Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Kitting Monitors, part 6: martial stuff

This is obviously a sequel to this post, this other post about how non-weapon equipment and its mechanics can influence a game, and this third, fourth and fifth post about distribution of tech amongst the general population.

Martial equipment

I can't entirely avoid talking about this stuff again, but it's a different angle.

Weapons!

What kind of weapons are commonly available to civilians is a huge deal. There's a complex mixture of legality, opportunity and culture here, but I don't claim to understand that.

One factor is the typical discrepancy between a civilian and a ne'erdowell. If armed civilians tend to carry the same level of weaponry as a criminal, it's more likely civilians will tackle criminals. This also makes it harder to pick out a likely threat from a crowd, be they would-be assassins or the police you're trying to avoid; you can't simply scan to see who's armed and focus on them.

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Kitting Monitors, part 5 (stuff people have, part 3)

This is obviously a sequel to this post, this other post about how non-weapon equipment and its mechanics can influence a game, and more immediately, this third and this fourth post about distribution of tech amongst the general population.

As a reminder, we're looking more or less at this list:
  • Does game-mechanical equipment exist at all?
  • What equipment exists?
  • What is treated as Equipment rather than just stuff you have?
  • How do you get Equipment in the first place? How easy is it to get more, both in the long term and the short term?
  • Maintenance? Breakages? Upkeep costs? Do these things exist, and if so, how do they work?
  • How reliable is equipment?
  • Is equipment assumed and subtractive from, or optional and additive to die rolls?
  • How crucial is the possession or otherwise of specific equipment to success? Are activities, or even missions, allowed to fail because PCs don't have particular items?
  • What technology is assumed to exist, to be available to PCs, and to be available to common NPCs?
  • What is assumed normal equipment for a PC? How useful is it compared to what NPCs have? How much and how often does it affect the basic resolution mechanics? (are you adding bonuses to every roll? etc.)
  • What non-mechanical capabilities can equipment provide?
  • How vulnerable is a PC without their equipment?
  • How, if at all, is equipment limited?

We're still looking at types of technology that the population and the PCs have available. This should be the penultimate installment, thank goodness.

Making stuff

A fairly common sci-fi trope, which is just starting to creep into real life, is manufacturing on demand. It's very common for settings to feature food, clothes, furniture or other basics being assembled from raw matter or nutrient sludge, produced on demand by some machine in the corner. This rarely creeps into more complex items like machinery, although I'm sure I've seen at least one instance where blasters could be synthesised. The real-world 3D printers aren't yet up to this kind of thing, but we can slowly make replacement bones, artificial limbs, and crude foodstuffs.

Makers are essentially just another way to Get Stuff, not that different from shopping. However, they do allow a couple of get-arounds. They can be used to obtain stuff you wouldn't be able to buy, even if makers record all transactions, require security clearance for dangerous items, or have only a limited set of templates. PCs can hack into makers, steal or spoof the ID of someone with the right clearance, upload their own templates, and so on. Another point is that a maker allows you access to far more than you can reasonably carry, picking it up on the spot rather than toting it around. You're not limited to times when shops are open, and rare items can be obtained without waiting days for delivery.

Monday, 29 December 2014

Operation: ANTIQUARIAN, part two

Our broadcast this evening is a dramatised reading from the archives of the Special Operations Executive. The mission identified as ANTIQUARIAN is being reconstructed from archival materials by Arthur at a dedicated website. Selected highlights will be presented here for the interest of the general public.

For convenience, a brief summary of prior events is presented here. For the detailed account, please visit the archive.

Skip to the link.

The mission begins

Network N was a branch of the Special Operations Executive, dedicated to the extraordinary. In the war against the Hun, no stone could be left unturned. Uncanny events must be investigated, strange rumours put to rest, and Jerry's obsession with the occult exploited at every turn. Their commanding officer, known only as N, recruited agents with unusual talents from all sections of society.

The primary agents of Operation: ANTIQUARIAN are Emile Dubois, a French inventor; Patricia Wilberforce, a professional medium; and Douglas Hemsbrook, military doctor. All are experienced in mundane and paranormal operations.

Having established themselves in the occupied village of Saint-Cerneuf-du-Bois, the agents have discovered strange forces present in the local woods. In particular, a strange sonic and gravitational phenomenon presents a recurring mystery.

An airdrop is arranged for the night of June the 9th, bringing Agent Benson of the SOE alongside supplies for the Resistance, but the phenomenon manifests once more with disastrous results. The plane's engines are destroyed, causing it to crash in the woods, while the supplies and Benson are driven off-course and land in the village itself. They recover both with some difficulty, but attract considerable suspicion in the process. ANTIQUARIAN are forced to lie low and repair their cover for several days, until a meeting is called by the partisans.

You can listen to the second episode here.

The series theme is The British Grenadiers (Go Mad), remixed for the occasion by Librarians and Leviathans.

Saturday, 27 December 2014

Kitting Monitors, part 4 (stuff people have, part 2)

This is obviously a sequel to this post, this other post about how non-weapon equipment and its mechanics can influence a game, and more immediately, this third post about distribution of tech amongst the general population.

As a reminder, we're looking more or less at this list:
  • Does game-mechanical equipment exist at all?
  • What equipment exists?
  • What is treated as Equipment rather than just stuff you have?
  • How do you get Equipment in the first place? How easy is it to get more, both in the long term and the short term?
  • Maintenance? Breakages? Upkeep costs? Do these things exist, and if so, how do they work?
  • How reliable is equipment?
  • Is equipment assumed and subtractive from, or optional and additive to die rolls?
  • How crucial is the possession or otherwise of specific equipment to success? Are activities, or even missions, allowed to fail because PCs don't have particular items?
  • What technology is assumed to exist, to be available to PCs, and to be available to common NPCs?
  • What is assumed normal equipment for a PC? How useful is it compared to what NPCs have? How much and how often does it affect the basic resolution mechanics? (are you adding bonuses to every roll? etc.)
  • What non-mechanical capabilities can equipment provide?
  • How vulnerable is a PC without their equipment?
  • How, if at all, is equipment limited?

We're still looking at types of technology that the population and the PCs have available.

Communications

In my view, one of the biggest technologies humanity has is communication tools. We can do things with these that would be staggering to ancestors only a few measly thousand years ago. We can preserve information accurately for long periods (writing). We can convey information to other people without actually contacting them (also writing). We can give information to other people in secret (encryption), and even do so while appearing not to (hidden encryption). We can talk to members of other groups who have their own languages (translation). We can communicate with people increasingly great distances away, increasingly fast, with increasingly complex information (writing, telegraph, telephone, the internet). These have offered enormous advantages. Knowledge is disseminated quickly, trade is facilitated, safety increased, cultural understanding improved, personal life enhanced, and perhaps it even makes the world more peaceful.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Special Collections: A dream of the hills and the hills

I've just stuck up the third of this sporadic series on my YSDC blog, discussing some slightly unusual tomes. This one deals with realia - things that are not book nor journal, but miscellaneous artefacts. You can read it here.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Kitting Monitors, part 3 (stuff people have, part 1)

This is obviously a sequel to this post and this other post about how non-weapon equipment and its mechanics can influence a game.

As a reminder, we're looking more or less at this list:
  • Does game-mechanical equipment exist at all?
  • What equipment exists?
  • What is treated as Equipment rather than just stuff you have?
  • How do you get Equipment in the first place? How easy is it to get more, both in the long term and the short term?
  • Maintenance? Breakages? Upkeep costs? Do these things exist, and if so, how do they work?
  • How reliable is equipment?
  • Is equipment assumed and subtractive from, or optional and additive to die rolls?
  • How crucial is the possession or otherwise of specific equipment to success? Are activities, or even missions, allowed to fail because PCs don't have particular items?
  • What technology is assumed to exist, to be available to PCs, and to be available to common NPCs?
  • What is assumed normal equipment for a PC? How useful is it compared to what NPCs have? How much and how often does it affect the basic resolution mechanics? (are you adding bonuses to every roll? etc.)
  • What non-mechanical capabilities can equipment provide?
  • How vulnerable is a PC without their equipment?
  • How, if at all, is equipment limited?

What stuff do people have?

I've posited Monitors as a shiny future setting, but there's a pretty wide variety of these available. They've been offered for about a century, and each incarnation typically features basically the same technology and society as the writer, except better. Also, flying cars. That's a little unfair, but you get the gist: I can set a wide range of technologies as the baseline for civilians, simply by assuming the better stuff is too expensive/inconvenient/unfashionable/illegal.

I think you can probably break down important technology into some very broad groups. There are others that will shape societies in powerful ways (horse collar, anyone?) but I'm nowhere near clever enough to discuss those, even though this is the kind of history that is absolutely fascinating. I'm going to think mostly about things likely to affect games.

