Friday, 29 November 2013

Deathwatch: The Price of Hubris, part 11

Contains spoilers for, funnily enough, The Price of Hubris from The Emperor Protects.

As always, be aware that the podcast is not really family-friendly, and features a fair amount of background noise, if that sort of thing bothers you.

The Episode

Arthur has written a fair bit about the buildup to the final battle, especially the GMing and mechanical side. I found it was a fairly decent go of building up tension as you skulk murderously around the infested village, throwing enough combat at you to keep the tone going, without just becoming a combat slog. We were also able to control things to a reasonable extent; things like being able to blast open the barn and gun down the cultists as they charged gave the feeling of actually being tactically-aware soldiers who are competent at their job, not just combat monsters.

The encounter with the first couple of actual genestealers was very nasty, and I think there was maybe a bit of miscommunication there. As I've mentioned elsewhere, I didn't realise that the genestealers would be on us next turn, or I might have reconsidered putting myself right in front of them. It does take a while to get used to the lethality of Deathwatch, though, and this was the first occasion that really brought that home - the Diablodon fight was just sort of odd, while the horde battles elsewhere were a cakewalk, and this was (I'm pretty sure) the first time we'd actually taken damage. This was a handy reminder, although I was to make the same mistake again in a later adventure. The other thing is, of course, that canonically genestealers are utterly terrifying and we perhaps weren't yet in the frame of mind to show the proper respect for their ability to kill a veteran Space Marine in a single round.

While in theory we could have been using detailed maps to plan this (and in some circumstances I'd have been up for a very tactical fight), we ended up with a much more free-flowing narrative approach using only a quick sketch map towards the very end, which worked well. Another thing I appreciate about Deathwatch is that being a Space Marine actually helps you feel justified in bringing out game mechanics: it's completely believable that the Astartes assign horde magnitude ratings, and have the HUD technology to calculate that stuff, judge distances and time-to-combat accurately, and match enemies to official threat calculation charts. This sort of thing can just cut through awkwardness and make things easier, because while in theory it's nice to stick entirely to beautiful descriptions, in practice it's sometimes hard to make narration give players an accurate impression of situations that their characters should be able to interpret accurately, such as how close or threatening an enemy is.

Nearly done now!

Link to Episode 11.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Monitors: enumerating weapon balance

So I'm now trying to move on to creating a few representative weapons (which may well end up being 'all the weapons' - I'm not looking for an in-depth shopping experience from Monitors). In trying to work out the relative balance of weapon types, what I've ended up doing is drafting a quick spreadsheet. The idea is that weapons have (as discussed previously) a number of properties (range, damage, type of effect, bulk and so on) which present advantages and drawbacks. In theory, therefore, it should be possible to assign values to the benefit or cost to each instance of a property, and therefore guess at the relative value of a weapon as a whole.

By "instance of a property", I'm not deliberately being smug, I just can't think of a better term at 11.43pm after being on the go constantly since 7am. You will notice that this does not stop me from writing unnecessary blogposts...

A property here is something like Range, Bulk or Blast. An instance of a property is one of the possible values - but using the word value here would be confusing! So instances for Range include Short and Long, instances for Bulk include Hand and Heavy, and instances for Blast are Blast and -.

Feel free to point out more appropriate terminology. I'm sure there's a word for it in chemistry.

Value is relative to some arbitrary mean, determined subjectively by looking at the instances and picking one.

For interest and entertainment, I decide (after trying a few weapons I've used in examples already) to stat out every possible weapon in the system. Turns out this is serious business. There are at least 18000 possible values (gotta hate those multipliers) and that doesn't include at least one facet - gas weapons. Of course, some values will be nonsensical. I can't imagine Blast Melée weapons would make it out of testing, for one, and some weapon/visor values will make no sense. However, there are currently 790 possible weapons with a zero overall cost. This is some serious business...

Knocking things down (with some effort) to only those combinations that make any damn sense, I'm left with 4882 possible combinations. Now we no longer have explosive weapons designed for grappling, gas grenades with no blast effeect, photon weapons that target Mask or other anomalies. Most of these vary only in armour penetration, which has 9 possible values (from 0 to 16 in steps of 2). Only 233 are now zero-rated, and it looks like they do include some of every instance.

Unsurprisingly, the most expensive possible weapons are handheld weapons with Pen 16 and Strength 3 that target non-Armour defences. The cheapest are heavy close combat weapons with Strength 1 and no Pen that target Armour. What I'm actually mostly interested in are the zeros, because these should (allowing for the arbitrariness of my assigned values) be of roughly equal value on the whole when no special circumstances are taken into account.

Grenades, it turns out, are complicating matters. I gave them a high negative because they're single-use items. But nobody's going to take grenades as an alternative to a blaster rifle. They're a supplementary weapon. This spreadsheet is (very roughly) okay for evaluating the worth of weapons if you're gearing up for a mission and picking between them, but it doesn't really make sense to treat grenades that way when deciding how good to make them compared to other weapons. The end result is some very powerful grenades. I will tweak this value.

Post-tweaking (with a much lower grenade price of -2 rather than -5) grenades look a bit more normal. I change things around logically so that, rather than being a separate Type, Grenade is an emergent property of being both Thrown and Blast; anything else should be reusable in theory, at least in the next fight. This allows for both Hand (traditional grenade) and Heavy (two-handed) explosive weapons. It also allows for other kinds of thrown weapons; anything from daggers (Thrown Hand) to rocks (Thrown Heavy). I got rid of all Thrown Assault weapons (Assault being the 1-or-2-hand category until I have a better name) since I can't really think of anything it'd apply to. Generally, either it's small and throwable (Hand) or heavy enough you need two hands to heave it. I can't think of a single item that you'd be able to throw one-handed but be more effective with both hands, the physics just seems off.

Also as a result of this exercise, I decide to rejig the way soft attacks work. Rather than each having an assigned die size, I'll make them work more similarly to hard attacks, which have only a Strength value. Both types will inflict a number of Armour Saves equal to Strength to determine how effective they are against a target. However, for soft attacks, cumulative successes will increase die size, making the more powerful weapons both more likely to take effect and likely to last for longer. It also means that it'll be harder for a single good save to completely protect a target from what should be a powerful weapon, causing less swinginess.


Hmm. I'm suggesting using a system where more powerful weapons can roll more dice, and more penetrative weapons can punch through armour. But is there actually a meaningful trade-off between these two, in this system, or are these going to be different niches rather than rivals? It seems, intuitively, that extra dice are a very strong bonus because even with all other things being equal, they offer at least the possibility of taking down high-Wound enemies rapidly. Time for some maths.

Much calculating later... If I've got my statistics right, then it's not until you're hitting defences of 10 or higher than there is any numerical reason to take Penetration equal to that defence rather than more dice. On low Pen values (e.g. 4) the slight advantage of negating small Armour values (+0.2 probability) is hugely outweighed by the high likelihood of the target failing an armour save, which makes the second die a very strong bet (+0.8). There are some weird blips in the data because of the intersection of the two rules, so that Pen 10-19 grants a small advantage against Armour values in the exact same range, but at higher Armour values extra dice regain their benefit.

In short, the range of situations where it's worth taking Pen rather than Strength (extra dice) is extremely limited. As high Armour values are likely to be rare, it's a non-choice. Moreover, Strength has the secondary benefit that it can inflict more than one Wound in a single hit, which a single die with high Pen physically can't. So these are not going to be balancing factors, certainly not directly. The drawback of the unmodified Armour system I chose is that the value of high Penetration scales severely with enemy defences, whereas in a modifier system it would be a bit more static.

Arguably, at this point I should be considering whether I'm happy with the combat system, but frankly I don't want to open that can of worms again.

