Thursday, June 11, 2009

[RPGs] Judd's "Make Your Own New Crobuzon" meme

Judd Karlman had an awesome idea about how to create a D&D setting that attempts to achieve the same kind of polyglot fantasy metropolis weirdness and anthropological complexity of China Miéville's New Crobuzon. Naturally, being a giant pervert for setting creation, I had to give it a try.

The Maw

Located on a lush jungle island well-situated near several major trade lanes, the Maw is a vertical city built into the igneous walls of a dead volcano's throat, crossing it in places with spidery bridges. The city extends so deeply that most of it rarely sees sunlight. Its positioning makes it a perfect center of trade between the civilizations of the surface world, and those of the labyrinthine lands beneath. The primary citizen races are humans (ever the most ambitious of the surface races) and dwarves (the subterranean race humans are most comfortable dealing with).

Minor races

Goblins - Most of the local archipelago is controlled by a small empire of jungle goblins. They are confident, organized, and as hairless and brightly-colored as poisonous frogs. All three goblin subraces live and work together with no acknowledged distinctions. The Maw is a completely separate political entity from the goblin empire--the Strand of Jewels--but a large number of goblins, hobgoblins, and bugbears have made their home in the city, attracted by the foreign wealth it offers, and eager to wield whatever political and business connections they might have throughout the archipelago to carve themselves a piece of it. For the most part, they've set themselves up as middlemen and facilitators in surface-underworld trade, storing good, changing money, and arranging transport from the island's teeming ports. They also have a substantial stake in local organized crime.

Umber hulks - A handful of quasi-civilized umber hulks--the descendants of slaves purchased from the drow and freed upon the death of their owner--live and work in the depths of the Maw. They're only barely sapient, incapable of vocal communication, stunningly dangerous, and subject to a number of repressive ordinances, but their tunneling ability puts even the dwarves to shame, and they've proven to be extremely useful members of the community. They're paid poorly, but as they do a tremendous amount of work and hardly ever seem to actually spend money, it's assumed that they must have a tremendous hoard of it, somewhere. Just what--if anything--they plan to do with it is one of the Maw's most widely speculated-upon mysteries.

Homunculi - The combination of human arcane experimentation, strange materials from the underworld, and the wealth brought by extensive trade has given rise to generation after generation of increasingly advanced alchemical constructs. The humans purpose-grow them for a wide variety of jobs, from message-carrying and guard duty to bookkeeping and research assistance. While even the most intelligent homunculus cannot legally be a citizen of the Maw--in fact, they technically have fewer rights than the umber hulks--the smarter and more humanoid varieties tend to be considered people by most locals, and are almost universally trusted as honest and incorruptible despite the fact that most technically have free will. As homunculi take on ever-greater roles within the production of more homunculi, it's possible they could become a race in their own right. Some would say they're already there.


Aboleths - Humans, dwarves, goblins make up the Maw's ruling council, but it's something of an open secret that a group of aboleths are pulling the strings. Just how much of their control is obtained through psychic domination and how much is simply the result of their having some very interesting artifacts to trade is uncertain. But if they have any kind of sinister agenda in mind for the city, it's apparently too slow and long-term for even the dwarves to notice. It's very possible that the whole Maw settlement was their idea in the first place, though, and it's apparent that they've got exactly the right blend of superhuman intelligence and utter ruthlessness to make a city like this work.

Kruthiks - Several decades back, an incautious tunnel expansion in the depths of the Maw disturbed a massive kruthik hive. The hive was destroyed at great cost to the city's defenders, but more than half of the kruthiks escaped. Ever since, kruthik incursions and infestations have been a regular hazard in the Maw, particularly in the deeper regions. Affected neighborhoods have taken to hanging up kruthik corpses--preferably fresh ones--to ward off attacks. This has given rise to the erroneous belief that even a small part of a kruthik--say, a hatchling's mandible--made into a pendant will protect its wearer from them. In truth, such a small amount of kruthik deathscent is actually much more likely to attract their attention.

The eidolon - In all of the Maw, the only organized resistance to the aboleths' rule comes from a cult of dwarves and humans who worship a rogue eidolon of tremendous power. This titanic, quasi-divine construct was unearthed in one of the Maw's farthest-reaching tunnel systems, and immediately seized control of the dwarven clan who discovered it. The eidolon is powerful enough to grant divine power to its followers, and to roam through the solid earth at will, avoiding detection by the city's authorities. The cult operates semi-secretly, with most of its members hiding their faith, but a few evangelists work openly to bring converts, in spite of the cult's outlaw status.

