Thursday, June 3, 2021

OSR - Pirates - Part 1

I've been playing a lot of Sea of Thieves lately.

Playing it feels more like a tabletop RPG than any other video game I've touched, including games explicitly trying to mimic tabletop RPGs. Because progression is entirely horizontal--cosmetics for ships/weapons/tools only, no mechanical advantages--every player remains on even footing, and your capacity for success comes from personal experience and player skill.

Playing so much of it put me in the mood for a solid tabletop pirate experience, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Mongoose put out an official Sea of Thieves RPG. It's...weird.

(I don't think the RPG is very good. To be clear--the video game is excellent, and I wholeheartedly encourage anyone reading this to give it a go, especially if you know 1 to 3 other people who would be happy to explore it with you.)

Having read through the three books that come with it (player's guide, GM's guide, and a short adventure path), they've created a tabletop RPG that mimics the feel of playing the Sea of Thieves video game. This actually doesn't work out terribly well--if I wanted to play the video game, I'd just play the video game.

The standout issue is Functional Pirate Immortality. In the video game, death means your pirate spends a few moments in a a purgatorial time-out on the Ship of the Damned before you respawn on your vessel (or on the shore beside its anchored replacement if the original sank). The lack of permanent death is for in-game Reasons, but more obviously, it's essential for a video game. 

This mechanic is recreated in the RPG; on your death, you spend two rounds on the Ship of the Damned before reappearing on your ship. You lose a die from the pool representing your personal prowess, but you start with 2, can't drop below that number, and the progression goes 2 > 3 > 4 > 5 > 7 (max). It's not a huge loss, but this creates some strange motivations for a player or a character paying attention. 

You can't permanently solve any problems in the Sea of Thieves RPG by violence. Killing a pirate respawns them within moments; sinking their ship results in a rapid repair by merfolk and its return off the shore of some relatively distant island. This might have been hand-waved within the RPG as something unique to the player party, but the prewritten adventure acknowledges it as a diagetic element! A scout for the adventure path's antagonist follows the party at length, then kills himself ("his crew arranges a convenient accident") to exploit the certainty that he'll reappear on the deck of the antagonist's ship, among the crew to which the scout is sworn. The ansible has been discovered, and it wants grog.

This has some particularly dark implications--if pirates know about this, then in a milieu that supports the infinite actions of a PC, the most effective tactic for subduing your opposition would likely be subdual, followed by indefinite imprisonment. What else do you do with an immortal foe who  teleports to safety when you destroy them?

It's weird, in hindsight, to realize my thought process ended up at "This isn't nearly thoughtful enough for a game about swashbuckling pirates!" I think it's actually an issue of verisimilitude; the characters in the world behave in a way incongruent with how that world works. In video games, this gets called ludonarrative dissonance, but there's no reason it can't apply to tabletop RPGs.

The Sea of Thieves RPG bills itself as a storytelling game, and as long as you don't climb out of the car, your guided tour through Pirate Paradise works. But...I don't think I've ever had a single player that didn't start glancing at the maintenance tunnel entrances at least a little, let alone start planning how to hop out of the restraints and scurry into the guts of the machine like a greased weasel. 

Players love to poke at stuff, and the games I've enjoyed the most rewarded that engagement.

I started to think about what an OSR-style pirate game might offer if you loosened the requirement of high-lethality down to more moderate levels, but still offered interesting choices. My intended goal was to keep death and defeat meaningful, but allow players the mental space to invest a little more into their characters. 

Part of this desire comes from running a megadungeon--Stonehell--for the past ~5 months and scaring the hell out of my players by heavily implying a towering body count. I haven't had a single PC death across 20 sessions--although part of that is due to using Worlds Without Number, which is more forgiving than instant-death-at-zero-HP (but not MUCH more forgiving)--and quite reasonably, my players haven't invested a ton into their character personalities and backstories. They did exactly what I told them to do! But maybe there's a middle ground more appropriate to a game where death requires teeth, but part of the draw to play is building your PC's reputation for daring and bravado.


Medium Lethality OSR Pirate RPG Death Mechanics - The Devil's Bargain

Let us assume that all PCs in a game using this mechanic are, by any reasonable definition, pirates.

Piracy can only thrive at length in places where the equilibrium of the world is disturbed; where no great power holds complete mastery. The Devil finds purchase in this disruption and stakes a claim over all pirates, regardless of how they feel on the matter.

When a pirate PC dies--actually dies, not drops to zero and hits whatever your system's countdown-to-death is, but genuinely kicks it--they have a baseline 1-in-6 chance of going straight to hell regardless of their piety or any deathbed renunciations of their cruel ways. Before this die is rolled, they may bargain with the Devil--he likes to gamble, but he loves to win. The PC will return to life, having incredulously survived their ordeal, in exchange for giving the Devil their choice of one of the following:

  • A hand at the wrist
  • An eye
  • A leg at the knee
  • Care/concern for their fellow man
  • Mercy for the weak
  • Temperance/the capacity to be satisfied
If the bargain is struck, no die is rolled to determine their final fate. The PC returns to life, bereft of something important. 

Each time a bargain is struck, the chance of a pirate going straight to Hell at the moment of their death increases by 1-in-6, but further bargaining can avoid the roll of that die in exchange for further sacrifice as described above. This can happen a total of three times; beyond this point, the Devil already owns more than half their soul, and they have nothing left to offer. They pass on into pirate perdition. 

To be clear: A pirate that made three prior bargains with the Devil can make no further bargains on their fourth death, and rolls no fateful die; the Devil claims them as his own.

A dead pirate can refuse the deal, in which case their death is final, and they head off to whatever afterlife they're fated by that last cast of the die.

A pirate can lose their hands, eyes, and legs normally, of course. If this happens, they obviously lack the element in question to offer in a bargain. Theoretically, they could lose the less-concrete elements of their personality, but that seems difficult to adjudicate.

The nature of this bargain is well-known to pirates who ply their trade in unconquered waters. If you hear stories of some fell captain known to have walked ashore none the worse for wear after their brigantine's powder magazine went up in thunder and flame, who hung from a governor's noose for three nights and burnt their estate on the fourth, who fell under a tide of cannibal knives and yet still lives--you may be dealing with a captain with one foot in Hell, and you can be assured that they'll fight like the damned to stay out of the Devil's reach.

Bad movie, cool idea.

Game Effects:

For this mechanic to be a choice, rather than a pure upgrade to survivability, there has to be some kind of drawback to the sacrifice. Missing hands are self-explanatory; what would require two hands is impossible, and the stump begs for the traditional uncinate prosthetic. A missing leg reduces movement speed, the majority (but not totality) of which ought to be restored by a replacement. An eye renders depth perception impossible, hampering marksmanship and general visual acuity.

Sacrificing elements of one's better nature should be explicitly signposted to players as an invitation for the GM to forbid certain actions by that PC. The GM should not require cruelty, slaughter, or excess any more than they require any other specific action from a PC--it's the player's place to decide how their lack of capacity manifests. The choice of a PC that lives only due to the infernal sale of their mercy for the weak is barred only from actions that offer the weak their mercy.

