Thursday, 19 March 2015

The Nixian

The word “Nixian” turns up plenty on a google search, but to my knowledge has not been used to describe Garth Nix in the same way as, say, Lovecraftian or Moorcockian or Dickensian. Of course for the -ian suffix to work you need to either

  • have an uncommon name, or
  • have gotten there first.

If you’ve got a bit of a boring name then there’s less chance of it becoming the one-word definition of your subgenre, no matter how interesting your writing is. And as for the second, the fact is a lot of the people who got there first are male and white (q.v. my three examples above). LeGuinian is definitely a thing (see Leguinian Jump in the SF Dictionary of New Criticism), and I kind of feel Butlerian should be wrestled away from Frank Herbert on principle. But that’s for another time…

Anyway, “Nixian”. Using it because it’s useful, because I feel it has more depth than just being yet another fantasy setting. Consider this:

In the Nixian genre, Death is about fear and about regret and clinging to life and being unable to move on. Everyone has to go through Death to move on, regardless of how good or evil they were in Life. And there are terrible things that lurk in Death, the Greater Dead which may waylay and subjugate souls and absorb or control them. Death isn’t restful, it’s the start of another fight. It’s about being caught between the horror of what comes next and the horror of eternal slavery to the Greater Dead. There is no benificent lord or master in Death. You die, you’re pretty much on your own, and if you can’t get through the Ninth Gate in time you’re subject to the whims of necromancers and the Abhorsen and Fifth Gate Resters.

Also in the Nixian genre there are a great many beings branded as “Free Magic” creatures who the Charter claim are inimical to human life. Many were subjugated by humans in the forming of the Charter, and bound into things or locked in glass cases or forced into bottles wrapped with golden wire. The humans insist it’s because those Free Magic creatures were wild and dangerous and inimical to life that they had to be locked up for good. Yeah, right.

So the Nixian genre is all about humans who serve the Charter and its fragile hierarchy, and are therefore afraid of everything the Charter says is bad, including dying, Death, the Free Magic creatures they don’t understand, and other Humans who reject the Charter as a Bad Thing.

None of this should be a surprise — as everyone knows, the Shadows were the good guys all along.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Concerning Bells

This is part of a series of pieces for Death Comes To Wyverley, a playset for Beyond the Wall inspired by Garth Nix’ Old Kingdom series. This should be considered a fan work.

DctW

The Bells carried by the Abhorsen (or a Necromancer) are nicely described in the Wikipedia Page. In addition there is the Garth Nix Wiki which has decent pages for all the bells — these are linked below.

Anyone can ring the bells, but doing so carelessly (or unskilled) will cause all the negative effects of the bell to be reflected on the bearer (and maybe other party members too).

Making the Bells (or Pipes)

As many OSR games have mechanics for building your own magic items. Beyond the Wall has various rituals that can be turned to the purpose, and in particular Further Afield describes different levels of rituals for increasing power of magic items. Suggest that to make a complete set of bells a Third Enchantment may be needed (up to the GM whether the First and Second Enchantments are capable of producing the weaker bells).

Each bell must be made in a particular Precinct of Death (a high cost already):

  • Ranna (1st)
  • Mosrael (2nd)
  • Kibeth (4th)
  • Dyrim (5th)
  • Belgaer (6th)
  • Saraneth (7th)
  • Astarael (8th)

These are individually crafted items and probably take on some of the character of their maker. Also if pipes are allowed as an alternative to bells, what about other instruments — say, a seven-stringed viol?

(bells work better if you want to hold a weapon in the other hand, of course)

Clearly the manufacturing requirements of these items are pretty onerous, so it’s much more likely they will be found rather than made, particularly if they’re found by low-level PCs. And being low-level, those characters won’t have much expertise in using such items safely. The GM should be prepared to activate each bell’s downside if it’s misused, and give the bells personalities of their own — to the point that each bell wants to be rung.

These are magic items to be feared, not played with.

Using the Bells

Using each bell is a kind of Ritual, although only taking a few moments. If you don’t know the ritual, you’re at a severe disadvantage to use them safely.

All such rituals are Range: Near. In all cases if the Ritual roll is failed, the normal effects happen but so do the consequences of failure.

The more powerful bells involve downsides such as manipulating memory and behaviour.

Ranna (Wisdom)
Level 1
Duration: Instant

The smallest of the Bells; the Sleepbringer. Its effect is to induce calm or sleepiness in humans and Dead alike.

Effect: All who hear Ranna make a Save vs. Magic. Failure means the target is at -2 to all actions, and must make a further save or fall asleep. The Abhorsen’s allies get +8 on their save. Especially weak Dead (zombies, individual gore crows) may be cast back into Death.

Complication: If the Abhorsen makes an error, both she and her allies must make a save with no bonus or be affected.

Mosrael (Charisma)
Level 2
Duration: 1 hour/level, or Permanent with a body

The Waker; used by Necromancers to call the Dead to Life.

Effect: the bell calls the Dead into Life. How long they stay will depend on whether there is a suitable vessel for them to occupy.

Complication: if misused, this bell with throw the bearer into Death.

