Revisiting Ideas: The Trump Battle

The trump battle was an effort to replace combat with open ended puzzles. I also felt it would better emulate TV action. Here’s the post it’s from:

I’ve been using it in my most recent campaign.  Lets look at how it played out, and what I learned from them.

Example 1: The Burning Ghost

In the middle of the night, in the ruins of a burned down house, two mages were preparing a seance. They were attempting to contact a particular ghost named Jennifer. She started the fire that burned down the aforementioned house, she manifested in a local bar to tell them to stop their investigation, and they suspected that she was responsible for her (still living) husbands’ near death experience. As it turns out, the mages were right.

The ghost’s set of powers are: insubstantiality, materialization, and create/control fire. Arguably insubstantially and materialization are just two ways of describing the same power, but if you bother arguing about that you are a nerd. Like me. ghost-web

Round 1:

An Angry, Ghost causes fires to start up in the material world. This imposes a threat that the players need tor espond to.

Mage #1 sets up a ward to keep them safe from the fire.

Mage #2 uses some spirit magic to let them both see into the spirit world, and thus see the ghost that’s attacking them. A useful effect.

Round 2:

Mage #1 takes control of the fire, and blasts the ghost with it. The ghost is in the spirit world, though, so it’s unaffected by this.

Mage #2 uses some spirit magic to send his knife into the spirit world while stabbing at the ghost. This forces a response from the ghost.

The Angry Ghost’s fire power is currently under the control of Mage #1, so Jennifer’s only real option is to use her materialization to leave the spirit world. But the material world is filled with fire because Mage #1 took control of it.

Sucks to be Jennifer. I decided to have her die by fiery explosion, because it seemed quicker and less brutal than being stabbed to death. Well, she was already dead… Whatever happens to ghosts when they are obliviated.

Then the mages speculated about what happens to ghosts when they “die” and concluded that ghosts probably can’t “die.” They assumed she would be back, some day. Sometimes the players just throw the GM a bone, am I right?

Example 2: the Wendigo and the Serpent

Some hikers went missing in a freak storm, so some mages went to investigate. The mages found the hikers unconscious, out in the open, half buried in snow. However, when they loaded up the unconscious hikers into their bus they were confronted by two supernatural creatures: a big-foot like creature and a giant snake. The big foot like creature could control the weather, was super strong, and wanted to eat human flesh. Due to its fondness for human flesh I called it a Wendigo. The giant snake was in the spirit world, and could only be heard because it was underground. Both of them wanted to take the hikers, and they did not get along.spirit1

Round 1:

Mage #1 slammed on the gas, and tried to escape. The Wendigo grabbed onto the back of the van and held it in place with it’s incredible strength!

Mage #2: used spirit magic to thicken the barrier between worlds. It was actually much more clever than that, but the details would only be appreciated by Mage players. This will keep the serpent stuck in the spirit world.

Mage #3 tried to use some psychic powers to make the wendigo very impressionable, and then boss the wendigo around. Unfortunately, Mage #3 failed their rolls.

The Wendigo hit the van with a lightning bolt. One of the mages got a ward up just in time.

The Serpent tried to break into the material world, but was unable to do so. Mage #2 felt very good about himself.

Round 2:

Mage #1 suddenly switched the van into reserse, and tried to run over the Wendigo (or at least knock it off balance). It didn’t work again, because the Wendigo is too strong.

Mage #2 strengthened the barrier between worlds even more. That serpent was not getting into our world!

Mage #3 took control of the lightning with magic and tried to hit the Wendigo. The wendigo was able to defend itself, however, by fighting for control of the lightning.

The Wendigo tried to tip the van over. However, its attempt to do so was interrupted when Mage #2 threw a rock into it’s face, stunning it for a second.

The Serpent was getting really frustrated at being stuck in the spirit world. It was unable to do anything.

Round 3:

Mage #2 threw a jerrycan at the Wendigo, and lit it on fire with the lightning. The wendigo, in response, used its great strength and massive arms to shield itself from the explosion. Unfortunately for the Wendigo, this meant that the Van was no longer being held in place. As such, Mage #1s threat was no longer being responded to, so mage #1 ran over the Wendigo, and escaped. The wendigo got up, apparently still unharmed, and futilely chased them before giving up.

The players escaped with the hitch hikers.

Things I Learned

I predicted it would be very important when doing this to make the threats persist through the scene even when the threatening action is over, so long as it is possible to repeat the action. With these Trump Battles I learned it’s just as important to make the counters persistent throughout the scene. If its a gunfight and gunfire forces someone to hide behind cover, if they ever ignore the need to avoid the cover fire they will get shot. That is a persistent threat. So long as it is still possible for the shooter to return to making those shots the threat has to be acknowledged, regardless of how many rounds have gone by in which the shooter was not shooting. If this is not done, the fight goes on forever. Conversely, once the player does something to protect themselves from the gunfire on their turn, they no longer need to worry about being shot. Suppose the character leaves cover while flipping and spinning to dodge bullets, like in a Gun Fu action movie. Now, they no longer need to worry about being shot unless the shooter can do something about the flipping and spinning. This is a persistent counter to the threat.

