Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Cold Iron Character Generation and Advancement

First, the basics:

Cold Iron characters have attributes, skills, and proficiencies, in a rather D&Desque way. Skills are sort of the equivalent to character class in D&D, except rather than each class providing both fighting ability and whatever else, in Cold Iron, everyone has a fighting skill, and usually has a magic skill (there is a passive magic skill which provides some knowledge about magic, and factors into saves). Proficiencies mostly come into play for fighters.

This is the area I've diverged from Mark's rules the most. In Mark's game, profficiencies were treated the same as skills (you could put XP into sword proficiency just as well as fighting proficiency). Fighting skill granted some XP to put into proficiencies (the default was you had one proficiency equal to your fighting skill, or you could break it down). XP for skills follows an exponential curve (doubling each level). In Mark's rules, spell casters were potentially just as good fighters as non-spell casters. Other than riding proficiency, some reference to scouting skill, and a humor skill (which was a catchall for social skill/charisma stuff), there were no other skills or proficiencies detailed (though I think they did exist, and you could ask for them).

The basis for attribute generation is 3d6 for each attribute, with an additional 1d6 added to that to get a "potential". 1st level characters got to raise one attribute to potential, and each skill level beyond first allowed increasing one attribute one point toward potential. Of course most campaigns ran with things like roll 4d6 take the best 3.

One issue that bugged me from the start, partly because in every game I ran in, I got hit by it, was that with random generation, it was quite possible to wind up with a character who had no hope of being a spell caster, who also didn't have quite as good physical attributes as the spell casters. I found it very frustrating to run a character who was basically good at nothing.

This resulted in a big change in how I ran proficiencies. I set it up so fighters got the equivalent of 2.5 proficiencies by the old system. I split the proficiencies in half mostly, so a fighter actually got 5 of my new proficiencies (shield proficiency became a double proficiency). Clerics got 4, and mages got 3. I also added in all sorts of side skills, and proficiencies for them (scout, thief, alchemist, and more).

I also structured the rolling so a player declared what they wanted to roll up (fighter, cleric, or mage), and then we rolled until the attributes looked good. I began to observe a problem though that I've noted in long term campaigns with rolled attributes. As the campaign goes on, the average of the rolled attributes slowly creeps up. This is due to a variety of issues, mostly player driven (but some GM driven).

When I resurrected Cold Iron a few years ago, I decided to go to a point buy system. I came up with a point total that allowed one to just barely build a perfect fighter (18/24 in Str, Dex, and Con). The perfect fighter would have no spell casting ability, probably a 10 Will (for magical defense), a 10 Alertness, and below average MP.

I've been noticing a problem now though. The spell casters can't fight their way out of a paper bag. They wind up with 10s, maybe 12s in Str, Dex, and Con. Combined with a limited proficiency set (I have also changed the way proficiencies are handled, mostly a simplification), we discoverd the cleric was more a danger by trying to help in combat. The mage (who has slightly better fighting skills) surprised us all by actually rolling well in one combat and doing a bit of damage.

With my recent revision, I set it up so that the interesting non-combat stuff does not detract from combat ability much at all. A non-spell caster can be a scout or thief, or they could take combat riding (fun, but not overly usefull), or they can get a bonus to charisma/renown (charisma is now just the characters best skill, plus renown points earned in play), and a few other abilities (everyone starts with 2 abilities, non-spell casters get another at 5th and again at 8th). A character can choose to have minor cleric abilities (paladin sort of deal) as an ability (and then they get no more abilities in the future, cleric level is limited to 1/2 fighter level, they get full fighting proficiency).

One thing I'm thinking of doing is getting rid of the big distinction in fighting proficienct since the point buy makes the caster trade off fighting ability attributes for spell casting attributes. But I think I also need to do something about the attributes. One way would be to get rid of Talent (mages) and Faith (clerics) and run all the magic stuff off Will, but that gets rid of dump stats (though casters will still want more MP than the fighters). Another would be to make the attribute points non-linear, so the spell caster who is spreading out amongst more attributes can still take decent attributes (but I worry that that might make the fighters more generic - but maybe it just takes the "perfect" fighter off the table, which might make the fighters more distinguished).

Getting rid of attributes alltogether would be a solution, but that would be a radical change to the game.

