Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Walking the Dead

So, I had this idea entirely out of the blue for a game where you're all necromancers.

Hey, get back here!

As those familiar with my disposition will guess, this would not be a deeply serious game exploring the darkness and depravity that lurks within the human soul, or experiencing what it might mean to speak with the dead, or how being a shunned and hated practictioner of sinister arts might turn society against you and how you might react. It'd just be a fairly standard heroic fantasy game. Where you're all necromancers. In fact, I'm quite tempted to say it should be an exaggeratedly cheerful game (something a bit twee) where the people who get called on to solve problems are the "friendly" neighbourhood necromancers. The fact that you solve them with dominated skeletons, horrific apparitions and eldritch bolts of necrotic energy is just by the way. Necromancers ain't necessarily bad people. Cat stuck up a tree? Summon a flock of crows to fetch it. Or blight the tree so it decays and brings the cat crashing down. Or evoke a sense of blasphemous dread that brings it yowling down in terror. Or engulf it with your steely will and force it to slink down to bow before you. Then Mrs Goggins will give you some cake and a cup of tea for being so kind.

So, what system would let you run a game like this?

Given the specialised focus, what you want is to be able to articulate clearly how your necromancer is different from the next one. This might come down to different spell selections, different approaches to problems, or different characters. A pale, gothic necromancer in black lace is different from a cackling, withered necromancer in tattered robes.

I really don't think something like D&D would work for it, because the class framework pushes you towards certain roles. A necromancer would struggle to have hit points, and I don't think there are enough thematic options to make you anything other than a wizard without delving heavily into splatbooks. The combat focus of the game would cause problems for fragile casters with poor combat skills and a limited spell pool. Also, I don't think the health model really fits my concept here, somehow.

Something vaguely BRP-like might work, if you just came up with appropriate skill lists. A set of necromantic talents where everyone assigned points, and use those (rather than spell lists) to determine your effectiveness.

Weirdly, I'm somehow tempted to try it with FATE despite my rather meh experience with FAE. A system where (it seems) you assume you can do stuff and highlight a few key distinguishing features seems like it might well fit.

And of course I could put my money where my opinion is and hack together a Numenera adaptation, but I suspect it would involve quite a lot of hacking since I'd basically be devising new Nouns, Adjectives and Verbs.

So just a very quick post there to get the idea down while I still remember it. Comments and recommendations very welcome, I'm not particularly system-aware.


  1. Funnily enough, I think my instincts on this are almost exactly the opposite of yours. I think something like D&D would actually work far better than something like BRP or FATE, although I think a crucial issue here is that "something like D&D" does not mean "D&D", especially not if you assume that "necromancer" has to mean "Necromancy specialised Arcane caster."

    The issue I think you have here is that you have characters who are all thematically similar, which means that there are (and I am oversimplifying here) basically two ways to differentiate them: srs roleplaying, and game mechanics.

    The thing about a BRP-like system (and I think FATE is probably similar) is that PCs are distinguished primarily by *concept* (almost explicitly so, if FATE works as I understand it to), and so PC parties are at their most interesting when they consist of a Dilletante, a PI, an Antiquarian and a Soldier. BRP would be a poor fit for an all-soldiers game, because your characters would be essentially identical game mechanically (or worse, some of you would be flat out better soldiers than the others).

    In D&D, by contrast, your characters are all essentially the same sorts of people who do the same sorts of things - you are adventurers, you go into dungeons, kill monsters, and take their stuff. Classes just provide you a way to differentiate within that. If every single necromancer in your game is a skinny bloke/blokess in a robe, then characters might wind up feeling a bit samey. So I almost wonder if you might essentially want a D&D-esque system in which "necromancers" are modelled as either Wizards, Clerics or Paladins allowing for a range of heroic fantasy archetypes under the necromantic umbrella.

    Incidentally, I haven't actually read it, but I understand that "necromancers basically fight evil" is sort of the premise of Garth Nix' Sabriel (tagline "Who will guard the living when the dead arise"). I seem to recall you've read this a while ago, because I remember it being on your list of books with librarian protagonists.

    1. Thanks for the post, interesting points.

      So I'm getting the impression that you're picturing a BRP-like game using more or less the standard skill list, which seems like it would work out pretty much as you say. Although saying that, there are all-soldier scenarios for Cthulhu and people still seem to find themselves niches as the sniper, sneaker, grenadier, athlete, medic and so on, even with the same set of key skills - although of course professional skill isn't the main focus of the game.

