Thursday, 17 September 2015

Beyond the Waves: Playbook Tweaks

So, the first rule of the Beyond the Waves campaign is to maximise the use of the existing materials in BtW/FA. This is a list of minor tweaks for the playbooks for re-interpreting in an Island adventures game.

Notes on Skills, etc.:

  • Suggest that most instances of Riding should be replaced with Sailing
  • Swimming may default to Athletics.

Notes on Woods:

  • There are a few references to “the woods” in the playbooks. The role of the woods is to be a mysterious place just outside civilisation where characters can explore and find interesting things. In general substitute “woods” for “another island” or “the shore” or somewhere else that fits the maritime theme better.

Notes on the Core Playbooks

  • Self-Taught Mage: this character meets “a real sorcerer” from the South. What island do they come from, and what faction do they belong to?
  • Untested Thief: the character’s mentor may be a traveller from another island who was passing through. The farm they may have cheated someone out of could be an uninhabited island.
  • Witch’s Prentice: Stick the Witch’s Hut on a separate islet, maybe connected by a rope bridge
  • Would be Knight: The class skill of Riding may be less useful. Could substitute Sailing; alternatively keep Riding skill as an archaic skill from mainland culture.
  • Young Woodsman: Less woods, more sea. Replace instances of “wilderness” with “sea”, and skills like “tanning” and “hunting” with something more appropriate to marine life. If the character patrols the roads away from the settlement, make them a sailor, or maybe even a lighthouse keeper. Rather than them finding something in the woods, stick their cache on a nearby islet that’s difficult to land on and generally unexplored (maybe the rope bridge has rotted away).

Notes on The Villagers

  • Assistant Beast-Keeper: See the Witch’s Prentice above for the location of her cottage. Also, if they witnessed something relocate that scene from the Woods to the Shore and change accordingly (e.g. change the “horned rider” to someone mysterious sailing by on a small boat)
  • Devout Acolyte: References to burial mounds, abandoned sanctuaries, etc. could take place on nearby islands. Brigands could be pirates.
  • Fae Foundling: Rather than being found near the woods under a standing stone, perhaps this character was found in a cave near the shore at low tide.
  • Local Performer: The source of the Local Performer’s stories may well be travellers from other islands.

Notes on Dwarves, Elves and Halflings:

  • These demi-humans may come from more distant island nations, or even from the Land or from the other side of the Ocean (with no way to return to their homeland).
  • Dwarves are stereotypically miners, mechanically inclined, etc. There are probably remote islands that can be mined for minerals. Their boats will probably be uncommonly strong and functional, maybe inscribed with runes.
  • Elves are stereotypically tree-dwellers. Their homelands are probably forested. Their vessels could be slender longboats, maybe woven rather than constructed.
  • Dwarven Adventurer and Rune-Caster should probably remove references to fear of water
  • Halfling Outrider’s pony will probably be limited. Consider a dingy (perhaps it’s a magical, semi-aware boat) or maybe a porpoise (no good as a mount, but it always shows up when the character is on the water).
  • Halfling Vagabond passes through a lot of places — substitute “island” for “town”

Notes on The Nobility:

  • Perhaps the court is located on a larger, central island that is a hub for island commerce.
  • If the characters are a mix of nobles and villagers they still need to start off in close proximity to one another — consider the more rural outlying areas to be either coastal (for a large island) or separate islets, linked by bridges, rope ferries, etc.
  • Future Warlord: The barbarian horde should be seafaring, obviously.
  • Gifted Dilletante: This character tends to go out hunting on their estate. Consider making them more of a sailing type. For the various things they’ve collected over the years, consider their connection to travellers passing through.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Beyond the Waves: An Introduction

This is a brief series of posts on how you might re-imagine a Beyond the Wall game in an archipelago, with the characters’ starting village on one fairly central island (or small island cluster).

I’m considering both Beyond the Wall and Further Afield for constructing this “saltbox”. Changes should be minimal — I only want to add the extra rules that I feel are needed for this kind of game. No change to the core activity. Minimal changes to playbooks (I don’t really have time to redesign a set of playbooks anyway). I have some ideas for maritime combat but rules already exist for such in LotFP and (I believe) Labyrinth Lord, so maybe just use those. Also I will import some rules from my Death Comes To Wyverley hack.

At the end I’ll probably tidy this into a pdf or something. For now, hope you like it and please comment, if you like.


The aim is to re-skin the playbooks with minimal fuss. A few basic (and obvious) things:

  • Riding skills will be devalued in favour of Sailing; that will change the Would-Be Knight among others
  • Navigation, Sailing, Swimming all become important
  • Where NPCs are mentioned in playbooks, consider sticking them on their own little island (or sandbank, spit, etc.). The Witch’s Hut lies on the Witch’s Island, right? Or maybe it crosses shallow waters on stilts.


