Reflections on a Runequest 6 Campaign

April 3, 2017

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

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

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

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

What is Runequest 6 About?

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

How Does Runequest 6 go About that?

The major elements of Runequest 6 are:

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

What Does Runequest 6 Reward?

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

Lets Look at the Rewards a Little More Closely

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

Experience rolls can be spent on:

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

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

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

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

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

Is Runequest 6 Easy to Learn?

No its not.

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

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

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

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

Can You Lose the Game in Character Generation?

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

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

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

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

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

How Whiffy is the Skill System?

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

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

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

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

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

System Mastery Shock

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

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

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

With Luck, Fumbles Never Happen

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

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

Combat – Death by a Thousand Options!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Linear Warrior, Quadratic Mage!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Social Stuff – A Strength and a Weakness

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

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

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

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Supplements for the Game

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

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

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

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

So you Obviously Hated this Game System?

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

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

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

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

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

 


A character generation system for D100 games

May 9, 2016

dice-160388_1280Just mucking around with some ideas for a character generation mini-game, riffing off Revolution D100 and Amber. There is just something about the 3-18 range for primary attributes (Strength, Dexterity, Charisma, etc) that just feels right for gaming. Even if it just nostalgia for my misspent youth sending fighters into the AD&D’s DMG random dungeon generator/blender. In a similar style, a percentage based skill system is one that is intuitive for use in play – you have a good idea of success/failure odds. But so many games never really use the numbers generated in the 3-18 range – they get used instead to generate secondary attributes that are the ones which get used in game play.

One of the options in Revolution D100 is to use the 3-18 attribute scores as resolution points in conflicts, so Charisma might be used in a verbal debate, Dexterity in a chase scene, and so on. With individual contests costing 1d6 or 2d6 resolution points, then sooner or later a 13 in an attribute will prove better than a 12. I am not exactly fond of either random 3d6, or point allocation systems, and inspired by the competitive character generation system used in a couple of diceless roleplaying games I have come up with this mini-game:

The six primary character attributes are: Strength (STR), Dexterity (DEX), Constitution (CON), Intellect (INT), Will (WIL), and Charisma (CHA).

  1. Each player makes a secret bid from 3-18. This bid must be unique to this player, e.g. if you have already made a bids of 17 and 18, your bids must be in the 3-16 range. Players may not collude on bids.
  2. Players reveal all bids simultaneously.
  3. The player(s) with the highest bid allocate the bid to one of their six attributes, and gain +1 Hubris.
  4. The player(s) with the lowest bid allocate the bid to one of their six attributes, and gain +1 Tyche.
  5. The player(s) with other bids allocate the bid to one of their six attributes, and make a notation next to it that they have gained +Skill.
  6. Bid allocations are public knowledge.
  7. If there is no clear distinction between bids due to tied bids, then Hubris trumps all, and Skill trumps Tyche. For example if everyone bids 18, everyone gets +1 Hubris and no Tyche of Skill awards are made. If Half bid 18 and half bid 16, the high bids get +1 Hubris the other bids get +Skill, and no one gets +Tyche.
  8. After all bids have been resolved, all players check and compare the characteristic scores across all the characters:
    1. If your character has the highest number in an attribute (even if this was not originally a winning bid) gain +1 Hubris.
    2. Repeat this process for Tyche (lowest number) and Skill (other numbers).

Tyche lets you minimise any harm to you, reducing it to a one point, even if it would normally be a situation that clearly should result in death such as bring trapped in a burning building, public execution, being abandoned in the middle of an ocean, etc. Tyche points refresh at the end of the current mission. I figure every player will want at least one point of Tyche, so everyone is likely to try and make at least one low bid for an attribute during the character generation mini-game.

Hubris lets you turn any roll into a critical success, but each time you do this you gain Nemesis points equal to the tens roll. Hubris points refresh at the end of each session. The minimum Hubris gain each session is equal to the base Hubris score. When Nemesis reaches 100, the GM will send a suitable Fury to punish the character. I figure every player will want some Hubris to drive the action forward, but too much of it is obviously tempting fate.

Skill is a bonus to initial character skills. So if you had STR 12 and DEX 9 and they were not Skill scores at any stage of the character generation process, then your initial combat skill would be (STR+DEX) 21%. If both were Skill Attributes, then your initial combat skill would be at least 42%. If your DEX then turned out to be the lowest DEX score in the final comparison, but STR remained a skill score, your final starting combat skill would be 54%.

If we nudge the attributes up a little, to more heroic levels of 15 and 13, but keep the other variables the same, then the final starting combat skill would be 71%. That is probably the sweet spot, as I have seen a fer articles opining that 65-70% is the sweet spot for making players feel that their characters are competent.

Doing some quick maths – its impossible for a bid of 18 to ever grant Skill during PC generation, so the best possible Skill combination is 17+16, which is 33. So the best possible initial skill would be 99%. Which is not something I anticipated when I threw this together.

I must try and corner some people to do a run through of this at the next convention I go to.


Avoiding the Setting/Mechanics trap

April 14, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 


Into the ziggurat of doom

February 29, 2016

We started with the party split in two groups.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loose ends

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

Loot

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

Experience = 12


Tarantium Campaign Session Notes

January 9, 2016

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

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

21 November session

 

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

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

Party decides against exploring the sealed vault.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 December session

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

19 December session

Shopping

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

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

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

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

Alfandi Village

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carousing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Departure

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

9 January Session

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

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

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

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

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

  • 81 modern silver coins of the Lunar Realms

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

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

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

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

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

Runequest 6 Session Notes

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

Session 3 Summary – Bazaar and Ball

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


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, rpg.net 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?

Publishing

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.