Monday, March 22, 2010

SoG Psionics: A Long Time Ago in a Fantasy Genre Far, Far Away...

I remember reading somewhere that when EGG wrote the original psionics for AD&D, it was done primarily in response to a player's request to be able to play a psionic PC rather than from a particular desire to put psionics into the Greyhawk campaign. In a similar vein, my SoG campaign has a player who has a very specific vision for his character--combining equal parts assassin, monk and jedi-knight.

And so the implementation of psionics I am presenting here bears much more in common with WEG's D6 Star Wars than the normal AD&D psionics. But there will be no SW-related story conventions: no "Light Side", "Dark Side","Force", what-have-you for SoG's psionics. I have retained some of the limiting factors, but redefined them somewhat to fit in with the Fantasy genre.

The good news is that once a few key issues were worked out, the D6 system as it was implemented in Star Wars 2nd edition (revised) is really a nice fit into Fate.

Working out "a few key issues"

Because my intention is to use this with Spirit of Greyhawk, I wanted psionics to have a different feel from Magic, but still stay pretty close to Fate conventions.

Psionics is very definitely NOT magic and while similar effects might be generated, they are generated by very different sources. Magic effects are generated by the caster manipulating external forces, similar to a scientist creating effects by his knowledge and skill of chemistry or physics. Psionic effects are generated by use of skills that manipulate something internal to the psionicist: like esoteric yoga or martial arts.

Perhaps another way to state this is if a psion and a wizard were transported from their high-fantasy realm to a low-fantasy realm, the wizard's ability to generate effects would likely be impacted while the psion would likely be unaffected.

However, this also means that the psion has limitations and concerns that a wizard doesn't necessarily need to be worried about.

Differences from SoG Magic

Base Skill Levels

I'll list out the psi skills below, but because psionics are so rare and so esoteric that they start at a -4 level (Abysmal) rather than the SotC floor of 0 (Mediocre). This way if someone has a psionic Aspect, a tag would take them to -2, which would allow for the potential of untrained "wild talents" who could occasionally generate some sort of psionic effect if the dice were right. In other words, without training (and without an aspect) someone without the skills has no potential to generate psionic effects.

No Aspect Requirements

Unlike magic, there is no aspect requirement to be psionic. The implication here is that given access to enough training and time for personal advancement, anyone could generate psionic effects. While this is not exactly canon, it could be argued that psionics as a whole in the Greyhawk source material were always optional anyway.

So while not required to generate psionic effects, someone could have Aspects related to their psionics. In fact, many psionicists have acquired Aspects through the course of using their psionic skills! Typically, acquired Aspects related to psionics have a negative implication (i.e., madness), but can still be tagged or used via Fate point expenditure to increase psionic effects.

No Fate Point Commit Needed

My current feeling is that I don't believe that the Fate Point commit rule that exists with Magic is needed for psionics. However playtesting will determine if this is necessary. The potentially damaging nature of using psionics beyond your skill levels (see below) will itself provide a limitation. Additionally the quantity of skill advances required to become proficient at psionics is also a limitation.

Psionic Skills

All psionic effects are generated by the use and interaction of three skills:

  • Control - Using psionics to generate effects within the psion's own body.
  • Sense - Psionics will provide information about things outside of the psion's body.
  • Alter - Psionically alter things outside of the psion's body.

Each skill has psionic effects that can be generated by the use of that skill. Additionally, unique psionic effects are generated by the combined use of 2 or all 3 of those skills, subject to the usual rules for "Combining Skills".

Rather than mess around with sub-skills, the player would have to elect specific psionic effects that are attributed to each skill, based upon the number of advances they have in a particular psi skill (not the skill level, since most psions run negative skill levels). Once selected, psionic effects cannot be swapped out or changed.

Example: Revok has two advances in psi skill Sense, so he may select two Sense psi effects from the list (or depending upon the nature of the story, the GM may dictate which psi effects the character would have access to--subject to what was available, mentor and training-wise.)

Psi Skills and Mental Stress

A unique feature of psionics involves the fact that since the effects come from within the psion, there is the opportunity to "push" the potency of those effects by virtue of the psion accepting stress to their mental track.

Example: Revok has two advances in the psi skill Sense for a net effect of -2. (-4 + 2 = -2). His dice roll was neutral (0) but needs a Good +3 effect. So in order to achieve it, he would have to have 5 extra shifts. Therefore, he accepts 5 stress shifts to his mental stress track (some big stress).

Open Issue: I currently don't know if the rules should dictate for the mental push after the PC rolls the dice (similar to Fate points) which means you use only what you need, or if a push is determined before the dice are rolled. There's reasons to do it either way, but I would like to keep the uniquely "retroactive application" of Fate points as being particular only to Fate points. Which means for the time being, I'm currently going with having the player state any mental stress being used for "pushing" BEFORE the dice are rolled.

