Sunday, 7 August 2016

In Brief: Mage: the (other) Awakening

So you might recall a couple of posts where I devised new versions of games based purely on their titles, including one called Mage: the Awakening.

It's back. I read a "200-word RPG" thing that was going about a while ago, and decided to try my hand at it. So here's the 200-word version (title excluded).

Mages: the Awakening

You ended up at the remotest, loneliest branch of Lie Inn (No. 666) because you’re a bunch of losers. But nobody reckoned on magic. Now a wizards’ conference is on, and travelling sorcerers in need of lodging. Impossible coffees must be brewed, flying tomes kennelled, silken robes spotlessly dry-cleaned at 4am, wake-up calls made yesterday and of course, breakfast served in bed.

Characters: Pick ten descriptors. Assign 4/5/6 to Endurance, Morale & Employability.

Mechanic: Roll 2d6, +1d6 per keyword that helps. Pick two. One determines how Successful you are. One determines how Conciliating you are.


Find out what’s going wrong and fix it! Work together to survive.

Difficulty: 1 Trivial, 2 Simple, 3 Difficult, 4 Very Difficult, 5 Complicated (several), 6 Gordian (interconnected & several customers) – overcome with Successful plus roleplay.

Customer: Food, Sleep, Interpersonal, Facilities, Weather
Crisis: Spells, Behaviour, Paraphernalia, Familiars, Monsters


Character: Confused, Irascible, Pompous, Spiteful, Affable, Businesslike – pick one.

Appearance: Handlebar Moustache, Enormous Beard, Twinkly Eyes, Dreamy Lashes, Sixpack, Piercings, Bald, Rainbow Hair, Bizarre Tattoos, Frills, Starry Robes, Pinstripes, Pyjamas, Corset and Stilettos, 9-Inch Nails, Withered, Shadowy, Faintly Glowing – pick two.

Touchiness: roll 1d6 to generate – overcome with Conciliating.

When things go badly, your stats drop. Don’t run out.

Numenera and some uncanny valleys

So a couple of us played another game of Numenera recently, and despite our initial hesitation and previous concerns, we had a good time.

We are actually implementing one of the rules I thought up: combining the two sets of XP rules by making it so that you have to spend XP on a reroll or a benefit, before it transfers to your "actually learned something" pool. The idea behind this was twofold: firstly to make sure everyone roughly balanced out, and secondly because I actually find that mechanic quite elegant. Your nebulous "experience" lets you achieve something within the game (like recovering from a near-failure, or gaining familiarity with an activity, etc.) and that learning experience builds towards you gaining a permanent benefit. Of course, the permanent thing you gain may not actually relate to what you learned, so... look, I tried.

Starting Small

We did once again run into the sense of vague disappointment when you look at the low-level abilities. This can happen a lot; it's very tempting to keep feeling like the next level will be the one where you're finally awesome and completely satisfied with your character, and it never is.* But examining the low-level Numenera powers does seem to show up that they are genuinely quite limited.

* I actually think this is an argument in favour of sometimes playing non-levelling characters (basically iconics) rather than always using levelling systems. In theory, you should be able to make a character who does what you want them to do, and then play without that vague shadow of dissatisfaction and anticipation distracting you from what you're doing now.

Niggling Nanos

For example, the Nano is the 'esoteric powers' type, and I tend to associate that with having an array of different mystical capabilities even at low level. I think most people do. Unless you're playing (or reading, or watching) in a setting where the majority of player characters do Weird Shit, I think the assumption is generally that the Weird Shit Doer is defined by breadth. Generally speaking, you have some sort of dynamic like: the Fighter, the Thief and the Mage. Or, the Brute, the Face and the Mystic. Or, the Merc, the Tech and the Psychic. Even in Warhammer 40K, where often the whole party do quite similar things professionally (especially Deathwatch), the psyker ends up as the one who not only interacts most with anything supernatural, but also has the broadest range of knowledge in general, and has access to several different psychic powers of which most can be used flexibly.

This is partly because magic-type stuff is very strongly associated with intellect in most games I've run across. That doesn't have to be the case (as I've discussed before). But because it is, magic-users and psychics are typically also very intelligent, and so typically know a lot of things. They may have access to skills other people don't, which essentially gives them new subsystems to play with. They may just get more Skill Points or whatever you're calling them, and so get to be accomplished at more types of task than others.

A further complication is that, because a spell (and I'm just going to stick with "spell" here) allows you to break the normal rules of the game and indeed of physics, each spell essentially creates a new subsystem for you. The spellcaster can now do A Thing that other characters cannot do; they have a new tool to apply to problems.

If you consider the D&D wizard - and I know that's not the only comparator, but it's the one staring you aggressively in the face - then a starting-level wizard from 3rd edition onward typically knows a handful of cantrips plus two or three individual spells. Moreover, some of those spells are quite specific (typically combat spells), but utility spells often leave a lot of room for creativity: you can do a huge amount with mage hand (minor telekinesis), prestidigitation (basically any minor magical trick), unseen servant and so on. You can play tricks, gaslight NPCs, distract monsters, drop objects from a height, impress NPCs, carefully arrange large numbers of small objects in complicated arrays to do things at a distance (set off a trap, injure an enemy, break down a door, pull a lever, press a button...), convince an NPC that food has been poisoned, convince an NPC that food hasn't been poisoned, pass objects between cages suspended in the air, retrieve something from a grating...

What the Nano can do is, in comparison, extremely limited and often very specific. The Hedge Magic esotery is roughly equivalent to prestidigitation, but there is no mage hand. The Push esotery allows you to shove a creature or object violently away from you, but specifically can't be used to push a lever or otherwise interact with the environment. The Scan esotery lets you scan a three-metre cube and determine the type of material and energy present, but it's relatively expensive and is an instantaneous thing, rather than a lingering ability. Other abilities can be used all the time, like Ward (permanent armour) or Onslaught (an attack which, for a Nano, is usually free).

But on reflection, I don't think there's anything specifically wrong with that. What can the other characters do? Well, the Glaive gets a selection of static bonuses to their combat abilities, and a couple of general physical boosts. The Nano gets a little from the Glaive and a little from the Nano. In other words, as far as I can see, the Nano isn't less interesting than the other two; it's just that the Nano isn't significantly more interesting (in terms of variety and scope), and I think we are generally trained to expect that.

The Nano begins with two of the following abilities. "Permanent" means always-on. "Without limit" means your Edge lets you cover the 1-point cost of an abilit without spending from your pool so you can do it as many times as you want under normal circumstances:

  • a relatively powerful ranged attack*, without limit
  • a long-ranged telekinetic shove**
  • a permanent magic shield that improves your Armour by 1 - this is genuinely really good
  • scanning a 3-metre cube and learning the mechanical Level of entities within it (which largely determines how dangerous they are) plus information about matter and energy composition
  • performing a wide variety of small temporary magical effects, without limit

* Onslaught does 4 damage at range, or 2 damage ignoring armour but to Intellect (this is, in almost all cases, functionally equivalent to all other damage). This is as good as a Medium ranged weapon, or better if the target is heavily armoured. Medium ranged weapons are pretty expensive - ammo is particularly expensive. None of your "20 arrows for 1gp", this is 12 arrows for 5gp, which is as much as medium armour, most weapons, and so on. Getting free unlimited ranged attacks is genuinely valuable. You can even use it to destroy terrain and objects through patient attack, which isn't feasible for an archer.

**"short range" is the second distance category, about 50', which is really quite a long range to be able to forcibly shove an object from.

The Glaive begins with two of the following abilities:

  • do less damage on a hit but slightly hamper the target for 1 round, without limit
  • fight unarmed as though you have a medium weapon (a sword or whatever), permanently
  • do +1 damage on a hit if using a pointy ranged weapon, without limit
  • do +1 damage on a hit if using a sharp melee weapon, without limit
  • a small defensive boost when not wearing armour

I would note that at low levels, much of the time, the first ability is strictly worse than not using it. For example, fighting a Level 2 creature with Armour 2 and 6hp, a Glaive with a medium weapon does 2 damage normally. Do you want to kill the not-particularly-powerful enemy in 6 rounds, while making it always slightly less likely that it causes you 2 damage, or do you want to kill it in 3 rounds and allow it half as many attacks?

Similarly, because Glaives can wear at least 2 points of armour without penalty, and this is quite a lot of armour, the last option is mostly there to allow for playing a character who's narratively unarmoured without a substantial effectiveness penalty.

The Jack begins with two of the following abilities:

  • do +1 damage on a hit if using a slightly weird range of weapons, without limit
  • do +1 damage on a hit if using a sharp melee weapon, without limit
  • do +1 damage on a hit if using a pointy ranged weapon, without limit
  • performing a wide variety of small temporary magical effects, without limit
  • wear medium armour without it slowly sapping your life (same as the Glaive), permanently
  • defend yourself slightly better, permanently
  • a small defensive boost when not wearing armour, permanently

So... one of these choices actually gives you a new ability (Hedge Magic). Three of them increase damage, and they're just the same power tailored to different weapon choices. One is a small mechanical boost to defence. One essentially allows you to wear armour at all.* The other makes you tougher when not wearing armour.

