Sunday, 16 April 2017

The Outsiders - 200 Word RPG Contest

I decided to give the 200 Word RPG Contest a whirl. It turns out that’s too short for my design aesthetic. I can either create a robust resolution mechanic or deliver tone and atmosphere information, but I can’t do both. I think 300 words might do the trick (my first draft came in at 279 words) but I’m guessing that wouldn’t be much of a contest.
The choice itself is interesting. It shows what each designer feels needs to be locked down. Anything we leave out is given to the people at the table to handle. We trust they will make the right choices for their table or don’t feel those choices will significantly change the experience we are going for. I’d love to have a conversation with the many designers about each of the games to find out why they chose to cut and what was left out.
For me, I found the editing process made my little game better, but there was no room for examples which I find help with clarity. At 200 words, tight rules is an understatement.
I've had horror on the brain lately. My inspiration for Outsiders came from Lovecraftian horror and urban fantasy such as Forever Knight, Dresden Files, Blood Ties etc. I love the the idea that once you see the things hiding in the shadows you are drawn into a whole new dangerous world. After that first contact you keep coming into contact with the supernatural until it kills you.
I tried to convey as much of the genre idea as possible with the space I had, but it boiled down mostly to word choice since I gave space to the shortest mechanic I could develop that would handle the game I wanted to play. The mechanic itself gives some information on how things should go since it is weighted toward failure and failure comes with a snowball effect.

"Hello Mother"  
The Outsiders RPG:
The world is threatened by a reality few ever understand is even real. The history of the fight is passed down from generation to generation in stories. As people controlled more of the world and pushed light and order into the darkness and chaos those histories became mere stories, twisted and perverted in the name of entertainment. There is little value in them now as anything other than a warning. Those who know what is hidden protect the world. These characters run by the players are known as Outsiders. Everything else in the world is run by the player that creates the scenarios and judges the results of die rolls. This player is known as the Other.
Character Generation is open and simple. Characters are a brief, written description outlining look, attitudes, background, skills and experience with the supernatural. To keep things reasonable it makes sense to restrict the character sheet to the size of a half sheet of notebook paper or an index card. During the process, the players share these descriptions and makes changes to their histories to link them to each other. They can be regular humans or be supernatural themselves depending on what kind of game everyone wants to play. The other can use them as inspiration for the scenarios and threats presented to the players.
Gameplay depends on a handful of dice.
When a character tries something where failure would be interesting the player makes an Action Roll. The player rolls one, two, or three D6s if their character is Unprepared, Ready, or Prepared (respectively) based on their character description and previous actions. Being prepared could be a matter of experience, such as an ex-soldier always being ready to fight or a matter of planning such as a librarian stepping into a blind spot in the stacks and readying a weapon in ambush.
The Other rolls one, two, or three D6s for Stressful, Hard, or Longshot actions (respectively). What each of these levels of difficulty represents will be different with each group and how they want their game to play. For myself, something like picking a lock under a time constraint is Stressful, throwing a baseball across a room to push a small idol off an altar is Hard, and throwing a heavy candlestick across a room to knock the dagger out of a priest’s hand is a Longshot.
The player succeeds with one die higher than the Other’s highest. Two higher is a success with a bonus and three higher is a critical success. A bonus can be a better than expected result, such as the idol in example above rolling away into the darkness and being lost. A critical success is basically the best outcome you can imagine, such as the the priest in the example above getting knocked unconscious after taking the candlestick to the head intead of the hand.
A tie means success with a deadlock or a Difficulty. The player can chose to hold the action in a deadlock or take on a penalty to succeed in whatever they are doing. Maybe the person picking a lock could succeed, but sprain their wrist in the process to distracted by the pain until they deal with it or break their pick leaving them unable to open any more locks.
Two dice under the Other’s top die is failure and Difficulty. Three under takes a character out of the action until they can sort themselves out or be cared for (KOed, flees in terror, mark makes public scene, etc).
Difficulty can be something that affects the game such as losing something important, but is commonly a die added to Other rolls against that character. Difficulty is mental, emotional or physical stress that reduces character performance shown with coins or tokens placed on the character sheet and removed through meaningful character action. How they are removed depends on how they are received. First aid will do little to patch up a bad scare or a loss of face in a social situation, but it perfect for a physical injury. Therapy will do nothing for a broken arm but is perfect for psychological stress. An evening of rest in a bar with the rest of the group might be applied as a cure for many ills.
The Other will present the scenarios in the form of rumours, cries for help or whatever else will attack the attention of the players. The players will decide their priorities and have their characters deal with whatever threats or mysteries seem the most credible or important.

