Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Quick Hit: The Latest Complete Characters d20 Character Sheet

I really need a better header image than this

Well, boys and girls, this should be it. This is a real character, with real stats for all three levels, with the character sheet as it will be on the final product. I feel like I'm obsessing about this, but it needs to be clear and concise so that everyone can benefit.

This latest version has one final change to the scheme, which is that instead of simply a list of Feats and Talents, they are indicated more along the lines of the Skills. By looking over the list you don't only see which Feats/Talents exist at each level, but how they progress as experience is gained, and which serve as prerequisites to others.

Try as I might to keep the entire character sheet on a single page, I've compromised somewhat. I'm of the opinion that most GMs/DMs don't need these abilities statted out, as they are available in the core books, for free online, and in a dozen other places if not already committed to memory. However, since it's Open Content, it doesn't hurt me to include the full descriptions. The following page (which will be the last of the character module) will include the full description of each selected Feat and Talent, and probably relevant equipment and gear as well, either from the core book or specially designed. It will be easy enough to simply not print the last page if the user isn't interested in this information.

So, what do you think? Just about fit to see print?

Monday, January 17, 2011

Quick Hit: Meet The d20 Character Sheet

So, we'll see if this is the FINAL final character sheet, but I believe that it is. That is, of course, unless some of you find flaws with it. It's pictured below (click on the image for a larger view).

What we have here is an example of what will be the final page of every Complete Character for the foreseeable future. It's a complete d20 stat sheet to complement the three-page writeups of the individual characters. Stats are given for a low, medium, and high level iteration of the character for maximum flexibility in the use of a wide variety of games and campaigns.

All stats are included. The only thing left for a Game/Dungeon Master to do is to apply any specific, situational bonuses that are granted by Talents and Feats. For example, the character has a given Ranged Attack Bonus, but that doesn't include additional bonuses from Feats such as Weapon Focus or Point Blank Shot. This noted exception is given right on the sheet, so it won't be missed by mistake, and adding such bonuses is a no-brainer for any experienced gamer to interpret. Characters with a huge skill list may also find it culled to only the most pertinent skills for use with the character, but I don't see that being a huge problem, either.

So, what do you think?

Edit: Here's a slight update. I filled in the blocks with numbers that look more "right" than the one above, put in a short blurb explaining the multi-level stat sheet shading, and changed the shadow columns for Ability Scores/Combat Stats/Saves to be long and mirror those of the Skills. If people like that better, I'll compress those blocks a little bit to keep the spacing consistent, which will give me a little more room up top. Better? Worse?

More Edit: Still tinkering with this. Here's the same sheet as in the original edit, but compacted a bit, plus a short block detailing the build. I could cut down on the vertical white space between the blocks, but I think it might start to run together.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Quick Hit: Discarding d20 Stats

So, as I build the new d20 Modern character sheets for my Complete Characters, I've decided to exclude a few stats that I have come to view as extraneous, and easily replaced should any particular Game/Dungeon Master decide to add them back in. These are
  • Reputation. I feel like this modifier limits the character creation process, and isn't really that useful for a character that is going to be used by the game's director, in any case..
  • Wealth: Bottom line, from what I can tell, is that nobody even uses this.
  • Action Points: I've gone back and forth on this, but I've decided to discard it. It seems that this is may be the most house-ruled game mechanic out there, and is often eliminated entirely. For NPCs of advanced levels, there really is no way to even track how many Action Points have been used over the character's career, so giving a number available seems silly. Plus, if a GM/DM decides to use Action Points, there is no easier mechanic to introduce with a judgement call or the roll of a few dice.
That leaves, by the way, the following calculated stats to be included (beyond Attributes and Modifiers, and Skills, obviously):
  • Hit Points
  • Defense/AC
  • Initiative Modifier
  • Grapple Check Bonus
  • Melee Attack Bonus
  • Ranged Attack Bonus
  • Speed
Any thoughts on any of this from wiser gamers than me?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Quick Hits: 2011 Tasks

I never got around to doing this in the last couple of weeks since 2011 has stormed in, but I have a few minutes here during my lunch break, so I thought I would ramble on about what is to come here on the blog, and for Jason Richards Publishing.