At this point I wrote out a swathe of text discussing some specific technologies, then realised that most of it would be more appropriate to a discussion on setting, rather than one on the role of equipment in establishing the feel of a game. So I'm moving it, and starting again.

Monday, 1 December 2014

In the Darkness FATE Them

So I started wondering, could you play IDFT under FATE?

I think you more-or-less can.

Characters have a high concept and four Aspects. It’s a good idea to make sure that, overall, they offer both advantages and weaknesses for your character so you can regain FATE points.

Characters begin with four FATE points.

You don’t need any skills, although you can still use them; a small number may help define characters mechanically and will change the difficulty of the game. Most skill rolls are assumed to have a difficulty of 0. Easy tasks have a negative difficulty. Similarly, there's probably no reason to include stunts.

There are four Stress tracks: Stamina, Nerve, Luck and Time. Each has ten stress boxes. Stamina and Nerve also have 2-point, 4-point and 6-point consequences.

Whenever a situation is physically exhausting, unnerving, time-consuming* or a matter of chance, roll the Fudge dice and apply any appropriate consequences or Aspects. If the result is negative, apply it as Stress to the appropriate track. Otherwise, the number represents one Tick’s progress towards the difficulty of the task set by the GM.

*Exception: the Time pool is never rolled during confrontations, when other pools are used instead.

A PC may make skill rolls to accomplish various things, including as a supplement to a Stress roll. It is up to the group to determine the mechanics of the outcome. For example, a character may attempt to scramble over a wall when using Stamina to flee a monster. This skill roll takes no additional time, and a success will create an advantage that assists with the Stamina roll. In another situation, succeeding (or failing) at the roll might change the narrative sufficiently that it makes no sense to continue with the current set of Stress rolls.

When the PC is resting, they can regain one Stress box in each of Stamina, Nerve and Luck. However, this consumes one Tick of time and requires a Time roll.

Consequences, as usually, cannot be healed directly. It is possible to mitigate the effects of certain consequences by taking suitable actions (locating and using medical kits, resting, finding crutches, staunching blood flow and so on) and making skill rolls.

Many tasks, such as searching a room, reading a book, repairing something or having an argument, may call for both skill rolls and a Time roll. Sometimes Time is consumed simply by delay, when a character waits.

When the Time pool is exhausted, problems arise again and the characters must move on or confront them.

The lighting properties of both rooms and light sources are modelled using Aspects. Any light source has a Fuel stress track, and a stress roll is made when the GM deems it appropriate. Of course, Aspects may help with this roll.


Did I miss anything? I don't think it's as thorough, but it's meant to be a workable hack rather than a full game.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

The Bally Haunting

This is the outline of the game of The Haunting I ran, oh, five years ago? Gosh. It was written up for the benefit of the players, but since tantalising hints of this game regularly surface when I'm writing on YSDC, I thought I should retrieve these notes from the fossilised depths of my computer and resurrect them.

The Investigators

  • Bertram Perrin, gentleman of leisure
  • Colonel Ementile Crud, retired
  • Encyclopaedius, star of the Merryweather Circus
  • Jacks or Better, gentleman of the streets

For my own convenience, being ignorant of America, I reset the story in Britain, specifically in a nebulous part of London. This was foolish, since I am also ignorant of London and one of my players is from London. Mistake one.

For clarification, however, I should state that the strong resemblence between this game and a cracktastic sequel to the works of PG Wodehouse was due to deliberate decisions made during character generation, and was neither the players getting out of hand, nor me flailing wildly. Which is not to say that I was not, in fact, flailing wildly.

An Uncle's Request

Bertram Perrin receives an unexpected telephone call from affable but business-minded Uncle Quentin (Lord Foxworthy to the plebs). Said uncle has recently acquired a house on the cheap, due to unfortunate events in the owning family that forced them to sell. Specifically, both the adults have "gone off their rockers", forcing the house to be sold and the children taken in by relatives. The house is rumoured to be haunted. Uncle Quentin has an interest in that sort of thing, being a member in good standing of the Sceptics' Society, and is sure that with a bit of investigation, the scientific basis for the rumours can be established and dealt with, and the house sold on for a decent profit. There may be an interesting case study for the Society as well. Uncle Quentin lives in Kent, and doesn't often travel to London, so rather than hiring an actual agent, he's decided to ask a favour from his amiable (if dim) young nephew. It's so much cheaper. He asks Bertie to take a look at the place - bringing along a clever friend or two "in case he overlooks anything". The house is 4 Rose Place, in Ealing.

In the Darkness Find Them, first draft

So I realised recently that, thanks entirely to Shannon, I've ended up writing quite a lot of stuff that discusses horror, darkness and light. I wondered whether they could be pulled into anything semi-coherent, and so I'm going to try sketching out a fairly basic game along those lines.

Naturally, as I'm recycling stuff here, it will probably look pretty familiar to readers of our respective blogs. It’s a first draft being created as I write it (although I did revise it rather than leave it as a stream of consciousness) so there may be inconsistencies (sorry) and it’s a rambly exposition rather than a tight set of detailed rules.

Also, I did what I could with images to break up this very long post, but it is shockingly hard to find any pictures of people hiding from monsters, running from monsters, or that involve shadow monsters of any kind that aren't being shot in the head by Alan Wake. So they are, at best, semi-topical.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Operation: ANTIQUARIAN, part one

Our broadcast this evening is a dramatised reading from the archives of the Special Operations Executive. The mission identified as ANTIQUARIAN is being reconstructed from archival materials by Arthur at a dedicated website. Selected highlights will be presented here for the interest of the general public.

For convenience, a brief summary of prior events is presented here. For the detailed account, please visit the archive.

Skip to the link.

The mission begins

Network N was a branch of the Special Operations Executive, dedicated to the extraordinary. In the war against the Hun, no stone could be left unturned. Uncanny events must be investigated, strange rumours put to rest, and Jerry's obsession with the occult exploited at every turn. Their commanding officer, known only as N, recruited agents with unusual talents from all sections of society.

The primary agents of Operation: ANTIQUARIAN are Emile Dubois, a French inventor; Patricia Wilberforce, a professional medium; and Douglas Hemsbrook, military doctor. All are experienced in mundane and paranormal operations.

In May 1941, Dubois, Hemsbrook and Wilberforce are despatched to the village of Saint-Cerneuf-du-Bois in occupied France, where they will form the core of an intelligence network codenamed ANTIQUARIAN. They are also tasked with investigating the sudden disappearance of one Lionel Malo, a German opponent of the Nazi regime who fled to exile in France, and a correspondent of N regarding certain unusual aspects of the district.

Parachuting into France, the agents rendezvous with the Resistance and quickly establish cover identities. Tensions are high in the occupied village, and the agents must tread carefully. Though several strange facts emerge, the most prominent is the repeated impression of odd events connected with the woodland.

After experiencing a peculiar sonic phenomenon and discovering hooved footprints, the agents dine with Raimond Decharette, owner of the village mine. They learn that Decharette knew Malo, and his own wife was a member of a pagan cult. Suspecting that his daughter has also been drawn into the cult, the agents prepare to follow her as she leaves the house that night.

You can listen to character creation here, and the first episode here.

The series theme is The British Grenadiers (Go Mad), remixed for the occasion by Librarians and Leviathans.

Friday, 14 November 2014

A Stony Sleep: afterthoughts

For some reason, I managed to post this in August, months ahead of finishing the actual podcast. When I realised, I de-published it and am posting it here to make the archives more sensible. I'm not sure how it escaped my drafts folder, but just to reassure you, I haven't yet reached the point of actually running repeats...

In my head, I've been thinking of this as the one where we shifted into more of a straightforward Space Marine game with less of the Fisty humour that originally got us playing. Having now listened to the recordings for the first time in months, I can't imagine where I could possibly have got that idea.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

A Stony Sleep, part 7

Post-Game Discussion

This is a playthrough of A Stony Sleep from The Emperor Protects, so be careful not to let on to your GM that you listened to it. It does reveal one crucial plot event, and foreknowledge will inevitably affect the way you play this scenario. As always, be aware that the podcast is not really family-friendly, if that sort of thing bothers you.

Some episodes feature bonus material after the closing music, of varying interest. This is usually either teasers, or conversations that were sort of interesting, but not a bit tangential to the main episode.

Episode 7

The Episode

Nothing much to say here. This isn't the most interesting post-game session, sorry, since we don't actually break down the scenario like we sometimes do. Feel free to skip this one! However, we do talk about a couple of points that might be mildly interesting for those who care about the Deathwatch game, or are gently lulled to sleep by our (ahem) melodious voices. And it's short!

