Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Inspirations: the Sands of Time, part four

A while ago I started looking at whether you could take anything interesting from Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time for use in RPGs. I've had a quick overview of general ideas and issues, and then considered how you might handle things in Pathfinder or BRP. Last time I started looking at the combat system in detail, and now I'm going to think about how they could be converted to tabletop.

Here's a quick checklist of key points about POPSOT combat:

  1. Player-driven, not character-driven
  2. Combat success is a kill; damage isn't permanent
  3. Matching special moves to weaknesses for efficient combat
  4. PC acts faster than enemies, so can fight several at once
  5. Can combine attacks with movement or defence
  6. Enemies stay with PC during combat
  7. Enemies are static and unavoidable
  8. Ability to retry failed actions or avoid damage taken
  9. Interaction with companion
  10. Multiple waves of enemies to prolong combat

How does each feature relate to tabletop RPGs? And what do we want to keep?

Converting to Tabletop

Player versus Character

First up, player-driven actions. RPGs typically determine success based primarily on character skill. While player input is always crucial, it typically consists of choosing courses of action, sometimes including quite granular tactical decisions (e.g. which attack type to use). The actual resolution of the action still depends on character attributes, with or without a random factor: you roll attack dice, play spell cards, or use the magic ring of bouncing.

There are a few exceptions around - Magicians is on its way there, and I believe The Riddle of Steel used player minigames to model combat. The former is designed specifically for language-learning, and that's really not what I'm after here. I know basically nothing about the latter.

To be honest, I'm inclined to ignore this aspect. Player skill makes perfect sense for a first-person action platformer, but character skill is a well-established aspect of RPGs and I'd be very reluctant to mess with that without a good reason. Also, it would automatically prevent me from using any familiar RPG to run the game.

Kill-Based Combat

In a typical RPG, it usually doesn't matter much how you inflict damage. You can crush an enemy quickly with a few powerful attacks, perhaps taking a risk in the process. You can fight cautiously, staying defensive and only striking back when an opening presents itself, constantly whittling down their stamina. You can use evasive tactics, launching occasional devastating sneak attacks before disappearing into the shadows. For most enemies, the end result is the same: death.

POPSOT enemies don't work the same way, because unless you coup de grace them, they regenerate entirely. On the other hand, there are specific moves that take an enemy down in one hit ready for a coup de grace.

You could quite easily model this by doing pretty much the same thing: unless the PC spends an action/round to coup de grace the enemy, they simply resurrect at full health. You could soften this by having them recover enough to stand up, but a single hit will fell them again. You could even give them constant regeneration, though if all enemies had this it would get very fiddly to track.

One of the frustrations in POPSOT was that the Prince could easily end up overwhelmed, unable to actually coup de grace any enemies because the others obstructed him, and fights would go on for a long time. In a party RPG, some version of resurrection would probably work okay. At any time, there'll probably be someone free enough to finish off the fallen. Depending on the system, this could end up being the least combat-oriented character, your resident wizard or whatever. However, combined with the dagger-recharge mechanism, you'd then end up with that character gaining all the charge but being perhaps least likely to use it. That could make for an interesting trade-off decision, or you could simply allow transfer of charge between characters.


Different RPGs have different approaches to 'special moves' like knockdowns, trips, disarms and backstabs. Tactically granular ones like D&D have these as slightly separate mechanisms from standard attacks, sometimes derived from different stats and modified with skills, feats or class abilities. Looser systems like Call of Cthulhu don't offer these at all by RAW, though a mechanism using opposed stat rolls could be added easily if the situation came up.

In either case, adding enemy-appropriate special moves would be fairly simple. Resolution of these almost always depends on some attribute of the enemy, such as a Dexterity score, though these may end up affecting too many vulnerabilities in certain systems. Specific enemies could also simply be given vulnerabilities or resistances to particular attack types: heavily-armoured foes might be vulnerable to tripping due to balance problems, double-handed wielders resistant to disarming. The combinations would depend on what special attacks are available and what enemy types exist, because I would very much like them to make sense in context rather than being arbitrary mechanical features.

Using these special moves sensibly should make combat significantly easier. A single appropriate special attack would effectively remove an enemy from the fight; the precise mechanism would depend on the system. Some systems have quite granular modelling of being disarmed, tripped or taken off-guard, others would need systems creating or a "counts-as" rule put in place.

This is a feature I do think we want to keep, and some level of tactical awareness is a standard part of RPGs. It doesn't necessarily exist at such a high level as in POPSOT, but I think it could be reasonable turned up a bit without completely wrecking existing combat systems.


In POPSOT, the Prince acts notably faster than enemies, both in terms of actual movement speed and actions-per-round. He can attack several times in the time it takes an enemy to strike once, and mix action types. This means he can make hit-and-run attacks, overwhelm a single opponent with rapid attacks, or fight several opponents simultaneously by parrying at suitable moments. The Prince isn't really more powerful than his opponents, he's just able to do more in a round, which tips the balance in his favour.

Most games don't immediately allow for this possibility, because they have a fixed quantity of action for each participants, be it Major Minor Move or "do something". In most cases, you can move and attack in the same round; defence tends to be an alternative to attacking, though. In many games "an attack" is an abstract thing covering several seconds of combat, so one attack roll doesn't necessarily correspond directly to one strike in POPSOT, especially as it always takes several strikes to down an enemy.

Call of Cthulhu combat does more or less allow this, since many Keepers don't use the Dodge or Parry rules with NPCs and monsters; this effectively means PCs can take a defensive action as well as whatever else they do, while enemies only get their main action. Let's see what other possibilities there are.

The first is simply to increase the number of actions a PC can take in a round, allowing them to make extra attacks, or to use aggressive and defensive actions. The GM might need to limit what can be done with this time. In Call of Cthulhu your turn consists of "doing something", which is a pretty broad category to double. In Pathfinder or D&D 4E, the GM would pick a type of action for you to gain and therefore restrict your options somewhat. However, doubling standard actions (for example) doesn't just speed up attacking; it also lets you drink two potions, or cast two spells, which might not fit the intention.

Conversely, enemies could have their actions restricted. This holds true to the source material, where the enemies are quite slow. D&D in some cases limits the actions of slow creatures like zombies already, although this mostly just prevents them moving and attacking - they can still attack once per round, just like you. In general it's harder to slow enemies down than to speed PCs up.

You could also take a slightly bigger hack at things, and grant subsidiary actions. Maybe attacking gives you two attacks, not one. Maybe your first attack doesn't count as an action, so you can always do something else, like dodging or parrying. Maybe PCs can always attempt a parry. Exactly what's useful is going to depend on system.

In Pathfinder and related games, attacks actually increase with level anyway. As I mentioned in part two, I'd almost certainly be modelling this sort of play with a significant level disparity between PCs and NPCs, so PCs would probably have multiple attacks per round by default while enemies wouldn't. This would handle the matter in a straightforward RAW way: you can either spend a whole round to use all your attacks, or take some other action (like moving) and make a single attack. I would, however, still have to create a system for active parrying as Pathfinder doesn't use it.

