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.


Post-apocalyptic Coperative Magic

May 31, 2015

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

The story of the shaping of a second age 

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

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

Shadow Magic

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

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

Varmic Familiars

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

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

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

How to make cooperative magic work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What makes a world feel post-apocalyptic?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Putting the post-apocalyptic theme into RQ mechanics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post-apocalyptic cultures

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

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

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


How the Bundle of Holding is influencing my game design

March 3, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Player Character Species for the Tarantium Campaign

January 2, 2014

Today I spent some time fleshing out sentient species that players might use for player characters in a Runequest campaign.  I know this is subject to diminishing returns, in that if I develop more species than players, some or most of them will not be used.  In my Dragon Age game, only one of my five players wanted to play a non-human at campaign launch, although we later ret conned one of the player characters to be a half-elf.  So one of the considerations for me is that each of the species I develop is something that helps explain my campaign world, and will provide NPCs and plot lines for me to use in the play of a campaign.

First Draft – Player Character Species for the Tarantium Campaign

Humans are the dominant race of Koth, both numerically – representing 80 per cent of the world’s population, and politically – ruling all the major Empires and most of the minor Kingdoms and independent enclaves. If you choose to play a non-human species, you should be aware that it is likely to have fewer legal rights than humans, and may encounter prejudice from merchants and officials.

If you wish to play a specific species of your own choosing not from this list, we can probably work something out. If its derived from classical mythology, then it may be a Courtly race, but if its from more recent fantasy, then its likely to be a Conquered species.  The Courtly Folk include:

  • Arani (a giant spider)
  • Brachi (a sentient crab)
  • Ghoul (a humanoid carrion eater)
  • Minotaur (as per classical mythology)
  • Sobek (a crocodile headed humanoid)

The Conquered Peoples include:

  • Alfandi (light skinned, dark haired elves, once farmed the fields of the citadels)
  • Telchari (hairless dwarves, once maintained the sewers in the citadels)
  • Vargr (bipedal wolves, pack creatures with chaotic governments)
  • Vordar (dark skinned, light haired, elves, once the wardens of the citadels).

Arani, Brachi and Vordar do not play well with others of their own species.  Only one PC in the party can come from each of these species.  Ghouls, Sobek and Vargr enjoy and actively seek out the company of others of their own species, unless they are insane or undertaking a ritual quest that requires solitude.

Arani

The Arani spider folk made a deal with the Taran family in the Founding Age, lending them the Arani matriarch’s oracle power, in exchange for protection and a place in society. Arani are respected in the Tarantine Empire, and feared elsewhere. Male Arani are by nature hunter-killers rather than ambushing or web-spinning spiders (which the female Arani are). They do not hunt in packs, and do not enjoy the company of other male Arani. They do respect knowledge, with many becoming scholars, and while not as adept at intrigue as the matriarchs, a few become skilled politicians.

In Tarantium, the male Arani are a bit like the younger sons of noble families, members of an important social class, but not terribly important in of themselves. Some descend to the ground in search of adventure and food, others work for the Empire in a number of roles, and a few just stay close to the Matriarch’s Court, even though this can result in an early death in the mating season.

Only male Arani can be played by PCs – the females are double the SIZ of males and too magically powerful to be balanced for a game. Young Arani males have dark brown – almost black – fur, which lightens to a tan brown colour as they mature. As male Arani age their fur slowly whitens, and the most dangerous elders reach a translucent white colour and can terrify almost any opponent. Male Arani have the following special abilities:

  • Adhering – as long as the Arani does not wear more than quilted/padded armour on its legs, it can move freely on vertical surfaces and ceilings
  • Combat Style – Eight Legged Horror (allows use of Grappling and Venom abilities)
  • Darksense – the eight eyes of the Arani are good for detecting creatures in complete darkness, the spider can make perception checks to detect prey within INT metres of its locations
  • Exoskeleton – an Arani has Armour Points in all hit locations equal to SIZ/7 (round down), armour can be worn over this but a full set of armour is likely to cost double what it would cost a human, due to the skill needed to allow freedom of movement for all eight limbs
  • Grappling – with a successful unarmed attack, you Grapple in addition to inflicting damage, if the attack was parried you gain the Grip effect on a limb, or the Pin effect on a weapon, use your Brawn skill to resist attempts to break free.
  • Improve SIZ – you can always spend experience checks to improve your SIZ, as long as you have consumed sentient magic-using creatures with SIZ/POW greater than your current SIZ/POW within the last lunar month
  • Intimidate – this ability is unlocked when the Arani’s SIZ reaches 20, opponents must make Willpower checks to stand their ground if you threaten them
  • Tool using – two of the front limbs are slightly shorter and have developed for manipulating tools, although Arani are clumsy compared to ten fingered humans they can wield weapons and shields, but they if the hilts/grips are not designed for their use they will struggle with them (make skill checks more difficult)
  • Venom – if the mandibles of the Arani are not impeded by a helmet, they can bite with a 1d6 damage attack anyone they have grappled, if this penetrates any armour, it paralyses the victim after 1d6 rounds (can be resisted) and then does 1 HP of damage per hour to every hit location thereafter as the venom liquefies the insides of the victim, the paralysis effect lasts for CON/4 hours.

