Horror Gaming

Call of Cthulhu (role-playing game) - Wikipedia

I think that the hardest kind of RPG experience to create at the table is horror – by a significant margin. I’ve been alarmed, worried, disgusted, and so on at the table, but very rarely frightened. The most frightened I remember being was in an Old World of Darkness game using Kult’s setting. The game that is always recommended is Dread, which is a great use of Jenga to create tension at a table whether you want it or not. It still requires more elements to approach horror.

I wonder – it’s pretty easy for a movie to scare the crap out of me. Why is it so much harder at a table?

Players Must Buy In/Session Zero

I’m pretty funny – I can coax someone into participating in a funny game. I can coax someone into participating in a heroic adventure game. I even know how to design specifically for either goal, among a few others. Horror, though – I don’t know how to coax someone into a horror game, and I can see ways that horror more than other genres would press against players’ lines and veils.

For this reason, a Session Zero for a horror game is necessary. The discussion of what you want kept out of the story needs to be had, because it will likely be the job of the GM in a horror game to suddenly introduce disturbing imagery and themes. It also occurs to me that a tool like the X-Card should be available, but in the context of a horror game, I can see that using it would potentially take people out of the moment – like pausing a horror DVD to answer the phone. And of course we shouldn’t harm each other for the sake of playing pretend, but if we can figure things out ahead of time, that is especially good in the context of a horror game.

Hope Must be Limited

The reason we sat down and designed Reckoning, a dice-less horror RPG, was because of the problem of dice. As long as you can roll dice to have a chance to triumph, horror is almost impossible. Our players would grin their way through horrific scenarios, or so we thought them, rolling dice all the way. My friend Jason says that a horror game can therefore never use dice, but I wouldn’t go that far. It’s just that dice can’t be an option for triumphing. Stakes have to be set carefully, perhaps.

Reckoning limits hope by having a scene count-down which will end with something horrific happening. Each time a card gets turned, you know something else bad is going to happen, all getting closer to the worst thing happening. I think that some kind of countdown, some kind of visibly growing threat, could be necessary. The proverbial ticking time-bomb that the players know about, even if the characters do not.

Doom Must be Foreshadowed

Continuing on with the previous thought – when you go to a horror movie, or pick up a horror novel, you know what kind of story it is. This has to be clear from the start with a horror game as well. Even if not from the literal beginning, there should be a big reveal at some point, early. Ideally, all of the players should think, “Oh crap, this is going to be deliciously bad.”

If possible there should be foreshadowing both in the fiction and outside of it – in the room where the game takes place. On the character sheet. On the pages of rules you reference during the game. On the art you use to represent what the characters see. In the music you have playing while you game.

A Strong GM Seems to be Necessary

I asked Twitter to let me know about any APs tweeps are aware of that represent a horror game that seemed to really foster fear and horror on the parts of the players. I enjoy APs, but they are generally what I end up doing when I run horror – some moments of squick and then dark humor the rest of the time, bordering on outright zaniness. Even for AP groups that focus on horror gaming, this seems to be where they max out as well. When done well, the squick is very squick-y and the dark humor is dark and funny, but would I call it horror? I’m not sure.

One thing I’ve noticed is that horror gaming, even the squick/dark humor kind, seems to demand a strong GM. I would love to see an attempt at a GM-less (or GM-full) game that does horror consistently well. My guess would be that if it does, it is simply a game (like many GM-less/full games) that attracts a bunch of GMs as players. I think horror gaming will simply depend on GM skill + player buy-in, full stop. I don’t see a way around that, and I don’t see any game that gets around that, though I’d be happy to be proven wrong by some genius game design. As I sit here, that game design is beyond me as a designer.

It’s Cthulhu and Footnotes

The last thought I have about horror gaming is that Call of Cthulhu dominates horror gaming the way D&D dominates fantasy adventure gaming. Clearly, there are other popular horror games, like All Flesh Must Be Eaten back in the day, or Bluebeard’s Bride; various Worlds of Darkness, or of course the often-mentioned Dread. There is also Monsters and Other Childish things, perhaps, or Clockwork: Dominion. But Call of Cthulhu looms over all of these, and when horror gaming comes up, CoC will almost invariably come up as well.

