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Forge Engine beta feedback (pt. 1)

This post and the next few blog posts include long and in-depth feedback and discussion from the recent Forge Engine beta playtest and feedback process. 

In the text below, the text in italics is the comment from the playtester/reader, and the following normally formatted text is my response and discussion.  Special thanks to Reddit user htp-di-nsw for this first round of feedback.

The discussion here is unfiltered and extensive.  One of the most interesting insights of this first round of feedback is the journey of the reader's page-by-page discovery of the system, the assumptions about how things work, and their reevaluation of those assumptions as they progress through the system.

So prepare yourself for some really deep discussion of the design intent of Forge Engine.

Gird your loins, fellow travellers.

Forge Engine editing

Diamonds are hard to read after 5 or so. World of Darkness used dots, but put a space between each 5 so it's easier to see at a glance.

Yes, noted.  I had segmented equipment with 6+ ratings, but I missed the examples, which still had ‘unsegmented’ die pools.

It's really unclear from just the name what your mental attributes actually do. I can guess it's Social, Smarts, and Perception, but most people wouldn't.

The Forge Engine mental stats are Influence, Intelligence and Acuity.  Influence is the character’s ability to get others to do what they want, encompassing their physical attractiveness and interpersonal abilities.  Intelligence is their straight-up problem solving and application.  And Acuity is their insight and connectedness to the world.

In D&D, these are Charisma, Intelligence and Wisdom.  There are a couple of minor differences here.  Charisma is defined as ‘physical attractiveness and charm that inspires devotion’.  Influence expands this slightly to broaden from ‘charm’ to generic interpersonal abilities.  Wisdom is ‘the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment; the quality of being wise’.  Again, there’s a lot of overlap of the traditional definitions of Wisdom and Intelligence.  To differentiate from D&D (for better or for worse), and to differentiate from Intelligence, I selected Acuity instead of Wisdom.

Ok, but what the stats actually do is identical. Nobody has thought of Wisdom as anything but "perception, willpower, and miscellaneous stuff clerics/druids do (like handle animal and heal)" for like three editions. The definition of these words means little in the long run. It's what people think they mean. Dexterity, for example, does not literally mean agility, but everyone who has ever played D&D probably thinks it does. I'm just saying, I think you tried too hard to be different for difference sake when something familiar would help people grasp what you're doing more easily.

We place a different value on the differentiation.

Energy pool being based on your three best attributes heavily discourages having average stats. It actually highly incentivizes dumping three in order to max the other three.

The philosophy here is to ensure that each of the attribute is useful (more on this later).  And the second philosophy is that the increasing cost of attribute improvements mean that eventually it’s more and more expensive to keep pumping attributes.

So while it might be a good character build strategy to max out three of your attributes, this is not a good long term plan.

They did not pan out that way because you created skills that undermine almost everything they actually do. The only hard and fast things I saw were: only Agility can do initiative (which you were even considering changing), only Stamina can do HP, and mental/physical stats can't cross boundaries for PD and MD. But there's a mental defense skill and an attack skill for every mental stat. There's a physical defense skill for all three physical stats, and two of the three have attack skills. It's almost like an express purpose of your skill system was "dump 3, keep 3." Or rather, dump 2, keep 4, really.

Yes, in many cases you can pay CP to compensate for low ratings in particular attributes.  As with all games, players can choose to build an all-rounder character, or can tip their CP into specialized areas to emphasize particular play styles.

Externalities is a terrible word and I think you just used it to make SAGE work.

I’m still looking for a better word.  The alternative was SAGA, which is already a whole RPG system.

Look, I could be wrong, but I don't believe that anyone is actually going to be sitting at the table thinking of SAGE to figure out what's next. Spend, Add, and Gain, are not even intuitive words for what's happening. If someone were to ask me how to sum up your system, I'd say something like:

"Your stats form your base dice pools, but each die you roll costs energy, so, you can use fewer dice if you want. If you use gear, it also adds dice for energy, but usually not 1:1. Bigger gear weirdly tends to have a better exchange rate, though, and there's no real incentive to not use the best ratio gear exclusively. Sometimes, extra skills basically grant maneuvers, and they let you pump the pools higher. Situational modifiers add/subtract at the end, but really, since most are location based, you had to spend energy to get them via movement, so it's more about "did you luckily start combat in a good spot?" Always save a couple for defense later, but not much. You get your full pool back every round, so if you don't spend it, it's wasted"

SAGE is just a cutesy ordering that I can't imagine helping anyone.

