Apr 26, 2012

Roleplaying: Beyond Talking

I was participating in a discussion about some really interesting stuff over at Gaming as Women, but I was asked not to sidetrack stuff, so I'll talk about it here instead.

One of the most useful high-level insights I ever had as a DM and as a player was to realise that roleplaying is about more than just talking, and that engagement and interest in the game is not measured solely by how frequently and loudly someone speaks at the table. While this is one measurement, it's not the only one, and I think games are diminished insofar as the group playing them tries to restrict its activity to just this.

I came to this realisation a few years back, when I started playing in Economy of Force, a WFRP game Jude Hornborg of Liber Fanatica has been running off and on. In it, I play Siegfried Hausmann, a physician from Kemperbad, and one of the two class A shareholders of the Steiner-Hausmann Trading Consortium, a subsidiary of the Hofbauer-Bodlestein Trading Guild's Wurtbad subsidiary. One of the amusing recurring pieces of game play is that Siegfried maintains the company's accounts and is the only person who ever knows exactly how much gold is in our coffers (to the occasional consternation of the non-voting class B shareholders aka the other PCs, who are required to pool their funds into it).

I spend a fair bit of time keeping our money supply straight using double entry book-keeping. The effort only rarely comes up in-character, but when it does, all the quiet poring over columns pays off. People hurl accusations of embezzlement, characters go wild with the abrupt realisation that we are extremely rich, or the party becomes frantic with approaching penury. All of this drives interactions, schemes, etc., despite much of it deriving precisely from not talking a lot about how much money we have at any given point.

This kind of thing actually crops up a lot in Traveller and any campaign that features economic interactions that are tracked precisely, but there are plenty of other kinds of activity like it that are not economic. Mapping, keeping track of supplies and schedules, and choosing spell lists are three obvious ones, and others are created by the system or the style of the group's play. I think that rather than deprioritising these and treating them as unpleasant, subsidiary effects of talking and "playing" that have to be pawned off due to simple necessity, that we ought to approach them as ways of enriching the game, assign them to players who find them interesting, and use them to keep PCs occupied when other characters are in the spotlight.

While the activities I prefer are ones that derive from a very detailed engagement with the environment and the challenges it poses, this kind of activity can go far beyond that. In a game with narrative-driven mechanics like the FATE 3.0 family, PCs might be encouraged and rewarded for creating brief descriptions of features of the world that can occur later. For example, in Diaspora, PCs could be encouraged to write short descriptions of 30-50 words of some feature of the world with say, 3-5 related aspects. This might be a character, an astronomical feature, a piece of technology, etc. After creating it, they would be allowed to call on one of the aspects once whenever plausible, and then to hand it off to another player, who can in turn call on one of the unused aspects once before handing it to another player, etc. until all the written aspects are used up, whereupon the item becomes the common property of everyone to draw on as relevant.

In Emern, I tried to do this by assigning the PCs roles, including surveyors, quartermasters, guards, the leader, etc. Each one had an assigned duty that really didn't require a ton of interaction with other PCs (though others could be drawn into it), but that had them make rolls and meaningful choices (whenever possible, the Emern game isn't perfect on this, though it's something I shall strive for in future games). Incentivising this with XP, both individual and collective, encourages people to engage in these activities, though I recommend low values so that they don't overwhelm the value of treasure, monster slaying and progressing through the story.

Players come in many different types, almost all of which can contribute value to the game even if they are not the most social types. I think that limiting or prioritising player engagement through one particular mode (talking in character) excludes and drives away plenty of players who could really help create a fun game, and it could even give more social players a respite for nights when they're feeling off or out of it for some reason.

Apr 25, 2012

Further Reflections on the Company and Openquest

I finished the rest of the book between the post last night and work this morning. I'm going to cover a brief grab-bag of quirks and complaints. Overall, I'm still very happy with the game, and this serves as much to keep my own mind straight about what I'm going to change / create for use in the game as anything else.

Rhapta is Burundi, as the poor editing reveals. Technically it's Burundi + a Kony knockoff where the tail end of World War 3 never truly ended. I don't think I would ever use it, simply because a game like this can run on "ripped from the headlines" plots and it's impossible to rip things from the headlines about fictional places. I appreciate the effort that went into getting the "feel" of it right, though.

While polonium and nerve agents are mentioned, the example poisons are fairly conventional. CS gas isn't even listed! The basic list of example poisons I would like to see are: Fentanyl-derivative gas / Kolokol-1, hydrogen cyanide (which is one of the two samples in the book), sarin, ricin and chlorine gas, all of which are either simple to make or in use / development by various militaries and terrorist groups around the world. I would have also liked to have seen polonium-210, cobalt-60 and cesium-137, which are the most common radioactive poisons private military contractors might encounter. The book includes pepper spray and CS gas in its less-lethal weapons section, and snake and spider venom in the animal section.

Diseases have a similarly short list. HIV should be on there, along with malaria, cholera, rotavirus, tuberculosis, dengue, Hepatitis A, and weaponised anthrax and botulism. Typhoid and weaponised glanders are the two actually listed.

