Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Demon Lord: Who Goes When?

For many players, combat is the best part of the game. It is a chance to test his or her character’s capabilities against worthy foes, to take risks and, hopefully, gain great rewards. The tension combat creates—the risk of injury, unconsciousness, or even death—builds excitement at the table and shifts focus, if only for a few moments, from the story to dealing with immediate danger. As great as combat and other conflicts can be for the game, they also place the greatest demands on the game system. To ensure each player has a chance to contribute in a meaningful way throughout the combat, to ensure that the challenge is appropriate for the characters, and to make certain that the combat or conflict poses some risk, often considerable failure, requires a rigorous set of rules. And, as a result of those rules, combat becomes a game within the larger game.
     I have lots to say about combat, too much for one post in fact. Rather than drown you with words, we’ll take a bird’s eye look at how combat works and the reasons for the approach Shadow of the Demon Lord takes. Specifically, we're going to look at how the game system determines who goes first.

Combat (and any other scene that requires precise timekeeping) unfolds over a series of rounds. Each round lasts about 10 seconds, so there are 6 rounds per minute. During a round everyone present in the scene has an opportunity to do so something. A round has three parts: Fast Turns, Slow Turns, and the End of the Round. During a round, play proceeds through each part one at a time and with the players usually going first.

Fast Turns
First up is the Fast Turn. Any player that wants to can take a fast turn. Players may take their turns in any order they wish. On a fast turn, a player can use one action. Upon resolving that action, the player’s turn is done for the round. Once all the players that want to take a fast turn and have done so, any creatures under the GMs control may take fast turns and use one action on their turns. Again, once a creature resolves its fast turn, it’s done for the round.

Slow Turns
Slow Turns come next. Any player that did not take a fast turn may take a slow turn. Players resolve slow turns in any order they choose, though a player must resolve the entire turn before another player can act. On a slow turn, a player can use two actions. Once all the players have taken their turns, the GM has any of her remaining creatures take their turns, each creature using two actions, and in any order the GM chooses.

End of the Round
The game uses the End of the Round to mark the transition from one round to the next. The End of the Round is when the game resolves any ongoing effects, keep track of durations, and anything else that happens at this part of the round. For example, say a powerful spellcaster creates a cloud of poison gas. Any creature in the area of the poison gas would have to deal with the poison once the gas appears. However, since the gas lingers, any creature in the poison gas would have to deal with the poison again at the end of each round until the gas is dispersed.  
     Other events may also take place during the end of the round. A potion consumed takes effect at the end of the round. Incapacitated characters roll a d6 to see what happens to them at the end of the round.  Some creatures may adjust their positions, make extra attacks, or blight enemies with their vile presence at this part of the round too.
     Finally, a discrete end of the round phase reminds everyone that is tracking durations to mark off the round that has passed (for 1 minute durations, you can use a d6 to track the rounds, which is part of the reason I use 10 second rounds).

So, No Initiative Rolls?
That’s right. I tried out the game using several different initiative/turn order determination systems and they all felt bad. I find initiative to be boring. It’s a procedure everyone at the table has to undergo in order to play. It’s like having to eat your meat before you get to eat your pudding. It’s only necessary because the game says it is.
     If determining initiative produces a continuous turn order for the combat—you are locked into the same point in the round for the duration of the scene, initiative only becomes important during the first round of the combat. The whole point to initiative is to determine if the PCs can chip away at their opponents before their opponents get to do the same to them. After the first round, the back and forth exchange of attacks renders the initiative result meaningless.
     If the game requires initiative determination round-by-round, then the procedure just becomes more evident and intrusive into the flow and excitement of the battle. Plus, you have to track all those result each round.
     I thought about individual initiative systems, wherein each combatant rolls and uses that result, but this just increases the complexity. Not only do you have to track those results, but you also have to introduce rules to let combatants change those results once they determine—by delaying for example. Also, most games that use individual initiative allow the GM to roll initiative for groups of like opponents, which, while easier, completely undermines the whole point of rolling individual initiative in the first place, which, presumably, is to determine each individual combatant's turn order.
     For all the reasons and others as well, I threw initiative out of the game. The game lets players go first. The players are free to discuss tactics and plans, and then act in whatever order they want. If they choose to take fast turns, and thus act before their opponents, then they can only do one thing. If they wait until after their opponents go, they get to do two things instead but risk taking a hit from their opponents.

