[Sword of the Skull] Ronnies feedback

Started by Ron Edwards, January 07, 2011, 10:40:40 AM

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Ron Edwards

Willow Palecek's Sword of the Skull

Imagine a big music keyboard with some kind of responsive mechanism built into it, so that in some cases, what you key in produces its own noises but also prompts the mechanism itself to add to the sounds. There are all sorts of different types of keys, in fact so various that different levels of keyboard, and different kinds of lights and keys and slides and stops, are all over the place, like a mad church organ crossed with an airplane's flight console. Your job is to fix a few of the optional stops and settings, then play like gangbusters on all the available parts, coping with the machine/instrument's responses at times, perhaps getting good enough to avoid some of them and to deal with others without hassle. But the machine becomes ever-more responsive and the consequences can be severe.

That's what playing AD&D sometime around 1980 was like for me, as well as its contemporary T&T, and any number of derived versions of this mode of play whether labeled D&D or not. I'm not speaking here of leveling, which is another whole side of the picture, but merely coordinating options of character creation with the various moving parts of play, specifically the quantities of anything listed on the character sheet. Your hit points, armor class, money, spells known, weapons, other items carried, characteristics, saving roll values ... all that stuff. Your current configuration (build) and use of these things ("I do this," "I do that") meshes with the various threats and challenges, and any number of things on the sheet are forced to change. You re-adjust, review your options as they now stand, try to get ahead of the odds, and tough it out through the losses.

Two things make the best games of this kind stand out. One is inserting character categories or incentives which generate conflicts of interest among player-characters. This turns the basic "get through it" into a more nuanced Prisoner's Dilemma situation. The classic example is that thieves (and more so assassins) and paladins are both high-utility characters, but they can't get along. The other is introducing magic items, which is to say, things which "jump" a character's sheet into a new quantum of effectiveness, whether simple bonuses or novel abilities, off the scale of where the character is now expected to operate.

There are about a million things to talk about regarding that stuff when it comes to any iteration of D&D or T&T or derivations thereof, but that's not what this thread is about. This thread is about how Willow took this whole rather frightening "thing" and isolated one of its most important feedback loops, dusted it off, and chromed it. It's like listening to someone playing a Moog organ, thinking for a bit, and then inventing a trumpet. Simpler, yes, arguably less sophisticated ("it can't play chords??"), but possessing a brassy, un-ignorable purity that makes one want to play a trumpet.

Sword of the Skull takes very few things: dice, each one generating 50% for a success; wounds, each one removing a die; and money, basically buying gear = more dice. There's one point of elaboration, which is that different sorts of gear provide dice in different ways, so one must consider the angle at which one's extra dice come into things. Aside from that, you "lead with your face" as the fighters call it, and bust in to see your dice confronted with wounds, and to see if you can get enough money to get the gear.

Now for the fun part: although in-party conflict is out of the question (it's a Twosie game, you and a GM), there's one more wrinkle. The total danger you face, for the whole adventure, is quantitatively set by the bonuses provided by the single most important reward item in there - a magic item. (There can be other magic items in fictional terms, but they're just more gear.) You make up your Pimped-Out Mondo Fucking Thing, and however good it is sets how many points the GM has to build the challenges. If you get it, you get it!! (more on that in a bit)

Clearly this is an exercise in Currency. The diagram shows the big parts; the Currency is about the conversions between the parts via Points. And yes, I know the lines are ugly as poo; I had to use the free-draw thing to get them pointing right. Eat me.

Losing is easy to understand: your guy falls unconscious, and might die or end up elsewhere or go back to town, or whatever - but doesn't get the cool item. Winning is easy to understand in the short cycle: you get it! You wield it! You get out! And I suppose after many adventures, if the day comes that you have utterly scratched your personal itch for fireballs, demon 'eads an' skuwws, airbrushing, chrome, flash detailing, leather, and sissy bars, then you call your guy "done" with a big smile. Which arguably is a coming-to-terms with this mode of role-playing, in and of itself.

