Game Balance and One-Trick Ponies

Fix to Vigor Point Values

Running some combat tests on Cosmic Cutthroats, I find I may have been a bit generous with Vigor Points.

  • Old Formula: Awesomeness Level + (highest 2 of Body, Guts, and Edge).
  • New Formula: Awesomeness Level + half of (Body + Guts).

Reducing VP by about 6 across the board will make fights go faster, especially against Goons. And that’s 6 per Injury State, so it’s more like reducing by 24 VP overall.

Characters in this game have plenty of defensive options, and the Armor and Barrier Powers are reasonably cheap (although there are ways around them, like Joint Strikes and Triumphs). The goal is to make it so it’s best not to get hit, if you can help it!

One-Trick Ponies

Speaking of game balance, the most boring superhero in any point-based game rules would have to be a total one-trick pony. Let’s write up a Cyclops clone. Let’s call him Eyesore. Now, Cyclops isn’t boring, I like him! But at their simplest, his Powers are easy to represent, mechanically.

So, at Awesomeness Level 5, he gets 750 Upgrade Points. We want a minimum Level 6 in all Attributes, so that costs 180 UP, with 570 left.

Let’s just max out Blast. Blast is Step 5, so at AWE 5, the highest Level we can go is 40. He can do 6d12+1d6 damage, which is a little more than a starship strangelet torpedo. That’ll cost 440 UP, leaving 130.

We want to max out Ranged Combat Attack, Athletics, Toughness, and Willpower, so he’ll be tough to harm in any way. Advanced Skills like Ranged Combat Attack are Step 3, and Athletics is Basic, so Step 2. Let’s spend 3/4 of the remainder on these two, so around 98 points for these two. For 100 points, he can buy 16 more Levels of each.

Finally, for 28 points, he can buy each of the remaining 2 Skills at Level 7, making him fairly resistant to physical and mental attacks. He has 2 more UP to spend, maybe on a Skill Focus with some Ranged Combat Attack maneuver.

If we decide he needs some protection, we can make him less of a Cyclops clone, and more of a walking tank. Trade off half his Blast for Armor. He can buy Armor and Blast both at Level 17 for a total of 440 UP. He has armor equivalent to a space corvette, and he dishes out 2d12+1d8 damage, which is still a little more than a shot from a handheld rocket launcher.

But … he’s boring. We’ve given him no non-combat skills whatsoever. Even his armored version isn’t impervious to damage, another hero with an Environmental attack (like Claws with Cuts Through Anything) could take him out. He’s reliant on seeing well to attack, so being trapped in the dark will still make it tough for him to eye-blast the bejeezus out of things. And nothing protects you from having your EDG whittled away by social attacks.

A real conversion of Cyclops from the comics would probably be Lesser Demigod AWE, but only a few of those extra points would go toward improving his eye beams. Maybe only just adding a few Boosts onto them. All the rest would be Skills, Traits, and a few Attribute bumps.

So the moral is, yes, you can max out one or two Abilities. It’s not even that hard to make a walking battleship, but you’ll be a one-trick pony, and it will be ruinously expensive. The system will encourage you to make a Character with interesting abilities and things to do outside of combat.

The R.E.C.I.P.E. for Adventure

It’s time for some more details about the Cosmic Cutthroats system! I call it the R.E.C.I.P.E. system: Realms of Endless Challenge and Infinite Potential Engine. Or maybe it stands for Rules for Exploration, Combat, and Intrigue Practically
Everywhere. I honestly can’t decide, and either one sounds ridiculous and awesome.

In Cosmic Cutthroats, before creating your Character, the Game Master will give you the Campaign’s Awesomeness Level. Your Awesomeness Level gives you Upgrade Points that to spend on Attributes, Skills, Traits, and Powers.

There are six Attributes: Body, Reflexes, Brains, Guts, Charm, and Edge. Attributes are usually rated from 1 to 12, with 6 as the human average. Skills all have a Base Level, equal to 1/2 of one Attribute, or 1/4 of two Attributes. This is really the only thing that slows down Character creation a little, but it can be done instantly with a spreadsheet.

There are two kinds of Skills, Basic and Advanced. You get a Base Level in Basic Skills for free, but you don’t have any Levels in an Advanced Skill unless you buy at least one Level in that Skill.

For most actions, you’ll roll 2d12 and add a Skill, and try to exceed a difficulty number, a Challenge Severity. Successful actions that roll matched dice are a Triumph, a critical success, and failed actions that roll matched dice are a Mishap, a critical fumble. PCs and the GM will work together to decide what each Triumph and Mishap means. The higher the matched dice, the better, and the lower, the worse.

Traits are special abilities like unusual popularity, rank in an organization, wealth, special inventions, or martial arts maneuvers. Some Characters can purchase Powers, which give them superhuman abilities. Powers are highly customizable with Calibrations, which adjust the per-Level cost of Powers up or down.

