Tuesday, 22 January 2013

RPG First Look: Conspiracy X 2.0 and Little Fears

I snagged these titles in the DriveThruRPG January sale.


There’s not much to be said about Conspiracy X, other than it’s standard Unisystem (classic) stuff. It repeats the system from AFMBE and Terra Primate, including chunks of psionics, qualities and drawbacks, etc.

It does a couple of interesting things, though. It provides templates for (US-centric) government and military forces. OK, you could construct these “skill packages”, but it’s nice to have something pre-made. Also it’s interesting for the sheer breadth of occupations listed; it does give a sense of a global network where no-one really knows what’s going on.

The best parts are the “pulling strings” qualities and the “cell creation”. The former are qualities where you can exert influence to get things done–summon accomplices, call in air strikes, use external laboratories, and so on.

Cell creation deals with creating your own little base of operations. Locations, facilities, staff and other resources are all point-buy. I could see this being a real fun activity for the party (and a nice source of inter-departmental tension even before the missions start). The nice part here is they’ve incorporated all the weapons, vehicles and other equipment lists. Everything costs departmental resources. It’s pretty old-school to demand players to itemise their kit like this, but should add to the immersion.

Add that together and you should get an autonomous cell of characters with a range of departmental strings they can pull and a place to call their own. And of course the presence of their cell implies goodness-knows how many other cells worldwide, connected to however-many agencies. Conspiracy? You bet.

Well, mostly. There’s not much in the way of antagonists. There’s a potted history at the back which I haven’t read yet. Since I’m more inclined to use this game as a toolkit, I’m not so bothered. Still it does the usual Unisystem job of padding the book with yet another version of the rules. This book could have easily been an AFMBE sourcebook, but since it’s a brand in its own right, it gets its own line.

It’s not the best value (full price) if you already have other Unisystem corebooks, but the Cell creation is a unique feature that adds a lot of value; I can already see potential with supers (a la Planetary), supernaturals, and even Transhuman/Cyberpunk Space (making use of All Tomorrow’s Zombies). Of the four corebooks I own, this is probably the one I like the most just because it does modern organisations so well. However if all you want is an antagonist faction with defined resources, there is a simpler alternative in the Angel RPG–that one does corporations, sects and government cells adequately.

Now, Little Fears


Looking at the first few pages I can feel the controversy dripping off this one, that lead to at least some people saying/thinking “oh, that’s the game with the child abuse”. That closes a portion of your audience off, on principle.

Let’s be clear. The author mentions abuse, and says it happens to innocents, and suggests how it might affect characters. He also says its inclusion in the game doesn’t mean you should use it in your game. He treats the subject as sensitively (and briefly) as possible.

That controversial style of play is True Horror (“removing some fantastical elements and adding more humanity to the story”). The author states (in his white-on-black annotations–this is a 10th anniversary edition) that while that was the play style that attracted the most attention, hardly anyone he knew played in that way; they would stick to the nightmarish fantasy of monsters in closets, etc.

In some ways Little Fears is the pre-teen equivalent of Buffy with more focus on innocence and magic through belief, and with a defined enemy pantheon (the seven Kings of Closetland). There are some good guys, the “Divine Host”. Between the original and this edition the Divine Host have lost some definition. In the original the presence of a defined “good pantheon” was suggestive of a supernatural war, something that glossed over the very real, personal horrors felt by the PCs. The author deliberately made the guardian angels of the Divine Host nebulous to return focus to the children and their own ability to overcome evil.

There are a couple of nice mechanical touches. For example, the character generation includes a questionnaire with questions like “what’s your (nick)name?” and “who is your best friend?”. These are not just window dressing; they have a mechanical function since later on we’re told exactly how the monsters of Closetland use the answers to get you.

Other mechanics are pretty much what you’d expect if you’ve played Adult horror games with insanity mechanics–you gain Fear, you lose Innocence (and lose too much Innoncense and you become Blind to Closetland, like an adult). Dice rolling is all about rolling a number of d6 and picking the highest value you roll on any one die–the modifiers are Qualities which add dice (though Negative Qualities that apply force you to take the worst result, not the best). It’s simple enough, though it requires claiming attributes which is not a mechanic I am wild about.

