Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Monster Summoning VII

One of the blogs I read fairly often mentioned a post on different blog that said:
The otherfun discovery was the spell Monster Summoning VII. Nowadays it's just one link on the great chain of Monster Summoning spells. But when Greyhawk came out the monster charts only had six levels. MS VII buried the needle on the system and referees were supposed to come up with their own list of beloved and wicked monsters that this mighty ninth level magic summoned. I love that.
So here's my challenge to all you refs out there: share either in the comments here or on your own blog a custom Ultimate Monster Summoning chart for your campaign. Note that all monsters don't have to be uber-lethal. Packs of Hell Hounds and Displacer Beasts are listed as examples, seemingly just because the authors dig those critters.
My chart, though I'm not sure what campaign this is for...
  1. 1 Slaad of each color, and a very disgusted Princess
  2. 2d8 Orky Madboyz, + 2d12 Goblins, + 2d30 Snotlings/Squigs/Boars, + More Dakka
  3. 2d6 Booster Gangers, each with unique Chrome. They're holding a copy of Morton's List.
  4. 1d8 Mutant Narwhals (if only 1 appears, he's wearing a parachute)
  5. 1d6 Magi, bearing gifts.
  6. A close blood relative of the PC. If none are known to exist, then Brand is family. And he probably won.
  7. Ratatosk, the Gossipy Squirrel, riding on (or pursued by) Nidhogg
  8. Gemini Incident: One spanner, and 1d10 of his Elders.
  9. Brown Jenkins, perched atop the Necronomicon, which is held in the bloody hands of Keziah Mason. Gnarly Hotep is optional.
  10. An ogre riding an OGRE. Not the other way around - that'd be messy.
  11. The Clock Tower.
  12. Roll again, but play the part as if Jack Nance were cast in the role.

Aspects for F#FF

Here's the setting tag lines for the F# one-shot I'm running this Thursday at the Emerald City Game Feast:
  1. All Fiend Folio, All The Time. Bizarre and Mundane are inverted. If it's stats aren't in the 1st Edition of the weirdest monster book of them all, then it's only a myth. Such things as orcs, humans, and rutabegas are spoken of in hushed reverent tones, or lambasted contemptuously, depending on who's speaking.
  2. There are no other Planes, just this bastardized version of the Astral. The PCs hail from a city state on an asteroid floating in the great off-white void.
  3. Life is hard, harsh and unfair. The ecosystem rests upon the backs of a handful of plants, all of which are carnivorous. Giant "Fortress Farms" keep the food from eating the cities. The priesthood is corrupt and evil (afterall, they worship Lolth, the Elemental Princes of Evil, and the Slaad Gods), and charge a huge margin on create food and water spells. The various races live in the same city, but are not created equal.
    • Corollary to Tag Lines 2 & 3. Many other such rocks and city states float in the void, and when they pass close enough for contact it results in wars, adventures, and cataclysmic cultural shifts.
As is typical for F#, the PCs will each have up to 3 catch phrases and up to 3 backgrounds. I am putting one restriction on them, however: Each player must pick a race from the Fiend Folio. Their character is a member of that race, and they must work it into (or use it as) one of their aspects. So "Drow" would be perfectly acceptable background, but so would "hen-pecked Drow husband/slave" or "I was an ordinary Fire Toad, until the day I was granted intelligence by a perverse whim of Ssendam". Heck, I'd even accept "The first Carbunkle to graduate from Business School" (though first carbunkle to graduate from the Seminary of Lolth might be more in keeping with the setting).

They'll roll and use that aspect per the normal F# rules, but it also grants whatever powers the race has according to the Fiend Folio. In some cases, like Crab Men or Hook Horrors, that's really not anything, but should someone choose to play one of the four Death Slaadi, for example, it'll come with some magic and baggage.

I intend to fill in the details of the City-State and Asteroid the game starts on based on the races the players choose to play. I'll probably let the players decide whether that race is common or rare within the city. If we've got flying PCs, the City will be on the surface. If we're all Sverfneblin and Terithrans, then it'll be a subterranean city with surface given over to farming.

1 page version of F#

I'm running F# later this week, and so I expect to reference it on my blog a few times. So that you don't have to go download it to know what I'm talking about, I'm reproducing the 1-page summary of the rules here.

F#: a very simple tabletop roleplaying game system.
by R. Hunter Gough, v1.1

The GM and the players are all working together to create a fun and exciting story.

Each game setting has three tag lines. These establish the theme of the game.

Each PC starts with up to three catch phrases, and up to three backgrounds.

Tag lines, catch phrases, and backgrounds are collectively called “aspects”. Every aspect has a value, and these initial aspects all start with a value of 1. Mechanically, all aspects are identical; the names “tag line”, “catch phrase”, and “background” are only there to give an idea of how those aspects should be thematically structured. The values of aspects are ONLY important during die rolls.

Each player starts each session with three tokens. Tokens do the following things:
  • A player can give the GM a token to make something unexpected but not unreasonable happen.
  • The GM or another player can give a player a token to compel that player to do something unexpected but not unreasonable in line with one of his aspects.
  • The GM or another player can give a player a token as a reward for going out of his way to do something cool in line with one of his aspects or one of the setting’s aspects.
Die rolls occur when a player is trying to do something where success and failure both have dramatic potential, or when a player is trying to do something that their character could conceivably do, but would be a major effort or minor miracle for them to do successfully. Die rolls work like this:
  1. The player tells the GM what aspect he's using for the roll. If he has no applicable aspect, he must make one up on the spot, with a value of zero.
  2. The GM tells the player the difficulty of the action, between 0 and 6, but usually around 1.
  3. The player rolls three FUDGE dice, adds them together, and adds the aspect’s value.
  4. If the result of the roll plus the aspect value is equal to or greater than the difficulty, the player succeeds. Otherwise, he fails. The severity of the result (positive or negative) roughly depends on how far the roll was from the difficulty.
When a player makes a roll using a new aspect made up on the spot with a zero value (regardless of whether or not the roll succeeds), he has the option of buying it as a permanent aspect with a value of one for 3 tokens. When a player makes a roll using an aspect he already has (also regardless of whether or not the roll succeeds), or receives a token for using one of his aspects in a clever way, he has the option of increasing its value by one by spending a number of tokens equal to the new value.

A player shouldn’t buy more than one new aspect per session, and shouldn’t improve more than one aspect per session.

The GM can also force new aspects on players -- usually a mostly-negative aspect as the result of a badly failed roll. These new aspects also start out with a value of one. As above, though, the GM shouldn’t force more than one new aspect on each character per session.

Aspects (especially the mostly-negative ones imposed by the GM) can change or even go away with enough time, explanation from the player, and/or expenditure of tokens. Of course, players can also figure out ways to turn mostly-negative aspects into advantages, and even increase their values.

That’s everything you need to play, all in only one page!
I have not asked permission to reproduce that page, so there's a chance the original author will make demands that I take this down, apologize, compose epic poetry celebrating his greatness, wear my underwear on my head for a month, or something reasonable like that.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Power to the Players

In my Deadlands campaign, the PCs have a lot of power.
  • 3 of them started out with the Veteran O' The Weird West edge.
  • We're using the fate chip rules, so Bennies have a bit more power than vanilla Savage Worlds. What's more, I hand out the bennies like drama dice were goin' out of style.
  • Two of the PCs are Blessed, the arcane background with unlimited power (as long as you don't sin).
  • We're using the Adventure Deck*, which really empowers the players. I'm using some house-rules on damage that favor the posse, too.
  • During story time (the start of every session) they can improvise elements into the setting or back story with really no restriction.
Honestly, I have zero control over this campaign - all the power is in the Player's Hands. It's a hoot!

Of course, that'll change a bit when they catch up to Cobb. [Evil Laughter] I have plans for that session (or sessions, 'cause it might involve a cliff-hanger).

* = The Adventure Cards are a downloadable PDF (available at Drive Thru RPG for like $5 or $10) that you print off on cardstock. The cards have various one-time-use benefits. Some are bonus dice, some are plot elements, etc. Each player gets one at the start of each session. The players can trade them if they get something that doesn't fit their character, or if one player hates his card but the others like it. They go away if unused by the end of the session, so you can't horde them.

Four example cards to give you a feel for what they can do:
  • Villainous Verbosity - play to make an NPC lose his next action by gloating or talking about his master plan.
  • Love Interest - the player plays this card to create a romantic connection between them and the target NPC.
  • Backstab - add +1d20 (!) to any single trait roll or damage roll vs any allied character, including PCs.
  • Folk Hero - play after you save a group of people from dire circumstances. The community adopts you and your party as local heros, and you can always find aid there.
The cards give a lot of power to the players, but in really narrow and unpredictable ways - there's around 50 in the basic deck, IIRC. I love how they spice up the game. I put my in opaque-backed sleeves, and deal them out face-down, so the PCs can surprise me. Shakes things up nicely.

Git along, little undead doggies!

I was very pleased with Sunday's session of Deadlands. We're settling in pretty good, and the mechanics were less of a burden this time. I'm taking some liberty with the setting, but I think it's all for the best.
As the PCs have chased after Finnegan Cobb, I've established a few important trends. He's leaving some very peculiar undead in his wake. They've put down a Vampire, a skeletal coachman, 3 zombies, and some sort of pedophile werewolf miner. All of them have defied gravity to one extent or another - even those that resembled zombies were able to float in three dimensions - and they've got some insanely gory regenerative capabilities. When a PC uses a fate chip to soak a wound, we describe how they were just barely grazed, or some lucky break protected them. When I spend a fate chip to soak for one of Cobb's undead, however, I describe the awful wound the player definitely gave them, and then put some eerie twist on how it heals up. Blood baths, bone fragments, whirling revolver cylinders where the internal organs should have been, fleshy masses and flayed skulls, etc. The players have to overwhelm the monsters regenerative powers, and then burn the still quivering remains.

