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Shooting the holy cow

PostPosted: Tue Mar 15, 2016 9:53 am
by Rob Lang
My mind wandered and I was taken back 20 years to a dear old friend called Phil. He said...

The systems doesn't matter, it's all about the setting in your head

At the time it felt like being stabbed. Icar version 2 was the best I could do and, looking back, it was mostly a mess. I took it to heart and rebuilt a huge amount of the game. That became version 3 (that Byrn first played at Uni) and then version 4 (which you can download). It's a hodge podge system.

What if he said it now?
I think there is reasonable cause to make the statement again. I've read quite a lot of systems since 1996 and have a different view on how they are actually used in game. If I were to rebuild the system now, what would it look like? What would it take to change?

I'm not rewriting anything yet. This post is really about exploring the idea for the sake of discussion. It's a healthy process to keep the energy flowing.

New Core Mechanic
I like the attributes of Battle, Shift, Meat, Soul and Wit. How about starting by simplifing all actions in the game to Attribute + Skill + D10 versus target number (14 probably nominal) or opposing roll (bigger wins).

Knock-on effects
Skills would not be tied to attributes and a have a range between 1 and 10 (ish).

If you're missing a skill then you can still try to do the task but you don't get that modifier. For example, if you try and drive a car without the Pilot Grav Skill, you're on Shift + Dice from the Pool (more below).

Equipment, weapons, bionics would give bonuses but not change the attributes.

All initiative would be Battle + Equipment mods + D10. Equipment could be bionics, spacecraft, vehicle etc.

Close combat combos would be about the same but attacking would not just be battle but Battle + Skill. If you're using moves from a skill such as Gun Fu then you need to roll that skill instead.

We'd get rid of the range modifiers. A weapon would have a single to hit (or miss) modifier.

Another jump - the shared pool
I am proud of my Shared Pool mechanic and enjoy the meta game that is built around players sharing a common resource pool. The number of dice left in the pool could also be used. The more dice there is, the more cunning the players have been. The more they have chosen to fail.

So, when you make any kind of skill check, the dice needs to come from the pool. When you're doing something that your character is brilliant at, then you don't need to take a die. If you're taking a risk then you can take more than one.

Simplifying weapons, damage and armour
Characters and vehciles still have hit points but no armour rating and no hit locations. Weapons would do damage per turn, rather than rounds and ammo. There is no blast factor. Weapons have a number of shots before reload is required.

Shields would take a certain amount of damage before they go down. If that damage is not done in a turn, then they automatically replenish.

When your hit points hit 0 then you need "serious medical aid". That'll be a stopclock for the rest of the team to save you. We play that right now so I would codify it.

Remove stun.

Encumbrance would remain much as it.

Knock-on effects
All new sheets in the Equipment Index, although it would be easier to keep new equipment in balance.

Energy weapons would need a rebalance to justify their cost. Not having a blast factor means that their magic anti-shield capability is gone. I think I would adjust this using ammo carrying capability. 7.4 is huge. Energy is not.

Vehicle Combat
What I like about the current system is that people get to choose a manoeuvre that then carries a risk and reward. What I don't like is that it's fiddly. I like that you're either predator or prey and as each you have a different goal. It works best against a single target but then multiple targets is a bit rubbish.

I think I would merge the vehicle combat rules in with the spacecraft combat. The whole team (inside the vehicle) would be there to try and maximise the combat initiative of the vehicle. If they succeed then they get modifiers to attack or get to flee etc.

RP spending
As the game progresses, RP is spent at any time. You can wait until the end if you choose. RP is taken from the shared pool. One die from the pool would allow everyone to have a raise. Two dice would allow two raises or a skill etc.

Character creation
Psychotheatrics would remain. I would keep the Skill Trees, which would govern when you could buy something. Owning a low level skill would be enought to buy a high level one. I would remove some of the restrictions around Close Combat combos.

Knock-on effects
All the skeletons (character types) would need to change. I might also change skeleton to "class". [b]*gasp*[b]

Some renaming?
I think it might be wise to rename some stuff to make it more approachable and remove some of the more generic bits: such as mechasys systems.

Is that it?
Alright, that's quite a lot. It's much easier to edit down what you have than it is to start from scratch. The vast majority of the work in Icar is the graphics (which take ages).

What do you think? Should I try it? See what happens and release Icar 5?

