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.


Designing Roleplaying Games: Setting First, or Mechanics First?

November 3, 2015

dice-160388_1280I have spent a few months absorbing media on the topic of designing roleplaying games, and reading a wide range of published roleplaying games. I have been trying to figure out whether I should focus on:

  1. Designing a full setting
  2. Designing a complete game system worth of mechanics
  3. Designing both setting and mechanics.

A discussion thread over at rpg.net has been helpful here. Its something of a chicken and egg question, as design is an iterative process that can go back and forth. But one of the answers suggested focusing on what you think your strongest idea is. At the moment I lean towards thinking I have better setting ideas, which suggests building off an existing rule set would be more likely to lead to success than trying to build a new game system. If I can express my ideas within an existing toolkit, is there a good reason to reinvent the wheel?

Mechanics

My goals for mechanics include:

  1. Similar levels of complexity for social and exploration challenges, not just combat challenges. This reflects my GM preferences.
  2. Some form of temptation/corruption system that acts as a conflict gauge (and my idea here is that a tension between three points in the game system is potentially more interesting than tension between two points as happens with Call of Cthulhu’s Sanity/Mythos Lore trade-off).
  3. Highlighting the group as being more than just the sum of its parts, and links back to temptation to use group resources with a “ask for forgiveness, not for permission” rule.
  4. Fantasy genre emulation – magic as something that escalates during a scene, not something that opens with a nuke. I have been thinking a lot about how the escalation die is used in 13th Age.
  5. Fantasy genre emulation – splitting the rewards of success (gain in power) from the benefits of experience (improvement in skills). Rewards tend to strongly influence player behaviour in campaign games.

My observation from reading through a number of Indie designs, is that while they often have an innovative mechanic that works well for the published scenario, its often quite limited in what it can do outside of that scenario. Good for one-off convention play, not good for on-going campaign play. Every now and then, however, some new design manages to scratch a particular gaming itch, and ends up being hacked and ported into a wide number of settings. Apocalypse World seems to be flavour of the month in that regard.

Rolling Dice

I did some mucking around, trying to come up with a new way of rolling dice. I think that most of the easily discoverable ways of rolling and interpreting dice have been found and expressed in an existing roleplaying game system. The best articles I found on dice mechanics were at Darkshire, an rpg wiki, and RPG Stack Exchange.

One thing I found, was that I would often scribble a way of rolling dice that had occurred to me, and then a short time later I would read a description of that dice system in a published roleplaying game (the ways a d6 and a d12 are used in The One Ring was a prime example of this).

In terms of trying to analyse whether a particular way of rolling dice is any good, my take home lessons form this research were:

  1. How easy is it to determine success/failure? This can also affect how transparent the system is.
  2. What is the balance between random numbers and character skill?
  3. What is the granuality of the system? Fine grain = 1d100, coarse grain = 1d4.
  4. Availability: d6s beat a set of polyhedral dice, which in turn beat custom dice that only work with one game.
  5. For ease and speed of use: Comparison > Addition > Subtraction > Multiplication > Division.
  6. Adding more dice, more operations, and/or bigger numbers all slow play down.

Because I am thinking about mechanics involving temptation and shared resources, I thought delving a little more deeply into dice pool mechanics would be a good idea. This is because a bonus from a temptation can be easily represented by adding an extra die to a pool, which may be easier in play than changing difficulty target numbers or choosing to tweak the dice results after they have been rolled.

Dice Pools

The Main forms of dice pool seem to be:
1. Roll and add numbers
2. Roll and count successes
3. Roll and match patterns.

Rolling a bunch of dice can be fun, but there are some problems with dice pools:

  1. Expertise does not scale well, the marginal utility of each extra die is small, and large numbers of dice may be needed to accurately model an increase in skill.
  2. Too many dice can be a problem, five dice in a hand are okay, thirty-five dice not so much.
  3. If using a step die scale (d4, d6, d8, d10, d12) you are locked into a coarse gain five tier system, unless you use weird dice (d14, d16, etc) or odd combinations (d8, d10, d12, d10+d4).
  4. To adjust task difficulty you should either change the number of dice, or the target number, not both. Doing both makes the system too complicated for mortal minds to handle.

Of the different Dice Pool systems I looked at, the Cortex Plus approach (roll 3+ dice, keep best two) seemed a little easier than Savage Worlds (which has exploding dice). Cortex Plus felt a lot like the FATE game system, only with the full range of polyhedral dice rather than the +/- Fudge dice. Some other nice variants on dice pools that I read about were:

  1. Roll and Pluck: take dice out of your pool and allocate them to the tasks at hand (such as initiative, defence, attack, and movement).
  2. Momentum: success can carry over to future rounds (in the Firefly version of Cortex Plus, a big success allowed you to bank a “Big Damn Hero” die for future use).
  3. Stake dice: in Houses of the Blooded you can improve the outcome of a success, by removing dice from the pool before they are rolled.
  4. Floating dice: in Mythender successful dice (rolls of 4-6 in a d6 system) convert into a different tier of dice that allow different powers to be used, or to be exchanged for other game resources.

I think that is enough for this post. I’ll try posting some thoughts on trying to find an existing ruleset that matches my setting ideas later this week.


Professionals talk about logistics

October 2, 2015

Christmas is coming, and with it Big Gaming Week. So its time to start putting together my Christmas games for playing with friends both old and new. Somewhat at random, while focused on studying roleplaying games, my brain clicked into place with a couple of problems I had been having with boardgame design. Namely, how to balance income and costs, with fleet strengths and map positions.

Wordpress examples

First a quick recap on an approach to combining a decline theme with players gaining control of parts of the Imperial bureaucracy.  For the last playtest I built a track on which Dreadnoughts could be purchased, with each purchase bumping the Dreadnoughts not chosen down the track (making them cheaper). This worked pretty well. In the example above, the first choice is made to buy the Dreadnought in the value 8 slot, the value 7, 9, 10, 11 and 12 cards all slide down the track one space, and a new card spawns in slot 12.  Then someone buys the 10 slot Dreadnought, and the process repeats.  It puts the onus on the players of figuring out what different cards are worth. As long as a card is worth something, a player should pick it up. If a card did hit zero, that implies the players see it as worthless (and you should probably do something to make it more desirable).

