Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Fantasy: Gamex Playtest Report

We had a full table for the "SotS" game Sunday morning, including one woman who, as she mentioned only after the game, had never played an RPG before. I'm glad I didn't know in advance; the pressure would've been on. She did a great job with Fortunata, though, and she had a good time. Thank the Maker her first experience was a good one. Later, at the indie game table, Josh Roby, Alex Duarte, and I all barraged her with other game suggestions, like Zorcerer of Zo, Prime-Time Adventures, and... ooh, what was the other one? Well, it wasn't Burning Wheel, I know that. She was surprised to hear that the SotC's rulebook is so thick -- truly, a testament to how intuitive and newbie-friendly SotC can be.

Yves' player commented that she (Yves) didn't seem to have much of a motivation for participating in the party's mission, other than that she was hired. And he's right. I'm not sure why I had her a thief who only dabbled in magic, when I should've made her a full-blown mage. She was maybe a little too stealthy, which only encouraged him to make her even stealthier (with a great aspect: "When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Hide in the Dark"), and that meant that she essentially sat out part of the action. So lesson learned, there.

The good news on Yves is that the way the magic system works -- that is, the "First One's Free" mechanic -- encouraged Yves' player to cast at least one spell a scene. She never cast a second in a scene, because she was usually busy hiding, in accordance with her character skills and aspects, but that's fine. For that character, magic was seasoning, not the meat, and the mechanics backed that up. If I use that character in a future playtest, I'll reverse her stealth and magic emphases to distinguish her a little more.

Also, I started everyone out with a default of 3 Stress boxes, thinking that that would make things grittier, but y'know... it didn't. Only one character took consequences, and I had to work my ass off to make that happen. In retrospect, his player was right: I should've just paid him a Fate Point and said, "Something hits you on the back of the head and everything goes black." But oh no, I had to keep it real and try to get some legit consequences on him. Bah. Meanwhile, characters like Gregor the troll never came within a mile of a consequence -- at 7 Health Stress (including his armor) and a high Melee, there was no way any of my little thiefy or thuggy minions were going to put a dent in him.

Since the minions weren't technically "armed" with anything -- that is, they didn't have a weapon listed, or any aspects regarding what they were wielding -- the "Strong Against" armor rules didn't really come into play except at the climactic battle, when a few of the party fought a monstrously huge blue beetle in a subterranean chamber. Gregor tried to invoke his axe's Slashing aspect, but was unable to because the beetle had Heavy armor ("Chitinous Shell"). When we got to that fight and I saw the beetle's stats again, I thought for sure he'd be a "run away" encounter -- Superb Might, the Wrestler stunt, 8 Health Stress, etc. -- but they made short work of him. Specifically, the jungle elf hit him for something like 15 damage thanks to some generous Fate Point expenditures and his One Arrow Left stunt. I had 5 Fate Points for the scene that I could've used to bolster the beetle's defenses, but it was already after 2:00 so I just let it go.

Later that night, I played in Colin's "Spirit of the Force" Star Wars/SotC game (which was predictably awesome), and came away with a deep appreciation of his "No Stress, just consequences" mechanic. He's of the opinion that simply taking Stress is dull, whereas taking consequences is exciting, and I'd tend to agree. So he's done away with Stress tracks altogether, which means that whenever a character is hit, he takes a consequence. 4+ damage mandates a Moderate consequence, and 8+ means a Severe consequence. Those may seem like some crazy-high numbers, but it isn't unusual in "SotF" for skill efforts to be in the double-digits. Minor consequences go away at the end of the scene, and Moderate consequences go away with sufficient downtime between scenes (e.g., "Gash In Side" would go away if the character received medical treatment). Severe consequences, however, don't so much go away as become a permanent part of the character in the form of an aspect. Colin's example, from "Empire Strikes Back": Vader cuts off Luke's hand, a Severe consequence (then arguably deals him a Moderate mental consequence when he tells him he's his father). At the end of the movie (i.e., the game, or the story arc), Luke gets a cybernetic hand, replacing one of his aspects with "Mechanical Hand -- Just Like My Father." The transition from consequence to aspect is "in the fiction," and becomes an important turning point for the character.

