Musketeers versus “Godzilla”

May 29, 2016

godzillaraidsagain

14 May Session

There was a fight with the handbag unicorn demon. It was pretty awful, with people getting arms broken and faces chewed up, a vigla’s head getting ripped off.
The Eclipse Demon of Variable Name slowed time down during a lightning flash and offered people bargains. Vitus agreed to lose 1 MP forever, in exchange for mana and healing. The other PCs refused, but Magistrate Karen Ivanovich appeared to make a deal, as she also started healing. The Eclipse Demon specifically refused to treat with Talia, as she is still bound to the Raven Queen. Karen eventually called the Demon to heel, and some conversations followed during which you learned:
  • Karen got sent to activate a weapon to deal with the two sleeping powers (NB Karen does not know that the party is responsible for releasing them)
  • Karen’s other choice of suicide mission was leading the forlorn hope against Fort Zurgan
  • Vitus used Witchsight to discern a death rune marked on Karen
  • Karen revealed the presence of a Moon Gate in the Warden’s complex on the Island of Monsters.
The party then healed up and proceeded to the mine and its sealed vault. Karen revealed that what was inside the vault was Prince Umal, son and grandson of Mal. The mine entrance was the scene of a massacre, and Secundus could tell that the bladework was in a longsword style he was familiar with. The elevator was damaged, so the party made two trips for safety (and in the background I began keeping track of a countdown clock).
Outside the vault, the party encounters Maranth, first Sword of the father. She warns the party to back off, they refuse, so Vordar assassins materialise and attack (and Maranth exits stage right). In this fight a key role is played by the unicorn handbag demon, as its gibbets a couple of the Vordar. Pyrias is badly wounded by an early critical hit to the leg, and if I recall correctly both Talia and Pyrias are incapacitated by mid-fight. Vitus gets disarmed, loses the lantern, and Secundus manages to fumble and set himself on fire from the lantern oil. Vitus casts wrack and starts burning the Vordar, and the accumulated losses see the last two Vordar teleporting out (although one of them took enough damage to die on rematerialising I think).
The party enters the sealed vault – which requires using the horn of the unicorn demon as the key to bypass. The outer room was a library, the inner room contained a laboratory and the imprisoned husk of Prince Umal. There is bargaining, Umal desires revenge on the Maxlace family, who experimented on him, as well as the life blood of a willing sacrifice. There is some bargaining, and Umal eventually agrees to spare one member of the Maxlace family – but the party must choose who is live. In exchange Prince Umal will deal with the two sleeping powers that have awoken.
On the way out, there is an earthquake while people are in the damaged elevator. There are some narrow scrapes and bruises, but the party escapes alive, and walks back to the Maxlace mansion. Where they are welcomed by Karia Angel Eyes, who is only too delighted to inform that Prince Umal has revenged himself on her father, and dragged her useless sister Daria away to find the Spear of the Black Emperor in town.
In the far distance, the rumbling cannonades of the assault on Fort Zurgan can still be heard as the party tries to get some sleep. Its unlikely to be pleasant dreams with not one, not two, but three ancient powers of great evil converging on the poor town of Aldarsh…