* Wearing armour you are not Practiced in (which is not the same as training, you cannot Train in armour) causes you to lose points from your pools once per hour. This is directly equivalent to taking damage. If you wear heavy armour for 12 hours continuously, you will die. Strictly speaking, simply putting on a suit of armour and sitting still all day is fatal. Oh, and you incur a cap on your Speed Pool size until you take it off.

Examining that list, it looks to me as though the Nano is still relatively interesting. The Glaive has exactly one "new ability" and it's a minor mechanical combat trick with exactly one application; all the others are strict mechanical tweaks relating almost exclusively* to combat, and the only choice is whether you want free extra damage. The Jack has one of the Nano's options (Hedge Magic) that gives a new ability; all the others are strict mechanical tweaks relating almost exclusively to combat* and the only choice is whether you want free extra damage. The Nano has one permanent boost that relates mostly to combat*; one new attack form that is at least as good as most weapons and more flexible than any (although if you have it, using it or not is hardly a choice); one new ability to gather information that's of broad application; one new ability (Push) that's usable inside and outside combat, though its application is relatively restricted; and one new ability that can be of wide application depending on player creativity and GM flexibility.

* Defensive benefits are of course useful whenever you might take damage, so there's some occasional application in dangerous bits of exploration.

Of the five Nano options, I think three are genuinely reasonably interesting specific abilities to have, Ward is more of a narrative choice that you want to be tough, and Onslaught is kind of a no-brainer but not strictly obligatory. Knowing two of those (of which one is probably Onslaught) is a significant limitation compared to being a wizard in D&D, no doubt about it. Yet this isn't D&D.

There's a side issue as well, which is that Nanos are always trained in numenera. That is, they are trained at dealing with the magical-scientific weirdness of the setting, the weirdness so pervasive that the entire setting is named for it. If there's a weird machine, a forcefield, an artefact, a monolith, a robot, a cypher, a gadget, a woobly monster or anything like it, they can know stuff about it, and quite possibly interact with it, better than anyone else in the party. I know it's not a choice on the player's part, but I think that's a genuinely meaningful benefit in terms of doing the weird shit.

Ironically, although I started out focusing on the Nano, I think what this best demonstrates is that the Glaive feels dull in its choices. The fact that you have choices at all, but none of them do a great deal, is weirdly I think more disappointing than not having those choices and just getting a flat +1 boost to damage.

Frustrating Foci

To be honest, the bit of Numenera characters that seems coolest is the foci. You have options like: Bears a Halo of Fire, Commands Mental Powers, Controls Beasts, Controls Gravity, Employs Magnetism, Exists Partially Out of Phase, Fuses Flesh and Steel, Rides the Lightning, Talks to Machines and so on. Don't those sound cool?

Okay, some sound less cool. Carries a Quiver and Entertains are completely mundane things anyone can do - they just offer mechanical bonuses. Crafts Unique Objects is, like most things that hang on crafting systems, suited to a very specific playstyle. There's several fighting style ones that, in a game which I consider to be pretty forgiving of flavour, just don't quite seem necessary when I can just say I'm Fighting With Panache. And Works the Back Alleys is frankly unfortunate.

I have already written extensively about the baffling inclusion of Howls at the Moon.

Let's take a look at the actual abilities though.

  • Bears a Halo of Fire lets you damage anyone who attacks you melee, as often as you want. Potent, but specific.
  • Carries a Quiver lets you do more damage with a bow and spend from different pools. Useful, but very specific.
  • Commands Mental Powers lets you talk to nearby allies via telepathy. Sometimes useful, fairly specific.
  • Controls Beasts gives you a beast companion. Not very powerful, but moderately flexible.
  • Controls Gravity lets you hover in the air and move slowly. Sometimes useful, but specific.
  • Crafts Illusions lets you create a single illusion in a 3m cube within a few metres. Sometimes useful and moderately flexible.
  • Crafts Unique Objects grants you training in two crafting skills. Usefulness and flexibility depends entirely on the campaign.
  • Employs Magnetism lets you telekinetise a metal object for non-combat use. Useful and moderately flexible.
  • Entertains gives a small passive bonus to recovery during rest. Slightly useful but very specific.
  • Exists Partially Out of Phase lets you slowly move through solid matter. Useful but fairly specific.
  • Explores Dark Places gives you training in several skills. Useful and fairly flexible.
  • Fights with Panache lets you give a bonus to allies whenever you attack. Potent but specific.
  • Focuses Mind over Matter gives you a slight defensive boost. Moderately useful but specific.
  • Fuses Flesh and Steel gives you some slight permanent boosts. Moderately useful but specific.
  • Howls at the Moon gives you an ability that, by RAW, you can't control and is far more likely to be a severe liability to the party and yourself than in any way useful.
  • Hunts with Great Skill gives you some skill training. Moderately useful and fairly flexible.
  • Leads gives you some skill training and you can always 'advise' another character to grant a bonus. Useful and fairly flexible, but liable to lead to some rather repetitive (and perhaps quite irritating) playstyles.
  • Lives in the Wilderness grants some skill training. Sometimes useful but fairly specific.
  • Masters Defence makes you slightly better at using a shield. Moderately useful but very specific.
  • Masters Weaponry lets you do +1 damage with your favourite weapon. Useful but very specific.
  • Murders lets you do sneak attacks for slightly more damage, and gives you stealth training. Useful but quite specific.
  • Rages lets you... it's mechanicsy. Look, it makes you slightly better in combat, okay? Useful but fairly specific.
  • Rides the Lightning lets you add a little electrical damage to an attack, and also recharge some devices. Useful but fairly specific.
  • Talks to Machines lets you activate most types of machine at a distance. Useful and quite flexible.
  • Wears a Sheen of Ice gives you armour and protection from cold. Useful but very specific.
  • Wields Power with Precision gives you more points in your mental pool. Slightly useful but quite specific (depends what you do with them of course).
  • Wields Two Weapons at Once lets you mechanically dual-wield two light weapons. Honestly not that useful for most characters most of the time, and very specific.
  • Works Miracles lets you heal. Useful but very specific.
  • Works the Back Alleys gives you training in a few thiefy skills. Somewhat useful but quite specific.

I think in some ways the best comparators here are the X-Men. No, really. Think about these splats. They're the same kind of one-phrase descriptors you'd slap on a mutant with one shtick.

Wears a Sheen of Ice feels a bit like Iceman. But you can't control ice, shape ice, craft barriers, walk through ice, walk on ice, or anything like that. You're just a bit armoured with ice.

Rides the Lightning just lets you shock people. You can't impress people with lighting powers, repel or absorb electrical attacks, control machines with a touch, stun robots, or actually ride any kind of lightning. You can recharge powerful magical items, if you have any.

Employs Magnetism lets you move one metal object around fairly slowly. I actually think this is the most interesting of the powers, which is why I chose it this time - it's genuinely quite flexible. You can't usually use it in combat, but there's a lot of possibilities in the exploration end of things. Technically you can also use it to fly by just standing on something metal.

Controls Gravity doesn't actually let you control gravity in any sense. You can just levitate a bit. You can't walk on walls, make heavy objects float to carry them around, pin enemies to the floor, make incoming arrows fly up into the sky, and so on.

So although the Foci sound very flavourful and fun, they are actually far more restricted in most cases than we tend to expect. I think they fall into an unfortunate uncanny valley: they sound like a Fate Aspect or a handwavy superpower or perhaps a Mage Arcana that lets you do a wide variety of thematically-appropriate stuff, but they are mechanically extremely traditional and more akin to a heavily-balanced D&D spell or special ability.

What Makes a Man?

People, most definitely including me, tend to have D&D in their heads when playing Numenera. This is entirely natural. It looks like D&D, it's by one of the designers of D&D, you basically play a fantasy adventurer like in D&D, you have a fighty one and a magicky one and a tricksy one like in D&D, you roll d20s like in D&D. But it is a genuinely different game that works in some genuinely different ways

D&D has Race + Class. Numenera has Descriptor + Type + Focus, and your Type is very much not mechanically equivalent to a D&D class.

Numenera is also keen to remind you that Cyphers are a major part of the game; you are supposed to use them regularly. I believe they play a bigger part in determining not only how powerful you are, but also what kinds of things you can do, than is the case of magic items in D&D. I am very sceptical as to whether this is a good thing; it depends on what the game wants to be, but it does appear to work against its stated position on what defines your character.

Specific vs. Generic

I think one of the deceptively-different facets of Numenera is that the weight of abilities falls differently to other games that it looks like. Most trad roleplaying games tend to emphasise the specific named rule-bending special abilities that your particular class, splat or species grants you.

A Numenera character is not equivalent to a 3rd+ edition D&D character in terms of named special abilities.

A Numenera character in some ways significantly surpasses a 3rd+ edition D&D character in terms of generic ability.

I think Numenera is less about applying special abilities than D&D is, and expects a more wide-ranging style of play. I think in a lot of cases, the special abilities are the equivalent of a TV character's shtick that they apply once per episode to significant effect, rather than something they do continually. Of course, you can use most special abilities multiple times per day, but you get the idea.

I think Numenera expects you to spend more time doing things that aren't specifically on your character sheet, because you are generically quite competent at absolutely everything. This requires quite a big change of mindset and I think it's something I struggle with, at least.