I also linked purchases to decline, by making the value of the purchases trigger events every time 13 points of corruption occurred. This worked, but it tended to trigger off every second purchase, so the granuality of the 1-12 track was not actually having much effect on play.

As usually happens, I spent a fair bt of time thinking about how other games handle this problem. A Republic of Rome approach is just too complex. A Junta approach is too simple (and gives the portfolio allocater too much power IMO). So I scratched my head and tried to figure out a Goldilocks spot of interesting decisions but not too much paperwork.

First evolutionary step from there, was realising that I did not need to restrict the track to Dreadnoughts. I could put pretty much any game resource on the track that I wanted to: Atomic Power, Monuments, Imperial Ninja, it could all go onto the Corruption Track.

Second evolutionary step was decoupling events from the Corruption track, by instead creating a Crisis track.

Wordpress examples crisis

So the card shuffling and refresh is like the Corruption track, but its an increasing value over time. If a crisis goes off the top of the track, then bad things happen to the Galactic Empire. One of the considerations in the game is figuring out how players get the income they are spending on the corruption cards. In most of my playtests this income has come from control of territory on the game map. Which in multiplayer games always leads to players who fall behind in territory getting hit by the feedback loop (the poor stay poor, while the rich get richer).

So, I am going to try making the main source of income, the player choice to exploit a crisis in a specific sector on the galactic map. Exploit a value 7 crisis, and get $7, exploit a value 5 crisis and get $5. The crisis is also how you deploy combat units on to the game map. So territory becomes more a consideration of positioning for the next civil war, and not a matter of life or death for the flow of income. Because there will always be six crises on the crisis track, no player can ever permanently run out of credits. Because you can always exploit a future crisis, no player can ever be permanently pushed off the game map.

So now we get an interesting tension for player decision-making: do you spend your credit reserves on the tempting resources of the Corruption track, or do you go for more credits in the bank, plus some ships on the map.

Risk and Opportunity

Exploiting a crisis that threatens the pax galactica is mainly a player versus the environment (PVE) decision, although this may be influenced by anticipating future player versus player (PVP) conflict in the next civil war. My design goals here are:

  1. There should be some element of risk, that the player will fail to successfully resolve the crisis
  2. The crises should get harder as the game progresses
  3. There should be a reason to want to succeed beyond just getting some credits and ships on the board.

Working backwards:

  • The reason to succeed is to gain the “Strong Admiral” buff that lets you try and usurp the throne (gaining Victory Points).
  • Each crisis has a strength rating, which is adjusted by the stage of the game (easy in early game, hard in end-game)
  • Success/failure is determined by a dice roll.

Placing the logistic restraint into the combat die rolls

Its definitely more elegant if I can get the PVE and PVP cmbat systems in alignment. While I was thinking about this and different ways I could have dice rolled I had a bit of a brainwave. Logistics like fuel, ammunition and troop movement are a major constraint on real world operations. You can’t keep marching forward forever, soldiers need to sleep and machines break down. Keeping track of logistics in games, however, is deathly dull. I am not sure I can make bean counting decisions interesting for players, and counting stuff is time consuming.

One of the things you see in history, is that people often kept their armies in the field at a smaller level of troops than what their maximum potential field force was. This saved you money, and reduced the chance of your army starving mid-campaign.

A definite problem in space games, is that absent the terrain choke points of planets, the naval engagements reward concentration of force. This is what I think of as the “Supreme Annihilation Fleet problem”. The only viable operational deployment, is to concentrate your fleet in one space, and move it around destroying all weaker formations. This can lead to a strategic sitzkrieg of combat avoidance.

So I am thinking of trying this for combat:

  1. Roll 1d6 for each ship token, and 1d12 for each Dreadnought token
  2. Find all the matched dice. Eliminate all but one of the matched dice.
  3. Add the remaining dice together.
  4. The side with the highest score wins (attacker wins ties).
  5. Those matched dice not included in the scoring, are the ships you lose in battle.

For example, two forces, each with three ships fight a battle:

  1. Side A rolls 4, 4, and 2.
  2. Side B rolls 4, 4, and 1.
  3. Side A eliminates one 4 die, and scores 4+2 = 6.
  4. Side B eliminates one 4 die and scores 4+1 = 5.
  5. Side A wins, Side B retreats.
  6. Both sides lose one ship each.

With six ships, your maximum score in battle would be 21. Dreadnoughts with their big d12 extend the range of possible combat scores massively to 78. So bringing a bigger force to battle, definitely increases your chances of winning that battle. But beyond a certain force strength, there are diminishing returns and increasing risk of casualties. I will need to math out the probabilities and look to see if there are any weird breakpoints or outliers.

I would let other game resources, such as Technology cards, adjust the die rolls, scoring and casualties. As a small raider force could be quite potent, a rule allowing a defender to retreat instead of giving battle may be needed for balance.


Whiffing Forward – the role of failure in roleplaying games

July 21, 2015

DavidLewisJohnson_SYSCOMBAT (2)Whiff – the sound a sword makes in the air when it misses its target.

Failing Forward – a business concept found in a book by John Maxwell where you use the experience from failure to become successful. You learn from what went wrong, innovate, iterate, and keep testing until you reach success.

In discussion about roleplaying games, “failing forward” is often equated with eliminating “whiffing”.  A miss result commits entertainment’s cardinal sin of being boring.  So one of the design trends in gaming is a move away from a repetitive task system with numerous success/fail checks, such as the roll of a twenty sided dice for each attack in the various F20 games.  This can lead to mechanics where:

  • every task check result accumulates towards eventual success
  • mechanic systems that favour attack over defence (because being blocked, dodged, or parried is almost as boring as missing)
  • systems that require narrative input through twists, complications, compels or similar drama creation mechanics when failure occurs
  • systems use meta-currency (e.g. luck points) that players can choose to negate or mitigate failure with
  • escalation mechanics, where the chance or degree of failure diminishes the longer the scene lasts.

