Saturday, 30 March 2013

Actual Play: Hellcats and Hockeysticks

Sometime last summer, a gang of us got together for a game of Hellcats and Hockeysticks. I'd picked this up at the suggestion of someone on the YSDC forums, partly to help with planning for a now-abandoned Call of Cthulhu scenario, and largely because I really like the St. Trinian's films. Dan has already blogged about this quite a long time ago, so I'll try not to retread the same ground, but focus more on my experience of running the game.

In any case, I ended up recording the game. It was a fairly impromptu idea, so we didn't do any of that stuff like introducing ourselves or sound testing, and it was recorded just on a portable recorder plonked in the middle of the living room where we were lounging on various comfy chairs, windows open because of the heat. As a result, some people (Kat) ended up very quiet, and there's quite a lot of background noise from traffic, let alone our own rustlings and clattering.

I've slowly and irregularly been editing away at them (learning how to audio edit in the process) and finally got them in some kind of shape to post publicly. So, I present what might conceivably be the start of an irregular series: the Librarians and Leviathans Podcast. It's probably the only Actual Play of Hellcats and Hockeysticks out there. Enjoy!

EDIT: I've managed to combine the files into a single item, now available for download on


I do feel bad about not being better prepared for the game. I fully intended to do some more prep, but personal stuff got in the way and I had to run it more or less cold, on the basis of a couple of readings weeks earlier. I’m normally an over-preparer and ended up trying to handle things on the fly, with a scenario that I still think is tricky in retrospect. As a result, I was a bit stressed and nervous about it, though I don’t think too much of that comes through in the recording. I did delete a lot of the long pauses and “Um...”s, though.

In particular, I was absolutely not on top of the Willpower mechanic, which is the main way PCs are expected to impose their will on the world. Partly as a result, the first scene was a bit shambolic because I was struggling to work out when and if the PCs were actually controlling the conversation and achieving their aims. However, this was compounded by some problems with the scenario itself. Having a firm idea of exactly how Willpower is supposed to work in practice, and how to model various situations using Willpower, would have made the whole thing much slicker and probably improved everyone's opinion of the game. If anyone's planning to give this a shot, I would strongly recommend setting yourself up some sample situations (or nicking them from films, or whatever) and doing a dry run to see how you'd actually apply the Willpower rules.

Practical Exam

Because I didn't have an especially firm grip on things, I didn't adapt especially well to off-script activity (the scenario is fairly scripted for its length). The first scene expects the girls to isolate and interrogate one or two first-year diggers, whereas they chose instead to confront the whole lot. This was a perfectly reasonable decision: they're dangerous bolshie girls, terrors of the local populace, and having decided the boys were intruding on their drinking space beach, they wanted to chase them off. I suspect also the image of a gang of boys digging doesn't immediately inspire the idea of isolating one; perhaps Peregrine pictured it as individual first-years digging some distance apart, with older boys roaming around giving orders, but I don't think that's quite how it came across to us. If you picture it as a group close together, the idea of wandering up and marching one away to question seems quite odd. Anyway, because of that we ended up with basically a standoff between the gangs, and I struggled to get enough information to them without it just being a GM fiat infodump. The conflicting goals of the boys, and the girls' own uncertainty of exactly what they wanted, added to the issue.

Short on information, the PCs did some freestyle roleplaying (which was one of the most enjoyable parts of the game) before biting the hook again and heading off to get more information. Since they hadn't learned that much, they didn't go back to their own school, where they'd have learned about a missing girl whose room contained clippings about stolen gold. Instead, they went to recapture one of their new acquaintances (poor old Fred), and dragged him away to interrogate. Of course, this would still have been a perfectly reasonable decision if they had picked up the hints about Annabel, but it's a shame they ended up unable to make that call. Although on the plus side, I got quite fond of Fred by the end.

This is possibly the biggest oversight on my part, because I had a good opportunity to smooth things over and failed. As was pointed out in the discussion, I should have had Fred start talking before they left the school and spill the beans about Annabel, so they could extend their incursion and rescue her immediately. Instead, they snuck out of the school, interrogated Fred, then had to sneak back into the school again to find Annabel! It's no catastrophe, but it could certainly have been slicker.

I feel like the incursions went okay, but the fight in the Common Room felt a bit wooden to me. The combat rules do work, but it's not really what you're supposed to be doing with the game, I think. Thankfully, the fire alarms they'd set off provided a nice reason to take the scenario's suggestion and cut down on the number of boys inside, so they didn't need to come up with another plan to distract them.

I'm not sure how obvious this was, but by the end everyone was more familiar with the rules, and I was also a lot less nervous, so I think things went more easily in the final scene. There was a bit of uncertainty over what they were 'supposed' to do, which I think is significant - even by that point, people were still struggling to decide what genre they were playing in, and so they ended up taking the Mallory Towers ending rather than the St. Trinian's one (in Mean Girls, presumably the whole gold business would only have been relevant as a tool to attain some social ambitions).


The scenario felt odd to me somehow.

I don’t think it introduces the core mechanics very well, because while it lays out characters and events (and the characters are decent), there’s no specific guidance on how particular mechanics might be used in particular scenes. This was a particular issues for the atypical rules like friendship and Willpower – I’m quite happy running skills and combats, but when a game is asking players to not jump to a fight, nor to chat and negotiate in character, but instead to browbeat and humiliate the opposition, it’s going against established instincts. They weren’t sure how to narratively achieve their in-character goals within the expectations of the game, and I wasn’t sure how to guide them. Even the finale of our playthrough was resolved physically, rather than through the Willpower rules for crushing an opponent. Similarly, the scenario had absolutely no occasion to use the much-vaunted friendship rules – as someone commented in the recording, that would just have got in the way of the adventure story plot. The two didn’t really feel compatible.

As I mentioned, I also found the directions for the scenario genuinely confusing. In the very first scene, the boys “are keen to get away” (from the girls) but also “curious to find out how much the girls know” about the gold and the missing girl, without giving away more information in the process. For the life of me, I could not work out how to blend “escape” and “perform subtle interrogation” coherently. I couldn’t even work out how they could question the girls without telling them what they were up to, especially given the boys are a) clearly being quite suspicious; b) a very obvious plot hook for the PCs to investigate; c) NPCs, whose job is to answer questions, not ask them; and d) afraid of the girls and so not in a strong negotiating position. This is probably one of those times when the writer has a strong mental picture of the situation and how things might go down, but struggled to communicate it.

There's some pretty solid detail and several tactics offered for the rescue mission, though because they'd already been in the school once I treated it fairly broadly. Similarly, the final scene in the churchyard has quite a few suggestions. I wish the initial scene had been as detailed, because setting the hook firmly and providing basic information is key to a decent scenario. The rescue mission is basically always intended to come down to a fight - arguably a useful opportunity to teach the combat rules, if you're planning to play more games - but there are several ways to handle the ending.

In overall fairness, I think it's really very hard to write scenarios, especially hard to write scenarios that complete strangers are going to play without you around to help, even harder to do so with a very limited page count, and perhaps hardest of all to write introductory scenarios that are also intended to teach players the core of a game with some unusual mechanics, while still being fun and interesting. So the fact that this one struggles to meet all those requirements is no great surprise.


