Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A quick summary of Spycraft 2.0

I wrote up a summary for Spycraft for posting on another board and then realized I never captured it on my blog... Here's a repost.

On the far, far other end of the simplicity vs complexity scale is Spycraft 2.0. SC2 is *advanced* d20. While initially perplexing, once you finally grok it, SC2 is stunning in its integrated mastery. The fundamental goals of SC2 were deep character development, fully integrated rules (mechanics that are consistent and lend value in many rule areas), and to quantify what the GM can do.

Key Features:
SC2 is still fundamentally d20 based, but the Skill tree is radically altered, there are all new feats, all new vehicle chase rules, there are in depth player organization rules, a very unique take on Player vs GM game play, and an intensely different equipment/gear system. Basicaly, SC tried to plug every clunky hole WotC made in d20 3.5 and they did a pretty good job. It will be quite hard to adequately convey the complexity of Spycraft in a brief. I'll be as clear and simple as a I can, but you're going to have to seriously examine the rules for yourself to fully appreciate the system.

There are a bunch. Spycraft is designed to be a modern spy adventure game and as such the classes fill specific action-movie themes. Indeed, the entire frame work is often described in terms of an action movie. These classes cover the range of action heroes like Guide (Indiana Jones type) to Spook (CIA spy type) to Field Scientist (MacGuyver type). There are 10 basic classes and something like 8 Expert classes (advanced classes). The power level of these characters is much higher than equivalent level d20 Modern classes (or True20 classes). But that just means everyone is pretty good from the first session (and everyone is therefore roughly equal).

HP / Damage:
Spycraft uses the Vitality/Wound Point system very similar to the one used in Star Wars RPG. A character Vitality represents incidental damage or fatigue while Wound damage is more serious and deadly. For those unfamiliar with V/W Points, your Wound Points are typically fixed as equal to your CON score. Thus even high level character can be laid low quickly with 15 points of Wound damage.

Hmmm... where to start? Combat is vastly expanded. There are many new actions and details about when to use actions. Initiative is overhauled and can actually be variable between combat rounds. There are no less than *40* individual combat actions from Aim to Withdraw. Combats between matched foes is always going to be an Epic battle. SC recognizes the difference between Villians and Mooks. Villians will have real combat stats including Vitality and Wounds. Mooks don't. Often mooks can be mowed down in droves. The combat mechanic for mooks is based on a damage save concept where the thug must save vs the damage dealt or just be dispatched. This is designed to simulate the way guards are just knocked out in the movies.

While there are no true spell-like powers in SC, many of the effects are still fantastic in ability. These are often explained away as super spy gear or simple class abilities. But these rarely have any limitation on use. SC does use a concept called "Action Dice" which are awarded at the beginning of every session which are usually required to activate anything really special. But more on Action Dice later as this is a key mechanic of the game.

Skills are vastly expanded and go a fair ways to filling the void left by Spells. Every skill has a family of sub-skills, where buying some points in the skill gets you some points in all the sub-skills too. But the sub-skills may use different key attributes. For example, Falsify is a skill with 3 sub-skills called Forgery, Disguise and Cover-up. Disguise and Cover-up are Wisdom based while Forgery is Int based. Overall the skill system appears to replace what would normally be combat in a Fantasy game.

Here is one area that Spycraft is really different. It still uses a Wealth Check concept for minor game interaction, but also contains a vastly complex Gear Check system. The basic premise of most Modern games is that the PC's work for someone--the CIA, Omega Force, The Dark and Shady Corporation, etc. So it follows that the PC's are equipped by their employer. What you can request is a factor of your level and various feats that increase your request potential. Since much of the gear fills the niche of ultra powerful firepower ala magic items / spell casting, this mechanic is essential to control the raw destructive power of the characters. While at first look the Gear system seems overwhelming, it actually becomes masterfully elegant as a game design mechanic.

