Friday, July 6, 2018

Game Design and Re-Inventing the Wheel

Continuing off of my most recent blog on re-skinning AD&D, I'd like to look at the core philosophy behind the stance I took in that blog. I've been designing games professionally for about 19 years, starting with Palladium around 99 and having done projects since then for Misfit Studios, Eden Studios, a brief stint for ICE (which to my knowledge was never released), a few other small publishing companies, and most recently, Troll Lord Games and Goodman Games.

Over that time I've explored a range of different ideas in game design and something keeps coming back to me: I firmly believe in the KISS Principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid! I think as gamers we've all been conditioned, especially in the last 20 years or so, to look for the next new, "innovative" system. We've been told you have to design a specific system for every genre. We've been told you can't handle every situation with a given system.

I could rant for pages about the concept of "innovative" RPG design, but that's not the subject of this blog. Suffice it to say I abhor that word and that idea.

In any case, in some situations it's true that while re-skinning works just fine, a game can work better if you design a specific sub-system when it's needed. On the other hand, as designers, I think we rush to build new systems and tinker far too often, when it's not necessary. In fact, it's become so common that people have started to have knee-jerk reactions when someone suggests otherwise. I've had a number of such reactions to my last blog (most over on Facebook). Some have even taken the suggestion that a simple re-skin is functional as some sort of personal attack on their gaming sensibilities, which is just weird to me. But that's social media, I guess.

Re-Inventing the Wheel

Folks, when you engage in complex redisgns of something that you don't need to redesign for it to work in a different context, this is called "re-inventing the wheel." When you take something that works just fine, and create an often-overcomplicated solution to change it for a single, specific situation, it hurts the overall play experience. It becomes a slippery slope (a term people hate these days, but bear with me) where once it's done, people tend to do it more, and more, until the system becomes weighty and bloated. 

I go out of my way not to re-invent the wheel when I design. Before I dive into any project, I look carefully at the existing system and options. Is there a way I can accomplish what I need with the rules that are already there? If so, that's a bonus to both the GM and players of the game. They don't have to learn a new rule. There's fewer bells and whistles to muck things up and clog the system. 

An Example of Design Philosophy

Once again, let me go back to Amazing Adventures. When designing that game, I wanted to include a gadgeteer class. I pored through over a dozen different pulp and other games and supplements to look at a dozen different ways that people handed gadget creation. All of them were neat and fun, but most were incredibly complex and I could see how they could slow down or bog down games to the point where it would quickly become inelegant and irritating. 

Finally, I said, "is there a way I can accomplish this that it'll just work within the current context?" Yes, there was. I realized that most gadgets were created based on what they do, and I already had a few hundred effects right there in all the spells. Why not just buy a spell and re-skin it as a technological gadget? A few guidelines for handling the re-skin later, it was done. It playtested brilliantly and has been one of the more widely praised elements of the game. 

Likewise, even supposedly new sub-systems like the psionics really are specifically designed to work within the existing framework of Prime checks. When you use a psionic power, you simply make an ability check with a CL set by the GM, based on what you want to do. It's not remotely new or removed from the way the rest of the game works. This enables it to be dumped into ANY SIEGE game with no modifications, and it adds a new option without bloating the game. 

From https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tabletop_role-playing_game_icon.svg
By User:JohnnyMrNinja, Sabine MINICONI & http://openclipart.org/user-detail/yves_guillou [LGPL (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/lgpl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Is There an Easier Way?

In the end, I think the question we should always be asking in game design, and what game masters should ask themselves while planning campaigns from a rules standpoint is whether there is an easier way to handle something than what they're currently doing. Simple is almost always better in game design. After all, this hobby is about collaborative storytelling, and complex rules that force you to step out of the game and consider the mechanics rarely accomplish that end. The best game systems, in my opinion, get out of the way and let you tell a story. 

The easier your solution is, the better your game will run. It'll be smoother, your players will be more engaged, and the story will flow much better. At least, that's been my experience without fail. If I can get by without extra dice rolling, that's the best result. I'm not a diceless guy; on the contrary, I think dice are essential to task resolution in a game. I just like to minimize their effect when I can...but I guess that's a subject for another blog. 

It's Okay if You Disagree

For a large subset of gamers out there, this very idea is anathema. They prefer a rule for everything. They prefer mechanically-detailed characters with a laundry list of skills, abilities and the like. They prefer tactical combat with detailed planning and movement. There's absolutely nothing wrong with this. 

I'll repeat that in the vain hope that someone won't call me out on it, anyway: There's nothing wrong with this. This whole thing is just about my personal philosophy towards design, and my personal preferences in game play. As long as you and your group are having a good time, keep on keeping on, regardless of whether or not we agree. 

I'm not a one-true-wayist, and to be honest, I have little patience for those who are. This blog is just my thoughts and philosophies on gaming and design. Take them for what they're worth, which is words on a screen. I only bring this up because it seems to be a theme on social media these days, to take things personally or to feel that people have to argue every point. 



Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Sci-Fi with AD&D, or, Re-Skinning Your Genre

Introduction

We've all been conditioned (since day one, actually) to accept the idea that if you want to play a different genre of game, a different rules set is necessary, or at very least major changes to your existing rules set. From the earliest days, if you wanted to play a science fiction game, it was Gamma World or Metamorphosis Alpha. If you wanted Wild West, it was Boot Hill. Even the first edition Dungeon Master's Guide suggested converting your game if you wanted to do this (and gave solid guidelines for doing so), though it did provide baseline suggestions for importing, say, firearms into AD&D.

In the second edition era, we got Spelljammer, but those hoping for a science fiction game using the AD&D rules were disappointed: this was AD&D in space (sort of), and not true sci-fi. Instead of starfighters and nebulae, we got floating galleons in a strange sort of aether-filled realm. When it came time for sci-fi, we got Alternity, which was again its own system.

In later years, Wizards of the Coast gave us D20 Modern, which purported to use the same system as D&D to present other genres of play, and to a point, it did. But it changed the entire approach to character generation, introducing the concept of talent trees and character classes based upon ability scores. Again, it was a major shift and a wholly different approach.

