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.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Playing Shadowrun Using Anything But Shadowrun: Stars Without Number (Revised Edition)

Please note that none of the links in this post are affiliate links; I'm just trying to be helpful.

Shadowrun has the pleasure of being an incredibly engaging setting married to one of the most aggravating RPG rules systems I've ever encountered, published (at least as of 5th edition) in a book which has editing I could describe--at best--as "aggressively bad".

People love Shadowrun. Hell, I love Shadowrun. I ran a weekly game of SR5 for something like a year and a half. One of the most common questions I find when reading about the game online, though, is "How can I play Shadowrun without using the actual Shadowrun rule system?"

The sempiternal /srg/ threads on /tg/ will advise you to play a different, better edition of Shadowrun--usually whichever edition the poster is currently playing. The r/Shadowrun subreddit will suggest... well, they'll probably suggest Fate first, and then start arguing about that.

But sometimes you'll get a useful suggestion from either of those places, because people ask the question often enough that some signal is bound to get through the noise. Viable options (depending on one's preference for fluff, crunch, and design patterns) include hacks for Blades in the Dark, GURPS, The Sprawl, Apocalypse World, Dungeon Crawl Classics ("Cyber Sprawl Classics"), d20 Modern/d20 Future... Feel free to tell me which replacements I've missed out on in the comments.

Today, though, I want to talk about why my group is going to try Stars Without Number (Revised Edition).

TL;DR: Yes, you can use SWN plus a supplement or two to play Shadowrun without much trouble.

My current D&D 5e group got a bit sick of Dungeon of the Mad Mage and wanted something new. Our DM shares my opinions on both the novelty of the setting and non-viability of the ruleset, so the group debated what other systems might work. I suggested SWN, and it was left to me to prove it out. Our DM said we'd start it in about a month, so we all had plenty of time to consider our options.

Because I have brain problems, I spent six straight hours the next day reading SWN's core rules and two or three supplements to figure out if it would work for our purposes.

What does a game of Shadowrun require?
Elements like the alt-future Earth setting, the big ten megacorporations, and the major threats of the setting (Great Dragons, Knight Errant kill squads, Eagle Warriors, Bug Spirits, etc.) could each be fit in through description and fictional positioning. My bigger concern was the mechanics--we still want the game to feel like Shadowrun. Game mechanics absolutely communicate player experience, so I wanted to make sure that certain elements were going to be present:

  • Guns and grenades, katanas and nanowires. Gear porn. 
  • High-risk combat
  • Magic spells and spirit summoning
  • Core Player Archetypes - Street Samurai, Deckers, etc.
  • Hacking
  • Cyberware/Body Augmentation
  • Drones and Robots
  • Edge/Luck mechanics
Here's what I found.

Gear Porn: Yes. Futuristic weaponry is almost purely descriptive, aside from specific gear rules like the "chunky salsa" effects of grenades in confined spaces. The relatively brief weapon and gear tables in SWN cover this adequately, with further differentiation coming from the existing rules for installing gear modifications, and GM-sourced small changes to ranges or ammo capacities and the like. A random table of manufacturers and model names can finish rounding this out; something that can produce results like "Shiawase Arms "Hyperion" MK IV Linear Accelerator Projectile System".

High-Risk Combat: Yes, moreso than actual Shadowrun. Deadly combat is a function of attack accuracy and HP values relative to weapon/spell/effect damage values. Thin margins make combat more dangerous, and SWN's OSR genes offer low HP values and high damge output. A 1st level Warrior with a Constitution of 18 has, at best, 10 HP, and a basic rifle--shooting normal bullets and everything--does 1d10+2 damage (plus the shooter's Dexterity modifier). That same Warrior at 10th level is still only going to have 75 HP on average. Shadowrun's combat tended to either be a fruitless exchange of entirely-resisted small arms fire between heavily cyberarmored gunmen, or single rounds of 30+ dicepool rocket tag.

As an additional bonus, melee combat remains a viable choice in SWN compared to an afterthought at best in Shadowrun, further enabling you to play the Ninja Elf With a Monomolecular Katana of your dreams.