Re: Shooting the holy cow

PostPosted: Tue Mar 15, 2016 11:08 am
by Byrn
Hi mate!

Apologies, this will be pretty brief as I'm writing it on my phone...

Cool. It's good to step back and take a fresh look at things. I think my main response would be to play test quite a bit before making sweeping changes.

There is quite a lot of stuff in the weapon and equipment indices that might need to go under a simplified system. A lot of what is there works because it's a trade-off between bf and damage, damage and range etc. While we can try to fit them into a simplified system I think we'd end up with a lot of samey things, so it would probably mean dropping quite a bit unless we want to keep it for flavour purposes.

On the shared pool. I like this as a mechanic for fill in games, which are a bit of fun, but for icar I'm worried that:

- it makes every dice roll expensive. The entire system needs to reflect this, space combat would have a lot of not rolling initiative or piloting. Close combat as currently done would be very expensive.
- it encourages players not to act, and to specialise so a due is not "wasted"
- it puts a lot of pressure on the GM to give a big enough pool to make a session possible, but not enough to make it trivial. It also needs them to accept enough ideas as good to get the group out of a fix. It makes a game very GM dependent.
- firefights are fast and usually everyone acts each round. I'm concerned that there might not be enough "idea" opportunities to keep the pool going.

I really like the mechanic for a couple of types of games:

- romps. It's fun even if you fail, and people are not too heavily invested in their toons.
- settings with scarcity. It's a beautiful way to represent having to scavenge things in a zombie apocalypse, or behind enemy lines.

I count all three games you've run with this mechanic in the above, and enjoyed all of them, but mechanics shape the game and I think this would have by far the biggest impact of all the changes above.

I really really really hate on-screen keyboards.


Re: Shooting the holy cow

PostPosted: Tue Mar 15, 2016 1:16 pm
by Rob Lang
Thanks Byrn, that's a great effort seeing as you're using a rubbish keyboard! :)

You raise a fair point on the Shared Pool idea. It would require an enormous burn rate through the dice and therefore the GM would need to restock them loads. Idea shelved.

As for weapons, I also agree that each must find a sweet spot. I've started a new spreadsheet for balancing: humans have 10 hits (total) and then scaling from there. Using some graphs (scatter), hopefully I'll be able to locate every weapon in a special place for a special need.

Re: Shooting the holy cow

PostPosted: Tue Mar 15, 2016 7:15 pm
by Onix
It's a tough question. I'd like to try moving The Artifact over to my energy system because it's much simpler. But even though it makes some things easier, like tracking character effort, having non-combat challenges and would greatly speed up play, it wouldn't be the same game. For one, I'd have a bugger of a time figuring out how to represent large vehicles in the new system.

I say that to illustrate that simplified systems are not usually as capable as a crunchy complex game. I can do all the things I want in the 3rd edition rules for The Artifact but they're not unified and simple like they are in my energy system.

It doesn't look like you're trying to do anything as drastic as I'm talking about here. The two systems I'm looking at are night and day different. You're talking about taking what you have and streamlining it. Cut away things that you're not getting the bang for your buck you wanted. In that case, you're not killing the holy cow, you're trimming it's fat (which you can't really do without killing it, so. . . bad metaphor). A drastic trimming yes, but still a trimming.

Yes the core mechanic is done differently, but I'm pretty sure you'd keep the probabilities balanced the same way you have them now. I'd personally switch to d20s though. People love d20s, they're more granular than a d10 which may end up being important for Icar.

Blast factor always seemed a bit of an odd concept to me, maybe I just never really got it so I can't say what removing it would do.

Changing energy weapons and such will have a drastic effect on the culture of the game probably with unintended consequences.

Combining ship and vehicle combat seems like a good idea, I'm not sure what would be lost in doing so.

The shared dice pool would really shake things up. In a group that has good teamwork, it would work great. In a group with poor teamwork, it could bring a campaign to a screeching halt. Buffering that somehow would be important.

I guess I'd argue that Phil was wrong.

Emmett's Rule #1 - System is the setting.

A huge amount of the culture of The Artifact was based on some stats I slapped down when making the game and then the things that were effective took off and things that didn't work languished. I didn't know that some of the things I wrote down were as dangerous as they ended up being in game and to this day, it really shocks players when they see Chezbah Warriors have their vehicle shot out from under them, watch them skip across the ground at 300 Km/h and then get right back up and start doing damage. It's stuff like that which allows those stats I picked without understanding what they really meant to tell their own story.

