The Maneuver Playtest

The latest NERO 9th Edition playtest introduces alternate fighting and stealth skills. In this post, I’ll go over what’s in the playtest and talk about some of the design decisions behind it. The Maneuver playtest is designed to accompany the Slash Five playtest, so — NERO with easier math. Slash Five is not meant to stand alone, it is a platform for playtests to explore different ways of handling fighting and stealth skills. The main issue with using Slash Five in an ongoing campaign (as opposed to testing it in controlled module settings) is that it takes too long to advance. And this is a magnification of a more fundamental issue – that advancement, as a fighter, is already really boring.

The traditional NERO fighting skills are two dimensional. You either buy all the proficiencies you can, or all the slays you can. That’s the only real axis of distinction between fighters. Yes, you can switch up fighting styles, or buy master proficiencies, but let’s face it: your main build decision is profs vs slays. If you wanted magic, you’d be a templar. Rogues have a bit more build space — aside from backstabs and dodges, they can buy fighting skills like a templar, and have cheaper access to alchemy, spells, and a bunch of utility skills. So while you see a lot of “20-magic fighters”, you don’t see as many “40-magic rogues” – after a certain level of damage, people tend to branch out. So we need different ways of handling fighting skills, and their cousins, the stealth skills. More on that later.

Enter Scaled Damage

In the Maneuver playtest, skills that increase your standard weapon damage are scaled in cost. (note: I’ll be discussing build totals from the fighter class perspective) We start with the assumption that +1 damage is worth about 75 build (5 proficiencies). There are two problems with this:

  1. It takes a really long time to save up 75 build
  2. New characters are stuck at base weapon damage until level 7 or 8.

One of the overall goals for the next edition of NERO is to get new players plugged into the core of the game more quickly. To that end, we made the first few weapon proficiencies really cheap. They get more expensive with each purchase. But how high do we want people to climb? How much should people invest in weapon damage? Currently we have set Weapon Proficiency +4 as the tide line – after that, weapon proficiencies are more expensive than 75 build.

Feedback from playtests may suggest recalibration – if melee combatants have become too deadly, we may want to move the 75-build point lower or increase spell damage. But for now, we wanted to address the concerns about slow advancement under Slash Five.

These Aren’t Your Grandpa’s Critical Attacks

We don’t want players to have to save up huge amounts of free build to purchase high cost skills. If you have to save up 75 build at a time, you might end up playing for years without feeling any sense of advancement. To that end, we are expanding the role of critical attacks. You’ll still be buying critical attacks to save up for a weapon proficiency (and back attacks to save up for a backstab). But now you can buy as many as you want, and sell them back to pay for the next damage increase. As it’s calibrated now, the first proficiency costs the same as six critical attacks, then nine, then twelve, and so on.

I know, I know, 9th edition critical attacks are lame and meaningless. A critical attack lets you deal +1 damage versus 1 target for one battle. And in normal NERO scaling, +1 damage isn’t terribly important. If you’re swinging 15 damage, using a crit only brings you to 16. If your opponent has 100 hit points, it takes 7 swings to drop him whether you’re swinging 15s or 16s. But under slash five math, and low numbers in general, a crit is a lot more important. If a crit takes you from 3 to 4 damage, you can drop a 20-body monster two swings faster.

Here’s the fun part: you can also buy Maneuvers, skills that let you spend your critical attacks (or back attacks) in different ways. These are pricey abilities which let you specialize your role in combat. You can focus in offensive, defensive, tactical, or supportive skills. You can pick a signature move or fighting style. Now you can distinguish your melee character from others through skill choices, and are not limited to the two dimensional decision between constant damage and burst damage.

