Adding Difficulties to Powered by the Apocalypse

I’m introducing a group to Ars Magica—they’d all heard of the game but not played it. Two out of three of this group are generally more comfortable with storygames, and one of them was primarily interested in Ars Magica because of the shared/rotating GM structure. After our first session, they asked if it would be possible to have a flexible free-form magic system like Ars Magica in a Powered by the Apocalypse game.

I of course immediately said ‘no’, because PbtA doesn’t have difficulty levels, and doesn’t even really have rated skills in most iterations. Generally, either you can do a thing or you can’t, and if you can do it you do it just as well as someone else does.

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Time & Temp Matrix

I’m running a game of Time & Temp, the awesome and ridiculous game of minimally competent temp employees protecting history from tampering and paradox. It relies on a shared “Temporal Matrix” and “Anachronometer”, but we’re playing online.

So I put together a Google doc to share. I also added a couple additional notes about rolling the dice and the Temporal Villainy Index. Oh, and identified where you start marking the Anachronometer for Temporal Villainy, because I had to cross-reference several bits to figure that bit out the first time, and it’s the part I have to re-figure out each time I play it. 

With Eppy’s permission, I’ve made a copy of this to share with everyone. The colors don’t have any semantic content, so hopefully this should work well for people with color vision deficiencies, too. The shading does have some semantic content: darker areas are informational; lighter areas are for input. Obviously, feel free to make your own copy and strip the color out or improve it in any other way. 

To use it for the game, I keep this as a master sheet and make a copy for each time/place. I also set protections so that the players can’t accidentally modify the master sheet, and protect everything except the input areas on the time/place sheets from editing. I haven’t decided yet what I’m going to do about indicating the value of locked paradox dice. I’m thinking I’ll change the shading of that cell when I check it. 

Why do RPGs have Attributes?

OK, first of all, I know that not all RPGs do. This is only talking about the sort of RPG that tries to model characters with some combination of “attributes” and “skills”. For purposes of this discussion, “attributes” are character stats that are defined by the game as being more-or-less inherent, and either they don’t change or they don’t change easily. They’re meant to capture how we think about intelligence or healthiness in the real world—we don’t usually think of someone as becoming more intelligent or less prone to illness. “Skills” are defined by the game as learnable, or at least explicitly improveable.

So I was just thinking about what purpose do attributes serve in this model? Mechanically, (1) they often provide a baseline or fall-back for skills. If your character doesn’t have the history skill, they can make an intelligence check to see if they know who was regent in 1237; if they don’t have the athletics skill, they can make a strength check to climb a tree.

(2) Attributes often mechanically reinforce the notion that people have inherent aptitudes. Skills will be cheaper with a high attribute, or attributes are added to skills so you get to a higher effectiveness with fewer points spent on skills. There are other methods, of course, but the point is that usually skills are either coupled to attributes or stacked with them in play.

But then I was thinking about research questioning the notion of intelligence as an inherent quality, and how a person could seem to get colds easily but be physically resilient, or smart about math but poor with language, or agile but have butterfingers. Obviously, one solution to this is to have more, narrower attributes. But at some point, you get into the same problem that dis/advantage systems sometimes create, of encouraging excessive specialization that creates characters that aren’t believable.

But maybe we could capture the verisimilitude that attributes provide without needing attributes? Part 1 is completely solvable: you just need to have something to roll if your character doesn’t have a skill. You could define all skills as starting at 1 instead of 0, or have a dice mechanic that works without a skill input. Or say that without points in a relevant skill, you can’t attempt that action. You have to make some design decisions to go along with whichever one it is, but it’s a problem that has been solved multiple times in multiple ways.

But it’s particularly part 2 that got me thinking, because I’m not sure it’s been solved in without attributes (please, comment if you know of a system that has done something to reflect natural aptitudes without using attributes). Back to actual research: we’re increasingly finding that things we think of as inherent aren’t, and things that we think of as connected aren’t (and, meanwhile, other things turn out to be (maybe) connected). On top of that, some things that are typically treated as skills in RPGs may be more inherent than learned. But even then, obviously all the aptitude in the world doesn’t help if you are never exposed to something.