Now, does that mean that you shouldn't fiddle? Does that mean you shouldn't pull the trigger and kill that doe eyed baby calf? No, it just means the game will change. The setting will change. Maybe that's a good thing. Maybe your tastes have changed and the traditional system is less appealing to you and your players.

Go ahead and change the system. Like Byrn said though, test the new system first.

Re: Shooting the holy cow

PostPosted: Wed Mar 16, 2016 4:30 am
by Rob Lang
Thanks mate, that makes a great read. :) I'll consider d20s. The problem is really with the maths. People are super fast at adding lots of single digit numbers together. As soon as you get into double digits then it's not so good. Not bad, you understand, just not as fast. I don't like percentile unless it's "X less or greater than Y".

I'm going to start with spreadsheets first this time and then work back to the numbers. I'll make the spreadsheet public once most of the new numbers are in.

Onix wrote:Emmett's Rule #1 - System is the setting

I'm sort of with this. I believe that system does matter. It needs to fit the type of game (as @Byrn alluded to up above). Chainsaw Aardvark's excellent scarcity dice mechanic in Dead and Back is also superb. I think generic systems are OK but the rules don't necessarily feel right for the genre played.


Onix wrote:really shocks players when they see Chezbah Warriors have their vehicle shot out from under them

More than one system can provide that visceral excitement. There is more than one way to do that. Whether it still feels right once you've made the change, I am not sure. Feeling for a game is inherently personal, so it can be difficult to see it objectively.

Shared Pool-ish
What if you always get one die to roll but if you want more then you can use the pool? I think it works as an optional rule and the probabilities can be based on Attribute + Skill + D10 to ensure that the D10 gives just enough random element. I'm not completely sold on Shared Pool for this brain-exercise. I like that players can have more of a chance to do that mad thing.

For example: Last night the medic couldn't fly the big Orbihaul to save the suffocating freed slaves because he didn't have the skill. What about the new system?

1. Without Shared Pool
The bog standard target number would be 14 (I think, need to run the numbers). I would ask the player to do a Attribute + Skill + D10. I could choose Wit or Shift. As this is a dexterous task, I'd probably choose Wit (the Orbihaul isn't complex to fly, it's takes skill to do quickly). No skill means that it's just Attribute + D10. Assume that the average attribute is 4. Player must roll a 10 to fly. That's a 10% chance.

This is already better than the case at the moment. I would let the player try to fly it but it's not really obvious what the bonuses should be and what the chance of success is. This is much tighter.

2. With Shared Pool-ish
Starts the same as example 1. There are 5 dice in the Shared Pool. Player gets one die for free. So starts with Attribute + D10. Attribute is still 4, target is still 14, still 10% chance. Player doesn't roll 10.

Let's say that this is the most important thing the player character has done in their life; that they have a prerogative that means that just have to do everything they can. This is the defining moment. They can choose to fail now, putting a die into the pool. They can choose to take another die and add it on to get to 14. It's their choice.

A sense of control, of agency
I like that sense of agency, putting more power into the hands of the player to choose to steer how things go. I find it upsetting when a player consistently gets bad rolls and their evening is ruined because they achieved nothing - and there was nothing they could do about it.

Byrn's pilot has this every time he uses the Starsail. Now, it doesn't really matter if he passes of fails - they are explorers and going somewhere is enough. However, it would be better for Byrn-the-player to think "Yes, I failed over and over but I chose not to take more dice from the pool and I filled it up pretty quickly for others to use later!". The feeling of having some choice - of doing some good - even when the dice are against you is powerful.

Does it make the game easier? From a system perspective, yes. The game as a whole? No. If a player decides to open a bunch of space crates in a vacuum only to find that there are human slaves inside, that's not easy. It's a different sort of hard. It's not the system being tough, it's the narrative. My narrative is always going to be brutal.

Still not settled on this, still thinking
I'm thinking out loud with a lot of this and trying to view recent sessions with this additional control. What would have changed? How would the narrative been different? Would the players have done things differently knowing that they have more control? Would they take more chances?