Arani use a different hit location table than the humanoid races. See p.389 in RQVI.

Arani names: tend to be complicated and elegant, so much so their companions usually make a nickname for them.

Common Arani passions:

  • Loyalty (Arani Matriarchs)
  • Fear (Arani Matriarchs)
  • Love (Stalking Prey)
  • Respect (Teacher)
  • Loyalty (Tarantine Empire)

Note: Arani are more powerful than humans (although they lose some abilities if wearnig heavy armour), but much harder to roleplay, and there won’t be any casual sexual encounters in taverns.

Brachi

The Brachi are sentient crabs, known for their intelligence and curiosity. They feature in a few myths and legends, sometimes as a trickster figure, but often as a hapless companion of the hero who needs rescuing. They survived the Cataclysm by clinging to rocks and crawling into small tunnels for the ride down from the Moon and are now found throughout the world.

Brachi have a bad reputation for thievery, although they often quickly lose interest in the toys and shiny objects they make off with. If they have a favourite shiny object though, they will be very reluctant to part with it. While Brachi tend to talk/act first and think later, when they do think about a problem they often find solutions no one else thought of. Being smaller than most of the sentient races, they often prefer solving problems in non-violent ways, although if pushed around their claws can be dangerous.

If taught to read and write, Brachi make good scholars and engineers … although careful mentoring is needed to make sure they do not go off on tangents. Some Brachi also become good merchants as they love arguing and can haggle from sunrise to sunset to get the new shiny object at a good price.

Names: there is no logic or consistency to Brachi names, most are self selected and many are ludicrous.

See p.344 RQVI for Brachi hit locations.

Brachi abilities:

  • Burrowing: you can burrow through sand at your normal movement rate, and at quarter movement rate through earth, given enough time you could even work your way through stone
  • Crushing Crustacean Pincers: attack with two pincers doing 1d6 damage
  • Exoskeleton: Brachi have four armour points in all locations
  • Formidable natural weapons: can parry/defelct with natural weapons (claws)
  • Small: Brachi can be generated with a SIZ smaller than 8 if the player chooses this, a minimum SIZ of 3 is required, this can be an advantage in squeezing into small places, but it will disadvantage the character’s Hit Points and damage bonus

Common Brachi Passions:

  • Desire (Shiny New Thing)
  • Love (Learning New Facts)
  • Love (Arguing)
  • Respect (Best Friend in the Whole Wide World)
  • Hate (Thief of Shiny Thing)
  • Espouse (Pet Theory for Everything)

Note: this is the species to play if you want to annoy the hell out of everyone all the time.

Ghoul

The Ghouls first appeared in the legends of the Age of Rebellion, feasting on the corpses of the fallen. They are living creatures, not undead. Ghouls resemble humans in most ways, but are thinner, almost emaciated, deathly pale skin, their teeth are dominated by incisors for ripping flesh, and their fingernails are long and claw like. Ghouls require rotten meat to survive – they are carrion eaters – and normal cooked meat will make them vomit if they try and eat it.

Ghouls occupy a complex position in the margins of civilisation – they do the unpleasant jobs involving ritual pollution that other races prefer not to engage in. Ghouls are found as butchers, tanners, embalmers, executioners and soldiers. If its a filthy, disgusting job, they get to do it, usually for low wages. As long as Ghouls follow the appropriate cleansing rituals, pay taxes and obey the laws, they are left alone. The Tarantine Emperors have often intervened to prevent pogroms against Ghouls – “The coins they pay in taxes smell like those of any other citizen I have sworn to protect.”

Civilised Ghouls wear elaborate headdress and scarves that conceal their disjointed jaws, and gloves that hide their claws. Asking a ghoul to remove their clothing is a very offensive act, one that will alienate the local Ghoul community and could lead to challenges. Ghoul buildings tend to be a warren of tight one way passages and dead ends, and entry into them is considered a polluting act – few people would do it without good cause.

On the ground, some Ghouls have degenerated into feral packs, ambushing and devouring unwary travellers. These packs are hunted down ruthlessly, with fire and the sword.

Names: Arabic culture names are suitable for Ghouls.

Ghoul abilities:

  • Death Sense: a ghoul can sense the death of nearby living creatures, or the location of dead flesh, they have an instinctive feel for scouting out places of death, such as cemeteries, battlefields and abattoirs
  • Hardened Skin: one point of natural armour
  • Regeneration: if able to feast on large quantities of dead flesh, Ghouls can regenerate lost limbs at a rate of 1 Hit Point per location per week, damage caused by fire cannot be regenerated
  • Teeth and Claws: Ghoul teeth do 1d3+1d2 damage, and their claws do 1d4+1d2 damage, plus any damage bonus

Common Ghoul Passions:

  • Respect (Tradition)
  • Desire (Carrion)
  • Observe (Ritual)
  • Loyalty (Family)

Note: a good choice for someone wanting to play the aloof outsider.  Like a lot of choices I intend for Tarantium, its not evil, just a darker than average shade of grey. Its inspired by the Ghul in Amanda Downum’s novel The Kingdoms of Dust.

