The Alexandrian

Arkham Horror - Fantasy Flight GamesI’m a big fan of co-op games in general and, as I’ve mentioned in the past, I think they’re a great way to introduce new players to theme-rich boardgames.

One potential drawback to co-op games, however, is the “alpha-quarterback”: A single player that dominates the game by effectively making all of the strategic gameplay decisions. The alpha-quarterback might be the person most familiar with the game, a person with generally deeper strategic insight, or just a forceful personality. Whatever the case may be, however, the result is that only one person is really playing the game and everybody else at the table is reduced to being their pawn. (A related problem can also occur if four or five players more experienced players are all collaborating as a collective “alpha-quarterback”, while one or two new players are effectively turned into spectators.)

In most cases, quarterbacking can be avoided through the simple expedience of the more experienced players simply choosing not to do it: Instead of making decisions for new players (“you should go fight that monster”), they can use their expertise to discuss the general strategic situation and then offer the new player a few options of actions that they might want to consider.

Because it’s generally possible for people to choose not to be jerks, a lot of people think that quarterbacking in co-op games is only a “people problem” that isn’t really relevant to game design itself. This, however, is an over-simplification: The problem with co-op games that are trivially quarterbacked is that they’re really solo problem-solving games that are masquerading as games for multiple players. (Pandemic is an excellent example of this type of game.) It’s like adding a rule to Solitaire saying that two players should alternate turns and then claiming that it’s a two-player game.

There’s nothing wrong with alternating-play Solitaire if everybody’s having fun, of course. But it’s not an ideal way to design a game even if an individual group doesn’t default to quarterbacking while playing it.

DESIGN SOLUTIONS FOR QUARTERBACKING

The solutions for quarterbacking are:

HIDDEN INFORMATION. (Which often doesn’t work because there’s not motivation not to share the information, but can at least create the impression that individuals are contributing by discussing the information they have access to. However, games like Hanabi make hidden information co-op work by making the hidden nature of the information integral to the game design.)

TACTICAL DEPTH. (In these games, groups may coordinate on a large-scale strategy but there’s enough tactical depth in each player’s execution of that strategy that individual players are still allowed to play the game even with aggressive quarterbacking happening in the same room. Arkham Horror, for example, does this with a fair amount of success: Quarterback all you want, but the individual players are still responsible for playing through their encounters.)

INCOMPLETE INFORMATION. (By hiding information from all of the players, decision points are turned into a gamble. A simple version would be a draw deck containing white and black cards: If a white card is drawn, certain actions will be advantageous. If a black card is drawn, a different set of actions will be advantageous. Players can offer input about which card they think it’s going to be, but nobody really knows and so it’s ultimately up to the current player to make the guess and determine which set of actions they should be attempting. Knizia’s Lord of the Ringsfor example, does this with a stack of tiles that determine the pace and sequence of various horrible things. The shortcoming of this solution is that if the system is actually completely random, then the decisions are actually meaningless. And if it’s not completely random, then there’s a viable strategy and that stategy is still open to quarterbacking.)

TRAITOR MECHANICS. (These enforce the hidden information solution by providing a motivation for concealing information. Battlestar Galactica does this, for example.)

REAL-TIME PLAY. (These enforce the tactical depth solution by making it impossible for a single player to make all the decisions that need to be made within the time allowed. Space Alert and Escape: The Curse of the Temple are examples of this.)

Of these solutions, real-time play seems to be the only surefire solution to the quarterbacking problem. (Hidden information can be shared, tactical depth can still be micro-managed, incomplete information still lends itself to strategic quarterbacking, and a game with a traitor isn’t actually co-op). Other co-op games generally need to rely on a mixture of techniques to mitigate the quarterbacking problem (although exceptions like Hanabi do exist).

(It should also be noted that the “this is really just Solitaire, but you alternate turns” problem isn’t limited to co-op games. For example Dungeon Roller pretends to be a competitive game, but is really just two people playing solitaire and then comparing their scores.)

Numenera - System Cheat Sheet

(click for PDF)

A couple months ago I posted a draft version of my system cheat sheet for Numenera. At the time, I predicted that I would be running the game sooner rather than later. That turned out to be really, really true. I’m now running the game regularly for three groups:

  • The original playtest group I organized.
  • A second group which had gathered at my house for random gaming and asked me if I had a roleplaying game ready to roll.
  • A group composed entirely of players new to roleplaying games.

It’s been a rousing success with all three and I’ve now run a total of 12 sessions. At least one of these groups will be winding down once the original adventure is completed (Vortex), but one of the groups has already transitioned to a full campaign using The Devil’s Spine as a foundation and the group of newcomers also appear to be interested in the long haul (although I think they’ll end up going a different direction).

In any case, I’ve used my play experience to both expand and refine the cheat sheet, which I now consider to be in its final version. As before, this cheat sheet is designed to summarize all the rules for the game — from basic action resolution to advanced combat options. I’ve found that it’s a great way to get a grip on a new system and, of course, it’s also a valuable resource at the game table for both the GM and the players. (For more information on the methods I use for prepping these sheets, click here.)

