Category: Roleplaying Games

StormHack: Character Sheet 2

Thanks to insomnia brought on by various things, here’s the revised character sheet for StormHack.

What’s StormHack? Well:

  • It’s an OSR fusion of Stormbringer and WhiteHack (plus Everway and Over the Edge)
  • It’s what I used to call “OSR demons” or “Demonbringer”
  • The PCs don’t really advance. There are no classes for PCs, and no levels. It’s pretty freeform.
  • Demons have levels. Demons get experience. Demons do specific, limited but powerful things. The higher level your demons go, the more power they give you in the form of Services, and the more they take from you in the form of Taxes.
  • Demons give Taint, which affects interactions with others. That’s the stigma of consorting with demons.
  • You can not have a demon and be a perfectly functional character.

Hopefully I’ll be running it at Concrete Cow in March.

PDF version

StormHack: Metaphysics of Magic

This is part of my forthcoming game StormHack which mashes up Stormbringer 1e, Whitehack, Everway and Over the Edge. The character sheet is in revision in preparation for Concrete Cow but there’s an early version here.

This is entirely fluff, written for some ideas. There are no mechanics in this chapter. Magic works the same way irrespective of what the sorcerer calls themselves.

In StormHack DEMONS are the metagame explanation for any supernatural, superhuman or extraordinary talent beyond what is considered the “normal” scope of human ability. This is an objective truth for the players and the GM, filtered to each PC through cultural heuristics and biases, prejudice and superstition.

6.1 Two Worlds

There are two worlds:

  • the natural world of physical being
  • the supernatural world of consciousness or psychic being.

The latter may be called magical, spiritual, the realm of the soul or of the dead, the god consciousness, or otherworld depending on philosophical and cultural leanings. These different perspectives give reasons for why we see and feel what we do in the natural and supernatural realms; why we perceive order, why we exist beyond physical bodies, and so forth. These are subjective, but as far as this game goes the dual nature of reality is an objective truth.

This duality is reflected in the six ability scores; three for the phsyical body (STR/CON/DEX) and three for the spiritual body (INT/WIS/CHA). The human form is a circle which overlaps two worlds; other beings may be more strongly embedded in the physical world or the psychic world. Animals are almost wholly located within the physical world but retain intelligence and intuition within the psychic world. At the other end of the scale demons are psychic beings with mutable and often immature or incomplete presence in the physical world.

The human psychic form is immature: it is rarely aware of itself or its psychic surroundings. Thus comes anxiety and uncertainty at death, promises of an afterlife, and so on.

Conflict

The duality of ability scores is reflected in a duality of conflict:

  • physical conflict happens in the physical realm is intended to inflict wounds on, subdue, restrain or otherwise physically dominate an opponent
  • psychic conflict happens in the social or psychic realm and is an attempt to cause emotional harm, to mentally dominate, to control or restrain thoughts or arguments, to inflict injuries upon the non-physical self.

The psychic body may be harmed, temporarily or permanently, just as a physical body may be harmed. But the immaturity of the human psychic form means that most humans are limited in their ability to initiate psychic combat or the kinds of damage they can do. The exceptions are magicians and their increased psychic awareness makes them both aware of their own spiritual self and also able to combat and dominate demons.

Demons

Demons are the opposite of humans in that their psychic selves are mature but their bodies are immature; not necessarily weak as demon forms tend to be unusually strong, but they are unsubtle and limited in scope or finesse. The heartstrings of Demons are uncommonly difficult to sever and must be cut one at a time; but still, destroying the demon’s physical form does nothing to its psychic form, and humans cannot dominate demons physically other than by totally destroying their physical bodies.

Technically, demons are conjured by dominating them in psychic combat, and forcing them into a particular form. That form may be consciously or sub-consciously defined by the conjurer; indeed, some conjurers do not consciously conjure their own demons but self-actualise them unconsciously, with all kinds of explanations for the demon’s existence — a preternatural talent, prodigious discipline or learning, etc.

Demons are conjured in one of four ways:

  • A Magician ventures into the Otherworld and dominates a demon, forcing it into a form and a service
  • A Priest who has already secured the services of a demon bequeaths it to a disciple
  • The demon is transferred by inheritance, often through a bloodline — thus when the old Master dies, the new one gains the demon
  • The human self-actualises their own demon (q.v.). In this case the demon may not even have a physical form, and the Master may be unaware that they have conjured a demon in the first place.

