Game reviews


Aggressiveness: 10. Ferocity: 10.

Aggressiveness: 10. Ferocity: 10. Come visit his country …

As some of my readers know, I have been having fun conquering the world as Japan in Hearts of Iron 2, and that I’m reporting it all cynically in the tone of a Japanese leader forced to war to defend Asia against colonialism. Before I played Japan I had a go as Germany and didn’t do very well – the Soviets declared war on me in 1942 (I can’t think why!) and I got wiped out because my army was busy trying to secure oil in Africa.

Something noticeable about Hearts of Iron (HOI) and its successors is that there is no genocide option, even though some people believe the Holocaust was crucial to German war aims and so should probably be in the game. I understand that there is some debate about whether the Holocaust was a net benefit for the Nazi war machine, but some historians argue that the Holocaust policy developed slowly, piece-by-piece, in response to changing economic and industrial demands, and was actually primarily driven by the need to secure economic resources, especially food. Taking this as the basis for the Holocaust, it’s easy to imagine that a mechanism to represent it could be included in the game, to make it easier for certain countries to develop rapidly in the run-up to total war, or to respond to war needs.

The easiest way would be to incorporate a slider, that runs from 0 to 100 representing just how horrific your intended genocide is. Maybe 5 just means marriage and employment restrictions, while 100 is the fully mechanized destruction of entire races. The process is abstracted, and essentially represents a transformation of money, manpower and transport capacity into a reduction of supply needs and an increase in industrial capacity (or even an increase in supplies). This is pretty much what the historians I linked above argue: that the Holocaust was designed the way it was in the steps it was because it was aimed initially at seizing the economic assets of European Jews, to make production more efficient, and then at restricting their food consumption in order to ensure that other Germans didn’t starve. This is also what Stalin was doing with his “dekulakization” in the 1930s – forcing small, unproductive landholders off of their smallholdings into large collective farms, and because these farms were intended to feed many more people than those who worked in them, the excess population of smallholders would have been an economic deadweight – hence they were sent to the camps to die. Plus of course, when Germany invaded Eastern Europe they expropriated huge amounts of food and money, and essentially instituted a policy of starvation to ensure that no untermenschen used food that could have been feeding Germans. Under this analysis of the Holocaust, it was beneficial for the German war effort. If so, it should be modeled in the game in the interests of historical plausibility[1]. Wouldn’t it be great if when you were starting to lose you could slide your slider up to 100 so that you weren’t vulnerable to blockades? The computer could even use the demographic composition of your empire to give you options about which race to exterminate. We’re all about historical plausibility, right?

Suggesting such a process sounds kind of sick, doesn’t it? Which is why Paradox Interactive made a specific, explicit decision not to model this in the game. I remember somewhere a statement from Paradox about this, but I can’t find it any more – maybe it was in the Hearts of Iron manual that I no longer have. Anyway, we can find this on their forum rules for HOI3:

NOTE: There will not be any gulags or deathcamps (including POW camps) to build in Hearts of Iron3, nor will there be the ability to simulate the Holocaust or systematic purges, so I ask you not to discuss these topics as they are not related to this game. Thank You. Threads bringing up will be closed without discussion.

NOTE: Strategic bombing in HoI3 will be abstracted and not allow you to terror bomb civilians specifically. Chemical weapons will also not be included in the game. Any threads that complain about this issue will be closed without discussion.

Not only did they decide not to model these things, but they make very clear that they aren’t going to talk about their decision. We all know why: games that model the holocaust are beyond poor taste, and any gaming company that included such a mechanic in their wargame would be toast pretty fast.

It is, however, okay to model genocide in Europa Universalis 3. Yesterday commenter Paul pointed me to this post in which someone trying the game for the first time talks about how uneasy the colonization process makes her feel. I agree with a lot of this writer’s criticisms of the way the Native Americans are portrayed in the game, and I would like to add two.

  1. Terra nullius: by making colonizable land grey and devoid of units or cultural structures of any type, the game essentially buys in to the legal fiction of terra nullius – that no one owned the land or had a use for it before white people came. This legal fiction was overturned in Australia in 1994, and where not openly declared the general principle often underlay the willingness of white invaders to breach treaty agreements (as they did again and again, for example, when dealing with native Americans). In the game, although the natives are known to be there (you get a count in the colony window), they are not represented as unit types and structures the way Europeans are – the land is not owned in the sense that European land is owned, it just has some people on it. Terra nullius is a pernicious and evil concept that does not reflect the actual state of indigenous life, only the racist perceptions of the colonizers, and it’s sad to see it being reflected so clearly in this game
  2. Elision of native struggle: A common phenomenon in western popular and academic depiction of colonization is the minimization or dismissal of indigenous struggle. This is very common in Australia, and until the publication of Blood on the Wattle, popular understanding of Aboriginal history was that they didn’t really fight back, a belief that derives from early 20th century racial ideas of Aborigines as “weak.” Obviously in the US this is not so readily done, but for example the Sand Creek Massacre used to be referred to as the “Battle of Sand Creek,” though there were very few Indian soldiers involved, and popular lore about Custer’s Last Stand doesn’t usually include awareness that he was attacking a civilian camp at dawn when he was beaten. In the game, native struggle is implied in the aggressiveness and ferocity statistics for each province, and the effect they have on colony growth, but it is not actually visible or witnessed through the need to coordinate military actions against active opponents as happens in any European conflict between even the most irrelevant powers – it is a low background noise to your successful colonization, mostly

I think these two points show that the designers of Europa Universalis haven’t just implemented a game with a colonization strategy; they have implemented a game with a colonization strategy that implicitly reinforces common modern misconceptions about how colonization worked that tend to underplay its genocidal and military aspects (see also the way natives are absorbed into your population once it becomes an official province – this takes about 20 years and is in no way reflective of how colonization absorbed real native populations – such absorption took more than 100 years in Australia, for example, and only occurred at all through massive force and state coercion). I don’t really think this is a moral decision, but I also don’t think it’s defensible. There are lots of other ways that the game could have been designed, from making America the same as Asia to having a single Native American “state” and a different conquering mechanism – or, as April Daniels suggests, just a better and richer experience playing the Natives. There is DLC for this, but that’s not a defense, and neither are the butthurt bleatings of the gamers in the comments. It’s also noteworthy that the people attacking Daniels in comments of that blog are tending to subscribe to the same misconceptions that are buried in the game itself – there wasn’t much war, might makes right, smallpox did it not us!, natives really did get merged into the colonial population without a fight! This kind of response just shows that the west hasn’t come to terms with its colonial past yet.

So here’s what happened: Paradox spent years developing a game set in Europe in which they explicitly avoided modeling a genocide that occurred in Europe and that was crucial to the historical plausibility of the game; they also spent years developing a game set in Europe in which they explicitly developed a model for genocide that occurred outside Europe and that is crucial to the historical plausibility of the game. The former decision was probably (to the best of my recollection) made for moral and political reasons; defenders of the latter decision want me to believe it was for game mechanical reasons, even though the model they developed happens to reproduce some common misconceptions about how the native American genocide unfolded. I’m unconvinced. I think the designers didn’t consider one genocide to have the same weight as the other. Which isn’t to say that they consciously made that decision, but neither did all the cowboy movie directors in the 1980s who made multiple movies that included the Sand Creek Massacre, but didn’t ever get around to depicting Babi Yar from the Nazi perspective. Our culture makes some stories acceptable even though they are steeped in evil, and some stories unacceptable. Many people reproduce those stories without thinking, and that is what the designers did. (It’s also worth noting that Paradox is a Swedish company, and Sweden was not a colonial country in recent time; maybe for them the horrors of world war 2 are much closer than the horrors of genocidal America, and everything that happened in that period in those far-flung places is just a story).

I think there are some big questions buried in EU3, which we also need to ask when we play GTA or watch some nasty slasher pic, and April Daniels asked some of those questions in her blog post. Those questions are also relevant to the genocide issue in EU3 but they’re bigger than that. Why do we make games about war and killing at all? Why do we think it’s okay to drive around LA killing cops but we universally object to rape stories? Why are we so complacent about the destruction of whole cultures in Australia and America, but so touchy about mass murder in Europe? And why do some fanboys get so stupidly butthurt when people who enjoy the game (or the movie) analyze it a little more critically than wow!wow!wow!? My Ottoman Empire has begun its colonial project, in Cameroon and Cayenne and St Helena, and I’m playing that part of the project with the same sarcastic amusement with which I describe the Empire’s “reclamation” of knowledge in Northern Italy; I will probably kill a lot of natives if I have to, and convert the rest[3]. I’m not particularly fussed about this. But I’m also aware that this game is racist on many levels, and it includes genocide as a central mechanic. Some people may not be comfortable doing that, and they may want to write about it. I think it’s possible to simultaneously enjoy the game and accept these things, but I also think the game could have done better on this issue. If I’m going to kill natives and steal their land, why should it be different to the way I kill Germans and take their land – is there something the designers want to say here? There is a long, long way to go before people in the west can accept and understand the genocide that made America and Australia possible, and the deep wounds colonialism left on Africa. Until we do, I guess we can expect that games like EU3 will fall short of genuinely trying to describe the histories and cultures of the people who were exterminated.

fn1: though actually a very interesting experiment would occur if paradox were to include the Holocaust as a single historical decision that was actually bad for the German war effort, and secretly spied on players[2] to find out how many clicked “Yes, do it!” even though the decision is negative.

fn2: or used NSA data

fn3: actually since I westernized[4] I’m so far on the “open-minded” slider that I can’t actually generate missionaries, so I can’t convert anyone. I’ve conquered so much of Europe that my culture is more christian than Muslim. What to do…?

fn4: racist much?

