Sunday, June 12, 2016

Getting my Groove back (and talking Lost Songs of the Nibelungs)

Two weeks already since my last post ... I hate it when that happens. But that's what a mean bronchitis will do to your plans. Anyway, it's been a while and to get back to posting more regular, I thought I'd start with something long overdue: an update on the development of Lost Songs of the Nibelungs, the game I'm writing (instead of the other things that are still due, maybe this month even, but I wouldn't hold my breath). A lot has happened since my last development post and I'll try and give you all an idea how it's shaping up.

It's also an attempt to get my groove back, since those last two weeks had been taxing and I lost some of that momentum needed to blog on a regular basis. You know, like in that great movie about the lama:

Shaping characters through pain and gain

Everything characters experience is mirrored in their Qualities (basically the 6 ability scores in D&D). A character overexerts himself, it'll show in his Muscle up to a point where it leaves permanent damage (that character is getting a scar). All Qualities work like that and it worked very well at the table so far. Actually, that system alone would make for a very good survival game* as characters react to stress, horror and bad luck just as much as to physical hardship.

One problem we had from the beginning, though, was to make those mechanisms worthwhile for the players. I mean, they saw the benefits as it supported how they played their characters (it's still great fun to see a character getting stressed out and jumpy!), but since there was no direct positive fringe effect linked to it and disadvantages instead, I had a hard time arguing how that is way more than just getting damaged.
I can feel that ... [source]
The first really effective rule we came up with in our test games had been that every natural 20 allowed a character to either (1) heal 1 point of permanent damage his has in the Quality he used or (2) raise a skill by 1 if he doesn't have permanent damage in that Quality and used a skill for the task or (3) add a new (appropriate) skill with +1 to his list if (1) and (2) don't apply. Either way, you get something solid out of it.

Although it doesn't seem much, it's a great psychological effect to get a little something with a great success. And it helped a little bit in making the players accept the damage they got. Still not enough, though. I had to link it to experience, too.

Group experience instead of individual experience

That one took a bit experimenting (still does, but it's more fine tuning than actually changing anything). The basic idea was that experience is a group effort. Everybody gets his share, but before that it's all in one pool. You learn by your mistakes and to some extend by those of your brothers and sisters in arms.

The second part is the chronicle. We are creating an epic, of sorts, so the re-telling of what happened became a thing in the play testing groups. So the group gets 100 xp per chronicle entry but no more chronicle points per session than hours played (7 hours play would be 7 chronicle entries and 700 xp for the pool). This chronicle will be a big thing in the game, maybe going as far as healing permanent damage between quests**.

The third step had been the tricky part: getting some solid currency for experience. To some extent I'll allow loot to give characters xp, but only after quests and as presents to their tribe, so it doesn't happen too often and is mainly to connect the system with the characters origin in a meaningful way. I was thinking to give them xp for combat (just like D&D or similar), but it just didn't sit right with the game.

Something else needed to be done and we started experimenting with giving xp for the ability score damage characters got. It took some time to get the right method down, but we finally got a method together that is easy to use and gives the results I needed in the game.

For this you need to know that there are 3 categories of damage a Quality (ability score) can get: buffered, hurt and permanent. The buffer heals over night, hurt heals one point a day and permanent only occasionally, so characters get xp for damage in every category, but more so for serious damage:
  • 40 xp for every Quality that got buffered, 300 xp if all 6 of one character got buffered.
  • 80 xp for every Quality that got hurt, 600 xp if all 6 of one character got hurt (which would mean a serious amount of hurt, by the way).
  • 160 xp for every Quality that got permanent damage, 1200 if all 6 Qualities a character has got permanent damage during the session (never happened so far and it would be very harsh on a character).

It really hit the spot. To give them more xp when all 6 Qualities are triggered almost made the players aim for those results, but since it'd mean some serious disadvantage for a character, they restrained themselves to just being a bit happy if it occurred by chance (happened once, everyone was like "Uuuuuh! That's nice ...").

So that's what's happening: the group gains experience for the epic they tell and the hardship they endure. I also give xp for fulfilling quests exceptional ideas or victories (if they are not already chronicle entries).
All this is collected at the end of a session, multiplied by the average group level (if it's more than zero, it's half the amount if all characters are level 0) and divided by the number of players for individual xp.

Learning by exposure

Another aspect of the game that got relevant. I needed to find solutions for a way to gain skills and advantages through play instead of by gaining levels. A natural 20, as described above, will do this for skills, so that's something. Still, not enough.

We started with learning to wear armor and using weapons. Armor was the easiest part. There are three categories: light medium and heavy. Learned they give a +3 each to a character's base defense, unlearned you get a disadvantage in combat (lose a combat die for each category you can't use but wear) and they only count +1 each (so if you put a guy who isn't used to any armor at all into a heavy armor, he'll basically do nothing). 

Now, if you want to learn using a armor class one higher than what you are already able to use, you need to survive one serious combat encounter using it with the disadvantages mentioned above. If the character gets hurt but survives he is able to use the new category from then on.

I'm sure, somebody learned something from that [source]
With weapons it follows the same principle. You use the weapon you want to learn with a disadvantage (with one combat die less) for time equal to what the character needs to complete his current level. That means, if a level 2 character decides to gain a new weapon, he'd have to collect the number of xp he'd need from level 2 to level 3, even if he needs less to gain that next level.

The rest has been based on what happened in the story. Like, if the characters spend some time in a Roman city, they'll learn some basic Latin, stuff like that.


Another thing that needed changing. Healing rates had been off for several reasons and it got obvious after the first few fights. The first important change was to allow characters to regain Endurance one time per level per day (so a level 3 character could do that 3 times a day and so on) if they are able to catch their breaths for a couple of minutes.

The second big change was the time healing needed. Now it needs 1 day to regenerate Endurance and Health, a second day to regenerate all buffers and then it's 1 point per day for damage in the hurt area unless some sort of additional healing is applied. Traditional First Aid would regain Health, but it is possible to heal buffer or even hurt damage (if more difficult).

With no resources and badly hurt, it could take weeks before a character is healed again and several rolls to see if he heals (another thing I need to think a bit more about). As it is, it is established relatively fast how long it'll take to heal and in our last game people started to think about tactics to influence healing. I'm happy with it.

What else?

Small changes here and there. Advancement works well, but I needed to change two or three little things. One example would be that instead of getting an xp bonus, characters can chose to count as a higher level as they are for the average group level. Mostly it's fine tuning, nothing serious.

Magic is still the biggest construction area and will most likely end up with significant changes to what we use now. Mostly because it's quite free form and relies too much on too many factors. But I really don't want to use spells in the traditional manner. It remains being a problem.

Both campaigns run strong and in very different directions (a dungeon crawl and a treasure hunt). They keep testing the limits of the system, as they should. I need to work more on the DM tools, though. Anyway, with things being as they are, I can finally sit down and write the first complete draft of the core rules and combat (Volume 1). After that I will start with writing the second Volume while Magic and the DM tools gain more focus in play testing (and the blog, I imagine).

The whole endeavor is still lots of fun and we have the first level 3 characters to prowl the scenery. I wonder how long it will take before they reach level 10 and what kind of epic they tell.

That's it for now. The next new thing in Lost Songs should be about magic, I guess, since I need to get things working there. But updates will get sparse as the systems starts to do what it's supposed to do.

Comments with questions, suggestions and ideas are, as always, very welcome.

* I'm thinking about doing that. But I have a lot on my plate right now, so if it's going to happen, it'll be a while, I'm afraid.

** Characters will be able to heal some permanent damage between quests by courting and raising their own family or by carousing, so why not by spreading the epic of their exploits?

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