Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Rank and the Chain of Command

I write a lot of military/historical games - the In Harm's Way series is up to five games now, with a sixth in development. A central focus of these games for characters is rank. None of the games I write have XPs, character advancement being taken care of by aging, but the IHW games have a mechanic which is tied not to skill increases but to rank increase.

The mechanic is the Notice mechanic. PCs advance in rank by accumulating Notice. Notice is awarded for doing things that get you *noticed*, like shooting down enemy planes, or boarding an enemy Frigate, or taking a heavily defended position. The more spectacular the feat, the higher the award.

Notice is awarded in character by the commanding officer via "I wrote you up in the dispatches", or a medal, or maybe just an "attaboy". Once the PC has accumulated enough Notice, he gets promoted. Of course, if you screw up, you can get negative notice, also given in-character.

In the games set earlier in history, characters start with an initial award of points called Interest. This is to simulate the political pull of the character's family. It is re-awarded at each rank, though it becomes a diminishing relative amount as the point totals needed to advance continuously rise with each rank. Games set more recently dispense with this Influence, as the military becomes more of a meritocracy.

Why award the points in-character? I just like tying it all into the game. Besides, if the CO isn't aware of the feat, no points are awarded - after all, it signifies doing something that your CO notices, that differentiates you from the crowd. It's fitting to award it in character. The CO doesn't have to be there, he just has to be aware of it. Also your CO gets a fraction of your points. Anything you do reflects on him too! If your CO is another PC, way cool!

Speaking of which, in games I have run using this mechanic, the players never seem to resent the success of their fellow players. Many times PCs end up in command of their fellow PCs, and it's all cool. The competition is fair and open, and that seems to make a difference - it isn't like the players bought their command. They won it.


Monday, August 24, 2009

From OHMAS: The Savant

From On Her Majesty's Arcane Service
In honor of Zach of RPG Blog II putting OHMAS on his Zack's Dozen hotlist, I present the Savant, a character type or Path of Power from OHMAS.

The Savant

The Savant is a person of knowledge, who approaches the arcane by means of science.

The Savant is not sceptical, but is both deeply rational and something of a mystic, reading the tracks of magic on the face of nature. The Savant has a deep seated belief in both God and Magic, which allows the Savant to apply the tools of science to the purpose of magic.

A Savant is first and foremost a highly educated person. In addition to their normal skills, Savants gain a mastery in Linguistics, with a fluency in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. They gain this Mastery over the course of their education, gaining a rank in Linguistics every three years - Latin at the age of 10, Greek at 13, Hebrew at 16, and the other languages at 19 snd 22. The Savant may take other ranks of Linguistics by year, as he would any normal skill.

Savants must be first an Apprentice Scholar and then a Proto-Academic, though they do not have to pay for the education if their family Lifestyle is too low, as their intelligence would be noticed and funding made available. Savants must have an INT of at least 11 to qualify.


Savants can Ward an area from intrusion, both material and spiritual. An area Warded by a Savant cannot be scryed, spied upon, or entered by anyone not inside the wards when the Savant sets them out. The Wards themselves are at least three objects of magical and/or mystical power physically placed by the Savant, defining the periphery of the Warded area - three wards defining a triangle, four defining a quadrilateral, etc. On a successful Warding roll, the Wards are activated, one success indicating three Wards activated, with one more Ward activated per success after that.

Once per day, the Savant may read the day’s Astrological chart. On a successful Astrology roll, the player may make one roll per success on the the Astrology Table below. The player determines which column(s) to roll on. The word indicated should be treated as a temporary Traits which is not part of the savant’s personality, but part of the environment, and available to whoever the Savant tells them to. Traits give a bonus to any other action when used, so long as the Trait could believably help. Each Trait point used adds bonus die to the roll. Traits are a resource which are used up in play.

The Astrology Table
Luna rules Emotion
Mercury rules Reason
Venus rules Romance
Mars rules Conflict
Jupiter rules Fortune
Saturn rules Order

Luna Mercury Venus Mars Jupiter Saturn
1-2 Fear Deliberation Flirtation Trickery Secrecy Boundaries
3-4 Hesitance Inspiration Subversion Might Timing Laws
5-6 Horror Analysis Sex Indirect Boldness Customs
7-8 Anger Deduction Seduction Flanking Lavishness Families
9-10 Doubt Mystification Titillation Position Prudence Organizations
11-12 Affection Appreciation Fascination Intimidation Investment Channels
13-14 Lust Deceit Ingratiation Brutality Trust Ethics
15-16 Confidence Misdirection Sympathy Glory Miserliness Morals
17-18 Longing Compromise Intrigue Caution Distrust Patterns
19-20 Joy Persuasion Beauty Opportunity Openness Connections

Note: the Savant may roll several times on one column.

The Savant can commune with spirits. The particular device used could be anything - a mirror in the proper place tilted at the proper angle; the severed head of an innocent set in a silver cage of peculiar and particular design; a complex armature which holds a pen, with which the Savant can write and the spirit write back so long as the Savant holds the pen, etc. The player and GM must agree to the device used, noting restrictions placed on the communication by the device’s nature.

