Monday, 31 October 2016

On failure, its outcomes and its implications: caring and minding

This is a bonus spin-off thought from the main mini-series. It doesn't quite fit into the main thread.

Caring and Minding

There's another case here which I think Fail Forward handles suboptimally, but which is relatively common. This is the situation where I care what the result is, but I don't mind.

Now, you can make a case that this is exactly the situation Fail Forward tries to create, by making both options equally interesting. But let's ignore that, and focus on situations where it's inherently true, rather than those where the GM makes it true.

This is actually a really common situation in the types of games I tend to play, which are generally relatively simulationist. The most obvious case is the very frequent one where I simply want to establish facts about the world around me. For example: Is there a secret door in this wall? Is this ruin historically associated with the Dark Lady? What kind of outfit is Hilgarth Enterprises? Can I hear anyone on the other side of this door?

I care what the result is, because otherwise I wouldn't have asked.* But I don't mind. I have no personal stake in the specific answer, but collapsing that particular waveform will open up new lines of enquiry or simply inform my future actions.

You can usefully distinguish it this way:

  • I care whether there is a secret door, a letter for me, anyone inside the room, any reason to suspect Lord Surly of treason, or a pretty girl eyeing me across the room. I don't particularly mind whether those things are true or false.
  • I mind whether my gold has been stolen, a balrog is chasing me, I can escape my manacles, I know a spell to banish this spirit, or I have any ammo left.

For example, if there is someone on the other side of the door, they might be a prisoner in need of rescue, or a dangerous enemy. Either of those might be good (I do a good deed and perhaps gain a reward or information; I test my mettle and gain XP) or bad (I have to keep the prisoner quiet, free them, wonder whether the guards will notice and raise the alarm, and complete an escort quest; the enemy kills me). I don't specifically want there to be someone there, but I do want to use my senses to establish that fact.

Similarly, if I'm playing in a setting with a Dark Lady in the backstory, and exploring a sinister tower where something has happened, it makes sense to rack my brains and check whether this tower is associated with her. If so, that suggests some things that might be happening: some of her followers might be here, or the tower might be rife with undead, or an evil influence might flow from a relic buried here. I can use that information to make guesses and prepare accordingly. If not, I want to think of other possibilities and carry out appropriate research. Either way, I want to use my historical and mythical knowledge to know the answer.

A Fail Forward system doesn't handle this particularly well, because it's not clear what reasonable consequence there could be for failing "I look for secret doors". In extreme cases it doesn't handle success well either. After all, you're not trying to create a secret door with sheer force of will; you just want to know what's going on. If I succeed at listening at the door, I don't want to have to tell the GM that there's someone inside.

In fact, Dungeon World handles this by not having any consequences for this kind of failure. Which I think is probably better than the alternative, but feels a little inconsistent. It does seem to highlight that adding consequences to an event is very much not always an improvement.

It gets even worse with "I check for traps". The very last thing you want is to try to ensure your safety by making sure there's no traps, and instead end up actively creating a hazard that then injures you. Or, coming back to our secret door, to suggest that there might be a secret door, fail the roll, and suddenly be ambushed by goblins emerging from a secret door that didn't exist until you thought of it. These are, to be clear, examples of reasonably bad GMing rather than game design per se, but I think they're a decent example of where the idea of dividing character skill rolls into two equally-interesting sets of consequences breaks down.

I also think in general it's worth considering GMing and design advice from the point of view of "what happens if the GM isn't very good?". You can't design away GMing problems, of course. On the other hand, there are always going to be situations where a GM is inexperienced, underconfident, takes things quite literally, assumes the advice will explicitly state caveats rather than assuming they will work it out, tired or drunk.

The thing is that if someone does fail a roll to look for a secret door, the chain of thought that leads to them being ambushed by goblins makes a degree of sense. You looked for a secret door and failed. Well, you can't have failed to find a door that isn't there, so maybe there was a door, in which case how does it go wrong? Ah, there were goblins hiding inside! Or there weren't, but some will come soon and sneak up on you!

Unfortunately this sort of thing affects what you might call the metagame. If, when you look for secret doors and fail, this action can cause you to be ambushed by goblins that otherwise did not exist, you are creating a penalty for yourself by doing something that wasn't necessary (but was fun and interesting) in the first place. The natural response is to avoid looking for secret doors.

This is true of any similar mechanic: if failed Social Interaction rolls can have you attacked by otherwise disinterested merchants, it really deters you from talking to anyone. If fighting Dreadbears gets you horribly injured, you'll tend to avoid fighting Dreadbears.

