Mothership Hack

January 20, 2022

Inspired by the Mothership sci-fi horror rpg, I have been thinking about how it might play in a more heroic tone for a science-fantasy game. While it is a d100 system, its quite different from the BRP engine, in that Stats are more important than skills. A skill is a bonus of 10-20% added to a Stat. Key to the arrangement of mechanics in Mothership, is that failed Stat and Save rolls give your character stress, and critical failures (a double roll above the Stat/Skill level, e.g. a 99) trigger rolls on the Panic table, which is full of dangerous complications.

When your typical chance of success on a roll is around 20-50%, players are encouraged to avoid making rolls by interacting with the fiction in a slow but steady way – which works fine until you get jumped by monsters. Stress is used for experience, as you reduce stress gained in adventures, you turn that into improved Stats, Saves, and Skills. So for those who take great risks and survive, there are also good rewards.


For this hack, I think five Stats are needed:

  1. Speed (SPD): use this for tests involving perception, initiative, movement, and quick reactions.
  2. Strength (STR): use this for tests involving brute force, endurance, ignorance, and intimidation.
  3. Intellect (INT): is used for most skill tests in stressful circumstances unless another Stat is more compelling in the situation.
  4. Psionic (PSI): used for tests involving psionic talents or “sufficiently advanced” technology. In a fantasy game I would call it Power (POW).
  5. Warrior (WAR): used for combat tests and warfare (yes it could have been COM for combat, but COM makes me think of Comeliness in the old AD&D Unearthed Arcane. CON for conflict would also work, but is close to Constitution, perhaps BAT for battle as an alternative?).

For a non-horror game, I think the Stats should be higher than in Mothership, so I would let players assign Stat values of 20, 30, 40, 50, and 60. Mothership has Stats cap out at 85, so with the customisation options below, you do not want starting Stats higher than 60.


Mothership is not to different from BRP, except what might be Endurance and Dodge are merged into Body. Keeping with just three saves:

  • Chaos: used to resist mental harm from psionic (or magic) attacks, and to perceive true reality. In Mothership this is called Sanity.
  • Will: used to resist loss of control over your actions from situations involving fear, passion, and other emotion surges. In Mothership this is called Fear, but I think Will or Willpower covers a wider range of situations, especially if you want to insert Runequest or Mythras style passions for the PCs.
  • Body: used to resist physical harm, including from disease or invasive organisms. Could also be called Thews if you want to lean into Sword & Sorcery genre.

Assign the scores of 20, 30, and 40 to Saves for a horror/pain level similar to Mothership, or fudge the numbers up 10 to 20 points for a more heroic tone.

Wounds, Mana, and Fate

Mothership uses both Wounds and Health for tracking physical harm, with each Wound having 10+1d10 Health, and most characters having two Wounds. Any time you lose enough Health to cross a Wound threshold, you roll on a Wound table for potentially painful complications.

For my hack, I want a bit more certainty around Health, so Health is determined by 10 + STR divided by 10 (round up) for each Wound point.

Mana is the pyschic or magical equivalent of Wounds, and Essence is the equivalent of Health. Unlike Health, you are burning Essence points to fuel any PSI talents that you are using.

When you burn a point of Mana off, you get complications like nose bleeds (minus Health), migraines (plus Stress), conditions that impose disadvantage on checks, or a permanent increase your minimum Stress score.

For my hack, Essence is equal to 10 + INT divided by 10 (round up) for each Mana point.

Fate is a heroic resource to keep PCs alive, and Luck is the equivalent of Health/Mana. You can spend Luck at any time to manipulate fortune before making a roll (e.g. spend a luck point for Advantage) or after a roll (spend luck points to nudge the die result).

When you tempt Fate, however, flip a coin. If it lands the way you call it, there is no effect. If not, you make a roll on the Doom chart of horrible fates for heroes. Perhaps you get cursed by the Gods, lose a few points off a Stat or Save, or have the GM draw a Major Arcana card from a tarot deck to interpret what happens next.