What is the difference here? What makes Call of Cthulhu stand out, despite being temporarily supplanted by Vampire the Masquerade for example? I think one difference is that many of those other games are also about adventure and the chance to triumph. Not Bluebeard’s Bride, and mostly not Dread perhaps, but otherwise, those games listed above can be played as adventure or comedy pretty easily. Really, the one that would be hard to play that way would be Bluebeard’s Bride – I think one could easily hack Dread to tell a Fiasco-style story, as an example.

I think that the key appeal of Call of Cthulhu for horror gaming might be that it is common knowledge that CoC is not about triumphing, or even in many cases surviving, a horror story. It is about going insane and/or dying horribly. The worst things you’ll encounter you cannot possibly overcome no matter what you do. So the game is about progressively learning what those awful things are, and then having a good time on the way down after that. This, even more than the Mythos, is what keeps Call of Cthulhu in that top slot, I think. At least, when I look at horror APs and talk to people about horror gaming.

What Did I Miss?

These are just my thoughts, neither exhaustive nor meant to be so. What did I miss? What has been your experience of horror gaming?

RPG Mechanics Round-Up #14: Fate Core/FAE

Player Ideas as Self-Compels

Many GMs love using the ideas that players come up with during play. Sometimes the thing that players think is going on is more interesting than what you had in mind, so you just steal that idea. I like this as an overt system in Fate Core – the player comes up with an idea, and the GM can hand them a Fate point in order to make it true. “I hope there aren’t ratmen on the other side of that door…”

Tag Aspects to Help

In many versions of Fate Core, you have three Aspects that are for your character alone and two more that connect your character to the others. I like the idea of using those connective Aspects when helping those characters, letting you spend a Fate point to grant them a +2 on their test.

Aspects: Switching Between Worlds

I like the idea of a Fate Core game where the characters are switching between two worlds – maybe alternate realities, or maybe a mundane world and a fantasy world, etc. The fun would be designing Aspects that are beneficial in one world and that are a liability in the other. Another challenge would be in Skill selection, as there should be Skills that are useful in one world and not in the other – not a general Skill like Lore, but maybe Arcana for the magical world and Education for the mundane one.

Fate and Helping Dice

I like making systems more concrete at the table, using fiddly bits where I can. For helping in Fate, I like the idea of passing the player you are helping one of your own dice (especially since Fate Core dice sets tend to be distinctive colors) that they put on a “+” before their roll. So they end up having a total of five dice to combine.

D&D Using Fate Dice

DnD using Fate Core and Fate Dice. Ability score = DC for everything. Advantage is a + and disadvantage is a -. You would have a much worse chance of doing much worse or much better than your score, and obviously would never be more than +/- 4. But it’s an interesting idea, to me at least, and would result in much more reliable/predictable success and failure and far less swinginess in results.

It occurred to me that since D&D ability scores are from 3 to 20 and DCs tend to be in the 10 to 20+ range with 5E’s bounded accuracy, you could actually use Fate dice for D&D. Get rid of the ability score bonuses and just use the straight ability scores, and you can roll Fate dice versus the given DCs. There would need to be some adjustments made, and there would be more rolls that are simply impossible. It may very well be too much of a spread, but it would be interesting to try out I think. Just set the DCs based on a sense of how good someone would have to be to do these things. Proficiencies could let you set one die to a + before you roll. Advantage could let you set another die to a +, and disadvantage make you set one to a -, and if they cancel out you just roll.

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My D&D 5E House Rules

Updated a bit, so this is a re-post. Yay!

I’ve written up a ton of hacks and house rules, and I’ve been given some thought to what house rules I would use if I could use any I like. (Alas, I have to take players’ tolerances into account)

Hard Rest

This is similar to the system for rest used in Adventures in Middle-Earth. Long rest is only available when in civilization, or at least resting someplace safe and comfortable. Ever gotten great sleep on the ground out in the weather? Yeah, me neither.

I also like the system whereby during a long rest, rather than recovering all of your hit points automatically, you are able to roll all of your remaining hit dice to recover hit points. This will recover a lot of hit points, but not necessarily all.

This house rule does give somewhat of an advantage to classes that can partially recover their abilities with a short rest, like Warlocks or Monks. I would have to playtest this house rule to figure out whether it is too unbalancing.

