Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Spirit of the Century: Thoughts from a few sessions

Particularly because Samhaine is writing his system review of Spirit of the Century right now, I'm going to pull together as many thoughts as I can about my experience playing in the sessions he ran. My character was Max Gable, lesser-known twin brother of This Guy.

Max was particularly skilled in fisticuffs, gambling, and piloting. He was pretty much taken straight out of the rulebook, to be honest. I even had one of these (or maybe it was more like this) that the GM came up with a reason for me to use in each session. Actually, the plane had an almost completely undescribed artifact that let it do occasionally impossible things, like go on autopilot. I understand that the GM had Nefarious Plans for that undescribed artifact that never came out because the game didn't continue. Naturally, I also wrote several of my Aspects to be references to the guy in the picture.

But the most important thing about Max was that Max had a nemesis: Der Totenengel. Max's player is noted for not really knowing any German, so if the translation for the Angel of Death is wrong, I don't really care. What I did care about was that "Curse you, Der Totenengel!" is a pretty awesome thing to scream at the heavens when your nemesis has screwed you over or evaded your just retribution once again. Notably, I thought I was getting a nemesis about like this, but wound up with something more like this (disputably NSFW) in an excellent reveal during the final session. This is what we call "trading up."

Faced with twice as many interested players as he could ever reasonably include in one game, the GM set up a roster of twelve players, and ran sessions for various arrangements of six players at a time. This worked out really very well, as much of the interesting dialogue of each session came from exploring how these characters fit together each time. It managed not to feel like a "first session" each time, though, because we were hip-deep in action before we'd even finished introductions.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Another new race: the Beruch

As promised in the last post, here are the beruch. Since their initial mention, I've decided that their growths are actually silicate, so they actually are quartz growths. But anyway, on to the idea.

The Beruch

The partially crystalline beruch have arrived from an island reportedly far to the south. Their red skin, stark white hair, and strange silicate growths are off-putting to humans meeting them for the first time, but the beruch have engaged those they meet with energetic interest. They casually deflect inquiry about their own homelands, while asking as many questions as they can of the people they encounter. Ships crewed by beruch entered almost every port on this side of the continent within the same week.

Beruch skin color is predominantly some shade of dark red, though some few have glossy black skin. They are, on average, a few inches shorter than humans. At the knees, elbows, and backs of their hands, they have silicate growths (typically clear or cloudy) that emerge from the skin. Two thin ridges of the same crystals begin at the hairline, run over the scalp, and end at the nape of the neck. Their hair is white, though both sexes typically shave their heads. Men grow beards in a variety of styles. Their crystalline growths, which begin at childhood and continue to grow for the next thirty years, are the source of their more unusual abilities. Magic is deeply written into the nature of the beruch, and they have the ability to absorb or redirect much of its power. They are more noted for their capacity to endure it than they are for having any greater command over it than any other mortal race.

The beruch lived in isolation on the island of Erenn Kemesa since time out of mind, a largely peace-loving people who satisfied their curiosity about the outside world with powerful divinations, cast through the Eye of Ychirra to give them to power they needed. A cabal of wizards and priests, the Ring of the Luminous, was responsible for casting and guiding those divinations. They held an exalted position within beruch society, and competition was ever fierce to join their ranks. The college of arcane magic and the temple hierarchies set out clear ways in which their members could seek such promotion. In time, the members of that cabal were consumed by their hubris, quietly turning their divinatory gaze on one another. They each sought to make the Ring of the Luminous and the Eye of Ychirra a tool to their own ends. To accomplish this, each sought to manipulate the arcane college and the priesthood to promote only those who shared their aims, or who they believed they could easily control.

Conflict continued in this manner for over five hundred years, with four factions within the Ring of the Luminous pursuing dominance. Ultimately it presented history's strangest and most subtle civil war, in which all sides knew their opponents' plans whenever they were communicated; the Eye of Ychirra could see any missive, hear any spoken conversation, and watch plans as they were put into motion. Each move was countered even as it was invented; each counter was outwitted, and every outwitting turned back on itself. The futility of the conflict finally ended it, as one of the four factions was reduced to a single man, Annask Tioral. Working alone and telling no one of his plans, they spared little thought for him, until finally he approached the Eye of Ychirra directly. Striking it over and over again with a spear made from adamantine, he cracked the surface of the Eye, breaking its power. It is not known whether he survived the experience.