I've also been having the hunt grow larger. Cobb's apparently chasing his wife, but is in turn being followed by the undead he's created. There's also a ghost (or crazy man?) in a 100 year old British Officer's uniform, a creepy family from Back East, and the Necronomicon somehow tied up in everything. Eventually I'll reveal more here, but at the moment I don't want to spoil surprises for my players. It's not just random, I've got an arc planned out.

Every session starts with "story time", the tales told round the campfire. I have one prepped for each session, and the players are free to add their own. So far, I've given them tales from the point of view of Ol' Smokey, the ghost of a man who burned to death in the drunk tank when Shallow Gulch got put to the torch by Cobb. This has let me hint plot elements and character details in anticipation of the sessions, and the players have followed those leads quite nicely. Very much enjoying the avenues this opens up for the game. Finnegan and Sapphira Cobb have yet to appear "on screen", but it feels like the PCs have a real good sense of who they are from Ol' Smokey's terror-striken anecdotes and the clues they've puzzled out on the trail.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Henching International Temporary Services

Despite my grumblings about the rules, I had good fun playing Risus last night.

It was a superhero scenario, where the PCs were the henchmen of a supervillain. Actually, we were temps. We worked for H.I.T.S., Henching International Temporary Services.

I played a big dumb thug. My attributes (called "cliches" in Risus) were:
  • "Want I should whack dem now, boss?"
  • Gettin in ta fings.
  • Keep on Truckin.
We were using this house rule where every PC also has a boon and a bane, which can boost or penalize other actions. My boon was "immovable object" and my bane was "big as an armored car". The later was applied literally. I was a normal human from the waist down, but had something like a 14 foot shoulder span.

We'd been hired by a supervillain named Chow Fun Yung, The Yellow Peril. He was an exageration of ridiculous pulp villains like Dr Fu Manchu. He gave us all spiffy yellow costumes and proper henchmen names tied in to various Asian menu items.
  • I was Yam Pot,
  • Sarah's wiry contortionist acrobat was Udon Noodle,
  • Eric's unappreciated yes man was named Pig's Ear,
  • John's aged, possum-playing, Henching Union organizer was named Thousand Year Egg,
  • Steve's crooked beat cop was named Special Pork Surprise.
We were hired to rob a charity benefit. The supervillain's alter ego was the caterer of the event. He pretended to have nothing to do with the crime, and was an "innocent victim" of our attack, so he could have an alibi. That was a fairly clever way for the GM to keep the NPC supervillain from overshadowing us PC henchmen. Of course, it meant we were without guidance from da boss for most of the session, which meant we improvised... fairly poorly. The group tended to splinter, because half of us were dumb, and the rest incompetent. Jolly good fun.

I got beat up by Miss America - the superhero who once won a major beauty pagaent. I also got beat up by her Red, White and Blue Helicopter. I awoke in jail, and had a hard time getting reunited with the rest of the group. I was really good at getting in ta fings, but not so good at gettin out uv um. Once I got moving, though, it was hard to stop me, thanks to "Keep on truckin".

Risus is actually a c6

Last night (at the Emerald City Game Feast), I played in a Risus game, and my PC got knocked unconscious by Miss America. While I was out of commission, I picked up the printout of the Risus rules that someone had brought to the table, and started looking at them.

I noticed several things we were doing "wrong". Not wanting to be a rules lawyer, I said nothing. I may bring it up with the group before the next time we play Risus again, I just wasn't going there at that moment. The notion of arguing over rules in the middle of a scene is excruciatingly vile to me, even if the thing we did "wrong" was part of what caused my character to be knocked out just then.

More importantly, and more to the point, in those 5 minutes of reading I learned a good deal about Risus that I hadn't known before. I've played it several times, but had never read it. When designing my Crunchometer, I had rated Risus as a c4, upgraded to a c6 if this one optional rule was being used. I've never played with said optional rule, I've just heard three different GMs say they had no intention of using such a rule because mucks up an otherwise elegant system.

Having now skimmed the rules, I can say that Risus is not as simple as I believed it to be. It's not really a c4. It's a solid c6 (even without the dreaded optional rule that I still know nothing about). I've played it under 4 GMs, and they've all abstracted / house-ruled the game into something a whole bracket simpler than the rules as written. The more complicated by-the-books rules actually strike me as far more robust than the dumbed down version we've been playing, but it's not as easy to remember across the months between one-shots.

I think I'll have to download Risus and read it more thoroughly sometime.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Dreams In The Witch House

My Trail of Cthulhu game is chugging along full speed. We're four sessions in, and 3 of them have been fantastic (the initial session was a little wobbly). Last night, I had this lengthy dream about the campaign, just a dream about how much fun the campaign is. A dream about the excitement and energy of the campaign. It was one of the best dreams I've ever had, but words can't seem to do it justice.

It's weird that we're enjoying it so much, because Life is starting to imitate Art... in some fairly eerie and un-enjoyable ways...

  • In one session, her investigation took my wife's PC to Arkham Asylum, where a rather creepy patient started stalking her, and had to be beat up and sedated by the orderlies.
A couple days later, in the real world, my wife was followed around the Hospital she works at by a guy just creepy enough that she ended up calling security.

It didn't stop there.
  • In two of the sessions, there have been appearances (fleeting glimpses out of the corner of the eye) of The Black Man - an incarnation of Nyarlathotep with ebony skin but Anglo features, and dressed all in black from hat to cloven foot. When I'd described him, I'd added the detail that his eyes were extremely blood shot, as if the darkness were trying to occlude the only light color on his entire body. In one scene, I'd also described him not in the formless wizardly robes Lovecraft mentions, but in fashionable (but all black) attire for the period.
Yesterday, when she got home, she told me that she stood next to a man at the bus stop near her hospital that was dressed in all black, from black fedora and black suit coat on down. He was African American, with really rich dark skin, but she ended up not really examining his features beyond his eyes. He had clearly sustained some sort of recent eye trauma that was healing, as his eyes had virtually no whites and were almost entirely blood-colored. Once she noticed that, she took pains not to look at his face or feet.

If this were a horror DVD, we'd be at the point where the viewer shouts at his TV:
"Quit reading the creepy book, you idiots! It's not a source of clues to what's going on, it's what's causing your situation! Dumbass unbelievable characters - no one in the real world would keep poking at the bear like that..."
I'm pretty sure we're gonna keep playing Trail of Cthulhu, despite the way life keeps imitating the game, and the very in-genre implication that such parallels will only grow worse over time. I guess that means horror films aren't that unbelievable after all.

Thursday, March 19, 2009


In February, Lockheed Martin revealed a new exoskeleton system. I just found out about it today. Have a look at the soldier of the future...

...and read about it here.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


I'm trying to install CommentLuv on this blog, but js-kit is having errors. Hopefully I'll get it sorted out soon, because I think CommentLuv is pretty cool. Basically, it's a little plug-in thingy that lets people who are commenting on posts link back to a post of their own that's relevant. Yeah, you can do so yourself with a href tag, but CommentLuv makes it painless and quick (and keeps it from feeling like an egotistical form of self-promotion). Besides, if you folks link to relevant posts at your own blogs, I'll have more reading material with which to while away my copious amounts of free time.

To Sandbox, Or Not To Sandbox

A sandbox campaign is one where the whole world is realized, and the players can go anywhere and follow whatever paths or play style motivates them. In a sandbox campaign, the world is (or isn't) a scary place, and challenges exist independent of PC level - if the map reads "here be dragons" you'd best not go there if you aren't prepared to deal with dragons (or just aren't high enough level).

The opposite would be a structured narrative campaign, where a particular plotline is presented to the players, and they are encouraged to address / pursue it. In the narrative campaign, the universe scales up with character growth. There's probably a Big Bad, or other real dillemma the campaign revolves around. Said Big Bad probably sends minions after the PCs in the early stages, and the PCs don't get to face him until they've leveled up or accumulated the mystical MacGuffins needed to defeat him. If the players try to jump the gun, or meander far afield, the GM discourages this behavior with methods subtle or overt.

I've done both, and tend to shift between the two modes depending on what kind of game I'm running at the moment. More often, I do the Sandbox treatment for campaigns, and scripted narratives for one-shots and short-shots, but that's not how I run things 100% of the time.

I've run several Amber campaigns over the years. Sometimes, I put a major plot on the grill (the imminent destruction of the universe is the classic Amber trope) and put the players on a clock. Other times, I've just created a backdrop, and left the players to their own schemes and motivations set against that backdrop. Both tactics have resulted in really good campaigns, as well as less memorable ones. One of the neat truths about Amber is that if the players want to make it a sandbox, they can do so. They have the power to travel to any world they can imagine, so the GM has to really understand his setting and be prepared to improvise.

Continuum was another game where the Sandbox status was pretty much in the players hands. I definitely presented them with a plot, especially in the more structured second half of the campaign, but the ability to teleport and time travel at will meant I had to be prepared for massive deviations from my plans. On top of the usual sandbox requirement of knowing where my NPCs were at all times, I also had to know when my NPCs were at all places. That was a fun challenge.

