Saturday, October 29, 2005

Random bits

I discovered that a Sandisk USB thumb drive can survive the laundry. I heard this whacking noise coming from the dryer... Checked it out - everything is still readable (though who knows what I've done to the life expectancy of it). It's nice and clean and dry now though! It was quite warm when it came out, the clothes were mostly dry. Of course the thunking didn't stop, because there was a key in there also... I need to check my pockets better...

In sadder news, yesterday, my almost new (about 1 month old) flat panel display bit the dust. It flashes on for an instant and then blacks out (from what I see when it flashes on, looks like it's displaying ok). It didn't work in self test mode or on my work laptop either. Fortunately I still have my 10+ year old 20" monitor (unfortunately it can't quite keep up with the video card, and was starting to flake out). Good thing I brought my work laptop home for the weekend.

Frank

An example of prep for Cold Iron

This is another contribution for Martin Ralya's 31 Days of Blogging for GMs.

I had suggested to Martin that I would provide an example of prep for Cold Iron. I decided to do this as a word document, so take a moment to browse to The Dark Crypt (MS Word format) or The Dark Crypt (HTML format) so you can follow along.

If you want to read up on the rules in some detail, check out my Cold Iron page. Also, see my analysis of Cold Iron in this blog post.

A few notes on the creature stats: Pt is hit points, H is attack, D is defense (parry), Db is dodge (Dbl is dodge vs. long weapons - unarmed creatures and those attempting a grapple take penalties against swords and such [not daggers]), T is armor absorbtion, C is critical protection factor, HtH Hm is used for the tackle roll to initiate a grapple, HtH is the grapple ability, MA is movement allowance (run/normal), MP is mana points, SP is spell points (clerics use both MP and SP), the associations are like D&D domains (though the cleric gets all his spells from the associations, there are no "standard" spells, a strong association usually gives the cleric spells a level early, a weak a level late), MemP (memorization points - spells cost their level in MemP, the spells in parenthesis are known as a result of knowing a higher level spell). The spell caster also has a reference to 3/hr etc. MP in Cold Iron regenerates sort of like interest, and if you're at your max, you can use the interest to run continuing spells (one of the really neat things about the system).

I spent a couple hours searching Wizards of the Coast's site for a suitable module to use. I didn't find a module, but in the Map of the Week archives, I found this interesting map. Clearly a crypt is filled with undead, one of my favorite encounters. This module search time is actually not unusual for me, and can be one of the more time consuming parts of prep if I'm going to run a site based encounter. More often with Cold Iron, most of the time will be spent in the wilderness with wilderness encounters and I wouldn't need this prep time.

First I looked over the map to see what features it had. It appears to be underground, so I decided to ignore the shape of area 1. I decided that the crypt will be located in an old overgrown graveyard. Area 1a is enclosed by a low stone wall with a rusted iron gate.

The basic undead in Cold Iron are skeletons, zombies, ghouls, wights, and wraiths. For this module, I worked up abilities for spectres also. Wraiths in the past have been corporeal undead who are spell casters while wights are the fighters. I didn't put any skeletons or zombies in this module. Also, since I'm not really sure what level characters I might use this with, I have mostly avoided assigning the creatures specific levels. This of course lets me show off how I write up creatures with several levels. I also haven't fully populated the magic items the creatures will have. I did spend a bit of time writing up the spell caster (which of course sets his level). I also didn't figure out the creatures saves etc. (partly due to this having changed since I last really ran Cold Iron and I haven't figured out how that all really works now).