Kibeth (Dexterity) Level 3 Duration: Permanent

Kibeth is the Walker. It can animate the Dead in Life and also make them walk through the gates of Death.

Effect: a Necromancer will use Kibeth to animate a corpse; no saving throw is required of the target. An Abhorsen will use the bell in the opposite fashion, to cast the Dead into Death and beyond the First Gate. When it is used in this way, the target must Save vs. Spells or be forced to move into Death. The spell must be used once to force the Dead to cross over, and again to make them go through the First Gate.

Complication: a misuse will require the bearer to make a save or be directed to cross over into Death and walk towards the First Gate. Use the same rules as those for falling into Death after hitting 0 HP.

Dyrim (Wisdom)
Level 4
Duration: Permanent

Dyrim gives the Dead a voice, or silences the living.

Effect: whether Dead or Alive the target should make a Save vs. Spells. Several effects are possible: a lightening of mood (changing reaction rolls), silence (preventing spell casting etc.), or allowing the Dead to speak.

Complication: misuse will rebound on the bearer, rendering them unable to speak; a save vs spells can be attempted every 10 mins to shake off the effect.

Belgaer (Intelligence)
Level 5
Duration: Instant

Belgaer affects memories, unlocking those of the Dead, or suppressing them.

Effect: if the bell is used to suppress a memory, the target must save against Spells; a failure means the bearer may erase or suppress the memories of the target. If the bell is instead used to bring back memories that have been erased by Death no save is required.

Complication: if the ritual is misused, there is a risk of the bearer’s memory being affected. They may lose

  • a skill
  • a recent memory (of adventuring with the other characters)
  • a distant memory (e.g. something from their playbooks)

A save against Spells should be allowed on a weekly basis to recover the memory.

Saraneth (Wisdom)
Level 6
Duration: Instant

Saraneth is the Binder, used to bind the Dead (or Free Magic creatures) to the will of the Abhorsen.

Effect: the effect is not unlike Kibeth, but the magic is sufficiently strong that the user may force the target through the Ninth Gate.

Complication: a misuse will cause the user to become a slave to Saraneth for a while. The GM should take control of the PC and make them go where the bell desires — be that in Life or Death. A saving throw once per day may be attempted to shake the effects off.

Asatrael (Intelligence)
Level 7
Duration: Instant

When rung properly Astarael the Sorrowful sends everyone who hears it deep into death — including the bearer.

Effect: the effect is similar to Kibeth except the transition is instant and affects everyone in the area. The GM should randomise which Precinct everyone arrives in. Roll 1d20:

1-5: third precinct 6-10: fourth precinct 11-14: fifth precinct 15-18: sixth precinct 19: seventh precinct 20: eighth precinct

Complication: with a misuse, when the PCs land in Death they are considered to be falling into Death, and should start making saving throws against Death to regain their footing, or accidentally walk further down through the gates.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

The Free and the Dead

This is part of a series of pieces for Death Comes To Wyverley, a playset for Beyond the Wall inspired by Garth Nix’ Old Kingdom series. This should be considered a fan work.

DctW

An OSR game is nothing without “monsters”. In DctW there are four types:

  • Human antagonists
  • Wild Animals
  • The Dead
  • Free Magic Elementals

I’m not going to bother with stat blocks, because at the very least anyone reading this will have the excellent BtW bestairy (and probably plenty of other resources, too). Instead I’ll just suggest the different resources you might want to use for each category.

Humans

There are two different types of human antagonist. From North of the Wall there are Necromancers and other Free Magic users. South of the Wall, human antagonists could be bureaucrats from Corvere who have Ancelstierre’s security at heart; they think they’re heroes and protectors, but their ignorance and zeal makes them monstrous too.

Mechanically, Free Magic is no different from Charter Magic, although it feels wrong to anyone who isn’t Free Magic aligned; it’s like a sharp metallic odour in the air, and can cause nausea in anyone who isn’t Free Magic aligned (saving throw against Death or Magic is required to not be at some kind of functional penalty).

Necromancers and others will probably threaten by being the source of some ritual magic or change in the landscape (most obviously the Dead rising). Bureaucrats may work a little differently, being able to enter Wyverley itself and upset the various relationships there, restricting access and imposing curfews, etc.

Wild Animals

Wild animals who are territorial, hungry, or otherwise hostile to people and cannot be reasoned with.

Wyverley’s surroundings are rural farming land with a lot of natural space and places for animals to make dens. Wild animal populations will not be controlled as effectively as they are today, and a lot of this rural area will be unlit at night. Animals will pretty much only form threats when the characters are travelling, unless something very odd happens like wolves appearing on the Wyverley grounds.

Note that the Dead can be forced into the bodies of animals (e.g. Gore Crows), so animals behaving strangely may turn out to be animated corpses with a Dead spirit providing impotus.

The Dead

The Dead are one of the two classes of true “monsters” in the setting. Dead creatures — whether Greater or Lesser Dead — originate from human souls who refuse to accept Death, or from Necromancers who have called those souls into a body in Life. There are a number of different Dead described in the books. The main resource for these are the Sabriel page on Wikipedia and the Old Kingdom Wiki.