The straightforward response here is that I need to reevaluate the nominal price I'm putting on both Pen and Strength. Pen is currently massively overpriced, while Strength is rather undervalued. To begin with, I arbitrarily allocated a point of cost for every 2 Pen, and only a point for each dice. As the calculation above shows, this is madness.

Let's step back a bit and look at how I'm weighting the various properties.

Valuing properties


I decided that, for the most part, Range instances are a wash. Weapons each have their niche and work badly outside it, be it long or short range; a rifle lets you take on distant enemies, but a pistol is better in a room-to-room shootout. Moreover, RPGs tend towards quite short-ranged encounters, within either a room or a smallish area, which gives little scope for long-ranged weapons to really benefit, while the shorter-ranged weapons will be favoured. I made an exception for melée weapons, because not being able to work at range is a serious issue. These currently come in two categories, Close (your classic duelling range) and Grapple (wrestling, clawing, and general wrangling), though whether I'll keep that distinction I don't know. Under the current system, a pistol is usable with difficulty at Close range and with very great difficulty in a brawl, while you're basically never going to successfully fire a rifle in a wrestling match.


Weapons with a blast effect sound great, but in practice they're likely to be of limited use. Enemies aren't always going to form up in handy groups, and against single enemies they're of no benefit. There are also those situations where you or an ally would be caught in the blast, or something vital would be damaged. In contrast, a more powerful or accurate weapon is always going to help. So a blast is a plus, but only a smallish one, I think.


The classes basically break down into Wounding and soft weaponry. I don't think there's likely to be a massive advantage to one or the other. Soft weapons aren't (currently) able to defeat an enemy entirely, but they will inflict immediate and significant effects on the target, whereas Wounding takes some time to be effective against tough opponents. Either weapon will be able to take down minor NPCs in a single hit. Of the other types, Shock weaponry will be less effective against armour, but with special bonuses against robots, and gaining a Blast effect if fired into water. Chemical effects are the only one to currently incur a cost reduction, because they'll be ineffective against many targets - I'm probably going to change this later to have Gas and Toxin subtypes and apply the reductions to those instead, allowing chemicals like acid to function normally, especially for handling acid-spewing alien gribblies.


Short and sweet, all defences other than Armour cost slightly more to target, because they're less likely to exist. Only a subset of enemies will deliberately wear protective eyegear, let alone gas masks. However, some creatures (including robots, aliens, elementals and so on) may have innate protection against such attacks, while things like spacesuits and motorbike helmets will offer some protection. So a small increase in cost for now.

After some playing around, I manage to get an array of weapons that roughly fit my conceptions and are roughly balanced. Obviously this kind of arbitrary balancing exercise is no substitute for playtesting. I'm quite chary of some of the numbers, such as Blast being worth more than Strength - that's actually fairly unlikely and I should probably adjust it at some point.

Broadly speaking, the idea is that only zero-cost weapons are commonly used (though I've ticked a couple of lower-cost ones as backups, like knives, while a handful of higher-cost ones may be available in particular circs). This is a bit of a tricky concept because I'm used to the idea that you sometimes buy more "expensive" weapons and they're just more difficult to get, but the thing is that my pricing system is intended to incorporate indirect value as well as direct value. I'm trying to sound out what will make sense to use in play, not just what will be mechanically balanced. So allowing some weapons that are explicitly advantageous when damage, accuracy, effectiveness, social costs and convenience are taken into account would undermine the whole exercise.

Those flagged as Alien are items I don't intend for Monitors to use, but where I wanted to dig up a balanced example or two for what kind of weapons NPCs and enemies might have. Those marked as Improvised are items that aren't Monitor-approved, but that characters might end up using in emergencies. Naturally, enemies and NPCs may end up using weapons that vary on the effectiveness scale from those intended for PC use, and measures may be needed to keep these from being used by PCs - though I'm sort of hoping that the tone will encourage people to stick to signature weapons.

Oh, and for reference, here's the costs I'm using:

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Walking the Dead

So, I had this idea entirely out of the blue for a game where you're all necromancers.

Hey, get back here!

As those familiar with my disposition will guess, this would not be a deeply serious game exploring the darkness and depravity that lurks within the human soul, or experiencing what it might mean to speak with the dead, or how being a shunned and hated practictioner of sinister arts might turn society against you and how you might react. It'd just be a fairly standard heroic fantasy game. Where you're all necromancers. In fact, I'm quite tempted to say it should be an exaggeratedly cheerful game (something a bit twee) where the people who get called on to solve problems are the "friendly" neighbourhood necromancers. The fact that you solve them with dominated skeletons, horrific apparitions and eldritch bolts of necrotic energy is just by the way. Necromancers ain't necessarily bad people. Cat stuck up a tree? Summon a flock of crows to fetch it. Or blight the tree so it decays and brings the cat crashing down. Or evoke a sense of blasphemous dread that brings it yowling down in terror. Or engulf it with your steely will and force it to slink down to bow before you. Then Mrs Goggins will give you some cake and a cup of tea for being so kind.

So, what system would let you run a game like this?

Given the specialised focus, what you want is to be able to articulate clearly how your necromancer is different from the next one. This might come down to different spell selections, different approaches to problems, or different characters. A pale, gothic necromancer in black lace is different from a cackling, withered necromancer in tattered robes.

I really don't think something like D&D would work for it, because the class framework pushes you towards certain roles. A necromancer would struggle to have hit points, and I don't think there are enough thematic options to make you anything other than a wizard without delving heavily into splatbooks. The combat focus of the game would cause problems for fragile casters with poor combat skills and a limited spell pool. Also, I don't think the health model really fits my concept here, somehow.

Something vaguely BRP-like might work, if you just came up with appropriate skill lists. A set of necromantic talents where everyone assigned points, and use those (rather than spell lists) to determine your effectiveness.

Weirdly, I'm somehow tempted to try it with FATE despite my rather meh experience with FAE. A system where (it seems) you assume you can do stuff and highlight a few key distinguishing features seems like it might well fit.

And of course I could put my money where my opinion is and hack together a Numenera adaptation, but I suspect it would involve quite a lot of hacking since I'd basically be devising new Nouns, Adjectives and Verbs.

So just a very quick post there to get the idea down while I still remember it. Comments and recommendations very welcome, I'm not particularly system-aware.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Playing with Fate Accelerated Edition chargen

So recently Arthur suggested that I give Fate Accelerated Edition a look.

First impressions

With only a few minutes of prep, you could be exploring the universe with your favorite sci-fi characters, fi ghting the forces of evil with a party of talking chimps, or setting up shop as a modern day sorceress specializing in love potions. Maybe you’re looking for the ideal pickup roleplaying game.

I initially read this, in the context of the previous sentence, as "Maybe you're looking for the ideal lockpicking game", which sounded awesome.

...Or you’re a first-time gamer looking to try something new without investing hours of your time. Regardless, Fate Accelerated Edition will bring something special to your table.

Fate Accelerated, or FAE, is a condensed version of the popular Fate Core roleplaying game that brings all the flexibility and power of Fate in a shorter format. Inside, you’ll find a method for making fast, fun characters and simple systems to support whatever story you can dream up on the fly. With FAE, you can be playing in minutes.

Sold! I like the sound of all this stuff.

It helps a lot, too, that FAE is available as pay-what-you-want (including nothing) from Evil Hat, and Evil Hat are sensible enough to offer a plain old zip link. That's actually very important. It meant that rather than setting up an Evil Hat account to download a file they were offering me for as little as £0.00, I could just grab the file straight away. If I did have to set up an account, it's entirely possible I wouldn't have bothered. I've reached a point in my life where I'm increasingly ticked off by the need to create yet another account for yet another piddly little website just to do some tiny thing, and since I really am only playing around with this right now I see no need to pay for it. Of course, if I do experience life-changing delight and decide to stay using this, I'll buy a copy.

