Wednesday, January 25, 2006

High-Level Gaming and Great Encounters

artwork by malcolm mcclinton; copyright hangedman studios; used with permission;
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Most RPGs do not scale advancement well. The characters XP progression is either so steep -- 3.x, any superhero game, earthdawn, L5R -- that the system can't support the extreme ends of the scale or the advancement is so short -- 7th sea, GURPS -- that you never really see a change in your character.

Vampire is one of the few games that plays well at all levels, but sadly, this system isn't for everyone and many of the disciplines get overpowered by play style. Dominate, for instance, can ruin vampire.

The main problem with this is simple math. Linear scales are boring and dynamic scales are hard to control. DC Heroes used an exponential scale to indicate power. 3 was twice as powerful as 2. 4 was twice as powerful as 3, and so on. Dynamic scales of this type break down at the top and bottom, because the represent things you can't comprehend (an Intelligence of 40; 2^39) or things that can't be measured in the world of green lantern and superman (a Dexterity of 2).

A further hindering dynamic to the game was the dice. 2d10, with doubles being rerolled and added to the result... with no upper limit. It was possible with the right roll for the joker to kill superman with 1 punch. Unlikely. But possible. While this in of itself isn't a problem (the likelihood is so rare, the GM can just ignore it), the utter randomness that the dice brought to the game made many stats on a character sheet irrelevant.

Character creation was amazing, but game play was... hit and miss.

Underground and TORG used similar dice conventions and suffered from similar failures. [Although TORG remains among one of my favorite RPGs to date.]

3.x suffers from the exact opposite problem. The scale is linear and the dice conventions are linear. This means that challenges rise at roughly the same rate as the PCs advancements. Roughly. And theoretically.

Initiative Sucks
Later, I'll post why initiative sucks and ruins gaming.
I know you don't believe me now. But, it's true.

Because there are 10 different classes (11 if you count bards), with 3 different attack progression tables, the AC of monsters must rise with the progression of the moderate base attack bonus (cleric). If it rises with the highest, no one can compete and fighters are (more) boring to play. If it rises with the slowest, the game just becomes damage rolling, even at medium levels. Besides, by 7th level, wizards aren't rolling attack rolls anymore, anyway. All of their spells hit (another flaw that we might be able to fix later).

Now, because a PC's AC does not rise with the same progression as the monster he is fighting, 3.x becomes a race to do damage quickly, making combat an assembly line, rather than an investment of tactics. Whomever can land the hardest blows early on, will usually win any battle. A dragon for instance has a high AC and a high attack bonus. He's never going to miss and it's possible that he might avoid some damage from time to time. The PCs are really hurting if they go even 1 round without dealing damage to a dragon that is CR+1 or +2 above the party.

Since high-level games are more hits more often, combat is nothing more than larger numbers stretched out across a few more rounds (with the exception of cool spell effects, which may or may not vary depending on the PCs). The only difference between a battle at 5th level and 15th level is the number of die rolls, in my opinion.

I'm going to use BlueBlackRed's WLD sessions 47 and 48 as examples, here.

The amount of damage being dealt by the PCs in this instance is astronomical. I'm personally not comfortable with this level of play. One, I just can't get into it. Two, I can't really wrap my head around it. Three, my mastery of the magic items and spells at this level are poor and stop me from running games as well as Sean has here.

Now. That doesn't mean a battle like this doesn't have merit, but when you do the math, a group of 6 10th level characters facing a CR 14 encounter would have also faced a 22-round battle with smaller numbers all around. 4 5th level characters in a battle with a CR 8 monster might also find themselves in this situation.


This is where CR (or whatever measure you RPG uses) fails and an encounter, no matter how carefully calculated to match the talents of the PCs, can sometimes fall flat, have unexpected results, or be another die rolling simulation.

Those of you that like 6 hour battles can stop reading.

The rest of you...

The encounter that Sean ran here is easily one of the top 10 encounters in the book. Without sounding arrogant, Richard Faresse designed an excellent lich, final conflict, and room, Sean Holland chose the perfect spells and tools, and I wrote solid tactics that brought everything together, as well as a very long sidebar for the encounter. While not my favorite room in the book, it's certainly kick ass enough to merit a memorable encounter for those who played in it... in this case, Sean and his crew.