Why Players Should Care If Their Party Members Go To Hell:

This is difficult to design in a vacuum, but it should lay a concrete effect on the rest of the party. A living pirate can contribute toward the crew earning more and greater shares of treasure; what can a dead pirate offer, regardless of damnation or a place in paradise? 

When a dead PC pirate permanently escapes the Devil's clutches, their (former) player earns a token which may be redeemed to reroll one stat during the creation of their next character. A pirate claimed by the Devil earns nothing but a dire reputation; one hopes they contributed enough to their brothers and sisters prior to their death.

Possible Modifications:

  • Increase or decrease the number of bargains a dead PC can offer to change the overall lethality.
  • Instead of The Devil, use Davy Jones. Less religious, more superstitious. I might actually do this myself--more tie-ins to the pirate theme!
  • Add more options to offer as part of the bargain. Some stuff I couldn't quite word right included Fear, or the completion of some dire short-term task ("Do X by date Y or go to Hell")

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Secret Santicorn 2019: Field Alchemy!

For Secret Santicorn 2019 on the OSR Discord, Spwack at Meandering Banter requested RECIPES FOR POTIONS! Cheers, friend. That's...almost what I wrote for you.

(Go see wr3cking8a11's fulfillment of my request at A Swamp In Space!)

I got close, in a teaching-your-players-to-fish sort of way.

As it turns out, I had a whole system written up for my 5e game for on-the-fly alchemy. It started out as houserules for--and then a heavy modification of--a DM's Guild job called "Kaziquek's Guide to Alchemy". I can't actually recommend buying it, per my (unreasonably?) high standards; it's got some good ideas, but the execution ends up a mash of tracking inventory on 107 standard and 107 unique ingredients, then combining them in specific ways to produce individual recipes with deterministic drawbacks.

I ran it as written and found that my players ended up carrying around a bag of holding with hundreds and hundreds of samples of cave mushrooms, copper powder, egg yolk, and newt tails, with no clear rules for finding stuff in the wild, bulk purchases, or creation methods... Ultimately, the level of descriptive detail just didn't gel with the resolution of the game world's simulation.

So I wrote my own version. The 5e ruleset is here. The lingua franca of the OSR blogozone is B/X-ish-compatible GLOG variants, however, so we're gonna try to cut down that 5e-focused document into a lean, hard, game system. Thus:


A Schema for Field Alchemy - Or, GLUG GLOG GLOP

FIELD ALCHEMY is the practice of rapidly combining essential ingredients into mostly useful concoctions. Through the alchemical arts, common ingredients may have their essences extracted, magnified, and put to use...along with a few attendant side effects.

To make a concoction, the alchemist must combine two ingredients, a metallic essence, and enough heat to boil water for an hour.

(In effect, the player spends time and money to produce variable effects; they can spend more time to narrow the variability of the outcome. Metallic essences are the DM-tweakable reagent that limits how many concoctions the player can produce.)

You will imagine yourself as this guy. This is not the case.
(Der Alchemist by Joseph Leopold Ratinckx)

Ingredients are chunks of Animals, Plants, Minerals, or Mystic Substances. If you find a source of one of those things, you can spend a turn to roll under INT to extract a useful sample. Spending additional turns to roll again can yield additional samples--it shouldn't be a problem during downtime to find animal, plant, or mineral ingredients, and wandering monsters are a balancing threat against extended collection expeditions in dangerous places whereas there's no reason to not allow the arbitrary collection of materials during downtime--inventory slots are the limiting factor there.

Ingredients fit three to an inventory slot; imagine a kidney, a whole ginseng root, a lump of quartz, or a snifter of finely-ground wizard teeth. No prices are listed for basic ingredients--it's trivial to gather them for free in the wild, and existing equipment lists offer plenty of examples of prices for chunks of meat, wood, and such. Lean on player ingenuity and a material's origin to figure out if something gathered in the field is a valid categorical source of ingredients.

Dried chameleons. A drawer full of Animal ingredients.

Metallic essence is a highly-refined sample of alchemically significant metals that determine the potency of a concoction. The ingredients are useful, but they are transformed through the presence of the metallic essence--merely mashing together goblin giblets does not a philter make. It's not possible to refine metallic essence in the field--you need fragile distillation equipment and at least a full day in a safe place. Metallic essences are small enough that they don't fill inventory slots unless you're hauling around a damned crate of them.

Also, they're rather expensive, and the effects of chugging incredibly pure samples of lead powder are left as an exercise to the reader.
  • Lead Essence (Save at +2) - 3 GP/vial
  • Tin Essence (Save at +1) - 5 GP/vial
  • Iron Essence (Save at +0) - 15 GP/vial
  • Copper Essence (Save at -1) - 30 GP/vial
  • Silver Essence (Save at -2) - 50 GP/vial
  • Gold Essence (Save at -3) - 100 GP/vial
A concoction containing a metallic essence can be boiled for an hour to destroy the potion while retaining the metallic essence used to create it.

Nanoscale tin powder. Don't breathe it!

Concoctions are categories of alchemical substances produced by combining two kinds of ingredients:
  • Vegetable + Mineral ingredients produce Boosters.
    • Beneficial concoctions, usually physically consumed by the user
  • Animal + Vegetable ingredients produce Medicines.
    • Also known as poisons, depending on the dose
  • Mineral + Mystic ingredients produce Hazards. 
    • Traps, explosives, and other dangers; usually thrown or placed as weapons
  • Animal + Mystic ingredients produce Mutagens.
    • Some helpful, some harmful. Usually consumed (or fed to someone you dislike)
Concoctions can be potions, lotions, oils, clays, or powders--the physical form is described by the alchemist, but all concoctions require the same effort to use regardless of the method of consumption or application.

Unfortunately, field alchemy is as much an art as it is a science. The alchemist selects a category for the concoction to be produced, but rolls randomly on the associated chart for both the concoction's effect and side effect.

More ingredients can be consumed to guide the concoction toward a more desirable result--a pinch of gall, a dusting of aether as the pot boils.
  • One sample each of two ingredients: a random roll on the desired concoction category chart.
  • Two samples each of two ingredients: two rolls on the desired chart; the alchemist picks which one they want to use. Extra ingredients are lost.
  • Three samples each of two ingredients: the alchemist selects the desired outcome from their chosen category. Extra ingredients are lost.
I may have written this entire thing just to post this picture.
(We are NOT taking the wizard by MattRhodesArt)

Side effects are always randomly rolled. Sometimes, the side effect is more useful than the concoction in context. The alchemist always knows what the effect of the concoction and the side effect it carries are once the concoction is created.

Booster Side Effects (Cosmetic) (1d6)
1. Anything touched by this concoction is profoundly stained.
2. The site of application remains unpleasantly moist and slimy. If consumed, you loudly hack up slippery goo as long as you're affected.
3. The concoction produces brief, obvious illusions near it based on the surface thoughts and emotions of the consumer.
4. The concoction produces extreme hair growth wherever it touches bare flesh. The growth rate lasts for one week.
5. The concoction emits a disgusting smell both before use as well as for a full hour after use. Your burps are hella gross.
6. Cosmetic mutations suffered while under the effects of this concoction are permanent.