I think that's pretty effin' rad. I plan to steal it wholesale.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Fantasy: "Election Day" Characters

I believe that, yes, the Summoning rules are good to go. If I'm lucky, I'll get them posted online sometime this weekend.

However, it'll be a busy one for me: As I mentioned before, I'm running a couple of games at GameX in L.A., one of which is a "Spirit of the Sword" one-shot/playtest called "Election Day." Last I checked, I have one player signed up, so... that ought to be either interesting or a non-event. We'll see.

In any case, here are the six PCs I made for the one-shot. Despite the presence of a dwarf, an elf, and a troll, they have a pretty low-fantasy, low-magic vibe to them -- there's only one spellcaster and no magic items. I've really enjoyed making them, and I'm excited to see how the game goes... assuming it goes at all.

Iko Tana

Their last phase -- Adventure -- has been left blank. That's for the players to fill in themselves on Sunday. They'll whip up some quick bit of adventure the character's already had, then we'll play out out the scene's climax for each character (which may or may not involve some guest starring). The players will also provide two more aspects for each character, at least one of which will be attached to the Adventure phase.

Wish me luck. And if you're going to be at GameX, come on by and check it out: Sunday at 10:00 am.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Western: Showdowns

I'm just about done with Summoning magic for "Spirit of the Sword," and I'm really digging it, but I thought in the meantime I'd switch things up a bit and post something from "Spirit of the West."


A showdown is a special combat situation in which two (usually) armed combatants face off at relatively short range (within the same zone) in a deadly contest of speed and marksmanship. Since this is such an integral part of Wild West mythology, it deserves some unique rules.

There are three phases to the showdown: Staredown, Draw, and Fire.

The Staredown is a contest of Resolve vs. Resolve. The gunslingers stare each other in the eye mere seconds before facing death itself, simultaneously daring the other to reach first and trying to shatter his nerve. Mechanically speaking, although it involves intimidation, it's a little more about not breaking than it is about striking the fear of God into your opponent, so we'll use Resolve (it could arguably be called a use of Empathy, as well, but Resolve seems much more Wild West than Empathy). Whoever loses the Staredown is the first to "reach," and the winner gets to declare an appropriate, fragile Aspect on his opponent, like "Shaken," that can be tagged for free in the next phase or tagged with a Fate Point in the Fire phase.

Draw is when the gunslingers actually reach for their weapons. Generally speaking, whoever reaches first is seen as either less honorable or more cowardly (these are often synonymous), whereas the gunslinger who reacts to the other's reach is considered braver and more skilled, since he reaches after his opponent but has to get a shot off more quickly to survive. Draw is a contest of Alertness vs. Alertness. Either gunslinger can make a "hip-shot," and receive a +1 bonus in the Draw phase in exchange for taking a -1 penalty in the Fire phase. A character with the Lightning Hands Stunt may use Guns instead of Alertness in this phase; a character with Quick Draw ignores the -1 penalty in the Fire phase when making a hip-shot. Whoever wins the Draw phase acts first in the Fire phase.

Fire is the moment when pistols are pointed and triggers pulled, and uses the Guns skill. Whoever wins the Draw phase gets to Fire first and potentially (hopefully) take out his opponent before he has a chance to retaliate (the Snap Shot stunt can be used in this phase to pre-empt the initiative order established in the Draw phase). Since each gunslinger is standing still and not attempting to dodge, neither can use Athletics (or any skill) defensively -- or, if he does, he forfeits the chance to Fire and is immediately seen as a coward by any witnesses. Damage resistance doesn't seem to be a factor in the source material, so defending with Endurance doesn't seem appropriate, either. Indeed, the only challenge seems to be to shoot the other guy before you get shot, and since everyone's an equally hittable target standing still, everyone should face a static difficulty number -- say, Good (+3). Obviously, that's not going to be too tough to beat, especially for a character with Superb (+5) Guns, so the fight is often won or lost in the Draw phase. Unless the first to fire scores a Moderate or better Consequence, the other gunfighter may also take a shot.
  • Alternative Idea: The participants could defend with their Resolve rolls from the Staredown phase. The truly fearless and resolute seem to be harder to hit in Wild West showdowns in the movies. The downside to this is that it'd be much, much harder to, say, kill a guy. A Resolve roll is likely going to total more than +3. Then again, it's some additional bookkeeping (i.e., you have to keep track of what that Resolve roll was), so that may be a turn-off.

