Friday, October 2, 2015

A Problem with Encounter Balance & Armor in T&T

This is a post about a problem I'm having. I'm hoping that the smart people reading this will have a solution for me.

What is Tunnels & Trolls?

Tunnels & Trolls (also known as T&T) was an early-comer to the hobby. It was the third or fourth RPG to be published. Because the earlier games have since vanished, or undergone such radical rules changes as to make them different games, I would say that T&T is now the oldest RPG still on the market.

One of the things I really like about T&T is the simultaneous combat system. Rather than each side taking turns swinging at each other, which never made sense to me, both combatants try to outdo each other, with the winner injuring the loser. This is, in my mind, simpler and more realistic than the D&D system. While the simultaneous combat system originated in T&T, I didn't discover it until the 90's when I saw it as an option in the Fudge rules.

T&T goes a step beyond, however, and combines the attack roll with the damage roll. This, too, makes sense to me. My attack roll represents the maximum amount of damage that I might have been able to inflict this round; my opponent's roll represent the same for her. If her total is greater, I should expect that she still had to "waste" some of her damage potential dodging and parrying my attacks. Thus I only suffer the difference between my roll and her roll.

It's a beautiful system. It's simple, and elegant. There's no need to look things up in a book, enabling play to just flow around the table. The arithmetic gets a little bothersome, but it's not too bad.

T&T also introduced armor that protects from damage, rather than making you harder to hit, which is a bit of a necessity is a game with no "to hit" roll. I first encountered this as "DR" in GURPS, but T&T is where it started. Again, it's a good rule, it makes sense, and it's elegant.

What is Encounter Balance?

"Encounter balance" is a relatively new term, but the concept goes all the way back to the very beginning of the hobby. In essence, encounter balance means that monsters should be tailored to abilities of the party. The idea is that an encounter so easy that the party can dispatch it without threat of injury is boring. Likewise, an encounter so powerful that the characters will automatically die just isn't very fun, either. Therefore there has to be a middle ground — a point where the monster is tough enough to endanger the party but not so tough that it can't be defeated. Ideally, in my mind, the monster should actually be tougher than the party, until someone does something brilliant to turn the tables. That means that players get tactical choices and that they are active participants in the experience rather then just sitting down to hear the GM tell a story.

What is my problem?

So the problem I have is this: I can't see how to make a challenging (but not overwhelming) encounter in T&T, because of the way that armor works. Let me illustrate with an example:

Boar is a human warrior is is battling his mirror universe self, Raob. Boar and Raob are identical in every single way, except that Boar sports a stylish goatee. Both of them have identical personal adds, and carry scimitars which do 4D damage. Both wear 10 points of armor, which counts as 20 points because they're warriors.

The very best situation for boar is that he rolls a "6" on each of his dice, while Roab rolls a "1" on each of his. In this case Boar does 24 points (plus personal adds, but they're cancelled out by Roab's personal adds) of damage while Roab deflects a pitiful 4. Bear has hit Roab for 20 points of damage — the very best that he can do! But, like Bear, Roab wears 20 points of armor, so he just laughs off the damage and the fight continues on for eternity.

That illustration might seem a bit contrived, so let me provide a real-life example.

In last Monday's game, the party of 4 PCs had a combined 16D+23 combat roll (that's an average of sum of 79), and between them they worn 22 points of armor. That means, on an average combat turn, they'll roll 79 points.

If I balance the encounter so that the monster sometimes wins the round and sometimes loses the round, then I would want an MR 90 monster. That monster rolls an average of 80 each round. In this case, the monster wins 52% of the combat turns, but fails to penetrate the party's armor 99.2% or the time! Clearly this is not a challenge, because the party will never be injured. Clearly a stronger monster is needed.

Balancing the encounter so that the monster has a 50/50 shot of penetrating the party's armor results in a monster with an MR of 119. In this case the players will lose the combat turn 99.3% of the time. Clearly that won't be fun for the players.

Splitting the difference, with an MR of 104, is a little better, In this situation the party wins about 10%, while the monster overcomes their armor about 10% time. But what that means is the nothing happens 80% of the combat turns. This makes combats a bit tedious and not as fun.

What is the solution?

I thought about Roll back the damage division pre-7th edition, so that the damage is divided evenly across the party. The would prevent the party from "pooling armor", but I think it will actually make the problem worse because the less armored PCs will start to wear more and more armor. My current, but untested, thought is to roll back the armor rules to pre-5th edition, so that the armor is "ablative". This seems like the simplest solution, and it provides nice RP opportunities to repair armor between combats.

Do any T&T players out there know how to handle this situation? If so, please comment below!

Thanks in advance!

Saturday, January 31, 2015

New Group After Action Report

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, last night was the first session of a new group. It went very well. The players didn't know each other before the game, but they quickly established a rapport. The players new to RPGs overcame that initial awkwardness quickly, and got into their characters, and the story.

