Designing Extended Challenges: The Core Rules

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Below the “read more” tag, are the rules for running 13th Age Extended Challenges

Which means I’m finally done!

Or, perhaps not.

These rules only really cover running the challenges – great if you have an adventure module in hand that uses them, but given as we haven’t released any of those yet not all that useful.

So the new goal is that next week I’ll provide a set of guidelines for building Extended Challenges suitable to your party’s level – along with some examples.

After you read the rules below let me know what you’d like to see in the encounter building guidelines: and what you think the rules have missed!

Continue reading →

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Designing Extended Challenges: Fitting 13th Age

A lot of this series has addressed implementing Extended Challenges in a general sense, but I am specifically developing them for 13th Age, so what are the key elements of 13th Age that can be tied into:

Backgrounds

In 13th Age non-combat challenges are made using skill checks, but they’re based on d20+(ability modifier+level)+a relevant background. These backgrounds are descriptive phrases such as “Trained as a Warlord by the Elf Queen”, “Undead Hunter” or “Crowd Favourite in the Gladiator Pits” – and are free-text, meaning that as a scenario writer it’s impossible to make a list of possible skill checks.

Additionally PCs are encouraged to only have 2 or 3 backgrounds, rather than using a larger skill-list as seen in D&D editions 2-5 – and any attempt to prevent repeated checks needs to take that into account.

So rather than considering re-use of the same background to be repetition, I’m going to define repetition as “Using the same combination of ability score and background as used on a previous successful check”. As for the prevention? I think it’s fair to kick the difficulty up by a notch; you’ve plucked the low-hanging-fruit for that combination, so using it again means you’re trying something harder.

Standardised Difficulties 

The DCs for skill checks in 13th Age are highly standardised; being set based on the environment the encounter is taking place in, and always being multiples of 5. In 4e skill challenges had DCs that were, by default, set by the level of the party, but 13th Age is explicit about them being based on the environment/opposition.

So we’ll use the 13th Age chart when setting skill check DCs.

\/Task/Environment> Adventurer Tier

DC

Champion Tier

DC

Epic Tier

DC

Normal task 15 20 25
Hard task 20 25 30
Ridiculously hard task 25 30 35

 

As you can probably tell this isn’t actually very limiting – when designing an Extended Challenge the environment is likely already set, but that still gives the flexibility of picking whether the challenge is made up of Normal, Hard or Ridiculously Hard tasks.

As a rule I expect to use only “Normal” and “Hard” as the baseline for any extended challenge – most often Normal – but it seems like a good idea to give guidance on when to kick a check up a tier; should harder checks be a punishment for making silly choices, or an opportunity to achieve greater success at greater risk?

Personally I lean to the latter – the former could be a useful tool for GMs who find that their players suggest truly absurd uses of their backgrounds, but 13th Age is generally built on a strong foundation of “Assumption of Good Faith”, so it feels like such a use would go counter to the system philosophy.

Player Narrative Influence: 

For an F20 game, 13th Age is particularly keen on player’s influencing the narrative, so to feed into that I’m going to add flexibility rules:

    1. Encourage players to create obstacles to be overcome, and opportunities that they’ll take advantage of, rather than putting the onus on the GM.
    2. Allow Temporal Flexibility – flashbacks to things that were prepared earlier.

Icon Dice

A significant portion of players’ narrative power in 13th Age comes through the Icon Dice, a set of 3+ d6, each connected to one of the 13 Icons, that each player rolls at the start of every session – and that may occasionally be rolled for special events – but the rules surrounding their exact uses are deliberately rather vague; they are primarily narrative tools and therefore they tend to be used differently depending on the style of each group.

But the kind of narrative influence they offer – ranging from the aid of another ally of your favoured icon to knowledge of your most hated icon’s secret signals – seems like it should fit in with the sort of situation that Extended Challenges are used to resolve. So I’ll be providing an advised usage for them – They allow a roll to achieve a double-success, but 5s also trigger the downside listed for failed risky attempts, even if you’re not using the risky attempt rules otherwise.

The Escalation Die

One of 13th Age’s tricks for exciting combat is The Escalation Die – a d6 that is added at the end of the first round, set to one, and increases by one each round. 

