Thursday, September 9, 2010

Arthur Lives, Going Savage

So I have been spending my spare hours this week working on the Savage Worlds version of Arthur Lives. The two games are very different, not least because only one has classes and levels. True20 has a certain presumption of action-worthiness built into the system; your character cannot go up in level and be completely helpless, because your attack bonus, defense, and saves all go up with you. Yes, you could pick useless powers, and no doubt some players do that, put if you put a gun in the hand of a 16th level expert, even if that character has refused to acquire Firearm Proficiency, he'll still be practically invulnerable to low-level attackers and be able to shoot them dead.

Savage Worlds doesn't work like that. Instead of using rules to push your abilities higher, it relies on carrots and sticks. You want to improve your Fighting skill? You'll have to pay a penalty unless you also increase your Agility. And as soon as you do that, you've made yourself better at all kinds of things, not just Fighting.

True20 has long lists of feats, and characters accumulate a lot of them as they go up in level. Savage Worlds uses edges instead, but there are fewer of them and an individual character will have fewer of them on his sheet.

But the really big thing I am noticing is that Savage World's emphasis on what they call "Fast! Furious! Fun!" means that the only magic is combat magic, and the rules are very thin on anything that doesn't involve fighting. True20 lavishes effort on crafting, for example, so a character can make magical items, potions, explosives, and what have you. None of that exists in Savage Worlds. True20 has all these ways for characters with high Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma to hold their own in combat; in Savage Worlds, none of those alternate combat routes exist. Some of these mechanics I can let go, but others I have to create, because Arthur Lives is essentially a game of occult conspiracy. There's plenty of action. It's a cinematic game. But it also needs to have things like ritual magic, the creation of enchanted items, magic potions, and more.

At the same time, I'm glad to have a game system with rules for chases and vehicle combat. That will help out the knights in AL, who tend to have vehicle skills and who want to put those skills to use. Each system is different, and I certainly recognize that and am happy to work around it. But I do worry that Savage Worlds players are going to see this game, with all its ritual magic, its crafting, its non-combat spells like supernatural travel and faerie refuges, and they're going to accuse me of "not being Savage Worlds enough."

Time will tell, I suppose.


  1. As someone who has been a part of the Savage Worlds community for a few years now: I think that if you bring a solid enough ritual magic/crafting system to the game, you will sell a lot of people on that *alone*

    In fact, a common complaint I hear (and have made) about Savage Worlds is the lack of "non-combat magic".

    Just don't try to break the core of the system and I think you will do fine.

  2. I have seen a few different versions of Ritual Magic, published in various places or simply house-ruled on the Pinnacle forums, and it's encouraging to hear that players are looking for non-combat options that go beyond the core rules.

    No breakage of the system is going on, that I vow!

    Thanks for posting, Tommy.

  3. Jason,

    Once you're done bringing non-combat systems to Savage Worlds (a great selling point -- I agree with Tommy on that), maybe you can do the same for D&D? Yeah, it has rituals. Sure. And "skill contests." But the whole thing has been so heavily based around combat that it's very difficult to imagine, say, a high-level, old-school diviner or enchanter-of-things who *isn't* also a combat-magic ace with fireballs up his sleeve. I kind of miss having the option to create a "bad" PC who requires creative play. I don't get to play often, but when I do, I get weird. Once played a merchant who tried to clever his way through everything. Did better than I expected, too. Now he'd have to be a bard or rogue, so he'd be armed with all kinds of attack powers that I'd have to pretend he didn't have. Sigh.

    Perhaps the best thing about AL is that it might bring back these old-school elements that our video-game-mimicking designers have cast aside.

