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.


Tarantium Campaign Session Notes

January 9, 2016

Missed many sessions of notes. The TLDR for August-October

  • the party is posing as a business syndicate, trying to find two missing Imperial agents
  • they are in the town of Aldarsh – a liberated star fort town, with an atmosphere like the American South during reconstruction after the civil war
  • to the east are mountains and the war, to the south dark forests, to the north a mist shrouded swamp, inhabited by redneck elves
  • after accumulating a lot of breadcrumbs they ended up at a local ball, where the gentry are keeping up pretenses
  • after which they had a job from a local noble family to clear some goblins out of mine, and deal to an old demon the Lord had bargained
  • the goblins were like war boys from Mad Max Fury Road
  • the demon was defeated, with two PCs down and bleeding, with the help of an Eclipse Demon, which resurrected Vitus (who had been KIA).

21 November session

 

Swimming in a pool of corrupted blood that a demon used to call home was never a good idea. So while the party found a bronze chest, swimming around in the muck led to Talia becoming very sick.

The chest was filled with Goblin lead coins, and a red crystal shaped like a mastery rune (the party never found out what it did). Crozane triggered the loot’s curse (this time it was just “all this stuff belongs to you now” rather than a “collect everything in the world”).

Party decides against exploring the sealed vault.

Secundus’ Might spell came in handy, for carrying the chest of lead coins, and Talia once she passed out.

The party was chased by a Gorp through the tunnels. After a few Endurance checks and fatigue points, Pyrias decided to knock Crozane out (a familiar pattern) and the party dumped both the lead coins and the red crystal (figuring it was drawing the Gorp to them).

Mechanics is not a strong skill in the party, but after several failures a 01% was rolled to activate the elevator mechanism (I ruled that the Gorp just missed the party and fell into the elevator shaft).

Leaving the mines, the party meets Rosander, their guide, as the sun starts to set outside. Choice to take shelter or push on. Party chose to push on. First aid checks are not much help when someone is unconscious and dying from disease. Discussion with players, everyone believes the Goblins will move out of the mine.

Encounter with an archaic knight in old style plate armour and horse in barding. Party declines the opportunity for chivalric combat, and the knight offers to help the damsel. Talia ends up being transported to a hag’s cave, where she is cured. Talia decides it’s a good idea to avoid debt, and gifts a spirit charm to the hag.

Back with the Maxlaces, party get their pledged POW back, along with the 15% income share, apartment and library access. They also get some explanation of what has happened – David used the Demon’s power to resist aging and cloud memories of people.

Kayla and the dance of the seven critical fails. Pyrias gives Kayla the Demon heart, and she uses it to restore her damaged eye. Pyrias resists a seduction attempt.

Vitus and Florenzia, interesting revelation about a strain of disease that ages people and creates a crystal substance in their body that can be harvested for MP regeneration.

  • XP was too low, everyone can have +3 XP.
  • Which breadcrumb do you want to pursue next? I would like to try and focus a bit more in getting the party to the interesting conflict/challenge, although if you want to just keep going to balls and flirting with the locals, that is fine.