Magic spells and spirit summoning: Yes, Sort Of. SWN's core "magic" is Psionics. The powers are divided into six disciplines, but one of them is Teleportation, which is impossible in Shadowrun lore (along with raising the dead and time travel). While SWN's psionics could be crammed into the same role as magic in Shadowrun, it's not a great fit and it doesn't cover the summoning of spirits. Even the appendix in the SWN Revised Edition's core rules covering "Space Magic" is only a guideline to adapting the spell lists from other OSR/retroclone games to a space wizard class. 

Instead, I turned to The Codex of the Black Sun, a supplement dedicated to implementing Space Magic. While I didn't read it cover to cover, I did skim it for concepts that'd be useful. The book contains a "Pacter" class, which summons and bargains with Shadows. If we use it to cover the older idea of Shadowrun street shamans that exclusively deal with spirits rather than cast spells, we can cover the archetype, albeit with some significant reflavoring of the visual descriptions. We also lose out on the ability for someone to burn themselves out for a day (or forever!) by summoning something too big to handle. Still, better any access to the concept than nothing at all, so I'll call this a half-win. The supplement also contains a number of other magic-related classes that can stand in for Shadowrun archetypes like PhysAds and MystAds, so that's enough to make it worthwhile. The actual writing in the book seems pretty interesting, too--I bought a hardcopy and look forward to reading it on its own merit.

Core Archetypes for Player Characters: Enthusiastic Yes! Let's go through the list: 
  • Street Samurai/PhysAdept/MystAdept - You can get there through Warriors + Cyberware; the Adept class options (steal from D&D Monks and Warlocks, basically) and the Codex of the Black Sun stuff.
  • Infiltrator/Face - The Expert class + SWN focus options + specific gear enables this.
  • Decker/Technomancer - The core SWN hacking rules are perfectly functional for this, including on-site requirements, although no full-immersion VR options exist. Which, honestly, is fine. The whole SWN hacking system is streamlined down to the same pacing/resolution as everything else. I'll talk more about hacking and Technomancers below, but yeah, it works as a core character competency.
  • Mage/Shaman - Yes; see the writeup on Magic above. The "Adventurer" baseline multiclass options even cover limited/restricted spellcasting options from Shadowrun.
  • Weird crap, like a PhysAd with all their points in Hacking - Yes, surprisingly, if you take, like... Arcane Expert as a class and then pick up one of the focus options that gives you the thing you want. It's janky, but so was pulling off something like that in Shadowrun.
Hacking: Yes, and smoothly, too. The core rules cover the most common hacking tasks, and the Polychrome supplement offers more details beyond subverting local security systems, including creating identities, stealing or counterfeiting money (it creates temporary cash called "joss" that vanishes after a set time!), acquiring information from various sources, and changing existing records. 

But seriously, it's one skill check against a difficulty modified by location, circumstance, and speed-of-execution. Bless Kevin Crawford's heart--I don't know if he's solved The Hacker Problem, but it's a long step toward better than SR's resolution mechanics. I should know--I made a hacking quickref sheet for myself back when I was playing one, and it's nonsense.

Cyberware/Body augmentation - Yes. Extensive cyberware options in both the core SWN book and Polychrome, including replacement rules for Essence loss: System Shock, which limits pieces installed and make it gradually harder to be healed through magic or biotech if you have a boatload of metal in you. One downside (?) is that it doesn't reduce one's magic stat, so there's no reason for magic-types to avoid cyberware. Personally, I'm fine with that, as the cyberware available offers options rather than straight numeric upgrades.

Drones and robots: Yes! Plenty of options exist in the core rules allowing you to play a competent rigger, including all the lonely fun of mathing out drone modifications and hardpoint customization. Playing a rigger medic is entirely plausible and doesn't require a PhD in symbolic logic.

Edge/Luck Mechanics: Not present. This one was a bummer--there's no hero point/luck/Edge mechanic in the base game. It wouldn't be too hard to lift one from somewhere else or invent one wholesale, but it does dull the edge (ha) on SWN as a 1:1 replacement for SR's ruleset.