For my hack, Luck is equal to 10 + SPD divided by 10 (round up) for each Fate point.

Character Customisation

Keeping this really generic, although you could customise archetype packages for genre/setting. Each player can choose three of the options below for their character, but each option can only be selected once:

  1. +5 to all Stats.
  2. +20 to one Stat.
  3. +10 to all Saves.
  4. +25 to one Save.
  5. +1 Wound.
  6. +1 Mana.
  7. +1 Fate.

Having specific trauma responses to stress and panic is a bit harder to make generic. I might cut them entirely for a heroic campaign, or build a unique one for each PC based on discussion with the player.


Not much to say here, as the skill list should be tailored to the genre and setting. Broad or apprentice level skills should be +10% to checks, defined or expert skills should be +15%, and specific or master skills should be +20%. Adding in some perks or stunts for Master skills is quite appropriate. Skills greater than 20% might make sense if you campaign is aiming for transhuman or demigod power levels.

So Militia Training is +10% to WAR checks, while Melee Weapons is +15%, and Long Spear is +20%. Perhaps your hero might acquire and learn to wield a Spear of Destiny at +25%.

For our science-fantasy game you might have Psionic Training at +10% to PSI checks, Telekinesis at +15% and Soul Blade at +20%. Perhaps you character learns alien secrets and learns to manifest the Dual Soul Blades at +25%.

Mythras or Call of Cthulhu have some good packages of skills, and while Mothership only hands out a few skills at the start, for a more heroic level of play I think you could give out more skills to starting PCs, e.g. two Master, two Expert, and four Trained skills.


I would be temped to take the list of Vices from Blades in the Dark and have players pick one for the PC to indulge in to reduce Stress in downtime actions.

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.

Kapcon 2014

January 20, 2014

The bad: I had to cancel the Grand Strategy game.

The good: Asterix and the Deep Ones was popular, with 16 players over three sessions.

Cancelling the Grand Strategy Game

It is sad to cancel a creative project, but I have had to do this before and will do so again. I would not be doing a service to anyone by trying to run a game which will not provide the fun that it was intended to offer. Before Christmas there were only three signups. With a week to go there are only seven. Unfortunately, Grand Strategy games require 5+ teams to be balanced (or just two teams), and for teams to ideally have 3+ players to allow team dynamics to unfold within the larger framework. While I could have spent all my spare time over the next week building a new design for a smaller number of players, I think I was better off spending the time on polishing “Asterix and the Deep Ones”.

So, any lessons learned?

Promotion – the Kapcon organisers have spent quite a bit of effort to promote the game, I pushed it through my own networks, and the website had enough information for anyone interested in the game to suss out if it was their cup of fun or not. I have only had one potential player contact me to ask questions about the game. I don’t know how much interaction the LARP GMs have with potential players, but I suspect it’s a bit more than that.  Still, I could have pushed the game harder, and made more of “recruit friends to join your team”.

Competition – Kapcon offers half-a-dozen or more tabletop sessions, and a LARP in head to head competition with Pax Vicky. Potential players have voted with their preferences, and it is not for what I am offering in that timeslot.

Con structure – one of the reasons the “Grand Strat” works at BOD, is that it has traditionally been given a flagship evening slot on Friday or Saturday night. I get a captive audience, which gives me certainty that they critical mass of players will be present. It was made clear to me years ago that I was never going to get the only such slot at Kapcon, as the Friday and Sunday nights are for social mixing, and not gaming. While I could attempt to run my own event in Wellington, the lukewarm indifference that has greeted my posts about grand strategy games on makes me suspect that I’d just end up losing money on the hall hire.  I have to admit to recognising a self-fulfilling prophecy here, because I don;t get positive feedback for my ideas on NZRAG, I don’t read or post there very often … which means I don’t get feedback or promotion opportunities.