It’s added to all player attack rolls, and serves to make combat more climactic; the obvious strategy of using your biggest spells to eliminate enemies right at the start – “going nova” – is made less optimal by the fact that holding those powers back lets you use them later when they have a better chance to hit.

But it’s explicitly not added to skill checks made during combat – so importing it into Extended Challenges and making it work for skills would be a somewhat strange change – which means no escalation die. But perhaps there’s another way to implement a similar feeling?

Actions that aid the whole party on all future checks can build up like the escalation die can, and encourage players to take more risks as the challenge goes on. This does suggest that perhaps any resource expenditure should still come with an element of risk – rather than expending dailies being a guaranteed bonus success, as I’ve been running them in my home game.

This isn’t even my final post

Last week I announced the post as probably penultimate… turns out that there’s significantly more to do before I can put together a final rule set. Over the next week I’ll be compiling the realisations I made while writing this in order to create a ruleset for Extended Challenges

P.S. thanks to everyone that’s been reading these, and especially those who’ve commented, writing them has really helped me think and having an audience makes writing much easier for me.

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Designing 13th Age Extended Challenges 4 – Non-binary Stakes

First in sequence – SecondThird

First, a note: In discussion after last week’s post the feeling was mixed, but overall it seemed that the advice was to provide both versions – complexity with Aid Another actions and risky checks; alongside a slimmed-down version – which honestly isn’t actually more work in this case, because it saves me the difficult job of deciding which is superior!

So, item 4 on my original list of targets: non-binary stakes. I’m leaning a bit into step 5, fitting the game, too because ultimately I don’t think that the issue of non-binary stakes can be properly addressed outside of the mechanics of the game in which this Extended Challenge system is to be implemented.

Most, though not all, systems have resources that can be lost (such as hitpoints and spells) or penalties that can be gained (such as wounds and fatigue). These are fertile ground for costly successes.

With 13th Age there are three main internal resources that we can look at when it comes to the PCs: hitpoints and recoveries; daily abilities; and icon dice. I’m going to start at the end:

 

  • Icon Dice: These elements allow players to influence the narrative of the game. They generally aren’t given specific mechanical weight, but there’s a strong argument for the sort of narrative change they offer granting a success – our group often uses them in both combat and extended challenges for rerolls.
  • Limited-use Abilities: Spells, prayers, songs, whatever form they may take plenty of classes have abilities that can only be used once per full rest. Taking as a given that even a multi-day extended challenge won’t allow for full rests 1)The abilities may be called “dailies” but extended challenges, and wilderness adventures in general, work a lot better if full rests are required to be more restful than what you’ll get while camping, and taking guard shifts, for 6-8 hours during a full march. expending these abilities also seems like the sort of thing that could bring about an automatic success – or potentially allow the opportunity for a double-success.
    Of course most such limited-use abilities are very combat-oriented – but encouraging players to use them creatively can be great fun. Rather than summoning his ancestors to help him battle a great foe, the Barbarian summons them to help dig a deep pit – and has to use a charisma roll to persuade them that this is a suitable task for them to give their all.
  • Hitpoints/Recoveries: A lot of extended challenges include a natural element of danger, risk to life and limb. Which means that a common consequence for failing at something risky, or for taking too long, should be the loss of health – represented in 13th Age by both Hitpoints and Recoveries.
    Which to use depends on the timescale of the challenge, and its nature. If short rests are going to be easy to obtain due to the timescale of the challenge, allowing the heroes to spend their recoveries to regain lost hitpoints, it’s generally best to just skip the middle step. But if they’re not, if the extended challenge is taking place on a timescale of minutes, or even seconds, rather than hours or days, attacking hitpoints can increase the urgency of the situation 2)Parties with a healer – which is to say, most parties – will be able to dodge this question most of the time by expending healing powers. That’s great, because it lets the healer do their thing. – and present a challenging choice of whether to spend an action on recovering hitpoints rather than progressing towards the goal, a choice that’s built into combat.

 

That’s a good number of factors that can make one victory feel pyrrhic while another feels glorious, but that’s only the start – only the internal factors.