All told: SWN is an A- rules replacement for Shadowrun, and I don't regret any of those six hours spent in a fugue state.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Session Writeup: Blades in the Dark - 1

We played our first game session of Blades in the Dark today. It's basically "You are a crew of thieves in a setting that's Dishonored with more nasty supernatural stuff", and today was our first actual heist.

Here's a brief and imperfect recounting of how it went, with undue emphasis on my character's actions because that's how my brain works. Mea culpa.

~ ~ ~

We learned from a contact that a shipment of arcane materials confiscated from a cult would be sent through the city canals under guard of six Bluecoats (corrupt cops) and a Spirit Warden (a CIA agent responsible for dealing with occult problems). We decided to steal it en-route.

After debating the plan for a while, we picked a bridge over the canals in a rough part of town from which to orchestrate an "accident" of dropping a crate full of bricks (marked "PIANO") onto the gondola so the goods would sink and we could dredge the canal later to recover them.

What actually happened:

1: We got stopped by the gate guard of a manor house trying to figure out if we were supposed to deliver the "piano" to them. Nail, my dispossessed nobleman fast-talks him while our two bruisers maneuver the crate to the edge of the bridge. My character half-cranks the roll and instead of fast-talking the guy, veers into a spiteful rant about how he can't keep his house livery clean and he stands with a slouch, like some kind of peasant.

2: Our bruisers, Boots and Binkie, get into position anyway, vocally disavow me entirely, and leave the guard to do violence to my old man body while they "accidentally" tip 800 lbs of bricks onto the lead gondola as planned.

3: The gondola is damaged and violently tilts. Bluecoats are hurled everywhere. Our target crate slips into the water, and one of the gondoliers (who tipped us off in the first place and who are ostensibly our allies) has his legs broken by the impact.

4: Boots, our Absolute Unit of a thug dives into the water to "help" "rescue" people. A crowd has gathered. The Spirit Warden is trying to figure out what the hell is going on while Bluecoats flop around in the filthy canal. Another bag of cult trinkets flops into the water.

Boots, swimming. Drawn by his player

5: Beetle, our feral urchin sneakthief party member has, unbeknownst to us this entire time, SCUBA'd her way under the first gondola with an augur and holed the thing. It begins to slowly sink from a dozen punctures.

6: The gate guard is about to beat my old man senseless when our fifth team member, The Barrow Wight (a legless orphan-herder who walks around on stilts like some kind of fucked up Victorian Dr. Caligari) shows up in a stolen Bluecoat uniform and immediately tries to "arrest" me. Nail thanks him for the distraction, shouts to the crowd that he's being ABUSED BY THIS GATEHOUSE RUFFIAN, and draws an over-sized antique fowling pistol from his voluminous coats. He "slips" and fires it into the canal, holing the third boat (containing the Spirit Warden), which ALSO starts to sink. The crates of desired goods start sliding along the tipped deck, directly toward Boots in the water.

The Barrow Wight. He's wearing stilts.

7: The antique fowling pistol smokes and explodes loudly, dazing everyone in the canal and immediately drawing the attention of the entire crowd of day-laborers on the way home from their horrible Eel Cannery jobs.

No longer available for purchase, alas.

8: Boots, being ridiculously strong, grabs the crates in an attempt to "help" put them back in the gondola. He twists, flinging the Bluecoats also gripping the crate into the canal and shatters the crate against the stone walls. It's full of confiscated cult stuff, and there's a reason it's being watched by a Spirit Warden--a tattered, bloodstained dress flies out of the shattered crate and begins buzzing the crowd.

9: Binkie declares that the dress belonged to his murdered aunt, exclaims his undying filial piety, and leaps into the open air to tackle the flying dress while brandishing a traditional ghost-warding amulet in his hand.

10: Binkie is immediately possessed by his dead aunt and is now haphazardly flying around wearing a long Victorian dress.

11: The Spirit Warden finally gets to his feet, realizes something is fucky, and starts whispering to a bewitched knife and drawing a bead on the heads poking out of the water.

