Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Stupid, Stupid Luck

I rather like stories where serendipity plays as much a factor as skill and strength to win the day, and a growing amalgamation of mischance looms over all until something prosaic resolves it unexpectedly.

For example, I'm currently watching The Irresponsible Captain Tylor, a satirical anime poking fun at the heroic space-battleship genre, with a lead character who gets by mainly through blind fortune and refusal to acknowledge the seriousness of any situation.
By the way, this series is legitimately free to watch on youtube.
So of course I eventually mused how to implement this in an OSR fashion. Here's one possible approach.

Add a trait called Stupid, Stupid Luck. Every session, it begins with a value equal to 10 minus the character's current level. Yes, "stupid" being stated twice is vital to this mechanic. Vital.

In any given situation or encounter, the character may attempt to roll against their Stupid, Stupid Luck by throwing a d20. if the die lands greater than the current value, luck is against them and things get worse (probably in a non-lethal but embarrassing way) but they get to raise the value by 1d3 points.

If the die lands less than or equal to the current value, luck is on their side and things align in their favor, preferably in a way that is non-violent and paradoxically mundane. The dragon that was about to breathe on them develops a distracting case of hiccups, the sprung trap turns out to have been accidentally loaded with harmlessly pleasant lilac powder, the ogre gang boss turns out to be an old football buddy. However, after the success the value of Stupid, Stupid Luck is halved.

In practice this should lead to a progression where the character depending on luck suffers several indignities only to end up on top at the end, smelling of roses ... or lilacs.

Ways to implement this could be as a character class for whom it's their main ability. Call the class, say, the Blessed Idiot using the Cleric's advancement tables. Or as a communal resource the whole party can make use of. For a truly bonkers game, every character could have Stupid, Stupid Luck, possibly even monster's and NPC's.

Monday, January 29, 2018

HaberDash: First Cut

I've been mulling over playing cards in a roleplaying context for quite a while now, at least since Everway and definitely since the SAGA versions of Marvel Superheroes and Dragonlance. It seemed like something that should be easy, drama powered by, instead of the proprietary decks of those previously mentioned games, the elegant probabilities and imagery of a generic traditional deck.

The Saks-Werbespiel deck, displayed on the excellent World of Playing Cards.
But for whatever strange reason, there hasn't been a card-based roleplaying game published (at least not that I've heard of. EDIT: since I wrote that, folks have reminded me of Castle Falkenstein). And my own attempts to write one kept drying out in conceptual dead-ends. Frustrated, I hadn't done anything with the project in years.

Until yesterday when, literally on the verge of sleep, the seed of a system abruptly coalesced in my mind. I've been reading several minimalist designs lately (particularly Minimal6) so perhaps my long-latent notions got hooked by a new concept, pulling things together. Whatever the genesis, here's what I've got so far. Feedback would be greatly appreciated.

  HaberDash; first cut

(Note: previously these rules were called "Cheap Suits.")

0.0 Set-Up.

These are rules for tabletop roleplaying. They assume a traditional arrangement for such, one person serving as a GM (game moderator) who presents a scenario to one or more players each running a character of their making. Play will require note-cards, pencils and a full deck of playing cards (all four suits plus jokers).

1.0 Making a Character.

Divide thirteen marks between the four suits of Clubs, Diamonds, Hearts and Spades.

Clubs represent speed, dexterity, reflex and sudden intuition.

Diamonds represent endurance, slow action and deliberation.

Hearts represent awareness, logic and erudition.

Spades represent forceful action, strength and intimidation.

Each suit may have no fewer than one mark and no more than six. Three is about average.

Describe three Qualities, each a short but evocative phrase declaring something heroic about the character. These must be things that both help the character excel in particular situations but just as often lead to complications in others.

1.1 Example Characters.

Emma “WireShadow” Bequist
(cyberpunk outlaw)
-Hacker pioneer, spelunker of the deepest data caverns.
-Modified this myself, I’m testing some new ideas.
-Everyone on the Network has heard of me.

(sword & sorcery adventurer)
-Blood-furious berzerker.
-Barbarian daughter of the Iceblue Mountains.
-Furious passions, deep melancholies.