While the book contains a section detailing the stats for dangerous animals, the only antagonist stats are to be found in the two adventures at the back. While these stats are highly reusable, I would have liked to have seen a sample foot soldier antagonist for each one of the enemy factions and threats written up in the book (or at the very least, the stats for a typical third-world guerilla, a religious terrorist, officers and foot soldiers of dictatorial armies and a member of an organised criminal cartel). This is probably the single biggest flaw of the book IMHO.

There are no specific details on rules of engagement or criminal liability for mercenary actions. Also, there are no specific compensation rules to determine how much your mercenary is paid, at least so far as I can tell. There's a huge variety in possible compensation, but the backstory of the Company leads me to believe you're probably erring on the high side of what a Google search reveals, around $100,000+ per annum.

I have decided I will allow people to dodge bullets, and that each person can fire their full complement of shots on their turn. The book remains ambiguous on the later point even on a reread.

I would have liked more information on military deployments, especially extended ones that would be the source of multiple missions. I found the book stinted a bit on this point, compared to the excellent section at the start laying out all the various kinds of missions the Company might possibly accept.

Finally, some mission ideas for the Company based on my first read-through:

Vice Magazine sends Shane Smith to Ciudad Juarez with a camera crew to make "The Vice Guide to Travel: Juarez", which features Smith trying to meet and pal around with Los Zetas members. The PCs are assigned to shadow Smith and his crew, and perform a HRU if he gets into hot water. The nature of the assignment means they have to lay low, as if the Zetas gets wind of them, they are likely to take out their displeasure on Smith.

Muhammed Yunus is kidnapped by Naxalites while visiting a Grameen Bank-funded organic jute farm in Banganpalli, Andhra Pradesh for a photo op. The Naxalites retreat into the Belum Caves. The Company is hired to extract him, safe and sound, by the personal order of Manmohan Singh.

A shipment of prototype of iPhone 5s are "lost" from Foxconn's factory in Longhua. Tom Moyer suspects that Foxconn staged the incident after a negative review from the Fair Labour Association of Foxconn's treatment of its workers led Apple Inc.'s board of directors to suggest finding alternate suppliers and hires the Company to investigate Foxconn's executives in Tucheng. Or perhaps it was one of those alternate suppliers seeking to embarass Foxconn and win the iPhone 5 contract for themselves.

Members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement have seized control of the Baikonur Cosmodrome shortly before the test launch of an Angara-5 rocket. A cellphone call by a base worker during the initial attack indicates that they plan to pack the rocket with Cobalt-60 and fire it to intercept the International Space Station. The Company is hired by Russia to recapture the base, deactivate the rocket, rescue the workers and recover the Cobalt-60.

Apr 23, 2012

The Company is Really Deadly

I got the Company by Rik Kershaw Moore today after work and I've read the first 138 pages or so, which covers everything up to Section 8: Missions, including the bulk of the rules. I'm still absorbing stuff, so this mainly discuss first impressions rather than being a deliberative piece.

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I'm a fan of d100 games (aka the Basic Roleplaying System or BRP), and the Openquest system in particular. However, outside of Call of Cthulhu and the Big Golden Book (BGB) implementation of BRP, there's a dearth of modern or near-modern implementations of the system. I find the BGB implementation of d100 to be too sprawling, more of a toolkit than a game, and I don't like many of the optional subsystems it offers (in particular, its powers systems for magic, super powers, etc.; how it calculates wealth; and how it calculates starting percentages in skills). Call of Cthulhu seems OK, but I've only played it once, and that was with a pregenerated character in a single scenario. I suspect that if my wealth score had come up, or if I'd had to build the character from the ground up, I would like it less (since I'm given to understand that the BGB version is using the same basic idea).

The Company, which focuses on private military contractors, is therefore a welcome addition to the genre of modern d100 games. It reminds me a lot of Recon, one of my favourite games, especially in how deadly it can be. Guns do a lot of damage, HP is low, and while body armour will block a lot of damage, the sheer volume of fire can pulverise a character.

In particular, while reading I paid attention to the question of dodging shots. In Openquest, characters can normally only dodge melee attacks and thrown missile weapons, not bow shots. I haven't decided whether I'm going to implement a houserule for this in regular Openquest, but it's an issue that always sits in the back of my mind when I think about the system. I was extremely curious characters would remain unable to dodge shots in the Company, and it is. That means that cover is extremely important, as is dropping prone, as is getting initiative. However, the game itself seems a bit confused about this, as the example of play features a character dodging a gunshot, and there are a couple of references within the text that lead me to believe that at some point during development one could dodge gunshots. I don't know whether I prefer dodging or not dodging bullets.

The Company retains Openquest's static initiative system, where characters go in order from highest dexterity to lowest. While I have houseruled this in Openquest (to DEX + d10), I'm more inclined to keep it in the Company. It introduces an element of tactical predictability to turn order that I think helps represent the coordination a squad of highly trained mercenaries would have, reinforcing the feel of the genre. Knowing that your sniper is always going to shoot first means you can plan your tactics around the sniper shooting first and exploit that fact.

