Unsupervised Apprentices

Unsupervised Apprentices

Unsupervised Apprentices is a simple little game I made where you play sorcerous apprentices who can’t quite control your magic. When your wizardly mentor disappears, you probably should find him or her. Or you could just goof off and do all those things you couldn’t get away with while the archmage was around. Either way, the use of magic tends to be entertaining and create interesting complications.

Mechanically, it is more or less a mashup between Ars Magica and Zombie Dice. It’s fun to play, but it probably could use some serious revision and some more large scale structure.

Mesopotamians

Mesopotamians is a game I wrote, inspired by the sone The Mesopotamians by They Might Be Giants. It’s part of a charity project by Jonathan Walton to make a bunch of one or two page games inspired by songs and sell those to raise money for charity.

It’s a fun game that was fun to make. Scribus is a pain in the ass, though.

Game Chef ingredients are up, and I’ve been thinking about them for a while. ( http://game-chef.com/ ) I had an idea for a game about druids writing a reality-altering book, but I’m not really very enthused by it. I may return to it later, but right now my brain is more interested in this potential game:

Psychics struggling to maintain control over their personalities.

You were all subjects doing clinical drug trials for an experimental new medicine. But the drug has an unintended side effect: you gain psychic powers. And then the game is all about how the new found psychic cope with their bizarre new powers, while the drug company tries to exploit them. Inspiration here would be Akira and Scanners and Psi-Run and the like. Stories about people who gain new powers and abilities but can’t quite control them.

This plays most strongly off of Absorb and Wild. Your character is made up of a bunch of personality traits and desires and skills and stuff printed on cards. As a psychic, you can move those cards around and change yourself or others. You can absorb someone else’s thoughts or memories. If you push someone’s personality too far, they can go into a wild frenzy and then their psychic powers are going to destroy a bunch of stuff. So characters and personalities are fluid and the character you play at the end probably isn’t the same as when you started. Which parts of your character are their core, that they are unwilling to sacrifice, and which are they willing to change?

Probably the drug was intended to treat sickle-cell anemia (I’ll have to read up on that). There is no book works in the fiction, because there is no available material to deal with the drug’s side effects. Nobody understands the drug or its effects, especially once the psychic powers start to manifest. (In terms of mechanics and presentation, probably the game is made on a few pamphlets made to look like a brochure for a drug company, and a deck of cards for character traits.)

At this point, I’m looking at a GMless game with adversarial PCs, a drafting mechanic for character creation, and GM-like duties and authorities distributed as part of the draft. Probably a randomizerless system, to boot. I’m a bit worried that’s all just my brain being lazy, though. That’s pretty similar to lots of other games I’ve made recently. I might want to change up the mechanical back end there some, just for kicks.

Card drafting for character creation

Here’s a thing that I tried in The Devil, John Moulton and Medical Bay Three. Creating a character works like card drafting in 7 Wonders or a booster draft Magic: The Gathering tournament. Each player gets a hand of cards, each of which has a piece of background information on it and some mechanical effect for the game. You look at your hand, choose one card and pass the rest to your left. Then you look at the hand that was handed to you from the right and choose another. Thus, each PC acquires details and information as you go in a semi-random manner. (When you choose between the last two cards, you discard the one you didn’t pick. That way you never are forced to take a card you didn’t choose.)

Why do this? Because it has a few advantages, some of which are obvious and some of which are more subtle.

It solves the blank page problem by providing obvious fictional prompts. You can sit down at the table with no character idea and start receiving cards. As you proceed, you learn about the PC bit by bit and construct an image of him or her in your head. One playtester noted that he rejected later cards based on fictional ideas he had forming based on earlier cards.

It creates characters that are guaranteed to have specific aspects, but are still surprising and interesting. If you put specific details on cards, you can be pretty sure that someone will pick that card sooner or later. If you want a group of noble knight who struggle with temptation, then you might make a quarter of the deck temptations that the knights have to face. And you know that those character elements will appear in the game, but you don’t know for sure what the combinations will be. Characters are made unique by taking two or more cards and explaining how those pieces fit together. The player’s imagination finds ways to fill in the gap between the cards, making each character unique even if each piece of the character isn’t.