Medicine Side Effects (Mental) (1d6)
1. Blackout. Save or forget everything from 30 minutes prior to exposure/consumption of the concoction.
2. Brain Fog. Save or roll under half INT whenever a roll under INT would be called for.
3. Paranoia Agonist. Saves against fear apply the concoction's metallic essence save modifier. Can be beneficial or harmful.
4. Aggression. Save or creature's default reaction to strangers is hostility, and they perceive all unfamiliar creatures as equally hostile.
5. Mood Swings. Save or roll under half CHA whenever a roll for social interaction is called for.
6. Traumatic Hallucinations. Save or suffer a very, very bad trip. Roll under half INT, WIS, and CHA whenever such are called for. Vividly remember hallucinations.

Hazard Side Effects (Functional) (1d6)
1. Itching. Exposure to the concoction requires a save, or the creature one out of every three rounds scratching itself for the next hour.
2. Jitters. Save or the creature drops whatever it is holding at the moment the concoction takes effect.
3. Reaction Delay. Save or the exposed creature always acts last in initiative for the concoction's duration.
4. Heart Murmur. Save; on a critical failure the creature suffers an immediate heart attack and dies if their heart was important. Otherwise, nothing but a brief shiver.
5. Muscle Relaxant. Creature exposed ignores 3 damage from each source of blunt impact; rough travel is vastly more comfortable. Hard to feel a delicate touch.
6. Clouded Vision. Save or clarity of vision is limited to 20 feet for the concoction's duration.

Mutagen Side Effects (Physical) (1d6)
1. Numbness. Save or roll under half DEX (and anything keyed off of DEX) for the next hour.
2. Ravenous Hunger. Consume one ration each turn for the next hour or save; on a failure, lose half of current remaining hit points.
3. Emetic. Immediately expel contents of stomach, making a mess and ending the effects of any consumed concoctions or poisons.
4. Metabolic Collapse. Save or immediately fall deeply asleep for one hour; nothing short of actual HP damage will wake you before your elapsed naptime.
5. Toxic Fumes. This concoction constantly vents toxic gas; take 1d6 damage each hour it is kept on (or in) your person. A potent antiparasitic, if you can survive it.
6. Poisoning. Save or take 2d4 damage. On a critical failure, take 4d6 damage. If this kills you, your demise is extraordinarily messy--everything squirts out both ends.

Extraordinary Ingredients: If you harvest your ingredients from a remarkable source--a 10 HD creature, a thousand-year-old tree, extraterrestrial metals, or the ephemera of a unique magical phenomenon or construction--you can roll under your INT to make a special version of a concoction: The effect of the concoction and the side effect it produces is permanent.


I started writing a list of bespoke concoctions, but I realized that was silly--we have a gorillion potion lists out there. This system is meant for figuring out how to make them, and what their curious side effects are.

Potions discovered in the wild should generally be without side effects, as they were (probably?) created in controlled environments, not desperately boiled in a steel helmet full of river water and scrapings from the tailing piles of a mithril mine while troglodytes pounded on the door you'd spiked shut. Field alchemy is about doing the best with what you have in the moment.

You are probably going to end up more like this guy.
(Dmitry Burmak)

But as an example, here's the first 20 entries from Arnold K's potion list sorted into Boosters, Medicines, Hazards, and Mutagens.

1. Clairvoyance - By designating a location within 100', you can see that location as if you were there. You can look at a different location each round. Lasts 1d6 rounds.
4. Fire Resistance - All incoming fire damage is reduced by 6 points. Lasts 30 minutes.
8. Heroism - You get +4 to all d20 rolls. Lasts 1d6 rounds.
10. Invincibility - You are immune to damage. Lasts 1 round.
11. Nondetection - All magical attempts to learn about you fail. People forget you exist as soon as they stop looking at you. Lasts 30 minutes.
17. Spider Climb - As the spell spider climb. Lasts 30 minutes.

2. Deadly Poison- Created by feeding a chain of poisonous animals to each other. Poison (2d6).
7. Healing - You recover 1d8+1 hit points.
14. Purge - Any poisons in your body are vomited out intact. You can vomit the poison into the (now empty) potion bottle if you wish.

16. Sovereign Glue - Elemental stickiness. Glues anything to anything, forever. Very difficult to see if spread on a surface.
18. Universal Solvent - Dissolves any adhesive. Neutralizes sovereign glue and sovereign grease. Causes hard materials to become softer. (Stone becomes like clay, adamantine becomes as soft as normal steel.) Don't get it on your hands.

3. Flight - You gain a fly speed of 24. Lasts 1d6 rounds.
5. Gaseous Form - As the spell gaseous form. Lasts 30 minutes.
6. Giant Size - You triple in size. Your physical attacks deal double damage and you take half damage from physical sources. When making Strength checks, treat your Strength at 24. Lasts 1d6 rounds. Alternatively, it can be poured on an object or part of an object to make it triple in size. Lasts 30 minutes.
9. Invisibility - You are invisible. If poured on a wall or floor, creates a psuedo-window that you can see through. Lasts 1d6 rounds.
12. Petrification - Turns you into stone. If poured on stone, turns it into flesh.
13. Polymorph - A piece of a creature must be added to this potion before it can be used. You transform into an exact copy of that creature. Multiple donors creates chimeras. Lasts 30 minutes if same species or 1d6 rounds if different species.
15. Shrink - You shrink to a twelfth of your normal size. (Feet becomes inches.) Your Strength is 1, all of your attacks deal a single point of damage, and you take double damage from physical sources. Lasts 30 minutes. Alternatively, it can be poured on an object or part of an object to make it shrink down. Anything smaller than a couch can fit in your pocket. Lasts 30 minutes.
19. Water Breathing - You can breath underwater. Lasts 30 minutes.
20. Zombie Blood - You appear to be a cold, rotting corpse but can still act normally. Unintelligent undead will ignore you as long as you ignore them. You count as undead. Lasts 30 minutes.

~ ~ ~

In summary: 

0: The DM populates the Booster/Medicine/Hazard/Mutagen charts from their preferred potion list.
1: The player gathers Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, and Mystic ingredients and buys Metallic Essences. The GM decides how many metallic essences are available for purchase.
2: The player decides to perform Field Alchemy, picking two ingredients and a metallic essence to combine into a type of concoction.
3: The player rolls for the concoction's effect (or picks, if enough ingredients are used) and rolls for the side effect, producing a useful (?) result.

You should have something that requires minimal bookkeeping, is self-limiting (through inventory slots and access to metallic essences), has a power level set by the GM (based on the potion lists converted into alchemical results), and has limited potential for power gaming (due to semi-random outcomes). 

There's plenty of space here for refinement (ha!). Lists of known recipes, unique effects, magical alchemical equipment, delivery methods... Go scrape out your field cauldron and give this stuff a test. 

