Thursday, June 16, 2022

Eldritch Gambit: Why?


Portrait of the author bloviating. At least I didn't put it in the book.

There is very little explanation of why I made Eldritch Gambit in the book itself, which is intentional. I am one of apparently few people who don't find author editorializing in core books enjoyable. That said, this is a blog post, and editorializing is great for a blog.

The primary reason I wrote Eldritch Gambit was to have a skeleton (pun intended) system for BONED. In this game, you play as amnesiac skeletons trying to recover their memories and escape from an inter-dimensional oubliette. BONED is in playtests right now and coming out soon enough. We are having a lot of fun - Eldritch Gambit shines in this setting!

In this very specific context, the problem with using most existing D&D-alikes is that you start out with a class or other array of abilities. This gives you a "niche," and a defined power set right from the start. But what if you don't know who you are and only find out during play? It would ruin regaining memories if you already knew you were a Rogue or Magic-user. You can't just hide it either, because so many of their features are dependent on this initial choice

So, I made most things very dependent on Attributes instead, and magic largely dependent on items. You can discover your class and such later - it only affects the die used for non-combat Checks. While it was tailor-made to a specific setting, I started to feel like this was an optimal way to play.
  • One nice thing about the Attribute-dependency of your "build" in this game is that it meshes well with the design philosophy of Dark Souls style games, making it easy for that ilk of players to grasp.
  • So-called "niche protection" is weakened, but I think that was always overrated. Making your character mechanically different from others is a matter of choosing the right attributes, class, skills, gear, and in-game advantages.
  • It's also more difficult for a new player to pick who they want to be out of a lineup. You can get around this by offering starting setups of gear and attributes. I'm honestly just not a fan of strict classes and find it aggravating to shoehorn my character concepts into them.

The other reason I made Eldritch Gambit is that I really liked the idea of push-your-luck mini-games and got to focus the system around that (Gambits). It was also a perfect receptacle for many other ideas I had or ran across in other games at the time, like freeform backgrounds, volleyball initiative, non-incentive highlights XP, armor as HP, gambling with XP, etc. It went from being just a design experiment to support a particular weird setting to a celebration of how I just like to do things in fantasy RPGs.

To be blunt, it has not been a commercial success. I'm a failure as a designer I guess, but at least I got to make the game I wanted to play.

I've played and game mastered a wide variety of systems since the mid-80s, starting with Basic D&D. This has definitely given me a specific set of experiences that informed what I do and do not like. Maybe these tastes are not for everyone, but they're definitely for me. I already did positives in the book and above, so what follows is a list of gripes I have had playing other systems and what I did differently in Eldritch Gambit. 

So if you don't like griping, bail out now.

You encounter 1d6 Gripes.

- my Gaming Gripes, and my Solutions in Eldritch Gambit -

  • HP bloat: Tracking massive pools of HP is tedious and so are the lengthy battles of attrition it demands. I made sure EG kept HP fairly low, reworked armor so that it added HP instead, and introduced Rallies that restore some HP by sacrificing an action.
  • 5-minute workday: It felt unheroic to nap after every battle to get back Spells, and this really hurt the flow of a few adventures I was in. I'm all for resource tracking for material things, but the snooze loop for regaining Spells is just aggravating. In EG I got rid of resource costs for Spells entirely. As a side bonus, this also means no more keeping track of enemy magic user Spell slots or magic points for the GM.
  • Initiative tracking: I dislike players tuning out between fore-ordained turns or keeping track of all those initiative numbers. Popcorn initiative was very appealing, but I found it too easy to engineer a one-sided slaughter with it, especially in low HP games. EG solves this with Volleyball Initiative, where the target of the last action gets the next. It also neatly follows the "spotlight" flow of a battle.
  • XP Incentives: I was always uncomfortable with advancement as a morality tale or scooby snacks from the GM. In EG the players themselves just decide what the most worthy highlights of their last game were and get XP for those. This was playtested for a long time when I DMed D&D 3.5, and players really enjoyed it.
  • Perception: I had bad experiences on both sides of the table with this. As a DM players would start throwing the dice while I was describing the room. As a player I'd fail perception checks for unbelievably mundane things. Probably the most OSR thing about EG is the elimination of perception - just tell them what is there and stop gating it behind a check. It retains an Insight action, but that is for knowing something extra about what you see, rather than just seeing it.
  • Whiff factor: I'm not really against misses, especially for ranged weapons. BUT I still feel like it is rare to really miss in melee combat. In Eldritch Gambit, when you don't get a clean hit, melee becomes an exchange of blows or slugfest. Specifically, a melee failure is a Clash, which means the highest damage roll wins, dealing the excess or margin to the loser. Possibly taking damage on failures also means you have to rely on good clean hits if the target is more powerful than you. Combat feels risky and messy, which was intentional. You can also throw your damage die at the same time as your Check, since you will use it either way.

More later as I think of them.

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Eldritch Gambit: Why?

  Portrait of the author bloviating. At least I didn't put it in the book . There is very little explanation of why I made Eldritch Gamb...