Friday, February 27, 2015

Story Seed - Arrival

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The forest was quiet. Tranquil. The wind, a light breeze, sighed through the trees, caressing leaves, a causing the branches to sway gently to nature's song. Bird songs called out, harmonizing with the rustles and sighs, while the buzzing and chirping of insects added a nigh constant background hum. Sunlight filtered through leaf and stem, arriving tinged with green before exploding into color as it hit blossoms and feathers. Even the browns of bark and loam seemed vibrant and alive.


Embedded deep in the peaceful forest twilight a structure stood apart from nature. A berm of stone, hewn with care, and laid with precision, each stone imbued and suffused with the fundamental energy of world. An intersection of ley lines ensured that the site was flush with power, and in tune with the very lifeblood of the world around it.

The peace shattered with a sound like thunder.

Atop the berm wide rings rose from the stone flanked by pillars that crackled and vibrated with energy. The entire structure thrummed with power until, within the rings, a light blossomed. Figures emerged from the light. First one, then in groups of two and three, they poured out onto the berm, overflowed into the forest like a tidal wave.

Orders were given; "Clear a space there." "Deep ground scans there, we need a well." "Erect the perimeter fence at a forty yard radius from here." The quiet of the forest gave way to the noise of machines, the thump of booted feet, the voices of men.

Man had arrived; the forest would never be the same.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Back Issues #20 - It's The End of the World - Part 2: Not with a bang but a whimper.

T.S. Elliot said it best ...
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
*cough cough cough*

ahem, sorry I seem to have picked up a little something. Just a cough ... and some bleeding ... from the eyes ... maybe this is worse than I thought...

Issue #20: It's The End of the World - Part 2: Not with a bang but a whimper.

Of all the ways that we as a race might come to an end the most likely sometimes seems to be by disease. It's not an unreasonable fear. The Black Death, a.k.a. the bubonic plague, raged across Europe and Asia in the middle 1300s and wiped out some 100 million people (yes, that is right, and it may even be more) with estimates stating that the European population was reduced by between 30% and 60%. In some countries that number may even have ranged up to 80%! It took the continent nearly a century and a half to fully recover in population.

Similarly the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic claimed some 50-100 million and reached nearly all corners of the globe. By contrast World War 2, accounted as the deadliest war in history, may have claimed fewer lives, with estimates between 40-70 million.

It's terrifying to think that the deadliest things on our planet are not nuclear weapons, but naturally occurring organisms. Back in Issue #2 I wrote about using illness in games and how it could be used on a small scale to hamper the PCs and give them something of a challenge by way of being reduced in their own selves, but what of illness on the massive scale?

There's more than a couple works of fiction to mine for ideas and imagery. Stephen King's The Stand goes all the way and all but wipes out humanity before it even gets going. The TV film is excellent, I bet it's on Netflix. Other sources to consider? Zombies as a disease in the excellent World War Z, an alien plague in The Andromeda Strain, and any number of adaptations of I am Legend. And Marvel Comics famously has the "techno-organic virus". A personal favorite, available at no cost, is Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death".

Plenty to work with.

As for how to use it in your game? Well a pandemic with sufficient mortality that is highly transmissible can become a specter that chases the characters, a common cause and a common motivation: find a treatment and/or cure, avoid getting ill, or save a loved one (or even one's entire race. Disease in its many forms can be applied equally well to games set in the modern era, the future, or the past, as well as science fiction and fantasy.

Everybody can get sick even animate dead and animate constructs.

An android could contract a computer virus, corrupting his source code and impacting the way he perceives his world and behaves, or a nanotechnology disease could tear at his mechanical innards as effectively as a biological one for a normal person. Likewise a magical affliction could reside within the magic that binds a soul to a corpse. Specialized conditions like this will probably play out best if they also effect normal characters or if all of the PCs are artificial or undead lifeforms.

Of course the disease itself need not be the focus, but instead the catalyst of the setting. The majority of The Stand occurs after Captain Trips has killed 99% of humankind. The film "12 Monkeys" tells the tale of the survivors trying to stop the plague that nearly wiped us out (*spoiler* and causing it in the process)! The famous Wild Cards series of books features a world were an alien virus (Xenovirus Takis-A, aka the Wold Card Virus) can give people super powers (aces), freaky mutations (jokers), or, more likely, kill them (the black queen). In the wake of the Wild Card virus the super powered Aces have the power to change the world (for good or ill) while the deformed mutant jokers are prejudiced against and feared.

