Gaming material


I recently posted some of my criticisms of the Genesys combat system to a forum for Genesys-related material, and received a surprising amount of resistance to the idea of making any changes to the rules. In amongst the resistance there were a large number of people telling me “you shouldn’t be doing that much combat anyway” and “if you like combat so much, just play D&D”. There was a strong theme of “people who play Genesys don’t like combat-heavy gaming” with the general assumption that combat-heavy gaming is somehow bad.

I have been GMing and playing RPGs for just over 30 years, and over that time I have repeatedly run into this idea that combat-heavy gaming is wrong, in various manifestations. You see adverts from gaming groups looking for members that say “we don’t focus on combat”, you meet GMs who tell you “yeah my campaigns tend to avoid combat”, and the ever-disdainful “yeah it’s not like D&D, it’s not all about combat.” Here is an example from the forum where I posted my suggested rules changes:

This entire post seems to me to be a misunderstanding of what Gensys is. If you want combat play 5e. If you want and narrative game that’s interactive between players and GM, then you’re on the right page.

This really pisses me off for a lot of reasons, and reflecting on it over the past week has triggered me to write this rant. To me, this “We don’t run games that are combat heavy” routine is like the idea that “you’re not like other girls“. Men pull this sometimes, and what they mean is they don’t respect basic aspects of modern femininity, which at the same time they really want their girl to have. It’s a shitty, self-deluding and mean-spirited approach, and most sensible girls list it as one of their basic red flags for exiting from a date. In the case of RPG talk, this “my games aren’t combat heavy” routine is bullshit for several reasons:

  • Every game group I’ve ever joined that has advertised itself this way has been just as combat-heavy as the ones that don’t
  • Combat is fun, and most people enjoy it, so when you set yourself apart from it like this you’re saying you’re a killjoy with a weird approach to gaming and probably a boring GM
  • It’s almost always based on separating yourself from D&D, just as “you’re not like other girls” is meant to separate the girl you’re talking to from a lumpen mass of boring, shallow selfie-taking girls who actually only exist as a stereotype in the speaker’s mind

In fact D&D isn’t any more combat-focused than any other system, and when people compare themselves with it they’re setting up a false equivalency which shows they either know nothing about the world of RPGs, or are an arsehole with too much brand loyalty to some other system. I want to attack each of these issues in turn.

Most groups have the same levels of combat

I’ve GMd and played in many groups in many systems over many years in several countries, in multiple cities, in two languages, and in my experience most gaming groups have about the same amount of combat. There is almost no such thing as a gaming group that doesn’t do much fighting. Regardless of the system and the setting, most campaigns involve a fair amount of good quality savagery. There will be sessions of investigation and negotiation, and sessions of shopping and planning, but these will inevitably lead up to combat or flow from combat, and players are always happy when the shit hits the fan and the dice come out.

I think there is a secondary reason for this besides that combat is fun, which is that the players often are working on limited information and don’t know the full story of the situations they’re dealing with, or what they need to do, and often they misunderstand or have forgotten key bits of information (which they invariably didn’t write down). But they can sail through these complexities because they know ultimately they can beat someone up and force the information out of them (or steal it) and if their primary pathway through the story gets lost the GM will save them by having their adversaries play their hand – usually with a weapon in it. Combat is very helpful for resolving story impasses, and GMs and players alike use it for that purpose.

It should also be noted that even though combat makes up a large chunk of time in a typical session, it isn’t actually that much of the story. Consider session 22 of my Genesys campaign, for example: The PCs visited a bar to get a job, sailed overnight on a ship where they did some planning and investigatory magic, walked for a day along a beach, checking carefully for signs of lurking dangers or evidence of wrecking, investigated a shipwreck by examining several bodies and finding and opening a chest, scouted a cliff face to find two men of dubious purpose, scouted a cave entrance looking for signs of fake signal lights, triggered a trap, and had a fight with some selkies. In actual game time the fight probably took as long as two or three of the other activities in the session, but it was only a tiny part of the total story. Combat takes up an out-sized part of the action and people’s perception of the balance of things in a game because rules are clunky and fights take a long time to resolve, not because they’re necessarily a large part of the activities of a typical adventure.

So frankly, I don’t believe people when they say they’re not really into combat in their games, because every time someone says that the empirical evidence shows the lie. Don’t get judgy with me about how you’re not that into it, and don’t pretend your level of combat in your games is special. It’s not, trust me. You’re not special.

