Love will have its sacrifices. Also, its dice pools.

Carmilla and Laura

Carmilla and Laura

I got recommended Carmilla earlier this week, and since then I’m seeing it everywhere. A loose riff on my favorite gothic novella, it casts Laura and Carmilla as college roommates at a… quirky… university. It starts out funny and charming, then becomes hilarious and a bit tearjerking. It’s all kinds of good.

It got me thinking about how much I enjoy dysfunctional monster stories. And that’s good, because I’ve been getting paid to write them for eight years. Carmilla is less dark and bloody than my work, but it’s still full of awkward moments and dreadful misunderstandings and crushes on the wrong people. I love that stuff.

And like all things I love, I’ve decided it needs a roleplaying game.

Allow me to introduce Die For You1, a simple roleplaying game about love and monsters. You play someone in one of those tough spots being young puts you in: high school, college, or first job… with the added trouble of supernatural mystery and maybe werewolf sororities.

Get the first draft here.

As usual when I design something and put it up here, I want to talk a little bit about the design decisions.

The first games that came to mind when I thought about interpersonal drama were Smallville and Primetime Adventures. I decided I wanted something with less narrative jockeying than PtA, and less rules and prep than Smallville.2 My first thought was to build it on cards with different suits for different types of problems, but that didn’t quite come together. After that, I thought about literally doing a simplified Smallville, but I decided I’d rather stick to d6s because they’re easier to scrounge up.

The next game I thought of was Trollbabe, with its single numbered trait and three types of rolls (fighting, magic, and social). And that led me to consider the core mechanic from Lasers and Feelings, wherein you roll a few d6s based on skill and circumstance, and try to get over or under a trait number, counting successes.

For traits, I looked at the kind of uncertainty we see in Carmilla, and broke it down into three categories: Feels, Weird, and Real Life. These depend on each other: you split six points between Feels and Weird, then set Real Life to the lower of the two.

Back to the Smallville influence3, I wanted characters to be able to use relationships as leverage. We see that a couple of times in the series. I won’t say exactly where because of spoilers, but each of those cases comes down to one of the characters trying to accomplish something and pushing or taking advantage of the trust of another character to get it. So each character either Trusts or doesn’t Trust each other character. If someone Trusts your character, you can use that trust to roll an extra die.

That’s the most exploitative mechanic in the game, but there are some positive ones, too. When your character risks permanent harm for another character, you roll two extra dice; if they’re risking death, you get three. But you’re exposing your character. On any 6s, they suffer the harm they were risking. (Okay, sorta positive.)

The wrinkle I like the best, though, is a simple rule in player vs. player conflicts: when you succeed at cost against another player, that player names the cost.

There’s a little more to it, but those mechanics are the core of the design.

Looking forward, I’d like to revise and test a little bit, and work out a few more mechanics for consequences and recovery, maybe a bit like Mouse Guard‘s condition system. And I’d like to get the thing laid out all pretty.

So there you go. My newest (and hardly last) game about heartbreak and vampires.

  1. Because even my “lighter” game has death in the title. But mostly because Garbage.
  2. Also, I was designing this in the doctor’s office, so I really didn’t have time to recreate Cortex Plus Drama.
  3. With a touch of Cold City.

New Cavaliers of Mars dev blog

An oleph, by Jeff Holt

An oleph, by Jeff Holt

Just a note that I blogged on some of the creatures of Mars over at the Onyx Path blog. In general, expect to see new Cavaliers content turning up there on a regular basis.

Infiltration rules for Fate Accelerated

I’m running a sixties spy-fi game in FAE right now. It’s only a very marginal hack, being mostly by-the-book except for a new set of approaches. However, one of the characters does a ton of sneaking around and ambushing guards. I wrote some simple rules to make that a little more engaging.

The Map

Map out the facility in zones. These are what you’ll be sneaking through.

Approaches

Stealth isn’t limited to the Sneaky approach or an equivalent. A character could Quickly sneak past guards or Cleverly crack a lock.

Guard Enemies

Most enemy guards are represented as a single character for the whole facility. They’re basically a group of mooks as a single character. Give them the following:

  • Two aspects
  • Two things they get a +2 at
  • Two things they get -2 at
  • A stress track, long enough for all the guards in the facility

The Alert Level

The alert level measures how much people in the facility expect trouble. It starts at +2 to +4. Usually, all PCs sneaking around share the same alert level.

