Friday, 31 July 2015

Why can't me and Wild Talents just get along?

I would start using a "Rambling" tag on these posts, but it would go on pretty much all of them.

So as mentioned previously, we recently attempted a campaigngen brainstorming session for Wild Talents, and I didn't get on with the game.

That rather confused me, because I don't understand why. I feel like this is the sort of game I should like. I like tinkering with mechanics, so shouldn't I like a game where you build your own powers and everything? What's putting me off? I wanted to try and work this out.

Okay, for a start, I think we got off on the wrong foot for a couple of reason that aren't to do with the game per se, but the attitude I read into it. The Introduction and What Is Roleplaying seem a tiny bit preachy to me - somewhat reminiscent of White Wolf, to be honest - and despite the attempts at catering to all tastes, I get the sense that really they want you to play a gritty game where you're people with superpowers, and think actual superheroes are a bit naff.

Let's just have a quick dekko at those descriptions:

Gritty is the flavor of the real world—just add powers. There are no larger-than-life heroes, just people trying to make a difference. It’s more concerned with morality and the implications of power than straight-up super powered slugfests... Characters in a gritty game have powers but still face real-world dangers and responsibilities... If players are interested in exploring what life might really be like with powers, this flavor is perfect.

Cinematic is the flavor of the movies and many comics. It emphasizes heroic action, dramatic conflict resolution, and doing the right thing. In this kind of game the characters are somewhat immune to the misfortunes of the regular world and things generally go their way unless it’s important to the story that they do not... As in the movies, characters in a cinematic game can die if they really screw up, or (more likely) if it’s dramatic and important to the story. This flavor is good for players who are not sure which extreme they want — gritty or four-color.

Four-Color is the flavor of the standard comic book, where characters are larger than life. When they fail, they fail dramatically, but in the end the bad guys are punished, the good guys win and everything works out. This is the world of the Justice League, Superman and the Avengers. It’s concerned with vivid characters and spectacular action... This flavor is good for players who enjoy over-the-top action and world-spanning (sometimes universe-spanning) adventures. Anything (and often everything) can happen in a four-color game, and characters are usually built on a high Point Total.

Maybe I'm just over-sensitive, but I read some leanings into that. The line in cinematic, suggesting that this is suited to indecise players, annoys me: this isn't some kind of compromise, it's a perfectly reasonable playstyle to choose out of actual preference. In fact, it's one of the most common playstyles out there in RPGs. Most games emulate fairly cinematic adventure gaming.

Where is the game?

My next problem is probably just down to the arrangement of material. I feel like, in a game with any but the simplest ruleset, it's a mistake to put the bulk of the rules before the character generation. Wild Talents doesn't put all its rules in first, but there are still 15 pages of explanation of their dice mechanics before they start talking you through building a character. This means there's a ton of mechanical talk upfront, with nothing flavourful to latch onto. I don't know about you, but I can't get excited about the four optional special kinds of dice in the same way I can about, say, being able to pull anything I've ever seen out of my pocket.

It may not be the case in play, but it also felt to me like the system is just too fussy. Two special kinds of dice that work differently, plus four optional other kinds? Two different ways for penalising dicepools? There may well be good mechanical reasons for it, but it feels like a lot of rules to wade through.

I suppose the thing is, here is what I tend to want in a rulebook:

  1. A quick overview of the setting, genre, mechanics
  2. A very quick precis of the rules, enough to understand character generation
  3. An inspiring character generation section that fills me with enthusiasm
  4. The main ruleset to explain that stuff in detail
  5. The rest of the setting stuff

Creating characters is, I think, how I really get to grips with a game and work out whether it's enthused me.

Because Wild Talents is extremely generic and therefore doesn't have any hooks to build characters around, I felt stuck. I mean, in D&D et al., I know to grab a class that looks like it does something I'd enjoy doing, and then come up with a personality and set of attributes. In White Wolf I know to ignore everything the game instructs you to do, choose some powers that look fun, and then work backwards to create a character that can use them. In Numenera I know to make an Adjective Noun who Verbs and then spend ages writing down the intricate details of what those actually entail in game mechanics.

Wild Talents wants you to create a character in a vacuum, which means you have to come up with the entire concept from whole cloth. That really needs something to work off, so either you need a group who have already decided what sort of game you're doing (not viable for home chargen) or you need to make some arbitrary decisions yourself up-front to limit your options to a managable amount.