I like the use of what at the very least appears to be genuine military terminology (I don't claim to be an expert on these things), and I think the game does a great job giving a clear idea of what kinds of things PMCs do, even before the mission design chapter, through its description of operational roles and responsibilities of the various divisions of the Company itself. It does its due diligence explaining how and why they might pair up people with highly diverse skill sets and backgrounds to accomplish their contracts, and providing a plausibly flexible military structure for PCs to operate within. The overall effect of reading the sections laying out the structure of the Company and how to create characters who work for it was to fill me with a ton of ideas for missions and games.

All of the above said, there are a few problems with the game so far. It may be the result of rapidly plowing through, but I'm still not sure whether characters can fire the maximum allowable number of shots per round on their turn during initiative, or whether they fire one shot each, and then cycle back through the list of anyone remaining with available shots. I'm planning to reread this section and see if some clarity comes through that.

The editing is pretty bad, though that's fairly typical for d101 products (sorry Newt!). The Company's timeline appears to have been revised at some point, so that it's confusing about whether it's founded in 2006 or 2007. There are lots of typos, though none that have rendered any rule confusing (which is the most critical thing). There's tons of gun porno (which is good), though some of the weapons are not actually mechanically different from one another despite having price differences. Also, the Company seems a bit too morally upright for a plausible PMC, though I'm willing to suspend disbelief for the purposes of the genre. I would like to see a discussion of RoEs and war crimes, which I think would provide an interesting counterpoint and set of challenges for PCs and help paint the verisimilitude of the setting.

Major wounds have a giant table comparable to the one I created the other day for Openquest, but mostly remain insanely crippling. On the other hand, medical science has improved and characters don't straight up die at 0 HP (instead, they fall unconscious and begin to bleed out). I also haven't found any rules governing tactical nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, or biological weapons, though they may simply be later on (I don't need these for PC use so much as for the madmen they are sent to stop). Nor are there any rules I can find for weapon maintenance, though it's looking like the spot rules are all Chapter 8 or later, so they may be hidden in there.

Finally, Burundi appears to have transformed into a fictional place called Rhapta, though I haven't actually read that section yet (I peeked when I saw the name), so I don't know if it's going to drive this Central African conflict wonk nuts or not. I'd be extremely interested to run a game in which the PCs are hired by the ICC to hunt down Bosco "Terminator" Ntaganda or where the UN sends them after Kony or the AU after the SPLA, and I saw a mention of Boko Haram at one point which made my heart flutter with joy. Alas though, Mexico and Central America aren't covered. Since the cartels are the largest and best funded insurgency in the world right now (with an annual operating budget of approximately $40 billion to the Taliban's approximately $110 million) I always hope to see them get the coverage they're due.

I think the game is flexible enough that not only could I use it to run its intended genre, but also a post-apocalyptic game, and probably a cyberpunk game if one could put together some good rules for augmentation. So far, it's looking like a really exciting and interesting expansion of the Openquest system.

Apr 18, 2012

Abolishing Exploding Damage for Guns

One of the things I hate in games is when melee weapon damage is relatively static - you roll a die, add some modifiers and maybe roll a critical hit that doubles that - while under the same system gun damage explodes: You roll a die, and if it's above a certain result, you roll the die again, and if it's above the result again, you roll a third time, etc. then add some static modifiers or double it for a crit or whatever afterwards. I can take this in systems like the Warhammer 40K RPGs, where all damage has a chance of exploding, but I've seen many implementations of guns in D&D and its variants in particular where guns have a surprising deadliness compared to stabbing three feet of steel into someone's guts.

I'm not an expert on the subject, but from what I have read it's totally possible to be shot and hit many times, at least by handguns using modern rounds, without experiencing incapacitation. While guns can and do kill, I'm not convinced that they are deadlier than melee weapons, or that a round hitting a person incapacitates them more quickly than a sword hitting them does. I'm especially not convinced of this with regard to unrifled black powder weapons firing musketballs. 

In Emern, I made a conscious choice not to have exploding damage for guns, or even to give them an extremely high base damage compared to other missile weapons (they are a bit higher, but the end result is about 2.5 average points more damage for an arquebus over a bow, in exchange for a lower rate of fire, once every other round). The one semi-exception to this principle is the +2 assault rifle a PC (Chris Brown, the Berserker) got last session from the Overlord to help him capture some Jaguarmen so the Overlord can sacrifice them to power a spell that will create a submarine so the PCs can go find the Overlord's former partner, "God", who is believed to be living on the bottom of the sea near Sword Isle. The assault rifle only deals 2d6 damage, but can rapid fire on fully automatic, which has the effect of +4 to hit and +4 to damage to represent the extra rounds. Chris Brown used it to kill an invisible giant spider last session, though he also slew a fellow PC (fortunately Nine-Fingered Samuelson was wearing a ring of regeneration the Overlord had given him). The Overlord needs God to help him adjust the microwave communications array on his tower in the lost city of Zancalla so that he can obliterate the Snakemen rocket armada coming from the moon.

