Monday, October 26

On Games, and Storytelling


I am a firm believer that storytelling is a corner-stone of what defines culture. The story may be told as part of a song, or in a video game, but a story is told nonetheless.

Stories contain many things: morals, values, norms, shared assumptions. I’m currently reading my way through an amazing comic book (or graphic novel, for those of us who shy away from comics as something kids read) series called Fables, similar in many ways to Neil Gaiman’s classic Sandman. Both bring together a variety of tales and stories, re-interpreted for modern audiences. They’re great, and I’d highly recommend them.

But shilling aside, there’s a lesson to be learnt there too: modern re-interpretations of classic stories occur because the root assumptions about culture and society have shifted. The lessons we need to learn (or teach our children) have changed, and “stay away from the woods where the big bad wolf lives” is no longer relevant – but teaching people that if you wander down dark alleyways at night, terrible things can happen is still important. Stories teach us their morals, whether they are Brothers Grimm’s, or Terry Pratchett’s.

What prompts this diatribe about storytelling is this: role playing games are a marriage between storytelling and gameplay. Corvys and I have had many debates around the balance between these two, to the point of stereotyping them as “RP vs. G” debates. Trying to balance story-telling and gameplay is a challenge for every gaming group and every DM to experience.

Translating Values into Fun

You see, the problem always comes in when you differing values meet across a table. Rule #0 is almost universal – fun comes before all other considerations – but that begs the question: how much fun do we have before we become serious? Fun is an ephemeral concept, and is generally not something you can have directly – it stems from doing something you enjoy, and enjoyment is very subjective.

I really enjoy number-crunching. I’ve been MMO’ing since before there were MMOs – I used to MUD (I totally owned The Run in Ankh-Morpork, on the Discworld MUD – with only two “MY, MY, WE’VE BEEN A BIT CARELESS, HAVEN’T WE?”s). I used to build characters in D&D Basic and throw them up against monsters, well before I ever had a gaming group that I could tell stories with.

Conversely, Corvys was delving into fantasy literature much more and much deeper than I ever will when I was rolling up my first ever Elf to face that pesky Owlbear! He’s still trying to get me to read The Sword of Truth, and almost had to force me to read A Song of Ice and Fire (for which I’m very thankful). His first group only had a Player’s Handbook, so they never really had a strong set of rules.

And the reason I bring this up is because our roots show. I’ll build an NPC which will be just right for this encounter, but Corvys will ask “But why does it want to fight the party?!”. Not to say that we’re polar opposites – Corvys writes engaging mechanics, and I can weave a decent yarn – but the idea of generating fun from raw material for us is very different. Corvys has the most fun when he’s totally in-character. His tricks for having a good game are all about making players care about the world and seeing it through the character’s eyes – a common trick he’ll use is to threaten the most innocent characters: women, children, and so on.

I, on the other hand, naturally tend towards situations full of action. Tense combats where the environment is continually changing, death-defying risks, terrible adversaries, and mechanical RPG systems that have a good “feel” – the right quantity of mechanics. Too much maths or dice rolling and the game slows to a crawl, too little and you feel like you need to soliloquise when you really want to just stab something in the face.

And there are books and articles and many other things written on how different styles are okay, and you should maximize what people like, not try to change them. That’s not what this article is about.

What I’d like to talk about is this: there are two competing facets to RPGs: story, and mechanics. And as much as people may argue, they do compete: for time, for focus, for energy investment. Some players will tailor a character backstory for weeks before a game, but only draw up a character sheet when they arrive to play. Others will spend weeks poring over splat-books, only to arrive at the gametable and go “Um, Jaddis was orphaned, and grew up on the streets were he learned his trade and then began adventuring, and can we start playing now please?”.

Both investments above are valid and fine (especially because they show dedication to the hobby!), but they show the competition for your mindspace that mechanics and story vie for.

The Competition For Your Mindspace

I’ve had experiences with players on both sides of the screen, from both extremes. Players who will completely halt a fun game to flip through a book to clarify how grapple works in just this circumstance. Or, on the other side of the spectrum, players who will derail a good story or plot because it’s not deep or not fulfilling enough for them.

And, of course, both are valid points of view. Without the rules, RPGs are just sharing stories over snacks. Without storytelling, role-playing games are just rock-paper-scissors with randomized numbers added into the mix. But people in general tend towards moderation.

What is more worrying is when a player decides that one extreme or another is the answer to a great game, and won’t let go of the idea under any circumstances. In an upcoming blog entry, I discuss the applications of cargo-culting to RPGs, and I’ll dwell on it more in that article.

What I’m much more interesting in is not the extremes, but when the two competing paradigms come together into unity and result in an amazing game where they work in balance: when you enter the zone, and you combine quick mechanics and deep storytelling to appease everyone around the game table.

The Zone

You see, there is a “zone” that you can enter, like hyperfocus or Flow, or even Csíkszentmihályism (if you like to sound pretentious :) ). It’s a perfect marriage of story and mechanic. You no longer care for the mechanics as a thing that gets in the way of storytelling, and neither do you care if the story leads you into a place where your characters are in mechanical risk. Everyone is hyped, there’s an electricity around the table. In my gaming group, people stand and walk and get dangerously close to LARPing, swinging imaginary swords around the room, pacing and waving their hands as they discuss something with an important NPC or sneaking as they hide in the shadows. A d20 may be thrown, but the DM will often wave a hand and go “is it high or low?”, and go with that. Mechanics are fudged or made up on the spot, and the story becomes a whole bunch deeper.

Unless you’ve got an exceptional mix of players (and even then), it’s likely that getting into the zone is rare. It requires the right mix of attitude, energy and a combination of other factors. But when you get into it, there’s no questioning that this is what we role-play for.

But so often, getting into the zone is impossible to achieve. The most we can hope for is to provide some story, some mechanics, and help players translate that into fun as best they can.

What to Do When You Can’t Reach The Zone

So this is the crux of this article: When you’re having a normal session, and players aren’t clicking, how do you edge towards a better game? Sometimes you can inch towards the zone until it comes, but sometimes you just do the best you can. In those circumstances, here are a few tips that might help out your gaming:

  • If and when you can, take a short break. One of the most immediate things to wreck flow is tension – some people in the group aren’t getting along, or there’s been a misunderstanding. Get some coffee, take a smoke break, get some air. But if you’re truly having trouble getting the game to flow, and the problem isn’t in the group itself, chances are that a short break to assess and calm yourselves will help.
  • In the longer term, assess what each person in the group values and look into how your DMing caters for that. The old adage of tailoring the game to your player’s strong points holds true: if you have a party of rogues and rangers, then give players opportunities to solve problems with stealth. If you have a mixed group, give each person an opportunity to shine. And if the dice are hating them, then let the role-play take priority over a dice-roll. If they look in a library, let them pass the knowledge skill check for free.
  • While the game obviously has some aspects of realism, and some people are very well-read in fantasy and medieval history, correctness should take a backseat to flow. It doesn’t matter whether you understand that what you’re describing is a buttress or not (heh, buttress), you just want to set a scene.
    One problem that comes with the territory of storytelling is a love of correctness. I’m a geek by nature, and I like knowing stuff. I take pride in correcting people who are incorrect. But there’s a time and place for it. This falls into the category of things to discuss with your players post-game, where you draw a line between what is cool and what isn’t. Grabbing the spotlight for a correction isn’t cool. Neither is slowing the game. My personal system is to have players email after a game with any inaccuracies or rules problems that they want to point out.
  • Related to (and touched upon at the end of) the last point, rules. They can be jarring, but for some players they are very important. When you hit a point where you don’t know a rule, or dispute a point with your players, follow the Warhammer rule: d2 for it (roll a d6, evens are one person’s theory on the mechanic, odds are the others), or hand-wave a solution. I use playing cards, with values and suits to represent various things that make sense (probably only in my mind). But get out of the pause as fast as you can. The game, the mechanics, the story are all suffering when you are not getting more stuff done.
  • Always remember rule 0 – everyone is there to have fun. a
  • Encourage your players to share with you (during- or post-session, if they’re more comfortable discussing it one-on-one) their goals, and their preferences. If they have grievances with another player, discuss it first with the DM. If you have a problem with the game world, or the DMs style, then dialogue will solve the problem. Touch on what you’ve liked, and where you’ve felt drained during gameplay. What parts of the game made you want to carry on doing what you were doing, and what parts made you want to go and get snacks while the game continued without you?
  • Finally, sometimes you’re just drained. The DM is exhausted. Players have an out-of-game argument between them. Someone is just being an idiot and ruining the game for everyone. Maybe it’s not even a people-thing: there’s a noisy party going on next door, and your appeals for quiet fall on deaf ears. Sometimes, a great game is just not to be. Do your best, in those sessions, to generate hooks, plan plots, and set up your players for the next session to truly achieve some great goals.

