My Favorite NPC Lived, Thanks To System Mechanics

Last time, I talked about an NPC I fell in love with (Anneliese), and hoped the PCs wouldn’t kill. They didn’t kill her. Amusingly, they didn’t kill *anyone*, although they did beat a lot of people up quite significantly. The others escaped, but they left Anneliese behind because she was hobbled and the intelligence agent didn’t like her anyway.

So… the PCs gave her a ride back to town to get healing. Seriously. Now, obviously, the players themselves get credit for making fun RP decisions instead of killing everyone in sight. But, it’s not just them…

The System Itself Helped

This is where the fact that we were playing Fate Core and not D&D helped. One of the fundamental differences is that combat is a heavy focus of D&D, and lethal combat is the norm. You have to actively take steps to avoid killing your target, unless you just get lucky on damage rolls and put them into the disabled/bleeding out state (and with my Cleric slinging around Save or Die spells… yeah).

In Fate Core, killing people is not the norm. You “take them out” of combat, and it takes an active action after the fact to kill them. If people concede, typically they won’t die in that scene (otherwise they probably won’t concede). The difference between it being an extra step to kill, as opposed to an extra step to not kill. That distinction seems small, but the subtle change makes a major difference in how players approach it.

Another way the system helped is by shifting the focus. I had a player remark at the end of the night that Fate was quite good at encouraging storytelling out of the session. Storytelling tends to flow better if you’re not murdering everyone you meet, and this NPC had lots to say. We had a rather silly exchange on the way back to town after the fight, when two PCs were arguing over who to bring the crate they retrieved back to (one NPC wanted it back unopened, the other wanted to study it before returning it). Anneliese kept interjecting herself into this conversation, because she could, and it fueled things along really well. Can’t do that if she’s dead.

That exchange between the PCs ended in them having a contest of wills (rather than one of stabbing), and the player who lost it remarked afterward that she was okay with the outcome because it felt fair, and that she got to play her character out really well, so the outcome had some kind of narrative sense to it. That meant a lot to me, as the DM.

One of the reasons we get that storytelling focus is that the mechanics are much simpler, and don’t get in the way of telling a good story. In fact, one of Fate’s key rules literally is “Never let the rules get in the way of a good narrative.”

When Systems Hinder

One of the things that D&D does really well is give you that dungeon crashing heroic experience. What doesn’t it do well? Lots of other things.

D&D is a complex game, and 3.5 (the preferred version around here) is especially so (5e is a positive step away from excessive complexity). There’s rules and mechanics for almost everything you can do in combat. There’s tons of modifiers to things. Figuring out what you can do at high level and keeping track of all the math gets complicated, and it sucks up time and brain cycles.

Calculating attack at high level
You forgot the modifiers from Prayer, Shaken, Giantsbane, partial concealment, Fatigue, and Enlarge Person.

That weight tends to be a hindrance to simple storytelling, because I keep having to go look up exactly how grapples work to see if I can pin someone and put them into an arm bar, instead of just saying “I try to wrestle this guy down and put him into an arm bar” and doing the roll.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s certainly possible to do a narrative heavy game in D&D, it’s just harder. The system is not helping you with the crushing weight of rules it’s got, and doing it is making your job harder as opposed to a game designed for it.

Would I Use Fate Over D&D Again?

Short answer? Yes.

Long answer? It depends on the players. Some players really like the complexity in D&D and they feel they’re losing something in Fate, so they wouldn’t be as happy. If I’m DMing for that group, I’d use D&D.

Other players, especially the ones who don’t game a lot and/or have difficulties with math, LOVED the simplified mechanics and focus change that Fate brought. They were happier and more eager to do stuff, because they had an easier time translating what they wanted to do into game actions and understanding their likelihood of success.

We’re still trying to nail down exactly how we want magic to work in Fate (as Fate Core has no magic system built in, and magic is pretty key to the setting I’m using), but I think we’re pretty close there after trying a couple of different things. Overall it was a very positive experience, and I can definitely see mixing some Fate campaigns in between our D&D campaigns.

Uh Oh, I Got Attached To An NPC…

This weekend, I’m running another night in my “mini-campaign”. This is a bridging plot between my D&D campaign that ended last year, and the next one I’m hoping to run in the future. The mini-campaign happens when our Sunday DM can’t run his campaign, but people still want to play something.

As is normally the case when developing a storyline, I created some NPCs. Then… I got attached to one of them.