Friday, May 1, 2009

[RPGs] Skype SotC planning: Party stuff

Okay, so what I'd like to do next is sort out just how the various player characters (or at least the initial group, since more might be showing up later) know each other.

Right now, the characters we've got are a gun-slinging flapper, her German archaeologist husband, an educated sasquatch, and a feral swamp boy.

My first instinct is to suggest that everybody be members of the Van Helsing Society, which I used in my last SotC game. Here's the quick summary I threw together for it probably over a year ago:

  • founded by the young Quincey Abraham Harker (born between 1890 and 1897, should be in mid-40s in 1937, son of Jonathan and Mina) in honor of the late Abraham Van Helsing

  • studies and hunts monsters both supernatural and human (serial killers, cultists)

  • Some agents may themselves be touched by the paranormal (psychics, werewolves who've learned to control their curse, practitioners of magic, Tibetan yetis, Children of Set, etc.).

  • follow Van Helsing's philosophy of understanding one's enemy

  • secretive, believe the supernatural should be hidden from the public

  • funded by donations from those they've helped, the personal fortunes of members, and loot taken from destroyed monsters

  • recruit from talented people they seek out and from ordinary people who have had brushes with the supernatural in connection with the Society's cases

  • headquarters in London, but local chapters based in many nations friendly to the British Empire

Also, H.P. Lovecraft (who officially died in 1936) is working for the Society's London chapter, researching pre-human civilizations.

I think all four PCs could easily belong to the VHS. On the other hand, maybe it's just Sul's married couple who are Van Helsing investigators, and they end up investigating stuff in Hieronymus and Gator Boy's neck of the woods (the Florida Everglades, right?). Or, for that matter, Dagmar and Lee might be investigating on their own, and we could leave the Society out of it completely.

The nice thing about having some organization behind the party, though, is that it gives us an easy way to introduce new characters and other handy stuff. Of course, if you guys want to just make up your own organization, that is totally cool.

Friday, April 24, 2009

[RPGs] Skype game character stuff

Spirit of the Century is a pulp game. So its protagonists are generally at that pre-superhero level of capability, where they're fantastically capable in some specialized area, maybe even to a level that's effectively superhuman. And of course all kinds of crazy-ass backgrounds are totally possible. You can be an intelligent gorilla or an Atlantean awakened from suspended animation or . . . hell, we could probably figure out a way to do a robot or vampire, even. The game really is very flexible in a loose kinda way.

Anyway, the basic component of a SotC character is their skill pyramid. That is, you've got one skill you're really freaking great at (that's the top of the pyramid), two you're just plain great at, and so on down to five that you're just average at (the base of the pyramid). 15 skills in total, chosen from this list:

A few clarifications: "Academics" is a huge catch-all for history, linguistics, and all manner of soft sciences. "Contacting" is generally about who you know, the contacts you've got. "Empathy" is detecting lies and intentions. "Investigation" is searching for clues and doing forensics. "Mysteries" is sort of a catch all for magical stuff, but mostly in a typically pulp-like vein, so it's largely about hypnotic effects. "Rapport" is making friends an influencing people. "Resources" is about how much money or material support you have or can get access to. "Science" covers medicine as well as various research fields. "Survival" is wilderness survival, tracking, riding, stuff like that. "Weapons" means things with a shorter range than guns and arrows, but either throwable or long enough so that they give you some range.

So, you can see how picking 15 such broad skills means you can be good at a whole lot of stuff. And really crazy awesome at a narrower bunch of stuff.

But where things start getting really awesome, and really coming to life, is with the heart of the Spirit of the Century system: aspects. A character's aspects are basically just a list of ten things about that character. Almost any kind of thing: physical stuff, personality stuff, background stuff, relationships with other characters, signature possessions, running plot shticks, even catch phrases. Here's a list of examples, and you can also look at characters I've posted on this blog for more (they're mostly SotC characters, if not all).

Aspects make you better at doing whatever they logically suggest you ought to be good at. So if you've got a "Crusty Old Prospector" aspect, you can use that to get bonuses on rolls when you're trying to dig, look for water in the wilderness, appraise gold, and maybe even for stuff like drinking moonshine or driving strangers away from your property. The important limiting factor is that whenever you want an aspect to help you, you have to pay a "fate point".

The thing that makes this really cool is where fate points come from: You get them by following your aspects when they lead you into trouble. So if your Crusty Old Prospector pisses off a friend by being cantankerous, or gets distracted by gold, you'd get fate points for your trouble. On the other hand, if you want him to overcome his natural inclinations, you've gotta pay a fate point, instead.

So the game really rewards you for playing your character. And it's really important to make an interesting one, with foibles and weaknesses as well as strengths. Not only do they provide fate points, but they can really drive the game's plot.

