Saturday, 30 August 2014

Demon the Fallen: Preacher Man, 06

Opining at great length

This is a scenario dreamed up by Arthur, there are no spoilers here, so listen away as you please. As always, be aware that the podcast is not really family-friendly, if that sort of thing bothers you. Thankfully, this one is largely free of background noise, though there is some eating.

Episode 6

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Demon the Fallen: Preacher Man, 05

I think you should eat him

This is a scenario dreamed up by Arthur, there are no spoilers here, so listen away as you please. As always, be aware that the podcast is not really family-friendly, if that sort of thing bothers you. Thankfully, this one is largely free of background noise, though there is some eating.

Episode 5

The Episode

As often happens in supernatural games (see also: On Silent Wings) we ended up kind of murdering a mortal because we couldn't really think what else to do with the guy. This is a genre problem really: in settings where supernatural stuff is both powerful and secret, you can very easily end up with people who are too dangerous to leave roaming free due to their knowledge or abilities, and yet with no effective way to stop them other than murder. I don't have a solution, but it does often leave a bit of a niggle. I think this is why so many fantasy books feature magic police or ability-neutering options, just to give the good guys another option, even though it often feels a bit unsatisfying when they turn up at the last minute despite not having been relevant throughout the book.

Mechanicsy bit

For what it's worth, based on the information I have (limited), I think I disagree with Arthur on the intersection of Dan's powers and the NPC goon's healing. It didn't seem very important at the time (as we see, it doesn't help the NPC much) and I didn't feel like having an argument, but let's take a look at it now for interest's sake.

"Each success inflicts one health level of aggravated damage (lethal damage to a mortal)." - power description

"Aggravated damage represents supernatural sources of injury which do not heal normally, or other injuries which require some special effort to heal. For humans, this is often an academic distinction: to them, Aggravated damage is just Lethal damage from a supernatural source." - Agg damage description.

As far as I can tell, mortals in Old WOD do not have an Aggravated damage tier. The natural reading of this power for me is that the decay power inflicts lesser (Lethal) damage to mortals only because they do not have an Aggravated damage tier, rather than because it's innately less harmful to humans than to demons. Thus, if they gain an Agg tier, I would expect the human to take Agg damage, since the power's effects seem to fit the description of Agg damage perfectly. What I don't know is the nature of the NPC's healing/soaking power, and how that would intersect with Lethal and Agg damage, especially in terms of whether the owner is expected to have an Agg tier. I'm guessing this was some variant of the pregen thrall Leo Daschell:

"By spending a point of Willpower, he can soak lethal damage with his Stamina for a number of turns equal to his Stamina rating. Once per scene, he can spend a turn concentrating, then spend a point of Willpower in order to heal one level of lethal or bashing damage."

Which is borrowed from the generic Demon abilities:

"When in their apocalyptic forms, demons can use their Stamina to soak lethal damage... Demon characters may use Faith to heal bashing or lethal damage. You can spend one Faith point to heal allof your character’s bashing damage, while lethal damage is healed at the rate of one health level per point spent. Separate Faith points must be used to recover from bashing and lethal damage. Aggravated damage cannot be healed in this fashion."

I note that this ability explicitly applies to the mid-tier damage level for demons, and that the broader rules for healing damage with Faith rule out any healing of Agg damage. As such, I'm inclined to say that the healing ability ought to let him heal effects that would normally deal lethal damage, but not those that would deal Aggravated damage to a demon. But you can certainly make the argument the other way around, especially since Leo does not gain an Agg tier.

This is the kind of thing that always crops up in play, and is very hard to anticipate, but it's always nice when designers have dealt with it.

The End

We've had a nice sweep through sub-parts of the game, with a bit of pacting, some fluffy roleplaying, some investigating and a reasonable amount of using cool powers, so we bring things to a close fairly naturally with a bit of B&E and a fight to the death.

I was a little bit disappointed that the fight was over so quickly, to be honest. On the one hand, it does make combat pleasingly brutal (and my character was, without particular planning, pretty much sick good in combat). On the other hand, it did mean not much chance to actually explore how combat works. Ah well.

As is usually the case, clawing people in the face turned out to be a better option than trying to do anything more complicated. I'd quite like to sometime encounter a game where pulling tricks was genuinely worth doing, without also being insta-winnilly OP. It's probably quite hard to write mechanics like that, though.

Copyright and suchlike

Demon: The Fallen is copyright and/or trademark White Wolf Publishing, who I think now belong to some other corporation but I can't be bothered to check right now; Arthur will be cross with me already for my vagueness. The podcast theme music is Vltava from Smetana's Má Vlast as taken from Wikimedia Commons under the CC0 licence. The episode intro and outro are, respectively, an extract from Black Vortex and all of The Descent, both by Kevin MacLeod ( Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0.

The hilariously portentous opening passage is read directly from the blurb from Demon: the Fallen, and any mockery should be directed to White Wolf.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Monitors: Armour

Next (convenient) list item: armour.

I want armour to be non-negligible in the game for a couple of reasons. One is that the kind of sci-fi I vaguely have in mind as inspiration incorporates a whole range of clothing situations, from sitting in your study in pyjamas to repairing the ion thrusters in a massive protective exoskeleton, via defending your ship from alien invasion. As such, I'd like the precaution of wearing suitable clothing to be respected.

The second is that a game about space lizards where playing a terrapin doesn't let you game-mechanically deflect stuff with your shell seems like a pretty pants game to me.

After some thought, there are (as usual) a few broad ideas I think are relevant.

It's still a fairly simple game, and while combat is relevant I don't want it to be a game full of Combat Stuff, so I want armour to be simple. Minimal modification, and a limited number of armour types.

I feel like worn armour and (I can't avoid the D&D-ism) natural armour should be different in some ways, because brief musing suggests to me that trying to treat them the same way will just cause trouble.

As I have done to some extent with weapons, I think some form of very limited encumbrance-type effect would be appropriate for bulky armour. I will also want to encourage GMs to consider NPC reactions to armour, especially on covert missions.

Broad armour types

The very basic degrees of armour I'd like to implement are something like:

  • Reinforced clothing, such as heavy industrial garb or stab vests. This would offer some protection against environmental hazards, accidents, brawls and low-powered weaponry. Equivalents for other damage types might be sunglasses or dust masks.
  • Genuine armour, such as armoured jackets and helmets, rebreathers or welding masks. These offer substantial protection against most minor threats, as well as more hazardous environments and light military weapons, but assuming the user makes an effort to minimise risk.
  • Heavy armour, such as full hazmat suits, the classic space marine sealed armour, or photoreactive optic filters. These are designed to protect against significant threats, with the assumption that avoiding the danger is not an option.

Something else I might want to include is thresholds for environmental hazards. For example, a fume-filled factory or debris-ridden wreck might pose a mild risk to PCs, which would be negated by any level of armour.

The types above are by no means the only or best armour I'd expect from a setting like this. Massive armoured sealed-environment exoskeletons or pulsing power fields are also reasonable ideas. However, this is not a military game, and so although some military-grade weapons might make it into adventures, I would not expect agents to have the best armour money can buy. It's simply not appropriate for the kind of missions I want them to take on, most of the time. In real life, even organised criminals don't tend to go around in full military armour, even on a bank raid - it's inconvenient, often cumbersome and hard to remove or conceal in a hurry. Weapons offer an immediate advantage in both actual power and perceived threat, they're relatively small compared to full-body armour, and much easier to hide or dispose of quickly.

The Monitors universe absolutely has room for super-armour designed for elite military units to fight antimatter battles in open space or on the surface of Venus, where they cannot possibly avoid hazards and need to weather them; I just don't think they need to be in the main rules. I don't want PCs to wear armour that will deflect 99% of dangers they might plausibly face, because that makes most physical threats irrelevant or forces the GM to rank up the danger, which presents problems for less well-equipped PCs. It also seems like it would cause story issues in explaining the constant unrelenting danger. But most importantly, it seems out of genre.

Armour mechanics options

There are various ways you can implement armour in games. These include:

  1. Increase the roll needed to 'hit' the wearer.
  2. Subtract a fixed amount from damage inflicted.
  3. Grant a roll to reduce damage.
  4. Grant a roll to negate damage.