Card sets can be manipulated and customized. A GM could reject a card and pull it from the deck if they don’t like it. Good for them. Or an expansion/supplement might add new cards in character creation. Or you could replace the character creation deck with a separate deck entirely to completely rework the game’s initial starting point.

You can control how many people do one particular thing. This could be mechanical matters, such as being the most skilled in swordplay or something. Or it might be a fictional matter: if you only want one heretic cast out from the church in the party, then you only put one such card in the deck. In a superhero game, you could guarantee that each hero has a unique set of powers rather than having two players step on each other’s toes. Or you could have a character aspect be really common: maybe there are seven dwarf cards, and only one exiled princess card.

Cards can hold a bunch of information. Cards in The Devil, John Moulton have a piece of background, a leading question for the player to answer, a suit and a mechanical effect. You could probably increase the information on there if you wanted without problem. Or you might divide the card up between opposing bits of information that you have to choose between by how you orient the card. This much text would be clumsy to work with for dice and lookup tables (Though Fiasco does so pretty well.)

Establishing tone and genre expectations. If you want a very specific kind of background or ability, you can define it on the cards. For The Devil John Moulton, I had a pretty specific idea for what abilities the demons grant the PCs. And a few of the cards provide example of demonic pacts that illustrate the tone and style. Now, even when the players don’t choose the card, they still read it and internalize a bit of what it gets across. If acts as an example of what I’m going for, but in a quiet, seamless manner. After drafting cards, players have to author their own demonic ability, and so far the players have created new abilities that fit the creepy weird vibe the examples showed them. Yet I didn’t have to describe that style or tone to them directly at all.

Secrets are interesting here. If I get a card with a bit of secret information and pass it on, then I’ve still read it. And I know that a PC is likely to have that secret, but not guaranteed (the card might have wound up discarded). So I’ll be looking for the PC who is actually looking to betray us, or being blackmailed or what have you. If you’re making a game about players secrets, then this could be a really interesting and fruitful technique.

You have many options to control how drafting works. Different drafting mechanics will have impacts on the decisions your players have to make. I’ve been working with individual hands for players and hidden decisions. But you could also have all the cards visible to everyone and choices made in public, so that players can use that information to influence their own choices. This could be important if, say, you have a superhero team and want a spread of abilities. You could have specific suits or kinds of cards and demand that each player choose at least one of each. Or not let a player choose more than X number of one kind of card. Or let each player choose one card from the entire deck before drafting begins. Daniel Solis suggests a card game drafting mechanic where each suit of cards is shuffled into a separate deck, which could easily work for games where each suit is race, class, background, superpower, etc. http://danielsolisblog.blogspot.com/2014/02/solving-design-problems-by-reducing-not.html

Randomness, then player choice, rather than vice versa. The random aspects for the player to make a meaningful choice, instead of the random aspects decreasing the player’s interesting choices.

Scalability. By having a larger or smaller starting hand, you can control the amount of detail a character gets. A simpler, more cartoony game might start with a small hand and broad archetypes on each card. A more finely detailed game might have a much larger hand, and each card gives you a specific skill, feat or special power. My current project ties the cards into Cthulhu Dark based death spirals and die sizes, so the hand size determines campaign length as well.

Players act simultaneously so this phase of character creation goes pretty quickly.

Specific to the game I’m working on, it reinforces themes about difficult choices that you may not ever be happy with. You have to choose one of the cards in your hand, but you don’t get control over what cards are there. So you might have to pick something you wouldn’t go for otherwise. Your character, ultimately, is the result both of choices you controlled and outside forces that you didn’t. Just like real human beings, you don’t decide the hand that life dealt you, but you do get to make some choices about how you deal with that hand. (This may or may not fit the theme of other games, of course.)

