RPG Systems

They all look the same to me

They all look the same to me

I have begun a new campaign with a new group, playing The One Ring. This is Cubicle 7’s Middle Earth role playing game, which seems to have been broadly well-received and is certainly a thoughtful and beautiful work. We’re playing on Wednesday nights for about 3 hours, and so far we’ve only managed to complete character creation, so I can’t say anything about game play, but I can give a brief description of character creation.

Basically in this game you make three choices: your culture (i.e. race); your “calling” which is some kind of aspect of your character determining things like what skills will advance fastest and (from memory) your vulnerability to the shadow; and your background, which is effectively your character class and further refines some aspects of your character. After this you get 10 points to spend on skills (advancing at 1 point per rank, cumulative), weapon skills (2 points per rank, cumulative) or a few other things. Characters have a bunch of traits that determine aspects of how their personality will affect play (e.g. brave, foolhardy etc) and also some special properties that are determined at one of these three stages. Character creation is relatively quick and involves no dice rolling: in fact nothing about it is random at all.

This character creation system has made some interesting decisions that clearly break with standard RPG character creation practice. In particular:

  • All your starting skill and weapon choices are determined by your race. Your skills are fixed and immutable – every elf or woodman starts with the same set of skills – and you have a choice of just two weapon sets, with no variation. You can use those 10 points to modify these but these 10 points are a tiny portion of the total skill allocation. You start with at least one skill at rank 3, for example, which would require almost all the 10 points to acquire. Effectively your starting abilities are entirely determined by your race
  • Your starting attributes are determined by a combination of race and background. Most backgrounds appear to be similar across the races (I didn’t get a chance to look in detail but e.g. Woodmen and Dwarves both get “Slayer” as a choice) but the attributes will be distributed differently for two races with the same background. For example I have 2/4/7 in the three attributes, while a dwarf might get 4/5/4, for example. You get to add “favour to these” but this favour amounts to just 6 points spread over the three attributes, and is only used under specific conditions, so it’s not the main determinant of your attributes
  • The majority of your starting personality traits are determined by your race. There is a list of perhaps 12, and you can choose two from a sub list of 6 that are specified for your race

Because of the combination of calling and background it is possible for two characters of the same race to differ slightly from each other in outlook, wealth and attributes, but they will essentially have exactly the same skills and almost the same attributes at the start of play. It’s not like D&D where you slightly modify the base random distribution of attributes, and skills are entirely class-based; it’s not like warhammer where attributes have a slightly different base and level of randomness and there are some additional talents. Everything is determined by your race.

What a remarkable coincidence! How amazing that a game that attempts to faithfully recreate the world of Lord of the Rings should choose a character creation system in which your race determines everything that we normally accept as mutable about a character. I have said before that Tolkien’s work is heavy with racial determinism and the race-as-destiny theories of the era in which he wrote, and I have received considerable pushback for it. I have previously adduced as evidence of this Tolkien’s attractiveness to fascists. I’ve also said that his work has undue influence on other fantasy writers and casts a shadow of racialism across the whole hobby. Well, what a surprise then to discover that a game attempting to recreate the world puts this aspect of it at the centre. And in case one were inclined to suspect that this is just a coincidence, here is the creator of the game on this issue:

The main reason behind the majority of the design choices in The One Ring is faithfulness to the sources. In Middle-earth, culture is the main defining element in an individual, and by limiting the choices in that regard help us attain a genuine ‘in-world’ perspective

Notice what that blog post adds: culture determines one’s virtues and rewards. And in this comment, “culture” is simply code for race. In attempting to recreate the world faithfully, anyone who delves into it immediately notices that they need to privilege race over all other aspects of background as a determinant of not just physical attributes but also psychological and moral attributes.

I have skimmed a few reviews of this game and the completely non-random aspect of character creation doesn’t seem to come out as a big issue for anyone. I have a suspicion that if someone tried such a tactic in any other setting their game would be viewed the worse for it, but in this case the game gets a pass. These reviews have generally also talked about how this game really is an immersive Tolkien experience, to the extent that they can’t imagine the system being used for anything else. I can’t give my opinion on that yet, since we haven’t started playing, but it certainly looks like there are many aspects beyond the character creation that imbue the game with a strong Tolkienesque flavour – the special rules for travel and fellowship and the Hope/Shadow mechanic, for example. I’m not sure if I’m going to like the system, but it looks intriguing and possibly very very good (the reviews suggest that people who play it really like it). I’ll review that when I have had a chance to test it.

I guess it’s not obvious from my critical review of Tolkien’s work but I am a real sucker for his world – I love it and have gamed in it extensively using MERP. I think The One Ring could be a vast improvement on MERP and offer exactly the right flavour of gaming that I have been looking for in Tolkien’s rich, detailed and beautiful world. But I go into that world with a clear understanding of what it is – a scientific racist, authoritarian conservative fantasy of a dead past that we can all hope will never come back to life. This game is another example of just how powerful the racial underpinnings of the world are, and how hard it is to genuinely appreciate the world without accepting that aspect of its creation. And I present this game as further evidence of my claim that whether anyone wants to admit it or not, no one can conceive of Tolkien’s world without accepting the deterministic and moralistic nature of his racial heirarchy.

While we enjoy this world and all its descendants, we should also remember that fantasy needs to be about so much more than this, and that while its creative, lyrical and mythical influences on fantasy have been huge and beneficial, the overarching influence of its scientific racism and conservatism have not done this genre – or our gaming world – any favours.

It's just how I roll...

It’s just how I roll…

My gaming group has begun a short Vampire:The Masquerade mini campaign, which I haven’t yet joined, but I happen to think that the World of Darkness system is quite terrible. At the same time we’ve all been yearning for some classic fantasy, and the manifold shortcomings of Traveler’s system have become obvious, even though I think it could be quite good with some tweaks and have suggested it as an alternative structure for Warhammer 2. This has led to some debate about which dice systems and basic mechanics are best – not which systems, because systems load a whole bunch of other non-dicey stuff on top of what they do, but just which basic mechanics. Most of my group are very fond of the World of Darkness (WoD) basic mechanic, but in my opinion it is terribly flawed to start with, and handled very badly by the designers. During this debate some alternatives such as the Warhammer 2 system or d20 system were discussed and generally dismissed as terrible. At the same time I downloaded a cute Steampunk game called Mechanika which uses FUDGE dice, the core mechanic of the Fate system. Some of my group have previously shown an interest in the Fate system, and one of them recommended Mindjammer as a basis for the Spiral Confederacy campaign, so I thought they might be interested in that system as an alternative for use in a classic fantasy setting. However, when I googled FUDGE dice I was taken to the Wikipedia page, which includes the probability distribution for the dice. This distribution has its most likely value at 0 and ranges from -4 to 4, which means that if you add 6 to all the numbers, the FUDGE dice are almost exactly the same probability distribution as 2d5 (check yourself if you don’t believe me!)

This debate made me realize that there are essentially only three key canonical dice structures that almost all RPGs follow, and aside from some extra weird systems, they basically only follow these three possible structures. I will describe each of these here and outline why I think most systems can be reduced to them.

Uniform distributions

These are the classics of d20/Pathfinder, Cyberpunk and Rolemaster. The primary difference between the mechanics of individual systems is how they assign difficulty – by a simple flat mechanic like d20, with a variety of arbitrary subsystems like Cyberpunk, or with some godawful sprawling complex of tables like Rolemaster. With these systems the main determinant of how much fun they are is the relative magnitude of the range of random values to the modifiers, and all the other things attached to the system. So for example d20 has a very wide random range that allows for a lot of nuance of ability differences between characters, and lots of nuance in defensive and attacking differences too; while Cyberpunk has only half as much random range, and the modifiers are generally much larger, so that success or failure become baked into your character design rather than having much to do with the dice. These systems are old classics and for good reason: they’re easy to understand and very simple to use.

Some of these systems, like Talislanta and Cyberpunk, allow the defender of a skill check to set the difficulty randomly. For example in Cyberpunk melee combat the difficulty to hit someone is d10 plus their escape/dodge. This means that the difficulty target can be random in some cases, but on average it still means that the difficulty will be 5+escape/dodge (in this case) on average. If you did this in d20, for example, the difficulty of hitting someone on average would be 10+AC, even if they rolled a d20 +AC every time. This process of rolling for difficulty like this is not a waste of time, however – it actually causes the random distribution of the sample to become approximately equivalent to rolling the sum of the two dice being used. To see this, consider the example of a Pathfinder attack in its most basic form, where we allow the defender to roll d20 to set the difficulty of the attack. Then denote the attacker’s dice roll result by A, and the defenders by D. We have A+attack bonus vs. D+AC, where the attacker wins if A+attack>=D+AC. This is equivalent to A-D+attack-AC>=0. But the distribution of the difference of two uniform distributions is a triangular distribution across their range, centred at the middle of all the possible values of the difference (see this pdf for the case of a uniform distribution on the interval [0,1]). In the case of A-D described here, the peak would be at 0 with values from -19 to 19, and it would look very much like a normal distribution. So in fact, if you allow both attacker and defender to roll their attack and the target difficulty, your system will converge in those cases to the second kind of canonical dice system, the additive dice pool.

Additive dice pools

The classic additive dice pool system is Traveler, which uses 2d6 +skill+attribute vs. a target difficulty of 8. The alternative Cyberpunk system uses 3d6, so is effectively the same. I think there are a few other systems like Numenera that also use summed dice, and I ran a whole campaign using 2d10 instead of 1d20 for dice mechanics on a d20 system base, so that campaign would have been in this class too. As discussed above, the FUDGE dice effectively produce the same distribution as 2d5. These distributions all have the property of being approximately symmetric, with the peak probability in the middle of the distribution (typically at the median) and very low probabilities in the tales. From the Central Limit Theorem, the more dice in the pool the more normally distributed it looks, but even with 2d6 or 3d6 you are looking very close to normal. This makes it very easy for the GM to understand probabilities, though not as easy as the uniform distribution because specific values vary, and you know that half the probability lies to the right of a fixed number, and half to the left. In the case of 2d6 there are only 11 unique values so it is easy to memorize a few key numbers: 8+ has a 42% probability, 12 and 2 have 3%, and so on, so working with these dice is easy. This was the basis of my recommendation of 2d6 for Warhammer 2. The only thing that makes these pools less useful than uniform distributions is that you need to add up the dice, which takes a moment longer.

Additive dice pools are also internally consistent if you choose to use opposed dice tests where your opponent rolls the dice pool plus skill/attribute to set difficulty. By the same logic as for uniform distributions, this is equivalent to generating a difference of the two dice pools. If we approximate the dice pools as normally distributed, then we can say that the resulting distribution is the difference of two normal distributions (approximately) – and this is also normally distributed. So in this case the result of the roll becomes effectively another additive dice pool, centred at 0 but wider and more normally distributed than the original.

There is another type of challenged skill check which both uniform and additive dice pools can use. In this case both people roll, and the attack only works if it succeeds against some target number and the defender fails against some target number. I think this sometimes happens in Traveler (though I don’t remember specific cases). If you use this mechanism, you no longer produce an additive dice pool mechanism. Instead, you have produced a special case of the third class of dice structure: counting dice pools.

