Saturday, 26 July 2014

FATE Dixie 2: episode 04, post-game chat

More actual play of the FATE Core silly Bravestarr rip-off I ran earlier this year. Contains spoilers for nothing, because I'm not sure you can even do spoilers in FATE.

This episode, we talk even more about FATE Core and how we think the game went.

Episode 4

The Episode

Unfortunately, due to lateness of the hour, our post-game chat here was curtailed before we had the necessary three hours or so to really thrash out our views, via talking about Warhammer a lot, and propose four alternative versions that would be essentially entirely different games, as we are wont to do. So it's a mere hour.

The game rather shook my optimistic view as I discovered that my initial difficulty getting my head around some concepts hadn't, as I thought, melted away with reading. Although I broadly had the concepts down, I continually struggled to GM the thing, as I found it very difficult to work out how to apply the mechanics. As Dan suggests somewhere or other, FATE is trying to be a game about story, but does this by having mechanics that act on mechanics. This does make the mechanics a flexible and abstract thing that aren't constrained by direct interaction with the game fiction, allowing you to skin outcomes how you want; on the downside it means that determining what happens in the fiction based on a roll, or deciding what mechanics to use for a particular in-game happening, is not simple.

As I found regularly running the game, the disconnect between what was happening in the narrative and the mechanical support was one I found very unintuitive. As Dan has pointed out to me, I'm fairly inclined towards quite world-simulatey systems where consequences flow fairly naturally from actions and the mechanics simply determine how they work out, because I tend to find abstractions more difficult to get my head round.

Alternatively I think systems that are even more abstract and stripped down, with just a few abilities that work by handwavium and interpretation, can work for me. FATE for me fell in an awkward middle ground, where anything you do has to be modified by an abstract intermediate layer based on your intention in performing an action. Similarly, evaluating what kind of roll-off I should call for (Contest, Conflict, C-something-else, one die roll) felt like an additional complication in resolving events.

I enjoyed the game, but I didn't particularly enjoy running it because I felt incompetent with the mechanics and this was very obviously slowing down the gameplay. I could have overcome this somewhat by handwaving things but that sort of ruins the point of a playtest. Having had time to mull things over and listen back to this recording, I could probably run a better game next time, but the easiest way to do that seems to be for the GM to take back a lot of the work that's assumed to be done by players, like having them decide the result of a roll rather than players picking an objective beforehand. Are they creating an advantage or making an attack? Unfortunately, this goes against the grain of the book as very player-driven.

We could take another bash at this and probably handle things better, but it seems like it would be easier just to try and run more Dixie-2 in a system we're more familiar with. I'm not sure what'll happen with this. Just like before, I'd really like to hear some people who actually know what they're doing running this game.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

FATE Dixie 2: episode 03, Gunfight at Snake Gulch

More actual play of the FATE Core silly Bravestarr rip-off I ran earlier this year. Contains spoilers for nothing, because I'm not sure you can even do spoilers in FATE.

This episode, we delve into sexual morality in sentient cybernetic horses, and finish the spurious Maglev-company-oppression-based plot with a gunfight full of explosions. What more could anyone want?

Episode 3

The Episode

The scene between the horses was fun, and in a longer-running game I'd be interested to see how that works out, and/or what happens with Silver's wandering eye.

The fight at the camp was okay, but once again I found the mechanics a bit frustrating in terms of actually running an exciting combat, which is a bit of a ding for a system supposedly designed specifically for action-adventure gaming. Quite possibly I'm just doing it wrong, but considering how simple the system is supposed to be, that is itself a problem if they haven't managed to get across clearly how to use their ruleset.

There seem to be quite a few things that are a bit tricky to do, or at least aren't explicitly discussed in the rules, like doing things with no obvious mechanical outcome. This makes the system less suited (I think) to the world-exploring kind of stuff that I tend to like, because doing random bits of research for titbits of info isn't well supported. Similarly, I wasn't sure how to handle sneaking up on the guard on the cliff, and ended up just calling for a couple of random rolls.

On reflection, I should probably have called for a sneaking and/or recon roll to create an advantage against the guard for a future attack, with the proviso that a failed attack or a botched sneak would result in the alarm being raised. Mechanically it would have been basically as difficult as I did ask for, so it's a wash, but I'd have liked to feel confident in it at the time.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Monitors: spell categories

Since I seem to be using de facto categories of spell, I should probably try to thrash out what those are. This would allow me to look out for potential issues, and also to consolidate some rules by applying them to categories rather than individual spells. I will attempt not to just reel out the names of spell schools in D&D, but damme if they didn't do a pretty good job nailing that stuff.