The most obvious example is that when we first played, we had a Glaive and a Nano and a Jack, and as the Nano I kept talking about how we weren't any good in combat. This is completely, 100%, factually untrue. We were exactly as good at hitting things with weapons as the Glaive was. The Glaive had some special abilities that gave damage bonuses or special riders in combat, and had a bigger pool of Might points to spend on attacking, and was allowed to wield Large weapons.

The latter is actually the major difference, because doing 6 damage minus armour is massively better than doing 2 or even 4 damage minus armour, considering most things have about 12hp. If the thing has armour, this can be the difference between "reliably hurting Thing" and "being mechanically unable to hurt Thing at all unless you roll a 19 or 20", which is like the difference between zero and infinity. If the thing has no armour, this is the difference between killing it in two hits and killing it in six hits.

I did some maths.

  • A light weapon user can kill a Level 3 enemy (a lot of common threats) in 8 rounds, a level 4 in 14 rounds, and a level 5 in 25 rounds.
  • A medium weapon user requires 4, 7 and 12 rounds respectively.
  • A heavy weapon user requires 3, 5 and 9 rounds respectively.
  • If the creature has Armour 2, a light weapon user cannot kill it by conventional attack, only through critical rolls, or finding a way to gain additional damage.
  • The medium weapon user requires 8, 14 and 25 rounds respectively.
  • The heavy weapon user requires 4, 7 and 12 rounds respectively.

It's almost impossible to overstate how important armour is in this game, and the impact of that on weapon choice. The crucial take-home is that Nanos absolutely require the Onslaught power, because (unless they choose to take a weapon they're not proficient with and suffer permanent penalties) it is the only way they can reliably harm an enemy with 2 points of armour, which is relatively common - many low-level enemies have 2 armour, though higher armour is thankfully relatively rare.

But still, we were entirely competent in combat. Compared to, say, a D&D wizard, who can easily be so ineffectual at attacking and so vulnerable to damage that it's genuinely a party liability for them to try and fight, a Nano is a very competent combatant.

But forget combat for a minute. This is one of the non-obvious subtleties of the Numenera system.

If you want to sweet-talk a Level 3 NPC, you need to roll a 9 on 1d20. Everyone is inherently equally good at doing this, even if they don't have an appropriate skill, and your chances of success are quite high. You can even spend points from your Intellect pool to drop that to, at worst, a 6+ on 1d20. In contrast, sweet-talking a guard in D&D would likely be a Moderate DC15 (roll 15+ on 1d20), meaning that only an actively charismatic PC is liable to succeed.

Similarly, everyone can climb cliffs, leap chasms, sneak!, tinker with machinery, or attempt to decode ancient writings. There are some characters who are actively skilled in those things, but the benefit is relatively small (a +3, basically, so +15%).

What this means is that a lot of the time in Numenera, any character can attempt to react to a situation in whatever way seems sensible, and their chances of succeeding are far higher than a D&D-attuned brain tends to estimate. And this is something that's genuinely difficult to adjust to. I know, because I ran into these credence issues from both directions when playing Deathwatch. I regularly wanted to apply skills when I had a remarkably small chance of succeeding despite expensive training, and I tended to underestimate the likely effectiveness of certain combat tactics.

So I think what Numenera expects from you is different, in a way I haven't quite worked out yet; and partly as a result, I think the named abilities on your character sheet tend to be either of limited use, or constant benefits that feel mechanically dull. I think you need to step high, wide and plentiful with gleeful exuberance, and expect that the system and the GM will support your far-reaching interpretation of what you can reasonable attempt. Of course I can do this. I'm a hero.

It reminds me in some ways of, for example, a lot of pulpy and action films. Of course the protagonist can fool the guard. Of course the protagonist can solve the riddle. Of course the protagonist can fly the plane. And so on.

I don't think these excuse Numenera from the fact that these abilities seem underwhelming. How a game makes you feel is important. I think this particularly in the light of its presentation: much is made of the idea that You Are An Adjective Noun Who Verbs, whereas mechanically you're very much more of a Verbing Noun who is a bit Adjectival, and I think if looked at holistically, you are actually An Adventurer Noun Who Verbs and Is a Bit Adjectival. That is to say, I think that the bulk of your effectiveness in Numenera actually comes from being a Player Character, with your Noun and Verb giving you a small package of abilities to colour your capabilities, and your Adjective being of very small benefit.

It's not what I'd do with an Adjective Noun who Verbs system, not at all. But I'd like to try and play it for the game that it is, not the one I'd expect it to be.

Tradition, Story and Numenera's Dilemmera

I'm getting the sense that Numenera suffers from a continuing tension over where it wants to fall on the loose spectrum between a Traditional RPG and a narrative game.

A very high proportion of abilities are actually just rather bland purely mechanical benefits: a flat bonus to this, or training (equivalent to a bonus) in that. I'm not sure why these are thought to make your character cooler. The names sound cool, but do they feel cool?

Mostly what I feel makes me cooler is Being Able to Do a Thing. It's being set apart from others in a qualitative or semi-qualitative fashion: being able to break the rules, or to interact in a way others can't, or to understand something others don't. Or, in a low-mechanics game, it's flavour and character and background. And I can't help wondering if, despite being very mechanicsy and trad-RPGish, Numenera would actually like you to focus on the latter and treat any mechanical benefits or new abilites as mere perks. But I think in that case, its approach of having specific and discrete powers works against that, at least by setting expectations.

On the one hand, Numenera offers you a template that looks a lot like trad-RPG Race + Class. Yet as I've argued, much of your mechanical competence comes from simply being a Player Character, which feels more storygamey.

On the one hand, Numenera offers you an array of foci that seem to be broad-brush archetypes of Stuff You Can Do, as I'd expect in a storygame - is "Covered in Fire" not an ideal shorthand for a flexible story-focused game? Yet mechanically, they offer you a single specific benefit, and often one which is a pure bonus with no additional flexibility or options to make your character feel more interest; something more typical of a Trad RPG.

One the one hand, Numenera seems to offer a Fighter, Mage, Rogue triad that defines your playstyle and capabilities, exactly what a Trad RPG tends to do. Yet the latter two, at least, are much more combat-ready than their Trad RPG niche generally permits, partly because they have far less in the way of niche abilities.

On the one hand, Numenera has specific templates that offer specific powers that do specific things, which feels very Trad. But on the other hand, you are encouraged to make up your own skill lists and to try things you have no particular training in, which feels very storygamey.

On the one hand, Numenera has no particular rules for combat: you can attempt anything, there's a flat target number for the enemy based on how "powerful" it is, and the GM simply determines what modifiers might apply and exactly what the outcome means. This feels like a loose, flexible narrative combat system from a storygame. Yet almost everything in the rulebook is a monster that hungers for your flesh and can't be negotiated with, and there's a simply but highly mechanical damage system that goes as far as having fixed damage amounts and subtractive armour, which means some characters literally can't hurt some others, which feels quite Trad to me.

On the one hand, Numenera has a quite specific setting with very highly-described locations, artefacts, monsters, individuals, political systems and even local economies. Yet it's also very handwavy about exactly how any of this is supposed to work as a functioning world, what anyone actually does with their time, what life is like for the people, and all the other details that allow you to run a simulationist-by-default campaign.

And of course, to top it all off, Monte Cook then goes and tells us that actually what's really important about the system is... the cyphers. The ten-a-penny one-shot minor magical items you roll up on random tables from looting enemies and ruins. He describes these as "more like abilities and less like gear", and goes so far as to name the entire game mechanical system The Cypher System. And the thing is... given how limited and specific most of the actual chosen character abilities are, quite often having a cypher that can do X will indeed be at least as powerful as anything you can do, and they do indeed grant a meaningful expansion of your capabilities. Sometimes a dramatic one. You can easily have one cypher that lets you climb sheer surfaces, one that offers remote viewing at unlimited distance, and one that translates any language. Bearing in mind you'll typically start play with three abilities, at least one of which is usually a flat bonus... that's a big increase in options.

The end result is that I never know which lens I should be looking at the game through: am I thinking like a mechanical Trad Gamer who knows exactly what I can do and how and when, or a narrative Storygamer who takes cues from general descriptions to collaboratively create a wonder-filled story of exploration and adventure? The truth probably lies somewhere in between, and it's hard to find.

The bottom line

I think Numenera is perhaps more sophisticated than I initially gave it credit for. Unfortunately, I think context will hinder it. You can only play a game in the context that exists. I don't think the expectations raised by all the games that have come before allow us to approach a game with classes and levels and specific special abilities and modifiers, like Numenera, with a mindset that what's really cool and important about my character is how I think about them. Particularly when the game iself tells me otherwise - tells me that I'm an Adjective Noun who Verbs.

When I think, at the core of it all, when all pretence is stripped away, I'm a guy walking across a desert of broken civilisations a billion years in the future, breathing nanotech and looking up at artificial stars, scavenging forgotten miracles for a few measly shins.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Generic update

So blogging is slow at the moment for a variety of reasons, which are mostly that I'm doing other writing instead. At the moment I'm trying to devote my energies to a new Call of Cthulhu scenario that fits together with some previous games.

