September 20, 2014

RPG Mechanics: Don't fight the system

This post has been a long time coming; I first mentioned it back when I interviewed +Kenneth Hite maybe. It's not that important, but it's an idea that has been growing on me for a while, and I think my discussion with Ken crystalized something.

Frankly, it's why I want to play a game of Night's Black Agents, since my mind was jarred like Hawkeye's in the Avengers when Ken told me that your point totals were only peripherally related to your ability with a given skill in Night's Black Agents.

No, what the points measure is how many times you can be awesome in any given scene. They were related to skill, obviously, since if you can be awesome a lot, you're probably good at something.

But ultimately, NBA is about screen time, as in "movie or TV." It's a narrative-based game.

And that's OK.

Don't Fight the System

Each game is going to be tailored to a particular style of play. The games I've been playing lately couldn't really be more different on the cover. +Matt Finch's Swords and Wizardry Complete, GM'd by +Erik Tenkar, and GURPS Dungeon Fantasy, by either +Nathan Joy or Emily Smirle. Both of those, by the way, are converted D&D modules.

I have tons of fun in both games, but they're different. Very different. Not "better" or "worse," but very different.

Swords and Wizardry

To me, the thing about S&W (and based on the free version, D&D5 as well) is that the key is really in resource management. You are either going to run out of resources - spells, hit points, healing of various types - before you destroy your foe(s), or you won't. At lower levels, and for some classes perhaps even higher levels - you don't really have much of a choice to make.

Rul Scararm is a fighter. On any given turn, his only choice is really "shoot with my bow, or take a magical sword out of my golf bag and smite away." Other than what target I'm swinging at - which is usually "the one in front of me," or failing that "the one with the lowest HP," since it's better to take a guy out of the fight than whittle down a few of them - my choices are few.

The spellcasters have more choices; they're the Omega of the game. Have the fighters hold the line, the wizard casts Web, and basically it's all over but the looting. Or it's not, in which case the fighters mop up. Now, the alternate rule Erik uses allows you to keep attacking (cleave) if you kill a guy, so the fighters can cleave up to their level, while other classes can cleave once. +Peter V. Dell'Orto and I each have lain waste to 3-4 foes in one round this way.

So we're useful, and we open a lot of doors with brute force. But the rate limiting step on our adventures is really a combination of our combined HP, the priest's healing spells, the group's potions (we always clean out the shop every adventure start), and the magic-user's spells.

We embrace this. I've not noticed +Joe D (our magic-user) or +Tim Shorts (the cleric) complaining at all. Rul and Mirado go in first (sometimes we scout), set up a wall of pain, and then the other guys do something impressive if they can, or provide some additional carnage if they can't. Any individual encounter isn't that tense; the question is how much loot and how many experience points can we get before we deplete our resources. If we run out before we voluntarily quit - very likely someone's going to die, or be about to die.

We don't struggle against that. We strive to clear the most rooms and get the coolest stuff. We banter in and out of character. We tell really awful jokes, and without question it's the most fun I have gaming these days.

GURPS Dungeon Fantasy - All Options ON

In Nate and Emily's games, we use the GURPS Dungeon Fantasy genre treatment. Well, sort of. They turn on a lot of Martial Arts switches. Emily has decided to use the same Technical Grappling variant Peter uses. We use a lot of Low-Tech armor rules, and even a nifty new armor system made by +Mark Langsdorf. They don't like the regular spell magic system, so we're using some sort of Threshold Magic.

Here, the challenge is that any fight can be deadly.

Any. Fight.

Get cocky and throw some All-Out Attack? Expect to be nailed if you don't kill your foe, because you can't defend. And unless you have DR 10+, you are likely to be vulnerable. With the TG system i place, getting thrown down and grappled by a monster is a real threat.

DF character templates are cool enough that there are lots of options for each blow, too. You aren't limited by low skills. You can easily step up with Weapon-16 through Weapon-20 right out of the gate, They key is using your unique skill set to do tactically superior and effective things on any given turn.