There will be a random island tool that accounts for island features including

  • Size (how long it takes to cross)
  • Natural Features
  • Weather
  • Signs of habitation
  • Safety slider (this affects encounters both on the island and in the waters around)
  • Also consider “virtual islands” i.e. floating communities of travellers, pirates, etc. plus areas of sea that are significant.

If the whole “saltbox” is the “wilderness”, individual islands will be the “dungeon” or “adventure” (in the manner of Zelda: Windwaker).

Crossing Water

Crossing water can be done by bridge, rope ferry, small boats, large boats, by sailing or rowing, etc. Some rules for size of boats, how they can respond to storms, navigate (and go off course), and deal with damage (bail out!).

Water itself may be safe or dangerous, depending on the proximity to different islands.

Ocean, Land and Big Fish

The Ocean is the open water that no-one has been able to cross and return. It represents either a greater boundary to the whole sandbox (it’s too big for the island craft to cross; it’s full of dangerous storms and giant creatures; possibly there were once Ships of Legend that took settlers here from across the Ocean) or something at the very edge of the Archipelago, like the edge of the world itself. There could even be a world beneath the Ocean (the Hyrule of Zelda:WW, or Rebma in the Chronicles of Amber).

The Land can be a vast unbroken land mass near the Archipelago. Unlike the other features this one should be optional (no such Land appears in Earthsea). There must be a reason that the folk of the Archipelago are not part of the Land. Wild and dangerous, weird and spooky, home to a decaying Empire from whom the denizens of the Archipelago have fled generations ago, etc.

The Ocean and the Land should represent Big Ideas in the world; the Ocean could symbolise an otherworld (whose “far shores” are the Elven homeland — or so the Elven PC says) and the Land a decadent, even hellish place.

Oh, and Big Fish: what does the Leviathan symbolise? Is it a threat or symbol of hope? What myths surround it?


These are some fiction things I like that inspired this re-skin:

Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea is already an influence on Beyond the Wall. It’s a “vast archipelago of hundreds of islands surrounded by mostly uncharted ocean” (wikipedia).

Christopher Priest’s Dream Archipelago and The Islanders are collections of short stories set in the titular Dream Archipelago (also featured in his novel The Affirmation). Although it’s not fantasy, it does give a strong sense of the variety of different cultures that run through the islands, and at the same time the common threads that bind the islanders together.

The Legend of Zelda: The Windwaker on the Nintendo Gamecube (and later remastered in HD for the Wii U). Probably my favourite in the series, and for a 10 year old game it manages to not look dated thanks to the cel-shaded style. It involves travelling to different islands and doing the usual Zelda quests for the Triforce. Also Zelda is generally a nice example of how to re-skin the established tropes (dungeons, creatures, antagonists, format) to fit the premise.

Sinbad was a TV series on Sky in the UK; it lasted one season. Pretty rubbish acting and plotting but I quite liked the atmosphere, and the idea that Sinbad could only set foot on each island for one day and then had to return to sea was a nice premise. Filmed in Malta.

Worlds Apart is a reimagining of classic Traveller for islands instead of stellar maps.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Hand To Hand With The Blue Bastard

I planned a creative update a couple of weeks ago after finishing the Death Comes To Wyverley playbooks, but Nine Worlds got in the way (and jolly good it was too). This is what I said I was working on back in November:

  • Death Comes To Wyverley (for Beyond the Wall)
  • Transuranic World (Sapphire and Steel, powered by the Apocalypse)
  • Our City”, a game about… cities. With an uninspiring title.

So these are the updates.

Death Comes To Wyverley

Is a thing. Not done, but a functional thing, functional enough for me to use and maybe for other people too. I will use it, maybe after cementing some of the rules tweaks. There may be a version 0.2 release (around the time I run it next), but not for a bit.

Transuranic World

I play tested this a couple of times, it went OK, but I’m not quite feeling it. For three reasons:

  1. I liked Apocalypse World to play, less so to ref. My AW campaign has picked up in the last few sessions and the mechanics have started to shine for me, but still… it’s unfamiliar territory.
  2. I’ve realised how much effort it’s going to take to turn this into a decent game (something I suspected from reading on the hacking process). Not sure I love it enough to do that much work, but definitely not going to do it half-arsed.
  3. Also there’s the doing an AW hack for the sake of it.

I’m putting this on the regret list, which means indefinite hiatus. But, you never know.

“Our City”

Yeah, I hate that title, but the problem was I could never think of a better one. And the reason for that is this game has always been a set of mechanical principles, but the actual game in all of it has been elusive.

The good news is, I now have a functional game premise and core activity for the PCs to actually do. The working title is Black Mantle and I’ll be playtesting in the Autumn. It’s a dystopian future city, with mecha. Sort of like The Hunger Games meets Knights of Sidonia.

