Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Monitors: Injury models

I'm inclined to think that a system where soft and hard attacks both work really calls for building things around a variety of attack types, rather than having physical damage and then trying to tack on mechanics for blinding or paralysis after the fact.

There are some issues with erosive damage as discussed last time - it can create a death spiral, which is probably bad on the whole. It's also tricky to create a meaningful balance of attribute scores vs. weapon damage vs. armour - if numbesr are very low then you don't get to roll much in the way of dice, and armour values are limited.

On the other hand, my common model is likely to have main characters with scores of ten or more, and minor NPCs with scores of 1-5. This means on average it'll take three d6 of damage to harm a PC, which means you could easily have decent weapons doing 1d6 damage, and 'armour' values of 0-4, retaining some random element and an interesting range of armour. And I've already mentioned a damage floor of 1 for any successful hit. Particularly powerful weapons could do 1d8 or 1d10, and weak ones 1d3, so characters can't completely shrug off weaker attacks, but can afford to risk a fair few attacks because they'll only take 1 damage per hit.

Perhaps most significantly, though, it's looking like an awful lot of work for the GM. I have no particular problem with players tracking fifteen fluctuating scores if those are what the entire game is built around, but a GM simply cannot be expected to handle that level of granularity for NPCs and enemies. In a computer game, fine, but not in P&P. That suggests to me that GMs would need a different system for handling NPCs,

What else have we got?

Global erosive resolution

Dan proposed using all-round erosive damage as a general combat resolution system. It's a nice idea, but I haven't been able to see a way that it would really work out (which may be my failing, of course).

For one thing, if you're trying to use Parley to weasel information out of an NPC, fail your roll and take Parley damage, it seems to me you're either trapped in a death-spiral, or else turn to a different skill - at which point you may was well just have a single pass/fail roll rather than tracking damage to the skill. Unlike combat, where it's expected you use the same skills repeatedly, in non-combat interactions people expect to switch between their skills. However, I suppose I could try to structure the rest of the game so that certain non-combat interactions also have a similar back-and-forth feel (but would this kind of "social combat" be more or less fun than just making one roll and getting on with it?).

Whereas, say, being injured and thus being worse at all physical tasks kinda makes intuitive sense, it's much harder to see how a generalised Bureaucracy damage would work - does clashing with an administrator in one office really reduce your ability to do paperwork somewhere else? In a quite specific system, say a Paranoia-style game where there might be a single monolithic (and hostile) Bureaucracy for you to interact with, then this would make sense and potentially be quite fun. However, I don't feel like it's a great fit for the world-hopping game of Monitors. Similar issues concern me with skills like Tech or Science - although Occult could perhaps work if we assume some kind of "psychic sensitivity" is affected and impedes both theory and practice. While offending the official might make things harder for you, the idea of having them somehow actively whittle down your skills seems quite weird to me. If they don't, though, this is basically a case of failing rolls and taking penalties. It just seems like actual penalties might be a simpler way of dealing with this kind of thing.

It also strikes me that Bureaucracy damage might work better in a game with lingering effects from various conflicts. Your clashes with the Administratrix of Galos Major follow you around, hampering other efforts to interact with officials or get records, but eventually her influence fades or is negated by other goings-on. However, I see Monitors as a game with rapid recovery between events for that adventurous feel, in which case you'd only be looking at erosion of a skill within a single scene, or at most within a short segment of a game. Is that going to be significant enough to be worth tracking?

In short: a nice idea, but I personally can't get it to work. Suggestions welcome.

Injury rolls

This is basically a one-size-fits-all model, where you just roll a die on a chart to see how badly you're hurt.

Escalating

Roll a die and consult the chart below, adding the starting score of your existing status to the total. This means hits quickly build up to serious consequences.

Pain
Score Result Effect
1-3 Pinned Take a penalty on all actions unless in cover.
4-5 Winded Penalty on all physical actions.
6-7 Hurt Penalty on all actions; bonus to other injury rolls
8-9 Staggered Lose one action per turn; penalty on all actions and Speed.
10 Down Cannot take actions.

Blinding
Score Result Effect
1-3 Distracted Penalty on all actions (Will to ignore)
4-5 Dazzled Penalty on appropriate actions.
6-7 Disoriented Penalty on all actions; bonus to other injury rolls
8-9 Stunned Lose one action per turn; penalty on all actions and Speed.
10 Blind Entirely blind. Must test for falling over during movement. Must test to move in right direction. One penalty per five feet on all ranged actions. Auto-fails visual rolls. Cannot read. Penalty to most actions.

The main problem here is coming up with meaningful statuses that don't make things really complicated (again, GMs are at the forefront of my mind). Interaction with armour is another question. As I was thinking of having armour reduce damage rolls, it could easily be that armour makes it impossible to do anything but pin characters (especially PCs) by reducing all damage to 1. This may be a case where critical hits are actually a good idea - perhaps a roll of 1 (remember, d20 roll under) always increases the injury level by at least one rank, or simply ignores armour.

Necromundan

In this model, all weapons roll the same die for damage. However, some grant a bonus to the die, while armour (and equivalent protective gear) imposes a penalty. A hit roll of 1 ignores armour. Penalties for different kinds of injury stack, so a hurt, dazzled, dazed target grants three bonuses to an injury roll.PCs and other notable creatures can roll for recovery as an action, but minor NPCs do not. Recovery is based on an appropriate attribute. Some peculiar creatures can roll for recovery without spending an action. Some creatures are vulnerable or resistant to particular forms of damage; for example, a nocturnal predator may be vulnerable to blinding.

Injury Rolls
Score Wounding Blinding Slowing Stunning
1-3 Pinned
Bonus to subsequent injury rolls. Penalty to all actions. Auto-recover by spending an action.
4-5 Hurt Dazzled Hampered Dazed
Bonus to subsequent injury rolls. Penalty to physical rolls. Bonus to subsequent injury rolls. Penalty to rolls requiring vision. Bonus to subsequent injury rolls. Penalty to speed and rolls requiring movement. Bonus to subsequent injury rolls. Penalty to rolls requiring thought.
6+ Wounded Blinded Slowed Stunned
Out of action

Simple, yet somehow unsatisfying. Maybe this would work for NPCs, but I'm not at all convinced for PCs. This is very closely based on the Necromunda rules, where players have five to twenty models; I feel like with only a single character, you'd want a bit more resilience.

Numerical models

Here damage is quantitative rather than qualitative.

For example, being blinded may impose a penalty on just about everything. A hit from a blinding weapon imposes 1d6 rounds of blinding on the target, subtracting any resistances it may have, to a minimum of 1. Cumulative hits may increase the number - bombarding something with flash grenades won't finish it off, but will keep it blinded for a very long time.

Threshold model

Any blindness imposes a penalty on the target whenever vision is important to their actions. Every 5 levels of blind impose an additional penalty, meaning soft weapons can still render enemies ineffective in large numbers. Thus, a creature blinded for 25 rounds suffers a full 5 penalties on its actions, and is not really a threat. A typical weapon imposes 1d6 rounds of blindness, resisted by flare guards in visors, adaptive eyes, and certain other technological or biological countermeasures, to a minimum of 1 round. Similarly, some weapons may affect Speed, or other properties.

To minimise GM overhead, these weapons might work differently against many NPCs, as indeed may damaging weapons. For example, any roll of 3+ on a die might eliminate a minion-level enemy, regardless of the weapon type.

Another downside of this model is that it doesn't offer a way to actually eliminate targets.

Capacity model

Any blindness imposes a penalty on the target whenever vision is important to their actions. Rather than fixed thresholds, a creature has three states: a basic 'dazzled' state when they take any damage, a 'stunned' state if the number reaches half their Perception score, and a 'blinded' state if it equals or exceeds their Perception (effectively eliminating them). This system would allow for cumulative hits, while only have a small number of distinct states with different rules. On the downside, it still calls for tracking several different injury types on every model.

Simple softies

A simple model that allows for soft attacks is just a set of penalties by injury type - roll a damage die, that's your penalty. Penalties apply on any roll where they would come into play, GM's discretion. A disadvantage here is that doing it numerically chucks out my proposed sliding-scale system. However, if I allow a single source to apply more than one penalty, it could still work. An alternative is simply to decide the sliding scale isn't all it's cracked up to be, and go for something like a fixed -2 penalty in every case.

Nominal model

For a really simple system, there is no different in the effects of weapons, except that some creatures are more or less vulnerable to particular damage types. Everything does the equivalent of HP damage. However, this doesn't really do anything to make soft attacks feel like they're blinding or whatever, plus I'd have to introduce an HP system.

4E model

A variant inspired by D&D 4E would combine damage and status effects. All attacks would inflict nebulous "damage", but could also impose effects such as blinding, tripping, slowing and so on as normal. These effects could be binary without making attacks an either/or proposition, because of the associated damage; it also allows scope for them to be less devastating than in some systems, because it isn't a strict blind vs. damage proposition. This means that all kinds of attacks could be tried that might impose useful penalties on the target, without trading off against simply ending the fight faster.