Wild Talents and White Wolf

I just sort of want to throw out a little comparison here. Take a look at the skill systems in these two rulesets.

White Wolf has a 1-5 dot-based dicepool system. The flavour text goes like this:


  • * 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.

So what are the probabilities of you succeeding at something?

  • * 30%
  • ** 51%
  • *** 66%
  • **** 76%
  • ***** 83%

That assumes you need only a single success. It's also worth noting that someone with a dicepool of 5 is only likely to roll one more success than someone with a dicepool of 1, so world-class mastery of a skill only tends to let you achieve very slightly more than having done an evening class, although it does make it more likely you'll succeed at all. In tasks where magnitude of success is important, that makes expertise pretty weak.

Looking at it another way, someone with considerable natural talent or professional skill will fail at a reasonable challenge fully one-third of the time. A world-class expert will fail almost one time in five. Why do we spend seven years training doctors, again? This is, in short, not a very convincing combination of mechanics and fluff. I do not expect doctors to be flat-out wrong one-fifth of the time. I do not expect an Olympic marksman to miss the target entirely one time in five.

So how about that Wild Talents? Because at least on a casual glance, it looks pretty similar to me. Let's check.

  • 1d Basic training (Athletics) Can barely dog paddle.
  • 2d Moderate training and some experience (Athletics) Can throw a football 20 yards accurately.
  • 3d Extensive training and experience (Perception) Can detect a tap on the phone line.
  • 4d Expert training (Knowledge [Chess]) Nationally-ranked chess champion.
  • 5d Master (human perfection)(Lie) Can talk your way into a military facility.
  • 6d Superhuman (Intimidate) Can bully the heavyweight boxing champion.
  • 7d Extraordinary (Athletics) Can leap from limb to limb 40 feet up in a tree.
  • 8d Astonishing (Dodge) Can catch arrows in mid-air.
  • 9d Unparalleled (Perception) Can see in near-complete darkness.
  • 10d Supreme (Knowledge [Education]) Can teach any subject from memory.

Those are some pretty impressive-sounding distinctions. But does it hold up?

What you're doing is rolling some d10s and looking for matching sets. More matches means either a faster non-attack action, or more damage from an attack. A higher number on the matching dice means a more skilful action.

But when you roll dice and look for matches, the number on those matches is random. A bigger dicepool doesn't correlate very well with bigger numbers. There's a greater chance of you getting multiple sets and so being able to choose the highest, but I don't think the effect is very large. I don't think it's large enough to justify the claim that a 2-dice character is massively worse than a 5-dice character.

I really, really cannot be bothered to try and run the probabilities right now, but I don't think the 5-dot liar has a much bigger chance of talking their way into a military facility than a 2-dot character would. They have a bigger chance of getting a matching set, but unless the difficulty is quite low, they still have a high chance of failure.

As with, oddly, Hellcats and Hockeysticks, I think we run into a problem that different kinds of challenges result in different relative capability.

  • If you run a competition between two characters, the 5d one always wins, because the rules instruct you to simply compare dicepools. They literally cannot lose.
  • If you have the characters directly oppose each other, the 5d one will on average be slightly faster than the 2d one because they have at least an opportunity of forming sets of 3 dice, although it will be rare. However, suddenly our 5d character has a significant chance of losing to the measly 2d opponent, and potentially losing spectacularly. It's not likely, because 2d will only get a matching set one time in 10, but if they do, that set is just as likely to be 10s as 1s. Compared to "literally cannot lose", this is a massive difference. Bear in mind, there's still a 30% chance that the 5d character won't get any matches. There's a 3% chance that 5d will get no matches while 2d gets some.
  • If the characters are both attempting to perform a particular task that isn't a direct competition, against a fixed difficulty, there is again a very real chance that our 2d character will win.
  • If only our 5d character attempts something, they roll their dicepool and look for the highest value rolled. They may well get a poor set of rolls. Our 2d character might well get a 10 and perform that task spectacularly. The relation between narrative skill and performance on a single task is not convincingly linked.

So to put things in narrative terms, let's say we have two athletes. According to the game, one is an Olympic hero and the other plays in the 5-a-side team after work. If they play keepie-uppie, Olympic Hero will win every single time by a significant margin, a million times out of a million. If they play tennis against each other, Amateur will win a significant percentage of the time, and Amateur may win spectacularly. If they both independently try to break down doors, Amateur will again be the first one through a significant proportion of the time. If each of them, completely independently, does some treadmill training, there is no particular guarantee that Olympic Hero will perform well, nor that Amateur will not break the world record.