Power damage is based on an escalating dice scale. Level 1 adds no real damage, only bruises. Level 2 adds 1 single point of damage, and Level 3 adds 1d4 damage. The damage die is 1d12 at Level 7, and from there, the scale starts over again, each +6 adding +1d12. Armor Protection stops incoming damage.

Characters also have Assets. Assets are calculated based on the Character’s Levels in Attributes, Skills, Powers, and Traits. You can’t make rolls with Assets, but they let you ignore or absorb damage, avoid getting hit, and other stuff. For example, Close Combat Defense is the difficulty to punch the Character, or hit them with melee weapons, while Ranged Combat Defense is the difficulty to hit them with bullets, arrows, energy beams, or thrown weapons. Tougher Characters have some Innate Protection against damage.

Characters absorb damage with Vigor Points, and when they take too much damage, they drop to a lower Injury State. At lower States, they’ll suffer penalties to their actions, and eventually they drop unconscious, or even die.

Characters have Qualities. Remember the Attribute called Edge? Characters can spend Edge to resist physical or social attacks, or to add a die to their action rolls. Characters can regain Edge by acting according to their personality Qualities, but they can lose their Edge if they fight their instincts.

All Abilities get a more expensive as their Level increases. The curve is gentle, but it adds up. Levels 13 to 24 cost twice as much, Levels 25 to 36 cost 3 times as much and so on. Each +12 Levels increases the multiplier by +1.

Some Abilities are Clustered, and let you take Cluster Options. Generous Clustered Abilities give you one Cluster Option for free for each Level. For example, the Martial Arts Trait gives you one free new martial arts move for each Level. Stingy Clustered Abilities let you pay the cost for 1 Level to get an extra Option. For example, when you buy the Firearms Skill, you can choose whether you know about Pistols, Rifles, or Energy Weapons. If you want to expand your training into another firearm category, pay the cost for 1 Level, and your firearms training becomes that much more valuable.

If you run low on Upgrade Points, you can take some Drawbacks to give you a few more points. Drawbacks represent special challenges your Character faces during the Adventure.

Attributes, Skills, Traits, Powers, and Drawbacks are sometimes packaged together, to reflect species, occupations, and superhumanly powerful origins. Packages come with a 10% Upgrade Point discount.

There are a couple of different kinds of NPCs. Bosses are usually built like full PCs, but Bystanders, Creatures, and Goons are built simpler and easier, more like OSR monsters. You don’t have to spend a point budget, and you only need to note the most important Skills they’ll need for combat. Bystanders, Creatures, and Goons have half he Vigor Points of a normal PC, and their ability to spend Edge is more limited. Bosses don’t have any such limits.

Soon, I’ll be ready to share the actual rules. I’m working with some great artists for the cover, and fixing some layout issues. More soon!

Cosmic Confluences

Or maybe that should be influences. Game design doesn’t take place in a vaccum. We always build on what we’ve seen and heard, what we know works and what doesn’t. Here I’ll talk here about some of the RPGs that influenced me in my design on Cosmic Cutthroats.

One of the biggest is Champions 4th Edition. Sure, it’s math-heavy, has definite breakpoints, and is susceptible to min-maxing. It also supports a wide variety of power levels and genres, and is amazingly flexible. I wanted something like Champs, but without multiplying by fractions, maybe with less spotlight-hogging by high-SPD characters. There’s still a lot to like here, and it’s still one of my favorite games. Lots of other games, like BESM and Wild Talents, have followed in the well-worn point RPG path, but Champs is the gold standard.

The OSR was a game changer for me. I realized when I first purchased Labyrinth Lord that I’d been running D&D according to OSR principles for years, and that modern D&D worked far and away best when run this way. My favorite OSR games now are Swords & Wizardry Complete and Dungeon Crawl Classics, but the principles of accepting imbalanced encounters, rulings vs. rules, simpler NPCs and critters, creating challenges instead of stories, and allowing active input from players in running the game, all appeal to me greatly. You can see this in CC in the open-ended way PCs and GM together interpret Triumphs and Mishaps, and how players are encouraged to build new Packages as needed to build out the setting.

Games like FATE and their “hero point economy” interested me greatly. FATE itself didn’t really grab me … no offense, I just like things a little more crunchy. Some meat to sink my gaming teeth into! But Strands of Fate really appealed to me. I’ve never gotten a chance to run Strands as much as I’d like to, and I apply Fate Points a little less as a scene-editing tool and a little more as an in-game concentration/effort mechanic, but the roots are there.

Finally, as I’ve mentioned, CC is based on my work on Invulnerable, Metagene, and Wormholes & Waystations. Invulnerable works as a multi-genre game, but CC has the simpler task resolution system of Metagene. CC includes some of the races and locations in W&W.

The Finest in Hand-Crafted Universes

One idea I have for Cosmic Cutthroats is to release dimension books, that would work as standalone settings. I know of one dimension-travel game that does that, so it’s not new, but it would still be fun.

