The Excellents: Excellent Princess Roleplaying

posted by hyphz Original SA post

It's time for a Polymorphic Special!

Mazes, from last year's ZineQuest event, is an updated OSR dungeon crawling game. You play as folks who go off to kill monsters and take their stuff in a world where there's lots of ruins and it's generally horrible enough that getting killed in them is still a good bet.

The Excellents, later published by the same authors, is a game of being.. um.. "an Excellent Princess in Awesome World", which is the real world but more awesome, and having the task of protecting your Realm - that is, whatever you're Princess of - and of generally fighting evil. Think Nobilis for children.

The similarity between the games is probably not clear at first. It lies in the unusual dice system, called the “Polymorph System” (or possibly "Platform" or "RPG". The books can't quite decide). The basis of the Polymorph System is that you pick one of four types of dice - d4, d6, d8, or d10 - to represent your character. You roll this dice every time you need to roll for an action. Actions are in turn divided into four categories, which have different ranges of target numbers. The different dice therefore hit the different number ranges more or less often.

The four dice types are given names for the type of character they represent. In Mazes, the d4, d6, d8, and d10 are called the “Paragon”, “Vanguard”, “Fighter”, and “Sentinel” respectively. In The Excellents, they’re called “Magical”, “Brainy”, “Charming” and “Tough”. You will notice there is a distinct lack of correspondence between these sets of names, even though they are different names for the same thing. That sounds suspicious, you might think. You would be right.

Likewise, the four roll categories are Intelligence, Dexterity, Strength, and Constitution. They’re not called that, of course. In Mazes, they’re called Books, Boots, Blades, and Bones - evidently the author thought it was cute to make them alliterative, thus making them more awkward to write down and increasing the chance of mishearings at the table, but hey. In The Excellents, they’re called Books, Shoes, Sword, and Heart. The target range for Books is 2-3, and each later range starts one higher and is one wider than the previous one. So Books is 2-3, Shoes/Boots is 3-5, Sword/Blades is 4-7, and Heart/Bones is 5-9.

The book confidently claims that each dice type is the best at rolling one of the four roll categories. That’s.. well. dubious to say the least. Here’s the actual odds for each roll and dice type.

	Books 2-3	Boots 3-5	Blades 4-7	Bones 5-9	Av        
d4	50% (23)	50% (34)	25% (4)		0% (-)	 	28.75    
d6	33% (23)	50% (345)	50% (456)	33% (56)	41.5    
d8	25% (23)	37.5% (345)	50% (4567)	50% (5678)	40.625  
d10	20% (23)	30% (345)	40% (4567)	50% (56789)	35    

Ranking d4 d6 d8 d10    d4-d6 d8 d10    d6-d8 d10 d4    d8-d10 d6 d4  

Ranking summary:
d6      2               1               1               2               1.5
d8      3               2               1               1               1.75
d4      1               1               3               3               2
d10     4               3               2               1               2.5
So, that statement about the roll categories matching the dice categories is kind of dubious. d4 is the best at rolling Books, but d6 is no better than d4 at Boots, d8 is no better than d6 at Blades, and d10 is no better than d8 at Bones. In fact, d10 is generally screwed; d8 is better than d10 at everything, and tied for Bones, which d8 is supposed to be best at. Overall, though, d6 comes first or second (after ties) at everything, which nothing else does.

Why does it turn out that way? Well, it’s because of how the ranges interact. Let’s look at the ranges and what effect each number has in terms of the four categories.

         1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  0
Books       >--<
Boots          >-----<
Blades            >--------<
Bones                >-----------<
#ranges  0  1  2  2  3  2  2  1  1  0
The numbers in the middle of the overall range are the most powerful - 5 is especially important, as it’s the only one that’s a success in three categories - and so d6 and d8 have a big advantage because of their greater chances of rolling numbers between 3 and 7.

There’s a few wrinkles, though. Namely, there’s two special cases for dice rolls. The first of these occurs if you roll a 1. If you roll a 1 in Mazes, you succeed if the task is one that your Class can accomplish. If you roll a 1 in The Excellents, it’s the same, but for if the task is one that your magical pet could help you with. There is a suggested list of Classes, but there’s no list of magical pets, and since they’re magical it’s difficult to define what they could or could not do, so it’s presumably just supposed to be a question of justifying their help.

