Game planning


Where will they look to find these lost secrets?

Chapter 1 of the Archipelago campaign has come to a close, with the PCs liberating themselves from Hugo Tuya’s employment under unfortunate (for him) circumstances and arriving in the city of Estona, where they have established a stronghold. As chapter 2 of this campaign begins they need to choose a name for their new, independent adventuring group, and decide what they want to do next. During their journey across the southern part of Hadun they encountered several mysteries and some potential for future adventure, some of which hints at dark shadows stirring under the mountains. Now they must decide which of those strands of information they will pursue, or if they wish to embark on some other adventure of their own choosing. Estona is a maritime center on the western coast of the Archipelago’s largest island, and offers many opportunities for exploration and adventure if the PCs so choose. Here I will describe some of the mysteries and adventure opportunities they encountered on their journey, and some choices for their group to pursue in chapter 2.

Siladan’s adventuring group

During their adventures the PCs happened upon the history of an adventuring group that hailed from the lands they traveled through. This group appeared to have separated after a catastrophic adventure went wrong, with the survivors settling in their home towns. The three survivors whose names and history the PCs encountered were:

  • Verbere the Flame, a human explorer who returned to the town of Ibara after catastrohpe befell the adventuring group, but who was killed by bandits outside Ibara and whose body and belongings the PCs discovered. They found a letter to him from his old colleague Siladan the Elder, and based on the contents of this letter dug up a buried stash of iron, which they subsequently were forced to hand over to Verbere’s widow
  • Regald, a human warrior living in Ell’s Hamlet, whose daughter they found reanimated outside of Ibara. This girl had been murdered while meeting an elf who appeared to be her lover, and on her body they found a necklace of black stone. Following this necklace, they found Regald, and when they searched his house they found a letter to him from Siladan which suggested he had received some elven documents from their adventuring days, and his daughter had taken these to her elven lover, where she had been ambushed by deepfolk and the documents had been stolen by those deepfolk.
  • Siladan the Elder, a human Astrologer who settled in Estona after the break up of the adventuring group. He appears to have spent some time a few years ago cleaning out old documents and paraphernalia, and sent some of the items he wanted to remove to his former companions. A letter about buried iron was sent to Verbere, while some elven documents and a letter explaining them were sent to Regald. These letters, in their own ways, got Verbere and Regald’s daughter killed. Verbere’s death was likely a coincidence, but Regald’s daughter was killed by deepfolk returning elven documents to the elves. These documents had been previously held by deepfolk, from whom Siladan and his adventurers had stolen them, and it seems likely that the deepfolk somehow discovered they were in the possession of Regald’s daughter and killed her to get them back.

It seems clear that this adventuring group had fought deepfolk many times, had stolen some elven documents from those deepfolk, and the group then dissolved after a catastrophic battle. It also seems likely that the deepfolk desperately wanted those elven documents back, and when the documents were moved from Regald’s house by his daughter the deepfolk somehow became aware of them, and killed her to get them back. What was in the documents? Is it a coincidence that the documents were stolen by an adventuring party active in the same part of Hadun where the deepfolk have become newly active after years of peace? This opens three possible tasks connected to this group:

  1. Meet Siladan and learn the history of his group
  2. Find out more about the elven documents, what they contained and where they were found
  3. Find out how the deepfolk tracked the documents

Which leads us to …

Argalt’s Raiders

The PCs were not the only people looking for Regald. When they were approaching Ell’s Hamlet they were ambushed by a squad of raiders from the Valley of Gon, who they learnt had been sent to Ell’s Hamlet to find Regald. They tracked the raiders to their camp and attacked it, in a vicious battle with the squad leader Rimgalt, who fought with a deepfolk axe.

They learnt that these raiders had been sent from a stronghold in the Valley of Gon by a man named Argalt, a raider chieftain, who had wanted them to find Regald and bring him and any documents in his possession back to the stronghold. They assumed that this must mean that Argalt had learnt of the elven documents some time after Regald’s daughter moved them, and came to Ell’s Hamlet looking for them. The PCs did not travel to the Valley of Gon to interrogate Argalt, so they do not know how he knew about the documents or why his raiders were late to get them, but they have their suspicions. But they could do these things:

  1. Travel to the Valley of Gon to investigate Argalt
  2. Try to learn how he knew about Regalt’s documents and why he wanted them

The fact that Rimgald fought with a deepfolk axe makes them suspect some connection to the deepfolk, and although it is close to blasphemy to think humans would work with deepfolk, Calim suspects it – why else did the deepfolk raiders they met on their journey hold captives to ransom for coin? Which brings us to …

The Skydeath Clan’s Vile Purpose

After Ell’s Hamlet the PCs traveled on to Estala, where they were supposed to receive the first instalment of payment for their escort work from their employer, Hugo Tuya. Unfortunately Estala had been attacked by a contingent of deepfolk from a local clan called the Skydeath clan. These vile beasts had successfully stormed the town at night, killed some guards and taken captives, and had dragged them out of town to a lair nearby where they held them as hostages. The PCs went to help with the hostage negotiations, and learnt that the Skydeath clan were demanding coin for the return of the hostages. This is a very strange demand, because deepfolk cannot trade with humans – any human providing succour or support to deepfolk in any way is a blasphemous concept, it is never done, and there is no record of any such interaction or allegiance between deepfolk and humans, so they simply have no use for coin. Usually deepfolk hostage negotiators demand grain, rice and glass. Why would they demand coin?

The PCs raided the deepfolk camp and slew most of them, freeing the hostages and earning the payment they should have been given for free. They then became involved in the aftermath, tracking down the deepfolk gang and confirming their movements. As part of this they visited a nearby observatory, which the deepfolk had raided, and found:

  • The deepfolk had removed all the observatory’s telescopes
  • The deepfolk had killed everyone working at the observatory and reanimated them
  • The deepfolk had destroyed all sources of knowledge held at the observatory, zealously making sure that nothing that had been researched or learnt there could ever be known by any other humans
  • Someone had managed to erase a poem on a blackboard during the battle, perhaps in desperation to prevent them seeing it. The PCs had been able to reconstruct the poem, though they could not understand what it meant

After the observatory the PCs themselves headed into the mountains on their journey, into a pass called the Middlemarch which they had been promised was safe but which obviously was not. Here they ran into a large force of deepfolk, also from the Skydeath clan, who killed their employer and drove them out of the pass. When they left the pass they realized they had a map from Regald’s documents, which seemed to indicate the location of the deepfolk camp in the Middlemarch. They had been told by reliable sources that the deepfolk in this area had been very quiet for decades, and that the recent attack was highly unusual. Had Siladan’s adventuring group woken something in the mountains? So, the PCs could ask many questions here:

  1. Why did the Skydeath clan attack the town of Estala?
  2. Who are the Skydeath clan? Are they new in the area?
  3. Why did the Skydeath clan want coin?
  4. Why did they destroy the observatory?
  5. What was on the map the PCs found in Regald’s house, what did Regald and Siladan know about the deepfolk in the Middlemarch, and did they wake something up in the mountains at the time that they found, or drew, the map the PCs hold?

To answer these questions might also help the PCs to clear the Middlemarch and drive back the deepfolk raiders, which would clear the way for them to return to the southern part of Hadun, and in particular to Miselea, where they have unfinished business. Which brings us to …

Killing the spider god

On their journey to Miselea, early in chapter 1, the PCs stumbled on a nest of spiders and a loathsome fey called a Redcap. They killed the Spiders and learnt horrible things about the Redcap written in blood poetry by one of its victims. They also freed some humans who had been enslaved by the Redcap, and learnt that they had been accompanying an astrologer who had entered the great forest in search of a god of spiders.

From this the PCs guessed that there are great and powerful gods of animals living in the deep forests of the world, and that the god of the spiders lives in the forest east of Miselea. They guess it is also accompanied by some Redcap king or queen. They also think that, were they to kill it, they could become incredibly powerful. The freed slaves of the spider nest they attacked promised to help them kill the spider god, and any Redcap that is with it. So one possibility for the PCs is to return to Miselea, enter the kingdom of Ariaki to find the freed slaves of the spiders, and launch a campaign into the wilderness to find and kill the spider god.

What could possibly go wrong with such a venture? And while they are in Ariaki, there is something else they could do …

Researching the Northern Blight

Kyansei, the group’s warrior, is a Wildling from the northern lands. She is traveling in Hadun looking for clues as to the blight that has begun afflicting her homeland, convinced that it has some connection to the deepfolk or some cause in dark magic that the Wildlings do not understand. In Miselea she encountered a delegation from Ariaki, who promised to help her in her inquiries. They have sent messengers to an Academy in the town of Alpon in northern Ariaki, and if the group enters Ariaki on other purposes Kyansei would no doubt want to visit Alpon to find out what they have learnt. Perhaps in Alpon, too, the PCs could learn something of the nature of the fey, to help them kill the spider god … or maybe they would need to visit the elves of the Great Forest to learn such things.

In any case, knowledge is power, and the PCs need more knowledge, particularly about the dark and evil things that lurk in the shadows and stones of this land. Which brings us to …

Aveld the Foul’s Secrets

A side adventure that the PCs could also consider involves uncovering the origins and history of a scholar called Aveld the Foul. The adventuring group whose deaths the PC have traced across the southern lands seemed to have some connection to this man: Siladan the Elder mentioned him in a letter to Verbere the Flame, and insinuated to Regald that the had other scholarship by Aveld the Foul that he was working to translate or understand in some way. If the PCs obtain this documentation from Siladan they could track down any leads to find out who Aveld the Foul was, what he knows about the deepfolk in the region, and whether he has any dark secrets that need to be buried.