All told, I've spent quite a few hours on this, but a third of the time was looking for a module to use. Another third of the time was dealing with the fact that my flat panel display just died (fortunately I brought home my laptop from work, though I still have my 20" monitor for the desktop, but it was starting to have problems being overdriven by the video card in my new computer). Probably half of the remaining time was spent sorting through my Cold Iron stuff to find the relevant bits for creating monsters. In the end, I probably spent about 2-3 hours writing up the brief notes on the module, and creating all the opponents. These opponents are all highly re-useable (even the spell caster is likely to be re-useable since, at least in the past, I run a lot slower XP gain with Cold Iron). The spell caster also only took me about 20-30 minutes to write up, and most of that was choosing spells. If I had to write up an encounter on the spot, I might not be so complete on the spell selection (as I worked him up, I initially chose almost every spell he could memorize, but when I trimmed the list, it turned out I didn't really have to remove anything I would really be that likely to use in a combat - I have in the past done a quick selection of the key spells, which can be done in a few minutes). Note that I also didn't figure out the MA for the wights (they are going to be affected at least somewhat by encumbrance - if I was running an encounter and suddenly realized this was missing, I'd make a quick guess, probably something like 18/12 or so).

What's also interesting about the creature prep is that I haven't in the past used incorporeal creatures like this in Cold Iron. I'm not sure my quicky mechanics will really work well, but it's worth a try (in the old days, I would have used spirit combat for the spectres, but I'm not really sure I like the spirit combat rules I was using, they are completely different from Rune Quests).

This module is very representative of the size of module I would prepare for Cold Iron. Cold Iron does not do dungeon crawls very well (a good fight will leave the PCs wanting to rest right away, and since characters can only be healed their hit points once in a day, even if they can heal up pretty quickly, they still won't want to fight again). I spent a few minutes coming up with a bit of a back story (basically, necromancer moves into old crypt system and animates a few more undead, he lives there long enough to eventually die and become undead himself).

Another problem with dungeon crawls in Cold Iron is that it really is meant to be played on a hex grid. Of course rectilinear spaces don't look too good on hexes. I might be inclined in drawing out this module to make the coridors run at 60 degree angles instead of 90 degree angles just so they can always run with the hexes (a room usually isn't so much of an issue).

Perhaps at a later date I'll prep this same module for Arcana Evolved and Rune Quest.

Frank

Friday, October 28, 2005

Game aids that have been useful to me

Over the years, there have been a variety of game aids that have been useful to me. Some of these have been supplements, others are more generic aids.

Battle Mat, Mega Mat, Crystal Mat. Berkely Games was the first distributor of vinyl mats printed with square or hexagonal patterns, other producers have produced similar products. The Crystal Mat is especially nice being a clear sheet of vinyl that can turn any map into a hex map (when I started playing D20, I wished these were still available so I could get one with a square grid).

GURPS Battle Maps - this product, released early in the life of GURPS was a set of three 21"x32" double sided hex maps. One side was printed in black and represented a dungeon or town. The other side was printed in brown and green and represented wilderness. I used the wilderness side of these all through one Cold Iron campaign (to the point that the players knew the best place to set up camp on each map, and used the rocks to great advantage).

Page protectors - these are absolutely a must for use with Rune Quest character sheets, allowing marking off individual hit point and power boxes, and then wiping the marks away as hit points or power are recovered. In other games, these are useful to protect heavily used pages of charts.

Judge's Guild's First Fantasy Campaign - this is a nice little campaign setting, documenting Dave Arneson's Blackmoor campaign. There's not a lot of detail in the book, but the map is gorgeous. There are several interesting places noted on the map. In the 1980s, TSR reproduced the map in color for their Blackmoor series of D&D modules. The last module added an extension to show the Valley of the Ancients (JG originally slightly modified the map so it would fit into their Wilderlands of High Fantasy setting, though the map scale was 10 mile hexes instead of the Wilderlands 5 mile hexes). This campaign setting has been re-published by Zeitgist Games in conjunction with Goodman Games, though with a new map (that isn't included in the book - I snagged a couple copies from their table at Gen Con though).

Judge's Guild's Wilderlands of High Fantasy setting - this was a really nice campaign setting. The maps still are my standard of reference for campaign maps. The only product released since that I consider serious competition is Harn. Most of the maps have little patches of different terrain scattered in (most campaign maps have huge swaths of one terrain, some even have each country basically be a single terrain). Roads, villages, and keeps are marked all over the map. This campaign setting has be re-released by Necromancer Games (the new maps are not quite as nice, but a lot of detail has been added).