It’s too weird – globally what I am offering is a rare type of hybrid game, it’s a mix of giant tabletop boardgame and LARP, and I have only ever run into one other group of gamers who do these games outside New Zealand. So the design community is very small, there are only a few people I can really talk to about these games, and most of them live in London. It is also a type of gaming which has no commercial product on offer, and a limited online presence – it is very hard for potential gamers to learn about this kind of game, or to give it a try and end up wanting more.

Opportunity cost – designing and building a grand strategy game takes me 4-5 full weekends over a 6-12 month period as I iterate concepts, design rules, build maps, playtest, revise, and then finally print and assemble the game (praying for a sunny day with no wind as I glue stuff together). This is a lot of time I could be spending on other projects. There is also a financial cost, I have spent close to $3,500 on my last two designs, and while some of that cost (laser printer, toner, tokens) is available for future games, it is still a lot of money for a hobby. Setting up and running the game also consumes an entire day at the convention, and for 2014, I could have been somewhere else entirely different from Kapcon, having a good time with one of my other hobby groups.

Structural flaws – the boardgame nature of the Grand Strat is such that there is very little scope for improvisation (by players or GMs), it is not a game that can be winged on the night, unlike a table top RPG. It is also hard to walk into a game five minutes before it starts – as we like people to read the rules in advance and to make decisions a week before the game begins.  The bespoke nature of the game, a complex set of rules that might only be used once, means that if there is a major flaw in the game, it is difficult to fix quickly. A mistake can cascade through the system, wrecking the game economy and spoiling player strategies. So Grand Strats are high risk/high responsibility games to run, and it’s rarely the player’s fault if things get derailed (I have only had one player deliberately undermine a Grand Strat game, and one do a table flip after a game has finished).

Agency – the team nature of the game may discourage players through lack of a strong character to identify with and role play, and the fact that the player’s desires must be subordinated to the group’s plan if the group is to prosper in the game might also be off-putting to potential players. I do have a good reason for having abstract replaceable characters – character death sucks (I tried a few variations on death mechanics but nothing ever worked in a fun way).

Is it still worth it?

Running these games has always been a peak experience for me. It’s not often that I am the centre of attention and it’s a nice buzz when things go well. I have learned a lot about game design from organising and running these games. I have found, however, that this learning translates into ever increasing amounts of work to get everything right for future games, and a lot of frustration when the games do not go well. The minimum amount of work for a game is pretty formidable, compared to a table top game, where I can get by with a sketch map, half a dozen PC sheets, and about an A4 of sketch notes. It would be really hard for me to offer more than one or two games a year – the group in London manages about four a year, but has a different team designing each game – and this makes improving the design of these games a slow process.

So, it might be time for me to move on from Grand Strategy games, and find something else to do with my time, or perhaps just have a year or two off until I can find the old joy again. Maybe I should just go back to writing LARPs, which is where all this started 20 years ago.  A different tack, would be to drop the fantasy, and go for a hard core historical game – World War one could be viable as its the 100th anniversary of it starting this year.

Asterix and the Deep Ones

This went well, with lots of laughter.  In the first game I had five players (Asterix, Getafix, Obelix, Fulliautomatic and Unhygenix), in the second game I had four players (Asterix, Getafix, Obelix and Cacophonix) and in the last game I had all seven characters in play (add Vitalstatitix).

Using a known IP made character identification really easy.  Using the Call of Cthulhu quickplay system was okay … but one of my conclusions is that traditional game engines with their multiple tiers of Characteristics, Attributes and other character qualities are just a bit too much (a friend described being given three pages of character sheet for a game at Kapcon, which is two pages too many).  I could have easily run things off just the straight characteristics (Strength, Dexterity, etc).  Giving everyone 90% in a combat skill was a good decision, made the combats true to the original comics, and giving almost everyone low SAN scores made crazy stuff happen – mostly delusional beliefs that the PC was a significant historical character (Cleopatra, Julius Caesar etc).  I used luck points in a blunt force way, everyone had 90 and you sent them to change the d100 roll. So if your skill was 50, and you rolled 62 (fail), you could spend 12 luck points to make it a success.  No one actually ran out of luck.  I treated magic potion as giving the Gauls first strike, a bonus die in combat, and increasing the damage bonus die to 1d6. As per the comics I toned down the blood, and had knock outs and tweety birds circling around heads.

