Friday, February 18, 2011

Return to Zombie Island: Part I

We were only expecting 4 total at the table again this month so I prepped for another session of Fudge; Return to Zombie Island: Part I. At the last minute another member of our group was able to join after all. So, at this point, there's only one member of the group that hasn't been exposed to Fudge. There weren't a lot of major shifts in this build. I refined the mana costs for spell effects. I also made some fixes to the auto-calculating character sheet but nothing major.

Exposing Players to Fudge
This was much more difficult than the last time. From the last session I had three players now exposed to the way that Fudge encourages the GM to fudge details to keep things moving faster. Those players were comfortable with me flipping back and forth between using the dice for mechanical versus story results. Enter the new player whom I'll refer to in this post as Min-max. The challenges started when he was creating his character, "Do I have to pick a Fault that will come up during the session?" This question came just after I explained that this adventure is totally self contained with no connection to future missions or a possible campaign. We got through character creation alright but then he kept getting frustrated by the fudging. His comment at the end of the session was, "It needs more consistency."

I asked, "What the magic system or the combat system?"

"No," he replied, "the whole thing."

O-kay. I either have a player with a serious misread of the system or a serious mismatch between the system and the player. Though I tried to duplicate the same style of introduction that I used in the first session, it didn't sink in for him.

Play Testing
This was at once very encouraging and daunting. The magic system played well. In the last session, I was trying to test the mana per cast cost structure. We tried enough different things in that session that I revamped several aspects. In this session, I found that the mana per effect costs felt much better. For anyone interest here is how I have done it. The mana cost is calculated by adding independent mana costs for distance, duration, subtracting for time concentration, and finally adding a cost for either area or number of targets. Though it seems a little complicated, most of the players figured it out and could calculate cost quickly. Most effects ended up costing the minimum mana of 1. My players all ended up spending 5 mana or less during the entire session.

The magic "schools" were a little more challenging. This was a completely untested aspect of the system so I'm not surprised. I incorporated some elements of the Magic: The Ascension system. All spell effects are a combination of the schools. For example a Fireball would require Elements and Creation. However, it isn't quite that simple. I've got each magic school paired with another. Here they are:


One of the themes that I'm hoping the players will explore during the campaign is balance. The magic system is designed to allow the players to explore that element of the campaign. For example, if a character casts a lot of spells with body over and over and over again, she or he experiences both a little physical boost and a little physical deficit. The image here is that the mana imbalance is reflected in the body of the mage. The imbalance in the mage can be redressed by consciously choosing to cast the opposite type of spells. If the imbalance is not redressed, then the imbalance grows, eventually becoming more and more of a deficit.

The challenge in creating the system has been coming up with the right pairs. The Nature-Health pair for instance is my nemesis. I started that pair as Nature (flora and fauna) and Humans. But it quickly became apparent that the "Human" school would be used far more for buffing friends and foes than the "Nature" part of the pair. I decided to change the human aspect to "Health", here defined as a striving for wholeness that is perfected in humanity, because limited this way the pairs would better balanced. I'm still not very happy with the pair though because it isn't very intuitive.

Explaining each of the pairs, communicating them to the players, and helping them to have a feel for the magic system took a lot of time at the table. Since the session began with 2 in game days to prepare for the return to zombie island one of the players referred to in the last post as my power gamer really got into the idea of exploring some of the uses for the spell colleges and started using the scientific method to test different ways of exploring the nature of life, detection of life, and the passage from life into death. It was a lot of fun for him buying chickens, trying to use alteration and spirit to change his spirit's ability to detect the life force of the chicken and then detecting the chicken's passage from life into death while it was killed. This was by far one of the best parts of the session for me too because I got to find out how well my magic system cohered when investigated by the players. I was making up the answers on the spot and helping the character come to conclusions about the nature of the magic preventing the zombies from fully passing into death. The result of the investigation was that the players created a new spell that they thought might be able to help them against the zombies. Of course it did help them.

The daunting aspect of discovering the magic system came from Min-max player in the group. He kept thinking in concrete terms, viewing "Spirit" as something that could be quantified or have location. I kept trying to preserve the sense of mystery and "magic" but he kept trying to know the physics of "spirit". I have the sense that we haven't seen the end of this discussion. So often gaming systems describe and quantify magic as just another form of technology. A game mechanic that can be known, predicted, quantified, measured, and reused predictably. The transition into my magic system where magic is an aspect of the story, one which is changed by the players and which changes them--in that sense a magic system that is more mythical and ineffable--may take longer for some players than others.

The Combat System
We had two combats during the session. The first took place as the players approached the island. The second took place as the players and their squads tried to approach the Main Building at the Sanitarium. In these combats there were two problems, the Fudge damage spiral and the discrepancy between the Fudge damage system for PCs and the Savage Worlds damage system for NPCs.

The Fudge damage system, if you aren't familiar with it, allows for a certain number of "Scratches" when the character has been barely hit. When "Scratched" there are no mechanical effects. A "Hurt" character experiences a -1 to all rolls, 'Very Hurt" leads to a -2 to all rolls An "Incapacitated" character is at -3. After that a character is unconscious and "Near Death". The results and consequences being "Near Death" are up to the GM. One player was pretty frustrated that he took one arrow which caused him to be at a -2 in combat immediately. This had some severe consequences for his ability in the combat and will have ongoing consequences for the adventure because he won't have a chance to heal all of that wound. He did receive a magical healing but he's still pretty upset about the -1 to all rolls that remains. I'm still trying to determine if I like the feel of this damage spiral or not. On the one hand I really appreciate the more gritty verisimilitude and the fact that this mechanic will cause the players to be cautious to enter combat. On the other hand I don't want my players to feel completely ineffective.

The second challenge in the combats was that I used the Fudge damage track for the PCs and one significant NPC but I used the Savage Worlds damage track for NPCs. On the surface, the differences look pretty inconsequential (both systems have 3 basic categories for combat effecting damage) but the way that I was running the Savage Worlds damage, meant that in comparison to the PCs, the NPCs fell very easily to the enemy. I'm not yet sure about the solution for this discrepancy but I'm fairly certain that there's a simple solution (maybe ignoring "Scratch" damage on NPCs) that would just put the tracks a little more in line with one another.

Adventure Specific Challenge
I created the zombies in the first combat with too much damage resistance. This allowed them to overwhelm the PCs and NPC allies in the first session. The players flailed about with magic and I Fudged things to allow them a magical effect that could eliminate the zombies and prevent them from reanimating. During this sessions, this led to a challenge, the best way for the PC mages to kill the zombies was to create magical arrows that the NPCs could use against the zombies. Though this was effective, it put the PCs in a combat support role instead of in the thick of battle being directly effective. I think that one reason this happened is because the players didn't continue thinking outside the box. For example, they continued trying to preserve their mana so instead of casting an effect directly on the bad guys and burning a larger amount of mana to destroy a lot of baddies quickly, the PCs kept using the "enchant arrow"-"pass arrow to allies"-"fire arrows" technique they already knew. My current plan is to do a little mission debrief after the mission to discuss some of the options they didn't try. My hope is that this will continue to help them learn about the system and the options they have to make the story. It helps me to write these ideas out because I'll be able to review these at that time.