The second special case occurs if you roll the highest number allowed on the dice - both systems call this “your Crown” - and it wouldn’t otherwise have been a success. In The Excellents, you succeed if the action is something to do with your Realm (ie, the thing you’re a princess of). In Mazes, you get the option to succeed at a cost.

So, let’s update the charts.

With Class/Pet:
	Books 2-3/1	Boots 3-5/1	Blades 4-7/1	Bones 5-9/1	Av        
d4	75% (123)	75% (134)	50% (14)	25% (1)		56.25
d6	50% (123)	66% (1345)	66% (1456)	50% (156)	58
d8	37.5% (123)	50% (1345)	62.5% (14567)	62.5% (15678)	53.125
d10	30% (123)	40% (1345)	50% (14567)	60% (156789)	45
Rank    d4 d6 d8 d10    d4 d6 d8 d10    d6 d8 d4-d10    d8 d10 d6 d4

With Crown:
	Books 2-3/x	Boots 3-5/x	Blades 4-7/x	Bones 5-9/x	Av        
d4	75% (234)	50% (34)	25% (4)		25% (4)	 	43.75    
d6	50% (236)	66% (3456)	50% (456)	33% (56)	49.75  
d8	37.5% (238)	50% (3458)	62.5% (45678)	50% (5678)	50 
d10	30% (230)	40% (3450)	50% (45670)	60% (567890)	45     
Rank    d4 d6 d8 d10    d6 d4-d8 d10    d8 d6-d10 d4    d10 d8 d6 d4

With Class/Pet and Crown:
	Books 2-3/1/x	Boots 3-5/1/x	Blades 4-7/1/x	Bones 5-9/1/x	Av        
d4	100% (1234)	75% (134)	50% (14)	50% (14)	68.75
d6	66% (1236)	83% (13456)	66% (1456)	50% (156)	66.25
d8	37.5% (1238)	62.5% (13458)	75% (145678)	62.5% (15678)	59.37
d10	40% (1230)	50% (13450)	60% (145670)	70% (1567890)	55
        d4 d6 d10 d8    d6 d4 d8 d10    d8 d6 d10 d4    d10 d8 d4-d6

Overall ranking summary:
d6      2 2 2 2         1 2 1 1         1 1 2 2         2 3 3 3         1.875
d8      3 3 3 4         2 3 2 3         1 2 1 1         1 1 2 2         2.125
d4      1 1 1 1         1 1 2 2         3 3 3 4         3 4 4 3         2.3125
d10     4 4 4 3         3 4 4 4         2 3 2 3         1 2 1 1         2.8
So. d4 is called “Paragon” or “The Magical One” on the grounds that its Class and Crown are activated more often than the other dice type. The problem is that while that’s true, it doesn’t actually help that much. On everything except Books rolls, or Boots rolls with Class, d6 is still better. Now, of course, raw comparing every roll in every circumstance and averaging the results isn’t necessarily representative of how an RPG would actually play, as players would be trying to play to their strengths, tasks would have different importance and significance, and so on. But a lot of the math the book claims - about each dice being the best at one of the stats, and so on - is just wrong, and that casts doubt over everything else as well. I don’t know if the author ever drew out those tables, or if they did but just kept the system anyway because they needed a USP.

So, time for the rest of character generation. In Mazes, it’s pretty simple. You’re an adventurer, or someone who has a good reason to go into ruins where there are monsters, kill them and take their stuff. In addition to your dice choice, you have an Aspect, a Class, and three Edges. Your aspect refers to your general method of solving problems - “Sword”, “Skill” or “Sorcery”. This determines your choice of Class, which determines what happens when you roll 1s; and your class determines your choice of 3 Edges. Edges are, essentially, FATE aspects (and yes there’s already a thing called Aspect in the system so thanks for the confusion). You can activate an Edge to gain advantage (5e style - roll your dice twice and keep the best) on any roll they relate to.