A secondary but important goal is ensuring that category names are nice and distinct, rather than, for example, all beginning with the same letter. Right, FATE?

Conjuration spells seem to be fairly prominent, and because there's historically some issues with those across games I should pay some attention.

I'm also fond of spells that involve runes and other big glowing things you can carve into the very air! that do stuff, so let's consider those a category of Sigils.

While it's very fluffy, a lot of spells are going to fall into a generic category of pretty generic spells that mostly have immediate effects and neither summon things nor create runes. Let's call these Invocations.

I haven't yet offered any examples, but I imagine some kind of Transformation spells are likely to come up. To avoid the Polymorph Problem I will want to pay these careful attention.


Conjuration spells allow you to summon an entity that acts semi-independently, typically having its own dicepools and instinctive behaviour.

Conjuration spells vary in power, requiring different amounts of energy (heat points) to cast them. These points are not merely spent, but invested. The investment is determined by the power of the entity summoned, which ranges from Trivial to Minor to Major. A single casting may summon several Trivial entities, while summoning a Major entity will drain multiple heat points over multiple rounds.

I had a lot of concerns here about limiting the power of summoning, since a wizard in a warm room could in theory summon an unending army. I spent ages working out possible ways to limit this with heat so that Conjuration spells don't create a massive advantage in either hot or cold conditions. Some failed models are listed at the bottom of the post.


Sigil spells inscribe a symbol or create a field that provides an enduring effect. In essence, once the sigil is written, it continues to cast itself without the wizard's intervention.

Sigils take varying amounts of time to inscribe and may have varying power requirements. A wizard can always disable their own sigil without requiring a roll, though they must be within a specified range to do so. Some sigils are indescriminate, others can affect only specific targets. Because a sigil is dependent on shape, they can be rendered ineffective by altering the sigil or manipulating the surface it is inscribed on. Some sigils can be muffled by covering them with cloth or paint, but this is not a universal solution.

All sigils require the investment of the heat points expended to cast them.


Invocations are the most generic type of spell and the basis of the magic rules. They have no additional special rules.


Some spells can alter the physical form of a target entity or object.

Only the most recent transformation remains active, so a creature cannot benefit (or suffer) from multiple simultaneous transformations.

A wizard attempting to replace an existing transformation must make an opposed Wits roll against the original caster.

Some Transformations require investment of heat, but not all.


Any heat points currently invested in spells are recorded alongside the body temperature chart. If the wizard's body temperature plus their invested heat reaches 11+, they immediately fall into heat shock. Thus, it is dangerous to try and maintain large numbers of spells by remaining near a heat source.

Broken models

For reference, here are some abandoned models of how to handle investment in Conjurations (which I later extended to Sigils for similar reasons). The original point of this mechanic is partly to be atmospheric, but mostly because otherwise a wizard with a heat source can conjure an unlimited number of entities, losing heat each time and then regaining it. I felt it would be preferable to a hard cap. Eventually I went for the option described above.

Distance model

For each point currently invested in a Conjuration, the character's body temperature is treated as being one step further from the ambient temperature when determining temperature change.

Problem: in a warm environment this exacerbates the problem, allowing the wizard to regain body heat faster than normal. In a cold environment it makes conjurations far more dangerous than other spells for no obvious reason, since the character will lose heat rapidly and potentially become torpid even in a non-freezing room.

Hotter Model

For each point currently invested in a Conjuration, the character's body temperature is treated as being one step higher when determining temperature change.

Example of Investment

Starting from a body temperature of 6, Xerxes uses Fragments of Dreams Abandoned to conjure a Splintered One. He invests two points in the entity over two rounds. His temperature is now 4 with two points invested. His actions are subject to the rules for being Chilly in accordance with his temperature of 4.

If he is in an office at temperature 6, then there will be no temperature change. He is treated as temperature (4+2 = 6) which is the same as the office. He will be unable to warm up while he remains here.

If he is on a windswept marsh at temperature 2, then he will roll 4 dice to test for heat loss. He will continue to roll for heat loss until he reaches body temperature 0, at which point he will go torpid.

If he is in a boiler room at temperature 9, he will be sheltered from the heat to some extent as he rolls only 3 dice for heat gain rather than 5. When he reaches body temperature 7, he will stop rolling and can continue to act at optimum ability.

