Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Using a Toolkit feature to make Imperial Trained Characters for my Star Wars Fate Core Hack

First of all I want to start this post of with a thank you to +Wil Hutton for giving me a peek at the Toolkit. It is fantastic and offers a grip of options that make Fate even MORE customizable. It offered some options that made some sense to me for some of the stuff I was working on with this Hack.

In my Star Wars Fate Core hack I am starting off with a bunch of characters that defected from the Empire. I wanted to have something set these characters apart since they started off as not only trained soldiers from a large military but as officers of that military. These characters would enjoy a high level of training in some fairly focused skill sets depending on their Military Occupational Specialty or MOS. I decided that I am going to use my own version of Skill Modes as detailed in the Fate System Toolkit. Skill Modes are “a bundle of several skills that represents a broad area of competence.” This allows me to give players skill packages that represent their military training.  Of course, this will somewhat limit the options a character has as far as skill selection, but I am going this route for thematic reasons more than anything else.

Characters that will come in later on who are not military trained will not benefit from these skill packages or “modes” and will follow the pyramid as laid out in basic Fate Core. I want to balance it out in a way that allows characters who have not been educated or trained formally to have access to a broader range of skills, but perhaps not have as high a level of proficiency with military skills as would those who spent time training to be a professional soldier.

My only issue with this is that it goes against my whole rail against “archetypes”, but I don't feel like I am going that direction since I am going to represent the modes in separate MOS’ that will represent training and cross training. Not necessarily and archetype but more of a representation of focus in training that all members of an organized military would go through.

I am not going to apply my Specialization idea to the MOS’ since they will already lead to characters having some pretty high level skills and it doesn't seem to fit thematically. I am going to have characters that use the standard Fate Core generation system use this option. I find it thematically better since it represents highly individualized training that would be the result of learning things the hard way.

Imperial MOS

Officer Training: Empathy, Investigate, Notice, Rapport, Resources, Tactics

Fleet Training: Engineering, Pilot, Education (Astrogation, Core Worlds, Starfighters, Capital Ships, Outer Rim Worlds), Notice, Shoot, Rapport

Storm Trooper Training: Athletics, Fight, Notice, Physique, Provoke, Shoot

Scout Trooper Training: Athletics, Pilot, Fight, Notice, Shoot, Stealth

Intelligence Training: Burglary, Deceive, Empathy, Investigate, Notice, Rapport

* Note that some of these MOS’ are particular to the Imperial Army/Navy. I will come up with some MOS’ that will cover Rebel Alliance military training, but since this game takes place right after the rise of the Empire and at this time there is no formal Rebel Alliance, I am going to leave that for later.

There are six relevant skills for each MOS. There will be some considerable overlap within some of the MOS roles, but overlap will be covered a little later. Players will choose a primary and two cross trained MOS’. Their Primary MOS will give them a +3 (Good) rating in all the skills in that MOS. One cross trained MOS will be at +2 (Fair) for all the skills in that MOS and the second cross trained MOS will provide a +1 (Average) level of training. The cool thing about this is that combining these MOS’ can lead to some very interesting combos that can give the player some great ideas to modify their High Concept or other Aspects.  For example Characters with Storm Trooper, Scout and Intelligence MOS’ can be considered a Commando. Or a character with Fleet, Officer and Storm Trooper MOS’ can be considered an Assault Officer in charge of a Storm Trooper squad that specializes in boarding enemy ships. Please excuse my bouncing back and forth between the term MOS and Mode. They are completely interchangeable for the purposes of this context.

“Usual Fate Core skill pyramid doesn't apply to skills in modes. Instead, each player picks three modes and rates them—one at Good (+3), one at Fair (+2), and one at Average (+1)—and the mode's rating becomes the default rating for all of its skills. Skills at this rating are trained. Skills one step above their mode’s level are focused, and skills two steps above are specialized.

If a skill is reinforced once—meaning it's shared by two modes—improve it from trained to focused. If it's reinforced twice—shared by all three modes—improve it from trained to specialized.”

The fact that these characters have been trained by the Empire should be reflected in either their High Concept or in their Trouble, depending on whether they are in good standing with the Empire or not. It can be applied to both, depending on what the character has going on. This is not a hard and fast rule and depends on how creative the character is in the description of their background, but the fact that they are or were once part of the Imperial Army should have some bearing on the characters background.

The rules for Modes in the Toolkit then allow you to upgrade skills within the Modes you have chosen. Giving the player 7 points to upgrade skills from Trained to Focused (1) or Specialized (3) and Focused to Specialized (2). I am going to add another category. Players may choose to spend one point to buy a skill at Average (+1). That skill can then be improved as if it belonged to your Average (+1) mode. Any number of points can be spent on acquiring new skills. This will allow characters to fill in some blanks in skills that are not represented in the Modes provided.


Another quick change is to Lore. I changed Lore to Education. I am also adding Education Concentrations. Each level of Education the character has will allow them a Concentration. This would be a specific kind of “Lore” they have studied. When using the Education skill within the parameters of a Concentration, they get to Invoke the Concentration like an Aspect for free. It’s a kind of meta Aspect.  I am not really sure if this is the best way to go about this since I have a feeling that I am going back to my old school gaming comfort zone on this.

Monday, June 17, 2013

My first experiences with Fate Core - A Star Wars game.

