Sunday, 13 December 2015

Vampire Masks and Dirges

So earlier I tried out some character generation for Vampire: the Requiem and ran into some trouble with Masks and Dirges. I just want to dig a little bit further into that.

Here, for background, I present the text of these mechanics.

Mask is the bearing Kindred present to the world. It’s the façade, the pretty lie. It’s the excuse for why he can’t stay for breakfast in the morning. It’s the reason she gives the cab driver for dropping her off near an abandoned warehouse at odd hours of the night. It’s his excuse for barely touching his dinner. The First Tradition reads: “Do not reveal your nature to those not of the Blood. Doing so forfeits your claim to the Blood.” Kindred take this concept seriously, and extend it beyond the purview of their unnatural existences. Revealing oneself is a form of vulnerability. Vulnerability is a quick route to Final Death. Any time a vampire overcomes a small hurdle in defense of her Mask, she gains a point of Willpower. When committing atrocious or existentially risky acts in defense of her Mask, she regains all her spent Willpower points.

The Dirge is the truth behind the lies. It’s the vampire’s secret self; it’s who he is when the lights are off and nobody is present to witness his dirtiest moments. It’s his dark indulgence. It’s the self-loathing she will never admit. It’s his desire for an end. It’s her need for companionship.

A Dirge gives the Kindred a sense of identity. After all, her very existence is a lie. In the Danse Macabre, truth is rarely more than a pipe dream. For most vampires, honesty only exists within oneself. Defending that internal honesty helps her to maintain perspective. Any time a vampire withdraws from his outside life in defense of his truer self, he gains a point of Willpower. When committing terrible, damning acts in defense of his personal identity, he regains all his spent Willpower points.

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Not the Man I Used to Be: a plug-in approach to World of Darkness chargen

So obviously I've spent a fair bit of time thinking about White Wolf stuff, what with the sci-fi game and all the nitpicking.

One of the things that's come up repeatedly, and is a regular source of bafflement-slash-frustration to me, is that sometimes White Wolf seem to have completely forgotten their own fluff when writing the rules. Or perhaps simply couldn't be bothered to try and implement these rules. Although the fact that Vampire, the very first game, has sort of the same problem, suggests that they never really thought about it.

I'll talk about Demon, because these two are basically the most egregious cases, but it applies in varying degrees to some of the other games. The issue I'm talking about here is how they mechanically handle becoming a supernatural being.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Visitant: Inside Job

It was a cold night. Frost was settling on the ground, glinting where the security lights touched it. Rounding the corner of his rooftop patrol, Geertz paused and stared dutifully around, scanning the grounds with naked eye, then thermal goggles. Nothing, as usual. The last group of protestors had been nine months ago. Still, they had to stay watchful. Seeing Thompson and his Alsatian making a counter-circuit below, he waved a habitual ‘nothing’, then turned and paced away. The outer wall was three hundred yards away and ten feet high; a fence topped with razorwire separated the car parks and grounds from the compound itself. It would take an intruder several minutes to make the crossing, let alone get inside, and that was plenty of time for the guard patrols to spot them. Nobody was breaking in, not after that business four years ago.

Nobody human, anyway.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Not in London

Another part of my sluggish attempts to appropriate cross-link my blogs.

I wrote about setting scenarios outside London (more generally, outside the major city of the region), and thought it was broad enough to cross-link here.

Looking back, it's a bit brief. For example, I dismissed the idea of exploring London, and I think there's something to that: if you're actually engaged in a scenario, in-character tourism is likely to limit itself to a few major landmarks. I know there's a glamour about the city for some people (Americans in particular, I suspect) but most of it is just, y'know, streets and things.

But an obvious flipside is familiarity-tourism. If players are familiar with London, then they may well get a lot of enjoyment from immersion, and so being able to wander through familiar districts or simply get the appropriate Tube lines can be a source of pleasure. And having those things handwaved might dispel the sense of immersion.

You have to weigh this sort of thing up. Broadly speaking, I think a scenario aimed at creating a Being In London experience does need to concern itself with verisimilitude. Cthulhu by Gaslight and suchlike games tend to fit into this category. However, a scenario that's set in London as a generic default doesn't, really. If London is simply a convenient place to nominally be, and all the action happens in named locations, then it's fair enough for the GM to skimp on it.

I think it's still true, though, that the smaller the settlement, the more significant each person and place becomes. In a hamlet, each of the six residents is significant, and the presence of a bridal shop is notable. In a city, there's going to be a bridal shop somewhere, so why not here? And we have to take it as read that there are far more NPCs in the place than players can possibly interact with, almost all of whom are irrelevant in the extreme.

And I do still plan to get back to that scenario, and rewrite it completely as a setting book with a couple of scenarios built in...

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Good Neighbours: Visitants and other abhumans

Depending on the campaign design, visitants may encounter a range of other inhuman entities. Although it’s designed for a science fiction setting, Visitant can in theory be combined with any World of Darkness game, and it would be silly not to discuss the possibility.

As creatures living in the shadows, visitants are relatively likely to encounter other such beings. Aside from any philosophical or moral factors, there is often pragmatic reason for dealing between the groups: all are keen to preserve their anonymity, all have unusual goals to accomplish, and all have unusual capabilities. The exact relations between the groups could vary dramatically. Here are some suggestions for handling encounters with the two most straightforward abhumans, the werewolves and vampires.

One point to be established in a campaign is how easily abhumans can detect one another. The argument can be made that superhuman senses should reveal the true nature of each species. On the other hand, this ruling might sabotage any chance of subterfuge plots. In particular it will tend to penalise ansaid, whose shapeshifting is an important power.


Scientific explanations for werewolves can be advanced, and there is certainly no barrier to them in a setting which includes shapeshifting ansaid. However, it isn’t necessary at all to offer such an explanation, and attempting to do so may simply create new problems, or undermine the immersion of the game. Not everything needs a concrete explanation, even in science fiction.

Some possible explanations already used in science fiction include:

  • Werewolves are a separate species from humans. They are somewhat akin to ansaid, having highly malleable tissue controlled by the endocrine system. Though they are far less mutable than ansaid, their more defined forms have evolved to grant specific physical advantages – speech and intellect in humanoid form, speed and agility in wolf form, and raw power in the intermediate forms.
  • Werewolves are multidimensional beings. They do not actually change form, but shift between certain aspects of their multiversal self. Whether they are truly alien, or results of a strange evolutionary accident, is unknown.
  • Werewolves are human, but affected by an alien symbiote passed on through bloodline or bite. The symbiote permeates the werewolf’s body, and can cause immense physical changes either through chemical stimulation, or through overlaying aspects of itself onto this reality. As the results are largely beneficial to the host, natural selection has favoured the werewolves.

Visitants are not a natural part of Earth’s ecosystem, but neither are they unnatural beings. In general, there is no specific cause for enmity nor alliance between the two. Visitants on a scientific mission may well find common ground with a werewolf pack: the werewolves can provide invaluable data, while a visitant may have ways to overcome problems the werewolves find challenging. Visitants with a political or corporate interest in Earth may be keen to help preserve its ecosystems.

On the other hand, predatory or exploitative visitants may find the werewolves to be an implacable enemy. Those seeking to learn about the Earth, or to prepare it for galactic contact, may be judged dangerous. Because a visitant is a loose cannon, even simply hiding amongst humanity may cause problems for a local pack. There are many reasons why werewolves might wish to eliminate them. There is also past history: previous bad experiences with visitants, or with a particular species, may prejudice werewolves against them, and vice versa.


There are scientific explanations for vampires advanced in various stories, typically based on either a virus, a parasite or a transmissible genetic factor. Vampires have also been presented as non-human entities, but this is largely incompatible with the traditional White Wolf settings, though not impossible to work around. If the human-to-vampire transformation were restricted to particular families, they could easily be reskinned as an alien colony who ended up on Earth millennia ago and have learned to live amongst humans, either humanoid to begin with or made so through technology. Such a premise would tend to be better for vampire antagonists than for vampire protagonists.

Some vampires lose interest in visitants as soon as they realise they are not viable prey. However, matters are more complicated. A visitant is potentially a powerful and neutral actor, not allied with nor under the sway of any vampire faction. As such, wise vampires may look for ways to strike a bargain and gain the support of the visitant. Visitants are unaffected by many things harmful to vampires, and have the capability to obtain, arrange or learn things useful to a vampire ally. For their own part, vampires can assist in protecting the visitant’s identity. As a real, if lapsed, human being, a vampire can often deal with matters where a visitant would risk exposure.

As vampires prey on humanity, many have no particular issue with visitants who would do the same, but do resent the competition. The sea-change threatened by alien infiltrators, or by admission into a galactic fold, is highly unsettling to the vampiric society that relies on stability and rules from the shadows. As such, peaceful and well-meaning visitants may well encounter more hostility than creatures who actively hunt humans.

For visitants, there is no particular mystique to vampires. If the visitant knows about them at all, they are simply part of the planet’s ecosystem. Their unusual capabilities make them formidable, but not necessarily a greater threat than a human, since disclosure is the great fear. They have some scientific interest, but not necessarily more than other native species.

Due to the radical differences in their evolution, vampires cannot feed on most visitants.

