Imperial Marches

July 22, 2018

This weekends crazy idea is mashing up the West Marches concept, with the imperial succession mechanic of the Empire of the Petal Throne. In order to avoid a debilitating civil war, the Imperial succession is determined by a contest to acquire secrets and relics, and to reach a specific location at the right time, plus defeating any other challengers. But rather than one isolated temple or maze filled with death traps, the contest (and the hexcrawl) takes place on an isolated island filled with ruined temples and labyrinths filled with hazards. There might also be official imperial treasuries and tombs, just filled with loot awaiting early appropriation by an Imperial heir.

 

The main difference from a standard West Marches campaign, is the hard time limit on the finish of the campaign. Perhaps its a year and a day of game time from the start of the campaign. It could be longer, or it could be triggered at any time. Another way to do it, would be to have a final count down to the ritual occurring once one contestant crosses a threshold, leaving everyone else until the the next full moon to join them. For the wrap up, only players who know where the coronation ceremony is going to take place get to have their characters turn up for the finale.

I think the time limit should be known to the players from the start, but another option is for that to be a major game secret as well. The time limit also means that spending a few weeks healing from injuries or recovering from disease is a major setback.

This is something where the greater number of players in a West marches campaign could prove an advantage, as several players could play candidates, while other players play opportunists hoping to back the winning candidate. Each player could have a candidate, sponsoring quests that other characters are sent on. Some definite scope for intrigue and betrayal. Perhaps the true contestants all need some identifier, a relic like object, or a magic tattoo on their skin.

A few other things that could be added into the mix:

  1. Neutral Officials, there to stop the contest from getting out of hand (such as sabotage of supply ships or burning down the ports). But perhaps they can be bribed.
  2. Fanatically Neutral Officials, there to silently enforce the rules by assassinating heirs suspected of cheating, bribing neutral officials, and any trouble makers who look to be fostering civil wars.
  3. Deadly decadent court – perhaps the contest is like the succession for much of the Ottoman Empire, where the new Caliph had the rival heirs executed, raising the stakes of the contest. If you don;t want to win and be supreme ruler of the empire, how do you survive? Hole up as a hermit on the island for the rest of your life?
  4. More imperial factions – perhaps the franchise for the contest is wider than just the imperial family, and a range of guilds, cults, generals, villains and heroes all enter the contest.
  5. A free for all – if anyone can enter the contest, so long as they can reach the island, then there could be a rush of the desperate and dangerous, all hoping to strike it rich. The landscape could be littered with the bones of peasants who had dreams of glory – this could be an ideal set up for a “funnel” session zero, where you start with a large pool of “level zero” PCs and play through the dungeon until the last few survivors “level up”.
  6. Borrow from The Player of Games and have most of the imperial government participating, either directly or through proxies (for the aged and infirm), all competing for their place in the hierarchy after the succession is determined.

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I imagine an island with a north-south mountain range, with arid/desert landscapes on one side, and dense forest/jungle on the other side would make for a good contrast in exploration. A few ports scattered around the coastline provide the safe bases for rest and recovery between expeditions. The local economy is probably having something of a gold rush boom town vibe, which could well attract some criminal gangs or even a pirate raid.

 

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The West Marches of the Dark Sun

July 14, 2018

Even though I am enjoying running Night’s Black Agents in the Third Horizon of Coriolis, I can’t help but cast my thoughts to what kind of campaign I will run next. There are a few ideas that my imagination keeps returning to:

  1. West Marches hex crawl.
  2. The Dark Sun setting first published by TSR for AD&D.
  3. The layered worlds of the city of Alikand from Max Gladstone’s novel The Ruin of Angels, part of the craft sequence.
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Player’s map of Chult, by Mike Schley, from Tomb of Annihilation.

The West Marches…

The West Marches approach is attractive because of the difficulty I have had over the last couple of years in being able to reliably schedule a game when work, illness and other life commitments crop up. It is not that we don’t want to game, its just been getting harder to get myself and 4+ players together, especially with the travel commitments my current job has. There is also an element of nostalgia for a type of exploration play I have not really done since the 1980s when mucking around with D&D module X1 The Isle of Dread. Key elements that were important to the original West Marches campaign include:

1) There was no regular time: every session was scheduled by the players on the fly.

2) There was no regular party: each game had different players drawn from a pool of around 10-14 people.

3) There was no regular plot: The players decided where to go and what to do. It was a sandbox game in the sense that’s now used to describe video games like Grand Theft Auto, minus the missions. There was no mysterious old man sending them on quests. No overarching plot, just an overarching environment.

This stack exchange post expands on the implications are bit further:

  1. Sessions begin and end at the home base.
  2. The players decide where they are going before the session starts.
  3. Session reports are shared.
  4. The world map is shared, and may be unreliable.
  5. Competition between players is encouraged.
  6. Content is loosely tiered – distance from base rather than depth in the megadungeon.

I think one of the key points here, is that a chunk of the campaign work which is usually done by the GM, needs to be done by the players. The players also need to be a bit focused on their goals. For the GM, the key task will be in keeping the session self-contained, rather than ending with a cliffhanger or submerged in a mire. This means three clue mysteries and five room dungeons, not the Mines of Moria or the Masks of Nyarlathotep. There is still a lot of work for the GM to do in terms of fleshing out what each hex of the hex crawl actually contains.

System wise, I think the game engine needs to be simple so it has fast procedural resolution, and not require the PCs to be interlocking in an unchangeable way. A lightweight version of d100 or an OSR system would be a good fit. If I were being bold, I might try Conan 2d20.

Then there is the issue of getting a pool of 10+ players interested in the concept and able to tolerate the metagame elements (e.g. not getting invited on an expedition you wanted to do, missing out on your chance to secure the Head of Vecna), as I do not have strong ties to as many gamers as I did back in my university days.

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…of the Dark Sun

As much as I like the idea of Dark Sun, I have to confess to never having played it. When it was first released I did not have the money to buy it, and later on I was simply not interested in running an AD&D game. But the mix of godless post-apocalyptic fantasy, planetary romance, swords and sorcery, and the Dark Sun twist on magic causing environmental pollution is a blend I keep coming back to. There is just something about a devastated landscape, where civilisation survives in a small number of oppressive city-states ruled by immortal sorcerer-kings (and Queens), that appeals to me. Unlike other D&D settings, psionic powers were common. It also had subversions of the usual fantasy race cliches: halflings were cannibals, dwarves were (usually) slaves, and elves were desert raiders. One criticism it had back in the day was the meta-plot focus on the ascension plans of the sorcerer’s. A feature of the setting, is that a lot of the choices are bad, and PCs are more likely to be amoral and survival focused as opposed to lawful good do-gooders.

So I think the challenges in the setting from a design point of view are:

  1. What do the PCs do in a setting, where tyranny can be found on every street corner, and points of light are few and far between?
  2. What is the price of magic?
  3. How grimdark will the setting will be?
  4. How to handle psionic powers for the PCs, and how are these psychic powers different from magic?

One potential answer for (1) is to have the PCs as specialists in salvaging useful stuff from the wastelands. For example, if the cities have surviving magitek from the lost Golden Age, then people who can find spare parts and batteries, have a socially useful role, and as a game you can follow dungeon crawl procedures and have a good time. Some kind of Vril technology or similar also fits within the planetary romance genre, and for one city state to have a monopoly on flying machines would make them a powerful foe. Another answer is to have the PCs as agents of resistance groups struggling to make the world a better place, which is a hard job when the reigning tyrants oppose change – the KGB and Gestapo never had access to telepathy and Charm Person spells.

I have a few answers for (2). One is to adapt the “defiling” magic of Dark Sun and diversify it a little, but staying within a general theory of magical power being derived from bleeding off the energy created by rapidly accelerating entropy. So you have “Rot Mages” who accelerate decay of vegetation, “Blight Mages” who cause cancer and disease in living creatures, “Coin Mages” who cause metal to corrode into dust, and “Degenerate Mages” who use energy gained by mutating their own bodies. A second answer I came up with is to say that in the broken world, using magic acts as a call or lure to eldritch monsters and latent curses left over from the cataclysm. The more you use it, the greater the chance of summoning a random horror that will try and eat your brain. A third possibility, is to build on the godless nature of the setting by having a cataclysm that destroyed both heaven and hell, and mages now exploit all the homeless angels by binding them into service with false faith and spilled blood.

