Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Game Design #21: RPG Resources - Health, Mana, Stamina

I've been thinking a lot about videogames and the link to tabletop wargames, and how the wheel has come in a full circle.  Videogames are now the "big brother" and wargames can look to them for ideas.  Ironic, I know.

I was playing Skyrim on PC the other day, thinking "this would be fun to play co-op" and then "that'll never happen - but this would be simple enough to turn into a wargame."   

Skyrim has relatively simple combat, but Mount & Blade has interesting melee mechanics with directional slashes, thrusts, parries and swings. I wondered how this could be done simply in a wargame (maybe a dice pool?).  Most times we push minis together and throw dice, but what's the best way decision making be added into the melee process (if it was restricted to 3-5 "heroes") without it bogging down? Maybe a dice pool?

The health-mana-stamina resource management seem to be staples of the PC game industry - it's quite usual for a hero to have a pool of mana which is used up to cast spells, stamina is used for special attacks/dodges/sprinting, and health is, well, health.

 I like the idea of "complex heroes, simple minions" used in games like LOTR:SBG.  A goblin is just a goblin. A man of Gondor is just a guy, with average stats.  "Grunts" have a standard profile, which makes them easy to remember - which is good, since there is usually a lot of them.  However a hero like Aragorn has special rules, extra attacks, and the resources Might, Will and Fate - probably the closest I've seen to the Stamina, Magic and Health trinity.  Because the LOTR heroes are few, you can afford to spend a little time on record keeping and add in a little more detail without the game bogging down. However I'd like to do away with tracking stuff on paper altogether.

Ways to minimize record keeping...  If you simply had a binary system (magic/no magic, stamina/no stamina, wounded/dead) you could use but a few counters on the tabletop to track the status - and only place the counters when a character out of that specific resource.   Perhaps all characters have a magic "rating", and they make a saving throw every time they cast a spell; a failure means it might work, but he is out of magic next turn, and must roll against the magic score to get it back and remove the "no magic" counter.  A similar system could be used for stamina, to perform sprints, dodges and special attacks.

In the era of notable for its swarms of RPG-lites or wargames-that-want-to-tell-a-story (usually wargames created by ex-RPGers) I'm surprised we don't see more games paying direct homage to PC/pen and paper RPG classics, using the more streamlined and interesting skirmish rules (reactions, interactive initiative/activation) we have about nowdays.

Bombshell Games' Battlefield: Miniature Modern Warfare was a not-so-sly nod to the PC shooter genre, but I can't recall any really obvious adaptions from PC fantasy and sci fi.   (I do recall a home made X-COM game, but sadly I can't find it since Fantasy Flight came out with its strategic-level boardgame and monopolised all the google search results)

I'm thinking PC MMO terms - "controllers" "area of effect" "buffer/debuffer." A homage to PC games like Baldur's Gate, Guild Wars, The Elder Scrolls, and even WoW, using iconic abilities and spells.    Perhaps with sample classes like rogue, paladin etc, that have a synergy with each other. A optional co-op/horde mode (one player controls the "baddies" and 2-4 players control the "party"- similar to the boardgame Descent) would allow a MMO co-op feel.

I quite like Savage Worlds RPG system and I might see if I can get their generic fantasy sourcebook.  Hmm, I think I recall  Goalsystem Delves does a lot of what I describe. I did play it a few years back, but obviously it didn't "take."*  (*EDIT: And now I feel like an idiot - I even reviewed it!)

Magic Systems
Following on from that, it's been a long time since I played any games with a strong magic system.  You know, serious game-changing stuff, like from early edition Warhammer HeroHammer days. I guess the steampunk warcasters from Warmachine could be classed in this category (though my experiences with that game were rarely enjoyable).

What are games with "good" magic systems?  Or do you have to go to an RPG for that? I confess it's an area I haven't really considered as it's been a while since I played a game with anything but rudimentary magic.  Again, this idea flowed from a PC game I saw - Lichdom: Battlemage - which attempts to move mages away from the frail-pointy-hat-ranged-spells stereotype to a sort of kick-ass fireball-slinging Schwarznegger.