Sean went even further and ramped up the cool, which there was plenty of room for.

He did all the detail work to make it fit his campaign, included all the extra monsters, and added things that the SRD didn't cover. But, what really makes the encounter sing is that each PC was plagued with something different.

Read it again.

See how everyone is challenged by his own series of obstacles. Whether they are fighting one big thing or a few little things, each PC has something to do. Each PC has a challenge to overcome, that isn't won in just a few rounds.

But flip the situation. Imagine the PCs are all 5th level fighting Invistis all by himself. Believe it or not, the PCs would win, quickly and the combat would be boring. Because, no matter how much damage Invistis deals, he can't compete with six people smacking him before he can act ensures a quick and boring victory.

Which brings us to high-level gaming, initiative, and CR.

(Didn't think I'd get to my point, did you?)

High-level PCs require big challenges. But these challenges don't have to be dragons. And low-level PCs can face off with a lich and still keep it interesting. The ingredients are the same and the numbers are whatever you want them to be.

The symptoms of bad game sessions stem from this competitiveness between PCs and GMs that I can't for the life of me understand. I hear story after story that story that starts with... "Our GM screwed us. I can't stop my PCs. Feat X is broken. Monster XX is too weak/strong. That encounter is unfair. Doug's Paladin can do everything. My character is worthless. Etc."

When did RPGs become a win/lose scenario? What happened to cooperative play? What happened to even playing fields? Fair game time? I'll tell you what happened... hit points and initiative.

Hit points are variable, yet can dictate the value of even the stoutest warrior in a campaign (I rolled a 3 at 2nd, a 4 at 3rd, and a 1 at 4th. Woohoo. And I have a Con of 13.) What fighter feels good being the meatsack in the party when the cleric, paladin, and ranger all outweigh him in hit points?

But, this dilemma is easily solved.

PCs get maximum hit points each level. Bam. Done. In a darker campaign, they get 1 less per level. And when the take the Toughness feat, they get another level of hit points.

Oh my. Now it's useful.

Monsters get a similar hit point structure. Normal NPCs that will never fight (Pepto, the pieman) get 1/2 per die. Semi-important get 1/2 + 1. Henchman and tough encounters get 1 less than maximum per hit die. Villains get max. Campaign ending villains get max+2 or something similar.


No die rolling to see how easy Invistis is to kill. He's a 20th level wizard he has 80 hit points and then some. He's a lich now? That's d12... so its 240 hit points. Now he won't die fighting toe-to-toe with Cronan in two rounds.

Now for initiative. Initiative needs to go. Out. Gone. Removed from the game. The only character that gives a crap is the rogue and we're about to fix him, so let's move on to Initiative's replacement.

Wait. You wanted to know why it sucks.

Initiative is everything that's wrong with RPGs. Ever played Shadowrun?!? Initiative is one of the sources of the WIN mentality in gaming. Going first is good, right? It means I win right? I can kill the lich in one move right?

I used to game with a guy named Chris. Chris always had the perfect solution for killing the villain in round 1. And 1/2 the time, he was spot on. No doubt.

But where's the fun in that? The challenge? And, he would get upset when I wouldn't allow it to happen. "Six months of adventuring, fighting, climbing through debris, swimming through sepsis, and you want to kill the arch-mage of Canoli with a silver spitwad in round 1?!?"

Initiative puts too much pressure on fights to be pro-ATTACK and con-DEFENSE. Initiative rewards impetuous

Better games had a excellent system for Good Guys Finish Last, ironically enough.
You merely selected if you wanted to go before or after the bad guys.
Try it. It's amazingly good.
This concept below isn't it.

Put all the PC's names on small chits, put them in a cup. Put Villain on one. Put Ghost on one, two, or three chits. Manticore on one. Put orc on two. Drama on another. Setback on another. Flumpf on another (this last one is optional and should never occur more than once per session).

Put the villain's name in their twice if the party has more than 4 PCs.

I know you see where this is going.

But you're only half-right.