This kind of gameplay can discourage or sabotage certain playstyles. In particular it harms deduction-style investigation, where players want to painstakingly check leads and suspicions and eliminate possibilities. It also potentially harms cautious tactical play, where players want to use research and observation to gain as many advantages as possible.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

On failure, its outcomes and its implications: derailing


There are basically three topics in this miniseries. Thread one is about (mechanical, die-rolling) failure per se and how it feels to me as a player. Thread two is about failures, interestingness and the Fail Forward/Roll Dice or Say Yes sort of concept. Thread three, today's topic, is about the interaction between failure, narrative and the coherence (in the non-Forge-jargon sense) of the play experience.

Failure, Narrative and Coherence

So, what am I wittering about today?

There's two interrelated ideas here. I'd like to begin by talking about how various types of failure affect the coherence of a game, and the table atmosphere. Then I'll discuss the relation between spontaneity/improvisation and narrative coherence. Finally, I'd like to tie these back into the main topic of the miniseries, by talking specifically about the way mechanically-mandated spontaneity affects coherence.

Friday, 21 October 2016

On failure, its outcomes and its implications: consequences


There are basically three topics in this miniseries. Thread one is about (mechanical, die-rolling) failure per se and how it feels to me as a player. Thread two, today's topic, is about failures, interestingness and the Fail Forward/Roll Dice or Say Yes sort of concept. Thread three is about the interaction between failure, narrative and the coherence (in the non-Forge-jargon sense) of the play experience.

Failing Forward

One of the arguments that came up in our conversation was more or less this:

"Fail forward" systems (like Dungeon World), which insist on providing "interesting consequences" for failure, just create an unnecessary burden on players and GMs to improvise "consequences" for things that really don't need them, or which already have consequences that arise organically from the failure.

This touches broadly on both Fail Forward and Roll Dice or Say Yes. Both of these proposals work roughly on the basis that die rolls (or whatever resolution mechanic) should be used when you're indifferent to the outcome or when both outcomes are equally desirable. This idea is built into things like Dungeon World's dice mechanic, but also links to a lesser extent to Numenera and its GM Interventions. The principle seems sound, but in application is gets trickier.

I think there are several points to consider here, including:

  • Why are we rolling dice?
  • What is the resolution mechanic resolving?
  • What is a consequence?
  • What is "interesting"?

As a quick aside, let me say that I don't think Fail Forward is an inherently flawed idea, although I will be suggesting a lot of problems with it. I think it emerges from some genuine problems (like hitting a dead end or constant whiffing) and is a sensible means to address certain situations in games (more on this far below). I try to apply it in Call of Cthulhu, for example, to avoid discouraging players and keep investigations moving. However, I think generalising it to a standard rule risks creating a new set of problems. Like all tools it is best applied with care.

The reason I will begin by focusing very heavily on the "keep things interesting" usage of Fail Forward is that this seems to be the motivation behind the systems that build it into their mechanics. I say this simply because mechanically-mandated consequences don't really seem to do anything to address potential dead ends.

Dice are fun

As Dan pointed out, one of the assumptions that these philosophies seem to make is that rolling dice is a value-neutral activity, and that's not really the case for a lot of people. Picking up the dice and rolling them is fun. It is a moment of tension, an opportunity for glory or for dramatic failure or for opening up a new possibility space within the game reality, and you don't know which or what will happen.

This is simply not comparable to making a decision about what will happen. If you decide it's cooler that Gnurk the Barbarian snatches the goblet from the altar at the last second before the ceiling crashes down before rolling under a closing door, that's nice, and it may well be the best way to handle a particular situation (especially if it keeps a campaign going) - but it simply doesn't have the rush of satisfaction that comes from the dice and your character's mechanically-assigned skills pulling together to create that result. A successful die roll feels like an achievement; the possibility of failure lends it the tension that gives it punch, and makes whatever steps you took to contribute to that success feel like work well done.


The second point is one I've touched on before. There are many different types of situations that a mechanic may be resolving.

  • Do I spot the clue that allows us to keep the investigation progressing smoothly?
  • Do I spot the warning sign of an imminent ambush?
  • Do I correctly draw the magic circle to protect me from the demon I'm summoning?
  • Do I unlock the door?
  • Do I shoot the ork?
  • Do I convince the guard that I'm allowed in here?
  • How fast do I complete the race?
  • How long does it take me to do the jigsaw?
  • Do I find a secret door?

Some of these situations open up new possibility spaces: the situation was A, but it is now A+B. For example, opening the lock or finding the clue creates new opportunities to do things.

Some of these situations irreversibly bifurcate the possibility space: the situation was A, but transitions to either B or C. Either you convince the guard, or you alert the guard.

Some of these situations modify your circumstances: the situation transitions from A to B anyway, but you are more or less prepared for it (you might call these B1 and B2). The imminent ambush is a good example; you will be attacked, but are you caught off guard or ready to defend yourselves?

Some of these give you information about the game world. You might discover that there is a secret door, or that there is no secret door you can find. Often, these also open up new possibility spaces.