The alert level is used as the obstacle for:

  • Getting through (overcoming) surveilled zones without being detected
  • Overcoming locks and other such protections
  • Creating stealth-related advantages

The alert level is used as the bonus for:

  • Enemies Defending against surprise knockouts (which take only a single hit). If you’re only knocking out a single enemy, then an Attack only deals one level of harm, and the enemy goes down. However, if you’re ambushing a group Batman-style, you can deal multiple boxes of harm and take out multiple enemies.
  • Enemies trying to Create security-related advantages against the PCs

Increasing the Alert Level

The alert level increases when you deal with problems in a hasty or incautious manner. In most cases, this is because you failed a roll which would draw attention (blackjacking a guard, cracking a lock, sneaking through a zone).

Instead of failing, you can choose to add +1, +2, or +3 to both your roll and the alert level. Narrate how you’re incautious, leave evidence, or so on. This bonus applies retroactively to your roll, but only to future rolls involving the alert level.

Being Detected

When you fail an Overcome or Attack roll against the alert level, then you gain the Noticed aspect, and the GM gets a free invoke on it. Plus, of course, you’re Noticed and people are likely to shoot at you.

You are not Noticed (yet) if you fail a roll and then choose to increase the alert level in order to succeed.

Usually, each character has their own Noticed aspect.

Escaping Detection

You escape detection by removing the Noticed aspect, either via an Overcome action or by another action that makes Noticed no longer makes sense.

A successful Overcome roll against the alert level reduces the alert level by 1, but can’t reduce it below +2.

 

Unlovely, Dark, and Deep

The Sugar HouseFirst, The Sugar House is now available on Nook, or the various Nook reader applications. You can find it here or on Amazon here.

Second, I talked a little bit in my last post about my goals as a writer for the setting of The Sugar House, but I didn’t really talk about what it is or my inspirations.

The Sugar House takes place in the ancient and dark forests from European fairy tales. The woods cover virtually all of Europe, and it’s possible to travel from Russia to France without ever really leaving them. I’m not sure that the forest is malignant, but it’s dangerous, and human settlements are constantly in danger of being retaken.

Towns are mostly very small. I took a lot of inspiration from Tanith Lee’s Kill the Dead, in which none of the explored settlements are very large. I love giant fantasy cities, but there aren’t many of them here, and Sasha would generally find them appalling. So there are a lot of little collections of huts and farms, with log-paved roads and skinny livestock.

Magic is rough, ready, and bloody. A lot Sasha’s magic is based on knowing the secret ways of the world… like that a certain spirit is repelled by rotting meat. And that spirit isn’t some phantasmal inhabitant of the otherworld. It’s likely to be a physical being, in the way that the creatures of folklore tend to be. The way that Sasha’s magic is essentially cheating, and its dark overtones, are inspired a lot by Hellblazer.

And then there are witches. Ancient, eerie, possibly pre-human, they exist beyond the boundaries of humanity. Sometimes they give mortals what they desire. Sometimes they give their blessings to infants. And sometimes, very rarely, a witch will have a child with a human. Sasha’s father was the son of Baba Yaga, and Sasha’s heritage weighs heavily in her story.

The chief inspiration for my witches was Baba Yaga herself. She’s characterized as a witch, but there’s never any indication that she learned to be one, that she has a secret origin. She both helps and harms the protagonists of Russian fairy tale. I decided to play with that a little… why is it always the lost child who seeks help in the otherworld? Why not the big, bad wolf?

Sasha’s world is, in general, not a place of categorizable phenomena. There’s a lot of Howard in that, Solomon Kane[1.”The Skull in the Stars” was a particular inspiration.] as much as Conan. The supernatural tends to be unique and local. When you journey through the forest, there’s no telling what you’ll find.

And then there’s Sasha’s character herself. But that’s probably another post.

 

The Sugar House

The Sugar HouseJust the other week, my first non-WW/Onyx short story was published, in Worlds Without Master #4. This week, I’m releasing four more.

The Sugar House is a collection of four short stories, each an episode in the adventures of Sasha Witchblood. Everybody calls Baba Yaga “grandmother,” but for Sasha, it’s the literal truth. She wanders a Europe being consumed by the forest, encountering wolves, thieves, and monstrous princesses. The overall idea is Robert E. Howard meets the Brothers Grimm.