The spirits communing are not under the control of the savant in any way, and may lie or not, or totally ignore the Savant’s questions as they choose. As the Savant gains skill in Communion, however, she is better able to filter out extraneous chatter and malicious lies. on a Communion check, the more successes rolled, the more trustworthy and pertinent the information is.

Arcane Geometry
Arcane Geometry is the science of what would now be called non-Euclidean Geometry and its applications in the real world. Folds and tunnels in space, pocket universes, fairy hills, containers and domiciles with more volume on the inside than on the outside - these can be detected, changed, and created through application of Arcane Geometry. The savant describes what he is attempting before the skill check

Creating a pocket:
The creator may vary space, time, and condition within the pocket, both at the time of creation and afterward. With patience, as pockets may only be changed yearly, a small pocket may be enlarged, time ratios changed, and conditions added. On a successful arcane Geometry skill check, each success may be applied to one of these variables.

Varying Space in the Pocket
Each success applied to space makes the pocket larger. For the first success, a pocket of .1 cubic feet in volume - large enough to tuck in a scroll or book - is created. Each further success extends the space as follows:
10 cu. ft. - big enough for a crouching Human, 1000 cu. ft.- a 10' X 10' X 10' room, 100,000 cu ft.- a 100' X 100' X 100' cube, etc. The actual contours of the pocket may vary according to the whims of the creator.

Varying Time in the Pocket
Time ratios are expressed as a relationship of time in our world to time in the pocket - X:Y (X to Y) - where the first element (X) is time in our world, and the second element (Y) is time in the pocket. A ratio of 2:1, for example, would mean one hour (day, week) spent in the pocket will equal two hours (days, weeks) spent in our world. A ratio of 1:2, for example, would mean two hours (days, weeks) spent in the pocket will equal one hours (day, week) spent in our world.

At the pocket's creation, the direction of the ratio must be stated as being Fast or Slow. Fast pockets have a ratio where the first number is one, and the second number is always greater than one. For example, 1:3. Time in Fast pockets is always faster than time in our world. Slow pockets have a ratio where the first number is always greater than one, and the second number is one. For example, 3:1. Time in Slow pockets is always slower than time in our world.

Increasing Time Ratios
Each success applied to time increases the ratio of time in the pocket as compared to our world. Without applying any successes to time, the ratio of time in the pocket to time in our world is 1:1 (one to one). One success applied to time will increase the ratio to 2:1 or 1:2. Each success applied to time will increase this ratio by one - i.e. two successes applied will increase the ratio by two, a 1:1 ratio becoming 3:1. Increasing a pocket's time ratio can be done once every ten years of our world's time. When increasing time ratios, the number increased in Fast pockets is always the second number, while in Slow pockets, the number increased is always the first.

Varying Conditions in the Pocket
Conditions within the pocket can be varied as well. Without putting successes into conditions, pockets are featureless, filled with fresh, breathable air, lightless, colorless, irregular, and pliable - pliable meaning the walls are soft and can be manipulated to an extend so long as the total volume of the pocket remains the same. Each success put into conditions can be allocated to change a condition of the pocket. These conditions include, but are not limited to light, walls (including floors and ceilings), water, vegetation, animals, structure/shape, and the like.

Each success put into a specific condition will increase the complexity and/or realism of the condition. A single success put into vegetation for example would give a single plant, perhaps a giant pumpkin vine, with the pumpkins carvable into houses. Five successes might give a pocket a vegetative variety and realism equivalent to the same area of our earth. A single success given to light might give a vague, sourceless light, whereas five successes might give a sun in the sky and light like a sunny day at noon, or three moons and innumerable stars giving light enough to read by. Conditions in the pocket can be whatever the creator can imagine, and are not limited by our world's constraints. Anything of the pocket, including items constructed of materials in the pocket - like a box carved from the ivory of a pocket creature - belongs to the pocket, and will dissolve to nothing instantly as soon as it is removed from the pocket.

Pocket Entrances.
Normally, pocket entrances are almost invisible "seams" in reality which can be opened up with the hands, simple tools, and/or devices designed for that puropose. The creator will always see his own entrances plainly, while pocket entrances created by others will need a single success on an Arcane Geometry skill check. It requires a slight effort to hold the entrance open, and the entrance will close again if released. A framework can be constructed of materials from our world to hold an entrance semi-permanently open like a doorway. If the framework is removed, the entrance will close. Actual doors can be hung on this framework, allowing access at any time.

A second entrance to a pocket can be constructed from within the pocket to a place well known to the creator. This creates a tunnel, with the entrances separated by an arbitrary distance in our world not at all related to distance in the pocket. To construct an additional entrance, five successes must be made on an Arcane Geometry skill check from within the pocket. An emergency entrance can be created from within a pocket with a single success on an Arcane Geometry skill check, but this entrance will disappear within five minutes from the time it was last used, and opens to the same general area as the original pocket entrance.