Something that seems to have been missed all these years is that none of this is necessary. It's possible to run a pure sci-fi game with the AD&D rules as they sit, just by shifting a bit of terminology and imaginative approach. I call this "re-skinning."

What Is Re-Skinning Your Game?

I took the re-skin approach on a small scale with Amazing Adventures for the gadgeteer class, using spell effects to represent gadgets rather than creating a complex gadget-building system, and it has been very well received. Before I go further, let me address the fact that AA is at its core the same kind of shift as D20 Modern was, when compared to its C&C roots. It does include new character classes. It does include new rules approaches and assumptions. And it's true in many ways that a game specifically designed for a purpose will generally work better than one adapted to that purpose. 

The point of this blog is not to disparage new approaches, new systems or the like. It's simply to point out that if you love your AD&D game, there's no strict need to seek out a science fiction rules set if you don't want to. 

Re-skinning simply means taking what you've got already and describing it differently. Any tweaks to the rules should be minor at best--of the "house rule" variety. 

Character Classes

Exactly zero changes need to be made to any character classes in AD&D to play a science fiction game. If you choose to do so, you can re-name them (a cleric could become a templar; a wizard a techno-wizard; an illusionist a holo-technician, for example), but if your players are okay with simply calling them by their classic names, their function still works fine and no changes to class abilities need be made, save those related to equipment (as discussed below). 

This could, however, be an outstanding opportunity to adapt the Paladin to a fighter jockey type character; instead of a mount, they get a vehicle--a starfighter, speeder bike, or whatever else the DM deems appropriate. The "unusual intelligence" of the mount applies to an AI or advanced sensor package in the vehicle itself, and the paladin (or cavalier, if you're allowing Unearthed Arcana) applies their mounted combat bonuses to vehicle-based combat instead. 

Speaking of UA, barbarian characters would be those who are luddites, approaching technological gadgets as D&D barbarians do magic items.

Magic: The Elephant in the Room

Perhaps the biggest hurdle one might face in regards to AD&D character classes in sci-fi games is their reliance (save the assassin, fighter, monk and thief) on magic. If you're looking for a "pure" science fiction game, there are two approaches you can take. The first is to simply restrict character classes to these four and remove magic entirely. 

I, however, am a fan of a different approach, and this is where re-skinning really comes into play. It's what I did in AA--magic simply becomes technology. As Arthur C. Clarke said, after all: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."



Your wizard, illusionist and cleric, for example, function exactly the same as they always have. Instead of spells, however, they have equipment packs full of technological gadgets which happen to function the same as the spells do in the core game. Instead of "forgetting" the spells they cast when they do, their technology only has so many uses before it needs to recharge for several hours: They've got only so many universal batteries on hand, and are always working towards building more, represented by additional spell levels as they advance. 

Even rangers and paladins can skin their spell abilities as technological gadgets that they construct as they advance in character level. 

This approach can even be applied to clerical "turn undead" abilities. If you're looking to remove mysticism from the game, traditional undead are re-skinned as a specific variety of extradimensional alien species, and turning is the function of an antipathy field the clerical character can generate via a technological device they wear or carry. 

Creatures with Spell-Like Abilities

There's also the question of creatures with spell-like abilities. Rather than simply applying these as magical spells, they can be biological abilities inherent to specific species, or again, they can be technology possessed by that species. 

Magic Items

Magical items, likewise, take on a technological aspect, generating protective fields, using nanotech to achieve wondrous effects, or the like. Artifacts are just that: artifacts of lost alien civilizations whose technology may not be fully understood, but produces incredible power, often at a corrupting cost. 

Roles in Play: How to Pilot a Starship

How about adapting the existing character classes for specific roles in play? How, for example, does one deal with star pilots, engineers and the like? This can be handled simply by adopting a version of the DMG "Secondary Skills" rules (page 12). Simply have each character select one or two secondary or background skills that define their role: "my character is a pilot," "my character is a career officer." "My character specializes in communications," etc. The Secondary Skills system in AD&D is exceptionally freeform and left to the DM to determine how and when such skills come into play. 

Alternately, the nonweapon proficiencies rules introduced in Oriental Adventures, Wilderness Survival Guide and Dungeoneer's Survival Guide can easily be adapted, by re-skinning existing options: "ride" can become "pilot" or "drive." Repair or craft-based nonweapon proficiencies can be applied to mechanical, elecrical or other technological enginnering.

Personally, I favor the earlier system because I prefer a more freeform style of play, though adopting the attribute check method of task resolution from later AD&D books is an attractive all-purpose approach to determining what can be done and when. 

In the end, the goal is to simply have your players decide which character does what, aside from their character class. It requires no new rules systems; just a base description. Given the technological approach to magic, this actually can make wizards and illusionists outstanding engineering characters who apply their "techno-wizardry" to keeping the ship running and bypassing security systems (Knock, for example, is the perfect way to represent hacking a security door). 

Equipment

What about equipment? Once again, everything you need is already there in your base weapons lists. Just re-skin light, medium and heavy crossbows as energy pistols, carbines and rifles. Alternately stats for firearms and technological armor can be found in the DMG, pages 112-113, and these can be simply dropped in and altered to be energy weapons, if you so choose. Simply apply the classic weapon proficiencies to the re-skinned varieties (any class with access to a pistol crossbow would have access to an energy pistol, for example). 

Wizards with their very limited equipment lists could pose an issue, here; it's recommended that darts be re-skinned as a lesser energy weapon, a palm pistol, taser weapon or the like. Alternately, wizards could have access to proficiency with an energy weapon based on magic missile, though it merely does 1d4 damage and requires a ranged attack roll to strike.

Starships and Space Combat

When it comes to starship combat, the "Waterborne Adventures" rules on pages 53 to 55 can be adapted on the fly for use in outerspace, by adapting the stats for naval vessels to various classes of ships, from small shuttles (rowboats) to capital ships (warships). Speeds can be dealt with simply by changing the units: the DMG lists speeds of various ship sizes in mph--change the units to light years, parsecs, warp factors, light speed multipliers, or whatever other unit you prefer in your game, and go. 