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Neon Sunset - A Cyberpunk Roleplaying Game - Playtest v1 (Auric Alligator)

So much for new posts as I complete sections--seven weeks after my last post about it, here's a very dirty first draft sitting at about 12.7k words. Behold:

Neon Sunset is a cyberpunk roleplaying game about career criminals doing jobs for and against their corporate overlords.

Players generate characters by picking a Focus (Combat, Social, or Tech) and an Approach (Institutional, Self-Reliance, or Community) to determine baseline abilities, spending stat and skill points, and determining their starting Professional Reputation. Prior Jobs are randomly generated to determine your history, your starting gear, and--perhaps most importantly--favors owed to and by you from other underworld figures.

You can use these rules to make characters, generate criminal histories and debts to dubious patrons, buy guns, build guns, get shot, bleed out, and die a horrible, postmodern death in the gutter. There's a sidebar for using magic as a weapon if you want to use this to play Shadowrun. There are guidelines for purchasing and modifying cyberware. There are reasonably decent hacking rules that can be resolved in a single dice throw.

I think you could use this to play Cyberpunk 2020 or Shadowrun. That was the goal, after all.


You'll notice that there's a lot of [TODO] in there and [SEND THIS TO WORD JAIL]; if I don't put a pin in this, I'm gonna pull all my hair out and never write anything else until this project is perfect, which is sort of the antithesis of what I want to be doing with my time and this blog. So. Presented as-is, pending playtesting and feedback.

If you give this a read, please comment! If you opt to play it--and it's ugly, but I believe it's definitely playable--then I'd LOVE to hear how your experience went.

The PDF linked above is the automatic output of the markdown editor I was using to write it, and is very poorly arranged. If you want to look at the current work-in-progress text (which is FULL of messy TODO elements and half-written sections), you can find that here.

Having posted this, I'm going to keep my eyes and ears open for any feedback from curious readers, but I'm going to get a little distance between myself and this project so I can get back to writing that roguelike thing and trying to sketch, start, and finish smaller units of game writing--finishing stuff is a skill I'd like to hone.

~ ~ ~

My current todo list on this thing when I eventually return to it, separated out by estimated time-to-complete:

  • 1 minute
    • Consider rewriting melee attacks entirely so there's less roll-and-response
  • 10 minutes
    • Write a "Starting Cash and Gear" section
    • Finish detailing the different money currencies (Scrip, Coin, and add Cash)
    • Rewrite the armor purchase rules to just accept that there are only three relevant breakpoints worth buying armor at
    • Clean up the layout of how I explain Heatblock ammo tech, and expand on the practical use of it in the setting
    • Clean up the presentation of melee attacks
    • Cull the HELL out of the Hacking explanation because it's full of wordvomit that implies mechanics without actually indicating they exist, which was the cardinal sin of Shadowrun's stuff
  • 1 hour
    • Examples of Tech/Institutional and Tech/Community characters
    • Write examples of what 7+ stats physically look like (as high-end and low-end augs)
    • Give more than a bare framework for handling Cyberware/Bioware, including deciding if I want a humanity loss/drawback system
    • Clean up the weapon customization system.
    • Write a lifestyle/upkeep system to drive the need for players to do jobs and maintain their expensive toys
    • Write retirement benchmarks to create more player goals
    • Write about gear licensing re: HEAT
    • Write literally anything about vehicles and chases
  • 1 day
    • Figuring out the awkwardness of how I'm describing Approaches ("Institutional/Self-Reliant/Community")
    • Write more examples of what Grace/Grit/Charm/Lore can accomplish at 1, 3, 6, 7, 8, and 10 (I already have Might done)
    • Write about Drones
    • Write about Drugs/Toxins
    • Write anything about gear that isn't guns, actually
    • Write an entire police/corpsec HEAT system based on my notes
    • Write about jail time and breaking people out of dystopian brains-as-CPU farms
    • Write statblocks for more than just "regular person" and "melee-focused gang member"
    • Make a character sheet
  • 1 week
    • An explicit setting, rather than an implied one.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Cyberpunk 2020 is driving me crazy (Or, I Have Been Distracted)

Buckle up, this is a long one, but I need to get it out of my system.

I've been meaning to write up the next post in the roguelike toolkit system, but I've been distracted; my Wednesday evening game group has opted to play a Cyberpunk Red/Cyberpunk 2020 mix as our next campaign. I was (and still remain) super stoked! I love the genre, I have a love/hate relationship with Shadowrun, and I'm hype as hell for Cyberpunk 2077. I'd love to get an in-depth look at the setting and system that'll be the backstory/inspiration for the upcoming video game. Then I actually read the CP2020 rulebook.

(I also read the Cyberpunk Red quickstart rules--they're fine, if entirely quiet on the subject of making your own characters. The CPRed quickstart materials strike me as content designed for doing demos of the game at gaming conventions and hobby shops: powerful characters, simple scenarios, simplified mechanics, deliberately limited options. It evokes a deliberate aesthetic, and that's cool.)

We're gonna talk about CP2020, though. Hooooo boy. This is a game that shoots itself in the foot at full-auto; the summary of my feelings is that the game is tremendously frustrating, and not all of that can be placed at the feet of 1990's-era RPG design.

Combat is incredibly lethal. Getting shot once, even in a limb, can down your character immediately. Many enemies are likely to play for keeps and finish you off, because your dead body sold to an organ farm is worth at least a few months of rent + food + utilities in a big apartment in a nice part of town. (There's a chart. I did the meat math.)

It can't be that bad, can it? Consider:
  • An NPC with average stats (5) and skills (5), shooting you with a cheap pistol (Sternmeyer Type 35, Heavy Autopistol, 3d6 damage) from about 30 feet away fires twice per turn and is going to hit you 60% of the time (1d10+10 >= 15). If you have average stats (BODY 5, BTM -2) and aren't wearing armor, you're going to take ~8 damage. 8 damage is a magic number.
    • If you are wearing the best armor jacket that won't encumber you, replace "cheap pistol" with "any Very Heavy pistol, most Heavy SMGs, any Assault Rifle, Any Shotgun, Any Explosive, or a sledgehammer."
  • You've been hit, so roll 1d10.
    • On a 5 through 10, you were struck in a limb, which has been completely blown off. 
    • If you rolled a 2 through 4, you were hit in the torso. You're under no risk of having your whole torso blown off (???) but you're still making a check with a 40% chance (roll 1d10 <= 4) of you losing your shit for the rest of your turn until you succeed on your subsequent turns or die. 
    • If you rolled a 1 on that initial hit location d10, though, you've been struck in the head. All damage from headshots is doubled; if damage from a headshot hits that magic 8 threshold, you have had a skylight installed in your brainpan. RIP. Roll a new cyberpunk (and this time wear a helmet).
  • Statblocks for most enemy goons in the book have REF scores that start at 10.

The game's premise, expository fiction, diagetic quotes, art, mechanics, and random encounter tables all imply or outright describe violence as an hourly element of the setting. So... fine. This is a game about fighting. The classes should all have ways to be good at that, right?