  • Greater Dead — a spirit (usually a necromancer) with enough power to pull themselves and others our of Death.
  • Lesser Dead — dead that refuse to pass on but aren’t powerful enough to get back to Life without the help of the Greater Dead.
  • Dead Hands — animated corpses.
  • Shadow Hands — dead spirits with no body.
  • Gore Crows — one spirit animating a flock of crow corpses.
  • Mordaut — a controlling spirit that directs a living host.
  • Mordicant — appears to be some kind of golem.
  • Fifth Gate Rester should probably be regarded as synonymous with Greater Dead

Stat blocks and special powers can be drawn from any undead bestiary — the ghoul, spectre, lich, sluagh, spirit, wight, vampire and the Nameless One and various demons from the Beyond the Wall main book should do well for lesser and greater dead with a bit of cosmetic tweaking. The common feature of all these monsters is they were once human, even if they’re horribly misshapen.

Free Magic Elementals

Creatures of Free Magic (elementals and such) are weird and alien, and frequently dangerous to humans. There aren’t many descriptions of Free Magic elementals — here are some from the books (courtesy of the Old Kingdom Wiki):

  • Ferenk, a creature of stone and mud
  • Stilken, an attractive woman with hooks for arms
  • Hrule, described in the Creature in the Case
  • Aziminil and Baazalann are described in Clariel
  • The summoning of two Hish “impossibly thin, vaguely human things with flesh of swiftly moving mist and bones of blue-white fire” is described in Lirael’s prologue

Some common features of Free Magic elementals:

  1. They’re alien creatures that pre-date (and escaped) the forming of the Charter. They are not the same as the Dead, who were once human and now twisted by Death.
  2. They are frequently summoned by Free Magic sorcerors.
  3. Charter mages tend to do the reverse, that is to seal them up in artifacts or different forms (e.g. a cat).
  4. In general they don’t die, they can only be rendered immobile.
  5. Many of them are of humanoid appearence. There a hint in Clariel that they can choose other shapes, and before the Charter they did have many other shapes (such as that of a dragon). Whether they choose to reflect the shape of humans, or appear the way they do for another reason isn’t clear.
  6. Their touch is often corrosive and inimical to life.
  7. Frequently they are immune to mundane weapons.
  8. They have various magical powers.
  9. Many appear as breeds of certain types (the Hish, Hrule, Ferenk and Stilken), but some others are named and may be unique (Aziminil).

Plenty of fantastic creatures from the BtW or other bestiaries can be re-purposed — possibly changing the shape of the creature as the GM sees fit. Clearly there’s a precedent for mythical beasts such as dragons, cockatrices, unicorns and others to have existed, so a mythology that refers to these creatures is reasonable. Other resources you could try include the vast and detailed Summon spell in Lamentations of the Flame Princess Rules and Magic book. In general:

  • give all such magical creatures an individual personality
  • make them hard to kill (non-spelled weapons do no or less damage)
  • make them hazardous to be near (requiring saving throws, crossing off hit points, etc.)

Stilken

Stilken fan-art added to Wiki by user FandomMemorandum

Sunday, 15 March 2015

My Setup Heartbreaker

From here:

A set-up heartbreaker is a game where – when you’ve done the set-up – you’re super-psyched and excited about what’s going to come. It’s just so full of potential! And yet, when you get into play, all that potential never seems to translate into a compelling game. The game in your head at the beginning was far better than the game that ultimately emerges from the table. And what sounded so cool in set-up doesn’t really catch fire (or maybe not even make it to the table).

That describes the Hollowpoint game I ran at Concrete Cow yesterday.

pg-10-marmite-jar

The Issues

So, these were the specific problems I identified with the Hollowpoint game I ran:

  • Advertised as a Cyberpunk game, when it should have been advertised as a Hollowpoint game. I assumed that at least one player had signed up because of the system, but actually everyone came with genre-based expectations and the system threw them a bit.
  • Not flagging that it’s a narrative storygame, with very rigid system boundaries.
  • PCs need to be framed as amoral loners, instead they were framed as a collaborative group.
  • Using a Cyberpunk genre required the players to learn some back-plot and expectations which got in the way of learning the dice system.
  • My game was an investigation game; while there are examples in the Hollowpoint rules of running investigations (e.g. the Callisto scenario), it requires a conceptual leap that some players struggled with. Stick to guns and stuff, at least for a demo.
  • Needed better handouts that flag the moving parts (Skills, Traits, Complications, Effects).
  • GM needs to be more agressive, and push to victimise one player — something I’m terrible at.
  • Scenario needed better focus on the Catch, and Principals.
  • Six players is too many for the dice to work if you don’t make more of the Catch and Principals.

Why You Didn’t Like My Game

Talking more generally, these are the reasons you maybe didn’t like my game:

  1. I didn’t manage your expectations. That’s on me. Solution: pitch it better, include as much common language as possible (“storygame”, “dice heavy”, etc.). Tough to do when a lot of pitches are fiction-focused rather than game focused — unless people know Hot War or Monsterhearts or Hollowpoint they could wind up being disappointed.
  2. I didn’t match the scenario to the system. That’s on me, too, but sometimes really hard to anticipate. Solution: play games, get experience of what works, take the occasional knock to your ego in the process.
  3. You didn’t understand how to play. That’s my fault, up to a point — but no amount of making the system clearer will deal with the next point, which is…
  4. You didn’t like the system. That’s sort of on you, though it’s not “your fault”. Chalk it up to experience.
  5. You could have been playing something else. That’s also on you, but it feels like it’s on me.
  6. Last, the system has pitfalls — maybe they’re to do with scaling, or pacing, or suitability for one-shots.