We didn’t quite manage to discuss the experience mechanic, but I found it quite interesting. I like the idea of “specific learning outcomes” from the game’s events. In a nutshell, the Headmistress asks each player what they learned. You can say “dunno, miss” and just get a generic skill point to spend. The more interesting expectation, though, is to name something quite specific, in which case you get to write down a unique bonus that applies in particular situations: lying to police officers, say. I can see it might end up unwieldy in very long campaigns, but honestly, I don’t see anyone playing a very long H&H campaign; it’s a one-shot sort of game.

As I mentioned in the podcast, I also found the rulebook quite oddly laid out, and struggled to find important information. In fairness, I was using the PDF rather than the physical book, and the real thing is (as usual) rather easier to navigate, but it’s still hard to pin down things like the complete Willpower rules, or the Skills rules. Cross-references or just repetition would have helped.

Fundamentally I think the source materials they’ve chosen are too disparate and conflicting to build a cohesive game on. St. Trinian’s is fast-paced slapstick chaotic farce, full of action and quite complex plotting, with minimal character development, and often features adult NPCs as the main drivers behind events (the Headmistress uses loyal girls, government inspectors use undercover agents, criminals use their relations in the school...). The Craft, on the other hand, is more or less entirely about personalities (even the supernatural stuff is secondary to character, and events are mostly important as they relate to the characters) and adults are largely irrelevant.

St. Trinian’s, to come back to the references, notably doesn’t feature friend-politicking. There are several power blocs within the school, each with their own goals, from the Headmistress to the younger girls to the Sixth Form, as well as outside agents like Harry, criminals or parents. The groups play off against each other, but not within their group (people sometimes act against their peer group, but not their friends). I don’t think there’s ever any change in relationships during a story, because that’s just not what the films are about.

I think to some extent “badly behaved schoolgirls” isn’t a... strong enough? concrete enough? ...central idea. Mallory Towers and St. Trinian’s and Mean Girls are very different genres (as is The Worst Witch or Harry Potter or The Craft), and so what you end up with is a game that doesn’t have one solid strand running all the way through it, but several related sets of mechanics, none of which you need for all of these genres. I suppose the Willpower-humiliation mechanics is the main focus of the game, but I felt like there wasn’t enough guidance in how to actually apply this in real play.

It’s a grab-bag of ideas from various school-themed sources, and in practice you can just ignore whatever elements don’t suit your game style, deliberately or not. In our case, most of the friendship mechanics never got a look-in, though best friend and rivals did come through in roleplay. We also ignored Mad Science and Magic. We ended up making very little use of the Willpower rules, but that’s partly because I couldn’t work out how to and tended to handwave it.

It would have helped if they’d given the scenario more space to breathe, and in each section offered some suggestions for how the girls might defeat their opponents’ Willpower. In fact, just provide some sample vignettes to test out before the game, so everyone can see how it works beforehand in isolation. I think the difficulty isn't the mechanic itself, but getting used to interpreting in-character situations through a lens of “what do I want to achieve, and how do I undermine this person until I get it?” and then coming up with in-character actions that will have the right mechanical effect. It's quite different if you're used to taking more direct action through just using skills on people or hitting them with swords. It also ties in to the power dynamics of the game, which are a bit unusual: you're officially fairly powerless and subject to school and adult authority, but everyone's supposedly scared of you, but you need to manipulate them rather than just doing whatever you like.

Final Report

I think on balance, I wouldn’t choose to run this system often. If I had a particular idea in mind, I’d probably pick a system that I thought supported that kind of play – hijinks, or social dynamics, or jolly school adventures – and add a school skin, rather than a generic Schoolgirl Game that’s trying to serve several, well, mistresses. The main time I’d use this system might be to run a one-shot improv game where I didn’t really know where it might go, or possibly to introduce people to roleplaying who might find the St. Trinian’s idea appealing. That being said, the game as it turned out didn’t feel especially St. Trinian’s-y, and I think that’s partly because tightly-plotted farce (and all farce is tightly plotted, however chaotic it may seem) is one of the least suitable genres for roleplaying, driven as it is by players. That’s not a specific criticism of this game, which does aim to support that type of play – I’m just not sure how successful it’s possible to be.

I think it would actually work out better if you abandon any attempt at scenarios and just ran it on the fly, allowing the girls to direct the plot. The mechanics are simple enough that you could work up NPCs very quickly, and it's the sort of game where clichés and stereotypes would probably work fairly well to construct cheerful chaos around. This is a fairly radical departure from the films, where a lot of the action comes from the adults, but NPCs directing things doesn't tend to do well in RPGs. It would also reduce the issue of getting anarchic self-willed schoolgirls to bite plot hooks.

All that being said, I don’t think it’s terrible, and I’m quite conscious that we didn’t really explore some of the game’s main talking points at all. Neither Willpower nor Friendship really got a look in, and while I do think a lot of that is down to the introductory scenario, it still leaves me unqualified to give any kind of final verdict on the game.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Genre-appropriate characters

This post is inspired by a recent post on Really Bad Eggs, which opened like this:

Me: . . . [I]f you sat down to play a game of, say, swashbuckling adventure, why did you create a character who desires neither swashbuckling nor adventure?

TheBigDice: What if I want to play a Jesuit priest? Someone completely genre-appropriate. But that doesn't own a sword, has never had any training in swinging from chandeliers and has no intentions of ever personally killing a man. Of course, he's got political acumen, contacts and social skills. He's a completely functional character for the setting. He just needs a reason to adventure, a push out of the door.

Me: Then he's not genre-appropriate as a swashbuckling adventurer. He's suitable as a period-appropriate npc, not a player character.

TheBigDice: See, now we're getting somewhere. What you're actually saying is, in a swashbuckling adventure, everyone must play a swashbuckling adventurer, or the campaign isn't about what you as the GM wants it to be about. So we're not actually in a true sandbox here. It's probably got aspects in common with a sandbox, but given that you're saying no to a primarily social character in favour of action oriented ones, I wouldn't say that the "open world" ethos is really on the table. If you're unwilling to accommodate a character that talks his way out of situations rather than fights his way out of them, and aren't prepared to give what [Mike 'Old Geezer' Mornard] described as an unwilling adventurer the push the character needs, then are you really giving your players the freedom that a sandbox seems to demand?

Apparently this is an argument about games and character options. However, it seems to me TheBigDice is using arguments about character limitation to criticize sandboxing, without entirely understanding what a sandbox is. Black Vulmea's post covers this, but there were a couple of aspects that I wanted to mention.

A Game of X

It seems to me that part of the issue with TheBigDice's hypothetical character is that "a game of swashbuckling adventure" is not the same as "a story of swashbuckling adventure". The Three Musketeers is a story of (amongst other things) swashbuckling adventure, and features characters who do other things than fighting. In fact, such characters can play very important roles in turning a swashbuckling adventure from a series of lovingly-described fights into an actual story. They can be major characters in a story, with great influence on events.

Take such characters in isolation though - the simple country girl, the well-meaning priest, the villainous noble, the protective mother, the thuggish landlord - and have them interact, and they will reliably not produce a swashbuckling adventure. Confront them with the typical challenges faced in a swashbuckling adventure, and they will either overcome them or not, without ever buckling swash. This, I think, is a useful hint.

