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.

 

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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.

 

 


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

March 4, 2016

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

Race – Halflings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Questions I need to explore on this topic include:

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

Religion – Build Your Own God

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

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

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

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

Questions I need to explore on this topic include:

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

 

Pros and Cons of System Choices

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

Out of scope approaches

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

Old School Approaches

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

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

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

Powered by the Apocalypse

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

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

A hybrid fusion?

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

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

Con: probably needs a license or successful product pitch.


Into the ziggurat of doom

February 29, 2016

We started with the party split in two groups.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loose ends

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

Loot

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

Experience = 12


In a swamp filled with redneck elves

February 18, 2016

Notes from my Runequest 6 roleplaying campaign.

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

Stress Pool Mechanic

February 11, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Husk of the Broken God

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

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

Mechanically it could work like this:

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

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

The Stress Pool

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

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

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

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

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