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

Here is a collaborative World-Building mini-game thing I’m contributing to the #3nano16 hashtag. Suitable for one GM, a traditional gaming group of GM and players (writing assumes this arrangement), or as a GMless collaborative exercise.

You will need writing materials — I recommend index cards, and a large sheet of paper. I recommend a different colour card or ink for the nominal GM’s answers.

One: Survey Points

There are four Survey Points in the city:

  • Outside the City
  • The Boundary between Outside and Inside
  • The Inside (contains Districts and Locations)
  • The Heart at the (physical or spiritual) centre of the city

Get your big sheet of paper and draw this:

City Building

When you generate your index cards, put them in stacks in different parts of the city.

Two: The Outside

GM, answer these questions:

  • What does everyone think is Outside the City’s Boundary? e.g. other cities (allied or enemies), low-tech settlements, radioactive waste, a sworn enemy, predatory creatures, farmland, storms
  • What can you see from the Boundary looking Outside? e.g. miles of farmland, swamp, impenetrable fog, other cities in the distance, a starlit icy plain, a void. This assumes it’s permitted to look at the Outside from the Boundary.

Write these on index cards (of chosen GM colour) and put them Outside the city.

Three: View from the Outside

Each player, answer this question:

  • What feature of the City would an arriving traveller see from the Outside when looking upon the City? e.g. a large wall or gate, a jagged skyline, a large harbour, zeppelin moorings, parabolic reflectors on the top of buildings, guard towers with flower-shaped cannon facing outward or inward, crumbling walls almost overwhelmed by jungle vines

Go around the table more than once, if you like. Write these on index cards and put them Outside the city.

Four: the Boundary

GM, answer these questions:

  • What does the Boundary look like? e.g. a high wall, an area of no man’s land, a gate, outlying suburbs, shanty towns, abandoned buildings
  • Who is allowed to cross the Boundary? e.g. anyone with papers, a government sanctioned expedition force, a secret fraternity, no-one

Write these on index cards and put them at the Boundary.

Five: Interior Views

Take the cards each player generated in the View from the Outside, and pass them around. For each card, look at the detail and answer this question:

  • From this point in the City, what does my view look like? e.g. are you high up? Is the area industrial, commercial, military, political?

Write them on new index cards, and put them inside the city.

Six: Interior Details

Each player, answer this question:

  • What else can you see from the Boundary looking Inside? e.g. tall buildings, low buildings, horse-drawn carriages, gargoyles, manufacturing industry, food industry, art, police or military presence, propaganda, commerce, transport

Go around the table one to three times. Build on what has been previously revealed. Write them on new index cards, and put them inside the city.

Seven: the Heart

GM, answer these questions:

  • Who rules the City? e.g. a monarch, an autarch, a government, a council, a hidden force
  • What is the central feature that represents their strength? e.g. a tower, a church, a city hall, a palace, a fane

Write these on index cards, and put them in the Heart.

Eight: Balance

Players, each answer these questions:

  • What previous feature you uncovered is reflected in the Heart of the City? e.g. military, propaganda, transport, trade
  • What previous feature you uncovered is different or inverted in the Heart of the City? e.g. wealth, fashion, art, colours, size of buildings

Write these on new index cards, and put them in the Heart.

Nine: Next

Admire what you have done, and plan your game in your new City, or go and play something else, or have some gin.

Bibliography

Some “City Fiction”

  • Rats and Gargoyles by Mary Gentle
  • The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke
  • Inverted World by Christopher Priest
  • Embassytown and The City and the City, both by China Mieville

Some nonfiction

  • The City Shaped and The City Assembled by Spiro Kostof
  • City by P. D. Smith

I’ve been going through a crisis with my game. The various procedures for city building and play are coming along nicely, but the thing I’ve been lacking is what happens at the individual level. You know, on the character sheet.

I’d convinced myself this would have an entirely new system. In some ways that’s a bit absurd: I’m influenced by certain kinds of games, and those influences are going to shape any kind of game system I design. Whatever I make up it won’t be from whole cloth; in fact I want it to closely resemble the games I like running today.

So, over the last month I’ve been going back and forth between different designs, trying to conceive the perfect, minimalist system as a base for the procedures of play, and beating myself up a bit in the process.

