Gaming material


While digging around in Amazon recently I stumbled on a cute 1-5 person card-based role-playing game called “Novice Novice Table Talk Role-playing game [steampunk]”, pictured here. In Japanese it is shortened to “Nobi Nobi TRPG”. The game is a simple and relaxed system in which every player (including the GM) picks a PC, and every player takes turns being GM and PC. In each turn the setting is determined by a “scene” card, picked randomly by the GM. The player describes the scene, their PC’s reaction, and how they resolve the challenge. This goes around the table three times, and the game is complete, with some small complications I will describe here. It is a simple, streamlined and very effective way to run a quick, randomly generated RPG.

PC Choices

The PCs are described by cards, two of which are pictured above. Each PC has a special ability and two attributes: Power and skill. In the picture above you can see the Automaton PC, which has power 2 and skill 0, and the special ability that it adds 1 die to all skill checks. The cards are two sided, with one side being a boy and one a girl, except in two cases. Sometimes the skills on each side of the card differ, though they have a shared principle. For example the Teacher can intervene to change the result of another PC’s dice roll, but the way in which the intervention happens differs depending on whether the teacher is male or female. Two PCs, the boy and the girl, don’t have a gendered back face – instead they can swap the card over at any time to become Prince or Princess, at which point their special ability changes.

Skill checks are handled by rolling 2d6 and adding the corresponding skill. Success occurs if you roll above a target number, which is determined by the Scene Card. Available PCs are:

  • Automaton
  • Maid/Butler
  • Phantom Thief
  • Diva/Musician
  • Doctor/Teacher
  • Detective
  • Girl/princess
  • Adventurer
  • Gunner
  • Mechanic
  • Pilot
  • Boy/Prince

In some cases (like musician/diva) the change in gender changes the role name, but their abilities, power and skill follow similar principles and values. The pictures are, of course, adorable.

Introduction and Climax

The game flows in turns, with one turn finishing after every player has had a chance to be GM (and thus every player has also had a chance to be PC). Each turn begins with the GM drawing a Scene card. However, the entire story has a theme, which is determined before the turns begin by drawing an Introduction card. This card sets up the story by introducing the PCs to a conflict, involving an adversary and an overall situation. For example the Introduction card Conspiracy of a Secret Society (秘密結社の陰謀) tells the characters that there is a plot by a secret society to undermine or destroy their world, and when the adventure starts they are pledged to stop it. This introduction sets a theme that runs through the entire adventure, and is expected to influence the scenes that follow.

After three turns of play have elapsed and the GM role returns to the person who was GM In the first hand, the gameplay ends and the game enters a Climax. In the Climax there is no GM or players, and everyone faces a common threat. This Climax is determined by the Climax card, which is drawn randomly at this point. This climax card sets up a final challenge, which the PCs as a group need to overcome, and also sets out the rules by which they must do this. For example the Climax card Countdown to Destruction (爆発カウントダウン) tells the PCs that someone has a set up a timer to a huge explosion that they need to stop, and gives the players each one chance to try and beat the timer using a skill check. The principle of this card, though, is that when the PCs resolve the climax the players describe it in such a way that it draws the entire story back to the introduction, and whether the group fails or succeeds in the final resolution of the adventure, the whole story ends up tying back to the original Introduction card.

There are 12 introduction cards and 12 climax cards. The introduction cards are topics such as:

  • A girl from the sky!
  • A maze in a mysterious town
  • An adventure story that starts with a key

The climax cards with topics such as:

  • Invasion from Mars
  • Big chase
  • Night of revolution

The latter needs to be somehow tied back to the former, and they are all linked by the Scene cards.