"No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior express permission of the publisher.

That said, if you’re doing it for personal use, knock yourself out. That’s not only allowed, we encourage you to do it.

For those working at a copy shop and not at all sure if this means the person standing at your counter can make copies of this thing, they can. This is “express permission.” Carry on.

This is a game where people make up stories about wonderful, terrible, impossible, glorious things. All the characters and events portrayed in this work are fictional. Any resemblance to real people, magical martial artists, schoolgirl witches, pulp scientists, or piratical cats is purely coincidental, but kinda hilarious."

The impression, it keeps getting better.

What are we doing?

The contents page comes next. I have to notice that this is more substantial than I expected. It's 44 pages. My enthusiasm is somewhat dampened, as I suspect it'll take more than "minutes" to read that much, let alone build characters with it. But let's give them the benefit of the doubt.

Next, it quickly and with fair enthusiasm lays out what you're doing and what you need. There's what I read as a non-condescending description of what roleplaying is, with sensible referencing to TV to get their message across. Player and GM roles are introduced, with marginal cross-referencing to more substantial information. There's straightforward guidance on making characters in general, and playing cooperatively.

"That’s how you tell great stories together — by not being afraid for your character to make mistakes, and by making choices that make the story more interesting for everyone at the table — not just you."

Sound advice.

"Make sure your character has a reason to interact and cooperate with the characters the other players are making."

Making a character

I begin trying to create a character. I'm hampered by a crippling inability to come up with a setting and stare into space for several minutes.

Okay, okay. A randomiser is needed. Good thing I already wrote one, eh? Actually it's a bit overpowered for what I'm doing here and misses off a couple of things... let me just fettle a bit *tinkers*.


Right. This is a FEEL-GOOD ADVENTURE GAME (which I think is the idea anyway, right?) of ESPIONAGE with GOTHIC aesthetics. Characters use SMALL AMOUNTS of SINISTER MAGIC to combat their adversaries.

Sounds good to me.

I'm supposed to start by picking a high concept.

This is a single phrase or sentence that neatly sums up your character, saying who you are, what you do, what your “deal” is.

Actually I'm finding this surprisingly difficult. They don't give any guidance on what a high concept actually means; they just have some words. They also don't tie them into the setting examples given earlier, which I would have recommended. How does the Chief Field Agent of IGEMA differ from the other characters? Are they all IGEMA members, all field agents, or a disparate band thrown together by chance? In what way is this supposed to define my character - is it an RP guide, a shorthand for other players, or is it going to have mechanical ramifications.

I also can't help noticing that they say "This is a single phrase or sentence that neatly sums up your character, saying who you are, what you do, what your “deal” is." but provide three examples that don't really do that:

  • Feline Captain of Cirrus Skimmer
  • Suncaller of the Andral Desert
  • Chief Field Agent of IGEMA

Is Suncaller a name, a title or a job description? What does a Feline Captain do (or is Captain of Cirrus a title, like Captain of Horse? I can't even parse this one)? In fairness, if I knew what IGEMA was that last one would make a decent amount of sense. But we aren't talking "Conan the Barbarian" here.

My initial thought is "secretary to Lord Adolphus de Lacey", picturing His Lordship as a sort of quest-giver and offstage NPC. But the description doesn't particularly point to any adventurous tendencies. Then again, neither do theirs. Oh, let's just go with it.

Decide on the thing that always gets you into trouble

I'm going with good old insatiable curiosity. A nice safe bland option given I don't have a full setting or a group to riff off here. Good old, um, X (names come later) doesn't like unanswered questions, holes in the record or things out of place. It's an occupational hazard.

I need another aspect too. What makes for an interesting character here? I'm still a bit puzzled by what Aspects are for, which isn't helping. What am I trying to do with them? I give up and follow the trail to another page, which explains a bit better. After a bit of thought, I shrug and go for Formidable Illusionist. Being able to confuse and mislead other people seems useful as a secretary as well as an agent of the Crown, and it fits well with a gothic setting in my view. We're not talking pretty pictures here, but shadowy flocks of crows, subtle shifts in facial expression, seeming taller and more sinister, the noise of approaching rescuers, or simply an illusory locked door in a doorway.

My character is Felix Kimberley, an average-looking clerkly type with glasses, neat hair, a drab but respectable suit, and slightly fancy taste in tiepins.

His approaches are Careful (+3), Clever (+2), Sneaky (+2), Quick (+1), Flashy (+1) and Forceful (+0). These determine how good I am at taking various tactics to achieve things. Felix is a cerebral, methodical sort who doesn't like being in the spotlight or hurrying.

By default, FAE suggests choosing one stunt to start with. however, if this is your first time playing a Fate game, you might find it easier to pick your first stunt after you’ve had a chance to play a bit, to give you an idea of what a good stunt might be.

Sadly, I'm not likely to be using Felix in reality, so better pick a stunt. This, once again, calls for some delving into the rulebook. You make up your own stunts based on a couple of simple templates. I quickly discover that to make sense of them I really need to read the actual rules a bit, because I don't understand what the mechanics would do.

Because I [describe some way that you are exceptional, have a cool bit of gear, or are otherwise awesome], I get a +2 when I [pick one: Carefully, Cleverly, Flashily, Forcefully, Quickly, Sneakily] [pick one: attack defend, create advantages, overcome] when [describe a circumstance].

There are several examples, but once again they are fresh and not connected to the examples given earlier. This means there's no continuity of concept to give a sense of why you have something. It makes sense to me that a stunt would tie into an aspect, but it doesn't (after some rereading) seem like that's where the "way you are exceptional" bit comes from. Okay, let’s think. Felix gets sent to take care of things for His Lordship, and given His Lordship’s line of work, that’s a pretty broad portfolio. The secretary needs to be someone who can cope with all kinds of situations, and if we’re spies, needs to do it by drawing minimal attention to himself.

I’m also not really sure what kinds of circumstances exist. How do you express “doesn’t draw much attention” in this template? I’m not sure I can. I need something else. Unflappable? Suitable, but I don’t understand how I’d express that in this template either – what’s the Circumstance, and how does it tie into the Approaches? It’s probably some kind of Overcoming? How does this even work? The only ones I understand are Attack and Defend, and I’m not entirely sure I understand them.

Ah, sod it. I’ll pick something that works based on their examples and have done with it.

Because I am a Mediator, I get a +2 when I Carefully overcome obstacles when in conversation with someone.


All told, I think (ignoring writeup time) I've spent somewhere from 20-30 minutes on this, much of it thinking and reading. It compares favourably with crunchier games, but then it has simple mechanics. It's about on the same timescale as Call of Cthulhu, which is another largely simple game with some slightly fiddly chargen aspects and free choices.

The process is simple, but getting my head round what ideas like "aspect" actually mean really wasn't that simple for me. In some ways it actively clashes with my interpretations; for example, the High Concept description to me sounds like the answer should be "two-fisted botanist with a heart of gold" or "cheerful fishman pilot-for-hire", whereas they offer a selection of job titles that provide surprisingly little information without supporting context.

I do think there’s a sizeable flaw with this quick start ruleset in its failure to carry through examples from start to finish. I’m sure that it would have been much easier to get my head around character generation if they had, y’know, actually generated a character: start with a High Concept, add Aspects and Stunts, and carry them through to a finished playable character who could be used in rule examples. This is something that Call of Cthulhu does reasonably well (though admittedly not in the quick start rules).

The template for Stunts felt awkwardly mechanical to me – it actually felt more like you design a power and then skin it, rather than coming up with a concept and then expressing it in their terms. This is partly because I’m not familiar enough with the system to translate into it, of course.