5 December session

I will try and be a bit better about writing up the notes. Pester me for them if I don’t do them by the end of the weekend the session happened in.
  • Vitus explores the restorative properties of mana crystals harvested from dead bodies and discovers laudanum. And spends time getting to know Matron Florenzia intimately.
  • Talia needs blood, so plays music in the various establishments of Aldarsh, until she scores a forgettable one night stand with a barkeeper.
  • Secundus writes a good letter home to his wife Stitch.
  • Pryrias is (late to gaming) recovering from wounds inflicted by the demon.
  • Crozane runs errands, and receives von Schenk’s politely worded decline of their tender for bridge building at Foulbridge.
Leeching earth (Willpower) checks are made for loss/recovery of MP. Vitus gets a critical success and dreams of a black eclipse burning away the fogs of the swamp, revealing sunken stepped pyramids, in the depths of one is the husk of a dead fire god.  Secundus gets a 100% fumble, loses three Arete, and dreams of being a were-bear whose claws cause people to wither and die.
Extensive discussion of all the potential quests, side-quests, and other diversions. Pyrias pushes the party towards a get-rich scheme involving building a road through the Griefswald (cost estimate by Engineer Secundus 30,000 silver), hiring slave labour and then somehow getting the food to feed them while they mine salt. This of course is just a cover operation for hunting down the Black Shuck, whom Pyrias opines, was responsible for killing Mueller and Skulder. Pyrias goes to the drop, and starts setting up a front of house for the syndicate back in Tarantium.
Crozane spends close to a full day observing von Schenk’s offices. They occupy a sturdy three story building. While rooftop access is possible, the place is guarded, with a big dog. Crozane;s Stealth check of 30% beats the Guard’s Perception check of 28%. Returning home after being up all night, Crozane finds a poor freedman who has been beaten to death (I am checking every time you wander off by yourselves to see if you get mugged). Crozane does the right thing, and reports the occurrence to the authorities, without getting arrested or accused of vile things.
Vitus uses Project Vision + Witchsight to try and hunt for disease spirits in Aldarsh, without success.
Talia finds that there are only two books in the library she can read unassisted. A book on theater makeup (potential skill increase for Disguise) and a book on instructing young ladies in etiquette (potential skill increase for Teach). Some discussion at the table about wanting to open more language skills, and how that will take a lot of time. Talia “accidentally” leaves her ritual study notes lying around for Kyla Maxlace to discover.
Pyrias finally gets to the delayed lunch with Anander Rotrant. Pyrias rolls a 28 for a Deceit check against Anader’s Insight check of 29%, so he fails to fool her about being just an innocent businessman, even with his gambit of gainful employment as a factor the Sapphire Sword Syndicate. Strangely enough, when Pyrias pushes for the truth about her, she tells him straight up that the family is cursed by a demon in the swamps, but what she wants is painkillers for her mother’s illness.
My notes are a bit sparse here, but the party went to dinner at the decaying/subsiding Rotrant mansion. On the way they passed a Sobeki camp by the river. Think sentient crocodiles with banjos and very little clothing in the heat.
Painkillers were handed over for Anander’s mother. Turtle soup was served for dinner, and the party agreed to go into the swamp and hunt and kill the demon (“Old Mother”) that cursed the family.Or more specifically, had the bargain about the necessary sacrifice go out of kilter a couple of generations back (a 01% on the Influence check means the party got a lot of the family history) and Anander has pledged to go into the swamp and kill the demon or die trying, rather than have the burden fall on another generation. Anander is going, as will the party hireling Mitch Mitchson Junior (boat handler, trusty guide) and Florenzia also volunteers (so the party has a dedicated healer for once). Anander also drank everyone under the table.
On the way home, you noticed everyone at the Sobeki camp had machetes and falchions covered in blood. Given your evil hangovers, further exploration of the camp was passed on.
So the next session will have a bit of an Apocalypse Now feel to it, into the swamp/heart of darkness to hunt a demon. First stop, the Alfandi (swamp elf) village, where the fact that Secundus is a traditional Vordar enemy may be a problem.

19 December session

Shopping

Your local guide, Mitch, advised you of suitable gifts for the Alfandi river trade clan, and of the options for boats to take into the swamp.

You hired an undine powered boat from a couple of Vargr devotees (Ivan and Natashya) of the Cult of Danu the Pirate Queen, for 1200 silvers (including a 200 silver penalty for the ‘bad luck’ Vordar). The boat is called the Tsarina Suka. Two cabins and some storage below, but most of you will be sleeping on deck.

Some time was spent shopping for a few more gifts: Pyrias rolled a 01% critical success to find three Smith & Winifred pistols, ex-military surplus, built by the lowest bidding contractor. Crozane found Moon Snake Elixir, a proven remedy for all varieties of swamp fever. Secundus passed on the offer of some brightly coloured song birds. Talia started a long streak of unlucky dice rolls for this session and found nothing in the markets.

Pyrias managed a critical success on his repair attempt for a rapier.

Alfandi Village

Into the swamp, first stop the floating platforms and treetop dwellings of the River trade clan. Shrouded in mist, sticky with humidity. It is as fortified as a place built from twigs and string can be, and the locals have a feral look to them, with spears and bows ready to hand. Clothing is a mix of functional and gaudy – anyone with wealth wears it as bling. The River Queen’s dwelling is the most substantial of the lot, with a large enough ceremonial area for about 100 people, and some smaller private rooms. Underneath that is a set of wooden cages, the largest of which has a big crocodile in it.

While the party is initially greeted warmly by Prince Danton-Claude (DC) – intimately so in the case of Mitch – things take a serious turn when Secundus the Vordar is revealed. Secundus is stripped, bound, hooded, and marched off to be placed in a water filled cave. Ancient history leaves the Alfandi prejudiced about Vordar. So the negotiations are both for toleration of Secundus and guides to escort you deeper into the swamps. DC is buff, handsome, and friendly. Possibly too friendly.

Some slight eye-popping when I made the initial influence check Herculean, but the locals are very suspicious of anyone bringing one of the murderous Vordar into their village. Gifts help, as do an explanation of the party’s reason for the swamp voyage – to kill the “Demon” Darnash – and the offer of three pistols and firepowder, plus five crates of steel weapons from Anander Rotrant, clinches the deal. A twist revelation – the Alfandi state that Darnash is in fact a sleeping power, so a bit more than just a demon. At some stage you should really talk to Anander about exactly what her family’s relationship with Darnash is.

I was trying to portray the Queen as an elven version of Jabba the Hutt. Old, obese, cunning and greedy. Her bodyguard (Tijean) is a giant of an elf with a long spear who never speaks.

While most of the party was negotiating, Secundus got an interrogation from what turned out to be the Queen’s daughter Anne-Collette (AC). Unlike the other Alfandi, AC has blue eyes, not brown/black. AC is lithe, long-haired and suspicious. Secundus had mixed success on his Deceit checks, so you can be sure that AC thinks there is more to this Sapphire Sword Syndicate, than just another group of greedy adventurers.