28 May Session

This session started with passion changes and arete checks to reflect decisions made in the previous session, with Crozane dropping his passion for protecting the innocent and increasing loyalty to empire.
Plans were debated – the problem with warning people in Aldarsh was the issue of “What happens when they ask us how exactly it us that we know that the sleeping powers have awoken?” not even the plight of those near to their hearts could swap the party from leaving the Maxlace mansion and its temptations. Vitus did project his sight into the town, and found Alfandi skirmishing with the Garrison, and civilians being murdered in the streets. Vitus searched for Florenzia, finding that the hospital had been overrun, but Florenzia had made it to the town citadel, where she was extracting mana crystals.
The party decides to sleep. Arete checks are made, Crozane fumbles, and experiences a nightmare where he is in a warehouse in Aldarsh, being sacrificed by Vordar, over and over again. At sunrise there is a round of failed Willpower checks, so little magic regeneration happens.
An Imperial Frigate passes overhead, travelling to the west. Its on fire. Its a dark day, with feeble sunlight, constant rain, thunder and lightning.
Lady Karia Angel Eyes offers the party a champagne breakfast. By late morning Talia is the only one both sober and clothed. People regain Luck Points from carousing and start on a liquid lunch, when Anander Rotrant turns up to guilt trip the party into actually doing something about the crisis they have caused. The party realises that their chances of escaping overland on foot, or defending the mansion against a horde of swamp elves are pretty slim, and getting behind the town walls might be the sensible thing to do.
On the way into town, Talia crits Perception, and spots a swamp elf ambush. While the Alfandi outnumber the party 10:7, they are mooks (50% skills, 2 Actions, knocked out if reduced to 0 HP in any location). Because of the wet weather, I make the check for firing pistols harder, and only Talia and Secundus score hits. Vitus is the only player badly injured in the fight, taking nine points to his right leg, but with a couple of critical hits from Karia and Anander the fight turns towards the party quite quickly. Talia captures a couple of the Alfandi alive, and then proceeds to try a ritual to regenerate the mana storage gem acquired earlier. Talia does not get the first sacrifice right, but Karia assists with the second and +13 MP are placed in the gem (and Talia loses a few arete points).
The party reaches town without further incident, but can see that the garrison is unsettled. They go to their old hotel, but the first floor is burnt out, and the second floor hallways is strewn with bodies. So they park the NPCs at the Maxlace townhouse and go to the citadel. Its crowded with petitioners, and the party balks at paying a 500 silver bribe to see the commander. So they go off to the new imperial temple, find its packed, think about going to the old imperial temple, but realise its probably flooded. So they go back to the citadel, pay the bribe, see the commander, and get a commission to find a Vordar death cult inside the town walls and deal with it.
Using a mix of sense blood and project sight they find where the cult is probably set up – the warehouse owned by von Schenke, where they went to a party earlier in the week. They case the joint, detecting wards and a few ways in. They sneak up an alleyway, and Talia neutralises the wards. Vitus scouts with his projected sight, but something inside can see him, and he takes wounds to the head and leg fleeing the scene. The party then gets Secundus to use brute force and ignorance to batter their way in. Now the party can see Marantar, first sword of the Father, who challenges Pyrias to a duel, which he accepts.
Pyrias has four actions per combat round, but Maranth is a mystic with six actions, three of which must be used for parrying or evading. Both duellists have high combat styles (>90% for Pyrias and 110% for Marantar). Its a very long fight – four combat rounds, almost twenty seconds, but while Pyrias is outclassed, the whip Maranth wields just doesn’t do enough damage to seriously threaten Pyrias. Maranth eventually casts some damage boosting folk magic, but Pyrias manages to get a critical hit to disarm her, followed by a second critical hit which she fails to evade to kill her. Her blood, however, is the trigger to activate the runes covering all the surfaces of the warehouse interior. Vitus starts setting the warehouse on fire, Pyrias and Secundus argue over who should get the whip, Crozane picks up the body and hears a “run away little boy” voice in his head, Talia just runs for it, but stumbles and falls over (eventually being the last one out of the building). While Vitus manages to endure the fire damage, he fails to resist against magic and is overwhelmed.
Outside the burning building, the party realises that Vitus is now a beacon, calling the father towards him. Two attempts are made to steal boats to flee downriver, but everyone in the party fails two boat handling checks in a row (its not a common skill in flying cities). So the party heads west, with an improvised sled to carry Vitus. They run into stragglers from the Imperial army, the assault on Fort Zurgan has failed. As they near the now abandoned Camp Fortitude they see the Mother and the father in the distance. Shrieking and hammering the earth, the ancient powers turn towards camp Fortitude and begin moving towards it like Godzilla coming up on Tokyo. Pyrias lost an arete point for suggesting it was his musketeer’s duty to shag the Mother Monster.
At this point the standard RQ rules went out the window as being unable to handle a mythic encounter and I improvised wildly. What the party was able to do was turn the fort powder magazine into a giant land mine, with the magazines copper sheath roof being ripped up for shrapnel. The party then hid in a barracks building, and used a cheap folk magic spell to light the magazine off when the ancient powers began battling over the fort.
Vordar assassins attack the party, but three are killed in the first round, so it does not take much effort to eliminate the remaining two. Belnath, the vordar cult leader, attempts a mythic level attack on the Mother, but rolls a 00 fumble, so I rule him as devoured on the spot.
I gave the ancient powers 100 mythic hit points, and allowed the powder magazine explosion to do 1d100 damage to them. Whichever monster gained the advantage in a combat round did 1d10 mythic damage, and we had a round where they tied and both inflicted damage on each other. Magic warps the neighbourhood, and makes it both difficult and dangerous for the PCs to intervene, they leave the barracks building before it is destroyed, and shelter against the interior wall of the fortress. Crozane and Pyrias are splashed by “mother’s milk” and the acid forces them to abandon most of their armour and equipment. Talia is taken out by a surge of plant rune energy, collapsing into an orgasmic heap.
The Empress Alexandra, the largest battleship in the Imperial Fleet appears in the distance. Unlike the small frigates it can travel safely in the poor weather.
Prince Umal intervenes with the spear of the Black Emperor, and does 1d10 mythic damage on the monsters. The Alexandra unleashes a 100 gun broadside. Both of the great monsters are down. The Eclipse Demon then turns up, attacks Umal, and gets its wings broken. Karen Ivanovich, who was presumed dead, also turns up (its a safe bet that the Eclipse Demon resurrected her, and her being alive allows her to rollback some of Umal’s power). The Alexandra starts to turn, and the party quickly relocates so as to not be between its guns and Prince Umal. Karen manages to grab the black spear, and runs. Umal smashes the Eclipse Demon into a cloud of feathers and eyeballs, then chases after Karen. Talia casts a spell to entangle Umal, which allows Karen to escape, and then the Alexandra hammers Prince Umal with a second 100 gun broadside.
So, a victory of sorts for the Silent Legion, with three ancient powers defeated. But it might have been better if the party had managed to not unseal the ancient evils in the first place…

A character generation system for D100 games

May 9, 2016

dice-160388_1280Just mucking around with some ideas for a character generation mini-game, riffing off Revolution D100 and Amber. There is just something about the 3-18 range for primary attributes (Strength, Dexterity, Charisma, etc) that just feels right for gaming. Even if it just nostalgia for my misspent youth sending fighters into the AD&D’s DMG random dungeon generator/blender. In a similar style, a percentage based skill system is one that is intuitive for use in play – you have a good idea of success/failure odds. But so many games never really use the numbers generated in the 3-18 range – they get used instead to generate secondary attributes that are the ones which get used in game play.

One of the options in Revolution D100 is to use the 3-18 attribute scores as resolution points in conflicts, so Charisma might be used in a verbal debate, Dexterity in a chase scene, and so on. With individual contests costing 1d6 or 2d6 resolution points, then sooner or later a 13 in an attribute will prove better than a 12. I am not exactly fond of either random 3d6, or point allocation systems, and inspired by the competitive character generation system used in a couple of diceless roleplaying games I have come up with this mini-game:

The six primary character attributes are: Strength (STR), Dexterity (DEX), Constitution (CON), Intellect (INT), Will (WIL), and Charisma (CHA).

  1. Each player makes a secret bid from 3-18. This bid must be unique to this player, e.g. if you have already made a bids of 17 and 18, your bids must be in the 3-16 range. Players may not collude on bids.
  2. Players reveal all bids simultaneously.
  3. The player(s) with the highest bid allocate the bid to one of their six attributes, and gain +1 Hubris.
  4. The player(s) with the lowest bid allocate the bid to one of their six attributes, and gain +1 Tyche.
  5. The player(s) with other bids allocate the bid to one of their six attributes, and make a notation next to it that they have gained +Skill.
  6. Bid allocations are public knowledge.
  7. If there is no clear distinction between bids due to tied bids, then Hubris trumps all, and Skill trumps Tyche. For example if everyone bids 18, everyone gets +1 Hubris and no Tyche of Skill awards are made. If Half bid 18 and half bid 16, the high bids get +1 Hubris the other bids get +Skill, and no one gets +Tyche.
  8. After all bids have been resolved, all players check and compare the characteristic scores across all the characters:
    1. If your character has the highest number in an attribute (even if this was not originally a winning bid) gain +1 Hubris.
    2. Repeat this process for Tyche (lowest number) and Skill (other numbers).

