Month: July 2013

Damage Magnet

The party damage magnet is more than just a tank who soaks up punishment–they soak up hits for the team. It can be unintentional, when an inappropriate target (say, the party MU) is selected over and again at random. That can be funny too, at least for one session and as long as no-one actually loses their PC.

Really though the party tank should always be the damage magnet. Not only does it make tactical sense, it’s the role the player has signed up for–a protector of the other party members, and a tough character.

This is where Aggro comes in. MMORPGs and CRPGs use aggro (aka Threat, Hate) to prioritise which monster attacks which PC–and in addition to soaking up hits the Tank often has aggro-drawing abilities (such as taunts) to draw attention away from the vulnerable healers/buffers and high damage-per-second characters.

However taunting often means something different in tabletop games. Sometimes it’s an effect that makes an enemy attack blindly, so the aggro-drawing is implied — but other times it’s a mechanism to mentally disorder the opponent with quips and insults, so the user has an advantage against the target of the taunt (this is a feature of swashbuckling games like 7th Sea, I believe). Overall a taunt (like a lot of RPG powers) has a focus on the one-to-one relationship between fighter and enemy, rather than the many-to-many relationship of party (with its strong and weak members) to enemy unit.1

Let’s consider aggro as a global condition, applying to all PCs all the time–as is the case in WoW.

  • What benefits would an aggro system provide?
  • What situations apply?
  • How to implement?

1. Benefits / System Objectives

We know RPGs revolve around conflict and tension, but conflict doesn’t happen for its own sake (often). Conflict usually happens because the PCs have inserted themselves into a dangerous situation (physical and/or social) for some kind of gain.

  1. Tagging the party members with aggro lets them know they’re under threat.
  2. Tagging individual party members with different levels of aggro has implications of how suited the individual PC is to a situation. All players are equal, but all PCs are not.
  3. Individual PCs may have a different tolerance for aggro compared to others in a given situation; that’s to say they can cope with a higher aggro level and remain safe.
  4. Effects can direct aggro to and from characters–usually this would be the tank raising their own aggro (or maybe redirecting aggro from weaker characters to them)
  5. Aggro acts as a “threat clock”. As characters do deeper into the wilderness, dungeon, or stay longer at the ball, they may attract more attention. The GM can use that to ramp up tension.

2. Scenarios

Martial Threat

The most obvious example, with physical conflict. Enemies target the party according to the perceived threat or tactical advantage; the tank steps in to take the heat off the weaker party member.2

Social Threat

In this case the characters are in a location they shouldn’t be. If it’s a rough underworld dive then the ones who don’t fit in may pick up aggro from the locals. In that case, the threat could be discovery and could turn to physical violence.

Alternatively there are social situations where there is no physical threat, but the characters risk either ridicule, or getting detected before they get their objective (say they’re a bunch of thieves infiltrating a society ball). At the ball the social movers and shakers will spot someone out of place and may question them, humiliate them, or have them ejected.

If the risk is ridicule then the system needs to support some kind of “social hit points”. Examples might be Lace and Steel’s Self Image, or a variable Status trait.

Environmental Threat

“You city slickers wouldn’t last five minutes out here!”

This is the veteran scout escorting city folk through the wilderness trope. The city folk are already at a threat disadvantage compared to the scout; they are perceived as “weak” by the environment, and invariably will be picked off first by any threat that comes their way. Maybe the worst that happens is being stung by a bee or rubbing up against some poison ivy3; or maybe they get picked off by predators. 

In all cases the city folk are assumed to be under the scout’s protection; while they’re with him, he takes some of their aggro onto himself (also maybe there’s a limit to how many he can protect; now you’ve got a need for extra guides).

3. Implementation

To implement this plan, we need some measures.

