Thursday, 27 September 2012

Stat distributions

I wrote this post on PC stats and real life, and thought it was broad enough to cross-link here. It's technically for Call of Cthulhu, but similar patterns will apply in other games.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

No Alien Eyes Are There

This post will be mostly unintelligible to anyone not familiar with the Warhammer 40,000 universe and associated games. I don’t particularly want to double its length by trying to explain all the references, but I do apologise. You may want to move on.

As one of our friends sometimes remarks, Dan and Arthur and I talk about Warhammer all the time. Okay, the original wording was a little different. In fairness, we had returned to the subject for the fourth or fifth time that day in the brief span of time she’d left the room for. It’s not entirely accurate, but we do spend quite a lot of time discussing the setting, the books and the games. Especially since our recent Deathwatch game, a lot of this energy has gone into discussing the Warhammer 40K RPG line, which is slowly building up. There’s games for playing Imperial Inquisitors rooting out agents of corruption, for playing Space Marines battling xenos horrors, for playing Chaos Space Marines scheming against everyone and plotting the downfall of the Imperium, for playing Rogue Traders making murky deals and looking to the main chance on the fringes of Imperial space, and (most recently) for playing Imperial Guard on the grim battlefields of the 41st Millennium.

So far, there’s been very little sign of the non-human races. That seems a shame. There are some rules for including the odd eldar or even ork in Rogue Trader, but on the whole the humanity of the whole line is staggering. That’s a particular shame because one of the strengths of the 40K setting is the variety of races, all of whom have their own bizarre quirks and lives, and attract different people. For example, I feel a particular affection for eldar (as an old eldar player in the tabletop game) and for orks (who doesn’t?). At the moment, there’s not much scope for people who’d like to follow the adventures of their own chosen species in a more intimate RP game. As it happens, one of the things that left me drifting away from 40K was that the pure tactical basis of the game lost my interest, and I was always wanting to create interesting stories and adventures out of things, which gets a bit difficult when 80% of the army dies each battle and the game fundamentally boils down to reckoning the odds.

We spent a while talking about the chances of them bringing out some xenos (that is, non-human) game lines, and we’re not that optimistic. Broadly speaking, the main difficulty seems to be that the Imperium of Man (and its opposite, the human-based end of Chaos) has received a colossally disproportionate share of attention in terms of worldbuilding.

Now to be fair, there are some good reasons. For one, the Imperium is the main premise of the whole setting, and so needs to be well-established. For another, it’s a sprawling hypocritical mess of squabbling and dubiously-aligned forces with their own agendas, which gives a lot of starting points for fiction and fluff, whereas at least some of the alien races are considerably more unified. For a third, the way it’s built on recognisable elements of human behaviour and cultures (however twisted) has made it relatively straightforward to build on over time, since both the behaviour patterns and the cultural trappings could be extrapolated from reality, whereas trying to create an entire alien society out of whole cloth is a massive undertaking. And for a fourth, it’s really an awful lot easier to write things from the viewpoint of humans that to try and consider this fictional universe as an alien might.

Nevertheless, this has left xenocentric RPGs rather difficult to create. You really need a solid set of character concepts, cultures and general objectives for RPGs to work around, which don’t necessarily fit well into the tabletop model. For example, Dark Heresy and Rogue Trader both have the players taking the roles of Imperial agents who don’t generally appear on the battlefield, but operate at a political and social level. These roles are well-established in the background but have only occasionally had a look-in on the tabletop game. What do you do with races that only really exist in tabletop or as cannon fodder in a human-based novel? What you don’t want is “Orks, the RPG”. It’s simply too generic, without core concepts to shape the sort of person you are or the sort of thing you do. There is prominently no RPG where you are some kind of member of the Imperium and do some stuff. They have niches.

We spent a while discussing the sorts of RPGs you could theoretically create for other races, and we did manage to come up with a few ideas.

Freebooterz

This is a sort of parallel to the Rogue Trader game. You play as ork mercenaries and pirates, sailing the Warp in search of plunder, but not entirely averse to the odd bit of trade. Basically your objectives are to increase the infamy and status of yourselves and your fleet, and in the process to have a good time fighting things that move and smashing or stealing things that don’t. It might borrow from the Imperial Guard’s Only War game, which has buddy mechanics to represent the squad-based nature of IG combat, by having the PCs as squad leaders. Orks even come with built-in classes in the shape of roles like the Mekboy, Mad Dok, Weirdboy, Kommando and Nob.

Eldar Exodites

Elves in spaaaaace! Exodites barely exist in the current canon, but older editions included them as tabletop units, and though I never took any I liked the idea. Lower-tech eldar with a subsistence lifestyle, warrior culture and pet dragons. What’s not to like? This kind of setting is actually considerably easier to imagine than the ultratech of the Craftworlds, with their prophecy-based politics and completely unknown lifestyles. What I’d basically end up doing with this would be something very like D&D in space. Exodite heroes defend their settlements from native and alien threats, explore ruins, and generally achieve awesome with blade and (possibly) spell. It’s a little bit Princess of Mars, a little bit Moorcock, and generally cool.

Harlequins!

The weird and creepy assassin-mimes of eldarity, mixing with both eldar and dark eldar with song and story, guarding secret lore and doing all kinds of really really bizarre and terrifying things. They’re also skilled and powerful individuals with unique technology, perfect for a special agent-type game. Harlequins are a law unto themselves, not allied to any of their race’s powers, and worshipping their own trickster god. It might have a little in common with Dark Heresy - nobody can entirely trust you and nobody is precisely your ally, so paranoia and conspiracy will run rampant. They’re also perhaps the most likely to infiltrate other races with their illusory technology.

Restless Souls

A game of eldar Outcasts. Eldar who can’t take the restrictions of Craftworld life, but aren’t Exodites or inclined that way, wander the galaxy in search of purpose. There’s a lot of individual story potential here, because the deal with Outcasts is their search for personal meaning and their struggle between the poles of conformity, freedom, control, whim, survival and destruction. Failure to control themselves will lead them down the path of decadence, selfishness and hedonism, which ends ultimately in the jaws of Slaanesh. At the same time, Outcasts have a lot of opportunity to do strange things and take on missions from all kinds of people, from joining human rogue trader expeditions to harvesting soulstones in the Eye of Terror for their estranged Craftworlds.

Greater Good

Tau Fire caste warriors are another straightforward example. Their purpose in life is pre-ordained, and so they have a strong common bond much like Space Marines (which works pretty well in Deathwatch). There’s scope for them to have fairly different personalities, while still working well together in pursuit of the Greater Good. This game might work quite a lot like Deathwatch, with the tau taking on mission-appropriate gear and then taking on special missions. They have a range of cool options ranging from standard troopers to infiltrators to full-blown mecha, giving a lot of options for varying playstyle. While tau are perhaps a little too weak for individual fighting, particularly in melee, they could benefit from a buddy-system through either teammates or the ubiquitous battle drones. There’s also the option of complicating matters by introducing the kroot.

Comorragh

Come on, they’re pretty much perfect. They live lives of constant dread, conspiracy and decadence. To be a dark eldar is to plot and scheme, always seeking new ways to consolidate your position and new horrors to perpetuate in the hope of fending off Slaanesh. This could perhaps be a game of intrigue and politics, backed up with treachery and violence. It could also be a spies-and-assassins game with less influence-gathering and more action. The latter would be okay suited for small groups – I feel like the first one could end up best suited to a Vampire-style group LARP.