Problem: This model doesn't quite allow for unlimited summoning. When Xerxes has invested 9 points, he'll stop gaining new heat points but also fall torpid because his effective body temperature is 0. However, it allows conjuration spells (but no others) to provide a safe buffer against heat, rather than an immediate cooldown with the risk of side-effects. As long as you have at least one summoned entity, it'll be impossible to go into heatshock. Meanwhile, cold environments become extra-dangerous even though they weren't part of the initial problem.

Instability Model

For each point currently invested in a Conjuration, the character rolls an additional die when testing for temperature change. If body temperature currently equals the ambient, determine whether heat is gained or lost at random.

The more points are invested in conjurations, the more body temperature will swing and the greater the risk.

Example of Investment

Starting from a body temperature of 6, Xerxes uses Fragments of Dreams Abandoned to conjure a Splintered One. He invests two points in the entity over two rounds. His temperature is now 4 with two points invested. His actions are subject to the rules for being Chilly in accordance with his temperature of 4.

If he is in an office at temperature 6, he rolls two dice plus an additional 2 for the points currently invested. When he reaches temperature 6, he continues to roll the 2 dice for his invested heat, and may swing from temperature 4 to temperature 8 depending on the rolls.

If he is on a windswept marsh at temperature 2, then he will roll 4 dice to test for heat loss. When he reaches temperature 2, he continues to roll 2 dice and may swing from temperature 0 to temperature 4, passing in and out of consciousness.

If he is in a boiler room at temperature 9, he will roll 7 dice in total, which means a bad roll could land him in heat shock immediately, though it's unlikely. He will gravitate towards temperature 9 and then swing from 7-11, again passing in and out of consciousness.

Problem: This isn't a terrible model, and generally does what I'm aiming for, but it feels unsatisfactory at the point where body temperature should stabilize. Because of the role of chance (and insulation) it's also relatively unlikely that wizards will actually pass out.

Blocking Model

When a point is invested in a conjuration, that step of the heat scale becomes unavailable and is blocked off, chipping away at their ability to cope with temperature change. The more steps are blocked off, the more vulnerable the monitor becomes to torpor or heat shock.

Example of Investment

Starting from a body temperature of 6, Xerxes uses Fragments of Dreams Abandoned to conjure a Splintered One. He invests two points in the entity over two rounds. His temperature is now 4, and steps 5 and 6 on the scale are blocked off. His actions are subject to the rules for being Chilly in accordance with his temperature of 4.

If he is in an office at temperature 6, he rolls two dice as normal for heat change. If he gains one heat point, he will skip over the missing steps and reach temperature 7. As this is warmer than the office, next round he must roll again for temperature loss. While the points remain invested, his body temperature cannot stabilise in this temperature 6 room.

If he is on a windswept marsh at temperature 2, he will roll 2 dice to test for heat loss as normal.

If he is in a boiler room at temperature 9, he will roll 5 dice as normal. However, any heat gain will skip right over the missing steps, which means a bad roll could land him in heat shock immediately.

This model seemed very promising when I was mulling it over. It has essentially no effect on cold environments, since the monitor's body temperature will drop as with any other spell, and as the tendency will be for them to get colder, the fact that some steps are missing higher up is little problem.

Of course, someone could plan for a cold environment by using up steps 2-4 on the chart through investment, then hoping to find heat sources that will let them leap from 1 to 5 with very little effort, minimising the time they spend on heating up. Bear in mind, though, that they'll be rolling a lot of dice to see if they cool down and even one die can send them back to temperature 1 - so it's not exactly flawless.

In warm environments, blocking some steps will make you warm up faster. You could use this to make it easy to stay at temperature 7, but if you keep summoning more things then you'll lose that slot as well.

Essentially, the problem I was concerned about was wizards in a warm room summoning unlimited numbers of things over a long period. In this model, a wizard in a temperature 7 room will lose the 7 slot. They'll then tend to gravitate to temperature 8; investing that, they'll gravitate to 9, and so on. In a temperature 7 room, a wizard can invest only 4 points of heat before they are at serious risk of passing out from heat shock. Strictly speaking, you could argue that they could wait to wake up and then summon more stuff until the whole 2-10 range is blocked off, but it's very unlikely anyone will try it, not least because they'd be constantly passing in and out of consciousness.