Liberating combat from variable turn orders accomplishes several things. It eliminates a procedure for play and thus the transition from story to combat is smooth. Allowing players to choose when they go encourages teamwork. The players can quickly discuss what they do and adopt tactics that complement each other’s actions. Finally, it focuses attention on what’s happening. Players tend to not “zone out” while waiting for their turn since they can act whenever they want.
     To help you visualize how a fight works, here’s an example. Nat, Molly, and Chris play agents working for the Inquisition, a faction of the New God cult committed to rooting out slaves of the Demon Lord and destroying them. Their investigation draws them into a burned out church on the edge of town. Inside the church, their characters encounter a band of ghouls, accursed cannibalistic humans.
     GM: What do you do?
     <Fast Turns start>
     Chris: I charge the @#$%ers!
     Molly: Wait! Let me throw my fireball spell.
     Chris: Fine.
     (Molly casts a fireball spell into the midst of the ghouls. She rolls 10d6 damage. Adding up the dice, the ghouls will take 35 damage. The ghouls get to roll Agility to halve the damage. Two fail and are incinerated.)
     Molly: Now, go and clean up the mess.
     Chris: I charge!
     (Chris’s character moves up to his Speed and uses his extra action to attack a ghoul as the rules for charging specify. Since he charged, he has a complication for his roll. He gets a success on his roll and the ghoul takes 6 damage, which is enough to take it out).
     GM: Nat? Want to do anything?
     Nat: No. Not yet. There may be others in the shadows.
     GM: OK. Well, you’re right. First up, Chris, a ghoul leaps at you and tries to rip you apart with its claws and teeth. (The GM rolls, but gets a failure.) You catch the monster on your shield. In the shadows, you see a couple more ghouls waiting to attack.
     <Slow Turns start>
     GM: Alright, Nat, back to you.
     Nat: I shoot my pistol at one of the ghouls.
     GM: They are partially obscured from you, so roll to attack with one complication.
     Nat: OK. (He rolls and gets a failure.) Crap! I drop the pistol and I'll use my remaining action move up next to Chris. I’ll draw my sword as I do so.
     GM: OK. The remaining ghouls come out from the shadows and attack Chris. (Some rolls, some damage, and Chris’s damage total equals his Health. He falls prone, disabled.)

     It’s the end of the round. Chris, you are disabled. Roll a d6 to see what happens to you…

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Playing Characters

The stories you and your friends tell in Shadow of the Demon Lord focus on characters that come together as a group. The stories explore the group’s triumphs and defeats, the mysteries the group solves, the foes vanquished, the secrets unearthed, and the horrors overcome. As a player, you create and control a member of the group, and your contributions help advance the story toward its conclusion.

The game uses level to describe a group’s overall power and capability. When you create a character, the Game Master will tell you the group’s starting level. The higher the level, the more powerful and more complex the character becomes. Since low-level characters are simpler to play, the game recommends that GMs set the group’s level at 0 (or no level) for players new to Shadow of the Demon Lord. More experienced groups may prefer to play at higher levels since they will have more tools in their toolboxes, access to potent magic, and greater durability.

Your group’s level increases whenever the Game Master decides. Usually, a level increase results from accomplishing a story goal such as finding the cure to the Pox, stealing the necromancer’s magic, stopping the cult from tearing a hole in reality, and so on. Each time the group’s level increases, everyone in the groups gains benefits for that level.

In the Beginning, you Choose an Ancestry
When you create a character, you build the identity of an imaginary person living in the world of the Demon Lord. The game asks you to make one big choice—ancestry—and then provides you with tools to help you refine that choice. Ancestry describes the people to which your character belongs. Example options include humans, the easiest and most versatile choice, the giant-blooded jotun (pronounced YO-tun), the mischievous goblin, and the clockwork, a people made from cogs, gears, and springs. Other options may be available in the core book and in supplements.