Any mechanic or game dynamic will have some limitations and drawbacks, of course. In this case, the system can cause some problems for a player who already has a character concept in mind. Similarly, the thematics of the decision making might not fit a game where it isn’t about making difficult choices in reaction to a world you didn’t create. For certain kinds of power fantasy, the difficult choices might not work well. Also, I haven’t figured out yet a use for the deck once play begins, which is a bit of a flaw. The cards are full of information that only relates during character creation. Possibly if they were labeled with playing card ranks and suits, or Tarot style art then you could reuse them. And selling a roleplaying game with custom cards is probably more difficult than selling a game that just uses regular cards or your standard gamer dice.

I’m sure that there are a host of other problems that other people can see in this idea that I’m failing to notice right now.

Diagrams are like dungeons built out of abstract concepts.

One thing I was trying to do when making Medical Bay Three was to make it a game where the player didn’t have to know anything about being a doctor to play a doctor in the game. Everything you need to know is on the patient’s chart: it lists a variety of diseases common to that alien species, and connects them to symptoms. But most symptoms connect to multiple diseases, so you have to investigate and rule out possibilities and try stuff to figure out what is actually going on.

This is largely inspired by the brilliant Quade diagram used in Robin Laws’s underrated game Mutant City Blues. In that game, you’re cops in a world full of X-men style mutants. So to solve a crime, you have to know a lot about how superpowers work in the setting. And the game externalizes that into the Quade diagram, which connects superpowers (and a few other details about the mutant) in a systematic way. So a superpower might be linked to genetic albinoism. So if you find evidence of that superpower in a crime scene, then you start looking for albinos in the supporting cast, as they’re more likely to be the culprit. Or if you see evidence of two powers on the opposite sides of the diagram, you’re more likely dealing with two perps than one.

Both of these diagrams let the player explore a series of interconnected abstract ideas, and make meaningful decisions about them, all in a controlled fashion. For Medical Bay Three, my players were looking at symptoms and identifying them and crossing them off and trying to isolate the disease’s cause to specific parts of the chart. The organizations meant that they could make meaningful, informed decisions about the subject matter. If they hadn’t had the chart, the information would have been loose and harder for them to integrate into knowledge that they could use to make meaningful decisions.

By ‘meaningful decisions’ I mean that the player has a choice that they can make, which has observable consequences and that they can predict some (but not necessarily all) of the consequences of the decisions. Ideally, your game provides the player with meaningful decisions rather than meaningless ones. (A meaningless decision would either have no notable consequences, or the consequences are completely unknowable. These aren’t really fun to have in play.)

Relationship maps can facilitate meaningful decisions as well, letting a player know at a glance how PCs and NPCs relate to one another and therefore what the consequences of an interpersonal interaction might be. Neel Krishnaswami (one of the smartest guys I’ve ever gamed with) wrote a really good article a decade ago about using causality diagrams to model science fiction technology. (See it here: web.archive.org/web/20040715080350/http://www.chimera.info/daedalus/downloads/daedalus-winter2004.pdf#86 ) I’ve used that technique in the past in larps to let people interact with and sabotage science fiction technologies with semi-predictable results. Once again, these diagrams clarify the cause and effect relationships in a system so that the player can (at least partially) predict outcomes of their decisions. The diagrams help the player make meaningful decisions.

Ultimately, well designed dungeons work like this as well. The idea of a dungeon, after all, is to take this whole complicated, messy fantasy genre and condense it down to a series of concrete, discrete and meaningful decisions. Do you sneak past the goblin guards (and risk being surrounded on all sides when the alarm is raised) or do you kill them (and risk the noise of battle alerting the other monsters)? Do you head down the stairs covered in slime (which suggests a nasty tentacled monster below) or into the hall full of statues (Medusa? Gargoyles? Basilisk? Golems?)? Do you keep pressing into the dungeon, or retreat to camp outside or risk camping out inside an apparently safe room? The dungeon setup of corridors and rooms and monster encounters and such allows the player to make meaningful decisions about exploration and logistics and such. (This is, incidentally, why I think dungeon crawls are better if the PCs get a map of the dungeon ahead of time. Preferably an incomplete or untrustworthy map. More meaningful decisions that way.) Battlemats do the same for combat situations: the idea is to make the amorphous, ambiguous imaginary fight scene into a place where players can make meaningful decisions about positioning and tactics.

