Wednesday 30 October 2013

3 Lessons Learned from Suburbia

Suburbia is a city building, tile-placement game by Ted Alspach. We've been having great fun playing it, and I anyone looking for a tabletop Sim City, or more complex Carcassonne, should try it out.

We love the game, as a whole, but it has small flaws. What game design lessons can it teach us?

Small Changes Add Replay Value
Each time you play Suburbia you use just over half of the available city tiles. With each tile appearing just twice in the box, there fair variety between games, so you can't play with the expectation that the Power Station or Homeowner's Association will come out. On top of this, there are different shared and personal goals in every game. One game can be a race for the most lakes, while the next is an environmentalist duel to survive without industrial tiles.

These changes have subtle effects on the game, but keep us coming back to the table.

We Hate Remembering Things
Here Suburbia both succeeds and fails. We never need to pull the rulebook out of the box during play. The turn order is simple. Starting positions for counters are all displayed on the boards, tile numbers for each deck are listed in their place, and tile mechanics are a breeze.

But, as your borough grows, more tiles start to impact the game. You have a tile granting you bonus money whenever you place a civic square, and another granting you extra income for every restaurant. Worse still, you place a tile that pays out for every residential tile on the whole table. Now you're playing the memory game.

These tiles are a great way of adding player interaction, but remembering their effects can be a chore. It's very telling that we had a game where neither of us had any tiles affected by other boroughs, and we both noted how smooth that specific game felt.

We Love the Market
Jaipur is a fantastic card game of collecting goods and selling them before the market becomes saturated. It's a simple, beautifully designed game that I have real admiration for. The only element I find frustrating is the moment when a new card is dealt out into the marketplace at the end of your turn. When a Diamond card, the best in the game, appears, it's usually a no-brainer for your opponent to snatch it up. While there are ways to avoid giving your opponent the chance to grab cards like this, it always feels frustrating to be on the bad end of a random card pull.

Suburbia dodges this with its market mechanic. When new tiles are revealed, they're placed on the far left of the market slider. Here, they carry an additional cost of $10, a significant amount, but will gradually get cheaper as the turns progress. There's still the option for a player to grab a tile before their opponent gets a chance, but it comes with a heavy cost.

Tuesday 21 May 2013

Weapons and Armour in Risus

Hear me out. I don't want gear lists for Risus. I don't want a bunch of modifiers and special rules for specific weapons.

It isn't that sort of game.

Risus already has a perfectly fine rule in place for handling equipment.

If you don't have the required equipment for the task at hand, but you have enough to attempt it, you roll half as many dice as normal (round up).

Weapons and Armour are an extension of this rule. Let's look at the Warhammer 40k Risus game I'm prepping at the moment.

Most personal weapons are designed to take on enemy infantry, with armour being a real possibility As such I'd say that Imperial Guardsman (2) with Lasgun can attack the Chaos Marine (4) in Power Armour as normal. If it were a Terminator (5), I'd knock it down to half-dice.

Most personal weapons are not designed to take on vehicles. Trying to shoot at an Ork Trukk (3) with your Bolter? I'd allow half-dice. Trying to shoot an Ork Stompa (7) with the Bolter? No chance. Work out another way of taking it down.

Similarly, large numbers of opponents may require weapons that can dish out destruction on a large scale. A Hormagaunt Swarm (5) will need something with automatic fire or a blast. Frag Missiles and Autocannons will work just fine, but a Plasma Pistol is going to leave you rolling half dice. If you team up with your buddies, though, you're good to roll full dice.

Using this system, it's perfectly fine to have a Warlord Titan (8) without worrying that it's too easy to take down. Infantry weapons won't scratch it, and even heavy weapons will only give half dice. This is where you call in for Superheavy support. Roll in the Shadowsword Super Heavy Tank (5). 

It's worth stressing the importance of transparency here. Don't wait until the players are rolling dice to tell them that their lasgun won't be able to penetrate tank armour. Let them know as soon as the tank appears.