Now, the final element of a SotC character is their stunts. These are like the feats of a D&D character: they let you break the rules in little ways, give you bonuses in specific situations, allow one of your skills to do more stuff than it normally does, give you things like allies, vehicles, or weapons, etc.

...But the list of available stunts is frigging huge, and it can really bog down character creation. So, personally, I'm kind of leaning towards the idea of just skipping stunts all together, and maybe using this stuntless rule variant. It just lets aspects do stunt-like stuff, and aspects are the coolest part of the system, anyway.

Anyway, here's where everybody should post ideas and questions about all their character concepts, and we'll figure out a way to get all your dudes tied together.

[RPGs] Skype campaign planning!

Spirit of the Century coverRight, so I'm planning to run some kind of game via Skype and probably MapTool. Weekends definitely make the most sense, and I'm leaning towards Saturday afternoons/evenings (Chicago time, anyway). The game? Spirit of the Century, because it's a damned great game, easy to learn, and should be very playable via Skype. Best of all, the rules are available for free.

...But there's a lot of different stuff we can do with SotC. Its default pulp mode is loads of fun, but people have hacked it for space opera, martial arts, and various flavors of fantasy (low magic stuff, generally). I think it could do a hell of a cool horror or post-apocalypse game, too.

So here's where I ask my prospective players just what they want to play. (And I'm doing it in public because I don't have everybody's email address.) What are you guys interested in, genre-wise? What you be interested in in doing or being in the game? I'm kind of digging the idea of some sword and sorcery (or sword and planet!) stuff, or maybe a shady-adventurers-and-smugglers-in-a-spaceship thing in the vein of Firefly. Or crazy, cartoonish post-apocalypse like Thundarr the Barbarian, maybe. Something kind of simple is probably best, at least to start with. On the other hand, SotC makes social conflicts just as interesting and complicated as physical ones, so something involving a lot of debate, persuasion, and interrogation would totally work.

I'm open to some format gimmicks, too. SotC has some cool stuff for running organizations (gangs, companies, armies, countries, whatever), so if you want to be the leaders of some kind of group or community, that's no problem. Also, if you want to play multiple characters in a troupe-style thing, that's cool, too.

Hell, this is getting long. Okay, interested parties, just comment here and let me know what you're interested in doing. Also, what you think of playing on Saturday afternoons/evenings (time zone issues, blah blah)?

Monday, April 20, 2009

[RPGs] Warriors & Warlocks character: Khal Konos

So lately I'm really excited about a recent Mutants & Masterminds supplement called "Warriors & Warlocks". It's a fairly brilliant guide to repurposing M&M for fantasy campaigns, specifically in the style of those old sword and sorcery comics you don't really see anymore. While, for the most part, you could already do all this with M&M (I've always said it's a generic system masquerading as a superhero game), Warriors & Warlocks offers lots of great suggestions and a few actual rules tweaks.

Anyway, inspired largely by fellow M&M fan Greywulf, I am driven to create characters just for kicks, and then post them here to justify the time spent.

My first W&W character is a semi-corrupted sorcerer antihero I'm calling Khal Konos. All his magic is ritual-based, but he's pretty good at that since he's a friggin genius and also a master of arcane lore. His magic won't help him when bandits ambush him in the night, but if he's got a chance to plan ahead--especially since he's also got the Master Plan feat--he should be pretty terrifyingly effective.

He packs a falchion that he's pretty good with, but he mostly does his fighting with the Doom Hand, a taloned glove-thing made out of leather, bone, and volcanic glass. It projects a big, three-dimensional shadow hand that Khal can use to whittle away at his foes' life force (that is, their Constitution) from a short distance away. He also wears a suit of asymmetrical, scavenged-looking studded leather, but he's better at avoiding attacks than withstanding them.

Finally, his eyes have been changed, enhanced, and made kind of disturbing lookin by some magical ritual. He can now see and read magical auras, as well as being able to see in the dark. Unfortunately, his eyes are solid black and the skin around them is weirdly scarred, so he normally wears a fierce terracotta mask over the top half of his face. Inevitably, though, either the mask or the eyes are going to make people suspicious and hostile from time to time, which I figure counts as a complication for purposes of picking up Hero Points.

Man, I'd love to play this character in an actual game. The possibilities that come with the Ritualist feat are huge, so much so that I don't think you even really need any more magic system than that. Not for a sword and sorcery setting, anyway.