No Cash

Half of my players can’t even be bothered to track their own coinage (my wife in particular) and I never particularly enjoy making sure every monster they defeat erupts into the correct amount of coins, gems and art objects when they die. Instead, I’d like to just use rolls against set difficulties, using the character’s proficiency bonus. If the character is flush with cash, say just back from a dungeon delve, then they roll with advantage. When they are in debt or broke according to the fiction, they roll with disadvantage. Since my players love to haggle, successful haggling doubles your proficiency bonus for the roll, while failed haggling makes you just roll a straight d20. (Maybe the haggling DCs are just the buying DCs, +2)

When you want to buy something, here are the DCs:

  • Something simple and inexpensive, like adventuring gear: DC 8
  • Something mundane but expensive, or a common magic item, like a longbow or a healing potion: DC 10
  • Something very expensive, like plate armor, or an uncommon magic item: DC 12
  • A rare magic item: DC 15
  • A very rare magic item: DC 18
  • A legendary magic item: DC 20

Of course, PCs have to put in the work finding rare or expensive (or magical) items before they can make the roll to see if they can afford them. The DM has an option of saying that a character who fails the roll still buys the item, but is strapped for cash. Most of the time, when returning from an adventure, the characters will be flush with cash, and that’ll be the time they want to buy things anyway. So a mid-level character (level 9+) returning from an adventure will have just shy of a 50/50 chance of affording a legendary magic item, and better than 50/50 of affording a very rare magic item. The limitation there will be based on the setting, with this being plausible in Eberron and less likely in another setting, based on availability of magic items overall.

Modified Firearms

I think that the payoff of using historical firearms, rather than a weapon like a longbow, is that it as a slower rate of fire and does a lot more damage. At least, that’s what I’d like to house-rule firearms to do. So as a house rule, I have black powder pistols require two rounds to reload, and black powder rifles require three, and their damage dice are doubled. In essence, they will function as powerful first-shot weapons, and I think that this fits their historical use pretty well.

10th Level Spells

10th level spells exist, and as one  would expect they are available through scrolls (which are of course artifacts) and for 19th level spellcasters. Such spells can be world-changing, but can only be cast once each by a given spellcaster. The heading is a link to my full post on 10th level spells.

Deeper Backgrounds, and Backgrounds as Level 0

When a player selects a background, they should also flesh out the background with all of the NPCs who might be connected, including their immediate family, rivals, mentors and the like. As a rule of thumb, at least a couple of interesting NPCs who might get caught up in the story per background. I also linked my post about treating Backgrounds as 0-level classes, adding a bit of survive-ability to first-level characters.

Alignment Redefined

I like using alignment, but alignment as written in D&D includes a lot of nonsense and argument-fodder. So what I do is I replace “Good” with another descriptor that defines what “good” will mean in this setting. For example, in my Twilight of the Gods setting, good becomes “Generous.” I replace “Lawful” with an order-oriented, pro-social term from the setting that is morally neutral if possible. In Twilight of the Gods, that becomes “Civilized.” I replace “Chaotic” with a pro-freedom, or maybe individualistic, term; in Twilight of the Gods, that term is “Wild.” And then for “Evil” I do the same as I did for “Good” – choose a more specific or helpful term. In Twilight of the Gods, that term is “Treacherous.” So instead of Chaotic Evil, a character would be Wild and Treacherous. Instead of Lawful Good, a character would be Generous and Civilized. See? Better. Also, a result of this is that “evil” characters are much more viable. One can play a “Selfish” character in Twilight of the Gods more easily than an “Evil” character in a standard D&D setting.

Discount Adventuring Gear

In a game that is using currency, this is just an option to buy adventuring gear at a 50% discount. The associated cost is that with any failed roll, and almost certainly on a roll of “1”, the gear breaks, and can probably only be repaired with the appropriate tool proficiency.

With the above system of going cash-less, maybe a failed roll allows a PC to buy a discount version of what they wanted. So they get what they were after…kind of.

Simplified Paralysis Effect

For any effect that paralyzes, such as hold person or a ghast’s claws, a paralyzed character is shaken free of paralysis the first time an automatic critical hit is scored against them.

…Or Resist Paralysis at Cost

As another option for PCs who are paralyzed, they can choose to take 10 psychic damage for each level of the spell used to paralyze them (or an amount the DM thinks is appropriate for monster abilites that aren’t spells) in order to take an action to break free. So they still lose at least one action, and take the damage, but aren’t standing there doing nothing for round after round. Probably need a house rule that for species that are resistant to psychic damage, like kalashtar, they need to take the full damage to break free. Their resistance doesn’t help them in this one instance.

