Sunday, January 22, 2017

Lost Songs of the Nibelungs 2017 (reflection and design post)

It's been a while, but I was itching to talk about Lost Songs of the Nibelungs again. Play-testing has been on hiatus the last few months, because I needed (still need) to figure a few things out before I want to go on with playing. We are bound to play again end of next month and I need to get into that mood again. Mid-level campaign! So you can expect a bit more noise about LSotN in the near future. For now, I'll start the new year by talking a bit about the state of the game in general and some new developments. I'm seeing a finishing line here, guys ...


The harsh realities of the Dark Ages

Lost Songs is gritty. Not because characters die fast, but because they get to feel every bit of trauma on their way to death. If they are allowed to die. Most of the time they will live to tell the stories about the scars they got. There is reason behind that design choice. At least I keep telling myself that. You see, the idea is to give the players an as detailed as possible idea how their character is feeling at any given moment in the game. Not only if he or she's hurt physically, but in any way possible.

That's the game at it's core. Insanity, stress, even disfavor of the gods and over-stimulation ... it all has a place on the character sheet. LSotN is a game about the hardship we are willing to take upon us to reach our goals and how life will wear us down and reward us for the experience at the same time. It sensitizes the players for that and leads (if you are into that kind of thing) to a deeper experience.

I imagine a LSotN character to look like this. [source]
Not everyone likes it that way, I had to learn. Although I think it can be loads of fun to play for that kind of experience, there are those who don't see it that way. And that's totally fine by me. If nothing else, it helped me see the design goals for Lost Songs so much clearer and I decided to stay that course instead of compromising in this regard. Reality back in 550 AD was harsh. That's just what it is and a game playing in this time should reflect that (imo).

Rewards for challenging the gods

That being said, one of the early mistakes I made was to give that gritty aspect of the game too much room compared to the rewards players would get for challenging the world. I thought experience and level advancements would do that for me. The thing is, if you make the trauma felt, you should allow the same for the bliss of success. The original reason for enduring hardship, right? The high of triumph.

And it's way harder to facilitate with rules than trauma. Actually, that might be a cultural thing. We learn to relate to seeing pain. One way or another. If we see our character hurt, we are bound to do something about it. Bliss is so much more personal and thus harder to relate to. We don't want to know that our characters might be horny (but we like to project that one, don't we?) or in love.

Actually, the positive emotional state of characters is something very much neglected in most role playing games. We relate to the pain and we project all the positive. It's part of the charm, really. What I have in mind, though, is a bit more like having an analogue Tamagotchi, a pet. Players taking care of their character will make it happy and that will make it perform better.

That's why it's important for players to read their characters, it's the only way to know that they need to do something or it starves to death or gets anxious or bored or cursed ... So one of the (at the moment still a bit vague) concepts is to allow "grooming" actions like praying or having a crush on someone or a good meal. Stuff like that.

Sounds strange? Maybe, but think about it as mimicking real life. We all have our reserves and get them drained by our daily routines. Doing something positive, like playing the games we play or having a laugh with friends, that's what we need to recharge those batteries. And I'm not saying here we need that for our characters. No, but I found that having mechanics like that in a game produces little side stories that make the characters and the world and the story feel more authentic.

You'll have the players ask you, if their characters recharge some of that damage by visiting that cute girl they encountered yesterday. You know, that cute one working in that library. And yes. Yes it should. Encouraging stuff like that is having the characters visiting a bath house or an exclusive tavern ... It's all just minor details in the grand scheme of the game, a couple of words in the huge epic that makes the campaign. But it has an impact.

So it's something I will take a closer look at in the near future. I have some soft rules at the moment and they need a bit exploration, but the gist of it is that I will try and encourage this kind of behavior. One dimension of this is the idea of seasonal game I talked about over a year ago (well, I was aware of some of the concepts and problem very early on, never lost sight of them, too). The idea is that of the tribe as the home and family of the characters. It's what they perceive as home.

Heroes coming home ... [source]
I started planning on rules for healing some permanent damage between adventure seasons long ago. The idea was that by marrying, getting celebrated and what-not, character will regain not all, but some of the hard damage they gathered over time.

Is it enough? I don't think so. We've played for seven months and didn't get to a point where the characters had been ready to go back home (or would have been able to go there, for that matter). And we've already established that it needs a more instant gratification. So one of the most important (and successful) additions to the rules had been that with every natural 20 a player roll, he gets one point better in what he was doing that justified the roll. Permanently. Just like that. The character learned something and the player gets reason to celebrate it.

There will be more, I think. But that'll be another post.

Crashing hard and crashing too hard ...

Here's another dimension to the same thing: finding the middle ground. It was kind of hard to communicate that characters don't really get damaged but rather get there reserves drained. It's merely an instrument for players to see what is happening.