A good description on failing forward I saw on rpg.net was a three success level model: hit hard, hit, and fail hard. Eliminate boring failures, and only keep the failures that make life more “exciting” for the players by forcing them to adapt to the new situation and make a decision that can take the game in a new direction.

Meta-currency mitigation simply shifts the problem from one place to another. The characters do not experience any real stress until they run dry of meta-currency. Fumbles almost never happen in my Runequest 6 campaign, because players immediately reroll the dice.

Escalation mechanics add some book keeping, and they can be hard to scale in different dice mechanic systems. For example, 13th Age’s +1 to +6 modifer for escalating works okay on a 1-20 scale, but it would be weak in a 1d100 mechanic system, and overpowered in a 3d6 bell curve mechanic system.

Narrative input can be a burden on the GM. Sure, I want to describe cool exciting stuff, but having to make new stuff up on every second die roll can be exhausting on the imagination. Preparation can mitigate this burden, but I find any session where I have to do a lot of improvisation of complications to be mentally exhausting, rather than energizing. I want to take a closer look at the system Fantasy Flight Games has used in Edge of Empire, but I will have to wait until I can pick up a hard copy in Canada. I am also seeing some Kickstarter games using decks to generate complications in play (the new edition of Paranoia and the Schlock Mercenary Planet Mercenary games).

Failure is important – without failure success is meaningless

One of the oldest bits of gaming advice is “don’t run Monty Haul” games, where the rewards players receive greatly exceed the risks and challenges their characters had to overcome.  If you can never fail, then what feeling of triumph can you truly enjoy as you skewer your fifth dragon before breakfast?

If you always fail, that is not fun. Except perhaps in Paranoia.

If you never fail, that is not fun either. After six movies I got pretty tired of Legolas never missing a shot.

There should be a middle ground, where the characters are vulnerable enough to failure that the game is interesting. In particular, when players make a big “crunch” call about risking their character, the risk of failure should be real. If you know the Dragon cannot really hurt you when you sprint across the bridge to grab the macguffin, you simply do not get the same emotional reward from success.

What do you look back and tell stories about? Using a luck point to avoid damage, or the time your character took the arrow in the back, but managed to roll a critical on the endurance check? If you want better roleplaying game stories, you need failure in your game.

Framing Failure

Two bits of gaming advice I have come across in several places recently. First, only roll dice if the failure is likely to be significant, interesting, or meaningful. Its okay to say “you succeed, now what?” to a player. Do not roll the dice, just to gain some time while you think of an answer for the players about what happens next. Second, is the “let it ride” principle. Roll the dice once, and abide by the result. Do not make a player roll three times to open a lock, make one roll, and maybe make it a little harder if that was you actual intent.

I also think its important to think about how the situation is framed on a timescale/significance spectrum:

  • Individual action – if an action represents individual attacks in a five second period, you need failure to preserve verisimilitude, if your action represents a flurry of activity over a minute, its okay for combat to be of the “up, down, or off the board” variety
  • Individual scene – at this level I think you can tie failure to a single die roll, but it should be a player choice to commit to the action where the die roll is occurring
  • Individual episode – I think you need to tie failure at this level to player choices not die rolls, but some failure should be okay
  • Complete story/season arc – I think some degree of success at this level is important for the players to feel they are making progress and having an impact on the game world around their characters
  • Finished campaign/completed series – what are the players going to be talking about in years to come? The easy successes, or the epic comeback?

Encouraging Failure

Players like to win. All the time. A single escaping mook is a significant defeat. An escaping bad guy is a catastrophic defeat. Conversely, players are not fond of losing. Players like to display bravery by over committing, and rushing in where angels fear to tread. Players are really not good at executing retreats from superior enemy forces.

Literature and visual media do not work like this. The heroes nearly always suffer frequent failures, hard won escapes, and pyrrhic victories before their final triumph. I want to run games that feel a bit like that.

Give Experience Points for Failure, not Success

So here is a thought for gaming. If players succeed in a scene, their characters get the material rewards that were at stake, whether it was a clue to the next scene, a bag of gold, or a kiss from the handsome prince. The characters only get experience for progressing/developing their character’s traits and abilities when they fail a scene.

Tangential Thoughts on Dice Mechanics

Not so much related to the failure topic, but a few other recent game mechanic ideas.

1. Damage Dice Pools

Riffing on Cortex Plus, take a handful of dice, roll them and keep the best two. Use one die for a one handed weapon, two for a two handed weapon, then add dice based on factors like level of skill or degree of success on the task roll. The reason to do this is to keep damage reduction armour in a bounded range (say 1-5 points), so that the damage difference between a dagger and a greatsword is not too different (both should be able to situationally pierce plate armour, but in practice most games give the dagger too low a damage rating for it to be a valid weapon in its historical context). Also because it would amuse me to run a game where the baseline HP number was 13, so a damage system bounded to a maximum of 12 points makes you always vulnerable, but not in one shot territory if fully healed up.

2. Standard Card Deck Combat Consequences

My RQ6 players can spend a long time choosing what each critical effect they have obtained will be. It could be easier to draw one card from a standard card deck:

  • With a Rag card, the 1-10 number is the minimum damage the blow scores, use the dice if they are greater
  • Face cards give you the interesting results (disarms, falls, etc)
  • Joker gives you some kind of interesting choice

3. Some thoughts on d100 die rolls.

The 1-100 die roll range is very fine scaled. A die roll bonus of +/-10% can feel pretty weak, while adding a lot of modifiers together, or taking the RQ6 approach of changing the skill level can involve a bit of maths. Sure its not  a lot of maths, but over a five hour game it chews up the brain. We also pause to calculate critical hits (yes, divide by ten is relatively easy), which sometimes makes me want to follow Eclipse Phase (doubles are criticals/fumbles).