The bionic issue is basically a canon one, I think. Essentially, the Warhammer 40K universe has always portrayed bionics for any military character as being flat-out better than the organic equivalent. They grant significant stat boosts in the tabletop version. The fiction does sometimes highlight disadvantages, especially in those bionics given to lackeys or grunts, but again emphasises the new or enhanced abilities these features tend to lend a character. For a space marine, who expects only the best of equipment, there aren't going to be any misshapen second-hand bionics or rusting parts. So while I do understand the balance issues of making baseline bionics any better than the default marine, it also just feels wrong for them not to be. There are no low-ranking space marines, no grunts, no lackeys. Everyone is a mighty warrior of immense value to the Imperium.

Honestly, this is quite likely tied into the whole "game line" deal. I don't know whether Fantasy Flight even thought about this when carrying over the same bionics rules as every other game uses. It seems like it could have quite easily been fixed by pegging the minimum bionics at whatever level is no worse than a starting space marine: no reason to get injured on purpose, but no disadvantage either.

Of course, this is partly down to me choosing to lose an eye, but I didn't (despite my phrasing here) actually do this for mechanical reasons - it seemed appropriate and I wasn't aware at the time of the rules for serious injuries and acquiring bionics. So I just assumed it was something I could do, which is strictly not the case by RAW. I mean, I got a power claw to the face, that seems like something that would require a cool glowy terminatoresque bionic eye, right?

I'll be (re-)posting a follow-up post shortly. I wrote it out ages ago and mistakenly put it up at some point, despite the podcast not yet being out. Whoops.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

A Stony Sleep, part 6

The Heavy Bolter Is Sick OP

This is a playthrough of A Stony Sleep from The Emperor Protects, so be careful not to let on to your GM that you listened to it. It does reveal one crucial plot event, and foreknowledge will inevitably affect the way you play this scenario. As always, be aware that the podcast is not really family-friendly, if that sort of thing bothers you.

Some episodes feature bonus material after the closing music, of varying interest. This is usually either teasers, or conversations that were sort of interesting, but not a bit tangential to the main episode.

Episode 6

The Episode

So I've basically talked about everything in this episode already. Much has been written elsewhere on the OP-ness of the heavy bolter, and ways of dealing with it. Similarly, the final crystal conundrum has been discussed before.

The bit at the end is another one of those conundrums. Do we know about Ahriman? He's a completely legendary Chaos Sorcerer, but it's just not that clear what level of setting knowlege Space Marines should have.

I look forward to seeing where all this is going! Roll on, 2015...

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

A Stony Sleep, part 5

This Brain Is Above Your Security Clearance

This is a playthrough of A Stony Sleep from The Emperor Protects, so be careful not to let on to your GM that you listened to it. It does reveal one crucial plot event, and foreknowledge will inevitably affect the way you play this scenario. As always, be aware that the podcast is not really family-friendly, if that sort of thing bothers you.

Some episodes feature bonus material after the closing music, of varying interest. This is usually either teasers, or conversations that were sort of interesting, but not a bit tangential to the main episode.

Episode 5

The Episode

This being a transitional episode between phases of the investigation, there's a lot of stuff going on here. There could potentially have been a much longer cultist-fighting phase, but Arthur made a tactical decision to cut this short due to our gaming schedules (and to avoid repetition).

There's a sort of instinct to rebel when some objective is unattainable, such as rescuing the inquisitor, which I definitely suffer from. This is not in fact one of the official objectives, which you might recall made us suspicious in the first episode, although I offered a (plausible?) counterpoint. But you want to rescue people when you're heroic, even in the brutal Imperium. In practice, I thought this was one of the better examples of this sort of thing. We got a chance to interact with Vincent and try whatever we wanted. His mental state, betrayal and position of authority gave a convincing reason why he wasn't rescuable, while a long absence plus the nature of his captors convincingly accounted for those things. This wasn't one of those "NPC is shot at long range by an unseen enemy, having promised to divulge vital information first thing in the morning because it's too late right now" affairs.

The submarine sequence was a little bit disrupted by us players leaping to action while Arthur was trying to narrate. In practice, the outage is supposed to take a second or so, but we weren't quite clear on that. No big deal, it's just something that happens sometimes.

The encounter with the Alpha Legion was tense, but maybe a little anticlimactic? The opener was good, as Nikolai does his level best to get himself killed again (in retrospect, "slight caution" a poor choice when I should have been auspexing like anything). Having all four obliterated by a single psychic power was both satisfyingly awesome on our behalf, and slightly disappointing - I can't really decide which one won out for me. However, it's hard to dissociate my judgement from the points I've already made about this stuff.

DVD extra bonus material

We talk briefly about Demon: the Fallen, since this recording was actually made before the Demon game I posted a while ago. Hooray for time travel. I already discussed some of the many, many problems with this game. In the light of that, the discussion here of chapters being presented inconsistently takes on a different light. It seem less like an unfortunate editorial decision, and more like yet more evidence that the product wasn’t actually finished, let alone edited for consistency.

Kitting Monitors, part 2

This is obviously a sequel to this other post about how non-weapon equipment and its mechanics can influence a game. Dan's comment is also essential reading.

As a reminder, we're looking more or less at this list:

  • Does game-mechanical equipment exist at all?
  • What equipment exists?
  • What is treated as Equipment rather than just stuff you have?
  • What technology is assumed to exist, to be available to PCs, and to be available to common NPCs?
  • How do you get Equipment in the first place? How easy is it to get more, both in the long term and the short term?
  • Maintenance? Breakages? Upkeep costs? Do these things exist, and if so, how do they work?
  • How reliable is equipment?
  • How, if at all, is equipment limited?
  • What is assumed normal equipment for a PC? How useful is it compared to what NPCs have? How much and how often does it affect the basic resolution mechanics? (are you adding bonuses to every roll? etc.)
  • Is equipment assumed and subtractive from, or optional and additive to die rolls?
  • What non-mechanical capabilities can equipment provide?
  • How crucial is the possession or otherwise of specific equipment to success? Are activities, or even missions, allowed to fail because PCs don't have particular items?
  • How vulnerable is a PC without their equipment?

Maintenance and reliability

This is largely an aspect of the setting rather than the equipment per se, but maintenance issues are important too. The big ones are the overall reliability of equipment (in the short and long term), and any work or resource costs to keeping them in play.

Monday, 10 November 2014

A Stony Sleep, part 4

But I'm Wearing My Stealthy Yellow Armour feat. We Could Eat This Guy's Brain

This is a playthrough of A Stony Sleep from The Emperor Protects, so be careful not to let on to your GM that you listened to it. It does reveal one crucial plot event, and foreknowledge will inevitably affect the way you play this scenario. As always, be aware that the podcast is not really family-friendly, if that sort of thing bothers you.

Some episodes feature bonus material after the closing music, of varying interest. This is usually either teasers, or conversations that were sort of interesting, but not a bit tangential to the main episode.

Episode 4

The Episode

Return of crisps! Once again, I am really very sorry about the crisps.

Sometimes it's really hard to pick titles. With this scenario, I think for the first time, I went for (hazy approximations of) quotes from the episodes. Some have several tempting lines. Previously I've tended towards very basic descriptions. I'm still not sure what's the best option; you don't want to spoil an episode, you do want to summarise it, and quotes are sometimes memorable, but sometimes quite generic despite being good. I do think titles are essential to podcasts because if, like me, you have a few thousand floating around your hard drive, and potentially a hundred or more from a single podcaster (here's hoping!) then it's very easy to listen to one episode, come back a week later after binging on something else, and have no idea whether you listened to dgb_pod_00098 or dgb_pod_00064, or indeed "Episode 28" or "Episode 36". One day I must write something opinionated on podcast metadata...

The memory science I mentioned is Memory RNA. And despite this being entirely debunked years ago in a famous scientific turnaround, apparently it's still going on! I say this because my idle googling for a suitable link produced this article in an apparently legitimate journal, which appears to be literally the exact same thing.

It's horrifying in a way just how quickly a team of space marines can demolish a substantial threat. I don't think a single combat in the Fists campaign has lasted more than three rounds, and I believe in all cases that's purely been a case of mopping up horde survivors. Ah, maybe the diablodon fight was more than three?

It's kind of cool, but in a way I think it creates problems for Deathwatch in particular. The lethality we have discussed before means that it's very difficult to have meaningful drawn-out combats - anything able to pose a serious threat to the marines is reasonably likely to kill them through swing. One thing this tends to mean is that it very rarely actually matters what cool and interesting capabilities enemies have, as they rarely get to bring them into play. Most are lucky to get a single shot off. We have no idea what the cultists were capable of, and to some extent that makes it more difficult to create interesting memories. "Remember that time we killed everyone with a single round of heavy bolter fire?" "Wasn't that... every time?" I jest, but I think there's something to it. I just can't quite pin it down right now. In my defence, I'm ill today.