Having a diagram lets you make similar sorts of decisions, but about less concrete matters. A diagram might link together symptoms and diseases, or clues relating to the perpetrator, or how a machine operates, or any number of other bits of knowledge. And by laying it out there in front of the players, they can take those connections and relations and make more meaningful decisions about it.

The Devil, John Moulton

devil john

The Devil, John Moulton is a game I wrote about demon summoning outlaws in the American old west. To play, you’ll need these cards for character generation and
this character sheet .

Medical Bay Three

“Four years of pre-med, four years of medical school, one year of residency, years of professional experience back on Earth and all the memory downloads about extraterrestrial culture have all taught you this: you don’t know anything about what you’re doing. Not here, anyway. On the Sphere, everything is weird and different.

The Sphere is one of the wonders of the galaxy, an enormous construct of unknown material, built centuries ago by an unknown race to draw power from the black hole V616 Monocerotis. No one knows what the Sphere does with all the energy is draws from the hole, but sentients have managed to syphon off some for their own use on the surface of the Sphere. Now, sentient spacefaring races use it as neutral territory, a place where sentients of all species can meet as equals and trade ideas and goods and negotiate contracts and treaties. The sphere swarms with more races than you can count, each stranger than the last.

Each race with a major presence on the Sphere handles its own medical care, but many races from further away have only a minor foothold on the Sphere. For these races, they have to go to what doctors they can. Which is where you come in: you’re a doctor in Medical Bay Three, the insane ward. Medical Bays One and Two are filled with humans from the human contingent to the Sphere. Bay Three handles all the nonhumans that enter the human areas, seeking medical assistance. Every week, you’re treating some new species that you’ve never heard of. You have to fi gure out what is normal for this race, what is wrong with this specific patient and how to treat them. Treating these patients is as much about being a detective as it is about being a doctor.”

I wound up writing a game for Game Chef 2003, only 11 years late. It’s a science fiction medical drama game, inspired by Gumshoe, wherein you investigate an extraterrestrial’s biology to try to figure out how they are supposed to work, what is wrong and how to treat them without killing them or provoking an interstellar war.

Medical Bay Three – Players Pack

Medical Bay cards

Medical Bay Three – GM information

Quade Diagram

My quick and dirty Over the Edge/World of Dungeons hack

I wanted to play Over the Edge, but I can’t stop tinkering with the mechanics of the game. So I combined Over the Edge and World of Dungeons to make my quick and dirty Over the Edge/World of Dungeons hack. It works like this:

PCs have the same traits as normal a normal Over the Edge character, with one central trait and two side traits and a flaw and such. But instead of multiple d6s, traits give you larger sized dice to roll. A superior trait gives you a d10, any regular trait gives you a d8. Narrow traits bump those dice up, giving you a d12 if superior or a d10 if not.

When you roll, you’re rolling against the standard AW derived 2d6 bell curve: 1-6 fail, 7-9 partial success, 10-11 full success and 12+ Critical success system as in WoDu. If one or more traits are applicable, you can replace one or both your 2d6 with the die listed on the trait. So if you have ‘Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu’ at 1d8 and someone attacks you, you roll 1d6+1d8 and check them against the results table. If you’re also fighting a demon in human form, you could use ‘Parapsychology Student’ and ‘Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu’ both to roll 1d8+1d8. Your flaw turns a full success into partial success: you can succeed, but it will never be clean or pretty.

Any failure gets you an experience token. Experience tokens can be traded in to add +1 to your roll after seeing the results. A critical success also gives an experience token.