That middle ground is also occurring in my current Trail of Cthulhu game. There's a definite mystery plot afoot, but the PC has uncovered other things not related to the prime mystery. The PC in this game lacks the ability to travel parallel worlds or span the ages, but I've given her a map of Arkham, and her choice to suddenly drop in unannounced at various locations has definitely thickened the plot and stirred the setting. My wife (the player in the campaign) has been told out-of-character that this is Arkham, and at any given time many schemes are in motion. Big threats, of the "Cthulhu awakes and devours the eastern seaboard" variety, will be foreshadowed and made a part of the prime narrative. Lesser threats, but ones still capable of driving the individual PC mad or killing her, may be scattered through-out the setting. If she goes around kicking in random doorways, she'll complicate things, but it may also be fun. Behind that door might be a potential allie you can rescue, or maybe the barely-contained elder horror that will just rip you apart. For a game base in Lovecrafts cold / uncaring / non-humano-centric / atheistic / alien universe, this sandbox of danger approach seems particularly fitting.

My current Deadlands game, however, is shaping up the opposite way. Mainly, this is because of a player in the campaign being allergic to cats. We like this guy a lot, and we wouldn't dream of excluding him. I have two cats, so if we want him in the game (and we do) the game must be hosted elsewhere than my home. That means I have to keep things simple. I don't want to have to haul a huge assortment of minis, sourcebooks, campaign notes, and NPC sheets around. My first session I had to drag twice as much stuff as was really feasible for the long run. I've been trimming and reorganizing since then. The best solution is to keep everything simple, and have the PCs on a single coherent path. Then I only have to know about the next town on the trail, not have memorized every nook and bad guy of the entire Dakota Territory.

Cornerstones of Conspiracy

Verisimilitude is really important to me, even when I'm not running a "sandbox" style of game. The key to making your setting believable is to really understand how it works. Sooner or later, the players will ask some crazy question out of left field. When they do, you want to be able to answer it quickly while remaining confident that the answer doesn't contradict other statements you've made (or will make) about the setting. To be able to do so, you have to really understand the foundations of your campaign, and how things are behind the scenes, and how things got to be the way they are now. One way to get there is to ask yourself lots of questions about the setting.

I feel that the following three questions are ones the GM should know the answer to when running any modern-day game (or any game with time travel). They aren't the only questions I'd contemplate, but they are biggies with far-reaching implications. The questions are:
  1. What was the Templar's Treasure, and where did it go?

  2. What really happened in Roswell in 1947?

  3. Who shot JFK, and why?
Crazy, huh? Those three questions answer over 90% of modern conspiracy theory, and will of course be of greatest value to a game dealing with such theories. However, they also fill in tons of other background details that creep into every corner of modern reality. Is god real and powerful, a meek absentee landlord, or just a mass delusion? That depends on your answer to question #1. Is mankind alone in the universe? That depends on your answer to question #2. Is our government a flawed but admirable system of, by and for the people - or is it nothing more than a brutal weapon of class warfare wielded by The Rich? That depends the answers to 2 and 3.

I suppose it's more honest to say that the answers to those questions depend on the various facts about the setting, rather than the other way around. A weather balloon crashing in Roswell doesn't necessarily mean there's no other intelligent life in the universe, for example, but that's just splitting hairs. It's more useful to ask yourself the three simple questions than to confront the big picture from a purely abstract vantage point. While dealing with an abstraction, it's easy to fall into the trap of contradicting yourself without realizing it, or leaving things in an unresolved quantum state. The questions force you to be concrete, and expose unintended contradictions.

But of course, there's a fourth question, the one that really brings the campaign alive:
4. What impact does all this have on the characters in my game?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

All Fiend Folio, All The Time

Ah, the much-derided Fiend Folio. Whenever a list of hated monsters from D&D comes up, you can bet several of them graced the pages of that first edition Fiend Folio. Some are just too silly. Others are actually cool descriptions, but wasted on yet another 1+1 HD critter (with no special powers) and which just doesn't fill a role kobolds, ogres or orcs didn't already cover. A handful of others are now-classic (and perhaps even over-used) races that seem to be always played-against-type by fanboys and best-selling-novelists alike.

Yet at the same time, the Fiend Folio accounts for about 52% of the things that keep the D&D setting from being just another overdone generic fantasy rip-off. Go read your first edition Monster Manual, and you'll find nearly everything comes from Tolkien or folklore. The handful of critters that don't spring from such a source (Beholders, Mind Flayers, and the like) really stand out, like you're watching a "one of these kids is doing his own thing" segment on the Sesame Street of our youth. The Fiend Folio was the book that said "if this setting can have Otyughs and Lurker Aboves, it can have freakin' anything!" Fiend Folio took that concept with it when it went to town.

For all it's flaws, the Fiend Folio was clearly something special.

Reflecting on this, I thought it might be interesting to run an "All Fiend Folio, All The Time" campaign. If a critter isn't detailed in the FF, it doesn't exist. And yes, that means no humans. PCs would be Bullywugs, Flinds, Snyads, Tabaxi or Xvart*. An Ogrillion monk would be a good PC choice too, but it opens the can of worms of how you explain Ogrillions (an Ogre-Orc crossbreed) in a setting that lacks Ogres and Orcs.

My first inclination was to do a wimpy compromise. Flinds seemed hampered if they didn't have Gnolls, so I thought perhaps I'd allow any critter that was mentioned in the Fiend Folio, even if it's stats were located elsewhere. On further research, I can tell that's just not gonna work. I knew my beloved Flinds mention Gnolls, and that was in fact part of why I contemplated this route. Little did I realize they also mention Orcs, Hobgoblins, Bugbears, Ogres, and Trolls. If that's what one monster entry coughs up, I imagine it'd be a normal D&D setting by the time you were done listing the cross-references. Drow mention other Elves, Ettercaps mention Spiders, Nilbogs mention Goblins, and then there's new Devils, Demons, Giants, Trolls, etc. Better to just draw the line and say if it's stats aren't in Fiend Folio, it's just a myth.

Of course, that means the local ecology and environment are pretty bizarre. Plant life is restricted to Algoids, Kelpies, Whip Weed, Wither Weed, and Yellow Musk Creeper, all of which are just as likely to eat you as to become salad. I'm thinking Al-Mi'Raj and Rothé steaks are the mainstays of every meal, augmented by the occasional fried Blood Hawk or Urchin sushi. (Speaking of which, we're probably looking at a gem-based economy, considering that Urchins and Carbuncles both grow them.) You wash it all down with a little fermented Stun Jelly. That, or maybe the priests are relied upon heavily for their Create Food and Water spells. Discovery of the rutabega would be ripe with all the promise of a modern get-rich-quick scheme.

About 40% of the critters in the Fiend Folio either are subterranean or from the Elemental Plane of Earth, and another 40% are from the Ethereal or Astral Plane. So I think we dump the contradictory baggage that is the planes, and just declare the setting to be large asteroids floating in the ether with all the critters in the FF being native to the whole place. The PCs are from an asteroid composed of one or two city-states (with sprawling fortress-farms where the dangerous food sources are kept under armed guard), and most adventures start with other asteroids crashing into, accreting into, or recently arriving in orbit around them.

Sounds like fun, though probably just for a one-shot or short-shot.

*: Oh sure, you could nudge up the power range a tidge to feature Drow, Sverfneblin, Kuo-Toa, and the two flavors of Gith as Player Character races. Doing would no doubt simplify the process of recruiting players to this hypothetical campaign. At the same time, I kinda feel like giving the players something as comfortably familiar as the Dark Elves and Deep Gnomes is sort of squandering the uniqueness of the All Fiend Folio setting. Then again, now that I've contemplated the weirdness of the rest of the environment, perhaps giving the players access to the good ol' familar Drow is a really good move towards making the setting approachable.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Rite of Passage for Time Travelers

I've been writing a bunch over at the Arcana Wiki, and in the process a concept for a really messed-up time-travel game just hit me.

This would take a setting where things are Fated to be, and the universe bends over backwards to preserve it's own continuity. Within such a setting, murdering Hitler could be a Right of Passage for time travelers. Any right-minded person with the ability to travel time would surely try to stop the Holocaust, but no one ever succeeds. The universe pulls out all the stops trying to keep WWII on track, and Hitler's early life gets more and more convoluted. It'd be important to establish that Hitler was already a genocidal madman before any time-travelers tried to kill him, you wouldn't want to accidentally imply that the attempts on his life made him crazy.

It'd also be important to make this plot protection apply to the whole world and all of recorded history, so that there wouldn't be an unfortunate implication that Hitler was somehow protected from on high any more so than anyone else is. I imagine it'd be impossible to change history in any way. The GM would probably need to ad-lib radically, blocking random PC actions frequently. The past would be a big padded room, that you could bounce off of but never alter. As such it would get very frustrating to play in a campaign this way, but could make for an interesting short story or one-shot RPG session.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Theodore Gericault

I've name dropped Theodore Gericault in my Trail of Cthulhu campaign. Probably, it's just a verisimilitude-rich nugget of background flavor, but you never know. It came up that the recently murdered Mayor in my setting had previously purchased some unknown works by Gericault.

And yet, for no reason in particular, I wrote up a bit on Gericault over at Arcana Wiki.