  • A measure of how well the character copes in the environment, combat or social situation. Could be based on their career (the way Barbarians of Lemuria uses career ratings for non-combat skill rolls), a quality (unisystem), a skill or some other permission.
  • A couple of measures for the location: the base aggro (as in how hostile the place is) and some kind of qualitative description of the kind of threat (“violence”, “predator”, “monster”, “criminal underworld”, “high society”) that helps join the kind of environment with the kind of experience that may help the PC survive.
  • Optionally, some kind of visibility mechanism. Some characters will be obviously visible as out-of-place, particularly powerful or threatening. This may be based on the same stat as the coping measure, or it could be something else (some characters may cope by blending into the background).
  • Powers or skills that divert aggro
  • Bits or counters to track current aggro

The procedure should go something like this:

  1. GM decides the base aggro for the location, as well as the kind of threat. They may also determine a threshold.
  2. Players and GM work out which PC traits apply to the situation.
  3. Each character subtracts their trait from the base aggro. That’s their starting aggro. The GM gives them counters or bits to represent the threat level.
  4. You now have a party with a spread of aggro counters. The ones with the highest aggro are automatically attracting the wrong kind of attention.
  5. Your party tanks can then temporarily take aggro from the other characters. You could rationalise this in any number of ways:
    • In a fight, the tank puts themselves between the weaker character and the enemy, or otherwise distracts the enemy
    • In a social scene, the tank makes it clear that if anyone messes with the PC in their charge, they mess with them;
    • Alternatively in a social scene, when the weaker character is attracting attention the tank causes some kind of distraction that shifts focus back to them.
  6. Over time you can give everyone additional aggro. You can do this automatically as a sort of global countdown (“the search parties are getting closer!”) or you can make aggro a penalty for failing a stealth/blend in roll (if they make more noise, the countdown goes faster for them).
  7. Once there’s a real threat to the party, it goes for the PC with the most aggro. No questions.

There’s still some work to be done with scale and what happens with escalation (e.g. escalating from a social conflict to a physical one). Potentially this could be wrapped into the location-focused City Accelerator tool, using Domain as a Base Aggro and maybe Tension as some kind of modifier.

4. More Than One Kind of Aggro

Supplemental to the above, consider a trad D&D party going up against a Boss plus Minions.


In MMORPGs there’s a concept of a radius of aggro. For computer games managing the actual distance from the enemy is part of the game, but mostly we take distance management on trust in tabletop games (unless you play with minis). Still, the concept of an aggro radius is very important, as are the tactical decisions that go along with it. Does the PC have to voluntarily place themselves within the radius, or could they find themselves within an aggro radius by accident (say, by surprise)?

Then there’s the case of how you manage boss fights. Boss fights should present both a “boss problem” and a “minion problem”. Consider the diagram above:

  • PC 1 attracts aggro from both boss and minions
  • PCs 2 and 3 attract aggro from minions only
  • PC 4 attracts no aggro (for whatever reason)

There’s a case for tracking both Boss aggro and Minion aggro. It shouldn’t be hard; you can have red aggro tokens for regular minions, and black ones for the Boss. There’s also an interesting condition that to attack the Boss PC1 must attract aggro from minions (let’s say the party are trying to take down a crime boss in their lair).

That makes PCs 2 and 3’s job very important. They have to tank all the Minion aggro while PC 1 gets an uninterrupted crack at the Boss. This is the classic “I’ll hold them off, you get Dr Evil!” move.

(Meanwhile, what’s PC 4 doing? Are they a sniper moving into position, or a coward hiding in the toilets?)

Final Thoughts


p>This is just a rough draft, but it looks like aggro could be a useful mechanic. Maybe you could use it to promote a general feeling of unease or of being watched (e.g. everyone gets a point of aggro when they step into the haunted house). Maybe you could use it to victimise a specific character (“I don’t care about the others — get Agent Spiker at all costs!”).

And this is clearly just another way to achieve the same result: exciting, dramatic and climactic scenes. Still, by telegraphing threat the GM may get another lever to force characters to action. We shall see, eh?

  1. I haven’t any experience of D&D 4e — maybe that game does include aggro mechanics, given that it’s been accused of emulating WoW.

2. Normally, aggro grants the players a tactical privilege–that of targeting the enemy’s powerful-but-vulnerable dps units (e.g. an enemy MU cranking out fireballs) but denying the GM the chance to do the same thing to the party. And with good reason: PC on enemy aggro needs to be at (almost) all times in the control of the players, just like every other decision they make for their character. Mind control on PCs is rarely acceptable.

  1. For example, a failed roll on the travel skill in Lace and Steel gives the character a temporary penalty to self-image because they’ve had a miserable journey.

