The Apprentice’s Tale

The City of Vance, by Chris Huth

The City of Vance, illustrated by Chris Huth

“The Apprentice’s Tale” is my exploration of the world of Cavaliers of Mars. It tells the story of a young girl taken from her broken home by a cavalier and raised as his apprentice. As she recounts their years together, we see the world they live in.

Here are links to each part in order:

The Apprentice’s Tale: The Lost Places

This concludes “The Apprentice’s Tale,” a serial exploration of the world of Cavaliers of Mars.

As I was saying, during my recovery, we began to plan an expedition to the lost places. We traveled to Chiaro. We took up lodging in a tent city in Chiaro-that-is, but within sight of our goal: Chiaro-that-was. Chiaro-that-is is a reasonably hospitable place. Poor, but the basic necessities of life are available. Oases within the city space provide food,  along with some yumocs raised for meat. We were just two more would-be tomb robbers spending our last chits on the chance of a fortune.

At night, by blue flames, we would stare out at Chiaro-that-was, silhouetted against the stars. Staring out at what the First Martians left behind.

In that epoch, the world was filled with life. Plants, beasts, and sentient creatures all thrived and multiplied. The First Martians built grand cities along the azure seas, yet still pushed back the many-colored jungles only a little. They even built cities under the oceans, protected by crystal domes from the water and from the great leviathans of that impossible age.

In Chiaro, as in a few other places, they left monuments of unimaginable scale. Here were the pyramid-tombs that must have housed their kings, and sphinxes with their eyes towards heaven. Why they built on this scale is hard for those of us who remain to imagine, but I think they did so simply because they could.

Now, these places are abandoned. No throngs fill the city streets, no worshippers gather at the feet of the pyramids or in the eyes of the sphinxes. Many of the treasures of the First Martians lay untouched, as they have since times undreamt of. Not that that’s ever stopped anyone from dreaming of the treasures themselves.

The First Martians are so long gone that even their ghosts have likely scattered on the winds. Yet their treasures still have guardians. The tomb stalkers are strange, tripodal machines that move quietly through the ruins. Their voices are keening and creaking… I only heard them from miles away, and still the memory makes me shudder. They sweep the abandoned streets of all life, sparing the occasional beast only so that it can chase intruders into their paths.

In Chiaro, I was told many times that those tomb stalkers that can be seen within the ruins are only a fraction of their number. Many more, I was told, lie slumbering beneath the sand.

Of course, the ruins of the First Martians are not the only forsaken places on the Red World. Lesser peoples have risen and fallen, leaving their own abandoned cities and degenerate remnants. These so-called dusk cities lie empty, or inhabited by small, cult-like populations who cling to the homes of ancestors they can no longer comprehend.

All of these lost places are tempting targets for graverobbers and treasure hunters, such as my master and I. We spent weeks in Chiaro-that-was, hunting for an untouched tomb, for a cache of relics no one had yet dared plunder. We carried blue flames to keep the tomb stalkers at bay… perhaps they worked.

Perhaps we would have found our treasure there. But one evening, as the blue star rose and we made camp, my master’s coughing was a little worse than it had been. His body seemed a little more bent than the day before, and it had seemed a little more bent the day before that. As the twilight dwindled, he told me stories about my father. I don’t know if they were true; I hope some of them were.

He talked, and he sang, a little feebly. Old soldiers’ songs, maybe learned on the steppe in his youth. He told me of the end of the world, of the days when the atmosphere processors would breathe their last, of desert winters that would last forever. He kept asking me to refill his cup; when there was no more liquor, I filled it with water. He didn’t seem to notice. And as the ice of night fell around us, my master died. His final words were simple, affectionate, and then he closed his eyes forever.

I packed up our camp. I could hear the tomb stalkers, and had no desire to take any chances. In the icy night, I began my walk back towards the blue lamps of Chiaro-that-is.

And so, in the lost place, I left the man who found me.

True Romance

On that special day, show her how much you care. Be an accomplice.


Whence rules?

Simple question, long answer:

What situations do you need rules for, and why?

Zak over at D&D with Porn Stars recently presented a discussion on whether D&D has enough rules, and whether those rules are necessary for fun.1 He makes the argument that D&D’s lack of rules for certain things help the game go in unexpected directions according to the desires of those at the table and, presumably, chance.

Obviously, most game designers think you need rules for combat. This is enshrined in countless “what is roleplaying” blurbs, where the rules are presented as a way of answering the question “did I get shot” in a game of “Cops and Robbers.” In that example, the rules are there for  arbitration. They’re there so that one player can’t arbitrarily declare that another must leave play.