Similarly, while I'm not happy with the exact stat profile guns were given in Clockwork and Chivalry, I do think like that the damage is within normal ranges for melee weapons, and that C&C uses a system (Mongoose Runequest 2 / Legend) that doesn't have exploding damage at all. I've been thinking of redoing the damage and load times, and skipping the somewhat complex 2 combat action penalty for shooting a matchlock, since I can't see why any combatant in MRQII would ever use one. Managing the combat action economy is critical to winning, and any weapon that costs you too many CAs to use, especially when the damge is not insane, is not a smart choice.

Apr 17, 2012

"Is There a Version Of This With Guns?"

Something a player said in a short MRQII game from last year. At the time, only Clockwork and Chivalry had guns for MRQII, though I think this is an obvious oversight I intend to correct in due time. In the mean time, I bought Rik Kershaw Moore's The Company on lulu.com. I've been looking for a good realisation of Openquest with guns to take over as my modern / near future game of choice, since Shadowrun 4e and the new World of Darkness systems have both exhausted my patience. I'd also just like to see a new instantiation of the Openquest system. I'm extremely curious to see how they've altered and changed it to run shoot 'em ups. I know that theoretically it's possible to use Call of Cthulhu to run a modern game that was a shoot 'em up, but I find Openquest's division of skills and the calculation of their base percentages more amenable than the skills in CoC, which leads to faster character creation, and even less confusion about what skills do than in stock BRP / CoC.

I also picked up a copy of Dark Dungeons, finally, which was the competition for Swords and Wizardry Complete for use in my Emern game. Dark Dungeons is a retroclone of the Rules Cyclopedia, which was the first type of D&D I ever played (though not the first roleplaying game I ever played - I came in through Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness after my eight-year old self confused it with a TMNT comic and convinced my parents to buy it for me). There are many parts of it I like, but I'll save a more comprehensive review and comparison for when it's actually in my hands. I have read the free pdf previously, but I want the physical copy to evaluate and read through, as 345 pages of pdf is a bit much, even for me.

Apr 14, 2012

Resolving Conflict At The Table: Links

The most common piece of advice people have to resolve out-of-character problems is "Have a mature and reasonable discussion with the person about the problems". This is not bad advice, so much as vacuous and too abstract. Structured, effective conversations that end in consensus are actually reasonably difficult to pull off, especially if there's more than two people involved. There's a lot of transferable material from conflict resolution, negotiation and business management that can help you deal with tricky situations.

Wikipedia on Conflict Resolution, on Conflict Resolution Research and on Active Listening
On Conflict and Consensus (pdf), a free ebook that lays out how Formal Consensus works.
Handling Disagreements, from Frank Hecker's experience working on Mozilla.
You may want to read Getting to Yes, which is as useful for resolving interpersonal disputes in games as it is for handling business negotiations.

This is a short piece on hiring people who claim to have good "interpersonal skills". While I don't agree with everything it says, I think it gives some good tips to keep in mind when you're recruiting people for games to avoid bringing on board toxic personalities in the first place.

People are frequently advised to stop gaming with troublesome individuals who resist all attempts to change, and while I don't disagree with this advice, my experience has been that people are extremely reluctant to go through the actual process of kicking someone out, and instead basically sit around hoping they're not going to show up this week. Kicking someone out of a game group is similar, though not identical, to firing employees. While not everything is identical, the core practices of the article are sound. The basic principles from it and from other articles about firing employees.

1) Do it with other people around to witness what goes on, but not in public.
2) It's not a negotiation.
3) Cite specific examples of problems. Hold them accountable for what they've done.
4) Keep the process succinct and on topic.
5) Don't gossip about the person who was kicked out.
6) Don't say you're sorry. Don't apologise.
7) Set aside a specific time and place to kick them out - don't do it right before the game starts.
8) Resolve any entanglements as quickly as possible (e.g. they have other people's books)

Apr 11, 2012

The Diceless RPG About Buddhist Monks I Never Wrote Part 2

This is a continuation with what I have of the character creation chapter. It's much more fragmentary. When designing the game, the problem I ran into was coming up with enough actual dharma techniques. My goal was to shoot for three for each attainment and attachment, (with some inversions of techniques between attainments and attachments, though not just a straight mirroring) which meant 48 different ones. I drifted off after writing a handful of them.

Character Creation:

Characters come in two types, Awake and Ignorant. An Awake PC starts with three attainments and one attachment. An Ignorant PC starts with three attachments and one attainment. PCs then pick one background. An Awake PC gets one extra attachment from their background, and an Ignorant PC gets one extra attainment from their background. A character also gets one piece of Gear from his background. Backgrounds are things like caste, previous incarnations, etc. A newly created PC starts with all of his attainments and attachments "open".