The first lightbulb moment came listening to fine folks on the UKRoleplayers board talking about their designs, and false dawns in their creative process. Now, I was nowhere near the dawn with this particular problem, but what it did remind me is that plenty of creative people will look at something they’ve done, and they will find fault with it, and that’s OK. Something in my gut was not satisfied with my base system. So I listened to it, and I felt better about saying “no, that’s not going to work.”

After that hurdle the second lightbulb came pretty quickly, and that was if you’re not going to design something yourself, why not look around and see what’s free? So I looked into open gaming.

FATE, fascinating system that it is, is not right for what I want to achieve. Neither is an Apocalypse World hack. Anything resembling BRP (such as the rather good Renaissance) is too fiddly, and Traveller is too stark. And d20? Not for me, thanks.

What I really want is a game where traits are painted with a very broad brush, with minimal moving parts. Something like Everway, except Everway isn’t open. But there’s another minimalist system by Jonathan Tweet (with Robin Laws): WaRP.

It’s Just A Jump To The Left

And that’s my third lightbulb moment. I knew full well that the system had been released under OGL following OTE’s 20th anniversary, but for some reason it took a while to sink in that I could use it for my own game.

I suppose it’s a peculiar choice in this day and age. WaRP’s three broad traits with a fourth fault satisfy my numerological tendencies, but they’re not exactly descriptors like FATE’s aspects, they don’t have the granularity of OpenQuest, or the familiarity of the OSR, or direct agency of AW’s moves. They’re kind of a throwback to 90’s minimalist gaming; exactly the kind of play I like the most, but not what you could call popular.

We shall see whether it works. These are the reasons I really like WaRP:

First, there’s the three traits. The central trait is basically a career trait, not dissimilar to Barbarians of Lemuria’s non-combat careers. The two side traits are slightly narrower descriptions of actual competencies (like driving, engineering, fighting).

The kind and number of dice are just right: good old D6, with small numbers in the pool so every roll doesn’t become a tiresome hunt-and-peck for numbers. The WaRP SRD gives various options for interesting results such as the effect of 6s (exploding or otherwise).

Fringe Powers (magic) are freeform, and limited use per session. Not per day, per session. That’s a smart mechanic that encourages continual use of Fringe Powers, but not so much that they dominate the game.

I also like the experience system: it’s measured in dice, as in real d6 that can be used to augment rolls, again per-session. However you also spend those dice to improve, leading to a choice: keep a large Experience Pool to help you out of sticky situations more often, or spend it to improve your core abilities?

Some features will need clarification, or expansion, but on the whole I feel very comfortable about using WaRP, modified or straight. It’s also something of a relief to have made a decision to use this system, at least in the interim. Now I can focus on other things.

Cross-posted to the UKRPDC.

One thing that has driven my PC upgrades — the Thief series. Of course, Deadly Shadows was released in 2004 which means my most up-to-date PC is a single-core clunker that runs on steam and Pedigree Chum.

TDP

For the past five years I’ve been putting off buying a new console until I heard news of the fourth instalment, which is a difficult thing to imagine. The third game closed the narrative loop very elegantly, and the three titles focused on the three factions of Pagans (Dark Project), Hammers (Metal Age), and Keepers (Deadly Shadows).

So, there’s not really a fourth faction. Knowing that and the amount of time since DS,  it should be no surprise that Eidos Montreal are rebooting the franchise — the refuge of an artist devoid of ideas or any connection to the original source material.

Seriously, I do not believe this reboot will be worthy of the Thief legacy. For one it looks like Garrett is multi-classing into an assassin which ignores the basic premise of the original TDP: you’re not a soldier, not a superman, and if the guards catch you they have a good chance of doing you in. But OK, I can live with that.

Second issue: Stephen Russell will not be voicing Garrett. Obviously there will be fan outrage, and justly so; but this is a reboot, not a straight-to-DVD fourth sequel. Huge shame, but that’s not the worst.