"The Pit"

That’s the complete game at approximately 750 words. There’s no need for character advancement since you play the character that you want to play. I like it as a pickup game for those times when a player fails to show to a regular game session.
I like the resolution system for an open system. I may use it for more short game designs.

If you are interested in the 200 Word RPG Contest they are accepting submissions until the end of day Eastern Time on April 23rd. If you’d like to see the 200 word version of The Outsiders RPG, I'm positing it here as a JPEG, but you'll also find it with the rest of the submitted games here.

200 Word Draft of The Outsiders RPG, click on the image to make it big enough to read. =)

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Moulding Young Minds and Other Madness

This post was supposed to be the third session report of my D&D campaign with my daughters but I'll be combining several weeks of play into this post to bring you all up to speed and talk about a few of the developments.

We're still using The Black Hack by David Black along with the legendary D&D Module, B2 The Keep on the Borderlands. I've made changes to both since we started but the biggest change is the expansion of the group.

I volunteered to watch my friend's son while she took her daughter to the clinic one evening and since it was D&D night, after supper I asked him if he wanted to play. Carter had never even heard of Dungeons and Dragons so I described it as "like a video game, but everything happens in your head." He thought that sounded cool so we rolled up a character. He decided on a Warrior named Dabber. When he rolled four for his Charisma he asked if his character could be missing an eye with a big scar and loose flap of skin. I was a little worried I'd need to draw that so I suggested a scar with a metal plate nailed into his skull to hide his empty socket. Carter thought that was a great idea and we were off!

The Black Hack Character Sheet for Dabber, the Warrior played by Carter, 9

Getting him to the rest of the party was easy enough, he simply followed the trail of corpses in the goblin cave to the supply room where the girl's characters were finishing up a short rest. Their rest had been interrupted early on by some hobgoblins coming through a secret door, but they were ready to go. They accepted their new party member since he was a bad-ass looking warrior and the Conjurer was tired of getting wailed on in combat.

It didn't take them long to find the seat of power for the goblin caves. I swapped out the original chieftain, honour guard and mates for a goblin queen and her retinue in her nest. I described it like something out of a HR Giger painting and they ate it up. The kids loved the large, bloated queen with her chain-mail stretched across her heavy body, swinging her great-axe at them while shouting in goblin. The large black eggs stuck to the walls and floor where goblins hatched as full-sized and functioning adults was alien and great scenery for them to work with as they moved around the room fighting the queen's honour guard.

They managed to kill the queen and ran through the last of the honour guard after she surrendered. Not much for mercy, these kids. My daughters also argued over who got to stab the goblins that fell to the Sleep spells because they both wanted to do it.

That was also the session where they started chanting, "One, one, one!" while rolling important hits in hopes of encouraging a crit.

With their huge treasure hall they were able to buy better armour and spend a month at the Keep trying to learn the Goblin and Giant languages from some people they found who were willing to teach them for a fee. They made their Intelligence tests at the end of the month and each added the language they had studied to their respective character sheets. Then they made another delve into the goblin caves only to find a giant spider had taken up residence in the common hall.

Apparently Carter talked about D&D and how much fun he had non-stop for a week. Since it worked out for everyone's schedule I offered to take him and his older sister on Wednesday so they all could play. Hailey was a little wary since Carter's excited descriptions made zero sense to her, but since my youngest, Pascale, was playing she said she'd try it out.

Hailey rolled up a character with both a high Strength and Dexterity. She decided to play a Thief like Pascale's character but wanted to use a giant, two-handed hammer. Since weapon damage is by class in The Black Hack and I had thrown out the weapon restrictions on day one anyway, I saw no reason to say no to her idea. Erie started tiptoeing around the caves with a giant hammer on her shoulder.

Erie, the maul-wielding Thief played by Hailey, 10

The group spent time bribing the ogre (now that they could talk to him) for safe passage and using their sneak attack on the hobgoblins that they found behind the secret door in the store room. My oldest, Chloe, thought it was hilarious that the hobgoblins had looted all the stuff from the goblins that the party wasn't able to carry in the previous session.

They tangled with the Hobgoblin Queen and ended up in a huge fight since coming in the back door allowed the bad guys to raise the alarm. The crazy fight stretched over several rooms and took the better part of the session. Two characters where knocked Out of Action, but the cleric's spells held out long enough to get them on their feet again and good rolls left them no worse for wear. Dabber ended up going toe-to-toe in an epic battle with the Hobgoblin Queen. She was immense and had as many hit points as the ogre from earlier that they were afraid to fight as a group. He held her off in her throne room until the rest of the party was able to mop up everyone else and pitch in.

