Friday, April 26, 2013

RPG Report: Fate of the Norns

Fresh off a successful Kickstarter campaign, the Fate of the Norns RPG system is gearing up to release its core rulebook. In advance of it, the guys behind Fate of the Norns put out a quick mid-level adventure showcasing the system, which my friend Joe picked up and started running. We had our first session yesterday, and it seems promising so far.

Character Creation

The Fafnir's Treasure module included pre-generated characters--and the core rulebooks that describe how to make a character don't seem to exist yet--so we didn't get much experience with character creation. Each of the pre-gens came with six combat attack powers, six allocated skill ranks, and a handful of passive abilities. Presumably, during actual character creation, you could choose which combat powers or skills you character was trained in. Because the characters started at level 10 (where a commoner might be level 1, and an important figure in town might be level 5), they were a little complicated to understand at first, and without seeing the underlying mechanics, it was impossible to figure out exactly how level affects a character's abilities.

One choice we did get to make was the "Void Rune" power, which is a lot like a theme in D&D 4th Edition. It gives a character one additional combat power and one additional skill training, plus it binds your character to either the Physical, Mental, or Spiritual attribute. Interestingly, unlike in virtually every RPG system out there, there are no ability scores, only skill trainings and the Void Rune binding.

Core Mechanics

Another huge departure from tabletop RPG convention is a complete lack of dice. Instead of making checks (as in D&D) or building dice pools (as in Burning Wheel or a host of other d6 games), whenever a task is attempted, a character casts his runes. drawing a certain number of marked tokens from a pool. (With the 10th level characters, that number, called Destiny, was 2; it presumably increases with level.) For each token that matches the attribute that the GM determines, the character logs a success, with an automatic success granted for the Void Rune's binding and for skill ranks.

For example. say a character wanted to interpret an omen. The GM might say to test Spirit against difficulty 3. The character's Void Rune is bound to Spirit (1 automatic success), he is trained in Omens and Portents (1 automatic success), and he draws one Physical rune (nothing) and one Spiritual rune (1 success). The character passes the test and is able to interpret the omen correctly. Whether intentionally or not, the system mimics that of D&D Next in that it decouples stats from skills--a GM could just as easily call for a Mental test to read the omen, and a character would still be able to apply the skill training--and it makes skill training valuable in that automatic successes are very powerful.


With no dice, combat becomes a lot more about doing things than trying to do them. It can be a welcome change from a system like D&D, where between one third and one half of your actions are wasted because of poor die rolls. At the start of each round of combat, each character's runes are cast, determining which abilities can be used that round. Limiting which abilities are available in a given round is a bit of a two-edged sword: it cuts down analysis paralysis at the expense of reducing a player's ability to plan his character's turn ahead of time.

One of the more innovative elements of combat in Fate of the Norns is the option to attach runes to others and create "rune chains". Depending on the power, a rune chain might allow a power to affect more targets or ones farther away, to increase its damage, or to maintain it beyond the current round. The rules are still a little rough, so it's occasionally difficult to determine the proper application of these "meta tags," but it's a neat mechanic that gives a productive out to an otherwise-useless ability. Having no dice to dictate "misses," extra runes can also be expended to defend against attacks.

When you do get hit, your runes start slowly migrating towards death, meaning that your combat effectiveness decreases once you've been wounded a lot. It's a system that lots of D&D house rules have tried to implement, mostly unsuccessfully, but that feels natural and intuitive here. The game's "difficulty" can be adjusted on the fly by changing the number of spaces on a character's wounds must progress before dropping into the "death" zone.

Fate of the Norns uses a hex grid battle mat. It's my first experience with a hex grid system, and frankly, it makes a lot more sense than the square approach favored by recent editions of D&D, fixing the diagonal problems of 3rd Edition (too much math) and 4th Edition (unrealistic geometry).

Flavor and Roleplaying

Nordic, Viking-flavored games are easy sells, and rightly so. Sagas of adventure, iconic monsters, and epic conflicts permeate the mythos, making an ideal setting for a roleplaying game. We haven't gotten into--and probably won't get much into--advancement or getting too deeply invested in the game world, which is fine for a one-off adventure but a critical part of a more fleshed-out roleplaying system. The description of the Nordic archetype for each character is nice, giving at least a glimmer of personality to get you started, plus giving each character a clear lineage from the myths.

