All Mechanics, All the Time

posted by Night10194 Original SA post

Modern AGE

Post 1: All Mechanics, All the Time

Modern AGE is an attempt at creating a 'generic' action-adventure system for modern and urban fantasy adventures, designed by Malcolm Sheppard and based on an engine made by Chris Pramas, the lead designer from WHFRP 2e. From what I can tell, much of the stunt and dice system from this game came out of lessons learned designing WHFRP2e; lots of it strikes me as an attempt to make things that never really came up in WHFRP useful. Similarly, the shift to a 3d6 dice pool instead of a d100 and 'having the skill just gives you a bonus' skill system makes a system that produces generally competent action-hero type PCs. I've used it for one campaign and played in one campaign using it, and if you like conventional RPGs (as I tend to) it's pretty good. There are some awkward parts, some bits that aren't as well thought out, and some oddities, but the base system is competent and the Stunt system is genuinely fun for action scenes, even if it can be a little awkward outside of combat.

However, as it's an attempt at a generic system (it reminds me of Cinematic Unisystem, really) there is no fluff attached to this book. There's plenty of advice on using this book to play in other settings or adapting it to different tones and types of modern action-adventure gaming, but it's pretty light on story and fluff. Which means this will be both a shorter dive, and probably a bit dry since it's going to be nothing but a look at game mechanics.

The entirety of the system is based around the d6. You roll 3d6 for every test, with the third die noted as the 'stunt die'. This die generates extra points for spending for narrative benefits or special attacks when you roll doubles, but it also determines degree of success (if that's important) and sometimes you'll add it to damage or healing or something else if you have an ability. A normal roll in AGE is 3d6+Stat, +bonuses for stuff like having a Focus (skill) in what you're doing or bonuses from your Talents. Characters are constructed entirely out of a stat list, a few Focuses, and their Talents. It's also a 1-20 level system, but each level is just '+1 Stat, +1 Talent, +1 Focus'. Stats soft-cap at 5, with it costing 2 levels to go up to 6 from there. In a game with a base DC of 11-13 and a 3d6 roll? There's good reason to soft cap the stats there. A Focus is a narrow skill that grants +2 to rolls relating to it. Say I'm an academic and have Intelligence Focus (Biology) and a 3 Int, I roll 3d6+3 for most academics checks but 3d6+5 for Biology. While stats can be negative, or 0, the 'average' for a PC is a 1, giving them good odds of hitting a DC 11 'average' check even in stats they aren't focusing on.

The stats are self-explanatory for the most part: Accuracy (Shooting people), Communications (Talking, charisma, etc), Constitution (Taking hits, the base of your Toughness, which resists some kinds of damage), Dexterity (Dodging hits, the base of your Defense, which is the difficulty to hit you in combat), Fighting (Punching people), Intelligence (Thinking), Perception (Spotting, doing damage with ranged weapons), Strength (Smashing, doing damage with melee weapons), and Willpower (Self control). You have the option of rolling for stats, and the rolling array is generally designed to produce similar overall stats to point buy, but the point buy method is better balanced considering the importance of your base stats. The rolling method (roll 3d6, check on a chart, see what result that gave you. Produces mostly ones and twos, very unlikely to produce below one, reasonably likely to give you one three) is presented as default and can be roll-down-the-line or roll and assign. Otherwise you just get 12 stat points to spend on your abilities, maximum 3 in any ability. Like I said, the point buy system is better balanced and stats are significant enough that I'd generally prefer to use it.

You also roll for background and social class, which is a bit odd but I don't mind that kind of randomization and it's easy enough to just pick if you prefer. If you got a higher class background, you can always pick a base career attached to a lower class background as you 'slum it' at the cost of your Resources stat (though you'll still be richer than someone who was actually lower class). I have the feeling some of this is the legacy of stuff like WHFRP, but again: You can just choose if the randomness annoys you. The various 'backgrounds' give one randomized bonus rolled on 2d6 (usually +1 to a stat or one Focus) and then a base +1 to a stat, a choice of two Focuses, and a choice of two Talents. For instance, an Aristocrat rolls on a table that can produce +1 Accuracy, +2 Resources (We'll get into those in a bit), Communications (Persuasion), Dexterity (Riding), +1 Perception, Communications (Gambling), Communications (Leadership), or +1 Willpower. They also get +1 Communications, a choice of Communications (Etiquette) or Intelligence (History) and then the Affluent or Contacts Talents at rank 1.

Your Profession isn't a character class, but rather what you did (and might still do) prior to being an adventure story protagonist. These give your base Resources (You roll Resources vs. Purchase DC to get new stuff or buy favors), base HP, an extra Focus, and an extra Talent. They're simple things like "Security" or "Soldier" or "Scholar". Finally, you pick a main Drive for your character that gives you another Talent and an 'improvement' to your HP, Resources, contacts, reputation, etc. Things like 'Rebel' or 'Builder', you know the drill.

The Focuses are generally very narrow, but because they're much more 'a significant bonus on top of your wide base of competence' I'm okay with that. A character with a 3 Dexterity, for instance? Real good at pretty much everything involving Dexterity, just they'll be even better at stuff involving any Focuses they have. This is generally a very positive change from the fairly restrictive skills in something like Warhams. Given the engines have the same lead designer and I see the bones of Hams in this game, I'll be comparing the two sometimes. Talents are much like in WHFRP or 40kRP, except they all have 3 levels and most are actually pretty neat. Lots of them adjust Stunt costs and gains in and out of combat, or otherwise interact with the Stunt system. Most of them are quite useful. It's also pretty easy to get a Talent you're focusing on to level 3; you might be able to start with it at 2 from your Career and stuff, and you gain 1 per level with fairly few restrictions on spending them. It's not hard to get to Master in something you want to be good at; those third tiers on the Talents aren't some super far off and distant thing, but rather something you can get in 2 levels if you have the first level already.