Tyche lets you minimise any harm to you, reducing it to a one point, even if it would normally be a situation that clearly should result in death such as bring trapped in a burning building, public execution, being abandoned in the middle of an ocean, etc. Tyche points refresh at the end of the current mission. I figure every player will want at least one point of Tyche, so everyone is likely to try and make at least one low bid for an attribute during the character generation mini-game.

Hubris lets you turn any roll into a critical success, but each time you do this you gain Nemesis points equal to the tens roll. Hubris points refresh at the end of each session. The minimum Hubris gain each session is equal to the base Hubris score. When Nemesis reaches 100, the GM will send a suitable Fury to punish the character. I figure every player will want some Hubris to drive the action forward, but too much of it is obviously tempting fate.

Skill is a bonus to initial character skills. So if you had STR 12 and DEX 9 and they were not Skill scores at any stage of the character generation process, then your initial combat skill would be (STR+DEX) 21%. If both were Skill Attributes, then your initial combat skill would be at least 42%. If your DEX then turned out to be the lowest DEX score in the final comparison, but STR remained a skill score, your final starting combat skill would be 54%.

If we nudge the attributes up a little, to more heroic levels of 15 and 13, but keep the other variables the same, then the final starting combat skill would be 71%. That is probably the sweet spot, as I have seen a fer articles opining that 65-70% is the sweet spot for making players feel that their characters are competent.

Doing some quick maths – its impossible for a bid of 18 to ever grant Skill during PC generation, so the best possible Skill combination is 17+16, which is 33. So the best possible initial skill would be 99%. Which is not something I anticipated when I threw this together.

I must try and corner some people to do a run through of this at the next convention I go to.


Avoiding the Setting/Mechanics trap

April 14, 2016

“Setting or mechanics first” is a common roleplaying game design question. Its a bit of a trap, because each complements the other, and design is an iterative process. Sure, if you create a compelling new setting, you might do a long brain dump first. Vice versa, if you devise a new way of rolling dice/shuffling cards no one else has thought of before, that likely needs some careful number crunching before you show it off to the world for feedback.

In trying to find some design space to wiggle around in and create something new, I have been much more character focused. I have found my players are pretty much happy with any setting that fits “same, but different” and for the mechanics, the simpler, the better.

My current campaign is a fantasy world with musketeers and awakening great old ones. It uses the Runequest 6/Mythras system, which is a toolkit I wanted for bounded character power, crunch detail, and combat verisimilitude – following the simple and easy Dragon Age system of my previous campaign, which suffered from the classic problem of “bloated Hit Points” means nothing really threatens the characters unless its Save or Die!

Thinking about Jared Sorensen’s Big Three Questions (+bonus from John Wick) …

  • What is your game about?
  • How does your game do this?
  • How does your game encourage / reward this?
  • How do you make this fun?

… I think its clear to me that while my players are having fun with intrigue, duels, seductions, and running away from tentacles, that I did not quite tune the campaign’s themes to the RQ rules adequately.

I had not played RQ with the Passion mechanic before, and I can now see that the game would have been better if I had emphasized musketeer behaviour with the passions. While the characters have been getting into trouble a fair bit, almost all of the hard choices are dealt with by passing a “loyalty to empire” passion check. I should have sat down and thought more about the characters, and less about the setting, and identified the passions needed to make the game more like the classic musketeer novels.

I now think that hacking the Sanity mechanic from Call of Cthulhu into a Virtue stat has not worked out too well. Its just taken a bit too long for interesting consequences to turn up, and while that has now happened for one corrupted character (who is now burnt by sunlight, and can only regenerate magic points through self-inflicted pain) I am now looking at corruption mechanics in other games (e.g. Urban Shadows) as doing the job better.

I also wants a game that plays much faster. I now find the combat too detailed, and the handling time for resolution means that as GM I am not feeling a lot of joy in resolving combat scenes. The social mechanics lack the fine detail of the combat mechanics, and that has been a bit of a problem in trying to figure out just what the heck a die roll in front of me means when an Influence check is done. Reading *World games has brought home to me that you should really not ask for die rolls unless something of consequence will actually happen for both success and failure outcomes. Maybe I want something closer to the ‘duel of wits’ mechanic in Burning Wheel?

I have been reading a lot of game systems lately – I am drowning in content from PDFs delivered from Kickstarters and Bundles of Holding – and one that looks really promising to me is the 2d20 system for Age of Conan. The quickstart rules looked like they would satisfy my real life history/martial arts knowledge with some rules for reach and guard stances (which on first reading were significantly more intelligible than those in RQ6) plus a core mechanic that generates a shared resource for the party (something I have been trying to develop myself).

I would like to have a go at designing and publishing a game, and the main obstacle for me at the moment, is trying to come up with an idea for what the characters are about, that has not been done before. I do not want to sink a few years spare time into a ‘fantasy heartbreaker’. Like doing a PhD, I want to try and push the boundary out a bit and build something original. You want to find the “Aha!” idea that has people go “Wow!” about the game when you explain it to them, not shift their eyes sideways to the clock on the wall above you.

I found a new way of looking at characters – which is to think about what you want them to be capable of doing in the setting (and being more specific than just choosing a setting on somewhere on the zero to hero scale). When I recast my core game ideas into a capability framework I get characters that can:

  1. make a choice about the community they identity with (mixed heritage characters are free to go either way)
  2. cast spells and can always cast spells (no running out of magic points)
  3. change the community they exist in (to paraphrase Marx, “the point is not to understand the setting, the point is to change the setting”)
  4. always cooperate with each other (because magic, and because I think it will make for a better game).

Working backwards from that I end up with a game concept that is “orphan street kid mages in a city of spies”. Which is a bit like Blades in the Dark but at least I didn’t end up with a Dogs in the Vineyard clone again.