Interesting reframing.  Not what I would choose, but a different way of presenting the core mechanics.

Add seems to suggest your actions cost more energy if you are better at the action (i.e. because you're rolling more dice). Is that true? That seems wrong. Shouldn't being more skilled mean you can get more benefit for less energy? I guess it's kind of neutralized by the act that your overall energy is governed by your best stat anyway.

Okay, let’s break this down a little bit.

The spend cost of an action is the MINIMUM effort required to complete that action.  If you’re shooting a pistol, it’s pulling the trigger and vaguely aiming.  If you’re swinging a sword, it’s the effort required to swing the hunk of metal.

The add cost of an action is the additional effort that a character can put into the action.  Characters with higher attributes have more headroom here to add extra effort to the action (and by definition they also have more energy).

When you spend energy to swing a shitty weapon, you gain less dice in return (spend 3, gain 2).  When you spend energy to swing a big old two handed greatsword, you might gain slightly more dice (spend 4, gain 6).

The basic martial skills and the specialized martial skills only trigger from the added energy.  So now, when you add 1 extra energy to the attack, you also gain 1 extra die from your corresponding basic martial skill (e.g. Melee Weapons).  Here you use 1 energy, and get 2 in your attack pool.  Additionally, if you have other specialized martial skills that trigger, then this 1 added energy can put 2, or 3 or more dice into your attack pool.

The meta for Forge Engine is to maximize your attack pool for the minimum energy.

It feels like PD and MD are unbalanced. PD starts at 1, basically nothing, and raises mostly with actions and equipment. MD starts at your middle attribute, so, probably 2-3, but only really gets added via traits. I sure hope pools to attack PD and MD are formed differently, too.

Yes, PD and MD are asymmetrical.  MD is based on the middle of your Influence, Intelligence, and Acuity.  When defending attacks against their MD, characters can increase their MD pool by adding energy through skills like Coherent Mind, Iron Will, and Empty Vessel.

Why are they asymmetrical, though? I saw the spells and stuff later. You build pools against them the exact same way, just usually without a gear-based initial buy in.

Because there’s no ‘armor’ for spells, and I didn’t want to get into nickel-and-diming the spend costs for every spells.

It is insane to me that a short sword takes 3 energy to use, but a greatsword takes 4. That's the scale? I recognize that a greatsword isn't actually all that heavy, but a shortsword shouldn't start at 3...that's so high.

There’s always a limited resolution for the costs and benefits in RPGs.  So for D&D, the character class hit dice and weapon damage dice are constrained by the available set of polyhedral dice.

In Forge Engine, attack costs and attack effectiveness is constrained by the resolution of sets of d10 dice.

The smallest attack, with the least effort, requires only 1 energy.  The most strenuous attacks require 5 energy.

  • 1 Energy: Pull the trigger of a light pistol.
  • 2 Energy: Fire a heavy revolver or rifle, wield a light knife.
  • 3 Energy: Fire a heavy shotgun, swing a baseball bat/machete/fire axe, swing a mace, fire a shortbow.
  • 4 Energy: Fire a heavy machinegun, swing a heavy sword, fire a heavy crossbow, throw a war spear
  • 5 Energy: Fire a super-heavy arbalest, swing a halberd, fire a heavy sniper rifle.

So as you can see, there’s a fairly linear scale of increasing effort through the equipment.