Persistent Enemies

The fights in POPSOT are basically compulsory. It's a completely linear game, with no path but the one they designate that runs right through the enemies. This really shouldn't be the case with a tabletop RPG, though. One to ditch, deffo.

A more slippery point is enemy movement. In POPSOT enemies do nothing but stand around waiting for you to turn up, and will return to their position if you leave the room, rather than follow you. This is a perfectly sound strategy, because of the aforesaid railroad. Sometimes they don't even bother to wait, but just appear out of thin air as you approach. There are a few quite specific situations where static enemies work in tabletop (guarding key points, for example) but generally it's both nice and logical for enemies to move around a bit. They won't necessarily be deathless sand-creatures like in POPSOT, for one thing. But also, things like patrols to avoid, ambushes to set and generally outthinking the enemy are some of the joys of roleplaying. On a more meta level, enemies that stay put in one place are ineffective in tabletop, because you're not forcing the players to follow a single designated route as outlined last paragraph, so they can just avoid the enemies. So while this would be very easy to replicate, I wouldn't want to. That doesn't mean there can't be any enemies that stay in one place, just that it's not the default. Similarly, it should be possible for PCs to draw enemies into tactical locations, send them off afted red herrings, and otherwise overcome them by cunning.

A feature I have no intention of copying is the POPSOT flawless teleportation. I really don't know what they were thinking with that one, which only serves to annoy you and make the game less interesting. Enemies in Time Faffers will be stuck with ordinary movement under ordinary rules, perhaps spiced up with the odd special ability. This will allow players to unleash their tactical genius, make use of environmental features, and concentrate their strength on specific targets, rather than spending every single fight in combat with every single enemy at once. You could, however, easily replicate this feature: you just allow enemies further than X from a PC to teleport to within reach of one when it's their turn to move.

Similarly, there will not be reinforcements spawning throughout the fight to prolong it artificially. Reinforcements will come from nearby areas. With resurrection mechanics already in the game, having a monster finally die, only to be replaced by an identical monster anyway, is just plain rude.


The transition to multiplayer RPG will provide the good bits, hopefully without the frustrating elements of escort-questing.


The final and most innovative part of POPSOT is time-rewinding, and that's definitely something I'd like to include. Helpfully, RPGs have a long tradition of letting you do things again, in the shape of rerolls. The POPSOT version lets you decide how much time to rewind, up to about 10 seconds (frankly not very long, but hey), which complicates matters; that's potentially several rolls, and even more than one person's turn.

Off the top of my head, I think the model I see as most interesting is to split into minor and major charges. Not because that necessarily makes the most sense narratively, but because it corresponds to mechanical actions

A minor charge would simply be a reroll of a single die that directly affects the PC, which would include attack and skill rolls, as well as attacks aimed at them. This corresponds in story to the PC rewinding from a missed attack, from setting off a trap or misgauging a jump, or from failing to dodge an enemy strike. You could tweak this slightly, on the basis that the PC has actually seen the future, so that they can either reroll a single die, or negate a single die roll directly affecting them. This would mean the PC can try their action again in the light of seeing how it might go wrong (but with no guarantees it won't go wrong in a different way), and can also avoid a single negative consequence (since things will go down in exactly the same way, they can reliably avoid it). I would allow players to see how much damage they'll take before negating an attack, as it's all part of the same attack action. I might also grant a bonus on PC rerolls to make the mechanic more satisfying.

A major charge would be more drastic. You could handle this very mechanically by letting the PC step back a whole round, negating all actions that have taken place, and then starting again with a decent idea of what the enemies will do. This would, however, mean tracking a roundsworth of events separately from the main character sheet - in particular changes in hit points, time charges and other resources. Alternatively, you could treat this in a very narrative way, allowing the player to negotiate for one substantial thing to change over a period of maybe three rounds at most: perhaps they took a different fork in the passageway, or rushed over to rescue an ally rather than engaging an enemy. The consequences of this in terms of regained resources would have to be worked out, either by keeping track of three roundsworth of resources, or simply making a reasonable guess.

I think to make this feel like a flavourful game mechanic, you'd want to keep other potential for rerolls quite limited, and try to emphasise in description that what's happening is actual manipulation of time, not just the strictly mechanical rerolls that so often crop up.

As a side note, in the Call of Cthulhu ruleset I'd be quite inclined to introduce SAN costs for rewinding time. After all, you still remember what happened in the other timeline, most of which is pretty unpleasant (otherwise you wouldn't be rewinding it). You still saw your friend die, or felt the spear pierce your guts - you just travelled back in time to change the timeline. On the downside, this could actually discourage people from using the mechanic, which is what you don't want. Hmm. One rather oddball possibility would be for a rewind mechanism to transfer HP damage to SAN damage, and to then introduce more lenient mechanics for regaining SAN and handling insanity, so it manifests in ways more suited to an action game that features mundane rather than non-Euclidean horrors. Rather than developing fetishes or eating disorders, you'd probably be looking at emotional effects.

Friday, 25 January 2013

WoD percentifier


A work in progress: discussion on the Dr&Di thread.

This is a fettle in response to Arthur's modest proposal on Dreamers and Dicepools.

This script will (I hope) convert a World of Darkness-style dots and targets system into a percentile chance, allowing a quick and dirty conversion into BRP or some similar system. You can use this to determine what skill percentage corresponds to a dot rank.

Your percentage chance of success is:



But that's not the only option. You may be keen to import your old Call of Cthulhu characters into the World of Darkness, and who am I to stop you? This called for actually quite a lot of effort.

You need this number of dots:


Note: At some point in the rather complicated process of moving things between HTML editor, spreadsheet, plain text editor and back again repeatedly multiple times, the exact numbers to many decimal places have apparently got slightly broken. So this will in fact mostly return very slightly inaccurate numbers, until I get round to fixing that.

So it looks like it's actually probably a Javascript issue with logarithms, not an error in the data. This might take longer than I hoped. Or I might come up with a nasty hack for it. Nasty hack found, and not actually all that nasty. Javascript is actually not that good at maths, it seems...

Nerdy calculationy bit

The Percentifier is a rough and ready option, right there. But it would be nice to have a way to convert the other way, right? To be able to convert a mathematically-elegant BRP character, with its straightforward capabilities, into WoD’s dicepools.

This, unfortunately, is going to call for maths. Wait, I don’t dislike maths. I just don’t have to do very much of it these days.

The calculation for turning the dicepool into percentages basically points down to:

p = 1 - ((t-1)/10) d

where p is the probability of success, t is the target number, and d is the number of dots (or dice).