When you’re hurt, you cross off your top (critical) result first. So thereafter, all critical die results are treated as a normal success. Later injuries continue to remove your highest available level of success (regular successes become partial successes, eventually partial successes are failures… or maybe just partial failures?) Particularly deadly harm might cause multiple injuries at once, though I’d let a PC roll some trait like ‘Sturdy as a House’ to reduce that damage. Medical care care restore some or all of that with a decent first aid roll and/or bed care, depending on the injury.

See some pregen characters as well. I’me most pleased with the house that took human form and the voodoo economist.

Playtest: ‘Devil John’ Moulton

Playtest report: The Devil John Moulton

This wound up longer than I meant it to be. Long story short: We playtested another game a few days ago. It went really well. It was horrible and weird and violent and darkly funny and amoral in all the ways the game was supposed to be. (You know, like a Garth Ennis written comic or a Quentin Tarantino film.) The PCs rode into poor, long-suffering Deadwater Gulch and stirred up a heap of trouble.

The basic premise of the game is that there is a mysterious figure named “the Devil John’ travelling the Wild West, making demonic pacts with anyone who will make a deal with him. He gives the buyer all the power that they want, in exchange for their soul. The PCs all made this deal for one reason or another, and now regret it. So they want to see Devil John dead. They joined together and go from town to town seeking out anyone who made a deal with Devil John. When they find the sorcerer in the town’s midst, they force some information out of the amateur occultist to find where to go hunt Devil John next.

So: the PCs are bad, bad people. But they’re trying to stop a person who is worse than them.

Character creation went really well. The basic chargen system works like playing the board/card game 7 Wonders, or drafting decks in a Magic: the Gathering tournament. Everyone gets a hand of cards, each of which has a piece of background for the character, a question to answer and a mechanical effect (usually an increase in the size of a trait’s die, sometimes other effects.) Choose one from your hand and pass the rest of the hand to the left. Then pick a new card from the new cards that you receive, and repeat.

The players all really seemed to like this aspect of the game, and it seemed to make cool, appropriate characters. Everyone mentioned how they liked the cards that I had written, which meant that they had to choose between different interesting aspects of the character as they went. One of the player, Mojo, mentioned that later on he was picking cards in part based on the mental image that was forming in his head concerning

(The game’s core mechanics are drawn from Cthulhu Dark, but expanded upon greatly. Instead of just tracking an escalating d6 for Sanity, you have four traits. Those four traits are the only dice you can ever roll. Each can be rated in a different die size, and each one has a specific unhappy ending for your character waiting in store. So eventually your ratings in the traits will go down and reach one of the four endgames. You want to roll lower than your opponent, which means that any die has a chance of winning a roll. But it also means that your d4 traits are most effective but you can only use it once or twice before reaching the endgame. Your larger die size traits you can use quite often but they will not be as helpful. This also lets you control the length of gameplay somewhat: more cards to start with gives large dice which makes for a longer game. Fewer cards make for a shorter game. With five cards in a starting hand, most people are rolling d4s and d6s and only occasionally d8s.)

Sneaky bit of game design magic I learned from Fiasco: The players read many of the cards that got passed around, even when they didn’t pick the card. So the rejected cards still helped establish tone and style. This is most important for creating the supernatural elements in the game. If you simply told the players to invent evil demonic miracles, they wouldn’t know what to write and might create genre-inappropriate abilities. But a few of the cards had demonic miracles a player could choose, which helped get all the players understand the sorts of powers they were supposed to create. And sure enough, the supernatural elements the players invented all fit the fairly specific supernatural theme and aesthetics that I hoped for in the game.

Bit that I didn’t predict: three of the four players wanted to play outright bastards, so the ‘Scruples’ cards containing moral obligations wound up being passed on. The fourth player then wound up with two Scruples, and was a relatively decent person who had committed one really bad mistake and then fell in with some really horrible people. This dynamic was very interesting, both the mechanic of card passing (which I should have expected from 7 Wonders) and then the social dynamic of the characters in actual play. I’m interested in playtesting more to see if this is a standard pattern or a weird one-time thing.