So, in summary: Mechanics and Story – together, they make up an RPG. To have a truly great game, you need to have at least a little of one or the other, and cater for all the players at your table. If you can’t enter the zone and have a great session, then take a moment to think about why the group is not clicking, and find what triggers the game to move from “alright” to “amazing”.

Monday, August 24

Awesome Gaming, Deep Role-Play and DM Profiling

Oh, today’s post is going to be flame-bait :) Preachiness alert: if you’re starting to get annoyed, skip down to the DM profile listing later in the article and carry on reading – I get a bit soap-boxy in the early-to-mid part.

illithid Corvys and myself have a long-running feud. I’m in love with Owlbears, Illithids and Catoblepas’ (actually, not that last one, but he’s vehemently against them so I need to be opposed – this is all part of healthy debate which stimulates ones thoughts and results in arguments lasting until the early hours of the morning). He, on the other hand, is a grand fan of properly thought-out economic policies, sustainable government systems, and somewhat realistic cultures.

I write worlds of cannibal elves and dragon-politicians, dungeonball and other Hasbro-games derived D&D adventures, and have a long-running love affair with the Tarrasque. Corvys writes epic sagas on lands that are renamed, but essentially the Scottish Highlands, the Romans, and theocracies ruled by the Catholic church by any other name (not that there is anything wrong with this – players have a much greater recognition of the world that they are in when they play Corvys’ adventures).

This blog post is about the difference in our styles (and why I’m awesome, and right, and Corvys is equally right, but only three-quarters as awesome).catoblepas

As I pointed out to a friend the other day, there are many books (the Dungeons & Dragons 4e DMG, 3.5e DMG II, Robin’s Laws, etc.) that profile players for DMs. Hack ‘n Slash kick-down-the-door types, “real roleplayer” psychological types, storytellers, loonies, munchkins, simulationists, gamists, and so on. But there has been remarkably little written about DMs.

I’ve been questioning and spending time with a wide variety of DMs. I’ve picked up a few interesting bits along the way. One thing I’ve learnt is that DMs tend to try to adjust themselves for players – which is great. The group is catered for, and everyone is happy. What interests me is that few players ever learn about their DM.

I’ve had the pleasure of playing in a variety of groups, and I’ve come to realise that while every players interest and connection with the game is based on their personality’s needs being met, that the DM has needs to – and often, when the DM’s needs are ignored, the gameplay becomes stale, stilted and forced.

If you’re a player, ask yourself this: has your DM, over time, had a harder and harder time generating owlbear2 material, being spontaneous, or focusing on the game? Do they feel more invested in the world you’ve been playing in, or less? Because I, when I have DMed, have come alive when my players have been considering of what I want to play. Obviously, as a form of relationship, it goes both ways – I try to provide for my players needs – but when I, as a DM, are in the “sweet spot of story-telling”, I can barely stay seated. I rarely keep my players from ending a session and pouting because their wives need them home, because they just want another five minutes… just one more round!

So this is my hypothesis: while every individual player is left satisfied when a DM deals with their individual needs, when the players cater for a DMs needs, the DMs energy, innovation and passion surge and the players – as well as the DM – have a satisfying session.

There is a disclaimer, however. Some DMs take this to a bipolar extreme. When their needs aren’t met, they don’t connect with the material at all. They’ll be great when they are in the sweet spot, but incapable when outside of it. This is, in general, frustrating to players. The games focus shifts from the story to the DMs mood. This isn’t good, and the players should communicate that to the DM.

To put it bluntly and possibly rudely: some DMs have a fake idea, or a one-dimensional idea, of what RPGs are about. In doing so, they put too heavy a focus on one aspect of the game. This is why player profiling exists – to knock DMs out of their inward gaming focus and encourage them to engage with every need required. If your DM isn’t catering for what you feel you need, it is imperative that you communicate this to him in a polite way. Shouting down a game that doesn’t meet your needs results in hurt feelings, but pulling a DM aside post-game for a word about how you’re not enjoying the game much can make the game better rounded.

But on to the DM Profiling!

As I’ve experienced (and I welcome more categories in the comments, I’m still got many DMs to meet and I’m sure everyone thinks they’re in their own category :) ), DMs don’t tend to fit in a large box. Instead, they tend to be a puzzle with lots of pieces. Most DMs, like most people, are made up of a complex variety of traits. As a result, no DM will fit a single archetype that I will list. Instead, they’ll typically fit (largely) one or two, with maybe a few more minor traits fitting.

these are the major DM archetypes:

  • The action-movie DM
  • The storytelling DM
  • The psychological DM
  • The doormat DM
  • The psychotic DM
  • The design DM (and the DIY DM)
  • The sandbox DM
  • The seat-of-the-pants DM
  • The religious DM
  • …and I’m sure there’s more, but I want to leave a few out so we’ll get the comments!

Let me delve a bit deeper into each archetype (and please forgive me for using masculine pronouns, I’m doing it for brevity’s sake):

The action movie DM is all about the fast pace. Maybe not always combat-oriented (though a combat-heavy game will almost always result), they will tend towards a game with great physicality. Traps and physical skills will abound, and they’ll love interactions with the world: causing cave-ins and swinging on chandeliers will engage this kind of DM, and keep the game moving. On a more sober note, this may be a result of a DM who is uncomfortable with play-acting NPCs deeply – things like romance sub-plots will be shut down quickly, for fear of having to role-play a situation they don’t enjoy. Try to find the specific things that make the DM uncomfortable, and avoid them if possible. If you want to engage this sort of DM, take joy in the physicality of the game. Interact with the environment and be forceful characters. Consider focusing on a few stronger character traits than complex, interwoven layers of character desires, dreams and fears.

dm The storytelling DM is all about plots. Intrigue, backstabbing, and rich suspension of disbelief from the players will engage this DM and keep him wanting to feed the players more. In-party fighting can often intrigue this guy, as will taking initiative in changing the world. Getting out of the railroad might be intimidating for an inexperienced storyteller, but the thrill of players who want to have a hand in the political landscape will override this quickly. Some storytellers, though, are only doing this because they feel it’s “superior” to mere action. If players run head-long into combats at the slightest drop of a hat, they’ll disengage, feeling that the game has turned into one big series of dice-rolls. Notice if your DM is trying to steer away from combat, and maybe try alternate approaches.

The psychological DM is all about the mind-games. Instead of engaging with the physical world, like the action-movie DM, or the social world, like the storytelling DM, he’ll try to get you to investigate your character. These kinds of DMs often encourage flaws in PCs, and ask for lengthly back-stories. Their number-one aim is to get you to role-play – play a role! When you choose instead to meta-game, or build yet another human fighter, they’ll quickly lose their spark of interest. If you really want to engage this sort of DM, look at things like accents, or giving your characters a bit more background than “orphaned and learnt their skills on the streets”. Try making a few decisions that are detrimental, but give your character a little more personality.

Geek-712146 The doormat DM isn’t quite as bad as his name makes him out to be. This sort of DM will make it his personal quest to match every iota of the adventure to a player or characters needs. If one player is unhappy with the game, suddenly every creature in combat misses them, every non-hostile NPC wants to hand over all their money, and the game rapidly turns into a Monty-Haul. This often comes about when a novice DM learns about players needs being first, and begins to believe that players needs are all. This sort of DM really hits a stumbling block, though, when two players disagree on a point and require a ruling. He’ll normally pick neutrality, but will pick a side with a domineering player if he can’t remain in the middle. This sort of DM needs players who do care about him and his role in the game, and are prepared to help him come out of his shell a bit. Find out what adventures he has read and likes, discover his favorite monster types. Encourage the game to head in these sort of directions. If he stays a doormat, eventually the games will become dull and boring, and the group will start to lose interest.