Other Properties of Pocket Creation
Pockets can be created within other pockets. Pockets can be created within items, or creatures. Pockets created within some item or creature carried into another pocket will be accessible from within the other pocket. Use stabilizes pockets. Pockets will disappear if not used by a person within a year as measured within the pocket. Light, food, and water must be brought into a pocket if the pocket itself does not supply it.

Savant Profession
Person using mundane means to control magical effect

Savants Gain:
+3 Int
+1 END
Linguistics +5

Prerequisites: Apprentice Scholar and Proto-Academic, INT 11+
Waiver Roll: N/A
Base Lifestyle: Upper Middle Class
Skills available: Warding, Astrology, Communion, Arcane Geometry, Linguistics, Analysis, Astronomy, Course, Overdo, Operate, Mechanics, Mathematics, Evaluate, Focus, History, Research, Instruct, Meditation


Sunday, August 23, 2009

Who do you design for?

Well, I mean who dictates your designs? S. John Ross once told me that if you design to limit abuse of your system, you are designing to limit use of your system. It's something which is not as intuitive as it seems. Putting in a rule which could be abused requires trust in your players. If you know your players, this works uniformly well. A GM knows her players. It is another thing entirely to publish a ruleset with rules which could be abused. A published game designer does not know who will be playing games with his rules. The trust must be blind.

Do game groups merit blind trust? I don't know. I don't know if I merit blind trust. Thing is, I want folks to have the best possible experience they can, and when a good GM and good players get together with trust, it's a beautiful thing to see. I decided some time ago to design for the good players - the ones who see how a rule could be exploited and decide not to. I expect them to use the rule to do cool stuff, not screw with it.

Jesus said "The poor will always be with us." I feel the same way about bad players. If I design for bad players, I limit the enjoyment good players get from my games, and I would rather allow the bad players the ability to push things too far. I put my trust in the groups, and hope they don't disappoint me.


Saturday, August 22, 2009

Gaming in the RAW

When I came into RPG gaming, the default ideal was that the GM customized the system and created the setting to suit the group. I was 21 in 1978, with a long history of playing wargames. I was used to modding and kitbashing, though those terms may be later than the practice. I bought blank counters and created my own units, re-wrote rulesets, and created my own maps on big sheets of matting bought at art stores. Coming into RPGs, I did the same thing. Before I ever played an RPG game, I was going through the ruleset, discarding, adding, and modding. I played exactly one game before forming my own group as GM, because I knew that was the part I wanted to play.

Somewhere in those long years, things changed drastically. Using commercially produced settings and adventures became the default. I was going along in the old way, and only noticed it when new players joined the group. I bought a few adventures - modules people called 'em for no reason I could see, as they weren't modular at all - and maybe used a bit or two from them. I bought the old Greyhawk campaign, and never used it at all. More and more games were coming out with default settings as opposed to the old idea of implied setting. Meanwhile my own games were moving very far indeed from the games as depicted in the rulebooks. I added rules from this or that game, changed character generation completely, dropped lots of rules that were cumbersome for me in play. The results would not be recognizable to anyone who played those games in any other group.

Currently, there is a fetish about playing games in the RAW - that is, Rules As Written. Changing rules, kitbashing, modding are all verboten. This is, in my opinion, just wrong. It's an abdication of the rights of the group to the rights of the designer, even if the designer intends nothing of the sort. It's passive - insidiously passive. I don't like it, and think it's bad for the hobby. Groups should be pushing their own agendas, and so should individuals. Leaving everything on the designer level, as RAW does, turns groups from participants into consumers.

The only time I can see as justification for RAW is in playtest, and even then the playtesters, when they meet with problems, should be willing and able to get around the problem in play before feeding back the problem and their own solution they used in play.

Anyway, as always, my opinion.


Thursday, August 20, 2009

Troupes for OHMAS

Here is how I am implementing troupe play in On Her Majesty's Arcane Service - as a strongly recommended option, but not required. These ideas are not intrinsic to OHMAS - you can use them in any game.

Troupe play is play with each player having more than one character, serving different roles. Troupe play for OHMAS is highly recommended for long term play. There are several ways to structure Troupe play for OHMAS. Choose from the oprions below to best fit your group:

The Mission Impossible Toupe

The players each have one character in play at any given time, but the group leader selects the particular characters used in this session or story arc from two to three characters offered from each player. The characters should be different types, but roughly equivalent skill level.

The Tri-level Troupe

The players each make three characters - an older character with lots of skills, a mid-level character with moderate skills, and a young character with few skills. Groups can be mixed - with varying levels of competence - or matched - with everyone more or less equivalent.

The Teacher/Trainee Troupe

The players each make one fighter type, one Esotericist, one Warlock, etc. for the number of players in the group. Each player has one older character, the teacher. The rest of the troupe are Trainees.