The funny thing about this one is for the longest time I vacillated about what system to use for the character parts (that the city part plugs into). I went around in circles for a bit, going between variants of WaRP (which are still viable for another project) through my own version of Everway, before finally settling on the d20 OGL for a portion of the system. Not something I would have expected a couple of years ago, but working on DCtW involved coming up with a few system tweaks that just seem to work very well and evoke the right level of survivability, so that’s a good basis.

And that’s the adventure portion. Last year I went on at length about heroic cycles and mono-myths and how they relate to Beyond the Wall — and while that was probably more interesting to me than anyone else the principle remains the same: outside and inside the village are two different environments, and should be two different roleplaying experiences. So the external stuff will basically be OSR mecha as werewolves, nothing heavy or too crunchy — I’d like GMs to be able to plunder their monster manual and apply a genre-appropriate reskinning. And the internal stuff will be… something else. And the two have to fit together, which is the design challenge.

Other Things

These are the projects I have sort of on the back burners for when I feel like a break or when I’m travelling on business and need something to do in the evenings.

  • [We Are] is a game about werewolves/mutants/supers, using WaRP with a few tweaks here and there. Half finished. I’m really pleased I found my copy of Darker Than You Think, because I thought I’d sent it to Oxfam.
  • The Last Days Of Dorian Aquila is a GMless storygame, which (after I described it to my partner) is sort of like a cross between Fiasco and Alienor, apparently. It’s about a gender-neutral scoundrel who is about to fight a duel to the death, and the people they make peace with as they put their affairs in order.
  • Lag is a storygame about travellers in a sterile and impersonal luxury hotel in the wrong time zone. Local encounters and calls home will be strained by the difference in personal time zone; so as the characters become acclimatised to their surroundings they should become estranged from their contacts at home.

No idea when I’ll finish these. Black Mantle is the game I want to work on right now, because it’s the game I want to run right now. There may be updates. TTFN.


Monday, 3 August 2015

Death Comes To Wyverley v0.1

OK, here is version 0.1 of the Death Comes To Wyverley playset for Beyond the Wall. It collects all of the essays on this blog and some other stuff, ten playbooks, some waffle on how to run and some rules, some tested and some not.

It’s not finished finished — it never will be. There may be scenario packs, rules refinements and other stuff to better explain exactly what you’re supposed to do with this. But I need to call this a milestone and then get away from it for a bit.

For now, if you don’t know Garth Nix then (you should and) this is the pitch:

It’s like Malory Towers and Buffy and Harry Potter and 1920s Call of Cthulhu. Characters are sixth-formers in Wyverley College for Young Ladies Of Distinction, about to strike off into adulthood. The surroundings are northern Ancelstierre, close to the Wall and the border with the magical Old Kingdom, where the Army try to stop the Dead and Free Magic things and Necromancers from crossing over and threatening the civilians.

Should be fun.

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Mecha equals Werewolf

So, Beyond the Wall

with Mecha.

Years ago I ran this short campaign over a holiday (as is our wont to go on hols to play games) that started out in a village out on its own in the middle of nowhere. Colour-wise I was going for a fantasy post-apoc Laputa/Nausicaa (Studio Ghibli) vibe.

To the East there was a very distant Empire, and to the West there was the scary forbidden lands ™ where once there had been the ancient race ™ that no-one really believed in or had seen for centuries, and in between there was farmland as far as the eye could see with only a few of the ancients’ ruined buildings here and there. The farmers used the ancient monuments as winter shelter for their sheep. It was pretty much the setup of Beyond the Wall and the party did much the same things and were much the same ages as BtW‘s protagonists — get hooked into exploring forbidden and dangerous places, mapping out the area, growing in physical and magical ability. And also, piloting mecha for the Imperial army.


Tuning BtW to that campaign would need a minor tweak (rebadging magic as psionics) and a major one, some mecha rules. These are those. So, some basics:

One: mecha equals werewolf

Mecha look like machines, and most games handle them like machines. But really they’re a lot more like werewolves. More often than not they’re a kind of living extension of the pilot, having the pilot’s agility and senses. So what mecha really do is elevate and transform the pilots physically (and maybe spiritually, too). Mecha bring their pilots closer to god, and take them further from humanity.

More superficially, the precocious teen is the mainstay of the mecha pilot archetype (sometimes, the only viable pilot). They’re a character with hardly any life experience thrust into dangerous and stressful situations (often by adults who aren’t giving them one percent of the truth). Sometimes they don’t even know their own limits, or the capabilities of their mecha. The hormonal coming-of-age werewolf analogy works.

And since we’re talking about the pilots, let’s consider two other archetypes that are important. The first is the best friend: someone who will never pilot a mecha of their own, someone who represents the “common people” the mecha pilot is fighting for and yet becoming more and more distanced from as they do terrible things and ascend closer to godhood. The best friend grounds the pilot, teaches them humility, etcetera.


The other archetype is the priest commander. They send the pilots on their missions and expect them to do terrible things. But also they understand things about the mecha and the external threat that the best friend cannot. They’re a separate priest caste, distinct from the “common people”, guiding the pilot through a physical and spiritual transformation… erm…


…warm in here?