Dark Eldar Raiders

Forget the constant treacheries of Commoragh for a minute. Killing and enslaving is a genuine way of life for the dark eldar, and a game built around that could be pretty fun. You lead daring raids on outposts and ships, and forge the occasional deal with those aliens foolish enough to believe they can bargain with you. The more powerful the slaves you take, the greater their value, so the game would push for heroic action (well, ‘heroic’ is a fickle word).

Arbitrator

While there’s already a lot of Imperial games, I’d also love to see systems for playing Arbites (the Judge Dredds of the 40K universe). It’d be a mix of investigative gameplay and combat. Arbites handle everything from ordinary crime to treachery to the first waves of alien invasion, and they’re human enough to be a bit more sympathetic than Marines while being a bit tougher than guards. They also have less of the sociopathic amorality of the Inquisition. You could absolutely play them as Dreddalikes with very little compassion for the average citizen, but certainly in the setting there’s plenty of backing for a more nuanced portrayal.

Priests of Mars

The Tech-Priests of Mars are also crying out for further investigation. They’re human, yet very far from the rest of the Imperium ideologically and culturally, and to be honest they only retain their position within the Imperium because a schism between the two would destroy both.

There’s got to be more. Those are just the ones I can remember us discussing. If the alien races had more fleshed-out backgrounds, there’d be more hooks to develop games around. It’s a nice thought.

Trappery, part five

In the last issue of Trappery, which was longer ago than I intended, I started thinking about “real-world” factors that affect trap design. As promised, I’ll now have a go at applying these to devise actual traps.

As a reminder, our core questions are:

  • What’s the main objective of the trap?
  • Who or what are the targets of the trap?
  • Who uses the area, and who has authority to bypass or deactivate the trap?
  • How serious is the threat you’re guarding against?
  • How dangerous is your everyday life?
  • Are you military, official, commercial, criminal or a private citizen?
  • What sort of budget and resources are available?
  • How easily can you maintain or inspect the trap?

One other thing to bear in mind. Realistically, you should never be designing “a trap”. Proper security relies on a combination of factors, which may or may not include traps, but in any case work in tandem. In some cases, a trap may be the best solution to a particular security problem, but it’s only part of the system.

Note: Originally I began this by showcasing some sample situations to consider trap options in, as the previous comment suggests but they ended up really quite long even before I'd looked at any specifics. I decided to swap those out and post them separately.

The Tomb of the Iron Queen

The corridor

It's sort of like this

Here’s our example. We’ve got the classic tomb-raiding scenario going, and today’s trap is designed to protect a corridor leading to the weapons chamber of the tomb. Let’s assume it’s a non-fantasy setting for now.

  • Objective: stop people getting to the weapons chamber, or escaping with any loot if they succeed
  • Targets: anyone who enters the corridor, but not animals and the like
  • Clearance: nobody should be traversing the corridor, and nobody’s expected to maintain the traps
  • Threat: we’re trying to protect a tomb in eternity, and they have a tendency to get robbed. The deceased object very strongly to that kind of thing. Because there’s nobody to monitor the tomb in the long term, traps need to be pretty final, though deterrence is useful too.
  • Lifestyle: it’s an old tomb from more savage times when life was cheap, especially for powerful queens.
  • Standing: this is probably an official trap, designed to repel robbers rather than armies
  • Resources and maintenance: the queen has all the money and talent she wants for the initial work, but there’s no real way for anyone to maintain traps, monitor them, refill or refuel them or otherwise keep things running.

Okay. We know that nobody at all is supposed to be in this corridor. We know the queen has little regard for life. We know that there’s nobody to retrieve prisoners or respond to alarms. We know there’s a strong probability of intrusion and the builders consider that a serious issue. What that means is that the corridor is going to feature traps that kill people. Not capture, not inconvenience, not even maim, but kill.

We also know there’s nobody to maintain the traps, and that we want them to function in the long term. Um, let’s ignore the fact that realistically pretty much any trap would stop working after a few decades without maintenance... it’s a game. But this does mean that we have to consider reusability and lifespan. A trap that’s destroyed in triggering isn’t that sustainable, nor is something with only one shot. We should also bear in mind that most poisons lose potency quite fast, so they won’t be as much of a feature as we might like. Animals are also not a great bet. On the plus side, tombs tend to be dry, so less decay to worry about. Things you can generally rely on in the long run include gravity, force and other laws of physics.

For targeting humans, you want to discriminate in a fairly broad way. Lacking magic, high technology or anything with decision-making powers, you can do this on size, action (who else opens locks?), or weight (versus, say, rats). Things like tripwires and other delicate mechanisms aren’t a great bet, either because of decay over time, or because they’re too easy to trigger.

Okay, at this point I need to make a semi-arbitrary decision about trap type. As I’m protecting a corridor, I’m going to go with the classic trigger-stone trigger mechanism. A weight suggestive of a human foot will set chains and counterweights in motion within the walls, ultimately causing spikes to erupt from the walls in a ten-foot stretch. Stepping into the trigger area (towards the end of the six feet) lets counterweights drop and force out the spikes. Spikes would be pretty fatal against lightly-clad tomb raiders and the area’s big enough to catch a pair of them, while small enough to keep the mechanisms relatively simple.

So for this to be a reusable mechanism, the counterweights need to be raised between uses. How can we do this? One option is a fluid recharge, where the counterweights are cranked up by the flow of an underground stream or similar; you could use a reservoir of water (or sand, or liquid mercury) that drips out when the trap’s been triggered and builds up enough weight to get it primed again, but that will soon run out unless it’s truly massive. Alternatively and fiendishly, you set up another mechanism elsewhere in the tomb that causes the raiders themselves to prime the trap. This might use the pressure of their feet on corridor, or the force of them opening a door, or any other method of capturing force, to raise the weights and prime the trap. I quite like the idea of having the doors at the entrance end of the corridor be wired into the mechanism, so opening them actually arms the spikes. Let’s go with that, ignoring whether or not you could do that in practice.

Practical Tomb-Robbing

From an adventurer’s point of view, here’s how the trap looks:

You find a pair of heavy, ornate doors bearing carvings of soldiers with all manner of impressive and exotic weaponry.

A successful [insert appropriate skill here] roll suggests that this is an armoury chamber, where the queen’s favoured weaponry has probably been interred. Most likely there’s also an array of extra weaponry as death-offerings to make the place suitably grand.

There’s no sign of any traps on the doors; they aren’t even locked. The doors are heavy and take some effort to open. A successful Listen roll reveals the faint sound of moving chains within the walls. An Engineering roll suggests the doors are counterweighted in some way, though a good roll suggests the doors could be linked to some kind of mechanism elsewhere. You see a classic ten-foot corridor stretching into the darkness. The walls are heavily carved and decorated with geometric patterns and animal, whose blank eyes seem to stare at you. Examining the eyes reveals they are actually holes in the walls. Roll Engineering or History, and also Dungeoneering. Engineering or History suggests several possibilities: this might have allowed air circulation during construction, or they might have had gemstone eyes that have been stolen, or eyes of some material that’s since rotted away. Dungeoneering points out that these would also be handy for spying on intruders (but who is there to do that?), pumping in poisons, flooding the chamber, or firing darts. The floor is made of red and yellow tiles about a foot square. Overhead, there is a vaulted ceiling whose painted surface has long since faded and peeled away.