Minotaur

Minotaurs were bred for war by Mal, an unholy fusion of man and beast. Despite all attempts to compel loyalty, Mal found that Minotaurs were largely uncontrollable, although they could be corrupted to enjoy the blood rage of battle. Getting them back in line again afterwards was difficult. During the course of the Age of the Rebellion, many Minotaurs deserted or defected to join the rebels. Their hatred of Mal and his children, and their works and deeds, is deep and abiding due to the way they were used as expendable shock troops.

More than almost any other race, Minotaurs have embraced Koth. Most have migrated to the ground, where they survive by herding animals and trading for the fruits and grains that dominate their diet. Only a few families remain in the flying cities, where they have proven to excel in the various divine cults, hewing carefully to the old traditions.

Minotaurs have the following abilities:

  • Earthstrong: Minotaurs lose the minimum amount of Areté on failed Areté checks (unless they are deliberately seeking out Forbidden Lore in which case the normal Areté loss applies)
  • Horns and Hide: Minotaurs have three Armour Points in the head. They require custom made helms due to their horns. The Horns can be used to Gore for 1d8 damage.

Names: Ancient Greek culture names are suitable for Minotaurs.

See p.375-377 in RQVI for more information on Minotaurs. The Shaman profession is not available to Minotaurs, and Minotaurs do not have any language penalties.

Note: in RQVI RAW, Minotaurs have much better SIZ/STR characteristics than humans do. In Tarantium they do not get any bonus to characteristics, but the Earthstrong ability and lack of language penalty should compensate for this.  Areté is functionally equivalent to SAN in a Call of Cthulhu game.

Sobek

The Sobek are crocodile headed bipedal humanoids with scaly skin. In myths and legends they are encountered by rivers and other bodies of water, as simple hunter/gatherers, traders and explorers. When the Shining Court was established, many Sobek moved there to indulge in the delights of civilisation and to bask in the reflected light of the Palace. In the Age of Rebellion, the Sobek were the most loyal of all races to Mal, only turning on him when his defeat was clear.

Sobek both respect and desire power, but are often limited by their desire to enjoy the pleasures of life to the full, which includes late breakfasts and basking through the mid day sun. Sobek are often found in criminal gangs, happy to knife someone for a few coins or a cup of wine, or they may be hard-working and enterprising members of merchant guilds, cults, and other organisations … but always likely to be playing the long game of politics. Groups dominated by Sobek often experience prolonged and bitter struggles for power. If a Sobek does rise to undisputed dominance, they can command near fanatical loyalty from their Sobek underlings.

The most important Sobek rite of passage is the acquisition of a weapon. Thereafter a Sobek is never without a weapon – even if it just a small concealed knife. Because Sobek feel the cold more than other species, they often wear several layers of clothing and even wear furs in mid summer.

Of all the creatures of the Moon, the Sobek have most fallen in love with the Sun. Within the Covenant, the Sobek are the largest ethnic minority, after humans, and their ease with sun worship means they face less restrictions than the other non-human races. This has made life for those Sobek within the Tarantine Empire a little more difficult, as many of them are suspected of sympathising with the Covenant’s aims.

Names: Ancient Egyptian culture names are suitable for Sobek.

Sobek have the following abilities:

  • Tough scales: one point of natural armour in all hit locations
  • Bite: 1d8 attack from their very sharp teeth
  • Cold Blooded: Sobek do not need to eat frequently, only requiring one meal a week, but cold temperatures make them sluggish and torpid (they sleep through much of winter and stay awake through much of summer) – without warm clothing they lose six Strike Ranks and one Action Point in cold weather
  • Hold Breath: if prepared a Sobek can hold its breath underwater for CON minutes (halve this duration if swimming or fighting).

Common Sobek Passions:

  • Indulge (Decadent Vice)
  • Respect (Power)
  • Desire (Warmth)
  • Retain (Weapon)

Note: this is the Lizardman/Ophidian race for Tarantium. As sun loving creatures, Night Sense did not make much sense, so I swapped it for Hold Breath. The Bite attack damage has been increased, but Sobek don’t have a venomous bite.

 

The Conquered Peoples I am still working on.  The Vargr will be familiar to anyone who has played Traveller, as I loved playing them.  The other species are the standard FRPG cliches, with the Telchari being pretty much a straight import from my current Dragon Age game.  There will be other sentient races, but they will be almost universally hostile to humanity, and so will be unsuited for PC use.


The Red Eye School of Sorcery

December 31, 2013

Continuing with my campaign development over the holiday break.  My plan is to eventually develop five orders of sorcery, along with some religious cults and mystic orders, for use by player characters.  For this school of sorcery, I started with the Scholastic Order template on page 308 0f the Runequest VI rules and then modified it a bit.  The background is loosely inspired by some of the Odin myths, and I have subverted the standard trope of the reclusive nerdy mage, by making the order a bit more interested in the pleasures of the flesh.