External aspects that can vary between outcomes are also quite numerous, and vary in the level of mechanical weight they carry

 

  • Making Future Encounters Harder: Extended challenges are often found at the beginning or middle of an adventure, rather than at the end, and one easy way to provide consequences is to have combat encounters that follow be more difficult the longer they take to complete (and/or the more risky tasks they fail) – for instance an extended challenge to sneak into a castle vault might be followed by fighting your way out with your treasure.
    If you’ve taken too long and made too much noise you’ll be faced with extra guards on the way out, as the alert level has been raised.
  • Different Levels of Reward: Our Half-orc Artificier and his allies have finished at the ball, and they’ve garnered some support. But how much? It could be a few healing potions for the brave adventurers, a magical heirloom, or a whole detachment of elven scouts to aid the party (perhaps represented as a set of icon die to be spent at appropriate junctures)
    In that case I feel like it would be a round-limited extended challenge, with the reward value depending on the number of successes achieved within the duration of the ball – but in other cases you might need X successes, with each round taken reducing the reward.
  • Impacts on the Fiction: This one is a bit of a catch-all, and yet it’s easily forgotten. Yes I’m building a mechanical system here, but that doesn’t mean there has to be a mechanical outcome – the glory of RPGs comes from blending game elements with roleplaying and storytelling – instead the outcome could be something that only impacts the characters emotionally 3)Admittedly, some systems do give such impacts mechanical weight – but 13th age and the F20 family in general don’t.and/or affects the world as a whole; such as the loss of a village to the invading army before the Elven Courts can be persuaded to rally their defences; or the death of one of the hostages that the heroes were seeking to save.

 

So with all those options in hand, what stakes would you set for your challenges?

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References   [ + ]

1. The abilities may be called “dailies” but extended challenges, and wilderness adventures in general, work a lot better if full rests are required to be more restful than what you’ll get while camping, and taking guard shifts, for 6-8 hours during a full march.
2. Parties with a healer – which is to say, most parties – will be able to dodge this question most of the time by expending healing powers. That’s great, because it lets the healer do their thing.
3. Admittedly, some systems do give such impacts mechanical weight – but 13th age and the F20 family in general don’t.

13th Age Extended Challenges – Making Meaningful Choices

Carrying on from the last two weeks of talk about Extended Challenges (Introduction and Sharing the Spotlight)

So far we’ve been looking at these skill challenges as a series of checks – yes, ones which fit the characters and can be used to craft a narrative, but still simple stat+background checks that pass or fail. But the choice of what stat+background to use is not generally a meaningful one at this point – you use whatever you’re best at that will help in some way; and avoid repeating yourself once penalties for doing so kick in.

It’s a functional system, but not really inspiring; there’s no difference between taking positive action toward your goal and preparation for such action, and no real meaning to cooperation.

So that’s our next step – differentiating between the many ways you can aid your team in achieving the goal.

  1. Attempts
    This action category serves as the backbone of the whole system. Attempts are how you earn successes, they’re things that you do that get you closer to the goal – whether that be navigating through a few miles of swampland, or persuading one of the elven nobles to support your plan to prevent the apocalypse.
  2. Reaction/Mitigation
    When bad things happen, sometimes it makes more sense to try and prevent the consequences, rather than moving towards your end goal. If you’re running low on rations in the jungle and will lose health due to that, you might choose to spend a turn hunting for food rather than hunting for a path forwards.
  3. Preparation
    Another category is preparation – providing boosts to future rolls. Perhaps you need to cross a desert, but rather than just making survival and navigation rolls as you cross you decide to spend an action or two on finding a town and acquiring survival gear – appropriate clothing, sunscreen, water carriers and such like. These supplies will boost all sorts of rolls later in the adventure, whether they be attempts or reactions.
  4. Aid Another
    This category of action could be put as a subset of Preparation – you’re preparing things for your ally to stand the best chance on their roll – but I’ve split it off because it doesn’t work in the framework we’ve got.