    - Gray

  4. You know, it's interesting. There were, in what we might call the "Old School" days, plenty of ways to make characters which just weren't very effective. But game designers have, in recent decades, intentionally avoided that possibility on the argument that "those characters aren't fun. We want you to have fun. Therefore, your character must be action-worthy." We see it in everything from the way D&D tossed the "3d6 in the order that you rolled them" rule for a point-buy system where everyone has an 18, to the powers you mention. It was easy to make a 12th level character who sucked in AD&D. You just didn't give him any magic items. But now, magic items mean far less than ever in D&D, and there are setting like Dark Sun which take the bonuses magic items used to give you and just roll them into your character so you get them when you level.

    Savage Worlds does this in a whole different way. It doesn't force you to make an action-worthy character through the rules. It encourages it through the genre. SW's tagline is "Fast! Fun! Furious!" It is, at its heart, a game system designed for pulp action. Their official settings - like Solomon Kane - are ones which are high-octane and rely on the frission of Fear and Sanity checks to add interest to what might otherwise be fairly straight-forward door-kicking adventures. You can make the helpless professor or the humble native in Savage Worlds. It at least preserves the option for people who want to do that. But the setting and the adventures are constructed in such a way that, if you want to play Sallah or Marcus Brody, well, you need to get used to the fact that the guy playing Indy is just going to be -doing- a lot more than you. Because your skills are not going to be the ones which successfully navigate a pulp adventure which requires action heroes.

    AL is, perhaps, something a bit different. It certainly gets a lot of its action from cinema and comics. Mage, Camelot 3000, Excalibur and even movies of modern magic like Disney's recent Sorcerer's Apprentice are all great AL campaigns. But what it does - or what I try to do at least - is open up the possibilities for players so they have more strategic options available to them, and so more character options. Sure, you can bash the door down and start throwing bolts of fire. But you could also tail your enemy over several days, sneak into his house when he's out, steal a personal item from his bathroom, and then go back and use it to cast a Spontaneous Combustion ritual on him. When I describe AL as "a game of occult conspiracy", this is what I am talking about.

    To use a modern television example, it's not unlike something you might see in Jon Rogers' Leverage. Sure, there's one guy on the team who is the "hitter." But mostly the group gets what it needs by the con, the lift, the grift and the hack. Why can't we allow that?

    Thanks for posting, Gray. This conversation is helping shape my thoughts on how I approach these differences both explicitly and implicitly in the game and how it is marketed.

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  7. Yeah, see, if you hold to that design philosophy heading into the Savage Worlds version of Arthur Lives!, I'll be trumpeting this thing from the mountain tops...every time a Horror Toolkit or a Realms of Cthulhu or an Arthur Lives! comes along that flips the paradigm of what we expect Savage Worlds to be, the game just gets stronger, IMHO.

    I'm an Arthurian fanboy (but not a diehard purist) who almost bought AL! a few times, but backed off because I didn't want to learn True20, no matter how cool the setting was...=P

  8. Very encouraging Tommy. I warn you, when the game comes out, I am going to hold you to your word!

    One of the things I was most gratified to hear, when Jason Corley reviewed us for the Pulp Gamer podcast, was when he started up front with, "I don't like Arthur," and then went on to talk about how much fun the game was, and how he was totally sold on it.

    You don't need to be a fan of Arthur to enjoy Arthur Lives, and you certainly don't need to be a purist. In my academic life, I deal with pop culture versions of Arthur, in which the legend is twisted, mutated, folded, spindled, and mutilated. And that is part of what makes this particular legend so wonderful. Everyone wants to be a part of it, and to do that they add to it or change it in their own way. That's not a bug, that's a feature.

    Thanks, Tommy!

  9. I disagree.
    A ritual is just descriptive text in league with the appropriate trapping.
    Roll the appropriate skill for the end result.
    If it's plot reason, don't roll.
    For example you could have a resurrection spell. You could say I roll on my magic skill and it's done. Even better say its a ritual, have them describe it. Now you have the resurrection scene from Conan. It's the experience of the game that counts, not whether or not you roll on some ritual table...or whatever.

  10. Garrett,

    I totally understand what you're saying, and yes, good GMs can add the non-combat stuff without it officially being part of the system.