Brain-eating comes up a lot in this episode, but sadly there are always reasons to avoid it. I should really check into the canon on that - just how much do Marines worry about eating xenos brains, say? Because if you refuse to eat the brains of heretics, psykers and aliens, that doesn't leave you with much reason to have the ability.

A Cord of One Strand Is Not Easily Broken: a party-splitting mechanic

Yes, another in the long list of posts that are sort-of-games that I won't get round to doing anything with.

As far as I remember, this particular idea was born from two premises:

  • the kind of grandstanding, heroic scenes beloved of all media in the history of writing, whereby one person nobly steps up to face a challenge while their companions are occupied;
  • the fact that in most games, splitting the party makes the difference between an obstacle (usually a fight) that saps some of your resources, and being ground into a fine paste.

In fact, quite often lone characters are depicted as overcoming challenges far exceeding what the whole party might typically take on. Such scenes include "I'll hold them off as long as I can", freeing captured teammates, lone charges against a horde to strike fear into the enemy, covert missions where a lone intruder has a better chance of success, or being unable to unleash their full capabilities for fear of injuring allies or bystanders.

Morris

For centuries, secretive bands of acolytes have kept Albion safe, performing the ancient and mysterious rituals that ward the land against dreadful supernatural forces. Join your comrades in song, ale and battle. Perform secret rites at the equinox while maintaining your cover as harmless drunken eccentrics. Keep back the darkness with long-forgotten magic, and when that fails, hit it on the head with a stick. Grow a beard, wear a silly hat. Join the Morris.

Shall we dance?

Unlike most things I write, this isn't a proposal for a new system, just a campaign. Morris is a sandboxy suburban fantasy. You play Morris dancers tasked with maintaining supernatural wards via rituals, and taking down anything creepy that manages to slip through, while maintaining secrecy.

Given the premise is quite silly, I personally feel it would tend to work best with a pretty straight approach that takes it all seriously. A silly version could work too, of course. It strikes me that something like WoD would be a reasonable system, not least because it's not that different in premise. FATE could also work, assuming I ever work out how to run it.

Because you're fairly ordinary people otherwise, there's plenty of scope for incorporating more mundane things going on, personal arcs, inter-character stuff and so on.

As a very British setting, it's distinguished from a lot of urban fantasy because nobody's carrying guns. It doesn't matter how urban fantasy it is; nobody goes around carrying guns in Britain. Big sticks, though, you can get away with.

I picture the supernatural stuff as all a bit mysterious to everyone. Nobody's entirely sure how all this stuff works, including the magic they do to keep out the darkness. What's vital, what's mere ritual and habit? Some part of this folk song helps fend off evil, but are the doo-rallies and the atonal singing really necessary? There are many disagreements, schisms and power struggles between rival Morris troupes, let alone other groups with broadly similar aims.

The main enemies of the Morris are supernatural forces, but human antagonists also present a threat. This politician brings in music licensing; that concerned citizen brings a noise complaint. A drunken gang here decides to disrupt a dance and threatens the magical stability of the whole county. More worryingly, dabblers in occult mysteries may wish to channel magical forces to their own ends, and risk unleashing terrible things on the unsuspecting populace. There's room, too, for some more neutral actors: indifferent immortals or whimsical spirits who bear no malice, yet are not allied to the Morris. They must be bargained with, placated, entreated or browbeaten to attain the Troupe's ends.


The pic is adapted from Morris: a life with bells on which is a really good film, you should watch it.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

A Stony Sleep, part 3

Cultist-Bothering for Fun and Profit

This is a playthrough of A Stony Sleep from The Emperor Protects, so be careful not to let on to your GM that you listened to it. It does reveal one crucial plot event, and foreknowledge will inevitably affect the way you play this scenario. As always, be aware that the podcast is not really family-friendly, if that sort of thing bothers you.

Some episodes feature teasers for upcoming actual plays, after the closing music. Just so you know.

Episode 3

The Episode

Surprisingly, we have actually used the Climb skill twice over the course of our missions. Still not worth boosting, though. Especially not for those of us who can fly.

The confrontation in the cave, specifically the bits just before the fight, may seem a bit disjointed. This isn't because we're not listening to each other; I had to cut about three minutes of this out, in several sections, because of noise issues. I've tried to keep in as much information as possible, though.

For those of you keenly following my discourses on Brother Nikolai (who am I kidding?), this episode features him being genuinely useful, achieving something the rest of the party couldn't. It's interesting to me, and I mean that sincerely rather than being sarky, that this doesn't relate at all to proficiency in combat. Firstly, he takes the lowest point in the climb and saves Kaim, safe in the knowledge that he has a jump pack as a fall-back if things go badly wrong. Secondly, the jump back (and his confidence in getting up close and personal) allows him to barge straight into the cultists, attempt to overawe them, and then snatch away the cult leader. Strictly speaking, this is a much bigger contribution fluff-wise than it is mechanically, since the objective would have been met by blowing them all to pieces, but we're trying to play roles here, right? As a secondary point, as the conversation shows, we're all conscious of the problematic situation (armoured fascists slaughter followers of alternative religion). While we're all on board for that, and the canon does a lot to actually justify this approach, I think we do feel a bit better when we give the occasional nod towards the less murderous and more human aspects of the space marines. If these cultists choose to make a suicidal attack, rather than, um... surrendering and probably surviving their forced conversion and penance, for a given value of "survive"... well, that's their business!

But yes, Nikolai. This shows off a point I've made before, which is that to a large extent I do think assault marines are inherently broader than some of the other specialities, and their strengths lie quite substantially in their movement capabilities and defensive capabilities. Nikolai can get to places quickly to do things other than killing, get away from danger quickly, and soak a lot of attacks - although less so when facing a Horde as they ignore parries.

Note here that Arthur didn't require a die roll for me to leap into the midst of the cultists. In fact, I think the only time I've had to roll was in Mersadie Hive, when I used my jump pack to leap from a speeding bike and hurl incendiary grenades onto a roof and then tried to land back on the bike. This strikes me as exactly the right way to adjudicate these matters.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

A Stony Sleep, part 2

Steve Jackson, Is That You?

This is a playthrough of A Stony Sleep from The Emperor Protects, so be careful not to let on to your GM that you listened to it. It does reveal one crucial plot event, and foreknowledge will inevitably affect the way you play this scenario. As always, be aware that the podcast is not really family-friendly, if that sort of thing bothers you.

Some episodes feature bonus material after the closing music, of varying interest. This is usually either teasers, or conversations that were sort of interesting, but not a bit tangential to the main episode.

Episode 2

The Episode

You would not believe how much crisp-excision this podcast required. This was actually one of the main reasons I didn't get round to doing it sooner. I'm not sure if you can tell, but there are a few sections where I had to remove entire conversation threads because crucial parts were obscured by unbearable crunching and/or rustling. There was a certain amount of careful doctoring, including pasting in alternative versions of a word from elsewhere in the recording to create a clean sentence break.

I should point out, though, that I have in no cases changed the actual meaning of what was said! Just tidied up bits where I had to chop off a run-on sentence or a bit where we talked over each other and led into another conversation that couldn't be rescued. Nothing crucial was lost, but the podcast is quite a bit shorter as a result. The surviving crispy sections should give you a clue just how bad the excised bits were.

This is an occupational hazard of actual plays - very few snacks are silent and gaming is a snacky sort of hobby. More recently we've been putting things in bowls before recording, which helps, but I'm not sure how the squeaky-clean podcasts tend to manage. Unless they just don't eat, and are tireless robot gamers. Always a possibility.

I Fought The Lore

When we learn about the "other Astartes", it's obvious to me and Dan (with our extensive 40K background) that this will be the Alpha Legion. However, it's not clear whether our characters are allowed to know that. This is one of the points where establishing exactly what canonical knowledge is widespread, what is secret, and where different kinds of security clearance fall is really difficult in this game.

One of the reasons for this is, of course, that the 40K universe has been built up over decades by a whole load of different writers and gone through several major editions, each with their own angle on the truth of the situation. It's not clear how much access ordinary space marines have to Chaos-related information, and what is strictly inquisitorial or known to more senior marines. The RPG in general isn't especially helpful about this, and knowledge is absolutely one of the areas where I'd really have liked them to lay down some suggested difficulty guidelines, because this stuff is not remotely obvious. It's even worse once you start to move into things that aren't massive and well-established parts of the game canon (like major Chaos Space Marine legions) and into some of the crannies, like Imperial Navy lore or even psyker lore.

