In a swamp filled with redneck elves

February 18, 2016

Notes from my Runequest 6 roleplaying campaign.

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

Stress Pool Mechanic

February 11, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Husk of the Broken God

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

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

Mechanically it could work like this:

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

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

The Stress Pool

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

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

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

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

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

Tarantium Campaign Session Notes

January 9, 2016

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

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

21 November session


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

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

Party decides against exploring the sealed vault.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 December session

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

19 December session


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

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

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

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

Alfandi Village

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

9 January Session

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

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

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

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

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

  • 81 modern silver coins of the Lunar Realms

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

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

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

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

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

Designing Roleplaying Games: Setting First, or Mechanics First?

November 3, 2015

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

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

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


My goals for mechanics include:

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

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

Rolling Dice

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

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

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

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

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

Dice Pools

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whiffing Forward – the role of failure in roleplaying games

July 21, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Failure is important – without failure success is meaningless

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

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

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

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

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

Framing Failure

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

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

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

Encouraging Failure

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

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

Give Experience Points for Failure, not Success

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

Tangential Thoughts on Dice Mechanics

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

1. Damage Dice Pools

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

2. Standard Card Deck Combat Consequences

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

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

3. Some thoughts on d100 die rolls.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grim and Gritty, or Glam and Sticky?

June 16, 2015

JoyceMaureira_SORCSPLASH (2)

In which I will eventually consider my own play preferences, but first…

I have been doing a lot of reading on roleplaying game design over the last few weeks.  So much so that I suddenly started dreaming in GURPS mechanics last week. Which is odd, as I have never owned a copy of the GURPS rules, just a few of the setting supplements.

My reading started with me thinking about cooperative magic mechanics, magic mechanics in roleplaying games in general, tropes entries on magic, and some Wikipedia research on shadows and weaving.  I also listened to some podcasts at Narrative Control. Chatting with friends, I got feedback that my pitch was more of a Gotterdamerung/final days pitch than a real post-apocalyptic pitch, which I thought was valid.  This led to me thinking a bit about noir settings – and the very next day Bundle of Holding decided to have a noir themed release.  I am still working through that pile of information (and the rulebook for Ars Magicka 5th Edition from another Bundle of Holding offer a few weeks back), but I think a noir influenced setting might require multiple flying cities (so you can have a Casablanca in the middle of it all).

I can go back and forth on the setting. While its important, trying to build it without a better grasp on system is likely to be a waste of time. Figuring out the best system for the setting depends on figuring out exactly what I want the characters to be doing in the game system and what I want the players to be doing around the game table.  So I need to do some research to try and figure out if an existing game system already does what I want, or if I need to build my own system.

Cooperative Mechanics

Many game systems are silent on the issue of character cooperation to resolve contests in the game. Some games allow one character to assist another, but few of the mechanics I looked at are built explicitly around a group of players all making decisions about the contest outcome. Here are three that I found:

Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition: everyone makes a roll, if half the characters succeed, the group succeeds. Dull.

Runequest 6th Edition: the extended skill check system can be used for group tasks. The GM sets a difficulty (suggested base is 100), and the characters do skill checks, +25 for a success, +50 for a critical success and -25 for a fumble. Not quite as dull as D&D, but close.

Blades in the Dark: Characters take turns at being “on point” for an operation (which is based on teamwork). One of their options is to lead a group action: all players roll six sided dice, the best roll is used, but the leader takes one “stress” for each roll of 1-3. Players in “backup” roles can also influence this, e.g. by taking stress to roll a bonus die. Extended tasks are handled with progress clocks, which reminded me of the damage clocks in Apocalypse World. Overall I found this system was exciting my imagination, and I plan to run a Blades in the Dark game at Kapcon in 2016.

Magic Mechanics

Starting with Runequest, the sorcery system is close to what I want, but many of the spells are either lacking in obvious utility for player characters, or are too powerful for player characters. In play, I am not sure there is enough width to the spell list to make a combination of magic form 5-6 characters worthwhile.  The current edition also makes magic very all-or-nothing, either a spell overcomes the defences, or it completely fails, and this is a paper-scissors-rock subgame game.

I am not done reading Ars Magicka yet, but its rich and detailed magic system is primarily focused on the individual mage. While the troupe/covenant playstyle is interesting, its not what I am looking for.

D&D/F20 suffers from my dislike of Vancian magic. Too weak at low levels, a campaign killer at high levels.  If I have to rebuild the entire magic system, I might as well look elsewhere.

Note: there are a lot of roleplaying game systems out there that I have not played, or are unfamiliar with. I would be happy to hear suggestions of game systems I should take a closer look at. Information in forum posts makes me think I should take a look at FATE, and in particular The Dresden Files.  I only know the Mage: the whatever games in brief summary.  Heroquest and Riddle of Steel fall in the :too damn complicated” box for me.

Not satisfied with my search for illumination, I have been thinking about my literary influences, and also doing some research on roleplaying game design.