Fundamentally, I think "a game of swashbuckling adventure" is not simply "a game in which swashbuckling adventure occurs", but "a game about doing swashbuckling adventure". In exactly the same way, "a game of investigative horror" requires at minimum a) "horror"; and b) "investigation" to befall the player characters. "A game of social intrigue" is about doing social intrigue: it is about being at the Duke's ball and mingling with the crowds, about turning people to your advantage or cutting them dead, about spreading gossip (or carefully not spreading it), or displaying the creations of an undiscovered milliner, or gaining the right person's hand for the waltz. If you are, instead, sneaking through the palace attic in search of the vampire's lair with lemon in hand, or battling a horde of orcs in the street just outside the palace while the nobles chat and nibble, you are not playing a game of social intrigue. At least, not if you're doing those things for more than a fraction of the time, but quite possibly if you're doing them at all.

Note this crucial line:

TheBigDice:...given that you're saying no to a primarily social character in favour of action oriented ones, I wouldn't say that the "open world" ethos is really on the table. If you're unwilling to accommodate a character that talks his way out of situations rather than fights his way out of them, and aren't prepared to give what [Mike 'Old Geezer' Mornard] described as an unwilling adventurer the push the character needs, then are you really giving your players the freedom that a sandbox seems to demand?

We're still talking about a swashbuckling game here. A Jesuit priest with zero ability to buckle swashes, but who is a primarily social character, is not competent to do swashbuckling adventure, which is the very basis of this specific game. As Black Vulmea notes, the priest is a setting-appropriate character, but not a genre-appropriate PC. And this question is irrelevant to the openness, or otherwise, of the world. You could easily run several campaigns in the same world, each in a different genre: social intrigue, swashbuckling, mystery, survival horror. In each game, different characters would be appropriate, even though the setting doesn't change. The Jesuit priest is perfect for a game about sociopolitical interactions in a small town, or even low-action mystery (think Brother Cadfael), where actual swashbucklers would be unsuitable; you could include swashbuckler-types, but they wouldn't have any swashes to buckle, so they'd be using that background while relying on social skills and family influences.

The next quote is apparently intended to be a killer argument against character limits in sandboxes, but I think it gets it very nearly right without realising it:

TheBigDice:...What you're actually saying is, in a swashbuckling adventure, everyone must play a swashbuckling adventurer, or the campaign isn't about what you as the GM wants it to be about. So we're not actually in a true sandbox here.

Not quite. What I'd personally say is, "in a swashbuckling adventure, everyone must play a swashbuckling adventurer, or the campaign isn't a swashbuckling adventure".

Okay, that's wording it very slightly too strongly, but it's close. Any PC needs to be able to engage with the core of a game, be that mechanical prowess, skill set or attitude. A Call of Cthulhu investigator who adamantly refuses to do any investigation whatsoever or engage with the situation at hand is inappropriate. A D&D wizard who refuses to learn any spell not to do with interior decoration is very unlikely to be a functional companion in a dungeon-crawling campaign (though they might do perfectly well in some other D&D-based campaign).

To take an extreme example, imagine a four-player swashbuckling campaign in which every single player creates a pacifist Jesuit priest. No swashbuckling is going to happen. Is this still a swashbuckling adventure? Of course not. It may be a perfectly functional political game in the same setting - and the players' chocies may indicate that that's what they're rather be playing - but you cannot describe it as a swashbuckling adventure.

This is not simply a case of grumpy GMs complaining about their precious game being spoilt. Players commit themselves to a particular type of game, and everyone is expecting a particular type of experience (though of course, games can change over time by mutual agreement). An inappropriate character is very likely to undermine the game experience for everyone. A character who refuses to join in with the rest of the party's activities must be either dragged along (awkward and hard to maintain), left behind (boring for them, and causing split attention) or allowed to limit the party's activities to those they prefer. If four people have signed up for a game of swashbuckling adventure, but find themselves stuck trailing around behind a priest intent on using "political acumen, contacts and social skills" to solve every situation, they are not getting what they wanted, and may well not be enjoying it. This is especially likely because characters who have been created as swashbucklers or semi-swashbucklers, in accordance with the genre, probably aren't much good at politicking. What this leads to is one player controlling the game and hogging the limelight, consciously or otherwise.

Another point in this particular case is that action games tend to feature physical danger, and anyone lacking the ability to defend themselves is at risk. Even if the player decides to tag along with the swashbucklers, therefore, they will not be able to do their fair share of the work. They will need defending from enemies, placing other characters in unnecessary danger. They are more likely to be injured, and need healing, or to need help to overcome physical obstacles - the priest described above won't be leaping from burning buildings onto a horse, or vaulting aside from a runaway coach. While the stereotypical wizard can end up in a similar position in fantasy games, they compensate with an array of useful abilities that can defeat enemies, protect allies, and accomplish extraordinary feats within the range of likely situations faced by the party. In contrast, the priest's abilities are mostly relevant to situations the rest of the party have no particular reason to get involved in. It's the equivalent of putting a well-honed Fighter into our social game: her astounding prowess with a double-headed axe and ability to shrug off poison are of precisely zero use when trading bons mots with the Duke, while her complete inability to flirt, dance or discuss poetry will be a crippling social burden for her friends.

Taking a more coherent example: A feeble decadent aristocrat, a psychic Inquisitor and a manly manly Space Marine are all perfectly canonical and appropriate characters for an RPG set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, but each is fitted to completely different genres. The aristocrat thrives in political games, the Inquisitor is ideally-suited to rooting out mysteries, and the Space Marine is a perfect soldier. However, the first two will be trampled underfoot in the first rush of Tyranid termagants, and the aristo can't sneak or banish worth a damn, while the Space Marine has no small talk and stands out like a sore thumb when you're trying to blend into a slum on the trail of depraved cultists. Each game type has not only particular things you need to try and succeed at, but its own specific dangers you need to be able to survive, be they physical, mental or social.

Sand, Sink and Genre-Specificity

The other issue I want to briefly mention is that I don't think TheBigIdea's notion of a 'sandbox' matches mine very closely, and even Black Vulmea didn't quite cover this. BV says:

Put simply, a sandbox game-world isn't the same thing as a kitchen-sink setting.

Sandbox games, in my view, are those where players can go where they want (within reason) and determine for themselves what's important and what objectives they want to set. This generally calls for a reasonably close match in skill-sets between PCs (social types, adventuring types, detective types), so that they are looking for similar types of situation to interact with. In contrast, a kitchen-sink setting is about the content of the gameworld: it's something that incorporates a disparate set of cultures, technologies, fantasy archetypes, mythologies and tropes. A game can be sandbox, kitchen-sink, both or neither.

But neither sandboxiness or kitchen-sinking is really the limiting factor in character choice. As far as I can see, the thing that sets the boundaries for what sorts of characters are appropriate (and will contribute to the game's success, rather than detracting from it) is fundamentally how genre-specific a game you want to run.

You can have a fantastically kitchen-sink sandbox game where PCs head from the Hobbit village to the Dalek headquarters in their elven steam mech to unleash Great Cthulhu on their enemies, having determined the entire course of the plot without the GM's intervention; but if that's the kind of thing you're always getting up to, then you need characters who are action-based. Mixing Wolverine, Superman and Mr Bennett won't work. Or you can have a very controlled game where the GM establishes each chunk of narrative and the players follow up on it, aristocrats dealing with the latest French threat to their social influence in London whenever it arises. You need social characters who are in a position to have social influence, so a street urchin is not an appropriate character, and nor is Captain Hornblower.