Shadowrun uses a skill check system based on dice pools and opposed checks. The basic mechanism for opposed checks is quite simple: each party constructs a pool of d6s based on their combined attribute and skill score, and success occurs on a 5 or 6. The person who rolls more successes wins, and the number of successes decides their degree of success.

When I saw this system I thought that there must be a way to recalculate it as a single dice roll. A dice pool of this kind is essentially binomial distributed, and the sum of binomial distributions is binomial, so I thought that the difference of binomial distributions would also be binomial distributed and it would be fairly easy to obtain analytically a formula for a new dice roll based on the probability of success (1/3) and the number of dice in each pool. In fact the difference of two binomial distributions is not binomial (see my appendix below) and the dice pool mechanism is quite complicated. In the case of dice pools of equal size it creates a symmetric, non-binomial distribution that tends towards normality as the size of the dice pools increases; for uneven numbers of dice it creates an appropriately skewed distribution that has no easy calculation formula. In fact, it is fairly easy to show that for equal numbers of dice in the conflicting pools, the probability of success tends towards 50% as the size of the dice pools increases.

To show this, I wrote a simple program in R that calculates the probability of success for opposed dice pools ranging in size from 1 die in each pool to 30 in each pool. I ran the simulation for 10000 rolls for each dice pool, and calculated the probability of success for each roll. In all cases the dice pool of the opponents are of equal size and the success probability is 1/3, as in the standard rules. Figure 1 shows that as the number of dice increases the chance of success tends towards 0.5. That is, a PC with skill and attribute of 10 each, and modifiers of 10, when doing an opposed check against an exactly equally matched PC, will be successful 50% of the time; whereas the same situation for characters with just an attribute and skill score of 1 will show a vastly reduced chance of success.

Figure 1: Probability of success in opposed checks for equal dice pool sizes

Figure 1: Probability of success in opposed checks for equal dice pool sizes

I’m not sure whether I like this outcome or not. Superficially, given low-skill characters are more likely to fail generally, it makes sense that they should be more likely to fail against an opponent of equal skill. But then, it seems reasonable to suppose that the chance of success when opposed by someone with the same skill as oneself should be constant. Which assumption is better? In WFRP3, difficulty of the check is set by the opponent’s skill but is not random, and usually involves competing against dice with a higher chance of generating failure than one’s own dice have of generating success. Is this a better model? Other dice pool systems probably use a fixed target number – is this better? Maybe a fixed target number can be manipulated to generate a fixed failure rate (if it is based on the contrast of the PC skill and the NPC skill). But then again, this opens the possibility that PCs can do better in opposed than unopposed checks. For example, in Shadowrun, when doing an unopposed check the maximum probability of success for a PC with attribute 1 and skill 0 is 1/3. Presumably when they oppose someone with attribute 1 and skill 0 their chance of success should be less than 1/3? If one accepts this proposition, then Shadowrun is perfectly balanced, and the only question is how long it takes to get to 50% success. This pace can be changed by using different success targets and dice sizes: for example, a success threshold of 7 on d10 slightly reduces the chance of success for any given dice pool.

Note that by the Strong Law of Large Numbers, it is impossible to change the limiting probability for opposed dice pool checks, no matter the threshold probability or the die size. This is because as the dice pool grows in size each dice pool becomes increasingly close to normally distributed; but when subtracting one normal distribution from exactly the same normal distribution there is, of course, a 50% chance of getting a positive number. So as the distributions get more normal, so too does the average chance of success tend to 50%. Increasing the dice size and reducing the success threshold will delay the onset of this 50%, but Figure 1 shows that for most PCs and most campaigns, d6 will suffice.

Given these results, I think that the Shadowrun dice pool system is pretty close to perfect; and there is no easy way to modify it or any similar dice system to get more nuanced results. I will shortly be examining WFRP 3 dice systems to see if they produce more subtle outcomes. Stay tuned!

Appendix: Proving that the difference of two Shadowrun dice pools is not binomial.

When both the PC and their opponent have a total skill of one, the opposed check becomes a challenge of 1d6 vs. 1d6. In this case there are three outcomes: -1 success (opponent wins and PC loses); 0 success (both win or both lose); +1 success (PC wins and opponent loses). For a single success probability of 1/3 the probability of each event can be easily calculated without special mathematics as 2/9, 5/9 and 2/9 respectively. This means that the probability of -1 and +1 are equal. If this distribution is binomial, then it can only occur from a binomial distribution with 2 trials and a probability of p, since this is the only binomial distribution that allows three distinct outcomes. Thus if we calculate the probability of 0 successes or 2 successes under such a distribution and set it equal to the extreme probabilities obtained for the 1 vs. 1 shadowrun check, we can see the conditions under which they are equal. Under a binomial distribution with probability p and 2 trials, the probability of 0 successes is (1-p)^2; the probability of 2 successes is p^2. Comparing with the 1 vs. 1 Shadowrun check, we see that these two probabilities must be equal (as they are in the Shadowrun check). That is, p^2=(1-p)^2. This is only possible if p=1/2. But in the Shadowrun check p=1/3. Thus, by contradiction, the Shadowrun check cannot be binomial. If any one check is not binomial then it follows that we cannot expect a general rule in which checks are binomial. Thus, through contradiction, Shadowrun opposed dice pools are not binomial and no formula can be deduced which will enable calculation of binomial probabilities in Shadowrun.

For general opposed dice pools, the probability distribution is obtained by calculating the cross-correlation of the two binomial probability densities. An equivalent calculation for the Poisson distribution is shown in Wikipedia (the Skellam distribution) and is obviously nasty – it involves Bessel functions, which is an immediate “do not enter” sign. The equivalent calculation for the binomial distribution involves a calculation of products of binomial coefficients, and my combinatorial kung fu is not up to it, but I think at least for opposed checks with equal numbers of dice it can be solved analytically, though not in a way that is useful for gamers. I think such a solution is available in a textbook by Ashkey (?) but I don’t have the book or the will to read it. So more complicated solutions to the problem will be found numerically or not at all. I may revisit this problem in order to compare Shadowrun with WFRP 3. But for now, I’m shying away from it for obvious reasons!

... And we'll be rich by christmas!

… And we’ll be rich by christmas!

On Sunday afternoon I had my first ever experience of playing Fiasco, a “story-based” role-playing system by Bully Pulpit Games. The basic idea of the game is to build up a narrative, cooperatively-generated storyline that follows the pattern of movies like A Simple Plan: a group of friends/acquaintances/family/colleagues who hatch a scheme to pull off some criminal enterprise, and as the scheme falls apart the conflicting pressures in the group drive it to a situation out of control.

We observed this in spades.

The game works pretty simply. There is no GM, so everything is done cooperatively by the players. You set up a scene, build pairs of relationships between the characters, and then generate at least one need (an urgent demand that is placed on one of the players), one location, and one object. You then role-play eight “scenes,” brief interactions between the characters, the outcome of which are represented as black or white dice that you accumulate. Then you roll up the “tilt,” which is a set of conditions that arise to drive the character’s purpose awry. Another eight scenes are played, and at the end of this you roll up the outcome for each character. Then, once the outcomes are determined, you run through a fast and entertaining “aftermath” in which the unresolved details of the final scene are played out and the characters’ fates are described. For most of the characters the game will end very badly, but if you’re really lucky you can make it out rich and famous.

Our setup

We chose the pre-packaged scenario “The Ice,” which is set in Antarctica. The four characters were:

  • June Kimura, a research scientist who has received funding from an oil company to research the cancer-curing properties of penguin vomit
  • Michael Jackson, her (estranged) husband who came to work with her on the ice but is really hating it. His job primarily involves farming penguin vomit, and he doesn’t like it at all
  • James P.J. Sinistret III (my character), an ecological terrorist who has come to the ice to destroy the research project and free the penguins
  • Scott Fielding, a considerably-less-committed ecological terrorist who is really just an easily-impressed stoner, and who was originally Kimura’s research assistant before he turned against her penguin-vomit program

For additional relationships, we chose that James and Michael were “the ones who found the body”. The other details are below.

  • Need 1: Michael Jackson needs to “get out … of responsibility for the accident”
  • Need 2: June Kimura needs to “find out the truth … about the accident”
  • Location: The world’s largest Adelie penguin colony on Ross Island Glacier
  • Object: a crashed helicopter on the road to Ross Island

The location essentially drove the whole story, from the setup (penguin-vomit based cancer cures) to the finale, and Michael Jackson’s main motivation. The accident was the opening for the adventure and used the object: Michael Jackson, shooting a penguin, missed it and instead killed the pilot of the helicopter James and Scott were flying in. They survived the accident but Scott was unconscious; when Michael came to help, James told him that he would be taking the pilot’s identity, and that if Michael didn’t want to get done for murder he would help bury the body. They buried the body amongst the penguins of the penguin vomit farm – a big mistake, as we will see.

Things progressed from there, with Scott wavering between wanting to free the penguins and wanting to find an administrative solution to the ecological problem of penguin vomit; June became increasingly suspicious about James (whose pseudonym, Juan, didn’t quite suit his pure aryan looks, and whose stated reason for being on the ice – climate denialist research for the US blog Powerline – was obviously baloney); and Michael Jackson getting increasingly desperate to warn everyone about what was happening among the penguins.