Bards Rock

Bards have never really gained a bonus, or any kind of benefit, for using their musical instrument in combat. I like the idea of a bard being able to use their abilities more effectively if they focus on their music alone (much like bards in Everquest, honestly). I would want to work out specifics with the bard player, assuming they were interested, but here are the options I’d have in mind:

  1. The bard counts as two levels higher than normal, and has access to more powerful spells
  2. The bard’s spells are power potent, adding 1 or 2 to their spell attack bonus and to the DC for saves against their magic
  3. They don’t lose spell slots – they can keep casting indefinitely, or maybe they have one extra spell slot per level that can only be used when they are using their instrument in combat (since indefinite spells is pretty powerful)
  4. There is an ongoing bonus effect – an aura of courage like a paladin has, or an aura of bonus hit points for her comrades, or something similar
  5. Her other bardic inspiration dice go up one die type, so from d6 to d8 and so on

Area of Effect

The heading is a link to the full table that I posted a while back, but for theater of the mind I like a system where you roll randomly to see how many creatures are caught in an area of effect spell. Just assume that the character is doing all they can to maximize the spell’s effectiveness and avoid hitting their friends. I would have to adjust this system for an evocation specialist wizard who could sculpt their spells to hit their foes and avoid their friends, but that’s easy enough to hand-wave (add a bonus to the AoE roll or something).

Prestidigitation and Animate Object

I just personally dislike Prestidigitation as it works in 5E – it takes me out of what’s going on every time to have someone doing magical laundry every day. House rule is that it allows you to perform sleight of hand tricks like a stage magician and that’s pretty much it. Still can be used creatively, but isn’t the cure-all for discomfort.

In the case of Animate Object, it’s simply broken if used to animate 10 daggers, so I would say that you have to animate objects one at a time. Otherwise you get a ‘cloud of daggers’ effect that deals a potential 10d4 +40 damage every round.

Mage the Ascension: PbtA Hack

mage card

This is not by any means a fully-formed idea, but it’s one that I kind of like. In a way, it’s interesting to  take a push-button mechanic like the core mechanic of PbtA and apply it to an open-ended, flexible game like Mage the Ascension. What buttons do you include? What must those buttons do? 

Design Goals

I want to focus on the flexible but costly nature of Awakened magic. I see mundane things being handled through conversation more often than rolls, to keep the focus on magic. There needs to be a harm mechanic and a Paradox clock – let’s say you are at -1 per harm taken. A certain points on the Paradox clock, the ST makes a Paradox move. As with my Fate hack, I’ll boil the Spheres down to seven: Correspondence, Forces, Life, Matter, Mind, Spirit, Time (eats Entropy). Prime can be cut because it is mostly concerned with meta-magic. Each Tradition is its own playbook. This is a work in progress

Character Creation

Distribute 3 +1s between the seven Spheres. You have -1 in any Sphere without a bonus. Circle one and describe your Avatar (Dynamic, Entropic, Pattern, Primordial). Choose your true Nature. Describe your Sanctum. Circle an advantage (things like a Node maybe). I can see different playbooks having different things to circle or choose – acolytes, thin places, cool gadgets, turf, etc. 

General Mage Moves

When a Mage does something mundane but dangerous or costly, roll +0.

  • On a 10+, it goes as well as it could.
  • On a 7-9, you succeed but there is an unexpected cost or problem – choose one of the following: 
    • You lose or damage something of value – the ST will tell you what
    • The cost was more than you expected – the ST will tell you what the additional cost is, including a favor or a debt owed forward
    • You succeed, but someone else pays the price. The ST will tell you who
  • On a 6-, the ST can make a move. Any resources you used in the attempt are damaged or lost.

When you use your magic to shape reality, describe your rote or procedure and roll +Sphere. The ST will tell you which Sphere applies if there is any question.

  • 10+ and you get what you wanted.
  • 7-9 and pick one mishap, otherwise you get what you wanted.
  • 6- pick three mishaps, otherwise you get some version of what you wanted. Or, you can flinch, distance yourself from your Avatar, and cancel the effect. You take -1 forward to magical effects you attempt, but the effect fails without other consequences. (With a 7-9 you can always mark Paradox to avoid other mishaps.)
    • Mark Paradox
    • The effect is not under your control
    • You draw unwanted attention
    • There are unintended consequences (ST move)

When you use your magic to inflict harm, describe your rote or procedure and roll +Sphere. The kind of harm will depend on the Sphere used, but harm is harm.