Lou Zocci's 8-sided d4s. The d4 "caltrop" never rolled very well. Lou Zocci produced an eight sided die with blunted points and in funny colors marked 1-4 twice. These are the only thing I ever use for d4s.

Dungeon Magazine (especially pre-D20) - I was still playing D&D when Dungeon Magazine was first announced and I quickly subscribed. Soon after, I stopped playing D&D, but every issue seemed to have at least one adventure that was easy to translate into other games. I have used Dungeon Magazine adventures in Rune Quest, Cold Iron, and Arcana Unearthed/Evolved. Lately, I don't find it as useful since the adventures tend to be larger, and the color maps while looking pretty somehow don't inspire me as much as the simpler line drawings of the early days (which could also be photocopied so you didn't have to keep flipping pages as much). Still, this is the only magazine to which I've never let my subscription lapse.

Borland Sidekick - it's been a long time since I've made regular use of a computer at the game table, but I ran an extended Traveler campaign bringing my Compaq suitcase computer to game sessions. I would run Sidekick in the background and keep all the game notes in the notepad. In the foreground, I would run a variety of programs (especially a program I wrote to manage fuel costs for jumps using a fine grained system of my own). My use of this computer sold at least two people Compaq systems for their own games. In these days of laptops, I somehow seem to find the computer a distraction during play, though I use the computer heavily during prep.

D&D Miniatures game - The easy availability of pre-painted miniatures is a blessing. One bummer though is their 28mm size compared to the 25mm that was popular in the 70s and 80s. I have lots of lead miniatures that are nicely painted that get looked over by the players because they're too small (and some don't stand up well - the consistent round base size of the D&D minis is nice - and it's a shade smaller than 1" so they fit well in close formation on 25mm and 1" battle mats). It's still a pain to try and have figures for all the monsters though, and every game I run seems to have a PC race or two that just aren't available, or at least not in enough quantity.

Frank

Game System Analysus - Rune Quest

Rune Quest (RQ) was one of the first systems to replace character classes with a freeform skill system. It was also the first system to create monsters the same way PCs were created. It also revealed one of the most in depth campaign settings (however, it was not the first RPG to come with a deep campaign setting, that honor goes to Empire of the Petal Throne, released just a year after D&D). Rune Quest also introduced the gaming world to vapor ware, claiming that the Hero Quest rules were just around the corner (rules for hero quests were finally published as a formal game in 2000 with the introduction of Hero Wars, later renamed to Hero Quest, however that game is rather incompatible with Rune Quest).

RQ introduced some new concepts like armor that absorbed damage instead of making you harder to hit. Being large made you easier to hit. RQ also had spell points (though it probably wasn't the first such system - it was the first such system I used). It also introduced character religion as a real choice and impact in play (instead of the gods of D&D that were given combat stats, but never impacted how their clerics were played).

However, one problem quickly surfaced with the game. After an adventure, characters got the opportunity to make an experience check for every skill they had succeeded in. The gamist players at MIT immediately pointed out that this perversely encouraged characters to carry a golf bag of weapons (long before D&D 3.5 introduced it's new DR system...). Characters (assuming they weren't too threatened with their life) should switch out their weapon after scoring a hit and a parry. Since everyone had an open locks skill, some groups had players try to open locks in reverse order of skill. My early solution was to count the number of successes in each skill, and add this as a bonus to the experience check (this has the problem that combat skills will get a bigger bonus). My later solution was to give each player a fixed number of experience checks (and I may have assigned some).

In my most recent RQ campaign, I noticed the only time I've ever seen real success with having different languages in the campaign. Since RQ language skill is just like any other skill, you start off really bad, and slowly improve. Of course if you play the rules strictly, there's a significant chance of native speakers misunderstanding each other (of course some would point out that's realistic - but not at the rate it would occur in RQ). There also aren't that many languages you need to learn. The result, players could learn languages, but had to make choices as to how much resource to put into it, and how much to trust using the local language as opposed to using a better understood language.