So, the split between learning and aptitude is probably artificial, and the grouping of “related” aptitudes is at least somewhat arbitrary. My thought experiment is: instead of trying to reflect these with attributes, lets just work directly with the skills.

The core of my idea is: the more skills you have in a given area, the cheaper it is to improve them or to learn new, related skills. If you want to make an athletic character, you don’t put a bunch of points into “strength” and “agility”, which then make it easier to get higher scores in the various athletic skills. Instead, the formula for cost of skills takes into account related skills, and costs fall as you acquire more related skills.

You’d have to define the skill groups, of course. For a rough version of this, you could start with a system that has attributes, and use the attributes that skills are based on/linked to define the groups. But the next level would be to have finer control over the skill groups—having 15 attributes gets unwieldy, but grouping skills into 15 categories shouldn’t be too much of a problem. And if you felt it improved verisimilitude, there’s no need for all skill relationships to be reciprocal: music skill and physics skill could both benefit from math skill, but music skill doesn’t benefit from physics skill, say. (n.b.: not making any claims about real-world accuracy here; just inventing an example.)

The cost to raise a skill might be something like ({new skill value}×3)−{number of related skills}. So putting a point into a skill makes every skill it is related to a point cheaper for every increment—a very similar result to putting a point into an attribute in many systems. But without having a separate attribute to track, and without having to decide what is “inherent” and what is “learned”—if it’s a thing you want characters to be able to roll dice to do, make a skill for it.

Is this actually reducing complexity over a typical attributes/skills system? I’m not sure. It would depend largely on how complex the math ended up being and how hard it was to create skills to fill in any gaps that attributes were handling. And even in the real world we often think of some abilities as being inherent and others learned, so would this be too jarring, and make verisimilitude harder? I don’t know without trying it. Let me know if you try something like this out.

#RPGaDay2015: 31 – Friends

“Favorite non-RPG thing to come out of RPGing”?

That’s a tough one. I was racking my brain, thinking of things that have grown out of RPGs. I even perused Wikipedia to see if there was something I wasn’t thinking of. Game-inspired fiction? Not really for me. Gaming-inspired writers? I guess—I know that China Mieville has credited roleplaying with helping his writing, and I’m sure there are others. But most of my favorite authors aren’t roleplayers, and the few that I would truly miss if they didn’t exist mostly predate RPGs. RPG-derived videogames? I’ve never really been a fan of videogames, so from my perspective they’re just competition, providing easy access to people who might otherwise turn to RPGs for their gaming fix.

The more I think about it, the less I see any significant parts of society at large that came out of RPGs and have particular value for me. I mean, except for RPGs and roleplayers and RPG authors and the RPG community, of course.

And then it clicked: “community” is the answer. Almost all of my enduring friendships have either originated in gaming, or have been strengthened by it. Of my many hobbies and interests, it’s the one activity that I eventually try to get all my friends to join me in. I might still have friends without roleplaying, but not nearly so many [the one downside of introversion]. And many fewer of my friendships would have endured as we went our separate ways without that shared interest that is easy to discuss even when we don’t play together. Plus, there’s long-distance gaming which, while not as good as being in the same room, is still pretty great.

Thanks, gamer-friends, for being my friends.

#RPGaDay2015: 30 – Who Needs Multiple Players When You Have Robin Williams?

My favorite RPG-playing celebrity is also the one I first found out was a roleplayer: Robin Williams. I remember rumors of his gamer status at least as far back as the mid-‘80s, along with a handful of other celebrities whom I have since forgotten.

I grew up with Mork & Mindy, and have been a huge fan of Robin Williams ever since. I think I’ve seen—and loved—everything he’s done (yes, even Popeye and The World According to Garp). And when I first heard about this was at the 2nd peak of his popularity (around the time of Dead Poet’s Society), so the idea that I had something in common with someone so inestimably cool was, well, cool!

