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.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Play Testing Fudge

In January our regularly scheduled game was put at risk by 2 out of 5 players not being available. The GM of our current campaign felt that 3 players was too few to run his current Cyberpunk 2020 campaign so I stepped up to the plate to run my build out of fantasy Fudge.

I had two main goals in the session. First, and most important, I wanted to expose my players to Fudge with a clear focus on having fun and getting them hooked on it. Second, I wanted to play test the magic system that I've created.

To set up meeting these goals, I did a couple of things. The story was not nearly as important to me as having fun and playing with the magic system so I didn't concentrate much on it. I created an isolated story line in a world that is familiar to me; the same world that I used for my GURPS campaign. I told the players that this was an isolated adventure with no consequences, implications, foreshadowing, or connection in any way whatsoever with a potential future campaign. I also took out a notebook and set it next to me at the table. I told the players that this would be a learning session for all of us and that if they had any process, rule, or game comments that I'd take notes on them to consider later. I then asked the players to please not enter into debates about those problems during game play beyond making sure I took the note. These steps really helped create the cooperative learning and fun atmosphere that I was looking for.

Exposing Players to Fudge
Character creation was one thing I had intended to gloss over by using pregenerated characters. I'm a spreadsheet geek. I made a spreadsheet for character creation that could easily generate a complete character, total the points, and autocalculate weapon damage. Well, long story short, it didn't work (not always great to switch from creating something in .odf to excel even if you've saved as an excel file all along). Anyway, this meant that once we were at the table, I had to help the players generate characters fast. I used a quick subjective style and just asked my players what they wanted, I made sure their attributes, gifts, and faults added up right. For skills though, we just eyeballed it. I had three character sheets in about 20 minutes once I figured out that this was the only way were going to end up with sheets at the table at all. Imaging trying to create 3 D&D character sheets from scratch.

My players grasped the adjective ladder system in a flash. In fact, for the first time, my female player was explaining the rules to her perpetual-crunch-monkey husband. This was one of the great things about the system in play. I have read a lot of descriptions of players grasping the system quickly but seeing it in action was another story. I actually couldn't believe how fast they began translating Fair into 0, Good into +1, etc.

After a brief roleplaying encounter, I send the players to their mission: Assault on Zombie Island.

One of the big changes that I've been looking for in a new game that I run is an end to the D&D generated trope of 5 characters save the world. For more on that concept and how I've used the Savage Worlds system to make cohorts feasible in combat see this entry. When I explained that the players would be going to the island with 4 squads of 8 "White Sword" Mercenaries I got a couple of skeptical looks that said, "Really? This is going to be so slow". The players discussed in character how to approach the island and I gave them 4 approach points which they wisely narrowed to the two viable ones. Then, and this surprised me a little, they decided to divide the PCs into the 2 different groups that they sent to land on different parts of the island. This surprised me because I didn't expect them the break the D&D generated maxim of "Don't split the party" so quickly. I suppose given surrounding the lone PC mage in group 2 with 16 mercenary soldiers didn't hurt. It helped confirm for me that the system has a lot to do with how people play. I was pleased both to see this high level of adaptability in my players before we had even rolled initiative and also that the system that I created was already breaking them out of their gamer truism ruts.

As the boats approached zombie island they were suddenly attacked from underneath. Zombies started pulling at the edges of the boat while the squads were still approaching the beach. The zombies tried to capsize the boats with the squad and one PC mage still in the boat. This ratcheted up the dramatic tension pretty quickly.

The first action the mage tried was also the first spell cast of the game. He tried using a jump spell to leap out of the capsizing boat and land on the beach. So, the first thing that I did was show them how to use the table I created to calculate the mana cost (a combination of distance from the caster, duration, and concentration time). This was pretty easy. The next thing I had the player do was roll against his magic skill. Here, I really slowed things down. I don't remember the details here but let's imagine that his magic skill was Good and that his die roll result was Great. I walked him through my mental process showed him where his magical jump effect would have landed him if he had rolled Terrible, all the way through Superb. I really tried to explain that this wasn't a "mechanic" but rather a story result. They really understood and seemed to appreciate it. The player even finished my thoughts for me with something like, "So, in a different situation a Superb result might be a different distance because this isn't about numbers but about what yields a Superb result for my character?" Mean while, I'm thinking "Yes, yes, yes! Gaming salvation at last. This is my crunch monkey saying this!"

The simple gaming mechanics worked very smoothly. The rounds were very fast even with the squads of soldiers and the 30+ zombies swarming the landing parties. I used a combination of things to speed this up. First, I used a more simple damage mechanic than the one for the PCs, the zombies and the soldiers could take 2 wounds and continue fighting, on the third, they fell and were removed from the battle mat. This is pretty close to the Savage Worlds mechanic for damage. In addition to that, I rolled all the soldiers and all the zombies as one group. If the group rolled better on attack than average, they'd hit more enemies and vice versa. They players reported that this had the quality of a film because the action slowed down and became more detailed when paying attention to the primary characters. . . them! I got a lot of positive feedback on this from the players.

Here is a quote from one of my players from an email after the session:

I will say it again, the FUDGE system impressed with it's ease of use and reasonable amount of "crunchy bits" to keep things interesting.

Admittedly, those "crunchy bits" were there in the magic system because I put them there for him. I'm just so glad that I'm finding the sweet spot between my story interests and my players' need for mental stimulation can all get met. Session goal one: Accomplished.

Play Testing the Magic System
As I mentioned above, the magic system is designed so that the players begin with a mana pool and the costs of magical effects are determined by looking up mana costs on a table and adding range, duration, and concentration time (more time reduces costs). I used a magical attribute to determine the highest amount of mana a player could put into a spell. The players really got into this and made a lot of suggestions for improving it.

By the time we broke for dinner, I decided to incorporate some of their more obvious and simple suggestions (mostly adjusting costs) and we played with an already improved magic system in the second half of the session. One interesting thing that happened for me in the course of play was that I found myself not minding nearly as much as I thought I would when the players found ways to exploit the system to their own advantage. One of the things that always bothered me about magic in most other systems is that it never cost anything and risked nothing. For example, as the players were trying to escape zombie island, they were maxing out the amount of concentration time to cast a very powerful effect for a mana cost of 1 (the minimum allowed). The effect was being used to allow them to pass their wounded down to their boats at the bottom of a cliff. As the situation grew more intense though, with zombies quickly narrowing in on them, they had to switch tactics, less and less time concentrating, more and more mana, same effect. To me, this was awesome. This is exactly the kind of process I was hoping for in the game; magic varies, is affected by the circumstances, and is rewarded by planning.

The player who played a soldier in this session said that since I'm hoping to try an all mage campaign and the magic system needs the most play testing anyway, he'd like to try a mage in the next session. Not to mention the fact that it looked like fun and I think he was a little jealous.

After the session, I incorporated most of the feedback from the players. During this first session, all mages could cast the same spells. They were only differentiated by power level differences. In the next session, I'm going to add the magic colleges back as the covering for the spell cost mechanic already described.

So, now we're on FudgeFitz 0.2 and coincidentally we have two no shows for the intended February game too. We'll have the same players for play testing again in our next installment: Return to Zombie Island.