At this point I realised I couldn’t remember high-school maths. Things like “what’s the general term for the power of something, like ‘squared’?” which would help answer other things, like “how do you calculate the value of that thing I can’t remember the term for?”. Luckily, at this stage my dad called for a chat. Amongst his many excellent qualities, he is professionally good at maths, and reminded me about logarithms and the word ‘exponential’. Thus:

p + ((t-1)/10) d = 1

1 – p = ((t-1)/10) d

LOG(1-p) = LOG(((t-1)/10) d)

ln(((t-1)/10) d) = LOG(1-p)

dLOG((t-1)/10) = LOG(1-p)

d = LOG(1-p)/LOG((t-1)/10)


But there's more! Arthur has a suggestion for making skill more relevant in WoD, and suggested how it might work, so I've fettled up a quick Arthurfier (for want of a better word) to see how that does.

EDIT: This doesn't, in fact, do what Arthur suggested: it just triples the relative value of Skill vs. Stat dogs dots. It's been a long few weeks, okay?

Your percentage chance of success is:


Arthurfier II

Thanks to me rolling a critical fail on my Reading, the Arthurfier doesn't actually do what Arthur suggested. Oops.

Enter the Mark II.

Your competence at this task is:


Your percentage chance of success is:



I eventually managed to track down the descriptions from WoD.


  • * Poor. Unexercised, unpracticed or inept.
  • ** Average. The result of occasional effort or application.
  • *** Good. Regular practice or effort, or naturally talented.
  • **** Exceptional. Frequently applied, tested and honed, or naturally gifted.
  • ***** Outstanding. The peak of normal human capacity. Continuously exercised or naturally blessed.


  • * Novice. Basic knowledge and/or techniques.
  • ** Practitioner. Solid working knowledge and/or techniques.
  • *** Professional. Broad, detailed knowledge and/or techniques.
  • **** Expert. Exceptional depth of knowledge and/or techniques.
  • ***** Master. Unsurpassed knowledge and/or techniques. A leader in the field.

I can definitely see why Arthur was unconvinced.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Inspirations: the Sands of Time, part three

A while ago I started looking at whether you could take anything interesting from Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time for use in RPGs. I've had a quick overview of general ideas and issues, and then considered how you might handle things in Pathfinder or BRP. Now I'm going to go back and examine POPSOT's combat in a bit more detail, because it's such a major part of the game's flavour.


The fundamental thing about combat in POPSOT is that it's player-driven, not character-driven. Your character's accuracy in combat depends on what you do, not on some characteristic or skill of the Prince himself. You hit enemies if you deliver an appropriate attack when they're in range and approximately in front of you. You parry attacks by using the Parry command at suitable times. You dodge attacks by moving the Prince away from them. You perform special attacks by pressing the right buttons when you're in the right position, and they succeed if you picked the right attack for the target.

Success in Combat

The combat is fundamentally kill-based, rather than damage-based. You can chop away at enemies all you like, but the only way to destroy most enemies is to perform a coup de grace (in this case, using the Dagger of Time to drain the magic from a downed enemy). If you leave a fallen opponent for even a few seconds, they'll regenerate entirely. Only specific rare enemy types (birds, bats and scarabs) can be actually killed by normal attacks.

Downing an enemy requires a certain threshold of damage. Four or five hits is enough to do this, but un-downed enemies seem to recover from your hits if left for a while, perhaps while you fight off another target. Ideally, then, a seamless string of blows from focused attacks is needed to down the target, followed by a coup de grace to destroy it. This coup de grace also recharges your Dagger of Time, allowing you to use special abilities.

There are also two special combat moves available: somersaults and wall jumps. Somersaults let you flip over a target's head and backstab them. Wall jumps let you use a wall as a springboard to launch yourself at a target. Either attack will insta-down most enemies, but certain enemy types are immune to one or the other, and in some cases will damage you instead. Further into the game, special moves become the most sensible and effective way of downing enemies, and most combat consists of holding off opponents until you can work yourself into position for an appropriate special move.

The Prince acts much more quickly than any enemies. He can attack several times in the time it takes an enemy to strike once, as well as attacking and rolling away, or attacking and parrying. A single "round" for an enemy is often enough time for the Prince to cut down an enemy with repeated blows, and prepare for a coup de grace. He can also outpace them on foot, although...

Movement and Manoeuvring

Enemies can teleport in order to keep pace with the Prince. If the Prince moves a certain distance away from them, rather than keep running, they'll simply teleport. The animation takes a second or so at each end, and makes a noise, so he has a moment to prepare when a monster appears next to him. This ability means that the Prince can't easily isolate individual enemies to defeat, but must always fight several at once. In addition, he can't use his manoeuvrability, acrobatics or intelligence to gain an advantage by finding safe spots to lurk in, or separating groups of enmies.

Enemies sometimes wait in place, but this mostly applies to rooms you enter. In most cases, enemies materialise around you to begin a fight. During the fight, further enemies materialise as reinforcements, typically appearing within combat range. The Prince cannot avoid combats by timing movement or skirting around enemies. Enemies do not patrol or take any ordinary actions. Combat is therefore mostly a compulsory set-piece experience.

Other Factors

The Prince can use the Dagger of Time to manipulate the flow of time. He can rewind time to negate an undesirable result, such as taking a mortal injury or being knocked down. He can freeze an enemy in time for a few seconds, allowing him to kill it with a couple of follow-up attacks, without needing a coup de grace; this also takes an enemy out of the fight temporarily. Finally, he can slow down the perception of time, allowing the player slightly more time to control and consider actions and reactions - though it doesn't allow him to actually act faster than enemies. Again, these are mostly tactical decisions, though rewinding time is more complicated. To be honest, I never found the other abilities particularly interesting or useful in POPSOT, and used them mostly by accident, so I can't say much about them.

Finally, there's your NPC companion Farah. In theory, she helps out by shooting at enemies with her bow. There are a handful of situations where she's a net plus, mostly when fighting annoying birds, which she can kill far more easily than you. The rest of the time, she needs protecting from the guards. Her attack rate is glacial, she can't actually kill anything, and she's not clever enough to just run away and resume firing.

In many ways, then, combat in POPSOT is a sort of tactical minigame. You match appropriate manoeuvres and attacks to the situation, and try to execute them accurately. Success depends on your ability to select and execute manoeuvres, not on the Prince's skills. When she's around, you must also keep track of Farah's status, drawing enemies away from her, and occasionally rushing back to catch any that have her pinned.

There's one final thing to bear in mind about POPSOT combat: all too often, it gets boring. Combats go on too long, with multiple waves of enemies. Teleporting prevents interesting tactics. There's not enough variety in enemy types for the amount of combat, and your own attacks and manoeuvres are too limited to stay interesting. This is something we really want to avoid.

Next time I'll think about how these things could be modelled in tabletop, and whether I'd actually want to.

Friday, 18 January 2013

NeverWinter Orcs

A big chunk of my gaming comes from our regular(ish) Wednesday nights, where a few of us lark about in Neverwinter Nights, playing through other people's mods, or more recently, homebrew content. We had a brainstorming session about what to play, and settled on an orc-themed campaign - because hey, orcs. You know the tattered remnants of the Dark Lord's armies, driven high into the mountain wastes by a desperate alliance of the civilised races after the Dark Lord's fall, still lurking there to raid the boundaries of civilisation? That's us. It's comeback time.