Khal Konos

Power Level
Power Level: 6
Power Points: 90
Max Attack: 4
Max Defense: 8
Max Save DC: 8
Max Toughness: 4

STR: 12 (+1)
DEX: 10 (+0)
CON: 14 (+2)
INT: 20 (+5)
WIS: 12 (+1)
CHA: 12 (+1)

Attack 0 (Melee 4, Ranged 0)
Defense 8 (4 flat-footed)
Initiative 0

Toughness 4
Fortitude 5
Reflex 3
Will 5

Bluff 4 (+5)
Climb 0 (+1)
Concentration 8 (+9)
Diplomacy 6 (+7)
Disable Device 4 (+9)
Disguise 0 (+1)
Escape Artist 0 (+0)
Gather Info 0 (+1)
Handle Animal 0 (+1)
Intimidate 0 (+1)
Investigate 4 (+9)
Knowledge: Arcane Lore 10 (+15)
Knowledge: History 6 (+11)
Knowledge: Tactics 4 (+9)
Medicine 4 (+5)
Notice 4 (+5)
Ride 6 (+6)
Search 6 (+11)
Sense Motive 6 (+7)
Stealth 4 (+4)
Survival 4 (+5)
Swim 0 (+1)

Common (or whatever), some ancient tongue

Attack Focus, Melee (4)
Master Plan
Second Chance (vs. mind control effects)

Super-Senses (detect magic, ranged, accurate, acute)
Super-Senses (vision counters darkness)
Device, hard to lose: Doom Hand (Drain Constitution +8, slow fade 1, extended reach 1)

studded leather armor (Protection +2)
falchion (Damage +4, mighty, improved critical 2)

creepy damned eyes

Abilities 20 + Skills 20 (80 ranks) + Feats 9 + Powers 15 + Combat 16 + Saves 10 – Drawbacks 0 = 90 / 90

Friday, April 17, 2009

[RPGs] Campaign idea: War of the Space Gods

In my last post, I mentioned how the superhero genre can be a whole lot of different things. One superhero subgenre that I don't think really gets enough representation in games is the Jack Kirby mode.

It's a little odd to talk about one dude's work as a subgenre, but when you look at a comic like Gødland or that old 1963 miniseries, it starts to make sense. Kirby had a very distinctive thing going on, and there was more to it than just his art style. The most kirbyesque Kirby works were the ones where he went beyond superheroes and into what I'd describe as sci-fi mythology: the various Fourth World books, The Eternals, Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth, OMAC, and others.

I'd love to run a game sometime that mines that vein for setting material, but doesn't actually reproduce any specific elements. Here's what I've got right now.
War of the Space Gods
There are two tiny planets orbiting Earth, each smaller than the Moon, but with as much mass as our own world. And they're both hidden from us. Even their gravity is blocked. The first, Kaliba, is a wild, green planet dotted with soaring white cities. The second, Shath, is a barren, cloud-wrapped world of stony deserts and grim, black cities.

Kaliba is inhabited by a race of living gods. They're largely human in appearance, but an idealized kind of human, with a wide range of vivid coloration, sometimes including patterned skin, or even a metallic sheen. Their eyes glow brilliantly, as does their golden blood. They're very nearly immortal: ageless, immune to all disease, astonishingly resilient, and able to regenerate any damage short of the destruction of the brain or heart. What's more, they're invested with a brilliant cosmic energy that they wield to create a variety of effects. Their power is so flexible that they've never developed technology in the sense that we're familiar with. Their cities and clothing are built through the direct application of their strength and energies. They can also invest simple metal and stone tools with some of their power, or use it to change and sculpt living things for their own purposes. They've populated their world with extravagantly modified Earth animals, and are served by semi-sapient worker creatures.

Shath is also home to a race of gods, but one for more physiologically diverse than those of Kaliba. While still mostly humanoid, they exhibit monstrous or animalistic features as well. Their coloration is just as unusual as the gods of Kaliba, but less vivid, tending towards, dull, pale, or muddy tones. Their blood is black, with a faint iridescent sheen. They are essentially immortal, with less resilience and more regenerative capability than the Kalibas, but they have a tendency to change gradually over time, becoming ever more inhuman with the centuries. They wield a cosmic power of their own, but theirs is dark and murky, and far better at affecting its wielder than affecting the outside world. The Shathen tend to be gifted with powers of shape-shifting, invisibility, intangibility, and the like. Unlike the gods of Kaliba, they have needed technology. Their machines are in many ways more advanced than those of Earth, but are generally bulky, unsubtle, inefficient, and sometimes dangerous to be around.

For reasons that have long since passed beyond memory, the two races of gods have been at war with each other, on and off, for as long as they've been aware of each other. It's a bitter conflict, driven by the same hatred it generates, bereft of ideology or purpose.