It's possible for a game to accommodate a very wide range of characters, but I think there are two main occasions when that's readily workable. The first is when a genre isn't really established until after characters are created, and then the game is planned out to accommodate whatever you've got; I haven't seen or heard of this happening, but I can imagine it. The other, more likely one, is where you're basically using the same campaign to run a variety of genres, or mashing multiple genres together, rather than having a specific game for each genre. So maybe one week you're swashbuckling, but the next is a tense political battle for control of key resources in the region. In this kind of mashup game, different characters will dominate in different segments, but as long as everyone's happy with that (and with sometimes helping out the weaker characters of the moment) then it could go perfectly well. That being said, I imagine it would still work best with genres that are relatively close together and there's at least some overlap in skills: police procedural and political thriller, say, rather than Ten Things I Hate About You and Enter the Dragon.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Memes: things GMs tend not to talk about

This little meme comes from Monsters and Manuals, via Shannon. And in passing, it's always nice to spot another Scouser on the web...
  • Book binding. I've not really had any books disintegrate on me, but I haven't played anything in particular that much. I do think binding is an overlooked factor. As Shannon noted, very large books can weigh heavy on the covers and risk the textblock ripping right out. Largeish paperbacks avoid that because they don't tend to directly weigh on the cover, but the spines can be vulnerable. I quite like small manuals because they're portable and easy to shelve, but they're quite hard to use because they don't want to stay open and you don't want to damage the spine. On the whole I find 2-3rd Ed D&D to hit the sweet spot.
  • "Doing a voice". I do voices, but then I do them in real life too. I always have, years pre-gaming - I blame early exposure to old radio comedies. I grew up using a few different accents so can slip into those easily, and adding in other, less convincing ones is a natural extension. Mostly my players (or GMs) seem to enjoy it, especially my mangled attempts at being posh. I think the decision is a very personal one - if it helps you establish or invest in a character, and it's not going to bother anyone, go ahead. The main line for me is being careful not to put on accents that might make anyone uncomfortable, the same as with other aspects of character portrayal. I don't really work at voices, but putting a little time into phonetics, dialectology and reading up on dialects is always going to help. If you want to put on particular accents, look for genuine sources to work off, and take film portrayals with a pinch of salt: don't try basing a Cockney accent on Dick van Dyke.
  • Breaks. Our sessions are pretty informal and we take breaks as and when, though I think generally people try to pick lulls. I quite often decree GM Breaks when I get to suitable points, so I can stretch my legs and grab a drink; it's much easier for players to slip out without interrupting play, and if you're not careful you can end up pushing on for hours and getting worn out or a bit stressed with all that concentrating. Plus, it gives me time to plan a bit.
  • Description. Depends on the game, the tone and how important something is. I like fleshing out even basic locations with some details, but overdoing it can slow down the game. Investigative scenes tend to get more description to help highlight the nature of the scene and immediate options. Often I have extra detail in my head, but don't spill it unless someone shows an interest.
  • Balance between "what your character would do" and "acting like a ****"? I do like getting into character, but that's only one part of an enjoyable game. I try to avoid doing anything that I think would actually wreck a plot (like walk away), and occasionally check concerns with the GM. You could say, try not to do things that would make a game less interesting rather than more. Because I'm typically very enthusiastic and have a very exploratory approach to games, I try to reign myself in and avoid hogging the limelight or just the GM's attention. A character's yours, but at the same time, they only exist through your choices, and so they don't have to be a monolith; you can make different choices sometimes. I mean, sometimes I act against my habits and preferences in real life.
  • PC-on-PC violence. Never had any, except in Call of Cthulhu under the effects of magic or madness. That being said, I tend to play games that are explicitly team-based, where PCs have fairly parallel goals and interests, so I don't know how much it's down to the game structures and how much is player preference. Certainly I think I'd rather avoid it if I was GMing, unless it was specifically a competitive game, because it's one more complication to deal with and always has potential to cause OOC problems.
  • How do you explain what a role playing game is to a stranger who is also a non-player? I get this quite a lot. Usually, something like: "A mixture of board games and improv theatre".
  • Alchohol at the table? None of us are especially drinking types. There might have been a glass of wine once? I can't remember. Mostly it's tea. Given there's at least one teetotaller in our group, I'd be uncomfortable with anyone being conspicuously tipsy.
  • What's acceptable to do to a PC whose player is absent from the session? We generally avoid running games sans players, to be honest. I don't think I'd do anything much to a playerless PC; they might be "holding their own against another kobold" in the background, or mysteriously unconscious, or just disappear from the narrative for a while. It depends on the game though - it's easier to fade someone out over a few days' casual investigation than in the middle of a shipboard battle, especially if they've got particularly relevant skills for a situation.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Monitors: stripping down

Handily, the estimable Dan has written some feedback on my skills system, and it's fairly critical. In particular, he suggested that the extensive skills system, as well as Skills + Stats, are too crunchy for the kind of game he think it's supposed to be. He may be right.

The main suggestion he makes is this:

...looking at the current design notes, it feels to me like the most important things about Monitors characters will be:

  • What kind of reptile you are.
  • Whether you are more of a warlock, more of a cyborg, or more of a ninja.
  • ...and that's more or less it.

I'd be strongly inclined to suggest stripping it right back, folding Stats and Skills together to produce characters with similar, broad competences.

As it happens, I was thinking about that. So how about that stripped-down alternative?

Attribute-based model

Attribute Summary Uses
Agility Avoiding physical dangers Avoid falling rocks, dodge attacks, jump over chasm, roll under closing bulkhead, squeeze through vent, intercept frisbee, ride hoverboard, drive a boat through rapids
Bureaucracy Accounting, bureaucratic procedures, filing, loopholes, organisations, office politics, paperwork, law Spot corruption, exploit procedures, identify appropriate contacts, play officers against each other, apply for grants, forge permits, guess where documentation is kept, interpret jargon, conduct legal case, draw up contracts
Combat Hand-to-hand fighting, with or without weapons Punch, wrestle, kick, headbutt, bite, restrain, stab, bludgeon, disarm
Fettle Evaluate, fix, patch or sabotage structures or physical machinery Reroute plumbing, fix motor, repair fence, fettle engines, cannibalise machinery, patch hulls, reinforce viewports, pick locks, plan demolition, use explosives
Guns Shooting, maintenance, identification Shoot an enemy, repair weapon, fit enhancements, remove sand, identify weapons fire
Knowledge Knowledge of current events and historical past, archaeology, anthropology Identify obsolete technology, recognise historical figures, identify heraldry, recall political scandal, evaluate ancient sites, identify artefacts, remember cultural taboo, memorise
Medicine Injury, illness, accident, epidemiology, disease, poisons, parasites, drugs Treat poison, treat disease, give vaccinations, stop bleeding, splint a limb, administer painkillers, diagnose insanity, identify medication
Occult Myths, artefacts, magical practices, tomes, sorcerers, spirits Recognise names, perform rituals, identify artefacts, identify a practitioner's traditions, guess intentions
Parley Befriend, bully, startle, bargain, overawe, disdain, bluster, fob off, charm, distress, bluff, empathise, psychoanalyse, impersonate Excuse trespass, impress a crowd, make friends in a pub, bluff past a guard, get a signature, obtain an invitation, avoid a fine, borrow a car, strike bargain, intimidate a thug, detect deceit
Perception See, hear, smell, taste, feel Find spots of blood, recognise repainted car, spot feet under bulging curtain, trace gas leak, detect alien, anticipate chloroform, notice drugged coffee, appreciate wine, detect an intruder, locate a songbird, pick out password, sense vibration, orient yourself
Science Biology, chemistry, physics, geology, astronomy, maths... Develop vaccine, identify creature, plot orbit, identify star system, predict volcanic eruption, find secret mine, synthesise chemical, crack code
Stealth Avoidance, discretion and surveillance Lurk in bushes, evade CCTV, disappear into a crowd, walk silently past guard, remove wheels from car full of mobsters without being heard, carry a weapon undetected, hide a vehicle, apply camo makeup, place a bug, make a hidden cache, stash incriminating evidence away from the cleaners, follow a car
Strength Climb, swim, lift, push, drag, wrestle, throw, run Climb a tree, shin along a beam, pull someone back to safety, bend bars, lift gates, escape from sharks
Tech Assembly, software, data, security, theory, personalities, equipment Build server, write program, follow data flows, track hacking attempt, hack system, manipulate photo, use robotic surgery bay, synch with battlecruiser, identify blogger, pilot mech, hotwire vehicle, disable droid