Some of these situations establish other things about the situation. Running very fast might impress NPCs, or create rivalries, or win you a prize. Doing the jigsaw slowly might consume valuable time, or prevent you from helping allies, or you might not finish it before B happens.

Some of them have long-term consequences which it makes no sense to try and determine now. Your magic circle might bind the demon for a hundred years, or as little as a single night. You might have persuaded the NPC to join your side, or they might be planning to betray you next week. You may have memorised the crucial spell to banish Yog-Sothoth, or not. You will find out when the time comes.

And some of them are more complex. If I shoot the ork, it may die. Or it may be injured and decide to take cover. Or it may be injured and attack ferociously to get revenge. The orc being injured may leave it vulnerable to an ally's attacks. It might scare the ork's boss, who decides the fight's going badly and retreats. It might hearten a scared ally. If I miss, the orc might decide I'm easy prey. Or it might decide I can be safely ignored. Or another character may take the orc down with a spectacular headshot. This kind of situation leaves the consequences of failure very much open.

What kind of consequence anyway?

In games in general, and perhaps in whiffy* games in particular, it can seem as though the possibility is: "something cool happens, or something cool doesn't happen". It seems superficially obvious that in such a case you'd want the cool thing to happen all the time, because it's cool. Except brains don't always work like that.

* i.e. games where it's common that you just fail at things, and often that your opponent also fails at things, so several rounds may go by without anything particular happening.

If my character is shooting a gun at an NPC, then in a diceless system I would typically choose for my character to hit rather than miss*. From a purely rational perspective it doesn't make sense for me to prefer a dice-based system in which I have a chance of hitting to a diceless system in which I can select the most appropriate outcome, any more than it would make sense for me to prefer a job where every month I have a 50% chance of not getting paid.

* assuming that it was genre- and character-appropriate, since a thing being cool is often a function of those, even when it's failure. In some cases, my character emptying a revolver at point-blank range without landing a shot is appropriate and cool.

Similarly, if I'm trying to open a safe, climb a tree or hypnotise a bear, I feel like I would generally like to succeed rather than fail.

This line of reasoning ties into the Fail Forward situation, where games compel players and GMs to add "interesting" outcomes to failure, so instead of deciding between an "interesting" outcome and a "boring" one, you're deciding between two interesting outcomes.

This relies, crucially, on an assumption that not-succeeding at something is boring. I'll return to this below.

In theory this solves "the problem" (whatever exactly that is).* In practice it solves some problems for some people (for some others the problem never existed in the first place). And I think this solvedness relies heavily on interpreting reality as consisting only of a subset of the situations I listed above.

*Establishing what The Problem is, and to what extent it exists, and for whom, is frankly beyond the scope of this blog. It's something to do with making things interesting, at least.

It seems to me (both from reading and from listening to Actual Play) that the Fail Forward model tends strongly to interpret situations as forks in the road. Reality is in state A, you attempt to do X, and reality shifts either to state B or state C depending on your success. Either it thinks most situations are like this, or, possibly, it thinks they should be like this in a game narrative.

I think this is a genuine weakness in the approach, which is partly tied into its tendency to assume a conflict resolution model rather than a task resolution model. This is particularly pronounced when we bear in mind that games involve multiple players, of which more later.

And I think this is a weakness because that's demonstrably false. If I search for a secret door, and there is no door, the most natural consequence is that nothing happens. If I try to pick a lock and cannot, the most natural consequence is that nothing happens. If I try to win a race and don't do better than everyone else, the most natural consequence which is simply that somebody else wins. If I try to shoot an orc and miss, the most natural consequence is that my shot goes astray with no further effect. If I try to build a bridge and fail, it might collapse any time in the next decade.

It's not that none of these things can have more complicated consequences; of course they can. However, I think Fail Forward systems tend in these situations to push GMs to improvise immediate consequences which don't always have much to do with the actions of the character, or which at least rely on specific interpretations of how things happen which don't necessarily match what the player intended.

The "natural consequences" offer several possible advantages. The possibility of trying an alternate path from the same state, so you aren't tied completely to whatever you first tried, and can indulge in exploratory gameplay to sound out options and approaches. The opportunity for another player or character to step up with a new idea or ability, which can be especially valuable for newer or less confident players. A potentially important element of predictability that allows planning.

The following example is combat-themed, but it's worth noting that our inspiration here, Dungeon World, doesn't use full-on conflict resolution for most combats, but models them at the level of a single exchange of blows. Typically, the consequence is simply a matter of whether you cause damage and whether you take damage.

If this inconsistency on my part annoys you, feel free to mentally substitute "I sever the chains of the snarling dire boar!" for "I chop the Orc's head off!".

Do I really want an Awesome Fork?