6.2 The Three Pillars

Magic is an objective truth, but different cultures have their own explanations for magic.

The Shaman

The Otherworld is the realm of spirits, which is separate from and exists in harmony with the physical realm. Most beings are ignorant of the Otherworld even though they make contact with it at all times. When they die a portion of their own spirit lives on in the Otherworld, remaining in that realm until it completes its cycle by travelling to the Far Shores and re-entering the natural realm. Some spirits persist in the Otherworld, and how much they remember depends on how aware they were of their spiritual self in life — this determines how well memory and consciousness survives passing between the two realms.

The Otherworld contains many spirits which may be called ghosts, wraiths, demons, devils, angels, djinni and by other names. A few of these are the souls of mortals hanging onto the spirit and growing fat and wise by devouring other spirits. Many more are the gods of things great and small, some of which have an earthly representation and others which have been long forgotten by earth.

Demons may be “good” or “evil”, which is to say they may care for and be interested in life, or they may be inimical to it. These are terms we may ascribe to them but very few can actually be trusted.

A Shaman is one who walks between worlds and has developed a maturity such that they can visit the Otherworld as a conscious whole, to walk among spirits and learn about the Greater World. Some say our physical world is a crystal floating in a fluid spirit, and those who make the transition consciously can arrive at different worlds.

When the Shaman summons a spirit or demon to do their bidding they face the spirit in the Otherworld and engage in combat, or else tempt the spirit to become their servant with promises. Gifts are advisable. Once the spirit is convinced, coerced, lured or dominated it is drawn through a little way into the body the Shaman has prepared for it. The Shaman names their new spirit and tells it of its new purpose.

The Priest is like us, but they seek to make order of the Otherworld where there is none. Worse, they seek to impose their earthly order on the spirit, which is doomed to fail.

The Magician is self-serving; they are powerful but they don not seek to share or to elevate others save through cruel trials that confirm their own cleverness. If you seek the wicked, look for them.

The Priest

Beyond our world lies the God Realm of many Heavens and Hells. This is the dwelling place of higher beings that form the great chain that runs from God through his Angels to Humans and finally animals, which have no soul to speak of.

Demons are creatures of Hell. Heretics may claim that Demons were once mortal souls gone to Hell for their wicked ways, but and where found are rightly put to death for this notion. For truly there is an emination from Hell just as their is from Heaven that mirrors the great Chain; God suffers the existence of demons as a test for mortals. Nonetheless demons may be made to do God’s work. With righteous preparation, suitable devotions and oaths, a believer may take on a demon and be unharmed, and use its magic for good purpose.

The Priest exists on earth to guide lesser mortals to the truth that is beyond this life, to steer the righteous and the wicked alike onto the correct path. The Priest hears the Divine Whisper repeated from God through His mouthpiece, His archangels and finally His angels who advise the Priest directly.

Demons may be bound to the service of the righteous by the Priest and made to do their bidding. Heretics will say likewise of Angels, and be flayed. Angels advise the Priest out of Love, whereas Demons obey out of Fear. A demon may be bequeathed to a righteous warrior of the temple or as a test for the wayward. Thus the temple sorts wheat from chaff.

The Shaman is wise and powerful and in her own way serves God, but to her all is chaos. The Divine Whisper is a rumour, and she will never find herself in God’s grace.

The Magician denies God and seeks the power to elevate herself to what she things is the Godhead, and it will be her undoing.

The Magician

The Magical Self is a reflection of the mundane, and the Magical World is the diffusion of expanded consciousness of every human dreamer. This place connects all minds, and the properly awakened can walk in this world and gain new knowledge, even find and construct new worlds.

Demons occupy this bewildering plane of existence. Some of them have manifestations in our world, others exist wholly in the Magical World; some are the product of one imagination, others are a composite of many. They are the self-actualisation of the mortals that dreamt them; they can grow and shift over time, morphing into other forms, conquering other demons and even carving out their own realms, calling themselves gods. Then are a mass of self-aware psychic energy that has partially or wholly detatched from a host. Perhaps they were once alive; now dead, they may deteriorate or they may find a way to survive, through force of will, often by eating their peers.

Demons may display the virtues and foibles of humans since they originate from that source. As such they are considered “evil”, but able to aspire to “goodness”. But since demons rarely have vision beyond their own self-interest they are normally considered evil. Demons are not part of a great demonic heirarchy though they may pretend to be so, even forming courts of their own in the Magical World.

