StormHack characters, part 1

Ages ago I had the idea for a “community phase” for Beyond the Wall. Here are a couple of posts:

TL;DR these are an idea for a two-part character. One half of the character is the adventurer and exists “beyond the wall” i.e. when they’re off adventuring. The other half exists “in the village”, or when they’re at home and interacting with friends and family. I still like the idea and it fits certain genres (anime comes to mind, where characters who are brave adventurers risking their lives still get into domestic capers when back at home).

Later I wrote this into StormHack: see here (note that I re-wrote the A6 booklet here, but that later version doesn’t mention the Drama Game). But truth be told something’s always bugged me about this approach. The two sides are more or less entirely separate, which creates a kind of cognitive dissonance as players switch from one phase to the other. What I really wanted was for the PCs to have those relationships but for those to tie back into the adventure and for their emotional components to have an effect on (or at least be present in) the adventure game.

StormHack characters do have a dual nature. The human is all about human experience, family, history and emotions, whereas the demon is about power, ambition, expertise and magic. The premise has always been that the human side has no levels, does not gain experience or power; but demons on the other hand have levels and it’s entirely up to the player how high those go. A higher level demon will give a lot of power but when it transgresses, it will really screw up the character’s life.

And that turned out to be the solution. The human side has all the connections to family and place. These give the character some capability (skills and experience) which can be used directly in the adventure game. However, it’s these connections — Roots — which get attacked, tainted, corrupted by the demon when its power finally comes back to bite its master. Thus there’s this cycle:

This integrates the human side and the demon side. I’ll go into the mechanics of how this works some other time, but for the rest of this post I want to discuss the two sides to each character.

I. Being human

The human side of the character is all about their past and ancestry, the life they had growing up, and the influence of friends and family.

The standard 6 ability scores (STR, CON, DEX, INT, WIS, CHA) belong to this side of the character, and you can generate these any way you like — as a point-buy, rolling randomly, using playbooks as in Beyond the Wall, etc.

The accompanying roots are influenced by Whitehack’s groups. They’re sort of broad statements about vocation and cultural experience, and you can leverage these in-game for an advantage on a d20 roll (i.e. roll twice and pick the result you like).

Each character has three roots:

  1. The first and most recent is growing up. It’s all about the skills and experiences you got from your family and friends. If the family business was fishing, or milling, or brewing, that’s something you know how to do. It manifests in parents or other people of the same age who have been an influence as you grew up.
  2. The second root is tradition. This is something cultural about your family; it indicates belonging to an ethnic group, a race, or a tribe.
  3. The third and oldest root is legend. This is something like a rumour, family story, or connection to something very old that began long before you were born.

All roots have an anchor-point. This is the person or place strongly associated with the root, and this is something the character will keep coming back to. Parents or friends will often be an anchor for growing up, grandparents or the community for tradition, and places or heroic stories for legends. These roots extend back in time. Often you might want

Roots don’t have to be beneficial all the time. A tradition (which could be a religion, ethnicity, etc.) might be useful but at the same time bring the attention of bigots. A legend could be exciting and inspiring, or it could be a dark doom that follows the character around.

II. Being a demon

“Demon” can be anything from strange otherworldly creatures summoned and bound to the conjurer’s will, to psychic self-actualisation and manifestation of latent talents. The definition of “demon” can be very literal (as in Chaosium’s Stormbringer) or allegorical/metaphorical (Ron Edwards’ Sorcerer) depending on your game. The key points about demons are:

  1. Their apparent power that they exercise on behalf of their master has a real in-game effect: destroying things, enabling the character to fly or walk through walls, conjuring stuff out of thin air, seeing into the future, controlling other people’s minds. All of these effects go beyond what normal people can do.
  2. If the PC gives the demon permission to act, they risk the demon transgressing. That transgression also has a real in-game effect: destroying relationships, tainting reputations, attracting enemies.
  3. The act of transgression gives the demon power, and causes it to grow. This is a metamorphosis.
  4. When the demon is stronger it can tempt the PC with more powerful effects, but its transgressions will be similarly worse.

And there you have it. Demons could be a metaphor for pursuit of power, ambition or dedication to something at the expense of humanity and human relationships; or they could be really, really evil beings which latch onto humans and tempt them to use too much power and wreck their relationships and leave them as an emotionless, hollowed-out husk. Your choice.