Changing tack, I was thinking about how to express in game mechanics something that made character’s different and fun, and hit on the Greek word “hubris”. Rather than having luck, fate, fortune (or to stick with the classical theme, Tyche) points being the character meta-currency to influence the game I thought I could call it Hubris to reflect both the kind of behaviour player characters often indulge in, and the kind of behaviour I thought power-hungry mages should be inclined towards:

  • Irrational pride or confidence.
  • Violent or excessive behaviour.
  • Shame, humiliation and gratification.
  • Sexual crimes, prostitution, theft of public or sacred property.
  • An act that offends the Gods.
  • Presumption towards the Gods.
  • Violating the bounds meant for mortals.
  • Lack of humility, modesty, respect or timidity.
  • Faustian bargains for knowledge and power.

Along with Milton’s “better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven” quote, I found this quote, that really seemed to gel with the idea of mixed race characters who do not belong to any established community and have a lot of questions to answer about their identity:

If you were born Somewhere, hubris would come easy. But if you are Nowhere’s child, hubris is an import, pride a thing you decide to acquire. —Sarah Vowell, GQ, May 1998

Riffing on *World I can use Hubris and rename Fronts as Nemesis. Nemesis is the inescapable agent of downfall, the retributive justice for wrong-doing and presumption, the balancer of too much good fortune. So any time a player uses Hubris to succeed in a task, a possible complication is the countdown clock on one of the Nemesis fronts advancing. I could also use Hubris in a way similar to Corruption in Urban Shadows, a route to advance your character, but not necessarily one you want to indulge in too often.

…and that I think will give me a neat little mechanic for the setting, which fits the capabilities I want the characters to have.

 

 


Race, Religion and Rolling Dice – Making plans for GENCON 2016

March 4, 2016

LuigiCastellani_MYTHKELI2While there are 150 days to GENCON, there are only another ten days until the deadline to register events for GENCON, and I will be spending half that time away from the internet. So I only have a few days left to nail down a solid concept to offer as a GENCON game if I want to be sure of getting a table and a blurb in the schedule. The other option is just to trust in Games on Demand, which would also give me a lot of schedule flexibility to go to game design seminars. (The art used here was taken from the Silent Legion artpack)

Race – Halflings

By Halfling, I mean a character with a mixed heritage, with parents from two different “races”, rather than a person of Hobbit-size stature. Tolkien wrote about half-elves and half-orcs in The Lord of The Rings, and in the 1970s this idea entered roleplaying games through Dungeons & Dragons. Race in roleplaying games tends to gloss over real world issues with “race”, a term which is nonsensical in biology (if different “races” can interbreed, then they are not actually different “races”). Race is also a loaded social construct from the worst days of slavery in North America and 20th century totalitarianism, and continues to negatively influence society today.

Instead RPGs tend to focus on cosmetic appearance, access to unique traits or abilities (e.g. the ability to see in darkness), and as a modifier to attributes. Its often a way of distinguishing a character,  can generate some banter around the table, but does not usually drive the fictional narrative while roleplaying in the game.

So I have been thinking about a setting where the premise is that there is a group of humanoid cultures with distinct visual appearances, who can enjoy carnal relations, which can lead to children. These children are referred to as halflings rather than half-men or half-gnomes. Halflings have two core differences from their parents. The first is that they cannot themselves have children (like hybrids in the real world). The second is that they have stronger magical talents – drawing on the inherent gift abilities of two heritages rather than one heritage.

The social consequences of not being able to have children are pretty significant in a world setting with a medieval level of socio-economic development. People are not going to want to see their children marry a halfling, when there will be no natural born grandchildren to pass the family name and lands to. In a world without public health or social welfare systems, children and grandchildren are what you expect to use to help you in your old age. Remember that one of the few grounds for divorce in the middle ages was inability to have children. Dialing up the issue a level, if a culture practices infanticide, then I think that halfling babies would be a common choice for exposure to the elements. In times of hunger, the halfling child is less likely to get food, in times of plague, less likely to get medicine.

I have a couple of reasons for adding some magical talents to halflings. One is that its still useful to have some kind of lever for the player of a halfling character to use in gameplay. The other is that if magic power is real, then like all forms of power it has the potential to corrupt the user, and the potential to be poorly regarded by the community. Nearly every ancient civilisation had laws prohibiting the use of evil magic, such as curses. This would definitely be a setting with gift based magic. You could still have magic gained from study, knowledge and devotion, but gift magic would be a strength of halfling characters. Depending on the local social setting the halfling might be a respected expert, or a despised outsider. Certainly if magic can be a reliable tool, then whatever power structure the society has will seek to control magical resources.

Now lets add an over-the-top fantasy twist. This is inspired by the word Manzer, an old word for bastard, which sounds a bit like monster, and might be related to the Hebrew word “mamzer “(person born from forbidden union, mum=defect, zar=strange/alien). Carnal unions leading to halflings are prohibited because they always result in twins, and one twin always turns into a monster with the onset of puberty. Some might argue that all teenagers turn into monsters, but I digress.

So this twist might lead to societies exerting a lot of control over haflings.  This could take a range from killing suspected halflings, sending them away, keeping them to serve as scapegoats, selling them as slaves, locking them up in prisons, or forcing abandoned orphans to live a life of closely supervised public service. It could serve as a useful marker for all cultures and states in the game setting – how do they typically treat halflings?

The monster twist might be excessive for a setting that seeks to explore concepts of race and prejudice – if the monster halflings are Always Chaotic Evil then the setting racism against halflings becomes reasonable and rationale – unlike the real world where racism is pointless bigotry.

Questions I need to explore on this topic include:

  1. Is racial prejudice (or privilege) a topic that can be fun to explore in a fantasy roleplaying game? I need to do a lot more research on real world topics before I can address this in a roleplaying game.
  2. What are the characters expected to do when confronted with prejudice? Are they trying to change the world to a better place, or just make it a place where they can survive?
  3. How do I make this work in the game mechanics – if its a central part of the game it needs to go way beyond +2 Charisma!

Religion – Build Your Own God

Pitching a roleplaying game where Gods are a central component is not a new idea, both Glorantha and Tekumel addressed this in the early days of roleplaying games. Its also not new to pitch a game as one where the player characters operate at a Godlike level, or can aspire to as part of the “zero-to-hero” progression of the game.