I looked at the maths for Call of Cthulhu’s bonus/penalty die approach and compared it to reversing the pips (e.g. turning 92% into 29%) and found them pretty close in probabilities.  Both approaches increase the chance of success more when skill levels are low to medium, there are diminishing returns.

So I thought for my Cabal game idea there are a couple of things I could do. First, one way to tempt players, is to make them always roll a Bonus Cabal die. So when they fail, the Cabal die will sometimes be sitting there, tempting them with success.  All they have to do is to be willing to make the husk of a fallen God a little stronger.

The second one was that I want fumbles to occur in combat, because its interesting and means failure can arise from emergent play, rather than from me stacking the odds against the players to burn the meta-currency out of them. So I might make luck points only useful for bonus actions when taking risks (and taking a bonus action to stab someone who is defenceless would not be risky, so you can’t do that), or for mitigating wounds, and not for rerolling failures/fumbles.

A third idea was to compare two failed combat rolls, and give a bonus die to the highest failure (and maybe even make it two bonus dice on a double). With this approach, you could eliminate fumbles altogether. Rather than the character inflicting damage on themselves, it is their opponents chances on their next swing being improved, which is something the player can anticipate and react to with their next action.

Finally, I was thinking of an edge mechanic to adjust die rolls after they occur (e.g. spend four points of Arete to shift a roll of 92% to 52% or 88%), but it might be simpler to front load everything, and spend ten points of Arete to purchase a bonus die roll when making a skill check.


Linear Warrior, Quadratic Sorcerer: the Action Point economy in Runequest 6

July 11, 2015
Fighter_Mage_Silhouette by qhudspeth

Fighter Mage Silhouette by qhudspeth (Deviantart)

One of my insights from running a Runequest game for a year, is just how important the Action Point economy is in the game. I’ll also add a bit at the end about counterspells.

The Basics

Runequest VI has as a basic premise, combat is a dangerous activity that is usually resolved in a few Combat Rounds. A one on one fight should take about three Combat Rounds to resolve.  A Combat Round is assumed to be roughly five seconds in time.  Within the Combat Round there is a sequence of Turns. Each Turn in Strike Rank order, each character with Action Points remaining can do one Proactive Action. Strike Rank is determined once at the start of the combat.

The menu of available Actions is pretty comprehensive. Proactive Actions usually involve the character initiating movement or an attack, but also includes delaying an action. Reactive Actions are usually defensive (Counter Spell, Evade, Parry) but also include Interrupts if you took a Delay Action in your turn.

There are also a number of Free Actions (making a Perception check if unengaged, dropping a weapon, signaling, a short phrase of speech, using a luck point) the most tactical of which is Ward Location. Ward Location allows you to change the location(s) being passively protected by a weapon or shield (shields cover 2-4 locations depending on size, with a human body having seven locations). Warding has to be done before attack rolls are made. Because passive blocks are always successful, warding is a useful way to protect a wounded location, or for low skill characters to improve their chances of defending themselves.

Runequest 6 employs differential successes in combat, which grant Special Effects (rather than the old school critical/impales). There is a large menu of Special Effects, depending on whether the skill roll was offensive, defensive, what the type of weapon used was, and whether or not the success was a critical, or if the opponent rolled a fumble. Crucially, if you make an attack on someone, and land a blow when they do not react to the attack with a defensive skill check, they automatically fail, granting you one bonus Special Effect.

Because you can get Special Effects when defending, it is usually worthwhile to Parry an attack, hoping to both mitigate potential wounds, and to use Special Effects to impair the future combat performance of your opponent. In Runequest VI RAW, an Evade defensive action leaves you prone on the ground. As it costs an Action Point to rise to your feet, and because being prone reduces your skills by half, parrying is preferred to evading. For my own campaign, as it features musketeers with firearms and almost no shields, I allow characters to remain standing after Evading with an appropriate Combat Style trait or if they have used the Acrobatics skill in place of the Evade skill.

So a common pattern is:

  1. Character A attacks Character B
  2. Character B parries the attack (both characters have now spent one Action Point)
  3. Character B attacks Character A
  4. Character A parries the attack (both characters have now spent two Action Points)

Old School

When I played Runequest II or III campaigns, characters generally got one attack per Combat Round, and could react defensively up to three times (one parry with a weapon, one block with a shield, and one dodge out of the way). Multiple attacks or defensive action required a skill greater than 100%. So if you ran into more than three opponents you were in a bit of trouble. In Runequest VI block is no longer a reaction against a specific attack, it has become a passive action against all incoming attacks.

How Many Action Points Do You Get?

Action Points are calculated during character generation, based on the combined score of the Dexterity and Intelligence attributes:

  • less than 13 = one Action Point
  • 13-24 = two Action Points
  • 25+ = three Action Points

If creating characters with a point buy system, most players will choose to make their characters competent by ensuring their Dexterity and Intelligence scores are average 13+.  If for some reason you choose a lower combined score your character will be substantially less effective in combat. If you only have two Action Points you will act one third as often as the other players, and your character is much more likely to be overpowered and injured.

There are a few other ways of adjusting how many Action Points a character gets to use:

  • Personal and Party Luck Points can be used as Action Points. Luck Points are a one use resource (in my campaign I allow Luck Points to refresh after the party spends time carousing)
  • The Swiftness Gift in the Cults & Brotherhoods chapter grants an increase of plus one Action Points (and should usually come with a commensurate taboo or geaes to influence the character’s actions. In my campaign I have only allowed the player who has eschewed the use of all magic to take this Gift)
  • the Formation Fighting combat trait, in situations where 3+ people are coordinating their efforts, reduces all of their opponents Action Points by one. My players hate this. They do not fight in formations or have this trait, so when they run into a formed unit, they suffer accordingly
  • Characters with the Mystic talent to enhance Action Points. This costs 3 Magic Points per +1 Action Point. This can be stacked up to Mysticism skill/10 (the number of available Magic Points is more likely to cap this than the skill is at high levels of skill). These bonus Action Points can only be used for defensive actions in combat (Parry or Evade). Note that while Mystic talents cannot be countered by magic, anything that disrupts concentration, such as a wound in combat, requires a Willpower check to maintain concentration on each Mystic Talent
  • Campaign House Rule, a Vordar (Dark Elf) gains one Action Point when they land a blow that kills an opponent (but may have to make a Willpower check to avoid a berserk rage).

