Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Story Seed - Anomoly

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"What've we got?" Blackwell asked, thumbing through the manila folder's contents.

Jenkins pushed his glasses up his nose, a futile gesture, as they began to slide down again nearly immediately. "It's an anomoly sir," he began.

"No shit, cut to the chase."

"Yes, sir.  It's a cube, exactly eighteen inches on a side. Material unknown as we have been unable to harvest a sample for testing and it has proven immune to any testing in the field. The object is fixed one point three meters above the ground in rural Pennsylvania. The field team couldn't budge it with a tow rope and a tow truck."

The director swore under his breath, "OK, what do we do about it? Do we risk using a cypher, or attempting to bring in an expert via the Philadelphia matter gate?"

Jenkins frowned, "No sir, I don't think we should risk any material assets on this. We don't know what it is, or how it could react. We could contact our allies in Ruk, and ask for assistance, but I don't know if they will be able to help."

Blackwell gave Jenkins a level look, "What is your recommendation then?"

"Quarantine, sir.  Put one of the junior teams on it.  We watch, we wait, we record all observances of the object and the area and collect as much data as possible."

"And we hope that this thing isn't some kind of reality bomb?" Blackwell asked, not entirely amused.

"Yes, sir."

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Nuts & Bolts #11 - "Damn the Torpedoes!"

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Recently I was on the periphery of a conversation regarding how to make ship to ship combat in an RPG "work." Initially I dismissed this out of hand, I could think of a bare handful of times when I personally experienced such in an RPG from either side of the table.  As a GM it's not my bag because generally I'd just as soon skip past it unless there is a PC who is a pilot specifically (and I have been lucky enough to avoid that).  As a player I have been through a couple over the many years I have played but I never wanted to play a pilot, and I never thought after any of them "let do that again!"

Of course these things go two ways; one you have a bunch of PCs in fighters in which case really you are running a standard combat but using piloting terms and different stats, and two, when the PCs are the crew of a single ship. I don't think that the former is ever a problem, except perhaps if there are significantly different mechanics and players & GM aren't up to speed on them.  The latter on the other hand seems to be a stumbling block.

But why?

I think it comes down to the players all wanting to feel included (as is their right) and all of the players wanting to be able to contribute meaningfully (again, a right IMO), and balancing all of that against mechanical balance and the importance of individual roles.  You could run the ship as it's own character, but that is going to exclude the players' own characters, and may minimize the value of their investment in skills and abilities associated with their roles. Instead you need to focus on making each role "work" within the encounter as a whole so as to maximize the involvement, importance, and impact of each character and ensure a fun experience for all the players.

As for those roles I can think of five common "primary" roles, those being:

  • The Pilot/Helmsman
  • Commander/Captain
  • Engineer/Mechanic
  • Weapons/Gunnery
  • Navigator/Co-pilot/Scanners/Science

Let's assume for the sake of the argument and the column that you have a group of five players, each taking one of those archetypal roles.  Let's also assume that any players in excess of five can fall into auxiliary positions for the roles of gunner, mechanic, and scanner, and likewise any group short of five players can probably do away with no more than two of those roles without compromising the game intent. Lastly let's go forth with the intent that while we will do our best to give each role something meaningful to do that does not mean that each role will have the ability to impact a combat situation as heavily as the pilot and gunnery roles will (and let's face it, those are the two that will stand out most).

The Pilot
The pilot makes the ship move. This may seem obvious but it bears saying because that is where the focus for this role's role should be during combat.  Pilots are going to be using their skill to do thing like dodge attacks (either setting the ship's passive defense, or acting as their active defense, avoiding solid objects, and setting up positioning (especially important if the ship's weapons are arc dependant).  The choice of passive defense or active should probably come from the size and type of ship and the intended feel of combat.  An armed shuttle/transport is of the size and mass that it can actually avoid incoming fire (active defense), whereas a capital ship is probably going to execute a movement maneuver and hope for the best (passive defense). In general I would look to allow a pilot a single action a turn (aside from basic maintenance actions).  Throwing evasive maneuvers, trying to slide between "geography", and setting up a superior position (or even just changing relative position) are going to be the pilot's bread and butter and should generally impact the ship's ability to combat each round.

The Gunner
Gunners shoot weapons, which is to say that they make the attacks.  If the pilot is the ship's legs, the gunner is the ship's arms. Gunnery is generally the easiest to create rules for. They shoot, they hit or they miss, and they roll damage as needed.  Gunnery is pretty simple and doesn't generally need a lot more to make it feel important because it is self evident why it is.

The Mechanic
A ship's mechanic is pretty darn important outside of combat, so much so that all things being equal a player of a mechanic is probably not going to miss it if combat doesn't happen (ships always need repairs and maintenance, even when they don't get shot full of holes).  On a small ship the mechanic is going to have their hands full doing the equivalent of triage, bypassing blown circuits, routing energy to the systems that need it most, and performing emergency repairs if need be.  On a large ship they will probably be doing these on larger scale, and possibly informing the other roles which systems are working and which are now superheated vapor. Much like a gunner the value of a mechanic is fairly self evident. Unlike a gunner an absent mechanic still means you can fight, it just means you won't be able to last as long.

The Co-pilot
Generally the co-pilot role is an amalgam of many smaller roles.  They are the guy who does all the lesser tasks on the bridge to help the pilot and the other roles. They navigate and spot for the pilot, they man sensors and spot for the gunner, they can act as a lesser version of the mechanic by performing limited amounts of bypassing and re-routing. The co-pilot is the first of the roles that is hard to really make feel important and they are one of the roles that can most easily be cut for a small crew.

So how do you make a support role like this work? Well you have to give them an ability to be meaningfully helpful. If the co-pilot makes an action to aid the pilot by determining the precise distances to a geographic feature (thing mountain or asteroid), or an enemy ship, and their precise relative speed they should be an asset or bonus on the pilot's roll to avoid the obstacle or gain some positioning change relative to the enemy ship.  If they are actively manning scanners and relaying targeting data to the gunner they should be able to provide a bonus for the gunner's roll, or negate an enemies superior maneuvering.  When acting as an aid to the mechanic they allow for an extra system to be adjusted, bypassed, or re-routed. They could also leave their station and allow for additional actions of emergency repair, or provide aid to the mechanic on a troublesome task.

The Commander
If the co-pilot is expendable so too is the commander. In the case of small ships this is probably the first role to get cut, or, more likely, subsumed into another role entirely. The commander who is also a pilot is not uncommon, for instance.  When that happens the role becomes a mere rank, and often goes to whomever owns or has right to command the ship.

However, what about a crew big enough to actually have a command role? What the heck does he do?

Assuming that you don't want one player telling each other player what they should do (and it's a safe bet that the player's wont either), then you need to make it possible for the commander character to "give orders" in such a way as to benefit the role receiving the orders. Generally this could simply take the form of a bonus of some kind, a plus, an extra die, or what-have-you, that the commander can assign as they see fit during an encounter.

If you are using a system with dice pools maybe the commander can divvy up their command dice pool to the roles they command each turn. That provides a meaningful bonus for the commander and the other player's roles, but it may not be terribly interesting or exciting.  Maybe instead of divvying up the raw pool they have to role that pool and they can only divvy up dice that register as successes on the "command roll". This cuts down on the utility of the commander's dice pool, but also ups the ante on the relative/perceived value of each bonus die.  A botch or other critical failure might actually result in bad orders and dice penalties being handed out.

Alternately the commander can act as a co-pilot role supporting other roles accordingly. On larger ships the commander may unlock special actions for each of the other roles.  Ordering a full broadside might allow the gunner role to fine all of the ships weapons (or all on the appropriate arc(s)) in a singe round instead of just one system.  Ordering a specific maneuver (defense pattern Alpha-7) might allow for the pilot to execute a move that encompasses more than one pilot action. Sure, this could result in "FIRE FIRE FIRE" situations where the gunner gets all the attention, but it even a non-tactical combat can be run by the GM to prevent such things.

Additional thoughts
What happens when you have shields? What about multiple weapon systems? What about things like damaged systems and weapons with arcs of fire (rather than 360 firing)?

Well each of these will need to fall into the GM's hand to determine what roles can deal with what things. If you have multiple weapon systems I'd only allow a gunner to use one per round unless you have the commander option. Adjusting shields can fall into the hands of the mechanics and co-pilots. Keeping track of firing arcs and damaged systems may or may not be your cup of tea, and you need to decide just how complicated you want your combat to be.