The corridor stretches on for some distance, narrowing to about five feet in width. If you’re paying attention to the carvings, you’ll notice the animals become more frequent as the corridor continues. One stretch seems to feature a very large number of owls. If you’re not paying attention, the DM will call for a Perception roll, which may draw your attention to the owls. A History or Religion roll can reveal that these were considered vengeful guardian spirits of the dead (which should raise a little caution). If the Perception roll was very good, or if you examine the walls here, you will notice that this means the wall here is full of holes for a stretch of about ten feet. They’re not a regular pattern, they fall naturally wherever the owls happen to be, but they are very frequent here. Depending how much information you picked up earlier, a kindly DM could call for Dungeoneering here either instead of or as well as the Perception roll, to highlight that this might indicate a trap. If you try to assess them as a trap, you can easily deduce that anyone standing anywhere in this area would be covered by between three and ten holes at all times.

The holes are deep and hard to examine visually (and that might not be very sensible). If you try poking something inside, you can evoke the faint clink of something on metal. The metal objects seem to be found in every hole here. Comparison with holes earlier on reveals that those seem to be empty.

If anyone ventures into the last five feet of the owl section, and the weight they exert on the floor is more than a few pounds, the tiles suddenly give under their feet. There’s a frantic rattle of chains and three-foot metal spikes burst from the owls’ eye sockets, burying themselves in anyone unfortunate enough to be in front of them. Not only will they be injured badly, but it’ll prove difficult to reach them to administer help, and for them to get past the spikes. They’re tied into some heavy mechanism and though foot-wide sections can be forced back with an effort (Strength check), they slide back if not prevented in some way.

Once the trap has been triggered, there are a couple of options to bypass it. You could force the spikes back and wedge them somehow. You could actually clamber over the spikes, since the vaulted ceiling gives room overhead. You could also squirm underneath, since they don’t go all the way to the ground.

If you identify the trap before it triggers, you could try to avoid triggering it. If you find some way to exert a few pounds-worth of force on the trigger zone without actually venturing inside (and bearing in mind that it only starts five feet into the owl section) you’ll set it off without the pain. Blocking the holes will be time-consuming and call for a roll when the trap triggers, since it might simply force out any blocks. You could squirm underneath (grubby and slow work) so that even when it triggers you’re basically safe, though you’ll have to drag anything like backpacks behind you and the trigger moment might be pretty tense. You could wedge something into the holes either side of the wall to create a crude scaffold and climb over without touching the floor (requiring a crafting roll, and possibly a Dex roll depending on the scaffold they build).

Alternatively, the enterprising adventurer might want to disable this trap. This is where you roll Disable Device, right?

Wrong.

Disabling Devices

A little while ago, Dan H over at Dreamers and Dicepools made one of the most insightful remarks I’ve heard on RPG design. It’s the direction I already wanted to go with traps, but I think it sums up the issue in a more compact and transferable way than anything I could have said.

Dan was working on a stealth-based P&P RPG, where you play sneaky assassins, and had already noted that stealth gameplay is very poorly supported in most RPGS. How to implement stealth in his own game, he pondered?

The first clear design principle that emerges, then, is this: under no circumstances should this game have any kind of Stealth skill.

D&D doesn't have a skill for fighting, or for exploring. Vampire doesn't have a skill for using vampire powers. Paranoia doesn't have a skill for accusing people of being traitors. The core elements of gameplay are always either modelled in great detail (D&D devotes pages to combat, every White Wolf game devotes pages to supernatural powers) or entirely absent (the Warhammer 40,000 RPGs don't have any rules for being devoted to the Emperor, but the Imperial Creed permeates the setting anyway).

I think the point I'm groping towards here is that Stealth skills make stealth a purely abstract concept. Want to sneak past the guard? Make a Stealth roll. Want to hide from your target? Make a Stealth roll. I don't want to sound like one of those idiots who talks about using "active verbs" but the traditional RPG Stealth roll puts the emphasis on the consequences of the player's action (hiding from the enemy) rather than process by which they achieve it (ducking into a wardrobe, jumping into the rafters, hiding behind a curtain). It's the equivalent of D&D combat being resolved by a single "kill all the monsters" roll.

If a game is going to have Stealth gameplay, stealth is going to have to actually be gameplay, not just "roll move silently to sneak up on the Orcs." And gameplay is all about choices and interactions.

While I haven’t actually expressed this idea, what I’ve basically been trying to do with Trappery is to change traps from being fringe elements of gameplay to core ones that are interesting to interact with. As Dan points out, resolving elements of play through a single roll makes those elements peripheral. Shannon at ST Wild has put it even more bluntly with a brief article called “Roll X to Win”, which just about sums it up.

Jump is a fairly sensible skill because you just want to find out whether you make it over the chasm or up to the branch, and that uncertainty can make for some thrilling moments, but jumping per se is not a fascinating part of gaming for most people. Finding a way past a murderous deathtrap ought to be a little richer. The Disable Device skill, as applied to traps, is actually one of the main obstacles to this. We want traps to be gameplay.

Back to the Tomb

There are several options for interfering with this trap. We’ve established that it relies on a system of chains and counterweights in the walls. You could break into the walls to get access to them and either fasten or break the chains. Any rolls required here would basically determine the effort and time required rather than ultimate success, since there’s no real failure chance, unless they completely botch the wall-breaking and start collapsing the tunnel... an Engineering roll might be needed to do that safely. Attacking the door end of things might be safer, since the chains presumably attach to the door somehow, and demolishing the door is less likely to bring the roof down on you. You could trigger the trap and then painstakingly bend the spikes, so the trap is both ineffective and unable to reset. You could carefully excavate the floor and tamper with the triggering mechanism itself, though that’s more dangerous if the trap’s still active; here I’d use some kind of Dexterity and Strength rolls to do the digging, and Disable Device to interpret and then manipulate the triggers correctly. You could bring in a load of half-inch steel plate and attach it to the walls so the spikes can’t emerge. You could attack the owl section with sledgehammers, smashing it apart until you have access to the spikes themselves and then taking the spike plates off the chains; again, this creates some structural problems.

I didn’t highlight this at the time, but there are also several ways of spotting the trap exists and what it is. Obviously, there’s metagame player suspicion that a tomb will be trapped. There’s also reasonable in-character suspicion. The effort and noises involved in opening the door are a clue that something may be up. The holes in the wall should attract attention, and if not various skill rolls can flag up the danger. The precise nature of the danger is fairly easy to establish at that point, and the danger zone. So the issue becomes less a matter of “will they find, escape and disable this trap?” and more a case of “how will they find, escape and disable this trap?”.

Of course, having it this simple to detect the trap means (from the builders’ point of view) it’s possible that would-be thieves would realise there’s a trap rather than walking into it, but providing they can’t bypass it deterrence is an acceptable result. At the time of building, they probably wouldn’t expect a band of humble tomb robbers to have the skills or resources needed to get safely past the trap. So I don’t consider that a big problem.

So that's it for this edition of Trappery. Next time I'll probably post up my security planning examples, which touch on the way that traps are part of a coherent strategy rather than random isolated things. Any requests for future discussions?

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Killing Me Softly, part 3

Last time in KMS, enthused by a moderately interesting start to a new project and a flicker of interest elsewhere, and also by cyborg warlock space lizards, I continued to stumble aimlessly into the tangled morass that is “soft attacks”. By which I mean, of course, attacks that don’t directly deal damage but inflict status conditions or penalties on an enemy.

So far, I’ve mainly discovered that trying to work out alternative systems for this stuff is really freaking hard, that it’s quite difficult to plan mechanics in a general way without a pretty concrete system in mind, and that if I deliberately invent silly RPGs for demonstrative purposes I will be seized with a desire to write and play them, at least if they involve reptiles.