    But I'm still going to disagree with your disagreement. The flavor of the game changes when the rules emphasize combat. The rules frame the way the game is played. A game with lots of emphasis on social interaction in the rules is a highly social game in play. A game with an official emphasis on role-playing encourages role-playing. A game with mechanics that are all about combat encourages combat, and disincentivizes everything else by making the intellectual cost to do those things too high.

    The rules certainly frame what the *PCs* do--most players decide what they're going to do based on what is on their character sheets. If their character sheet has options for combat but not for diplomacy, the percentage of characters who draw swords increases. These are psychological ramifications, and they're important.

    This doesn't mean you need a "ritual table." But you do need to have character options and powers that aren't combat-specific if you want them to do non-combat things. And you need to have an option to *not* specialize in combat, or else everyone will be significantly better at combat than they are at the peripheral activities, so they'll naturally channel their play toward their strengths.

    Game-play in 4e D&D is far, far different--just in terms of the ratio of activities--than it was in previous editions. That's a natural, if psychological, consequence of the game's design.

    - Gray

  11. This is turning into a really profitable conversation. Thanks to everyone for participating.

    I have no desire to reinvent the wheel. If SW already does something, swell! Roll and keep playing. That's not my challenge.

    My challenge is that AL is specifically replicating a certain genre, the magic of Arthurian fiction, films, and comics. If Savage Worlds cannot replicate a particular effect that is in the source material, I have to figure out what to do about that.

    Let's take three examples.
    1: Merlin uses magic to disguise himself, Uther, and one of Uther's men, Ulfius, to look like Duke Gorlois and two of -his- men. This is all so Uther can walk into Gorlois's castle and sleep with Gorlois's wife. This is how Arthur was engendered.
    2: Morgana casts a protective spell on Mordred so that he cannot be killed by any mortal weapon. This happens in the movie Excalibur.
    3: A powerful magician casts a spell that summons a dragon but gives it human form, in which it remains for hours or days. This happens in the Mage comic.

    None of these effects can be performed with Savage Worlds' current powers. Merlin can use the Disguise power, but even if he has the Wizard edge and casts at a power point discount, he is spending 12 power points to disguise three people, and then 3 points every 10 minutes. That doesn't leave much time for Uther to get into the castle and get laid and get back out again, even if we allow the caster to have 30 power points. Morgana can cast the Armor effect on Mordred, but again she is spending 1 power point every round to maintain it, and it ends when she can't maintain it any more, while in the film the effect continues long after Mordred himself kills Morgana. The Umbra Sprite can use Summon to call a dragon, but it's an extra and, again, costs 1 power point every round, which does not jive with what we see in the comic, where the dragon lasts for hours and is clearly a wild card.

    There are a few ways to solve all these problems. You could say, "You can't do that." This includes limiting such effects to NPCs. But if Merlin is a PC in Arthur Lives, if Morgana is a PC, then this is a very unsatisfying answer. Merlin did it before, there should be a way for him to do it again. Even if it is hard, even if he can't do it right now and at the drop of a hat, there should be a way that he could do it, if he really worked for it.

    The second solution would be to invent new powers for all these things. A "Mass Disguise" effect which affected multiple people and lasted longer. A "Summon Dragon" spell. Some kind of "Invulnerable to Mortal Weapons" spell. But Savage Worlds already has effects which duplicate these things, they just need to be slightly altered. It's not the effect that's the problem. It's the fact that SW magic spells are all designed to be very temporary and mostly used in combat.

    So what I am doing is coming up with a way in which a certain kind of magician, call him a ritual magician, can duplicate the effects I am talking about by starting out with powers already in Savage Worlds and modifying them to gain long-term effects or whatever, in exchange for making the spell take a very long time to cast or other restrictions. But all of these special, unique spells, which we call rituals, are designed by the GM so that players never have to worry about all those min/maxing issues. The GM decides what rituals his game wants to allow, and he introduces them. Players just get right to casting, and the GM sends a pack of zombies to bash the door down.