There are nine attainments and nine attachments. Characters use their attainments and attachments to determine what dharma techniques they can use and in some cases, how effective those dharma techniques are.

If a PC dies, a player can choose one of two options. He can play the reincarnation of that character, or he can play a new character. A reincarnated character is created like a new character, but gets a bonus depending on his previous incarnation. If his previous incarnation was Awake, he receives a bonus attainment. If his previous character was Ignorant, he gets a bonus attachment. He can also be recognised as the new incarnation of the older character by those capable of doing so. Reincarnation takes 49 days, but the player does not need to wait for his new character to be born or grow up to adulthood. Rather, the 49 days are simply how long it takes for the karma of the past life to fully attach to an already living person. A new character does not receive these benefits, but may be introduced as quickly as desired.

If an Awake character has more attachments than attainments when he dies, he becomes Ignorant upon reincarnating. If an Ignorant character has more attainments than attachments when he dies, he becomes Awake upon reincarnating.


Right View - A character with Right View can see the proper course of dharma. He can use the __________ dharma techniques.

Right Intention - A character with Right Intention desires to act in accord with the dharma. He can use the _______ dharma techniques.

Right Speech - A character with Right Speech can speak in accord with the dharma. He can use the _______ dharma techniques.

Right Action - A character with Right Action makes decisions according to the dharma. He can use the ________ dharma techniques.

Right Livelihood - A character with Right Livelihood has a role in society in agreement with the dharma. He can use the _________ dharma techniques.

Right Effort - A character with Right Effort works constantly on behalf of the dharma. He can use the _________ dharma techniques

Right Mindfulness - A character with Right Mindfulness has knowledge of the dharma. He can use the ________ dharma techniques.

Right Concentration - A character with Right Concentration thinks in accord with the dharma. He can use the ________ dharma techniques.

Perfection of the Awake - A starting character may not take Perfection of the Awake. A character with this attainment can use any dharma technique without "closing" that attainment. A character must not have any attachments to get this attainment, and cannot get any attachments in future. If he would for any reason, that effect does not affect him. In dharma combat, a character with this attainment can only work to "push" the number to 15. He cannot work to push it to 1.

Getting New Attainments:

A character gets new attainments by winning a number of dharma combats equal to the number of attainments he currently has. Only dharma combats that he wins by raising the dharma number to 15 count for this purpose. The character may pick the new attainment and immediately gains access to its dharma techniques.


Taking - The character takes things - lives, money, risks - without regard for others or their well being.

Lying - The character does not care about truth for its own sake, and lies whenever it would benefit him to do so.

Intoxication - The character indulges in sensual pleasures immoderately and without regard for others or himself.

Foolishness - The character is thoughtless and unreflective.

Hatred - The character hates others.

Scorn - The character discriminates between people on improper grounds.

Severity - The character lacks compassion for others.

Fear - The character fears.

Unfortunate Birth - A starting character may not take Unfortunate Birth. A character with this attachment can use any dharma technique even if the associated attachment is closed. A character must not have any attainments to get this attachment, and he cannot get any attainments in future. If he would as the result of winning challenges, he does not. In dharma combat, a character with this attachment can only work to "push" the number to -15. He cannot work to push it to 15.

Getting New Attachments:

A character gets new attachments by winning a number of dharma combats equal to the number of attachments he currently has. Only dharma combats that he wins by lowering the dharma number to -15 count. The character may pick the attachment and immediately gains access to its dharma techniques

Apr 10, 2012

The Diceless RPG about Buddhist Monks That I Never Wrote

Digging through my files, I encountered this, one of three short pieces I wrote for a speculative RPG and never finished. The basic idea was to write a RPG that had no random elements whatsoever, but that had complex tactical choices for PCs to make, because in my experience most diceless RPGs end up simply comparing quantitative values. The basic premise was that PCs would be knock-off Mahayana Buddhist monks roaming a fantastical version of India fighting demons and solving problems using techniques drawn from Buddhist conversion narratives. Here's an extract of the core mechanics of the game. I'll post a chunk from character creation that explains attainments and attachments tomorrow.


A challenge is any event where there is a chance of the character failing. All challenges are resolved by dharma combat.

Dharma combat begins when a PC announces whether he is going to "raise" or "lower" the dharma number, and activates one of his dharma techniques. After he has announced this, the DM picks the "dharma number" for the challenge and tells the players what it is.

The point of dharma combat is to either raise or lower the dharma number until it is either "-15" or "15". Characters raise and lower the dharma number by using dharma techniques. Awake characters want to raise the number to 15, Ignorant characters want to lower it to -15. An Awake character who pushes the number to 15 immediately wins the dharma combat. This means that the situation resolves favourably for him. Techniques that would raise the dharma number above 15 raise it to 15 instead. An Ignorant character who pushes the number to -15 immediately wins. Techniques that would lower the dharma number below -15 lower it to -15 instead.

When two Awakened characters are conducting dharma combat with one another, both may win when one of them raises the number to 15. The situation resolves so that both benefit in some way (though the resolution may favour the character who won more than the other). When two Ignorant characters conduct dharma combat with one another, whoever lowers the number to -15 first wins.