Your ancestry tells you the numbers that broadly define what your character can do: it sets your starting attribute scores, determines your Size and Speed, and provides you with one or more talents (exceptional abilities that either modify your character or let you do something no one else can do). To help customize your character, the creation chapter provides you with tools for adjusting some of these numbers, to determine your character’s additional skills, starting equipment, and offers story options to help you bring your character to life.

If the GM sets the starting level at 0, you are ready to play once you choose an ancestry, select your starting equipment, and record the information on your character sheet. A beginning character is quite simple. This is intentional. I want new players to have a chance to learn the core rules through game play. Simple characters let players engage the core rules and master them before the game asks them to learn exceptions to these rules.

Stories for beginning characters tend to focus on how and why a group forms. Often, the player characters react to a common threat and have to find a way to deal with that threat. Furthermore, the starting story gives PCs a chance to figure out what they want to become later. A character that spends much of the first story fighting in hand-to-hand combat may go on to become a warrior, while another character that discovers an incantation and successfully reads it to produce the magical effect may be inspired to become a magician.

When the GM increases your group level, the rules may tell you choose a path based on your level. A path describes a way your character develops his or her abilities. You choose a novice path when your group reaches level 1, an expert path at level 3, and a master path at level 7. The path you choose makes improvements to your character’s capabilities, sometimes by granting talents, letting the character learn spells, or a combination of both. Here’s the advancement table so you can see how this works. Note that once you make a choice for ancestry or a path, you continue to gain benefits from that choice as the group level increases.

Level       Benefits
0               Choose an ancestry and record its traits on your character sheet.
1                Choose a novice path and gain the level 1 benefits from the path.
2                Gain the level 2 benefits from your novice path.
3                Choose an expert path and gain the level 3 benefits from the path.
4                Gain the level 4 benefits from your ancestry.
5                Gain the level 5 benefits from your novice path.
6               Gain the level 6 benefits from your expert path.
7                You may choose a second expert path and gain the level 3 benefits from that path or you may choose a master path and gain the level 7 benefits from that path.
8               Gain the level 8 benefits from your novice path.
9                Gain the level 9 benefits from your expert path.
10             Gain the level 6 benefits from your second expert path or the level 10 benefits from your master path.

Novice Path
Novice paths establish, in broad strokes, what a character trains to do. The novice paths highlight the big archetypes of fantasy. Magician, rogue, warrior, and disciple are the novice paths I plan to include in the core game.

A warrior is best at fighting with weapons, whether those weapons are fists, pistols, swords, or crossbows. To reflect combat training, all warriors have an asset for rolls to attack with weapons. (If you remember, from a previous post, whenever you have an asset, you roll a d6 and add it to your roll of a d20.)

The magician is best at casting spells. You might gain your spellcasting ability from studying under a witch or wizard, having a magical heritage, bargaining with a dark power, or from some other source as you decide. As a magician, you learn several spells, some of which you can cast over and over again.  

Novice paths gradually introduce the more complex systems into the game. Magician plugs into the game’s magic system, which I’ll explain in another post, while warriors can rely on their greater accuracy or forgo that accuracy to perform stunts and maneuvers in combat such as shoving their enemies, knocking them to the ground, or pinning them in place with a successful roll. The options gained from the novice paths build on the core rules the players learned in the first story and shows how the rules bend to accommodate the various exceptions that serve to individuate the characters in the story.

Expert Path
When the group reaches level 3, you choose your character’s expert path. The expert paths show how characters fit into the story, may describe characters’ personal goals and objectives, and demonstrates ways characters might use their novice training. The benefits you gain from your expert path may complement those benefits gained from your novice path or let you develop your character in a completely different way. Expert paths do not have requirements. You can choose any path you like provided the choice reflects what has happened in your character’s story so far. Some example expert paths include assassin, psychic, ranger, and spellbinder.