With luck there will be some worthwhile advice on how to make things go smoothly and be fun for all the players involved in running a ship through a combat encounter.  Each group and GM will need to find their own balance of course, and each system will have its own ways for characters like the co-pilot and commander to impact the actions of the ship as a whole.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Story Seed - Old Town

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I stepped off the stoop into the filthy rain. This world was some kind of version of old London, complete with coal smog that would make the worst metropolitan air seem clean by comparison. I didn't have an umbrella but at least the hat on my head would keep some of the rain off, and the long coat I was wearing was well oiled and repelled much of the wet. A carriage trundled by as I took in my bearings.

I looked to my left, making sure nobody was watching me, before heading right, a strange feeling of deja vu guiding me as I made my way toward the outskirts. I didn't bother looking where I was going. I was guided by instinct and familiarity with the real world. What little light was coming from the sky faded as I swiftly walked through the rain. At first gas lamps were spaced frequently enough to push the darkness back, but as I went the working lights become less frequent until soon they formed isolated pools of light and falling stars in the night.

The streets began to narrow as I hurried on, becoming crowded between the rough buildings, and narrow alleys, rivers of darkness untouched by the lamps, became more frequent. I was already walking briskly, but a glance at the watch in my pocket told me I needed to hurry. I broke into a full run, splashing through the puddles, and stumbling on uneven cobbles. Ahead in the night I heard a scream, bloodcurdling in the darkness, that then cut off. I was too late.

The scream had come from ahead of me, only a short distance, if I was quick I might be able to catch the man responsible and complete my mission.  I redoubled my speed, and skidded around a corner. The narrow way between buildings was nearly pitch black, only the opposite end was lit, a rectangle of light into which the shadow of a man fled. I cursed even as I jumped over the Ripper's latest victim. My feet pounding in the filth as I strove for the light.


It was raining. I stepped off the stoop into the filthy rain. This world was some kind of version of old London, complete with coal smog that would make the worst metropolitan air seem clean by comparison. I needed to catch the Ripper and take his blade. Deja vu gripped me, this all felt so familiar. I tugged my hat down a bit and turned right ...

Friday, December 26, 2014

Nuts & Bolts Special - Quattro con Carnage - Basic Fantasy RPG (a look at gaming across systems)

This blog references the Quattro con Carnage experiment being run by +James Walls and specifically the first and second sessions of the Basic Fantasy RPG segment. 

Earlier this week we completed the second of two sessions of Basic Fantasy RPG.  It was my first experience with BFRPG and my first exposure to "OSR" rules. The closest I ever got previously was some AD&D 2nd ed back in the early 90's, but I'm not certain that even counts (is that old school enough?) and 20 years have gone by since then.

The relative weakness of our character's was certainly eye opening. Every hit was worrying, and every spell was fairly jealously guarded. The fighter felt a little vanilla and with no undead in the story my cleric felt like a slightly less capable fighter who also had some healing.  Having pre-prepped spells meant I also was predefined in what I could do, as was the "magic user".

I commented after the session that I feel like when we get to Numenera (the fourth system in this experiment), and possibly Savage Worlds (system #3), I was expecting that my character was "going to feel like an ultra powerful superstar, in comparison" to BFRPG. I said this knowing that with Numenera I would have the ability to use my character's healing more frequently, and that I would be able to fight a little better as well.  In Numenera my cleric, Lomm├ín, will have the focus "works miracles" which will cover his healing abilities nicely. I could play him as either a jack or a glaive type, but given that I envision him as a crusading cleric (almost paladin-like) I am leaning toward a glaive of some kind.  This will make him pop more in combat, though depending on what our fighter takes for a focus I don't expect to suddenly be a superstar.

I had more fun than I expected to, but I don't think I can say that these sessions have made me a fan of BFRPG or "OSR" just yet.  I don't think I'd ever prefer or choose to use Basic Fantasy RPG for anything but beer and pretzel one-off games personally. I prefer a little more heroics, and a little more option in my game tone and characters, respectively.

As far as OSR goes I'm going to with withhold judgement until the QcC experiment is complete. I fully expect to see different variations on the theme, and so I may find that the OSR principles aren't outside of my comfort zone, even if the most OSR inspired rules are.  Either way I am looking forward to seeing how the character's (mine and the other players') change with each system, as I believe that the tone of gameplay is as much about the mechanics as it is about the GM, group, themes, and setting.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Holiday Break

I'm off for the remainder of the week to celebrate Christmas. Thanks for a great year everybody, and Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, whatever your beliefs!!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Holiday Interlude #2 - Gingerbread Ninjas

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Turns out that not all gingerbread life is friendly or festive. The gingerbread ninjas are mortal enemies of Santa. Too long they and their families lived in fear of being devoured during the holidays! And so they took up candy sword canes, peppermint nunchucks, and marzipan shuriken and learned the deadly arts of confectionary ninjutsu.

Name: Gingerbread Ninja

Level: 3 (TN 9) [

Health: 10 • Armor: 1

Damage: 3

Movement: Immediate

Modifications: Level 4 speed defense due to confectionary ninjutsu. Level 4 for stealth tasks for all senses but smell.

Combat: In combat the gingerbread ninjas deal 3 damage from unarmed and weapon attacks.  Alternately they can grapple with a target and hold them (giving the target an inability in speed defense). Targets can break free with an action and a successful might based roll to escape.

Interaction:  Gingerbread ninjas cannot speak (they don't have mouths drawn on), but they can occasionally be reasoned with. They communicate with each other via strange hand gestures which are nigh impossible to learn (level 6 linguistics task).

Use: Gingerbread ninjas are constantly harrying Santa during his yearly voyage, the PCs may find Jolly Ol' St. Nick in dire need of some defense from their sweet assassination attempts.

Notes: Gingerbread ninjas are extremely afraid of large quantities of milk, and will flee to avoid being dunked.

Loot: Slain gingerbread ninjas will leave behind only crumbs. Bah, Humbug!

GM Intrusion: The gingerbread ninja drops a flour-based smoke bomb and when the smoke clears it has escaped, or it has been joined by as many as 3 additional ninjas.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Holiday Interlude #1 - Gingerbread Dragon

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Since this will be a short week due to the holidays I am tossing out the usual format and doing some holiday inspired madness.  Today I found this great image on Deviant Art and shared it to G+ but after some thought I got inspired so ... here's a holiday monster for your Cypher System needs.

Name: Gingerbread Dragon

Level: 5 (TN 15)

Health: 30 • Armor: 1

Damage: 6

Movement: Immediate on ground / long while flying

Modifications: Level 4 speed defense due to size. Fire based attacks do +1 damage. Social interactions at level 6 when grumpy or in a humbug mood, but level 4 when jolly and festive.

Combat: In combat the gingerbread dragon can bite for 6 damage.  Alternately it can claw one creature and attack another in the same action for 4 damage to each.  The gingerbread dragon can also breathe icing as an attack within short range.  The icing causes 4 damage and requires an additional speed defence roll to avoid immobilization. Immobile targets lose any speed defense training while immobile and can break free as an action on a future turn.

Interaction:  Gingerbread dragons are generally festive and friendly if interacted with within the spirit of the holidays but are confrontational with those who are humbugs or combative.

Use: Gingerbread dragons act as guardians of the holidays and holiday related sites. The North Pole has at least 3 dragons while the home of Father Time is guarded by a single level 8 ancient gingerbread dragon for example.

Notes: Gingerbread dragons are especially fond of gifts and if presented with a holiday gift all pleasant social interactions will gain an asset for that scene.

Loot: Slain gingerbread dragons will leave behind a single holiday appropriate cypher (healing/recovery cyphers, flight, and the like).  The lairs of gingerbread dragons can be looted for an additional 1d6 holiday themed cyphers.

GM Intrusion: The gingerbread dragon sprays an especially powerful attack of thick frosting in a cone within short range.  The frosting attack does 6 damage and requires a speed defense roll against its level +1 to the targets lose 1 speed edge for the remainder of the encounter due to the sticky frosting.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Story Seed - Disturbed Sleep

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The sound of stone grinding on stone echoed through the burial complex like a dragon's roar. The opened tomb gasped, exhaling fetid air from ages long passed.  The two men gagged and coughed on the foul stench, not dry dusty and ancient, but wet, cloying, and rotten. The torch, jammed into a wall sconce older than their great grandparents, guttered, turning sickening colors of green and purple like a week old bruise.