Problem: This model is fundamentally kind of faffy. You have to use an actual chart to block things off, not just a pile of tokens or a die as you might otherwise. It also gets complicated because it convolutes the (fairly simple) heat rules, and raises questions about what happens when a conjuration ends - do you just pick one slot to unblock, or do you need to remember them? While I like it, I feel like it would unnecessarily complicate the game to achieve a fairly simple end.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

FATE Dixie 2: episode 02, Two Robots Ride Into Town

More actual play of the FATE Core silly Bravestarr rip-off I ran earlier this year. Contains spoilers for nothing, because I'm not sure you can even do spoilers in FATE.

This episode, we begin the bits of play that aren't world creation, and I immediately start running into problems. Apologies for the fairly slow progress of the game.

Episode 2

The Episode

I enjoyed the tone of the game from the outset, it's kind of the slightly silly tone that most of my games end up with, only with no need to pretent not to be silly.

As I mention in the after-game segment, one area where FATE Core falls down for me is in guiding the GM towards satisfying encounter design. In this specific case that means combat, because what probably should have been a fun little tussle that the PCs were bound to win was resolved in a single die roll. More broadly, given that similar mechanics are used for everything in FATE, I didn't (and still don't) understand how to set up an encounter that would be interesting as a fight, as a social problem or whatever. The tone of the book strongly leads you towards not using unique PC-level characters except as ultimate antagonists, but also read to me like you shouldn't often be using mid-tier characters either, so the disparity will tend to be very large.

That being said, for a combat resolved in a single die roll this episode sure does go on for a while. Okay, I'm exaggerating - what happens is things move from physical to social combat, followed by some follow-up around town and a lot of mechanics discussion. I hope it's not too tedious.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

FATE Dixie 2: episode 01, chargen

As mentioned quite a while ago, I ran a sample game of FATE Core this year to test out the ruleset. The game rather shook my optimistic view as I discovered that my initial difficulty getting my head around some concepts hadn't, as I thought, melted away with reading. But we'll get onto that later.

Here, we do chargen, which FATE Core is at pains to point out is part of the gameplay. This sounds kind of cheesy but (leaving aside things like how it's very different from everything you do once you start on stuff most people would consider "playing the game") is broadly true, in the sense that it's fun and helps establish what's actually going on. The game as described expects players to be guiding events quite substantially, so rather than turning up to a game and being presented with a pre-crafted world of the GM's devising, you collaborate on it.

Episode 1

The Episode

I had a fair bit of fun with this session, despite being plagued by insecurity (as per usual) about whether I was doing it right, and how much to steer things. There was definitely a bit of heavy-handedness at times, such as me basically picking the setting we'd use, but in my defence this was largely a reaction to ideas being proposed that I couldn't possibly do, and in some cases I'm not sure anyone could do. Games about cyberpunk copyright lawyers could well be interesting and is presumably technically doable with FATE, but it's a major departure from the basic "action adventure" premise and not very suited to first contact with the system.

Arthur, Dan and I actually have pretty substantial differences in what media we're familiar with, which means in these situations we end up proposing things each other don't really know anything about. This is very largely down to me having watched very little TV; I saw the odd thing at other people's houses, there was a narrow window from about 1993-1998 when I watched a lot of Saturday morning TV, then I basically watched the odd episode of Buffy and drifted back out of the habit.

It's not like we were anti-TV in our house, it's just my brother broke the set when I was a mere babe, and we couldn't afford a replacement until I was about 7 or 8, by which point nobody in our family had a TV-watching habit; we read or listened to the radio instead. And that TV was black-and-white and fuzzy, so it wasn't exactly amazing viewing, it was maybe 1995 before we had a colour model. So yeah, I've never really had the attention span to sit for long periods and just watch a screen - I need more active entertainment. At least with the radio you can do other stuff at the same time.

It's not like I think TV is bad or anything, and in fact I've missed out on a lot of shared pop culture and worthwhile stuff by not watching it, which I sometimes regret. A lot of my pop culture comes second-hand, and I make some effort to catch up on the odd thing, but mostly films (manageable) rather than TV (watching 20+ hours of something is pretty much beyond me). A lot of what I did end up watching was documentaries, because that's what the family bothered tuning into. And Doctor Who, of course. The old version.

Once we settled on the premise, pinning down the details was fairly straightforward. Again, I've seen remarkably few Westerns and almost all of those were parodies or post-Westerns (I think everything but The Magnificent Seven, in fact) so even this was a little tricky for me. Luckily, I have seen Bravestarr.