Because, it turns out, the chemicals being pumped into the penguins to induce their vomit and extract the curative bile, were slowly turning the penguins crazy, causing some kind of contagious craziness disease – and by burying the body amongst them we had turned them into man-eaters.

The Tilt and the Ending

For the “tilt” we rolled up “someone panics” and “dangerous creatures get loose.” These scenes were pretty fun to work though. First an oil company executive turned up to put pressure on Kimura about the progress of her project, but he was met by Michael Jackson, who was raving about the penguins being crazy. His best line: “The Penguins are going crazy. No wait! Hear me out!” The executive was not impressed, and sent Kimura an email on his phone to tell her to put Michael Jackson at the top of the agenda, then started bullying Michael Jackson and being very rude.

The first tilt came: Michael Jackson panicked and shot the oil exec. Of course he had to bury the body – in amongst the penguins. Then he drove to the research lab where Kimura, of course, confronted him – she had received an email but the exec didn’t turn up with Michael, and by now she was already very suspicious about his involvement in the accident. He continued his panic, knocking her out and dragging her to the only remaining escape route from the area, a big snow buggy. Here Scott confronted him, demanding to see the oil exec so he could put his case about closing the project; Kimura woke up at this point and Scott realized that Michael Jackson was trying to run away. They then all saw James driving his snow buggy down to the penguin farm, and followed him to stop him releasing the penguins. There was a confrontation, Michael’s gun ran out of ammo, James released the penguins, and everyone had to flee.

We rolled for aftermath and found that Scott and Michael both escaped and Scott even managed to make some money and fame; James was seriously injured and permanently damaged, and Kimura’s research career was destroyed, her life ruined. To play this out, Scott dragged my injured body away from the penguins and stuffed it into the snow buggy, but I saw Michael Jackson dragging Kimura the same way. I put my head out of the window to yell at him to leave her behind, but a group of mad penguins leapt up and ate my face. Then Jackson and Kimura flung themselves into the buggy and we fled, leaving behind the enraged penguins.

The aftermath then featured our futures: Scott was professor of Penguin microbiology at harvard, his theory of penguin reverse hypoallergenic reactivity having been conclusively proven, and pretty students were lined up at his office door to “get his autograph;” Michael Jackson was a famous conspiracy theorist with a movie deal; Kimura had been ruined and was living on the streets, forced to watch buses pass by featuring adverts for her ex-husbands conspiracy movies; and James was living as a cripple in Chile, gutting fish by day, drinking at cheap bars every night, and going to the beach to kill and eat penguins on the weekend. He was infected by whatever virus caused the rage in the penguins, and in the final scene of the aftermath he charged drunk out of one of the beachside bars, attacked a passing stranger, and started biting his face …

Conclusion

Fiasco is an entertaining and fun little game of murder and mayhem. It’s easy to setup, learn and run, and it’s easy to make it pan out. The rules are very simple, but it does have some drawbacks. First, it is heavy on role-playing of the acting kind, actually going through conversations and little scenes: many players don’t like this style of role-playing and may find the game uncomfortable. Second, although the rules provide a framework for the unravelling plan and conflict between people with “poor impulse control,” they don’t actually force this to happen, and if you don’t have a clear sense of how these kinds of things should unravel I think it’s possible you could fail to make the game come out as intended. However, the gamebook is written in such a way as to really draw out the intended atmosphere, and to give the proper feeling of how it should run, so I think groups of players would easily make it work. However, if someone is skeptical about story games, not into the style of role-playing it demands, or really unfamiliar with this genre of thriller, they could probably derail the game or just lead it into a boring ending. However, overall, I think the risk of this is low and the game probably resolves successfully (and violently) on most occasions. It took us four hours to play having never played before, so I think once you’re familiar with the rules and the style it is probably a 2-3 hour game – a good way to enjoy an afternoon with your gaming friends and an easy, low preparation thing to do when your standard gaming group can’t must enough numbers to run or is in a hiatus. It’s well worth giving a go, especially if you like a bit of chaos and madness in your gaming!

Steve and Zack at something awful have a review of some kickstarter for a 3rd Edition of Exalted. They seem pretty angry about the direction Exalted has taken. I played Exalted briefly and really liked it, as well as its over-the-top anime-D&D cross-over style. I didn’t realize it was full of rape magic … is this a new thing? Has Exalted changed, or was it always dubious in this way?

I previously reviewed the 2nd edition of Carcosa positively, and my main reason for being accepting of the child rape and sacrifice in that book was that I thought the tone and context made it clear that it was evil, and that the players could take sides on the issue – it was built into the world but not essential to the construction of characters – if anything, people would make characters who would be fighting against the sorcerers who engage this stuff. From reading the Exalted review, it appears that the opposite situation will apply in the new edition of Exalted – that the morality of the succubus is not clearly evil, and it may be hard for players to avoid engaging with magic that really should be NPC-only stuff. Zack in the review was particularly angry about the demon child rape shown in the page of the review, and it certainly seems like the tone and style of depiction there is very different to the calm, cold, matter-of-fact description of sacrifice in Carcosa … it’s more salacious, as if it contains a shred of approval. It’s interesting how context and tone can shape our interpretation of elements of a story that might otherwise superficially appear to be the same. If so, perhaps everyone’s interpretation of context is unique and the 3280 “little idiots” who supported the Exalted kickstarter would have found Carcosa terribly offensive. Do we have some objective barometer for this stuff?

Also, has anyone reading this blog actually ever tried playing an RPG full of sex powers and rape? Given the game scene consists mostly of men, it seems like this would be a very awkward scene. Also, describing combat would be a weird mixture of embarrassing and disturbing, like watching The Human Centipede with your mother. And how would you design adventures? I just can’t see this style of gaming having much appeal to 99.9% of the gaming world. Is it a common feature of White Wolf that its players enjoy getting together and talking really graphically about sex, with dice?

Footnote: the title of this post is taken from the Something Awful review.

Doing the Kessel run in 12 parsecs ...

Doing the Kessel run in 12 parsecs …

Today I received my copy of Fantasy Flight Games’ Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, along with some necessary WFRP3 materials. Edge of the Empire is described as a “beginner’s game,” which means that it essentially doesn’t have any character creation rules, has a very stripped down combat system, and contains a well laid out but slightly railroad-y introductory adventure. There are 4 pre-designed PCs, but no way to make other PCs. The rulebook is just 48 pages, the adventure book is 30 pages long, and there are also some tokens to represent PCs/adversaries, and a set of special dice. It really is a beginner’s game, though those with experience of other Fantasy Flight Games (FFG) product can probably hack it (see below). This is a first impressions review.

First of all, the product is very slick. It’s well laid out, in a sparse and modern style that gives the whole thing an atmosphere supportive of a space opera setting. The graphics in the book are very nice, in a space opera style, and the pictures are very heavily focused on Tattooine, which draws the reader’s attention to the original three movies and ensures a certain fidelity to the production. The text is perhaps a little small, so that at times when it is interspersed with the coloured symbols for the dice it is kind of dizzying. The general flow of the rules is sensible, introducing the basic dice mechanic first and then describing skills, then combat and finally a little bit of GM material. The maps are nicely drawn and, as you can see from the picture, include a YT-1300 light freighter. What more can you want?

The system is very light and easy to learn, and it’s a testament to FFG’s game design and presentation skills that the entire system, as well as the GM section, can be laid out in a total of 48 pages (including acknowledgements and index) – even though it includes a section on starship combat. The system is essentially a rules-lite version of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying 3 (WFRP3), with all the fiddly componentry stripped out. There are no action cards for combat, no talent cards or recharge tokens, but essentially the same system in place. Instead of action cards there is a talent tree, with individual parts of the tree purchased at varying xp costs and dependent on previous parts of the tree. The dice system is simplified but very similar to the WFRP3 system. In place of conservative/reckless dice and training dice we have “upgrades,” which are d12s that replace the basic d8 stat dice; challenge dice can also be upgraded. There are equivalents of fortune and misfortune dice, and so the whole thing works in a very similar way. There are also equivalents to banes and boons, and a thing called a triumph that works as a combined additional success/sigmar’s comet. So if you’re used to playing WFRP3 it’s pretty much just a straight conversion, but the dice pools are easier to put together than in WFRP3. Critical hits and wounds are also handled more simply: there are no wound cards, just a growing tier of effects, with every PC able to bear four critical wounds before they become incapacitated; each additional critical wound has an additional effect. For the beginner’s game there is no death, just incapacitation. The system includes no character creation rules but it does provide four PCs: a human smuggler, Twi’lek bounty hunter, droid colonist and wookie hired gun. These are laid out in very attractive “folios” that contain essential rules information. Each folio has three double page spreads: the first is the starting PC, the second gives the same PC with two character development options selected to show how development works, and the third is blank but for the character attributes, and includes a talent tree so that you can develop the PC any way you want. So essentially these folios contain (implicit) information on four character classes and four races, though you have to do a bit of hacking to work out the background.

The adventure is very well laid out and carefully designed for beginning players. It is partially a railroad: the first instructions to the GM are to make clear to the PCs that a) they have to escape the town they are in and b) they can’t go any way except by spaceship. It then lays out a set of six encounters designed to showcase the major aspects of the rules, up to and including starship combat. Each encounter includes boxed sections that contain reminders of the key rules from the rulebook, so a GM learning the system can quickly adapt without having to fiddle in rulebooks. I’m not sure how other “beginners” games lay out their introductory adventures but this seems like an excellent approach. Given the simplicity of the system, I suspect that after one run through this book most GMs will be ready to handle anything else. There is apparently a second adventure available free at the FFG website, but I haven’t checked it.