This is a book near and dear to my heart. I’ve been writing Sasha’s adventures for a few years, and she’s probably the most interesting character I’ve created. She’s very different from my Vampire protagonists, and the world she inhabits is stranger and more lurid.

Sasha’s the product of me moving to Atlanta and rereading pulp fantasy and comic books. She’s also the product of me looking for heroines who aren’t either fetishized or aspirational. I want to write a heroic woman who just is, the way Conan just is. I want somebody shadowed with dark luck, like John Constantine. And I think I’ve found her.

For the setting, I wanted a deep and moody territory that didn’t rely on a lot of expository worldbuilding. I did a lot of working out setting elements and their relationships, but I’ve tried to keep that under the hood. I wanted the setting to primarily illuminate the character, the way the Hyborian Age brings out the most interesting traits in Conan or the Young Kingdoms reveal Elric’s nature. Sasha’s Europe is a place that I feel comfortable exploring, and which I want to leave open to exploration.

There’s a lot more that I could say about The Sugar House. I have a huge quantity of notes, and I’ve already written most of the sequel. But for now, I hope you’ll read it yourself.

Two Swords of Mars

Illustration from "Two Swords of Mars"The fourth issue of Epidiah Ravachol’s Worlds Without Master zine is now out. It includes “Two Swords of Mars,” a new Cavaliers of Mars short story. Meet rogues-for-hire Valentine and Soteria, and find out what they do with a dead body, an ominous young woman, and a monastery full of blind — but sword-wielding — priests!

This is my first fiction published by someone other than White Wolf or Onyx Path. :)

Good & Evil, Incorporated: Flushing Out Suspects

Welcome back to corporate witch-hunting with Good & Evil, Incorporated.

I was going to talk about Talents next, but it occurred to me that I should first lay down the systems they plug into. The heart of the post is the “Investigation and Antagonist Traits” section, where I use antagonist character sheets to address a problem I have with investigation games. The “Stress” and “Mission Pool” sections cover some of the mechanics that underlie that solution.

Stress

Stress is a pretty familiar topic if you’re acquainted with Cortex Plus. Basically, Stress comes in a number of categories (like Injured or Afraid), and each of those categories has a die rating. In a conflict, your opponent rolls any relevant Stress die against you.

In G&E, as in Dragon Brigade, Stress is tied to Attributes. Since the last post, I’ve decided that my Attributes are: Cool, Hard, Sharp, and Weird. Each has an associated Stress type: Shaken, Hurting, Confused, and Cursed. When the Stress die gets bigger than the associated Attribute, the character’s knocked out.

Sorcerers and demons suffer Stress, too, though they’ll probably have a different set of Attributes. More on that below.

I debated whether or not to have Stress or just use Action’s Complications. I decided on Stress, because having categories of disadvantage sends the message that the Specialists encounter certain types of trouble regularly.

Stress also presents a set of easy hooks to attach Talents to. For example, a Closer can have a Talent that inflicts extra Stress during an interrogation, or a Cleaner can inflict extra Stress when sniping at a suspect.

I haven’t worked out Stress recovery yet. Suggestions are welcome.

The Mission Pool

The GM has a pool of dice which they can use to increase task difficulty and fuel demonic powers. When a die rolls a 1, the GM can choose to create a Complication, or take it for the Mission Pool.

This is one of those GM budget mechanics that I enjoy. I don’t have much against GM fiat, nor am I trying to make GM play tactical. However, playing a resource game helps me as GM pace sessions. And if the players know that my action now drains resources that might be used against them, that gives them another avenue to whittle down the opposition — it’s a little like hit points for the scenario.

Investigation and Antagonist Traits

Sorcerers and their demons have their own set of traits. Sorcerers have Motive, which is the core of everything they do. Demons have Loyalty, which measures both their fidelity to their masters and their purchase on our reality. Both have Attributes, Distinctions, and potentially Powers.

What I want to drill into here are sorcerer Attributes. Player Attributes all lend themselves to immediate action. Sorcerer Attributes are a little different. I’m still figuring out the list, but here’s what I’ve got right now:

  • Connected: The sorcerer’s temporal resources. Money, friends, allies.
  • Stable: The sorcerer’s sense of control over their life and environment.
  • Vital: The sorcerer’s stamina, health, and reserves of magical strength.