IT’S STILL A GM SCREEN!

The cheat sheet still uses landscape formatting suitable for insertion into a modular, four-panel, landscape-oriented GM screen. (Just like the one backers of the Numenera kickstarter were able to buy as an add-on. And which you can buy here.) I’m not including graphics for the front of the screen, but if you buy the Numenera GM Screen PDF you’ll be totally golden.

You may notice, however, that the final version of the sheet has more than four pages. What I’ve been doing is printing the “Miscellaneous Rules” and “Numenera” pages using inverted duplex printing and then taping that sheet to the “Hazards & Combat Modifiers” page. Insert the “Hazards & Combat Modifiers” page into the screen and you’ll be able to fold the other sheet over so that it displays the “Miscellaneous Rules” page, but can be flipped up to show the other two pages.

(Alternatively, of course, you can just choose two pages not to include.)

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED

These cheat sheets are not designed to be a quick start packet: They’re designed to be a comprehensive reference for someone who has read the rulebook and will probably prove woefully inadequate if you try to learn the game from them. (On the other hand, they can definitely assist experienced players who are teaching the game to new players.)

The cheat sheets also don’t include what I refer to as “character option chunks” (for reasons discussed here). So you won’t find types, descriptors, or focuses here.

You also won’t find most of the optional rules for the game. I may add those later, but not yet. (The exception are the rules for modifying abilities; I suspect they’re going to be too useful not to have handy.)

HOW I USE THEM

I generally keep a copy of my system cheat sheets behind my GM screen for quick reference and I also place a half dozen copies in the center of the table for the players to grab as needed. The information included is meant to be as comprehensive as possible; although rulebooks are also available, my goal is to minimize the amount of time people spend referencing the rulebook: Finding something in 6 pages of cheat sheet is a much faster process than paging through a 400 page rulebook. And, once you’ve found it, processing the streamlined information on the cheat sheet will (hopefully) also be quicker.

The organization of information onto each page of the cheat sheet should, hopefully, be fairly intuitive. The actual sequencing of pages is mostly arbitrary.

Page 1: For Numenera, the difficulty terrible is the heart of everything. Once you understand that, the special rolls, GM intrusion, and the concept of advantage/disadvantage 90% of the rest of the system actually becomes irrelevant. This page is likely to become superfluous quickly. You’ll note that I included examples of GM intrusion: This is unusual for my cheat sheets, but so much of Numenera is designed to empower strong, flexible rulings by the GM that providing this kind of idea fodder feels right to me and has proven useful during play.

Page 2: The core of the combat mechanics. If you’re teaching new players the game, you really only need to walk them through these first two pages. (I’ve been adding another column or so of additional material at the beginning of each subsequent section, slowly adding more tools to the players’ toolboxes.)

Page 3: The extended combat actions and options. The rules for “Trading Damage for Effect” are technically an optional rule, but I’ve found them too invaluable not to include here. (Compared to the draft version of the sheet, you may also notice that I’ve pulled out the guidelines for simplifying multiple enemies and the boss package you can use to buff NPCs. Very useful stuff for the GM that’s buried deep in the rulebook.)

Page 4: A collection of miscellanea. Optional rules are off on the right, but I haven’t used them yet in my own game. (You’ll also note a couple of house rules tucked down in the corner. These are still being playtested, but I think they’re useful.)

Page 5: Everything that you need to know about the numenera. This stuff is highly situational, but one concept I’ve found needs to be stressed to new players is the idea of scavenging for numenera. This process appears to be non-intuitive so you need to let them know it’s an expected part of the game world.

Page 6: Hazards & Combat modifiers. I expressed bafflement when I posted my draft version of the sheet for why all of these modifiers exist. In actual practice, I’ve found them more useful than I anticipated.

PLAY NUMENERA

As I mentioned before: Y’all should grab a copy of Numenera and start playing ASAP. It had my official “I Had a Ton of Fun Playing That” seal of approval and twelve more sessions has only served to add a “I Had a Ton of Fun Running That” merit badge.

Numenera - Monte Cook Games

(Please note that the title page has been altered to remove the copyright logo graphic I originally used in the draft version. All Numenera content on this website is issued under the fair use doctrine and it should be explicitly understood that no content on this website is issued under the MCG fan use policy.)

Untested Numenera: Grappling

December 6th, 2013

Numenera - Monte Cook GamesGRAPPLE: You can attempt to physically wrestle and restrain an opponent by attempting a Might task. Once a grapple has been successfully initiated, all physical actions are treated as opportunity actions requiring a Might task to attempt. A character can attempt to break out of a grapple by succeeding on a Might task as an action (without needing to make the opportunity check). Characters in a grapple defend at +1 difficulty.

(So if you’ve been grappled and wanted to throw a dagger at someone, you would need to first succeed at a Might task in order to gain the opportunity to throw the dagger. If you’re grappling someone who wants to punch you in the face, you would get an opportunity action to attempt a Might task to prevent them even trying to punch you.)