More Arcana Wiki Meme

I couldn't believe Arcana Wiki lacked a page on Memes, so I added one. I've felt for a long time that they've got some spectacular gaming potential, and I used them a little in my Scion campaign. It was fun dreaming up ways to color Memes in an RPG:
  • Memes could, within the context of an RPG, turn out to be a form of alien life, supernatural creature, or wizardry. It's not just a catchy pop song, it's a mind-warping horror from another world!
  • Given a critical threshold of believers, a meme could develop into a Mythago or Egregore.
  • A particularly virulent meme could result in a rapid transformation of a society. Consider Dutch Tulipomania in 1637, or the rise of Nazi Germany. In RPG terms, a society "attacked" by a meme could "reverse alignment" in just a few weeks.
That's some heady stuff, and not necessarily easy to work into just any old game.

So, I added a couple of concrete noun pages while I was at it: a page on LeMat Revolvers, and a page on Gyrojets. The wiki's gun page was just a stub, and needed some content. While I'm no firearms expert, those oddball historical guns were something I knew a touch about (and more importantly, I knew what sources to reference for more data) so I could summarize them easily.

My writing about the LeMat last night inspired someone else to put up a page on the Buntline Special, which is an even cooler western firearm that I'd all but forgotten about. I'd forgotten how much fun contributing to a wiki can be.

pimping the Arcana Wiki meme

Yesterday, I started posting to the Arcana Wiki. It's a fledgling wiki, less than a year old, but it's got some serious potential. It's similar to Wikipedia or the TV Tropes Wiki, except specifically aimed at gaming and gamers. Thus far, the articles tend to be much briefer than either of those longer-established wikis.

What makes Arcana Wiki cool is that each (or at least most) articles end with a "Game and Story Use" section, where various plot hooks and character concepts are provided, to explore ways in which the topic of that entry could be used in an RPG. It's not just an encyclopedia, it more like a big group brainstorm of neat things you could do in a role-playing game. Most pages start with the accepted facts on a topic, and then wrap up with conspiracy theories, what if's, ways you could twist it in an RPG, plotlines this topic would suggest, etc. With gamers being the intended audience, it can devote pages to subjects that would only get a skeptical gloss-over (or be vulnerable to constant flame-wars over how to edit it) on wikipedia.

I plan on contributing to Arcana Wiki quite frequently, and you might consider doing so, to. Come on, you know ya wanna. It'll be fun.

(Even if you don't contribute, you're still welcome to steal ideas from it, as that's clearly the point of the endeavor.)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

6 of one, half a dozen epidemics

My wife and I picked up the boardgame Pandemic in early February. It's a cooperative game where you play the CDC, attempting to save the world from several simultaneous outbreaks. We enjoy it quite a bit, though I've wondered (even before we bought it) if perhaps it didn't have enough complexity. Game play is a little repetitive, but it turns out it's fun even on the 27th play.

The game has three levels of difficulty: Introductory, Normal and Heroic. The only real difference is the number of Epidemic cards in the deck. It'll be 4, 5, or 6 depending on the difficulty. Looking at that, you'd expect the jump from Introductory to Normal (a 25% increase in the number of Epidemics) would be bigger than the jump from Normal to Heroic (only a 20% increase in the number of Epidemics).

The game is pretty fast, so we typically get in about 3 plays on the nights we break it out.

The first two nights, we played on Introductory level, and we won. That wasn't nearly challenging enough, and the second night felt like there was no real danger of losing. So we switched to Normal difficulty with a record of 6 for 6.
At Normal, the game was a bit trickier, but we still won 12 games without losing. A few of them were close, but we were 18 for 18, and felt like it was time to step it up again.
Since switching to Heroic, we haven't won a single game. 0 for 9 on Heroic, 18 for 27 overall.

I can't figure out what we're doing wrong, why we can't even get close to beating the Heroic difficulty. We've tried a variety of tactics, and refined our methods with serious analysis between games. The 26th and 27th games, we even cheated a little. We picked the two character roles that we felt were the most powerful (and which combo very nicely as well), instead of assigning them randomly. We even looked at our opening hands and the initial infection placement before choosing which of us would go first.

In the 27th game, we'd not only cured, but actually wiped-out all trace 2 of the 4 pathogens, and had nearly cured the 3rd. It was the closest to a win we'd managed on Heroic. We weren't going to cure the 4th anytime soon, but it was manageable with no more than 2 cubes in any city (and 0 or 1 in most), and the medic was in that area. Half the cards in the deck were now safe, and it looked for sure like we were going to win. Then the 5th Epidemic card was drawn. A new city was drawn, and wouldn't you know it was that 4th color? The discards got shuffled and put atop the deck, and the new city came up again. It "outbroke" into 5 other cities, some of which already had 1 or 2 cubes in them. Drawing the rest of the cards for the turn lead to a total of 4 outbreaks - just exactly enough to make us lose the game via the outbreak meter.

From the verge of victory (with no sense of danger!) to utter loss in less than half a turn. It was awesome to see, just once, but painful to reflect upon.

Monday, March 9, 2009


I was writing this comment:
My ideal level of game-mechanics crunch is a little less than normal Savage Worlds, say 80% to 90% of SW's complexity, whereas Deadlands Reloaded runs about 115% of Savage Worlds, and F# is (to it's credit) only about 10-15% as crunchy as Savage Worlds.
and thought "how annoying. There's got to be a better way to express that concept!"

After some thought, I think I hit on it - how about if we express the complexity of game systems as die types? We'll use a "c" instead of a "d" so as to reduce confusion. Here's the scale I'm using:

c20: We start with c20, it establishes our first and most basic baseline for comparison. D&D 2.0, 3.0 and 3.5, along with the majority of their variants would be c20s. It's simple: d20 equals c20. If it's less complex than D&D 3.X, you bump it down a die type, if it's more complex, you go up a step or two (see below). 3.X, given enough player-accessible source books (especially mixed 3rd-party sources) can easily creep up above a c20 as well.

Another classic c20 game would be CP2020 - Cyberpunk doesn't have the tricky combat options of 3.X D&D, but makes up for it with the way it handles armor and damage, the enormous list of redundant skills, and the way cyberware totally transforms characters.

c12: A game like Savage Worlds is a c12. It's got some complexity, but streamlines a number of elements to simplify and speed up things better than c20 style game. A lot of generic systems fall into this category - they're not as detailed as D&D, but they still have fiddly bits. Many of them allow for a good deal of variety.

Old World of Darkness is a c12. It's almost light enough to be a c10, but the sliding success scale just nudges it up. Stick to just one type of supernatural, especially if it's just Vampires, and you're probably safe calling it a c10. Most of the complexity comes from mixing the streams, Mage, or that Combat book. Any of those make its a solid c12, maybe even a c14 (see below).

Other c12 examples would be Feng Shui (where the shot clock complicates some otherwise simple rules) and Rune (where the rigors of scenario design and need for player to know the game well enough to GM it bumps it up from the c8 the actual rules would have otherwise been).

c10: Mind's Eye Theatre (at least, the old Rock/Paper/Scissors version) is about here, but again only if you're not mixing your Supernatural types. It's core mechanics are fast and simple, but there's still a some fiddly bits, and a plenty of powers to memorize.

Old School D&D is probably in this category, too, but for the inverse reason - it's rules relied on silly charts, but were pretty darned light when you weren't looking at a chart. It's a c10 that feels like a c8 if you're not the GM or a spell-caster.

c8: Fate, Dogs In The Vineyard, Trail of Cthulhu, and the like. These are games that still have some granularity to their core mechanic and some modifiers to remember, but actively discourage miniatures, and tend to not have many spell descriptions to memorize, nor corner-case rules to look up. A game like this probably won't have an encumberance chart, instead abstracting weight-lifting to a strength roll, GM fiat, or common sense. What complexity is left here is most likely focused into character creation and a skill list. If a more experienced player walks you through the first session, you'll be running at full speed by the second one.

c6: We're deep into Indie-RPG "Hippy Game" territory, with things like InSpectres or Universalis (or Risus when you're not using those optional rules that most GMs skip). At this level, a game has only one or two core mechanics, and very few bells and whistles. There's certainly no spell lists, and not more than one or two charts. There's either no skills, or you can make your own. You can make a strategic mistake in a game like this, but not a tactical one. c6s are pretty simple, and you can usually get a handle on the whole game in a single session even if it's your first play. Fudge is probably a c6, though the use of words instead of numbers can make it feel like a c8 on your first couple play-throughs.

A Trail of Cthulhu game set in the "Purist" idiom, where combat was always a bad idea, and neither Stability or Sanity could be recovered would probably be a c6 rather than a c8.

c4: The epitome of elegance, such as Wushu, F#, or Risus at it's most simple version. Players define their own skills, or traits, or whatever you call it, and everyone starts out mechanically identical, with only flavor distinctions. One type of die roll solves everything, and modifiers are off the cuff. The rules fit on a single page, or close to it. If it got any less complex, you'd be flipping a coin, not rolling a die. ;)

Oddball dice: There are, of course, many dice beyond those found in a traditional 7-set, and I'd be remiss to leave them out:
If you're running a D&D game with a lot of houserules or allowing just about any published OGL sourcebook, then you're looking at something a bit more complex than a mere c20. You've bumped up to one of those odd-ball dice, a c24 or a c30. Warhammer Fantasy is also probably a c24, maybe a c30 if the GM relies on the random charts a lot or really pushes the Chaos themes.

It's a rare game, and again probably chart-filled, that gets above that, but I've seen (and will never play) a couple of games that looked like they might push towards a c100.