Another possibility might be to throw out the point system for attributes, and just create sets of attributes that don't necessarily add up to the same point value. With such a scheme, a kick-ass mage might have 18/24 in Talent and Will, and say 14/16 in Str, Dex, and Con (and perhaps they can trade off between Str, Dex, and Con), an 8 Alertness, and 36 MP. A cleric would have the same values, but Faith instead of Talent (or maybe Faith gets ditched). A Less kick-ass spell caster would have 16/20 in Talent and Will, 30 MP, and 16/18 in Str, Dex, and Con, and an 8 Alertness and can trade off Str, Dex, Con, and Alertness. A kick-ass fighter has 18/24 in Str, Dex, and Con, 8 Talent, 10/14 Will, 8 Alertness, and 16 MP. A not quite so good fighter has 16/20 in Str, Dex, and Con (and can trade off), 8 Talent, 12/16 Will and 12/16 Alertness, and 22 MP (and can trade off Alertness, Will, and MP [MP 2 for 1]). A warrior-cleric gets 16/20 Str, 16/20 Dex, 12/16 Con, 14/18 Faith, 12/16 Will, 8 Alertness, and 20 MP.

This way, the non-spell casters still get ok attributes, but clearly are lesser fighters. They will also probably be a level lower in fighting skill, so even if they get as many proficiencies, they are still definitely second class, but can fight their way out of the wet paper bag.

Another way to play with it might be to make Talent, Will, and Alertness cost 1/2 points, and maybe make MP be 1/3 points instead of 1/2. With points kept so the "perfect" fighter has trouble getting better than Talent 8, Faith 8, Will 10, Alertness 8, and MP 16, it might work pretty good. This would also help the thieves and scouts (who definitely want decent Alertnesses). And it might make for a few fighters that have average or better MP.

Hmm, another thought would be to take MP out of the point buy. Non-casters get 20+Passive Magic Level MP. Clerics get 26+Cleric Level. Mages get 26+(Magic Level +1)(Magic Level)/2 (and then maybe I also get rid of the mages focus and one of the nasty equations). Since clerics also get spell points, which have a geometric progression, they are going to be on par with the mages.

I need to look into this... I think I may have a solution...



At 12:26 AM, December 08, 2005, Blogger Bankuei said...

Hi Frank,

First, seperate the stat types- don't let points be transferable from one to the other, and you reduce the type of min-maxing you'll encounter. For example:

"Choose CLASS. You get X physical points, Y magical points, Z social points"

If you can't transfer between X, Y, Z, then the min-maxing only happens within each category ("Do I want more Str, Dex, or Con? Do I want more Will or Talent?" Etc.)

The other useful option would be to provide set ratings, and the players are forced to assign them. The set ratings would vary based on class, perhaps with some choice options.

Example like, "You can choose a 18, 15, 13 for your physical stats" "You can choose a 10 and a 14 for your mental stats", etc. This also eliminates players giving their characters minimized scores- instead they simply have to choose which is stronger and which is weaker, rather than juggling individual numbers.

Though this sounds like it would rob a lot of control and fun from a players hands, Iron Heroes uses the set score options and it works really, really well.

We're so used to the GURPS/Champions method where everything has to be "buyable" options, all working on the same point system, when in fact, a lot of character options are not equally useful, so instead of trying to make them currencies- it's better to use the generation system as a way to give players the ability to strategize into how they want to focus their characters.

Consider Magic the Gathering- you can't "make" your own cards using some point system- you have to apply the cards that are there. That limitation causes you to have to make choices within the system of the game- in the same sense, giving limited choices in character generation also creates room for strategic choices, and it drops out the min-maxing issue.

At 10:00 AM, December 08, 2005, Blogger Frank said...

I really need to sit down and read Iron Heroes. It sounds like it really does have a lot of good ideas. Certainly looking at how it does attribute distribution will help me decide how I want to proceed.

For non-spellcasters, I'm not bothered by the min-maxing. I want the "perfect" fighter to be possible (without all non-spellcasters being "perfect" fighters). For non-spellcasters, I'm very pleased with the way the attribute point buy works. A non-spellcaster benefits enough from not burning Will, Alertness, and MP to the ground. All of them translate indirectly into combat effectiveness (the higher Will character is less likely to be affected by debilitating spells, the higher Alertness character will probably wake up at night earlier, and thus get to be more ready, or if on watch, is likely to spot the encounter earlier, giving more prep time, having more MP means the character can use more buffing magic items).