I just think you worked yourself into a corner. You wanted it to be more energy to fire a heavy pistol than a light one, and nothing could be 0, so it had to be 1 and 2. Then you thought, "well, swinging any weapon is harder than pulling a trigger" so even light, easy to use weapons started at 3. I think you'd be better off if your energy cost scaling was different for ranged and melee. Just say aiming costs more energy than it seems. Whatever. That way unarmed or light knives can be 1 energy, a shortsword and weapons of that general size can be 2, and the medium weapons like longswords and stuff can be 3.

Aiming and reloading does cost a bit more than melee weapons, making these weapons less effective than melee weapons.

As for the other costings, they don’t leave enough granularity for my liking.

Ew, the opposed roll system is really awkward and seems time consuming. I love die pools, but changing the target number in a die pool is notoriously tricky and creates really opaque success chances. Defense pool is trying just to roll really high. You can have an awful defense pool, but if it comes up a 10, your attack is screwed. Meanwhile, a really bad defense roll just wrecks you. And yeah, you need to have the defensive roll first, so you can tell how well the attack did. Very time consuming. Opposed rolls are already time consuming enough when you compare successes.

Going back to principles; the core principle is that the player can choose how much energy their character uses on attacks, defenses, and other actions.  In play, this means that the player can choose to use energy to increase the size of their dice pools, or take a chance and use all their energy on attacks and rely on their basic physical or mental defenses.

The system’s inherent combination of attack pool sizes (6-12 dice), defense pool sizes (~3 dice), and character Health means that combat is generally over in 2-3 rounds.  The great thing about these numbers of dice is that the combats generally revert to the mean, they are generally predictable at a macro level, but unpredictable at a micro level.

By this I mean that there’s a fair bit of variability for the micro span of individual attacks, but that this variability isn’t generally reflected across the macro span of an entire combat.

At the table, we generally roll the attack pool and defense pool simultaneously.

Additionally, there are specialized skills like Sidestep that allow characters to add extra dice after the pools have been rolled to ‘fix’ a shitty defense roll.

Since the energy pool is so central to the game, I wish it was covered in more depth here early on. I understand how to add, spend, and expend, but I don't actually have any idea what typical values are, for example. That's pretty critical to understanding the game.

I figure we’re on maybe page 7 here.  I dedicate literally 4 pages to the use of energy from page 17-20, but I don’t think I can move that here ahead of character development.

Do all attributes start at 1, or do I have to buy the first point, too?

Yes, they all start at 1.  I have that up in the rules boxes, but I’ve added it to the first sentence of the section text.

If you spend the same pool of points on Attributes and Traits, they should not be separate character creation steps. And if you were to order them, Traits should go first because some of them alter the cost of attributes.

I’ve switched these.

9 pages into this, I can identify a frustrating pattern that is making it very hard for me to like/actually use this game: you keep highlighting a game term or rule or whatever, provide almost all of the detail I need to actually use that thing, then stop completely and move on to the next thing just when I am looking to complete my knowledge. It's getting really bad. It started with energy, which you have explained twice now, in slightly increasing depth, but still incompletely. But it was the worst when you told me to buy traits, then said "Oh, the list is like 15 pages away, though, so, you get to wait." GYAH! Just give me all the information I need for a single concept and THEN move on.

I feel your frustration.          

The book starts with a quick Fundamentals section, which covers the building blocks of the Forge Engine (including Energy, Action Pools and Defense Pools).  And then the Core Mechanics section covers Dice Pools and the use of the Energy Pool.  I could combine these sections, but I’m not sure that would alleviate your problem (but it might).

As for the Traits, I have deliberately separated all of the Traits, Skills, and Equipment into a standalone section of the book.  The intent of this Game Content section is for it to be separate and removable for players.  So once the core rules have been grokked, the players can simply use that Game Content section, without having to wade around through the rules to find the bits and pieces of content that they need.

It is not great that you can't increase a skill beyond its governing attribute. You basically don't allow anyone to get beyond their natural limit. What if someone is really bad at social situations in general, but really good at lying? They have a weak attribute with one good skill, but...uh...can't have that. You basically can't get better at a given skill without getting better at EVERY skill related to that attribute. Weird. This was the case in Godlike, too, which always bothered me. And it led to very symetrical characters. People basically had twice their attribute to every skill they actually cared about, especially since skills are so much cheaper.