"This isn't right. The stories, they must be true, this place is evil, cursed!" the younger of the two men exclaimed, eyes on the torch as it returned to its former colors in hues of orange, red, and yellow.

"Grow a spine Yaffy, there ain't no such thing as curses." He jammed the long iron pry bar back into the gap in the stone, "It's a tomb ya daft bastard, what' ya expect it to smell of, roses and sunbeams? Now come on an' put yer back into it. The hard part's over and the pay is only a stone's breadth away."

"Sure ... yeah, sure. Whatever you say Samn," the younger replied, hefting his own pry bar and approaching the stone once more. With a cry he stabbed the iron length into the gap beside Samn's own tool. "On three then ... one, two, three -nnggg."

The pair heaved once more, forcing the stone aside inch by inch.  The rough hewn surfaces ground out a fresh bellow of sound that ended only when the two finally ceased pushing having lost leverage.  The sound died out, fading like a moan to silence broken only by the heavy breathing of the grave robbers and the quiet flicker of the torch's flame. The air from the tomb poured out even more freely, dank and damp and thick with rot.

Samn sized up the gap, "Alright, hand me the torch and take up a satchel, it's time to get rich." Yaffy pushed the torch into his partner's and and picked up a heavy burlap sack. The two squeezed crabwise into the tomb through the gap in the stone, their torch leading the way, throwing off oily smoke. "Gods its dank in here," Samn muttered as he looked around.

The room was black as pitch, even with the light of the discolored torch, now burning like a bruise once more. There was no familiar gleam of gold, no reflection of jewel, glass, or metals. "Where's the gold Samn? Where's the riches?" The room appeared to have been painted black, the only object a long sarcophagus upright in the center of the small chamber.

Samn waved the torch around the sarcophagus, "I dunno Yaffy, maybe ..." He cut off as he saw that the sarcophagus was open, a handwidth of blackness even more pure than the rest of the room showed between the stone lid and the rest of the box. "We ain't the first to be here; look, they even opened the damned coffin."

Samn turned and found himself alone.  Yaffy was gone, the sack abandoned on the black stone floor. He waved the torch about looking for his fellow miscreant. "Damnit Yaffy, joke's not funny." Behind him the sound of wetly ragged breathing made Samn spin in place.  Where he'd expected to find Yaffy he was met with a worn death mask riding atop a flowing shadow. One eye was cracked and missing, but the other glowed from within, a red hateful glow that bored into Samn's soul, and froze him in his place unable to even scream with his last breath.

The sound of stone grinding on stone roared out once more before silence and darkness descended on the tomb.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Back Issues #12 - Do I Know You? - Part 3

The last two issues have dealt with the idea of taking the familiar and making it new and unfamiliar while attempting to retain some degree of recognizably. I tackled the two biggest RPG genres, fantasy, and science fiction and reworked the humble orc into something new-ish. In regards to the final result your mileage may vary, but no idea please everybody all the time (somebody famous said something about that I think  smirk ). This week will be the final of this tangent as I re-work the orc one last time for the modern/post-modern age...

Issue #12: Do I Know You? - Part 3

This is all true. In the later days of the 20th Century trans-genic animals were a big deal. Goats who could be milked for spider silk, sheep that produced insulin, disease and pest resistant vegetables and fruits, and more. Medical research was even underway to try and breed transgenic pigs that whose organs could be harvested for human transplant. You may think, "We're closest to chimps, why not look there?", but the reason why swine were chosen was due to the size and configuration of their organs compared to humans. A pig's liver, stomach, etc are roughly the same size as human organs, chimpanzees are smaller and so too are their organs.

Now for the fiction...

As research continued the insertion of various genes into pigs progressed with this goal in mind. The leader of this research was Trans-G Ltd. an international company with their fingers in dozens of transgenic pots, including modified crops, and "humane meat". The medical trade however was the grail that the strived for, to be able to provide organs on demand would be a major coup, and provide the kind of PR that money cannot buy. When Trans-G succeeded it broke open transgenic market. No long was the public skeptical, they could see with their own eyes the two dozen organ recipients from the first clinical trials, people who had been hooked to machines in need of kidneys and livers, and hearts. Within a year approvals for other Transgenic products were being fast-tracked under the weight of consumer pressure.

Ten years later Trans-G Ltd. stunned the world when it unveiled its newest "product"; the O.R.C. The pOrcine Rational Custodian was a transgenically uplifted specifies of pig given low human intelligence and the capability to function within the human environment via bipedal locomotion and fully dexterous hands. Smarter and more capable than helper dogs and monkeys the O.R.C. was intended to replace helper animals with a servant who was able to do everything a those creatures could do and more. Further they were hailed as the new answer to menial labor. O.R.C.s could be given jobs too dangerous or menial for humans and still do their jobs.

Like their genetic relative O.R.C.s were strong and possessed a snout like nose and protruding lower canines. Coarse hair and pink skin that was sensitive to sunlight and sunburn were also inherited from their genetic forebears. Unlike their stock they walked on two human-like legs and had hands with three fingers and an opposable thumb. Tests suggested that the O.R.C.s possessed an I.Q. of roughly 70-80 and were capable of learning numerous simple tasks and the smartest could even master one or two complex tasks.

Physically powerful, the government considered them for military ground forces but found that them lacking the ability to make intelligent tactical choices on the battlefield. Other groups derided them as monsters, while still others insisted that Trans-G had played God and that these intelligent creatures were deserving of the rights of freedom and self rule that all "people" had. Trans-G insisted that they were product, that they could not reproduce on their own, and were little more than extremely intelligent animals. Laws were passed outlawing them in sound countries, while still others wrangle back and forth to this day trying to decide the fate of a new life form.

Three weeks, three genres (kinda), and three variants on the classic Ork that are all quite different, but also kinda the same. What do you all think? Any ideas I missed? Opportunities left un-mined? Does this exercise give you ideas on how to make aspects of your own game new again?

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Story Seed - Evolution

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How much further east could I go? The Clock of the Kala had long since fallen below the horizon in my wake. The people no longer spoke even the rudimentary traders language I had learned growing up in the black riage.  The bright storm in the datasphere was close now; I could see the conflagration at its heart. There, perhaps a mile ahead, through the cracked an jutting spires of uplifted rock and stone. There, a new god of the datasphere was being born. Or perhaps a great battle for control over the Iron Wind was being fought as it had for unknown years and would for years more. I did not know what lay ahead, only that I needed to reach that point, to see what lay there, and witness what would happen. I felt it in my body, my mind, my soul; this was destiny.

The last mile felt like only a hundred yards, my destination was at hand, my destiny lay before me. Ahead I could see more of the storm than ever before; swirling energies and coruscating lights, rose from a sunken crater into the sky.  Streamers and whorls spun about a central shaft of dazzling light that I knew was pure data. There in that depression lay the source of the storm and the answer to my questions.

My boots crunched on something and I stopped to look down.  The ground was covered in tiny crystals, like sparkling shards of glass, or snow formed from quartz.  It was a thin coating here, but I could see ahead that the crystals covered the ground more deeply ahead. I continued onward, heedless of the crunching below my heels.

I topped the rise and looked down. There, in the center of the crater, lay a mass of light too bright to make out.  My eyes watered at the brightness, but I forced my way forward, stumbling down the slope blindly, reaching out without sight for whatever lay in that blinding light. My hand closed on something, a shaft of sharp irregular material. It cut my hand and burned my flesh. I could see my bones through my skin, and through my bones I could see data sprites compressed into solid matter.  The sprites entered my blood, flowed into my veins, replaced my flesh as it burned away.

I screamed in terror and pain and sudden awareness and knowledge.  I screamed as the sprites used my body to compile something new. I screamed the cry of a newborn as I was birthed into a new world.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Review - 1 year on, Numenera & the Cypher System

I've been meaning to write something like this for a while. It may seem odd to review a game that came out over a year ago, but I believe that it's truly difficult, if not impossible, to fully review something like a game, especially and RPG, until you spend some real time with it.  That's not to say you can't give a review, but time will show you what things you thought might not be good are OK, and what you thought might be good but aren't and the like.  Hindsight is 20/20 as they say, which is really just saying that experience allows for a fuller view.

So here we are sixteen months since Numenera and the Cypher System were released. Fourteen months (give or take a week) since I started my own game running my group of first two and then three players through the Ninth World.  A mere four months since my first, second, and third opportunities to experience the Cypher System from the other side of the table, at GenCon 2014 (one Numenera session, and two of the then brand new The Strange).

