Saturday, 13 October 2012

ORE part 3: Reign

A recap on my previous ORE experiences:

  1. I like Monsters and Other Childish Things for its premise, and I have to admit the stripped-down implementation of ORE is elegant; however it took a bit of selling to my group (and some of them are still complaining).
  2. I didn’t think much of Wild Talents. Personal preference aside I maintain that it’s poorly organised and needs better support for power development. Mostly though it’s too complex in play, once multiple hard and wiggle dice are employed. Maybe that just makes me too stupid to play certain games, but I think that games should meet my standards, not the other way around.
  3. I have read Nemesis, and it does have those delicious madness rules pinched from Unknown Armies, but I haven’t played it. It’s free!

Overall my response to ORE has been mixed. In play it’s OK, at best. It masquerades as an elegant mechanic, beneath which lies an unusual amount of crunch. It hasn’t set my world on fire yet, and it’s had mixed reaction from my players.

Let’s try again:


Enchiridion is a “late latin term referring to a small manual or handbook”. The Reign Enchiridion is a utility book with just the rules, no setting. That suits me fine. Know what else suits me fine? The price. The print book cost me 7 quid and thanks to Arc Dream’s generous Free PDF Guarantee I can read the book on my iPad before the paper copy is delivered. The format is digest, by the way, which means it’s not stupidly small for reading on a tablet screen. Bravo!

So the Enchiridion was a bit of an impulse purchase. Aside from the price a couple of other things swayed me. Firstly it’s terrifically well supported with free stuff: sixteen supplements and bits of rules errata, now available in three bind ups all for free in pdf form. The concepts of Martial Paths, Esotetic Disciplines and the very simple approach to spell and monster construction were intriguing. In the supplements they’re untested, but they’ve actually been rolled into the Enchiridion

Second, it’s setting agnostic. Good, because I don’t want to run in someone else’s setting.

Third, it’s got a really nice character sheet. This was something I bitched about in Wild Talents. It may sound petty, but if attributes directly combine with a subset of skills then the attribute should appear at the top of the skill list, not elsewhere on the sheet. They got that right.

So, what do you get? In a nutshell:

  • The basic ORE approach, using the tried-and-tested Stat+Skill=Dice Pool approach
  • Do it yourself “Martial Paths” and “Esoteric Disciplines” that are tied to skills, and are easy to power balance
  • “Company Rules” for developing factions and scaling up conflict
  • Passions, divided into Missions, Duties and Cravings to signpost behaviour
  • Master and Expert dice
  • Flexible and straightforward spell creation with some thoughtful advice on how to approach magic in your world
  • A “nice” chapter on how people can get hurt in a fantasy game
  • A chapter on topics for your game
  • DIY Monsters


p>The Esoteric Disciplines are fantastic, and remind me of Ki Skills from Runequest Land of Ninja; semi-mystical “powers” attached to a particular skill. Each discipline has five ranks. There are a couple of examples of the Disciplines but the meat of that section is how to build your own disciplines, what kind of effects they would supply, and how to balance the powers at each level. I wish I’d had this tool years ago, instead of trying to adapt bits of Exalted into a similar system.

The Company Rules are also great. These remind me of the faction-building rules in Angel except they deal very clearly with what organisations do, how they fight, and how they get bigger. Obviously Reign has a strong political element. This is a game where your PCs represent an organisation as well as an individual, and the scaling between is quite elegant.

The parts on spell creation are very good too, although with the esoteric disciplines there’s less need for spells anyway.

The Passions section deserves mention. These are the ever-more-popular “negotiated bonus” skills. If your Mission, Duty or Craving applies then you get a bonus die to a given roll, and you get a penalty if you act contrary to that Passion.

Finally, a brief mention on Expert and Master (wiggle) dice. You only ever get one of these per dice pool, meaning that unlike WT where wiggle and hard dice dominate outcomes, these will only nudge the outcome in the right direction. As there’s only one, they won’t complicate the hunt-and-peck for matches too much.

This is the toolkit I was expecting Wild Talents to be, albeit with much more human power levels. A power-crafting system is an opportunity for the players to be creative; but the WT toolkit is so dense that it will put a lot of players off. In Reign the simple five-tier development of Esoteric Disciplines is easy to visualise, particularly as it is tied to a skill; the guidelines for power balancing are clear and comprehensive, making it pretty easy for player and GM to collaborate on discipline creation.

This is clearly a fantasy game; however it could be applied to urban fantasy, martial arts, or even future fantasy. The Company rules would require some interpretation but it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine Companies as Conspiracies in a contemporary setting. Stolze himself has published Out of the Violent Planet as an alternate setting for Reign.

The only bit I’m lukewarm about is ORE itself. Yes, I think Reign is a lot tidier than the other implementations, but the whole buckets of dice mechanic seems to be a gimmick to give players something to do with their d10 collection after they kicked the White Wolf habit. But perhaps that’s unfair, since I’ve yet to run the system.

I balked at using WT for VampORE. Where WT is not quite right, Reign could be spot on with its five-tier disciplines and its rules for power groups. Drop in the madness rules from Nemesis and it could be perfect. Now, what would you call that? Madness Reigns?

If you’re like me and enjoy running your own world and developing your own powers, Reign appears to give a very nice framework for balancing the power levels and tailoring powers to your players’ tastes. The Enchiridion is a great handbook at a bargain price.

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.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

ORE Vampire part 2: Damage

Storyteller-Style Damage

The way ORE force fits the hit location to height doesn’t appeal to me much – it seems like adding an extra dimension for the sake of it. Okay, I quite like the way it’s handled in MaoCT, but for other ORE games the integration isn’t seamless.

