Friday, 14 December 2018

No Samite For You

You've done it—you've won the favor of the Powers. Called to collect your reward, you wade into the shallows of the hidden pool to draw out the holy weapon of the land. What smiting you will do!

But being a humble land, no shimmering samite awaits you. Sorry!

Roll d6Holy weapon of this place..
A wide-bladed sword, so corroded that the edge is a jagged crumble. It carries the weight of aeons, so any attempt to sharpen it is blasphemous. Anyone who tries just cuts their hand, and the blade will get no sharper. Still, hitting someone with it just feels so right.
The pitch-fork of the oppressed. The handle is slick with lake-slime, but the tines gleam with the righteousness of class warfare. The balance is shit, but it goes through plate armor like butter—especially the good stuff.
The living cudgel of the lake-keepers has had a marvelous fucking time in the lake these last three hundred years, let me tell you. It's now a sizeable tree, and pretty happy where it is. An intelligent weapon, it will happily talk your ear off about what it feels like having algae nibbled off your nethers by fish. (Amaaazing.) Every swish of the breeze makes its branches hum with vorpal potential. Hmmmr. Wrrrrm. Wait—you wanna what? Who are you, again?
A sturdy hat pin. Different ages call for different heroes.
The ancient world's most wicked sorcerer was smothered in this chamber pot. It was full at the time, of course. Refilling it is an exercise left to you.
A heavy rock, covered in algae and kinda slippery. It takes two hands to even pick up, let alone heft around. Don't even think about throwing it. This is a weapon straight from the earth, a legend in the first age of men. In fairness, that was a long time ago.. it makes more sense in context.

Saturday, 1 December 2018

The Man From Before

A mountain village grows wealthy selling a strange and magical oil. But its prosperity is tied up in the legacy of a fateful war. Only the children know the cost of the work they do—at the bidding of the Man from Before.
Man From Before PDF

I can't even explain this one. On the surface, it's a pastoral mystery, suitable for low-level adventurers. Scratch that surface and there's an extremely powerful NPC, possibly an ally or mentor. Or, maybe the players will see the dynamic as monstrously exploitative and view him as a villain. Push a little harder, and there's a campaign-wrecking bomb, just waiting to go off.

Sorry, kids!

As always, because of my generous Patrons, all the text and imagery is free for non-commercial use! If you like, sling a buck at me!

Friday, 30 November 2018

RPG Rules: Fences and Paths

I'm thinking about two very different roles that rules can play in an RPG:
  • Boundaries that define what's allowed/not allowed
  • Procedures that illustrate one possible path
The familiar rules of chess land squarely in the first category. Bishops move this way, exactly this way, and no other way. It's not a recommendation, but a hard rule. Jointly, all the rules of chess create a labyrinthine set of possibilities—huge and complex, but sharply defined wherever you're able to inspect closely.

Here, limits on freedom are intentional—they force you into interesting choices. How will you take down that knight? Which three spells will you memorize?

Changing these rules has big implications. Moving your knight in a novel way completely changes chess, just like being able to disregard walls completely changes the nature of a maze.

* * *

On the other hand, here's a completely different type of RPG play situation, caused by rules that look like this:
When a player tries something interesting, decide which skill is appropriate. Set a difficulty level and call for a skill check.
There's a lot of ambiguity here. What does interesting mean? How does the GM decide which skill is appropriate? How do you decide the difficulty level?
This presents the GM with a judgement call. The GM has lots of freedom, but the analysis paralysis might be too much for new GMs, or in uncommon and high-stakes situations (e.g. trying to whip up a cure poison potion to save a stricken colleague, where the difficulty can mean life or death).

One way to address very open situations is with guidance, such as the essays on combat should feel in Amber Diceless.

Here's another way:

Taken as a strict boundary that defines legal play, this is so procedure-bound that it might as well be out of a board game.

However, you can also read this turn sequence as an illustrative procedure, something to start using until you're familiar enough with the basics that you can comfortably ad lib.