  • The blood of ansaid is distasteful and useless.
  • The volatile blood of mosas attacks vampire tissue, inflicting Bashing damage and the Nauseated Tilt or Nauseous Condition.
  • Shekt skinsuits have a small reservoir of artificial human blood, providing up to 1 unit of vitae for a vampire, and the vampire must make a suitable perception roll to detect that something is wrong with their prey.
  • Ytaleh host-bodies provide blood as normal.

Playing with Traveller worldbuilding

1e7m comparison Uranus Neptune Sirius B Earth Venus

As mentioned previously, I have for a while been considering running some Traveller, in a very desultory way, and started playing with the world-creation tools.

There are a number of potential "issues" with Traveller world creation. While I've spotted some of these myself, they're backed up to some extent by comments from others around the Net. As so often, this is an impressions-in-progress sort of post, and whether apparent "issues" actually end up being a problem is yet to be seen. Things that seem weird from one point of view may work perfectly well in play, and things that seem arbitrary may let you build a perfectly reasonable universe.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

My feat are killing me

Henceforth a long, rambly exposition around the topic of feats.

So for whatever reason I've been messing around with a lot of D&D 5e chargen recently. I've put together about 20 different characters for various reasons, ranging from "this idea entertains me" to "I wonder if this is mechanically possible".

For example, I started wondering how feasible it is in 5e to make single-class parties. That is to say, parties composed entirely of characters from one class, with no multiclassing permitted. Because subclasses grant certain odd capabilities, this isn't quite as mad as it sounds. You can't make a party that replicates the classic Fighter Thief Wizard Cleric pattern, but you can arrange them in other ways.

Friday, 6 November 2015

On the Night-Wind: a ghoulish game

For those who care about such things, this post will contain massive spoilers for a story written a century ago.

Listening back to the archives of HP Podcraft recently, I was struck by a certain turn of phrase in the story that inspired me. Let me cite.

Now I ride with the mocking and friendly ghouls on the night-wind, and play by day amongst the catacombs of Nephren-Ka in the sealed and unknown valley of Hadoth by the Nile. I know that light is not for me, save that of the moon over the rock tombs of Neb, nor any gaiety save the unnamed feasts of Nitokris beneath the Great Pyramid.

And somehow this filled me with the desire to do a game where you play mocking and friendly ghouls. There's a sense of hidden richness in that brief couple of sentences. Plus, funereal is cool set-dressing, as Vampire knew full well.

The Premise

So, drawing loosely on the collected works of Lovecraft, the premise is that you are all ghouls: dog-faced, rubbery, meeping, corpse-munching, tunnel-dwelling ghouls. By night, you ride the night-wind seeking not-very fresh bodies, adrenaline rushes, and the cheap thrill of scaring jocks at popular makeout spots. By day, you retreat through myriad secret ways to a moonlight realm that lies somewhere over there, wherein lie the catacombs of Nephren-Ka and the tombs of Neb and many other cities of the dead, which though once part of the waking world have drifted by degrees into the nightlands. Here you rollick and play and feast and rest awaiting the next excursion.

Being mocking and friendly ghouls, of course, you are no monsters. You eat dead people, but they don't mind. In fact, you take a benevolent interest in the affairs of mortals - you were one once, after all. And so, in your midnight revels, you keep a friendly eye out for your human neighbours, and take steps to guard your shared world against some of the more strange and terrible things that the universe holds. There are many secrets known to the ghouls, things buried with the dead or secrets whispered by the ancient things of the world.

Astute readers may notice that this bears a certain resemblance to Necromancers, and this is entirely true. For some reason I quite like the idea of combining friendly, benevolent adventurers with a gothic horror aesthetic. This is all compatible stuff really, settingwise, although arguably some necromancer concepts (like summoning armies of the dead) might not work in a fairly-strictly Lovecraftian 'verse.

I'm still trying to work out what system I'd like to run this in. There's a certain argument for FATE, except that I don't really have any confidence in my ability to run a successful FATE game and my players didn't seem particularly sold on the system. BRP is too swingy for lighthearted adventure. Either way, I'd better hold off any further work until I find out whether my players are actually interested.

Friday, 30 October 2015

Competent Protagonists in Horror

Various RPGs have played with the idea of letting characters just succeed at things they "should" (in some narrative sense) be able to do. In some it's an explicit rule, in others it's GM guidance, in still others it's a product of difficulty-based modifiers as they relate to mechanical character skill.

Reading Shamus Young's latest post about horror games, I suddenly wondered whether any computer games play with this idea?

The idea that struck me was that first-person games I've seen (which is an admittedly very limited subset) seem to fall into three categories.

You've got your full-blown FPSes which aren't trying to be anything else; you've got hybrids like Mass Effect where atmosphere, conversation and exploration are supposed to be part of the game but combat is essential; and you've got anti-combat games which want you to focus on other approaches to dealing with challenges.

In the straight FPS, the emphasis is on players developing suitable skill to dodge attacks, position themselves and shoot enemies effectively. The protagonists are usually supposed to be expert soldiers, assassins or whatnot.

Although the game emphasises how badass your character is, fundamentally it's up to the player to achieve badassery by getting good at the fighting. Failed attacks are just part of the learning process. As the game progresses, the

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Podcasts I Like, Again

I’m always happy to find gaming podcasts that aren’t American, not because I Hate America but because there’s so many that are, it’s a welcome contrast. Also, I think it’s one of those areas where the sheer numbers of Americans putting out gaming and gaming-related content can skew perspective a bit. Living in different countries, there are different cultural contexts, practical concerns, and social norms that inevitably affect games built around a mixture of social interaction and imaginary worlds.

Today I present three of those, plus a bonus extra.

The Adventuring Party

The Adventuring Party is one of the most varied gaming podcasts I listen to. The podcast as a whole covers “Irish gaming”, which includes specific RPGs, board games, wargames, card games, LARP, con reports, and a lot of general discussion around games. They keep to one or two broad topics per podcast, which means I can skip the con reports and CCG discussions (the first being of limited use as I’m not in Ireland, and the second not being my thing) and get content that’s mostly of direct interest. There’s a fairly large cast, I think about eight all told, but they switch hosts around between episodes so it’s usually about four.

The discussions range pretty widely, covering the mechanical side of gaming, the social side, and a lot of associated issues. Thus, there are episodes discussing D&D 5e; game plots loosely based on Santa; gaming on a limited budget; problem players; and many other topics over the hundreds of podcast episodes they’ve done.

Despite the large number of hosts, the audio is good. There’s limited crosstalk, and they keep discussions fairly well on track despite the relaxed atmosphere. They’re a cheerful bunch, who neither veer off into general silliness (which isn’t exactly a problem, but not what you come for) nor engage in extended rants. The critique sections are generally positive, constructive and reasonable. The hosts’ varying interests and experiences mean they can offer very different viewpoints on issues, comparing and contrasting ideas and practices from tournament gaming, friendly gaming, wargaming, LARPing and so on. It’s just a really enjoyable listen, basically.

Improvised Radio Theatre With Dice

IRTD is probably the most chilled podcast I’ve ever listened to, which always conveys the sense of sitting in a warm study or on a veranda sipping a soothing drink. The hosts have great rapport, yet interesting differences in their viewpoints and opinions that help explore topics in interesting ways. The pacing and flow is good, and although editing probably helps, I think that is one of the great strengths of a two-man show: there’s less chance of interruption and it’s easier to make sure everyone gets to make all their points.

Michael and Roger have what seems like encyclopaedic knowledge of a vast array of games, many of which I’ve never even heard of, and roam far and wide through them in their discussions. That being said, they don’t hesitate to admit limited familiarity (or total ignorance) and frankly say that certain games or game types won’t be covered in a show because they don’t know enough about them.

There’s not a huge archive of episodes yet, around forty, but this is a really rich and varied podcast, ranging from high-level discussion of types and philosophies of game down to specific practical ideas, or the hosts’ own immediate gaming concerns and difficulties. I’ve never failed to find it interesting.

The audio quality is excellent, and it’s great to have another British podcast to listen to. If we lived in more enlightened times you could pop this on the BBC basically unchanged – in fact the hosts have rather BBC voices. Failing that, you’ll have to download it.

Going In Blind

I’ve just started listening to Going In Blind. It’s an actual play podcast on the face of it, but with what you could probably technically call a “gimmick”, though it’s kind of the opposite. The podcast is about playing games, specifically D&D, with players who are legally blind.

Leaving the entire premise aside for a moment, the thing that struck me immediately about this podcast was the first episode, in which nothing happens. That’s because this episode is dedicated to a warm, friendly, approachable explanation of what RPGs are and what it’s like to play them. It’s very probably the best thing in that line I’ve yet come across, and it has a great advantage over those “what is roleplaying?” sections you get at the start of most rulebooks: I think it’ll be far easier to convince a non-gamer to listen to a free podcast link on the bus than to read several pages of a book they may already regard with immense suspicion.

Another advantage is that roleplaying books don’t usually come with velvety narration in a delightful Australian accent and brimming with enthusiasm both for roleplaying games and for social inclusion. Because the “legally blind” bit of this podcast isn’t just a note in passing, it’s a deliberate project X has set out on, and the group touches regularly on the particular considerations this calls for in a game.

Don't know where the rest of this podcast will go, but it was a very strong beginning in my view.