We conflate these different points. 3 and 4 get mixed up — where people use not understanding a game as a reason for not liking it (fair! Adding a cognitive load on top of the narrative will make the game harder to engage with), but also where people don’t engage with the game because they don’t like the initial impression they got (perhaps not so fair).

I have control over 1, 2 and 3. I have no control over 4 or 5, although both feel like they’re my fault — but we have to draw a line somewhere. In particular the “could have been playing something else” begs the question “what else?” That’s an opportunity cost, and not only is it hard to say the real value of the game you didn’t play, you have to ask if all the options were equally available to you. Sign-ups have an element of risk, and I think that’s one area the GM has to limit his or her responsibility for a game that didn’t go so well.

A Look At Hollowpoint Probabilities

A bad worker blames her tools. One of the conclusions post-game was 6 people is too many. Which may be true… with 6 PCs + GM, the opposition starts at 14 dice.

I used the Troll Dice Probability generater with this code:

\ Hollowpoint Probabilities

\ Based on One Roll Engine probabilities
\ Use d6 in place of d10
\ For calculating probabilities
\ Shows width of sets (equal chance of each height)

roll := 4d6;
vals := different roll;
foreach x in vals do if (count x= roll) >= 2 then (count x= roll) else {}

Vary the number of d6 in the roll to calculate the probabilities of each kind of roll.

Summary probabilities in this sheet. Some observations:

  • in a straight fight (no Principals or Catches) 6 agents with a pool of 4-6 each will generate 7 sets compared with the Enemy’s 4.5 sets, and is likely to overwhelm the Enemy, or at least end in a stalemate. This is why the Enemy should victimise one PC, because it cannot reliably win against all.
  • the cap on the number of sets you can score is 6 for a single roll (doubled if you use a Principal) no matter how many dice you have
  • Even with the dice in the high teens, the chance that you’ll get a set containing at least one double is high — meaning that one set from the agents will spoil one set from the Enemy (because the widest highest set targets the narrowest highest)

So the game escalates non-linearly; at some point the escalation of the Enemy will cap out at 6 sets, even if those sets are all wider than the players’ sets. Having more dice isn’t always better, and if the GM doesn’t really pursue the PCs agressively to apply Effects, the PCs can walk every conflict and no-one will ever move on. The only way it gets harder is attrition of Traits and Teamwork. I think this is a major place where I missed a trick.

Analysing like this, it’s clear that to make it work I need to

  1. Victimise players with effects to force them to move on. This means the wide (fast) sets of the Enemy tend to pick off the characters lagging behind.
  2. Insert Principals earlier for more players
  3. Ditto Catches.

Conclusion

Hollowpoint’s a dice game, and it needs to be pitched as a dice game. More than just writing a general plot or sandbox the GM needs actual skill in balancing the dice to the players, and has to be prepared to play to win. It’s unusually adversarial in this regard; the only other game I can think of that does this is Don’t Rest Your Head and that has similar quirks re: dice pools.

Whichever side of the fence you sit on “Storygames are/aren’t RPGs” it’s clear that while Hollowpoint isn’t a traditional RPG, it’s slightly apart from Storygames, too. Storygames often feature passive facilitation, and it’s abundantly clear that this is not what is needed in this case.

More than usual, I need to practice.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Beyond the Wall: More Ideas About Relationships

Here’s a quick update rules whatever on the Relationships idea from this post. Previously I discussed how random village NPCs could become entabgled in PCs’ lives; however the playbooks already provide several ties to significant NPCs, so the mechanics that follow assume each PC will have a handful of NPCs (say, three) who will be their significant interactions.

The base markers in OSR games are the six attributes, so I’m going to use those rather than . During the Adventure portion these function as you would expect — defaults for skill checks, etc. But during the Community phase, these form the basis for Relationships.

Relationships work like this:

  • Each one is tied to a stat, and that’s the basis for the relationship between PC and NPC. See below.
  • It doesn’t matter if that stat is high or low — there’s no advantage, it just indicates whether the character has the initiative in that relationship. If you have a relationship based on Strength and it’s low, it means the person you have a relationship with is stronger than you in some way — and even that can be taken to be a positive or negative relationship.
  • While most (if not all) relationships can be viewed positively, it would be interesting for the PCs to have at least one negative relationship.
  • From the playbooks several relationships are generated (mentors, other teenagers, etc.). At the time they’re generated you could look at the stat gains and pick one if inspiration doesn’t strike.
  • At the start of a game the PCs will be in the Village (or other community) and will be interacting with the villagers. Some or all of the PCs may have a scene with an NPC of their choice. Depending on the number of players and how often they return to the village you may only choose half the players this week and the other half next week, or you may run through one scene each depending on how much time you have.
  • Relationships mostly just happen in the village — out in the wilderness should an NPC be encountered the sense of community should override any personal animosity or drama. That doesn’t stop them being swept up into the adventure, of course.