As you can imagine, being orcs has been enormous fun. From our point of view, of course, we're the good guys. The other species are weak, cowardly, and just plain un-orcy, and the Dark Lord Malketh was - in the opinion of our tribe, though not all of them - not quite up to scratch, but he did at least get round to creating us. Our orcs are a sort of cheerful amalgam of Tolkien, viking, and of course, Warhams: for example, Gork and Mork were more or less immediately absorbed into the setting. Our DM Dan carefully drew up some in-world background for the traditional orc life-paths, which effectively limited class choices to a thematically-appropriate subset for the fairly low-magic setting we were looking for.

We started with a party of a classical hardy orcish warrior, a devious Orc Supremacist rogue, a bard (who unfortunately vanished early on due to technical issues) and my own somewhat philosophical orcdom-is-battle ranger. Between us we steer an erratic course between pantomime, grandstanding high fantasy, and gleeful Warhams fanfic. I think it says a lot that, despite the quite overt mechanicalness of gaming in NWN, I am genuinely concerned about my ranger having inherited the chieftainship, and therefore the heavy responsibility of guiding the clan (thankfully alleviated by my siblings' advice).

One of the great things is the largely unfurnished world, which has been constantly fleshed out by our own inventions, with things like orc beliefs, practices and behaviour invented on the fly by common consent of whatever's most interesting at the time. For example, discovery right at the start of two dead clan members led to discussion of burial practices. As we already had a mechanic for eating the hearts of slain enemies, we felt like that would be appropriate, and quickly ended up with the idea that strength lies in the heart, so orc clans retain and augment the strength of their clan by eating the hearts of their own honoured dead and of worthy enemies they defeat, while denying that strength to enemy clans. Humans and elves and other despicable creatures let the bodies of the dead rot away in the ground, or burn them, so the strength fades away, which is also why they're weak. When we started facing undead, which we decided we hadn't actually seen before but knew from legend, our characters created explanations based on this same principle: because the humans are buried with their strength, it lurked there even after the flesh rotted, and then drove them to force a way out of their graves, probably trying to find its way back to its clan to rejoin them, or to seek vengeance for their neglect.

We've also been adapting things as we go. Our rogue decided that, while orcs distrust sorcery, sources of enormous power aren't to be sneezed at and has been guzzling dragon blood and acquiring magical artefacts on the sly. Despite the initial low-magic premise, she fairly soon ended up gaining magical power (in mechanical terms, respeccing as a rogue/wizard) and much hilarity has followed with increasingly implausible attempts to explain the odd things that happen around her. My favourite being the appearance of her familiar (and running joke) panther Nero, which we were extremely suspicious of, considered eating, and have now largely accepted, only occasionally pausing to note that actually, the big talking black cat in the snow-covered mountains is still weird. Luckily, most things so far have been explicable as lucky coincidences, animals that just happened to turn up from somewhere to follow our sister around, bardic chants or handy potions she'd picked up somewhere. Because bardic and nature magic exists to some extent (though it's not treated as magic proper) she's got away with it so far. She's now pretty clearly on the Dark Lord track, and has already used breaking the hereditary mental chains that bound our clan to the Dark Lord's service as an opportunity to redirect that loyalty to the leaders of the clan - us. However, there's a lot of secretive plotting going on, and DM note-passing, so the rest of us are delightfully in the dark about some of her machinations, though Arthur keeps up pretty well-informed about most of it, so we can work out what we notice and how we feel about things generally.

Hacking for Orcs

Dan's managed to hack the NWN engine about to produce a distinctly orcy feel to the game.

The first thing is the aforementioned heart-eating mechanism: humanoid enemies drop hearts, which can be used as a light heal, or a temporary buff (Cure Light Wounds, Bull's Strength, Cat's Grace) to represent the surge we get from eating them. This is a great and thematically-appropriate little boost. Because of the low-magic setup, and the clan-based background without much in way of economy, there's very little of the usual CRPG looting going on. It wouldn't be worth our orcs' while to pick up ordinary weapons and clothes to drag back to the clan caves, and we're not trying to scrape together cash to buy something from a merchant. Instead, we get equipment directly by looting, or sometimes as RP awards - for example, we killed some wyverns and had the clan tanniers craft us some wyvern armour. The hearts mean there's something we can gain from a fight, which is very appropriate for orcs.

The low-magic setting also means no clerics, and little in the way of magical healing. Since there's a lot of combat, that can be an issue. We're also using a limited rest system, where it's not necessarily possible to just rest when you're injured (I haven't checked the mechanical details, and it's partly an RP thing) - this works pretty well, particularly as we don't have many spells to regain. So the hearts are a great balancing mechanism to help us regain our strength after a difficult fight.

Another of the hacks is a way of making us properly orcishly tough. This also, once again, helps deal with the healing issue. Dan's created a script that gives us a limited amount of regeneration on death, providing we stay within a certain negative HP threshold. This means we can go down, but then recover from our wounds to just above the point of consciousness, as long as the rest of the party can draw the attackers off us. It's been extremely useful, and it creates a nice spectrum of recovery from normal healing, through regeneration, to the actual respawn mechanism - which then feels less in need of excuses, because you can view it as just a particularly draining form of regeneration.

He's also put a lot of time into orcifying and customising our gear, creating brutally orcy rapiers for my ranger, wyvern leather armour that looks okay on orcish frames, and a boar helm made from the skull of the legendary giant death-pig we slew. Which, in one of my favourite moments so far, he dropped into the game shortly after our characters invented the legend to get one over an NPC.

Gaming in NWN

NWN is great in some ways as a D&D experience. It models some pretty complex things for us without constant calculations, helps with quick levelling, and has built-in monsters and items you can drop into the game. Also, pretty graphics. It does have some practical downsides though, both for DMing and playing.

One of the downsides is that while content generation is very easy within specific limits, it's impossible outside them. Dan can't create new areas on the fly, even if we only need a cave or another bit of mountain; they have to be created in-engine and saved to the module, which would mean a break while he made the content and we logged back into the new version. Nor can he easily create items or creatures during play, though you can use existing ones and adjust them slightly with DM powers. This means quite a bit of prep time is needed between sessions, whereas in tabletop you can often invent areas without any prep time.

Also, the same AI and scripting that streamlines a lot of the DMing aspects can be a two-edged sword, because the problem with computers is they're precisely as intelligent as you make them. Sometimes creatures attack us when they weren't intended to, at least until we'd talked, or when we were supposedly invisible or carrying out some sneaky plan. Creatures we cleared out from an area need to be DM-killed on the next session, because they respawn unless you delete them from the module between sessions. We found that enemies would continue attacking 'dead' regenerating orcs, and sometimes kill them properly, so Dan had to manually pause and redirect their aggro. Continuing damage spells like Meld's Acid Arrow can remain on characters even after they die, occasionally leading to the same attack killing you two or three times.

