Friday 20 November 2020

Theory - Hard & Soft Tools

Alright, here's a framework I've been using to analyse games. It's about the mechanical means by which players can exert their will onto the fiction. Only a quick little post, but it should help clarify some of my thinking.

So, let's define 'tools'. A tool is basically a mechanic that gives a player agency in the fiction. They use the mechanic, and something happens. It's like a lever you can pull to get a desired result. Generally, this takes the form of options on the character sheet, or codified resolution mechanisms for a given action. The key is that they're player facing, a thing the player chooses to initiate when they want something to happen.
'My PC has +6 to Intimidate rolls' is a tool. 'My PC has the discipline Animalism' is a tool. 'Gaze Into The Abyss is a move I can use' is a tool. 

The next thing to consider is what I consider 'hard' and 'soft' tools. Basically, the harder the tool, the more precise the effect you get is, and the less space there is for the result to be fucked about with by the whims of the GM. 
As an example, in b/x casting the spell Sleep is a very hard tool. You cast the spell, and a valid target (or targets) falls asleep. There's no wiggle-room or interpretation, no saving throw or skill check or anything; you cast sleep, and stuff falls asleep. 
By contrast, let's take social skills in oWoD. Sure, you can say you want to roll Charisma + Intimidation, but there's a lot of wiggle room there. What's the difficulty for the roll? What happens if you succeed? What happens if you fail? Do you even get to make the roll, or does it just come down to a judgement call? All of this stuff is at the GM's discretion. Every time you invoke your social skills, the GM has to make a judgement call for how to handle it.
Lots of mechanics fall somewhere in the middle. Let's take the b/x thief's Hide In Shadows skill. It has a defined fixed chance to succeed, and a pretty clear result when it does. But when do you get to roll? That's a GM call. And what happens when you fail? Again, a GM call. 
Likewise, I think the attack roll in D&D 5e is a pretty fucking hard tool. You roll with a set bonus versus a set difficulty, and if you succeed, roll a predetermined amount of damage; when you've racked up enough damage against an enemy, they're taken out of action. Further, there isn't really any GM discretion in when you roll: every individual attempt at violence is an attack roll. But, there's a little softness, since advantage/disadvantage on the roll is at GM discretion, and the GM is the one setting the difficulty to hit and the amount of damage needed in the first place.

So we can look at a game and work out what tools it gives you, and that will give you an idea of how the game is intended to play.
For example, let's take Monsterhearts. Here are the tools Monsterhearts 2e gives you:
-The moves Turn Somebody On, Shut Somebody Down, Hold Steady, Run Away, Lash Out Physically, & Gaze Into The Abyss. All of them trigger automatically when you take a certain action, and have a fairly limited set of outcomes.
-Spending Strings (a metacurrency representing social influence) to offer XP, inflict a condition, or adjust rolls.
-Tweaks to the above depending on your playbook.
So these are all fairly, but not completely, hard tools. Most involve social manipulation of some kind. So, if you want to exert concrete agency over the fiction in Monsterhearts, the tools you have to do so involve that social manipulation. If you want to take a different approach (perhaps being less manipulative and more nurturing and supportive), the rules don't give you any tools for that. In some sense, you get less agency when you take that approach. So, the tools the game gives you shape play.

Another example, this time classic vampire the masquerade. The hardest tools you get, with the most precisely defined outcomes, tend to be one of three things:
-Most Disciplines
-Blood Bonds
-The Combat Procedure
Most notably, there are a lot of times where the skill system gives you a very soft tool, which is superseded by a discipline that provides a hard tool. As I mentioned above, social rolls in vamp are very soft indeed, filtered through multiple layers of GM discretion. But Dominate or Presence? Activate the discipline, roll against a set difficulty, and you get a well defined outcome that happens without any need for GM interpretation. Likewise, the 'stealth' skill is very soft, while the Obfuscate discipline makes you automatically invisible when you use it without even needing to roll. The 'empathy' skill is very vague in its use and what it gives you, but Auspex 2 gives you well-defined, powerful results. 
Combat is very much pinned down, unlike the rest of the skill system. Set difficulties, dice pools, outcomes. When you engage in violence, you can be sure of the mechanisms that will be used to resolve it. 
So, with this in mind, is it any wonder the game often drifts towards 'superheroes with fangs'? The hardest tools the players have are fighting and superpowers.