Broadly speaking, you have to assume that all space marines know about the existence of Chaos marines and renegades, and therefore at least a basic amount about Chaos. For a purely practical standpoint they must, must also be taught the tactics, equipment and abilities of Chaos marines, because the entire point of the Astartes is to fight the enemies of mankind, and refusing to teach them anything about fighting the one threat that did come close to wiping out the Imperium would be too stupid even for the Imperium. So if they know World Eaters are involved in a situation, there is no question in my mind that they should understand this will mean Khorne berzerkers, and therefore terrifying melée specialists, as well as a focus on mass slaughter of everyone possible, which will likely result in demons appearing who are also melée specialists. If they know Tzeentchian marines are involved, they should know to expect vile sorcery, a focus on ranged weaponry and maddening, fast-moving demons that spit flames and lightning.

It's less clear how much this extends to more strategic considerations, since it's generally senior marines who will be taking strategic decisions anyway. Do the ordinary marines need to know the typical signs of Alpha Legion operation, which are extensive use of cults, sabotage and misinformation? Do they need to understand that Slaanesh worshippers will aim to take captives for hedonistic rituals, offering certain strategic opportunities and informing loyalists about their likely movements? It all depends very much on how you view the information structures and trust within a chapter, which varies by chapter, as well as how you perceive the role of space marines in the Imperium as a whole. If they are basically soldiers, this kind of information is less important and might well be kept secret by paranoid officials. If they have a wider remit that includes investigation, small-unit missions and acting as aides or advisors, then it doesn't really make sense to me for them not to have that kind of information. Sending in a small unit to investigate situations when they aren't given enough information to analyse, identify and countermand threats is not sensible.

All this is a very long way of saying that I feel like this is a situation where the Fists should just have got the information. This isn't particularly complicated stuff: this is Traitor Legions 101. I have no idea what the actual mission stated, but the rulebook gives no guidance on how to handle this, and so I don't think Arthur's to blame. From what I've seen, any notes in the mission most likely offered a -20 penalty to Forbidden Lore rolls on the basis that you're trying to use Forbidden Lore.

Slightly later on, our in-character knowledge includes detailed understanding of the mindset of the Alpha Legion. I'm not trying to pick on Arthur here, not least because he used this on the spot as a way to give us metagame knowledge ("step away from the massive paranoia tangent of obsessing about this detail") without flat-out telling us in GM-voice that it's a result of scenario design clashing with reality. It seems perfectly reasonable that we would Know Our Enemies, and it's certainly plausible that we'd have memorised specific stuff about each legion without necessarily wanting to positively identify a specific group of enemies based on some general clues. I'm partly just flagging this up in case anyone else spots it, and partly because the contrast between these two situations just further emphasises for me how unclear the books are on this aspect of the game.

Of course, it's possible one reason the rules are pretty general about knowledge is that it's taken from a ruleset designed for all possible (okay, likely) 40K characters, and "common knowledge" varies massively by role in the universe. At the same time, this strikes me as exactly what individual books are for in such a game line. The summary for Forbidden Lore: Traitor Legions is just a few words, and it contrasts significantly with that for Common Lore: Adeptus Astartes and indeed Forbidden Lore: Adeptus Astartes.

Forbidden Lore: The Traitor Legions: The secrets of the lost Space Marine Legions, their names, and the sad tale of their fall from grace.

Forbidden Lore: Adeptus Astartes: Extensive knowledge of the practices, organisation, and homeworlds of the Imperial Space Marines and their Chapters, including hints and rumours of their myriad of secret rituals and methods of recruitment and training.

Common Lore: Adeptus Astartes: An understanding of the role, function, and nature of the famed Imperial Space Marines, as well as a knowledge of the commonly known Chapters and their practices and areas of operation.

Note that CLAA specifically mentions the practices of Chapters, and FLAA specifies their practices, rituals, methods and training. FLTL is far more cagey about what is actually included, more or less leaving this up to the GM. I find this unsatisfactory.

Friday, 7 November 2014

A Stony Sleep, part 1

They have returned! A-Fisting we will go, a-Fisting we will go... or rather, we did go. About a year ago, in fact. Whoops. Sorry.

To Lose One Inquisitor

This is a playthrough of A Stony Sleep from The Emperor Protects, so be careful not to let on to your GM that you listened to it. It does reveal one crucial plot event, and foreknowledge will inevitably affect the way you play this scenario. As always, be aware that the podcast is not really family-friendly, if that sort of thing bothers you.

Some episodes feature bonus material after the closing music, of varying interest. This is usually either teasers, or conversations that were sort of interesting, but not a bit tangential to the main episode.

Episode 1

The Episode

I am really very sorry about the crisps.

There's not a whole lot going on in this episode, which is mostly briefing. However, you'll notice that our sensible paranoia averts a major problem. As Arthur has discussed, the designers seemed pretty sure players wouldn't be able to handle this basic escort mission. In fairness, the assassination plot is sufficiently far-fetched that you might well assume no sensible player would think of it.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Horror in the Dark

Once again, I must thank Shannon for prompting this set of ideas with her discussion of Outlast.

The chunk responsible is this:

I list it all out because it points out one of the main difficulties between translating any movement-oriented stealth game and that's the little detail of timing. It's tense running through a corridor only a few steps ahead from the bad guy and anxiously leaping up toward a vent. It's nerve-wracking when you crouch beside an open door, wondering whether you should walk out into the darkness or not.

Making a series of dice rolls that all use the same Athletics or Stealth skill is not tense. So we can't rely on that.

This got me thinking, how could you try to represent this? Well, it strikes me that a lot of tension boils down to uncertainty. You don’t know what will happen next, there’s a good chance it will be bad, but you don’t even know exactly how bad. The longer it lasts, the worse it tends to be. This is how people develop chronic stress. What happened to all these dead people? When will the thing you heard, but didn’t see, come back, if at all? Will that strange security guard over there see you creeping about? Did anyone hear you close that door? You’re nine-tenths of the way across the courtyard, can you make the last bit without being seen? And is that doorway you’re heading for even safe, or is the monster just waiting for you there..?

As such, I’m going to propose using a number of special GM dicepools here. First, though, I’m going to say that (unusually for me) I think in this case it probably is beneficial for most of what is going on to be hidden from the players, particularly all these dicepools. It creates uncertainty.

Also, I haven't run the numbers on these pools or anything, that's more Dan's gig. So these are more starting point concepts.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Advancing Icons

So as often happens,* I was trying to find Japanese equivalents of complicated lit-crit vocabulary, and stumbled across an RPG blog. Sadly, the post I found is dated to 2012 and the blog rarely updated, but I thought I'd post something here anyway, because that's how I roll. I would like to thank mwhill42 for this diversion, as it's not like I'm trying to learn an entire language while simultaneously producing an RPG about magical spacefaring lizard secret agents or anything.**

* This is a lie

** This is also a lie

The post in question refers back to a longer one by Robin D Laws, which is about writing and stuff and not directly relevant here.

Here's our discussion topic:

How would you handle character advancement (or experience or ...) for the different types of characters? The dramatic hero seems pretty typical for a RPG but the iconic hero ...

Simple solutions

Thought one: don't. The whole shtick of an iconic hero is that they do not change, or grow. They enter our world already competent and retain that competence throughout their careers, with no significant changes in capability or character.

The characters will not change much, but this doesn't necessarily make them not fun to play. Having a set character doesn't preclude things like developing relationships (although the character's persona should not change), learning small non-mechanical things, gaining specific items of equipment, or a growing history of accompishments. Speaking of which...

Repute

The character might not learn much, but everyone else can. Growing fame, or infamy, brings a measure of power. A repute-based advancement system would allow the character to exert greater influence or call in favours, while still doing the same kind of things they used to do. The exact mechanics would vary by genre. A high-repute PI might have pull with the police, be owed favours by society figures, even have a fan club (official or otherwise). A high-repute gunslinger can stop a fight in its tracks just by dropping their name - although they'll also tend to draw unwanted attention. An occult investigator might be able to get official help despite the weirdness of their claims, because someone in the authorities has dealt with them before. A time-travelling alien can bulldoze his way through arguments and make would-be-interferers hesitate, because people have gradually learned the name The Doctor.

This is, essentially, the approach I suggest for Monitors, which is leaning on the Saturday morning cartoon style of iconic hero. They will be able (if they choose) to earn either official seniority, or favourable reputation, with their organisation. This allows them to lean on their authority or the trust they have earned, while not being able to mechanically do so very often - this makes sense in the setting, where their organisation walks a careful line between fulfilling its duties and getting people's backs up.

While it's designed for an organisation-based game, you could perfectly well transfer some elements to a more individual game, and treat it as reflecting favours owed, tales that grow in the telling, and other advantages.

Incidentally, I use "repute" here deliberately to avoid confusion with "reputation", as the latter is sometimes uses on a good-bad axis and this isn't what I'm driving at here.