I've been trying to get back into creative writing, with mixed results; I dashed off a whole short story draft on Sunday afternoon, but have been struggling more with the next one. Of course, not having a whole day to write makes it trickier during the week. Still, it's something I always enjoyed so I do want to get back to it. Also I have a huge list of ideas looking at me sadly from my Ideas List so culling that slightly would be good.

In general though I'm just quite busy so I don't have a ton of time to devote to thinking about gaming, let alone writing about it. It requires a certain leisure of the brain to do the sort of musings I normally spout, even the unsuccessful ones. Instead I'm ploughing through emails and expenses and processing documents like some kind of hopped-up beaver. And this is supposedly the quiet season at work. The heart quails, frankly.

To be fair, I also haven't been doing a huge amount of RPGing lately, so less to talk about there and not as much inspiration for posting. I did play some board games but I don't really feel the urge to blog about them.

And technically I'm trying to get an appropriate amount of sleep instead of the 6 hours I typically manage, so there's that.

Anyway, if you read this blog you probably know most of this already, but that's how it is. There's no point me declaring any kind of official hiatus because we all know that will immediately mean I spend all of Monday night obsessively turning out some harrowing piece of bloggery on some insanely specific topic, like a system for generating random tapestries or a game about office pen-theft. I'll just get back to it when I do, really.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Warfare in D&D

The Daearn Line

A team of giant eagles fly overhead, masked by an Improved Invisibility spell. Each carries a veteran elven warrior, also invisible.

At a command, the flyers drop their riders, who plummet to earth at enormous speed, halted seconds before impact by a single-use feather fall effect. Landing at a strategic point between enemy units, each elf places a Daern’s Instant Fortress and speaks the command word, springs inside and closes the door. In mere seconds, a formidable strongpoint has appeared in the midst of the enemy. As yet, the elves are still invisible.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

The Hive mind: stealing from Necromunda for fun and profit

So an idea I've had vaguely floating around for a while is to use Necromunda - or rather, its mechanics - as the basis of an RPG.

For those of you not in the know, Necromunda is a tabletop skirmish campaign wargame of bloody battles between rival gangs in the Underhive, a festering hellhole chemical wasteland miles beneath the unthinkably vast future-gothic city-spires of the Hives where the mass of humanity eke out their miserable existence. Let me clarify that working 20-hour days welding shut ration packs in a factory powered by unshielded reactors and filled with toxic fumes that will kill you before your fourth decade, then splitting your miserable wage between religious tithes, flavourless algal slop, a variety of even more lethal drugs to get you through the day, and gambling in mob-run hells in the faint hope of a fractional and temporary improvement in your circumstances or at least an entertaining brawl, monitored all the while by a fascist regime that crushes the faintest hint of worker uprisings with appalling ferocity, and under the perpetual threat of irresistable annihilation by either an incursion of horrific Chaos demons or any of the myriad alien races whose xenophobia is exceeded only by your own, is the cushy life of law-abiding mid-Hive citizens. Your distant, implausible dream is to one day retire there.

Monday, 6 June 2016

Provocation in RPGs

So I was listening to the Adventuring Party talk about social combat. There were two parts that particularly struck me. The first was an anecdote of using the Intimidate skill successfully, then realising there was no indication of what that actually meant for the game - "okay, this guy's intimidated I guess?". The second was a recurring point that, even in games with explicit social combat, players are often very resistant to allowing their own characters to be affected.

A third factor was recalling a game of Demon: the Fallen where Dan tried to use a "you are utterly terrifying" power to frighten a guy into submission, but the power very explicitly always makes everyone run away.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Lover, Fighter, Thief: a simple spying ruleset

So I accidentally started writing a James Bond-y, Zorro-y, Scarlet Pimpernel-y sort of game and I thought I'd inflict it on you. I'm now struggling to remember how it happened.

I was definitely inspired by an episode of Improvised Radio Theatre with Dice - specifically episode 26, at around 48 minutes in. There's a brief discussion of using flavour and quirks to distinguish characters.

I think that I very much like... the idea that you have things that define your character that are not just about how good you are at adventurey stuff. They are about, you're greedy, or you're fond of a drink, or you're particularly smooth with the ladies or whatever. Okay, in some games that's going to be especially relevant...

Friday, 13 May 2016

Being Mean About Rangers, part 3: Homebrewing

Constructing a Ranger

So having spent all this time arguing that the ranger doesn't need or deserve to be a class of its own, and indeed that insisting on it is probably deleterious to the game as a whole... what if I had to make a ranger class?

What, if anything, do I think can stand out as unique selling points for the ranger?

These must be:

  • Sufficiently generic that they don't lock the ranger down into one character concept
  • Sufficiently flexible that they are regularly relevant in most campaigns; which is to say, you will actually get to use these features during the game session
  • Sufficiently related that they seem to form a coherent whole
  • Sufficiently visible that they manifest in the narrative. Phrased much less pretentiously, I mean they should be something you actually notice happening, because unless you actually notice it in play, it doesn't feel like a real part of the story.

Monday, 9 May 2016

Being Mean About Rangers, part 2: Spelling Tests and Typecasting

Last time, as you may recall, I was pretty comprehensively dismissive of the 5e ranger's claims to be a class, based on what I argued to be a rag-tag collection of attributes and some shonky fluff-crunch joints. In particularly, I feel most of its non-combat abilities are overly dependent on the campaign, and the DM's preferred style, for relevance.


What about the mechanical end? Rogues and barbarians are to a non-trivial extent defined by a specific class mechanic (sneak attack and rage respectively). Of course, these are strongly tied into their fluff.

Unfortunately I feel like the ranger is, in a sense, self-sabotaging.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Being Mean About Rangers, part 1: Decline and Fail

So I've been thinking about the Ranger a lot, because it's one component of my multiclass character. I ran into problems at 4th level when I realised taking several more levels of ranger would not meaningfully affect the feel of my character. I'm not going to delve into that because it's as inside baseball as you can get. But I do want to talk about rangers.

Discussing things with Dan, the conclusion I came to was that the ranger is a bit of a problem.

The ranger has a core mechanic which actively discourages you from using a large proportion of its other capabilities. It has an unusual proportion of features dedicated to the "exploration pillar" in a way which makes its relevance uniquely vulnerable to the campaign and the whims of the DM. It lacks a strong and coherent archetype to explain what the class is all about. And in place of a strong defining thematic mechanic that supports a range of concepts, it has a hodgepodge of abilities that encourage playing a specific character.

...dammit. This is going to be controversial.

Hi, I'm Shimmin Beg, and I don't think the Ranger needs to be a class.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Playing with 5e sorcerers

So I just wrote a (probably ill-advised) thing about changes to the warlock class aimed at making it less dependent on one trick. I've muttered before about some concerns I have with the sorcerer class, and I thought, why not look at that too?

First off, a quick disclaimer: I've only played a multiclass sorcerer, and I'm not in a position to comment usefully on balance. I'm not aiming to address any perceived class balance issues. As with the warlock, what I'm interested in here is flavour: how to make the sorcerer feel more distinctively sorcerery by riffing on its high notes.

Friday, 22 April 2016

Credence, Concentration and Caster Choices

So my elven ranger/sorcerer/monk who is currently composed of butterflies is currently invading the Spire at the heart of the Outlands to battle an immortal agent of cosmic equilibrium bent on genocide of her own apparently-mythical race.

What this means is I'm probably going to hit 11th level soon, which means a new Spell Known. Hoorah! I'm really indecisive about this sort of thing so I decided to brush up in advance and get some idea what I might want to learn. And I hit some snags.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Random Political Shenanigans

So in a recent edition of Improvised Radio Theatre with Dice, Roger and Michael suggested the need for a Random Political Shenanigans Table (roughly 36:00). I was intrigued by this idea, and I think you could actually probably do it.

There's probably two very broad categories of approaches to something like this.

Focused approach

In the first approach, you have a table of specific shenanigans that occur. I think for this one to work, you need to have things quite well pinned-down. That's to say, I think you could probably do something like this for Ankh-Morpork, or for The Eight Queendoms, or for the governments of the various Outer Stars, where you have a very specific setting and tone in mind.

You'd probably also need either a broad-minded approach to the events that happen, or quite a lot of interpretation to make them better fit the context.

Prodecural politics

The second approach, and the one I'm going to actually dabble in, is something more like (to borrow from Shamus Young) procedurally-generated politics. That is to say, rather than a table of specific events to roll on, this would be a set of rules for generating events.

The thing here is that you'd be tracking various variables of the situation, and then deriving shenanigans based on those variables.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Extrapolating from Lasers and Feelings

So I'm feeling on a bit of a Lasers and Feelings kick at the moment. Mostly, I suspect, just because it's a new thing I've come across so I'm naturally inclined to prod it and see what's going on.

The basic setup is framed around a small set of assumptions:

  • Players are happy to play in broad strokes rather than model in detail (more conflict than task resolution)
  • Any challenge that requires a roll can be allocated reasonably well to either Lasers or Feelings; anything that can't either doesn't need a roll or needs a completely random roll.
  • Characters can be satisfactorily distinguished with two overlapping small sets of tropes: Style (attitude) and Role (profession), plus the Number that determines whether they're emotional or practical.
  • You don't need to mechanically model what happens to characters; this is determined by the needs of the story

It occurred to me today (belatedly perhaps) that actually, the Lasers/Feelings thing can be modelled another way. Under the basic description, you have one Number from 2-5 and you roll under for Lasers, over for Feelings. You can also model this as two separate stats, both of which you roll over: you have 7 points to distribute between the two and they must range from 2-5.