After passing the cards a few times, we wound up with four great characters:

Allen the Red-Handed
Probably the most unabashedly evil of the four, Allen is a notorious bank robber who has a trademark of dipping his hand in the blood of his murder victims. He’s done this so many times that his soul is permanently stained red. Allen sold his soul to a demon called “The Laughing Man” who had silver hair and eyes and would appear whenever you were suffering to silently laugh at your misfortune. In exchange, Allen could only be killed by the hand of an individual acting alone, never a group or a natural disaster. He also could carve your name on a bullet and have it strike unerringly. The Laughing Man demand that Allen desecrate corpses to pay back it back for the demonic miracles.

Andre the Bastard
A former robber baron, who lost his fortune on fast women, crooked gambling tables and the unfortunately timed sale of a mine. Andre has sold his soul for the ability to sway the opinions of crowds. (Never individual people, but only large groups.) He sold his soul to a creature called “The Whisperin’ Stranger” whose face was always hidden by the shadow of his wide brimmed hat, and who never spoke above a whisper. When Andre would try to sway the crowds, the Whisperin’ Stranger would walk unseen among the crowd, planting ideas in the heads of people here and there until the crowd became convinced.

Thin Jim
Thin Jim was probably the most decent and sympathetic of the PCs. Thin Jim was also a cannibal, so that says something about the game. Thin Jim had once been riding in the desert when his horse died from a rattlesnake bite. Jim then had to walk out of the desert, starving and dehydrated. Along the way, he encountered another wanderer and Thin Jim decided one man living as a cannibal was better than two dying of hunger. Thin Jim still carried a locket from the slain man, which had a picture of a young woman and a baby. The dead man’s ghost would sometimes whisper to Thin Jim in the night, saying that he was just trying to get home. Thin Jim had bargained with a demon named Hickory, that looked like a solid black clockwork squirrel and had some ability to control time. Thin Jim was given a pocket watch that could turn time back thirty seconds, and the touch of a finger would cause an item to wither and decay as if left in the desert for decades. Thin Jim also had sworn an oath to never tell a lie, which was a problem when the other PCs kept bringing up that cannibalism incident.

Mean Little Anne
Anne had been a low-life criminal, but had been abandoned by her criminal fellows because they decided a tiny little woman wouldn’t be of use to them. So she sold her soul to gain occult power that would help her be a better criminal. Anne could buy and sell intangible goods, as long as both parties agreed. She had already sold off all of her niceness to make her a better shot, which is why she was so terribly mean. Anne could also pass through any opening, no matter how small. she got her magic powers from a demon called Shade, which took the form of a different animal each time but was always in shadows, and always had eyes glowing like the coals of a fire.

So as you can see, the PCs were a gang of terrible, terrible people. Colorful and interesting, but not nice at all.

Town creation was a piece of the game that I was uncertain about, but it seemed to work out just fine. The rules I went with went like this: Starting with the GM, each player picks a question off a list of leading questions and answers it. The GM makes notes and NPCs as you go, and secretly chooses one NPC to have made a deal with Devil John. The questions were designed to make the situation filled with potential conflict and NPCs wanting things from the PCs and stuff for the PCs to mess with. It seems to have worked well enough. The town we created, Deadwater Gulch, had enough problems and NPCs and such to keep the players occupied for the two hours or so we had left.

Deadwater Gulch’s water supply had recently fouled up. Now there was very little drinkable water to be found anywhere in the area. Sheriff Halstead had started rationing the water, and made a rule where everyone coming into town had to pay a gallon of water to enter. The town shopkeeper, “Perfectly” Frank had a secret water source and was selling the water at grossly inflated prices. Everywhere he went, a gang of kids followed, begging for a sip of water.