Option 2 is off the table because I don't use a hit point model. Options 2-4 can result in a hit causing zero damage. Option 1 can feel unsatisfactory because it doesn't seem like your flimsy hide armour would work at all against my matter annihilator, even if I was only one off on the die roll. Options 3 and 4 require an additional roll and thus slow down resolution of damage-inflicting situations. Option 4 can have a similar problem as option 1, although armour piercing systems can deal with this.

Option 1 is probably the fastest and simplest, as it doesn't require an additional roll. Option 3 is the most forgiving to multi-damage weapons, although these are relatively rare and it isn't necessarily a problem.

Although it's another roll in the sequence, I think my inclination is to go with a damage-negating roll. This also offers the chance to play around with variable die sizes, which I've been enjoying as a penalty system.

Armour saves

The way I see it, there are basically three ways (that I immediately think of with minimal reflection) to do armour saving throws with variable armour.

The probably-oldest one is to roll one die and have different target numbers based on armour. It's a classic and works well with modifier-heavy systems like Monitors isn't now.

The next is the soak-dicepool where you aim for N successes on a dicepool dictated by your armour. I am currently using dicepools, so this would make sense and fall coherently in line with the model I'm using. I could use armour with 2-5 dice and have this rolled against the same 3+ as everything else. I already know the odds.

A third option is to roll one die against a fixed target number, but vary the size of the die. I'm sure it's been used, but I don't know where.

One of the problems of the dicepool is that I already know the odds, and the odds that I think work well for attainment in a high-competence genre game are not the odds that I want for armour in a game that isn't supposed to be about combat. You can see this easily by looking at the diagram I'll repeat from the post linked I provided above

Rolling 2 dice against target number 2 gives a 44% change, while rolling 3 dice gives 75% and rolling 4 dice gives 88%. There is a huge, huge leap between the worst armour and the next, and this seems like it would massively encourage players to wear medium armour. There's no way to adjust the numbers, or to introduce a new class of worse armour, without changing one of the parameters (target number or successes needed). Once I do that, the advantage of keeping the same system is significantly decreased; in fact, it is arguably better to use a significantly different system in order to minimise confusion.

I'm quite strongly inclined to use the die-size system, because it seems both simple and flexible.

Armour Dice

Let's assume we keep a target number of 3+, and assign different kinds of dice.

The basic, worst armour that is worth paying mechanical attention to is going to be a d3. We can easily get values of 33%, 50%, 67%, 75%, 80% and 83% with d3 to d12 respectively.

...unfortunately, I don't think these start low enough either. I don't want to be messing about with 2% armour because it just becomes a pointless little roll to clog up the system, but I'd like some kind of low-effect armour in the 15-25% bracket.

I can change the target number as well. Starting with a d4, this would give us 25%, 50%, 63%, 70% and 75%. Again, it's tricky because the jump between the first to values is so huge.

Sadly, I suspect this one isn't going to work out.

Saving Throw

So how's about that old one-die variable-target system? It's really easy to get a wide range of values with small jumps because single large dice are good at exactly that. By simply using a d10, I can get anything from 0-100% in 10% increments. A reasonable option might be to use 5, 7 and 9 as the armour types available to PCs outside very specialist missions, giving 60%, 40% and 20% chances respectively.

Composite Armour

Another possibility that presents itself is to combine more than one of the rule models. For example, I could have some kinds of armour not only provide a saving throw, but also increase the difficulty of hitting the target, relying on the aforemention idea that combat is a bit handwavey. However, I don't really seem to be going for modifiers, so I'm a bit wary of that, and the plasma annihilator issue remains unsolved. It also seems like a bit of a fudge, to be honest, and it blurs the boundary of what armour saves and hitting actually represent. So while this is a theoretical possibility, I think it's best avoided.

Armour Dice Again

I suddenly had a new idea, which is possibly the idea I originally had for variable die size and forgot. What's wrong with stealing the Penalty Die model?

If we assume that the idea is to roll a 1 on the die, then various die sizes can take us from a 1/6 chance to a 1/2 chance quite easily. This does not account for the possibility of rolling two or more dice, which is also an option, particularly for very good armour types, or where multiple armours come into play.

In particular, I notice that this armour model is exactly the reverse of the previous ones: it allows quite fine-grained control of low-success armours but gets increasingly coarse as your chances increase. This isn't supposed to be a war game, so I think I prefer a variety of low-mid armours and few good ones to the reverse. Moreover, Monitors has a fairly abstract approach to combat: ammo isn't counted, any successful hit is assumed to be good and powerful enough to injure someone who isn't protected, and so I think you can reasonably view it as being a simplification where some hits are indeed bouncing harmlessly off the armour. Basically, we assume that only reasonably good armour is relevant.

In situations where I really did want to model high-quality military armour for a short period, I think I'd go for allowing multiple dice. 3d2 looking for any 1s is highly effective armour.

Here, we could rule that (for example) tough clothing or very scaly hide is a d6, armour is a d3, and heavy armour is a d2. I don't want heavy armour to become routine, because it belies the sort of game I'm looking for; on the other hand, I do want it to be useful. Halving the chance of suffering damage sounds like a good bet to me. Weapon penetration would negate dice of a particular size or larger.

A weird alternative would actually be to do the whole thing with one die size. Probably a d6. This would mean rolling a lot of dice for good armour, but it has certain advantages because it offers a novel way to model weapon penetration. You simply have the weapon subtract a number of dice from the target's armour pool, meaning that a) it will auto-penetrate weapon armour, and b) a very penetrative weapon is still a superior option against even better armour. This avoids getting into numerical modifiers, which I like.

Either way, I could model things like additional armour types or shooting directly through a wall by adding additional dice. A terrapin wearing a flak jacket might get a d3 for the flak jacket and another for its carapace. I could allow, say, three categories of protection: Gear, Natural and Environment. You can only roll once within each category, so wearing two sets of armour is useless, but a terrapin can still get credit for its carapace and taking shelter from heavy fire is still helpful, while good air conditioning or a windy day will help you survive knockout gas. I'd want to semi-carefully consider how cover is used in the system, though, to try and keep things streamlined between hitting stuff and hurting stuff.

A potential disadvantage of the variable-size model is that this looks a bit like Penalty Dice but actually works quite differently. Hmm. What would happen if I did actually treat armour like a Penalty Dice..?

Demon the Fallen: Preacher Man, 04

Pacting is hard

This is a scenario dreamed up by Arthur, there are no spoilers here, so listen away as you please. As always, be aware that the podcast is not really family-friendly, if that sort of thing bothers you. Thankfully, this one is largely free of background noise, though there is some eating.

Episode 4

The Episode

As you can see, working out how to do pacts was hard. This is, I think, partly because it should really be something you build up to over time, or offer a fairly blatant deal to somebody desperate. My choice to find someone with a bit of a problem and then try to get them to agree to an unspecified offer was... suboptimal. Attempts to be subtle just produced, well, the results you hear.

On reflection, the best thing would have been to take a proper Alpha Male route from the start: waffle a bit about how some people have their finger on the pulse of life, are full of energy and animal magnetism, live by instinct, and they tend to have personalities that fill the room and toned muscles and date the girl he fancies - whereas our dude here is the classic 90-pound weakling who can't read the vibes his girl is putting out, tries to logic his way through life, is full of uncertainty, unfit and right now is sitting in a library in the small hours drinking alone. And hey, his girl is probably also one of those people who ride the primal current, because I bet she wouldn't be a quiet mousy type who sat around worrying and being socially awkward. See the contrast? Want to know how to tap into that rhythm? Well, promise to keep the secret, shake, I'll tell you answers, and within seven days you too can turn heads when you enter a room.

But that would, admittedly, have been less funny.

In longer-term play, Chad here would probably be a bit of a liability, because a) I haven't ordered him to keep this a secret, and b) because the approach to the pact was awkward and poorly-explained, so he doesn't really get a clear idea of what's going on (even a false clear idea). Technically, I also didn't tell him he'd be following my orders (although I'd probably phrase it more like "respect me" because that's the vibe.