Burial is perhaps a theme in the first chapter of this campaign. Which brings us to …

The Standing Stones of the Spine

The PCs discovered some iron buried underground outside Ibara, amongst a scattered mess of very old deepfolk bones. In Miselea Calim mentioned these bones to the local Rimewarden, including explaining his suspicion that the site where they were buried looked like a ritual burial ground or magic site of some kind. This Rimewarden told him that the same patterns of standing stones have been found in other sites along the eastern edge of the Spine Mountains, but that no one had thought of digging beneath them before. He suggested that were Calim to return to Miselea, he could organize an archaeological dig at some of those other sites, and they could begin to answer questions about the purpose of the standing stones, and the nature of the burial that led to these bones being scattered in holes in the ground.

But does anyone care about how and why deepfolk are buried? So long as they are dead, eh?

Conclusion

So these are the choices available to the party, if they choose not to embark on some other jaunt of their own:

  • Find Siladan, talk with him, and learn the history and truth of the adventuring group and the elven documents that got Regald’s daughter killed
  • Investigate Argalt’s stronghold in the Valley of Gon and find out why Argalt was after Regald and his documents, and how he knew of them
  • Kill a spider god, with help from soldiers in Ariaki
  • Travel to Alpon in Ariaki to learn more about the blight afflicting the north, and perhaps also to learn how to kill a spider god and discover more about the fey (or perhaps this would require a journey to an elven settlement)
  • Learn more about the history and secrets of Aveld the Foul
  • Travel to Miselea and then perhaps Rokun, to do some archaeology in the Spine Mountains

As chapter 2 begins, the PCs face choices, and a long, hard path to uncover the secrets of fey, gods, deepfolk and humans. What will they find, and who will they have to kill on the way?

The PCs have raided a tea merchant’s compound and driven out some strange fey creature that was nesting there. A businessman in Estona has offered them the (relatively) unrestricted use of the compound for themselves for one year, and so now they prepare to move in. This post gives a brief description of the compound and its buildings.

The compound belonged to the sister of their benefactor, but she managed it poorly and became entangled in legal trouble with a firm in distant Rokun, which prevented her from selling the place or significantly changing it to some other purpose (such as a stonemason’s yard). It had become unprofitable due to competition from tea merchants in town, and after she died the PCs’ benefactor, Arvil, inherited it. Arvil himself is a successful businessman who is entering retirement, and has little interest at this late stage of his career in rehabilitating a fading investment or taking risks on it, especially given its legal troubles. He is more than happy to let the PCs manage it for a time.

The property is about a half day’s ride east of Estona, on an overgrown track that leaves a fork of a fork from the main eastern road. It has been allowed to become overgrown and is situated in quite thick, boggy forest. The fey that was nesting in the compound had woven some kind of glamour over the forest to make it difficult for people to follow the overgrown path and find the property, which even from the river is difficult to spot in its overgrown state, but the PCs managed to penetrate that glamour and now know how to find the place easily. The primary features of the property are listed here.

1. Lighthouse and pier

The lighthouse is crumbling wood, with unstable stairs inside leading up to a small tower that once held a light. From here there is a good archery position over the whole area but it is difficult to climb to without breaking the stairs or falling until it is repaired.

The pier is also crumbling, and there are no boats on it.

2. Warehouse and office

The warehouse has solid rammed earth and rock foundations, with wide double doors that open into the slightly recessed, cool first floor of the building. There is nothing here except a few trashed crates. Wooden stairs in one corner go up to the second floor, which is a solid wood extension to the first floor. This room contains some smashed up furniture and a long window looking out over the river, with a smaller window looking out over the courtyard. It is another excellent archery post but there is only one way in or out. The windows are jammed shut.

3. Storehouse

This is a white-washed stone building with large doors on two sides. It used to hold food and supplies for the compound (not tea – this was stored in the warehouse near the pier). It is now empty, and the doors smashed.

4. Stables

The stables have 6 stalls, and a little space at one end for stairs leading up to a storage loft.

5. Servants’ quarters

On the western end of the stables is a door that leads under a covered porch to a small servants’ quarters with four beds in it, where the stablehands used to sleep. This room is drafty and empty.

6. Tea workshop

This long, single-story building has solid walls of stone carefully placed together, and good quality tile roofs that are largely intact. Inside the walls are lined with ceramic and the floor is cool slate. Large stone and wood benches stretch down the middle, and a series of large storage cabinets run down the southern wall. The northern wall has faucets for hot water from the hot spring, and also a pump and well system for water from underground. The beastmen used this water and treated the room relatively well, though it is still not clean. A door in the north runs to the onsen, and to the east a door opens to the tea roasting space.

7. Roastery

Tea used to be roasted here and although the roasting oven itself is smashed and useless, the space is perfectly designed for e.g. a forge.

8. Hot spring

The hot spring is in an interior room in this wooden structure. There is a narrow changing area on the outside, with racks for clothes and some old wooden buckets and brushes nearby. A ceramic tube carries water from the spring to the spigots in room 6, and another tube carries it to the kitchen in building 9. There is also a sluice on the eastern wall but it no longer works. The onsen itself is a large rock structure that the wooden frame has been built to obscure, with water rising from an exit point perhaps 3m above ground and falling into a pair of connected pools, one higher than the other. The water from the top is very hot but cools rapidly as it falls to the pools – supernaturally rapidly – until it is just scalding hot in the smaller, higher pool and then perfect temperature in the lower pool. The sluices and ceramic tubes connect to the top where the water emerges, so they deliver essentially boiling water to the rooms each side of this one. Steam rises through vents in the ceiling, and smaller gaps in the rocks allow small floods of water to fall around the main rocky structure onto slate floors. Beneath the slate are several layers of wood, through which the water seems to seep relatively comfortably, and the ground outside the building is not especially wet. Water from the lower pool runs away into a crack at the base of the pool where it disappears presumably underground. The only hint as to the magical nature of the pool is the strange speed at which the water cools.

9. Longhouse central office

This is the building where the tea merchant would conduct business with visiting traders, and also where the tea merchant himself lived. The first floor has a recessed floor and walls of solid brick and earth, like a typical Archipelago longhouse. In the centre of the area is a large firepit, surrounded on three sides by chairs and with a table between the firepit and the western entrance. To the east is the main entry area, a small porch-like structure with double sliding doors leading east and a separate entrance that opens to a covered walkway extending across to the hostelry. The western side of the main room has steps leading up to a small kitchen and stairs that go up to the second floor. The second floor has three rooms: on the eastern end a bedroom, in the middle a study and office, and on the western end a small sitting room area. The servant who worked here has a small sleeping room abutting the hostelry. The beastman sheltered in here, and it is trashed and stinking with refuse and rotten meat. The fey leader lurked in the rooms above on the second floor, which probably require a good cleansing religious ritual before they are comfortable for humans to use.

10. Hostelry

This is a simpler wooden building with stone reinforcement on the side facing the river. Its first floor is a wide, open living and dining area, with a kitchen on one side and beyond that a small set of servants’ quarters for a total of four servants. Stairs in the main living area lead up to a set of sleeping areas, with space for six separate rooms with two people in each. There is a small bathroom on the ground floor, which looks over the river. A bath in this bathroom uses water drawn from the onsen, but this whole building is musty and abandoned.

11. Gardens

The gardens here are now in disarray but used to hold a sizable herb garden, and could do again if cultivated. There is a small glasshouse, with some panes currently damaged, and a shed with tools for gardening.

All of these areas are damaged and run-down, and some parts (such as the Longhouse itself) have been badly soiled by the beastmen who lived there until the PCs drove them out. The Onsen is fully functional, and anyone spending the night in the fully restored compound recovers 2 wounds per night instead of one. Anyone who spends a week fully resting here with appropriate care upgrades resilience checks to recover from critical wounds, and all healing spells and medicine checks performed to recover from critical wounds are upgraded. Attempts to brew healing potions in the tea workshop are also upgraded once due to the benefits of using magical healing water to prepare them, but the difficulty of brewing poisons is upgraded once for the same reason.

The compound can serve as a tier 3 stronghold, with one free tier 1 feature (the onsen) that does not count toward the limit of tier 1 features. It easily has accommodation for all the PCs, and the servants rooms can be adapted to easily accommodate Selina and Laiea. Some extra work will be required to enable the addition of a barracks – for example installing a dormitory above the stables, or reforming the hostelry to allow the guards and the PCs to have rooms in the one building. Nonetheless, the compound offers a versatile base of operations for a group of adventurers interested in settling down and using all the opportunities Estona has to offer as they chase up the many mysteries left over from their exploration of southern Hadun.

I want more of this

Chapter 1 of my Genesys campaign is drawing to a close with our “heroes” slinking out of the mountains with their bloodied tails between their legs, and I am considering some refinements to the rules for the second chapter. In particular, I want to refine some of the rules for combat based on my experience of changing combat rules for Warhammer 3. Here I explain why and what the rule changes will be.

What is wrong with Genesys combat now?