Counting dice pools

Astute readers will have noticed that I haven’t included Warhammer 2 in the Uniform distribution category of systems, even though it uses percentile dice against a target threshold, and percentile dice are uniform. This is because rolling a percentile dice against a threshold probability is effectively equivalent to rolling a d10 and trying to get a number smaller than the threshold divided by 10 and rounded up. In that case, Warhammer 2 is effectively a game where everyone has a dice pool of one, and their die has a hundred sides, and the difficulty changes according to the attribute used. i.e., it’s effectively a variant of WoD with a single die in the pool. This is also the case if you use the success-conditional challenged skill check for either uniform or additive dice distributions – you’re really just constructing a really complex opposed dice pool. The Warhammer 2 system does this – you need to succeed against your attribute, and then your opponent has to fail their defensive check, in order for your action to work. In this case this is basically equivalent to a 1D vs. 1D WoD dice pool. This is particularly true at first level where most people’s attributes are between 25 and 35, so effectively what you’re doing is, to close approximation, rolling a d10 and trying to get over an 8. It’s WoD! Where everyone has one point in every attribute and no skills for most of the campaign, but once they’ve leveled up a few times maybe they can reduce the target to 7. WoD allows modification of difficulty targets for dice, so basically in essence Warhammer 2 is a game of WoD where every PC is completely useless at everything.

Who wants to play that?

Other dice pool systems are mostly variants on WoD, which is maybe not the original (I think Shadowrun might have been a bit before WoD but can’t be bothered googling). They all effectively use a variant of either dice pool vs. a fixed required number of successes, or dice pool vs. dice pool. I have shown here before that dice pool vs. dice pool opposed checks massively penalize the person who initiates the action vs. the person who defends against it, and I have also described how it is extremely difficult to design a consistent rule for defining target numbers and constructing dice pools based on attributes and skills. The only way appears to be to use (attribute + skill) to set dice pools and then divide (attribute + skill) by some number to set targets, but I have shown that this produces horrendous results in practice. I think the only solution that doesn’t produce these horrendous results is to have a table that relates the attribute+skill to a specific difficulty, and to have very large dice pools.  But… very large dice pools effectively converge to a normal distribution (based on the normal approximation for the binomial distribution), so in effect if you use very large dice pools you’re producing an asymmetric version of an additive dice pool. So Exalted, for example, with its very large dice pools, really is just producing an asymmetric and needlessly complex version of an additive dice pool.

Dice pools will retain their flavour primarily if they are at around 3-12 dice, which is perhaps normal for Shadowrun but probably mostly below the numbers you might expect in WoD. Dice pools of this size are fun to fool around with – they feel hefty but aren’t insanely hard to calculate, and they produce some successes most times. The big disadvantage of dice pools though is that their probability distribution is fiddly and changes with every dice pool, and as a result judging and setting difficulties is extremely hard. WoD provides many examples of this. For example, I recently read a Vampiric mesmerize type power that uses a dice pool equal to some attribute plus some skill, which one might expect to be around 9 in a good campaign for a relatively tough vampire with attribute of 5 and skill of 4. Its difficulty is the target’s willpower, and the magnitude of the effect is determined by the number of successes. So against a person with willpower 3 you will need 4 successes to achieve anything – but getting 4 successes from a dice pool of 9 is difficult. So someone with quite an epic attribute and skill combination will fail to produce an effect against someone with just a slightly above average willpower on most occasions, and will almost never achieve a strong outcome. This means that the dice pool and the difficulty have been poorly fixed. But how would you fix the difficulty in this case? It’s not clear that there is a functioning method for doing so.


I have missed talking about a few systems, such as Warhammer 3 with its insane mixture of dice, Seventh Sea with its complex rules for balancing breadth and width of dice pools (I don’t remember details now) or Double Cross with its insane maximum value and exploding dice system. These don’t fit the standard categories, which makes them fun but also impossible to get used to for most gamers. But for most non-insane systems, they will either be directly or mathematically equivalent to one of the three canonical structures described above. For play I really like to construct and roll large dice pools, but I think I have made it clear by now in this and other posts that dice pool mechanisms are fundamentally broken. I think the only viable, operative and relatively easy system to use is an additive dice pool with two fairly simple dice – so 2d6, 2d8 or 2d10. They’re boring, but they consistently work. The challenge then is to produce a game that properly adjudicates difficulties, has interesting character creation and makes all the other aspects of the game work well. Traveler almost gets the dice mechanic working (almost!) but as my players have repeatedly told me, the rest of the system is boring due to lack of abilities and special crunch. Perhaps the only game that does all these things right, then, is Iron Kingdoms.

And the three games that do everything wrong are Shadowrun, WoD, and Warhammer 2. The classics, my friends, are irreparably broken!

Two good friends and I are doing occasional Sunday evening sessions of original Dungeons and Dragons (OD&D) over skype. I reported the first session here, and haven’t reported the subsequent four because … well, because there’s nothing to hang onto. Our second session ended with a TPK, but I think I didn’t report it, and since then we decided to move on to a different module, B1: In Search of the Unknown, which we have been slowly unpicking over three more sessions. We are following a pretty specific plan, which is to play the rules as they are written with no deviations. Basically, if it’s not in the Rules Cyclopaedia we don’t use it. So far we have tried two adventures, the one that came with the 1983 Mentzer Red Box, and B1. We have, to say the least, been underwhelmed, and at the end of the last session we stopped and had a solid discussion about what is wrong with the game and the system. Basically, we concluded that we’re really enjoying hanging out together (we live in different countries and regular skyping is fun) and the game is a good vehicle for that, and we’re having a lot of fun but mostly this fun has increasingly turned to taking the piss out of the game as we play it. This post is an attempt to summarize our complaints about Basic Dungeons and Dragons so far, and perhaps also a brief discussion of what it means that there is a whole movement (the OSR) that is evangelical about how good this stuff is.

So first, the problems we’ve encountered so far.

The PCs are all the same

Even with the Rules Cyclopaedia’s rudimentary skill rules, the PCs are all the same. If you’re not a Fighter, your attributes are basically only meaningful as an XP bonus – for example, intelligence doesn’t improve a wizard’s spellcasting at all, and dexterity makes no difference to a thief’s skills (which are, in any case, absolutely useless). So far our most entertaining characters have been the wizard with 1 hit point (because his death was so assured) and Lefto the Halfling, who managed to get enough hit points to survive a full power blow from a longsword (but still died because my wizard was conserving his sleep spell for when we really needed it). When you’re distinguishing PCs on the basis of their hit points you know you’re plumbing the bottom of the barrel. What reason do we have to keep any of these people alive? Why are they here? Why are we here? More diversity in PC choices and more effort in making them identifiably different at first level would make the game so much more interesting. I’ve heard the argument that in D&D you don’t invest your character with any special meaning at first level because you know it’s going to die, and you wait for its personality to emerge if it survives, but I don’t think the allegedly easy deaths are the reason (especially for fighters and dwarves, who don’t die); the reason is that the PCs simply have nothing to hook onto when you first make them.

The adventures are absolutely terrible

The two modules we have played so far have been, to put it frankly, terrible. The first, the adventure that comes with the Mentzer red box, is an absolute disaster that starts and ends with a TPK. The carrion crawler at the gates is such a stupid idea, it’s beyond ridiculous, but there is another TPK buried at the back of the first level of the dungeon, where your FIRST level characters can break into a room that holds two harpies. You get no warning about these beasts anywhere in the adventure, and for first level characters they are absolutely fatal. Even if your entire party doesn’t get caught by their siren song, their attack is way more than a first level party can handle. Now you could argue that this is just life as an adventurer, but this is meant to be the very first introductory adventure for people who have never played this game before and it is absolutely punishing. It is a prime example of what in Japan we call power harassment, in which the GM simply uses his power to bully the PCs brutally, and nothing they can do can escape it. I’m confident that a great many young people dropped out of this hobby after their first experience of it, simply because of this adventure.

In contrast, the next module we played, In Search of the Unknown, is tedious and stupid and not at all challenging. It famously comes unstocked, with a list of monsters and treasures that the GM is supposed to place at his or her whim throughout the dungeon, but the dungeon is huge and the treasures and monsters list small, so it ends up incredibly dry and boring – the classic endless series of dusty empty rooms. I bulked up the monster and treasure list and it’s still tedious. Furthermore, the dungeon setting is embarrassingly written in so many ways. The dungeon is the lair of two famous adventures, one of whom is called Zelligar the Unknown (even though we have all heard of him), and these two adventurers are incredibly arrogant and insecure – their rooms are full of murals of themselves, and statues to their own prowess, like cheap dictators. The rooms are terribly described, so that for example we learn in some rooms that the walls are carved in intricate detail, yet we are told nothing of what this detail is, while in another room we are given intricately detailed information about some random book (it was meant to be returned to the library!) or other object, ofttimes detail that is impossible for the adventurers to know. I’m told that the hand axe in room 34 has a split handle but I’m told the walls in room 33 have been carved in intricate detail that isn’t explained at all – this isn’t how GMing is supposed to work. This adventure is probably the first adventure that GMs will use to learn how to do this stuff, and it’s a contradictory mess of consistently bad lessons.

It’s boring for another reason too – D&D movement and combat is just not much fun.

The movement rules suck balls

Of course our fighters and clerics are wearing full plate – otherwise fighting would be randomly fatal rather than randomly easy, see below – so our whole party moves at 60′ per turn. That is, 60′ in 10 minutes. As I said, we’re following the rules, so we’re tracking oil flasks and movement and wandering monsters, which is relatively easy because we’re doing this over skype so we have a google doc. We don’t have a “caller” and a “mapper” because as soon as we saw that idea we laughed and decided to use roll20, so now we unveil sections of the map consistent with the lantern range, and avoid mapping. If we were mapping B1 we would be spending most of our sessions arguing about the mistakes in the map, because the dungeon is incredibly complex and hard to map based on a GM’s description, which is what we would be doing back in the 1980s when this game was released – another example of terrible module design, for the first independent module to be designed to be too hard for beginning (or even experienced!) players to map easily.

So we’re spending our time documenting these movements that take 10 minutes to move 60′, and trying to understand why. In a complex dungeon this means that you spend an hour retracing your tracks to explore a room that is literally just around the corner, and you have to go back to town because you’re out of oil. Of course this doesn’t really matter since this game is designed so that you go home as soon as your wizard has used his Sleep spell, but it hangs over us like this oppressive bit of pointless stupidity. Why did it take us 10 minutes to go around the corner, and why did we use an appreciable amount of oil exploring that room? This is even worse if you follow the original rules 100% precisely, which require one turn to explore a 10′ square. Module B1’s most famous room would take about 5 hours to explore, and would take two sessions since the PCs would have to return to town twice to get oil, if you followed those rules.

Speaking of which, Module B1’s most famous room – the one with the pools – is stupid. One of our players immediately thought of using the fish from the pond with fish to test all the other ponds, rendering all the stupid save-or-die traps immediately harmless, and turning the whole thing into an academic exercise.

Level-gaining is random and easy

If you read around the traps, you’ll find this general opinion presented that in original D&D you gained levels slowly after much struggle, and D&D is a low-experience, slow-reward game. Were this true it would be the textbook definition of bullying, since you have been given a completely cookie-cutter character with limited survival chance and been told that he has to go through a large number of near-death experiences at the hands of a save-or-die fickle GM in order to get that one more level that might possibly make him vaguely able to make it on his own efforts.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Because XP is gained from treasure and treasure generation is random, it’s actually really easy to gain a level by blind luck. We’re three four-hour sessions into B1 and we’ve hit second level, because we found a 1500 Gp dragon hide, a 1000Gp treasure horde, and a 5000 GP statue (actually the rules say at least 5000). And we were unlucky. We found a Green Slime, which has treasure type B – with a 25% chance of 1d6 items of jewellery, each of which has a 90% chance of being worth 2000Gp or more (incidentally, the Rules Cyclopaedia estimates of treasure average values are clearly wrong). This reliance on treasure for XP makes leveling up a completely arbitrary process, which either happens randomly and suddenly according to rolls on treasure tables, or is completely determined by GM caprice (but role-playing XP is a bad idea!)