I think essentially in this game the people at FFG have learnt from their mistakes with the overly complex and fiddly WFRP3 system, as well as identifying better ways to introduce the system to new players and GMs, and intend to trial it with this stripped back version for Star Wars. This version is a little disappointing, in that it doesn’t offer any freedom for experienced players to just jump into the Star Wars universe, and for an experienced GM like me it seems like a rip-off. It also doesn’t provide much background material on the Star Wars milieu, which I really need (I don’t know anything beyond the stuff in the original three movies), and it is set in the early stages of the rebellion so is the perfect setting for exploring the world of the original movies with a fast-paced, simple and creative system. Given this, I’m disappointed that they didn’t include a second book of background material, perhaps with options for character development. I certainly hope that the next set they release in the series will flesh out the full system, including Jedi, so that we can have a complete gaming system for the Star Wars universe. I remain a big fan of the fundamental ideas underlying WFRP3, and it’s nice to see FFG committing to producing more material in a similar vein, while ironing out the creases in the original.

Finally, I think that the system presented here could be easily hacked to produce a rules-lite version of WFRP3. I might give this a go over the next few weeks, and see what I can come up with. In any case, I think it’s only a matter of time before the revised system presented here gets turned into a classic fantasy RPG. That will be fun, I think. Let’s hope that this Star Wars system is a success, and FFG are encouraged to apply its pared-back rules to other settings.

image

Bring out the bardic depth charges!

Over the past few months I have been involved in a roughly fortnightly series of adventures to play-test a new RPG, 13th Age. Since play-testing is over and the product is now at a kind of first draft stage, I thought I’d give my thoughts on the system. My thoughts, however, will be heavily tainted by the experience of the group I am gaming with, which consists of an excellent and energetic bunch of players and a brilliant GM, whose achievements I have noted before.

13th Age was co-developed by Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet, I think, two quite famous figures from both inside and outside of D&D. It was billed to me as old school gaming with indie flair, or something along those lines, and is based extremely loosely on the fundamentals of D&D3.5. The blurb on the website says:

Our goal with 13th Age is to recapture the free-wheeling style of old-school gaming by creating a game with more soul and fewer technical details. …13th Age makes the play group’s campaign the center of attention, with a toolkit of rules that you can pick and choose from based on the kind of game you want to play. The mechanics draw from classic games as well as newer, story-based games.

I’m not really convinced that there is a “free-wheeling style of old-school gaming” but to the extent that “free-wheeling” in gaming can be encouraged by the rule system, I think that 13th Age does a very good job, and I think that its simple and flexible rules do encourage a rough and ready approach to gaming that is more adventurous than one would find in Pathfinder or D&D. On the surface it feels like classic d20 D&D, but in actual play it behaves quite differently, for a variety of reasons. It has some mechanisms in place to enable PCs to step outside their niche using skills, but the skill system itself is very light; it has redesigned all characters along the lines of 4th edition powers, but has included more old-school spell rules as well; and it has incorporated some elements into character creation that make it very easy to generate story arcs and plot-based gaming, but in such a way that they can also be jacked for immediate effect outside of plot arcs. This makes the basic rules very flexible. I’ll summarize some of the key changes here.

Character classes are very “4th Edition”: PCs have powers that operate daily, per battle, or at will. They have recoveries (i.e. healing surges) and feats that can be used to enhance specific powers. Interestingly, AC is determined by class + armour type – specific choice of armour is not relevant, only its weight and the character class. Thus some classes are constrained to operate best in specific armour types. Saves are very 4th Edition: roll over 11 or over 16 to save, with no modifiers. Looking at my character sheet, it’s a 4th Edition PC sitting there looking at me.

Background defines skills: At creation, each PC gets 8 points (or is it 10?) to spend on backgrounds of the PCs choice, which can have a maximum rating of +5. There are no skills in this game, and every time a PC attempts an action that requires a skill check they roll d20, add their level and an appropriate stat bonus. Then, if they can convince the GM that one of their backgrounds is relevant, they can add the rating of their background to the roll. So when we need to track someone, our insane Dwarven axeman uses his Tribal Dwarf background to add 3 to the roll; when we need to investigate insane arcane phenomena, my PC (Raucous Rella the Tiefling Bard) calls on the fact that she is the Reincarnation of a Famous Wizard (+5). For lying, cheating and fast-talking we have Raucous Rella’s Wandering Troupe (+5); for stealth we have the halfling’s … halfling-i-ness. And so on. If you can convince the GM that it applies, you get the bonus. This means that instead of having a wide range of specifically applicable skills, the character sheet contains a couple of lines for backgrounds, and that’s that.

Icons and Relationships: Perhaps in something of a nod to Japanese gaming (whether they know it or not), the creators have included a section in the rules for the relationship between the PCs and a set of 12 (I think) powerful figures that vie for supremacy in the world of the 13th Age. These “Icons” are not necessarily gods, but they have great status and power and their machinations in the world play an important role in shaping the destiny of nations. The PCs can have positive, negative or conflicted relationships with icons, and can use these relationships as resources in-game. These relationships may thus play the role simply of contacts or social tools, or they can be hooks and levers to get PCs into complex campaign stories. Over time relationships can change, of course. So far we have only used a relationship once – the rules for this seem to be quite vague and hard to operationalize, but the Icons’ presence in the world has been crucial to our understanding of power plays going on in the background of a couple of adventures, so make for excellent plot hooks. Perhaps in a way they function as a more accessible and temporally influential form of alighnment.

Characters are Heroic: PCs are intended to start as heroic adventurers, and they gain power rapidly as they increase levels. They also (aside from my bard) start off with a fair amount of power, and are intended to be able as a group to take on fairly challenging opponents. Combat intensifies rapidly, and PCs have lots of ways of doing significant amounts of damage in combat. Our rogue and barbarian, particularly, do ferocious amounts of damage. There are also some cute mechanics involving additional effects on dice rolls – if, for example, Raucous Rella rolls an even number and hits she can give off a battlecry that gives one nearby PC a chance to save against one ongoing effect. These kinds of things make for rich combat decisions and avoid reducing every battle to a chain of hit rolls.

These characteristics in total lead to a fast-paced, flexible and free-flowing gaming experience, where all mechanics are aimed at encouraging PCs to jack their characters to handle the situation, and GMs are encouraged to play to the moment. The system, by being designed for flexibility and speed, encourages esoteric choices, stunts and improvisation. In some areas the system is too vague (particularly with the icons and relationships, which sit there on my character sheet seeming mostly pointless) and when it strays too close to D&D it can be frustrating – using d20s to resolve actions really annoys me because of its unrealistic effects, for example, and my bard being able to cast Charm Person only once a day is a classic piece of Vancianism. But it has just enough extra elements to relieve the game of some of D&D’s more stultifying effects, and not to feel like just another flavour of D&D.

If you’re looking for something that feels close enough to D&D to pick up quickly, but has more flavour and incorporates some of the better ideas from outside the world of D&D, and if you like a game that encourages innovation and fast-paced action through its rules, then this is the game for you. If you’re really wedded to a game without daily powers or skills, or if you need a game that doesn’t contain any elements of story and plot development (even if only coded in as options) then I would avoid it. If you need detailed simulationist rules to float your boat, this is also not the game for you, but otherwise I think it can appeal to most players. I think it might be a system best suited to experienced GMs, because its flexibility raises the risk of GMs walking into big mistakes that can damage adventures or campaigns, but if you’ve enough experience to handle those risks (or haul your arse out of the fire after you make the big mistakes) then I strongly recommend giving this system a go to see how well it supports your creativity. It’s a good effort and well worth a go!

I’ve decided to begin a long-term research project aimed at understanding the underlying epidemiology of Dungeons and Dragons. This research project will consist of a series of (hopefully) increasingly complex simulations of battles between D&D PCs and various nemeses, to answer some key questions in character development and perhaps also to investigate some key controversies in the game. Once I have developed my simulations I hope to extend the project to Exalted, and I might diversify beyond that too.

The simple weight of experience in D&D means that most people know, or feel they know, how D&D works and how the roll of the dice determines a PC’s fate. I have noticed that sometimes our intuitive understanding of these things can be wrong, and I’d like to investigate D&D in enough detail to understand how it works. I’ll write a separate post about some of the principles of the research project, but in this post I’ll present the first analysis.

Introduction

In this post a million battles are simulated between a million randomly-generated fighters and a single (unfortunate) Orc, Gruumsh The Bastard, who has 6 hit points and does 2d4+4 damage with his nasty falchion of fighter-crunching. Both Gruumsh and the million fighters were generated using Pathfinder rules as set out in the System Reference Document. These million battles were run in order to identify the effect of the three basic physical ability scores (Strength, Dexterity and Constitution) on survival for a standard fighter.

Methods Summary

Detailed methods are described at the end of the post. In essence, a million Pathfinder fighters were generated randomly and pitted against Gruumsh the Bastard in simulated battles. Fighter survival was analyzed using multiple logistic regression analysis by ability score. Survival probabilities by ability score are plotted in charts and summarized as Odds Ratios in the logistic regression analysis. No interactions or complex higher effects were considered. The distribution of hit points was summarized using a histogram, but doesn’t represent the true (practical) distribution of hit points for a fighter, since it includes fighters with unrealistically low constitution scores.