Well, one class out of the ten available does. Solos--professional soldiers and hitmen--are the only class with access to the Combat Sense skill, which adds 1:1 to your Awareness and Initiative rolls.

Going first in combat generally means you win. Even if you don't outright kill your enemies, the death spiral of wound penalties and stun saves is going to give them severe disadvantages. No other class gets something even close to this useful, and the book encourages the GM to stat NPCs up using player classes--you're going to face enemy Solos with points in Combat Sense. We end up with a system where combat is everywhere, but only one class out of ten is likely to survive it by ventilating everyone else on the field before they can skin their iron.

Okay, fine. "Combat is deadly and unfair, treat it like war, not like a sport, and generally don't get into fights" says Cyberpunk 2020. We've heard this before from many (if not most) OSR games. But you still want to have a good time, so what's the requirement to be competitive in combat and still have some character creation resources to spread around?

Wouldn't it be cool if, aside from GUN, you also had a laser microphone in your eye, or could track people by their scent? Maybe points spent elsewhere can make you more flexible, rather than increasing the vertical on this one aspect of your character...?

No. Your starting cash is determined by how many points you put into your special ability, and at 10 points, one role (MedTechs) gets the highest starting amount ($15,000/month). The second tier ($12,000/month) is shared by Rockerboys, Corporates... and Solos.

I could have just written "The game punishes you for not playing a min-maxed Solo" without the prior ~800 words, but it wouldn't have had the same pathos.

Sod this for a game of soldiers, you say. Fighting's for chumps. I'm going to be a HACKERMANS.

But hacking is wooooooooooooorse~

I'll spare you another 800 words. Cyberpunk 2020 is the game that gave us the hacker problem--the one player specialized in hacking plays a solo infiltration minigame for an hour while the rest of the players go get pizza. CP2020 produced it, Shadowrun repeated it, and it's been an ongoing struggle since then between the desire to design an efficient skill system and attempts to accurately represent an irreducibly complex skillset.

~ ~ ~

A Brief Digression On Hacking

This is because hacking is goddamned magical. Games tend to try to be fair about things; actions have reactions and counteractions, powerful moves have meaningful costs. Hacking is not fair; it is a skillset intended to circumvent the IRL action economy, and in a world dominated by computers and machines--our current world, and most of the modes in which we picture the future--it is the closest thing we have to Actual Goddamned Wizard Magic used for manipulating information, identity, digital relationships, and physical access and control.

Spend a few years--generally in your youth, often through reading the idiosyncratic writings of your peers--learning how to turn your brain inside out, speak in tongues, and read runic inscriptions, and suddenly you have the power to peruse the thoughts of others, wear their faces, go where nobody wants you to intrude, and enrich yourself. The authorities of the land frown on this, and often use their power to outlaw your methods, your knowledge, and eventually you as a person, rather than let these skills become common enough to subvert their hold on society. Sometimes they try to control you by hiring you, instead. Many people are afraid of you--they have heard wild stories of what you can do, they have seen the results of your work, but they have no understanding of how you do it.

A game that tries to make hacking fair is not going to accurately represent hacking. A game that tries to be fair while including a meaningful representation of hacking is not going to be fair. 

Contemplate this on the Tree of Woe.

~ ~ ~

Back to dunking on a game from the comfortable vantage point of 30 years since it was published.

Even trying an end-run around the Netrunning information-gathering minigame and specializing entirely in subverting meatspace devices (doors, cars, robots) is an exercise in futility because it's too easy.

For roughly three times the cost of those cheap pistols I described, your doodoo-tier hacker--who has put a single point into their special class skill, Interface--can carry around a cyberdeck the size of a paperback novel loaded with a single program that can control any screen, microphone, speaker, door, elevator, vehicle, robot, camera, public newspaper printer (they're very specific about this), or cell phone with 100% reliability and no listed countermeasure.

A few cheap peripherals render the hacker immune to Black ICE that might fry their brain, and if their cyberdeck catches fire, they unplug it, throw it in the trash, and buy a new one.

With all the skill points and money they saved using this technique, they can invest in self defense against the ever-present threat of Night City's HARD RAIN... except all the points they saved on their class skill mean their starting cash is a few thousand eurodollars at most, and even with another $10,000 of cyberware and guns, they'll still likely get pasted by the first Solo they face.


Because I want this game to stop shooting itself in the foot and be good, and I think there's something to be gained from exploring the places where Cyberpunk 2020 fails to achieve what it sets out to do.

1: Premise. I've read the core rules cover to cover--which should be enough to talk about this topic, but correct me in the comments if there's some huge revelation later in the game's publishing history--and there's no antagonistic force for the players to align against. Sure, there's a bunch of bad stuff, but in a distributed, nebulous way.

You can't shoot a city's drug addiction epidemic. You can't hack global warming. You can shoot boostergang members, but you can't solve the problem of gang warfare in Night City without non-trivially depopulating it, and we have names and The Hague for people who try that.

The Corporations might fit--but you can play as an officer of their institutional authority, and they're not described as universally, mustache-twirlingly evil so much as merely exploitative and opportunistic. Plus, there's a steady-state force holding down the corps in the form of the remaining nuclear-armed world governments. Shadowrun did better with this--CP2020's Arasaka employs a bunch of ninjas for hire, but Shadowrun's Aztechnology megacorporation practices blood magic and human sacrifice. Which one seems more likely to inspire a PC to tilt at windmills?

John Hancock Building in Chicago by u/spyromg

Alright, so perhaps the tools the game gives us are intended for stories centered on more personal interactions; after all, the Lifepath system (which is a genuine, unironic highlight of this game!) lists out a half-dozen siblings, your individual relationships with each one, and a string of mentors, friends, and enemies from the past decade of your life. I think this was the intent; the execution leaves far too much up to the GM, because you have a gauze-thin "Reputation" system, a few sentences describing what some interpersonal skill are (but few details on how they work)...and that's it.

What's needed here?

Players need unstable situations to exploit and NPCs with specific agendas to oppose or support. I'd argue that you can't have a very good RPG--or tell a particularly engaging story in any medium--where the status is extremely quo and is expected to remain that way. Instability is the mother of change, and change makes for interesting stories.
"Every day, so-and-so did such-and-such...until."
(This idea is gonna show up in my upcoming roguelike stuff. Keep your eyes peeled.)

So we need to lean a little more monolithic and a little less distributed in the foundations of the setting's antagonism.

There are gangs, sure, but we should spend some time talking about what the gang leaders want. There are corporations, but we should spend some time talking about what their branch managers and CEOs want. We should have some idea of how these desires clash with the desires of other gangs and corporations, both local (another neighborhood gang; another coastal corporation) and remote (gang operations from across the nearest border; another corporation in the same areas of manufacturing or data processing, but separated by a continent or an ocean).

Probably the best and fastest way to do this is to grab Augmented Reality (plus free additional material) and roll most of this stuff up on the tables provided. Once you're happy with that, start making your own tables that are more suited to the context of your particular game.