Note – the clans deeper into the swamp will not be so flexible about the presence of a Vordar. You should anticipate extreme reactions.

Carousing

With success in the negotiations, a celebration is held. The Queen has promised an escort of guides with the skills and experience needed to get the party alive to the old mound in the centre of the swamp, where Old Mother Marnash, the immortal Dreaming Hunger, can be found, along with her mortal cult, dire crocodiles, sting wings, and the legendary Rangarou monster.

Pyrias spends the party largely in close company to the Queen, sitting on the same comfy divan as her. In private conversation, the old Queen points out that while any of her children can attempt the trials to become clan leader after her, only one of them can come home again afterwards.

Secundus spends most of the evening with the Queen’s flabby legs resting on his body.

Anander repeats her past feat with a new drinking contest with the Alfandi.

Crozane’s blonde hair goes down well with the dark haired Alfandi, and a critical success in party mode has several women competing for his attention. DC spends some time flirting with various characters, and Crozane reciprocates, spending a Luck Point on a Deceit check (leading to the question “…but did I want to fail?”).

Vitus mostly dances with Florenzia. Florenzia thinks DC is creepy. QOTD was “but can he dissect a child?”

Talia ends up in private conversation with AC over a bottle of Ildresh (the local equivalent of Purple Death), but mutual suspicion prevents any useful exchange of occult information or potential friendship. As has become usual, Talia ends up watching everyone else have a good time, sleeping on the deck of the boat alone.

Based on the sum of the conversations, the Alfandi are not especially trustworthy, are still holding onto a lot of information, and there is a power play in progress between  AC and DC for the succession to clan leadership.

For a change with dream visions on failed leeching earth checks, I got you to start with the descriptions. I will be doing more of this as you get deeper into the swamps. Pyrias dreamed of Miranda, and dark tunnels, so I added tentacles. Crozane dreamed of the deep swamp, and AC and DC standing together, so I asked which of them stabbed the other first, and he chose AC. Whether this has any real prophetic meaning is yet to be revealed.

Departure

The clan blesses some idols, using blood supplied by Secundus (-1 HP to left arm). The idols closely resemble something from a bad dream Talia had a few sessions back.

9 January Session

Greetings
1) Next session date is planned for 30 January.
2) We assume the pair of sunglasses here is Dutton’s
Into the swamp…
We start with a discussion about how to kill a sleeping power. The party seems to be short on mythic resources, having disposed of several potentially embarrassing relics in the past.
A lot of math is done, calculating Banishment. Even with augmentation and a one hour ritual cast, its probably not going to do much more than irritate a 100+ POW behemoth.
Pyrias makes a Forbidden Lore check. What the party needs is a force multiplier, or to find a vulnerability.
Some discussion about which of the two Alfandi heirs to support: conservative Anne-Collette (AC) or open-minded Danton-Cluade (DC). Some wiggle room in the phrase “only one will return”. Death, exile, imprisonment are all valid options for the loser in this little game of thrones.
Pyrias has a conversation with Anander Rotrant (AR) about what exactly has the party got itself into. AR tells Pyrias that the oath for the deal the family made is in the Viridian Book. Burn it and the oath is negated. Or take the book and take the power.
Talia tries to get information and help from AC to make protective charms and botches with a 99%. AC tells Talia the campsites are warded and that there is a side-entrance to the sunken ruins where the mound of Old Mother Darnash lies.
The campsite
Some dry ground surrounded by trees and tall totem poles. Someone makes a successful Forbidden Lore check and is pretty sure the totem poles are representative of various local sleeping powers. The serpent form of Darnash is clear, as is the demonic toad form of another power. The remaining two are unclear.
Pyrias and DC go collecting firewood. In the east is a zone of dead trees. DC says it is a forbidden place for the Alfandi, but not necessarily forbidden for outsiders. Back at Camp AC pretty much says anyone who goes that way is an idiot. After warding the camp, however, she does, paint everyone with protective runes.
So the party heads off to the east, hoping to be back before the sun has fully set.
The dark tower
 