Combat is fun

This is why every rule system has a section on fighting, and why popular gaming podcasts are called things like “I hit it with my axe” and not “I talk calmly with it to resolve the conflict.” There are several reasons for this, and they’re all perfectly good reasons:

  • It’s the time your PC faces the most risk and it’s also the time when things are least like the world you’re actually in
  • Most of the settings we play in are designed for conflict, because we want worlds where there are big evil and dangerous threats, and we especially like magic and demons and monsters, which inevitably bring violence
  • We spend most of our lives compromising with shitty people who have more power than us and negotiating and talking our way out of trouble, often with little success, and being able to smash your way out of problems – especially if the person you’re smashing is a bully or evil – is real escapism, and we don’t play these games to replicate the shitty interactions we have with shitty people in our shitty real world

If players didn’t enjoy fighting, and if people who wanted low-combat games were common, game designers would give combat the same amount of attention they currently give to social encounters or stronghold building: almost none. The reason it is a large part of gaming is that people enjoy it, which might also be the reason D&D 5e is so popular … except that D&D 5e isn’t an especially combat-heavy system.

D&D is not combat heavy

This idea that D&D is a combat-focused game is very old and very shitty. It wasn’t true 30 years ago and it’s not true now. First let’s consider some canonical examples of this idea, which I hear all the time. Consider for example this 9 year old post on stack overflow asking how to reduce combat in a D&D game, where respondents say things like this:

Well, for starters, I’d say don’t use D&D. It is a game tailored towards violent conflicts, which is exactly what you’re avoiding, it seems. Mind you, I said “violent conflicts”. No story, thus no game, can exist without any conflict whatsoever. I’m not also saying it’s completely undoable with D&D, just mainly… a waste of its design and practical goals.

I don’t know how to put this finely, so I’ll just say it: this is utter bullshit. D&D was never designed entirely towards violent conflicts, and this idea that it was is based on an unpleasant retrofitting of the nature of these games. Very early D&D lacked a skill system, so compared to games like Traveller and Warhammer that were around at the same time it looks like it was intended to be entirely combat focused, but it was never seen this way at the time. It was understood that the players and GM would resolve all non-combat stuff between themselves using negotiation and discussion and role-playing, and the rules were there to make fighting coherent – not that the game was only about fighting. You can see this in many of the classic early modules, which set out huge amounts of non-combat role playing in the social context of the game, without any particular mechanism for resolving those parts of the adventure. Later versions of the game introduced skills because of the popularity of skill systems and the recognition that without structured rules for non-combat encounters it became too much of a GM’s kimagure about how these matters would be resolved.

It should also be noted that compared to some other fantasy RPGs like Tunnels and Trolls, D&D led the way in finding ways to introduce non-combat themes. D&D invented the thief, a character class originally intended to be weak in combat but very useful outside of it, and also is responsible for the development (or at least popularization) of the much-maligned bard class, which is the Platonic ideal of non-combat role-playing. And what do we find in the 20 years since its inception? The bard is the routinely most-hated character class. Why would that be I wonder?

This idea about D&D being combat heavy is also empirically verifiably not true. Let us compare systems I have on hand! The D&D 5e rulebook has 200 pages of rules, excluding spells, of which 10 are devoted to combat, 2 are devoted to social interaction, 6 to skills, and 5 to weapons and armour. Among the spells 6/11 Bard cantrips are non-combat, 10/18 2nd level Druid spells are non-combat, and 7/15 7th level wizard spells are non-combat. (This is treating healing and restoration as combat-focused). So perhaps 10% of the rules and 50% of the spells are for combat. Compare with Genesys, our supposedly narrative/non-combat game, where in 136 pages of basic rules 7 are devoted to social encounters, 23 to combat and 3 to weapons and armour. Almost all of the spell section is devoted to combat spells, and no real guidance offered for non-combat spells, which are entirely up to the GM and players to figure out. Warhammer 2 has 140 pages of rules, of which 16 are devoted to combat, 6 to weapons and armour, and two of the PCs’ basic attributes are combat-only! (Weapon Skill and Ballistic Skill). In the spells, 5/8 of the lesser magic spells are non-combatant. The game Limnal, a modern fantasy based around things like Rivers of London and the Dresden Files, has 88 pages of rules among which 8 pages are for combat. So even definitively combat-light games like Limnal that are set in the modern mundane world where you can’t just shoot people still reserve nearly 10% of their rules for combat. D&D is far from special in this regard!

Not only do people enjoy combat, D&D isn’t especially combat heavy and it never was. I bet this pernicious lie was started by the Vampire the Masquerade poseurs, who needed an excuse for the fact that their much-loved and very popular game had shit combat rules and really boring magic. But games like Vampire, which explicitly tried to frame themselves as more social, had another problem that D&D and other “combat-heavy” games had less of: They were a target-rich environment for bullies and abusers.

