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.