Results

Things didn’t go well for the million fighters. Overall survival was just 26%, with 256,584 lucky fighters making it to the end of their battle. The remaining 743,416 fighters were smashed to ribbons by Gruumsh and, in many cases, eaten. The median length of a battle was 4 rounds where the fighter survived, or 3 rounds if Gruumsh won. Figure 1 shows the probability of survival by ability score, and shows some stark differences in effect between ability scores.

Figure 1: Probability of Survival by Ability Score

It is clear from Figure 1 that strength is the key determinant of survival for a first level fighter. Only 0.4% of the weakest fighters survived, compared to 55% of the strongest. Constitution has barely any effect on survival, and dexterity is only important at the extreme ends of its range.

Table 1 summarizes the results of multiple logistic regression of mortality. In this table, the odds ratio of death is given after adjusting for the other two ability scores, so removes the confounding effect of high or low values in other relevant ability scores. All odds ratios are given relative to the lowest value of the corresponding ability score, so for example those with strength 18 – 19 have an odds ratio of mortality of 0.003 compared to those with a strength of 2-3.

Table 1: Multiple Logistic Regression of Death by Ability Score
Variable Odds Ratio 95% Confidence Interval P value
Strength
  2 to 3

Ref.

  4 to 5

0.21

0.06 – 0.66

0.008

  6 to 7

0.07

0.02 – 0.21

<0.001

  8 to 9

0.03

0.01 – 0.10

<0.001

  10 to 11

0.02

0.01 – 0.06

<0.001

  12 to 13

0.01

0 – 0.03

<0.001

  14 to 15

0.006

0 – 0.02

<0.001

  16 to 17

0.004

0 – 0.01

<0.001

  18 to 19

0.003

0 – 0.01

<0.001

Dexterity
  2 to 3

1

  4 to 5

0.87

0.69 – 1.10

0.236

  6 to 7

0.76

0.61 – 0.94

0.012

  8 to 9

0.65

0.53 – 0.81

<0.001

  10 to 11

0.54

0.44 – 0.67

<0.001

  12 to 13

0.45

0.36 – 0.55

<0.001

  14 to 15

0.37

0.3 – 0.45

<0.001

  16 to 17

0.3

0.24 – 0.37

<0.001

  18 to 19

0.23

0.18 – 0.28

<0.001

Constitution
  2 to 3

1

  4 to 5

0.9

0.73 – 1.11

0.307

  6 to 7

0.86

0.71 – 1.04

0.113

  8 to 9

0.82

0.68 – 0.99

0.044

  10 to 11

0.72

0.6 – 0.87

0.001

  12 to 13

0.63

0.52 – 0.76

<0.001

  14 to 15

0.55

0.45 – 0.66

<0.001

  16 to 17

0.48

0.4 – 0.58

<0.001

  18 to 19

0.41

0.34 – 0.49

<0.001

There is no difference statistically between a constitution score of 6-7 and a score of 2-3 – everyone with constitution scores in this range are purely at the mercy of the dice. In comparison, increasing strength from 3 to 4 reduces the odds of death by a factor of five, and fighters with a strength of 18 have an odds of mortality 300 times lower than fighters with a strength of three. Truly, fortune favours the strong.

Figure 2 shows the odds ratio of mortality for constitution with its 95% confidence intervals, as a graphical alternative to a portion of Table 1 (we promised Gruumsh we would describe his victory in pretty pictures).

Figure 2: Odds Ratio of Survival by Constitution Score

Figure 2 suggests that hit points are not as important to combat survival as the ability to smash your opponent into the dirt. Once the Toughness feat is incorporated into simulations, constitution is likely to become even less important, and should probably be treated as a dump stat by players. Given that choosing the Toughness feat is equivalent to making a large increase in constitution, but this increase in constitution gives a barely-statistically-significant reduction in mortality, it seems likely that this feat is not a very useful choice. If Gruumsh is willing, this will be investigated in subsequent analyses[1].

The distribution of strength ability scores under the 4d6 choose-the-best-three method is shown in Figure 3. This method shifts the scores significantly to the right: only 754 fighters had a strength of 3, compared to 16,141 who had a strength of 18. The mean strength was 12.24 and the median 12, a shift of three from a standard 3d6 distribution and a huge change to the extreme values.

Figure 3: Distribution of Strength Scores Under 4d6 choose-the-best-three

Nearly 5% of the sample had at least one physical score of 18; but this method is still not perfect, with only 3 of one million fighters having a score of 18 in all three physical attributes (one of these three, who also had an intelligence of 15 and a charisma of 16, was beaten to a bloody pulp by Gruumsh in just three rounds. His liver, apparently, was exquisite when grilled lightly and eaten on rye bread with a dark ale).

Figure 4 shows the distribution of hit points in this sample of 1 million fighters. This is not the distribution one would actually see in a sample of actual Pathfinder fighters, since in a real game most fighters will have non-negative constitution bonuses (unless their player has read this post, I suppose). This histogram shows an interesting effect, however: even when constitution is unrestricted, under a 4d6/choose-the-best-three system there is a heavy concentration of hit points in the range of 4 – 10. Median hit points in this sample were 6, and the average hit point total was 6.2: in fact, the hit point distribution looks remarkably close to a uniform distribution on the range 4 – 10!

Figure 4: Distribution of Hit Points

Survival was not strongly associated with hit point value: those with 1 hit point survived in 20% of battles, while those with 14 hit points survived in 50% of battles. This extra importance of hps relative to constitution is driven entirely by the extra die roll (the d10 for hps) which suggests that constitution would be of much greater importance if hit points were fixed at first level; equivalently, it may be that the roll of constitution is washed out by the random determination of hit points, and if so one can expect that constitution will be more important at later levels when the law of large numbers cancels out the random effect of dice rolls on survival. For the same reason strength will probably reduce in importance over levels, since its effect is not compounded with level as constitution is. This is an issue that will need to be investigated, although if survival probabilities are replicated at second level it’s unlikely we will have much of a sample size of high level PCs[2].

Conclusion

At first level, strength is far and away the most important ability score for fighters, and constitution is so insignificant as to be almost a dump stat. A fighter with strength of 18 has only 1/300th the odds of death of a fighter with strength 3 when fighting a single Orc. Overall survival rates were low even in the toughest fighters, and in the absence of feats it appears that Pathfinder is an extremely nasty environment for solo adventuring.

Future research will investigate the role of feats in enhancing survival, and their importance relative to ability scores. The results presented here are preliminary, but it appears that in min-maxing fighter PCs the wisest choice is to prioritize strength, then dexterity, then constitution. If one is developing a PC with the intention of long-term survival these findings may be reversed, but the experimental results have not yet been collated.

Finally, the results presented here suggest that the assignment of a 1/3 challenge rating (CR) to Orcs in Pathfinder may be unwarranted. Although data are not shown here, in the testing stage this simulation program was run on Goblins (also CR 1/3) and the fighter survival rate was much higher. It may be the case that Orcs are far more challenging than a CR of 1/3. It’s not clear how Pathfinder assign their CRs, but it seems natural to suppose that a creature with a more than 50% chance of defeating an average human fighter is more than CR 1. Are Pathfinder’s CRs accurate? In any case, basic advice to fighters in Pathfinder would be: hunt Goblins, not Orcs, they’re much lower risk for the same xps.

Methods

For this analysis the fighters were generated according to the following rules:

  • All ability scores were generated using 4d6 choose-the-best-three, rolled in order: This is not orthodox Pathfinder but enables simultaneous estimation of the probability distribution of ability scores under this commonly-used rule, and enables analysis of the effect of ability scores across their full range – not just in the high values that one would usually assign to a PC’s prime characteristics
  • No feats were assigned to the fighter: for this first analysis the effect of raw scores was the topic of analysis, so no special abilities were given to the fighters. These million meat-shields were cast into battle with only their raw talents at their disposal
  • All fighters had the same equipment: raising a levy of a million fighters takes only a minute in 64 bit R, but it’s clearly a costly imposition on the citizenry, so all fighters were assigned standard kit consisting of chain mail armour, a standard shield, and a longsword. If we can secure a sufficiently large research grant from Waterdeep, subsequent battles we will allow random variation in armour types in order to choose the best armour
  • Racial abilities were not tested: no racial ability score adjustments or size bonuses were tested. Only raw scores were used. In future battles, racial ability scores will be incorporated into the PCs. Anyway, who cares if a halfling lives or dies?

The results of all battles were summarized as two numbers: length of the combat in rounds, and whether or not the fighter lived or died (Gruumsh is a bastard, and his survival status is essentially irrelevant). Survival probability was plotted by ability score, and also analyzed using multiple logistic regression to assess the odds ratio of survival for any level of any ability after adjusting for all other abilities. Histograms of hit points and ability score (strength) were also obtained for reference purposes. The odds ratio of survival at different values of one score (constitution) was plotted with 95% confidence intervals.