This opened up the possibility of a slightly greater set of dimensions for other genres. The obvious one is to say you have four stats, and the array 2,3,4,5 to allocate to them.

Looking at this, the immediate thought that crossed my mind was that you could use it for a light D&D-style game. Or anything else, of course.


For sword-and-sorcery, blaster-and-hoverboard, and possibly for slightly more epic genres as well, the split that comes to mind is Might, Speed, Cunning and Wisdom.

Might represents physical prowess, both what you can take and what you can dish out. It's used for toughing out hardship, feats of strength, and for crude physical combat. Speed represents your ability to move and think quickly. It's used for reacting to sudden events, dodging hazards, balancing, interrupting, and making the first move. Cunning represents mental and physical guile. It's used for coming up with plans, performing magic tricks, picking locks and pockets, feinting, beguiling, bluster, acting and lying plausibly. Wisdom represents knowledge and understanding. It's used for understanding others, recalling facts, studying, assessing, reaching agreement, logic and foresight.

If it helps, a distinction between Cunning and Wisdom is that Cunning primarily relates to what you're doing, while Wisdom primarily relates to other people or things.

Injuries and stuff

If you want some kind of injury mechanic (not necessarily needed, if we assume this is a genre game where it's assumed everyone survives but narrative injuries exist) then I'd give everyone the same set of available injuries, then have them use their abilities to avoid injury.

For example, let's say we have a list of injuries ranked 1-6: Scratch, Limp, Wounded Arm, Dizzy, Weak, Unconscious. You can only have each injury type once; the group decides their effects as seem appropriate to the context. Hazards pose a Danger of 1-6 (enemies with stats pose Danger equal to rolled successes). You can roll an appropriate stat to reduce the Danger to zero and avoid injury, otherwise you incur the appropriate injury (2 for Limp, say). If you already have that injury, you take the next one up instead.

So Iron-Fisted Lia already has a Wounded Arm. She's attacked by a troll posing Danger 3, and tries to shrug off the blow with her shield using Might, but rolls no successes. She'd take the 3rd tier injury, Wounded Arm, but she already has one so she becomes Dizzy instead. Exactly what that means in this context is up to the group.

The distinction is that characters intended to be resilient would be better able to avoid injury - they have high Might to absorb damage or Speed to evade it. This would sort of replicate the way wizards are usually squishy while soldiers are tough.


In this context, D&D-style class would be represented by Roles. You can use the stat arrays to represent them as you choose:

  • A hardy dwarven warrior might be Might 2, Speed 4, Cunning 5, Wisdom 3. They're very strong and tough, sensible and knowledgeable, not especially fast, and have no knack for trickery.
  • A mystical elf might prefer Might 5, Speed 3, Cunning 4, Wisdom 2. They're very knowledgeable, have quick reflexes, a certain amount of deviousness, but are physically weak.
  • An orcish thief might be Might 3, Speed 4, Cunning 2, Wisdom 5. They're very cunning, strong and tough, reasonably fast but not particularly intellectual. They use their wits and physical power to solve problems, rather than the speed another thief might rely on.
  • A Star Patrol Marine might be Might 2, Speed 4, Cunning 3, Wisdom 5. They're very tough, good at creative thinking, reasonably fast, but not especially knowledgeable.
  • A Star Patrol Ranger might be Might 5, Speed 3, Cunning 2, Wisdom 4. They're used to lone working, and rely on wits and speed to survive and deal with problems; you can't fight everyone out on the frontier.
  • A Star Patrol Investigator might be Might 5, Speed 4, Cunning 3, Wisdom 2. They work either with a team of agents or undercover, using their vast knowledge and intelligence to find out what's going on and work out how to fix it.


For games of espionage, corporate conspiracy and kung-fu, the split that comes to mind is Face, Tech and Violence. If you wanted you could stick a Willpower in there too.

Face represents your skill at social interactions and presentation. Tech represents your ability to deal with machinery, communications, security and code. Violence represents exactly that. Willpower is optionally used to represent your courage, pain threshold and determination in the face of hardship.

  • A persuasive, cold-blooded con artist with a Desert Eagle would be Face 2, Willpower 3, Tech 5, Violence 4.
  • A black ops assassin would be Face 5, Willpower 3, Tech 4, Violence 2.
  • A leet hacker with no taste for fighting would be Face 4, Willpower 3, Tech 2, Violence 5.
  • A steely-eyed leader and all-rounder would be Face 3, Willpower 2, Tech 5, Violence 4.
  • A practically-minded burglar might be Face 5, Willpower 4, Tech 3, Violence 2.
  • A suave, merciless infiltrator who doesn't expect to be caught might be Face 2, Willpower 5, Tech 4, Violence 3.

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Making Deathwatch combat overly complicated

So it's been a while, but I've spent a lot of time wittering about the skill system in the Warhammer 40,000 setting, in particular with particular reference to its effect on Knowing Things, including the effects of modifier distributions.

I've been thinking more about this and have some ideas I wanted to play with.

The two major points are de-compartmentalising non-combat skill and compartmentalising combat skill

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Cheap Lovecraft knockoffs

I had a whimsical surge while getting an international flight, and thus I present the works of Lovecraft on a reduced budget (with apologies to I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue).

  • The Chemist
  • Azathoth - Gesundheit!
  • Beyond the Wall of the Back Garden
  • The Morning Call of Cthulhu
  • The Suitcase of Charles Dexter Ward
  • The Collar out of Space
  • The Curse of Pig
  • The Dairy of Alonzo Typer
  • The Train That Came to Sarnath
  • The Dreams in the Beach House
  • The Dunwich Haulier
  • Fax concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family
  • From Behind
  • The Haunter of the Park
  • Herbert West—Animator
  • In the Walls of Eric's
  • The Lurking Beer
  • Out of Ian's
  • Pickman’s Model Railway

This is actually more difficult than I envisioned, because so many of the titles are pretty mundane to begin with. There are some you could easily treat as low-budget puns (The Shadow over Innsmouth, for example; and indeed The Case of Charles Dexter Ward I only tweaked for clarification) but obviously people won't necessarily get what you're talking about...

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Warlocks, revisited

Quite a long time ago, I talked about tweaking D&D 5e warlocks to reduce the system issues with eldritch blast and grant them more flexibility as a class. I also mentioned that I'd prefer to make broader changes.

I am nothing if not inclined to suddenly drop things I've been working on in favour of immediate whims reliable, so I'm going to revisit this topic now.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Visitant: Hostile Takeover

The latest installment of terrible game fiction for my incomplete sci-fi hack of World of Darkness.

Francis sat in his office, idly tapping an executive toy with his paperknife. The chrome spheres swayed and clacked softly as he waited. Everything was prepared. There was a knock.

“Come in.” He laid the paperknife carefully on his desk, and straightened up.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Hawarden.”

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Cohesion and Numenera (again)

Hi, Numenera. Long time, no see! I actually haven't heard much about you for a year or so either. No, I didn't mean... well... it's just, y'know... nobody seems to be playing you? It's kind of sad now that I think about it.

So I was listening to Improvised Radio Theatre With Dice while running seven miles down a major road in the rain over a series of hills, as is my wont, and Michael Cule was talking about his attempts to get to grips with Numenera. They resembled my own so strongly that my heart went out to him, and indeed to the game, and it got me thinking again about why it is that I just couldn't get to grips with it.

The start of episode 23, and about 50 minutes into episode 24.

Numenera feels like fog; like the fragments of an intriguing dream you clutch at upon waking, trying and failing to reconstitute the fractured sensations into a meaningful whole. Or, more prosaically, like a bunch of pieces from different, but exquisite, jigsaws.

Friday, 4 March 2016

Lasers and Detectives and Being-Like

So a few weeks ago, I visited some friends and mentioned to them the deeply intriguing game Lasers and Feelings, which I'd come across on a podcast.

I actually won't link to the podcast, because although the game seemed fun, I found the podcast cringe-inducingly California-amdram-storygamerish and had to stop listening fairly soon, and it seems mean to link someone with that kind of recommendation.

In fact, weirdly, I've now tried listening to three different Actual Plays of Lasers and Feelings and couldn't stick with any of them. I don't remember the issue with the second; the third group were so fixated on the "Sexy" keyword that it got tiresome to listen to within a few minutes. I'm sure it's just a personal taste thing, they sounded like they were having a great time. I think it's partly that for me, a lot of amusement comes from playing silly tropes with a straight face, whereas a game where everyone is Sexy and people run around referring to that in-character and the actual plot features the Captain announcing that due to a terrible space-plague he has become *dun-dun-dah* Un-Sexy! just too in-your face.

Anyway, I found the game enormous fun, as my alien doctor ran around trying to meet sexy humans and solve medical problems through sheer emotion. We had a fun pirate-themed plot and eventually crushed their plans to reverse time because, even though this would have vastly improved (and indeed, saved) the lives of thousands of people, it's always bad to change history in space opera because Morals You Guys.