Fudge Factors:
Okay... here's the nitty gritty. The over-arching concept to Spycraft is that all "missions" have a Threat Level associated with them that is actually a mathematical calculation of the number players and their levels. This sets a numeric value that becomes the seed for virtually all other mechanics in the game. Once the Threat Level is set, this number becomes a modifier to virtually every "default" DC in the mission. So for example if the threat level is 5, then the DC to unlock basic doors become 15 + 5 throughout the game. You just add 5 to all the variable DC's. This works surprisingly well and allows you to instantly scale any adventure to any sized or leveled group. Brilliant! This Threat Level also ties in to the Gear Request system to define what (and how many) items the players can request.

Another brilliant concept is seen in Action Dice. On the surface, Action Dice look like Action Points/Conviction Points... basically tokens the players can uses to boost die rolls or generally save their butts. Players also use AD to instantly confirm critical hits and critical failures. So if during an attack the player rolls a 20, they can spend an Action Die to instantly make it a critical hit or if the GM rolls a 1 while attacking the PC, then the player can again spend an AD to confirm that the 1 is a fumble of some sort. What is really interesting about this mechanic is that the GM is awarded Action Dice based on the number of AD possessed by the players. The GM has to use his dice to confirm threats as well. This makes being a GM slightly more strategic as it quantifies when the GM "exerted force" in opposition to the players. If a GM wishes to use more AD than was originally awarded, then he must give the players bonus AD to compensate. In fact, the game assumes the GM hands out more Action Dice as a way to keep the game action packed.

Lastly a quick summary of what I think is the most broken aspect of all RPG's... bad chase mechanics. Spycraft again delivers a brilliant system to handle chases without time consuming distance/speed calculations. Actions in a chase are broken down in to basic strategies that are selected in secret by the players and the GM and then compared. Character abilities affect how well the strategies work and then GM / Player make opposed Skill checks (usually Drive Skills) to determine the result. The results modify a 1 to 10 point pursuit scale where 1 means you've caught the prey and 10 means the prey escaped. SC re-uses this strategy selection mechanic for Seductions, Infiltrations, Interrogations, Hacking, Brainwashing and Manhunts.

I was really impressed with Spycraft, although I am still somewhat intimidated by its complexity. I fear even a very good GM would spend a lot of time reviewing rules at each session. But once you got it... It would be like d20-zilla... uber-gaming at its most hardcore. I hope the guys at Crafty Games hold out. They got some Good Stuff.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


I thought I'd post a quick note about joining Facebook. I expanded my social networking Fu by casting my gamer net over Facebook. I hauled in several fun widgets like "Tiny D&D" which has rekindled my desire for the old pen & paper game. I'm just plain ol' Curtis Owings on Facebook. Come on over and installed Tiny D&D.

I also joined the RGPLife site which has many social networking aspects, but is more RPG focused. It's a new site and just getting off the ground.

I downloaded Battleground RPG demo client. It is a virtual "table top" environment for over the Internet gaming. You basically play the old table top games over Skype and use BRPG to be the game table for diagraming physicial situations, sharing maps, etc. Might be cool... I'll have to get some play testers.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Virtual Morality

I’ve played a lot of games for a lot of years and recently I discovered that I have a whole set of ethics around gameplay. Besides the obvious “no cheating” standards I realized there are many more ethical considerations. As I thought about it more I began to see a recent evolution in these ethics. I am sure one could probably do a great deal of research in to the area of simulated morality. These are just some of my thoughts.

With the creation of MMORPG’s has come the creation of “guilds” or team vs. team play. Fighting other players is as old as DOOM, but the advancements made in the last couple of years have been significant. In DOOM (and most first person shooters), there is very little personal loss (if any) to character death. At most you lose some play time as you wait to re-spawn. But old school MUD players will remember how character death often meant complete loss of all your cherished items and some if not all your wealth. Ultima Online was one of the first graphical MMORPG’s to continue this as a concept. But this type of cut-throat ethic only appealed to a small market. This in itself could be examined in more detail, but as UO was interested in more subscribers and more revenue it experimented with ways to alter the player vs player game. And thus an era of game ethics and player psychology has been born.