Rune Quest was also the first game I'm aware of that allowed characters to spend money on improving their skills. This creates a very good econimic flow as much of the treasure gets spent on training. Training also takes time which makes campaigns last several years of game time (and the players plot out where to spend the winter).

The 1st edition had another problem. Hit points were Constitution modified by Size and Power. Every creature in RQ gets 3d6 for CON (except maybe Dwarves, I think they got 4d6). Later the role of CON and SIZ were reversed and the game worked a bit better. There's still a problem that large creatures do more damage than most people have hit points, especially when you take hit locations into account (a decent human only needs about 8-12 points of damage to their head to be killed, giants might get a 12d6 damage bonus).

A big problem arises when RQ is examined for the possibility of replacing random attribute rolls with a point buy system. INT is way more important to skills than any other attribute (plus it restricts how many spirit spells you have available). It also is one of two attributes that can't be raised at all during play (SIZ is the other). DEX is also pretty important (though it's one of three attributes that can always be raised to racial maximum, and the only one that can be trained there - CHA and POW both increase only with experience). CHA has very little use, affecting only a small set of skills. Of course once one notices this imbalance, even rolling for attributes will be disappointing, being quite a crap shoot.

RQ is not really and ideal gamist game. It has all the trappings of a tactical combat game, but the rules are imperfect. Players can also easily fall into a trap of spending resource on non-combat skills, or joining cults that don't help the player much (some give free weapons training and/or free spells). To get the most out of the game and setting, one has to have some simulationist play also. It takes a good social contract and willing players to pull this off.

As I write this, Mongoose Publishing is working on a new edition of Rune Quest.

I have had lots of fun with one RQ campaign, and a fair bit of fun with a few other campaigns, but it seems to really be a hit or miss. If the players get into the setting, and the game drives more towards simulationism, I think it can work well. If the players simply treat it as another type of D&D and play gamist, the shortcommings of the system will blow wide open.

Frank

Game System Analysis - Cold Iron

I thought I'd start a series on the game systems I have experience with, so we'll start with my college friend, Mark Christiansen's Cold Iron. Cold Iron has never been published, in fact, Mark actively discouraged attempts to provide copies of the rules that others had crafter out of a legitimate desire to avoid people telling him how HIS game worked based on some rules set that incorporated misunderstandings and house rules. Eventually he softened his stance (eventually even using the same computer document for the spells that I have been working from). Still, the game has never been published by Mark. For my own campaign needs, I have published my rules on my Cold Iron page.

I was first exposed to Cold Iron when another friend, Rob Hendrie, started a new campaign (Mark had already graduated by then). He had an early copy of the spells plus the combat, weapon, and skill charts. He had some handwritten pages with some magic items listed.

Cold Iron as I orignally saw it was basically just a combat system. Sure, the spell list included some random non-combat spells, and I think Rob included a scouting skill. The system very clearly derives from D&D, however, there is definitely a lot of influence from Rune Quest.

Cold Iron is a transitional system between pure character class games (D&D/AD&D of the 70s and 80s) and skill based games. Every character is multi-classed. Every character has a fighter level that determines their hit points and weapon skill. Every character also has at least one magic class. There is a passive magic class that only represents the character's magical defense and general knowledge of magic. Spell casters are either magic users or clerics (or both) with appropriate class levels. Experience in all magic classes is totalled together to determine effective passive magic level. Then there are the combat skills. By Mark's rules, these are actually separate skills from fighting level, but every fighter may either improve one fighting skill with his fighting level, or he may spread XP based on his fighting level amongst two or more combat skills. Every game I ever played in also had an additional class level, humor level. I'm not quite sure why it was called humor level, but it represented one's personality strength (going along with Charisma). I think many games also had a scouting level.