Most fights are over in a couple of very long (in real time) turns, but every action has tension. You can critically succeed or fail, which means you can be suddenly awesome or really in trouble. My Warrior Saint, Cadmus, dispatched a swordsman with Broadsword-30 in one blow . . . because he turned his back on me while within my Move radius. Splorch.

The key bit here is that the GURPS rules as we were using them reward detailed tactical choices, and the system is deadly enough that you're not going to have a hundred turns of it.

Now, GURPS can be played fast and loose. I've never run it that way, but I've played it that way. But I think that, in terms of not fighting the system, GURPS really shines when you can turn the detail up as high as your group's comfort/enjoyment level will allow.


I fought the system, and the system won. I just didn't get it, so I played my character in Trail of Cthulhu like I would a GURPS character. My focus was on any specific task, not on "do I want to be Awsome this scene, or not."

In a way, the General and Investigative spends make GUMSHOE systems games of narrative resource management rather than tactical resource management.

The kicker here is that's true of combat too. And if you fight the system, and it bothers you to a large degree that a .50BMG and a punch to the face really aren't that different in potential effects, then you're going to hate it. A lot.

But if you don't fight the system, if you decide that your awesome martial artist is going to simply hold his own this fight, and accept the narrative, rather than the tactical, consequences (because when you get to that final battle in the episode, it's on, baby) then you can enjoy it the way it's meant to be played.

Parting Shot

Recently I spoke about games I'd like to play, and NBA and FATE were high on the list. I've never played in a game of FATE, but I made Thor as a character with +Leonard Balsera, and I'd love to experience the game. +Sean Punch recommends it as a narratively crunchy, rather than tactically cruchy, bag of fun.

Once I can guarantee my schedule is such that I can make the game, I'll probably pester +James Introcaso to run a game or five of D&D5 for me (and Peter) at the very least, so I can experience the new thing.

But ultimately, it would probably behoove designers to both know and say what kind of game they expect you to be running, and how they designed the rules to support that game. For a game like GURPS, which can support many genre flavors, advice on "well, if you want tactical crunch, do X, Y, and Z with these books," while if you want narrative, low-detail flavor, you simply must have Impulse Buys, and may need to hide Low-Tech and Tactical Shooting in a deep, dark hole.

By and large, I have a lot of fun gaming. The few times I have not, it can nearly always be attributed to expectations mismatch.

There's a lesson there.

September 19, 2014

User commentary on Technical Grappling

Writes like feedback. Even negative feedback, constructively given, is useful.

While I'm still waiting for +Erik Tenkar to review Technical Grappling (hey! where'd that bus come from?), I got a pleasant surprise when +Mitch French over at Don't Forget Your Boots spent about 1,750 words talking about his impressions of my book.


  • He likes enough of the concepts that he can't use 'em all. That's cool; I don't use 'em all either.
  • He finds the basic conceit of the book, that Control Points express how well someone is grappled, both mechanically and narratively compelling.
  • He likes how Trained ST gives the highly skilled "light fighter" a much-needed boost. If he wants to double down, he should apply Trained ST to striking, too!
  • The rules for armed grappling are usefully simplified by making them not a special case of other rules
  • He likes the concept of spending CP to improve certain things, and wonders if they could be more broadly applied. Yes. Yes they can. I didn't do it in the manuscript because we didn't have that many test-fights going on in the actual playtest, and some of that sort of stuff needs thorough in-play experience.

Read the entire thing. Then, of course, go buy the book!


Note: When I wrote the thing, and when sales figures were easily available on e23, my hope was that about half the people who purchased the digital version of GURPS Martial Arts would buy my book, which would put my target at 400-500 copies sold. I'm within that range, about in the middle, on this book.