Demons have an associated drive. This is an expression of what sets the character apart from their peers. For example a character’s drive might be to be a great warrior or knight. That drive directs the demon’s power (in this case, in combat). In general Drives look a lot like careers or vocations; and in a lot of cases they function just like roots do as skills and experience. Thus if the character called themselves “Knight of Leopards” they might get an advantage when fighting, when conversing at court, when ordering commoners about, etc.

Whether or not the world believes that demons exist, they definitely talk to their master. They tempt their master to use their power, and then introduce thoughts of how they might transgress. In-game you might want to give the job of roleplaying a character’s demon to the player on the left of the player in question. That player might have fun ideas on how the demon will next transgress if it gets enough wriggle room.


Coming up: I’ll provide an example of generating the human characters in the Beyond the Waves archipelago setting. Shortly after, we’ll do an example of the demonic side of a character.


In 2000 we carried two kittens through the flood in a cardboard box. Over the years to come they brought us great joy and were better companions than we ever imagined they could be.

Today we said farewell to Puck. He survived his sister by a few weeks but we’re not sure he ever got over her loss. He was thin and looked tired, and hadn’t eaten or drank anything all day today.

But for most of his life he was a bruiser. He liked his dinner and he liked to be out. He definitely got into fights, showing off his torn ears. Also when he was a kitten he’d pounce right on my crotch while I lay in bed.

And now we have no cats, which is a peculiar and melancholy sensation.

This was the puckster:

Handsome cat.

Backers in the Dark

My POD of Blades in the Dark arrived! I finally got around to redeeming the at-cost code sent out to backers (though to be fair it was a year late by the time it was sent, so my interest had waned a fair bit). It’s a great POD — nothing fancy, just right for getting dog-eared and creased at the table.

I will now talk about my subjective views on the BitD Kickstarter campaign.

A lot of people are up in arms about the BitD stretch goals. You can read about them here and here and here. Tl;dr:

  1. Some of the goals were promised as favours to Harper, unpaid, yet appeared against monetary stretch goals — but the KS funding levels were simply irrelevant because those goals weren’t being funded by the cash
  2. Swapping favours with each other’s KS is what was done “back in the day” between indie RPG authors
  3. Harper hasn’t been very communicative about the stretch goals until now
  4. The stretch goals are late… but as some people have said the timing for these should really be from when the game was finished, rather than when the campaign started
  5. There’s some debate as to whether the stretch goals are a deliverable, or just an added complementary perk (like airline food)

My thoughts are (1) why shouldn’t Harper monetise return favours for work he’s done for other authors, (2) there’s no reason swapping favours shouldn’t be fine these days either as long as Harper remains accountable, (3) maybe annoying but I stopped reading the comments a year ago anyway, (4) yeah, okay… (5) no idea.

I have no doubt that Harper intends to eventually make good, the contributors are quite happy to be doing an unpaid return favour.

I also think that even though BitD has been way off the original delivery estimate (Nov 2015) it’s also been really great value for money with 8 major releases before the final PDF. I ran using version 4 or 5 and it was already excellent. I would like to see the stretch goals realised (especially Jhereg) but I can wait.

But here’s the interesting thing. Half of the focus on the KS is the amount of money pledged — nearly $180k. This has lead to all kinds of comments re: whether or not people should be paid since this is clearly a successful commercial venture. At the same time the other half is around the handshake agreement, quid-pro-quo, barter system that exists between indie designers. I see zero conflict between these two areas but it’s obvious why it’s a source of confusion and tension.

And here’s the other thing: I anticipated this would be the case last year when the partnership with Evil Hat was announced. It was an obvious move from indie into corporate territory (and yes, Evil Hat is a corporate entity — at least, no less of a corporate entity than Chaosium or Pelgrane or other mainstream houses). That in itself didn’t bother me, it’s a natural progression for such a wildly successful campaign and the BitD brand.


The thing that did tick me off at the time was the upselling of the hardcover. From Feb 2017:

(Sean Nittner, with whom I interacted with more recently here)

Unfortunately I don’t have the “discounted” cost of the printed hardcover, but I do remember shipping costs — $25 dollars to UK. The book itself was probably around the same price. I also got the option to pay for the special edition instead for something like $75 total. Now for the record my POD copy cost me less that £10 delivered. It’s not nearly as nice, but it’s between a third and a fifth of the HC cost.