I've rolled together most of the skills in various ways, creating a more streamlined list. Some things I've removed from the skills list altogether and will handle differently: languages is a notable one, which I'll probably handle in a more D&D-esque way by having characters pick languages they know, possibly at two different levels of competence. I've removed Disguise entirely because I would like Monitors PCs to be infiltrating and impersonating away cheerfully, and decided in the end that having a disguise skill is counterproductive. If they want to wear disguises and impersonate people, that deserves screen time, not a roll.

Also worth noting is that my blurb for Athletics originally said "Bend bards, lift gates", which, um...

Obviously I could roll things together even further - Mind Body Spirit is a perfectly good set of stats, and of course you can do entirely without stats by having fixed success rolls - but I tend to subscribe to the view that the skills list helps to define a game. It highlights the sort of things you're expected to do, and the way in which things are combined or isolated shapes expectations. If there are fifty different combat skills, then expect detailed combat, many weapons, and (probably) choices about optimisation or use of weapons unskilled. On the other hand, if there's a Fight skill and twelve different magic skills, the game will be different.

This reminds me that I've always intended to write a game with a Fight skill that determines the entire result of a combat. One for the back burner.

So for example, there are only two combat skills (the decision not to include a Grapple skill is made on the grounds that every single grapple skill I've seen is complicated and frustrating). On the other hand, I wanted to keep Science and Tech separate because I want both of these to be substantial elements of the setting, and felt rolling them into a single skill would downplay that. In fact, it was quite a wrench compressing them down as much as I did, even though this is as much a learning exercise as an 'evolution of the draft' or anything. Similarly, I've kept Occult separate from general Knowledge because magic is serious business in Monitors.

Isn't that contravening the point I made about Disguise? I'm still not sure, but I'm inclined for now to say not really. The thing about infiltration (as in Dan's assassin game) is that it's a fundamentally interactive skill, and bringing it down to a flat skill does two things. One is, it removes the element of reactivity, creativity and challenge in responding to enemy activity; the other is it shortcuts all the fun you could have roleplaying infiltration of a base, or trailing someone through a crowd. Science and Tech are much less interactive, since you're mostly going to be trying to interpret information or make an item do what you want; while it'd be possible to make some activities (lab work, hacking, adapting vehicles) into sort of minigames, I'm not convinced it'd work in the sort of game I'm looking for, and would easily degenerate into just making multiple rolls on the same skill. Also, I can see how to break down infiltration into interesting components with their own actions or rolls (get disguises, Stealth roll here, try out fake ID on the system and see if it was a good forgery, bluff your way past employees...) whereas I can't fundamentally see how most science would break down into anything better than "Science" without introducing an array of very specific Lab Work, Cultivate Cell, Electrolyse type skills that are out of the purview of this game.

I've taken out hobby-type skills entirely, because while things like Sing are always fun, they're not likely to be core mechanics in this kind of setting. Instead, this kind of thing could be represented either by pure background, or by a trait system that represents individual quirks. As well as hobbies, this might include traits like Theoretician (a bonus on non-practical rolls), Slow, Ferocious, Suspicious, and so on to give flavour.

This system could potentially be used with a stat-degrading damage system as outlined last post, or I could just go for good old Hit Points, or some kind of simple injury chart.


I genuinely can't decide how much I like this system compared to the last, to be honest. To some extent I think folding Stats and Skills into Attributes is an improvement, especially if I am going to use a degrading damage system.* On the other hand, I feel like reducing the skills list to this extent could mean less opportunity to define characters, and I'd have to make sure that options elsewhere provide plenty of opportunity: in fairness, I am planning that.

Partly this is down to uncertainty as to exactly what kind of game I want this to be, which I think I can't answer at the moment. I suspect Dan has interpreted this:

What I'm basically thinking of when I imagine Monitors is an 80s Saturday morning cartoon. Not the slapstick kind, but something cheerfully fantastical like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, full of improbable tech, odd adversaries, and hijinks. the more cartoonish end of that genre, whereas I might be inclining to a slightly more serious version of it - less pizza and disco, for example. But also, to some extent, because I'm still torn between that and something a bit less overtly frivolous, with less acrobatic action and more emphasis on the tech, science and magic elements of the setting. Slower-paced, perhaps, and featuring some of the bureaucracy, politics and so on. It would still be fairly light, though, because when you get right down to it, this game is about cybernetically-enhanced galaxy-hopping wizard-lizards.

I think for now I'll look at other aspects of the game and rethink skill mechanics in the light of them.

*I really need a term for that that doesn't conjure up the wrong kind of images. Erosive damage? Suggestions welcome.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Monitors: statting for damage

So, Dan has been casting an eye over my Monitors draft and pointing out a few issues. One of the things that came up was the use of stats to handle "things like injury and damage", which Dan interpreted mostly as a combat system, but this wasn’t quite what I had in mind.

That's all sounding a bit coy, so let me explain a bit. Monitors, after all, was originally a preposterous example for use in my inconclusive series on soft attacks, so the ideas I have for it have always included a reasonable amount of soft attacking. Once I'd arbitrarily picked a Stats + Skills mechanic, and was moving on to think about things like Hit Points, it occurred to me that it might be possible to model both hard and soft attacks through the use of stats by making stats degradable. The first draft wouldn't work for this, since I didn't get round to revisiting my placeholder stats after having it, but let me just explain the idea.

For example, let's go back to my old pal Xerxes and his flash pistol. If it inflicted damage to a target's Perception score, this would immediately impair any skills that depended on that stat. Similarly, a tranquiliser drug could damage Reaction, psychogenic gas (or alcohol) could affect Mind, being hit with a club could damage Toughness. On reaching zero, you can no longer do anything reliant on that stat (otherwise very skilled people could see you even though their eyes don't work, and similar confusing things). You could also have a threshold below which secondary penalties kick in: maybe when Perception hits 2, you need to roll your now-reduced Spot whenever you need to see what you're doing.

Obviously, for something like this to work you'd need to tweak the stats and damage inflicted accordingly, and then look at the stat-skill interaction to make sure it strikes the balance you want. It also has the drawbacks I mentioned when discussing soft attacks, specifically the soft hit points model: notably it involves tracking several pools over time, and you need to work out appropriate thresholds for any qualitative effects.