Another mild drawback is that it seems relatively difficult to create a character on the fly when you don’t already know the ruleset, because so much of it is freeform. Obviously within a specific campaign setting this will be slightly less of an issue, but knowing what are likely to be sensible aspects and stunts are tricky before you have a solid idea of both how the game plays and how the rules work. In this case having an experienced player or GM to guide you seems like a definite boon. I prefer chargen to be largely independent, so that you can create a character without any significant knowledge of the rules (they’re unlikely to be optimal, but I want it to be possible). Even games as complex as D&D allow this because you’re picking from pre-set options or allocating points to transparent traits.

I’m quite torn here. I’d be semi-interested in playing it just to see how it actually works, because I don’t really get it (and in fairness, I've made no attempt to read any rules that aren't directly relevant to chargen). However, what I’ve seen here has been a bit offputting. I can’t imagine putting this in front of inexperienced players and expecting great enthusiasm. The fact that the rules are 44 pages long is a significant factor here. Maybe I’m just being pessimistic? It might be easier with a group bouncing ideas off each other. Maybe I was just overthinking things. I dunno, really.

Final word

The promise:

Inside, you’ll find a method for making fast, fun characters and simple systems to support whatever story you can dream up on the fly. With FAE, you can be playing in minutes.

While it's technically accurate, I don't feel like half an hour is exactly "minutes". Even twenty minutes is a bit long for that; I was expecting more like five to ten. On the "fast" score, then, FAE hasn't done that well this time. That being said, you can probably create your third character in ten minutes, when you aren't puzzled any more. There's clearly room for plenty of characterful characters, and it looks like a simple system to use once you actually understand it. On the whole, this seems like a basically okay set of rules (from my brief glance at them) that's undermined by an underwhelming quick start guide.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Nassan: an absent artefact

The Guildhalls at Goscaster on the shores of Heartwater are home to many intriguing treasures, and until recently the staff of Voran Eagle Rider was amongst them. Voran was an instructress in the School of Geomancy many decades ago, of good repute, but with geomancy out of fashion of late, her arcane paraphernalia has lain mostly undisturbed in the archives since her retirement. Amongst the usual spellbooks, amulets and official robes was a particular curiosity: a staff of petrified wood, used by Voran as a focus and amplifier. Rumoured to be a gift from Dwarven priestesses of the Dwellers Below, and to provide a direct link to the Elemental Chaos, the staff is considered a significant relic of considerable power. Nevertheless, lack of interest in geomantic studies and the usual bureacratic confusion have left it neglected in the archives for many years.

Voran left instructions that her paraphernalia should be maintained as a coherent collection in a single room suitable for geomantic experimentation, sealed with Class Four wards to ensure their preservation, and accessible to any Suitable Person with a Genuine Scholarly Interest in the collection on condition that their use of the material be monitored and a nominal payment of one silver piece made to the Guild's Poor Relief Fund. Unable to classify the relic satisfactorily as Staff (Wizardly) nor Relic (Geomantic), nor to meet these exacting conditions under current funding arrangements, generations of Archivists have compromised by leaving the entire collection in the chests they arrived in, refusing to catalogue them at all, and storing them unsorted in a disused corner where they are occasionally hunted down by keen researchers, working from hearsay and marginal notes, who scribble their names on a scrap of parchment pinned to the lid of the largest chest and try to ferret out some morsel of knowledge crucial to their work.

Recently, maintenance in the Archive led the archivists to inspect that corner thoroughly, whereupon the staff was found to be missing. A more than usually erratic researcher had been investigating that corner of the Archive, going under the name of Tildis, and subsequent enquiries have confirmed her as the probable culprit. Several weeks have passed since she was last seen.

With the Guildhall's reputation at stake, and a hazardous artefact at large, a small group of trusted agents has been recruited to discreetly seek it out and restore it to the Guildhall's hands. While only an expert geomancer could hope to master the staff's powers, unskilled meddling with such a relic could be disastrous. The Archwizards dare not advertise the theft, in case the thief is inspired to try its powers, or worse, an unscrupulous wizard learns of the staff and tracks it down before they can. It would also be politically awkward. As it happens, the party have an existing relationship with the Guildhall, and are one of the groups approached to help retrieve the staff.

The party seem to have made the right deductions, and they have been following the thief's trail for a few days. It leads into an uninhabited valley known as the Scar, left by a meteorite that ploughed through the land centuries ago, allegedly sent by a vengeful god (nobody quite agrees on which) to destroy a temple that displeased them for some reason or other (usually bawdy or moralistic, and occasionally both). The region is unsuited to farming, home to wild beasts, and is generally avoided.

Unfortunately, subtle enquiries a couple of towns back seem to have attracted some attention, and the party have the disconcerting feeling that larcenous wheels may have been set in motion. Perhaps merely petty thieves; perhaps the informants of a corrupt mage, or even of more sinister powers. It would be wise to recover the staff promptly and return to the Guildhall with all due speed.

GM comments

This was the alternative introduction I scribbled up for the Stick in the Mud scenario. As I mentioned previously, there was a bit of hacking needed. I was keen to start the PCs out in the exploration phase, since time is short in our sessions and I wasn't sure when we might schedule another game with the same players - I didn't want to spend the whole time in town getting backstory. So I went ahead and narrated them to the edge of the valley.

A minor issue with the scenario is that the Chaos Scar doesn't exist in my gameworld. This isn't a particular problem, since it doesn't especially matter where the adventure happens. More importantly, I wasn't that keen on the hooks. The basis for the scenario - wizard's artefact causes chaos when bullywugs start tampering with it - can't be known to the players, and even when they work out what is happening, they won't really know what did happen. The hooks themselves also don't particularly work for me. There's someone trying to find the staff - which just so happens to have been corrupted by the bullywugs at a convenient point in time, leading to a coincidence I don't especially like. Or there's two Kill Ten Bullywugs quests, which I'd prefer to avoid, because I'm sort of concerned that that approach leads to the PCs seeing themselves as murderers for hire rather than heroes; in both cases there's again the sheer coincidence of the staff. I'm not saying it's the worst thing even, but I wasn't that happy with them.

Instead, I tried to sketch up something that felt a bit more fitting. I won't claim it's a work of genius but it seemed to do the trick. The Guildhall stuff fleshes out the world a bit and offers some future plot potential. It explains why they're going to the valley and why they should keep exploring when they realise it's dangerous. It explains why there's a magic staff here and why it might be causing elemental havoc. It gives them a reason to hurry. And it has some librarian references that produced a satisfactory ripple of groans.

The background

I wrote up a bit of background for my own interest, and to help me picture for myself what was here and how I might answer players' questions. It's more or less in the same style as the notes for players, basically because that's just how I tend to write stuff. For some reason I was never much cop at rough notes; they always end up as full sentences, and I seem to find that easier to use.

The Scar does indeed hide the broken remains of an ancient temple, though its precise nature is no longer apparent. The fugitive discovered the ruins and chose to hide there while she examined her stolen treasure – one of a number of magical and unusual items she spirited away over several months of increasing madness. Unfortunately, between illness and ignorance, and the lingering influence of the temple, she managed only to trigger some of the staff's powers in an uncontrolled manner, with fatal results. Elemental magic has seeped chaotically throughout the temple, altering the environment and summoning or shaping a number of unpleasant entities. Allowed to continue its work much longer, the malfunctioning staff could spell havoc for the region.

Between its lingering aura and the presence of magical items, the temple grounds have attracted or spawned a number of bullywugs, warped creatures whose very presence oppresses the land. Deeper within, a number of elemental beings have taken up residence.