Combat is boring and randomly fatal

Combat is heavily dependent on the position of the fighters when it starts and the initiative roll, which is completely random. If the party wins the initiative the fighters attack with a THAC0 of 15 (because of high strength and weapon mastery). If anything is left after they have done their job it attacks, usually with THAC0 19, unless it’s a TPK machine like a carrion crawler. Typically the enemy is AC 5-7 but we are AC 2-4, so the odds are stacked against the enemy. Occasionally an enemy gets a lucky hit and one of us dies, unless it’s Lefto the halfling who went through multiple attacks and who we left to die rather than waste our sleep spell because he was a henchman and we were going to get more xp if he died but if I cast sleep we would all go home with less.

This is not fun combat. Especially at early levels where everyone literally has one option – attack and roll damage – so combat is just a short series of hit/damage rolls with the outcome primarily determined by initiative. There is no choice of magic items or special abilities that would make your character have some unique contribution, nothing outside of the environment at all to distinguish between the vast majority of characters – at first level literally only wizards and elves have any unique abilities and they can’t use them more than once a day so they hold them back. And even then there is no wizard whose unique ability is ever anything except sleep (held in reserve for when a group of enemies appears) and no elf who hasn’t learnt charm person (because for some stupid incomprehensible reason they’re not allowed to learn sleep).

It’s also telling that the only time we bothered to not use combat as a solution to our problems was when we had an elf with charm person learned. There are no social skills, and all our enemies are evil, so why would we bother?

Important rules are completely missing

There are a lot of rules for basic things missing in D&D. The absence of these rules gives you pause to think, “Hmmm, we’ve learnt a lot in 30 years”. This absence of rules isn’t restricted to the rulebooks but also applies to the modules. For example, B1 is full of secret doors but doesn’t give any information about how they work or how PCs should find them or how GMs should manage them. Similarly, B1 has a couple of obvious huge treasure hauls but no information on how to treat them. The most egregious example is the dragonhide in room 26, which you are told is “immense” and has “brassy scales”. There are no brass dragons in Basic D&D, but the module gives you no information on what this hide might be worth. This same room contains a stuffed cockatrice and some dragon paws, but no idea of their value (consistent with my complaint above, other rooms give details about the monetary value of mouldy cloaks and component parts of beds). So I had to make this up (for those who googled “D&D value dragonhide” I went with 50Gp per hp of the original dragon multiplied by a third, and rolled hps for a large red dragon – the third represented the fact that the hide was incomplete). Why would you give the monetary value of a mouldy cloak but not a dragonhide? Ridiculous.

The most obvious example of this lack of rules is the problem of magic items. There are no rules on how to sell magic items, something that I have also seen presented as a plus about original D&D (who would sell a magic item!?) but this is something that makes no sense once you’ve played five minutes of the game. As soon as you get a magic item you don’t need that someone else obviously wants, you are going to want to sell it, but there is nothing about the obvious market that would result from adventurers surviving modules (except the introductory module, which is inevitably fatal because we want people to enjoy our game so we loaded it with TPKs as an advertising mechanism). Of course you could use the rules on the amount it costs to make magic items as a guide but – shock! – these rules are stupid. The amount of money required to make a magic item is completely out of context to its value. It’s as if there is no connection between the rules for magic items and how they are actually available and used in play.

Say it isn’t so.

Conclusion: This game is not an exemplar of its kind

I hate the Beatles, or rather, I hate the hype about the Beatles. This is the band that wrote Obladioblada, they aren’t good. But people mistake them for good because they were first. There is no song the Beatles ever made that compares with Stairway to Heaven or Child in Time (the video for which is a splendid piece of early musical beauty), and there is no sense in which the Beatles are as connected to the fundamental traditions of the English language as later metal bands are. But the Beatles get the attention because they were there first. I feel that Basic D&D has been treated the same, and just as there is a certain group of “connoisseurs” who have managed to convince themselves that bands like the Beatles were good, rather than just the first, there is a network of revivalists (the OSR) who have convinced themselves that D&D was somehow revolutionary for its content rather than for its timing, as the first. In reality subsequent generations of games are far, far better, and have added so much more to gaming than D&D. They have improved the rules (even AD&D did this) and added new elements of story, character development and GM skill and training to the gaming world. The truth is that gamers don’t want this mechanical dungeon crawl dice rolling stuff, they want story and character development and engrossing adventures with themes and purpose. That kind of stuff doesn’t emerge from crawling around empty, dusty chambers in the dark. It’s a purposive thing, that needs good rules and engaged GMing that is about more than setting up a bunch of rooms for hollow shell-people to die in.

I’ll keep doing my D&D skype thing with my friends, because they’re great and killing kobolds with them is fun. But exploring this game that was at the roots of our gaming experience has shown me that we have all grown since we started, as has the hobby, and we should respect original D&D for its originality and its explosive potential, at the same time as we should accept it for the stunted and narrow game that it was.

The Spiral Confederacy is a huge, galaxy-spanning civilization of thousands of systems, linked by a tenuous faster-than-light technology that strongly proscribes the way that these systems interact. Space travel and its associated technologies has liberated the people of the Spiral Confederacy from scarcity or poverty, so that everyone has everything they will ever need; the associated technologies have led to marvels of engineering such as space elevators, orbitals, and spaceships of vast scale and almost infinite power. Unchallenged by any rival (and strangely devoid of alien competitors …), the Spiral Confederacy enjoys incredible achievements in space technology, and its citizens are free to travel across a dizzying array of systems. The physics of space travel, however, includes some strict limitations that put strange conditions on the freedoms that Confederate citizens enjoy, and as much as this physics has liberated society from its old limits, it has also shaped the way that the citizens of the Confederacy interact with each other.

Space travel in the Confederacy is powered by two kinds of physics: the physics of sub-space and the metaphysics of jump space. This post describes these physics and their consequences, and also the basic structure of all Confederate ships. It also describes the relationship between the physics of the Confederacy and its strangest components: psions, priests, and AI.

Sub-space: The finite power of fields and drives

Sub-space physics is the physics of a kind of substrate to the structure of space and time, which can be manipulated to induce temporary changes in the geometry of the space-time continuum. This can make places far apart suddenly become very close, or it can change the structure of physical space. This is the basis of field technology, which enables the creation of invisible fields in real space that are harder than glass, or the manipulation of objects at a distance with a new force that resembles gravity but is completely under the control of its creator. This is the technology that enables the Confederacy to project electrical energy over vast distances without crossing the intervening space, so that in Confederate star systems electricity is accessed remotely, as if fields of electricity were a kind of Wi-Fi. This technology is also the source of power for the Reach, but it operates at a higher level that no one in the Confederacy understands, drawing power directly from the sun and siphoning it to the different pearls.

Sub-space technology cannot exert its influence faster than the speed of light, so it cannot be used to transmit information faster than the speed of light, and does not break certain basic principles of relativity theory. It is also affected by gravity and affects gravity, and in general operating sub-space technologies in a gravity well is more difficult than in the clean expanse of space, so for example field technology on planets tends to require more energy and be less effective than it is in space. Nonetheless, sub-space technology suffuses all of everyday life in the Confederacy, enabling the transfer of power without cables or cords, miniaturization of fusion power, anti-gravity and levitation for flyers and personal transport, and of course sub-light space travel without reaction mass.

Jump space: The strange metaphysics of the Other

While sub-space physics manipulates the topology of the real world, jump space physics removes objects from the real world into an alternate space where the rules of physics simply do not apply. In jump space one can travel at many thousands of times the speed of light, because light does not exist. The physics of jump space is not well understood, and it is in many ways an extremely limited technology. Transition into jump space usually requires approximately a week of time – one cannot leave early, and one cannot leave later – and it seems to operate in defined quanta of speed: in that one week one can travel up to one parsec, or two parsecs, and so on, with the faster movement requiring more sophisticated technology and greater energy. Although the means to create this step into different levels of jump space has been developed, the underlying physics is not really understood, and jump space technology is not used for anything else.

Jump technology has several strange quirks that cause many people to consider it as a form of metaphysics rather than a serious physical concept. Firstly, entering jump space requires an incredibly complex series of calculations that can only be done in real time by a powerful computer; but it also requires human willpower, and no object can enter jump space unless it is connected to a human will. Furthermore, non-human sentience – or at least, machine sentience – does not seem to be able to survive jump space. AI sent into jump space always either die or go insane, and this simple fact has prevented AI from effectively colonizing the solar systems of the Confederacy – they need to travel between systems only as memory in the possession of a human adherent, and cannot spread without human help. Finally, jump space has a strange effect on humans and computers that use it, which no one can fully understand, so that it is dangerous to reenter jump space immediately after emergence. This effect, called the jump wake, causes computers to malfunction and humans to lose the power to astrogate, leading to mis-jumps and sometimes complete loss of the ship, which is assumed to disappear permanently in the jump space. Typically one must wait about a week after jumping before one can jump again if one is using the same navigator and computer. More skilled navigators can recover in less time, and better computers can also recover sooner, but usually one has to spend a week letting the jump wake pass before one can attempt to jump again in the same ship.

Jump space can be used to send information faster than the speed of light, but this information transfer occurs in two week steps due to the time spent in jump space and the jump wake. In a society as physically widespread as the Confederacy this means that information and news travel only slowly between planets, and systems off of major trade routes will often be years behind on key political movements in the core. Indeed, it has been calculated that if a major alien force were to attack one edge of the Confederacy it would be approximately a minimum of 8 years before every system in the Confederacy knew of the attack, assuming optimal information transfer strategies. Normal news, of course, travels far more slowly than this, so that planets on one side of the Confederacy can be experiencing an art movement long after it has been discredited in the planet where it started. Such are the fundamental limits to cultural exchange imposed by the jump drive.

Physics, psions and priests

Psionics enables humans to cross vast distances in the blink of an eye and to interact with the physical world using just their minds. It is widely believed that psionic power simply enables humans to directly manipulate sub-space using their mind. This means that psions are not believed to be able to do things that could not be done using sub-space technology, and it also means that psions cannot propagate effects faster than the speed of light. One implication of this theory is that it is theoretically possible to design a machine that could use sub-space technology to, for example, read minds; it is possible that AIs could develop such a machine given enough time and psions willing to assist them.

In contrast, priests are able through their faith to perform acts of magic that would be impossible for either psions or any known technology, including transmitting information faster than the speed of light. This means that, for example, a priest with the correct invocation can communicate with another priest on the other side of the galaxy, instantly. This power is necessary for artifacts and magic items designed by priests to operate when the priest is not present, since these items must be tied to the priest’s will but will operate even when the priest is not present. Scientists generally accept that through their faith priests are somehow empowered to access some aspect of jump space in performing their invocations, and thus are able to break basic laws of relativity. This implies that no machine will ever be able to reproduce priest magic, at least until the Confederacy develops the technology to send unoccupied ships and drones into jump space.

There are many research projects underway in the Confederacy to understand the relationship between psionics and priest magic, so that psions can gain the powers used by priests, and also so that sub-space and jump space physics can be better understood, to improve space ship design.

