Friday, 13 January 2017

A fleeting insight

As I was deliberately not trying to write anything for the blog tonight, I glanced at my site, and then thought someone somewhere might appreciate a tiny glimpse behind the scenes (I know, I am terribly enigmatic)

For certain parsings of "terribly"...

Right now there are 72 draft posts in my profile. Some of these are not really drafts at all, just a few lines of something I wanted to remember. Some of them will never go anywhere. Quite a few are something I'd vaguely like to develop further but keep getting distracted.

Mostly what happens is one of the following:

  • I read, listen to or discuss something that provokes thought, leading me to start writing a new post rather than finish an old one
  • I begin working on a post, have a tangential thought and explore that instead
  • I begin working on a post, go to do a little research, and end up writing a completely different post
  • In extreme cases, I start writing a post, go to get the link for a post where I previously said something relevant, and either remember that I meant to write a follow-up post or have a new idea inspired by the thing I wrote before

And to be fair, several of the posts there are things like entire campaign settings that are not necessarily well-served by being a blogpost.

Alarmingly, I recently embarked on a concerted effort to cut back that pile, by either finishing posts or discarding them. That's where seven of the last ten posts came from. Unfortunately I have rather a butterfly brain, so my drafts folders tend to replenish themselves just as fast as my scenario seeds list and my reading pile.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Fractal Mythos Knowledge

I had some thoughts about the Call of Cthulhu Cthulhu Mythos skill while listening to some podcast or other - I can't remember which one now. Possibly RPPR. You can read a tome about Hastur and suddenly know about Ithaqqua. Or you can sometimes know about byakhees, and sometimes not. It's weird.

An idea came to me that you could introduce a fractal approach to Mythos skills (and indeed others, but let's stick with Mythos for now). This would be a tweak specifically for games where there's quite a lot of Mythos going on, and particularly suitable for long-term campaigns focused on a subset of the Mythos but including elements from other factions.

As it's Call of Cthulhu specific I've posted it on my Call of Cthulhu blog. But feel free to comment there or here as suits you.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

On the elusiveness of upbeat actual play

I have a massive heap of downloaded podcasts, but somehow I wanted something different. Perhaps it's because nearly 300 of the nearly 1000 podcasts in my folder are by the RPPR crowd, whose games are often entertaining but also tend to be grim and downbeat (yes, in most cases the group are clearly enjoying themselves hugely, but the actual events are rarely cheerful). And a lot of the rest are non-fiction from the BBC, quite a lot of which is also not very cheerful.

I decided to head out and look again for podcasts that might suit me. The criteria this time:

  • Not Call of Cthulhu. I have plenty of that, and it's rare to find a single episode that's not grim, however lightly it's presented. I enjoy it enough to both listen and play, but I'm depressive - I very much don't need a diet of all bad things happening all the time.
  • Still going. I've no wish to get into the archives of a podcast that only hit nine episodes. Been there, done that.
  • Not stuff that is as or even more depressing than Call of Cthulhu. I found some recommendation threads, and found myself staring at lists of sessions about Apocalypse World (no, never, under any circumstances*) or Monsterhearts (also no**), or You Are A Horrible Person And Bad Things Happen To You Which You Can't Control***.
  • Lucid. There's quite a few podcasts that received praise, but which are also described as people getting increasingly drunk and silly. People getting drunk are boring. If I'm listening to a gaming podcast, it's because I want to hear the game. There's a few podcasts I listen to where people do sometimes drink, and whenever it's noticeable it always detracts from the experience of that episode.

* It's technically possible to do post-apocalyptic narratives that aren't about how horrible human beings are, but from everything I can tell this game is designed to do exactly the opposite. And given most proudly-labelled "Post-Apocalyptic!" stuff I've encountered is about selfishness, human failings, pointless violence, manly manhood and rape, I will give that a flying pass.

** So from what I can tell, this is a game about being horrible teenagers, except you're also actually monsters I think? You lost me at "being horrible". That does not seem an enjoyable premise for an, well, for anything at all actually.

*** I know this isn't a real game, but I've seen quite a few games described which seem like they could neatly be summed up in this basket. I do not understand the fascination of indie gamers with this premise.

I found a few leads. It's striking just how many of them are actually "3-6 improv comedians play some games" rather than "some people play some games". I am somewhat wary of these, because I'm suspicious that either a) the podcast is part of a marketing exercise rather than just a hobby; or b) people whose main hobby is theatricals will make the podcast about them and their performance rather than the game - but I'm willing to give it a shot.

I'm also trying to find podcasts that aren't American. I mean, nothing against Americans, but I have plenty of American gaming podcasts. It's hard though, because that's never an available search term.

I am struggling to come up with a useful way to explain "upbeat" versus "downbeat". Downer endings are obviously downbeat. But I also don't want traumatic and grim things happening to the PCs. I don't want choices with no option that isn't horrible. I don't really the backstory to be framed around lots of bad stuff that happened to people.

I appreciate this is relatively difficult, because RPGs are generally built around challenge, and because a lot of the types of challenge you can offer a group of 3-6 players are extrinsic and based on open conflict. And most RPGs are quite reactive, usually reacting to bad things that have happened. And of course, quite a lot of roleplayers (like quite a lot of people in general) genuinely like dark grittiness and murders and gratuitous violence and so on.

Stuff I noticed

So, some exasperations of this time!

Archives. People are going to come to your podcast and want to listen to your archives. Why do you make it so difficult? Quite a few sites just have, for example, a "podcast" tag which they put on all those episodes. But - what with half of them being improv groups - the same sites also often host two (or, in extreme cases, fifteen) other podcasts of no relevance whatsoever to me. Or the group plays six rotating campaigns, four of which I don't want to listen to. Or they play a hundred different mini-campaigns. It's really, really useful to tag and mark and group podcast episodes in useful ways, so that people can find the stuff they're actually looking for.

Fun fact: if it's a pain to trawl through your archive, people stop, like I did.

I would like to draw your attention to the massive tag cloud to my right to help people sort through my stuff.

Filenames, yet again

Also, I know I've talked about podcast file names a lot, but why stop now? Normally I don't call people out for this bullshit but hello Rusty Quill! You seemed so promising, being British and everything (although improv, so...) but your website is a pain and so is your naming convention. The webpage has an unnecessarily large banner and puts the "older posts" option in an unusual place, so I didn't spot it until late in the day. Now, you get kudos for having your entire podcast archive in the RSS feed - and extra kudos for having different feeds for each podcast! Good on yous.

But what sort of person looks at a file they're saving for public release and concludes that "207829424-rustyquill-1-rqg-0-metacast-character.mp3" is a good name?

Okay, first off, breathing room. If you're going to number things (and you should) do not start with single digits, because this means computers will sort things called 1 next to things called 10. This is basic, basic stuff, guys. I'm going to venture a guess that if you do improv you probably have arts degrees and didn't study much computing (nothing wrong with that!) but sort order isn't complicated so I feel you should have thought of this.

But secondly, what is this 207829424 about? What does that mean? Is it relevant to the audience, at all? No? Then don't include it! Because, and I appreciate this may not happen to everyone, when I scroll through files on my player, all I will see on the screen for several seconds is a string of numbers. I don't know what that is. If I listen to your podcast a lot I might realise it's yours, but it could also be a random podcast from somewhere else (the BBC inexplicably does this sometimes). Just begin the filename with something identifiable so I know what I'm looking at.

In fact, for particular exasperation, my phone will only show the first twenty-odd characters of a filename in music player, which means I won't be able to tell your episodes apart. They'll all be "STRINGOFNUMBERS-rustyqui". Does that seem helpful?

To be fair, I've checked again and they change their filenames partway through the archive. You know, you could go back and change the older ones too.

Here's a list of stuff I am currently planning to try out, and will try to comment on later:

  • Rusty Quill
  • She's a Super Geek
  • Shark Bone
  • In Sanity We Trust
  • One Shot Podcast

Why so Cthulhu?

So here's something Dan said to me over the extended gaming weekend that was my New Year:

"I'm surprised just how into Call of Cthulhu you are."

And that got me thinking. Why am I so keen on Call of Cthulhu? Or, to take a step back, am I especially keen on Call of Cthulhu? And if so, why and in what way?

A suuuper quick precis of my gaming history. Fighting Fantasy gamebooks aside, I first encountered the concept around the age of 12 when I was on holiday in the states and bought a copy of Dragon magazine. Over ten years later I started running D&D 4th edition for some librarians, and a few months later was finally invited to try out a tabletop RPG. Since then I've played a few White Wolf one-shots, quite a bit of D&D, various random one-shots and playtests, some Warhammer 40K, and a moderate amount of Call of Cthulhu. I've also listened to podcasts of and read the rulebooks for a few other systems, like Traveller.

I've run one short campaign, which was D&D 4th edition and based around adapting existing scenarios. I've written a scenario for 40K that I haven't yet run, as well as a game about lizards. When I have ideas for future games, they are generally for Call of Cthulhu.

Call of Cthulhu is what I tend to default to, and I'm working this out as I go along. Broadly speaking, there are factors which tend to make me actively gravitate towards it, and there's also more passive reasons why I just find it a comfortable fit.

System

One of the things that I think Call of Cthulhu genuinely has going for it is the system. It is simple, reasonably robust, reasonably genre-appropriate, and broad. It takes almost no effort to understand the mechanics well enough to play ("this is a percentage, roll under it"), and not much more to memorise most of the rules. Character generation is quicker than most other games and choosing names frequently seems to be the bottleneck.

I enjoy games with much crunchier rules too - both Warhammer 40K and D&D are much more complex. But if I want to throw someone into a situation and just get on with it, or to start playing myself, Call of Cthulhu is the most straightforward option.

It's also flexible enough that you can use it as a rough approximation for a very wide range of settings. It doesn't handle all genres well (in particular, anything heroic tends to fall down on the combat, and it's not crunchy enough to be tactical) but you can use almost any setting. Modern day? Historical? Ancient world? Future? Traditional fantasy? Gothic? Cyberpunk? You just need to tweak the skill list to get something that's useable. I'm not saying it will be great - I'm saying it will do.

Puzzling

Call of Cthulhu is often used as an investigative game, and I find that tends to suit me. I am an inveterate prodder at game realities, and as a player I frequently find myself having to bite my tongue to avoid roleplaying a detective. I always want more information, to try out theories, to see what happens.

Call of Cthulhu has several advantages here. Firstly, it's often played explicitly as an investigative game where you are trying to puzzle out what happened, which makes it a great fit. Secondly, because it's usually quite an ambient experience rather than one where you're in constant peril, there is usually a lot of room for asking questions, testing out theories, and going to gather more information; while there are situations where "let's just try my idea" will get you killed, they're relatively few compared to a combat-focused game.

For what it's worth, my limited experience of White Wolf games was that they also offered a satisfying amount of room to play around with ideas and with in-game abilities in creative ways.

A third aspect is that the setting lends itself to quite thorough investigation, because the mysteries you're solving tend to be weird enough that eliminating the impossible isn't always a good idea... while fellow-gamers don't necessarily want to indulge quite as much as I often do, Call of Cthulhu tends to get them more onboard than many other games.