Certainly there are many more who bought the hardback of Martial Arts who can use TG. But I'm pleased to at least have hit about 50% penetration of those who bought the digital version of Martial Arts. And you have to have the book to use TG. Even if it's not a perfect Venn diagram, that 450 number was my target, and I'm about there. Woo hoo!

September 18, 2014

Technical Longsword: GURPS gets it right

I seem to be riffing off of +Peter V. Dell'Orto a lot, but in this case we both got forwarded the same neat clip at the same time.

Peter made a lot of good points in his post. What I'm going to do is break down the iconic exchange in this video in roughly one-second intervals. And try and ascribe GURPS mechanics to them. I'll use some screen captures to illustrate my point, but the entire video is also linked below.

Ready . . . fight!

We'll pick up the action at roughly 2:46, where one of the featured interviewees ( Turns out it's +Jake Norwood, HEMA fighter and author of The Riddle of Steel roleplaying game!)  is talking about how points are scored. The real action picks up a few seconds later, with the red-socked fighter closing, and then starting the exchange.

The times given are in milliseconds!

The First Turn: 0-1000ms

000 milliseconds - Time start
At the point where I decided to start turn-based combat, we have Red-Socks (the combatant on the right) advancing to close the distance between the two fighters.

Red makes a deliberate advance - in fact, he does a step and attack, thrusting at his foe's head. It would appear that, given the position of his foe at 0ms, he is starting from Reach 2.

373 ms - starting the thrust
By the time 373ms have elapsed, Red is making a very deliberate thrust for the face. He has advanced just about as far as he's going to for the rest of the fight. In fact, one curious thing about this exchange of blows is that there is basically no retreating at all in terms of horizontal space. At this point, The defender on the left (identified as +Axel Pettersson by a commenter)  has not exactly finished the parry, but it is well begun. The blade is sweeping to the defender's right as it pushed the thrust in the same direction.

594 ms - thrust is parried
At just shy of 600ms, the thrust is fully developed and the parry is already in place, and it is continuing through the thrust so as not to bind the blade. It's definitely the other fighter's turn now, and he slides from that parry immediately into an attack of his own,

About an eighth of a second later, the fighter on the right has already committed to a swung attack to Red Sox left shoulder or left torso.

723 ms - Initiate swung strike to red left arm
One interesting thing here, that doesn't really play in GURPS at the moment, is that it's clear from the video that the defender did not have the time or the room to develop his parry into a thrusting attack. The sweeping parry that was used precludes that motion, so he's got to deliver the swing - likely giving his foe a bit more time (but we're talking about actions that are ticking by in 0.1s increments, so not that much time!) to defend.

934mn - red parries
Finally, at 934ms, the second attack of the first second has been launched . . . and is in the middle of being parried by Red Sox. The two fighters are still at Reach 1, where they'll remain for the rest of the fight.

Notice that other than the first thrust, the parry turns right into the attack, with little hesitation or pause (at least this exchange). Also, following the high thrust, there was a high parry, a high counterattack to the left shoulder, and another high parry. Going high-to-low in one second probably is too much, perhaps.

The Second Turn - and the final one. 1000-2000ms

1018 ms - disengage from parry and start swing to head
We pick up pretty much where we left off, and as one might imagine, Red Sox does not surrender the initiative, and begins to develop an attack of his own.

He slides his sword out, disengaging from his parry and preparing to launch a head blow.

1147 ms - head blow delivered . . . and parried!
Note that from parry to disengage is 84ms by the movie capture clock. This stuff is happening fast.

By the time the clock ticks another 1/8 second, the head strike has landed . . . but already been parried by the fighter on the left, with a very strong parry.  This may actually be where "the mistake" happens, as you can see that Red Sox has stepped to a more-or-less isosceles stance - the first time that has happened this fight.
1363 ms - This doesn't look good for Red Sox

As the sands go through the hourglass here in bullet time, the fighter on the left has taken a strong offensive striking pose, while Red Sox is out of position and off balance a bit.