2010 was great, and saw some good things happen. Wrote a little for Palladium, turned in my manuscript for Chaos Earth: First Responders, established Jason Richards Publishing, and for the first time did writing and publishing work under my own banner. Artists were employed, products were created, and sales were made. All very, very exciting for me.

Now what? Sales of Complete Characters have been very encouraging, and well received. However, there's no time to rest on those laurels, and it's high time that this project moved forward. Forward in this case means adding stats from various game systems to the Complete Characters. Utilizing the Open Gaming License, most characters will soon see a d20 stat sheet added to the end of the character. Stats will be given for each character at low, medium, and high levels to best fit with any campaign.

I currently have designs for d20 character sheets nearly done, and may develop Open D6 character sheets as well. That's the next step for that particular project. I should probably mention that there are still five free downloads for Complete Characters, and the rest are still on sale for only 50 cents each for a very limited time; once the characters are updated with d20 stats, those will be provided to you for free if you've already bought them, so this is a good chance to pick them up cheap.

There are other projects in the vein of Complete Characters, featuring other gaming materials, but announcements to those ends will have to wait. Plus, there are the changes and upgrades and streamlining of this site that will inevitably be neglected.

I also need to do some actual gaming this year. I have a killer Star Wars D6 campaign just totally ready to go, and I've been dying to run it for a smallish group of friends. Not to mention, I need to get a game group together and warmed up to prepare for the next issue.

I'm very excited about a large project, however, which will be my first foray into designing a game setting for publication, from the ground up. With a couple of colleagues, I'll be designing a game using the Mini Six system that I think fans of my work will really enjoy. A working title for this game is Breach, and it will be a highly-cinematic, action-packed setting with lots of danger, intrigue, and character. Expect "kitchen sink" gaming of the highest order, where anything goes, but with some built-in direction to help center the world and create a common point for conflict and intrigue. Using Mini Six will allow us to jump right in to building our sandbox and not having to worry about breaking in a new ruleset. Its methods of character generation will also eliminate the need for us to create a ton of specific character classes in favor of writing up a few examples and then letting the players and Game Masters run with it; one less thing to worry about in the design stage.

And hey, look at that... a post of less than ten pages! That's why we call it a Quick Hit, folks. What do you think? Will this be the best year ever? What are your gaming or writing or blogging goals? Anything you want to see from yours truly?

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Palladium Rules Round Table 3: Skill List Overload

Preparing for skill selection feels like this

Goal #1 for today's blog installment? Keep it to fewer than 100,000 words. It seems somehow wrong to ramble overly long about trimming the fat out of what many feel is a bloated system, so I'll dive right in.

Skill overload

There are tons of skills in the Palladium system. Hundreds of them occupy scores of pages in core rulebooks, and with each revision or new edition, the familiar typeset and formatting of the skills section dominates a higher and higher percentage of the page count. Skills range from very broad, like Basic Electronics or General Repair to very specific in their application, like Underwater Demolitions or Rope Works. There is substantial overlap in many of the skills, such as the Gambling, Gambling: Dirty Tricks, and Card Sharp skills and some skills include other skills entirely; I've never fully understood why taking Armorer gives you Basic Mechanics for free instead of requiring it as a prerequisite, for example. And, does anybody really know the extent to which Read Sensory Equipment is supposed to be required? Some skills are cross-listed between categories, while sometimes two categories each contain a skill with the same name, but the description is different. Also, why are there three or four (I've lost count) different skills for shooting a bow and arrow? The list goes on and on.

The reason why

You could argue that we have this complicated, extensive, and often confusing skill system is the result of the type of creative creep seen in other aspects of the game. New authors come along and want to add their piece to the setting and tweak some skills to fit their unique take on the game (particularly in Rifts). New skills are also a way to justify new occupations and their O.C.C.s, which spring up routinely in each new supplement. Skills are also periodically ported wholesale from other games in an attempt to keep the system truly Megaversal.

