Thursday 28 February 2019

Mutants and Death Ray Guns!

A selection of mutants
So far this year, the game I've played most is Mutants and Death Ray Guns, the post-apocalyptic sci-fi skirmish ruleset from Ganesha Games. Work, travel, holidays and the Six Nations have conspired to deny me time for preparing RPG adventures, so I've been running MDRG games for my son and his friends (and one of their fathers) most weeks.

I've had the rules for three or four years, and we've played them fairly often over that time, but usually simply as a sci-fi take on Song of Blades and Heroes, the marvellous fantasy skirmish game that provides the 'engine'. So, we typically just stat up some characters, keep the page with modifiers for high-tech weapons open and then play SBH. 

The field of battle

In our recent sessions, though, we've been paying much more attention to the differences between MDRG and SBH. And the game was much the better for it. That shouldn't be a surprise, of course, but I think many of us are guilty of carrying assumptions from one ruleset into similar but subtly different games.

So what have we been doing differently? Well, for starters, we've been using the profiles for each species in the book: Q3, C2 for humans (the default in SBH tends to be Q3, C3) and Q4, C3 for mutants. We then gave each side the appropriate leader and champion updates. That meant that Captain Zero, a human leader, is Q2, C2 - very easy to activate, but not especially formidable in combat, even when decked out in power armour (+2 C) and equipped with a jetpack (the Flying trait) and a sub-machine gun (+2 C).

Captain Zero

We've also paid much more attention to the differences between weapons. It was only fairly recently that I noticed that the titular death-ray guns don't just add 2 to combat rolls, but are also Lethal (killing on a 'win' rather than a 'doubling': something that should have been obvious!). So we've been making sure that was observed. And we've also been using multiple-shot rule for most high-tech weapons - a big departure from SBH - and the slower rate of fire for primitive weapons like bows and crossbows (which need an action to be reloaded in MDRG).

All of our SBH and MDRG games involve wandering monsters, which add a bit of extra spice. Before the game, I line up six beasties in order of power, with stats assigned to each. At the end of each turn, someone rolls a d6; a six means that a wandering monster (d6 roll for which) appears at a random table edge. This adds a lot of unpredictability to the game: players have to watch their backs.

Our most recent game put a twist on this. The game centred around cargo from a downed aircraft that had broken up over an alien hive. The players' squads had to retrieve some of this while avoiding or fighting off angry, bug-like aliens that emerged from several 'spawning points'. A d6 was rolled for each of these at the end of a turn; only a 1 failed to produce aliens, with other numbers spawning various types of bug.

This lead to a set-up in which the table was often swarming with agitated aliens, meaning that the player goals often had to be subordinated to sheer survival. That forced temporary cooperation among the players, who were otherwise opposed to each other.

Bugs and their spawning points
I also recently played back-to-back games of GW's Kill Team and MDRG. I enjoyed KT (a game with an old friend is always fun), but I was struck by how slow the game is compared with the Ganesha rules. We used a small section of the table for KT and the whole table for MDRG, with two warbands a side for the latter game. But MDRG played out much more quickly. It also offers much more elegance in the combat system: shooting delivers five possible results from one opposed dice roll, whereas in KT, it's three possible results from four or five dice rolls. In close combat, MDRG gives a spread of nine possible results from the single opposed roll; in KT, it's three results from four rolls - and the process is repeated if the defender survives.

That got me thinking about how MDRG and SBH combat is generally much more enjoyable and dynamic than most RPG systems. And that in turn prompted me to dig out the Tales of Blades and Heroes RPG rules from Ganesha. I'm planning a hybrid skirmish/RPG run-out with those this weekend.

Wednesday 27 February 2019

Keeping cool: an alternative approach to character advancement.

He's got it ...

Most RPGs presume that characters get more formidable as they advance: more hit points, more attacks, more spells, more skills.

Up to a point, that makes sense: a veteran is likely to be a better fighter than a young bravo; and wizardry should always improve with age.

But what about the cumulative effect of old wounds and physical decline? Stiff shoulders and creaking knees? Bones that haven't set right? Declining muscle mass and slower reflexes?

I've always preferred low-level adventures to high-level ones. I think part of that is because book-keeping becomes so much more involved as characters progress, and fights often become duller (more hit points to whittle away). And, as the risk of death tends to decline, at least in the early stages of an adventure, there's less tension, drama and fear.

Against that, though, the ongoing narrative and development of characters are interesting - and the accumulation of equipment and experience is rewarding on both in-game and meta-game levels.

How, then, to reconcile these element?

One solution might lie in a stat that featured in Warhammer: cool. It was there from the start (when the game was both a wargame and an RPG), and it lasted quite a while, though I think was eventually subsumed into the leadership stat.

Why cool? Well, it's the quality that separates the experienced adventurer from the cocky young bravo: "if you can keep your head ...".

Cool is what lets Han Solo to nonchalantly level his blaster under the cantina table. It's what allows Indiana Jones to reach for his revolver when confronted with a whirling scimitar. And, in the eponymous film, it's what allows Sanjuro to put an end to his antagonist in such spectacular fashion.

In short, cool is what allows heroes to be cool.

In all three of the films I referenced above, those heroes are older than many of the other characters and often a little world-weary. They've been around the block a bit. They're not necessarily the strongest or the best at fighting. But they know how to keep calm and when to pick their moment. They're experienced, in other words.

All of that suggests a very simple character-advancement mechanism. For each adventure survived, a character gains a point of cool (from a starting point of zero). And, at the referee's discretion, certain particularly heroic - or indeed cool - actions might earn the character additional points.

Those points can then be used during a single adventure session in various ways:

  1. To automatically gain the initiative. I bet you are ...
  2. To gain advantage (best of two rolls) on a single task. This applies even if you would ordinarily have disadvantage on that task. You make your own luck ...
  3. To give someone else disadvantage (worst of two rolls) on a single task. These guys can't shoot for shit.
  4. To cause double damage after a successful hit (rolling twice rather than doubling a single roll). That's gotta smart ...
  5. To re-roll a damage die when you're hit. I thought I was a goner ...
  6. As a universal saving throw: roll equal to or under your remaining cool score to avoid whatever peril you face. Phew!
Note that these effects can be stacked. So, in a single combat round, you could gain the initiative, attack with advantage, give your foe disadvantage on his parry or riposte, deal double damage and, if hit yourself, re-roll that damage (for a total cost of five points). And if the damage that gets through is still enough to kill you, you could burn your remaining points for a universal save. 

In this way, a veteran of 20 adventures might burn all 20 cool points in a single combat round (five during the combat and 15 for the save). 

The corollary of this system is only limited advances in hit points (+1 per level or - easier, I think - + 1 per adventure), with a 'serious wounds' table for when characters go out of action. That means that characters get a bit tougher and more skilful as they advance, but also accumulate debilitating wounds. Ideally, a physical-decline aspect would be worked in too. 

The idea is that the automatic superiority of conventional character advancement is replaced with a system that models reality a bit more closely on the one hand (fighting hurts and fighters get older) but amps up the heroics on the other. The advantages of keeping your character alive to fight another day are even more pronounced now (more cool points), and there's a risk/reward aspect too: do I use my cool points to gain various advantages along the way, or do I keep them all back in case I need to gamble on my universal save?

Cool points regenerate between sessions. That's true even if a session ends with a cliffhanger. Indeed, it's especially true then: at the start of the new session, the PC who went over the cliff will have a full complement of cool points with which to attempt to cling to a root or outcrop on the way down ...