This gets particularly weird with the "superhumanly good" attributes, since Amateur can perfectly well roll matching 10s, meaning that 1% of the time Amateur performs at the exact same peak skill that Captain Dr. Amazo, Saviour of the Universe!!! can achieve, just somewhat slower. This is even more pronounced on the "loose die" rolls (not very well defined), used when you know someone will succeed but wonder how well - only the highest single die is important. The exception to this behaviour is violence, because of that width rule where larger sets equals more damage; again, that's the kind of conditionality that leads to weirdness.

Wild Talents and FATE

Like I found with FATE, most of the time I was reading Wild Talents I felt rather at sea. In theory, the game has a simple core mechanic, but in practice they make that much more complicated seconds after making the claim. It's like the thing with the elephant and the blind men, you know? I felt like I was staring at one bit of rules at a time, but having a very hard time getting a holistic sense of what The Rules were, or what the implications of things were on a larger scale.

For example, it's fairly easy to look at the section on Hard and Wiggle dice and see what they're doing. However, I still don't feel like I have an intuitive grasp of their significance, and I think that's because the ruleset is so subdivided. To really understand any part of it, I'd need to understand all of it, in the same way that I don't think you can understand the FATE rules until you've read the whole thing. In the case of FATE, it's all interdependent mechanics-acting-on-mechanics. In the case of Wild Talents, there's a certain amount of this, but it's more that a lot of the rules seem too small to see properly. It feels a bit like designing a machine. Let's say, it's like building your own Iron Man armour. The rules are so bespoke-friendly that you can in theory build any super-suit you want, but the actual pieces say things like "converts 4Hz charge to 15N force in a torsion arc" and "amplifies conductivity of torsion arc", which means you need to understand the system quite well to build any specific super-suit.

So Hard Dice let you always roll a 10 and you must use them whether you want to or not. Okay. But the significance of that mechanic isn't going to be clear until you exhaustively study the rules for combat, stats, skills, and in particular the extremely complicated rules for powers. In some cases it will be incredibly desirable. In some cases it will be disastrous. In some cases it will actually get boring very quickly, even if those are also the same as the first kind (because being literally invulnerable, for example, has limited fun value in a game where that isn't part of the premise).

Similarly, the way powers are built up from components that interact with each other means understanding powers requires you to study all the rules for powers. It would be very easy to build a power that doesn't actually do what you intended. And let's be clear, for my purposes at least, powers are the only thing about being a superhero that interests me.

Being inhumanly tough, strong or intelligent I can do in basically any RPG. In fact, I can do it in most RPGs even when I'm not canonically any of those things, because of narrative handwaving that means I heal crippling injuries overnight and so on.

I suppose there is limited entertainment value in being Batman, but to be honest you do a lot of Batman-esque stuff in various other games. Hunting down bad people and beating them up is a staple.

This also means that there are some odd player-skill things going on with the system. Let's have a think about good old Dungeons and Dragons for a minute, kay?

In D&D, there are some classes which are simple to play and some that are complex. Fundamentally, fighters are traditionally simple and spellcasters are complex. Fighters have simple, robust abilities, and although you need to make decisions, you don't have to do much advance planning. It's hard to do fighters completely wrong. This tends to mean that it's easiest to start off playing a fighter, and move onto more spelly classes after you grasped the basics. Wizards and clerics are the opposite. They are physically rather weak, which makes them vulnerable to player mistakes. They rely mostly on a large array of spells, and it's important to make sensible decisions about which spells to cast when: mistakes can waste resources, injure your allies, or mean missing a vital opportunity to gain the advantage. Judging this requires a good grasp of the mechanics, of your allies' abilities, and of the current state of affairs. On top of this, depending on edition, they often have to make decisions about which spells to prepare for the following day, which means educated guesswork about likely challenges.

Wizards, and even more so sorcerers and a few others, also need to decide which spells they're going to know at all, which is an even higher-level decision which shapes the kind of character you will be and the kind of things you can do for your party. Doing this well requires a sense of how different spells create a portfolio, and understanding of the spells themselves, of the kind of campaign you're running, and of other characters' skillsets. It's easy to make a mistake and end up with spells that aren't particularly relevant to your campaign, or are all very niche, or overlap while leaving you unable to contribute in other areas. At the simplest level, a wizard who focuses on fire spells can end up with lots of very similar offensive capabilities, minimal ability to contribute outside a fight, and completely helpless against the many enemies with fire immunity. A new player can't be expected to understand all this and make sensible choices right off the bat without a lot of support.