(galactic wanderer)
-Last of the Armageddon Androids.
-Enough plasma warheads to level a city block.
-I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.

Katherine Zephrenos
(courtly wizardess)
-A weaver of illusions.
-Always dressed in sharpest fashion.
-On first-name terms with a devil or two.

2.0 Facing Challenges.

When the character is faced by a challenge of uncertain outcome, the GM will decide which suit is most appropriate. The player then draws as many cards as they have marks in that suit, meeting the challenge if any of the cards match the suit. The number value of the matching card indicates how well they succeed. If multiples of the same suit are drawn, the player acts per the single most advantageous value.

Values 1-5 mean an iffy success entailing complications. The lower the number, the worse the complication. Values 6-10 indicate a superlative success granting dividends, the higher the number the better the bonus. Drawing no matching suits means the character fails.

If the character has a quality relevant to the challenge they are facing, they may draw an additional card or improve the value of one of the cards the drew by 2.

Royalty cards (Jack, Queen and King) offer power, but at a price. Royalty can be worth 10, but taking it requires the player declare a complication based on one of the character’s qualities. If the player turns down the 10 (and connected complication) the royalty card is worth nothing.

If a joker is drawn, regardless if the player also draw any successful cards, the GM may declare a complication, up to changing the entire nature of the scene.

The deck should be reshuffled after the second joker has been drawn.


3.0 Future Cuts

Things I want to consider for the next cut:

The probabilities so far are pulled out of thin air; a suit rating of 3 as "average" just feels about right, I've no math to back it up. Actual play will likely indicate needs for adjusting the numbers.

A consequence mechanic of some kind; the obvious way is to check off suit marks, but that seems a bit blunt.

An oracular system for the GM, by which they can also draw cards to build situations and opposition.

I may or may not add skills to characters; preliminary idea is a simple binary thing that let's one draw an additional card only if a suit card hasn't been drawn yet.

I haven’t as yet thought of a mechanic to dial the difficulty of challenges, but I doubt one is really needed.

Likewise, there’s no advancement mechanic, but I’m comfortable not bothering with one.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Up and Away! My First Icons Characters

In order to get around the ubiquitous D&D Adventurer League events hogging up space at public gaming venues, I've been considering offering to run a superhero game at a neighborhood comic shop. But which system? Superhero gaming is sort of my white whale; a genre I very much enjoy with incredible potential for tabletop play, but I'd yet to find rules that properly clicked. And I've been looking all the way back since Villains & Vigilantes.

A few years ago I had good success with Supers!, but have since found parts of it at odds with my preferences. I took a chance on FASERIP (a retroclone of the 1980's Marvel Superheroes game) and had some fun rolling up characters, but ultimately decided it lacked proper GM support systems. Commentary indicated that Icons was the spiritual successor to Marvel Superheroes so I finally abandoned my resistance* to it and tracked down a copy.

I've got the Green Ronin printing of this ... which has some noticeable typos and editing mistakes. I may get the Ad Infinitum POD just to see if they were corrected.

*Why did I resist Icons for so long? Possibly out of a bizarre notion that Icons was competing for the same niche as Supers! and I had an existing loyalty to Simon Washbourne's work.

On an initial read-through, it looks like Icons is exactly what I've been looking for, a fast and breezy system unhindered by detailed modeling but with strong support for tone and genre tropes, and prompts to encourge creativity rather than procedures that contain it.

As my first glimmer of actual-play, let's see what I get when I roll up character's for the first time (character portraits are snagged off-the-cuff from GIS with no attempt made at attribution):

Quantum Cop

Origin: Transformed

Prowess: 2 (Poor)
Coordination: 4 (Fair)
Strength: 2 (Poor)
Intellect: 6 (Great)
Awareness: 4 (Fair)
Willpower: 6 (Great)

Shrinking: 6 (1" tall, Limit: max only)
Duplication: 4 (Limit: only when shrunk)
Fast Attack: 6 (Limit: only when shrunk)
Leaping: 4 (about a city block, Limit: only when shrunk)


"Always on the case"
"Lack of funding keeps me clever"
"Never truly know where I am"

Determination: 2
Stamina: 8

A brilliant and dedicated but unassuming forensic lab scientist, Phoebe Boson was ambushed in her lab one night by criminals out to destroy damning evidence she'd uncovered in their case. Locking her in an experimental quantum-scanning device to create an "accident," the rays of the machine instead imbued her with the ability to express quantum characteristics. After foiling her attackers, Phoebe now serves as the mysterious special agent Quantum Cop.