If the results turn out to be non-lethal, whoever inflicts the higher Consequence is "the winner," although it's important to note that "winning" a showdown is no guarantee of survival. A Severe Consequence, like "Bleeding To Death," ought to do the trick by anyone's standards. If either participant chooses to continue the conflict, normal combat rules apply.

(It should be noted that there are some other changes to Stunts in "SotW," like deleting On Top Of It and Snap Shot, that address some potential problems here.)

And one of my favorite "SotW" Stunts:

You Know Where the Next One's Goin' [Prerequisite: Gunslinger]: Spend a Fate Point to deal Composure Stress instead of Health Stress with your Guns skill. Outside of a showdown, your opponent defends with Resolve; in a showdown, the static difficulty is equal to your opponent's Resolve.

Friday, May 9, 2008

GameX 2008

For those who are interested, I'll be running "Spirit of the Sword" at this year's GameX in L.A. on Sunday of Memorial Day Weekend. More info on GameX can be found here.

The game will be set in our original setting I've mentioned from time to time. Here's the blurb:

"It's Election Day in the Free City of Habsucht -- and time for the Guilds to pay off the voters, as always. Competition is fierce for The Graft, Habsucht's densely populated haven of the unsavory, and odds are good that the winner will have to sling more than just mud before it's all over."

There's still some work to do to get this in a playable state, but I'm confident that it'll all come together. Hope to see you there!

Monday, May 5, 2008

Fantasy: Renaming Magecraft

Warning in advance: There aren't any mechanics in this post. It's just some idle musing, thinking aloud. Y'know, like a blog.

Like I said in my last post, I'm interested in an alternative to the name "Magecraft," not necessarily because of possible confusion with the Crafting skill, but just because it'd be good to have something a little more interesting. I'm not necessarily looking for something completely straightforward here -- if I could hit upon something that lent more weight and depth to the setting, that'd be ideal. With that in mind, here are a few options I've come up with:

Wizardry. This makes me think of the old PC game by the same name, but I'm sure the first thing most people will think of is that blasted Harry Potter guy. Either way, I'm not real hot on this one.

Sorcery. This sounds a bit on the sinister side to me, which is definitely not what I have in mind for this form of magic. Still, it's hard to argue with such a ubiquitous word, even if it's a bit... dull.

Galdr, galdor, or gealdor. These are Norse and Old English words meaning something along the lines of "spell" or "enchantment." According to the quick-and-lazy reference that is Wikipedia, "a master of the craft was also said to be able to raise storms, make distant ships sink, make swords blunt, make armour soft and decide victory or defeat in battles." Galdrs are magical songs or poems that follow specific, rigid meters. That sort of thing fits right in to what I'm thinking of for the form of magic currently known as Magecraft. The down side, of course, is that it's not exactly intuitive. However, that's also the up side, if you ask me.

Goetia. This normally refers to summoning angels or demons, but through the centuries it's had associations with sorcery or ceremonial magic. That kinda fits, but also kinda not. Magecraft isn't about ceremonies. It's about performance.

Stregheria or stregoneria. These are Italian words for a particular brand of witchcraft or sorcery. The first involves religious elements, but the second is more closely linked to sorcery. They're a little different and distinctive. Both have associations with Wicca, which is right out as far as this is concerned, believe me.

Thaumaturgy. Nice and fancy-sounding. It's generally associated with miracles and the workers thereof, but famed charlatan John Dee also used it in a purely areligious context, so it could go either way. I like this one. It's a little generic, but it just sounds magic, y'know?

Thelema. Do people really take notice of Crowley allusions these days? I don't want to get BADD on my ass or anything. Anyway, historically, Thelema refers to that old chestnut "Do what thou wilt" (pointedly leaving out the "An it harm none" bit) and the power of will. Those fit with magery, certainly. What's more, Thelema's also associated with the Hellfire Club, in which I have no small amount of interest.

Zos Kia Cultus. A relatively little-known 20th-century magical practice based on enforcing one's will on reality. That certainly fits the bill. I like how obscure and alien-sounding this one is. Zoskia? Man, that thing writes itself.

Esoterica. As per dictionary.com, "things understood by or meant for a select few." That works, but it isn't especially dramatic. Then again, Zos Kia Cultus is a tough act to follow.