2. Class Design.

All class Abilities need to be largely redesigned from scratch, especially Combat Sense. Netrunners need to be redone from scratch because hacking needs to be redone from scratch. Most of the classes could be merged into each other. (Solo, Nomad, and Cop; Rockerboy and Media; Corporate and Fixer; Tech and Netrunner)


... know what?

I had notes on redesigning the classes, rewriting hacking, rewriting how equipment and cyberware works, but the hell with all that.

I'm just gonna write my own cyberpunk game. I'll call it NEON SUNSET.

I took a while to post this ramble; since between drafting this and today, I've got at least 60% of the system complete.

A solid cyberpunk TTRPG is a problem that can be solved. New posts as I progress through sections and drafts.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Cyberpunk Red character sheet and bathtub gin-tier Cyberpunk Red character creation notes

A brief aside from the usual fantasy/OSR stuff.

I'm gearing up for a Cyberpunk campaign that'll end up being a mix of CP2020 and the Cyberpunk Red quickstart material (at least until the CPR core rules come out...someday).

As I often do, I made my own character sheet. Feel free to give it a spin. 

Feedback is welcome in the comments! To get a copy of the sheet that you can edit, click File > Make a copy.

As for character creation:

Getting elbow-deep in a system like this is good practice for building knowledge of how both that specific system works and how the mechanical elements it uses can be recognized and used elsewhere.

I did a little math over my morning coffee toward comparing the Cyberpunk 2020 chargen process and Cyberpunk Red's quickstart pregen characters to see if I could reverse-engineer how the CPR pregens were built. Obviously this is all envelope math, since the quickstart isn't written at all toward making your own characters from scratch, so you'd do well to consider this all highly apocryphal.

That said, here are the results of parsing the six different statistics arrays for the pregens and counting their skill point purchases.

Cyberpunk Red Pregen Stat + Skill totals:

  • Solo Stat Totals: 67, 69, 68, 67, 68, 71 (avg 68.333) / Skill Points: Basic 16 + 31
  • Nomad Stat Totals: 70, 70, 65, 70, 76, 67 (avg 69.666) / Skill Points: Basic 16 + 33
  • Netrunner Stat Totals: 65, 71, 74, 65, 67, 64 (avg 67.667) / Skill Points: Basic 16 + 32
  • Rocker Stat Totals: 67, 69, 68, 67, 68, 71 (avg 68.333) / Skill Points: Basic 16 + 32
  • Fixer Stat Totals: 62, 64, 63, 69, 65, 69 (avg 65.333) / Skill Points: Basic 16 + 31
  • Tech Stat Totals: 66, 62, 64, 62, 62, 69 (avg 64.1667) / Skill Points: Basic 16 + 32

Stat Total Cross-Average: 67.25
Skill Points Average: Basic 16 + 31.833 (no pregen lists the 2 free points in Teaching)

Stat min is 62, stat max is 76, mean is 67.25.
Diff between min and max is 14; mean distance from min/max is 5.25/8.75


(After I wrote this, I realized that CP2020 has a minimum of 2 for starting character stats, but CPR doesn't seem to have this limit. That might skew these conclusions, but not to the point of ruining them.)

I think that these pregens were made more powerful than normal starting characters, at least compared to starting-tier CP2020 characters, which use 9d10 (avg 49.5, SD 8.62, so generally 41-58 stat points spread across 9 stats for an average stat of 5.5). CPR pregens use 10 stats with an average of 67.25 stat points for an average stat of 6.725.

For skills, CP2020 characters get 40 points to put into their list of 10 Career skills, then REF+INT points to put into pickup skills (any skill that's not in their career skills list). CPR doesn't mention anything about career skills packages or pickup skills derived from stats, but it does give a total of 18 skill points for free + an average of 31.833 additional skill points.

I think starting CPR-pre-gen-based characters get stat points equal to 2d8+60 to spend on their 10 stats (mean 69, SD 3.24, min 62, max 76).

I think starting CPR-pregen-based characters get 18 points in basic skills plus 30 + 1d3 skill points.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

I'm writing a system-neutral roguelike tabletop RPG toolset

It seems strange; roguelike video games are the descendants of Dungeons and Dragons, not the other way around. What would a roguelike TTRPG even look like? Why make one? It's important for me to able to answer those questions for myself; I figure others might be interested in the answers, too.

  • A roguelike tabletop RPG looks like a series of nested tables that efficiently establish a descriptive framework of prompts for the GM to fill in either during pre-game prep or through ad-lib at the table.
  • I want to make this game tool because it supports my personal GMing style--I love having the dice present me with a prompt that I can riff on, either at my leisure outside of the game or immediately at the table within the context of the situation. I figure others might enjoy this mode, too.

This is a project I've been kicking around in various forms in my head for well over a year. It comes from the reason why I do most of my game design these days--I want both players and GMs to be able to share in the joy of surprise.

Some of the fun of running a game comes from seeing how the players react to and interact with your material, but traditional prep rarely has the GM surprised in the way that the players get surprised by the developments of the action. The GM has written it, spent hours or days pondering it, and all that remains is to wind it up and see how it flies.

Contrast this with the examples of emergent gameplay, both in tabletop RPGs and video games. A game of Dwarf Fortress never has a script or a plan, but the story that emerges from the behaviors of creatures, natural effects, and reactions can be magical. Likewise, there's no predetermined plot to a run through Stonehell or Barrowmaze or Undermountain or the Veins of the Earth or The Gardens of Ynn; the joy of it comes from what emerges as players, their characters, their plans, their foes, and the dice come together.

You might ask, isn't all gaming like that, or at least most OSR gaming?

Well, no. I would love to hire this person.

There's a reason all of those examples are dungeons--the format of a dungeon crawl inherently limits the directions players can go and the means by which they can meaningfully interact with their surroundings. Sure, they can spend six hours licking the bare stone walls, but when they want to actually have something interesting happen, they start opening doors and pulling levers and readying their pseudomedieval SWAT team ambuscade upon the feasthall full of goat-headed moon cultists.

(Moon-headed goat cultists?)

The temptation to wander off, go shopping, invest in a business, rob from the shopkeepers, or set fire to the inn is lessened by the conceptual distance from civilization. Maybe your players want to do all that stuff as the majority of their gametime? This is not badwrongfun, but...mine usually don't. I tend not to enjoy games summarized as "faffing about in town for several hours IRL."

The dungeon is ultimately where the good stuff happens. The place beyond the wall where civilized, sane people won't tread.

You can run games that take place within civilization, but that's not what the majority of the rules we use are meant to support, be it OSR stuff, 5e, or things further afield. Half of almost any given RPG book is about combat. D&D is fundamentally about kicking monsters in the teeth and taking their stuff, and anything based on D&D is going to have that DNA deep inside it, too. Even the adventures which take place within civilization are about the intrusion of nasty crap from beyond the edge of night into the hearthspace. Shapeshifting invaders, monsters in the sewers, fiends among the courtiers--the underworld has invaded what should be a safe place, and what is dangerous must be driven out. Order must be restored.