There are several problems with the way combat checks are resolved in Genesys now, which arise from the decision to give the attack check a fixed difficulty (two) and have modifications in difficulty depend primarily on the target’s armour and other boosts. This means that currently the pool of challenge dice will typically be something like two blue dice and 3-4 setback dice, regardless of how good the combatant is. If I stick Calim (a cleric with no combat skill) and Kyansei (a barbarian with good brawn and fighting skill) in the same armour, they’re equally easy to hit, and the only difference between them is that Kyansei has a talent that she can use to burn strain to reduce damage. What does this mean in combat?

  • Very little chaos: The only way we can add red dice is by using story points to upgrade pools, which my players don’t do much because they’re terrified of giving me any (blame this on Coriolis). This means that there are few despair effects, and therefore very few mishaps, in what should be the craziest and way out part of the game, and also stops people from being able to prevent criticals
  • Way too many dice: All those black dice are annoying to calculate and throw around. I have to ask the player their character’s defense, then figure out if Itzel has cast a blur spell, and then consider any left over setback dice from past enemies’ good rolls
  • Too many limits on defense: Basically if you’re wearing Lamellar armour (defense 2), carrying a shield (defense 1) and have Itzel’s blur spell you have hit the 4 dice limit on defense. This means that often cover, situational advantages and past good luck make little difference to someone’s defense. Basically when Kyansei is in the front line with a blur on her, nothing anyone else does will help her, and she has no benefit from cover when people are shooting her. All those threats, advantages and tactics go to waste.
  • Limited combat styles: Genesys has lots of dice and is designed for the advantages, threats, triumphs and despairs to produce special results but the part of the game that is richest in possibility for ways to use them is lacking in any distinctive rules about how they might apply, and lacks any special paths for fighter type characters to go down to benefit from them.
  • Lack of consistency: In every other part of the game we do opposed skill checks by setting the skill of the defender as purple and red dice, but in combat we don’t. Why this inconsistency? It irks me.
  • Too much power in armour: Since armour is the main way you don’t get hit and the main way you avoid damage, good armour becomes way too valuable in this game. Nobody yet has magical armour but my assumption is that it will have better defense, so then basically one suit of magic armour and a shield and you don’t need to worry about tactics or anything. Annoying! I might as well be playing Cyberpunk, where armour is completely borked.

So, given these flaws, I have decided to introduce a set of house rules that reduce the influence of armour and open up the possibility of multiple different schools of combat. I’m hoping that these house rules will make combat a little more tactical and reduce the importance of armour for defense, while increasing its impact on damage and thus further swinging combat in favour of the skilled people with the big weapons.

Combining talents and skills to set attack difficulty

In these house rules, the basic difficulty of an attack is set at two, just as before, but now armour offers no defense benefits, instead having slightly increased soak. Now, if a PC wants to upgrade the difficulty of the attack – that is, if someone wants to defend themselves – they have to sink 5xp on one of three possible talents, which then enable the PC to use a skill to set the difficulty of the attack provided they meet the conditions of the talent. The talents are listed here.

  • Dodge: The PC uses their acrobatics skill to set the difficulty of the attack, provided they are aware of the attack, are able to move freely and are wearing light armour. Later levels of the dodge talent enable the PC to take strain to reduce the damage of missile attacks, to escape from combat, or to reduce the damage from spell attacks.
  • Parry: The PC uses their melee skill to set the difficulty of the attack, provided they are carrying a weapon with the defensive quality or a shield, and are aware of the attack. Later levels of the talent enable them to disarm their enemy, take strain to reduce the damage from missile attacks (provided they have a shield) or do counter attacks.
  • Block: The PC uses their resilience skill to set the difficulty of the attack, provided they are wearing heavy medium or heavy armour. Later levels of this talent allow them to knock an attacker over, to reduce damage from melee or missile attacks by taking strain, to grapple someone’s weapon hand, or to reduce the damage from spell attacks.

So for example, a PC with agility 3 and two ranks of acrobatics skill who takes the dodge talent will be able to change the difficulty of the attack from two purple to one purple and two red, provided they can move, know they’re being attacked and are wearing light armour. This is approximately the same difficulty to hit as if they had a defense of three in the old rules, so it means that this highly skilled acrobat is as hard to hit as if they were wearing lamellar armour and carrying a shield – but has much less soak. In contrast, someone wearing chainmail armour who has three brawn and resilience of two will offer the same difficulty to hit as this acrobat, though they will have much greater soak. These talents also offer three pathways in combat: either light and mobile, aggressively hitting people, or tanky.

The primary benefits of this system are:

  • It rewards people who sink a lot of xp into combat-related talents with interesting things to do
  • It offers people the chance to avoid critical hits by using skill
  • It increases the range of options to gain defense from magic, cover and tactics (setback dice can still be added to the difficulty like this)
  • It means I don’t have to ask people their defense and wait an hour as they add up 1 and 2, but instead everyone knows exactly how hard they are to hit
  • It frees up story points from the defensive part of combat

This also means that your classic cleric lumbering around combat without many talents or much training but wearing heavy armour will be easy to hit and hard to hurt. That’s good! To make up for the problem of extra soak on armour I also introduce some favoured weapon talents that increase damage and also give the opportunity to gain automatic advantages. I have also introduced a set of knife fighter talents that give people using this weapon the chance to use cunning instead of brawn to attack, and some tricks for getting inside weapon range and staying there.

Other benefits of armour

Of course this system raises the possibility that armour becomes boring and there is no reason to choose any one kind of armour over another. I have added some spice to the armour by giving different kinds of armour different sorts of resistance against elemental (spell) attacks. In the magic rules I am using every element has its own special properties: lightning, for example, is stun 2 and pierce 1; dark, the form used by deepfolk, is disorient 1 and vicious 2. But now some armour types offer immunity to some elemental types. Table 1 shows these benefits: Lamellar, for example, is immune to the special effects of force, dark, ice and acid.

TypeTypeSoakEncResistancePriceRarity
RobesLight+11Lightning, acid, ice200
Cloth/paddedLight+22Lightning, ice401
LeatherLight+22Lightning, dark802
Lamellar / studdedLight+23Force, dark, ice, acid1503
ScaleMedium+34Force, fire, ice, dark2002
ChainmailMedium+33Fire, earth4006
Half plateHeavy+44Fire, ice15008
Full plateHeavy+55Fire, ice, force20008
Table 1: Revised armour soak ratings and elemental resistances

This means that PCs will need to make some hard choices about whether they want to be resistance to deepfolk magic as well as physical attacks. Note also that removing defense from armour means that magic armour now has many benefits: when (if) the PCs get their first suit of magic armour, even the lowest level of magic armour will be hugely valuable because it will be their first chance to gain a point of constant defense.

Is this system too complicated?

This is a kind of a silly question in Genesys, since the entire system is ridiculously complicated, but in answer I don’t think it is, because every single round my players need to be told how many purple and black dice to add, and it changes every turn because of the consequences of past rolls. And I have to ask them constantly what their defense is, or refer to a table, so what changes really? This system will, however, more clearly delineate between dedicated fighters and non-fighters, and between minions and rivals. At the moment we have a stormcaller (Bao Tap) and a wandering blacksmith (Quangbae) who have no special talents but by dint of their brawn and skills are just as good in combat as Kyansei. In this revised system they might be as good at hitting people as Kyansei but, since she sinks her xp into combat talents, they’re highly unlikely to be as good at defending themselves. This means that if all three of them are constantly running into combat, it’s going to be Quangbae and Bao Tap coming out with the crits, not Kyansei.

It also helps to distinguish between minions, rivals and nemeses. Genesys even has a Rival talent that is intended to increase the difficulty of hitting rivals, who are otherwise too easy to hit. With this system we can make it simple: minions have no special combat talents, but rivals can draw from the same tree as PCs to become very hard to hit. So instead of a dragon with brawn 8 and 3 ranks of resilience skill being as hard to hit as a wizard, we can give them the block talent and only truly stupendous fighters will be able to hurt them.

Finally, the system shifts the balance a little more to missile weapons, since none of the talents applies to them, so seasoned warriors will always be easier to hit with crossbows. That should also force some difficult decisions, since it will mean that weak archer minions are genuinely dangerous.

I will introduce this system from chapter 2 and see how it goes. Hopefully it will shift the balance of combat towards the skilled fighters and the minion archers, force more use of cover and tactics, and increase the levels of chaos and skullduggery in battle. Let’s go, warriors, let’s go!

Some years ago now I played in a World of Darkness campaign set in a near-future world where McCain was president and a secret conspiracy was slowly pulling the world into an evil and hellish future. I played a washed-up communist called John Micksen, who served the Winter Queen and had found magic (he eventually tried to retire from service to the Winter Queen, but failed). We fought our way through many obstacles until eventually we reset the world and ended the evil god’s plan, although ultimately the ending of the campaign had a somewhat unsatisfactory “we woke up and it was all just a dream” feeling. We laughed at much of the world that we were adventuring in: the comic book proto-fascism of the McCain regime (complete with martial law and Starship Troopers style propaganda); the similarities to the Butcher books (which our GM swore were a coincidence); the vast and expansive nature of the plot and what we were up against (gods, angels, vampires; we had the helldog Cerberus as our guard dog by the end); the comical paedophilia and satanism of our enemies; the incredibly complex conspiracy theory we were unraveling. But in retrospect we were playing in a foreboding of the world to come. Not the real world, of course, but the strange fantasy world that so many QAnon lovers have fallen into over the past four years. But for all its awful real-world consequences, as a campaign world the fantastic visions of the QAnon conspiracists leave my World of Darkness campaign for dead. On the still slightly optimistic hope that by Wednesday their figurehead will be out of the white house, we can begin to shrug off Qanon as just a particularly weird and unpleasant cultural movement of these weird times, and then maybe we can begin to think about what an excellent gaming world their insane conspiracy theories have left us.