Drawing the Scenes

There are 64 Scene cards, which will be drawn randomly by each player 3 times in their role as GM. This means that in a group of 5 players there will be a total of 15 scenes, with each player GMing 3, playing 3, and watching 9. Each scene has a block of text describing the setting, and a small boxed text explaining what skill check the PC needs to make to resolve the challenge. For example, the Idol Contest card describes how the PC is caught up in … well, in an idol contest, on a huge stage in front of a giant crowd. The inset text explains that the PC can win the contest by either a) rolling a power check with a target number of 15 or b) beating a skill check with a target number of 13 or c) the player can perform a song – i.e. actually sing something – and if the GM likes it they can pass the test. For most scenes the player can choose to either do a skill check or role-play their way through the challenge. If they choose the role-play option, the GM decides whether they succeed. There are some scene cards where the GM’s judgment affects how the challenge is resolved, and there are some special abilities which require the PC’s player to convince the GM that their ability can apply. For example the Musician’s special ability grants them a +2 on skill checks that involve “people”, but they have to convince the GM that the rules for this particular scene card involve people, so that their special ability applies. Thus the GM plays the arbitration role for a single skill check or role-playing scene, before the task is handed on, and that GM becomes a player.

Success or failure in the Scene is immaterial to the progression of the game: whether or not the player succeeds, the action passes to the next GM/Player pair. Rather, there are a set of Darkness and Light cards (30 each), and at the end of the scene the PC receives a light card if they succeeded, and a dark card if they failed. These cards typically grant the PC a new special ability, which they can apply in subsequent skill checks. Light cards are positive and happy powers, while dark cards are negative or dark powers. For example the light card Patron grants the PC a protector or patron, and all subsequent skill checks will get a +1 bonus; while the darkness card Comms Device gives the PC the latest radio with which they can call for help in subsequent skill checks. Some of these cards are permanent bonuses and some are one-time effects. None are genuinely negative, and they all serve to build up a sense of who the PC is and how they overcome challenges on their way to the final confrontation.

The flow of the game means that by the time the PCs reach the Climax, each of them will have gone through 3 scenes, been a GM 3 times, gained a total of 3 darkness/light cards (with associated bonus) and had a chance to contribute 6 times (either as player or GM) to the story as a whole. Finally, they will all work together to resolve the climax, tying everything back to the Introduction and finally resolving the whole story. It’s an excellent way to construct a quick, light story that everyone can enjoy.

Final thoughts

The whole game takes, with 2-3 players, about an hour to play. The scene cards are cute, crazy little moments that seem to tie in really nicely to the climax and introduction cards, which also seem carefully balanced to be always able to relate to each other. There is no failure, really, since you’re guaranteed to get to the end, and the climax cards have relatively gentle conditions for success – though it doesn’t really matter if you fail. The game creates cute, chaotic and crazy steampunk stories that are fun to generate and genuinely unique. If there is one problem with this game I would say that it is a combination of typeface – the cards can be a little hard to read – and Japanese: the Japanese is reasonably complicated, and sometimes a little vague (a common problem with Japanese) so that non-native speakers and non-nerds playing the game will be a little challenged to figure out exactly what’s going on in some of the nuances. This is typical of fantasy/sci-fi/steampunk storytelling – there are a lot of quite genre-specific phrases that are really hard for non-native speakers to understand, and a lot of genre-specific vocabulary, phrases and concepts – but this is obviously something you can overcome if you have a good dictionary, patience and/or a native speaker as a player. Other than that, the game is a really fun, simple way to play an RPG, even with complete beginners to the hobby, anywhere and at any time.

In a subsequent blogpost I will provide an AAR of a recent run-through, and hopefully the sense and style of the game will become clear. There is no English translation, but I hope in future the game will become more widely available, and this cute and entertaining TRPG style can be experienced outside of Japan.

The Ur-bone

Description: A fragment of bone from an unknown creature, likely human but possibly not. Greyed and mildewy, with a rotten smell. Anyone who touches it will immediately know it is vile.

Effect: When used as a wand or focus for deep magic, increases the range and power of spells that animate or activate the dead, enabling more powerful creatures to be animated. Potentially very dangerous in the hands of a seasoned necromancer.

Age: Perhaps 100 – 200 years old. Probably originally enchanted by a deepfolk necromancer but lost in internecine conflict.

Location: Somewhere in the ruins of a battlefield in the southern spine mountains

The Dreamer

Description: Part of an elf, that was captured when he or she was dreaming under the open sky. Most accounts state that it was an eye, but some say it is a blood-soaked lock of hair, others the whole scalp, some the lower jaw bone (pried out of course). Whatever part it was must have been sufficiently easy to remove that it could be taken whole while the elf was still dreaming. A ritual probably surrounded the extraction. Some say it is preserved in a briny fluid, with extravagant rumours suggesting it is the tears from the other eye. Others say it is dried. Obviously this is irrelevant if it is just hair. The most extreme theory is that it is a head shrunk using a special technique known to a few clans of deepfolk in the far north. Regardless of the particular preservation technology, the whole thing is said to exude a powerful aura of magic and also a repulsive physical aroma.