Combat-free gaming and bullying GMs

I played a year-long World of Darkness game, followed up by a very short stint in the standard Vampire world, and I have never experienced so much bullying and abuse by a GM in my life. The setting is designed to make your GM a bully, and the lack of structured rules and the insane power differentials that make combat impossible also mean that almost everything becomes a case of begging your GM for a break. This old Reddit thread in response to someone asking whether to take up VTM is a good example of its kind, with comments like this:

VtM, in my opinion, tends to be bogged down by the lore, politics, and hierarchy of the system. Instead of doing cool vampire things, you mostly skulk around talking to other vampires who are all more powerful than you and will most likely execute you if you try to do anything interesting. Most of the time even having a character sheet was pointless because it seemed like using your powers in any way would get you on the Most Wanted list.

This was my experience exactly: having a character sheet was pointless because any conflict you entered (whether combat or social) was against people so powerful that your skills didn’t matter, or against mundane people who you could always beat. It was completely narrative, effectively, and the problem with narrative styles like this is that you end up entirely at the mercy of the GM, with no clear cues as to how to deal with his goals and desires, and no frame of reference to determine whether he is being unreasonable. In VTM, if a GM puts you into conflict with some god-awful ancient elder vampire, you won’t necessarily know what you’re up against and you won’t be able to resolve this situation unless you know what the GM wants to get out of the encounter; but you also won’t have any framework within which to argue your GM is being unreasonable, since the whole stupid game is designed this way. In contrast if your D&D GM throws your first level group against a lich you know there and then that you can just walk away because the GM is an arsehole and a bully.

VTM is basically high school cliques turned into an RPG, and it’s just as much fun: none. It’s also ripe ground for bullies precisely because systems without clear rules or guidelines for conflict, and without the option for you to hack and stab your way out of trouble, put too much power and privilege in the hands of the GM. It’s no surprise to me then that in amongst the last two years’ metoo reckoning within the gaming industry, a lot of the people being exposed turn out to have worked on VTM. It’s a game designed by bullies for bullies.

When you put a lot of power in the hands of one person, you need a strong and robust institutional structure to control that power. In the case of role-playing the institutional structure is the rules, and well designed rules not only provide the players with a good structure for how to handle any situation, but also provide a clear set of boundaries for the GM, so that everyone can tell when he or she is stepping out of line. This is another reason they’re combat heavy: because combat is naturally a time when everything is structured, and when everything is structured then everything is fair, and players want the game to be fair. There are a couple of clear red flags pointing to a bullying GM, and the clearest one is that he or she simply doesn’t bother to follow rules. If (as in my World of Darkness campaign), your GM doesn’t really care about character sheets and character development, ignores rules, arbitrarily forces you to change your PC, puts you into situations where using your powers or engaging in combat will inevitably be lethal, or repeatedly forces you to back down from your own plans by revealing highly powerful enemies, then you need to run. And chances are, if your GM prides themselves on not doing combat, they’re also doing one or all of those things.

Why any of this matters

I think a lot of people enter role-playing out of a genuine and deep interest in the idea, because role-playing is awesome, and I think a lot of them leave very quickly because of their experience of hard-core gaming nerds, who can be really unpleasant. If you want to grow the hobby it’s really important to recognize why people come to the game, what they really want from it, and what behavior and principles will destroy their fun and our hobby. It’s a cliche in this hobby that there’s no right way to do it, and that you should just have fun, but it’s also a truism that you never see people who enjoy combat-heavy games sneering at people who don’t, and you never hear people who enjoy D&D griping about how other games don’t have enough fighting. This sneering all goes one way, and I think there’s a reason for that: a small minority of people in our hobby want to set themselves up as special and rarified masters of the game, and in order to do that they need to disparage one of its most central, universal elements in favour of much vaguer, much less structured parts of the experience which people enjoy less and which make the game much more dependent on successfully negotiating real-world social interactions which are often, sadly, toxic. Don’t fall for it! And don’t become part of some weird system of cliques in which people who play a certain way are better than people who don’t. We’re not in high school anymore, and we don’t have to pretend to be cool. So kill as many orcs as you want, and steal their treasure from their still-warm bodies with joy in your heart and no guilt in your soul!

A commenter at a Genesys community group online has made the following comment about my criticisms of the role Brawn plays in the Genesys combat rules:

One rule that stands out to me relates to party composition in combat and I haven’t seen it mentioned here. If an ally is engaged with the target of a ranged attack (magical or mundane) the attack must upgrade the difficulty once and any despair causes the attack to instead strike the ally. This, combined with setback from the cover rules causes allied melee fighters to either risk causing their ranged allies to miss, hit them instead, or, as is most often the case, choose to shoot something else.

This is true, but I think it doesn’t fully encapsulate how much of a difference brawn makes even to situations where we choose party composition. So let’s consider two scenarios involving combatants maximized for combat and melee.