The Magician is a human who has learned to enter the Magical World consciously, and can separate and find meaning in that place. They can find, divine and access the truth of many repeating patterns within the Magic World, knit them, extract the code, and turn it to useful purpose.

Magicians summon demons through acts of concentration, devotion and introspection. A demon is formed by a specific order of thoughts in an act of self-actualisation. Some mortals — savants — conjure demons spontaneously and unconscious or ignorant of what they are doing.

The Shaman interprets the dream state allegorically as past lives, dream places, representational images and so on. this is the earliest form of natural magic.

The Priest takes this allegory and makes it dogma, losing much of its original mystery. Many religions have both exoteric and esoteric faces; the exoteric involves an absence of any real power and a genuine fear of what the esoteric knows and can achieve. This is a necessary method of control and essential to the Church’s artificial hierarchy.

6.3 The Four Ages

There are four Magical Ages:

  1. Age of Fear
  2. Magic Ascendent
  3. The Golden Age
  4. Decline and Fall

These form a cyclic system. The names of the ages have no moral component; they do not say whether the Golden Age is good or bad for all, only that it represents an age of integration of Magic into society.

Age of Fear

A time of ignorance, characterised by superstition, denial and reclusive sorcerers. Magic is jealously guarded not because it is a means to power but because it is a curse, and makes enemies of those who remember the previous Decline. Fear comes from the previous Cycle when magic is part of — or responsible for — the decline into wickedness and loss of connection. The sorcerer is reticent to tutor a student for this reason, where the old structures remain intent on purging magic.

The Shaman: persecuted The Priest: in denial The Magician: in hiding

Magic Ascendant

A time of wonder, itinerant magicians, and folk magic. Mortals have overcome some of their fears and coexist with the Otherworld and its denizens, who exist just beyond the wall of civilisation in wild places. Small communities have their Wise Woman and Cunning Man who intercede with the Otherworld on the village’s behalf. Pagan beliefs coexist with and are adopted by burgeoning religions (which are really collections of humans seeking answers).

The Shaman: integrated into village unit The Priest: leading a new flock The Magician: curious

The Golden Age

Magic at its height, where some or all of society is capable of making use of and imagining the benefits of a magical society. But while this is the height of magical understanding and acceptance Magic may be the cornerstone of a despotic regime; it may be regulated, closed off to those of the wrong caste, race or gender, or deliberately masked in confusing symbolism that can only be unlocked by members of a cabal.

The Shaman: no longer relevant, driven out The Priest: organised, powerful The Magician: known, revered, feared

Decline and Fall

Second and third generation sorcerers learn by rote and accept dogma, failing to grasp the full meaning of ceremony. Society advances and is no longer satisfied by the wonders of magic; magic becomes a commodity as people fail to imagine and use it for convenience. Magical singularity, weaponised magic, technocracy, stagnation and decline.

The Shaman: a myth The Priest: in control The Magician: withdrawing

Grand Tableau: Guide to the Fortune Deck

Everway’s original Guide to the Fortune Deck gives upright and reversed meanings as well as correspondences for the 36 cards in the Fortune Deck. The PDF document linked below is inspired by the original guide, using the Petit Lenormand in place of the original deck.

Guide to the Fortune Deck (PDF)

The document is 17 pages long (thus too long for one blog post), and includes photographs of all 36 cards from two Lenormand decks: Pixie’s Astounding Lenormand, and the Under the Roses Lenormand.

Sample readings:

1. The Rider

Other names: the Knight, the Agent, the Visitor, the Harbinger

Meaning: Rebirth

The Rider is an agent of change, bringing news, new perspective, clues or resources. There arrival on the scene signifies the beginning of a new cycle, a rearrangement of social order, a change in roles in the Tableau, and new purpose for the individual.

Reversed reading: Destruction

The Rider is the harbinger of destruction, the spearhead of an invader, the agent of evil intent. The cycle they initiate is one of suffering, evil and darkness.

Correspondence: the Nine of Hearts, Water, Intuition, Personality. Mercury/Hermes. Everway card(s): the Phoenix

19. The Tower

Other names: The Lighthouse, The Bell-Tower, The Clock Tower

Meaning: Authority

The Tower oversees the nation, and represents the principle of law. It brings order and authority, unites the nation through government.

