Saturday, 17 December 2016

OSR Demons 3: Demonbringer

Demonbringer is a RPG featuring the demons from Stormbringer 1st Edition by way of the OSR (specifically Whitehack), Everway and the WaRP system.

This is the character sheet I’ve been working on:

Here is the character sheet as a PDF

Notes

Previous entries for “OSR Demons”:

It uses SB’s 6 demon types, linking one per characteristic (see the previous blog posts). Powers are worked out according to type and Everway-inspired magical point buy — so powers are rated e.g. Major, Frequent and Versatile. It also uses Everway’s 3 resolution systems (see commentary here) and general loose approach.

It sort of uses a revised roll-under as described here, but that needs playtesting.

But it can be made to use a OSR-like combat subsystem. To do this it uses a dice clock.

It uses Groups or Traits — as applied in Whitehack and WaRP/Over The Edge.

System Uses

I’ve got two uses in mind. The first is for a fantasy game that’s basically like Stormbringer, in a massive single city. There’s a city-building mechanism or subsystem that both the GM and the players get involved in.

Second is an underlying system for Black Mantle, since the system should work for mecha too.

The two sort of complement each other; one is about having adventures inside a city, while the other is about exploring the unknown outside (or capital-O Outside).

Further Notes On Demons

The rest of the text below are some notes I’ve been making on demons. Putting them here by way of elaboration and explanation. This has been written with the fantasy city setting in mind.

1. The Riddle of Demons

The following definitions may be useful:

  1. (Classical) an otherworldly entity summoned and bound to do the conjurer’s bidding
  2. (Literal) a projection of a person’s will or motivation on the external world
  3. (Metaphorical) a skill or ability that outclasses and reaches beyond that of others or which is considered possible

In addition, demons are described from two perspectives:

  1. By the game world; whatever the culture calls a demon is a demon. This definition is extrinsic. Also known as “colour”.
  2. By the system and the GM; an object comprising a need, a relationship with the conjurer, and various services. This definition is intrinsic.

First comment: only the actual relationship with the demon is intrinsic; any assumptions of intelligence or motivation, and projections of a personality are extrinsic and colour.

Second, if you don’t bother with relationships with demons, you’ve basically got superheroes (and can run a game with “demons” using an appropriate system).

With a much broader scope any apparent expertise can be called “demonic”. For example: Conan’s obsession with “the riddle of steel” in Conan the Barbarian is a demon; the “service” of that demon is his uncommon ability with a sword, but he also has a relationship with the concept that drives him — and sometimes it gives him hope, other times disappointment.

So in more general terms, players should understand that their PCs’ powers are demons per the game system definition. For the actual game world they (and anyone else in the world) are free to rationalise their powers how they wish.

Furthermore different communities, religions and cultures will

  • have different views on what demons are, how harmful they are and where they come from; and
  • draw arbitrary distinctions between demons where there is no game-system distinction (e.g. angels and devils)

2. The City’s Demons

People have various skills and affiliations expressed as “groups” (see Whitehack) that benefit then in a situation — a Soldier will be combat-ready, a Black Hand Thief will know the nearest escape route, a Scholar from the Imperial Library will be able to tell you of the City’s rich and layered history.

Rare individuals may transcend this expertise — they have superhuman capacity to inflict violence, gain knowledge, withstand pain or cross distances. Such folk have aligned themselves with demons.

The Armaments

The most subtle of such demons are the armaments: these are personal extensions of mortal expertise. These often have a motif — a weapon, a piece of clothing or similar. But whatever happens it’s conjurer to which the demon is bound; thus their motif may be separated from them for a time, but it will always find its way back.

Advantages:

  • Discreet compared to other demons; they may be on show but they are not obviously demonic
  • Usually constant, i.e. always available (but there may be exceptions)

Disadvantages:

  • Not at all versatile; they typically have one function
  • Not autonomous; they cannot take decisions or act for themselves

The Embodiments

Embodiments are objects or entities that are separate from the conjurer, bound to do their bidding. Embodiments have a form in which they appear; frequently humanoid, sometimes monstrous, or possibly non-living but nevertheless autonymous.