The tower lies partially submerged, the nearby land is filled with dead foliage. The stone is black, and the crenelations are less battlements, and more spikes. Secundus can hear a voice whispering inaudibly from the tower. The party is ready to advance back to camp when AR notes that the tower is of a make similar to Vordar ruins in the woods south of Aldarsh. Secundus fails a Willpower check, and the door to the tower slides open at his approach.
The entrance vestibule has a lot of chains and manacles, a slime covered floor, and two sealed pneumatic tubes along the back wall. Talia finds a rune matrix on the back wall, figures out the controls for opening the tubes, and invests the MP to start them running.
Pyrias and Secundus go down one of the tubes. “If we’re not back in 30 minutes … wait longer.”
The basement is half-flooded, and features an empty cage, a rack of surgery/interrogation instruments made from bronze and obsidian, and a rack, on which rests a skeleton wrapped in chains, with an old fashioned long sword thrust through its rib cage.
The room is explored, with the only serious drama occuring when Secundus pickes up the long sword, and Pyrias puts a blade to his neck and asks him for “the magic word” (the players are getting used to possession attempts by spirits when the loot old relics). After some stumbling Secundus recalls it (the name of another sleeping power the party has encountered in the past). Secundus can read the ancient Vordar runes on the blade, which spell “Varlon”.
Vitus grabs some of the instruments as presents for Florenzia, who stayed back at camp. Concealed in the water, Secundus finds a set of plate mail made from black glass. People suspect, but are unable to confirm any enchantments. The helm has been made to resemble a toad … somewhat like one of the totem poles back at the camp site. The straps have rotted away, but the glass armour is otherwise intact.
The party ventures up to the roof level of the tower. Here they found a room filled with piles of bones, a roof with a lattice grid of thick bronze bars … except where the bars have ripped apart by some potent strength. Sitting on the floor in front of them is a pile of coins and objects. The situation pretty much screams “It’s a trap!”. Usually Crozane would be the person who triggers the encounter, but as that player is away this session, Pyrias steps over and picks up a glass cube, that fits on the palm of the hand, and contains liquid and a small air bubble. It has no obvious opening.
Using big 32mm dice to track Luck Points.
A red Bayakhee model from Cthulhu Wars to represent the monster.
Fight!
 
The Child of Rangarou (CoR) attacks. It is a giant, feathered crocodile, with vestigial wings. It attacks in a burst of potent speed, sweeping a maelstrom of bone fragments through the air.
<Stats were as for a zombie Wyvern, 3 Actions, 87% combat skill, D12+2d6 damage, poison, disease, 7 AP per location, 11-13 HP per location, chest/head hit required to kill. I had considered giving it a combat skill of ~120% but decided this would be too lethal if the party was divided and failed a Willpower check>
Four characters are present at this point, Crozane and AR are down below (AR had equipped a set of custom plate armour and a greatsword and waded through the swamp with the party) and will take 2-3 full rounds to get to the top level.
The players all make the necessary Willpower checks to avoid being intimidated (which would cost them a full round of combat actions).
Round One: First Actions
Pyrias makes an oratory check to give other characters a +08% augmentation on the Willpower checks.
CoR attacks Vitus, who is holding the lantern. Rolls 30% versus an Evade of 50%. Some discussion, Vitus should have the Daredevil trait, so is not prone.
Talia starts casting Backlash.
Secundus hits with Varlon’s Blade, but fails to penetrate. The Blade starts glowing (the spirit bound into the sword has cast Pierce). I ruled the Longsword was broadly similar to a rapier, so only one difficulty level to use with the rapier focused combat style.
Vitus starts casting Fire Dance.
Round One: Second Actions
Pyrias misses.
CoR hits Vitus, who fails to evade, and spends a Luck Point (LP) to avoid losing the arm from 13 points of damage. With its long jaws clamped around V’s arm, the CoR extends a proboscis from within its mouth deep into the wounded flesh. CoR rolls a 07% Critical, so V spends a LP to force a reroll it into an ordinary hit. Seven damage requires another LP to keep the arm intact (and V is now out of LP and Actions). Some Endurance checks are failed and V is now suffering from a debilitating poison (tasks involving the arm are +2 difficulty grades) and a necrotic disease (-1 STR per hour).
The lantern V was holding drops on the floor, but does not go out.
Talia casts Backlash on Pyrias and herself.
Secundus hits with a critical success (and CoR is not defending itself) and does maximum damage, bypassing armour, to the chest. That drops the CoR to 0 HP in the chest, but -13 is required to knock it out. Varlon’s Blade glows again as the spirit casts Bladesharp.
Round One: Third Actions
Pyrias attacks, misses, uses a LP to reroll … hits … fails to penetrate armour.
CoR utterly smashes the lantern, plunging the room into darkness. Secundus has nightsight, so is unimpeded, everyone else is struggling to see the beast.
Talia casts Sense Blood … but the CoR is undead and has no blood … except for V’s blood on its jaws!
Secundus hits, and is now rolling 1d12+1d4 ignoring two points of armour (this is about the most buffed anyone has ever been in the party on folk magic).
Round One: Fourth Action
Pyrias attacks, hits, and impales his rapier. But the CoR is too big (SIZ 35) for it to have any great effect.
Round Two: First Action
Everyone makes their Willpower checks.
Pyrias tries to draw his blade out, and fails.
CoR attacks Secundus, attack 55% to evade 37%, and does 17 points of damage to a leg, which reduces it to -3 HP after armour. Secundus uses a LP to mitigate it to a minor wound (House Rule) so the leg stays on 1 HP.
Talia attacks, 05% critical hit, target chest, bypass armour, and the foul beast is slain!
A healing potion is used to stabilise Vitus, but he needs some serious after hours emergency care. Luckily there is a trained nurse back at camp.
 