This is my main point here. The tools the game gives you shape how the game plays out. Players will gravitate towards activities in the game that they have tools relating to. In particular, the relative hardness and softness of tools is useful to consider. For example, a game where fighting is treated only with a few comparatively soft tools ('Lash Out Physically' is one of the softer moves in MH, for example) is one where violence gives you less agency and will be used to solve problems less.

It is worth noting that games that mostly give you soft tools aren't necessarily bad, and don't necesarily deny players their agency. It's just that that agency can't be achieved through the use of mechanics. And, really, the most useful comparison is to look at a game and say which areas are harder or softer in the context of that game. It's comparative. 

Monday 9 November 2020

Alright Fuckers I Made a Better Version of Vamp

 So, vampire the masquerade. I've played it a lot. I really like the setting and have had a lot of fun exploring characters within it (although some elements are... problematic. Yeesh, the ravnos). 

But the mechanics frustrate me. They're too complex and too much of a straightjacket. I feel like I'm fighting the system to get the experience I want, and it runs best when the mechanics are ignored.

So, I'm gonna make a better version.  

Design goals:

  • strip the mechanics waaaay back. All the way back.
  • strip out the agency-removing mechanics and the stuff that mechanises morality; moral choices aren't meaningful when the system punishes you for being bad.
  • keep the setting more or less recognisable as VtM or VtR if you want it to be, but with some more flexibility.
  • not go too hard on storygamey, but lean on those ideas a bit.
  • put a focus on hunger and self-control.

the base mechanic:

For any action where the outcome is in doubt, roll a pool of d10s. In almost all circumstances, you'll be rolling an attribute plus a skill. Every 8+ is a success. More successes is better. 
Sometimes there are complications; bad things that might happen. You can spend successes to negate these complications; successes spent removing a complication don't count towards how many successes you get. If you spend all your successes on negating complications, you still fail, but avoid causing problems, which might be a bigger priority. You're probably looking at 1-3 complications, max.
If a task is particularly hard or easy, you might gain or lose successes automatically. (Before spending sux to negate complications).
For group rolls, pick whoever has the best pool and they roll for everybody. Apply the results and complications to everybody.

Decide what you're trying to get them to do, and what leverage you're using to get it.
Roll an appropriate attribute plus skill. Probably social ones, but not necessarily. The more sux, the more extreme shit you can get them to do.
GM or player being rolled against selects complications from the following list, or invents their own.
-They're spooked by you.
-They'll tell people about what you asked.
-They do a half-assed job.
-They'll badmouth you.
-They'll only do it if you offer them a reward.
-They do it, but don't give it much priority.
-They're intrigued, and will try to find out what's up.

If PCs have influence rolls used against them, they aren't compelled if the roll succeeds. Instead, they get a point of Willpower for each success rolled against them if they go along with it, and lose the same amount if they don't.

First determine the stakes: what each side wants, what they're trying to achieve. Maybe torpor, diablarie, capture, escape, feeding, driving them off or just inflicting pain.
Both sides in a fight roll an appropriate attribute plus skill. Probably violence, but maybe stealth or athletics if trying to avoid an enemy. Whoever gets more successes wins. Winning means whatever the winner was trying for.
For each success the loser achieves, there is a complication. The GM or relevant players pick from the list, or invent something.
-You're injured.
-If you're injured, you're put into torpor.
-If you're in torpor, you suffer final death.
-You frenzy. 
-You increase Hunger.
-You lose or break something valuable to you.
-The fight is obvious and attracts attention.
-There are bystander casualties.

Feeding can only happen on-screen. The exception is the characters chosen predator type, which can be rolled for off-screen without needing a scene.
Each success decreases your hunger once. The GM chooses one or more complications, from this list or made up:
-Your victim dies.
-You're observed at the scene.
-Your victim's most notable personality trait bleeds through to you temporarily.
-Your victim becomes obsessed with you.
-You leave evidence of your involvement.
-Your infected with a blood-borne illness or affected by a narcotic your victim was on.
-Your victim is spooked and becomes paranoid. 