In the Qanon world a cabal of satanists have taken over the US government and are using their power to commit horrible deeds, including harvesting “adrenochrome” from tortured children, and attempting to make a world government where a small cabal of freaky people control every aspect of our lives. Almost every major institution in the US and much of the world is in on it, and only a small group of aware people are in a position to stop it. In this insane view of the world Trump is going to sweep the conspiracy away and save the universe, but the conspiracy itself goes all the way back to when Clinton was in the white house, with the tentacles of the evil organization involved slowly stretching out through all the organs of the state. This means that there are various stages of the Qanon world that could be used as a setting, probably starting with some period in the 1960s (QAnon believe the Kennedy conspiracy, and also seem to see a connection between MK Ultra and what they think is happening now). It blends Stranger Things, the X Files, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer seamlessly with every one of Dan Brown’s craziest stories to make an all-encompassing and absorbing world of evil to take on. Really, it’s an ideal campaign world. Let us consider some of its special features.

  • Demonology and magic: The whole thing is run by a cabal of very rich satanists, who could easily be into devil worship and black magic, or could be some kind of elite and ancient force of magic users, holdovers from the Knights Templar or some weird actual mediaeval cult (a lot of Qanon seem to think the Vatican is involved) or Vampires. Given the far right’s newfound interest in organic food, tarot and inspirational Instagram posts it’s also possible there could be forces of good aligned behind other forms of magic: religious and spiritual magic, norse witchcraft and religion, etc. The sky is the limit! There’s a lot of scope to merge the Qanon conspiracy with a Gaiman-esque American Gods scenario, in which the strings are being pulled by old gods and what is happening in the USA is actually a puppet play with the strings being pulled by fallen gods seeking temporal power. Why not chuck in the Annunaki? (The Facebook Annunaki History group has a thread with 156 comments discussing their link to Qanon!) Maybe John Dee was one of the original cabal? So much to play with!
  • Lots of guns: Most of the action takes place in America, where gun control is now a complete loss, and the PCs can walk around freely as heavily armed as they like. This is always a problem with modern-era games – how to enable the PCs to pack the kind of firepower they need to take down an Annunaki-worshipping paedophile deep state operative with an APC – but in Qanon world that’s no problem, open carry is completely cool and you’re always free to stand your ground where the paedophiles are concerned.
  • All the secret organizations scale: Because almost everyone and almost anyone can be part of the conspiracy, you can start at low level organizations – the paedophile scheme of your local pizza parlour, deep state connections in the local girl guides group, bizarre rituals under the primary school – and scale up to national or international super agencies. You can go from snooping on your pizza parlour to fully armed raids on the UNESCO HQ. The sky is the limit!
  • False flags everywhere: Almost any component of modern history can be turned into a Qanon conspiracy, which opens the potential for the PCs to be present at – or stop – any one of a range of horrible recent events. 9/11, Columbine, pretty much any war, Jonestown, the El Paso shootings, Fukushima, whatever – you can be there to stop it, to investigate who really did it and hold them to account, or to do it. And similar to the City of Mist RPG, if you do get caught in a firefight you know it won’t be news for what it actually was, but will be swung by the deep state media into another school shooting or drug bust, so your investigative and retributive activities don’t need the kind of scrupulous attention to detail that would be required in, say, a Rivers of London -based magic/reality campaign, where even the police don’t have guns.
  • Viral apocalpyse: The whole thing of course can come to a head in 2020, when the deep state unleashes a virus that will overwhelm the world unless Bill Gates gets to inject you with chips. The PCs can be working to stop this happening, or they can be working to prevent the vaccine from being deployed, or protecting an organization developing a real vaccine for true believers (maybe it’s magical – maybe it’s not!), or racing to find the origins of the virus before it mutates and turns even on its creators, or maybe the game starts as everything is really falling apart and they have to stop the apocalypse. What are Iran and North Korea doing anyway? There’s so much at stake!
  • Obvious character classes: The Hacker, the Veteran, the Survivalist, the Scientist, the Occultist, the Criminal, the Private Investigator, the Corporate Dropout, the Activist, the Politician, the Entertainer, the Lion Tamer, the Agent, the Podcaster … the profiles and rules just write themselves in this world, and the ideal party will be a mix of all of them, with their combat skills, science background, occult background and street contacts. We aren’t going to bust this conspiracy open and less we can cover all the bases!
  • Obvious enemies: Forget Blue Lives Matter, recent events have shown us that if you’re a Qultist you need to be flexible about how you deal with the legal representatives of the state, and the agents of the deep state are everywhere – they can be in congress (even the Republican party), on TV (suddenly even in Fox News), in the military (look at all those generals who refused to back the Qult!), and of course scattered all through the corporate world (don’t forget to turn off location services before you storm congress in the campaign finale!) And who doesn’t like raiding the homes, luxury yachts and secret underground paedophile bunkers of the super rich? There is a pantomime list of evil-doers to take on, and no need to feel bad about killing them – after all, they’re all paedophile satanists!

The QAnon conspiracy offers a rich and intense world of conspiracies and dangers that provides a GM a perfect balance of investigation, negotiation, fighting and stealth to keep players constantly entertained. Being set in the real world, maps and settings are easy to produce and use, and inspiration is all around you (just like the conspiracy!) You don’t even need to be balanced – no matter how outrageous and outlandish your story, it will still pale in comparison the fantasies that actual Qultists wallow in, just as X-Files looks lame compared to the QAnon story, and just as my World of Darkness campaign looked kind of tame when compared with what actually happened after 2016. You can go to town!

Of course there is one small problem with the QAnon conspiracy as a world setting: the good guys in this conspiracy are Nazis. That is a slightly unpleasant downside. But there are obvious simple solutions to this plan: you can move the setting back in time a little, to when conspiracy theories were the domain of a wide array of kooks and weirdos and hadn’t been cornered by gun-toting white supremacists. You could simply retrofit the setting so that the Nazis are the paedophile satanists (with conservatives every accusation is really a confession, after all) and keep the entire QAnon world with just the sides switched (there are so many false flags wrapped within schemes hidden inside disguises that who knows, anyway?) or you could play non-Americans who have to deal with the torrent of racism and fascism coming from their American comrades, with associated schisms and additional challenges to fighting through to the heart of the problem. Could it be that Q himself is a double agent, a double negative intended to discredit anyone acting against the conspiracy by wrapping it all up in Nazism, just as at some point in the decline of the X-Files we find out that all of Mulder’s conspiracies had been planted by the government to keep people distracted from the truth of Alien contact[1]?

If Trump manages to cling on past Wednesday, or there is another attempt at insurrection that is actually successful, we’ll be living in the QAnon world and there’ll be no point in playing make-believe games based on it. But hopefully on Wednesday this entire shitshow will fall apart and some degree of normality will return to US politics, after which we can begin to look on QAnon as a hilarious and awful moment of mass hysteria, that provided a rich and complete setting for a modern-era role-playing game with guns and magic. Let’s hope that it will all soon pass into the realms of fiction, so that we can turn it into the fodder of day dreams, and no longer have to give it sly side-eye while wondering if it will soon become the substance of our waking nightmares.

fn1: I could be misremembering this, but there were so many twists and turns in the dismal end of that story that who can say?

Siladan the Elder

Sundered Cliffs

Third watch road, the red house

11th of the Still, 1009

Regald

Ell’s Hamlet

The Estala Road

Old friend,

I hope this letter finds you well, and apologize for my tardiness in writing these past two years. I have taken on two apprentices and my work in the academy grows in detail and depth, and as a result I have forgotten some of the more pleasurable parts of my private affairs. Indeed, at the end of a long day poring over illuminated texts I have found it difficult to raise a pen in my private hours, and for this I sincerely apologize.

With the onset of these new responsibilities I have decided to clean out some space in my personal laboratory – needs must, in fact, because the second apprentice cannot continue sleeping in the stables during the Still month! I have cleared out some material and set my apprentices to reviewing others, but in the process I found this cache of old documents that I believe we discovered when we ambushed a deepfolk warband. It belonged to a scholar they had looted, but I vaguely recall when we tried to return the documents the scholar, too, was gone – perhaps eaten by those same scurrilous vermin in whose possession we found the documents. In any case, they are written in ancient elvish, which is beyond my capacity to fathom. I know you grew up near the elves and speak a little of their tongue, so I thought perhaps you could make headway in reading them; or, if you cannot, perhaps you could return them to the elves from the great forest, from whence they will no doubt find their way into whatever passes for libraries among those folk. I am loathe to turn them over to my own academy, as they have few members who can read elvish and a rather poor manner in dealing with manuscripts they are not able to read. I trust you will treat them better with your weary swordhand than they would with their delicate and soft ink-stained paws!

These documents have mouldered in my cellars for years now so there is no need to make time for such an errand, but should you luck upon a chance to read them, I should be very interested in their contents. I will pay you for a transcription should you find one, and determine it to be more interesting than some dull elvish genealogy (please do not bother me if it is just stories of which of them begat which other of them in olden times – such horrors need not be shared!)