I’m quite interested in this discussion and looking forward to finding out more. For example, many games are built around long lists of things and on blocks of preset powers, but visual impairment makes it hard to rapidly scan through lists and makes you rely more on memory. Even with audio content (which is, as far as I know, zero RPGs) you can’t skim at anything like the same pace. How does this affect play? Does it change the types of games that VI gamers find most accessible? Are broad, “you have four Aspects”-type games better than crunch-heavy ones? What kinds of adjustments are possible to help VI gamers deal with these situations? Of course as a player you can do things like pick minimal-list classes, but that's limiting.

Action Science Theatre

Action Science Theatre is very much not a gaming podcast, but it’s still a good listen. Essentially, it’s a modern radio drama along the lines of the old BBC series – Dick Barton and all that. There are a few key differences though.

To begin with, the podcast is strictly episodic and one-off. There are no recurring characters, let alone ongoing stories. Each episode is a short comedy story, themed loosely around a theory, fact or historical person related to science. True to the name, most of them also feature a certain amount of action-adventure, as well as some romance, although others are more like sitcom. They’re short, fast and lively fare, with enthusiasm papering over the cracks inevitable in a zero-budget indie production.

The audio quality is (as with most things I recommend) very good technically, and as a scripted show you don’t really have to worry about crosstalk. The acting is towards the amateur and sometimes cheesy end of the scale, so people with stronger artistic sensibilities may not appreciate it, but then if you’re planning on listening to Actual Play podcasts I’m assuming you can tolerate sub-Hollywood acting.

Why am I mentioning it here? Well, partly just because I enjoy it. However, you might also find it provides inspiration for games, particularly in the actiony and not very serious end of things.

Friday, 11 September 2015

Quiet summer

It feels super quiet on the blogging front right now. For my part that's for a mix of reasons. Most of it is Real Life Stuff that's both soaking up my energy, and limiting my gaming options. I've not done much gaming for months now due to being a long way from my group, and right now I'm in the middle of moving cities and have just started a new job. Once things settle down I hope to have more spark for writing.

It also depends what's going on, gameswise. We're playing a certain amount over VOIP at the moment, but mostly D&D. I love D&D, but being quite familiar, I have a limited amount to say about it, and I already voiced a lot of thoughts about the 5e rules. Generally it's running into new things that inspires me to write. Most of it is improvised as well, and I generally feel far more comfortable analysing the experience of playing prewritten modules (with a touch of the review) than whatever my friends were able to come up with on the fly.

I do have quite a few half-written games and settings lying around, but I just haven't been able to devote time to fleshing them out to my satisfaction. Plus, it's harder to do that when I don't have my group around to bounce ideas off.

Also Shannon is lying low at the moment, so who am I supposed to steal ideas off?

When I get some time to myself, I'll see about introducing you to my new D&D campaign slash Saturday morning TV show: The Seven Crystal Spheres.

Friday, 7 August 2015

Podcasts and the Nerds who Host Them

I listen to a lot of RPG podcasts, and I'm starting to detect some recurring themes.

The following is offered with the utmost affection to those who provide so much of my entertainment.

Wild Talents in yellow

So it looks like we might end up running Definitely Not X-Men for Wild Talents, and based on my previous posts Dan suggested that trying to stat up characters you already have in mind is the way to get into the system. He's been playing with making X-Men characters. That seems eminently sensible. Wild Talents is pretty much made for running some humans with a bunch of special powers.

Naturally I consider this laughably childish in its simplicity, so instead I am going to play at making the Adeptus Astartes for Wild Talents. What could possibly go wrong?

Saturday, 1 August 2015

More fun with Demon: the Descent

You might want to read my Impressions of Demon: the Descent first, particularly the bits about powers, and also this one.

I was quietly doing random character generation, as I am wont to do, and I noticed this. These two powers sit side by side in the rulebook. You'd think someone might have noticed the discrepancy.

Name of power Raw Materials Shatter
Description Nature abhors a vacuum. With this Embed, the demon can break an object to “summon” an object of similar Size. The object that she breaks is destroyed, never to be repaired or made functional again. The object she summons isn’t created out of nothing, but is brought to her location by a seemingly coincidental series of events. Everything breaks. It’s just a matter of applying force in the right location. A demon who understands this principle can apply the force of entropy to an object and shatter it with a swift kick.
Dicepool Manipulation + Crafts Wits + Crafts
Limitation No size limit specified. Durability is immaterial. Success doesn't risk Cover. Object can be no larger than the demon. Used on an object with Durability 3+, she risks blowing Cover.
Mechanical Intention Obtain an object by destroying another object of similar size. Destroy an object.
Narrative Intention I'm not sure. As mentioned in the power, breaking down doors and smashing weapons.
Drawbacks A failed roll risks Cover. The new object takes some time to arrive. Failure causes injury. A success risks Cover if the object is Durable.

Friday, 31 July 2015

Why can't me and Wild Talents just get along?

I would start using a "Rambling" tag on these posts, but it would go on pretty much all of them.

So as mentioned previously, we recently attempted a campaigngen brainstorming session for Wild Talents, and I didn't get on with the game.

That rather confused me, because I don't understand why. I feel like this is the sort of game I should like. I like tinkering with mechanics, so shouldn't I like a game where you build your own powers and everything? What's putting me off? I wanted to try and work this out.

Okay, for a start, I think we got off on the wrong foot for a couple of reason that aren't to do with the game per se, but the attitude I read into it. The Introduction and What Is Roleplaying seem a tiny bit preachy to me - somewhat reminiscent of White Wolf, to be honest - and despite the attempts at catering to all tastes, I get the sense that really they want you to play a gritty game where you're people with superpowers, and think actual superheroes are a bit naff.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Worlds Unbuilt

Recently I threw out an idea for running a D&D game over VOIP, since I'm finding it difficult to travel to see the usual friends. Someone else suggested running some Wild Talents, and that got some traction (including that all of us are playing a certain amount of D&D anyway), so tonight we attempted to put together the basis of a game, also on VOIP (Ventrilo, specifically).

It really didn't work.

Basically I just wanted to waffle a bit about why that might be.

So Wild Talents is more or less a GURPS for superheroes. It's more or less completely customisable - even the superpowers are build component by component using a point-buy system with benefits and flaws that modify cost, although there are a few samples in the book. It has no default setting. Although they talk about different takes and tones in the game, like full "four-colour" spandex-wearing romps, the base assumption is still clearly a fairly gritty one where supers might get their head shot off and collateral damage exists. I'm actually inclined to place it near The Authority in terms of superhero takes, although there's a wide variety of possible power levels, including the ability to snuff out the sun. It's actually not that difficult.

One of the problems was absolutely that I wasn't particularly enthused to begin with. I don't have a problem with superheroes, mind. The fact that I'd proposed a different game was undoubtedly part of it, and I'm not going to dismiss that. To a large extent though, my apathy was down to Wild Talents, and the fact that my head began to hurt quite a short way into reading it.

Demon: the Bodging

I'm in a really White Wolfy mood right now.* I could really play some White Wolfy game. Admittedly I might get frustrated with it within a few hours when it turns out not actually to be what's advertised, but I hold out hope.

That was... a couple of months ago, when I started writing this. Same old, same old...

Anyway, my exhaustive (ahem) researches for Visitant involved rereading Demon: the Fallen and being reminded how promising it first sounded. Isn't there some way to get a faux-Judeo-Christian game about demons that are actually vaguely tied into real-life Judeo-Christian demon tropes (including, obviously, all the pop culture stuff that it's spawned) out of this?

Monday, 27 July 2015

Demon: the Descent is bad at character generation

So I'm in a bad mood today, and also playing with Demon: the Descent, and as a natural outcome of these activities I just want to take a few minutes to lay out in detail how the character generation instructions for Demon: the Descent are approaching a platonic ideal of wrongness. I have touched on this matter before.

Character generation rules always have problems, it's true. There's very rarely a way to make a character in one single pass - revisiting and revision are almost always needed, except in games with very light character mechanisation. But White Wolf seem to be singularly bad at chargen, and in their rules for both Demon games I feel they have reached a real nadir. This seems to stem, ultimately, from their abject refusal to acknowledge how their own game works, but some parts seem impossible to explain except by sheer incompetence.

Let us begin.

Character Creation, as outlined by White Wolf, has nine steps:

  1. Character Concept
  2. Select Attributes
  3. Select Skills
  4. Select Skill Specialties
  5. Apply Demon Template
  6. Select Merits
  7. Determine Advantages
  8. Age and Experience
  9. The Fall

And here's a quick precis of the game, just in case. In Demon: the Descent you play a sort of Agent Smith. The God-Machine (SkyNet) is real and secretly rules the universe, or most of it, in a reality that's a conspiracy theorist's wet nightmare. You were an agent of the God-Machine, or "angel", a kind of biomechanical-metaphysical entity doing certain tasks. You used artifical human identities as necessary, creating, donning and doffing them whenever required. Then something went wrong in your programming, and you went rogue, a state called "demon". Now you're on the loose with your own motivations, and at least some of your old reality-warping power, in whatever human identity you were last assigned.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Using status mechanics to keep characters involved

Another day, another riff on Shannon. Shannon's post is quite specific, being about status in LARPS, and specifically a possible implementation for one of her own games. Inevitably, mine will be a general post about character status with no specific application in any of the games I'm not running.

Let me also point out that I think Shannon's solution seems absolutely fine.