One of the problems I have with investigation games is that they often consist of finding clues and putting them together while the monster or suspect is relatively passive. There might be more murders or other forms of pressure along the way, but the investigators aren’t interacting with the suspect when he’s off stage. They can’t do anything mechanical to affect him until they catch up with him… which can make things anti-climactic if there isn’t a big fight.

The Connected and Stable Attributes are designed to address that. With Attributes that have long term implications, and which can take Stress, the investigators can apply pressure to the suspect even when he’s not present. They can freeze his bank account (Connected Stress) or prevent him from coming back to his apartment or sanctum (Stable Stress). Moreover, the suspect can strike back, rolling Connected to put the cops on the trail of our Company investigators.

In this way, the investigators can interact with the suspect even when he’s not there. That makes the investigation a little more like what you might see on a TV procedural: a series of confrontations between a perpetrator and the investigators chasing him.

Good and Evil, Incorporated

Qualified applicant sought for occult tactical position. Must possess bachelor’s degree, be self-starter. Starting salary $125k/yr, great benefits.

Slightly over nine years ago, I posted on RPGnet about a campaign idea. It was relatively simple: the universe was created by Good and Evil as an experiment to find out which is stronger. In order for the experiment to work, people need to have free will. Sorcerers, people who summon demons from Outside, unbalance the experiment. To take them out, Good and Evil employ a local contractor: the eponymous Good and Evil, Incorporated. You play a Specialist, a highly trained operative tracking and eliminating sorcerers.

It was an odd project in that most of the things that make good inspiration are shows I saw later, like Witch Hunter Robin and G vs. E.

Since then, I’ve run the setting a number of times with Wushu, including for a very successful PbP. I also did some work adapting it to Hunter: The Vigil‘s mechanics. When I got the Cortex Plus Hacker’s Guide, it occurred to me that Action Roleplaying would be a really good fit. After all, it’s aimed at action-adventure with highly competent specialists. Since then, I’ve been working on it off and on.

Here’s the first part of what I’ve come up with.

Attributes

In the current draft, I’m using these Attributes:

  • Agility
  • Dexterity
  • Intuition
  • Vitality
  • Willpower

Agility and Dexterity are separate so that sneaky thief acrobatics aren’t tapping the same source as precision shooting. I’d have to play with it some: while I like it from a logical perspective, it might not be a useful level of character differentiation.

Alternatively, I’ve been thinking of adapting Apocalypse World‘s Attributes, which are more indicative of personality and overall approach:

  • Cool
  • Hard
  • Hot
  • Sharp
  • Weird

Those have a nice feel for TV action-adventure. Would you use Weird much in a game where the magicians are the badguys? You might — there’s still occult research and defusing talismans. And having Weird as a character trait puts a flag on the fact that Specialists can be tempted to switch sides. In the PbP, we had an occult expert with a sorcerer in the family who was a hair’s breadth from becoming a sorcerer herself. Further, a d4 in Weird has all sorts of interesting potential consequences.

My hesitation on using the Apocalypse World Attributes isn’t actually whether they’d be appropriate — it’s more that I’m concerned they’d conjure too many memories of AW, when this game has a very different tone and playstyle.

Regardless of Attribute set, you assign one d10, one d8, two d6s, and one d4.

Roles

While the Roles from Leverage or the Hacker’s Guide would work, I want character purviews that reflect the setting a bit more. I also want teams of Specialists to feel more like they focus on investigation-and-elimination, and less on cleverly planned operations. With that in mind, here are the new roles:

  • Book: You know what no one was meant to. You also know enough not to use it. You bring that knowledge to the field, providing on-the-ground information on the occult, black projects, and anything else while interfacing with your Operator and experts back at the office. You solve the puzzles so that no one else needs to know the answers.
  • Closer: You know what makes people tick. And you know what makes them go off. The Company relies on you to profile potential sorcerers, and to interrogate them and their associates. For you, the case is never closed until you know why.
  • Chameleon: You know what people want to hear, who they expect to see. Your team relies on you when somebody needs to walk through the front door of a nice party or look like the perfect buyer for a shipment of hot guns and hotter talismans.
  • Cleaner: You know where to put a bullet. Or a fist. Or a dagger soaked in the blood of priests. You’re what employees in less exciting parts of the Company think of when they hear “Specialist”; a diamond-hard killer. If it bleeds, you can kill it. If it doesn’t, you get a bulldozer.
  • Sneak: You know how not to be seen. You get in, you get out, and no one’s ever the wiser… unless you decide to show off. With your talents, a cult can be deprived of their holy relics without the Company blowing the whole quarter’s budget on ammunition and cover-ups. You walk softly, and carry a bag for the loot.
  • Suit: You know how the system works. You’re as good at shutting down the bank accounts of mystical conspiracies as you are at convincing the boss that your team really did need the luxury car and the rocket launcher. You cut through the red tape… or use it as a garrote.

You’ll notice that there’s no Hacker/Tech Role. There are a few reasons for that. First, I want to put the entire team into the field on most missions. Second, I run the setting with a character called the Operator, who lets me feed information to the player characters over their comms — basically the intercom girlfriend so common in video games.1 The other point of reference is Mother from Sneakers.

The Operator does basic hacking and exposition support, while the team does all of the actual information gathering and on-the-ground technical work. That said, you could put the Tech or any other Hacker’s Guide Role back in really easily, since I’m not changing the way Talents work. Even better, you could use a player character Operator, combining the Talent lists of the Hacker’s Guide‘s Brains and Tech.

The Sneak comes through basically unchanged. I’ve changed her Talents very slightly, as you’ll see when I get there, but the concept and execution is intact.

The rest of the Roles are skill sets that I’ve seen characters cluster around in other systems. The Closer is heavily inspired by shows like Cracker. The Suit and the Chameleon both have social deception within their niche, but the Suit’s more about bringing resources to bear, while the Chameleon does direct impersonation. The Suit will have a Requisition Talent that mimics the Tech’s Gadgeteer, while the Chameleon will take on elements of the Face with some twists.

One role that’s not covered is wheelman. I’ve seen two memorable characters based on that concept, but I’m hesitant to put it in the box because both of those characters spent a fair amount of time acting outside their specialties. When the team goes indoors, the driver can’t follow, except in big, climactic scenes. Still, it’s fertile space for Talents, so maybe a few driving tricks could be available to all Roles.

Thanks for reading. Next, I’ll discuss Dispensations (the setting’s not-quite-powers) and Talents.

  1. In the linked post, I’m critical of the intercom girlfriend, but I can’t deny the utility.

Recent Projects

Blood and Smoke cover

Blood and Smoke

I released two core books in 2013.

Demon: The Descent is a game of techgnostic espionage, where you play a rogue angel who’s defected to the human race.

Blood and Smoke: The Strix Chronicle is a standalone update to Vampire: The Requiem that revitalizes the game’s focus on visceral drama and personal horror.

Deeper personal reflections on these might be in order at some point. Demon is my game about the masks we use to get through daily life, the different identities we adopt with our family and friends. Vampire is my game about the difficulties of adult relationships, and what happens when they slide into exploitation.

I also stepped up as Onyx Path’s development producer, coordinating the schedule and all products in the manuscript process. That’s been an interesting road. While our project lifecycle is similar to that at White Wolf until the PDF/print stages, the work environment is totally different. For a company that’s spread out across the Western world, much less one composed mostly of freelancers, you have to take a very different approach to managing teams. I’ve learned a lot from software development here, and am continuing to work on refining the process.

Cavaliers of Mars is running late because of all the WoD and administrative work this year, but it’s moving along. The core system works, and merely needs some additional playtesting for recent tweaks, and sections of the corebook (like the bestiary) still need writing. Onyx Path is still lined up to publish it as our first creator-owned project.

I’ve been doing a lot of game hacking this year that hasn’t made it to Fantasy Heartbreaker. I’m not sure how I feel about that. I tend to get more feedback over on Google+, but I think people’s eyes glaze over faster when I start to get into detail. I’m rather attached to my blog, but when you’re doing game design, feedback is fundamental. For example, I got way more comments on my space opera hacks of Cortex Plus Action there than here.

My latest small hack is Mouse Guard to run a game in the spirit of Hero’s Quest/Quest for Glory. Mayhap I’ll post more on it here, but the G+ issue lurks there.