Source material

Obviously, Call of Cthulhu is broadly based on the work of HP Lovecraft and associated folks. I quite like these. I wouldn't go so far as to call myself an actual fan, honestly. There's plenty of problems with both Lovecraft's stories and those of other people. Lovecraft had a whole bunch of prejudices, and in a way his taste for short stories made it difficult to get into the work as deeply as novel authors allow. The related works are a very mixed bunch, divergent in genre (Clark Ashton Smith is a different beast from Howard, Derleth or Lumley, for example) and in focus. Some authors are keen to write genuine horror, which I flee from with alacrity.

Still, there's something in it which appeals to me. There are mysteries, and slow unfurling writing full of description (keen readers may have noticed my own verbose tendencies) and fantastical events. I like the old places, and the ancient tomes, and the peculiar people, which appeal to me far more than, say, reading about men with guns being manly.

Genre knowledge

Tying into the last point, I think one of the reasons Call of Cthulhu does genuinely appeal to me more than many other games is that I have a much better grasp of it. It's one of the few games where I actually know the source material, in many cases better than everyone else I'm playing with, and feel I have a good grasp of what I'm doing. This is because Call of Cthulhu is based on books.

To cut a long story uncharacteristically short, my family were never great TV watchers and we didn't even have a TV for most of my childhood. Between that and other factors, I just never got into TV. I could say that I was reading instead, or doing school clubs, both of which are true, but honestly I've just never developed the habit or skill of watching TV. In the pre-iPlayer days I was rarely organised enough to reliably watch a particular show. Nowadays I'm too skittish and sitting down to watch something for an hour feels like a huge investment of precious time - I prefer something that feels less passive.

The end result of all this is that I am, for a nerd as big as I am, spectacularly unversed in most of the mainstays of pop culture. I never watched Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, The X-Files, Xena, Ally McBeal, Twin Peaks, Seinfeld, Frasier, Law and Order, Saved by the Bell, Beverly Hills, The Fresh Prince, Byker Grove, Dawson's Creek, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Shield, The West Wing, any police procedural whatsoever, any soap whatsoever - I can't even compile this list without reference to Google because I don't even know what the shows are that I didn't see. I saw a handful of Futurama episodes at university, caught up with Firefly on DVD years later, and somehow managed to watch a good proportion of the episodes of mid-run Buffy. I did see quite a bit of Dr Who on video, and found the resurrection of the show disappointing enough that I lost interest years ago.

Similarly, I never really watched that many films, and the ones I did see tended to be fairly light-hearted and family-friendly. I did, however, read ferociously, mostly in the areas of nonfiction, fantasy and sci-fi.

And all this means I am equally spectacularly at sea in terms of the tropes of most of these things, which is a real problem because most role-playing games seem to either be specifically based on film and TV, or at the very least to be heavily influenced by them.

The RPGs I find easiest to grasp are Dungeons and Dragons, Call of Cthulhu and Warhammer 40,000. I really don't think that's an accident. All three are primarily based on books (yes, even 40K - the game itself consists of books, which have fluff in them, and there's lots of tie-in books too). I am familiar with a lot of the stuff behind all three. Traveller I've still never played, but it feels like it could fit with the fairly dry and hard-but-not-annoyingly-philosophical tone of a lot of the books I read in my younger days.

Setting

In terms of actually playing in or running a game, Call of Cthulhu has another big advantage in that it's a real-world game. This it shares with World of Darkness, though that gameline massively dilutes its advantage with an incredibly complex layer of supernatural stuff.

When you're starting out as a player, you don't need to know very much specific. It helps if you have a rough idea how the period you're playing in works, but even that can be worked around. You do know how the real world works, and have a broad idea of how things like shopping, social interaction, law and order work - especially given some narrative wiggle-room. The weirdness of the setting is specifically an unexpected and alarming element which is disruptive to the PCs, so you're not actually required to know anything about that ahead of time.

For the GM, it's also a boon, because it's really easy to run. You can use real-world locations and history, and improvise rapidly based on actual facts you know about reality. It's easier and quicker to guess plausibly how a certain NPC might behave, or how a town might respond to some bizarre events, than it is to make a similar judgement about a fantasy world. You can use actual maps to decide where players can go, rather than having to invent new locations on the fly. Plus, the players can use their understanding of real history, science and so on to follow what's going on; they don't need to have read up on the metaphysics or magic laws of your setting, and have everything patiently explained to them "which your character would already know, of course".

GMing

I think this ties in to a more general point that I find Call of Cthulhu relatively easy to GM for.

I feel like I wouldn't even know where to start with a D&D campaign, and I'd have to invest a huge amount of effort to create a situation that might be playable in order to dangle it in front of potential players. And I'm sure any of the people I game with could run a better one. Maybe I just lack confidence. I certainly enjoy playing D&D, and I've actually got the broad strokes of a couple of worlds from my 4e campaign, but coming up with all the geographies and combat and faction motivations seems like a lot of hard work. And it must be said, so far everything I've suggested to the usual group has been met with absolute silence, so not a lot of encouragement over there.

Writing a single scenario for Call of Cthulhu is a relatively limited feat. Okay, okay, yes, I admit I personally end up putting preposterous amounts of work into writing really robust investigations over long periods. But the principle stands! You can come up with one idea, play around with it and see if it seems to have any meat on it. If so, you can flesh it out as a standalone scenario and then stop. There isn't the same expectation of presenting a long campaign that some other systems have. I think the absence of an XP system is one of the factors here; because doesn't offer the satisfaction of gradual increase in power and new exciting abilities, there's less expectation of long-term play.

Also, Call of Cthulhu is legendarily fond of prewritten adventures. I've only actually run a couple, but there's a widespread acceptance of them in the gaming community. You can GM by selecting, reading and running prewritten adventures, rather than writing all your own material.

If you do want to write scenarios, though, I think the "real world, but with weird elements" makes it really accessible. All you really need is one weird spin. I've got a huge list of ideas waiting to one day be scenariofied: they're inspired by things ranging from weird stories, to stories in a completely different genre, to purely mechanical challenges ("can you write a scenario where X?", to historical and political events, to slightly odd stuff that's happened to me in real life, to nursery rhymes, to advertising.

I've written an entire scenario based on a photo someone posted on Twitter. I think it's genuinely good.

I just don't have the extensive genre knowledge or game experience to comfortably write scenarios for most other systems. I'd want to play a hell of a lot more White Wolf, for example, before feeling I had even the slightest idea what to do with them.

Circumstantial

Finally, it's probably worth accepting that a fair bit of the reason is purely circumstantial.

My friends include several very experienced GMs who can easily run a long and satisfying D&D campaign. Since my own foray collapsed for timetabling reasons, there's been no reason for me to try. Those slots have enough D&D in them already and it's better than I'd do.

Besides the regular online gaming, most of my games consist of irregular weekends of board and roleplaying games. These are of uncertain duration, and it's unpredictable how many people are available - usually three, sometimes four, occasionally two (including me). Experience of trying to run D&D on a roughly similar model was very poor. However, these are good occasions to try a one-shot that lasts four to eight hours. Of the games available, everyone is reasonably keen on Call of Cthulhu so it makes sense to run that. We sometimes experiment with other one-shots, but there's not huge enthusiasm and of course it's a lot of upfront time investment learning a system.

Because I live a long way from my existing gaming groups, I have limited opportunities to play or run games, but plenty of opportunities to think and write about them. Call of Cthulhu lends itself well to this because it's focused on prewritten scenarios, and because most of the game content you need consists of NPCs and clue chains rather than combat. Writing up mysteries is, I think, more satisfying to do than writing up potential combat because you can put together a coherent whole situation, whereas with combat it's all hazy until the sword hits the goblin.

If I write a one-shot for Call of Cthulhu, I'm reasonably confident that at some point I'll be able to find players for it. That isn't the case for campaign pitches, as that requires a lot more investment from everyone and is competing for a very limited amount of weekly gaming space.

I have a suspicion that if I'd come into gaming via a different group of people, I'd be happily running around with White Wolf and a fistful of storygames.* I do like mechanics; I like crunchy games and simulationism and worlds I can poke. At the same time, I like satisfying narrative and tropes and acting and silly voices. I'm a big reader, I've done some acting, that could be me.

And if storygames didn't all seem to be so freaking miserable.


Now it could well be that if I decided to sit down and write up a load of D&D campaign notes, I'd be able to come up with something worthwhile. It's a tough first step though, and one I've never really felt the encouragement to try, because given my current gaming setup I'm not especially optimistic I'd ever get to use it. I mean, I like the idea of running another D&D campaign, but I also like the idea of being toned and muscular or writing a novel. So far, none of these seems likely.

Monday, 26 December 2016

Characterisation: Habituation and Instincts

So in my tireless quest for ways of modelling things, a couple of thoughts came to me that I wanted to throw out there. They're not inherently connected, but I feel like there's a similarity of ethos to them that means they might well end up in similar games. Which is to say, they both try to handle some quite complex individual differences by loosely categorising aspects of a character, in order to try and steer around detailed mechanics that I think would be not merely crunchy (nothing wrong with crunch), but fiddly.

These two ideas are (for want of any better shorthands) habituations and instincts.

Habituations

Anyone reading this blog has probably (either in real life or in debate, or quite possibly in someone's anecdotes about a rather annoying game) encountered situations where there seems to be a mismatch between what a character can do and what their background implies. The most prominent cases generally involve two characters.

In the false negative case, Archibald is either totally or surprisingly incompetent at a task that, given his background, ought to be commonplace. Alternatively, Archibald is basically ignorant of something that forms a normal part of his life. For example, Archibald may be a vet(erinarian) living in small-town Ohio who is nevertheless unable to drive, or (depending on the system) unable to handle any kind of difficult conditions - like driving quickly down country roads in the dark and rain, which he presumably does quite often. Perhaps he's a soldier who can't light a fire. A successful professional who knows nothing at all about the politics, legal system or etiquette of his home country (you'd think he must at least read a paper sometimes).

In the false positive case, Belinda is mechanically assumed to have knowledge and skills that aren't appropriate to her background. For example, Belinda may be a privately-educated interior designer from Chelsea who is nevertheless able to plug a gangster between the eyes at 50 yards, fly a helicopter and transform a dead grizzly into a delicious array of travel rations. Alternatively, she might be a member of an obscure sect of subsistence farmers in darkest Cornwall who shun technology, and yet have an extensive knowledge of current and international affairs, pop culture and society manners. Or, as many stories like to throw at us, she might be a middle-class American sent back in time to Victorian London, and somehow manage to convince everyone either that she's the new maid, or that she's Lady Veronica despite having the wrong accent and no idea what either of the roles involves.