Plot Idea #1: It's in the Blood
What happens to vampires when a new disease presents itself that goes dormant in a living host but attacks the undead? Depending on the setting this could become a huge factor in pushing vampires towards extinction, or cause vampires to consolidate their power and act openly in an effort to cull the disease from the mortal population.

Plot Idea #2: It's in the Magic
Something is making wizards and other magic users ill. At first it seems minor enough, difficulty casting spells, and reduced ability to regenerate spent magic, but as time goes by the effects compound and rumors say that there are some who have died and come back as horrible creatures. The PCs have to get to the bottom of this for their own sakes, as well as their kingdom's!

Plot Idea #3: It's in the Machine
Nobody know's how it works, or where it came from, but space sector 13 has been crippled by a virus that seems equally capable of infecting man and machine. It all started with an innocent archaeological dig on a dead world, but now it threatens all of known space. It can spread by touch or by any electrical system (and even as data). How do you quarrantine for such a disease? What caused it? And why do its victims show signs that the virus is attempting to change them into something else? And what is that something else?

What about you all, how would you use a plague, pandemic, or global outbreak in a game?

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Nuts & Bolts #21 - Cinco con Queso - Session 2 - The "Crap I Forgot to Take Notes" Edition

So, yeah, first off let me just say that I forgot to take notes last night. Didn't think to write down any of the witty quotes, or uber awesome moves. In other words: I suck at actual play recaps. I had a ton of respect for what +James Walls does with his recaps before trying to do the same and now, well .... I'm not worthy.

So Cinco con Queso wrapped up last night. The last session of the last system of the ten week long experiment in insanity of Quattro con Carnage & Cinco con Queso (Carnage con Queso perhaps?). Last week I ran the group through as shortish session content wise because I wanted to show the stock AGE system combat. Five party members and six hellhounds (blight wolves) later and the combat had chowed down on a good 90 minutes of the session.  I love the AGE system for the stunts but even I admit that combat can become too much of a grind at times. We also had some "Umbrin" going on with people missing, or failing to roll for a stunt when they did connect. Being that I feel the jewel in AGE is the Stunt system I decided to change things up for this week.

Yesterday's Nuts & Bolts blog, about the 13th Age Escalation Die, was intentionally timely. I knew that whatever change I made I wanted it to make stunts pop a little more. During the weekend as I reviewed my list of topics for Nuts & Bolts I saw my note about the Escalation Die and realized it was a good solution. In brief if you don't want to check out the other blog, the Escalation Die provides a bonus that ticks up with each successive round of combat. In 13th Age it is a to hit bonus, and I certainly could have done so for AGE, but I wanted to highlight the stunt system, so instead I ruled that the value of the Escalation Die would become automatic stunt points for any successful attack or spell check, and if the roll would already have been a stunt the value was added to the dragon die.  Rank and file enemies wouldn't get this, but named and key enemies would. As was pointed out to me by +Michael Barry, it's similar to the Savage Worlds Wild Die for Wildcards.

The result worked rather well I think. Adding a single stunt point in the 2nd round wasn't much but by the time the combat was ticking on and every successful hit was generating a minimum of 4 SP things got interesting. The best stunt we saw last night if my memory serves was a 9 point stunt, but even without extremes the bonus made the rolled stunts average higher and added a little something something to the normally "bland" regular hits. I don't want to speak for my players but I personally think it worked well, and as they got the hang of it (and the Stunt system in general) each attack become a far more exciting thing to resolve. It also helped to speed up combat, which is never a bad thing in my mind.

I'm going to do a quick format recap again, in part because of my lack of notes, and in part became of limited time, and I do apologize for forgetting to write down quotes as we went; I was super disappointed when I remembered near the tail end of the session. I'm going to blame my doctor because he stole a pint of blood from me yesterday while I wasn't looking.  That's my excuse and I'm sticking to it.