      What I was actually picturing was a custom list with some generic skills (your Climb, History, Spot and so on) plus a set of necromancer-specific ones for doing necromancer stuff (Wreathe in Shadow, Necrotic Bolt, Speak with Dead, Raise Corpse, Horrific Apparition, Summon Crows, Black Tendrils...). As I see it that would allow you to define a character partly by their interest in non-necromantic things and partly by mechanical choices. A stealthy necromantic ninja is different from a personable necromantic diplomat is different from an athletic necromantic warrior. The necromantic spellcasting would be done with skills rather than with spells, so you can all have a bash at just about anything, while either being a generalist or taking a couple of signature spells. I'm not saying it's better, but I don't think it was what you pictured?

      Similarly, as I understand FATE, all you have to do is ensure that the Aspects you pick aren't all the same. It shouldn't actually matter if you're all necromancers, providing you're an Acolyte of the Black Throne who Never Backs Down and has a Skeletal Familiar, while I'm a Runaway Princess who's Just a Kid and is Light-Fingered.

      I can sort of see where you're going with D&D, and I partly agree. One thing I'd say is that because of the magic system, I think you'd have a pretty limited set of spells to choose from if you want to stick anywhere near a necromantic theme. You can have clerics with skeletal minions, of course, and you've got the odd vampiric touch, but I'm not really seeing how you'd model a necromancer - even specifically using a specialist necromancer, to be honest. So I think it would be promising for making characters feel different, where I think it would struggle is making them feel like necromancers. You might need to turn to some other houserule/subsystem for that.

      Yeah, I have deffo read Sabriel. It's a great series (sadly finished), although not exactly the tone I was going for (as far as there is one).

    2. I think the issue I'd have with a BRP-like system is that I'm not sure I'd be particularly satisfied by a game in which we all played necromancers and what made our characters different from each other was all the stuff that *wasn't* to do with being a necromancer, if you see what I mean. At least, not in a heroic fantasy game rather than in a srs game about the very real darkness in the human soul.

      I think when I say "a game like D&D" I think I mean "a game with a roughly D&Dish presentation" rather than "actual D&D as she is written". As you say, there simply aren't enough necromantic bits and bobs in D&D to make a necromancers game viable (although adding these elements would, in a sense, be no more difficult than adding Necromancer Skills to BRP).

      I think basically I'd want a custom-designed system, and I think I'd want it to be a game with fairly clear mechanical differentiation between PCs. I'll poke it a bit and see if I come up with anything.

    3. I do see what you mean. I think though I'm a bit confused about why you see these two as meaningfully different:

      a) Class-based system where necromancers are mechanically distinguished by predefined sets of necromantic abilities, and also have other traits
      b) Skills-based system where necromancers are mechanically distinguished by player-chosen sets of necromantic abilities, and also have other traits

      Am I misunderstanding something?

      To some extent I'm also not sure I 100% agree, because I tend to feel that even given very similar sets of abilities, characters with different backgrounds and personalities will tend to use different ones and use them differently. But that's not especially relevant here.

      adding these elements would, in a sense, be no more difficult than adding Necromancer Skills to BRP

      Um. Not entirely, I think. At least, if you mean actual spells, then D&D-style spells are relatively complicated and need levels and scaling effects and all that mechanical jazz, whereas BRP already has pretty vague skills.

      I'd want a custom-designed system
      I was actually floating this around in my head when I made the post, but I wasn't really sure what kind of system I'd want (hence this post rather than a sample ruleset, really).

      I did have some idea of a sort of Perks system, where you could basically all try anything that seemed reasonable, but everyone has their own schtick. So (going back to old examples) you might just boost your ability at doing particular things, but you could also spend a point on a skeletal familiar that goes around with you and does stuff, or a powerful staff or something. It's a basically WODy idea, I think (dot merits and all that).

      I also had a related idea of a sort of mana system, where you basically have a non-depleting pool of necromantic power that you focus on what's important, so you might be using it to maintain and command a skeletal familiar while also producing a terrifying aura and blasting people with black lightning. But only a very vague idea.

      But I'm kind of writing enough games right now, y'know?

      So yeah, poke away, I'd be interested.

    4. a) Class-based system where necromancers are mechanically distinguished by predefined sets of necromantic abilities, and also have other traits
      b) Skills-based system where necromancers are mechanically distinguished by player-chosen sets of necromantic abilities, and also have other traits

      Am I misunderstanding something?

      It's a personal taste thing, but the basic difference is that in the class based system the predefined necromantic abilities would be *different* for each class, meaning there'd be a difference between playing - say a Soul Devourer and a Zombie Master, whereas in the skills based system everybody is likely to have a few points in Devour Souls and Master Zombies.

      As you say, you *can* have characters which all have access to the same abilities and differentiate by personality/background, but I tend to think that's less suitable for a broad-strokes, heroic fantasy, where I'd kind of want a very clear character archetype.