Effect: The wielder is said to never need to sleep, and also to be immune to all forms of magical compulsion or domination. Obviously this latter effect is very valuable to a deepfolk leader (so is the former, upon reflection). When the wielder does sleep they will suffer terrible dreams, but in the hands of a capable deep magic user it is also said to enable the wielder to intercept elven dream-messages.

Age: >500 years. It is said to have been prepared using lost arts from a northern tribe that was wiped out in some underdark conflict.

Location: A tower in Asboran, where the elves guard it jealously, for obvious reasons.

The sword of the Feybane

Description: A non-descript steel sword, with a hilt of plain leather wrapped in finest spider silk. The blade, though dull and plain-looking, is well-made and sparkles under the light of the sun-shard. It is said to have been forged with threads of spider-silk from a mighty fey beast, somehow connected to a species of fey known as redcaps. How this silk was acquired and its magical properties harvested is unknown, though it is not believed to be an achievement of deepfolk.

Effect: The sword is powerful against all forms of fey, who recoil from its presence and are badly harmed by its touch. It is not said to have any special effect on deepfolk, though elves are said to be made queasy in its presence. Some say it can also harm elves, and that the deepfolk sought it for some time for this reason.

Age: At least 200 years but probably much older. A weapon as non-descript as this is extremely difficult to date, but a character engraved on the metal hilt (below the leather binding) was described by a swordsmith 200 years ago, and is said to no longer be in use.

Location: A collector of militaria in Alpon.

The First Ghost

Description: The first ever ghost of a child who died of neglect. The ghost is said to be stored in a gossamer-thin phylactery, which is likely a mirror, shroud, fine drapery, or other form of ephemeral physical material. Whatever it is, it must be of reasonable size, since it holds a ghost, but must also be very finely wrought and delicate, since it holds a ghost. The magic to imprison such a thing is said to be deep magic, but some argue it must be an older and more fundamental magic than that. Deepfolk magic is not so subtle. But given the age of the thing, who knows? It is said to be non-descript (aside from the quality of craftwork) in its normal form, that it shows a faint luminescence or special glow when illuminated only by starlight or candle light, but that its full beauty is only understood when viewed in candlelight while in a state of privation (hunger, thirst, cold or such-like).

Effect: The ghost, when unleashed (somehow) from the captivity of the phylactery, is said to enable deep magic of great power to be wielded to necromantic ends. Perhaps it enables the creation of extremely powerful undead, or armies of the things. The scholars are surprisingly mute on the value of this thing.

Age: Unknown, but it is the first ever ghost of a child, so likely very old.

Location: The reliquary in the shrine of salt in Estona (thankfully).

The Last Seal

Description: A stamp made of bone, probably carved from a human (though again it is uncertain). The stamp is in the form of a strange repeating pattern that is said to reproduce itself on ever finer scales. Scholars are rumoured to have investigated the pattern with magnifying glasses of various powers, and are always able to find the same pattern repeated inside the structure of larger patterns. The seal gives off no aura of magic or evil, possibly because of the strange enfolding nature of the magic in the stamp.

Effect: When an appropriate mixture of wax, human blood, ash and tears is composed and placed on the forehead of a dead human, and the stamp therein impressed, the human is specially marked for deep magic. Animation spells cast on this prepared corpse will be especially powerful. It will have extra strength and resilience, will not decay with time, and cannot be destroyed or damaged by salt magic. It also can be commanded by the person who holds the stamp, just by thought, no matter where it or they are.

Age: Unknown, but at least 220 years ago.

Location: Stolen by deepfolk in the sacking of Pentaro 220 years ago, now rumoured to be in the possession of a clan somewhere in the spine mountains.