The Good

There's a lot to love within Numenera, from the high production values of the book, to the quality of a system designed for ease and simplicity that doesn't give up on satisfying levels of choice and complexity in play. The setting is a blend of science fiction, fantasy, post apocalypse, and pulp adventure. There are strange new things on every page to inspire players and GMs alike, and the nearly one hundred pages of setting in the core book hits a perfect level of detail and mystery.  This setting isn't for those who need highly detailed write ups of every last building and bookcase in a given city.  Instead it strives to give the potential GM enough to work with before stepping out of the way.

Mechanically the Cypher System does a lot of things differently. A year ago I don't know how I would have answered if asked my opinion on the fact that the GM never needs to roll dice (ok, never is slightly inaccurate, but I often farm out what little rolling I would need to do anyways). I'd like to hope that I could speak as well about it then as I can now, but honestly I'm not sure when it clicked with me how much I would come to love the freedom that it allowed me.  Freedom enough that I wrote an entire separate article about it for this blog.

Is it perfect? No, but I would wager that a person could play and GM every system ever created in the forty odd year history of the hobby and never find a "perfect" system.  There will always be differences in taste, different play feel, and even the occasional edge case where good systems break down into something wonky.  Does the system work?  Heck yes. For my style of GMing, and for my group, this system runs rings around a lot of other games that we have played over the years. It's simple enough that most things resolve quickly, flexible enough that I almost never need to refer to the book during play, and solid enough that I can run players & characters through the ringer as I need to for the story without running into rules issues. Is it perfect? No, but that doesn't matter, because it's good.

But what about the other side of the table? Well as a player I can say that I enjoy Cypher System as much as I do as GM. I have options when I need them, I can try things even if I'm not suited to the role (or, as I discussed prior, it has a permissive open skill system). Characters have character right out of the gate, and advance in interesting steps rather than logic defying leaps.  There's a great deal of variety to be found for players, and character styles can vary widely from very pigeon holed murder machines to exceptionally capably jack of all trade types. Granted there are some things I don't like. Some character options really only work for certain types of characters, and some of the character options result in strange cases of bookkeeping or complexity.

The Bad

So what's bad? Certain things are weirdly difficult to locate. I literally cannot ever find the table for jumping when I need it. It's a minor issue to be sure, but its not a point of favor. There's some text errors that ninja'd past editing and make the mutant characters a headache to figure out. There have been enough questions online that it is clear at least a couple of play examples probably should have been included for the major rules of Effort and Edge.

I'm really picking at nits here though.  I struggle to find a genuine bad thing about this book.  It's clear that there was a lot of love poured into the game from day one, and the end result shows it.

The Ugly

The Ugly? The ugly is where I point at stuff I don't like, but that isn't bad as such. For instance I don't like the Vancian magic of Dungeons and Dragons but clearly a lot of people do and it works, so its hard to call it "bad", but I don't like it either way.  So is there anything I don't like in Numenera?  No, nothing I can really put my finger on, aside from that damned jumping table, which I literally cannot put my finger on because I cannot find it. Sure some of the art isn't my cup of tea, but art is so subjective and there is so much that is blow-my-mind good that the stuff I don't like barely registers.

The Final Cut

So after a year, after running it and playing it I can honestly say that Cypher System is one of my top RPG systems currently and probably of all time.  It hits all the notes I need from simplicity and fast play to balance and fun.  That it has been coupled to a setting that really fires my brain on all cylinders with ideas is certainly a bonus. I love that this game changed my outlook as GM, changed the way I prep (or don't prep) for sessions, and brought me back to writing creatively for the first time in a long time.

I like that I can create an NPC on the fly with as little as a name and a single number, and that creatures are barely more effort than that. I love that there's a mechanic for me to steer play where I need it while giving players something they want and need as a balance, and I love that the game is OK to throw balance out the window with single serving mayhem in the form of cyphers. Why give players a grenade when you can give them a nuke? Sure you might regret it once, but the self regulating nature of the single use cypher means you won't regret it again afterwards.

I'm not exaggerating when I say that I feel like a better and more confident GM with this system as well. I don't sweat the small stuff, I role play better, and I don't have the fear of an encounter going to pot because of my poor dice rolling.  I also spend less time on the crunchy bits and more time on the fun stuff; it's easier to create a fun and engaging story when I don't have to stop to answer my own questions or the players' and its better than simply hand waving and resolving to look it up next time. Are these boons and benefits exclusive to Numenera? No, but Numenera made these things click for me the way others games hadn't before.

Basically I love this game.  That's probably not a surprise to my readers, but I hope that my reasons for that are clear, and that my measured complaints are likewise understood. I'm a fan, but I try not to be a fan-boy, and the praise I give is earned.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Story Seed - Druid

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It moved through the forest cleanly, massive branching horns and tall staff somehow not catching on any of the trees or shrubs.  Its footing was secure even over lose stones and down embankments covered in wet leaves.  The animals did not flee from the figure, even the birds stood in the trees watching as it passed by. The predators gave way with deference, and ceased their stalking as it passed.

The druid passed over streams and through meadows, blazing a wandering trail through the wild as it sought the heartstone of nature.  In its wake small flowers bloomed, and trees and animals sickened by disease or blight became well again.  Soon a pack of wolves followed in its wake, providing honor guard for the protector of nature.  A mighty buck, with great antlers rising from its head joined the path ahead of the figure, preceding it and clearing the way of last summer's growth.

As the afternoon grew long and the sun began to dip toward the horizon the procession arrived at last at the holy site.  A clearing deep in the wildest parts of the forest, it had the eldritch aura of an ancient place untouched by man. At its center rose a great monolith of natural stone, striped through with veins of crystals. Here the ley lines gathered and crossed, meeting and mixing and continuing on at the position of the stone.

The animals broke from the procession, staying in the forest proper as the druid entered the clearing.  Small slashes of green rose from its footsteps as it approached the sacred stone and raised its hands and its staff to the sky. The veins of crystal began to glow and subtle and cunning runes soon stood in stack relief against the dark stone.  The druid sang the song of the seasons, of the winter ending, and the rebirth of spring. As the song reached its climax the runes and crystalline veins began to change from cold blue to green, starting from the bottom of the stone the warm green glow rose like liquid poured into a glass.

The song suddenly stopped.  The green glow retreated, overcome by the greater force of winter's cold blue energy.  The druid fell to one knee, gripping its staff with one white-knuckled hand, and looking down to the hand that found something jutting from its heart.  The ice blue arrow began to melt, but rather than drip to the ground it seemed to flow into the druid, cold poison replacing warm blood.  The druid cried out and collapses, its body freezing, turning to ice,

The Lord of Winter smiled with triumph. The land was his, there would be no spring.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Story Seed - No Deal

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From the scorched desert sands the Fall didn't seem very aptly named. The cliffs and broken foothills that gave the Fall its name rose from the dry blasted lands to tower hundreds of feet above the sun baked sand and clay.  Beyond the Fall the land grew sharply more hospitable, and there was even a river that ran less than a mile from these forsaken wastes.

The Fall survived by building into the cliffs themselves, and via cunningly engineered tunnels that fed water through the stone of the plateau from the river.  The Fall eked out an existence on the edge of hell, and somehow I had survived hell itself and returned. The 'bot had deposited me within the shadow the Fall's main gates and then vanished, it had satisfied its programming to the extent that it felt it had honored our bargain.

I managed to signal those within for aid, and within the hour I was resting in a medical suite receiving fluids through a tube into my arm, and curative salves for my sunburnt skin through robotically controlled nozzles. I'd have been appreciative had I been self aware at that time.  In hindsight I certainly appreciate it now.

It'd been ten days and I still felt thirsty, but that was psychological according to the sawbones. I'd had very little in the way of scrip and so I'd pawned my mapper, and a few other bits of tech.  It gave me enough to pay the sawbones and keep myself fed. The interior streets and corridors of the Fall were cool enough and isolated from weather so I slept where I could.  The people were private enough that I didn't get any trouble, so far anyway. My sixgun I'd kept; it was worth plenty, but it was the last thing I had, and my only means of defense.