How spaceships work

Spaceships have four key components:

  • Miniaturized fusion reactor: Spaceships draw power from fusion reactors, which themselves use sub-space technology to miniaturize the power source, containing the entire plasma system in as small a volume as possible. A reactor a couple of cubic metres in size will provide power for a 50m long scout ship or basic utility vessel, and the power available scales exponentially with size. Larger ships will use multiple smaller reactors for redundancy, and larger reactors for military vessels with shields and weapons. Since both sub-light drives and jump drives consume huge amounts of power the size of the reactor depends heavily on the speed and jump distance the ship is capable of.
  • Sub-space drive: The sub-space drive uses sub-space technology to power the ship through normal material space. The drive functions by bending space-time around the ship so that it can move large distances without ejecting reaction mass, thus liberating the ship from the need to carry large amounts of fuel to eject from normal reaction drives. Because the sub-space drive breaks some aspects of Newtonian physics, it enables the ship to perform in strange ways. For example, sub-space drives do not accelerate smoothly, but simply place the ship in a higher state of movement automatically. This effect works primarily upon the plane on which the engine lies, and so smaller ships use smaller drives on movable planes to control steering; larger ships simply make right-angled turns, or have sub-space drives pointing in many directions. Engines are aligned on a plane because the act of suddenly changing speed in this way generates large amounts of exotic sub-atomic particles, which decay into physical space to produce light and heat, and ships need to be designed to ensure that this decay product is generated outside the ship. Some larger ships capture the decay product in field manifolds and use it for other purposes, but smaller and utility ships typically are designed simply to vent this nuisance heat and light. The result of this for most smaller ships is that mobility is best on a single axis, and manoeuvrability depends heavily on the smaller coaxial engines. Engine power and manoeuvrability is affected by gravity, and most ships used in the Core are assumed to always be able to travel between spaceports, so are not designed to enter significant gravity wells or atmosphere. A sub-space drive capable of operating in such circumstances usually has a different design, and such ships will also have shielding and aerodynamics to aid in steering, since the smaller coaxial engines will tend to be highly inefficient in atmosphere.
  • Jump space drive: The jump drive is usually small in comparison to the sub-space drive, and is located in the centre of the ship near the main computer. Some larger ships will have more than one to ensure redundancy, but the components and technology of a jump drive are rare and advanced even by Confederate standards, so most ships usually have a single jump drive at the lowest necessary rating. Jump drives are rated 1 to 6, with the number indicating the maximum number of parsecs the drive can travel in one week (one parsec is 3.26 light years). Most Confederate ships are jump 1-3; military ships can sometimes handle jump 4. Jump 5-6 is an exotic technology, valuable even by post-scarcity standards and rare in the Confederacy. The Confederacy maintains a series of communications lines called strategic leys that run centrally through the key axes of Confederate space, linking key rim systems at opposite ends of the Confederacy through the Core. These strategic leys are stocked with several jump 6 ships, with extra ships at regular intervals, so that key information can be transmitted across the Confederacy at maximum speed. Even so, moving one message more than 20 light years in two weeks requires the presence of two jump 6 ships, incredibly value vehicles even by Confederate standards. It is rumoured that the Confederacy maintains a small corps of priests scattered across its reaches, capable of instant communication, as a backup for emergencies, but this rumour is generally derided as fantastical – typically the Confederacy transmits information through very fast, efficient ships run by the communications corp.
  • Field effector: Every ship is capable of broadcasting energy outside the ship, to provide energy to ship’s boats, laser rifles, welders and other small peripherals. Some ships maintain an atmosphere around the hull, held against the hull by an external field, and many ships also maintain external shields to prevent impact from small objects or weapons. All ships maintain a minimal field to deflect debris. These fields are maintained by the field effector, another form of sub-space technology usually located near the power plant. Some ships have multiple specialized field effectors (e.g. shield effectors, basic field effectors, and in-atmosphere anti-gravity effectors). The field effector also ensures regular gravity on the ship even when it is undergoing intense in-atmosphere manoeuvres. To function as a properly self-contained vehicle all ships must have a field effector, and no Confederate ship is built without one.

Because Confederate ships use miniaturized fusion reactors and have no need for reaction mass, they need little fuel and only refuel rarely. They can usually refuel through splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen, or by scooping from a gas giant, but usually they refuel in a couple of minutes at each space port they enter. For basic life support and for their food fabricators, most ships also carry a form of fuel called a slug, a large block of material containing all the key elements necessary to fabricate food and water for the crew for a couple of months; the chemical fabricators in the ship then convert this slug into basic food and pharmaceuticals. Most ships stock real food and other goods, but fall back on the slug in survival situations or when a crew member requires a product not in the cargo manifest. Human and food waste is recycled into the slug. This ensures that stranded ships are able to last for months to years before the crew begin to starve.

Typically, the only limit on the use of a Confederate ship is the jump wake, and the crew’s willingness to live in close quarters for long periods of time.

Example Ship: The Blindhammer

The Blindhammer is a Lake-class battleship that has never been defeated in its 100 years of active service. Lake-class ships are the perfect size for maximum maneouvrability, being large enough for a significant power and engine structure, but too small for their mass to interfere with the operation of the engines, and the Blindhammer is a perfect example of lethal agility. Five kilometres long, 2 kilometres wide and 1 kilometre deep, it is a little small for a Lake-class battleship, but what it lacks in size it more than makes up for in brutal power. With a crew of 24, the Blindhammer‘s structure is devoted almost entirely to powerplants, engines and weaponry. The crew live in an expansive series of mansions atop the ship, covered by a blister of atmosphere, but the rest of the ship is unblemished by human design concerns. Its huge engines are capable of accelerating the ship from a standing start to 0.1c (10% of the speed of light) in a couple of minutes, and it is capable of jump 4. Traditionally the Blindhammer has the best astrogaters and computers available in the Rim, and so is usually capable of a second jump within 1-3 days of exiting jump, making it capable of traveling 25 light years in just over two weeks – equivalent to a jump 6 ship with a lesser navigator. Unlike larger Ocean- or Peninsula-class ships the Blindhammer does not have munitions fabricators, so cannot change weapons during transit to the battlefield, so instead the Blindhammer is equipped with a versatile array of weapons. Devoted to interstellar combat, the Blindhammer does not have any weapons for orbital bombardment. It also does not sacrifice mobility or jump distance in order to maintain a force of marines for boarding, as does for example the Reckless (another Lake-class battleship). The Blindhammer has one role, which it performs very well: fleet destruction.

The Blindhammer‘s typical strategy is a simple and highly effective application of advanced Confederate technology to destroy opposing fleets. It jumps into a system, identifies the position of the fleet, and immediately fires off a pattern of attacks from its huge array of laser weapons. Simultaneously it spins up to a near-Einsteinian speed, typically a large percentage of the speed of light, laying down more patterns of fire as its targeting computers gather more information on the movement of the local fleet and the likely evasive action they will take after first contact. Once at high speed it initiates a series of evasive manoeuvres, executing 90 or 180 degree turns at random using its coaxial engines. Usually the enemy fleet learns of its existence at about the same time as most of the fleet is turned to ash; any survivors will lay down fire patterns on assumed trajectories that the Blindhammer is not following, although such details hardly matter – no fleet has ever penetrated its shields and armour, on the rare occasion that their weapons hit it before they are destroyed. The Blindhammer then enters the immediate battle space at some percentage of the speed of light, destroying remaining ships while setting a trajectory for a new jump point, and jumps out before the planetary authorities have received a report of the destruction of their fleet. Usually, most of the thousands of crew in the opposing fleet will die before they know they are under attack, and the remaining crews will have at most a few minutes of panic before they, too, burn. Fragmented communications from the dying ships will likely reach the planetary command station at about the same time as the Blindhammer jumps out of the system.

A week later, while the investigation into the destruction of the system’s entire battle fleet is still under way, the main body of the invasion fleet arrives. Negotiation commences …

Except adventurers, obviously … Karameikos is the first campaign setting for Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), and the setting in which my new skype campaign occurs. Karameikos is described in the TSR supplement The Grand Duchy of Karameikos, which gives information about the major towns of the region and the major personalities living in them.

This book makes clear that the major town in Karameikos is Specularum, a town of 50,000 people that may have grown significantly in recent times. It also identifies at least two major high level clerics in this town: Olliver Jowett, an 18th level Cleric, and Aleksyev Nikelnevich, an 11th level Cleric. There are other powerful clerics described in the book but their location is not specified. Olliver and Aleksyev’s stats are given in the book, and they both have Cure Serious Wounds, Cure Disease and Raise Dead memorized, though Olliver could memorize 4x Raise Dead if he really wanted.

I have previously posted here about post-scarcity fantasy, and how it would be extremely cost-effective for clerics in the middle ages to intervene in child birth to save lives. I previously used the AD&D rule book to establish populations of Clerics, but now I have access to the ultimate Canonical text, a definitive world description from the original rules. What are the implications of this world description for my theories about post-scarcity fantasy?

First of all, let us gather some statistics. It’s impossible to know the true birth and death rates in the middle ages, but there are estimates from 17th century Britain that give birth rates of about 30 per 1000 population, and death rates of about 25 per 1000 population. Based on these, we can expect about 3.5 deaths per day, and about 4 births per day, some of which will be of high risk to the mother.

Based on the presence of just Olliver and Aleksyev in Specularum, we can expect that 2 of these 3.5 deaths could be prevented every day by simply walking over to the place they occurred and casting Raise Dead. If we assume that at least 2 of these deaths are caused by disease – a not unreasonable assumption in the middle ages – then two more deaths could be prevented by application of the Cure Disease spell.

Just these two clerics could ensure that no one ever died in Specularum.

They could improve their job by using the Commune spell to learn some basic techniques to improve childbirth and medical procedures. “Why do women die in childbirth” would be a very useful commune question – Olliver can ask one question a day. Presumably once in a year he could get around to this question. Olliver has a 4th level assistant with Cure Light Wounds who could attend 2 births every day and cast this spell to prevent major injuries (ordinary commoners have 1d6 hit points so presumably this spell would completely reverse the damage done on them and/or their children). This would occasionally prevent the need for Raise Dead spells, though between them Olliver and Aleksyenev have enough Raise Dead spells to simply negate every death in the town.

It seems pretty clear to me that based on the canonical textbook, there is no death in the world of Dungeons and Dragons. The only people who die in Dungeons and Dragons are adventurers – we toil in the depths, risking our lives every moment, while overhead a utopian society pursues its life of perfect peace and eternal harmony.

Why are we doing this again?

On Saturday I ran another session of The Spiral Confederacy campaign, culminating in a vicious battle in a floating forest built on the ruins of ancient spaceships (report to come). One player went down in the first round of the surprise attack and the entire battle (with three waves of attackers, approximately) was over in about 5 rounds – 30 seconds! This system is being run using Traveler rules, which are quite lightly described and incomplete in places. During the battle I discovered a few rules that are missing, and came up with a few new house rules to ease some benefits, and also to employ a wider range of skills and attributes in combat. These house rules are listed below.

No critical hits: The standard rulebook states that a roll of 6 or more above the target number is a “critical success”, but doesn’t actually define any special rule for a critical success in combat except that it definitely does at least one point of damage. I have decided not to fiddle with this, because vicious experience on Saturday confirmed for me that Traveler’s injury mechanism doesn’t really allow for it and is so brutal that there is no need for it; the effect alone is sufficiently powerful to make all the difference.

