Category: My 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

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.

Fugue: Player-Facing Documents

This is part of a series of documents about the development of the game Deep Season, a game based on the Fugue mechanics developed by James Wallis for the forthcoming game Alas Vegas.

Chapter: Player-Facing Documents

These are techniques that aren’t covered in the core Fugue rules, but nevertheless I think they’re necessary in order to get a “proper” Fugue game with rotating Dealers to work. There are three documents here, and they’re all “player facing” in that they exist on the table in front of the players, and may be expanded by the players during the sessions. They are:

  1. The Setting Brief
  2. Facts and Observations
  3. The Cork Board

The Setting Brief

Alas Vegas has a whole setting chapter including some elements that won’t be immediately known to the characters (since they’ve just emerged from shallow graves in the desert, with amnesia). Nevertheless this chapter is important for all players to read before the game. Why? Mainly it’s because thanks to the shared nature of the game the players need to be on the same page regarding tone, how the environment looks and feels, and the common knowledge shared by the game characters (tourists and locals).

The setting brief is a metafictional document; it relates to the various setting elements that the personas will experience, but it’s written as a direct contrast to player knowledge about the real Las Vegas. If you think about it, you wouldn’t expect the game characters to draw those comparisons — they have amnesia after all, to the extent that they’re unable to perform some tasks we take for granted and we’d expect a typical resident of Vegas to know (e.g. driving a car).

Of course through use of flashbacks some personas might claim real-world knowledge. That’s OK. The players should still absorb the setting brief so they hit the ground running as personas in the world (there are only four sessions, after all).

Facts and Observations

This sheet of paper is a living list of things the personas have witnessed or otherwise agree upon. It’s inspired by the Facts and Reassurances sheet from that other “Hollywood amnesia” game, A Penny For My Thoughts.

At the start of the game the first Dealer will present the partially filled Facts and Observations sheet, and place it in the middle of the table. From then on anyone can add to the sheet, although it’s mainly the Dealer’s responsibility because subsequent Dealers will uncover further facts about the world based on the briefing in their Act, which they will then convey to the players.

Facts and Observations will generally be high level, for example

  • This place looks like Vegas from the 70s
  • There’s something wrong about the street signs, and no-one will sell us a map
  • There are five casinos here called the Star, Swords, Wands, Coins and Cups

Each Act should be written to make it clear to the current Dealer when they must add lines to the Facts and Observations sheet. At any other time they or another player may add a line to the sheet. The end of each written Act should include a run-down of the things that should be on the sheet.

Why go to this trouble? Well, there are two reasons:

  1. Humans have limited working memory — the typical figure is 7 give or take 2 things that they can keep in mind at one time. Asking all the players to have perfect recall over all the facts is a lot, and can lead to inconsistency, some things being forgotten, the wrong assumptions, etc.
  2. Writing the Facts and Observations down is a contract that the Dealer has to abide by. Of course the Dealer may introduce elements that look contradictory, or even cross out Facts and Observations that prove false — but they can’t just do that on a whim. If they write something down, or cross something off, they do it in full view of the other players. This is a method of keeping things fairly consistent between Dealers.

About that second point — yes, Dealers can contradict earlier established Facts, or at least appear to. This appears to violate the “accept, include, don’t contradict” maxim of improv. However, David Lynch’s scripts are full of apparent contradictions, coincidences and unexplained happenings; so I’d take any contradiction as an opportunity to question, rather than shutting the previous Dealer down. If two facts appear to be mutually exclusive, are they? Or is there a set of circumstances which permit both facts to be true?

The Cork Board

The third tool for getting the players on the same page is the Cork Board. It works like this:

  1. When you introduce a new character write their name down on an index card.
  2. Also write down important information — mostly this will be who they are affiliated to and/or who is reporting to them. Since Fugue revolves around the Tarot, this may often be one of the four Suits (as in-game factions) although that bit is optional.
  3. Pin the index card to the cork board.
  4. When the character comes up and new information is learned about them, add it to their index card.

Now, here’s the optional but interesting technique. If you’re the current Dealer, you’re managing the behind-the-scenes game stuff. You know what the NPCs are planning, what actions they intend to take next. You need a way to communicate this to the next Dealer, without giving it away to the other players, right?