Within the system we discussed last week we’ve got room for the first three of these categories – Attempts are simple; Reactions/Mitigation can be done in response to whatever harm comes with the passage of a round, whether that be guards getting more suspicious or supplies running low; and Preparation can give a bonus to many other players rolls allowing you to gather future successes faster – traditionally a +2 bonus to all future rolls (where it’s applicable) tends to work well – but in 13th Age it may pay to look at the Escalation Die used in combat, and consider whether preparation could add and/or boost said Escalation Die1)For those who’re unaware, the Escalation Die is a d6 that increases by 1 each round of combat, and that all players can add to their attacks. It encourages people to hold their big moves until later in the fight, and ensures that battles end climactically if they run long

We don’t, however, have room for the common Aid Another which only benefits one ally’s roll; if it requires you to spend your action for the round you’ll almost always be better off just making your own Attempt action.

We could drop it entirely, have all ways to help your allies fall under the other categories. It’s an elegant option, but in my experience some people like making Aid Another checks.

Instead I’d like to revisit a point from the last post: the idea that the penalties should come from rounds that passed, rather than attempts that failed – while acknowledging that if someone is trying something dangerous it may make more sense for a failed attempt to have negative consequences other than outright failing the Extended Challenge.

I put forward the rule that failures wouldn’t be penalised in place because otherwise you could end up in a situation where your presence actively made things for your team. But if we’re adding Aid Another actions they can still be safe even if the Attempt action isn’t. So perhaps that is the answer: if Aid Another exists failed Attempts can have penalties, but Aid Another cannot – at worst you’re not helpful.

But should all failed Attempts have negative consequences? Or only the ones that are particularly risky (like tightrope walking across a canyon)? And if it’s only the ones that are particularly risky, what makes those worth taking? Are extra successes a suitable enticement?

Perhaps the Aid Another action isn’t needed at all, and adding it just makes the whole system more complicated for a minor gain… it’s going to take a bit of pondering and discussion to work out which way works best!

What do you think? Should I lean towards the more tactical end where it matters whether you take the “risky+fast” or the “slow+safe” option, or keep things smooth and simple?

Takeaway from this step:

  1. There are a lot of complexities that can be layered on – but I’m not yet sure which ones are worth it.

 

Next up: Non-binary Stakes

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References   [ + ]

1. For those who’re unaware, the Escalation Die is a d6 that increases by 1 each round of combat, and that all players can add to their attacks. It encourages people to hold their big moves until later in the fight, and ensures that battles end climactically if they run long

Designing Extended Challenges: Sharing the Spotlight while Maintaining Verisimilitude

This carries on from last weeks post Designing Extended Challenges for 13th Age

I’d like to start by thanking people for their input into this development process – Burn Miller pointed me at their blog where I found out about The One Ring’s Tolerance Test system used for social situations in particular. A number of people on the Forge of the 13th Age brought up various aspects of how they run challenges, including introducing me to Blade in the Dark’s clocks – and shadowsofmind on Reddit pointed me at Matt Colville’s explanation of using Skill Challenges in D&D 5e

———————

In my last post I talked about the goals of our Extended Challenge system, and number one amongst them was that the system must encourage every player to contribute to the scene as a whole.

Its position as number one was not accidental – to me it is the most core part of what makes a good challenge subsystem for a cooperative roleplaying game.

The first step in getting everyone to contribute is getting everyone to take part at all. That step, at least, is so intuitive to F20 players that many assumed D&D 4e’s Skill Challenge system had it: Rounds. Each player gets one turn per round, meaning that everyone must act once before anyone takes their second go.

But just having everyone take part isn’t enough to have everyone contribute. Imagine a player character who, during combat, could only throw blunt wooden spoons at their enemies – hitting on a natural 20 for 1 damage. They get a go every round, but that go feels bad because they aren’t actually helping their teammates to defeat the monsters.

The same is true for our reclusive Half-orc Artificer at the elven ball. Sure, you’re making him take a turn now, but if all he’s going to do is add a failure to his team’s count they’d be better off without him.

So how do you let him contribute anyway?

For starters we could ditch the idea that failing at skill rolls is necessarily going to make things worse. When you miss an attack in combat you don’t hurt yourself or your team, you just don’t make anything better – meaning that the baddies have more time to spend stabbing you. Watching the description by Matt Colville put me slightly away from that perspective – in my home games we use penalties such as the idea of blocks falling he explores that don’t contribute to failing the challenge, merely hurt the person making the attempt.