The barren stretch of valley before you suddenly becomes a chaotic jumble of shattered masonry. In the center of the mess, on a low hill, stands the ruined foundation of a keep or tower. Only the lower section and a few walls still stand; however, enough remains intact to cast ominous shadows that could hide nearly anything.

Anyone with reasonable Nature can judge that the valley is not the sole work of a meteor strike; only a truly colossal meteor could create such a rift. However, it does seem that a sizeable meteor landed here, amidst a sizeable complex of buildings; its trail and crater have been enlarged over the centuries by wind and rain. It is heavily overgrown and somewhat marshy, with a lacklustre river trickling through.

Local hunters and wanderers claim that wolves, bears, griffons, fire beetles and bloodthorns may be found in the Scar and its surrounding wilderness. Nature will find the odd sign of both beetles and wolves, and none of the creatures would be particularly unusual in such a remote region – indeed, more dangerous beasts might be present.

From a distance, History can suggest:

  • the layout is indeed reminiscent of a temple complex or monastery grounds (10)
  • the architecture and unsophistication of the buildings and mounds suggest a Seldian-era construction (Dark Ages equivalent). (15, or 10 with time)
  • it is not possible to deduce details of the temple's significance without closer inspection.

There are several small areas, apparently outbuildings, that survive as low walls, as well as a number of mounds. None contain much of note. There are occasional bones (animal and humanoid) but centuries have passed to remove any traces. One outbuilding contains the remains of a crude tent, a badly rusted cooking pot and frame, and the rotted remains of what was once a wooden box, whose contents have been got at by wild animals. It must be years or decades old. Perhaps a traveller or fugitive came this way and did not survive the journey. Only one substantial building seems to have escaped complete destruction.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Monitors: weapon balance, with extra musing

So I'm reasonably happy with the rudimentary weapon table, and now need to think about that actual weapon balance thing.

A significant issue is what (if anything) should be assumed to be the default. I don't know how much attention this idea tends to get in general, but I think it's important. I keep finding things I'd never thought about that seem important... this one is a hazy and tenuous idea, but I wanted to talk about it anyway and see if there's anything to it.

So my thought was that that games that feature significant amounts of combat gravitate towards what I will for my own amusement call an Unmarked Representative Weapon, or URW for a handy pronouncible acronym. This is the weapon that doesn't really need mentioning. Unless specified otherwise, people will carry one of these, making them Unmarked. The difficulty of a combat is calculated largely (though not, hopefully, exclusively) around the URW. Game mechanics are balanced around their capabilities and weaknesses - although these weaknesses are generally only weaknesses-by-absence (WBAs). It's assumed that these are the weapons the party are using, and if they deviate significantly from this they're likely to experience game balance issues.

While there's often one weapon that best embodies the URW and that players tend to prefer, an URW may essentially stand for a collection of equivalent weapons (making it Representative). They may have very minor narrative or mechanical differences, but in practice there's very little or no difference in how they play.

In some systems, PCs and NPCs/monsters may have different URWs for various reasons. Perhaps it's a matter of smooth running for the GM; perhaps there's a power gap between the two and the weapons available fit into that. Or monsters may vary very widely from combat to combat in style and power, leaving more room for variation. Nevertheless, Call of Cthulhu aside*, I suspect they'll generally end up with similar weapons in systems where PCs and monsters are built in equivalent ways.

* Call of Cthulhu has three fundamental power levels: Dangerous, Another Hit And You're A Goner, and Splat.

I suspect there are two main subclasses of URW: the Generic URW (GURW) and the Optimal URW (OURW).

The GURW is an URW because it's an optimal compromise between the game's major factors in weapon choice - typically availability, damage, accuracy and defence. It's not likely to be stand-out in any particular regard, but puts in a good all-round performance with no weaknesses worth noting. This is the archetypal URW. It's likely to be a staple weapon of the genre the game draws from.

The OURW is ubiquitous because it's good. Rather than simply a solid compromise, the OURW is above-average in many respects. It isn't likely to be the very best at anything, but it's no stout yeoman either. There are other choices you could take to get better performance in particular aspects, but many weapons are categorically worse than it, and only to be used in very niche situations or emergencies. There are very few situations where the OURW isn't a good option. It must also be easy to get hold of, otherwise it's unlikely to actually become ubiquitous.

Example: D&D

In much of D&D, the default weapon is baaaasically the longsword except where something enforces another option (like rogue backstab weapons or pre-3rd ed. class-based weapon choices). Hit points, enemy damage and so on are coordinated around the idea of about 1d8 damage plus some stuff. It's assumed that shields are a sensible and common option. If everyone instead adopted either daggers (much lower damage) or greataxes (much higher damage and no shields) then I'm fairly sure problems would erupt.

In practice, people will take weapons other than the longsword, such as spears and maces. In most circumstances, though, these are functionally identical to longswords: identical or equivalent damage, one-handed and requiring no special training to use. The longsword Represents them. You don't tend to get a lot of people taking daggers, whips or bastard swords that are substantially different in effect and repercussions.

All that being said, D&D characters deviate from the URW because the class system - and often, the rules that specifically restrict choices by class - tend to push characters into particular equipment choices. Rogues are pushed towards light weapons, barbarians towards double-handed ones, fighters and clerics towards board and sword. On the whole, though, both PCs and monsters tend towards a 1d8 weapon, though as level increases that damage die becomes decreasingly relevant.

Example: Deathwatch

Deathwatch's URW is the bolter, and it's an OURW all right. While there are loads of other weapons around, there's very little reason to take most; a large number of potential weapons are poorer in every single respect, while a handful are slightly better in very specific situations. This is linked to power levels and canon. Space Marines canonically are superhuman killing machines with weapons far better than ordinary mortals, and the availability of special ammunition in Deathwatch lets them customise the bolter with an array of special tools that let them fill every niche from grenade launcher to armour-piercing sniper weapon.

There's a slight complication from the heavy bolter, which is really very good and tempting. Nevertheless, "class" abilities and niches, plus general fluff, seem to discourage everyone from taking a heavy bolter everywhere. A Deathwatch campaign where everyone carried heavy bolters would probably wind up somewhat overpowered, while one where everyone took laspistols would be very short. There's a certain tendency (in our games at least) to carry a backup weapon for niche situations, like dealing with Hordes, but that basic bolter damage of 2d10-and-a-bit is the benchmark. The classic melée weapon, the chainsword, officially deals 1d10+3-and-a-bit, but in practice the Marines' bonuses from Unnatural Strength and power armour tend to mean they'll end up with about a +10 to that for about 19 damage, which is close to the bolter (I can't honestly be bothered to run the numbers for dice-drop-lowest, critical hits and margin of success right now). Because Deathwatch is so lethal, the balance of weapons and using them tactically seems very important. I haven't played it enough to say much more, though.

There's also a very specific level of defence, in that Space Marines wear armour, and it's exactly the same armour. This is significant because enemy offensive power has to be calculated against this value, and of course anything that strips the Marines of their armour tends to make things far more deadly (not least because armour in this system directly reduces damage rather than anything more statistical). In my (limited) experience, enemies that aren't Hordes seem to be about two-hit kills - and to have the same effect on Space Marines.

Example: Call of Cthulhu

Call of Cthulhu isn't really a game with lots of combat. Nevertheless, I think I can argue that it tends towards the handgun as its URW. This is mostly because it's a lot easier to carry around a pistol (and to justify having one) than anything heftier, while most Call of Cthulhu settings don't really lend themselves to melée weapon skills. The shotgun is probably the best-known weapon, but both game and many Keepers discourage people from carrying one. However, this game is sufficently unmechanically-balanced that I don't think you can learn that much here. There's cultists to fight, sure, but once you get onto any kind of gribbly monster, everything's basically either a ghoul (handgun), a byakhee (shotgun) or invulnerable (run screaming).