The glaring contrast is usually where Archibald and Belinda turn up together. The successful lawyer who golfs with the mayor ends up being exactly as good at social etiquette and current affairs as the Zmulvian tribal warrior who only left Zmul a month ago and doesn't believe in electricity. A lawyer manages to carry out delicate negotiations between two proud Zmulvian queens. A hunter fails to build a campsite. A toff walks into an inner-city bar and manages to track down, speak to and buy a shipment of weapons from a gangland boss in a single night. A Glaswegian labourer from a tough estate infiltrates a high society dinner and holds everyone spellbound, but is completely unable to think where the party might buy some drugs.

Obviously these are relatively extreme cases, and most GMs will cut them some appropriate slack. I was just interested in possible alternatives.

One of the more interesting variants I'm aware of comes from Call of Cthulhu, which features both the Own Language and the Credit Rating skills. As an artefact of the ways these skills operate, if you follow Rules As Written (RAW), being of a higher social class is always an advantage and never a disadvantage.

For example, Own Language is based on the character's Education stat (okay, this isn't inherently tied to class, but there's a likely link to the final social class of the character). Being better educated makes you "better at English" in some nebulous way. Because of how the skill works, a more educated person will do better at any roll based on understanding, deciphering or using language. This makes a certain degree of sense if you imagine a Professor of Literature, or even an ex-Etonian Harvard graduate, painstakingly studying a Middle English document. On the other hand, these upper-class types are likely to struggle to follow the dialect speech of rural or working-class folks, which they're simply not used to; a working-class Investigator should have a distinct advantage here. Similarly, I've seen Own Language used (somewhere!) for mimicking the accents of locals to pass undetected. In this case, the toff and the cockney should have about equal difficulty putting on a Yorkshire accent.

Credit Rating is generally used to impress people, but it's very one-sided. Important people can use it to make sure other toffs accept them, to sweep past servants and to get ordinary folks to accept their authority. There's no corresponding way for working-class Investigators to demonstrate solidarity, let alone a mechanic for establishing whether the simple country folk distrust the sophisticated city-dwellers.

Basically, these skills operate as simple cumulative measures, whereas it would be fun if they could instead operate as spheres of competence: an investigator with a given background is comfortable and accepted in their own sphere, but in a different environment they find it more difficult to operate, and may need to interact in different ways. A duchess and a washerwoman find it difficult to chat, and either party is more likely to get what they want by taking a different approach - one more in tune with their social station.

How does it work?

I think the broad idea here is that during character creation (in whatever hypothetical game this is) you would select backgrounds along two axes. The first is socioeconomic, the second is about where you live; based on this combination, a character would be assumed to have basic competence in things that are expected aspects of that sort of life. These axes would probably not be independent, because different locations have different types of social roles.

For example, a character might be from an urban background; depending on whether they're working-class (probably "urban"), mid-to-upper middle-class (probably dignified as "metropolitan"), upper-class ("cosmopolitan") or off the grid entirely (homeless or in the black market), they'll have quite different sets of knowledge and skills. On the whole, though, they're used to the ways of the city. Maybe there's a niche for the bohemian in there, living a fringe lifestyle.

Another character may be rural. Here there's a whole slew of possibilities. Working-class labourer or farmhand. Subsistence farmer/hunter/gatherer (not so much in modern UK, but historical settings or many other countries). Professional farmer. Squire-type landowner. Middle-class professional who understands the country but doesn't do that stuff. Aristocrat who makes some policy decisions, but doesn't need to know how anything works and mostly socialises, writes and enjoys their hobbies.

The suburbs are simpler in most respects, partly because there's a lot less community in many of them due to commuting and lack of shops or facilities. As such there's simply less knowledge to have. However, there's still general patterns to how people act, and how they interact, as well as the ability to "read" the geography to help you get around (where will the only shop for miles around be? how can I get out of this bizarre labyrinth of streets with the same name?), sensing which people will have the information you want, and so on.

The idea is that this socioeconomic habituation determines which things are familiar and comfortable for you, and which are difficult.

For example, Abdul, Beata and Clara are investigating supernatural occurrences in a deprived area of Leeds. They want to ask the neighbours about anything strange that's happened; wander around a rough district at night; watch a few properties of interest without attracting attention; and obtain some illegal items. They'll also need to fend off the attention of the police, make enquiries at the city museum,

Abdul was brought up in the inner city by a single father. He knows how to walk and how to talk, even though his accent is Manchester rather than Leeds. He knows when and how to talk to the neighbours - which shops to ask in, which pubs, which people on the street, and how to approach them naturally so nobody thinks he's an undercover cop nor a would-be murderer. When a few teenagers are blocking the alley at 11pm, he knows the right posture and the right remark to be let through quietly, neither seeming like an entertaining victim nor a direct challenge. He knows the right clothes, posture and activities to fit in as locals just minding their own business while he stakes out a house. Law-abiding as he might be, he understands which kinds of people will know people who know people who can get you... things. This is, in a sense, his home turf.

Beata grew up in a lovely eight-bedroomed townhouse on the leafy north side (and a holiday home in Cornwall), and was attending opera from the age of six. She doesn't understand how things are done in deprived communities, though she might have other approaches to getting information. When the police pause to ask what their group is doing at this time of night, though, she knows exactly how confidently privileged people are mildly perplexed that the police are bothering them, yet supportive and friendly enough not to get their backs up. At the museum, she knows the right sort of things to say, and the knack to spotting the director strolling past and buttonholing him for some technical questions.

Clara is from a small farming village in East Anglia, and has never lived anywhere with more people than cows. She's slightly nervous of crowds and confused by the matey-yet-suspicious mindset of the poor urban residents. She's no idea how to talk to gangs of strangers or passing police, since at home both the hoodlums and the sole constable are well-known to her. She's comfortable talking to the cheery old squire and even the snooty local baron, but can't handle the rather cold manners of metropolitans. If it turns out one of the NPCs is from the countryside, though, she may well have a huge advantage in winning his confidence.

It's really just an extrapolation and modification of what GMs tend to do anyway. For example, I don't know any GMs who would routinely refuse to let characters buy an item from a shop - an apple, or something - unless you made a successful Bargain or Trade or whatever roll. We assume that characters can do this because it's so utterly routine. And yet... you could probably construct an argument that Lord Poshly Richington lives such a rarified life that he has literally never purchased anything. He has people who have people to do that for him. He certainly acquires items, but this is a matter of instructing his secretary to have one of the staff arrange for a tailor to visit, or visiting a jeweller's and telling the owner that the pearl-encrusted diamond coronet will do nicely. He does not queue, he is entirely unaware of prices, he does not carry money, he interacts with merchants simply by conceding that one or other of their wares is adequate. If he's trying to buy an apple from a shop like a normal person, he literally has no idea how to go about it. Nor does a hunter from a barter economy in a society without buildings. Nor does a clone worker from the Communion who has always been provided with exactly her entitlement of supplies by the Great Computer. Nor does a demon. Nor does a freshly-awakened AI. Nor does a member of the warrior-sect who dine in the queen's halls, use clothes and weapons provided for them, and only occasionally deign to demand food supplies from those of lower castes.

What about different cultural backgrounds? In some settings, both modern and historical, being a hunter-gatherer or professional warrior might be a genuine socioeconomic option that comes with specific types of knowledge that aren't simply about your job.

Alveras the Ranger grew up as a nomadic hunter-gatherer in the Great Woods. We should assume that she can, regardless of any specific mechanical skills, do everything that's a normal part of that life. She can identify common woodland creatures and plants (and is not alarmed by them); she can light a fire; she can find a small amount of edible (if tasteless) food; she knows how to get around in the woods; she can read the undergrowth and geology to locate water; she can blaze trails, leave and interpret warning signs. She is used to interacting with other nomads and knows the social rules of wandering life - how to talk to strangers, when to remain silent, what you can and can't interact with (like other people's traps or caches), common nomadic laws and traditions, etiquette, social structure and so on.

Now it may well be that during the game, the group needs to make a fire in a storm, or find water during a drought, or interact with nomads from another world. It would be perfectly reasonable for the GM to rule that Alveras does in fact need to make a roll, because her baseline everyday skills don't extend to these challenging circumstances unless she's invested points in them.

But when Alveras is just hanging around in a wood and wants to make a fire, or sharpen a knife, or grind some grain, or identify some uninspiring-but-edible plants - something she has done daily since she was a child - she should be able to.

Instincts

So this ties into my previous musings on how to handle morale issues, and looking for a relatively sleek way to model that. Science (pop science, at least) suggests there are three main emotional reactions to major stress or threat. When your ability to cope with a situation is overwhelemed, this is what you do.

This can basically be summed up as Fight, Flight or Freeze. I would want to have these as three game-mechanical instincts, which players choose between during character creation. There could be game-mechanical effects which trigger a specific one, but your personal Instinct is how you react to a general threat that overcomes your defences. For example, if you build up more Stress than your tolerance allows, or fail to resist an opponent's Intimidate attempt, this governs your reaction. Each instinct has advantages and disadvantages in different situations.

Note that this is about when you are basically overwhelmed by your emotions. There might be one or two different "steps" of Instinct, like Threatened and Overwhelmed. The first would mean you are driven by your Instinct but can still resist it, as when scared or under serious stress; the second would mean your Instincts have taken over, when you are terrified or stressed beyond your conscious control and your brain is desperate to escape the source of the stress.

Fight: You react aggressively, whether with fists or with words. You can fight and argue effectively, but this can leave you in danger. Moreover, your approach is aggressive and leaves little room for defence. This instinct is an advantage when you can overwhelm a threat or face down a challenge, but can leave you in serious danger and may get you in legal or social trouble.

Mechanically, this Instinct would probably materialise as something like this, although I'd prefer to leave this up to common sense:

  • You are compelled to escalate the current conflict - an argument either becomes heated or physical, depending on the setting and system and genre (in Office Politics, you might just be unprofessionally rude and risk disciplinary action). If you're shoving each other, you swing a punch. Maybe you draw a weapon.
  • You may not stop fighting until you win or regain control of yourself.
  • You can't take actions that aren't aggressive or supporting your aggression, only reactions (like dodging).
  • You suffer a penalty to defensive or rational actions, like placating someone, making a valid point in an argument, or blocking a punch.
  • You gain a bonus to aggressive actions, like intimidating, making a cutting (if unsophisticated) remark, or breaking a chair over somebody's head.
  • You don't have to do anything obviously stupid or suicidal, but you are driven to pursue the conflict if possible

Flight: You withdraw. This can manifest as yielding in an argument, or physically running from a stressful situation - whether that means hiding in the toilets or fleeing down the road. You can effectively escape and defend yourself to some degree, but you are heavily penalised at aggressive actions, or actions that don't directly help you get away from the situation. This instinct is an advantage in helping you avoid harm, but you might abandon allies, embarrass yourself, or end up trapped.

Mechanically, this might mean:

  • You must attempt to escape the conflict, whether physically or emotionally
  • You cannot make aggressive actions, although passing aggression might occur as part of your flight (for example, shoving someone out of the way to flee)
  • You gain a bonus to actions that contribute to your escape, such as placating, running, breaking past barriers or people, disavowing everything you care about, recanting, hiding and getting free.
  • You suffer a penalty on any actions that do not contribute to your escape, including noticing most things, including other enemies you haven't spotted yet.

