Saturday, 4 October 2014

Chargen in Demon the Fallen

As I mentioned last time, I've been trying to play around with character generation in Demon, and having some trouble with it. This is not a common feeling. I mentioned in a comment there that I think Demon has the least approachable character generations I've seen, from a non-mechanical perspective at least. Let's have a look through my adventures.

The starting point I took was to try making someone different from, ah, Shimiel (Demon Hugh Jackman), and I actually struggled for quite a while. This was mostly because, on reflection, I didn't really feel like any of the demons were very well articulated other than the exact characters presented. Things like the incoherent power sets and the disconnect between demon and mortal make it a slippery thing.

In the end, I had the idea of a host who didn't have any of the White Wolfy Grim Serious Darkmandark stuff going on, but retained that kind of ethos in a more detached Why You Gotta Be That Way, The Man? way. Rather than being horribly degenerate and self-serving, or a desperate hypocrite, or annihilated by horrific abuse, I'd just make a host who was utterly mediocre. Let's call him... (tries to think of a name not immediately associated with any friends or obvious celebrities)... Paul.

Feel free to skip over the details. I get carried away.

Note also that because White Wolf have used Abilities, Attributes, Talents, Skills and Traits as game terminology, and I can't think of any other suitable term, I will use any of these uncapitalised, and/or "stats", to mean "stuff what you put points in what lets you do stuff, but is not powers and whatnot". I do not promise to be consistent. Context is king.

So, Paul is mediocre. He grew up in a lower-middle-class family with enough money not to be poor, but not enough not to worry about being poor, and family ties that were neither intimate nor distant. He lived in an suburban area with above-average unemployment, a lot of low-level antisocial behaviour and nothing for teenagers to do bar sitting on walls and mildly intimidating passers-by. Attending a succession of not-deprived schools, he had no particular enthusiasm for study, but got on with it resignedly, making a small number of friends who shared his lack of any particular life goals. His parents were officially supportive, had no particular interest in academic work themselves, and were unable to mentor him enough to overcome his intertia. He attracted regular but mild approbation from teachers, was briefly bullied for no particular reason, and neither discovered any particular talents nor descended into a spiral of problem behaviour. Frustrated by school and with nothing to work towards, he emerged with mid-to-low passes in every subject and left education for the working world.

With neither great qualifications nor personal drive, and in a town whose economy was far from thriving, Paul's options were fairly limited. Frequently unemployed for a few weeks at a time, he progressed through the full range of local temporary and part-time work, from Sunrise Kebab through to the notorious chicken factory. Dozens of one-week stints in little offices eventually landed him a job answering telephone calls from people whose telephone line wasn't working. His ability to tolerate this for more than a month demonstrated his first real talent, and his life has centred around one call centre or another for the past nine years.

Paul is a reliably adequate employee, rarely more than a few minutes late and easily bullied into doing extra shifts. Managers regard him neither with affection nor contempt, but a kind of resigned contentment. Over the years, he has been inducted into many grimy secrets of the call-centre trade, helping him to match targets and aid or befuddle callers as seems meet. He lacks the true manipulator's relish for his work, or the egotist's yearning for success, or the big heart to make a kindly craft of supporting those distant strangers through their disasters. Selling, he sells round about the exact number needed to keep his boss off his back; pacifying, he strives to minimise the hassle he has to endure. He is motivated enough to make sure he pretty much gets left alone, but not to excel; frustrated enough to gripe constantly, but not to overcome his natural apathy. Competent but unprepossessing, he has no real enemies and no real friends at work.

Outside work, Paul has a cheap flat in a block of post-war housing that probably should have been refurbished but isn't particularly bad. The area is noisy and short on amenities, other than a slightly overpriced Tesco Metro. The single room contains a battered leather settee bought on Half Price Closing Down Sale Everything Must Go! three years ago at the settee place that's still limping along a few streets away, a big TV with a slightly flickery screen, and a bed that creaks just enough to be irritating, but not enough to be worth replacing. There is a fridge in the corner with a microwave on top of it, and a toaster on top of the microwave; the buzzing of the fridge makes them all rattle faintly at night, but there's nowhere else to put them. The room has an uninspiring view over six parking spaces and a wall, and a faint but ineradicable smell of damp. About once a week the hot water cuts off. The broadband and mobile signal are both erratic. He gets a lot of post, all of it for people who probably never even lived here, or from the TV Licence people. He already has a TV Licence, but it doesn't seem to matter.