Rule 1: Don’t Get Attached

Getting attached to your NPCs is dangerous, because in a lot of games, the PCs can at any moment turn into murderhobos.

Your only hope is to be worth no XP and pray they don't get angry about it.
Your only hope is to be worth no XP and pray they don’t get angry about it.

For those who don’t play a lot of D&D, a “murderhobo” is a homeless vagrant who wanders the world solving problems by murdering everything in their path, usually collecting loot along the way. This describes a shockingly large number of characters, although admittedly part of that is because the system itself focuses heavily on combat.

That means, lots of NPCs will die. Lots, and lots of NPCs. Sometimes, they’re meant specifically for that purpose (mooks, villains). With the fun ones, you inject some personality and details in them in the hope the PCs find those things out and maybe have a recurring plot dealing with that NPC, to make the final fight more interesting. But, you never know when a lucky crit or a failed save will end things earlier than you planned. So, you never get attached to those ones.

Background and friendly NPCs are a bit different, but even then, you don’t know what will happen to them. Maybe the PCs accidentally (or deliberately, given the evil/selfish nature of our regular Sunday night party) set loose something that wipes a town out, or they cause someone important to get killed. Bad things happen to good NPCs.

The World Shouldn’t React To Your Attachments

Here’s the thing. When the PCs are doing stuff, the world should react to what they do. That’s what makes a fun campaign. But, that should happen if the DM cares about the NPC or not. If they kill most of my other NPCs? I can handle it in a detached way, because they were disposable.

This one, though? If this NPC gets killed, I’ll be pretty unhappy. It’ll take some extra effort to not let that cloud how the game progresses, because I certainly don’t want to punish the PCs just because they killed someone I like as opposed to someone I don’t.

My mistake here is that when I was adding details to this NPC, I inadvertently made a character that I wanted to play as a PC myself. I love what I came up with too much. That was an accident, but you know.

(You might also note that I’m being deliberately vague about this NPC. I don’t want to tip the PCs off as to which one it is, because I don’t want them to react differently in case any of them read this.)

It’s Happened Before

This has happened to me before, in the last campaign. Meet Lylandria, star prodigy and assistant librarian of the Arcane College (sadly I can’t remember where I found this image, because I’d love to credit the artist).

Any similarity to Twilight Sparkle is entirely deliberate.

Lylandria started off the last campaign being a resource for the PCs, because she’s usually in the library and has access to lots of information. When they need to know something about an obscure monster or legend, she can help them find it.  As the game went on, she got involved more often, at one point helping cast a spell for the PCs to resolve a plot line.

Towards the end, the PCs had a door they couldn’t open in the dungeon, and reason to believe she could. So, she came with them. Her mentor gave her an Archmage’s Runestaff so she could defend herself in there.

The PCs then found out there was a battle in this area of the dungeon between three Undead Lords, all trying to wake up and control some ancient evil thing. They ended up siding with a Lich in that battle. When it turned out nobody could conrol the ancient evil thing and it was going to kill everyone, the Lich offered a deal: I’ll help you stop it, if you give me the girl’s staff.

Lylandria, naturally, declined. The PCs argued about it for a while, and looked like they weren’t going to do it. Then the party Rogue simply attacked her, took the staff, and handed it over. Everyone else ended up going along with that, and poor Lylandria has never been the same.

I mean, at least she survived it, but between that and being used to open the door (which helped an evil NPC ascend to godhood), she’s been rather traumatized.

Technically, part of the blame for all those events lies on me as the DM, for playing the Lich and the other evil NPC who set the whole thing up, but the PCs didn’t have to go along with it. It took me a while to forgive them for beating up my poor teenage librarian NPC. 😉

I tried a new game system. I liked it. Now I have a problem.

This is a story in three parts.

1. I tried a new game system.

Our regular Sunday D&D 3.5 game took a couple of weeks off due to march break holidays and work schedules. Rather than do nothing, I decided to run a little “mini-campaign” (a two session story) in the same world as my previous 3.5 campaign had taken place in.

Only, I didn’t use 3.5. I decided to use Fate Core instead. Why? Mostly, because I’d heard about the system elsewhere, was curious, and figured the best way to learn was to go ahead and try playing it.

Also, though, it’s because for something that short, 3.5 is a pain.