Stealth attacks: There are no rules for stealth attacks in the book. During the session I chose to add the effect of the stealth roll to the attack, and the target cannot dodge or parry. Reading the book I see a set of rules for carrying one skill’s effect over to another; basically success adds 1 to the next roll, while critical success adds 2. However I don’t like this – I like stealth attacks to be lethal, and with no critical hit system the only way to increase damage is to roll really well, so adding the full effect of the stealth roll onto the subsequent attack seems more realistic (and about the only way for an assassin with a normal blade to deliver serious damage against a heavily-armoured target). This means that a good stealth attack with a blade (with e.g. 2d6+2 damage) is likely to end up doing more like 2d6+6 or 2d6+8 damage on a stealth attack. This will do fatal damage against a lightly-armoured person, which is reasonable.

Using the tactics skill for cover: If a PC is not in cover at the beginning of combat, they need to make a tactics roll to get into cover.  The result of the roll will determine the cover level as follows:

  • 0-5: 1/4 cover (no benefit)
  • 6-8: 1/2 cover (-1 to hit)
  • 9-11: 3/4 cover (-2 to hit)
  • 12+: Full cover (-4 to hit)

This ensures that a person with no tactics skill and no intelligence bonus will need to roll better than an 8 on 2d6 to actually find effective cover, which seems really likely to me – if I got in a firefight I wouldn’t have a clue where to hide. It’s obviously only useful when your PCs are in battlefields with lots of boxes and junk etc; rather than describing it all in detail and asking the PC to make a choice, just roll it up and then tell them what they’re hiding behind. If there is lots of obvious cover (e.g. a tank!) then this rule needn’t be applied. This is one of several ways of enhancing the role of the tactics skill in combat.

This skill check can also be done by someone with leadership to direct someone else to cover; in this case both the leader and the person taking cover need to use a significant action in the same round.

Also, related to cover: shooting from behind cover requires a minor action to position oneself and then a significant action to fire. i.e. you only get the benefits of cover when attacking if you use all your actions in the round to attack.

Establishing aim is a significant action: All the PCs used their minor action to aim, giving them essentially an immediate +1 to hit. Boring! So I have decided in future that you can’t just aim and shoot; you need to first use a significant action to establish the process. After that aiming will give you the benefit as described in the book, i.e. +1 per minor action. This ensures that you need to take a full round to aim but it will typically mean that the aim leads to a +3 to hit, since it will usually occur in the following train of actions: significant action-minor action/minor action-shoot. This may not always occur (e.g. use a minor action to draw weapon-significant action to establish aim /shoot at +1-minor action to take cover).

Tactics to change initiative: A PC can change their own initiative using tactics, or change someone else’s using leadership. They must use a significant action to do this; then they make a roll with difficulty equal to current initiative; success increases initiative to the result of the new roll. Extreme failure drops the initiative of the affected person to last.

Gathering wind: if the PC has no use for their minor action they can use it to make an endurance check and if successful regain one point of endurance. This only works if endurance is not 0 and they are not seriously wounded (i.e. only Endurance has been hit). I have decided to include this in order to give everyone some minor chance at battlefield healing, and because minor actions don’t have much use once you’re in cover with your weapon out. It won’t make a big difference to their future if they get hit a second time, but it will at least allow them to take the odd breather. I envisage this being used a lot with the cover rules (e.g. you hit cover with a significant action; use a minor action to take a breather. In the second round you take a full action to go full auto on some poor minion; then the following round you stay behind cover, take another breather and reload your weapon).

In total these rules significantly enhance the role of people with leadership and tactics, and actually make a person with these skills but no particularly great direct combat skills useful, and worth taking out. With tactics and leadership, a PC can a) improve everyone’s initiative; b) get the weakest people into good cover; c) upgrade the initiative of the slowest PCs. While other PCs do the heavy work of shooting and stabbing, a leader-type character can act in a serious support role to help them get an advantage in the fight.

I am thinking about additional methods for using leadership – for example, helping people move to positions where they can get a shooting advantage, or using tactics to negate cover. Also the possibility of reducing initiative or forcing morale checks of some kind when a person with leadership dies.

A final note on Traveler combat: It’s very very dangerous, has a wicked death spiral, and is definitely not for the faint-hearted. I love the way the healing rules enable people to die slowly of their wounds if they don’t get medical care. I also really like the automatic fire rules – they’re simple and very very dangerous. Against an autorifle someone in combat armour will still need to be scared, and can still die in a single shot unless their combat armour is exceptionally high tech. This is a game where you definitely do not want to get caught in a fair fight.

For some time now I’ve been thinking about ways to simplify the Warhammer 3 (WFRP3) system to make it less cumbersome and more free-flowing, while retaining the basic structure of attributes and skills. I previously described dropping action cards and moving to a more skill-based system, and also simplified ways of calculating difficulty. This, combined with simple talent trees similar to the Star Wars system, makes for a much quicker, easier game system, which I have tried and enjoyed in a few brutal and enjoyable adventures.

I’ve also previously described some of the problems of dice pools, in particular the difficulty of establishing difficulties that are balanced to the dice pools, the challenge of large opposed dice pools in games like Shadowrun and World of Darkness, and the problem of combining skill and attribute for defense and attack in opposed skill checks. As an example, WFRP3 has managed to solve the problem of balancing difficulties through using multiple different kinds of dice, but doesn’t really incorporate skill training into defense at all, or at least not in the same way it does in attack.

I’m still not convinced that these general problems can be solved, but yesterday while thinking about a serious probability problem at work, I had a sudden idea for a way of constructing dice pools with WFRP3 fortune and misfortune dice, combined with a single normal polyhedral die, that gets around a lot of these problems and makes a simple alternative to all the complex dice pools of the common systems. Much of this idea is derived from the Degenesis system, which I’ve now had some experience playing (and which is pretty cool).

The WFRP3 fortune and misfortune dice

These dice are white (fortune) and black (misfortune) six sided dice with three faces blank and the remaining three faces divided between two symbols in unequal proportion. On the fortune dice there are two eagles and one hammer; on the misfortune dice there are two skulls and one crossed sword. In WFRP3 the hammer/crossed swords are a success/failure, and the eagle/skull are good/bad luck. These dice are added onto the pool to represent good or bad conditions, or specific talents. It’s quite easy to develop a dice pool with 6 or more of both (WFRP3 dice pools are generally epic). If converted to a standard d6, one could imagine that the eagle/skull are 4 and 5, and the hammer/crossed swords are 6. But why use normal dice? Skulls and eagles are way cooler.

I actually tried using these dice for Degenesis, since the probability structure matches, but 1s are also important in Degenesis for determining fumbles, so I gave up on that.

A challenged dice pool system with black and white dice

Suppose that we are using standard WFRP3 characters, so they will have attributes between 2 – 4, usually, and 0-2 levels of training. Adding these together we get a sum, usually, between 2 and 6. Players construct a dice pool with as many fortune dice as this total, and the GM provides them a number of misfortune dice determined by the same method for the enemy. The player rolls them all and removes all matching skull/eagles and hammer/swords. If the player has any eagles left over, the roll is considered a success. Any left over hammers do not count as successes, but instead increase the effect of the roll (we will refer to this increase as the effect).

For example, suppose a PC with attribute 3 and 1 training attacks an enemy with attribute 2 and no training. The player rolls 4 fortune dice and 2 misfortune dice. Suppose the player rolls two eagles and a hammer, and also one skull. Skull cancels eagle and this leaves behind one eagle (success) and one hammer (plus one damage). The player is attacking with a hand weapon (damage 5 + ST=8), so with the +1 for the hammer the total damage becomes 9.

Using a polyhedral die for fumbles and criticals

Now add a single polyhedral die to the roll. Suppose it is a d8. If this d8 comes up with an 8 the result becomes a critical success (if the player got at least one eagle) or a fumble (if the dice pool rolls up at least one skull). The size of the polyhedral die can be determined by GM fiat, or it could be set as e.g. the smallest dice size greater than equal to the dice pool, ensuring that as dice pools grow in size the probability of extreme successes declines. Obviously, the opposite could also be applied.

Enhancing the role of skills

In this system skill training will still tend to be less influential than attributes, since typically skill levels are lower than attributes. This can be slightly adjusted by adding two simple rules:

  • Hammers can only enhance the effect of an attack if the PC has training in the skill
  • Critical success is only possible if the attacker has training in the skill
  • Critical failure is only possible if the defender has training in the skill

In the above example, the target has no skill and so if the attacker rolls an 8 but somehow doesn’t get the necessary eagles to succeed, there is no critical failure; however, if the attacker rolls an 8 and does get the necessary eagles for success, that success will be critical. This still doesn’t quite balance the role of skill training in defense but it does allow it to be included to some extent.

Skill could be given even more salience by a rule that hammers/swords can only be counted if the person has training – so if you are defending without training, you cannot cancel out any effect that the attacker rolls.

Deciding penalties and bonuses

Penalties and bonuses can be assigned in three ways: Through automatic successes assigned by the GM, through extra dice assigned by the GM, or through extra effect. For example, a stealth attack might give the PC an automatic success, being in cover might give the defender extra dice, and attacking from a horse might give extra effect. The GM could also allow stunting to change the magnitude of the polyhedral critical die, to reflect increased or reduced risk. So swinging into battle on a chandelier might drop the critical die from a d8 to a d4, indicating that if you succeed in your attack you’ll be highly likely to really do a big smackdown, but if you fail you’re going to get badly hurt.

Carrying over effect

Similarly to Rolemaster and Degenesis, you can easily allow one roll to affect another, or one PC to help another, simply by allowing the effect of one roll to be carried to the next, if it is successful. So a successful stealth check will add its effect onto the damage of the backstab; a successful intimidate check would apply its effect to subsequent morale checks by underlings. If one PC opts to help another in e.g. brewing a potion, then the effect of that PC’s cooking skill check could be applied to the main PC’s craft item check. In some situations the GM could choose to treat this carry-over as extra dice or guaranteed successes (if, e.g. the stealthy player were also invisible).

Notes and justification

This dice pool system balances out success and effect, so that a person with a limited dice pool attempting to beat a person with a similar dice pool has a fair chance of success but is highly unlikely to really get a big outcome (as opposed to e.g. D&D where success and outcome are largely unrelated). It ensures that people with very widely differing dice pools are likely to have predictable outcomes, getting around one of the big problems of WFRP3, where the challenge dice can behave in radically unexpected ways, or D&D/Rolemaster/Cyberpunk where the uniform distribution makes failure too common for people with good skills. It allows skill to work in attack and defense, though not perfectly, and in a simpler way than the Star Wars system. It allows for critical success but ties it to skills, but without making it too easy to achieve with high training as happens in WFRP3. By using the fortune/misfortune dice it makes dice pools easy to read and calculate (you just take away all matching dice). It is also very flexible for applying situational modifiers, luck, magic and stunting in a wide variety of ways.

I think the main down side would be the very large dice pools for high level characters, the potential weak roll of skill for characters with high attributes, and the fiddliness of distinguishing between skulls and hammers (not a big deal for me but in large dice pools people often mistakenly match things). I think these aren’t insurmountable problems and with the standard WFRP3 character progression process, skills are much more likely to advance than attributes, so the importance of skills will grow over time. Overall I think it would be a simple and flexible alternative to WFRP3’s ridiculous dice pools, that would not require any change to the major elements of character creation and progression. This dice pool system, if combined with the dropping of action cards and simplification of character definitions, would make for a fast and flexible alternative to standard Warhammer – with all the fun of dice pools composed of skulls and eagles!