I’m cool with people trying to upsell and make money. At the same time I resent being upsold when I’ve mentally already set my price, especially with the limited time offer, act now approach.

And the thing is, this is an inevitability where indie designers are brought into contact with corporate entities — KS, Evil Hat, whoever — who will upsell to and exploit their fanbase for every last dollar. That’s not a criticism, even though it sounds like it. It’s exactly what corporations do and should be expected to do. The only difference is the brand and quantity of lubricant they use.

Came in the flood

18 years ago we carried two kittens through a flood in a cardboard box.

Part of a litter of five born to a ginger queen, Cobweb was one of two tortoiseshell kittens. Their faces were a mirror image of the other. I don’t know who took the other kittens; I think the other pair of male-female kittens went to another couple and the last one, a big dopy ginger tom, went to a child. I’m sure they loved their cats every bit as much as we love ours.

Cobweb’s speciality was sitting. She was the main reason for the I Have A Cat rule for tea and booze conveyance. She would sit on laps, on pillows, on chests and backs and heads of sleeping humans, on important documents, on anything that would gather cat fluff.

When I was away in another country my other half would send me pictures of herself with Cobweb on her lap.

She was the rumblecat. Her purr was audible across the room.

And we’ll miss her.

StormHack A6 and the 8 page method

I go back and forth between writing tools and methods (rich text, outliners, markdown, mind mapping) and those are all useful but also terrible for procrastination. This made me think back to my first A6 version of StormHack which by strange coincidence was posted exactly a year ago today.

8 Page, Thousand Word RPG method

Two nice things about the 8-page pamphlet format:

  1. It forced me to draw boxes around the system elements which really focused me on what I wanted to say to players
  2. It also forced me to be economical with writing

The word count is at most 135 words per page, so 8 pages is just over a thousand words — call it a 125 word-per-page target for a nice round number. This is just for one side of A4 paper folded into an 8-page booklet, not counting the other side.

Now although people have risen to the 200 word RPG challenge (hey look, the deadline is tomorrow) I think for me even 1000 words will be a stretch to fit everything in; so instead I need to think about what my little booklet will do. It should be something I can hand out at the table that explains everything people need to know about the system.

What about the other side of the page? Maybe a map, setting detail, or a character sheet. But that’s for some other time.

StormHack 2.0

For now, here’s version 2 of A6-StormHack. Print it, cut and fold where it tells you and you’ll have the booklet. I’ve taken a knife to some of the sections in the previous versions; it’s much more mechanic focused. See if it makes sense.

There’s The Nub

I love my fountain pens, but recently I started using my stash of Field Notes for individual RPG projects and since Field Notes have (mostly) terrible paper, a pencil was the way to go. I’ve really liked the results — the little notebook gets creased and scuffed, the pencil gets worn down. It feels like progress. I then discovered I liked using pencils on nicer paper. I trade pencil ghosting for ink smudges and overall it’s a sideways move, but pencils are erasable and resistant to spilled tea.

A couple of weeks ago I spent the weekend in New Jersey, and spent my Saturday walking around NYC looking for RPGs (the Compleat Strategist) and stationery (C.W. Pencils), then drove out on Sunday looking for pizza and more stationery in Chester, NJ (The Pen Thing), which by the way is lovely and green and nowhere near the NJ turnpike and fantastic drive for soaking up Chuck Tingle’s podcast.

At C.W. Pencils I scored some Baron Fig Archer pencils and their Lock limited edition notebook as well as a selection of other US and Japanese pencils:

The Archer pencil is fairly thin and light, and it feels an awful lot like the Leuchtturm pencil I’ve been using. Since the Archer is apparently made in Portugal (by Viarco?) perhaps the Leuchtturm is as well. Its dimensions are very similar — no eraser, fairly narrow, light, rounded painted end, silkscreen (as opposed to imprinted) printing.

The ones I really wanted to try are the Mitsubishi 9850 and the General’s Semi-Hex which are basic Japanese and American office/school pencils respectively. General’s is made in Jersey City, and one of only three manufacturers left in the US apparently (I also scored a Musgrave test pencil which is very interesting).