Two: mecha are all about scale

A mecha that isn’t opposed by something equally big but instead just stamps on inferior forces isn’t really a mecha, it’s just some wanker in a robot suit.


Mecha solve a problem of scale. The invading force is physically dominant, bigger and more powerful; so the warriors transform into something of equal size to take them on.

And that’s pretty much it. Size varies from slightly larger than human (Ellen Ripley in her exoskeleton, Appleseed’s Landmates) to skyscrapers and beyond (Evangelion) but in each case, the protagonist answers a threat of similar size. But also because the fight is on a different scale it separates the arena from the human scale (how much depends on relative size).

Of the two mecha games I’ve owned Mekton does the scaling thing pretty well between mechs and roadstrikers. Palladium’s Robotech is generally awful, with no consistency between supplements.

Three: mecha have personality

So obviously if the mecha are extensions of the pilot, they are often owned by (or adapted to) their pilot, etc. Doesn’t always happen in the fiction or in games. Sometimes the mecha are just lined up in the garage and the pilot takes one. But Nagate Tanikaze is great at piloting the Mark 17 Garde, so the Tsugumori becomes synonymous with him as a pilot.

Four: you can’t wear the suit to breakfast

We know that fighters would wear their plate mail all the time if they could. But mecha, like werewolves, involve taking the suit off from time to time. This happens in one of two scenarios:

  • Back home, no-one walks around in their suits, and the pilots engage with the other characters (best friends, commanders, etc.) on human scale.
  • Out in the field the pilot might be separated from their armour because it’s destroyed, or they might peel their armour for diplomatic reasons, or because the suit is too large, they need dexterity, etc.

So basically, your mecha campaign will involve domestic phases and adventure phases. Domestic phases are explicitly out-of-suit, adventure phases are in-suit.

Five: a home to go to

Last, all this human vs. god scale matters because the PCs are usually defending something — a village, a colony, a superdimensional fortress, etc. Not much more to say apart from the obvious fit with Beyond the Wall.

Some Mecha Rules

First a shout out for Wrath of Zombie’s rules for the White Star game. I’m not going to use them, because they’re a bit too much mecha-as-vehicle and crunchy for me. But someone else might want to see them. I’m also not using the mecha rules in Stars Without Number, but that’s another option.

Here’s the approach for BtW. In the regular game PCs are differentiated by playbooks (for fiction) and 3 classes (for function). So

  1. The character class is the class of mech the pilot uses. Combat, scouting, specialist (magic/psionics/special technology etc.).
  2. Optionally characters are capable of the same things outside their mech as inside, it’s just the scale that changes. Magic/psionics could work via psionic lenses. Fighting scales, and a lot of physical activity is equivalent — it’s just the scale of the obstacle that changes.
  3. Monsters scale, too.
  4. Playbooks cover both the character and their mech.
  5. The game focuses even more between domestic parts (in the village, without suits) and adventure parts.
  6. May need to design a leadership structure within the “village” that directs where the characters go. Or maybe there is no such structure. See not bowing to authority.
  7. Consider the needs of a military campaign vs. a “village defense” campaign / scenario.

Concerning relative scale

In the alt main damage rules (inspired by Scarlet Heroes) damage is figured as one point per 3 points on the die.

All damage is relative: that is to say, a 3 point wound on a mecha isn’t objectively the same as a 3 point wound on a human, but it’s the same amount of inconvenience.

So, when mecha fight mecha, use exactly the same damage system.

When mecha fight something bigger or smaller, adjust the scale. There are two ways to do this. One is to just add or subtract a modifier to shift the roll up or down. The other is to change the stepping, e.g. a smaller target will take 1 point for every 2 on the dice, and a larger one will will take 1 point for every 4, etc.


The only slight issue is armour with the modified rules — because that would mean that a small target’s armour gets more effective at dropping damage. You can counter this by either having the mecha roll bigger dice, or some fiddle factor applied to armour (e.g. if the opponent’s bigger, armour is half as effective). I still need to work on armour scaling anyway, so something for part 2.

Rationalising Damage

Need to consider what damage to the mech actually means. Is the pilot damaged? I’d like to think yes. Suggestions:

  1. Treat the pilot + mech as one organism; apply damage per the alt. damage rules. Both pilot and mech can heal minor damage, but when it gets bad, a repair is needed.
  2. Healing “spells” heal/repair the mechs
  3. Consider a threshold where the damage passes through to the pilot. If the mech has armour, all wounds the mech suffers over its armour rating are actually received by the pilot (so minor scrapes don’t do anything to the pilot; but a major 5-pointer is actually a hit on the pilot as well as the mech).

Playbooks and Building Mecha

Playbooks need to incorporate the hero and their mech, and they need to provide the fictional back story.