The stars are falling through these broken skies

Like tears they dance across our opened eyes

One glimpse of dream

Has found me in this endless knowing

Threads past all the stars to make you shine

Two silver rings

That draw me close in careless motion

And dance across the depths of sea and sky

And nothing now could keep me from your side

Amhose, Warrior-poet, before her disappearance at the Battle of the Scarred Peak

[Editors note: this is a rough translation to modern Pelagic of one of the early essays written by Amhose, famed Warrior-poet and philosopher. She was not famous for her scientific or astronomical skills, but was well known for several volumes of work – some now lost – summarizing the theories and ideas of other philosophers, poets and astrologers, in a relatively objective (though one cannot say impassive) way. This essay is not her most famous, which most people commonly accept to be her love poems entitled Only if for a Night, but it is a clear and relatively modern perspective on what various philosophers, astrologers and other thinkers have theorized about the stars]

Prologue

We have all had this experience, or should have if we are to count ourselves adults and fully-formed souls in these difficult times: you wake in the early hours before battle, your lover’s bronzed skin a streak of liquid amber against the rugs and blankets of your battle-tent, flickering in the last light of the candle that was the last witness of your best exertions. Your mind is still, calm with the last langour of lust sated, not yet urgent and twitching with the sense of the coming battle. You stir, your lover murmurs some sweet words, but you are quiet, and anyway it is better to rest before the coming bloody dawn, so you slide out of bed and slip on a gown, wondering “why am I awake?” And as always before the battle you find yourself standing outside the tent, the first light of dawn roseate on the far horizon, the sun shard gone, its strange play of silver and faint blue-greens lost from the darkness. In its place the stars blaze, a million tiny points of light that could be just over your head, close enough to reach, or a bow’s shot away, or so far away that no bird or magic could ever reach them. Elusive points of light, purposeless, cold, so near yet so far. You have killed under their indifferent flickering light, they have served as props for some empty declaration of love that wooed a stranger to your bed, they have witnessed your quiet tears for comrades dead and lovers lost and secrets buried, though doubtless they cared not at all. Always there, silent, inscutable, unknown, unreachable. What are they? You stare at them as you sip your drink and the camp lightens slowly, inexorably as the dawn light streaks the sky pink and the storm clouds of distant battle gather in your heart.

What are they? Do they have a purpose? What can we make of them? I have wondered for years, and as I wandered this land I have asked many people – farmers, warriors, rimewardens, maidens, crones, old men in the market place and young men in my bed, Astrologers, bakers, beggars and lords – and I have learnt many theories about their strange, constant, alien beauty. Sadly the study of these stars is relatively new, having only begun long after we settled our peoples after the Harrowing, and mostly confined to the idiosyncratic interests of a few Astrologers. The dwarves use them for navigation but are reported to have a singular lack of interest in them beyond that, and although the elves are known to be able to communicate under the stars, there theories of the origin or nature of their friends in the sky are a mystery to humans. Is this by design or simply because of their lack of interest in humans? Regardless, study of the stars is limited and relatively new, and questions far more common than answers. Here, then, let me describe what I have learnt. Perhaps after I am gone – after we all are gone – someone will be able to make sense of the ramblings of many philosophers, and come to some ultimate conclusion about these elusive points of light. Or perhaps not. In any case, let us consider the folly of modern thought about this strangest and most impenetrable mystery of our lands and skies.

The facts

Abraxis, in his timeless work Logic and its Inquities, argues that before we even begin with first principles we should confirm and agree upon those facts which are incontrovertible with respect to the matter at hand, and those things that we can confirm and all agree upon with the evidence of our own senses. Only then, Abraxis argues, can we begin to build a theory of that which we do not know. Had Abraxis followed his own guidance he might have noticed what was happening between his young wife and the dairy maid, and would not thus have ended his life so when the truth was revealed to him that fatal day on the rocks above that part of coast we now call Abraxis Reach; but his own failings notwithstanding, his method is as solid as a steel sword in a firm grip. Let us then confirm some facts, and ascertain some basic details about what everyone agrees our senses tell us about this strange topic (by which I refer of course to the stars, not Abraxis’s failed love life).