Characters have attributes, with Alertness and Size added to the standard D&D mix of Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma (later Willpower was also added). An additional attribute, MP (mana points) was used to power spells and most magic items. All attributes except Size and MP were rolled on 3d6. An additional d6 was rolled and added to the sum as a Potential that the attribute could be improved to. Size was generated as 4d4 - 10 + (STR potential + CON potential) / 2. MP was generated as 6d6. Most games allowed you to roll 4d6 take the best 3 (no re-organizing or trading points though) for the base, and something like 2d6 take the best or 1d6 and 1d4 take the best for potential. Different races had various different ways of rolling things (Dwarfs got 3d6 for MP for example).

At the start, a player could increase one attribute to potential. Every class level above 1st also allowed the character to increase one attribute one point towards potential, sometimes with limitations of what attributes you could increase (for example, humor levels could only be used to increase Charisma). This was called augmenting. Spell casters could also augment MP (though mages also got +2 MP per level, including 1st and clerics and passive magic got you +1 MP per level), MP has no upper potential. Fighters who ran out of things to augment could augment hit points.

Spell casters were not limited in use of weapons and armor. Spells are mostly single target, and usually it's more efficient for the mage to do something that makes it easier for the fighter than directly doing damage. Spell casters get new spells each level, and can memorize a pretty wide selection, using their MP to cast them.

One of the features I find most interesting in the game is the use of the normal distribution for resolution. People have long played with using various numbers of dice to create bell curves, and various schemes for exploding dice (if you roll the highest number, roll again and add) for open ended results. Mark realized that when you roll d100, trying to roll less than or equal to some number, you can visualize that ever so slightly differently. If you visualise the target number as a probability (between 0 and 1) and the dice as generating the first two decimal places of a real number between 0 and 1, you basically get the same thing (and d1000 is just rolling 3 decimal places). What if you roll a d10 for each decimal place in a real number? You could roll as many dice as you wanted. Mark then took this idea and created a normal distribution with a mean of 0, and a standard deviation of 20/3. He rounded each number so that it had two digits beyond a leading string of 0s (for the low end) or 9s (for the high end). Here is an Excel spreasheet that shows how the chart is computed (thought Mark didn't have such a convenient way to compute it - it's interesting to see how close his chart is to what Excel computes, column E shows the rounded Excel values, column F shows the three values that were different on Mark's chart). This chart sometimes scares players away because most people do not find probability and statistics intuitive, but in play the chart is real easy to use. Roll a pair of d10s, making it clear which one is read first. If the first die is a 0 or 9, roll a 3rd die. If the 2nd die is the same 0 or 9, roll a 4th die. If you roll 3 or 4 0s or 9s, you've done really well, roll additional d10s until you can pinpoint your resulting number as greater than or equal to one of the numbers on the chart, and less than the next one (so if I roll a 9 3, I roll one more die, a 4, look at the chart and read a +10). The way the game tends to work, rolling less than a 5 0 rarely succeeds. I have found that when I am playing regularly I can remember enough of the chart that I hardly need to look at it (I can also remember the chart well enough that I can come pretty close just writing numbers down blind - I also have a wallet card with the chart...).

Another feature I really like is that most of the treasure goes to purchasing potions and charged items. This dramatically reduces the growth curve of magic items. Also, all the magic items are directly implementing spells. Additionally, since they require the user to spend the MP (except for potions), there are no problems with overly cheap magic items, in fact, some magic items end up being impractical. Magic swords use slightly different rules to make them practical.

These days, I have only two fundamental problems with the basic system. First, I have come to dislike random character generation. Fortunately, it's easy to use a point build system (it can even have linear costs and works ok, in fact, I think it's good to have linear costs, geometric costs like used in D&D 3e may encourage too much sameness in characters by discouraging the highest attributes). The second problem is a little bit more of an issue, and that is that it's too optimal to be a spell caster. It doesn't cost enough of your fighting ability (though point buy attributes would actually cure a lot of this, still, everyone would want to be a caster even if they just had the minimum spell casting attributes).

Back in college, I refined the skill system by breaking down the combat skills and giving non-casters 5 combat skills (which amounted to 2.5 skills by the old system). Magic users got 3 combat skills, and clerics usually got 4.