Although the spellcasters are generally more powerful than other characters, they require a lot of player knowledge to play effectively, both in terms of mechanical optimisation, but also in terms of making mechanical decisions that support a particular character concept.

Okay, back to Wild Talents.

Here we seem to have a different skill interaction, and one I think is a bit awkward. What takes player skill in WT is, I think, making subtle powers. It seems relatively easy to make powers that are both direct and extremely powerful. If you want to be basically invulnerable, or shoot eyebeams that infallibly annihilate whatever you look at, or teleport across the galaxy, you just pick a resistance/attack/movement ability and slap a set of Hard Dice into it. However, all these powers seem likely to get boring quickly. They're very direct, which means there may not be many different ways to use them, and just winning automatically all the time is actually not that much fun.

What seems to be harder is making powers that will be fun and challenging. How do you judge the right amount of power to make that laser vision fun? How do you build a power that lets you conjure an array of shadowy tendrils that ensnare your enemies? What about being Spiderman, with all that cool web-slinging stuff? What about Green Lantern? What about Storm?

Luckily, it turns out there is a set of pregen powers. These are helpfully at the end of the powers mechanics list. I really feel like they messed up their layout here. Personally, I would have had a briefer version of the dice mechanics up top, followed by this list of sample powers. That way, people could just go ahead and make a pick-n-mix character right out of the gate. Once they'd done that, they could (if they cared) move on to examine the detailed mechanics, including those for making your own powers.

But why didn't I like Wild Talents?

Have we meandered from the point a bit..? Maybe.

Trying force all this down into some kind of coherent idea, I think the main issue I have with Wild Talents is that it feels like it wants me to do a lot of work.

I've done lots of game comparison, so here's another - trying to read through the rules about powers reminds me forcibly of my early attempts to actually read the D&D 4E rulebook, wading through page after page of powers wondering why I wasn't having fun. Well, because it's a list. You're not supposed to read it for fun, and it's not going to be that inspiring because most of it is little mechanical chunks for you to call on when you need them.

Wild Talents feels like that, except that you are in fact expected to read those little chunks because that's how you make your own stuff, and because it's a generic system, the only thing is has is making your own stuff in a specific way. And there are an awful lot of those little chunks, and they aren't necessarily very intuitive, and they all seem to have special ways they interact with other special things, which means it doesn't even seem like you can learn a little bit of this at a time and play with it.

In D&D, or a White Wolf game, or Deathwatch, I can generally focus on a small part of the rules and gradually expand as I feel comfortable. The Deathwatch rules are pretty complicated, but a lot of that boils down to what modifiers you apply when, which is something the GM generally handles. In White Wolf games, a lot of the complexity comes from specific types of powers (often those with rather metagamey mechanics, or intended for use in social-heavy games), and you can ignore those by simply taking other stuff and concentrating on other parts of play. In D&D, complexity is again generally either a matter of modifiers (GM's job) or magic (which you can simply not take, or take simpler spells to begin with). Here I feel like that's not the case, and I need to learn all of the rules at once. I don't know if that's true. I only know how it feels.

Or, to come back to the start of this post, we can look at this as me just being wrong about what I like. What I actually like is taking stuff that exists and putting it together in cool and preferably hilarious ways. I want to be a Gap Year elf who can perfectly imitate any creature he's ever spoken to, and then make sure to speak to lots of weird and powerful creatures. I want to play Hugh Jackman with a Mary Poppins bag. I want to be a backwoodsman psychic covered in ice who ignores people and talks to their horses. Maybe I want to play with other people's toys, not make my own toys from some Lego they left lying around.

Or maybe I just don't have a clear enough objective. I program recreationally. I like starting from a blank screen and writing a program, putting together intricate and hatefully perverse bits of code into something that will do something I want. But the pleasure there comes very much from having a problem that I want to solve, and then writing a program to do it. The Arthurfier, for example. Maybe the reason I can't get into Wild Talents is that I don't have any particular character concept I want to build, which means I don't have a starting point for digging into this toolset and working out how it ticks. Maybe a more successful brainstorming session would give me that character concept, and I'd find me and this game get along just fine.

I dunno, maybe I'm just in a bad mood. It's been a tough few weeks.

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