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The degree of grimdark (3) is something to discuss with potential players. Dark Sun was a high lethality setting, with blood being spilled by gladiators on the arena sands, slavery in most of the cities, a backstory that featured explicit attempts at genocide, and a strong possibility of bloodthirsty witch hunts if the slightest hint of someone using defiling magic turned up. I think everyone needs to be comfortable with the premise that life is cheap, and a lot of aspiring heroes perish in the wastelands or dungeons of the sorcerer tyrants. Adapting an idea from Tomb of Annihilation, resurrection could be explicitly impossible. Perhaps the cultural norm is to burn the dead to prevent zombies and worse things in a world where there is no afterlife or place for souls to go to after death. I did have an idea that one use for the d100 Passion mechanic could be for testing whether your PC returns as a single purpose revenant for one final death ride of an adventure.

Psionic power is a feature of the Dark Sun setting that never really came up in my teenage AD&D games, although they did feature in the Traveller campaign I played in at university. Psionics are definitely different from magic, in that there are no defiling side effects. So, how exactly do psionic powers differ from other forms of magic?

Are psionic powers more “scientific” than the “fantastical” magic? This might reflect the serious research interest that concepts like “remote viewing” attracted in the 1960s and 70s, but which are now clearly discredited (although you might say that’s exactly what the Illuminati want me to think). It also reflects the influence of John Campbell, editor of Astounding Science Fiction, who coined the term psionics and encouraged its use in science fiction stories.

You might think a rational power like psionics could be learned, but in fiction its often the reverse – the apprentice can learn magic from the ancient grimoires, but psionics, you either got it or you don’t. Traveller let you learn psionics, but you had to find one of the hidden institutes first. In Luther Arkwright, you had to roll 58-59 on 1d100 when determining your PC’s distinctive trait to be eligible for psionic powers.

Are psionic powers powered purely from within, unlike “divine” magic or other forms of tapping external energy? The classic tells in visual media of psychics include nosebleeds and the fingers tapping on the forehead. What happens when you run out of psionic power? Does your head explode, or do you just fade out into unconsciousness? Can you permanently lose your psionic powers from overexertion? What about psychic vampires?

Are psionic powers intangible, unlike the tangible effects of magic? In fiction, psionic power is often “information magic”, such as Clairvoyance, Precognition, Retrocognition, Telepathy, and empathy. Where it can cross the grimdark line is when it crosses the line into mental attacks and forms of mental compulsion. That feels much more like it should be a signature power of the tyrants ruling society, not the heroes fighting against them. One way of handling psionic powers might be framing them as investigative tools as in a GUMSHOE game. The other main forms of psionic powers I see in fiction are the ability to manipulate energy and physical objects (like the Jedi do) and to passively boost survival chances.

Is magic the domain of old professors of lore, while psionics is the realm of teenagers used in illicit military experiments? Is psionic power something you age out of? Traveller took that approach, in that the older you were when you learned psionics, the weaker your psionic strength was. Is it a feature of being a more “evolved” species? Can you find “psionic items” the same way you find “magic items”? The science/fantasy split suggests a psionic item is more advanced technology than a magic item would be, for example, a pistol versus a sword.

Going back to the Dark Sun setting inspiration, I think I might package psionics and magic along these lines:

  • psionic powers rely on using internal power sources, i.e. from within yourself.
  • magic powers rely on using external power sources, i.e. exploiting energies associated with places, entities, sacred times, rituals, etc.
  • I would allocate all forms of mental compulsion to magic, and make domination of others one of the signature feats of evil sorcerers. But one option for psionic power might be greater resistance to “charm person” spells.
  • I would restrict most use of psionic powers to the person using them, or perhaps with a heavy restriction, e.g. if you can heal others, you cannot heal yourself, and the healing process may harm you.
  • I am okay with allowing both magic and psionic powers to be developed through training.
  • the key risk of psionics is overexertion and burn out, the key risk of magic is loss of control over the forces you have summoned. A bad day for a psychic might involve a splitting headache, where a bad day for a sorcerer involves setting a forest on fire.
  • this leads to a conclusion that psionics and magic need different resource management systems within the broader game system. The psionic power user is limited by their personal power, while the sorcerer is only limited by how much harm they are willing to inflict on their local environment.

An unrelated idea I have been kicking around, based in part on 13th Age, is the idea of escalation. If casting spells before combat buffs characters so they have an asymmetric advantage for a surprise attack, I think in play you get players wanting to spend a lot of time on planning and maneuver before committing to action. This gets worse if ritual magic that takes long casting times is a feature of your magic system. So an alternative approach is to have the use of magic powers makes subsequent magic use by anyone in the vicinity more powerful as the dimensional barriers are broken down, then its a bit easier for the players to get their PCs to jump in and worry about the buff spell later on.

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The Ruin of Angels (potential spoilers)

The Craft Sequence features a world of post-industrial magic, after a war between Gods and Sorcerers, which the Gods lost. The books often address contemporary social issues through a fantasy lens, like social inequality and the 1%. In The Ruin of Angels, Alikand is an occupied city which has been badly damaged in the war – not just people and buildings, but the fabric of reality itself. Alikand is a place where just turning the corner and looking the wrong way can induce a SAN check, or see you fall through a gap into a version of the city where the war is still being fought between the Gods and Sorcerers. This is a bit like the trope for layered worlds. This is appealing from a game design view, because you can pack more ideas into one location in the game. In Alikand, one of the activities done by the people resisting the occupation is to deliberately venture into the lethal war dimension, in order to salvage books that no longer exist in the real world. I feel this could fit well with the city-state ruled by sorcerer-tyrant element of the Dark Sun setting.

So there is some potential here for a West Marches campaign that is based around Urban hex crawls. You have the city of oppression, which is a “safe” home base, because it won’t make you go insane or be devoured by extra-dimensional monsters. But just a hop, skip, and jump through the mirror is an adjacent dimension with locations that map to familiar places, but which are filled with hazards and monsters. Survive to leave with your loot, and then you can try dodging the secret police squads trying to crack down on relic smuggling.

One way of integrating psionics with the layered world approach, is to tie the different strands of psionic powers to different dimensions that adjoin the city. I’ll admit some influence here from the “warrens” of the Malazan Book of the Fallen series. The flavour of each set of psionic powers is determined by the dimension layer(s) a psychic is attuned to the right wavelengths for, or some other kind of fluff. So a PC with psionic powers tied to a water filled dimension might be able to avoid dehydration for an extended period of time.

…and that’s enough for tonight.

 


Coriolis with Night’s Black Agents

July 9, 2018

I am running a game of Night’s Black Agents (NBA) in the Coriolis setting. Now that we have half-a-dozen sessions completed, and the basic outline of the Vampires and their conspiracy is known to the players, I think I can post a bit of information about the campaign.

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Night’s Black Agents is a GUMSHOE engine game published by Pelgrane Press with a default setting of secret agents hunting vampires and vampire minions in the modern world. The characters are expected to be competent on par with James Bond and Jason Bourne, but are operating independently of any agency they used to be a member of. The GUMSHOE engine’s core mechanic is to roll a d6, spending points from a pool to boost your chance of success. Points only refresh fully between “operations” with some limited options in play to refresh some points. Investigative abilities work differently – they always succeed, but you can spend points for extra effect. For example, when one of my players went to examine the records at the Prayer Temples on Algol, hoping to track down information on a priest of the Order of Martyrs that no one has seen in almost 50 years, just using Bureaucracy is enough to find the core clue that leads the party closer to their goal, but spending two points meant he got the information in a few hours rather than it taking two full days in dusty archives.