I had players who stated their character is feeling this or that or doing this or that because they thought it had been fun to invent the character having that emotion right now. It was in direct conflict with that system of Lost Songs that actually tells you how your character feels.

In other words, there had been no awareness at all what that feature really means for the players. A direct handle what is happening, a play-book, if you will ("Oh yeah, Harkon is still a little down because that bard had made fun of him ..."), but most of all a detailed measure for how far you can push it before get hurt big time.

That way you don't have the 4-hour-day syndrome you get in many (old) D&D games. Although the characters have basically the same reach as D&D characters would, the fact that it is all a bit more fractured really means that they can do more with what they have and heal it faster, too (well, to some degree, as described above).

At least that's the theory. Turns out it is another aspect of the game I need to work a bit on. One of the main criticisms from the players had been related to consequences of that detailed system. Characters would literally freeze to death or get sick and what was perceived as little things would doom or at least seriously harm characters.

That one time the characters had been forced to ride through a storm, with one character being seriously wounded. Bound on the horse, exhausted, wounded, wet and cold he had some massive disadvantages for his saving throw and he didn't make it. The others only noticed when they had reached save shelter from the storm. I liked the dramatic impact of it all and the player had been content with it, but the rest of the group thought it had been a bit hard that he died "because it rained".

I think that's unfair, to a degree. But again, I think it's more a matter of communication than anything else. The only thing I will change at the moment to address this issue somewhat, is by avoiding the downward spiral that comes from having to roll with a disadvantage to fail and get an even bigger disadvantage, which will kill a character very fast. Finding a middle ground is the thing.

Not the middle ground ... [source]
One rule I already proposed for that is to not force a roll if the outcome couldn't be anything else but lethal. So if your disadvantage is as big as your advantage, you don't get a save but fail directly (the idea here is that your ability score gets reduced for the amount you failed your save, so it's a good thing not to roll and avoid that damage). One more rule here would be for characters to regain buffer/reserve by the amount they made a save ... but we need to test if that isn't getting too fiddly.

In that spirit: Skill Levels and Ranks

Skill levels are just permanent advantages to an ability score when a character is doing a special thing. If you have a +1 to a skill, no one is taking it away from you. You can raise a level either in the game by rolling a natural 20 (as described above), by training it in your off time, by (a bit faster) taking a teacher and the time for lessons or by taking one of several level advancements.

The original rule had been that this bonus just meant that: a bonus to the roll. But I came to think that with certain levels of skill, certain levels of failure might be an option, too. What I'm saying, is, that if you are skilled in something, you still might be able to make it work partially. Just like with everything else in Lost Songs, results shouldn't be seen as failed or not. Nuance is a design goal.

So after giving this some consideration, I came to the conclusion that a characters skill level is also the buffer he has in which a fail is not a total fail, but a partial success (I always liked systems allowing something like that). This should work very well with open rolls where characters can invest Endurance (depleting a reserve) to reach the difficulty of a roll, as they get to decide if they push themselves further or take a "weak" success instead.

Streamlining like there's no tomorrow

More rules concluding from the above, while we are at it: every time a reserve gets depleted, it forces a saving throw with the amount below the reserve as difficulty. The result determines what happens next. So if that puts a character into the buffer, he just gets a bit weaker. If he's hurt, he gets a bigger disadvantage and needs to save again as soon as he's hurt again, this time with dire consequences (say you got 5 hp left and you lose 8 hp from an attack, means you have a -3 on the saving throw).

Also, if you are already hurt in one area and reach another hurt reserve, you save to keep conscious. One of my goals is having a Monkey Island moment, where a character wins a fight by insulting the enemy until he loses all courage (attacking Nerve or Wits instead of Grit or Muscle). It's something games should make possible, in my opinion.

Classic :) [source]
There are more little rule changes like that, but those are the main ones, I think. More when I get there.

Still no resolution ...

At its heart it's still a D&D engine and I think the final iteration of the rules themselves will be rather short in the end. And compatible. The DM tools might be a different story and there are still some concepts that need to get written (magic the biggest of them all ... damn it). But I'm confident that I will get this done this year, maybe even written.

So what's next? I still work on that Random Culture Generator and I need to start structuring the game with adventuring seasons in mind, so there's that. Magic needs to see some progress (I have an idea, but it's still too vague) and I need to do some revising of the Random Territory Generator (gets expanded by some of the stuff I did for Monkey Business) and the Narrative Generator (needs to be a bit more succinct and some minor changes, I think). And new character sheets ... Almost forgot about those.

So Lost Songs is anything but dead. This is the third year of development and I feel that's about the time a game like that should take at least to get done. I also aim to start a little online campaign in the next few months and I hope you guys won't lose interest on the way there :)


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