Mastery

Our iconic character may have their established shtick, but that doesn't mean they can't improve mechanically. After all, game systems often involve a lot of randomness, and that can disrupt the kind of stories we want to emerge from iconic heroes. In fact, it undermines that iconicity if said hero randomly rolls ten 1s in succession and looks like an amateur at their main area of expertise, or whatever. As various systems have suggested, increasing player control may help support the iconic hero (as well as the dramatic) by reducing the chance of things going wrong that should go right.

Token systems like Savage Worlds bennies or FATE points can address this issue, and one way to model advancement might be to offer more to more experienced characters. However, this risks ramping up their power rather than smoothing out the rough patches - in many systems, a token that could turn a failure into a success can also make a moderate success excellent. Unless you limit the usage of such tokens, it could undermine what you're going for. Also, they usually have several uses, some of which may make having a large pool overpowered, or just weird. For example, it makes little sense if a timid stay-at-home mathematician can spend tokens to soak a dozen bullet wounds.

You could instead implement a system where characters gain some ability to "finesse" unwanted results, particularly where these pertain directly to their iconic abilities. Essentially, you'd be creating a tolerance for error so that a slight failure becomes a success, a moderate failure becomes slight, and so on. I think this is broadly preferable to offering outright bonuses; it won't make them able to achieve beyond their normal limits, which can cause mechanical issues in many systems.* The idea here is that the character will be less likely to fluff their core competencies.

* For example, systems sometimes have thresholds like "mortal/supernatural", and you don't really want to push those. It might affect mechanical balance, but it also kind of stops being an iconic hero if they ascend to godhood. And while in some systems it's really just a matter of what number you end up with, those with a broader or more narrative resolution may have bigger problems. If you suddenly manage to deflect bullets or walk up a sheer wall while being a regular mortal, that's a problem.

So for example, in a percentile system you might allow, oh, three skills to be noted as Iconic Skills for your character, and allow a 1% tolerance of failure on those skills. Have the tolerance equate to some nominal level. By 10th "level", they have a 10% margin that still counts as a mild success.

Alternatively, you could have a resource-based system, where the player has some number of points they can use to mitigate failures. You could make this affect narrow failures only, or you could decide they can also reduce the severity of greater failures - the Great Detective makes mistakes sometimes, but never catastrophic misjudgements. So maybe three times a day they can cancel a failure, or once per scene, or something.

In most cases I would advise tying this to the specific nature of the character, so they can rely on this when they're doing something iconic, but not when doing something outside their shtick.


I think that's about all I've got. Anyone else?

The Voyages of Dr Charvik: an unfortunate turn of events

Led astray and abandoned by my companions, I had found myself prisoner in a hateful frozen waste. Freed by the kindly intervention of a passing dragon, I had formed tentative relations with the locals, and discovered the presence of several sites of historical interest. After witnessing the tragic death of a fellow-scholar, I began the journey to a nearby settlement with a message to their jarl, or secretary; but was persuaded to delay my visit by several intriguing ruins along the route.

A large, towered structure caught my whim, and I proceeded towards it apace. I soon found that it was in a sorry state, but much of the overall structure remained intact. I had little specific experience of this architectural style, but my trained eye quickly discerned that the walls reached largely to their original height, except where one section had collapsed outward due to subsidence. There were, moreover, signs of recent activity: a footprint here, a cheval de frise there, and overhead what appeared to be a human body suspending in a cage. Promising stuff, indeed! Whichever historical society might be managing this site, they were clearly dedicated to the restoration project. Their work seemed highly authentic, and I looked forward to meeting them, however rustic they might be. Even an enthusiastic amateur can be a fine conversationalist when there is shared interest.

There was little immediate sign of activity as I entered the compound, but I noticed a figure standing on the ramparts and made my way towards it. Taking a well-earned break from some duty, a man stood staring out across the valley, whistling softly and apparently enjoying the icy breeze against whose fingers I had carefully wrapped myself. From his sparse clothing, I surmised that he had been working at the forge nearby. Seeing him deep in thought, I approached quietly, not wishing to intrude. It was then that a most unfortunate accident occurred.

As I hissed politely to alert the man to my presence, he started violently and span around. I gave a reassuring smile, attempting to lend a touch of apology by extending my claws in a gesture of welcome I had seen elsewhere. At this moment, I believe a sudden gust of wind must have occurred, or else the man was startled to see a visitor without an official appointment. The latter possibility frets slightly at my conscience. Regardless, the tragic result was that the man stumbled backward - threw one hand before his face - his leg struck the crumbling rampart - and he fell with a shriek.

As I leaned aghast over the parapet and gazed at the poor, unmoving corpse, there came hurried footsteps behind me. "What is it?" called a voice. Seeing me, the new arrival stopped in obvious shock and suspicion. He muttered something about gold and death, presumably a reference to some form of blood-money - I had heard such a system operates in the region. Observing the dagger the man had drawn, I attempted to explain what had happened. It was then that the second unfortunate accident occurred.

In the stress of the moment, I found myself stumbling over the rough Human tongue, and turned to gesture. As I described the victim's stumble and fatal fall, I turned sharply and gestured out towards the wall.

I did not realise that, for some reason known only to himself, my interlocutor chose this moment to step towards me. In turning, my tail struck him hard across the knees - he stumbled backward, and tottered on the edge. Spinning back and seeing what had occurred, I flung out a desperate claw towards him, and succeeded in catching his shoulder. In a moment, I would surely have hauled him to safety; yet he shrieked with pain, and thrashed wildly, tearing himself from my grip. By the time I had hurried down the steps, there was nothing even my magic could do for him. Though the ground on the inside was higher, the fall had fractured at least one vertebra in his neck.

Seeing that neither gentleman carried any form of identification - presumably for fear of anachronism - I decided I had best enter the main building, where the superintendents of the project would undoubtedly be at work. It was a most regrettable affair, and I was considerably shaken by both the sudden tragedy, and the streaks of blood that now besmirched my clothing and claws. However, pausing to wash at the nearby trough would have seemed deeply insensitive in the circumstances. I picked up the distinctive mace one of the men had carried, and hastened inside.

As I entered the building, several people turned to stare at me. My bloodstained garb and harassed demeanour can only have added to their bewilderment at seeing an Argonian amongst them. Of course, I was a stranger, but it did not seem like an occasion for polite nothings, and I proceeded directly to the point.

"The man with this mace," I cried, lifting it for them to see. "He is dead now. I killed him." Considering my distress, I still feel this was a praiseworthy first attempt, distilling all important details into a brief and simple message. However, perhaps understandably in retrospect, this did little to reassure my audience; indeed, they backed away and reached for various weapons.

"You are ignorant," I tried to explain. "Weapons are useless. He stood watching at the rampart. I came silent, unseen. Surprised, he died. Another heard his death-cry. He also is dead. My tail struck, he fell, broken."

It occurred to me, as they adopted aggressive postures, that the bloodstains were probably alarming them. How foolish of me! "Here, his blood. I caught him, my claws. He struggled, and died." Pleased with my explanation under trying circumstances, I respectfully let the mace fall, and stared intently at the apparent leader of the three, willing her to discern the truth from my eyes. Remembering belatedly, I made another attempt at the ever-popular smile.

I still cannot fully explain why it was that, rather than hastening to their fallen comrades, these three chose to violently assault me. The temporary madness of grief; some primitive lust for vengeance instilled by their culture; an attack of xenophobia? In the heat of the moment, there was nothing I could do but defend myself against the sudden barrage of blades. Moreover, one of them proved to be a quite capable spellcaster, and bombarded me with ice magic that chilled me almost to the marrow. It was only thanks to my trusty shield that I was able to survive the assault long enough to defeat them. I noted, as the last one slumped mournfully to the floor, that I had quite regained the duelling skills so laboriously instilled in me years before. Indeed, the recent plethora of violence had made a very warrior of me, of all things!

Once I had recovered from my injuries, with the aid of a few medicinal draughts, I arranged the corpses tidily in a corner and explored the rest of the site. It was indeed a remarkably impressive reconstruction of a working frontier fort, though of course, I cannot say how accurate the details might have been. With a few explanatory placards, and perhaps a tea-room, it will make an excellent destination for the discerning visitor.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Knowing it all

A belated follow-up to this earlier post.

Basically, I started wondering what other ways there are of modelling skills, that might lead to less of a discrepancy between combat skill and just about everything else.

Games don't usually have skills for fighting orks, fighting ratmen, fighting elves and fighting giants. They don't have skills for fighting lumbering golems and skills for fighting agile displacer beasts. They have skills for fighting with a small variety of alternative combat styles, based around very broad weapon categories, of which you normally pick one. In some cases they have only a couple of skills, like "attack" and "defence", or "ranged", "melée" and "dodge".