Space Marines are a notable example here, and I can already feel the rage against my earlier ruling on lasguns vs power armour. The actual power level of marines varies across the history of the setting. It's best to establish, ahead of the game if they're fair targets for lasgun fire, or mostly protected.

Some GMs may even make them immune to such puny weapons. These are the times you really need to warn your players in advance. 

Risus Death Roll

In Risus combat, the winner decides the fate of the loser. This could range from embarrassment to a badass scar or even death.

Sometimes you'll want to put that down to a roll.

Risus Death Roll
In a deadly combat, a defeated character rolls to find out their fate. This roll is made using any cliche that has dice remaining. Characters with no cliché dice left at all cannot roll and are completely at the mercy of their opponent.

This uses the High Die Variant. Take the single highest die from the pool rolled.

1-3: DEAD
4: Dying. Someone needs to help you right away or you're dead.
5: Maimed. Opponent chooses a suitably nasty injury, but you get away with your life.
6: Lucky Bastard. You got away with barely a scratch, but you still lost. Your opponent shouts "NEXT TIME, GADGET!"


Bald Badolf is a Fearsome Dwarf Barbarian (4) but has lost all dice in that cliché. His opponent, the Barfbeast (6), decides he must make a death roll to find out his fate.

Badolf's only remaining Cliché is Unloved Orphan (2). He rolls two dice and gets a high die of 5! Badolf pleads for mercy from the Barfbeast, which bats him away in contempt, burning his face in a pool of barf. As the beast wanders off, Badolf plans his escape and changes his main cliché to Fearsome Disfigured Dwarf Barbarian (4).

Friday 17 May 2013

Recovering Cliches in Risus

In Risus, regaining lost Cliche Dice is left entirely to common sense. The guidance suggests that it depends on the nature of the conflict where the dice were lost.

I like this, but I think there could be another method that looks more to the Cliche itself for direction.

Feeding a Cliche
To recover lost dice, you must Feed the Cliche.

Consider what fuels this part of your character. If it's a physical Cliche, such as Star Athlete, or Bare-Knuckle Brawler, it may simply require some rest and a bandage. However, the former may be fed just as well with a rousing speech from your coach, and the latter with a swig of whiskey.

Losing points in Breakneck Stunt Driver might require a trip to your garage to refuel. Meanwhile, the Chain Smoking Mechanic (4) may just need a cigarette, and the Womanising Publicity Agent (3) a trip to the nearest singles bar.

The Amoral Cannibal Savage (3) may recover lost dice through more literal feeding, on the bodies of his enemies. The Preacher with a Crossbow (2) may be better off treating the bodies to a proper burial and blessing.

Thursday 9 May 2013

The Beauty of the One-Point Cliche

I'm still deep in a Risus phase at the moment. This happens regularly.

Today I've been thinking about those weird little one-point Cliches that characters often end up with. At first glance, they seem pretty useless.

They have hidden depths.

With my Side Pumping house rule, the one-point Cliches can give you a boost when you need it most. Consider this.

Zero-B Shorthorn is a Robot Cowboy (4), Reprogrammed Android Barkeep (1).

He's engaged in a gunfight with a Rogue Gatling Turret (4), and needs something to give him the edge. Grabbing a bottle of Cyber-Whisky, he can pump his Android Barkeep Cliche for an extra die to his Robot Cowboy Cliche. Throw that booze and shoot it, for an explosive attack!

The Barkeep Cliche is dropped to 0, but it's given you a great start to the combat.

Better yet, they may just net you extra bonuses without even rolling.

Theo Sturgeoni might be a World Renowned Surgeon (4), but his Venetian Street Rat (1) Cliche assumes that he speaks Italian. No roll required to translate the overheard conversation between the Roman Cardinals.

Now, if only I can shake off this Adoring Risus Fanboy (3) Cliche.