Freeze: You choke up. You go quiet and let words wash over you, and your muscles don't want to move. You find it very difficult to take any actions at all, but you can instinctively defend yourself to some degree. This instinct can let you avoid stressors and dangers because you go unnoticed or because you don't seem like an interesting challenge. However, it can prevent you taking any active steps to improve your situation.

Mechanically, this might mean:

  • You must attempt to protect yourself until the threat passes.
  • You cannot take any actions.
  • You gain a bonus to reactions that protect you or contribute to making the threat go away, such as staying silent, looking non-threatening or nodding desperate agreement.
  • You suffer a penalty on any actions that do not contribute to this goal, even if they would increase your overall safety, for example by moving away from danger.

Sunday, 25 December 2016

Guild Magic: musings on magical variation

Something which I've been vaguely thinking about for a while is how spells in many games tend to be surprisingly assembly-line. That is to say, any given spell is often used universally, with variation between magic-using groups defined by their selection of spells rather than the spells themselves.

This struck me as a little regrettable. The guild systems that you'd expect to find in mediaevalesque worlds could inspire a rich array of secret magical techniques, and thus a great deal of variation. Similarly, there's historically a lot of competition between different major players in a field, between companies trying to make their own approach the most popular, or between national factions. In many cases either different groups prefer different trade-offs, or the details of a specific technique are kept too secret.

The example that first came to me was the simple knock spell beloved of Dungeons and Dragons. You cast it, and it magically opens doors. But it struck me that a set of magical guilds might well each have very different approaches to such matters, and indeed in a fantasy novel I'd hope to see that quite explicitly.

Here I attempt to explore this in my usual haphazard way.

For the purposes of this exercise, I'm postulating three magical guilds.

The Worshipful Order of the Moon are a theo-thaumaturgial order which practice magic as part of their religious traditions, or practice religion as part of their magical traditions - it's hard to tell. Their magical philosophy revolves around attaining a state of confidence, and expressing their will upon the world. As such, most of their spells essentially command reality to be other than it is. Their keywords are authority, deception, command.

The Amethyst Guild are a fraternal order of scholarly mages who seek to explore the nature of reality and open the doors of the mind, allowing them to ultimately transcend this world. Their philosophy is one of contemplation, experimentation and the exchange - with the confines of the Guild, of course! - of hard-won insights. Their spells rely on understanding the underlying nature of reality, using that understanding to manipulate it, or altering the way others perceive that reality. Their keywords are time, illusion, creation, subjective reality.

The Seekers of the Way are an esoteric group of mystics who seek to unlock ancient and new secrets and so gain mastery over the cosmos, thus ushering in a new age of wisdom and harmony. Well, in theory. Their philosophy is one of riddles, koans, and yet of reducing the greatest complexities to their simplest essences so they can be commanded at will. Their spells are all words or sigils which express power directly, moulding matter or unleashing powerful energies in their rawest form. Their keywords are power, strength, raw matter.

Several factions have spells to deal with locks, but the manner of these spells reflects the precepts and arts of the guild in question.

The Worshipful Order of the Moon: the Knock of the Mistress causes the door to open itself (authority, deception, command)

The Amethyst Guild: the Remembrance of the Key creates a temporary shadowy key that can be used to unlock this particular door, based on temporal echoes of its structure (time, illusion, creation, subjective reality)

The Seekers of the Way: the Sign of Opening selectively inflicts damage to the barrier, ripping doorframes from their place and shattering locks (power, strength, raw matter).

Perhaps a creature must be rendered immobile?

The Worshipful Order of the Moon: the Quiescent Decree instructs a mortal to be still; and they obey (authority, deception, command). The Investment of the Crown overwhelms them with awe so they bow to your demands.

The Amethyst Guild: the Endless Moment alters the mortal's perception of time, so that they remain still (time, illusion, creation, subjective reality)

The Seekers of the Way: the Sign of Binding wraps the mortal in invisible coils, holding them fast regardless of their strength (power, strength, raw matter).

What about this sheer cliff, whose face does not particularly lend itself to climbing down? Besides, that would be undignified.

The Worshipful Order of the Moon: the Subjugation of the Winds insists that the air is strong enough to bear your weight; it dares not question you.

The Amethyst Guild: the Turning of the Page illustrates that distance is merely a perception, and the top and bottom of the cliff are separated only by the thickness of a sheet of vellum. In the moment when this truth is demonstrated, they step from the former to the latter.

The Seekers of the Way: the Sign of Ascension holds the wizard aloft and gradually lowers them to the ground. Alternatively, the Sign of the Path reconfigures the rock of the cliff into a series of convenient stairs.

Regrettably, it is necessary to overcome a group of impudent bandits.

The Worshipful Order of the Moon: the Treacherous Word causes the bandits to turn upon one another. The Exchange of Masks convinces the bandits that you are one of them.

The Amethyst Guild: the Dawning of the Dusk accelerates time for the unfortunate bandits, wracking their bodies with exhaustion and decay. The Tail of the Peacock allows the bandits to see not only where your entourage are, but where you could be, confounding them while you pick them off. The Dream of Glory reveals to the bandits another world in which they are slaughtering you with glee, while in this one they stand twitching and gurning. The Mote of the Mountain allows you to grow to enormous size and crush the ruffians. And of course, there are many spells which conjure shadowy beasts or weapons.

The Seekers of the Way: the Sign of the Ram unleashes a wave of force upon the bandits, hurling them away with cracked bones and bruised bodies. The Sign of the Colossus grants you superhuman strength and size, allowing you to crush the bandits with physical might. The Sign of Wrathful Earth transforms the ground into jagged spines of rock that impale the bandits.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Creating a Vampire character

This is a post I started a while ago, and never got round to posting. Might as well slap it up here. The Vampire game in question did start, and I did run this character, but sadly we folded a few sessions in due to player availability and stuff.

As I've mentioned before, I'm in a couple of VOIP games these days, which are currently my only viable roleplaying option. We've been doing sizeable campaigns, but we talked a bit about the difficulties of running VOIP games, and what might work better. More on that another time...

Spinning off from that, we've been talking about pitching games for future sessions, and one idea that came up was doing a very straight-down-the-line White Wolf game.

As you might have noticed, I am weirdly invested in the idea of White Wolf but so far disappointed by the reality. I had a sneaking, wavering suspicion that this might be partly because of our approach.  

See, we're all rather inclined to get a bit meta, and a bit parodic, and not to take games very seriously. The fact that those friends have played a lot of RPGs, and a lot of White Wolf games, is a factor in this; they've done the basics before. But I have to ask myself whether it's reasonable to expect a game to be satisfying if you don't allow yourself to actually buy into it, or invest the effort to try and play the game sincerely.

I don't think there's anything wrong with playing games offhandedly and not very seriously, you can play however you want. I generally do. I just think you won't necessarily see what people get out of a game if you don't try to roll with it.

My previous stabs at playing White Wolf games have involved:

Vampire is the oldest, most refined of the games. The system is built specifically to run Vampire. Vampires are the best-established of the supernatural creatures here, and the closest to actually being remotely like their folklorific source material, which means I have some chance of understanding what I'm supposed to do with them. Let's try this.

I am, therefore, going to try reading through the book and making a character, following strictly the instructions in the rulebook and trying to neither abandon them in a fit of pique, nor insist on over-literal interpretation that makes them look more broken than they might be. The objective here is to make a character that I might (but may not) actually play in a serious game.

Wish me luck.


The very rough premise that was mentioned for the hypothetical campaign is a long-term, straight-down-the-line historical Vampire game starting in sometime the early modern period.

It Begins: A Chapter Title With No Relation To Its Contents

Oh for crying out loud White Wolf, will you just give your chapters useful freaking names already.

I'm using a PDF here. Everything is called "The Pontification of the Bones" or "Exfoliation of Mortality" or something, and nothing is called "Chapter X: Making a character". At least there aren't six chapters of game fiction...

Step One: Character Concept

At this first stage, come up with a rough idea of who you want to play. Who was she in life? What kind of vampire is she?

For some reason, the idea of playing a musician came to me, so I'm going to jump on that as a concept. A talented musician who attracts the notice of a vampire, enters their patronage, and the patron is reluctant enough to let them die that they eventually Embrace them (see, I picked up some terminology already) while they're still at the height of their talent.

The campaign (sorry, "Chronicle") is probably going to be historical, so I need a suitable instrument that a normal person might have access to. Let's say violin. Fiddlers are always a good bet, plus you've got a very wide range of musical styles available. They'd recently been invented as this game behind. Let's go with... work-hard, play-hard fiddler.

I tried, but I just can't think of any Aspirations right now. I don't really know how I could without knowing more about the campaign, and indeed the game as a whole.

Okay, I'm also supposed to pick a vampire type. I'm pleased to see that they do all sound reasonably interesting.

 The Daeva (charisma-vampires) seem like the most obvious patrons to choose a musician. Ventrue could also work. Actually I suspect they could all work... ah, I'm actually going to go with Mekhet and stop worrying about it, it's getting late. They have that obsession thing going, it sounds good, and I always like sneaky characters. Plus the whole occult investigation this is probably the single most approachable angle on RPGs for me.

Step Two: Select Attributes

Now, we step into the most basic traits that define the character’s capability.

As always, we're expected to do this before we look at any powers. Sigh.

I'm actually using my two-part chargen system to approach this character. I make the mortal Mental, Physical and Social, assuming that I need a fair bit of dexterity for fiddling and a decent chunk of sense to make a living, while social graces are less important.

Step Three: Select Skills

Next, you’ll select your character’s Skills... When choosing Skills, think about your character’s background.

Skills go into a hefty chunk of Performance, a range of awareness-type physical skills to represent general perceptivity and understanding the audience, and I have to spend a few on a smattering of knowledge skills that aren't really appropriate - it's okay, that'll be fine with the vampire overlaid.

Mekhet seem to be all shadows, spying and secret knowledge, so I'll go heavily into that, but I do want to make sure I preserve that precious Performance.

And then I suddenly realise - no thanks to White Wolf - that the skills in this game are completely different. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised, but there doesn't seem to be a character sheet at all in this PDF, so it was just easier to use an existing one, and I didn't come across a skills list until I actually went to check a definition and found it was completely different. Thanks.

With some effort, I dig up a character sheet someone else has put on the internet, and use that. I notice the Attributes have also changed. Sigh. At least I can use my existing calculations as a basis...

So I end up with lots of Expression (seems to be what governs playing music here), some general stealth-type stuff for being a Mekhet, and some studious skills for the same reason.

Step Four: Skill Specialties

Skill Specialties allow you to refine a few Skills, and show where your character truly shines. They reflect a narrow focus and expertise in a given Skill.

Obviously I pick Fiddle for my first specialty. I also go with Empathy: Read Audience (which seems like a vital skill for a performer, and also generally useful for social interactions) and Stealth: Downstaging, because blending in seems more like my style than being really sneaky.