The planets of the gods are hidden from Earth, but Earth isn't hidden from them. Both races visited our world often our distant past. The Kalibas were called gods, and devils, and fairies. The Shathen were also called these things, as well as dragons, vampires, goblins, and the like. Both races taught, terrorized, enslaved, and enthralled humanity, shaping our history and culture. But, most of all, they fought each other. Sometimes directly in divine battles that scarred the Earth's landscape for millenia, and sometimes by human proxies, through wars and pogroms and myths that we will never truly understand.

Now, though, the gods call Earth neutral ground, and their endless, senseless war is in one of its colder phases. Humanity has forgotten them, and both races of gods work to keep it that way, both for our good and their own. In the past, the gods' interactions with mortals had done us much harm. And now, as our technology has grown to rival that of Shath--and shows every sign of surpassing it, someday--it's very possible that humanity could actually threaten the gods to some degree.

Of course, by the same token, it's obvious that mankind could be the key to the Kalibas' or the Shathen's final victory, if only they could quietly turn enough of us to their cause. So the war between the gods has become a secret struggle to gain influence on Earth. But, as each side becomes aware of the other's breaches of the treaty, their cold war is heating up.

...Okay, so if that's enough setting info, I'll finally talk about just how this could be played. Naturally, I'd use Mutants & Masterminds or some variant of it. Player characters would probably be a mixed group of Kalibas and Shathen, also possibly Kalibas-Shathen hybrids, god-human hybrids, regular humans who've gotten ahold of powerful divine artifacts, or even regular humans who are just really awesome at stuff. Maybe servitor creatures from Kaliba or robots from Shath, too. Just how these people would know each other and why they'd work together--and, yeah, I'd really rather we have that worked out from the very beginning--would depend on just what kind of mix of characters we end up with. I like the idea of the group being centered around young gods from opposite sides of the line who became friends and hope to end the war, or gods and humans who are breaking the rules to learn about each other. And, naturally, some larger external problem would loom before long, forcing the PCs to stand alone between the warring gods against a threat only they are aware of.

The whole tone I'd be going for with this game is BIG. Epic, bombastic, mythic stuff. Interplanetary adventure, apocalyptic threats, the discovery of secrets older than mankind, divine tragedy, that kind of thing. Not superheroes. Sci-fi mythology.

Would it work? With the right players, hell yes. I can only hope to actually get a chance like that some day.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

[RPGs] Campaign idea: The Alliance

My big white whale of RPGs--the thing I think I'm least likely to get to do, anyway--is a superhero game. I think superhero games are especially dependent upon a gaming group's experience with and ideas about the genre. I mean, if five people sit down to play a game, variously expecting it to be like The Tick cartoon, 1980s X-Men comics, Warren Ellis' run on The Authority, the Watchmen movie, and the TV show Heroes, there is going to be some cognitive dissonance. Getting everybody on the same page would be a project in and of itself, and might not even be possible if there isn't enough common ground in the group's experience. My own group ain't really filled with people who read superhero comics, so I'm not sure I'll ever get to do this. But I do like to dream.

This is what I've been dreaming about lately.

The Alliance
The Alliance isn't so much a static superhero team as a loose network of associated superheroes who can contact each other, share resources and information, and work together as circumstances require and their schedules permit. When a case or mission comes up, a team is assembled from the available Alliance members and pointed at the problem.

The gimmick here, game-wise, is that the Alliance is a pool of characters that all the players can pull from on a session-by-session basis. No character belongs to any one player; they're all shared equally. So, of course, the characters would all have to be created cooperatively by the players. And that's where the character creation sheet at the right comes in.

Actually, though, I'd start by discussing with my players what kind of tone and tropes they're interested in for the game. We'd try to establish a target seriousness level, and come up with some example media. Then we'd talk over the setting a bit, see what kinds of components people are cool with (magic? aliens? time travel?) and just how "superhero-ish" characters should get (costumes? spandex? masks? code names? secret identities?).

...And then I'd hand out the character creation sheets, two to a player with a pile of extras. I'd explain all the different bits: "Purpose" could be something along the lines of "glory hound" or "With great power comes great responsibility." "Relationship" could mean a romance or rivalry with another Alliance member, or it could be a civilian NPC friend or family member, or even a recurring arch enemy. "Weakness" might be something like "poisoned by kryptonite," but it could just as easily be "hardened alcoholic" or "dangerously short temper".

Anyway, the deal with the character creation sheets is that each player would write something on their sheets, and then pass them off to other players to write some more stuff on, with everybody freely sharing ideas and talking openly about what they're doing. Hopefully, at the end of the session, we'd have at least two filled sheets for each player, and everybody should have some idea about the whole array of characters they'd outlined.