If we’re treating mecha as a set of powers that the character puts on (instead of a machine they pilot), expressing the mecha is pretty simple:

  • enhanced attributes (for to-hit, damage, and saves)
  • armour, weapons and defence
  • knacks
  • skills
  • spells

And as far as the playbooks go, just pick some of the tables to describe the suit, and the bonuses that the suit provides. Simples.

For hacking playbooks, some of the existing ones will lend themselves more easily than others — “type A” playbooks like the Heir to a Legend may translate better, because they’re obviously going to be front-and-centre for a military style campaign. Other more passive or less sociable characters may need a bit more tweaking.

Magic and Ritual

Re-skinning magic needs some thought. Spells work as one-shot resources in the mech (maybe drawing from a battery that needs to recharge). But what about rituals?

Here’s the suggestion: they’re not something the individual character can do, they’re a strategic resource that can be deployed with time. Maybe the mage acts as some kind of artillery observer or officer.

OK, that’s all for now. I have other things going on so I don’t know when I’ll finish this off, but this was an itch I needed to scratch.


Don’t go hand to hand with the blue bastard.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Beyond The Wall: Alternative Armour

More mopping up of Beyond the Wall rules.

I’m fine with AC for monsters, it makes sense. When it comes to PCs I’d prefer to split out passive defence, and worn armour. But rolling to-hit against a static defence is nice and simple; I don’t want to muck about with active parries and dodges.

The problem with unarmoured fighters is the system doesn’t support them getting better at dodging except by bettering Dex, which anyone can do. So, here’s how I intend to do Armour and Defence.

  1. PCs don’t get AC, they get Defence (in the spelling of your choice). It works exactly like ascending AC for purposes of monsters hitting PCs.
  2. Defence starts at 10, modified by Dex and proficiency in Defensive Fighting — a proficiency that both Fighters and Rogues get (minor). So, unarmoured a Fighter gets a Defence equal to their minor Proficiency Bonus, as discussed earlier
  3. Armour actually encumbers and makes Defence worse. Armour is encumbering and gives a negative to all physical actions based on its rating — including Dex saves, climbing, swimming, etc.
  4. But training mitigates Armour encumbrance. Fighters get a minor Proficiency in wearing all kinds of armour, and their proficiency bonus mitigates against encumbrance penalties (so at 4th level they can soak 3 points of encumbrance). Rogues probably get a Proficiency in light armour only.
  5. Armour rating is just applied to the damage dice roll. Even 1 point of armour is nice to have, and 3 points is guaranteed to reduce a wound by 1.

This means that

  • Fighters get better and better at wearing armour as they level up
  • Rogues will hit the limits of their light armour options in a few levels
  • Mages can wear what they want, but it will interfere with everything they physically do (including defending themselves).

There was something else… oh yeah, shields. Until I do something more complicated just use them as always i.e. modify Defence/AC. I’ll work on that, along with armour tables, etc. TTFN.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Great Clomping Feet, part 2

Cutting Up Museums is the latest Smart Party podcast.

Creating your own setting at the table through play might be all the rage, but nothing beats a good published setting.

According to Baz and Gaz there hasn’t been a decent setting this side of the millennium (discuss); so by “setting” we presumably mean the monolithic, supplement-driven mid-90s titles — in this case Earthdawn, Shadowrun, Deadlands, and Over The Edge. Although they do pay lip-service to Apocalypse World and at least mention Shadows of Esteren. I’ll get to those later. First I’ll get my personal prejudices out of the way:

  1. Worldbuilding is the great clomping foot of nerdism. The fictional power of a setting is diminished by definition. Other people’s settings are boring.
  2. More to the point, other people’s settings are overwhelming. If you’re a fanfic type (and one of those great clomping nerds) that’s not a problem — you’ll probably welcome the crush of the canon. But being a reader of Moorcock has meant that I could never really bring myself to run Stormbringer, at least not without seriously dicking with the setting to make it my own.
  3. In order for a setting to be good, the group has to own it. And the gents do say that the very best examples of setting are ones where they engage the world but make the campaign their own — which is surely the aim of all groups using published settings, but clearly doesn’t always come off. So here’s my main point: Having the group own the setting should be a design goal.

It’s interesting that Baz (I think) mentions Apocalypse World as having a “setting”. With respect, I don’t think that’s a setting. It has a premise, it has a genre, it has a theme. But nothing approaching a good old spoon-fed 90s setting. What it does have are mechanisms for both the players to own their characters (thanks to playbooks, the decisive nature of moves, etc.) and for the GM (sorry, MC) to own the environment via Fronts and Threats.

Similarly (and I know I keep going on about it) Beyond the Wall embraces the ownership principle — IMHO even better than Apocalypse World and its children thanks to the focus on genre, the cohesive way the Village is built from the ground up, and the support for campaigns in Further Afield. Recently the question “should I run with the playbooks at a convention, or start with pre-gens?” was asked on the BtW community and the overwhelming response was playbooks, for one reason — the amount of buy-in you get from starting the players off with the playbooks is huge.