The psychotic DM isn’t quite a mirror-opposite to the doormat, but he’s certainly found his own place. This is the guy who will hit you with insane encounters: he’ll try to TPK as hard as he can. Don’t get me wrong: all good DMs should give players a challenge, but this guy takes it to the next level. If your characters drop like flies, you’ll have a psychotic DM. Often, this comes from a desire to give the players a sense of achievement. When your party of 6th levels takes down the Baalor, you’ll feel on top of the world – until his grandfather, ten levels stronger than him, hunts you down. The darker side of this DM is a genuine sadist. It’s good to explain to the DM that you feel he’s being hard on the group, if you feel that way, and encourage him to tone it down a little. Alternatively, if you like this sort of play style, then find novel ways of engaging with the scenes. Don’t get discouraged when a PC dies – roll up a brother who is out for revenge! Play smart, don’t be afraid to retreat, and may the dice gods be with you!

dm_ed_1 The design DM will spend his free time building adventures, maps, NPCs, economies, political scenarios, campaigns, new spells, feats, skill uses, skill challenges and more. This guy loves new species of critters, and only uses the Monster Manual for a guideline, or potentially just to get his NPC blocks *just* the right shade of olive in his word processor. This sort of DM thrives when they’re being creative, and they tend to write amazing rail-roads. The name of the game for these guys is fore-shadowing. A good design DM will set you a railroad – which some players love, and some players hate – because they want to introduce you to their cool new stuff. If you don’t like the railroading, mention it to the DM and encourage him to design broad, not deep. If you want the best play experience with this DM, try to puzzle out his designs. Roll your nature/dungeoneering/whatever check, and learn about the species. Map the dungeon, explore the world. Let his creativity work for you.

The sandbox DM, on the other hand, believes that the world should be eminently explorable. You know you’ve got this guy when you leave a town and he asks if you want to go north, south, east or west – and you haven’t been given any direction so far. He wants the players to be free, to play around and have fun far away from the railroad and all the static planning that it represents. Often, this will come because they want your decisions in the world to have real meaning. The weak point, of course, is that planning can be a bit hit-and-miss, and so as a result gameplay can, potentially, devolve into long pauses as the DM comes up with new material “on-the-fly”, or reasonably random encounters and short plots as he can’t put in the hours that are required to come up with really good twists. If you want this guy to come alive, follow any leads he puts out. Develop theories on why you fought a band of hobgoblins, followed by a rust monster, followed by a gelatinous cube. Let plots emerge as you play, and let him grab on to ideas you’ve come up with and run with them – gameplay becomes a team-effort quickly.

The seat-of-the-pants DM takes the sandbox to the painful extreme – no preparation, no expectations. If you’re lucky, you’ll be told the setting is a published one, so you’ll know an over-arching theme. This DM will make it up 100% as you go along. Randomly rolling monsters, if you’re lucky, or just coming up with new ones and declaring it’s dead when he’s decided you’ve hit it enough. This DM exists because he wants an organic story. He wants to cater for players as they go along, but sacrifices coherency and long-running plots and themes to achieve that. If players are low on health, then the hobgoblin tribe they were just killing suddenly gives in to their clearly superior strength, and offers them healing as part-payment for stopping the slaughter. To engage this guy, live every encounter to the full – but my player-instincts tell me to take the DM to one side and encourage him to start putting in more effort. He may just be short on time or resources – find the short-fall, and help him out.

The religious DM (as loathe as I am to use the term as negatively as I’ll be doing it here) is the DM who decides that there is One True Path. The game will be amazing if only the players do things Just As He Likes It. The players will always meet elves, or any game in a desert is “guaranteed” to meet with success. I call him religious because these statements come from faith (note that I, personally, am religious, and mean nothing bad about religions in using this term – it’s just apt for describing this). This DM has had a small window of success, and has cargo-culted a specific part of the game. Low-magic insisting DMs, high-magic insisting, published-world insisting, home-brewed insisting. DMs who insist on ONLY one RPG, or edition of RPG, because all others aren’t as good as his preferred one, or all other suck. You see the common thread of one-dimensional insistence. While it may benefit you in the short term to meet half-way and try to play in the scenarios described, this DM typically will be frustrated when the game doesn’t always generate the greatness that the First Game That Was Awesome did. I’d recommend telling the DM that you’d prefer to branch out into other things, but you’ll wait out an adventure or two to let him see what you mean. Demanding change will only result in hurt feelings – rather, let the DM test the hypothesis consciously, and when you can show him that it didn’t turn out as he liked, encourage a bit more diversity.

That’s all the DM archetypes I’ve got on mind for today. I might post some more – but name a few of your own! I’ll discourage (read: delete) comments that are openly offensive and/or stupid (“Crap DM – any DM that uses warforged in their world”, for instance), but otherwise go crazy! We can always do with more input.

Wednesday, August 19

Miniblog 2 of N: Other Uses for Action Points

So when ChattyDM was on hiatus, he had a serious of awesome guest posts. So awesome, in fact, that he  dubbed the posters the Order of Chatty DMs. I’m honoured to be on the list. But putting that to one side, the bevy of wildly interesting posts that came from this spawned dozens of other ideas. One in particular got my attention, most especially with reference to an article Chatty wrote earlier in the year.

Now, I am a great fan of RPG systems that have novel mechanics, better ways of representing things, or just generally cause me to think “outside the box”. Two spring to mind at the mention of interesting applications of the “action points” mechanic: FUDGE and Mutants & Masterminds.

I read the FUDGE rulebook and was perplexed. The core mechanics freaked me out: you actually *spend* your stats on a permanent basis to achieve things? Wow, late-game must suck unless you’re a miser in early-game. But it did introduce a great idea: giving up narrative control to players. The abovementioned Chatty and Chatty-guest post both touch on this idea. Players play as much an important role in generating the story as the DM does – he’s just the guy who knows what’s around the next corner, while the player’s are storytelling advocates of particular pro-(or, if you’re into that sort of thing, an-)tagonists. So why not elicit their help in your storytelling?

Mutants & Masterminds I playtested for a while. I played an OpenRPG game, I played a one-shot Steampunk game, and I’ve done a little testing. The system is profoundly excellent at representing concepts – but it’s downfall is in playability. You think 4e combats can drag on? Try rolling DCs for everything, including hit points. Attacks are invariably heavily flavoured. But it has one thing that made me fall in love with the system: Hero points. Hero points can be spent on one of a list of things, and quite commonly the spending is on paying off exhaustion caused by “Extra Effort”, which is invoked to tweak a power (an M&M concept that is too elaborate to explain here) or buy a feat for one round. Yes, you can temporarily buy feats.penknife_sized

And that’s what I want to advocate for Action Points. Now, the standard disclaimer applies here: I haven’t playtested this extensively. Many (most) DM’s will probably flat-out refuse to let you use this. But if you’re up for trying and experimenting and having fun, give these rules a try:

Spending an action point typically gives you a free standard action in combat. I am suggesting that you can select the effect your action point will give you from the following list:

  • You gain an additional standard action this round (the default)
  • You immediately recover from an effect that you could roll to save (status effects, penalties, etc.)
  • You gain the use of a feat (that you meet the prerequisites for) until the beginning of your next turn
  • You may use an at-will power that you have not selected for your character, from any class, but with the same power source as your own (martial, arcane, divine, primal, etc.)
  • If you are on zero hit points or lower, you are restored to one hit point
  • You may force an NPC’s social reaction with your character to noticeably improve (with the DM’s veto – if he cannot allow this, your action point does not count as spent)
  • Your character can spontaneously “find” a “forgotten” non-magical item (including non-magical weapons or armour) in their inventory, that they had not purchased or noted down as purchasing
  • Your character’s speed is increased by +2 for one round (as if they had run, without the penalties)
  • Your character gains a +5 bonus to skill checks – whether they are trained in the skill or not

Note that my interpretation of the action point mechanic may be broader than most – I feel that action points represent a broad variety of potential bonuses that heroes may experience purely by dint of their role as the focus of the adventure. Force of will, in my mind, is just as likely a source of action point application as luck, divine favour and so on.

So go forth, and do amazing things with your one action point per extended rest (for you heroic-tier adventurers). Please give me any feedback you can think of – I’m keen to see what folks think of alternate mechanics like this.

Tuesday, August 18

Desperation Attacks in 4e: Action Movies and Parting Shots

Quick admin before we get to the meat of the article: Corvys and myself have agreed to do a series of super-short articles, to see how we like the idea. We’re both dedicated to bringing content, but we’re both more than slightly crazy.

So expect more updates – we promise – but expect them to be shorter. We feel that we owe a faster update cycle to the sudden onrush of visitors from ChattyDM, who graciously hosted an article that I wrote as a guest writer during his gencon hiatus.

So: We’re all familiar with the parting shot in action movies. The hero, mortally wounded, with his final breath and his last ounce of strength takes the life of his nemesis. The fourth Hokage in Naruto takes Orichamiru’s hands. The villain, previously thought defeated, manages a final shot against the hero before passing out, changing a movie from feel-good action to tragedy.