In cleaning out the apprentice’s new rooms I stumbled on other documents we uncovered during the time of the Ashentide. Remember those documents by that fellow with the picturesque name, Aveld the Foul? I think I will spend the next winter trying to crack their code, and find out why he earned such a descriptive suffix. Let us hope that he is not just a duckherder with a poor pen hand and a penchant for numerology! In any case, if I find anything else that concerns your time with the Ashentide, I promise to send it to you. Until such time, please be assured that I remain,

Your comrade in arms

Siladan the Elder

Yesterday I wrote a post about the ways in which online teaching and supervision can be superior to physical teaching and supervision, and today I want to follow up with a short post about what aspects of online gaming can be transferred to physical gaming. I finished my Coriolis campaign online, and we have started the Archipelago campaign online too. Gaming online at this time has been necessary to avoid a physical TPK[1], but it has had several advantages:

  • We were able to include a former Coriolis player who moved overseas in the final part of that campaign, which was a good way to end the campaign and reconnect with an old player
  • One of our players is managing a very young child and another is living a large part of their time outside of Tokyo, so we’ve been able to include them in sessions
  • We’ve been able to meet more regularly because we can set weekday evenings without having to worry about commuting or finding a convenient venue

In Tokyo there are lots of venues you can hire on weekday evenings for gaming, so we can find a mutually agreeable location, but the physical meetings are short and interrupted by eating, commuting and so on. When we game online during the week we can start later – 8pm to enable children to settle – and have already eaten and relaxed after the day. I also don’t have to lug my gaming material through the summer heat, and if we finish at 11 with a solid 3 hours’ gaming done, we can still be to bed early without worrying about commuting. We usually start an hour earlier for socialization, and people just join when they can.

For Coriolis we used roll20, and for the Archipelago campaign we are using a system called RPG Sessions for characters and dice, run partly through discord, and roll20 for mapping[2]. As the number of coronavirus cases stabilizes in Tokyo and maybe begins to curve down, we’re thinking about returning to physical gaming sometime in September, but I think we are going to continue with some online sessions permanently, because it’s difficult to gather the whole group regularly on weekends and easy to gather them on a weekday night. Also I think when we do game physically we will retain a few aspects of online gaming.

In particular I aim to keep using roll20 for mapping. There is this constant problem with maps and tabletop RPGs that they have to be put in the centre of the table, where there is usually a huge pile of snacks, and some people always have to stand to look at them, and then also the map is oriented towards half the group and upside down to the rest. I think we can get around this by having each person see the map on their own tablet, and also have it on a big screen at the end of the table (I have a tv in my kitchen that I can share with chromecast). Thus we will all be able to see the map but have a shared map at the same time. Players can move their own PCs on the map, and we can maintain the sense of physical space without having to invest in horrific things like miniatures and the like[3].

Using roll20 for mapping also avoids the annoying situation where players are supposed to navigate their way around a physical map based entirely on my descriptions, when I can just use the fog of war on a map software to immediately reveal the rooms they can see, and the monsters they can see, when they see them. This is a vast improvement over physical maps or – worst of all – the horrible 1980s tradition of having a “mapper” who mapped out the dungeon as you explored it and always got it wrong. Having virtual maps also enables us to flick between them quickly, to have pictures of enemies and so on. Why go back to printed stuff?!

I think we will also continue to use RPG sessions for character sheets. It is very nicely integrated with the Genesys system so that for example it even records criticals, which is great. Instead of having my PCs note down the name of the critical and its details they just hit a button and roll one up and it gets added directly to their character sheet. I am using onenote to track campaign sessions, so now we just put the date of the crit into the character sheet and we know exactly when to attempt crit recovery, etc. There is also no risk anyone will ever forget a character sheet, since there’s zero chance they’ll leave home without a phone.

I have recently subscribed to the new Twilight 2000 kickstarter (and I suggest you do too!) which funded in 7 minutes, and is now up to its 9 billionth stretch goal. One of those stretch goals was the development of virtual tabletop tools for all the major applications, so that when you receive the game it is ready out of the box to be played online. I hope all new RPGs will do this in future, so that we can have a fully integrated virtual mapping, gaming and dice rolling system all in one. Of course some players like to roll dice (even though they’re shit at it[5]), which they will still be able to do, but the availability of ubiquitous online gaming platforms also opens the possibility of arbitrarily complex dice systems, since there’s no reason to physically assemble them or calculate the results. Who needs ideal polygonal forms for your dice when you can just roll d73? We could have dice systems based entirely on prime numbers! Or just go straight to arbitrary probability distributions … why go back?

This pandemic has forced the world to deal with the fact that the internet is no longer an ersatz reality. It’s no longer the case that things done online are not relevant to or close to real life. We should accept this, and instead of seeing online experiences as inferior to physical experiences, things we were forced to compromise on for our health, we should see them as ways to improve our past physical experiences to make them better. Rather than going back to how things used to be, let’s use the improvisations we had to make during this time to improve our physical lives when we are able to reconnect. I am trying to do this with my teaching, and I aim to do it for my gaming too!


fn1: Touch wood none of our players have got coronavirus, though two have been through some health scares, but some of us are older and some of us overweight, so we’re in the risk group for getting it badly if it does happen, and a gaming group is a perfect scenario for a cluster

fn2: Roll20 supposedly has an api for genesys dice but it is completely broken so I had to give up on using it. This was frustrating!

fn3: I’ve never been a great fan of miniatures for gaming, because I can’t paint them and they’re an absolute bastard to lug around, and for the first 15 or so years of my gaming experience they were only available in lead[4], which was heavy and ugly

fn4: Yes in the 1980s parents willingly allowed their still-developing children to participate in a hobby that involved casting lead, and playing with things made of lead. WTF

fn5: Jesus christ people, have some dice discipline will you!

I have been running a Coriolis campaign for 39 sessions now, with the PCs having accrued a lot of experience and a large number of talents and skills. The Coriolis rules are generally very tight and have been very easy to work with (except perhaps the space combat rules), but some parts of the basic rules lack a little depth as you gain levels, and there have been some ways in which my group and I have worked together to enhance the rules and in some ways to change them. Here I list some of those changes, and one change I should have implemented but didn’t.

Talent tiers

Pretty early on we realized that talents should have tiers, with more powerful and versatile effects at higher tiers. So we have made some additional talents that apply beyond the first tier. They still only cost 5xp to buy, but they require the previous talent in the tier first. Here are three examples of these tiers in action.

Tenth life: This is absolutely fundamental to enjoying this game. Once you’ve invested 50 xp in your pc you want some way to cheat death, and this is it. It’s the second tier of Nine Lives, and it has one purpose: you burn the talent to nullify a critical roll of 66. This is the game’s only one use talent, meaning you have to buy it again every time you used it. In our most recent session the PC Al Hamra used this to nullify a 66, and then got hit later in the same battle with another 66, which he could not nullify, and two other PCs (I think) have been forced to use their Tenth Life (then immediately bought it again). This talent is tier 2, with Nine Lives at Tier 1, but I think actually Nine Lives is a massively over-powered talent and should itself be Tier 2 – Tier 1 of this talent tree should be something like rerolling a crit and being forced to take the second roll, or being able to use Nine Lives only once a combat or something. But given how lethal this game is we haven’t quibbled with it: Nine Lives is basically a mandatory talent.

Machine gunner: The Machine Gunner talent now has two additional tiers. The first enables the PC to ignore the bulky quality of weapons (enabling them to carry vulcan machine guns as if they were carbines) and the second to fire full auto using 2AP. Adam has all three tiers, which means he can ignore an extra 1 when he fires his machine gun, he can carry a full vulcan machine gun as if it were a normal weapon, and can reload and fire in one round (he has rapid reload too). This makes Adam absolutely lethal when he rolls well, since he can ignore the first two 1s in an auto fire attack and do it every round even if he exhausts his ammunition. This is just as well since Adam’s player always rolls really badly.

Executioner: Tier 2 of the executioner allows the player to roll a second critical and choose the best one before reversing the dice. It partially nullifies Nine Lives and is used by Siladan, who is a melee fighter and consistently suffers the disadvantage of having to charge through a round of missile fire before he can engage. This is a very bad disadvantage in melee! I suspect that if combined with machine gunner this talent would be horrific.

Combat medic: Tier 2 of the combat medic talent enables the PC to heal damage when stabilizing a crit (but only when stabilizing a crit) so that each additional success grants one wound. Until we expanded mystic powers this was the only way that the PCs could recover damage during combat if they weren’t broken, and avoided this weird and unholy ping pong in which Dr Delekta had to wait for a player to be broken, heal them up a few wounds, and then let them be broken again (I think this ping pong happened in the first few sessions because we misunderstood the healing rules). In any case it’s super important because things spiral down the tube really fast if you can’t heal wounds along with stabilizing criticals. I think this system is far more lethal than even Rolemaster and a lot of our house rules were developed to make it survivable[1].

Expanded mystic powers

These have been described before but I include them here for completeness. In particular the higher levels of the Stop power (which give domination ability with almost no resistance) and the healing powers have been very useful. One of our mystics, Saqr, usually keeps an action point spare for a reaction that increases his armour. Another PC, Kaarlina, has all the levels of technomage and has found them very useful in a lot of situations, and of course Al Hamra loves both the second tier of the mind reading power and his domination abilities. I haven’t really deployed these powers to great effect against the PCs yet but I feel this will come soon.