Turned out that was the right choice. I spied the Boss McKenna's tubby second, Charles Stuber, as he emerged from a saloon.  Thankfully he hadn't seen me.  Most everybody, McKenna included, called him Chuckles. I don't have a clue why, he was as stupid as he was fat, and not at all funny. Thankfully he was also not paying attention.  I shadowed him until he was between the open cavern neighborhoods the Fall used to feel less like a big cave (which it was) and more like a gentile town (which it was not).

Getting up right behind him I thumbed the hammer back, pressing cold steel into folds of fat, "Don't turn around Charlie. Believe me when I tell you that I'd rather face justice here in the Fall than whatever you and McKenna have to offer in Angel's Dig." The big man froze, he was none too bright, but still smart enough to know when somebody had him dead to rights. "The Boss figured that any chance was more than she could accept eh? Sent you here to finish the job if the sun hadn't?" I prodded him back into motion with my gun, forcing him down a dark alley.

He stumbled into motion, nodding and trying to crane his neck around enough to see me, "I don't come back and she's gonna know you're alive. Gonna send everything she can for your sorry skin." I think he thought he sounded tough.

I laughed bitterly and ground the barrel of my sixgun into his kidney, "And you want me to let you live right? Let you go back and claim I'm dead, or maybe that you didn't find me?"

He nodded enthusiastically. "Graham, jus-just listen man," he sounded suddenly desperate, his brain must have caught up with his situation. "Th-this doesn't have to go down like this. L-like you said, j-just lemme go. I ain't no fool, you got me beat."

"McKenna would see through you in an instant." He started to protest, but I just kept right talking, "Hell, I bet you already sent her a wave didn't you? Told her you didn't find my body out in the blasted lands." Slowly he nodded. "Man, you are as dumb as a box of sand," I told him.

"Be reasonable!" he pleaded.

"No deal." His bulk muffled the gunshot.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Five Thousand and One Hundred(ish)!

5000+ page views

100+ posts

Thank you all for your continued support!

Back Issues #11 - Do I Know You? - Part 2

Last week I discussed and explored the idea of taking the familiar and changing it, altering it, and making it unique and new again for a game. In doing so I re-worked the traditional fantasy Ork from the stupid and brutish green skinned dungeon denizen to a brown skinned, forest dwelling farmer race known for their woodworking skill. Physically the change was minor, socially they fill a wholly new role in the world. This week I am going revist this same idea, but transfer it into a science-fiction setting ... 

Issue #11: Do I Know You? - Part 2

The Ork isn't really a staple of many science fiction RPGs; off the top of my head I can think of two, Shadowrun and Warhammer 40,000 (pictured right). In both instances much of the standard features are still present, the physical power, the mental weakness, and the tendency toward barbarism. Both games & settings have put their own spin on the Ork. In Shadowrun they are a subspecies of man, have only a slight reduction in mental and social skills compared to the baseline, and lack the green skin tone that they are often known to have. In the 40k universe Orks are a fungus. No joke, they grow from spores in pods beneath the surface of any world so infected by them; props to the guys at Games Workshop for that one.

Given the high technology nature of most science fiction RPGs, and given what I did with Orks last week, one may be expecting a technologically advanced race, zipping about in spacecraft, firing laser weapons, teleporting from place to place and more.

Think again.

Physically we start with the stock ork and lengthen their arms and make them even more heavily muscled, truly possessed of massive physical strength. The legs we shorten and reverse the knees, so that the ork now walks digitigrade. With much of the power in the ork's body in the arms and chest the creature now walks hunched and stooped over, using its knuckles, which are covered in thick leathery and bony studded plates. The lower jaw is further enlarged and the tusks are modified to point outward, for goring attacks on the charge. The changes wrought would yield a creature somewhat crossed between a gorilla and a warthog or wild boar.

Mentally we make the ork a natural predator, cunning, quick to learn, and naturally possessed of tactics and teamwork skills to flank and outmaneuver its prey with its pack. Instead of a sentient being the ork is now a savage apex predator of a far flung world. Territorial in the extreme and powerful enough to defeat one or more fully armed and armored men on its own, able to take down even greater numbers or large prey when working within a pack. This beast is rather inconveniently located on one of the few habitable worlds that humankind has found thus far. Worse, its natural environment lies within the forests and plains where valuable resources, or important agricultural land is found. Pushing the creature into confrontation with humanity almost from day one.

Same questions as last time folks. What do you think? Is this a race that you would be interested in seeing in a game, or is this instead too different? 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Story Seed - Another Deal

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She swung the cylinder, smiling at the muted click as each chamber passed by the breech.  "He's dead?"

"Y-yes ma'am, he must be, the blasted lands are too dry for a man to walk across. There's no way he's alive." Chuckles didn't sound convinced; he sounded worried.  The boss was playing with her gun again, and that made Chuckles nervous. "He's gotta be," he added lamely.

"He must be? He's gotta be? You don't sound very convinced, and if you aren't convinced how is it that I am supposed to feel Charles? How am I supposed to feel confident that that son of a filthy dog Graham is dead?" Boss McKenna swung her feet to the floor and snapped her wrist to the side; the sixgun's cylinder snapped shut with an ominous click. "Answer. Me. That. Charles."

The big man whimpered, stepping back from the rickety desk. His pudgy face was always damp with sweat, but now it was all but flowing down his jowls.  "B-boss, there's no way, nobody ever done it. Chasin' that 'bot down'll be the death of him." Chuckles nodded, as though to convince himself, and wiped at his face with a sodden handkerchief.

Jamie McKenna stood; all five foot three inches of her.  She was easily a foot shorter well over a hundred pounds outweighed, and yet both of the people in the hot tent knew whom was looking down on whom. Boss McKenna ruled Angel's Dig like a dictator, the town was nominally independent of the excavation, but in truth it may as well have been entirely a single commercial venture.  If McKenna had had it her way it would have been. "I'm not feeling very convinced Charles," she said. "What about that damned 'bot? What if it get's it in its damned head to obey the first law, hmmm?"

Chuckles goggled, he certainly hadn't thought of that.  His jowls wobbled as he swallowed hard, "Uh, uh, uh, th-that ... ya, think Graham an' the robot mighta made it all the ways to the Fall?"

"Holy shit Chuckles, did you just have yourself a thought?" Boss McKenna asked.  The fat man nodded nervously. "Well, damn, I guess maybe I'll have to reward you for that. Now get your fat ass to the Fall. Find Graham, kill ... no ... no, bring him back. I want my scrip back, even if I have to drop him into the Dig until he rots. One way or the other I'll get my scrip out of him." She picked up the gun and slid it into her shoulder holster.

"That was the deal, and nobody breaks a deal with me."

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Nuts & Bolts #10 - The New Skin

Yeah, that's Barney, but it's still DOOM under the hood.

When it comes to RPGs there are few constants, but one of those is that if you get enough gamers in a room as ask what their favorite RPG is you will not get 100% agreement.  Sometimes "enough gamers" is two. Regardless, we gamers have been tinkering for decades now trying to make the "best" game we can. Sometimes that involves setting, sometimes it involves rules, and sometimes it involves mechanics of random number generation.

Players and GMs have also been more than willing to take the "takeout menu" approach as well "I'll take a little from column A and a little from column B" mixing and matching rules between games, mixing the setting from one game with the mechanics from another, or even mixing and matching genres.  All's fair in love and war ... and gaming.

Skinning and hacking are complicated subjects. There's not really a clear demarcation between the two, and plenty of ways to approach the subject.  I'm not too smart though so I'm going to try anyway. I'm going to start with re-skinning, because ... I dunno, reasons?

Re-Skinning is something that has probably been around for almost as long as RPGs themselves.  To me re-skinning is when you take a game's mechanics and leave them alone, and simply put a new setting, and setting terminology, on top.  So long as you aren't changing game mechanics, its a skin, once you start touching the way the game resolves things and works that is a Hack (I'll do another column for Hacking).  This is where games with "universal" mechanics/systems come to play.  Stuff like FATE and GURPS where the selling point is that you can use it for whatever you want and never have to learn something new.

Re-skinning often comes into play when you have popular settings that don't have an official RPG.  Take Mass Effect as an example. In the year and change that Monte Cook's Cypher system has been in the wild I have seen at least two different instances of people skinning the Cypher system to serve as a mechanical foundation for Mass Effect.  Likewise I have seen similar attempts for the AGE system used in Green Ronin's Dragon Age RPG, to skin it for Mass Effect. I'd wager there are several more systems, and dozens of examples across those just to reskin RPGs for Mass Effect. Seems like BioWare and some lucky RPG publisher could make some money if they wanted (and from what I hear BioWare isn't interested).