You can increase hunger to do one of the following things.
-Add as many dice as your points in Might to your pool.
-Recover fully from being Injured.
-Rise from being Torpid, becoming Injured instead.
-Rise from daysleep temporarily during the day.
-Rise from daysleep for the night.
-Feed it to somebody, blood bonding them.
-Feed it to an exsanguinated corpse, causing it to rise as a vampire.
It also increases when a complication tells you it does or your presented with an easy opportunity to feed without consequences, and decide not to.

Effects of Hunger:
You should expect to roleplay the effects of hunger as it increases. If you have no hunger, you're happy and full. If it's less than your Might, its an irritating presence on the edge of your mind, but easily ignored. If it's less than double your Might, it colours everything, becoming a constant temptation. At double your Might or more, hunger is overwhelming and impossible to resist for long. How this affects your actions is up to you.
When you feed, if you get more successes than you have Hunger to reduce, you get a point of Willpower for each excess success. You might ignore complications to get more successes, feeding sloppily for the fun of it.
When you go to sleep each dawn or go into torpor, you lose as much Willpower as your current hunger: the hunger gnaws at your mind.

You have a pool of Willpower. It starts at 0, and goes up and down as you get stuff from the game. 
You can spend Willpower to:
-Add a single dice to a dice pool.
-Temporarily ignore a mental effect, such as mind-influencing magic, a blood bond, or the basic effects of being a vampire. Blood bonds need you to spend as many as the level of the blood bond. Mind influencing magic needs you to spend as many as the successes rolled to create the effect.
-Buy new stuff following practical experience, training or study, costing ten times the thing's freebie costs.
You lose willpower when you:
-Go against one of your Limits from character creation.
-Don't go along with it when Influence is rolled against you.
-Go into daysleep or torpor while hungry.
You gain willpower when you:
-Fulfil one of your Urges from character creation.
-Go along with it when Influence is rolled against you.
-Feed excessively, getting more successes than you have hunger to sate.

Blood Bonds:
For each time you're fed a vampire's blood, they get a point of Blood Bond on you. Blood Bond accumulates over time.
You're expected to roleplay the effects of Blood Bond against you. If the level is less than your Might, you find them compelling and your thoughts sometimes linger on them, but it's not particularly troublesome. If it's less than double your Might, you find it hard to think ill of them, find yourself obsessing over them, and have a strong desire to serve them. If its double your Might or more, you're overwhelmed by their influence, becoming utterly enthralled. Exactly how you interpret this effect in your characters actions is up to you, but its always there unless you spend Willpower to resist it.
They add their points of Blood Bond to rolls against you. 
A blood bond goes away if you avoid contact for an extended period of time (on a scale of months or years), or take part in a vaudlerie. You can be under many blood bonds at once.

If two or more vampires mix their blood and drink the concoction, the result is a vaudlerie, a short of mutual blood bond between the entire group.
A vaudlerie breaks all pre-existing blood bonds, but doesn't prevent more arising.
When you take part in a vaudlerie, add together the Might of every participant and roll that many dice. For each success, every participant gets a blood bond on each other participant. 

If another vampire is at your mercy, you can diablerise them, consuming their soul. You get each of the following benefits:
-Your Might increases by 2 if it was less than theirs, or by 1 if it was equal or more.
-You can learn a Discipline they knew and you didn't.
-You can add a point to an Attribute or Skill that they were better at than you.
-Your soul is irrevocably marked by the act.
-You take on traits from them. The higher their Might compared to yours, the more pronounced this is; roleplay this appropriately o

Disciplines don't come in levels anymore. They just unlock a general thing you can do now. You always need to roll to use a discipline. The specifics are left freeform. EG, animalism lets you communicate with and influence animals; any supernatural effect that falls under that purview could work, although for really dramatic or out-there stuff, you'll need more successes. GM and player between them select at least one complication, based on what could go wrong.
-The use of your power is obvious enough to be a masquerade breach.
-You increase Hunger.
-You increase Hunger
-You increase Hunger
-Your power traumatises its subjects, leaving them emotionally unstable.
-Your power leaves you temporarily emotionally unstable.
-Your power is uncontrolled, causing collateral damage.
-Your power requires you to make a material sacrifice to succeed.
-Your body is wracked by the effort, and you become Injured.
-You frenzy.