The Classic Troupe

The players make two characters each - a spell-casting type and a competent warrior type. They also make a group of young trainee warriors. Each competent warrior is paired with a spell-caster played by a different player, The trainee warriors are miscellaneously played by anyone who wants to as an additional character.

The Battle Troupe

Each player makes a group commander, and the other players each make a character to serve under each leader. The follower characters should be lower powered than the commander. This would probably work best with smaller groups.


Monday, August 17, 2009

On Death and Dying in Roleplaying Games

A big discussion is always generated whenever anyone discusses PC death in RPGs. It's one of those sharply defined subjects where everyone has an opinion, and anyone who tries to convince them otherwise will have to pry that opinion from their cold, dead minds. I normally avoid writing about such subjects, but i will herewith offer my opinion, with the stated proviso that you are perfectly free to disagree - that's what comments are for - and I won't mind at all if you do, and we can agree to disagree without it being some kind of make or break litmus test. I will pause here to allow anyone who wants to get all angry about it to leave the blog...

OK? We're good? Let's go on!

First of all, this is one of the most simple to change mechanics in most systems. If you don't like what the designer offers, it's easy enough to just change it, so do so if you like the game otherwise, it's not really a valid reason to reject a game on its own, one way or the other. In a few games this sort of thing is inextricably tied into other things, so you can't just delete it. I tend not to like these games anyway, because I think they are over engineered, but your taste may vary, so look before you leap.

I'm generally in favor of the characters running the risk of death, though I generally place that risk low - see Life Spirals elsewhere in this blog. In addition, I like giving the PCs lots of ways to avoid death - sometimes immunity from limited forms of random death, as in PC immunity to random cannon fire In Harm's Way; Luck; limited auto-success or auto-fail; etc. In exchange, though, my rolls are in the open, and if a character *does* die, he dies. No fudging. Generally, these deaths are the result of a PC pushing things too far and failing. So be it. That's a good thing, in my book. They knew what the risk was, and they chose to ignore the warning. If the potential gain wasn't worth the risk, they wouldn't have run it. These deaths seem to come off rather heroic in general, and are remembered fondly by the party.

Some genres shouldn't have PC death as a GM-only option, like 4 color Supers. Gritty street level supers is another matter. Pulp games should be very chary of random, meaningless deaths, but a heroic death? Awesome! It's all about the feel you want for the genre you are emulating.


Friday, August 14, 2009

Settings Redux

OK, Ok! Stop piling on, guys! I concede!

Yeah - there's things you can do to make better settings. Bill over on Hinterblog posted a few tricks even I use - Hooks, Open Settings, Glosses, and Open Elements. I won't repeat what he said, so link on over and read it from the squirrel's mouth.

There are some other things I use when designing settings. Settings are always - and I mean *always* - a compromise between depth and breadth. Deep settings are like using binoculars, you trade field of vision for sharp clarity. Broad settings are the reverse. Unless you are writing the Encyclopedia Brittanica, you can't have both.

One thing I like to do is create Dynamic settings. This means that things are poised on the brink of change. Player characters love to apply the leverage to tip the balance. Players have a chance to make the difference, no matter which side they choose.

Another trick I like is Balkanizing a setting - instead of making a uniform monoculture, I prefer a patchwork quilt of bickering, multicultural allies. Lots of room for intrigue and double dealing, even within one side, let alone the enemy.

Also, Chiaroscuro - light and shadow. Unrelieved darkness gets as boring as unrelieved white, so the good guys are not all good, and the bad guys are not all bad. It brings things into relief. I don't mean an undifferentiated gray either - rather areas of actinic light blending smoothly into pools of stygian darkness. The depth just pops.

Another cool technique is Spotlighting. Throwing certain small areas into sharp focus, with lots of detail. This show the GM what you are aiming for in the setting without crowding him out. It also gives illusory depth without compromising much on breadth. It implies much without nailing things down.

And there's always Logical Coherence. Logical Coherence can do wonders for implying depth that isn't really there. When using Logical Coherence, nothing is ever there "just because it would be cool" There's a reason for everything, and you can trace that chain of reasoning. This makes it wicked easy for a GM to extend and amplify the information you present. If you are rigorous when you lay it down, it will be strong, interdependent, and a joy to adventure in.

I may be a systems guy, but I do settings too.


Wednesday, August 12, 2009


From Dictionary.com:

ac·cou·ter·ment or ac·cou·tre·ment
  1. An accessory item of equipment or dress. Often used in the plural.
  2. Military equipment other than uniforms and weapons. Often used in the plural.
  3. accouterments or accoutrements Outward forms of recognition; trappings: cathedral ceilings, heated swimming pools, and other accoutrements signaling great wealth.
  4. Archaic The act of accoutering.
Accoutrements are a sadly neglected tool in RPG design. They are defining aspects of a setting, and the primary means by which a character interacts with the setting. Let's define a setting using three accoutrements; Grav-bikes, Mind-tricks, and Light-sabres. From these three accoutrements alone, one can see a pattern emerge - StarWars, of course. Let's try another: Boarding axes, Uniforms, Cannon - Master and Commander (or some other Age of Sail) this time. Most settings can be defined by just a few well-chosen iconic accoutrements.