One particular strength is that because it's reliant on rules and spends (rather than randomisation) it gives players a lot of control, and avoids rules causing silly results. If it's not practical to delegate the work, you can't delegate it (and hence, you have some incentive to find reasons why it's not practical...); you can only spend so much effort digging dirt on lower-status individuals, otherwise everyone will start thinking you're weird. And it's pretty simple!

It also limits players to a certain number of questions, for example, which means they can't just get around the restrictions by repeatedly asking questions about a high-status person until they get a good roll.

The reason I'm going to play with randomizer-based mechanical solutions is because I want to know whether, and how, it could work.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Visitant: Technological Gift trees

I'm still calling these "trees" all over the place, but let's be clear: they're very obviously pools. There is no hierarchy.

I actually really like the Demon: the Descent way of handling special abilities, and would have liked to use that. My original idea for Visitant was that there wouldn't be specific species at all. Instead, I'd discuss broad alien archetypes, and players could then combine certain low-level powers to make a species of their choice. More potent abilities would be keyed off these, just like D:tD.

For one reason and another (not insignificantly, a strong representation from a friend that Extremely Specific Splats were more White-Wolfy than vague mumbling, which seems true enough) I went the other way, and it has some advantages. Like, I don't have to worry about people combining completely arbitrary sets of abilities and producing some RAW-derived monstrosity. Only a small subset of abilities can be combined, which is frankly bad enough.

Today I present the last two Gift pools: the tech powers. Luminescence and Nanokinesis are both power sets I dreamed up out of nowhere. I started writing powers long before I'd nailed down exactly what the aliens would be. I originally intended these to be attached to a specific alien, but there were two things. One, I had no particular ideas for said alien. Two, I was very conscious that my aliens get a very restricted choice of powers compared to most White Wolf games, and allowing them free choice from some technology-based pools seemed both genre-appropriate and a useful getaround.

I may still write some more of these if I get inspired.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Trappery, part ten: goblin caves example

I just discovered this post lurking in my site, unpublished. It's a very long time since I wrote Trappery, and any train of thought I had going is long since dissolved. So this is a pretty short post, but it looks coherent so I thought I'd stick it out there rather than deleting all that work.

The Goblin Caves

In contrast to the last example, this one is far from reality. A band of utterly stereotypical goblins has holed up in a cave network. They are cunning, malevolent, nasty, brutish, and short. The goblin chiefs, led by Ugluk, want to protect their slightly-less-decrepit belongings from the light-fingered masses, as well as from any thieves that might come sneaking into their territory.

Into Ploughshares

So I've been thinking about Into Ploughshares again. This is partly because it just sort of got inside my head and niggles at me. Another reason is that I'm doing a lot of fiddling with games at the moment, and have managed to play a good few since I got back from abroad. The writing and reviewing parts, in particular, emphasised to me just how much time RPGs devote to fighting, or investigating grizzly deaths, and I started to feel rather down about it. I also had some interesting conversations with Dan about other types of genre and gameplay, which helped revive my interest.

What about characters?

The (silly) conceit of Into Ploughshares is an attempt to more-or-less directly map a combat-free pastoral narrative onto stereotypical traditional dungeon crawl mechanics. And that means character classes with distinct roles. I actually think this might work fairly well.

The idea that's come to mind is that, just as seasons (and their challenges) will map onto dungeons (and their rooms), individual challenges will map onto combats. Some will be unavoidable - winter descends on you inevitably, just as the minotaur hunts you down in its labyrinth. Others are optional challenges that can bring some benefit - destroying the undead guards in the vault will get you loot, forging a road through the forest will open up trade routes and speed communications.

Obviously, "fighting" a challenge means a damage system is needed, and the idea that comes to mind is Work Points.

Any given Challenge has, amongst other things, a pool of Work Points. This is a crude representation of how much effort will be needed to overcome the Challenge. Digging a privy requires relatively little effort and has few Work Points. Building an irrigation system for enough farmland to feed a village requires a lot more effort.

The first class we need, then, is naturally the fighter-analogue. Um... possibly. In our case, we have the Labourer. A Labourer is a pretty simple class with minimal special abilities. Where they shine is in plodding away at hard work. A Labourer has a high average Work output and is pretty reliable. They take on the lion's share of labour, freeing up other party members to handle fiddly stuff. In contrast, the other classes have more specialised roles that depend on application to be effective.

What about PCs, though? Most challenges aren't exactly damaging them, but PC Work Points would make no sense at all.

Dungeon crawls feature enemies that injure you, but often you're the one making decisions about pacing. I feel like season challenges need to work a bit different. Essentially, the challenge of pastoralism lies in whether you can overcome a challenge with the resources you have in the time available. This means a lot of challenges will tend to be on a schedule, with PCs only having a certain amount of time to deal with them.

In this case, I'm inclined to say that the obvious option is Fatigue. A PC's "attacks" indicate how much they manage to accomplish, but a challenge's "attacks" indicate how much the character's reserves are depleted by their efforts. This isn't the only option, though. A storm might damage infrastructure, so the challenge is to cope with it as quickly as possible to minimise the harm it does (PC "attacks" here will indicate taking precautions, minimising damage, repairing and so on).

The classic rogue/thief mechanics create a character who's good at sneaking around to find out the lay of the land and predict challenges. They can also deal with unexpected hazards (disarm traps), acquire unexpected benefits (theft) and position themselves to dish out heavy Hit Point damage, providing they can make the right setup rolls. How would we parallel that?

Clearly, we're looking at a Scholar.

The Scholar relies on some kind of theoretical roll to metaphorically 'navigate' the season, interpreting and predicting challenges and opportunities. They can find and deal with unexpected hazards (test of ingenuity or knowledge), acquire unexpected benefits (inspiration), and position themselves to deal heavy Work damage by application of theory to do a lot with a little.

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Visitant: Ytaleh Gift trees

Almost finally, we come to the Gift pools for the ytaleh, little bundles of nervous tissue that they are. These critters get a rather woobly set of abilities, with the telepathic Mentalist pool granting ability to sense and manipulate other minds. Neuromancy is a harder one to pin down; as an electrochemical field-based pool, it combines tapping into the minds of host bodies, disrupting the functions of inconvenient humans, and sensing or manipulating electromagnetism. The ytaleh therefore tend towards a fairly low-action approach, sensing things and invisibly manipulating them to their own advantage. They're good when they have time to exploit their memory-stealing capabilities, but do have some combat capability too, and those are some of the subtlest attacks in the game.

If anyone's wondering, yes, the ytaleh are the Joe 90s of Beneath Dark Skies.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Visitant: Mistaken Identity

Observant readers may notice that, for someone trying to approximate a White Wolf game in a sci-fi setting, I have some major omissions.

Looking closely, almost everything published for Visitant so far is rules, of all things, while the rest is setting material. Where, oh where, is the terrible game fiction?

As mentioned, the six chapters of Prologue: We walk amongst them are only available to premium subscribers. I wouldn't breach their trust by betraying that. But that doesn't mean you get off scot-free you have to go without entirely.

Here, for your delectation and nausea, is the first ever piece of Visitant gamefic.

Visitant: Shekt Gift trees

You either know the score by now, or you have no idea what is going on. If the latter, I heartily encourage you to go back a few posts. In fact, maybe go all the way back to something more entertaining, like the Imperial Fists podcasts or the ones where I make sarcastic comments about poisonous doorknobs. Those were the days.

It may not come across, but I tried to give each Gift pool set of names that were thematically equivalent, so that you don't get a big aesthetic clash; I didn't want really purple names sitting next to "Levitate" or whatever. So the Guise names are a little fancy, Protoplasm is fairly matter-of-fact. Mosa Gifts have pretty short, punchy names that try to describe them as briefly as possible (Taste the Wind is an exception, admittedly).

Today, Shekt gifts! The insect swarm folks get two pools, one based on making buzzing noises, and the other on... well, being made of thousands of insects. Seems fair. For Shekt, I went with alliterative song-based names for the Cadence pool, and fancy-pants florid names for the swarmy ones. No particular reason, I just started with I Am Legion and went from there.

I would also like to note that I'm aware "One With Everything" sounds like a pizza. This is not accidental.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

A beastly problem: animal companions in 5e D&D

So* recently I've been playing about with making a Beastmaster Ranger.

No, come back! I promise not to let this post descend into excoriating it for being sub-par or anything like that. Although it... kind of is. That may crop up. But it is not the primary thrust of this post.

* I am aware that an awful lot of my sentences start off with "so". Here my blog accurately recreates the experience of talking to me. See also: constantly going off on tangents, rarely reaching actual conclusions, talking far too much. On the plus side, here I tend to at least finish my sentences, instead of just tailing off, so...

See what I did there?

NOTE: since I wrote this, I've discovered that some issues are addressed by the PHB errata. I'm leaving this as written, partly because I'm too lazy to change it, partly because it frankly horrifies me that things like "is this animal less sentient than an actual literal zombie?" were not picked up before publication.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Visitant: Mosa Gift trees

As per the previous post, here are some powers, this time for the self-evolving Mosas.

The Mosa Gifts are somewhat odd, in that a lot of them don't require rolls, but simply provide various kinds of boosts. Quite a few don't even require require Focus. I'm not sure whether this will prove unbalancing, in that Mosa end up able to reserve their Focus for a small number of powers, or whether it's irrelevant because the utility of the powers is the main thing.