When we started to put together our Corellian Corvette scenario for X-Wing, I started writing a story behind the event using the 42nd Tactical Combat Squadron whose members were all loosely based on the members of the Plus Ten to Awesome game club. Once we were done with the event, I thought it might be nice to actually run an RPG detailing their adventures.

+Chris Morrison had run an adventure using the Edge of the Empire system and that was pretty fun. At first, I had planned on using that as the system for my game. From what I saw from the Beta, the system as ok, but I had some issues with the fact that the game used “archetypes” for character generation, which in my opinion limits a game severely.  That and the idea that each character had to generate a hook in the form of a debt or obligation didn't sit right with me since it limited the form of conflict the character has starting off. The game does a pretty good job of leading a player towards making a character with a background and some RP goals at generation, but it seemed geared towards a specific kind of character that comes from the seedier side of the Star Wars world and that didn’t quite work for my story. On top of these issues, the full game itself was delayed and I had nothing but the Beginner Game set that didn't even have character generation rules in it.

At that point, Fate Core had come out and I was very excited about it. I had been following several blogs, including that of +Wil Hutton and some others and this game seemed fantastic.  I had some experience with the Dresden Files RPG and loved the system. So I decided to have this story arc be my introduction to Fate Core. Here are some of the mods I did for the Star Wars Hack.

I am actually looking for the advice of people who have had more experience with Fate Core than I have. In particular, I am looking for what people find to be the most important aspects of Hacking Fate for specific worlds, settings or genres. Feedback is appreciated.

Aspects, most especially High Concepts

I definitely didn't want to see “Just like Boba Fett” High Concepts. Although I don’t mind the hero worship that Star Wars engenders in some people, I didn’t want to fall into the trap of people playing the same archetypes that I saw in Edge of the Empire. After all, one of the reasons I went with Fate Core was to open things up to a fully creative experience within the setting of Star Wars. In the first three characters we generated, I really didn’t find this to be a problem.

The issue I did have is that people came up with High Concept Aspects that seemed a lot more like regular aspects.  For example, one of my players had “Dead Eye Shot” as a High Concept. I asked him to rethink that unless he wanted that particular thing to best describe his character’s role in the galaxy. I have found that I like esoteric high concepts like “Disgruntled Idealist”. I don’t know how something like that would work in a game as far as Invokes and Compels, but we will see. Perhaps something like “Wily Smuggler” might work better, but one of the great things about it is that the players can change these things as they go along without it being a great big deal.

Coming up with Aspects that have a good feel in regards to Invokes and Compels seems to be the greatest challenge, at least to me, in character generation.


I did some very basic work on skills for the game and changed the skill list very little. I basically just changed Crafts to Mechanics, Drive to Pilot (which are just thematic changes to skills that already exist) and added Tactics to the skill list. The reason for the Tactics addition was based on some of the characters in the game and the stories already told within the narrative. Some characters were already written as being excellent tacticians and I wanted a skill to build some Stunts on later on for those characters. The Tactics skill will be used for combat order as a default with the basic game rule as a backup default and tie breaker.

I am also thinking about doing a “specialization” system for skills. I got the idea from Shadowrun and thought it might fit thematically into this game and adds a little flavor to the very broad skill sets that govern action in Fate Core. It’s similar to creating a stunt but far more basic and uniform.  The way it works is by allowing a player to choose a specialization for a skill by subtracting one from the base skill and adding one to the specialization.  For instance, a skill of Shoot +3 (Good) would be reduced to +2 (Fair) while the specialized skill of Bowcaster would be added at a +4 (Great). Therefore when shooting anything other than a Bowcaster the player would be at +2 (Fair) and with a Bowcaster the player would be at a +4 (Great) at no extra cost.

I know what you are thinking. Something like your specialization idea already exists in the game with Aspects and Stunts. That is true. The reason I went with this idea is because the Star Wars setting is very heroic to me. I tooled with the idea of expanding my skill list, adding more stunts for starting characters, etc. That seemed like a little too much work and could maybe be overkill. But giving someone a +1 at a signature skill at the cost of a more generic one seemed like a good way to simulate the heroic feel of the setting to me. I will also be limiting these specializations to something that should be a signature skill for the character justified in his/her background. Also, I thought it would make my players have to be a little more creative with their Stunts than simply stating “Badass with a Bowcaster” since they already will have an inherent bonus with their signature weapon if they choose to.

I am going to work on a Force system using the framework set up by West End Games, with the skills of Alter, Sense and Control. Then characters would build stunts for each skill to represent Force Powers. This is not something I need to fully develop right away since I don’t have any force users in the group, but I will tinker with it for future games. I also like the idea of Force using characters starting with a lower refresh and more stunts and will more likely have to do so if they need to spread stunts around three Force skills.


I have to admit that I don’t like “suggested” or “generic” Stunts. I can actually see some game companies publishing books of Stunts like the “Complete Thieves Guide to Fate” sometime in the near future. Fate Core does a great job explaining how Stunts work with well laid out guidelines on how to make them.  I didn’t feel the need to hammer out a bunch of pre-conceived Stunts for every skill. There are plenty of examples to be had. I will probably create a bunch of Stunts for Force use, only because the basics of what a Jedi can do have already been laid out in some detail and I want to guarantee a decent representation of those powers in the game. Otherwise I am pretty sure my players can come up with appropriate, “I’m a badass commando” Stunts for themselves.