Playlist: Stole It From A Snowman

Phew, haven’t done this in a while…
  1. Ultra Vivid Scene: She Screamed
  2. Jethro Tull: Mother Goose
  3. The White Stripes: I Want To Be The Boy To Warm Your Mother’s Heart
  4. Can: I Want More And…
  5. Franz Ferdinand: Do You Want To
  6. Radiohead: Lucky
  7. Foo Fighters: Learning To Fly
  8. Husker Du: Something I Learned Today
  9. Talk Talk: Today
  10. Hybrid: Just For Today
  11. Mark Ronson: Just
  12. Underworld: Cowgirl
  13. Faith No More: Midnight Cowboy
  14. Iggy Pop: Sister Midnight
  15. Air: Afternoon Sister
  16. Shakespears’s Sister: Hello

More Green, Some Yellow

Three more inks. First here’s Diamine Meadow (featured here):


Really like this one–especially from a really wet pen. Next (for comparison) here’s J Herbin’s Vert Olive:


And finally, on the other side of yellow, it’s Diamine Amber:


Here’s an amateur chromatogram.


You might not be able to see well but the colour left behind in Meadow (left) is blue, and the rest is a sort of Kelly Green. Vert Olive leaves a grey colour behind, and Amber doesn’t leave much behind at all (as apparent by the water resistance test).


Rolling Back to Snow Leopard

This brief post is coming from a freshly minted Snow Leopard install on my Macbook Pro.

I wrote about issues with OS X Mountain Lion recently, and repeated disk and permissions repairs have not fixed the problem after all. Format and reinstall was the only option, with all of the anxieties of backing up and hunting for software keys.

I did consider doing a clean install of Mountain Lion (complicated by lack of physical install media, but it can be done) but I decided to roll back to 10.6. There are a few things I’ll miss from 10.8 like multi-touch and full screen, but I won’t miss the beach ball of death every time I try to access a network share or open a web browser.

As for the differences in Mail and Finder, I can mostly take or leave them–but it is nice to have the old “outlook” style column layout for mail instead of the iOS format. The coloured icons in the Finder are a nice bonus.

For the benefit of anyone coming here from a google search, here were a couple of issues I had to deal with:

  • Applications software from the supplied disk (bundled iLife apps) wouldn’t install because of an “unknown error”. This turned out to be an expired certificate. Rolling the system clock back two years fixed that issue.
  • Trying to delete the sparsebundle in the Time Capsule from OSX kept hanging; I eventually resorted to connecting with a Windows machine (TC as SMB share) and deleting all 700Gb of previous Time Machine images.
  • I couldn’t back up my main iPhoto library–the database was corrupt so it wouldn’t copy, and the machine was too unstable to rebuild it. I resorted to View Contents on the library and extracted the Master images. OK, so I’ll have lost any cropping or thumbnails generated, but that only applied to a few of them (most of which have been published her anyway).


p>And that was about it–hopefully beach balls will be fewer from now on.

Maybe it was the in-place upgrade of Mountain Lion that screwed up my hard disk, and a fresh install would have fixed things… but right now I have a working computer with versions of Mail and iTunes I prefer. Jolly good.

Green Ink Brigade

I bought a couple of samples of Diamine greenish blacks after failing to get some Noodler’s Zhivago. This is Diamine Evergreen:

Diamine Evergreen

This wasn’t the olive colour I’d been looking for, but I was pleasantly surprised. My amateur colour chromatogram showed a fairly pure blue and yellow.

Evergreen Chrom

The nice people at Diamine slipped some free cartridges in my parcel, so I also got to try out Emerald, and will be trying Midnight and Chocolate in the future.

This is Emerald:


And this is the chromatogram:

Emerald chrom

Mmm… shades of purple and turquoise. Interesting.

Overall neither inks are particularly water resistant. But they’re nice inks, not the confrontational sort of green favoured by Outraged of Chiddingstone. Evergreen shows very good contrast on white paper, and Emerald shades nicely.

Just for fun I compared four greens side by side:

Green Comparison

That’s Emerald, Meadow, Graphite and Evergreen together. The interesting thing is that Evergreen goes through a colour change over 24 hours, losing a lot of its blue.