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Visitant: Ansad Gift trees

The four playable splats for Visitant have now been introduced, so laying out their powers seems the next logical step.

I've taken a broadly traditional WoDdy approach, so these are more like Vampire powers than Demon: the Descent.

There are some differences between the way "powers" (Gifts, in Visitant) work here and in some White Wolf games. The main thing to note is that in the vast majority of cases, it is absolutely 100% impossible for a member of one splat to obtain a Gift belonging to another splat. This is not just a mechanical block, it's a narrative one. Visitants' abilities are primarily derived from their biology, not from magical or supernatural talent, so it's not like this is something you can learn. Are you a gestalt mind composed of several million insectoid drones, or aren't you?

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Fun-Sizing the Great Old Ones: Yog-Sothoth

I have posted part three of my Fun-Sizing the Great Old Ones series on This time: how can we use Yog-Sothoth, the Key and the Gate, effectively in a game, other than getting shipwrecked on R'lyeh?

Since I was apparently asleep during this one, and completely forgot to discuss linking Yog-Sothoth with Judeochristianity, I probably need to come back to this!

Fun-Sizing the Great Old Ones: Cthulhu

I have posted part two of my Fun-Sizing the Great Old Ones series on This time: how can we use Cthulhu himself effectively in a game, other than getting shipwrecked on R'lyeh?

You can find further notes on Cthulhu use in my previous post.

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Visitant: Ytaleh, those within


Ytaleh are a coiling mist of nervous tissue, beautiful and strange. Evolved to drift in the gelatinous depths of their world’s oceans, they are almost helpless on dry land. As they evolved, their species developed the ability to infiltrate another creature’s body, binding to its nervous system and guiding their actions. Now able to explore the world, build and experiment, the parasites developed an advanced society with galactic reach.

Modern ytaleh are no longer parasites but symbiotes, co-evolved with certain other species, neither able to survive without the other. Their host species develop only rudimentary brains and nervous systems, relying on the ytaleh to be their minds, while they are the hands. Scaled ytaleh-igophi dance in the oceans, great fins beating through the waters as they explore the depths. The ytaleh-horoth scamper through forests, and the ytaleh-affah lumber on the plains. Even the skies echo to the song of swooping ytaleh-barra. Each pairing-caste brings its own strengths and insights to the greater ytaleh civilisation.

Monday, 29 June 2015

Fun with unusual spells

So, I've moaned a bit about certain aspects of 5e, including sorcery. As I've been playing casters recently, and planning others, I've spent a lot of time thinking about spells. I just want to throw out some ideas I've had for spells.

Wacky hijinks

The Elemental Evil handbook offers a lovely fun selection of new spells. Some of them have unexpected potential.

I'm pretty sure mold earth was intended to be a digging tool, but what it gave us is an infallible pit trap. You can instantly move a 5' cube of earth away, and although the spell specifically says the movement doesn't cause damage, it says nothing about being unable to dig around creatures or any defences whatsoever. Dig a 5' cube away under a target and drop them into a hole with no saves or attack rolls. Sure, it's only 5', but that should inconvenience them quite a lot. At the very least this should force a Concentration roll for casters. For extra bonus lulz, have two people take this. The first one digs out a 5' cube under an enemy; the second one shovels that 5' of earth right back on top of them. Let's see you take a standard action now, boyo. See also: quicken spell. Depending how your DM interprets all this, it's quite possibly one of the most powerful things a sorcerer can do.

What do your elf eyes see?

I just stumbled across a new blog, Nerd-O-Mancer of Dork, and it seems intriguing so I'm looking through the archives. It's a broadly old-school gaming blog, is probably the simplest shorthand to describe it. One post I found is about some issues with the way darkvision (and its variants) work. Here's the key quote:

Darkvision takes away the suspense of being in a dark creepy location far underground and moreover destroy the suspense for the human players who have to struggle with torches and lanterns.

I do think there's a lot of truth in that. One thing I've noticed is that there's a strong tendency for people to pick non-human characters, particularly amongst my friends with less gaming experience.* A part of demihumans can be mostly unaffected by darkness, which seems like a non-trivial loss. It removes a useful tool for creating atmosphere, adding mysteries, shaping combat encounters, and just plain differentiating one slice of the adventure from another. If there's no apparent difference between being in a dark cavern and an open plain, that seems sad to me.

That's probably because these players aren't that familiar with the rules, and in many cases not that interested in them; they want to make a cool character and have fun adventures, and I absolutely endorse this. Most of the other races are significantly cooler (in various ways) than humans, because we're already all humans, and humans don't get any groovy abilities because, um, we don't have them.** Where humans tend to be particularly good is usually in making particular character concepts, because they're flexible and tend to get extra skills, feats, multiclassing potential or what have you. My experience so far is that newer players are less likely to approach things that way.

** Actually, humans have loads of cool abilities, but we don't notice them much, and then we assume that any vaguely humanoid creature would have all the same abilities we do, plus other ones, because they're just flat-out better. Colour Vision? Resist Lactic Acid? High density of sweat glands to disperse heat? And that's without getting into any cognitive stuff that other races might well be worse at.

Because I like playing with mechanics, I suggested taking Dawnrazor's idea further and devising some rules for how those various *visions actually work. With science, like. Here, I expand on those ideas a bit more than I wanted to as a first comment on someone else's blog.

Decide amongst yourself which kind of *vision a creature actually has. I'd tend to recommend that subterranean dwarves have infravision, for example, while elves might have ultravision for all that starlit dancing.

A guide to demihuman vision


Vision: it's the best! Normal vision in dim-to-bright light is the best model for most of your needs, guaranteed. Sensing shape, colour, movement, fine detail, texture and more, we recommend it for all but the stealthiest of situations.

Low-Light Vision

It’s like vision, only you need less light.


Darkvision is definitionally working without light. You’re seeing some other way. And it’s not a magical ability. It's apparently not sonar, because that's blindsight usually. I’m going to suggest treating this as ‘shape vision’, and assuming it works on some very specific wavelength that's essentially omnipresent. That’s mostly for contrast with the other types below.

Darkvision lets you see shapes and movement, and that’s it. No colour at all for you, and very little detail. You can find the walls of the dungeon and the furniture, but you can’t read this parchment, or even tell whether there's writing on it. It's good for moving around safely, and lets you defend yourself, though you can’t always tell who’s the bandit and who’s your ally without all that facial detail and colour information.


So I'm ruling that it’s actual infrared you’re seeing here, so what this fundamentally gets you is heat. When there’s no normal light to overwhelm it, you can make out sources of heat and cold, but very little else.

This lets you see many creatures quite easily, though not most undead or constructs. You can make out surroundings to a limited extent because different substances react differently to heat – a wooden table and a stone wall will look a little different. Very hot objects seem so bright that it’s difficult to see anything else nearby. A major benefit is you have a chance to see creatures that are lightly hidden, say behind a cloth or leaves. Heat sources leave traces - you may be able to track the heatprints left (very recently) by a creature, and if a room was warm recently it'll still seem light to you.


Suggested by commenter Umbriel on Nerd-O-Mancer of Dork.

This requires a source of ultraviolet light, typically faint starlight or moonlight. The character can see most objects dimly in shades of grey, while many plants and animals (especially insects) have rich ultraviolet patterning. Some mineral substances, including many poisons, are visible to ultraviolet. Some creatures, particularly magical or unnatural entities, may glow with ultraviolet light, making them visible and acting as a dim light source. Undersea or subterranean creatures may have evolved similar capabilities to allow vision, attract mates or find prey.

This was all primarily intended just to make things richer and a bit more interesting. It should also mean that demihumans don't leave humans completely in the dust when it comes to exploring in the dark, which is a large part of most games. Under the standard rules, there are quite strong arguments for never using light sources: if you can see perfectly well with minimal or no light, carrying a lantern primarily serves to attract attention and make you visible to enemies. In many ways a human can just be a hindrance to a party of adventurers who could otherwise run around in the dark.

I’d also tend to rule that it generally takes a few seconds at least for eyes to switch between *visions, in the same way we have to adjust to dark rooms and bright sunny days. So when the lantern goes out, the elf and dwarf aren’t just completely unaffected – they get to spend a round blinking and cursing too.

Using these or similar rules would tend to open up some new kinds of puzzles or confusion for players trying to work out how to interpret colourless shapes or heat signals.

Don't forget, this would apply to enemies too. Players and characters could take advantage of the properties of each monster's vision to distract, confuse or thwart them. New options is generally good.

Of course, it does add complexity, and that's not necessarily what you want. A major advantage of simple darkvision or infravision is that they just let you see in the dark and move on with your life.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Out of the frying pan

With the howl of a wounded daemon, the drop pod plummeted towards the Imperial lines, slowing barely in time to turn a fatal impact into a merely agonizing one.

The doors hissed open.

Vast power-armoured figures strode out, their equipment glittering in the weird green light of Drachtos. All around them, Imperial troopers worked and scurried. Here ammo containers were carried from dropship to Chimera; there a platoon were busily reinforcing the new trenches. Thousands upon thousands of warriors, the backbone of the Emperor's armies, toiling to serve His will. Every one of them tough, loyal, and above all - hungry.

"There." One of the figures pointed towards a low concrete building. "The facility is complete, it appears."

They strode purposefully towards their target, and troopers hurried out of their way even as they stared upon the white-armoured demigods. Rameses led the way inside, flicking open the massive doors with one hand. The occupants looked up, and sprang to attention.