Advantages:

  • They are autonymous, capable of taking instruction and then making decisions
  • They are much more likley to be versatile
  • They are usually constant

Disadvantages:

  • They are not discreet; although they may actively defeat detection

The Appeals

Appeals are short-lived interventions of other beings with whom the conjurer has a relationship. Basically the conjurer opens the way to great and remote powers, which leak through and cause brief but terrible change.

Advantages:

  • They are often major powers

Disadvantages:

  • They are not constant — their influence is brief
  • Their are inimical to life — wherever they emerge, they will cause great change and weirdness

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Karma, Drama and Fortune redux

You probably already know that Everway has three different ways of resolving tasks: Karma, Drama and Fortune.

Did this come before or after Threefold theory? Certainly they were adopted by GNS theory but seemingly as mutually exclusive goals.

But that’s not what Everway’s system did. Not only was the GM free to use whichever method of resolution suited them at the time, these methods form a continuity.

Graphic:

All Tasks start in the middle with a player wanting to achieve something. It may or may not be articulated as simply as “I want”; it could be implied, it may be teased out with conversation, there may be context and conditions. But a combination of Karma, Drama and Fortune can be used to negotiate what the player wants and get to some kind of outcome.

The graphic assumes a couple of things:

  1. As soon as we know what the task is, the GM can move to any one of the three options.
  2. Once you’re at one option, you’re free to switch to another option.
  3. However it’s most likely that people will start at Karma and then move to Drama or Fortune (directly, or via Drama). The reasons for this are below.
  4. The three approaches arrive at the end states in three different ways; one by dice, one by GM adjudication, and one by either a consensus between players or by the GM imposing plot on the players.

Karma

This is what the Everway playing guide says about karma on p124:

When applying the law of karma you, as the gamemaster, assess the difficulty of the task, judge the capability of the hero attempting the task, and rule on the result. The hero succeeds if, in your judgement, the hero has the abilities necessary to meet the challenge of the task. The hero fails if, in your judgement, the task is too difficult for the hero’s capabilities.

Going in, karma is a short-cut. If a PC is up to a task then let them have the outcome they’re going for; and if they’re not, don’t waste their time with making them roll dice — especially if the fail outcome is simply “you don’t get the thing” without any other consequence.

This is why karma is often good as an opening position for resolving any task. Drama may be all about what benefits the plot, but karma is in some ways about cutting out what doesn’t benefit the plot and just slows everything down.

If there’s no clear-cut Yes or No what happens next will probably be a bit of negotiation — either prompted by the GM asking how they achieve that, or more detail volunteered by the player. These start to become blow by blow plans, etc. This can go one of two ways: either a lot of back and forth between players and GM (drama) or going to the dice (fortune).

Drama

From the Everway playing guide, p126:

When applying the law of drama you, as the gamemaster, the needs of the plot determine the outcome of events. As in a novel or play, events proceed in such a way as to make the plot and story more engaging and enjoyable. The hero succeeds if doing so helps the plot. The hero fails if that helps the plot.

The role of drama is to make sure things happen that are interesting and everyone engaged and invested in the plot.

The problem with drama is… how does the GM judge that to be the case? Occasionally it’s easy, e.g. drama says the PCs must find a clue here to keep things moving. Sometimes, the GM will be working from a script and have prepared set pieces or bangs. Most of the time though the plot will arise from a back-and-forth conversation, etc. And specifically for task resolution, some players love to talk their way through their plans and every step of their actions — a process of exposition that’s dramatic.

Effectively you have a natural progression from karma into drama. At the start when a player says “I want to do XXX” and the GM asks them “how?” they’re starting a conversation and inviting a whole load of dramatic play.

So, when does the GM go straight to drama without going through karma first? Usually when there’s an obstacle but it’s not quite clear what the task is — prompting the players to talk around the situation until they get what they want.

To truly resolve by drama one of two things happen: either the players agree how the plot is going forward, or the GM imposes plot on everyone. This isn’t really the same as the GM judging the outcome based on ability, and in general it can feel anticlimactic (either because everything ends in agreement, or because the GM just narrates an ending).