I’ve never liked this example. It implies that the main purpose of the rules is to protect you from Ms. Frost, yet most games give the GM absolute authority, anyway.2

Still, I think some rules do serve to arbitrate or disambiguate. The purest example I can think of is Greg Stolze’s …in Spaaace!, where the core mechanic (a bidding system) is all about whether you, as a player, get your desired outcome.

Rules do other things, too. One you’ll certainly recognize if you read D&D with Porn Stars is to introduce chance. Roleplaying games, particularly older or newer ones, make use of a lot of devices to create unpredictability. The most iconic is the random encounter table. Rules also usually make the winners of a conflict unpredictable.

This is the main thing I use rules for, myself. A number of my own systems include a sentence like “If the players agree that more than one of the possible outcomes is interesting, use these rules to decide which happens.”

In any of these cases, the point isn’t primarily to arbitrate a dispute over whether you meet an angry bear, it’s to introduce the angry bear in the first place. In conflict resolution, the point isn’t that I say the bear is willing to give up his salmon and you say he isn’t, but that we mutually admit that we don’t know and would like to ask the dice.

In Apocalypse World, Vincent Baker proposes another purpose for rules. He asserts that roleplaying games are conversations3 and that the purpose of rules is to modify those conversations, to make sure that people say things that they otherwise wouldn’t. So, normally, I might not suggest that my character takes a nasty fall, but when the dice tell me so, I do. Or I wouldn’t agree to taking that fall, except that there’s a tasty drama point on offer.

So, what do you need rules for, and why?

  1. I don’t assert that that was his only point, but it’s the one that got me thinking.
  2. Sometimes, this authority is represented as ownership, as in “it’s the GM’s game.” Other times, it’s represented as public service, as in “it’s the GM’s responsibility to make sure everyone has fun” or “it’s the GM’s responsibility to serve the story.” No matter the case, most roleplaying games seem to be pretty sure that one player can declare “rocks fall, everyone dies.”
  3. I agree, they are conversations.

But I can’t trace time

I can now officially announce that I’ve joined ZeniMax Online Studios in Baltimore, as a content designer on their unannounced MMO. ZOS is a corporate sibling to Bethesda, makers of The Elder Scrolls, and id Software, creators of Doom and Quake.

To that end, I’ve now relocated to Baltimore, and just moved in to what seems like a very nice new apartment. I’m excited to get started!

A Different Space Combat System

In the thread on my previous space combat system, Morten asked about something more in the vein of Mouse Guard. Well, here’s just such a system.

These are rules for any conflict, but mainly space combat. Dice pool system, vaguely nWoD.In any conflict, there’s a leader and a crew. The leader decides two things: the crew’s order of actions, and how to distribute his leadership dice.

These are the main actions:


A crew’s Disposition is the leader’s Leadership skill, plus something else. If it’s ship combat, it’s the ship’s defense rating. If it’s a surface firefight, it’s the number of people in the landing party.

Actions are decided privately a set number in advance, based on the range:

Close (2)
Medium (3)
Far (4)

After Disposition drops below half, characters have to make Saves after a successful attack. The character with the lowest save is taken out of action for a number of turns equal to the attack success. (This represents consoles blowing up or lasers hitting people.) (NPCs roll only one die, and may suffer fatal damage immediately at the GM’s discretion.)

If action A counters action B, subtract the successes of action A from those of action B. Action A’s effect occurs unmodified.

“Attack approach. Fire all batteries.”
Counters: Maneuver
Countered By: Evade
Roll your attack dice. Reduce the enemy’s Disposition by the number of successes.

“Bring us about, ensign. Mark 2 point 2 8.”
Counters: Evade
Countered By: Attack
Roll your maneuver dice. Your next action gets a bonus equal to twice your successes. If you have any successes, you may choose to increase or decrease range.

“Evasive action. Get us out of his fire!”
Counters: Attack
Countered By: Maneuver
Roll your evade dice. The successes add to your Disposition, which can’t increase beyond its original size.

“I’ve rerouted power to the main batteries / from the thrust controller.” (2)
“You’re all brave officers, / and my days serving with you have been a privilege. / Let’s make sure there are many more to come.” (3)
No Counters
Make a short speech, Wushu-style. 1 die per detail/salient point. For each success, you have dice you can add to any future action. The leader may add these dice to the action of any member of the crew..