The approach I want to take in a setting is to follow the fiction of William Gladstones Craft Sequence, Glen Cook’s Instrumentalities of Night series, with a touch of Steven Erikson’s The Malazan Tales of the Fallen. These settings invert the traditional sequence of Gods creating sentient life, and instead its sentient life that creates the Gods (which, if you are an atheist, is exactly how it works in the real world). While the Gods are powerful, they remain vulnerable to clever mortals, and can be killed.

Building on from mortal Gods, I want the default mode of play for the setting to be that the player characters are a cabal of magic users, connected to the husk of a dead God. Individual campaigns can answer the question how and why this came about. There are a few things that I think the husk can do for a game that are cool:

  1. The connection to the husk gives the characters a reason to be together. Going a further step, the mystic connection to the husk and other cabal members explains why the players are aware of each other’s actions, even when their characters are in different locations.
  2. As part of the initial setting construction, the players choose the attributes of their husk, and by doing so signal to the game master what they want to see in their campaign. A husk of war and agriculture, should be a different game experience, when compared to a husk of poetry and commerce.
  3. The classic problem of magic using characters exhausting their magical energy is dealt with by allowing the players to choose to draw down energy from the husk. No need to go back to the Inn for a cup of tea and a lie down. This can be a mixed blessing if the character accidentally makes the husk rouse itself from torpor.
  4. Rather than have each character track a sanity, virtue or corruption score, the husk becomes a shared “conflict gauge”. In a way, the party is their own worst enemy, as only through their actions can the husk rouse itself and attempt to possess the body of a cabal member.
  5. As a shared resource, the husk can act like the gang framework in Blades in the Dark. It levels up as the characters level up.
  6. The husk can provide access to traits – unusual attributes and powers – drawn from the divine portfolios the God had mastery over when it was alive and kicking.
  7. As a power source that other people seek to control, the husk can give the characters a set of friends, enemies, and social organisations to interact with.

Questions I need to explore on this topic include:

  1. What is the best way of expressing all the conceptual relationships in game mechanics?
  2. How to best develop all the husk attributes? Is a husk tied to a particular race?
  3. Can the game scale well from low fantasy to high fantasy? What is the intended end game for the cabal?
  4. How to handle the conflict gauge – how common should it be for the husk to rouse and what is the chance of a character being possessed?

 

Pros and Cons of System Choices

I have a few other setting ideas, but I think the Halfling and Husk ideas are my strongest. So here a few ideas on the pros and cons of some different game systems I could use to give expression to these ideas.

Out of scope approaches

I do not think a class/level game system will do the job, unless I just copy something with an open game license (OGL), as trying to balance a class/level system takes a lot of work. Which as a one-person band, I would struggle to do. Same goes for trying to recreate a fully flexible magic engine, as with Ars Magica or Mage the Ascension. I do not think I can build better compared to systems with 20+ years of development. I will need to take a more focused approach to magic.

Old School Approaches

If I were to use an older game system it would be an OGL toolkit system like the D100 system.

Pros: easy for me to build a richly detailed setting to guide player choices, good at visceral combat scenes, lots of existing material to work with, character growth is flexible, potential audience of fans.

Cons: legacy systems influence is hard to shake, mechanic handling time is high in RQ6 (my current D100 system), not so good at handling social conflict, character growth is slow, character skills tend to converge together over time, not a good system for one-off convention games with people unfamiliar with the system.

Powered by the Apocalypse

My experience in playing the *World family of games is limited. Its such a strong break from the traditional physics engine approaches of the game systems I grew up with. But after a lot of reading (Hamish Cameron’s The Sprawl in particular) I have come to appreciate the focus on creating a game experience drawn on a specified fiction. For handling sensitive topics, the players can choose when prejudice is a problem to a large degree. The succeed with consequences approach is also rich for interaction with the husk concept.

A downside is that the players have to be willing to share more of the workload in running the game. I have experimented a little in my current game with throwing choices about what happens next over to the players, and they have looked quite uncomfortable with just choosing an outcome rather than relying on dice or GM fiat. Another little downside for me, is that a system which empowers a group to build its own setting is one where I don’t present a cool setting rich in gritty details for people.

A hybrid fusion?

I do wonder if I can take the fiction focus and other elements (Agenda, Principles, Moves) of the *World family and combine them with some elements of older games. The current game engine drawing my eye is the 2d20 system Mophidius is using for their Conan line. It looks to satisfy one of my personal interests (relatively accurate handling of historic weapons and armour) while also having a mechanic system that could play off the husk idea through the Momentum/Doom pools that empower special player and GM moves within the game.

Pro: dice pool system should work well for the husk, and the traditional mechanics will be easy for a wide range of players to grasp.

Con: probably needs a license or successful product pitch.


Into the ziggurat of doom

February 29, 2016

We started with the party split in two groups.

The main group, having just killed a demon, considered the options. Crozane managed to spot, and shoot, renegade sorcerer Mueller through the mists, wounding him in the arm. At which point the cultists retreated into the ziggurat interior. Cue ominous chanting.

The mages managed to make a combination of good stealth and perception checks, so I allowed them to rejoin the main group.

The party followed the cultists into the interior for a confrontation in a room containing pillars and a large pit. While there were a lot of cultists (18+) chanting in the room, only six were an immediate threat to the party.

SAMSUNGSo the warriors engaged the closest cultists, while the mages cast Wrack (fire) and Imprison on different groups of cultists. The Alfandi were reluctant to engage Secundus in his ancient Vordar armour (had to pass Willpower checks to engage).

The cult Priestess cast dismiss on the first Imprison, while Mueller eventually cranked out a Tap (Strength) spell on the PCs and their allies, which gave a few PCs negative damage modifiers. The wrack spell was pretty effective at burning cultists to death, the exception being one cultist who ran on fire to the pit, dropped, rolled, and crawled to the edge of the pit, survived 2-3 arrow/pistol hits, and then finally rolled into the pit as a sacrifice…

While the party rolled several fumbles, none actually took place due to the use of luck points. Same with the critical hits scored by the cultists, luck points were used to force rerolls.