Step Five: Add Kindred Template

We have the flesh and blood. Now, we add the fangs.

Having picked a Mekhet, I (will) get a free dot in either Intelligence or Wits; I'm going with Wits as that seems more like my style.

I'm not picking a Covenant because I'm assuming we'll probably do some kind of prologue and I'll pick one when I'm actually a vampire, based on how they approach us.

Masks and Dirges

Now Masks and Dirges. These are supposedly about what you try to seem like, and how you really are? I'd pick a Virtue and Vice for my mortal bit, but... can't be bothered, it's late. Courtesan looks like the right Mask for a musician, and maintaining that guise seems appropriate for trying to hang on to humanity. And...

Okay, I really don't get this. There's just one big list of things here. It seems like it would have been really super helpful if White Wolf have given us two lists: things they thought were suitable as the bearing Kindred present to the world. It’s the fa├žade, the pretty lie. It’s the excuse for why he can’t stay for breakfast in the morning. It’s the reason she gives the cab driver for dropping her off near an abandoned warehouse at odd hours of the night. It’s his excuse for barely touching his dinner. and things they thought, in almost total contrast, were suitable as the truth behind the lies. It’s the vampire’s secret self; it’s who he is when the lights are off and nobody is present to witness his dirtiest moments. It’s his dark indulgence. It’s the self-loathing she will never admit. It’s his desire for an end. It’s her need for companionship.

Looking at the rulebook, it seems I could perfectly reasonably select Monster as my Mask, and Jester as my Dirge. This would make me a person who overtly "exists to torment, frighten, and destroy" but secretly "never takes the world seriously... looks for the absurd in everything, and shows it to the world". I can just about see that in some kind of Shakespearean drama, but it doesn't seem like their intention.

Ah, hell with it. I'm going with Courtesan/Spy. It's a classic combination.

Touchstone

Your character’s Touchstone is a person, place, or thing that reminds her of her humanity, and helps keep her grounded.

Touchstone! That reminds me of that one character from that Shakespeare play I haven't seen, but it was on I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue. I need one. I'm going for a simple one: an old musician friend, perhaps my teacher, who still ekes out a meagre living entertaining.

Disciplines

Disciplines are extensions of the Blood. They are ways the Beast’s tendrils creep out into the world to manipulate, to pervert, and to destroy... Choose three dots in Disciplines. At least two must be from the vampire’s in-clan Disciplines. The third dot may be from any Discipline.

Finally! Some vampiric powers. As a Mekhet, I have access to Auspex, Celerity and Obfuscate (okay, I have access to some other stuff too, but those are the basics).

Auspex seems to be about scrying, basically. Celerity is being fast. Obfuscate is hiding stuff.

I don't hugely see super-speed as being appropriate, but then it might be an asset to a fiddler...

Auspex is kind of cool, though it seems a bit limited - it seems to overlap a lot with effects I'd expect from a standard skill roll, and only one use per scene is free so that doesn't compensate.

Obfuscate is cool, this is the kind of thing I enjoy anyway.

I'm going to go for one two dots of Obfuscate, and one dot of Auspex. I would totally go for the out-of-Clan thing, except that none of them are particularly tempting me. I liked the sound of Awe, but the Majesty tree isn't particularly gripping me, and the effects are much more useful if you're going to put more dots in anyway. Plus, I have 5 dots in Expression that should allow me to impress people, thanks.

Blood Potency

I also take my dot of Blood Potency. Don't understand this yet, but don't care.

Step Six: Merits

Yay, I like this bit usually.

I'm sad that you can't have supernatural powers. It's not that I specifically want any, but I really, really don't see any good reason why someone with supernatural powers can't become a vampire and retain them. You already have supernatural powers for being a vampire. What's the big?

I struggle quite a bit with the Merits. Lots of them are clan-specific (and I think only one is for Mekhet?), while a large chunk of the others provide either status points or Covenant benefits. For the purposes of this chargen, which is only tentatively associated with an actual campaign and where I don't have much specific background yet, I'm assuming I'm not yet in a Covenant. It feels to me that, if you're playing a first game of Vampire, and from scratch, getting Embraced and being inducted into a Covenant are going to be significant things, and ought to be in-game things I go through. Presumably after a few games you kind of know how things go.

Anyway, I manage to find a set of human-type Merits, involving other musicians who owe me favours, Inspiring (I'm hoping I can tie this into my music, but may have to rethink later), Barfly because musician, and Sleight of Hand - this latter being a mixture of "on general principles, take larcenous abilities", not being sure what else to do, and it seeming like a reasonable choice for a musician who sort of scratches a living in the Elizabethan age (though when the campaign starts, I discover another Mekhet has taken this and I ditch to avoid too much overlap, since makes a lot of sense for his character). I really couldn't decide what to do with my last dot and left it.

I'm working on the assumption that the GM Storyteller will let me convert some of these Merits into more vampiric things relatively soon if that seems like a good idea. I just prefer to start with stuff my human character might actually have, partly out of verisimilitude, and partly because I don't really know how any of this vampire society stuff works.

Commentary

The thing that struck me first about the process - okay, second, just after the unhelpful chapter titles - was that this process is actually not hugely helpful for creating a vampire, at least not to me. See, what it doesn't do is lead you through the actual "becoming a vampire" thing. That's a pretty huge omission.

What I'd have liked to see is some time spend talking you through why, and how, mortals might end up becoming a vampire in the first place. And there doesn't seem to be. There's some specific thoughts in each, um, clan chapter, but I don't immediately see a "why are you a vampire anyway?" bit.

I also really struggle with the whole Aspirations bit, because that just seems very difficult for a new player to guess. What's going to be relevant in this campaign? What's a suitable Aspiration? It seems like you need to know a lot about the setting and the campaign before you can make informed decisions here.

Next, I'd like to point out that the header font is quite hard to read and that's deeply unhelpful.

As usual, there's also a difficulty in that information about clans is scattered. There's the overview sections to give flavour, but you don't know what you can actually game-mechanically do until you find the powers section, nor do you know what the disadvantages are until you research them. I'd have liked a better idea of what powers do within the clan section, because powers are arranged by discipline and it's annoying to cross-reference. I know they want to be all flavourful, but sometimes just telling you what you will be able to do is the right way.

Skills: Not having a character sheet with your game is unforgivably stupid, seriously. I assumed - perhaps rashly, but not unreasonably I think - that these would be interchangeable between White Wolf games, whereas actually the skill list is a different length and skills are categorised completely differently. Interestingly(?) it looks like Demon characters get screwed over, because they have the same number of points to allocate amongst about 50% more skills.

Disciplines: I'd just like to insert my usual rant about how telling players to select Skills and Attributes based on your character's (mortal) background is a lovely idea, but is genuinely inappropriate in a game where these will determine your ability to actually do any of the vampiric stuff that is the whole premise of the game.

Musings on Monomonsters

I recently read through The Derelict, a one-shot scenario for Call of Cthulhu released for Free RPG Day (I bought my copy the normal way, though). This post will contain massive spoilers for that scenario, so be aware; proceed with caution.

Some of you may remember my post about Monster Balance in Call of Cthulhu, which is also relevant here.

The Derelict

So, the scenario features a group of Investigators who rapidly find themselves trapped on an iceberg with two wrecked ships.

After finding signs that the crew of the other ship were massacred in a way that doesn't look like either humans or polar bears, they eventually realise they're being hunted by an inhuman monster.

The villain of the piece is a "sciapod". This is basically an Ice Yuan-Ti, for those of you with a D&D background. Okay, it's a huge ice merman covered in chitinous armour, which is invisible (with one specific exception), carries a bow that conjures steel-hard ice harpoons, and likes to eat humans.

The rest of the scenario will likely consist of the Investigators cautiously making their way around the ships finding some more horrific scenes, and potentially a couple of mildly useful items. They will almost certainly be picked off one by one, though a couple might escape to dubious safety on the ice waters.

Going Solo

Prompted by my reading and my reservations about the scenario, what I actually want to talk about today is the use of single entities as antagonists. Specifically, I want to consider some of the drawbacks and difficulties presented by this situation.

In many ways, I think you can sum this up simply as having all your eggs in one basket.

The eggs take a variety of forms: psychological threat, mechanical threat, persistence of the problem, capability of the antagonist, and so on. Regardless, packing them into one bundle tends to give you a blunter and more fragile tool to work with.

Coming back to my previous article, the Monomonster is going to be a Beast, Hunter or Final Horror because as a lone operator it can't really be anything else. In theory it could have a dual role as a Gatekeeper or Messenger as part of a larger storyline.

One Man Army

The most prominent of the issues is physical confrontation, so that's where I'm going to start. For this section I'm focusing on scenarios where the monster* presents a direct physical threat to the survival of the PCs. This may not actually be its primary danger, or its preferred way of interaction, but in a direct confrontation the monster is a serious threat.

A lone monster of this kind is significantly more powerful than any one PC, in terms of whatever combat-equivalent features in the game. Usually, it is at least as powerful as all of the PCs combined. There's often a straightforward reason for this, which is that if the monster wasn't this powerful, it wouldn't present a credible threat to the party.

*I'm going to say "monster", which should not be taken to assume a D&D perspective on all this.

From a structural perspective, the danger of the situation is twofold. Firstly, the monster might win. Secondly, the monster might lose.

Yes, I am feeling glib today! How did you know?

To put it another way, every combat* encounter between the monster and the PCs takes on an existential nature. If the PCs do somehow manage to defeat the monster, then the scenario is effectively over. The psychological threat is lifted, the mechanical threat ceases to exist, and although the GM may have some narration or investigation to offer in closing, this tends to feel like a wrap-up. The PCs can achieve a sudden victory, but with only a single opponent to confront, it's difficult for them to slowly gain the upper hand or see the odds growing in their favour.

*I'm just going to say "combat"; there might be other forms of confrontation that work in equivalent ways in specific games.

For the GM, this poses a challenge, because if there's any possibility that the PCs might defeat the monster through a series of inspired decisions and lucky rolls, well, there's a possibility that the PCs might win through a series of inspired decisions and lucky rolls. And if that possibility crops up five minutes into the scenario when the PCs first encounter their opponent, that will make for a very short gaming session. In the case of The Derelict, if the PCs somehow manage to kill the sciapod shortly after reaching the wreck, there really isn't anything left except gathering some backstory.

An obvious and common solution to this problem is to ensure that the monster cannot, in fact, be defeated through a series of inspired decisions and lucky rolls. The sciapod (to continue with our example) has 45HP and deducts 5 points from any damage inflicted; the PCs have three firearms with 6 bullets apiece dealing roughly 1d10 damage. Now, hypothetically, this means the PCs could deal 90 damage to it, killing it twice, without even taking extreme successes (extra damage) into account. The chances are astronomical through. If the PCs understood what was up very quickly, were all together with weapons drawn, and managed to launch a surprise attack on the (invisible!) creature before any of them were killed, it might just about work. Or it could continually roll 100s. I'm not going to say never. But it's incredibly unlikely.