It's probably safe to say that to some degree most RPGs players have done some re-skinning at one point or another.  It could be as simple as a home grown setting for D&D with some minor changes to clerical gods, or it could involve turning something into something else.

Mutants & Masterminds isn't billed as a universal system, and if you've ever played it you probably know that it is keyed toward comic book style game play.  At it's heart though is a very smartly designed point-based system that can be used to simulate darn near any kind of power, be they super, magic, mutant, or something else.  Internal to the game this is done with a finite list of basic effects that are built up with modifiers and skinned to fit the effect desired with descriptors. In other words, at the mechanics level, a gun and a super power energy blast use the same basic rules, they inflict Damage (the effect) at range (a modifier). The only difference is the descriptor which describe the context of the mechanical effect; bullets for one and fire for the other for example.

This is a perfect system to lay a skin on and use for whatever you want.  So long as what you want is a game that will feel like a comic book.  And that is what brings us to the first big talking point.

Game mechanics have a certain "feel" to them.

You can skin Mutants and Masterminds all you want but it will always feel and play a little like a comic book game due to the way it is designed.  You could change some of the rules but that would be a Hack, and that is a different column.

When you are looking to play in a certain setting, keeping in mind the tone and style of the gameplay you want is crucial when you pick the game system/mechanics you are going to use.  It doesn't matter what setting you use you are probably not going to get an "old school" feel if you are using White Wolf's World of Darkness as you mechanical system. Likewise you'll not get a very superheroic game in the Marvel Universe if you are using the 2nd Edition Shadowrun rules. The mechanics provide a certain feel to the gameplay, just like the setting does so when you are trying to find a system to skin a game setting onto the feel of the intended gameplay experience is pretty important.

I think finding the correct feel for a skinned game comes down to two aspects: genre and tone.

Let's go back to a prior example; let's say that you really want to play some Mass Effect.  There's no RPG out there for that series so you start by looking for a system to skin.  Genre is going to make a huge difference here.  Few people are going to even consider a fantasy game like D&D, Ars Magica, or the like.  That's common sense, these games have little in common with Mass Effect and would be all but impossible to skin.  Why? Because they don't do what needs to be done mechanically.  There are no rules for modern firearms there, and while spells could take the place of the Mass Effect biotics, the whole thing wouldn't capture the feel you wanted.

You could take the current Fantasy Flight Star Wars games and try to play Mass Effect with them.  Use Force powers for biotics, build your own starships (or not), and generally just change names.  It's bound to give you a better fit for Mass Effect than D&D would.  Likewise you could skin Diablo onto something like Earthdawn get a better result than if you tried using Rifts.

There's more to skinning than picking the right mechanics for the genre.  Sure, choosing the right game to use for mechanics will make your job easier, but it also influences the tone of the game. I mentioned how the mechanics behind Mutants & Masterminds are capable of creating almost any kind or power you want a character or creature to have.  I stand by that, and really feel that there is a lot that system can do, but the tone of the game is one of superheroics, and the characters always feel extremely capable.  Combat in the M&M system isn't very deadly, and healing tends to be quick, because in comics people get beat down all the time and pop right back up a few pages later ready to face off against the big bad.

Genre-wise M&M is very flexible, I tried a fantasy game using those rules and the characters felt very authentic to a fantasy world.  The mages could sling magic, the warriors had mighty weapons, and great skill, but tonally the game wasn't anything like D&D. The magic users could cast far more spells and far more frequently than in D&D, while the less-lethal combat meant that clerics healed less and fought more; they certainly felt more militant to me.  The result was a fun game, but it wouldn't work for an old school dungeon crawl where every room and corner should bring the looming threat of potential doom.

The hard part here is that tone and genre both are informed by setting and mechanics.  Genre informs what kinds of mechanics you will need (try playing a Star Wars game without rules for starship combat), or don't need (how often do you need aircraft rules in a dungeon crawl?).  Tone informs (and is informed by) the way those mechanics work to make the players feel their character interact with the world.

Imagine how different a game feels when the only thing you change is the damage done by monsters?  If you double the amount of damage they can deal then each combat becomes a potential bloodbath where the players are far more likely to take significant injuries and risk death.  Want to make your characters feel like action heroes? Cut the monster health by half and watch as the PCs become ultra capable gods of combat, killing enemies far more easily.

Assuming you don't want to fiddle with rules changes and hack something for your game just keep in mind the genre and tone of the game you want to play as you look for a game system to skin.  keeping those aspects of the experience in mind will help you to choose the best fit for your needs, or potentially give you ideas how to tweak things for an interesting new experience.  Imagine a Star Wars game where death potentially hides behind every combat roll, or a Shadowrun game where magic is twice as dangerous to the caster and the target.


Tangential to the discussion above, but entirely related to it, is an experiment that my friend and fellow blogger +James Walls is trying.  He's calling it Quattro con Carnage - Tannryth: Realm of … Something and in the coming few weeks he is going to run a campaign in eight sessions across four systems.  The idea is to keep the setting and the characters the same and see how each system changes the feel of game; essentially reskinning the same characters and setting onto four systems.

He's invited me to take part in this, and I plan to write a couple columns about it; after each system change I am expecting to write about the change that each system has brought to the tone of the game.  I expect to find that these changes will impact the sessions, the characters, and the play experience dramatically. I hope you all will come back and join me as I discuss this experiment, and how the above thoughts impact and are impacted by it.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Story Seed - Deal

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It was so dry. I sucked on the little pebble and worked it around, but even that was failing to bring any saliva to my mouth. My canteen was empty, and the backup as well.  I stopped, kneeling down to look at the tracks.  They were growing more indistinct, getting older as I fell behind my quarry.  The ground here was either hard, nearly kiln baked from the sun, or loose like sand.  The latter often filled in any cracks in the former.  This place was death, hot dry, and inhospitable to life.

Which is why I was following my quarry deeper into the blasted lands.  A rogue robot, assuming the blowing sand didn't destroy its mobility it could survive this place long enough to emerge on the other side.  I'd not make it that far. I was already beyond the red line on my mapper. I shook my head, brushing sand out of my hat and sarape.

I was dead either way unless I caught this damn thing. I owed too much to the wrong people, so either I pulled down this bounty or I ran and probably caught a bullet. I stood up, feeling immediately woozy. Damnit, I can't be dehydrated already. I looked up and found the sun, realizing it was probably two hours later than I had thought.

I put my hand on my sixgun and used the other to retrieve the mapper from under my wrap.  The topography was fairly uniform so all I had to go on was bearing and distance.  I was a good forty miles from the last outpost. Ah shit, I really was dead already. I swallowed, or tried to; my throat was too dry and it hurt like hell.  If I turned back now, and was lucky as a two-tailed rattler, I might crawl back into the outpost and survive a little longer.  If I continued I could get my bounty, and then die out here without ever bringing it back in.

I closed my eyes.  There was no way to win.  I'd have to try and go back, if I managed to live I might get lucky and evade my debtors. Big if. Even bigger might.

A crunch sounded behind me.  I spun, my hand yanking my sixgun from its holster.  I was dehydrated however, more so than I realized; my balance was shot, my fingers were clumsy.  I toppled over, my gun slipping from my grasp and landing with a thump just before I hit dirt as well.

All I could make out were legs.  Narrow metal that terminated in spikes. Crap, the hunter was the hunted. Bad news for me I guess. I rolled to my back, looking up at my quarry.  It stared at me, a steel form imitating humanity, a poncho was draped over its body, and blowing in the dry wind. The small orb by its head zoomed toward me, hitting me with a multi-spectral scanning beam. "You doubled back?" I asked, confused.

"This unit waited. This unit has determined that you have passed beyond your maximum safe distance and will perish here without assistance," the 'bot responded.

"Well aint that just a thing? So you waited here to kill me?" I figured I may as well ask, I was already dead by any and all reckoning.

"This unit cannot allow harm to come to humans, therefore this unit waited to determine if you would pursue beyond your capable range." It head cocked to the side, "This unit fails to understand why humans insist on endangering themselves. This unit will render aid and carry you back to the nearest outpost."

"Uhh," I said, pulling my mapper up to my face by its lanyard.  My fingers fumbled with it but I finally managed to calculate our options.

"This units will return south by south-east towar-"

"No. You will take me north to the Fall.  There's a village there," I croaked, my mouth was dryer now for all the damn fool talking.