In the Excellents, however, you’re an “excellent princess”. The book emphasises that anyone can be a Princess, and that "the universe doesn't care how your express your gender", so you can go ahead and be a boy Princess if you want. This.. seems backwards. Now, ok, that's not to say you shouldn't be able to be a boy Princess if you want to be, but here's the thing: in this game, you have to be. If the universe really doesn't care, why can't you be a Prince? Or, heck, why can't a girl be a Prince? I could go with this if there was anything in the book to indicate that there was something special or unique about the title "Princess" in the game world, but there doesn't seem to be, so it's just another expression of gender - that thing that isn't supposed to matter. Humph. (Also, the sample characters have a space for "Pronoun" on their character sheets, but the provided sheet for actual players doesn't have one.)

You pick your dice type in the same way. But there’s no Aspects, and no list of Classes for Aspects. Instead, your Realm and your Magical Pet. Also, your Princess’ realm determines their name - it's literally just the name of the Realm followed by "Princess". So you don't get a real name, you're just "Spell Book Princess" or "Gadget Princess" or "Unnecessary Objectification Princess".

Princesses get Edges too, but they’re not called that, because they’re more specifically categorised. You get a Heart Word, a Sword, Shoes and a Library Book. The Heart Word can be picked from a list or chosen freely; the Sword can be any object that could vaguely be a weapon; the type of Shoes you wear is chosen from a list; and the Library Book can be any title you like. They act just like Edges do in Mazes; they give you Advantage on stuff to do with them. Unfortunately, the lists of Heart Words and Shoes.. aren’t great. Good luck resolving things when one player's Heart Word can be "Effective", and another's can be "Sleepy". Oh, and "Tough" is available as a Heart Word in spite of it being a Role. Screw you, d10! Likewise, for your Shoes, you could have "Boots" which help with doing woodsy nature stuff; "Dancing Shoes" which help with, um, dancing and generally showing off; or "flats" which help with "Getting Things Done". Assuming this doesn't mean applying the executive time management techniques published by David Allen, this seems.. a little wide.

Next step. Obviously our princesses need magical sparkly hearts and stars... hang on.. wait.. ok, sorry, it’s Mazes that has those. Hearts are hit points, and Stars are narrative bennies. You get Hearts equal to the max of your dice type, and 4, 3, 2, or 1 star according to the dice type you chose. There’s no hard definitions about what a Star can do, other than that it allows introductions of stuff to the game world, or success at actions - although the GM can refuse a Star spend, you do get the Star back if that happens. In addition, if you roll a success at a cost, a Star will pay any cost.

Instead of Stars, Princesses get Lessons. They get one whenever they fail, and they can spend one to succeed at something, or trigger a Montage or a Flashback. These terms are never defined in The Excellents; the book says "see page 39", but what page 39 actually describes is that the group can spend any number of lessons, once per session, to replace a roll with a music video. Yes, the Excellents break out into a musical number and it either resolves an action successfully without a roll or has a larger effect depending on the number of lessons spent. (I should mention that the blurb on the back of the book says that the Princesses "are in a band", but this is the only rule that's anything to do with music in the entire game.)

There are also no Hearts for Princess characters, but that's because.. that's all there is. Yes, I have just described all the rules of The Excellents apart from one. The PCs get disadvantage on rolls against an adventure’s Big Bad until they learn their secret. There. Done. Everything else is the sample tables for those character generation aspects and some guidelines on structuring an adventure, and a couple of sample characters complete with those unappealing names (Laser Princess, Hair Metal Princess, Library Book Princess, Maple Syrup Princess, Tomato Princess). They're not too remarkable. None of them are d10 based. (Oh, and for "Sword", Maple Syrup Princess gets “a giant Swiss Army Knife with all the accessories”, which presumably requires imagining a cute Princess just straight up pulling out a SwissChamp XLS and shanking someone with it) There are no Hearts or any HP equivalent because there are no damage rules. I mean, OK if they didn't want to have PCs getting killed in a children's game, but in this system literally anything that happens to a Princess happens by fiat. You just kind of do stuff, and win when you win, and you don't lose. Huh.

Needless to say, Mazes adventurers get a bit more opposition. First of all, and strangest of all, you lose a Heart whenever you do anything violent. The argument is that you don’t get into a fight without a bruise or two, or at least tiring yourself out. You also lose hearts by failing rolls against dangerous hazards - both monsters and traps and other similar things - in which case you lose Hearts equal to their Danger level. If you run out of Hearts, you have to take a Condition, which refills both your Hearts and your Stars (and you can take a condition voluntarily to refill your Stars any time if you want to).