These chits represent the fog of war, the 'intangible elements' that can't be controlled. Where initiative dice strip the mystery from gaming, chits increase the unpredictable nature of combat and heighten the uncontrollable factors.

Here's how it works.

In turn, the GM selects a chit from the cup. And each time a name comes out of the cup, that PC gets to act. Otherwise, follow the rules below for monsters, villains, and special chits. The chits are chosen in turn, so no one knows who is going next. The process continues until every chit has been removed the cup. If a special chit is drawn at the end of the round with no names remaining, the chit is set aside with no effect.

When orc comes out, half the "orc" monsters go. The other half go, when the other "orc" comes out. It doesn't matter which, and its good tactics to mix it up, so the PCs never know what to expect. Orc represents all fodder monsters. So if the PCs are fighting kobolds, trogs, etc., anything that is lower than they are, the orc chit represents them.

Manticore represents monsters that are within 1 HD of the PCs -- 6th level PCs fighting a 5 to 7 HD monster. When the PCs reach 10th level, the range increases to 2 HD. It is recommended that this chit be left out until the PCs reach 4th or 5th level.

Villain represents the villain of the story, if the PCs are facing someone of importance. Do not put the chit in there if he is not present, unless you can think of some juicy things to do with the chit each round. If the occurs in the cup twice, he gains an additional half-action each round. This can be used the first or second time the chit is drawn (and yes, there's an advantage to saving the big guns for later in the round).

Ghost represents one of two things. Intangibles and henchmen. Henchmen are the right hand men of the villain. If none exists, promote one of the orcs to sergeant, give him +1 hp per HD, and give him a nice sword. He goes on ghost. It also represents things that can happen in combat at opportune moments. Tremors, reinforcements, sneak attacks from the villains, torches going out, anything the PCs may or may not have a contingency plan for. It is not deadly, but it is an inconvenience. Broken swords are saved for setback (see below).

Drama* is good. A second chit is drawn with drama to see who is affected. That chit is put back into the cup. Drama is set aside. Drama is a boon for whomever is chosen. It is a short moment to give a speech, a chance to run an additional 10 ft. to get to the golden chalice, a sword piercing through a shield, a magical barrier fizzling, a potion slipping out of a pack and onto the top of someone's foot, whatever.

The equivalent of drama is a +3 to an action.

Drama occurs every other round. Do not replace the chit the round of the drama.

That sounded funny.

Setback* is just that. A second chit is drawn with setback to see who is affected. That chit is put back into the cup. Setback is set aside. The person affected suffers some kind of setback that hinders him/her. Sword breaks, trips on rock, orc he previously killed gets up, quiver of arrows falls to the floor, monkey steals the peach, whatever.

The equivalent of setback is a lost action or half-action.

Setbacks occur every other round. Do not replace the chit the round of the setback.

Flumpf* is not recommended for novice gamers. Flumpf is chaos. It can be any of a number of things, all dependent on the DM/PC whims. And . . . It is recommended that these happen infrequently. Flumpf is the random nonsense that can't be explained. It can be an old wound that opens/closes, two creatures bumping into one another, a PC stepping on and crushing his own holy symbol, a misread scroll, a previously used wand discharging (again) or producing a wand of wonder effect, a poison-tipped dagger drawn from the scabbard incorrectly, a bead of force rolling out of a pocket and exploding in the center of the enemy ranks, a sneeze revealing a hidden foe/PC, magical darkness springing up/going away, divine/infernal intervention, rat swarms, random encounters finding their way to the fight, a secret door/chute opening, blood from the ceiling, a wineskin rupturing in a backpack, temporary blindness, headaches, nosebleeds, adrenaline rushes, an orc producing a bag of itching powder and exploding it as he falls down (hitting everyone), and so on.

The equivalent of flumpf is an additional action that neither side could have planned for. PCs should be allowed to offer advice on cool effects.

When Flumpf is drawn, two additional chits (names) are drawn with it, representing the victims/benefactors of the Flumpf.

Another way to use Flumpf is to put it in the cup every round. When it is drawn, roll a 1d20. On a 1 or 20, the flumpf affects someone negatively or positively. Otherwise, it is put aside and nothing happens.

