Sunday, August 28, 2011

Games I Want to Run 3; also, Why Traveller Psionics Are Better Than d20 Magic

School starts up again tomorrow.  This may or may not mean the death of this blog, since free time is about to get a lot scarcer.  I do still intend to run Wilderlands or something along similar sandboxy hexmap lines, but at this point I'm looking primarily at systems.  Here are the contenders:
All three of these have features and bugs.  Here's the rundown:

Trailblazer is already known to the folks I've been playing with, and is well liked as 'fixing most of the problems with 3.5'.  On the DM side, I'm still itching to try out their monster upgrade rules and possibly their simplified encounter budgeting as well.  A previous post of mine proposes a magic item replacement that would work nicely for TB in the Wilderlands.  The main issues here are that it's a heavy system, with kind of slow combat, complex monster statblocks, and NPCs that take a while to assemble.  There's also my lingering trepidation over their action points and rest rules; on the one hand, APs are a balancing factor for casters, but on the other, they introduce per-level resources, which I really hate, and the rest mechanic is terribly suited for overland travel where random encounters are fairly frequent (in that those random encounters don't actually cost anything in terms of party resources due to rapid rest availability).

Justin Alexander released the L&L Beta a few days ago, and my copy came in this morning.  I've given it a skim, and there are some good things and some bad things.  The design goal here was a very stripped-down 3.5 derivative that remained backwards compatible.  The monster design rules are a real standout; I am fairly confident I could put monsters together during play with it, and that they'd be about right in terms of CR.  That's an awesome thing in a 3.x derivative, and while I'll still probably buy the TB Monster Book when it comes out (hopefully soon...) for what I imagine may be a better-researched monster design system along with a pile of 'Trailblazered' classic monsters, this one has the speed for use in play.  The hazard design system is also very cool, providing a quick way to generate CRs for all manner of traps, perilous crossings, and environmental hazards.  The stunt system provides a mechanism very similar to Traveller's task chains, as well as flexible combat options; I wasn't impressed on first read, but going back for a second, it actually looks pretty slick.  The skill system is kind of nice and simple; you're considered at max ranks for all of your class skills.  If you have a low Int, you choose a number of class skills equal to your penalty to not know.  Very straightforward, and it means that you're good at the things your class is supposed to be good at; similar to Iron Heroes' skill groups in that regard, but a damn sight less complicated.  Other highlights were some notes on wilderness adventures, good rules for hirelings and henchmen, and a number of unusual slimes and molds which didn't make into the 3.0/.5 DMGs (think along the lines of green slime, but different).

On the other hand...  man, when he said he was going to strip down the classes, he really, really stripped down the classes.  Only Barbarian, Fighter, Cleric, Rogue, Wizard, and Sorcerer made the cut, for one.  Feats are gone, but at levels where you would get one, you get a pre-selected one based on class (for example, Barbarians get Power Attack at 6th).  He seems to have dropped the first-level feats, though...  likewise, humans kind of got the shaft and stepped on the half-elf's toes, since that bonus feat got converted into a racial bonus to Diplomacy and Sense Motive.  I'd be happier with a +3 to any one skill.  This solution would be on par with 3.5 Skill Focus, works with whatever class you might happen to be, and reinforces the 'versatile' nature of humans.  Finally, he doesn't appear to have really touched the balance issues underlying 3.x; Clerics, Sorcerers, and Wizards will still dominate, since casting still works as normal, unless he nerfs the spell lists pretty hard (updated spells aren't in the beta).  Granted, this move makes sense in the light of his stance on balance in general.  Iterative attacks are still at the old -5, and rogues are still running at 3/4 BaB, so they're going to have a rough time hitting, especially since they never get Weapon Finesse (though they do get Vigilant Shot, which allows readied ranged sneak attacks under some circumstances, making ranged rogues much more viable).  The feat selection on some of the classes is...  questionable, with Rogue being probably the best example.  No finesse, no TWF, just ranged feats.  Barbarian also picks up Expertise, which is an unusual choice for Barbarians in my experience...  I guess as long as one keeps in mind that those feat selections are really just suggestions, and could be swapped out for other 3.5 feats, things should work OK.  Otherwise, I would foresee rioting.  Likewise, while multiclassing is still around, the problem of base save multiclass stacking persists.  At least this time there are fewer classes to multiclass between...  It also doesn't address caster multiclassing like TB did.  I guess the thing here is that if I decide to run L&L, I'd have to Trailblazer it (yep, it's a verb now).  This would basically entail switching iteratives to -2/-2 with decreasing penalties later, chosen good saves at character creation, combat reactions rather than stock AoOs, Combat Tactics for the rogue, upgraded turning on the cleric, BMB for casting...  I think those'd be the big ones.  And allowing players to choose their feats, too...  the classes with pre-chosen feats seem to be primarily a resource for new players and for DMs who need an NPC in a hurry.  Used with that understanding, I think the system in general would work pretty nicely.