The lightweight ruleset really appealed to me, and I started wondering what other genres might be amenable to this treatment. This led me to try and rough out a detective-themed game, which I'm going to call Monographs and Intuition.

The division is much like the one in Lasers and Feelings itself - Monographs represents academic knowledge, reasoning and induction based on evidence, whereas Intuition represents solving problems by understanding or manipulating emotions, as well as sheer inspiration. Recognising a tattoo, tracing origin of tobacco-ash or following the money would be Monographs; spotting a flash of guilt, encouraging someone to open up to you, or realising how social tensions might cause a spiral of murderous jealousy, would be Intuition. Let's assume that low is Intuition, and high is Monographs; you want to roll over Intuition, and under Monographs.

Then you'd just grab some archetypes. Something like this maybe?


Learned, Inscrutable, Two-Fisted, Mild-Mannered, Eccentric, Hard-Boiled


Police Officer, Private Eye, Dilettante, Bystander, Foreigner, Whippersnapper

So maybe Sherlock would be a Learned Dilettante with a 5 (Monographs). Miss Marple would be a Mild-Mannered Bystander on perhaps a 3. Poirot would be an Inscrutable Foreigner, on a 2-3. Sam Spade is a Hard-Boiled Private Eye on a 3-4. Why Didn't They Ask Evans? features two Whippersnappers, probably one Inscrutable and one Mild-Mannered from what I remember, with a 3 because honestly they're a bit rubbish at following clues but not that great at understanding people either.

But would it be a detective game?

One of the issues here is, how detectivish would this feel? As someone pointed out to me, this is basically the premise of The X-Files, but the playstyle might not be what's expected, particularly from players used to other investigative games like Call of Cthulhu. Those revolve around exploring scenarios that have been carefully designed by the GM with chains of evidence for the players to puzzle out using their characters' attributes; Lasers & Feelings is a very lightweight game with a ton of player agency and assumed most of the game is improvised.

As my much-lamented Los Diablos game was supposed to demonstrate, I don't think this is necessarily a problem. Investigative games traditionally rely on lots of pre-planning, but I don't particularly see why you can't have one that's mostly improvised around a core. The player agency is a completely different point, but again, I'm not sure it's a problem. What it's going to depend on is what the group considers to be "like a detective", and there are two axes here: the story and the game.

I don't think there will be any particular discrepancy between an improvised detective story and a pre-planned one. In fact, it's entirely possible that an improv game will end up more like a detective novel than one based on a prewritten clue chain. A series of weird rolls can lead to people missing or misinterpreting clues, or learning things the GM never expected; and of course they can simply go off on one and end up doing something utterly bizarre. In an improv game, the massive tangent can be incorporated into the plot; if the players think it's relevant, they can make it so. People working together to improvise a game that feels like a detective story around a loose plot should be at least as effective at doing so, as a group trying to create a detective story by confronting game-mechanical challenges that reveal or conceal parts of the plot.

The more important question is, what feels like "a detective game" to the players? And that's going to vary. I'm not sure whether it would actually need to be investigative or not.

A L&F-style game would basically involve improvising clues to fit around a rough plot. The players and DM would make up clues that seemed to make sense at the time. That sounds to me quite a lot like the Agatha Christie-esque style of stories, where most people are suspects most of the time and the crucial bit of evidence isn't always more convincing than the rest, hence Evil Voice.

That is mostly character-based mystery, though, which is a bit different from the likes of Sherlock Holmes or Sam Spade. It makes sense that you can sort of riff around in them, because that's basically what the authors do. But what if we want Sherlock? A lot of people do.

I like most of the original stories, but I must admit that like basically everything else involving Stephen Moffat, I have no time for the TV series.

I'm actually not sure whether Holmes stories are particularly investigative, though. At least, the experience of the reader is not one of carefully piecing together the puzzles and forming a logical understanding of the plot, which some other authors (like Agatha Christie) permit. In most of the stories, Holmes is constantly in possession of information that's kept from the reader, which means not only do we not know what conclusions he has drawn, but we are literally incapable of solving the mystery. So the audience isn't part of a slow process of logical investigation at all, they just encounter a series of baffling clues which Holmes eventually whips into a story by adding bits to form a coherent whole.

The question is, does is matter whether those connective bits that are added are a) devised by the GM and may or may not be found by the players; or b) stuff the players make up when they succeed at a roll? I think not.

Player mindsets

What we're running into here is the issue that people can have very different instincts and opinions about what it means to be Like X, whether that's Like A Detective Story or Like Sherlock Holmes, or even Like The Red-Headed League. I've talked about this before in terms of the Musketeers.

Player A says "this Sherlock Holmes game feels nothing like a Holmes story! I have to use my real world skills to put a bunch of in-character clues together, and I might get it wrong! To properly feel like Holmes I'd need a game where whatever deductions my character made were correct, then we'd get an outcome that really came close to being an improvised Holmesian narrative".

Player B says "this Sherlock Holmes game feels nothing like a Holmes story! I just have to roll my deduction skill, and then anything my character asserts becomes true in the game! To properly fell like Holmes, I'd need to be putting together real clues to a properly designed mystery, using real logic and deduction."

Broadly speaking, the schism here is whether you understand Like Sherlock Holmes to mean "this game guarantees that you will be able to do what Holmes does" or "this game challenges you to try to do what Holmes does".

Player A feels like Holmes by saying and doing things that look like what Holmes does and, like Holmes, having these be true parts of the story. Trying to second-guess the GM's attempt to build a mystery that is "exactly challenging enough" is basically a distraction from evoking that Holmesian atmosphere. It's sort of like being Sherlock Holmes in a play. You could say that the aesthetic trappings of Holmes are what provide that feeling.

Player B feels like Holmes by taking part in a mystery they know to have a solution, and patiently piecing together the clues. Being able to simply invent truths undermines that whole experience by trivialising it; there's little satisfaction in solving a mystery if you can simply declare victory, it's like playing a game with people you know are letting you win. The feeling of Being Holmes comes from doing in real life something that resembles what Holmes does in the stories, even though the reliance on player skill will naturally result in signficant differences from the inferences a genius detective can draw.

Both players want to feel like a great detective, but one player gets that from abstract mechanics that guarantee a great-detective-style outcome, and the other gets it from concrete systems that give them the chance to get closer to doing what great detectives do.

You can't please all of the people, etc.

On reflection, I suspect that the same thing probably applies to the other genres. I personally found Lasers and Feelings very satisfying, but other people might well find that they want to feel like they're really exploring strange new worlds, fending off Klingons and solving space-problems, and that being able to roll a 3+ on a die to succeed at stuff by handwavium doesn't feel like that. Those people might want a carefully-crafted pregen world to explore - and indeed I would probably also enjoy that, in fact that sounds exactly like something I'd enjoy.

I reckon that broadly speaking, you could probably apply the Lasers and Feelings template to just about any genre where the protagonists have the capacity to solve problems themselves, rather than being mostly passive. You just need to identify an axis that will provide a binary split you're mostly happy with. Regency Romance? Fours-in-Hand and Invitations. High Fantasy? Lores and Nobility, which balances knowledge of ancient times and subtle powers against selflessness and discipline. Swords-and-Sorcery? Well, eschewing the obvious, how about Thews and Deviltry, for an axis built on the balance between physical might and fearless cunning? Shounen manga about an exasperating teenager perpetually oblivious of the attentions of various (player character) women who protect him from supernatural peril? Study and Tsundere. Grimdark adventure in the Imperium of Man? That sounds like Zeal and Discipline for our Astartes game, Guile and Guts for our hive-gang adventures, Hubris and Acumen for our Rogue Traders, and perhaps Lockpicks and Cynicism for our cult-hunting Inquisitors.

Some of those might not work at all because I just made them all up. The point is, I suspect it's possible - providing the resulting playstyle is something that evokes the genre in an interesting way for you.

I should maybe also note what I carefully didn't do. I don't think any of the throwaway ideas above splits characters along a single axis, which is to say, two poles of the same idea. You want to be sure you're suggesting two different sets of problems the character is good at interacting with, which helps define the character while also avoiding restricting their approach to those problems.

I suppose a couple of those ideas sound a bit like that, but that's not my intention. Zeal and Discipline offers Zealous characters who solve problems by sheer enthusiasm (be those problems cowardly allies, overwhelming odds or the refusal of doors to open) as opposed to Disciplined characters who use analysis and practice. They can deal with many of the same problems, but their methods and the courses of action they actively pursue will differ.

Similarly, Guts and Guile is supposed to be about whether a character tends to take direct action and rely on resilience, or more indirect courses and rely on cunning.

But I mean, it's thirty seconds of work, you get what you pay for here.

The second thing is that you don't want stuff everyone does to be baked into the axes. It would be a relatively bad idea to have a Swords-and-Sorcery game divided into Battle and Sexytimes because, even though those are two cornerstones of the genre, they are completely different skillsets and can't really be applied to equivalent situations. All protagonists should be capable of both fighting enemies and seducing... okay, often also enemies. The point is, if you had a Battle character and a Sexytimes character then one would do all the fighting and one would do all the seducing, and it's really hard for either one to interact well with part of the core of the genre. In fact, there's a secondary problem, which is that having dice rolls for this stuff at all may be a bad idea. If you want people to fight and seduce in a really rules-light game, then assuming that everyone can do those things and the axes are about how they do them is probably better.