Old Wojeb, the NPC Cleric they like having around even though his
abysmal strength and occasional cowardice make him kind of useless.

The kids poked around the room until they found all the treasure, but didn't even bother opening the doors to the rookery, or searching for the secret door into the complex. They were all satisfied with the crazy combat and wanted to get their characters back to the keep to sell their loot and heal up.

The next session they went back in through the goblin caves to get back into the hobgoblin lair to chase down the rumour about a captured merchant. They decided they weren't going to chance sneaking past the ogre's cave now that tow of them had chain-mail and they weren't paying the ogre any more money. Instead they drew him out into the open where they delayed him with a wand of web they had and filled him full of arrows before closing for melee. Some good rolling kept the party safe from thrown boulders and they took him down. They stripped of his outfit in the hopes of getting some gold for the bear pelts he was wearing.

This time they found the rookery. My 13-year-old felt pretty silly about not finding it or the secret door the first time. They destroyed the eggs and made their way into the armoury. They found out that telling the guards they had killed the queen was a bad idea but won that fight too.

Olys, the Conjurer played by Chloe, 13

They wanted to tap and scratch at every wall in the hopes of finding secret door but also wanted to be stealthy and sneak around. When I pointed out it was impossible to do both they decided on stealth.

The funniest part of the session is when my oldest decided to bluff the goblins preparing the hall for a feast into believing that they had paid the queen for the return of one of the prisoners and had gotten turned around in the caves. My youngest was trying to goad her sister into casting Sleep instead, "I don't think it's very heroic to lie to them."

Snekava, the Thief played by Pascale, 9

They pulled it off and got directions to the prisoners. A short battle and a running fight later and they were high-tailing it out of the ravine and heading for the Keep.

So far they've cleared out the goblins, the ogre and crippled the hobgoblins. It should be interesting to see where they go next. At this point they still trust the chaos priest spy at the Keep and have promised to come and get him to help them if they ever find any chaos altars, worshipers or relics.

As far as the rules go, I found the 4D6 HD for the Sleep spell was hugely overpowered when spell slots are only lost on a bad roll. I decided to use the LotFP version with only 2D8 HD affected by the Sleep. It's working out much better.

When we started I used the ablative armour with the recovery on short rests. I found it worked OK, but I slowly phased it out in favour of the damage reduction optional rule, starting with shields first and eventually moving to all the armour as damage reduction. The damage reduction solves the shield problem and speeds things up a bit. The monsters still get extra hit points from armour because hitting for zero damage is not fun!

The party is shaping up! They only have a handful of low-powered magic items, but they are well equipped now that two of them have plate mail and everyone else has exactly what they need. The Conjurer has added a spell to her spell book and the party has a townhouse rented inside the walls of the Keep for the next month. They are building relationships with the NPCs in the Keep and getting a feel for the Caves of Chaos. The characters are second and third level and they've all had a couple of stats increase while leveling.

All four are having the time of their lives and can't wait to play again!


Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Bloodthirsty Children!

It turns out my daughters have something of a bloodthirsty streak. My ruthless little gamers are quickly becoming the scourge of the minions of chaos!

In my last post I talked about running the first ever campaign for my daughters. We're using The Black Hack with the old D&D module B2 The Keep on the Borderlands. This post is the first in a series of campaign play diaries of my daughter's first RPG campaign.

The first session went well, with the girls getting the lay of the land in the keep and interacting with the odd characters there. They spent some time asking around about the area and collecting rumours about The Caves of Chaos to the northeast. Unfortunately for them they picked up plenty of false rumours, including the one about "bree-yark" meaning "we surrender" in goblin. Random tables are a wonderful thing. Thanks to a critical success with their roll to find information, they managed to get some decent directions to The Caves of Chaos on top of their bundle of rumours, so they were able to find the valley without much trouble.

They had some luck on their first foray into the valley with all the caves and I rolled no encounter on their way in. The girls had heard there was magic armour in the southern caves so they started by sneaking into the entrance to the goblin caves.

They crept through the rough tunnels with care, avoiding one group of goblins walking through the halls by ducking down a dead-end passage. For all that sneaking around, when they found the goblin guardroom they decided to walk in with their weapons drawn and say: "Hi goblins! What's going on?"

While I loved that they strutted in there liked they owned the place, the response from the six goblins was negative. One pointed and shouted, "Bree-yark!"

At first the girls were excited, "They surrender? Wow!"

"No, not so much. They leap to their feet and charge at you with their spears raised," I said. "Looks like 'bree-yark' means attack or something like that."

