Friday, July 29, 2016

Review of Perdition

I received my copy of Perdition from Lulu a few days ago, and wanted to share a few thoughts. I don’t normally review things, so bear with me.

I like it. It smells good. I liked the PDF enough to whip up a character sheet:

I tend to do this for new systems/games frequently, since the Character Sheet is an important component of how the Player ends up experiencing the game. Even if a talented Game Master/Agonarch can reliably hijack the interceding nerve receptors for imaginary eyes/ears/tongues/noses during play, Character Sheets are still the silver cord that ties the player to the plane of play.

The catechistic act of creating a Character Sheet is also often the easiest way for me to develop a deeper understanding of the mechanics and system. This is especially useful for something that diverges quite a bit from traditional D&D ruleset like Perdition. Not too far mind you, just far enough that falling back to previous system experience could result in the reader failing to implement important and interesting bits.

Here are a few thoughts:

Setting as Mechanics is an ambitious goal, and this is one of the first attempts I’ve seen and more importantly enjoyed. I’ve personally grown quite weary of books bogged down with setting information that never seems to be truly player accessible. The alternative (“just rules”) is usually completely devoid of setting, and this genericism can leave one uninspired. Perdition isn’t strictly an attempt to compromise between these methods, nor is it a hybridization of both approaches, it’s a novel and artful mutation from standard presuppositions of what a role-playing game book should do.

In Perdition the pitch is short, to the point, and although the premise may not appeal to every table, it is expertly telegraphed through the choices players make as they generate their characters, the equipment list, and codified within how the rules are invoked.

The discovery of Perdition's setting is one that takes place incrementally throughout, for as one encounters new rules and mechanics these in turn perform a double duty by dovetailing directly into the world. A game that treats “Wickedness” as an Ability Score or features rules for adjudicating Infernal Contracts immediately intimates some stark setting implications.

This process of setting exploration as one reads through the rules was pleasurable to me. Perusing Perdition for setting acquaintanceship is akin to eating an artichoke. You start on the outside, pulling off petals and scraping the small pulpy portion between your teeth for a trifling taste of the heart here and there. With each ensuing bract, you’re getting more to ruminate.

This is not to say the setting is spoon-fed or parsimoniously trickled out, it’s simply persistently present within the very tools you will be using to play the game, as opposed to padding the page-count with prose. Setting investiture for players needs these sorts of short cuts. Handouts or homework seldom work for the majority of gaming groups. Perdition's lack of roadside attraction fluff-prose may be a bit jarring at first, but the sly marriage of mechanics and setting consecrated here is a very elegant way to arrive at the destination.

To reiterate: This isn't an "implied setting" in any sense, it percolates throughout, emulsified within the rules you use to explore the very world portrayed. It's nifty that way.

I also appreciate the candor of voice, and any reader of Courtney’s blog probably has at least a passing familiarity with his writing style. Perdition’s text is refreshingly frank and uncompromising, especially in terms of the tidbits of advice for the Agonarch incorporated throughout. There's even a bit of humor here and there.

It’s the primary tone of the text that could cause some to ruffle quills at a perceived didacticism creeping in intermittently, but I think it’s important to read on, and see that the motives behind the occasional sweeping intransigent statement are frequently succinctly provided. This is quite nice. Rather than simply admonishing the reader to “Do this” there are frequent explanations as to the “why it’s important.” I don’t find it condescending – it’s an improvement over the normal homebrew heartbreaker, which can sometimes err on the side of almost too chummy elbow-rib-jabbing. This in turn can result in something that may be easy to read, but is either honeycombed with lacuna or largely consists of prosaic and repetitive advice for its own sake.

I’d be remiss to fail to mention that there are also some contributions from the exceptional Arnold K. I could be mistaken, but his fingerprints seem to be all over the especially evocative Fiendish Patrons. The accompanying illustrations had a cockle-warming familiarity to them at first glance, and imagine my surprise to discover they were by none other than the marvelous Russ Nicholson. It's one of many examples of a lovely interblending of the new and old here.

I tend to find insight into the design process to be useful and fascinating, and would like to see more of it. Anyone familiar with some of the great things to come out of game development over the last several years with the Old School Renaissance will  see some things that hearken to it. I particularly liked the “Sombreros May Be Splintered” permutation. 

Even if the recommendations and rules are not all new and groundbreaking, they are still a bit like the joy of discovering a new pocket in an old overcoat. Perdition provides a splendid blend between the old, comfortable familiarity of this style of play alongside multiple neoteric and thought-provoking morsels.

I’m still digesting, but so far my gripes are surprisingly few and mostly on the side of nit-picky. I enjoy the implementation of Physical and Mental Hit Die, and Struggles may finally be the grappling/psionic rule solution I loot first.

The near-symmetry of some things system-wise may prove a minor bother though, as some may be spoiled by more unified mechanics. This came to light in the character sheet design, as I noticed that some components of the system clicked in ingeniously similar ways, but others still stood out, seemingly disconnected at first glance.

I understand why there are no Social Hit Dice, or a true Social Armor Class to compliment the Physical and Mental counterparts, but this may seem to some a little like a missed opportunity to streamline the ruleset a little further. Still, I do feel that the persistence of the 2D6 bell curve and Courtney’s excellent previous work mechanizing Social Interaction with the Reaction Roll and Social Encounters in On the Non-Player Character are important, and this lack of unification doesn’t come across as a tall poppy or proud nail. Most fans of the older games are not averse to the inclusion of subsystems, and like the wonderful dice-pool Magic System, it helps set these “attack types” apart. In a good way.