Other things I quite like in NBA include:

  • spending points to just make shit up when you need it: Cover to get new IDs, Network to get reliable NPC help, Preparedness to make sure you packed the rocket launcher when the villain flees in their helicopet
  • MOS – pick a specific ability for an auto success once per session
  • Thriller chase rules – not too complicated, not too simple, they hit the Goldilocks spot for me
  • Heat – a system for tracking how much legal trouble the players are in
  • Conspiracy pyramid – a way of fleshing out the opposition, from street level, to city leaders, to the core leadership
  • Conspiracy reactions – as the players work their way up the conspiracy pyramid, the GM has a set of tools to inspire the conspiracy’s reactions, from bribing the PCs to stop, to assassinating their loved ones and burning their Solace down, to the dread lord Iblis waking to deal with them personally.
  • Our vampires are different – lots of options for customising the vampires to your campaign, and working out what can Block them, what the Dread, and what their Banes are.

NBA is based on the assumption that vampires are evil. There are no good vampires, and no real support for vampire PCs. I like this.

Coriolis is something I backed on Kickstarter in 2016, and is Published by Free League. Like a lot of Swedish games, it has astounding art production values compared to the games I grew up on in the 1980s. The standard game engine is a dice pool system, with a mix of skills, talents, and gear, and the standard mode of play is to assume “have spaceship, will travel”. Where it gets different from the other sci-fi rpg settings is the infusion of religion throughout the setting and game system. Want to reroll? Pray to the Icons, give the GM a Darkness Point, and roll the die. With the Arabic themes, the religion has a lot of the tone from the Abrahamic religions of Earth-That-Was, but the Icons are more of a syncretic Polytheism that can change from world to world.

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I found enough detail in the available material to quickly flesh out factions, NPCs and local intrigues, but also lots of room for me to just plonk things down as I saw fit. In play I found the deck of Icon cards to be a useful mechanic. When I want a scene complication or a guide to NPC reaction, I draw a card and see what it suggests to me. One attraction to Coriolis is that its not too big a setting, unlike say Traveller’s Third Imperium with its thousands of worlds. If you look at the map below you will see that the travel routes all pass through a handful of key hubs in a few big loops or chains. Depending on PC actions, I am expecting them to spend a lot of time on half-a-dozen locations, and to largely pass through other systems fairly quickly.

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My campaign pitch was along these lines: “It is hunting vampires in space, in a setting that is like Firefly meets 1001 Arabian Nights. I promise you will get to fight the big bad, I do not promise that you will survive the fight.” After some discussion on the mode of play, we agreed to play a high trust game and not use the betrayal rules. I also promised as GM to use Darkness Points (see below) to make scenes more interesting or complicated, not just to increase the damage the PCs were going to take.

My reason for using NBA rather than the Coriolis game engine was twofold. First, I wanted to run a focused game, that had a definite goal, which when reached would see the campaign wrap up. My standard GM practice has been to run open-ended campaigns that last around three years, but I am not getting any younger, and I have a lot of game systems/settings I want to try out. The second reason was that NBA looked like a good system for me to run for a game focused on hunting bad monsters. I have run investigative games in the past (Call of Cthulhu) and I appreciated the GUMSHOE philosophy of making clue gathering straightforward so the game can move on to the next chase or confrontation scene. In play I enjoy saying “If you do not have enough information to make a decision, you need to go gather more information”.

I did make some modifications to the game engines

  • Darkness Points were kept from Coriolis. One way in which Coriolis makes space travel dangerous is that you always gain Darkness Points when you jump between star systems, or if you travel out to the Deep Dark in a solar system.
  • Mystic powers were taken from Coriolis and adapted to GUMSHOE. A player with mystic power gets one ability with their first mysticism rating point, and a second ability if they reach an eight point rating.
  • Cybernetic equipment is treated as a GUMSHOE “special power” that costs five experience points to buy (plus some game world money), but the cost by can be discounted by 3-5 points by taking on complications.
  • Armour was adapted from Coriolis, and is generally worth 1-3 points of protection, but advanced suits get more customisation options. Because Cybernetic Armour can stack with worn armour, I made a specific rule that a PCs Athletics rating is divided by their points of Cybernetic Armour for determing if they are eligible for the “cherry” benefits of Athletics 8+ (the actual Athletics Pool is unchanged).
  • Coriolis has a lot of weapon options, where NBA keeps things to 1d6 damage +/-2 on the damage roll (plus a lot of options for thriller combat tactics). I decided to keep the +/-2 damage cap, but to give some weapons the Boon/Bane feature, where 2d6 are rolled and either the best die (Boon) or worst die (Bane) are kept. Everything else was fairly straightforward, although I have made auto fire Thermal weapons extremely lethal. If a Thermal weapon hits two targets in its arc of fire, the user gets a free bonus attack against all other targets in the arc. All targets means all, other PCs, innocent NPCs, fuel tanks, macguffins, etc, the Thermal weapon hits everything.

You will find more detail on the hacks in this Dropbox File.

Coriolis-KS-5

While I also used some material from Ashen Stars, a version of GUMSHOE for sci-fi adventures in a post-post-scarcity universe, I found when working through its rules that it was just a bit too weird to adapt easily. Too much of the game was specific to the Ashen Stars universe, and required a translation step for use in the Coriolis setting. Having made one use of its ship combat system, I am not sure it actually works in terms of posing a threat to the PCs unless I make very high bids from the NPCs, and in future I might use the NBA chase rules more often. Because I think the tone of the campaign should see the PCs running away from Stealth Cruisers.

Session Zero was a bit cliched. The PCs woke up early from suspended animation aboard the Blue Danube, with a couple of months of memories missing. They disabled the medical robot that tried to sedate them, and explored the ship. Through a glass window they get to see a cloud of black smoke killing hapless people in a cargo bay. At this stage, rather than focusing on escape, the PCs worked their way to the bridge, eliminated some mooks and investigated. In the background I kept a lock counting down. So the vampire attacked them while they were climbing down a ladder shaft. The players shot their weapons at it enough to make it run into smoke, but not before one was bitten. In this campaign, a vampire bite will trigger latent mystic powers. Making it down to the Shuttle deck, the PCs tried fighting their way past bodyguards armed with Vulcan auto weapons, with the regenerating reforming vampire coming up from behind. This was a hard fight, with more than one player on negative health by the time they escaped on the shuttle, and a second PC getting bitten.

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From here the PCs were able to hide in a sargasso of wrecked space ships, and salvage one they could escape the system from. My goals in session zero were to give the players a reason to be together and to gel together, and to demonstrate that without knowledge of the vampires, mere application of firepower is insufficient to “solve” the central problem of the campaign (the mystery of why latent mystics are being shipped en mass to a system filled with space wrecks, which as the PCs have found, includes them).

One thing I asked for from the players, was a unique origin story for each PC. This was to provide at least five starting locations for the campaign where the PCs would absolutely most definitely find some clues about the vampire conspiracy.

So after jumping through the closed Menkar gate, getting blamed for the destruction of the science ship Light of Babylon, and stopping at Sadaal long enough to get false papers, the party headed for Nargar. One of the PCs had been involved with a colony placed near a dead alien structure. Shades of Aliens. Not a lot happened here – much careful sneaking around – but the party did meet Jumuna, a Draconite Knight converted by the vampires, but also romantically connected to a PC. Unsure of their ground, the party chose flight over combat.

Algol is where the PCs currently are. They went there to follow another PC origin story, which involved a tale of a vampire hunting priest. The hope is they will pick up information on vampire vulnerabilities or ways of defending themselves against them. So far they have sold “agricultural machinery” to rebels, visited the important temples and nightclubs, but also contacted a djinn who is willing to help them if they can save Ezekiel Wrath, the priest they are looking for, from an assassination attempt that will take place during the next major Demon Star eclipse (now only two days away). The big reveal from the Djinn is that the vampires are Shaitan, children of Iblis, who in Islamic mythology was either a fallen angel or a fallen djinn. Where humans are made from clay, djinn are made from the flame of the fire, Angels from the light of creation, and Shaitan from the smoke of the fire. One PC survived a terror attack from rebels armed with the guns they sold them earlier in the day.

