In Defense Of AP (Action Points)

A long time ago I decided to make a move from the standard D&D-style collection of actions to a system based on Action Points, or AP.  Instead of having different slots of actions–Major, minor, bonus, move, etc.–I wanted players (and myself) to be able to choose a wide array of potential actions on their turn without being locked in to categories. Sure, a normal round using AP in Shattered Empire still may have the superficial look of One Move, One Attack, Drink One Potion, but there will be tons of times when it doesn’t. You can use your AP in any way you want, which means that some characters will attack multiple times instead of doing anything else. Situationally, you may take three move actions on your turn instead of attacking at all. You might sit back and save up AP for the next round, unleashing a giant combo, or make a skill check, read a spell-scroll, and then fire a crossbow. You have a max amount of action points to use, and depending on the situation you may use them in any number of ways. It lets strategy and variety rule over combat encounters.

But, lets be fair. It can slow down a turn.

Some players are really good at keeping numbers in their head, thinking about actions before their turns, and making quick decisions based on context. And some players will inevitably ask “How many AP have I used this turn again?” It might take a little training to get the flow down perfect, and it might even take the GM urging a certain player to pick up the pace. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s a better one.

My favorite thing to shake my head at is when a player realizes they still have AP left over, so instead of just ending their turn they take a superfluous action. They may have put themselves in the perfect position strategically, performed every action they planned, and had great results, but by-the-gods they are not going to waste 2 AP. “I’ll move five feet to the right.” There. A nice even 0 AP.

But, to be fair again, those slow players are going to be slow no matter what system they use.

Perhaps the biggest reason AP wins over Actions is in spellcasting. Varying AP costs for spells encourage combos and synergy. All too often in RPGs the Standard Action is used up when you cast a spell, and there’s no way to cast another one. With that type of system, how often does a Controller or Leader say “screw it, I’ll just attack” instead of casting a buff or debuff? They don’t want to “waste” their Standard Action on granting their ally a bonus to attack. They may entrap an enemy with a spell, but by the time their turn comes back around and they are able to attack it the effects may have already worn off. I’ve watched it happen over and over.  With a rich AP system, you can make those combos where you cast a spell that makes an enemy vulnerable to poison and then apply poison to your mace and attack them. You might not be able to move that turn, or maybe you sacrificed some defense in order to save up AP…but there is a path to your ideal actions.

AP also introduces the concept of situational value to a spell or power. Different powers cost different APs, so you might choose one or another based on the other actions you want to take that round. You can stack powers because they aren’t all “Standard Actions.” You can put your head down and run all the way across the battlefield instead of going one “Movement Action” per turn.

Weapons too can be affected in a different way because of AP. You might be able to take two stabs with your little knife, dealing minor damage to two targets instead of swinging your giant halberd and dealing massive damage to only one target. AP effectively grants an “attack speed” to different types of weapons; an attribute that is completely missing in so many tabletop RPGs.

Does using an AP system cause more bookkeeping? Technically yes. But it’s so marginal that it doesn’t matter. Usually your AP isn’t going to change outside of leveling, and the system is easy. There is no need to physically chart your AP usage every turn. You can quickly and easily track it in your head, and it resets every turn anyway.

Finally, AP resets at the END of your turn. This allows for multiple actions to take place during the round, even if it is not your turn. Reactions, interruptions, extra defense…You spend AP on these, so if you are willing to limit your actions during your normal turn you can perform more actions during someone else’s turn in the round. This adds another layer of strategy and gives a feeling like things are happening more in real-time and in response to multiple other players and NPCs, instead of just having a “Reaction Action” slot.

If you are interested in an AP system, check out the BASE12 system or shoot me a message to playtest the Shattered Empire campaign setting!

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GenCon Film Festival

Are you gaming at GenCon in Indianapolis this weekend? Well take a break this evening to check out my Scifi Comedy feature film Dead Drift!

It’s playing tonight, Saturday August 19th at 9:30 PM in the Westin Ballroom IV.

And for those of you who aren’t there, watch it online at http://deaddriftshow.com

Lots of scifi/fantasy/gamer culture references and goodness!

Meredith’s Beacon – Sample Chapter

Wyatt let the sabre relax in his hand now that the beast was no longer moving. Black rancid blood covered the blade, matching the stains in the dead sawgrass at his feet. He absentmindedly rubbed his shoulder where an old scar showed through a tear in his cotton shirt. It didn’t really ache, but it […]

via Meredith’s Beacon – Sample Chapter — Malaise Contender

Roll Charts: Weapon Properties

Shattered Empire has a deep randomized system for generating weapons and their properties for treasure parcels and shopkeepers. This system is designed for GMs to setup before play, as it involves separate rolls for type, condition, material, and bonus properties. But what about generating quickly on the fly? What about other games that don’t have a system in place?