I think that all of those reasons are secondary to a primary mechanical reason, and it all comes back to how skills are treated in the game. In Palladium's products, each skill represents a small slice of competency, without which the character has virtually no chance of success. If a situation arises where there is no skill to fill that void, then the game comes to a screeching halt.

Let's take your average Rifts adventuring party, with its assortment of aliens and wizards and robots and escaped genetically-enhanced dogs. This party has captured an enemy and need to take him along with them to claim their reward from the local powers. The group leader orders him tied up, but... how is that done? If this group is built with the early books, there is no Rope Works skill. The GM frantically searches for an appropriate skill and lands on Escape Artist, which none of the player characters have. Does that mean that, unless you are a skilled Escape Artist, you can't effectively tie someone up? That doesn't make sense. But, perhaps the skill is automatic. That doesn't really make sense either, though, because surely the person being bound has some chance of worming his way free.

We have discovered a gap in the skill set provided by Palladium. How do you fill it? With the Rope Works skill. The problem is, you can never create enough skills to account for every situation and there will always be gaps. Meanwhile, the more skills you add, the more unwieldy the system becomes, and the more duplication you have.

A universal skill mechanic

If this were Open D6 or D&D, it's a simple matter. If you discover a gap that the skills don't really cover during the course of the game, the GM makes a judgement call and picks an attribute and makes the roll just as if it were a skill on the books.

There is always an outcry for Palladium to link its skills to its attributes for just this sort of situation, and I don't disagree. The truth is, however, is that Palladium's attributes are not set up to be used for skill checks. What is fairly unique about Palladium, however, is that its skills are categorized by the general area of expertise, meaning Communications or Electrical or Mechanical or Rogue or any of the others. The easy mechanic for performing general skill checks, in my opinion, is to assign a base skill percentage to each skill category. It would go something like this:

Any basic skill can be attempted by an appropriately educated character at (just spit-balling here) a proficiency of 20%+5% per level of experience, plus any given O.C.C. Related category bonuses (and I.Q. bonus, or other attribute bonus as ruled by the GM). Therefore if a generic Wrench-Man O.C.C. receives in his O.C.C. Related skills a bonus of +20% to all Mechanical skills, at first level the Wrench-Man O.C.C. has a base Mechanical chance of 40% to perform mechanical/repair/maintenance type skills that aren't explicitly covered by his set skills. By 5th level this is up to 60% and by 10th level is up to 85% to do things like figure out where to sabotage the chain to make that drawbridge stay up, or to read a schematic of an unknown device and try to determine its purpose. Since his professional education doesn't involve stealth and thieving, he doesn't get this sort of automatic skill proficiency to perform Rogue- or Espionage-type skills, only his skills that receive an O.C.C. Related bonus across the whole (or at least most of) the category.

Trim the fat

It's not perfect, but I think something like that is a start. Once you establish a method for doing these sorts of basic skill checks, you can go about hacking down the skill list. Remove the overlapping descriptors of repetitive skills like Demolitions, Demolitions, and Demolitions Disposal and just lump them all together as Demolitions. No need for several different Radio, Navigation, or Sleight of Hand skills. If a player with the Gambling skill wants to try to deal from the bottom of the deck, don't require a separate skill, but just apply a skill penalty and move along. Remove highly-specific, but rarely-used skills altogether and let them be covered by the general category skills.

Another skill tier benefit

One more fix, synergizing somewhat with our discussion from yesterday, deals with normalizing all skills to be either Basic, Advanced, or Elite. If a player comes to you, the Game Master, and really wants to be proficient in a specific, concentrated area that isn't covered in your reduced skill list, creating that skill is now a piece of cake. You just need to determine if it's Basic, Advanced, or Elite, and the percentages are all there for you, ready to go. There's no need for it to be included in the total skill list for everyone, but can be whipped up just for that specific character.

Chime in

Once again I've rattled on, but hopefully it's worth it. Using the given framework, I think this is another example of how a few small mods can cover a lot of holes without requiring a total rewrite. Maybe this weekend I'll write up a new skill list based on our discussions here. What skills do you think should be cut or grouped together? What should the starting percentage and advancement be for a blanket skill as briefly demonstrated, above?