I scanned the other magic chapters in the rulebook, but from what I can see no other spell grants bonus Action Points.

Situational Influences on the Action Point Economy

Charging into combat is a bit weird, because rather than taking one Action, it takes an entire Combat Round. So a character with more Action Points spends longer getting into action than the character with less Action points.

If you are surprised, you cannot defend until your turn, and cannot perform any offensive actions for the remainder of the combat round. Ouch, I only just noticed the round duration, I had previously thought that the prohibition against offensive actions only lasted for one action.

If you suffer a Serious Wound (reduced to zero hit points or below in a hit location) you cannot attack or cast spells for 1-3 actions.

The Outmanoeuver Action allows you to make an opposed Evade skill check with all of your opponents. So you spend one Action Point, and all of your opponents must also spend an Action Point. Any opponent who fails to beat the manoeuvering character’s roll cannot attack them for the remainder of the Combat Round (i.e. none of their Action Points can be spent to attack you). While its not a sure thing, this is an obvious action for a heavily outnumbered character to take. Further, if you beat all of your opponents rolls, you can choose to engage one foe for the remainder of the Combat Round, or Withdraw from the fight completely.

A number of Special Effects take the form of requiring the affected character to spend Action Points to recover combat effectiveness:

  • Disarm forces an opponent to either spend one Action Point to Ready another weapon, or one Action Point to pick up the dropped weapon, and a second Action Point to Ready the recovered weapon (the musketeers in my campaign will often have a secondary weapon like a dagger already in hand, and may choose to just continue fighting with that)
  • Stun Location, if a bludgeoning weapon hits the head, the character is insensible for a number of actions equal to the damage inflicted, while a hit to the torso staggers the character so they can only defend for a number of actions equal to the damage inflicted
  • Pin Weapon, requires an Action Point to attempt to free the weapon or shield that is pinned (with an opposed roll of Brawn or Unarmed Combat).

Linear Warrior, Quadratic Sorcerer

First, please take a quick look at this article which shows you where I got the Linear Fighter, Quadratic Sorcerer line from. This is something that goes all the way back to D&D.

In Runequest VI, sorcerer’s can shape spells by:

  • combining two or more spells together
  • extending duration
  • increasing range
  • boosting magnitude (which makes the spell harder to counter)
  • or increasing the number of targets

For every ten points of Shaping Skill you can do one of these effects.  So a Sorcerer with 90% shaping skill could cast the Wrack spell, use one point of Shaping to boost the range to 1m x Power attribute, and then use eight points of shaping to affect 9 targets. There are a few other sorcery spells in Runequest VI with one-off attack effects, that can usually be resisted. Wrack, however, is a lot like Emperor Palpatine’s purple lightning in Star Wars.

As a Combat Action the Sorcerer can attack the targets, using their Invocation skill for the spell as an attack roll. So if the Sorcerer above has a 90% invocation skill, they will hit more often than not. The only resist option is Evade, which requires expending a Combat Action, and may not succeed. The amount of damage done depends on the caster’s skill, at 40% its just 1d4 of damage that worn armour does not protect against, but at 90% skill its 1d10 damage (and enough to seriously wound most characters). At least the hit location is random every time!

As you can see, the Wrack spell breaks the Action Point economy of Runequest VI. For an upfront cost of around three action points to cast the spell, the Sorcerer can keep in every future Combat Action wrack all of their targets (if some of their targets die, they cannot switch to new targets with Wrack).

A warrior with a sword can stab one person at a time for each Action Point they spend, regardless of skill. Unless you get a critical hit (one tenth of skill on a d100 skill check roll) and take the Bypass Armour special effect worn armour reduces the damage done. If the lone target defends, they use one Action Point.

The sorcerer with can wrack multiple targets at a time for each Action Point they spend. Thinking of the example above, the Sorcerer will probably hit eight of their targets each turn. If the targets all have high Evade skills, e.g. 80%, then the Sorcerer will only harm one to two of the targets. But by spending one Action Point, the sorcerer has forced their opponents to spend eight Action Points, or collectively suffer roughly 44-45 damage. There is nothing else in the game that is as effective in combat as the wrack spell, short of perhaps the Theistic Earthquake spell, or a horde of Animist fetch spirits (see below). Some of the single target theistic spells are powerful, such as Sunspear which can nuke a single target for ((Skill/20)d6) damage in all seven hit locations, but they only get to do that once for the Magic Point/Casting time cost.

You can see why the reaction of the players in my campaign is to immediately attack any sorcerer they encounter, and to kill them dead, dead, DEAD as fast as possible. Any time a sorcerer is casting a spell, the presumption is that it is Wrack and it must be stopped at all costs. Doing anything else risks Total Party Kill.

If I were to reboot my campaign, I think I would prohibit or change the Wrack spell to be less horrific in potential effect on the action point economy.

…and the Animist’s Horde of Fetch Spirits

A skilled animist can have quite a few Fetches with bound spirits on them. These can be broken to release the spirits to attack the animists foes. Each spirit then has its own actions to attack a target. If you are not an animist, and if you do not have one of the small number of spells that defend against spirits, you defend with half Willpower. Its pretty trivial for a spirit to devour a low willpower character’s soul. A powerful Animist could release a dozen spirits in one battle, which is a huge boost in the number of effective attacks they are launching.

As you can understand, my player characters hate animists with a a passion. I have one as a recurring villain in my campaign.

A sorcerer can do something similar by Evoking an other planar entity, or by a Draw (creatures) spell.

For player characters, each fetch costs one XP to create per point of spirit intensity. So burning up your fetch spirits in combat is going to be a significant decision. I’m not aware of any other mechanic in Runequest VI where XP can be spent for a one use resource.