The following may not work with every game system, but it should be easy enough to adapt. Note: This is for generating special properties, not the base weapon itself.

Roll 1d20:

1. Unskilled Craftsmanship. The damage and attack dice each receive a -1 penalty.

2. Shoddy Craftsmanship. The damage and attack dice are each reduced by one size.

3. Damaged. The damage die receives a -1 penalty.

4. Rusty. The damage die is reduced by one size.

5. Primitive Material. The attack die receives a -1 penalty.

6. Unrefined Material. The attack die is reduced by one size.

7. Average. No change to weapon stats.

8. Refined Material. The attack die is raised by one size.

9. Quality Material. The attack die receives a +1 bonus.

10. Fine. The damage die is raised by one size.

11. Superior. The damage die receives a +1 bonus.

12. Exquisite. The damage and attack dice are each raised by one size.

13. Masterwork. The damage and attack dice each receive a +1 bonus.

14. Elemental Forge. The weapon gains a 1d4 bonus die for elemental damage (fire, cold, or lightning)

15. Paralyzing. Target is paralyzed for one round whenever weapon hits.

16. Slaying. When the weapon deals more than half of remaining HP in damage the targeted creature is instantly killed.

17. Reaping. Whenever the weapon deals a death blow, the wielder’s AP or allotment of actions is reset and their turn continues.

18. Keen. The weapon’s critical threat is increased by 3.

19. Brutal. The weapon’s damage threshold is raised by 3.

20. Legendary. The weapon deals double damage.

The Finality of Death (or the lack thereof)

Let me explain where Deep Space Nine lost me.

Okay, some groundwork first:

At some point as writers we will be tempted to take the easy way out. Sometimes it can be attributed to “Writer’s Block,” that nebulous, dastardly affliction that can neither be described nor cured. Other times we have figuratively written ourselves into a corner; there is no clear path to resolution. Sadly, sometimes we simply aren’t as skilled at our craft as we hoped.

Writing anything is hard. Writing something that moves the reader, engages them in the story, and provides a unique and memorable narrative is HARD. Very hard.

So, on occasion, we find ourselves stuck in a story that we don’t know how to finish. This happens frequently in the writer’s room for an ongoing series, because generally the goal for that story is to not end. And how can you create tension, drama, and gripping character discovery week after week after week? Well, death comes to mind.

Death, especially with major characters, is a tricky subject. Killing off a beloved character will create that gripping emotional response from the audience, but committing to it is tough. Will the audience forgive you? Will their attention remain in a story without their favorite character? Writers have to deal with this fallout, and there are a couple of tricks they use to “have it all.”

1. The Twin. Surprise! Jeffrey had an identical twin this whole time, and he was the one that fell down that elevator shaft.

2. Alternate Dimension Double. Yes, that was Jeffrey being blown out of the air lock, but it wasn’t our Jeffrey. It was a Jeffrey from an alternate universe! Everything is fine! (except for alternate-Jeffrey’s friends and family, but we don’t even know them so who cares.)

3. ROBITS! It looked like Jeffrey, but actually it was a highly sophisticated robot / android / magical construct. Whew! Our Jeffrey doesn’t have all those wires and circuits jutting out of his spleen.

4. The Shapeshifter. (And this is where DS9 comes into play.) It wasn’t Jeffrey who stole the artifact, killed the guards, and then was gunned down by his companions. It was a creature capable of changing its appearance, or wearing a disguise, or had a magical glamer cast over it.

Now, it’s easy to sit here and just blurt out “That’s bad writing.” Even if I agree most of the time, sometimes these strategies can be used effectively. Presentation is important, after all, and finding an interesting new angle for a tired mechanic sometimes results in brilliance. I’m not condemning them completely.

The thing about all these writing crutches is that they only work once.

Once you’ve pulled a bait-and-switch on your audience, you have immediately scarred them. They may even appreciate being deceived the first time, but their emotional investment into the same set of circumstances will be greatly decreased in the future. It’s a trap that the writers have set for themselves. All of a sudden, any character showing atypical behavior is a clone. That’s not the real Jeffrey, he wouldn’t do that.

Now anyone can be an imposter, and the audience can’t trust what they read or see. DS9 fell victim to this. There were too many Changelings, they had too much power. How do you write yourself out of that scenario in a believable, gripping way? Well, the writers of DS9 didn’t, in my opinion. But that’s not really the point of this essay.