There are four Standard Conditions which are taken in order. Stressed gives you Disadvantage on Books and locks out the Crown bonus, and only heals if you “rest in a safe place, bond with another character, or indulge in a vice”. Tired gives you Disadvantage on Boots, as well, and is only cleared by a rest in a safe place. Hurt gives you disadvantages on Blades and Bones and can’t be cleared except by “an extended rest, which will seldom happen during a standard adventure session”. And Down leaves you knocked out, which means you can’t do anything until someone tries to help you, whereupon you roll a couple of d8’s to see what happens. I won’t copy the tables here. I’ll just tell you the odds:

1/64   You die.
16/64  You wake up with Stressed, Tired, and Hurt, 1 Heart and 1 Star.
2/64   You wake up with Stressed, Tired, Hurt, 1 Heart, 1 Star, and a negative Edge called “Scarred”.
35/64  You wake up with Stressed or Tired (your choice), full hearts and 1 Star.
1/64   You wake up with no conditions, 1 Heart and 1 Star.
9/64   You wake up with no conditions, full Hearts and 1 Star.
Since this is an OSR game, I’m allowed to take the mick out of dissociated mechanics, so I will point out the irony that if your buddy is Hurt then rather than rushing him to hospital it’s a much better idea to punch him unconscious, take him Down, and then have a 35/64 chance of him being unhurt when he wakes up.

After all those statistics, I'm calling Part 1 here. In the next part, we'll look at the remaining rules of Mazes (as I mentioned, there are no remaining rules of The Excellents), which are the GM side rules. Which are actually much better than some of these.

And, um, apart from that

posted by hyphz Original SA post

And, um, apart from that

Well, we're done with The Excellents now, but there's still a bit more of Mazes to deal with.

Now, a bit of background. Because Mazes was published as part of the "Zine Quest" series on Kickstarter, it's provided as four miniature books: Sword, Sorcery, Maze and Monster. The KS offered the opportunity to get one, two, three, or all four of these. But it's a bit of a twist, because in practice you do need at least the first three in order to play. Sword contains the basic dice system rules from last post. Sorcery contains character generation (and not just for magic-using characters, it contains all the classes), and Maze is needed for the GM side rules without which you can't do combat correctly.

So, classes. As mentioned last time, classes are sorted by the three Aspects - Sword, Skills, and Sorcery - only have two effects in Mazes: they determine what tasks you can succeed at by rolling a 1, and they give you a set of three Edges which let you claim advantage on other rolls. Every class has a single edge that it "always has", a second chosen from between two with the question "which are you?", and a third chosen from between three with the question "what do others calls you?"

For example. The six Sword classes are: the Dangerous Bravo, the Monster Hunter, the Menacing Dragoon, the Hard Assassin, the Bugbear Outcast, and the Street Goblin. The Dangerous Bravo's text reads: "Always WELL-ARMED. As a dangerous fighter, are you ARMORED or SHARP? Do others call you HALE, TOUGH, or STRONG?" Most of these aren't further defined apart from the idea of being able to gain advantage on rolls where the descriptors make sense, although there are a few that are specifically defined. ARMORED, for example, is specifically listed as allowing you to gain advantage on rolls made to resist damage. In addition to these lists, each class also gets a page to itself, but it's mostly flavor text apart from a repetition of the Edge choices.

To polish off, the Skills classes are the Shadowy Footpad, the Tomb Robber, the Sea Hawk, the Itinerant Smith and the Mad Alchemist; and the Sorcery classes are the Old Wizard, the Wise Witch, the Forgotten Ilf, and five variants of the Mage: White, Red, Blue, Green and Black. Each of these gets default access to one of the five domains of spell: Sky, Forge, Sea, Earth and Night.

The structure of the magic rules is something like Ars Magica. There are those five domains, and also five Schools: Conjuration/Abjuration, Illumination/Illusion, Evocation, Enchantment, and Summoning. They behave as Edges to give you advantage on rolls, and when you want to cast, pick a school and domain, combine them together, and spend a star. There's no further specification of what spells do. Most of the character classes give you a Domain, in which case you can use all five Schools with relation to that Domain.