So, write it on the back of the index card.

When you hand the Cork Board over to the next Dealer, they should look at all of the characters as written down, and check the back of the cards for instructions. That Dealer is not at all obliged to make anything of those plans; but in the interest of “accept, incorporate” it’s encouraged. It’s nice if the outgoing Dealer can set something up, and the incoming Dealer can feed off those cues.

Of course, the outgoing Dealer is limited by how much space there is on the index card. No problem; just attach a second card to the first with a paperclip and use that space.

It does mean that your handwriting has to be legible, of course.

You can do this for locations, too. I’d encourage writing down major locations on index cards, with distinguishing features and connections to characters (X was seen here in Act Two, etc.). And you can write secret advice on the back of those cards.

If you’re going to use Locations as well, I recommend either a second Cork Board or some way of marking the two different kinds of cards (different colour card stock, etc.).

It might be easier to gather the index cards up at the end into a single stack, with a big bulldog clip or rubber band to hold them together. That may make handover easier. But I recommend cork boards and pins during play as they can lay out the cards so the players can see them easily.

(I bought my cork boards from a well-known national chain of bric-a-brac stores for just a couple of pounds)

Creative Update: Fictoplasm, Black Mantle, Deep Season

This is a bit of self affirmation to say yes, I really am making things and making progress. Here is what I am doing right now:

Fictoplasm

fictoplasm itunes 2

We just released our eighth episode of Fictoplasm, our podcast about pieces of fiction and the games they inspire us to run (if we ever get time). Episode 08 featured Becky Annison and Elizabeth Lovegrove talking about Kelly Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld, and Becky’s game-in-development Bite Me! which she will be running at Revelation next February. Good stuff!

The plan with Fictoplasm is to do around 12 full episodes and then take a break. In addition to Liz and Becky, I’ve had contributions from Mo Holkar and Josh Fox.

But, setting a full episode up is a scheduling challenge because it requires at least two people who have both read the book and have game ideas to be available at the same time. So we’re going to be doing something a bit different in the near future and see how that works out. Fictoplasm “The Pitch” will basically just be short pitches of books one of us has read and thinks that (a) it’s worth recommending to others and (b) it has legs, gaming-wise. We’ll string them together or maybe even just release very short episodes. We’ll see.

I’m thinking of opening The Pitch out to other contributors — and the great thing is, you don’t need to fix a time for the recording, just record what you have any time and send it over at your convenience. If you think you might be interested, drop me a line.

Black Mantle

bastard

The game is steadily taking shape. I’ve sketched out twelve Citizen playbooks, the outline for the playtest document and had some ideas for the mecha side.

This is the pitch for Black Mantle, by the way. It’s a hybrid OSR and Drama-type game — in the explorations outside the City it’s all OSR style (which doesn’t really mean anything except it’s like a traditional adventure RPG), but when you get back to the City it’s all about reaffirming your relationships and making new ones, as well as recovering physically and psychologically.

I ran the first game at Concrete Cow this year — it seemed to be well received, even though I know it was very rough around the edges. It gave me a lot of ideas about what the players were expecting from this kind of game. So, progress.

Deep Season

alas-vegas

I have mad love for James Wallis’ Fugue system even though I don’t think the CC document tells all the story — which is why I wrote some hacking notes.

Deep Season is a Fugue content set that should obey all of the system constraints of the original — amnesia, a rotating Dealer role with isolated knowledge of each Act, etc.

Alas Vegas is described as

Ocean’s Eleven directed by David Lynch. Fear And Loathing in Las Vegas by way of Dante’sInferno. The Hangover meets The Prisoner.

Deep Season’s influences are a little more… British. Mainly it’s children’s 6-part serials from the late 70s to early 90s like Children of the Stones, The Moondial or Century Falls, plus the Doctor Who of the 3rd Doctor (and anything else set in an isolated rural setting). Other influences are Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising, The Prisoner, The Wicker Man, Christopher Priest’s Dream Archipelago and the landscape around Dungeness in Kent including the Denge sound mirrors.

denge-sound-mirrors

The setting is a small coastal farming town, a little like Avebury but with a shoreline to the west and sound mirrors in the place of standing stones.