  • Asterix – the leader/straight man of the party, no major schtick but usually the person making the talk/spot rolls.
  • Obelix – the superhuman strength schtick came in handy many times – carrying boats overland, menhir volley attacks, etc
  • Getafix – had the ability to brew potions that could almost anything (restore sanity, dreamless sleep, and water breathing were the ones people came up with), the drawback being you needed a side quest for ingredients and it took time to boil water.  I deliberately started Getafix with 10 SAN because after the first night of bad dreams and flashbacks to things a young Druid did in old Egypt, he was always motivated to find the source of the dreams.
  • Cacophonix – a strong roll, as any threat to sing would always cause the group to react.  One Cacophonix managed to ninja past 100 Deep Ones to rescue his Uncle Malacoustix, and another Cacophonic managed a critical success on a sing roll to wow the surly villagers into enthusiastic applause.
  • Unhygenix and Fulliautomatix – not quite so strong roles, but good to have in a fight, and high potential for comedic barbs between each other and Cacophonix, Unhygenix’s fishing skills were also useful for the investigation.
  • Vitalstatistix – perhaps the weakest character, unless they exerted their authority over the Gauls.

Asterix and the Deep Ones v3

All three groups followed a similar starting pattern:

  • interact with the Roman bridgebuilders and the Gaulish Ferryman
  • find out that something (the Deep Ones) is dismantling the bridge each night
  • head into the village, noticing the barren fields
  • interact with the Britannic owner of the brand new fish and chips shop in the run down village
  • head to Malacoustix’s villa
  • explore the villa, get trapped by storm/nightfall
  • bad dreams, SAN check, sleepwalking episodes

After that the groups went in different directions, although most interrogated the village Chief at some point.  For pacing, after two hours I would introduce Deep Ones, and in the last half hour I brought in Old Mother Hydra.  All three groups ended with escape/rescue/massive property damage moments of success.  Looking at the map – I didn’t need the murky swamp (where clues to the missing Boars could be found).  People seemed to spend about half an hour at each location, so it was one destination too far. Perhaps if I had placed the swamp right next door to the village?

I have had a request to run this again at CONfusion in August (depending on whether or not it clashes with Pennsic).  I am now thinking about Asterix in Atlantis as a possible name for the next game (apparently there is an Asterix story set in Atlantis so I will have to check that out).  Or I could call it The Secret History of Asterix.

Fallout: Australia

A riff on the Fallout computer games, but set in Australia. A bit Mad Max in places. Fairly traditional, in that there was a quest to get a dingus to save a village, but a bit awkward in that the Thug PC more or less had to ignore the Thief NPC (who had stolen his stuff), and we all had to ignore the fat that we knew that a bad guy had bribed the Thug to derail the mission.  It was okay, but we ran out of time before we could get to the Sydney Opera House with the weather machine.

Enter the Avenger

This was a fantasy Kill Bill. The idea is that one player takes the role of the Avenger, and the rest of the players take the role of suspects, the Avenger’s intuition, and the gory details of the avenging.  The prompt notes were superb, I wanted to steal all of the character/city descriptions for use elsewhere.  The player in charge of the avenger never changes, so it can be exhausting for the player, and its painful for everyone if they get struck by indecision.  Each confrontation with a suspect is roleplayed, but the rule is that the Avenger can never be defeated.  I had fun playing a couple of bad suspects.  Fun, would play again.