Storytelling Star Trek: Space Combat

Enterprise Firing

Here’s a first pass at a combat system.

Ship Stats

Initiative Bonus/Penalty (Maneuverability)
Weapons and Weapon Arcs
Forward Shield Boxes
Aft Shield Boxes
Structure Boxes

The Map

Combat takes place on an eight-space, one-dimensional map made of range bands. Tokens on this range band face either forward or backward along the band.

Start of the turn

Each ship starts with two Maneuvers.


Players roll the helmsman’s Helm Control Skill plus the captain’s Leadership Skill, plus any ship Initiative bonus. This is their ship’s Initiative. Before the Initiative roll, the players can trade any number of dice for extra Maneuvers in the Movement or Action phases.

Movement Phase

Ships move from lowest initiative to highest.

On a ship’s movement turn, the helmsman may choose to spend a Maneuver to:

  • Move their ship one range band.
  • Change their ship’s facing. (Backwards or forwards.)
  • Move an opposing ship one range band.
  • Change an opposing ship’s facing.


Action Phase

Ships move from lowest initiative to highest. Ships may take two actions.

The tactical officer may choose to spend a Maneuver to:

  • Fire a weapon. (See Weapons.)
  • Make a Speech. (See Speech.)
The engineer may choose to spend a maneuver to:
  • Repair a shield without the two-box limit.
  • Make a Speech.


Weapons have different ideal ranges. They suffer penalties based on being fired at targets outside ideal range. Some ideal ranges are close in, like the disruptors on a Klingon Bird of Prey. Others are further out, like Federation phasers.

Weapons are fired with an Intelligence + Tactics roll.

Phasers and other beam weapons give a bonus to the attack roll. All successes on the attack roll which are damage.

Photon torpedoes and other missile weapons do not provide a bonus to attack. They deal a flat amount of damage on a successful impact. Missile weapons come in limited quantities. The quantity of missiles available to the player represents the total number of salvos the launchers can fire without need for ammunition resupply or launcher repair.

Firing Arcs, Shields

All weapons and shields are marked fore or aft. A ship may only fire weapons on the arc that directly faces the opposing ship, and may only hit the arc facing it.

Shields block damage. When a ship is hit, and it has shields remaining on that arc, check a number of shield boxes equal to the damage taken. Any leftover damage is applied to the ship’s system the attacker was targeting..

A player may trade one Speech die (see Speech) to recharge one shield box. You may do this as many times as you like. Alternatively, a repair roll (see Repair) can be made.


If a ship suffers three points of damage or more, and the shields don’t soak up all of it, the ship is Rocked. Each important crew member must make a Dexterity + Athletics check or be knocked prone. A prone character cannot take any action (moves, attacks, repairs, Speeches) on their next turn.


A character may make a Speech related to their job for bonus dice on the next turn. For each salient point in the Speech (up to five), they receive a bonus die to be allocated to a future, relevant action.

The player whose character made the Speech gets to distribute the dice. Speeches can help players who otherwise have a limited role during combat to get their due spotlight time.

A Speech does not cost a Maneuver, but only one player may make one per turn.


“You’re fine officers. / Every day I’ve served with you has been an honor. / Let’s make sure there are many more to come.” (3 dice)

“I’ve rerouted power to the secondary junctions. / That should free up the main batteries to give you more power to the impulse engine.” (2 dice)


Ships’ crews can make remarkable repairs in the heat of battle. Once per round (without necessarily spending a Maneuver), a player may pick a damaged system and roll his character’s Wits + Engineering.

If repairing the ship against Conditions, the repair roll counts as an escape roll against one current Condition.

If repairing the ship’s Structure, the ship recovers one box per success on the roll. However, unless a Maneuver is spent, no more than two boxes can be repaired at a time in this fashion.

If repairing the shields, the shields recover one box of protection per success on the roll. However, unless a Maneuver is spent, no more than two boxes can be recharged at a time in this fashion.

Doing Other Things

During a single ship’s Action phase, up to three normal character actions can be taken by the crew, and three by any opponents. These can include arguments (such as social checks), repair attempts (if the character is qualified), making escape rolls for Conditions, and engaging in personal combat.


If a ship takes two or more damage boxes while unprotected by shields on the appropriate arc, the ship receives a Condition.