Given as we’ve already implemented rounds, that seems to be the natural place to move the potential of failing the challenge – rather than keeping track of the number of rolls that have been failed instead we will keep track of the number of rounds that have passed. In cases where outright failure of the challenge is a good answer there can be a simple deadline, for instance “get as many successes as you can in three rounds” – while in other cases there could be a smaller penalty for each round that happens.

So the Half-orc Artificer isn’t making things worse for the party, and may even be contributing a little. For 13th age an 8 charisma and no backgrounds means a normal skill check DC has somewhere between a 1 in 6 and 1 in 3 chance of success, depending on level. Not great, but far from nothing – he may not be good at schmoozing, but there’s always a chance of hitting it off.

Still – we can do better. Any game I run becomes somewhat narrativist, it’s just part of how I GM, and 13th Age is very good at supporting that tendency, so we’re going to lean into that: If a player can come up with a way in which a more unusual background could be useful to the situation, they can roll it. 

On a success, that situation they imagined comes to pass and the skill comes in handy; on a failure it either never comes up, or they don’t manage to take advantage – for instance, the Half-Orc Artificer might be rolling Int+ “Official Master Craftsman in the Concord Consortium” to give an epic description of his latest inventions to an interested elf. If successful, the elf is impressed and moved to support the team that contains such a gifted inventor; if unsuccessful the elf they talked the ear off of has no interest in mechanical devices and was just too polite to say so.

In a similarly narrative vein, we like to allow flashbacks during the challenge, especially during the first round – something that they did prior to the challenge that turns out to be helpful now, such as acquiring the right clothing, or tutoring their allies in the niceties of elven dining.

You may notice that this has a lot in common with 13th age’s Montage System, introduced by Ashley Law – though with more of a possibility of failure – this is something of a case of convergent evolution, and I think is a good sign that what is being developed here fits the 13th Age ethos. Perhaps, then, the guidelines for these Extended Challenges should take a little inspiration from Montages – encouraging players to suggest challenges their allies are suited to overcoming.

Takeaways from this step:

  1. Skill challenges happen in rounds
  2. It’s bad for the players to take too many rounds to achieve success
    1. Failed rolls may have penalties, but won’t lead to failing the challenge
  3. Allow unusual approaches if properly justified
    1. Flashbacks can expand the range of justifiable actions, in interesting ways
    2. Players suggesting challenges that their comrades can overcome is fun.

Next in the Series: Making Meaningful Choices

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Designing Extended Challenges for 13th Age

Combat in 13th Age is very structured, but outside combat it is a lot looser. Most of the time, I find this flexibility useful, but occasionally it’s useful to provide more structured and defined challenges outside combat.

In the F20 family of games I first encountered this kind of structure in D&D’s 4th Edition – but it felt half-baked, and often functioned poorly in our games. So, inspired by that game’s Skill Challenges we developed our own style of Extended Challenge for home use; and now we’re developing it further in order to use it in future 13th Age work.

Our home system is a simple skeleton that gets fleshed out arbitrarily for any RPG we’re playing (from buffy to fate): Gameplay proceeds in rounds so that everyone is involved. How many rounds you took to reach your goal is likely to matter; repeating the same action over and over results in an increased DC, or is impossible if there’s no fiction justification; there’s no set list of skills that contribute – if the player has a good explanation for how their action aids the party then it can work; there are more options than just “roll to move towards victory” – ways to boost other players and mitigate downsides.

But that skeleton is held together by a set of assumptions that we’ve never written down, so rather than trying to work backward from that I’m here starting from scratch again over the course of these blogs – so as to ensure that the final product holds together in the wild, rather than relying on quirks of my own GMing style.