Obvious downside: need to add an HP system.

Skills and stats model

Hey, look who's back!

One of the advantages of this model, which I played about with initially and then set aside, is that having a small number of stats supporting a large number of skills offers a handy way to model damage.

  • If stats provide the initial value for skills rather than a bonus as such, you can escape death spirals while using erosive damage.
  • A small number of stats can have damage tracked relatively easily, while remaining linked to specific skills.
  • Eliminating any stat can suddenly prevent use of all relevant skills, creating distinctive effects for various injury types. These can apply on top of status effects, such as 'blinding'.
  • This could actually allow all damage to work in a similar way: a solid hit imposes a penalty (which might vary with the weapon, allowing a bit of complexity) while also eroding a stat. When the stat reaches zero, all linked skills are blocked. Because attacks deal damage, and hard damage works the same as soft damage, penalties can be relatively low-key without being worthless.

An obvious problem is ensuring that skills can be logically tied to some kind of stat, which isn't that easy. A second issue is that as stats tend to be relatively small, finding a balance between armour, damage dice and stat level is tricky; broadly speaking, a system allowing bigger numbers allows more room, which would suggest the d20 model won't cut it.


Needs yet more consideration, methinks. This is actually really hard.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

On Chargen

I'm inclined to think that character generation is a pretty important phase of a game. Not just for the obvious reason that it gives you the character you'll be playing, but also because I think it's going to significantly affect the way you feel about the game.

Except for those cases where you've talked about a new game a lot with someone who knows it before trying it out, or listened to a lot of Actual Play or something, chargen is usually your first significant contact with the game. It exposes you to terminology and at least some aspects of the mechanics, and it offers you some degree of choice. The tone of the system, and the kinds of choices you're encouraged to make, give you an impression of how the game wants to be played. The emphases it places on particular aspects of characters, and which choices are mechanically necessary, tell you something about the game.

Does it encourage you to decide and record your character's clothes and manner in detail? Then dress, socialising and appearances are likely to be important. Does it want precise details of your equipment, skills and specialisations, and CV? Then you probably need to think hard about preparation and the best way to approach problems with your existing skillsets. Do you pick Merits, or do yo pick Flaws? Do you have total control over the process, or is it largely random? Are you obliged to build characters collectively, with formal relationships established between them (perhaps with mechanical effects), or do you just roll up whatever you like? Are your options limited by mechanics like level requirements and wealth-by-reputation, or by more realistic concerns? Do you just pick a handful of attributes, suggesting a broad-brush system with a lot of leeway, or are there six or seven subsystems to consider? Are there long lists of options, or do you make up your own? Are you putting points into Arctic Survival and Server Maintenance, into Space Tactics and Guns (Laser), or into Whining Until You Get What You Want?

The process also tends to affect your investment in a character, and in other people's characters, and thus in the game. For this reason, I think it's very important for games to be up-front about problems that can arise during chargen, particularly those with a lot of random factors. They also ought to be reassuring about apparent problems that don't actually cause difficulties in play, and perhaps to consider playstyle. A D&D character who rolls a string of single-digit abilities has no outstanding competence, is unlikely to outshine anyone else in any sphere, will be unable to cast spells at all, and can't even carry much gear. In a dungeoneering or expeditionary game with a lot of mechanical challenges, these weaknesses will probably make them unsatisfying to play, and leave them a burden on other party members. However, in a game that's more about socialising, day-to-day living and low-mechanics play, they may be a more interesting character than someone with higher stats.

Another example would be my messing about with Traveller. As I mentioned there, having my characters repeatedly injured and failing at careers was quite demoralising. It establishes a sense that the character is a failure, and because this is a consequence of randomness, also contrasts that with the benefits of success (a system where you necessarily failed at stuff would give a quite different tone). In addition, your character can end up quite different from what you initially expected, and that isn't necessarily a plus. These factors can make it more difficult to invest in the character. In this case, Traveller would really benefit from some reassuring pre-chargen text that emphasises that a) you can, and should, repair injuries through surgery; b) you're expected to go into debt and deal with finance, and surgery costs are just part of that; c) don't get too invested in a character concept early on, it's only a starting point for your 18-year-old self, so it'll adapt quite a bit before you hit 40.

In many cases new players have an experienced GM and/or players to help out, explaining or simplifying the chargen process, and smoothing over concerns. However, this isn't always the case, and often a whole group encounters a game more or less from scratch. In either case, being confronted with something like the D&D 3.5 character generation process can be somewhat overwhelming, especially when groups rarely have enough books to go around. Players are left trying to puzzle out multiple interacting sets of options, many of which don't mean a huge amount without existing knowledge of mechanics, or have prerequisites. These can be fairly quick and easy for an experienced player who decides in advance what they're looking for, but offputting to a newbie: if you don't really understand how to make a character, how much worse must the game be? In reality the game is often simpler, with chargen being a case of information overload. It's also possible to build characters that don't really do what you wanted or are flawed by lack of understanding - which can disappoint players early on, or else worry those who anticipate the problem.

Anyway, so I will probably do some more posts about chargen sometime.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Arbitrary Dying for Fun and Profit

Mexican Standoff

Over the weekend, I ended up playing an impromptu game of Fiasco with Dan, Arthur and another friend. Since it was a fairly radical departure from any game I’ve played otherwise, I thought it might be nice to get my thoughts in order about it, and of course to see if it’s got anything I want to snaffle.

Chargen

I’ve previously written about character generation for Traveller, and I’m seriously considering doing some similar posts for other games, because I think it’s an interesting aspect of games and particularly because it tends to shape your impressions and expectations of a game.

In this case, chargen isn’t really a distinct thing. Instead, what you have is a setting-generation phase, where you establish what the game calls a ‘playset’. You choose between “Southern Town”, “Wild West Boomtown”, “Suburbia” or “The Ice” as backdrops for the action, all of which naturally set up certain kinds of expectation. Next, you create Relationships, Needs, Objects and Locations, and here it gets a bit confusing (at least, it took us a couple of minutes to thrash out what we were supposed to be doing).

Each category of connection (Relationship, Need, Object, Location) has a set of D66 charts – one table per playset. Someone rolls sixteen D6s. You then go around the table: everyone picks a chart, and uses one of the dice to determine the tens column, allocating that connection to a pair of players. For example, someone created a Relationship (Romance) between me and Dan. Once a connection exists, someone can then pick another dice to determine the units column, which establishes the specifics – in this case Relationship (Romance: Current Spouses). You can do this in any order, so you can create all the base connections and then the details, or specify each one in order; you can create all the Relationships before anything else, or (as we did) just do whatever you feel like based on the existing ones, the remaining dice and what the charts look like.

For me, this was a mixture of fun and bewildering. I didn’t really have a handle on the tone or genre of the game so it wasn’t that clear to me what sort of things I wanted to do. Within any system you can choose to play as seriously or as frivolously (or as against the grain) as you like, but you need to know the game’s expectations to do that. Having not seen the films in question, I ended up aiming for a slightly more humorous and occult tone with my choices, which wasn’t quite the idea.

The system is actually a lot more restrictive than it may seem, because each playset has its own specific chart, six choices isn’t that many when you get right down to it, and some of them are only nominally different: for example, many of the Locations for Suburbia were either placenames (which can mean whatever you want) or generic buildings, and the six Romance options boiled down to three major ones (current, ex and prospective). This meant that we tended to avoid some categories and focus on things with a bit more character. You’re also quite constrained by the dice; it may seem like sixteen is a lot, but you rapidly exhaust any particular number, which cuts down your options significantly. I don’t think we rolled any 1s in the first place, and then we quickly found our choices down to three or four categories from six, and one or two specifics from six. This is potentially frustrating, I suppose, but in practice I think it’s quite useful when dealing with people exactly like me, who don’t really know what they’re supposed to be doing. It constrained my ability to totally derail the game (consciously or otherwise) by giving me fairly specific choices, and also gave a bit of an impression of what they expected from the game.

I felt like the connections were a mixed bag, to be honest. Many were vague enough not to really add much – one Location ended up just being my house, for example. Others were very specific and therefore a bit tricky to shoehorn in: we had a “Briefcase containing $1m” that was important to us, which ended up vaguely in the plot in the form of money someone wanted to launder through my proposed business, but the specifics got entirely waved away. However, most of them either influenced our behaviour or had some influence on the plot.

The fun bit, though, is turning these hooks into solid setting elements. A Shared Dark Secret and an Unusual Statue became Dan and Arthur’s characters hiding my sister’s body under the garden and buying a random statue to cover it up. A Romance: To Hurt Someone connection turned into two mobsters aiming to seduce my character, to break up my marriage and leave my business vulnerable to their interference. I’ve got to admit that there was a certain amount of stretching to come up with things that vaguely fit the categories. However, I think we all enjoyed inventing these setting elements to play with (this reminds me a recent post on Really Bad Eggs, though it’s not entirely the same thing). I’m inclined to think that some amount of creative input helps draw you into a game early on. Certainly I think I’d have been much less interested in the game if presented with a similar setup ready-made. On the other hand, a character-based small-town real-world setting is very different from a continent-spanning fantasy romp.