The two fighters' blades are not in close proximity or contact for nearly the first time in this fight, and you can see - and Red Sox can sense - the advantage held by his foe.
1528ms - Fatal Step Back

Another 165ms ticks by, and Red Sox hesitates and begins to take a step back. Not a big one, but more importantly, he's gotten fixated, perhaps, on protecting his head. Not bringing his sword along, it's out of position and Red is off balance - this is even clear in the full-speed video. At this point (or maybe even two frames ago!) it's probably all over but the bleeding for Red.
1632ms - Opportunity knocks and White answers
Our friend from Chicago (White Sox?) sees his opportunity and commits to it, a full-strength cut to the ribs. Still out of position and knowing it, Red tries to dance back - but it's clear that he is off balance for a retreating dodge.

That being said, Red Sox does have this big sword thing over his head, and he's about to realize it.

1746ms - The fatal blow
These last few frames are still very interesting,
though, since the end of the fight for one doesn't instantly save the other. As the lethal blow lands, Red finds himself in a position to strike, if perhaps a late one, and commits himself to it.

White is stepping to his left, through the blow. and has not yet obviously committed or begun to any defensive action to finish the fight.
1763 - Last-ditch attack, kneeling defense

Only 17ms later, White is following through on his attack, while Red, despite having been struck (or while in the process thereof) is now attacking strongly to White's head. He has recovered his stance (too late, alas) and is powering into a final blow.

1967ms - Final Defense, game over
You can see that White is starting to bring his left hand up, preparing for his guard stance. He cannot help but be aware of where Red's sword was, and so he knows from where an attack must come.

And 204ms later, he has a very strong defense going, having dropped to one knee and completed his follow-through into that parry.

The point is over, a clear strike for white.


We'll start with Red, obviously

Red: Step and Attack, a thrust to the head
     White: Parry. [1]
White: Attack, perhaps Defensive Attack, a swing to the torso [2]
     Red: Parry [3]

Red: Attack, a swing to the head. Maybe a Committed Attack? It would explain . . .
     White: Parry [4]

White: Deceptive attack. Swing to the torso.[5]
     Red: Cannot parry; must dodge. This does not go well and he's hit.

Red: The hit hasn't registered with him yet, and he's already made up his mind. Attack, Committed, to the head.
      White: Drop to knees and parry [6]

Some notes:

[1] As noted above, that parry precludes a thrusting counter. This might mean that one can trade a bonus to parry an attack now for a penalty to your next attack. This is something mentioned in Option 11 of my old "MECE" post. It's also likely the result of not being able to use a 'fencing' parry, which favors the thrust on both attack and keeping the blade in line for such during a defense. It may also be worthwhile to give flavors of defensive parries.

[2] Defensive attack because he can't really wind up in a way that would say to me "yes, you've just doubled your penetrating power!" which is what swing basically does.

[3] Perhaps benefiting from his defensive attack, his parry allows him to clear the line well and deliver a strong attack to the head. He clearly strikes hard.

[4] White parries the attack to the head, and things go poorly for Red after this. For whatever reason. Red's blade is out of position after this. The rules not allowing you to parry with the weapon you attacked with for Committed Attack would cover this well. So we'll assume that's what he did.

[5] At this point, White knows he's been Committed Attacked. His foe must dodge. He also cannot retreat, which covers what happens next pretty well. White throws a Deceptive Attack to the torso, and Red must Dodge without retreating.

[6] White drops to a knee to successfully parry the last head blow, which suggests to me that doing that - dropping to a knee to defend vs. a high-line attack, should probably be worth the equivalent of a retreat. So if you drop to the knees during a defense - a Kneeling Defense - you get +2 to your Active Defense against a blow to the arms, torso, or head. You do not have to step.

Of course, given how things flow together, it may be that this move was just a sideways retreat, but giving a full +3 for a sidestep and posture change seems OK to me.

Parting Shot

Five blows were exchanged in two seconds. The fourth blow was the lethal one.