When he finishes whatever random 10-hour shift he was suddenly landed with today, Paul generally makes some kind of pasta with sauce and watches property shows. He would rather watch dramas, but he can never catch more than one in four episodes with working shifts, and the dodgy broadband makes it a pain to watch them online. Sometimes he'll meet up with a few of the lads and lasses from school, or some of the less obnoxious folks from work who are nevertheless prepared to hang out with him. He's had a couple of flings, but nobody was willing to stick around long-term in the face of his deep, vague resentment at the world. His hobbies are not being very good at Halo, driving his temperamental Astra to the retail park to not buy anything, being sixth reserve for the five-a-side team, listening to people's work stories, and looking at property pages for places it turns out he can't quite afford.

Paul grows ever more bitter, weary and defeated for nine years of call centre shifts and damp apartments and acquaintances who wouldn't quite call him a friend, exactly, and frustrating inability to motivate himself enough to change any of this crap, and one night lying on his miserable stinky leather settee he shuts his eyes and a kind of half-prayer forms in his beaten little consciousness, and someone else opens them. Done.

At this point, I needed a demon. Problem. The issue was, I didn't really have any sense of what kind of demon I wanted, other than "not a Devourer". There was no generic demon option - each one is really very specific.

I initially decided to try a Malefactor, because they had that whole "lost damaged mortals" thing going on. However, it also emphasises that they look for people who have specific wants that can be targeted, which ain't Paul. And it emphasises how they have high physical stats, Crafts and Research. And how they don't really understand humans. All of this clashes quite a lot with someone whose only real talents are ability to deal with people.

A second problems is their powers. These rely very heavily on Strength, Survival and Crafts - none of them appropriate for Paul. In fact, their emphasis on Survival (like, almost every single power) is just plain weird, it doesn't come up in the House description either. And... let's be honest, their powers are a bit pants. Some of the Earth ones are cool, Paths is weird, Forge is for making an artisan and of very limited uptime use... No, this doesn't match up.

Also, while I'm saying this, let me point out that Mold Earth is really poor and cannot achieve the effects given in its own description: you need one success per square foot of material to shape, which means you would need approximately twelve successes so that "a building’s walls could flow like melted wax, creating a doorway that wasn’t there before", and several dozen successes so that "a wall of earth or stone can leap from the ground to shelter her". No, no they couldn't. Read your own damn rules.

I would also like to emphasise that Enhance Object allows you to roll to understand the function of a hammer. You need a 5+ to succeed. There is a very real chance that if you use this power to look at a hammer, you will not understand what it does.

My next thought, after much walking, was to make a Fiend. I had a sudden idea of a kind of almost Dr Who figure, turning up with a headful of weird intuitions and wanting to explore everything. Paul, lurking as a vestige in the back of his old body, would get to see some cool stuff and understand more of the world he never made peace with.

Only, Fiends are also problematic. They are supposed to be all about intellect and learning, and seek out such people (nope). And the powers I'd actually want from their Lores require a strange mix of Stamina, Science, Intuition and mental attributes, which doesn't really fit anything. I would really like to take Teleport so that Paul... Paularon can phase around the place looking at cool stuff, and Open/Close is good for similar things, and Light seems nicely evocative, and I'd quite like some Fundament actually...

Pyramid schemes

So because I have actually played the game, and heard folks talk about it, I was aware how the experience system works here. Semi-bizarrely, even though I don't have any specific plans to actually run Paul in a game, this knowledge is exerting undue weight on my chargen decisions in a way that really surprises me.

As a general rule, I am not very munchkinny. Quite the opposite. I like trying to make interesting characters, and my own snooping-prying approach to gaming tends to mean I like having a fairly broad range of skills. This is why I end up with characters like the POW 3 Call of Cthulhu investigator with perhaps the worst skillset possible, or an Assault Marine with as many tangential skills as I can afford. Given the option, I generally much prefer to be okay at a lot of things than very good at a couple, which to a large extent leans on knowledge of my playstyle. I know that I'll end up trying to do a lot of different things, and not having the ability will be frustrating.

Knowledge of the White Wolf pyramid scheme is giving me massive conflict between my normal desire to make broad and balanced characters, and a screaming paranoia about making anything less than the most economically-optimal character possible. This is ironic, given that it is probably designed specifically to avoid min-maxing. Jolly good show there.