Roleplaying Game Design

Time to post a few links:

The Power 19 are like an extension of the Big 3, and most of the 19 feed off/interact with them, so I will just repeat the Big 3 here:

  1. What is the game about?
  2. What do the characters do?
  3. What do the players do?

Hard questions that are worth answering. I don’t think I have solid answers yet but some initial bullet points are:

  1. The game is about the transition to a post-peak magic society, and shaping the age that is to come (its about surviving the apocalypse long enough to make a difference).
  2. The characters are a cabal of mages, who share a fragment of a broken God, and the sum of the whole is greater than the parts when they weave their magic together.
  3. The players have to decide between escalating or escaping from contests, how much personal gain they want to try and twist out of the cabal, andwhat they want to do with their broken God.

Another part of my research was trying to figure out how dice pool mechanics work. I was sleeping under rock when these came on the scene, and I was intimidated by the wall of d6s required to fire an AK-47 in Shadowrun.  I think I get the concept now, and while an “exploding die” can be fun for criticals/fumbles, I still think my gut feeling is right that throwing large numbers of dice to determine contest outcomes has a big downside in terms of the mental energy required to keep processing the maths.  Star Wars: Edge of Empire has a dice system I would like to know more about, but the game is petrified in dead tree format, so it is going to be a while yet before I get to read it.

RPG Design Patterns was a good read. I think the best insight it gave me was on “Conflicted Gauges”, where is where a mechanic in the game is situationally good or bad.  For example, in Call of Cthulhu a high Mythos Lore skill is handy when trying to remember facts about eldritch monsters, but a disadvantage when trying to make Sanity checks.  There was a lot more in there, but this is going to be a long post already.

The RPG Design Handbook gave me some other questions to think about:

  1. How does the game make players care?
  2. What behaviours are rewarded, and how are they rewarded?
  3. Will the system let the players play the game the way I intended it to be played?
  4. Authority in the game – who gets to decide when the conversation moves forward and the decisions are locked in place?
  5. Credibility in the game – who has the right to challenge the shared fiction, and who gets to win that contest?

Literary Influences (Appendix N)

I think its worth listing some of my literary influences at this point:

  • Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files
  • Steven Erikson’s Malazan Tales of the Fallen (a spinoff from an AD&D campaign converted to GURPS, has a good thread discussing Warrens)
  • Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence (I have only read the first two books, but I like what I have read)
  • Mark Smylie’s Artesia comics and first novel The Barrow (one of the best literary interpretations of a dungeon crawl ever).

I have not been influenced by Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, even though I worked back to it when searching for “magic + weaving” on Google.

Play Preferences

My tabletop roleplaying gaming started in the 1980s and was firmly rooted in the first generation of games: Dungeons & Dragons, Runequest, Call of Cthulhu, and Traveller. Most of the campaigns I have played in or game mastered, have been in those systems, or a D20 version (like Fading Suns).  Kapcon has been good for being exposed to indie games, but prior to the Bundle of Holding, it was rare for me to look at other game systems on a regular basis.

Its interesting to reflect on my play preferences and how they differ when I am a player or a game master.

As a player I like:

  • rolling dice and sometimes getting lucky
  • being effective in combat
  • having a solid background hook for the character
  • a clear niche for my character
  • progression over time (and don’t make me lose the game in character generation by failing to understand what my character build should be)
  • some kind of direction about what we are doing in the game.

As a game master I like:

  • contest outcomes that give me some direction about what to narrate next – this is the main weakness of the d100 game engines, what does 57 mean?
  • faction ambiguity – players will always attempt to immediately kill anything within line of sight that is flagged “obvious villain”, and will feel like utter failures if you refuse to let them roll for initiative before you finish the opening monologue. So I like shades of grey and intrigue as a GM.
  • a system I am comfortable tinkering with for the house campaign (i.e. I understand everything inside the black box and feel comfortable about pulling level A to get result B)
  • running long, multi-year campaigns (most narrative games cannot do this to my satisfaction)
  • building a detailed setting for the house game and doing prep before each session (when I stop enjoying prep its time to think about wrapping the campaign up)
  • subverting cliches
  • the lightbulb moment when one of the players figures out the big secret!

While there are a lot of grim and gritty roleplaying games out there, there are not a lot of glam and sticky games. These reflects the wargaming roots and the mania for combat simulation. Still, maybe someone will make a game some day about playing 1970s rock stars and their groupies.

What might an ideal cooperative mechanic look like?