Then, I'd before the next session, I'd do the actual game mechanics side of building all the characters. I'd almost certainly use Mutants & Masterminds, in spite of the mention of "aspects" on the character creation sheets. I just really dig aspects, and think they can be imported from Fate into almost any RPG system. Also, I think they could be employed here to encourage the kind of ensemble-cast soap opera effect that tends to arise in long-running superhero team comics.

Part of what I'd be hoping to achieve with this kind of character generation is a player mindset that doesn't regard the PCs as representations of the players so much as shared game pieces. As such, they should be easier to sacrifice. Dramatic PC deaths would be a really cool and genre-appropriate thing to work into the game. I'd even like to incorporate some variant of Ryan Stoughton's death flag mechanic to encourage it. (CliffsNotes version: Normally, no PC dies. But you can trade this plot immunity for a temporary powerup, thus very possibly going out in a blaze of glory.)

Will I ever actually get to run this game? Dunno. Might not work too well with my local crew, but I'm edging closer and closer to running a Skype game of some kind, and I know I could find the perfect crew for this game once geography isn't a factor. So maybe. Some day.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

[dream blog] Summoning at the lake

Somehow, my immediate family--that is, my parents, siblings, and I--had come into possession (perhaps accidentally) of a text outlining some kind of Lovecraftian ritual. We didn't really know what it was supposed to do (I think it was more of a vague evocation of eldritch powers than a specific summoning) or whether or not it would work, but we were going to try it out anyway. As a family. A night of appropriate occult significance was coming up soon, and also we had access to a cabin on a lake which we thought was similarly significant. I had a little more belief that it would work than my family, and a lot less certainty that it would be a good idea, but I was interested and I agreed that the perfect opportunity to try it was going to come and pass soon. And, anyway, I knew they were going to try it, so I felt I'd better be there and try to mitigate whatever damage resulted from it.

We arrived at the lake in late evening. We were far from any city lights, and the treeline all around us was a wall of solid black, while the sky was a dark and starless blue. The lake itself was black and calm, but there were subtle lights in there from some bioluminescent life, and a rock dropped into the water triggered more of that phenomenon in a tiny, blue-white explosion at the center of the ripples. The whole lake seemed to strain with potential, like a boulder perched on a cliff.

We got to work at once, all of us arrayed across the shore, staggered rather far apart and facing the water, reciting our parts from unbound pages. I don't remember any of what we said. Occasionally, lights and indistinct emanations appeared from the lake at the end of the dock, the point which was the focus of our ceremony. Some of these merely dissipated, while others would stream away from the lake and into one of my family. This had no obvious effect, but still I did my best to prevent it from happening: I held out my hand in a certain gesture, as if in benediction, which--along with proper concentration--pulled the eldritch emanations into that hand, where they apparently dispersed. I felt no adverse effects from doing this, and had no idea just what sort of trouble I was protecting my family from, but by this point I was of the opinion that if we could just get through the ritual with no lasting results whatsoever, I would call it a success. We were getting to see something amazing, and that should be enough.

Eventually, the ceremony did come to an end without serious incident. It was then that we found a package addressed to us: a box wrapped in white paper, with a note. It used language that suggested the whole package was put together and sent right after we completed our ritual--even though that had only been moments ago--and said something to the effect that, since our efforts had gained us nothing of value, the sender wanted to provide us with gifts that might placate "those of an acquisitive nature". Within the box were five smaller bundles, each wrapped in more white paper and marked for one of us.

In a detached, audience-perspective way, I knew where the package had come from. It hadn't been sent moments ago, but instead was left there before we'd even arrived by the mysterious man who had given us access to the lakeshore cabin. He had known we'd perform our ceremony before finding the box, and also that we'd gain nothing in the attempt. His gifts were chosen to satisfy our individual Faustian desires, and thereby prevent us from ever trying this again, and continuing down what he knew was a dangerous road.

Also, I knew that our hidden benefactor was an age-old vampire who had watched over and protected our family.

But the whole package was destroyed before we could take the gifts within. I don't remember how, only that it seemed inevitable.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

[RPGs] Campaign idea: Necropolis

Once again, my brain is clogged with ideas for campaigns I'd like to run, and I've got to at least type them up here if I'm ever going to be able to think about anything else. So, today, I'd like to show off a concept that's very clearly the result too much Left 4 Dead and Fallout 3.

I'll come right out and say it: This would be a zombie game. I will shout to the goddamned hilltops that zombies are the most overused trope since pirates and ninjas, but dammit, I think cool stuff can still be done with them. And, since the focus of this game ain't really on the zombies themselves, going with something more original might actually be counterproductive.