The age of degenesis has begun ...

The age of degenesis has begun …

My group’s regular member Grim D returned from his annual Christmas holiday in Germany bearing a sleek black rule book for a German RPG called Degenesis, revised and newly translated into English. We were astounded by this book, both for the beauty of its contents and the scale of the project it represents, and as soon as we opened it we became obssessed. We played the first session of a short campaign last weekend, and this is my review of the good and points of this incredible game.


Degenesis is described by the developers as “Primal Punk” role-playing, set in a post-apocalyptic future 500 years after Eschaton, a meteor fall that laid waste to the earth, unleashed radical climatic changes, and released strange spores that mutate human and non-human life. In this far future humanity has regained some form of functioning society but struggles in a world ravaged by both the aftermath of disaster and the emergence of new, dangerous forms of genetic mutation called “homo degenesis”. Europe suffered the worst of the meteoric damage, and in the aftermath of the disaster Africa became ascendant – but Africa too suffers from the strange ecological changes that fell from the sky. Africans raid Europe to take slaves back to their rich lands, and the people of Europe pick over the bones of their past trying to recover even the smallest semblance of their past glory.

The rules are divided into two books: Primal Punk, which describes the world, and Katharsys, which describes the rules. In Primal Punk you learn in great detail about the history of the apocalypse and the strange things that happened afterwards, as well as the main cultures – Balkhan, Borcan, Neolibyan, etc. – that dominate the post-apocalyptic landscape and the cults from which character classes are drawn. By the time you’ve read 300 pages of history and cultural background, you are ready to begin creating a character you hope might survive this brutal ecological hellzone.

Fascist in a wetsuit

Fascist in a wetsuit

Raw passion and beauty perfectly combined

The first thing to say about this game is that it is a creation of unrivaled beauty. I haven’t seen anything as well designed and perfectly conceived since Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay back in the 1980s. The mere books themselves are a robust and imposing presence, two solid black (or white) minimalist tomes packed in an apocalypse-proof cardboard sleeve. They are constructed of high quality glossy materials, easy to read and handle, and liberally strewn with art of eye-catching beauty. The pages carry subtle prints that change according to the section, giving an atmosphere to the book without overwhelming the reader, and there are a series of symbols and iconography that are carried throughout the text. Chapters and sections of chapters start with quotes from a small cast of famous writers, ensuring that a coherent feeling of post-apocalyptic foreboding envelops the reader. Everything has a punk/skinhead/goth artistic style, as if the whole project were banged out in a squat in East Berlin to the sound of dark sub-cultural music – for example, the symbol for the Clanners cult looks a lot like something from an Einsturzende Neubauten album, and a lot of the iconography and imagery is drawn straight from pagan-core or deep ecologist/punk imagery. There’s also a healthy strain of fascist imagery and iconography throughout the text, most especially in the ever-present influence of the Spitalians, flamethrower-wielding medical extremists who will happily burn a village to save it.

Furthermore, there are movies: two trailers have been produced for the game which really beautifully capture the loneliness and desolation of the post-apocalyptic world, as well as the culture of the Spitalians who play a central role in the iconography and history of the game.  This is one of those projects were nothing was left to chance, no image or artwork allowed to jar with the theme of the books or their aesthetic, and every available medium has been used to ensure that the world completely engages its players. But what of the game itself?

Throwback in Borca ...

Throwback in Borca …

Culture, cult and concept: a simple and flexible character creation system

Characters are created by combining a culture, a concept and a cult. Cultures are the broad national groups of the post-apocalyptic world. The world has been torn asunder and smashed together, so that for example Britain, Ireland and France are merged into one culture. Choice of culture affects the upper limit that can be attained for some skills and attributes, and also the choice of cults available to the character. The player can then choose one of 20 or so concepts such as The Adventurer or The Chosen which further affect upper limits on skills and attributes. Finally a player chooses a cult, which determines yet more upper limits. Cults are broadly speaking the same as character classes, but most cults have a couple of different paths one can take. For example, I’m playing an Apocalyptic who specializes in deception and stealth (called a Cuckoo) but there are others devoted to battle or assassination; the Spitalians may be medics or they may be fighters, or a little of both.

Once these are chosen the player assigns points to skills and attributes, to take them up to their limit. The player must also choose whether their character will be primal or focussed; this choice rules out one skill and rules in another, and determines how a character will interact with the world. You can test all of this yourself with an online character generator, or see the stats for my character here. After this one also chooses backgrounds, such as resources, renown or authority, that affect your PC’s relationship to the cult of which he or she is a member.

Finally, cults have ranks, with names, and rank attainment depends on skills and backgrounds. These ranks come with benefits and responsibilities, and sometimes choice of one rank rules out development trees in others. This whole system in combination is very flexible and detailed and really makes a big break from the standard race/character class approach to character development. It also loads your PC up with a whole bunch of background narrative that extends far beyond the limited background one normally finds in fantasy systems. You haven’t even started playing and already your character is a rich and deep person…

Time ... to sacrifice everything

Time … to sacrifice everything

The system: Elegant dice pools and sudden violence

The system uses a d6 dice pool mechanism with the pool constructed from the sum of attribute and skill with modifiers, including penalty dice. Successes occur on a 4-6, and any 6 is an extreme success called a “Trigger” that enhances the outcome (e.g. every trigger is +1 damage in combat). More 1s than successes indicates a botch, and the target number of successes is set by the difficulty of the action or by an opposed skill roll by the target. For example, my character Sylvan has a 6d6 dice pool with his blade bracelet, and against an active target this will usually need to hit a target of 2. Every trigger adds one to damage, and the base damage for his blade bracelet is 3, so there’s a good chance he will hit someone who is not actively dodging and do 4-5 points of damage. He has a special talent (called a “potential”) that enables him to subtract 1d6 from the opponents active defense dice pool for every trigger he rolls, and if he rolls 2 triggers he gets a second attack. So if for example he rolls a 1,3,3,4,6,6 on his dice roll then he has three successes and two triggers. If his opponent is defending actively the opponent reduces his defense pool by two dice (for the two triggers). If his opponent fails to roll at least three successes then Sylvan will do 3+2 damage (for the two triggers) and then get a second attack (because of the two triggers). It’s a simple dice pool system that enables a rich range of outcomes without having to delve into multiple types of dice or special rules on criticals, etc. There are also systems of extended actions which enable triggers from the first part of the action (e.g. riding a horse) to carry over to the second action (e.g. attacking).

Combat is also very violent. Characters have a small pool of flesh wounds and an even smaller pool of trauma wounds, and they die when the latter hit 0. Armour takes off damage, but every trauma wound applies a -1D penalty to all actions. For example, my character Sylvan has a leather coat (2 points of soak), about 10 flesh wounds and 5 trauma wounds. A single crossbow bolt does 10 points of damage, so he will survive one if it doesn’t have too many triggers but will definitely go down to a second. The edginess of combat is further enhanced by the use of Ego in initiative. Characters have a small pool of Ego points (about 8 in Sylvan’s case) that they can use to boost initiative rolls and to add dice to the first action of the round. Initiative is rolled every round, and ego points are spent secretly. So if you spend 3 points in round 1 you get an extra 3D on your initiative and your first action, raising the possibility of killing your target instantly.

However, once your Ego reaches 0 you are unable to fight – and some characters attack Ego, which is recovered only slowly. Combat in this system is more vicious than anything I have seen in other games, and definitely best avoided. Especially since the best healers are eugenicist maniacs who will burn you as soon as treat you …

This extreme violence leads to one of the first problems I see with this game.

The flaws of an ultra-violent system

The adversary we killed in the first adventure, the Blacksmith, was a legendary figure in Scrapper history, but we wasted him in a round. This happened because the extremely violent system means that big bosses are vulnerable to large groups of low-level people. Even though he acted first, the Blacksmith could only harm one of us, and we were then all able to deliver 5-10 points of damage to him each in that first round. Tesla, in fact, delivered 22. Wounds and armour don’t scale with levels, so a Scrapper Cave Bear won’t have five times as many wounds as a beginning Scrapper. This means that if a GM doesn’t deploy a big boss with minions to screen him or her, the boss will go down in seconds. It also means that in order to have a boss tough enough to put up a fight, it’s likely the party will have to lose members quickly. This is fine if you’re into campaigns where people die quickly and get replaced, but many players aren’t and it creates strange narrative twists to have new characters popping up in the post-apocalyptic wilderness. I suspect it will also mean that players soon learn to start characters with specific weapons to ensure that they get the first death in combat. This isn’t a flaw per se, but I think it means the system will encourage a certain style of play and GMing that won’t be to everyone’s taste (fortunately, this style is very much to my taste!)

The problem of loaded histories

Another, potentially bigger problem this game faces may arise as a consequence of its own richness. Moreso than any game I have played except perhaps World of Darkness, this game has a deep and complex history and cultural milieu that is deeply interwoven with every aspect of character development and play. This makes it a great game to read and an awesome product just to have in your RPG library, but also means that the typical avenues of creativity and expression open to players and GMs may be shut down. For players there is always the option to build your own clan, giving some flexibility to character creation, but I think this richness and density of background material may be felt as constricting by some GMs. If you’re the kind of GM who likes to have a set of tools to build your own worlds with, then this game won’t work for you – once you’ve read the background material – and especially if your players are really into the background material – you’ll find it very hard to insert your own creative impulses into the game. I’m not GMing this system so I don’t know, but from the outside it looks to me like a game where the GM has to deploy their creativity very much within the confines of the given history and background, rather than against it. I think for some GMs this will make the game superficially appealing (all that rich material is ready to use!) but ultimately frustrating, because every action available to them is restricted by the canon.

Go get 'em!

Go get ’em!

Conclusion: Degenesis is a really great game

But oh what a splendid canon it is! And what a luscious, awe-inspiring introduction to that canon. Degenesis redefines standards in modern gaming, not only in terms of the sheer physical commitment to the production of the game but also the intellectual and artistic energy devoted to the content. This is no shabby low-grade kickstarter delivered late on poor-quality paper, but a real tour de force of creative energy by a small team who really have pushed the boundaries of what modern game designers are capable of. It’s fun to play, in a coherent and well-imagined world brought to vivid, stunning life by a high quality and beautiful physical product. Even if you never play it, this game is a worthwhile addition to your gaming library, but if you get it then I recommend you do try and play it because it is a simple, elegant and enjoyable system in a rich gaming world that has been brought to life for you with such loving attention to detail that you cannot help but want to wade into that spore-infested, violent future.

Enjoy it, but remember: There will come a time when you have to sacrifice everything!

Art note: the pictures are all from Marko Dudjevic, the artist for the game, whose work can be found on DeviantArt.

Review note: I am going to write a post in future specifically about the twisted politics of the game, including some of the controversy about the fascist imagery. I don’t think it detracts from the game, but more on that later.

No one here is who you think

No one here is who you think

[Told in the words of Sylvan, an Apocalyptic from Balkhan]

If you want to make it in this world you need scrap; if you want scrap you need to travel with Scrappers; and if you travel with Scrappers you’re going to tangle with Chroniclers. Chroniclers are a kind of pimp, squatting over the ravaged body of the world that was, dealing in scrap and iridium secrets instead of flesh and burn-dreams. They sell secrets the way my kind sell dreams, and they use up Scrappers like an unruly flesh-pedlar. And just like every pimp they have their thugs and enforcers, the people they call Fuses and Shutters. This is the tale of how my little gang fell afoul of the Fuse called Case, and killed him.