I do not have a solid idea yet on how to articulate these ideas as a mechanical expression.  Rolling some dice probably, but if I want something closer to the stories of literature/cinema, then I need a way of divorcing myself from the simulationist mania.  I would like the game mechanics to incorporate these ideas:

  1. The Cabal of Broken Gods: as a resource shared between the players – encourage the players to work together by making it advantageous to do so. Maybe the cabal lets you cast spells known by the other PCs but not by your PC? Maybe the cabal has a bonus pool of magic points? The cabal obviously needs its own character sheet (a character sheet is a promise).
  2. Magic Weaving: the players need each other’s help to cast effective spells, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.  Other PCs can give a die roll bonus, share the cost, benefit from the cast, etc.
  3. The Tapestry of Shadows: the potential threat of losing control over your character, or otherwise increasing a potential threat.
  4. Betrayal: the potential to twist a cabal weaving to your own benefit.
  5. Escalation: as the contest progresses, the player has to make the decision to escape or escalate. Think of the classic mage duels, no one dies in the first fireball, its a sequence of move and counter-move (and after scribbling this idea down I read about escalation mechanics in Dogs in the Vineyard for the first time)
  6. Going “all out”: a choice by the player to commit everything to the contest, with dire consequences for failure, the last option on the escalation ladder
  7. Escape: so common in literature, so rare in tabletop gaming. I want to make escape a valid choice for players, by having some kind of reward for bailing out of a fight they might lose (e.g. +1 Luck Point), and by making it easy (e.g. mages can teleport).

I am doodling some diagrams, trying to see if I can build some conflicted gauges around 3-5 magic resources.  For example, having a strong talent in Wild Magic could help you create new magic, but might make all your spells harder to control.  Other potential axis are destructive/creative, permanent/non-permanent, clarity/confusion. One thing I want to avoid, is writing up 666 different spells. Much easier to have just a small number of useful spells. Some important considerations for magic in the setting itself:

  • is magic an individual gift, or can anyone do it?
  • is magic powered from within the self, or by tapping into a universal magic force field?
  • is magic a fixed list of specified power, or can the players be creative/improvise on the go
  • is there are hard limit to the magical energy a character can tap – I think this is important because in much the same way players dislike going to zero Hit Points, they also dislike using their last Magic Point/spell, but it did occur to me that I could build into the reward system an explicit bonus for spending that last magic point
  • how quickly does magical energy refresh?


I did some quick market research this week. Tabletop roleplaying games make up $15m of the $750m hobby gaming market. Boardgames have a greater share of the market at $75m. Most of the market is taken up by miniatures ($125m) and card games ($500m+).

The bulk of the tabletop game market is dominated by the Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder systems.  Outside of the F20 market are a handful of universal game systems, such as GURPS, or more focused systems, such as World of Darkness that have large followings.

I think if you want to make some money in publishing a new game setting, you have to think really hard about not using some flavour of F20.  If you want to publish a new game system, I think you need to be focused in your efforts. Write two pages, not twenty pages, write twenty pages, not 200 pages.  Having looked through a number of the universal setting free game engines, I would be unconvinced that the world needs another way to roll dice on the table.

Military Muddling

Finally, a shout out for my friends at the Chestnut Lodge Wargames Group in London, who have migrated their old club newsletter into the blogging age. Military Muddling may be of interest to people who are keen on historical game design and megagames.

The artwork in this post was taken from the art pack for The Silent Legion.

Post-apocalyptic Coperative Magic

May 31, 2015

I am exploring two ideas at the moment. One is a world setting built for the players to use cooperative magic.  The other is thinking about how to best express a post-apocalyptic setting in the capricious d100 game engine called Runequest.

The story of the shaping of a second age 

After thinking about the pitch feedback, I decided that the two strongest ideas were “shadow magic” and to frame the setting with post-apocalyptic themes.  So the flying city is the last flying city, and the key role player characters do is scavenging items from the ruins below.  In the fallen age, magic is less powerful, and only by burning old magic items can the flying city sustain itself in the air.  This could lead to some interesting decisions for the players, e.g. if they have a bad run below, which of their existing artifacts do they turn over as tribute?

The need to burn old magic as fuel is a driving conflict within the setting, but its possibly not the most important conflict. That could be more around influencing what the world will look like once the last of the old magic is gone, and the last city has fallen from the skies.

Shadow Magic

I have a Manichean inspired conception for the world, in that the world was created by the simultaneous acts of both a powerful source of “light” and a powerful source of “darkness”.  The resulting world of shadows is an imperfect and flawed creation, but with strong links to both the Heavens and Hells.  I did a quick set of Fractal Terrain maps, and found one that was both a Pangaea style super-continent and looked a little like a tree, with one long spine of mountains and several branching sub-continental regions. So I decided that the world tree is physically present in the world – you can see both the divine and infernal planes from the surface of the world, and you can climb the world tree in either direction to reach them.

The overview for the world history, is that one tribe of pastoral nomads conquered most of the world, and then proceeded to conquer both Hell and Heaven (for which flying fortress cities were useful). Unity in the empire was encouraged through promises  of a second age in which the imperfections of the world (such as disease, death etc) would be eliminated.  The infernal and divine magic resources were then used to usher in a golden age. I am imagining a medieval society that gets a Moore’s Law of magic, with the benefits of magic doubling every few years, until the apocalyptic crash occurs.