So it's actually good that fighters can trade off between physical attributes and mental attributes (D20 has this effect also where it is at least worthwile trading physical attributes for Wisdom, and if skills ARE used well in the game, more Intelligence is worthy, and if Charisma actually means something, it's worthy - of course many people realize Charisma and skills aren't worthwhile).

So what my real problem is is that I'd like it to be possible for the spell caster to be a good spell caster without burning all his physical attributes into the ground (though leaving the possibility of being an awesome spellcaster by burning them into the ground).

So I'm also going to play with my ideas of reducing the cost of the spell casting attributes.

It was just shocking to realize that back in college when we rolled attributes, the spell casters probably had a higher attribute average than the non-spell casters, though the way I ran things, the non-spell casters were not threatened by that. I keep wishing I had save more of the character sheets (in preparation for moving from NC to OR, I went through all my gaming papers and recycled something like 2 paper grocery bags worth - most if it duplicate copies of Cold Iron and D&D rules [I had all the D&D rules I was using entered into the computer and printed out]).


At 12:11 PM, December 08, 2005, Blogger Bankuei said...

The reason I recommend splitting how you give poitns for stats is that you can say, go like this:

Warrior Physical 45, Magical 25
Mage Physical 36, Magical 40

Or whatever exact numbers fit your game. The thing is, you'll notice that Mages end up with more stat points overall, but you get some control over how far that goes.

Also- for new players, it helps them avoid going too far in one direction or the other and crippling their characters.

I think its a simpler direction than making Magic stats some kind of ratio of points to Physical stats. But hey, your call in the end.

At 1:17 PM, December 08, 2005, Blogger Frank said...

Ok, I understand your suggestion a bit better. I'm not quite sure it's the right answer for my game, but certainly one of the options to look at.

What's clear to me is that my current system is not quite right and that either your suggestion, or fiddling with the costs of each attribute will be better. Your suggestion has the advantage that all stats cost the same (except MP which by the nature of it's larger range has to cost less - though my thought of taking MP out of the stat buying equation has merit).

I'll post again after I've had a chance to play with some of these ideas.

Hmm, what is your thoughts on what I've done with Charisma? I was reading the new entry in your blog and thinking about how I don't often use mechanics to resolve social situations. In part, I don't do this because I haven't found a social mechanic that works well alongside a miniatures style combat system (I'm looking forward to trying Burning Wheel and/or Hero Quest which handle social interractions with similar or the same mechanics as combat actions, but those games will have a very different feel).


At 5:26 PM, December 08, 2005, Blogger Bankuei said...

Hi Frank,

What does Charisma do in your game, if anything? If nothing- remove it. If it's going to have mechanical effects, then think about how it's rated.

It's definitely a good idea to remove it from being equal in points to other stats, since as D&D has consistantly shown- it's the dump stat. They've tried to change that by making it a spell stat for some classes, but aside from that, it doesn't see much use. The reason being- the little bit of social mechanics they do have, make it still not really a feasible option until you hit mid-teens in level.

At 12:17 AM, December 09, 2005, Blogger Frank said...

Hmm, I did some playing around. If I make the mental attributes cost 1/2 and I give the same number of points as before, a spell caster can have good spell casting stats and at least have modest physical stats.

What systems have you seen that have good social mechanics? I don't think I want something like Burning Wheel's Duel of Wits, but it would be nice to have something other than totally arbitrary difficulties. My campaigns don't tend to use a lot of social tests, but sometimes it makes sense to have a test and not just be automatic success or failure, and not be totally arbitrary ("gee, you the player spoke well so I'll let your character get what you wanted.").


At 1:36 AM, December 09, 2005, Blogger Bankuei said...

You don't need to have something as complicated as BW to have good social mechanics. All you need to do is:

A) Set up stakes before dice get rolled, which means make it clear that success = "This guy is willing to help me" or whatever the details are.

B) Players should have some way to improve their odds, either through strategy or roleplaying. Iron Heroes gives a +2 modifier for each convincing point the player produces in roleplaying, up to a +10 bonus.

You might also want to establish room for compromise- BW's DoW works well because even if you win, odds are pretty good that you had to give some kind of concession along the way.

At 9:39 PM, December 09, 2005, Blogger Martin Ralya said...

FoRKs (Fields of Related Knowledge) are also a big factor in BW's DoWs -- not only in the mechanical sense, but in the way that they encourage you to roleplay well to justify your FoRKing.

As Chris pointed out, it's not the complexity of BW that makes the DoW work, it's other factors. FoRKs are pretty simple, mechanically speaking.


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