The big head-scratcher is the decision to abandon the Pagan/Hammer mythology in favour of “aristocrats vs rebels”. One of the most compelling parts of the series, the thing that contributed to the fantasy atmosphere the most was the concept of the Pagan wild outside the city against the Church-sanctioned industrialisation inside. Perhaps there will be more depth to the regime in the reboot, but at the moment it sounds like “just” another corrupt city state, a tiresome clone of various other assassination-themed franchises with a bit more personal larceny this time around.

The mythology and atmospheric elements were a big influence on a couple of my RPGs (City and Square, my current work in progress being influenced by the notions of inside/outside), so the abandoning of all that was good in the original franchise is a bit of a disappointment; on the other hand the series was past its peak with the third game (mainly for the unnecessary simplification of the city map) so it was time. I can hold the reboot at arm’s length, like the recent Total Recall.

I wonder if Eric Brosius will have anything to do with the soundtrack. I’d buy that. Just not the game.

Probably not.

Simon Burley’s article on USP touched on a subject I’m also concerned about. Who am I selling my game to?

My game started as a setting-free toolkit, but I’m told that toolkits are hard to market. Since I’m a consumer of games I can do some handy market research on my bookshelf (or hard drive). I reckon I’ve identified five marketing levers:

  1. Genre
  2. Setting
  3. Tools
  4. Procedures
  5. Experimental

1. Genre first

Genre tempts the player with promises of faithfully emulating their favourite milieu, while giving enough flexibility to make the world their own. Examples:

  • Wild Talents
  • Traveller
  • All Flesh Must Be Eaten

Genre emulating games are meant to get the GM (and play group) as far as the basic premise, but allow the group to build their own world. Wild Talents is clearly written with this in mind, with its axes of design for superheroic history. System often supports genre tropes, too (and if it’s a generic system, it may have been tweaked).

2. Setting / World-first

Unlike Genre, a Setting-first game has a world that is locked down with its own metaplot. A big part of negotiating that lockdown is deciding which bits of canon you’ll use and which you will ignore in favour of your own stuff. Examples include:

  • A|State
  • Call of Cthulhu
  • Over the Edge
  • Exalted
  • Book, Film and TV tie-ins such as Buffy, Smallville, Dresden Files, the Laundry, etc.

Unlike Genre games which promise a solid foundation, Settings promise a complete world to play in. That’s not really my bag, but a lot of games are marketed that way. The crossover is strong and most games exist on a line between genre emulation and setting.

I guess Genre and Setting are responsible for nearly all fiction purchases; either you’re interested in the book or film for its setting/character/situations, or you’re interested because it’s like something else you’re interested in.

That presents a slight problem for the next one:

3. Tools First

Some designers, myself included, can’t get past the system. System is interesting but it’s really a means to an end. Most games marketed on system are generic systems, like GURPS.

However, GURPS isn’t just a generic system; it has the support of hundreds of supplements that you can pick and choose from and blend to make your perfect genre. So it’s really an omni-genre game; it’s sold on many genres at once. Same goes for FATE and Savage Worlds; they’re stand-alone engines but they have the backing of many supplements.

Also, a lot of Tools First games are generic by design. They’ve been built for mass appeal in a variety of situations. I’m sure that some consumers will pick one game over another similar one because it’s based on Savage Worlds and within their comfort zone.

4. Procedures First

There’s a temptation to lump these in with Tools First; but really Procedures are the antithesis of generic Tools. Indie or niche market games do well with specific procedures, e.g.

  • Lacuna
  • Hollowpoint
  • Apocalypse World
  • Don’t Rest Your Head

However arguably the Riddle of Steel falls into this category too. It claims a procedural benefit over other games, i.e. emulating medieval combat.

Procedures rarely stand alone — they’re usually the bread-and-butter of specific genre emulators (e.g. character creation is an innovation of Golden Heroes/Squadron UK).

I don’t know how easy it is to sell procedures on their own. I guess Burning Wheel is an example, being chock-full of modular sub-games. I was sold on Hollowpoint for its play procedure; but even so, it’s marketed as a heist-genre game (but it’s so much more!). On the flip side I like the *World games, but the genre of Apocalypse World put me off.