My little gang haven’t been together long, but we’re tight. We are five:

  • Me, Sylvan, an Apocalyptic from Balkhan, I trade in secrets and other people’s sins, but I have a knife for your ribs, if one dark night I decide you need it
  • Tesla, a Scrapper girl who is a master in crafting and repairing things, but has forgotten more about her cat Coils than she has ever learnt about human relations
  • Judie, a Scrapper girl who knows about artifacts and trade, the kind of girl who’ll get you rich in the wilderness if Tesla doesn’t get us all dead
  • Ronan, a Clanner from some hold-out enclave in Borca, who understands nothing but force and fear
  • Karl, a Spitalian who doesn’t smell too bad or act too crazy for a Viviesectionist Fascist

We met on a job for some Chronicler called Carl, no relation to the mad bio-fascist of course, and since we were all heading towards Justitian after the completion of our job, we decided to stick together for safety. Just because we’re in the wilderness doesn’t mean there aren’t towns where we can’t attend to our vices; and if there is a place that caters to the appetites of the living, then I know of it. So I led our little party to a dusty, nowhere town called Tumbler, that is famous for the ales it brews. After a couple of days of camping and burning leperos, everyone needed a hearty drink, so into town we went.

The ale was as good as its reputation, but the hospitality was a little rough and the other guests were nasty. There were two men drinking at a table when we arrived, giving off the cool air of menace that tells anyone with sense to stay away and mind their own business. Of course that’s not enough of an air of anything to discourage Tesla from disturbing them with breezy talk of treasures lost, until Karl managed to drag her away. We all noticed something off about those men, but didn’t think more of it until the inkeep’s son burst in, proudly waving some drafts around and declaring to all who would listen that he had made some money. This stupid man-child’s mother tried to get him to still his mouth but he was as clueless as Tesla, waving those drafts around like a fool and bragging loudly until those two men stood up, marched over and punched him down. I thought that king-hit was maybe just a sign of a short temper but something else was up, because they started demanding to know where he got his drafts from, and one of them was standing on his hand while the other wrenched his head around. It was a paltry handful of drafts too, not worth shaking someone down for, and these boys were deadly grim about it. Our Spitalian doesn’t like to see idiots beaten for no reason, and stepped in with splayer in hand to enforce a little peace, and that’s when one of those two boys pulled out a shocker and let rip on Karl.

A shocker means either these two boys were Chroniclers, or they were the kind of men who kill Chroniclers. I stepped in to break up the fight and calm it all down, and that’s when I saw that yes these boys had Chronicler tattoos on their heads, but they were trying to hide them. I pushed one away and put some authority over on the other one, enough to break up the fight before our Clanner went psychopathic, but things were tense there and our Spitalian was standing there shaking, near pissing himself and quivering in the aftermath of the shocker, looking real angry and ready to start burning things down – an impulse that’s never far from action for your average Spitalian – and the whole situation was looking a little tense. But now Tesla had her hand on her shotgun, Judie had parted her stinking robes just enough to show off the pistol at her tattered belt, and everyone was putting on menaces. The two men backed away, and then they left, throwing out a few not-so-subtle hints about what the Chroniclers would do when they heard we were sheltering a fraud and threatening their agents.

We paid it no mind. No blood had been spilled, just a little disagreement amongst travelers. By way of payment for his life I took the man-child’s drafts and handed them over to Judie but she was none too happy with them: counterfeit, she said, a passing likeness to real drafts but nothing that would fool the Chroniclers’ scanners – this was fake money, and the kind of fake money that got you hunted down and murdered if you happened to try and use it. Our little act of kindness wasn’t going to be paying any bills, and instead we’d just made powerful enemies. We were about to take the Spitalian to task for interfering in business not our own when the man-child’s mother reappeared, promising us free run of her bar by way of recompense, and slopping more of her disgusting gendo stew down in front of us. Fair enough, but what did this fraudulent money mean? Everyone knows it’s not good to travel with a mystery at your back, and I never met a mystery that I couldn’t turn to a profit. So we decided to investigate.

While we tried to calm the man-child down and get him to tell us where he got the fake drafts our Spitalian went wandering outside to look around. He remembered that we had seen a little Chronicler Alcove when we entered town and went over to talk to the Chronicler who worked there. That Chronicler, called Token, seemed really eager to spill the beans about the two men we had crossed. They were on a mission to “clean up” a nest of bad people near town who were suspected of producing fake drafts, and anyone who dealt with them. If we really wanted to help the town and make a bit of reward we could get to that nest first and find out who was doing the counterfeiting, then sell our success to those two Chroniclers. Token gave us a map to a nearby stronghold that he thought might be the source of the drafts, though he wasn’t sure. He said we could easily confirm if the stronghold was dealing in fake drafts by trading an artifact with them.  He gave us this big, weird engine-like thing with a couple of lights on it that got Tesla and Judie all excited – a real artifact! – and offered to let us use it provided we took it to that stronghold and traded it for drafts, then did what had to be done if we found out the drafts were fake. Sure! There’s obviously money in this one way or another … why not? Off we went …

Not your average money-lender

Not your average money-lender

The nest was only a few hours away, a warren of overgrown and crumbling warehouses with a larger, more intact building at its center. We picked our way through dusty, vine-clogged streets between rusting, empty buildings until we found ourselves facing this huge central storage building, dark and forbidding and obviously adapted: its crumbling walls were held upright with concrete braces and buttresses, and some of its windows had been patched with plastic. In the middle of this looming masterpiece of jury-rigged pre-eschaton ruin the central doors were cast wide open, and in the darkness within a faint light blinked on and off, strangely inviting amongst the vines, dust and rust. In we went.

The warehouse was empty except for a single container suspended in the air in the middle of the room. It was held in the air by a creaking crane, suspended over a pit in the floor and obviously designed to fall rapidly into the hole if anything went wrong, blocking the pit. A strange contraption we thought, until we saw that the light was a flickering screen inside the container, and heard the Chronicler’s voice.

“DEMAND: Cease and state business, standard entrance protocols!”

Chroniclers’ screeches aren’t speech to me, they’re a mockery of human interaction, but to Scrappers like Tesla and Judy they make perfect sense. One of our stinking wreck-crawlers replied to say we had an artifact to trade, and stepped forward to show off the weird engine thing. The Chronicler’s vocoder descended into a rain of feedback and weird screeching until the weirdo inside the outfit managed to get a hold of his emotions, and then spoke in a higher-pitched, more scratchy tone.

“INITIATE TRADE: Approach, supplicate, ingratiate.”

Tesla did just that, lugging the engine thing forward on her little loot sled until she was close, then grunting and hauling the thing across the small gap onto the front of the container, where the Chronicler sat behind a kind of grille. The Chronicler dragged it inside and squealed in overloaded freqencies of machine-obssessed delight, started fiddling with the dials on the engine-thing.

Apparently this is how Chroniclers trade. Just like a burn-dealer with his most desperate junkie.

The trade didn’t go any further though, because the engine thing blew up with a big roar and a brilliant cascade of sparks and flashes. We all fell back in shock, blinking and stunned, and before we could recover we heard the winches creak and groan, and then squeal as the container fell into the pit. A moment later there was a crash when it hit the bottom, and a great cloud of stinking dust rolled out of the pit. Tesla and Judie were babbling at each other, first in horror at the thought of destroying an artifact, then in anger when they realized Token must have rigged the thing to blow up.

This was only our first disappointment in a long, bloody and dirty afternoon.

Creeping up to the pit edge and looking in, we could see the container broken and surrounded with clouds of dust and what looked like mobs of gendos. There were breaks in the rusted roof, so we lowered ourselves carefully down and into the crate. We were expecting to find the Chronicler dead at his desk, but most of the interior was undamaged – it looked like whatever explosion the Chronicler had triggered was mostly light and sparks, and probably the Chronicler’s suit protected against the blast. They’re tough as well as incomprehensible, those strange digital vultures. We poked around in the crate a bit but there was nothing here and the only way was out, but as we were preparing to leave a huge, probably rabid gendo started hurling itself against the grille that the Chronicler had previously been looking out of. The first heave just shocked us but with its second leap it was obviously going to snap its way through that grille, which was little better than a mosquito net. The Vivisectionist stepped up to the plate, sticking his splayer through the grille and stabbing the stupid great dog as it jumped. The dog fell back with that satisfying whining yap that gendos let rip when they are reminded who is boss, and we decided it was best we not waste any more time in this stinking pit. We jumped out the grille one by one and found ourselves facing a short tunnel. This tunnel opened up into a big space that must have been another part of the warehouse, scattered with containers. In the middle of this huge room there was a big pyramid constructed of containers, all piled up on top of each other in some kind of crazed tribute to … something. The containers arranged around the pyramid formed a kind of labyrinth that we had to enter to get to that pyramid.

As we entered we saw the Chronicler, struggling ahead of us, mask ripped off, probably by the explosion. It was a woman! Do Chroniclers even have a gender? Both our wretched metal-scrapers were silent on that question, but it struck me as a little sly – and was she … an Apocalyptic? Something sinister was happening down here. We were into some kind of plot, no doubt. I don’t know anything about these dirty tech-traders, who leer over old capacitors like a Jehammedan over a set of Borcan tits, but I’m pretty sure that if this was a Chronicler alcove, of this size, there would be more people around, and we wouldn’t be fighting our way through gangs of wild gendos to talk to a Chronicler who can’t identify a jury-rigged artifact. So best to press on and find out who these tricksters are, before we kill them …

We followed her but she disappeared again. When we got closer to the pyramid, in amongst the containers, we saw a big sign painted on one container: an arrow pointing right, with the words “This Way” written beneath. Tesla and Judie were starting to get fidgety, and Tesla was tugging on the Vivisectionist’s wetsuit. “What?” he says in his big dumb way, looking down at her like she’s a bug he’s going to flame out. She shrinks away like she always does when that gas-masked fiend turns on her, but managers to whisper “It’s a Cave Bear, Mister!” before sliding away into the shadows. The cat, Coils, which always purrs when it sees me, hisses at the Spitalian. He’s a figure of unity to be sure, that Neoprene burner. Still, better to have a Spitalian on your side, if there’s going to be one around. I keep telling Tesla that but she prefers her colleagues to have a face, and manners. Skittish girl, really.

Still, this is the Scrapper’s world, not mine. No opium den of lascivious Apocalyptic pleasure, this ascetic zone of dust and machine oil. Best to listen to the girls. I grabbed Judie – we have a rapport, in which I pretend to care for her gibbering stories about artifacts, and she warns me before I touch anything radioactive – and she explained to me that sometimes Scrappers go rabid and wild (sometimes! so what are these two?!) and if they’re really tough and strong they set up these underground lairs full of traps, and dare other Scrappers and random fools to come in and test the traps, then feed the remains to the gendos. They’re mostly characters out of myth, not real folks, but everything the Scrappers tell each other about Cave Bears accords with what we’re seeing here. Maybe time to take it carefully.