The problem is that, essentially, I don't start play with enough points to build the low-powered character I want. Ideally, I would like to build an ineffectual mortal Paul with a few points here and there in attributes suitable for a mediocre call centre operative with no real hobbies. Then I'd like to add a layer of demon, with its own set of stats reflecting being a competent entity, specifically competent at both House-appropriate things and whatever it needs to use its powers. I'd also like to give it Lore that contributes towards a "trippy manic pixie dream Doctor demon" ethos.

Unfortunately, this combination doesn't really work, because points are precious. Essentially you seem to have to have three options. A, reliably use the Powers you have selected with only a moderate-high chance of Torment rather than inevitability. B, reliably excel at a small number of things core to your House and/or character concept. C, have a set of skills suitable for your character. You can pick two.

This varies a fair bit, because some Abilities and Attributes are of obvious and regular use in and of themselves, and others less so. If your concept is to play a tough Devil who wields Fire, you're golden: you take high Stamina, which contributes to both, and is also a very useful game stat for the kind of dangerous situations a tough fire-wielding character is likely to enjoy. If you want to be a deceitful and charismatic Devil, also great: take Manipulation, Leadership and both the Radiance and Celestials Lores, making you great at all of these - again, Manipulation is a very useful attribute to have high. There are a couple of oddball powers, but these combinations make you good at most things you want to be good at, all in one small package.

The Fiend is a bit trickier, because the major Ability for Fiend powers is Intuition. However, her Lores encompass almost every Ability. Patterns just calls for Perception, which is simple, until the 5th-level power suddenly demands Stamina. Portals calls for Manipulation (to open doors?!?), Charisma (to create wards?), Intelligence, Stamina and Stamina again. Light is Stamina or Intelligence, but arbitrarily calls for Science to make or bend light, while illusions are Expression except when they're Performance for no apparent reason. It seems very difficult to make a Scourge who will be proficient even within a single Lore, because the demands change partway through. Because it calls for different kinds of abilities, it seems quite hard to fit a whole lore into one character concept: lots of mental stats and Intuition don't mesh well with massive Stamina and Expression, in my book. The dice mechanics for Demon are fairly generous, so this would not be a major issue, except that without high power-using stats you have a very high chance of lapsing into the Torment versions of powers, which vary from "the same power, but better" to "kill everyone nearby" to "you fail embarrassingly".

For the Fiend, it seems like Intuition is the crucial power-using stat, but while I like the idea of a highly intuitive MPDG-esque character, it strikes me that Intuition is not a great stat to focus on because it seems very passive. This is a "ST give me hints please" plot-explicating ability, not an ability you call on to actually do stuff, nor an ability that seems very useful in general activity. As such, investing heavily in Intuition would severely cut down my options for being competent at things I would actively use in play. Similarly, putting points in 1-point Paul-appropriate abilities would massively reduce my ability to be good at stuff. I wanted to do this as a kind of 50/50 split, but I think really it's going to have to be essentially three or four points for Paul, and everything else for Fiend.

The main offenders, though, are the powers. You get three, and you have to buy them in order within a Lore. You get three for free. You can also use some of your 15 "freebie points" to buy more at a cost of 7 apiece, competing with other upgrades. During character generation, the rank of a power is irrelevant to its cost, although you have to buy them in order. However, as soon as you switch to using XP to buy powers, it goes like this:

  • Get the next power within a Lore: current rating in that Lore * 5 XP
  • Open a new House Lore or Common Lore: 7 XP
  • Open a new Lore from another House: 10 XP

This means that at character creation, getting the fifth-tier power in a Lore costs exactly the same as getting five powers in five different Lores of which four don't belong to your House (one must). However, once play begins, that fifth dot is worth 20XP, which is 2-3 times the value of a first dot, and in most cases this isn't a case of a slight enhancement like with Abilities, but of an entirely new supernatural capability. Moreover, higher-tier powers are more powerful. Buying low-level powers in a range of Lores at character creation will hamper you, because you will have less powerful abilities, and the cost of bumping them up later is significantly increased.

To look at it another way, let's imagine you compare the characters not at chargen, but after several stories that net a total of 55XP. A player who begins with one 5th-level House Lore power can spend this XP on buying four new out-of-house Lores at one dot, plus both their unused House Lores at one dot. A player who begins with five different Lores including one House Lore and tries to bump one up to 5 dots will end up with two fewer Lores. There are similar effects with other stats.

