First test with players

by David Meadows 18. September 2017 19:41

I have a handle on how the combat rules work from my solo test, and the next step was a test with the players. I created some simple characters for them to use, and set up a simple situation against some typical enemy forces.

This has two benefits: first, it teaches them the rule mechanics. Second, it lets them see first-hand what a character can and can't do, what he's vulnerable to, how the game treats the balance between weapons and defences, how effective different skills are at different levels, and so on. When they come to create their own characters, they'll have a better idea of how to create someone balanced and effective.

To cut a long story short, the test was a great success (at least from my point of view). It went slowly, because I did a lot of referencing rule books, but I've satisfied myself that once I have the rules off pat it's going to be quick and simple to run.

The players threw themselves into the spirit of the test, trying all manner of things to test the rules to destruction. So we had people on foot and in vehicles, crazy manoeuvres, tanks crashing through buildings and pedestrians, all manner of different weapons being employed, people picking up grenades and throwing them back before they exploded, people sneaking around as well as charging in recklessly. We learned that you need to be very skillful to shoot from a moving vehicle, that machine guns aren't as good as you think they are (except when they are), that grenades are horrible but survivable, that (un)lucky dice can upset you but there are ways to mitigate the disaster, and that skilled characters can take on three-to-one odds and win comfortably, as long as they're clever about it.

Overall, I'm very happy with how things are going.

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Familiarity Breeds ...

by David Meadows 16. September 2017 21:43

A reader asked, "How does familiarity with the players affect the game?" and it's a good question that I'm not sure I know the answer to.

Everything in my recent series of posts isn't intended as a "how to" for new games masters, as every GM has to find his own approach. The posts were simply a record of my own personal process (though if they have provoked some thoughts in other GMs, that's a nice bonus). For a start, the single biggest factor affecting my process that won't affect new games masters is my familiarity with my players.

Two of my playing group have been with me since I started the Strikeforce game 30 years ago. The rest of the group joined at various points within the first three years or so. Over the years, others have come and gone, but my current group has been playing my game together weekly for almost 30 years.

That’s a lot of familiarity. They know how I plot things, and I know how they react to things. That's a really nice feeling, in a lot of ways, and a major annoyance in others. No matter what twist I come up with in a plot, the players are going to foresee it, because they know how I think. It makes surprising them a real challenge, to the extent where I now don't try to surprise them, I try to just make the totally-anticipated events enjoyable for what they are.

Sometimes I play on the familiarity. It's now an accepted convention that a red-haired, green-eyed woman with a mysterious past will appear in every historical era, and she'll be from a pure Atlantean bloodline and may or may not be a sorceress (and may or may not, in fact, be the same immortal person -- I know at least one of my players suspects she is). But knowing that the players expect her to turn up isn't a problem, it just gives me the challenge of making her exact motivations interesting this time around.

Working the other way, having an idea of what the players will do in any given situation makes me better able to deduce the outcome and lets me get away with plotting less redundant possible paths for them to follow. I can give the impression that they have four possible choices, for example, while being 90% certain they will take choice "A", and therefore concentrating on fleshing out that part of the plotline.

Or course, it doesn't always work that way and I still can't allow myself to get too complacent.

A significant problem with this "game familiarity" is that I don’t know if it is now possible to add new players to my existing group. Never mind about whether they will enjoy my playing style, the real problem is how could they ever have a clue what’s going on? My players and I have 30 years of shared knowledge of the universe. I never need to explain "Atlantean", because they know exactly what it means in the context of my game. They're good enough players not to let that knowledge colour their characters' actions, of course (in a game, your character is only allowed to know what he should logically know, even if the player knows a lot more). But as a shorthand I can say "Atlantean" to the players and save myself a long plot exposition.

How do you introduce a brand new player into that environment?

I have literally no idea.

In my more self-doubting moments, I think maybe I'm not a good GM at all, and I wouldn't be able to run a game for anybody else, and it's only the familiarity factor which lets my game stagger along at all.