The Red Eye School of Sorcery

The most obvious sign of a Red Eye mage, is that one of their eyes is missing, usually as part of a deliberate initiation ritual. A true master of the school can be recognised by the fact that both of their eyes have been removed! Note: the missing eye(s) cannot be regenerated by any magic means. Eye patches are often worn, and prosperous members of the order wear red coloured robes made from expensive fabrics, and for formal occasions a cloak of raven feathers. If they have a staff, it is usually white.

The first eye removed by this order is deliberately destroyed in a magic ritual that creates a charm for the sorcerer that makes them harder to be found by tracking or scrying (increase the difficulty level of such skill checks by one level). The loss of an eye makes all sight based perception checks one level of difficulty harder.

The Red Eye school originated in the Moon Age, a sorcerer known as Sarak of the Wandering Eye was exiled from Mal’s Court after making the mistake of propositioning all three of Mal’s daughters at a Ball. In the Shadowlands he was trapped by the Queen of Thorns (after mortally offending her in a botched seduction attempt) and impaled on the Whistling Thorn Tree. Trapped on the tree, with his life’s blood staining his previously white robes, and carrion birds circling around, Sarak endured pain and agony. Eventually the Raven flew in close and bargained with Sarak teaching him a song that would free him in exchange for a morsel of flesh. While Sarak felt tricked when Raven took his eye as the “morsel”, he was free to continue his wanderings, fumbled courtings, and led a long life of research and discovery.

Sarak’s book of knowledge is known as the Veiled Volume, and it is written in a language taught only to members of the order, and it can be read by people who are blind.

The Red Eye Order rose to prominence in the Rebellion age, when people rebelled against the tradition’s and restrictions of the Shining Court. Red Eye sorcerers were happy to share their discoveries of different ways of doing things, and quite happily broke with old conventions. It has largely retained a presence in the Imperial Court, apart from a period of suppression during the time of the Harem Emperor’s, and is responsible for tuition of the Imperial family and maintaining the Imperial library.

The order continues to be involved in significant research, discovery and exploration … along with some of the major court scandals. While scholastic, its members are not known for denying themselves the pleasures of the flesh, if anything they experiment with discovering its limits of endurance.

Magic Points

A Red Eye sorcerer regenerates magic points after the sun has set for the day.

Runes

Truth and Magic.

Skills

Insight, Invocation (Red Eye), Language (Blind)*, Lore (Any), Perception, Shaping, Willpower.

Spells in the Veiled Volume

Abjure (Pain), Evoke (Razantar), Eye for an Eye (Castback), Intuition, Mystic (Hearing), Perceive (Magic), Raven’s Song (Neutralise Magic), Raven’s Wings (Fly), Red Light*, Sense (Knowledge), Wandering Eye*.

Red Light Spell

This spell can be used to illuminate an area with a red light, emanating from a point chosen by the caster. The light is just sufficient to read by, but will not disrupt vision at night time (unlike a bright light). While the red light persists, the caster can augment their Seduction checks with their Invocation (Red Eye) skill.

Wandering Eye

This spell is used to animate an artificial eye crafted by the Sorcerer (as well as delicate cogwheels and mechanisms the eye usually requires wings from a small magical creature and a small ruby). A lens or monocle is also crafted to go with this. In use the spell is similar to Project (Sense), although the physical eye can be detected and destroyed, but the receiving view piece can be shifted between different people.

Gift – Summon Ranaztar of the Thousand Eyes

When the sorcerer is inducted as a full member of the Order, the masters will summon Ranaztar to oversee the ceremony. If Ranaztar detects disloyalty in the heart of the Apprentice, it will devour both of the Apprentice’s eyes, and then the Masters will expel the apprentice. Otherwise Ranaztar assists the Masters in destroying the eye the Apprentice will sacrifice. When the sorcerer becomes a Master, they can summon Ranaztar and sacrifice their remaining eye (which Ranaztar adds to their collection) in exchange for one of the following gifts:

  •  +1d6 INT
  • a Lore skill at 100% (this cannot be Forbidden Lore).

A master sorcerer of the Red Eye can attempt to summon Razantar at any time, provided they can gift it with the eyes of magically powerful people or creatures.

Duties

Novices and apprentices are required to assist higher ranked members of the order, and often spend long hours copying library manuscripts. Adepts and other high rank members are obliged to assist anyone who comes to them with a novel problem (although a gift is customary after the problem has been dealt with). There is an old Imperial Law requiring all children in the Imperial family to be tutored by a Red Eye sorcerer, although given the rate at which past Imperial tutors have been executed, exiled or imprisoned by the Emperor’s, this is not a popular duty. The order as a whole is hostile to the puritans in the Covenant, supporting imperial campaigns against them.


The Ghost Hands

November 20, 2013

Mucking around with some ideas for a Runequest VI campaign setting, one of which is that I want all the cults and brotherhoods that the players could join to have something questionable about them, even when they are socially accepted and seen as “good” for civilisation.