While aspects and fate points are used as per normal skill useage, many psions find it very tempting (or necessary) to "burn the candle bright" because it takes so long to become skillful in psionics.

Of course there is a danger to this--it would be very easy for a psion to accumulate severe consequences if they were taking mental stress from opponents in addition to using it themselves to boost their own psionic effects.

In this fashion, a psion could quite easily acquire long term mental damage (in other words, gain aspects with a more negative focus). Eventually a psion could literally end up driving themselves mad by generating psionic effects that would normally be beyond their skill levels!

Some sample mental aspects gained from psionic combat / usage:

  • "I can't shut out the voices!"
  • Catatonic episodes
  • Persistent nosebleeds
  • "Everything I touch gives me flashes of those who touched it before!"
  • "I see everyone who ever walked here..."

The Psionic "Death Spiral"

Psions who acquire aspects in the above fashion (by accepting mental damage), could actually tag those aspects to boost their potency. In fact, it's quite possible a psion could choose to continue to acquire damaging mental aspects to allow for more frequent tagging. Functionally the character could become so hemmed by their aspects as to become virtually unplayable (read: gone insane).

So the really good (or really smart) psions rely purely on skill for their psionics and accept their limitations. That is to say that they are calm, and at peace when using them.

Psions that use their emotions / aspects (anger, fear) to power their psionics run the real risk of descending into madness and losing themselves to their psionic abilities.

Next Entry: Skill specifics

Monday, March 15, 2010

SoG - Damage and Stress Tracks

Progress in Spirit of Greyhawk had been somewhat held up as I needed to make some decisions about some rules-related modifications before going further. I've said it before but I'm more of a GM than a game designer. So I'm not quite as eager to fiddle with the dials as perhaps many of you are. So I keep my new rules-design efforts focused on what I know won't work for SoG.

So before getting back to High Fantasy magic translations, here's a couple rules changes in SoG that might put some context into some of the magic / spells writeups to come:

Damage in Spirit of Greyhawk

Damage in Spirit of Greyhawk has been modified to reflect less-merciful assumptions about damage and dying than was used in Spirit of the Century--people can get one-shotted in SoG. This doesn't just apply to mooks either: anyone could get taken out with one hit, if that hit was big enough.

For purposes of the next parts, consider a character's Physical stress track as looking like this:

Stress -> Consequences -> Taken Out

Basic Stress Track Rules for SoG

Checked boxes within the Stress section still act the same way. Consequences work differently:
  • In SotC, consequences follow a linear progression (you can't have a Moderate consequence before a Mild consequence is assigned). In Spirit of Greyhawk, the amount of stress determines which Consequence you get--if there was enough stress to inflict a Moderate consequence (bypassing an open Mild consequence), that's what the target suffers.
  • "Taken out" still follows the same rules (see note below).
  • Roll-up behavior DOES apply normally, and includes Consequences also

  • Damage of 6 stress on a clear track (as shown above) would bypass the first Stress section, and go straight to a Mild Consequence. Only that box is then checked / assigned.
    Boxes already filled would follow the rules consistent with SotC roll-up rules (see example #3 below)
  • Receiving damage of 9 stress on this track would go straight to "Taken Out". Done.
  • If the 5 box was already filled, and a Moderate consequence was filled and the character then received ANOTHER 5 stress hit, a "Mild" consequence would be assigned.

Extra Note on the "Taken Out" status

Without rehashing the whole writeup on this blog, there was a great writeup over here with thoughts about what "Taken Out" might mean in conflicts when there is a significant disparity in power levels of opponents. If you decide to check it out, think about potential conflicts between an adventuring party and a Dragon, or Demon Prince, or a deity's avatar--you get the idea.

It does pose some interesting thoughts for certain monster translations--watch this space. ;)

Adding a "Mental Stress Track" (see below for new edit)

Most of you know there's currently only two stress tracks in SotC RAW: Physical and Social. In the upcoming Dresden Files RPG, Evil Hat added a third stress track for Mental Stress.

I had previously resisted the addition of any other Stress tracks, because I personally felt that it was opening the door to making more-more-more tracks, which I don't have an interest in doing. Additionally I had considered the Composure stress track was easily used to track Mental damage anyway. The example I had considered was that if someone had taken Mental stress or a Mental consequence, wouldn't that likely represent a reduced ability to deal with stress in Social situations?

However I only have the blogosphere and Google to go on for this--I don't really know why the choice was made to do it that way. However given that DFRPG does have a Mental Stress track, I decided to not worry about it and just add it in.

So Spirit of Greyhawk has three stress tracks; Stunts and Skills will need to updated to reflect similar adjustments and modifications that are already available to Physical and Social Stress tracks.

Edit (3/25/10):
Rather than re-write the above four paragraphs (which would mess up the points in the comment thread), I'll note here that I've changed my mind about the SoG's inclusion of a Mental stress track--thanks to the points brought up in this post's comment thread.