And, you know what? That's ok. I don't aspire to be the world's best games master. I just aspire to make my game the best game it can be for my players

That's all any GM should worry about.

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The Rick Rocket Conundrum

by David Meadows 12. September 2017 19:45

It's all my own fault. But I don't know how to fix it.

Let me start at the beginning. 

Rick Rocket appeared very early in the Strikeforce story (off the top of my head, I think you'll read about him in chapter 30 or 40), in a small role in his real identity of Hugh Howard, then an old man. After helping him, Strikeforce learned he was a retired super-hero. Not just any super-hero, but Rick Rocket, America's first super-powered masked hero, appearing in the late 1930s and becoming the greatest hero of World War 2.

He cropped up a few more times in the game, and despite his minor role I had a full background and history worked out for him.

So, my series of historical games reached the 1930, the era of "pulp" heroes, and of course I had to include Rick Rocket somehow.

I decided this game would be his "origin" story, and the players would (unwittingly) be there at the birth of America's greatest legend. This would only be a minor part of the game -- as the focus of the plot has to be on the players' characters, not a supporting character -- but I thought I could still make it work and make it fun for the players who remembered the character's introduction nearly 30 years ago (our time).

Then I made a silly decision: I made Hugh Howard a coward.

This will be great, I thought. Subvert the players' expectations, make him not the hero everyone expects, and actually make them, the players, the people who push him down the path to heroism.

It's dramatically satisfying on so many levels. I'm a genius.

Except ...

It went a bit wrong. We've now finished the 1930s game, and Hugh Howard is still a coward who has no intention of putting on a costume and fighting crime.

Continuity is unravelling around me.

I'm sure I can fix it.

I have to fix it.

I'm just not really sure how ...

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Oops...

by David Meadows 11. September 2017 19:05

I seem to have committed to running a test of the combat system with the players on Saturday. I'm not sure why I said I'd do that, I am neither materially nor mentally prepared for it.

Oh well, five days to get sorted out...  

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Rules Test (3)

by David Meadows 11. September 2017 18:58

We're on combat round 4, and Lionheart has to decide whether to finish off the thugs or to ignore them and chase the boss.

Beating thugs has been a little slower than I expected, so if he stands and fights the boss will get clean away. So I decide Lionheart will have to leave the thugs for another day, and he leaps clear so he can chase the boss.

There's a rule that allows your opponents a free attack at you if you try to move away from them. This seems fair, as it establishes a "zone of control" around each fighter that prevents someone just sprinting past a group of enemies unopposed. As soon as you move past one, he gets a free attack.

Because thug #2 is actively engaged with Lionheart, he gets his free attack as Lionheart bounds away. Lionheart knows that the thug has no chance to hurt him unless he’s incredibly lucky (again!), however. The gamble pays off, because the crowbar just bounces off Lionheart’s bulletproof skin. 

But now Lionheart has leaped clear, the other three thugs all shoot at him. Again, it's a gamble, but the odds are that none of their bullets will get through Lionheart’s tough skin -- and indeed they don't.

The boss has continued running, but Lionheart has super-human speed and is gaining fast. So the boss tosses a grenade behind him -- no, I don't know why he's got a grenade in his pocket, I just wanted to test the grenade rules. It's a poor throw, and the grenade goes wide, but the explosion is still close enough to hurt Lionheart. It's more powerful than a bullet, and Lionheart takes another "shaken" result, which is going to stop him dead in his tracks. But with the crime boss almost in his grasp he can't stop now, so he spends another hero point to tough it out, ignores the shaken result, leaps forward, reaches the boss, and in one super-strong punch it's all over.

He's still got three armed men behind him, and with two hero points used up he's in some danger of lucky hits from them really messing up his night, so instead he scoops the unconscious boss over his shoulder and leaps off to deliver him to Scotland Yard.

A good night's work for our hero, and a satisfying test of the rules. Maybe heroes are slightly more vulnerable in this game than I anticipated, but that just means they need to fight more intelligently, and I'm ok with that. I'll make sure this comes across to the players when I test the rules again with them, so hopefully they don't get their characters killed in their very first fight.