This was a pleasing result for my first try at the char-gen system. Definitely a concept I didn't have in mind going in and was happily surprised to end up with. I confess, to get the final result to match the crystallized image, I freely tweaked the results, trading in some attribute and power levels and adding the "only when shrunk" limit to buy the Leaping power, which isn't actually how the char-gen system works RaW. I'd allow (even encourage) such trading in a game I ran, but other referees may not be so flexible.

R.E.C.O.N. (Robotic Extreme Combat Operations Nocturnal)

Origin: Artificial

Prowess: 2 (Poor)
Coordination: 5 (Good)
Strength: 5 (Good)
Intellect: 6 (Great)
Awareness: 7 (Incredible)
Willpower: 5 (Good)

Adaptation: 7
Detection: 3 (Heat)
Life Support: 5 (No need to breath, eat, drink, sleep and immune to disease)

Military, Expert
Weapons (firearms)

"Mission objectives ... targeted"
"A two-hundred million dollar asset"
"Just because it's war doesn't mean we can't be civil"

Determination: 2
Stamina: 10

An android built to survey and survive even the most extreme of battlefield conditions, with secondary roles as sniper and ambusher (often serving with counterpart units A.R.M.O.R. and S.T.R.I.K.E.). After several years of experience, R.E.C.O.N. has developed a professional pride in its performance and a unexpectedly personable demeanor (it enjoys trivia contests and collecting knock-knock jokes).

I like this one as well, but it took a bit more effort to get it to solidify. Again, I freely tweaked on the fly to bring things together. Particularly, I trashed a couple rolls that gave power ratings of 1 (I don't even see why that's a possible result, since there's no compensation) and swapped the +2 Strength bonus that comes with the Artificial origin for +2 Awareness in line with the reconnaissance role. In the end, though I ended up with an interesting character, R.E.C.O.N. works better as a NPC or antagonist than a player-hero.

Dame Diamond 

Origin: Gimmick

Prowess: 5 (Good)
Coordination: 6 (Great)
Strength: 5 (Good)
Intellect: 5 (Good)
Awareness: 5 (Good)
Willpower: 4 (Fair)

Binding: 4 (Device: confetti cane; Extra: Burst)
Swinging: 4 (Device: confetti cane)

Performance (dancing)
Martial Artist
Sleight of Hand

"Wealth and fame I do Not ignore"
"Always looks good doing it"
"Knows who to know in theater"

Diana Karat was a multi-talented performer too good for the hack magician she was stuck serving as assistant to. When she learned his show was just cover for lucrative heists, she leapt into action (with full stage costume and props) to personally thwart his scheme (and not incidentally use the resulting arrest to break her contract). Flattered by the stunning front-page photos her exploit earned, she decided to pursue the crime-fighting gig full-time.

After ending up with a police officer and soldier, I began this character aiming for something decidedly non-institutional, so I deemed they'd be an artist before even touching the dice. Unsurprisingly I went with a dancer (it's a bit hard to justify an action-adventure sculptor). I like this flashy and well-rounded character who is much more of a broadly capable "adventurer" than the previous two. I don't recall nudging anything in char-gen, but the "gimmick" origin revealed I'd prefer a bit more explicit consequences and trade-offs for device-based powers. I suppose it could be argued that the vulnerabilities that come with a device are offset by versatility (Dame Diamond can just loan her Confetti Cane to anyone who needs it) so it's not really the issue I perceive it as; too much min-maxing instinct in me.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Buying a Yacht, But Paddling a Kayak.