So here are the explicit goals that I’m going to work toward when creating the Extended Challenges system: 

  1. Sharing the Spotlight:
    In combat every player takes part regularly. In more loose-weave situations it’s common for one or more player characters to end up uninvolved – for instance when socialising with elves the mechanical genius half-orc probably won’t have much to say.
    When big stakes are in play it’s nice to make sure everyone gets some level of input into the outcome. 4th Edition’s skill challenges often punished you for doing so – if the half-orc made a skill check they would make the team more likely to fail, and so their best bet was to stay quiet so there was no chance they’d be called upon to roll.
  2. Verisimilitude
    If the Half-orc Artificer with 8 charisma and no diplomatic background contributes to your elven ball by charming the nobles, things start to feel out of place. It’s important for each character’s contributions to feel like they come from that character.
  3. Meaningful Choices
    At its most basic, combat is a constant repetition of “roll to attack the thing in front of you with your best attack” until either it falls over or you do. If you’re a 13th Age player that’s almost certainly not your preferred flavour of fun – even the simplest class has significantly more going on than that.
    At its most basic a skill challenge would consist of rolling your best background+ability combination repeatedly until you either succeed or fail. That’s no more fun outside of combat than it is in combat, so we need something more to play with.
  4. Non-binary Stakes
    Pass/fail is acceptable for a single roll, but when you’re going to be devoting a meaningful portion of your session to something it’s nice to have some middle ground – some possibility of an expensive victory where the resources expended (spells, powers, recoveries, etc.) put a significant crimp in your ability to move forward, or of a partial victory where you only achieve some of what you were aiming for – for instance, avoiding the guard patrol on your way into the archvillain’s castle, but not making it all the way to his bedchambers before the alarm is raised.
  5. Fitting the Game
    Different games have different feels, themes and mechanical underpinnings. While a skeleton of a system can exist outside of the game in which it is to be used – and indeed, if you follow this series of blog posts I’ll start by building such a skeleton – fleshing it out such that it belongs as part of the game is a vital step. And it’s a step that is far easier if you keep it in mind throughout the process.

Those are the goals, but how can we go about achieving them? I’ve got a few more blog posts coming talking about our approach, but we’d love to hear your thoughts on how to approach such a challenge. Let us know here, or on Facebook.

Next in the Series: Sharing the Spotlight while Maintaining Verisimilitude

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ZineQuest II

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into Kickstarter

One spot safe from grue attack

It is pitch dark, you are likely to be eaten by a grue…

… but what is a grue? And what sort of environment does it live in? And why does it eat adventurers?

These and other questions (not) answered in Shards Volume 2. 

But Shards Volume 2 is coming soon. In fact Kickstarter are running Zinequest II during February, so we’ll launch then and most likely deliver the first issue in March. Last year we launched Shards during the first Zinequest to great acclaim (well, reasonable success at least), and we delivered all six issues over six months. This time we’re taking a slightly more spread out approach, aiming for every other month to allow us to do other things as well. But the content will be of the same high quality as the first volume and we will produce another six issues. 

Over the next few weeks I imagine there will be a few more updates about what you can expect and what the exact dates will be, along with other updates about Tinfoil Hat, which is still on the cards, just pushed back to April (probably)

Please, send us more questions for Letter Lich! More themes for Captain Magpie to explore! More exclamations!

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Tinfoil Tuesday: The War on Christmas

The War On Christmas: it’s a potent part of the US conspiracy tableau – and one supported by the largest of its mainstream media outlets, Fox News – that anti-christian bigots are secretly preventing people from saying “Merry Christmas”.

Of course this year there seems to be a new twist: Donald Trump has successfully allowed people to say “Merry Christmas” again. Not that he does himself, his businesses all celebrate “the holiday season” and say “happy holidays” – the anti-Christmas conspiracy is clearly too powerful for even the POTUS to fight it.

But did you know that there was a War on Christmas way back in the 16th and 17th centuries? And that it was perpetrated by loyal ChristiansIn 1644 the puritan movement banned all Christmas celebrations in Britain and Ireland, even purely religious traditions such as the Christmas Sermons, although their primary target was the non-Christian aspects: Mince Pies, Christmas Trees, the giving of presents, the eating of a feast, and just generally the concept of being Jolly.

The battle against Christian fundamentalism in order to restore Christmas to its roots as a joyful celebration of midwinter was a harsh one, but ultimately the outcome was inevitable, the need to celebrate in the depths of winter has created festivals throughout the world – from Saturnalia to Koliada, from Yule to Soyal – and so when priests and politicians started telling people they couldn’t celebrate the birth of Christ they were met with rioting.