The only thing that would prevent this from happening in GURPS RAW are a couple of tweaks due to certain types of attacks not being allowed, and the fact that at reach 1 after a parry, you can still develop a full-power attack. Or maybe not. Maybe Committed or All-Out Strong attacks are the full "don't get in my way," and the type of decisive and fast swing we see here works fine.

It doesn't change my thoughts about "only use thrust" damage, though. It also seems to emphasize that Trained ST (adding a bonus to ST based on skill) is perhas as true, or more true, than a big huge muscular guy being able to just do that much more damage with this kind of blow. Maybe you only get swing damage if you AoA at full reach!

In any case, these guys could probably not keep that pace up for long, which makes The Last Gasp look pretty good in terms of the Action Point economy.

September 16, 2014

You got your Technical Grappling in my Dungeon Fantasy

+Peter V. Dell'Orto gives a play report on how, despite what you might think, GURPS Martial Arts: Technical Grappling makes Dungeon Fantasy more awesome, rather than less.

In fairness, he and I developed a huge treatment of this subject on our own, so it's not "out of the box" ready to go, but it wasn't that close.

Highlighting some stuff again:

  • TG makes grappling incremental and non-binary, which is more fun, more dramatic, and stretches disbelief less
  • Monsters that bite and hold are scary and cool with TG. Not so much with the rules as they are written. 
  • If you choose, the options for spending CP and using them to do crazy stuff (move people around, grab and smash, make attacks easier to hit on the attack or easier to dodge on defense) add on seamlessly and provide a lot of fun
  • Tentacle beasts are scary again. 

Anyway, if it's good for DF, it'll be good for most other genres out of the box.

So go read Peter's stuff. Then check out my book, because grappling should be as awesome in game as it can be in real life.

September 12, 2014

In defense of the cinematic (Damage and Quick-Shooting Bows)

I do a lot of posting about "realistic" stuff, and increasing the verisimilitude and simulationism achievable - hopefully at minimal cost - for GURPS.

An example - instead of being able to accelerate from a standing stop to full Move in one turn, if you halve your acceleration (so on turn one, Joe average can go 2 yards, on turn 2, he can move 5 yards) it actually makes a huge difference in the ability for not unusual guys to break the 100m dash record.

That being said - there's a reason to use a bunch of cinematic rules (and some of RAW falls in that category) even in otherwise realistic games.

That reason is, quite simply, player engagement.

Real might just be boring

Consider a fantasy archer. His ability to influence a combat in a game is basically in proportion to his ability to do two things: the first is do damage where no one else can, the second is to plain-old contribute to bog-standard combat. For most cases, it's the second one that will come up most often. This means that to have fun with a character that has sunk, in all probability, a crazy amount of points in Bow (frex) to be good at it, he wants to be effective.

But typically, without lots of "cinematic" skills, you draw an arrow, ready a bow, and then either shoot, or aim. You can, with the right skills, Fast-Draw that arrow, as well as Quick-Shoot the bow, knocking (nocking?) two seconds off of a typical 2-3 second pause between shots.

For this archer, effective means projectiles on target, and fun means you want each shot to be meaningful. While "damage per seccond" really has no place in GURPS, you do have certain expectation that shooting once every third turn or so will be fun.

So the payoff for going less than 1/3 as often as the other guys better be huge (I might not hit every round, but when I do, you're *going down*).
Makes up for three seconds of loading the thing

Part of this is the frenetic pace of GURPS combat, with none of the normal lulls that would make that time to draw, nock, aim, and fire disappear into a few turns of "I evaluate!" or "I step back and catch my breath."

But the RAW make it pretty darn attractive to "hit hit hit hit hit hit hit hit-with-extra-effort! hit hit" as a melee fighter. Possibly with worrying about deceptive attacks, hit locations, wounding modifiers, or whatnot. And if you're really good, doing it all more than once with Rapid Strike.