If that thousand-to-one chance comes up, though, the scenario may fall flat. It doesn't actually have to happen that early, either. It just needs to happen at a point when the narrative momentum points in another direction.

Hero Al-Jaf and Bugsy Warburton have finally discovered the horrific experiments behind their predicament, and realised they need to ransack the Science Building where Dr. Sinister's notes and equipment may provide them with a faint chance to escape alive. As they prepare to leave the office, they hear the terrifying sound of the Slatcher gnawing at their door. They turn tail as the Slatcher bursts through, firing wildly in a desperate attempt to buy time.

In a stunning display of serendipity, three bullets strike the Slatcher in the sensitive nostril region, overloading its nervous system and destroying its brain. With the hulking creature dead, our heroes have no particular reason to go to the Science Building, and begin to shuffle awkwardly home.

If you have a number of monsters stalking the PCs, this isn't a particular problem. Even if each monster is supposed to be extremely tough, the players will probably understand that they got really lucky and still shouldn't try to confront the remainder outright. But with only one, you have nothing left to play with.

We're All Dead Here

The parallel problem to this is that the monster can win too easily.

Remember, because we have only one monster in this scenario, that monster is overwhelmingly powerful. It is capable of defeating at least several of the PCs - which, given mechanical variation and raw luck, means that it's almost certainly capable of killing all of the PCs at once. Often this is deliberate; the intention is that PCs will either escape the monster, or work out a way to overcome it indirectly using the environment and information they can accumulate, or increase their capabilities (either mechanically or in terms of knowledge and resources) to the point where they can in fact defeat it.

Because the monster is so powerful, any time there's a confrontation with the whole party, there is a risk that the monster will kill them all. While that risk may ultimately be part of the scenario, once again it can feel very unsatisfying if it happens too early, or at a time when the narrative momentum isn't pointing that way.

If it does come down to combat, then, the GM has the difficult job of reining in their beast. They need to calculate fairly precisely just how much damage it should wreak. If they simply follow the mechanical potential of a rampaging monster capable of killing the entire party in a few rounds, there may come an abrupt end to the scenario. Conversely, if they restrain it too far, the psychological threat can be lost; this not only affects the narrative, but can cause further complications because players become tempted to keep fighting. After all, if the creature doesn't attack as ferociously as they expected, this may be their best chance to defeat it!

The psychology of the players, and indeed the player characters, can get convoluted, especially with metagame considerations coming into play. You can of course resort to saying "hey, this monster could easily kill you all, but I'm giving you a chance to get away," but there's a real risk that this will puncture the immersion too far - players may end up feeling that everything is under the GM's sufferance and become dissatisfied.

Basically, then, the difficulty for the GM is knowing when to stop. On top of choosing a narratively and mechanically appropriate amount of havoc for the monster to inflict on the characters, bearing in mind the psychological effect of that havoc and the tropes that will be evoked by it, the GM also needs to have in mind a pretext for stopping that feels satisfying given the nature of the monster.

Scaling

Players can be surprisingly stubborn about backing down. It's not super surprising though. After all, often the whole point of encountering a monster in a game is to fight it.

I think one of the particular difficulties of a monomonster is that it's difficult to give a useful sense of scale. By which I mean: exactly how much of a threat does this thing pose?

Of course, there are some exceptions. If a monster is genuinely meant to be overwhelmingly dangerous beyond anything the PCs could dream of, you can generally find a way to demonstrate that just in description. In that case, the scenario is about staying as far away from it as possible.

When as a GM you have many monsters, you have options. The most straightforward is that you can have some of them attack the PCs (or some NPCs) and show roughly what kind of threat they pose. A Venusian Gnarker might charge a group of guards, only brought down by a relentless barrage of gunfire after smashing several aside. Several Chibblers might spring upon a PC, and when the party can wrestle them off, it shows that four PCs can cope with about four Chibblers without getting too seriously hurt - but the hundreds encroaching on their base will be a problem. They might know that one unarmed cultist is a relatively manageable threat, but that they can't really handle the fifty who are meeting downstairs.

In particular, you can expend some of your monsters to demonstrate the scale of the threat. Was it easy to kill them? Hard? Terrifyingly difficult? Okay, now you know what you're dealing with. And that was just the hatchling...

What scaling is about is informing the players of the situation. You are trying to convey a sense of appropriate threat, bearing in mind the tropes and conventions of the genre, so that the players understand what it means for them to take various courses of action. This is all part of the general GM's role, just as in portraying an NPC you try to show the players what kind of NPC and situation they are dealing with (with reference again to genre tropes).

With a monomonster, you can't easily do this.

You can have the monomonster attack someone else, which can work well, though it depends on how the players interpret the power of that victim. There's also a risk that the PCs think this is a "rescue the NPC!" situation, because they haven't yet worked out what they're dealing with. Finally, some kinds of monster don't work well here because they should really move on to killing the PCs.

Another classic is leaving evidence of the destruction wrought by the creature. This is potentially very potent; in particular, it allows the PCs to study the scene at their leisure and learn a lot about what the creature can do. It can include witness accounts and scenes of carnage. However, it can be difficult for players to grasp what these mean in mechanical terms. Is being able to wipe out a roomful of police officers evidence of appalling power, or just that the police are a bit useless? Are we supposed to be scared about this for practical reasons, or aghast at this tragedy, or is it just the kind of thing that happens? How did those police match up to us, anyway? Of course, this depends on things like system. In D&D, you don't know whether a dead NPC is 1st or 20th level unless you're told. In Call of Cthulhu, people are mostly fairly equal, but skills can make a huge difference.

It is possible to have the monster simply attack, working on the basis that the party will mostly escape. This might work absolutely fine, but it's risky. There's that aforesaid worry about killing everyone, especially if they don't realise they're not supposed to fight back. Or the monster getting killed by a fluke.

You could also end up with more complicated situations. For example, killing off even a single PC early on might leave the game feeling flat for their player (even if you get a replacement, your investment can be diminished). Characters might be sufficiently injured or traumatised that it's actually difficult for them to do very much, especially in a game with injury mechanics. For example, a sprained ankle or fear of darkness could leave a player struggling to contribute. If the game has resource management, such as mana or even ammunition, it's possible for someone to burn through a lot of their resources in this kind of preliminary encounter and have little left for the main scenario.

In addition, while a monomonster can manifest new abilities or increased power over time, it can be very difficult to plausibly do the opposite. Monsters achieving new stages of evolution, greater manifestation onto the material plane, absorbing enough souls to breathe fire? There's precedent for that. Monsters losing the ability to breathe fire, or weakening, except due to protagonist intervention? That just feels like pulling punches. And if you try to repeatedly scale up and down, it will certainly begin to feel arbitrary.

Agency

Somewhat strangely, I think another issue with this kind of scenario can be player agency. Now, it's tricky because there's also a loss of character agency in many of these scenarios, which relates to most of them being horror. But I think the monomonster setup does tend to limit player options as a consequence of the limited range of narrative resolutions.

Let me try that again in less portentous language. As I've said, there's a significant risk of the narrative falling flat because the monster, or the party, are killed off at an unsatisfying time. The power of the monster tends not to leave a lot of leeway for error, which tends to mean limited scope for players to test ideas, explore and take risks. This can either result from player caution (including playing strongly into trope on the assumption that this is the only way to meaningfully engage with the scenario), or from GMing that steers into Quantum Ogres and railroading territory.

Let's take the sciapod as our example.

Freedom of Movement

The scenario obliges them to land on the iceberg. It then mandates that their boat is disabled, and the radio destroyed. This immediately removes two choices: the players cannot decide to have the characters call for help, including further information, nor can they decide to try and escape. This is a story about being hunted by a monster on a shipwreck, not about being chased by a monster across the Arctic and beyond. Fair enough, unless you're running a total sandbox you do need to decide what sort of thing you're trying to do in a scenario, especially in genres where GMs are expected to devote effort to building up backstory and providing realistic details, which require planning and research.

Informed Decisions

The players may wish to gather information about what is going on. This is a sensible choice and also in-genre; protagonists faced with an unusual situation do generally try to puzzle it out, and in horror genres this often overrides caution. The players aren't prevented from information-gathering, which is good. However, the majority of the information is generic atmosphere-inducing detail, demonstrating the power of the sciapod and the danger they face: the crew thought up several logical ways to protect themselves against something, all of which failed.

It's interesting to learn what happened here, but it doesn't actually help. Notably, they can't find anything that explains what the sciapod is, its weaknesses (spoiler: none) or how it behaves, any of which would increase their ability to make effective decisions. A very notable omission is any clue to the secret means of seeing through its invisibility, which is very much out of left field.

I suspect this is unusual. Stories of this kind often involve the protagonists observing the monster's behaviour (or the clues it leaves behind) and slowly learning of its quirks and vulnerabilities, eventually equipping them to escape or defeat it. This helps them make informed decisions, offering agency. On the flipside, there is a risk that the scenario becomes a series of scripted reveals, with the players needing to progress though a whole clue chain before they are allowed into the endgame. Again, this is a bigger risk with a monomonster, because a monomonster is a bigger threat allowing less margin for error. With multiple monsters, they can gradually gain the knowledge to take on increasingly powerful monsters, or test out leaps of deduction and survive being wrong.

Other possibilities are significantly curtailed by that invisibility. It deprives them of information about what's happening, including the ability for characters to observe the creature and interact with it. It's technically possible to overcome the invisibility, but the solution is bizarre and isn't spelled out anywhere, which means the players don't really have the option to work towards discovering it.* The invisibility is an unusual trait for a monomonster, though. Shapeshifting and similar abilities can produce some related issues, but typically you can at least see the monster when it's attacking you.

Technically you could try and work it out by experimentation, but it would be insanely dangerous, and I'm still not sure players would work it out. It's also very hard for the GM to help out without just telling them the answer.

Judging the Odds

The sciapod's superhuman strength and toughness, and ability to kill at long range while being totally invisible, make fighting it largely pointless. My impression of the scenario was that by info-gathering, players would mostly judge that the monster is far too powerful to confront. It's made clear that a large number of hardy sailors taking sensible precautions, including some decent improvised weaponry, were unable to stop it.

While that doesn't stop the players trying, I think that is a reduction in effective agency. Within the context of horror, signs that an enemy is overwhelmingly powerful in a fight is typically a flag that you are not expected to fight it. Players may not mind their characters dying, but if you're confident the attempt will be fatal, it turns the choice to fight from "part of your range of interactive options" to a specific narrative decision or a last resort.

The players' choices seem very limited here, because there seems very little they can meaningfully do either about the sciapod, or about their own survival.

They can't call for help. There's nowhere to run to, and they can't actually see what they're running from. They can't really hide and it wouldn't achieve anything. They can try to fight back, or just defend themselves, but the scenario makes a concerted effort to show them how ineffective it would be against this inhumanly powerful and resilient creature (which is, let's remember, able to kill them with one shot at long range while remaining totally invisible). They can't observe the creature's behaviour and exploit that, because it's mostly invisible and doesn't seem to have any behaviours other than killing, and also trying to watch it is insanely dangerous.