This distinction is important because the first type of rule can't be changed (without materially affecting the game). The second type of rule can be a temporary strut, and moving beyond it might be a natural evolution of play.

* * *

(Yes I know that people play with this as a strict procedure, no I don't think that makes it a board game. Also, this post isn't about skill systems or turn sequences; those just illustrate the larger point. No I don't think it's bad to change the rules of chess. No I don't think it's bad to follow the B/X turn sequence literally.)

Saturday, 3 November 2018

Haunting of Hainsley Hall

Almost but not quite in time for Halloween, here's a haunted mansion! It's a whimsical twist on the haunted house: in this case, it's the ghosts that want the adventurers to help them out.

This adventure is a collaboration with Skerples, well known for his OSR-focused Coins and Scrolls blog.
Haunting of Hainsley Hall PDF

Usefully, the first d10 results on the encounter table could easily be used in the area (or city) around the mansion—for example, appearances by grisly ghosts trying to get the adventurers into contact with the medium.

What's great about Skerples' ghosts is the way the tone could vary so widely. One of my favorites is Rex, the crushed spaniel, which could easily be hilarious or terrifying (mostly depending on the spaniel's mood and how he 'moves', I will suggest).

Similarly, the "danger level" of this adventure depends quite a bit on:

  • What ghosts do in your system (ranging from 'boo' to level drain)
  • Whether they're amiable and understand the adventurers are there to help (if indeed they are), or whether they're dissociated and anguished.

Sunday, 28 October 2018

PbtA for the Old School

A few days ago I posted v0.14 of my PbtA mecha RPG, and got a reply that surprised me: somebody found PbtA unfamiliar enough that they couldn't "get" my game. Granted, 2G2BT is just a bundle of notes laid out in InDesign; there's not much explanation. Even so, it left me wondering how many gamers see PbtA games as far more alien than they actually are.

First off, Powered by the Apocalypse is not a system, it's a design style. I put hallmark PbtA design characteristics in three categories:
  • Elements that are the same as any traditional or old school RPGs
  • Elements that differ only in terms of mouth feel 
    • different names for things (e.g. stat vs. attribute)
    • minor mechanical differences (e.g. 2D6 vs. d20 vs. 1d6+modifier)
  • Significant structural or role differences from traditional RPGs

First of all, as with most traditional RPGs, play is free-form unless the rules apply: players say what their PCs do, the GM says what happens in response.

Many rules follow a standardized format that looks something like this:

When you attack an enemy in melee, roll 2d6+Str.
  • On a 10+, you deal your damage to the enemy and avoid their attack. At your option, you may choose to do +1d6 damage but expose yourself to the enemy’s attack.
  • On a 7–9, you deal your damage to the enemy and the enemy makes an attack against you.

The standard format is noticeable, but isn't mechanically significant—it tells you when to use the procedure, and what the procedure is. These procedures are called moves. This is a) a bad name, IMO (as it has all sorts of misleading associations), and b) a purely mouth feel difference. When you see move just read rule and you're fine.

Player-Facing Rules

More significant is that most rules are written to be player facing. Much like combat in the old Fighting Fantasy books, monsters don't roll dice when they attack you; the player is the only person rolling dice during melee.

This is a bit like rules for wandering monster movement in B/X D&D—there aren't any. While player food, light and movement through the dungeon are all tracked meticulously, all of that is hand-waved for monsters.

Monsters (or townspeople) just appear when a wandering monster roll says they should, and nobody worries about their precise location before that. Their precise inventory doesn't matter either, not until they're dead and examined more closely.

Until it actually matters, most of this stuff is completely undefined, held behind a "curtain of vagueness," until it matters.

PbtA games take this same approach, but the "curtain" is a bit closer to the PCs. There are no rules for NPCs to jump over things, persuade people, or to hit or shoot things—the rules only come into play when they try those things on a PC. In other situations, the GM just decides what happens.