The session covered a complete story (that is hopefully the springboard to a larger story). The players saw through the NPCs ruse very quickly, and solved the mystery a lot quicker than I expected.

It was a great beginning, and I'm very happy!

Friday, January 30, 2015

New Group

Tonight's the first night of a new campaign with a new group. There are three players (not counting me, who will be GMing), only one of which has previous RPG experience. It will be a fantasy campaign set on eastern edge of my campaign world, between the Dreadwood and the Firelands. For the rules, I chose Savage Worlds, though I wonder if old (basic) D&D would have been an easier introduction.

I love introducing new people to the hobby, but it always makes me nervous.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Savage Traveller

The reason that my blog is called "Vagabond GM" is because I constantly move from game system to game system in search of the mythical "perfect game."

I have to give my players a metaphorical hat tip for never complaining about making that journey with me. For instance, the Wednesday night space game started with original LBB Traveller. It was fun, but a little too "old school" for them, so we migrated to GURPS. GURPS is a great system, but I feel there are too many skills and too many rules for my current style of play. I thought it would be a great idea to migrate the game again, this time to Savage Worlds. This way we'd be using the same rule-set for both campaigns. My players didn't complain once.

The characters converted pretty easily, and I invented stats for a blaster gun. I still need to work on some armor, but that's another story.

One of the things that became apparent, though, was that Savage World's skill set isn't really genre appropriate, at least not for my "Commonwealth of Man" campaign. Sometimes one size does not fit all, and skills designed for a "wild west" setting don't necessarily make sense in a space opera campaign. Rather than scrap the game, I decided to revamp the skills. My goal, though, was to touch as little as possible but to still make it feel right in my gaming world.

td;dr Version

the rest of this blog post can be summed up in this simple table. If you have better things to than to read my blathering (and, really, who doesn't?), you can read this table and go on with your life.


Untouched Skills

The first thing I did was identified those skills that worked well in the setting with little or no modification. Those were:

This is used for grav cars and tanks and stuff. I might even be tempted to include small shuttle craft as driving.
I wanted to rename this as "Engineering", but I found that renaming skills that didn't change caused more confusion than it was worth.
I wanted to rename this as "Medic".
I was mightily tempted to combine this with Survival as one skill.

Modified Skills

The next group of skills were those that worked well in the setting, but needed some changes. Those were:

In vanilla Savage Worlds, the lock-picking skill is a twitch skill that covers both picking locks and disarming traps. In other words, it bypasses security systems. In my campaign it's still useful to bypass security systems, but in the high tech future, this is a Smarts skill, not Agility. I also rolled in the security systems of computers. To reflect this, I changed the name of the skill to Hacking.
The only change I made to shooting was to de-link small arms and starship weapons, as these skills have nothing to do with each other. Shooting now covers only the small arms. There is a new skill ("Gunnery") for the ship-based weapon systems.
I moved this to Spirit, because it "feels" right there. I also moved Gambling under this skill. I wanted to rename it as "Carousing" to match the old Traveller skill.

Deleted Skills

The next thing was to drop skills that I didn't see as having a general usage in the campaign. I defined "general usage" as "has this skill come up since the beginning of the campaign"? While these skills are "de-listed", they can be taken as a Knowledge type skill if a player really wants to fit some character concept. The dropped skills are:

  • Climbing (but see "Athletics", below)
  • Gambling (use Streetwise/Carousing)
  • Swimming (but see "Athletics", below)
  • Riding

New Skills

Lastly, there were a few skills that were so significant that I felt they needed to be added:

Astrogation is an "old skill" in my campaign. Most ships have navi-comps. But if you're going outside the established trade routes, you need this skill.
This is a generic skill that covers the old skills of Climbing and Swimming, as well as other physical tests like jumping and running.
In my campaign, starships fight at distances that are measured in light-seconds. That means you're trying to hit something that you last saw three seconds and guessing where it will be three seconds from now. This requires zero-agility, but a whole lot of smarts.

Does anyone else have any custom Savage Worlds skill listing? I'd be especially interested in hearing about ones for a fantasy campaign.

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Problem With Too Much Color

Like every other world-building GM, I like to add color to my campaign. But this is something that needs to be held in check, because there's a point where the color interferes with the play of the game. If you've ever read World of Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, or any source book for the Traveller universe, you probably know what I mean.

Whether or not the following is a transcript of a real life gaming session, and whether or not I was the GM in question are mysteries than mankind may never know the answer to.

(intently making plans)
What time of year is it?

It's the 19th of day of Fairy Song!
(out of immersion)
What the freak is that?
(eyes wide with excitement)
Well, eons ago, when the first Elven queen was coronated, there was...
(Camera pans to the clock which speeds up to show the passage of 23 minutes as the GM's voice cross-fades with itself...)

...and ever since then this month has always been known as Fairy Song!
(nearly asleep on the table)
Dude! I just wanted to know if it was hot or cold outside!