One reason is because it's very easy for Investigators to end up attacking each other. Another is that actually most people in the 1920s didn't walk around with shotguns, or even own one - yeah, I know! It's also partly because the combat system and the shotgun rules produce a ludicrously massive gap between shotguns and all other weapons, to the point that a shotgun at close range is liable to obliterate just about anything that isn't actually an alien, while a pistol bullet is unlikely to kill anyone and even a rifle is a bit chancy. This is officially made up for by the loss of power at range, something which I've never heard of anyone actually remembering to factor in. Call of Cthulhu isn't really a game where you fire at things more than twenty feet away anyway.

I'm not sure this is really going anywhere, but I found it mildly interesting. Time to move on.

Back to the point

What sort of weapons should Monitors be assumed to carry in normal circumstances? Pistols, suitable for secret agent work? Rifles and swords, for expeditions and enforcement? Heavier weapons, used to battle tough creatures and break through fortifications? The last seems a bit excessive given the game's premise as more like troubleshooters than warriors, so I don't want to encourage tooling up.

On the whole, I think there are probably two general levels. For investigations, crime-busting and subterfuge - stuff in relatively civilised places - small weapons are the norm. For exploration and pirate-fighting, more military weapons may be expected. Any kind of heavy weapon really ought to be an unusual choice for specialist situations where serious opposition is expected. I should therefore try to make those the natural options, and try to balance things around that.

What is balance?

How, exactly, am I going to balance weapon types - inasmuch as they need balancing?

The first thing to note is that I don't intend to try and make (for example) a small pistol and a shoulder-mounted missile launcher mechanically equal in combat. That would be silly. Each weapon is good at the thing it's good at, and the issue is using them effectively.

A pistol is good because it's portable, quick to draw and aim, has minimal recoil, is relatively quiet, concealable, can be used effectively against targets very close up as well as more distant ones, and you can do other things while holding it. Its most obvious weaknesses are its relatively limited effect (which is to say, although perfectly effective at killing a person, it won't punch through armour, tear through a crowd or kill an elephant), its limited effective range, and a lower threat value than larger firearms.

A heavy blaster cannon is good because it's effective at long range, can blast an area rather than a single target, is very intimidating, punches through most kinds of armour, and hits hard enough to take down a monster. On the downside, it is heavy and inconvenient to carry, kicks like a mule, makes a lot of noise, is virtually impossible to conceal, is very hard to aim at nearby targets and dangerous to the wielder at close range, and requires both hands to stabilise.

Most of the time, weapon choice should be dictated by logic. It's not really sensible to wander round with even a rifle all the time, because it's a pain, even before you think about alarming civilians and so on. People don't like having other people around with weapons. It scares them. If you want a weapon to keep with you, a small gun or even a lighter weapon is a better option.

Knuckling down

Okay, so, rules stuff. The major balance points are going to be:

  • Size
  • Manoeuvrability
  • Preferred range
  • Penetration
  • Effect
  • Subtlety

Pistol-type weapons will be lightweight, easy to aim and fire, one-handed, and easy to conceal. They have limited stopping power.

Rifle-type weapons will be middling weight, really need two hands to aim and fire accurately, and bulky enough that they're hard to conceal. You can't even walk around with one and not attract attention unless it's in a golf bag or something. These are designed for actual combat and so are good at penetrating armour. Most are pretty noisy.

Heavy weapons will be very heavy, and can't be used one-handed. They can't be concealed on your person, but must be smuggled in somewhere. Doing anything else while carrying a heavy weapon is difficult. Some kind of servo-assisted battle armour may alleviate these issues but produces new ones. Naturally, they are very powerful. They're difficult to aim quickly and poor at tracking nearby targets; many also have area affects that make it unwise to use them close up.

Wounding weapons (physical, shock and force) cause actual Wounds. These are good for bringing down targets, but tougher targets may weather a Wound or two with limited penalty. Also, it's common to have some level of protection against Wounding weapons.

Blinding weapons immediately restrict a target's ability to succeed at anything requiring senses. The duration of the effect is uncertain, though some tend to last longer than others. It's unusual for non-military targets to have defences against blinding, though some creatures weather it better than others. They hamper targets, but don't stop any but the weakest ("minion" class creatures).

Slowing weapons immediately hamper a target's ability to act, though this doesn't necessarily reduce their competence. The duration of the effect is uncertain, though some tend to last longer than others. They hamper targets, but don't stop any but the weakest ("minion" class creatures).

Photon weapons inflict Blind and are silent - though most produce enough light that their effects can be spotted. Most creatures don't wear eye shielding, but some (including robots) may adjust rapidly to glare.

Physical and force weapons just hit things. This is straightforward and generally effective, but easily resisted by armour. Some physical weapons deliver non-Wounding effects, particularly hyperdomic toxin weapons.

Shock weapons produce a burst of electricity. This is particularly effective against robots, but it's hard to produce a strong charge over distance so these are weaker than force weapons. In many cases, though, the difference is irrelevant because targets are only lightly armoured.

Gas weapons mostly affect biological targets. They're pernicious and may linger, but most creatures can muster some kind of defence against them by holding their breath or improvising a mask. They're fairly quiet and tend to hamper targets' ability to raise the alarm for fear of breathing the gas.

So, for example:

  • A flare pistol is a short-ranged photon weapon that inflicts limited Blinding damage. It's easy to carry, and its ease of use and immediate effect makes it a good choice for an infiltrator expecting trouble, or someone who always wants to watch their back. While it's unlikely to take someone out of action, it's effective against many targets that might shrug off a blaster shot and gives a moment's respite to run like hell. While it won't necessarily pass a frisking, it's pretty discreet and offers some chance of evading a casual search.
  • A shock rifle is a medium-ranged shock weapon that causes a Wound. It's bulky and fairly blatant, and very difficult to conceal. It's reliable, powerful enough to take out most non-military targets, and especially effective at disabling robots (and some other devices). Carrying this thing is a pain and will freak out civilians, and if a creature jumps you your best best is to try and club them with it. Anything wearing heavy armour, or with a resistant physiology, may present a problem.
  • A suppression cannon is a long-ranged force weapon that's designed to flatten groups of targets. It isn't great against armoured targets. It's huge, heavy and as manoeuvrable as a king-sized quilt - and don't even think about pulling off any stunts while you're hauling one around. Firing at anything close-up is a mistake: firstly, because they can dodge faster than you can aim; and secondly, because if you do hit you'll probably get caught in the blast.

Actual actual rules

  • Each step out of the preferred range imposes a penalty. This means that pistols can be used with difficulty in melée, while long-ranged weapons will suffer a large penalty and are essentially useless.
  • A pistol is average-rated for any attempt at concealment. A rifle-sized weapon will be one step higher, and large weapons will be at least two steps.
  • Creatures with any defences will tend to have several points more of Armour than of other defences. Exceptions might include specific species, and individuals who can get away with shades but don't want to attract attention by wearing armour.
  • Pistols and similar weapons can be drawn rapidly and stored in pockets without encumbering the wielder. Medium weapons offer fewer storage options and generally take up at least one hand except when slung. A heavy weapon always takes up at least one hand. This increases the difficulty of tasks where two hands are really wanted (such as climbing) and slows down others (such as typing).
  • Firing a medium weapon one-handed will increase the difficulty step once. For heavy weapons, twice.
  • Carrying a heavy weapon, or any other Unwieldy item, increases the difficulty of physical activities where balance is important. This stacks with the penalty for not having free hands.
  • Most weapons risk attracting enemies. The risk generally scales with weapon size, as this also affects their noisiness. A few weapons have the Stealthy property and do not attract attention.
  • Obviously carrying a weapon will tend to impose penalties on social interactions. It makes them nervous and less inclined to chit-chat. It also tends to make you noticeable and may lead to other law enforcement officials interfering to see what's up. There will naturally be situations where they simply aren't permitted, but that's a GMing issue.