Snekava let fly with an arrow and one-shotted the leading goblin in the face.
As the goblins closed, Wojeb whipped his rapier around like toddler going after a pinata. Most of the goblins went for Snekava and with three twenties, she was tasting the stone floor by the end of the round.

Snekava is even sneakier at level two!

It was looking bad for the group as the not so hand-to-hand characters tried to turn the tide back in their favour when Olys decided to use that Sleep spell she had prepared that morning. With that action the fight was over, but a failed intelligence check meant that Olys expended her spell slot for the day.

They placed Snekava on the table in the guardroom and Wojeb set about patching her up while Olys stabbed the crap out of the sleeping goblins with her dagger. Despite their desire to continue they realised they were not in any position to handle another fight. They looted the goblins and left the caves. They were lucky again and I rolled no encounter on their way out of the caves.

Once back at the keep they were pretty bummed about their poor performance in the caves. I've set the adventure in the old Grand Duchy of Karameikos. The Keep is on the Duke's Road just before it passes into the Black Peak Mountains. This information is relevant because it means the chapel in the keep is part of the Church of Karameikos. The party cleric is from the old Church of Traladara and was sent north to tend the old Traladaran shrine in the fountain square of the keep. The reason he is adventuring is he was given no funds for his mission and living in the keep is expensive.

The party managed to find a Traladaran priest who is staying at the keep. He was friendly and willing to heal Snekava for free as a favour to his fellow cleric. He also convinced the party of the dangers of touching any artefacts or altars of chaos. They promised to return to the keep and get him if they found anything like that in the caves. He was interested in their adventures and talkative. He was also surprised and grateful to learn about the old Traladaran shrine.

The next day they headed back to the caves with vengeance on their minds. They approached the goblin cave through the tree cover and spotted an ambush near the cave entrance. They used their longbows and made short work of the four waiting goblins.

They did better with the first guardroom this time and found the reinforced door to the hobgoblin lair. They heard what sounded like monsters too big and numerous to handle on the other side and decided to return, "When we're more experienced."

They found the second guardroom and entered with an actual plan this time. With no armour besides her shield, Snekava was finished with her bow and ready to mix it up with her sword from now on. They started the battle strong. Since the goblins were on alert, the goblin squad leader kicked over the water barrel and made for the hidden door with a large jingling sack.

Once it was clear the goblin was summoning help through the door, Olys decided it was time to use her sleep spell again. She rolled close to maximum on the 4D6 (twenty-one!) for the hit dice (HD) put to sleep. There are no restrictions on what creatures are affected by the spell in The Black Hack. That meant the Ogre coming through the door folded up like a cheap lawn chair and went to sleep along with the goblins.

They thought that even sleeping, the ogre was too big to kill outright, so after dispatching the goblins with their daggers, they left him alone and walked past into the lair. With no limit to their time, they searched all the nooks and crannies of the ogre's caves. Between his treasure and the gold the goblins had to pay him to fight, the girls hit the motherload!

They raced back to the keep, again with no encounter on the way out.

Once back at the keep they spent some money on better equipment, purchasing leather armour for Snekava and chain mail for the cleric. They basked in the glory of their success and partied in the keep's tavern, The Duke of Cups. I decided this was an effective milestone, having experienced both failure and success. They also had bested the ogre. They were thrilled when I told them they had levelled up!

Olys specialises in conjuring cans of whoop-ass!

The levelling process for the Black Hack was a blast with the kids. They rolled up the improvements to their characters with gusto! Cheering for each incremental bonus gained to their stats and hit points. My oldest, Chloe, actually managed to roll over her 17 intelligence so now Olys, her Conjurer, is a magical force to be reckoned with.

As far as first games go, it was a good one. The girls are hooked and it looks like my Wednesday nights are booked solid until the end of the winter.

Mechanically, I made a change to shields. They absorb damage every round, with small shields soaking 1 hit point of damage and large shields taking 2 points. The rest of the armour I left the same. It doesn't make a huge difference but it is nice for the shields to continue to be useful throughout all the fights. Otherwise, players could have their characters drop them after the first round. It also means characters will continue to use shields at higher levels when armour seems like not much of a big deal.

The other thing I'm considering is cutting the power of the Sleep Spell. At 4D6 hit dice it is always going to wipe a small group of opponents. There should be less certainty when it comes to using magic so I might use the 2D8 hit dice from the Lamentations of the Flame Princess version of the spell in the future.


Thursday, 19 January 2017

Their First Campaign

I've gamed with my daughters in the past. So far we've played a few one-shots to try out or playtest games aimed at kids.