Paper-Scissors-Nuke

Runequest VI no longer uses a Resistance table for determining if something like one spell overcomes another spell. Instead the magnitude of spells is compared, with magnitude usually being based on one tenth of the casters skill. The spell then either completely succeeds or utterly fails.

The folk magic spell Avert can always be used to counter another folk magic spell, but has no effect on non-folk magic spells.

Sorcery has the Neutralise Magic spell, which negates a single spell or theistic miracle with an equal or less magnitude for the duration of the spell, or can counter an incoming hostile spell. Sorcery spells, however, can be quite weak, as the points of shaping that could be used on magnitude, are more often placed into shaping duration, range, and the number of targets.

Theistic casters may have Dismiss Magic, which eliminates a combined magnitude of spells equal to its own magnitude. Miracles will usually have substantial magnitude, as its equal to caster skill/10.  Can also counter an incoming spell.

So a magic user with 80% skill is not just relatively stronger than a magic user with 70% skill, they are absolutely stronger. The magnitude eight spell will always counter the magnitude seven spell. The magnitude seven spell can never counter the magnitude eight spell.

This makes my players terrified that their spells will be countered, and so anxious that their own counter spells will fail, that they prefer not to counter enemy casting at all due to the assumption that an enemy caster has a higher skill than they do, and so a much greater chance of having a greater magnitude for their spells.

Perhaps I should throw a small horde of low skilled magic using opponents at them next time. A GM should never be too predictable.