And that’s it for chargen. Rather than generating any kind of traditional character, you have a set of important ‘nodes’ that you flesh out slightly into a person before starting play.

Now certainly, you couldn’t just import this into a more traditional game, because you don’t have things like stats or equipment or anything needed to actually take part in a traditional game. That’s because, as I’ll explain alter, there’s no randomising in the game itself. However, I think you could perhaps usefully borrow some of these techniques to help establish group connections during chargen.

I think it’s also worth bearing in mind that while the connection-generating process was a little confusing and perhaps slightly clunky, it had some advantages. We all ended up with perfectly reasonable characters to do stuff with, without having to read through tables, understand play mechanics, pick abilities, choose classes or exhaustively determine our possessions and background. To a large extent this is, again, because the game doesn’t really have anything traditional like mechanics or character abilities (I will refrain from saying “or game” as I think it’s unnecessarily sarky, but there’s a small element of truth in there). However, I would say the game is no less accessible to someone without previous RPG experience, than to someone who’s read dozens of rulebooks and knows how to skim off the key information. Compared to chargen in some other one-shot games – Hellcats and Hockeysticks, say – it’s a walk in the park.

All that being said, I think I’d have really struggled without someone who’s seen the right films to help out. On the other hand, in that situation you probably wouldn’t be playing Fiasco, so hey. It didn’t have particularly high entry barriers, but it also wasn’t super-accessible to someone without genre knowledge. We also found that regardless of its mechanical merits, the dice system for play and outcomes took quite some understanding; I wouldn’t want to pull anything like this on novice roleplayers because I think it’d be offputting, since both repeated explanations and having someone just work things out for you tend to make you feel stupid.

Playing the game

The actual game itself is very rules-light; you go around, each in turn having a scene about you. It usually involves your character, but can also be other people thinking or talking about them. You choose whether you want to determine the premise of the scene, or determine whether its ending is “positive” or “negative”; other people do the other one. Within a scene, you just make up events and dialogue, though these have to lead towards the chosen type of ending. Based on the ending of the scene, you collect white or black dice. At the end of the game, you roll all your dice, subtract one from the other to get an absolute value, and then consult a chart to determine your ultimate fate. You then have to narrate your “closing scenes” in a series of sentences beginning “this is me...”. For a more comprehensive look at the mechanics, Dan’s your man.

To be frank, the dice mechanic felt contrived, arbitrary, nonsensical and more or less unnecessary. In the first half, you give away whatever dice you earn, so whatever you do makes no difference. In the second half, you can try to control your fate by choosing more of the same (for a “good” ending) or a mixture of dice (making a ”bad” ending likely), but that often means disregarding the natural course of a scene. For example, one of my scenes had me directing some workmen to move the statue concealing my sister's body: there was no plausible way for it to end ”well” unless I picked a white die immediately and undermined the scene established by the other players. On the other hand, if you pick dice based on considerations like actual roleplaying, then your ending is likely to be bad regardless of what happens, because you'll typically get a mix of scenes. And for zero apparent reason, for fate resolution purposes, dice stop being Good and Bad, and become Emotional and Physical, so having four Good dice means having four Emotional dice, which confusingly does not mean you're liable to have emotional problems but that you're likely to escape them. I mean, just, what?

Another problem I had with the game was that the turn-taking mechanic - which is perfectly sensible in traditional games - didn't feel like a good fit. In a narrative-heavy situation, it just doesn't really make sense for each person to have a turn in a specific forced order. I can understand why they'd do it: it's easy for one, and it makes sure everyone has a fair part of the game, though I do wonder whether they thought about it at all or simply followed the usual assumption. However, there were quite a few turns where it didn't feel particularly natural for the next person to take the focus, or where they really had no idea for how to advance the story or what to do. In these circumstances you can simply choose to have the others decide for you, and resolve the ending instead, but it still felt clunky to me. Perhaps some mechanic where you can decide how much focus to take, maybe even involving their weird dice mechanics, would have made things smoother?

As well as clunkiness, I felt like forced turn-taking actually made the game less accessible. In a more mechanical game, players can choose how much spotlight they take and involved to be; if you choose, you can simply follow the lead of other players and just roll dice when you need to. This is a nice option for people who are new to the game or genre, shy, uninspired, tired or just don't feel like shouldering a lot of narrative burden right now. More energetic people can spend a lot of time making suggestions, asking questions, talking to NPCs, and generally doing things that determine the flow of events in ways other than rolling dice. In Fiasco, while other players can help out, you don't have that much flexibility. For that reason, if no other, I'd be a bit reluctant to introduce some people to it, because I know they prefer to take a back seat most of the time, at least until they have a handle on a game. In D&D, my players tend to start off pretty mechanical, and roleplay comes in later when they're more confident. Fiasco doesn't offer that kind of flexibility.

Endings

I also found the ending system fairly trite. While it led to what sounds like a decent story, this falls apart somewhat if you examine it. Again, Dan covers this pretty thoroughly. For example: Arthur's character just about managed to get everyone off their various crimes, but couldn't save his reputation. My character, utterly traumatised by, well, everything, burst into tears on the Lake Road (a previously-mentioned accident black spot) and took the corner a little too fast! Arthur's character arrived at the house just after I left, met Dan's character also arriving too late, and just had time to blurt out "It was my bab-" before Dan's gun went off! Dan got pulverised by the mafiosa's goons when he burst in to blame her for everything, and slunk disgraced out of town! The mafiosa just kind of carried on being a bit mediocre! Wait, that bit wasn't actually that exciting.

The thing is though, none of that game from the game except how dead we were. It's all just justification of arbitrary numbers after the fact, by the players trying to make some kind of sense out of things. It's not some natural, inevitable outcome of the plot so far.

Off the top of my head: how about Arthur manages to weasel out of (accurate) Accessory To Murder allegations, spill just enough to get the mafiosa busted, have Dan taken care of and move in to comfort the grieving widow - perhaps picking up that $1m briefcase along the way? You have a decent story about a treacherous bastard lawyer wading through blood and coming up smelling of roses. Or the mafiosa gets her chance to break up my marriage once and for all, rid herself of a backstabbing weasel lawyer with too much dirt on her, offer a helping hand to the widow, launder that cash and put an end to the grumbling from her mooks. Or perhaps all three of the criminals play things too cleverly, get each other wiped out, and leave the innocent housewife standing there single, holding a cash-filled briefcase, and looking thoughtfully at the handsome out-of-town sheriff who used to date her sister. Or... you get the idea. I'm pretty sure, between the four of us, we could have done something with whatever set of endings we rolled up.

When I was a young lad, my family used to play a game that I can't remember the name of right now. You’d improvise a Famous Five story or something similar, passing the story along from person to person, giving the next person three specific things to incorporate. It was both simpler and less frustrating than the mechanics of Fiasco.

Other stuff

I feel like the game missed a trick, to be honest, but that may be deceptive. Being completely ignorant of the genre it’s emulating (barring Dan’s quick description) I have little idea how well it succeeds. It seemed to me like with a little more flexibility you could have used it to play a broader range of genres, which would have made it more likely to get played: personally I would have much preferred to run something like an Ealing Comedy, but the ending tables are inherently downbeat and sadistic, and don’t allow for anything like that.

I'm also a bit confused about what my goals as a player actually are. Am I supposed to be invested in my character's ultimate post-game fate? In in-game events? In vaguely emulating a type of film I've never seen through riffing on tropes? In just having a laugh? Similarly, without goals, how do you know whether you're doing what the game intends? I don't want to get into a complicated discussion on Doing Roleplaying Right, but you can at least play with or against the grain of a game, and I'd like to know which is which - not least because it helps clarify whether I genuinely don't enjoy a game, or simply didn't get it. Did Dan and Other Player succeed, because they survived to miserable futures? Did me and Arthur succeed, because we died in accordance with genre expectations? I couldn't really tell what I was trying to achieve (as a player or as a character), whether I was doing it right, or how to do it better. Of course, if I was really enjoying myself, I probably wouldn't have been wondering about any of those things.

As Dan has mentioned, there was also very little guidance as to what you and your character can do, particularly to other characters. This is perhaps because they don't want to lock that kind of thing down too tightly, as some kind of cooperation is expected; however, as it's potentially quite an adversarial game, it seems to me that they should perhaps have suggested that you decide those limits for yourself before the game starts. As it stands, there doesn't seem to be anything to stop one player having another character killed whenever you like, completely changing any existing story strand, or otherwise dominating the game. You might think that's a matter of being a reasonable player, but a reasonable person could well feel that the absence of restrictions is deliberate, and intended to create a chaotic story moulded by the players' whims. And (from what I can tell of the genre) people getting randomly bumped off isn't exactly out of keeping.


Overall

I can't help noticing that I really don't have that much positive to say about this game. It's in a genre I'm not interested in, its mechanics manage to be both minimal and clunky, it's quite demanding without giving you much support, and it seems to take a lot of credit for the ingenuity of players in making sense of arbitrariness. Just about the only thing I can really commend in it is the character generation.