Bottom Line

Fate of the Norns still has some work to do. Even beyond the absent character creation and advancement rules, the rules are inconsistent in a few places and undefined in others--for example, there appear to be no rules for suffering wounds outside of combat, and it's completely unclear how long certain effects last in battle. But those rough patches aren't unexpected given that Fafnir's Treasure is essentially an open beta for the system.

The runecasting mechanic is novel if nothing else, but at least at first glance, it seems plenty capable of supporting a full-fledged roleplaying system every bit as well as dice. Expending unused runes to perform miscellaneous actions or to enhance attacks in combat takes some getting used to at first but ends up working smoothly and logically. Skill tests seem unnecessarily subject to variance since every rune drawn gives only a 1/3 chance of success, but the bright side is that your character really does excel at thing she's trained in.

I'm looking forward to playing through the rest of Fafnir's Treasure; if the system continues to hold up after a few sessions (and if the core rulebook ever actually shows up), it would be interesting to delve deeper into character creation and customization. The group I played with consists of four veteran gamers, and we picked up the rules in about half an hour--it's not the elegant simplicity of "roll a twenty-sided die and add a number to it," but it came together reasonably quickly, it was easy to get excited about, and I enjoyed my first session with the game enough to at least see what else it can do.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

A Quandary: A Lost Cities Endgame Decision

Recently I have been limited to gaming done online due to time constraints. The current source is a turn based site in which players can log in periodically and make a move, slowly making progress in many games. Playing games in this manner isn't an ideal, but it does provide the additional time to deliberate over some interesting situations in some of my favorite games.

I came across a tough decision in one such game that I wanted to do a write up on as I have had difficulty finding the optimal decision. I've included a quick synopsis of game play but if you are already comfortable feel free to skip the overview.

I present to you my most recent quandary:

You have -76 pts, 7 cards remain, what should you do this turn?
Lost Cities Overview

In Lost Cities you are attempting to place cards in ascending order using investment cards to start an expedition that function as multipliers to generate higher scores. Each color you place a card in scores (Sum of card values minus 20 points) [multiplied by] investment cards. Additionally a bonus of 20 points can be added for playing eight or more cards in a color.

The Quandary

First let me lay out the cards we should be focused on, first lets look at the cards we currently have and find our current maximum possible score.

Currently we can play the Blue 8 & 9 for 51 points (8 + 9 * 3) and the White 8 & 9 for 34 points (8 + 9 * 2). Adding these totals to our current -76 points we find our current maximum score is 9 points. This is assuming we don't draw any of the cards we need along the way (see below).

Our opponent currently is sitting at -64 points and we can only speculate as to their holdings. There are six remaining cards that can help them, the White 6, 7 & 10, the Green 8 & 10 (We hold the Green 7) and the Red 10 (We hold the Red 9). The total of these cards is worth 92 points and when added to their current score they reach a maximum score of 28 points.

With 7 cards remaining we can play and draw from the deck twice, followed by drawing from the discard piles if we hit one of the additional cards we are looking for. This allows us to play a maximum of five cards before the game ends. We need the White 6, 7 or 10, or the Blue 6 or 7. The Yellow 8 is also a card we can use but we would pick it last for our dodge ball team on the playground.

As you can see our opponent may literally hold the upper hand. They can play from four to six cards depending on their pace of the game dependent on what cards they have remaining.

So where is the dilemma?

Do we play the Blue 8 (Hoping to draw the White 6, 7 or 10)
Or do we play the White 8 (Hoping to draw the Blue 6 or 7)

Weighing the Options

By playing the White 8 we hope to draw the Blue 6 which would be worth 18 points (bringing us to 27) or the Blue 7 which would be worth 21 points (bringing us to 30).

By playing the Blue 8 we hope to draw the White 6, 7 or 10, not only scoring us 12, 14 or 20 points respectively but also (if you noticed) bringing us to 8 cards in White and earning us a smooth +20 points. The worst of these cards nets us +32 points and brings us above our opponent's theoretical max score, so we can ignore marginal benefits and treat all three cards equally.

So you may be saying "This is simple, the three white cards are game winners, so Play the Blue 8 as there are only two blue cards that benefit us and one of those doesn't necessarily always win us the game.