"The fall is three hours farther, this unit will -"

I interrupted the damn thing again, I wasn't sure why it was determined to help me, but I was damn sure going to force it to take me somewhere safe.  I managed to lever my sixgun up to my head, "The Fall, or I kill myself."

The robot seemed to consider it.  "This unit will comply on one condition."

Seriously, it had conditions? This thing was confusing the hell out of me. "What?" I croaked.

"This unit desires to be free.  After this unit takes you to the Fall you will cease to pursue it."



Summary - A bounty hunter tracking a rogue robot. A brush with death, and a deal upon which two lives rest.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Story Seed - Incursion

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"Wow, this place is a dump!"

"Cut the chatter, Miller. Everybody keep your eyes open, and spread out. Jones, any idea where this thing is?" Smith swept his submachine gun across the room, surveying what had once been a lobby as his team flanked out to either side.

Smith, a tall thin woman peered at the tablet in he hands, "Readings are continuing to climb. Triangulation suggests that the incursion point will be ... on the fourth floor." She raised her head and looked around, adjusting the SMG danging from her harness in a tactical sling.  "I'd estimate we have five to ten minutes.  When do the heavies arrive?"

Kent grunted dismissively, "Fifteen at best, so we have to hold the gate at least five I guess."

Miller's voice came over the radio, "Elevator is busted, looks like somebody cut the cables or something."

Johnson, the fourth member of the team, and easily the most taciturn, checked in next. "El-tee, the stairs are clear, aside from the reek of piss and vomit." He sounded bored.

"Hold tight Johnson, we're coming to you.  Miller, sweep the back, check if there's a second stairwell." Kent nodded to Smith and the pair made for Johnson's position, their footfalls crunching on dirt and pieces of broken tile and glass.

At one point the building had been a nice small office building.  Like so many others in Detroit it was now an empty shell, abandoned for years, and target for scavengers looking for copper and steel to sell at scrap yards. Kent and Johnson moved up the stairs, leaving Smith at the door until Miller reported in or joined her. The stairwell smelled worse than Johnson had described, clearly at one point this building had been occupied by squatters, and the stairs had been the toilet.

The second floor was cleared and Miller confirmed that the other stairs were inaccessible, somebody had apparent barricaded the door from the inside. The team continued to the third floor, staggered advancement, clearing the way entirely before moving upward.  It took nearly all of the ten minutes to clear the first three floors of the building.

The fourth floor was not empty.  In the center of a haphazard pile-up of abandoned desks a crackling semi-sphere of energy pulsed, discharging electrical bolts at random.

"Holy crap," Smith said, looking not at her tablet but the gold crucifix on a chain she wore, it was floating in mid air, pulled taut on the chain by gravity fluctuations.  "This is ... really bad."

"No shit," Miller said from the back, still keeping and eye down the stairs.

"Where's this sand coming from?" Kent asked as he carefully advanced. A sudden flare of electricity stopped him short and a blast of fine particulate from the sphere suddenly pelted the group.

"That's not sand boss, its whatever is trying to come through that unstable gate!" Smith was hunkered down, tapping away at her tablet, "We need to close that ASAP, before whoever or whatever is on the other side figures out how to lock it down."


Summary - in the urban ruins of Detroit a portal to some other world begins to open, leaving a small team to either close it or deal with whatever comes through...

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Back Issues #10 - Do I Know You?

When people think of Fantasy RPGs probably one of the first things to pop into their minds are elves. Then Dwarfs, wizards, maybe orcs (or orks if you prefer), goblins. Dragons probably make an appearance in there. The list goes on and on. In general though these things all have a certain set familiar traits; Eleves are long lived and pretty, dwarfs are short and hardy, orks are brutish and powerful. This provides a commonality that allows the gamer to have touchstones that are instantly familiar. I say we throw that out the window ... 

Issue #10: Do I Know You?

The Ork (or Orc, if one prefers), is a well known, much maligned, staple of the genre. Regardless of the game they tend to be stronger than a man, often less intelligent, and primitive or savage. Many are green skinned, which is a trait that sets them further apart from humans, elves, dwarfs, gnomes, etc. The stock art for an Ork depicts them with pointed ears, over sized lower canines that thrust out of a jutting lower jaw, and of course a thick frame heavy with muscle. Basically that picture over to the right.

Now we say we want to give a new spin to the Ork. We want to make something old and familiar, new and, if not novel the at least, different. This requires we make changes to the standard. Physically we have three primary traits, skin color, build, and facial structure (which we could further break down if desired). We also have two primary behavioral traits, being of limited intelligence, and being primitive.

We want to change things but maintain a certain level of familiar recognizability. As such we have to be careful with changes to the physical aspects lest we end up with a race that is no longer Ork. We could leave their appearance the same and change only their cultural and mental aspects, but if we're going to make changes, let's make some changes. We want to keep the general appearance of the face, the heavy brow, the jaw, the tusks, the ears, so that leaves the other physical aspects. We change the hue of the skin from a medium green to a mahogany brown, with traces of darker, chestnut brown veins below the skin. We also alter the traditional black hair color to a deep rust red, as it will serve the race well in its new forest habitat. The tusks we de-emphasize slightly, and we likewise reduce the often seen heavy brow and jutting jaw, keeping the general Orkish features but making them less savage. Next we address the Ork's build. We do away with the often seen barrel chest, giving them a more human like body proportion. That done we have a creature that still looks like an Ork, but is clearly different.

Doing away with their low intellect and primitive or barbaric lifestyle comes next. We give them a more human standard level of intelligence but add to it a strong will that couples with their hardly physical nature. Orks are a resilient lot, and so should be mentally as well as physically. For a Fantasy game we also give them an affinity for making things. Not stone or ironwork (as would normally be the providence of dwarfs), nor magic (as would be the domain of many an elf), but instead we gift them with an affinity for woodworking and agriculture. From savages to carpenters and farmers. Initially these Orks would live in and around forests, near clearings and plains, and with time their settlements would grow along these boundaries that define their lives.

Being farmers and craftsmen also implies now that the traditional warlike attitude is replaced by village and city building, and trading. Further we can assume that in time they would likely become adept with weapons appropriate to their culture, axes, hammers, teethed & bladed weapons, and scythes are all likely to be hallmarks of the now forming "Wood Ork". They would also likely be known for the high quality of their bow and crossbow weapons (though perhaps not for their marksmanship).

...and that's it; we now have a race that would, if inserted into an otherwise "standard" fantasy milieu, would fit in well with humans and their allies. An Orkish race that while bearing a vague physical resemblance is now quite different from the expected standard.

What do you folks think? Is this a race that you would be interested in playing in a game, or is this instead too different from the classic Ork? What would you change to make the races of a custom fantasy setting new and exciting?

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Story Seed - Birth

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"What do you think they are?" Girn asked, standing some distance away from the half buried spheres and keeping an eye out.

Jollo shrugged poking at one of the stone balls with his staff, "No clue."

"If you two could be quiet, I can investigate," Ipun retorted, irritated at his companions' banter.  The nano was crouched near the sphere farthest from the piled group of them.  He had a book open in one hand and was inspecting the thing with a magnifying glass, primitive, but it wouldn't deplete like some of the nicer alternatives.

Jollo and Girn exchanged exasperated looked and returned to poking the sphere with a stick and keeping watch, respectively. Ipun shook his head and flipped to a different section, comparing the swirling patterns on the rock to the notes in his book.  Nothing was matching, whatever these were he had no record of anything like it.  "Nothing," he muttered snapping the book shut.  "I'm going to try a Scan," he announced, "if that doesn't work let's just move on."

Reaching out with his mind Ipun tapped into the countless micro-machines in the air around him and tasked them with retrieving data about the sphere.  The others looked on as he reached out to the object, holding his hand out just above its surface.  After a moment he frowned, "It's alive?"

"That a question or a statement?" Girn asked, pointing his heavy crossbow at the rocky orb.

"Both," Girn replied back, "My scan tells me this is life, but my eyes and experience tell me it's a rock."

"Let's smash it open!" offered Jollo, already growing bored with this discovery.

"No!" the others said as one, evidence that on rare occasion they did both agree.  "What do you think Girn, is it some kind of egg?"