I had a reasonable time with this game, but that's because my mates are cool. Fiasco deserves little of the credit.

Across Phrentis VI with Bike and Boltgun: 01

Chapter 1: The Cruiser Ineluctable

Inside the hall, firelight scattered dancing shadows on the dark-panelled walls, and glistened on great porcelain cups.

“The Emperor is the spring that sustains mankind.”

Six brawny serfs hoisted two great brass urns, sending gallons of water gushing into the ornate cauldron. The aquilas on each side, polished to perfection, shone like mirrors.

“The Emperor is the fire of life, burning with wrath against the xenos, the heretic, the witch.”

With a blinding flare, fire erupted from the grille beneath the cauldron like a dragon’s belch, before settling down into a steady roar. Heat rippled across the room, laying itself like a heavy blanket over the occupants, who bore it without complaint. Within moments, steam rose from the cauldron under the ferocious assault of the furnace, billowing up into the distant arches of the roof.

“The Holy Primarchs are the branches of the Emperor’s glory, and we are their leaves.”

With great solemnity, the Chaplain heaved open the lid of the great chest. The soft, faintly bitter scent of the dried herbs within rose to the nostrils of the nearby warriors. He took up a silver ladle, and carefully scooped a great pile of leaves from the chest.

“In the tumult of war we find our purpose; our blood is spilled for him.”

Despite the heat, the Chaplain showed no sign of discomfort as he stood over the cauldron. The ladle tipped, and the herbs spilled out into the now-seething water, staining it a dark mahogany.

“Ave Imperator!”

As one, the Company crossed their hands in the sign of the aquila, and the shout echoed throughout the hall, rattling the cups on the vast oak tables.

“Ave Imperator!”

At a sign from the Chaplain, triumphant thunder erupted throughout the Chapel as Curate Jakes began to play. Air hissed erratically from valves as he ran sinewy fingers across the ancient ivory, worn smooth by centuries of use. Two serfs pumped furiously at the bellows, trying to keep up with the Curate's exuberant performance, as the voices of three hundred Marines rose in an enthusiastic rendition of “The Inhuman Will Fall To The Emperor's Wrath”. By the time the last echoes of the song had died away, the serfs were red-faced, panting and drenched in sweat. It was, of course, an honour to assist in the worship of the Emperor; but Naphet couldn't help briefly thinking that fifteen verses might have been enough. He frowned, and chided himself for the weakness.

As the singing concluded, Chaplain Granville beckoned to the assembled warriors. At each table, a Marine rose and walked solemnly towards the cauldron, bearing a steel urn marked with skulls. One by one, they presented the urns with a word of entreaty. One by one, the Chaplain took the urns and held them beneath an ornate tap in the form of a howling eagle, filling them to the brim with steaming liquid. He handed each urn back to its bearer with a word of blessing, then filled a final vessel and strode to his place at the high table. The others stood quietly, awaiting his word.

“Our blood is poured out for the Emperor!” he announced, tilting his urn to fill Captain Sheringham’s cup. At each table, the appointed urn-bearer followed his lead. Each cup was filled to the brim, fragments of the blessed herbs swirling gently within. At last, the Chaplain sat, and raised his cup. As one, the Marines followed his lead, smelling the rich aroma of the brew.

“In his smallest finger is strength enough to crush his foes!” intoned Granville, extending his own little finger in the ancient custom. The Chapter did likewise.

“We drink of his strength, and remember our purpose.” He drank. All drank. There was a pause, and then gentle conversation broke out with the conclusion of the afternoon ceremony. At the high table, the officers supped their tea slowly and thoughtfully, musing on the war to come. After a short while, Sheringham lowered his cup and turned to his sergeants.

“Not a bad cuppa. Not bad at all,” he remarked.

“Jolly good, I thought.”

“Well, Brother-Sergeants, the Techmarines tell me we shall be passing Phrentis VI shortly, or at least its Warp-coordinates. Decent little world, rather rustic, and fairly quiet for the most part. They’re having a spot of bother with orks at the moment–”

“Oh, too bad,” said Elsworth. “That’s the fourth world this year.”

“Indeed. The governor called a few hours ago to ask if we could possibly lend them a hand. Seemed like a good sort, sorry to bother us and all that sort of thing, and the whole business is terribly embarrassing for her.”

Phipps handed round a brass plate of wafer-thin biscuits, each embossed with a grinning skull.

“It’s a trifle inconvenient, Brother-Captain. I mean, this business with the uprising is a prior commitment,” he said. “The general is rather counting on us.”

“Yes, quite right, Sergeant. I explained that in the general way we’d be delighted to visit the wrath of the Emperor on the damned greenies, but we were rather busy at the moment.”

Heads nodded, regretfully.

“However,” continued the Captain, nibbling a biscuit and noting the faint hint of lemon with silent approval, “while we are committed to bringing the rebel worlds back into the Emperor’s peace and showing them the price of heresy, we can’t very well go about letting orks run riot on respectable worlds.”

“Quite right, Brother-Captain.”

“Rather not!”

“Bally greenskins are getting uppity.”

Sheringham dabbed his lip with a vast serviette, removing any traces of crumbs from his magnificent moustache. A Captain of the Adeptus Astartes had a responsibility to reflect the Emperor’s glory, and scruffiness would simply not do.

“The honour of the Chapter is at stake, after all. ‘Not in vain the voice imploring’ calls on the Scarlet Hounds for protection in the Emperor’s name. We of the Third Company are committed to pacifying the Ulcrass system, but the absence of a few battle-brothers would not, I feel, place too great a burden on the rest. I propose to send a strike team to Phrentis VI to deal with their little ork problem, while the rest of us proceed to the war. What say you, brothers?”

The sergeants saw the wisdom of Sheringham’s proposal, and none had any objection to raise.

“Then we have only to select our deputation. The infestation seems to be fairly small, only a few thousand at most. I think five battle-brothers should suffice. A compact team, with transport – they’ll need to cover plenty of ground and we can’t rely on the militia. We’ll send them over by drop-pod as we pass. You all know your own squads – talk it over and give me your recommendations after Vespers. That’s all, chaps.”

He sat back as the sergeants began to discuss the matter, and turned to Granville.

“Another chance to serve the Emperor, Brother-Captain. He honours us.”

“He does indeed. Let the xenos come and meet His glorious vengeance. Phrentis VI will soon be safe again in the shelter of the Imperium.” The question of the expedition settled, Sheringham glanced down at their empty cups.

“More tea, Chaplain?”

“Don’t mind if I do, Brother-Captain.”

***************************************

At the Captain’s command, the Company assembled in the hall once combat drill and Vespers had passed. As Sheringham strode to the lectern, the quiet hum of tactical discussion and impromptu doggerel died away, and the brothers stood to attention, smoothing moustaches and straightening tunics.

“As you are aware,” the Captain began, “the Chapter’s aid has been requested by an agricultural world, Phrentis VI. They are under attack by orks, and seem to be having a little trouble disposing of them. I do not propose to discuss the issue in detail, though I must say that it seems a little careless of the militia to allow themselves to be invaded by xenos savages. However, as they have now seen the error of their ways, and very properly referred the matter to us, we will overlook it on this occasion.”

He paused to glance at Chaplain Granville, who harrumphed a little and raised an eyebrow. Apparently there had been some dispute on the matter, but the Chaplain held his peace.

“Naturally, our existing arrangement to liberate the worlds of Ulcrass from rebellious forces is our chief priority at this juncture. Nevertheless, I have discussed the matter with the sergeants and Chaplain Granville, and we feel that a small punitive force could be spared to clear up this ork business. The Emperor calls us to defend all His worlds, not merely those who have requested aid in an orderly fashion.”

The Hounds assembled before him indicated tolerant agreement, and awaited his next words with interest.

“Five of you will take a little side-trip to Phrentis VI to take in the sights, administer a mild rebuke to the locals for their laxity, and obliterate the alien with bolter and blade in the Emperor’s sacred name. The cornfields of Phrentis VI will drink deep of orkish blood, the populace will see the Emperor’s glory embodied in His servants, and you will have a chance to relax a little before rejoining us to purge Ulcrass of treachery with fire and with steel.”

A few chuckles ran round the hall.

“It has not been an easy choice – many of you have worked very hard over the past months to destroy the enemies of mankind and bring glory to the Emperor’s name – but the Sergeants and I, with Chaplain Granville’s counsel, have selected the five battle-brothers who will make this little expedition. I am sure that the rest of the Chapter will join me in wishing them an enjoyable and educational campaign.” He paused, and glanced down at his data-slate.

“From Squad Budderscombe, Brother Roland Jasper.”

There was a cheer from the squad, near the back of the hall. Brother Jasper gave a wide grin as squadmates clapped him on the shoulder, and strode confidently towards the lectern. “Marvellous! Looking forward to it, Captain!” His vast moustache bristled gleefully.

“From Squad Lexingfield, Brother Quentin Ffaulkes.”