No ethical approval was obtained for this study, and anyone with concerns about the ethics of the study can raise the issue with Gruumsh. Informed consent was not obtained from any subjects (though Gruumsh seemed pretty eager to participate, and said “smash human!” many times, so could probably be said to have given active consent). No medical care or counselling was offered to survivors of the battles, and no reward was offered. The lucky minority who survived probably went off to start a farm or something, but we don’t know because follow-up to assess general physical health or emotional needs was not offered. Experience points were not distributed to the victors, because if we did Gruumsh would have gained enough levels to take over the world and no one wants that. Gruumsh was allowed to feast on the remains of his vanquished foes, because culturally sensitive research techniques are very highly prized at the Faustusnotes Military Academy. All simulations were conducted in R version 2.15.0, and all analyses were carried out in Stata/MP 12 because R sucks for things like making simple tables. The analyst was not blinded to the participants in the study, but if you think he had any interest in scanning a million records of a .csv file looking for fighters to favour, you’re an over-optimistic fool. This study was also not registered with CONSORT, but it’s unlikely that it would get published in any public health journal, so there was no need, really, was there?

fn1: Actually, Gruumsh is unlikely to get a choice. We’ll just roll up the fighters and send them in his direction.

fn2: Actually, if we run a series of level-by-level simulations we could test whether the probability distributions of levels given in the D&D DMG are correct, and come up with empirical estimates of the true proportion of the population who are higher level!

I joined a new gaming group on Sunday, for 9 hours of slaughter with a group of blood-drinking, delusional toad-wranglers such as would bring disgrace on the name Dungeons and Dragons were their antics to become commonly known. My PC is a 3rd level human rogue called Shinan, a freelance negotiator for the various thieves’ guilds of the setting, and the other PCs are:

  • Wrenn, a gnome artificer with an alchemical bent, who makes potions out of the blood of other party members and thinks he is sexy
  • Haidulk, a massive human brawler specializing in grappling, whose current claim to fame is that he got a Drake in a headlock and killed it
  • Mardred, a Razorclaw shifter Warden who everyone calls “the Dwarf,” but who seems to think he is human. Currently wielding some kind of massive hammer, he seems to be very good at missing everything in combat until the killing blow needs to land

My own PC is a pretty standard rogue. He is overweight from too many drinking parties (he is a negotiator!) and, being a go-between rather than a fighter, all his combat skills are built around getting behind bigger people. Occasionally his jobs require him to kill the hostage takers when negotiations turn sour, so he’s also a very good backstabber. But largely, he’s a runner and a talker. He also has delusions of grandeur, even though (because?) he was raised in a brothel in the entertainment quarter of the setting.

The setting is the city of Punjar (I think we’re doing Sellswords of Punjar, or one of its sequels). I like Punjar – it has a nice combination of Lankhmar and middle-eastern themed chaos, with lots of skullduggery and a nice hint of the exotic. The introductory text is nicely written and the adventure so far has been interesting and challenging. It’s involved some negotiating, some research, some good old fashioned problem-solving (mainly for traps) and a fat scad of slaughtering. It’s got everything a party of blood-drinking, delusional toad-wranglers would want (including a giant toad to wrangle).

I thought I’d make a few comments about what I perceive to be common criticisms of D&D 4e on the basis of my first session of 4e in about 3 years.

Combat is not challenging: The players talked about having barely dodged a TPK the previous session, when a lucky roll enabled our toad-wrangler to get a drake in a headlock. Two of our party members were reduced to near 0 hit points by a smaller group of attackers – two vine monsters in a hedgerow nearly killed one of the party – and we routinely have to break out all our powers and push our limits to get through the battles. Things have been dire twice, and in fact if the GM had been interested in pushing it I’m pretty sure the first encounter of the day (with four grigs, FFS) would have killed me. Compared to other systems I’d say the WFRP 3 battles I’ve run have been nastier, and the D&D 3e battles in general easier, and no shorter.

Combat takes ages: I haven’t really noticed this. In 9 hours (including, obviously, breaks for coffee and dinner) we got through shopping, introducing my PC, getting given a new adventure, two detailed interactions with PCs to do research, a battle with 4 grigs, a battle with 2 vine monsters, fighting a sword-swallower toad, negotiating a hedge maze, a battle with 5 elemental beasties of some kind, investigating four sarcophagi, and negotiating a dungeon level full of traps. I’d say each battle only took about 30 minutes or so out of all this. Probably this was partly assisted with some digital aids, but I don’t have any digital aids and I did fine. So I think this might be an exaggeration.

Healing Surges make it all trivial: My character has 6 healing surges, each healing 5hps, a total of 30 hps; I have 22hps to my name. In OD&D terms this would be the equivalent of me, a third level rogue (on an average of 10.5 hps) having access to two cure light wounds a day. Given how abundant CLW potions tend to be in the average campaign, I don’t think this is a game changer. The dwarf has 14, so is able to heal 3 times his own hps in damage per day. I guess that’s a bit rich, but for the rest of us the healing surges can easily be seen as a simple alternative to a couple of CLW potions. And, we don’t have a cleric. The healing surges liberate us from the old-fashioned D&D party idea, where someone always had to play a cleric. Incidentally, 22 hps in this game is really not very useful. My backstab does 2d6+2d8+7 damage. I can very easily kill myself, and the dwarf can take me out with a single hit too (his damage is 4d6+7 if he uses an encounter power). This is pretty much equivalent to any other edition of D&D, where a 3rd level fighter rolling max damage can kill a thief of the same level

Skill challenges are balanced at every level: I’m not sure if I understand this properly but I’ve got the impression that some people think all encounters and skill challenges are designed to be balanced so that you always have a 50% chance of success. This is very far from what happened to me on Sunday; so maybe I’m misunderstanding this. But I am confused by the saving throws, which do always seem to be just a 50% chance of success.

It’s all about combat /it’s just a tactical miniatures game: We did lots of non-combat things, including some classic dungeon crawl problem solving and puzzle-solving, some rolemaster/D&D 3e style skill check-based manoeuvring, and some straight-out PC-to-GM negotiation. Nothing seems to be really different about what the game encourages or discourages. I don’t use miniatures in combat when I GM and there are some aspects of this style of play which I don’t think are good, but I don’t think these are unique to D&D 4e: D&D has always included miniatures and battle mats, etc. And I’ve always eschewed them in my own games. I don’t feel particularly constrained by using them in this one.

So overall, although there are some ways in which it doesn’t feel like D&D, it mostly just feels like a slightly exotic form of D&D, with a better-designed character sheet and some smoother combat rules. It was better than my previous experience of 4e, but I’m not yet decided on whether I like the system overall: I’ll wait to play a little longer before I decide that. It is, however, a perfectly decent platform for adventuring, and I’m enjoying it, even if Shinan feels a little discomfort at having to slum it with this pack of degenerates. But in adventuring companions, as opposed to systems, beggars can’t be choosers; and until his ship comes in, Shinan is just going to have to stick around with this bunch of smelly weirdos.

 

This is a semi-sandbox adventure module for Warhammer 3rd Edition, and my god would it have been useful a year ago when I was running a semi-sandbox campaign in Ubersreik. My adventure even had Skaven, just like The Edge of Night. Though I think my approach to the skaven was better, my map definitely wasn’t, because The Edge of Night is a well-presented product, with a great deal of content.

The Edge of Night presents an adventure in the town of Ubersreik, based on a skaven conspiracy, against the backdrop of a political conflict between three noble families. To facilitate this adventure, the book provides background information on the town of Ubersreik sufficient to, essentially, ground an entire campaign in the setting. The adventure itself builds up to a climax that occurs at a ball held by one of the noble families, but the path by which the PCs can reach this ball is left open, with the adventure description making it clear to the GM that he or she has an almost infinite range of ways of handling the PCs progress to this ball. In order to facilitate the adventure, the book contains a map of the town, with key locations described not just in terms of their contents, but their relationship to the three noble families, and a couple of rumours at each location that may or may not be relevant to the adventure. These rumours can open up into whole other adventures if the GM wants to do the work, or can be dead ends or red herrings or clues to the adventure plot. This gives the GM an almost infinite amount of time to track the main adventure; or if he or she wishes, to have the events of the main adventure happen anyway if the PCs fail to get in tune with it, which leaves the PCs having to deal with the fallout. It also means that the adventure setting essentially can be turned into a campaign setting with a bit of extra work, which means that you’re getting a lot of value out of your 56 page module (and this is important with Warhammer 3, because the products aren’t cheap).

A key part of the build up to the adventure is the development of patronage with one of the noble families, and as is typical with a WFRP 3 product, the designers have developed the progress tracker/party sheet mechanism to include a system of patronage. Basically, each noble house provides its own “family sheet,” which the PCs advance along according to how their actions affect the noble family. As they advance, they gain recognition, an invitation to the ball, and finally patronage. Each house has its own traits and allies, and each family sheet provides benefits in the form of a talent accessible to the whole party when they achieve patronage. Because the map describes which locations contain people sympathetic to specific houses, it is easy for the PCs exploration of the town to lead to opportunities for patronage. Furthermore, the adventure itself contains a few simple encounters for the GM to use to offer advances along the family sheet. Patronage is valuable in its own right, so the family sheet is of use if the GM decides only to use the town as a campaign setting; or, if the GM decides to deepen the political intrigues, the patronage system could be useful in helping to place the PCs on particular sides of political and military conflict, possibly without their having realized what is happening. The family sheet is a good example of the way Fantasy Flight Games have developed a flexible mechanic and found ways to extend it to cover a wide range of possible contexts. It’s a creative idea.

Like other modules, The Edge of Night comes with a wide range of suggestions on how to lure the PCs into the adventure, including but not limited to references to other modules. It also comes with a set of new cards (actions and magic for skaven), new adventure locations, new cardboard standups, and the new mechanic for patronage. I don’t use the standups in this system very much at all (I’ve never been able to incorporate miniatures into my gaming) but the patronage mechanic is useful not just in its own right, but as yet another example of the versatility of the progress chart mechanic, which I thoroughly recommend to all gamers.