One interesting feature is how kids oppose monsters: when kids fight monsters they roll against a static number rather than an opposed roll against the monster. In other words if the monster gets the kid, it’s due to a failing of the child, not because the monster is monstrous. It makes a nasty sort of sense, although causes me to raise an eyebrow when combined with the True Horror style of play.

As for Closetland–each King is described, although mostly stylistically rather than mechanically. I would have preferred to read a bit more practical advice on using them as opponents, and less about how to roleplay them. There is advice on how one crosses over into Closetland, and back again. Closetland is (as you would expect) like the Umbra and Penumbra in the WoD–a fantasy world that overlaps (or invades) ours in places.

Making the inevitable comparison with Monsters and Other Childish Things, Little Fears is not a game to be played for laughs (or even black comedy). Actually much of the tone that Dreadful Secrets of Candlewick Manor tries to exude (poor orphans, weird uncaring and dangerous world) is much more effectively brought to life. It does beg the question whether you can have too much of a “good” thing.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Moar Zombiz

Since I found the Unisystem and AFMBE, I’ve been after a paper copy of Dungeons and Zombies.

Unfortunately they’re rare as hen’s teeth. When I had to leave the Compleat Strategist empty-handed (they had every other supplement, just not that one) I more or less gave up on getting a hard copy. Ah well, at least the content is still available via DriveThruRPG. But thanks to a certain auction site…



That’s Dungeons And Zombies flanked by Enter the Zombie on the right, and All Tomorrow’s Zombies on the left. The cover is a nice pastiche of the PHB.

DnZ has a superb web enhancement by Jason Vey that turns the supplement into a Cinematic Unisystem game, which should make it nice for not-too-serious one shot games.

The format for the “genre mashup” AFMBE books is generally new characters, rules subsets, and new deadworlds. The consistent presentation is great. I’ll mostly read the deadworlds as closet drama, although there are some great ideas (the Death of the Round Table is lovely). For now I’ll concentrate on the extra rules:

DnZ’s main offerings are new racial qualities for fantasy races, some rules for fighting with shields, and magical invocations. The races I can take or leave, since I don’t care for Tolkein-esque fantasy. The magic is fairly bland but functional; I like the Summoning/Focus/Dismissal approach. Spells are purchased as skills so they work more like discrete powers than flexible spur-of-the-moment sorcery (something that can be addressed using the Cinematic web enhancement).

EtZ brings martial arts, “chi powers”, and rules for zombie PCs. The martial arts are good although they compete with all of the combat moves from the Cinematic lines. Chi Powers are also great; they’re arguably no different from spells, though they have more instantaneous effects and are geared towards the wire-fu genre–they make a very nice alternative to Feng Shui. Zombie PCs are just fun–they’re derived from the main Zombie “breed” of the deadworld, so they could be any type of undead you care to imagine, given the broader scope of Atlas of the Walking Dead.

ATZ has the broadest scope, and covers cyberware, bioware, and nanotech, as well as spaceships, psionics and future skills. There are some nods towards transhumanism, and definite synergies with Terra Primate are possible to achieve something like Eclipse Phase (if that system doesn’t grab you).

Overall AFMBE’s strength lies in distilling and re-stating the fundamentals of genres, enabling rapid assimilation of the rules by players and allowing the GM to mash up genres with ease. That’s a really, really great thing for one shots. I wonder if there are some limitations for campaign play–for example, that the sorcery presented in DnZ lacks depth (something I haven’t found in the Cinematic lines).

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Masquerade Mashup

“There isn’t anything personal or horrifying in V:tM as a *system*, except what you bring from how hardcore you bought into all the delicious fiction-y bits”

That quotation is from Lenny Balsera, commenting on Ryan Macklin’s post.