Condition Consequence Escape Roll
Venting Warp Plasma The ship begins each turn with one less Maneuver, and cannot spend Maneuvers to move. Wits + Engineering
Unstable The ship’s inertial dampers are malfunctioning, rocking the ship back and forth and causing every hit to Rock the ship. Wits + Engineering
Weapons Down The weapons in one firing arc have been disabled. Wits + Engineering
Crew Panic The crew are panicked and demoralized. -3 dice to every dice pool associated with a Maneuver or Repair. Presence + Leadership
Sensors Malfunctioning The sensors are malfunctioning. Weapons are harder to aim, at a -2 penalty. Wits + Engineering to fix, Intelligence + Tactics to ignore for one turn
Listing The ship’s drive systems are out of control. On each attempt to move, roll one die. On an even number, the ship moves as intended. On an odd number, the opponent makes up to two moves for the ship. Wits + Engineering
Casualties Key ship personnel are injured. All rolls for ship-level actions or repairs take -1.This condition may be taken multiple times, with cumulative penalties. Wits + Medicine
Questions, comments, penguin jokes?

Storytelling Star Trek: Space Combat Wishlist

The most famous Star Trek battle

Here’s my wishlist for the space combat system:

  • Most shots are called. (Star Trek is usually “target their nacelles; we don’t want them going to warp.”)
  • Significant situation change in every round. (Most TV engagements are resolved in a couple of maneuvers.)
  • Everybody on the bridge has the potential to contribute.
  • Shields take an important role, but a typical engagement results in at least temporary systems damage.
  • The primary effect of damage is to take key systems offline.
  • A lucky or unusually strong hit can fry systems all over the ship. (Scatter damage?)
  • Maneuvering is entirely relative.
  • Desperate repairs can be made in combat, but repairs out of combat (permanent repairs) take much longer.
  • Damage can “shake the ship” and cause trouble for crewmembers on the bridge. Shaking, exploding stations, and so on.


Storytelling Star Trek: Willpower

Willpower is an important part of my vision for running Star Trek. I’m a big believer in players having pools of magic beans that give them some control over when they succeed. Willpower is also a powerful feedback mechanism in the Storytelling system. In our conversion, it will provide reinforcement for following your character’s Values and Nature, as well as fuel for the Aspect system.

The Name

I considered renaming Willpower “Action Points,” as we did in the Storytelling adaptation of EVE Online. In that game, the goal was to make Willpower an entirely metagame resource, getting rid of the flimsy mapping between the idea of “willpower” and an increased ability to succeed.

However, I think I want to keep a flimsy mapping of that sort. Therefore, I’m going to follow the Last Unicorn Games version of Star Trek and call Willpower “Courage.”

Starting Courage

Characters start each new episode with five Courage points.


 Courage points will have a few more uses than in the World of Darkness.

  • Flash of Insight: Spend a Courage point to get the familiar three die bonus to a roll.
  • Use Aspect: When one of your character’s Aspects is relevant, spend a Courage point to gain a five die bonus to a roll.
  • Lucky Break: Your character finds a clue, such as one accidentally left behind by an antagonist.
  • Spirited Defense: After someone has successfully attacked your character, roll three dice. Your successes are subtracted from the incoming damage.
  • Escape Condition: Shrug off a Condition (like being stunned) without making the necessary Escape Roll. More on Conditions in a future post.

Getting points back

  • Once per scene, you can get a point of Courage back by fulfilling one of your character’s Values.
  • Once per session, you can get a full Courage refresh by fulfilling your character’s Nature.
  • You also receive a point of Courage when one of your Aspects is activated against you.


As per Stew’s recommendation, these replace Merits and Flaws. Aspects are a concept borrowed from Evil Hat’s excellent FATE system. They’re character traits which can be positive, negative, or, frequently, both. Aspects cost a point of Courage to activate in a character’s favor, and give a point of Courage when used against the character.

Coming Up

I’m working on starship combat. While I don’t intend it to be a central feature of my chronicle, I want to have a distinct and fun combat system that imparts the feel of big, heavy starships crewed by specialists.

I think FASA’s system was really good, and easily the slickest part of their Trek RPG. However, I don’t want to use their hex-based positioning, or give two players (the science officer and the communications officer) heavy bookkeeping to do even on turns where their characters don’t take any action.

I’m starting from two places: first, an initiative and tactical positioning system inspired by AGON. Second, Ben “Bailywolf” Baugh once designed a neat starship combat system that split each “ship turn” into several “crew turns.” I like the idea of mixing lots of crew-scale actions in between large-scale ship maneuvers. As usual, I’m interested in any suggestions.