Just as a vibrator can’t replace a good man but a man can’t replace a good vibrator, a pencil won’t replace my fountain pens but the reverse is equally true. The way the pencil gets consumed by the act of writing is very satisfying, and I enjoy making little screaming noises as I sharpen them at my desk in the open-plan office.

New shoes

Today was the memorial for a friend I’d not actually seen for many years. He died suddenly and too young. The service was lovely with many many examples of how warm and smart and funny he was.

My memory is the weekly movie club, more than ten years ago; I remember The Prisoner projected onto a white sheet in a tiny flat. But it’s Twin Peaks that sticks in my memory for his impression of Leo Johnson, complete with saliva.

I suppose you had to be there. Still, I’m grateful that I was.

Beyond the Waves: relics from the last war

For Beyond the Waves: ancient technology from the last war between the Haunted Empire and the Island States.

I. Ekranoplan wrecks

The airspace above the Archipelago is haunted. The Empire’s flyers would dive when they hit the Archipelago airspace, or curve in unpredicted trajectories. For decades the imperial scientists attempted to map that volume of air with its many loci and vortices and tunnels, but Sigma/Omega ratios could suddenly peak and vehicles would return decrepit, pilots bags of dust. Flying over the islands was too much of a risk even for a behemoth like the Empire who could throw steel and flesh and bone at any problem.

The ekranoplans were vast surface wing craft, much larger than any of the vehicles in service around the various island states. They were designed for carrying cargo, weapons and troops rapidly over long stretches of flat water for exploration or conquest.

Abandoned ekranoplan hulls can be found along the western shore of the land and on some islands.

1d12 Ekranoplan wreck points of interest
1 Wreck completely overgrown inside and out with several well preserved bodies inside
2 Coded military orders
3 A luxury fitted stateroom with Imperial memorabilia
4 1d4 active torpedoes of unknown payload
5 Several cubic meters of ancient computer
6 Disdended corpses and signs of bungled emergency egress
7 Maps of western ocean with expedition diaries
8 Leviathan tissue samples
9 Armoury with 1d3 lightning cannisters and other hand weapons
10 Neuronic interrogation equipment
11 Banks of cell samples, seeds and mature plants which have overwhelmed the vehicle interior
12 Human squatters who are either (1-2) inferior and afraid, (3-4) well-matched and hostile or (5-6) contaminated and infectious

II. Acoustic Mirrors

The obsolescense of aircraft that resulted in the ekranoplan in turn rendered radioetheric detection useless as the flyers were too low to resolve against the surface.

Sound mirrors were developed and many examples were installed on the shores of the eastern-most islands.

1d10 Acoustic mirror points of interest
1 Sound has attracted unusual animals or birds
2 Sheltering human settlement who have decorated the mirror
3 Mirror receives broadcast from somewhere out in the sea
4 Tribe bases religious observations, calendars and rituals around seasonal ambient sound from the mirror
5 Mirror contains a bunker underneath with telegraph room which is receiving a signal from somewhere
6 Mirror reflects leviathan song
7 Mirror has been damaged and tilts at an impractical upward angle, but is receiving transmission
8 Mirror has been broken down, moved and reconstructed to serve an unintended purpose
9 Local gravitational or spacetime distortion
10 Several imitation mirrors have been built up in the same area, and sing to one another

III. Targe hulls

Targe (“shield” or “border”) hulls are chains of either mobile floating or permanently anchored armoured platforms designed to interrupt assaults from ekranoplan vessels with poor manouverability and altitude control. Frequently installed close to sound mirrors.

1d10 Targe hull points of interest
1 Hull has been taken over by vast numbers of sea birds
2 Gigantic cannon, broken away from mounting and cannot be aimed
3 Remnants of a brutal skirmish; bones, damaged equipment, rusted firearms and cutlasses
4 Series of sophisticated signal towers line up with island mirror installations
5 Multiple stored drums of unknown chemical agent, some leaking into sea
6 Platforms severely damaged in collision, submerged ekranoplan wreck
7 Fishing settlement in former fortress with extended raft village anchored to fixed hardpoints
8 Suspended railroad connects network of artificial platforms strung between natural sea mounts and islets
9 Pirate hideout with livery
10 Bedrock collapsed under foundation revealing underwater natural structure

Image Credits and more images

Acoustic mirror by Paul Glazzard shared under CC BY-SA 2.0

Red sands forts by Russs shared under CC BY-SA 3.0

Ekranoplan art:

New Journal!