There’s a bigger trap here. When you explain away the life-or-death decisions of characters with clones, imposters, and doppelgangers you aren’t allowing your characters to grow, change, or evolve. Sometimes you have to let them fuck up, and if the audience isn’t buying into it because “they’ll just end up being a Changeling,” then you have overused that gimmick. You have exhausted your audience. You’ve broken your story.

Death is the ultimate emotional catapult. You want it to mean something, and you want your audience to experience it. If death is never permanent–if consequences are never paid and mortality is never risked–you have rendered it sterile. Death has to be real or your audience won’t buy into it.

So how does this relate to gaming? Simple: You, as the GM, are writing a series. You have the same obstacles and pitfalls for keeping your players interested in your campaign as a writer does for their audience. It’s easy to write ourselves into a corner, and it’s even easier to bail ourselves out with these weak escape routes. But like an audience, your players will notice, and if they aren’t gripped by the plot points because EVERYONE keeps coming back from the dead, you’re gonna lose them. It’s as simple as that.

Whether it’s a role playing game, a television series, or a collection of novels, the basic truth of castrating death’s finality is the same: don’t do it. Sometimes you just have to let your characters die.

Rule Zero

First of all, I am under no delusion that there aren’t already 10,000 gaming blog posts called “Rule Zero,” and that they are generally about “The GM is always right,” or that “The GM can say no to anything,” so let’s just recognize that and move on.

Moved on? Great.

I invented something called Rule Zero.

Rule Zero is simple: You can try anything.

So, I’m a big fan of rules-as-roadmaps (RAR) instead of rules-as-written (RAW). Rules are there to guide both the player and the GM, to give action meaning, to establish strategy and consequence in the game world, and, as a last resort, to answer questions and respond to disputes at the table.

GMs should make rulings. These rulings may originate from their deep knowledge and implementation of the game mechanics, from random dice results, or simply off the top of their heads. In any of those cases it’s the GM making a ruling. That’s what they are there for.

But why are we collectively at the table? For fun!

Let me go back real quick. When I played my very first D&D campaign (as a player) once upon a time, I tried to do something. My character was on a small roadside cliff-edge above an enemy. I decided to jump down, swing my club, and allowing gravity and momentum to give me a boost to the attack. I had the high ground, and I was a larger creature than what I attacked. It seemed reasonable that this action-oriented type of attack would grant my character an advantage.

It didn’t. There was no official rule that said anything about having a bonus to one’s attack based on environmental elements or improvised action. My character didn’t have a specific “leap attack” or anything of that nature. Because the rules didn’t specify that I could do this, I was met with “You can’t do that.” I was penalized for creativity, immersing myself in the environment, and thinking outside the “this is what your class can do” box. A basic melee attack–clearly spelled out in the PHB–would have been a better choice with this GM. RAW screwed me.

This experience left a bad taste in my mouth, and eventually it helped lead to developing a system without classes. As a player, I never wanted to be limited ever again.

As a GM, I never wanted to limit my players, either.

This is where Rule Zero comes into play.

Rule Zero: You can try anything.

Failure is still a possibility, of course. Just because you can try doesn’t mean you can succeed. But the spirit of letting anyone attempt anything was built into BASE12 from the very beginning. In Shattered Empire, anyone can attempt a Skill check, even if they don’t possess that Skill; or rather, everyone has every Skill, but that Skill may be at level 0. You don’t have to be a Class to make a certain type of attack. In fact, even characters without training in a weapon or armor can still wield or wear that item. Training makes you more likely to succeed, but even a child can pick up a stick and try to hit an Ogre with it.

When I GM, one thing that I try to get across to my players is that if they can convince me that something is possible or “realistic” (relative to the environment) then they can succeed. Sometimes I’ll ask them for a Skill check without telling them which Skill. “Which Skill?” they may ask. “Whichever one will make you succeed at what you’re attempting,” I reply. Three different players may end up using a Search check, a Survival check, and an Arcana check based on individual character backstories, play styles, or critical thinking. It’s the same Skill check, but they are each rolling different Skills. Now as a GM I could have said “Everyone make a Search check to find the hidden cave entrance.” Maybe one of them has a good Search rating, and the other two are just going through the motions. Or maybe they wouldn’t: “You roll for it, my Search Skill is only 1.” It doesn’t connect the player with the character to be told what to try. Even if they suck at Search, if that’s what they choose to use for their Skill check, they’ll have a connection with their character knowing that they are struggling to do something they don’t excel at, instead of mindlessly following the GM’s instructions.

So, Rule Zero is really about experimentation, creativity, and problem solving. It’s about using the rules as a guideline, and not as a forcefield. You can try anything, and perhaps as an addendum, if you can convince me (the GM) you succeed. And, as always, it always comes back to what is the most fun.