Bloody warfare began in earnest thereafter, and all but the most powerful of the beruch fled Erenn Kemesa for the lands of the north that they had seen before only by magic. Some of the beruch now seek a new homeland; others seek the means to return home and restore or seize Erenn Kemesa from those who remain there.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Late-night ideas: the Veytikka

I am giving myself permission to look away from the Dust to Dust rulebook writing long enough to post this. I've been thinking of creating some completely new races for whatever my next D&D campaign might be. I came up with one a few days ago, and another two last night. I haven't decided if the standard set of D&D races would be available alongside these options. Included below are rough drafts of stats for one of those races in D&D 3.5 and 4e terms.


Veytikka are a humanoid race typically despised by their neighbors, but living among them as vagrants. They are carrion-eaters by preference, and will consume the flesh of any being that is not a veytikka, as long as it has had a few days to decay. Once they do begin to eat, they leave almost no trace behind, aside from stains that have soaked into surfaces. To avoid drawing the ire of other races, they are much more circumspect about their eating habits while in cities. The main reason they are permitted to stay in the cities of other races is that they have the useful ability to perceive across the veil of death, and even communicate for short periods of time. Among their own kind, they speak a language they call Veyti; they also use this language when communicating with the dead.

Their skin tones range from a pure white to slate gray. Their faces are distinctly inhuman, with slightly elongated snouts, pointed ears, and black tongues. Eye colors include brown, green, and red. Veytikka have long, retractable claws, but just as often use weapons they have found or made. They are highly resistant to all forms of disease - necessary, given their diet. When their hands are empty and they are not significantly encumbered, they can move on all fours for increased speed.

In their interactions with others, veytikka are friendly, but possess an intensity that others find unsettling. They avoid showing their anger openly, but hold it tightly inside. Revenge, like dinner, is a dish best served only when it has fully ripened. Many are surprised to discover that a veytikka's home is almost indistinguishable from the home of a human of the same level of wealth, though most veytikka live in some measure of poverty.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Money Sinks: A Different Angle

In talking about the system of upkeep I discussed in the last post, Kainenchen, this one guy, and I worked out another sort of monetary drain, to be used in place of or in conjunction with the upkeep mentioned previously. This started as a discussion of how players should be spending money if the DM eliminated outright purchase of magic items as an option. I'll be honest: this is blatant idea theft. As I've said before, Arkham Horror is one of the richest idea mines ever discovered.

Within really any setting, there are temples to each of the widely worshiped gods of the setting. The priests in these temples are willing and able to grant long-duration blessings in exchange for donations. Supplicants can reasonably expect these blessings to last for one full cycle of the moon, or until a curse falls upon the supplicant - much like in Arkham Horror, getting cursed (well, a certain kind of cursed) while you are still blessed returns you to normal, and getting blessed when you are cursed restores you to normal. If you're planning more than four weeks of travel, you could pay the priests in advance to begin their intercessory prayers on your behalf after a certain point, or to continue them for another month.

This particular idea fits into 4e seamlessly, using the divine boons outlined in the Dungeon Master's Guide 2. In essence, you're renting the boons, and certain curses cause them to go away. I'd price these as a portion, probably about 10%, of the list price of the boon.

For 3.x, I'd need new mechanics for these boons, but there are a lot of different options. I'll post a few here; I might or might not stick with these names and concepts of the deities, if I ever ran such a game. I'm trying to make sure these are all about equally useful to all classes. Characters pay 50 gold per character level, as the gods expect something like a tithe and demand more from the wealthy.

Blessing of Tura Keshik
Tura Keshik (TOO ra KEH shik), the goddess of purity, health, the sun, and the harvest, grants 8 temporary hit points at sunrise each day, and last until the next sunrise. These stack with temporary hit points from other sources.

Blessing of Sioctana
Sioctana (shok TA na), the goddess of peace, defense, fortitude, and love, grants a +3 sacred bonus to Fortitude saves.

Blessing of Talend
Talend (ta LEND), the god of war, skill in crafts, honor, oaths, and kingship, grants a +3 sacred bonus to Will saves.

Blessing of Ychirra
Ychirra (ih CHEE ra), the goddess of secrecy, treachery, song, exploration, and fate, grants a reroll of one attack roll, saving throw, skill check, or ability check per day. Take the better of the two rolls. Alternately, a spellcaster may force one target to reroll one saving throw and take the worse of the two rolls.

Blessing of Vashtal
Vashtal (vash TAL), the god of the moon and stars, arcane magic, prophecy, time, and beauty, grants three extra move actions each day, though no more than one of these may be spent in a given round.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Play, As Time Goes By

If this isn't the first post you've read in this blog, you'll probably realize that I've spent a lot of time thinking about crafting in tabletop games lately. Talking around and through the problems with designing a crafting system has brought me to another point that bears discussion, and that separates tabletop games from LARPs, MMOs, and most single-player RPGs: downtime.