Varmic Familiars

One way I want to link the shadow magic to player characters, is by turning their shadows into magic familiars. The idea here is that characters are special due to fragments of spirits attaching themselves to their souls as babies, whispering secrets to them in their crib, and teaching them magic as they grow up. Which works fine until puberty, when the fragment tries to free itself by possessing the character’s body.  At this point the character either destroys the mirror soul, binds it as a servant, or turns into a monster.

I derived the word Varmic from the word Varmint. I imagine the shadow familiars as small creatures, intangible, but with a shadowy shape based on that of a small creature. Personality wise they are like troublesome, mischievous children.

I want to borrow the lackey rules from the musketeer game All for One, and allow the other players in the group to play the Varmic familiar. This would be encouraged with XP, e.g. successfully exploit your master’s passions to get them into trouble.  This also allows the group to split up to fulfill a mission, but to all still be present and taking part in the flow of action.  In the Runequest (RQ) rules, Varmic familiars could be handled in a way similar to the Fetch spirits of the Animism school of magic.  I would allow them to become tangible for short periods of time, so they could push a lever, shift an object, or similar minor deeds in an emergency.

How to make cooperative magic work?

I want to combine express cooperative magic by using the themes of shadows and of weaving, so when people are spell casting they are visibly weaving together threads of light, darkness, and shadow. There are quite a few interesting myths relating to weaving, which can be easily adapted to help make the setting interesting. Part of my campaign research has been to look up translations for words relating to weaving, carpets, fabrics and tapestries.

In the RQ game system, Sorcery magic is the system that is easiest to adapt to cooperative magic. I think the simplest way to do it would be to:

  • change Combine shaping by limiting each player to combining one spell, i.e. to combine two or more spells together you need more than one caster
  • allowing multiple players to contribute Action Points (AP) towards the time cost of casting the spell – this would allow sorcery spells to potentially be completed much faster than in the RQ rules-as-written (RAW), giving players a major reason to cooperate (and would also mitigate situations where the party is ambushed without prepared magic defences)
  • allowing each player to contribute to the magic point (MP) cost of the spell (potentially important in a setting with low MP regeneration)
  • allowing each additional caster to augment the chance of the spell casting succeeding (an augment bonus is 1/5 of the skill%).

Usually in RQ RAW you only get one augment, allowing multiple augments to stack definitely makes a cabal of mages more powerful. You would also quickly reach a point where the chance of spell failure dropped to the minimum (5%) and the chance of a critical success would go up a lot (which mainly effects the MP cost of the spell by reducing it).

Another way to potentially handle this within the RQ rules is as a Task.  Usually a Task requires four successful skill checks (with a critical success being worth double, and a fumble reducing the score by one). So as each player spends an AP, they make their skill check and move the spell closer to completion.

This is still a complex way of resolving things, and I think keeping some index cards/notepaper around to write the spell shaping down onto would be a good idea to help track everything.

As players master each circle of magic (reach 95% skill, a long-term campaign goal) they could gain the ability to manipulate more than one thread of magic at a time.  So they can start combining their own spells, but it should still be useful to work with the other players for faster/cheaper casting.

What makes a world feel post-apocalyptic?

I have been thinking about how to influence the feel of a post-apocalyptic setting through the game mechanics. Web searches for ideas mostly directed me towards articles for writing novels rather than designing games.  They key insights I got from these were that you should establish:

  • what the apocalyptic event was
  • how much time has passed since the event (if its not actually over then its still the apocalypse, not the post-apocalypse)
  • what the world looks like now
  • what the threats to survival are
  • what are the strong characters trying to do, is there a purpose beyond survival?

Useful, but not quite what I was looking for.  It does suggest that there is some dramatic tension in having a flying city surviving, when the background suggests it should fall.  So it could be a meta-plot for the campaign, that the city will ultimately fall, and all its treasures be lost, but exactly how this happens is something for the campaign to determine in play.  This might also work with my thought to adapt the 13th Age Icon system to have major NPCs with two dramatic poles, and the option mid-campaign to for the NPC to make a choice between one of the two poles.  For example a Paladin in rusted armour might have “do the right thing” and “defend the city” as dramatic choices (for player characters, they key would be to have two or more Passions that are in contradiction to each other).

I had some hazy memories of Gamma World (too gonzo) and Twilight 2000 (too bleak), but its hard to ignore Apocalypse World (AW), which I grabbed a copy of through Bundle of Holding a while back.  AW is a narrative style game that downplays setting, and focuses on characters, with the GM strictly instructed to not have a pre-planned story.  For me, that relegates AW to convention play. While I like sandbox settings, I just prefer game systems that are closer to the old school simulation approach.

Looking through the AW character playbooks I pick out the following themes:

  • the world is violent and full of dangerous people, you must fight to survive
  • gasoline, bullets, vehicles, and bases are important resources
  • government has collapsed, its an age of petty warlords
  • things break, even though fragments of beauty remain
  • barter economy.