12: Beetle darts out of the canal and shoves the Spirit Warden's gondola, dumping him into the water. He drops his witchknife. The feral child is instantly distracted by the shiny object and dives after it.

13: Boots decides to fistfight every single Bluecoat in the water simultaneously, and successfully does so--somehow involving dynamite (!!!) in the brawl without dousing the cigarette clamped in his jaw.

Boots, post-brawl. Drawn by his player

14: The Spirit Warden realizes that things are banjaxed and tries to swim away. Nail uses the attention and eager ear of the crowd drawn by The Barrow Wight to direct the angry crowd into a frenzy. The momentary leader of a riot, he orders them to dump our legless party member into the canal (making for an easy escape), and then goads them into tearing the canal bridge apart and stoning the swimming Spirit Warden to death with hurled bricks. The crowd cheers in proletarian bloodlust, rain stones on the agent, and hoists Nail onto their shoulders and away to glory and the nearest pub.

Our party escapes, nobody has any idea what the hell just happened, and we even managed to recover one of the crates we smashed.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Simple Followers

As I've played 5E D&D but continued to read a lot of OSR stuff, I've noticed that OSR games seem to commonly assume that the party is tooling around with the usual 4-8 PCs but also a large number of followers--paid henchmen willing to pepper enemies with sling stones and bolts, and hirelings brave enough to not drop their torches when the spells start flying.

I don't think I've played a single game of 5E where a player bothered to hire a follower, despite how useful it'd be to have an extra hand for carrying your lanterns and ten foot poles.

I'm not entirely sure where this divide comes from, but I suspect it arises from two major places:

  1. Differences in lethality between 5E D&D and old-school games. If you're fragile, you want lots of support; gold is common, but blood is precious. 5E characters are FAR tougher than characters in any OSR game I can think of, so they have less concern over frequent and/or arbitrary death.
  2. Combat complexity. 3E, 3.5E, 4E, and Pathfinder all seem to require a lot of mental processing power to parse and resolve a combat round; every additional actor on the battlefield adds more than a flat value to the complexity of combat resolution. Clogging up the field with entities that are less important than the PCs and their deadly foes has a poor return on conceptual investment.

In the interest of simplifying the use of both combat-ready followers ("henchmen") and non-combat followers ("hirelings"), I took a stab at writing some streamlined rules. I was mostly thinking of 5E as I wrote these, but I believe they'd work for something like Dungeon Crawl Classics as well; the more conceptual distance between games like that and what you're using, the less confident I am that they'll parse without additional effort, but I'd love to hear about your experiences should you give them a go.

They probably look a bit like this. Art: Daniel Zrom
~ ~ ~

Simple Followers
Playtesting Status: Pure theory. Looking for an opportunity to try it out.

Followers are any mundane NPCs that you've hired to assist you in your adventures, either by fighting your foes with you or providing utilitarian assistance like holding light sources or carrying extra equipment. If the person you've hired to tag along sounds like they deserve more detail than that, they're not a follower--give them a real statblock and play them like a full-blown NPC. Otherwise, keep reading.

You can command a number of followers equal to your Charisma modifier (minimum 1).

Your followers are real people who are physically present in the dungeon and on the battlefield, but they don't take up a space on the battle grid. They don't count as allies if you have any abilities that require an ally to stand adjacent to you or an enemy; they're just not competent enough to present a credible threat.

(Yes, this is specifically so that 5E Rogues aren't automatically able to land sneak attacks without party support.)

Rather, your followers are always near enough to you that an AoE that hits you hits them, but far enough away that they generally don't get in the way of your fighting and movement.

Each follower has 1 hp; if they take any damage, they die.

(Don't waste time worrying if you can heal them. You have more interesting things to think about.)

At the START of your turn, your followers do things:

  • Hirelings holding equipment for you keep up the good work.
  • Henchmen wielding melee or ranged weapons help you attack your target in combat. 
    • The player picks the target for the henchmen. Henchmen won't attack something that would be obviously and immediately lethal to strike, like a golem made out of burning chainsaws. If you're still not sure if they'd go for it, resolve it with a morale check.