Could it be raided for new rules/ideas? Absolutely. Grab the PDF if you are curious and I think there are some Free Basic Rules in the works. There are several very interesting and different approaches within this book (I’m still wrapping my head around the way Initiative Dice are handled) and most will fit in fine with D&D of all flavors, streamlining where necessary and elsewhere plugging directly into the chassis where additional subsystems are wanted. Is it possible to reskin or extract all the underlying rules and run this game using a different setting? I don’t really think so. The truly intriguing thing about Perdition is how intrinsically symbiotic most of the the mechanics seem to be to the setting, and I fear that the painstaking process of extracting one from the other wouldn’t result in anything with near as much flavor and function. 

Monday, May 9, 2016

Skill Systems: Tweaking "The Middle Road"

Inspired to stitch together this post out of my languishing House Rules document by this post over on Papers & Pencils.

I also like to use The Middle Road approach, with a few modifications:

Skill Rating
Skill Die/Dice

The Ratings are expanded a little bit, success is still on a 5 or more (making UNABLE impossible for the player without circumstantial modifiers...which are generally kept low/stingy). The bell-curve comes into play with MASTER which really increases the chance of success, but with a cost.

I don't tie skill improvement to level in any meaningful way most of the time. This is mostly to mitigate the “20 HD MASTER Blacksmith NPC” and “I gained a level and am suddenly an EXPERT at Tracking” issues, although Thief classes and formal training-as-cash/time-siphon can open up some additional improvement avenues during downtime with some good fictional explanations. Instead I like to tie Skill Rating improvement to actual play.

Any successful Skill Roll (5+) prompts for another skill roll immediately, and on a maximum die/dice result, the first letter of the next Rating is written down. Once you spell it out, you've achieved the next Rating (this is why all Ratings have 6 letters).

This has diminishing returns: It becomes more difficult to improve/master a skill as you get better as the chances of success increase, the chances of rolling the maximum also decrease. I also like that improvement is actually tied to Doing the thing, so players are encouraged to attempt it, even if the odds may not be great (Practice makes perfect!).

Skill Rating
Success Chance
Improve Chance

 If it's too harsh, you could also allow improvement on a “max roll” on the attempt itself, but this could possibly increase the speed of advancement a bit and homogenize expertise more quickly.
Thief types have some additional Rating advancement options to help protect their niche, and to ameliorate the malevolence of the fickle dice gods. Upon gaining a level, the Thief may choose one:
  •                 Immediately Roll on All Skills for a Letter
  •                 Three free letters to be distributed to any skill or skills the player chooses.

If they are part of a guild structure, they may also have easier access to Teacher/Mentor types for certain, non-competitive skills.

If you use class-based XP advancement (with faster advancing Thieves), another option is to allow Thief types the option of immediately spending 100 XP for an additional improvement roll on a Skill success. But my feeling is generally these Classes will likely be making the most Skill attempts anyway, their opportunities for improvement occur more often.

Another option for all classes is to seek out a Teacher/Mentor of a higher Skill Rating in the same skill that is amenable to training the character (often an adventure in itself once you’re seeking EXPERTs and above). After a week of downtime training, the Teacher rolls their Skill die/dice, and on a success the player is permitted to make a Skill roll.

If successful (over 5), they gain 1 letter, if unsuccessful they lose a letter as they have to shed or “unlearn” bad technique. If they roll the maximum (as for standard improvement), they gain 1 letter for each step in Rating difference (so a MASTER would grant the NOVICE three letters). This can be repeated (within reason, and time/resources permitting…training isn’t always cheap or free…I enjoy quest-dispensing Mentors), until the Teacher fails their Skill Roll, or the player reaches the Rating directly below the Teacher. At which point, the Teacher has no new wisdom to impart the student. I’d probably also prevent further training if a player is ever reduced to UNABLE in this way due to poor rolls. No risk, no reward.

Another option is to make the player hunt down a Teacher/Mentor with not only sufficient higher Rating in the Skill the player wishes to train, but also a TEACHER skill high enough to reduce the chances of failure. By using the TEACHER skill to transfer knowledge, instead of the skill itself the learning process becomes much more dicey. This makes finding a good Teacher almost as important as a proficient one. 

All starting characters receive 1 Skill at NOVICE based on Background, they can improve this skill to VERSED and/or take another at NOVICE by taking a voluntary UNABLE in a Skill (max 2 UNABLE skills). Anything else attempted is done at the ROOKIE rating. I’ve toyed with the idea of replacing/supplementing Ability Score modifiers with additional skills or letters (so someone with a -2 in Strength has to take two UNABLE skills involving Strength… or  someone with a +3 in Dexterity gets three free Ratings or letters to a skill or skills involving DEX). Thieves get more starting skill options, but I’ll probably need to cover that in a separate Class post.

I do still really like the idea of a Skill system emphasizing what the player's Can't Do rather than what they can (which I touched on here) prevent that character sheet paralysis that occurs with really granular skill systems and an invisible DC. When the odds of success are telegraphed to the player with everything they can attempt they may not even attempt the thing. Even though very little resolution is intended to be Player Facing in older versions of D&D (I touch on this problem in this ancient post), when improvement is tied to attempts, players may be more likely to try.

I briefly flirted with expanding Ratings a bit more, but I'm still not sure of the die/dice I would use:


As always, I’m open to thoughts/suggestions.



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