From what I can see, this would seem to support the desired outcomes. Small weapons are weak but convenient, and good for covert ops. Medium weapons are effective, offer occasional inconvenience if you're engaged on tasks where having a rifle ready is a sensible precaution, and are moderately inconvenient in situations where that's excessive - but (I hope) not to the point where it would ruin the reality-light adventure vibe I'm aiming for. Heavy weapons are really very inconvenient and are best restricted to tactical use against heavy targets at relatively long range.

Deathwatch: The Price of Hubris, part 10

Contains spoilers for, funnily enough, The Price of Hubris from The Emperor Protects.

As always, be aware that the podcast is not really family-friendly, and features a fair amount of background noise, if that sort of thing bothers you.

The Episode

While we'd obviously had a couple of fights so far, the camp was the first part of this adventure where we really got to pull the whole Angels of Death schtick. It's very, very noticeable how effective well-prepared Space Marines with their own gear are against ordinary soldiers. Although this wasn't a challenging fight with us expecting trouble and acting first (I don't know what it might have been like if we'd walked into an ambush), I think it was a good way to signal the change in the tone of the scenario from sci-fi hijinks to There Is Only War.

Also we strode implacably through an enemy camp as it erupted into a burning hell of death and destruction around us, which is always nice.

The cave sequence I found pretty effective, because at that point we knew damn well that there were 'Nids in the tunnel, but we didn't know what to expect. Unlike the valley scene with the unexpected boys, which had quite a complicated set of interlocking IC/OOC concerns and I was worried about the scenario trying to screw us over, this scene was tense from a more straightforward perspective: our characters were worried about getting eaten by genestealers, and I was worried about my character getting eaten by genestealers. These were perfectly normal concerns and very appropriate to the situation, since narrow tunnels and genestealers go together like cheese and toast. Murder cheese and death toast.

My auspex scan is clean, brothers

Now as it happens, the scenario designers had intended to screw us over here, by making it essentially game-mechanically impossible for our characters to find the damn aliens. Arthur's decision to ignore the railroad F*** You ending they'd planned, and enable our characters to get the proof they wanted by taking some time, turned what would undoubtedly have been an infuriating roadblock that we fought to get around into essentially some nommy flavour.

The issue here is that regardless of what actual evidence the scenario is prepared to give you, the situation is really pretty obvious if you know anything about Warhammer 40,000 or have watched an kind of monster film ever or read a book featuring something scary. If you go from somewhere clearly affected by monsters, through a series of creepy narrow passageways, and into an apparently empty room with some kind of innocent-looking feature that a monster could hide in, there's a 90% chance that the monster is in fact hiding in it (and a 10% chance that no, it's behind you - which was clearly not possible in this case because we were very specifically keeping watch everywhere). There was a very small chance that this was a red herring and the 'stealers had swum through into another cave, or maybe just flat-out weren't here right now for some reason, but in those cases no harm would be done. So there is basically no reason for the characters not to take a tactical assumption that the pool is full of genestealers and blast the hell out of it. I'd hope the scenario doesn't actually suggest stopping you, but it certainly does its best to prevent you from proving the thing you know is true.

It now occurs to me that - depending on the likely temperature of a frag grenade explosion - we could quite possibly have just hurled a bucket of frag grenades into the pool in safety. The shockwave would propogate through the water very very nastily, and unless they hit about 750 degrees it wouldn't risk any fire.

The Shadow in the Warp

Oh, and second Arthur-praise for today - I think the decision to use the Shadow in the Warp as a hint system was a very nice idea and very appropriate to the source material. The thing is that if you're a ruthless implacable warrior, then making sure you've finished off a purge of a species renowned for infestation, lurking unseen for decades and spelling the doom of entire sectors of space as a result is the kind of thing you take very seriously. The SITW fluctuations provided a way to tell us that yep, this part of the job is finished off, and stop us from spending too much time on practical but not very interesting things like extra sweeps, setting up watches on recaptured areas, blowing everying up from orbit just to be sure, and otherwise double-checking our work.

Link to Episode 10.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Monitors: drafting some weapons

So following my previous post, the question is what and how to implement in terms of weapons balance. I'm aiming for a reasonable mixture of:

  • choice (allowing people to equip characters as they'd like)
  • balance (not having some choices so superior or inferior that maths overrides flavour)
  • variety (having different weapons actually feel different to use)
  • simplicity (keeping choices, mechanics and descriptions straightforward)

I don't want this silly little game bogged down by twenty-column weapons profiles, or long periods spent agonising over shopping lists. At the same time, I'd like to offer people some choice about their equipment, and to have it actually make some difference to how the character plays.

The most basic and essential factors here are range and effect. You need to know what you can shoot at and what happens if you hit - are they hurt, knocked out, turned into chocolate? Having outlined some armour rules, a further concern is how good the weapon is against armour and what protects you against it. We should also give some kind of indication of how big it is. I'd also like to indicate some general properties of the weapon (mostly the way it works) as these may affect its interactions with other mechanics, such as resistances. As some weapons will affect an area, I need to note that down somewhere too.

So an early look at things might look something like this (numbers are arbitrary):

Weapon Range Target Strength Size Notes Class Defence
Flare pistol Short Single Blind 1d4 1 Photon Visor
Magnesium bomb Throw Blast Blind 1d6 1 Disposable Photon Visor
Photon cannon Long Blast Blind 1d10 30 Unwieldy Photon Visor
Stunner Melée Single Slow 1d4 1 Shock Armour
Shock rifle Medium Single 6 5 Two-handed Shock Armour
Mister Melée Single Slow 1d4 1 Gas Chemical Mask
Needler Short Single Slow 1d4 1 Chemical Armour

I don't really like the "Notes" business. And there are too many columns already. I don't see why blast/single needs its own column. Also, I think we could simplify things by having the Class determine the Defence used, rather than a separate attribute. I don't want to use Effect for that because there's no reason why (for example) gas can't blind someone, and this wouldn't target the same defence as a photon effect would.

Weapon Range Effect Strength Class Notes
Flare pistol ShortBlind 1d4 2 Photon Stealthy
Magnesium bomb ThrowBlind 1d6 blast 5 Photon Disposable
Photon cannon Long Blind 1d10 blast 10 Photon Unwieldy
Stunner Melée Slow 1d4 2 Shock
Shock rifle Medium 1 Wound 5 Shock Two-handed
Mister Melée Slow 1d4 2 Gas, Toxin Stealthy
Needler Short Slow 1d4 2 Physical, Toxin Stealthy

Here, we know that Photon effects always target Visor, Gas effects target Mask, and that Physical, Shock and Force effects target Armour. The Toxin keyword will mostly come into play when robots and other entities with odd physiology are involved. Other keywords may well have special properties: for example, Gas effects used in low-G may behave differently, and Shock weapons have more effect against robots. Stealthy weapons are both silent and invisible except to the target, ideal for subterfuge - most photon weapons can't achieve this, as there tends to be visible overspill, but the small pistol can maintain a narrow beam.