For starfighters, apply the "Adventures in the Air" rules, adapting the various statistics therein for flying creatures to your starships. You can even maintain designations by creating classes of starships (The Efreeti Class fighter, the Dragon bomber, etc.). Alternately, take the smaller ship values (rowboart, small or large barge, galley) and assign maneuverability ratings (A, B, C, D, E).

For weaponry, again, use spell effects (or monster attack types if using flying monsters to model starfighters). Fighters could use cannons based off of magic missile, able to fire once per round. You might determine that the effect is equivalent to 3rd level, granting two bolts per use. You could grant larger ships particle beam weapons based on lightning bolt, or torpedoes based on fireball or ball lightning. 

It's suggested, however, that you require an attack roll for using such armaments in ship-to-ship combat, rather than having them strike automatically. Simply treat them as a standard ranged attack roll, using the hit dice of the vehicle as the reference on the Monster combat table, and adding the Ranged Attack modifier for the pilot's Dexterity. 

Source: http://www.desktopimages.org/wallpaper/73517/e-wing-escort-starfighter-star-wars


Ground-Based Vehicle Combat

Again, the rules for aerial combat can be used to mimic ground-based combat simply by removing the 3-dimensional aspect (ground based vehicles move only in 2 dimensions: forward/backward/right/left), applying a speed value and hull rating to the vehicle, and getting with it. No new complex rules systems are required. AD&D has always handled chases with hand-waving and abstraction anyway; vehicle battles should be no different. 

Psionics

Psionics tend to be part and parcel of science fiction gaming, and the rules in the AD&D PHB and DMG suffice just fine as written to adopt them into your game. They have a reputation for being arcane and difficult to grasp, but if one takes the time to carefully read both the PHB (pp 110-117) and DMG (pp. 76-79) sections, the rules aren't all that difficult to parse. A quick preview of OD&D Supplement III: Eldritch Wizardry can also add a degree of understanding as to the intent behind the psionics rules, and a simple approach to implementing them. 

Economics

Another big hurdle is economics. AD&D games tend to be about killing things and taking their stuff. A science fiction game should be less focused on economics, but if one feels they need the monetary system from AD&D, it can be as simple as changing the gold standard to "galactic credits" or whatever other monetary standard you adopt--again, it's a simple re-skin.

Conclusion

The above guidelines touch on the major re-skins needed to use AD&D first edition as it sits to run a classic science fiction games. Certainly it's not an exhaustive list of SF AD&D, but it shows that there are no new systems required and no major changes to existing character classes or systems. All that is required is re-imagining, or re-skinning the way things look in game. Certainly it requires buy-in and imagination from DM and players alike, and the DM must be willing to make decisions on the fly and adjustments and prep-work as needed, but isn't that the heart of any role playing game? 

Certainly it requires divorcing ourselves from some core assumptions we've all come to live with, and embracing a more open, less simulationist approach to gaming. Still, most rules in classic RPGs are highly abstracted to begin with, so it theoretically should be a small stretch to take that leap of faith. 

I've chosen Sci-Fi here because it requires the most broad approach. Doing a modern urban fantasy game with AD&D is as simple as changing the era in which it's set, for example, and dropping in firearms and modern tech like cell phones, which don't require game mechancis at all. The monetary system can be altered by simply using dollars, Euros or whatever currency you like and applying modern prices (which most of us already know off the top of our heads). Starting funds can be as listed, simply converted to your existing currency. If you want to give more, multiply existing starting funds by 5 or 10. 

Have you tried this sort of approach to genre-gaming? How did it go for you? Let's hear about it in the comments below!


Friday, June 29, 2018

Revisiting the Wasted Lands

Been doing some cleanup and review of the blog recently. A few of you have doubtless noticed that I've begun posting again, though a bit irregularly. I'm trying to pick that up and get back into a routine. To that end it's also time to start moving away from calling out the assholes in our culture on their douchebaggery, and get back to talking about old school games.

After all, there's always going to be jagoffs, and calling them out on their crap isn't going to make them change. It's really best just to sigh, roll your eyes at them, and move on.

So, I originally started this blog to post thoughts and notes about a house sandbox setting I was putting together called The Wasted Lands. While I never got for with an actual campaign of it (it was supplanted by my Age of Conan Hyborian Age game), there were some really cool ideas in there and I'd like to revisit it.



To do that, however, I had to make it easy to sift through these posts and find the stuff. I was surprised that apparently I had no idea how to use tag labels back in the day. So I spent about an hour and a half this morning digging through all my old posts and adding tags. Now if you want to go back and see the Wasted Lands notes, just click the "Wasted Lands" tag, over on the left, or at the bottom of this post. I can't promise they'll come up in order, but they'll all be there.

At some point perhaps I'll go through and do an index for them, but that's going to be an herculean task and I'm not up for it right this minute.

Anyway, my plan eventually is to get back to working on WL, which will form the campaign setting for the next edition of Spellcraft & Swordplay, which has been in (very slow) development for awhile, now. The new ORCS system will look a lot different than the current version; I'm combining the 2d6 task resolution with a die pool mechanic, and working on point buy for characters instead of class and level.

This may elicit gasps of horror from some of my old school fans out there, but I'm working hard to keep an old school feel in place despite the different approach to character build. I've had some solid comments from my "in house" playtesters, so we'll see what happens.

Wasted Lands itself will also likely undergo a few changes--specifically, there won't be elves, dwarves and hobbits; it's going to be a humanocentric swords and sorcery game. In addition, I may be ditching the concept of gods in the various cultures in favor of the idea that you will be playing the legendary warriors that create the later myths. That is, you'll be playing a northern warrior named Wotan, whose exploits will one day form the myth-cycle of Odin for the Norse people.

Finally, I'd also like to get back (yet again) to my exegesis on AD&D. People seemed to enjoy that and I was enjoying it as well, demonstrating how the original AD&D rules were not as complicated or arcane as people remember them to be.