The assumption of Fail Forward in its starkest manifestation is that when I say "I chop the Orc's head off!" I want my assertion to irrevocably set the game down one of two paths: one in which I chop the Orc's head off and it is awesome, and one in which my failure to chop the Orc's head off creates an exciting and dynamic scene.

And let's say for a moment that this is true, that I explicitly want our next forty-eight seconds of gaming time to consist of either the DM saying "Grignr's axe bites into the Orc's neck, severing its head from its body and spattering the walls in its oozing, grey-black blood!" or "Grignr's axe swings wildly, severing one of the supporting beams of the overhead scaffolding, causing piles of mouldy orc-dung to cascade onto the battlefield."

The thing is, both of these outcomes are time consuming (especially because they don't flow as easily in speech as they do in writing), and both of them centralise me specifically.

Similarly, in a non-combat situation: if I attempt to lockpick a door, the DM might say "the tumblers clatter into place, and the door swings open, exposing the Duke's secret devil-worshipping chamber!" or "distracted by the clicking of the lock, you fail to notice the watch-panther padding along the corridor, and it springs towards you with a roar!"

Player creativity is not a finite resource,* but time and things-that-need-doing are. If we are fighting an orc, and I chop its head off, I have denied you the opportunity to deal with the orc by some other method. If my failure to chop the orc's head off causes us all to be buried in orc dung, I have denied you the opportunity to enact any plans you might have concocted that relied on our not being buried in orc dung. Or simply the satisfaction of killing the orc yourself. If my failure to pick the lock doesn't simply waste a few minutes but lands the party in a fight against a panther while creating noise that attracts other guards, the fallback plans laid for this stealth mission are worthless, and if you thought your plan was better you may feel justifiably annoyed with me.

I don't entirely agree with this! I'll touch on it later.

And those are consequences which do at least tie in logically to the events underway, whereas a hurried GM can easily end up suggesting what seems like a random event. "As Grignr rushes the orc, a rusting chandelier detaches from the ceiling and plummets towards them both!" "You are unable to convince the old man to tell you anything, and you suddenly realise your pocket has been picked!" "Your attempt to forge a letter of credit is interrupted by ninjas!"

In contrast, if we were resolving this in a system without Fail Forward, both failed rolls would typically result in nothing particular happening - and this leaves things open for someone else to try.

Organic outcomes are interesting

To put it another way, in a traditional RPG system, failure actually does have interesting consequences, but a lot of the time the interesting consequence is "another player has a go at resolving the situation, often trying a very different approach."

You can make a strong case that traditional systems actually produce the Fail Forward effect in a far more natural and organic way than systems that mandate consequences, but this is only apparent in retrospect looking at the way multiple players' actions and successes interact.

For my money, Fail Forward games place rather too much emphasis on consequences of failure rather than on the consequences of player action. If the PCs are going to wind up getting thrown in gaol after an altercation with an aristocrat, I'd far rather it happened because Brenda the Barbarian started a fight after Billy the Bard failed to resolve the encounter diplomatically than because the DM decided that "you get thrown in gaol" was an interesting consequence of Billy's failed Diplomacy roll.

Generally speaking, with something as simple and inherently task-resolutiony as an attack roll, I'd probably rank my preferences as "I hit", "I miss" and "I miss and something interestingly bad happens as a consequence". It gets trickier when you think about social rolls or rolls to interpret information, but even there I would prefer "I fail and a reasonable consequence ensues" to "something interestingly bad happens with no particular connection to your actions".

Dead ends

At this point I should perhaps come back to the dead end idea I mentioned at the start, because most of this post has been about keeping things interesting. I think this is the main point where Fail Forward genuinely helps out.

It's quite possible to hit a point in a game where players simply don't know how to make the game continue. This is a common complaint of investigative games, where players either run out of leads, haven't managed to put the pieces together, or blew some rolls and locked themselves out of information. However, it can also happen with certain physical challenges or "puzzle" situations, including things like geopolitical shenanigans.

You can very easily hit a dead end. Your only way out is apparently through the locked cell door, and you can't pick it. Your only lead is this neighbour you just insulted. You've tried every configuration of this weird science device but you botched your roll to make it teleport you home. The group sits scratching their heads and looking at the GM, who is wondering why they paid no attention to half of the clues that were laid out, abandoned their door-removing equipment before entering the complex, and both shot the teleport operator and set fire to the manual. Or maybe things just didn't quite go as expected. Or the scenario is not as robust as you hoped. Or it's just been a really long day.

In these cases, Fail Forward is one perfectly good way for the GM to recover momentum. Here, it's not about adding interest to a failed roll per se, but using that circumstance as an GMing opportunity to throw in a clue or hook, or just to shake up a situation where the players were stuck and frustrated.

Just being stuck is not necessarily enough. Sometimes you may want time to sit, talk and mull things over and aren't really worried about whether you're "progressing the scenario". But often you are.