Fighting With Style

Under traditional NERO logic, your character can probably only use one weapon. Weapon Proficiencies are learned for each weapon individually, meaning that unless you’re a fighter (and are learning Master Proficiencies), you will end up being pigeon-holed into one style for your whole adventuring career. But many people think that larp combat is more interesting when fighting styles are more diverse. And most people think that the ability to switch between a sword and a mace may be fun, but it isn’t a huge game advantage. From a plot perspective, there is a lot of pressure to send out only magic long swords, because that’s the only weapon most people can use. (hah, you THOUGHT it would be cool to send out a magic hammer, but did you hear everybody groan? Only a handful of people can even use it!)

Under the Maneuver playtest, all weapon proficiencies work as master proficiencies. The Weapon Master skill is no longer just “the ability to suck with every weapon”. If you’re good with a sword, it’s not going to take years of training to be just as good with a hammer, it only takes as long as learning the blunt weapon skill.

Mad Skills

Let’s take a look at some of the skills in the playtest. The feedback survey we’ve created for this playtest will have space to comment on each skill individually. If some seem too weak or too powerful, we can recalibrate them to taste. Note that only one ability can be used at at time – you can’t stack maneuvers on top of each other.

Stances – Several “stance” skills are designed around specific fighting styles. Generally, using one of these skills will give you a bonus with a certain fighting style as long as you’re standing in one place. This adds another tactical dimension to combat – you can pick a spot on the battlefield that is more dangerous than others. And if you spot a character planting himself in place, you can thwart it by forcing him to move. This is the same logic as the “magic storm” spell. As soon as somebody puts up a magic storm (or a Bane of the Dead cantrip), everybody suddenly becomes more aware of battlefield position. Teamwork becomes more important; some people have to guard the caster, others make room for him to cast. It becomes a group effort to keep the fight near the stationary character. Fighting stances are similar – when an ally is in a stance, you maximize his usefulness by directing enemies towards him, or thwarting them from getting away.

For fighters and templars, stances include a defensive sword & board stance and a deadly two handed weapon stance that can push people around. For rogues, there is a two-weapon stance that lets you share proficiencies in both hands, and a “juggler” stance that lets you throw weapons using your backstab damage (and if you can really juggle, you’ll get the most benefit from this skill). There’s also an Archery stance that pins your opponents in place, and can be activated with a critical attack or a back attack.

Weapon Strikes – Many of the maneuvers use Weapon Strikes – these attacks deliver a status effect but can be blocked by a regular weapon or shield. All PC weapon strikes are of the “physical” type, meaning they can be resolved with a Remove Physical Affliction spell in addition to whatever spell normally cures the effect (Why create a new delivery method? This was a hard decision. We didn’t want to use physical strike because those attacks cannot be blocked, and we didn’t want to give PCs carrier attacks). In general, we’ve tried to create skills which don’t make spell casters redundant.  Here’s a summary:

  • You can spend critical attacks to deliver Weakness, Fumble, Lesser Wither Limb, and Repel (a knockback that cannot be sustained like the spell), or a small damage burst.
  • You can spend back attacks to deliver lesser silence, lesser vertigo, slow your opponent down, or deal a larger damage burst from behind. The Ambush skill gives you a bit more sticking power when your backstab victim turns around to face you, but it’s lost as soon as he lands a hit.

Recovery – The skills Martial Recovery and Subtle Recovery keep you in the game after you’ve used all your critical or back attacks. If you are totally out of attacks, you can rest for one minute to get one of them back. You can do this as many times as you’d like, but only when you’re completely tapped.

Reliable Might – This skill allows you to call your critical weapon strikes in the same manner as a slay. That is, you have to warn your opponent that you’re about to use one, but the attack stays active until you land a hit.

Defensive Skills – A few skills make you better at survival. Crits can be used to purge a physical affliction (Fortitude). Back attacks can be used to escape binding (Escape Artist). In both cases, it takes 60 seconds to free yourself of the effect, so in the heat of combat, you still need to rely on your spell casting allies. Skilled Block is an important maneuver. It lets you spend a critical attack to parry a weapon strike or standard weapon damage. You can’t use this against a slay, assassinate, waylay, or other powerful skills – only regular weapon damage or strikes. Footwork lets you spend a back attack to gain 2 temporary points of dexterity armor.  Free Ally lets you to spend a crit to cut an ally free of physical binding (reminiscent of 8th editions cutting free from entanglement). When there are spiders around, it’s essential to bring that guy!