Enhanced minion powers

I have been following the rule that minions add one die to their attack for each extra member of the group, but I have further enhanced the rules to make them a little more dangerous, enabling extra dice in additional situations.

  • Observation checks: Obviously with more people looking the chance of success should increase
  • Dexterity and force checks: When an entire team tries to get out of combat someone should be able to break through, so I increase dexterity checks accordingly; similarly for force checks, even in grappling-type situations (it’s hard to grapple one mook when three others are whaling on you).
  • Auto-fire: This is the key enhancement. Every extra minion in a group increases the number of 1s that need to be rolled to exhaust their weapons’ ammunition, so for example if there are four minions in a team they need to roll four 1s (the first 1, plus 3 more) in order to exhaust their weapons ammunition when using auto-fire. This makes minions with vulcan carbines absolutely lethal and ensures that my PCs are forced to take minions seriously, especially if I have enough darkness points to pray…

Group and individual skill checks

I follow a ruthless rule for adjudicating skill checks now: if the entire group fails from a single failure, everyone must roll separately; if the entire group benefits from a single success, the person with the highest pool rolls once and gains a +1 for each supporting person. This is done to ensure that the PCs do not basically automatically succeed at everything just from luck, and is something I learnt in D&D. Basically even if an observation check is super hard, if everyone rolls for it one of the group is likely to roll high. So I force the players to roll a single pool for observation checks, research, negotiations and the like – anything where even a single success from one PC is sufficient. In contrast, for stealth checks, where even one failure affects the whole group, I require everyone to roll separately and the entire group suffers from the worst roll. I recommend everyone apply this rule to a party with a fighter in plate mail!

You can really take this rule to new heights of nastiness by rolling some of the players’ dice pool secretly, yourself, so that they don’t know the exact result. I tried this a few times but the uproar led me to give it up. In this embellishment you roll perhaps a third of the dice yourself, so that if the players get no successes they don’t know whether to pray or not (since you might have rolled the one success they need); and if they don’t pray, they cannot guess whether the information they have received is untrue. It also means they cannot tell if they have got a critical success unless they see three dice in their part of the pool.

This is a real dick move, but if you like that sort of thing I strongly recommend it.

Strain from armour

When I played in a long (and excellent) Cyberpunk campaign we had to make a lot of house rules, and one modification we had to make was to armour, which proved invincible once you had more than a certain amount. We house-ruled there that if your armour fully absorbs damage you still take a point of stun damage, to ensure that no one can stay in combat for an infinite period of time just absorbing damage, because armour was so obviously over-powered in those rules[2]. Armour is not over-powered in Coriolis, but I think it would still be good to have a rule that if your armour absorbs all physical damage you still take a point of mental damage. Since absorbing physical damage often means avoiding a potentially lethal[3] critical, it seems reasonable that this should be a stressful experience. This also means that if you’re crouching behind cover absorbing huge amounts of incoming fire without taking damage, you will slowly lose your shit, which also seems reasonable. Unfortunately, however, I forgot this rule until recently and it’s definitely too late to implement it[4]. I recommend that you do!

Final comment on the rules

I have found the Coriolis rules to be very smooth, enjoyable and easy to use, with very little need for house ruling beyond judgements about positives and negatives, and winging it a bit with the use of darkness points. It’s a really well-designed and smooth system that is very fun to use. My only criticism would be that the talents and mystic powers are a bit superficial, and don’t allow the richness and depth of character creation that players demand over a long campaign. But this is a very minor criticism, and embellishing rules is much more fun than hacking them because they don’t work. So I present these rule modifications in that spirit, with the clear qualification that the system works completely fine as it is. Nonetheless, I hope you will consider using some of these rules in your own campaign, and even if you decide to ignore all of them, I strongly recommend the enhanced auto-fire rules for minions. Because, let’s face it, your players deserve the best!


fn1: Perhaps if my players were less reckless this wouldn’t be an issue … but they would argue I’m an arsehole GM and they have no choice. There were good people on both sides of the debate …

fn2: Don’t play Cyberpunk, the rules are thoroughly broken.

fn3: 50% of the time!

fn4: I suspect if my players read this they’ll be clamouring for me to implement the rule, since they’re about to face off with four guys in battle exos.

 

 

 

As my Coriolis campaign comes to its extremely violent conclusion, I am completing preparations for the next campaign I plan to GM. The last few campaigns I have GM’d have been science fiction: Coriolis, before that the Spiral Confederacy (Traveler), and before that a post-apocalyptic water-world campaign called Flood (using Cyberpunk rules, natch). My players are craving some high fantasy and so am I, but I am completely over D&D and incapable of running it or playing it any more – I just find it boring in all its incarnations and although I loved it when I was younger I can’t enjoy it past about 5th level, so I don’t want to run it anymore. I considered Warhammer, but I think my players would like to move away from worlds saturated in darkness and I know that when I GM Warhammer I make it altogether very grimdark, which some of my players don’t need. So, I decided to make my own sunny and upbeat campaign world for Genesys, using a classic fantasy RPG setting with orcs and magic and mediaeval scenes and monsters and completely arbitrary but fixed notions of good and evil which mean the PCs can slay any evil monster they want without fear of repercussions or any moral quandaries. The setting I chose is based on a map I found on the internet, and I choose at this stage to call it the Archipelago Campaign.

The Archipelago

The Archipelago is a collection of island kingdoms of manageable size, isolated from any major landmasses and connected by stormy but navigable seas. There are 8 nations of human settlements, a large wild area occupied by human-like tribespeople called wildlings, a single island for dwarves, and a couple of forests where elves live. There are also a few members of a race of people called Changelings, who are like humans but smaller and a bit weird, who live in hunter-gatherer societies and can change their form to perfectly resemble any human they have ever seen. The entire area is also plagued by deepfolk: orcs, goblins, ogres, dark elves and deep gnomes who are implacably evil and hate humans with all their heart and soul (if they have a soul). The deepfolk live underground and come out through hidden entrances and lairs in mountains, hillsides and forests, and there is constant conflict between these nasty creatures and humans. There are also other monsters in the forests and mountains, and one island has been ravaged and taken over by a dragon.

The refugee history of humans

The human society in this land is relatively light on history and politics. Humans arrived in the Archipelago 1000 years ago as refugees, but were immediately plunged into 200 years of constant flight and conflict as the deepfolk tried to destroy them. As a result of these 200 Lost Years they have forgotten their origins and lost all documents and written stories about their past, and so they know nothing about where they came from, why they fled, or how they came to the Archipelago. After 200 years the dwarves took pity on them and helped them found a few pathetic settlements, and after that they slowly formed kingdoms. They had to learn to read and write from the dwarves, either because they had no written language or all those details were destroyed during the Lost Years. They brought a kind of magic with them, learnt a new kind from the dwarves and a third kind from the elves, and slowly settled and spread across the Archipelago. Out of respect for their refugee history they have no systems of slavery or kings or queens, and generally there is not much conflict between kingdoms – I have set this society up to be light on politics and history so the PCs can focus on uncovering secrets and killing orcs, but without having the stultifying and boring influence of feudalism on the society.

In general human society is at the technology level of Britain in the 9th century, with the caveat that they have little access to iron – all iron and jewels are hoarded by deepfolk and can only be obtained through war. So weapons and armour are slightly neolithic. This introduces a new tier of weapons between mundane weapons and magic weapons, and gives additional reasons to kill those pale-skinned underground bastards.

Magic and religion

There are three forms of magic in the world, each connected to a religion: Salt, the magic humans brought with them; Storm, the magic dwarves love, which helps them become consummate sailors; and sun, the magic the elves prefer, which is most like the arcane magic we all know and love. There is no heaven and hell, no demons, no afterlife and no special moral restrictions from religion, so religion is primarily a reassuring force to make pathetic humans feel they have a place in the world, rather than a strong moral code. PCs can be one of the three religions but can never mix magical forms. There is a fourth kind of magic, deep magic, used by deepfolk, which is the only way that one can learn necromancy or enchantments, but no human has ever used it so domination spells and vampires are entirely the province of the deepfolk. Deepfolk are evil!

Races and classes

In this world as in all my worlds elves are dodgy, shonky wild creatures who can’t be understood or trusted, but players can choose an elven PC if that is their thing. Dwarves are simply small, thin folk who live on the sea and are masters of art, culture and craft – kind of like erudite 16th century explorers compared to the 9th century barbarian humans. The wildlings of the north are maybe a lost tribe of humans or maybe a different indigenous race, no one knows, but they’re bigger and kind of more savage than humans. Changelings live in small hunter-gatherer societies on the fringe of human nations, and don’t seem to have much wealth or care for human activities, but are much sought after for their transformation powers. No one can play any form of deepfolk, because deepfolk are evil.

Resources and plans

The document I have prepared for my players to read can be found here, with detailed information about the world and rules for the Genesys system. We will be starting in the next month or two, depending on brutally the players are able to end the Coriolis campaign. I am looking forward to a long, leisurely exploration of a fantasy realm after many years of science fiction!

My players are a little disappointed with the mystic powers in Coriolis, and to be honest so am I. I like games with magic, and I always want to be able to have some mystery and arcane secrets in my games. I also like those with mystic powers to ultimately be powerful and terrifying: Shadowrun has a rule, gank the mage, which I think should apply in any game with mystical or magical elements, but there’s no point in having this rule if your mages aren’t worth ganking, and in general mystics aren’t very powerful in Coriolis. Given their need to hide and the risk of persecution, this seems a little disappointing. So my players and I came up with some ideas for improving mystic powers.