He hasn’t, as far as I know, championed RPGs the way that some younger actors—most notably Vin Diesel—have, but I wasn’t looking for a spokesperson. I luckily grew up in a place where D&D wasn’t persecuted, just, at worst, misunderstood. We played at Boy Scout camp, we could play on the bus on a school trip with no one really caring, and we talked about it at school without anyone (teachers or students) interfering.

But I always imagined what it would be like having him run a game—imagine the manic creativity of Mork & Mindy combined with the emotional depths of Good Will Hunting. In writing this, I discovered that he participated in Worldwide Dungeons & Dragons Game Day 2006. Time to see if there’s any video of that.

#RPGaDay2015: 29 – Ars Ludi and Deeper in the Game

This’ll be a short one: there are only two RPG blogs I follow with any sort of regularity: Ars Ludi and Deeper in the Game. Both are a little more analytical/theoretical than other blogs I’ve tried, and regularly make me think. They’re the closest I’ve found to the sort of content I loved on back in the ‘90s.

There are many others over the years that I’ve read, but all the rest have fallen by the wayside—I just sort of stop reading them. I’ve recently been pointed at a few other sites, but haven’t gotten around to checking them out; maybe I’ll have a new favorite by this time next year.

#RPGaDay2015: 28 – Werewolf: the Apocalypse

I have a soft spot for D&D, dating specifically to the AD&D era. But I’m not sure it was ever my “favorite” so much as it was “the game we’re playing”. I had a ton of fun with AD&D, particularly AD&D2, I had perhaps even more fun in a long-running D&D3E campaign (though the rules were a constant source of frustration and annoyance). I still love the style of play that D&D engenders, and want to do it again, but I don’t particularly want to play the game that says Dungeons & Dragons on the cover any more. Certainly not BD&D, AD&D1/2, D&D3[.5]E, or D&D4E; maybe D&D5E (though I suspect once I’ve tried it out, I’ll quickly discover it’s not the game for me any more, either).

So, no, D&D may be a game I no longer play (though I’d like to), but I don’t think it was ever a favorite.

Now, there are several games that truly are my favorites, but which I haven’t played for years. But several of them are games that I still would play, and know people who still would play, so the only thing stopping me is a lack of time. I don’t think they qualify, either.

Probably the closest I can come to a game that legitimately qualifies as a favorite, but I strongly suspect I will never play again is Werewolf: the Apocalypse. Partly, it’s a badly misunderstood game—and White Wolf’s advertising didn’t help matters. Most gamers I’ve met who like the old World of Darkness games weren’t interested in a “hack-n-slash” game, and completely missed that W:tA isn’t about triumphant combat—it’s about tragic characters whose favorite tool is ultraviolence faced with situations that can’t be solved by violence, set against a backdrop of a crumbling world that they created precisely by their misguided applications of violence to attempt to fix it.

Even with the right sell, the number of people who want to play tragic shamanistic warriors with anger-management issues up against impossible odds is, apparently, pretty small, and the few who want to either are put off by the fact that they’re also werewolves, or are more interested in LARPing (at least IME).

Additionally, my mechanical tastes have changed. I still love the characters and setting of W:tA, but I’m no longer interested in chapters of martial arts maneuvers (unless I’m playing a martial arts game), and I either want a system with self-evident extrapolations from the basic mechanics to specific detailed rules, or a system where there are no detailed rules. The oWoD games unfortunately are riddled with almost-arbitrary implementations of the core die mechanic to get the specific “systems”, and the Gifts (and equivalent powers in most of the other games) are just about the textbook example of rules by exception.

On the flipside, I love the detailed setting, and part of what makes it what it is are all the nuances of the Gifts and the various tribal differences, and the wyrm taints, and so on. Converting it to another system while preserving most of that detail would be more trouble than it’s worth.

Finally, my current circle of gamers is generally not interested in games of this level of mechanical complexity, period, and most don’t have the time any more to read chapters of setting just to play in a world—much less to make characters. We generally prefer building our own settings or playing in genre pastiches, these days. Myself included. So despite the awesome times I had playing (well, running) it, and how much I absolutely love the setting and even the game as a whole (despite my misgivings about some of the details of the rules), I think maybe it is better left in the past. I fear that playing it now would tarnish my memories, rather than rekindling my love.