I'm occasionally concerned about how much of my media consumption is parodies. It may well exceed the amount of non-parody stuff I read/watch/listen to. There are probably genres I've only encountered in parody.

I ended up really liking this world, so I vaguely hope to one day get back to it and kick up some more mischief.

Mutants of Cthulhu

So for whatever reason I have this weird fascination with the Call of Cthulhu game, which makes me gravitate towards it as a system despite its flaws (which, to be fair, are in my view not worse than most other games). For once I think this may actually be a good idea.

Basically I was, I think, listening to some Miskatonic University Podcast or other which probably mentioned about characters being normalish people with no special abilities, and this either prompted or reminded me of an idea for changing that without completely overhauling the game.

I have so many game ideas thrown out and languishing unfinished that I've probably forgotten some myself, but I was talking about a thing called Alpha Dregs the other month and this is very tangentially related.

My new idea is very slightly like Alpha Dregs in that you have powers you can't really use, but differs in most other respects, such as the actual point of the game, which is to do the same stuff you normally do in Call of Cthulhu. This wouldn't be a new system, just one game run in BRP.


So basically the premise is that you're a bunch of people with poorly-controlled mutant abilities, more along X-Men lines than classic superheroes. Details don't matter hugely, but I broadly imagine that you're brought together either as a kind of Mutations Anonymous group, or by a small group of scientists, civil servants, clergy, social workers or whatever who are trying (and so far failing) to convince anyone important that this is a real thing that someone should be addressing. Picture the traditional frustrated public sector worker, trying to do their job in the face of job cuts and general indifference, only now they're trying to get someone (anyone) to believe in superpowers without getting themselves fired or institutionalised in the process, nor bringing the tabloids down on you poor folks.

For whatever reason the characters get drawn into weird stuff. Maybe they form an unlikely detective agency. Maybe the tiny barely-known department trying to take care of them also handles everything bizarre and they get dragged into it. Maybe they're on the way back from a meeting when a hunting horror grabs someone across the street. Maybe they're actually in some kind of facility, the place suddenly collapses and they have to help themselves. Doesn't matter.

I'd be inclined to handle this pretty loosely. I'd encourage players to give themselves, say, three new skills to represent their abilities, each one based on an existing stat (probably 2x stat) and able to increase as normal. Skills would be broad in scope and can be used however the player wants, though difficulty should be adjusted as seems appropriate. Each successful use of a mutant power would cost at least one Magic Point. Each failed use of a power costs one Sanity Point.


So Arthur Perkins is a mutant bank clerk. He ends up taking the skills Telekinesis, Force Field and Levitation because they seem like a coherent set. The group rules that Perkins can use Telekinesis with the distance acting as a modifier; he also uses POW rather than STR when using it, and a very good roll will increase its effect. Perkins can now use this to shut doors, interpose crates between him and nearby ghouls, or attempt to hurl said ghouls out of sixth-storey windows.

Lucinda Beversley is a mutant lady of leisure. She takes Pyromancy, Summon Elemental and Phasing as her powers. The result of her Summon Elemental roll will determine (amongst other things) whether the elemental will actually obey her, though only on a botch might it become hostile. The group decides that her Pyromancy powers don't create fire from nothing, but depend on some source of heat being available, and that turning a small heat source into a serious fire will be more difficult than simply controlling an existing fire.

My feeling is that this would be one case where the BRP percentile system's high failure rate would be fitting, as characters attempt to invoke unreliable powers and deal with the consequences. It would keep things fairly genre-appropriate while introducing special abilities to the game. Basically I think it might be quite fun.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Skill atrophy, part 2

So last time I was talking in general terms about how skill development in real life doesn't really match the constant escalation of most games. Let's see what we could do about that.

Introducing skill atrophy to games

If we wanted to have a system where people's skills shifted more naturally to match their activities, what could we do? What would we be looking for?

  1. Skills increase with use
  2. Skills fade with neglect
  3. Neglected skills are easier to revive than new skills are to acquire
  4. Skills follow a curve - it's easy to master the basics, but every improvement is a little harder than the last

Friday, 11 July 2014

On unique abilities

This post is inspired by a combination of listening to more KOTN Numenera and a comment of Dan's on a post a few months back:

If a player tries to do something with a very limited ability, the GM is usually likely to let them get away with it, because that ability is seen as being low-utility and because a lot of GMs like to "reward creativity" (whatever that means). By contrast if an ability is very broad in scope, the GM's natural instinct is to rein it in. "Yes I know you've got a skill in Doing Anything but I can't just let you roll it for *everything*."