5. Experiments

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p>Lacuna claims to be an experimental game. Other games have very specific “creative agendas”; sometimes clear, often veiled and only implied by system. Now is not the time to analyse such claims. Instead, let’s think about the consumer who buys such games. There is a niche in our hobby for people to learn about and enjoy new games as a creative exercise. I wonder if it’s the same itch that drives people to buy jigsaw puzzles.

The aim of this post is to discuss why people make purchasing decisions and then consider what my game needs to make it marketable. Before I wrote this, I thought of it as a Tools game, but on reflection it’s really a Procedural game. That also makes it a Genre emulator of sorts — but what genre?

I guess the answer is “city fiction”. Transmetropolitan. Sin City. Thief: the Dark Project. John Brunner. China Mieville. Armistead Maupin. I’m not sure what that means yet, but it feels like progress.

Cross Posted to the UKRP Design Collective.

Remedy this situation, restore spice production, or you will live out your life in a pain amplifier.

Spacing Guild Representative to Emperor Shaddam IV

Conflict in RPGs is king, and identifying conflict is the keystone to successful implementation. Without conflict there is no challenge and no drama.

So of course there’s conflict in a roleplaying game. All of our game subsystems are geared to managing, measuring and resolving conflicts of one kind or another. This can be detailed or simplistic depending on tastes, system familiarity and priorities, but I think it’s fair to say that combat gets a disproportionate amount of attention in most games.

Furthermore, most complex combat systems focus on the minutiae of procedural combat skills — fine in a dungeon where everything you meet attacks on sight, not so interesting for any game with a bit of negotiation or social contact (i.e. most games). All the really interesting social stuff happens before it gets to a fight is usually muddled through with a mixture of freeform roleplaying and the odd charisma check.1

Outside the actual combat procedure, conflict includes:

  • Ideology (why two sides are at war)
  • Territory (what they’re fighting over)
  • Threat and Consequence — i.e. if you cross the line, what are the consequences
  • Target prioritisation
  • Escalation, as in what happens if the above threat and consequence isn’t enough to satisfy both sides.

All of these are decisions made by the monster (I’ll use that as a generic term for potentially threatening NPC). Some of these decisions will be obvious to the GM (who has decided what their ideologies and territories are beforehand) and some will even be obvious to the players. But these are not easy decisions to make, especially on the fly — and yet we rarely have any support for such a decision making process in games. Usually the best we have are essays about “making your villains real” and “making scenes dynamic” tacked onto the end of a 300 page manual that mostly concerns itself with combat procedure, spells, equipment and setting colour. Is it any wonder that the most common decision for a monster is to attack?

One of the goals of City and Square is to telegraph this decision making process for the benefit of both players and GM. CRPG’s use Aggro, something I have discussed before. I’m still refining the procedure, but for now I want to consider three things:

  1. Attributes in the domain of the player that influence the conflict
  2. Attributes in the monster’s domain (In City and Square this is provided by the location)
  3. Escalation Counting.

The PC domain attributes that may influence the conflict could be

  • status/notoriety (people know who you are and will either acquiesce or otherwise behave favourably)
  • a disguise or some other means of blending in to avoid attention
  • a contact who can vouch for you
  • history or background with the social group
  • something to offer or sell

Situation will determine the usefulness of each, and the strategy employed by the PCs. Clearly a situation that demands a disguise is not one where notoriety can be employed. These attributes are fairly passive and will tend to affect the base response of the environment to the PC’s presence. Collectively I’ll call them Belonging.

Once in the scene, as the tension begins to mount the PCs may be required to take active steps either to stop themselves accumulating aggro, or to draw the aggro away from other team members. Collectively I’ll call them Defending.

The attributes in the Monster’s domain will include

  • the scale of the threat
  • the type of threat (which will indicate what sort of Belonging is applicable)
  • escalation decisions for when a Threshold is crossed (questions, physical violence, threats, social humiliation, etc.)

Escalation Counting relates to both the Scale of the Threat, and the Decisions the monster will make if the PCs pass a Threshold.

Let’s say you have a scale of 1 to 9, with thresholds at 3, 6 and 9. When a PC accumulates enough aggro they trigger the Threshold. Such thresholds might be defined as

  • First Threshold (3 points): questions, verbal threats
  • Second Threshold (6 points): being ejected from the location, being followed
  • Final Threshold (9 points): violence, incarceration, damage to personal status

<

p>(Possibly three levels is too much; two levels may be enough to differentiate between awkward questions being asked and actual action being taken against the party.)