I too have struggled with this.  The rule is there to make it explicit that in 95% of cases, the number of dice contributed to a dice pool will be governed by the appropriate attribute and the skill, and additional skill ratings will be wasted.  There are some rare cases where an attribute test might pair an attribute with a skill that’s not its normally association (such as and Intelligence (Perception) test to recall something a character saw in passing several days earlier).

In play, I’ve found that generally there are not enough character points going around for players to max out every one of their characters’ skills.

Step 9 just...why? That always cracks me up when that stuff gets included at all, but to put it last...? Shouldn't that be part of the concept when you first start, which actually isn't even a real step?

I know this comes at Step 9, but the second paragraph of this section is explicit about deciding your character concept ahead of creating the character:

‘Before creating your character, it is important to have an idea of the sort of character you wish to play and how that character fits in with your adventuring party and the game world where they exist.  A little forethought and planning here will save you the embarrassment of showing up to a post-apocalyptic wasteland with your halfling tinker.’

Yes, I know. That's why, if it's a step at all, it should be step 1.

Fixed.  Moved to step 1.

Initiative as a skill (looking at Wasteland Scavenger)? Yeah, there's no way that could go badly... <_<

So the Initiative skill gives bonus dice when making initiative tests.  These tests usually just use the character’s Agility attribute.  When you have the initiative skill, you have more dice for the test, but there are no absolute bonuses.  I’m intrigued to hear any possible exploits here.

Exploits are going first always wins in every RPG where initiative is measured. Going first matters. Making it a skill means it's a necessary skill. It's also some of the only (if not the only) skill dice with no energy cost. You're a fool not to max this.

Going first is good; which requires Agility.  Being strong is good; which requires Strength.  Having lots of health is good; which requires Stamina.  So instead of being fast and going first, you could instead tank and take the attacks, then retaliate even harder (Retaliation, Strikeback Attack, Hard to Kill, Weakpoint Strike, etc).

Actually, wait, I still don't know how much energy you get back every round? What's up with that? I should probably know that by now.

I’ve clarified this in a couple of places on pages 5 and 7.

Page 5: ‘All characters have an energy pool that reflects how much effort they can use in a short period of time, such as in combat.  All physically and mentally draining actions use energy from the character’s energy pool, which is replenished from round to round.’

Page 7: ‘Characters regain non-expended energy at the start of each of their turns.’

You don't see how neither one of those tells me an amount? When I saw "which is replenished from round to round." I was thinking "What the heck? How much is replenished? Why didn't he just tell me right now?!" Same with the second. Characters regain non expended energy. Ok, how much. If those are the sentences you want to use for this, you need to add words.

"...use energy from the character's energy pool, all of which is replenished from round to round."

"Characters regain all non-expended energy at the start of each of their turns."

Fixed.

The character called a Gunslinger has less skill in Hand guns than Brawling? Really?

My fault.  Fixed.

Wasteland scavenger has the same armor value as the Hospiter, but needs no skill while the Hospiter does?

My fault.  Also fixed.

The Hospiter has Engaged attack. I know it's meant to be hitting enemies that are attacking your allies, but, uh, doesn't that work the same as basically a sneak attack where you get better by attacking an enemy that's not paying attention to you? That's weird that it's the same thing.

So, the Sneak Attack ability in D&D-land is the rogue ability that targets unaware enemies, or enemies in reach of your allies.

For Engaged Attack, I wanted an ability that works like a combination of flanking and D&D Sneak Attack, but without the concept of facing or the necessity of grid combat.

Yes, I got that. But it's archetypally weird to give it to a Paladin, isn't it?

The Hospiter is more of a cleric than a paladin, and Engaged Attack is generally useful for any melee character.

None of these characters have 30 skill points. Most have half that or less.

This is the case.  I don’t have the page space to list all of the skills that 30 CP characters would have.

It is a personal pet peeve of mine when RPGs conflate Agility and Dexterity. It is so common, it's acceptable and doesn't make me hate the game or anything, but I do roll my eyes at least once at the idea of all those gymnast snipers.