As well as defining a setting, accoutrements are the tools of the player characters to interface with the setting. A Jedi uses his Mind-Trick to confuse the Stormtrooper - the same operationally as a Plumber uses his wrench to fix the sink. The player - through the character - uses the accoutrement to perform an operation on the environment of the setting. A naval captain can use his uniform to gain admittance to a party to which he was not invited. It's the use of the item as a tool which makes it an accoutrement.

Settings need accoutrements to work, but accoutrements are defined by the system - even if the definition of musket is the equivalent of "works like a musket" as in some very light systems.
Too often, accoutrements are lumped in with color. The only accoutrements which consistently tend to be well-defined in RPGs are weapons and armor, but with a range of well defined and operational accoutrements, one doesn't need an actual setting. The accoutrements do the work for you by implying the setting. Wearing clothes is color. Wearing the right clothes for the right situation is using an accoutrement.

Mike Crow once wrote an article about accoutrements in which he listed three degrees of accoutrement. I can't find it now - the blog has apparently died - but these levels were something like "usual" - the accoutrement is standard and easily found, like a uniform; "limited" - the accoutrement is not easy to find, and more powerful in it's effects, like a grav-bike; and "defining" where this item alone can define a setting - like a Sandworm. Sandworms are monsters, but since the Fremen use them for transportation in Dune, they are actually accoutrements. Neat idea!


Monday, August 10, 2009

Tailoring Systems for Settings

Setting is probably the most important factor in whether or not I like a game. Let me put it this way: I don't play Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness for the system. The Palladium system is fine, it just doesn't light me on fire. The setting... Ooooo the setting! Distilled lightning in a jar! I think most folks are like me in that respect, that setting sells games.

So why do I fill this blog up with system toys and tools? Because a given setting either works for you or it doesn't. There are only two basic parameters in Setting - Breadth and Depth - and beyond that, there is nothing much you can use as a tool to help you create. It's either there or it isn't. I come up with settings all the time - very few of them ever see print. I know I have a winner when a setting refuses to let me go, when it takes me by the scruff of the neck and hauls me in. If it doesn't do that... meh! It's all subjective. Taste-driven. No *tools*.

On the other hand, I believe strongly that systems should be tailored to their settings. Sub-systems should reflect the genre and special flavor of the setting. Slapping a good generic system into a good setting does *not* make a good game. When the designer is done, ideally the intended setting could be taken out yet still be strongly implied by the mechanics.


Sunday, August 9, 2009

The levels of design

There are three levels of engagement with any ruleset. Designer level, Group level, and Individual level. Where certain rules are located makes a big difference in the feel of that ruleset.

Designer level states the rules unequivocally. This is so. That is different. This subsystem is used in these circumstances. The feel is "take it or leave it." Changing rules on the Designer level requires a commitment of anyone wishing to change those rules. Will doing this change affect play in unexpected ways? Will play become unwieldy? Will one thing become too important to the detriment of the game? One must be bold and cautious at the same time. Weigh the expected consequences and institute the change. In the early development of RPGs, GMs were expected to meddle in this area, and the systems were designed with loose tolerances to facilitate these changes - like an AK-47, it would still work even full of mud. This is one of the charms of Old School design. As RPG design developed, developer level design tightened up considerably. Streamlining mechanics forced greater interdependence of components, and tinkering on this level became hazardous to games.

Group level gives groups options. Here are modifiers you can use. Award these points as you see fit. Interpret this broadly. Use common sense. The feel is free and open. Rules on the Group level are designed to be changed, modified, messed with. Group- level rules recognize and deal with the fact that what fits one group may not fit another. As noted above, almost all Designer level rules were also Group level in the beginning. As RPG design developed, Group level rules became a separate distinguishable level. The designer is saying "Here - you can mess with this all you like, and it won't screw anything vital up."

Individual level rules have always been there. You have X points to allocate to Y attributes. Roll XdY and choose the attribute. Choose your profession. Roll or choose from table A. The feel is complete freedom within parameters. The more freedom given on this level, the more wide open the game feels to a player. Constriction of choice at this level is a consequence of the focus of the game. Games more focused on a genre, theme, or story generally restrict player choices more than more general games.

Another tool to play with. Enjoy!


Saturday, August 8, 2009

Momentum and Leadership

Momentum - the tendency of those who have an advantage to increase that advantage - and the loss of momentum - That point where momentum fails and may swing to the other side - are important concepts to model, especially in a battle setting. Since I write a lot of military games, this is very important to me.

Most RPG combat is modeled on killing the enemy, but it is not the killing that matters in warfare - as we Americans learned in Vietnam. Body counts didn't win that war. What matters is breaking the enemy's ability to resist. As long as the enemy's morale is up, there is always the danger of a sudden loss of momentum and a reverse, as Jackson proved at Manassas and Thomas at Chickamauga.