So there you have it. It's going to be slow in development because between my writing for Troll Lord Games, Goodman Games, and others, plus my day job as a web content writer, I have a great deal on my plate. Bear with me, though, and keep it here. I've been missing the blogosphere lately and am looking forward to diving back in!

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Fandom and Arrogant Entitlement

So there's been a lot of talk lately about the racist and sexist assaults on cast members of the new Star Wars trilogy. In particular, one witless coward who runs a Star Wars hate page on Facebook (but of course claims to be a "true fan") has taken credit for driving Kelly Marie Tran off of Facebook, and for orchestrating the bot hacks and review bombs on Rotten Tomatoes that subverted the ratings for The Last Jedi. Of course, he doesn't have the balls to post under his real name, because that's how Social Media works. Say whatever you want and hide behind a false name so you don't have to suffer consequences for it.

He also, incidentally, stated that John Boyega and Kathleen Kennedy were next because, "it's time to restore straight whit males to prominence in science fiction and fantasy," and that "We will force Kathleen Kennedy and her feminazi agenda to step down," and "...force Disney to restore Legends to its rightful place in canon."

I don't even have words for that. It's...wow. Yeah.

People like that need to be removed from the gene pool, that's all I'm going to say.

The Culmination of a Problem 


But honestly, this is only the culmination of a problem that's been going on for quite some time in fandom across the board. A recent meme went up that went something along these lines (bear with me: I'm paraphrasing, here):

The Stages of Fandom
1. I love this!
2. I own this!
3. I must control this!
4. I cannot control this; I must attack this!
5. I hate this!

Certainly this is a generalization and given how much money the current Star Wars and Marvel films are making, the vast majority of people are loving what's going on with it. Still, there's this sense among a vocal sect of the fanbase that is not only making the entire experience of fandom toxic, they are giving the rest of us a bad name.

A friend of mine from the Rebel Legion costuming group recently opined, "Nobody hates Star Wars like Star Wars fans," and he's so right. It's even bled into the groups themselves, which has led more tha a few people to walk away. I myself let my membership in the RL lapse, but there were a wide variety of reasons, and cattiness was only a small part.


The Arrogance of Fan Rage

The worst part about this is the sheer, arrogant, self-importance of a lot of these people. I had a discussion recently online about fan rage, and I pointed out that someone said to me, "Why don't I have the right to rant about how much something sucks? Why is your love of it okay and my disdain wrong?"

I responded, "Because we live in a world that's already too negative, angry, and toxic. My love is bringing positivity into the world. Your negativity and inability to let other people enjoy things is only making the problem worse, darker, and more negative."

This is where it gets good. Someone actually responded with the following:

"That's bullshit. I'm not just some butthurt fan hater. I have fifteen years of experience in film, and I could spell out a well-argued, well-thought-out argument about why these new Star Wars films objectively suck. I'm not just whining, and it's my responsibility to do just that, because it's time we stopped standing for the culture of mediocrity that Hollywood is forcing upon us, and in turn force them to start producing reasonably good films."

I'll be honest: That's some self-important bullshit right there. If you actually think: 

1. That your Facebook post is going to "end a culture of mediocrity in Hollywood,"
2. That your fifteen years of experience in film outweighs the literal decades of experience held by the various people making these films.
3. That your Facebook post is somehow going to get to Disney and make them go, "Holy SHIT, that guy's right!"
4. That there is any such thing as an "objectively" good or bad film

Then quite frankly, you're a self-important asshole who might have the right to a social media account, but you don't deserve the voice it gives you. That shit is the height of hubris and arrogance.

I saw someone else claim that the "failure" of Solo: A Star Wars Story is "what happens when you piss off the entire fan base."

1. Solo isn't a failure. It's broken even and made a profit. It just hasn't made a billion dollars. Funny thing about this--the media "benchmark" for it breaking even keeps getting raised higher, every time it meets the prior benchmark. For example, originally it had to make $300 mill to break even. As soon as it hit $300 mill, these sources all suddenly went, "Oh, no, it has to be $500 mill!"
2. Once again, given the sheer numbers that TLJ pulled in, Lucasfilm and Disney have absolutely not "pissed off the entire fan base." Just a few people who think they're more important than they are. 



Shut up and Move the F*** On

Look, nobody's requiring you to love everything that comes out. Nobody's even requiring you to like everything that comes out. But when your reaction is to take to social media and attack the people who are enjoying it, attack the cast and filmmakers, and pump yourself up with importance and power that frankly, you don't have, you need to take a long, hard look in the mirror. 

It's not your "responsibility" to point out to Hollywood why their films are bad. It's not "within your power" to end a "culture of mediocrity." When you make stupid statements like, "making a billion dollars does not equate to a good film," you're showing your naivety, ignorance, and arrogance. In point of fact, by the only metric that counts, making a billion dollars does equate to a great film. Your personal assessment of its artistic merit...wait for it...doesn't matter. At all. 

If you don't like a film in a franchise, don't go see the next one. It's that simple. Vote with your wallet. That's the only way to show Hollywood their movies aren't good. It's not bitching on Facebook. But for Chrissakes, shut your goddamn mouth about it. Do you have the right to your opinion? Yes, absolutely. Do you have the right to express it? Yes, absolutely, and I'll fight for you to keep that right. 

But just because you have the right to something, does not mean it's a good idea to exercise that right. What you're doing? It's not exercising a responsibility to communicate with Hollywood. 

It's bullying. Pure, and simple. And that shit is unacceptable. 

If you don't like the latest movies in the franchises, guess what? There's literally dozens of sci-fi and fantasy films released every single year. Walk away and go find something that does appeal to you. You'll be much happier, and you won't infect everyone else with your toxic brand of fandom. 