Re: Shooting the holy cow

PostPosted: Wed Mar 16, 2016 1:57 pm
by Onix
Rob Lang wrote:
Onix wrote:really shocks players when they see Chezbah Warriors have their vehicle shot out from under them

More than one system can provide that visceral excitement. There is more than one way to do that. Whether it still feels right once you've made the change, I am not sure. Feeling for a game is inherently personal, so it can be difficult to see it objectively.

I'm not saying that I've got the only system that does this. I guess I didn't quite finish the point properly. I was trying to convey that it wasn't me that decided to have this happen. It was the system. I simply followed it, not knowing that would be the result. In the end, I didn't tell that story, the system told it to me.

Re: Shooting the holy cow

PostPosted: Thu Mar 17, 2016 8:12 pm
by DOC_Agren
So Rob, If I understand instead of having skills in Icar going 1 to 100+ you are looking at going, 1 to 10 and the skill test wlll be stat+skill+d10.
As an older gamer, I happen to like the % system for skill check..

Shared Pool, work but well there needs to be some rules for it. We did play 1 game system that had a shared fate point pool, but each player had to buy in, and in return each player got a vote if the shared fate points were used by a team mate. I'm not sure where you going with your pool and where these points come from.

Removing range mods, I really dislike this. I admit I do it for a quick convention game of my own TS/SI game. But knowning it a much harder shot at 100m then 10m using a handgun or 30m vrs 1000m with a rifle. You really aren't giving any reason to increase the skill if there no penalties for shooting at range. Also if you loose range mods what about movement ones?

Re: Shooting the holy cow

PostPosted: Mon Mar 21, 2016 5:15 am
by Rob Lang
Hi DOC, thanks for the feedback. This is all still very much in discussion!

Range mods (and % skills in general)
The difficulties I have with range mods are:

It's a long way into the future.
The weapon removes a lot of its weight using it's own anti-gravity system (Grav Balancing). All the projectile weapons are really rail guns (there's no chemical charge). All you really need to do is take wind and gravity into account and then only at long distances. These are all calculable by the weapon. Pulse lasers are only affected by gravity. If you can see the target then the weapon can hit it. Someone with teleoptic bionics should be able to hit a target that you or I couldn't without a teleoptic sight.

I'd rather give a maximum range on the ammunition used, that would increase the importance of heavy calibre weapons and give the pulse laser a really good advantage I don't have.

It gets complicated when you start adding them all together
I find that players do more interesting stuff if they have a better idea of the mods and can do the mathematics in their head quickly. This is really an argument against percentile systems.

For example, let's say that Byrn wants to shoot 2 people in cover. Being the prepared sort of chap that he is, he aimed the previous turn. It's all set up. One target is at short range, one is at medium.

Currently, you'd do (for a skill of 66 with a Nelson H1):

Roll D100 under: Skill - Target in cover - Shoot at more than one target + Aimed previous turn + Weapon mod for short or medium range?
66 - 10 - 20 + 20 + (10 or 5)

It's quite nice if you write it down like that but doing that in your head is tough. Which range modifier do you use? 10 (Short range) or 5 (medium range)? It's not really obvious. It should be. Let's just say medium range (GM's call). The target is 66.

That's not hard! But you're not using the resolution of %
True but you're not really getting the benefit of the resolution percentile gives because I've rounded the numbers. You're really doing -1 -2 + 2 + 1. And then realising that they all cancel out. Why bother having a percentile if you're going to reduce the numbers anyway. I say this so much in the Dog Fighting rules.

It's more about the skill of the person
With Attribute + Skill + D10 + mods it's more about the skill of the player. It'll be cheaper to raise skills than attributes. I like to think that a player start with Attribute + Skill of 10 with a weapon mod of 2 can easily see that they only need a 2 or more on a D10 to hit the target of 14 so then they start adding more interesting stuff to the action, such as adding another target. Or even starting with Attribute + Skill of 14 and then choosing to miss to put dice into the Shared Pool.

Margin of success is hard
With percentile, I have decided to rarely add a margin off success. The rules are written than the mods are added to the skill before the roll. That's really to make the maths easier. It's a lot easier to take 66 and add/subtract 20,10,20,10,10 and then 30 for difficulty than it is to take 66, roll 42 and work out how far under the skill it is. However, that's exactly what happens around the table. The player rolls 42 and tell me it's 24 under. That's fine if your mental arithmetic is good but a game is not supposed to test that.