  • On a 10+, you inflict 1 harm in the way you intended, and have +1 forward to inflict further harm.
  • On a 7-9, you inflict harm but must mark one mishap from the Sphere move.
  • On a 6-, you inflict harm and also take harm in return.

When you use your magic to defend yourself against magic, roll +Sphere using the Sphere against which you are defending.

  • On a 10+, you stop the magical effect from affecting you and can choose one:
    • You turn it back on the attacker, or
    • You can protect a group, or an area, from the effect
  • On a 7-9, you stop the magical effect from affecting you
  • On a 6-, you are vulnerable to the effect (the ST makes a move)

When you improvise magic to defend yourself against magic, roll +Sphere using any Sphere, describing how you use that Sphere creatively (use Correspondence to defend against Time for example). 

  • On a 10+, you stop the magical effect from affecting you
  • On a 7-9, you stop the effect from affecting you, but there is a cost. Choose one: 
    • You take -1 to Sphere moves going forward
    • The effect strikes a nearby ally or innocent bystander – the ST will choose who
    • You lose access to that Sphere until you have time to rest and meditate
  • On a 6-, the effect hits you full force

When you improvise magic to affect reality, describe the improvisation and roll +Sphere. 

  • On a 10+, you get the effect you wanted, but pick one: 
    • The ST tells you one strange side-effect
    • The magic affects one additional object or person of the ST’s choice
  • On a 7-9, the magic affects the wrong person or object – the ST will tell you who, or what
  • On a 6-, the ST makes a Paradox move

When you meditate at a Node, roll +0, or +1 if it is a Node where you are expressly welcome, or +2 at your own Node.

  • On a 10+, you are suffused with Quintessence and take a +1 forward on Sphere moves.
  • On a 7-9, you are suffused with Quintessence and take +1 forward on Sphere moves, but the Node is depleted and no one can draw from it until it regenerates.
  • On a 6-, the Node is depleted and must regenerate.

When you use your magical perceptions, choose a Sphere in which you have at least a +1. The ST will describe what you perceive through that Sphere.

  • All: you can sense the residue of powerful magic enacted recently – the more powerful the effect, the longer its residue lasts
  • Correspondence: you exact physical location; precise distances from one object to another; the presence of a portal to another location
  • Forces: ambient mundane energies (electromagnetism, heat, etc.); see using another spectrum (ultraviolet)
  • Life: the health and general condition of living things nearby, your own health and condition in detail, 
  • Matter: material composition of nearby objects; properties of unknown substances; potential or chemical energy stored in an object or substance
  • Mind: whether there are nearby minds; whether someone is awake or asleep or in a coma; basic emotional state of those around you
  • Spirit: thickness of the local Gauntlet; nearby ghosts or spirits; whether a nearby creature has a soul (i.e., could reveal an android)
  • Time: exact time (including the ability to set an internal alarm); any nearby disturbances in time

When you use mundane means to escape danger, roll +0.

  • On a 10+, you escape! Describe how. Also, choose one:
    • Your attacker leaves you alone for now, or
    • You can help your allies escape too
  • On a 7-9, you escape, but your attacker has not given up.
  • On a 6-, the ST makes a move.

Tradition Moves

I decided that each Tradition should have at least one signature move. These are what I came up with:

When an Akashic fights mundane people with her hands, roll +1.

  • On a 10+, she defeats even a large number of mundane people she’s fighting in flashy fashion. The player describes how she prevails.
  • On a 7-9, she defeats even a large number of mundane people, but takes harm in return.
  • On a 6-, she got herself in over her head. She takes harm and things escalate – the ST says how.

When a Cultist of Ecstacy seeks insight in a trance, roll +1

  • On a 10+, she can ask the ST up to three questions about herself.
  • On a 7-9, she can ask the ST one question about herself.
  • On a 6-, she gets a glimpse of a hard move the ST is going to make.

When a Dreamspeaker is solving a problem in her home territory, roll +1.

  • On a 10+, her knowledge of her land enables her to solve the problem.
  • On a 7-9, her knowledge of her land enables her to solve the problem, but the cost in time or materials is greater than she expected.
  • On a 6-, she has revealed a problem she didn’t know about before, or a problem she knew about is worse than she thought.

When an Etherite uses technology in an unusual way, roll +1.

  • On a 10+, the technology works just as the Etherite wanted.
  • On a 7-9, the technology works but there is an unintended complication. The ST will say what it is, or you can offer a suggestion.
  • On a 6-, the technology doesn’t work as intended, and there is a complication on top of that (the ST makes a move).