Besides, hit location tables are so seventies, and few of my gaming group use or like them. This is one area where abstraction is actually a good thing.

Lethal and nonlethal damage

Splitting damage into lethal and nonlethal types is common for ORE and Storyteller systems, but is binary – a weapon either causes Bashing or Lethal damage. ORE has a nice way of downgrading Killing damage to Shock by action of armour.

The Amazing Engine rpg Kromosome setting uses a nice mechanic to differentiate between lethal and nonlethal damage.

When the percentile dice are rolled to hit the ones die is used to work out lethality. If the die is higher than the weapon’s lethality rating, it does killing damage, otherwise it’s just bashing/shock. Armour (or Fortitude) will modify the lethality of the damage, as well as soak hits.

This system is a nice fit with the ORE height roll. And crucially it makes damage variable while making amount of damage independant of lethality.

Shock and Fatigue

Very few systems do instantaneous damage with immediate but without lasting effects.

This is not what comes to mind in the modern Vampire tropes, where supernatural creatures throw each other around like rag dolls but are only temporarily affected.

I propose a few (re)definitions:

  • Shock is an instantaneous effect that can temporarily slow someone down
  • Injury (lethal or nonlethal) is a lasting effect that will also slow the character down, and is recordable.
  • Fatigue is simply cumulative injury that affects the body’s base state. This is what happens as you mark off wound boxes.

Characters can suffer both shock and injury as a consequence of taking damage. Some weapons may be designed to deal shocking damage (e.g. a taser or blackjack).

Damage Presentation

Kromosome just uses a traditional pool of hit point and fatigue (a bit like Palladium‘s HP/SDC approach). The problem with this is the need to grind through Fatigue just to knock someone out – good for PCs, tedious for running combats.

For the Department V game I used a grid. Each wound level was a row of boxes equal to some formula involving Stamina. Nonlethal damage knocked off boxes along rows, and lethal damage knocked off entire rows, one per point. This was attractive to look at but in play massively emphasised the need for PCs to get in lethal shots – if anything, the grinding was worse.

(That was inspired by the system in the Cyberpunk 2020 Character Sheet with its four boxes per wound level. I never liked the damage scaling in CP2020 but the feel of the system was very good.)

Exalted uses a nice hybrid of the CP2020 and (old) WoD with the first few wound levels represented by multiple boxes. Mostly this is an example of how damage scaling has been tuned to a high-fantasy setting compared to the default horror setting.

I feel that a single damage track à la Storyteller is still the best, where both lethal and nonlethal hits contribute to current wellbeing. However using one level = one box means you have to be very careful to tune the damage scale. Using the CP2020 approach has a benefit that you can be more relaxed with the scaling. There are other benefits when presenting Aggravated Damage as well (see below).

One other alternative is not to use any kind of track or running tally, but to count each wound individually. The Maelstrom RPG did this. It’s useful if you want to track how each wound heals over time.

Damage Scaling

The ORE silhouette puts ten boxes in the torso and four in the head. Four kills to the head will kill a character, otherwise ten are needed for a kill to the torso. Five hits will take out a limb.

Weapons tend to do damage in the range of Width, plus one or two for the larger weapons. This means that a two to four width shot (Shock or Killing) to head or limbs is going to destroy that location. By comparison a similar shot to the torso isn’t nearly as final.

Whether you like this scheme or not (and I don’t – it’s arbitrary and in some cases just wrong) it’s significant for a couple of points.

  • firstly if damage is scaled on Width+ then damage will be in fairly predictable increments of 3-ish, more with bigger weapons.
  • secondly, a character struck by an above-average hit will, 70% of the time, suffer a serious setback – incapacity or death. The other 30% will be a torso hit which won’t incapacitate – hey, you weren’t doing anything with those internal organs, right?

The role of Stamina

The standard RPG trope is Stamina (or Body, Constitution, Endurance) equals more hit points. But in ORE the Body is primarily skill-oriented, so doesn’t confer extra wound boxes.

The old World of Darkness way was to use Stamina to “soak” damage, which made for a lot of dice rolling, and also doesn’t translate to ORE well.

The NWoD is streamlined so that Stamina just adds more wound boxes. (There are quite a few system changes with the new system – some people think it’s broken, because weapons become disproportionately important and at the same time don’t reallydo much damage).

Whichever approach you take, using ORE damage ratings makes Stamina useful as a “threshold” stat. For example, you could rule that any one injury that exceeds the target’s Stamina results in some temporary shock – regardless of whether it causes actual lasting harm.

There is a temptation to apply Strength and Stamina as direct damage modifiers. The problem with that approach is the extremes of scale (e.g. Strength 1 vs Stamina 5) are larger than the normal width of a roll, so base stats dominate over skill.

Aggravated Damage

Vampires and other supernaturals tend to have weaknesses which balance their advantages. To make the weaknesses really bite, you could consider knocking off one wound level for every point of damage from fire, for example.

This approach could make fire disproportionately deadly for players. But that could be just the effect you’re after, right?

Final Comments

I still need to work on the scaling, but my preffered approach (from player readability PoV) is

  • a single damage track – but possibly split into multiple
  • Stamina provides an instantaneous threshold for any one attack (a “shock threshold”?) as well as providing a “buffer” for the damage track
  • weapons are rated for Lethality, and a roll with sufficient Height is lethal (otherwise it is bashing damage)
  • armour may reduce the lethality of weapons as well as reducing damage (but not necessarily “shock”)