually done.

I would consider using a copy shop next time, perhaps a Kinkos, to see if that works better. Note that the primary reason we used Staples was that the toner for our main printer cost enough that, when we crunched the numbers to see which option was cheaper, it was about the same.

And, I've a couple of observations on casting questionnaires, but am not sure how cool it is to discuss these without checking with players, although they are fairly broad observations.
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