Bring on the comments!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Palladium Rules Round Table 2: Skill Failure And Success

Time to learn. About skills.

As we move forward in our discussion about various dice mechanics in various Palladium Books games, our spotlight falls on a fairly large hot-button item: skills. While most elements of Palladium's system (and, in fact, the system of any publisher) have fans and detractors, skills have perhaps the widest variety of complaints. Today, I think we'll talk principally about the actual mechanics of how skill checks are performed, and save issues like the vast skill catalog or the bizarre Boxing skill for another day.

The percentile problem

One common claim against the Palladium skill system is that it uses the percentile mechanic for skill checks, while combat, saves, and most other rolls are based on a D20 mechanic. Many, many gamers feel that this extra mechanic adds unneeded complexity to the game, often described by the notably nondescript term of "clunky." It is also noted that for the game's various D20 rolls, high rolls are good, while using the percentile system makes low rolls desirable, adding to the inherent "clunkiness" of the pairing of these two mechanics.

I'm generally a defender of the percentile skill system for two reasons. First and foremost, I feel that the provided "chance to succeed" mechanic, coupled with the percentile system, is very clear and easy to grasp. When you look down at your character sheet, you immediately know the odds. Secondly, the use of the base-100 setup for skills allows the game designer to make a distinction between how one advances versus the next, whereas in a D20 skill system, all skills increase at the same rate.

Briefly, let me point out that when we talk about Palladium, we're talking about a total level-up advancement system. With the achievement of a new level of experience, all of the character's skills and abilities advance by a level, as opposed to a rank system where the player selects certain skills or abilities to advance as experience increases. For the sake of this discussion, that's the system now, and I'm assuming that it stays that way, for better or worse.

Not all skills in real life advance with the same amount of effort, I think we can all agree. Not to break down the complex functions of education and experience, but it's easier to improve at some skills than others, and core level of understandings vary as well. With practice, learning multiplication tables is certainly easier to do than to find the volumes of complex shapes using calculus. Learning to put a computer together can be achieved at a much greater rate than learning how to design processors. It makes sense that not all skills should advance at the same rate, and the percentile system allows some skills to advance at +2% per level while others can advance at three or four times the rate.

Missed opportunity

That's about the end of my defense, however, as I feel that Palladium misses real opportunities for good game design in how its skills are presented. Starting skill levels are all over the board, often seemingly at random. Basic and Advanced Mathematics start and advance at the same rate. Demolitions has a base chance of success of 60%, which is twice as pretty much every Language or Lore skill. The rate of increase, while it makes sense that it should change from skill to skill, is almost always the same monotonous +5%.

There should undoubtedly be more rhyme and reason to the way that skills are set up, but here's the flip side: you could go crazy trying to assign these. Is it easier to learn to use a computer, or to speak Spanish? Is the study of robot mechanics more or less challenging than becoming a doctor? How should advancement in a skill like Dance relate to that of Chemistry? If trying to establish a hierarchy of skill difficulties, both to learn initially and to advance, you could spend a year researching and playtesting and guess-checking, but you would never get it right.

How to fix it

Here we fall firmly into my basic rules of game design, namely that mechanics shouldn't be overwhelming. When things begin to look this complicated, simply bow out and make it easy. Why not create three tiers of skills and call them Basic, Advanced, and Elite? Assign a working base percentage and advancement rate to each of these categories, and then throw skills into each. Is that a perfect solution? No, but think of the hassle and heartache that it would save players and GMs when making up, or advancing characters.

When designing skills, I like to consider the question, "At what level should this skilled character be proficient?" That is to say, at what level should a character be at 50/50 on a skill, or enjoy an 80% success rate, or max out at 98%? If going with the Basic/Advanced/Elite model, I'd say that a character who picks up a Basic skill (Basic Electronic, Pilot Automobile, Swimming, etc.) should be successful in ideal situations most of the time from the beginning, have a very good chance of success by level 5 or 6, and max out relatively early. I feel like Advanced skills should probably max around level 12 or so, while Elite skills should probably max beyond the given range of experience, achieving 80% or so at level 15. Remember, O.C.C. skill bonuses will let characters max out earlier if the skill is part of their professional training.