Inventory and Redistribution
  •   13 Jade coins, strung together with copper wire through a central hole, the coins are decorated in forbidden glyphs from before the dawn, and can be determined to be magic (Vitus with mystic hearing, the coins are screaming in fear): AC later claims these are coins which ensure passage to the other side (death) and back again.

  • 1,242 Bronze coins, green with age (value is uncertain)

  • 1 Blue Sapphire ~1,200 silvers, 1 smaller Blue Sapphire ~1,100 silvers, Alexandrite ~500 silver, Carnelian ~20 silver, Chrysophase ~40 silver, Hematite ~12 silvers (approximate values)

  • A hexagonal tile, made from gold, and enchanted as a Sentry Warding. (Vitus – it sounds like it is drawing a breath in).

  • A Bone Scroll case, containing a scroll written in an unknown tongue.

  • 81 modern silver coins of the Lunar Realms

  • A vibrating dagger (magic hum/flicker) – the party assumed Crozane was appropriating this

  • A small obsidian state of a frog with claws, dominating a writhing serpent. The base contains ancient pre-dawn runes.

  • A square cube of a glass like material, that contains a clear liquid, and a small air bubble.

  • An artists book, half filled with sketches of swamp creatures, and annotations in a Silent Legion cypher (will take several days to completely decode). Author’s name was just M.

Back at camp
 
Florenzia performs first aid, then surgery, with the help of the Moon Snake Oil Crozane purchased earlier. A 07% critical success means that Vitus is not going to be losing an arm, and the progress of the disease has been stopped (only -2 STR lost). The poison is still in the blood (for another five days).
AC tells the party they should take all that treasure and throw it back in the swamp. Both she and DC are horrified that the party has fought a CoR, because its mother hunts the swamp for Alfandi who break tribal taboos, and the child is part of pale shadow of the terror that is the mother. Note: you may wish to read the entry for the Terrifying trait in the creature section of the RQ rules.
Dreams
 
Inside the wards, with the blessing from AC, most people sleep peacefully.
Vitus, however, dreams that he is escaping a massacre. Alfandi cultists attacking a camp similar to this one, at night. I give Vitus the choice of a companion, and he chooses Pyrias to be fleeing the massacre with him.
The scene replays, back to the beginning, over and over again. I ask Vitus who the betrayer is, and he chooses Crozane.
Secundus gets a dream conversation with the haunting spirit bound into the blade. Varlon warns him against trusting the Alfandi. Standing at the dream crossroads, Secundus makes a bargain for training and opens the Vordar Longsword combat style at a level equal to his current best combat style.
This costs him one permanent POW (which reduces his LP by one, so is quite the painful sacrifice) and he acquires the Hate Alfandi passion at 86% (Varlon has been brooding for about eight centuries, honing his hatred of Alfandi). In certain circumstances he can augment with Varlon’s skills and passions for ~20% bonus. So that means his combat style can get over the 100% threshold.
“Seek the sword of Red and Gold” is the last of Varlon’s whispered advice as the sun rises.
The next day
Pyrias is a bit miffed that Secundus has been making pacts with ancient spirits without permission. Now there is a bit of discussion about whether or not Secundus should be allowed to put the old Vordar glass armour on (its clearly enchanted, a hammer blow does not shatter it). The Alfandi with the party, however, are now clearly terrified of Secundus, so Pyrias is worried they might do something dangerous and desperate if provoked further.
Pyrias has a quiet chat with Talia in the morning. He has decoded part of the message in the artbook. It started with “The Alfandi are not to be trusted” and went downhill into gibberish, conspiracy theory, tales of cannibalism, and the exaltation of Darnash. Its time to try and sound out their Alfandi allies a bit more.
Talia tries once again to have a conversation with AC, while Pyrias has a chat with DC. Talia blows the Influence check for a third time. AC drops hints that the Guardian of the side entrance will be interested in Talia.
DC is a lot more forthcoming, but also more probing of the party’s motivations, and is surprised when Pyrias appears uninterested in the location of the cult treasury with enough gold for 100 lifetimes.
At midday the boat crosses a spirit barrier, for which AC performs a ritual for everyone but Secundus, costing a MP so that the party can cross unobserved. Secundus spends a LP to make the willpower check when crossing the barrier.
Pyrias tries chatting with AC and gets a few more cryptic hints (and my notes are not as clear as they could be, I hope you guys remember what I said).
Towards the end of the day, a new campsite is reached. This time its a stone pillar rising out of the mire, with carved steps up. Surrounding it are four ancient trees, carved into the now familiar totem shapes (and Vitus recognises the scene of the massacre in his dreams). While AC can ward the platform, she refuses to allow Secundus into the sacred space. The boat crew are also reluctant to leave their boat, and one of their children has fallen sick.
Despite all the horrors encountered so far, the first time Pyrias squirms, is when someone suggests Florenzia is good with children.
…and that is where we ended, with the Sun setting in the distance.