Reversed reading: Tyranny

The baleful eye surveys its domain, ruling absolutely and without mercy.

Correspondence: Six of Spades, Air, Intelligence, Principle, Rules. Everway card(s): The King

Neverway: the Grand Tableau

Neverway: the Grand Tableau is an homage to Jonathan Tweet’s Everway with the aim of updating the system, plugging some gaps and making it easier to obtain play materials (e.g. by basing the fortune deck on the Lenormand). This post is an introduction, and in later posts I’ll write down the functional system including Lenormand cards and how they’re drawn, duelling, etc.

Overview

Here is a summary of features:

  • A 36 card fortune deck (based on the Petit Lenormand card decks)
  • Resolution using Karma, Drama and Fortune
  • Characters have four main attributes (after card suits/elements), and a three-card divination spread (after Everway’s Virtue-Fault-Fate)
  • A point-buy approach to attributes and powers
  • Attributes can go down in the game as a fatigue mechanism (“damage” as an in-game currency is mostly absent in Everway)
  • Powers are tied to specific cards or Suits
  • A duelling system that makes use of Lenormand card suits and values (can be simulated using a reduced deck of playing cards)

Similar to Everway, Grand Tableau’s world is a series of connected worlds or realities — specifically the Grand Tableau of 36 houses. Characters are able to pass between worlds using their own decks (not unlike Amber’s Trumps). Those decks represent the cosmic structure of the world, and will vary in design between realms and cultures.

Just as in Everway the Realms can be defined/brainstormed using a three-card reading (similar to the spread for each character). Individual antagonists and obstacles can be given ratings in one or more of the four Suits to determine the level of challenge they offer.

Similar to Everway, characters in Grand Tableau are “walkers” (with varying prefixes like sphere-, mirror-, deck-, etc.) and the core activity should be traversing the different realms and having adventures. Long-term adversaries come in the form of enemy walkers with their own secret societies (and direct encounters with these antagonists should involve the duelling game).

The Lenormand Deck

(“Under the Roses” Lenormand deck)

The Lenormand deck is a fairly convenient replacement for Everway’s Fortune Deck having 36 cards with no minor arcana (i.e. all the cards have pictures and meanings). There is no Usurper, of course.

Using the Petit Lenormand does require some concessions. First, there are normally no reversed meanings in the Lenormand, so either we abandon inverse meanings or invent them — I’m doing the latter.

Second, Lenormand cards are usually read in groups (pairs up to the 36 card Grand Tableau); to make it function like Everway’s Fortune Deck the cards need also to be read on their own.

Third, it’s not possible to map all of Everway’s cards onto the Lenormand, though some fit quite well (Death = Coffin, Trickery = The Fox, etc.). Still the Fortune Deck is a nice starting point giving a range of responses, so where possible I’ve tried to import upright and reversed meanings from the Fortune Deck, though not always to the same card (for example The Bear takes “Simple Strength” from the Peasant card and “Blind Fury” from the Dragon card).

Some of the Fortune Deck cards are an activity (e.g. Sowing Stones, Striking The Dragon’s Tail, Drowning In Armour) which should be taken as a metaphor for the actual thing the PC is doing. None of these are represented very well in the Lenormand deck. Other cards are metaphors for states of being (the Eagle, the Fish, the Cockatrice etc.) and work better. But in all cases we need to reduce the variety of meanings for Lenormand cards into one clear meaning which the GM and players can interpret into the situation. Most of the time the Fortune Deck isn’t used for divining a situation so much as suggesting an outcome to a current risky situation.

Building the Deck

Ideally your Lenormand cards should have the upright and reversed meanings written on them. You have these choices:

  • get a commercial deck and write on it (probably not popular)
  • create your own deck by drawing or pasting images on a deck of playing cards
  • use a companion sheet for the interpretations of the cards (i.e. the above document)

Suits

One benefit of the Lenormand cards is much clearer alignment to both numbers and suits. While the Fortune Deck’s cards do have alignments (to the zodiac, elements etc.) they’re not as obvious as the four suits of traditional playing cards or Tarot. In Grand Tableau the suits apply not only to the houses but are reflected on the character sheet.

Hearts Water. Emotions, love, relationships, sense of self. For characters this measures a person’s ability to connect with others and network, and also their intuition.