Compared to all that, "I ready my arrow; I aim. Still aiming. OK, now I shoot!" is boring and relatively speaking, unhelpful, especially in a DF context.

So even though (for example) bows might be darn powerful when compared realistically to a 9mm pistol or even a .45 ACP (2d+2 pi and 2d pi+), as your ST 15 composite bow (1d+4) imp will penetrate as well as the .45 - and wound better! - both guns can shoot three times per turn, only reload every few turns. A guy with a sword and good skill can swing twice for 2d+1 cut, which is more damaging than the .45 as well.

Finally, speaking of melee and muscle-powered ranged weapons in a world of guns

Seriously: if you're going to spend the time and shrapnel addressed to occupant to get up close and personal with a bunch of guys with killer hardware. If that's you schtick - you might as well be able to punch through body armor while you're at it. Because most of the time you'll get messily eviscerated on the way.So once you get there, you're going to deserve to be able to rip the guys arm off and beat him to death with it, powered armor or no.

Is it realistic? Hell no. But it's fun. And I strongly suspect that this is a case where the payoff of all that risk to get next to the guy dual-wielding MP5SD5s with drum magazines, your reward should not be "and then you break your sword and your left hand on his trauma plate."

Sure, I totally get why that's not realistic. Hell, I'm a card-carrying member of Realistic University, maybe even on the faculty. But when I play in a game where RAW is not altered to make such thigns stupid . . . I have a really great time

September 9, 2014

Games I'd like to play

Right now I'm in basically two games. I play a weekly Dungeon Fantasy game that used to be running through the Jade Regent Adventure Path, but with GURPS. The other is a monthly-ish Swords and Wizardry game.

I used to play in a Pathfinder game as well, and a brief dabble with Trail of Cthulhu.

But there are other games I'd like to play in, to experience them for both how they flow mechanically and narratively.

So, what games would I like to experience?


I'm terribly curious about how this one would run. I ran through creating Thor in my interview with +Leonard Balsera  and I would be interested to see, in the hands of an experienced group, how the game would go. Not just "oh, I played this one session, and it sucked/was awesome," but a real min-arc at least, so I can feel what it's like to experience a variety of challenges and see what character growth feels like.

Now, saying "I want to play a game of FATE" is like saying "I want to play a game of HERO, or GURPS." It's a ruleset, not a genre.

So I'd probably want to try it out in a genre that traditionally GURPS does less well - full-on four-color superheroes, for example. Making Thor was so easy with FATE Accelerated that I'd like to try something in a similar vein.

Night's Black Agents

Again, this one was brought on by my interview with +Kenneth Hite. I'd been pointed to the system before, and grilled him pretty hard about the mechanical choices in a GUMSHOE game. I left feeling very impressed, and with a much greater understanding of how that system is supposed to run, and what point spends mean.
Ironically, or perhaps not, in rereading my interview with Leonard, I see it was he, core designer of FATE, that turned me on to NBA. Small world, small world.
There's an entire post in that - how not to fight the mechanics - but for now, what I really want to do is run through a campaign of NBA. Experience how a Vampyramid/Conspiramid unfolds. See if I can make my own web of intrigue, like the interactions board we saw in Chuck (I wonder if Zachary Levi kept the Tron poster?).

Playing Jason Bourne fighting vampires sounds like my kind of game.

Dungeons and Dragons, 5th Edition

I've been enjoying the S&W game, and frankly D&D5 feels a lot like that to me, but with more options and what is certainly going to be copious support. As a creator, if you're going to write for something, you can do worse to try your hand at D&D, also.

But it is how I got introduced to RPGing, with the Moldvay Basic set and the awesome splendor of AD&D. I've played a bit of Pathfinder. So I'm familiar with some of the forebears to what is still (lumping WotC and Paizo together) the only force in the market, if you're going to be honest.

So I'd love to experience what the new D&D is at the hands of someone who loves it. Maybe +James Introcaso can hook me up.