The security-lockdown problem was an interesting choice, which follows logically from how I chose to use the keycard. On the one hand, having the card would have let us sneak in and search around; on the other, this choice presented us with a new obstacle to have fun with, while it wasn't simply Arthur blocking us arbitrarily, because we'd got good use out of the card already. Pulling the same trick if we hadn't used it would have been annoying, but this just felt like fair play and a setback we should really have anticipated.

Copyright and suchlike

Demon: The Fallen is copyright and/or trademark White Wolf Publishing, who I think now belong to some other corporation but I can't be bothered to check right now; Arthur will be cross with me already for my vagueness. The podcast theme music is Vltava from Smetana's Má Vlast as taken from Wikimedia Commons under the CC0 licence. The episode intro and outro are, respectively, an extract from Black Vortex and all of The Descent, both by Kevin MacLeod () Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0.

The hilariously portentous opening passage is read directly from the blurb from Demon: the Fallen, and any mockery should be directed to White Wolf.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Demon the Fallen: Preacher Man, 03

Conspiracy Theories

This is a scenario dreamed up by Arthur, there are no spoilers here, so listen away as you please. As always, be aware that the podcast is not really family-friendly, if that sort of thing bothers you. Thankfully, this one is largely free of background noise, though there is some eating.

Episode 3

The Episode

Controversy! It would have been pretty disappointing in a one-shot if something like this didn't happen. Of course, we could have done a lot of social stuff with the conference, although this would have been hampered by the fact that we'd made completely inappropriate characters and did not really have the skills to do social stuff with priests.

In hindsight, I didn't make as much use of Father Rheinhardt as I could have done. He might end up useful in a later game, although our actions towards the end of this game might have faintly raised his suspicions. Just a hunch.

As usual, I ended up playing a character who sneaks around the place digging up information and prying into places. I appreciate, on reflection, that pretty much every character I play on the podcast falls into this category: Shimiel, Brother Nikolai... okay, actually I play two archetypes, the other one being represented by Arvil and Stanley. I should probably work on that.

Copyright and suchlike

Demon: The Fallen is copyright and/or trademark White Wolf Publishing, who I think now belong to some other corporation but I can't be bothered to check right now; Arthur will be cross with me already for my vagueness. The podcast theme music is Vltava from Smetana's Má Vlast as taken from Wikimedia Commons under the CC0 licence. The episode intro and outro are, respectively, an extract from Black Vortex and all of The Descent, both by Kevin MacLeod ( Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0.

The hilariously portentous opening passage is read directly from the blurb from Demon: the Fallen, and any mockery should be directed to White Wolf.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Demon the Fallen: Preacher Man, 02

Getting into your demon skin

This is a scenario dreamed up by Arthur, there are no spoilers here, so listen away as you please. As always, be aware that the podcast is not really family-friendly, if that sort of thing bothers you. Thankfully, this one is largely free of background noise, though there is some eating.

Episode 2

The Episode

A fairly restrained setting-up kind of episode, although I much appreciated Arthur getting stuck in early with the dodgy priest and some actual DTF content, rather than having us scour the place for a long OOC time before finding anything just for the verisimilitude. Slightly cheesy, sure, but very much the right choice in a one-shot. It was nice to feel like we'd accomplished something early on.

Having now read a bit more about Demon, I feel my choice of character (and specifically, house) was very sound, because I got some of the fairly small pool of powers that you can use regularly in a wide variety of situations. Being able to summon animals and use them as spies isn't especially powerful in the direct sense, but it's something you can do readily in any kind of downtime, without any real cause for suspicion, and potentially learn information that will be helpful. It's unlikely to cause problems. This means I was able to play a demon that could actually use my supernatural powers early on and keep doing so.

Obviously, you do need to be a bit proactive, and sitting around playing with animals all game would have accomplished little. However, even compared to Dan, my low-level powers are just more usable: mine were Summon Animals, Control Animals and Possess Animals, all of them usable anywhere with animals, granting unreplicable abilities and not especially suspicious. Dan's were:

  1. Read Fate - useful exclusively when you need to find out how someone died, or more specifically, what was happening at the time.
  2. Decay - useful when you need to kill someone or destroy something. There are other means to both ends, mostly with a longer range, although reducing things to dust is handy.
  3. Vision of Mortality - useful if there is a creature you need to make flee from your presence. A very specific power that isn't always appropriate even during fights.

Many other lores look sort of similar. Basically, Dan needed to wait for the right occasion to use his powers, whereas I could make my own opportunities. This meant, again, that we could quickly get on with doing Demon Stuff rather than simply hanging around a conference centre, and that took the game forward. I know the game isn't designed for one-shots, but I think in a game about being supernatural beings, where your supernaturalness is essentially defined by fluffy characterisation and a set of magic powers, it's important that you actually get to use those powers. RPGs are like any other media in many respects: a power that doesn't get any screentime essentially doesn't exist, because it doesn't exert any influence on the story. Or something.

Copyright and suchlike

Demon: The Fallen is copyright and/or trademark White Wolf Publishing, who I think now belong to some other corporation but I can't be bothered to check right now; Arthur will be cross with me already for my vagueness. The podcast theme music is Vltava from Smetana's Má Vlast as taken from Wikimedia Commons under the CC0 licence. The episode intro and outro are, respectively, an extract from Black Vortex and all of The Descent, both by Kevin MacLeod ( Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0.

The hilariously portentous opening passage is read directly from the blurb from Demon: the Fallen, and any mockery should be directed to White Wolf.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Reading Demon: the Fallen

Editing the podcasts for our Demon game, which I had a lot of fun with despite being a bit lost, instilled in me an interest in a) playing more of that game, b) having a more educated shot at character creation, and c) doing one of my vague analytically posts about the skills system as it presents to new players. So I ended up blowing £10 on the PDF, which is a lot considering I probably won't be running it and expect to find it a bit cringeworthy in places. But let's see.

My first interest is in trying another quick bout of character creation, as I had a bit of an idea. I crack open the PDF and start skimming through it, flicking through the preamble and the few pages of inevitable game fiction for the chargen rules.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Demon the Fallen: Preacher Man, 01

Or, how to create completely inappropriate characters and still quite enjoy it.

This one has been quite a long time coming, but hey, it's here.

Will they find any Demon types that don’t have ridiculous names? Will there be enough room on the paper for all the freakin’ skills? Will Shim ever stop faffing and decide whether or not he is a priest? Tune in now!

This is a scenario dreamed up by Arthur, there are no spoilers here, so listen away as you please. As always, be aware that the podcast is not really family-friendly, if that sort of thing bothers you. Thankfully, this one is largely free of background noise, though there is some eating.

Important: In an unprecedented move, I am offering not one, but two versions of the initial character generation session for Preacher Man. The full (edited) recording clocks in at around two hours, which is substantial, largely because of the amount of explanation I needed, and partly because it's got quite a lot of stuff to unpack even though the actual character generation isn't strictly that difficult. Even with the bits where we're literally writing out lists of skills or umming over the rulebook cut out, it's lengthy. A lot of the setting is explained, along with some assumptions of the game, a lot of mechanical points and advice on building a character.

I didn't want to just offer the short version, for several reasons. One is that I know some people - me for one - actually like listening to full-on character generation for games they're not familiar with in order to get a sense of the game. For those people, the background information and the different parts of character generation will be useful, even if long. And not everyone minds long, to be honest; sometimes I just want some ambient roleplaying.

Another reason is that stuff mentioned in the character generation may crop up later in the game, and I'm not bright (or attentive) enough to have spotted that, so there might be some confusion. I've done my best, within the limits of editing.

Thirdly, the chargen process sparks a fair bit of commentary and general chit-chat that might be mildly diverting in its own right, with our cutting-edge 1970s humour and disparagement of how things were in RPGs twenty years ago.

However! If you're coming into this with a good knowledge of the premise of Demon: The Fallen, a reasonable understanding of White Wolfian mechanics and character generation, and no particular interest in hearing us step through every part of character generation and go off on some tangents, there is a short version clocking in at a mere hour! There's only so ruthless and efficient I can make myself.

Episode 1 (comprehensive, but edited character generation)

Episode 1 (abbreviated character generation)

Both contain a DVD extra bonus feature after the closing music.