Why is this about monomonsters again?

Okay, so I'm using one creature from one scenario as an example. They're not all the same.

Basically, a monster story tends to have one of two satisfactory narrative structures. In the first, the characters begin by fleeing and hiding, gradually gain knowledge or resources that improve their odds, and finally defeat the monsters in a series of climactic encounters. In the second, the characters begin by hiding and fleeing, gradually gain knowledge or achieve small victories that improve their situation, and finally find a way to make their escape. In both cases, what essentially happens is that over time, the monster's relative threat decreases until it is less than the characters' growing ability to achieve their goals.

In an interactive roleplaying game, things tend go to in unexpected directions at best. There's no special reason for a confrontation with a single monster to escalate nicely to a dramatic finale. This is especially true as players do not usually have perfect knowledge of the relative capabilities of their characters and the monster, or the odds in play, and are not necessarily aiming to construct a satisfying narrative. You wind up with situations where the players are expected to encounter the monster early, to identify that it is a threat and that they cannot defeat it, but for them to also somehow survive the early encounters, despite the fact that the monster is motivated to kill them, and capable of killing them.

Achieving this balance is particularly difficult with a monomonster because the GM cannot easily use convenient variation in the number of opponents, or their maturity or armament, or their apparent intelligence, to vary threat levels. Instead, they have to control the monomonster's behaviour to ensure it does not kill the players in the early encounters. Because it is controlled in this way, the significance of the players' choices is reduced, and thus their agency. In addition, as I mentioned in scaling, if the GM tries to vary the threat posed between encounters (and in particular, specific abilities) the players will struggle to make informed choices.

With multiple monsters, the GM can open with a Chibbler Larvae encounter to demonstrate the threat. It doesn't need scripting: they can design the Larvae to be moderately threatening and leave the players to respond as they wish, with confidence that the characters will survive and emerge with some understanding of the threat. When the characters encounter apparently more intelligent Chibblers, or find signs that a huge Chibboth has passed nearby, their players can make informed guesses as to the consequences of their next actions (run, fight, hide?). The GM can also scale threat up and down: once they've avoided a Chibboth, they can find a couple of Chibblers in the next corridor.

Except, I'm missing something. Quite often when monomonsters are used, helplessness is the point.

We're All Doomed

The story structures I mentioned above are either defeating or escaping the monster. I suppose third and further structures include the monster gradually picking everyone off, typically except for one surviving female character and possibly a cute pet. You can potentially view this as a Final Horror incarnation of the monomonster, from my Call of Cthulhu typology.

Some of those are effectively lone protagonist stories with a supporting cast, which you can view as working the same way as my two above, but being less appropriate for group play. Others are all about the characters' helplessness, which is fine if you enjoy that sort of thing, but rarely leaves much room for player agency.

I would tend to view these as being more suitable for a game specifically designed to produce a particular narrative - a storygame, in other words. I don't think they're a great match for more traditional roleplaying, because when characters don't have much agency, the GM needs to work very hard to give players agency to set short term goals they can achieve. These may be in-game goals like discoveries, acts of heroism and so on, or player goals relating to bringing about particular scenes or narrative elements they feel invested in. These are necessary because more traditional goals like "defeat the monster" or even "survive" aren't really within reach.

Players need to be thoroughly on board for this sort of thing, because if you find yourself in a monster scenario and try everything you can think of to defeat or escape the monster, only to learn that neither was physically possible, it will be massively frustrating. Essentially, it leaves you playing the wrong game. You want to be playing with the grain of a game: doing the kinds of things that are meaningful within the paradigm you have adopted.

If the monster is unstoppable, you want to be setting and achieving goals like "I stay alive as long as physically possible", "I radio HQ with as much information as we can get our hands on so they can stop this spreading", and "I make one hell of a last stand".

Of course, it's also quite possible for this kind of narrative to be a natural outcome of a monster story where the characters just get themselves killed, through bad luck or bad planning.

On the plus side, this is probably the genre best suited to a monomonster - it actually works quite well. The monster seizes a single victim at a time, and then stops to consume them, torture them, meld with them and assume their identity, and so on. The others can flee while it ignores them. In some ways this is actually better than with multiple monsters. Since you aren't worried about PC deaths if you're using this structure, there are relatively few problems. The main ones are ensuring players are on board with this, and that they don't get too bored if they're eliminated ten minutes into a six hour session.

The Great Escape

So you're faced with a terrifying monster, and just want to escape.

This one comes down very much to the other parameters of the story, because those determine how difficult escape is, and indeed what "escape" means. Are you trapped in a submarine? On a base in the desert? In a forest? In a city?

Monomonsters, being incredibly powerful, are a natural fit for the escape plan. However, they do also have some obvious drawbacks, the main one being that escaping from one thing is generally an awful lot simpler than escaping from many things.

Very broadly speaking, if the characters can determine where the monomonster is, they can sensibly proceed by getting as far in the other direction as possible. Similarly, it's well worth making Herculean efforts to lure the beast away, conceal their trail, block its passage or trap it even temporarily. It may even be reasonable for one character to sacrifice themselves so that the others can escape pretty much unhindered.

For example, let's say the creature is basically mortal, just incredibly tough - it can't pass through solid matter. If there is a way for the characters to separate themselves from the creature with a nigh-impermeable barrier, it's well worth doing even if it's extremely difficult, because achieving it will solve most of their problems. If there are two parts of a space station, and they can sever them using a complex series of explosions jury-rigged from food supplies, they are safe from the monster. While a perfectly good solution, the players may end up focusing on this to the exclusion of whole swathes of a much more complex scenario.

Of course, this isn't always a bad thing. It may be very effective for the players to feel that they're making good progress in their escape at times, and other times have the psychological pressure of knowing the monster is near. The GM may well be able to come up with ways for the monster to eventually resume the chase, hopefully without leaving the players dissatisfied.

The advantage of multiple monsters here is that the players know they do not only have to content with one enemy. This means concocting (potentially) cheap shots is not worthwhile; they should pursue more general escape plans. They can't be as confident in their safety simply because they know where one monster is, or even because they trap one. In addition, the monsters can (deliberately or accidentally) herd them via their own movements, or else force them to take risks to avoid being driven in the wrong direction. The players have to consider pincer movements, or the risks of fleeing one enemy at high speed only to run headlong into another.

Plus, if the numbers of the monsters are uncertain, it may never be clear when they are actually safe.

A second advantage here is the possibility of tiered success. For example, the players could make definite progress by cutting themselves off from part of a monstrous horde, then gradually see more and more of their pursuers drop away as their plans succeed. Or they could make the difficult decision to leave a holdout where supplies are running low, pass through a densely-populated region to make quicker progress, and then try to shake off pursuit. They might accumulate pursuers as they make mistakes, and have to shake them off. They might even be able to turn some of the monsters against each other, or otherwise have the monsters' sheer numbers become a disadvantage - "surely that bridge won't bear the weight of four such gigantic beasts?"

The Nature of the Beast

The personality of a monomonster is an important facet of the puzzle. Because it's the main (or only) challenge in the scenario, its nature will shape the kinds of encounters the characters tend to face.

Murderous

A fairly basic monster is simply murderous: it has an instinctive drive to kill. This can make it both simple and difficult to deal with. When it notices the PCs, it attempts to kill them in a fairly direct way. Since our monomonster is also very powerful, this tends to mean it will kill every PC in sight unless they manage to escape it.

The difficulty here, then, is making the murderbot clever enough to present a practical challenge, but not clever or fast enough that the PCs cannot escape it. It probably shouldn't just fall into pits because the PCs stand on the other side, but it shouldn't be able to unerringly hunt them down. If the murderbot is both overwhelmingly powerful and inescapable, there probably won't be much to the scenario once they first meet - it will chase them down and kill them all efficiently.

Useful options here include weaknesses and incapabilities. If the murderbot can only come out in the darkness (a fairly common trope), the PCs have some limited opportunities to move about, gather and use resources, and make preparations in relative safety before their next encounter. Similarly, if the murderbot is too large to fit through vents, the PCs may be able to escape from a confrontation, while keeping them highly restricted: they can't afford to spend long in one room, and they're limited in terms of where they can safely go at all.

Not all Murderous monsters are instinctive or even stupid - you can use a ruthless assassin, for example, and The Predator is probably a decent example - but the impulse to kill is typically stronger than any other motivation.

Hungry

In some ways, the Hungry beast is even more simple, but it's also potentially more complicated. That's because it actually has two motivations: kill things, and eat them. These can interact in interesting ways.

When a Hungry beast detects the PCs, it will tend to try and kill them. However, if it does kill someone, its desire to eat will often trump its desire to kill. This gives the PCs an opening to escape, counterattack, or attempt a cunning ploy. Whereas the murderbot would simply move onto the next victim in an efficient flurry of death-dealing, quickly killing the whole party, the Hungry beast has no reason to do so until it's sated its hunger.

Hungry beasts can be cautious, like many real-life predators who are wary of prey's defences and the simple risk of their food getting away through their carelessness. Others are so driven by appetite that they have no such qualms, and fling themselves ravenously on any potential food. Either behaviour can give PCs opportunities to trick, distract or otherwise control them. Similarly, many Hungry beasts aren't exclusively PCvores, so the players may come up with ideas to use food stores, wildlife or even NPCs as distractions and as bait.

Sadistic

In my limited experience, monomonsters often seem to be treated as Sadistic. I think that's because this is the most convenient for GMing purposes: just as the GM is playing a game with the players, the Sadist is playing a game with the PCs. The GM is trying to create a sense of threat, and the Sadist enjoys scaring the PCs. The GM doesn't want to end the scenario too early because it's fun; the Sadist doesn't want to kill the PCs too early because it's fun.

Sadists tend to have at least a moderate level of intelligence because it's sort of hard to be sadistic otherwise. They deliberately make things more challenging for themselves, allowing victims to escape and avoiding the use of their full capabilities. While a monomonster can wipe out the whole party at once, the Sadist simply doesn't want to.

To a large extent, this works well. The Sadist has a perfect excuse for being irrational, inefficient and frankly slipshod about killing off the PCs, even though it's perfectly capable of doing so. However, you can reach a point where this begins to fray under pressure. If the PCs begin to demonstrate that they can in fact take on the Sadist, it should begin to make more of an effort and fewer allowances. Unless the Sadist's goal is quite specifically to play a complicated and genuinely dangerous death game with the PCs, its behaviour should change in response to their capabilities.

For example, a Sadist who resents the intrusion of puny mortals into its lair, and is now sadistically terrifying them before devouring them, might logically stop to think after a mortal successfully hurts it, and move on to simply devouring them. A Sadist that relishes the sense of power over helpless fleeing victims would lose that satisfaction if the victims turn out to have a very sensible plan to destroy it, and abandon the game (it's basically a bully, after all).

One of the difficulties I had with The Derelict was that it's ambiguous about the nature of the sciapod. It's described as wanting to kill everyone, but also as eating human flesh; however, it doesn't seem to behave as though driven primarily by hunger, but if it wants to kill everyone it can do so almost effortlessly. The designers perhaps intended it to be sadistic, but this kind of thing needs to be clear to the GM. I also feel slightly that making a single powerful and sadistic enemy is perhaps a bit overdone.