Resolve all henchmen attacks at once by rolling a single d6:

  • On a 1, your henchmen got in the way more than they did anything useful. Your next attack has disadvantage as you re-position yourself. Bloody peasants.
  • On a 2-5, their enthusiastic but untrained blows helped you land a solid hit. The next damage roll from any source made against the target they struck has advantage (roll damage twice and take the better result).
  • On a 6, your coterie of turnip farmers managed to land a lucky shot on your foe. The target immediately takes 6 + [the number of followers in your group] physical damage. The player should pick a type of damage that makes sense based on what the followers are wielding.

Followers remember their lucky shots, and eventually they get cocky enough to think of themselves as proper warriors. They might even be right.

Keep track of how many times you roll a 6 for your follower attacks--just scribble down some check-marks somewhere on your sheet and label them "Graduation". When you've rolled a total of three 6s (they don't have to be consecutive), one of your followers "graduates" and should be run as a fully-statted NPC. Give them a full name and a proper NPC stat block. Don't give them levels in a PC class, though--even if they're wrestling in the mud for a rusty shiv, the PCs should remain the stars of the show.

Rather than hireling wages per day, graduated followers will start requiring an equal share of the party's treasure. If the party is willing to provide that, they'll stick around. Otherwise, the newly-minted bravo will most likely head off in search of further adventure on his or her own.

If all of your followers die because a Lizard Priest puked acid vomit all over you and yours, erase all your checkmarks--your dudes are smoking paste, and it's time to hire a new batch. RIP.

Follower Morale
These rules probably work best if you're also running a morale mechanic for followers; if that's the case, the PC controlling the followers counts as a leader, so add their Charisma modifier to the morale check made by their followers.

~ ~ ~

This subsystem shouldn't take any longer to manage than checking the number of followers you have, rolling a d6, and moving on to your PC's actual turn. If it gets more complicated than that, reconsider how you're using it.

A cheap and easily-replaceable source of advantage on attacks in 5E D&D would be extremely powerful, which is why advantage is only granted to damage rolls. Even if you tweak other aspects of this system, I'd encourage you to leave that one alone if you're playing 5E.

Anyway--thoughts? Gut reactions? I'd love to hear if this sounds like it solves the problem I intended for it to solve, and if it's something you'd use in your own game. Sound off in the comments!

Artist unknown (I can't read the signature)

Sunday, December 2, 2018

The Aneman-Pirran Border Wars - Sessions 7 and 8

The Party:
  • David Van Stone, 7th level Half-elf Warlock (Celestial Patron) - Former Aneman army officer.
  • Van Darkholme, 7th level Half-elf Warlock (Sentinel Patron) - Vigilante crime fighter and former Aneman city planner.
  • Wellston Plumbago, 7th level Half-elf Warlock (Great Old One Patron) - The world's only known Drow "ambassador".
The trio finished cataloging the treasure in the iron vault and prepared to get filthy as they cleared out the lair of the fungus goblins. Although they had some concerns about getting infected by fungus goblins spores (?????), a few castings of Hunger of Hadar and the liberal application of flaming oil to a vile spawning chamber were enough to cleanse the place of its sticky, mildewy taint. Wellston appropriated the CROWN OF THE FUNGUS GOBLIN KING (a woven bundle of muddy twigs and bent forks) and wore it proudly out of the burning chambers.

Before departing, the trio scouted beyond the ledge covered in deadly dungeon barnacles (their terrible, rasping tongues! their horrible, paralytic embrace!) and found astonishing secrets. Deeper into the cavern was the imposing marble and gold edifice of an armored Imperial vault, a massively built 40ft-square door that had been teleported directly into the bedrock. Three barrel-sized locks with equally enormous keyholes dominated the face of the door--and in the center, a blood-red pustule that throbbed to the beat of an unseen heart.

Recognizing the door for what it was, the trio set to opening it. They discovered that the large key Van had been using as an arcane focus opened the first lock, but any attempt to bypass the other two resulted in the growth on the door leeching their precious bodily fluids straight out of their pores from any distance within sight. Worse still, the knobby thing seemed to quickly recover from any wounds inflicted on it.