You also have Relationships, equal to 1 OR your ranks in Communication, whichever is higher. These are the people, organizations, etc so important to your character that they can inspire your actions. They can naturally be good or bad. Relationships between PCs can only be by consent; both players must agree on the bond and the nature of the bond. You can have up to 3 points in a Relationship, but you may only start with 2 in any individual Relationship at PC creation. These get activated to give you bonus Stunt Points on an action related to that person or bond once per session.

Another important part of the game is deciding if you're playing in Gritty, Pulp, or Cinematic mode. Gritty is basically 'don't get into combat, ever' and isn't particularly well balanced for a system where you're going to generally score hits in a fight. If you're playing in Gritty mode, you will never increase HP as you level up and you'll get access to instant-kill stunts and things. Gritty characters can't soak damage from melee weapons or guns, either; only from fists and stuff. The lack of DR and the low HP generally means Constitution is much less useful in a Gritty game, and Dex will be king in any combat encounter because it's basically all going to be rocket tag. Pulp is the middle ground, where you gain 1+Con HP a level (also retroactively improving HP if you put Con up later), you get to soak non-gun damage with your Con, and Pulp generally feels like the 'default' play mode for the game. Cinematic lets you soak all kinds of damage with Con, gives you tons more HP, and makes crazy stunts and mook rules part of the game. Throughout the game you'll find sidebars talking about how to adjust rules for the three play modes. I generally don't think Gritty is particularly well balanced or well thought out, but the game I ran was in Pulp and it worked pretty great. Cinematic mostly just makes the PCs way more powerful in a fight but doesn't fundamentally change things quite the way Gritty does.

All in all, it's pretty simple, though there's a fair amount of flip time as you get used to creating character. In general, Modern AGE feels like a mixture of Cinematic Unisystem (in that it's a 'generic' system that manages to be decent at what it tries to do) and lessons learned from the Hams games and their design. Probably why I ended up liking it, considering I'll always have a fondness for Cinematic Unisystem and the combat system in AGE does actually fix most of my niggles about Hams. Also, as a nice bit: The game explains what each mechanical option is doing for you at each phase of character creation, and you know the resolution system and the general scale of DCs by the time you're building your PC. It's nice to be informed and that's one of the values of a fairly simple task resolution mechanic.

Next Time: Example PC!

This is why you don't roll stats

posted by Night10194 Original SA post

Modern AGE

Post 2: This is why you don't roll stats

We'll be making a rolled character, to show off that rolled characters often have more or less than 12 stat points total and demonstrate why the rolled system does not balance as well. Since I used this system for a Resident Evil game (and generally would use it in place of All Flesh Must Be Eaten in the future), assume this is a protagonist for a Resident Evil Spinoff.

Our hero starts off strong with a 15 (15-17 gets you 3) for Accuracy, so 3 Accuracy. Then a 13 (12+ gets you 2) netting them 2 Comm. A 10 for Con is still a 1 (9+ is 1), and a 12 gets a 2 Dex. An 11 gets a 1 Fighting, 7 gets 0 Intelligence (You have to roll 5 or lower, on 3d6, to get a -1), 8 gets 0 Perception, 17 gets 3 Strength, and 15 gets 3 Willpower. Note this adds up to 3+2+1+2+1+0+0+3=15 character points. This character is 3 points ahead of a point-buy character. Yes, their attributes are distributed a little randomly (they'd probably like the 3 Strength in Perception to go with Accuracy, or the 3 Accuracy in Fighting), but you can also choose to roll and then assign your scores if you wish. In general, higher or lower total rolled stats will put a character much more significantly ahead than they would in a system like Warhammer; the differences between a 1 and a 3 are much more significant than the variations you'd get in WHFRP 2e. I understand enjoying rolling for concept generation, but it would be easier to come up with something else rather than risking unbalancing characters this way.

This character will be a young woman, and since she's kind of a lunkhead but she's boulder-punching strong, we'll name her Christina. Rolling a d6 for Background and getting a 3, she's Lower Class. Rolling again for actual background, she's from a laboring/working class family. She gets Focus: Fighting (Brawler) for her 2d6 table result. Being a Laborer gets her +1 Constitution, plus Strength (Might) or Dexterity (Crafting). She's strong as hell, so she takes Strength (Might). With a 2 Con, 2 Dex, and 3 Strength, Christina is in excellent shape even for an action hero. She gets her choice of an Unarmed Combat Style Talent or Party Animal for being a Laborer, so she'll take Striking Style and punch like she had a knife on her at all times. She's well equipped to punch a zombie's head off. Rolling her actual Profession, she gets a 5; Clergy OR she can take the Outsider option of Fixer. At the same time, a badass Methodist Elder who can put a Hunter in a headlock is awesome, so she's taking Clergy. That gets her Intelligence (Theology) or Willpower (Faith), and she's taking Willpower (Faith). She gets 15+Con starting HP (17), Inspire or Oratory (And takes Inspire, it's an awesome Talent), and she's got okay Resources at 4. Her 2 Comm means she's still good with people, but a 3 Willpower and her +2 in matters where her faith comes up means she's basically completely unshakeable. Remember, this is a 3d6 system and a DC 13 is 'hard'. Needing an 8+ is really good odds.