Evergreen compare

Just written on the left, 24 hrs dry on the right. Not a subtle change with the swabs but if you’re writing a fine line it will look grey-black immediately but the green will come through later when you go back to your notes.

The other two I compared are Graphite and Meadow. The former is a grey ink but it has a very strong green undertone and it shades a bit–probably about as exciting as grey-black ink gets. Meadow is the colour of grass, but not quite as yellow as some of their other offerings. I don’t care for the swabs but the actual writing is quite nice with a wet writer. It works for annotations and hilighting.

RPG Retrospective: WFRP

Funny word, nostalgia. It’s a goofy word. But then I was pretty goofy as a teen, too.

Anyway… for the past 12 months or so, I’ve been rediscovering games of my youth (some in new forms). Traveller was my first rpg. Basic D&D was my second. I never really got on with RuneQuest–I loved the differences from D&D but somehow the gamers I knocked around with back then never took to it. After that I somehow got sidetracked with Rifts… and then regained my footing with Vampire.

Now: Warhammer Fantasy Role Play.


WFRP has three iterations, but the one I’m familiar with is 1e. 2e is sometimes described as “WFRP rewritten by americans” and it looks a bit sanitised to me, although the mechanistic changes are mostly consolidation and streamlining–always a good thing. (I have no idea about 3e other than it comes in a big box and has lots of cards–clearly FFG are trying to catch the boardgames market.)

WFRP has a reputation for a “grim and perilous” USP. This has drawn tacit comparisons with Dungeon Crawl Classics (lethal character funnel) and Lamentations of the Flame Princess (fantasy renaissance feel)–and I strongly feel those comparisons are from people with only the most superficial appreciation of WFRP. It probably helps if you grew up with the first series of Blackadder, but anyway–WFRP is not a meat grinder full of syphilitic peasants wading through turds.

What WFRP is, is a true alternative to its contemporaries–the US offerings of D&D and RQ. Not just in look and feel (system matters, but it’s not hard to insert the warpstone, chaos magic and faux renaissance into a generic fantasy game) but also mechanistically. WFRP introduced some innovations that have largely been forgotten in modern games.

1. Careers

There area a few ways games handle the “career” of a character:

  1. Character classes (D&D and imitations) with level progression
  2. Implied careers as starting points but no real reference to them during play (Traveller, CoC, Runequest)
  3. Packages of skills and advantages (Unisystem, GURPS)

WFRP uses the “package” method. Often this approach uses unique advantages or skills (to do with rank, supernatural ability, etc). Still, these packages are usually static after time in and the method reverts to the second approach (i.e. no career). WFRP manages to place the character within a lifepath rather than at the end of it, and that’s a neat thing.

Additionally the careers embed the flavour of the setting in character from day one without being nearly so restrictive as character classes. The careers system is a nice way for players to differentiate between who they are and what they can do.

Porting a careers system to another game may be hard work, however. WFRP careers is good for playing WFRP in the Old World. I don’t know if FFG’s 40k offerings have analogous systems. Still, you could in theory file the names off the careers and reconfigure the list for, say, the Eternal Champion setting.

2. Stat Blocks

On the face of it, the WFRP stat block is “just” a percentile system with some other dice rolled for damage, etc.

WFRP has its roots in WFB, which (being a wargame) relies on terse stat blocks with very specific functions. Translate that to a roleplaying game and you get characters who are rated for % function in a number of rather specific common activities–like Leadership and Dexterity and Weapon Skill.

Just think about that for a moment. Almost every other game either has such figures derived from the stat block (e.g. attribute bonuses in D&D, base competence in GURPS, the prevelance of Skill + Stat for almost all games since Vampire), totally independent of the stat block (BRP), or broadly abstracted (minimalist games like Everway, Summerland, etc).

This has a couple of interesting effects. Firstly this is going to sound dumb, but… the stat block reads left to right in WFRP 1e. Not up and down. That means there’s no implied priority of stats. It’s an axis. Physical abilities on the left, Mental on the right, in the middle are the awkward hand-eye coordination traits that aren’t fully mental or physical. I like that a lot. It also means that if you wanted to rip it off you just had to insert or remove traits that worked for you; the integrity of the stat line is preserved.