Feedback from the players on the campaign so far has been positive. We are all enjoying the change of pace from our last campaign using Runequest 6. The system is something we are still learning in play, in some cases we have to unlearn reflexes from more traditional games. We spent too much time sneaking on Nagar, when I could have said “the base is empty of life, tell me how you investigate it”. Anyhow, can’t wait for the next game, as we left it on a cliffhanger with a Courtesan pointing a pistol at a PC who had woken from a mystic experience while in a VR proxy tape booth that put him through the experience of being decapitated by a vampire.


d100 House Rules

March 18, 2018

I am mucking around with a few rule variants for d100 roleplaying games.

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You can’t beat the classics.

Fatigue

I have never met a player who enjoyed tracking encumbrance and fatigue, and I do not enjoy it much as a GM either. I had a lightbulb moment today, and started riffing off the morale rules in Moldvay D&D for a Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition hack intended for a Megadungeon crawl.

Test for fatigue when (a) the first PC or foe is eliminated from the combat and (b) when half of the people involved in the combat have been eliminated.

Resolve the test by rolling 1d100 versus CON. Add an advantage die if fresh (first encounter of the day) or unencumbered. Add disadvantage dice for heavy armour, exhaustion and other factors:

  1. Success – keep fighting
  2. Failure – add a disadvantage die to all skill checks for the rest of the encounter
  3. Fumble – add two disadvantage dice to all skill checks for the rest of the encounter.

Pro – low amount of bookkeeping required, Con – does add a process step mid-scene where everyone needs to roll dice and record a result. The table also needs some shared expectations around when the disadvantage dice get added to the CON check – which requires the GM or game system to signal clearly when they think the PCs are tired or trying to carry too much stuff around.

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Art from the cover of the Conan 2d20 rules.

Mastery

In Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition you score a critical success on a roll of 01%, and fumble on a roll of 96-00%. Which tells you a lot about that game system. Thinking about the Conan 2d20 momentum system inspired me to try adding a second threshold for critical success, and giving player’s more tempting opportunities to spend Luck Points to adjust d100 rolls (using an optional rule, possibly from Pulp Cthulhu).

A critical success is scored on a roll that exactly matches the skill level, or when a roll is made equal or less than the skill’s mastery level.

For example, if the reckless swordsman Fitz the Harsh has a skill of 92% and a Master of 06%, then Fitz scores a critical success on a roll of 01-06 or 92, a success on a roll of 07-91, a failure on a roll of 93-95, and a fumble on a roll of 96-00.

Using the optional Luck point system, you can spend 10 Luck Points to cancel a fumble, or shift any other die roll by one per Luck Point you spend.

Mastery does not increase the way normal skills do. So far my thoughts are:

  1. Start with 01% mastery in the PC’s eight archetype/profession skills.
  2. Gain 01% mastery when Skill level reaches 90%.
  3. GM discretion to grant a point of mastery for milestone achievements in the campaign.
  4. Otherwise mastery improvement requires rolling fumbles equal to the current mastery level to gain +01%. Note: this assumes a table play style where a fumble is adding a complication to the scene (e.g. a dropped weapon), rather than an opportunity for the GM to hammer the character into the afterlife (e.g. an arrow to the eye socket).
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Card from the Dungeon Solitaire deck – available from Thegamecrafter

Initiative

As part of PC generation I am thinking of having the players draw three major arcana cards to represent past, present and future. While I originally thought of just using this for inspiration in shaping the character concept, today I thought of using it to help shape initiative.

  1. A player draws three major arcana cards (there are 33 in the deck I intend to use). If any of the three cards match PC cards, the party as a whole holds initiative and the PC(s) with matching cards gain a bonus action they can call on at any point during the encounter.
  2. If the PCs do not have initiative and there is an NPC nemesis level opponent (Skills at 90%+) the nemesis gains initiative now, otherwise repeat step one.
  3. If the PCs do not have initiative and there is an NPC elite level opponent (Skills at 50%+) the elite gains initiative now, otherwise repeat step one.
  4. If the PCs do not have initiative after nine card draws, the NPCs have initiative.

Initiative is then run using the “popcorn initiative” rule, where the last person to act in the scene chooses who acts next. The last person to act in a round gets to choose who acts first in the next round. Note: there are obvious ways of manipulating this system, lets call it “tactics” and not worry about people setting things up to get two attacks in a row.

An obvious tweak to represent surprise or preparation is adjust the number of cards the party gets to draw.

 


Reflections on a Runequest 6 Campaign

April 3, 2017

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I seem to be chiming into “sell me on/off Runequest/Mythras” threads a lot on rpg.net a lot lately. So as my Runequest 6 (RQ6) campaign is winding down I thought I might post a summary of what I think of the system after almost three years of running a campaign for five players.

The Trivial Question – should you get Runequest 6 or Mythras?

The rules are almost identical. Both were published by The Design Mechanism. My copy of RQ6 is a 456 page softback. Mythras is a 304 page hardback. Mythras has stripped out the references to Runes, dropped a font size, reduced the white space in the margins, cleaned up the presentation of Animism magic and spirits, added a few more combat effects, traits, and incorporated errata. The character sheet in the Mythras rules is much improved on the RQ6 sheet.

I will not use Mythras at the game table, simply because the smaller font size is difficult for my ageing eyes to read. Hands down, no contest, RQ6 wins for ease of referencing mid-session.

What is Runequest 6 About?

Runequest 6 is about magic-wielding adventurers who go on missions to kill enemies and take their stuff, for reasons justified by the community they belong to. Your Runequest May Vary, but this is the default premise supported by the rules.

How Does Runequest 6 go About that?

The major elements of Runequest 6 are:

  1. 1970s style character attributes (Strength, hit points, etc) with a few modern touches (luck points, passions, culture, etc).
  2. A D100 roll under blackjack core mechanic, with an extensive skill system that governs almost all character actions.
  3. A gritty realistic feeling combat system, in which the player’s feel their characters are always vulnerable to harm.
  4. A toolkit of options for tailoring magic to your own campaign setting, and five different types of magic, but generally within competent mortal bounds, not mythic levels of power.
  5. Templates for building social organisations. Without these you might as well be playing D&D.
  6. Its a “Rule Zero” game system. You’re expected to ignore rules you do not like, or to add rules if the rules fail to support your preferred mode of game play.

What Does Runequest 6 Reward?

Runequest 6 gives rewards for sessions played, fumbles rolled, and for having the in-game wealth and time to purchase training for characters.

Lets Look at the Rewards a Little More Closely

Session based play rewards whatever the GM feels like rewarding, but in an egalitarian way. The suggestions are to base the reward on the length of time since the last reward (suggested range is two to four) AND how well the characters have performed (mission success) OR how well the characters have been played. It is recommended that everyone be given the same number of experience rolls (so you can ignore mission success or roleplaying prowess and just go straight to number of sessions since the last reward handout, multiplied by a number the GM likes).

Experience rolls can be spent on:

  1. Increasing existing skills – cost one experience roll, results in a gain of +1% to +5%.
  2. Increasing characteristics – by reducing all future experience gains by one OR by spending (1+current value -species minimum).
  3. Increasing or decreasing passions – cost one experience roll.
  4. Learning new skills – cost three experience rolls.
  5. Learning new magical abilities and spells – cost varies from three to five experience rolls for spells, more for creating new traditions .

Fumbles almost never occur in actual play, due to the luck point mechanic, but if they were to occur, then the character who fumbles a skill check (a roll of 99 or 100 on the d100 roll), gains a free +1% to the skill.

Training can improve skills you currently know (but not acquire new skills, you have to have spend three experience rolls for that), but you cannot train a skill more than twice in a row. Otherwise rich characters would never need to go adventuring again.

I think there was a missed opportunity to tie the Passion mechanic to the reward system. Its implied in the option for rewarding performance, but its not explicit so it can be ignored. Overall the reward system is one of small incremental improvement, making RQ6 ideal for campaigns intended to last for years of play.