She takes the Leader drive, because she's a community leader who always finds herself at the forefront of things. This gives her the ability to take Inspire (Expert) since she can gain it again. She also takes Health for her Drive Improvement and raises her HP to 22. She's tough as nails, she punches like she had a knife or club, she's in good shape, she's brave as hell, but she's not the smartest hero. Her 2 ranks of Inspire both give all her allies +1 Willpower while she's conscious and around, but she can also spend a full turn yelling inspiring things to give her allies d6+Comm HP back and a +2 on their next test once per battle. Which is great. One more level of Inspire and she'll start giving allies +1 Stunt Points on every Stunt (combat or non) if she's around, because she's such a good leader.

Also pretty damn good with a gun, which is a nice plus. Elder Christina is nobody to fuck with. As you can see, even at level 1 she's a pretty capable general action-adventure character. Even having a 1 or 2 in a stat is already enough to be 'decent' with everything that stat does. Some situations might call for you to have a Focus or be unable to work with them, though; you might have a 4 Int but if you have no training at all with computers, unless you have the Improvisation Talent or the Theory and Practice Talent, you might not be able to try a hacking check. Improv lets you always attempt checks even if you don't have the Focus the GM called for, while Theory and Practice lets you substitute intellectual Focuses for much more physical ones at a minor penalty. In general, as long as you have a +3 or better total check, it's safe to say your character is genuinely 'good' at a thing. So Christina there is 'good' with all guns and thrown weapons, good with her fists, strong as hell, and completely unshakeable. At actual feats of might (like busting down a door or lifting a stalled car's wheel out of a ditch), she's truly exceptional. Just don't ask her to solve puzzles or hunt for clues.

Next Time: More on Talents and Focuses


posted by Night10194 Original SA post

Modern AGE

Post 3: Talented!

If I was going to make my own update of WHFRP, the skill system here would be how I would approach it. One shift I've noticed in a lot of modern RPG design (among crunchy and semi-crunchy games) is a move towards having skills add to what you can do instead of making lack of skills cut you off from attempting things; you see the same over in Cardinal, where having Skill Marks or whatever just added dice and you could still try to do things fine without an actual skill. This is a very good trend for 'adventure' fiction. The classic style of story about broadly competent characters benefits a lot from giving people room to improvise and play to their strengths, but more importantly it keeps you from accidentally creating lots of scenes where most of the players can't participate. AGE has very, very specific Focuses; you need a separate Focus for Handguns, or Assault Rifles, or full Long Arms, or whatever, for instance. This is because your base stat matters a lot more than your Focus in the grand scheme of things. Focus is simply a way to get much better, much faster. A character with a 5 in Accuracy is a world class marksman whatever they pick up; their Focus just defines what they're especially good with. Similarly, they can reflect places where you're otherwise pretty average but suddenly stand out. Someone with a 1 in Perception but the Empathy Focus is still really good at reading people and being sensitive to others even if they're only 'average' at the other parts of investigating.

Considering you get a Focus every level, and you have 20 character levels to go through (plus you start with 2-3 from your Background and Profession), they work out fine. Similarly, the overall stat cap works fine with the fact that the game is running on a 3d6 engine; you get the biggest benefits for a single +1 or a +2 when you're close to needing a 10+ or 11+ to succeed, with benefits diminishing as you get your target roll down (or penalties ceasing to matter as much as it goes up, but that's because your chances were shot already). Your odds of an 11+ roll are 50-50, 10+ is 62.5%, etc, but by the time you only need a 7+ you've got 90% odds of hitting a roll. This is going to be important for how some of the game's situational penalties work. A -1 penalty isn't going to matter much to someone who had good odds, but it's a big deal if you needed a 10 or 11 on the dice to succeed. Most TNs won't go out of the 10-15 range. If it was TN less than 10, when you assume the average PC has a +1 in the base stat, you probably don't have much cause to bother rolling as anyone competent can succeed trivially. Similarly, going above TN 15 is effectively requiring a player to have their stat near the cap, a Focus, and maybe some situational bonuses, so those sorts of difficulties are pretty rare. This makes it very easy to determine when a character is talented at something, and also makes it achievable to become talented at things you're not by leveling up.

I harp on that some because I think it's an important part of serial adventure fiction. It's nice to be able to start out as a painter and then get drawn into a world of international intrigue and madness and pick up being a secret agent or something. Or have your tough soldier slowly pick up crazy occult knowledge. Or whatever other 'twist' on advancement you can think of. It isn't necessary to every campaign, every character, and every story, but I really like having the option open.

As for Talents, like Focuses, Talents are never really 'necessary' but add edges to what you can already do. You don't need 3 ranks of Handgun Style to be good with a pistol, but it helps. This can be seen as 'nickle and dime' Talent design, but I think that's less of a problem when they're edges on top of a broad base of competence from your core stats. Part of the reason some people (myself included) hate D&D's Feat design so much is that you're so reliant on Feats to give you permission to even try to do things. You get some cool abilities from Talent trees, sure, but most of your special abilities are in the Stunt system and your stats. I can still pull off a cool move where I wrap a bike chain around a guy's wrists and padlock him to a fence as a finisher in a fight without needing an entire Talent tree; that's just a normal (if high SP, and usually requiring a second, opposed test) Stunt. But having Self Defense Style so that you can follow up someone missing you by putting them in a hold is a big help on being a good grappler. A cunning character is probably pretty good at lying to people, but getting a free reroll from having the first rank of the Intrigue Talent when they fuck up a lie check is a nice bonus.