GM Moves

Speaking of the GM, one obvious hallmark of PbtA games is the so-called "GM Moves."  These look like a set of rules, but they're basically sensible GM advice encoded as a set of imperatives. Many PbtA games do say that the GM should only use these moves, but jointly they're so broad as to be all-encompassing.. so it's no restriction at all.

Here are a few of the GM moves from The Regiment, which is a World War II RPG:

  • Announce impending danger
  • Separate them
  • Inflict fire (as established)
  • Introduce news from home or other fronts
  • Remember: gear can fail
  • Corner them
  • Capture someone
  • Make them buy it (supply, gear, smokes)
  • ...

Now, some people will crow that restricting the GM to these moves are rules and furthermore, that they somehow make the game more fair, taking arbitrary fiat and the potential for abuse out of the GM's hands!

Ignore these people—in my opinion, they're expressing an attitude toward authority that has nothing to do with the game, just like the grognard nincompoops that assert that the DM is somehow the father figure of the play group.

To my mind, encoding GM advice as "GM moves" is a mouth feel difference, not a meaningful one that makes the game something new. It is, however, a concise and useful format, and a good way to highlight important genre differences.


Now for some meatier differences! Not all PbtA games have these things (so they're not necessarily inherent to the PbtA design approach), but they're common enough that they're worth mentioning.

Ensemble Cast

Many PbtA games are very much like D&D in that there's a party that is facing adversity together. They may bicker, but for most of play they share a the same overall goal.

By contrast, some PbtA games are completely different—the GM is still there to portray the world and to bring life to NPCs, but the players are each other's adversity. There is no party.

These games play out like Game of Thrones, or Battlestar Galactica. Most of the fun comes from watching the interaction between characters that have opposing goals, and none of them is clearly the protagonist.

Example PbtA games that are like this:
  • Apocalypse World, where PCs are the various badasses of the wasteland
  • Monsterhearts, where each PC is a high school teen-who-is-really-a-monster
  • Cartel, which plays out like narco-crime themed telenovelas
Even so, there are many PbtA games that aren't like this, and use the traditional party format:
  • Dungeon World (fantasy adventure)
  • The Regiment (WWII combat focus)
  • Night Witches (all-women Soviet airwomen in WWII)
There are also games that seem to straddle the border, such as Urban Shadows. Here, there's often a powerful adverserial force in the environment, but the PCs have their own problems don't clomp around town like a party.

Genre-Focused Rules

For whatever reason (I suspect mostly historical), a lot of PbtA games have a focus that is nothing to do with combat and scrambling around physical environments, and their resolution procedures reflect this.

For example, because of its focus on supernatural teen drama, the basic resolution procedures in Monsterhearts are for things like:
  • Making someone feel dumb or unwanted by shutting them down
  • Unexpectedly turning someone on
  • Gazing into the abyss for an insight (metaphorically, such as by putting your Depeche Mode mix tape on repeat for the whole night)
  • Totally losing your shit and becoming your darkest self
Night Witches has a move to reach out to someone (PC or NPC) and express vulnerability or heartfelt connection.

'Authoring' Rules

Some PbtA do interesting things with traditional GM responsibilities. For example, Urban Shadows is a game of modern supernatural drama—characters might be vampires, werewolves, retired monster hunters, and so on.

Here is the resolution procedure for meeting a new NPC:

When you put a face to a name or vice versa, roll 2D6 + your bonus for their Faction.
  • On a 7+, you know their reputation; the GM will tell you what most people know about them.
  • On a 10+, you’ve dealt with them before; learn something interesting and useful about them or they owe you a Debt.
  • On a miss, you don’t know them or you owe them, the GM will tell you which.

This simple rule has a huge effect on play. Whenever the GM introduces a new NPC, there's a good chance that they will suddenly have meaningful backstory with a PC. The GM can't prepare ahead of time for this, since she has no idea which PC might wind up meeting them first!

This is the sort of rule that you can imagine behind the script when Han introduces the rest of the Falcon crew to Lando in Empire Strikes Back. "Sure, I know a guy.."