Anyway, the deal here is that it's two years or so after a plague of zombieism swept across the globe, effectively ending civilization as we know it. Governments and infrastructures fell, countless billions died, etc. You know the drill. I think my zombies will be the result of a macroscopic parasite (something that slithers into a corpse's mouth is a lot more interesting than another invisible virus, in my opinion) of either extraterrestrial, artificial, or antediluvian origins. Infested corpses would become stupid-but-vicious automatons, concerned only with feeding on the fluid contents of any vertebrate life they sense, and then vomiting a black soup of embryonic parasites all over whatever's left. When not in the presence of any acceptable prey, they'd roam for a bit, and eventually fall dormant, waiting. They wouldn't feel fear or pain, and could only be "killed" by the destruction of the parasite within the skull and upper spinal column, but would be (in most cases) somewhat more fragile than a living human, and would assiduously avoid direct sunlight. So what we've got now is a world of dead cities where every shadowy place full of ragged lumps that will immediately lurch to their feet at the slightest sound, chasing down and tearing open any living human they can.

Now, as bad as all this sounds, humanity is still hanging on. Even coming back. The zombies are dangerous--and, worse, staggeringly numerous--but they're extremely limited. And once people know their limitations, it's possible to live with the dead.

This game would center around a survivor community in the middle of a large city who are managing to do exactly that. While old population centers are now teeming with the undead, large buildings are an effective defense against them. So this settlement would be on the upper floors of a skyscraper, with the lower floors devoted largely to a system of barricades. The inhabitants would subsist on produce grown in rooftop gardens and canned food obtained on daytime expeditions through the perilous city below.

Now, the real gimmick here is that the players would actually take on the role of the whole population of the settlement. I'd generate 40 or 50 regular people--including name, sex, age, race, occupation, Myers-Briggs personality type, and simplified Fate system stats--with this insane TableSmith application I've cobbled together, and that would be the whole community. The players would share this whole pool of PCs, playing whoever they want, even controlling multiple characters at once. They could also add to the population by rescuing and incorporating lone survivors and smaller groups.

So, like I mentioned, the zombies won't really take center stage in this game. Really, it'd all be about running and improving the community itself. Managing exhaustible resources (including food, medical supplies, and the population itself), setting up things like farms and generators and plumbing, arming the populace and maintaining the settlement's defenses, dealing with other human communities that might have different ideas about how to survive the apocalypse, etc. The zombies themselves would be more of an environmental threat than actual antagonists. You'll have to fight some when you go out on scavenging runs, but it's what you gain (and potentially lose) on those runs--and what use you put it to!--that really matters.

System wise, I'd use a hacked, slightly simplified Spirit of the Century. There'd be no stress tracks, so every hit a character takes in a conflict would go straight to Consequences. The skill list would be a bit truncated, and each character would start out with a randomly-generated skill pyramid of variable size (customizable by the players in order to make it fit their generated occupation better than it otherwise might). Each character would get just three Aspects, starting with their occupation and personality type, with an open slot for players to define whenever they feel like. There'd be no Stunts at all, so some Stunt effects would just be folded into skills (medicine and tracking come to mind).

Characters wouldn't have Fate Points, but the players would. They'd get a refresh rate of three each. They'd be encouraged to self-compel to pick up Fate Points whenever they can, so saying out of the blue "This guy's an alcoholic, so when he's called to go on this run, he shows up drunk." is a totally legitimate move. What's more, if you voluntarily take a Consequence while attempting an action ("How about this guy twists his angle while climbing through the rubble looking for salvage?"), that'll get you a Fate Point to spend immediately on that same action. Finally, when one of the players' survivor community dies, all players get a Fate Point each.

If you're getting the idea that all of this would encourage the players to play the survivors as a bunch of expendable extras who have lots of problems and get hurt a lot, you're catching on.

Now, since the community itself it the real focus of the game, I'm thinking it might have stats of its own. Not too certain on this one yet. I really love Rob Donoghue's organization rules, but I don't think they're exactly right for this job. A very small post-apocalyptic community should probably be represented much more simply, after all. I'd just need players to roll for stuff like whether or not the barricades are manned properly, or how many people they can muster for a scavenging run. And I'd like to track resources like food, medical supplies, and technical materials, too. Not sure if those should be skills or stress tracks, really.

Another thing I want to try would be something like long-term D&D-style skill challenges to handle big community-improvement projects. The players could assign characters to a jobs, and then make daily skill rolls for them, marking off their successes along some kind of progress track. This could be used for stuff like getting the elevators running, teaching all the able-bodied adults how to shoot, building a bridge out to a neighboring building, researching the causes of the zombie outbreak, searching the city for a specific kind of item, or even establishing a system of government.