For the most part, Talents don't open up entire things you can do now, they just make you better at things anyone could try to do. And again, you get a Talent along with a stat point and a Focus every level, so you're not wasting things you could have spent on other things developing these edges. Lots of them also get more exciting as you go up their tree, and at most, any one Talent takes 3 levels of investment to max out. Lots of Talents also modify the Stunt system, making you generate more points or making certain Stunt actions cheaper so you can add more to your combo. The bonuses aren't huge, but they're certainly enough to be useful. Talents also have pre-reqs, but these are A: Waived if you got the Talent through a starting or background slot and B: Only matter for learning the first rank of the Talent; they don't increase as you go up in levels of the Talent. They aren't huge, usually. They're usually things you would have had anyway. You need Fighting (Brawling) to learn Striking Style, for instance. Or you need a high Int for Theory and Practice, the Talent tree about substituting your (narrowly specialized) knowledge Focuses for more practical/physical ones at a penalty. So you would want a high Int to make any use of that Talent anyway. The pre-reqs aren't really necessary, but they aren't a big deal in practice.

In addition to Talents and Focuses, as you level up you'll eventually unlock Specializations. These are additional small bonuses on top: you get one every 4 levels. They act like a special Talent Tree, and you can upgrade them or buy into the first level of a new one at level 8, then 12, then 14, then 16. You cannot have more than 2 of these, so you'll eventually Master one and be stuck at Expert in another. I wish there were a few more of these, but the concept does the job okay. These are things like Executive, Gunfighter, Academic, Spy, etc. They function almost exactly like Talents, just you get that very limited pool of them and they slot on top of your normal advancement. They add some nice flavor to a character and like everything else, they're all about building on a broad base by giving you a few edges in a specific area. For instance, an Investigator can always unlock leads even if they don't have a required Focus (they find some other way around the obstacle), then gets an additional +1 bonus from their Focuses if they apply to the investigation check and makes some of the Investigation stunts cheaper at Expert, then makes the 'Big Breakthrough' Stunt almost half as expensive at Master. Once again, you'd be perfectly fine being a detective without it, but it will make you better at it.

In a more focused game system, I would want much more exciting and specific advances. In a generic game designed to be adapted to multiple flavors of modern adventure serial games? I really like the approach of having multiple axis of advancement while making your core stats and the Stunt system available to everyone the most important part of your character. The threshold for competence being attainable within a level or two for a specific task you want to be good at is also helpful for a generic system. You want your character to have an arc about becoming a great medic? Three levels in Int, master the Emergency Treatment Talent track, buy Medicine and two other Focuses, and congratulations, you're now able to patch bullet wounds so fast that you can even shoot back at the same time, making Heal Another a minor action (which you got for that first level of Talent!) and healing people by effectively 3d6+Int every time you use it. And you were already competent enough after the first level and talent. This also means 1st level characters are still reasonably competent people. You're action protagonists. PCs in this system are built to get up to antics from day one and only branch out or get better from there. It works well for a generic semi-crunchy system.

Next Time: Stunts

Always Carry Handcuffs

posted by Night10194 Original SA post

Modern AGE

Post 4: Always Carry Handcuffs

So, Combat. We're going to talk about combat first, as it has the most natural implementation of the Stunt system. Getting in a fight is pretty recognizable for anyone who has ever played a 'traditional' RPG. You roll a Dex test for Initiative (which cannot generate SP, though you can have a Focus in Initiative for a +2), you note the number, everyone acts in order. You get 1 Minor action and 1 Major action (or 2 Minors) for moving, shooting, striking, charging, setting up to pursue if an enemy tries to flee (really important for melee characters to keep someone with a gun and fast feet locked down), bandaging wounds, etc etc. If you take the time to aim before swinging or shooting, it gives +1 to hit, but remember: How much of a boost +1 is varies a lot depending on where you ended up in the probability curve. This is actually an important part of the game's numeric design, especially in combat. There are lots of things that let a highly skilled fighter trade some to-hit for extra effects or damage because a highly skilled fighter is probably so high on to-hit that trading -3 or something takes them from like 98% to hit to 90% to hit, while someone who needed a 10+ still has good odds of hitting but can't afford such luxuries.

There are no active defense rolls in AGE; characters have 10+Dex Defense as their basic TN to be hit. They also have Toughness equal to their Constitution; this is used to reduce damage from incoming attacks based on game type. They also gain extra Defense and Toughness as they level, based on the campaign type. In Gritty, you will never gain Defense or Toughness. In Pulpy, you gain +1 Defense or Toughness at every 4th level, but have to alternate between them; you basically just choose which goes up first. In Cinematic, you get +1 Defense and Toughness every 4 levels. Remember that Toughness reduces all forms of damage in Cinematic, Impact/Stun damage (melee weapons, basically) in Pulpy, and only Stun damage (unarmed fighting, tasers, etc) in Gritty. To deal with increased DR, all attacks also do +2 damage in Pulp and Cinematic games.

This makes guns very, very dangerous in Pulp and Gritty games. In everything but Cinematic (and maybe even in Cinematic), the intention is that a gun coming out is a serious escalation to a scene. Remember that characters generally start with 15-30 HP, and in Gritty games they never gain more. In Pulp, they still gain significant HP if they have a lot of Constitution (1+Con per level, minimum 1), and in Cinematic, they gain d6+Con per level until 10, then 1+Con per level, so those characters can potentially eat a few bullets. To give the scale of what a standard 9mm pistol does, they do 2d6+Genre Modifier+Perception Score, but any weapon that is semiautomatic is assumed to be firing more than one round and so adds the Stunt die result to damage, even without a Stunt being rolled. So effectively, a handgun does 3d6+Per and often +2 on top of that. Compare against HP and take into account lacking DR against it in a pulp game. Guns are dangerous. In a Gritty game, you basically cannot ignore a gun; the suggestion for Gritty games is to play stuff like detective serials where when you have the game's one actual firefight it's a huge deal and extremely lethal.