When an Euthanatos kills a mundane person, roll +1.

  • On a 10+, you kill the person exactly as you planned and get away with it.
  • On a 7-9, you kill the person, but draw the attention of either mundane authorities or a supernatural creature.
  • On a 6-, you kill the person but the ST can make a hard move.

When a Hermetic speaks lore, roll +1.

  • On a 10+, the lore you speak is true and helpful.
  • On a 7-9, the lore you speak provides a helpful hint for the situation at hand.
  • On a 6-, the lore you speak reveals a new problem.

When a Hollow One tries to make a connection on the street, roll +1.

  • On a 10+, she finds just the person or information she needs.
  • On a 7-9, she finds the person or information she needs, but there is a cost. The ST will say what it is.
  • On a 6-, she’s made someone angry, or drawn unwanted attention, and didn’t find what she wanted. Or, she found what she wanted, but it’s much worse than she thought.

When a Verbena uses natural medicine, roll +1.

  • On a 10+, she is able to heal using mundane means.
  • On a 7-9, she understands what is wrong, but it will require awakened magic.
  • On a 6-, it is much worse than she thought – the ST will say how bad.

When a Virtual Adept is solving a problem using a digital device, roll +1. 

  • On a 10+, it functions exactly as the Adept needed it to.
  • On a 7-9, the device functions as the Adept hoped, but she has pushed her luck and used up resources or drawn unwanted attention.
  • On a 6-, she draws unwanted attention and the device fails.

ST and Paradox Moves

Your Avatar is displeased, or detached, or distant. -1 ongoing to all magic. You are plunged into Quiet. You have drawn the attention of the Technocracy. You have drawn the attention of the Nephandi. You have drawn the attention of a Marauder. You have drawn the attention of mortal authorities. Echoes of your magical effect follow you, causing problems. You are marked by your magic in a way that is visible to everyone who meets you. There is lingering harm that will fall on you (or someone near you or connected to you) the next time you try to use magic. You are cursed and everyday things will go wrong in embarrassing ways. 

Mark XP

When you get a 6- result; if your relationship with your Avatar deepened; if you expressed your true Nature; if you learned something new and amazing about the world; if your life was in danger. Every time you get nine xp you advance.

Advancement

Increase one Sphere bonus by one; or circle a new advantage; or reset your Paradox clock to zero; or mark a new option on your playbook. Will there be enough moves to warrant choosing a new move at advancement? Not sure.

Well, there it is. That’s what I have for Mage the Ascension, Powered by the Apocalypse.

 

RPG Mechanics Round-Up #9

I still have this 12-page Google Doc of little bits and pieces of game design, and I have this blog, so I thought it was about time.

Instead of Conditions or Disadvantages

A lot of systems, including many I have played – GURPS, Old World of Darkness, Dungeons & Dragons, and so on – include a system of conditions and/or disadvantages. These are effects that limit a character’s capabilities, but also provide opportunities for roleplaying, conflict, and interesting situations. The problem is often when the GM is forcing a limitation on the PC. It is more interesting for the player to be the one to inflict the limitation on the character. When they do, pay them with XP. Willful – when someone breaks your will or forces you to do something, gain xp. Enemy – when you get the shit kicked out of you, gain xp. Etc.

Skill and Risk

When writing a skill list, include what can be done with the skill without risk, and then what you can do with a risk. Generally speaking, only require rolls for uses of skills that involve a risk.

Character Main Plot and Sub Plot

A while back I was listening to yet another episode of Writing Excuses, and the topic of discussion was giving each character a main plot and a sub-plot. Not to say that this should be done merely by rote, but rather the idea is to mimic a lot of media apart from RPGs. It is common for a character to have a main plot, often the main plot of the story and his or her part in it, and a sub-plot, something with lower stakes that is important only to the character.

Superhero Collateral Damage

I was thinking that it would be interesting for superheroes to gain bonus dice for their abilities by incurring collateral damage to their environment. Ever notice how a fight involving supers will wreck a city? So the superhero can either work carefully, keeping others safe (like Spider Man) or cut loose and deal maximum damage (like Hulk) with little or no concern for buildings and people around you. I feel like every superhero game should have this option, one way or another.

Base Four Character Archetypes

I was thinking about core class archetypes, for games like Numenera and other D&D clones. They are some version of the Fighter, Doer and Knower. With the fourth addition of Speaker, perhaps as a subset of Doer. Given that Knower and Speaker will often come with built-in supernatural abilities.