This is, once again, not a criticism of the KOTN playstyle, just some observations. I'm sure I've seen similar cases before, this is just the one that caught my attention.

One of the characters has the Talks to Machines focus, and I'm pretty sure at least one of the other podcasts I listened to also features this ability. Something I can't help noticing is the contrast between its description and how it tends to work out in play.

Distant Activation

You can activate or deactivate any machine you can see within short range, even if normally you would have to touch or manually operate the device. To use this ability, you must understand the function of the machine, it must be your size or smaller, and it can’t be connected to another intelligence (or be intelligent itself).

This is a pretty useful ability, so obviously it comes up for quite a lot of use. Now, I only noticed this recently and don't really fancy relistening to everything to get some stats (the disadvantage of audio over text, I suppose) but there's something interesting about what happens when a player tries to use it: very frequently, the GM calls for a roll.

It doesn't sound unreasonable, and I'm not sure that it is, but I'll point out that there's nothing in the text which indicates a roll is called for. What this power lets you do is turn a machine on or off without physically touching it, providing it's not an AI or interfaced to an AI.

But being able to turn machines on or off is a very useful power, and obviously some machines are advanced or complicated or plot-relevant and it makes sense to call for a roll to turn those on or off at a range, so...

...does it?

It seems intuitive, but why? Why should this ability require a roll, bearing in mind that the mechanics do not at any point ask for a roll? It's actually fairly limited to begin with, assuming you're reasonably sensible about "understand the function" and the size constraint. Compare it to the Leads ability "Command", which lets you force a creature to obey one non-damaging order - my gut feeling is that it's unlikely anyone would demand a roll for that. And I'm certain that if you took an ability that lets you spend 1 point to add to your melee damage, nobody would demand a roll to use it successfully "because this creature is hard to damage".

I think partly this kind of feeling comes from the fact that Distant Activation grants you a new ability, rather than enhancing an existing one. Another aspect is, as Dan says, its broad applicability - there are a lot of machines out there, and activating machines could help you overcome puzzles in a way that inflicting damage more effectively wouldn't. Essentially, this ability grants you a new tool to overcome obstacles or achieve ends, rather than enhancing an existing one, and I think this is where the instinctive conservatism creeps in.

Increasing damage doesn't feel like a game-changer because it simply makes an existing ability more mechanically effective; combat is slightly less of a challenge, but then there are many mechanical factors that can make a combat more of a challenge in return. Giving commands to a creature is a significant ability, but there are other ways to influence creatures to do something you want - persuasion, threats, tricking them with body language or feints, setting up situations in which they'll do what you want, and so on. I suspect also that getting somebody to do one limited action for you is of more limited use than you might think. Often there's no advantage over just doing it yourself, and at other times the advantage you gain (perhaps by disarming an enemy in a fight) has to be balanced against the action spent giving the order.

Distant Activation mostly allows you to do, at a short range, something you could probably do with physical contact. There are a few exceptions: it can open a door from the wrong side, or even detonate (or deactivate) a bomb, even if you don't have the clearance normally required. In general though, what it's going to offer is an alternative way to do something you normally could anyway, such as create a distraction, open a lock, or avoid detection. You could use it to turn off certain kinds of weapon, or detonate a grenade, although in the latter case you'd be blowing yourself up as well.

One of the difficulties is that this power very quickly gets fuzzy in a way that some others don't. Adding damage is just adding damage, non-damaging orders offers room for grey areas but is fairly explicit. In play though, people immediately jump to using Distant Activation on parts of machinery, such as electronic locks on a bulkhead door. Can you use it to start a car engine? I'd say not. Turn on a lightbulb? What about activating one lightbulb from a set? Can you fire a loaded mortar with it (I think so), or the cannon of a tank (probably)? How about deactivating the cooling fan in a mainframe? Or closing the protective shutter on the end of the death-laser approaching you?

If you think about it, Distant Activation applied strictly isn't that much of a game-changer compared to many other abilities. Phasing through solid objects is a huge advantage and a relatively common sort of power. Sensing thoughts is amazing. Travel powers like flight, tunneling or teleportation can completely alter the challenge posed by a problem. I'm inclined to say that the best way to ensure Distant Activation and other such unique abilities don't end up unbalancing things is to carefully apply the restrictions and abilities built into the power, rather than calling for additional rolls when it seems inconvenient.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Skill atrophy, part 1

Yet another entry in the continuing series of posts inspired by Shannon.