Cinematic characters can potentially shrug off bullets like it was nothing, mind. All characters can wear body armor, which will protect from some degree of Impact/Stun and Ballistic damage, though heavier armor will tank your Defense. The thing is, if your Defense wasn't good to begin with, you don't lose a lot by wearing heavy Ballistic Plate to an action scene if you can get it; reducing gun damage by 6 (and Impact by 4) is worth more than getting hit 6% less or whatever. And the very basic 'ballistic cloth' armor that can be hidden under or in clothes will still give you 2 Impact/4 Ballistic at no cost to your Defense. Heavy armor is a tradeoff that helps heavy characters survive when their Defense wouldn't have helped. Light armor is an excellent bonus everyone can make use of.

For contrast, most melee weapons are much less lethal. Big ones like a Sledgehammer hurt like hell (2d6+3+Str+Genre Modifier), but most are in the d6+1, d6+3 range. An actual greatsword hurts like hell (3d6 base), but how often are you going to be toting a zweihander in a modern adventure game? Add to that that outside of Gritty games, most people can reduce damage from melee, and it looks like melee eats shit next to a gun.

The thing is, you're in a modern game. Guns are often more regulated, harder to get, and draw a lot of attention. They're also much more lethal; in a Gritty game, you cannot say you're 'shooting to wound' and people will be fatally wounded and in need of emergency care to save their lives, at least. In a Pulp game it's up to the GM and players if they can 'non-lethally' kneecap someone or something. In Cinematic games, sure, go ahead, you're cool action heroes and it's entirely your choice if any kind of weapon kills someone or you just shoot some scenery onto them and knock them out without serious issues. Melee weapons like a staff or baton (or your fists) can knock people cold or subdue them without having to leave a bodycount for the authorities (and so you can ask the fascist agitator you beat the shit out of how he's linked to the local police.) As a sidenote, all the action examples are stuff like that; the heroes foiling fascist coups, discovering links between hate groups and the cops, etc. When it isn't your more traditional mad scientists. But even more importantly, melee weapons (and especially grappling) unlock some really good Stunts.

So, I've said what a Stunt is. You roll doubles on 3d6 for a check, you check the third die, you generate that many SP. So if I roll 3-3-6 AND I succeeded on that check, I get a 6 point stunt. If I roll 1-1-1 and fail, no stunts. If I roll 1-4-4 and succeed, also 4 Stunt points. Rolling triples has no effect. When you generate Stunt Points, your Stunt might cause another roll, like giving you a second attack or setting an ally up to shoot someone immediately outside of init order or making a second roll to control a grapple; these rolls cannot generate additional Stunts so you can't infinite attack chain no matter how lucky you are. You can also pick more than one Stunt; the pool of points is just that, a pool. Some Stunts will let you spend a variable number of points, but otherwise you can't do the same Stunt twice on one roll. You can also choose to make a Stunt Attack, where you forgo doing normal damage to generate at least 1 SP and to generate +1 SP if you roll a Stunt. This is useful for when you're trying to grapple someone, or you REALLY need to push someone off the edge of a ledge or something.

Stunts do stuff like force enemies to move, let you move after your attack, force a disarm on an enemy, taunt an enemy into having to attack you instead of others, sheer away enemy cover, do extra damage, give you a follow up attack, give an ally a follow up attack (much cheaper), break through enemy DR, destroy scenary to make enemy movement or chasing harder, move you to the front of Init, give you temporary HP, let you dive for cover while firing at the same time, etc etc. As a rule of thumb, if it was something you needed a fiddly feat or an entire special attack maneuver for in most standard RPGs, it's available as a rider for successful attacks from the Stunt system.

Also note: Automatic Fire is only modeled via Stunts and that Semiauto/Auto bonus damage rule. Some of the Stunts for Guns will let you walk your fire from an automatic weapon into other people, or shoot the same target a second time for bonus damage (better than or in addition to the basic 'attack again' Lightning Attack stunt anyone can do for 3). Ammo similarly isn't modeled in a granular way; unless you're on Gritty, you always have reloads on you but you only need to reload when you miss an attack and your Stunt Die is lower than your gun's Ammo rating. Otherwise it's assumed you're reloading smoothly among your attack sequences or that like a proper action hero, you don't bother with reloading unless it's dramatic.

Melee's exclusive Stunts do stuff like Disarming enemies, destroying their armor (and actually making the armor a huge hindrance to their Dex and ability to move because they have broken armor hanging off them) or weapons, destroying their ability to move, opening enemies up to getting murdered by your allies by tanking their defense completely, or grappling people. Grappling is very powerful if you're good at it and get a high SP stunt. Especially if you carry a chain or handcuffs or rope. Grappling can take human shields for cover, immobilize enemies for allies to hit, take people to the mat (with you on top of them and punching them), pin them, or for a 5 point stunt if you have something to do it with, basically take someone out by cuffing their hands behind their back or otherwise restraining them. They can still potentially break out of that if they're really dangerous, but against most human-like opponents? That move can be a fight-ender. As a result, most Grapple tests take a second, opposed Fighting (Grapple) test as part of their Stunts to control your target, but the Grappling talents help with those.

The Stunts seem daunting, but the list is well defined and you get used to using them in combat quickly. They do a good job of making combat feel more dynamic, and they're an interesting choice for one of the primary methods of randomizing combat. Enemies also stunt, and every enemy statblock includes 'favored stunts' so you don't need to spend too much time on their special moves while getting across their personalities and behavior. They recommend players pick some signature combos they like and write them down to save time, too.