In other words, Star Wars, Marvel, and DC aren't for you anymore. Suck it up, cowboy, and move the fuck on. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Pure Sabacc: The Poker of the Star Wars Universe

Sabacc
I've done a couple of blogs recently about the official version of sabacc that was released as the Han Solo Card Game by Hasbro/Disney, how it's actually the Corellian Spike variant, and how it can be slightly altered to better reflect the betting nature of the game. This led me down the rabbit hole of securing a "full" sabacc deck, and exploring how to play the complete version of the game. 

In doing so, I discovered that the rules that are all over the Internet are (perhaps unsurprisingly) confusing, arcane, and in some ways just don't make sense. This is particularly true in the area of "calling a hand." I strongly suspect that the people who wrote these rules (which I believe to originate with the West End Games Crisis on Cloud City RPG supplement) had no idea what calling is because they've never played poker. 

Quite frankly, the rules make for a gambling game that nobody would really want to play, or one that would lead to a stalemate with everyone sitting around staring at each other when nobody wants to call the hand, but nobody's willing to bet anymore. 

To that end, I've tried to streamline and clean up the rules, and am presenting them here for your enjoyment. 

Image Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O_E_9k-H9TU

What Is Sabacc?

Sabacc is the most popular card game that throughout the Star Wars Galaxy. Perhaps most famously, it’s the game that Han Solo played to win the Millennium Falcon from Lando Calrissian, and which, in the Legends canon, Lando played to win Cloud City. It’s a gambling game with elements similar to both poker and blackjack, with an added element of random risk added on top.

The Cards

Sabacc is played with a deck of 76 cards made up of four suits--Sabers, Staves, Flasks, and Coins--and a set of face cards. Each suit is made up 11 regular cards (numbered 1-11) and four ranked cards: the Commander, the Mistress, the Master, and the Ace (numbered 12-15).

The set of "face" cards (or arcana) consists of 16 cards, each with a negative value. In addition, each face card has a special name and symbol. There are two instances of each face card in the deck. The full complement of cards in a deck are as follows:

Four Suits (Sabers, Flasks, Coins, Staves) valued 1-11

Ranked Cards (one set for each suit):
  • Commander (value 12)
  • Mistress (value 13)
  • Master (value 14)
  • Ace (value 15 or 1)
Two copies each of eight Face Cards:
  • The Star (value -17)
  • The Evil One (value -15)
  • Moderation (value -14)
  • Demise (value -13)
  • Balance (value -11)
  • Endurance (value -8)
  • Queen of Air and Darkness (value -2)
  • Idiot (value 0)



Image Source: http://starwars.wikia.com/wiki/Sabacc

If this looks like a tarot deck to you, you're not far off the mark. The original design for a sabacc deck was inspired by the Rider-Waite Tarot, and in the Legends canon, certain cultures actually use sabacc cards for fortune telling purposes. To that end, you can make a sabacc deck from tarot cards; you'll need two identical standard decks, because while you'll only need one set of each suit, you will have to combine the major arcana from the two. Use the major arcana with the numeric values above, and remember that they are all negative value. 

Representing the Sabacc Shift

In the Star Wars galaxy, electronic pulses randomly shift the faces of the cards until they're locked in place when the player locks them in an "interference field." To represent this, these rules utilize a dice mechanic involving “Sabacc Dice,” which are the same as those used in the Corellian Spike variant of the game. If you've never heard of this before, don't worry. We'll get to that. This note is for those who are familiar with the idea and are wondering out of the gate how it works. 

Rules of Play

The object of sabacc is to have the highest card total which is less than or equal to 23. A total which is over 23, under negative 23, or exactly 0 is called a "bomb out," and requires the holder of the hand to pay a penalty, as described below.

There are two pots to be won in the game of sabacc. A pot is the total amount of credits staked by all of the players in one hand of the card game (just like poker). Each pot should be kept clearly separate from the other. The first of the two pots is called the "hand pot" and is taken by the winner of the current hand. The second is the "sabacc pot" and continually builds over several hands until it is won with a special hand, as described below.

To start a game of sabacc, choose one player to be the dealer of the first hand. Other players wishing to be dealt into a hand must first ante by placing one credit into the hand pot. Each player must also ante one credit into the sabacc pot it is empty, including the first hand of the game.

Each player is then dealt two cards. This is their starting hand.

 Image Source: https://www.gamespot.com/articles/solo-a-star-wars-story-what-is-the-card-game-sabac/1100-6459178/

Betting Phase:

After cards have been dealt, the player to the left of the dealer has the option to place an initial bet, or stand pat. If they choose not to bet, play passes to the player to their left, who may initiate betting, and so on. If any player initiates betting, all other players must at least match (“call”) their bet, in turn. Any player can also raise the bet, requiring all other players to match the new total, or fold. The betting phase continues until all players have called the current bet, or folded.

Shifting Phase:

At this point, the player whose turn it is rolls the sabacc dice. If the symbols on the dice match, all players must discard their entire hand, and draw an equal number of new cards. This is called a “sabacc shift.”

Draw Phase:

Next, each player has the option to take one of several actions. They may:
  • Draw a card from the deck
  • Discard a card from their hand and draw a card from the deck
  • Stand pat (do nothing)




The Interference Field:

Each player also has an “interference field.” Cards placed into the player’s interference field are immune to sabacc shifts, but they are also not part of the player’s existing hand. They exist to be added to or subtracted from the player’s hand at any time. During the draw phase, a player may in addition to the draw phase actions above, also alter their interference field, as follows:

  • Place one card into the “interference field” if they hold more than two cards in their hand.
  • Take one card from their interference field into their hand
  • Place one card into the interference field and place one card from the interference field into their hand.


To place a card into the interference field, a player simply lays it face up in front of them for all to see. Any cards currently face up in the interference field are considered “locked.” If a sabacc shift occurs, cards in the interference field remain.

Continuing Play

After the draw phase, play continues to the second betting phase. At this point the player second from the dealer’s left starts the betting. Play proceeds exactly as above. In the following round, the third player from the dealer’s left commences betting, and so forth, with betting, shifting and draw phases.