So, armed with a better sense of combat balance, I can continue creating the Nazi characters who will be opposing the players. 

And here ends the rules test.

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Rules Test (2)

by David Meadows 9. September 2017 12:47

We left our intrepid games master in a panic because the rules let a useless thug hit and badly hurt Lionheart, who's supposed to eat thugs for breakfast. Is all hope lost? Are these rules actually not as good as I thought?

In situations like this, there's just one question a beleaguered super-hero GM has to ask: 

What Would Peter Parker Do?

Pete would curse his bad luck, then he'd think about how much Aunt May was relying on him, and he'd make some supreme effort even though it seemed hopeless, and he'd win through in the end.

I firmly believe that this is the very heart of super-hero fiction. It's not about how hard you punch, it's about how you bounce back in the face of adversity. Any super-hero RPG rules that don't model this in some way are severely lacking.

And, what do you know? These rules do allow for this!

The game allocates a number of points called "bennies" (short for "benefits") to each character. (First of all, that's a horrible name for them, and I'm not going to use it. I'm going to call them "Hero Points", which is a term my players are familiar with from our original Strikeforce game.)

The player can use these "hero points" to overturn a run of bad luck and let his character win through by making some supreme effort. It's a rules mechanism I really like, because it doesn't completely take away the chance of failure (if the player screws up, he's still going to fail) but it offsets the small (but, as we've seen, real) chance that the GM is going to roll "6" multiple times in a row and really ruin your day through no fault of your own. 

The rule could be open to abuse, but as long as the number of points granted is small, the effect is one of re-balancing rather than un-balancing the game. The player can't blithely ignore every bad result they get, they have to choose their moment and make their character's heroic effort count. From experience in other games, I think the number of points granted to a player in these rules is about right.

So as Lionheart's player, I use up one of his "hero points", and he instantly recovers from the unlucky "shaken" combat result, pulling himself back together and ready for round 3.

On to combat round 3, then, and as expected, now he's on top of things again, Lionheart's superior skills cause the two thugs to miss him, while he punches thug #1 hard enough to knock him out.

I now look at the thugs with guns, and decide one of them ought to stop hovering about and just shoot Lionheart. The problem is, Lionheart is toe-to-toe with thug #2, and the rules give a chance (probably realistically) that the gunmen will hit their friend instead in the confused tussle. Should they try it?

I decide that thug #3 doesn’t really like thug #2 anyway, and doesn’t really care if shoots him by accident. So he takes the shot, misses Lionheart, and to thug #2’s great relief misses him too (I'm sure harsh words will be exchanged later, if they both survive this).

At this point, I decide that the boss villain will save his own skin, and he runs towards the back door. If he can get through it, he will jump into his waiting motorboat and make a clean getaway down the Thames. It now all comes down to whether Lionheart can catch him in time.

Tune in next time for the exciting conclusion!

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Rules Test (1)

by David Meadows 8. September 2017 22:37

After generating a handful of characters, the next step is to test the combat rules by, well, making the characters fight.

For the fight, I use Lionheart, the first character I created with these rules (see here). He's going to be fighting some smugglers in a riverside warehouse in the East End of London in 1939. I quickly create five "thugs" and their leader. This only takes a minute, as cannon fodder like these don't need complete skills, I just need to note down the stats directly relevant to combat. They're all weaker than Lionheart of course (he's a super hero!) but they're armed with a variety of weapons to equalise things. I still expect him to beat them comfortably, however, as statistically they have almost no chance of hurting him. I sketched a quick "warehouse" plan and marked the characters with numbers (no need to be elaborate for just a test):

The combat starts when Lionheart, stalwart defender of British values, throws open the warehouse door and challenges the smugglers to surrender. Obviously they don't, or the fighting rules wouldn’t get tested.

While I'm running the combat, I have the rules open next to me and check every step of the way. If I identify a chart or table I'm obviously going to refer to a lot, I mark it with a sticky tag -- and I'll probably copy it so I have it for handy reference without wearing out the rule book.