Still, it produces a fair amount of depth in a fight while giving you a good way to describe what's happening. Disarms, forced movement, struggles over a gun, wrestling, etc all come up much more than they did in games like WHFRP, and I appreciate it. Action scenes feel like proper action scenes, and for a fairly simple generic system, that's really nice. Keep in mind these special moves are available to pretty much anyone; Talents and things will modify their costs or make them easier or help you with follow up checks, but anyone can do these things. It's a really nice way to design an action-adventure system.

Next Time: Not Killing People


posted by Night10194 Original SA post

Modern AGE

Post 5: Non-Combat

One of the interesting things about AGE (coming off Spire) is how differently non-combat rolling is treated. For one, the book is thankfully clear that you should never have a roll just to determine if the plot continues. If the roll you're making is the classic 'Perception to Continue Plot', don't do it. 'Perception to see which direction the plot continues' is the norm; did you spot something amiss on your way to meet with an informant that told you to rearrange your meet, or is this going to turn into a gunfight after a few minutes of dialogue because you didn't realize you were followed? That kind of thing. Similarly, because every roll has a chance to Stunt, rolls are primarily about 'did a good thing happen' rather than 'did you prevent a bad thing'. Not only does success usually move the story forward in a more favorable way for the PCs, but the chance of rolling a double on 3d6 is pretty high (though you still have to succeed to generate any SP, it's in the 40%s or so). So if you're rolling a lot for every little thing, the chances of getting Stunts (which can dramatically shape a scene) go way up in ways that kind of aren't intended.

Dice being used relatively sparingly because of their chance for significant positive impact is an interesting change from how things usually go. Exploration Stunts are fairly simple, because Exploration is the least detailed sort of conflict; this is for scenes where players aren't engaged in some active investigation. Say our good Elder Christine is exploring an old house outside town looking for a local cop who went missing; she'd be rolling Exploration tests because she's just generally sweeping the area. For the most part, the listed Exploring Stunts are just stuff like 'You find unexpected resources' or 'You make it through this scene much quicker' or 'You take the time to set yourself up to be at an advantage if things turn violent or if you start an investigation'. They're a little underdeveloped mostly because the developers don't really want you rolling tons of Perception tests to look for hidden doors or Dexterity tests to be a master of unlocking or find the rooster key for the chicken door or whatever, since exploring a scene is where lots of those old 'Per to Continue Plot' tests lived in older systems like WHFRP.

Investigations are more complex. In many cases, Investigations actually proceed without needing to roll dice; having an appropriate Focus can automatically get you the next lead or clue, as can showing up to the right scene. Investigations are a series of scenes where you unlock clues by having the right Focus, going to the right place, or making an ability test (as suggested by the players, often). If a Focus is tangential to a test but you have a good idea for how it can be used, you still get +1 to your test for having it (they say to increase the TN by +1 but let you use your Focus, but since a Focus is usually +2, this effectively translates to a +1 for the player). Sometimes, not having a Focus will prevent you from rolling your ability at all with a test, unless you have Improvisation in which case you can always make something up. For the most part, the investigation rules are fairly loose and designed to let players keep proceeding from one clue and payoff to the next scene until they solve the mystery or uncover the plot or get to the denouement. Stunts during an Investigation will let you skip steps entirely. A 5 point Investigation stunt during a simpler Investigation will just immediately lead to a huge breakthrough, for instance. Investigation Stunts also let you branch the mystery, reveal major connections between characters or prior leads, unlock new avenues of investigation, etc.

One thing you'll notice is this is still a 'traditional' GM driven system. Player suggestions should be part of building to the reveal of a mystery, but the GM is still the one revealing information and deciding the overall plot, even though the players' Stunts can alter its direction. It has compromises for more narrative elements, but it's still GM driven rather than being a more narrative system where the players do a lot of the narrating as well. I'm personally fine with this, but it might not be something you're into.

Social Encounters are the most detailed non-combat rules in the game, which tells you a lot about how much the game expects you'll be doing social encounters. NPCs can do Social Stunts as well, as well as using Social Skills, but the only thing these do is suggest things to PCs. An NPC can never force a PC to act in a specific way outside of stuff like 'They used the Taunt Stunt in a fight, you failed your roll, you have you target them with your next move'. An NPC cannot force you to back down, or dictate that you like them or hate someone else. The game suggests rewarding players with Relationships, XP (if you're using XP), etc for allowing Social checks to be used on their characters and going along with the results, and I don't especially like that. I'm not a big fan of 'roleplaying rewards' to begin with because I think they introduce an element that favors more social or extroverted players as it is. I really don't like the idea of dangling character upgrades out there for this kind of thing; I prefer it to be left to a player's decisions about their character and I'd rather just trust them to play their character honestly. I could see something closer to 'you let yourself be influenced here, you get a bonus there' working better; something about the permanent character upgrade nature of the suggested rewards for letting yourself be messed with makes it feel more off to me.

Still, you get a detailed list of social moves you could make on a double and they can be a little awkward to insert into dialogue-heavy games, since many of them are very much about scene-setting rather than working if they happen mid-scene. It's generally better to say what test you were going to be using going into a scene, then roll, see if you hit a Stunt, and set the scene accordingly and alter the dialogue accordingly rather than trying to roll mid-conversation too often. At the same time, the Social rules assume you're making back and forth tests with your opponent, since many of the Stunts can cause their next action to fail or let you keep trying to influence them before they can respond. You also track someone's actual attitude towards you, because many Stunts rely on them already being warmer towards you. It mostly works okay, though it can take a little effort not to make the system feel too gamey.