Ronan grunted at that, and fingered an arrow to his bow. That bow … Ronan’s answer to everything except dental hygiene issues (he has a stick of bark for that, the pig). The Spitalian, of course, was striding forward like a sacrificial idiot, which I guess his kind are, basically, and heading for a ramp of steel and wood that led up towards the pyramid. We followed him, Ronan scrambling to get ahead and make a proper marching order, and as soon as he took the lead Ronan promptly fell through a set of weak slats, crunching onto the slats and kicking wildly with legs left dangling in open space. Down below the gendos growled and gathered, looking timid at first and then gathering courage as they saw Ronan’s pathetically kicking legs. They surged forward, and also started running up the slope towards us. I put a crossbow bolt in one and Karl struck out at another, and the Scrappers managed to drag Ronan away from the snapping gendo jaws. Clear! the gendos fell back, licking their wounds and growling, and we climbed further up the slope.

We struggled through a couple more traps and up to the top of the pyramid. As we expected the inside was hollow, some kind of structure, so we descended into a a new network of containers. Once we got down into the pyramid we found a weird network of corridors, lined with screens and flickering with neon light. We saw that woman again, running ahead, so we chased her but she disappeared. Somewhere in the twisting alleys of sweating metal we stumbled across a screen on one wall with a repetitive series of images that got our greasy steel-scrapers yammering. The first was an image of a powerful-looking man, scraggly hair around a handsome but cruel face; the next was a barcode with the word EMBARGO scrawled across it. The third simply said “3000 DRAFTS”. Our two Scrapper girls started chanting “The Blacksmith!” in unison until our Spitalian slapped one across the face (she didn’t feel it beneath the greasy scarves) and I slapped the other on the arse. Tesla might act innocent but she reacts real fast to a hearty arse-slapping, and she turned on me straight away. I’ve a surfeit of arse-slapping experience, so I caught her hand and yelled “What is this filth?!” to which she replied “The Blacksmith!”

Unhelpful, Scrappers. But you can’t get rich without their efforts. You have to be patient. Just think of them as burn junkies with a severe vitamin deficiency and you can keep your patience. “WHO IS HE?!” I yelled in my most patient voice, and she briefly told me: He’s an evil bastard who set up a nest, and is famous for killing people.

I was just discussing the benefits of killing him first when one wall broke open with a huge, shattering crash and a massive, horrifying smelly beast of a man came smashing through, carrying a huge battle axe aimed straight at me. It was just like being in the boudouir of the Voivode of Tatabanya when I was sharing tea with the Voivode’s daughter and his bodyguards mistook me for a rapist (I don’t know how). Only they were smaller, and less aggressive. I escaped them with panache and style, but I escaped this monster much more easily – his axe caught on a fragment of metal and the momentum of his charge almost wrenched his shoulders out of his sockets, so I slipped way while he was pulling his arms back together. Then Ronan fired an arrow at him and suddenly he was gone as fast as he came.

How a man that size can move that fast I don’t know, but none of us wanted to find out. We decided to keep moving, and see if we could find the woman. We did, although that raging monster crashed out of the shadows twice more while we searched, trying to cut down Ronan both times and missing but disappearing into the shadows before we could catch him. But finally we did, and that woman was with him, fading into the shadows behind him as he charged in to strike.

We made short work of him once he was in the open with no mirrors to hide behind. Or, to be specific, Tesla made short work of him: while he and Ronan were sparring she slipped in, put her shotgun under his face and discharged both barrels. The rest was just cleanup work, really, and then we were standing there gasping and trying to clear our heads. Well, most of us were trying to clear our heads – Ronan was cutting off the Blacksmith’s Head so we could claim that 3000 draft prize.

And that’s when those Chronicler boys turned up, the two men we saw at Tumbler and a third guy, marching down a gangplank towards us, guns drawn. Ronan stepped forward, carrying the head, and I yelled to them, “Hoy, well met! Here’s your counterfeiter! Now, would you like to share the reward with us?”

Their response was to sneer and start shooting.

A few seconds later the dust cleared and all three were done for. Two were dead and one wasn’t feeling very chatty so we killed him too. None the wiser about what was going on, we trooped out of the pyramid to find a small gang of Chroniclers waiting for us. These Chroniclers at least were interested in talking, and so we found out that we had been completely wrong about everything. There was no 3000 draft reward on the Blacksmith – he was embargoed, which means the Chroniclers don’t deal with him but doesn’t mean they’ll kill him. The 3000 drafts was the amount of fake drafts he had been found guilty of using, not a reward on his head. There was no clean up mission planned for the Blacksmith, and the three men we killed, though they used to be Chroniclers, seemed to have no connection to the actual Chronicler guild or its field agents.

We had stumbled onto some kind of plot involving ex-Chroniclers, probably trying to take over the Blacksmith’s lair for their own purposes. But we didn’t really know why or even understand who these people were. But we had survived and gained the favour of the Chroniclers. Perhaps there is reward to be found in pursuing this scheme to its devious end…?

Time and the tarot will tell. But I have a nose for secrets and profit, and I can feel both here. Along with a fair portion of danger.

But my gang can handle it. This world is full of secrets, and full of people who will reward you for them – or kill you for them. So let us see what we can dig up, what we can sell, and who will try to kill us.

Picture credits: Pictures are from the deviant Art website of the illustrator for the game, Marko Djurdjevic.

Artwork for Brave, Marillion weekend, 2013

But you sleep like a ghost with me
It’s as simple as that
So tell me I’m mad
Roll me up and breathe me in
Come to my madness
My opium den
Come to my madness
Make sense of it again


My Cyberpunk character, Drew, started the campaign with some contraband Russian cyberware inside her, that got her out of a tight spot but also saw her captured as a cyberpsycho by a nameless corporation. Aside from one narrative moment this tech remained just a role-playing detail, but recently as part of a kind of level-up process for our party the GM handed out a special ability to each of our PCs, and for her special ability Drew got to control and use her Ghost. The players haven’t shared their abilities with the rest of the group, but Drew’s ability is kind of … uncontrolled … and potentially very dangerous for the rest of the party, so I thought I’d write it up here where everyone can see it.

Drew’s ability is a kind of super-psychotic adrenal booster with two states: Limnal and Lost. Drew enters Limnal state by spending a point of humanity, at which point she gets all the benefits of the state. Unfortunately she can’t stay there: every turn she is in Limnal state she has to make an Empathy check (1d10+Empathy) to retain control of herself. This check has a difficulty of 8+number of turns in Limnal state – so Drew will very quickly shift to Lost state. Once Drew is Lost she has to fight to regain control of herself; she makes the same empathy check, but the difficulty reduces by 1 for every turn she is in the state. Other details of the states are given below.

In all states, Drew has access to a special boosted bonus to some actions that is equal to her starting empathy minus her current empathy, which we will call her ghost strike bonus (GSB). Recall that current empathy is determined by humanity, so the more she calls on this ability the lower her humanity drops, and the bigger her ghost strike bonus gets.

Limnal state

Once Drew enters the Limnal state she gets immediate benefits. She immediately rerolls initiative with a bonus equal to GSB/2. She receives an extra free attack each turn that can be used for movement, melee attacks, and athletics. Her movement increases by GSB/2, and she gains a bonus to all melee, athletics and movement actions equal to GSB/2. Her damage with melee weapons gets a bonus equal to GSB. Every time she kills someone she gains a +1 bonus to LUCK that must be spent the next turn or lost. Every kill also adds 1 to her Limnal turn count, making it easier for her to switch to Lost state as she kills more. In Limnal state Drew can still use a rifle but she cannot use her bonus action to shoot.

Lost state

When Drew enters Lost state she loses another 0.5 points of humanity. She rerolls her initiative with bonus equal to GSB. From this point on she cannot use missile attacks, but must use melee attacks, dropping any rifle or other tool and switching to her favourite melee weapon. All her bonuses double, so she gets a GSB bonus to hit and 2*GSB to damage, her dodge/escape increases by GSB, etc. She must attack the closest moving target, striking at the most threatening target when in doubt. She must do the greatest amount of attacks and damage possible to her target before moving on to the next target, and if a target drops in the middle of combat she must shift to another target immediately. She also counts one level lower for wounds, and has a bonus to BTM of GSB/2.

For every round she is in Lost state Drew takes one point of stun damage.

Further humanity damage

If Drew kills a friendly or non-combatant target in either state she loses an additional point of humanity. If her empathy drops to 1 (10 humanity points) she will be lost to the ghost, and will continue fighting without further recovery checks until she either goes unconscious, kills everyone, or dies.

Drew currently has 18.5 points of humanity.

What this means in practice

Drew has 18.5 points of humanity and an empathy of 2. Her GSB is currently 6, her BTM -3, movement allowance 5, melee 6 and reflexes 8 (in combat armour). Her preferred melee weapon is a monokatana, which does 4d6 damage and reduces the SP of armour to 2/3 (so combat armour drops from SP 24 to 16). Her combat sense is 8, she has an adrenal booster and reflex boosting.

In Lost state this means that Drew rerolls her initiative with a minimum of 26. She attacks three times per round at -3 per attack, with a final bonus of 18. Her dodge/escape is also 20, so attempts to shoot her in melee will have a ridiculously high target. Her damage becomes 13+4d6, so her average damage roll with the monokatana is (approximately) equivalent to an 8d6 rifle with high explosive armour piercing rounds. Her average damage roll against combat armour will do 11 damage after armour and before BTM. Her own BTM is now -6.

Because her empathy is 2, on the first round of activation of Limnal state Drew will need to roll a 7 or higher on 1d10 to control it. In the second round, after she’s killed two people (she will kill two people!), she’ll need to roll a 10. Even if she somehow misses (Drew doesn’t usually miss), by round 4 she will need to roll criticals (10 on d10) to stay in the Limnal zone. Once she is Lost it’s fairly likely that the kill rate will keep pushing the target number for her empathy rolls well beyond any number she can hit without criticals. It’s likely that she will kill all her enemies before she finds herself, and will only escape the ghost by going unconscious.

With 18.5 points of humanity Drew can afford to call on her ghost perhaps 4 more times safely. If there are any bystanders when it happens we can assume that they will die, and she will lose more humanity. Given her armour and BTM, it’s unlikely that she can be stopped by most normal ammunition, so once she becomes Lost the best option for her team is to clear out and wait for the blood and dust to settle. Killing her or trying to take her down in some other way is complicated by the fact that Pops will go insane if he sees her fall.

The downward spiral

As her humanity drops, Drew is becoming more attentive to the call of her ghost, and less aware of the basic human connections that have sustained her so far. In her last diary report, Drew said this about the feeling of losing herself in the ghost:

She just came howling out, like the frozen wind off the steppes blowing down onto the beach in winter, cutting through you like you’re just bones and whistling over the ice in the bay. And it was just like back in that bay, when I had to sink down cold and lonely on the beach, listening to my father’s bitter imprecations, cursing me into the rocks and the ice as a useless thing, while he dug a hole in the ice and his men lugged their cloth-wrapped, blood-soaked burden over the ice to the hole, and I crouched there hugging my knees against the cold wind and my father’s colder anger, trying to stay silent and hoping I wouldn’t cry because my tears make him madder and the wind freezes them on my face and afterwards the shame of being weak in front of those horrible men stings me more than icy tears ever will, but I’m still too small and helpless to know that one day I will become a whirling storm of death and destruction and everywhere men dying will whisper my name just right before they beg for their mothers who never come. So I sink down behind the rocks and ice as that wind roars over me and just hope I can come back from the cold.

Whether Drew can come back is not something that Coyote is likely to be placing bets on.

Artwork note: This picture is by Alison Toon, it’s the cover image for the Marillion album Brave, from which the quote at the top is taken, and from which I also took a lot of the lyrics used in the original post about Drew’s character. Brave is about a lost girl, it seems to fit.

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