Wednesday 8 May 2013

House Ruling Risus

I love Risus, but the game begs to be tweaked.

Here, my goal is to make it easier to set TNs, remove those vital seconds spent adding die pools and make combat even more fast and decisive. I'm using a combination of the original rules, additional rules from the Risus Companion and a few of my own adjustments.

High Die Rule

- When you roll a pool of dice, take the highest single die, rather than adding the total.
- Target Numbers start at 4, raised to 5 for Challenging Tasks, and 6 for Heroic Efforts. A task's difficulty may be raised if your Cliche is an ill fit for the task.

Side Pumping

- When using a Cliche, you can Pump a second Cliche for extra dice. The extra dice are added to the Cliche you're using for the duration of the roll, but lost from the pumped Cliche. Reducing a Cliche to 0 in this way does not take you out of the contest.
- This replaces normal Pumping. 

Other Tweaks

- Teams roll their total dice and take the highest. Everyone on the losing team loses a die from their Cliche. 
- On a tie, both parties are treated as losing. 
- Characters splitting off from a team do not suffer damage. 
- Inappropriate Cliches do not cause extra damage. 
- If a character does not have an appropriate Cliche for a task, or combat, they roll a single die, but only 6s are counted. 


- Cliches are the many hats a character can wear. Only one is ever active at a given moment, and each should represent a role, not just a specific action. More Drunken Brawler and Mercenary Sniper, less Sucker Punch and Pinpoint Accuracy. 
- Sidekicks, Vehicles and Personal Armies can all be purchased out of your starting pool of ten Cliche dice. See the examples below.

Akla-Ma: Man-Beast (4), Noble Savage (2)
Sidekick: Kaah, Killer Panther (4)

Rusty Sinclair: Crime-Lord on the Rise (4), Former Vagrant (1)
Gang: Jimmy the Brain (3), Top-Hat Thugs (2)

Crash Atom: Ace Stunt-Pilot (3)
Mech: The Red Knight: Sword of Justice (4), Symbol of Hope (3)

High Die Examples

Akla-Ma is faced with a nearly impossible leap between two skyscrapers. As this is a Heroic Task, he'll need a high die of 6 to succeed. He's using his Man-Beast (4) cliche, but will pump his sidekick Kaah (4) for three extra dice, giving him seven to roll. He rolls 1, 3, 2, 6, 6, 2, 4. The highest die is a 6, a success! He rides Kaah to safety, but the Panther is completely exhausted, now a Killer Panther (1).

Rusty Sinclair is trying to dig up some dirt on his rival, Screwdriver Joe. He sends Jimmy the Brain (3) and the Top Hat Thugs (2) out, as a team, to see what they can find. This is a basic task, so a high die of 4 is required. The team rolls five dice in total, scoring 3, 1, 5, 5, 2. With a high die of 5, they manage to uncover the secret of Screwdriver Joe's illegitimate son. 

Crash Atom has lost another round of combat against the monster, Octo, reducing his Sword of Justice Cliche to 1. He switches to Ace Stunt Pilot to try and pull of a risky manoeuvre, blasting debris into Octo's giant eye to distract it from a killing blow. He rolls three dice, scoring 5, 5, 2, a high die of 5. Octo rolls his dice and scores a high die of 6. He wraps his tentacles around The Red Knight and begins to crush the valiant mech. 

Thursday 21 March 2013

Why Don't I Get Better At Fighting?

For the mundane Into the Odd character, not interested in Arcana, you hit a peak of offensive ability quite early on.

Get yourself a set of Modern Armour and a Field Weapon. Congratulations, you're dishing out 1d6+1 damage and ignoring a point of damage against you from each attack. That's about as good as things get. No, you don't get an attack bonus as you level. No, your high STR doesn't give you a damage bonus. No, you don't gain feats and powers.

Sucks, right?

What advancement really does is give you the opportunity to fight smarter. There are a few ways this works. 