There's also few games out there that are like the tens-place d10 (numbered 00, 10, 20, 30, etc.) These are games with much lighter abstract mechanic, but a huge powers list, or the ability to make your own spells on the fly. In other words, simple games till you look at all the weird corner cases that players can push the system towards. That's my impression of Ars Magica and Mage: The Ascension, but I haven't played enough of either to really speak knowledgeably.

Between the c12 and c20 there's a couple of other weird dice as well, though most games stick heavily to the more common complexities. Just the same, I've seen some c14s and c16s out there. Exalted falls into that territory, as does Deadlands Reloaded. I think D&D 4th falls in this range as well, but I haven't played it enough to say for sure.

Scion was a c16 that'd had a corner filed down, so it rolled kinda funny and made the GM nervous.

Continuum was one of those double dice c10s. A hollow translucent d10 with a smaller opaque d10 inside it. It's skill and combat system was a little complicated, and the time-combat system was also a little complicated. Either on it's own would have been fast and easy, but trying to parse both simultaneously was a bit of a challenge.

And then there's the coin flips and the rock/paper/scissors affairs, the ultra-light c2s. Games that really have no mechanics, and are just collaborative storytelling experiments. Games like Amber, that hide the character sheets after the first session, and only let the GM know how the rules work.

My tastes typically run about a c10
, but you'll note that I offer very few examples of that complexity level. I'm just a crabby old grognard. Most games are either too complicated or not complicated enough. I like using miniatures when it's appropriate, and I want the PCs to each have their own special niche that no one else can fill. Even for the games I rated at a c10, I wasn't completely happy with. I've GM'd things all the way up to a c24 (7th Sea with a bunch of house rules, Rune with encounter design included, D&D with a lot of sourcebooks being utilized, etc), and also run extended (and successful) campaigns at complexity c2 (Amber and Everway). If a game is too complicated, I'll get sick of dealing with it, but the opposite has never really happened.

Two small hurdles with Deadlands

The second actual session (not counting character creation) of my Deadlands: Reloaded campaign is scheduled for this weekend. There's two snags, though:
  1. One of the players is out of town this weekend. Later in the campaign, that wouldn't be an issue - his character has the hindrance Ailin', so I could just say he's too sick to help. It's the second session, though, and in the first session we downplayed the illness, and the PC may not be intending to let the others know he's sick yet. The characters aren't established as fully as we'd like, and the backstory is still being fleshed out as we go - so that makes me a little nervous about playing without someone at this stage.
  2. Deadlands: Reloaded is a little more complicated than I like. Love the setting, but I'm not completely enamored with the mechanics, just yet. It's based on Savage Worlds, which is a game I like, but Savage Worlds occupies a niche just shy of the upper limit of the complexity I'm willing to put up with. If you were to get much more complicated than Savage Worlds, I'd probably say "no thank you". So, of course, Deadlands Reloaded is more complicated than vanilla Savage Worlds - the subsystems for magic and dueling are both much more fiddly than SW normally is, but they're also dripping with flavor and would be a shame to lose them. What I'm not sure of yet, is whether Reloaded is at, above, or just below the actual maximum complexity I'm willing to put up with. I need to decide whether to run it as-is, trim it down a little, or replace the system completely.
The obvious thought there is, I could solve both problems by delaying the session. If I waited till John got back in town to run session #2, I'd be buying myself the time to figure out what I wanted to do with the rules. Of course, taking a month off from a game comes with a certain danger of it's own, and I don't want to hamstring the campaign just as it's getting going. After all, I really like the setting and the characters we've seen so far.

Another option would be to try it again with the current rules-set and a notebook. This way I could get more feedback from the players on where to trim the rules fat. Problem with that is that the most vocal detractor (of the rules complexity) in our group is also the person who's out of town. He's also the only person without a spellcasting character. So, everyone else would be focused on streamlining parts of the rules that don't even apply to him. I'd hate to get feedback, make a bunch of changes, and then discover that we'd missed something vital to making it the sort of game he'll most enjoy.
When I started my last post, I nearly wrote "maybe I'll swap over Deadlands to F#" since it's super light and I need to do some serious playtesting for my friend that wrote F#.

But then I thought about that a bit more: I like F#, I'm excited to play/run F#, but I don't think it's a good match for the setting. With it's Western roots, and really nasty Supernatural villainy, the Deadlands setting needs a solid, semi-crunchy, tactical ruleset, where forgetting to take cover gets your hat (or head) shot off. While I house-ruled the potential for one-hit-kills right out of Savage Worlds, I still want a significant threat of death should the players decide to hunt Finnegan before they're ready. This is a game where characters can afford to be brave, but not brave and stupid.

F# is a lot more freeform - it gives players a lot of narrative freedom, coupled with very little chance of death. While I think that's a great match to my style of GMing, I don't think it's quite right for a game with the feel of "The Devil came to the Old West". I probably wouldn't be likely to run Wushu for Deadlands, either, for that matter. My ideal level of crunch is a little less than normal Savage Worlds, say 80% to 90% of SW's complexity, whereas Deadlands Reloaded runs about 115% of Savage Worlds, and F# is (to it's credit) only about 10-15% as crunchy as Savage Worlds.
If possible, I'd also like to keep to a system that uses playing cards and poker chips, since those mechanics are very flavorful. I'd also like the system to be at least semi-compatible with miniatures (since I bought some Lego injuns), and use the gamut of dice (since two of my players only had d6s and d10s before buying a 7-set expressly for this campaign).

Yeah, what I need is clearly Savage Worlds lite. I could probably create such a thing, if it's not out on the web already. However, I'm a little scared to do so.

I learned two things from running Scion:
  1. If the game system is more complicated than I want to run, I won't enjoy the game nearly as much. (On a related note, if I'm not enjoying the game, the quality of the campaign will suffer, and no one will enjoy it as much).
  2. Adding a bunch of spot-rules doesn't make a game less complicated, even if the individual rules you're adding are less complicated than the things they replace. (In other words, it's better to start over from the ground up then to apply more than a couple of simple patches.)
It's that second part that could foul up a Savage Worlds lite. A large number of houserules just mucks things up as you try to keep everything straight, and renders the published books almost dangerous to the players. I'll let you know if I find a solution.

Go check out F#

An ol' buddy of mine recently wrote a super-short RPG system called F# (pronounced "Eff Sharp"). [download link] It's based on Fate, which in turn is based on Fudge, and it trims both down quite nicely into an extremely elegant core. The rules fit on 1 page, and he includes about a dozen extra pages of in-depth explanations (and one optional rule). I'd like to encourage you to check it out - it's a fun read, and looks like a very flexible system. It's easy and light enough for con games and a variety of one-shots, and has decent character-development rules that tempt me to try running a campaign of it.

Trail of Cthulhu Session Recap

Synopsis: The Trail of Cthulhu campaign I'm running is a one-player game. Sarah (my wife) is playing a newspaper reporter named Ginny Malone. She's the new girl working at the Arkham Gazette, circa 1935. Her primary Drive is curiousity, and her Pillars of Sanity include such things as her Journalistic Integrity, and the belief that "bad things don't happen to good people".

The emotional map of the second session went like this:
  • Brief shock/creep-factor, quickly denied.
  • Angry fight, with Ginny winning the debate through the use of low-down-dirty tactics.
  • Minor frustration over bureaucratic hurdles and delays, solved by clever thinking.
  • Encouragement and gains via reconnecting with an old friend. A chance to rest.
  • Social ambush, off-kiltered to the defensive, and having to scramble to find a good cover story.
  • Relief as an acceptible compromise is reached.
  • Finally leading to more creepiness as she perused the ancient tome.
It was great fun going through the myriad forms of emotion for the session, and throwing dramatically different NPCs at her. Sarah responded in kind, putting a beautifully nuanced performance and some great key-turning moments. She was on fire last night, definitely some of her best gaming ever, and it provoked me to some great GMing, if I do say so myself.

The long form of the above:
Ginny Malone has an on-again-off-again tempestuous romance with a traveling perfume salesman named Charles. In game mechanics, Charles is one of her "Sources of Stability" meaning that comforting interactions with him can refresh her Stability pool. However, should he ever get tangled in the Mythos and killed or driven insane, it'll have some serious impact on her characters Stability and Sanity stats. This complicated relationship, and the fact that there were non-distracting mechanical reinforcements behind it, prompted the first of several really good scenes in our second session.
Backstory: In the first session, she'd been called by the Mayor, who offered her a scoop on a story he didn't want to talk about over the phone. They arranged a meeting over dinner, but the Mayor never showed. She got brave / curious enough to go check his house, and found his body. Curled up in a fetal position in the house was a man with amnesia, and a blood trail indicated this fellow had crawled from the scene of the Mayor's murder. Like any reporter would do, she called the police, and then snooped around and took photos while waiting for them to show up. Evidence she found indicated the Mayor lead a rather shocking secret life, which just confirmed her belief that good people don't wind up murdered.