For the very impatient:

Dan plays a Cryptic Slayer in the body of a 12-year-old girl resembling Wednesday Addams. I play a Cryptic Devourer in the body of an extremist environmental campaigner who looks like Hugh Jackman. We are going to a theological conference in Gothic Oxford.

The Episode

As Dan points out in the post-game discussion (episode about sixish), Arthur told us the premise of the scenario and we immediately ignored it entirely. In our defence, it wasn't intentional... Because the game was new to me, I was concentrating on trying to pick things up, and grabbbed hold of a familiar sort of character rather than spending the time to think about what might work with the scenario. I think one aspect of the issue, although not one I consciously considered, is that it's hard to know what would work well when you're new to a system and setting - and the World of Darkness is a pretty specific beast compared to Generic Fantasy or whatever. I think it's easier to grasp the difference between playing a Fighter, Wizard or Thief than it is to work out which of the various demon flavours might fit well with a particular scenario type when you don't really know how the world works or the various power bases interact.

Making Demons

As this was my first time, I wasn't really sure how to go about making my character. I suspect actually that the other WOD games might have been easier in this respect. For one thing, those don't seem to have an internal division in your character's nature; for another, they seem to basically begin with a "before" representing your ordinary human life, and then add to it.

In contrast, a Demon character is two people rolled into one. You have a human being with a demon mashed into them, and I wasn't sure how to model that. The others made a few suggestions, and I took what seemed to be the simplest route, because I was already struggling with an unfamiliar system. This was to basically have a human body who knew academically that there was a demon inside them, but who mostly felt like a human. Essentially, the body retained such a strong impression of the human soul it once housed that this shaped the demon's personality, leaving someone who acts very much like it always did, but with the demon's goals and instincts driving from the back seat.

Next time - and I'm hoping very much that there will be one - I'd take Shannon's advice and create the demon separately, then blend the two. This is a lot trickier because making a demon fundamentally requires a reasonable amount of setting knowledge, so that you can determine things like personality, objectives and history in a way that's sensible.

As so often there's a fair bit of chopping and changing here. I initially assumed from the premise that we'd be priests, so the idea of not being threw me a bit and I had to rethink things. Then of course, juggling points around so that I would actually be able to do the kinds of things I wanted competence in - mechanics aren't always transparent about which character attributes correspond to narrative competence in which fields, and of course, you need points in the right attributes if you want to actually use your powers successfully. So whenever I changed my mind about stuff, there was checking and adjusting to do. Still, for a first time experience I thought it wasn't bad. I should evaluate the skills list sometime.

In retrospect, and after some of Shannon's comments, I realise that I got quite confused because, well, the setup of the game was actually a bit complicated for someone entirely new to the whole thing (system, setting and scenario premise). I was playing a demon occupying the body of a human attending a conference of ex-Catholic priests. This involves multiple levels of "who am I?":

  1. Actual identity as a demon
  2. Original identity as a human
  3. Current actual identity as a demon-human combination within society
  4. Identity in which I am attending the conference

Basically, I hadn't thought of number four (and I essentially cheated on number one) and so when the possibility came up, I got a bit confused. It's perhaps a slightly complex premise for the first scenario, but most people probably wouldn't have had a problem with it and no blame attaches to Arthur for my mild bewilderment.


Around the 1:38 mark, we briefly delve into the term rotschreck, which is apparently an instinctive frenzied fear of fire and sunlight in Vampire. As I suspected, it doesn't seem to mean anything at all in German. Incidentally, this problem could have been easily overcome by using a Gaelic term instead, since Gaelic jiarg, dearg (red) as a prefix has various negative implications related to passion, frenzy and so on. Jiarg-aggle (or deargscátha if you want to be posh) would be a fine and meaningful term.

Copyright and suchlike

Demon: The Fallen is copyright and/or trademark White Wolf Publishing, who I think now belong to some other corporation but I can't be bothered to check right now; Arthur will be cross with me already for my vagueness. The podcast theme music is Vltava from Smetana's Má Vlast as taken from Wikimedia Commons under the CC0 licence. The episode intro and outro are, respectively, an extract from Black Vortex and all of The Descent, both by Kevin MacLeod ( Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0.

The hilariously portentous opening passage is read directly from the blurb from Demon: the Fallen, and any mockery should be directed to White Wolf.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

But what do you actually do?

By way of finalising our Demon: the Fallen actual play (coming soon!), I was googling around for the actual game blurb, and ran into a RPGnet thread about the question "but what do you actually do in game X?"

Unfortunately the lack of quote-marking in RPGnet makes their threads a complete pain to read, but At the time, I didn't spot the link to the original thread from the plaintext archive, but I persevered because I thought there were some interesting ideas tossed around, albeit occasionally pebbledashed with smug sneerers decrying the intellect and imagination of D&D-habituated sheeple who could never be happy outside the linear corridors and straitjacket confines of their self-chosen prisons.

I think this is actually a really important question, and one I often ask about games.

The starting point

The original post begins like this:

I've seen this complaint levelled at a few games in the past, and I must admit its one I don't really understand. If you've never played an RPG before, then it would make sense, since you have no prior experience to draw upon as to what player characters do. But if that's not the case, then I don't see how anyone who's played at least a few sessions isn't immediately struck by at least one idea of something their character could do with any given premise.

No matter how thin the setting information or attempt to orient GMs about the main sorts of things PCs in any particular game get up to, I tend to find I can think up at least half a dozen things that could be motivations/direction. Even in games with settings I find totally unappealing.

They are invariably summarised as "have some ties to the world and motivations, and start causing trouble". Because trouble is what PCs do.

So what gives? Why do people even come up with this complaint? What examples of "aimless" games do people have where they couldn't think of things to be getting on with?

So I have a few thoughts, influenced of course by points made on the forum.

The first one is that people asking this may not have understood the game. Maybe the pitch or blurb are not clear enough and need reworking. Maybe you skipped over the "really obvious" premise and moved on to discussing the setting or cool magic system or monsters or organisations or mechanics, without establishing the role of PCs.

Depending on how much choice is given about PCs, there may be a lot of scope for confusion. In D&D, you all play adventurers, and providing the players understand the general concept of an adventurer, they should have some idea what to do. That being said, the D&D adventurer is actually a specific beast with several variants. Actual historical "adventurers" might be involved in ambitious trading ventures, attempt to recover treasure or information of value from archaeological sites, lead small armies to conquer territory or impose trade agreements, live off their wits and gambling skills, or try to marry into money. A D&D adventurer, by contrast, is generally part of a small party that lives by the sword and has minimal merchantile or social ambition. While they are Conan-like in some ways, it's typically assumed that they prefer the free-roaming style, rather than enlisting in armies for the coin or driving their way up political ladders. Basically, most D&D adventurers are either heroically self-sacrificing (defend everyone against threats despite personal danger), bloodthirsty sociopaths (killing is a preferable lifestyle to investing the first load of treasure into a business and giving up the sword for a safer life), or too dim to appreciate their poor life choices.

Similarly, Changeling is semi-notorious for providing an intriguing premise that largely fails to support actually playing the game. After establishing PCs as escaped prisoners with fey powers and links to the fey realm, the game then goes out of its way to emphasise that they desperately want to forget all about their horrible experiences and avoid having anything further to do with fey stuff. This leaves you as basically either getting a job in Starbucks and going about your daily life, or ignoring the fluff and using your cool powers that you're supposed to hate to help with everyday life, or dabbling in fey stuff that you're supposed to be avoiding.

From what I can establish, in Changeling your job is to act like the repentant ex-con in media: you make a pretence of trying to live a normal life free of crime/weirdness, but all the actual interest and excitement comes from you being "reluctantly" forced to use your skills/magic to overcome challenges thrown at you by ex-bosses/fey who won't let you walk away. There is a constant tension between player desire to use their cool abilities as much as possible, and all the fluff that says you should avoid it whenever possible, try to run from Fey Stuff and hate yourself for giving in.

PCs and trouble

I disagree somewhat that "trouble is what PCs do". I think PCs usually expect to be surrounded by trouble, and more generally conflict is usually the driver behind gameplay, but actually I'd say the OP has this more or less backwards in terms of typical gaming styles. I suspect the majority of games have a relatively reactive approach, where PCs deal with trouble. Sometimes the trouble is imminent and approaching (Deathwatch, Dark Heresy, quite a lot of D&D, and other protect-the-realm games), at other times a known trouble is kind of hanging out for the PCs to put an end to (most of the rest of D&D, much Call of Cthulhu).