I suppose this plays a similar role to B/X D&D's monster reaction table—it keeps the GM on her toes and forces her to try to retroactively figure out why the monster might behave like the table requires, except it operates at the level of backstory rather than immediate visceral reaction.

The Urban Shadows veteran character has a hilarious optional ability:

Catch you fuckers at a bad time? Mark Corruption to arrive in a scene. Mark an additional Corruption to bring someone with you.

Basically, veterans can just kick in the door and show up anywhere with a big bag of guns. From a traditional, players striving against the environment perspective this is downright unusual (isn't it cheating?!), but it's perfect for the genre and has been a lot of fun every time I've seen it used in play.


For what it's worth, 2G2BT is pretty traditional. It expects that the players are a party, not an ensemble cast, and the rules are mostly focused on combat rather than on the emotional context of the PCs. There is a dash of authoring rules, particularly with the addition of the briefing move, but also in the Urban Shadows-inspired way that PCs recognize NPCs and enemy units.

Sunday, 21 October 2018

2G2BT: Gauntlet Con/v0.14

After a couple of playtest sessions at Gauntlet Con 2018, which is still in its last few hours, here's v0.14 of 2G2BT.

2G2BT v0.14.pdf
Apart from minor text clarifications, here's what changed since v0.12:

First of all, armor was way too powerful. That's been trimmed down across the board—everything that was once 2-armor is now 1-armor; everything 1-armor was translated into an extra external damage box or two.

I added a briefing move. I'm still toying with how concrete I want the battlefield to be, but for now this is a placeholder move that lets the company tactician define some of the elements of the battlefield.

Assault and covering fire have a small change, fire is exchanged before the stat roll. I find it anticlimactic to roll damage after we know who has won or lost; I think it's better when this is apparent after the smoke clears.

Also, the weapon fire modifiers were clarified, as I think they were a little confusing before.

Taking cover has an additional 10+ benefit, you get to return fire at -AOF.

The critical repair move is clarified: it's for getting rid of critical repair effects, not clearing critical damage boxes.

Spot their colors now works on familiar faces, not just insignias. This is the small, initial stab at me trying to bring more NPC interaction into the spotlight.

The Lieutenant's xp move now fires when subordinates take critical damage, not just when they're disabled. Also, the shortcut move requires shortcuts be iffy, not daring. (I want them to be risky, not done with panache.)

The Commander's xp move only applies to squaddies, not just anyone.

There was an important change to company advancement: the company now advances on every mission, not just when they achieve milestones. I'm not totally sure about this; some of these are good enough they feel like they should just be cash spends.


The con feedback (from Daniel, David, Horst and Leandro) was really useful. In short:
  • I've had a growing insecurity about the 'two rolls' nature of assault and covering fire, but the gang said they enjoyed that part. I used to like it too, so I'm chalking this up to over-familiarity.
  • For players unfamiliar with the genre, even the one-page playbooks are a lot to take in. Lots of boxes to tick off. (I remember feeling this way looking at Blades character sheets.)
  • Horst asked for a stress mechanic, which made me chuckle. Removing 'stress' from The Regiment was probably a mis-step; there's a lot of potential for socially focused downtime moves that interact with it.
  • Daniel suggested more moves to add SNAFU. Also, restricting SNAFU burn to "small-scale" moves may not be necessary. Why not open this up and (while I'm at it) add playbook-specific  moves to add SNAFU?

What's really missing? Human interaction. What I'm finding in playtests is that while the combat moves are in the refining stage, the human element is completely missing.

The source inspiration for the game is The Regiment, in which you have vulnerable humans taking deadly weapons fire. When the party is swaddled in high tech mecha, it's much harder to have an organic exchange of emotion in the middle of a mission—you can't lean on your buddy and have a smoke, for example. (This might be less true with longer missions that aren't in/shoot/out, but I haven't run any of those yet.)

Dungeon World-style flags are a great way to get some interaction in a one-shot, I think that would help push the focus back onto the characters and their interactions. I'm tempted to add either that or some drives (or at least make sure that every character has a solid xp move that drives interaction with other PCs).