- You have more hitpoints, letting you stay in the fight for longer. You can't fight if you're dead.
- Your Ability Scores will increase a little. This lets you pass Saves to avoid nasty monster effects and makes risky combat manoeuvres more viable.
- If you're on a battlefield, and of any real importance, you should be on a horse. The armour and damage bonus here is quite a big deal.
- You've been gathering riches this whole time. Even if you don't carry your cannon everywhere, you might have a small army or a galleon that can fire broadsides at your more persistent enemies. At the very least you should know when to take your elephant gun, fire oil and bombs with you on expeditions.
- Even if you aren't using Arcana to cast Spells, you'll have gathered a bunch of weird stuff along the way. You have a potion that turns you into the Hulk, a thermal detonator and a glass jar containing some sort of intelligent lightning bolt. When things get tough, each one of these could save you. 

These are all very deliberate design decisions. One of the main goals of Into the Odd is to take the focus away from the character sheet. There really isn't much on there. Three Ability Scores that you only use for Saves, your hitpoints, and a bunch of gear. 

But you want to be Legolas with Flintlock Pistols, blasting away dozens of foes each turn. I'm not saying you can't make your mark on the battlefield, but it isn't all about damage output.

Legolas was only able to fight like that because he had five times the hitpoints of Joe Averagelf and rolled well on his STR and DEX scores. Joe can stab an orc with twin daggers just as easily, but gets an axe buried in his back on the next turn. Legolas has the luxury of surviving long enough to look cool before shield-surfing to safety. He's grabbing a short rest off-camera while his hp recover.

Shooting guys with his bow while he shield-surfs? Good job he has such a high DEX, or he'd have found himself plummeting into the orc horde for trying something so stupid.

Advancement in Into the Odd doesn't give you huge damage output and cinematic combat abilities. It gives you the survivability that you need to be able to act heroically.

Just remember, you're still going to fail Saves. Is climbing on top of the elephant really worth what will happen if you fall down into the beast's path?

Tuesday 19 March 2013

But Wait, There's More!

When you roll a duplicate item on the previous table, roll on the table below to see what special item Frank has in stock. Duplicates are discarded.

1: Flip Bolts (30s): Three powder-charged arrows that can be modified to fire from any bow or crossbow. Causes d10 damage and can damage structures as a siege engine.

2: Willow's New Revised Starmap (50s): An elaborate tome of charts and coordinates. Is actually an Arcanum containing the Spell Black Tentacles (Power 4).

3: Scrub-Hook (15s): A man-catcher polearm. Target must pass a STR Save or be snagged. They can try to break free with another STR Save, but failing this causes them d12 damage as they choke themselves.

4: Rosy Dram (5s bottle): A deceptively strong, pink liquor. A single measure leaves a man feeling drunk, requiring a STR Save to avoid passing out for 1d6 hours. A second measure will topple anyone without requiring save.

5: Devil Togs (1g): A heavy, ornate suit of armour (armour 1). Features a demonic mask that even makes your voice sound terrifying.

6: Jumbull (5g): STR 18, DEX 5, WIL 3, 8hp, Armour 2, d12 Gore. A woolly, elephant-like, beast of burden or war. Has an ill temperament and little to no training.

Monday 18 March 2013

Bastion's Favourite Arms Dealer

Frank Regal - Expert Entrepreneur
STR 14, DEX 8, WIL 14, 11hp, Duelling Pistol (d8), Officer's Cane (1d6), 1d6g.

A travelling salesman of great repute. Wears a faded naval uniform and wears an eyepatch for purely cosmetic effect.

Claims he's giving you a 10% discount for whatever reason he can think of. Discount is included in the prices below.

To see which items he has in stock, roll 5d6. For each duplicate, roll once on the Special Item Table.

1: Red Fred (10s): Military-grade musket (d8, two hands). Fixed with bayonet (1d6+1, two hands). Legendary resilience, still firing through monsoons, sandstorms, and polar freezes.