I've mentioned this on the Dixie-2 world creation episode, but my (admittedly limited) impression of gaming is that the majority of games are basically reactive. This is partly because I suspect the majority of literary genres are also reactive, and very passive genres are not likely to leave potential players very much to do. Most games seem to follow one of these two broad structures:

  • Your X is threatened by a Y, and you must Z to restore order. The GM presents players with Y.
  • You are keen to acquire X. The GM presents players with opportunities for X.

Even relatively proactive sandboxy games like many D&D types are still partly reactive. The players do not generally come up with their dungeoneering opportunities, but select from those presented by the DM. Games with a social or political focus probably offer more chances for the players to start trouble themselves and stir up the existing order.

The main genres where protagonists are genuinely proactive are basically crime stories. Heist films are a great example. Some kinds of thriller are proactive, although again, the main reason for getting involved is usually the threat presented by the antagonist.

To my mind, for players to get a satisfying adventure out of going out to cause trouble, they actually need a fairly sophisticated understanding of the setting. They have to know the basic existing power structure and social expectations, their own character's place in society, what kinds of trouble can be easily and safely kicked up, and so on. They also need to be the kind of character who would just go out to cause trouble, which is a relatively rare trait to be honest. I wish I had a better idea of what the OP meant by this.

In any case, my general point is that I don't think "you play unspecified characters in this setting who disrupt things in some way" is a very helpful bit of advice.

Running with the grain

Most games have some kinds of play that they support well, and others that are possible but not well-supported. Some are more overt about this than others.

A good example here is Call of Cthulhu. You can play all sorts of games with this ruleset and setting, but 99% of them will not actually be Call of Cthulhu - they will just be Basic Role Playing. Call of Cthulhu is a sufficiently specific genre that it needs some quite specific kinds of play for the game to happen. Moreover, What You Do will actually depend mostly on the scenario chosen for this game. Broadly speaking, you encounter weird stuff, pry unwisely into horrible secrets beyond human understanding and attempt to fend off threats to yourself and humanity - but the shape of those things will vary a lot. You might be acting like a detective, a soldier, an explorer or a socialite.

In contrast, let's consider Deathwatch. In this game, it is absolutely fixed who you are and what sorts of things you do: you are a Space Marine who investigates and fights alien threats to the Imperium of Mankind by shooting them in the head. You don't jostle for political power, you don't conduct elaborate romances, you don't infiltrate criminal gangs or build commercial empires. If you create a Space Marine and then attempt to do some of those things, you are playing completely against the grain of the setting and will likely run into mechanical issues. There is no point getting frustrated by this.

Hellcats and Hockeysticks is about playing trouble-making schoolgirls. Its mechanics are much more specific than the previous two, which come from fairly broad schools of thought designed for a variety of games in the same line. It is not going to work well as a game of tactical combat between rival schools in a Japanese-style dystopian school deathmatch.

On the other hand, FATE is an incredibly broad ruleset that you can in theory use to play anything. The general scheme intended for action adventure is (as they demonstrate in splatbooks) adaptable for playing geopolitics, firefighters or squabbling middle-class witch covens. One of the inevitable outcomes is that it isn't especially well-honed for doing any of these things in particular. It remains a broad game, without detailed subsystems for handling situations that only arise in one of these genres.

Some of the time, I suspect "what do you do in this game?" can be interpreted as "this game is almost certainly designed in the expectation that certain types of play, genre, plot or event are more common and important than others, and will deliberately or subconsciously support those playstyles better than others, but I can't immediately tell which, please enlighten me".

The original thread mentions that sci-fi games seem to attract this question more than others, and that seems quite likely. Most people's perception of fantasy is built on a solid bedrock of fighting orcs with swords, and both sword-and-sorcery and Tolkein feature killing things for their treasure and battling evil monsters: as such I think this is the instinctive assumed playstyle for fantasy unless something else is suggested. In contrast, science fiction has never really had one lynchpin: it ranges from Asimovian thriller-puzzles to Star Trek space opera to Star Wars high-fantasy-in-space, incorporating a wide sweep of less dramatic fiction based on social changes and domestic life in the future. If you're presented with an interesting sci-fi universe with no immediate statement about what you do, I don't think there's any particular reason to assume one thing over another - but it's pretty unlikely that every single option will work as well as every other option.

On a quite basic level, mechanics heavily influence what genres will work well. BRP and Call of Cthulhu are terrible for action adventure, because they are swingy and PCs are pretty vulnerable. Traveller is somewhat better because of technology, but still more suited to Firefly than Starship Troopers. The Warhammer 40,000 rules (even stripped of setting) won't work for a massive range of sci-fi game types, because they are designed for a setting where hardly anyone understands science or technology and most people fear it: they also build in very low skills that mean success is relatively rare.

Group focus

A second reason why the question is important is that everyone really needs to be on the same page about this.

Because of its open-handedness about this kind of thing, Call of Cthulhu is notorious for having parties consisting of a Russian arms dealer, an elderly astronomer, a notorious socialite and a dealer in occult books. And no reason to know one another or do any of the same things, let alone do them together. In other systems, PCs may have incompatible skillsets that mean they can't mechanically work together without someone being irrelevant most of the time: a party with one combat monster, one stealth expert and one confidence trickster might be a great combination that covers all bases, or it might cause constant failure because only one person can succeed at any style of play.

A clear focus makes it much easier for players to think up compatible character concepts, which makes it more likely they will all be enthusiastic about the game and not then be disappointed because it turns out they had incompatible ideas about what they'd be doing.

But is it fun?

As several people suggested during the discussion, it's possible to interpret the question "but what do you actually do?" as expressing lack of enthusiasm. It may be a deliberate soft rejection, on the lines that "the things you would do do not sound fun to me, let's not do that". On the other hand, it may be a genuine question. If you have confidence in your friends, then when they enthusiastically propose a game to you and you don't understand what interesting gameplay it offers, this is a very sensible question.

As I mentioned above, it's entirely possible that the fun possibilities of a game are so obvious to you that you don't actually articulate them to potential players. This is probably most likely where there are differences in genre knowledge, so that "crew on a deep space exploration mission" immediately implies Star Trek to you, but your friend assumes you will be taking instrument readings, negotiating over maintenance duties and marking off the days on your calendar. They ask the question because they assume there must be more to it that they see on the surface, and are waiting for you to convince them.

On a third level, it might be a more mechanical question. If you play literary figures throughout history and Together They Fight Crime, what does that actually entail? Do you carry out detailed investigations with a crunchy system and face real danger from enemies in a gritty injury system? Do you romp from clue scene to clue scene while maintaining cover identities through socialising? Do you race across rooftops battling Hollywood rogues and shrugging off injuries? Do you carry out elaborate social justice programs to tackle antisocial behaviour at its source in accordance with your characters' own established ethical codes? Those are important differences and will appeal to different people at different times.

Breaking it down

A much later post offered the following insight:

I think the question "...but what do you DO in game X"? is often shorthand for a whole bunch of more complicated questions.

  • "What is the day to day life of a typical ordinary NPC like in game X?"
  • "What is the day to day life of a typical character of type Y like in game X?"
  • "What interesting, playworthy events happen to/around a typical character of type Y like in game X?"
  • "What are the expected responses of a typical character of type Y in emergency/extreme situations?"
  • "Can a typical character of Type Y aspire to have a 'normal' life? have mundane friends? pursue and/or sustain romantic relationships? have a career? hobbies etc."?
  • "Should a typical character of Type Y expect to have a tormented life, hunted by deadly foes, all his loved ones and anyone he comes into contact with in danger, unable to hold a real job, etc?"

The more open and toolboxlike a game the less obvious the default playstyle for the game is, and the less likely that the default playstyle will actually be used in a particular campaign.

For open games, the group generally needs to filter down an open game to some mutually acceptable subset of PC types, game themes etc. In the typical group, some players will object to their character choices being limited.