For example, a Beast Devourer like Shimiel relies very heavily on Animal Ken for both skill and power use. You need high AK to try and overcome Torment, otherwise all your powers are severely crippled. As such, a very AK-focused beast-whisperer character is not unreasonable. At chargen, you could buy up AK with freebie points to a mighty 10, and be confident that you can very effectively do that one thing your character is built around. If you waited to do it with XP, working from a maximum three dots, you would need to spend 84 XP, enough to bump every single other Ability to at least two dots.

As far as I can tell, the cheesiest thing you can do is to put all your initial Attribute points from the large pool into one, giving you an 8, and then buy two additional Attributes with freebie points. This would cost you 68 XP. Of course, you are then left with 1s for your other Attributes in that set.

Faith is a pretty close second. Buying up Faith from 3 to 5 with XP will cost you 45 XP. For the same cost, you could take two Abilities from 1 to 5 dots, or buy your Torment down to 1 (and thus always cast non-Torment powers) and still have change.

Hmm, interesting. Although I have confirmed the sort of issues that exist, I think all those numbers actually show that they aren't as serious as I feared. Unless I particularly want to have any very high stats as a beginning character, the extra cost of using XP to upgrade is substantial, but not actually crippling.

Possibly the interesting thing here is, this is a game where it pays significantly to have a very good idea what you want your character's future abilities to be and to focus strongly on that at character creation, especially if you want the character to genuinely excel. This seems strange in a game that places so much emphasis on story and character development, where I might expect players to change the direction of their character's mechanical growth to reflect story events. Changing over to a different mechanical emphasis is going to be a serious challenge. Whereas you can determinedly hit Attribute 10 at chargen, it will cost 176 XP to get an Attribute from 1 to 10 in play.

So... leaving the number crunching behind and getting back to Paul. What this all means is that if I want to have a character with a few low-level skills from being a mediocre human, plus a number of good skills to actually play with, I would mechanically cripple myself at chargen. Ironically and counterintuitively, the best way to make such a character would be to generate them using only the demon's stats (because buying these at chargen is cost-efficient), and then use XP gained through play to retrospectively add Paul's rubbish 1-dot Abilities (because these are relatively inexpensive). In a linear XP system, I would just have the demon start out with slightly lower scores than I want and work my way up through XP, but both the chargen instructions and my own understanding of the mechanics tell me that it would be a bad idea not to optimise in the first place. The contrast in costs seems significant if there's any chance you'd be playing more than a one-shot. If you are just playing a one-shot, there is a tricky balance to strike between characterisation and being able to use the powers you supposedly have, because unless they get screentime in that one-shot, you didn't have them.

Another thing I notice in passing is that the importance of dots varies substantially with the kind of powers you're likely to choose.

In some cases, powers are pretty quantitative, and so adding more successes is always useful: most damage-dealing or healing powers fall into this category, as well as the set of powers like Wall of Air where successes become a new dicepool, and basically any power that require multiple successes to take effect. Another type are those with high thresholds, where you're potentially looking for 8s or even 9s, which substantially reduces your odds of success. However, there are some powers where a lot of the time, you just care whether it fires off or not. For example, Manipulate Gravity does technically scale with successes, but honestly a lot of the time jumping 20 yards (one success) is all you need. Similarly, often a Devourer only needs to summon or possess one animal. For these characters, large dicepools are less essential.

For what it's worth, I do appreciate that this sounds like me griping quite specifically about a Fiend. I haven't looked in detail at whether Fiends have it significantly worse than anyone else, or any of that stuff - I'm just trying to make one character and noting observations. Maybe I'm trying to do a Fiend wrong. The book doesn't really say. Let me quote briefly.

Fiends believe that knowledge is power, so they favor high Mental Attributes. Others rely on controlling others through their future sight, which makes Social Attributes their primary preference. Fiend prize Knowledges above all else, with Investigation, Academics and Religion of principal interest. They are also adept in the mysteries of Linguistics, Occult and Research.

This is a very interesting summary, because as I have already mentioned, the key abilities for Fiends to do anything remotely supernatural do include Mental Attributes, but also put a lot of emphasis on Stamina, especially for the more potent abilities. Intuition is crucial for both Paths and Patters (as well as just feeling appropriate for this kind of character) but not mentioned at all. Expression and Performance are needed for Lore of Light and not mentioned. None of the Abilities mentioned contribute in any way to building a Fiend that can meaningfully act like one. Well done, gold star.

And so it ends

This Paul thing doesn't really feel like it's working out. There isn't really a demon type that meshes well with this loser. The problem here is that I don't have any particular idea for what Paularon might go off and do later. I sort of liked the idea of him chucking in the day job and going off to be whimsical somewhere, but... I'm not really feeling it, y'know? It needs a fairly well-defined demon character. I can't think of one.