Mostly I’ve been investigating ways to implement a range of effectiveness for successful soft attacks in place of the commonly-implemented binary succeed/fail options, in the hope of making them less swingy and therefore more comfortable for everyone. This project is mostly preliminary research, by which I mean that I come up with ideas and then poke them to see what breaks. Ideas so far have included:

  • Pools of ‘soft hit points’ to monitor variable damage, heading towards a tipping point
  • Stackable penalties to actions, so a better damage roll inflicts a higher penalty
  • Stackable penalties combined wih fixed thresholds at which defined status effects kick in

Common findings seem to include:

  • All systems are fiddlier to track than the binary one
  • Pool-type systems are not very good for modelling immediate and temporary effects
  • Quantitative models can handle damage mitigation and healing easily, and scale easily

The ever-helpful Dan has also pointed out that accumulative soft attacks tend to be less immediately game-changing, which is unwelcome if we’re expecting them to be occasional spice in the soup of hard attacks.

There are a few things I wanted to think about this time, including more possible models, and ways of modelling recovery and resilience.

In which further models are expounded

I think it’s best to get the models out of the way first so the rest of the discussion can include all the options. This is a sort of tick-box model of escalating status effects, which is the one I think might relate to Epic.

Idea: Damage Boxes

In this system, each soft attack type has several thresholds which impose fixed penalties. Let’s stick with our earlier ‘dazzled’, ‘half-blind’ and ‘blind’ example. Each is represented by a box. A successful blinding hit marks off the ‘dazzled’ box. Each subsequent hit marks off another box.

The main problem with this simple approach is that there’s no discrimination between weak and powerful attacks or creatures, so the same scaling problems apply and the same binary problem applies to some extent – three flare pistol hits will totally blind a Robosaur, so GMs will end up taking steps to prevent this working. If, on the other hand, the blindness isn’t that effective against a powerful creature like a Robosaur, then at high levels soft attacks become useless, which is another no-no.

One thing we could do is add damage ranges to each box. Roll damage and compare to the boxes to see how damaging the hit was. Once the hit is resolved, the fixed penalties for the box apply and the exact damage done is no longer relevant. This allows for power differences between weapons, and helps preserve scaling, particularly if the ranges are linked to the target’s resilience.

I decided last article that in Monitors, stats tend to increase through XP accumulation, so it’s reasonable to assume that more powerful creatures (both veteran fighters and dangerous beasts) will have higher stats. Let’s say that an average 1st-level stat is 4 (yes, yes, this contradicts an example in the last article). A fairly simple system would be to have the ‘half-blind’ threshold equal to Reaction and the ‘blind’ threshold equal to 2 x Reaction. Anything lower than the threshold inflicts a ‘dazzled’ status.

Xerxes has got himself into trouble again. After digging too successfully into a corruption case, he runs into a couple of besuited raccoon heavies in a dark multistorey skimmer park. Luckily, his flare pistol is always to hand. Raccoons have Reaction 4. A snap shot inflicts 5 blind on the first raccoon, leaving it staggering in the dark ‘half-blinded’ and out of the fight for now. A shot at the second only inflicts 1 blind, so it’s merely ‘dazzled’. If Xerxes shoots it again, we don’t care what the current penalty is; we just roll to see the result of the next shot.

In a system like this, the GM doesn’t need to track numbers, only statuses. Basically each status is broken down into several levels of severity, which are inflicted according to the damage rolled. It calls for more tracking than binary models, but less than quantitative models. The amount of tracking depends largely on the number of statuses implemented.

What this model doesn’t do is provide any way to stack up soft attacks, which I’d like to investigate.

Idea: Accumulating Damage Boxes

In this adjusted model, each damage box has a damage range as above. However, each subsequent hit becomes more deadly because of the existing damage, so a sustained barrage of soft attacks can be more devastating than the sum of their parts. This makes sense to me: being ensnared in four nets is more problematic than one, repeated loud noises are more likely to leave your ears ringing, and several doses of KO drugs will affect you more severely than one.

We could simply to say that every hit marks off at least one box, regardless of the damage rolled. However, this suffers from the familiar problem of overpower against tough opponents, and I suspect isn’t really worth implementing unless the system involves lots of boxes, so a very large number of soft attacks would be needed to overwhelm tough opponents. For example, a system with ten boxes might be viable, because it would then take a typical PC group of 4 characters more than two rounds of only using soft attacks to completely blind the Robosaur, during which it would have ample opportunity to chomp them, and might already be recovering from the first few hits. However, they might be able to hire ten mercenaries with flare pistols to help out. Basically, the extent of the problem depends on the willingness and ability of players to exploit this loophole, and whether is fits the tone of the game. If you feel that fourteen soldiers with flare pistols should be able to blind a Robosaur with concerted fire, it’s not a problem at all.

A more scalable option is for each ticked box to grant a bonus to future damage rolls; in our example, it might be a bonus equal to the Reaction threshold of the ticked box (so +4), leaving Xerxes rolling 1d6+4 for subsequent attacks on the first raccoon and with a reasonable chance of hitting that 8 blind threshold to completely blind it.

There’s one last model I’d like to look at. Honest. I can stop any time I want.

Idea: Damage Charts

So this is another model that I don’t think will work, but I’m going to look at it in passing. In this system, each soft damage type has a damage chart available, with escalating penalties for higher results. The successful soft attack simply rolls on the chart. More powerful attacks roll a larger die, just like hard attacks.

Here's a sample blinding chart:

  1. Lightly dazzled: -1 penalty to rolls involving vision
  2. Dazzled: -2 penalty to rolls involving vision
  3. Badly dazzled: -4 penalty ro rolls involving vision
  4. Half-blind: -5 penalty to rolls requiring vision; must roll Perception for actions based on vision that normally require no roll, such as reading or identifying creatures
  5. Near-blind: -10 penalty; roll half Perception for vision-based actions
  6. Blind: fail all actions or rolls requiring vision; halve all rolls involving vision

The difficulties here are that in many systems it’s relatively difficult to predict the damage that an attack will roll, and that the variation between low- and high-level damage would make for some very weird charts. For example, a 1st-level Dungeons and Dragons 3rd edition fighter is probably rolling something like 1d8+3 for damage from a decent weapon and a +3 Strength bonus. A critical 20 with a spear might allow her to inflict 3d8+9 damage in a single hit, with perhaps another +2 from magical buffs for a maximum total of 35. However, it’s incredibly rare (about 1 in 10240 attacks) and the average is going to be more like 7, with about one hit in twenty doing around 20 damage. If soft attacks had a similar range, the damage chart would have to handle ordinary blindness within at most a range of 1-20 while allowing space for amazing results for 35. Bonuses and multipliers stack up as levels increase, making the problem worse: a 10th-level rogue may easily end up rolling 1d6+5 damage normally but 8d6+10 on a critical sneak attack, for a result anywhere from 6 to 58, and that’s without any complex multipliers from spells or magic items.

The scaling problem can be overcome to some extent if we used enemy stats to modify the result.

Captain Ussami is investigating an SOS from a mining factory. She soon finds out the reason when erratic robots begin to attack her. Her disruptor glove inflicts 1d8 stun damage on robots, giving her a roll of 1d8-4 on the damage chart against the standard workers, with a minimum result of 1 (inflicting a -1 penalty to actions) and she manages to battle her way through largely unscathed.

A few months later, the Captain finds herself confronting a complex full of elite security bots. Their improved cogitator units give them Mind 6 and her odds look a lot worse with a 1d8-6 roll. She’ll need to pick up a more powerful weapon to stun these bots reliably.

This model would probably work best with established limits on the damage soft attacks can inflict, as otherwise swinginess will become a problem again. This is likely to be a system where hard attacks also have a fairly limited range of damages, without too many stacking modifiers and multipliers to complicate matters.