Round 1 of the combat. Randomly deciding who goes first, it's Lionheart, so he runs up to a thug and punches him, missing completely (have I made his fighting skills too poor?). The thugs go next, and the three with guns draw them from under their coats. The two with crowbars in their hands (they were opening a crate of contraband, see?) move up to Lionheart and bash him. One misses, but the other gets a lucky hit -- literally, a lucky hit. Mathematically, these thugs have almost no chance to hit anyone as fast and skilled as Lionheart. And if they do hit by some miracle, they have almost no chance of hurting him. He'll shrug off anything less than a heavy machine-gun bullet.

In this case, though, the thug benefits from a game rule called "acing", which means that if you roll the maximum score on a dice you roll another dice and add the result -- and if it's another maximum score, you keep going. I get a ridiculous run of luck and roll loads of dice, which means Lionheart is not only hit, he's hit really hard! He's "shaken" (a game effect that means he can't act again until he gathers his wits) and he's badly injured! Lionheart has "Super Nerves of Steel", which means he can grit his teeth and ignore the wound, but being shaken is still a problem.

Round 2, and the thugs win the random initiative check so they go first. I've just remembered the "ganging up" rule, which means that because there are two thugs attacking Lionheart, they each get a bonus on their attack chances. Despite this, luck deserts them and they both miss him. Lionheart now needs a successful "Spirit" dice roll to recover from being shaken (Spirit being a game statistic that represents his willpower). Unfortunately, it's not his strong suit. I concentrated on making him fast and strong, and skimped on willpower. He fails the roll, so he's still shaken, unable to act, and will get repeatedly battered until he either recovers or another thug gets lucky and injures him again.

I'm suddenly dubious about the game's balance -- yes, the thug got unbelievably lucky, but even so, Lionheart should not be in this much trouble.

Will our hero survive?

Will the GM ever figure out how to balance fights properly?

Will these rules be thrown out in disgust?

Tune in next time for the next thrilling part of this play test!

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You Can't Do That

by David Meadows 6. September 2017 19:20

As a GM I can't dictate to the players how they play the game, I have to let them do what they want and hope I'm prepared enough to react to whatever they do, no matter how ridiculous. (There has to be a two-way contract, though: the players have to implicitly agree that they won't do anything so stupid that it will wreck the game for me and the other players.)

One thing I do have to do, however, is lay down some ground rules right at the start so they are creating the right kind of characters to work within the game. I've already mentioned that I want to ban certain abilities that the rules would normally allow, but that's not what I'm talking about now. I'm talking about the character: not the list of skills and powers that they have but the personality, goals, and motivations.

We've already mutually agreed that the players will be super-villains conscripted by the government in World War Two and given pardons in exchange for carrying out some dangerous mission behind enemy lines, and the game I create will be based on that assumption, so I'm going to make sure the players stick to it when they create their characters. But that simple "mission statement" sentence still allows the players to create almost anything. And as I start to think through the storyline I want to run, I start to realise that some things won't work. Some of the objections are just common sense, but I still need to explain them to the players, so they can create characters that will work.

For example: you're a criminal, but you've got to want to work for the government. Otherwise, as soon as you're parachuted into France you're ditching the team and heading for Switzerland. Which might make a great story for that character but it's effectively removing the player from the game (unless he can get the rest of the characters to come with him ... and if that really happened, I'd run with it and try to make an interesting story out of this unexpected new direction, but it would really, really mess up my weeks of planning and probably give me a nervous breakdown trying to generate a new storyline on the fly, so if you're reading this ... just don't, ok?).

So, the government isn't even going to offer the job to anyone they think is so irredeemable that they won't stick with the mission. If your crime was shooting a Jewish shopkeeper because you’re a Blackshirt, for example ... well, forget it, that character's not getting picked for the team, so create another one. (Meanwhile, I'll pinch that one for a future villain ... ). The pitch from the government is going to be: "You've done some bad things, but we think you realise that Hitler is everyone's enemy, even yours, and we're appealing to you to help us stop him." If you think the character you've just lovingly imbued with life would laugh at that offer and walk back into his gaol cell instead, then I'm sorry but you'll have to scrap him and start again.