Dramatis Personae con Queso

Umbrin, played by Jeremy (warrior)
A guard-for-hire from Tannryth once in the employee of a wealthy Archon

Rydian Ornitiar, played by Andy (mage)
An Aarenian relic-hunter who longs to recover a lost family artifact

Jorin Everlast, played by Craig (rogue)
A pilfering initiate to the Embrace who just "made bones"

Kaezoh, played by Jim (warrior)
A dwarf, brother to Callidan, and new disciple of Drogos

Callidan, played by Andreas (mage as cleric)
Kaezoh's brother, gifted with a vision of the dwarven god Drogos' birth

The Return of an Old Evil

The small village of Vintever was in trouble, a demon, freed by a local tribe of wildfolk, had attacked, and would likely be back if it wasn't dealt with. The wildfolk too had been attacked and nearly wiped out, by the demon and its minions. Eshara, wounded during her escape from her fellow hunters, told the group of a ruined tower that had imprisoned the demon. Though she was too injured to help them, Harran, on of her kin, was willing to guide them as best he could. He was no warrior, but he at least knew the forest paths.

The group decided to head out to the wildfolk's encampment first, and on the way they got their first sign that the demon was already corrupting the environment around it. A small flock of mutated crows was lying in ambush at a bridge crossing. Luckily Umbrin and Kaezoh thought to check for ambush before starting across the makeshift bridge; really an old pine toppled across the gorge and stripped of its branches. They spied the crows hiding in the trees, and with the throw of a stone (that missed) Umbrin set the flock off.

The birds were no match however, having little in the way of hit points and being unable to make strafing attacks without a stunt (which I only rolled one of for them). With only a few scrapes the party destroyed the corrupted birds and completed their trek to the wildfolk camp.

The camp was destroyed, as Harran and his wife had told them. Sever bodies had been left amidst the ruined tents and dead pack horses. The group set to recovering what supplies they could while checking for tracks. They found strange signs of booted feet marching the survivors off to the south. Harran insisted that their attackers had been beasts not men. Man-shaped to be sure, but with boney canine heads and wicked clawed hands.

The late hour made the group decide to camp for the night, allow the mages to recover their lost mana, and head out first thing. Harran announced that in the morn he would start laying his people to rest; unfortunately he would never get the chance.

Around midnight, as Kaezoh dozed instead of staying alert on his watch a group of half a dozen Vengers ambushed the camp. A pitched battle occurred around the campfire which itself became a weapon as the heroes pushed their enemies into the fire when opportunity arose. The battle was not without its losses however as Harran was disemboweled by one of the Vengers.

Investigating the Vengers the group realized that these were either the other members of the hunting party, or some of the surviving wildfolk from the encampment, corrupted by the demon's evil into predatory beasts. When first light rose they followed the Vengers trail back and found the ruined citadel that Eshara had told them about.

A large tower and a second squat building on a raised berm, the ruins showed little sign of being guarded. The group entered the tower and found decaying furniture, and rusted weapons long left idle. Behind a door to the other part of the ruins they heard voices, indistinct but clearly human, or human-like. Jorin moved to investigate and found the door trapped. Easily disarming the simple tripwire he prevented the deadfall of old weapons that had been staged just through the doorway.

Beyond they found a long corridor with rooms on either side and at the very end a stairwell down into a room from which guttural chanting was heard. Despite the wildfolk prisoners locked in cages the party moved forward to the chamber at the end, and burst in at the tail end of a corruption ceremony.

Five Vengers were arrayed around the room as the demon-possessed wildfolk hunter turned yet another of his kin into a venger, the poor woman's body twisting and mutating under the influence of dire magics as her mind was stripped away to only animal instinct and rage.

The demon then charged the party, using the upper hand to drive forward into combat, a decision it would come to regret once it became clear that the heroes were more than up to the task of vanquishing this old evil. Kaezoh and Umbrin hit hard and fast, aided by Jorin's backstab and Rydian's powerful arcane blasts they had the demon on the ropes.

The Vengers were not to be discounted though, and worse their corruption would serve the demon further when he absorbed their very life essence. The newly transformed woman exploded, the demonic essence within streaming into the demon and reinvigorating it. The group now realized that the Vengers were every bit as much a threat as the demon, even if only because they could fuel its hate filled essence.  Switching tactics they quickly dispatched with the Vengers while Umbrin and the demon went toe-to-toe with Umbrin taking several wounding hits that had Callidan scrambling to ensure his friends stayed on their feet.

In the end the battle was one of attrition and the demon lacked the resources to win. With a final mighty blow he was felled and his essence destroyed. An investigation of the room found that the very circle used to transform the wildfolk had once been the demon's prison, but the twisted silver link that had been in Eshara's possession had been the final piece. Now the chain, saturated with the evil, had become a tool of corruption. The triumphant party destroyed it and freed the remaining wildfolk.