The Ghost Hand School of Sorcery

The most obvious sign of a Ghost Hand mage, is that one of their hands has been amputated, usually as part of a deliberate initiation ritual. A true master of the school can be recognised by the fact that both of their hands have been amputated! Note: the missing hand(s) cannot be regenerated by any magic means.

The amputated hand is kept and preserved, as it allows the school to track down any aberrant apprentices. Once the member is a trusted adept, the hand may be returned to them for animation as a familiar (with the enchant spell), the completion of which is one of the markers of the rank of mage.

The Ghost Hand school originated in the Moon Age, when an exile from Mal’s court known as the First Hand wandered the shadowlands and bartered the sensation of pain for knowledge from demons and other creatures of shadow. The first amputation granted him insight sufficient to trick a demon who had bound his soul.

The Ghost Hands rose to prominence in the Founding age, when mortality struck and people did not know what to do with ghosts. The Ghost Hands had some knowledge of the spirit world and were able to drive off or destroy the first wave of ghosts. While other ways of dealing with ghosts are now known, the order retains some prestige from this event. Nomad Shamans hate Ghost Hand sorcerers, and delight in continuing the amputation process if an unlucky sorcerer falls into their hands.

The order continues to research ghosts and spirits, and the methods for defending against them, and driving them off or destroying them. A few renegades have been found who used forbidden knowledge to dominate ghosts for their own nefarious ends.

Runes

Death and Magic, although the order refers to Death as the Shadow rune and tends to embellish it somewhat in the order’s manuscripts.

Skills

Invocation (Ghost Hands), Lore (Ghosts), Shaping, Willpower.

Spells

Banish, Bypass Armour, Enchant, Ghost Hand*, Mark, Mystic, Repulse (Ghosts), Spirit Resistance, Transfer Wound, Wrack (soul).

Ghost Hand Spell

This spell creates a ghostly hand, in the place of the sorcerer’s missing hand, that can pass through solid material, and is capable of manipulating objects. All apprentices are taught this spell after their initiation amputation ceremony is completed.  This spell is unique to the Ghost Hand order, and greedy apprentices who have tried to sell the secret have found themselves being choked to death by invisible hands.

Gift – Summon Karach 

Karach is the shadow demon who once enslaved the First Hand. This gift may be granted to exceptional Mages, but is more likely to be granted to Arch Mages who have proven themselves to be beyond temptation. Among other powers, Karach can cast Sculpt (Shadow). The first time he is summoned, the character must successfully bargain with him, trading the demon a permanent point of magic in exchange for knowledge (which can be represented by bonus experience rolls). This magic point is regained if the character amputates their remaining hand.

Duties

Novices and apprentices are required to assist higher ranked members of the order. Adepts and other high rank members are obliged to give aid to anyone who is afflicted by ghosts (although a gift is customary after the spirit has been dealt with). The order as a whole is hostile to nomads and their ghost wielding shaman, supporting imperial campaigns against them, and so as individuals Ghost Hand sorcerers are quite prejudiced against nomads

 


Runequest 6th Edition

September 8, 2013

The sixth edition of Runequest is a comprehensive successor to previous editions, and for me, comes the closest to capturing the look and feel of the second edition that was one of my favourite roleplaying games.  As well as looking at this new edition, I will also present my thoughts about the supplements and supporting material released so far.  I have played and run games with the second and third editions, looked at the fourth edition drafts that never went anywhere, and had the Mongoose edition – but for some reason I just never liked the they way they put the game together so I did not run any games with it.

tdm100-rq6-front-cover

Runequest VI is a hefty 456 page all-in-one tome.  Its available as a softcover & pdf bundle from http://www.glorantha.com/product/runequest-6th-edition/ or http://www.thedesignmechanism.com/products.php ($62), and in pdf format from http://rpg.drivethrustuff.com/index.php?&manufacturers_id=4057 ($25).

A hardcover version has been funded through Indiegogo and should be out soon for backers and direct sales.  Runequest VI is primarily a set of rules, but provides examples of game mechanics through a backstory set in the bronze age city state of  Meeros and the aspiring female warrior Anathaym.  This is kept in the sidebars, and I found the story entertaining, like Rurik’s story in RQ II, but not too distracting from the main text.  Apart from the cover, which is a colourful homage to the RQ II cover, the interior art is black and white illustrations, and largely complements the overall mood and themes of the text.  More setting specific supplements are due for publication in the future, including:

  • Luther Arkwright (based on a time travelling secret agent character, apparently a big UK comic in the 1970s-80s)
  • Mythic Briton (after the Romans have left)
  • Shores of Korantia (based on Age of Treason, a fantasy setting that tries to capture the feel of a rising new Empire, where internal threats may outweigh external threats).

A number of free pdf downloads are available for Runequest VI at the Design Mechanism website, including:

  • A supplement for Firearms (and futuristic weapons)
  • A GM pack
  • Character sheets.

Two generic, setting free, game supplements are already available:

  • Monster Island (a “sandpit” jungle island)
  • Book of Quests (seven loosely connected scenarios).