"My lord Astartes! Welcome to our humble facility. I hope it meets with your approval. I must apologise, it was built in haste..."

"You are?"

"Adept Arcturis, my lord. I and Lieutenant Brador" - he indicated a guardswoman to his left - "are responsible for this facility."

Rameses nodded approvingly, his mighty brow creasing. "We will see."

He turned and led the way into the main chambers. Chromesteel glistened everywhere, vast metal benches stretching between whitewashed walls. Arclights beamed down so that no corner of the chamber was in shadow. Pipes wove their way around the room like gigantic iron pythons, skull-topped taps and valves jutting from them. Crates and storage units were everywhere.

The commander grinned, running armoured fingers through his rust-coloured hair. All was as promised. He walked to his appointed place in the centre of the room, a gleaming pedestal with many shelves. Two eagle-tipped banner poles hung above him. Mounting the stairs, Rameses slowly drew a gigantic blade from his belt. Brador tried not to gawp; Arcturis had no such self-control. Rameses ignored them.

"Brother-Entremetier Olivier, to your station. Brother-Rotisseur Cradox, kindle the promethium. Brother-Patissier Kipling, at the ready. Commis-Scouts, bring forth the ingredients. I will lead us in the sacrifice to ensure the Emperor's favour."

"Ave, Brother-Cuisinier!" they shouted, as one. Armoured fists pounded on armoured chests like the resounding of great bells.

"Very good. Begin!" Brother-Cuisinier Rameses turned the gleaming cleaver in his hand, and looked around at the staring humans. "And one of you serfs bring me the thrice-accursed ham."

Thus was the coming of the Iron Chefs to Drachtos.

In the grim darkness of the far future there is only brunch.

Ogham Cthulhu

A while ago, I had an idea for an ogham stone featuring the Mythos. This is the sort of thing that happens in my life.

I sort of left it fallow for months, well over a year probably. I picked up a couple of stones that looked vaguely appropriate just on spec, and kept them in a box. I played around with various ogham permutations of Mythosy phrases, struggling (unsurprisingly) to find a way to express Lovecraftian phrases written down with English spelling using an alphabet designed for the phonetics of Old Irish.

Due to being very unemployed right now, I have time. And it's nice weather for sitting outside with a rock and a file. And I just learned that Paul of Cthulhu has RSI, which is no fun at all. He's an archaeologist Lovecraftiana collector. Hmm...

Some thoughts on tweaking warlocks

I've been chatting to friends about warlocks, and had some more thoughts I want to share. Not all are my own.

One thing worth saying is that while it's easy to bundle it in with other spellcasters, I think the warlock is a very special case. To recall themes from my own stuff, it's a bit of a White Wolf case. The class has a quite generic and recognisable name that draws on some real-world tropes; it has a skin that looks familiar and tropey, in the form of "you made a pact with a terrible occult being for Great Magical Power"; but when you get down to it, it's actually a very specific concept that doesn't necessarily relate strongly to either name or skin.

This makes it quite different from the other 5e classes we've seen. Most classes can take in a range of archetypes. The paladin is explicitly a very narrow concept that's arguably one fighter archetype under a magnifying glass - but it acknowledges and owns that specificity.

In many ways the warlock is actually most similar to the rogue, of all things.

  • Both seem superficially like broad concepts, but are pointed very firmly in one direction by non-optional mechanics.
  • Both have a mechanic that grants bonus damage in certain situations, creating obviously optimal and non-optimal tactics.
  • Both are lightly-armoured classes able to deal large amounts of damage to single targets.

Friday, 26 June 2015

Visitant: Shekt, the multitude

Shekt, the multitude

The shekt are a race of collective selves, each discrete entity composed of myriad sub-intelligences. In their ordinary form, shekts are a swarm of irridescent segmented discs, each resembling a nautilus. They unify their nervous systems via bioelectrical induction, producing a highly advanced composite being.

Shekts are renowned for their diplomatic and commercial ventures, perhaps granted insight by their own communal nature. A less flattering explanation is their widespread use of psychological manipulation. Amongst themselves they communicate by vibrating their crystalline shells, but they are also known to harness this ability as a tool and a weapon. The subsonic and ultrasonic vibrations of a shekt sonic adept can influence mood, cause pain, and even shatter stone.

Being composed of many tiny creatures, shekt have a high energy requirement. They typically consume very large quantities of sugar, as much as five pounds per day. Their skinsuits are capable of consuming normal human food and digesting this into usable components, but shekt normally favour a diet rich in sweets, cakes and fruits, as well as sugary drinks. In some cases they will simply consume raw sugar or syrup.

The shekt tend to be patient and contemplative; though its drones may die and be replaced, an individual shekt is virtually immortal. Their own psychology spurs them to seek resolution through harmony and unification, even if this means manipulating others to bring this about. Not all shekt take this view; it’s as easy to divide the galaxy into shekt and non-shekt, with the latter group fundamentally different and irreconcilable. Shekt individualists also exist, led by their own longevity and self-contained nature to scorn even other shekt.

Monday, 22 June 2015

Multi-layered stamina

Another day, another quick mechanics idea.

Hit Points (and all other injury models, to be fair) sometimes produce results that seem awkward or unconvincing. You get particular issues when it comes to description - either you describe all fights as a lengthy series of deflections and dodges until someone goes down, or everyone ends up taking gaping chest wounds that heal up in a few minutes. People are basically completely unhurt until they die. And it can be remarkably hard to actually kill someone who's largely defenceless, just because they have loads of HP and magically absorb the damage.

I can't remember what the exact chain of logic was that produced this idea, but I had an idea for a three-level injury system that would result in (let's be honest) a slightly different set of head-scratching. Partly it's because I do exercise myself, and I'm aware of the interplay between immediate energy level, ability to recharge, and actual exhaustion. Anyway, I had the idea, so I'm posting it.

The three levels here I'm going to call Stamina, Endurance and Reserves.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

You don't have to be evil to work here: not a D&D warlock

So, making random characters is a thing I like to do sometimes. A while ago, back during the days of 4E, I had quite a few character concepts knocking around. This was true even though I never got to play in a single game, as I was DMing.

One of these was a fiendish warlock idea. The 4E warlock, for those who don't know, had its own array of class-specific powers like all the other classes, and this meant the different warlock pacts could really go to town with thematic abilities. All of them were interesting, but the fiend stuck with me. It had powers like summoning demonic claws to rend people, drain their life to heal yourself, curse them and wreck their mind with terrible illusions until they carve themselves up, feed (bits of) your own soul to a demon to harm an enemy... Good stuff.

The idea that particularly appealed to me was someone who completely accidentally ended up in a fiendish pact. It's just nicely different. Specifically, I had this idea for a servant in a rich household, who stumbles across a diabolical ritual and ends up receiving the fiend's gifts in place of her master - because of course, fiends love to twist the rules. Naturally, she's then left fleeing from a sinister devil cult whose members could be lurking anywhere. I liked the idea of someone left to defend herself reluctantly with unwanted evil powers, and probably ending up in a destructive spiral.

Since 5e features the warlock too, and equivalent pacts, I thought I'd try building her here. Our current campaign is about 5th level, so I decided to go for a 5th-level character. Also, this tends to be quite enlightening about your capabilities, whereas 1st level can be somewhat uninformative.

After a while bashing stats around, I realised that it's actually quite difficult to build this warlock. There are two problems here.

Warlocked in

The first and primary problem is that essentially, the point of being a warlock is that you cast hex on people and maintain it more or less permanently to boost your damage, and then use eldritch blast to deal said damage. Eldritch blast allows you to hit multiple targets as you level up, rather than increasing damage for one target; the warlock also has a choice of beneficial upgrades that affect only eldritch blast, not any other cantrips. In particular, you can take an option that adds your Charisma bonus to each hit, which together with its long range quickly makes eldritch blast the deadliest cantrip out there - you can very quickly be dealing 1d10+3+1d6 (as good as a 1st-level spell), and this increases rapidly, hitting 2d10+2d6+6 at 5th level (average 24). Another option adds pushback, although there are fewer upgrades in 5e than the 3rd edition warlock. Warlocks are really good at this.

However, the flipside is that the warlock has very few other options, and most are flat-out worse from a mechanical perspective.

Hex can be maintained more or less forever, barring a failed concentration check. It transfers between targets on death, unlike any other spell except the similarly-intended hunter's mark, and it can lie fallow between combats only to be resumed as needed. Of the warlock's handful of other spells, nothing else comes close to being this all-round useful. Don't get me wrong, there are good spells in there, but the trade-off against hex's always-on damage boost is a heavy one. It seems pretty clear that the core warlock design, where spells are regained on a short rest but you have very few, is intended to ensure that warlocks can always have hex available, with other spells being a handy extra, a niche effect or a utility slot.

Added to this is the fact that hex takes your concentration slot, which means it's a pretty suboptimal decision to focus on any other spell that requires concentration. Charm person, hold person, fly, anything that enchants or boosts or does pretty much anything other than damage is unwise. Casting one of these will interrupt your hex, meaning you'll lose a long-term benefit for a short-term one that might not even work. After all, most of those require saving throws, and often allow multiple saves (as 5e has wisely tries to cut back on stunlocks), and only work on certain targets, whereas hex just flat-out works. Since you have very few spells known in the first place, choosing these is a big gamble or commits you to what's probably a suboptimal playstyle.