This ties into my Life Spirals post a while ago - actually all my posts tie together, but that will come to light later as connecting elements are added - as the life spiral models the individual's ability to resist. A strong will and a solid foundation can bring you farther before that point, but at some point everyone has a limit.

My In Harm's Way military games are based on small scale battles, where the officers lead their men in person, so I keyed on Leadership and Discipline as the focal skills. These skills reflect the two styles of leadership. Now I would like to tell a family story by way of illustration - I am related to both of the principles in this story, and it has been passed down to me. I don't know if it has been recorded anywhere in print except a privately printed family memorial.

During the Battle of Bunker Hill in the American War of Independence, the British attempted to sieze an American redoubt in a frontal attack up a hill. It was the bloodiest battle in that war, as twice the British were repulsed, with huge losses. The third attack succeeded when the Americans ran out of gunpowder, and were slaughtered by British bayonets inside the redoubt - the Americans, being local farmers, had no bayonets.

Colonel Prescott - of "Don't shoot 'til you see the whites of their eyes" fame, gunpowder was scarce from the beginning - as the senior American officer present, rallied the remnants of the defenders, and made a successful retreat across Charlestown neck to the American lines. Having been promised reinforcements and powder which never came, he was furious. He stormed into General Putnam's office and demanded to see the general.

Putnam knew why Prescott was angry. He apologized to Prescott for there being no reinforcements. "I tried to drive the dogs," he said, "but they just wouldn't go."

Prescott replied bitterly "If you had led, they'd have followed."

There you have the two styles of leading. Leadership depends on personal inspiration. Discipline relies on training. The untrained farmers fought like demons when Leadership inspired them, but would not go when Discipline pushed them.

In the games, either skill can be checked at the choice of the player. If the player's officer succeeds and the NPC fails, the player's side advances and the enemy retreats. If the NPC succeeds and the player's officer fails, the player's side retreats and the enemy advances. If both succeed, there is a bloody scrum with neither side advancing. If both fail, there is desultory combat with neither side moving.

"What has this to do with momentum?" you ask. Here's where momentum comes in - each time the player's officer or NPC succeeds, he gets a cumulative small bonus to succeed next time. That bonus accumulates rapidly as successes pile up. If the character fails, all bonuses are wiped out. Once momentum is checked, it is no longer an advantage. Either side can begin a new string of successes. The conflict ends when either side obtains its objectives.

"Wow! That's really abstract!" you say. "What about the fighting?" If player characters are individually fighting, thier conflicts can be played out, but it doesn't matter in the long run unless they are wounded and unable to lead. The fighting within the battle matters to the individual, but not to the group. Losses are tallied after the battle, with adjustments for length of time and ferocity of fighting. If two commanders are locked in success, casualties will be higher. If they are locked in failure, they will be lower. Losers are worse off than winners.

All for today. this was a long post...


Friday, August 7, 2009

Troupe Play

Troupe play was one of several innovations (there's that word again!) in the Ars Magica RPG, and one of my favorite tools! In AM, there are two types of character, and every player has one of each. There's the Magus/Maga - the wizard(ess) type, and the Companion - a very competent non-mage type. There are also a bunch of Grogs - peasants with skills - who can be played by anyone. The idea is that folks took turns being GM, and the rest of the players played either a Magus, a Companion, or a Grog.

I prefer my troupes a bit less codified. All the In Harm's Way military/historical series games have troupe play, but none have the rotating GM role as a centerpiece. In addition, though the Napoleonic Naval, Aces In Spades, and Aces And Angels games have a three-fold division of character types, lately I've been using a different way of setting up.

In Wild Blue, I started using a Mission Impossible Troupe. In the old TV series, each episode Mr. Phelps - Peter Graves' character - sorts through a stack of candidates and theoretically pulls out those most suited for the particular mission - though he always seemed to pick the same people. In a Mission Impossible troupe, there are a bunch of characters of various sorts, and the leader of the group chooses the composition of the party to suit the adventure at hand.

In Wild Blue, which was about Modern Mercs, he'd generally split it up by specialty - pilots together, or SpecOps types together, though there was nothing set against a mixed composition party. My newest game, On Her Majesty's Arcane Service - AKA OHMAS - uses a MI troupe too, though I haven't written that part yet. The criteria for inclusion would be much more focused on getting the right group of skills together, as the game is far from military. It would be much more like the theoretical composition of parties in the MI TV show.

I think there's a lot more potential to be mined out of developing the Troupe Play concept. Given my penchant for military games - where Troupe Play is ideal - I figure I'll be doing more of that development.


On Her Majesty's Arcane Service

I finished the beta test document for On Her Majesty's Arcane Service tonight, just now. As always, the gestation was complex and sometimes awkward. The game grew in the gestation, becoming more complex in concept as more ideas crowded into my brain. It's an instantiation - a single tme and place covered in depth - of my Blood Games II Occult/Horror RPG. It shares the theme and many of the details of BG II, but the other book covers everything from the renaissance to modern day, and OHMAS covers only the Elizabethan Age in England.