I tried to get them into D&D with the Mentzer Red Box a few years ago. Both of them loved the images and the ideas in the book. The youngest didn't really have the attention span for it at the time and the game died out after the first session. D&D is not much of a solo game.

My oldest (12) has been pushing me to play again so I asked my youngest (9) this weekend how she felt about trying D&D again. She was super-excited to play!

We made their characters Sunday evening. The level of engagement this time was on a completely different level. When they were younger I was using the art to draw them in and help find out what they'd like to play. This time around we talked it out. Part of that came from their maturity level and part of it came from my decision to use The Black Hack as the rules for our campaign. It has no pictures and the rules are so simple all we needed to talk about was class-based concepts and what they wanted their characters to be able to do.

They responded well to starting with rolling the stats to find out about their characters and learn what they were good at. From there we looked at the four classes, what they could do and which ones would be complemented by the strengths and weaknesses of their characters. We also talked about what each class excelled at.

The short one liked the idea of a sneaky character who does things quietly and carefully, so she was keen to play a Thief despite her character's low Dexterity. Fortunately The Black Hack allows for two stats to be switched around during character generation and she didn't care if anyone liked her character, so she traded her DEX and CHA around to get herself a grumpy thief to play.

I barely started to ask the tall one what she wanted to play when she exploded: "Conjurer!"

This girl wants to play a wizard. I think it comes from reading her the Earthsea trilogy when she was little. She rolled a 17 Intelligence for her character so no stats were swapped.

Names came next and after some talk about naming fantasy characters we ended up with Snekava the Thief and Olys the Conjurer.

Snekava the Thief "...because she's so sneaky!"
While the girls shopped for their equipment I rolled up a henchman to help support their characters and avoid the TPKs that come with a party of two. Wojeb the Cleric (AKA Ol' Wojeb) came out of a low STR and CON but relatively high WIS. He can't carry much more than a torch and a shield but his hit points are high enough he should make an effective meatshield.

For the campaign I think I'll start with B2 The Keep on the Borderlands. It's a good spot for it and the Caves of Chaos allow for all kinds of different approaches to dealing with its monstrous inhabitants. Besides, it's an iconic adventure with sandbox elements that I ran recently in 5th edition so there's little for me to do in terms of prep.

The iconic Keep on the Borderlands
As for the larger world, I'm not sure what I'll do for that. I'm considering setting it in the old D&D Known World setting on Mystara. I've already done all the work of sprinkling my favourite OSR and classic D&D adventures throughout the setting. I've also subbed out chunks of the setting with cooler stuff from the Hydra Collective. For all that, the world has a history that makes suspension of disbelief easy to achieve. No matter what I do, it's all new to them, so exploring it will blow their little minds!

As far as system goes, I chose The Black Hack for a few reasons. I've already seen that it's simplicity makes it attractive as a way to bring beginners into D&D style gaming. I also like how it uses some of the modern gaming mechanics like usage dice and advantage/disadvantage. I want my girls to benefit from the old school, but I don't want them trapped there! I also like how damage by class makes weapon restrictions irrelevant so I could let them use whatever weapons they wanted without messing up the game balance. The biggest thing that made me want to use it for my daughters is the level advancement. Every level they'll roll for each statistic to see if it increases. This kind of obvious character improvement is going to make levelling that much more exciting and keep them engaged in the campaign. It also means low stats are not a big deal since they are more likely to increase than high ones.

We've decided on Wednesday evenings for our games since my wife is out that night and both of the girls are home. I'm looking forward to campaign play with the girls. I can't wait to see what they discover about their characters as they change and grow through play!

Saturday, 10 December 2016

A Dungeon Master's Favourite Spell or, Why Bother with Lichdom Anyway?

Since the very first edition of Dungeons & Dragons the spell list for magic users included Magic Jar. It is in every edition and almost every OSR retro-clone and second generation clone. Its inclusion is a huge benefit because this spell could be the core element of a horrific villain in any campaign.

Magic Jar is a fifth level spell in most D&D-type rules (except in 5e, where it's 6th to stop players from combining it with Contingency*). With slight variances between editions and games The Magic Jar spell works by placing the caster's essence, intellect, personality, experience and soul into some kind of gem or crystal receptacle (the magic jar).  From the magic jar the caster can possess the bodies of others. Originally the caster could possess any living creature but in later editions eventually became any living humanoid.

The potential for a magic user to terrorise a party with this spell is delicious!

