Friday, September 26, 2008

[dream blog] Outbreak escape

stairsI was some kind of superhero. One of a team of such. We had a whole variety of individual, maybe somewhat low-level X-Men-ish powers (in fact, some of them might actually have been actual X-Men characters), but few or none of us wore any sort of costume. Most of them looked like regular folks, in fact. (Or television's version of reagular folks, perhaps: unusually young and attractive.) I think I might not have been with the team long--or maybe wasn't even an actual member, but just someone momentarily working with them--because I mostly couldn't really keep track of them as individuals, and didn't even know their names.

My power was something about releasing big, very short-range bursts of concussive energy from by whole body. I think there was something else I could do--something more versatile--but I never got a chance to try it.

We were all trapped in a huge shopping mall--or maybe it was an airport, or some kind of shopping area attached to a big hotel--a bright, airy place that was all steel and glass. It was empty except for us, and some ill-defined threat that had somehow been unleashed upon the world from somewhere inside or below that building. This threat also looked like a bunch of ordinary humans, and displayed some kind of minor powers. But they also clearly had the ability to either take infest or replace people. They harried us as we tried to find a way out of the mall while keeping them locked in, and gradually they started to take over our members. We couldn't manage to put them down for more than a few moments.

I couldn't understand why the rest of the team found blasting their way out of the mall difficult, or why our enemy hadn't already escaped. I decided to just use my concussive powers to bounce myself up out of the enemy's reach and knock out a window, door, wall, or whatever. Some of my team would surely be able to follow, and those who couldn't could probably be carried.

Then I was in a different place--maybe part of the same place, possibly the hotel attached to the mall--and I might have been someone different. I definitely wasn't currently superheroing, even if I was the same person. This hotel (or this part of it?) was all dark, wooden walls and smooth marble floors, and it wasn't empty. It seemed to be in ordinary operation. I was wandering through it at a brisk pace, looking for an Internet cafe I'd seen earlier so that I could check my email.

I was caught in a small crowd--mostly an Asian tour group, apparently--outside the elevators when an alarm went off. Something bad but unspecified was going on, and the hotel was being evacuated.

One of the tour group was telling me, clearly with great worry, that he'd found his room broken into and his computer tampered with shortly after some lesser crisis leading up to this alarm had gone down. He said the log files on his machine showed that a large amount of activity had gone on through that machine while he'd been out of his room, and wanted advice about something relating to the computer's serial number sticker.

I was too distracted to be helpful, though. Was this the same problem the superheroes were dealing with? Was this the result of their failure to contain their enemy? Or was that fight in the mall still going on? Or maybe this was happening before that whole scene, and this evacuation would lead to that abandoned mall.

At any rate, the elevators were no longer working, so we all consulted an evacuation booklet. It contained needlessly complex blueprints of the hotel, but apparently we were supposed to open up hidden emergency exits and proceed down a tight spiral staircase to safety. The plan was detailed enough that I could see how some landings of the staircase had been badly spaced, making it necessary to actually crawl on one's belly to fit down the stairs at one point.

We didn't look at the plans too carefully. We all just wanted to get out of there.

I helped open up the exits, and was the first one down. The stairs were gray, unfinished, clearly never used. Worse, they were absurdly claustrophobic. The further down we went, the cruder the stairs got, and there was ever more frequently clumps of dry, gray sea sand scatters over them. Eventually, we came to the place where the blueprints had shown we'd have to crawl, and they certainly proved accurate in that regard. I got through it okay, although I worried about all those behindme.

The stairs opened up again after that, but were still tighter than before. A lot of the time, I couldn't stand up all the way. I worried about running into more pinch points. But, as it turned out, that possibility didn't even have a chance to become a problem: The stairs ran straight into a solid layer of sand.

The crowd behind me was too frenzied and the confines were too tight to dig, and in any case I didn't believe there was anywhere to dig to. And time, we were all sure, was short. The situation was hopeless.

So I decided to wake up.

Friday, September 19, 2008


I caught a meme off Mimo of Toy Division fame.

Take a picture of yourself right now.
Don't change your clothes, don't fix your hair...just take a picture.
Post that picture with NO editing.
Post these instructions with your picture.

This is a monitor's eye view from work. In retrospect, I think I should have made a facial expression of some kind.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Dark, part 2

So, like I mentioned before, I'd like to try and hack Mutants & Masterminds to run a Doom/Quake-themed survival horror RPG. Maybe I'll call the resulting system "Mutant". Dunno.

Anyway, since a big part of beating a four-color superhero RPG into such an unaccustomed shape as this would be just removing material, there's actually good reason not to have the M&M core book on the table at all during play. So this abomination is free to be its own creature, allowing me to make some changes that are more for taste than to fit the specific themes of Dark. The first thing I'd start with would be a minor change to the standard, D&D-inherited ability scores. I'll rename Dexterity and Constitution to Agility and Endurance, and reorganize Wisdom and Charisma into Perception and Willpower. Perception obviously takes over all sensory abilities, but also Initiative checks, while Willpower handles both mental stability and focus, and social abilities.