Ffaulkes raised an eyebrow in mild surprise, then began to stroll forward. “Most awfully good of you, Captain, Chaplain” he murmured, as he took his place gracefully alongside the looming Jasper.

“From the Medicae, Apothecary Barnabas.”

Smiling benignly, the grizzled apothecary moved to join his comrades, giving a dignified nod to Sheringham.

“I trust there will be no call for his services, but protocol is protocol. From Squad Orville, I am proud and gratified to call forward Brother Ilias Tarquin.” There was a sudden outburst of applause throughout the hall, as the Marines turned to regard the Company’s most recent member, who had only left the Scouts a few months previously. Congratulations rang out, and the assembled officers joined in the clapping. Slightly stunned, Tarquin stood staring for several seconds until a friendly hand shoved him forward. He made his way to the lectern to join the others, beaming with delight. Jasper gave him a cheerful wink, and Ffaulkes looked approving.

“I’m sure he will react a little faster when he meets the orks, providing of course that they do not think to compliment him,” said Sheringham, with a wry smile. “And finally, from Squad Rothesay, Brother-Sergeant Alden Hawksworth, who will lead this hunt.”

Heads nodded, as at expectations confirmed. A fist knocked off a sharp salute, and Hawksworth strode briskly up to the front. “As you say, Brother-Captain. Evening, chaps.”

“You start tomorrow. Rest thoroughly, and report to the studium for prep after Lauds.” Sheringham made the aquila, and the Chapter returned it. “Company dismissed.”

***************************************

In the ship’s studium, the archivist had called up reports on Phrentis VI, and the data looped slowly across polished screens. The five chosen marines stood around a vast desk, littered with maps and data-slates, as Lexicanium Porlock ran through the mission parameters.

“As you can see, brothers, Phrentis VI is a temperate world with breathable atmosphere. Here are the key population centres, in red... and the main spaceports and vital infrastructure are in blue. Infrastructure already reported destroyed by ork action is shown in mauve, and is concentrated in the south of the planet. Now, which of you can tell me what class of world this is?” Porlock eyed the group.

“Agri-world, Lexicanium?” suggested Barnabas.

“Indeed. Because, Tarquin?”

Brother Tarquin shifted uncomfortably. “The population is low, Lexicanium... but too evenly dispersed for mining, and heavy industry is centred on spaceports. That implies processing of primary products for export.”

“Good. And therefore?”

Jasper riffled his moustache. “Poorly defended. Militia too dispersed to take a concerted stand. Limited reserves to call up.”

Porlock nodded, and twisted the dials on the cogitator. New patterns appeared. “Correct. This shows the current disposition of the Phrentian militia, and the known ork infestations. You will drop at Ulverthwaite East base, shown as theta blue, here. The area is occupied territory, and securing the base will allow sections kappa, lambda and nu to reestablish contact and lines of supply.”

“Is the base under enemy control?” asked Hawksworth. Porlock shook his head.

“Not as yet, but it seems a near thing. Reports show a garrison from the PDF, reduced to around one hundred troopers. This is the last Imperial-held strongpoint in the district, and with the Emperor’s grace it still will be by the time you arrive. They can brief you on the immediate situation, and you can store equipment there between expeditions.”

“I see,” said Ffaulkes. “We establish contact with the locals, pick up the gen, and use the base as a lynchpin, what?”

“And put some backbone into the troops while we’re at it,” added Jasper. “Do ‘em a spot of good to see the old aquila.”

“Precisely,” said the archivist. “Now, we have only a few hours to prepare, so best turn to strategy and run through the usual analyses. Your contact on the ground is Lieutenant Jettan, the senior surviving officer in the region. Reports have him as competent. The militia are dug in and maintaining patrols.”

“Any gen on the hostiles?” put in Ffaulkes. “Is it a straight swan dive, or will it be a case of ducking archie all the way to the ground?”

“Nothing concrete, Ffaulkes. I recommend standard evasion tactics, though orks are inaccurate marksmen at best.”

Turning back to the cogitator, he slowly coaxed it into displaying the Ulverthwaite district. The machine was not the most reliable, and often a techmarine had to be summoned, but this time it grudgingly performed its duties with only a few flickers and bleeps.

“As you can see, brothers, the base is located in this hilly district, with the nearby river providing water and additional protection against ground attack from the west. The hills are used for grazing beasts, though the flocks are mostly likely badly depleted now. The bridges have been destroyed to impede the orks, but the garrison are maintaining patrols using a Chimera-mounted bridge. They report significant numbers of ork vehicles in the area.”

Porlock outlined the region's geography, and discussion turned to tactical options and strategic objectives. Transport routes must be resecured, airfields and stores recaptured or destroyed, and orks diverted to more expendable regions where possible. The Scarlet Hounds memorised every detail.

“Well, battle-brothers,” said Hawksworth. “That’s the mission in brief. Drop at noon planet-time, a few sorties, and back to the capital for take-off.”

Broadly speaking,” said Porlock. “Now, drop-hour is approaching, and you had best report to the armoury. The Quartermaster will be expecting you. Hurry along.”

Leaving the archivist and Chapter serfs to tidy up, the expedition party hastened through the ship, feet pounding on the flagstones. Hawksworth paused by the armoury door, and tugged the bellrope. There was a sonorous clang, and a black-clad servitor swung the door open, bowing low.

“Welcome, Astartes,” it creaked.

In the equipping room, auspices, omnitools, signa and more esoteric devices hung glistening from the walls, while ranks of austere plasteel lockers held standard operating equipment for urgent arming. An archway beyond led to the armoury itself. Quartermaster Fairclough turned to greet them, knowing eyes peering from an ever-impassive face, and raised a steel hand in welcome.

“There you are, brothers. I see the Lexicanium kept you busy. We have selected equipment to suit the mission parameters, bearing in mind that you will be operating in relative isolation.”

“Thank you, Quartermaster,” said Hawksworth.

The techmarine turned to the benches at his side. “I consulted your files to allocate equipment in the optimal way. As it will be a mobile expeditionary force, I thought it best to avoid heavy equipment. You will each draw a cycle from the stables for transport. Brother-Sergeant Hawksworth –” the techmarine indicated an arming-case “– your usual auspex-goggles and Kraken shells. For the Apothecary, of course, a complete narthecium. Ah, Brother Ffaulkes, this should be to your taste.”

He displayed a circular lens with a metal armature. At a muttered command, the armature unfurled itself, then folded back up at a second word.

“Monocular rangefinder-targeter. Compensates for windspeed, gravity, lighting and velocity – yours and the target's. Interfaces directly with your armour, so you can transmit what you see if necessary, and folds out of the way when you don't need it. It comes with a few other tricks too, but the basics should suffice.”

Ffaulkes examined it carefully, before replacing it in his case with the hulking heavy bolter. “Most kind.”

“Brother Jasper, as requested, you are equipped primarily for close quarters. And finally, Brother Tarquin. Since your preferences are not yet established, I have allocated you standard tactical and close-quarter equipment.”

“Thank you, Quartermaster.”

“Your bikes have already been placed in the drop-pods. They have been tuned to your specifications, according to the latest Chapter records. I'm afraid we do not have time for the usual tests, but I am sure they will perform acceptably.”

At the techmarine's gesture, several servitors gathered the arming-cases and carried them away to the launch bay for stowing, rocking on bronze tripod legs.

“Now, brothers, please follow me.” Fairclough led them through a passageway, commenting affably on some of the work being carried out in the chambers they passed: here a servitor refitted with new bionics, there a land speeder rocking in a wind tunnel while a nervous-looking apprentice techmarine attempted to calibrate its heavy bolter. They drew to a halt outside the door of the kennels, its door adorned with recent trophies: skulls, pelts, and a number of xenos weapons, ritually mangled and inscribed with seals so that their taint might not infect the machine-spirits of Imperial technology.

“What ho, brother Kennel Master!” announced the techmarine, pounding the door until the trophies rattled. There was a whirr and it slid open, revealing Kennel Master Thackeray. For a marine, he was hunched and wiry, with teeth crooked and yellow after decades of ritual smoking.

“What ho indeed, brothers. Come on inside.” Beyond the door, there was a small waiting-room, and beyond it a long file of individual cages stretching into the distance. A muted clanking and whining came from within, as the hounds stirred at the presence of visitors.

The marines glanced around with mild curiousity, most having never ventured inside the kennels before. Only Fairclough and old Barnabas were familiar enough with the place to pay it no heed. The stark scents of oil, grease, acid and worked metal rose to their sensitive nostrils.

“Seeing as you will be operating independently of the Company, the officers have decided to allocate you some assistance. Besides, a hunt with no hounds is no hunt at all, eh brothers?” The kennel master grinned. “We spend the night overhauling two of our finest hounds for you. Best to introduce you now, and let them get accustomed to you. The voice-command interface needs some initial calibration to function smoothly, and we wouldn't want any problems in the field, would we?”