The scaling spellslots helps - casting hold person at 5th level is nice. But is the possibility of paralysing four humanoids (who get saving throws every round) worth the tradeoff of guaranteed extra damage against all creature types for basically every attack you make until your next short rest? Opportunity costs become a big concern for the warlock. Don't get me wrong, sometimes one of these spells will be exactly what you want. The difficulty is the combination of very limited spells known, the fact that casting any concentration spell means you lost a huge damage buff, and the way virtually any spell has a much more niche use than hex. There's a lot of reasons to favour simple, widely-applicable non-concentration spells.

The second factor is that the warlock's choice of spells is very limited, and specifically their cantrips. There's no solid alternative to taking eldritch blast. You can, of course, but you'll lose a lot of offensive capability without having much way of compensating. The fact that you can't use invocations to boost anything but eldritch blast particularly discourages any other approach. Your non-combat cantrips are minor buffs that don't offer much active capability, so there's not really any other obvious combination of abilities to build a playstyle around. If you aren't zapping things with eldritch blast, what exactly are you going to do? And if you are doing that, then taking hex is very much the optimal choice. And if you're using hex, then casting other concentration spells is nerfing yourself.

This is, I think, possibly a mistake? It seems to lock the warlock into a single niche far more firmly than any other class. The pacts offer a few more spell options, but don't fundamentally change the way warlocks work. Again, several are concentration spells that seem a poor choice given the fairly clear assumption that warlocks are running hex.

Dude, where's my curse?

So the other issue I ran into was that while I loved the flavour of a fiend-pacted warlock, the expected warlock mechanic of constantly hurling bolts of magical energy at people is very much not what I had in mind. Does that spell "sinister pact with a demon" to you? I mean, it can, there's plenty of basis for evil-powered superhumans, but that's not the image I get. I'm thinking darkness. I'm thinking lies. I'm thinking deception, and head games, and dread, and power over people, and blights and curses and afflictions. Sure, I'm also thinking fire and brimstone, but bolts of magic? Not really. Spooky young girl pactee does not hurl force lightning. She preys on your fears, or she conjures up claws of darkness to drag you into hell. Honestly, the bolt-hurling thing almost feels more like sorcery, all about inner reserves of raw magical power.

In all honesty, quite similar things apply to other pacts. If you've made a pact with things from beyond space and time, I expect you to warp reality and drive people insane, and conjure up monstrosities, rather than blast them with lasers. Fey, of course, are notorious for raining bolts of eldritch power down upon people - oh no, wait, they wrap people in illusions and transformations and enchantments, and turn the wild against them. The various pacts give you a slightly different group of spells to choose from, but don't seem to significantly change your capabilities.

In fairness, again, this is partly because warlocks depend on two different subclassing mechanics, the Patron and the Pact. Mostly the breakdown seems to be melee-based warlocks vs. zappy warlocks, with their patron-flavoured abilities mostly subsidiary.

It's possible to eventually burn an invocation slot to buy the ability to cast either bane (a level 1 spell) or bestow curse (a level 3 spell) once per day, using a spell slot in the process from your incredibly limited supply. That is a very expensive ability. It is, of course, getting auto-levelled to 5th level, which makes it quite good. Probably not good enough to be worth losing a spell slot and an invocation to gain a decent debuff on up to 4 enemies at the cost of (once again) dropping hex, though, to be honest. Bestow curse is a little better, but has similar issues - notably, one of its uses is to essentially duplicate hex on a single target.

Other invocation abilities include things like at-will illusion, seeing through even magical darkness, levitation, at-will armour. These don't burn any spell slots and can be used constantly. The bane spells are useful, no doubt about it, but it feels like an extremely begruding tradeoff that's strictly worse than these abilities.

Building a Servant of Darkness

I spent quite a while trying to knock my warlock into shape. I faffed about with the Arcane Initiate feat to obtain alternative cantrips. I played with multiclassing. And then I realised I was doing it wrong.

I want my warlock to whisper dark secrets that drive you mad, to bend people to her will, to hold them helpless, twist fate against them, blight them with afflictions. I don't want her walking around energetically hurling magic; I want a simple glance from her demon-lit eyes to send them fleeing.

You know who can do all that stuff? The bard.

I'm serious. Look at the bard spell lists. For a start, let's note that bards get far more spells because they're designed for a different niche. We begin with vicious mockery, rather weak (1d4) as cantrips go but with a reasonable rider of disadvantage for the target, and needing only verbal components. Very flavourful, just what I wanted. Minor illusion is a good extra here for those "Efficiunt Daemones, ut quae non sunt, sic tamen quasi sint, conspicienda hominibus exhibeant" moments. On the real spell front, we have bane, charm person, disguise self, dissonant whispers, faerie fire, feather fall, Tasha's hideous laughter, crown of madness, enthrall, heat metal (how daemonic is that? frying someone in their own armour?), hold person, suggestion, bestow curse, fear, speak with dead (being dead is no defence against a demon), animate objects, geas, eyebite...

Even most of the other bard abilities feel appropriate. Being surprisingly good at all skills? Drawing on diabolical knowledge. The bardic inspiration ability feels a little odd, until you get the College of Lore and use it exclusively to make your enemies fail at everything by mocking them, which fits perfectly. The only one that seems a little odd is the free healing for allies, and you can view even that as being just one of the many fringe benefits of association with diabolical power, call now to see how much you could gain, operators are standing by! Essentially it's the patron advertising to the character's social circle.

Annoyingly, there's still a few very evocative spells that aren't available to bards. Flesh to stone, create undead, any ability whatsoever to get an actual demon to help you. The fire end of things is very limited. Still, it seems a lot better than the warlock at portraying the classic servant of demonic powers. Ironic really.

My current inclination is actually to think that multiclassing is the way to get all the key spells, but that bard needs to be the basis. The Magic Initiate feat looks promising, as it would give access to produce flame (but none of the druid 1st-level abilities are very thematic) or to thaumaturgy and command from the cleric list, both of which are highly desirable. As usual, the best option for spell breadth is to multiclass into wizard and pick up those lovely fire spells. This would, amongst other things, help reduce your dependence on enchantments - I don't have the current monster manual, but in older editions a worryingly large number of things were immune to these spells. The light domain cleric is also potentially a very nice match, if you completely ignore all that fluff about deities.


So me and a friend are both great fans of Girl Genius by the Foglios, and last time I visited we were talking about this, and in particular enthusing about Jaegermonsters. Somehow, this ended up with me promising to write and run a game of Jaegers when I next visit.

Part of the reason I felt this was remotely feasible was that old friend-or-foe-undetermined, FATE. I remain troubled by how to actually run it, but pulpy action-adventure is what FATE is made for. I suppose I could have written a game from scratch, but let's be honest: I'm currently writing/wrote but haven't done anything with the following games:

  • Monitors (awaiting feedback)
  • Feckless Wastrels (awaiting playtesting)
  • Into Ploughshares
  • Friendly Neighbourhood Necromancers
  • Alpha Dregs
  • Jacobeans vs. Aliens (awaiting period research)
  • Beneath Dark Skies
  • In the Darkness Find Them (awaiting playtesting)
  • Vessel
  • Heartbreaker High (not previously mentioned on this blog)
  • A Band of Bunglers (awaiting playtesting)
  • Morris
  • De Jure (awaiting playtesting)
  • The Call of Cthulhu thing where you're all mutants
  • Almost certainly some others I've forgotten about

So I felt reskinning an existing game was an acceptable shortcut. And FATE is eminently reskinnable compared to most other games I know. And I've been wanting to try it out again.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Visitant: Mosa, the enduring

Mosa, the enduring

Mosas are an amphibious race from a highly unstable world, evolved to cope with dramatic environmental changes. They retain certain features developed for survival in water, including powerful lungs and a set of gill slits on their torso. Mosas arriving on Earth typically undergo superficial surgery, implanting artificial hair follicles and skilfully folding the residual webs of their hands and feet. Mineral supplements shift the rich blue-black of their skin to some manner of brown or beige.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Visitant: Ansad, those without form

Ansad, those without form

Ansaid have no permanent form; their bodies are composed of mutable plasm, allowing them to shift into whatever form they need. Ansaid on Earth adopt a long-term disguise, appearing perfectly human to all but the deepest scrutiny. However, the focus on maintaining a single form makes it difficult for them to fully use their natural capabilities.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Visitant: Xenotypes


Though many alien species have left a footmark upon the Earth, there are a small number who are particularly common visitants, due to an ability to reliably assume human guise through natural or technological means. Only these species can attempt long-term expeditions to Earth without risking disaster. They are intelligent, technologically and culturally sophisticated, and considered relatively stable.

These xenotypes make up the playable species of Visitant. They have broadly equivalent mechanical capability, and are compatible with each other and with humanity.

Certain other species have the potential to become authorised visitants, but are currently barred from sending expeditions; political instability, a troubled history or biocompatability concerns mean it is unsafe for them to visit. Nevertheless, occasional individuals do find their way to Earth by accident or subterfuge. There are also many problematic species, such as vermin, parasites and predators, that occasionally turn up on Earth despite precautions.

These quarantined species may appear in the game as NPCs and plot elements. They are not considered suitable as player characters for various reasons: they are mindless, mechanically unbalanced, narratively unsuitable, or lacking in long-term interest.