I would go so far as to say that The Edge of Night, in addition to providing a fairly complete setting and an interesting adventure, is easily as good as the classic warhammer settings, but with the addition of some very nice descriptions of, and mechanics for handling, political tensions between families in the world. I think this aspect of the game makes it possibly on a par with the classic warhammer modules, and reaffirms for me that WFRP 3 is providing a lot of new and interesting ideas for both Warhammer and for role-playing games generally. I’m hoping to set up a gaming group during the next year, and I will be aiming to run a campaign in Ubersreik with the material in this module. I think that, even if you are planning on sticking to WFRP 2, this module could provide some useful material for your campaign, as well as a complete setting. It’s another example of Fantasy Flight Games’ commitment to high quality work, and to maintaining the authentic feel of the warhammer setting.

Hideous dark secrets await...

I received the pdf version of James Raggi’s re-release of Geoffrey McKinney’s infamous Carcosa “supplement V” two days ago, and have been reading it voraciously since. I haven’t received the physical version yet, so can’t comment on that, but my main interest was the content so I’d like to give a review of it here. It’s my first reading of Carcosa – I missed the original version and the controversy surrounding it – so I’m going to review it as if nobody knew what it was. I have wanted this product since I read the controversy, since much of the material contained within it is relevant to my own campaign ideas, which can involve a certain amount of ritual sacrifice and happen in worlds with an underlying morality that I think has similarities to that of the “lawful” or “neutral” residents of Carcosa – that of sometimes making very unpleasant bargains with evil powers in order to further a greater good.

Background

Carcosa is a science-fantasy/swords and sorcery setting, a planet far from earth in which the ancient gods of the cthulhu mythos slumber (and sometimes wake), and humans live in small and scattered settlements, terrified of the evil powers that dominate the world. The appendix to this edition describes the state of Men[sic] nicely thus:

Man has not populated the world of Carcosa with the monsters of his imagination. Instead, the monsters of Carcosa infect the nightmares of man. Nor has man imagined mythological spirits and projected them upon his surroundings, later refining his mythologies with philosophy and theology. The world of Carcosa is fraught with the like of the Old Ones and their spawn, the legacy of the extinct Snake Men, and Sorcery.

Humans were created by the Snake Men and placed on Carcosa as slaves and chattel to be used in vile sorcerous rituals by which the extinct Snake Men summoned, controlled or banished the Old Ones and their related entities. The Snake Men are long gone, but their legacy remains in the world that is presented to us: Spawn of Shub-Niggurath, the Old Ones, strange mutations and sorcerous effects, and lesser and greater Old Ones who are either imprisoned within our outside the planet, or roaming the planet itself looking for prey. The planet also hosts some Space Aliens, whose artifacts and high-tech items adventurers may be able to find and use.

In this world there is no magic, though there are some psionics. The only magic available to humans is that of sorcery, which enables one to summon, bind, imprison or banish evil entities. However, aside from banishment these sorcerous invocations depend upon rituals which invariably involve the degradation, torture and murder of humans. The 13 races of humans come in distinct colours, and these colours are coded to different rituals; in order to gain power over the elder gods one must find a suitable number of the correct humans of the right colour, age and sex, and then do what is necessary to raise the entity, in a ritual whose contents are themselves difficult to learn, and require precise ingredients collected from rare locations across Carcosa. Being a sorcerer is neither easy nor sensible. Being a sorcerer’s chattel is far, far worse.

So, the world of Carcosa is a brutal and nasty place, where humans were invented to be used, and continue to use each other in the manner that their extinct progenitors planned for them. It is a world where moral decisions are made in a very, very different framework to that of many other fantasy worlds; but it is my contention (and I’ll outline this below) that the moral framework for decisions in Carcosa is simply reflective of a different period in our own history, and the decision to play in Carcosa will simply represent a preference for playing in a different historical milieu to the one we’re all used to. No big deal, really, right?

The Rules

Carcosa is presented as a supplement to Original D&D (OD&D), so it doesn’t present a system per se. Rather, it contains a new character class, the Sorcerer, and some kooky ideas for dice rolling and determining hit dice that I’m not sure I’ll comment on until I’ve played with them. It also presents a wide range of new technological items (of the Space Aliens), new monsters (connected to the Old Ones) and a set of rituals for the Sorcerer. The book also makes clear that on Carcosa there are no PC classes except the Fighter and the Sorcerer (and the Specialist, if you want). There is no magic but sorcery, and no clerical magic of any kind. If you want magic on Carcosa, you have one choice: summon an entity of purest evil, and bend it to your will.

The Sorcerer character seems little different to the Fighter, though I don’t have any OD&D rulebooks so can’t tell the details. Perhaps its XP progression is slower and its saves slightly better, but otherwise it seems broadly similar. In my opinion (and I think Grognardia agreed with me on this) this is a big weakness. The sorcerer is basically a slightly inferior fighter who gains levels more slowly, and can only differentiate him or herself from the Fighter through the long and arduous task of learning a ritual and then binding an entity to his or her will. At this point the sorcerer becomes almost invincible, or dead. I think it might be better if the Sorcerer started off with some differentiating power, such as e.g. a single banishment ritual, or psionic powers. The way the rules are structured, they open the very real possibility that you could start play as a sorcerer with no special abilities or powers of any sort, while your fellow player started off as a fighter with psionics! If, on the other hand, Sorcerers gained psionics from the start and advanced in them slowly, they might be more … enticing. The possibility that one day you can summon Cthulhu and maybe, if you’re lucky, he won’t eat you but will serve you for 72 hours, is not a great lure for the average player. Especially if summoning Cthulhu means you have to rape a couple of children and murder them in a pool of acid.

Also, learning rituals appears to be very difficult, so it’s possible you could play a sorcerer for a lot of levels and never get to use any special powers. So, I can’t see the point of distinguishing the sorcerer from the Fighter.

The Rituals

In truth, the rituals are one of the main reasons I got this book. There are six types of ritual, and only one of them can be conducted without doing something nasty.

  • Banish: these drive a specific entity away, for varying times, and are usually quick and easy to perform
  • Invoke: these put the sorcerer in contact with some horrific extra-dimensional being that will answer questions that the sorcerer puts to it
  • Bind: these grant complete control over the subject entity for a given period of time. At the end of this time, it’s wise to have your banish ritual ready
  • Imprison: these trap an entity in some extra-dimensional or subterranean prison, possibly forever, and are the surest way to ensure that it doesn’t come back without the intervention of another sorcerer. All imprisonment rituals seem to involve human sacrifice.
  • Conjure: these summon an entity, either from wherever it is now or from its prison. They don’t guarantee control over the conjured entity, however, so it’s a good idea to bind it first
  • Torment: these cause a chosen entity to suffer horribly, reducing its hit dice and/or forcing it to obey the sorcerer and/or answer questions

So, it’s possible to see that there are ways in which these rituals, even though they involve human sacrifice, can be for the good of all. In fact, one can imagine a “lawful” sorcerer traveling the earth, forcing every sorcerer he finds to teach him their rituals, then killing them and imprisoning any deities they had the power to conjure. This would involve a lot of pain and slaughter but at the end of such a successful campaign the world would be free of deities and no one but the PC would be able to conjure them again. Is this worth a bit of child murder? Don’t answer me unless you live on Carcosa.

The rituals themselves are very nicely written, in a portentous style that is very evocative of the Cthulhu ethos, and involves a lot of words like “blasphemous,” “ineffable” and “canticle.” The descriptions have an underlying sense of horror, but are themselves clinically written and detailed, capturing both the mechanical elements of the ritual, its arcane meaning and its horrific consequences in just one or two concise paragraphs. They’re also key to establishing the philosophical and theological background of the world of Carcosa, and in my opinion one can’t really properly describe the world without reference to these rituals. Once one has read this tome of rituals, the descriptions of the communities of the world – tiny enclaves of humans, largely the same colour, suspicious of outsiders and often treacherous and warlike – make a great deal of sense. It also sets the tone for a world steeped in horror.

My main criticism of the rituals would be that it’s not clear how they mesh together – does one bind a creature before or after conjuring it? Why would one torment an entity, and what are the key differences between banishment and imprisonment? Ideally, I would have liked a couple of examples of rituals in use: perhaps a description of a sorcerer’s attempts to conjure a particular entity – how he found the ritual, the order in which he enacts them, and the benefits. For a GM’s section this would be particularly useful, since it would enable a GM to work out how to mesh the quest for and consequences of a ritual into adventure planning. Without this we have to work out the details ourselves, which is fine, but I paid 35 euros for this book so I could read the ideas of the person who wrote it, so I’d have liked a few examples or ideas to support the use of rituals in the game. Also, I would like to know more about what one gains from summoning the entities. The entities all have their stat blocks given, but they are largely for combat, and this means that really the sorcerer seems to be just taking a great deal of risks to invoke a great big weapon. It would be nice if conjuring a given beast gave the sorcerer some benefits (like a kind of familiar), so that even without going into combat the sorcerer got some non-Fighter-oriented benefits. Otherwise, why not just go to hex XXXX and grab the Space Alien Tank there – a much safer way to do 4 dice of damage than summoning It of the Fallen Pylons, which, incidentally, requires casting eight Red Men through an extra-dimensional vault into outer space, and making a save vs. Magic at -4 to avoid joining them yourself.