Similarly, the problem with using existing NPCs is that it can take a lot of checking and testing to completely understand what they do. Many creatures have abilities or powers that aren't immediately obvious, and which only show up once combat starts. Giants turned out to have infallible long-ranged rock-throwing attacks that could take out half the party before we reached them. Some creatures ended up immune to most of our attacks. Demons that were carefully nerfed combat-wise had some insanely dangerous spell-like abilities lurking around. Often these are unexpected - in our recent 'season finale' session, we faced down one of the ancient Dragon-Blooded in their lair, but the combat collapsed into immediate farce because her bat familiar had an unexpectedly powerful fear effect that left all of us unable to act for several rounds. In each case, Dan had to pause the game, nerf or DM-kill enemies, reset the combat or otherwise deal with the fallout of the NWN engine's quirks.

Writing your own scripts is very powerful, but can still have pitfalls because you need to write exactly what you want. Dan added a mechanism so that once hearts have been expended as buffs, we can physically devour them for some XP. However, the script for doing that has a couple of disadvantages. One is that it isn't clever enough to pick only expended hearts, so you can accidentally eat unused buffs. This means we tend to end up waiting until we've used up all our hearts before eating any; but there's a fairly regular flow of new ones. The second is that you can only eat one heart at a time. What tends to happen, then, is that we suddenly realise we have half our inventory full of hearts, carefully (and individually) drop all the unused ones, then use the special widget to go through the script to eat each heart individually in a mammoth heart-nomming sesh, then pick up the unused ones again. Quite often this is when we level up, because we get quite a sizable dose of XP this way. While the idea "use a heart, eating it in the process" is very simple to articulate, actually scripting it is pretty complex and so Dan hasn't had the time to work out anything smoother.

Another issue that just doesn't exist in tabletop is the purely technical side. A couple of people were completely unable to get NWN running, or to maintain it for online play. At one point I was plagued by crashes, dropping out half a dozen times every session to immense frustration. Not only is this directly inconvenient, but you can end up losing valuable or even plot-critical items, and missing out on battles. It also tends to mean fall short on XP, both because you haven't saved since you got it, or because you temporarily stopped existing while the big fight was coming to an end and missed the XP reward. Thankfully that's now stopped, but there are still occasional crashes.

And of course, you can just accidentally do things in a way that doesn't happen in tabletop: losing a spell because you accidentally walk away, or getting confused because you can't tell the relationship between what you're trying to do, and what's show on the screen, particularly in terms of whose turn it is. My character, for example, is built around high Dex and parrying, which requires you to actively adopt Parry Mode. However, it's not a toggle you can keep on: you have to get into combat, select Parry Mode, and wait for your turn to come around so you can switch. At times it gets quite hard to tell whether it's actually working, or whether your character's doing something else for some reason.

Future Plans

We're now taking a break from NWN, which Dan's been running for about a year, to give him a rest and mix things up a bit. The current idea is to switch to just running tabletop games over Ventrilo. It's not settled exactly what we'll be doing, but it looks like the indefatigable Arthur will be running some flavour of straight-faced High Fantasy, as a change from the rather knowing tongue-in-cheek games we tend to run.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Tomefoolery, part four: evil authorship

Commentarii linguae graecae, 1548

Part of a continuing series of uncertain length on Tomes of Unspeakable Evil and the PCs who love them. So far I've blathered about how people get their hands on such books in the first place, the effects of their dreadful contents on tiny human minds, and dread grimoires that feed on their perusers. But there's another obvious question: given these dreadful possibilities, why write an evil tome?

Why write a tome of fiendish evil?

Tomes of unspeakable evil are all very well and good, but why would anyone go writing one in the first place? Where do these gruesome grimoires spring from, to blight lives and lure reckless minds to their doom? Are they even written at all? Here's a few possibilities. Bear in mind, these ideas aren't restricted to Tomes Of Ultimate Evil alone: some would work perfectly well as tomes with fairly human personalities, as bizarre and bewildering influences that aren't strictly evil, or even as Tomes Of Great Benevolence.

  • The tome is a trap, created to lure the curious to their destruction.
  • The tome is a trap, created to snare and enslave the unwary into the service of dark powers.
  • The tome is a trap, created to entice and destroy fools who thought they could steal your knowledge.
  • The tome is a tool, dangerous only to those without the power to master it, but invaluable to those with such power.
  • The tome is an accident, a collection of terrible magic that has become as malevolent as the knowledge it contains.
  • The tome is an accident, a book of great power that gained sentience, and with it its own selfish desires and goals.
  • The tome is a psychic imprint, tainted by the twisted mind of its writer.
  • The tome is haunted, more or less - imbued with intellect, motivation, or the broken remnants of personality by the spirit of its creator.
  • The tome is a prison, where entities or souls have been trapped, and these jointly or severally exert their influence on readers or their surroundings. You've played Myst, right?
  • The tome is not really a tome, but a sentient being transformed into a book.
  • The tome is not really a tome, but a sinister being in the guise of a book, or an extension of their self.
  • The tome is a revelation of terrifying truths, beliefs, plans or possibilities written directly or inspired by a powerful entity.

If we take a functional view, there are trap-tomes, whose main purpose is to lure in and destroy victims; tool-tomes, whose malevolence is a side-effect of their usefulness; and fallout-tomes, which just happen to be malevolent.

You could also consider it from an origin point of view: some TOUEs are written as an act of malice; some are written to store and transmit knowledge; some may be written for personal catharsis or satisfaction; some are written under the influence of madness or malevolent forces that imbue the tome with power; and some are actually entities that simply appear to us as books.

The Lure of the Library

Let's take a closer look at trap-tomes, those that draw you in to certain doom. This includes guise-books that are actually a dream in the mind of dread Cthulhu and what-have-you.

One of the classic sorcerer tropes is the Faustian, Dark Side thing, where the pursuit of knowledge, then forbidden knowledge, lures would-be wizards into losing their humanity, or bargaining with terrible powers. From this, we can imagine a tome that was created by those selfsame dread powers - be they ancient vampire wizards, Sith lords, the Devil or Nyarlathotep - for the very purpose of ensnaring people. Some of them may use it to provide slaves and servants in the world. Some may use it to draw in new acolytes: anyone who studies the book deeply enough, without being repulsed or driven mad, is a suitable apprentice and will gain the knowledge to track them down. The Chaos Gods of the Warhammer universes also delight in this sort of corruption, especially when they can ensnare those who think themselves wise and alert enough to escape it.

These sorts of tomes are likely to be full of tempting knowledge and power. Often, they'll start by offering something simple and fairly harmless without much obvious cost, to get people invested: spells to defend themselves from bullies, knowledge to save their business, secrets to find sources of power. Once someone's trusted the tome that far, they slowly become more open to the more sinister knowledge it contains. From fending off bullies, to stopping them, to seeking revenge, to punishing anyone who displeases you, to tyrannical rule... From consulting spirits to guide your failing business, to invoking them to influence customers, to calling them to blight rivals, to summoning them to help run the show, to letting them feed on the more worthless of your employees... They'll also favour give-and-take, with each new bit of power coming at an incremental cost, binding you closer and closer to the dark power. This might be obvious: reveal secrets, destroy enemies, spill your own blood, or let a spirit ride in your mind. Other trades are more subtle: restore the shattered statue (so it can return to life), drink the empowering potion (which will slowly mutate you), tattoo yourself with the runes (that allow possession). Only gradually does the dark power's interest in these things become apparent, usually when it's too late.