Is it possible to have a "build your own spell" system; i.e. you start with a few basic, generic effects, then increase their potency/combine them with others.  I.e. "forcefield" - when cast on oneself, costs x.  If it is extended to a 3" area of effect centred on the caster, it costs 3x.   If this 3" AoE spell was centred on an area 5" from the caster, it costs 15x.  Perhaps "fireball" costs 2x.  If a forcefield, with a fire damage effect was cast, the two costs would be added together  ......I'm sure there's something like this out there already.

Most wargames I know kinda "bolt on" magic, and it's usually just an alternate ranged weapon or a defence bonus. Warhammer (at least the editions I last played) had scaled back its potency. In LOTR it is more mild buffs/debuffs (+1 defence vs arrow fire etc).  The original SoBH had only two spells!  I wonder if the low-magic fantasy that seems common is due to designers bad experiences with unbalanced magic in early Warhammer?  Are there any games where magic is an integral part of the game?   


  1. When talking about video game style miniature wargames, don't forget the grand-daddy of them all: FRAG. As to the square jawed magic user, with careful skill selection you could build a pretty decent melee wizard in Diablo 2.

    For the life of me, I can't think of a wargame where magic played a central role. Hordes of the Things uses them like an agile, but fragile, artillery. Maybe Necromunda? If you consider the psykers as 'wizards' they could toss out some pretty beefy spells with a variety of effects. IIRC some were firemages, some were more like druids with animals they could control, and some were more like psionicists.

    1. Necromunda was based on 2nd Ed 40K, which was around the age of "herohammer" (WFB 5th ed?) - the version where no one left home without high level magicians, and mighty monster-riding heroes. They're the only games I can think of either. In most cases magic is as you say "fragile artillery" or simply some buffs and a few low level spells bolted onto the game.

    2. Isn't War Machines/Hordes a sort of high magic wargame. Never played, but the impression I get is that magic plays a significant role, but that much of that role is limited to summoning and controlling melee dudes. In which case the magic is really just a melee fighter delivery system.

    3. I mentioned Warmachine as the only one I can think of. Most warcasters are "square jaw" heroes with the hitpoints of a squad. They usually have 4-5 spells and they can "boost" the powers of nearby steam mechs ("warjacks"). The setting is quite cool, but the game is unbelievably (purposefully) cheesy - the IGOUGO allows you to chain combos, CCG-style.

      Everyone has their own spells and special rules, and the game is balanced simply by giving everyone OP wtfbbqpwn combos.

      Another thing is the Warcaster is also like the king in chess - killing him wins the game - and he is heavily tied to the warjacks - so you don't use them like a çonventional' mage.

  2. A tabletop RPG to look to for magic systems (and one I've been converting to a more wargame friendly format) is Talislanta. The 4th edition had a 'build your own' magic system. The entire library of books is legally free to download, but you'd have to rejigger a few things. Lower the targets for success, put things in a scale of inches/cm, etc.

  3. I'm currently playing Mount & Blade Vikings and I strongly recommend it. Battle Troll from Howard Whitehouse has a similar combat system to M&B in which you can swing, cut and lunge or parry, counter-blow, leap aside or jump back. It plays with cards and it is like playing scissors, paper, rock. I have adapted it to use it with dice and reducing the combat to attack, cautious and defensive stance (testing it right now).
    I like how magic is dealt in Mordheim thought I would use a less restrictive spell lists.
    Have you ever played Chaos battle of wizards for Spectrum by Julian Gollop?

    1. I had avoided M&B Vikings as I heard some negative stuff about it. Battle Troll seems sort of what I am looking for - I'd restrict it only to 3-5 heroes per side as if everyone did it (i.e. 10-30 models in a game like LOTR) it would bog stuff down too much.

      It seems everyone is coming back to early 40K (WFB 4th-5th, Necromunda, Mordhiem, 40K 2nd) - perhaps there aren't many magic-centric games out there....

      Never heard of Chaos Battle of Wizards but when my new phone arrives I'll give it a go.

    2. Forgot to mention that Battle Troll also distinguishes between heroes and minions and that allow you to play big skirmishes if you want to.

    3. Hmmm turns out I don't have it in my collection. This must be rectified!

  4. MacavityandMycroft15 January 2015 at 10:07

    I noticed something in your previous write up on video games for the wargamer, and I think of it again. Have you ever played CardHunter? While the magic is mostly just a different attack style (armour disabling electrical or cone fire) they have an interesting take on statuses, positive and negative. A cleric, for instance can draw an Altruism card, which sticks with them and gives them a chance at an extra draw if and when they heal someone other than themselves.