Basically I think this idea might be fun in a straightforward system where (again) creatures are fairly similar in power and likely to be making attacks in a fairly similar range, without much in the way of power scaling. As randomness and scaling enter the model, it will become increasingly difficult to create a table that both a) produces satisfactory results for all possible damage rolls; and b) isn’t incredibly bland. Since Monitors is going to involve wildly different creatures across a significant power scale, this isn’t going to be an appropriate system. There’s also the problem that a damage chart with many different results will get fiddly to track. Oh! And as the chart above demonstrates, it's not easy to create a chart that's actually interesting for such a specific damage type, which to me suggests that it's not an improvement on the simpler stacking penalties model (with or without thresholds).

Okay, enough playing. Back to theory. At the start of the article I was wondering about the impact of recovery and resilience modelling on the way soft attacks worked. In the process of the last few examples another point has come to mind, which is the way that severity of effect is modelled. These – like everything else – interact with one another.

But I Get Up Again

As I mentioned previously, the way I envision soft attacks is generally as a sudden and immediate effect that changes the way the target can act, but wears off over time. A flash of light blinds you until your eyes adjust. A drug knocks you out until it works its way out of your system. A layer of gloopy webbing hinders your actions until it’s rubbed off.

I’m aware of three main ways that binary systems handle this recovery, sometimes using more than one in the same game:

  • The effect has a fixed duration or wears off at a specific point, such as the end of combat
  • The effect wears off after a length of time based on the attack (which may be fixed or random)
  • The effect allows a saving throw each round to recover

If we’re using a non-binary system, the options are a bit different. Some I can think of include:

  • *You heal to a random extent each round
  • *You heal a fixed amount each round until you recover
  • *You attempt a recovery roll each round to mitigate your situation, possibly recovering entirely (a slightly more nuanced version of the saving throw).

The other main consideration is what recovery should be based on, which might include ‘nothing’ (it’s invariant), ‘power’ (level) or ‘resilience’ (as compared to equivalent-level critters).

In a very simple model, recovery works exactly the same for every single creature. Fine for some games, but for Monitors? The hyper-metabolism of a Centurian velocibadger allows it to adjust to environmental conditions within seconds, and recover almost instantly from overstimulation or chemical attack. Obviously, that one example can be handled with a special rule; but in a system with wildly variable entities, having their capabilities reflected smoothly by the models seems like a good goal.

The two major options seem to me to boil down to how you want resilience represented in recovery. Should it make you recover damage more rapidly on average (a larger fixed amount or a larger die roll), or should it give you a better chance of recovering each round (a better chance of success on a roll to recover a standard amount)? These choices will tie in to the model you choose. Rapid recovery makes sense with quantitative models that allow fine control. Probable recovery makes sense with models using discrete categories of penalty.

Example: Recovery speeds

Our beta for Monitors is testing the stacking penalties model. Xerxes’ trusty magnesium bomb lands squarely in a cluster of Tetulan porcupinoids and their war-squid, inflicting 20 blind on each (thanks to a set of fluke rolls). The porcupinoids recover 5 blind at the end of each round, so it will be the fifth round before they can act normally and for at least three they will be basically useless. However, the hardy squid recovers 10 blind each round, so it has only two rounds of penalties to endure.

Example: Recovery probabilities

Another session tests a probability model. The ‘stun’ status has been allocated levels of ‘distracted’, ‘dazed’, ‘stupefied’ and ‘stunned’. Doctor Clymestra’s devastating Invocation of Primal Nightmares wracks the minds of an angry owl mob, leaving them all stunned. Each subsequent round, the owls can roll a d12 against their Mind of 5, and a roll equal to or less than the stat allows them to recover by one level. Amongst the owls, though, is a chessmistress, whose acuity and willpower is represented by a Mind of 9, leaving her far more likely to recover each round. Of course, this model means a ‘stunned’ status always takes at least four rounds to recover from, but then it’s relatively difficult to inflict that status.

A possible tweak to the probabilities model would be to allow a second roll in certain circumstances, from the simple “after any successful roll” to “a natural 1”. This would give a small possibility for a creature to recover totally in any round, especially a very tough one. On the downside, it strikes me as reintroducing swinginess by making the soft attack occasionally very ineffective (though assuming rolls happen at the end of the creature’s turn, it would still be stunned for one round), which could be annoying when it’s very difficult to stun creatures with a high Mind in the first place. While there’s room for specific creatures in a game that are both very tough and recover rapidly, such as those with high Armour and regeneration or healing powers, I’m not that comfortable with having that combination an intrinsic part of the ruleset.

Let’s go back a couple of steps. In that simpler model, with no variation in recovery rates, resilience is only taken into account when establishing the initial damage. This might actually fit better with the way hard damage resilience works: high Toughness-equivalent tends to increase the number of hit points you have, but not how much damage you heal compared to the next lizard. If we used that kind of model, everyone would recover at the same rate; in a probabilities model, this would be a fixed roll, such as 4+ on a d6.

Example: Static recovery

A veteran bionic mole commando and a sheep politician are attacked by newt kidnappers en route to a crucial trade meeting, starting with a stun grenade. The neural scrambling leaves the politician stunned, but only dazes the hardy commando. Regardless what method is used to track recovery, both recover at the same rate. This means the politician will be out of action for about twice as many rounds as the commando.

I think the decision between systems mostly boils down to whether you want resilience to model how badly you are affected, how quickly you recover from the effects, or both. We’ll also have to consider how we want the severity of a bit to be modelled. But this seems a good point to talk about resilience.

You’re Indestructible

Okay, definitions again. I’ve talked a bit about resilience here before. What I’m talking about here is how difficult a creature is to affect when compared to other creatures. I usually mean in comparison with other creatures of a similar overall power level, but that won’t always hold true.

Sometimes resilience reflects the natural attributes of a creature: thick-skulled rams are more resistant to knockouts than kangaroos, even if both are humble peasants. At other times, it reflects training: a veteran combat mage has a focused mind and is better able to keep mental coherence than a mere apprentice. Often the distinction is less clear-cut: a hulking mammoth marine is both innately hard-headed and trained to stay focused in combat.

There are several ways that resilience gets modelled in games, which relate to the rest of the combat system and often co-exist. I’m going to include physical damage here because I think it’ll be useful. Some examples that spring to mind:

  • Penalties to attack rolls that take opposing stats into account
  • Saving throws against attacks that are increased by a high stat
  • Hit points that are increased by a high Toughness
  • Ability to reroll failed saving throws to avoid an effect
  • Reduction in damage taken from an attack (as in Deathwatch)
  • Mitigation of specific status effects to a lesser version
  • Regeneration of damage each turn
  • A bonus to fixed saving throws taken to recover from status effects (as in 4E D&D).
  • Ability to reroll failed recovery rolls to recover from an effect

The first one models resilience through a change in the attack roll. The next five make the attack less immediately effective. The last three speed up recovery from an attack.

Dungeons and Dragons, for example, uses several of these systems in parallel. High Toughness gives extra hit points to absorb physical damage. Stats modify either (depending on edition) attack rolls or saving throws that determine whether a soft attack is effective. Many creatures have damage reduction that reduces damage taken from attacks. Regeneration is a fairly common ability. More rarely, several abilities can mitigate status effects to a lesser version, or grant bonuses or rerolls to saving throws. In 4E, hardy enemies gain bonuses to the fixed saving throws used to recover from many persistent effects.

There’s always the possibility of special rules for special critters, but we’re interested in the base mechanics. The main way resilience comes in to play in binary soft attack systems is that it increases the die roll needed for an attack to take effect. If we’re looking at other systems, we have other options.