I also added more non-combat stuff. That introduced several problems. First, it was never really clear how to use some of the non-combat skills. I was quickly on my way to realizing the "locks and traps" "thief" of D&D was a diversion to the game. The character existed to deal with the increasing use of locks and traps, but had to be justified by making locks and traps even more important, so you could no longer play without a thief. In my Tekumel campaign, I had one player create an aristocrat that basically was useless in a fight. It wasn't a pretty sight when he tried to use his charisma to get someone else to take care of the problem they had stumbled on. It was less pretty when I tried to push him into combat (at one point, he was standing by watching while two characters struggled with an undead, had he stepped in between the two characters, the undead would have been prevented from parrying one of the two, relying on dodge only).

Cold Iron does tend to have somewhat long fights. It also simply doesn't handle non-combat stuff well at all. But as a gamist system it really works well. Before I got involved with the game, it had already been through 3 or 4 years of hard-core gamist play with several GMs running games. The worst of the "holes" had been patched. Bunk choices were either eliminated, or well recognized ("Don't do that, your character will suck."). The base system doesn't trick you with lots of "character development" that is really bunk choices (except where I mistakenly added such choices).

I am in the process of writing up new character generation and skill rules that will give players some non-combat ability as a free extra. I'm eliminating the Charisma attribute (in any point buy system that is gamist and combat oriented, I've never seen a serious character have anything more than the minimum charisma). I'm playing around with the possibility that instead of chosing a non-combat ability, the player may choose an ability that makes a less optimal combat strategy more effective. With what I've learned over the past few years about what I really enjoy for game play, and how non-combat resolution meshes poorly with a tactical miniatures style combat system, I think I can massage Cold Iron into something that will be enjoyable to play. I have considered adding some of the ideas of D&D 3e's feats to increase character design choice (while being wary of adding bunk choices). A few simple indications of non-combat ability combined with old school "attribute checks" or whatever will give players enough feeling that there is more to the world than just combat. The key will be to use those abilities to enhance the game. Let the scout find a back door, let the thief open it (quietly) so the PCs get the drop on the enemies (and make a very challenging fight easier - but not eliminating the challenge). Let the scout track the wyvern back to his lair to find the treasure.

Frank

Monday, October 24, 2005

Game Master Characters

As I've been contemplating my gamist GMing, I've been wondering why one of my habits seems to work. I almost always have an NPC member of the party that I run more or less like a PC. I get a lot of enjoyment out of presenting the players with a challenge, and then stepping in to help them overcome it.

I have heard some people warn of this style of play, and I have had issues in the past where I allowed my NPC to overshadow the PCs. This was often caused by the fact that they gained XP faster than the PCs since they never missed a session. Then there my high school days where I would often run my NPCs through a new module as my way of reading the module, and they got the XP for that! Then one (or two) of them would get to run through the module with the PCs!

But in some of my recent play, I've been paying a lot of attention. And I've talked to players specifically about their feelings. In my Arcana Evolved campaign, I thought I saw a big red flag when one of the players started moan about how he wasn't the "coolest scrapper anymore" after my NPC pulled a particularly good stunt. Then before I really had a chance to ask the player about it, he figured out how to use a new ability. When I got around to asking him if he felt he was being overshadowed and his character wasn't working out for him. He said "No, my character is starting to be really fun."

I think what happened here is that he didn't see my NPC as cheating, but that I had figured out a particularly good combination of abilities. And now he had a challenge. And when he stepped on up to that challenege, he succeeded.

I know there are a few games out there (can't recall the titles) which have one of the players take on some of the traditional GM roles, though I'm not sure that part has been the creating challenges part. Somehow though, it seems like my play is functional.

This is another contribution to Martin Ralya's 31 Days of Blogging for GMs.

Frank

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Frustration with non-combat abilities in a gamist combat RPG

All the talk about gamism on Chris Chinn's Deep in the Game has me thinking a lot about gamist games.