Of course, not all dark powers have such high-mindedly constructive motives as luring souls into vile servitude. Sometimes it's just all about the lulz, the schadenfreude. Seeing innocents, or not-so-innocents, slowly descend the spiralling path to madness, atrocity, obsession and hideous death gives the dark powers a kick. Sometimes, it's even more abstract: they don't care enough about the reader to even enjoy their downfall, but they relish the chaos and horror that their actions unleash upon the mortal world. This is quite a Nyarlathotep sort of thing to do, according to the way he's commonly portrayed as an agent of chaos. Such tomes will be full of two-edged power and things that, once bound, cannot be unbound. Note that this is different from the trap books, whose sharp edge is the bargain forged between the reader and the Forces of Darkness. Here, the powers simply have unintended consequences, ideally consequences that force the reader to turn again to the TOUE for help to quell them. Think of The Sorcerer's Apprentice, only more evil. You enchant a broom to carry water from the well, and it floods the house; you chop it into pieces, and it regenerates; you call a fire-spirit to burn the brooms, and it does - but then it slinks away to start house-fires all over town.

They can also spiral in other ways. You use special mathematical secrets to cheat the markets and become rich, but soon all kinds of agencies are taking an interest in you, let alone criminals. You follow the instructions to grow strong using horsehair snuff and incantations, but find yourself feeling increasingly horsey. You learn to sense what others are thinking, but now the constant voices are driving you insane.

There are halfway houses in this setup, too. A good example would be the Revelations of Glaaki, a Lovecraftian tome. In itself, it's actually not particularly baleful, apart from the sanity-blasting Mythos content and an array of vile spells. However, it also draws the attention of Y'golonac, a horrific Great Old One who enjoys taking over human bodies. Anyone who's read the tome is liable to, at some point in the future, have their body suddenly remodelled into a headless ogre with mouths in odd places, and their soul blotted out so Y'golonac can go for a joyride.

The other kind of book in this category is the vengeance trap. A powerful necromancer, for example, may leave her spellbook riddled with deliberate errors to punish anyone foolish enough to steal it. You can raise the dead, all right, but they'll only want your life; you can conjure flame, but it will consume you. More subtly, the book may simply draw the owner to you, especially if they're now a bodiless spirit or dream-being.


Many books are created as tools. They contain knowledge invaluable to a scholar, secrets to educate those inducted into a discipline, or techniques used directly for spellcasting and similar powers. Some of these, either by intention or by accident, become more than simple books, gaining supernatural influence and sometimes intellect. We're concerned here only with those that do take that step, and moreover are malevolent in some way, or at least whose influence is damaging to mortal minds.

These books are directly useful to a reader, but the knowledge inside may be very dangerous. In some cases it's intrinsically horrific, while in others it's simply easy to misuse or misunderstand. A spell that summons powerful forces is dangerous if you don't know how to bind them. The secret location of an ancient relic is dangerous if you can't master its power. The ability to predict the future is dangerous if you don't know how to deal with that knowledge. A fae lady may be perfectly able to use her library of magic without harm or difficulty, but its alien aura and psychic emanations are so dangerous to humans that it might as well be actively evil, driving them to madness and monstrosity, and wanting to turn the mortal realm into a mirror of the dreamlands of Faerie.

Some of these books will slowly evolve a dreadful sentience from their horrific contents. Their worldview and personality is built around their contents. The necromantic tome becomes a necromancer in its own right, or else relentlessly tempts others to necromancy: it seeks to raise corpse-warriors and create blasphemous kingdoms of the living dead, to corrupt sorcerers into lichdom, to draw innocents into vampirism and uncovering the sealed graves of vile powers. The tome of Tzeentch knows only sorcery and change, and brings all manner of mystical chaos for its own sake, weaving century-spanning plots. The diary of a murderous maniac or death-cultist might seek endless blood. A tome of war-lore and battle-magic might not be malevolent as such, but unable to comprehend anything but endless strife, and see everything in shades of enmity. Tomes created by, or dedicated to, particular deities or powers are likely to mimic their nature. This kind of book's aims are likely to relate directly to its contents.

Other tomes develop more subtly. They aren't intelligent manifestations of their contents, but simply gained sentience by dint of the arcane (or divine, or diabolical) power that fills them. Over time, they develop their own personalities, plans and desires, which do not necessarily relate directly to their contents. A tome of general nature magic can perfectly well have diabolical plans to rule the world, and exploit readers and magic alike to that end. Conversely, some such tomes may not be malevolent at all, but selfish, erratic, insane, icily pragmatic, childish, stupid or even benevolent. A well-meaning tome that nevertheless spreads chaos or destruction through mistakes, idiocy or simple alienness from humanity, could be quite an interesting element in a game. Think of all those misguided supercomputers working "for our own good". For these tomes, goals are more unpredictable, and the mischief they will get up to depends on their own personality.

Possessed Books

The last big category of books is those that are basically twofold: one part book, one part sentience, and the two not necessarily related. From the list I gave above, this could include books that are actually haunted, and books resonant with the pyschic influence of their creator.

A possessed book of the first two kinds is likely to be predictable in many ways. It's also likely to be quite limited in some respects.

A psychic imprint will probably have only a few ideas or emotions, and can't necessarily adapt; it's probably not intelligent in the strict sense of the word, but more like a residual aura or a discrete set of available ideas and thoughts, which it cycles through. Such a tome may be very dangerous directly, but it doesn't have the flexibility and intellect of true sentience - it's a little more like an AI, or a small child without the sophistication of experience. However, it's a very dangerous small child at that. The aura of the book may be strong enough to imprint itself directly onto readers, or to plant subtle influences that affect their behaviour. Such books are often the works of mad wizards, cultists and other deranged authors, but an arguably sane author with immense passion for their work could also leave an imprint behind. In cases like this, there's likely to be a strong connection between the book's contents and its nature: the author has left behind a part or shadow of their own psyche, most likely connected with the subject matter.

A haunted tome typically contains a trapped ghost, often that of the author. The haunted tome will be more sophisticated than a mere psychic imprint, with something approaching a real personality and sentience, but its isolation from the world (and being a book rather than a human body) means it's still likely to be erratic and perhaps mentally trapped in the past. There are as many kinds of haunted book as there are of ghost: anything from a few whispered ideas and visions, through the classic obsessive spectre trapped in the same limited loop of thoughts, to the full-blown ghost that's more or less a fully functioning human who happens to live in a book. Personalities and desires are infinitely variable, but if the tome itself is a thing of nightmare arcana, its author isn't likely to be a bastion of benevolent sanity.

In passing, Tom Riddle's diary from Harry Potter is a pretty good example of a possessed book, and the sort of manipulations it gets up to.