I have been playtesting it within my group for a couple of months. As I came up with ideas, they were tried out by my gamers before they made it into the book. This is my standard operating procedure. I refer to this period as Alpha Test. Alpha Test tests the rules, while Beta Test tests the expression of the rules. I'm confident that everything in the game works. Now what i need to know is "Did I effectively communicate what I needed to communicate, so that any gamer picking the game up can run it?"

That's the question I need answered. I need feedback from people running the game outside of my own group, and feedback from people reading the game. Both have value at this stage. I need suggestions, corrections, and mistake catchers.

The game is playable, but I intend to put a lot more into it - interesting fluff, history, descriptions of important people of the time, troupe play suggestions, optional rules, and the like. I'll be doing that and incorporating feedback from the Beta Testers while the Beta Test is going on. If anyone is interested in being a tester, send me an emal at clash(underscore)bowley(at)yahoo(dot)com. I'll send you a pdf of the playtest rules, and I'll take your feeddback seriously.

Thanks for listening!


Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Traits and Edges

Today I'm going to talk about traits and edges. These may not be the same thing you are used to under these names, but there is no official RPG dictionary, and I've seen dozens of varying mechanics under these names in as many games, so I'll go with my own implementation.

In my games, Traits are attached to the character - they are part of the character's personality, and help define it. I implemented Traits for the first time in Blood Games II, as an optional mechanic, but they proved so useful that I've implemented them in every game I've written since then - this time as part of the core rulesets. Traits are created with the character in chargen. They can be made up by the player, or picked from a list of examples.

The player has 7 points to be distributed among at least three traits, with no one trait having more than 4 points. The more points a trait has, the more important that trait is to a character. Thus a character might be Lazy 3, Easy-going 2, and Patient 2; or maybe Off Kilter 2, Inspirational 2, Tactless 1 and Meticulous 1. Traits always add up to 7.

The first use of traits is thus to define a character's personality. that Lazy 3 character is going to be very lazy indeed, but also patient and easy-going almost as strongly. The traits add up to a quick word-picture that neatly describe and define that character's personality.

The second use of traits is as an expendable resource. When a player can justify an action to the GM - or possibly to the group, if you prefer - as being helpful to what he's trying to accomplish, the character can use those traits to help, as many as the player wants up to the number the character has. Each point is worth a bonus - depending on what the task resolution sub-system I'm using is, of course, the value of the bonus would differ. It might be worth an extra die per point in a dice pool game, or a 10% bonus in a percentile game, or a +1 to a roll-under game. These points refresh every session, so players tend to use them when something is important to them.

Edges are the result of something external to the character. I introduced Edges in In Harm's way: Wild Blue, and I'm also using them in On Her Majesty's Arcane Service. In Wild Blue, which is a game about modern mercenaries, certain training gives certain edges, so if a character went through - say - Military Police training, she'd gain the Edges Crowd Control 2 and Prisoner 2. In OHMAS, a game about magic and monsters in Elizabethan England, the Edges change every day, and are "discovered" - randomly rolled, that is - by a certain character type with Astrology skill. So one day Conflict might have an Edge in Flanking, and Reason might have an Edge of Deceit. The next day, Conflict might have an Edge in Brutality, while Reason has an Edge in Analysis. There are other categories of Edges, by the way, not just Conflict and Reason. I am just using those as examples. Which categories the PC is interested in that day are determined by the character.

Edges are always in effect so long as the condition holds true, and are not used up. Unlike Traits, Edges are not a depletable resource. So long as that ex-MP is dealing with prisoners, or crowd control, she has a bonus of two points. So long as the OHMAS party is using flanking in any conflict - of any type, not just combat - they have a 1 point bonus. Again, the value of those points varies from game to game.

So there you have it - my take on Traits and Edges.


Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Care and Feeding of NPCs

Non-Player Characters are an important tool for me as a GM, and since I write the kind of games I want to run, I always have a section on creating NPCs. IMO, creating NPCs should be nothing like creating PCs. For major NPCs, I need to know their five Ws - Who, What, When, Where, and Why.

Who - Their personalities and backgrounds, their quirks, faults, and their strengths.

What - Their resources, people, and plans.

When - Their timelines - when they make their moves.

Where - Their surroundings, their place in the community.

Why - Their motivations, their wants, and their needs.

This ties directly into how I run games as a situational GM. My NPCs are vectors, they have direction and velocity, and I need to generate that sort of thing. My NPCs have goals, and they have resources to achieve those goals.

I use random results to inspire me, to make me come up with unusual problems and solutions, though I'm just as likely to pick from those tables once I have a strong idea for a character, so I put these random tables into my games for others to use if they want. I don't know if others use those parts of the NPC generation sections, but I do. These guys are seldom good with weapons - they are mostly people in positions of power, who hire guns for the dirty work.