 

RPG Mechanics Round-Up #8

Elvish Skill

I have toyed with an idea, which I haven’t used in a (finished) game design yet, that is an attempt to deal with a diminishing return in gaining skill combined with the incredibly long lives of elves. Even D&D’s non-immortal elves live for 700-1000 years. The idea I came up with is to have what amounts to only 3 levels of ability in any given skill (as measured by elves): 1 year, 10 years, and 100 years. (This also echoes the Chinese aphorisms about how it takes 10 weeks to learn the spear, 10 months to learn the dao, and 10 years to learn the jiann). After 100 years, diminishing returns seem like they would be such that measurable improvement would be unlikely. In a setting with elves and non-elves, non-elves would be limited to a skill level of 10 years (about how long it takes to earn a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu if you are working hard at it).

Burnout

I like the idea of having the option of burning out a repeatable ability in one big demonstration. That is, say you can do Ability X three times a day, or once per short rest. If you choose, you can choose some dramatic moment to do something that is equivalent to 5X or even 10X. After that, though, you lose the ability permanently. This could be a lead into a ‘Retire in Safety’ mechanic or another peaceful end for the character, and of course only makes sense for characters who have repeatable, likely supernatural, abilities.

Secrets on Page 1

I wonder what effect it would have to write a secret, or multiple secrets, about the character on the character sheet. (There is a mechanic for this in Parsec) Probably in some groups it would no effect, but in a Vampire the Masquerade group for example, each vampire having to have their secrets written out on their character sheets (preferably on page 1) just might have an interesting, subtle impact at the table. A little layer of suspicion added to any interaction.

Deeper Backgrounds

Here I’m going to take the example of backgrounds in D&D 5E, which are a great addition to the system in my opinion, and could be taken further. Almost every adventurer character ever created is an orphan with no social ties at all when the game begins – that just seems to be a truism at this point. Some systems make a player create a more detailed, interconnected background at character creation for that reason – otherwise very few will. World of Darkness games even added this element to the game itself in the prelude session, during which we see the character in scenes from their life before the supernatural stuff hits the fan.

For the remainder of this round-up, I am going to go through the backgrounds in the 5E PHB and note briefly how they could be expanded to include some family members, friends and social connections in a character’s life. (H/T to Fate and the Fablemaidens for indirectly reminding me to expand this idea and post it)

Acolyte: a criminal or sinner whom you are trying to reform; parents and family whose religious views strongly differ from yours; the gravesite of your mentor which you visit every year to make a small offering to their spirit; a rival member of your religion who believes you lack conviction

Charlatan: a minor local noble whom you embarrassed; a widow who believes you are psychic; a sibling who is always trying to get you on the straight and narrow path; a parent who tsks at what you do but makes sure you aren’t disowned

Criminal: an elderly priest or priestess who fed you when you were down and out; loving parents who believe you are a traveling salesperson; your best friend growing up who is now a recruit in the town guard; the heir of a local noble or wealthy family who has a forbidden crush on you

Entertainer: the amazing performer who inspired you to get started years ago; the leader of your small, but growing, local fan-club; a pen-pal who is always offering to put you up at their place if you make the journey to perform for them; hardworking, dour siblings who don’t understand your art

Folk Hero: the tyrant or corrupt official’s remaining agents in the area; your proud family, including a sibling who looks up to you and wants to be just like you; the person back home who everyone assumed you were going to marry

Guild Artisan: the head of your local guild chapter; your master, now too old to practice the trade; a local merchant or noble who is one of your primary buyers; someone who supplies raw materials whose personality is the opposite of yours

Guild Merchant: your mule, who is smarter than she looks; your family, whose signature business is one you detest; a rival who betrayed you on a key deal; a particular gate guard, with whom you have the best banter; a performer, who gets their best material from stories of your travels

Hermit: the villager who would come each week to bring you fresh supplies and news, in exchange for your wisdom; an extraordinary talking animal that would sometimes visit you in seclusion; your family of origin, who have strong feelings about what you’re doing (good or bad, you choose)

Noble: the peasant who looks a lot like you, with whom you exchanged places once as kids; the doting nurse who actually raised you while your parents were at court; a younger sibling whom you are always getting out of trouble

Outlander: your folks back home, and perhaps the reason you don’t live there now; a sweetheart from your adolescence who went looking for you; a bird or small animal who just follows you wherever you go; another local wanderer with whom you share news, food and shelter when your paths cross