Prison Books

Prison books - including beings transformed into a book - are a slightly different matter. The entity trapped inside may have little or nothing to do with the book. In some cases, a powerful tome may contain a bound spirit, supernatural being or even a wizard, whose own power is used to empower the book and increase its usefulness to the original owner. While a few spirits might not object to this treatment, many will be eager to regain their freedom. Even a neutral or benevolent spirit may be driven to desperation or insanity over decades and centuries of imprisonment, and be prepared to do anything to escape. In other cases, the book is a trap, used to remove an unwanted enemy or inconvenient person from circulation - consider the books in Myst. Some such victims may be largely innocent, others utterly vile, and how hard it is to guess which!

Some prison books may contain multiple prisoners. A book might be ensorcelled so that anyone attempting a particular spell is drawn into it, never to escape. This might be a means of thwarting hubristic ambitions, or another form of the traps I discussed earlier, set by a malicious owner who delights in the schadenfreude of a thief catching herself.

The prisoners may reveal their identity, or keep it a secret; they may even strive to disguise the fact that there's anyone present at all. Some will plead with anyone who uncovers the tome, begging to be released. Others might adopt an assertive or contented air, thinking this will make the owner more likely to release them, particularly if the necessary steps can be disguised as something else. In some cases, perhaps a prisoner can only be released if someone takes their place; some prisoners will try to trick a reader into doing so, while others might try to persuade the reader to find a deserving victim for this punishment, either because they're not actually evil, or simply because they think that plan's more likely to succeed.

Imprisonment in a book could vary substantially. Some exist only as spirits within the book, and for them the time between consultations might seem like falling asleep - or being chloroformed - with long dreams in the dark times, and a period of confusion and weariness on first waking. Others might feel physical confinement, as though they're trapped between the pages, but able to perceive what's around them. Still others might exist in a pocket dimension, or even another world on the far side of the page. Some may exist in the form of text, only knowing what is written down on them, and communicating by changing their own words. Some may perceive the book as their own body, mobile or otherwise. Others may take the form of holograms or ghosts, able to manifest around the book but unable to leave it. Or they might be a poltergeist-like force with no perceptible form, but able to interact with the book's immediate environment.

A somewhat more horrific alternative is a tome modelled on the Devourer, which would devour unwary readers and imprison them as a source of monstrous fuel. As the tome draws on its power, the trapped souls are slowly obliterated. Such a tome might be a tool for an evil mage, who traps enemies or unfortunates as a source of power, and uses their spirit to fuel further misdeeds. It could be a magical tome that's gained sentience, and with it the will to feed on readers (or victims sacrificed to it) in a more literal sense. On the other hand, it might be a more independent entity, such as the creation of a dark-humoured deity. A nicely ironic twist might be a devourer-tome that uses the souls of prisoners as fuel for its master's magical deeds - right up until it exhausts its supply, and devours its current master to replace them. Tzeentch or Nyarlathotep alike would appreciate such a TOUE.

With prison books, their personality and actions would depend on a combination of things: the identity of the prisoner(s), the identity of their current owner, the nature and conditions of their imprisonment,

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Inspirations: the Sands of Time, part two

So I've been wondering about how to replicate some elements of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time in a tabletop RPG context that I'm arbitrarily calling Time Faffers. Let's see what we can manage in the systems I'm most familiar with. As a reminder, here's some of what we're looking for:

  • Acrobatic gameplay
  • A heroic feel
  • A high initial skill with limited levelling
  • Terrain-puzzling and platforming
  • Stylish combat against hordes of enemies
  • Manipulation of time

Let's look at the combat first, simply because it's such a major part of the original game. We need individual PCs to successfully fight off multiple enemies, repeatedly and consistently, with limited injury. Because PCs will be doing a lot of fighting, consistency is important. A KO should only happen with bad judgement and bad luck.

I will use the annoying abbreviations DPR (Damage Per Round) and PCR (Person Combat Round, you know, like "man-hour": one round of combat with one person).


Off the top of my head, I'm going to guess you could manage this with, say, 4th-level characters and 1st-level enemies. A whole swarm of mooks should still be able to bring down a PC, but one isn't really a threat.

Pathfinder vs. Zombies

Our first PC is a 4th-level Rogue, with rapier (+7, 1d6) and no armour (AC 14, 9hp). This seems to fit well with the "acrobatics and traps" theme. Our second is a 4th-level Ranger, with longswords (+7, 1d8+3) and no armour (AC 13, 22hp)

Let's put our sand-monster down as zombies (+4 to hit, 1d6+4, AC 12, 12hp). Let's ignore their damage resistance, since this would be annoying, but also ignore their usual slowness.

The rogue needs a 5 or more to hit, so she'll hit 80% of the time for 3.5hp, meaning it takes five rounds to kill a zombie, on average. Sneak attack would up that to 10hp, or two rounds to kill a zombie.

The ranger also needs a 5 or more to hit, and hits 80% of the time for 8hp (two-handed), giving average damage of 6.4hp/round. That makes it two rounds for a single kill, or eight kills every fifteen rounds. With dual-wielding, we have two attacks at 7 or more to hit, giving a 70% hit rate for an average of 7hp, or 9.8hp/round, giving twelve kills in fifteen rounds.

The zombie hits 55% of the time, for 7.5hp. That gives a DPR of 4.125hp, so on average a rogue will die in four rounds of zombie-fighting and the ranger in six. Ouch, and not suitable for the heroic feel. This is clearly not the right combination!

So, I'm wrong. At least, this particular combination isn't going to work. I'd either have to use much weaker mooks, or boost PCs' defences somehow. In practice, PCs are likely to have slightly higher AC than I've allowed, but they'll also be fighting mobs rather than single enemies. How about a kobold?

Pathfinder vs. Kobolds

We have a 4th-level Rogue, with rapier (+7, 1d6) and no armour (AC 14, 9hp), and a 4th-level Ranger, with longswords (+7, 1d8+3) and no armour (AC 13, 22hp)

This time, the enemies are modelled as kobolds (+1 to hit, 1d4-1, AC 13, 5hp).

The rogue needs a 6 or more to hit, so she'll hit 75% of the time for 3.5hp, meaning it takes two rounds to kill a kobold, on average. Sneak attack would up that to 10hp, giving a one-hit kill.

The ranger also needs a 6 or more to hit, and hits 75% of the time for 8hp (two-handed), killing the kobold instantly. With dual-wielding, we have two attacks at 8 or more to hit, giving a 65% hit rate for an average of 7hp, typically giving two kills per round.

The kobold hits 45% of the time, for 2hp. That gives a DPR of 0.9hp, so on average a rogue will survive ten PCRs of kobold-fighting and the ranger twenty-four. A lot better, but good enough? Especially when facing several opponents at once? Three kobolds could down a rogue in five rounds or so, but also in one lucky round; and Pathfinder doesn't allow beleagured PCs to switch to pure defence mid-round, only at the start of their own turn.