Last time I talked about stacking penalty models, where the damage from a soft attack roll becomes a penalty to the enemy’s actions. Here damage reduction is an obvious way to handle resilience. On the downside, it offers the opportunity for some attacks to inflict no damage; however, the same is true if damage reduction applies to hard attacks. Deathwatch is a prime example of this, with both Toughness and Armour reducing the damage taken. In a system like that, I don’t know that it would bother players too much.

In damage box models, we could apply a similar rule. If we’re rolling for damage, the reduction would help determine what level of penalty applied. If we’re just ticking box after box, it would reduce the number of boxes ticked.

We could also say that resilience affects not how severely the attack hits, but how quickly you recover from it. In this situation, we’d use a stat-based recovery model, whether faster recovery or a better chance of recovery.

You know, as I go on here I’m finding more and more factors that play into this modelling business and interact with each other in complex ways. I’m going to do some thinking about before I go any further. In any case, I’m not really sure whether all this is actually going anywhere.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Killing Me Softly, part 2

So last post I waffled a bit about non-damaging “soft attacks”. Since then, Dan H has mused a bit more focusedly on the role of actual chance and player beliefs in the use of soft attacks, and on the relationship between soft attacks and health-monitoring systems. They’re good posts, and if you’re at all interested in this topic you should read them, not least because I’ll be deliberately or unconsciously leaning on them from now on.

So what do I want to think about now, in my usual rambling way? Well, last time I said I’d consider whether there are alternative ways to model soft attacks, particularly if they can be usefully modelled as a range in the same way that hard attacks tend to be. Another thing, which has been prompted by Dan’s article, is to consider the point of soft attacks and how we would like them to play out in practice. Since this will affect my views on the first objective, let’s tackle that first. It also ties in to my approach to traps in the other series I sporadically do.

Broadly speaking, I’m inclined to say that soft attacks have mechanical, simulative and narrative origins, or alternatively, you can consider them from those angles.

Soft attacks can have a mechanical role in making battles easier, or sometimes in making them winnable at all. This increases the variety of battles available in the game. They can make it possible to take on very large groups of enemies (by disabling some), very powerful enemies (by reducing their deadliness), very tough enemies (by making them vulnerable) or otherwise deal with some problematic element of a battle. You can sneak into the guarded compound without raising the alarm if your sleeping-gas is successful. You can drug the kraken so it’s lethargic and possible to capture. You can keep up an EMP barrage on the enemy battleship so it can’t get a decent lock on you as you hightail it to the warp gate. From this perspective, we can view the soft attack as a tool that’s part of a tactical puzzle: “how do we succeed at this battle?”, and specifically as a reusable tool that’s part of a fairly standard problem-solving inventory, as opposed to one-off solutions that work for specific battles. As Dan points out in In Summary, point 3 this depends heavily on the genre in question, and the intended tacticality of the combat. Call of Cthulhu doesn’t need these kinds of soft attacks.

Soft attacks can also be seen as a way of modelling plausible options. Players and GMs are creative, and there’s a reasonable chance they’ll try something more complicated than hitting things with glaive-guisarmes. Here, the soft attack exists as a distinct entity from hard attacks because in the context of that game, it doesn’t make sense for it not to work differently. In a game of cunning tricksters, someone will try blinding or deafening or high-gravitating or drugging somebody, and the game needs to reflect the consequences in a way that makes sense to the players. Some soft attacks don’t really fit this view, because they are deliberately added to the game rather than growing organically from the actions of players – spells or unreal tech are common examples that add entirely new soft attacks. Following on from last paragraph, while Dan is right to say from a design point of view that Call of Cthulhu doesn’t need built-in soft attacks, situations can still arise in which it makes sense for an attack to inflict soft damage, partly because it takes a relatively realistic approach. However, for this type of game, it seems best to handle these rare events through ad-hoc judgements (which is how the designers left things) rather than complicate the rules.

Finally, soft attacks can be seen as cool options. It’s cinematic and exciting to dazzle the beast with your torch just as it rears up at you. It’s cool to modify the coffee machine and watch on the CCTV how the whole security team crumple unconscious ten minutes after their break. It’s nice to have options for disabling, restraining or rendering helpless your opponents without having to kill or cripple them, especially in games where you might be dealing with innocents or trying to minimise bloodshed. Similarly, a fight where a monster is blinding the heroes or rendering them delirious can feel tricky and exciting, and quite different from a straight-up hackfest. Here, the soft attack exists because the game is cooler or more interesting that way, regardless of whether the attack itself is realistic or plausible. These depend a lot on the genre and mood of the game in question. In games with a heavily tactical focus, having a variety of attack types that make different battles play out differently can make the game a lot more interesting and increase its longevity.

I’m going to mostly focus on the third aspect of soft attacks. After all, the prompt for writing these posts was that I thought it would be in-character and freakin’ cool for my awesome Space Marine to use exciting exotic grenades to overcome the wiles of vile xenos monstrosities. When I use a soft attack, I want it to have a reasonable chance of doing something, and to affect the capabilities of the target in an interesting way, indirectly contributing to our victory. I’d also like it to sometimes be pretty ineffective, and sometimes rewardingly devastating, just like an ordinary attack; and I think the chances of those should relate to the power of the target and the power of the soft attack. So if I hurl a flash grenade at a horde of gretchin, they should usually all stagger around blindly; if I use the same grenade on a carnifex it should flinch briefly, and I’ll need to turn to a Dreadnought’s actinic photon searchlights to have much effect. But just occasionally it’d be nice for the flash grenade to go off just right and send the carnifex reeling.

Objectives

In the comments to my last post, I described my basic objectives for a soft attack system:

Roughly what I'm hoping to look at is whether there's a way to model soft damage so that:
* the distinction on when to use soft attacks is less "you're a fool not to" vs. "don't waste your time" and they are a generally useful tool in most situations
* soft damage does not disproportionately affect more powerful creatures and cause game balance problems that designers feel obliged to defend against
* the effect of soft attacks is less swingy, so less inclined to make them fall flat in either direction

Dan offered a set of rules, which I think are also well worth shamelessly stealing taking into consideration.

If I had to provide rules for workable Soft Attacks, they would be these:
1. Soft Attacks should not simply provide a way to circumvent the rest of the combat system. An enemy with 250 Hit Points shouldn't go down to a single failed saving throw.
2. Soft Attacks should be of the same level of abstraction as the rest of the game. You shouldn't have rules for called shots in a game with highly abstracted hit points for example (a particularly perplexing feature of the 40K RPGs is the fact that it makes you determine the location of hits in combat, despite the fact that all damage is applied to a global Wounds score).
3. Soft Attacks are only appropriate in games in which combat is a tactical minigame. Call of Cthulhu, for example, doesn't need Soft Attacks.

His first point, I think, ties into mine: soft attacks shouldn’t circumvent the combat system, neither should they be neutered for that very reason; we want them to be a broadly useful tool in most situations. Let’s also add, drawing on his Chance and Credence argument, that players should understand soft attacks to be a generally useful tool. There is certainly a place for specialised niche tools, but I feel that common equipment and abilities shouldn’t be in it.

As to his second point, that also seems sound. A system with very abstract combat may be happy with a “generically impaired” result, or even treating soft damage as hit point loss. Maybe the largely-invulnerable superbeings are just generally ground down by attacks, be it bullets, poison, blinding flashes or sonic booms alike. Games that aren’t really combaty at all may also want to vague that sort of thing; if you’re not modelling physical injury, why model penalties? At the opposite end of the scale, if you have detailed wound models and healing rules, then a generic ‘stunned’ condition may seem too vague.