I don’t know if anyone’s still bothering to comment here after my long silence, but if so, what are your opinions on the social network/blog divide?

Star Trek and Sci-Fi conflicts with Cortex+

Officer Howard secures the area

In developing our Star Trek/Forbidden Planet/Polaris style space opera game for Cortex+, it’s necessary to re-examine the conflict mechanics.

Cortex+ Action Roleplaying provides a mechanism for multi-round conflicts called Contested or Fight Actions. For our hack, we want conflicts  to start with ideological disagreement, then escalate to blows. To do this, we’ll borrow a few ideas from Dogs in the Vineyard and create an escalating conflict mechanic.

Conflict Actions

Conflict Actions are extended struggles between two parties, generally matters of ideology or violence.

The first part of a Conflict Action is determining what it’s about, and on what moral and intellectual basis the parties involved are going to try and get what they want.

First, you need to declare each party’s intent. The intents need to be roughly in opposition, and it’s better if they both involve something happening. (If only one side’s intent involves something happening, maybe it’s not time for a Conflict.)

We’ll call the character who starts the contest the “attacker,” and the one who respond the “defender.” Obviously, though, Conflicts can be situations other than fights.

The defender’s dice pool is:

  • The most relevant Value

  • The most relevant Attribute

  • A relevant disadvantageous Distinction at d4 (gain a Plot Point)

The attacker’s dice pool is:

  • The most relevant Value

  • The most relevant Attribute

  • A relevant disadvantageous Distinction at d4 (gain a Plot Point)

After intents are declared, the defender rolls their pool to set the stakes. The attacker then attempts to raise by rolling their own pool.

The total for the stakes and the raise are the total of the respective players’ two highest dice.

(Some threats don’t have conventional Values and Attributes. In that case, the GM should improvise two equivalent traits, perhaps based on what the threat represents.)

If the attacker successfully raises, the defender can either give in, ending the Conflict on their own terms, or attempt to raise themselves.

In order to raise past the initial round, the player may escalate, bringing in an additional trait like a Department or Asset, or a Complication affecting the other character. They may also pay a Plot Point to bring in an advantageous Distinction at d8. This must be accompanied by description of an action that brings the new trait into the conflict. The trait die is rolled and added into the player’s total.

A trait brought in in this fashion may bring other traits with it. A Department automatically brings a Specialty, if relevant. A combat trait (like Security) can bring in a weapon Asset. (See below.)

Each time a player attempts to raise, they can’t re-roll any dice (unless a Talent permits it). They simply add the latest rolled die to their running total.

If the player still can’t reach the total necessary to raise, then their character is taken out.

Complications

Complications are generated as for a Basic Action, but only at the end of the Conflict, examining all the 1s rolled.

Weaponry Assets

If a character possesses an Asset which represents a weapon, it defaults to d6, which provides covering fire and such, but does not directly harm the target. Turned on an individual, the character can choose to use the weapon as d8 (stun) or d10 (kill).

A weaponry Asset may be used multiple times, provided its size and consequences are stepped up each time.

If a crew member wins a Conflict with a weapon used as d8 (stun), the adversary is stunned. If the crew member wins a Conflict with a weapon used as d10 (kill), the adversary is killed.

If a non-player character wins a Conflict with a weapon used as d8 (stun), the crew member is stunned, and acquires a d6 Dazed Complication for the next scene after recovering. If a non-player character wins a Conflict with a weapon used as d10 (kill), the player may choose for their character to die, or to persist with a d8 Wounded Complication, which lasts until the crew member receives medical attention in a well-equipped facility.

Challenging Values

If a character chooses to act against one of her Value statements, the player may roll that Value twice rather than the usual once. A single Value may not be rolled more than twice as part of a single Conflict Action.

For the remainder of the session, the Value is stepped back by one. By the end of the session, the character must address the Value challenge in a personal log or a tag scene with another character, and the player must rewrite the Value statement.

Taken Out

A taken out character can no longer participate in a scene. They may be injured, unconscious, or captured. The other character gets their intent.

Giving In

A player who doesn’t want to see their character taken out can choose to give in, accepting a Complication and yielding to the other character’s intent. This generally allows the character to escape or reach some other kind of safety.