The trio effected a tactical retreat and made some plans. A ritual bubble of safety from Leomund's Tiny Hut was erected, and a pair of Hunger of Hadars were dumped on the terrible thing, which withered from the extended milky caress of extraplanar tentacles. With the magical defense removed, the party continued their examination of the door--but ultimately found it impenetrable. Wellston transformed himself into a cloud of vapor to explore the inner workings of the locks and found the actual mechanisms extended at least 20 feet into the door--if not magical, then complex beyond comprehension. Van resealed the first lock and the three Warlocks departed, wondering aloud how to find other keys that might open the door. 

With goblins slain and treasure gathered, they returned to the surface and gathered their retainers before retracing their steps to Ironfork. The townsfolk were both relieved and baffled to hear that their woes had been the result of a strange goblin infestation, and were more than happy to listen to the trio's advice to leave the complex entirely alone. 

The Warlocks rested and recovered, identifying their newfound gear and attending to their various wounds. Van took a long bath to discover if his hollow body was watertight from the inside (it wasn't) and attempting to discover just how stretchy he now was (no more than normal).

The party figured out that the arrow that was putting Wellston directly into a panic/fight-or-flight response was a +3 Arrow of Drow Slaying, and they resolved to generally keep it hidden when they didn't want Wellston to climb the tallest person in the room like a tree and attempt to nest in their hair. The strange ceramic cube was discovered to be a magical box containing a floating ceramic orb. Wellston determined that it contained a very low-level intelligence, "much like a dog", and pronounced a warning that it would attempt to have sex with each of them, "much like a dog." 

Nobody felt like arguing with him, and the box and orb went back into the Bag of Holding where everyone did their best to forget about them as quickly as possible.

~ ~ ~

The next day, the trio and their retainers return to the Archpriest's fortress at Mt. Gaspar. There, they presented the spoils of their expedition to the Archpriest:
  • One (1) entirely invulnerable lemon-yellow skeleton jelly (frozen in a block of horse-trough water).
  • Three (3) whole occultum coins, which Wellston has only barely resisted liquifying and injecting directly into himself.
  • A lengthy description of their encounter with the berbalang in the depths of the Tomb of the Serpent Kings
  • An additional explanation of Van's new hollow body and the serpent-man lich, Xiximanter, that inflicted it on him, as well as a vivid description of Xiximanter's deranged mental state.
The Archpriest advised the trio to return to Libussa for some brief rest and an exploration of their new homes and duties. Church scribes, he explained, were hard at work decoding a cyphered document listing other places of potential worth for the war effort. The party said their goodbyes and departed by train.

The Pirran capital bustled, even in the thick winter snow, and the trio parted ways for a while to attend to their own business. Van retained their half-elf alchemist, Eva Benedict, for the production of alchemical silver essence, when David and Wellston enjoyed the comforts and pleasures of their new homes. Wellston bought a fancy admiral's hat.


A week later, Van abruptly heard the voice of the Archpriest ringing clearly in his mind. The sending spell intoned: 


Van gathered his companions, more or less stormed the Libussan academy to find a mage who personally knew the Archpriest in order to send a reply, and asked for confirmation of both the Archpriest's identity and of their new mission.

Mission confirmation requested. Restate mission location and objective. What did Wellston call you?

The response was immediate: 



The trio prepared to leave immediately. Eva was handed 1,000 GP and a mandate to research "whatever she wanted". The journeyman alchemist accepted the research funding with aplomb.

The train took the Warlocks to the southern border of Pirra. Broom flight carried them across warped terrain--huge chunks of turf and stone plucked from the earth like a child's blocks pulled from wet sand--and eventually the trio arrived at the outskirts of the flooded country closest to the town of Neuried.

Broken, starving people lined the drowned fields. Every fifty feet, some new horror greeted them--an overturning canoe full of the elderly; a schoolteacher surrounded by screaming children; a pale matron hauling a corpse from a tangled shrub with hunger in her eyes.

There was much to be done.