The third point I’ve already touched on above. Some games don’t need soft attack rules, even if soft damage may sometimes occur.

Let’s firm up those objectives a bit.

  • In a game of tactical combat, soft attacks should be (and be known to be) viable tactical options. In particular, if soft attacks require you to take specific equipment or abilities, players should be rewarded for that choice by having opportunities to use them effectively. Even disregarding questions of optimality, choices tend to reflect things people want to actually appear in the game.
  • Also, soft attacks should be appropriately cool. That doesn’t necessarily mean cooler than hard attacks. They shouldn’t fall flat in narrative terms, either by never working (particularly if that belies their description) or by making combat less satisfying. There’s satisfaction in being so powerful that you can simply freeze all your enemies solid every time, but it will make the combat itself less interesting, which is a problem if the game is supposed to focus on tactical combat.
  • Soft attacks should scale reasonably, so that they have proportionate effects when the power level of the attacker and defender are considered.
  • Soft attacks should have immediate effects that vary either in duration or severity, giving degrees of success similar to the variable hit point damage inflicted by a hard attack. A blow to the head or a dazzling light tends to affect you immediately, and slowly wear off. In this respect they contrast with hard damage, which tends to build up over time towards a state of ‘dead’. This immediacy is an existing feature of soft attacks that I’d like to retain.
  • I should also accept that no system will work for all games, given the issues mentioned above. Let’s assume that we are working with a hit-point-based system involving tactical combat between a wide variety of entities on a sliding power scale. So we’re talking about something that might work for games like D&D or Deathwatch.
  • In terms of monitoring, let’s say we want to model the effects of blinding, stunning and slowing attacks. These nominal effects cover impairment of senses, disorientation and impaired movement. A paralysing spell might stun and slow, a smoke grenade might blind and slow, and so on.
  • The system should readily handle recovery from soft damage. Whether an effect wears off with time or requires active treatment, it should be straightforward to calculate and record the recovery.
  • The system should readily handle creatures who are unusually resistant to soft attacks.

Okay, so now I have to think about the difficult part: actual mechanics. This isn’t entirely my forte, which centres more on tangential waffling and opining. As usual I will probably come up with random ideas and just see what happens.

One observation before I start: status effects can sometimes get very complicated (some iterations of D&D have loads of them and their definitions can be quite fiddly), and I’ve outlined some of the problems with binary soft attacks, but it’s worth noting that binary effects are easy to track. You’re either stunned or not. Keeping things easy to track makes play faster, which is important in tactical games – D&D 4E attracted a lot of criticism for its slow battles. It makes things easier for new players or those who aren’t really into heavy mechanics. It makes post-battle cleanup relatively easy, keeps character sheets fairly simple, and helps minimise confusion if there are breaks in play. It occurs to me that full-blown tactical miniatures games, like Necromunda (the most RPGish one I know) tend to do the same thing with hard damage: they have minimal hit point tracking and a very simple set of injury states to keep the battles flowing.

Oh, wait. Before I start this exercise, it may make things clearer if I have a specific game to model. Any excuse...

In a vast universe of squabbling galaxies, trouble can erupt at any moment: calamities, rebellions, coups, trade disputes, accidental hyperevolution, accidental necromancy, dimensional fluxes, awakening the sleeping armies of the lost Ghkrat, dreams becoming real, enthusiastic postgraduate researchers carelessly building an unstoppable army of invincible robot armchairs – the possibilities are endless. No conventional task force can be assembled in time.

In this unimaginably distant future, heroic teams of spacefaring reptiles maintain the tenuous peace between squabbling mammalian empires. No drifting wreck is too sinister, no jungle world too unexplored, no asteroid belt too pirate-infested for these fearless trouble-shooters. With modern technology and ancient wizardry, they preserve the fragile web of intergalactic civilisation. Only their hardy poikilothermic bodies can survive nanotech implants, arcane infusions and the harshness of intergalactic deepjumps. They are the Monitors.

Our intrepid bands of anthropomorphic armoured cyborg warlock lizards will confront a wide range of troubles, many of them violent. They may have to battle anything from a million-strong sea of rock-grubs, through entire ships full of parasite-possessed parrotfolk, down to a gang of vicious pirate jellyfish or a single giant robot.

Arbitrarily, I’m going to call Monitors a skills-based d20 system, with special abilities and gear tied fairly directly to skill levels, giving substantial scope for scaling. Armour is represented by damage reduction, so sometimes a hit will inflict no damage.

Idea: Soft Hit Points

I’m going to start by looking at this idea, not because I think it’ll work very well (I don’t) but because it’s very obvious, and deliberately ignoring it seems to be passing up a learning opportunity. If a game has hit points as a way of modelling physical health and endurance against hard attacks, why not have an entirely parallel system for modelling soft damage?

In our straw system, let’s assume that a monitor has 5hp per level, and so on for other damage types. At fifth level, the monitor has 25 hit points, 25 blind points, 25 stun points and 25 slow points. A typical attack inflicts 1d6 points of whichever damage type it inflicts.

The first problem is that tracking hit points is a significant amount of book-keeping. I’m not sure that people would welcome having soft points to track as well. Marking that your character is stunned is easy; marking off stun points requires more effort. This problem is directly proportional to the number of different status effects you want to track: if you have ‘blinded’, ‘slowed’ and ‘stunned’ to monitor as well as ‘injured’, you are effectively quadrupling your damage-related book-keeping. On top of that, there’s space to consider – you’re potentially looking at a much bigger character sheet to track all those points. These problems are particularly acute for the GM, who already has tons of information to keep track of. Ten hostile foxfolk marines with different hit point boxes is bad enough, without introducing three types of soft damage to track as well.

You’d also have to decide what the points actually indicate. In most abstract combat systems, it’s only when hit points run out that characters actually suffer any real consequences. So running out of blind points leaves you completely blind. In that case, as blinding attacks are usually much rarer than hard attacks, having blind points equal to your hit points would probably mean never being blinded. You would basically soak up blind points happily until you suddenly went blind. A model like that runs counter to my vision of soft attacks as immediate and temporary.

On the plus side, the system can easily handle resilience by reducing the damage inflicted. A thick-skulled rhinoborg takes half stunning damage, for example.

It can also handle recovery fairly easily, treating it as a parallel to normal healing. You simply recover the appropriate number of soft points in response to treatment or rest. If you want effects to be temporary, the creature may heal a certain number of points every turn. While it’s straightforward, you might well end up losing and regaining soft points constantly, which could get fiddly.

I think I’m fairly happy that this copy-paste system would be unsatisfactory. It requires too much book-keeping, and makes it quite difficult to actually affect somebody with soft attacks.

Lessons learned:

  • In a cumulative system where soft attacks are relatively rare, each attack needs to inflict a relatively higher amount of damage than a comparable hard attack if it’s to be mechanically worthwhile.
  • Point pools building towards a total are not a good way to model immediate effects that wear off gradually.
  • The less information that has to be tracked, the better.
  • Quantitative models can handle both damage mitigation and recovery in a straightforward way.

Idea: Penalty Stacking

The next idea that occurs to me is a simple system of stackable states (ooh, alliteration). This is basically the cumulative inverse of the whittle-away hit point model. Rather than just switching your blind/nonblind status, or deducting 1d6 blind points from a pool, a flare in this system might inflict 1d6 levels of blind on the target. These levels would stack in a simple way and inflict straightforward penalties. For example, blind levels might give a -1 penalty to any skill roll requiring vision, including searching and watching, attacks, first aid, computing, reading and so on and so forth.