Before anyone suggests Arcana, let me be the first to say "No." It's a neat word, but it's just overused. Which of these appeals most to you? Hit me with your suggestions.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Fantasy: Alchemy, Artifice, Magecraft

Alchemy, Artifice, and Magecraft operate much like SotC's Gadgets or Artifacts. Each potion, item, or spell is made up of one or more effects -- the magical equivalent of improvements. These effects for these three forms of magic are as follows, with the appropriate form of magic in parentheses afterwards. Most are just like their SotC counterparts, but there are a few new ones in there, too.

Additional Capability (Artifice)
The item can now do something else of roughly the same scope. Examples include a magical bow that fires arrows of pure energy, a flying cart that can travel on the ground or through the air, or a sword with a blade of fire.

Alternate Usage (Artifice, Magecraft)
This effect allows skills to be used differently. Examples include enchanted spectacles that allow the wearer to use Alertness rather than Empathy to get a read on someone, a magical bolt that allows the caster to attack using Art rather than Missile, or a spell of speed that allows the target to use Art (or the caster's Art) to cover ground instead of Athletics.

Armed (Alchemy, Artifice, Magecraft)
The imbiber, item, caster, or target gains the ability to attack, or to allow its possessor to attack, with Melee or Missile as if he/it possessed a weapon of some kind. Examples include a scarf that can be used as a whip, a potion that imbues the wearer's hands with supernatural hardness, or a spell that creates a sword of fire.

Armored (Alchemy, Artifice, Magecraft)
The imbiber, item, caster or target is granted or provides armor-like protection. If taken once, this effect provides the benefits of Light Armor. If taken twice, it acts as Medium Armor, and three times, Heavy Armor. Examples include a potion that hardens the subject's skin, a cloak that provides magical protection against blows, or a spell that sheathes the target in abjurant energy.

Aspect (Alchemy, Artifice, Magecraft)
Add an Aspect to the target. Depending on the other effects of the spell, this can be so fragile as to only last for the space of a single exchange, sticky enough to last for hours, or anything in between. This effect can be taken more than once to increase the "stickiness" of the Aspect, but again, the base duration will depend on the spell. For example, "Aspect: Flying" on a spell of magical flight would last as long as the spell (one scene) and "Aspect: Prone" lasts until the target gets up, whereas "Aspect: On Fire" granted via an instantaneous spell like firebolt would last much longer than the spell itself, though the target could take actions (e.g., some combination of stopping, dropping, and rolling) to remove it.

Conscious (Artifice)
The device has some manner of sentience and is able to act independently in a very limited fashion. Oftentimes, this means that the item gains a skill, the rating of which is equal to the total number of effects the item possesses. This effect can be taken multiple times to either bump up a single skill or acquire new ones. How this all shakes out depends greatly on the item in question, but odds are only mental skills will be appropriate. For example, a sword containing the bound spirit of a demon might have its own Alertness skill, or Lore, of which the wielder can make use. Athletics, however, would be a tough sell, because the sword simply lacks a means of locomotion. Despite the sentience, the item can't act independently of its owner; it requires a command or prompt of some kind to activate. Note that this basic concept can also be more or less created using Upgrade, below, although it'll be quite different in practice.

Independent (Artifice)
Prerequisite: Conscious
Like Conscious, but the device is capable of basic reasoning, and can interpret simple commands. As the name implies, the item can act independently, even if its owner is unconscious. Limited movement is possible, even without a means of locomotion, as is speech or some other form of communication with its bearer. Depending on the nature of the item, it can even have physical skills such as Melee, although these will always be limited to Mediocre (in other words, having the skill at Mediocre lets the item use it at all).

Delay (Alchemy, Magecraft)
Technically, this isn't an effect on the item, spell, or potion, but on one or more of its existing effects. For example, a Delayed shocking blast explodes a few minutes after the mage casts it instead of immediately. The mage decides the length of the Delay when he casts the spell.

Trigger (Alchemy, Artifice, Magecraft)
Like Delay, Trigger postpones the effect(s) of a spell, item, or potion, but unlike Delay, the determinant isn't time, but a specific event or contigency. If you want to get pedantic, nearly every product of Alchemy has a trigger: drinking the potion, applying the oil, etc. But that sort of thing doesn't count as an effect; this is different. You can consume a feather-weight potion now, but it won't activate until you experience a sudden fall. That's the Trigger. Similarly, the shocking blast above could be cast with a Trigger of "When someone opens this door."