What’s much more likely to happen is that the drama comes to a head and calls for a dice roll, so moves into the realm of fortune. It can do this naturally because all that conversation is setting stakes and bringing everything to a head.

Fortune

The Everway playing guide, p128:

When you, as the gamemaster, apply the law of fortune, a card from the Fortune Deck determines the outcome of an action. If the card’s meaning is positive, the event in the game world is positive for the hero. If the card’s meaning is negative, the event or outcome is negative.

Everway suggests drawing cards for an immediate yes/no judgement, and also for Tarot-like long-term interpretations, and also to improvise results or developments.

You can arrive at fortune from three ways:

  1. Start at karma; the task is clear but there’s no clear yes/no answer, in which case call for a dice roll.
  2. Start at drama; talk until things come to a head and the need for a yes/no, then call for a dice roll.
  3. Go straight to fortune.

I’m going to argue that many times a dice roll is called for the thought process of GM and players have gone through karma and or drama first, setting up the context for the random roll. So the times when people go straight to fortune without thinking about karma/drama is when they’re not really invested in the balance of power or the outcome; they just want something new and interesting to happen that isn’t directly coloured by player or GM invention. Sounds counter-intuitive, but this is exactly what random tables are for, and they work.

Final Remarks

The argument above is that karma, drama and fortune form a continuity rather than three separate techniques. I don’t think this is revelatory — more I’ve just said aloud what any good GM with experience has internalised by trial and error. But there are some essential learnings for me at least.

First, always assume the PCs have competence, even if they lack expertise. So if you’re applying the law of karma, assume the PC is judging the situation rather than committing to it. This means that if the task is beyond their abilities they don’t even attempt the task — so they either succeed or they don’t attempt it.

Second, try not to waste people’s time. Don’t roll dice when there’s no real risk. Don’t have players grubbing in the dark for clues when they will inevitably find those clues anyway.

Third, the players will tell you which direction they want to go. This is part of the big drama conversation. The conclusion to that conversation can be one of three things: agree with the players and go with their plot, or disagree and impose your own, or set stakes and go to the dice.

Fourth, do not neglect the power of a random table, card draw or dice roll from a completely neutral position.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Another Roll-Under

OSR games often feature rolling under attributes for pass/fail task resolving; it’s simpler than calculating bonuses from attributes, setting target numbers, etc.

Here is a mashup of OSR roll-under-attribute (specifically something like Whitehack) and PbtA pass/pass with consequences/fail with MC move.

When you take an action and the GM says you need to make a roll, it will be against one of your attributes. Roll a D20 and compare the result with the attribute number.

  • if the result is higher than your attribute, you fail with consequences
  • if the result is below your attribute and 10 or above, you succeed
  • if the result is below your attribute but 9 or lower, you may succeed at cost
  • if the result is exactly your attribute it’s a critical success

Cost or Consequences

Consequences happen when you try and fail (if there were no consequences, ask why you needed a die roll in the first place). Consequences can be made up by the GM on the spot or picked from a list (much like a MC move in Apocalypse World).

Success with a Cost is like paying Consequences to get the Success you wanted. The Cost of Success could be the same as the Consequences of Failure, or it could be different (usually less).

Difficulty

There are no numerical changes to the die rolls (either bonus or penalty). So how does the GM make the challenge easier or harder?

First, by changing the Costs of success for rolls below 10. If the Cost is a slider then setting it to zero means that a success with a roll below 10 is the same as a full success; alternatively if it’s set to “high” then it makes the chance of a Cost-free success lower, but also pushes a decision onto the player — take the hit now, or wait until the next opportunity to roll in the hope that you get a 10+ next time.

Second, by changing the Consequences. OK, this doesn’t affect the actual probability, but it does affect the perceived difficulty and pushes a decision onto the player. This only happens when the GM informs the player of potential Consequences in advance. It could even be phrased as “if you fail, XXX will happen” to set the stakes.

Third, by forcing Whitehack-style Disadvantage on the roll — so the player rolls 2 dice and keeps the lower result.

And fourth, by requiring more than one roll. You could demand a succession or rolls (for time passing and ticking bombs) or that all the rolls are made at once.