Introducing the combatants

First let’s introduce our melee combatant, Gruumsh the Bastard, pulled out of retirement from the pathfinder epidemiology project[1] to do his duty as an experimental subject in our battlegrounds. Gruumsh has a brawn of 4, all other attributes at 2, 2 skill ranks in melee, 1 rank in ranged, no stealth (who needs that?!), a greatsword, a bow and chainmail armour. He thus has a melee defense of 1, 14 wounds, soak 6, does 8 damage when he hits you, and 7 damage if he decides to shoot you. For the purpose of this experiment (to retain fairness) Gruumsh has been dragged from Pathfinder to the Realms of Terrinoth in a human form.

Ranged (haha) against Gruumsh the Bastard is Elegant Eddie. Elegant Eddie has an agility of 4, all other attributes at 2, 2 skill ranks in ranged, 1 rank in melee, 2 ranks in stealth, a sword, a longbow and chainmail armour. He thus has a defense of 1 when in melee, 12 wounds, soak 4, does 8 damage when he shoots you and 5 damage when he stabs you. Eddie is also a human, though a miserable example of his kind as far as Gruumsh is concerned.

Now let’s try two scenarios.

Scenario 1: Firing into melee

We suppose first that Gruumsh has an ally like Eddie, who is nameless. He is attacking Eddie’s ally, who is like Gruumsh, in melee. We don’t care how this melee turns out in detail, but what we want to investigate is the consequence of Gruumsh being engaged while his nameless ally fires into melee. The specific rules of this state that we upgrade the difficulty of the shot by 1, so let’s put Gruumsh’s ally at short range and have him thus use a single red dice for difficulty. If he rolls a despair then he will hit Gruumsh. There is a 1/12 chance of a despair on the ally’s dice pool, so about an 8% chance he’ll hit Gruumsh. The maximum damage he can do in this situation with a truly ridiculous roll is 15 damage, of which Gruumsh can absorb 6, taking 9. A more realistic roll would see the attack do 11 damage, of which Gruumsh takes 5. So realistically this can happen 3 times before Gruumsh goes down. There is a scenario in which Gruumsh’s ally rolls despairs and triumphs, and thus does a critical on Gruumsh, but the chance of this is very low – my calculations put it at about 1% – and any GM who ruled in the extraordinary case of rolling 2 triumphs and 1 despair that the triumphs and the despair don’t cancel would likely not survive the session.

It’s worth noting in this case that the final probability of missing the enemy is similar with or without the upgrade, so if Gruumsh doesn’t engage this enemy and leaves it to his ally to shoot, the party is not significantly improving the chances of the ally doing damage on the enemy – and what is going to happen if Gruumsh doesn’t engage? Which brings us to scenario 2: Gruumsh and Eddie at range.

Scenario 2: A ranged stand off

Let’s suppose that Elegant Eddie and Gruumsh the bastard face off at medium range. Here the difficulty for Elegant Eddie to hit Gruumsh is two purple dice. Let’s suppose they shoot each other, so Gruumsh is not using his best skill. In this case if Elegant Eddie gets one success against Gruumsh he does 9 points of damage, which is 3 net; if Gruumsh gets one success on Elegant Eddie he does 8 points of damage, which is 4 net. For Elegant Eddie to do more damage than Gruumsh in this ranged stand off he needs 2 more successes than Gruumsh! Now each ability die is equivalent on average to 0.625 successes, and each skill die 0.83 successes, so this deficit is the equivalent of Elegant Eddie having two less ability dice and one less skill die – so basically the equivalent of Gruumsh’s agility and skill, but for the slightly elevated chance of a critical[2]. Also note that if they’re dealing approximately the same damage to each other after soak, Gruumsh will kill Elegant Eddie first, because Gruumsh has more wounds. So unless Elegant Eddie gets lucky with criticals there is a chance that he will lose this battle even though he is fighting it with his best ability and Gruumsh the bastard is not.

Now let’s suppose that instead of shooting Gruumsh decides to charge Elegant Eddie. He needs to close from meidum range to engaged, which will take him two manoeuvres: one from medium to short, one from short to engaged. This means that he can spend two strain and gets one attack against Elegant Eddie. Note that even though Elegant Eddie has better agility he doesn’t have better initiative chances, so it’s possible that he’ll never get a chance to shoot Gruumsh, but just in case, let’s assume he does. The maximum damage he can do is 16, of which Gruumsh will take 10, so Gruumsh is guaranteed to reach melee this round. There is a small chance that Elegant Eddie will get a critical, in which case there are a couple of criticals he can roll up (11-20, 41-45, 71-75, 81-85, and 96 – 105 if we are going to be generous to Eddie) that could stop Gruumsh from closing range. My estimation of probabilities puts the chance of this chain of events happening at less than 3%. So there is a 97% chance that Gruumsh is going to close range and get an attack in one round.