What should happen is that all the mods are added to the skill so that the player is rolling under. "Is 42 larger or smaller than 66", is a much easier question. Adding mods to the skill just doesn't happen when we're in full flow. The player is keen to roll dice on their turn and then tell me the difference to work out if they have passed. If that's the way people actually tend to play, why not build a system that incorporates that?

I'm very much thinking out loud here!

Adding more modifiers
Also, I want to add more modifiers. What has held me back is the complexity of combining them for the players. It's cool to have a massive list but it isn't as obvious to the player what the probability will be adding and subtracting them all. If they have a target number (provided by the GM) and know their Attribute + Skill then it's much easier to see how much they need to roll.

I want the player to be able to mod the weapons. I've got a list of mods I don't know what to do with right now because they're too complex. If there are three statistics for a weapon: modifier, damage per turn and magazine size then it is easier to write a weapon mod. It's also easier to compare weapons to find one that's cool. If a stock Arms 5 is +1 to hit, 100 damage per turn and you've picked up a +3 to hit, 150 damage a turn then you know you've got a good one. It's more difficult to see that with the weapon stats as they are. That's kind of a side issue.

Range mods could stay, I'm not that worried
Most range mods are multiples of 10, so I am not worried about them staying in the system. They don't add too much more complexity.

Buying into the Shared Pool
I've used the shared pool a lot. For a campaign game (which Icar is design for) I think the players are pretty self-regulating. There has been times when a player has burnt a lot of dice (to test the system more than anything) and that has created an air of unfairness at the table. It's meta-gaming but I think it is rare. Players don't burn through the pool unless it's for the good of the team.

Re: Shooting the holy cow

PostPosted: Mon Mar 21, 2016 4:10 pm
by Onix
I agree with the idea behind no range mods with one caveat. It's REALLY far in the future. There are rifles for sale today that do what you're describing. In the far future it would be really hard for a weapon to not pick the target for you. Heck that far in the future, the gun could probably MRI the people in the room, tell which ones would eventually betray you after ten years and kill them at the greatest point of diminishing returns where their contribution is not going to keep racking up dividends.

I realize though, that would be a totally different game. So, it's justifiable but is it a trap that might break suspension of disbelief?

I agree that single digit modifiers are desirable. To push it even further, I wonder if it would make sense, to make everything simpler, to do away with specific modifiers? Why track all that? I know this is sacrilege (this thread is titled Shooting the holy cow), but hear me out for a moment.

What if, instead of describing the scene, and then picking modifiers, you generated the modifier and then described the scene? The players know what they're up against for the turn, but the situation can change from turn to turn. How would this work?

The GM picks a minimum difficulty, lets say three, and then rolls 3d4. The result is the difficulty modifier for that turn. They could pick 1d6 if the GM wants. All that matters is the lowest possible number, the highest possible number and the swingyness of the roll.

What does this do? One, it makes the GM's life easier. You don't have to track as much. There may be the challenge of explaining why the difficulty went from 1 this turn to 6 the next but with a bunch of pre listed descriptions of reasons why the modifier is the number it ends up, the GM would slowly make it up as they go along and the players wouldn't need to hear why something shifted.

The second thing it does is to reduce the things a player has to deal with. Instead of getting a list of modifiers, they get one large mod. It could greatly speed up play.

Re: Shooting the holy cow

PostPosted: Tue Mar 22, 2016 7:13 am
by Rob Lang
Onix wrote:the gun could probably MRI the people in the room, tell which ones would eventually betray you after ten years and kill them at the greatest point of diminishing returns where their contribution is not going to keep racking up dividends.

That's a 24 hour RPG compo right there. :D Made me chuckle away.

do away with specific modifiers?
Setting up difficulty numbers is certainly doing away with mods and I agree it can be a lot to track. For situational mods, I think there is a good argument for removing them. However, it is the meta-game system that adds the crunch for the players to use. I would keep them for equipment because it is one tool to say that one piece of equipment is better than another.

This is the behaviour I want to support:

Player Character has Attribute and Skill at maximum levels for shooting things. They can hit things of easy difficulty without rolling. They have an easy shot but want to do something more interesting. It's late, their brain is addled. They want inspiration. With a list of modifiers they can see that they are could dive around the corner shooting two weapons and it only costs them -3, which gives a chance of failure but is so much cooler!

Definitely worth more of a ponder!