Relationship Types

Here are some relationship types to work on:

STR based

  • physical confrontation / rivalry
  • caregiving or protection
  • idolising
  • abuse

INT based

  • shared ideology
  • something to teach
  • a problem to solve

WIS based

  • shared experience
  • shared belief
  • trust
  • mentoring

DEX based

  • a technical skill
  • getting into trouble together

CON based

  • a dangerous experience
  • working together
  • a sickness (caregiving, etc.)

CHA based

  • friendship
  • love or attraction
  • political rivalry

Note that at least one of those above (abuse) is very negative and might not set the right tone. Suggest you have a lines and veils discussion to check anything you might want to veto or at least not explore in detail.

The numbers can provide 2 things:

  • the stat bonus can be used to modify the roll to see if the encounter is negative or positive (that’s assuming you don’t just roleplay through it)
  • for each relationship roll a d20 against your stat. If you roll equal or higher then you’re subordinate in that relationship; if you’re lower, you’re superior. Or you could just roll different dice (e.g. 2d10 or 3d6), or pick which makes sense for your character.

Being subordinate in a protecting role means you’re being protected (even if you don’t feel you need it), and being superior means you have an obligation to protect. Work with those in the scenes.

Scenes and Relationship Arcs

The purpose of the relationship is to provide an arc that runs alongside the adventures, much the way that characters in a TV series will both participate in the adventure plot and relationship-based sub-plots. And the reason we target specific NPCs is to make them recurrant characters in our little drama.

Here’s how the relationship arc works:

  1. At the start of the game, work out who is getting a scene (if it’s everyone, just go around the table)
  2. The GM picks a NPC linked to a character, thinks of something they want from the PC (use the relationship type to direct what they want) and runs the PC through the scene. What they want can be pretty loosely defined — it could be help, obedience, affirmation of friendship. It could put the PC in an awkward situation, force an obligation on them, etc.
  3. Whatever the interaction, the outcome should be The Promise. This is a thing that should be fulfilled in the near future, otherwise it’s broken. If Promises are kept, then the relationship is kept positive (or even strengthened). But if the Promise is broken, the relationship should suffer.

E.g. at the start of the adventure, one character’s girlfriend indicates she wants them to dress up at the May Ball (that’s the Promise). If they keep it their relationship with their sweetheart doesn’t change, but if they break their promise perhaps she steps out with another? There are all kinds of reasons the character may not want to attend — humiliation, they’re investigating something and cannot be distracted, they’re off exploring, etc.

You’d think that an adventurer’s relations would cut them some slack when they’re out saving the village from external threats, but it doesn’t work like that — if the Promise is broken for whatever reason, the relationship should suffer.

Keeping Track of the Relationships

If you want to apply dice to the system, keep a relationship track for each NPC. At the start it should be equal to the stat it’s based on (so probably around +1). If there’s something that causes the relationship to deteriorate (such as a broken promise) then drop it down by 1; if something unusual happens to strengthen it (should be more than just keeping a fairly small promise) it can go up.

If the relationship goes negative, then the interactions should be negative.

You could roll dice against these numbers if you wanted, e.g. Apocalypse World style:

When you test your friendship, roll +friends.

  • On a 10+, they give you a gift or boon that can help your adventure (GM decides)  On a 7-9, they give you something for a Promise  On a 6 or less, they force you to Promise something; if you break it, decrease +friends by one.*  That probably needs a bit more work. I probably won’t bother with any “moves” or other mechanics, and just see how the system works freeform.

Number of Relationships

I would say, not more than four relationships including the PCs relationship with another PC (as developed in their Ordeal during the playbook generation). But this is just a guess. More will lead to more variety but NPCs showing up less often.

You should be able to add new relationships with villagers, external characters and even enemies (or Threats). If you do that, you have a choice

  • add the new relationship, job done
  • add the relationship and retire the old relationship somehow

The latter could be more interesting from a community dynamic. It could also be dramatic (i.e. a death or exile).

Afterword

Incidentally the goal here is not to be like Hillfolk, though it could be. Sure, these drama scenes should be freeform and result in a relationship imbalance but mostly they’re between PC and NPC, so they create a relationship arc.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Musings on Hollowpoint

hollowpoint-252520cover-252520front

Before I started gushing about Beyond the Wall my best buy of 2013 was Hollowpoint. But now it’s 2015 and honestly, I haven’t been playing it nearly enough. So, while trying to draw up a last-minute scenario for Concrete Cow I started thinking about what makes Hollowpoint work. These are my thoughts in no particular order.

It’s a game about bad people killing bad people for bad reasons, which gave my friends very specific pre-conceptions about what you actually do. It’s easy to think this game is all about high-functioning sociopaths killing everything around them in a sort of ultra-violent Feng Shui, based on the cover. It isn’t. The most important thing about it is each character

  • is so supremely good at their job that they live in a different world to normal people
  • thinks they’re the best
  • likes to work alone, and hates to have to ask for help.