 Image Source: http://starwars.wikia.com/wiki/Sabacc/Legends

Ending a Hand

Each hand proceeds to a minimum of four rounds, or a number of rounds equal to the players at the table, whichever is fewer (or however many rounds the table rules specify). At any time after the minimum number of rounds has passed, a player may at the beginning of the betting round, also "call the hand." 

Calling the hand signifies that the current betting round is the final betting round; there will be no shift phase and no draw phase. Any player who is still in the hand may call at any time during the betting round; a player who folds may also choose to call the hand as they fold; this does require them to pay the penalty to the sabacc pot, as defined below under "calling and losing." After they fold, however, the hand cannot be called. 

When all players have called the final betting round, or all but one player has folded, the hand ends. All remaining players must display their hands and call out their totals. The best hand wins the hand pot.

A player who scores a “pure sabacc,” or a total of exactly either 23, or -23, wins both the hand pot and the sabacc pot. Likewise, a player who scores an “idiot’s array,” or three card hand of 0, 2, and 3, wins both the pot and the sabacc pot.

The hierarchy of hands is as follows, from best to worst:
  1. Idiot’s array (3 cards; 0, 2, 3 or 0, -2, -3; a "literal" 23)
  2. Full Staves/Coins/Flasks/Sabers (a hand totalling exactly 23 or -23 where all cards are the same suit)
  3. Pure sabaac (a hand whose cards total exactly 23 or -23; this is also called "pure sabacc")
  4. Any hand including an Idiot beats an equal hand not including an Idiot. 
  5. More cards trump fewer cards (a 21 with 5 cards beats a 21 with 3 cards)
  6. In ties, positive totals beat negative totals (+23 with 4 cards trumps -23 with 4 cards)


Sudden Demise

If two players have an exact tie score—the same total and the same number of cards, a sudden demise occurs. Each player is dealt a single card which is added to their hand. The best hand which is still under 23 wins. If both players bomb out, neither wins and the hand pot goes into the sabacc pot.

In the case of both players having a pure sabaac, sudden demise does not count the totals of their hands; a single card will determine the winner of both pots.

Folding

When a player folds their hand, they must pay a 1 credit penalty to the sabacc pot. If they cannot pay the penalty, they are out of the game.

Bombing Out

Any player whose hand is greater than 23 or lower than -23 when hands are revealed has “bombed out.” They must pay a penalty to the sabacc pot equal to the sum total of the hand pot. If they cannot, they pay all their remaining credits to the sabacc pot and are out of the game.

Calling a Hand and Losing

If the player who calls the hand, initiating the final round of betting, does not win the hand, they must pay a penalty to the sabacc pot equal to the total value of the hand pot, exactly as if they had bombed out. If they cannot pay the penalty, they place all their remaining credits into the sabacc part, lose the game, and are out. 

Variant Rules

1. Instead of calling a hand, a hand can simply go for a number of rounds equal to 4, the number of players at the table, or another mutually agreed-upon rounds before the final betting round begins. This is potentially the most common variant (and, I would argue, should be a standard rule), though it can result in a much smaller sabacc pot.

2. Players can attempt to reach as close to 0 as possible, instead of 23. In such a game, a result of 0 is pure sabaac, and the best version would be Ace, Idiot, and Ace. The Idiot’s Array would still exist in this variant, and would still be 0, 2, and 3.

3. Every player rolls for a Sabacc Shift during every turn on the draw phase. This will vastly increase the frequency of shifts in game. 

4. A Sabacc Shift roll is made at the end of the final betting round, before cards are revealed. Regardless of the outcome of the roll, when cards are revealed, the best hand is made from all cards in the player's hand, and those locked in their interference field. This can completely change the fortune of the players at the table at random, but also adds an element of "Texas Hold 'Em" to the game. 

 Image Source: gamereview.xyz (service unavailable as of the time of writing)

Afterword

These rules have been streamlined and clarified from the Legends-sourced rules floating around the web. The goal was to clarify some of the more arcane and confusing aspects such as “calling hands.”

Hopefully they serve well for those looking to enjoy the thrill of sabacc in-universe or at the dining room table. What are you waiting for? There’s Millennium Falcons and Cloud Cities to win!



Where Can I Get a Sabacc Deck?

You can't get a full sabacc deck commercially; only the Corellian Spike variant is available as seen in the Solo movie. As I mentioned above, you can make your own by combining two tarot decks together. There are also some great people around who are making downloadable decks available for free. I have made decks from two of these. The first is one that is designed after the appearance of the cards in the Star Wars: Rebels animated series. These can be found here:


The other is a custom downloadable sabacc deck put up by an artist at DeviantArt:


I made the first ones by printing them off on 60lb paper, running the pages through my laminator, and cutting them down with a guillotine cutter. They worked out well, though I don't own a corner cutter, so they've got sharp corners. 

The "Huntress Gallery" deck I like the images a lot more, but I am not crazy about the card backs. So for that one I went to http://www.makeplayingcards.com/ and created a custom deck there, using the backs from the Rebels deck with the fronts from Huntress' art. It was more expensive than the homemade decks, but came out very nice, and only took about a week or two, to arrive. The process of making the cards at MPC.com was very painless and intiutive as well, once you find the right template to use (Hint: you're looking for one that lets you completely customize the art on front and back, with no pre-generated embedded text). 

Since they were so expensive, I didn't buy a box. I did, however, find templates for printable card boxes here: https://www.thegamecrafter.com/publish/product/PokerTuckBox72 and with a bit of work in my graphics program, some 90 lb. cardstock, and Elmer's Glue, I was able to make a nice tuck box that neatly fits my cards.

Here are some images of my deck from MPC, the box, and the rules booklet I made with these very rules. The booklet was done with painstaking layout work in MS Word using tables, then cutting it down with a guillotine cutter and fastening with a booklet stapler.







What are your thoughts? Let's hear your comments below!

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Using Your New Sabaac Game in Tabletop RPG Sessions

My last post, put up just this morning, was about adding full betting rounds into the new Hasbro/Disney Han Solo Card Game, which is actually our first official release of Corellian Spike Sabaac. It also outlines the basic rules of the game, how it works, and clarifies some of the differences between Corellian Spike and standard Sabaac.