Master Path
You may choose a second expert path or a master path for your character when the group reaches level 7. Master paths focus characters’ training in narrow areas. So if you want to be the best at casting Fire spells, choose the pyromancer path. Or, if you want to be the best at fighting with pistols and rifles, choose the gunslinger path. Other example paths include the knight, martial artist, telepath, and wizard. As with all paths, the game expects you to make your choice based on what your character has experienced and accomplished in the story.

Putting the Paths Together
The path structure provides a great deal of flexibility in character development. You derive all benefits from the paths you choose, but you can choose any paths you like. And, if you make an unusual choice, you aren’t penalized for doing so, since previous choices continue to develop your character. Let’s take a look at three players and the decisions they make each time they choose a path.

Mindy has played roleplaying games before and she knows she wants to play a tough, badass warrior. She chooses jotun for her ancestry since jotun are big and strong. She spends the first story protecting her friends using a sword she finds. So when it comes time to choose her novice path, she selects warrior. As a warrior, she discovers an enchanted great sword that secretly craves blood. The weapon whispers to her while she sleeps, awakening the bloodlust within her. When she reaches level 3, she decides the berserker expert path best describes how her character has been developing. Throughout her time as a berserker, she finds herself in the thick of battle, slaughtering everyone that dares stand in her way. Mindy is having a great time with this character, so when she gets to pick a master path, she chooses death dealer, a master of fighting with two-handed weapons. When the game ends, Mindy’s character is a jotun warrior-berserker-death dealer.

Jay has also played roleplaying games before, but has no idea what he wants to play. He likes the goblin, though, so he chooses it for his ancestry. During the first story, he finds a pistol and has fun sneaking around and shooting people in the back, as goblins tend to do. Jay chooses rogue for his novice path since he’s been relying on his skills and tricks to make his way through the first story. During his time as a rogue, Jay’s character steals a heavy book filled with magical writing. He decides his character studies this tome so he can learn a few spells. When he chooses his expert path, he selects mage to reflect all the time he’s spent learning magic. Although he’s happy casting spells, he still enjoys shooting people, so when the group reaches level 7, he picks gunslinger so he can improve his aim with his favorite weapon. When the game ends, Jay’s character is a goblin rogue-mage-gunslinger.

Heather joins the group, having never played a roleplaying game before. She selects human for her ancestry, as it’s the most familiar option. During the first story, Heather’s character finds an incantation inscribed on a piece of pottery. She reads the incantation and saves her friends’ lives. She had fun casting the spell and wants to do more with magic. She chooses magician for her novice path. Armed with a bevy of spells, she has fun solving problems with her magic and occasionally blasting her foes to bits, but she’s worried about being cornered in a fight. In the story, Heather’s character takes time to practice fighting with Mindy’s character. When Heather is ready to choose her expert path, she becomes a champion—a path that enhances her fighting ability. She still gains spells from her magician path and now has some fighting ability and toughness as well. She finds she mixes the two a great deal during the game so when she’s ready to choose her master path, she decides to choose a second expert path—spellbinder—instead of a master path. A spellbinder can imbue spells into her weapons. When the game ends, Heather’s character is a human magician-champion-spellbinder.

Final Thoughts
As you can see, the game offers a considerable amount of flexibility in how characters develop. You might start as a warrior and build your fighting skills as you play or you might dabble in trickery, pledge your sword to the New God, sell your soul to a devil, or do something else. The ability to pick and choose lets you evolve your character with the story in whatever way you feel is appropriate. As well, since lower path choices continue to benefit you as the group’s level increases, you can choose any path you like that makes sense without the risk of making your character ineffective.

OK. That’s enough for this week. Next week, I’ll talk about combat. 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Tales of the Demon Lord

Adventures give me ulcers. It’s complicated, you see. Part of me feels like a published adventure is to a roleplaying game as gasoline (or an electric charge!) is to a car. The adventure is fuel for your game. It gets you started and it keeps you going. But for all the good adventures do, they also seem to go out of their way to be difficult to use, usually because they are too long and require too much preparation. For Shadow of the Demon Lord, I wanted to eliminate these barriers and offer adventures that are simple to run and give the GM tools to tell a great story.