The Phase Trio

I have to say, that I was a little skeptical about how this would pan out with my players. I didn’t really know if they were willing to surrender so much control over their character generation. The whole idea of cooperative character generation is pretty alien to more traditional styles of play. I was very pleased to see that my players not only liked the idea but truly embraced it.

The tack I took was to have them simply put together a story involving one other player (as per the Phase Trio) and then the group came up with an appropriate Aspect that fit the story. That worked surprisingly well. We did it from a couple of angles. Some players fished for something they were looking for and some just went along for the ride. Either way we had some pretty appropriate Aspects created. Whether they are going to be useful in play is yet to be determined.


Luckily, I don’t have too much to worry about in terms of equipment as far as what my characters have access to in the game. I don’t have any crazed Mandalorians in full armor and a flame thrower (oh no continuous damage!). Nor do I have to deal with any Light Sabers.

I will have some Stormtrooper extras with Stormtrooper armor that presumably (I never really saw evidence of that in the movies) provides some protection from blaster fire. I am so inclined not to care and just give the Stormtroopers an extra physical stress to compensate for being in full armor, but I see this as a chance to experiment. I thought about giving the ST armor its own stress levels that can be used by the character to absorb damage. That causes more book keeping and I hate that. So what I am going with for now is making three categories for armor: Light, Medium and Heavy. Real original right? Each one automatically takes away one shift value of damage from any attack. Light armor has no other affect. Medium gives the character the Aspect: Resilient. Heavy gives the same features as Light and Medium but adds the Aspect: Environment Sealed. I was thinking about adding the Aspect Cumbersome to heavy armor but I don't think that really fits since I never noticed that the armor restricted movement in any way.

I am assuming that a lot of stuff is covered in the Toolkit which I do not have access to right now, but I will be picking that up as soon as I can. From what I understand it has a lot of ways to handle gear and a bunch of special situations.  I am looking forward to that a great deal since I will probably need to stat out things like heavy repeating blasters and speeder bikes.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Perspective and the Economics of Heroism

The role of the GM is beginning to blur a little. I am sure that there are some people who may disagree and this is just a broad generalization, but classically the role of the GM was part storyteller, part arbitrator and part director. The GM was firmly planted in the driver’s seat and controlled the plot and all elements of his/her sandbox or game world. The player was merely along for the ride and made choices that certainly impacted the story, but for the most part played a far more passive role in the greater narrative of the game.

Games like Fate and a few others change this definition. These RPG’s put the player at the controls along with the GM in a cooperative storytelling framework. Some people love this and some hate it, but whatever side of the fence you are on, we have to admit that this style of game is changing the way people look at roleplaying.

Personally this aspect is not much of a change for me. I like my players to have an active role in the storytelling aspects of my game. My “Game on the Fly” post is pretty much about letting my players guide me when I am too lazy to do game prep. Outside of my own laziness, having the players contribute to the story makes them feel more involved and I like to reward active participation. I just end up with a better game and better entertainment all around that way.

There are other aspects to these games that are perhaps even more controversial. When I look at it from a certain perspective most of these concepts are actually old hat.

Success at a cost

The gripe:  “It allows players to gimmick the game mechanic to never fail. Without the chance of failure or player death there can never be tension. It makes the Game part of the Role Playing Game moot since there is no real way to lose.”

Poppycock! This game element has existed for ever and just about everyone has done it. No? You have never done it or even seen it done? Sure you have. Have you ever spent a luck, benny, fate, fortune, karma, edge, character or force point for a re-roll or a bonus? How about having the party resurrect your character after being killed by that badass gibbering mouther? All of these devices have players spend a very limited resource to tip the scales to the benefit of the player. Therefore, you pay a cost for a better chance of success. The only real difference is that Fate demands a narrative context for the use of this mechanic instead of the simple application of an arbitrary rule.

Even the ultimate sacrifice can be averted by a trip to your local temple of Pelor. A grip load of gold pieces in gems (didn't expect Pelor to be that into the bling) and the cost of some XP and you are back and running. This is in absolute terms averting death at a cost right? It is the same thing, different name and added gruesome logistics.

The fact of the matter is that no good GM wants to see the players fail or die uselessly. I am sure that there are some GMs that run their games for that purpose. I have played in that kind of game and have found that it is usually only fun for one person. The point of the exercise is to create the illusion of possible failure or death well enough to produce tension. The Fate system just puts some of the labor of creating this tension in the hands of the player and not totally on the GM. The player manages the resources that define heroism and he/she bears the onus of accepting the consequences of failure, which is intrinsic to being a hero. It puts the economics of heroism up front and makes it part of the actual narrative. These economics invariably exist in RPG’s with or without a narrative element.


The gripe: “You cannot replace Attributes with Aspects. It allows players to gimmick the game and get bonuses to whatever they want.”

Balderdash! Aspects have existed for ever. Once again it’s a question of perspective. Take for example making a character with an exceptional attribute.  Let’s go further and say that it’s a randomly determined exceptional attribute like the much loved 18/00 from classic Dungeons and Dragons.