Well, I feel that 4e could “break off a piece of this action” (as kids say in the modern vernacular, or so I’m told). And in the abovementioned article, I pointed out that a great way of adding powers to the D&D 4e system without unbalancing it is to encapsulate the power into a feat, like a few of the divine powers (sidebar snark: and it’s not like you don’t get enough feats in this edition, amirite?!). So I propose the following feat:

Feat: Desperation Attack
Prerequisites: None
A character with the Desperation Attack feat can, in their last moments before passing out, manage to get out one last attack – they can make use of the Desperation Attack daily power.

Desperation Attack Feat Power
As you fall, life slipping from you, you manage one last desperate attack against your opponent. Absolutely vulnerable, you can only hope to their mercy.
Daily <> Martial
Immediate Reaction
Trigger: You are reduced to 0 or fewer hit points.
Effect: You may make a single basic or at-will attack against an opponent. Making use of an at-will power other than a basic attack when using this power provokes opportunity attacks against you. The score critical hits on the power or basic attack chosen on a 17 or higher, and have +2 bonus to hit on the attack.

Now, before I can continue with this blog entry, there are two things that must be pointed out:

  1. I suddenly cannot get the following catchphrase out of my head: “The wonderful thing about triggers is that triggers are wonderful things”. I’m seriously considering bashing my head against a wall until sweet unconsciousness embraces me.
  2. Building powers in HTML using tables (even when using Microsoft Live Writer!) is a terrible exercise in frustration and code-preview switching.

Well, now that the unrelated commentary is done, on to the related commentary: yes, using this power is incredibly dangerous. If you’re surrounded by enemies when you fall, you probably don’t want to use a desperation attack. But this wasn’t designed for rushing waves of minions – it was created with the idea that a character, when falling, might take his killer with him. It’s a no-hope attack – a character has resigned himself to defeat.

On the other hand, the bonuses on that one attack are totally sweet! +2 to hit means that you have a much higher likelihood of landing the blow, and 17+ critical hits mean that you have a much higher (typically three times higher) likelihood of landing an “epic blow”. Neat, and I don’t think that munchkins want to be hitting that trigger too often. Just to be careful, though, it’s a daily power :D

Well, that’s all for this blogpost. I hope to have something for the blog again tomorrow!

Tuesday, July 14

Using D&D 4e Skill Challenges in Solo Encounters

Dragon One of the greatest advantages D&D 3.5e has over D&D 4e is the implied set of options available in combat. D&D is a very good RPG system for combat, and has always excelled in that field.

3.5e introduced the flood of classes and races that we are all (I'm sure) familiar with. Each had a few unique mechanics, and each added it's own subtle layer to combat. Psionics would add an aspect to combat that fighters and wizards didn't have. Swordsages too. Each splatbook added a few new feats, classes, and thus a new dimension to combat.

4e, many complain, is designed to codify combat into a series of a similar actions. Your at-will, encounter and daily powers limit your character's capabilities, and thus your ability to be creative in combat.

In 3.5e, a tavern brawl might include kicking tables over, striking enemies with chairs, throwing mugs of ale (hopefully empty!), climbing under tables, hiding behind the bar, putting out torches to escape, and many more creative options. In 4e, you can Cleave or you can Reaping Strike. It feels like the game has had a lot of options sucked out.

Now, any good 4e advocate will tell you that it's nothing like that at all - in fact, they've properly set out damage according to level with a handy table in the DMG!

But something about powers smacks of “you're limited to using this, except in special cases”. And it's at least partially true - powers will suffice for most combats.

But the encounters I'd like to focus on are the epic ones - the ones where you're meant to think outside of the box. Solo encounters are the “boss fights” of 4e. They're meant to be hard. The potential for a TPK is meant to be an ever-present concern. And detractors from 4e point out that solo encounters are long, often monotonous as characters drop all their daily and encounter powers, then rinse-repeat at-will powers until one side dies.

This blog post is about proposing a new mechanic for solo encounters, inspired by computer games and novels.

Introducing the Use of Skills in Combat

Combat is described as a whirling mass of chaos - dodging, feinting, observing your opponent. The single discrete dice roll represents not a single strike, but a number of possible attacks - all the fighting that can happen in a six second round.

But a thinking warrior can make creative use of those six seconds. By combining non-combat actions with their normal offensive repertoire, they can “think outside of the box” and create opportunities in combat. In fighting computer games (particularly the FPS and 3PS fighting genres), we often see boss combats that are impossibly hard until an indirect attack is performed - sometimes, this will be a way to do additional damage, sometimes this will make the boss vulnerable for a short period of time.

By introducing skill challenges into combat encounters, we can inject the reward for out-of-the-box thinking in too.

Obviously, the skill challenges will be context sensitive. If we introduce the idea of “climbing” a dragon (a series of athletics or acrobatics skill checks) to access a vulnerable spot, we cannot hope to apply the same mechanic to fighting a solo unique kobold. Using intimidate to cow the kobold into weaker attacks might work, but it wouldn't be successful against a bloodthirsty hill giant solo creature.

So instead, I propose adding skill challenges directly into monster's information block - unless the skill challenge is specific to a locale instead of a monster. Climbing a cliff (athletics skill check) to get a better shot with a bow would have to be dealt with by a canny and flexible DM.

The format I propose for altering monsters stat blocks is to add an extra section when describing the monster, below the “equipment section”. In it, the skill challenge will be listed by an emboldened skill challenge name (to hint to a DM how the skill challenge applies), followed by a comma separated list of skills relevant to the skill challenge, with an associated DC in brackets adjacent to the skill. The list is followed by two numbers divided by a slash, indicating the number of success or failures required to conclude the skill challenge. Finally, the word “Effect:” followed by the result of a successful skill challenge will be listed.

The initial concept for the skill challenges was to suggest that a skill challenge attempt was a move action, and each was isolated to individual characters (so characters could not contribute to other's skill challenges). This model was too simple, but the range of capabilities were diverse enough that - barring a few guidelines - it would be impossible to describe the full range of options. Instead, a power-like set of keywords and descriptors can be added to the skill challenge, but DMs have the choice of overriding these keywords should they wish to.

Some Examples

Here are some examples, using NPCs I've generated for various campaigns:


We can give you gold! [Diplomacy]” , Gottfried exclaimed as he dodged the shortsword, firing (and killing) a distant goblin. “Your comrades have abandoned you, and we have no need to finish this battle. [Intimidate] Lay down your sword and walk away”, ducking below a broad swipe. “Your kin have abandoned you, you have no reason to continue fighting [Bluff]”, Gottfried's words finally struck home. The goblin hesitated for a moment, and Gottfried continued “My friends and I stand victorious - there is no need for this to end in more bloodshed”. The goblin grunted. He turned to one side, shoved his shortsword six inches into the tree they had been fighting under, grabbed the pouch from Gottfried's belt... and walked away.


Obviously, the ability to end combat with words is powerful. There are already intimidate rules - but, especially for notably cowardly creatures, the ability to undermine their confidence should not only be at the end of a combat. Note the “Group Contribute” keyword indicates that more than one character can contribute to the skill challenge.


Hunter circled the half-orc in the ring. The bastard's great axe had pulled a chunk out of his chest-plate in one great swing, and he was not taking any more chances. He thought he saw an exposed joint in his armour - if he could just find an opening. As the pit fighter took a moment to raise his axe for another swing, Hunter side-stepped, jamming his sword-blade into the exposed point - his reward showing in the red now tarnishing the sword-tip and the limp the half-orc moved with.


One obvious option for skill challenges is additional damage. Several prominent D&D commentators have mentioned how solo creatures have too many hit points and several have recommended reducing them. An alternative is to open additional mechanics that allow extra damage to be dealt by the party.

Note that unless specified, a single character must perform all skill checks - unlike the goblin above, there is no “Group Contribute” keyword. Note also that some skills can have different DCs.

Finally, the “stealth” check above should only apply when stealth is a viable option. DMs should use their discretion when allowing skill checks in these scenarios. A darkened room with multiple combatants might allow for stealth - a one-on-one pit fight would not. The skill challenge is still available - but it cannot be achieved by stealth skill checks.

Finally, I would like to look at dragons as the most fun (and awesome!) example. I won't reprint any of the dragons from the Monster Manual, but the following can be appended on to the “Adult Red Dragon”, described on page 83 of the MM.


Daranis shoved his sword into the thigh of the dragon. Raven Queen's touch, this scaly hide was thick! He put a boot against it, even as the creature roared in pain, and blinked a few feet up, again jamming the sword into a gap in the scales. Muscles straining he dragged himself up on the dragon's back, green flames licking the edge of the blade as he charged it with arcane power. Struggling as the beast tried to throw him off, he had to relinquish his precious bag of trophies to keep from being thrown. Eventually reaching behind the creature's head, he mustered all his power and struck a great blow to the base of the skull - the creature reared up in agony, finally dislodging him from it's back.