Heading down a bit of a tangent, a carefully-balanced system could potentially overcome the qualitative threshold issue, by using large bonuses and no critical failures for most rolls, and assuming rolls are happening in the background but automatically passing.


(numbers in this example are arbitrary and don't reflect plans for Monitors)

Let's say we have a large sitting-room containing an intruder, a crab sneak-thief. It's daytime. The home's owner, a parakeet, suddenly walks in.

  • Parakeets, like most ordinary civilian, have Perception 10.
  • As a civilian with no relevant experience, the parakeet has no Spot skill (+0).
  • Seeing a medium-sized intruder in a sitting-room in daytime is very easy (+10)
  • Rolling on a d20, the parakeet needs to equal or beat... 20, so there's no need to roll. She sees the intruder, and reaches for the poker.

A mole, in contrast, might have Perception of only 2, and potentially miss seeing the intruder at all, even standing in front of white curtains in a lime-green jumpsuit.

Similarly, an owl (Perception 15) can reliably see the intruder if he hides behind the curtains (easy +5). However, if the crab lets off a flash pistol (6 Perception damage) and then hides, the owl will find it harder to track him down. After a couple of hits, the owl will really struggle with even simple tasks.

Obviously, this could work just as well with a statless skill system, and in some ways better. Blinding attacks, for example, make more sense if they damage a Spot attribute than a Perception stat that also affect hearing; and it would avoid confusion where someone's stat is depleted but they have a very high skill. However, this would be unwieldy unless the attribute list was quite small.

In any case, I'm going to revisit the mechanical side soonish and, as I mentioned last time, "go entirely the other way and cut things down to a small number of broad skills...just to see what happens".

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Monitors: assumptions

So last time I dropped in a very first draft of some mechanics for Monitors, my implausible spaceships-and-sorcery game of galaxy-ranging sorcerous reptile special agents. "Saurs and Sorcery", you might say.*

I'm leaving that where it fell for now as a rickety framework to pin my game onto, not least while I wait to hear the rest of Dan's views, and then (most likely) shamefacedly redesign the whole thing. At this point it's probably worth thinking about what sort of game I'm trying to fettle up here.

*Seriously, you have no idea how much I enjoyed that.

Ground Rules

One of the core assumptions of Monitors is that PCs are, in fact, Monitors. Though not, necessarily, monitors. Yes, I appreciate the potential for confusion... PCs are part of the galaxies-spanning, warp-jumping, mystery-solving, law-enforcing, crisis-handling Monitor network of special agents. This has a couple of consequences.

Firstly, structurally speaking, Monitors is going to work on the assumption that it's a mission-based game. The characters will explicitly be assigned particular objectives to work on. These may well be vague, and change over the course of a particular adventure, but the basic structure of an adventure is assumed to be "you are sent to investigate goings-on in Alpha Centurai". There may well be recurring villains, links between scenarios and that sort of thing. Players aren't expected to provide their own structure through active exploration or major long-term goals, or by picking up bitty quests (though any of those may be possible).

Secondly, it's explicitly their job to do this stuff. No mucking about with motivation, please. You're not playing carpenters or burger-flippers who have only mild curiosity to draw them into a mystery, and plenty of reason to back out the second things get dangerous. You're a Monitor, part of the tenuous network that keeps the "civil" in "intergalactic civilisation", brings justice to the frontiers, rescues the helpless, investigates the mysterious, and deals with whatever weirdness the universe can come up with. Again, the system might well be able to handle other kinds of PCs - and it's fairly likely you'd end up dealing with the odd mercenary, old friend, love interest, hanger-on, punk kid, loony uncle or other non-Monitor character - but the party as a whole is there for just this kind of situation.

Game Tone

It's also going to be important to know what kind of tone or genre I'm aiming for, to help keep track of whether it's working. Mechanics, characters and all that jazz need to support the tone, or at least not get in the way of it.

I've got to admit, it's tempting to aim for a completely straight-faced game of gritty high-tech action where you just happen to be a power-armoured lizard wizard, but the joke would probably wear thin pretty quickly.

What I'm basically thinking of when I imagine Monitors is an 80s Saturday morning cartoon. Not the slapstick kind, but something cheerfully fantastical like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, full of improbable tech, odd adversaries, and hijinks. Let's try and pin down some specifics (which will have some second-tier consequences).

  1. Death by game mechanics is highly unlikely; maybe even impossible.
    1. the stakes in most situations are not survival, but success.
    2. combat will tend to involve disarming, capturing, KOing, drugging, tasering or otherwise overcoming enemies, rather than hacking lumps off them.
    3. it's a good idea to have a fair proportion of robots, elementals, spectres, slimes, psychic anomalies or demons so the characters can let rip once in a while.
    4. equipment and abilities will tend to do things other than straightforward damage.
  2. Any PC is both multitalented, and more capable than a civilian.
    1. a single character is not an unviable force.
    2. ...combined with point 1, party-splitting is relatively safe, so individual characters can play to their strengths or pursue different goals.
    3. they should have a reasonable chance to succeed at anything they attempt.
  3. It should be fun, without undue respect for realism in modelling or in behaviour.
    1. getting captured and rescued is all part of the fun. Enemies will capture you, interrogate you, hypnotise you, and all sorts of other consequences, but not just kill you.
    2. shadows are unusually deep, and shoes unusually quiet, and beds exactly the right size to hide under.
    3. there are no innocent bystanders, and your trigger claws are never over-twitchy.
    4. injuries, unpleasant experiences and bizarre substances have no tiresome long-term effects, except when you want them to.
    5. monologues take no more game-time than is convenient.
    6. when you meet an old nemesis, you can posture implausibly before actually doing anything, without affecting your chances of success.
    7. uniforms come in Schroedinger sizes.
    8. a plan which is excitingly cool should not have a worse chance of overall success than a straightforward but boring plan.


Whenever Monitors comes up, I give a description something like "spacefaring cyborg reptile secret agent wizards" or "anthropomorphic armoured cyborg warlock lizards", or indeed "spaceships-and-sorcery game of galaxy-ranging sorcerous reptile special agents". This suggests some notable elements the game should include:

  • Space travel
  • Cybernetics and general tech augmentation
  • Sneaking, observing, breaking in, tracking, decoding, arresting and other secret agent stuff
  • Armour
  • Spellcasting
  • Being a lizard

The reason I highlighted the last point, which may seem a bit daft, is that "reptilian" is probably the main distinguishing feature of Monitors from the other eight thousand similar games written by people who know what they're doing. There is frankly no point in playing a game about being an armoured cyborg warlock lizard if you don't feel at least a little bit like a lizard. That means lizardiness (or reptilianity, to be broader) needs to have some distinctive influence on the game.


So, what features do reptiles have that might be interesting to bring into the game? I'm not looking for biorealism here, just for cool things to snaffle.