Nod is a city which can only be entered on one night of the year.  Enter, stage left, a barbarian seeking revenge!  Another story driven system, like Enter the Avenger, but in this case the other players had more agency (the avenger could be defeated).  There were a range of pre-gen characters, such as The King of Worms, the Apothecary, the Cutthroat and the Potentate.  Different characters had different areas of authority over which they could control the description of and the associated NPCs, and a big thing they could do a major plot twist/reveal around.  This was a round 7 game so we were all tired and struggled a bit.  I enjoyed linking things together and getting other players involved in new scenes.  I enjoyed playing the Castellan, getting everyone into the castle for the big show down, and I described the Castellan as an Iron Vizier, articulated steel in velvet, dedicated to preserving the status quo. My plans were foiled by the Cutthroat using a plot twist to reveal themselves as the real Potentate.  Fun, would play again.


As usual, I skipped the flagship LARP.  I did get to the post-con drinks for the first time and it was a pleasant wind down and a good chance to catch up with old friends.

Thought-terminating Cliches

October 27, 2011

I was running through a few Wikipedia entires today, and clicked through to “thought-terminating clichés”, which is part of the entry on the Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism.  This was originally a 1956 book on the psychology of brainwashing in China.  The wiki entry has a nice bullet pointed list, which when I looked at it, my brain went “That would be handy for designing cults in roleplaying games!”

The eight criteria are:

  • milieu control
  • mystical manipulation
  • demand for purity
  • confession
  • sacred silence
  • thought-terminating clichés
  • doctrine over the person
  • dispensing of existence

Milieu Control

Isolating the individual from society and controlling their information and communications.  Armies do this on boot camp, but any suitably remote farmstead, castle or monastery will do.

Mystical Manipulation

Manipulating experiences to boost the credentials of the leadership, to emphasise the special nature of the group, or to reinterpret accepted truth (no really, it is the Illuminati behind everything).  Get them tired, do the ceremony at night with poor light, throw in a few psychotropic drugs, and babble some bollocks about midichlorians.

Demand for Purity

Use of guilt/shame as a control device, a world view that has no shades of grey, and requires conformity.  Mixing with outsiders is discouraged.  Special uniforms or other markers of belonging to the ‘elect’ can help here, as would markers of shame/guilt.


Sins are confessed to mentors and monitors, allowing their exploitation by leaders.

Sacred Science

The group possesses the ultimate truth!  No questions!  No disputes!  People outside the group do not know the truth.  The group leader, the holder of the truth, is above criticism.

Thought-terminating clichés

The group uses words/language in ways the outside world does not understand, or uses a code (Voynich Manuscript we’re looking at you!).  The jargon contains cliches that prevent critical thinking about the groups ideas.  Complex issues are reduced to simple buzzwords or phrases.  Twitter is perfect for them.

Doctrine over the Person

An individual’s experiences and knowledge are subordinate to the Sacred Science, and wrong-thinking (such as confessions made to monitors) must be reinterpreted until it conforms with the groups norms.

Dispensing of Existence

On one level, the group gets to choose who lives and who dies.  On another level, it chooses who it admits to the group and whether or not the Sacred Science is shared with new group members.  Those who do not share the Sacred Science are doomed to heck.  Those who leave the group become non-persons, less than human, people whose existence is to be denied.

Of course, there is no reason to restrict using this to just designing evil cults, you could also use it for “good” groups, such as Paladins.  Having recently watched the first four Star Wars movies again, an awful lot of these apply to how the Jedi order treated Annakin Skywalker.


Sins of the Father: the influence of D&D on weapons and armour in FRPGs.

November 15, 2010

D&D – an early 1970s design, influenced by the perceptions of wargamers using rules developed in the 1960s.  Almost fifty years later this still influences the way designers automatically approach the mechanical integration of historic arms and armour into RPGs.  Meanwhile our understanding of how medieval arms and armour work has been improved by several generations of scholarship and experimentation.
The two big ones:
Armour – better armour is assumed to reduce your ability to move.
Weapons – characters can choose from the full kitchen sink.
Two smaller ones:
Horses – near complete failure to integrate mounted combat.
Archery – short range snipers.
Many fantasy rpgs have a scaling movement penalty that feels intuitive, leather is little or no penalty, chain mail (hereafter referred to as maille) is a moderate penalty, and plate is a big penalty.  It feels obvious, that leather is light, and that wrapping sheets of metal around your body should slow you down.