We ran into this a bit during Lasers and Feelings. I felt vaguely like I should be stealing an ID card to help infiltrate the pirate base, but there's no "stealing stuff" or "black ops" skill, so I assumed it would come off Lasers because it's practical, right? As was pointed out, there's no particular reason it couldn't come off Feelings if I used interpersonal skills to obtain a badge.

Friday, 19 February 2016

Travelogues: other little bits

There's a few bits of thoughts about travelogues that I wanted to get down, but don't really fit in. These just relate to the kinds of things that characters might contend with when travelling, which don't necessarily get much attention in mechanics designed for a more adventuring style of play, but which might offer some opportunities for interest.

This depends to some extent on the nature of the journey. Is the travelogue genuinely through actual wilderness, with never another human in sight bar perhaps a hunter or hermit? Or is it, more plausibly, through a succession of towns, villages and farming communities, with breaks of perhaps a few weeks across entirely unsettled regions? If the latter, are they unsettled because they're utterly inimical to life (in which case, a bad choice for travel), because they're full of monsters (a different kind of challenge), because they're actually occupied by wandering communities like hunter-gatherers or roving herdspeople, or because they're reserved for use by powerful nobles (in which case gamekeepers and soldiers are to be expected)?

All the following is just bits of ideas I've had.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Travelogues: trouble on the road

Random encounters from wandering monsters are the classic hazard, but more mundane problems are the mainstay of travelogues.

What I'd like to do is have a probability system for testing for different categories of hazard, adjusted to account for the players' decisions about how to approach the journey. For example, if they're hustling they should be more likely to rush into unsafe terrain and slower to notice creeping hazards, like strange gases or sunstroke. If they take time to examine and maintain their carts and tack, they should be less likely to suffer malfunctions.

Basically I think I'd like to have a "how do you spend your time and energy?" decision. You can travel at absolutely full speed, which makes all kinds of problems more likely to arise: walking into danger, exhaustion, injury, spoilage, accidents and so on. You can take excellent care of your mounts and gear, but travel slowly and use up both food (in travel time) and resources (for maintenance). So you're deciding what your priorities are.

Travel pace

I think (based on my mate's requirements) what I'll suggest is that each day has six 4-hour blocks, and you can choose how many to spend travelling. Those you don't, you can use for downtime activities. Travelling for more than 8 hours beyond this counts as Forced March, no matter in which order you do things!

Travel speeds, and their bonuses and penalties, are otherwise as in the DMG.

Okay, I've pretty much run out of subsystems now, so I need an actual main system... curses.

Right, let's have a stab at this.

The basic idea is much like the random encounter roll, except without monsters. There will be several rolls made each day (or whatever period), with various modifiers, to determine whether anything unusual happens.

I'm probably going to change that because I think it's too faffy on reflection, but let's take a look anywway.

Event Rolls

There are five categories of random events: Travel, Health, Gear, Animal and (of course) Encounter.

Each roll is a 2d10. All rolls are modified by party Morale.

Travel rolls gain a +5 bonus if anyone successfully Planned.

Gear rolls gain a +5 bonus if anyone successfully did Maintenance.

Animal rolls gain a +5 bonus if anyone successfully did Animal Care.

Characters roll Health individually, modified by their Health.

I'm not going to work up actual tables here because I suspect this model is just too faffy. Essentially, it would be low rolls resulting in serious problems, and high rolls resulting in either nothing or some small benefit (such as faster progress).

Composite Rolls

In this somewhat simpler model, there's just one roll to determine whether the notable event of the day is good, bad or indifferent. A secondary roll determines the type of event (such as Travel, Health etc.) and its effects are then calculated.

Roll 2d10 (modified by Morale) for the day's events to determine whether things go well or badly. Then use the highest of the two dice to determine the type of event that occurs. The DM is responsible for deciding exactly what has happened and (where appropriate) framing it as a challenge for the PCs.

If the group is forced marching, they suffer an additional -5 penalty on the roll.

Events allow rolls to avoid their effects. Activities performed in downtime and current status modify these rolls.

  • 4 or less: Calamity! Something has gone seriously wrong. The party will make little or no progress today, and may suffer lasting effects.
  • 5-7: Problems. Something significant goes wrong, and requires considerable effort to deal with.
  • 8-10: Minor setback. The party will lose a little time, energy or patience.
  • 11-15: Steady progress. There are no particular problems today.
  • 16-17: Good going. The party makes better progress than expected.
  • 18+: A stroke of luck!

Use the highest of the two dice faces (the Type Die) to determine the type of event from the chart below. For example, if you roll 4+7=11, the Type Die is a 7. If an event isn't appropriate (for example, the party has no animals with them) use the other face. If that also isn't appropriate, it's a Travel event.

Most events allow an Avoidance Roll to ignore the effects - only one character may make this roll, and in most cases the DM determines which. If the Avoidance Roll is successful, the DM narrates the issue that arises, but the party manage to overcome it without any significant difficulty: they pick a safe path through the marsh, fend off illness, notice the damaged reins in time to avoid an accident, and so on. If not, the party must deal with the issue in-game.

One further point: for some events to be meaningful, we need to assume that waving hands and chanting isn't a solution to everything. This is because with very little else happening, clerics can cheerfully cast cure spells all day. D&D's hit points are a handwavy mixture of stamina, resolve and physical injury. The simplest thing is to assume that, while clerics can easily heal battle wounds or virulent diseases, they can't do much about low-level illness or the time wasted when someone gets hurt. Maybe the gods just don't consider it serious enough? Injuries and illnesses still take time and exhaust the afflicted.

  1. Animal event. Something happens involving one of the party's mounts, pets or pack animals. The event can be avoided with a successful Animal Handling roll (DC 20 - Type Die), with advantage if the party did Animal Care last night.
  2. Health event. The party member with the lowest current Health is unwell or injured. The event can be avoided with a successful Constitution save (DC 20 - Type Die), with advantage if the character received Healthcare last night. If the unHealthiest party member is already afflicted by a Health event, choose the next unHealthiest.
  3. Hostile encounter. The party encounters active antagonists, ranging from petty thieves to bandits to vicious monsters depending on the scope of the event roll. This is handled like any other encounter and there is no avoidance roll.
  4. Gear event. There is a problem with some aspect of the party's gear (or, on an excellent roll, their equipment helps them progress faster than expected). This can be avoided with a successful Perception roll (DC 20 - Type Die) with advantage if the party did Maintenance last night.
  5. Travel event. The broadest category! An issue arises with the weather, roads, navigation, terrain, natural hazards, other travellers, local residents, the authorities, or perhaps the party simply find something interesting to investigate along the way. The DM should choose an appropriate avoidance roll, typically Survival or a social skill (DC 20 - Type Die).
  6. Health event
  7. Animal event
  8. Gear event.
  9. Travel event.
  10. Travel event.

A Hostile result isn't necessarily a combat. The party might choose to lay low while a raiding horde passes by, or plan a way to pass through a spider-filled forest without alerting the creatures. The difficulty of the challenge should reflect the event roll result - a Problem shouldn't be bypassed with a roll and no real loss of time.

But how does all that work?

Okay, how's this supposed to work? Here are some suggestions.


  • 4 - A mount is badly hurt - it trips and injures a leg, sinks into a bog, is poisoned by a roadside plant, develops infected sores from poorly-fitted tack, or is attacked by an animal in the night. The party might choose to abandon the creature and keep going (redistributing possession as necessary), or stop travelling for the day while they rescue, tend and reassure it.
  • 5 - A loud noise, strange animal or other surprise sends the pack mules racing off into the forest. The party will need to hurry to round them up, once they get their own mounts under control... and there are plenty of places for a mule to disappear.
  • 8 - A horse is unusually irritable and badly-behaved after weeks of travel. The party are slowed down as they struggle to keep it moving as they want. An Animal Handling roll won't deal with this problem, because that's what the AH avoidance roll represented - they've had their chance.
  • 11 - The horses feed from a cluster of strange herbs, and spend the rest of the day twitching and whinnying, but it has no serious consequences.
  • 16 - As the party rests, a grazing animal wanders aside and reveals a hunter's track, which proves to be a useful shortcut through a difficult area.
  • 18 - a ranger's companion bounds aside from the path, leading them to a suspicious patch of fresh-dug earth. A few minutes' digging reveals a small iron-bound chest containing silver pieces and a magic scroll.