The Visitant Races

The four common visitant species of Earth are ansad, mosa, shekt and ytaleh. These four very different species are capable of living amongst humans undetected, and cooperating in the exploration and study of an inhabited world. They have been authorised at the species level to enter the Earth - even if certain individuals have no such permission.

The mercurial ansaid have no true shape. They are peerless shapeshifters, able to restructure their body down to the cellular level to meet their current purpose. This flexibility has allowed them to spread across the galaxy, and makes them perfectly suited to the early stages of inter-species contact. An ansad visitant adopts a specific human guise for their stay on Earth. This consistency is highly unnatural to the species, and requires great self-control. Ansaid use their morphing abilities to infiltrate societies, social groups and secure facilities alike. In more dangerous circumstances, they may fall back on more primitive talents, forging raw protoplasm into whatever form is needed to survive. They are creatures of the moment, adapting to any company but shrinking from consistency.

Mosas are physically very similar to humans, barring a few cosmetic differences - webbed hands and feet, gill slits, and hairless blue-black skin. All are easily modified for a mission to Earth. Hailing from a highly unstable homeworld, mosas are evolved to cope with radically different environments, with extremely flexible metabolisms. Like the ansaid, mosas' favoured tools are their bodies; unlike the metamorphs, mosas change within, not without. The species are legendarily tough, shrugging off extreme temperatures, appalling wounds and deadly poisons. More than this, they use their bodies as a laboratory, synthesising a range of useful compounds to handle the challenges they face. Confident in their own capabilities, mosas are graceful and assured creatures.

Not even their own philosophers have settled on precisely what a shekt is - or even whether there such a thing as "a shekt". To casual eyes, however, shekts are formed from swarms of pearly insectoids only a few millimetres long, bound together by the resonance of their nervous systems into a large, sentient being. Though very far from human in appearance, the shekt race have amazing biotechnology, allowing them to craft skinsuits that flawlessly imitate many other races. Dressed in a skinsuit, shekt agents can easily pass undetected by primitive human technology. They are masters of psychology and manipulation, often serving as diplomats to improve harmony between species, but soemtimes working purely in their own interests. They possess remarkable psychosonic abilities produced by the vibration of their crystalline shells, and can use their manifold nature to their advantage.

The symbiotic ytaleh evolved as minds for a number of more physical species, and are little more than a tangle of neurons. They are primarily creatures of thought, with little care for material pleasures. Their ability to bind to nervous systems allows them to hide amongst any organic species, hijacking fresh corpses to provide a flawless cover identity. Intelligent and contemplative, ytaleh are excellent scouts and researchers, and quick to learn from the behaviour of their human neighbours. However, their dull senses can cause complications; the species can be unworldly and impractical, and they struggle to understand the concerns of species who experience the world more vibrantly. Ytaleh can harness their neuroelectrical fields to contact and manipulate other minds, detecting mental patterns or disrupting them.

Friday, 29 May 2015

Downfall D&D intrigue

Quite a while ago now, I mentioned the Close the Airlock! Traveller podcast. That ended sometime in 2013, I think, and there was radio silence for a long time. Possibly due to them doing short-term gaming rather than epic campaigns? Not sure. Eventually, though, the group have resumed podcasting with a 5e D&D campaign that's supposed to focus on grey-morality urban intrigue, and a party of... let's say, "protagonists" rather than "heroes", not evil but very much looking out for their own interests.

I'm up to Episode 12 so far and having a lot of fun; it's fairly ambient play, so great for listening to as I get on with other stuff. Although at least one person is Skyping in, there's not many issues with people speaking over each other. There's some background crackle at times, but I haven't found it a problem (although of course, better audio is always welcome).

They're taking this pretty seriously (not the game, but the podcast) so there's a blog up at as well as copies of the maps they use, an extensive players' guide if you want to know more about the homebrew world, and even a substantial GM's guide that you can pick up by donating. Obviously not for everyone (I don't have one, for a start) but if you're interested in running something similar or just in porting the setting, it might be a good option.

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Taking the Fifth: early thoughts on D&D 5e

So I've been playing 5th edition for a little while now, with a couple of different characters. I'm really enjoying it. It seems to make a very nice job of uniting things that were good about previous editions, improving game balance, and keeping everything flavoursome. Good job, WotC.

I just wanted to make a few observations based on my play so far. We've only hit levels 3 and 5 respectively in the campaigns, so it's early days yet. I don't claim particular expertise, and my notes will inevitably be coloured by my personal experience, as the stuff I've actually read in detail and thought hard about tends to be my own characters. I don't even own the DMG or Monster Manual.

For reference, those characters are:

  • a 3rd-level human fey pact warlock ex-wheelwright who just got his sprite familiar (with cloth cap and tiny, tiny fey whippets), primarily distinguished by rolling really poorly on spell attack rolls and astonishingly well on fey charm rolls.
  • a 5th-level elven ranger/draconic sorcerer/monk Gap Decade traveller who talks his way into bizarre situations and then is deeply bemused about why he suddenly has to fight his way out of them, using the motley collection of skills he's picked up between National Service, natural elven affiliation for magic, and other cultures' amazingly authentic and deeply spiritual practices that also involve flying kicks.

In general the experience has been extremely good; inevitably that means my comments here will tend towards the critical, because it's really hard to pin down why I enjoyed stuff, but easy to spot the things that jarred on me.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Crosspost: Gender roles in fantasy gameworlds

Shannon is always worth reading, but I think these two posts on chauvanistic settings and fantasy gender assumptions are particularly worthwhile if you're interested in building interesting societies, playing around with different histories and assumptions, or how players and setting assumptions can interact. These ideas can also be relevant to other social imbalances, such as the place and treatment of various fantasy races or religious groups.

Fun-sizing the Great Old Ones: Azathoth

On there was recently some discussion about why Ramsey Campbell's creations get so much time in Call of Cthulhu. This turned into a discussion of how certain Great Old Ones are more gaming-friendly than others. I've been meaning to write something about this for literally years, so I knuckled down. My first post addresses how Azathoth, the demon sultan of imbecilic madness that writhes at the centre of the universe, can be made a little easier to use in a game.

The starting point for my thoughts, ages ago, was actually the big green himself. Given the entire game is named after him, Cthulhu hardly seems to appear at all in Call of Cthulhu. Meanwhile, Shub-Niggurath and Nyarlathotep gibber on every corner, and Hastur has already bought most of the real estate. Why is this?

I hope you'll accept an assertion that some entities are simply easier to use in games than others. Let me try to outline some of the factors that affect that. As always, there will be bullet points. Sorry, that's just how I roll.

Friday, 8 May 2015

Visitant: cover and compromise

Cover and Compromise

It’s tough being an alien resident on Earth. From the moment you arrive, it’s vital to create and maintain a solid cover identity as a human. This cover allows you to go about your agenda undetected; many kinds of research, manipulation and predation wouldn’t be possible if your targets knew you weren’t human. More urgently, cover keeps you safe. A low-cover visitant is vulnerable to observation, investigation and public suspicion. A visitant whose cover is blown is a wanted fugitive, whether the pursuers know exactly who they’re dealing with or simply think them a dangerous spy.

Cover is about being totally mundane. You don’t want suspicion of any kind. The more information is spread about you acting unusually, the weaker your cover becomes. Suspicion doesn’t necessarily need to be attached to you personally; reporters investigating alleged alien activity in your village is a problem too. Gossip about your unusual habits, police questioning about involvement in strage events, YouTube videos of a strange creature prowling around the park, they’re all dangerous to you.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Visitant: the Infiltration

Familiarity is a blanket, invisible until ripped away. The protagonists of Visitant: the Infiltration are extraterrestrials, planted or stranded on the Earth and striving to remain undetected. It's about strangeness, loneliness, the struggle to appear like everyone else without really knowing what that means, to understand the world you must inhabit. Visitants must balance their core identity with the façade that keeps them safe, their instincts with the customs of their new home, their loneliness with the need for secrecy. And there are others out there, human and inhuman, eager to find them.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Morris mechanics

So I proposed (in all seriousness) a campaign called Morris based around Generic Patriotism, urban occultery and hitting things with sticks. Nobody has expressed the slightest bit of interest, which will in no way prevent me from going on about it (how very thematic).

I proposed using existing systems to play Morris, but let's pontificate about other options anyway.

There are a couple of main strands to the game as I see it. It's basically urban fantasy, after all. One side is therefore dealing with weirdness. The other side is getting on with life. These two frequently conflict: weirdness demands your attention at inconvenient times, while Real Life has a bucketload of emotional and practical demands that cause problems in tackling weirdness. Buffy Summers and every costumed superhero ever know this. You have to skip the school play to prevent the boundaries of reality from collapsing; you can't patrol the town borders because if you miss one more deadline you'll be out of a job; your family think you're either a worthless drunk or mixed up in gangs because you're always staggering home at 2am with fresh cuts and reeking of peculiar incense.

Broadly speaking, characters here need two "skillsets". I use the term advisedly, since it doesn't necessarily mean you need skills as such, or even anything. But characters need tools for interacting with weirdness, and tools for interacting with normality, and they may not be the same or even similar. From this point I'll use "The Morris" to mean anything associated with the mysteries and duties of the Morris, and "Normality" for everyday problems.