  • Character creation for characters beyond level 1 is time consuming even if you know how to do it, and some of my players don’t.
  • People who had them wanted to use their characters from the previous game, and I thought that was great, but they’re 17th level. You can’t slot new people in and have them be useful unless they’re also high level, at which point no mundane story is going to challenge them.
  • Plus, there’s a lot of prep required with monster stats, loot, and such.

Switching systems eliminated a lot of that.

  • Fate Characters have a lot fewer statistics, and are thus easier to create. Getting your Aspects right is the hardest part, and that can (and should) be done as a group activity, so everybody could help everybody really easily. It didn’t require looking up class definitions or splatbook feats to do.
  • The power curve in Fate is much less steep than in 3.5, so those already existing people could be stronger than the newer folks without breaking the game. That said, making a new character gave me a chance to also remake those characters, giving them something extra for being already existing but bringing them somewhat back in line. (Playing D&D 5e would have also let me do this, because the power curve is somewhat flatter there too, especially with skills.)
  • Although there was extra prep work created by the system change as I tried to learn it, I wanted to do that anyway. Actually statting NPCs and monsters is easier, as the system is less complicated and meant to be run more quickly.

For those who are not familar, a Fate Core character doesn’t have stats like Strength. You have five “Aspects”, that are phrases that describe something about you. Deadpool’s description as the “Merc with the mouth” could be an aspect. You can use an aspect to give you a boost when it can help you (when being a mouthy merc would come in handy) by spending a fate point, and it can also be used by the DM to make your life more complicated/difficult (which earns you a fate point).

2. I liked it.

We’ve done one session so far, with another to go. That session went really well. I mean, none of us really knew what we were doing, but the system by design has people working together to determine outcomes and shape the story, rather than everything being dictated by the rules and the DM.

For example, you can “concede” a fight, effectively losing the battle. If you do so, the table then decides what that means. Did you run away? Were you knocked out cold? Did you roll down the open sewer grate and get swept off by smelly sewer water? Were you taken prisoner?

Everyone gets to help decide the outcome of that action, and that’s the direction the story takes. For those who have played games like D&D, you know that’s not typically how it works. You try and do something, roll the dice, and the DM tells you what happens.

The difference made for a very fun evening of storytelling. It also caused new things I’d never thought of to keep on appearing, as players started adding their own ideas, and coming up with explanations for why they could accept or reject a compel, do something in a given situation, or use a skill in a way I’d never thought of.

I mean, it wasn’t flawless. In particular, the setting I’m using was made for D&D, and is a super magical city based on D&D style Vancian magic. Fate Core has no magic system built in at all. So, we had to come up with something during character creation that would make spellcasting characters exist and work without totally overpowering everyone else (which they do in D&D 3.5, why repeat that mistake?). We did come up with something that’s worked so far, but it isn’t always that easy to understand.

Overall, though, the response was really positive and people seemed to be having fun. I know I did, and I’m eager to see how it goes this week when we have a larger group.

3. Now I have a problem.

Nothing I’ve said so far sounds like a problem, does it? Tried a new system, liked it, yay!

Except, I want to run another long campaign in the future. It’d be a continuation of the one I did before, because the actions of the PCs made some major, world changing things happen. A new group dealing with that would be very interesting.

The problem? I’m suddenly not sure what system I want to run it in.

Before this, there was really no doubt. It’d either be D&D 3.5 (or maybe Pathfinder, which is extremely similar to D&D 3.5, given it’s origins as a direct descendant). The new campaign is mostly/entirely the same players. They know the system already. The world was based on the rules of that system.

After this little experiment, I’m not so sure. I don’t really miss having to have a giant pile of stats for all kinds of characters in D&D, having to remember how everything works in 15 different source books (made worse with D&D tools shut down yet again), having to constantly look up the grapple rules because nobody can remember them, and all the other baggage that comes with it.

I didn’t really have any of those problems with Fate. We spent more time discussing what was happening in the world and less time discussing the rules, and that was despite us not knowing the rules very well. For the kind of game I want to run, it may just work out better to use a comparatively rules light system and let everyone tell a cool story, rather than another rules heavy system like I did last time.

Don’t get me wrong, I still love D&D. Sundays will go back to normal D&D time soon, and I have a biweekly Friday Pathfinder game that I also enjoy tremendously. The systems have served me very well. It’s just that until now, I hadn’t really thought about if another system would serve me better, and now I am.

That leaves me with a problem to solve before I can actually develop that campaign.