He whistled sharply, and two sleek shapes padded eagerly around the corner, with barely a hiss of pneumatic joints. Their eyes glowed a faint blue as they scanned the figures in the room, before trotting to Thackeray's feet. He patted them briefly, then beckoned Hawksworth forward.

“Here, boys, this is your master for the present. Brother-Sergeant, would you read this aloud, while they attune to your voice?” He handed Hawksworth a battered data-slate, which displayed the words of an old hunting oath.

Hawksword recited the oath briskly, with the ease of long practice, and returned the slate to Thackeray. The hounds moved across to him now, and and sniffed faintly at his palms.

“Excellent. They should follow your instructions now; your helmets are already linked to their vox receptors. They are some of our faster cyber-hounds, built for patrol - they should have no trouble keeping up with you. You know all the command-words, of course. This” - he pointed at the smaller of the two - “is Fidelis, and served well in the Harrying of Tarthorak, as Barnabas will remember.”

The hound whined gently at the sound of its name.

“The other is Valerian, whose jaws have felled a hundred savage kroot.” A splendid centurial seal stood out darkly on the hound's flank, engraved with an image of Saint Valerian atop a mount of xenos.

“Not bad,” allowed Jasper. “Agile little bugger, your kroot.”

“Quite.”

They tarried just long enough for the hounds to register each of their scents, then hastened to finish their preparations. There was little time left before the drop; just enough for a brief meditation before they donned their armour. Tarquin was still somewhat awkward in the procedure, but the chapter serfs gave respectful assistance when needed, and soon all five were ready for battle. Helmets in hand, they strode proudly to the launch bay, where the captain and chaplain waited to see the off, along with a number of other battle-brothers. Groans and hisses already rose from the drop-engine, as servo-motors built up speed. Their drop-pod projected from the worn surface of the bay, ready to sink into its launch tube. A second drop-pod, with bikes and hounds stowed safely, was already chambered for launch.

“There you are, brothers,” called the captain. “Best hurry now. Just a few minutes now until drop.”

They stood at attention beside the pod while the chaplain led the congregation in a brief hymn, followed by the Oath of the Hunt. “Emperor, who most gloriously bestows His might, guide our eyes to the trail, our aim to the target, our blades to the flesh...”

Before they entered the pod, Captain Sheringham turned to a nearby serf and retrieved a leather-bound object. “Brother Jasper... in consideration of your recent actions, the Chapter grants you the great honour of wielding Erudition.”

“Emperor's mercy!”

Ignoring the exclamation, Sheringham handed his bundle to the gratified marine.

“Do look after it, won't you? It is a Chapter relic, after all. Honoured Brother-Captain Gillingham carried it six hundred years ago. But I'm sure you remember your history lessons?”

Jasper avoided the questioning eyebrow, carefully unbinding the sheath and drawing out a gleaming power-axe, its shaft inscribed with the names of its eminent wielders. His own glinted new-cut amongst them. After a few reverent moments, the relic was resheathed, and the expedition took their places for launch, donning their helmets as the servitors strapped them in. The leaves of the pod folded closed around them, and it sank – or perhaps lurched – into place with the angry screech of metal on metal. The voices of the engines rose to a chorus of bestial howls as hell-red figures glowed inside their helmets, counting down... 8, 7, 6, 5, 5, 5, 5 (the cursing of the techmarines and a ritual kick to the machinery were barely audible), 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 –

The engines fired as the Ineluctable passed over the launch coordinates, and the pods erupted out into space. A sledgehammer blow sent the marines' senses ringing for several moments, then relative peace. There was a small chance the pod would burst in the vacuum of space, but that was small concern in sealed armour. Re-entry was a larger concern – the temperatures could theoretically roast them inside their armour, if the pod's thermal shielding failed – but the rattle and roar that signalled it passed without incident, and the warning runes flared only briefly. Readouts flashed rapidly across their vision, giving geographic readings, accuracy predictions...

“Not a bad trip so far,” remarked Ffaulkes.

“I call it cushy,” said Jasper. “D'you remember the drop on Moggantsar?”

The absence of stratospheric haemovores was certainly a pleasant contrast, and there was no sign of any anti-aircraft fire from the orks, though the pod followed an evasive pattern just in case. In minutes, the trip was over and a final warning flared up: Brace for impact, immediate. Braking rockets flared, or at least most of them did, subjecting them to forces that would kill any unaltered human, and slowing them to a non-lethal velocity for impact. After a few painful seconds they felt the final thunderous shock as the pod slammed to a halt, burying itself nearly two feet into the soft loam of an abandoned field. They were barely six miles outside the drop zone; another triumph for Imperial technology!

Many miles overhead, engines flared into unwholesome light as the Ineluctable dropped back into the Warp, heading for the Ulcrass war.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Across Phrentis VI with Bike and Boltgun: prologue

Prologue: Phrentis VI

Running a scrub-job just before the meal had been a mistake. The acrid tang of bleach hung in the air like temple incense, giving rise to strangled coughs and occasional sneezes. Worse still, it suffused the pottage almost as soon as it was doled out, producing a chemical aftertaste that put a grimace on everyone’s face. Nobody complained, audibly. The wooden expression worn by the lieutenant, and the grimly mechanical way he scooped up his food, was ample demonstration that he wouldn’t make that mistake again. Cutlery scraped reluctantly in mess-tins until the meagre portions had been forced down, and washed down with blissfully-untainted caffeine.

“Knives down,” called the lieutenant at last. “Fane, your squad’s on wet duty. Lillit, ready for patrol in fifteen. Other squads, time’s your own.”

Voices mumbled next door, and the familiar clacking of plas chips on boards indicated that the nightly mullen tournament was already underway. In the porch, squad nine strapped on scuffed boots and shrugged flak-jackets over their grimy daywear. Daver and Mocks crouched in their usual corner, muttering a prayer together before they donned their helmets. Rhythmic metallic noises signalled that Innis was field-stripping his autogun, a patrol ritual that was just the right side of obsessive. The more determined troopers methodically strapped on helmets, double-checked weapons and leaned against the plascrete wall to stretch before the patrol. Others, morale already low, simply fumbled their kit on and slumped on the benches, waiting for the signal. It was a wide-sweep patrol tonight, over the river and three miles round through the sparse coverts of the plain to check on enemy movements. They called the plains Butcher’s Board, because it was flat and you were dead meat. Barely enough cover to hide a shrew, and if the greenskins spotted you, there was no chance of outpacing their Warp-cursed blood-red vehicles on the flat terrain. Two whole squads had disappeared in the last week, and Lillit was beginning to think the orks, dense as they were, had started keeping watch. Still, someone had to keep track of them, or the damn things would be crawling all over the base before anyone realised. Lillit checked her laspistol was still in its holster, and reached for a helmet. In the common room, someone had started playing a squeezebox, and the asthmatic wheeze of the battered old instrument echoed flatly round the stained walls of the strongpoint.

“Patrol’s off.”

Activity ground to a halt as everyone turned to look at the messenger. Even Daver and Mocks broke off their prayer to give him a startled glance. Patrols didn’t go off. Whether it was raining, howling a gale, or the base came under artillery bombardment, patrols were still on. That and the tastelessness of mess rations – and the benevolent gaze of the Emperor, of course – were the rare pillars of predictability in an increasingly erratic existence. Twelve pairs of eyes scrutinised Officer Doal carefully, weighing up the admittedly implausible chance of an elaborate prank against the preposterous notion of a cancelled patrol. Doal was a precise, methodical and reliable man, but still...

“What’s that, Doal?” asked Lillit at last.

“Patrol’s off,” repeated Doal. “No junkets for you mob. Lieutenant had a comm.”

That alone was unusual. Comm reception had been worse than useless for days.

“So what’s the goss, boss?” said Mocks, running her remaining fingers through scruffy turqoise hair. “Are they coming for un?”

Doal shrugged. “Himself didn’t div. Looked fair gobsmacked though. Just stammered at some plumb-boy on the sweet end and told I to drop the good news.”

“It’s never a rush, then,” said Honnister wisely. “He’d a yakked for all hands if the greens was coming.”

Lillit was inclined to agree. “It’s never... backup, is it?” she said, since nobody else was saying it. It seemed a ridiculous thing to suggest. There was no backup to come, after all. Phrentis VI wasn’t a hive world full of potential conscripts, it was a few billion acres of blackroot, barley and other fodder destined for the next few systems, with scattered farm hubs and a scanty military presence. It’d be weeks before any more troops could be mustered from the north to bolster their lines, and the rest of the local militia were in no better shape than they were. Roving bands of orks had them all pinned down in their bases, and irregular raids were slowly whittling down their numbers. For the last month, Ulverthwaite East base had been behind what passed for enemy lines, leaving them even more isolated and on permanent watch. The disbelieving snorts of at least half her squad suggested they shared her opinion.

The batman seemed disinclined to speculate. “Get back in the common, buckos. Lieutenant’ll most like be bound yon road. Spare your wind, eh?”