Now looking at the advice for the GM I pick out the following themes:

  • barf forth apocalyptica – nothing is too over the top
  • look through crosshairs – everything is a target, anything can be destroyed, there is no status quo
  • fuckery and intermittent rewards – the apocalypse twists things to bad outcomes, so the player characters do not always get a good reward for their efforts.

There are other themes and principles, but they are more specific to the style of game AW is built for.

Putting the post-apocalyptic theme into RQ mechanics

RQ is a system in which characters are always vulnerable, so little needs to change for a violence filled world. If you wanted to be harsh, you could eliminate Luck Points, or make Luck Points one use resources.

Resource scarcity for RQ characters tends to be expressed through wealth, equipment and MP. Focusing on MP, I think a post-apocalyptic setting should be one with slow recovery of MP.  Borrowing from the health recovery rules I am thinking of:

  • first regenerate 1-3 MP at the end of the next day
  • then regenerate 1-3 MP at the end of the next week
  • then regenerate 1-3 MP at the end of each following month, until full MP is restored.

This system means that using a few MP is something that is easy to recover from, but if you have to go deep into your reserves, then it could take months to fully recover. A downside is that its a bit more paperwork to administer. On the plus side, it would reward sharing the MP cost of spells through cooperation. The group as a whole is stronger if everyone contributes 1 MP, than if one character spent 5 MP.

In reconciling government collapse, with the continuing civilisation in the flying city, I think this can be handled through Passions.  Start by prohibiting Passions that focus on organisations, and require characters to focus their Passions on individuals. No one is loyal to the memory of the Old Empire, they are loyal to the Immortal Empress or the Unborn Emperor.  No one believes in the Old Church, they believe in the promises of a new prophet.  On the ground, use a “points of light” framework for outposts of order, and surround them with wastelands.

Things break. When players fumble, break things. This means actually using the rules for weapon damage. Further to this, allow all weapons to apply the Sunder special effect to armour.  The purpose of armour is to get you through the next battle.  If you want shining armour, you have to work hard for it.  Special items should have limited charges. Emphasise fragility by making resupply uncertain, if they don’t buy that item of wonder when they have the chance, then make sure they never see it again.

Barter economy. The Old Empire debased the currency so much that a hoard of 1,000 silver coins is worth 10-25 silver in terms of current units of account.  So worthless no one will want to carry the stuff out of the dungeons. Better yet, avoid giving the characters coins. Just give them stuff, which they then have to trade for other stuff.  Old items are valuable because they cannot be made any more, and because they can be turned into Rune Dust.  Rune Dust is the commodity sought by the flying city, to keep the bound demons and angels alive so the city does not fall.  It is also required if the characters want to enchant objects, or to make one use items with Alchemy.  So its the gasoline/bullets of the setting.

Post-apocalyptic cultures

RQ started the tradition of splatbooks with the complex cultures developed for the races in Glorantha, and this attention to cultures and plausible villains has remained a hallmark of the RQ game.  So a post-apocalyptic setting is not necessarily something that plays well to this strength, as the apocalypse by definition is a civilisation ending event.  What can be emphasised is cultural change.

The world keeps changing, even if the last flying city is a little bubble of preserved stasis.  There will have been invasions and migrations.  If a world spanning empire has been destroyed, then in the vacuum that follows new powers will rise.  If the old Gods were burned to fuel the Old Empire’s magical economy, then there are new Gods trying to fill the void.  It will still be worthwhile developing the pre-apocalyptic cultures, as a touchstone for reference. “Like the old Jennati merchant princes, but with cannibalism!”

I think that is enough for this post.  Did I miss anything that you feel should be included in a post-apocalyptic setting?

Pitching game ideas: My first rejection e-mail!

May 19, 2015

A week ago I wrote to a games company to try and pitch a couple of setting ideas. They were willing to consider them, so I then spent the rest of the week drafting two 500 word synopses. That was a challenging exercise, trying to boil 30+ pages of notes and ideas down to 1-2 sides of A4. I appreciate the feedback I got from friends on the drafts.  I submitted the synopses on time and got my rejection email a few hours later.

The rejection was polite, and contained a lot of useful feedback for me. I am not feeling in the slightest bit dejected. One of my ideas is just too much like another product just launched to the market. My other idea was a little more intriguing, but I had failed to really demonstrate how it would be a great product for the company to try and publish. So before I start rewriting my ideas, I think I will just summarise the lessons learned.

Lesson #1: work on one pitch at a time.

Trying to write two pitches in one week spread my effort too thin, and proof reading and editing drafts always takes longer than you first anticipate.

Lesson #2 pitch your strongest idea first.

I knew by the end of week of drafting, that my “flying city” pitch was stronger than my “beacon stars” pitch. That was my gut feeling, and the opinion of about 80% of the people who read my drafts. It would have been better if I had spent all week working on just that pitch.