Some players want to know baseline expectations for the game, and have their PC fit into that framework - I think these types of players are more likely to ask the questions above. Without such information, generating PCs is a crapshoot, and can result in a PC that is to a varying extent out of place in the setting, in motivations, background, skills, aspirations.

Others are eager to do their own thing, regardless of the game or setting conventions. Such players can be very dynamic, but issues can arise between players who value setting fidelity and those who want to do their own thing.

The first few are the most significant as far as I'm concerned, and the third in particular. What is it that this game deems important enough to get screen time and mechanical consideration? And how much mechanical consideration? It is entirely possible to run an AD&D game that doesn't involve combat, but given that the vast majority of the resolution mechanics are devoted to combat, you're basically doing collaborative storytelling.

More generally, there is a substantial difference between a fantasy game where you can play a silver-tongued charmer by talking to the GM in character, one where you do so by rolling on your Personal Interaction skill, and one with ten different social attributes and a detailed social conflict resolution system for handling arguments and differences of opinion. All of them permit charming characters, but are likely to give quite different feels. The mechanical and narrative importance of your silver tongue, as opposed to other personal attributes, will vary with the relative weight given to your social skills.

It ain't interesting, being green

A second related question is "Why do PCs do anything worth screentime?". This is something that strikes me a lot in the kinds of games whose premise focuses on Being An X. All White Wolf games, for example. I don't mean PC motivation, which is a slightly different question, but there isn't necessarily anything intrinsically interesting in Being An X. Often, the answer requires either significant knowledge of the setting and the Place of Xs in Society, or significant genre knowledge about what it is that Xs stereotypically do, or a tacit assumption that you perform quests on behalf of vague sponsors because you basically don't have anything better to do with your time.

For example, Being A Vampire (the classic) is not inherently that interesting. The fundamental requirements for being a vampire are essentially that you sleep in the day and sometimes drink human blood. In a modern-day setting, you'll also need to pay rent and tax and stuff, and you'll want clothes, so you probably need to hold down a job that doesn't require daylight working. The only aspect of this that is particularly noteworth is "human blood".

To be honest, there's no inherent reason you couldn't handwave this or resolve nightly success with a single roll, in the same way that foraging in the wild is usually handled. Vampires are formidable and good at hunting. There might be consequences to messing up, but then when you're out hunting you might step in a bear-trap, kill one of the king's deer or run into a party of bandits. The decision that hunting humans requires screentime and mechanics is just that, a decision. You could perfectly well have hunting happen offscreen, and only bring it to the foreground when you introduce a plot event linked to it - just as a D&D game will tend to ignore shoe repair unless the GM has an idea for a cobbler-related event. Sometimes, this is what happens in Vampire too.

So why doesn't the vampire just mooch along between night shift and windowless apartment, doing nothing of mechanical interest? That's basically what most people do. Having fangs doesn't make stacking shelves any more interesting. This does not sound like an interesting game (although, see Alpha Dregs for some musings on making mundane stuff fun).

However, the game (as I understand it, not having played) establishes that vampires form part of a vampiric society, whose interests include keeping their existence a secret, which requires certain patterns of behaviour. One result is that PCs need to be careful about how they obtain their blood supplies, and this becomes complicated enough that gameplay seems worthwhile. It also establishes that vampires care about the pecking order, and that PCs are expected to do so as well, so social screentime becomes important. This interest means PCs may wish to proactively scheme and work against rivals or seniors. It establishes that there are different clans of vampires with different outlooks and political interests, constantly plotting. And the secrecy, bickering and pecking order combine in such a way that PCs can expect to be given sensitive tasks to do by more senior vampires, whose outcomes are both important and potentially dangerous, which is good for screentime. The burden of these tasks is another reason to fight for social status, of course.


So, yes, asking what you actually do in a game is a jolly sensible idea, all told, and a rather more complicated one than you might think. I've now been writing this for... about four hours, so I should go and do one of the many things on my list that I actually planned to get done today. Oops.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

A Difficulty With Dice; or, A Plethora of Projects

So I just don't feel like I'm designing enough systems right now. You know how it is.

So, Craig Shaw Gardner, right? Author of parodic fantasy (etcetera) books with alliterative names, featuring comically-inept protagonists accidentally overcoming implausible evils. Distinctive mishap-based writing style. I wondered how difficult it would be to make an RPG system that supported that kind of story.

I suspect the answer is both "very" and "one already exists", but who am I to let such trivialities deter me?

CSG writes a very specific kind of genre fiction, be it fantasy, B-movie or otherwise. It's essentially comic heroic fiction.

Protagonists are mildly special, not particularly competent, fairly decent at heart, and suffer enormous swings of luck. They win through by a mixture of enormous good fortune, coincidence, courage, derring-do, not really seeing any alternatives, improvisation, flashes of genius and the power of friendship. The most classic of these is Wuntvor the Apprentice, a wizard's apprentice who never really had time to learn any magic. He occasionally attempts the odd spell, which inevitably misfires, but still often achieves something useful, sometimes simply due to surprise value. He often carries powerful magic or artefacts of uncertain effect whose use must be carefully judged and delayed until a really desperate moment.

A hotchpotch array of allies, semi-allies, love interests and magical creatures (sometimes overlapping) accompanies him in an ever-shifting party that manages to repeatedly fend off the threat of demonic incursion, rescue his wizardly master or his love interest, and bicker incessantly. All are technically quite powerful, but hampered enormously by various problems, ranging from cursed weapons and the constant attention of annoying salesdemons, to an allergy to magic, to inability to refrain from announcing honest opinions, to staggering narcissism and lust, to complete inability to perform a spell correctly, to obsession with music-hall comedy and the search for fans, to raging feuds with other party members, to appalling memories.

Objectives of the system

  1. Party members should be incompetent but successful, in that they generally achieve (harking back to Dan's terminology) their long-term aims, but often fail at their short-term goals.
  2. Number 1 should work out because something else interesting happens as a result of failure at an action, which may be equally or more beneficial to the PC than success in their attempt.
  3. Wild swings of luck should be common, constantly dropping the PCs in trouble before allowing them to get out of it.
  4. Coincidence and Chekhov's Guns should be regular aspects of the game.
  5. Playing up preposterous characteristics should be mechanically beneficial in order to encourage it.
  6. All setbacks should be temporary. Victory is not ultimately in question, only the manner in which is is achieved and how long it takes.

This putative system will be called A Band of Bunglers for future reference.

Mechanical considerations

Any die roll to determine success should ideally tackle two questions.

  1. Did the action achieve its objective? (Success)
  2. Did the action work as expected? (Competence)

For example: Snorelock the Sorcerer is attacked by a band of pirates due to a misunderstanding over some treasure. He attempts to use Rumpold's Raging Ravens to drive the pirates away, but accidentally turns himself into a gigantic peony instead. The pirates decide that the treasure must be accursed and make a hasty retreat. The spell achieves its objective while misfiring spectacularly.

This may well be the sort of game where a non-traditional mechanic would work best, but let's start with what I know and work from there.

Contrary Dicepool System

The first mechanic that comes to mind is one where two different aspects of a dicepool determine these outcomes.

Let's assume you have four attributes named Cunning, Smarm, Furtiveness and Violence. These are all rated from 2-5. You roll one die for every point in the attribute, and hope for matching dice. The number of matching dice determines how competent you are, while the value of the group chosen determines how successful you are. The player may choose which dice to select if there are (for example) a low triple and a high pair.

This would be a describe-roll-narrate system, where the player announces their character's broad intention, rolls the dice, then narrates what actually happens.

I really can't do the maths here. It seems fairly clear that you will generally work out far more successful than you are competent, but beyond that I'm lost.

Luck Pendulum System

This is a deliberately swingy system, still pretty traditional.

Again, let's assume you have four attributes named Cunning, Smarm, Furtiveness and Violence. These are all rated from 2-5. You roll one die for every point in the attribute and hope for a 4+. Each success means you do better at what you attempt.

When the game begins, there are also 5 dice assigned to a Luck pool and 5 to a Doom pool. Ideally, these should be a different colour from the rest of the dice.

If a roll goes badly, a player can grab extra dice from the Luck pool and add them to the result. If they are successful with the Luck die, then things work out for them, but through luck rather than competence; they should narrate the outcome accordingly. Used Luck dice are transferred to the Doom pool.