This is wrong.

People move about as fast in plate as they do in maille or leather (especially when they’re running for their life).  The crucial factor here is exactly how the weight is distributed across the body, and to a lesser extent how the armour moves while you are moving.  The weight of a full hauberk of maille armour is carried mainly from the shoulders, and the skirt tends to swirl when moving (slapping the inside of the thigh/knee in a way that can cause injuries long term).  The weight of a full set of plate armour is more fully distributed around the body – much more of the weight is carried by the hips (just like modern backpacks) – and when strapped tight the armour remains in close fit contact with the body.

 This allows someone in plate to move pretty fast – unless the straps come undone.  Speaking from personal experience, forgetting to tie your straps and having your greaves angle themselves so they point into your shinbone brings you to a screaming halt. Literally.
At the battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066, Vikings were able to run approximately 12 miles (as the google crow flaps) in maille armour.  Yes they arrived at the field in a state of exhaustion, but they were able to do it.  There are accounts of knights in plate armour doing cartwheels and being able to vault into the saddle.  Many illusions about the limitations of armour are based on misconceptions caused by surviving examples of tournament armour, which is a bit like assuming cars for the highway should behave like cars designed for racing.
Movement on a battle field is far more constrained by your formation (a phalanx moves more slowly than a skirmish line) than it is by your equipment.  Modern reproduction armour is only a rough guide, as it can actually be heavier than medieval versions (although the use of modern materials such as stainless steel or titanium compensates for this), as its designed to be litigation proof in the USA rather than being designed to keep you alive in one battle.  Given the characters in RPGs rarely move in formation, armour should not really limit their movement ability in game.
This raises the obvious question, why would you wear maille armour if you could wear plate, and the historic answer is that you didn’t.  In the 14th century armies in Europe transitioned from wearing full suits of maille armour to full suits of plate (which incorporated small amounts of maille for the body portions the plate could not be tailored to cover).  Most maille suits had there metal recycled for other uses, which is why there are so few of them today.  You might keep wearing maille if you were too poor to affords to upgrade, or if you were too far away from a centre of armour manufacture that could make plate armour.

Let me also just say that nearly every rpg in existence underrates the protective quality of armour made from padded cloth.  You are far more likely to encounter historical armour made from layers of cloth than you are to find leather armour (although water hardened leather is pretty good if you do not have access to metal).
Now, do you want to know what is actually the most exhausting form of armour to equip?  Its the shield.  Don’t believe me?  Try this.  Load 20 kilos of books into a backpack.  Go for a half hour walk.  Unless your physical condition is near death you will not find this too stressful.  Now grab a 4-5 kilo pile of books.  Hold them with your arms fully extended.  After ten minutes of this you will be in a world of pain (unless you are some kind of neo-barb who does manual work for a living).  Shields are also primarily effective when used in formation.
While rpgs often spend a lot of effort detailing encumbrance penalties based on weight, and bean counting a round by round cumulative exhaustion as combat is resolved, they do not usually devote much attention to what really exhausts people: heat and lack of water.  We also don’t spend a lot of effort restricting the flow of information to people in fully enclosed helmets, but that’s a story for another day.
D&D presented a list of almost every weapon ever used by anyone in medieval/renaissance Europe (going a little overboard on the polearms when Unearthed Arcana was published).  Yet the effort to assemble this exhaustive list was almost a complete waste of time.
In play, most people made a simple choice – they equipped the weapon that did the most damage.  This varied a little depending on whether or not you had a shield.  The fact that close to 70% of all randomly generated magic weapons were swords may have also influenced decisions – when was the last time you saw a +5 Glaive?  Part of this was the deliberate decision in D&D to conflate ‘chance to hit’ with ‘chance to penetrate’ armour.  So why have 100 weapons when 80% of players will choose from the same 2-3 weapons? 