LCR Gaming Memories

December 16, 2015

My family warned me of the dangers of the student union building, but while they imagined the ancient perils of alcohol and billiards as threats to my academic performance, it was the gaming and social networks of the LCR that changed my life forever.

So with the Student Union building at Canterbury being slated for destruction, I thought I would do a gaming related post about that building and its memories. I invite other people to also share their gaming memories of the LCR in the comments below. Go on, tell us about that time you rolled a six to take Kamchatka…

In my first year, 1989, I remember turning the corner into the Student Union building into that small cramped corridor with the SF club, the fantasy gaming club, and KAOS. All three were to play a major part in my life.

The membership of all three clubs overlapped like a Venn diagram, and the resulting social network had as its major hub of day to day operations, the Lower Common Room (or just the LCR).

There was always a card game going, or in the offering. So I learnt to play 500, Black Bitch, and Scum. When Magic the Gathering came out I played it “casually” for “a while” and then realised I had lost about two months of my life. So I sold my cards for more than I paid for them. After that I largely avoided the lure of the collectible card game genre.

The flexible scheduling of student life made casual boardgaming feasible (for the serious monster boardgaming, there was Wednesday/Friday nights playing War in Europe at the Christchurch Wargaming Society’s premises downtown). The gaming club had a battered library of games any member could play (if they could track down someone with the cupboard key). If someone had to go to a lecture, you could nearly always find another player to

In particular I remember Kings & ThingsWar at Sea, the 13 hour game of Gammarauders, and that time playing Junta where I assassinated two ministers in one round, and banked 2/3 of the game’s currency into my Secret Swiss Bank Account the same move. After that it was several years before anyone would let me be Intelligence Minister again. Off campus there was that Diplomacy game where I held onto one supply centre as Austria-Hungry for six years. Six years! And then I retook Budapest in the last turn of the game.

The games library was good for poor students, and let us try a lot of games we could not otherwise afford. New Zealand being on the end of the distribution chain, games were always hard to source and expensive, and it was not uncommon for there to only be one or two copies in the country of a good but out of print game.

The KAOS game used its game of paranoia and backstabbing to recruit people for parties, which only sometimes featured backstabbing and paranoia, but always had drinking and The Sisters of Mercy. Given that I was club President (“Dictator”) for a year in 1993, it had a pretty big effect on my life. As being Dictator got me involved in student politics (rolling the Clubs Officer unintentionally after a dispute over noticeboards because I read the UCSA Constitution like it was a set of rules for a wargame. Sorry about that Peter.), which got me into running for Exec (while I was in Austria that August), where $10 worth of photocopied posters put up by Wombat got me onto Exec by 10 votes. I just beat my friend Craig, who later thanked me eternally, as in 1994 the UCSA Executive set new records for dysfunctionality in student politics. It was the kind of year where you cried so much, that looking back in later years you can only laugh at the stupidity and futility of it all. So that disaster led me to switching Universities and converting from a B- student into an A+ student, knocking out a Masters degree, and then back to Canterbury to do a PhD.

The gaming club was where the roleplaying games took place, and the club generally ran Tuesday and Thursday nights in one of the common rooms from 7-11pm, but in practice you could start gaming from mid-morning. The LCR was a common venue, as it was big and could hold a lot of people, and emant you did not have to move very far if you had already spent all day skipping your lectures in “KAOS corner”.

1989-1994

In think in my first year I played in an AD&D game run by Ben Vidgen, dealing with the Grey Crow menace. Ben later sued me over my use of the phrase “not guilty due to natural incompetence” to describe his handling of finances while Dictator, in a history of KAOS article for CANTA, the student newspaper. The UCSA helped out on the legal side, and a portfolio of evidence of incompetence was assembled and despatched to Ben’s lawyers and we never heard back about it. I still have the portfolio in a box in the dungeon. Ben later went on to join the tinfoil hat brigade as a publisher of unsubstantiated conspiracy theories.

There was an epic Call of Cthulhu campaign with one of the guys behind the New Church of the Great Old Ones as GM (“It was awful” said a witness, S. D. Murophy). This was in the first year I went flatting, the year of the coup attempt in Russia (TV footage of that screened on the evening news a few minutes after my flatmate finished talking up her essay on how there could not be a coup in Russia. She cried but still got an A for good argument). That year I had a peak commitment of six games on six different nights. On the seventh night my tired body would collapse into bed at 6pm, so after a few weeks I quit a couple of the other games. You only get to have one first game of Call of Cthulhu, where the mythos is new and scary, and not something used to huck plush toys and t-shirts. My poor professor of ancient astronomy managed to get the lucky crit when tied to a gurney in an ambulance with a ghoul nurse leaning over him with a syringe.

There were some shorter games: DragonQuest with Stephen Rennell and Blitz the Dwarf. Who retired to be a toymaker after that unfortunate encounter with a “pig” in the dark, which turned out to be some giant cave Troll. My tactical advice to pursue before it regenerates was extremely misplaced.