Dice in the Doom pool can be used to introduce additional complications. These might be making a task more difficult, getting the party lost, allowing monsters to nick off with some bit of equipment (they can get it back later), kidnapping a vital NPC, and so on. Used Doom dice are transferred to the Luck pool.

Freestyle Doom Token System

In this system, it really doesn't matter how you resolve obstacles.

There is no GM. Each player is allocated, oh, two Doom Tokens at the start of the game. These represent problems that will afflict the party.

At any time, a player can throw in a Doom Token to make life worse for someone, including themselves, by introducing a problem. It may represent an enemy, a task proving more difficult than expected, a sudden calamity, hostility from the townsfolk, a romantic embarrassment, the loss of some item, or whatever.

Once there is only one remaining Doom Token per player (not necessarily distributed in that way) then you collect all the tokens and distribute them again. This time, you distribute three. Next time, four. And so on. The same or similar problems may well recur, but this time bigger and more ridiculous.

Two Skill System

Again, let's assume attributes rated from 1-5. This time, the numbers represent targets you want to roll less than or equal to in order to succeed at your objective. The difference is that there are only two attributes: Competence and Luck.

If you succeed at both rolls, you achieve exactly what you set out to do. If you succeed on Competence only, you do what you intended, but it doesn't work out quite the way you expected. If you succeed at Luck only, you achieve roughly what you wanted (more or less) but bungle the thing you were actually trying to do.

GMd Doom Token System

In this system, it really doesn't matter how you resolve obstacles.

The GM introduces problems by assigning a number of Doom Tokens and placing these on the table. These represent the problem's difficulty: a bigger Doom pile will take more effort to overcome (essentially they are hit points).

Players can work on overcoming the difficulty by using their abilities. Successful rolls can chip away at the Doom Token pile, and the player gains those Doom Tokens into their hand.

At any time, a player can throw in one or more Doom Tokens to create a stroke of luck. This may be as simple as having an enemy duck the wrong way, or they may spontaneously change the weather, introduce a helpful NPC, or whatever else seems fun. Running gags or recurring and erratic NPCs seem good. A spent Doom Token may end up being largely mechanical, or adding new elements to the game. Spent Doom Tokens are returned to the Doom Pile. If a Doom Token is spent to overcome the Doom Pile, this may be a zero-sum exchange.

Either the GM or players can also chip away at the pile by suggesting setbacks that afflict the players. Perhaps, instead of decapitating one of the mad hatstands with her die roll, the warrior trips over the wizard's beard and her sword goes flying into a tree? Perhaps the cyborg assassin's previous programming as a coffee machine once again resurfaces? Perhaps a mob of angry cobblers turns up demanding payment for the large pile of worn shoes left (and repaired) in an earlier town as part of a hilarious misunderstanding? Perhaps the alien has discovered a countermeasure to some technique that previously rendered it helpless? Again, these tokens go to the affected player(s).

Multiple tokens may be spent all at once on substantial changes.

Essentially, the idea here is that the GM and players trade tokens back and forth to swing luck in either direction and create entertainment, for as long as it seems enjoyable. The obstacle is overcome once all the Doom Tokens are held by the players, so things going badly for them is actually beneficial.


It strikes me that actually, at least some parts of the FATE system would be quite suitable here.

Let's assume that we strip down the skill list to my four attributes named Cunning, Smarm, Furtiveness and Violence. Okay, we probably also need something like, oh... Poise, Velocity and Brawn. There is no magic attribute, because magic is a character concept rather than a skill.

Aspects could well be perfect for building characters around a strong core of rather silly premises. Salt-of-the-Earth Apprentice Wizard With A Yearning for Luxury is a solid starting point. My Heart Is Your Doormat is a reasonable source of both problems and strength, especially when coupled with Inexplicably Alluring. I Must Serve My Master is another good double-header that can inconvenience the character or spur them to heroic efforts.

But I don't think I like the existing Fate Point economy. We want something... swingier. And more prominent. Aspects that only come up occasionally aren't hugely defining.

Let's go back to my earlier idea of the Doom Pool. To define challenges, the GM assigns a Doom rating based on how difficult it is, combining them if several challenges coincide (say, two different antagonists). To be clear, coinciding should happen a lot, because pantomime antics are the order of the day. A Doom Pool of a corresponding number of dice (or tokens) is assembled.

This, coincidentally, if articulated in the rules, could also help provide that balancing guide that I really needed for Dixie-2.

At any time, characters can invoke an aspect for the usual benefits. They don't need to spend a Fate Point to do that. Fate Points are earned when things go wrong for the characters because of some Aspect or other (compels) in much the same way as ever. A really bad stroke of luck should earn multiple Fate Points.

What you do want Fate Points for is to invoke, well, fate. That Doom Pool I mentioned that represents the current situation? Those is a rich seam of pure, untapped luck. At any time, including after a roll, you can chip in a Fate Point to grab a fistful of dice from the Doom Pool and add them to the current player's hand.

The difference is that when you succeed at a task because of Doom Dice, your in-character success is due to luck. The magnitude of the luck versus skill should be loosely based on the dice involved: if you roll four successes with skill and one with Doom dice it's only a small fluke, whereas eight successes from Doom and none from skill means you bungled spectacularly but somehow it worked out enormously in your favour.

This scheme has some benefits because it intrinsically encourages the unlucky-lucky dynamic I was talking about. You can only use the Doom Pool to get lucky by spending Fate Points you earned from being unlucky.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Monitors: the continuing story of side-effects

Based on the spell categories I've outlined, I'm going to try whipping up some more specific tables, so that significant side-effects can be themed to the spell being cast.

Main Table

When a spell is cast, roll 2d6 and consult the following table. The first line gives a brief indication of the kind of effect produced, while subsequent entries are examples. The GM or players could invent alternatives if they wish. On a 2 or 12, roll on the appropriate sub-table.

Note that while some side-effects have specific mechanical implications, these are not the only or primary results. As always in Monitors, common sense takes precedence. For example, if a wizard gains uncontrolled telepathy and senses the thoughts of those around them, and if this results in them sensing that the shrew police officer is in the pay of EvilCorp, they can use this fact in conversation. If a wizard becomes emotionless, they still understand that tending the injured or rescuing the endangered is their duty, nor do they become sociopathic killers. Many of the manifestations are enough to alert antagonists or civilians alike that something is going on.