  • Obviously, scales.
  • Cold-bloodedness, or more specifically, ectothermic poikilothermy (and sometimes bradymetabolism)
    • Metabolic flexibility: poikilotherms may have multiple redundant enzyme systems that become effective at different body temperatures.
    • Bradymetabolism: reptiles' metabolic rates vary a lot; they're sluggish when cold, and even torpid in extreme conditions, but can be very active when it's suitably warm.
    • Water conservation: reptiles don't sweat or pant, so they don't lose nearly as much water as mammals, and are unlikely to dehydrate.
    • Reptiles can survive a wider range of temperatures than mammals by using behaviour. A brief check suggests at least some species can handle 22-40C easily, and use behaviour (basking and burrowing) to handle temperatures below freezing and over 40C, with body temperatures varying from 2.5-35C. Humans can only handle environments at 27-32 for significant periods, and find 42C fatal. Ptarmigans are fine from 4-36C.
    • Survival: reptiles don't use energy to maintain body temperature, so they can survive for long periods with minimal food.
    • Digestion is relatively slow, so some species swallow stones (gastroliths) to help break down food.
    • Water conservation: reptiles don't sweat or pant, so they don't lose nearly as much water as mammals, and are unlikely to dehydrate.
  • Carrier's Constraint, limiting physical activity to short bursts, which true or not (and bipedal or not) would be a bit different.
  • Okay, yes, some reproductive quirks too. I'm not thinking I need to model that.
  • Senses are different from ours:
    • Lizards have colour vision. Their vision often extends into the ultraviolet range.
    • Nocturnal lizards can see in very low light, but have reduced visual acuity due to the structure of the eye.
    • Snakes have less effective colour vision than humans.
    • Many snakes can detect infrared (heat).
    • Crocodilians have colour vision, excellent vision and can see at night. They can see underwater, but can't focus, giving them blurry vision.
    • Crocodilians have dermal pressure receptions that sense vibration, allowing them to detect movement in water very accurately.
    • Hearing in reptiles is poorer than in mammals, partly due to lack of external ears. Many have simple inner ears that can only detect vibrations and low-frequency sound.
  • Reptiles may excrete salt through nasal glands.
  • Geckos, skinks and a few others can shed part of the tail when attacked, leaving a distraction.
  • Snakes, and some lizards, shed their skin in large pieces or a single sheet. Some eat it.
  • Reptiles typically don't smell much as they don't sweat, so are relatively hard to detect by scent.
  • Some reptiles can change skin colour to signal emotions, to modify light absorption, or for camouflage.

Okay, I'm a bit exhausted with all that, so I'll leave things there for now.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Monitors: a first draft

So, I got bored.

You know what's not boring? Spacefaring cyborg reptile secret agent wizards.

Introducing Monitors

I've already outlined this game, but let's recap:

In a vast universe of squabbling galaxies, trouble can erupt at any moment: calamities, rebellions, coups, trade disputes, accidental hyperevolution, accidental necromancy, dimensional fluxes, awakening the sleeping armies of the lost Ghkrat, dreams becoming real, enthusiastic postgraduate researchers carelessly building an unstoppable army of invincible robot armchairs – the possibilities are endless. No conventional task force can be assembled in time.

In this unimaginably distant future, heroic teams of spacefaring reptiles maintain the tenuous peace between squabbling mammalian empires. No drifting wreck is too sinister, no jungle world too unexplored, no asteroid belt too pirate-infested for these fearless trouble-shooters. With modern technology and ancient wizardry, they preserve the fragile web of intergalactic civilisation. Only their hardy poikilothermic bodies can survive nanotech implants, arcane infusions and the harshness of intergalactic deepjumps. They are the Monitors.

Our intrepid bands of anthropomorphic armoured cyborg warlock lizards will confront a wide range of troubles, many of them violent. They may have to battle anything from a million-strong sea of rock-grubs, through entire ships full of parasite-possessed parrotfolk, down to a gang of vicious pirate jellyfish or a single giant robot.

This is, as noted above, entirely a first draft of the thing. Any or all of it is subject to change.

Hypothetical Mechanics

I'm basing this game loosely on the BRP system. It's going to be skills-based, and generally involve rolling under your skill to achieve success. I've not yet decided whether to use d20, d100 or something else for success rolls.

I feel that inherent properties should have some bearing on competence, something which BRP doesn't especially do, so I'm looking at a Stats + Skills system for rolls. If I go with d20s, then it would probably be something like trying to roll under (Stat + Skill - Difficulty). While most skills will tend to be associated with particular stats, I want that to stay flexible to handle different sitations; a scientific skill might be rolled on Education to evaluate something, Coordination to perform a procedure or Mind to instruct someone else.


Stat Default Summary Uses
Agility 4 Sense of balance, flexibility and grace Dancing, weaving through laser beams, tightrope walking
Coordination 4 Manual dexterity and hand-eye coordination Defusing, massage, hitting, aiming, juggling, surgery
Education 4 Ability to recall trivia, facts, techniques, quotes and theories Pub quizzes, study, pop culture references, blagging, imposture
Mind 4 Reasoning ability, patience and strength of will Crosswords, debates, resisting con artists, not giving up, staring contests
Perception 4 Awareness of surroundings Spotting clues, overhearing gossip, realising you’re in a simulation
Reaction 4 Speed of mental or physical response to events Dodging attacks, blinking, catching a dropped plate, retorting, playing Snap
Strength 4 Ability to exert physical force Lifting, hauling, climbing, wrestling, breaking, pulling back over cliff edges
Toughness 4 Fitness, pain tolerance, immune system and physical resilience Hiking, holding breath, resisting drugs, taking a punch

I'm not sure yet how stats will be generated. The current default value of 4 (for Monitors and equivalent NPCs) is pretty much arbitrary, and based on d20. This would give PCs a 20% chance to succeed at an average task with no appropriate skills whatsoever, which seems pretty reasonable to me.

There's at least one other "stat", Speed, but I'm not expecting that to vary significantly between characters. My initial thought here is to just a have a few broad categories of relative speed, which cover anything from lumbering fungus-mounds to speeding hoverbikes. Something like: Glacial, Very Slow, Slow, Average, Fast, Very Fast, Supersonic.