Vampire‘s premise as a “personal horror” game is still as fresh as it was in 1991 (even in our post Dresden Files/True Blood/Blade mainstream vampire malaise). At the risk of patronising my readers (all three of you) I’ll quickly list what I think are the most important parts of Vampire:

  • They are hungry for a forbidden food
  • They can frenzy and lose all control if they don’t get it or if they’re they’re threatened
  • They find it harder and harder to relate to humanity as they get older, sometimes becoming deranged
  • They need to keep the Masquerade, or they get whacked by the mob a blood hunt called on them
  • They’re immortal, but mortally afraid of the few things that can kill them

Vampire handles the Humanity vs Beast inner conflict this mechanically through Humanity, Willpower, and Virtues. You know the weird thing? When the power-creep set in and stats began being inflated above 5 dots, Virtues did not improve. Imagine your 19th level Fighter/Mage/Patissier never improving on his first-level saving throws. And they’re odd little stats anyway; they’re on a scale of 1-5 when everything else is on a scale of 1-10. They’re tucked away in the bottom-right of the character sheet like an obscure second cousin screwing up the seating plan at a wedding; no wonder all we ever did with them was make small-talk.

The problem with Humanity is not visibility, it’s gameplay effect. Certain dice pools are limited to the Humanity rating (1-10); these include Empathy rolls, Virtue rolls and all dice pools during daylight. That’s great! Except that it’s absolutely impossible to generate a PC with a Humanity score below 5 at character creation, and at the same time there aren’t too many dice pools above 5 that would be frequently affected. Vamps lose Humanity according to a “heirarchy of sins” which is not difficult to circumvent.

A player needs to do a perverse min-maxing exercise with Virtues and really behave badly to get their Humanity to drop below 5 and be threatened by any real penalty. If you’re playing that kind of sociopath, you probably want to be in a Sabbat game anyway.1

The other issue is hunger, which should be a prime motive for vamp behaviour. In VtM blood point consumption is fairly low for survival, but high for discipline use. So to avoid losing blood, don’t use disciplines that are powered by blood: no celerity, or blood buff, or healing. This means if parties practice an avoidance strategy the need not spend much blood at all; they can still use all of the other tasty mind-warping powers (plus Fortitude and Potence) for free. By avoiding combat they avoid hunger and avoid those annoying Humanity checks. Simples!

Build a Better Vamp

My ideal vampire system would

  1. Track how hungry the character is
  2. Have a mechanism to test for or resist frenzy
  3. Have a system for developing derangements
  4. Keep track of masquerade violations
  5. Not feel like StorytellerTM

There are commercial systems available that can achieve most of these aims with minimal tweaking. Here are some suggestions.

One: Don’t Bite The Neck


Don’t Rest Your Head is almost a drop-in for this kind of game, as long as you don’t expect the characters or campaign to last too long. Substitute Hunger for Exhaustion and you’re mostly there; now it’s hunger rather than tiredness that both gives the vampire its power and threatens destruction.

Madness becomes The Beast; by giving into the Beast the vamp can access their supernatural powers. But if the Beast dominates, they may Frenzy; a Frenzy is basically a fight-or-flight response.

Both use of The Beast‘s powers and overall Hunger can lead to bad consequences. In the “vanilla” DRYHMadness leads to snapping and Exhaustion leads to crashing. In this case, substitute snapping for degeneration. When the vampire degenerates it gains a point of permanent Frenzy, which manefests as either a beast trait or a derangement, and roleplay appropriately. Either traits will severely limit social interaction. The GM may also spend a despair token to force the vampire’s derangement to surface.

For Hunger, once the number of Hunger dice exceeds six, the vampire comes under the GM’s control and will slake their thirst however they can. This will more than likely be a masquerade violation and could very well end the character. In regular DRYH it’s assumed that the mad city has caught up with the character, so in Vampire assume that the Camarilla intends to clean up. If you want to work in some politics you could implement a “three strikes” policy, maybe even get the PCs to work off a strike with political favours. But that’s outside the scope of the system, so I’ll leave it for further development.

Two: Vampires and other Childish Things


What does Monsters and Other Childish Things bring to Vampire? 

The monsters in MAOCT are extradimensional terrors which have somehow emotionally bonded with children. The system makes heavy use of Relationships, noting that Monsters eat Relationships. That sounds like a vampire to me.

Using this game for Vampire requires some reinterpretation. The monsters in MAOCT are supposedly visible to the children, but not to adults or anyone else except for a few shadowy monster-hunting antagonists. However the effects of their mayhem–such as devouring the substitute teacher–are very real. There’s the obvious suggestion that the children are monsters and have made up their imaginary friends to account for something worse.