So you fail to pick the lock, which the GM rules means you're still fumbling when the door opens and slams you in the face; the guards sigh, threaten the rest of the party, and one of them drags lockpicker off to the infirmary, where they'll have a new chance to escape, overhear some news, or palm vital equipment.

You get an earful from the neighbour, and after he slams the door, a couple of local kids pop round the corner to sympathise, ask for a fag and hint that they know something - because that guy's always loud and they've overheard some of his other complaining. If he doesn't like you, you must be alright.

Your bumbling attempts at operating the device instead trigger a completely different function, and now a coolant maintenance bot is being despatched to the teleporter. Maybe it's intelligent enough to talk to, or has a telecomms function so you can call for help, or a company datalink that'll give you access to that manual you destroyed.

Content is not the same as interest

So, that "not-succeeding is boring" business. I think when Fail Forward starts to fall apart is where it assumes that "explicit consequences" are always more interesting than "no consequences" and should be mechanically mandated, and I think that's often not the case. Quite frequently, "that thing you were trying to do just doesn't happen" actually ends up being a more interesting outcome than "your attempt to do that thing has dire consequences", and for many people it is certainly more satisfying and even interesting than "that thing you were trying to do just doesn't happen and, for reasons that are game-mechanically connected but have no in-character logic, this other bad thing happens." The "consequences for all!" mindset basically seems to tie into an assumption that more stuff is better.

This is simply not true. Too much stuff clutters up a game. To take a simple example, I have played board games where every single turn involved doing several things: you always rolled a die for movement, you always moved, you always drew a card based on the square you landed on and a consequence ensued.

And generally these games were so boring they should have been wood-eating beetles.

In the case of an RPG, the problem is that you are generally trying to Do Something, and that it is surprisingly easy for complications and consequences to clog up the works. One of the advantages of failure-means-whiffing systems is that they tend to also be simply and relatively fast. If a bad roll means nothing happens, you can simply move on to the next character.

If you need to wait for the GM to think up and then narrate a consequence, and make sure you understand its implications, and then the next player to act has to reconsider their intentions in the light of a potential major change to the situation, this can really slow down play. It can also lead to layers of Things To Deal With piling up on the game, and making it increasingly difficult to follow, or to decide what to do. Constant consequences can act like a Cat's Crade, making each move seem to only tangle the characters, story and even players more deeply in a web and paralysing the game, or making it seem like a stream of consciousness.

And that's what I'll be discussing next.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

On failure, its outcomes and its implications: psychology

I feel like it's been ages since I was able to put together anything substantial for this blog. To be fair, nothing I write now is ever likely to compare to the insane (in relative terms) popularity of my post about animal companions...

And also to be fair, it's been a very busy few months and I'm ill. But still. I do enjoy writing for this blog and feeling like someone appreciated it.

This is going to be a miniseries about failure in RPGs, or at least in some RPGs. I fear it may be a bit dry and very rambly. Still, I present it for your delectation, or at least to keep you mildly diverted on the bus.

So a while ago I wrote some responses to a Walking Eye episode about Numenera. Very little of that is relevant right now, so let me pull out the bit which, randomly, sparked this week's post-game conversation. It is is in fact talking about Dungeon World, for some reason.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Some tips for handling zombies

I wrote this ages ago for some reason and hey, why leave it in drafts forever?


A lot of hardware shops and builders' yards will have reasonable supplies of very hard-wearing gloves, steel-toed boots, face masks and possible even welding masks. This is to say nothing of the huge amounts of building materials. Garden centres will be another good source of protective equipment, as will certain types of factory. Usefully, both the latter tend to be built in relatively isolated places.


These and similar businesses also have trolleys of various kinds, which will be invaluable for transporting stuff. Forget cars.

This will probably sound silly, but supermarket trolleys are well worth acquiring in huge numbers; they are amazingly useful and flexible. You can store things in them. You can transport them easily. You can strip them for wheels and spare parts. As storage, they can protect valuable items from quite a few types of wild animals - dogs, foxes, sheep, basically anything than can't wriggle through, climb over or tip the trolley. Their slick metal frames are hard for many animals to climb, so even rats and cats will struggle to get through.

But that's not all! Grab every trolley in sight and and circle them into an instant zombie-proof fence! They should be able to slot together into a very large closed circle. They're far too tough to break with normal force. They don't tip easily (especially in a line, where the weight is multiplied and anchored at many points), and too high for zombies to simply blunder over. Only zombies intelligent enough to actively climb objects will get past these. If you're worried, pop padlocks, cable ties or just lots of string to link them on the inner side, so the zombies can't try to slide them apart and undo the circle.

You can transport kids in them safely, at least with a bit of adaptation, and they're also great if you get the chance to loot some poultry, or even the odd sheep or dog - it's potentially much faster than trying to lead animals along.