For once, a rare moment in interminable hard-pressed months, there was absolute silence in the common room as Lieutenant Jettan appeared in the doorway. No game-pieces clacked, no instruments wrought horrific violence on much-loved tunes, nobody argued or flirted half-heartedly. A hundred and nine militia troopers gave the man their full attention. In the general way, this miracle would have stunned the officer, and he would have been inclined to freeze on the spot, wondering wildly whether he had been afflicted with a sudden mutation by the vile powers of Chaos, or simply forgotten to dress. On this occasion, however, his mind was otherwise occupied. He walked as one in a daze, and wore a look not precisely of triumph, but as a man might who has stumbled at the edge of a precipice and felt a strong hand drawing him back. He looked around the room, feeling an almost paternal affection for the exhausted troopers under his command.

“Yon was the general on the buzzer,” he managed at last. “We’re to lock down for now. Yon said not to waste any lives on patrol.”

“But why, sir?” asked one of the more impatient sergeants. “What’s afoot?”

There was an odd, star-struck expression in the Lieutenant’s eyes as he looked round. “Someone heard us, lad. By the Emperor’s Mercy, someone heard us. There’s a ship just outside the system, heading off to another war, close enough to reach us tomorrow. They’re making a drop at noon – right here.”

A ripple of excitement spread through the tired soldiers. A few began to mumble prayers of thanksgiving – Daver dropped to his knees. Jettan ran a hand over his face, feeling six days of stubble, and silently promised himself he’d shave for the visitors.

“How many, sir?” asked Lillit, eagerly. “With a regiment or two, us could flush this whole region – set up a brave strongpoint-”

“Five.”

“Five regiments!” She grinned fiercely, already anticipating the vengeance they’d wreak on the damned orks. There was a faint cheer, and the beginnings of applause.

He shook his head, absently. “Five men.” The far-off quality hadn’t left his voice.

Silence returned, a little messily, as though it hadn’t expected to be needed again so soon. Jaws dropped, as they are wont to do. So did mugs, aquilas, and other small items clasped in suddenly-nerveless hands. The Lieutenant blinked, as though shaken from a trance by the noise, and stared straight at Lillit. When he spoke again, the awe in his voice would not have been out of place on the lips of the Pontifex in the High Cathedral.

“Astartes.”

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Monitors: skilling with attributes

As I mentioned recently, I'm a bit stuck, but I don't see where I can go without a functional (not final, just functional) skill and injury system, so I'm going to try roughing out the two main models. Last time I looked at stats and traits; this time I'm having another go with the attribute-based model.

Attribute-based model

Attribute Summary Uses
Agility Avoiding physical dangers and perform dextrous feats 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
Endurance Endure physical hardship and strenuous effort Hike long distances, swim lakes, tolerate thirst and hunger, withstand pain, remove objects from fire, resist disease
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
Will Concentration, independence, tenacity and strength of purpose Keep watch for long periods, ignore distractions, resist hypnosis, withstand fear

Changes

Particularly attentive readers may notice two additions to the table: Endurance and Will. Not especially original, but I couldn't think of more appropriate terms. These are basically holes I noticed in my existing system once combat comes into play - you need something to handle characters' resistance to incoming danger, as well as their own actions. While I'm not 100% sure about them, it seems to be either these two or bringing back stats. To be honest, I'm not hugely happy about Strength or Agility either, but those are at least active skills much of the time; the others really aren't, and that raises a red flag.

Injury, however, is going to require a whole subsystem. There's just no realistic way to use erosive damage with this many attributes.

Injury systems

A few main models present themselves:

    HP - a tried and tested system that I'd rather avoid. Too chippy-away, just doesn't feel quite right.
  • Hit locations - too granular for Monitors, I think?
  • Erosive damage - as I mentioned, there's too many skills to apply it here
  • Selective erosive damage - possible
  • Wounding - possible

Selective erosive damage

Basically, this resolves around marking a few skills where erosive damage applies. The likely ones are Agility, Endurance, Perception, Strength and Will. While I love the idea of taking Bureaucracy damage, I just don't see it... It'd probably work more or less okay (with some issues that I'll discuss in future) but I'm not sold on it.

Wounding

This system would have simple injury charts that track your current status, ranging from (say) Pinned to Winged to Battered to Unconscious. In theory, this could be adapted for soft attacks by having three or four trackers per character, adding more complication - but I'll look at injury models in more detail later.


Overall thoughts

While I do have a great fondness for this model, for some reason I don't particularly like the defence-type attributes. However, I think it could be got to work with completely detached injury systems that don't rely on attributes, and this is something I'll be considering. It may be that, eventually, I'll end up with a system based on discrete subsystems rather than the more-or-less-coherent one I was initially aiming for.

Friday, 12 July 2013

Monitors: combat keystones

Combat

This will only be a quick glance at combat, as without any mechanics... you get the idea.

Basically, I'm looking for a fairly adventurous, risk-friendly and fun approach to combat. It should be part of a game, rather than being the object of the game.

It strikes me that one of the major concerns, then, is that combat needs to be both simple and quick. I've experienced D&D 4E's evening-long combats between half-a-dozen on each side; that's really not what we're after.

To be quick, I want to limit both the die rolls and the choices involved. While there's also differences in power, one of the main drag factors on 4E combat is the tactical choices involved: people agonise over placement, dither over power selection, and sometimes discuss ability synergies for potentially several minutes on every single turn. In contrast, it's shockingly noticeable that in Arthur's AD&D game, a turn typically lasts ten seconds - even though we're still using a gridded map. Most importantly, this doesn't make it any less fun, and generally maintains the flow of play much better.

I don't mean that I want to constrain choice - what I want to avoid is choice paralysis, where you're scanning five or ten official options to work out the optimal once, rather than choosing "I attack" or coming up with something entirely original.

Another possibility for speed and fun is to crib the 4E idea of minions - very weak enemies who go down quickly. This perfectly fits the mood I'm going for, and speeds up combat enormously. It also creates a nice contrast between them and the keystone enemies that are central to the story, or have particularly fun and evocative abilities. Mathematically there isn't necessarily much difference between five battlebots with 10hp and fifty with 1hp and even worse marksmanship - but it's probably more fun blasting your way through the latter than chipping bits off the former, most of the time. That being said, I will be scouting for existing analysis of 4E combat before going too far with this idea, and it may not work out as well as I hope.

Second, risk should be small (as discussed previously). The injury system handles how defeated you are, not crippling injuries. You'll be able to escape later if the enemies capture you. Interesting plans should not be 'realistically' risky or fallible, because then people won't use them.

I'm thinking that whatever injury system I use should allow fairly rapid recovery, so that penalties from combat don't end up weighing on characters for weeks - especially as I don't plan to have healing magic or even insta-heal tech.

Monday, 8 July 2013

Monitors: skilling with stats and traits

So as I mentioned last time, I'm a bit stuck, but I don't see where I can go without a functional (not final, just functional) skill and injury system, so I'm going to try roughing out the two main models. This time

Stats and Traits

Characters each have five stats:

  • Learning: how much information the character has memorised and can apply.
  • Wits: how good the character is at analysing, resolving and reacting to situations.
  • Health: how physically strong, fit and healthy the character is.
  • Finesse: how good the character is at deft, fine movements, awareness of their movements and hand-eye coordination.
  • Perception: how keen the character's senses are and how well they attend to them.

Stats are on a numeric scale that tends to be in the 1-5 range for civilians, in the 5-15 range for Monitors and potentially anywhere for bizarre alien beasties. Hostile NPCs will have stats appropriate to their nature: low for petty criminals, moderate for guards and mercenaries, high for henchmen and major foes. Note that even civilians may have high specific stats, such as Learning 15 for an academic. Success is measured with a 1d20 roll-under mechanic; both auto-pass and auto-fail apply but here are no critical rolls.

Traits typically grant a bonus on skill rolls whever they would apply, and trait synergy is permitted. There will be a number of trait categories for players to pick from. I need to be reasonably careful about determining the scope of a trait, and so will probably need a description for each one explaining broadly what it covers. For example, "Military background" would help when dealing with the military, assessing an army's tactics, impersonating a general or fighting alongside regular troops, but shouldn't boost combat abilities as well - all Monitors are trained in combat, after all.

Lineage traits

These are derived from the character's species. They include such things as Chameleonic, Adhesive Grip, Keen Eyesight and Aquatic. However, I don't know that all lineage abilities can be covered nicely under this system so I'll need to think about that one - I don't really see Extensible Tongue as something a trait can model, for example!

Homeworld traits

These are based on the kind of world the character grew up on. They include such things as Low-Grav, Ultratech, Desert World, and the like. Maybe they should be something separate from traits? Not sure yet.

Background traits

These are derived from upbringing, education and working life. They include such things as Rich, Military, Law Enforcement, Explorer, Scholar and so on.

Personal traits

These are about character, interests and other things that don't quite fit elsewhere: things like Agreeable, Obsessive, Historian, Theorist, Field Mechanic, Observant, Graceful, Intimidating or Methodical.

Other stuff

Characters will also need a few oddball attributes: physical size, movement speed, languages spoken and so on.