This is an Aspect. No? It sure as hell is a (if not THE) defining characteristic. It becomes a description “Clogar was a massive brute of a man with huge muscles”. It can be used as a justification for things “Clogar flexes his mighty thews in an attempt to cow the goblin to surrender”. Systemically it creates an advantage over another character with a 18/22 Strength, but the advantage is arbitrary and therefore lacks relevance to the character as a hero. A hero is not a list of numbers. Heroism is defined by how these attributes are used.

How about class or archetype? Cleric, Fighter, Mage, Rocker, Street Samurai, these are all Aspects. They define a character, outline powers and abilities as well as access to resources other characters could not justify. For example “Sigmund is a cleric of Pelor. Is there a local temple? I want a safe place to rest for the night.”

Things like classes and attributes serve not only to provide context for the characters abilities, but give us a clear understanding of the characters role and identity. The same thing goes for Aspects. The three key differences being that Aspects are A) capable of being tailored to create individuals that are distinct from other characters that may otherwise have the same attributes and/or class B) are mutable so a character can develop and change as he/she grows C) gives the player a stock in trade in the economics of heroism.

Clogar can have the Aspect “Strength of the Titans”, but must Invoke it or use it to create an advantage somehow. The mechanic already exists in other games, but is expressed differently. A Wizard has to memorize spells or a Fighter gets to use his/her daily power at the right moment, the player has to think about how he/she is going to use his heroic currency within the economy. The main variance is that the Player and the GM get to define what the characters abilities are within the framework of these Aspects instead of being limited to someone else’s definition of a class, attribute, etc. detailed in endless volumes of supplements and player aids. What was TSR’s old motto? Products of your imagination. Indeed. Sometimes it feels like a certain lack of accountability. If a game sucks you can always blame the system since it governs most aspects of the game. If the game comes from a place where it's 90% your own creation leaves you with little excuse.

I could go on to describe Stunts as being the same as Feats, Powers or Spells, but I think I already made my point. In broad terms, Fate does not really bring anything truly new to the table as far as mechanics go. What it does bring is a fresh perspective to these game elements. It treats the art of RPGs as exactly that an art or a form of creative expression. It does this at the expense of what I consider to be the roots or RPGs which are firmly planted in the firmament of wargaming. This shift in perspective is at the core of the debate.

Wargames require balance and structure. Not to say that Fate does not have structure, but the focus of this structure is dedicated to fostering creativity and not balance. This can be truly scary to some people who need this balance in order to build adventures. Once again it’s a matter of perspective and determining the goal of a Role Playing Game.

Buy into the Economics of Heroism. This is the true game within the game. Balance and structure come from the flow of this currency and making sure that the price for Heroism is just high enough to make your players feel like they did something worthwhile. No matter what system you are playing or what rules set define the characters actions, it is up to the GM and the players to set a gold standard for adventure by making sure that everyone pays the right price for victory. That should be the focus of your drama and should be managed thoughtfully instead of being sacrificed on the altar of game balance.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

A game on the fly.

As it turns out, I ended up having little interest in my X-Wing league at Mercenary Market. Lack of available product was an issue and I may have chosen the wrong day.  Who knows?  I will kick it back up when Wave 3 launches and hopefully get more interest.

I still wanted to do some gaming on Sunday and thought I would just go ahead and run an RPG. I talked to a few of the regulars and got a few people interested. I decided to run the Iron Kingdoms Full Metal Fantasy game from Privateer Press. WarmaHordes is pretty popular at the shop, so I thought it would boost interest and give me a pool of people who had a decent understanding of the core mechanic. The new version of the game abandoned the d20 system and put out a new edition that in essence mimics the mechanic of the tabletop miniatures game.

Now that I have all that exposition out of the way I will get to the point of this post. I proposed the game a week before we played. I purchased the Urban Adventure book which details the Five Fingers area of the game, figuring it would be a great place to start. I had all kinds of good intentions about jotting down some notes for the game and creating some NPC’s and putting together a story arc and some NPC’s. Then, I got lazy.  Didn’t do a gosh darn thing other than read through the Urban Adventure book a little. The only thing I knew for sure is that I wanted to do a game where the players got caught in the middle of a shadow war between Cryx cultists and Thamarite cultists.  Sort of a rock and a hard place adventure with a lot of mystery and danger.

Sunday came along and I had nothing. To most people that would mean cancelling the game and rescheduling. Not for this guy, I needed my RPG fix. So what did I do? I decided to make a game on the fly.

What did I have? I had the mental notes that I took from talking to the players about what they wanted to play.  Since they already had some form of immersion into the setting (having played the minis game) they already threw out some ideas.  I even had a player who made a character a few months back for a game that never materialized. So I had a fairly good idea about what was being played and what I had to work with. I also had a fairly good idea about the setting and the atmosphere I had to build for my sandbox, having read the Urban Adventure book. I had a palate of colors to work with and my core idea for a story. I also had an idea about a fight in a graveyard. Necromancy is a big deal for both of my antagonist groups, so I already had a good idea about my first action scene and the back of the base book had some pre-generated undead thrall stats as well as some stats for basic thugs. Since I also play the miniatures game, I would have a pretty good idea of how to balance the combat once I could see the PC stats and abilities.