Having your numbers in a line reduces the seek time a player takes to look at their character sheet and find a number. Any modern game with appreciable crunch at the very least requires the player to scan their sheet up and down, and usually (thanks to Vampires stat+skill legacy) hunt for two numbers and add them together. These problems can be minimised by good sheet design (and player familiarity) but they’re still intrinsic to the system.

Once all actions of a certain type default to a single percentage (adjusted by circumstance and negotiated bonus) the skills become permissions to act in certain ways–their more like proficiencies than skills. For example, I like the way Weapon Skill covers Ordinary weapons (swords, etc) but something exotic like firearms or cavalry requires a proficiency.

The system doesn’t make sense sometimes–surely a high Fellowship implies a Charm or Carouse skill, so why are these separate skills? That’s easy to fix with list of basic skills (similar to Mongoose Runequest). Add those and you have a system that should be fairly quick to teach.

3. Fighting

Firstly, Fate points. I don’t know if WFRP invented Fate points (as opposed to FATE points) but it’s a cool mechanism. It includes resource management (on the player side) with reward mechanism (on GM side) and allows one to “tune” the game between gritty and pulp (a common notion for Savage Worlds, I understand).

There’s not much else to say about WFRP’s combat except that it’s straightforward and easy to see what’s going on–but that’s what you’d expect from a wargame derived RPG, eh? Still, I do want to mention the Wounds system. The conceit of 

damage = [strength + weapon + roll] minus [toughness + armour]

doesn’t seem revolutionary, but it’s notable for borrowing something that worked well in RQ (armour subtracts damage) and making the calculation as simple as possible. S, T and W usually fall in single digits–but running out of Wounds doesn’t mean death, just that you take Criticals from now on. Yes, there is the problem of Naked Dwarf Syndrome but otherwise damage is easy to work out, and the transparency of the maths is retained.

(As I recall the system did melee criticals well, but missiles weren’t given the same treatment. That’s easily fixed.)

Last Remarks


p>There are a few things I don’t like in WFRP. I don’t like how Skills and Talents have been separated in 2e–I don’t see the point. I haven’t remarked on the magic because from what I remember it was a bit lacklustre.

I can see a lot of potential in combining RuneQuest and WFRP styles of character record–keep the list of skills, default to a common % based stat block and bypass those abstract stats entirely. Porting an entire Career system over to your homebrew fantasy world will be hard work–and in theory the Career system in WFRP is the source of game balance, but in practice I found it to be pretty random as to whether you got someone worthwhile or useless. As for magic, RQ and Elric! have different systems coming out of their ears–although Exalted Charms might be a good fit, too.

Cards Done Right

Mark Rein*Hagen has a new game on kickstarter called I Am Zombie.

You are a Toxic, a victim of an age-old disease, the Scourge. The cycles of your life revolve around picking up and getting rid of Odium, a by-product of that which ravages your body. Odium build-up threatens to transform you into a mindless zombie – a Skag – whilst granting physical prowess. You might half-dead, but if you control your Odium, you can retain your humanity, at least some of time.

Also, it has artwork.

Setting aside the WoD-by-numbers and unnecessary naked breasts, I wanted to talk about this:

Stay tuned for some cool videos and amazing graphics that will prove to you… that finally someone figured out how to make cards in RPG’s, work. After all, they do work in EVERY other kind of game right. I proved everyone wrong when Vampire came out, so let me prove you wrong now! I dare you.

There’s a bit more detail in comments on his post to the G+ Story Games “Pandering” thread.

In terms of cards I was trying to say, no one has done cards RIGHT in the roleplaying world, though many have come close. Torg wasn’t close, Pondsmith was much closer with CF, D&D 4th wasn’t close at all. I was WAY OFF with Cantrip cards for Changeling the Dreaming. However my first product ever for gaming, was Whimsy Cards, created with Jonathan Tweet, nearly 30 years ago. I’ve been obsessed with cards ever since, working on it nearly the whole time. Time will tell if this is the right approach, I am convinced its the best try yet.

I’ll say this first: if Mark Rein*Hagen loves cards, he’s a man after my own heart.

Now, about these cards specifically. IAZ cards supposedly do something never before tried in roleplaying games: they free us from the tyranny of the character sheet.

A bit like 6d6 does.