Injury

In this system, injury is modelled through stat damage (as discussed previously). Different attacks will target different stats, sometimes more than one. This means that a creature's abilities deteriorate when it's injured, affected by drugs or exhausted, without needing a separate mechanism to model these things.

Creatures can be reduced to helplessness by eroding their Wits or Health. At zero Wits, they are completely befuddled or catatonic, unable to process events or respond usefully. At zero Health, they are utterly exhausted, unconscious or overwhelmed with pain. Eroding Learning to zero means the creature cannot recall information, and is largely reliant on instinct and muscle memory - they may be able to defend themselves, play the piano or field-strip a rifle, but can't hack a computer or make complex tactical analyses, and they won't generally be able to remember their objectives, or reliably identify people. Eroding Finesse to zero means the creature cannot control their movements with any degree of accuracy, but stumbles and flails ineffectually - travel is slow, combat is hopeless. Eroding Perception to zero leaves the creature without useful primary senses (sight, hearing, scent, taste and touch), though they may still be able to feel pain and vaguely sense movement or pressure.

Perception is a little tricky because the various senses are so distinct, but it's either this handwave, or having as many stats for senses as for everything else put together. Not impossible, but I'd rather not start off that way.

Chargen

Let's say a Monitor PC has 5 points in each stat by default, granting them a 25% shot at succeeding on any average task. They also have 20 points to distribute as they choose; this allows them to bump up each to 9 (45% chance), or have a couple on 15 (75% chance). Note that this is for average tasks, and ignores any trait or equipment modifiers.

They also gain two traits each from Homeworld, Background and Personal. For now, let's say a trait will grant a bonus to applicable rolls. Bonuses and penalties are discussed briefly elsewhere but here's a summary: there are no static modifiers in the game, just cumulative bonuses and penalties which shift the difficulty rank of a task from Average. The final difficulty rank determines the overall modifier.

Total Difficulty Skill Modifier
4+ bonuses Elementary +15
3 bonuses Easy +10
2 bonuses Simple +5
1 bonus Straightforward +2
- Average -
1 penalty Tricky -2
2 penalties Challenging -5
3 penalties Formidable -10
4+ penalties Herculean -15

You will note that a highly-skilled character still has about a 25% chance of succeeding at a Formidable task, and anyone has at least a 75% chance of succeeding at an Elementary task. Because auto-success applies, a Monitor will succeed automatically on Elementary tasks, since they have 5 in their stats.

Combat

A character has two actions per round. They can use these to move, attack, interact with the environment, talk extensively, use spells and so on. They can also do trivial things without spending an action.

Attacks are resolved like any other activity, rolling an appropriate stat (typically Finesse or Health, depending on the attack) with any applicable traits. Equipment and circumstances may also modify the roll.

I'd rather avoid having active defences, as it just increases the number of rolls - but it does make some sense for (say) very agile targets to be a harder target than sluggish ones. What I may do is allow evasion as an action, so there'll be fewer rolls most of the time but it remains an option. This might be a case of spending an action to evade during your own turn, then rolling Finesse when attacked, with a success increasing the difficulty of the attack roll. This gives a benefit for high Finesse, without letting it override good marksmanship.

Alternatively, I could allow spending an action to evade firearms, but permit it freely against anticipated melee attacks. This way you're actively ducking and covering against laser fire, while in melee parries and dodges are part of the flow of combat. It also helps to keep melee combat as viable option.

Problem: a glaring issue with this scheme is that a single stat controls combat skill. Of course, the same is true in, say, Mind Body Spirit systems. As yet, not sure how much of a problem this actually is, but it needs bearing in mind.

An attack will cause stat damage depending on the weapon. Defences (armour, magic shielding and so on) will subtract from damage but never reduce it below 1.

This should help avoid the armour subtraction issue. An alternative would be to allow reduction to zero, but then roll a die to see if a point of damage gets through anyway - giving a way to model very ineffective attacks without rendering them entirely useless.

Sample Traits

Traits are supposed to be played fairly loosely, and I'm not attempting to strictly describe or limit their effects. The descriptions below give a sample of the trait's intention. The majority of traits will be beneficial most of the time, but occasionally inconvenient. In some situations, they may not act quite as described: for example, on a low-grav world there may be a penalty to precision jumping because it's hard to aim yourself correctly, but a character with the Low-Gravver trait can ignore this penalty.

Trait Description Effect Category
Carrier's Constraint You can't breathe and run at the same time, because of your anatomy. You suffer a penalty on rolls to continue prolonged running or swimming. Lineage
Chamaeleonic You can shift your skin colour to blend in or stand out. Bonus to applicable rolls, such as avoiding detection or intimidation. Lineage
Toe Pads Your adhesive digits help you cling on to surfaces. Bonus to rolls concerning climbing and gripping, unless materials are unsuitable. Characters with toe pads often wear fingerless gloves and toeless shoes, but survival gear does not allow this. Lineage
Low-Gravver You grew up on a world with very low gravity. Bonus to rolls concerning low-gravity activity. Homeworld
Toxic Homeworld You grew up on a world with dangerous atmospheres, reliant on life-support. Bonus to rolls concerning survival gear or toxin treatment. Homeworld
Ultratech Upbringing You grew up on a world with a massive technological bias, leaving you unusually familiar with cutting-edge technology. Bonus to rolls concerning high technology. Homeworld
Desert Worlder You grew up on a very dry world, and know how to manage water shortages. Bonus on rolls concerning desert survival, desert ecology, water conservation, desert medicine and enduring thirst. Homeworld
Water Worlder You grew up on a world of boundless oceans and titanic rivers. Bonus on rolls concerning aquatic navigation, sealife, swimming, sailing and associated medicine. Homeworld
Spaceer You grew up on spaceships and starports, rarely touching solid ground. Bonus on rolls concerning spaceship culture, spaceport engineering and layout, space survival. Homeworld
Hiveworlder You grew up on a world filled to the bursting with cities and people. Bonus on rolls concerning urban navigation, urban planning, urban society or blending into crowds. Homeworld
Aristocratic You grew up as a privileged member of a world's elite, which often serves you well but occasionally complicates matters. Bonus to rolls concerning high society, or appropriate social interactions. Penalty to appropriate social interactions unless concealed. Background
Military You served time in the uniformed services, learning protocols, practices and culture. Bonus to rolls concerning military practice, knowledge or behaviour. Background
Explorer You've spent time surveying unknown lands and surviving in strange places. Bonus on rolls concerning outdoor survival, surveying, navigation or first contact. Background
Theorist You excel at factual learning and theorising. Bonus to rolls on theoretical matters. Personal
Graceful You move smoothly and elegantly, and have excellent poise. Bonus to rolls on balance, performing arts and appropriate social interactions. Personal
Occult Enthusiast You have a strong interest in magic and the supernatural, and have studied them intently. Bonus on rolls concerning spells, runes, magical artefacts and the supernatural. Does not apply to spellcasting. Personal
Sharp Nose Your sense of smell is unusually good. Bonus to rolls concerning scents and tastes; penalty against some chemical effects. Personal
Field Mechanic You can make quick, functional repairs in extremis, however ugly they may look. Bonus to patch up or cannibalize tech, but repairs are obvious if this trait is applied. Personal
Historian You're an expert in past events and historical theories. Bonus on rolls concerning history. Personal
Observant You have sharp eyes and a good memory for detail. Bonus on rolls concerning vision. Personal
Methodical You work patiently through possibilities, testing and analysing systematically. Bonus on appropriate rolls where time is available. Personal
Intimidating Your physique, manner or speech is imposing. Your presence reassures allies, rattles enemies and unsettles strangers. Bonus on appropriate social rolls (intimidate, reassure allies); penalty on appropriate social rolls (befriend, calm strangers). Personal
Agreeable You have a naturally pleasing manner, fitting in well and making friends easily. Bonus on appropriate social rolls. Personal

Another possibility that occurs to me is to have a set of background traits that all Monitors receive. These would give them (for example) combat skills over and above what they receive from their stats, making them more effective than another creature that has the same Health stat but no military training. So for example, they might have a Marksman trait that gives them a bonus to firearms use, effectively giving them a starting score of 7 before any further training is taken into account.

On the plus side, this would be a neat way to model the difference between physical ability and actual training. On the downside, it complicates things by adding another layer of modifiers that affects all Monitors, all the time, which players have to remember. On top of that, it makes it messier to define specific characters as even better shots, because then you're getting (say) Marksman plus Crack Shot - both of which apply whenever you're firing a weapon.

I suppose an alternative is actually to impose a penalty for lack of training, rather than the reverse, though at that point civilians would be completely ineffectual. Is that a problem? Perhaps not.


That's all I've got for now. Downsides that I'm seeing include the need to define traits, and the fact that some naturally have positives and negatives while others are basically positive. Some traits are harder to pin down than I realised - Methodical is still dodgy, and I didn't think of a way to handle Obsessive, which may simply mean it's not appropriate for a mechanical trait.

There's also the pondering of how to handle Monitor training.

Mechanically, I'm still wondering how to handle dodging in combat, and whether Health should influence the damage inflicted by a weapon.