Dogs aren't a great bet for zombie-surviving, though. They need meat to eat. For watch purposes, you're probably far better off trying to keep poultry. Chickens can make plenty of noise, while geese are famously good sentries (ask Rome).

Other supplies

While you're at the builder's yard, grab pallets. In fact, grab everything. But pallets and their pallet-lifts are very useful in general. Get pipes, too. You can do an awful lot with pipes, valves and taps, in terms of making and fixing stuff. Rubber and other sealants? Yep. Glass? You betcha. With glass, pipes, rubber sheeting (or equivalent) and some containers, you have most of what you need to get water and grow crops. They might not be nice crops, but hey.

Did you know you can run basically self-contained aquaponics by combining crops with fish? Pop round to the pet store too.

There are some other, weirder options you might consider. If you have access to a very large supply of transparent plastic boxes - like those storage boxes for keeping things in the attic or under the bed - then fill 'em with sand or pebbles and you've got a pretty much impregnable wall (stacked two or three deep and six or seven high). Fill 'em with water mixed with strong bleach or something (to stop algae building up), and you've got a near-impregnable see-through wall. If you've got an opportunity to scavenge significant amounts of a town, you can probably find a decent number. Even rectangular ice cream tubs would do at a pinch.

Okay, near-impregnable with pummelling and general shoving. Obviously zombies intelligent enough to use implements can break the plastic.

Old tyre heap nearby? You can build something approaching a fortress out of tyres with earth rammed down inside them.


Despite the nonsense zombie stories like to suggest, there will be plenty of people surviving a conventional zombie-as-carrier outbreak, or even a waterborne one. Oil rigs and ships are full of people completely isolated from zombies, and many of those people have enormous expertise in the technical fields needed to rebuild society; there are also medics, geologists, and people with all kinds of interesting hobbies. Ocean survey ships, as well as any number of research stations, hold people with biological, ecological and agricultural training.

Zombies aren't like most other diseases, they require a bite to transmit the disease, which means lots of people in relatively isolated places are likely to be safe for a few days. And they don't have to be safe for longer than that, because of biology.


See, most zombies wouldn't last long at all. If they're rotting, they'll be devoured by insects. If they have any metabolic processes at all, they need water. Once water supplies shut down, zombies will mostly dessicate within a few days. Also, if they act as typically portrayed, they will accumulate untreated injuries and bleed out or succumb to secondary infections. If they don't have blood flow, they have no means of transporting oxygen to their cells, which means they cannot generate ATP to power cellular processes, such as the contraction of muscles, which means they cannot move at all. If they don't have any metabolic processes, they cannot physically move because that's how biology works and no, shut up, SCIENCE.

In other words, whether your zombies are living-but-mindless, or rotting-but-mobile, they won't last more than a week tops. And honestly, probably less, because they'll neglect important not-dying precautions like shelter.

You need only keep yourself alive for a week or so, and then venture out to reclaim the world, alongside large numbers of oil workers, ex-prisoners, the inhabitants of all those secret Antarctic research facilities, people attending spiritual retreats, quite a lot of islanders, and most of the population of North Korea.

If the zombie plague is insect-carriable, things are a little trickier. In this case, you will need to hide out long enough for all plague-bearing insects to have died. Most have quite short lifespans, so once all the zombies have rotted away and the insects' lifecycle is over, you should be fine. On the plus side, viruses and other pathogens are quite host-specific so only a few other species will carry the disease. That being said, in this scenario people living in high mountains and the poles, where insects won't reach, are really in with the best chance.

Supernatural zombies

Supernatural zombies are a different matter. These may be capable of remaining active and largely undecayed for indefinite periods because they contravene physical laws.

Supernatural zombies are amazingly useful .

If you have a creature capable of indefinite mobility without the need of metabolic inputs (such as water or a source of glucose), you can construct something approaching a perpetual motion machine. You should (once you have constructed a suitable facility) strive to acquire as many of these zombies as possible. The exact construction required will depend on the behaviour and capabilities of the zombies, but a simple welded steel treadmill, impregnable to most zombies and possible to make with relatively available materials, should do the trick. There are undoubtedly more sophisticated machines available to a trained physicist or engineer.

The infinite supply of free energy provided by your zombie generators will allow civilisation to rise again from the ashes, indeed with a new and brighter future offered by the end of entropy and the abolition of fossil fuels. Zombies save the world, and humanity!

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

In Brief: Random Wizard Generator for Mages

So I thought I'd knock up a quick Random Wizard Generator for use with Mages: the Awakening because why not? Also I needed to briefly rest my brain from paid work.