Duration (Alchemy, Magecraft)
This effect increases the default duration of the potion or spell. A potion that would normally last for an encounter can be made to last for several hours or all day; likewise, the same can be done with a spell that has a base duration of longer than one exchange (thus, no day-long shocking blasts). Some spells have a duration equal to the caster's Art skill in rounds. Applying this effect to those spells doubles, triples, etc. the duration, depending on how many times the effect is applied.

Miniaturization (Artifice)
This is the "It's much bigger on the inside!" effect -- something that looks small, but which behaves as if it weren't. Examples include a pouch that holds as much as a warehouse, a dagger that does as much damage as a greatsword, or a hut that can sleep a small army.

Maximization (Artifice)
The inverse of Miniaturization: Sometimes you just need something to be big. This effect is used to alter an item for circumstances when size will truly matter, such as a weapon that can’t possibly damage its intended mega-monster target without being very large, or a house-sized carriage pulled by dozens of horses that’s able to transport a huge number of passengers.

Range (Magecraft)
This effect extends the range of a spell from touch to one zone, from one zone to two, etc. Each application of the effect extends the range by one increment.

Scope (Magecraft)
This effect increases the number of targets the spell can affect. Spells default to one target; with one application of this effect, the spell either affects two targets or a number of targets equal to the caster's Art -2, whichever is greater. Two applications of this effect makes the spell affect an entire zone.

Craftsmanship (Alchemy, Artifice, Magecraft)
The device gives a +1 bonus to any effort using it (usually only to one skill, if the device or potion supports the use of multiple skills). This improvement may not be taken more than once per affected skill. Examples include a magically sharp sword, an amulet that imparts arcane knowledge to its wearer, or a potion (or spell) of strength.

Rugged (Artifice)
The item has 2 extra boxes of stress capacity over the default, which is usually 3. May be taken multiple times.

Special Effect (Artifice)
The item may now operate on different principles, like a carriage that doesn't need horses or a mace that can strike ghosts as easily as the living. The game benefit of this will depend highly on the specifics.

Upgrade (Alchemy, Artifice, Magecraft)
Upgrade has a lot in common with Craftsmanship, but instead of applying a +1 bonus to the entire scope of a skill, Upgrade grants +2 to a specific usage of it. A troll-slaying sword, for example, might get a +2 when used against trolls. A potion of fae friendship could impart a +2 to Rapport when speaking with elves, and a spell of assessment would give the caster a +2 to Lore only for the purposes of learning the past history or nature of a magical item.

Here's how it works. Let's take a spell of magical flight. It basically does two things: it lets you use magic to move, and it lets you move in an unusual way.


Effects (2): Alternate Usage (Magic instead of Athletics to cover ground), Special Effect (Flying)
Duration: 1 scene
Range: Touch

Compare that to a spell that lets the caster beat a hasty retreat using more conventional means:

Fleet Feet
Effects (1): Alternate Usage (Magic instead of Athletics to cover ground)
Duration: 1 scene
Range: Touch

A spell's default duration and range depend on the type of effect being created. Attack spells default to one exchange. Ranged spells default to a range of 2 zones (and a single target); everything else is touch.

Some more examples of spells:

Effects (1): Alternate Usage (Art instead of Missile)
Duration: 1 exchange
Range: 2 zones

Shocking Blast
Effects (3): Alternate Usage (Art instead of Missile), Scope x 2 (1 Zone)
Duration: 1 exchange
Range: 2 zones

Silvered Tongue
Effects (1): Alternate Usage (Magic instead of Rapport)
Duration: 1 scene
Range: Touch

There are still some things to sort out here, like what skill gets Alchemy, and I'm planning on fairly extensive lists of spells and potions. I want to make sure GMs and players know they can make up their own, but it's important for the setting that there be codified spells that are taught to budding mages. I think of it as chemistry. Yes, you can figure out on your own what sulfuric acid is and how to make it yourself, but you'd be crazy not to learn the conventional way to do so as well.

And I'm renaming Magecraft to something else, but I'm not sure what yet. Thoughts?