Let’s take another OSR example, Sine Nomine’s Silent Legions. Here you have a mechanism by which the GM can design and own not only the mythos, the locations and the plot hooks, but the dynamic workings of the antagonists as well. They call this a sandbox but that’s a disservice — a sandbox would be static, waiting to be discovered (like so many other hexcrawl staples of the OSR scene). This thing moves and breathes and reacts. It’s Apocalypse World’s Fronts in a more traditional (and IMHO, functional) package.

It’s not all new-school games, either. Everway is contemporary of those 90s titles but it’s a game with a premise rather than a setting — one of many reasons why it turns up over and again in later RPG theory. It’s a toolkit game that guides both players and GM through owning the game they play together.

This ownership, like much of the “good GMing” craft and knowledge that we like to waffle about (on blogs and in podcasts, natch) is always implied as a good set of principles in the 90s-era games. 50% of White Wolf’s stock in trade was essays about how to engage with players, and pretentious as that was/is it did suck some people in, myself included. Despite owning a silly number of oWoD supplements I never ran with anything other than the rulebook, and (thanks to the system being made of cheese) most of that was hand-waving anyway. But those essays were at least an attempt to get the GM to own and lead the game.

So here’s the thing that we should take away from M. John Harrison’s Great Clomping Feet. Settings need to start small, and grow. This is a principle of decent fiction, and decent campaigns. GMs who embrace a vast published campaign setting still know this; they know full well to drip, drip, drip the setting onto the party and otherwise, let the party get on with their thing and react. That’s a time-honoured method, with the GM as the gatekeeper of information, for better or worse. (Although harking back to the chaps’ podcast on problem players, be wary of the players who know the campaign world better than you.)

But even though it’s a method, there’s precious little support for GMs to start small and grow their world other than doggedly following published material. Instead these huge settings rely on the GM first digesting and then filtering the bits they don’t want the players to see just yet. To me, this is a colossal waste of time. Why not instead start from a really strong beginning, and give the GM the tools to expand where the party goes?

Growth can be outward (beyond the village, exploring new lands) or it can be inward (confining the characters to a city, and building layer and layer upon that closed environment — the next game I’m working on). But either way, since it’s a game the absolute best practice must be for the GM to grow only slightly ahead of the players. Why buy into a whole world you’ll use only 1 percent of? And why needlessly constrain yourself?

That’s it from me. The gin has helped. Thanks to Gaz and Baz for another great podcast. But also I recommend this Canon Puncture “Game Advocates” podcast that also covers Earthdawn — because as monolithic as the setting is, Earthdawn really is a thing of beauty. I think Baz got that right.

Beyond the Wall: Borrowing from 5e

Just mopping up some stray rules for Death comes to Wyverley in preparation for compiling the lot into one document. This one borrows a few things from D&D Fifth Edition and applies them to Beyond the Wall.

Mainstream D&D has never been my thing, but I really admire 5e’s efforts to streamline the system. The elements I’d would import into BtW are

  • Saving throws
  • One-size-fits-all proficiency bonus

Before I get into this, I’ll just say I don’t own the final 5e product so I may well have missed some nuances of how 5e does it — so if anyone reading this would like to set me straight, I’d appreciate it. Now, onward.


There are alt. rules in BtW to simplify saves D&D3e-style saves. One table for all classes, with Rogues getting better Reflex saves, Fighters getting the advantage with Fortitude and Mages with Will saves.

5e simplifies saves by tying to attributes (both in name and value). That’s good for players without much background in D&D (i.e. most of the people I play with) who would reasonably ask why a Fortitude save isn’t the same thing as a CON check.

(The downside is this takes away some of the evocative weirdness of having dedicated saves against Breath Weapon, Polymorph, etc. — but I’d make the change for simplicity)

For BtW it’s pretty straightforward to give each class advantage in two out of the six rather than one out of the three to emulate 5e’s “saving throw proficiencies” e.g.

  • Fighters get Strength and Constitution
  • Rogues get Dexterity and Charisma
  • Mages get Intelligence and Wisdom

But actually, just mix and match two attributes that make sense for your given playbook (e.g. Novice Templar gets Strength and Wisdom). This should make figuring saving throws for new cross-class playbooks (e.g. demihumans) simpler too — no need to audit the save lists.

I don’t know the official canon regarding what attribute saves as what, but this is my list:

  • Strength: being pushed, restrained, paralysed, bound or denied entry
  • Constitution: poison, hunger and thirst, exhaustion, sickness and death
  • Dexterity: anything that can be dodged, ducked, or leapt away from; alternatively anything that can be snatched, grabbed.
  • Intelligence: resists illusions, trickery and concealment, noticing details
  • Wisdom: magical domination, enchantment, or shapechanging. Represents personal confidence, objectivity, etc.
  • Charisma: maintaining a lie, maintaining (or justifying) alignment, a convincing argument, avoiding social embarassment etc. Ego, force of personality, outward confidence.