If it's the home of our characters, there's enough motivation for them to do it to protect their own. If it's common space shared by all, or distant lands, full of distant peoples, then the morally lax among our PCs require recompense--cash, goods, property, promises, power.

But we keep coming back to the same idea--excitement, novelty, and surprise happen on the razor's edge, even when those things come to us rather than waiting for our explorations.

Adventure is found in the mythic underworld. The dungeon is where the good stuff happens.

We like telling stories where we take fire into the darkness and return with riches and knowledge. We've been telling that story for a long time; it hasn't gotten old yet, and I suspect we'll still be telling it even after we've put our boots on alien soil. It takes tremendous effort to tell stories that aren't about this idea, and the results of this effort are as discomforting to endure as they are difficult to create.

So why not aim your entire game at what happens in the dungeon and use some simple systems to get through all the parts where you're not in the dungeon?

Unfortunately, it's kind of a pain in the ass to quickly put together a good dungeon, let alone a whole bunch of them. Drawing a dungeon map is straightforward enough; drawing a good map that supports open-ended play is somewhat harder. Filling out every room in that dungeon can be done quickly enough, but quick methods often yield nonsensical results.

Perhaps nonsensical isn't the right word; I mean the equivalent of the uncanny valley, but for experiences. You can have a well-jaquayed dungeon, but as long as we expect that our PCs are in a real place, made by real people, it's gonna be jarring to find the torture room directly adjacent to the sleeping quarters, which is directly adjacent to an open sewer, which itself contains 13,000 GP in assorted gems and a +3 billhook.

You don't get a good cake if you just take all the ingredients that go into a cake and smash them together in a large bowl. Using purely randomized dungeon generators gets you these pseudodungeons, game places that have all the ingredients but none of the elegance of construction. You use them for expediency, and you either rewrite half the material as you find what doesn't make sense, or you hope you can justify these strange extrusions on the fly. I think we can do better than that.

Why did you make me read all of that?

So we could get here: I'm going to write a system-neutral framework based entirely around the crux of roguelike video games: contextualized pseudorandom dungeon generation and the mechanical systems that support and extrapolate on their exploration. Each major feature of the system will get a blog post as I define it and work on it, and I'll write about the difficulties and triumphs I have as I move through the creative process.

I'll post up playtest material and invite feedback, and I'll also post about the process of turning this system into a physical book--editing, proofreading, layout, art, etc. I want this to be highly functional and a joy to use.

An aspirational list of posts to come on this project include:

  • Unstable Settings: Why geopolitics matters to dungeon crawlers.
  • Peaceful Retirement (Or, Why Are We Even Doing This?)
  • Dungeon Context: Who built this place? Why? What happened? Who's here now?
  • Dungeon Generation: Creating a 5-floor, 60-room complex in about 20 minutes.
  • How and Why the Dungeon Changes Over Time
  • Magic: What's Necessary for a Roguelike?
  • Nested Systems: Pressing One's Luck with Inventory, Food, Water, and Light
  • Treasure: Less Paperwork, More Novelty
  • Continuity Through Morale, Retreat, and Rivalries
  • Black Doors and Deep Horrors: Challenges for Powerful Delvers

There's a lot to do. I've been marching through the muddle in the middle on this one for a few months; I'm sure there's more to come, but I'm excited and eager to more formally put pen to paper on this project.

Maybe it's still too big of a project? I already cut out the entirely whole-cloth combat and class system. I suppose we'll find out together.

Thanks for reading all of this--I hope you'll come along with me for the ride. For now, I'll leave you with my first draft of a back-of-the-book blurb.
This is a game about exploring dangerous places in search of fortune and glory. You will risk life and limb to seek out vast rewards within domains others dare not tread. The luckiest among you will survive to retire on your earnings; the rest will suffer death or worse.
This is not a game about grand, sweeping sagas. The stories you will tell in this game will be picaresque--vignettes describing brief, intense encounters, wherein the decisions made describe the doer as much as the deed. There are no predetermined plot arcs, nor any particular end toward which your stories will bend. Your choices are the chapters, and their order will only be discernible as narratives in hindsight, after the blood has been wiped from your blades, the coins and gems stacked and counted.
Your characters will die frequently. This is by design. The life of a dungeon crawler is filled with ten times the usual dose of hardship, but promises those who can endure it thousand-fold rewards. You will face dead ends, rotten food, broken equipment, dirty tactics, brutal traps, and preposterous misfortune. Your rewards for surviving these challenges may sum to blindness, broken bones, and the scars of fire and sword on both body and mind...
...but you might also find rubies the size of a child's tight fist, silver enough to hobble an ox--treasure to beggar any prince or pasha in comparison--and perhaps even a key to the gates of mortality itself.
Of course, you could always continue to farm turnips for the uncertain remainder of your years.
But if the glint of glory still shines in your eyes--then lace your boots. Take up your notched swords and hidden knives, your craggy hammers and battered shields, your hide-wrapped grimoires and dizzying censers. Gather your wits, your courage, and your companions, and descend...

Friday, September 20, 2019

Using "Wonder & Wickedness" and "Marvels and Malisons" in D&D 5e

Last week I visited some old gaming friends. They'd just finished up a 5e campaign of Dungeon of the Mad Mage and were looking for stuff to bridge the gap until the next DM in their rotation was ready to start a new ongoing game. I'm always happy to run a game for them and I wanted to try out a few things, so I offered to run a one-shot.

At first, I'd just wanted to run The Gardens of Ynn to test how a procedural-generation dungeon/point-crawl would play out, but I'd also been looking to test out how a level-less magic system like Wonder & Wickedness and Marvels and Malisons would play, so I decided to work both ideas together.

Getting The Gardens of Ynn to work in 5e isn't terribly difficult; the hardest part is writing monster stats or finding appropriate equivalents. I'm sure I'll get back to Ynn in a future post, as I'm a HUGE fan of the format Emmy Allen used in it.

Getting W&W + M&M to work, though, would require ripping out a lot of the guts of 5e's magic system. Here's how I approached it.

Wait, what's Wonder & Wickedness?

W&W is an OSR-style magic system that removes spell levels in favor of spells arranged in thematic groups, each of which scale with caster level. Rather than effectively gaining a new class feature with every spell learned, casters using the W&W system have a smaller pool of diverse powers--virtually none of which are direct-damage attacks. Marvels and Malisons is an expansion on the ideas presented in Wonder & Wickedness. An example from the Necromancy spell group:
Occult Consultation - The sorcerer must dig a pit two feet square, into which is poured wine, fragrant herbs, and the blood of a sacrifice slain with a bronze knife. A throng of ghosts is summoned by this ritual, which may be conversed with as desired for the duration of the spell, though truth is not compelled. Specific ghosts may be called if the sorcerer has material remains, a possession that was once treasured by the deceased, or a true name. Following the consultation, if desired, the sorcerer may follow the ghosts in katabasis to the land of the dead, along with any number of willing companions, though an easy path of return is not guaranteed.
That's the full text of the spell. There's some fore-matter in the book that discuses durations, but they're no more complex than "ten minutes per caster level, plus ten more if you're a specialist." It's up to the GM to adjudicate any weird interactions. Personally, I love that. I prefer my magic weirder than 5e's mechanics offer.