Finally, there's the black sheep, Adventurer, over at Crawdads and Dragons.  Adventurer is basically the Classic Traveller rules converted to run OD&D.  This has the advantage of being pretty rules-light; statblocks are small, simple, and easy to assemble.  It also avoids the 'ever upward' problem of D&D in all its incarnations, where the numbers just keep growing, because skill training is still fairly slow (they do introduce some faster rules for it than Mongoose's version, though).  Being essentially Traveller, it has a number of random tables for things like dungeons and areas of wilderness, which goes beautifully with the style of Wilderlands.  But...  on the minus side, it's a conversion of one old, quirky, non-standardized system to run another old, quirky, non-standardized system.  There are tables of attack DMs based on your weapon type vs. your opponent's armor type.  That kind of thing.

Likewise, there's a whole book devoted to spells.  Part of what I liked about Traveller was that its psionics served an essentially different purpose from magic in D&D.  In D&D, magic is the main and exclusive activity of many characters, and the system encourages this by making spell slots readily available at mid-to-high levels, and by providing mages with very little else to do.  In Traveller, while it is possible to try to make psionics your sole activity, it is neither efficient nor necessary.  First, the resource behind Traveller psionics is distinctly limited; the more you use, the lower your psi score drops, and the harder it is to use more of it.  This is in contrast to d20's magic, where you know exactly how much magic you can put out per day, and running low on slots doesn't make any of your remaining slots less effective than they were at the beginning of the day.  Thus, Traveller's psionics are categorically weaker than d20's magic in this 'declining ability' sense.  Further, Traveller's psionic recovery mechanism is non-boolean; rather than resting for eight hours and then being fully recharged, psionic strength recovers gradually across hours as long as no further powers are used.  This again encourages conservation.  Finally, when you look at the things Traveller psionics can do, and the prices on them, it becomes apparent that they fill kind of a 'special projects' role; they can do things that you just can't do otherwise, but it's hard to pull off and expensive.  Further, most of the Traveller psionic powers seem to be intended primarily for non-combat use; sure, you could teleport in combat, but it's really expensive and the benefit is probably minimal.  They're not built with combat as the first consideration, whereas most d20 spells definitely are.  d20 mages are multibarrel weapons platforms that carry loadouts specified at the beginning of the day, while a Traveller psion is more like a solar-powered multitool.  However, the need for psions in Traveller to be able to rain hellfire and lightning down on their enemies is significantly less than that of their d20 counterparts for two reasons.  First is that it's really hard to generate a Traveller character with no other combat-useful skills, both given the skills on the tables, the group skill package, and the connections rule.  In d20, if your wizard is out of magic, he's stuck with a crossbow and an abominably low base attack bonus.  In Trav, if you have Gun Combat 0 and a decent Dex, you're in reasonable stead for combat as far as offense goes, and then it's just a question of keeping your head down.  Second, Traveller in general places a lower emphasis on combat than modern d20 does, meaning that combat prowess is less necessary, and therefore characters who aren't focused on combat are significantly more viable.

This all kind of leads up to the implicit fourth option: hack my own system together based on Mongoose Traveller, with a similarly 'fuzzy' magic system.  The things necessary to achieve this task would be:
  • Updated (er, downdated) skill list.  Remote operations and astrogation aren't really things in fantasy settings.
  • New background term tables and careers.  3.5 has 11 core base classes, which would fit roughly into 4 careers of three branches each with one new one.  The expanded education column might be used for a prestige class relevant to each branch.  I think Warrior (Barbarian, Fighter, Paladin?), Thief (Rogue, Bard, Ranger?), Priest (Cleric, Druid, Monk), and Mage (Sorcerer, Wizard) would be traditional ways to split things up.  Alternatively, ditch D&D classes as specialties and make things more interesting.
  • Races should be very straightforward.
  • Medieval-era gear selection would need expanded significantly, as well as rules for magic items.  To be honest, a lot of magic items could just be standard Trav gear - a potion of Cure Disease is not so different from a Medicinal Drug, for example.  Likewise magic weapons could be modeled as weapons with expert computers.  This may not be the best course, but it's an option.  The other would just be to cook up magic gear, hand it out, and see what happens.  Naturally, that sounds more fun.
  • Magic proper is the hard part.  I need maybe 3-5 'schools' / skills for each of arcane and divine, each of which has about 4 fuzzy, non-combat-centric effects of varying difficulty.  Tricky.  I'm actually tempted to go with the four classical elements, plus life and death, and nix the arcane / divine divide, but then things like summoning and teleportation get lost in the noise.  Alternatively, the five colors of Magic the Gathering might work very nicely...  They're familiar to a lot of gamers, sufficiently general that I only need the five of them to cover most any effect that could come up, and reasonably clear-cut in most cases.  Heck, I was going to have four caster specialties already; it's trivial to map each to a color and its two allied colors, and to introduce a fifth specialty for that last one.  Cleric gets white, druid is green, sorcerer is red, wizard is blue, and necromancer is black.  Then it's just a question of intuiting difficulties and mana costs for each attempted effect, which is not significantly harder than assigning difficulties on the fly to tasks run by other skills.  Boom magic system complete.
So, with those points in mind, I do believe it's time to hack together a system.

1 comment:

Justin Alexander said...

If you end up Trailblazering L&L, definitely keep me posted on your progress. It's one of the reasons I've worked hard to keep it 100% compatible with the advanced 3E rules: It makes it really easy to take anything designed for 3E (even major hacks like Trailblazer) and use it pretty much as-is.