So, just some top-of-the-head, non-playtested stabs at this:

Basic skills have a base of 50%, plus 7% per level. Examples might include Basic Mechanics, Basic Electronics, Cooking, Pilot Truck, Swimming, and First Aid. Common traits may be that these can be self-taught skills, or picked up with some basic instruction.

Advanced skills have a base of 40%, plus 5% per level. Examples might include Mechanical Engineer, Electrical Engineer, Pilot Helicopter, Radio Scramblers, Paramedic, Medical Doctor, SCUBA, and Analytical Chemistry. Common traits may be that there are skills requiring extensive instruction at a college, trade school, apprenticeship, or other intense study. The majority of skills important to a character would likely be Advanced skills.

Elite skills have a base of 25%, plus 4% per level. Examples would all be skills that are super-rare and known only to a very small handful of people in the world, like Robot Electronics, M.D. in Cybernetics, Cyberjacking, rare lores and languages, exotic martial arts, and other skills almost impossible to come by.

I might throw in a fourth category of the most very basic, automatic skills for most setting, like Reading and Writing a Native Language, Basic Math, Pilot Automobile, etc. at 90%+2% per level or so.

More to say

Wow, I feel like I threw a lot of numbers out there. Hopefully it wasn't too crunchy. I have more to say about skills, but that's probably enough for now. What do you think? Right track? Wrong track? What are your house rules and fixes? Let's hash it out, and be sure to check back soon as we dive back into fixing the world's gaming problems.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Palladium Rules Round Table 1: The Importance Of Mechanics

Gather round, friends and neighbors, as I begin this first discussion by standing on this conveniently placed soapbox. I promise the speech portion of this discussion will be short, then we'll get into the back-and-forth of honest Internet conversation. I just think that I should firmly establish a few positions, so everyone knows where I'm coming from as we begin this academic journey together.

If, when I eventually die of Diet Coke caffeine explosion, my game design and blogging legacy were to be summed up in a catch phrase tastefully displayed on a black t-shirt, I hope that phrase would be "Game balance is for suckers." That's pretty much my game design mantra. If I were to have a second, less popular spin-off phrase, it would be something like "Game mechanics are for suckers to a slightly lesser degree." That's sort of my basic opinion on the matter. Why? I'm glad you asked.

Obviously, game mechanics are important. While there are those out there who would tell you that truly having no mechanics is an option, I think we can all agree that having some system of resolving conflicts, resisting damage, and checking skills is vital to 99% of the role-playing games that are out there, and that you could totally do without them only in very specific, very controlled settings. When I say that mechanics are to some degree "for suckers," I mean that in the scheme of playing a game, the precise adherence to a system of rules is one of the least important components. Character building and immersion, an engaging story, an exciting battle, and the paramount keystone of fun are all far more important than adherence to whatever dice-rolling and modification rules are laid out in the core books.

The basic structure of the ruleset, such as rolling a D20 to beat a difficulty number, or rolling percentile to determine success or failure, establishes the method by which a Game Master can resolve challenges to the player characters. Tables of modifiers, difficulty charts, scaling damages, and other such tools are great additions to the core mechanic right up until they start to infringe upon the aforementioned more important items, particularly fun. At that point, I'd as soon discard these official mechanical tools and wing it. I think most experienced Game Masters do this regularly. I mean, honestly, who hasn't cheated a roll to help a key ongoing villain survive, or to allow a player to escape an unlucky demise? These are clear cases where we sacrifice mechanics to benefit higher causes.

I started to get into specific Palladium mechanics, but it was looking too broad to get into in this first installment. Let me close instead with some of my guiding principles in game design, and the standards by which I'll judge Palladium's ruleset as we move forward to discuss the current state of things, and how I would change them if I were magically put in charge of a rewrite.