Lesson #3 it must be good on its own merits.

Try to avoid mentioning other published games and game mechanics.

Lesson #4 explain how it is unique.

While I thought I had managed to nail this, with two concepts that I do not think have been adequately presented or explored in roleplaying games, part of the feedback was that I needed to bring out the uniqueness more. No publisher wants to waste time on a generic F20 home brew setting with a Clichea map.

Also, I am pretty sure the world is done with zombies for a generation.

Lesson #5 focus, focus, focus!

I think a lot of self-published games fail to articulate exactly what the players do that is different from any other game out there. So for both of my pitches I had a lot of options for what the characters could be doing. For my next pitch I am going to focus on the strongest option for interesting play in the setting.

Lesson#6 explain how it will fit into their catalogue of supplements.

Not something that had occurred to me when I was drafting, and it was not in the advice guides I read. Obviously you should not try and pitch a D100 game idea to someone like Wizards of the Coast, but for a small publisher with limited resources it could be good to point out how your pitch will fill a gap or enhance an existing product range.

Lesson #7 articulate the setting strengths, cultures and magic.

This was specific feedback to my “flying city” idea, and essentially I failed to communicate how these would look in the game, even though I had some cool ideas in my own head. This links back to focus, the less you write about, the more you can write about it. So I am going back to the drawing board with a lot of ideas and I will spend a few weeks hammering away at them to try and refine the ideas.

Capsule Reviews of various RPG stuff

April 14, 2015

A few one paragraph reviews of various roleplaying game PDFs I have been reading over the last few months.

Dyson’s Delves, by Dyson Logos

“Being a collection of maps & adventures set under the earth”.  153 pages. $9.99 from Old school fantasy dungeon crawl maps. The first half are keyed with generic encounters, the second half are just the maps. One 11 level dungeon, and another 49 individual location maps (tombs, mines, bridges, throne rooms, monasteries, etc.).  I have found it useful for off the cuff dungeons and planned encounters. There are quite a few people making a few coins by publishing old school dungeon crawl maps.


Magical Theorems and Dark Pacts, by Dyson Logos

“Being a treatise regarding Magics, Sorceries, and Dark Arts for Fantasy RPGs”. 161 pages. $9.99 from Old school renaissance (OSR) with 13 magic using classes, some familiar looking spell lists from Labyrinth Lord, 28 pages of magic items, and a few monsters. I found the section on magic items useful, lots of good ideas to borrow for my tabletop games (I now try to always have a 1d100 chart of wondrous junk and treasure for the players to encounter while shopping).

Eldritch Skies (Savage Worlds), by John Sneads

A roleplaying game of cinematic Lovecraftian SF. 196 pages. $14.95 from Drivethrurpg.comEldritch Skies extrapolates from the Lovecraft canon into a future where human governments make deals with aliens and start exploring the depths of space in the post-revelation era. Its a pulp game, much more optimistic and hopeful in tone than classic Call of Cthulhu. PCs are likely to work for the UN agency OPS, trying to protect the remaining secrets of the Great Old Ones, and to prevent aliens from harming humanity/earth. I’m not really familiar enough with Savage Worlds to judge the adjustments it makes to the system, but PC generation and play looks straightforward. Bonus points for allowing PCs to be Deep Ones or Half-Ghouls. Rather than Sanity, you have a rating for exposure to hyperspace. From a design point of view, I found the notes on the fate of alien species (ascension into hyperspace, extinction due to carelessness, or cautious stasis) to be useful for any setting where you might want to think about the implications of Drake’s Equation.


A Magical Medieval Society: Western Europe (2nd edition), by Joseph Browning and Suzi Vee

This book aids the creation of a generic Western European medieval world consistent with D&D (3rd edition). 194 pages. $14.40 from Its history plus Fireballs, Resurrections, and magic swords/wands. I think it succeeds in adding a touch of realism, but for me its almost a valiant failure, because D&D magic would be so subversive of what happened historically – Castles and Knights just don’t make as much sense in a world with flight, invisibility, etc. So for me, the real value is just the plain historical guff on crop rotation, manorial tithes, etc.


Lords of Gossamer and Shadow, by Jason Durall

This book updates and reprints the Amber diceless roleplaying system with a new setting. $19.99 from I am not sold on the diceless system – on the one hand it pushes for a character ranked first in an attribute to always win contests with that attribute, elsewhere its clear that other characters can negotiate, argue, twist to another attribute, etc to win – despite not being first rank.  It did, however, make me interested in exploring rules for campaign settings where the players design all the PC races (because really, why should the GM decide Our Space Elves Are Different?), and then also design the enemy races (spend lots of points to build the big bads/masterminds, spend no points and create a race of pitiful mooks). The Grand Stair, and its infinite doors linking all the worlds together is a solid idea for any campaign setting. The Dwimmerlaik were also an interesting great enemy race.