I arrived at the store a little early and started talking to people as they started coming in.  One of my players was riding with me and another was the store owner so I knew he would be there when I arrived. We started chatting about their characters and I started to ask questions about their backgrounds. Being the creative types they answered my questions fairly easily and I started to build. This is what I had.

Greg: He wanted to play a character who was a fanatical follower of Menoth, the Lawgiver. The concept was that he was orphaned by a magic user and fled to a monetary. He then began training as an assassin for the church that targeted “witches”, which by their faith was pretty much anyone who doesn't use divine magic. This could be a problem if someone else wanted to make a magic user so I started asking him about his primary motivation. He comes up with the story that once he left the monastery he was focused on avenging his parents. I took that as the hook for bringing him into the party. If I made it so the other players were after the same arcane assassin, he would push aside his religious fervor in order to reach his objective. I made a note of that.

I then had him describe the scene in which he lost his parents. Working together we came up with the idea that the characters father was a curator and archivist for the church of Menoth. A woman came from nowhere demanding something from the father. Once he refused, the woman slew the characters mother in front of both of them. The father still refused. The strange woman then branded the boy with her glowing sword which had some strange runes on it. Undaunted by the woman’s threats the character’s father just knelt and began to pray to Menoth.  Enraged, the woman slays the father but the young man who would become the PC manages to escape to the local church.

Now I had a mysterious woman, a branding with strange runes and a magic sword with glowing green runes. NICE.

Chris: Chris had already made a character a while back for a game that never ended up happening. His concept was a bastard son to a noble turned pirate. Apparently, his mother was a pirate captain who had a tryst with said noble. The noble not having a legitimate male heir decided to legitimize the PC’s claim to the title, but before he could officially do so, his father was killed.

I further elaborated that the PC had burst into the room right after the assassination killed his father. He opens the door to find his father dead and bleeding on the floor of his unlit study with a shadowy female figure at running towards the window of the fifth story room.  She leaps out the window with no regard to her own safety, but in her haste drops a short sword inscribed with some strange runes inscribed upon it.

Now I have strong ties between two diametrically opposed characters. The religious zealot and the pirate noble share not only these strange runes, sword and perhaps the woman assassin in common but they were both victims of having their parent(s) killed in front of them.

George: George was completely new to RPG’s but has played a Khador army for a while and expressed an interest. He flipped through the book and wanted to make an Alchemist/Explorer. Don’t know why, but that combo struck him and that was fine. He crunched the numbers, but I needed to know who the character was. He explained that he came from a poor family in Five Fingers and he had lost his father when he was very young and was raised by his mother who taught him the basics of alchemy. His mother died tragically and for some reason George's character felt guilty about it.

I went on to say that he was always a bit of an explorer and found a strange box in the catacombs underneath the city. His mother inspected the what she found to be a puzzle box and found a poison barb trap. It lead to a long and lingering death where the PC tried to find a cure and became obsessed with poisons and antidotes. He also became known as someone who did extensive research on special arcane subjects.

More tie ins and story hooks. Part of the explorer class was to choose a patron that kicks the PC down 25 gc a month for.. well.. exploring. I then looked at Chris' sheet and saw that as a Noble he got a 50 gc stipend. I then asked them if it was cool to say that Chris's character was George's character patron. Chris would have to share his stipend with George but it also means that George gets to work full time on trying to decipher the sword runes.

This tied in nicely, but what George doesn't know is that the puzzle box he found as a child is also part of the plot.

Paul: Paul decided to play a Gun Mage/Warcaster. Which pretty much means he is a god. Not that he is a min/maxer, but he likes to make outsider characters that usually don't exactly fit into the party.  His character was straight up military, ex-Cygnar military to be exact. Ex-Cygnar as in deserter. This character was a little harder to fit in, but I had so much synergy with the other characters as far as the main arc, I decided to leave Paul's story as sort of a side plot that can fill in between portions of the main arc.

As a deserter, I decided that Paul's character came to Five Fingers to join up with a merc company that Chris' dad used to own. They had disbanded after Chris' characters father's death, which left Paul with few options. He then finds Chris' character through some trial and also came to be under his employ as a bodyguard. Paul decides to keep his magic use on the down low since he doesn't want to be discovered as a deserter. I decided that Cygnar is not likely to cotton well to a Warcaster deserting their ranks. Somebody will be coming to visit.

Paul provides me with a nice side story to throw in to keep the players from burning through the main arc to quickly and to distract them so I can make sure the antagonists have time to plot and maneuver. So I am pretty much set.

After character generation I had everything I needed to put together our first story.

George goes looking for the source of the swords runes and hears a rumor about this guy who seems to have brands with the same runes.

George starts asking around for this guy but flubs a roll.  I let Greg know that there seems to be some kind of shady character asking questions about him.  Greg decides that's not a good thing, tracks George down and confronts him at his alchemy shop.

This was dicey since the two PC's could easily come to blows. Greg ends up snatching the rubbing of the sword and leaving in a huff.  George seemed unimpressed and let him go, thinking that tracking him down later might lead to something. George tells Chris and Paul about what happened and they go looking for him.

Chris sees that he has underworld contacts, so I make up Smitty the Knife, a local fence and information broker. Chris decides to visit Smitty who leads him to some abandoned tenements by an old graveyard (see what I did there?).