I like the fact that character attributes don't change, just gear. Hell, one could even eliminate the attributes entirely and let the character's schtick be implied by the kind of gear they favor. I think the attributes are sort of a nod to the source material, conceivably even a joke regarding how meaningless most characteristic scores were in pre-3.0 D&D anyway.

So the trouble is ...
For Ronnies purposes, "skull" and "sword" aren't strong enough. There's the title and the final paragraph, where your imagined cool magic item is described, and there's no way to see the terms' meaning, as concept or in reference to that item, as central to the game's purpose.

What follows isn't necessarily flaw or trouble, although I'm raising issues for consideration. OK, starting with the observation that the Burning Wheel dice resolution* is very unforgiving, the only chance one has to get off the 50% treadmill, or to keep from being snowed under by a nasty combination at a given moment, is to bump to the left of the existing probability curve. In other words, you need some kind of edge. In this game, though, the magic items don't bump you off the scale to provide such an edge; they are accounted for in the currency and are therefore embedded in the "even match" paradigm. Which sort of blows, from one perspective - there's no "cheat" sitting around in there that I might grab and use, which is another way to say, no strategy.

(I suppose it's cynical to identify "strategy" which "identifying a good way to undercut what looked like an even match, until now.") (Also, Willow, if I'm missing something important about the rules here, let me know.)

Raw enthusiasm (guts) is a fine thing and part of my definition of Gamism. But that definition also includes strategizing, and I find guts all by itself, in an even match, to be kind of a mug's game. The one thing that counters this concern is that not all encounters are equal, and sometimes this ability or that gear will be more important, so a certain amount of covering all the bases - and learning to avoid things for which you aren't covered - would be involved.

Wait - OK, I should specify that all of the preceding concerned what happens in-the-moment, during challenges. But it's definitely true that there's a higher-level strategic issue involved, whether in making up your Pimped-Out Mondo Fucking Thing, you've set your sets too high, given the GM more points than you can handle, and bitten off more than you can chew. I think that ties really well into the whole point of the game, too, which is to celebrate one's adolescent lust for shiny howling fiery metal things - yet here it is, the biggest system feature in the game, saying, "You're going to have to do this with some eye toward the future." Nifty.

Whether that higher level of strategy is sufficient to be fun is a personal call, and something I'm interested in finding out through playtesting. This is absolutely definitely a repeat-play game toward that end; a one-shot to see "how you hit" would not even touch what I perceive to be the real Gamist potential.

Bits and bytes
A minor point for development: Mapping needs some more attention in the text. It seems to me most sensible for the GM to start by making Monsters, Traps, other Items, et cetera, and drawing the maps "around" them.

One minor point regarding a concern raised in the text: if it's just silly that a given Monster wouldn't wield an item, or some aspect, against a foe, then go ahead and buy the Monster an aspect of the same name and look as the item's (not necessarily the same effectiveness). That removes the double-dip problem.

Best, Ron

* Meaning d6 dice pools, with each die rated at 50% chance of success, opposed to another dice pool using the same mechanics. The opponent can either increase the size of the opposing pool, or dictate a number of required successes, or both; each of which severely impacts one's chances. I first saw this mechanic in Maelstrom (1994), later called Story Engine; I saw its essential features for the first time in Prince Valiant (1989), which used coins.


My own biggest concern via the mechanics is the balance of monster dice vs. cost of effectiveness vs. the GM's budget- I'm comfortable with the cost of the magic item powers relative to each other, but not with the player side powers relative to the monster side costs.  Also, were I to expand this to a full game, I'd want to put some more crunchy monster abilities in, like in Agon.  Time constraints and any inability to do playtesting (even rough single player roll a bunch of dice playtesting) were the primary factor in this, but I think that's to be expected with a 24 hour rpg.

My main nod to tactics in play is the negotiation of task challenge numbers, the minor options in combat, use of limited in-play currencies, but especially the outfitting and logistics.

(I actually do have a rule whereby one can spend 100 gold to raise an Attribute one, however, in practice, this is probably waaay over costed, making buying more equipment much more reasonable)