Tagged: OSR

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

OSR Demons 3: Demonbringer

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

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

Here is the character sheet as a PDF

Notes

Previous entries for “OSR Demons”:

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

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

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

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

System Uses

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

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

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

Further Notes On Demons

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

1. The Riddle of Demons

The following definitions may be useful:

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

In addition, demons are described from two perspectives:

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

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

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

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

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

Furthermore different communities, religions and cultures will

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

2. The City’s Demons

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

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

The Armaments

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

Advantages:

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

Disadvantages:

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

The Embodiments

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

Advantages:

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

Disadvantages:

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

The Appeals

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

Advantages:

  • They are often major powers

Disadvantages:

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

Karma, Drama and Fortune redux

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

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

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

Graphic:

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

The graphic assumes a couple of things:

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

Karma

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

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

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

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

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

Drama

From the Everway playing guide, p126:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fortune

The Everway playing guide, p128:

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

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

You can arrive at fortune from three ways:

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

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

Final Remarks

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

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

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

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

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

Another Roll-Under

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

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

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

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

Cost or Consequences

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

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

Difficulty

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

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

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

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

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

Skill and Expertise

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

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

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

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

What about combat?

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

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

Ladder of Costs

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

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

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

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

RPG First Look: Perdition vs. Crypts & Things

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perdition

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

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

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

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

Perdition divides up 326 pages roughly like this:

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

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

Remarks

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crypts & Things

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remarks

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

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

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

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

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

Final Words

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

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

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.

Primary Sources

At about 0:40 into Episode 70 of the Gauntlet there’s this quote concerning The Black Hack:

it seems to have taken a few things from other games… I saw a little bit of D&D 5e in there, I thought there was a touch of Torchbearer and Dungeon World in there as well…

It’s a throwaway remark and as such not really fair to second-guess the thought process behind it. At face value it suggests that TBH is maybe derivative of Dungeon World and Torchbearer; it makes more sense that all three are derivative of the same perceived root (namely the cartoon image of zero-to-hero dungeon exploration that continues to dog the OSR). Besides, what kind of masochist would write a game that’s derivative of Torchbearer?

These assumptions are made because

  1. Oral tradition and playing the game is and always will be the primary way the game is communicated
  2. The idea of only oral tradition isn’t really challenged, thanks to cultural inertia and confirmation bias.

Some hobbies are actively hostile to anyone who deviates from oral tradition. Western Martial Arts had this problem in the early years where to prove yourself you needed a credible line of succession — anyone who claimed to learn their art from a treatise alone was at best a poor cousin to those who’d paid their dues doing 3-weapon sport fencing (or if they were lucky, some living tradition like singlestick or classical foil). And no, it wasn’t enough that you’d spent two decades doing Wing Chun and used that to inform your style of 19th century boxing — if the living line from master to student was broken, you had to start over.

Anyway, here is a review of Elizabeth Lovegrove’s Rise and Fall:

This is a game that taps into the zeitgeist by exploring dystopias and fallen societies.  It’s clear that the author did their research, and have built on the excellent work of past designers including Ben Robbins (Microscope, Kingdom), and Caroline Hobbs (Downfall). The game uses rather elegant tools of world-building to present a clear story with minimal systems.

Of course I have my own bias here, but I was still a bit surprised by this bit… because I’d been aware of Liz’s design process not only for Rise and Fall but the traditional (i.e. GM-led) games that preceded it, and also her primary sources (e.g. Children of Men, The Handmaid’s Tale). All of which are literary, none are games.

In fact, when we were at the Nine Worlds con I picked up a copy of Ben Robbins’ Kingdom and waved it under her nose saying “I think this is a lot like that idea you had for your dystopian game! We should play it for research!” We still haven’t played it.

(also I believe the PDF release of Downfall was 30th November 2015 to Kickstarter backers, while Seven Wonders was launched at Dragonmeet in December 2015)

Does this matter?

It’s definitely useful to have someone enthusiastically say “like X? Try Y!”. The benefits of comparing The Black Hack to Dungeon World are both games acting as gateway experiences for two overlapping cultures.

But only focusing inward is a pernicious habit, meaning your genre expectations are set by secondary rather than primary sources. Say you only assume D&D is only about violent dungeon exploration and then you create derivative works that reinforce that stereotype. This further influences the third generation, and so on.

Not that you should be blindly worshipping at the altar of Appendix N, either. Appendix N has become shorthand for a similarly reductive kind of “D&D experience” (which I have opinions about here) and pigeonholes the whole gamut of OSR titles — when titles such as Beyond the Wall are open about their literary roots, roots which lie outside Appendix N (though interestingly lie within the broader reading list recommended by Moldvay D&D).

The assumptions of derivation rather than common literary root will continue to be a hazard of those games on the fringe. Take Silent Legions — a game which I feel represents the peak of Sine Nomine’s offerings, and is a masterful deconstruction of different kinds of horror. Even though it offers much more than Call of Cthulhu, it will always stand in CoC’s shadow — mainly for the assumption that it’s nothing more than “the OSR does Cthulhu”.

Demanding Bad Game Design

This is quality trolling:

So, as far as I can tell, the Old School Revolution is about demanding bad game design. Can anyone give me a counter-example?

Hah. Hah hah. As if the OSR is a single, homogeneous body — the “members” can’t even agree what R stands for. Note that the request for “counter examples” isn’t an invitation to challenge the premise; by inference any such examples are marginal cases.