Invulnerable 3rd Edition could be a sourcebook for CC, the dimension of Earth-Omega. Invulnerable itself grew out of a urban fantasy/horror game called Dirge that saw limited release online before I pulled it. In my mind, that world always had the depressing, poetic name The Vale of the Downtrodden. The sketchy setting for Wormholes & Waystations, the Sentient Assembly, would cover your space opera and giant robot genres. And I’ve always been a fan of post-apocalypse, settings, though I’ve never done more than tinker with a post-apoc setting. I have a name though, Dross Prime.

But for the core book itself, what will it play out like? How do you run a dimension travel game? I think the archetypal plot for CC will be The Seven Samurai. You’re wandering mercenary scum, you’re sucked into a local fight that’s not your own while you wait for the next dimensional gate to open, you grow to care for the locals, then, the big showdown. Of course, in a dimension travel game, you should be able to run any kind of plot. I see adventurers as money-grubbing trouble on the hoof, so Time Bandits works really well as a model, too. A major goal of most adventurers will be filling up their Edge meters, because that fuels all kinds of crazy stunts they’re capable of, so there will be a certain amount of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, too (note: also another Terry Gilliam film). Ultimately, the adventurers’ Qualities tell you what will grab the characters themselves and make the action personal.

Cutthroat Notes

About time I actually posted something here, eh?

Well, I’ve been hard at work on Cosmic Cutthroats. After 2 months, it’s playable. I’ve created a couple of characters for the game, and run a sample combat. It was fun!

I’ll talk here about how the game works, comparing it to my previous games where that might help.

First off, in case anyone is confused, this is a tabletop RPG, that uses paper and pencils and dice. Or a PDF reader, a dice roller program, and a chat program. Thankfully, in this age of ‘actual play’ videos, this is a point of confusion that doesn’t come up as often as it used to, but it still pops up from time to time!

The task resolution system uses 2d12 + an Ability Level, compared to a target number. The Ability is usually a Skill, but sometimes might be an Attribute, a Trait, or another game mechanic. If you beat the target number, you succeed, and if you don’t, you fail.

If you roll matched numbers on the dice, something special happens! If you’re successful, something good happens, a critical success I call a Triumph, and if you fail, you roll a Mishap. Higher matches are better, lower ones are worse.

You may notice that almost any roll can score the a Triumph or Mishap, even the best possible Triumph or worst possible Mishap. Interpreting what “best possible” and “worst possible” means is a task left up to the GM and players during the game. This is the same task resolution system that my super hero RPG Metagene uses, and it’s been a lot of fun.

There are six Attributes: Body, Brains, Agility, Charm, Guts, and Edge. Edge provides a pool of “hero points” to spend to improve your actions, and some Powers require you to spend Edge to activate them. Attributes typically range in value from 1 to 12, with 6 being average, which I believe is roughly the _Traveller_ ranger for Attribute scores.

There are two kinds of Skills, Basic and Advanced. Basic Skills start off with a base Level equal to 1/2 of one Attribute, or 1/4 of two. Advanced Skills also gain a similar boost, but only once you purchase your first Level in the Skill. Skills have the same 1 to 12 range as Abilities.

Traits are minor advantages that don’t really qualify as Skills or Powers. Powers are a bit more expensive than Traits or Skills, and you can modify their per-Level cost by taking Power Calibrations, which can make them more or less effective.

Some Traits and Powers let you purchase additional Options to make them more versatile. The Martial Arts Trait lets you buy additional maneuvers, and the Elemental Control Power lets you purchase Blast, Flight, Life Support, and other uses for your element-shaping. Options have a flat cost equal to one Level of the Power or Trait.

Drawbacks refund points, in exchange for giving you some disadvantage. There aren’t a ton of Drawbacks, and you aren’t expected to fill up your allotment of Drawbacks to make an effective character. In particular, Drawbacks aren’t based on specific personality aspects of your character.

Your personality aspects are reflected by your Qualities. Acting according to your Qualities lets you regain some lost Edge, but contravening your Qualities means you feel drained and lose Edge.

Gear can be gained directly through Powers or Traits, or purchased with in-game money. Gear purchased in-game can be permanently lost or stolen, but gear gained by spending character points is a part of you, and it’s expected you’ll regain it if it’s taken away at the end of the session.

There are no “classes”, per se, but there are species, robot model, occupation, and other packages, all pre-built and ready to go. Packages provide a 10% discount on their contents.

The point costs for Ability Levels get slowly more expensive, so there’s a certain pressure to create a character with diverse interests and abilities, rather than dumping all your points into one thing and hyper-specializing.

Combat is assumed to be moderately cinematic. There is a level of gritty detail, like weapon reach is taken into account in melee combat, but most enemies are Mooks and go down after losing all health in their current Injury State, or when they suffer certain conditions. Equipment and magic belongs to one of a general class of technological and magical eras, so there’s an advantage to having an elf from a magical world, a robot from a sci-fi Realm, both in the same party.

That’s it for now. Maybe next time I will post the results of the first combat trial, just for grins. Stay tuned!