    I would personally be intrigued by a system where the spells were employed by the player but channelled through the troops on the field, with chances of draining (can't channel that guy again) or burn-out (injures/kills). herotype charcters could be better for channeling, or characters without armour, or whatever, and make some interesting choices between risk of injury to important players (in the hero case) or sacrificing your ability to influence better troops (in the no armour case). Just my first thoughts. Really love the blog!

    1. Sounds really interesting actually - I'd definitely try a game like that!

      I.e. you're kind of playing a cardgame in the background, which mixes with the boardgame. I think that would add a great "fifth element" to the game - you know, the X factor that makes the game stand out beyond the usual move-missile-melee-morale.

      Re: the altruism idea - giving bonuses to behaviours (like healing, etc) would add a lot of flavour as you are actually nudged by the rules/bonuses act a certain way. It would encourage players to role-play, by rewarding them if they do.

      I personally would like to see a modern-warfare-but-with-psychic powers & horror game - a bit of STALKER mixed with F.E.A.R. Maybe toss in some XCOM aliens. I'm surprised I haven't seen someone do it yet - there's plenty of miniatures around that would fit the genre.

      The list of psychic powers (i.e. the ones I found in wikipedia) isn't that long and would give a structured magic system.

    2. MacavityandMycroft15 January 2015 at 11:26

      Just to be 100% clear, I was describing two things, 1. an existing game called Cardhunter (excellent campaign, weak multi IMO) which I am assuming you would love. 2. My first thought on how to do magic differently, which you seem to like!

      I'm the type who has more ideas than drive, haven't done anything concrete since converting Star Wars to the LoTR SBG system (mostly invovles un-limited ranges and Force Users behaving like Castellans). I actually do like this idea, though it's new. I have found your reminders that rules should cause players to ~choose~ historical/appropriate tactics instead of forcing things awkwardly. Might take a slice at making a channelling system.....

  5. Even if you don't make a game, why not make a magic system people can graft to an existing game? LOTR:SBG as you said is a very clean game that takes well to mods (There's about a dozen official, semi official and fan made games that are very solid).

    I do like it when games divide magic up into "schools" or categories - be it psychic powers or necromancy or whatever - it keeps the focus tight and restricts the spells in a commonsense way (did I just describe magic as commonsense) which is good for balancing purposes/character advancement.

    1. What I was saying, is your channelling idea sounds fresh, but it is also focussed which is good. GoogleDrive or Dropbox your ideas on your blog (do you have one) and feel free to link back here.

    2. MacavityandMycroft15 January 2015 at 11:50

      Maybe I will! Your psychic horror concept has my wheels turning.

      "Become a Great Old One! Influence the course of mortal events as you compete with other ancients. Do you choose to subtly influence the advanced military and spy networks of the mortals? Or do you rely on your devote cultists, whose resources are small but faith allows you remarkably direct access to the physical planes? Act quickly, the off-worlders are arriving and their hive mind cannot be penetrated in the same way. Their influence stops here! Only one can rule!"

    3. You could trial the magic system and graft it onto an existing game with familiar mechanics, and use it to get a feel for what is balanced.

      Like special rules, the sweet spot for # of spells seems to be ~20 - I've found under 10 spells too little (for any fantasy setting) but over 30 tends to be a bit much.

      Dividing it into 3-5 "schools" (I think Mordhiem did this) where each school can do 5-6 spells each gives them choice but allows you to balance them.

  6. I was wondering about magic systems in miniature games. Could it be possible that having too powerful magic takes away the spotlight from the miniatures? I mean, the fantasy miniature games I know usually have either detailed profiles for a given miniature line or ways to "stat up" a player's minis (e.g. Song of Blades and Heroes.) Maybe players want the action to be focused on they minis they spent so much time painting / collecting etc. whereas a versatile / powerful spellcaster will make a difference with a spell list / spell cards.

    1. I'm just wondering why it plays such a distinct second fiddle.

      Powerful magic can easily "unbalance" a game - cue complaints from early ed GW games. But Warmachine has pretty OP units and powers and it's very popular.

      Your point probably applies to a mass battle game like WFB where you might have 5 blocks of 20 troops and 1 spellcaster - but a skirmish game where you have 2-3 magicians, and say 10-20 other guys, in a game that is openly focussed on magic (like Warmachine is)....