The group decides to hunt down Greg and find out what he knows and after some kerfuffle manage to do so. They deicide they are all working towards the same goal. Greg gives them a detailed description of the woman who killed his parents.  Could it be the same woman that killed Chris' father? Who knows?

George decides to start trying to track down some info on this woman. He asks some questions and looks some stuff up in some books, yadda yadda. The fact that he is researching these runes and asking questions about a certain woman start making certain powers that be start to notice. He is met by a pleasant woman at a cafe, while he is pouring over books. Fails to resist a roll and ends up spilling the beans about his mission.  She of course is a trained spy and pretty much determines that he knows too much and has to be brought in.

The other characters decide to join Greg in staking out the graveyard since there have been rumors of grave robbery in the area. George decides to come along and join the others as night begins to fall.

Human thugs attack George as he enters the graveyard and the others rush to the rescue, but from behind come a group of undead Thralls lead by a man in heavy armor. Now the characters are surrounded. The thugs are soldiers from the Thamarite group and the Undead and the leader are from a cabal of Cryx worshippers who have been waiting for the right time to find and kill members of their Thamarite rivals.  The Thugs have orders to kill but preferably capture George. The melee ensues. George gets knocked out and almost dragged off.  If it weren't for Greg's quick thinking they would have gotten away with it, especially since Chris and Paul were knee deep in undead.  They lived to see another day, but were very confused and thirsty for answers.

Now I have a full on story from nothing. I just developed a story around the stories my players made. With a slight bit of manipulation at character creation I tied story hooks together and made an entire session on setting up the group and binding them through comradery, common tragedy and the fires of mortal conflict. I now have a basis for an entire campaign.

The whole point of this post is about how important players can be to the storytelling process. You can let them steer the whole thing up to a certain point. If you are a GM don't feel like you are the only creative force in the story.  As a player, don't be afraid to give the GM plenty to work with.  He/She will appreciate the story material and if they are worth their salt, they will make good use of it. Stories can come from anywhere.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Action vs. Reaction - System experimentation MkII

I have been working on a new way to do initiative for combat. I was inspired to do so by a discussion I had with +Kay Sakaue about Action vs. Reaction in actual martial arts. I came up with my first draft of the idea and its application in Savage Worlds, but it had some issues.

Benjamin Rose brought up a good point about the portion of the system where both sides are looking for advantage. He said, "Are they just staring at each other? If they make more than one roll, I can see it potentially getting a bit boring." and I agreed. I started chewing on the problem I came to a startling realization. The initiative system in Savage Worlds uses a card deck. Holy GLOB I am an idiot!

When I discussed the whole idea of Combat Advantage with Kay I thought that a lot of the way it worked seemed like a poker game. Trying to read your opponent, knowing when to hold, fold and bet. So I altered the system to reflect this point. Using the cards makes things flow a little faster and has a better conflict based feel.

+Djaii Pepper-Martens commented that it seems to break down with a great deal of combatants. I also agree. I am not sure that it's something I want to fix though. This is mostly intended for dueling and smaller scale conflicts. It's too detailed for a large scale brawl. I think I might just leave this for times where I want a specific kind of drama. I am pretty secure in saying that this is not a system that would apply well to all kinds of combat situations, but it could be very fun for certain dramatic situations where you want to ratchet up the level of detail and dramatic effect.

I had to alter the math a little, but I think it might work.  I am going to try to get some people together this weekend and play test it out a bit.

Combat System Discussion

I’m not sure if you are at all familiar with the Savage Worlds system, but it works on a dice step method. All Skills and Attributes are rated 1-5, see below. All player characters also get a Wildcard die (d6) along with every roll, taking the highest. This represents the Hero factor.

Step Range 1 – 5 (All stats are rated 1 to 5 die steps.  1=d4, 2=d6, 3=d8. 4=d10 and 5 = d12). Both the die values and the step values are used for different reasons.

New Derivative Statistic – Combat Fitness

Vigor (Vi) – Physical Body
Smarts (Sm) – Mental Readiness
Spirit (Sp) – Spiritual Development

Add all three stats and divide by two rounding down  = Combat Fitness (CF)

I went with Vigor instead of Agility for the calculation of this derived stat.  Agility will be an important factor later on, but this statistic is more designed to create a basis for gathering a Combat Awareness statistic for the new initiative system. As you will see further on, it more describes the ability to determine the appropriate time for a Decisive Strike and to determine opponent weaknesses and strengths.  Vigor to me represents physical conditioning instead of coordination and speed. I figured coordination and speed would become important when a maneuver is executed.

New Initiative System

The new initiative system is not designed to determine who “goes first”.  In my new vision for close combat all combat is resolved as opposed and simultaneous rolls.  The difference comes in who has determined the correct Decisive Maneuver first, executes that maneuver and whether the defender at that point provides an opportunity for the attacker to continue on to another maneuver in the chain until the defender is defeated or creates an Initiative Break.

The winner of the initiative simply gets a combat bonus depending on his situational awareness and how well he has sized up his opponent.  Combatants draw a number of cards from the Initiative deck equal to their CF. This will be the players CF hand and will be used to assess his situational awareness and ability to react to their enemies situational awareness.


Instead of drawing for “Initiative” combatants draw for “Advantage.” Advantage determines a combatant’s ability to decide upon a Decisive Maneuver and act upon it. Each player draws a number of cards equal to their CF. The cards are used to determine Combat Threshold (see below) and gain the situational Advantage. Advantage is part race, part gamble, part strategic determination and possibly part bluff.