The “Climb to the Head” skill challenge uses “Attack” as a skill. In this case, the player is literally jamming a weapon into the dragon to gain purchase on the slippery scales. If the DM allows, the player may add the weapon's bonuses (proficiency, magic, etc.) to the roll. Note that the “free critical hit” does not apply the effects of weapons which give bonuses on critical hits.

The “Weak Point Underneath” skill challenge allows a player to get beneath the dragon - a dangerous endeavour - and stab the dragon in a weak point under the leg, crippling it. The “vulnerable” keyword means that while attempting this skill challenge, from the first time the player rolls until it is completed (in success or failure) the player has a -2 penalty applied to their defenses. The “Insight 1 required” means that at least one of the successful skill checks for this skill challenge must be an Insight check, to represent the player noticing the vulnerable point.

General Guidelines

Some good general guidelines for using skill challenges in solo encounters:

  • Find the associated defense for the skill applied, and use that for the DC. Acrobatics is normally countered by Reflex, Diplomacy by Will, etc.

  • Part of the fun of this system is in it's novelty. Switch the ideas up, try new ones. Good DMs can forego adding to the stat block entirely by using the system “off-the-cuff”, letting their players invent new skill challenges as they want - with the DM's approval (of course!)

  • Players should (preferably) not be informed of the skill challenge. It may be hinted at (your character notices some exposed points in the enemy's armour), but it shouldn't be “given away”.

Final Words

If these mechanics and concepts sounds familiar, it is possibly because they were inspired by Iron Heroes, which introduces the concept very well. The idea of mixing up combat and introducing novel sequences can add a lot of flavour to combats, and allow players to have equally long, but much more memorable, solo encounters.

Sunday, July 12

The City: Urban Setting: Part III

The Projects

The Projects are made up of tall, sprawling apartment buildings which block the sunlight on the streets below. They are sprinkled with small windows, mostly broken or barred and look like nothing so much as prisons. The streets are mostly populated by gangsters or the unemployed. The Cities authorities have fixed up and gentrified a good number of the more run down parts of the City over the last few years. Still, the Projects just seem to linger on, never getting the budget needed to come right. The police do come into the Projects, but never for long and there just aren’t enough assigned to the closest precincts to properly police the area.


People of Interest

Mother Mercy

Well, now, child, that is a nasty bruise there. It was your Larry that did this? He’s your pimp, right? That boy been hitting too many of his girls. Don’t you worry deary, Momma Mercy gonna fix it right up, and that Larry boy right along with it. Hush now, child.

Mental: Intelligence 3, Wits 3, Resolve 4

Physical: Strength 2, Dexterity 1, Stamina 2

Social: Presence 3, Manipulation 3, Composure 1

Mental Skills: Occult 3, Medicine 3, Crafts 2

Physical Skills: Drive 1, Survival 1

Social Skills: Animal Ken 2, Empathy 4, Persuasion 3, Streetwise 3, Subterfuge 4, Expression 2

Willpower: 5

Virtue: Faith

Vice: Wrath

Health: 7

Initiative: 2

Defense: 1

Speed: 8

Merits: Enchantment (Hedge Witch) 4, Familiar (Embodied) 4, Luck Magic 2, Curse of Ill-Fortune 3, See Auras 2, Healing 4, Holistic Awareness 3, Unseen Sense 3, Allies 3 (Projects Women), Contacts 2 (Prostitutes, Gangsters), Retainer 3 (Tashondra), Retainer 2 (Tamiqua)

(Mother Mercy uses rules presented in the excellent World of Darkness supplement “Second Sight”)

Mother Mercy is an unofficial celebrity in the projects. She is about 65 years old, and looks older. A large woman, she stood tall and proud in her youth. Now she hunches over an ivory handled cane, swathed in numerous jerseys, with a tiny pair of horn-rimmed glasses perched on the end of her nose. She lives on the top floor of one of the oldest of the Projects in a large apartment formed by knocking a door between two adjoining apartments. She has living with her are two orphan girls Tashondra (14) and Tamiqua (12) and three or four well fed cats. Mother Mercy almost never leaves her apartment and has her wards run her errands for her. During the day, Mother Mercy runs a day-care for the children of working mothers in the projects.

Still, it is whispered that Mother Mercy has a few other tricks up her sleeves. People speak about Shereena’s husband. After his fifth affair and him finally giving Shereena AIDS, she went to speak to Mother Mercy. The next week, he died in a drive by shooting. He caught ten bullets and the intended target walked away unharmed. Shereena is taking the pills and seems to be doing fine. Or the time Larry Sparks beat one of his girls so bad she couldn’t walk after. He was bitten by some weird dogs a few days later and died screaming as his legs rotted off. Even the doctors couldn’t help. These days no one hassles Mother Mercy or her girls. But sometimes, someone creeps up the stairs to her apartment late at night, knocks on her door and asks for a special kind of help.

Tamiqua is a normal teenage girl, aside from an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the supernatural. Tashondra, on the other hand, has the gift (the equivalent of the Dream Merit at 4 dots and Visionary Trance Merit at 2 dots). She is Mother Mercy’s protégé and is learning the same arts as Mother Mercy. Pretty soon, she will be an accomplished Shaman. One of the cats that live in Mother Mercy’s house, a large Persian tom named Leroy, is actually an embodied familiar.

Jamal “Big Dog” Creeley

Yo man, you think you can deal here? This is not your street, man. This is my street. You wanna walk on my street, you pay me. You wanna breathe on my street, you pay me. You got that, bitch?


Mental: Intelligence 2, Wits 3, Resolve 1

Physical: Strength 2, Dexterity 3, Stamina 3

Social: Presence 3, Manipulation 2, Composure 1

Mental Skills: Politics 1, Investigation 1, Science 1, Occult 2

Physical Skills: Brawling 2, Firearms 3, Drive 2, Larceny 1, Weapons 1

Social Skills: Intimidate 3, Socialise 3, Streetwise 4, Subterfuge 1, Expression 2 (DJ)

Willpower: 2

Virtue: Fortitude

Vice: Lust

Health: 8

Initiative: 4

Defense: 3

Speed: 10

Merits: Danger Sense 2, Ambidextrous 3, Fast Reflexes 2, Gunslinger 3, Fresh Start 1, Status (West Street Dogs) 5, Allies 2 (116 Bloods),

Jamal Creeley is head of one of the most feared gangs in the Projects. He is a big man, with an imposing presence and piercing eyes. He is always dressed fully in the colours of the Dogs, from sneakers to the bandanna of the gang. He carries with him at all times two pearl handled pistols, which he treasures greatly. The West Street Dogs own a fair portion of the projects and control their turf with an iron hand – overseeing drug-dealing and prostitution and organizing armed robbery off their turf.

Jamal has a problem that is gradually becoming more and more apparent. On his rise to the head of the gang he has killed many, many people. However, only one lingers in his mind. One day, to make a point, he executed the head of a rival gang in bed with his long-time girlfriend. He did the deed with the rival’s pearl-handled pistols. Since then he has been dreaming of the deed. Recently, he has started to see the figure of a woman in his room of nights. Jamal hasn’t been sleeping much lately, and as the pressure mounts, so does his temper.

Places of Interest

The Battleground

An abandoned basketball court sits in an empty part of the Projects. Some nights, as word of mouth spreads the news, an epic battle breaks out. MCs from around the city gather to duel. The hottest of underground parties, the rawest of style is played out at the Battleground.

The Battleground carries a darker secret though. Every once in a while drive-bys, sneak killings and smack talk does not manage to cool the waters between two rival gangs. Three times in the past, the gangs have met on the Battleground, in force carrying guns, chains, knives and everything else. They end the fight, one way or another. The last few survivors of one of the gangs are the only ones to leave the place alive. The police hear about it and come to clean up the next morning, not believing that insanity like this would ever happen again.

Hell’s Hotbox

Right in the center of the Projects lies Hell’s Hotbox. The towering apartment building and the surrounding slums are constantly on the verge of falling apart. Water and electricity services frequently fail and police are hardly ever seen except in overwhelming force. Hell’s Hotbox is where those that have dropped off the map end up. A different law rules the place and the rules of society are only a thin layer over the boiling rage and hunger that lurk in the hearts of the inhabitants.


Average GM Characters


Description: Gangsters always wear the colours of their gang as a uniform. This can be a collection of colours or a certain collection of clothing or tattoos.