You'd be correct. If this was in a vacuum. But we don't play board games in a vacuum. That would be strange and unnecessarily difficult. Lets roll out the context.

The Context (You thought you were done, didn't you?)

This game is currently in turn 19. A turn by this definition consists of each player taking a turn (So in baseball terms we are in the bottom of the 19th inning).
On turns 1 & 2 they played the Green Investment & Green 3.
On turn 3 they played the White Investment (I played the White 5 on turn 15).
On turn 8 they completed their blue expedition by playing the Blue 10 (I'll explain why this is important in a moment).

Inductive Reasoning

Given the above information we can assert several premises. This is against an experienced player so the following observations will usually hold true at this (late) point in the game.
  • Players like to play the next sequential card so as to maximize their future outcome.
  • Players likes to play an investment with an additional card of that color in hand for assurance.
  • Players will hold useless cards until they can be safely discarded as to not benefit opponents.
In this case we could guess they would only play the White Investment card if they held another white card in their hand on turn 3. They would also have played a White 6 by now if they had it. They may or may not have played a White 7 by now if they had it but certainly not the White 10 (As they would forfeit the potential White 6, 7, 8 & 9 scoring possibilities).

Our opponent has no knowledge that we hold the Green 7, so they may elect to hold the Green 8 or 10 for now.

They have no use for any more Blue cards as they played their Blue 10 on turn 8, this does mean they have had 11 turns to accrue additional blue cards. We have no way to tell as they would retain these cards.


So should you play the White 8 or the Blue 8 or more importantly, does it actually make a difference in the outcome? I'll revisit this next time with several approaches in order to help identify the potential optimal decision.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

April Game of the Month: War

One of the all-time classics, War is a deeply intriguing game with almost limitless mathematical complexity. War couples extensive replayability with the chance to get back in the game on nearly every turn. It's a game that a child can master in minutes yet delights and frustrates adults all the same, and it's a natural choice for the April Game of the Month.

Style and Gameplay

War is a deck-building card came that uses a standard 52-card deck (without jokers). Suit is ignored, and cards are ranked 2 (low) through ace (high). An equal number of cards is dealt to every player, forming each player's deck. Then, each player plays one card simultaneously, with the high card winning the round. One of the unique mechanics in War is that the winning card "captures" the other cards, adding them to the winning player's deck.

The most important mechanic, though, is the eponymous "War". When two cards tie, one (or more) cards are dealt face-down to increase the stakes of the war, then one is dealt face-up to resolve the battle. It's the only situation in which imperfect information exists in War, and it can be used to reinforce the strength of a deck--or to subtly steal a player's best cards.

War plays quickly, though play time can vary depending on how the war draws work out, and it can suffer from the need to constantly shuffle decks, particularly when relatively few players are playing. Plenty of variants exist, house rules are easy to apply, and the game scales well for two to six players.

Analysis and Anecdotes

Despite a simple set of rules and the use of a standard deck, War is far from a solved game. Its mathematics have been studied extensively, and a number of its aspects have been studied in detail, including finiteness, predictability, and periodicity. In particular, the rules for shuffle triggers and card addition upon winning a round are not standardized, introducing substantial potential for variance.

War has a propensity to create unpredictable situations and large swings in win probability after only a single move. In contrast to Euro-style board games, where strategic consistency is rewarded and a misplay on an early turn can unduly jeopardize a strategy for the rest of the game, War allows unexpected victories, and bad draws in early rounds can easily be erased later on.

Perhaps the greatest source of tension in War tends to be the climactic final battle, when one player is reduced to zero cards and must play out a war knowing it could be his last. This is another area where variants and house rules abound; sometimes, if a player is unable to send enough "troops" to a war, he simply loses, while other rules state that a player's final card can make a "last stand" and fight whatever cards the other players can throw at it.

Overall Impressions

Because of how versatile and widely known it is, War is an ideal time-passer, and it's fascinating to learn how each player has interpreted the game slightly differently. It's easy to get multiple games in, and since each game plays wildly differently, a single game of War that doesn't quite go your way isn't tough to recover from

2+ players, 10-20 minutes, free with a deck of cards.

And a very happy, if slightly belated, April Fools' from Ludi Berkeley!