Red Tide: Adventure in a Crimson World, by Kevin Crawford

Another OSR product.  $7.99 from The language of OSR systems is familiar to me from the D&D games of my youth, so its easy for me to ignore it and focus on the cool ideas in the setting. TLDR Red mist drives people crazy/mutates them, people flee on boats to an island crawling with Orcs, which the mist does not extend to. Flavour is oriental, with demon worshiping Samurai, and Chinese cultural elements. The Orcs are not just mindless savages, and their background gives them a lot more depth than they usually get in D&D. Favourite bit though was the Dwarves, the reason they accumulate gold, is because its essential for forging spirit weapons/armour used in the afterlife to fight a vengeful Goddess the Dwarves have rebelled against.


Torchbearer, by Thor Olavsrud and Luke Crane

This is a wonderful homage to the dungeoncrawls of yesteryere, with modern mechanics to improve story telling (based on Mouse Guard). $15.00 from A key focus of the game is on rigid accounting for time and inventory. Torches, rations and other supplies are all carefully tracked. If you don’t have room in the sacks, you cannot take the loot with you. The black and white artwork really reminded me strongly for the Fiend Folio and the Steve Jackson Fighting Fantasy books. An interesting tough, is that one way of increasing your XP, is to increase your chance of failure on an important dice check.


Chuubo’s Marvellous Wish-Granting Engine, by Jenna Katerin Moran

This is a Nobilis spin-off, some kind of pastoral kids growing up story telling theme. Not my kind of thing. I stopped reading after about twenty minutes. YMMV.

Nobilis: the essentials volume 1, field guide to powers, by Jenna Katerin Moran

A lot more comprehensible to me than Chuubo’s, but still a struggle for me to read and complete. $19.95 from The accompanying side bar text is very evocative, some of the best I have ever seen. The illustrations were a lot more perky than usual for roleplaying games, even when handling some difficult topics. The background world concept, Estates (your role as a fundamental expression and guardian of the universe) and Domains (home bases), was also quite nice. Mechanics are very text based, even though there are some numbers in there, its a conversation resolution system, not a dice fest. I think I would struggle to run a game with this, unless all the players had spent a lot of time with the rules beforehand.


Rocket Age, by Ken Spencer

A retro sci-fi future past. $19.99 from Its ray guns and Flash Gordon rockets within the Solar System, with a 1930s setting. So the Great Powers are being colonial bullies on Mars, and the Germans are developing war technology to conquer the solar system with. The artwork is solidly in that retro art deco style, which I like. Lots of alien species. Its take on a Barsoomian style Mars is quite engaging, and I like it more than the Space: 1889 take on red Mars and its canal civilisations, but there is plenty of room elsewhere in the system for different flavours of adventure. Main mechanic is 2d6 + Attribute + Skill +/- modifiers compared to difficulty setting.


How the Bundle of Holding is influencing my game design

March 3, 2015

I have a problem with the Bundle of Holding. I am buying new roleplaying games faster than I can read them. This is forcing me to curtail a slow reading of all the gaming goodness I am downloading off the internet. It also means that if a book I am reading is failing to catch my attention and set fire to my imagination, the temptation to close the file and pick another one is strong.

One of the things that is really striking, is that when a game uses something incredibly familiar, such as a task resolution system based on “Die Roll + Attribute + Skill”, then it really needs something in its theme, setting, or another mechanic that it incorporates in a novel way.  Of course, too much in the way of unfamiliar setting, character roles and mechanics makes me want to read something else as well. One of the game design books I read recently put it succinctly as “Same, but different”.

Today I thought roleplaying games are a bit like crimes. You need all three of:

  1. Motive – what exactly is the design intent for the player characters, mighty-thewed heroes or pluck investigators doomed to insanity? Its really nice to have something beyond “You all meet in a tavern, an old man approaches you…”  Yes, as GM I can establish a reason for the players to be together, but its good when the game is inherently designed to gel the party together, and keep them together long term.
  2. Method – what tools are the mechanics giving the players for interacting with the world? Fortune’s Fool used a Tarot deck to resolve all matters of chance and conflict in the game, and I loved how in character generation you could build a character who was lucky or really skilled in different ways.  The Edara: A Steampunk Renaissance game, used a”d12 + Attribute + Skill” and I could easily skip 90% of the mechanic rule chapters because I have seen it all before in a hundred different game systems.
  3. Opportunity – what does the setting let us do that we cannot already do elsewhere? Its really hard these days to try and find a genre that has not already been well covered in the last four decades of roleplaying game design. The market for genre mash-ups is also becoming pretty saturated (Zombies and Flavour of the Month, I am so over zombies). When people do come up with a really good new motive or method for roleplaying, you can see the subsequent spin-offs as its developed for expression in every conceivable gaming setting.

The sign of a good game is that you want to immediately use one of its motive, method, or opportunity design elements in a game you run in the future. The sign of a great game is that you don’t dare divorce any of these elements from the other for fear that the magic will fade away.