2 Major Influence
Roll on the major table for the spell type
3 Strong Influence
The spell causes barely-controlled telepathy, precognition or emotion.
The wizard is granted a moment's glimpse of the future.  Once during the next Tick, they may reroll any dice from their hand to represent this prescience, keeping the best result, but are immediately pinned from the shock.
An antagonist within 30 feet receives a glimpse of the wizard's mind.  They may learn intentions, emotions or the wizard's current preoccupations, gaining a temporary or one-off bonus if appropriate.
The thoughts of all nearby creatures flood the wizard's mind. For 3 rounds they gain a die whenever this insight might help, but also incur a 1d4 Distracted die. Both effects end together.
The wizard's mind becomes utterly calm, a stone fortress of order. They ignore Pinning and feel no emotion for one Tick. Effects on conversation should be determined by the GM.
Uncontrolled telepathy turns the wizard's inner monologue into a psychic narration heard by all nearby. Recipients do not necessarily know the wizard is responsible, nor their location, and will find it unnerving.
4 Influence
The wizard is subject to flows of energy, empathic overspill or lingering transmutation.
A surge of magic briefly lifts the wizard 1d6 feet into the air. This may attract attention or require a Physical roll to land upright when the surge fades.
In their mind, the wizard can feel the heartbeat of every nearby creature.  This ability is both useful and distracting; apply 1 die modifiers as appropriate.  The ability fades after one Tick.
Fierce hatred or resentment courses through the wizard's mind for 1d3 rounds. The player may determine the object of the emotion and should act accordingly, but is not forced to violence.
The wizard feels watched, as though ancient and inscrutable eyes were drawn to them in the casting.  (the GM might make a side-plot out of this)
5 Minor Influence
The wizard is struck with visions, temporary weakness or superficial transformation.
Coruscating clouds form across the wizard's eyes, casting everything they see in strange and opulent colours.
Strange lines etch themselves into the wizard's skin, fading slowly over the coming days.  They may carry some meaning or be simply disturbing.
The wizard's hands harden into mineral for several seconds, slowly reverting to normal.
As energy leeches from their body, the wizard appears haggard, even skeletal.
6 Trivial Influence
The wizard experiences a mild sensation or emotion, or a minor aesthetic change.
The wizard feels a great sense of loss, as though some poignant dream has slipped from their grasp forever.
Visions of a strange landscape flash before the wizard's eyes.
The acrid taste of bile fills the wizard's throat as the strange syllables of the spell are spoken.
The wizard senses a hostile presence nearby, but cannot locate its source.
A faint glow briefly emanates from the wizard's breath or eyes.
7 Negligible
There is no effect other than a momentary dizziness.
8 Trivial Manifestation
The immediate environment is mildly disrupted.
Unearthly calm spills through the minds of all nearby, stilling thoughts of hostility or strong emotions.
Metal objects resonate eerily to some unheard harmonic of the spell.  Determine the volume of the resonance randomly.
A flash of witchfire traces wild patterns across the floor, leaving behind scorched trails.
A swarm of insects gathers around the focus of the spell, whirling and humming.
9 Minor Manifestation
Mental or sensory impressions spill around the wizard.
Intangible glittering motes float through the air, casting a faint and unearthly light.  These might give away the wizard's presence, provide light in a dark room, distract or alarm NPCs.
All creatures within 30 feet receive a haunting vision.  They gain a 1d3 Distracted die and will sleep badly for several nights, whispering as they stir and shift.
Ghostly figures and structures fade into view, intangible but haunting.  These might provide a distraction or cover.
Something seems to squirm and boil into life in the shadows, darting out of sight before you can focus on it. The GM might use this minor entity or ignore it.
10 Manifestation
Physical, emotional or magical effects hinder nearby creatures.
Giddiness spreads from the wizard like a wave, leaving all creatures within 50 feet Pinned.
Skirling spirits whirl and dance through the air around the wizard. (the GM might have these interact with nearby objects, distract creatures, attract attention or even pose a mild threat)
A pulse of gravity threatens to knock everyone to their knees (Might 2 to resist).  Small objects go flying.
Nearby electrical devices flicker and groan as their energies are disrupted, increasing the difficulty of associated actions by 1.  Very sensitive devices may malfunction or their programs reboot.
11 Strong Manifestation
The spell is not fully controlled, or there are major localised changes to physical laws.
Time seems to slow down, as though the world were moving through treacle.  Everyone can roll an extra die until the wizard's next turn, as they have extra time to think and prepare.
The spell lingers on regardless of the wizard's wishes.  Its effects continue for an additional 1d3 rounds, but remain in the wizard's control.  (The GM determines whether this makes sense in context).
Distances and proportions in the immediate vicinity fluctuate wildly for 1d3 rounds. Movement, attacks and similar complex physical actions will fail 50% of the time.
12 Major Manifestation
Roll on the major table for the spell type

Major Influence

Roll 1d6:

  1. The wizard is obsessed with one other person or object, and must focus on them for 1d3 rounds. Alternatives: compulsive behaviour.
  2. A sense of insatiable hunger leaves the wizard Distracted (1d4). Alternatives: tranquility, euphoria, crawling dread, nausea.
  3. The wizard is overcome by vivid recollections of some past event. They suffer a -1 die penalty until the end of their next turn, but may recall valuable information or shake off one Penalty Die at this time.
  4. A surge of arcane energy leaves the wizard invigorated and confident - roll one additional die next time they roll.
  5. The wizard shatters into jigsaw fragments, then reforms; it is painless, but disconcerting. Alternatives: freeze and thaw, shrink and regrow, become 2-dimensional.
  6. Choose an effect by spell type.

Major Manifestation

Roll 1d6:

  1. The gathering of magical energy has drawn a creature to the wizard. Summon one Minor entity, which is neutral to the wizard.
  2. Excess energy disperses itself as arcs of lightning. 1d6 random creatures are knocked prone and lights flicker for a few seconds. Alternatives: localised earthquake, gust of wind, mini-tornado, thunderclap, gravity decreases, gravity increases.
  3. Matter randomly forms as the spell is cast, creating a wall of twisted glass near the wizard. Alternatives: stalactites, tree, writhing tendrils, bone tower.
  4. Utter silence washes across the room, so that even implants cannot make a sound. Alternatives: sound is amplified massively, light is muted, colours shift.
  5. One nearby creature is wreathed in green fire, which they can control. It does not burn the wearer. Alternatives: sprout wings, cloak of frost, radiance.
  6. Choose an effect by spell type.


  • Influence: The sigil is malformed and traps part of the wizard's life-force. The wizard gains a 1d3 Distracted die that cannot be lost until the sigil is destroyed.
  • Manifestation: The sigil is incomplete, and its power uncontained. Roll a d6 each subsequent round; on a 5+ the sigil explodes, Pinning all creatures within short range with a burst of arcane energy.
  • Manifestation: The sigil is crooked, warping its effects. The GM should determine an alternative effect of similar potency.


  • Influence: The summoning was flawed, and the creature's bond to its maker remains unsevered. On each subsequent round, the wizard must roll Mind 3. On a failure, the creature will drain one additional heat point from the wizard and convert it to an additional Wound, point of Might or point of Speed. On a success, the bond is severed and the spell functions normally.
  • Influence: Rather than summoning an entity, something surfaces within the wizard's mind. The wizard gains some arbitrary abilities, enhancements or knowledge determined by the GM. The spell ends after 2d3 Ticks.
  • Manifestation: A falter during the summoning distorted the intention and called forth the wrong creature. The wrong entity is summoned, although the substitute must be of a similar or lesser potency and remains loyal to the wizard.
  • Manifestation: Stumbling over the invocation, the wizard leaves her summons unbound. An unbound summons behaves as it wishes, though it is not initially hostile to the wizard.


  • Influence: The wizard flickers out of existence, only to rematerialise the following round a short distance away, unaware of their disappearance. They might travel a short distance or be facing the opposite direction, but should not generally teleport out of cells or into furnaces, chasms or hungry mouths.

Yeah, unless I come up with some actual transformation spells, I'm not going to get any more ideas in that line. As far as the others go, I'm reasonably happy with this. It will call for multiple rolls one time in 18, but I'm sort of okay with that. My only concern really at the moment is the balance between general and specific effects, in terms of whether I should be having Sigil effects and so on come in earlier or be a higher proportion of the Major results. I may also need to revise these to try and minimise any complexity in mechanical effects.

Any comments or thoughts? Twould be much appreciated.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Link: Exploring the world through questions

For German-speaking readers (or anyone with reasonable Google Translate-fu), System Matters has a worthy article about using questions to collaboratively build fantasy settings - you could generalise to other genres, of course.

I'm a firm believer in asking questions at the start of games, even when using an existing setting. In particular, I like to establish things like:

  • What genre is the game aiming at? If I'm not familiar with the source material, I need some explanation - it doesn't mean I can't play, but I'll want more information. This is a relatively common issue because of my lack of TV knowledge.
  • How supernatural is the setting? A lot of games we play feature some amount of supernatural stuff, but I like to establish how pervasive we expect that stuff to be. Even in fantasy settings, this can vary a lot. Is this the kind where magic replaces technology even to the extent of things you could do a lot more conveniently without magic? The kind where every village or suburb has a local mage, or magical businesses are commonplace? Is magic something everyone has, or just a few people? Can you learn it, or is it a gift, or an external force? What is magic, anyway? Alternatively, is this a setting where the supernatural intrudes onto normality? If so, is it widely-known and acknowledged (Ghostbusters), dealt with by a few dedicated heroes (Buffy), or hushed up by secret government organisations (so many things)? Perhaps most importantly, how much of the time are we expected to be looking for supernatural explanations and solutions?
  • How serious a game is this? This is a big one because most of our games are non-serious, but there's a whole gamut of frivolity from slapstick nonsense (some of my Cthulhu games), via irreverent parody, through to a pretty straight game with some silly names and the odd media reference dropped in character (most of our D&D games).
  • What is our characters' place in society, or relationship to important figures?