SoG will not have a Mental stress track. Mental stress will be tracked as part of the Composure stress track. To echo a note from above, the other implication here is that psionic stress/damage will also negatively affect social stress situations, and I like that.

Plus this also eliminates the need for me to create makes skill/stunt clones that would make modifications to a Mental Stress track, similar to the Composure stress track.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

RIP Gary Gygax: Two Years Gone

It's kinda hard to believe it's been two years since Gygax passed away (to, let's say, the Plane of Concordant Opposition). For the last two years, Andy, my wife, and I have marked the occasion with a Basic D&D game held in Gary's honor. Last year we were joined by three friends from San Diego, so we had a proper-sized party and everything. My non-gamer wife plays a thief named Sneaky Pete, and she plays him like a real bastard. (Last time, we needed to get into this heavily-guarded wizard's tower, but we just didn't have the funds to stage a proper assault -- so she came up with the idea of stealing their horses, selling them, and kitting ourselves out with the proceeds. There were no survivors.)

Anyway, inspired by a combination of Guy's Greyhawk-to-FATE conversion work, this Adventures in Oz conversion of Gord the Rogue, and this rather meticulous (and ancient, by Internet standards) collection of notes on the Greyhawk of Gary's Gord the Rogue novels, I'm going to do my own "Spirit of the Sword" version of the venerable Gord.

Um, if I can remember enough about him, anyway. It's been a long time since I read those books -- junior high, maybe? -- so I might be better off statting up someone else. I'd do one of my own old Basic D&D characters, but they were all pretty cheatingly ridiculous, and had names like Legolas and Galahad (hey, I was, like, seven years old!), so maybe not. Let's do Gary's purportedly favorite character, Mordenkainen.

Some things will have to be changed here, since magic in "SotS" varies greatly from magic in D&D. I'm inclined to simplify things greatly with a catch-all Magic skill, throw in some evocative stunts, and let Guy come along and refine things with his magic system when he gets either a chance or the inclination to do so. I really like the suggestion of "commiting" Fate Points to cast spells, so I'm going to incorporate that, too. Also, this isn't the all-ass-kicking-all-the-time Mordenkainen -- y'know the one who plane-shifts to Earth to hang out with Elminster and Dalamar -- but a powerful yet playable version of him that could show up at your/my table without stealing the show (hopefully).

  • Great (+4): Magic
  • Good (+3): Contacting, Lore
  • Fair (+2): Melee, Resolve, Leadership
  • Average (+1): Athletics, Alertness, Stealth, Empathy
  • Oerth in the Balance
  • Behind the Scenes
  • Magnificent Mansions and Faithful Hounds
  • The Circle of Eight
  • Powerful Mage of the Flanaess
  • Magic in My Blood
  • Spy Network: +1 Contacting in Greyhawk
  • Helping Hands: Spend a Fate Point to bring one or more assistants into the scene. You can have three Average assistants, two Fair assistants, or one Good assistant. Regardless, the assistants are built as companions with two free advances.
  • Mordenkainen's Minor Disjunction: You've developed a technique for temporarily disabling magic items and lasting magical effects. By spending a Fate Point, you immediately dispel all lasting magical effects in your zone. In addition, make a Magic roll to disable magic items in the zone. The base difficulty is Great (+4) for an item with one improvement. Increase the difficulty by +2 for each additional improvement the item has. For example, a magic sword with a single improvement of "+1 to attacks Melee" would require a Great (+4) effort, but one with "+1 to attacks with Melee" and "+1 Resolve to resist fear" would require a Fantastic (+6) effort. Success indicates the items lose all improvements for the duration of the scene. Neither of these effects applies to you or anyone with whom you're in physical contact. 
  • Staff of the Magi: This potent staff carries three benefits to its wielder. First, it grants a +1 to any skill when defending against magic. Second, it provides three Fate Points which can only be used to commit toward spellcasting (i.e., they can't be spent to invoke aspects, make declarations, or anything else). Finally, there is the staff's retributive strike. By breaking the staff, the wielder releases a powerful explosion of magical energy to all creatures in his zone (including himself). This blast deals 6 stress for each of the staff's Fate Points that hasn't been committed to spells in the scene. For example, if the wielder has committed one Fate Point toward the casting of a spell in a scene then breaks the staff in a retributive strike, all creatures in the zone will take 12 stress. Instead of taking damage, the wielder may sacrifice all remaining Fate Points to plane-shift to another plane of existence. The specifics of this are left to the GM.
  • Bracers of Defense: +1 Melee to defend against melee attacks.
  • Ring of Spell Turning: If you obtain spin on a defense roll against a magical attack, the attacker takes stress equal your margin of success.
Refresh: 6

Okay, so it's not especially faithful to either the real Mordenkainen or "SotS," but I think he came out pretty cool. Heck, I'd play him. Hopefully Gary would've, too.