The Mayor died clutching a journal, and that book was full of occult references and pornography. More disturbingly, it included a list of women's names, of which the only one that hadn't been crossed off yet was Ginny Malone (the PCs name). Needless to say, she removed the journal from the scene before the police arrived. The session concluded with her developing still and motion film taken from the site, and skimming the journal. The clues found there-in were deeply disturbing, and she'd compulsively cleaned her apartment (having failed a minor Stability roll) trying to shake it off. It was a neat little improv on Sarah's part.
Session Two started the next morning. She'd had creepy dreams involving the occult proceedings she'd seen on the film the Mayor had shot, and was awoken by a hand on her face. Turns out it was just Charles Harrington, her (currently ex-) boyfriend. Charles had the read the morning paper with her exclusive article about the Mayor's murder, and rushed over to check on her. She was upset that he must still have a key, and we immediately started exchanging verbal blows in-character.
In the middle of the argument, she notices that her carefully cleaned apartment is no longer so neatly organized. The 8mm projector is out again and reels of film are everywhere. She accuses Charles of snooping, and he insists it was like that when he arrived. "When'd you get into the Nickelodeon business, anyway?" Claims the Landlord had heard the sound of a projector running all night, like she'd been obsessively watching films. Implication being either someone else had broken in and watched the films without waking her, or she'd set the projector back up in her sleep. Either implication is kinda creepy, so she suggested Charles take her out to breakfast.
Sarah and I almost never fight - we're one of those sickeningly sweet couples that everybody else hates - but man did we have a blast pretending to be at each other's throats. The fight continued in Ginny and Charles car ride, and then round 2 at Velma's Diner, with us improvising old points of contention and things they'd done wrong before thier most recent break-up. She had an opportunity to reconcile, but at the risk of Charles becoming aware of this unspeakably bizarre occult mystery she was just starting to unravel. She chose to shelter him from it, but doing so made the fight that much more volatile, as she wouldn't explain her headspace or what she was so spooked by. Very much a soap-opera scene, obviously, not a common scene type for most RPGs. It was a lot of fun to play out thier fighting dirty while trying to keep a public face on it at the restaurant. Eventually, Charles storms out.

Now way too unnerved to go home, Ginny decides to go track down some other leads. She heads to Miskatonic University, to search the card catalog for anything referencing this Goddess named "Mormo" that was mentioned in the Mayor's journal - as understanding whether he'd been a harmless goof or a dangerous maniac would depend on what kind of cult he'd been tied up in. I wasn't expecting her to pursue that clue above various more-pressing ones, but as it turns out, I'd known that an old, half-burned manuscript on the subject was within the rare book room. It took some Library Use skill and minor social finagling, but she was able to get a dottering old professor to arrange a few hours with the manuscript if she came back later. There'd been a recent break-in at the rare book room, and a manuscript stolen, so the University staff was being very cautious now. Arranging to come back at 3:00 when there'd be an extra librarian available to control her access to the rare book room, she headed off on a diferent lead.
There'd been a dozen women on the list in the Mayor's journal, but only one (other than herself) that Ginny really knew: Rosina Tsura. Rosina had attended college at the same time as Ginny, they had taken a couple classes together and frequently gone to the same parties. Two months ago, Rosina invited Ginny to the grand opening of her new art gallery. Rosina had hoped Ginny would be writing a review for the paper, and Ginny had felt a little used. They exchanged only a few uncomfortable sentences at the Opening, and hadn't spoken since. This backstory was delivered as a semi-out-of-character synopsis, where Sarah was allowed to contribute details to their friendship and the events of the opening, as long as it ended with two months of not talking to each other.
Moving into the scene, Rosina was now very happy to see her, and very apologetic for her ill manners that fateful day two months back. She'd been unlucky in love, and the Opening wasn't going the way she'd wanted, etc. Many factors had contributed to her lack of patience at the time, but the Gallery was scraping by now, and she was willing to admit her part in the unfortunate conflict they'd had. This was, of course, designed to strongly contrast against the previous scenes where clues had been dangled just out of reach. Rosina was friendly, ammicable, and revealed a great deal of useful information of a non-sinister nature. After coffee and catching up, Ginny took photos of the gallery, and promised to write up a favorable review. She spent a couple valuable resource points making the article really good, so the Gallery would prosper - and I rewarded her with a two-point Dedicated Pool that could be used in future stories to call in favors and support from her dear friend Rosina. I think this lighter humanizing scene was really important to "selling" the session, and getting the character invested in the setting. Cthulhu can devour humanity any day he pleases, but that's only horrifying if there's at least a couple humans you kinda like.

It turns out, by the way, that Rosina had been involved in a wildfire secret romance with the Mayor for about a month. In that time, he'd plyed her with money and favors, even kicking in the money (and donating a Gericault sketch) needed to make her dream of opening a Gallery complete - but then he broke up with her earlier in the day of her Grand Opening. Rosina was ignorant of the greater implications of this tale, but it wasn't lost on Ginny. Or lost to Sarah, who seemed to be parsing my subtext quite well.

Coupled with some things she'd learned by reading the Mayor's Journal, I believe Ginny has concluded that the list of women the Mayor was crossing off indicated those he'd seduced in a search for a woman with a particular birthmark - a birthmark her character has. He'd gone to great expense to earn Rosina's trust, and then apparently dumped her once he'd gotten what he wanted. He'd reached the end of his list, and the night he was about to put the moves on the last woman (Ginny herself), someone killed him. Obviously, I can't comment on the accuracy of those conclusions - as figuring these things out is part of what makes mystery/investigative game fun.
It was getting close to her 3 o'clock appointment back at the Library, so Ginny bid Rosina adieu. She arrived at the University, expecting to have some more quality time with this old hand-written occult Tome. Instead, what she got was ambushed by the head of the Department, who had not been present on her initial arrival in the morning. Dr. Armitage took her aside to a private room, and applied the screws. Suddenly, she was being interviewed, and not the other way around. A loud in-character interrogation, full of bluster and bravado. Feign ignorance, and he'll write you off as just some pathetic child - go read Poe if you're just looking for a good scare! Show too much knowledge, and he'll decide you're a some crazed cultist. At either extreme, he won't let you near that Tome again, and if you really answer wrong, you just might end up tied to a chair.

I lit the fire under her feet, and watched her dance. She squeaked it out, but it was pretty choppy at a couple points, and she ended up having to give out more information than she wanted to. She has provisional access to the first 11 folios of the tome, provided that Armitage or someone he trusts is present, and she must give him a copy of any articles referencing Mormo before she sends them to her editor. The 12th Folio, and, indeed, the mere knowledge that it even exists, goes nowhere, young lady!
This compromise will, of course, lead to further conflicts both in- and ex-ternal, since her Journalistic Integrity is one of her Pillars of Sanity. That's okay, though, as Sarah indicated before the campaign began that she was looking forward to playing the descent into madness of the traditional Lovecraftian lead character. More fun ahead, no doubt.

I'm really digging Trail of Cthulhu

When I bought Esoterrorists, nearly a year ago, I was excited by the possibilities of the system. Reading the Cthulhu version of Esoterrorist's GUMSHOE system a few months later, I really enjoyed the fresh take on the mythos, and was hopeful I'd get to run it some day. Since then, I'd happily lifted GMing advice from it for use with other games. However, my first session of Trail of Cthulhu was a little shaky, and events in life kept us from getting to the second session until this weekend, so the fate of the campaign was a little iffy.

I'm happy to report that despite that uneven start nearly a month ago, and despite having a lot on my plate this past week, the most recent session freakin' rocked! I'm on a roll.

Seriously, this was probably my favorite RPG session in just over two years. Most of the really good sessions I've run lately were very light and mostly humorous games, and it had been a while since I'd pulled off a more dramatic session that I was really truly proud of.

Those of you who've gamed with me for years are well aware that the style I most like to run is artsy and character-driven, with some pretty weighty method-acting and frequent moral dillemas. Since moving to Seattle some 20 months ago, I've really only successfully achieved that in a single session of a campaign, and I was missing that style of gaming. Since Continuum, I'd been running games that were more about problem solving then character dynamics, and more often over-the-top than fully-realized. Mostly featuring briefly sketched-on-the-surface characterizations instead of the deeper theatre-in-the-round experience. Continuum, too, while featuring very cerebral multi-layered plotlines, had fairly shallow character studies. Trail of Cthulhu, however, is a perfect match for the style of game I'd been wanting to run. The mechanics are really minimal and easy to remember. They mostly fade into the background, and never seem to conflict with gut instinct or real-world logic, so you can focus your energies on setting, story, and character portrayals.

Our session involved only a single die roll - but don't interpret that to mean nothing happened. Most skill uses (in the system) don't involve dice, they just involve reminding the GM that you have the relevant skill, and possibly spending a point of it. It's just like CSI or Sherlock Holmes - they never fail to collect the finger prints or find the bloody murder weapon, as long as they take a moment to search the room where the clue is. At the same time, there's a decent chance the Player Characters will be preoccupied and forget to search the room. First session, I hadn't quite figured out all the implications of how that works, but having several weeks between sessions let me process if further, and better refine how I structured the clues.

It worked like a charm this time. The system is so light, you can concentrate on the clues, the characters, and the scenes - and not worry about balancing monster stats, looking up lengthy combat options, or setting the difficulty and consequences of a search roll so that success isn't guaranteed but failure doesn't completely derail the plot. It was liberating.

The downside is that a fair amount of prepwork goes into the game. That's less a function of the rules, and more a function of the format of mystery scenarios. Building an investigative plotline that holds water and is bolstered with the proper amounts of verisimilitude isn't easy. There's a delicate balance to be achieved. 95% of the time, you want to give the players just the clues, let them draw their own conclusions. The danger of that is that sometimes they'll jump to some idea that is completely at odds with the connection you expected them to make. In those situations, you need a way to get them back on track, prefferably via an organic and in-character means. Not only do you prep the scenes you're hoping to run, but you also have to put a bit of thought into scenes you hope to never run, scenes where even the unintended red-herrings eventually somehow lead back to the main plot.