For inspiration I used the Thoth tarot to brainstorm the plot of each act. I designed a custom 12-card spread:

img_4710

On the left there’s a three card hierarchy of key personalities — a subordinate at the bottom, a deity or higher consciousness at the top, and a political mover in the middle. Next, the four cards at compass points are the significators of the four factions during that Act; and finally on the right there are five cards that indicate the arc of the Act.

It’s worked surprisingly well — and the Thoth tarot has been a lot more effective than others (e.g. the tarot of Marseilles). Maybe Thoth is fine for me imagining other people’s futures, just not suitable for my own. I wonder what that means.

Anyway, I want to run Deep Season this year before Christmas, but I can’t guarantee the first draft will be done by then — we’ll see.

City Hierarchies

Some history: in late 2012 I had the idea for the City Accelerator, wrote down a few blog posts and then wondered how to turn it into a generic RPG tool. That tool is now getting used after a fashion in Black Mantle, but on its own it’s only really worth a couple of blog posts — which is what I’ve decided to do here.

A few months ago I wrote this minigame for exploring the high-level details of the City — putting it in the context of the country and surroundings, deciding on what the barrier(s) between the Outside and Inside look like, etc.

I’m considering the City in the most abstract, setting-agnostic sense — it’s an area defined by Outside and Inside, with an interior set of features and an interior population. And this next part covers the City’s hierarchy — the people and the factions.

The Three Tiers

There are three tiers to the City’s hierarchy:

  • the Upper Tier, occupied by the King and Queen; the ruler, law-maker, head of state, dictator or autarch
  • the Middle Tier is for Bishops and Rooks; these individuals lead bodies of people — corporations, pressure groups, unions, economic and political interests. They are accountable to the Upper Tier.
  • the Lower Tier is for Pawns and Knights. These are individuals with no direct authority, accountable to the Middle Tier

The Exchange

The Pieces are positions, not Citizens. Individuals can transition between the roles in any direction — laterally, upwards or downwards. The normal progression is upwards, tier by tier — so an ambitious Knight in turn becomes a Bishop and ultimately Queen or King. But sudden transitions are just as possible — a Pawn is elevated to the King position, a Queen falls to the position of Knight, and so on.

Pieces

The King

The King is an Upper Tier piece. It represents the overall vision of the City, the ideals and principles on which it operates, and even the connection between the City and higher powers. The King could be an actual person (a regent, a philosopher, a prophet, a god-king) or could be a set of principles (laws or history handed down, a connection with the past or with principles) or some thinking but inhuman force (a vast computer, a captive god, a source of magic).

On its own the King is powerless; it’s a figurehead that others look to for direction. It needs the other components beneath it to take any action. If the King is ever deposed (the Regent is replaced by a republic; the Computer is smashed by luddites; the Sacred Scrolls are burned in a revolution) then the whole tone and principle of the City will change to suit the new King. This may be reflected by thematic changes in the Heart of the City.

The Queen

The Queen is an Upper Tier piece representing the authority of, and acting on decisions of the King. It will never be abstract, always a person or group of people (a Prime Minister, a Vizir, a Council acting on certain principles of law, etc.) but it could be obviously separate from the other citizens — an elite priesthood, a cabal of magicians, undying robots or clockwork automata, etc.

The Queen has absolute authority and power in the Heart of the City. Outside the Heart they have no direct authority, but instead need the support of their Rooks to impose city-wide order.

The Bishops

The Middle Tier Bishops are individuals who lead bodies of people — including unions, political factions, cults and religeons, and corporations. Technically the Bishops are answerable to the King, and are kept in line by (but not accountable to) the Queen.

Bishops are the primary players of the great political game. Most Bishops pursue power, with intent to grow. Some Bishops will be content to grown within the Middle Tier, and others will have their eyes on the Upper Tier, their ambitions including the Queen’s throne, or even the King — and this takes a lot of power. There are several ways power can be acquired:

  • by outright conquest of another Bishop or Rook
  • by forming alliances or otherwise securing the backing of another Bishop or Rook
  • by getting power from some external source (e.g. Outside the City)

For City design there is typically one Bishop per District — if the Bishops are forced to share then they will tend to be weaker as a result, and if a District has no Bishop then something will move to fill the vacuum.