2: Capper's Lugporker (10s): A hooked halberd (d8, two hands) once used by city watchmen. Can force riders to pass a STR Save or be pulled from their steed.

3: Stower Sticks (10s): A brace of small pistols (d8, two hands) with a harness that can be easily concealed.

4: Buff Pup (50s): A heavy blunderbuss (d10, two hands) with a complex and lengthy loading process. Can only be fired once per combat, but roll d6 to see how many nearby targets can be caught in the blast.

5: Lagger's Dag (50s): A man-portable cannon (d8, 2 hands, move or fire) that can damage ships as a siege weapon.

6: Rum-Tilter (30s, one hand): A highly decorated, basked-hilted sword (d8), with real silver details.

Monday 11 March 2013

FLAILSNAILS Characters and Into the Odd

This is your one-stop-shop for bringing a FLAILSNAILS character from D&D to Into the Odd.

1 - Convert your D&D Level to the appropriate Experience Level, rolling your new HP.
Level 1: Novice (1d6hp)
Levels 2-3: Proven (2d6hp)
Levels 4-6: Expert (3d6hp)
Levels 7-9: Veteran (4d6hp)
Levels 10+: Master (5d6hp)

2 - Note down your STR and DEX. Your WIL score is chosen from your mental Ability Scores. Characters that use a different Ability Score for magic stuff typically use that number for WIL.

3 - Spellcasters choose one known spell from each spell level. These are now powers bound to your Spellbook, Holy Symbol or other suitable item. Individual spells will behave differently in Into the Odd, but retain their general purpose. Magic Items will also behave differently within their general purpose.

4 - If you consider yourself effectively armoured, you have Armour 1. Generally this will be medieval-style armour with a shield, or modern breastplate and helm. Light, leather armour without a shield gets you nothing  but shot in this world.

5 - Basic one-handed weapons and shortbows do d6 damage. Two-handers or high-quality one-handers do d8 damage. Big guns do d10 and are move-or-fire. No need to track ammunition.

6 - If you come from a Gold Standard world, your gold pieces turn into Silver Shillings.

7 - Any other information (skills, feats, special bonuses) isn't required.

Example (thanks to Harald Wagener)

Kelonius - Expert Specialist
STR 6, DEX 13, WIL 10, 14hp. 

Crossbow (d8), Short Sword (d6), Octopus Tentacle Whip (d6), Shortbow (d6) Curved Obsidian Dagger (d6), Fake Hook Hand (d6).  
Crowbar, 2 Spikes, Specialist Toolkit (blood spattered), Net.
Pompous Garb, Finned Puffy Hat, Broken Dwarven Glasses, Rations for two weeks, Piss Bucket, Fancy Hinged Box, Rope 50’, Pirate Hat, Pony. 
10g25s, Jewels worth 3g35s. 

Thursday 7 March 2013

In Favour of Static Saves

You might notice a big change in the current edition of Into the Odd.

- Saves are now "roll equal or under the appropriate stat". Nothing modifies this roll.

Here's my reasoning.

I want players to be fully informed of the risks they take.

A character with DEX 7 now knows that they'll have to roll 7 or less on a d20 to pass a DEX Save. No matter what. They won't be asking you what number they'd have to Save against when considering their actions. All the data they need to make an informed choice is on their own character sheet.

The game advises Referees to warn players when their actions will lead to a Save. Saves occur as a result of a choice or action.

These factors should combine to make the DEX 7 player do whatever they can to avoid DEX Saves. No leaping across that pit unless it's a safe jump. Better yet, let's find a way to bridge the gap or go in another direction.

The changes should also eliminate the unpleasant surprise a Save can bring. Imagine this.

A STR 12 character is fighting a corrupt guard. They take a big hit, run out of HP and find out their opponent has STR 17.

The Referee said the guy looked burly, but STR 17?