Storytelling Hints: The standard response of the average gangster to most situations is unreasoning aggression. Gangsters live to claim the respect of those around them and rise in importance based on their actions in support of the gang, most of which are by necessity violent. If outgunned most gangsters will withdraw to seek help or prepare and ambush.

Abilities: Gunfighting (dice pool 6) – Gangsters are not the most skilled gunfighters in the world but eventually enough practice pays off.

Intimidate (dice pool 5) – Gangsters unreasoningly aggressive approach and willingness to resort to violence makes them reasonably intimidating.


Description: Junkies are almost universally wasted, pale and dressed in ratty unwashed clothes. Unwashed hair, sickly features and track-marks are the order of the day.

Storytelling Hints: Junkies will do anything for a fix – literally anything. They will lie, cheat, steal, prostitute themselves and some will even kill for a fix. This doesn’t remove all of their other personality but it definitely takes over the driving seat a lot of the time.

Abilities: Manipulate (dice pool 6) – Junkies are very good at twisting people around their fingers, using pity or sweet talk to wheedle out enough money for their next fix.

Theft (dice pool 5) – What a junky can’t sweet talk out of someone, they will steal. They aren’t amazing thieves but they are amazingly well motivated to pickpockets and pick locks.

Wednesday, March 11

The City: Urban Setting: Part II

So, without further ado, the next instalment of The City.

Rocky Peaks

Situated within the park, connected to the city by a narrow winding strip of national road, lies the small town of Rocky Peaks. It is predominantly a tourist town, geared to take advantage of nature-lovers streaming into the park. It has been recently colonized by ex-yuppies eager to escape the rat-race of the city, tending their organic gardens and eating non-GM granola. The older residents of Rocky Peaks are not thrilled to have hordes of SUV driving, green-tinged yuppies colonizing their town, but they cannot deny the extra money they bring. Still, some of the old-timers wish the town was a little … quieter, the way it used to be.


People of Interest

Sam Forrester (Mayor)

Welcome to Rocky Peaks. Lovely town we have here, you gotta be sure to try out the banana cream pie at Sally’s. It’s the best in the state.

Mental: Intelligence 2, Wits 2, Resolve 2

Physical: Strength 1, Dexterity 2, Stamina 3

Social: Presence 3, Manipulation 3, Composure 4

Mental Skills: Politics 4, Craft 1 (Motor Cars), Computer 1, Academics 1 (Town History)

Physical Skills: Drive 2, Firearms 2, Athletics 1, Survival 1

Social Skills: Persuasion 4, Socialize 3, Subterfuge 1, Expression 3

Willpower: 6

Virtue: Prudence

Vice: Greed

Health: 8

Initiative: 6

Defence: 2

Speed: 8

Merits: Contacts 2 (Law Enforcement, City Officials), Status 4 (City Hall), Resources 4

Sam Forrester is the mayor of Rocky Peaks. He has always been the mayor of Rocky Peaks; well except for that one term he lost out to Judd Tanner, but everyone remembers what a disaster that was. His grey hair and easy smile lend him a distinguished yet friendly air. He seems like everyone’s old friend or favourite uncle. Sam walks a careful path in the politics of the town: the old-timers want peace, quiet and serenity, the new-comers want to see the amenities they left behind to move here follow them. Mayor Forrester wants the plentiful votes of the old-timers and the money that new investment will bring to his property holdings in town.

The bigger problem is the unrest amongst the old-timers. There have been one or two fights down at the Moose Head and there are rumblings at the weekly poker games and monthly hunting trips. This makes the sudden disappearance of a number of the new-comers pets very worrying. Especially since he saw old Jim down the lane skinning something that looked suspiciously like a house cat. Sam Forrester is a worried man and no amount of good, home-town charm is going to fix this problem.

Jesse Tanner (Guide)

Well, folks, this is the Lady and Child falls. They say that a lady hid her child under the falls before being killed by Indians. Now, it ain’t haunted and it’s a good swimming hole, but I dare any of you to come out here by full moon. They say her child still lives here, and he ain’t all right in the head. Now, who’s up for a beer at the Moose Head?

Mental: Intelligence 1, Wits 4, Resolve 1

Physical: Strength 3, Dexterity 2 Stamina 3

Social: Presence 2, Manipulation 1, Composure 2

Mental Skills: Crafts 2 (Carving), Occult 1, Medicine 1

Physical Skills: Athletics 2, Brawl 2, Drive 3, Firearms 2, Stealth 1, Survival 2

Social Skills: Animal Ken 2, Empathy 2, Intimidation 2, Socialize 1

Willpower: 3

Virtue: Faith

Vice: Gluttony

Health: 8

Initiative: 4

Defence: 2

Speed: 10

Merits: Unseen Sense (Werewolf), Language 2 (Spanish), Danger Sense, Direction Sense, Iron Stamina, Allies 3 (Park Rangers)

Jesse works as a guide around Rocky Peak and the surrounding parklands. He drives his SUV full of tourists out every day, hits all the fishing spots and a waterfall and brings them back for a nice coffee at Sally’s or a beer at the Moose Head. Jesse is a simple man, although some would say a bit too simple. But he is likeable for all that. His sandy blonde hair and six foot three frame sometimes attract a lady or two but Jesse never really bites. He still stays with his grandmother on the edge of town and takes solicitous care of her.

Jesse’s Unseen Sense merit sometimes gets him into a fair amount of trouble. Jesse gets really twitchy around wolf-blooded folk and downright antsy around full blood Uratha. In Rocky Peaks, this means he spends a lot of time on edge and it helps for him to get out into the forest with his tour groups.

Kyle Monroe (Manager of the Green Pines Hotel)

Welcome to the Green Pines, Mr Berlotti. We have the usual room for you. No, no, don’t worry I will personally ensure that you aren’t disturbed.

Mental: Intelligence 3, Wits 3, Resolve 1

Physical: Strength 2, Dexterity 1, Stamina 1

Social: Presence 2, Manipulation 3, Composure 2

Mental Skills: Computer 2, Academics 1, Politics 1

Physical Skills: Drive 2, Stealth 1

Social Skills: Persuasion 2, Expression 1, Empathy 1, Socialise 2, Streetwise 1, Subterfuge 3

Willpower: 3

Virtue: Hope

Vice: Lust

Health: 6

Initiative: 3

Defence: 1

Speed: 8

Merits: Fleet of Foot 1, Allies 1 (Mafia), Contacts 2 (City Hall, Business), Barfly, Resources 3

Kyle Monroe is the manager of Green Pines Hotel. He is a balding middle-aged man, who lives in one of the suites at the hotel after a bitter divorce. He runs the place with an iron fist and tends to skirt the very edges of sexual harassment with the maids employed at the hotel. However, he doesn’t think he is a bad man, just one hard done by (despite the Porsche sitting in the parking lot).

However, he is starting to question his self-perceived morality. It all started when a couple of guys, with some Russian girl, paid him a great deal of money, to take a room and keep everyone else out of it for a day. Then they kept coming, until one day they arrived without a girl in tow. A few hours in the bar seemed to solve that as they headed upstairs with a very drunk tourist in tow. The third time they picked up a tourist, they left with a very heavy black bag. When Kyle inspected the room afterwards, he saw one of the girls shoes under the bed and a small smear of blood on the sink. He doesn’t know anything bad happened, but no one saw the girl leave. Now there is someone in a black car following him around town, and he has the feeling he may just be in this deeper than he wants to be.

Places of Interest

Green Pines Hotel

The Green Pines Hotel is a sprawling establishment on the edge of town. A number of the townsfolk are employed there either full time or part time. The heavy Gothic architecture and old-world charm of the hotel lures tourists from City, looking for a change from the glass and steel of the City. The management here try not to publicise the number of tourists that have ended their own lives in this establishment however.

Sally’s Treats (Coffee Shop)

Sally’s Treats is the quaintest holdover from the time before the influx of new blood into Rocky Peaks. Sally is a darling old widow that runs the sprawling coffee shop situated in her house. She hires the local youngsters to wait the tables, but does the lion’s share of the cooking and baking herself. The decorating style does tend towards doilies, but the cakes, treats and coffee more than make it for it.1152064_restaurant_in_street

The ladies of the town spend a fair amount of their free time in Sally’s. They would say it’s a good thing too. They’d point you to that time that that creepy suspected kiddy-fiddler moved to town. They organized that protest outside his house. Sure, he hadn’t actually done something yet, as far as they knew. And sure, he committed suicide a few weeks later. But at least the children are safe, right?

Average GM Characters


Description: The people here have lived in Rocky Peaks most of their life. They tend to the rural dress style, checked shirts, jeans and boots predominating. They drive pickups and mini-vans.