First of all we thought that they should have expanded powers over djinn and other spirits, and also that they should be able to physically heal and mentally attack. We also thought most powers should have additional benefits if you focus on them. So I have developed a system with three tiers of powers. Each power introduced in the book has an additional two levels of power, which expand on or intensify the basic power introduced in the core rules. I also introduced a new power for healing. To buy a second level power one needs to have first purchased the power described in the core rules; for 5 xp one can then buy the next power in the list. Furthermore, no PC can have more level 3 powers than level 2 powers, and no PC can have more level 2 powers than level 1 (introductory) powers, and no PC can have more level 1 powers than their wits attribute. So for example a PC with a wits of 4 can have 4 level 1 powers, 3 level 2, and 2 level 3 powers; in total buying all these powers will require 45 xp, which in my campaign would probably take about 20-25 sessions to get to. Some of the powers at level 2 or level 3 can be expanded by spending additional xp to increase damage or range, or reduce crit value. So to be a fully rounded, genuinely scary mystic would probably require 60xp or more.

The table of mystic powers, from level 1 to level 3, is shown below. All level 1 powers except heal are introduced in the core rules.

Power class Level 1 Level 2 Level 3
Artificer Artificer: go into a trance to understand an artifact Rigger: Activate and control ordinary objects at long range or less using your skill in that item/equipment Technomage: Use an object or technology using mystic powers as if you had the skill
Clairvoyant Clairvoyant: find a person or object Scry: See remote locations, objects or people Act: Cast any mystic power through a video, scry or other remote vision device
Exorcist Exorcist: Drive a spirit out of a person Abjurer: Force a spirit to manifest in a physical form, making it vulnerable to physical attacks Astral champion: launch a physical attack on a spirit in non-physical form. Attack is dmg 1, crit 3, range touch; use xp to increase dmg/range, reduce crit
Intuition Intuition: Ask the GM a question about anything in the world Speak with dead: speak with a recently dead person to find out what they experienced Prediction: Use mystic powers to increase initiative by 1 / success
Mind reader Mind reader: read surface thoughts Detect truth: learn when someone is lying or telling the truth as they speak Mental attack: Does MP dmg 1, crit 3 (stun), range touch. Use xp to increase dmg, reduce crit, increase range
Mind walker Mind walker: see through someone else’s eyes Animal walker: see through an animal’s eyes/senses Machine walker: see through the sensory equipment of any machine, object or system
Prediction Prediction: Use a séance to see the future Regression: Learn the past about a place, thing or person Instantiation: Learn what is happening now to an absent place, thing or person
Premonition Premonition: test mystic powers to sense an impending attack Defense: use a reaction to give a friendly PC or NPC a free defense against an incoming attack, using your mystic powers Nine lives: as a reaction, allow one of your allies to reverse the dice on a critical
Stop Stop: use mystic powers to force someone to stop a single action Control: openly control a person for a single action, such as an attack or an important, obvious decision. Everyone knows you did it Dominate: take complete control of someone for 1 round per success. They get to use force to resist this.
Telekinesis Telekinesis: Applies to small objects Telekinesis 2: Applies to larger objects, up to the size of a person (who can use force to resist your power) Flight: The PC can use their telekinesis to move at a slow flight, including in zero-g. Use dexterity skill to control it
Body control Heal: heal 1 pt of damage per success, even if not broken Armour: Use a reaction to add mystic powers skill to your armour total Heal crit: completely heals a critical of severity less than or equal to the number of successes

 

I thought it might be good to introduce another power which grants someone an additional action point, attribute bonuses, etc., but decided this might be too powerful. Also there is no physical attack capability in any of these powers, so mystics can do mental attacks (which ignore armour!) but cannot do physical attacks. Also to get to a very weak mental attack that is no better than a stun weapon, a mystic needs to burn 15xps, though with 30xps this could be a vicious attack guaranteed to do significant stun damage.

Note also that these powers rely on good mystic powers skill, so most PCs will have to find a balance between new powers and improving their skill. To become a super powerful mystic is a path of privation and extreme limitations on other skills, and it is likely that in any campaign of less than about 40 sessions most PCs will not be able to get to a very high power level. NPCs, on the other hand …

As a final bonus, I think if anyone gets to two or more powers at level 3 they should be able to gain some additional combination power they can activate. So for example telekinesis + mind walker at level 3 might grant the PC the ability to teleport. This would be super useful if the PCs have a nemesis who has 3 level 3 powers … There might also be additional, forbidden powers that are not available to the PCs and require a cadaver clock to activate: permanent attribute boosts, resurrection, etc. Getting that clock and the associated powers could be a campaign goal for the PCs – and battling a mystic who has those powers could be a major campaign in itself. For example, they could discover a mystic who uses body control, stop and mind walker in a cadaver clock to turn people into completely obedient slaves, who fight and die on her behalf without release; the PCs’ job could be to discover the nature of this clock, and somehow destroy this super powerful mystic. That’s a fun and dark campaign! And it might put the PCs in two minds about the true nature of mystics, which could lead to complications when they embark on the Emissary Lost campaign ark …

I know some players of Coriolis will prefer to keep mystic powers subtle and low key, but I don’t like low-key magic and I like magic in my sci fi campaigns, so I will be running with these expanded powers – and making sure my group run into adversaries who have stocked up on them!

Coriolis is set in the Third Horizon, a complex of star systems linked by portals that enable instantaneous transport between connected systems (with severe potential complications). Each system is linked through the portals to perhaps 2-4 other systems, so traveling to distant systems requires passing through multiple portals. Portals are all located in the same place, about 0.5 AU from one of the system’s stars, so when you emerge from one portal you are 0.5 AU from the star and at exactly the position you need to be to go straight back through and on to your next destination. Navigating through a portal is dangerous, and requires piloting skill checks to pass through successfully; failure can be very bad, and as a result most travelers pass through in convoys, sharing the portal data provided by bulk haulers which pay extra to access good quality navigational data. No human can travel through a portal without being in stasis, so any ship that travels between systems needs to have enough stasis pods for its crew; failure to go into cryosleep during transit is always fatal.

This creates obvious complications for communications in the Third Horizon, particularly given that many systems have very low populations, are wracked by war or chaos, and have little industry and even less reason to visit them. As a guide, in the System Generator the largest population you can roll up for a whole planet is millions of residents. The systems have low populations that may be scattered across very large planets on very low density population centres. Given this, it seems likely that most systems will not receive much in the way of communications. However, the rulebook gives little information about this issue. All I can find on communications is this tiny inset:

Communication waves travel at the speed of light, which is roughly one AU per eight minutes – thus, getting a reply to a question takes at least 16 minutes per AU between you and the other party. No communication waves can pass through portals. Instead, a ship or a probe must make the jump and then transmit the message on the other side. This leads to great communication delays between systems. The Bulletin keeps multiple probes ready on every portal station, and anyone can pay to use them to send information. This is both expensive and not without risk however, as you never know who might be listening on the other end

This does not give much information about how communication works in the Third Horizon, and I don’t like it for two simple reasons:

  • If you have to pay to send information by a probe, then almost all information from low population centres will never get sent. I don’t like this.
  • It suggests that spaceships with no human crew can pass through portals. I really don’t like this idea: it opens the way for AI fleets, or for automated cargo systems. Not cool.

So, I have decided to revise the communications systems in the Third Horizon by introducing two small house rules that make life a little more complicated:

  • It is very dangerous to freeze and thaw people repeatedly from cryosleep – typically ship’s crews need a few days’ recovery before they can go back into stasis, and repeatedly violating this guideline can lead to insanity and loss of mental function (particularly bad when the security team wakes up in a rage, or the pilot has to navigate a portal in a post-stasis haze)
  • Any path through a portal requires a human to calculate it in order to work. In the entire history of the Third Horizon, no computer has ever plotted a path through a portal successfully. Most scientists suspect this is because the Portal Builders were capable of designing AI ships, and built this failsafe into the portals to ensure no one could obliterate another system using AI fleets

This has important consequences for communications in the Third Horizon. In particular, it means that it is not possible to have a system of automated relays, where probes go through the portals every hour and broadcast information, essentially rendering communication nearly instantaneous throughout the Third Horizon. If probes were possible, then it would be possible to have probes that transport through a portal every hour, collect the latest information broadcasts, and then transfer back through. This would mean that if you were 15 systems away from Kua you would likely get your news from Kua within about 24 hours, since when the probe comes through the portal it can broadcast its information directly to the portal station, and then when the probe to the next system is ready it will be right at the portal so will receive the information as soon as it arrives in-system, and an hour later travel to the next system. If probes were possible the Legion could send a message from Kua to the end of the Third Horizon in a matter of hours, simply by dispatching a probe through a series of portals.

If, on the other hand, only humans can pass through portals and humans require some days to recover from stasis, then sending information becomes trickier. At a busy system like Kua you could still have daily or hourly information exchange, simply by having a large enough number of small ships. For example with seven class I ships capable of stasis, you could send information through to Altai on a daily basis, using a roster to ensure that once a ship has passed through the portal its crew can rest and do other tasks for a few days before passing back through. But in a less busy system such a proposition might not be worth it – news would only be generated slowly, and no one would care what it was anyway, so why would you have seven crews on standby to transfer it? Instead you might broadcast it to a passing bulk hauler once a week, as the hauler passes through, and pay a nominal fee for it to transfer the information to the portal station at the far side. Then that station would pay a nominal fee to the next passing bulk hauler or starship to take information to the next system, and so on. In most cases this would mean that news would travel from one system to another approximately once a day, except in the busiest systems, so that if you lived in the outer fringes your news would take a week or two to get to Kua, and a month or two to travel to the far side of the Horizon. Given the distances involved that’s pretty cool.