The Dharma Number:

The starting dharma number is between -14 and 14, depending upon how challenging the DM wants to make the dharma combat. If a dharma combat is supposed to be easy for an Awakened character, the number should start either above 1, whichever would make it nearer to the number the character is trying to attain. If the dharma combat is more difficult, it should start further away from the number the character is trying to attain. If it's unclear what the difficulty should be, the starting number should be 0.

Order of Participants:

Any number of characters may participate in the same dharma combat. Whoever starts dharma combat by using a dharma technique goes first. The character with the most attainments and attachments combined goes next, and the other characters take turns in descending order, with characters with more attachments and attainments combined going before characters with fewer. When every character has gone, the turn is over, and a new turn begins, with the order repeating, including the character who started the dharma combat going first. Dharma techniques may change the order that characters go in. The effects of these last the entire dharma combat.

Multiple participants:

When multiple characters are involved, Awake and Ignorant characters may be working together. In that case, their players must decide whether they will try to win by raising or lowering the number. They must do this before the DM tells them what the dharma number is for the combat. An Awake character who participates in three challenges where he works to resolve a challenge by "pushing" the number to -15 gets an attachment. An Ignorant character who participates in three challenges which he works to resolve by pushing to 15 gets an attainment. The characters do not need to win the dharma combat for it to count as one of the three.

Dharma Techniques:

A character may use any dharma technique he has the correct attainments or attachments for. Once it is used, an attainment or attachment is "closed" and is unable to be used until it is "opened". Some dharma techniques "close" other attainments or attachments, either on the character or on another character. A character with a "closed" attachment or attainment may not use dharma techniques he gains access to through that attachment or attainment. If a character gains access to a dharma technique through more than one attainment or attachment, he may use that technique so long as one of them is still "open".

Sample Dharma Techniques:

Look to the Righteous (Right Speech) - the character refers to the conduct of the righteous followers of dharma. This shames the Ignorant and chastises the Awake. He may quote a famous saying, mention an incident from the biography of a Boddhisattva or Buddha, describe how one steps onto the eightfold path, or lead by example. +2 to the dharma number and the character is one higher in the order starting next turn.

Skillful Means (Right Mindfulness) - the character realises his opponent's actions will lead to the outcome the character desires without the opponent realising it. The character picks one of his opponents and increases the dharma number by the number of attachments that opponent has.

Violence (Hatred) - the character uses violent force to accomplish his goals. -3 to the dharma number. If Violence lowers the dharma number to -15, he may choose one of his opponents. That character dies.

Description of Dharma Techniques: 

A PC is expected to explain how a particular dharma technique is relevant, and how his character performs it. The GM may rule it is unusable if the explanation the player gives is particularly poor. Similarly, if all players other than the GM agree that the explanation of how an NPC uses a dharma technique is poor or nonsensical, the GM must use another dharma technique. The players, including the GM, are encouraged to help one another in situations where it may be difficult to conceive of how a given dharma technique is relevant or sensible.

Challenges Against Passive Objects or Abstract Problems:

The rules refer to an opponent, but passive objects may also present challenges. In the world of Dharma: the RPG, passive objects like mountains and abstract problems like a city's poverty have attainments and attachments just like people do. Individual GMs may choose to interpret this as actual volition (i.e. the spirit of the mountain resists the PC, stealing his provisions), mechanical representations of abstract qualities (i.e. a society may be impoverished because it Scorns and Hates the poor), or anagogical / spiritual challenges the PCs must overcome (Picking the lock is frustrating - the PC might become distracted [Intoxicated]). GMs are encouraged to use any and all of these explanations in games as necessary. Remember, it is the GM's responsibility to make sure that the explanation of the dharma technique the passive object "uses" makes sense.

Apr 9, 2012

Hit Locations in Openquest

One of the worst-designed elements of BRP (which I otherwise consider an excellent system) is that it is a system with hit locations but with 7 of them. Hit locations are tremendous fun as they allow PCs to determine where specifically on a foe they have hit, but having 7, instead of 6 or 8, slows down gameplay. In Legend / Mongoose Runequest II, this is resolved by rolling on a d20 chart, which is too complex to be memorised easily. My personal preference is to merge the "abdomen" location with the "chest" location into a "torso" location and use a d6 to resolve it. I would use the following chart:

1: Head
2: Right Arm
3: Left Arm
4: Right Leg
5: Left Leg
6: Torso

In Openquest, without locational HP, the main reason to use hit locations is just to add some concrete detail to the hit. I actually recommend against locational damage, as I find that it requires a complex chart that is a hassle to check in play, especially when players heal to full and must check each location's max HP on the chart to make sure they aren't shorting themselves or suddenly gaining HP.

Addendum 05/05/12: If one did want locational damage, I would add SIZ + CON + POW and divide it equally amongst the six locations (round up). Remainders go to the torso. This would give an average of 5 HP per section (other than the torso), which would make armour much more important.