I think the main problem here is actually the PCs' power level: in POPSOT you can attack much faster than monsters, and parry or evade very effectively while still attacking. You've also got special one-hit takedowns. To replicate this, I'd basically have to change some core mechanics of the game. I could compensate by ramping up the PCs' level even higher, but then you're starting to get the weirder abilities creeping in, which could alter the tone of the game substantially.

On that basis, you could either leave things as they are (expecting characters to flank for each other to provide sneak attacks), or introduce a simple bonus rule, like "a successful hit allows sneak damage if you attack them again next round", or "a successful Acrobatics roll allows sneak attack". The former would be tricky as I'd expect PCs to be outnumbered quite often, and less able to provide flanking. The latter is class-dependent.

However, there's still other issues. For one, Pathfinder characters quickly end up with magical abilities, so you'd have to either allow for that or radically restrict class choices. The full casters (wizards, druids and so on) quickly gain access to invisibility, shapeshifting, powerful ranged attacks and spells that render barriers and terrain irrelevant. Given that I'm not planning to give them spellcasting enemies to offset this, it'd change the game considerably. Half-casters have more indirect spells that could end up largely useless, which would leave them effectively weaker.

In general, the system itself is quite fiddly, with various saving throws, multiple types of armour class, and class abilities as well as the basic stats. On the other hand, feats would potentially be a nice way of allowing PCs unique and distinctive abilities in a fairly restrictive setting. Also, combat feats and manoeuvres would help make the combat more interesting, and repetitiveness was one of the things I complained about in POPSOT. On the downside again, Pathfinder combat is attacker-based, which means defending yourself from enemies consists of hoping they roll low, rather than performing stylish parries.


The other system I'm reasonably familiar with is BRP, in its incarnation as Call of Cthulhu. It's a loose, simple system based on skills, with no intrinsic magic, no classes and no special abilities. Perhaps this'll be more suitable for the fairly straightforward game I have in mind?

BRP combat consists basically of a skill roll by the attacker. Unlike Pathfinder, it includes options for dodging and parrying attacks, which is a plus. On the downside, humans are limited to a single attack roll in each round, which makes it hard to fight multiple opponents: however, you could interpret this as focusing your attacks on one main target, while fending off the others. Another downside is that you can generally only do one thing per round, which makes acrobatic combat tricky: really we want people darting in and out of combat and delivering flashy vaulting strikes, not standing still and hacking at monsters. Thirdly, you can only dodge attacks if you don't attack yourself, while you can only parry a single enemy's attacks, which doesn't do much for group combat either.

To try and overcome these issues, I'm going to declare two arbitrary rule changes.

  1. You can attempt a parry against every attack made against you. There may be a penalty for cumulative parries, to be determined later.
  2. You can always combine combat with a tactical manoeuvre, which may or may not require a skill check.

While the Prince basically never misses with an attack, they're occasionally parried or otherwise absorbed, so that a single "round" of attacks isn't necessarily enough to fell an opponent. I'm going to assume that our PC is a skilled professional with a skill of at least 75% in Sword.

BRP vs... something

Call of Cthulhu is a slightly awkward basis because notable features of its monsters do not include weakness or fragility. Those that aren't physically superior to humans tend to be invulnerable, miniscule, or possess overwhelming magical powers. Preposterously, then, I'm going to use a common or garden dog as our enemy. In the rulebook illustration, this is pretty clearly a pug. So our heroic, sword-wielding, stripped-to-the-waist princes will enter into mortal combat with a cute-ugly pug. Fine, fine.

Our average warrior PC has Sword at 75%, Dodge at 50%, 11hp and inflicts 1d6 damage with a sword.

In the blue corner, Pugsy has Bite at 30%, Dodge at 26%, 7hp and inflicts 1d6 damage with a bite. He also has a rhinestone collar with his name on it.

Allowing for dodges, the warrior will hit 55% of the time, inflicting an average of 3.5 damage. This works out as a DPR of 1.9, which means it'll take four rounds to take down a single pug. 5% of the time, though, he'll get an impaling blow and inflict double damage. Strictly speaking, Pugsy can't dodge while attacking; however, armed enemies can parry while attacking, which will work out about the same mathematically.

In contrast, little Pugsy will hit a mere 7.5% of the time, because the PC gets to parry with his Sword skill. With 1d6 damage, this gives us 0.26 damage per round, which means the PC can survive an average of 44 PCRs (Pug Combat Rounds).

The PC survival rate is pretty good, but their damage output seems a bit low. It'll vary somewhat because slightly above-average Strength would give an extra d4 damage, boosting it to DPR 3.3hp and giving a kill time of 2-3 rounds.

One thing the Call of Cthulhu rules don't automatically include is tactical combat - in fact it's pretty much the antithesis of Call of Cthulhu. However, it's also a key element of POPSOT. While it's possible to fell most opponents by simple weight of attacks, most of the time you're going for a manoeuvre that'll overcome their defences and take them down in one. That boils down to either rebounding off a wall for a powerful knockdown, or somersaulting overhead for a backstab, but there's no reason for us to be so limited.

While this isn't implemented in Call of Cthulhu, the rules mean it shouldn't be too difficult. I could simply declare that an appropriate skill roll lets you pull off some advantageous manouevre: tripping, flipping overhead, swinging round a pillar, pulling a tapestry over them, or even lurking hidden for a sneak attack. A failed roll means you're stuck with basic attacks, but have no other penalty; a botch would lead to an appropriate (and preferably cinematic) disadvantage, like pulling the tapestry over yourself, tripping the enemy right on top of you, or losing your grip on the pillar and flying out to land sprawled in the middle of the floor.

On the downside, I'd basically have to create appropriate skills for these manoeuvres, and it could be tricky to do this in a fairly balanced way. Using a single skill would mean everyone really just needs to stick points in that and Sword - particularly if it also covers acrobatic climbing and so on, which would be a natural way to do things. If you use several, and they're not balanced with each other, then people who pick less-effective skills will be disadvantaged. I think this mechanism might work for Call of Cthulhu combat, which isn't that tactical, but it's not really appropriate for a game that's as combat-heavy as I expect Time Faffers to be.

Closing remarks

Both systems have strengths and weaknesses when it comes to modelling stylish combat against large numbers of enemies. Pathfinder has passive defence and relatively vulnerable PCs, though this can be alleviated by using very weak enemies. There's also a real question when it comes to finding suitable classes to incorporate. On the other hand, it's built to handle tactical combat, with plenty of mechanisms for combat movement, manoeuvring and special attack forms to spice up fights. BRP has active defence as well as dodging when all-out defence is called for, can fairly readily handle all kinds of unusual manoeuvres by the universal mechanisms of skill and stat rolls, and it's fairly simple to create enemies of suitable weakness. On the other hand, it's really not designed for tactical combat, and so fights could easily come down to the same three or four skills, all crucial to PCs and all rolled constantly.

Next time, I'll take apart the POPSOT combat system, and think about which bits of it we actually want to keep. I might also (if I'm feeling strong) take a look at that most tactical of tactical combat RPGs, Dungeons and Dragons: Fourth Edition and see if it might make the time-warping grade.