The Rooks

Since the Queen can’t exercise direct power outside the Heart, it needs proxies to carry out its will throughout the City’s districts. This is where the other Middle Tier pieces — the Rooks — come in. Functionally these are similar to Bishops in that they represent bodies of people — in this case police forces, a standing army, or other peacekeeping body. They’re not necessarily so overt, though — they could also be a secret police force, or even enforcers for organised crime.

In exchange for enforcing the Queen’s directives on their District each Rook enjoys some privileges (like the power to imprison or impose fines, immunities, etc.). These privileges mean each Rook is functionally on a similar power level to the Bishops, though unlike Bishops the Rooks don’t need to look to conquest or alliances for expanding their power — if they need to defend their position (or attack a Bishop) they can sanction resources from the Heart of the City.

Note that resources granted by the Queen are ultimately traceable back to that source — so if your Rooks are a shadowy organisation or deniable asset this could make for an interesting mystery game. Rooks might pose as Bishops, Bishops pose as Rooks, etc.

For the purposes of the Lower Tiers there’s not much difference between Rooks and Bishops — both represent employers of some kind, with internal drives and interests (primarily self-preservation, and growth). And indeed, some Bishops become Rooks, and some Rooks become Bishops. The main difference is where their power comes from.

The Knights

Knights are individuals with no political territory; they may have personal holdings and affiliations to others, but they don’t represent any kind of organisation. Like Pawns, they will work for a Rook or a Bishop; unlike Pawns they’re not fixed in place, and instead free to make contracts with whomever they choose.

In the most common RPG formats the Player Characters are all Knights — free agents with personal power who make their way on their own, forming short-term alliances with Middle Tier employers.

The Pawns

Like Knights, Pawns are individuals. Unlike Knights they are fixed in place, which is both an advantage and disadvantage. They will tend to belong to a particular workforce (headed by a Rook or a Bishop) and will be slow to change their working situation. Pawns are content to be where they are, forming deep links with their community, family and culture. This is the one thing an itinerant Knight doesn’t have; nor does the Bishop or Rook, even if they otherwise represent a community.

Pawns are most interesting when you consider what might cause them to transition from their current, comfortable position to another piece. What happened in their life that they suddenly became a Knight, a Bishop or even the King? All of these should be considered a “Kicker” — the Pawn character has been suddenly outlawed, made an offer they couldn’t refuse, or changed direction of their own life because something happened to disrupt their world (a death, a loss of position, an encounter with something or someone magical or mysterious, etc.).

Mechanics

This isn’t intended to be a game — there are no mechanics here. If you were designing a game using this template — with the view to having your citizens moving up and down the greasy pole, you might consider a currency to work out

  • how much power each Bishop has in their District
  • how much power it takes to knock over another Bishop or Rook
  • how much power it takes to depose the King or Queen
  • what alliances might look like when deposing a King or Queen (who gets to be the new King?), or conquering a Bishop (how do you divide up the previous territories? Does a District get broken up and its locations absorbed into other Territories?), etc.

Afterword: City Accelerator Manefesto

This is the point of the City Accelerator:

  • In overbuilt settings like Irilian a massive amount of effort goes into designing the location, but only a fraction of the content gets used…
  • …and because it’s so vast, it’s hard for the GM to focus on details in any useful way without extra work…
  • …and it’s also hard for the players to get an holistic sense of the city, because they’re overwhelmed with details…
  • …also, Great Clomping Feet

So the idea of the City Accelerator was

  1. focus on what’s interesting
  2. leave space to grow; write what’s interesting right now, play that, and avoid distractions from unnecessary details
  3. most importantly connect the player characters to the city — not only factions, but the actual, physical places using a system of locations and districts

There are a few other philosophical points like the benefits of Messy Design and the limits of Working Memory. TL;DR the harder it is for your players to view the City conveniently, the harder it is to get across the scope, scale, culture, or actually interesting details — they all get lost.