I know.  I wish there was a better way, but I don’t want to try to separate these.

In the framework of your game, Acuity, which is basically just perception and traditionally Wisdom based magic, could do hand-eye coordination. It could be used for parrying and ranged attacks quite well. But that would leave blurred lines between physical and mental that I think you relied on. Again, though, this is minor. Everyone in the RPG world does this (except me...Agility and Dexterity are separate stats in my game).

Yeah.

You used the D&D 6 stats...why did you rename them? You didn't actually change any of their meanings whatsoever. Was it just to be different? You'd probably have more traction if you just went with the core 6.

As I mentioned above, I changed the definitions of Influence and Acuity from Charisma and Wisdom.  Agility and Stamina I changed so that Influence and Acuity wouldn’t be lonely.

Come on. You didn't. You changed the dictionary definition, but nobody uses the dictionary. Acuity does all the things Wisdom does in D&D. Influence does all the things Charisma does in D&D. You know it does.

I changed to the dictionary definition.  I don’t care greatly what D&D does.  That’s why I call the character’s characteristics attributes, and not ‘ability scores’.  D&D has ingrained some poor definitions, and I’d rather not perpetuate those.

I think writing numbers in the diamonds is fine, but you are inconsistent about what those numbers are, and that makes the notation more confusing than helpful. Sometimes, it refers to a stat rating, sometimes to the die pool total, sometimes to the number a die rolled, and sometimes to what the target number is. If you're going to use it, it should be for a unified reason.

As you point out, I use the numbered diamonds in two ways, to represent:

  • The number of dice in an attribute, rating, or pool (all through the book)
  • The results of rolled dice (only on page 7)

Seems like I need to find an alternate way to demonstrate the results of rolled dice on page 7.

How do you suggest people actually track energy? It looks tricky. I'd think you use dice, but there's a lot of uneven exchances and spending...could be very confusing very quickly. Oh, you explained literally one sentence later. I don't know, though, dice seem like it will get weird, but it's the best idea I have, too.

(I think we’re on page 17 here).

Yes, we use dice to represent energy.

There are two sets of dice, usually differently colored.  One set of dice is used for energy, and the second set of dice is for gained or bonus dice.

In fact, the playtest packet includes a dice mat that helps players organize and manage the character’s energy, action and defense pools.

So...wait, I get all my energy back every round? So, why does the game act like I shouldn't spend it all? I don't understand. It's an artificial limit, then. Your overall abilities are determined basically by your three best stats and that's it.

At your initiative you regain your energy.  However, Forge Engine combat takes place across concurrent rounds, and the game’s energy economy means that unlike traditional action economy games (like D&D), you don’t have to take all of your actions at your initiative.

Given that, you probably shouldn’t alpha strike all of your energy immediately at your initiative, unless you reckon you can stick the knock-out.  Otherwise you’ll be vulnerable further down the initiative order.

Yes, but you can and should spend it all before your next turn or its just wasted. So, only don't attack with what you're going to spend on defense.

Again, the concurrent rounds mean that you can’t always predict what you’ll need for attacks or for defense across each round.

Is there some kind of limit to how much energy you can spend to boost a die pool? In theory, I could just have a massive pool of energy and NO skills at all, but still have a big die pool?

You can only add energy up to the rating of your relevant attribute.  From page 5:

‘• Add energy up to the relevant attribute rating into the character’s action pool.’

Given that the target numbers are random, it seems like I'm way better off making several smaller attacks per round, rather than bothering to boost with energy. For example, with a Greatsword that is 4/6...if I had 8 energy, I could attack twice with 12 dice total, or I could attack and spend all 4 to add dice, which gives me 10...I'd need at least 3 skill to make that worthwhile.

I mentioned earlier the metagame of Forge Engine, which is to maximize the size of your dice pool for the minimum energy spend.

For any given energy pool (say, 10 Energy), a character could make 3 basic attacks or make 1 or 2 maximized attacks.