PCs can accumulate aggro individually, or the players may have a single aggro counter. I prefer the former, as it creates a need for team interaction to divert attention away from members (e.g. the classic tank soaking aggro from another party member).

Additionally since aggro is a game currency and is transferrable between party members one can imagine other means of transferring — for example if one character’s cover is blown, the immediately distribute their aggro points to the rest of the party, causing trouble for everyone.

Cross-posted to the Design Collective.

——-

1. A couple of notable games for their treatment of conflict:

  • Burning Wheel scripts both social and physical combat, although the latter is more complex with all of the medieval martial stuff.
  • Dogs in the Vineyard features escalation of conflict.
  • Hollowpoint abstracts conflict to include multiple different kinds of actions from different team members in the scope of one conflict.

There doesn’t seem to be much advice — that’s discoverable advice from a few Google searches — on how to run a playtest of your shiny new RPG. As an outsider1 to this process, the prevailing attitudes seem to be

  • play it until it breaks, and
  • if you’re having fun, you’re not playtesting. Playtesting should feel like work, not fun.

The first is good advice but rather broad, and the second stems to the same school-of-hard-knocks mentality that pervades some professions — that you do not learn your job from a book, you learn from doing, being knocked back a few times, and getting stronger. And I’ve been there and done that with a lot of things, both work-wise and hobby-wise, so I’m sympathetic to this view.

Still, it doesn’t hurt to organise my thoughts — and in doing so, maybe I can avoid at least some iterative navel-gazing that arises from the “just see what works” approach. So this post is about me thinking about what I want from the game in a fairly high-level conceptual sense, and how to gauge the response of the players.

I’ve picked four (fairly obvious) axes for the performance metrics. These are

  1. Character
  2. World
  3. System
  4. Change

The axes are approximately in order of presentation — players will see character first, then world (at least, the bits they influence), then system and finally longer-term change.

To measure along these axes I’m going to ask different questions of the players, and try to get a sense of their satisfaction in the different areas. It’s not going to be easy and will probably be even harder if I try to turn those responses into measures on an objective scale. But I’m probably getting ahead of myself. Let’s just ask the questions and see what happens.

Character Questions

Is your character’s Origin (childhood, motivations, skills and experience) expressed?

Are the character’s Power Levels expressed? These include

  • Explicit powers (i.e. written down)
  • Implicit powers (i.e. inferred by writing, character, mannerism)

Is there anything which is implied about your character that should be explicit?

Is there a direct path from what the character can do as written, to what the character wants to achieve in the world?

Is the character adequately tied to the game in play?

World Questions

Do the players understand where the game is?

Do they get the Scope2 of play?

Is it clear to them what will happen if they go Outside the Boundary?2

System Questions

Do the players know what is a pass, and what is a fail?

Do they have a sense of relative ability and relative success?

Rate the system for

  • Seek time (that is how long it takes to read the dice)
  • Transparency of Results (how easy it is to translate the reading to a success or failure)
  • Malleability or Agency (how easy it is for the players to make tactical dice rolling decisions)

Change Questions

Do the players get a sense of change in the game world?

Do they feel able to affect the world and achieve change themselves? Perhaps not immediately, but could they make a change through executing a longer term plan?

———–

Cross posted to the UK RolePlayers Design Collective blog.

Footnotes

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p>1. I say “outsider” in the terms of designing something experimental, then trying to turn it into something actually functional long-term rather than just mucking about for a session and discarding it. Done plenty of the latter.

  1. The terms Scope, Boundary and Outside are specific to my game, but I guess they could apply to any game.

Scope is the field of operations for the game to be played — for example the PC are occult investigators looking into a bizarre murder, or pirates after plunder, or modern magicians fleeing an oppressive regime.

Outside is the stuff outside the game “world”, which in my case is a city. It’s the place people don’t go, or there will be consequences. The Boundary is simply the line someone would cross to go to the Outside — it may be just a line in the dirt or it could be an obstacle.