Key quote:

The point about pushing people out of the fun is a good one. Ranking is also quite odd, on reflection. Games tend to model highly skilled PCs acquiring rank and power as they level, whereas in real life this isn't how it works. A large proportion of prestigious people either inherit a position or get there through a kind of attrition. Promotion to high rank tends to involve having, and honing, management and political skills rather than those suited to lower-rank assignments, and these high-rank skills get practiced while the others are neglected or get outdated. There's only a handful of people in an organisation who are both highly respected for their skills, and able to use that respect to exert power - usually technical specialists, in my experience. I suspect a large part of the reason is that games really don't tend to have skill atrophy.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Link: otherness in Lovecraft

Because most people won't have seen it, I thought I'd share this forum post, specifically the second half - it talks about race/otherness in Lovecraft's writing, and I thought it was pretty interesting stuff myself and perhaps of interest to other folks. Seems like it falls within the hazy purview of this blog.

ElijahWhateley on Post-Lovecraftian Fiction

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Deathwatch: the Siege of Mersadie Hive, 09

The Siege of Mersadie Hive was a custom scenario lovingly crafted by Arthur. As such, unless your GM is planning to borrow the scenario by hacking together what they hear on this episode and the notes on Arthur's blog, there's really no spoilers to worry about.

As always, be aware that the podcast is not really family-friendly, and features some background noise, if that sort of thing bothers you.

The Episode

Link to Episode 09.

There's some (I think) very interesting discussion around the 20 minute mark of the interplay between balance, genre and expectations. Dan brings things out pretty clearly with the point that "the sorts of things that player characters are encouraged to do are the sorts of things which you probably wouldn't do if you had a 50% chance of dying doing it". Fate Points do tip the balance in favour of heroics, but there's a constant tension between wanting feats of heroism and the actual chance of getting away with it. The canon isn't a huge help here, because depiction of PC-level characters and/or Space Marines varies between portraying them as elite soldiers who are still very mortal, or as godlike warriors who shrug off the strongest attacks.

During the discussion my old favourite topic of problems with Assault Marines comes up again. In my defence, we recorded this long before I wrote a lot of my posts on this topic, because of backlog. I'll let the discussion stand for itself. We also discuss the Rocket Tag situations that more powerful enemies cause due to subtractive armour and so on. Arthur raises interesting counterpoints with discussions of the layers of death-proofing offered by RPGs versus tabletop.

This mini-campaign was a challenging idea, because in principle a siege offers a good sandbox, but actually it departs enough from the usual mission-based game that it puts extra weight on the GM. While there was a bit of work we could come up with, and we could probably have devised more if necessary, the onus is definitely on Arthur here to provide a steady and varied stream of things to deal with. Thankfully, I think he did a decent job of it, and picked a good time to bring things to a close. As (I think?) ended up being mentioned in one episode, I'm considering running at least one game set in the siege. It seems a nice rich environment to flesh out.

I wrote the above paragraph (like a lot of the show notes) while doing the editing, i.e. before I moved to the other side of the planet from the rest of the gang. While I'm still working on that Arbites game, it's probably going to be a while.

I'm really sad that we don't have recordings of the middle session, because this showcased the more active part of our activities: sending a recruiting and diplomatic mission to the Underhive to secure it from the orks, and sending the scouts on raids. We all take a lot of pride in the exploits of our boys, and they definitely done good. What remains in the recordings is relatively passive. Admittedly, this is different from many scenarios (in many games), which often feature pretty static plots for the PCs to interact with, so it's still hopefully a bit of a change of pace. However, we lost the section that best highlights how even an apparently passive situation, like a siege where the initiative lies with the attackers, can still offer opportunities for taking an active role.

It strikes me this would be a reasonable place to focus some effort - I know Deathwatch is aimed at special forces-type missions, but actually I imagine it's pretty common to use it for general Space Marine stuff, and larger-scale battles are a key part of that. Some missions designed for integration into wars might be a decent supplement. Siege-breaking, taking out supply chains or leaders, holding strongpoints, they're all good for heroics.

So that's it for Mersadie Hive. Hope you enjoyed this series as much as I enjoyed playing them, and indeed listening back to them as I edited. Do leave any comments you might have.