Among other chores this weekend I’m rolling over to a new bullet journal. I’ve been using this approach for a few years but in 2018 I tried something different: rather than just use the BuJo for tasks, I’d use it for everything, including work meeting minutes, creative RPG ideas, daily tasks and so forth. This was a conscious departure from how I’d done things in the past, namely several notebooks on the go (e.g. one work, one home) plus brief episodes of going completely digital, embracing GTD with multiple lists, and trying to make Filofax work for me.

Thanks to my vacillating my last BuJo (one of the official Leuchtturm black embossed ones) lasted more than a year, this one (in blue) has been filled in three months. It’s filled up so quickly because I’m not using the system perhaps in the minimalist way Ryder Carroll does it; instead of a single day taking half a page, my working week might fill up to 20 pages. But while I write a lot more the principles are the same:

  • rapid logging; write everything down and bullet them according to information or tasks
  • monthly (or more frequent) task migration
  • one place for everything

Some changes to the BuJo approach, with varying levels of success:

  1. I’ve developed a few new bullets but the only one that’s been useful is the cross for sub-headings within meetings
  2. I have thought about doing weekly task migration as I generate a significant number of tasks daily, which are easy to lose
  3. The one other thing I tried but ultimately didn’t need was a much more complicated Future Log which I laid out like a calendar. For the next book I’m going back to the minimalist Future Log layout and keep it to a single page spread (given how quickly I’m likely to use up the journal).

I’m sticking with Leuchtturm1917 journals for now. The outgoing journal was squared paper and unlike Rhodia’s violet 5×5 grid on bright white paper the Leuchtturm square grid is very subtle grey on off-white, and doesn’t make it hard for me to read my words later. The Leuchtturm also has a prompt for Date at the top of each page which is both good and bad — good because I got in the habit of starting a new day on a new page but bad since I write across several pages, so the subsequent ones waste some space. This time I’m going back to a dot grid with one of the special edition Red Dots books which look fantastic — although the index has shrunk down to a 2-page spread which would not be enough if I were not indexing the BuJo way.

(still using Field Notes for gathering RPG project notes though)

Bolt On

This was unexpected:

It’s a tweet from Sean Nittner from a series concerning submissions for Forged In The Dark. Weirdly the image comes from a two year old post from this blog concerning Dice Clocks.

(it made me wonder if he’d read what I wrote and this was some very, very oblique vaguebooking)

The opening tweet is a bit nonsensical: if you’ve created a rule for a new kind of action, then surely the system reflects that by definition. But I don’t want to take it out of context so here’s the whole text for this point:

Mechanics concern: Bolting on new tech. If you’ve got a rule for a new kind of action in the game, that is fantastic. If it’s core to the game that’s even better. The trick is to make the system reflect that, which might make for a deep (and possibly uncomfortable) dive.

If games looks like “Everything Blades has plus a random treasure table” or really “and plus anything” then chances are there is still to many Blades in your Dark! Consider these ideas (and I’d love to hear more):

  • Create your system from the fiction you want to see. Decide what you care about (that’s really important, this is your game, what YOU care about is what matters here) and build from there.

  • Consider your values and how they affect your design choices. They always are!

  • Question the narrative of play. Why the are the characters taking the actions they do? What is happening in your setting? How do those interact?

  • Leave spaces to fill in the details, but define enough of it that everyone knows the basic parameters they are working with.

Crucially Nittner is speaking as a publisher to a potential pitch, so his opinion is critical (in more than one sense): this is what he would like to see from a differentiating product. I’m not that audience, although I am an advocate for genre awareness (hence Fictoplasm). But I’d also say, why not bolt things on? A lot of games are modular by design, Blades included (along with PbtA, OSR, etc.).

The other interesting thing is this is Evil Hat, home of FATE, a system so generic and malleable that it should be simple to apply desired settings (a great strength, particularly if you’re developing games). But with FitD suddenly talking about baked-in mechanics which drive towards a particular genre. I’d be very interested to see how much the different Forged products differentiate themselves from the source and each other. I think I’m right to say the best PbtA games require incredible dedication and thought, plus engagement with the playtest base to achieve the creator vision.

Will company oversight help the differentiation, or will everything come out smelling of FATE?

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