Skill and Expertise

That’s all well and good, but how does my character’s abilities affect this roll if there are no numerical modifiers?

The obvious one is rolling with advantage as used in Whitehack and D&D5e. You get to roll two D20s and keep the result you like.

The less obvious one is mitigating a Consequence or Cost. If you have a hierarchy of Costs, you could move the cost one rung down the ladder. Alternatively you could say the PC’s skill means they can defer one Cost per scene (or two, or more… though I’d stick with just one).

One thing this allows you to do is then ask the player how their PC is mitigating the cost — e.g. if they’re using an ability that lets them ignore this cost, where did this advantage or training come from? The approach should be (again) similar to Whitehack.

What about combat?

Since OSR has a whole subsystem devoted to fighting with AC, HP and BAB I guess you need to decide whether to keep this subsystem, or convert it.

If you convert it then you need to decide things like “does the GM roll dice, or just the players?” and how armour works, e.g. does it offset Cost or Consequence of a bad attack roll? I haven’t worked those out just yet, but I’ll get to them shortly.

Ladder of Costs

Finally, here are some PbtA style Costs aka MC moves:

  • Take damage or trade damage (Cost can be mitigated by armour, hit dice, etc.)
  • Put them on the spot
  • Take their stuff
  • GM advances a clock (or clock die)
  • GM takes a pain token (Don’t Rest Your Head style)

Taking or trading damage can be according to a damage ladder, which is really just a way to differentiate between things that do some damage (e.g. a weapon in the hands of an average person) and more damage (a weapon used by a trained person, a bear, a dragon, etc.).

More generally some costs will be more onerous than others, hence the need for a “ladder” which will also allow the GM to tune the level of difficulty/consequence (q.v.). This is a WIP, so more later.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

RPG First Look: Perdition vs. Crypts & Things

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The Black Hack may have all the OSR (and indie) cred right now, but I’ve just been reading two other 2016 OSR releases.

The first is Perdition from Hack and Slash publishing. It’s self-consciously a third wave OSR game:

It is a third wave clone because it is not a game designed to emulate or provide an improved version of the “Fantasy Adventure Role-Playing Game”. It is not a game designed to allow you to create your own fantasy realm and have whatever type of adventures you wish. It is a game designed to allow you to explore the world of Perdition. It crosses a line of setting books that work with whatever ruleset you are using and provides the setting information via mechanics, classes, equipment, spells and monsters, instead of through large blocks of flavour text and fiction writing.

I said before that the third wave of the OSR will be defined by those who claim it. I also said that these definitions will diverge; and Perdition is clearly diverging from earlier hand-waving claims of simply “innovation of setting”.

The other is Crypts and Things from D101 games, a very British “Sword and Sorcery RPG” with nods to White Dwarf and Fighting Fantasy, and with no elves or dwarves. Speaking of which the Encyclopaedia of SF has this to say about the genre:

Tolkien’s long, richly imagined work is as important to modern sword and sorcery as Howard’s, the two representing the two ends of the genre’s spectrum: Howard all amoral vigour, Tolkien all deeply moral clarity of imagination. (Also, Howard’s heroes were very big, Tolkien’s very small.) Common to both – although the two writers could not have had the remotest influence on each other – is a powerful commitment to the idea of worlds where magic works, and where heroism can be pitted against Evil.

C&T’s influences are Howard, Clark Ashton Smith and Moorcock’s Elric, placing the game at the “amoral vigour” end of the spectrum. I always felt D&D was like that anyway, and perhaps that’s why the fantasy races felt so out of place in BECMI D&D. C&T’s core classes and focus on human cultures feel like a clean but necessary break.

(of course it’s not the only humanocentric Hyborian/Hyperborean S&S OSR game, and North Wind’s Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea was also a contender for my wallet — but getting the HC of either the 1st or 2nd ed. in Kickstarter would have been punitive to a non-US customer)

Reading through both books reveals interesting differences that point at fundamental design decisions, and I’m going to consider these in a bit. First, the lowdown on each book.

Perdition

Perdition is about playing in a world (Prime Material Plane) overrun by devils and demons. The latter are Chaotic and would tear creation asunder if it were not for the actions of the former who represent law and stability. They are at war and power their infernal war machine by corrupting human souls. The Vile Court oversees everything.