The melee fighting took several rounds to resolve, due to a string a lucky Endurance checks by the cultists (and a spectacular number of rolls that were equal to the skill score). Advancing forwards, the warriors lost formation and Anander and Pyrias were almost overwhelmed – Secundus burned a luck point for an extra action to move over and threaten the cultists. So the cultists did not skewer Pyrias on the ground after tripping and disarming him.

No great shock really when a demon came up out of the pit. Two of Pinshallah’s magic acorns were used to take it out – with a nice critical throw from Pyrias down the demon’s throat. Gobbets of demon flesh and black ichor exploded everywhere. A couple of the cultists ran at this point.

A second Imprison spell locked up the remaining cultists, who were then summarily killed.

That took about three and a half hours to resolve, about 45 minutes per combat round. So that left only 15 minutes to quickly narrate the following:

1. Old Mother Marnash waking up, wounded from the mythic acorns thrown down the pit.
2. Anne-Collette, the Alfandi witch bargaining a concealment/protection spell from the Viridian Book in exchange for the party agreeing to throw the Vordar black glass armour and spirit haunted blade down the demon pit. Loyalty empire passion won out over hate Alfandi.
3. Exiting the sunken mound city, the party found the boat vanishing in the distance (the NPCs who deserted the party earlier raided the treasury, and with a sleeping power waking up in the city, the boat crew were easily persuaded to depart immediately).
4. It took over a week to walk out of the swamp (minor dangers handled with an expenditure of healing and cure disease potions). Anne Collette was installed as an ally in the river clan village, and Anander Rotrant becomes the front of house factor for the business syndicate in Aldarsh.

Loose ends

1. What was the mysterious agent of Enmity up to?
2. What was Mueller really up to – what was he doing here on behalf of the Empire, and how exactly did Skulder betray the Empire (if she did)?
3. What will the wounded sleeping power the party has roused do next?

Loot

1. A carved staff of black wood, appears to be useful when evoking demons.
2. The sword of red and gold (Orichalcum), mythically powerful against Father Mornash and Vordar, its a Shortsword that does 2d6 damage (to a maximum of six points).
3. Black Ruby Pendant storing up to 13 MP (rechargeable through blood sacrifice).
4. Jade Wand storing magic skill/10 MP (rechargeable through acts of devotion to the sleeping powers).

Experience = 12


In a swamp filled with redneck elves

February 18, 2016

Notes from my Runequest 6 roleplaying campaign.

End of January
Fairly sparse notes here.
You camped on a stone pillar in the swamp, surrounded by four large trees carved into totem poles. You fished and set up a warding circle. The riverboat was moored below, with the crew, and Secundus – who Anne-Colette (AC) refused to let up into the sacred space on the pillar.
The party was attacked by 40 cultists late at night, plus support from distant archers (07% chance per character of being hit by a 1d10 longbow arrow each action). Highlights of the fight included:
  1. Vitus taking ten points of damage from an arrow to the knee, but making a critical Endurance check
  2. Vitus animating the camp fire as a barrier on the only stairway up to the top of the pillar, and using Fire Dance (wrack) to injure a lot of elves, setting things up nicely for (5)
  3. Crozane rolling a 100 fumble on perception, and acrobatics.
  4. Valron’s spirit casting fanaticism on various party members
  5. Secundus doing the Vordar whirlwind blender of death routine against half-a-dozen cultists
  6. Secundus using engineering to get the boat’s ballista into action
  7. Heroic leaps from the pillar down into the boat several meters below.
Talia cast her two big spells, got wounded by an arrow, treated by Florenzia. The cultists suffered heavy casualties and fled. A prisoner was interrogated and released.  The Alfandi took one of the wounded cultists and performed a blood sacrifice to regenerate MP. Lots of tension between Oliver and Ru over wearing the black glass armour and using the old sword.
The rest of the voyage to the wall was uneventful. Entering the narrow crack full of tree roots and vines you walked single file to a door marked with a sun rune. Crozane meditated to open it, fumbled, and was seen by the Sun Dragon. “I see you little worm”. After that the party entered a courtyard strong in plant life, and an androgynous plant entity appeared, which is where we ended the session.
February 13
 