And yet, at the same time, failure needs to still be possible - if the players ignore your subtle attempts to redirect and pursue the wrong threads repeatedly, or worse yet, spin their wheels ineffectively or dither, there must be some sort of consequence. The trick, then, is to come up with consequences that add to the drama, instead of short-circuiting it. Trail of Cthulhu and Esoterrorists, with their rules-light approach and solid narrative-building advice, make that whole mystery-crafting process a lot easier than in most games.

Friday, March 6, 2009

GM set to overload

That whistling sound you hear in the background is just me, not a Phaser set on self-destruct / overload. Close enough, though.
  • Sunday: 1st Session of Deadlands Reloaded, which I'd never run before. It's a big step up in complexity from vanilla Savage Worlds.
  • Monday: Wrote a rough draft of a Robot Chicken RPG. Later that day, an old friend sent me a copy of his new RPG, F#, asking for feedback (and eventually a playtest). [By the way: F# reads pretty damn sweet. I'll let you know more when I've actually played it, which I'm definitely looking forward too.]
  • Late Tuesday: realized I might just run Robot Chicken the next day, which would mean a bunch more "adventure" prep the next morning.
  • Wednesday: Ran Robot Chicken RPG at my own birthday party.
  • Thursday: Ran Og for the weekly coffeeshop group. It was my second time doing so, and the first time was way back in October. I had to reread the rules before running it.
  • Saturday: I'll be running Trail of Cthulhu for the second time ever. It uses the very prep-intensive GUMSHOE mystery system.
Feeling spread a little thin at the moment... I know, I know, it's a pretty good problem to have.

Fine tuning via the Law of Three

Yesterday, re: Robot Chicken RPG, I wrote:
The point system didn't work as smoothly as I'd hoped. There were scenes where players did hilarious things, but scored hardly any points at all. In the future, I'll lighten up the scoring a little bit. If you make the whole group laugh, that should be worth 25 points, and probably every time you roll a d12 (in other words, every time you use your Depth Card) it should be another 5 or 10 points.
Thinking about that in the context of the Law of Three*, it now seems obvious how to handle this. The first three times in any given scene that you use your Depth Card, it's worth +10 points. After that, it's not worth points any more. This motivates players to use their powers/skills, but only as often as it's adding to the fun. If the power is one that's still fun or beneficial after the third use, it'll get leaned on naturally, but if it's just something that grows old quickly, you won't get points for over-emphasizing it. Since you can stop counting at three, it's pretty easy to know if someone deserves the full benefit - even the worst cheater can't squeak more than 20 or 30 extra points out over the course of a game, so you can safely run the honor system even if you do care who won the session that night.

*: The Law of Three: Our brains intuitively make the leap from "it happened three times" to "it can happen an infinite number of times, and is to be expected." That gap is much smaller than the processing gap between "happened twice" and "happened three times". This is why professional running gags mostly use the pattern of once, twice, pause, three times. Once something's happened a third time, it's crossed from exceptional to accepted. More on this subject.

Thursday, March 5, 2009


Last night, I invited a couple friends over, and ran my Robot Chicken RPG. OMG! It was riotous time! We laughed really hard.

A few highlights:
  • Cornelius of the Apes won the Beauty Contest - not because he was any sexier than the other competitors, but because his "talent" eliminated the competition. It was a painful-looking form of breakdancing, augmented with a d12 in the Horrendous Flatulence skill. When quizzed about it by the judges he said: "Talent competition? No - I, I was just walking."
  • Jesse Ventura seduced the Red Z-G figure that we claimed was Mark Rein*Hagen. Should I ever see Mark again (not terribly likely, since I'm no longer working in the industry), I probably owe him an apology for the things done to him in effigy at my game. It started as respectful and well-intended "homage" / faux-cameo... but this was Robot Chicken, after all. Amy took the initiative by undressing the Jesse Ventura doll so he could show up wearing nothing but a strategically taped-on sock. Mark was an NPC, and thus only got a d8 to resist his advances.
  • Ben Franklin sold Lizards on kite strings to the British Army, but they still invaded the Colonies once tea-time was over.
  • Pimpzilla did not destroy Tokyo, but he did get his Ho (aka Marion Ravenwood).
  • Turns out that's not a saddle on the Carrion Crawler, it's a bike helmet his mom makes him wear in case he falls over again. He's a little slow... and he likes to pet furry or soft things. Which, with him being a carrion crawler, doesn't go over so well.
  • Blue Squadron was having relationship problems. I guess that's why some folks don't agree with Ewok-on-Rancor love. Magic Beans were eventually dropped down the Death Star's heat port, which resulted in a huge spiraling beanstalk growing out in an ever-expanding circle. It's unclear whether or not that stopped the rebel base from getting destroyed.
Despite using just two dice and no character sheets, the game takes a lot of space. The toys absolutely made the game. Ridiculous nonsense occurred that would not have without them, such as Cornelius' "walking" and Governor Ventura wearing just a sock to Mark's place. Everyone used their toys like toys, not just miniatures or a character sketch. Funny voices, shaking them a little when you talk, hitting the other toys with your toy to attack, etc. It's like we were all 8 years old again - except with dirtier humor.

Much fun was had by all, but there's a few changes I'm tempted to make for next time:
  1. The point system didn't work as smoothly as I'd hoped. There were scenes where players did hilarious things, but scored hardly any points at all. In the future, I'll lighten up the scoring a little bit. If you make the whole group laugh, that should be worth 25 points, and probably every time you roll a d12 (in other words, every time you use your Depth Card) it should be another 5 or 10 points.

  2. Celebrity Guest Stars are really important for making the game feel like Robot Chicken. I'll need to go down to Archie McPhee and pick up an Edgar Allen Poe, a Sigmund Freud, and a Marie Antoinette action figure sometime. Then poor Z-G Mark R-H will be safe. (Again, I'm very sorry, Mark.)

  3. Each skit starts out crazy, and then slowly winds down. The more structured the skit was, the better. While nothing actually ran overlong, and everyone had a blast, it felt like there was some danger of a skit wearing out it's welcome. One option is to put a TV remote in the middle of the table. If anyone is getting bored with a Skit, they just grab the remote, which signals one of the "Channel Flips" the show does (and thus ends the Skit). With that in mind, the GM should probably have one or two instant gags prepared he can throw in between scenes to be the channel flips.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Unofficial Robot Chicken: The Role-Playing Game

Another installment of my very-brainstormy "DVD to RPG" posts about how I'd go about converting a TV series to an RPG. This time, I'm going to tackle a show that screams to be one-shot gamed, but yet at the same time has nothing in terms of traditional gaming (or narrative) structure: Robot Chicken.

Now, obviously, this show is bizarre and frequently offensive. It's also the product of (and is geared towards) short attention spans.

That said, I love it. It's irreverant, absurd, and funny as hell. And I think it has some gaming potential. You wouldn't try to run a full-blown campaign of it, but as an occasional one-shot it'd be pretty sweet.

Robot Chicken defies traditional narrative structure, and thus this RPG will defy traditional gaming structure. Most roleplaying games tend to fall into two categories: miniatures-esque games about killin' things, and story games about angsty character development. A Robot Chicken RPG wouldn't be too concerned about either of those ideas, it'd be about short scenes involving insane situations and unexpected perversions of our beloved childhood memories.

So, let's get started brainstorming. Right off the bat, I know we want this to be rules light. We also want it focused on toys-as-player-characters, with each person playing multiple toys/characters in a session. Didn't take me long to dream up the structure, and other than assembling toys and making a buttload of cards, this post has nearly an entire RPG in it. Heck, my birthday's tomorrow, maybe I'll invite a few friends over and run it.

So, we start with a pool of toys, and a number of Skits. Everyone (players and GM) should bring a number of toys equal to the number of participants (counting players and the GM) you're expecting, and the GM should bring extra toys beyond that equal to the number of Skits (see below) he or she plans to run.
So T = (P x P) + S. T is number of toys, P is number of participants, S is number of Skits.
The toys will be the PCs and NPCs, so they should be mostly action figures, dolls, stuffed animals, plastic dinosaurs, lego minifigs, etc. One or two stranger things in the mix will be fine, but if you bring nothing but squirt guns and an Easy Bake Oven, you're just making it hard on the group.

Toys are drafted out or assigned randomly. No one should end up playing more than maybe 1 or 2 of the toys they brought, as the point is to totally desecrate the memory of these toys, and your friends can do that for you better than you can. To make it feel like Robot Chicken, you should draw little mouths of varying sizes on paper, cut them out, and attach them to the toys with tape or that blue poster-tacking goo. You've been warned - don't bring your mint chase figure that's worth a 100$, and don't bring the teddybear that you've slept with every night since you were 8. Bring toys that will be no great loss to you should half an hour be spent discussing their irritable bowel syndorme, or if tape peels the paint off their face.

If you draft toys (that's my preferred method), the GM shouldn't get to draft. Instead, once each player has drafted P toys, the GM gets the P+S that are left over. Or, maybe the GM gets one pick to start the draft, and then just gets the slop afterwards.

There's a chance that toys may end up being used as miniatures should combat break out, but that's not really the point. There's also a possibility that some player will find it easier to role-play through the toy, moving it about like a kid would, and shaking it when the character is talking. That's not really the point, either, but shouldn't be discouraged. The main purpose to toys is to just provide an instant character concept that is outwardly obvious to the players.

