Showing posts with label Greg Gorden. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Greg Gorden. Show all posts

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

Why I Love "Step-Die" Systems Like Savage Worlds and Cortex+

In the last episode of Geekerati (Episode 164) Award Winning game designer Greg Gorden discussed a number of the game systems he's worked on in the past and some of the mechanical innovations he's come up with. Two of his major contributions discussed in the episode were "Exploding Die Rolls" and Die-Step game mechanics.

These mechanics have had wide reaching impact in game design across table top role playing game design and are worth discussing in some detail. As interesting and wide reaching as the influence of exploding dice has been, an innovation that's been around since the first edition of Ken St. Andre's masterpiece Tunnels & Trolls, this blog post will focus on the second innovation, die-step game mechanics, and why they are one of the best mechanical foundations for a role playing game.

There are several common base mechanics for arbitrating the success or failures of character actions in modern role playing games. Some of the most common include Difficulty Number/Target Number (or what Classic Traveller called a "Basic Throw"), Percent Chance (as exemplified in Runequest), Success Threshold (which can use narrative dice like Genesys, die pools like Vampire) or a "you, me, or we" Shared Decision Mechanic like Apocalypse World, Inspectres, and many other indie role playing games.

Many of these systems use a "Fixed Die" mechanic as a part of their resolution. For example, all rolls in D&D's Difficulty Number system are resolved using a twenty-sided die, Traveller and Apocalypse World use a roll of two six-sided dice, Vampire uses a pool of ten-sided dice, and Runequest uses percentile dice. The die type doesn't change to reflect the skill of the character or the challenges faced by the character in a fixed die system, only the modifier applied to the roll or the number of dice rolled changes.

Die-Step games take a different approach. Instead of using a single die type for the determination of success or failure of an action, they use various die types that move up or down to reflect the skill/natural talent of the character. For example, a character's Strength might be reflected as a die value ranging from d4 to d12 with a character of d4 Strength being weak and a character with a d12 Strength being very strong.

According to Rick Priestley, in his book Tabletop Wargames, one of the first wargames to use a Die-Step system was StarGrunt by Jon M. Tuffley. StarGrunt was first published in 1990 by Ground Zero Games and it's second edition is available in pdf for free at the link above. StarGrunt is a science fiction miniatures skirmish game that is inspired by fiction like Gordon Dickson's Dorsai, David Drake's Hammer's Slammers, the Alien films, and role playing games like 2300 AD. The rules are relatively easy to learn and one of the reasons this is the case is the fact that Tuffley decided to represent the effectiveness of individual troopers with something he called a "Basic Die." In StarGrunt, each given trooper is rated as either Green, Regular, or Veteran. The rating of each individual trooper is determined at the beginning of play with Green troopers using a d6, Regulars using a d8, and Veterans using a d10 to determine how successful they are at a given task. StarGrunt uses a Target Number system, but does use a Step-Die modifier mechanic called "Basic Die Plus and Basic Die Minus"  where the dice used by the troop levels is moved up or down one die type (from d6 to d4 or from d10 to d12) under some circumstances and modified by a additive/subtractive number in other cases (+1 or -1 to the roll).

Image Source Non-Playable Characters Blog
The first role playing game I can think of that used a Die-Step system is FASA's Earthdawn First Edition published in 1993, with game mechanics designed by Greg Gorden and others. As stated in the Geekerati Media interview, Gorden was inspired to use a Die-Step system when his boss asked him to design a Fantasy role playing game that had its own system, but that still used all of the polyhedral dice Dungeons and Dragons players were used to using. You can see how Earthdawn knew it was introducing a new concept in the Die-Step system to players of games like D&D and Runequest due to the way they first present the mechanic. In Earthdawn, players attributes are rated by a standard value and then given their die based effectiveness rating (yes, Earthdawn used the Papyrus font). Given that one of the character generation methods in Earthdawn, the random roll method, has players roll 4d6 and drop the lowest value, it is clear that the intended audience was D&D players and the authors were giving these players a point of reference for how good a "d8" in an attribute was. Looking at the chart below, we can see that a character with average Intelligence in D&D would have a d8 rating in Earthdawn.

As mentioned above, Earthdawn is a Target Number system and the rulebook provides guidelines for Game Masters to use when setting difficulty numbers. Looking at an "ordinary" person, we can see that a task of "Average" difficulty requires a roll of between 3-5 to achieve any degree of success. Let's assume a Difficulty Number of 4+ for a task and we can see that a person with a d6 will have about a 50% chance to get an "ordinary" success and a person with a d8 has about a 62.5% chance of getting a degree of success. For those wondering, the use of the term ordinary success is intentional as Earthdawn has Degrees of Success as well and the use of "about" is because the dice are open ended which doesn't affect this particular Difficulty Number but would higher values.