Single-Session Stories
My gaming groups meet every other week. Given how busy we all are, people usually miss one session in four, sometimes one session in two. When running a long adventure, one that takes a few sessions to finish, odds are that someone who was present the last time will miss the game. We accept these absences because what other choice do we have? But it’s a frustrating problem since it strains the suspension of disbelief and forces changes to the story in order to accommodate the absence.
   Aside from the characters that rotate in and out of the story, there’s also the problem of sustaining the narrative. A two-week gap between sessions makes it harder for the players to remember their objectives and what has happened so far. Names of important NPCs, situations, and places fade, even if the players are meticulous about taking notes.
   To combat these problems, the game’s stories are all playable in a single session. I expect a session to last from three to five hours. You can stretch the stories so they run longer by inserting extra challenges, allowing more time for roleplaying, investigation, exploration, and so on, or you might compress the stories by carving out or collapsing scenes if you have less time to play.

Low Preparation
Keeping the stories short and focused reduces the amount of time you have to spend preparing for the game. There are few things worse in gaming than having an adventure on hand and not having had the time to read it in advance. Stories in Demon Lord are as long as they need to be and no longer. I have found it takes about an hour of play to get through a page of story. Since the typical session lasts three to five hours, the page count on these stories is about three to five pages. That’s it. You can read a story in the few minutes before people arrive and you’re ready to go.

Just the Facts
To keep the page count down, Demon Lord eschews clutter. You will not find exhaustive story backgrounds, needless exposition, detailed characters, lists of adventure hooks, guidance about what come next, read-aloud text, or any of the usual suspects that bloat adventures. The story provides you with a skeleton and leaves it to you and your players to put flesh on it during play. Too often, adventures are written to entertain the Game Master. In Demon Lord, the stories provide you, the GM, with the tools you need to entertain the game’s players.

Objective-Focused Stories
Adventures in Demon Lord are called stories. Each story presents its objective to the GM in the opening paragraph so it’s clear what the story is about and what the PCs need to do in order to complete it. Character advancement depends on completing these objectives. Whenever the group achieves a story goal, they increase their level by one. It doesn’t matter how the group accomplishes its goal. They might use roleplaying, stealth, brute force, magic, or a combination of all four or something else entirely.
   Here’s an example: Retrieve the Bones of Saint Absalom from the Seekers of the Void before they complete their unholy ritual to call forth Absalom’s soul from the Underworld.
   The PCs might achieve their objective by butchering all the cultists and taking the bones by brute force, by disguising themselves as cultists and infiltrating the organization, by pitting a rival cult against them, or by sneaking into their headquarters and stealing the bones out from under their noses, and so on. Getting the bones away from the cultists before the ritual is complete is all that matters.
Short Campaigns
The core game provides rules for eleven levels of play—from level 0 to level 10. If you play one story each session and the characters achieve their goal at the end of each story, it should be possible to play a complete a campaign in as few as eleven sessions. A short campaign offers numerous advantages. You could play just once a month and get almost a year’s worth of fun. Or, if you play more frequently, you could play several campaigns in a year. Multiple campaigns in a year lets players create and play a variety of characters, thus letting them explore more of the game than they otherwise might in longer campaigns. As well, short campaigns encourage groups to rotate Game Masters. Being on the hook to run a campaign that lasts 3 to 6 months is a far smaller investment than an open-ended campaign that typically sputters out after a few weeks and the obvious end-point encourages people who might not normally run games to give it a try.

Final Thoughts

The approach to adventure-design for Demon Lord is a pragmatic one. Rather than delude myself and proceed with a design that expects people to devote hours to game preparation and get together once or even twice a week, I embraced the reality about how much time we actually have, which is not much. Keeping stories short and self-contained eases pressure on the GM and creates a sense of accomplishment in the players. If each game session ends with the story’s climax, it’s ok if you miss next week. You’ll start a new story with everyone else the next time you play. And if you have loads of time, the stories make excellent frameworks for you to use in constructing more elaborate and involved stories that take as many game sessions as you want to complete. Ultimately, how you play Shadow of the Demon Lord is up to you. But it’s my goal to make sure you can play in whatever manner you choose.