What this means is when you have a mission, each and every character should feel they would be able to do the mission solo, if they had the right resources. Of course they don’t, because the mission is just a bit more than any one character can handle. But even though they’re painfully aware that they need to work with others to get the job done, they don’t like it.

In other words each character should have a strong opinion on how the mission gets done. And more to the point, when it comes to players declaring which skill gets used in a conflict, that’s an open declaration of this is my plan and it’s the best plan. At this stage players should not be negotiating on how to tackle the mission together. Asking for help comes later, and has its own mechanics to make the PCs feel uncomfortable.

But in order for each player to have a very clear view of what their character thinks is the right thing to do, they must have a clear view of the mission objective. At this point it’s OK for the characters to negotiate and argue about where they are collectively going to go; those discussions will help focus on the objective. But if the objective is ambiguous, that’s a problem because this isn’t an investigation game of gathering clues, it’s a game of taking action and overcoming obstacles. Of course you can run investigations using the Hollowpoint rules, but that just makes the objective “get this piece of information” and whatever skills the players feel are right get applied to getting that information — stealing, conning, killing, intimidating, seducing.

So yeah, the operative word in the strapline isn’t bad, because you don’t need the PCs to be bad. It isn’t even killing, because you can use this system with no KILL skill. No, the operative word is reasons. Reasons and objectives drive the character forward.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Death Comes To Wyverley: Walking Through Death

This is part of a series of pieces for Death Comes To Wyverley, a playset for Beyond the Wall inspired by Garth Nix’ Old Kingdom series. This should be considered a fan work.

DctW

This is the follow-on piece to the alternative damage and healing rules — something I started to lay down following this discussion.

Dying

Originally I was going to represent different stages of Death by negative HP, but that doesn’t work so well with scaling, or with the implication of negative HP. What does being at negative HP mean? Usually the PC is “incapacitated” so they don’t really participate in the game other that wait to die.

I don’t want my players to wait to die — I want them to either be In Life or In Death. So, 0 HP is the threshold between Life and Death (“Death’s Door”). If a PC arrives at or goes below 0 HP, they make a save against Death (= Poison) or their spirit gets swept into the First Precinct. The saving throw is modified thus:

  • if the last damage the PC took would have taken them to negative HP, that number is applied as a penalty
  • if the PC has any major wounds, subtract 2 from the worst wound and apply the number as a penalty (cumulative with above)

While the spirit is in the First Precinct they can be brought back by strong healing. However the spirit won’t hang around there for long — and once beyond the First Gate, no healing can save them; the Abhorsen or a Necromancer must venture Into Death to pull them back into life.

Death

In the Abhorsen trilogy, Death is a series of Precincts separated by Gates. Although the Old Kingdom and Ancelstierre are on two different planes of existence it seems Death connects both (as both Sameth and Hedge enter Death south of The Wall). Possibly Death is easier to reach when the North Wind blows.

Falling or Walking Into Death

Newly dead souls get disoriented when they’re swept into Death, and may find themselves in any Precinct.

  • every round the new soul rolls an unmodified save vs Death. If they pass they get to stay in the First Precinct, otherwise they will pass through the First Gate.
  • if the soul makes 3 checks in a row they are no longer disoriented and can resist the pull of the First Gate (but they’re still dead).
  • If they get swept past the First Gate they get to continue making checks in the Second and subsequent Precincts. Fails mean they get swept through the next Gate, success means they stay, and with 2 saves in succession they regain their senses and can choose to remain in that Precinct.

An Abhorsen or a Necromancer can just walk into Death and keep their wits. When they do this, rime frost may form on their body and clothes in Life, and their body is potentially vulnerable.

Environmental Hazards

Once in Death the Precincts and Gates are negotiated like other physical obstacles. The Gates and Precincts are well described on this page, so I won’t reiterate them here.

Negotiating the various waves, sinkholes, whirlpools and flares is at the GM’s discretion, but in general if a character fails a check they are at risk of being swept away, and should make a save against Death or become disoriented. A second save (should the first be failed) or help from another is required to avoid stumbling into the next Gate.

The Dead

The Dead are an obvious threat in any Precinct, and the deeper down one goes the more powerful the Dead are. Combat should be handled just as in Life, and the noncorporeal body will have the same hit points, etc.

The types of dead encountered will generally be:

  • degenerate souls which have taken on different forms (features of insect, worm, etc.) with only animal intelligence
  • human souls retaining intelligence and memory, who may speak (assuming they’re not immediately violent)
  • powerful dead like the Fifth Gate Resters

Death as a Dungeon?

In theory Death could be developed into a dungeon, however there’s not a lot of value unless the whole party is able to venture into Death — for now the loose descriptions of the Precincts and Gates will be enough.

Beyond the Wall: Alternative Damage and Healing

This is part of a series of pieces for Death Comes To Wyverley, a playset for Beyond the Wall inspired by Garth Nix’ Old Kingdom series. This should be considered a fan work.

DctW

These alternate rules adapt the Scarlet Heroes rules for damage (quickstart here).