Perdition’s cover of a weirdly inverted city and a three-quarters view of a corpulent devil’s buttocks is by Matthew Adams, and will look familiar to fans of Yoon Suin. The other artists are Russ Nicholson, Heather Gwinn, Marcin S., and Michael Ralston. Nicholson’s art (a main attraction for me) is mainly found in the Monsters section detailing the major devils or lords. Interior book sections are graced by full-page illustrations, which are anything but traditional and have a spooky, dark fairytale and folk-art feel that would fit in with an occult anthropology book.

I love digest format books; but for once, I wonder if this one shouldn’t have been in a larger format. It’s a dense book and (as indicated by layout issues) there’s not a lot of white space.

(Actually there was some trouble with the PoD for Perdition, where page numbers, flags and some full plates were truncated (vertically and horizontally). This was fixed in my replacement copy (mostly) although the borders of some of Russ Nicholson’s full plates are slightly cut off)

Perdition divides up 326 pages roughly like this:

  • character generation including class, race and other bits (around 80 pages)
  • the usual miscellaneous rules for encumbrance, hirelings, languages, skills etc. (30 pages or so)
  • equipment (12 pages)
  • encounters (20 pages)
  • magic (90 pages)
  • monsters (40 pages)
  • finally GM’s section (“Agonarch”) that runs to the end (30 pages)

The contents page is great and the order is (mostly) logical. I had no trouble jumping to the sections I wanted to read. The book also provides a “Change Quick Reference List” on page 10 that tells us exactly where the system diverges from the SRD template. The authors know who their audience is.

Remarks

First, the Character Class and Magic sections — which are effectively player-facing — dominate the book with more than 50% of the page count. There are a lot of options for what you can play, and the game is the AD&D race-plus-class style with over 80 combinations (if you have the right stats). The classes are thoughtfully arranged into four groups based on Tarot suits (although I can’t see much Tarot symbolism elsewhere, but maybe I’m being thick) and the way you like your characters to get things done — fighting, skills, social and magical.

The magic section is extensive and that’s partly because there are many branches, some of which are specifically for certain classes. This means if you want to cast magic you’ve got to absorb both the class options and the magic section to make your decision on what to play. I like the way magic is handled with all the different schools, the Minor/Major/Grand distinctions (as opposed to levels) and the spell surges and so forth. But it’s a significant undertaking for starting players (and taxing if you’ve only got one book between you).

The monsters are the next largest section (and note that there are several fiends in the Summoning and Druidic magic sections also) and the Devil Lords get Russ Nicholson’s lovely art. If the goal is to communicate the setting through rules then I guess class, magic and monsters should be the dominant sections.

But actually the part of the rules I expect the whole game to revolve around is relatively short. The section on dealing with Devils and Demons (including summons, contracts and communication via the Vile Court) is appended to the general rules for equipment and skills and is maybe around 10-12 pages long. This sub-system together with some comments on the Wickedness stat in the Agonarch’s section is possibly the most important in the whole book. That I feel is the game’s real USP.

What else? Experience is treated as Prestige, an in-game currency that is used to claim levels, and also pay for petitions via the Vile Court (an idea I love, as it’s something I have in mind for Black Mantle). There’s a bit on Titan-sized monsters which can be both antagonists and locations (as in Shadow of the Colossus, island fish, etc.). There’s social and mental conflict (and hit points & armour class). The Encounter process causes PCs to suffer stress with successive encounters.

In summary, a lot to like, but also a lot to digest. I expect most OSR games to be nicely modular with a simple core — and Perdition is probably the same, but it’s different enough that you need to absorb it properly — it’s medium rather than low crunch and demands investment to play.

Crypts & Things

Crypts & Things is much more mainstream in terms of fantasy, though as said above it’s at the Howard and Leiber end of low fantasy as opposed to Tolkien’s high fantasy and great clomping feet. Comparisons with Conan and Hyboria (or Hyperborea) are inevitable — a ruined world besieged by “Others” via a mountaintop gate, pre-human civilisations, and a Barbarian character class.