Storytelling Hints: The good folk of Rocky Peaks don’t really like outsiders. Sure, they bring in money and all. But they are loud, and disruptive and the mess with the cosy sense of community that the town has.

Abilities: Gossip (dice pool 7) – The folks of this good town are neighbourly and friendly and know just about everything there is to know about their friends and neighbours.

Yuppie Immigrant

Description: SUVs, Blackberry’s and casual clothes are the order of the day. These people are independently wealthy and can afford pretty much any luxury they want.

Storytelling Hints: The folks flooding in to Rocky Peaks are retired (though mostly quite young), semi-retired or wealthy. They are here for the escape from the rat-race, the quiet and the tranquillity. Some may wonder why they bring so many parties and so much of the city with them.

Abilities: Business (dice pool 6) – The immigrants earned their money somehow and they still have the savvy that got them that far.

Politics (dice pool 4) - Most of the people here may not have been actively involved politics but they definitely knew the movers and shakers.

So far the outskirts of the City are particularly well suited to a game of Werewolf: The Forsaken. The rural town and wilderness presented here tie in effectively with the themes and setting of the Werewolf game. The abundance of wolf-blooded in the town of Rocky Peaks is a rich source of character connections and the Parklands provide a rich source of loci and even verges.

The opportunities exist for other games to be played out against their backdrop, however. The nearness of the setting to the City makes it perfect for a “night-trip” by a Vampire coterie, possibly even to the Green Pines Hotel, and a motley of Changelings may find curious treasures in the hedge surrounding Blue Rock. A trip to the country for the traditionally city-bound character types can make for a fun and challenging change of pace.

Friday, February 27

Alternate Earth: On Her Majesty's Crown Jewel: London

Technology of Note In London

Article Introduction

This is the first of a short series of posts about London. This article describes two major technologies used in the city by the Victorian faction, as well as the London ghettoes.In order to facilitate your introduction to these marvelous technologies and diverse locations, a guide who is both knowledgeable in modern Victorian technology and experienced in the world of Alternative-Earth has been employed:

Introduction by Alistair Wolffe

Copy (2) of london-skyline-wip

Ah, welcome all, welcome! Welcome to London, Her Majesty's pride and joy! London, the centre of the empire, and so the centre of the world.

Enough exposition about this place. Let us tour, and I'll explain who I am and what this place is on the way!”

As the tour group moves out, your guide begins to clarify:
“My name is Alistair Wolffe - I've been around this world several times now - perhaps you've read one of my many tour books? “Armoured Tours Through the Mysterious Orient”? - and I'm somewhat famous as a military historian and explorer, if you travel in the correct circles. At Her Majesty's personal request, I have come to show you around London. Some of my skills will hopefully not be evident today, but I understand that the Queen would prefer you unmolested by the end of this tour.”

Oh, yes sir - I see you have some questions: well, go on.”

The Works

I see. Well, this pipeline which you see running down the road - you see it ma'am? - yes, this pipeline connect to The Works. The Works is a public system built by Brunel. Yes, Brunel, the engineer. The massive steamworks that produces the cloud you see over London powers this gigantic mechanism, which pipes cheap torque into every home here in London. It lets housewives grind goods, it propels the trams in the streets and the underground tunnels, runs fans to keep your food cool: it provides every modern convenience - clearly, the height of Victorian technology!”

The Works is a massive endeavour, imagined by Grandfather (referenced later in this article) and designed and built by Sir Isambard Brunel. A massive steamworks in central London creates an immense amount of torque, which is delivered via a fiendishly complex set of gears and spokes to every house of middle and upper class throughout London. Homeowners pay the London municipality for the service, and gain a quantity of torque (rotational pulling power) proportional to their payment, in their homes. This is useful for many things - a range of utility connectors is purchasable in many shops throughout London.

An obvious gameplay use of The Works is from a terrorist perspective (either the players terrorising London as a form of rebellion against the corrupt society, or the players as a counter-terrorist unit working for the government). Disrupting The Works is trivial for an individual home (a small explosive device placed near a minor set of gears) but is much more challenging for the larger junction, which are typically armoured and guarded. Despite this traitors to the throne try to do this with some regularity, and have, on rare occasions, succeeded. This is colloquially known as “putting a spanner in The Works”, though the pun is intended - the saying existed before The Works did.


And who runs The Works, you ask, sir? Very perceptive you are, sir!”

The guide taps the side of his nose and winks conspiratorially.

How many tens of thousands of bookkeepers, mathematicians, statisticians and physicists are being tied up to keep it running? Not a one! It's all done by Grandfather. Grandfather was a great big computational device created by two of London's finest - Babbage and Turing. They got together, and worked out a way to do really complex sums using mechanisms. Damned if I knew how they did it, but the thing is the size of a small African kingdom - and about as high! Luckily, half of it is underground, otherwise it would destroy the otherwise lovely skyline.

So all a homeowner needs to do every month is bring their money to one of Grandfather's technicians - a rather sorry bunch if I have to be honest - who plug the numbers in, and Grandfather makes sure that every home that wants it gets their torque. He does a lot of other things, here in London, but this is a tour, not a lecture - let's keep walking!”

Grandfather is an intelligent (due to Turing's influence) difference engine - an analogue for modern computers - designed by Charles Babbage to handle the impossible task of managing the administration of the Victorian empire.

An entire article dedicated to Grandfather will be written, but in short: Grandfather is megalomaniacal, and has slowly centralised power to him/itself. He has a series of technicians who exist purely as his “hands” - he has long since become self-aware enough to design “upgrades” to himself, and the only power in Alternate-Earth that can rival him for knowledge and influence is The University.

Grandfather can quickly make any deduction that can be made with available data. He has an efficacious network of spies who continually communicate with him, via relays to his/its technicians, who encode all input. He wields significant political power - he is entrusted with many of Victoria's greatest resources to manage as he sees fit.

Gameplay uses of Grandfather should never be as unsubtle as “damage the difference engine”, as he/it is incredibly well-guarded, and has built large quantities of redundancy into his/it's structure. More likely, players will take orders from Grandfather - who may be working via some intermediary who is not affiliated with - or directly opposed to - the Victorian government.

Ghettoes of LondonPicture generously donated by StringyCustard

As the guide continues to lead your tour group towards a series of darkened ghettoes, his stance shifts slightly, his gait perceptively stiffened.

Now be careful around here, misters and missus - there are some around here who wouldn't care for your health if you carried some valuable bauble that caught their eye.”

This is London's ghettoes. I wouldn't bring you here if I wasn't ordered specifically to take you everywhere in London. See, these places are rickety and ugly, and the people who live here seem to be the same. You know how it is: Jews not lucky enough to be in banking and too stupid to convert, inventors who couldn't come up with anything more than 'a device which catches mice via a simple lever system', and all that rot... the failures and the dregs of this city”

Well, the problem, y'see, is that London sort of eats people up, and these are the people it spat out. Those it consumes, well. They're never seen again, and sometimes wind up being savoured and valued and brought into the upper crust. And some it shits back out, and you'll find some of them here too - normally, they're the ones standing on boxes, shouting about how everything is wrong, using big words like oppression and totalitarianism. Well, as far as I can see, in this world, everyone's a sinner - we all deserve to be down here, but some of us are lucky enough or stubborn enough to claw our way out.”

Anyway, along with people who shout out about how everything is wrong, are those who act on it. The ghettoes are hotbeds of treason. Traitors meet together in the street, planning and plotting to overthrow the government. Of course, the coppers do their best - curfews have helped, and bribes get a dozen or so thrown into a prison or shipped off to Oz every week or so, but it can't be helped. I'd say toss a match onto the whole area - it's flammable enough - and see it all go up in a big puff of smoke, except that I wouldn't bother wasting a match on these people.”

The ghettos of London are, indeed, hotbeds of rebel sentiment. Very few amenities from London Proper are filtered down to these slums, and general feeling throughout the city is very negative when it comes to this run-down area. As a result, a variety of revolutionary philosophies are becoming widespread amongst those who live in the ghettoes: communism and democracy the two most dangerous.

In general, police will not stop someone who is expressing an opinion out loud in London, but in the slums it is not unknown for people to try to incite rioting. If this is the case, the person will be “disappeared” - either immediately if it is warranted or if an example is to be made, but preferably at night in the privacy of their own beds.

The slums are very flammable - most of the homes are made from flammable or easily destroyed materials. Fires in the slums are treated in a multitude of ways - low-flying airships will dump water from above, while bucket-chains from the Thames and bulk water brought to the nearest Works terminal serve from the ground level.