So I'll explain the ground rules to the players, and I'll examine the backgrounds they create for their characters, and we'll talk them over, and we'll come up with something that works. I'll almost certainly allow "borderline" concepts in, even if they don't entirely mesh with the goals, because that will generate its own interest and conflict during play (the best character in Blake's 7 was the one that was hated by the rest of the crew because he had completely opposite ideals to them ... you know who I mean). But there are limits, and I have to put my foot down where I know that an idea simply doesn't fit. Not for my sake, but for the players'.

Ultimately, it's my game and the buck stops with me.

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Game Balance

by David Meadows 4. September 2017 20:12

How powerful/skillful/well-equipped should the players' characters be? This is a fundamental decision I need to make, as everything I then put in front of them in the game has to be designed to be at a level that challenges them without being either impossible or too easy for them to overcome.

I don't want characters who are so powerful that they can win the war single-handed, but conversely I want to make sure the super-humans are actually better than human. My feeling is that if you put a super-human in the middle of half-a-dozen armed soldiers, the super-human should beat them comfortably. A dozen soldiers or something like a tank ... that should make them at least pause and plan.

Setting the game in the middle of a world war introduces a significant problem that most traditional super-hero settings don't have: all the weapons are designed to kill you. In a standard super-hero comic (or movie, if movies are your thing), most weapons are non-lethal. Other super-humans will punch you or zap you with generic energy designed to incapacitate (rather than vapourise) you. The heroes who have built-in claws and love to slice people open are, thankfully, very few and far between. Likewise, the run-of-the-mill villainous henchmen and agents of super-spy organisations have weapons set to "stun". A few might have lethal weapons like machine guns, but they're generally rubbish shots so that's ok.

In a world war, it's senseless (unless you’ve got a very solid plot reason) for your soldiers to hold back from killing their enemies (i.e. the player characters). They want to kill them, and what's more they’ve got rifles and machine guns and grenades and, if you're really trying to scare the players, tanks and dive bombers. And that's a problem.

The problem is that in a game you don’t want to kill the players' characters. You want to scare them into thinking they might die, but if they actually do die it really messes up the game. You've got a player who has nothing to do for the rest of the afternoon (possibly the rest of the year, depending on how you've set up the situation) and everyone ends up really depressed. A GM's job isn’t to "beat" the players by killing their characters (that would be too easy, considering you control the entire universe), it's to make sure the players have an enjoyable game.

Let's be clear: player characters shouldn't be immune from dying. Death should be a real and present danger, otherwise there's no challenge. If they die heroic deaths while saving the world as part of the big adventure climax, that's fine. Don't aim to do it, and allow the players to cheat it if they possibly can, but if they die for a noble cause, that's a satisfying end. Then there's deaths because the players have been utterly stupid despite your best efforts ("It's a pit of lava. Nobody can survive it." "Ok, I'll jump in just to make sure."). If that happens, well that serves them right (and anyway, your player has probably done it because he's not really enjoying the game and he'll be happy to sit the rest out). But random, "senseless" deaths in the middle of a game just because you misjudged how powerful to make the villain's energy blast, that's something we all want to avoid.

So when literally every single opponent has the motive and means to shoot the players' characters, you need to make sure the characters are bullet proof. Or too fast to hit. Or invisible. Or simply clever enough to be somewhere else.

But not too bulletproof, or fast, or sneaky. They have to be fallible, to have something out there that can pose a serious threat to them, or where's the challenge? And with no challenge, you have a boring game and an even more boring story. So you need to strike a balance.

This is what we call "game balance".

The old D&D game, for all its faults, did game balance better than anything since. It used the concept of "levels", which told you which monsters were good matches (on average) for characters of a specific power/skill level. Your "fifth-level fighter" should be fighting "fifth-level monsters". Seventh or eight level monsters would likely be too much for him, while first or second level monsters are not even worth his consideration. It all worked really well, and nothing has ever found a better way to do it, despite "levels" now considered an unrealistic, old-fashioned idea. 