When making three basic attacks (where the character only spends the energy required to make the attack and doesn’t add any energy to bolster the attack), the character would spend 9 energy in total, and have three pools that sum up to 9 dice (across those three attacks).

Alternatively, the character could make two attacks, each of which gets 2 energy added to it.  So first, we have two attacks costing 5 energy.  Each of these attacks starts with 3 dice from the weapon, then gets 2 extra dice from the added energy.  Assuming that the character has the matching basic martial skill for the weapon, the 2 added energy is matched by 2 energy from the matching skill.  So even from just having the basic martial skill for the weapon, the character has spent 10 energy on two attacks, and each of these attacks has 7 dice, giving a sum of 14 dice for the two attacks.

Additionally, if the character has other specialized martial skills, then these dice pools could be even larger, depending on the other skills that the player can trigger.  For example, Engaged Attack is a fairly straightforward skill to trigger if the character has nearby allies.  Triggering this skill for the same attack cost and added energy would increase the sum of that dice pool from 14 dice to 18 dice.

Finally.  Due to Forge Engine’s concurrent combat rounds, each time a character makes and action, each other character (working down the initiative order) gets an opportunity to use their energy to take an action of their own.  So, when your hero makes their first attack, other characters have the ability to strike back or to move themselves into a more advantageous position (such as moving to negate some of your specialized martial skill combos).

I am frustrated that character creation was first, but I still can't actually create a character 23 pages into the game, because the absolutely critical skill and trait lists are later on.

As I mentioned earlier, the game content is deliberately collected together into a separate section for long-term usability.  So I’ve sacrificed a bit for this first read-through (possibly a silly decision), in order to optimize long-term use.

The other goal here is to allow space for other creators to come in and replace that entire game content section with a tailored pack of content that expands, focuses, or limits the available options.

I also can't really tell what attributes do anymore, besides cap skills and provide energy. It looks like maxing three and dumping 3 really is the smart move.

Don’t forget, you can only add energy up to the rating of your relevant attribute.

That wasn't made clear at the point I was at in the text. I understood that later, though.

I’ve emphasized this now.

Because of mental defense, you'd want to drop one mental stat, Strength (because Finesse Weapons makes strength pointless), and Stamina. I know you get fewer HP, but you get better energy, better Mental Defense, and no other obvious (at this time) drawbacks.

I’m enjoying your journey through build optimization.  Dumping Stamina is an interesting strategy...

Ok, so, attributes only matter during non-combat situations? When things don't cost energy? Why the stark separation of system here? Why is the primary factor of success in combat how much effort you put in, but everything else actually cares about your natural abilities? Ok, it's even weirder. So attributes matter during combat, just not for specifically combat rolls.

Attributes matter in adventuring and in combat.  Attributes cap the amount of energy that can be added to combat actions.

Ok, I understand knowing basically how actions and energy work, but I definitely don't need to know detailed movement rules before a list of traits and skills...

As discussed earlier, the game rules are self-contained, and the player-facing game content is self-contained.

What is the point of Empowered? You can't have more than your full energy, so, what, it's a buffer against incoming enervation?

You can have more energy than your maximum if it’s bonus energy (page 17).  This energy is over and above your normal maximum energy.

Ok, so, Empowered is incredibly amazingly powerful. Check.

Yes.  Which is why I haven’t found a place, or a way, to trigger it yet.

Blinded...doesn't affect attacks at all? You just get worse at perception and defense? Really?

Thanks for noticing, I’ve fixed this now.

‘You cannot see.

  • You automatically fail Acuity (Perception) tests that rely wholly on vision.
  • When making attribute tests that include vision (including attacks), your action pool is halved.
  • When defending attacks, your defense pool is halved.’

Grooming is a skill? Really?

Yarp.  Something about looking nice.

Why does initiative work like a defense roll?

I’m not sure about this; it’s a standard attribute test.

It's not. You aren't rolling for successes, you're rolling and looking for your single highest die.

True.

(Continued in part 2)


You made it!

Now jump over to the Forge Engine page to check out the latest playtest packet.

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