In my campaign I originally only let players spend one experience roll on a skill increase each time they were awarded experience. Mid-campaign I reread the experience rules and decided this was not what was intended by the rules, and allowed any or all experience rolls to be spent on the same skill. Player behaviour instantly changed – the warriors focused on hitting foes with swords spent the majority of their experience on increasing Combat Style, while the sorcerers spent the majority of their experience on increasing their two magic skills. While 80% skill is good, 95% is better, and 105% is much better. Developing hobby skills or secondary interests feels like its making your character weak.

Is Runequest 6 Easy to Learn?

No its not.

If you have been playing roleplaying games since the 1970s and have used any previous d100 game system, than yes, YOU can pick up and learn to play or GM RQ6 easily. If you are used to modern games with a focused coherent design of rules and roleplaying practice, and a developed setting for play, then RQ6 presents you with an overwhelming number of choices, places most of the narrative authority burden on the GM, and then runs away and hides behind Rule Zero.

In my experience, RQ6 is not suited for modern convention play unless you play with a significantly cut-down version of the rules or with people who already know the game rules. Over the last few years I have had good experiences running Cortex Plus, Conan 2d20, Paranoia, and Blades in the Dark at conventions for players who had never encountered those game systems before. My one attempt at running RQ6 was a painful morass of player indecision (see my comments on death by a thousand options below).

The shorter (and free to download) Mythras Imperative rules might do better here. I note in passing that Chaosium are putting a lot of effort into designing a quickstart set of rules for their next edition of Runequest, and an adventure suitable for convention use.

The rules are about as logical as you can get in a linear text. There are a few things in the GM chapter I wish were more player facing, the animism and spirit information is a bit scattered (corrected in Mythras), and I thought the rules for bartering and haggling might have been better placed in the Skills chapter rather than the Economics chapter.

Can You Lose the Game in Character Generation?

Yes, you can lose the game in character generation by building a character with less than three action points. Action points govern how often you get to act in combat, so building a character with only one or two action points means you get less spotlight time than the other players AND your character’s chances of surviving combat plummet. This is because defensive actions consume one of your actions, and if you are attacked successfully and have no remaining actions, your foe gains a bonus special effect.

To be fair, the GM chapter does provide some advice on Skill selection and how to survive with only two Action Points, but if your GM does not pass on that advice, then you stand a pretty good chance of your first character being pretty woeful. The advice on how to play well with less than three action points … well it applies equally to anyone with three action points as well. I note that in Mythras Imperative, all characters get two Action Points.

In terms of ensuring character survival in combat, I believe the most important factors are:

  1. Action Points – because not giving away bonus special effects when hit is pretty much the most important thing in RQ6 combat.
  2. Luck Points – because it can be used to reroll a skill check, to gain an extra action, or to reduce a wound.
  3. Combat Style skill – you want this to be as high as possible because its used for both attack and defence.
  4. Evade or Acrobatics Skill – Evade is less useful than Combat Style for avoiding moderate amounts of damage because you end up prone (which costs an action to get up from). Acrobatics is more useful than Evade, because in most cases it can be substituted for Evade and a check allows falling damage to be reduced by 75%.
  5. Athletics Skill – because falling from a great height will inflict damage to multiple locations, and a luck point will only cancel one of them.
  6. Swim skill – because fatigue from drowning is a karmic death spiral on steroids.
  7. Endurance – ranked low as it is better to prevent damage through actions, skills use, or the passive effects of armour and shields, and it is better to prevent a critical hit by using a luck point to force an opponent to reroll. I will expand on this when I discuss the skill system below.
  8. Willpower – ranked low as only useful versus certain spells and social challenges.

This encourages a degree of homogeneity among characters. I would strongly encourage players to make sure their character has a minimum POW of 13 (for three luck points), and INT and DEX scores that sum to at least 35 (for three action points).

How Whiffy is the Skill System?

It is a very whiffy system. If you have a skill of 48%, then you will fail 52% of the time. There is an option buried in the GMs chapter to adapt the multistage crafting system to social encounters, which allows you to better handle tasks resolved over a period of time. Its not as detailed as say Burning Wheel’s debate system, but it does the job and I think it should have been up front in the main skill chapter.

One thing that is good, is that when opposed skill checks are being made, the higher successful roll beats the lower. So its more decisive than the early D100 games. If I were starting an RQ6 game again, I think I would try to incorporate fail forward by offering a “success with complications” to a player when both opposed rolls fail.

Another good thing is that a single Combat Style skill can incorporate as many weapons as you think is appropriate to your campaign. This avoids people tracking a dozen different skills. If I ran another RQ6 campaign I would look at bundling other skills together this way, e.g. a “College Skill” could incorporate a package of related Lore and Language skills.

My least favourite feature of the skill system is the incorporation of division into the process for calculating skill checks. A hard difficulty check requires you to reduce your skill level by 33%, which always elicits groans and eye rolls at my gaming table when I ask people to do the maths. Then you try augment your skill with another skill/passion or help from another character, which requires you to divide that skill by five and add it to the original skill. In the RAW your critical score remains at the unaugmented level, but I think its a common house rule to adjust it up to the augmented level for simplicity.

I have definitely encountered people who think this is a simple process, but I disagree. I note that RQ6 has an option alternative for flat +/- 20% to difficulty levels. If I ran RQ6 again, I would be very tempted to use the advantage/disadvantage die system used in Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition, simply to speed up play. I also note that in Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition, all three difficulty levels that reduce skills are pre-calculated and written for easy reference on the PC sheet.

System Mastery Shock

You might think an 80% skill is good. But its possible to run into a situation  where you have little to no chance to succeed. This is because on many “survival” checks, such as Endurance, Evade, and Willpower, not only do you have to roll under your skill, but over your enemy’s roll as well. This is an all or nothing check.

So if you have 80% Endurance skill, and your foe rolled a 70% attack against you that dealt you a horrible wound, you need to roll either a critical (01-08%) or a success better than 70% (71-80%). While it fits elegantly with the rest of the RQ6 system, it feels like your survival skills need to be about twice as high as your attack skills to be at a similar level of effectiveness. Now imagine your opponent lucked out and rolled a 07% critical, now your 80% Endurance Skill gives you a 1% chance of success, only a roll of 08 will help you.

This is the reason why if my players had to choose between increasing Combat Style or increasing Endurance, they chose to increase Combat Style. Point for point its a better investment for character survival. It took quite a few sessions of play before we really picked up on this feature of RQ6. After a longer period of time we realised that you could spend Luck Points to force the enemy to reroll their critical successes, and that this was a much better way of ensuring survival than rerolling your own Endurance check.

With Luck, Fumbles Never Happen

One feature of the system is that I found that in play, fumbles almost never happen. My players would see the 99 or 00 on their dice, and spend the luck point to reroll. This is a perfectly reasonable thing for them to do, as fumbling in combat both increases the number of Special Effects gained against you, and opens up more severe special effects to be applied. A fumble only happened if luck points were exhausted, if it was in a relatively safe situation with healers on hand, or in the rare situations where a second 99 or 00 was rolled (so about one chance in 2,500 rolls). I think that happened once during the entire campaign.

As a GM, I felt frustrated by the lack of opportunities generated by the game system to take scenes in unexpected directions. I took this lesson into running Conan 2d20 where I told players that my job in using “Doom” generated by the players was to make the game more interesting for them, not to slaughter their characters with it. In a similar way, I was groping for something to handle long term story arcs, like Fronts in Apocalypse World. But that might be a house rule for another day in the future.

Combat – Death by a Thousand Options!

One of my reasons for starting an RQ6 campaign, was that I was looking for a system with a bit more meat on the bones than the Dragon Age system I had been using for the previous three years. RQ6 certainly delivers on this point with a rich system for conflict that can be tailored to either realistically grim or lighter cinematic heroism. My campaign involved musketeers, so it had some important rule decisions:

  • the players had access to musket pistols, which do 1d8 damage and ignore four points of armour
  • the main melee weapon is the rapier, which does 1d8 damage, and in an interesting quirk, has the same engagement range as a spear
  • only primitive cultures still used shields.
  • the PCs ( and many foes) had access to a combat trait that let them Evade without going prone
  • I allowed Luck Points to be spent to reduce a Serious Wound to a Minor Wound.