Sage: your first tutor, now like a parental figure for you; a rival scholar who wants to discredit you; a small-time loan shark who still says you owe her back payments on student loans; your proud family, either many academics, or perhaps you’re the first among them to go for higher education

Sailor: if you have a lover in every port, there’s one of them that feels true; the salty old dog who taught you everything they know; your siblings, who count the days until you return from time at sea; the bartender at your favorite seaside watering hole

Soldier: your drill instructor, who has a new insult for you every time you meet; a comrade who was crippled in battle and had to retire early; the person you’re engaged to marry as soon as you return home; a gruff parent who was also a career soldier; the ghost of the first person you ever killed

Urchin: the kind local noble who would always give you a few spare coins; your best friend who got lucky and married out of the life; a fixer who always has local gossip; the leader of the gang you were in as a kid; the innkeeper who would give you a place to sleep when the weather was bad

A Card Mechanic for Western RPGs

This is a smooshing together of mechanics from Deadlands and Clockwork: Dominion with a little bit sprinkled in. I’m not presenting it as a Newfangled Thing, but simply as what I think I would want to use if I was going to run a Western game, whether Weird West or mythic or whatever.

System Basics

  • Initiative and the action economy are managed by playing cards you are dealt when a conflict begins
  • Actions are also resolved by playing cards, where the number on the card is its value and more ability means you have more cards from which to choose
  • Cards that aren’t used, or are played in failed tests, can be retained by the player to store up and build hands
  • Those hands are spent for special effects in the game like introducing new NPC allies, critical hits, and activating special abilities – in this way failure leads to success later

Stolen Initiative

The initiative system for this game is straight-up stolen from Clockwork: Dominion, because that system also uses cards, and also because it is the best initiative system I’m aware of.

When a conflict begins, each player is dealt cards. Actions occur in the order of the cards dealt, from Ace down to the two. If a player doesn’t want their character to act, they can still pass.

In order to interrupt an action, a player can push two cards forward instead of one. Their character’s action is resolved before any other actions, as an interrupt. Yes, you can push two cards forward to interrupt the interrupt.

I’m thinking of maybe one free reaction, and then you spend one card to react or actively defend if someone pushes a card forward to act on you.

The GM gets cards for the NPCs in the conflict, and plays them as if she was just another player. This gets a bit complicated with more than a handfull of NPCs, but that’s true in every system (tonight’s D&D game will have a fight with 28 participants).

Building A Hand

I love when you mark xp with a failed roll in Dungeon World. The way I adapted that idea to this system is to let players retain cards used in failed tests, and maybe cards they don’t use in initiative as well, and use them to build hands to use later in the story. The hands are all, of course, poker hands, and here are my ideas so far:

  • Pair: your hit is a critical hit, or your success is a critical success
  • Two Pair: a trick shot, or a highly unlikely positive result
  • Three of a Kind: you cheat death, when you would otherwise be killed, you are simply taken out
  • Straight: maybe you can use a straight to prevent another PC from dying? You rescue them in some way?
  • Flush: you set a type of scene and stack things in your favor. Maybe even take over narration from the GM for a scene that you just want to see. The type of scene depends on the suit of the flush. Spades: you learn something, or establish something, big and decisive about the setting or situation; Clubs: you stomp the crap out of a host of foes, or embarrass a major opponent; Hearts: a social scene where you get what you want, like getting married, becoming mayor, etc.; Diamonds: you have some kind of big break, like striking gold on your land
  • Full House: add a significant, allied NPC to the story
  • Four of a Kind: rewind time and repeat what just happened, up to four rounds back. “But that wasn’t how it was meant to be.”

Luck

Instead of health, I think of Poker chips that represent a character’s luck. So much in the Old West is deadly, or at least wounding – arrows, bullets, knives, being gored by stampeding cattle, and so on. When your “luck runs out” you are liable to be killed, and there should be abilities for super dangerous NPCs to be able to bypass your luck straight to a wounding or killing attack. I also like that you can potentially spend that luck to re-try a failed test, at the risk of putting yourself that much closer to death’s door.

What’s Missing, and What’s Next

I don’t really have a damage mechanic. I’m not sure what exactly would go on a character sheet. I have the thought that the four suits could be the four attributes, where maybe spades are mental, clubs are physical, hearts are social, and diamonds might be a speed measure, or even resources available to you.