Oh, and I'd ditch the ability scores and use modifiers alone (True 20-style). That should just be standard practice.

I'll also get rid of a few skills, introduce a few others from the Mastermind's Manual or elsewhere, and reshuffle some ability score dependencies as seems logical. The result (at the moment) is this:

Jump (separated from Acrobatics)

Acrobatics (loses its jump function)
Escape Artist
Sleight of Hand

Stamina (similar to D&D 4e's Endurance skill)

Chemistry (effectively Craft: Chemicals and Knowledge: Chemistry)
Demolition (from Mastermind's Manual)
Disable Device
Gunsmithing (effectively Craft: Guns)
Knowledge (might divide this into a few specic skills, like Biology, Tactics, etc.)
Repair (from Mastermind's Manual)
Trapmaking (effectively Craft: Traps)
(Might be a lot of other Craft skills I could adapt...)

Sense Motive
Track (the tracking function from Survival, which otherwise doesn't have much use in this game)


I've added a few skills here, but I've subtracted a lot more. Since this version of M&M is intended to run a very specific kind of game, things like Disguise and Ride just didn't seem useful. A PC who plays the harmonica can just be admitted as a good harmonica player, with no need for a Perform skill.

The other big area I'm changing is saving throws: They can go turn into D&D 4e-style "defenses" quite nicely. I'd also add a passive Perception-based defense--also quite 4e-style--called Alertness. This replaces the Notice skill completely. So we'd have the following defenses:

Reflexes = 10 + Agility + bonus (costs 1 power point per +1)
Fortitude = 10 + Endurance + bonus (costs 1 power point per +1)
Alertness = 10 + Perception + bonus (costs 1 power point per +1)
Resolve = 10 + Willpower + bonus (costs 1 power point per +1)
Toughness = 5 + Endurance (These ain't superhuman characters, so they can't increase their Toughness with experience. They have to find some armor.)

(Thinking on my feet, here: What if I moved Toughness over to Strength--since it represents sheer beefiness more than Endurance does, and melee damage bonuses don't count much in a gun-focused game--and then made a lie-detecting Insight defense based on Intelligence, replacing the Sense Motive skill? One defense for each ability appeals to my sense of symmetry . . . although I don't believe that kind of symmetry is a worthwhile goal in game design. Might go with it, though.)

Now people get to make damage rolls! Damage rolls are fun. And instead of comparing a Toughness save result to a damage DC and then calculating the difference to determine the result, every character can have a series of clear and simple damage thresholds right there on the sheet. So if a character's Toughness is 7, it'll say right there on the sheet that a damage roll of less than 7 has no effect, a roll of 7 to 11 produces an injury, 12 to 16 injures and also stuns, 17 to 21 stuns, staggers, and disables, 22-26 leaves the character unconscious and dying, and 27 or more kills the character outright . . . and messily (because a game like this obviously needs a "gibbed" result).

I'm not even going to address non-lethal damage, here, as there isn't really a place for such a thing in this variant.

I'm also thinking about removing the possibility of a "no effect" result (since any successful attack roll ought to hurt the target at least a little), but I'm not sure of the balance implications there. Obviously, this game should be grittier than standard Mutants & Masterminds, but I don't want to go too far.

Anyway, just to keep the damage threshold on each character sheet simple and static, modifiers from a target's injuries and armor would be applied to the attacker's the damage roll instead of the target's toughness score. So when an attack roll succeeds, the attacker rolls damage, adds the target's injuries and subtracts the target's armor value, then compares the result to the damage threshold track on the target's character sheet. I think this would result in faster combat, but I'd have to try it to be sure. One thing I'd like to do to speed things up is keep track of injuries with tokens (poker chips or similar), to that damage bonuses against injured targets can be tracked without resorting to pencil and paper.

I'd also treat Attack and Defense bonuses (maybe I need a different name for Defense, since I turned the Saving Throws into passive "defenses"...) a little bit differently. It's the easiest thing in the world to split Attack into Melee Attack and Ranged Attack. I think, though, that I'd actually have characters pay 2 power points for each point of Ranged bonus, and only 1 for each point of Melee, since ranged weapons will be significantly powerful and plentiful than melee ones. Meanwhile, I can take Defense and the Dodge Focus feat and reverse engineer them into Active Defense and Reflexive Defense: The former costs 1 point per point and is lost when the character is surprised or flat-footed, while the latter costs 2 points per point, can't exceed half of the Active Defense bonus, and works as long as the character can move freely. Strange as it sounds, the costs work out the same as standard M&M Defense and Dodge Focus.

One last thing: I believe I'd use 2d10 for the standard die roll in this system, rather than 1d20. I think a probability curve that's actually curved--and thus produces slightly more predictable successes and failures--would fit gritty, cautious, strategic gameplay a lot better than the flat probability curve of a d20 roll.