Runequest 6 Session Notes

July 5, 2015
I have been running my Runequest campaign for a bit over a year now, and it occurs to me I could take the session notes I have been posting over at the Design Mechanism forums and repost them here.
The overarching theme I had in planning these sessions was to focus on the social side of the story, drawing in as many of the NPCs that the players had established connections with as possible.  I also wanted to spend spotlight time on various background elements for each PC, as I have been finding it easier to spark ideas for some of the PCs and not others (especially for the quieter players).  So its a week in the harvest ball season, with the party assigned to protect the Empress Alexandra, younger sister of the reigning Emperor Julian.
Session 1 Five go slumming with an Empress
Started by spending some time discussing Hill folk, Apocalypse World and Luther Arkwright.  I have been reading a lot of different sets of RPG rules recently. Possibly too much, as I started dreaming in GURPS mechanics.
The first day the party spent as bodyguards for Empress Alexandra was spent on a mix of civic religious functions, and formal receptions for VIPs wanting to hobnob with the Empress. This was an opportunity for me to introduce many members of the Imperial court in passing.
Talia’s background of a dispute with her father over an arranged marriage came into play, when he turned up with news that her brother, a POW in Covenant hands (another background point), had converted to the enemy. So her father asked for a reconciliation, as otherwise the family estate would be going to her dissolute younger brother. Talia did some hard bargaining (roll of 52 with an Influence skill of 52, versus a failed Willpower check by her father) and agreed.
The second day is one of more public functions and duties.
The morning starts badly, with an inspection of the naval shipyards leading to an stand up shouting argument with bonus insults between Empress Alexandra and the commander of the Navy (both rolled 57 on an opposed Willpower check to see who would give way first). The party spends a couple of luck points extricating the Empress form the scene, and calming her down.
The party attends the opening of some new public gardens, and a private visit to the Imperial vault without incident. After lunch the visit several orphanages and veterans homes. Its like being bodyguards for Princess Diana. Eventually they end up at an art gallery, where they met some of the Covenant embassy staff. The Empress is impressed by a painting of the climax of the battle at runescar, and rewards the artist Miranda Larson with patronage. Pyrias makes a good impression with Miranda.
The party then prepared to go out partying with the Empress. As its ball season, everyone is wearing masks. I awarded a bonus luck point to anyone who managed to guess which mask the Empress was going to choose. Everyone then changes into mufti, and Cain issues the PCs with a concealable muff pistol. Then the party heads off slumming, with everyone told to refer to the Empress as “Servalan”.
Servalan takes them to the “Witch and Axe” tavern on the underside of the city. A lot of carousing takes place, and then several of the PCs volunteer to take part in the pit fights. This was an opportunity for me to play around with the combat challenges, without it being a matter of life or death for the PCs. Everyone taking part had to choose a “pit fighter” name.
Secundus, as the “Masked Mantis” faced off against another Vordar, the “Black Needle”.  I gave the Black Needle a combat style of 89%, which was much higher than what Secundus had (low 70% range). It started badly for Secundus, with the Black Needle getting a 09% critical hit and immediately disarming Secundus. Then she tripped him on her next attack. Secundus managed to get up while the Black Needle was hamming it up with the crowd, but even with some luck point use the Black Needle proceeded to outfight Secundus and quickly inflict three light wounds on him.
A few of the PCs lost some coin in the side betting.
Crozane then fought the novelty act, two goblins connected by a length of chain. Crozane plays up the role of being a foreign sun-worshiping heel for the crowd, almost to the point where people want to throw objects at him. Early on in the fight against the goblins he impales one with a dagger, and then exploits its reduced skill using Brawn augmented with Acrobatics to tumble the goblins into the pit (which has a safety net below it rather than a mile drop to the ground, not that I told the players that before the fights started).
Session 2 Rapiers at dawn
Continuing with the third and final PC pit fight, Pyrias “the sleeping lion” faced off against the reigning champion, a Minotaur who was also an Imperial official. The opponents are connected by a length of chain manacled to their arms, the floor is greased, apart from log stumps that can be stood on.
We started with a long discussion about what can be accomplished with a Charge action, and if a skill check is needed for the crossing the greasy floor. Eventually I allowed the combination of acrobatics and a combat style trait that helped movement to more or less ignore the slippery floor.
Even after a year of play I still find the terminology of Combat Actions, Combat Rounds, Turn and Charge to be not as intuitive as I would like. For example, players keep expecting to execute a charge in a single combat action, but the rules specify one full combat round of movement.  I have been letting them execute the charge in a single action, not the 3-4 actions the RAW imply.
I am still constantly pausing to double check that we have the correct number of special effects from combat rolls, and that we are applying the effect of a Parry successfully.
Trying to find how much damage an unarmed attack was something else I failed to quickly figure out after checking several sections of the rulebook. I ruled it was 1d3 damage and we played on.
But back to the fight … Pyrias charged, the Minotaur counterattacked, hit for 8 points, reduced by luck point. Pyrias used his special effect to entangle the chain around the Minotaur’s neck (improvising on the fly, no damage, makes next attack Easy). The next few actions are a struggle between the Minotaur trying to get the chain off, and Pyrias to do some damage. In the fourth action, because Pyrias has 4 AP and the Minotuar only has 3 AP, Pyrias hits and gets a bonus special effect, hitting te Minotaur for nine damage in the right leg, and the Minotaur rolls 100% for the Endurance check and falls into the safety net (which remains intact).
The bookies had offered 7:1 odds on Pyrias, and Talia had bet 1,000 silver, so now she has 7,000 coins to go shopping with. Pyrias also gained a lot of social status, and was surrounded by adoring fans.  The party spends some more time socialising, the Black Needle turns out to be Stitch, an NPC from a previous session, who gets friendly with Secundus. This allows me to introduce an aside about the Emperor recruiting heavily from the orphanages, a factor of his paranoia. Talia flirts with Karen Ivanovich, who is in town for business, and comes to the Axe because she used to work here and still gets a staff discount. Vitus the fire mage plays with flammable cocktails.
The next scene is in a luxurious Salon hidden in the back of the Witch and Axe.  A couple of Cain’s assistants deposit an Imperial officer by the name of Titus Crow for questioning by the Empress Alexandra. Turns out Alexandra had paid Titus a lot of money to try and expedite warship construction for escorts for her Battleship, which has not happened (hence the argument in the naval yard). Plus he used to be her lover, and uses very familiar language. She has just started asking him about smuggling spirit jars into the city, when the party is warned that the Imperial Guard are raiding the establishment.
I let the PCs advise the Empress about what she should do, mostly they keep quiet. So I stick with plan A, and the angry/upset Empress throws Titus off the Salon balcony (he is tied to a chair, its a mile down) rather than get into trouble with Julian.  A runner is then sent upstairs to invite more people to the “party” in the Salon. By the time the guard finally reach the Salon its a very drunken scene that greets them.  Stitch gets into trouble with the guard, even though its her night off.  Karen offers her services as a magistrate, she scans “Servalan’s” surface thoughts, blanches, and proceeds to make a successful deceit check and the guard is successfully persuaded to go elsewhere.
Nothing else too interesting happens at the party. Later that night Talia gets to perform “holding the hair out of the vomit” duties for a tearful Empress.
The next day is filled with dull military parades. The evening’s main event is presentations of tribute tokens (and reports of the actual taxes to be paid) from the various governors within the Empire. This is to be followed by heavy drinking among the governors and their retainers.
Governor Tenny from Runescar is here, and after delivering her tribute she bumps into Crozane, a 01 success is rolled and they vanish for the rest of the night.
Karen Ivanovich presents for Governor Kev of the Lars, who is confirmed as Governor of the Island of Monsters, and the Emperor does a short speech about how the gold hoard (found by the PCs but credit now claimed by Kev) is sufficient to fund the entire Imperial budget next year, plus a military expansion programme. Emperor Julian then announces that the position of Grand Domestic (the vacant five star general slot) will be filled by Ventarch – an elderly general of good reputation, who also happened to turn up with Sabrina Gilligan on his arm (she was the sea witch from Whitemouth in an earlier session).
The evening is somewhat strained by insults from the Imperial guard (they call the PCs “wrigglers”, a distortion of the “Vigla” name of their regiment), and Pyrias gets into a duel with Kevin Larson (son of Governor Kev and husband of Miranda Larson, the artist who was quite taken with Pyrias the hero of Runescar earlier on). Of course, everyone knows this part of the argument Julian and Alexandra have been having, extended to proxies.
Pyrais does have a short conversation with Ventarch, where the General points out that his lack of magical talent means he will not be considered for further promotion at the capital, but a transfer can be arranged to a border garrison on the Enmity front, where promotion is assured (this is about the equivalent of being sent to Afghanistan in the days of the Raj).
For the duel I let Pyrais augment his combat style wit the Customs skill, fighting in the traditional old school formal approach. Both combatants had high combat skills, around 85%, so much of the combat consisted of successful parries. Pyrias had an edge with 4 AP to Kevin’s 3 AP, although it did not help in the first round (a 99 rerolled with a luck point to 97).
Over the course of the fight, Pyrias managed to stab Kevin about five times for light wounds, using special actions to avoid any potentially mortal wounds. The player kept asking for a surrender, but Kevin kept fighting until the player actually chose to use a special effect on a Compel Surrender check.
…and there we ended the session, with one Empress happy with her champion, and one Emperor unhappy with his champion.