While Earthdawn is truly innovative, it is also illustrative of a weakness in Die-Step systems that will be touched upon later. You can see a hint at this weakness at Step Numbers 8 and 9 on the Step/Action Dice chart above.

Another revolutionary role playing game that utilizes a Die-Step mechanic is Shane Lacy Hensley's masterpiece Deadlands Classic. The first edition was published in 1996, three years after Earthdawn, but the underlying mechanics were designed by Shane Hensley with some additions like Fate Chips from Greg Gorden. Episode 164 of Geekerati erroneously credits Gorden with the use of a Step-Die mechanic in this game. That was all Hensley's idea and demonstrates how great designers can come up with parallel mechanics, though Hensley had done previous work on Earthdawn so that might have fueled the creative fire a little. Deadlands uses a combination of Die Pool and Die-Step mechanics as character attributes and skills are rated by both the quality and number of dice. Thus a person might have a Smarts of 4d4 or of 2d10. The person with the 4d4 rating will roll more dice, but the one rolling 2d10 is more intelligent. Like Earthdawn, die rolls in Deadlands are exploding or "open-ended," but unlike Earthdawn players select only the highest value from their pool rather than adding them together. This innovation leverages the strengths and intuitive nature of Die-Step systems without adding the limitation hinted at above.

One of the primary strengths of Die-Step systems is that they are easy to understand and are intuitive in representing each character's potential. If a game has a baseline difficulty of 4 for most tasks, it is easy to figure out how likely a character is to be able to accomplish a task merely by looking at the kind of die rolled. As mentioned above, a character with a d6 would have a 50% chance of success and a character with a d8 would have a 62.5% chance.

Another advantage, at least from a simulation perspective, is how modifiers affect Die-Step systems differently than standard fixed die systems. In D&D, for example, a +1/-1 modifier adjusts the level of success by a character by +/- 5%. Some might argue, okay I am arguing, that this isn't a good simulation of effects. A person who is a highly skilled sniper would be affected by crosswind and distance, but would not necessarily be AS affected by them as someone less skilled. In a fixed die system, the modifiers are static too. In a Die-Step system, the modifiers are fluid. Some might argue that this makes it more difficult to balance, but I would argue that you should balance for the ordinary and allow the dial to move with greater success.

Let's take the d6 vs. d8 above as an example and assume that these are the characters' ratings in their "Shoot" skill and that the base target number for successfully hitting something is 4+. Okay, this wasn't an exactly random choice. Let's assume that firing at long range adds  -1 modifier to the roll. In the case of the lesser trained d6 shooter, this is a penalty of 16.67%. In the case of the d8 person, it's "only" a penalty of 12.5%. Thus the skill of the characters is coded into the level the modifier affects the character with characters of higher skill suffering lower effects from modifiers. What I like about this is that it means that the probability of success by higher level characters is less random, even when accounting for obstacles and modifiers. And this is done in an elegant way that is embedded in the system.

If you don't agree with the benefits of a sliding system in die step systems, let me introduce you to rigid modifiers in a multiple die Target Number system like Champions. Because these systems use additive die pools, in the case of Champions rolling 3d6 and adding them together, results are along a bell-curve. This means that each point of modification has a different effect on the probability of the outcome based on the distribution curve of the die combination. Which brings me to the flaw in the Earthdawn system. Because Gorden wanted Earthdawn to be able to represent an tremendous range of Attributes, the actual Step/Action Dice table has attribute values going to 100, you quickly end up rolling pools of dice in order to achieve the ability to roll higher outcomes. For example, looking on the chart above you can see that there comes a point where a player rolls a 2d6 and adds them to get a value. This is considered "better" than rolling a d12. In the sense that it is impossible to roll a value of 1, this is better. However a quick glance at the table below illustrates the problem quite clearly.

A character rolling 2d6 has a significantly lower chance of a bad roll, but also has a significantly lower chance of a good roll. The results become even more extreme if the individual dice are exploding as they are in Earthdawn.

This is why I prefer the solution offered by Savage Worlds or Dungeon Crawl Classics which attempt to correct the distribution problem by either adding static modifiers after a person has achieved d12 or manufacturing dice that fill the void between d12 and d20. While the use of Die-Step systems may constrain the power curve more than some other systems, these games are well balanced and use the mechanic to very good effect. Savage Worlds, for example, has done an excellent job of adapting a Die-Step system to super heroes as have the Sentinel Comics role playing game and all the super hero games that used the Cortex+ system.