The cards values are a little different for the purposes of this initiative system. Aces count as 1 and all the “Court” cards (Jack, Queen and King) have a value of 10. Jokers have a value of your opponent’s highest card +1.

Before determining Advantage it is necessary to determine the Combat Threshold. The CT represents you defensive stature, effectiveness of footwork or the general difficulty of an opponent to gain an advantage upon you. Secretly place one card aside and add their value to your Martial Art Skill to determine CT.

The Race: Each combatant is trying to reach his opponents Combat Threshold (CT) first.

The Gamble: Opponents do not know each other’s CT, they have to guess at it. Players place cards face down in front of them simultaneously one card at a time. At any point after both players have laid down an equal number of cards, either player may call a Strike and the combat begins.

The Strategy: After a Srike is called each side then reveals their Advantage Total (AT), which is the sum of all the card values put on the table before the Strike is called. Both players also reveal their CT value.  Each side then subtracts their opponents CT from their AT.  The result is their Combat Pool (CP).  Combat Pool is used to act and react in combat. The player with the highest total is said to have the Initiative. Players must be judicious in the use of their Combat Pool in order to survive the combat.  If both sides end up with an equal number of Combat Pool the combatant with the highest CF is considered the winner. If both sides have equal CF then use the suite of their highest value card to break the tie (Spades, Hearts, Diamonds then Clubs) If both high cards are “Court” cards of the same suit then prioritize King, Queen then Jack. The winner of the tiebreaker is considered to have a CP of 2 and the loser is considered to have a CP of 1. If both sides have negative CP this produces an Initiative Break and combat is reset. If one side has positive CP and the other has negative CP, the combatant with the negative CP is automatically hit and the difference between both CP’s is added to damage.

The Bluff: When CT is determined a character can choose to draw a number of cards equal to their Bluff skill. They must then place one of these new cards on top of their CT card when CT is revealed. Their opponent will have a chance to spend CP to detect the bluff by rolling Perception. The combatant with the highest total (Perception die result vs. Bluff card value) of that contest chooses which card applies to the Bluffing players CT.

Spending Combat Pool

Combat Pool is a representation of comparative situational awareness.  These points can be used to give a combatant more options. Once you are out of options, you are probably out of luck. The character with the higher Combat Pool has more options and therefore has the Initiative. Combat Pool can be spent in the following ways.

1. Check for Bluff: If a player is bluffing their opponent can spend a CP to attempt to see through the bluff. (see above)

2. Mitigation: Players may spend one CP to remove an environmental combat modifier found in the regular combat rules in Savage Worlds. By using their superior situational awareness characters can overcome situational obstacles.

The Combat

Now that we know who has the Advantage in combat it’s time to strike. Each player must spend one Combat Pool to engage each enemy in the combat. Therefore, if a character is fighting three opponents he/she must spend three CP to engage all three. If a character does not have enough CP to engage all of their opponents, he/she cannot defend against all of them. All friendlies in the combat can split the CP cost between them as long as each enemy is engaged with at least one friendly character. All combatants that are in combat with an enemy they cannot engage can suffer from a free strike.  Free strikes are resolved before all other combat. Combatants can make a free strike by making a normal Martial Arts test against the victims Parry. The Margin of Success of this roll is then applied to damage directly.

Once engaged each combatant can spend 1 CP to add a die of the appropriate type to their Martial Art Skill to a pool. Once all combatants have decided on how many CP they are going to spend they roll their dice plus one Wildcard die. The character with the highest total (including the rule of doubles) can then choose to subtract one from their opponents Combat Pool or add one to their own Combat Pool. If both sides have 0 CP an Initiative Break occurs and the combat resets.  Once a combatant is reduced to 0 CP  and one or more of their opponents still have CP remaining then that character is hit and damage is applied.  If multiple characters are reduced to 0 CP characters engaged with them may choose to hit an opponent of their choice. If one combatant facing several is reduced to 0 CP and his/her opponents still have CP remaining, the victim is hit multiple times.


Weapons no longer have a dice value for damage.  They have a single damage value.  This damage value is added to the remaining CP of the attacker and compared to the victims Toughness and damage is applied normally.

Monday, June 3, 2013

So you want to be a GM? - Part 3 The breadcrumb method.

A “Breadcrumb” game is a game that involves a mystery. The breadcrumbs are the clues that lead the PC’s to its resolution. The main conflict of these games revolves around uncertainty and the drama is generated by overcoming this uncertainty through the course of investigation.

The main advantage of this format of storytelling over the Encounter based method is that this provides the GM and players with more freedom and choice.  This type of story is suited to a “sandbox” environment where the PC’s can explore and interact with a GM’s world more freely and openly, giving a greater level of immersion. Encounter based stories tend to be very linear while Breadcrumb stories have multiple locations that can be discovered in any order which provide players with different sets of information and conflicts which can lead to multiple other avenues of investigation. Like I said in our first installment, think in Parallel not in Series.