Using the old system, the player must now roll 15 or more to avoid being incapacitated and possible killed. I love deadly combat, but this could come out of nowhere.

I don't want players to be thinking about the STR score of their opponents or working out probabilities during combat. Having static Saves greatly reduces the amount of numeric data you're factoring into the decision and lets you focus on the situation.

D&D was pretty close to having static saves all the way up to third edition, and that seemed to work just fine. Of course, saves were often modified for tougher circumstances, which I won't be doing.

So, let's get this straight. A STR 10 character has a 50% chance to avoid Critical Damage from both a stick-waving street urchin and a Timeless Horror from Beyond?


The Urchin is beating his stick for d4 damage. He has a handful of hp and you can knock him down without much thought.

The Astral Horror is lashing out for d12 damage, warps your form into a tortured abomination with each hit and constantly barrages you with mind control effects. Your swords and bullets glean off its shadowy hide, turning your weapons ice cold. Even if you find something that can hurt it, it has dozens of hp and is going to make a few Saves before you can bring it down.

I'm not worried about the Astral Horror not being scary.

Anyone that can help to playtest these rules earns a universal re-roll token.

Monday 18 February 2013

More Scary Vanilla Monsters

By popular demand, more vanilla D&D monsters get the scary treatment.

Ogres join the ranks of "things that want to eat you", but are much more sophisticated. They have elaborate methods for slaughtering their prey, often leaving them alive for the first few courses. They refuse to waste a scrap of meat or bone and practically everything they own is made from a part of some unfortunate victim.

Hobgoblins are invaders from a distant continent. Next to their colossal empire the known world is a minor continent. Their technology is always slightly ahead of humans. When we had bows, they had crossbows. When we had muskets they had Gatling guns. Their ships are ironclad and their military strategies incredibly cunning.

Owlbears are the Jason Voorhees of the animal kingdom. They stalk the woods at night, killing anyone that disturbs their peace. They're far tougher than they seem, but will play dead or flee when a fight is going against them. If this happens they will obsessively track their opponents and attack when their quarry is weakest. With extremely acute scent and vision it's near impossible to lose an Owlbear that's following you.

Gelatinous Cubes are already terrifying in life. In death their structure collapses to flood their surroundings with a mix of paralysing toxin and burning acid. Anyone that succumbs to both of these fluids will lie very still while they slowly melt.

Friday 15 February 2013

Make Vanilla Monsters Scary

That first level dungeon needn't be a complete borefest.

Giant Spiders are apex predators, hiding in dark cracks until they pounce on you. They come with a Save or Die bite as standard.

Trolls regenerate from any amount of damage. Limbs can drag themselves back to torsos and reassemble. The reason they're so ugly is that you're not the first person to try burning them.

Orcs aren't much different from humans, physiologically. The scary part is that they're complete bastards and there are hundreds of them. The room with four orcs is a trap. The rest of the gang is waiting behind the door with firebombs and a complete lack of morals.

Goblins are innately magical and just want to screw with you. They'll turn your water into piss, wake up the sleeping dragon and pack your firewood full of exploding fairydust. If you chop one in half you'll spawn two smaller, squeakier goblins. If you set one on fire he'll turn into a mini-elemental. When they hide under a rock you'll lift it to find nothing but a stinkbomb. Just hope you never run into one of these creatures.

Giant Rats are completely filthy. Even if you don't get bitten you're not getting out of a giant rat nest without something. Ticks, fleas, general itchiness. Your digestive system won't be quite right for days afterwards. Oh, and remember how Orcs are never alone? If you see a lone Giant Rat prepare for company.

Gnolls will eat you. This is Plan A and they don't have much of a backup. Once they get your scent they'll gang up on the weakest in the herd and try to pin him down so they can start dinner. If the rest of the party puts up a fight they'll make sure their meal gets dragged with them while they retreat.

When your players tire of dying and running away perhaps they'll think of a better way to get the treasure.