Initiative ignores your skill in fighting, and is based on a 1d10 roll plus the average of DEX+INT, minus worn armour. This was pretty much the only step in the game for us where Encumbrance mattered. I have never seen players who enjoy tracking encumbrance or fatigue, and RQ6 doesn’t really change the world on that point.

The key tactical feature of RQ6 combat is to concentrate efforts so your opponents run out out of Actions, so that you start gaining a bonus Special Effects when you hit them.

When my players first consulted the Special Effects table they were overwhelmed by the options. There are just too many of them. Humans stop being able to make good decisions when presented with more than about five options to choose from. Instead of making a choice, the brain just adopts a short cut. So our experience was this:

  • in the first few game sessions, after several minutes of agonising about the choice, the players would finally choose “target head”
  • after a few months the players just started choosing “target head” after a few seconds, and I got to put away the one minute sand timer I had been using to encourage them to make a quick decision
  • after a couple of years the players just said “target head” automatically. About once per game session one of the players would choose a different effect.
  • the only interesting decision was when people got a critical effect and had to choose between target head, maximise damage, and bypass armour.

So for me, one of the big selling points of “why play RQ6 and not another d100 game” ultimately proved to be a bug and not a feature. In a similar vein, I found the combination of a chart of situational difficulty modifiers for ranged weapons, and a second chart of penalties based on range and target size to be so complex as to be junked after one session of use.

One thing we had a lot of trouble with early on was charging into combat. While almost everything else happens in actions, a charge takes an entire five second combat round. This was frustrating to my players, who invariably wanted to exploit a moment of surprise to get into contact with the enemy right now.

Out of all the combats I ran, only one lasted long enough for the fatigue rules to really kick in meaningfully (most of my combats were over in four combat rounds or less, probably due to the lack of shields and the use of musket pistols or sorcery). So I stopped bothering about encumbrance and fatigue, as the handling time did not pay any dividends in game play.

Three things I struggled with as a GM were the Counter Spell and Ward Location actions. Counter Spell allows an incoming spell to be dismissed. Because it took the sorcerer PCs several actions to cast a spell, the game would have been rendered excruciatingly frustrating for them if I had NPCs countering their spells. So I almost never did it. Ward Location is a free action, allowing you to change the hit locations being guarded by a weapon or shield. The damage reduction from passive blocking is usually sufficient to negate an attack, and it does not cost an action. As with Counter Spell, I felt reluctant to use my knowledge of the player’s choices to block their actions. Outmaneuvering was another action in game that I never dared using against the players – if I had an NPC spending one action and making an Evade check to effectively negate the actions of all the PCs facing them, I would have had very unhappy players.

In play I found two activities more threatening than combat. One is climbing, the other is drowning. Climbing involves a risk of falls, and falling damage is realistically lethal and can strike multiple locations. Drowning is dangerous because it inflicts fatigue damage – which rapidly reduces your Swim skill making it more likely to fail the next Swim check.

The price of realism is time. RQ6 combats take a lot of time to resolve – make an attack roll, make a defence roll, choose special effects, determine hit location, roll damage dice, make endurance tests). In a faster playing system, like D&D, the whiff is forgivable as you get another action quickly. In RQ6 when you miss it takes a while to get back to you. So there is a lot of time where players are passively watching the action.

Linear Warrior, Quadratic Mage!

Sorcerers are better than other character concepts in RQ6 because they are more effective in combat. This is because a Sorcerer’s spells can be cast against multiple opponents, and the effect is continuing. This makes Sorcery incredibly disruptive to the action point economy of the RQ6 combat system.

A combatant with 100% combat style and a Longsword used in a two-handed style will inflict 1d10 damage on a hit, assuming it is not parried or evaded. On a critical, the weapon could do 10 points of damage. It still has to penetrate any worn armour. This costs one action to do, and might use up one enemy action on a defensive counter.

A Sorcerer with 100% Skill in Shaping and Invocation casts a Magnitude 1, Range POW, Targets nine Wrack spell. This strikes nine opponents for 1d10 damage to a random location every time the sorcerer takes an action and concentrates on the Wrack spell rather than doing something else. This damage ignores worn armour and can only be resisted with an Evade check (which costs an action point). Spending one action to inflict 9d10 damage, or possibly exhausting nine enemy actions – its hard for the characters who choose not to use magic to feel that their character concepts were a good idea.

Towards the end of my campaign, I attacked my five PCs and three NPC allies with upwards of 30 opponents. The party was camped for the night on a rise of stone in a swamp, and managed to spot the approaching attackers in time to prepare defences. One sorcerer boosted the damage resistance of the party and then locked down nine of the enemies with a crowd control spell, the other sorcerer let loose a fire elemental to disrupt the attack and then wracked another ten of the foes to death. The remaining 11 enemies were dealt with by the other six characters. The dozen odd enemy archers not in the main assault force did manage the odd effective hit (range and darkness reduced their effective skill to around 10%) but if they had stuck around after the main assault was defeated the sorcerers would have pinned and burned them in short order.

Monsters are not Scary but a Heavy Infantry Shield Wall is Terrifying

A single monster lacks the Action points to be an intimidating opponent. Even a Dragon has a mere four action points. Two combat rounds of “target head” special effects should be more than enough to take care of it. The only monsters my players found intimidating in the game were opponents with > 100% combat skill (because every point over 100 reduces a PCs skill by a matching amount), immunity to damage or armour greater than weapon damage, or mystics with the ability to grant themselves bonus actions for parrying/evade actions (suddenly finding out that your opponent has six actions, not three, is a great discomfort to a player).

Groups using the Formation Fighting trait on the other hand … your action points are reduced by one just by engaging them! Now if they are also using overlapping large shields to passively block five of the seven possible hit locations, you can get a long extended sitzkrieg where those fatigue rules start being a deciding factor. In my campaign, when the PCs ran into a formation of shield and spear troops their reaction was to nuke it from range with spells.

Social Stuff – A Strength and a Weakness

I have an issue with with the Seduction skill. As a professional skill its restricted to the Courtesan and Entertainer professions, and its the only way a character can romantically or sexually persuade another character – its explicitly different to the Influence skill all characters have. While its true that you could take the seduction skill as your one elective “hobby” skill option, or Rule Zero it, I just found this weird.

One thing I noticed about RQ6 only after getting into the middle of the campaign was that the light touch for “social effects”. Where combat has 50+ options for extra detail, most social skills have at best four options (for fumble, fail, success and critical success). This does make social interactions play much faster than combat, but its also another reason why I think the default premise of RQ6 is social justified killing with magic, because that is what most of the rules focus on.

A weird thing in my campaign was that my players did not trust their Insight checks. I could tell them after a successful roll that the NPC they were interacting with wanted to help them, and the players would still choose not to trust them. I think that is on them and not the game system.

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Supplements for the Game

With a toolkit system like RQ6 a lot of GMs are going to be running home brew campaigns. What follows is my short summary on the available settings and supplements:

  • Mythic Britain: Dark Ages Britain with a potential King Arthur. Its really hard to compete in this space with Pendragon, and while the Winter Council scenario showed promise, the rest of the adventures in the book underwhelmed me.
  • Mythic Rome: reads like a history textbook. I’m yet to reach the point in the book where they start discussing how its a game.
  • M-Space: a homage to 1970s sci-fi roleplaying. I found it uninspiring, except for its explanation of Revolution D100’s extended conflict system, which it does better than the source.
  • Classic Fantasy: a homage to 1970s fantasy roleplaying, its a skinning of Basic D&D into a D100 system. Rather than extra hit points, you get a lot more Luck Points.
  • Korantia: a traditional bronze age fantasy setting. I quite liked some of the background elements, but again, the published scenario I had for it did not enthuse me.
  • Luther Arkwright: a homage to a 1970s comic about a multiverse hopping agent of order. Good, but you may have noticed a retro theme to the RQ6 settings, and this one really nails that classic random generation feel by restricting psionic powers to people who make a lucky random roll.
  • Monster Island: a superb sandbox setting on a jungle island. This was my first RQ6 supplement, and almost everything else from the Design Mechanism has left me disappointed in comparison to this gem.
  • Hessaret’s treasure: a good one shot adventure mixing some urban social interaction, overland journey, and a cave crawl at the end.
  • Ships and Shield Walls: Rules for ships and mass battles. I had to adapt the battle rules for gunpowder but they worked well enough. The second time we had a mass battle, I did not use the mass battle system, as the PCs side would have been wiped out in it (they had 1,000 conscript spears versus 1,000 trained musketeers).
  • The Book of Quests: seven roughly linked scenarios. I found the best of these to be The Curse of the Contessa, with its competing sets of NPCs, while the worst was the introductory scenario Caravan, where all the clues for the behaviour of the big bad monster at the end misdirect the players.

