Posts Tagged ‘roleplaying games’

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 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.


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.


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 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.

Star Trek-style gaming with Cortex+

United Worlds Starship Polaris

The urge to run space opera game in the vein of the original Star Trek has bitten me again. I’m aiming for something you might call Forbidden Planet: The Series. Or Starship Polaris, if you’ve been following United Worlds’ indie sci-fi project. Big ships, responsibility to your crew, and adventure around every corner.

This time, I’m looking at Cortex+, Cam Banks and Margaret Weis Productions’ excellent family of cinematic and television-styled roleplaying games.

Specifically, I’m looking at Action Roleplaying, the engine behind Leverage. Action Roleplaying provides a key element for this genre: characters with distinct specialties who are, nonetheless, capable in a wide variety of fields.

The Hacker’s Guide (released to KS backers) is an invaluable resource here, providing lots of tools for customizing the various families of Cortex+ games.

Let’s look at the decisions we have to make.


The core of humanistic space opera are Values. I’m picking Ambition, Compassion, Curiousity, and Duty. (One might find alien crews with different Values, but these make a good core.) These will get customized Value statements for each character, as in Smallville and its broader version Dramatic Roleplaying.

Then we need action traits. The first category are Attributes. I’m stressing mental and social traits: Bravado, Ingenuity, Fellowship, and Perception.

Second, we need the areas our crew are trained in. I’m using the various departments of starship operations: Medicine, Science, Security, and Operations. With a range of attached Specialties, these can cover the needs of a crew far from home and all alone in the night.

Finally, there are Distinctions — those traits that can cut both ways.

Character Creation

Character creation is done using a lifepath — a vastly simplified version of Cortex’s Pathways system. I’ll publish that in more detail later. Essentially, you pick an Origin and move through three stages of your career, creating an action-ready crewmember.

Here’s a sample lifepath chart, with most of the instructions.

Next: Tuning the Action and Conflict systems

Sacraments & Blasphemies


Blood Sorcery: Sacraments & Blasphemies

Blood Sorcery: Sacraments & Blasphemies for Vampire: The Requiem is out now. You get an improv ritual system for Theban Sorcery and Cruac inspired by Mage and Witchfinder, plus a new class of sacrifice-based charms called Threnodies that let you add a little bit of black magic to any character. We round that out with some cool new antagonists, like the Sons of Phobos and the Empty Liars.

I’ve written more about this over at the White Wolf blogs.

Introducing the Onyx Path

Cavaliers of Mars, art by Chris Huth

At Gen Con, White Wolf creative director Richard Thomas has announced his new venture, Onyx Path Publishing. Onyx Path has a really cool lineup of roleplaying games, including:

  • Cavaliers of Mars, my game of swashbuckling Martian adventure.
  • Both Worlds of Darkness and Exalted, under license from CCP.
  • Trinity and Scion, which Onyx Path now owns.

The Onyx Path web site will go live soon.

I’ve been waiting a long time for this news to go public. I literally jumped for joy.

Fun with Failure

Do you allow your players to declare that their characters automatically fail?

Let me tell you about my character. Trooper Shiv came from rural Georgia. He joined up with the 3:16 because in the unbearable lightness of the far future there were only so many jobs. So Shiv signed on the dotted line, went through basic on the moon, and promptly got shipped off to a war nobody could possibly be prepared for.

Shiv had a lot of bad luck. He was blinded on an early drop, and the replacement eyes the 3:16 gave him never actually worked. The best thing that ever happened to him was when he got stuck with an alien brain parasite. At last he had a friend.

He wasn’t a bad soldier. He just wasn’t the kind of guy things worked out for. A lot of the time, I’d roll the dice for him, and I’d be hoping for a failure. Not really to torment him, just because I didn’t really think that his story was a happy one.

In 3:16, there’s no upside to failing conflicts or even individual tasks.1 It’s not Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where you get points for taking one for the team or the story. I just hoped my character would fail.

One of the themes of Cavaliers of Mars is that characters’ fortunes swing wildly. While they’re generally competent, sometimes they’re just going to be down on their luck… and sometimes the dice are going to bring them low. But players can also choose to blow a task check. Specifically, they can choose to critically fail. In exchange, they get a point of Luck, so that things will swing back their way at some point in the future.

The Luck point is there to encourage certain kinds of drama, but the main reason characters are allowed to just fail is that I think that players should be able to shape the hardships their characters face. It’s really just an extension of allowing players to choose impossible odds.

Does a player deliberately screwing their character up break your immersion? Do you feel that your favorite rules cause failure often enough that letting a GM or player inflict more of it damages the tone of the game? I only addressed games with a roughly traditional player/GM divide here… are your preferences different when it comes to games like Fiasco?


  1. Although taking a Weakness can spare your character from getting killed.

Cavaliers of Mars rules announcement

Cavaliers of Mars

Cavaliers of Mars

In addition to Wushu, Cavaliers of Mars will ship with swashbuckling rules powered by Barbarians of Lemuria and Honor + Intrigue.

Some of the earliest playtests of Cavaliers of Mars were done with Barbarians of Lemuria, and Honor + Intrigue takes the game to the next level in providing exciting melee combat.

Cavaliers will feature new stealth infiltration and chase mechanics, as well as a number of other new, light subsystems.

The game will ship dual-statted for both Wushu and Barbarians. I’ll be posting some dev blogs in the future talking about the adaptation process.