    And, at the same time, if the GM decides all this is too much work, or too much hassle, or impairs his Fast! Fun! Furious!, there are simple "default" rules which he can use which are - I will note - essentially the rules for rituals which the designer of SW came up with and has already published, and with which my system is completely compatible.

  12. As for D&D 4E...

    I wonder what would happen if you made some kind of new class for 4E - call him an "expert" for lack of a better word - who gave up his At-Will attack powers for things like Ritual Caster and Practiced Study. (That's the non-magical version of Ritual Caster, which allows martial heroes like fighters and rogues to get special non-combat abilities, mostly fueled by healing surges.) And then this class would not have Encounter or Daily powers. Instead, they would -swap- their rightful Encounters and Dailies for the next highest level Utility power, and could choose from any class or, perhaps, any class of a given power source. (Like, a Martial Expert could pick from the utility powers of the Fighter, Rogue, Warlord and Ranger, while an Arcane Expert would pick from the Wizard, Bard, Swordmage or Sorcerer.) Such a character would only have basic attacks when it came to attacking and doing damage, but they would have a ton of non-combat, skill-related, or movement-related powers as Utilities, rituals, or martial practices.

    I have no idea how that kind of a character would work. Certainly, in a typical encounter, he would be grossly inferior. Which means you would need a cooperative DM, because the monster strength would have to be toned down a little lest the team suffer for one guy's weakness. But, then, out of combat this guy would be the swiss army knife, the go-to guy. You might end up with the other characters focusing even MORE on combat, to the exclusion of non-combat abilities, because the Expert has all those bases covered.

    Hm. I don't know.

  13. I really like your off-the-cuff D&D character class. I'd play that in a heartbeat, even possibly with an "uncooperative" GM. I like the challenge of coming up with non-combat ways to deal with challenges, and that would give me a lot of tools to play with. I've actually toyed with a very similar class idea, but since I know few of my players would ever try it, and we don't play that often, I hadn't had a chance to think it through quite as thoroughly as you just did. I hadn't thought, for instance, of swapping E and D powers for utilities within the same power source. That totally works for me, as either a DM or a player.

    Onto "Savage Arthur" (great mental image there): I completely sympathize with your dilemma. I find I'm always trying to torture the existing systems to get them to permit the types of stories I'd like to see unfold. Coming up with long-duration rituals is a good, straightforward fix. But I've played with that concept before in our own home-brew system, and the problem is that PCs often can carve out time and money to pay those costs to the point that they're using the rituals more than you'd hoped -- unless you harass them with inconveniences, which can be done, but it's very easy to cross a tipping point that way, resulting in a game that's annoying or frustrating rather than fun. Yes, good GMs know it's possible to balance those tensions. I've done it. I've been in games with GMs who've done it. But it's *not* easy, and if it's not easy, it may not be an ideal solution to the problem, in terms of game design.

    So here's an idea. If it's unoriginal (there are game systems I don't know, and I often find my original ideas aren't so original), accept my apologies. If it's original, feel free to use it (so long as I retain non-exclusive license to play with it too).

    Basically, you cast a spell by completing an adventure. The adventure *is* the ritual. You know a ritual, but you also know that to cast it you have to pull off something difficult, something that might even scale with your level. And it's a game session or two. It's also risky: You could lose something. Maybe your life, limbs, or property. Maybe you end up stuck in a dryad's tree for several years. Maybe you end up cursed or geased. (I think the best consequences would be ones that resulted in still other adventures: You start a quest to cast your ritual, blow it, and end up geased into another quest on behalf of a sorceress. Or you fail your quest, die, and get brought back as an undead knight in the service of a necromancer. Now your challenge is to escape thralldom.)

    The above approach would give you an excuse to play with some hellishly powerful effects without necessarily worrying about them being abused. Casting them would be fun, rather than, "I spend six months and 6 million gold. How many successes do I need for this challenge?" Failure could even be fun.

    Just a thought.