There are many games and game systems in the table top role playing game hobby. Dungeons & Dragons is a great place to start, but you should check them all out and see what you like.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Episode 164: Greg Gorden Discusses Torg Eternity and Game Design

In Episode 164 of Geekerati Radio, we had the honor of speaking with award winning game designer Greg Gorden about his work on the Torg Eternity Role Playing Game and his thoughts on game design in general. Greg Gorden is one of the most influential game designers in the role playing game industry and his design work includes James Bond 007 for Victory Games, DC Heroes for Mayfair Games, Earthdawn for FASA, Deadlands for Pinnacle Entertainment Group, and Torg for West End Games, and Torg: Eternity for Ulisses Spiele. He has also worked on the Star Wars Role Playing Game for West End Games and many editions of Dungeons & Dragons. Many of his games have gone on to win Origins Awards in their respective categories. He is Ulisses Spiele's line developer for the Torg Eternity Role Playing Game.

Segment 1

In the first segment of the episode, we talk about Torg Eternity and its innovative concept of "invading realities" as a role playing game setting. During this segment, we begin to see some insights into Greg Gorden's continuing efforts to bring player agency into role playing games.

Segment 2

In the second segment, we do a deep dive into Greg's past role playing game design work and explore where he came up with the concepts of "exploding die rolls" and using "dice as attributes." These are only some of the elements of our discussion, but it's a great chat. Have a listen and feel free to share your thoughts.

Segment 3

Episode 164 wraps up with our "Dungeons and Dilemmas" segment featuring Game Master Extraordinaire David Nett. This time we discuss the challenges of designing one shot adventures for three different audiences: your home game, a gaming convention, and for an online streaming show. David's experience working on Geek & Sundry's Starter Kit show and his recent show on ShoutTV! provide him with a wealth of experience on the topic. Give him a listen, then read his followup Twitter thread, and join in the conversation.

Products Discussed

Every episode, we discuss a wide range of popular culture. The discussion can include references to role playing games, comic books, television series, and films. As a part of our mission to share the things we love, we always include a section of the blog post dedicated to highlighting the things we mention so you can check them out and see why we love them so much.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

D is for DragonQuest

In 1977, Simulations Publications Inc. (SPI) published a booked entitled Wargame Design: The History, Production, and Use of Conflict Simulation Games. This book is one of the great artifacts of the wargaming hobby and is an invaluable resource that provides accurate historical information about the state of the wargaming industry up to 1977. At that time, SPI had unit sales of 420,000 games a year to an audience of approximately 100,000-150,000 active gamers (Dunnigan, 140). The average cost of a war game at the time was $8 (in 1977 dollars), meaning that SPI had approximately $3.36 million in annual sales. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, this is about $12,272,400 in 2011 dollars.

By any standard, SPI was a big business in a small market -- they held a 50% market share by units sold and a 43% market share in percentage of cash spent by gamers. But 1977 was a time of massive transitions in the industry. At that time 10% of wargamers were "miniature" gamers -- in addition to being general wargamers -- though given the cost of miniatures and supplies, these individuals made up 30% of the money spent on war games. This was also the time of the rise of a new kind of game, the fantasy role playing game. 1974 had seen the publication of the first printed role playing game, Dungeons and Dragons, and that game was altering the gaming landscape forever.

Roleplaying games expanded the gaming market from the small community of 100,000-150,000 gamers, to a community of millions of gamers. By 2000, there were over 2 million people playing table top role playing games on a monthly basis. Modern sales figures for individual role playing game companies are nigh impossible to find. The revenues are either unpublished -- because the majority of the companies are privately owned -- or they are buried in consolidated reports like Hasbro's annual report. Chris Pramas estimated that the RPG industry had annual sales in the $30 million range in 2008. That number seems off by a wide margin for a couple of reasons. First, that would mean that the RPG industry is about the size of the wargame industry in 1977, which means that all the growth in the market since 1977 has collapsed -- assuming inflation adjusted dollars the market in 1977 was approximately $25 million. Second, according to their financials, Games Workshop -- a major fantasy miniatures gaming company -- reported £126.5 million in revenue in 2010. This signals that miniatures gaming has exploded since 1977 as a part of the market. One imagines that role playing games lag behind the miniatures market by a significant margin, but this hints that the market may be larger than Pramas fears. There are currently 49,983 members of Wizards of the Coast's "DDI Subscriber Group" which is a good estimate of the number of people who are subscribers to the site's functions. These subscriptions alone provide somewhere around $5 million in revenue. It is likely that the majority of these subscribers have purchased physical products in the year as well. I would guess that the entire rpg market is somewhere skyward of $50 million -- a little better than Pramas' guess. At least, I hopes so because a lower figure would mean that his company Green Ronin -- who publish a number of the best games in the market -- are tragically under appreciated by the market. Needless to say, the market has expanded as these figures don't include the modern war game market -- which is probably similar in size to the 1977 market -- the board game market (Settlers of Catan alone has sold more than 18 million copies), trading card games, or computer rpgs. All of these are descendants of the old wargaming market place.