Games also avoid letting choice of combat skills cut off your options. Things like melée range, mobility and niche use that should probably make some weapons essentially useless in some situations are usually ignored. If you want to fight the giant with a dagger, the bear with a spiked chain or the wasp with a greataxe, those are all legitimate mechanical options rather than laughably doomed.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Kitting Monitors, part 1

So next on my list of Monitors tasks is Generic Equipment, which is to say, stuff that isn't weapons or armour which probably means stuff that isn't weapons or armour, but let's wait and see where the rest of this post takes me. This is an, um... interesting one. I say this about quite a lot of aspects of games, but equipment is one of the things that defines what a game is like. Actually, I'm going to break that down a bit more, because I think there are quite a lot of ways in which equipment affects a game.

This analysis is in no way procrastination.

Some questions that I think are worth asking at this point:

  • Does game-mechanical equipment exist at all?
  • What equipment exists?
  • What is treated as Equipment rather than just stuff you have?
  • What technology is assumed to exist, to be available to PCs, and to be available to common NPCs?
  • How do you get Equipment in the first place? How easy is it to get more, both in the long term and the short term?
  • Maintenance? Breakages? Upkeep costs? Do these things exist, and if so, how do they work?
  • How reliable is equipment?
  • How, if at all, is equipment limited?
  • What is assumed normal equipment for a PC? How useful is it compared to what NPCs have? How much and how often does it affect the basic resolution mechanics? (are you adding bonuses to every roll? etc.)
  • Is equipment assumed and subtractive from, or optional and additive to die rolls?
  • What non-mechanical capabilities can equipment provide?
  • How crucial is the possession or otherwise of specific equipment to success? Are activities, or even missions, allowed to fail because PCs don't have particular items?
  • How vulnerable is a PC without their equipment?

Let's have a closer look at some of these.

Equipment's existence

Designing the equipment section of a game seems like a very natural step, but I feel like it's important to stop and note that it is absolutely not an obligatory one.

In trad roleplaying games like D&D, which aim for a kind of simulation, equipment is important. Dungeon-delving is dangerous, and equipment allows characters to mitagate that by preparing and by making clever use of what they have. Resources are limited, and so important. On the one hand, there's an angle of making do with what you have and only that; on the other, there's the triumph of having come prepared for this specific eventuality. This ties into the source material, where Chekhov's Guns are fairly common, unassuming items being acquired along the way to avoid a deus ex machina. It's also, frankly, just fun (for some of us) to pore over shopping lists of weird items, and to find uses for the random junk we loot.

Call of Cthulhu and similar also model equipment, although it's much less significant in play. One of the interesting factors here is the distinction between the research and investigation phases. In research time, Investigators often have the money and the opportunity to obtain just about anything that currently exists, even illegal items. In many cases buying aeroplanes, heavy weaponry or enormous piles of meteoric iron is nothing to the party budget. Once they're on location, though, they are suddenly tied down to exactly what they have to hand. This drives up the horror aspect by creating a restriction, but also helps to (once again) reward planning. It tends to bolster realism in the sense of giving people only what they thought to bring, though this can also lead to characters doing excessive preparation and carrying implausible loads everywhere just in case.

That being said, games do not have to mechanically support equipment as a distinct entity with mechanical implications. Storygames are obvious contenders for this, but systems like Dungeon World seem to minimise it with their focus on actions rather than tools. You can assume that characters have "appropriate equipment" and can get on with their tasks without worrying. You can handle it with generic "do I have the right stuff?" rolls, rather than modelling specific equipment.

In a game that's All About decisions, emotions, slapstick mishaps, Deep Meaningful Themes or generally isn't that interested in being a simulation, this may be a better option.

Big-E and little-e equipment

Once you've looked at whether you want equipment rules at all, and assuming you answered "Yes", there's a decision to be made about what will constitute game-mechanical equipment.

In many cases, you don't really want every single item to be treated equally seriously by mechanics. Differentiation here is one way to help shape the game experience, emphasising things that add to the tone you wish to create, and backgrounding other things. You can do this through aspects like whether equipment has to be specifically taken by characters; by where you offer variety in types of equipment; and by where you decide to implement actual rules for equipment use.

In a game about pre-modern humans, it may absolutely make sense for Writing and Reading to be separate skills, and for writing implements, inks and paper types to be modelled in detail. Some will last far longer than others, but others are reusable. Vellum offers enormous, expensive prestige. Leaves are plentiful but fragile. Stone-carving is very slow. The ability to communicate without speaking, or keep records, is important; so is the risk that someone else can secretly read. But in a modern police procedural that is an annoying distraction from the focus of the game.

In that same police game, your radio probably should be an abstraction you just use to communicate. But in a military game, particularly one where you play something more senior than "guy with gun", radios could offer important mechanical effects: coordinating fire for maximum effort, getting information that other games would give through perception rolls, minimising exposure to shellfire or other ordinance, requesting information you can't personally recall, and so on. And in a resistance game, radio use could be an entire subsystem involving multiple rolls and skills connected to decisions about where, how and when to make the call.

Most games don't consider your clothing to be relevant, except occasionally for disguise or getting into parties. It doesn't generally matter what kind of shoes you have. Maintenance supplies are rarely modelled in game, even though keeping gear in good shape is vital. In some games, all kinds of equipment may be listed as available, but most of it has no mechanical effect and is therefore not Equipment. A calculator is not normally considered Equipment, but in a post-apocalyptic setting it could be incredibly useful in later-stage survival - providing someone has access to the right textbooks, it offers a massive advantage in building up your settlement or rebuilding technology.

Addition and Subtraction

Counterintuitively, I suspect that the rather dry decision of how to implement equipment modifiers is going to be important in establishing game feel. There are basically two approaches to this, assuming that some kind of modifiers will exist at all (not a given).

In the first approach, Equipment is an asset to what you're attempting. It makes it more likely that you will succeed at some task, granting a bonus over and above your current ability. This is the basic approach taken by Deathwatch and its kin.

Alternatively, a game may assume you have adequate Equipment when attempting a task. Lacking the usual equipment will impose a penalty, possibly including a flat denial - some things just can't be done without some kind of vaguely appropriate tools. D&D tends to favour this approach, with penalties to lockpicking without Thieves' Tools, and so on.

There are mechanical reasons to choose one or the other, depending on how much equipment is likely to be in play and how often you expect it to be used. Generally, in design matters it's a good idea to choose the option that means doing the smallest amount of maths, to save frustration. This would mean that if equipment use is common, penalties are simpler; and if equipment is rarely used, bonuses are similar. However, other factors also come into play.

Psychology is important, and it does tend to feel different getting a bonus rather than a penalty. Bonuses give the sense that you are being rewarded (for forethought, planning, resource management, generally being awesome). Penalties give the sense that you are being penalised (for not being prepared, inefficient use of resources, mistakes, or simple bad luck). I suspect that bonus-heavy games will tend to make characters feel more empowered and create a more positive impression. Penalty-heavy games will tend to make characters feel got at, and create a sense of pressure or concern. Psychologically, it feels important to try and avoid penalties, whereas it feels less important to obtain bonuses.* This makes sense when you think about it, because penalties chip away at what you already had, while bonuses are extra rewards that would be nice to have.

This is musing, not science; I don't have actual data on this.

Deathwatch is an interesting case here, because as I've mentioned elsewhere, it comes across as surprisingly penalty-heavy for a game about superhuman heroes. However, equipment is very much a case of bonuses. In fact, the absolute basic space marine gear provides a load of constant (and rather complicated) bonuses, while other equipment available adds yet more. This contributes to a sense that your enhancements and constant-companion armour make you inherently superior, and that being well-prepared for a mission will vindicate itself mechanically - even though that isn't necessarily true in practice...

This bonus/penalty thing comes about basically because the game line was designed rather oddly. It was built for the needs of Dark Heresy, a game mostly about relatively normal humans with relatively normal (sci-fi) equipment; it also insisted on mirroring the statlines of the D6-based tabletop game while building a percentile system. This was more or less okay for one game featuring people with pretty similar statlines. When people or creatures with different stats appeared, though, some serious hacking was needed to keep something approximating the tabletop stats while also sticking broadly to the fluff. You can't simply translate 3 and 4 on a D6-based table-comparison system to 30 and 40 on a straight percentile system and expect coherent results. The result is that space marines have attributes of 30-40, but special rules are introduced to change how effective these stats are. These include many bonuses to specific rolls based on their augments, implents and armour, which they will have virtually all the time. For example, their armour provides a straight +20 to Strength which applies every single time they use physical force.