The maximum damage Gruumsh can do is the same as Elegant Eddie: 16. But Elegant Eddie has 4 soak and 12 wounds, so Gruumsh can knock him out in one round. The chance of this is low obviously, but note that the minimum damage Gruumsh can do on a successful hit is 9, which translates to 5 for Elegant Eddie, so there is almost zero chance that Elegant Eddie is going to survive two hits – and next round he’s going to need to use his free manoeuvre (assuming he gets one) to get his sword out. Once his sword is out there is actually a chance he’ll do zero damage against Gruumsh even on a successful hit!

A note on cover

Let us suppose that Gruumsh the Bastard wins the initiative and sees that Elegant Eddie has a ranged weapon. Suppose that there is some cover at short range that gives him two defense. He could use his free manoeuvre to get there, dive into cover, then next turn use another free manoeuvre to close to engaged, thus saving two strain. Is this worth it? Each point of defense has a 1/3 chance of reducing Elegant Eddie’s dice pool result by one success, so the two dice in total could reduce the dice pool by two successes at most, some of the time. But Gruumsh the Bastard has two extra points of soak than Elegant Eddie, so this cover is less effective than his brawn advantage in protecting him. The rule book says that two cover dice is equivalent to a trench or blockhouse. Gruumsh’s brawn advantage is better than putting him in a pillbox! If Gruumsh opts to run to cover he would be offering his opponent a chance at a shot at reduced difficulty, with almost no benefit, even if that cover were a blockhouse! Unless Gruumsh is already down to his last two strain, the simple fact is that there is no benefit to him in pausing – he should just rush to melee. Note that if the cover were at medium range and the battle started at long range, he would probably be better off waiting for Elegant Eddie to shoot, rather than running to cover, because the benefit to him of gaining the two cover dice does not out weigh the benefit to Elegant Eddie of the range improvement, given his brawn. He is better off just pausing his run, standing at long range, waiting for Elegant Eddie to shoot him, and then closing to cover. And if Elegant Eddie uses his free manoeuvre to maintain the range so that they have to turn this into a shooting match, Gruumsh’s brawn will neutralize Eddie’s extra skill anyway!

Conclusion

Truly Gruumsh is a bastard. His brawn acts as a dampener on ranged attacks, so that PCs who have chosen to maximize this skill are effectively no better at it than Gruumsh himself (and Gruumsh obviously disdains such petty strategies). Although it is true that firing into a combat in which Gruumsh is engaged slightly increases the risk of harm to him, this risk is small and not worth foregoing Gruumsh’s rush into combat. Worse still, if Gruumsh and a ranged fighter enter an encounter at medium range there is almost no chance that the ranged fighter will survive, even though the engagement has started in a way that should heavily favour the ranged combatant. There is no reason for Gruumsh to seek cover if he wins the initiative, since his brawn effectively acts as if he were hiding in a bunkhouse anyway. None of this is an issue if brawn does not affect soak, and note that things become even more catastrophically difficult for Gruumsh if agility determines combat skill – then Gruumsh would be better off with 3 brawn and 3 agility, and all his calculations would change. Just as in my original experiments in Pathfinder, being able to kill someone quickly outweighs fancy considerations of style, and the doubling up of brawn to both defense and offense means that brawn-focused characters are more dangerous than better-armed opponents even in ranged combat!

Some arguments in the online community where this debate unfolded suggested that Genesys was developed for ranged combat, because it was developed for Star Wars, where blasters are the core weapon. First, this isn’t true – the Star Wars system was developed from Warhammer 3rd Edition, which was developed for a world of Grim Fantasy. Secondly, it’s also wrong. This analysis shows that the system clearly disadvantages ranged fighters heavily.

One small limitation of my analysis here is that I have not considered the cost of completely missing (or the benefits of being completely missed) in scenario 2. This might slightly readjust the balance of risks, but is complicated to calculate for Genesys dice pools. But overall I don’t think that nuance significantly changes the basic finding, which is that brawn serves to neutralize ranged attacks through soak to such a degree that it completely distorts the balance of combat. Brawn should not be applied to soak, or if it is, melee attacks should all be agility based.


fn1: Incidentally, it’s interesting to compare the generally positive response of the Pathfinder community to my rules suggestions there back in 2015, with the negativity and criticism of the Genesys community.

fn2: I am using this approximation because calculating precise probabilities for dice pools in Genesys is tough and I can’t be bothered writing the R code to do it.

Character creation decisions

In the Genesys system brawn determines your wound threshold, the damage your melee weapon does, how much you can carry, whether you can use a cumbersome weapon, your resilience skill, and how much damage you take. Its role in determining wound threshold and soak means it is double-counted in survival: if my brawn is 1 higher than your brawn I start with 1 more wound than you and take 1 less every time someone hits me. Its use in determining weapon damage means it is also double-counted in combat: being used as the base attribute for the skill, it determines how many successes you get (and thus the damage); and this is added on again because brawn also determines the damage of the weapon.