In general, the out of combat stuff works about as well as you'd hope from a generic modern adventure game. Social scenes get especial attention, while exploration, investigation, and infiltration mostly string the plot along from scene to scene. The main rules focus is on talking and fighting, with the other scene types developed enough to work but less detailed, as social and combat scenes are where the game sees the highest stakes.

Next Time: Wizbiz, cybernetics, genetic augmentation and the failure of the companion book

The Bad Post

posted by Night10194 Original SA post

Modern AGE

Post 6: The Bad Post

So. Modern AGE has a perfunctory magic/psionics system in the core book in case your game is going to be an urban fantasy game. The main difference between Magic and Psi is just which stat you use; Arcana use Int, Psi use WP. WP still gets used to determine Power Points, the save difficulty of your magic, and the effective damage of magic, so that seems like a pretty nice win for psionics over wizards even though effectively it's all magic. But then, Int is a much more useful stat outside of edge cases so I suppose that goes in favor of proper robes and intoning things in psuedolatin. You get spells by buying ranks in the Arcana or Psi talents for a certain style of spell. For instance, Fire Arcana is its own 3 rank talent. They can also be acquired as a Specialization if the GM is A: Kind of a dick because most of them aren't worth that and B: Wants to limit magic use but still have magic. Level 1: Get two basic spells. Level 2: Get a more powerful spell, plus a free Focus with that style of Arcana or Psi. Level 3: Get a big spell, plus -1 SP cost to one magic Stunt (and the Magic Stunts are very, very dull and limited compared to normal action stuff) of your choice with that style.

Magic use also costs Power Points, which are generated with 10+WP+d6 at level 1, +d6+WP per level until 10, at which point they go up 1+WP, exactly like HP under Cinematic rules. There's lots of rules for limiting power points, switching magic to working off a fatigue system, etc, and it's weird because magic isn't really that big a deal. It feels like the rules think magic is more than it is with all these rules about limiting it. Now magic can be crazy powerful, but that's more a function of wildly uneven spell design. Which is weird; the guy who designed the specific Modern AGE version was a developer on Mage. You'd think that would give some experience working with magic systems. But then again, the magic system in AGE is a minor add-on that won't even see use in many campaigns, so I doubt it got nearly as much attention. 'Secondary' magic systems are the sorts that are really goddamn hard to design and balance. When magic is an 'extra' thing placed over a normal system rather than being the entire focus of the system, it's much harder to keep it from being either too weak or too powerful.

Like, let's take a look at some Arcana. Healing and Fire do about what you'd expect; you can trade PP for HP, get up downed allies, etc with Healing. Fire can do some reasonable AoE damage or enhance your ability to do melee by surrounding you with flames; a master of Fire magic is about equivalent to someone who can carry a brace of grenades everywhere they go without seeming to actually carry grenades, and that's a pretty useful trick in its own way. Now let's look over at Protection; is that a 'completely immune to all bullets' spell? It certainly is. For 2 Talent Slots, a character with Protection Arcana gets a 'completely immune to bullets and projectiles of any caliber, size, explosiveness, etc' spell. Any ranged attack that isn't a spell or energy weapon of some kind is just deflected at a cost of 1 PP (remember, you have a fair number of those) per attack. That kind of thing. Psy is even better, getting lots of ways to do damage that pierces all DR, but more importantly: Most of the spell styles that do that will also have utility spells, unlike our poor friend the Fire Arcana. Why would you want Fire Arcana when Psychic Projection gets you a cheap way to do lots of penetrating damage (at level 1!), the ability to give people hallucinations (which is a 3rd level magic effect for Illusion) also at level 1, suggestion-based mind control at level 2, and a penetrating AoE at level 3? These spell lists really aren't balanced against each other, and as per usual, anything that can fuck with people in ways beyond doing damage (or anything that can negate mundane weaponry) is something you want. It's disappointingly badly designed.

But what if you want to play a game with viral superbeings (hello, Resident Evil) or cybernetics or other extraordinary powers? Those come from the add-on book, Modern AGE Companion, and man. Enhancements are very loosely written, but everything in the Companion is. You could gain an Enhancement as a Talent Slot, or in place of a Focus or Stat Point when leveling, or as a Specialization, or as something you replace a Background Talent or Skill or whatever with; it's entirely up to your GM. Heck, they even say if the GM allows, you can just make a Resources Check (buying stuff) that's very difficult and might involve other favors to gain one. Which is fine; I get that they're trying to say 'adjust how you will', but at a certain point you're waving your hands and saying 'do whatevs, Night', and I was already pretty aware I could do that. Which is basically all of the Companion book.

The general effects for Enhancements are: Make up a new Stunt the character has access to, the character gains an inbuilt tool of some kind, -1 to the SP cost of a favored stunt, +1 Defense or Toughness, multiply the speed or effect of an ability (like an inbuilt computer halving the time for research checks, or superhuman jumpy legs letting your X-COM guy make huge leaps beyond human norm), become immune to a sort of hazard, gain a Spell from the magic system if those weren't normally allowed, or gain an innate attack that does the damage you choose (Stun, Impact, Ballistic, or Penetrating), d6+Stat Of Your Choice damage, uses the Stat/Focus of your Choice, and gets +d6 per additional Enhancement you put into it up to 4d6.