I think another big element of this game would be random generation. I'm already dedicated to randomly-generated PCs, so why not randomly-generated zombie encounters, community problems, and scavenge hauls? Maybe. Maybe.

So, anyway, the whole thing is a big, sprawling, unwieldy idea that I'll probably never get to use. But I really love it.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Still thinking about hybrid game systems...

Man, you'd think playing D&D 4e and running Spirit of the Century would have cured me of this, but lately I've gone back to my D&D 3e-esque simulationist fantasy heartbreaker ideas.

Specifically, what I've been thinking about is a shambling hybrid starting from True20's excellent base, removing character classes completely and replacing them with feats, and replacing True20's magic system with something based on Monte Cook's 20-level system (from The Book of Experimental Might) and the spellpoint system from Unearthed Arcana.

Essentially, what I want is greater flexibility than D&D's classes-and-Vancian-magic system ever allowed, but to still hold onto the insanely vast body of potential material provided by the whole d20 phenomenon. I don't plan on ever trying to sell this thing, so I'd freely steal from any source I can find.

The trouble is, I'm the only dude in my gaming group with enough of a d20 background to easily engage in the whole character-creation-by-catalog-shopping experience that this modular, feat-based paradigm would lead to. So I dunno if there's any point to the whole excercise beyond my amusement.

And there's another thing I'm wrestling with at the moment: How many different kind of token pools can your average gamer handle at once? I'm considering replacing attack and defense bonuses with a pool of points that can be shared between the two, and I'd probably represent these through poker chips or something. Also, tracking wounds in a True20-style combat system would be pretty nicely handled by another kind of token. And, naturally, if I'm going to do spell points, I should have tokens to track those. Finally, I really feel like grafting SotC-style Aspects onto everything, and that means yet another kind of token to track fate points...

See where this is going? My poor friends, drafted into being guinea pigs for this absurdity, trying to remember which kind of point the red poker chips represent. And even if I use a method that's clear and obvious, like printing up a bunch of cards or something, it'd still potentially be a lot of crap to manage at the table.

But is it worse than having to do bookkeeping, instead? I really don't know.

Anyway, the whole thing is still far from being any danger to anyone. It's just an idea I like to play with in my Google Noteook space. I oughta see what my group thinks of all this, though...

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A combined resource tracking and random resolution idea for RPGs

Okay, time to take my mind off my tumultuous--but increasingly interesting--employment situation with a little game-related pipedreaming.

Universalis is a fascinating little storytelling toy of a system that I haven't yet gotten a chance to try out. Its central mechanic is the spending of a regularly-refreshed resource called "coins" (although they could certainly be represented by any kind of easily-handled token) to create facts about your shared story. Another thing you can do with coins is buy dice to roll in conflicts against other players when competing over where the storyline should go. Since you buy dice on a one-for-one basis, I realized, you could actually just use dice to represent your coins in the first place. But that'd be a hell of a lot of dice. Some people have that many, sure, but I don't.

On the other hand, if you reduced the dice mechanics to a simple 50-50 pass-fail dice pool, you could skip the dice and just use literal coins. That'd be pretty awesome, if only coins weren't just slightly too thin and heavy to handle well, and their heads and tails side were more immediately distinguishable. I mean, flipping a whole handful of pennies, counting out the heads in the result, and then picking them all up again would actually be pretty annoying.

So, I've been thinking, what about the lightweight, bi-colored chips from an Othello (a.k.a. Reversi) set? Those would be great for both resource tracking and simple dice pools (better than dice, in fact). So great, in fact, that they'd be worth building a whole system around 'em. Although I'd like them a little smaller, for easier mass-flipping. And I wouldn't want to buy a whole bunch of Othello boards just to get the chips.

This stumped me for a while, but I think I've hit on the perfect substitute: buttons. I could buy like 200 or so small, black clothing buttons--they don't even have to all be the same size or shape, really--and just spraypaint one side of 'em white or silver or something. I figure that ought to be just about perfect. They'd be easy to pass around and store in piles or little bowls, and you could shake up a handful, toss them down, count the silvers, and collect them again without even having to think about it. Compare your silver results to your opponent's to see whose decision stands. You've got better chances if you sacrifice a lot of buttons on the contest--and also if other players donate to your cause--but the outcome is still random.

I think this could work. I'm not even sure if whatever I'd do with the idea would end up looking like Universalis, but I'd really like to try something along these lines. Maybe I could use it for some kind of group setting-creation session...