False Choices Are Worse Than No Choices

Sometimes, listening to players is bad. Players will constantly say that they value choice. They like choices. They want more choices. This mentality drives me nuts, because…

Lots Of Choices Are False

I’m playing in a D&D 3.5 campaign right now, and we just hit level 2. The normal rules for HP work like this: each class has a die representing it’s HP (called a Hit Dice). At level up, you roll that, and gain that much HP. Because this sucks horrifically for unlucky people and can make characters unplayable, a very popular house rule (and the actual rule in organized play like Pathfinder Society) is to use a fixed number like a percentage. A popular number in my circle of friends is 75%, because we don’t like super lethal games.

When I was DM, I just used 75%, period. In the game I’m in, the DM is giving us a choice of rolling (with reroll on a 1) or 75%. Everyone loves choice, right?

It's a trap!
Admiral Ackbar knows what I’m going to say.

I did a bit of math, and you’re 98% likely to do better with 75% than you are with rolling. For a Cleric, you’re 52% likely to wind up with at least 19 HP more with 75% than you are with rolling. There is a choice here, but it isn’t what it seems. The choice is actually between “do you want to have lots of HP” and “not that”. It’s a choice between doing the correct thing and the wrong thing. The choice being offered is a trap that will lure in players who don’t know better. Nobody who does know better will make that choice.

This is the kind of choice that is really a false choice and shouldn’t exist at all. Offering up bad choices in the name of “more choice” makes no sense. If I offer you a cheeseburger or a turd sandwich for dinner, do you really feel better that I didn’t just go ahead and only offer cheeseburgers?

Talent Trees Are So Guilty

Big, complex talent trees are another thing players like. They’re another thing that tends to suck in a lot of games. If you played earlier versions of WoW, you’d remember the large trees with lots of talents and points to spend. You could come up with all kinds of builds, and in the easy solo game they’d all work fine. Trouble with that? Sooner or later, the easy solo game ends.

Once you hit the difficult content, most of those build combinations suck. There’s talents that are required to play effectively, and those aren’t really a choice at all. It was pretty common to see builds that spent 47/51 points on mandatory things, and then gave you 4 points to spend on whatever you wanted because they didn’t matter. The actual choice there? 4 out of 51 points. The other ones are only a choice between doing the best you can, or doing less than the best you can and forcing the rest of your group to carry you.

Rift was also notorious for this. It featured an extensive talent system, with tons of build options. Again, most of them sucked. Only the system was so complicated in Rift that doing the right thing was much harder, and it was really easy to make a build that sucked. I literally doubled my DPS in five minutes by changing builds to one I found online. That’s a 100% effectiveness boost in game due to spending under 5 minutes on Google.

Does that seem right, to you? Who makes the choice *not* to do that if they know better? Why would a game developer want me to get better at the game by copying what I see in Google instead of by playing the game?

The whole thing against “cookie cutter” builds is a misguided reaction to this very problem. Players love choice, but players also hate it when someone who doesn’t want to deal with all that choice can get an optimized build really easily. But that isn’t the fault of anyone except the people demanding more choice, because lots of people just want to play the game effectively without dealing with trying to optimize 50 talent points. There’s even more players who don’t have the game knowledge or math skills to have any chance of coming up with a good build on their own. For those players, the cookie cutter builds are actively helping the developers by giving those players the means to actually function in the game halfway effectively. Those players would likely just quit otherwise after finding the game frustrating.

Players also hate it when there are optimal builds at all, with the idea that everything should be equal. That’s an ideal that almost never happens in reality because the more options you have, the more difficult it is to make them all line up equally.  Against a given raid boss, one option will be better than the others. If the boss difficulty is high enough that being optimized matters, one or two builds will fit it. That’s just the nature of the beast.

Give Me Fewer Choices, But Make Them Good

Sid Meier said that “a good game is a series of interesting choices”. He was right. I wish more developers would heed his lesson. Many of the choices we’re given are not interesting. They’re a choice between a right and wrong answer, where the only people making the wrong choice either don’t know it’s the wrong choice, or don’t care if they’re sabotaging themselves or their team. This is why simplified talent trees (like what WoW did) are often the right way to go no matter how players react online. When most of the choices are just cruft and not really an interesting choice, you’re better off cutting them out entirely and only leaving the real choices. It’s easier to develop, easier to balance, and easier to understand for the players.

If the players don’t know what’s good for them? That’s fine. It’s the developers getting paid to make the game, and their livelihood on the line with it. They need to know better.