So I also set up a range of hired guns - people who are there to shoot and be shot at. These guys just need a few quick skills and weapons to customize them. They're part of the resources of the major PCs, and don't need the kind of depth those guys get. You can pick these guys out of the book and throw them at the PCs with little thought and no planning. I love those guys. They make my life bearable!


Monday, August 3, 2009

See-Saw Stats

A see-saw stat is a stat that moves between two extremes, both of which are beneficial, but in different ways. I got the idea from Pendragon's passions, but they can be applied in any game system.

To set up the see-saw stat, you need two opposed qualities - Honor/Practicality, Piety/Worldliness, Kindness/Cruelty, etc. - depending on what would be important in the game. Both qualities must be beneficial in different circumstances, so stay away from qualities that are universally good or bad.

Next, set up your number range. We'll be using this as a bonus, so the number range must not be unbalancing when taken to extremes. For example, for a percentile system, 10 or 20 points would be reasonable, depending on how the bonus is to be applied. The number range is a total - both stats added together would always equal the total. So if one is increased, the other must be decreased by the same amount. I like even numbers for the total, so both sides can start even.

The application of the bonus is simple - add the number on one side of the see-saw to your chance or quality, whichever is appropriate. However, you need to delineate what that bonus can be added to. The two sides need to be applied to different things.

Now as the game goes along, the GM (or group if you prefer) award a point of one or the other whenever a character does something strongly inclined in that direction. Each point tipping the see-saw further in one direction. Some characters move strongly in one direction, some in the other, and some hover around the middle. All of these are winning strategies, because the result is always a bonus.

For example, I used Honor/Practicality in my In Harm's Way military games. This reflects the duality of a mindset in which both qualities are very important, but are never applicable in the same circumstances. Taking the honorable course when there is a choice adds 1 to the PC’s Honor score, and subtracts one from the PC’s Practicality score. Conversely, choosing the practical course adds one to the PC’s Practicality score and subtracts one from the PC’s Honor score.

The character can add his Honor score to any rolls where the PC’s Honor might help, such as convincing superior officers of the need for a certain action, dealing with VIPs and diplomacy, or for any Leadership roll.

The character can add his Practicality score to any rolls where the PC’s Practicality might help, such as dealing with criminals, brutes, and minor officials, bribing, finding information from low lives, intimidating, or any Discipline roll.

Honor plus Practicality always equals 20.

The see-saw stat is a type of abstract tactic used in social situations. How the PC chooses to live his life gives him certain advantages in certain situations.


Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Skill List and Defining Skills

There are two types of skill lists currently common. Each one has its admirers and detractors, just like anything else in RPG-land:

The first is the long, detailed list - lots of skills, with each skill being closely defined. There's a skill for driving an auto, a skill for driving a boat, and a skill for driving a helicopter, and being good at one is generally useless for performing another. These lists are common in SF, military, and modern/espionage games. In game design terms, the purpose of this type of skill list is to create specialized, niche characters, who each have something to contribute, and to prevent the dominance of one character type.

The second is the short, broad list - very few skills, with each skill being very broadly defined. A character with Driving can drive anything, from submarines to spaceships. A character with Science can do anything vaguely scientific. These lists are common in pulp-derived games, whatever their surface genre. In game design terms, the purpose of this type of skill list is to create broadly competent characters, who - though they may be better at one thing than another, have a core competence in a lot of areas.

There are variations of these basic schemata, such as branching skills to allow specialization after basic grounding, so a civil engineer would be different from a mechanical engineer, though both would have a basic competence in engineering. A character with Driving:Submarines would still be able to drive a spaceship, though not as well as he could drive a sub, and not as well as a character with Driving:Spaceships.

There are also two standard methods of defining skills. The first is the more common of the two, defining a skill by its edges. Edge-defined skills tell the player and GM what the character can do with the skill in some detail - i.e. "Drive Auto - Anyone with this skill can drive automobiles and light trucks, performing basic maneuvers and dealing with ordinary maintenance, such as changing tires, fueling, or replacing coolant. Dangerous or difficult maneuvers would call for a penalty to any skill checks." Typically, edge defined skills leave little room for interpretation. Edge defined skills can be broad or narrow in their definition. Generally, edge defined skills are designed so that skills don't overlap.

The other, less common way is to define by center. Center defined skills usually have a short sentence or two defining where the emphasis of the skill is, but leaving its edges undefined - i.e. "Drive - the ability to drive vehicles which maneuver in two dimensions." Center defined skills by definition leave the interpretation of edge conditions to the group. One group's definition may be very different from another's. A center-defined skill list can be narrowly or broadly defined, as the group sees fit, but generally allow for overlap.

Overlap is the ability for characters to solve the same problem using different skills. All skill lists overlap at least somewhat, but center-defined lists lead to lots of overlap. You may be able to solve the same problem in different ways using many different skills depending on just where the group sets those edges.