I figured this out at the beginning of Round 3. My initial instinct was to deflect the jerry can with a gust of wind, but it occurred to me that the storm had already been subverted by the players. The players never said they wanted their magical effects to have duration, but I realized if I don’t assume the counter persists the fight would last a very long time.

I know that controlling lightning is not the same thing as controlling wind, so taking control of the lightning should still leave the wind under the Wendigo’s control. From this point of view, I supposed I made a mistake having the Wendigo defend itself with its beastly arms. Next time I will want to remember that some abilities are more open-ended than others, and will require multiple effects from the players to fully counter. This could potentially drag out fights over very long periods of time. I think a reasonable limitation is that the GM should decide a finite number of things a power can be used for at a time. Since the game is about magi, in this campaign I would call this the Concentration Number. In other games I might call it something more generic. I’ll go with Conservation of Detail Index, as the higher the number, the less novel features will need to accompany a given opponent. Something about that term I find funny.

Player Feedback on Trump Battles

One player expressed that the combat was much more tense than a normal RPG battle. It felt like every decision and every roll mattered, because there was no HP to protect them from their own errors. This surprised me, because I was concerned that avoiding normal combat would make players feel like nothing was at risk.

One player expressed that it was very immersive, and gave room for ample role-playing opportunities during battle.

One player said he liked it. When asked to express why he said “same as them.”

No one offered any criticism.  I think I need to play with my friends who prefer 4e DnD if I want someone to find every single problem with this system.


Economics in Games

Here is my newest post.  I haven’t written anything in a long time, because I have a new job and no free time.

Economics in RPGs is very different from economics in board games. This post will analyze economics in RPGs and Board games, compare the results, and then use the resulting conclusions to make business in RPGs as enjoyable as it is in board games. This will make it easier to make a fun RPG about being a space merchant, explorer in search of trade routes, or prospector.

Spending Money in RPGs

In RPGs money is spent on acquiring better or new equipment. Generally speaking, gear either improves existing abilities or enables novel abilities. For the most part, there is not much overlap over how the players spend their money: wizards want scrolls, fighters want weapons. Where there is overlap (such as a fighers and ranger both wanting a better weapon) it is common for more than one of the desired gear to be available.

Spending Resources in Trade Based RPGs

In trade based RPGs, resources are spent to acquire victory points. An important feature of game play is that usually the way of winning victory points is also useful for acquiring more resources. For example, in Settlers of Catan points are earned by building settlements and cities (which acquire more resources directly), roads (which are a requirement for new settlements), and buying development cards (the most common development card can be used to steal resources). There is competition for the best ways to spend resources. In Settlers of Catan there are only a few good locations to place settlements and there is a finite number of development cards that are worth bonus victory points.

Resources in RPGs

The obvious resource in RPGs is gold or money. It is normally acquired by doing missions or going on quests. They can also be acquired by looting defeated enemies, use of skills (such as bartering for better deals), or even having a job. In some games, players have the option of spending experience points in a variety of ways. Experience, unlike gold, cannot normally be traded, stolen, or pooled together. Experience is usually acquired in the same way as acquiring money, but is also sometimes awarded for making the game more enjoyable with things like humour, character development, or bringing snacks. In some games health (usually maximum HP; not temporary HP) can be spent to obtain certain benefits. This is often representative of some kind of “deal with the devil” scenario. Note that money is the only resource that can be traded.

Resources in economic Board Games

There are almost always multiple resources that can be acquired in an economic board game. This makes some resources more valuable or less valuable at a given time. In games where the players trade with one another (like settlers), this facilitates trade. In games with more competitive markets, the players interact indirectly by driving up prices, like in Power Grid. Acquiring the resources is not normally a major part of play; interacting with other players is often important. Settlers has a single dice roll to get resources, but frequent bartering between players. Power Grid has a simple resource market, but the player needs to anticipate other players purchasing habits in order to drive up prices for their opponents (and protect themselves from similar shenanigans).


Key Differences:


Economic Board Games

Gear is not scarce; there is always enough to buy

Valuable things to buy are scarce; there is competition to buy them.

Money spent is lost

Spend resources to make more resources

Usually only one resource: money

Multiple resources.

Acquiring the resource takes a lot of game time

Acquiring the resource does not take a lot of game time

Conclusions about Play

In RPGs money is spent between the bulk of play is going on quests that earn money. In economic board games acquiring the resources occur with minimal investment of time or effort, and play is mostly about how to use the resources. Changing the emphasis in play from getting money to spending money is necessary to make more economically focused RPGs.

Spending resources to get more resources is a reward system to encourage more spending. As such, this particular component is probably not desirable as it will end up detracting from going on adventures. If RPG adventure is integrated into spending, however, this is completely overcome.

Conclusions about Game Structure

Having a single resource to spend and no scarcity when it comes to things to buy supports play that doesn’t focus on economics. In an economics game, however, complexity can emerge from balancing multiple resources and only having a few things to buy.

Changes to RPGs

  1. Have a 4 trade-able resources in game.

  2. Provide “goal gear:” items that can be purchased that are obviously superior, desirable to multiple players, and limited in number.