I’m kind of stuck on lifepath rules. I like the idea of charting out your character’s academy history and tours of duty (something that was cool in both FASA and LUG), but most Star Trek characters are specialists and I’m using a short skill list, which means each tour of duty would be something like “yeah, another helm job, pile on one more dot.” I’m thinking of taking a look at Traveller‘s most recent High Guard book and seeing if there’s anything inspiring in there.

Storytelling Star Trek

The U.S.S. Enterprise

Some assembly required...

Lately, I’ve been wanting to run a Star Trek game. I spent a lot of the nineties doing one kind of Trek roleplaying or another. I still have binders full of starship and equipment blueprints, mostly focused on the Next Generation era.

For this game, though, I want to go back to the show I watched every day after school (six o’clock, channel 45) — the original series. Bright colors, fast pacing, the final frontier. I’ll also snatch some of the action-adventure from the recent movie.

Setting-wise, there are a lot of important questions. How much autonomy do the player characters have? What are my Klingons like?

There’s also the matter of system, which is what I want to focus on today. I’m tentatively using the Storytelling system, which powers the new World of Darkness. This’ll require a bit of hacking, though. Let’s walk through the character sheet.


Morality goes out the window. While Star Trek definitely has a code of values, the gothic degeneration cycle of the World of Darkness makes no sense. Your conscience doesn’t need hit points this time out.

Values and Nature

Virtue and Vice are similarly off-tone. I could just do Virtue only, but that still doesn’t seem right. First of all, let’s give characters three Values, each of which are good for one Willpower point every time they’re fulfilled. These are common to all characters from a given alliance. Federation characters get Curiosity, Compassion, and Duty. A Klingon chronicle might use Ambition, Heroism, and Ruthlessness.

Each character also gets a Nature. Once per session, fulfilling the requirement of Nature can get you all of your Willpower back. We’ll use a list derived from Exalted.

  • Bravo: Make someone else back down.
  • Bureaucrat: Resolve a crisis by following correct procedures.
  • Caregiver: Receive tangible proof that you have helped another.
  • Conniver: Lead someone to do what you want, against their initial inclination.
  • Critic: Point out a significant flaw that would have caused harm if overlooked.
  • Explorer: Make a significant discovery.
  • Follower: Help your friends succeed by fulfilling your duty.
  • Gallant: Perform a great deed that is inspiring or attention-drawing.
  • Hedonist: Have an amazingly good time and bring others along for the ride.
  • Jester: Lighten the mood of a dark or tense situation.
  • Judge: Lead others to a just resolution.
  • Leader: Others follow your decisions without significant dispute.
  • Martyr: Make a significant sacrifice for a higher goal.
  • Paragon: Accomplish a great deed for the greater good.
  • Rebel: Defy a powerful authority.
  • Savant: Use rationality and calm to resolve a crisis.
  • Survivor: Survive a dangerous situation through your own cunning or determination.
  • Thrillseeker: Escape a life-threatening situation… that you got yourself into in the first place.
  • Traditionalist: Accomplish a goal using a tried-and-true method.


Split 7/5/4 between Mental, Physical, and Social. Keep in mind that the setting privileges Mental and Social Skills.


You could make a case for keeping the World of Darkness Skill list almost intact for Star Trek, but I think I’ll take the opportunity to do a shorter, more setting-specific list. Players get 15 points to split among the following:

  • General Skills
    • Academics
    • Athletics
    • Close Combat
    • Diplomacy
    • Investigation
    • Leadership
    • Ranged Combat
  • Department Skills
    • Communications
    • Engineering
    • Helm Control
    • Medicine
    • Navigation
    • Science
    • Security
    • Tactical

Players may also assign two Specialties. An unskilled attempt for any skill under pressure is at -1. For a starship crew member, an unskilled attempt at any Department skill, given ample time and resources, may be allowed to pass with one success. So Kirk may not easily be able to coax more power from the engines himself when the ship is falling into a singularity, but given enough time, he can repair a shuttle stranded at an abandoned star base.

Merits and Flaws

I’m tempted to leave these out, but instead I’ll leave them to come back to later. A lot of the existing lists don’t really apply to this kind of chronicle, and they raise a lot of questions. Since this is mainly a non-template chronicle, should alien species be Merits?

Next Steps

So the next steps are whatever I’m doing with Merits and Flaws, plus expansions to what you can do with Willpower. Then maybe a lifepath system, and a starship combat engine. Any recommendations?