The LARPs with which I am familiar have clearly placed, unavoidable downtime in the form of the weeks and months between events. The event's plot comes to a climax sometime on Saturday night, and while there are ongoing plotlines and things players want to do, those plans are either carried out as BGAs (between-game actions) from a tightly limited set of options, or they are put off until the next event. Production is either mystically handwaved (Wildlands: technically, the exact opposite of magical realism) or treated as if the heavy lifting of the work was done Just Slightly Off-Camera (CI/RBP games). The one game I've played that made the full extent of a crafter's production time an on-camera activity was... not praised for this particular decision. In the case of BGAs, you get three of them, and there are rules for what you can fit into that time. Everyone gets the same amount of that time, with only very rare exceptions.

MMO downtime is when you handle harvesting crafting components, combining components into finished goods, mailing things to and fro, handing in quests, waiting in queues, healing out of combat, recovering mana, playing around in the Auction House, and so on. You're interacting only with the game system, or you're interacting only with other players (as in the case of socializing over guild chat, but not otherwise playing the game). As long as other players aren't explicitly waiting on you to do something (i.e., in the midst of a raid), you can take as much time as you want, and you're about the only person who will notice. If you're that kind of player, you could be logged in for twenty-four solid hours doing whatever trivial and miscellaneous tasks you like, and it doesn't interfere with anyone else's play of the game.

These things are potentially but not universally true in tabletop games. The DM and each player have functional veto power over any player's desire for in-character downtime to work on production. Yet players might have skills allowing them to gather information, craft magical or nonmagical goods, perform powerful divinations of a very long casting time (most commonly, identifying magic items), or any number of other reasonable things. This becomes a problem when other players want to do something that will inevitably lead to an action scene, or when the DM wants the world to feel alive and responsive (typically a commendable goal) and expresses this by having problems find the players during their downtime. The problem with other players seeking out an action scene is that yes, you could sit it out, and that's very realistic (the PCs did, after all, make a reasonably informed choice), but given the pace of D&D tactical combat, you're likely to miss at least the next hour of the action. During this time, you typically receive 0% of the spotlight, and the outcome of your downtime play isn't as interesting as the other player's, either.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Crafting Systems in Tabletop Games: AD&D, Second Edition

I made some references in this post to crafting in 2e. Since then, I dug out my 2e Player's Handbook and Complete Fighter's Handbook to reread the rules there. What I found there was interesting for what it is and what it isn't. Let me start by pointing out that these rules were written in 1989. Someday I should learn more about the history of MU*s for the sake of comparing what was going on in this narrow band of game design in other games at that time. Wikipedia indicates that The Realm Online was the first MMO in 1996, so I feel comfortable saying that the developments in crafting design that they would eventually introduce weren't in anyone's mind at the time.

Right, well, getting on with it. The goals of the crafting system in the Complete Fighter's Handbook are fundamentally unlike those of, say, 3e's Craft skills, and the goals of the crafting system in the Dungeon Master's Guide are unlike those of 3e's magic item creation feats. The Player's Handbook of 2e sets material costs and crafting times for armor and weapons. As with all nonweapon proficiencies, in general a character is or is not a crafter of the given type; there is no indication that higher levels of skill might relate to working faster, or that more skill might ever be required to make something. The rules in the PH indicate, without particular guidance, that the DM may rule an item more or less difficult to make than normal, and therefore assign a bonus or penalty to the character's skill roll. The CFH introduces a table of such modifiers.

Much like 3e, most skills that would let you make something with rules-related in-game usage are based on Intelligence, which explains why Armorer and Weaponsmith (though Warrior skills) were more commonly purchased by wizards in games I ran. NWPs of the Wizard category are of dubious use, or at least less obvious use - and a wizard's high Intelligence gives him NWP slots to burn anyway. A warrior with a respectable Int of 12 nets 6 slots, of which Armorer cost 2 or Weaponsmith cost 3; a wizard with an Int of 17 - not terribly uncommon in the games I played or ran - had 10, of which Armorer cost 3 or Weaponsmith 4. Said warrior's Armorer score is 10, or his Weaponsmith score is 9 - this is the number he needs to roll under to succeed. The wizard of this example, on the other hand, has an Armorer score of 15, or a Weaponsmith score of 14. Both characters have the option to spend more slots on these NWPs to improve those scores, at 1:1. Supposing the warrior spends as many slots of this skill as the wizard did, he's still four points worse off. (It's worth pointing out that none of the Warrior skills in the PH are Strength-based, while three General skills and one Rogue skill are. The majority of Warrior skills are based on either Intelligence or Dexterity.)