My main creative tools: Silent Legions, which was invaluable for generating cults and great old ones (because nothing from Call of Cthulhu surprises anyone anymore – the moment I told my players they were going to a coastal town, they all collectively muttered “Deep Ones” at the same time), and The Harrowing Deck, which I used for quick generation of NPC motivations, or pulling three cards for a past/present/future structure for a scenario or in game event.

Invaluable for any RQ6 campaign is the Mythras Encounter generator. This allows you to quickly generate any number of NPCs and print them off for use in combat. With the other creative tools I could generate enough material for up to five sessions of play in around two hours.

So you Obviously Hated this Game System?

No. I had a really good time planing and running the game, and my players enjoyed it. Towards the end of the campaign, however, all the players agreed that they did not want to play RQ6 again. Their request was for a simpler and more flexible game system, and I have one player who is dead keen on the Conan 2d20 game – which I backed on Kickstarter and should be getting a pile of supplements for in the middle of the year.

My own ideas about what I want in a game have also evolved. Over the last three years I have probably read more roleplaying game systems than in the previous 30 years. While I was able to bring insights from this reading to bear fruit in the RQ6 campaign, towards the end of the campaign I had reached a point where the RQ6 rules were hindering me more than helping me.

If I did it all over again I would do a lot of things differently based on my improved understanding of the game’s strengths and weaknesses, and by the time I finished adding that layer of adjustments on, the game would only barely be recogniseable as RQ6. I did read through the Mythras Gateway license for people who want to write game supplements using the Mythras rules, and almost everything singled out as a feature of the game system not to be changed, is something I want to change!

I think they key lesson for me, is that I am no longer looking for a simulationist roleplaying game system for running long campaigns with. I checked out the beta for a recent Kickstarter for a realistic combat system, and stopped reading at the point where it said “Roll 14d10 to climb the wall”. My own knowledge of martial arts and history means I just find too many edge cases in the rules that bug me, whereas a game that adheres to emulating a specific fiction or collection of tropes is probably going to be better for me as a GM now. For example, if I want to do a samurai game, then Usagi Yojimbo will do a better job out of the box than me spending three months rewriting RQ6.

But, there is that new edition of Runequest (no edition number) from Chaosium later this year. And the draft rules at GECON last year looked so good … so I am sure I will run some kind of d100 game again in the future.

 


The Cold Stars Shone in Mockery

November 7, 2016
Kapcon registration has gone live, so I will do another post on progress with the Colossus of Atlantis meagagme soon. In the meantime, here are my musings on running a SF campaign next year, based on an email I sent out to my current play group.
Feedback I have on what my players want in an SF game:
  • the current campaign’s episodic/story arc structure seems to work well
  • party should have access to a ship, not be stuck on a station or planet
  • a mix of aliens is okay
  • posthuman/transhuman elements are worth a look.

I was recommended to watch Dark Matter (party wakes up on a spaceship with no memories, the ship has a cargo of weapons and some locked doors) and the Expanse (for a greater dose of realism in space). My recommended reading to my players was Altered Carbon (FTL is only possible via uploaded minds, central protagonist is an Envoy, a type of troubleshooter trained to use whatever tools are available to solve problems). Other media recommendations are most welcome. The title of the post is from a line in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. My current go to place for insight on spaceships and SF tropes is the Atomic Rockets website.

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Art from Starvation Cheap by Sine Nomine Publishing