Organisation and Layout

There are sixteen chapters, plus reference sheets and an index.  While the material is in a logical order, there will be a bit of page turning in character creation as people start with the process in chapter one, but may need to dive into the skills, equipment and magic chapters to figure out what they want their character to be like.  I had some confusion on first reading the rules, in that while skills are mostly explained in chapter four, some specific parts of skill use, such as haggling, are dealt with more thoroughly elsewhere in the text.  If I were running a game, I would want prepared material for the players with example combat styles, magic traditions, cults and brotherhoods for them to join.

  • Chapters 1-3, character creation, culture, community, careers and development
  • Chapters 4-7, skills, economics & equipment, game mechanics, combat
  • Chapters 8-13, magic systems
  • Chapter 14, cults and brotherhoods
  • Chapter 15, creatures
  • Chapter 16, games master.

Character Creation

Basic character creation involves the seven traditional characteristics: Strength, Constitution, Size, Dexterity, Intelligence, Power, and Charisma.  These can be rolled for randomly, or purchased with a point buy system.  Secondary attributes are calculated based on the characteristics: Action Points (number of actions per combat round), Damage Modifier, Experience Modifier (bonus improvement rolls, based on Charisma not intelligence, as you smile sweetly at your instructor…), Healing Rate, Height & Weight, Hit Points, Luck Points (one use per game session), Magic Points, Movement Rate and Strike Rank (initiative in combat).  There are some fairly significant break points in these attributes, for example your Action Points are determined by combining Intelligence and Dexterity, 12 or less is one action, 13-24 two actions, 25-36 three actions.  If using a point buy system, I suspect the temptation for players to have intelligence and dexterity summing to 25 will be strong.

Standard skills are available to all characters, most are self-explanatory (Dance, Perception) but Customs (of your community), Evade, Influence (persuasion) and Insight (into motives) will need a look at the rules to figure out what they are about. Evade is not quite the old Dodge skill, its more a throw yourself to the ground that leaves you prone to vulnerable to whatever happens next.

Combat styles represent a major design choice for the individual game master.  For a combat light campaign you could decide to just have two styles, one for melee weapons and one for ranged weapons.  For a detail rich gladiators in the arena campaign, you might have a dozen or more combat styles (spear and net, spear and shield, etc).  Deeper in the book (page 135) its explained how combat styles can have special traits, such as Formation Fighting, where a group of soldiers work together to reduce their opponents action points by one.  Quite nifty, and an obvious place for house rules for campaign specific chrome.

Four generic human cultures are presented: Barbarian, Civilised, Nomadic and Primitive.  Each culture comes with a set of standard skills, combat styles, and professional skills.  Of these, I think the primitives are the weakest, but I just don’t find the stone age all that interesting.

A 1d100 random background event table is included. If choosing an older character, its suggested that you roll more than once.  I quite like 13 “You believe yourself to be suffering a divine or magical curse. Moan, groan and whinge at every opportunity, or remain completely stoic at every misfortune that befalls you in the future.”

Social class is an option, with as usual, the lucky nobles getting wealth, land, horses, weapons and armour. Personally, I like the idea of starting a campaign where the nobles start with equipment and hideously huge piles of debt.  One can keep rolling randomly for family, but for contacts, allies and adversaries you’re expected to use your brain and think of something.  The rules do provide a major incentive for the players to come up with a reason for hanging out together – Group Luck Points (tucked away on page 124) a pool of shared luck points anyone in the group can use, and you get one per player who has a good reason for being in the party.

The last section of culture and community is the most important from a roleplaying perspective: passions.  Passions are cool! Passions represent:

  • loyalties and allegiances
  • strongly held beliefs or ideals
  • emotion felt towards someone or something.

Passions are rated 1-100, can change over time, and be created or discarded in play.  Passions are described by a verb such as: comfort, desire, despise, destroy, espouse, fear, flee, forswear, hate, love, loyalty, protect, repudiate, respect, seek, subvert, torment, or uphold.

Over 20 generic careers are provided, offering a package of standard and professional skills for the player to spend points on for their character.  The careers are fairly broad, the Agent for example, is intended to include Agitators, Assassins, Detectives, Informers, and Spies.

An older character gets more skill points, and can spend them to a higher starting level.  Age penalties don’t kick in until 40+, so I see players being strongly incentivised to choose middle aged (200 bonus points) over young (100 bonus points).

Game Mechanics

Its the old 1d100, roll against skill level system, but with some developments:

  • 01-05 always succeeds
  • 96-00 always fails
  • A roll of 1/10 of skill is a critical success
  • A roll of 99-00 is a fumble.

Rather than providing an exhaustive list of modifiers to skill checks, the approach taken in Runequest VI is to adjust the skill level by fractions, e.g. for an Easy task, add half again to the skill value, for a Formidable task, reduce the skill by half.  Characters can augment a skill with one other skill, e.g. using local area knowledge to improve drive skill checks, equal to twice the critical success value of the augmenting skill.