Suddenly anyone, even trusted allies, could become an enemy wizard without warning! This device would be most useful in a long-running campaign where the player characters have connections to the world and the players have built up expectations about how the NPCs will act in certain situations. The disruption of those expectations would definitely freak out a party before they put together what is happening.

"Iannisport Spy" by Patrick Keith

Another feature of the spell is the effects of body death. If the host body dies the caster is pushed back into the gem, the soul of the host body is then pushed out and dies. From there the caster can try to take another host within range. The spell doesn't end until the caster returns to their own body so there is no limit to the number of times the caster can experience this kind of death. If the caster's body dies the spell effectively never ends. The caster continues to move back and forth between the magir jar and new hosts until the magic jar is destroyed. The destruction of the magic jar only strands the caster in the host they are in and destroys the soul of the host body. Even then, it's no big deal if the caster has another suitable container and time to cast Magic Jar again. The real danger comes from being in the jar when it is destroyed or stranded in a host when it is killed.

Why would a caster trade their humanity for lichdom when they could become functionally immortal with a fifth level spell?

The idea of a caster trapped in a gem creates some interesting possibilities. An adventuring wizard could cast Magic Jar in an attempt to survive certain death and become part of a treasure hoard. The party could defeat some terrible monster only to find out part of the treasure is cursed with the ghost of a dead wizard that keeps possessing people around them. The gem could be in the belly of a sea creature that attacks the ship the party is travelling on, leading to one of the crew suddenly casting spells and insisting they not let sea creature sink out of sight.

A magic user could be waiting in a gem for a suitable host any length of time. This circumstance will have a pretty profound effect on them once they are able to act in the world again. They would have lost all their resources in the intervening years! If they had a tower it would have new inhabitants at best and be a crumbling ruin at worst. They have no spellbook so all the spells they have are the ones memorised when they entered the magic jar. Any magic items or wealth they had at the time of their body's death would be long gone as well. All friends and allies are dead. It might be that no one even remembers they ever existed at all! A terrible blow to a heroic wizard! Such losses will likely motivate them to regain their lost wealth and position. They might be able to rationalise all kinds of terrible behaviour.  Even a hero who died defending their world may not feel any kinship to the people of the current era and plunder it ruthlessly.

A long sojourn in a gem could have some severe psychological effects as well. The caster might become unhinged. If you want to have a crazy, body-stealing wizard stalking your party, this setup is a plausible one.

"hello mother" by Paintausea

A magic user who started using the spell with the best of intentions to extend their life so they could continue to protect people will begin to feel less empathy for people with each life they steal. The party could meet this heroic figure of legend only to find them descended into a narcissistic psychopath and even more powerful than in the past in which they made their name.

What I like best about this idea is how I could use it in play. Even though such an enemy could start with less spells and resources at their disposal they can use hosts to spy on the party and influence others against them to undermine their position in the land. They could use hosts the party doesn't want to kill, or at least not want to let the locals see them kill. If the wizard possesses an eight-year-old girl to go after the party in the middle of a crowded market it's not going to go well for them when they fill her full of arrows.

Depending on how angry the villain makes the players with these sorts of antics the party might spend a whole campaign trying to track down this magic user and stop them with a minimum of collateral damage. They may need the help of others, need to quest for an artefact or special spell. Who knows what adventures it could lead to?

Memorising Lightning Bolt to blast the party!

* I think the designers of 5e D&D did an excellent job adjusting and tightening up the descriptions of almost every spell so it could be used only the way they thought it should be used. I would not call this situation progress.

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Character Generation: How Much is Too Much?

Here's a look at my game development woes. Complications like these are part of what makes adapting something simple like Swords and Wizardry or the Black Hack to a unique setting so appealing!

While the playtesting for my 3D System is going well, I have run into what might be a snag with the character generation section. The graduated success mechanic using 3D6 that relies on the interaction of six attributes and 12 skills has turned out to be intuitive and robust in play, but the system I created to generate those attributes and skills has me worried.

For a variety of reasons, I integrated the character generation with the setting. It worked well with the small playtest setting for the Archipelago in Island Crashers. Going through the process delivered the assumptions of the setting to new players without spamming them with text they didn't want to read. It took ten minutes to create a character rolling randomly and about twenty minutes to use the generation tables like a flow chart and choose everything.

For the Island Crashers playtest character generation takes up ten pages of a google document and 35 small tables on spreadsheets. The process of moving through them is intuitive and easy. Brand new players are having no trouble with it even though no one has taken the time to read the rules first. Each area of origin has its own background that informs the basics of the character. These areas also have unique tables with some starting careers more likely than others. The tables themselves tell the player a bit about where their character is from.