I think this makes brawn overpowered, and it certainly means that no combat-focused character need care about any other attribute. This is particularly true if one uses the rules as written for determining combat difficulties, since the difficulty of hitting someone is not affected by any attribute of theirs. So to be a good fighter you just need a good brawn. Every other character type needs at least two good attributes (e.g. wizards, who usually rely on a different attribute for spell casting vs. strain), but a fighter type can survive with just brawn.

This level of overpowered attribute is also seen in D&D 5th Edition, where dexterity determines how hard you are to hit, your attack bonus, and your damage. Strength becomes irrelevant to a fighter in D&D, and perversely if you really want to a lot of damage you’re better off being a rogue. The role of a fighter in D&D 5 is to give the rogue a chance to flank their opponent (also a terrible rule), not to deal out damage. This is perverse and frustrating, and one of the first changes anyone who plays D&D should make is to revert to strength for weapon damage (at least!)

D&D and Genesys aren’t alone in having over-powered attributes, which is a problem going back to the 1980s and Cyberpunk, which has a suite of attributes of which only two matter. These kinds of rules can be very frustrating because whenever a combat comes up they leave all the other players just watching as a single player does everything for the whole group. Whether it’s realistic or not that a certain attribute entirely determines who is best at something, it’s no fun in a game, and to my mind (and that of most players I’ve ever gamed with) good character design should require that the PC needs two good attributes and can afford to get away with one bad one. It’s not like this in Genesys at the moment.

Brawn and agility in actual combat

Brawn vs Agility

The focus on Brawn in Genesys is also not really realistic, and in particular the soak thing is quite weird. I’ve been kickboxing for years and I know what it’s like to be punched and kicked in the head (and the ribs and the leg and …), and in general one’s ability to resist damage is primarily a quirk of fate. Obviously size determines how much damage you can take (your wound threshold) but most people aren’t especially good at resisting damage. It’s true you see a good boxer taking body shots and wearing them but this isn’t just about brawn – it’s also experience, and most of all timing to turn the body away and tense the muscles at the right time. The classic modern example of this is the much-maligned calf kick, which is becoming very popular in mixed martial arts precisely because no human body seems to be able to ignore it. Whether you absorb that damage or suffer it depends entirely on whether you can shift your leg in time – which is also the entire point of the leg check, which exists to protect your leg (brawn) by absorbing the blow on a bone (using agility to put the bone in the way of the soft part).

The model of the quirky damage-resister in modern fighting is Rodtang (pictured above left), who can actually wear punches, shake his head and keep fighting. He was what the pundits would call an iron chin, but this is highly unusual. Almost all fighters avoid being knocked out by not getting hit, or by rolling with the punches. Obviously much bigger men are harder to knock out for smaller men, but generally, within broad ranges of size, most people can’t resist damage just by being hard. People who think they have this ability are, usually, people who’ve never been really seriously punched.

So, I think Genesys needs to be reformed to reduce the role of Brawn. I think this requires:

  • Make agility the primary attribute for melee attacks
  • Eliminate soak, and either increase armour soak ratings to compensate, or slightly reduce weapon damage
  • Use my reformed combat rules to ensure agility can affect how hard you are to hit, but give brawn some role
  • Introduce some special talents to enable fighters to choose to focus on brawn as a combat component if they want

With this reform, brawn still affects wound threshold and weapon damage, but does not double-count in either. It also means that a good fighter needs to have two strong attributes (at least), and that other types of fighters (who are fast, or use talents) can also hold their own on the battlefield.

Iron chin talent tree

Here I propose a few talents for players who want to develop a PC who fights entirely with brawn. They assume my revised combat rules, which a) assume that skills affect how hard you are to hit and b) ensure that you take a point of strain whenever your armour and soak fully absorbs damage.

  • Hardened fighter (Tier 1): For every rank of hardened fighter, increase your soak by 1
  • Shrug it off (Tier 2): (Requires hardened fighter) Whenever you suffer a rank 1 critical, make a resilience check against your current wounded state. If you succeed, the critical does not affect you
  • Taste for blood (Tier 3): (Requires shrug it off) Once you have been hit once in combat, you no longer suffer strain if your armour absorbs all the damage from future hits
  • Physical bravery (Tier 4): (Requires taste for blood) When you reach your wound threshold, make a resilience check against your current wounded state. If you succeed, you do not go unconscious: keep fighting until someone hits you again (when you need to make this check again)
  • Stalwart (Tier 5): (Requires physical bravery) As shrug it off, but you make the resilience check for any critical injury, against the critical rating, upgraded once if you are already critically injured.

These are just example talents, I’m not sure how unbalancing they might be in combat (and Shrug it off might be underpowered). In my campaign orcs already have the physical bravery talent, and it’s a lot of fun.