Here's  a New Year's confession: when someone declares they're playing a heavy traditional roleplaying game like Pathfinder or GURPS, I don't really believe them. Not to say I think they're lying; I agree they're really roleplaying, and they're guiding that process using means gleaned from the text they're referencing. But they're not actually using all the rules implied by invoking the full sytem title. Because over decades of gaming I've come to repeatedly observe the following:

Given play centered around a multi-hundred page rules text, 90% of play will actually use only 10% of the official rules, and pushing play into that other 90% of rules will only produce about 10% as much fun for the participants.

Thus I regard traditional "big book" roleplaying texts as inherently ... futile, I'll say. I've never actually observed, in one-shots or campaigns, either as a player or GM, a big-book rule system that didn't in practice get whittled down to little more than just action checks, damage rolls, and whatever few broad-strokes setting points were needed to justify the wild schemes and monster hunts the players always ended up pursuing (in other words, about the same thing as a twenty-page rules-light system). Note, I don't think there's anything wrong with playing this way; in fact I feel accepting this practical upper limit on mechanical consensus only make things better for everyone involved. But somehow, despite all this, the commercial counterpart to this hobby keeps finding an audience for big texts that I think are mostly going ignored.

Perhaps I'm blinded by my preferences; I openly prefer light games, minimal stat-lines and lots of room for at-the-table improvisation and rulings. And I admit, I've heard second-hand of people playing mechanically expansive games like Burning Wheel and Champions with all the gears engaged. But I've played Burning Wheel myself (run by the author no less) and in those sessions, we ignored most of the small text on the character sheets and just threw dice like most other games.

A caveat I'll allow is that there's usually at least one participant who is very much into something in that outer 90% of rules. A player who's all about the magic system or another who's all about the personality mechanics, or a GM who dives into the tech-building processes. but those are effectively sub-games maintained by just those people; the group as a whole doesn't engage with those rules any more than is needed to validate the enthusiasts' contribution to play.

A tiny little book about vampires, from the blog On Being a Mini Mum.
Because something something rules light.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Meet the Gang, the Star-Travelling Gang

Allow me to introduce the expeditionary party from Pan-Ravenna University (PRU), a crack team of self-directed academics and support personnel with the skills and experience for pro-active archeology, daring sociological research, and dynamically finding solutions to their requirements for equipment and funding in the field (or, as baseless vicious rumor would phrase it, shameless ruin-raiders committing crimes of bribery, intimidation, assault, theft and looting far from the oversight of the deans of PRU).

Take a look and judge for yourself (pdf link).

For several years now, I've presented this regular set of pre-generated PC's at my Stars Without Number convention sessions. Though the concepts have stayed consistent, I've revised them several times statistically, narratively and in presentation. The biggest change is that originally I wrote up these character's as neutral as possible. Just stats, no personality or motivations, on the assumption that would leave room for the players to turn the characters into what they wanted. But in practice players were eager for ready behavioral hooks to launch off from, so I added some flavor in part based on how I'd seen these characters played already. I still have the players come up with their own names and appearances, though (note that descriptions are also gender neutral).

So far, no expedition of the PRU team has looked like this...
Mechanically, these are all mostly standard 1st edition SWN 3rd level characters, which I find to be the sweet-spot when running OSR games at conventions (capable enough to have a couple tricks to choose from, sturdy enough to take a solid hit and keep standing, but still limited enough to require shrewdness and teamwork). I've incorporated the higher skill point advancement suggested by Kevin Crawford, and bumped the attributes up a touch from natural-roll results. Also, I've tinkered with the background and training package to make them more colorful and given each character one unique piece of gear with a enigmatic description of subjective utility, which has turned out to be a rich inspiration for player improvisation (I've seen a whole session hinge around the Space Marine's crystal alien pet).

... but quite a few looked like this.

I only run tables for up to six players, but offer eight characters to choose from so there's plenty of variety for everyone and the choices made can indicate how I should tune the scenario (everybody took the Warriors but nobody took the Psychics? okay, time to set up a bunch of combats). But still, making the party a research team with wide discretion on a far-away survey mission seemed a good way to keep options open for a wide variety of scenarios. Rather than being mercenaries all about battle or merchants only looking for profit, these folks can get caught up in anything from "the Dean at PRU orders you to go investigate the Bloody Murder Planet," to "you're broke and stuck in a backwater starport, and you need to figure out a way out of here," or the classic "the local Mafia King has a Shiny Pre-Tech Dingus that would look really good in the PRU museum (and win you a healthy commission)." I'm sure I'll convert these characters to SWN 2nd edition when the time comes, and continue to offer them to players for years.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Landsscape of the Imagination ... with Dice

It feels so dignified to be the subject of a portrait.