A friend of mine, the esteemed Aaron Einhorn, mentioned it made him want to bring it into a Star Wars RPG session, just to add that element into the game. Here's a few thoughts on how that could be done.



Sabaac in a Star Wars RPG

The biggest trick when incorporating gambling or games of chance of any sort into a tabletop RPG is it in many ways removes the players from their characters. After all, your character might be an ace card sharp, but you may actually be kind of crap at cards. How do you model this? 

The easiest way to do this is to tie in the character's gambling roll to the actual hand of cards, granting extra initial cards to the hand based on the degree of success in the roll. The character then makes an initial hand out of all cards, placing the rest in a "gambling pile" where they sit, safe from randomization and able to be swapped out at any time. 

Games with Success Levels

In games with success levels, the process for doing this is relatively simple. Have each player with the gambling skill make a roll. Remember the number of successes or success levels they get on their roll. 

Next, deal each player 2 cards for their starting hand as standard. After the hand is dealt, each player with the gambling skill then gets one extra card from the deck. From these cards they make their best 2 card hand. The cards they do not choose are placed face-down next to them. These face-down cards are immune to the roll of the dice, so long as they remain face-down and out of the player's hand. 

They may, at any time, be substituted for one or more cards in the player's hand. Cards which are swapped out, however, are discarded. 

For example: Kalar Von has the gambling skill. His player rolls the skill before play starts and gets 4 successes on the roll. After cards are dealt, Kalar's player is then dealt four more cards. Kalar looks at his hand and sees it's not good: a 10 and a -3. Looking at the four cards he has from his gambling roll, he sees he has a -3, 7, 4 and 0. Still, knowing that there are three rounds to go in the hand, he chooses to sit for the time being and places all four cards face down. 

His turn comes around and he draws: his card is a -5. He decides then to replace the 10 with the 7 from his pile. The 10 is then placed on the discard pile, Von has 3 cards left in his gambling pile, and his hand is now -1 (7, -5 and -3, significantly better than his original hand. 

Unfortunately, the dice are rolled and the symbols match. Von must now swap out his hand for 3 new cards. The three cards he still has in his gambling pile, however, are "safe" and are not swapped out because he hasn't used them yet. 

Games without Success Levels

In games without success levels, where the result is simply based on how high a roll the player gets, it's usually best to "create" success levels. Simply set a number above the base success, and every increment thereof is a success level. In games rolling 2d6 as a core mechanic, for example, the average roll is 7. Let's say that after adding other factors in (attributes, skills, etc.), an average character will roll 10. You would start, then, with 10 as your base success. You could from there decide that every 2 or 3 above this success grants one extra card. 

In a standard d20 game, for example, your average character with +1 in an ability score and a skill granting an extra +2 will see, on average, a roll of 14. 14 would be your base level of success, with extra cards granted on a 17, 20, 23, etc. 

Failure on Checks

Failure is much more difficult to adjudicate. In general, it's best to treat failed rolls as simply granting no advantage to the game--it's the same as if someone without the skill were playing. A critical failure (if your game features a critical failure mechanic) could result in starting with only 1 card rather than 2, but this will also unfairly penalize a character with the gambling skill a certain percentage of the time, as opposed to those without the skill. 

A potential better option for a critical failure would be to simply have the character ante in and then fold that round, playing the fold penalty to the sabaac pot. If you choose this method, however, all players should roll a check--even those without the skill should see a chance for critical failure. Only those with the skill, however, will be able to gain extra cards, regardless of how well they roll, unless the unskilled player rolls a critical success. 

Critical Successes

Characters who roll a critical success on their gambling check (if your game has critical successes) gain an additional card to their gambling pile. Characters without the gambling skill who roll a critical success actually gain a gambling pile consisting of a single card. 

Cheating

Cheating is done at the very end of a hand. A character wishing to cheat rolls an appropriate skill opposed by their opponent's appropriate skill. If the cheater wins, they get to go through the deck and discard pile and select any one card to swap out with any one card in their hand. If the opponent wins the check, the cheater is caught, and it's beyond the scope of these rules to determine what happens in that case!

There you have it! System agnostic rules for incorporating sabaac (or really, any gambling card game) into your RPG sessions. Enjoy, and don't forget to comment with your thoughts below!


Corellian Spike Sabacc with Betting Rounds

First Things First

First things first: Someday I'll get back to updating this blog at least three times a week. I appreciate everyone who's stuck with it through the lean years, and I'd love to see some more comments and discussion rocking. Bear with me if it takes a day or two for your comment to get approved until I get back into the swing of things. Like a lot of old blogs there's a TON of spam comments that come through, so I'm curating them for that reason only.

Okay, now onto the topic of today's blog...

Official Sabacc Exists at Last


As you're aware unless you live under a rock, Solo: A Star Wars Story is in theaters, and you should absolutely go see it. It's probably my second favorite of the new canon films, after The Force Awakens. It's galaxies better than Rogue One, and I won't mention Last Jedi because quite frankly, the butthurt over that one is too controversial to bring it into this discussion.

In any case, Solo gave us a few things we've all been waiting to see: The Kessell Run, Han and Chewie first meeting, and, of course, the famous Sabacc game wherein Han wins the Falcon from Lando. To follow that up, something else we've all been waiting for: Hasbro and Disney have released the very first mass-market official Sabacc game.

There are, however, a few things you'll need to know, so let's look at an overview before we get into the mechanics.

Not Pure Sabacc

If you read the Amazon Reviews, you'll see a bunch of fanboys whining that it's not "real" Sabacc. I'll be blunt: these people are idiots who call themselves fans but haven't bothered to actually follow the background of the very thing about which they claim to be expert. This is indeed a version of Sabacc. It's not, however, "pure" Sabacc. It's the Corellian Spike Sabacc variant

In the old EU novels (and in the game we saw in Solo, this is, in fact, the version of Sabacc in which Han won the Falcon from Lando. It's also the reason for the dice--they're not just an easy substitute for a random computer alteration. The Corellian Spike version does use dice as a randomizing element. 