  • 4 - The route through the hills proves a mistake when the weather worsens, leaving the party slipping on wet scree and struggling against violent gusts. A pack of supplies is lost when a party member nearly falls from a narrow ledge. (Mechanically that's probably going to be food, but it could include some party gear as well. The DM might allow an attempt to find and recover it, but that should be a long and difficult task)
  • 5 - The party enter a farmstead to ask for news and buy supplies. Instead, they find a secluded religious order who are angered by the intrusion, and by something about the party. The zealots order them off their land, and all the farms across this valley belong to the same unwelcoming group. It may not be possible to travel through this valley at all.
  • 8 - after a shortcut through a thicket, the party are constantly plagued by insects, due to the lingering scent of certain leaves. Their progress will be slowed and patience frayed unless they find a way to escape the flies.
  • 8 - a large band of bandit-hunting soldiers orders the party to halt for interrogation (Persuade or Bluff avoidance roll to quickly convince them to move on). A lengthy search and questioning delays the party and potentially inflicts some minor damage.
  • 11 - unstable stepping-stones plunge someone into a stream, but thankfully nothing is lost.
  • 11 - the party are forced to detour when they find a landslip has wiped out the cliffside path they hoped to take, but manage to make up lost time.
  • 16 - A break in the trees on a hilltop offers the party a splendid vista of the landscape ahead, helping them plan the rest of their journey. They gain the benefits of journey planning for the next 1d3 days without spending downtime.
  • 18 - The party encounters a band of wandering traders who are glad of some company. The traders can provide skilled Maintenance and give them advice about the route ahead. The party have a friendly contact in the next settlement they visit.


  • 4 - the party member is afflicted by food poisoning, and completely helpless. Even with magical healing, they will be too weak and exhausted to travel or pursue downtime activities. They can only engage in absolute necessities (i.e. they can still do combat if necessary). They cannot act in downtime until they make a successful Con save (DC 12-days elapsed).
  • 5 - the party member wrenches a knee on unstable ground, and can only move slowly. The party's progress is reduced today.
  • 8 - a fever affects the character's senses, so they see and hear illusory threats, and act erratically. The party must decide how to respond.
  • 11 - a slight headache from the biting wind makes minimal difference to the journey.
  • 16 - whether fresh or exhausted, the character feels unusually clear-headed and focused. Their attentiveness helps the party avoid difficult ground and push rapidly on with their journey.
  • 18 - food the party gathered proves to be especially refreshing, and after the meal they all feel in good humour. The party's Morale increases by 1.


  • 4 - A broken wheel leaves a cart useless. The party must choose whether to make long, difficult repairs (a challenge planned by the DM) or abandon the cart where it lies. If they have a spare wheel, they must hoist the cart (a dangerous job) and try to fit the new one.
  • 5 - Vermin have found their way into a pack, chewing the bag and eating supplies. The party loses 1d4 daysworth of food.
  • 8 - Cooking gear is damaged by poor packing. Unless the party has spares, someone must burn a downtime slot to fix the gear or rig up alternative cooking options.
  • 11 - A poorly-fitted sadly leaves someone saddle-sore, but otherwise fine.
  • 16 - The expensive telescope someone insisted on bringing allows you to spot a broken bridge up ahead, and the brigands apparently lurking nearby. You can take a different route and make good progress, or you could attempt to confront the bandits.
  • 18 - you have exactly the obscure item you need to earn the gratitude of a passing wizard, who offers you a warm welcome at her well-hidden tower. The party can rest and feast well tonight, and has the chance to obtain some minor magical supplies.

That seems more or less workable to me?

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Call of Cthulhu Scenario Tag Cloud

I think this is pretty self-explanatory? It's a tag cloud of all Call of Cthulhu scenarios published professionally, but not magazines because I forgot them and can't be bothered to redo it. Sorry.

created at

Travelogues: downtime activities

So, what about those downtime activities? Let's review.

New downtime activities

Discussions with my mate are looking like downtime might be spend in blocks of four hours in his campaign, which is fair enough. Let's assume that as the basis for now; DCs below have been adjusted accordingly.

There are basically two types of downtime activities here: essential and optional. It's pretty much essential (at least on longer journeys) to forage for food and water, and so these activities are relatively easy. The other activities give characters an opportunity to prepare and reduce the chances of something going wrong in future, but gaining these benefits is more difficult.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Travelogues: health

We're coming to the end of the subsystems for travelogues (thank goodness), and having thrown out some ideas about rest, food, morale and maintenance, I'm going to move on to health.

Health isn't a big part of most roleplaying games, particularly combat-adventure games like D&D, where there's a ferociously-handwavy zone of "either stabbed in the kidneys or badly bruised or forced to make a sudden dodge, we're not sure" around injuries and where diseases only exist as things that kill you quite quickly and probably turn you into a monster. That's fair enough. Head colds and carpal tunnel syndrome don't fit well with that brand of fantasy.

Nevertheless, travelogues do feature health as a concern. Characters worry about bad food, or getting poisoned by careless foraging. Bad weather makes them worry about chills, and marshes or infected wounds cause fevers. People and mounts alike twist ankles, grow footsore, and are afflicted by noxious miasmas.

Like Morale, I think Health will be mostly a tracking thing, tied into random encounters. Unlike Morale, this will be tracked individually. I know fantasy characters do differ in their stoicness, but I feel like it's specific characters that are ill during travelogues (thus burdening the rest of the party) while overall mood is typically more of a party thing. Also, having the entire party sick just feels wrong.

As per usual, I'm basically making this up as I go along.

Travelogues: Morale and Maintenance

Okay, so I've had an initial stab at the resting and foraging aspects of a travelogue, although I'm starting to think I planned on too small a scale. Never mind, onwards and upwards, and always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom.

There are four more broad submechanics I think are relevant here:

  1. Maintenance, in a broad sense: taking care of your animals, vehicles, gear and supplies en route. This is relatively straightforward on short journeys between towns or treks out to dungeons, but gets harder with long spells under constant strain and with little opportunity for professional care.
  2. Health. This isn't often considered in dungeoneering (because it wouldn't be much fun, presumably) but long journeys are very taxing, and wilderness journeys offer lots of opportunity for illness and accident. These are in the source material, so let's try to offer something along those lines. I'm not intending to make this a major feature, but more of a stick: plan your journey, take sensible precautions, otherwise you'll get ill. This should help encourage players to maintain food supplies, spend time searching for water, and shelter in poor weather.
  3. Morale. Journeys are tiring, and long treks across country can be dispiriting even for hardened warriors. If things are going well, morale is high; if things are going badly, morale is low. Taking steps to recover morale helps in the long run but can have short-term costs.
  4. Incidents on the journey, which are essentially random encounters, but expanded to fill a whole range of problems, challenges, hazards and opportunities. Incidents will be informed by at least the Maintenance and Morale subsystems, because it makes sense that (for example) your cart is more likely to lose a wheel if you haven't been keeping it in good repair.

Thursday, 4 February 2016


Wow, it is so much harder to do post series building up systems from scratch when you actually have enough work to keep you busy at your day job.

I'm still working on the Travelogues (although discussion with my mate suggests I've aimed too small-scale for what he had in mind) but my brain is pretty frazzled from concentrating and task-switching all the time. Although I'm not going to complain about a job that actually keeps me busy, an advantage of my previous job was not having to concentrate a lot of the time, so I could design game stuff in my head while moving books around or whatever. Here my workflow looks more like this (looks like an exaggeration, actually a simplified summary):

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Travelogues: foraging and food

Last time, I talked about possibly extensions to the resting mechanics for D&D 5e. Now, time to consider another important aspect of any holiday quest: cuisine.

As usual, this is being spooled off the top of my head here, so expect some pretty rough edges. There are also aspects I'm building to align with mechanics I vaguely intend in later parts of this series, so... I'm sure it will be fine.

Eating and Foraging

The Outlander feature will just make a mess of this vital aspect, which I'm not up for. It's not just that, either. According to the rules:

A character needs one pound of food per day... A character needs one gallon of water per day, or two gallons per day if the weather is hot. (PHB, p.66 in Basic Rules) and on a successful [foraging] check, a character finds 1d6+Wis modifier pounds of food, then repeat the roll for water (in gallons).

This means that on average, given that the DC for foraging will tend to be 15 in most kinds of wilderness, you can probably assume that at least one person in a party of four will roll a 15 and gain on average 4 pounds of food and water. In other words, most of the time this just isn't going to be an issue.

I think interpretation is key here. The foraging rules allow foraging when you're travelling at a normal or slow pace. Thing is, the travel rules are very vague about how pace works. They don't tie you down to committing a day, but nor does foraging take any actual time. It seems very much like you can just (by RAW) travel at normal pace for no more than an hour (assuming the DM is at least determined enough to limit you to 1-hour blocks) while foraging enough to feed you all for a day, then move fast for the rest of the day.

My version will be different.

Monday, 1 February 2016

Travelogues: more granular resting rules

Recently a friend mentioned that he's thinking of trying to do a D&D game that's more in the style of a lot of brick-thick fantasy novels. Which is to say, a large proportion of the pagecount will be devoted to travelling around. Specifically, he doesn't just want to do the kind of nominal journeys that often feature, which are mostly encounters interspersed with occasionally making camp or fording a stream. He wants the journey itself to be prominent. As so often, our discussion led to me saying I'd go away and maybe write a blogpost.

My instinct is that if you want travel to feel real (something you can get your teeth into in a game), you're going to have to pay attention to some things that games tend to (reasonably) gloss over for the sake of adventure, as well as digging out the D&D wilderness rules. Specifically, I think you need to make logistics important. Thinking back on the travel stories I've read - which includes a lot of autobiography, not just fantasy - a lot of the interest and drama and tension comes from the mundane details.

My idea, therefore, is that you probably want to de-emphasise the classic problems of "we are constantly attacked by monsters" and start worrying about things like food supplies, shelter, fatigue, rust and corrupt law enforcement.