To make this work in BtW there’s no need to import the Proficiency Bonus mechanics — you could just use the “Good Save/Poor Save” table in the optional rules. In which case just use the target number in that table, modified by the attribute bonus.

Proficiency by Level

In 5e the same bonus applies for all classes at a given level. What matters is whether you’ve got the proficiency or not. The number varies from +2 to +6 with ascending levels. That would fit nicely with the 10 levels in BtW with a +1 jump every odd level. In terms of BtW the “proficiency” could be

  • saves
  • skills
  • class abilities like casting magic, or even combat

In principle I like this approach — it means players will actively negotiate to get the bonus, and maybe reduces any confusion of which skills apply to which attribute (the answer is “all of them”, i.e. the GM calls the attribute, the player negotiates for the bonus).

There’s a risk of devaluing Rogue characters though. In BtW they get middling combat ability, some nice saves, skills, and Fortune points. But we’ve already simplified saves; now if you say any to-hit bonus is contingent on proficiency, either (a) the Rogue doesn’t have it, and cannot be a useful second-line fighter, or (b) they do have some weapon proficiency, in which case they may devalue the Fighter.

Not that I’m particularly bothered about balancing out the characters (I also have no problem with a game where only fighters get better at fighting i.e. the way LotFP does it). But it does highlight an important difference in expectations between 5e and OSR:

  1. 5e is a point-buy system that assumes players will min-max to get favourable stats for their core activity (e.g. decent Str effectively doubles the Fighter’s attack bonus).
  2. BtW however is random — there’s a good chance you’ll end up with a perfectly average “prime attribute”, e.g. it’s possible to run through the Village Hero playbook and completely dodge all the STR advances (and that’s not a bug, it’s a feature).

(For the record I don’t think the solution is to tweak BtW’s playbooks to provide more advances in “prime attributes”. That would spoil a lot of what is great about the playbooks, producing unexpected features in the characters.)

Anyway, maybe to soften this polarising “all or nothing” approach that the single proficiency bonus will cause, all you need is two bonuses — a major one and a minor one:

Level Major Minor
1 +2 +1
2 +3 +2
3 +4 +2
4 +5 +3
5 +6 +3
6 +7 +4
7 +8 +4
8 +9 +5
9 +10 +5
10 +11 +6

So then all you need to do is decide which skills/talents/class abilities etc. are Major and which are Minor. Suggestions:

  • Combat: major for Fighters and minor for Rogues, nothing for Mages
  • Spells: Mages are Major
  • Skills: everyone starts out as Minor. “Doubling up” on your skill promotes it to Major. Optionally, Rogues start with one of their four skills as Major.

A fighter’s Knacks are separate; however Weapon Specialisation could be required for using unusual weapons (e.g. the way WFRP did specialist weapons vs. common weapons). Or you could limit the Rogue to only using a subset of weapons with their bonus.

Level Caps and Level Drain

Some comments on levels. First, I never got into the zero-to-hero kind of game where we’d play long enough to grow a character from 1st to very high level. A level range of 1-5 is enough for me (and Level 5 was god-like proficiency for the LARP we played years ago, and it was more than enough granularity). So the concept of “level cap” is not something I ever needed to address, and in the table above by 5th level the major and minor bonuses will make the PCs pretty pokey.

Second, I quite like the concept of level drain, and simplifying the per-level bonus makes that easier to book-keep (though still a bit complicated with specific gains at higher levels). Nb. in the alternative healing rules HP are figured as (class base + Con bonus + level), so also easy to figure out.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Black Marks Of Shame


Mmm, gaming holiday. I played three fun games:

  • Grand Exhibition was an alt-Cthulhu game (that is, SAN loss and horror but not the mythos) around displaying an artist’s mind-bending work all in one place, with hilarious consequences.
  • Keeper’s Cottage was about running a B&B in a weird village at the junction between the human and fairy worlds.
  • Relics Of The Past was about running around Paris being a sociopathic were-cat.


The game I wish I’d played but didn’t was another run through Liz’ Rise and Fall, this time with a fat-shaming dystopia involving doughnut quotas, cupboard inspections, and the first public eating of chocolate on TV for a decade.

Less fun was being laid out with the ‘flu for a day, which severely got in the way of drinking:


For the Gimlet just take the juice of a lime, 2 measures of a nice gin (I use Blackwood’s), a measure of 50% sugar syrup, a few drops of Fee’s Orange Bitters, shake with ice and strain.

French 75

For the French 75, juice a lemon and add a measure of gin and one of sugar syrup, stir a bit, then add lots of ice to a tall glass, top up with fizzy wine (cheap Cava in this case), add a cherry, lemon slice and straws.

(there are lots of different ways to serve this one but the over-ice method comes from my classic cocktails book. It’s like a poncy Tom Collins)


Anyway, games.