Unfortunately, there is also a glitch here. The School of Enchantment is described as the general class of spells that make other actions better and more powerful, and each of the five domains is associated with one of the types of roll; Sky for Books, Sea for Boots, Forge for Blades, Earth for Bones, and Night for "Class and Crown" (I have no idea how that works when it isn't a particular type of roll). The rules say that you can choose to give up your character's Domain to take a School instead, and get access to all Domain spells in that School. So the munchkin option is to drop your Domain and take the school of Enchantment, which means that no matter what roll you're making you can argue that your magic can enhance it. Whee!

Maze clarifies another set of rules for the game's other two resources: Treasure, and Darkness. As this implies, Treasure is abstracted; the GM doesn't make up what treasure the PCs find except as flavor. Whenever the PCs find anything valuable, they gain a Treasure point. The expectation on the GM is that the amount of treasure in the dungeon will be roughly the same as the number of players plus one. Treasure is pooled amongst the PC group, and one point can be spent to gain advantage on a roll; to declare that they have just the right piece of equipment to deal with a task; or to pay for a financial transaction (there's no statement of limits on size). Treasure points unspent at the end of an adventure are effectively lost; the book emphases the idea that the PCs are intended to represent the iconic characters in a novella series rather than an ongoing series of long quests, meaning that they aren't expected to change drastically between adventures, although there are some very simple advancement rules that we'll come onto.

The second resource, Darkness is.. well, it's GM bennies. Which have the usual problem of GM bennies - that there's no statement of what the limits are on what the GM can do without spending one. But there is a list of what gives the GM Darkness points, and if I had to take one thing out of this game, I'd surely take this list, because it's one of the best ones I've seen; it's similar to Dungeon World's idea of a "golden opportunity", except much clearer. The six conditions are:

What does Darkness do? It has three options: to summon Wandering Monsters - that's about OK; to heal a monster, or to spend a Star as a monster - ok; or... to "create a hazard or make something happen by Fiat". Ugh. There it is. It's not clear if this means the GM has no fiat rights otherwise. There is the intriguing suggestion that individual adventure modules can include "darkness spends" for the GM to trigger when running the game, but unfortunately only one of the sample adventures actually does.

Also, the initial Darkness level is actually set by the players. The players begin by choosing a Treasure level, and the Darkness is set equal to that value - although one will be immediately added to it because of the "entering the darkness" condition on entering the dungeon. I get what the author was going for here, but any system like this will immediately ring alarm bells that it'll be optimal to either state a ridiculously large number or zero. Since Flashbacks can do anything treasure can do but don't have to be booked in advance, it looks like zero is probably the best choice.

There's also a general effect based on the Darkness total. When the Darkness is less than the party size, any "costs" to succeed on Crown rolls are lighter; when it's more than double the party size, they're much harder. Again, this is an idea I genuinely like, of overlaying the success at cost mechanic with a narrative score, and could very easily fit into a PbtA standard as well.

The Monster book is mostly, as you'd expect, monsters. Monsters are defined very simply by a number of hearts, a number of stars, and a Danger level which is how much damage they do. They also have Edges, and monsters have many more available Edges with defined mechanical effects than PCs do. These mostly cover the intended relative strength of the monster (for example, a "Fodder" monster gives advantage to every roll against it, and a "Terrible" monster gives disadvantage), and their disposition - for example, Solo (gets a free full heal when dropped for the first time), and Team (players are disadvantaged as long as the team is working together).

Unfortunately, there's another rules confusion. The game states that to regenerate a monster's health, the GM can spent a monster's Star, or a Danger, or a Darkness. That's a lot of regeneration! On the other hand, most monster HP values are quite small, so it's perfectly possible that this is intentional and meant to represent gradual attrition. A player's damage value is determined by rolling a dice of their usual type; this means that d10 gets a slight advantage in that it rolls more damage.. well, except that it also doesn't hit as often and ends up tied with d8 on average damage as a result. But it does give a reason not to just choose d6 every time.