Tactical skills include Bodyguard and Warrior’s Dare. Bodyguard provides a niche for “guardian” style fighters (that want to make sure their friends do not come to harm). It gives you gives you two “lesser parries” (as per skilled block) that you can only use to defend a friend. Warrior’s Dareis for fighters that crave tactical battlefield control. It lets you draw a line on the ground and discourage an opponent from advancing past it.

“I know you’re out of bullets…”

After using five critical attacks, back attacks, or maneuvers of any kind, a character becomes fatigued and can’t use more until he or she has rested for a few minutes. This is intended to limit the potential for abuse (imagine fighting a guy with 20 lesser parries – unless you slay him or spell him down, YOU GONNA DIE). It also becomes another tactical layer: If you see somebody use five maneuvers, you know they aren’t capable of any more. Even a fighter that knows how to skilled block can be disabled by a weapon strike when he’s fatigued. I liken this to being in a gun fight with six-shooter pistols. If you count your opponent’s bullets, you know when it’s the right time to move.

What’s next?

That concludes this summary of the Maneuver playtest. In short, we hope it makes melee combat much more interesting without adding a ton of new rules people have to memorize. We’ve added almost 25 skills and only one new game keyword (weapon strike). This adds a lot of depth (but not complexity) to NERO combat. The playtest’s rough edges (mainly build costs and skill balance) can be rounded out through feedback gained from online surveys.

If you’re a NERO director that wants to try out Slash Five + Maneuvers, ask interested players to write up a copy of their character under these rules and bring it to the larp weekend. Have a copy of the playtest on hand to help answer questions. When you’re hooking the module, indicate that players will be venturing into an area of Tyrra where the Great Celestial Cycle is in flux (our usual in-game explanation for rules changes). While there, adventurers will fight through a few waves of combat. Start with easy monsters (3 body, swing 1) and gradually grind up to tough ones (20 body, swing 5, lots of maneuvers). It may be useful to separate groups up by level. By watching how tough each wave is, you’ll learn how to scale under slash five math.

I welcome your (constructive) feedback in the comments!

  1. #1 by Bill Tobin on October 22, 2012 - 1:51 pm

    One thing I didn’t see addressed here is the fact that you can buy Slay/Parry and Assassinate/Dodge faster at lower levels (since you can purchase 2 per proficiency or backstab respectively). I’m interested to see how this affects “Dirty” fighters that normally spend 80 build for a dodge (because they can get 2 dodges for 100 build now).

    • #2 by Kelly Post on October 23, 2012 - 5:03 pm

      It wouldnt be hard to fix by making the early cheap skills class based much like racial abilities. This way Only rogues get the early reductions for stealth skills and only fighters get the reductions for early melee skills. Im thinking for templars maybe make 1 early prof purchaseable before hitting the main table.

  2. #3 by Phil on October 22, 2012 - 6:53 pm

    From experience trying to use Charm Break in combat, 1 minute is an eternity. 10 seconds, effectively turning a physical attack/binding into a lesser one, might work better.

  3. #4 by Paul Wolanski on October 22, 2012 - 6:58 pm

    The issue that I see with all of the “weapon strike” type playtests is that most of the effects simply replicate the effects of spells, effectively making the abilities “SpellStrikes”.

    The “stances”, and the “draw the line” are good examples of what weapon strike type things should be. They are tactical choices that give a bonus, with a noticeable ingame effect, and a bit of a cost too. Stop Thrust is a good example of a weapon strike being an appropriate addition to a melee person’s arsenal of tools – it is a tactical skill that doesn’t replicate a spell effect.

    They should not replicate spell effects (and especially the removal of spell effects) because that devalues spells, and the skips past the expense part of spell strikes being an expensive option for Templars.

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