Diamonds Fire. Change, fortune and misfortune, enterprise. For the PC this represents the PC’s drive and ability to effect change, take risks and so forth.

Spades Air. Government, authority, territory, society. In PCs this represents intellectual capacity, understanding of law, and personal authority.

Clubs Earth. Survival, hardship and trouble. For characters this is about ability to endure harm and hardship.

Character Creation

The rough draft character creation process is more or less taken from Everway:

  1. Think of a character concept.
  2. It may help to do the 3-card reading here. Draw or choose 3 cards to represent your Virtue, Fault and Fate.
  3. You get 20 points to spend among your four Suits and any Powers or Magic you want.
  4. For points in Suits an average human level is 3, and each point invested doubles the power in a given suit.
  5. Each Suit has a speciality; when that speciality applies to the situation the value of the Suit is counted as 1 higher.
  6. You get one minor power for free.
  7. Magic costs 1 point per level, and is aligned to a suit. You can’t have a magic level higher than your suit’s rating. Magic schools to be defined.
  8. Powers cost 1 point if they can be used frequently, 1 point if they can be used in many circumstances, and 1 point if their use is major, i.e. disrupts or dominates a scene. Need to define these further.

In Play

Most of the time play is exactly the same freeform process as Everway, using Karma, Drama and Fortune to resolve actions.

The additional bits of the system include a duelling minigame (inspired by both Lace and Steel and, perversely, time combat from [Continuum]]5) and some way to do fatigue which I felt was lacking in the original.

The next post will examine the Lenormand cards in detail.

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

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.

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.

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.

The Tarot and Lovecraftesque

Are you really excited about writing a new Lovecraftesque scenario for Black Armada’s competition, but need to get your thoughts in order? Here’s how the Tarot might help.

(examples are taken from my scenario around an ageing rock star and their legacy)

Rundown of the Parts

These are the elements of a Lovecraftesque scenario (see the various examples provided by Black Armada)

  • The Witness
  • The Era
  • Locations (guide is 4, I aim for 5)
  • Other Characters (guide is 4, aim for 5)
  • Clues (guide is 12, aim for 15)
  • Special Cards (up to 5)

For my brainstorming I’m aiming for more than the guide and then pare down later and remove anything that is a bit boring.

Initial Draw

I worked with fifteen cards. I used the Thoth tarot which works for me, YMMV etc.

I did a fifteen card draw like this:

spread

Clues

I now have fifteen cards. For the clues I just work with one card per clue. The suits work as follows:

  • Swords are logical paradoxes, things that don’t make sense, or other forms of information
  • Wands are about identity
  • Cups are emotions and sensations
  • Disks are physical objects
  • Major Arcana are special cases, whatever inspiration strikes.

For the Thoth tarot the neighbours of the cards may shade the interpretation, but I mostly think about them in isolation.

Examples:

5 of Wands (“Strife”) represents an unknown former band member just before the band broke up.

Ace of Disks represents a basement full of reel-to-reel tapes.

10 of Cups (“Satiety”) is a bottle of absinthe with a hand-drawn label and accompanying CD-R marked “instructions”.

Locations

Now, look at the 3 rows of 5 cards, and read each column.

The middle row is what you can immediately see in the location. The top row is the history concerning the location. The bottom is potential corruption.

Example:

The late artist’s mansion is represented by the 4 of Swords (“Truce”). It’s in a calm and empty state, waiting to be sold on. It represents the artist’s later life where they were prone to drug abuse, passive, yet sensual (Knight of Cups). The undercurrent is the 4 of Cups (“Luxury”) representing weakness, success and pleasure approaching their end, and decay.

location

People

Finally rearrange the spread into groups of 3, sequentially like this:

people

Use each sequence of 3 to divine the character. The central card is their base, and the flanking cards are two sides of their character.

Example:

Dominic Baxter is a wealthy and prosperous dentist (Ace of Disks) who commutes into London. He chairs the village residents’ association but his interest is one-sided in favour of the other commuters in the village (4 of Disks, “Power”) at the expense of the rural community with whom he frequently clashes (8 of Swords, “Interference”).

character

Remarks

I started with a concept for the Witness and Era I liked, and then used the tarot to give me ideas to fill in the gaps. So, all of this requires an initial idea. But there’s no reason you can’t brainstorm even that with a tarot spread of your choice.

Black Armada’s competition is on until the 7th November.