Behind the Scenes

Since I don't have some quotes to share I'm going to drop a quick BTS instead. Coming out of Jim's last QcC session we had a setting were old sleeping gods were starting to wake, and the first new god in ages was born. I thought it would be interesting if with the awakening of the old gods some of their dormant minions might also wake. The demon here was roused but needed to be freed. The wildfolk hunting party gave it the opportunity to trick one of their member to break the chain that held it and provided a convenient vessel to inhabit. The other hunters became its first Venger minions and they went on to attack the wild folk encampment and the farmstead seeking more people to corrupt.

Had the party taken the link from Eshara it's magic would have been a potent boon against the demon, providing a boost in combat against him and its minions. Had time been permitting I had planned to have the group find the ruins empty save the prisoners. Freeing them they would have learned that the demon had gone to attack the village again with a full dozen Vengers. The party would have had to race back to save the village the final battle would have taken place there. Time being what it was I ultimately decided that they would find the demon still building its army instead.

The session ran a little long (maybe 30 minutes more than I thought) and we got a bit of a late start so we ended up playing till midnight Eastern but I hope it was worth it. I know I enjoyed sitting in the drivers seat, though I do think I could have done a couple things better in hindsight. I certainly have a new appreciation for the pacing needs of one- and two-shot games, including con scenarios, as well as the challenges of online play (note to self, ready my Google Draw battle maps ahead of time).

Thanks again to +James Walls +Jeremy Land +Craig McCullough +Andreas Walters and +andrew lyon for not only a fun two weeks as GM but a fun ten (10!) weeks of Carnage con Queso. I learned a lot about how the tone of game play can shift from system to system and got to try out three new games. It was a great idea Jim, and really well executed!

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Nuts & Bolts #20 - Escalation Die

The 13th Age RPG is one that introduced (or maybe just introduced me) a number of interesting, unique (I think), and very portable mechanics/rules. I've previously discussed the awesomeness of the One Unique Thing, a mechanic that takes basically zero effort to port into any other RPG and just about guarantees that the players and their characters will be more connected to the game world. The OUT is hardly the only mechanic of note though, so let's take a look at another.

The Escalation Die could just as easily be referred to as an escalation counter, but since a simple six sided die is the perfect tool to represent this mechanic at the play table it's name is plenty appropriate. During combat in 13th Age things escalate each round after the first, the die is used to track this number from round to round. The die is set to "1" at the start of the second round of combat, and generally advances with each round until it hits "6" at which point it does not increase further no matter how much longer the combat goes, or the combat ends at which point it is reset to zero. The value of the escalation die is added as a bonus to PC attacks during combat, this bonus is not given to NPCs or monsters, and so as combat progresses the characters will tend to hit more frequently. If the GM feels like it is appropriate based on the party's actions they can choose to not increase the value of the die at the start of a new round. This is used largely if the players are avoiding combat, or otherwise not driving the encounter aggressively.

Since 13th Age is a d20 based game the bonus provided adds roughly +5% per point to a character's chance to hit in combat. This ensures that as combat progresses the characters will hit more frequently, and this in turn helps to drive the combat toward resolution rather than allowing it to stagnate or drag on. In addition, certain effects and abilities cue off of the Escalation Die, working differently depending on it value, becoming available for use only when the die is a certain value, or, as in the case of fear, preventing the target from using the Escalation Die bonus.

While 13th Age is obviously designed from the ground up to take advantage of the Escalation Die mechanic the basic premise is one that can be moved to many RPGs. Let's look at a few examples taken both as written and with some interpretation.

Cypher System
Not that Cypher needs a boost to make combat move faster as it is generally a quick moving system, but if one were so inclined ... Using the Escalation Die as written each round after the first would see a bonus to attack rolls (and possibly defense rolls if the GM so desired, though I don't think that is in the spirit of the rules). After the die gets to "3" this effectively becomes a free level of effort to "hit", and at "6" it is two free levels of effort to hit. This will definitely give characters a boost, and free up their ability to spend effort on damage boosts late in the combat. At lower tiers the Escalation Die will have as much impact on combat as effort, possibly moreso.