Games that don't have rigid levels generally have a lot more flexibility in how you design characters, but with the flexibility it can be pretty hard to know exactly how two wildly different character designs stack up against each other.

The only way to know for sure if the game balance works, then, is to test it. Some things you can test mathematically: you know the damage a bullet does within the rules, so you know how tough the character has to be to survive it. But some things have too many variables to work out statistically and you can only really find out if characters are matched to the threats you've designed by testing them by actually playing the game.

Ok, so statistically the character can survive everything the riflemen throw at him, but can he move fast enough to reach the heavy machine gun (which can hurt him) before it reloads? Or what if he engages the riflemen in hand-to-hand combat while his slower (but better protected) friend advanced on the machine gun nest? You can create a handful of characters and test things like this before you unleash the game on the players (or vice versa).

Once you know this sort of thing, you can guide the players through character generation by hinting at the sort of threat they might face (not giving the plot away, but reminding them of the background): "Yes, that’s a great character but he'll die as soon as somebody shoots at him. What do you mean, he'll avoid people with guns? The whole point of the game is to fight Nazi soldiers!" Or, to the group collectively: "Look, here are the game statistics for the armour on a Panzer II tank, and none of you have an attack big enough to hurt it."

You can't dictate to the players how to create their characters, though you can put an outright ban on some abilities if you've decided they will unbalance the game: I've already decided to ban long-range teleportation powers, for example, because that completely kills the challenge of infiltrating behind enemy lines. But despite my best efforts, I probably will end up allowing some power or combination of powers that will cause an imbalance, simply because I can guarantee that my players will out-think me no matter how hard I try to challenge them, and they'll figure out how to make a power work much more usefully than I expected.

Because the other problem with game balance is that you can never anticipate how well the players will play the game, though you can be pretty certain that collectively they will be cleverer than you. "A Panzer II tank rolls down the road ... you know that none of you have the power to stop it, so ..." "Wait! I’ll mind-control the crew!" "Uh ... ok ..." (You hadn't anticipated that, and suddenly your "unbeatable" obstacle designed to make the players go in a different direction has been beaten, plus you've given the players a pet tank. Uh-oh. Hope you had your contingency plans in place ... )

Anyway, I'll leave this now while I go away and double-check the rules for the mind control power and decide whether I'm banning it or not ... 

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Random Thoughts

by David Meadows 3. September 2017 19:33

The best ideas appear to come randomly, out of nowhere. Like when you're sitting drinking a cup of coffee and reading a book and not actually trying to plot the game, and the name of a potential villain pops into your head out of nowhere, and within seconds you've got a background, a skill set, a personality, and a head full of typical dialogue you can use in his inevitable gloating monologues. All arising from one random thought.

Except, it's not out of nowhere. Thoughts never arise in a vacuum. I've spent weeks now reading rules, reading text books, looking at maps, thinking about my wider universe and how to fit the new game into it. My head is full of this game. Even writing these blog posts is part of it. The more I immerse myself in this game, the more ideas I'm going to get, seemingly out of nowhere.

There are no totally new ideas. Everything you ever "make up" filters out of everything you have ever absorbed. I'm in a phase of making sure I absorb enough of the right stuff at the moment, and trying not to derail myself by making up stuff for six different games that are somewhere in the back of my mind.

And on an unrelated note ... after a long period of not updating the web site at all, I posted enough on the blog last month to make it my third most prolific month since the site started. So I think I'm just about ready to stop messing about and get back to publishing the old game stories that the sire was really intended for. I'll not commit to an update this week, but I'll aim for at least one before the end of September, and see where it goes from there ... 

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About this blog

The Heroes Universe is an ongoing work of fiction, conceived and chiefly plotted by David Meadows, with help from a group of friends, over a 30-year period.

I am slowly documenting the Universe on this web site.

This blog is a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of that history.

If you're new here, the series of posts listed below will explain what it's all about. I hope...

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