Good thing character generation only takes ten minutes!
I'll use a more familiar setting to make the idea clear. Say you were using this system to play in Robert E Howard's "Conan the Barbarian" setting of Hyboria. Characters from Conan's homeland of Cimmeria would have basic survival skills they learned growing up in an uncivilised area. They also would get a boost to their physical attributes because their life makes them harder than the civilised peoples. The possible starting careers for characters from Cimmeria would include things like blacksmiths, barbarians, hunters, bandits, leather-workers and maybe druids. The kingdom Conan eventually conquered, Aquilonia, would have a table of starting careers that includes nobles, merchants, soldiers, courtiers, servants, thieves, priests and wizards. A place of ancient corruption like Stygia would have a table of starting careers filled with sorcerers, priests, sages, slavers, thieves and slaves. The flavour of each of these lands is evident in the choices provided.

That's what I'm doing with my setting for the larger game that is using the working title of: "The Last World." The problem is the Archipelago is a small cluster of islands. Even Hyboria is only an area the size of Europe and the Mediterranean! The Last World is huge in comparison, with all kinds of different areas! These areas aren't heavily defined, with the implied setting leaving room to develop them through game play, but each country and some major cities have their own tables. I'm only about a third of the way through the character generation section for the places of origin and I already have 26 pages of briefs and tables in my document. The descriptions of the playable creatures document is another 9 pages long! I haven't even started on the tables of general career progressions. I'm worried about it being unwieldy, but I want players to be able to start as nearly any creature or culture they could encounter in the Last World and move through a plausible list of careers to create a viable character with a developed past and a list of useful equipment.

Shopping for equipment is the time-killer!

The point is to create characters similar in power to what you'd find in levels five through seven in OSR-type games. Like Traveller's character generation, the process creates a competent character with a background story that makes sense. I find the most fun in old school campaigns happens around those levels, but the early levels help define the character's development and flesh out their personality. That's another reason I make a ten minute game out of character generation. It delivers setting information to new players and creates a backstory for the character that will help a player choose how to play in a way that makes sense. It also anchors them to the world with their past.

In playtest it's worked well so far, but I'm worried all the flipping back and forth thought the tables in the larger setting will kill it. A PDF could be cross-linked/bookmarked, but using a book might become unwieldy. I was hoping to get this all into an A5 (digest size) hardcover!

So how much is too much? Does it matter that there are pile of pages to flip through as long as character generation stays around ten to fifteen minutes? Do the benefits outweigh the drawbacks in any event? I feel like the only way to find out is to finish it all and play using the full setting.

If any of this stuff intrigues you and you want to be part of the larger playtest for the #3DSystem , let me know!

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Black Hack Class Hack: Sorcery!

I reviewed The Black Hack in my last post. I mentioned that I felt like I had a few Hacks of my own to add to the growing number of genre specific clones of David Black's Modern OSR fantasy RPG.

I think an Early Modern Era, historical, weird-fantasy hack would be a lot of fun to play. For such a game I like my magic dangerous and unpredictable. It's something I've talked about before. Mike Evans came up with a good system to make sorcerers' casting flexible with an element of unpredictability with the usage die mechanic, but it lacks the danger I think is needed in RPG magic.

The usage die mechanic (from page 8 of the Black Hack) assigns a usage die to any resource ranging from 1d4 to 1d20 to roll when it is used. A roll of 1 or 2 brings the die to the next lowest value for subsequent rolls. Rolling 1 or 2 on the 1d4 means the resource (in this case magic) is exhausted until that resource can be replenished. The sorcerer can gain back one die for six hours of uninterrupted rest.

For my take on magic cast with the usage die I took a lot more inspiration from Barbarians of Lemuria, then mixed in a little Dungeon Crawl Classics and the spirit of weird fantasy.

Any time a sorcerer casts a spell the player rolls a number of usage dice matching the magic level of the spell. The spells are divided into three levels of sorcery: 1 - the Forbidden, 2 - the Infernal, and 3 - the Inscrutable (I'm still not entirely happy with the name of level 3).

The first level of sorcery consists of forbidden formulae and ancient rituals that allow the caster to bend reality enough to do anything a fully trained and equipped person could do, only with more ease. For example: a warrior with a sword can do 1d8 damage to a foe by attacking them. A sorcerer would utter a spell of forbidden magic and merely point at the foe to tear away their flesh for 1d6 + caster level in damage. A sorcerer can use this magic to create a light source, open a lock or climb a wall in a moment because a person could do so with a few minutes and the right equipment. It matches up in power roughly to the first and second levels of spells found in the Black Hack.