How it works:

  1. First, roll 1d6 to determine the Puissance of the Wizard. This has no particular mechanical effect but may guide the GM in portraying the Wizard.
  2. Roll 1d6 and read horizontally across the columns to determine the Tradition from which the Wizard comes. Each Tradition has its own thematic titles and names.
  3. All future rolls are read vertically down the same column.
  4. Roll 1d6 to determine the Title of the Wizard. Not all Traditions bestow Titles.
  5. Roll 1d12 to determine the Name of the Wizard. These are of course only a sample of suitable names.
  6. Roll 1d6 to determine the Epithet of the Wizard. Where a Tradition has two columns of Epithets, roll twice and combine the results into a single Epithet.

Names alternate as traditionally masculine and traditionally feminine in each table, but wizards do just as they please.

Imperial Order of Wizardry Conclave of the High Guild of Truth Seekers Adepts of the Sign Thaumaturgical Cabal New Wave Sorcerers
the auspicious...

Ascendant Crazy
the eminent...

Questor Slim
the marvellous...

Inquisitor Dead
the venerable...

Magister Bad
the perspicacious...

Annunciator Smoking
the ineffable...

Rubricator Weird
Peregrine Actulf
Geraint Guillaume
Amadeus Jimmy
Andromeda Ermengaud Angharad Annabelle
Cecilia Alice
Tobermory Frodwin
Hywel Pascal
Tiberius Fred
Desdemona Osthryth
Branwen Noemie
Paloma Sue
Marmaduke Hrodegang Osian Raoul
Valerian Phil
Esmerelda Gudrun
Myfanwy Gabrielle
Cornelia Zoe
Hildegard Coenwulf Caradog Hilaire
Octavius Ralph
Leonara Osburh
Nerys Yvonne
Aurea Tina
Caspian Walpurgis Islwyn Blanchard
Gnaeus Ted
Jezebel Linveig
Tegan Lucienne
Marcella May
Quasimodo Aelfric
Tristan Sylvestre
Agrippa Neil
Serafina Wynflaed Eluned Marceline
Eliana Terri

Eagle  Rider of the Ninth Eye Midnight Lightning

Dragon  Whisperer of the Four Gates Scarlet Flame

Tiger Caller of the Thousand Stars Emerald Tempest

Serpent Hunter of the Fifth Wind Silver Blade

Phoenix Master of the Seven Syllables Diamond Anthem

Griffon Slayer of the Eight Secrets Dusk Wrath

For example, you might roll up the mighty archmage (Puissance 6) of the Imperial Tradition (1), The Perspicacious (5) Caspian (9), or the middling sorcerer (Puissance 3) of the Thaumaturgical Cabal (5), Questor (5) Eliana (12), or the feeble apprentice (Puissance 1) of the Conclave of the High, Osburh (8) Dragon (2) Slayer (6). Bit of an overreach there, Osburh...

If I get time I will write up a code snippet to handle this, but right now I can't spare the time.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

The Merchants of Menace

A while ago I was riffing on some "write a game in [small number] words" things, and had an idea which I didn't quite get around to doing anything with.

In the interim I've spent several months unexpectedly house-hunting, moving house and coping with a huge uptick in day job that coincided with remarkably low not-being-off rates amongst my colleagues - no fault of theirs, just unfortunate - so haven't touched the blog much. Where possible I was focusing my limited energy and free time on higher priorities, like actually playing games, trying to finish a fairly major bit of scenario writing, and doing very undemanding things to try and restore some SAN.

Here's that game, such as it is. I'm not likely to do any more to it, so I might as well throw it out here.

Fritz Wagner Holländische Handelsherren

The Merchants of Menace

Everyone knows merchants are fat and jolly, with comically-small ponies to ride, and inclined to throw up their hands in alarm when trouble brews. Well, except for the gaunt, gimlet-eyed merchants who smile thin-lipped humourless smiles as they close trapjaw deals with unfortunates, who lovingly tell their coins over again each night.

You are not those merchants.

You lope effortlessly through the city, eyes drinking in the opportunities. There is steel in your gaze and iron in your sinews, and when you shake hands you hear the heavenly clinking of gold spilling into your pockets. There are platinum rings on your fingers, set with gems, and when you drive them into the faces of unwary extortionists they leave marks like the claws of lions. You dine with princes at tables groaning with peacocks and wine, and before your silver tongue they pledge armies and sign laws. The world is your oyster, and at its heart is a pearl ripe for the harvest; a shame if it must die.

Broadly speaking this is a game of adventurers. Or rather, venturers. Merchant venturers, to be precise. You are cunning, tough and semi-piratical mercantile rogues who play the great game of profit and loss on the stage of the whole world. Thrones? An affectation best left to the weak-minded.

You are expected to indulge in fairly typical adventurer behaviour, with rather more striking of trade routes and rather less heroically hunting down monsters. Establishing a monster-hunting subsidiary company, now... that's business. Invading and plundering catacombs, on the other hand, looks like clear profit, and if a little hostile takeover is needed, you're not going to quibble at it.