The 40K line in general is a bit poor at describing skill use and when situational modifiers apply. For the most part, it seems to encourage the use of penalties; as I've described, this tends to create a sort of pessimistic mood, which actually fits the dark setting quite well, even when applied to space marines. However, it's always assumed that you have appropriate equipment when attempting a roll, so equipment modifiers are virtually always bonuses. For example, an auspex (scanning device) grants a massive +30 to Perception, and surgical equipment offers +10 to medical rolls. This helps create the sense that equipment is a special and is a positive asset, which is both cheering, and fits the setting's treatment of technology as strange and wondrous.


Okay, that seems like enough for now. More later. Feel free to comment.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Authentic Game Fiction

Thanks Dan.

There was silence in the tomb, the silence of nine hundred years. Only vermin still moved amidst the dust, feeding on the fungi and one another. Generations of spiders – nay, entire dynasties – had woven their webs here, and those webs became dust while the next generation wove their own, building shroud upon shroud in unknowing tribute to the silent dead.

As night fell, as it had done for nine hundred uncaring years, a lightning bolt struck the great stone that had sealed the tomb from prying eyes. Mysteriously bypassing various gnarled trees with branches like skeletal claws, it struck one of the lowest points for miles around and shattered the ancient slab, just as a band of travellers happened to wander past. Moments later, the light rain turned to a torrential downpour that inconveniently made it impossible to travel any further without seeking shelter.

Footsteps thudded softly on the dusty floor as they strode into the tomb: a slender elf who nonetheless bore several hundred arrows on her wiry back; a brawny dwarf in a cape and heavy armour that must have been deeply uncomfortable to wear for the fifty-mile march from town; a scarred man in studded leathers that, considering he hadn’t mentioned cleaning them during the two years of in-game time that had passed since he took them from a dead hobgoblin, were dry, cracked, and stank to high heaven.

“So we put up a tent here and rest.”

“Och aye,” said the dwarf in accents that proclaimed his proud Punjabi heritage, “we’re in a tomb, laddie, so we should probably go and kill a load of undead.”

“Or we could just wait here until the storm’s over and then go.”

The elf shook her head. “I’m pretty sure the storm won’t blow over until everything in the tomb has risen from the dead and been killed again. You know how this goes.”

“I hate skeletons. No backstab bonus.”

“Says you, mister I-have-a-bludgeoning-weapon. What are me and my longbow supposed to do here? Has anyone got a club?”

The dwarf sighed. “Can you even use a club?”

“Everyone can use clubs now.”

The elf briefly examined the room, her sharp elven gaze picking out every crack and beetle, but finding nothing that could be wielded as a single-handed bludgeoning weapon.

“Look, I go outside to one of those gnarled trees and break a branch off.”

“That’s not really a club…”

“Then I sit right here and use Nargrim’s dagger to cut bits off it until it counts as a club. Seriously, after the fight in the dark windy caverns where missile weapons don’t work, and all the oozes in the marsh, I’d like to actually inflict some damage for once.”

After some minutes of whittling, the bold party crept onwards once more, down a dark corridor. Crumbling plaques depicted forgotten battles, and the way before them was thick with cobwebs that lent a ghostly cast to all they saw. Halfway down, their vision suddenly failed them.

“Wait, damn, I forgot to light the lantern.”

“I thought Gorn was carrying a lantern?” said the elf, looking round at the scarred man who she couldn’t actually see. “Gorn, you have the bullseye, right?”

“No,” replied the mercenary, with customary patience. “I can’t use a lantern and a greathammer at the same time. We went through this.”

“Nae problem,” said the dwarf. “To a dwarf’s eyes, it’s as bright as day in here. I’ll lead the way, and if I see anything I’ll light a torch. The noo. ”

“You know that won’t work. Anything down here is bound to be undead, so it can see in the dark anyway.”

Sighing, the dwarf pulled out tinder and flint from the enormous backpack of gear he carried. Naturally, it was at the very top. With lantern lit, they gazed around at the crumbling plaques depicting forgotten battles.

“Didn’t we see this before?”

“No, it was dark.”

They strode boldly down the corridors, stirring the dust of aeons and ripping aside the cobwebs. A crumbling stone archway led into a great hall, and the lantern cast its narrow beam across row after row of stone slabs, where web-covered boxes lay. The far end of the hall was wreathed in shadow, too far to see. The three companions paused on the threshold.

“Shall we enter, and risk disturbing the sleeping dead?”

“Might as well, we’ll have to kill them sometime.”

The elf shook her head firmly. “Look, there’s probably tons of those things and it’ll burn through our supplies. Let’s just keep going and kill whatever’s in charge here. We can come back here later.”

“But what if they come up behind us?” asked Gorn. “I mean, that’s what I’d do.”

“Well, there’s no reason for them to wake up,” argued Iharviel, waving an enthusiastic hand. “It’s only going to be if we go inside.”

The dwarf coughed. “Isn’t that what ye said about the kobolds? Lass.”

“Yeah, well, I should have been right then too.”

They stood for a few minutes bickering in the flickering torchlight. Eventually, the dwarf stood watch while the others wandered back to the entrance to fetch some rubble. They returned bearing a broken timber, only to find the archway webbed by fifty feet of hemp rope, carefully wrapped around ten pitons that had been tapped between the stones.

“There you go, much better than trying to block it with stones!” exclaimed the dwarf, looking very pleased with himself. “Plus, this way we can get in later. Aye?”

“Won’t they just cut through the ropes?” asked Gorn, cynically. “I bet they can do that silently too.”

“Well, maybe, but it’ll hold them off for a while, anyway.”

“And then we won’t have any rope. In fact, we don’t have any now. What if we need rope?” asked the elf, tossing her fine silvery locks in what should have been a forceful way, but looked like an unsuccessful pitch for a shampoo campaign.

“It’s fine. We can just come back and get it if we need rope.”

“Then we might as well block the doorway with stones.”

“No, because it’s already blocked now and it’s a waste of time.”

“Yes, but not time time, only game time. You can do anything in basically the same amount of real time. And the storm won’t stop until we’re done.”

“Well no, it’s a waste of time time too, because I just blocked the doorway already. I mean, all the time we’re arguing about this we’re actually using up more real time, even though no time is passing in-game.”

While the demi-humans argued, the mercenary was gazing thoughtfully at the doorway. “You know…” he mused, “…didn’t we run out of gold before we got the climbing gear, because we needed a longbow?”

The rope, which Nargrim had in fact absent-mindedly balanced on some protruding corners and had just happened to stay there, fell in a sudden heap as gravity overcame friction. They all looked at it.

“So we should block the doorway with stone,” said the dwarf at last.

To his irritation, Gorn frowned slightly and shook his head. “Actually, better not. When we kill the whatevermebob in charge, they’ll probably all crumble to dust.”

“Exactly. And we can loot the place without going through a fight.”

“Or getting any XP.”

“You know,” said the elf with sudden spirit, “Gorn is right. I actually feel quite strongly that we should strike down the evil right in front of us before going any further. Who knows what fiendish plans they might get up to while we’re not looking? Also, I have this feeling that I'm just on the verge of mastering some more spells.”

Clutching weapons, they advanced slowly into the room, gazing around. Their booted feet raised clouds from the floor, thick with the dust of centuries. The boxes were each a little under six feet long – exactly the right size to hold a vaguely human corpse of average height for the period, considering the rampant malnutrition. The party were all deeply impressed when they noticed this detail, which greatly enhanced the verisimilitude of their experience.

“Should they nae be waking up?” asked the dwarf, suspiciously. “I was expecting to be surrounded by now.” The gentle lilt of the Valleys lent his words a charming innocence.

His companions shrugged. “Depends, really,” said Iharviel. “If it’s just an HP sink, they might stand up any time. But sometimes they wait until you touch a coffin.”

“That’s, like, punishment for your greed,” said Gorn. “It sort of discourages people from tomb-robbing, except not really. I mean, we wouldn’t be in here if we weren’t supposed to loot it.”

The elf gestured towards the far end of the hall, which remained more shadowed that you might expect given the strong lantern being pointed at it. “Alternatively, they might not animate until we get over there. There’s probably an altar or something, and a ghost that mutters about intruders and defiling, and then we can have a set-piece battle where we’re surrounded.”

Gorn looked thoughtful. “You know, in that case we might as well start breaking coffins open. I mean, if they’re going to animate anyway it’ll make no difference, and if they don’t animate until we get to the altar we can smash them up now.” He grabbed the nearest coffin, wrenched the lid off and raised his vast hammer to shatter the bones within. Iharviel gasped and hurled herself at him, and the mercenary reeled as his heavy blow swung wide.

“Don’t do that, idiot!”

Rubbing at a strained shoulder, the man glared. “What? Sudden religious qualms?”

Earnest emerald-green eyes stared back at him, with mingled pity and rebuke in their jewelled depths. “Somehow I feel like we probably wouldn’t learn anything by smashing these bones as they lie peacefully in their coffins. It would be better to wait and test our mettle against them if they do awaken.”

“…ah.”