Talia takes charge of the negotiations with Pinshallah, and promptly rolls a 100% fumble on her Deceit check. It was agreed that she introduced herself by her real name, not the fake Helena name of her disguise in town. The NPCs with the party took note of this for later…
Pinshallah offers hospitality (ripe fruit and clean water) which is accepted. Talia then botches again trying to figure out what Pinshallah wants.
Pinshallah offers three bargains (1) someone chooses to stay with them forever, (2) blood and magic from all present, (3) an hour of “embracing” Talia. Talia agrees to option three.
Most of the party falls asleep, except Crozane and Vitus, who rifle through the pockets of the NPCs, watering down Danton-Claude’s blade venom. Those sleeping have a few visions:
  1. A scarred Inquisitor, last seen in Runescar, being ordered to hunt the party down.
  2. Varlon’s armour causing swamp elves to flee in terror.
  3. Emnity plotting against the EMpire with the swamp elf cultists.
After everyone wakes up, Pinmshalla gifts everyone a seed of potent magic for use against Old Mother Darnash and her cultists. The sleep had also caused one luck point and 1d6 magic points to regenerate. Pinshallah also whispers to Talia, that it will take care of the children! Then the party crawl through a crack in the wall opened by Pinshalla, and make their way through a narrow root choked tunnel for a long time.
The party emerges in a round tower converted into a longdrop. Pyrias makes the Athletics check to climb up to the top with rope and grapple. He makes a critical success check as a guard comes in to use the facilities. Pyrias then carefully draws a blade while hanging on with one hand and stabs upwards … rolling a 91% with a 90% combat style. He spends his last Luck Point, and rolls a second 91%. The unsuspecting guard finishes, adjusts his tunic, and walks off, none the wiser.
Everyone else climbs up successfully, except Talia who rolls her third fumble of the evening and is now soaked in sewage.
The party buffs itself with project vision and Backlash, scouts the nearby area. Crozane, Pyrais and Secundus sneak off to deal with two guards, while everyone else waits.
While the sentries were being silenced (successful in part due to the Silence spell gifted to Crozane by the sleeping power Arth Sartha), the rest of the party failed to notice people approaching the long drop.
Mueller, the long lost Silent Legion agent walks into the long drop. After a brief moment of stunned silence, Mueller proceeds to bluff his way out again, after blaming Skulder for betraying the Empire.
The party reunites, and Crozane & Pyrias sprint for the area they presume is the Library where the Viridian book is held. The rest of the party walks more sedately (no one wants to fall off the rope and wood bridges into the mist below).  A brawn check opens the stone case surrounding the book, and it floats up in front of the party. Alarms are sounding in the distance.
A lot of Willpower checks are made … Crozane fails a Greed Passion check and asks for Power.  Crozane loses several points of Arete, tipping him below the threshold for visible corruption. I grant him a +1 POW increase, and roll for a random trait off the Luther Arkwright chart, giving him Charming. For his corruption I give him “Sunburn” – he takes damage from sunlight, and can only regenerate MP by taking damage.
Vitus then tries to set fire to the book, which fails. Party scouts see cultists cutting the bridge they entered the library by. Vitus casts witness, reads pages at random, finds a language he can read and finds the deal Emperor Constantine the Black made – sacrificing the souls of seven magi to gain a plague to fight Enmity with (so yet again the party learn another secret that could get them executed).
Anander ends up grabbing the book. Vitus resists his Passion for escalating a crisis and yields the book.
The party moves deeper into the complex, arriving at an altar complex. Crozane spots an assassin lurking in the mists nearby, someone else made the herculean perception check to see the invisible serpent coiled around the altar and the red-gold sword embedded there. The altar stone represents Father Mornanth, Mother Darnash’s cult enemy. AC suggests leaving the blade there, Varlon whispers incessantly to Secundus to take it. Secundus makes a Loyalty to Empire passion check, and fails his Hate Alfandi check.
Alfandi cultists cut the remaining bridge off the platform, which starts to shake from an earthquake spell. Secundus casts Might and draws the sword. The invisible serpent did not react.
At this point the party splits in two groups with Talia, Vitus and Florenzia taking shelter on the sturdy altar stone, and the rest of the party climbing up various vines and ropes into the mists.
Running over time at this point, I skipped on writing notes and focused on resolving two combats.
The three mages ending up fighting the serpent and the assassin. Things were looking grim, the Serpent crushed Talia’s chest to within one HP of instant death, when Vitus jammed his sword in the way (pressing the advantage). The Serpent evaded Talia’s Imprison spell. Talia then successfully haggled their escape, trading magic items and veiled insults with the Enmity assassin for their safe passage.
Oddly enough, the assassin agreed, with a smile on her lips.
The rest of the party ended up fighting a summoned Demon. Nothing like being told your opponent has 138% combat style in claw and bite to make a little adrenaline pump. To complicate matters, the demon could only be killed in by reducing it to negative base HP in the chest/head, and it automatically healed all damage every round.
Much to my surprise the party managed to pull off the required 24 points of damage (past about eight points of armour) from Secundus with a longsword, Crozane with a musket pistol, and a buffed up Anander with a True Greatsword spell. Pyrias by this time had recieved a crippling blow to the leg. One of Pinshallah’s seeds was also used against the demon, and had immobilized it, so flight might have been an option next round.
So now we have a group of wounded mages, lost in the mist. Elsewhere we have a group of mostly warriors and rogues on the roof of the great temple of the High Priestess of Old Mother Marsh, one of whom is no longer able to walk. The cultists are chanting in the distance, perhaps to summon a second demon.
Next session is going to be entertaining…

Stress Pool Mechanic

February 11, 2016

Back in November I promised a more mechanics focused article on some of the systems I was exploring. Edits since the original post are in bold.

I have read my way through a few more D100 variations, including the playtest kit for the Revolution D100 system I backed on a European crowd sourcing platform. While RD100 tries to marry the aspects/tags of Fate systems with the gritty simulation of D100, its just not quite working for me in the way its set up. I took another look at Fate, and yes its still a thing of beauty, but I still can’t quite get my head around it.

I skimmed through various powered by the Apocalypse systems, and finally kinda got it after reading a couple of blogs explaining the Dungeon World game (not DW itself though, that still had me going “huh?”). On balance, I think the attention paid to writing style, communication about play style, and adherence to fiction is what makes AW and its followers the best change in roleplaying in a very long time. The simple 2d6 die roll just doesn’t grab me (compared to the escalation mechanic in Dogs in the Vineyard which had me going “wow” once it sunk in). Reading these games makes me feel like an old curmudgeon at times, just not able to keep up with the hipsters. Its a pity I missed playing Sprawl at Christmas, that might have given me a few more clues.

I read through some finished Kickstarter deliveries for SymbaroumNumenera, and Shadows of the Demon Lord. All solid D20 games, but not quite what I am looking for. Numenera in particular stands out as a game that promises a particular style of gameplay (exploration), but builds characters good at doing something else (combat).  SOTDL I think would provide me with a better than D&D5E experience, should I ever desire a short three month D20 campaign. I glanced at 13th Age again for long enough to remind myself that something about stacking Hit Points up to high totals just makes my teeth itch and gorge rise these days. Still waiting for 13th Age in Glorantha to troll off the Kickstarter production line. For some OSR vibes I looked at Planescape – I think I would have really enjoyed that setting 25 years ago, but I never came across it in my university gaming crowd.

One takeaway I had from a binge of reading focused on mechanics for corrupting characters (hello Blue RoseCall of Cthulhu, Vow of Honor and many other titles) was that its pretty much an established conflict gauge with little scope for novelty or exploration of new boundaries for moral choices.  I did try playing around with more of three-pointed triangle gauge, but it just felt a bit too complex. This led me to the idea of corruption as a shared party element. Something that all the characters (and players) have a stake in. More on that in a bit (see Husk below).