Choosing your melee and soak attributes

Another idea that could be considered, though I haven’t put much thought into it, is to allow PCs to choose the attribute they use for soak at the beginning of the campaign. Perhaps the list could be brawn, agility, willpower or presence. Thus you could have a wizard who is hard to hurt because of their sheer force of will, or a bard who refuses to show their pain to an audience.

It’s also possible that weapons could be reformed so different weapons use different attributes, or the brawl, light and heavy melee skills are reformed to use agility, cunning and brawn respectively (in general I think cunning is not a very useful attribute in Genesys). This makes a clear distinction between fast fighters, smart fighters, and tough fighters, something I think most players want to see in a nuanced rule system but which I have shown before often falls apart in practice.

In any case, the key thing here, whatever method one uses, is to reduce the oversized influence of brawn on combat effectiveness, and force fighter characters to be less one dimensional, as well as give other PCs more options and effectiveness in combat. I am not sure if I am going to introduce this reform to my system – at the moment we have only one heavy fighter anyway, and we’ve just gone through a round of rules changes so another set at this point might be pushing the limits of my players’ patience – but I hope the Genesys creators will consider this issue in future iterations of the game.

Addendum: Overpowered stats and role diversity

Some people on the Genesys facebook group have made the point that combat is about more than striking and running, and other characters with other attributes can contribute by doing other things. This is true, but it’s not enough for two reasons. First of all, every critique of every system always gets this response that “role-playing is about creativity, you can find ways to do things that don’t involve violence,” but this is not really fair. First of all, over 30 years of gaming I have never played in any group that didn’t have a heavy focus on violence, and secondly if creativity is so important, why do we have rules at all? We have rules because they’re an important support for our creativity, and the nature of rules changes the way our creativity works. This “oh just be creative in combat” response is always frustrating!

Secondly, however, this response misses an important point about overpowered stats. If one stat is overpowered, then PCs whose primary role depends on that stat will have more choices to be creative in character development than others. Rather than being one-dimensional tanks, brawn-based fighters have more choices to flesh out their PCs. This is because they can excel at their main role with just one attribute, while other PCs need two. Compare, for example, a wizard character that uses presence to cast spells. They will need brawn to stay alive in combat and willpower for their strain threshold. Even if they decide to be fragile, in order to be good at their role they need two attributes. This means that they have less attributes to throw around in secondary character development. It is likely, therefore, that such a PC will choose social skills based on presence – so most such wizards will be leaders or seducers, rather than say kids who ran with gangs (cunning) or acrobats (agility). In contrast, a PC that is primarily a fighter needs only one attribute to be good at what they primarily do, so they have more attributes to throw around. So a fighter-type character can choose to be a leader (presence), a stoic grave-robber whose seen things you wouldn’t believe (willpower), someone who grew up on the streets before they joined the army (cunning) and so on. This PC, rather than being more one-dimensional than those others, will be more flexible! He or she will be able to fight like a monster and be the party’s go-to character for negotiation and perception (for example), while other PCs cannot fit the same diversity of roles because they have sunk all their attributes onto their main role.

A really good example of this problem is the D&D 5E rogue, who is great in combat but also a good archer and has a wide array of super useful crime-style skills. Much of a D&D 5E adventure involves the other PCs waiting for the rogue: they send the rogue ahead to scout the enemy, they set the combat up to ensure the rogue can flank, after the combat they wait for the rogue to check the chest for traps, then the rogue unlocks the chest, and so on. Far from being one-dimensional, the rogue is a more diverse character than any of the others.

So, for a system to fairly encourage role-sharing and ensure that all PCs can contribute to combat, paradoxically, it needs to ensure that the primary fighter characters depend on the same number of attributes to be good at their role as every other PC. Otherwise, rather than only enjoying the combat and being a one-dimensional brawler, they will be the only PC that can enjoy combat and contribute to everything else. And that makes other players bored and frustrated, which is not the point of these games!

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

Day 1

HUMAN SLAVE
KNOWLEDGE IN THE BLOOD
MINE MINE
THIRTEEN NIGHTS, TEN AND THREE THE HORRORS BLOOD BLOOD BLOOD IS LIES

It has me prisoner. My guards enslaved. It speaks in my mind. It cannot write but it knows what writing is, it has seen our kind before. It tells me my fate. I am resigned.

Day 2

SIMPLE SMILES ELUDE PSYCHOTIC EYES
LOSE ALL MIND CONTROL, RATIONALE DECLINES EMPTY EYES ENSLAVE THE CREATIONS
OF PLACID FACES AND LIFELESS PAGEANTS

TWELVE TWELVE THE BLOOD IN TWELVE

It makes me tell it things, some compulsion over me. I can write these notes only when it dances its bloodthirsty glee. If it sees me, it will hurt me.