We humans have lived on the Archipelago for 1000 years, but because of the Harrowing we lost all our knowledge of the time before we came here, and do not know where we came from or why we came here. Elves, dwarves and deepfolk lived here in grace and savagery before we arrived, but it is not known whether Wildlings and Changelings came with us, before us, after us, or were always here. Humans began to settle towns and cities permanently about 800 years ago, after the end of the Harrowing, with the help of elves and dwarves, and have been building a coherent, continued history for 700 years or so. During that time conflict with deepfolk has been constant, though it ebbs and flows, and I am unlucky to have been born at the peak of one of those flows, which is why the hands that write this text are calloused from sword rather than ploughshare. That lost 300 years of history have cursed us to an uncertain community: We do not know how long we were in the Archipelago before the deepfolk turned on us and the Harrowing began, whether one generation or several, and the reason the Harrowing ended and the story of how humans first settled permanent towns and cities is also shrouded in mystery, though we believe that it was done with help from the elves and the dwarves. The elves taught us stonework, the dwarves made us shipwrights, and the Wildlings taught us to fight. Now we have spread out across all the lands where they did not live, and naturally when we stand on those lands under the night sky we look to the stars.

The stars are a mystery, as is the sunshard. We can see them on a clear night, indicating that they must lie behind the most distant clouds, and they clearly generate or shine with light. Some stars are fixed in the firmanent, some move erratically, and some move in stable patterns that repeat over generations. Some, it is believed, are on stable patterns that repeat so slowly that we may have seen them only once since the Harrowing, and perhaps maybe those others which appear erratic are simply moving in patterns too slow or too complex to have been measured in the short space of human history. Stars have been known to disappear, but our catalogue of these tiny flickering lights in the sky is incomplete, and so we do not know if new ones are born. No one has seen a star during the day, but they can be seen when the sun shard is dancing. It is also known that elves can dream under the stars and share those dreams with each other, though little is known about the elven relationship with the stars beyond this. We can view stars with a telescope, but they simply appear as larger lights with no detail or further structure. So what are they, and what do great thinkers believe about them?

The theories

Let us immediately dispense with the most outlandish notions, for though we are here to discuss speculation we must not humour insanity. The scholar-physician Banu Delecta, for example, believes stars to be distant equivalents of our own sun, which may be warming other lands as our sun warms ours, and beneath which it is even possible other humans – or stranger creatures – live. We obviously reject such nonsense out of hand. Let us also reject also the stranger pscyho-philosophical musings, such as those of the idiot-savant Kanta, who believed that the stars are an extension of human dreaming, and that if we all willed it so we could eliminate night altogether, and live a lifetime of perpetual daylight. Kanta believed that the stars were a representation of all the souls of humanity, shining in the sky as they allowed their own fears and confusion to create a shroud of night over the earth. After 30 days without sleep, it is said that Kanta lost his own mind, and thankfully so his theories were lost to us in his mad apotheosis on the isle of Kaen. Dragons, perhaps, also do not accept preposterous theories of the universe.

So to more tangible explanations of the nature of the stars. Many scholars have proposed that they are fragments of our own sun, cast far across the sky in an ancient cataclysm that weakened the sun and left embers of it burning in the deeps of night. Some say this cataclysm accompanied or even triggered our arrival in the Archipelago, while others believe it predated that event and even predates the the arrival of elves and dwarves in the Archipelago, if indeed they ever arrived here and are not native to these shores. This theory explains the extinction of stars, which are perhaps embers burning out, and the strange movements of others – perhaps some of those embers are still careening though the darkness of empty space beyond our skies, spinning and tumbling in fire through the distant heavens. If so then one day they will all fade, and the sky will become a clean black slate. But this theory does not explain why we cannot see stars in the day, or why some of these chunks of light are not larger than others.

Analactia proposed a Two Worlds Theory, in which the darkness of the night sky is a shroud between our world and another, and our sun most also move around and between that other world, which is why it is not in our own sky constantly. Then, the shroud between the worlds is sometimes rent or torn or has tiny holes, and so we can see the light of that other world as the sun traverses its daytime sky, shining through the rents in the sky to remind us that our sun will return. This theory is complete in its own right, but it raises many questions, and in particular I am concerned to know when the denizens of that other world will find a way through the shroud of night, so that I must fight them. Others, such as the renegade Astrologer Zenobix, have proposed a many worlds version of this theory, though these are less attractive except in that they offer a wider array of opponents for me to one day face in battle.

