What the Morning Brings

Friday, May 5th, 2017

Appropriately enough, I woke up this morning thinking about At the Dawn. Specifically, I’ve always worried the penalties are too harsh — they’re not, they’re brutal, and that’s good because, in this case, it drives the narrative conflict — but my brain was whispering to me “Why not change the penalties into an increased Threshold?”

Which is not half-bad as an idea: it still ramps up the difficulty and removes the (appearance of the) penalty death spiral, might make those precious additional dice more important, and doesn’t require quite as much record keeping for a player.

Issues: it significantly alters the math of play, as increasing the Threshold doesn’t change the outcome probabilities per roll, only the outcome probabilities per conflict; the probabilities of success in any conflict aren’t affected as drastically; and, psychologically, a failed roll ends up being something that happens to the other guy, not something that happens to you (as the only numbers that change are your opponent’s).

The latter is something I really don’t like.

Doing so would also mean a change in what spending Virtues does: spending Virtue would lower the Threshold instead of removing penalties (this is the simplest way to handle it, and requires the least, as I am now going to refer to this all too common practice in game design, fizzbin-ing[1]), meaning great Virtue would empower the elves. On the other hand, this is kind of a neat idea since it means Virtues could always be spent to make a conflict easier, not just when a penalty was involved. And I think that rubs the wrong way against the moral centerpiece of the game — the tragedy and difficulty of Virtue. For Virtue is meant to be a fragile bulwark against the darkness, not a mighty weapon.

Ultimately, though, I don’t like the idea, not for this game. It is particularly the psychological and narrative results of making this change, in that it depersonalizes failure and reduces its probability, which are both very important.

However, the idea of being able to spend Virtue to lower the Threshold in addition to spending Virtue to reduce penalties does have some small merit. Perhaps I will keep that bit, but I’m going to think about it for a while as it still alters the perception of and function of Virtue from bulwark to bulwark-and-sword, and I am not certain that sits right with me.

[1] fizzbin-ing: creating complex rules, especially when a more simple rule would suffice; examples: adding interest rates and a market fluctuation chart to Monopoly; adding body-area wounding with to-hit probabilities and damage modifiers to D&D; adding or subtracting to dice rolls in Sorry! based on the player’s luck so far in the game; Star Fleet Battles…everything.

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