If multiple characters are grappling a single opponent, you can use the standard rules for helping. (The bonuses from helping would also affect the Might task for the opportunity action.)

FOCUSED GUARDING: If you’re attempting to stop a specific character from attempting a specific action (“I tackle him before he can run out the door!”), you can attempt a Speed task at -2 difficulty. On a success, the character you’re targeting will be prevented from taking the indicated action.

DESIGN NOTES

There are no rules for grappling presented in the Numenera rulebook. The closest you’ll get is a special ability possessed by a monster called a chirog, which looks like this:

Chirogs do not use weapons or tools, usually attacking with a savage bite. However, they can also grapple a foe, which is just like a normal attack except that rather than inflicting damage, it holds the foe immobile. The foe can take only purely mental actions or struggle to get free (a Might task at difficulty 4). Both the grappling chirog and the grappled foe are easier targets for other combatants, with attackers gaining a two-step modification in their favor.

At first glance, this looks like a decent place to start if you’re looking to make a ruling for grappling in Numenera. Unfortunately, upon reflection it turns to be fairly unbalanced as a generic mechanic. For example, the chirog’s ability is even better than stunning an opponent: Stunning means that you can’t take an action next turn and you defend at +1 difficulty. Chirog-style grappling means that you can’t take an action next turn, you defend at +2 difficulty, and are at risk of having the effect continue unless you succeed on a Might task. There is a trade-off insofar as the person initiating the grapple also suffers a +2 difficulty to defense, but since stunning also requires a much greater expenditure of resources than the single action required by chirog-style grappling it’s pretty clear that chirog-style grappling would be broken as a generic mechanic.

So I instead took chirog-style grappling as a loose guideline and improvised on a similar theme. When I was done I discovered that I had inadvertently created something pretty reminiscent of my Super Simple Grappling rules for D&D.

The rules for focused guarding are a bit more experimental. My basic thought process there is that, by the rules as written, a character can perform a Guard action which allows them to specify an action and prevent anyone from attempting it by making a Speed roll at -1 difficulty. Ergo, I’m concluding that stopping only a specific character from preventing that action should be easier. (So you can stop that one specific guy from running through the door, but all of his friends will still be free to do so.)

It may be too powerful, though. I’m specifically eyeballing the scenario where the PCs are fighting a solo monster. I’ve suddenly made it flat-out easier to counter that monster’s actions. So something to keep an eye on.

 

The Strange - Monte Cook Games

Monte Cook’s Numenera has recently been dominating my gaming table: I’ve run twelve sessions of it for three different groups in the last two months and it seems to be a hit with just about everybody. I’ve posted some cool stuff about it recently, so you may already be aware of this.

What you may not be aware of is that Monte Cook and Bruce Cordell have joined forces to create another game using the same engine: The Strange is a multi-dimensional romp in which your characters will change depending on which world they’re currently inhabiting. It’s generally conjuring up images of Torg, Planescape, The Matrix, and the best parts of Amazing Engine. But it also feels like it’s got its own unique little vibe.

They’re currently running a kickstarter for it and I’m mavening for it pretty hard: They’re currently at $351,130 as I write this, but they’ve got a stretch goal at $360k to release an additional 96-page adventure supplement. Since I’m generally a pretty big fan of adventure designed by Cook and Cordell, that’s something I’d really, really like to see happen.

If you’re interested in just taking a peek, you can drop $25 to get PDF copies of the core rulebook and the Player’s Guide. But the real juice starts at $80 (when you get a copy of the rulebook plus PDFs of all seven books that have become part of the kickstarter at this point). There are a bunch of other pledge levels and add-ons, but the next significant plateau for me is the $200 level (where you get printed copies of all seven books). But I’m also going to take a moment to pimp the Superfan packages, which currently look like this (but will continue to improve as more stretch goals are met):

The Strange Kickstarter - Superfan Packages

I just recently upgraded my pledge to the $450 MCG Superfan level: It’s getting me 16-18 titles at an average price significantly lower than retail. But, on top of that, I’m also getting the $120 limited edition, the short story collection, decks of cards, and a plethora of pretty awesome goodies.

I’m very, very close to upgrading my pledge by another $200 to get both Superfan packages. I’m not saying it’s something everybody needs to do, but I’m really looking forward to receiving a steady stream of awesome RPG products for the next few years.

The Strange - Monte Cook Games

The Most Impressive Spam

October 30th, 2013

Someone named “Cynthia” just posted the most magnificent piece of comment spam I have ever seen. It might be an automated script that just blew a gasket, but I suspect it’s actually someone who accidentally copy-pasted their entire text file of vague commentary.

I’ve removed the comment, but I couldn’t bear to destroy something of such horrid beauty. Besides, there’s always the chance that it’s actually a semi-sentient memetic virus seeking to animate its way out of the ‘net. (And that kind of horrific creepiness seems seasonally appropriate.)

Thus, below the fold, you’ll find a complete and utter waste of your time which nevertheless holds all the fascination of the abyss.

Read more »

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