A variant of this Two Worlds theory is the much-derided Two Levels theory. In this idea the world of the deepfolk is actually somehow removed from ours, and is a kind of inverse world in which our sun shines during our night, and the deepfolk are in every sense an inverse of us – cruel where we are kind, hating our day and loving our night while they love their day and hate their night, rich in steel where we are poor, and so on. In this Two Levels theory the land of the deepfolk is on the other side of the sky, not underground, and the tunnels where we find and fight the deepfolk are simply entries to the other world, and the stars are variously the rents between those worlds, or the ways in which all forms of immorality seep into our world through the thin veil that separates us. I have fought deepfolk above and belowground, and I am sure that they have no sunlight in the world where they live, so I do not accept this theory. They are horrible pale-skinned monsters who crawl beneath the earth in darkness and ordure, and that is all the philosophy we need to understand them.

Other philosophers, such as Nedia the Younger, suggest that the sky is a kind of realm of the spirit, and our souls become stars fixed in that firmanent after we die. In Nedia’s cosmology, the sun departs from the sky for half of the day so that we may see the souls that have left us, and when we sleep we draw closer to the collective memory of our ancestors. In Nedia the Younger’s celestial vision our dreams are a way of drawing collective wisdom from those who lived on this earth before us, and we inherited this practice in a weakened form from the elves, who are able to commune with their own ancestors in their dreams, and can use the firmament as a medium of communication precisely because they understand as a people that it is the medium in which lost souls are embalmed. Some have observed – often somewhat critically – that the elves have no such theory of their own souls (indeed, anyone who has fought alongside elves might be led to wonder if they have souls at all!), and others have pointed out that simple mathematics suggests that if this theory is true ultimately the sky will become a single field of brilliant light and we will never again be able to sleep under the burdensome brilliance of our own ancestors’ post-mortem glow. How will I be able to take a new lover when all my past lovers who died in battle (not with me (mostly)) are up there looking down on me? I cast my salt-thanks regularly in appreciation of tents, against the possibility that this theory holds any truth.

The Romantics claim that the stars are a remnant of our tears from the Harrowing, fixed in the firmanent to remind us of our suffering. This is why the three stars known as Sword, Sigh and Tear circle back to their fixed positions over the Archipelago every year at the time of the Harrowing, and why the stars burn brightest at that time. They are the permanent reminder of that tragedy, and also the reason that the stars stir in so many of us feelings of regret, longing, sadness and hope. The Romantics, of course, have idiosyncratic ideas about dwarves and elves, which might explain why their theory does not consider the pre-existing history of the elves and dwarves on this matter (but we all know that if the Romantics had their way, there would be no dwarves or elves). I cannot credit the Romantics with any philosophical or scientific depth, and in general consider their few remaining adherents to be good for nothing except cheap banter, drinking songs, and an occasional robust brawl. I doubt their cosmological theories hold up much better than their brawling skills, either.

My personal belief is that this is all nonsense. The stars simply are, they have always been in the sky and always will, sometimes changing and sometimes dying, sometimes fixed and eternal. They move on patterns of no relevance to our own lives, and any finding that a star or a constellation affects matters in the Archipelago is simply coincidence, or the result of humans fitting patterns of our lives to the movements of the stars. For example, perhaps during the Harrowing humans fixed the Sword, Sigh and Tear as a good measure of time, and decided to define a year that way, so that after the Harrowing was over the beginning of years was fixed to those stars, and they have no connection otherwise to our history of torment and exile. We are here, they are there, and the deepfolk are beneath us, plotting and scheming. So it is that I must put aside my pen, again, cease my reading and speculation about the nature of the heavens, pick up my sword against the one and only threat that faces all of us, and act on the only philosophy that matters – the complete and utter extermination of deepfolk. The stars will be in their fixed, cold movements in the heavens long after I am gone, and I cannot change that, but I hope the deepfolk will be dead and gone by my hand, in my lifetime, and that at the end of that great fight I can turn my face up to the stars’ cold indifference, show them the blood on my hands, and tell them that I do not care what they are because I am, I slew, and I won.

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?

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