System

Past feedback was that some of my players would prefer not to use a D100 system in the next campaign (so that rules out Eclipse Phase, River of Heaven, Revolution D100 or M-Space). One issue identified was never actually feeling like your characters were competent, or not being able to judge your relative competency against opponents, which was really brought home by watching how an 80% Endurance skill meant next to nothing if the blow taking you down was a critical hit (you had to both roll a critical yourself, and have it exceed your foe’s roll, so that 80% baseline skill might only end up with a 3% chance of success). I have also found a few elements of the RQ6/Mythras system to be fiddly (adjusting skill chance by dividing/multiplying skill level, a lot of die rolls lead to boring outcomes, and choosing combat effects after the skill roll is made is an immersion crushing waste of time). I do have some ideas to retool D100, but that would take some work.
I have backed, but not yet received a few SF kickstarters, which might arrive early next year:
  • Bulldogs! (Fate based courier missions/salvage teams)
  • Mindjammer (Traveller based agents for the Culture-like Commonality in a universe where thousands of years of STL colonisation happened, and FTL is only a few centuries old)
  • Coriolis (Firefly meets Arabian nights, with mysticism in the dark voids of space)
  • SF ports of Blades in the Dark (Apocalypse World derived system that is probably the most mind bending system I have read in the last year or two)
I have a few other SF games lying around, mostly in PDF format:
  • Firefly (Cortex+ dice pool system)
  • Edge of Empire (Star Wars dice pool system)
  • Stars Without Number (old D&D in space)
  • Strontium Dog (Traveller, focus on mutations and bounty hunting)
  • Nova Praxis (Fate)
  • Cepheus (OSR Traveller clone)
  • Fading Suns (D20 decadent nobles in a declining empire)
  • Rocket Age (retro 30s pulp)
  • Eldritch Skies (Savage Worlds, near future with Cthulhu)
  • Numenera (Cypher D20 system)
  • Night Witches (okay its a WWII game powered by the Apoclaypse, but on reading it I thought its completely adaptable to a SF game where everyone is a fighter pilot on the losing side of the Great Patriotic Space War)
The problem with nearly every SF game that tries to handle transhumanism, is that there is lots of paperwork when shifting bodies, and its pointless to spend character generation resources on physical attributes, when you can buy better in-game. As such I don’t think any first generation lineage game engine can cut it. Eclipse Phase is weirdly over complicated for what it tries to do. Zak Sabbath had a simpler OSR take on this issue.
I lean towards something more descriptive, like Cortex+ or Fate, but that means buying into the abstractness of plot point meta currency systems, and being in tune with not trying to track every last plasma round and credit chip. The alternative is to drop the mind uploading/body hopping aspects of transhumanism. If I did that, then I might build the combat engine around fighting to the point where the PCs combat armour is knocked out, rather than fighting to the point where carbonised brains splatter the bulkheads. At which point why not go full Mecha?
None of the Apocalypse World hacks for SF look like a finished product to me.
So far I am not sold on any particular game engine – more suggestions are welcome. Systems I have not looked at much include:
  • Ashen Stars (Gumshoe variant, good for investigations)
  • Fragged Empire (creatures created by humans after humanity’s fall)
  • Polaris (a French game, looks blue)
  • Corvus Belli Infinity (a 2d20 roll under Target Number game , so I have some familiarity with that from Conan, and its going to be used for the John Carter of Mars game as well).
I am not fond of the level of detail and 3d6 systems used in GURPS/HERO systems. After playing Dragon Age and D20, I am not fond of hit point bloat systems, so while I could retool Fantasy Age into “Space Age”, that would take some work. I don’t see any ports of 13th Age into an SF setting yet either.
Do you have a system recommendation, or preference for one of the above game systems?
The Cold Stars Setting
I am thinking of mixing the following:
  • Earth colonised by aliens, like the British Raj, there has been some uplift, but much of the alien ways remain incomprehensible
  • At least one group of aliens has mucked around with humans and enabled psionic powers (its a way to establish character exceptionalism), and the concept of a psionic gestalt could provide another reason for why the PCs are in a party together
  • Several powerful alien races, and an ongoing cold war, and humans can be clients to various alien patrons, so there is background tension, espionage, boundaries that are forbidden to cross, Casablanca zones, and no one wants a war to break out with dinosaur killer level kinetic weapons
  • FTL: entry into FTL space is easy, the hard part is getting out again – you need to home in on a beacon signal or specific type of variable star signature, before the heat build up inside your ship kills you.
  • The characters are specialists in dealing with colony worlds where the beacons go dark, so they have a good ship and a job that gets them into trouble. They also have a license that keeps all of their high tech equipment functional, but if they go dark themselves, then it all stops working four weeks later when it realises it has not received the latest security update.
A Future History
The Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy has future history as a colonisation-empire-collapse pattern, although it assumes that human beings will be doing the colonising. TvTropes also has a standard future history, similar to the above and a standard Sci-Fi setting. The “Consensus Cosmogony” (to use Donald A. Wollheim’s phrase) is as follows:
  1. Exploration and colonisation of the Solar System
  2. World War III
  3. Interstellar exploration and colonisation
  4. First contact with aliens
  5. The cycle of empires
  6. The final empire
  7. Humanity’s final fate (these days its likely to be some kind of singularity ascendance, in the old days it was white togas and flared shoulders for everybody).
The key insight here, is that most visions of the future recycle the past. Not every SF work follows this pattern. In Andre Norton’s “Star Guard“, humans are only allowed off Earth to act as mercenaries for other aliens, and this occurs in quite a few other series, such as Jerry Purnelle’s “Janissaries” books. In The Course of Empire, by Eric Flint and K. D. Wentworth, humans are sepoy soldiers for aliens who have conquered Earth. Which is getting closer to what I want for a setting I think.
The Raj Pattern
The Raj Pattern for Sci-fi could be summarised as:
  1. Present day – human princes feud among themselves, while in the background the planet begins to burn from climate change
  2. First contact – aliens become involved in trade with Earth, and by “divide and rule” tactics quickly establish permanent outposts
  3. Alien influence grows as governments outsource their core functions in exchange for trinkets and longevity
  4. Alien influence consolidated in corporate governance that effectively controls all taxation on most of Earth
  5. Human rebellion/mutiny against their alien corporate overlords is quashed
  6. The real alien government turns up and implements direct rule, while still trying to help the poor primitive apes to ascend the ladder of civilisation
  7. The Great Big Space War – humans have a choice, help their alien overlords, passive resistance, or active rebellion.
  8. Independence?
In terms of how it relates to PCs, its the value/loyalty choice in step seven. At any other point of the cycle prior to that, the smart money is on the aliens.
I am thinking that a lifepath character generation system makes some sense, if it gets player engagement with the setting. Traveller used to have as a feature death in character generation. In a Transhuman setting, you could have a conflict that causes players to roll 1d10 to see how many times their character was KIA and restored from backup.
Espionage
I found a few blog posts on espionage in SF. Sadly the series does not seem to have been concluded. Its key points:
  • spy stories are about tension, in particular, they are about middle class apprehensions, the current threats to personal comfort
  • part of the tension comes from familiarity with the world – and SF worlds will inherently be unfamiliar (even if they do adopt the Consensus Cosmogony)
  • there are two strategies for coping with this:
    • stress glamorous, exotic locales, so in SF, ham up the alien and the weird
    • focus on quotidian elements, so in SF, keep it human and current tech
  • using technological Macguffins leads you into Technothriller territory (which tend to be more black/white morality than the grey quotidian novels which draw on the threat of betrayal to ramp up tension)
  • in speculative fiction, “while the underlying themes may get representation in the narrative’s plot, it is harder to overlay those themes onto our real world because their relationship to our world is more oblique”
I did a search for Cold War rpgs a while back, and found a few – most of which had an occult focus with the Cthulhu Mythos or similar. I suspect its harder to do the betrayal theme in a long running campaign with the 4-6 players you usually have in a tabletop campaign. If a Firefly game can be summarised as “get a job, stay flying”, then an espionage focused Cold Stars game could be described as “find a secret, stay alive”.
Cold Wars
Being old enough to remember watching the Berlin Wall come down, just in time for my end of year Political Science exam on the Cold War, I can remember the fear of nuclear war. Its abated today, and shifted to the rogue state. So in an rpg reflecting modern fears, its not so much the alien invasion, its the one shot dinosaur killer strike from a splinter faction or rogue captain with a ship and an FTL drive (which is the key problem with reactionless drives, every merchant captain controls a world killer).
A thought a had a while back, to represent this tension, is to just ask the players if the world ends in fire at the end of every game session., if any of the players says ‘yes”, then the campaign is over. Time to move on to a post-apocalyptic game?
Technology in the Future
Currently on Earth, technological change is increasing at an exponential rate. It is increasingly difficult, even for experts, to remain on top of this change. This makes SF games date quickly. It also means that any single person trying to figure out how people will behave and what physical items will look like in the future has some problems. I have a few present-day topics that I want to explore:
  • social inequality
  • automation
  • 3-D printing
  • the shared economy
Social Inequality
One reason to have aliens in the setting is to create an “upper class” that human characters can never truly be part of. I have a couple of different ideas for implementing this mechanically in the game. One is to have the players roll dice to see which one of them has a privileged background. That character starts with property and cash. All the other characters start in debt. Another is to invert the benefit table from Traveller, with each term of service prior to start of play leading your character ever deeper into debt.
Automation
The future of warfare is likely to involve human-machine teams, where the sharp end of conflict is conducted at machine speeds. Human decisions remain important for starting and ending conflicts, and for resolving complex situations not anticipated by software. In space warfare, I simply don’t see any reason why humans would be climbing into turrets to shoot at piloted fighter craft in line-of-sight ranges. Machines will do that job better than we can. The important human decision is around hiding, running away, starting the fight, or trying to surrender before the ship explodes. In other fields, I think close quarters urban fighting is likely to remain a human skill set, but everyone will be using drones to make their perception checks, and calling in precise-strikes from networked assets.
One idea I had for implementing automation in combat is to make the PCs make a survival check in each round of combat. The PC with the worst roll takes one point of damage per combat round, e.g. in round three they take three points of damage. If you can’t win quickly and break the enemy’s lock on your location, you need to run before the rest of the drone swarm turns up. At any rate, I think SF games need to move beyond replicating World War II or Vietnam in space.
3-D Printing
I had this idea of disposable spaceships. Order it, a 3-D printer makes it, its engines are good for a few jumps, then you recycle it when you dock because that is cheaper than paying the docking fees for three days. Amusing, but I suspect players prefer a more permanent home. It would be a universe where you only own what you choose to carry. Escalated to a mass scale, it gets you lots of small starter colonies that no longer have functioning spaceships, and are always interested in imports of up to date printing templates and OEM printer gunk.
Shared Economy
This flows from automation, the current trends in copyright and licensing, and social inequality (I donate money to EFF.org to try and stop this from happening). While there will always be work for humans, the amount of work that will propel people into the property owning class will diminish. Everyone else will end up using major items on a time share basis, with no true ownership.
What the characters spend their time on is pretty important, as different games will vary the emphasis on:
  • trading, aka spreadsheets in space
  • movement between points in space, is it routine or risky
  • fine tuning gear, aka more spreadsheets in space
  • relationships between characters, love and hate in a tin can
  • character archetypes – broad roles and competencies
  • character skills – specific competencies, less niche protection
  • old school character attributes (strength, charisma etc)
  • character values – passions, drives, triggers.

I asked my players what they preferred to do in games. For the most part my campaigns have been old school (there have been dungeons, monsters and loot) with the addition of lots of social action with NPCs and grey morality – hopefully giving the players meaningful choices about who their friends and enemies are, and whether they are heroes or “the baddies”. I am still thinking a lot about what the core character activities in a Cold War in Space game should be.


Avoiding the Setting/Mechanics trap

April 14, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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