The main reason to do this is not so much to increase survivability of the game but to encourage the PCs to press on through adventures rather than turn back to home (something that happened in an adventure I ran after the 1st level PCs took a couple of unlucky hits). I used the Scarlet Heroes approach because that effectively re-scales the system without introducing additional rules (e.g. “healing surges”, whatever those are). The scales below need playtesting.

Rolling For Damage

When you roll the damage die for your weapon, on a roll of:

  • 1-3, do 1 point
  • 4-6, do 2 points
  • 7-9, do 3 points
  • 10+, do 4 points

Any damage bonus is applied to the roll, not the damage. Attacks on PCs come off hit points, but on monsters they come off Hit Dice (more or less).

The reason for doing this is to scale back the damage against the PCs, and to simplify combat encounters with monsters.

If this makes your monsters a bit puny and fights over a bit too quickly, you can

  • add more monsters and have them swarm
  • double the number of hits for tough monsters
  • quadruple the number of hits for “named characters” (as in Feng Shui)

There’s probably a formula that could be applied based on the number of players around the table. I’ll work on that for later.

HP and Wounds

First, the way HP scale with class levels needs to be considered. You could keep the class benefits of one extra die per level, but that would mean you’d need stronger and stronger challenges even for second level PCs. For that reason I’d prefer this formula:

(class base HP) + (CON bonus) + (level) = (Total HP)

Obviously you can then tune the totals via the base HP. If you don’t have a die per level the Fighters may be getting a raw deal, but you can fix that by using a split of 5/8/11 or even 5/9/13 for base mage/rogue/warrior HP, rather than the 5/7/9 that you’d get with the current system.

Second, and more significant: each hit causes a Wound that is tracked on its own. 1 or 2 point hit is a minor wound and will heal with time on its own. A hit of 3 or more is a major wound and needs medical/magical attention.

Other rules (currently these are loose and need further thought):

  • Major wounds (3+) can get worse, they can get infected or be otherwise debilitating with conditions like “poisoned” or “painful” or “bleeding” (similar to Monsterhearts but much more specific).
  • Major wounds (3+) apply a cumulative penalty of (Wound -2) to certain rolls involving physical activity outside combat, as the GM sees fit. If the wounds have conditions the GM should riff off those.
  • If a player makes a critical failure on a physical task their wound could get worse. Also the GM could declare that the condition of a wound is such that if the PC tries something and fails, the wound gets worse.

Hunger/Thirst

Hunger/Thirst is a “wound”. If the PCs are travelling and are starving themselves you could start them off with a Hunger/Thirst of 1. If they persist then it could get worse. Once it reaches 3 or more, it can’t be reversed by just eating, and could turn into some kind of sickness.

Obviously this is only treated by food and drink. A meal could reverse the Hunger track, or just a little food could keep the starvation at bay. Resting might also delay the effects; up to the GM.

Healing

There are two types of healing:

  • Strong Healing is anything like medical treatment from a professional, or healing magic. This is good for bringing people back from Death, and healing Major (3+) wounds.
  • Light Healing is non-medical stuff like a night’s rest, shot of brandy, etc. It’s good for all Minor wounds but not for Major ones.

A full night’s rest will provide 1 hp of light healing to every wound simultaneously, meaning that a warrior with a lot of 1 hp scrapes will be much improved in the morning. Other forms of light healing are at GM’s discretion — a nice meal, a bit of entertainment or a nip of brandy may be good for a 1 hp reward here or there. If you’re considering the Hunger rules then eating a meal when you’re starving only affects the hunger “wound”, and other forms of healing won’t take the edge off hunger if you’re starving.

The healing spells in the book could be a bit overpowered given the re-scaling of the damage. To deal with this you could either roll the healing die on the damage table above, or just accept it and change the pace of how quickly you damage the party. Some of the rituals may be reconsidered, e.g. Goodberry could be used in place of eating and as Light Healing but not good for really bad wounds.

Death Comes To Wyverley: Charter and Free Magic

This is part of a series of pieces for Death Comes To Wyverley, a playset for Beyond the Wall inspired by Garth Nix’ Old Kingdom series. This should be considered a fan work.

DctW

Alignment and Magic

The traditional Law-Neutral-Chaos alignment system has a specific meaning in the Old Kingdom. The Charter is what may be considered Order in the magical world, and Free Magic is its opposite and may be considered Chaotic or Wild. Here are some spot suggestions for Alignment:

  • Alignment only indicates magical metaphysics, not actual behavior outside magic. No-one is Lawful, Chaotic, Good or Evil; they just tend towards the Charter or Free Magic.
  • For purposes of alignment-specific magic in other texts, read “Law” as Charter and “Chaos” as Free Magic.
  • Most characters will be Neutral, even if they use Charter Magic or a bit of Free Magic.
  • Characters who are dedicated to the Charter will be Charter Aligned. This includes the Abhorsen, despite her ability to perform acts of necromancy.
  • Likewise characters who are really into Free Magic will be Free Magic aligned. This includes Free Magic creatures or elementals that are bound with Charter Spells (like the Cat).
  • Both Free Magic creatures and the Dead are Free Magic aligned.
  • Ongoing use or influence of Charter or Free Magic could shift Alignment away from Neutral to one of the extremes. The GM should just watch how the PCs behave around charter magic.