The second level of sorcery is more dangerous because it exposes the caster and everyone around them to infernal corruption. The player rolls two usage dice and takes the lower result because these spells are more taxing for the sorcerer to cast. The danger comes into play if the player rolls doubles on the usage dice. Doubles result in a casting mishap. Since it is more likely to roll doubles on D4s than D6s or D8s, it is more dangerous for low-level casters or exhausted high-level casters to use this level of magic.

Infernal magic calls upon the dread powers of chaos to reshape reality in larger ways for the caster's benefit. These spells allow the sorcerer to do things normally impossible for one person. A sorcerer can use this level of magic to fly, to transform something or knock a hole in a stone wall. Infernal magic could be used to create a poisonous fog that does 1d6 + caster level in damage to all nearby foes, or allow a sorcerer to vomit a swarm of demonic insects onto an opponent to eat their flesh for 1d6 damage per caster level. With so much possible in a moment with a whisper and a series of gestures this corrupt magic is tempting to use. It matches up in power level to many of the third, fourth and some fifth level spells in the Black Hack.

The Inscrutable level of magic comes from the recorded whispers of malignant intelligences in alien dimensions. Their motivations are as unknowable as their form.

This third level of magic is difficult, requiring special components such as time, place, specific alignment of astronomical bodies, assistants to help perform the ritual, and a specific tome or artifact. The more powerful the spell the more conditions the GM should apply to its casting.

These are spells of tremendous power that come at a terrible risk to the caster and their world. With this magic the sorcerer could create an earthquake that could level a city or create a magic plague that could bring an empire to its knees.

It can also be used to undo lower magical effects such as restoring a character turned to stone. It could be used to create a magical item. It could create a passage through chaos itself to allow a caster and their level in companions to travel anywhere in the world in an instant. It matches up in power to some of the higher level spells available in The Black Hack.

When a sorcerer casts an inscrutable spell they are flirting with disaster and draining their power. The player rolls three usage dice and reduces their magical power by one usage die for every 1 or 2 rolled. Doubles result in a casting mishap. Triples result in a casting catastrophe. There is no table for this result, match the effect to the scale of the spell, but tearing holes in time and space that allow extra-dimensional invaders to pour through is one way to go. Accidentally transporting the whole party to Geoffrey McKinney's Carcosa is another.

One thing I like from both BoL and 5e D&D is the cantrip magic. Cantrips as minor feats of magic that can be cast with little danger of exhausting a sorcerer's magic sounds like a fun addition to the game. Little things like moving small objects, changing the apparent value of a coin for a few moments, creating a brief wind to blow a door shut, removing a stain, lighting a torch, creating small sounds as a distraction, detecting magic, etc. For these simple spells the sorcerer could test Int for success. A natural 20 would reduce their usage die for magic.

The usage die available to sorcerers would depend on their level:
  • Level 1-2 would have a D4 usage die
  • Level 3-4 would have a D6 usage die
  • Level 5-7 would have a D8 usage die
  • Level 8-11 would have a D10 usage die
  • Level 12+ would have a D12 usage die
Image by Doug Kovacs for Dungeon Crawl Classics

I also roughed out a 3D6 table for casting mishaps:

3. 1d6 random people/creatures present become hybrids with another random creature
4. Earthquake for 1d6 moments
5. Random extra-dimensional invader/demon summoned (usage die in HD) and attacks caster
6. The minds of all nearby people randomly switch bodies
7. Random caster's relative teleported to close range with caster
8. All nearby gold turns to lead
9. Random caster's possession disappears
10. Roll on corruption table for sorcerer *
11. Roll on corruption table for sorcerer *
12. All nearby wood turns to glass
13. All nearby drawn weapons turn into something random (flowers, butterflies, etc)
14. All nearby metal super-heats for 1d6 moments (1 damage for small items, 1d6 + caster level for metal armour)
15. 3D6 HD of creatures put to sleep, centred on but not including caster
16. Random extra-dimensional invader/demon summoned (usage die in HD) - roll on reaction table from (page 8 of the Black Hack)
17. gravity reversed for 1d6 moments
18. Roll on corruption table for 1d6 of sorcerer's random allies

*There are plenty of these all over the blogosphere, I'll simply pick one while I playtest. This result is by far the most likely, so the greatest risk is always to the sorcerers themselves.

The Sorcerer as a character class is basically the same as the Conjurer outside of casting. I'll be trying this one out as soon as I get a group together to play The Black Hack. I think any player of a sorcerer that pushes their luck too far or over-reaches their level will likely end up in deep trouble.