Further notes

The eagle-eyed among you may notice that I forgot to include ammunition capacity. Nope. I'm not using ammo. This is part of my effort to distinguish Tech and Magic: technology is fundamentally reliable and predictable, which means your weapon will never run out of juice mid-combat. This doesn't mean they've endless capacity, it just means you shouldn't be taken by surprise. Rather than a resource to manage, ammunition/charge becomes a narrative limit. You know that you don't have enough charge in your blaster to take out every soldier in the base, but you never have to worry about it in ordinary "reaasonable" use. Without having to track it most of the time, the GM can offer appropriate limits if the character is in an unusual situation, perhaps stranded somewhere and unable to recharge. Only grenades have limited use, and the same limit may apply to some other one-use items.

One possibility is to have generic weapon groups (Pistol, Rifle, Heavy) that combined several properties like Range, Size and how many hands you need. This would certainly make the tables smaller, but wouldn't actually be much simpler - you still need to know what those properties are, so I'm not sure it's an improvement.

I could certainly further simplify things by dropping the range of weapons. For example, without the Needler and Stunner, we could decide that all Slowing weapons are Gas, and then use Class to determine the damage type, rather than having a separate entry.

Another thing I want to consider for future drafts is whether the familiar scheme of Light (short range, low damage, low pen) and Heavy (long range, high damage, high pen) weapons is suitable, or whether I can mix it up a bit.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Deathwatch: The Price of Hubris, part 09

Contains spoilers for, funnily enough, The Price of Hubris from The Emperor Protects.

As always, be aware that the podcast is not really family-friendly, and features a fair amount of background noise, if that sort of thing bothers you.

The Episode

I know In The Grim Darkness of the Far Future There Is Only War, but I really enjoyed the interacty bits of this scenario. I think partly it's simply because I'm genuinely fond of the setting, and whatever the fluff says you tend to get more chance to bask in a setting when you're not actively fighting stuff, even though fighting appropriate stuff is important to establishing yourself in the setting. Also, at this point we'd mostly been doing non-fighty stuff and so I was quite in the swing of it - whereas the last bit of fighting we'd done was the Diabloslog. Arthur's the kind of DM who gives you a lot of room to dally with NPCs if you want, which I appreciate.

Also, the universe of Warhammer 40,000 is so gleefully on crack that it's enormous fun to interact with. There's something about doing in-character serious things to produce comical OOC results that I very much enjoy.

At the same time, this was clearly gearing up to be our actual mission, and that was a very pleasing prospect. Whereas with the Diablodon we'd had a pretty good idea what was going on (except for surprise boys), in this case I felt like we were walking into more of an unknown quantity, and there was an enjoyable ratcheting up of tension and the expectation of discovering things.

In passing, let me just explain some table chat: as a general rule I mainline tea from waking to bedtime, whereas the others tend to drink fizz and the odd black coffee. Arthur had recently moved house and not finished equipping the place, and so there was a certain amount of (unsuccessful) scraping round to look for ways I could be given tea, as Arthur is a good host and my friends are generally nice helpful people.

Link to Episode 09.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Weapon balance for Monitors

So, I think I'm reasonably happy with the armour system, at least for now, and should move on. What still needs work before I can test this thing out?

  • Equipment of some kind
  • Revisiting skills
  • Revisiting magic in the light of skills and combat rules
  • Actually coming up with some spells and stuff
  • Balancing
  • Probably some more stuff I haven't thought of yet

Eh, let's stick with the "stuff" theme.

Equipment choices

As I discussed recently, if there is a choice of weapons, people will tend to gravitate to the mathematically optimal. This is sensible both IC and OOC, most of the time. What you want to avoid, I think, is (at least) three issues:

  1. having an array of equipment that in practice will rarely be used because it's suboptimal
  2. having characters take equipment that makes no sense IC because they are better than the "correct" choice even allowing for any inconvenience
  3. discouraging players from taking archetypal equipment because some other choice will make their archetype much better at its job

At the same time, I absolutely do not want to implement a really crunchy combat system to lovingly model every possible consideration. I also want to allow leeway for adventure genre tropes. So, what sort of factors might I want to consider - and what should have mechanical treatment rather than being left to the GM?

  • Preferred range - weapons are suited to different ranges
  • Accuracy - how easy is it to hit a target?
  • Stopping power - how strongly is the target affected?
  • Penetration - how good is the weapon at getting through armour, respirators or flare guards?
  • Effects - what kind of effect does the weapon actually have?
  • Subtlety - how loud and obvious is the weapon?
  • Size - can the weapon be easily carried and concealed, or is it a massive chunk of steel?
  • Power - how energy-guzzling is the weapon?
  • Firing rate - is the weapon unusually fast or slow?


I've been vaguely thinking about power for a while as a semi-lampshade way to restrict equipment. With most things being high-tech, it's not unreasonable to say that they need power, and things like weapons or serious equipment will have power needs orders of magnitude larger than things like communicators. That means you need to carry a serious power source. So a character could be limited to, say, ten power points that would run things like weapons, major bionics, gravity dampers, force fields or thermoreg clothing. This would leave characters weighing up bigger guns against other equipment options.

I don't know whether I'm going to implement this one or not, I just thought it was an interesting idea.


Range in Monitors wants to be quick and dirty. My general plan is just to allocate a single Preferred Range to each ranged effect out of something like (Close), Short, Medium, Long, (Extreme). For each slot outside the preferred range, attack difficulty increases by 5. So a pistol would be effective at Short range and suffer a -10 penalty at Long range, while the opposite applies to a sniper rifle.

You'd need to apply common sense here - obviously firing point-blank at a stationary target will be easy - but except for unusual situations like that I think it's probably good enough.


Some weapons may trade off punch for accuracy, gving you a bonus on attack rolls. This shouldn't be a straightforward thing to optimise because it's really going to depend what you're going to fight. An accurate weapon will be great against lightly-armoured targets and poor against armoured ones.

Again, not sure if I'm planning to use this or not. It might be something you can do to weapons rather than a separate category.

Stopping power

This is basically going to come down to heavy weapons or not. Some weapons, if they hit, will wreak havoc on a target, others are just painful. Heavy weapons are good for big beasties, vehicles, tough creatures and just making very sure of the job. This is likely to use the system I mentioned last time of causing multiple dice of damage, each requiring an Armour save.


It's no use hitting something if your attacks don't do anything. There will be different defences that protect against different attack types: most likely something like Armour (for general attacks), Mask (for gas attacks), Visor (for visual effects) and Ward (for some magical attacks). Some weapons will be good at overcoming these defences, while others are easily repelled.


As already discussed, there will be different types of weapon effect. The ones I'm envisaging are actual Wound loss, Blind and Slow. I might be willing to consider others, but every effect added will complicate the game and risk things bogging down in a mass of status effects. Different effects will be useful in different situations. To slightly complicate matters, effects will interact with the actual type of certain weapons: for example, there will certainly be Slowing weapons that target both Armour and Mask.


Monitors isn't just supposed to be a combat game, but one where infiltration, tactics, diplomacy and exploration are all part of the game. In any case, you don't want to bring every guard for miles around down on your head even in a combat game. While I won't be implementing realistic noises (because it's supposed to be a fun adventure game), some weapons will be louder and more obvious than others, and so risk getting you into further trouble.


What with being secret agents and so on, Monitors aren't just supposed to wander around the place in hulking battle-armour with missile launchers. It's also really out of character for some archetypes. Some weapons are light and easy to hide, for those who either want to blend in, or only want it for emergencies. At the other end of the scale, carrying a heavy weapon will make all kinds of things more difficult, as well as weighing you down. Heavier weapons are also unwieldy and tricky to use in a hurry. In between are reliable rifle-type weapons, neither small enough to conceal nor large enough to get in your way.

Firing rate

Another one I'm not sure about using. A potential trade-off for some weapons is a reduced firing rate, due to recharging or recoil. This would probably mean getting off powerful attacks but at a reduced rate, which makes the weapon less effective against numerous targets, as well as increasing the pain of missed attacks.