For contested rolls, critical beats normal beats failure, but if two people have the same result, e.g. critical perception versus critical stealth, the character with the highest roll on the dice wins (i.e. a 13 beats a 7). Pro tip: because of the need to compare rolls you need to train your players to leave their dice on the table, untouched, until the roll is fully resolved.

Equipment

After that mechanic introduction the rules take off on a tangent for equipment, before going back for more mechanics.  Mostly familiar stuff with the traditional kitchen sink lists of ancient to renaissance era armour and weaponry. What I noted here was the armour penalty to Strike Rank (the average of Dexterity & Intelligence), which is determined by total armour encumbrance value divided by 5.  For a full set of plate mail this works out to a hefty -9 penalty.  This is also applied to the the characters movement.  I grumble about this, a custom fit set of plate armour can be easier to run in than a maille hauberk, but I can put aside the stickler for accuracy and recognise it for a game balance device that ensures some niche protection for those leather clad (or skyclad) character concepts out there.

Weapons have a list of combat effects they can do, for example the Glaive can inflict Bleed and Sunder (smash armour) effects, while the Rapier can Impale.

More Game Mechanics

Specific rules are given to handle: Acid, Ageing, Asphyxiation, Blood loss, Character improvement, disease, poison, encumbrance, falling, fatigue, fires, healing, luck, passions, wilderness survival, traps, visibility and weather. Phew!

Skill increase is familar, roll 1d100 and add 2-5% if you roll equal or greater than the skill, or 1% if not.  As a freebie, if you fumble, you get to add 1% as well.  Increasing characteristics is not easy at all, essentially you sacrifice experience rolls, both now and in the future, to boost a characteristic.  Stop making the sacrifice, and your characteristic goes back down to its natural level.  I think this is fine with a point buy system, but if using 3d6 rolls in the old school style, its very hard on the unlucky player.  An optional rule is provided for people like me who prefer something a bit more like RQ II.  FOr those with time and money, training is an option, allowing skill increases of anywhere from 1-2% to 5-10% depending on how much better than you your trainer is.  You can’t stay at school forever though, you have to spend an experience roll on a skill before you can work with a trainer again.

Encumbrance remains the rule most likely to be ignored by both players and game masters.

Healing serious/major wounds takes a very long time unless you have magic.

Luck points can be used to:

  • reroll dice
  • gain an Action Point
  • downgrade a Major wound to a Serious Wound (this is how player characters survive the brutal, gritty, Runequest combat system).

Combat

This is comprehensive enough for my re-enactor background, and complex enough to be intimidating – there is even an Android App for helping sort out combat effects!

Actions can be spent on proactive actions or reactive actions.  When you run out of actions you just have to suck up whatever hurt the bad guys are throwing your way. You probably want some tokens/counters to track this around the game table (and that might help with luck points as well).

Proactive actions include:

  • attack
  • brace
  • cast magic
  • change range (moving in closer or further away)
  • delay
  • dither
  • hold magic
  • mount
  • move
  • outmaneuver (make an opposed Evade check against a group of foes, those who fail cannot attack you)
  • ready weapon
  • regain footing
  • struggle.

Reactive actions include:

  • counter spell
  • evade (dive or roll clear, ending up prone – this is not the dodge of RQ II)
  • interrupt
  • parry (combining parrying, blocking, leaning and footwork to avoid the blow)

The detail about evade/parry is included as that seems to be one of the most common misapprehensions about how the combat system is supposed to work.  How effective your parry is depends on the size of the weapons/shields involved.  Equal or greater size mitigates all damage, one size less mitigates half damage. Two sizes down mitigates nothing. So if the giant is swinging a tree trunk at you, throw the buckler shield away and evade!

In addition to damage, you get special effects, potentially as many as three, if one side fumbles when the other criticals.  There are a LOT of special effects, too many to sum up, but I think its likely that players will choose things like Select Target (head) and Maximise Damage (instead of rolling one of the damage dice its treated as being at full value, so a 2d6 weapon becomes 6+1d6).  For those who want it though, you can do a lot more to your opponents than “whack, and I whack it again” which is where RQ II was it in 1980.

Shields are a passive block, not an active block, so you need to pick the locations being warded. A bigger shield can ward more locations.  As in past editions, weapon damage minus armour = hit points lost to a body location.  Damage and wounds are pretty horrific:

  • minor wound: location has HP left
  • serious wound: location has zero or less HP (this will put most people out of the fight very quickly)
  • major wound: location reduced to negative starting HP (this will kill most people without first aid or healing magic).

Magic

It is a joy to see all of the magic traditions in one rule book.  Each of them is quite different, and a game world might not have all of them present.  We get a primer on the runes too, as this is Runequest. What I would really like is a set of the runequest runes on some small tokens I could draw randomly from a bag for oracle type stuff in game sessions.  A quick web search did not find anyone with something like this for sale.  Maybe I’ll track something down later on.

Folk Magic – this is what we called Battle Magic or Spirit Magic back in RQ II, its fairly low power community magic.