"Could be," the nano replied, "but I can't penetrate its shell with what I have here."  He tried to stand up but his knees were sore from the prolonged crouch and his balance tipped him forward.  His outstretched hand easily found the orb's surface, preventing him from toppling over.  "Ow!" he cried, tearing his hand away from the object and righting himself quickly, "Cut myself."  He looked at his hand, a small cut on the meat of his palm was bleeding.  He used a clean cloth to apply pressure and wrapped a length of cord around it.

"Let's go, we can check them out again on the way back," Jollo suggested.  The others agreed, they had little other options to investigate the stones anyways.

They were less than a dozen meters away when they heard the crack of stone breaking.  Looking back they saw the sphere broken, and a wet pink arm, reaching out toward the light. The head that followed it was Girn's spitting image.


Summary - Not all life appears as we expect.  Three adventurers stop to investigate what seem to be stone balls only to find that they are a most peculiar form of life indeed.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Review - Translation Codex

Want it? Buy it!


Published By: Ryan Chaddock Games • 142 pages • $8.00 (currently $5.00) • Full Color PDF

What's In It

The Translation Codex is the first third party supplement for The Strange. It's fitting that for a game based around traveling to different worlds and assuming new abilities for each that the Translation Codex features one hundred new Foci for GMs and players to use. Of course it goes without saying that any fan of Numenera, or any other game using the Cypher System, could use this product to greatly expand the core offerings of Foci for player characters.

From the outset the presentation shows a great deal of forethought.  The product is broken into sections of major themes, from paranormal to earthly and more, allowing the GM to quickly find like foci for use with a given recursion.  Each foci is formatted for a single page, ensuring that they can easily be printed for use at a table. Chapters also contain a one piece piece of short fiction and a handful of short recursion ideas. Each recursion is only given half a page worth of space and so detail is light, but given that this product isn't geared toward recursions the light detail can be forgiven.

Rather than traditional artwork each foci has an icon, similar in style to the kind of line art one sees on safety signs, and presented in a color that ties it with the themed section to which it belongs.  This is an interesting choice, but the art doesn't always sell the foci as well as traditional artwork would.  These icons also pose one of the few sore spots in my mind.  The oddly shaped icons, are usually placed between the two column layout with text wrapped around them.  This results in strange line breaks and a great deal of hyphenated words broken across lines and spaces to accommodate the icons. The focus "Follows the Old Ways" is by far the most guilty in this regard, with the focus' symbol, a crooked staff, being placed in the center of the left hand column, breaking two paragraphs into difficult to read split columns.

But how are the actual foci? Split into five major themes and five minor themes the foci cover a lot of ground thematically. The writing is quite good and with a few exceptions each foci had well balanced Tier 1 offerings.  It gets more difficult to assess the utility of the focus powers from higher tiers but none of the foci seemed overly strong or weak. A number of the foci utilized the long term benefits available for purchase with experience as part of their advancement.  Gaining a contact or wealth is a nice reward and works well within the foci that utilize such benefits to deepen the thematic tie between mechanics, character, and gameplay.

Of course in any such collection of foci there will be those that stand out and make people want to play them.  For my part, I was delighted to see "Brandishes a Death Ray" most of all due to prior gaming experiences.  Meanwhile foci like "Bears a Holy Symbol," "Just Won't Die," and "Dies" (yes, you read that right) are all standouts that I would like to try in future games. The foci also go a long way toward showing the flexibility of the Cypher System, with entries like "Dons a Power Suit", "Controls Weather", and "Wields Cosmic Power" showing that the Cypher System could host a superheroes game as easily as it can low fantasy and high concept science fiction.

Closing Thoughts

One of the most common complaints I have heard about The Strange since launch is that the number of available foci within the game is small when split across the three major recursions.  With the release of The Translation Codex that shouldn't continue to be a problem.  Containing one hundred new foci this third party supplement ensures that GMs and players will have access to a wealth of foci for nearly any recursion they could hope to visit.  Some formatting issues do create some clumsy word and/or line breaks, but only in rare cases is this more than an annoyance.  The quality, variety, and number of foci this product provides more than make this product a worthwhile (and value packed) addition to Cypher System games.

Score: 90% - A fine addition to the Strange (or any game using the Cypher system).

Author's note: A complimentary review copy of this product was provided for the purposes of this review.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Story Seed - Divergent History

Summary/Intro - Something different today. I wrote this with another piece of art in mind and then came up with a better story for that and scrapped this.  That art became the "Monument" Story Seed from a couple weeks ago.

Ultimately I really like this little bit I wrote, it's a journal entry from early in Ardeyn's history.  Written by one of the first denizens to gain the spark, it's a glimpse of how a self aware creature may view the growth and change a recursion goes through over time.  In Ardeyn's case of course it grew rather rapidly and within a kind of time dilation bubble due to the circumstances of its creation.

At any rate, it's a short piece, but I hope you all enjoy it and it get's your mind going as to how the spark might lead cultures and people in a recursion to deviate from the creator's original whims and intent.


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I have walked to the edge of the world. I have looked over the drop where the badlands end, where the chaos beyond the world can be seen, during the day it becomes harder, the sun washing it from the sky at times, but it is there, beyond our sun, our moons, our stars.  A realm that we do not yet understand.

In the badlands, things fall from this other realm like rain at times.  Creatures from beyond invade our world, seeking their own ends, or to serve the Betrayer, or even the Sinner. Treasures too fall from the sky.  Potent magicks that defy understanding and are consumed in a single use. These treasures are a mystery and yet they drive a burgeoning economy of treasure seekers for the crown and for its enemies.

But stranger still is that the world is subtly, quietly, growing. I have observed this well, though days, weeks, months, and even years of careful study and record keeping.  The land itself gains an inch here, a hand's breadth there; sometimes in as little as a few hours. The rate is inconsistent, or follows a pattern I cannot fully see to study.  All I can determine is that our world is growing, like some kind of living thing. I can only pray that it is the Sinner's prison that grows and not the Sinner himself.

Stranger still was the monument.  To the far south, in the borderlands of Kryzoreth, I found a monument that had not been there during my visit ten years prior.  It was worn and weathered and clearly originated from the Age of Myth, but my maps and notes were thorough and clear; I had not seen it before.  The monument and the ground it stood on had not existed prior. The villagers nearby spoke of it as though it had stood for years beyond memory.  I do not understand what this means, but I wonder if the Maker's influence still touches our world.

 - Excerpt from the blasphemous writings of Kurn'al the Learned, circa 297 AB

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Story Seed - Thanks for Translating

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November 4th, 2013 - After Action Report, Recursion 27.32.XA.001

The above picture ... I cannot even believe that I drew it with my own hands, let alone That I have the memories of seeing it with my own eyes. I say they were my own eyes but who really knows with translations.

Regardless ... this morning we used the Oracle to map a new recursion. As usual the Oracle provided coordinates for translation but little else.  I took my team, Paul and Allison, and with some effort we translated. The world was ... odd. Surprisingly old and well established despite its limited size.  The forest seemed devoid of life at first, and the trees oddly formed. We were surprised to find that we had our Earthly countenance.

After fifteen minutes we were discussing our next steps and putting serious thought to returning home. From appearances we assumed this recursion was dying, the small forest simply being the last remnant of some older and more expansive world.  That is when we heard the sound.

It sounded like a bird, but now, here at home, I recall it sounding more like the "gobble gobble" noises my nieces and nephews make. Then again, given the creature's appearance, I suppose that is indeed what it is. I cannot pretend to understand how this came to be.

Jenkins' best guess is that this recursion was once some ancient place formed during humanity's dawn, and that as the culture that birthed it died out and faded into forgotten history, the recursion began to die off.  At some point, more recently perhaps, though who knows when the practice started or where, the creative spirit of children drawing birds, especially turkeys found this place and altered it.  Without any form of narrative this place became very nearly as two dimensional as the crayon drawings of the strange hand-like birds that influence it, and now inhabit it.

I am thankful that the creatures were docile. I do not want to think of what could have come from an encounter with them had they been hostile.  Jenkins ... the man wants us to send one back through an inapposite gate for study.  I am appealing to the council to close the recursion to visitors. I'll be grateful if I don't even have to see those things again.

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Summary - Sometimes fictional leakage need not come from a single source.  Common myths have been known to blend into singular recursions.  So what then happens to the leakage of so many imaginative minds creating a common cultural form of artwork with a singular theme and form?


As a note, tomorrow is Thanksgiving and so there will be no Throwback Thursday tomorrow, nor a new Story Seed on Friday this week.  Regular posts will resume on Monday.