Dice Pool Systems (White Wolf, Shadowrun, etc)
Dice pools aren't the best place to add a value to the roll, because when you are tossing 5-15 dice each roll that's just a lot of tedious math.  Instead treat the Escalation Die (know what, I'm gonna start using ED from here out) value as a straight bonus to the die pool. If you are rolling six dice normally and the ED is a "3" you add three dice for a total dice pool of nine dice, roll as normal after that. It's quicker and will still have an impact on the end result. I don't play any of these systems anymore (its been a couple years at least) so I cannot say how much 1-6 extra dice will impact a given roll, though I would image that it will largely depend on how many dice you start with. Adding six dice to a pool of six dice is much bigger than adding six dice to a pool of fifteen.

AGE System
As used by Green Ronin's Dragon AGE RPG the AGE system uses 3d6 for all tests (rolls for success/failure). Their mechanic goes to rolling two dice of one color and one more of another color. The odd die is the Dragon Die and makes stunts happen (I discussed this mechanic in detail here). Adding +1-6 to each roll is certainly an option, it will help the PCs hit more often and it will take those crummy rolls that would have been a stunt if they had hit (but didn't) into legit hits that generate stunts.  That's probably the simplest way to use the ED for AGE, but I have another idea.

What about adding the ED value to the stunt points generated by successful Stunts? Adding 1-6 more stunt points is pretty huge, especially at the back end where you could double or more the number of points available. Having six points available makes for a memorable, big hit, bit potentially having 12 points could make for some truly jaw-dropping awesome stunts.

But wait, I can go further, why not give every PC attack stunt points equal to the ED? If they hit but don't stunt they still get some points to play with, and if they did stunt the add those points. In the 4th round of combat successful hits (or spell casting checks) will automatically generate 3+SP. If you want to encourage fast aggressive combat that's the way to do it. Characters will be able to boost their damage, pierce enemy armor, strike multiple foes, and the like with greater frequency, driving combat to resolution quicker, and making things far more exciting in the process.

Closing Thoughts
I haven't tried porting the ED into another game system yet, so I don't actually know how well it will work. That said, I like the idea of a bonus that applies across the board to PCs to help push combat toward resolution faster. As a rule I think combat should be quick and exciting, but once an encounter goes beyond a certain length that excitement starts to wane, as the encounter turns into a grind.

Of course the ED need not be a d6. For Cypher I could use a d4 and limit the upper end of the bonus to a free level of effort with a further +1. While a system that uses large dice pools might want to go to a d8 or even a d10.

I'd be interested in hear from anybody who has ported the ED from 13th Age into another game system, how they did it, and how well it worked. Likewise, other ideas for how to implement the ED mechanic into the above systems in a way I did not describe would be interesting.

Note: You can find a copy of the 13th Age SRD at

Monday, February 23, 2015

Story Seed - Punishment

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"I demand to see my husband!" Millena yelled at the facilitator. She was on the brink of breakdown, and restraint and control were well beyond her at the moment.

"As I said before," the facilitator replied, his voice monotonously even, "he is no longer your husband. His punishment has been carried out."

"I don't care! Let me see him!" she was in tears now. How could this man be so cruel?

"Ms. Hallis-"

"MISSUS!" she cried, insisting her husband was not gone.

"-your husband was sentenced to personality suppression and community service. He is no more the man you married than I. You should go home, seeing him will not help you."

"I don't care," she sobbed, "I just ... I just want to see for myself."

The facilitator would have shrugged, but he too was a Null, little more than a robot controlling a human host. "As you wish," he said finally, and pressed a button to summon the Gragor Hallis Null.

A door opened shortly and the Null that had been Gragor Hallis walked in. Millena rushed to him, eyes wet with tears. She threw her arms around the Null but got no response. He impassively accepted the embrace but there was no recognition in his eyes, no effort made to return it. Millena looked up into emotionless eyes; eyes that did not contain her husband's soul. She flinched away, the facilitator has been right, this creature was not her husband, despite appearances.

Last Week Today - Week of Feb 16-22 2015

Uhh, sorry I forgot to post this yesterday, I was quite busy until mid afternoon and it slipped my mind completely as a result.
Story Seed - Jade - A strange valley filled with an ancient complex and mysterious crystals.

Nuts & Bolts - I look at the Cypher system as it stacks against all the others in the Quattro con Carnage experiment.

Story Seed - Fortune and Glory - A sailing vessel strikes it rich in the 9th World.

Back Issues - Part one of my look at the apocalypse.

Special Friday Nuts & Bolts - An actual plan recap (after a fashion) of the first of two sessions of Cinco con Queso - AGE system.