In gameplay terms, the slums provide several opportunities for play. Pro-Victorian parties can uncover rebel conspiracies and act as peacekeepers, or (if it is preferred) act as the defenders of the ghettoes, stopping police brutality and helping out “the little man”, the “man on the streets”. Finally, the option of starting characters as slum-dwellers who create conspiracies to disrupt or overthrow the oppressive government, while tempting, requires significant forethought. Life in the ghettoes is very unforgiving. Warnings for treason do not exist for a reason - if a whiff of suspicion is brought to the authorities, prison, hangings or (worst of all) extradition are not uncommon.

Final Words by Alistair

What's that, sir? You have another important appointment to keep? Alright - we shall adjourn this touring session for now. I shall await your call over optic-telegraph. Ask your doorman or housekeeper for instructions on it's use, should you not already understand the existing principles. I wish you all a good evening, and may the Queen watch over you, and Science protect you.”

Final Words

This article has quickly outlined two technologies that are important in understanding the London of Alternative-Earth, and has begun to detail specific parts of London. It is encouraged that these articles be adapted into whatever form your gaming group would care to use them, so several details - such as Grandfather's actual mechanisms - have been skirted over. Good storytellers or gamemasters can fill in details for themselves in the mean time, but further articles will dwell further on these devices.

The next article will continue this series, focusing on London, Optical Communication, the Industrial Zone and the Inner Suburbs.

Technorati Tags: ,,,,,,,,

Thursday, February 26

Alternate-Earth: On Her Glorious Victorian Empire, and the Damned Blasphemies of the Orient


Series Introduction

This series will describe a world - “Alternate-Earth” - suitable for role-playing in a dystopian Steam-punk game. Each article will focus on some aspect - geographic, cultural, or institutional - of the world, introducing new aspects that can be used in your gameplay.

Alternate-Earth Introduction

Alternate-Earth, or “Alt-Earth” if you prefer, is a world of Steampunk and High Magick. “Steam” means bizarre anachronistic technologies, “punk” means dystopian society with totalitarian rule by a shadowy government who seeks to control all. “Magic” means forces beyond reasoning and mortal ken, and when a “k” has been added to the end, you know that blood will be shed at some point in dark mystical rituals seeking to bring power to the wicked, corrupt and powerful.

Mechanics Discussion

Alternate Earth presents a world in which role-playing can take place. It was designed with a home-brew system of mechanics which was abandoned after some experimentation, as there are existing role-playing games which provide excellent systems to support the “fluffy” world.

This author would personally recommend, depending on the tone of the game, World of Darkness (particularly in it's “vanilla” flavour, without any templates added to a normal mortal) if the game focuses on the “punk” aspect of Steampunk. World of Darkness facilitates game atmosphere, and the world of Alternate-Earth is certainly dark and oppressive enough to suit the system.

If the game is going to revel more in the the “steam” parts of Steampunk, with a focus on the inventions, time period and good cultural aspects of the game, then “Mutants & Masterminds” would be better suited to mechanically describing many aspects of characters or NPCs which other games would avoid due to “balance issues”. In “Worlds of Freedom”, the chapter entitled “Freedom by Gaslight” already introduces some mechanics and flavours which would help support a Steampunk game.

Some other mechanical systems may also work, especially if liberal use is made of “relabelling” concepts from other systems. The cyber-punk world of “Shadowrun” could be changed, with some effort, to describe the fantastic science-fiction weapons, vehicles and body-modifications with a clockwork-and-steam flavour. “Call of Cthulhu”, especially in the earlier time-settings and with the oppressive atmosphere, could also be well suited to Alternate-Earth, and Lovecraft's horrors could be incorporated into the world easily (more on this in a later article about the shadowy University).

Geography and Global Politics of Alternate Earthaltearth_globe

There are three major forces vying for control of Earth, and each has carved out it's own territory to fuel the continual wars which rage.

Victoria, “the Queen's England”, is the most stereotypical Steampunk setting, with an added helping of totalitarianism and dystopia. High English society mixed with fantastical devices and inventions. The

Queen herself is far less than a figurehead - she is now practically a captive of the political system which requires her as a symbol - though in recent years, she has become worshipped as a deity. The bureaucracy which keeps society from toppling over is so corrupt that the only thing keeping the system stable is every crooked politician, minor noble and successful businessman pulling equally hard on the same ill-gotten gains.

Lower-class Victorian society is found in the slums and ghettos, where many are forced to take up increasingly unpleasant tasks as previous gainful employment is replaced by automatons. Opium dens and prostitution are becoming an increasing concern, while gangs, rape and violence rule the night in many large cities.

Victoria covers all of Europe, up to the Ural Mountains, and has colonies in North Africa and North America.

The Eternal Oriental Empire is a dark and shadowy culture, where slavery and blood-magick is rife, and control is centralised on the Emperor - a person/creature so powerful that merely uttering his name is punishable by execution of the blasphemer and his family, to the third consanguinity.

Magickal daemons and fantastical creatures abound, powered by an ambient magickal field which is kept strong by the sacrifice of thousands of slaves - but a two thousand are born the following day, from oppressed women forced to continually produce children or fear fierce beatings, or from prisoners of war who are treated far, far worse.

The Oriental Empire ranges from the Philippines and Japan on the East to the Urals on the West.

The University is a faction which has existed, in some measure, for hundreds of years - possibly many more, before being revealed. They trade arms to both sides in the war, in exchange for knowledge, technology and magickal lore. They then put this knowledge to practical use, producing ever-more destructive arms to sell. They are incredibly xenophobic (with a few notable exceptions), and will never share knowledge itself.

The University has no Imperial goals further than holding it's own territories. Unlike Victoria and the Oriental Empire, the University does not engage in warfare - and if either faction were to challenge the lands the University holds, they would quickly find that their armament supplies ran dry and could not be replaced.

The University controls Greenland, the Arctic and Antarctic.

Other Geographies

Southern America has successfully repelled all invasions from both the University and the Victorian factions which have tried to claim it. The native tribes (aesthetically Incan and Mayan) have used their own forms of blood magick and ancient technologies, combined with accurate prophecy tied to an alien form of calendar, to destroy any non-Americans from entering their lands.

Sub-Saharan Africa is infected with a plague, causing any who do not engage in a local form of shamanistic magic to attract vast quantities of walking dead, who consume their flesh. Particularly worrisome are a tribe of cannibal midgets, the tokolosh who carry the weak and infirm away in the night, never to be seen again. If the Saharan deserts didn't rip the flesh from the bones of these horrors and the dead, they might be powerful enough to challenge Victoria itself.

Australia is without inhabitants. A meteor which struck Tunguska burrowed through the Earth, emerging in the Australian outback. It was discovered to be a portal to the land of the dead - and it worked in both directions. Spirits and wild chaos magic abound in Australia, and both the Victorian and Oriental empires send their most violent convicts to Australia's shore for abandonment as a form of terrible capital punishment.

Weapons of Warfare

The war between Victoria and the Imperial Empire has stretched back further than histories record, but modern warfare on either side illustrates their diversity:

Victoria uses massive land-ships powered by steam, technological “steam-gents”, humanoids of brass and cogs and gears, and gigantic cannons, the size of cities. Flying machines and firearms complement these line-breaking constructs. Enormous smoke-belching factories packed with children and the infirm work continuously to provide the arms and equipment that the elite military forces of Victoria use to force back the heathen Oriental armies.

The Oriental Empire uses fantastical creatures from myth and legend. Dragons, gryphons, fox- and turtle-spirits are used on the battlefield to terrible effect. And these great creatures need blood to be spilled to remain in this world - which the Empire gladly provides in a never-ending army of slaves, spears and swords pressed into their untrained hands, forced forward by the weight of slaves behind them fleeing the monsters who would gleefully consume them. They are complemented by explosives, fireworks and manned kites.

Final Words

Alternate-Earth is a rich Steampunk settings that has been developed with a focus primarily on three forms of gameplay:

Victorian Intrigue, wherein a group of bold individuals perform services for those agencies still loyal to the Queen.

War Stories, wherein groups of adventurers perform missions on the frontlines of the Long War.

Explorations, wherein a party of adventurers brave the jungles of South America, the unknowns of the Dark Continent, or even try to covertly explore the great island-fortress-laboratories of the University.

Though this series will explore the world of Alternate-Earth, these three adventure-styles have prompted the impetus to construct the world, and so are the most well-developed.

Next article: London, The Works and Grandfather!

Some Tropes Used in this Article: Crapsack world, Steampunk, Dystopia, Black and Gray Morality