Okay, that's way more than enough for now. I'll probably have more to say later, though. I've been thinking about it enough.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Dark, part 1

So a few days ago I found myself reading a thread on about CthulhuTech when the Quake soundtrack came up in rotation on my MP3 player. It was then that I knew I had to figure out a way to run a sci-fi survival horror / bughunt RPG incorporating themes from both Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos and id Software's Quake and Doom games (as well as other first-person shooters). I don't ever expect to actually run such a game, but I love theorizing about this kind of thing.

After much dithering, I'm currently calling it "Dark", largely because first-person shooters of that era tended to have monosyllabic names that didn't really have much to do with their actual content.
The way I'd set it all up, the player characters would be a small mercenary team in a vaguely-defined future that could be anywhere from Blade Runner to Dune. While it's a big detour from the source material, I think it's important that the characters not be a legitimate military force, since roleplaying proper military discipline and command structure sounds like more hassle than fun, and it gives them a reason for all their equipment and tactics to be individualistic and sub-optimal. If one PC arrives with a flamethrower, it's not because the mission brief said there's a specific need for that weapon here, it's just because he's the dude who likes to use a flamethrower.

Anyway, the PCs' employers would naturally be the weapons R&D branch of some giant megacorporation (not unlike Doom's UAC) who have hired them to quietly take care of some monstrous fuckup in one of their research facilities. The weapons research angle is important because--in accordance with both first-person shooter and survival horror tropes--the characters must have the opportunity to pick up bigger and better guns in the field than the ones they came in with. The employers' monster-ridden facility naturally has to be a source of both mundane and highly experimental weapons and armor.
It also has to be so remote as to be virtually inaccessible. It might be deep underground, underwater, in space, or in another dimension, but for one reason or another, no reinforcements are immediately available, and whatever monsters the corporation has released are (temporarily) contained. The PCs would have only one obvious means of escaping the facility after completing their mission, and that would be whatever conveyance brought them there. For drama's sake, of course, they might lose that option and then have to find another one.

The setting idea I'm really liking, at the moment, would be some space station or or ship that has fallen halfway into another plane of existence through some tear in reality that may or may not have been a naturally-occurring phenomenon. The different physical laws of the other universe--and their applications in weapons development, of course--were the primary subject of the facility's research, but Something Went Wrong, and now the whole thing is sinking inexorably into a dimension inimical to human life.

It also might be fun to have the bulk of the facility be made up of modular cubical sections which have perhaps been rearranged somewhat randomly by a confused or maddened central computer. I dig the idea of actually rolling on a few tables to determine what's behind the next door. (Seriously, in a lot of ways, Rogue was the first survival horror game, largely due to its randomness: You could never count on the game's levels to be even remotely fair to you and your dwindling hit points.)

I'm not too sure exactly what kind of swarming, shootable monsters infest the facility, yet. Certainly, a major component of the hordes must be mutated / possessed / infested / mind-controlled humans; the "former human" is an important genre cornerstone. They're a great source of weapons and ammo, and just about everything in the players' arsenal works on them. Beyond gun-wielding zombies, though? I'd like to Quake's fleshy, quasi-Lovecraftian route, but I've got no final ideas about just what the monsters should be like or where they should come from. Maybe I'll draw on CthulhuTech a bit.

There are a few different possible objectives for the PCs' mission. They could be sent in to the facility of its infestation or simply plant a nuke and leave. They might also have to retrieve data or valuable prototypes, or even specimins of the monsters themselves. And I think I'd actually break with genre conventions and make it a rescue mission, we well: For a change, there'd actually be some non-monsterized survivors to save. These NPCs could also provide aid to the PCs, and both exposition and roleplaying opportunities to the players. Not to mention the fun moral issues they might introduce: Do we save the prototype, or the wounded researcher who might be harboring an interdimensional plague? Should we set the self-destruct timer and get out of here, even though we haven't checked every part of the facility for survivors? Are the guys who shot at us possessed by alien parasites, or just scared?

So, what system would I use for all this? As far as I'm aware, there is no perfect fit for something like this. There are cases to be made for GURPS, d20 Modern, and 3:16 - Carnage Amongst the Stars, and of course I really should consider CthulhuTech's own Framewerk system, but--if only for the purposes of this academic exercise--I want to try hacking my old favorite, Mutants & Masterminds, for the job.

On the face of things, M&M is a terrible fit: Its default power levels are high, most of its crunch is devoted to superhero powers, equipment is regarded as part of a character, ammunition--on the rare occasions that guns are addressed--is assumed to be infinite, etc. I'd get around all of this, though, by just using M&M as a construction kit to develop a much slimmer, simplified player's document, which would largely feature modified lists of skills and feats, and a big equipment section. And, because not all players have my burning love for point-based character generation, I'd offer mix-and-match ability, skill, and equipment packages. Equipment--as is appropriate to the survival horror tone--would be expended, destroyed, and replaced with fresh loot constantly (with no regard to M&M character point totals whatsoever), so each piece of gear would have its own card, including both stats and ammo boxes to check off (and maybe an illustration stolen from a computer game).

I've been doing a lot of thinking on what this hybrid mutant system would look like (oh, man, that is a perfect names for it: "Mutant"), but I'll save the big crunch dump for another post.