I thought publishers steered clear of green book covers (when I was putting this image together for Fictoplasm it was a real struggle not to make the image as single wall of blue). Whether that’s true or not the lambent green cover is all you need to tell you that everyone on Zarth is fucked like a chronic case of Martian syphilis. Singing maggots aside it’s a very pretty cover (by David Michael Wright, who also did the interior art) with a male barbarian and female sorcerer squaring off against horned undead, a huge snake and a skull shaped portal in the background. The interior B&W art is consistent and sharp and on the whole very nice if a little safe with a procession of PC in a pose, snake person, ziggurat, snake person, temple, PC in a pose again. The best art (IMHO) is in the monster section (the place where it’s needed most).

The book is your traditional, large format and 2-column layout, plenty of white space. Hardly exciting by modern standards, but — and this is a big plus for me — printer friendly. The content is broken down into books — the Scrolls of Wonder (Player’s Guide) and the Book of Doom (for the GM). The former runs to just over 100 pages:

  • Creating a character, character classes and Life Events (approx. 40 pages)
  • Spell lists (20 pages)
  • How to play (20 pages)
  • The Continent of Terror (5 pages)
  • What the Elder told me (10 pages)

Then the Book of Doom’s approx 130 pages is divided like this:

  • The Secrets of the Continent (15 pages)
  • The Others (8 pages)
  • Antagonists including Snake People (4 pages) other bad guys (5 pages) and a bestiary (60 pages)
  • Treasure (5 pages), Adventures (20 pages) and author’s notes on play (10 pages)

The contents page is brief, the index longer but it’s all functional — I certainly wouldn’t have any trouble finding the section I needed.

Remarks

Let’s say retro-clones diverge in two directions: either greater diversity and choice, mixing and matching racial and class options (the AD&D way) or a reduction in the number of options (the Basic D&D way). Perdition is a great example of the former, while C&T does the latter.

Reducing options means reducing the number of decisions players have to make before kick-off. With four core classes and one homogeneous magic system C&T has a much lower cognitive overhead than Perdition. In fact C&T has an immediacy to it — thanks to the life-paths, the gazeteer and the “What the Elder Told Me” section (eight sets of culturally-biased answers to common questions like “who are we?” and “what is magic?”) I expect it would be quick to get up and running — which matters to me as I’m most likely to run OSR games as casual one-shots.

Downsides? C&T is a bit cartoonish; the classes are templates to be filled in, as is the landscape. That’s not a downside for me — I like my games painted with a broad brush and I don’t care for overly detailed settings. I feel C&T hits a sweet spot with just enough of a sketch to make the world a jumping off point rather than a straightjacket.

What else do I like? I like Skill and I like Luck. I also like the one kind of Sorcerer (as opposed to MU and Cleric) and three colours of magic, each with their own costs. Although based on earlier reviews (e.g. here and here) I had certain expectations and there have clearly been a few changes in the “remastering”. It seems previously White magic cost nothing, Grey cost HP and Black cost Sanity. Now White attracts “Others”, Black gains you Corruption and Grey has no cost.

Let’s talk briefly about Corruption and Sanity. I honestly can’t see the value of having both and in general I can’t see the point of CoC-style Sanity in a fantasy game — it made no sense when it was tacked onto Stormbringer and it’s not a great choice here. Corruption, now that makes sense. If only there had been more than one page devoted to it. The rules seem punitive; if it really goes up for every spell level cast then a 5th level sorcerer could see a bump of 9 points in a day’s adventuring. The rules for other classes being corrupted are hand-waving, as are the ones for reducing. The real problem is this isn’t a currency the players can manage except by not going near Black magic in the first place. A fair strategy and maybe the designer’s intent, but boring.

Final Words

Crypts & Things is formulaic, safe, evolutionary rather than revolutionary. I’d call that a strength, because the people I play with are only likely to engage with OSR games on a casual basis. The game has just enough flavour. It could be my go-to system for clearing up those LotFP modules cluttering my hard drive.

Perdition is uncompromising, detailed and unique. I don’t think I’d get the time to play it to the depth it deserves. But even so, I’m very glad I read it because it’s remarkable both in concept and execution.