Mechanics should complement the setting. If you're in a high-tech world of laser rifles and robot armor, the mechanics should skew toward facilitating sci-fi action-adventure combat. If the setting is in the mystery genre, rules and skills regarding deduction and perception will likely be more front and center than if it were a traditional super-hero setting. In short, while players are free to take their own campaigns in whatever direction they choose, the mechanics should facilitate the style of the game as written and not try to please all of the people, all the time. Trying to account for every situation leads to bloat.

Mechanics should be easy for the player. A player should not have to be an encyclopedia of gaming knowledge to play an RPG. Sure, the Game Master needs to have a deeper grasp of the numbers, modifiers, and stats, but a player should be asked to do little more than declare an action, roll a few dice, add a single modifier based on the character's level of proficiency, and then look up at the GM to learn the result.

Mechanics should not overpower the Game Master. When the player looks up to the man behind the screen to determine whether his or her total roll of 17 was enough to strike the Orc, the GM should not then have to spend two minutes looking up references. The mechanics should include guidelines to help the referee run the story, such as a range of modifiers for various ranges, covers, environmental conditions, and other situations, but ultimately the Game Master should be able to simply take a view of the situation, make a roll if necessary, and quickly determine the outcome with minimal consulting of charts and performing calculations. Ideally, this set up will be such that the GM can just make an arbitrary decision in a pinch (pick a modifier, adjust the difficulty score, etc.) and move on.

Fun fun fun. Most importantly, regardless of all other guidelines, the game mechanics should never be presented in such a way that they prevent fun. That's what this is about, after all.

So, how was that? Wordy and long-winded, I suppose? Keeping hitting me with specific topics that you want to see discussed and we'll dive in, using these principles and guidelines as our foundation. I think maybe we'll talk about skills in Palladium's system next. Pile on the suggestions and comments. I'd like this to be an ongoing conversation, so make your voice heard.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Palladium Game Mechanics: What Shall We Discuss?

Time to dissect. Scalpel, please.

As a long-time freelancer for Palladium Books, I spend at least some time every week over at the Megaversal Bulletin Boards. It's not a requirement, but I do feel that I should have at least some presence there to answer questions, or throw in my two cents when I feel it's warranted. Luckily, the fancy Freelance Writer title doesn't come with any administrative powers or responsibilities.

As often happens, topics come in waves over at Palladium's boards. We go through the "Rifts should be a video game" phase, and then the "If they don't create more PDF books I'll drown this puppy" stage. It's all frightfully dull and repetitive for those of us that have been around forever, but it's only natural that with new users discovering the boards all the time, that many of the same issues should arise over and over again. Recently, the favorite e-screaming matches have turned to Palladium's game mechanics, what people love or hate about them, and crazy fantasies about new editions. While I know it's hard to imagine, it seems that gamers on the Internet have strong opinions on these matters, and are fully ready and willing to openly ridicule and put down the subjective opinions of others, spelling and grammar be damned. (These same fanatics are now undoubtedly scouring this post for such errors, and I'm sure there are some to be found. Enjoy.)

During these maniacal affronts on the English language and common decency, bits of interesting perspective and wisdom do occasionally shine through. I try to be dispassionate about these sorts of things, which I think I can do mostly because I enjoy the mechanical side of game design, and ultimately I feel that systems for rolling dice aren't nearly so important as to allow them to get in the way of having a good time. So, I always enjoy trying new things in this regard, and don't get too emotional about them, one way or another.

In that spirit, and due to the recent upswing in interest in debating Palladium's systems, I thought it might be a fun way to ring in the New Year. Why not spend some of our time together over the next few weeks analyzing bits of the inner workings of Rifts, Beyond the Supernatural, Dead Reign, and the rest? Sounds like fun to me.

So now, really, it's up to you. I have a few things in mind that I'd like to bring up, but are there any topics that you can anything about? Anything you might like to have a real, genuine Freelancer address? Any questions or thoughts or general inquiries? You can post them in the comments here, hit me on Twitter or Facebook, or shoot me an email. I've also thrown a Formspring box on the blog, so you can just type in questions there. These things are always more fun if you, the readers, are involved.

Let's do this!