Rather than being set up as a flowing narrative, the game is staged as fairly disconnected Skits. Each Skit has a Skit card, sort of crib notes for the GM. It'll provide just enough details of setting/plot/joke to get his improvisational motor revving. The main use for these cards is to set up goals and point structures.

How many Skits to run? Well, that's to be determined by GMs devilish plans, and the time you have available. In general, though, the formula/format should work best when P is one or two integers higher than S, so not quite all the toys get used. A really high S means super-short Skits for those with minimal attention spans. A really low S means longer Skits that could result in nuanced character-development, but probably peter out. For a game this crazy, I tend to favor the automatic/shotgun approach, but you'll adjust to flavor.

For Skits, the GM will need to do a little prepwork. What actually happens in the Skits will no doubt be mostly improvisational, and strongly colored by what toys get hauled to the game, and what Depth cards (see below) get assigned to them. But, you're gonna need something of a framework - a bunch of crazy Skits to kickstart the game and set the tone of play.

Robot Chicken is pretty cut-throat, the toys do horrible things to one another and many Skits have someone getting the short end of the stick. So let's make this a competitive game, to get everyone in the right mood. There will be a winner at the end of the night, as players will score points for doing things appropriate to the Skit. Scores accumulate from Skit to Skit, and there should be some prize for the winner at the end of the night. I'd probably make a crappy trophy by gluing together some custom toy, and give that to the winner.

So, the GM should prep for "S" Skits (per the equation in the toy section), by making a Skit Card for each of them. One side of the card should feature a roughly one-sentence description of what the Skit is about. When the Skit is about to start, this side is read to the players, and they will choose which Toy and Depth combo they'll play that Skit based on the description. What sort of Skits the GM wants to run is wide open: a beauty pageant, a horror film, a public service announcement about genital warts, the carpool to work gets stuck in a traffic jam, a scene from the bible, etc. A small portion of the toys the GM brings should be particularly appropriate for certain Skits, but not all of them, or else they might overshadow the toys the players brought.

The back of the Skit card documents scoring. The front of the Skit card gets read to the players, but they don't get to see the back of the card till the Skit is over. Most Skits should have around 100 points that are likely to be achieved by most players, and another 100 points or so that can only be claimed by the first player to achieve some specific goal. At the end of each Skit, you reveal the card and calculate scores.

Example Skit Card:
The PCs are contestants in a beauty pageant, complete with introductions, swimsuit competition, and talent contest. There will be 3 NPC judges.
+10 points If you choose a feminine/female toy for your PC this Skit.
+20 points for lampooning beauty contestants by playing your character as flighty or bitchy.
+20 points for each judge you manipulate via some immoral means, such as bribery, seduction, blackmail or threats of violence. You score these points for the effort, even if the judge chooses not to vote for you due to someone else's actions or a bad die roll. +20 extra points (per judge) if your method of manipulation is tailored to match the toy that represents that judge.
+10 points for getting one or more of your fellow PCs disqualified or eliminated from the competition. Disqualify them all, and it's still just +10 points total.
+30 points to whoever wins the actual contest.
+50 points for having the most outrageous talent in the talent competition.
On that card, there's about 30 points that most players will score practically automatically, with the potential for everyone to score 80-150 points, and if one person did everything right they alone could walk away with 240 points.

Dice Mechanic:
We want simple mechanics, that resolve easily. Characters are mostly defined by what toy they are. The system will use d8s and d12s exclusively.
Why? 'Cause d6s aren't nerdy enough, d10s and d20s are the backbone of enough systems already, and d4's annoy me. Not everyone owns d16s and d34s, so I guess I'll have to settle for 8s and 12s.
If a player says his character is doing something that could logically be done by an animate version of that toy, the GM typically just says it happens. If the announced action seems particularly difficult, or if there's potential for humorous consequences if you fail, the GM will tell you to roll your d8. A 5 or better is a success.

If you're taking an action that directly harms another PC, both players roll a d8, and the higher roll gets his way. You can't kill a character with a single attack - winning once gives them a wound. A second wound (from a later attack) incapacitates the character. Other than that, wounds have no impact - there's no penalties for being hurt other than the risk of being KOd if you're hit again.

Social powers, such as World's Greatest Lover, can be used to manipulate other PCs and force behavior from them. As with the wounds rule, something that removes another player from the Skit should take two successful "attacks" to accomplish. One intimidation roll will make them run away, but they'll come back a minute later and have to be chased off a second time. The same goes for horrible degrading humiliation and forcing behavior at odds with their character type - you'd need two successful seduction rolls to bed a Nun doll against her better judgment, for example.
You'll note that I said the game uses d8s and d12s, but all my examples involve rolling only a d8. That's because d12s are granted by Depth cards (see below).

Depth Cards:
Robot Chicken doesn't just feature Celebrities, Smurfs, and Autobots. It features celebrities that secretly aliens, Smurfs that are psychokillers, and Autobots with protstate cancer. The game needs to reflect that. Therefore, everyone is dealt P+1 Depth Cards at the start of the game.

Depth Cards add that extra something special to your character. Most are just skills, broadly defined, which let you roll a d12 whenever you're doing something akin to that. This could be "World's Greatest Lover" or "Nerdly Super-Scientist" or even "Induce Vomiting" and "Drunken Wobble" since this is Robot Chicken, after all.

Mechanically, skills and powers granted by Depth Cards work just like normal actions a character can take, except you roll a d12 instead of a d8. Difficulty remains a 5 for uncontested actions, and an opposed roll if doing something unpleasant to a PC. This means the benefits of rolling a d12 are most pronounced when acting against a PC who only has a d8 to defend with - a third of your rolls will beat their best roll. That's an intentional decision designed to promote disunity amongst players. Go on, mess with each other.

Some Depth Cards should be more complicated and bizarre. Here's a few examples of cards that are more complicated, but worth putting in a deck:
  • You might be a were-toy, and when the moon is full you turn into one of your other toys, which has an additional depth card of it's own.
  • Wonder Twin Powers, activate! You can turn into water or ice, and the player of your choice can turn into animals.
  • You might have a horrible disease, which lets you roll a d12 to spread it to anyone you contact, but if you ever roll a "1", for anything, you take a wound.
  • What if Jesus came back like that? Includes any and all biblical powers you care to improvise.
  • The PC of your choice is in love with you, and you get a d12 just for wrapping them around your finger.
  • Play two characters this Skit, using an extra Depth Card that applies to both toys.
  • This toy's voice is provided by a famous celebrity guest-star. Pick a star you can do a good impersonation of. While playing that role, you get a d12 to do anything you've ever seen them do in a movie.
  • Recurring character. Instead of playing a new character, reuse a toy (and corresponding Depth Card) you used in a previous Skit.
Obviously, the GM is going to have to make a stack of Depth Cards before the game. I'd suggest P x (P+1) cards for your first session, where P is the number of Participants in the game. Deal out P+1 cards to each player at the start of the game, either before or after they've drafted their toys. Cards are kept secret until used.

I'm guessing the right mix is 1/3 usable skills, 1/3 useless character quirks disguised as skills, and 1/3 bizarre powers that break the rules, but I won't know for certain till it's been playtested. It's worth mentioning that there's very little need for cards to be balanced, as you're only playing any given character for 10 to 45 minutes.

Starting a Skit:
The GM reads aloud the short description from the front of the Skit card. Everyone picks one of their toys, and one of their Depth cards. Starting with the second Skit of the night, there should be a time limit to picking your character. If it takes you five minutes matching a card and toy before the first Skit, it's no big deal, but if it's taking you more than a minute at the start of Skit 3, it's time for the GM to step in and assign one randomly.

Each person should have more toys than the GM has Skit cards, and more Depth cards than they have toys, so some just won't get used. That's fine, it lets you skip out on your least interesting possibilities. Cards should be kept secret at least until the Skit starts. If you think the Depth Card functions best with surprise value, you can keep it hidden till you use it's power or make a roll related to it. If it's something that should be obvious, or will help with roleplaying if it's revealed early, do so as soon as the Skit starts.

The GM has more toys, and can use however many he wants per Skit. However, he doesn't get Depth Cards. It's possible a Skit description might give powers to an NPC, but most of the time the GMs job is narrator and straight-man for the much more bizarre PCs to riff off of.

End of the Night:
When the last Skit is done and all the points have been tallied, declare a winner. If possible, the GM should give them a prize for winning - could be a toy or trophy, some candy, bonus xp for the main campaign of a real RPG you run most of the time, etc.
Then, before everybody goes home, offer them a chance to write up a couple of new Depth Cards to insert into the deck for next time. Not scene cards, as something has to be saved for the GM, who has less power in this game than most RPGs.

Alternately, you could decide (now that everyone has a feel for how the game works) to split up the GMing duties next time. In that case, everyone would show up to the game with not just a set of toys, but also one Skit Card for a Skit they planned to run and a dozen Depth Cards to shuffle into the deck.

Session Report from the first time this was played.

Credit where it's due:
Used without permission, and no challenge is intended to any copyrights or trademarks. The main influence on this game is (obviously) the TV show Robot Chicken, which in turn steals from various toy manufacturers and other icons of pop culture. The ideas and system presented above also draw inspiration from the TV show Who's Line Is It, Anyway?, the quasi-RPG Pantheon published by Hogshead, and the quasi-CCG 1,001 Blank White Cards. I've also made various pop culture references: Sith were created by George Lucas, Wonder Twins are copyright DC comics, and Jesus is a registered trademark of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Inc.