Animism – dealing with the spirit world and its monsters, Shamanistic traditions.

Mysticism – warrior monk/Jedi enlightenment aiming for transcendence.  Potentially the most overpowered of the magic traditions as a skilled mystic can be very hard to kill and very dangerous in combat, not at all the glass cannon of your traditional RPG mage. Beware of little old men with brooms!

Sorcery – a complex system, potentially powerful but often very narrow in focus and difficult to use (but good for villains who need long rituals to be interrupted)

Theism – religious cult based magic and power.

Off-hand, not too different from past editions, but the GM should decide for the campaign how common magic is, how long it takes to cast a magic spell or ritual, and how quickly magic points can be regenerated and by what means.  A world where you only regenerate magic on the night of the full moon is very different from one where you get new magic points every sunrise.

The Rest of the Sixth Edition

The creatures, cults and brotherhoods and game master sections are all fairly straightforward stuff for world and adventure building.  On a second reading of the GM advice, it was better than the first time, and gives some good tips for using the preceding material.

How does it play?

This is not a convention friendly game, its just too rich and complex for people unfamiliar with the rules to get a lot done with it on the three-four hours you get.  The combat and magic systems, while powerful tools, are likely to confuse people at first.  It is much more a game system for running a long campaign with, and for people who love detailed world building … because you can always write up one more cult!  I am very much looking forward to running a campaign with it when my Dragon Age game wraps up.

The GM Pack

This 78 page free supplement contains two scenarios and charts and reference sheets for use with Runequest games.  Meeros Falling is a “prove the hero is innocent” scenario, and involves finding the conspirators/evidence and bringing this back to the authorities, with a potential earthquake to complicate things.  Has a deceased NPC called Mysoginistes!  The Exodus Matrix involves more action, monsters and magic and the plot involves stopping the bad gal from activating the matrix to do bad things in a temple in some post-apocalyptic post elder god intervention Earth.

The Firearms Supplement

Short, to the point, and free.  A few notes on myths about firearms accuracy and lethality, it has the tables you need for primitive and mdoern firearms, as well as blasters, flamethrowers, laser weapons and other far future oddities.  Does the job well.

The Star Wars Supplement

This free 47 page supplement was only available online for a short period of time before it was pulled.  If you search carefully, you may find it online somewhere.  The skills, equipment, vehicle combat, and homeworlds sections would be useful for any science fiction setting.  I quite liked the rule whereby the number of “magic points” spent in a session by a Jedi was the chance of the Emperor detecting them and sending off some assassins to hunt them down.  A useful mechanic for any setting with a Dark Lord and player characters who have special secret powers that can get them killed.

The Book of Quests

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I found this a bit disappointing.  Its generic and flavourless, which is not like the epic RQ supplements of yore.  In particular the opening scenario Caravan is weak, in that at its conclusion the players may feel like they have failed, as the merchant they are escorting will most likely scarper for safety rather than see their caravan through to its intended destination.  I also think players would struggle with the monster, which prior to their arrival had essentially acted as brute force deliver of a massacre, but now the players are present becomes a sneaky skulduggery murder in the dark.  The Curse of the Contessa is the diamond that makes this book worthwhile, an excellent city intrigue game with multiple factions, including a well portrayed demon.  Most of the other scenarios just felt a bit too linear, but this is one you could have a lot of chaos and fun with as the outcome is very open.

Monster Island

Wow. After the Book of the Quests, this is the sandbox pack to make you want more from the Design Mechanism!

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The main supplement is 298 pages, plus another 17 pages of companion material and maps.  It details a huge volcanic/jungle island, with mountains, ocean, highlands and ancient ruins and tombs.  It has a strong pulp theme, with shades of Mu, Lemuria, Skull Island, E. R. Burroughs, R. E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith and H. P. Lovecraft coming through.  The main protagonists on the island are the serpent folk, found in both degenerate lowland villages, and the vestigial remnants of the sorcerous priest-kings who once ruled the island.  Other foes can be found in the bestiary. The rationale for packing lots of apex predators into the island is that there are magic gates which drag them here from other dimensions.  So you can mix dinosaurs, werewolves and tentacled aliens in powered armour if you wish.  Humans have a colony struggling to establish itself on the island, with the natives preferring the obsidian weapons over the rusty iron the traders have.  Everything is detailed to the level you would expect from the great RQ adventure supplements of the past, a good bestiary, some magic and cults, ancient gods and lore, some nice tombs and traps and a world with shades of grey that leaves the players free to decide who they will ally with and who they will work against. While this is not something I will run out of the book anytime soon, I will be pillaging its pages for a lot of its ideas in a future campaign setting.

Summing Up

I am very happy to have these game books sitting on my shelf and in my hard drive. While there are some bits I disagree with here and there, on the whole the Runequest Sixth Edition rules are clear and comprehensive and I look forward to sharing them with a gaming group in the not too distant future.  I’m torn between some kind of Star Wars/Lovecraft mash up, or a Byzantium/Spider Oracle fantasy setting.  Its good when a set of game rules unlocks my imagination like this.