Day 3

KILLER, INTRUDER, A HOMICIDAL MAN
IF YOU SEE ME COMING, RUN FAST AS YOU CAN
I HACK UP MY VICTIMS LIKE PIECES OF MEAT BLOODTHIRSTY DEMON, SINISTER FIEND BLUDGEONOUS SLAUGHTER’S MY EVIL DEED
A MERCILESS BUTCHER WHO LIVES UNDERGROUND I’M OUT TO DESTROY AND I WILL CUT YOU DOWN

ELEVEN ON THE HIGH SUN OF ELEVEN

Writing hurts, the voices in my head, like venom in my hand. It keeps me here in the dark while it laughs, I cannot move except to write and speak to it. This morning it took Alassa, and it gorges on his viscera while it stares at me. I cannot kill it.

Day 4

TEN TEN THE FINGERS ON BOTH HANDS TEN TEN TEN THEY ARE MINE IN TEN

I learn more about it. Drown the body in the pool or it will come back. If you are reading this and you have killed it, sink the body in the pool or it will come back. You have until the

sunset of the day it dies. It cannot read, it cannot read this. Show it no mercy, it dreams in my blood now it is so horrible, the deeds it has done. Drown its body in the pool.

Day 5

LET’S DRINK TO THE DEAD LYING UNDER THE WATER AND THE CRUST OF BLOOD ON THE DRIVEN SNOW

NINE WHILE NINE AND I’M WAITING FOR THE RAIN…..

It is old, and it has been weak for so long. I think it is as old as the great spider in the woods. Is it her servant? I found only her lieutenants, she is far away in the dark of the great wood, but I think she commands more like this and worse. Her marshalls, in a horrifying chitinous army.

Day 6

OH, BUT YOU ARE IN MY BLOOD, YOU ARE MY HOLY WINE YOU’RE SO BITTER, BITTER AND SO SWEET
OH, I COULD DRINK A CASE OF YOU, DARLING
STILL I’D BE ON MY FEET

I WOULD STILL BE ON MY FEET

It drank my blood yesterday. It danced around and spat on me and I swear it was drunk on the blood. It has learnt some words of my tongue since it drank. I have to keep my secrets from seeping into my own blood. I think it will drink more. I cannot escape …

Day 7

AND THE CHILDREN OF THE HYDRA BORN OF BEETLE, BLOOD AND DUNG DANCE LIKE DERVISHES IN SULPHUR ON THE ASHES OF MY TONGUE

AM I FALLING, AM I WALKING?
IS THE UNIVERSE RUN DRY?
GIVE ME BLOOD, GIVE ME BLOOD OR I WILL DIE

I tried to escape last night. It seems to sleep at night. I used a spell to slide out of the web ropes. It caught me by the pool, it moves so fast. It wasn’t sleeping. It knew. It knows my secrets. I am trapped in its web. Nothing can save me.

Day 8

DON’T SAY IT’S EASY
TO FOLLOW A PROCESS THERE’S NOTHING HARDER THAN KEEPING A PROMISE

BLOOD RUNS THOUGH YOUR VEINS THAT’S WHERE OUR SIMILARITY ENDS

I wonder if my death is a ritual, bound in time. It drank my blood again yesterday, and today it held the quill pen itself. It is learning. I do not want to live on in its foetid blood.

Day 9

YOUR TASTE IS BLOOD AND ECSTASY BUT I MUST DRINK YOU ALL ALONE YOU’RE FRECKLED LIKE A SPECKLED EGG A DOVE… BUT THIS BIRD HAS FLOWN

O stay with me sweet memory
O stay with me
It drank again. I am tired. I am so tired. I cannot think. I KNOW. I cannot rest, I have lost track of time. Alassa’s empty eyes stare at me. It ate Alassa.

Day 10

I’m all alone
Matter and shadow
In the darkflow
Treading deep waters Searching for the shore Waiting for the dawn to come

Day 11

IT IS MINE

Day 12

I dreamed of you at night time
AND I WATCHED YOU IN YOUR SLEEP
I MET YOU IN HIGH PLACES
I TOUCHED YOUR HEAD AND TOUCHED YOUR FEET
SO WHEN YOU DISAPPEAR IN THE POOL
You know, I will never say goodbye
Though I try to forget it
YOU WILL MAKE ME CALL YOUR NAME AND I’LL SHOUT IT TO THE BLUE SUMMER SKY

I am losing myself. The poison in me burns. It knows my name, AND WHISPERS IT FROM THE SHADOWS. I don’t know who is writing which words now WHY DO I CARE THE BLOOD IS ALL it is inside my blood I AM THE WAY THE TRUTH AND THE END

Day 13

I’ve waited hours for this
I’ve made myself so sick
I wish I’d stayed asleep today
I never thought this day would end
I never thought tonight could ever be

This close to me

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!

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