Apr 7, 2012

The Long Narrative: Better Notes Part 3

My proposal is that referees ought to keep a calendar of time passed in game, preferably in a day planner, and use this instead of a traditional timeline or long form notes.

The value of a calendar is in keeping track of when things happened so that you, the referee, don't have to. When it comes time for the dying cultist to shout it "Our vengeance will come in X days", you can simply look up what X actually is, instead of having to retcon things two sessions later when it turns out X was supposed to be three instead of four. It also avoids all the little hassles of rectifying time, which are extremely common when the party splits up for any reason.

This is also one reason why I like the day planner, since it's broken down by hour or watch, so you can determine that between 9 and 10am on Tuesday May 31st, the villain will destroy the world. You may find that this level of precision actually helps you to effortlessly  fill in details that otherwise weren't worth the work. It also helps provide colour - my experience is that most long campaigns take place over several years of game time. It can be tremendous fun to pull out the previous year's day planner and say "It was one year ago today you were impaled through the gut by your arch-enemy" or "The one year anniversary of your tower's construction is coming up". Birthdays, important events, festivals, upcoming plot points and world events, these can all go into the day planner, be totally forgotten by you, and simply referred to as the PCs progress through time.

Another advantage of the day planner is that the limitations on space discourage you from veering into long form note territory. The need to fit notes into the space pushes one to concise summaries, rather than verbose wastes of time.

Apr 4, 2012

Abolishing Hit Points

This is a theoretical exercise that I've never tested out, though I think True20 does something similar.

I was reading this paper on handgun wounding effectiveness factors and was struck by the parsimony of the descriptions of injury. Either someone is incapacitated or they are not. Adrenaline and endorphins make pain responses much less likely, to the point where falling down and clutching the wound when getting shot in combat is a learnt behaviour according to the author. Incapacitation results either from blood loss (specifically loss of blood pressure and the capability to efficiently transfer oxygen to muscular tissues) or from damage to the central nervous system.

One of the interesting things the author discusses is how temporary cavities do not generally contribute to incapacitation. That is, when a bullet hits you, the force temporarily pushes your flesh apart, but as it penetrates or stops moving, the flesh flaps back closed behind it, with only a smaller, more permanent cavity being important. Handgun bullets and other projectiles tend to leave only small permanent cavities, which must penetrate into the central nervous system, key blood vessels or other organs where a small loss of mass is sufficient to incapacitate the person. The end result of this is many people, when injured but not incapacitated by a weapon, just keep on doing whatever they're doing (trying to kill you or run away from you, mainly).

I've been considering whether this kind of knowledge could be usefully transferred into damage systems in games in such a way that it is not simply a binary system with "alive and fully functional" and "incapacitated" as the two categories. Specifically, I want a way to track when someone is maimed but not incapacitated (for fantasy games where swords can cleave off a hand or arrows can put out an eye) and when someone is not currently incapacitated, but is bleeding out and will be eventually. I think it might also be useful to cover when someone is specifically dead, and not just incapacitated. I'm not sure a track is the most effective way to handle this.

One possibility I've been considering is making damage rolls a sort of reverse saving throw with gradations, where the attacker's roll must exceed certain values in order to inflict each one of the four injury possibilities. I favour these values ascending with level, rather than being based on Constitution or another ability score, so that there is something like, but not quite the same as, ascending HP.

For example, a 1st level fighter might have injury scores of 8/12/14/16, where the first covers bleeding, the second maiming, the third incapacitation and the fourth instant death. An attacker rolls a d20 to attack and gets a 13. The fighter is bleeding and maimed, but not incapacitated or dead. If the attacker rolls a 14, the fighter is bleeding, maimed, incapacitated and dead.

As a possible variation to consider, I might stagger the results so that it goes bleeding, incapacitated, maimed, dead, which would order them in terms of the permanency of the result rather than the severity of the effect on combat capability.

The effects of each status:

Bleeding: Attacking a bleeding opponent adds +2 to your attack roll (thus making further damage more severe). People who are bleeding out may make a saving throw at the end of combat to stop bleeding.

Incapacitated: The person is unable to perform strenuous activity and is either unconscious, in shock or writhing in pain. Attackers get +4

Maimed: The person has a piece of themselves permanently destroyed or detached. Attackers get a +2 to all attack rolls.

1 Right Leg
2 Left Leg
3 Right Arm
4 Left Arm
5 Torso injury (spinal, respiratory system, circulatory system)
6 Facial injury (eye, ear)

Death: The character must immediately make a saving throw or die.

This is all very tentative, so I'd appreciate feedback and / or offers to playtest it.

Apr 3, 2012

Competence Bands for Runequest

The most boring and time-consuming part of creating NPCs and monsters in the BRP family is calculating all the skills based on the stats and what they mean. I stopped actually doing this a while ago, and instead use a concept I called "competence bands" to quickly determine what percentage an enemy has to succeed. Here are the basics of it.