I am not sure how well my current roleplaying campaign manages “Same, but different”, although it is meeting the key litmus test of the players have fun, keep turning up, talk about the game between sessions, and are sad when they have to miss a session due to other commitments.

  1. Motive – the players are agents of Tarantium, members of a musketeer regiment used by the Imperial government for all those plausibly deniable missions. I avoided the constraints of a strictly military campaign (players having to obey orders from NPCs) by having most of their “episodes” involve away missions with vague orders and a lot of latitude for making their own decisions.
  2. Method – I used Runequest VI, because its a system I can intuitively design in without working too hard. Nothing too original in my adaptations, adding muskets to the standard Renaissance swords and armour, a mechanic similar to Call of Cthulhu’s sanity rules, and giving the players a range of social organisations to belong too for some roleplaying flavour and niche difference.
  3. Opportunity – I really wanted to run a setting with flying cities and a high magic feel, and I was dissatisfied with the published “flying fantasy” game books. I did all the background maths to make sure that the food and logistics/politics of the setting made sense (not that I would dare bore the players with crop yields and river boat cargo volumes). This meant I made a game based around “Go somewhere interesting, do something dangerous, go home and report, then take a month off to recover”.

My current roleplaying game design thoughts have been focused on a transhuman setting, where an alien Empire has colonised Earth in much the same way the United Kingdom established the Raj in India (one part commerce, two parts corruption, one part conflict, one part “oh fuck what we have gotten into now”).  While I have looked at some published settings, such as Eclipse Phase or GURPS Transhuman, the way they lock humanity into the Solar System is just a bit claustrophobic.  River of Heaven had some appeal as a d100 system based on a system very close to Runequest VI, but it was not quite transhuman enough for me, and it did not really explore the social and psychological effects of restricting travel to sub-light speeds (plus I wanted a FTL mechanic of some kind). As an aside, I think its rare for an “alien invasion” scenario to focus on the cultural impacts of the “out of context” problem, most books and visual media go for the plucky and violent humans versus the incredibly stupid aliens. Handling it the other way might be too uncomfortable a reminder of how “western civilisation” treated the rest of the world until very recently. Anhow, what I am thinking of involves:

  1. Motive – the aliens are paternalistic overlords of most, but not all of humanity. A key decision for the players, is whether or not they support the alien domination for the benefits it brings (climate control technology, immortality for talented people, peacekeeping forces, etc) or if they are supporters of the cause of human independence and freedom.  I would like to use the Icon system from 13th Age, so I would build a range of factions that support or oppose the Alien Empire, or which have a more ambivalent view (such as a smuggling syndicate). Each of the factions would have a use for agents willing to risk their current physical existence in exchange for material rewards or advancement of their personal passions, as well as providing a home base and resurrection point for when that TPK occurs on a suicide mission. The big background mystery plays off Drake’s Equation – humanity is surrounded by a sea of inhabitable worlds where pre-space flight civilisations have been destroyed, and the Alien Overlords are a little curious as to why Humanity was not treated the same way by the legendary “Bane Star”.
  2. Method – while I want to use the Runequest rules, a transhuman setting where bodies are replaceable and upgradeable means the value of the traditional fixed gaming characteristics (Strength, Dexterity, etc) is subverted. Who cares if you rolled a Strength of 5 on your birth body, when you can buy a Strength 18 off the rack? Runequest places more emphasis on key secondary attributes (Action Points, Strike Rank) and Skills (1-100% scale).  A key thing for quick play, would be an electronic character sheet in which you can change your body template and associated characteristics in two button pushes.  As well as having a full range of cybernetic and biological augmentations, I would want to rebuild the combat system to be fast and violent within the transhuman flavour of electronic warfare, high-tech weaponry, powered armour suits and energy shields. One such change would be eliminating Luck Points – essential in Runequest VI RAW because otherwise character’s die – its just not needed in a transhuman setting where players can restore their characters from their last backup, or a salvaged cortex stack.
  3. Opportunity – “Have disposable spaceship, will travel”. I am imagining a universe where a basic spaceship for six people costs about as much as a modern car does, can be fabricated within a day, and its cheaper to recycle it for parts and buy new, than to leave it parked in dock for a week. A spaceship will last less than a year before its engines burn out or it exhausts its fuel supplies. But in the mean time, it will cover 10 Light Years per week. Its a universe where almost anything can be fabricated in the “two credit” store in an hour, but if you want a signature weapon or suit of powered armour, then you carefully take your copyrighted blueprints to a master crafter and spend a few days making it out of premium materials. In a universe where you get a new body when your character is killed in combat, gear is even more disposable than ever before.  I also like having a modular ship design system, where the players choose from a limited set of customisation options and can build their spaceship in a few minutes.

…and that’s all I have time to write this week. Spending more time on SCA martial arts is changing my hobby-life balance around a bit, so the future holds significantly less time playing World of Warcraft for me than was the case for the last few months.