What is happening here is that the cultural and socio-economic context of the weapon is ignored.  here are some of the factors I have become aware of:

  • Legality: people were often required to own weapons and armour (a contrast with weapon control laws of today)
  • Socio-economic status: weapons as symbols of social standing, ritual uses in religious ceremonies, judicial weapons, and duelling
  • Metal scarcity: its hard for a modern person to understand just how valuable worked metal was in the middle ages, many weapon designs are based on farming implements, allowing rapid conversion, because some people could not afford actual weapons
  • Hunting weapons: while they might be improvised for military use, they also varied from low quality peasant weapons to ornate displays of noble wealth
  • War weapons: use relies on specific role in the field, formation or other tactical combination.

As a rough rule, changes in weapons and armour are driven by improvements in materials technology and construction techniques.  As armour improves, weapons change to be able to penetrate the improved armour.  Weapons that cannot penetrate armour cease to be effective weapons, although may be retained in a ceremonial role or as a social status symbol.  A simple example: one-handed swords cannot slash through plate armour, although they can thrust through weak points.  A two-handed sword, however, can cut through plate armour.  Trying to mechanically represent thrusts and slashes in rpgs tends to fall into the ‘too hard’ basket so if a sword could possibly penetrate armour it generally gets a blanket ability to do so. 
Anyhow, it should be no surprise that when medieval armour improved to full plate, the weapons that were used when armour was maille were abandoned and replaced by modified versions that could thrust more effectively, or by two-handed weapons that could have more effective power transferred to the point of contact.  Once the big two handed weapons were in use, shields largely vanished – why carry around something that won’t seriously impede a blow directed against you, and which prevents you from carrying an effective weapon?
Game mechanics are often driven by niche protection (whether of formal classes or informal roles created through player skill allocation), and the preservation of fantasy icons like the ranger equipped with two weapons.  The reason why dual wielding is bad, is that you are losing a significant amount of protection from not having a shield, dividing your concentration between two weapons, and both your weapons are likely to be unable to penetrate plate armour.  Its marginal in a 1:1 duel or small brawl, but if you take rapier and dagger onto a battlefield where your opponents have pikes its not going to end well.
Physics make lances the most dangerous weapons on the battlefield prior to the deployment of gunpowder weapons. Force = mass x acceleration squared.  But horses don’t fit in dungeons.  They also make armour movement penalties a moot point, as the weight is carried by the horse.  Large numbers of medieval weapons simply don’t make sense until you realise they were designed to either be used from horseback, or against people on horseback.

So why do so few rpg combat systems allow mounted combat to be effective.  From a design point of view, either all PCs have to be mounted, or all have to be infantry, a 50/50 ratio simply doesn’t work.  Players spread out to far, the people on horseback chase off after interesting things, leaving the plodders to guard camp or brew tea.  Horses also do not scale well in damage absorption, and having to buy remounts is annoying.  Its almost like any society which develops flying carpets never manages to develop the stirrup…
Note the arch in archers.  Imagine an archway.  Thats how archers work to maximise the distance they can shoot.  They’re not actually all that good at the kind of point blank fire you expect from an uzi, and which you see displayed in movies.  Battlefield archery also relies on mass volley fire aimed, not at individual targets (because it takes time to aim, and rate of fire is crucial in determining effectiveness), but at other masses of men (and horses).
In summary
What does this say about game mechanics?  A lot of its in the way equipment tables are presented to players, the focus tends to be on weight and then either armour value or weapon damage. 

Weight is irrelevant in my opinion: you can only wear one suit of armour, and you can only equip one weapon at a time.  Keeping a spare weapon is reasonable, but no medieval soldier carried a golf bag of weapons onto the field. 

Players will also start from an optimal DPS level they want in combat, and work back to the weapon choices that support this, with a tradeoff to survivability where shields are concerned.  Its also reasonable to assume that players will quickly identify weapons that are incapable of penetrating the best available armour and will rapidly unequip them.

Anyhow, I have some ideas about a followup post on relative weapon damage and armour mitigation values, but that can wait another day.