While I was running my "Terrible Thunder Lizards" scenario for Stars Without Number at Fear the Con X last weekend, unknown to me Jeb Brack was sitting behind us painting the whole tableau of the game-in-progress.

Since we're all middle-aged nerds, this probably mostly still counts as a Still Life.

The reveal of the work at the end was a humbling surprise; I'm glad I happened to be wearing a colorful shirt that day. Mr. Brack is amiable to sending me a full scan, so I'll likely get to have this framed on the wall of my home gaming parlor before too long.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

So it Began

Talking with folk at last weekend's DieCon, I was reminded that my initiation into tabletop roleplaying seems to be atypical of most others in the OSR audience.

As a kid in the 1980's, I didn't have a an older brother or wargaming uncle (or venerable SF-fandom aunt) to show me how to throw my first d20, nor a hobby/SF/Computer/AV club to hang out with. Growing up literally isolated in the hills, I didn't have many friends to hang out with at all, so if there were kids caught up in the (by that point waning) D&D fad in my area, I never met them. What I did have though was a TV and a heedless dedication to adventure cartoons. So my introduction to "Dungeons & Dragons" was the eponymous Saturday morning show. And that show was amazing back then (actually, it still holds up pretty well even today). 

Episode 16 The City at the Edge of Midnight

Of course, though it was great entertainment, the cartoon wasn't at all good at conveying what D&D actually was. Somehow, probably general pop-culture osmosis, I got the insight that D&D was originally a game ... but at the time and at that age, "games" meant to me either boring old boardgames like Monopoly and Scrabble, or hot exciting computer games (mostly in arcades), and I had never seen Dungeons & Dragons in either of those contexts. Eventually however, I caught the right ad and I finally knew what D&D really was: a bulky squawking castle-shaped slab that you moved an adventurer around trying to find the treasure before the dragon got you and the buzzer went off.

Yes, that was what little-me thought the show (and all those D&D action figures and comics and coloring books) was based on.

But wait, it gets even goofier: the first roleplaying book I ever bought was the 1st edition Monster Manual, but only in an act of complete misapprehension. Through the 80's, parapsychology was still a fad, and "non-fiction" books listing monsters and ghosts were common, particularly illustrated ones written in list-format directed at kids like myself. So when I found the Monster Manual in a hobby shop, I took it for another encyclopedia of monsters for its own sake, albeit with spectacularly involved stat spreads (sorta like baseball cards). As for the "D&D" branding on the cover ... well, it was a time of Battlestar Galactica beach towels and Kool-Aid video games; trade dress often had nothing to do with function. 

Really, with that great cover image, it's surprising I ever got around to even reading the title.
Eventually enough clues piled up that I figured out, "oh, this is a paper & pencil version of Rogue ... and I can play it without a computer!" Like I said, I'd met computer games first, and played uncounted hours of the ASCII-dungeon game Rogue on a primordial desktop (which both gave me a head-start on a lot of D&D's concepts but a lot of incorrect notions about others).

Still prefer it over Nethack; that little dog is a pain.

Entranced by the boundless possibilities, next birthday I asked for the Red Box Basic set, much to my father's chagrin. He was distressed at my persistent interest in monsters and science fiction and fantasy, things he thought I had to grow away from in order to become a real man (he was already annoyed I'd wasted all that time on the computer playing Rogue instead of learning how to make spreadsheets). So I was disappointed but not surprised when the celebratory day came and went without the requested gift. But the next day, my mother conspiratorially handed me a brand new Red Box. She said they just forgot to bring it out with other presents, but I suspect there was a behind-the-scenes showdown and late visit to the hobby store in defiance of the old man's gruff. Thanks mom, you're the best.

So there it is, I'm a testament to successful media licensing.

Where it all started ... eventually.