Each and every MMO game developer has now had to consider what morality it will enforce and what animosity it will foster. WoW has created the two sides with limited areas of allowed PvP and even goes farther by allowing players to choose completely non-pvp (called Player vs Environment PvE) servers to play on. Other MMO’s have chosen to allow only special zones where combat is essentially free-for-all. Few graphical MMO’s adhere to the draconian “lose it all” style, but some come pretty close. EVE Online losses are limited to only the ship the players happen to be in. Ships are very specialized and most pilots have dozens of ships so even this loss is far from “total”.

What is more interesting is the self imposed ethics of players. Despite all these options and all the tweaks developers make to encourage/discourage certain behaviour, the openness of RPG allows players to decide for themselves what actions to take. You can even include some external game activities in this set of simulated morals. Some games allow for the trade of in game currency for additional play time (e.g. EVE Online). Players are allowed to buy game codes good for 60 days and sell them in game for ISK. While completely allowed by the game developers, many player see it as “cheating” and will not. Many players, even when playing games with strong PvP elements, refuse to engage—struggling through PvP as an extra obstacle in what is for them a largely PvE game. Entire guilds/groups are organized around common game play ethics. Few disputes can shatter the members of a guild than a sudden radical shift in game ethics.

I can see how these concepts can branch out to creating whole new fields in predictable psychology. Game developers will need to be keenly aware of what their target market desires in terms of game morality while at the same time allowing for players to break the morality. We get to see first hand fledgling gods of creation introduce evil in to the virtual world.
What are your game ethics?

Game On!

Monday, September 15, 2008


I suppose that any game where folks will put in years of play time creates a whole new playing field for scammers. I don't have a lot to say about it other than "yeah, I've been scammed before." It can happen to you.
I have never lost actual money, but I can sure see how it could happen. Most MMO's have strict acceptable use policies (AUP) that forbid ever using cash to buy accounts, gold/credits, items, etc. Although, in spite of those policies the virtual blackmarket is awash in illicit goods. You can literally buy whole accounts at top "levels" with the virtual equivalent of billions of dollars for enough real cash. Just don't get caught. The trick to not getting caught seems to be as simple as keeping your mouth shut.
These transactions happen in some obvious places like eBay, TradeMe, etc. But often they happen on one of the millions of game forums. It appears that while most game developers know it occurs, they can't devote much time to enforcement. Some of the schemes around these transactions are pretty grandiose. One site offers trade in a virtual currency called "forum gold." On this site you don't trade real cash, but rather credits... then you use your credits to buy other account goods. One step shy of ever using cash and interesting as it allows the trade of goods between games (i.e. I'll trade you my 70th level WoW Warlock for 2 top level Guild War accounts).
All of these trades are under the table and leave the buyer with no recourse should things go awry. Some developers, like CCP (EVE Online) seem to turn a completely blind eye to blatent scammers on their own forums. CCP goes out of their way to warn players that they do not interfer in game credit transactions and offer no guarantees of safety. As long as actual cash is not trading hands, they don't care.
The scam I fell in to was the "lottery" on EVE's own forums. I bought a "ticket" for 25 million ISK (game currency) for a chance at winning a billion ISK ship. But the lottery never happened and the 30 some players that gave money just lost it. 25 million ISK is a chunk, but not really crippling. CCP is completely aware that many (if not most) lotteries are complete scams... but they don't step in. It's part of EVE.
My advice to gamers is, unfortunately, to avoid these dark alleys. Look around... how many dilweeds do you see smoking dope and playing the latest crack MMO while jobless? Uh huh... a lot. Well just like crackheads they need money to play and they are not above stealing it. Aside from pothead frat boys, also consider that $20 USD is large sum of money in Taiwan or China. The origin of the "gold farmer". These economies can actually sustain human beings a living wage on 10,000 gold for $50 USD. But again, once the money is in their account there can be no guarantee the gold will ever show. Plus I worry that in the secret archives of data and transactions that the dirty deed is forever recorded... a ticking time bomb to sudden account closure.
Stay clean... Game On!