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?

My God, it’s full of stories

More good news. The contract has now been signed for The Sugar House and Other Stories, a collection of my short stories about Sasha Witchblood. Everyone calls Baba Yaga “grandmother,” but for Sasha, that’s actually the case. She travels through European forests that never were, raising hell in one dark fairy tale and then another.1 The stories are heavily inspired by German and Russian folklore, with more than a little Robert E. Howard and Roy Thomas in the mix.

I’ll hype the collection a bit more in the future. Today, I just wanted to share the news that it’s been contracted and that the story is with the editor. The publisher will be Flames Rising Press.

Flames Rising also recently published Slices of Fate, a collection of fiction by my good friend Eddy Webb. I haven’t read the entire collection yet, but the pieces I have read are gems. Keep an eye out for more of Eddy’s work in the Far West anthology, coming next year from Adamant.

  1. Is there really any point in saying “dark” fairy tale? Does anyone write any other kind these days?

Turn and face the strain

Since I was let go from CCP, my efforts have been focused on getting another job. Being unemployed takes up a surprising amount of one’s time. Fortunately, I’ve found a place at another MMO studio. Hopefully I’ll be able to say which one in the next week or so.

I haven’t followed through with the announced Cavaliers of Mars updates, but I think I’ve got a pretty good reason.

Cavaliers of Mars is being considered by a publisher. That’s another name I can’t say right now, but I will say that working with this particular publisher lets me work with some valued friends. We’re discussing plans for the book and potential accompanying line right now. When there’s a firm commitment, I’ll post here.

In the meantime, please enjoy an extremely un-Christmas-y installment of “The Apprentice’s Tale.”

Warfare on Mars

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


My master was not alone in living by the sword. Indeed, he was slower to draw it in anger than many of those he associated with. In this world, everything of value must be protected with force, whether by fending off desert raiders and canal pirates, or marching across the desert to defend an oasis town. While we are not by nature murderous, we are often driven to violence to protect what is ours and take what we need from others.

Most warfare is conducted at little greater than arms’ length. Knives and spearpoints are made from bone. When I was fifteen, I offended the honor of a young gentleman. Or, rather, I refused both his advances and his demands for my food. Ringed by his friends, we fought a traditional duel. I slew him. After all, I was hungrier. But afterwards, I retched for hours.

We left town under something of a cloud, but when we next reached civilization, my master gave me my first steel dagger. Metal weapons are valuable indeed, for quality steel comes only from Surtur or the forges of far Deimos.

Our most common firearm is the flintlaser, which is slow to reload but deadly and reliable. My master insisted that I carry at least one flintlaser ready to fire at all times, a practice I have not abandoned.

Many sorts of beast are employed as cavalry mounts. Flying terros and their landbound cousins, the ostoros, are difficult to tame but highly prized. My master was a peculiar breed of cutthroat, a cavalier who could ride all manner of beast. Cavaliers keep their methods close to their chests, but more than one has found employment training the army of a city-state or hill-tribe in the mastery of a particular mount. I learned riding from my master as I grew to womanhood and we spent more and more time on the road. Someday, I think, I shall teach another, provided the world lives that long.

Illium and Zodiac both possess flying ships, based upon a secret anti-gravity element. When I was fifteen, my master and I were caught in a bombardment by Illium’s forces. We spent the entire night lying flat on the floor, hoping that no bombs would fall upon the hovel we had commandeered. I didn’t sleep a wink, between the explosions outside and the cooling body of the homeowner lying next to me.

The capability to unleash such horrors make most cities afraid to challenge Illium or Zodiac on the field of battle. Fortunately for the rest of us, the long enmity between the two states prevents either from reaching too far.

Wars between the city states are sudden and short. At nineteen, I fought alongside my master in one of Vance’s mercenary companies. In that year as a soldier, I probably learned as much of the world as I did in the entire six previous. When the war ended, we were once again unemployed, and took to guarding caravans for a while. Truthfully, we rarely had to draw steel. Most of the bandits were people we had fought beside in the war.

Still, from time to time, we were forced to kill former comrades. He never told me aloud, but I believe that is why we soon left the caravans to seek our fortunes in the lost places.


The other reason we left guard duty was that I took a nasty cut to my sword arm. My master always told me that he needed me to watch his back. By the time I was 21 this was actually true, and I needed a good arm to do it.

Our physicians are well educated in anatomy, and skilled at the ugly art of surgery. Like most drugs, their anesthetics are dangerously strong, and difficult to dose safely. However, they are well-known and widely available, provided the physician’s price can be met.

My cut was treated with a peculiar gum derived from trees in the canyon-forest of Wyeth. Wyeth gum is antiseptic, and firms quickly when applied to a wound. It acts as a coagulant, stopping bleeding, yet is porous enough to allow drainage. Wounds treated this way heal quickly and leave only light scars. My arm recovered swiftly, though it still aches from time to time.

If a wounded person is treated quickly enough, they can often return to at least light physical labor within hours. I have heard soldiers boast that with a vial of Wyeth gum and a pitcher of liquor, they can fight until the end of days.

Next: Our story concludes in the Lost Places!