NPC vs NPC – narration and the unexpected

Earlier this week a panel on the latest (and excellent) Up to Four Players webcomic got me thinking about NPC vs NPC actions, specifically during combat. A short discussion over twitter inspired Eran to put out the following today:

That article got the wheels turning a bit further though. In general, when it comes to NPC actions I try to minimise the amount of time involving a second NPC. I hand wave rolls, narrate overall outcomes rather than detailed actions and actively try to avoid lengthy discussions.

Primarily this comes from wanting to minimise the amount of time where the players are sitting waiting. Nobody likes to sit and listen to the GM monologue, especially when they’re trying to portray multiple individuals (doubly so when, like me, you’re bad at accents so NPCs rarely have distinct voices). I also want to avoid having to reference multiple character sheets/abilities, especially with games that are more complex than the Savage Worlds system used in the comic.

The second reason is that of narrative. As a GM I want to keep the PCs front and centre, not being overshadowed by a minor companion who just happened to roll well that session. I speak here from experience. The first campaign I ran was Torg, using published adventures. During one particular section, the group had encountered an over the top superhero who was meant to obtain what they were after while in the Nile Empire. During their daring escape in a plane they came under attack from fighter planes and throughout the resulting combat their NPC companion was useless. Right up until he rolled amazingly and stole the final kill from the PCs.

If it had been a PC in that position, of constantly missing then rolling big right when it mattered it would have been an amazing moment. Instead it felt, to me, like a let down. As a new GM I wasn’t at the point of knowing when to fudge the rolls (a debate in and of itself) so instead I worked to minimise the chance of that occurring again by avoiding NPC vs NPC rolls.

The Up to Four Players strip got me thinking though – do I sometimes take things to far. In trying to keep the PCs in the spotlight is it to the detriment of the game. Gone are the unexpected moment, such as where a weak and feable King gets the upper hand against the expert assassin or a trusted ally is unexpectedly convinced to take up arms against the PCs. Dice add randomness to the game, not only for the players but for the GM as well and maybe it is time I started to add that back in to my games.

So long as it doesn’t take too long.

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Savage Worlds: A Few More Thoughts

As I discussed in an earlier post I’ve been playing in a Deadlands Noir game recently, powered the by Savage Worlds system and have come across a few issues with certain mechanics, namely high toughness scores and Shaken.

Having had some time to think on the issue I’ve come to the conclusion that my derision of the toughness scores was a bit harsh, after all many other games have similar situations with monsters that are easy to hit but difficult to wound. The issue in our game lay not with the mechanic but with the fact that our group was not built to take on such a monster. Had we been full of characters with a better combat build (we have two, one of whom was hampered by the natural armour the croc had) then we’d have faired much better. The second issue, that of the shaken rules, still irks me. It seems, however, that I’m not alone and it’s a fairly common complaint. With a bit of research I’ve come across a few ways to houserule shaken, the simplest of which is to replace the no action portion with a -2 penalty to actions; thus players can still try and do something on their turn while maintaining the feel that being shaken causes issues.

While I think that change will shift the game back towards one I enjoy I still doubt it’ll shift it to one of my favourite games and when it comes down to it I think I’ll probably be sticking with Cortex Classic most of the time.

Savage Problems

Savage Worlds is currently one of the most popular systems available, having seen a rapid rise in popularity since its release. Partially that’s down to the cost (the explorer’s edition of the core rulebook comes in at under £10), the wide range of available settings (central to which is the rebooted Deadlands setting) and the ease with which the system can be picked up.

All in all it’s a good system but having now had a chance to play it I’m slowly coming to the conclusion that it’s not a system for me.

Before I continue I will point out that I’ve played the game extensively, to date I’ve run it once,  played in a couple of one shots and most recently just finished playing in the first part of a Deadlands Noir campaign (which will be shifting to Cortex Classic when we resume it). It took all of that for me to get a proper feel for the system, and then work out what bugged me about it and in the end it came down to two interconnected issues.

Target number of four

One of the central tenets of Savage Worlds is that the basic target number for any action is 4. Apart, that is, from when it isn’t. Rather than having suggested difficulties Savage Worlds relies heavily on situational modifiers that can greatly raise or reduce the difficulty. On it’s own this isn’t a massive issue, the problem is that the numbers seem to vary so significantly that I just can’t get a handle on working out what I need to roll. Now part of this could be alleviated by the GM stating in advance what the difficulty is but even having that knowledge would only partially help. The reason it would only partially help is that once target numbers get above 8 (which seems to happen fairly regularly) most characters can only succeed with the aid of an exploding die.

And once explosions become a requirement rather than a bonus I (personally) just can’t keep track of my chances.

Combat

My issues with combat in Savage Worlds are mostly a continuation of of the target number four problem, complicated by the Shaken mechanic. The target number issue is as before, however, in combat target numbers seem to soar even higher. Parry, the “to hit” target number typically ranges from 4-8 (the highest in the Deluxe rulebook bestiary is 9) before inclusion of any modifiers but it’s toughness where the numbers get silly, with values often into double figures. That this can then be boosted by armour and that initially you need to get 4 higher again in order to cause a wound rather than a shaken result just takes the piss.

As a gamer with an interest in game design I suspect that this was a deliberate choice, meant to emulate pulp action scenes. For example take Indiana Jones, when he gets into a brawl with a tough opponent he lands plenty of blows that do nothing (hitting but failing to beat the toughness) before landing a few spectacular punches that floor the opponent. In a movie this works, in a game it’s just frustrating to land the attack then be told you’ve not done any damage.

I mentioned shaken being another bugbear of combat in Savage Worlds. This is a much simpler issue, being shaken takes reduces player involvement by preventing them from taking actions and players who can’t do anything get bored. Once again I understand the desire to emulate the genre but it just doesn’t translate into a workable mechanic. I suspect next time I run Savage Worlds I’ll house rule Shaken, turning it instead into a -1 or -2 penalty, that way players still have a chance to do something useful on their turn.

So there it is, my issues with Savage Worlds. They’re not big issues and certainly not ones that would prevent me from ever playing the system again but for the moment I’ll be heading back to Cortex, simply because it’s a system I grok.

Deadlands Noir Character Concept: Jimmy Davis

Jimmy Davis is very much a product of the times. He was excluded from the failing city school system at an early age, partially due to frequent bouts of truancy but also due to his regular habit of climbing to the roof of the school building in order to shout abuse at the harsh (in his opinion) teachers. His education has, therefore, been dominated by that of the street where he has made a name for himself locally as a capable errand boy. This has included work for the local gangsters (The Black Hand), though Jimmy’s illiteracy and small stature have scuppered his chances of becoming a bona fida member of the organisation. Continue reading “Deadlands Noir Character Concept: Jimmy Davis”