Despite these limitations, the rituals lend the world of Carcosa a particular feeling of grim horror and foreboding that is both very Cthulhu-esque, and very atmospheric even if, like me, you haven’t read much Lovecraft.

Entities, Monsters and Maps

I really like the entities and monsters presented in Carcosa. The entities have evocative, sinister names and are very, very nasty, and the main monsters arise in almost infinite variety through the random generation tables. Robots and cyborgs follow a similar range and would make both interesting allies and formidable adversaries. The book comes with a hex map of a section of Carcosa with two possible encounters for every hex described. Some of these hexes offer opportunities for further adventuring in dungeons or castles or forests, and give simple adventure hooks; others present towns to explore and conquer, or simply monsters or the opportunity to learn rituals, find ancient technology, or uncover strange objects. It’s a really weird and compelling map that sets out a world completely different to the average D&D setting. This world is definitely not to everyone’s tastes – brilliant Yellow-colored men carrying laser pistols and riding mutant dinosaurs to war against Cthulhoid entities is maybe not everyone’s cup of tea – but if you like science fantasy then it has a lot of material to explore.

Presentation

I can’t comment on the physical book, since I haven’t received it, but I certainly can commend the presentation of the pdf format. I’ve been reading it on my iPad, and it’s a joy to use. The pdf is extensively hyperlinked, so if you’re reading a ritual and want to know what the creature it summons is, you can jump to the creature; then you can use the list of rituals related to that entity to jump to a different ritual, or to go back to where you were. Ingredients that can be found in certain hexes include a link to those hexes; if a particular hex in the map is related to other hexes, those hexes are listed next to the text, so you can jump to them. The hex map itself is hyperlinked, so you can click to the description of any hex – sadly, on my iPad the bit of the map I tap doesn’t work, and I get directed instead to the column left of where I wanted to tap, but this is not an insurmountable problem (I just tap slightly more to the right) and I don’t know if it’s a problem in the original text or in its translation to my iPad. It would be nice if the hex descriptions included a link back to the map (perhaps in their name?) so that one could explore the map more rapidly, but this too is not an insurmountable problem. The linking is an excellent idea and really makes the pdf useful.

Other elements of the presentation also really appeal to me. I like the font and the style on the edges of the pages – perhaps the patterns at the top of the page are a little overdone, but they suit the theme. I like the layout of things like rituals and monster descriptions, with the text next to the title and then all the hyperlinks below the title, next to the text; and the artwork suits the world very well. Unlike usual OSR artwork, it’s actually good, and the sketch-like style gives a sense of hurriedly glimpsing horrors, like seeing a massacre through grainy camera footage rather than being a direct eyewitness. This suits the content – especially the rituals and monsters – very well. It’s a very well-presented and laid out text.

The content is also very well written and maintains its Cthulhoid theme pretty much seamlessly across the whole book. This is a fine achievement and really makes the book stand out as a work of fiction as well as a gaming supplement. It’s rare I think to find a world setting that maintains a coherent theme across world content, presentation and writing style, and through the combination of the three builds up a distinct atmosphere. This book does that, in spades, and in that sense I think it’s a masterful work.

I do have some complaints about the content, though. In addition to wanting more detail on the mechanics of rituals, I would have liked more context to the world as a whole. After just a page or two of introduction the book jumps straight into the rules, and further exposition of the background to the world only comes in an appendix, which is very short. Even though the rationale for this – not wanting to bias the Referee, so that they can be free to interpret Carcosa as they like – is perfectly understandable, I’m not into it. I want Geoffrey McKinney’s bias in my interpretation of his world, and I’m adult enough to get rid of what I don’t like. I would like his bias at the beginning, because as it is I have waded through the whole book before I discover why certain rituals use certain colors of human, etc. This problem is even more pronounced in the sample adventure, Fungoid Gardens of the Bone Sorcerer, which is not really an adventure at all but a more detailed exposition of a single hex in the map. Some context to this adventure, perhaps background details to the tensions and regions of the hex map, how PCs might be drawn into differing factions or adventures, and what the political circumstances in the region are, might help. The motivations and perspectives of the various denizens of the map are not clear, and the reasons for selecting it as an adventure are just not there. It’s usable, but it doesn’t add anything to the main hex map except more detail. I would say this is a general structural problem in the text: it isn’t set out in the flow of Introduction/Body/Conclusion, but just as a random scattering of information with a rough flow. Even the appendix setting out the basic circumstances of humans on Carcosa is missing a conclusion: it just ends with a description of the uses of Space Alien technology. Repeatedly missing this structure means that the work is sometimes contextless, which is a shame given the depth of its actual content.

The layout, though generally excellent, suffers some minor flaws and I think James Raggi may have been guilty of over-egging how much he has added to the original. The editing is sometimes a bit weak, with obvious errors in presentation (such as italicizing a book title, then putting other book titles inconsistently in quotes, in the same paragraph of the introduction). Indeed, there is even an error in the preview – e.g. page 129, Hex 0502, has inconsistent pronoun usage (it and he to describe the Mummy). Also I think the linking is incomplete – sometimes a description will say “cf. [ritual name]” where it would have been much better for it to have the link to [ritual name]. Of course I’m happy to forgive tiny errors, because overall the layout is excellent and the writing very concise and clear.

The Controversy

This review isn’t meant to be about the controversy, but I guess I should cover it. Two (?) of the rituals involve the rape and murder of children, and most of them involve the torture and murder of humans. This has led some to say that Carcosa goes too far, that it brings disrepute onto the gaming world, and that it is itself a morally repugnant work. Well, it’s certainly morally repugnant, but much of what happens in role-playing is morally repugnant. In standard D&D most adventuring parties happily torture and murder captured enemies, and exterminate without mercy those who are racially different to themselves, on the very dubious moral assumption that our enemies have no humanity of any kind. D&D explicitly states that elves have no soul. This is a moral framework that is taken pretty much straight from the playbook of 19th and early 20th century western Imperialism[1], and although we are supposed to believe that our D&D worlds make these ideals objectively true, rather than subjectively true, I don’t think this really exonerates the worldview contained therein.

So the world of D&D as most of us are used to playing it is pretty morally repugnant as well, and it explicitly allows for or describes the use of human and non-human lives as tools for the benefit of the PCs. What else is necromancy but the most horrific misuse of humans? What about the Imprisonment spell, or Dominate Monster? Sure, the Player’s Handbook doesn’t say “You can use this spell to rape anyone you want,” but it’s pretty obvious that this is what evil people will do. And most PC groups at some point have used enslaved/captured/charmed/dominated NPCs as meat in the grinder – for trap finding, for attracting the monster’s first, worst attack, etc. I think the old school blogosphere makes quite a point of doing this with henchmen and hirelings.

So what is the difference with Carcosa? It makes the moral framework of D&D explicit, and I think this offends a lot of people who would otherwise have enacted many of the components of the rituals in their ordinary play. But in presenting this moral framework explicitly, is Carcosa asking us to play in a world that is any different from 15th century Europe, which is the moral exemplar for much of our gaming worlds? What distinguishes a sorcerer in Carcosa from the leaders of the USSR in Afghanistan, any of the players of the Great Game, or the British in India? D&D’s implicit morality is, largely, that of 19th century colonial Europe; Carcosa’s implicit morality is that of crusader Europe or the vikings. If we can accept one, and play it at its most invidious, then we can surely play in the other without compromising ourselves overmuch.

Furthermore, I don’t think these rituals need necessarily be construed as irredeemably evil. In Hex 2013 of the Carcosa map is a village of 497 Jale Men ruled by “She of the Lake.” She is slowly building up an empire and “her hunger for slaves and captives to fuel her sorceries is bottomless.” So if my PC summons the Lurker Amidst the Obsidian Ruins through the murder of four Black Males, and binds it to me using the horrific Primal Formula of the Dweller (which requires my PC to kill 101 Dolm Children with an axe), then sends the Lurker to kill She of the Lake and her main minions, have I not done the world a great service? And what harm have I done to the world if instead of killing the two Yellow Men bandits who survived a bandit attack on my party, I inflict them with a fatal disease and sacrifice them in the ritual called The Encrusted Glyphs of the Deep, which imprisons the Leprous Dweller Below in a primordial city in the Radioactive Desert?

Carcosa presents us with a morally repugnant setting, but as mature adults we can negotiate it in a more sophisticated way than merely averting our eyes and declaring it wrong.

Conclusion

If you like your worlds to be dark, cruel, primitive and full of evil and hard choices, then Carcosa is for you. If you want to play in a Science/Fantasy Swords and Sorcery setting with or without bizarre and evil sorcerous rituals, this book is a great starting point and will give you endless hours of crazed sandbox adventuring. It’s a very nicely laid out, excellently written and well-crafted addition to the gaming world, and I think James Raggi should be encouraged in his efforts. He brings a huge amount of energy and creativity to the OSR, and should be justifiably proud of his achievement in presenting this setting in this format. But of course the ultimate credit should go to Geoffrey McKinney, who has crafted a genuinely disturbing, morally dubious, occasionally repugnant, but very well-written and ingenious world setting that, while not to everyone’s tastes and a little more controversial thank I think is warranted, is definitely a brilliant and amazingly creative work. I hope that he and Raggi will work together again in the future to produce more material of the same high quality and style, and I would definitely like to see more material for the Carcosa setting – whether or not I ever get a chance to play it.

fn1: please do not take this to mean that I think only Imperialists believed these things; this is the particular historical framework that western Europeans draw upon when they make these moral statements.

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