There was a cameo as a priest in the Seven Paladin’s game run by Fitz. Some GMs are tough but fair, Fitz was tougher. It was the first D&D game I played in, where the players would spend three hours debating the ethics of their proposed course of action, and then would do a frontal assault against overwhelming odds. Remember, that talk was all about ethics, not tactics.

But the big game of my undergraduate days was Richard Bool’s epic multi-year Mega-Traveller campaign with up to a dozen players on the same ship. I played Vargr and charisma games, acting like I was Captain when I was only 3rd Engineer. The number of players meant things often bogged down, consensus was difficult to get, and every now and then the party had a meltdown and an internal bloodletting. I have to confess, that in hindsight, point a Light Assault Gun at the cockpit window, and asking for the microphone to tell the Imperial Navy patrol that “We were there to loot the ships in their orbital cemetery” was not a brilliant move on my part. Cue boarding action, arrests, and the three-way fight in the jail cell over apportioning blame for that escapade.

There was a game of HERO in a Traveller/Star Wars mash-up with Stephen Rennell as GM, where I played a Vargr called Rex, and learned lessons about the perils of advantage/disadvantage character building systems.

Carl de Visser’s Vampire game, playing young vampires terrified their ancient sire was going to wake up and eat them. That was before VtM hit New Zealand, so when VtM did arrived I looked at it and yawned. I had already seen the best ideas of the setting, and the system was confusing at best.

Then there was that weird experimental game where everyone was a set of memories in a virtual reality, ran by the lead singer of Niobe Wept. Looking back I can see how that game taught a lot of people the importance of story over system.

The Campaigns I ran were limited:

  • a short-lived GURPS Illuminati in Bentley’s (highlight, the player who found a jelly dish in a science lab, and ate some of the toxic bacteria it contained), illustrated the difficulty of trying to escalate the weird dial in a continuing campaign (in much the same way RAW’s Illuminatus trilogy fell flat in the third volume).
  • WHFRP 1st edition for a year on Friday nights at the CWS clubrooms (and then I discovered that Friday nights were better spent at parties)
  • A SF homebrew game using a 2d10 mechanic, where the players were defending a planet attacked by aliens, which demonstrated to me that designing a good system was harder than it looked
  • I tried Harnmaster, but it’s the expensive high detail low fantasy middle ages game no one plays

LARPing

After reading about Australian Freeforms in the Breakout magazine, I had a go at running LARPs, mostly on the Saturday nights of wargaming conventions. Three highlights from these terrible, awful attempts on my part at plot and characters for thirty people:

  • Stephen Hoare asking me if there really were Dragons in the game, as I had doodled a “Here Be Dragons” on the game map. I said “Maybe”, and Stephen went off and started telling people that not only were the Dragons real, but he controlled them. Every time someone tried to confirm this I just said “I can neither confirm nor deny the presence of Dragons along the Kingdom’s border…”
  • The Space Station Casablanca game, where everyone was trying to get exit visas before the Galactic Jihad arrived. The game ended with only two people on board the Shuttle, the pilots were dead, and the Shuttle was sabotaged.
  • Running an Ankh-Morpork game and getting Terry Pratchett to sign a copy of the game rules.

Housewar

I also ran a SF play-by-mail wagame called Housewar. The map had wormholes and planetary systems, with small empires ruled by noble families of telepaths. I ran three versions of the game from 1992-1994. I also experimented in running my own commercial PBM game as an alternative to unemployment, and quickly determined that starvation was likely. This was because I was hand moderating each turn, which was insanely intensive use of time, double checking all the results and adjusting for errors. “Whoops, misread a rule, gotta reroll 186 dice”.

Lesson learned: if you give players nukes, they will use them. Its incredibly hard to put the real life consequences of mass destruction into a game. Perhaps if everyone ponied $5 at the start of the game, with a promise that you would give it to a charity they hated if they used nukes first…

While I have often designed a Housewar IV, the amount of time it would require for to now to do what I consider a good job, has put me off the massive commitment to running one again. The game expanded as my knowledge of design and strategy expanded, and reflected the games I was playing.

HW I and II were built around a WWII naval warfare mechanic lifted from World in Flames, while HW III borrowed the WWI logistics/attrition game from an SPI WWI version of the monster game War in Europe. I did a newsletter every turn, which was essential because I changed half the rules every turn. Looking back, I now realise that my players were very patient and generous with my constant changing of the game.

Perhaps I could turn Housewar again as a one-shot mega-game…

Convention experiences

The early 1990s were still largely D&D focused, and in the traditional competition model. People were scored, and the highest scoring players went into a final, and the best player got a reasonable prize. This encouraged a very over-the-top convention playstyle, designed to attract attention and/or make the GM laugh.

The “Edge of Darkness” game (co-written by Steve and Sean?) that ported the TV thriller of that name into a nuclear reactor under the University, is still probably the best convention game I have ever seen. But the in-jokes meant you really had to be there to get the experience.