So, let's take a monster. Let's try a Classical Demon (yes, that's what they're actually called in the book). It has 5 hearts, 5 stars, and 5 danger, and no special abilities that affect rolls against it. If all of those points are eventually spent to heal it, it has effectively 55 hit points. That's not unreasonable, though, when there's PCs around who can dish out d8 or d10 damage. So, let's try a sample combat. The game suggests your first party should have one of each dice type, so I'm working with the following assumptions: there's d4, d6, d8, and d10. They attack by rolling Blades and defend by rolling Boots or Bones, whichever is better for them at the time (the book doesn't actually state this as a rule but it's pretty obvious). d8 has an Edge that gives him advantage on attacks, and d10 has an Edge that gives him advantage on defending. The demon always hits the weakest party member and works their way up. And remember, per the first book, PCs take 1 Heart of damage every time they take a violent action. Here we go:

d4		d6		d8 a-adv	d10 d-adv	Demon
(4/4)		(6/3)		(8/2)		(10/1)		(5/5/5)
Miss (3/4)	Miss (5/3)	Hit (7/2) -3	Hit (9/1) -4    Refresh (5/4/5)
Boots Dodge							Attack d4
Miss (2/4)	Miss (4/3)	Miss (6/2)	Miss (8/1)	(5/4/5)
Refresh (S4/4)							Attack d4 -5
Miss (S3/4)	Hit -2 (3/3)	Hit -1 (5/2)	Hit -5 (7/1)	Refresh (5/3/5)
Boots Dodge							Attack d4
Miss (S2/4)	Miss (2/3)	Hit -4 (4/2)	Miss (6/1)      (1/3/5)
Refresh (T4/4)							Attack d4 -5
Miss (T3/4)	Miss (1/3)	Hit -8 (3/2)	Hit (5/1) -3	Refresh (2/2/5)
Boots Dodge 							Attack d4 
Hit (T2/4) -2	Hit+Ref-1(S6/3)	Hit -2 (2/2)	Miss (4/1)      Refresh (2/1/5)
Refresh (H4/4)							Attack d4 -5
Miss (H3/4)	Hit -1 (S5/3)	Hit -8 (1/2)	Miss (3/1)	Refresh (5/0/5)
Down	 							Attack d4 -5
		Miss (S4/3)	Miss+Ref(S8/2)	Miss (2/1)	(5/0/5)
		Refresh (T6/3)					Attack d6 -5
		Hit -6 (T5/3)   Hit -8 (S7/2)	Miss (1/1)	Refresh x2 (5/0/3)
		Bones Soak					Attack d6 
		Miss (T4/3)	Miss (S6/2)	Hit+Ref-3(S10/1)(3/0/3)
		Bones Soak					Attack d6
		Hit -6 (T3/3)	Miss (S5/2)	Hit -2 (S9/1)   Refresh (3/0/2)
		(T1/3)						Attack d6 -2
		Hit+Ref-1(H6/3)	Hit -3 (S4/2)	Miss (S8/1)     Refresh (5/0/1)
		Boots Dodge					Attack d6
		Miss (H5/3)	Hit -7 (S3/2)	Miss (S7/1)	Down
I'm assuming here that the demon goes down at 0 Danger, rather than spending its last point of Danger on regenerating and then trying to continue fighting while dealing 0 damage. This is also assuming the GM didn't have any Darkness to spend. A Demon doesn't have any of the "super dangerous" type Edges, but this was still a pretty hard fight that left d4 downed completely and d6 hurt. (d4 made their recovery roll and got up OK, while d8 punched out d6 to make him Down, then he also made his recovery roll and healed everything.) It also went on a looong while - 13 full rounds - which could get a bit tedious for the typical regular enemy, although arguably just "standing there and slugging each other" isn't what the PCs are supposed to be doing. Because of the Novella format, there's only supposed to be 3-5 rooms in the typical dungeon, so it's possible this could work well as one of them.

Let's talk about the other monsters. I'm not going to give the stats for all of them, since this book is still actively being promoted. I will, however, give their descriptions and names, because many of them are.. um.. weird.

Which has some very original ideas, some unnecessary twists, and some old chestnuts. The book does mention that some monsters may inflict Conditions instead of dealing damage, but none of the monsters listed are actually described as doing so.

There are also three sample adventures, but again - because of the recent republishing of this game, I won't go through them in detail.

So, Mazes is.. well, I'm inclined to file it under interesting failures to steal stuff from. It comes across as really trying far too hard to be innovative and different and blundering into some design traps in the course of doing so, but there's a lot of good ideas there, and it could probably be brushed up very well if it wasn't for the commitment to quirkiness at all costs.