Inspiration for this approach comes from Lamentations of the Flame Princess where Law and Chaos are intrinsically tied to human civilisation (and religion), and magic respectively.

Non-mages and Magic

In the Old Kingdom several characters who aren’t mages can cast charter magic. Wyverley College has whole classes of Charter Magic, although as in any subject some students will simply get a grade and others will go on to excel and use it in later life.

Assume that all Old Kingdom characters are aware of magic and will know a Charter Mark or two. However, none of this will be useful stuff — it’s all just a bit of colour for the game. With an hour’s practice, any one of the characters might make the charter marks for light for example, but only a mage character will be able to cast cantrips and spells in a useful timeframe during an adventure. For non-mages interacting with charter marks is like interacting with a kettle or a light switch.

Magic Spells

The standard format of Beyond the Wall magic (i.e. cantrips, spells and rituals) should work fine for this game. Of course the casting of magic on school grounds should be strictly regulated, but then… teenagers will be teenagers.

Beyond the Wall includes considerations for unintended consequences of miscast Cantrips and Rituals. See the Miscast table for some ideas about what might happen.

There is one new and important ritual, the Diamond of Protection.

Miscast Magic

Here are some options for miscasting magic. Roll a d20:

  • 1-3: the effects are reflected back on the caster
  • 4-6: the effects are redirected to a different target
  • 7-9: the effects of the spell are the opposite of what is intended
  • 10-11: the spell works as normal, but causes 1 HP damage (hunger, weakness, other injury)
  • 12-13: the spell works as normal, but causes material damage to an item in the caster or other party member’s possession
  • 14-15: the spell works as normal, but causes a change in the caster’s mental or emotional state. How this is played out should be agreed between GM and player, but could include alignment shifts, a sudden strong emotion, confusion, negative perception of another PC, etc.
  • 16-19: the spell works as normal, but the casting attracts the Lesser Dead or some weak Free Magic thing which immediately pursues them and will encounter the party in (d8^2) minutes
  • 20: the spell works as normal, but the casting attracts the attention of something powerful and intelligent from Death, which takes a personal interest in the caster.

New Ritual: the Diamond of Protection

Diamonds of Protection appear throughout the series, used to guard the Abhorsen’s body while she walks in Death, and in general against the Dead and other creatures when making camp etc. This is an alternative to the various Circles of Protection and other rituals in the rulebook.

Level: 1
Range: Near
Duration: Permanent (until marks destroyed)
Save: no

The charter mage inscribes North, East, West and South charter marks. Inscribing each mark takes about 10-15 minutes. Several mages working together can inscribe different marks to speed up the process. To inscribe the mark the mage spends 5 minutes and at the end rolls a check against their Intelligence. If they succeed, note the margin by which they succeeded. For every 3 points of margin, add 1 to the strength of the mark. If they fail, they may spend another 5 minutes making the mark.

The strength of each mark is equal to the level of the mage that cast it, plus the margin bonus. When something Dead tries to penetrate the Mark, its Hit Dice will be burned away and the strength of the mark will be similarly reduced. If the Dead thing’s hit dice reach zero first it is destroyed, but if the mark is reduced to zero first, the Dead thing has penetrated.

Free Magic creatures or Greater Dead may also be affected, but they don’t lose their hit dice. Instead, they may need to make a saving throw against Spells to walk over the mark (GM’s discretion as to whether this is allowed and what penalties apply). Overwhelming the mark like this reduces its strength to zero.

Many of the Dead are of low intelligence and won’t be able to tell the relative strength of the marks — the GM should determine which compass point they attack in this case. Also the Dead need to be sufficiently motivated to penetrate the diamond in the first place, because it hurts us, precious.

If a mark goes down to zero it may be recast, assuming time permits. If the mage fails their roll the mark is replaced but with no margin bonus, and the mark’s strength is subtracted from one or more of the other marks. If the mage rolls a critical failure, all four marks will go out.

At higher levels this ritual may be combined with similar effects from other ritual, such as the Circle of Protection and the Witch’s Watchman (with GM approval of course).

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Edith and Freddie Go To See The Harlequin

I said before that Over the Edge was the game I should have been running in the 90s instead of Mage. I also said in my #RPGCoverArtAppreciation contribution that I really prefer the 1e cover to the 2e. It’s surprisingly hard to find examples of the 1e cover of a decent size, so I was pleased to stumble upon this short-lived blog with a nice big version:

ote-shuler

Based on the credits in the Player’s Survival Guide I assume the artist is Douglas Shuler, whose art turns up on a lot of the early Magic the Gathering cards (including the Serra Angel).

Anyway, this is why I particularly love Over The Edge’s cover:

EdithandFreddie

That’s Edith and Freddie from the Invisibles V1e3, being observed by Tom O’Bedlam and Dane from the swings. Which, incidentally, you can now own in this monster of an omnibus:

InvisOmni

Anyway… I don’t think I ever wanted to run Mage. I wanted to run The Invisibles, The Naked Lunch, Lost Highway, Sapphire and Steel.

I certainly didn’t want to run this:

GrayskullHogwarts

“Hogwarts meets Castle Greyskull on Jupiter” (image found on this interesting French site