One last rule.

At the beginning of the round, before the GM selects the first chit, anyone can select Defense for his action. Defense allows you to increase your AC by some abstract number. It really doesn't matter (see your local rulebook for hints). It also allows you to make a reaction roll any instance you want to interrupt. Interrupt is the equivalent of hold or readied actions, except that you can't use it to attack, only disrupt the action or aid another. The latter does not require a die roll, the former does.

If the PC chooses to interrupt a spell by the lich, by throwing a rock of lunging at him, making a stupid face, mooning him or whatever, he makes a Reaction check* opposed by the Int, Wis, or Reaction score of the opponent. The DM can veto stupid or improbable actions. Especially if the PC has already tried so recently. Every point he beats the opponent by increases the difficultly of the opponent's action by one point. If he's casting a spell, he now has to make a Concentration check, increased by the success of the PC.

He can do the same thing to basically get in the way. He cannot deal damage, immobilize, trip, or otherwise hinder his adversary, beyond causing him to lose his action. The details of its use are left to the collective GM and PC imaginations.

If he chooses to AID another, he increases the target's AC with no need for a roll. Done.

If you're not playing DnD, change up the rules to match your game. When his chit comes out of the cup, he gets no further action for the round and he cannot choose defense again for 1d4 rounds.

Alternately, he can select defense as a ready action to attack, as it states in the PHB. If he does this, he hit does not go back into the cup at the end of the round, but he does get a wider scope of options.

Reaction replaces Initiative.
You can even gain Improved Reaction as a feat,
and gain a +4 to this roll, just like Improved Initiative.

What does all this have to do with high-level play?

It is my experience, that most games grow wearisome after the PCs have advanced 8 or so levels from their starting point. 2nd level characters look nothing like their 10th level counterparts and 20th level games are nothing like 11th level games. The progression is either so slow, you don't care, or so fast, you should have started at 15th level. If you like to tell stories, have fun with your friends, and be challenged by a smart encounter, there's no place for the kill, collect, kill bigger thing syndrome that 3.x promotes. But, if you DO like collecting stuff, I imagine being challenged is more fun than "killing dragon with butter knife."

Unless you're twelve.

When you sit down to play your next campaign, plan for how long you want to play, what you want to face, what level you want to reach, and make a game TOGETHER that makes those things happen. GMs are not there to entertain. They are there to facilitate. The sooner everyone learns that, the sooner these tips become useful.

Stop arguing over hit points, XP, initiative, and winning. Scale the games to meet everyone's needs. Learn to compromise. Take the ingredients that work. And play with a bigger goal in mind. Even if you never REACH that goal, thinking ahead is better than gaming exactly the same way campaign after campaign. If you are not changing, you are dying.

Lester's making a dwarf cleric, again. Go figure.

I hope to cover a lot of ground with these posts. I believe gaming can be more than the sum of its parts. We can be more than just sweaty nerds, getting ass sores from sitting so long, and arguing about THAC0, drow skin color, and the validity of +3 throwing axes.

And, if you check in each week, maybe... maybe... I can show you why my games have succeeded and failed.

I'll have to talk about sneak attack later in the week (as well as spells that need to go away forever). I'm off to see Underworld II before we play Vampire.

Remember. The GM and PC both have the same objective. Having fun. But one's cannot come at the cost of the other. PCs defeating villains is good. PCs losing, but living to fight another day is good, too.

artwork by brom; copyright brom; used without permission of any kind;
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James Beadle said...

I rather like the maximum HP idea. I've had the issues you are refering to happen any number of times uin the game and my reaction to it is to suddenly make him tougher so that he can absorb the attack. On rare occasions I will even allow the premature death of a cool NPC just to let the PC's feel their own strength. It just depends which makes for a better story and which feels like more fun.

I'm going to have to mull over the initative concept. I'm going to be starting an Earthdawn game here soon, and I'm thinking about two things with regards to your suggestion. One, how much more time will this chit system take. Also, how do I adjust initative related talents such as Air Dance to the system.

Hmmm... not sure yet.