MAOCT probably doesn’t suit an “adult” Vampire game, but a high-school game for the Twiglet or Teen Wolf genre would work. Relationships are the key. Children can loan their relationships to their monsters, but if the monsters lose a fight while using them, those relationships get shocked. That’s a nice mechanic for illustrating the teen vamp giving into the Beast, and the damage it does to their family relationships.

Normally relationship dice are used to boost the pool in the right situation; but for a Vampire-style MAOCT game they may have a very specific function–to shield the character from the authorities. Take it for granted that the character’s vampirism will be noticed by the various MIBs, argents and other vamps; but while the PC is protected by a relationship (teacher, family or friend) the hunters can’t touch them. Relationships are a finite resource, however, and could even be attacked (there are rules for doing this in MAOCT’s relative Wild Talents).

Since MAOCT is usually played for laughs, it’s assumed that the monster will get the character into trouble, so players can expect not to be in complete control of their monster. And there’s the rub: the loss of control aspect of Vampire should be something that the players avoid at all costs, but in MAOCT it’s accepted, expected, even encouraged. That doesn’t make the game particularly horrific when they PCs can lose control by consent.

Still, this system could be used to run a teen vampire game effectively. All the comments about the helplessness of children with monsters apply equally to children with supernatural powers that aren’t under their control. The power levels of the monsters probably should be given a bit of attention. Candlewick Manor’s creepy skills could be a good starting point.

Three: Vnisystem


I picked one “traditional” option; this is mostly just a mechanical replacement for Storyteller based on my preference. I did consider VampORE, but that idea isn’t fully formed yet and in any case MAOCT does ORE simpler and better.

There are a lot of metaphysical power options to translate the magic and action mechanics from VtM to Unisystem, but you could do that with any game (although Enter the Zombie covers undead PCs and Witchcraft is arguably Eden’s version of the WoD, so it’s not a bad starting point). The question is how can Unisystem cope with the loss of control, the estrangement of friends and family, and the masquerade?

The Abomination Codex has useful rules on Taint, a kind of insanity trait. Unlike CoC’s implementation of Sanity where investigators lose points, Taint is gained; at certain thresholds (multiples of the Willpower trait) characters will gain mental problem disadvantages, and may also change physically. There are also Taint Powers, which include infecting other people with Taint. Taint is the antithesis of Essence (the creative metaphysical force in the Unisystem) and is used to power a twisted version of regular magic. It’s a nice expression for the vampiric blood curse–the players should be aware of the temptation to use their powers, the way their powers pervert their minds and bodies, and the fact that there is a benign, creative essence in the universe and they’re not part of it.

Taint is related to the Mad Gods in the vast Witchcraft metaplot. Witchcraft has its own brand of vampires (vampyres) as well as a lot of other secret society stuff; if you want to play all of that you’re probably better off playing Witchcraft straight as an alternative to VtM. I’d advocate lifting the Taint rules and inserting into a less conspiracy-charged system like AFMBE.

Like MAOCT, this approach probably suits a Vamps vs Hunters type of game; in this case the Hunters are Essence imbued and can “smell” Taint if it’s used. Taint therefore does two duties; a mark of the “curse” that could lead to loss of player control, and a masquerade breaker. Swap the word Taint for Wyrm and it drops into the Werewolf mythos nicely, too.

Honourable Mention


p>Project Nemesis is a free supernatural conspiracy game published by Arc Dream and also using the one-roll engine. Although it’s based on mortals, its four-axis approach to insanity (lifted from Unknown Armies) is interesting and is very comprehensive in detailing response to different kinds of mental trauma, even if it doesn’t actually take control away from players the way a vampire’s Frenzy should. Worth a download.

  1. The Sabbat‘s use of Paths turns this mechanic on its head, almost to the point of religious dogma. Instead of Humanity proscribing what the vamp shouldn’t do (making loss fairly easy to avoid), the Paths tell the character what the vamp must do to preserve their Path rating. This is either a very interesting way to enforce behaviour on your character, or an excuse to behave badly. I don’t own Vampire: Dark Ages but I’m aware of its use of Roads.