Maybe I could do a devil... like, he suddenly turns into Awesome Sales Guy or something? That might work, but what is the demon actually like? It would work well for something like a non-viewpoint character in a story, where you slowly work out your colleague is a demon, but again, who actually is the demon?

And I don't care. I don't even really care what powers they have. None of them sing to me. Nothing leaps out as an awesome character to play. The game has very strongly-articulated visions for the Devil, and it seems to me that this is because it's much easier to focus on the one character type that's actually an archetype with a wealth of material to draw on. None of the others come across as very coherent. In particular, I just don't see an in to the massive all-important backstory, which is the only thing you have to define your demon character against, and which is almost totally irrelevant to the game as it seems likely to play.

So here's the thing. I do actually have a character sheet worked out for Paul(aron), in the basic mechanical stuff, because I got there while playing around with this. But I just can't find the energy to come up with any backstory for this demon. Just exactly like I couldn't last time. In fact, I can't really imagine any context in which I could be bothered to come up with demon backstory for these specific demons. In a game with a more classical take on demons (the most common version is now, I would say, more or less office drones somewhere on the line from "sadistic horrors" to "slapstick loveable folks who don't even actually torture people") I'd find it much easier. But I don't care about literally the entire Demon-The-Fallen!demon part of the setting. Given that your human character is supposed to basically wink out when the demon arrives, this is basically fatal.

I'm pretty sure this is the first game where I've ever given up bothering to try and do character generation out of sheer apathy and inability to think of a character concept that's actually canonical.

Oddly enough, the rest of the character generation is pretty much okay. It's a bit stress-inducing because of the way initial costs and later costs differ, but many people won't be bothered by that. It's relatively simple, even though there are quite a few bits to it. That being said, you need to do it in the order that makes sense (pick entire concept including powers, work backwards from that) rather than how the rulebook wants you to. You need to pay attention to about 50% of the advice, shrug off about 25% and actively ignore the remaining 25% which will sabotage your game if followed.

The lists are broadly okay, with some traits not especially transparent so you have to look them up to see what they actually do. There's specialisation rules within skills, but we didn't use them in our game so I'm sort of assuming they aren't that vital to chargen. Sometimes the groups of skills seem arbitrary, and with the way you allocate pools to groups of skills, it can be irritating if they are grouped in a way that doesn't suit you (I found it hard to spend one pool because it had only one skill I wanted, and I didn't want that to be high).

On the whole, I think the system is okay, the advice is distinctly middling, but if you can get past the conceptual issues I had, you should be okay. However, I would argue that any character generation system that has such a stumbling block as the backstory-for-a-literal-previous-life is hard to praise, and given my mixed views on the rest of it, I'd suggest looking elsewhere for inspiration.

Ironically, after all that, I quite like Paul and will be looking for a chance to drag him into some other game.


  1. I think a big part of the issue here is that White Wolf games (like Numenera, I think) are what you might call self-contained. That is, they rely on you wanting to play in *specifically that setting* and *specifically that kind of character*. It's not like D&D where the aim is to encompass as many fantasy archetypes as possible (although, of course, D&D has to some extent become its own archetype).

    Basically the thing about WW games is that if you don't want to play pretty much exactly the type of character that the game is about, you basically don't want to play the game.

    1. To put it another way: I'm just not that into it. Yes, absolutely.

      Having started with really rather a lot of enthusiasm, I got bogged down when it came to adding the demon part. Eventually I realised this was because my concept was nowhere near as suitable as I'd thought for the game (although, in fairness, a Devil probably would work). My enthusiasm was for the general idea of playing supernaturals in mortal bodies, plus a few scraps of the game itself, buoyed up by having fun playing our game. Although there are many faults with DTF, the specific failure here is that I don't actually want to play this game. I thought I did, but I was wrong.

      I thought I'd post it anyway, because I quite liked Paul and thought I had the odd bit of insight, and I'd spent bloody ages on it.

    2. I think "I thought I wanted to play this game, but I was wrong" is, again, quite a common response to this kind of 1990s-era game, because the game is such a specific thing. Again, it's a lot like /Numenera/. I'd quite like to play a free-roaming science-fantasy game set in an impossibly distant future, but /Numenera/ feels so specific that I'm not sure I want to play *that* free-roaming science-fantasy game set in an impossibly distant future.