Humanlike

A clever monomonster, sentient enough to act like a human, can have very complex motivations and conflicting goals. For example: the Slaughter Spirit wishes to kill you all because it thirsts for death, and will actually try harder if the situation is challenging out, of pride in its power and a wish to show contempt. On the other hand, it resents having been summoned by a wizard to guard this place, and sometimes the wish to sabotage its master's goals overcomes that bloodlust. It also hates wizards in particular, so magic-using PCs will earn particular ire and frenzied efforts to kill them. But it's also afraid of wizards. It is bored after centuries of guarding, and doesn't really want this brief excitement to be over. And so on.

This is potentially very good from the GMing side - it gives you a lot to work with. However, it can also be hard to put across this amount of detail to the players. This can make it hard for them to usefully interact with all your nuances, and the ability to interact sensibly is pretty vital in the survival-type scenarios that tend to feature monomonsters.

Erratic

I suppose a final type of monomonster is simply Erratic. While it does have goals and motivations, it doesn't pursue them single-mindedly. This can explain why a monster doesn't relentlessly attack, pursue or even pay attention to the PCs.

An Erratic monster might be stupid, animalistic, mad, malfunctioning, struggling against a controlling force, or just alien. In some ways this can be useful to a GM: they can change the monster's behaviour as necessary to ensure the scenario doesn't end with an unsatisfactory splat.

The downside here is that as I said, learning how the monster behaves and how to interact with it is one of the few things players can actually do in most of these scenarios. After all, monomonsters are overwhelmingly powerful. "Winning" the scenario normally boils down to either tricking the monster to death, evading it long enough to escape, or learning enough about it to defeat it. Either option really calls for the players to work out how the monster ticks; otherwise it is liable to feel like GM fiat.

Stunlocks and the Action Economy

I've been talking with a fairly Call of Cthulhu mindset, but let's take a step back here. Some games have more of a tactical combat approach.

The classic problem with monomonters here is extremely well-known: it's basically one of actions.

The PCs are typically a group of 3-6 characters who each get to do one(ish) thing on their turn. The monster is typicallly a single entity that can do one thing on its turn. Although the monster's individual actions are typically more powerful and can often affect multiple PCs, it's still easy to end up with the PCs running circles around it due to their ability to do multiple things at once.

As a basic example, while the monster is fighting one PC (100% of its actions) the other 3-5 PCs can act freely. They may choose to contribute to the combat, but they might also be healing, preparing equipment, executing a complex plan to trap the monster, performing a powerful ritual, summoning help, running away, bombarding the monster with hindering effects, and so on. Generally there are multiple PC actions available to counter the efforts of the monster, while the monster has one set of actions available to counter the efforts of the PCs.

The archetypal problem is the Stunlock. An effect reduces a target's actions or even prevents actions. If PCs are able to create such an effect, they can use it against a monomonster to deny 100% of its actions for the turn. While they are totally unopposed, the PCs either unleash a flurry of powerful abilities, or carry out a difficult plan. In some cases, PCs can repeatedly inflict these effects to keep the monomonster Stunlocked and make the encounter flat and boring.

The issue here is that abilities in a tactical combat game tend to be weighed on the assumption of multiple opponents. Stunning powers are not inherently overpowered, but can become situationally overwhelming (I've discussed this sort of thing in my many posts on soft attacks). Against a single powerful opponent, any impairing effect is generally hugely valuable. Alternatively, designers react by making the monomonster highly resistant to such effects, to the point that many abilities are largely useless. A common result is the Save or Suck - depending on the your roll, your soft attack either bounces off harmlessly, or is devastatingly effective.

This sort of thing alters the relative effectiveness of different characters depending on the types of powers they can bring to bear. If a monomonster can be stunlocked, characters with potent soft attacks are devastating. If it can't, those characters who aren't designed for massive damage or tanking can feel very underpowered against them.

Games may try to address this by giving special rules for monomonsters. For example, recent editions of D&D allow designated powerful monsters to take additional actions during the turn - perhaps one reaction for each PC present, or a secondary attack that happens at a different point in the initiative order. I've also seen auras used as part of this strategy, with PCs potentially affected each round by some harmful or penalising effect.

Big Sack of HP

A related issue is that where games use a hit point-type system, monomonsters have a different sort of power curve from fewer weaker opponents.

Let's say we have two combat encounters: one against ten ogres with 1n HP, and one against a giant with 10n HP. Let's say these are equally challenging in some game-mechanical sense.

In the first case, the ogres can make up to ten attacks each round. If the PCs can inflict 1n HP to an ogre, the number of attacks drops by 1/survivingogres. There is an interesting tradeoff of attack types: a fireball might inflict substantial damage to five ogres but kill none of them, for example. The PCs must decide whether it's worth spending a turn injuring several ogres so that they'll be easier to kill in future, or whether it's better to cast a single-target spell that will probably kill one ogre and reduce the incoming attacks. The fireball also tends towards averages (some ogres will probably be damaged) while a single-target spell might miss completely.

With classic D&D mechanics, the giant works very differently. It makes one attack per round. Okay, it might make five, or it might make a single multi-target attack... let's just say it makes Y attacks. It continues to make Y attacks until the PCs inflict 10n damage to it, at which point it makes no attacks because it's dead. The PCs do not have tactical decisions about concentration of fire, because they cannot split fire. They can choose to use their most powerful attacks, or they can be less effective for no reason - it's a simple calculation.

Yes, they could do things other than make damage-dealing attacks, but I'm only concerned with damage here.

Not only is the combat less interesting in that sense, but the PCs also have less control of the situation.

In the ogre example, the PCs can choose to whittle down numbers as soon as possible, or use tactics (like area attacks) that kill the ogres faster overall but allow more incoming attacks in the short term. They can also do things like try to distract, bottleneck or otherwise impair the ogres' ability to bring all their numbers to bear. It's within the PCs' (and players') ability to try and shift the odds in their favour, rather than simply attacking whatever's closest.

In the giant example, the PCs can't use these tactics. They can't choose to focus on reducing the number of incoming attacks right now versus winning the combat efficiently. They can't necessarily choose to eliminate the threat to the squishy wizard first - it might be possible to distract the giant from attacking the wizard, but perhaps its attacks affect the whole party. They can't divert some proportion of the giant's HP and an associated slice of its attack effectiveness away from the combat for a time.

Even in Call of Cthulhu, which has a very basic system designed to model plausible events believably, there's an extent to which combat becomes a resource management exercise, which makes direct confrontation with a monster very tricky, because it often does come down to "can the party's 5 actions a round attached to vulnerable bags of hit points overcome the monster's 1-2 actions a round attached to a much less vulnerable bag of hit points."

Games do try to address these things. I've seen 4E D&D solo monsters built with several "forms", so the monster changes its behaviour and power based on injuries. Some game systems do allow specific injuries, which can reduce the power of the monomonster's attacks in a vaguely similar way to killing off some of a monster group. GMs can also use straight-up roleplaying to have monsters become wary, frightened or carelessly enraged by injuries.

I've Been Saving That

The last point I think I want to make about monomonsters is that they create an extremely strong incentive for the use of one-shot nova abilities, because killing or hampering 100% of your foes is generally the best outcome you could hope for.

I think this may be more of a problem in games which make less of an attempt to offer tactical combat, simply because these games are more likely to include flavourful abilities that can be devastatingly effective but are extremely limited in their use. This may be a deliberate decision (just once in a while, or even just once, the character can take someone down hard), or simply an unplanned organic result of the interaction of abilities, or careless writing.

The main contenders here are, I think, of two kinds. There are danger-balanced abilities, which are extremely powerful but balanced by a very high risk, so that it's foolish to use them often. There are also limited use abilities, which you just cannot use often.

The easiest example of a danger-balanced ability is psychic powers in Warhammer 40,000. It is (okay, in theory) extremely dangerous to use psychic powers, especially if you do so at full power, and so it's best to save them for extreme situations. However, they can be devastatingly powerful. So, if you can invoke a psychic power to pretty much guarantee defeating one target, but it's very dangerous, it is well worth doing so against a powerful monomonster.

The classic limited use ability is actually equipment. A lot of games allow you to occasionally pick up very powerful single-use items. Those such as vortex grenades, arrows of X slaying, scrolls of celestial annihilation or blade oil of banishment may give you a very strong chance of destroying one target outright or at least inflicting massive damage. Another category is single-use buffs and debuffs: you can become invulnerable for ten minutes, or reduce one target's strength to that of a quail, or turn the whole party into frost giants, or trap a target in temporal stasis while you pile up vast quantities of explosives.

There can also be abilities or effects that aren't intended to be near-flawless kills, but can be used that way because of the way they're designed. If players routinely try to pull these off GMs tend to either houserule or find ways around it, but it's often when faced with a desperate situation that the player first tries to pull it off. For example, there are several powers in various White Wolf games that are vastly more powerful than the designers seem to have intended. A GM will not necessarily have a comprehensive strategy for implementing these in a balanced way, especially if the PC first comes up with the idea during a boss fight.

Unfortunately, if you have a much-foreshadowed climactic encounter with the elder dragon Droom, what usually doesn't happen is the party valiantly battling it for several rounds, both sides escalating their attacks dramatically until a final strike with the Arrow of Dragon Slaying brings down Droom. Players are usually pretty canny, and it's obvious that the sensible thing to do is open up with your most powerful attacks in the hope of ending the combat as efficiently as possible. So what you actually get is the much-foreshadowed climactic encounter with the elder dragon Droom in which the hunter looses off the Arrow of Dragon Slaying the very second Droom swoops into view, killing him instantly. Droom ends up being all talk and no action; the band of nameless goblins they encountered in the forest played a bigger part in the story and came far closer to defeating the heroes.

There's nothing wrong with using these items like this, and it can feel narratively satisfying - the natural point for the powerful item to be pulled out just as it's most needed. Similarly, a hero calling on their most dangerous powers at the moment of greatest peril is very fitting. However, there's also a danger of such items or abilities transforming a climactic and dramatic occasion into a damp splat. It's particularly important to bear this kind of thing in mind if such one-shot abilities crop up moderately often, since you can end up with players routinely storing them up to win easy victories over powerful monomonsters, while what should be lesser battles against multiple opponents are relatively difficult. That's not bad playing - it's very sensible, tactical playing - but it can still become unsatisfying for everyone.

Ths isn't a big problem, it's just something a GM needs to be aware of. It's potentially better to throw out battles with several potent enemies, or one quite powerful enemy with some moderately powerful allies, so that these abilities can turn the battle around without ending them in the first round.


As usual, a load of rambling with not much in the way of conclusions, just some things to think about. I don't say GMs should avoid using monomonsters or anything like that, it's just that there are quite a few aspects of their interaction with mechanics, narrative and (in particular) the actions of the PCs which it's worth thinking about when planning and running a scenario.