Perhaps that’s why the modern War on Christmas is so subtle and invisible? Those Puritans have learnt their lesson, and this time they’re going to destroy Christmas without a fight! Only once people have separated the birth of Christ and the Winter Solstice will they be able to choose another date of birth for Christ, one that won’t be celebrated in such a commercial and sinful manner – maybe one in late summer or early autumn, more fitting with the evidence found in the Bible.

Or perhaps most people just want everyone to enjoy the holidays, and in a multicultural society like the United States of America the majority of folks are kind and decent enough to respect their neighbours religions.

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Tinfoil Tuesday: From Politics to Phlogiston

It’s not even a week out from the election and already the pundits are clamoring! 

“it’s all Corbyn’s fault”

“Boris will deliver”

“Now what?”

We are, to be frank, more than a little fed up with Real World politics. So, we thought this an excellent time to tell you about our newest game, Tinfoil Hat.

We tried to capture the zeitgeist and, to abuse the metaphor, have tied him up until he squealed. The theme of this game is Conspiracy Theories. Did the moon landings really take place? Who was the man behind the grassy knoll? Do vaccines cause autism or just profits?

Players construct a Rant about how ” the CIA are causing all of us to ignore the Alien Invasion by means of Hello Kitty normalising Animal Human Hybrids, and how Fake News outlets are hushing up how Henry 8th started it all with his pal the immortal Keanu Reeves, when they……  “

I would like to make crystal clear that all the references in this game are intended to be taken tongue-in-cheek. All four of us have degrees that include science, and one of the things that teaches you is to look for the evidence – to ask how did those people reach those conclusions. Part of science is a willingness to change your mind in the face of new evidence.


One of the best stories of science development is Phlogiston. The Ancient Greeks knew that only some things burned, because they had fire in them. When you burned wood, you could see the fire coming off it!

During the Renaissance, scientists posited that things which burned contained phlogiston, and that burning things lost phlogiston. One could restore it by reacting the dephlogisticated material in a phlogiston rich environment – for example, soot.

Breathing was the expelling of excess phlogiston into the air, but air could only hold so much phlogiston. Meanwhile plants absorbed that excess phlogiston from the air in order to grow, explaining why they burnt so well once dried.

Once atomic weight was discovered, they decided phlogiston had an atomic weight of -16. Does 16 sound familiar? It’s the atomic weight of oxygen. Phlogiston theory was very close to correct – in that it was precisely the opposite of reality.

Now we understand that burning things aren’t losing negatively weighted phlogiston, but gaining positive oxygen. Sometimes the end product is heavier ( e.g. tin or lead oxide), often some of the fuel’s weight has been lost in smoke and carbon dioxide. We can even work out what should happen if we oxidize something. But we still don’t perfectly understand how fire works – as evidenced at any barbecue.

As gamers, we talk about magic. According to Clarke, magic is just science we don’t understand yet. So, until we can read minds, we’re going to have to keep talking. And Ranting. And blogging about game development.

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Vampire: The Masquerade/FATE crossover

So I’ve played a lot of World of Darkness over the years; and I love the setting. That’s oWoD for the afficionadoes, but for most of that time it was just WoD. The system, however, leaves a lot to be desired. I had a decent idea for a campaign. So I bodged together a version of FATE, for which I do like the system. I’ve been running weekly since October, and have obtained my players permission to use their characters to explain how I went about such a mashup.

What does the old system have that I don’t like?.

WOD relies on buckets of dice and a long skill list. But it can be problematic to model advancement – learn a new skill and suddenly you’re actually worse than not bothering. Plus there’s the whole ‘more dice = more chances to botch’

Combat is basically down to number of moves – if you don’t have Rage or Celerity, and your opponent does, you almost always lose. Oh and death spiral is a thing some people like and I don’t. Hollywood heros fight on with feet full of glass and a bullet in the shoulder – why shouldn’t mine!

What does the new system have that I like?

Aspects. I love the descriptive part “Son of a Gun” “I Got A Plan for That” or even “Too Good at Being Bad”. High Concept and Trouble stay as usual (See FATE Core), and two personal aspects customise; but a second trouble adds the Clan Flaw in a new way.