I looked at Pendragon again, and thought, what if I treated magical power the same way Pendragon treats Glory. Something you gain in big lumps, +50, +200, +500, etc. Then when you cross a threshold, say 10,000, you ascend to a new tier of magical power. Still thinking about whether this is just a recolour of experience points, or whether it is both permanent XP and a one use resource for game stuff.

At Kapcon I got to run a couple of dice pool game systems. The Paranoia system was pretty simple (Roll stat + skill D6 + computer D6, 5+ is a success, a 1 on the computer die is a fumble) and lots of fun in play. I also ran a fantasy hack of the Cortex Plus system from Firefly. This was slow – too much time was spent assembling the dice pool. I also looked at FFG’s Edge of Empire, where the unique dice are pretty, but my brain gets tired trying to read the results – definitely a dice pool system where you want a computer application to eliminate all the success/failure ties for you.

I read The Clay that Woke by Paul Czege. Its an evocative setting, playing Minotaur servants in a crumbling city run by decadent humans. While I grasped the broad thrust of slef dsicipline versus giving in to anger, the actual mechanics were fiddly enough to make me skip forward to the story fluff. The Gaean Reach has been a teenage flashback guilty pleasure, an rpg based on Jack Vance’s Demon Prince books. If I ever want to run a vengeance focused game, I’ll be looking at this again.

Among a huge pile of Bundle of Holding stuff a couple of titles have stood out over the last six months: Spears of the Dawn (a game set in a fantasy Africa), The Books of Days/Gates/Law (a D&D 3.0 fantasy Egypt, which had me salivating for sand and Pyramids).

In my to read soon pile are: Mindjammer, Colonial Gothic, Blood Red Sands, Urban Shadows, Starfare, Nefertiti Overdrive, Cold Steel Wardens,  Witch, and Starvation Cheap.

The Husk of the Broken God

But I should get back to actual mechanics. Lets start by assuming this is done with some form of roll-under-skill D100 system with doubles (33, 44, 55, etc) as special success (or failure with consequences if > skill).

Going back to the shared conflict gauge for the party. My central idea is that the party are all connected to a fragment of a dead God. I refer to it as the Husk for short. The Husk is like a mana battery and a spell book. It gives the PCs “moves” that are not available to ordinary mortals, it can help fuel their magic, and attempt high risk actions. The more you tap on the slumbering Husk, the greater the risk of arousing and empowering the fragment, to the point where it attempts to take over one of the PCs. So its “corruption” but with a “tragedy of the commons” element. Even if your PC is pure and honourable, if the other PCs keep calling on the power of the dead God, your PC could be the one who gets hit by the possession attempt.

Mechanically it could work like this:

  1. The Husk has a pool of D10s. Green D10s for “sleeping power” and Red D10s for “roused power”.
  2. A player can take one or more D10s when making a skill check. This is done on a “Ask for forgiveness, not for permission” basis.
    1. To discourage the first player from grabbing all of the available dice, the GM can assemble a failure with consequences roll from the dice used. For example if a player with 50% skill rolls a 53% with their inherent skill check, and gets results of 40, 60, 7 and 6 on the four Husk dice, then they can build a success (43%) but the GM can also build a special failure (66%).
  3. Green D10s generate an extra singles die – increasing the chance of a special success. If you get a special success using a Green die, convert the Green D10 into a Red D10.
  4. Green D10s are exhausted when used, refresh at the end of the scene (but see 6 below) or if a PC makes some kind of in-fiction appropriate attempt to subdue or control the Husk.
  5. Red D10s generate an extra tens die – increasing both overall success and special success odds.
  6. If you get a special success using a Red die, convert a fresh Green D10 into a Red D10. If no fresh Green D10s are available, convert an exhausted one. If all the dice are now Red this triggers something like a possession or manifestation of the dead God.
  7. Red dice are not exhausted when used.
  8. For each die you grab for your skill check, reduce the power cost of special ability use by one.

Needs playtesting and polish, but its a work in progress.

The Stress Pool

Now to my idea of a Stress Pool. This idea came to me when I was thinking about fatigue systems. RD100 has a book-keeping heavy one that requires you to track at least two gauges (stamina and strike rank), and trying to get players to accurately track penalties for their characters is a hard ask. So here is my Stress Pool idea:

  1. For each beat in the scene, add a stress marker into a pool shared by all the PCs.
  2. A player can try to reduce stress by blowing an action on an appropriate in-fiction move (e.g. in a battle they might remove their helmet to get fresh air, in a salon they might withdraw from debate to grab another drink).
  3. A player can also exploit stress in a risky move – with player/GM agreement on what is at stake if things go wrong.
  4. For each stress marker used the player rolls a penalty D10 as a Disadvantage – both increasing their chance of failure, and of failure with consequences. Alternately, a player can ask for pain – with each stress marker being a damage roll against them (use the highest die rolled, rather than combining all of them I think)
  5. Stressful failure is worth XP (the reward for success in a scene/episode is Power, which unlocks new abilities, XP improves your skill at using those abilities) with the XP gain being equal to the number of penalty dice used. If you use two stress dice in one scene and three stress dice in another scene, that is +3 XP not +5 XP.
  6. Should the Stress Pool reach 10, the GM has freedom to impose something “interesting” on the party, resetting the Stress pool to zero (or half?).

Tone could vary a lot – stress failure could result in blood and pain, or it could be more in the nature of picaresque comedy or slapstick humor. As a shared resource though, the players are all in competition for the XP reward. Needs playtesting and polish, but it would let me side step all those annoying fatigue systems by simply having the players invoke it in game fiction when they justify why stress is hitting them.

Now I wonder if anyone else has done anything quite like this? Its been another week of “snap”, with that idea I had for building an ancient Alexandria-like adventure city with the name Iskandar, well John Wick had the same idea for his 7th Sea kickstarter. I have also been ruminating about a setting focus of just-before-the-fall Golden Age like Atlantis/Numenor, and look what turned up on Indiegogo this week: Chariot: Roleplaying in an Age of Miracles. Not that I would ever quite want to go down the new age crystal road this journey is taking with my own design, but its another example of ideas being cheap, finished product being hard work.

Next post, I’ll try fleshing out some more setting focused ideas on Halflings.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 322 other followers