Before you start, ask yourself the basics:

Who is the evil mastermind?: Many of the same tools that you would use for an Encounter based game still apply to the Breadcrumb method.  Most importantly is establishing your Antagonist. Remember, your Antagonist is key to creating drama and all the same rules apply. Create a villain. Understand his/her motivations and goals. Understand the structure of his/her villainous empire. Create his/her named and faceless minions as well as any functionaries/cats paws.

The mystery aspect of the breadcrumb method will require you to put a little more depth into your Antagonist than in the Encounter method since he/she is hatching a secret and nefarious plot that has yet to be discovered. The difficulty is not so much in creating the plot, but in understanding how your players will either discover the plot before it is hatched or ultimately discover who is behind the crime after its been committed.

What is the crime?: What has your villain done or what is he/she planning on doing? Murder? Theft? Usurpation of Power? Sew chaos and destruction? Calling fourth or producing some form of power that will enable him to perform any or all of those? Any of these or combination thereof works well. These are but a few examples though. The most important part of creating the crime is giving the players a reason to have a vested interest in seeing the Antagonist caught or foiled in some way.

When does the crime take place?: Has the crime already been committed or is the plan yet to unfold? Do the characters have a finite time limit to uncover the plot before all is lost or the Antagonist gets away? Time limits are a great way of creating tension, but remember you don’t really have to tell the players exactly what the time limit is, just allude to the fact that there is one. This give you the opportunity to create the tension without having a built in self-destruct button for your story. Remember, it’s a bad idea to have an argument with something with a self-destruct button.

Where is the scene of the crime?: Usually there is a starting point where the characters either discover the “scene of the crime” or discover something suspicious that leads them to dig further. This is the springboard for your adventure and a place that will most likely be revisited several times in your story.

Breadcrumb games revolve around “plot nodes”. These are places that hold a connection to your main plot and provide the players with a piece of the puzzle. They are the containers of your breadcrumbs. This would be node one and the place where you set the mood of the game and start the heroes on their journey. Revealing just enough to entice but not so much that the players begin unravel the puzzle too quickly is the real challenge of this kind of storytelling. Remember, this is more Agatha Christie than Scooby Doo. Unless you like Scooby Doo and have a strangely powerful attraction to Velma, but I digress.

WHY?: This leads us back to the ever so important Who.  Not the Doctor but the Antagonist. Who could be a Doctor, but… once again, I digress. Why is your Villain on his/her path? The development of this motivation can really affect some of the things you may have to come up with on the fly. Greed, lust for power, kink for chaos, minion of evil, vengeance seeking, or seeking destruction are all great villain motivations. You can see more about these motivations here.

Once you have all of that figured out, you can start to deconstruct your plot. “Don’t you mean construct?” you might ask? Nope, I said what I meant and meant what I said.  The best way to create a convincing mystery adventure is to write it backwards. Assume that your Antagonists plans have gone to full effect. MUAHAHAHAHA! Now that you know the result you can start going full on Columbo and figuring out what the jerk did to make that happen.

Watch Columbo rip Torn a new one as he deconstructs the plot

By retracing the steps of your villainous alter ego you can look at those steps in detail and determine what kind of clues the Antagonist may have left at every step. Are there witnesses? Was something left behind? Was there some kind of trace left by someone who did not belong at a certain location? Was a figure seen speaking to someone in hushed tones? What resources did he/she have to collect? What allies or minions did he/she need to employ? What places did he/she visit? With who did he/she share his/her plans with or at least bits and pieces of it? Who would know that he/she has the most to gain from this crime? Is there some sort of link between the victims and your Antagonist? Was there a tool or method employed that was a unique calling card to the Antagonist because of affectation, access to resources or prior activity? Whatever the case may be, it’s up to you to make this puzzle solvable and convincing. By retracing the steps of the crime you can not only invent a convincing caper, but you can structure the means by which the heroes can solve the mystery.

Now you have a villain, a mystery, and the people and places that hold the clues to solve the mystery.  These people and places are now your plot nodes. Once you set off node one, you can react to what the players want to do. They will start asking questions, making perception or investigation rolls, etc. At this point, the PC's might jump straight to another node or might need some help. Clues don't need to lead players in a straight line. Anyone who has watched a good cop movie will know the basics, but if they don't remind them.

Motive: If they are solving a crime that has already been committed, the first place to start is Motive. Seek out the persons that would have the most to gain from that crime.

Opportunity: Find out who cannot account for themselves at the time of the crime, who had the available resources, knowledge, etc. to have committed the crime.

Discovering a Plot: If you are dealing with a plot, node one takes on special importance. It has to be something dramatic enough to entice the characters to go down the rabbit hole. I find what works best is to involve an NPC that already has a relationship with a PCs. Either that NPC is involved with the plot or falls victim to its machinations. Whatever device you use, the players will have to try to draw conclusions based on whatever clues you leave behind, question people that may be involved and otherwise break some doors down to find out what's going on. Don't feel like you have to lead the characters around. Give them some time to figure things out for themselves, let them stumble a bit. You will discover that the players are much more in the drivers seat of this plot than you are.

Here is a sample mystery from a write up for my old podcast.  It starts with all the events of the crime in reverse order and goes on in further detail on how the adventure plays out. If you are interested in hearing the podcast itself, I uploaded the MP3 on my Google Drive.

Once you have all these things in line the second challenge of this style of game is making a convincing sandbox for your characters to play in.  That will be the topic of part 4 of "So you want to be a GM?"