As I mentioned with the change to spot their colors, I really want to make NPC interaction a much more significant focus. I feel like "life on base" should not be relegated to a few brief downtime moves, it's too much like browsing a shopping list.

There's a lot of interesting potential there, especially as the mission context accumulates. I like having a Darnan liaison NPC, and in the second playtest this weekend I urged a PC to recognize them.

That's all for now!

Saturday, 15 September 2018

The Slow Creep of Night

There is a world tidally locked to its sun. One side faces the sun; it is warm, lush. The other side is permanently dark.

Tidally locked except—not quite. Some precession of the world's core imparts a tiny rotation. It does have a day, but it's two thousand years long.

Each year, 20 leagues of dawnlands are touched by the rays of the sun. Behind them, 20 leagues are claimed by twilight.

Beacuse of this, every living thing slowly migrates. Moving east is an instinct in the soul of every rodent, bird, and people. The giant trees, lichens, and the seething legion of insects beneath the soil stay where they are, but everything else gradually resettles.

It goes on like this for billions of years. The early people were by necessity nomadic, following the dawn. Early tribes would sometimes flourish and expand, taking over swaths of territory and building permanent settlements.

These early kingdoms would appear successful (and through the development of writing would contribute disproportionately to the myths of the world), but each would end in disaster. Torn apart by civil war and chaos as twilight upended their short-sighted arrangements, or sailing stubbornly into the night to be devoured by the things of the dark.

Adventures in the World of Creeping Dark

1. The east is a frenzy of exploration and settlement. Lush new lands are opening up, and the dawnland kingdoms are competing for control of the islands, new trade routes, and a defensible positions for fortresses. There is good money for adventurers, mercenaries.

2. For the truly desperate, ranging far into the pre-dawn nightlands offers the possibility of a precious discovery that could be sold as information, or perhaps even claimed and fortified.

3. Some of these footholds in the pre-dawn night take hold, but to stay viable they must be supplied with news, food, medicines, and specialists.

4. Fighting the vestiges of night. Day comes last to the the valleys, crevices and ravines of the dawnlands. For decades they are inky pools of shadow, and the terrors of the night-side lurk there. Before the lands can be safely settled, these must be made safe.

5. Some of these cannot be disloged, but must be bargained with, placated—or sated.

6. In the far west, the inevitable abandonment of settlements happens unevenly. The day-dwellers rarely give up before they have to, as there are resources that are hard to give up. Mines, fertile lagoons, a final harvest or two of the century crops—all would bring much-needed cash and supplies for the great migration eastwards. But sometimes the dark surges forward - waves of monsters, or lone horrors come soon. These must be fought off, chased back into the night, or at kept at bay while people evacuate.

7. Some things simply cannot be moved, and forays into the darkness to reach them are sometimes necessary. The great fortress of Ing, where the life-giving fountain splashes. It may be a hundred miles into the darklands, but it is the only known cure for the Duke's white palsy.

8. Though they don't like to speak of it, sages have figured out that the daylands are getting narrower. (Court administrators have noticed this too, for that matter.) According to legend, it was once half the world, as you might expect if the world was a sphere. Now, geographers agree: it's a narrow strip, scarcely 800 leagues across. The useful period of human settlements is now barely 40 years! If this waning continues, the people of the day might soon be completely eclipsed.

Sooths from nine kingdoms all claim the same vision—there is a sorcerous cabal in the darklands, the princes of night. Their great working is shrinking the day. They must be stopped, if they can be reached at all.

9. The Duke believes that they have agents on the day-side, moving among us, but this is obviously just the ravings of a man stricken with the white palsy.


This is apparently a recurring idea in fantasy, so there are more resources if you're interested in this.

Scott Charlton was apparently developing the idea at exactly the same day as I was..

Dave McGrogan's The City Standing like a Candle in the Night.

Jahmal Brown has written a full setting based on this idea, apparently to be published through Evil Hat.

Gareth Wilson points out that there's a (non-fantasy) book by Dave Duncan, 'West of January' that is based on a similar idea.