Overview of the Game

Corellian Spike Sabacc is a sort of cross between poker and blackjack. You start with a hand of two cards, and a hand progresses in three rounds. Over those three rounds, you discard and draw cards in an effort to end up with a hand that's as close to zero as possible.

Hierarchy of Winning Hands: The best possible hand is three cards--a zero and an equal positive and negative card (so, for example, 5, 0, -5) resulting in zero. In this version of Sabacc this would be the equivalent of a Pure Sabacc hand. The best version of Pure Sabaac would be 10, 0 and -10. In the film, Lando throws a Pure Sabaac with 3, 0, -3.

The Idiot's Array: While the rules in the box don't include the Idiot's Array, the cards are there to include it in the game, and I am guessing that many players who are familiar with the game in universe and play this variant will include it. 

The Idiot's Array, then, would be a score of 5 or -5 with cards being 0, 2, and 3 (or 0, -2 and -3).

The film also adds a hand called "Full Stakes," which appears to be a low straight: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4 (but admittedly I didn't happen to have a notebook with me to mark it down so my memory could be fuzzy on what Full Stakes are).

One could score any straight as full stakes, with positive beating negative and higher beating lower, just as with any other hand (see below).* **

After these top hands, a hand that approaches zero with a higher number of cards beats one with a lower number of cards (so a hand with 5 cards beats a hand with 4 cards, or a hand with 4 cards that doesn't actually hit zero beats a hand of 3 cards with the same total), and a hand with a positive total beats a hand with a negative total. 

Game Play: Each round in a hand, a player can take any or all of several actions: they can discard a card from their hand, they can draw from the draw pile, or they can take the top card from the discard pile. 

At the end of the round, the Sabacc dice are rolled. If they come up matching, every player must discard their entire hand and then draw a new hand of exactly the same number of cards. This is where the risk element of the game comes in: you've got a 1:6, or just under 17%, chance of losing your whole hand and having to continue on with new cards next round. 

Awards: In the Hasbro version, there are "tokens" with values (the most valuable of which, of course, is the Millennium Falcon). There's no betting involved; the winner of each hand takes a face-up token of their choice from the pot. Each other player, in descending order of hand hierarchy, then takes another token. The tokens are then refreshed. You play until these "bounty tokens" are exhausted, so the more players, the shorter the game. 

There's also an element where if you collect four tokens of a specific color, you can take the Falcon from someone who has it.

It's a perfectly fine modification to turn a gambling game into a family game. But what if you want to play it with actual betting?

Sabacc with Betting

It's super easy to add a betting element into Sabacc. First, don't use the tokens included with the game. Instead, substitute poker chips (or any other kind of "Credits Counter" you want to include). Going by the typical value of poker chips (and assuming that you're going to be betting for imaginary credits and not illegally gambling), here's the value of your chips:

Red = 5 Credits
Blue = 10 Credits
Green = 25 Credits
Black = 100 Credits

If you want to actually use the tokens from the game, simply have them be worth 500 or 1,000 credits each. The back of the tokens looks like a gold bar or cred stick, making it a great option for this use. 

For higher stakes games, simply increase the value of each chip for a factor of 5, so they range from 25 credits to 500 credits, or by 10 so they range from 50 to 1,000 credits each. Divide the chips up equally or however you see fit. Again, I'm going ont he assumption you're not illegally gambling (wink, wink, nudge, nudge). 

The process goes as follows:

1. Everyone antes in. Set whatever "buy in" you like. 
2. Each round, every player takes their turn drawing, discarding, etc. 
3. A round of betting proceeds, beginning with the first player and proceeding clockwise. Betting continues until everyone has called or folded. Bets go into a pot called the "hand pot." 
4. Folding carries a "penalty payout," requiring you to pay a chip (again, of a value you set at the beginning of the game) into a separate pot, the "Sabacc Pot." If you can't pay the full penalty, everything you have goes into the Sabacc Pot and you're out of the game. If you can't call a bet, you're forced to fold.  
5. Repeat the process over the three rounds of a hand. 
6. Reveal hands. The winner gets the hand pot. 
7. A win with an Idiot's Array gets the hand pot and the Sabacc pot. 
8. A tie requires each player to turn over a single card from the draw pile. High card wins. 

The game progresses until everyone decides to quit or is out of chips. 

There you have it! Idiot's Array Sabacc with betting. Enjoy!

But I want Pure Sabacc!

If you were really hoping for a Pure Sabacc game, you're out of luck with this one, since it doesn't include the face cards. If you want a pure Sabacc deck, there are a few options available to you. An enterprising individual online has created a full printable Sabacc deck based on the cards seen in the Star Wars: Rebels animated series. It's a very nice deck, and you can easily print it off yourself on card stock and run int through an inexpensive laminator (which you can get on Amazon for about 20 bucks). 



Another option is to use two tarot decks. Originally, the Sabacc deck was loosely based on tarot cards anyway, and the old EU novels intimated that it was used as a fortune-telling deck on some worlds. To do this, you'll need two identical tarot decks (to date I've had trouble finding a sci-fi tarot deck. Some enterprising artist needs to remedy that). 

There are a few folks over on DeviantArt who have done Star Wars decks with varying degrees of success. These would be easy enough to modify, but getting them to a point where they could print in a uniform fashion might take some work. There is also an official Shadowrun Tarot Deck, which would work quite well, but again, you'd have to invest in two of them, which could get pricey. 

Then, check out the old Star Wars MUD site for information on how to translate suits and major arcana to Sabacc suits and face cards.

What are your thoughts about the new Corellian Spike Sabacc from Hasbro? Let's hear your comments below!

*It's worth noting that in the Star Wars universe there are supposedly over eighty variants of Sabaac played across the galaxy. As such, any of the "one could assume" statements above can be adopted (or none of them) and the game still counts as a Sabaac variant. 

** The problem with full stakes is that statistically it's harder to pull this than it is to score an Idiot's Array. I have no answer for this.