Advantages represent your place in society. They unlock new capabilities that you wouldn't otherwise have. You may or may not need to roll to use them. Mostly, you'll use the rules for Influence to make use of them when you do.


Attributes (rated 1-5):
Social: Charisma, Manipulation, Composure
Physical: Strength, Dexterity, Stamina
Mental: Wits, Perception, Intelligence

Skills (rated 0-5):
Physical: Violence, Stealth, Athletics, Reflexes, 
Social: Charm, Intimidation, Politics, Subterfuge
Mental: Occult, Technology, Academics, Medicine

A measure of how potent your blood is, a function of age, diablerie, and generation. Starts at 1, and can go up. Mortals have might 0.

Animalism: Communicate with and influence animals.
Auspex: Perceive or deduce things you otherwise wouldn't be able to.
Celerity: Perform feats of supernatural, otherwise impossible speed and agility.
Dominate: Override people's free will to make them obey you.
Fortitude: Endure, survive, and shrug off otherwise lethal dangers.
Obfuscate: Conceal yourself and create illusions.
Potence: Perform feats of supernatural, otherwise impossible strength.
Presence: Inflict or manipulate others' emotional states.
Shapeshifting: Alter your shape, either making minor tweaks or taking on a new form entirely.
Blood sorcery: Pick a theme for your magic (eg: necromancy, koldunic connection to your territory, fleshcrafting, blood poisons, elemental magic, shadow control). Through slow, careful rituals, create overt magical effects around that theme.

Age: You've been around for ages, a significant social advantage in vampire society.
Anonymity: You don't exist in the official record.
Contacts: A wide number of people who know stuff, who you can hit up for info.
Cover identity: A fake person you can pretend to be.
Employees: Mundane people who work for you (house staff, employees in a business you run, etc).
Fame: You're well known among mortals.
Herd: A good number of people you can feed from. 
Occult Library: A big collection of books about magical things.
Reputation: Other vampires have heard of you.
Retainer: You have a (possibly supernatural) servant who is loyal and capable.
Territory: A building, estate, or other area you control, other than your own haven.
Wealth: You have lots and lots of money.


-Pick your name and basic concept.
-Pick a clan, bloodline, lineage or family. This will cement your concept, and determine which disciplines it makes sense for you to know, as different clans specialise in different disciplines. If you follow a particular Road, or your beast is particularly weak or strong, note this down; this will influence your Limits and Urges.
-Each of your attributes starts at 1. Prioritise social/physical/mental as Best/Middling/Worst. You get 4 points to increase your Best set, 3 for your Middling, and 2 for your Worst.
-Each of your skills starts at 0. Prioritise social/physical/mental as Best/Middling/Worst. You get 6 points to increase your Best set, 4 for your Middling, and 2 for your Worst.
-Pick between one and three Limits: things your character will never do. Distribute 3 points between them, that's how much willpower you lose if you do them.
-Pick between one and three Urges: things your character feels compelled to do. Distribute 3 points between them, that's how much willpower you get when you successfully do them.
-Pick your Predator Type; how you feed by default. Work out your particular methods, where and who you hunt, how restrained you are, etc etc. This isn't the only way you feed, but it's what you fall back on.
-Pick a single Discipline. 
-Pick two Advantages.
-Your Might begins at 1.
-Work out any flaws or limitations your vampire has, either as a person, as a result of their circumstances, or as a result of their supernatural nature.
-Agree on the starting relationship between you and each other PC. You can, if you agree, come in with points of Blood Bond on each other, which don't need to be symmetrical.

You can then spend Freebies to increase stuff. 
-Increase a Skill by 1 (1 freebie)
-Increase an Attribute by 1 (2 freebies)
Get a new Advantage (3 freebies)
-Get a new Discipline (5 freebies)
-Increase Might by 1 (7 freebies)
How many freebies you get depends on the intended power level of the game. 5 for grounded street-level games or games about newly-turned vampires. 10 for more established characters. 15 for fairly old ones, and 20 or more for movers and shakers.

This is not playtested or nothing. But I figure I'd have more fun with it than the official games. It shouldn't be too hard to bolt it onto the VtM or VtR settings, or make a homebrew one for it.