  3. Allow players to trade their 4 resources.

  4. Make sure that acquiring, trading, and spending the resources all occurs while role-playing (preferably during quests).


The Merchant League

This is a fantasy game where the players are explorers working for a league of merchants. It is for Pathfinder. The four resources are Gold, Crafts, Herbs, and Trophies. Crafts is a general term for finished goods. Herbs is intended to represent spices, medicine, and various magical reagents that can be harvested from plants. Trophies are anything that is harvested from monsters.

Goal gear will be selected from the various items that introduce novel powers instead of numerical increases. This mostly limits the list to rings, rods, and wondrous items. An exception will be made for items that are actually desirable to every character class, like a ring of deflection, but these items are few and far between. Goal gear will always be at least two levels higher than the PCs current level.

As the PCs explore, they find amazing crafts-people. These people will say they can make a particular goal item for a PC if a particular collection of stuff is brought to them.

The cost of these items will be half the normal price (like if a PC was making it themselves), plus a particular combination of crafts, herbs, and trophies. It will always be at least two of each resource, plus one additional resource.

Players could trade gold for other resources amongst each other at any time. Trophies are acquired exclusively by hunting monsters, and will often require the largest investment of game time to acquire. To decide which player gets the trophie, they bid on it using only gold. As such, I imagine that much of the trading will occur after players defeat a monster.

Players may acquire herbs themselves if they have appropriate skills, like survival and herbalism, and are in an appropriate environment. They can also acquire crafts and gold with appropriate skills.

This game will result in players exploring for three mechanical reasons: find new goal gear opportunities, finding new resources, or because a different player is paying them. These first two options are, in narrative terms, part of making new trade routes and finding new markets.

Players may also interfere with other players, by using spells or skills to sabotage the amazing craftsperson’s work, or making the amazing craftsperson dislike the other PCs. Such underhanded, dirty play is limited more by the players’ cunning than anything else. This ought to be encouraged, as an important part of economic games is the tension from racing for something scarce. This allows people to feel, fear, and play into this tension.

Hometown Heroes

The players are prominent members of a small community. It doesn’t really matter what kind of setting it is, but lets say it’s a post-apocalyptic sci-fi setting. The players are going to ensure the town can defend itself, grow, prosper, and maybe even someday beginning moving towards a “higher” goal than survival. Examples would include art, culture, science, humanitarianism, etc.

There are four resources, and they are deliberately vague: supplies, labour, knowledge, and influence. Influence is a limiting factor on the success of the community. Without sufficient influence, the community will splinter into disparate factions as it grows larger. Influence cannot be traded. Depending on personal preferences for a campaign, influence could be traded out for something like ecology, in which case it represents the carrying capacity of the post-apocalyptic biosphere. Other alternatives are oil wells (for a mad-max like world) and medicine (for a flu-pocalypse setting).

The “goal gear” is a reward that accompanies a permanent improvement to the town. Examples would include building a wall, a new well, a mill, a machine shop, etc. These always cost some influence to get built. It will normally be a unique piece of cool technology from before the apocalypse, but in other settings it could be state of the art technology, a superior and highly customized device, or magical equipment.

As PCs build more pemanent improvements to the town, the town starts becoming more self sufficient. This provides every PC with a certain amount of supplies, labour, and knowledge every turn. The person with the highest influence gets an extra share. The total amount of resources earned per turn cannot exceed the total influence held by the entire party. The resources produced will need to make sense for the improvement created. A wall might increase labour, because now less people spend their time on patrol. A farm increases supplies. A public forum increases knowledge. PCs would be encouraged to come up with their own ideas: a PC who is a preacher may wish to suggest some very different improvements than an electrician would.

When the PCs go on missions they’ll have many options about how to acquire more resources. Rescuing a bunch of survivors and bringing them back to town will give the PCs more labour (because they owe the PCs a favour). Finding a cache of canned food will increase their supplies. Books and skilled or educated survivors increase the knowledge available to the party. All of the PCs gain equal resources; it is their choices about spending their resources that will make for meaningful differences between the PCs.

Any resource cost when creating a permanent improvement could potentially be met by a PC with the appropriate skills. In such a way, a carpenter could use their skills to reduce the cost of a wall, and a physicist could use their extensive education to reduce the knowledge cost of a library. Skills are not used to acquire more resources, however. Only to reduce costs. This is to put more of an emphasis on adventuring and spending, reducing the emphasis on town life.

Influence is acquired by helping people in town, succesfully coercing them, or by being in a position of power over people. In this way, one player can have influence by doing favours, one player can have influence by being a scary bully, and one player might be a landlord with tenants who are concerned they might lose their home. Players can interfere with each others influence, and even steal it away, in ways that will seem reasonable and acceptable in character. For example, if the nice PC helps an impoverished tenant pay their rent, the landlord might lose influence while the nice PC gains it. This creates some out of character competition but limits in-character competition. This will be beneficial for some groups and not beneficial for others.

The entire party gains influence whenever they complete a mission for their community. This is the impetus to pursue the main plot and do normal RPG things like hunt raiders.