I do have one idea to share however... something I decided a to try a long time ago and haven't ever gotten around to. I have a couple of very fancey tarot decks, one of which is unfortunatly incomplete. (I'm not much of a mystic myself, but tarot cards are pretty. :) ) After character generation each PC is going to be given a tarot card as a token. The cards represent ideas not actual physical cards. I will roleplay the introduction of the PC's together and each time a PC meets another they will hear a bell toll loudly in their ears.

I haven't thought about this much beyond this, but I'm going to somehow work the ideas that the cards represent into the game. It adds an extra dimension of mystery to the game and offers something tactile to represent it.


James Beadle said...

Damn... just discoverd that I can't log back in and correct my spelling. Ah well, I'm a lousy speller, deal with it. ;)

BlueBlackRed said...

Thanks for the positive light you put our game in Jim.

As for the issues you listed about high level play, I agree, but my solution is to stop the campaign when the PC group hits higher levels. There are too many variables to account for and clever players really can come up with something you aren't expecting. When they hit a level that makes the DM's work too hard, it's time to come to a good conclusion.

As for initiative, I'd rather stick with the simple and current way. Yes it's not the best, but it's the simplest I've seen.

It's easier to work with and mildly modify a simple system than to deal with an overcomplex system that bogs you down.

And you are correct, bards don't count as a character class.

jim pinto said...

i've always wanted to start a campaign with unopened fortune cookies... and inside would be mysteries that i (the dm) would have to make come true.

jim pinto said...


this post took forever

and i'm still not done

Jason said...

Hussar here.

I like the initiative idea, but I really have no way to implement this in my game easily since I play exclusively over OpenRPG. One problem I see with this system though is time. High level combats are SLOW. Even low level combats can drag on for a fair time, but, by double digits, a large combat can take hours. Messing with the initiative system is going to drag that out even farther. I'm doing my very best to streamline combat as it is - macro'd die rollers for the creatures, noded actions for spells and what not - so I'm not really inclined to dramatically slow down combat.

Not a bad idea, but, methinks, not for me.

((Heh, there, I posted, so can you make your banner smaller? LOL))

richvalle said...

I also like the HP idea. We currently do something close to this but our rule is everyone gets the high side of averge. So 3 on d4, 4 on d6, 5 on d8 ect. I would not be opposed to doing max though.

Re: toughness. Are you saying give the character x2 the hp's? So... 20 at first level for a ftr. 40 at 2nd? That seems a bit much and would become a feat 'everyone has to have'. Maybe 1.5 times the hps.

We liked your stat ideas as well. The idea of rolling for mental and physical stats seperatly is great and will probably make it into our game.


Chris Podima said...

Now, I like this chit system. I'll have to try it out. I do have a couple of questions, though. Such as:

Do you draw ALL the chits in the cup as part of a 'round?' Thusly, you'd have both a Drama and a Setback every other round, in the same round. Or do you start over the round once every PC's chit and baddie's chit has been drawn once? (If so, then what happens if the Villain doesn't draw his second chit?)

More expansion would be greatly appreciated, as I will most likely be trying to summarize this for my players before I put this into use in the WLD for one of the big battles. (The Longtail battle.)

jim pinto said...

Correction to post.

Chris Podima said...

Further question, Jim...

Alternately, he can select defense as a ready action to attack, as it states in the PHB. If he does this, he hit does not go back into the cup at the end of the round, but he does get a wider scope of options.

Can you clarify this a bit further, either in a comment or in the article itself? I'm taking a careful look at this system, because I do intend to use it for an upcoming battle and do want to be able to answer my own questions, as well as my players'. :)

jim pinto said...


If you take a HOLD OR READY action with your Initiative Chit per the PHB (i.e. waiting for someone else to go), then you lose your next round of action under this system.

Because these provide you with a wider scope of options that the Reaction method.

Otherwise, no one would use the reaction method.

I forgot one thing about the initative system here; if you're reduced to 0 or fewer hit points, you do not bleed/die until the last chit has been drawn from the cup that round. Since the chit system is supposed to reflect simultaneous combat and the fog of war, it's only fair to those who drew "late."

Sorry for the confusion.