The Interregnum of 1995-1996

I was two years away at Waikato studying defence policy and strategy (in part because that was as close as you could get to a game design course in mid-90s New Zealand). While there were gamers there, the gaming largely took place off-campus. I ran a MegaTraveller campaign for an odd mix of players (a conservative farmer, a skinhead recovering from a heroin addiction, a couple of heavy metal fan chemistry students) and played in a lot of weird little homebrew system (I was an accountant in one, a slave to a merchant family, but the only person in the party with literacy).

This was when I was involved in running Campus Crusade for Cthulhu. We sold a lot of t-shirts.

1997-2001 Return to the LCR

My PhD years, in theory I was quite busy, but with an office on campus and a flat five minutes away, it was always good to just chill in the LCR.

Stephen Rennell’s Monday night RQ campaign (classic Orlanthi rebel exiles in Pavis, we did Borderlands and River of Cradles, and then went back home with the money, finishing up with rolling that 01% critical hit with the mythic golden arrow to kill a star while on a heroquest, and learning the secrets of crop rotation). Those memories made me a sucker for the recent RQ 2 Kickstarter.

I ran a second MT campaign, by the end of which I finally figured out that the combat system was utterly broken. Years later I read that it had never been playtested. Which was a shame because large parts of the rest of the system were good. While I still have a flicker of interest in news about the Third Imperium universe, I think my days of Traveller are done because my SF interests are more in tune with the transhumanism of Eclipse Phase or Mindjammer than the 1970s six ton computers of Traveller.

My LARPs had evolved into what I called Grand Strategy games. Essentially a giant boardgame with 5+ factions, with some LARP elements, played as an evening game at conventions.

While Flower Power was probably my best ever game (a planet settled by hippies fighting a world war with 1940s technology and Hammer’s Slammer’s offworld mercenaries), my favourite moment came from The Decline & Fall of the Solar Empire. This used a home built system called Neutral Zone  that had a staship combat system that deployed ships and decoys face down. You fired shots to flip the counters over, and if you found a ship, then you activated a big gun to kill it dead.

For Solar Empire, we had four teams of players (rebels) fighting against the GMs (Starlords) who followed an exact script for how the imperial fleet moved and fought (allowing the rebels to invent better tactics or to manipulate Imperial fleets away from key targets).

Now the decoy system relied on all the counters being exactly the same size, and all of the thousands of counters were indeed exactly the same size. Except the Emperor’s personal flagship which was about 2mm smaller per side for some reason. The rebels got a but too pushy, and triggered a counter-attack by the Imperial reserve fleet, with the Emperor, and halfway through the battle, as all four rebel fleets were being demolished, one of the rebels noticed that a counter was every so slightly smaller than the others, and fired a shot at it.

Flagship revealed!

One of the Starlords turned to me and asked if the Emperor should leave. I replied with a Grand Moff Tarkin quote: “Evacuate in our moment of triumph, never!”

The rebels destroyed the Flagship, and I ruled the Starlords would then turn on each other, leading to a last minute unexpected rebel triumph. Most epic finish to any of my games.

2002-2015 the adulting years

Most of my post-university time was spent in Wellington, with the exception of the 2006/2007 Year in the sucking hell hole that is London, UK.

I did come back from Wellington for game conventions, but they were now often held outside the UCSA building due to cost/security concerns. Cleaning costs also meant the LCR was often closed and KAOS regrouped in the upper café (always a warm and sunny spot). But one day on a return trip I found the doors unlocked and I went in and sat down on one of the chairs. As I relaxed the room filled with ghosts and echoes of past conversations, every corner of the room was rich in memory…

Then came the Earthquakes and for safety reasons the UCSA building was closed. KAOS relocated under the Library, and the gaming conventions moved to the Teacher’s College. As more of my friends had left University, my immediate social connections diminished and Wellington is much more my home these days.

Retrospective thoughts

Changes in gaming – my early uni years saw a big expansion in gaming topics, Cyberpunk, Vampire, etc, and its only kept diversifying. The early 90s was still a time when entire genres lacked game settings or systems (although GURPS was rapidly filling the setting voids with the most popular unplayed game system in the world) and on rec.games.frp.advocacy the debates that would lead to the indie movement of the 2000s were raging.

Now when I go to gaming conventions I almost never see D&D, Traveller, or any of the other classic games of the 1980s/90s being played. The modern New Zealand games convention is all about the one shot game, with a game system tailored to make that specific experience as rich as possible, but without the ongoing social network of the long campaign. No one plays for points to get into the final anymore.

What made the LCR good for games? It was not a place that got through traffic, so less disturbance from noise or gawkers, but it was still within 20m of a café or a bar, or a few minutes walk away from lectures. It was, however, cold in winter, and the lighting was on the dim side after sunset. Then there were the freezing late night conversations in the car park outside, after security had evicted us from the building, where we suddenly realised its almost 1am and we really should go home.

I just can’t imagine what I would be like now without the LCR and all the friendships formed there over a few cards and some dice. Almost everything about me now as an adult, started with a turn down a corridor in the UCSA building, and seeing the club tables, and NML, wearing mirrorshades, holding a black water pistol, and grinning.

Fin.


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