Skill Usual Stat Summary Uses
Administration Education Accounting, bureaucratic procedures, filing, loopholes, organisations, office politics, paperwork Spot corruption, exploit procedures, identify appropriate contacts, play officers against each other, apply for grants, forge permits, guess where documentation is kept, interpret jargon
Archaeology Education Excavation, artefacts, sites, papers, scholars, recent prehistory, patterns of use and change Spot likely sites, deduce routes and resources, identify buildings and artefacts, know relevant academics, explain abandonment, date materials, perform excavation
Art & Craft [type] Any Make, decorate, modify, arrange, perform Knitting, blacksmithing, painting, hairdressing, writing, dancing, singing, flower-arranging, carpentry
Artillery Coordination / Mind Vehicle-mounted or platform-mounted weaponry Coordination for manual, Mind for computer-assisted
Astronomy Education Constellations, eclipses, comets & meteors, star names, orbits, star science, life cycles Guess planetary properties, identify star systems, deduce origin of interstellar matter
AV Technology Education Photography, recording, manipulation Take clear photos, video events, record scandalous conversation, conceal message in song, fake photo
Bargain Mind Negotiating, haggling Barter services, hire a guide, sell equipment, buy cheap goods
Biology Education Botany, cytology, ecology, genetics, histology, microbiology, physiology, zoology, paleontology Develop vaccine, identify creature, understand food chain
Brawl Agility Hand-to-hand fighting Punch, wrestle, kick, headbutt, bite, restrain
Chemistry Education Substances, chemical interactions, synthesis, analysis Neutralize explosives, synthesise chemicals, identify unknown substances
Climb Strength / Agility Climb, balance Climb a tree, shin along a beam
Computing Education Assembly, software, data, security, theory and personalities Build server, write program, follow data flows, track hacking attempt, hack system
Conceal Perception Legerdemain, camouflage, covert placement Carry a weapon undetected, hide a vehicle, apply camo makeup, place a bug, make a hidden cache, stash incriminating evidence away from the cleaners
Cybernetics Education Identify, understand and use cybernetics and robotics Use robotic surgery bay, synch with battlecruiser, pilot scout mech
Disguise Perception Change appearance, posture, voice, costume, scent, bioreadings Impersonate an individual, adopt a persona, avoid recognition, theatrical effects, fancy dress, leave red herrings
Dodge Reaction Avoiding physical dangers Avoid falling rocks, attackers, grenades
Drive [type] Reaction Drive, evaluate and perform basic maintenance on vehicles; types at GM's discretion Tail a getaway car, drive a boat through rapids, get a tank out of soft sand, dock with an alien spacecraft
Electrician Mind / Coordination Evaluate, fix, patch or sabotage electrics and electronics Hotwire vehicle, fix motor, short-circuit machine, reroute burglar alarms, disable robot
Explosives Education / Coordination Assemble, prepare, identify, detonate, defuse, demolish Blow the bloody doors off, demolish bridge, spot suspicious package, disarm missile
Fast Talk Reaction / Mind Bluster, bully, startle, overawe, disdain, fob off, charm, distress, bluff Excuse trespass, bluff past a guard, get a signature, obtain an invitation, avoid a fine, borrow a car
First Aid Mind / Coordination Revive, splint, soothe, de-sting, bandage, resuscitate, Heimlichise Stop choking, treat burns, stop bleeding, splint a limb, administer painkillers
Geology Education Rock types, basic paleontology, minerals, mining, landscapes, seismology, vulcanism, terrain stability, water sources Locate mineral seams, predict eruption, find water, identify fossil
Gravity Education Cope with, manipulate and understand variable gravity Work effectively in high or low gravity, use gravity to pull off combat tricks
Handgun Agility Shooting, maintenance, identification ...
Heavy Weapons Strength Bulky and unwieldy weapons, often mounted or gyro-supported Autocannon, missiles, flamethrowers
Hide Perception Avoid pursuit, surveillance or patrols Lurk in bushes, evade CCTV, disappear into a crowd
History Education Knowledge of current events and historical past Identify obsolete technology, recognise historical figures, identify heraldry, recall political scandal
Jump Strength ... ...
Language [type] Education / Perception Listen, speak, read, write, analyse Converse, understand gossip, read inscriptions, appreciate poetry, impress crowd
Law Education Legal systems, emergency services, cases, personalities, institutions Conduct a case, impersonate police, avoid charges, recall criminal cases, draw up contracts
Light Weapons Coordination Infantry weapons Rifles, blasters, sniper rifles, grenade launchers
Listen Perception Hearing, listening, eavesdropping Detect an intruder, locate a songbird, pick out password
Locksmith Coordination Locks, clockwork, hotwiring, doors and windows, puzzle boxes, physical traps Open doors, copy keys, disassemble items, hotwire cars
Mechanical Repair Coordination Evaluate, fix, patch or sabotage structures or physical machinery Reroute plumbing, repair fence, fettle engines, cannibalise machinery, patch hulls, reinforce viewports
Medicine Education Preventative care, surgery, medication, epidemiology, disease, poisons, parasites Treat poison, treat disease, give vaccinations
Melée Weapons Agility Knives, swords, clubs, flails, lightsabres, gauntlets ...
Navigate Mind Positioning, route-finding, memorising, map and chart use Pinpoint your location, find your way, memorise turns made by your kidnappers' vehicle, map an area
Occult Education Myths, artefacts, magical practices, tomes, sorcerers, spirits Recognise names, perform rituals, identify artefacts, identify a practitioner's traditions, guess intentions
Operate Heavy Machinery Mind Understand, drive and maintain construction equipment, engines, boilers, large machinery Operate jump engines, repair a heating system, use a crane
Perform [type] Perception Music, drama, oratory, dance, mime, web design, flower arranging Show off, put on a performance, evaluate a performance, earn a living
Persuade Mind Convince someone to accept a particular idea or stance Reconciliate enemies, get long-term asssistance, successfully plead innocence
Physics Education Forces, materials, electromagnetism, optics, radiation, space-time Design devices, predict flows in hydraulic system, understand experiments, baffle laser alarms
Psychology Perception Reactions, motives, character and intentions Sense suspicion, anxiety, concealment, over-eagerness
Research Mind Archives, references, fact-finding, googling, online tracking Find a document, track a person's online activity, locate relevant references
Ride Agility / Reaction Any riding beasts, cycles, hoverdiscs, or similar light vehicles Control a frightened animal, weave through trees
Scent / Taste Perception ... Trace gas leak, detect alien, anticipate chloroform, notice drugged coffee, appreciate wine
Sneak Agility Move, work or talk without undue noise Slip past guards, talk in class, quietly remove wheels from car full of mobsters
Spot Hidden Perception Secret doors, ambushers, tripwires, clues, disguises, concealed weapons Find spots of blood, recognise repainted car, spot feet under bulging curtain
Swim Strength / Toughness .... Escape from sharks, swim against a current, rescue drowning person
Throw Agility / Strength .... Agility for accuracy, Strength for distance
Track Perception Locating, following, identifying tracks, concealing tracks Incorporates use of trackers, IR trails and other physical tracing technologies
Xenology Education Knowledge of cultures, linguistics and artefacts Guess use of bizarre artefact, know taboos, identify obscure species

Skills with a [type] category I'm thinking will be used with specialities. The exact breadth of the specialities are up to the GM; they might decide to ignore specialities entirely. As an example, the Drive skill might have very broad specialities, like Space, Air, Land, Sea and Burrowing; or alternatively Sail, Steam, Draught (animal-drawn), Motor and Gravitic. You could also break it down further: Automobile, Train, Sailing Boat, Powered Boat, Submarine, Tunneller, Draught Vehicle, Aeroplane, Balloon. For very large vessels (battleships and the like) this skill alone wouldn't be enough to control them; you might combine them with leadership-type skills to direct a crew, rely on Computing to have the ship pilot itself, and so on.

It is, at first glance, a very long list of skills, but in my defence, it's not as long as the BRP list than inspired it. In particular, I've decided to forego skills for individual weapons, and create broad skill groups instead. To some extent that's weird because this game will probably be rather more combat-heavy than, say, Call of Cthulhu. Looked at another way, it makes sense for that reason: the adventure genre gives people rather more leeway with adapting to different weapon types without worrying about exactly how good you are with a particular size of club.

To Do

Obviously there's loads I haven't done yet, not least coming up with some version of a magic system. Expand skills to include some magical options? Have specific, esoteric spells that can be learned? Some combination of the two? I dunno.

I'll also need to think about things like more detailed mechanics, likely stat and skill ranges, how stats and skills balance, whether I want skills to be comprehensive or a nice bonus, progression (if any), injury... at the moment I'm slightly inclined to just have Bad Things reduce stats directly, which would impair associated skills and eventually leave someone ineffective. It would also avoid having secondary stats. We'll see.

At the moment this is a very skills-heavy system, but there's always the niggling thought that I could go entirely the other way and cut things down to a small number of broad skills. I miiiight end up trying that, just to see what happens. Anyway, it's late.

Opinions, comments and suggestions would be much appreciated.