Transuranic World


This was the first game I ran, and it went OK but clearly needs work — so it was good to playtest before the next outing which will be at 7 Hills. The premise is Sapphire and Steel, Powered by the Apocalypse. So far I haven’t looked beyond one-shot games, but creating a longer term Front for play that links Agents and The Enemy over different missions shouldn’t be too difficult, and PbtA’s concepts of Clocks and Threats are just what I needed.

I think the players thought the Human would be boring. Certainly if you were offered the chance to play either the supernatural Steel or Sapphire, or one of the many humans that end up as collateral damage, it’s an obvious choice. However when we came to play I was pleased that the human had plenty to do, although I should have made more of her Local Knowledge / Historical Context powers.

The PvP aspects of the moves weren’t really explored because that mode of play wasn’t really familiar to the players (none of whom had played PbtA games). But also the game had a strong mission focus that meant inter-party fighting wasn’t part of the fiction.

As you’d expect from an investigation game a lot of the first moves would be observation in order to divine where the next clue was. In keeping with canon the Sapphire PC had plenty to do, and spent most of his time reading the situation and opening his mind. The Silver (Engineer) and Steel (Director) PCs had less to do by comparison, although both had fairly strong abilities. I was also a bit surprised at how much fighting went on in the end stages — so clearly this is another place some playbooks can be expanded and reinforced, which is good.

A few powers didn’t work, like Sacrifice (because the exchange rate of Harm for Help was not good). Also while Hx should have come into things with Steel ordering the other characters around and helping them or being helped by them, the actual Hx values I assigned were too low to be helpful. I think I mistook Hx for being liked. That’s another fix.

The most gratifying part: the players said it was true to the genre in their eyes, which is what matters above all. I think apart from the minor issues of some moves not making sense I’m not in too bad shape for the next run through.

Death Comes To Wyverley


I ran my modified version of Beyond the Wall on the last day. Much more within my comfort zone than Transuranic World. Nevertheless the game was still a playtest, as in I wasn’t just running a one-shot but a reusable game pack. Any mechanical changes I’d made needed to be solid.

The first problem was time; despite planning the playbooks last year I’d still only half-finished them (excuses, excuses; lots of foreign travel and stress). The common tables for nearly all the playbooks are done and got used, but the others are still in progress.

Since I didn’t have time to present them in the state I wanted, I improvised a bit of storygame-type character generation which I now submit as an alternative and systemless approach. It goes like this:

  1. Your playbook concept has four key questions to ask about your character.
  2. Ask each question in turn by going around the group and asking the other players for an answer.
  3. The player then picks the answer they like the most.
  4. GM fills in the stat upgrades, skills and powers that you’d normally get from the playbook (while the players break for lunch).

It took a bit longer than the standard method and there was afterwork required by the GM, but it worked really well. The links to the playbooks overview and common tables are provided at the bottom.

Other things I worked into the game:

  • Relationships worked well, coming directly from the common tables at character gen (see link below). I don’t think they need any mechanical weight, just a line item on the character sheet.
  • Modified damage rules worked very well. The idea was to limit the rate of hit-point loss so the players wouldn’t turn around for home at the first hint of damage; but it was all illusiory, and just made the PCs take more risks and go closer to 0 HP. In the end everyone survived but two PCs were right at the edge of Death. No rolls fudged.
  • Speaking of Death, three characters ended up in the First Precinct thanks to misuse of the Abhorsen’s bells and one PC being actually properly dead (but they got better). The rules for sliding towards the Gates worked, and will need minimal tweaking.
  • They used the Abhorsen’s Bells a lot. Here I tweaked the Ritual rules and made the game level-less, so the Abhorsen-in-waiting did end up ringing Saraneth, but the stakes were still there. She was lucky that she never ended up a slave to Saraneth’s will, although she screwed up Kibeth and threw half the party into Death at one point.

The main problem I had was the constant switching between roll-over (to hit and saving throws) and roll-under (stat checks for skill rolls, etc.). It’s something I’ve always had a problem with in Beyond the Wall and I’m not sure how to fix other than by the group just getting familiar with it.

The next change I intend to make is with the damage system, using Armour as a damage reduction mechanism — reducing the roll on the dice before damage is calculated. Even 1 point of armour will have a 1 in 3 chance of reducing the damage taken.

That deviates further from the standard D&D AC model, but that’s a trivial fix. Just create a Dodge attribute that rises with the levels in line with wearing better and better armour, and use that value in place of AC when a monster rolls to-hit. All you’ve done is change a class attribute from being externally regulated (by class permission and money) to internally (by level).

The other change I’m considering is to the character’s levels, possibly to remove them entirely. However as clunky as levels appear actually I think they work really well. Superimposed over the college system they could work in-fiction, too.

Useful links for the game so far (links to pdf docs):

Thursday, 19 March 2015

The Nixian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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