It's a gimmicky system, because I was thinking about that sort of thing when I started writing it, and more importantly because it's thematic. The principle is that a lot of your activities revolve around money. Either you're directly using money to buy goods (or services, or people, or advantage), or you're throwing money at problems - or quite often, you're engaging in psychological conflict or outright games of chicken with other people, staking unspecified amounts of money on unspoken rules and trying to blink second.

That being so, the mechanics are all about money. Coins are your resource pool, your hit points and your resolution mechanic. Also, there are no shades of grey; you win, or you lose. The market is unforgiving.

Conflicts are resolved using coin flips. You establish the nature of the conflict, the approximate stakes in play, and hopefully roleplay to some extent how it's going down. Determine also whether it's an Open Conflict or a Secret Conflict, and whether they are Risking their resources. Then each of the two parties selects and flips a coin.

Each player character begins with the following Purse:

  • 5 x 1p
  • 3 x 2p
  • 2 x 5p
  • 1 x 10p

In an Open Conflict, both parties know how much their opponent is prepared to risk, and so they see what coin is being chosen. You can change your mind until you both eventually settle on a coin to use.

In a Closed Conflict (probably more common), you do not know what coin the other party will use until they are flipped.

If the conflict is likely to tax the character's resources, harm them physically, damage their social standing or face, or otherwise limit their ability to influence the world, it is considered Risking. For example, striking a deal, staring down a competitor or engaging in a fight are Risking. Convincing a bystander to give you information or looking for clues are not Risking.

The outcome is as follows:

  • Heads beats tails
  • Highest value coin wins ties
  • Matching ties are treated as ties if possible; if that makes no sense, try again
  • If Risking, the loser discards the losing coin to their Vault
  • If a PC wins a Risking conflict, they regain their lowest-value coin from their Vault

Typically an entire conflict is resolved this way, but in some circumstances it may feel more appropriate to have some back-and-forth calling for multiple flips.

When there is no obvious opponent, but the outcome of an effort is uncertain, this is an Environmental Conflict. The GM chooses an appropriate difficulty, signified by the size of the coin. The GM never runs out of coins. For a particularly easy challenge, the GM can declare that the difficulty is 1p with ties going to the player.

  • If the GM picks a 1p, with ties to the player, player wins 2/3 of the time
  • If the GM picks a 1p, the player wins 1/2 with a 1p or 3/4 of the time with any other coin
  • If the GM picks a 10p, the player wins 1/2 with 10p or 1/4 of the time with any other coin

Empty Purses

If a player runs out of coins, their resources are exhausted for now. They must rest and regroup before they can attempt anything else. If they are in danger or otherwise in a difficult situation, they may be captured, forced to retreat and so on. The player can still flip 1p against Environmental Conflicts; they can also flip 1p against standard Conflicts, but the best result they can attain is a tie (where this makes sense).


Each character can have one of the following advantages:

  • Bottomless Pockets: the character has two additional 1p coins.
  • High Stakes Gambler: whenever the character Risks a 10p, they can flip a bonus 2p.
  • Dead Cat Bounce: when the character loses a Risked coin, they can choose to lose a higher-value coin instead. If they do, they still lose the Conflict but something works in their favour.
  • Big Spender: the character can choose to Risk a coin in a challenge that doesn't require it. If they do, they can flip the coin twice and choose the better result, but must do so before seeing the opponent's result.

Each character selects three of the following traits at which they are particularly adept: Athletic, Dextrous, Hardy, Iron-Willed, Manipulative, Perceptive, Quick-Witted, Well-Informed. When they are relevant to an interaction, the character treats their primary coin (not any bonus coins) as having a value 1p higher.

Each character has one Persona that describes their outward character, and one Quirk that describes their behaviour, talents or physical nature. The player can devise these. When these factors are relevant in an interaction, the character can flip a bonus 1p.

Example character

Rogan Cordwainer is a Well-Informed, Hardy, Iron-Willed merchant with a Paternal Air and a Sophisticated Palate. He guards his resources carefully, giving him the Bottomless Pockets advantage. This makes him a solid, reliable character who weathers trouble well and generally feels in control of what's going on.

Ichabod Llewelyn is a Manipulative, Perceptive, Quick-Witted merchant with Light Fingers and an Eye for Detail. He always has another plan, giving him the Dead Cat Bounce advantage. Ichabod is erratic and takes a lot of risks (deception and outright theft tend to get you in trouble), but is good at minimising or avoiding the consequences.

Penelope Thornwick is an Athletic, Iron-Willed, Dextrous merchant with a Confidential Grin and a Love of Excitement. She is an adrenaline junkie who enjoys the rush of confrontation and challenge, giving her the High Stakes Gambler advantage. Overall, she's a gung-ho character who confidently throws herself at obstacles, and often succeeds on determination alone.