This system of broadcasts will only apply to general news, of course. If you want a message sent to your family saying you made it safely to Yastopol then this is your plan: you go to your local Consortium office and select a simple, low cost plan to send your data to your family in Aiwaz, and you have fair confidence that it will arrive in a matter of about 10 days, give or take, uncorrupted and probably unread (let’s face it, you’re pretty boring). But what if you want to sext your lover in Kua? Or send news of a successful kick murder in Dabaran? Then you need more secure and more reliable delivery (you want to be sure he receives that dickpic!)

In this case you may need to provide your own encryption services, and people may be waiting at the other end to capture your data. When a bulk hauler arrives in a system it doesn’t ask questions about who should receive what data: it broadcasts it in bulk to a local receiver and carries on its way, and then that local receiver broadcasts that data on subject to the conditions of the transit. A cheap data transit plan will mean that stuff is just broadcast at every planet in system without fear or favour, and anyone listening in can pick it up. Local data providers will pick it up for sure, and if they recognize the address you gave your dickpic will end up at the correct tabula. But anyone who wants to listen in can also pick up your message, and if the encryption protocols of your backwater farmer’s Grindr app are not suitably good, then now everyone knows precisely how second rate your junk is. Probably not an issue, since the dude you were sending it to has already moved on (sorry to tell you that, but you know what these Kua boys are like – sluts the lot of them). If your news is a successful kick murder, though – well then your data is valuable, and whoever was sifting through your messages is going to be making sure to sell that on.

To get around this you have a couple of choices:

  • Pay for a packet drone, which detaches from the hauler once it arrives in the destination system and travels to a pre-determined local high security data center, from which its message can be broadcast with high security
  • Pay specifically for a tight beam communication to a specific target, which avoids the risk of interception but also leaves a trail of comms from ship to planet that an investigator could find
  • Apply your own high level encryption so even a widebeam broadcast can’t be hacked
  • Pay a secure provider – a dedicated information broker – which passes through some systems regularly and ensures your message gets to its destination, and usually also deletes its records after it passes through

Not all of these options are available in every system, or you may have to wait a long time to get the one you want. That dickpic won’t be fresh if you wait forever! Sometimes no matter how much money you have – or how many people you kill – the thing you need just won’t arrive in the system, and you’ll have to settle for less secure and less reliable communications. That is the nature of life out on the edge of the Horizon. Now let us consider two specific examples.

Banu Delecta’s Red Packet

The Cyclade is coming and as always at this time Dr. Banu Delecta’s thoughts turn to Qamar, a courtesan whose company she often enjoyed while she was a student in Coriolis. Dark-skinned, muscular, graceful, shy and ohh-so talented, Qamar was a boon to her during the stress of exams and a relief during those times when her male peers were exhausting and her rich boyfriends disappointing, and if his plebeian upbringing occasionally showed what did she care? He never judged her for her rich background, but loved her for who she was (really! She was special! Not like those old matrons from the Spire that he so often had to entertain!) Qamar retired after she graduated, but it is tradition in the Third Horizon for rich patrons to send retired courtesans a red packet – a small donation of money – on their birthday, as a kind of reminder of their goodwill and also to ensure that the courtesan’s retirement is not too harsh on them. Ever a stickler for tradition – and misty-eyed at the thought of those lazy afternoons in his apartments near the Ozone market – Dr. Delecta remembered that Qamar’s birthday was just after the Cyclade and now, back in her home system of Sivas, she had best organize the delivery.

A red packet delivery is no big deal, and so she takes a lifter down to her local post office and organizes an interstellar plan (oh how inconvenient! Back on Coriolis you could do all this on your tabula). She pays a little extra to ensure it is delivered on the date she chooses – Sivas is only two portals from Kua so she is confident it will arrive in time – and also pays a little more to add some encryption to the packet, since it is money she is sending. She does not fuss herself about choosing an extra-secure delivery method that would, for example, guarantee no one knew the recipient, since as far as she knows there is no evidence Qamar used to be a courtesan, and no reason to connect her to anything untoward, so it is unlikely that anyone will notice a birthday present as an unusual event. She presses the button and her red packet is broadcast to a passing bulk hauler, which will leave in three days for Altai. From Altai there is likely to be a bulk hauler convoy every day, and so her message will arrive in Kua within five days. From the portal station at Kua it will be broadcast to Coriolis, where – provided Qamar has not changed his number – the communications system will ensure it reaches her delicious former entertainment.

The message arrives in time, but Delecta has set it to arrive only on the occasion of Qamar’s birthday. Five days after the Cyclade and 10 days after she sent it, Delecta’s red packet arrives on Qamar’s tabula. By now Qamar has married, a nice dockworker, and the two of them live in a charming apartment near the Spring Market, Qamar’s husband unaware of his past as a courtesan to the rich and lazy students of the Academy. Of course Qamar lied to Delecta about his birthday (and his name, and how much he enjoyed her company …) but still he has had to set up a separate, private list of former clients, and remember to disable notifications on his tabula on this day, lest his new husband see a sudden cascade of red packets all arriving on the same morning. This year, just as last year, once his husband has departed for the docks, Qamar checks his messages and looks at the long list of red packets in his inbox. He opens Delecta’s, considering once again the possibility of blocking all of the former clients on his secret list. But then he sees the amount Delecta has sent him (he does not bother to read her sweet message), and decides that no, perhaps he will think about blocking them next year …

Dr Wana finds an artifact

Dr Wana, famous architect whose reputation is known across the Third Horizon (at least among people who matter) has been working a dig in Ghodar for 3 months, and on a harsh and stormy morning in the Merchant she and her team of students uncover a haul of Portal Builder remains. It is unfortunate that Al Hama does not survive the discovery, but archaeology is an exacting science which occasionally demands its sacrifices, and let us be frank – better it were Al Hama, untrained and undisciplined, than Wana herself. After the initial excitement and tears (not Wana’s) have passed, she prepares to send a message to her funders on Zamusa. This is a slightly complex situation, because her funders would prefer their identity were not known to passersby – indeed Wana herself is uncertain as to who they really are – and she needs to find a way to get this information to them that does not link them in any way to her.

Unfortunately information brokers are not common on Ghodar, out here near the edge of the Third Horizon. Indeed out here even bulk haulers are infrequent. She speaks to her data djinn and organizes a message with wicked encryption, to be sent wrapped in a triggering condition. Three days later a bulk hauler passes through and receives the packet, taking it on to Dzibann, where it waits for four days before being broadcast to a fast merchant heading inward. Unfortunately the portal at Dzibann is unstable and the ship is cast out again after two days; it then rests for three days before trying again, so the message reaches Errai after 12 days. At Errai the message is broadcast across the system, where it is picked up by a data broker and the triggering condition is read. Here the broker discovers that she will be paid 1500 birr to ensure that the message contained within is sent to a specific person in Aiwaz. This is easy profit, since Errai has regular bulk haulers and she knows in particular one she trusts; she sends it on two days later for a small fee and pockets the huge profits, sitting back on her cushions in her small apartment to applaud the stupidity of scientists (if only she knew what Wana had found!) The message is transmitted to Kua, where it is broadcast directly to the contact person Wana had nominated. This person, a shady data broker by the name of Oleagi, reads further instructions, repackages the message in a data probe, and sends it on; he takes his payment directly from Wana’s prodigious array of grants at the Academy. The data probe speeds to the bulk hauler Aurora 3, which picks it up and carries it as far as Awadhi through two portals over three weeks. At Awadhi the data probe is released, broadcasting its message to the portal station. From here the message is broadcast again to passing bulk haulers, and arrives at Zamusa 5 days later. It took a total of 40 days to cross the Horizon from Ghodar to Zamusa, and delivers very pleasing news to Wana’s funders. In the process it has been through multiple changes of sender, including a physical transfer of information, and it is highly unlikely that anyone will learn who sent the message unless they either hack the message, or intercept the data probe – which would require attacking the bulk hauler that carried it. Wana is certain the secret of her Portal Builder artifact is safe for now.

Conclusion

My preference is to have interstellar campaigns be a little like colonial era exploration, with information passing at the same speed that people do. This is a crucial component to keeping the PCs ahead of the law, and it is also a really useful tool for making the frontiers lawless and dangerous. If information takes weeks to travel the PCs can get up to mischief and move on, and by the time they return to somewhere that knows of their crimes their crimes are already old news; the same applies to their enemies. It also lends rumour, stories and gossip a stronger value, and forces the PCs to sleuth around. In such a setting information gets fragmented, and important facts go missing. In a system where probes pass hourly through portals and broadcast information automatically, information spreads at the speed of a fax machine, which is too fast to allow the PCs to stay ahead of the law and ahead of their enemies – and too fast to allow the rims of the system to fragment and break away from the center. This is why I have decided to change the rules for communication in the Third Horizon, and to make it more wild west. In this communication system the PCs will think they’re so far ahead of their enemies – and won’t know when they’re being chased. And that’s exactly how I like it.

 

 

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