Session 3 Summary – Bazaar and Ball

This session had three minor encounters while shopping with Empress Alexandra in the Grand Bazaar, a brief interlude, then a couple of scenes at the Ball, concluding with a showdown with some assassins, traitors and enemy agents. After all, the party would have had every right to be grumpy with me if I had them as bodyguards for three game sessions without at least one serious assassination attempt.
During this session, I tried a group skill check mechanic for party perception over long periods of time. This is where the party as a whole requires four successes to pass the check (critical success counts double, fumble is minus one success). This seemed to work well, and makes everyone’s perception skill important, rather than relying on Crozane’s high perception (>100% if mystic talents are active).
A young urchin filched Vitus’ pouch, was just spotted, and then Secundus gave chase. Again I tried this as an extended Athletics skill check, first side to four successes won. Despite having a lower Athletics skill than the Urchin, Secundus easily caught up to the nipper (who had a fumble mid-escape). The urchin threw the pouch away and Secundus retrieved it rather than give chase any further.
Later, as the Empress is trying on shoes, Crozane makes a critical success on his perception to spot that the slimy sales rep is none other than his hated enemy, Sillicus Ruval, a Covenant agent. Crozane immediately kicks Sillicus in the head (a 04% critical hit), draws his weapons, and Sillicus barely has time to stammer “diplomatic immunity” before something unfortunate occurs.  Crozane manages to not give in to his passion to kill Sillicus, and Sillicus delivers his diplomatic note to the Empress.
Later, as the Empress is going to look at hats, the party spots a woman they know, Margarette, being dragged off by two thugs. When the party goes to intervene, the thugs display the spider emblem of Valens, the retired Emperor. SO while Margarette begs for mercy, the players let Valens’ men drag her away for questioning.
As an aside, usually PCs get placed in an investigative role when it comes to plots. But the party is tied to the Empress as bodyguards, so they cannot go chasing off after clues relating to Titus and smuggling. This does show other Imperial agents are working on the case.
Shopping finished, the party mostly rests before the evening ball, with a couple of characters having disturbing dreams about ravens and assassins.
The first half of the ball is mainly talking and dancing. Emperor Julian does announce the adoption of Bernadette Gilligan (the young girl the party retrieved from Whitemouth a few adventures back) into the Taran family. There is a lot of maneuvering to see who gets to dance with whom.
I split the party up, by having Emperor Julian send Crozane and Pyrias elsewhere. The party have a mindspeech spell up to try and aid communication, but the ballroom and surrounding rooms are big enough for this to not work all the time.
Out on patrol Crozane and Pyrias hear suspicious noises and burst into a room, finding Emperor Julian in flagrante with a lady, and two of his guards.  Pyrias makes a successful Customs check, apologising and closing the door.
The players move to get in comms range of the ballroom and try and put two and two together, and suspect a double. But which one is the real Julian? Crozane had noticed that the guards had matchlock pistols, not the modern wheelocks used in the guards regiments.
Crozane and Pyrias head back to the room where they saw “Julian”. Crozane activates a silence spell (a gift from his devotion for a forbidden god) and they burst into the room. The Silence means they cannot hear the tied up young lady mouthing the word “bomb” or hear the hissing of the spluttering grenade.
One of the characters in the Ballroom makes a critical success on perception and spots Misha, an old adversary, in position in a high up balcony box. As the Empress is out on the dancefloor, Talia moves to make her safe. At which point the ballroom erupts into panic and chaos as first all light vanishes, and then several explosions happen.
The Ballroom attack is resolved with the party escaping into one of the secret passages reserved for the Imperial family. They also drag Bernadette Taran with them, as the old seer Maria Taran and the Grand Domestic Ventarch were both shot by Misha (bullets with a nasty spirit bound to the bullet, released on impact to devour the mind of the victim, in part because I’m using the Apocalypse World principle of putting people the NPCs care about in cross hairs).
Meanwhile Crozane and Pyrias have managed to spot the bomb and throw it away before it explodes, and then set off in pursuit (going the right way as they did first aid on the lady and got a clue from her). So they emerge into the side end of the ambush that is really intended to kill Empress Alexandra, with six false guardsmen with matchlock pistols, the false Julian, and a traitor from the Palace staff. Outnumbered 4:1, they immediately charge.
Crozane and Pyrias survive the first round, killing one guardsman and wounding another.  Cane appears, fires a pistol, wounding another guardsman. The remaining guards then shoot Cane (and miss the PCs). The combat then becomes more of a general melee with Rapiers.
The party is then reunited at this suitably dramatic point, with the other PCs and NPCs entering the room. Having heard the noise of the encounter, the mages have spells ready to cast, one of which is immediately neutralized by the False Julian. The palace traitor then starts wracking Cane, Pyrias and Crozane for 1d8 damage a round.
There is a long fight, and nearly every luck point the PCs and party have is burned to ensure that wounds do not knock people out or kill them. The players defeat most of the false guards, but are still having trouble with the mages when I ruled that Alexandra turned the traitor’s wrack against himself (she is of the Imperial blood, inside her family palace, and carries half a dozen or so major artifacts, so this was a handwave rather than a specific spell). At which point the false Julian flees, just as Uncle Valens’ giant spiders turn up.
Cane did not survive (several rapier strikes, and a couple of wrack strikes to the head). The False Julian escaped to live another day. Some NPC exposition takes place, revealing that some of the children of the Black Emperor’s bloodline still survive, which is how the assassins got itno the Palace so easily. The players manage not to offend Senior Emperor Valens, and because they have learned too much to keep running around in the “Wrigglers” he has a job offer for them. Meanwhile Uncle Valens tells Alexandra to go and make up with Emperor Julian, because if she runs for her Battleship, that will likely trigger Julian’s paranoia and a civil war…
Our observation on the impact of Magic in combat is that it feels very paper-scissors-nuke. Wrack is a decisive spell, if cast, and the caster is not neutralised, its pretty much impossible for the opponents to win. 1d8 penetrating damage to multiple targets every action round is hideous. The two PCs only survived upright because I rolled a large number of 1s on the d8 damage die.  On the other side of things, the six points of damage protection the False Julian had was almost enough to deflect any incoming damage from melee attacks.
At some point in the session we had a discussion about the Size and Distance Difficulty Adjustment Table for ranged weapons, and the players all agreed with me that it was a silly table and we wouldn’t be using it at our gaming table. The Ranged Combat Situational Modifiers list was more than sufficient.
We ran a bit overtime for this session, but that felt like the right call. People had a lot of fun.
End of Act I
XP will wait until next session, but I signaled that the focus of the game will change. The party can choose between an assignment in the border marches (with likely promotion), assignment to Empress Alexandra’s regiment (with many social opportunities), or assignment to Emperor Valen’s couriers (with a lot of opportunity for accessing forbidden lore).
Then I plan to scroll the game forward two years, which will allow for a fair bit of training, and lets Secundus the young cadet grow up into somewhat less of an awkward teenager.


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