For the most part, SPI was a smart company and realized that the market was in flux and that these newfangled role playing games and miniatures games were where the market was headed. They gathered together some of their best and brightest game designers (Eric Goldberg, David James Ritchie, Edward J. Woods, Greg Costikyan, and Redmond A. Simonsen) and produced their own role playing game. The resulting product, DragonQuest was published in 1980 with much fanfare, but less than stellar reviews.

[15.2]A character who is adjacent to, but not in the Attack Zone of, a Hostile character may employ actions A, B, C, D, E, F, H, J, L, M, P, Q, R, S, T, or X.
He could not implement Action G or W. Further, while he could Fire, he could not Fire at an adjacent character. He could also Hurl a weapon, but, again, not at an adjacent character.
-- DragonQuest First Edition pg. 20 Rule 15.2

Forrest Johnson reviewing the game for in Space Gamer magazine, had the following to say:

"1.784 DESIGN IN HASTE, REPENT AT LEISURE. With all its talented staff, SPI has managed to do what companies like TSR and Metagaming did with lesser resources -- mess up a promising new system...DRAGONQUEST is not your dream game, And appearing in 1980, it is at a competitive disadvantage. But it was put together by professionals. Despite its faults, it still presents a pleasing contrast to the sloppiness of TFT, the illogic of D&D, the incoherence of C&S. It borrows good ideas liberally from the older systems, and offers some new innovatiosn of its own. Furthermore, the planned supplements, if only half of them see print, will make this an incredibly rich game."

The Chaosium affiliated magazine Different Worlds in its 11th issue wrote that the game, "functions as a FRP game the same way a sledge hammer functions as a mousetrap. Both get the job done, but the effort involved in getting it to work is not worth the end result." This review prompted a response from designer Eric Goldberg which stated, "while mice have escaped from conventional mousetraps, none have survived being spattered about by a sledgehammer."

SPI published the combat rules for DragonQuest as a stand alone game entitled Arena of Death in SPI's in house Ares magazine in its 4th issue and later as a stand alone boxed game. The first edition combat rules were bogged down by the fact that the rules structure and design was modeled after traditional war game presentations and not on the more narrative presentation of role playing games. As such, the combat rules were difficult to understand and very mechanical in play. DragonQuest included many innovations in its magic system and its skill system, as well as its universal attribute test system, but the combat system of the first edition was arcane and overly complex. SPI quickly responded to the need to improve the game and released a second edition in 1981 -- one year after the original. One name stands out among those added to the list of "Game Testing and Advice," that I believe made all the difference in the world. That name is Greg Gorden. Gorden is one of the best designers in the business, and the changes between the two editions -- in addition to seeing Gorden's later work -- lead me to believe he was a major influence in the second edition.

[15.2]Figures with a modified Agility of 22 through 25 are allowed one extra hex of movement when executing any of the following actions: Melee attack, Evade, Withdraw, Pass, and Retreat.
Thus Eaglewing the Elf, whose modified Agility is 25 due to the lack of weight he carried, his natural Agility and his bonus due to being an Elf can move three hexes while preparing his Tulwar instead of two.
-- DragonQuest 2nd Edition page 16 rule [15.2]

The second edition of the game kept all of the interesting quirks of the first edition, but cleaned up the play of the combat system -- and made some other minor tweaks as well. It also added images of miniatures in use during play and clearer examples of game play. The game seemed ready to take the market by storm. But then TSR -- the publishers of D&D -- purchased SPI on March 31, 1982. With that purchase support for DragonQuest was minimal at best as TSR focused on their own games instead of the old SPI games. There were about 6 articles supporting DragonQuest published in Dragon magazine, but the "rumored" 4th rule book for the game Arcane Wisdom never hit the stands. It wasn't just TSR's lack of interest in DragonQuest that led to the lack of support. It was also the fact that when TSR bought SPI, most of the key SPI designers left the company to work for a new company called Victory Games. Gerard Klug, John Butterfield, and Greg Gorden all went to work for the new company. Within a year of their leaving TSR/SPI for Victory Games, these designers created the James Bond 007 role playing game which built on some concepts presented in DragonQuest, but completely abandoned the old school war game rules presentation.

TSR eventually published a cleaned up and revised 3rd edition of DragonQuest in 1989, but for all of the improvements it made to the mechanics of the game it lost some of the flair of the original. Gone was the "College of Greater Summonings" with its demon bound magicians, and in was a lighter tone similar to many of the "Culture Wars scared" products TSR was publishing at the time. The 3rd edition is a good rules set, but if you're going to play the game you should also have a copy of the 2nd edition. The rich feel of the game's magical colleges is one of the best features of the game.

DragonQuest isn't without a literary legacy either. James Barclay's "Raven" stories are based on his own DragonQuest campaign.