In this game I have three Brujah. VTM gives the all Bru a +2 to frenzy difficulty. For my game we got three different takes on the clan of rebels and revolutionaries – the Punk, the Pirate, and the Paladin.

Doc is a Rebel With A Clue by Four. He likes to fight, particularly against oppressive authority figures (one of his personal aspects is Bash the Fash) His Clan Flaw is expressed as Sees the Oppression – he can’t help himself, siding with the underdog.

Carabo is a Somali Pirate. She used to captain her own ship – until she was turned. But even in death she hasn’t quite managed to shed the stigma of being both black and female (and also Illiterate) she’s Frustrated by Inequality

Robert is an Ex Military Policeman. Taken by the Brujah for standing up to one of them, he’s not so much a footsoldier in the Jyhad as a reluctant officer. His Clan Flaw is Shield of the Vulnerable – taking the police motto ‘Serve and Protect’ to another level.

I decided on six aspects over the usual five, because I wanted to include something I learned from a one off – the Hook. So at the end of chr gen you ask – how do characters know each other? So you get family (Eve is Lucian’s ward; Assistant Lasombra) affiliates (Rob is Doc’s clanmate; Brother in the Cause) and even rivalry (William doesn’t like Carabo; Keep your Friends Close)

What does the origInal do that I want to keep / need to remodel?

The Humanity / Beast / Path & Virtues system. Being wicked should have a cost – the whole “Beast I am lest Beast I become” thing.

It comes down to ‘how much in control am I’ and so I chose to model it like damage. Hungry or angry – the Beast gaining control is modelled by the Beast Track. Our Ventrue couldn’t find her favored food, and was subsisting on the bread-and-water diet of blood bags. She could still animate herself, but she suffered the Consequence of “Perpetual Hunger” until she finally managed to find a blood source she could utilize for her Disciplines. Turned out another party member suited; she had the angst of ‘drink now and retain some control, or keep looking and risk draining him dry’.

Disciplines and Backgrounds through Stunts

Why are some people chosen for the Embrace and some passed by? Mortal Stunts. Lucien is a CEO and is Wealthy; +2 to any skill check where he can directly bring wealth to bear (remember Wheaton’s Law here) On the other hand, Doc is expert at making do, and can Jerry Rig; for a Fate point, use Crafts without proper tool or parts

The vampires Cool Magic Powers – turning into bats, mesmerising prey and hiding in plain sight – become more interesting when modelled through Stunts. I decide that there is no real reason why one needs to preserve the hierarchy of powers presented in VTM and instead went with basic, intermediate and advanced. Party members could only have basic level at start. But the Lasombra and the Ventrue took a Dominate power – but flavored differently

Eve is a Victorian young lady. Her power is an immediate response, for a Fate Point “Stop. Lie down. Freeze” described as Though She Be But Little, She Is Fierce

Lucian’s use is more subtle – “wouldn’t now be a good time for a teabreak?” Mind over Matter still costs a Fate point  (we rejected These Aren’t the Droids). He’s since picked up Master of the Manor which duplicates Eve’s power

Robert and William’s powers diverge from classical Celerity. Robert has Take a Bullet – interpose himself to take an attack for someone else. William, as a Toreador thief, has Hand is Quicker than the Eye, allowing him to use his supernatural speed to avoid notice.

Experimentation showed that it’s massively easier to make all the Discipline Stunts work off Fate points, freeing you from the need to track blood exactly.

Neither does this system thing great, so which is easier to integrate?

Skills stayed pretty unchanged from Fate Core, except for splitting Knowledge into mundane Knowledge and Arcane (all kinds of supernatural). Oh and we renamed Larceny to Nefarius; and it now covers all kinds of crime; from theft to jumping trams without a ticket to credit card fraud. Will becomes much more key as it not only is it the key roll to power and resist Dominate, but is need to resit Beast Damage.

Combat is a weak point for Fate, but it is mitigated by the ability to create Advantages, meaning it is actually worth it to set ambushes, taunt opponents or discover weaknesses.

So there you have it. It might sound pretty clunky, but it works. And my players nearly all came back for Season 2, and Season 3, and were bugging me for a Season 4.

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