They look nice, though:

Basically it looks like Chrononauts mashed up with 6d6. That’s not a bad thing at all. I like the idea of cards as flippable, and cards as hit-point currency. That’s a good idea.

But back to those “cards done right”. Cards are a tool. Sometimes they are a pictoral tool. Sometimes they’re a resolution tool. Sometimes they’re currency (temporary of permanent rep of a spell or item).

These are the games I can think of right now that use cards (and I haven’t played them all, so could be wrong in a couple of places):

  • Lace and Steel
  • Savage Worlds
  • Torg
  • Changeling the Dreaming
  • Castle Falkenstein
  • 6d6
  • Traveller (slight cheat; but I used to fit Traveller characters on an index card)
  • WFRP 3e
  • Mouse Guard
  • and, of course, Everway.

Add to that a few games that damn well should have cards, like Exalted. I made index cards for Exalted Charms, which I never used (gah). I made my own cards for Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Cards are fantastically useful for spells, powers, items of power, and so forth–although some restraint is needed to avoid turning your game into a session of Arkham Horror that dominates the kitchen table. Such games are not cat proof.

Anyway, let’s think of the three different advantages of cards:

1. Pictoral

The vision cards in Everway are optional, but they’re really great. Furthermore you can buy fantasy art cards in the same format–I have some by Jeffrey Catherine Jones, Christos Achilleos, and others. They slot nicely into MtG binders.

Obviously the pictoral quality of your cards is going to affect the tone of the game. Therefore if IAZ relies on grindhouse art, it will feel like a grindhouse game. I see a lot of Apocalypse World in the IAZ art, and neither appeal to me much. Still it’s useful for the designer to impart a coherent image of their game onto the end user.

As an aside, since we’re talking about Mark Rein*Hagen’s game, I much prefer the tone of the 1e Vampire art over the 2e. If I’d been forced to brand my vampire games with the 2e S&M superhero art, I think I would have dropped it earlier.

2. Mechanical

Cards have a few advantages over dice.

  • you can store cards in hand and deploy the good results at critical points. This creates a card management metagame–something I recall Castle Falkenstein being criticised for, but it could be considered a feature as much as a bug.
  • you can’t cock cards like dice, or accidentally scoop them up as easily (when you should have left them on the table).
  • they’re tactile. OK, so are dice, but they’re tactile in a different way.
  • they’re much more readable than dice, with potentially better seek/handling time.
  • throwing down multiple results is fairly easy for the GM. I believe this is a feature in Lace and Steel–something my GM used to represent a massed battle with cannon and muskets on the battelfield.

The disadvantages of cards as a randomiser tend to be the need for a single, central deck–so everyone needs to sit in reach of that deck. You can overcome this by assigning a dealer (usually the GM) or otherwise putting each player in charge of their own deck.

3. Currency

The obvious currency supported by cards are items, spells and other ephemera. Much less common are point-based currencies like hit points. Even card games like MtG rely on a counting mechanism for life points.

I have to say if IAZ delivers on hit-point currency by tracking Odium build up with card flipping, then that claim of “cards done right” may actually be backed up.

4. Character Representation

This is a subset of Pictoral function, and something featured in Everway–but Everway’s use was only imagery, not numbers.

IAZ and 6d6 both appear to represent character crunch through decks. IAZ looks more elegant but at the same time more restrictive in language and art, which will limit the kinds of character available.

Now, if IAZ were more generic in its approach, I would probably leap at it. As it is, I can take or leave it. If I were running a zombie game I’d use AFMBE and have the zombies as the threat. The human aspect of how horrible it is for a person to be gradually turned by disease can still be there, without the silly rotting corpse superheroes. But hey, that’s my choice.

One final comment: I do wonder about game balance. We expect our games to be broken and for the GM to make up the shortfall. Sometimes we find that emphasising one attribute at the expense of the others yeilds disproportionate advantage.


p>In this instance, I reckon the promenece of the cards will make any game imbalance stick out even more. I forsee cases where it’s desirable for some cards to stay flipped to “monster” because they give specific powers that are more useful than others. Maybe that’s a desirable feature, or maybe it’s an interesting social experiment. Like VtM before, the initial flexibility and logic of character generation may give way to min-maxing and disproportionate, one dimensional characters. I will watch with interest.

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