First I want to thank Chris for his essays which helped me understand that actually I do enjoy a good gamist game. I used to think I was primarily a simulationist, but now I realize that I problably just use some of the techniques that most often support simulationism to form the backdrop for a gamist campaign.

One of the things that's always bothered me is that combat dominates my games. Oh, I'm quite up front that I enjoy combat, and there will be lots of it, but sometimes I think I want some non-combat stuff going on. The trouble is that everytime I use game rules to provide some non-combat abilities, the result is horribly unsatisfying.

One early example is the roll your skill until you fail. This was most often seen in tracking and climbing. A sequence of skill checks would be necessary to successefully follow tracks to their end, or to climb a cliff or wall. Invariably, the skill wouldn't be quite enough and there would be a failure.

In my recent Tekumel campaign, another example showed up. One player noticed I provided an opportunity to be an aristocrat, so one player (who was almost certainly NOT interested in gamism) jumped on the chance. Of course he wanted to use his ability so after the PCs stumbled into a mystery, he wanted to convince his clan to send folks off to solve the mystery. Crash!

In looking back at these incidents with a gamist lense, I realize what the problem is. The problem is there's no real challenge to be overcome.

The climbing and tracking systems provide no mechanics for strategy. The calling for multiple rolls is just an attempt to make it feel more like combat (where multiple rolls are required for success), however, since there is no choices to make (or no real choices), the whole thing comes off as a waste of time.

The aristocrat is an example of another problem. The player is trying to bypass the challenge (or at least that's how it comes off to the GM). Of course since the GM is trying to run a gamist game, such a bypass will never work. Again, the result is an unsatisfying set of rolls with no reall strategy (though lots of player input).

The real problem is that abilities are provided for the players to choose that don't support the gamist ideal. Worse, the choice of these abilities often comes at a cost in combat effectiveness. In the Tekumel game, I provided the aristocrat choice for two reasons. One was a feeling of needing to be complete (the world has more than just fighters and magic users), the other was that I felt like I wanted to have more than just combat go on (since the Tekumel setting is very rich in social detail).

What I have learned is that one shouldn't present opportunities you don't really want the players to take. The Tekumel game would have been much better had I only allowed the players to play fighters and magic users. The social detail could have been run purely as color and used to direct the fighters and magic users.

I do think it would be interesting to have a gamist social interraction system, but for me, it would have to work with a tactical miniatures style combat system, which seems unlikely.

Now there are some non-combat abilities that are still useful, but the trick is to make them work better with gamist challenge. One possibility is a single roll with a yes or no result (either you track back to the monster's lair or not, if you do, you get more treasure, spending resource on the track skill pays off in additional equipment which improves combat effectiveness). Another possibility is to have the single roll result in advantage or disadvantage in an upcomming fight (you track someone back to their lair, a good tracking roll results in some tactical advantage - tracking pays off with increased combat effectiveness). Climbing again fits the yes/no or tactical advantage/disadvantage secenarios. What's important then is to make sure climbing and tracking can't be used to trivialize challenge. It may be ok to bypass a challenge, but if you get the artifact or solve the mystery without a combat challenge, then something didn't work right.

So then the trick is to provide the non-combat abilities in such a way that they don't reduce combat effectiveness too much. One thought I have is to have a list of non-combat abilities. Every character gets one, or maybe two, or maybe several. Thus there is no combat tradeoff. Another solution is to have combat tradeoff, but make it pretty minor (and make sure the system doesn't allow a player to create an ineffective character).

Oh, and now I realize that worrying about the dominance of non-combat is pointless. Truth is I enjoy combat and there are plenty of players out there who also enjoy plenty of combat. That doesn't mean that every moment in a game session must be combat, or preparation for combat. It does mean that we shouldn't be spending lots of time rolling skill checks that really don't mean anything. The non-combat parts of the game can be used to set the scene and set the mood for the combat. They can give a why for the combat.

This is a contribution to Martin Ralya's 31 Days of Blogging for GMs project.

Frank