This system automatically allows some scaling. A more powerful blinding attack would inflict more blind on the target, giving a higher penalty, so it makes sense for these to be rarer or require a higher level. Similarly, any given attack will be more effective against weak opponents (who have low skill levels) than against strong ones (who have higher skills and can more easily tolerate the penalty). At the same time, it means than any successful attack will have some effect on an enemy regardless of how powerful it is; a -1 penalty might not mean much against a skill of 20, but it’s still a penalty, and a number of such weak attacks can build up to something substantial, just as many weak hard attacks can slowly whittle away hit points.

While it requires some book-keeping, this also seems more straightforward than soft hit points, simply because there are going to be smaller numbers involved.

On the downside, I think a quantitative approach to blinding is less narratively satisfying than a qualitative one. For example, impaired vision should create new difficulties rather than just exacerbating existing ones. Perhaps you should need a roll just to read some text, or see where another person is? Also, some tasks rely on vision more than others – you might be able to cook blindfolded, but guaging an attack on sound alone is very difficult, and tracking a wild animal more or less impossible. We’ll have to accept some arbitrariness for the sake of a working system, but it’d be good to keep that under control.

Just as with the last model, penalty stacking can handle resilience simply by reducing the number of levels inflicted by an attack. A crocodilian spy’s extra eyelids give her blind resistance 3, so she only takes 1d6-3 levels of blinding from a flare.

Recovery is also very simple, as we simply have to alter the level of the penalty. Our crocodilian spy has been dazzled by a laser misfire, giving her blind 8. At the start of her turn, she blinks and recovers to blind 7. The amount of book-keeping needed is likely to be similar to the soft points model, as the numbers still go up and down regularly. On the upside, because the numbers are likely to be smaller, it may be possible to track them using counters or dice. Back on the downside, it’s still much fiddlier than tracking a blind/nonblind binary status.

Lessons learned:

  • Stackable penalties allow immediate effects
  • Stackable penalties allow scalable soft attacks
  • Stackable penalties allow weak attacks to be meaningful against strong opponents
  • Stackable penalties can be fairly easy to handle
  • Numeric penalties may not be enough to make soft damage convincing; qualitative levels may be needed
  • Stackable penalties work well with damage mitigation
  • Stackable penalties are easier to track than hit points, but more difficult than binary statuses

What next?

At this point, it seems to me that stackable penalties offer a lot of advantages, so I think it’s a good jumping-off point for whatever model I try next. However, I do think the skill penalty model is too simplistic and likely to feel unconvincing. If there’s any point in having attacks that blind or deafen or paralyse, even though we’re trying to introduce scaling, at some point they need to feel like the target is unable to see, or to hear, or to move.

The next idea that occurs to me is vaguely inspired by Necromunda, slightly by Hellcats and Hockeysticks, and partly by some other game I genuinely cannot remember. Possibly war machine damage in Epic, bizarrely.

Anyway, the idea I’m considering now is having a stackable range of qualitative conditions that interact with quantitative damage. The D&D 3.5 system of fear does something a bit similar: it ranges from shaken to frightened to panicked.

Idea: Status Thresholds

One option would be to use the stacking model, together with thresholds of effect that are crossed as penalties stack up. For example:

Xerxes the gecko detective is attacked by a pirate, and pulls out his flash pistol to get some breathing space. His first shot inflicts 4 blind on the villainous squirrel, lightly dazzling him. A second shot inflicts a further 3 blind, to a total of 7. Once the blind level reaches 5, a threshold is crossed: ‘dazzled’. Long Tall Nutkin now can’t make out fine detail, including reading, and has to spend pass a perception roll to identify individuals, which makes combat extra difficult, so he fails to hit Xerxes.

A third shot takes Nutkin past the 10 threshold to ‘half-blind’; he can now only make out strong light-dark differences and large motions. It’s very much like operating at night. In this condition, as well as the mechanical -10 penalties, he can’t identify individuals visually, see colour, distinguish targets under normal lighting conditions, read, or make out details of his surroundings, but he can just about manage to stagger away down an alleyway and avoid an oncoming hoverlorry.

Xerxes decides to end matters with a well-aimed magnesium bomb, inflicting another 8 blind and passing the 15 threshold to ‘blind’. Nutkin is now entirely unable to see. He can’t identify anyone or anything visually, orient himself, read, observe anything that’s happening nearby, spot open manholes, or avoid walking into walls. He can attempt to drive, but unless he has the windows open or some other way of getting non-visual signals, he’ll automatically fail. On top of that, he has a -18 penalty to any activity that involves vision, including cooking, defending himself, most conversations, juggling and sorting change. Where there’s no particular failure condition, like eating or navigating through an empty building, he’ll simply be very slow. Unable to work out which direction he's heading, Nutkin stumbles over a dustbin, and he doesn't have the time he'd need to fumble his way to safety by trial and error. Xerxes has him in pawcuffs within moments.

This system calls for the designer to determine thresholds and the effects of crossing them, which may become quite detailed. There’s also the question of static versus relative thresholds.

Static thresholds are simple to track and remember, but don’t scale very well. A low threshold (say 5) allows low-level flash pistols with 1d6 damage to actually affect a target reasonably often, and makes powerful blind attacks very potent; however, as characters increase in level and get more powerful attacks, it becomes trivial to blind equal-level opponents. If the threshold is high (say 20), the flash pistol can only affect low-level opponents with repeated hits, making it basically useless. This system would also make it more or less equally difficult to blind low and high-level targets.

So we’re looking at some kind of relative threshold that reflects the level and resilience of the target to that attack, in the same way that hit points increase with level and Toughness. The details will depend on how exactly the system works. In D&D, with its formal levels and stat increases, a threshold for blinding might be “level + Dexterity modifier”. In Deathwatch, which relies on stats and skills, the threshold might simply be “Perception modifier”. Sadly for tracking, these vary between creatures and characters; on the plus side, they aren’t that difficult to calculate.

Let’s decree arbitrarily that Monitors has no formal levels: characters increase their skills and stats through accumulated XP. Therefore, blind damage is modelled with thresholds based on multiples of the creature’s Reaction stat, since quick-reacting creatures can blind or look away quickly to avoid the worst of the light. A slow-thinking terrapin accountant with Reaction 4 is dazzled at 4, half-blind at 8 and blind at 12, while a hyperactive shrew pickpocket with Reaction 8 needs a hefty 24 damage to blind it – that’ll take repeated flare blasts or some more powerful effect. Similarly, stun damage might come from Toughness and slow damage from Might (stronger creatures can work harder to reduce the effect).

It does occur to me, though, that having soft damage types tied to particular stats for their thresholds could get unconvincing. A psychic stunning attack should perhaps be compared to Mind rather than Toughness, as strong willpower and clear head make it easier to stay focused. Might is fine for overcoming slowness due to entangling vines or increased gravity, but shouldn’t a paralysing poison depend on the creature’s Toughness? Many systems reflect this by having the soft attack target a suitable defensive stat, which works well. Our system can still do this for actual attack rolls, but when it comes to considering the effects of a hit, it’s tied to a specific stat.

Lessons learned:

  • Any threshold-based damage system needs to reflect the target’s attributes in order to preserve scaling, just as physical hit points tend to
  • Defining thresholds and their effects might get quite fiddly; there’s always more you can say
  • If a threshold is based on stats, it probably won’t convincingly model all the attacks that could inflict that kind of damage

Coming up next on Killing Me Softly: soft damage boxes, healing soft damage, natural recovery and modelling resilience. Additional ridiculous reptile antics are also likely.