Direct damage comes in the form of maleficence, an ability all spellcasters have that allows them to convert a casting into a player-described direct attack for 2d6 (double sixes explode into an additional exploding d6), with a save for half damage. There are also rules for using your castings for defense or in magic duels, but they weren't very relevant for a one-shot.

Converting W&W for use with D&D 5e classes

NB: When I write "W&W", I mean the material available in both Wonder & Wickedness and Marvels and Malisons together. I just can't be arsed to keep writing out both titles.

First: Cantrips aren't affected by these changes. Characters receive their normal number of cantrips, although access to maleficence slightly devalues damage cantrips.

Second: 5e classes with access to spell slots receive spell points instead of those slots. A character gains one spell point for each spell slot they would have received, regardless of that spell slot's level. A 3rd level Wizard with four 1st level slots and two 2nd level slots receives six (4 + 2) spell points.

Class abilities that restore spell slots (such as the Wizard's Arcane Recovery) restore a number of spell points equal to the maximum number of spell slots that ability could restore.

Third: The number of 5e spells a character would know converts directly into the number of W&W spells the character knows. Classes have a specific group of W&W spells assigned to them from which they randomly roll which spell they learn whenever a new spell is learned.

The W&W spell groups, each of which has eight spells in it:

  • Diabolism - Conjure, bind, and compel devils. Pull bits of Hell into the real world.
  • Elementalism - Speak with and harness the powers of earth, wind, water, and fire.
  • Necromancy - Kill stuff, raise/command/question the dead, mess with souls.
  • Psychomancy - Enchant, fascinate, and dominate minds. 
  • Spiritualism - See and manipulate the Astral plane and magic itself.
  • Translocation - Access teleportation, portals, and extradimensional spaces.
  • Vivimancy - Warp bodies, for better or worse. Grow fangs, give life to stone.
  • Apotropaism - Ward against other magic, spirits, demons, and misfortune.
  • Arachnomorphosis - Call spiders, command spiders, be like a spider, be a spider.
  • Physiurgy - Cure wounds and disease, or raise the dead at great personal risk.
  • Cunning Craft - Vaguely Celtic-themed druid powers.
  • Rope Tricks - A curious spread of abilities tied (ha) around the manipulation of string and rope.

And the associations with 5e classes. Remember that classes randomly roll spells known from their associated spell groups:

  • Barbarian - None, but subclasses receiving 5e spells as one-off powers keep them as written.
  • Bard - Access to all spell groups. Bards are very eclectic.
  • Cleric - Physiurgy and three more groups thematically related to the cleric's deity.
  • Druid - Elementalism, Vivimancy, Cunning Craft, and either Physiurgy or Arachnomorphosis.
  • Fighter - Eldritch Knights pick any two spell groups except for Physiurgy.
  • Monk - None, but subclasses receiving 5e spells as one-off powers keep them as written.
  • Paladin - Apotropaism and one other group relevant to the Paladin's oath. I gave an Oath of the Ancients paladin Vivimancy.
  • Ranger - Cunning Craft and Rope Tricks.
  • Rogue - Arcane Tricksters get Psychomancy, Spiritualism, and Translocation.
  • Sorcerer - Any spell group relevant to the Sorcerer's Sorcerous Origins, but every spell in that group is learned sequentially before accessing another relevant spell group. 
  • Warlock - Diabolism, Necromancy, Spiritualism, and one other relevant to the Warlock's patron.
  • Wizard - Access to all spell groups. Wizards are very eclectic. Specialist wizards may pick one group and always opt to roll from that group until all spells within it are known.

Fourth: Spell Catastrophes happen when the spellcaster:

  • Does anything magical involving the concept of "infinity"
  • Has their concentration on an ongoing effect disrupted (Con save DC 10 or half damage, whichever is higher)
  • Dies with unspent spell points remaining
  • Attempts to cast a spell without any remaining spell points. (Note that the catastrophe happens after the spell is cast.)

How did the one-shot/playtest go?

Boy howdy did I learn a lot from this one.

The group of characters in the one-shot were all 3rd level, and consisted of a tiefling paladin of devotion, a tiefling sorcerer (Wild Magic), a half-elf eagle-totem barbarian, ZIVROS THE DE-COMPOSER (human wizard necromancer), a high elf rogue (thief), and a dabbing t-rex in sunglasses and a red t-shirt.

Not represented in the playtest: Bard, Cleric, Druid, Fighter, Monk, Ranger, Warlock.

Look, the last player really wanted to be a t-rex; what kind of monster says no to that in a one-shot? I printed out allosaurus stats and said "you can tell the difference between your party and others, but otherwise you're a smaller-than-average t-rex." The player came up with the shades and shirt.

I used a rule during the playtest that I've deliberately left out of the above conversion: I let the Wild Magic Sorcerer deliberately trigger spell catastrophes by spending a spell point and picking between two options that I rolled. This was a huge mistake--the player did almost nothing but trigger catastrophes all night, and the majority of the game was the other players trying to deal with the chaos the Sorcerer unleashed.

Don't get me wrong--even though the party didn't make it past the first room in The Gardens of Ynn, everyone had a blast playing, and I got to see some very creative spellcraft from the Necromancer --who accidentally (?) gassed the entire party with berserker fumes from Hell, and the Paladin, who used Apotropaism to try to seal an extraplanar giant praying mantis into their chainmail purse, King Solomon-style.

Nobody used maleficence. I suspect that either I didn't signpost the ability enough both before and during gameplay, or the other powers were much more exciting to use than merely dealing damage.

Nobody ran out of spell points, which is probably good, as they only dealt with two encounters (one exploration/terrain traversal, one combat).

All told, I'd run this test again. I only got about 3 hours of testing in for the one-shot, and I'd like to see how it feels in a convention-standard 4-hour slot, or possibly over 2-4 full sessions. If you end up trying it, I'd love to hear how it went for you in the comments!

Wait, doesn't this break all KINDS of stuff in 5e?

Oh, absolutely. It's no longer safe to assume stuff like "the party will have the ability to fly around 5th level," or "the party can readily cure diseases and curses," or "the party can drop fireballs on tightly-packed mobs of small monsters, so stop using them".

The major breakpoints for ability access through spells get scattered across space and time with this conversion; power is unlocked for caster characters earlier, later, or potentially never. However, a player who wants to be a necromancer gets to be a necromancer as soon as they start playing.

Caveat Aleator: I prefer it this way. I enjoy leaning on improvisation informed by random table outputs more than pre-written material; I try hard not to get hung up on assuming the players can fly over this or disintegrate that. Sometimes I fail; once I threw a minor fit over the entire group having Brooms of Flying--I'm not perfect, but I like to think I try my best. If you use the conversion in this post, you'll find that you get surprised a lot. Consider this a design feature.