I sort all enemies into five rough measurements of competence and power that are each given a numeric rating

5: Demigods, anyone who can be described as "the greatest X in the land", epic world-threatening monsters (the Titans); top-level badasses in whatever field
4: Famous warriors, big bads, monsters of mythic scope and power (e.g. the Lernean Hydra, Cetus), masters and highly respected experts of their professions, people you'd journey across a kingdom to seek out the advice of, or to recruit to your cause
3: Professional, veteran warriors, tough monsters you'd encounter on a wandering monsters table (e.g. Ogres), professional artisans and other experts, leaders of bands of weaker foes
2: Competent troublemakers (bandits), ordinary predators, unintelligent monsters, ordinary people practicing their chosen trade
1: Creatures that rely on numbers instead of skill, incompetent individuals, students or noncombatants

When one needs to figure out the skill rating for a particular test, one merely needs to answer the questions "Is this part of the person's specialty, a weakness or neither?"

Part of their specialty: The skill's rating is the numeric rating x 25
A weakness: The skill's rating is the numeric rating x 10
Neither: The skill's rating is the numeric rating x 18

Here's the math predone for you: It goes Rating: Specialty Skill Percentage / Non Specialty Skill Percentage / Weakness Skill Percentage

5: 125 / 90 / 50
4: 100 / 72 / 40
3: 75 / 54 / 30
2: 50 / 36 / 20
1: 25 / 18 / 10

If you need something more fine grained, creatures have a number of specialty skills equal to their numeric rating. 5s have 5 specialty skills, 4s have 4 specialty skills, and so on. I recommend giving all opponents at least one weak skill. You may wish to try giving them (5-their numeric rating) weak skills, but I find this a bit fiddly for personal use. YMMV.

Apr 2, 2012

Magic Items Should Scale With Level

I propose that magic items with static bonuses, like a +1 sword, should instead scale with level, increasing in power as a PC does. I am surprised that this is not more common, to the point where it should really be the norm instead of a house rule.

The first advantage to this is that it reduces the number of magic items one needs to include in the game. Instead of needing to figure out how two +3 swords, one +3 short sword, one +3 bow and one +3 mace are going to show up in such a way that the PCs can get ahold of them in a timely fashion, one can have them find two magic swords, one short sword, one bow and one mace along their adventures. As they grow in power and accomplish heroic deeds, they can be assured that their weapons will develop in power along with them.

The second advantage is that it rationalises the incentive for more powerful magical items. Rather than trying to find treasure and bumping into adventure along the way, characters are incentivised to go out seeking adventure, to perform great deeds and accumulate glory in order to increase the power of their items. It doesn't force characters to get into silly scraps with wandering goblins, or push them to fight every single opponent they find, but rather encourages them to perform truly heroic feats.

There are two possible frameworks here that I think would be manageable in play. I leave it to you to choose which you prefer.

Framework 1: Item XP

Items have levels. They provide a bonus equal to their level divided by 4, round up. The level of an item is based off the owner's XP total, but using the wizard XP progression. i.e. a character with 2500 XP and a magic sword gets a +1 bonus, even if they are a thief and are therefore 3rd level at 2500XP.

 Framework 2: PC XP

Items have levels. They provide a bonus equal to their level divided by 4, round up. The level of the item is based on the PC's level, so a 3rd level PC's items count as 3rd level. This means that clerics, thieves, and other rapidly progressing classes will always have the best items.

Framework 1 is good if one wants rough parity amongst item levels for all PCs, while framework 2 provides extra incentives to playing thieves, clerics and other rapidly progressing classes. While I initially preferred framework 2, I have come around to preferring framework 2.

These are by no means the only possible ways of doing this, but simply two I think are simple and quick enough not to bog down play. I first encountered this concept in Midnight, the third-party supplement for D&D 3.x that depicted a low magic world where there are simply not that many magical swords for PCs to get in the first place.

One of the developments of that concept that Midnight suggested was unlocking powers. As a PC reached 5th, 10th, 15th and 20th level, the item would bond with them and unlock new abilities, or improve on old ones. I think this is a good idea as well, though this will require some foresight and planning on the part of the DM. Here are a set of general schemes for DMs to help them go through weapons and armour power design. These are merely suggestions, and I haven't playtested them extensively like I have with the upgrading bonuses.


5th level: +2 to hit and damage against a specific kind of foe
10th: Deals an additional die of damage, but of a different type (fire, magical energy, lightning, etc.)
15th: 1/day utility power equal to a spell of 4th level or lower (Knock, set things on fire with a touch, Dimension Door)
20th: The ability to incapacitate a foe who fails a saving throw in a single hit, either by paralysing, crippling or killing them


5th: Resistance to a single kind of special attack like petrification, fire, death attacks, etc. (saving throw for no damage or effect)
10th: 1/day utility power equal to a spell of 4th level or lower (Fly, Invisibility, Protection from Normal Missiles)
15th: Resistance to a second kind of special attack
20th: Immunity to the two kinds of attacks the bearer previously had resistance to, or the ability to reroll all saving throws