They then suggest a couple example Enhancements, basically none of which follow the guidelines they just gave directly. They include things like 'You can always make Lightning Attack followups on any attack', which as written (since it costs no SP) would technically let you attack infinitely as long as you hit (I know this is not the intent, but if something permits something crazy RAW in a manual about teaching you how to design things it should be pointed out). Simply put, the Enhancement rules are not very effective at providing you solid guidance on designing new powers and abilities. This is the case for most of the Companion. Meanwhile, most of the Companion is focused around giving you loose guidelines for designing your own stuff. This is a problem for the book.

Look, I don't need to pay someone to tell me 'make some stuff up'. I do that on my own. Let's look at a good example of 'how to design your own stuff' as contrast: Back in Albedo Platinum Catalyst, when Sanguine published 'make your own species' rules, it came with the exact system math they used to design every species in the core book in order to ensure anything you create balances against what already exists. The problem here is that AGE is trying to account for multiple 'power levels' of campaigns, and I also don't think Modern AGE was designed with the level of mechanical rigor to begin with that would let them give you firm guidance on power design. For an example of that, let's look at another issue the Companion introduced.

The Companion introduces the idea that you can specialize in something beyond Master level, going to Grandmaster, then to Apex level of Talents and Specializations. All new Talents and Specs in Companion come with these additional levels of mastery. They also come up with Grandmaster and Apex levels for a couple core-book Talents. But only a couple. Instead, there's a short sidebar saying 'use your judgement' and listing a few generic effects you could use to make your own Grandmaster and Apex levels for existing Talents. There are several reasons I'm not happy about this, and the little sidebar telling me to do all the backporting work myself is honestly the least of them. The real issue I have with them is this: One of the nice things in Modern AGE (and one of the things that makes it work for a generic Modern game, for me) is how attainable competence is. You are not wasting time if you take something you weren't great at and try to improve at it. There's generally a soft cap on how good you can reasonably get at things. Once you start introducing levels of specialization in very specific things (like Knife Fighter) you start to run into the D&D Feat issue where someone has spent so many character resources on a single thing that they're really discouraged from trying other things or branching out. It also makes the level of 'actually good at thing' significantly higher, and introduces a design incentive to give less at each Talent or Specialization level since you have to write them spreading out over 5 levels instead of 3. Also, 5 levels is a really significant investment! That's a quarter of your PC's career. It's just unnecessary and kind of self-defeating, and the icing on the cake is that you're expected to do all the legwork to backport this idea yourself anyway.

The entire Companion book is like this. It's just not defined enough to be useful as a pile of new and cool things to buy, nor is it detailed and rigorous enough in its guidelines to serve as a design teaching document. It's mostly just a mess of new subsystems and half-finished character options you're expected to finish yourself. I like Modern AGE, and I'd recommend the system and the core book, but I cannot recommend the Companion. I've rarely been that disappointed in a major system add-on.

Next Time: GMing and setting advice


posted by Night10194 Original SA post

Modern AGE

Post 7: Wrapup

I've looked at the GMing advice in Modern AGE over and over, and there really isn't much to say about it. It's pretty standard stuff; listen to your players, make sure everyone's comfortable, pick a story together, etc etc. Nothing that really stands out good or bad. The one bit I appreciate is 'Hey, if you use someone else's setting for this game, change it however you want; you're not selling your RPG campaign so who cares what you do with any of the intellectual property you write about?' I was going to do that anyway, but it's a nice bit of advice to include in a generic game that's probably going to get used for whatever IP you feel like writing about. They give examples of IPs and ideas you might use, and they also tell you 'hey we're going to be publishing some settings later, look out for those'. Fair enough, though nothing I've seen of any of their pre-written settings seems particularly exciting.

There's nothing like All Flesh Must Be Eaten's Deadworlds in this game book; no full game pitches or quick sub-settings, just a few notes on genre and stuff you could use the game to emulate. It's fair enough, but the Deadworlds added a lot to AFMBE (and really, AFMBE/Unisystem is my main point of comparison for AGE) for not much page space, so it might've been nice to have something similar. Still, AGE is easy enough to adapt to whatever modern action-adventure or procedural you were planning to write. They go heavy on recommending urban fantasy and 'portal fantasy' games, in part because the pre-planned settings focus on that stuff, but given the weakness of the magic system as written I'd step away from putting one of the weakpoints front and center like that. This system is much better for action-adventure stories or investigations than slinging spells around, at least without rewriting some of the magic and extraordinary power systems (or writing one to begin with, considering that's what the Companion leaves to you).

And in the end, that's a good metaphor for the system: AGE isn't that exciting, but it's competent and playable and it really does adapt pretty well to a variety of modern adventure stories. The relatively flexible and competent characters, the 3d6 dice curve (which is actually used pretty well), and the pretty simple but useful Stunt system come together to make a game works fine. There are aspects I'd take another look at; magic REALLY needed a few more looks, not all of the Talents are perfectly balanced, for some reason there's no way to go in blazing with two pistols (which seems a rather big omission in something that's good for using for action hero stuff), shotguns are bafflingly bad, sniper rifles are probably over-cooked, etc. But most of it is fine. The most notable thing is how the Companion's additions actually work against the system's strengths (namely, that competence is easy to reach and PCs are pretty broadly capable, and that most 'special' stuff can be activated through the Stunts right out of the box) and are full of little things like 'here's a single 5 point Stunt to use in CONSPIRACY GAMES!' rather than solid mechanical work. To be quite frank, if the Companion is indicative of the quality of the add-on stuff for this system and of its pre-written settings (a lot of the Companion is full of advertisements for potential pre-made settings) I'd recommend against anything but the core book. You get everything you need out of there, and this is a generic game anyway; adapt as needed.

The End