Bad Design

Forgetting the “demands” of your strawman, what do you mean by “bad design”? When someone looks at a specific example and proclaims “this is a bad design” they can mean one of three things:

  1. Bad foundation theory (someone is designing on a basis — sociological, scientific, factual — that is wrong)
  2. Bad implementation of good theory (the basis is fine but the implementation is a mess)
  3. Bad product (actually the product is on spec, but you just don’t like or want it)

Coming from Chem Eng we have design standards. These form the basis for actual designs of chemical plants including vessel shape, flow rate, heat transfer, pressure relief, etc. so what you build will make product consistently and not blow up and hurt people.

This is a big toolkit that forms the basis of any design — and when people draw on that toolkit to make a specific thing, that’s their implementation of the standards. They can still foul up by implementing them badly, but if they don’t then the finished reactor should make what they set out to make, reliably and safely. But even when you’ve done everything right you can still fall foul of a customer who doesn’t like the thing you’re making perfectly (for reasons).

So anyway, part of the problem with saying “it’s a bad design” is it’s hard to tell whether the person saying it is talking about foundation, implementation, or personal taste. Take this (from my namesake):

You have six standard attributes so poorly defined as to what they’re supposed to represent that the very first change most subsequent fantasy RPGs did was clarify what attributes covered

Maybe the very first example of six attributes was a bad implementation; but if subsequent derivative works immediately clarified the attributes, this problem is functionally solved for all later works, i.e. the ones in use (including Dungeon World).

None of it suggests a bad foundation. Six attributes obeys my personal design standards for working memory, for example; it’s easily sub-grouped to reduce cognitive burden. And there will always be a need to interpret abstract terms — speaking of which:

You have a play culture that encourages simulations thinking and a rules structure that is so abstract there is no simulative value to it whatsoever.

Abstraction is the freedom to interpret and make cognitive leaps that connect the objects to the thing being simulated. Some rules do this interpretation explicitly, some defer the interpretation to the group and their tacit assumptions. In either case, this interpretation is all the effort needed to confer “simulative value”.

The inference is that the OD&D foundation is a poisoned well and nothing good will come of it. This is bias, and unproven.

I reckon the OSR foundation is technically functional — you have clear divisions based on class, attributes, and ancilliary properties (like armour, hit points, etc.). Clear divisions where the players can recognise each moving part without ambiguity makes for a lower overall cognitive burden, i.e. less time negotiating the system, more time roleplaying (see here).

Good Design

As expected the thread has prompted some examples of “good OSR design”. These are mine:

  • Sine Nomine’s Silent Legions does a great job of deconstructing the genre and providing a complete world building and faction management system for the GM
  • The Black Hack for usage dice
  • Beyond the Wall for the vast amount of player-facing material (playbooks, scenario packs, threat packs) and the way it incorporates rumours into the landscape in Further Afield

These are design implementations of the foundation rules framework. They each have moving parts that are designed to be interacted with.

Then there’s the other things the OSR does well, like really well designed books with economical text and high utility, high signal-to-noise, like Scenic Dunnsmouth (compare that to reams of overwritten, fluffy White Wolf supplements, or even CoC adventures).

The problem is that some people don’t value these as design goals. They are the customer who doesn’t like the finished product.

Youth and Experience

Now comes the rant.

No-one under the age of 40 gets to lecture someone whose (sic) been gaming since the mid-70s on not understanding Old School. Us old timers get lots of laughs listening to 30 somethings try to tell us what gaming was like back in the day.

I’ve been getting a fair amount of this lately. Being new parents we’ve been inundated with unsolicited advice, most of which is highly subjective and/or out of date, couched in the bias of a previous generation or two.

Then there’s the EU Referendum — and I won’t deny there are strong left-wing arguments for Britain having never been in the EU (neoliberalism, etc.) — but a lot of the Leavers are the older generation who are voting “for the younger generation” on the basis of decades-old cultural bias, and seem oblivious to the cultural and financial hurt it will cause the youngest generation who voted strongly (and with a pretty high turnout, actually) to Remain. I guess the millenials will have the last laugh when the Tories do away with our bill of Human Rights, and people over 70 will automatically be fed into the municipal biodigester as part of NHS cost-cutting.

And I’ve had my fair share of martial arts masters holding court, while their students buy the next round. When you’re young it’s hard to look at your elders and think “no, sensei, you’re wrong”.

But here’s the unpleasant truth about age and experience. First, expertise does require age and repetition, but skills also decay. This means that if you’re not continually refreshing your skills, be they technical, oral, or critical thinking, you can and will be superseded by people younger than you. And if you wrote off a culture as a waste of time years ago, you’re probably not engaging with it. (see Accelerated Expertise by Hoffman et al.)

Second, once an “expert”, by which I mean someone who has been practicing a thing for 10,000 hours or whatever gets up to speed, there isn’t much difference between practicing experts after that stage.

But very few people are actually experts; most of us are spread over a range of transferrable skills and we don’t achieve true expertise (speed of decision-making in the given field, tacit awareness, deep knowledge) in any one area. And in those examples, there’s not much difference functionally between a 30 year-old and a 60 year-old. The 60 year-old may have worked in a lot more places, but for any one task they may be worse than the 30 year-old thanks to lack of practice and skills decay.

What does increase with age are the heuristics and biases in decision-making. So if you’re part of a culture that continually devalues certain ideas then you will develop biases against them, and heuristics that exclude them. And that will only get worse as you get older.