Perfectly Frank also owned the local mines, renowned for its strange opalescent stones that were sold as a snake-oil cure-all. They were said to cure baldness, sleepiness, wheezing, coughing, typhoid, scurvy, consumption and the gout. Anything except dehydration, really. Andre the Bastard had once owned the mines in this town, but had sold them to Perfectly Frank… ten minutes before the mysterious, magical stones had been found.

(Sidenote: I need to make up a good list of town names and NPC names to use, as coming up with those in the middle of play is difficult.)

So the PCs rode into Deadwater Gulch and started stirring up trouble right away. The sheriff comes out to meet them and demands some water. Almost immediately, the PCs are threatening the sheriff and disrespecting his authority. I momentarily forget that Perfectly Frank’s water selling is supposed to be illegal and under the table, and instead have the Sheriff direct the PCs off to see Frank to buy water and donate it to the town. (In retrospect, this doesn’t get any new water into the town, but it does reinforce the basically corrupt nature of the town’s system.)

The PCs enter the tiny town shop and Perfectly Frank and Andre the Bastard immediately recognize and hate one another. Frank refuses to sell to Andre, though he suggests to Mean Little Anne that he’d sell them the water in exchange for Andre’s magical ability to sway crowds. In the end, Allen Red-Handed provokes the sheriff enough that he goes to get a posse in case this gang of armed thugs starts any trouble. When the posse gets to the corner store, Andre the Bastard gives a speech about how the real injustice in this town is Perfectly Frank hoarding the water. The sheriff feebly protests that the posse was gathered to watch over these murderous outsiders, not to lynch the local shopkeeper. The posse drags Perfectly Frank away by his feet. The sheriff pauses a moment to threaten the PCs and demand they get out of town, then he rides after the lynch mob to try to stop the murder before it happens.

Thin Jim and Mean Little Anne find a few children still hanging around the area, and offer them some of Perfectly Frank’s water. This conversation doesn’t go quite as well as one would hope. Mean Little Anne just wants to kick a kid in the head, and Thin Jim cannot tell a lie once the cannibalism thing was mentioned.But after some child wrangling and the promise of cool, drinkable water, they determine that two of the three kids are useless and send them away. The third kid, Little Timmy, seems to know something about this Devil John fellow the PCs are asking about.

The PCs spend a long time trying to interrogate this eight year old kid. Mostly, the PCs try to scare the kid into cooperating, but they overshoot and the child is simply too terrified to answer the questions. Eventually, some dice are rolled and the PCs increment slightly more toward death but the kid spills some of the beans. About a month ago, he took ill with a fever. And he doesn’t recall clearly, but he saw a strange thin man come to the house and speak to his mother. The next day, his fever cleared up but the town’s water supply fouled up at the same time. The PCs determine that the kid’s mother probably made a deal with Devil John.

They coerce the kid into taking them to meet his mother, but with a cost, complication or consequence. In this case, it turns out that the local lynching tree is right outside the kid’s house. So the sheriff and the lynch mob are all there arguing over what to do with Perfectly Frank. The magic has started to wear off, but not entirely. And people really did resent the rich guy with all the water in town. But the sheriff is arguing they should let him go.

So the gang of outlaws rides up, and Allen decides to just walk up behind the sheriff and murder him. A successful die roll leads to murdering the sheriff in front of a crowd of armed witnesses. Allen tells Andre the Bastard to use devil magic to convince the NPC mob to leave. Andre’s player starts to pontificate, but it is pointed out that he hasn’t paid the Whisperin’ Stranger’s price yet (to cut out the tongue of somebody). Until Andre does so, he can’t use his infernal power. So the mob turns on Allen and opens fire. Allen falls down apparently dead, but the Laughing Man’s sorcery protects him and he leaps back up. Allen rolls again to scare off the entire crowd who were certain he was dead. He succeeds, but I think a couple of his traits are getting close to their endgame. Allen sets about desecrating the sheriff’s corpse to appease the Laughing Man.

Meanwhile, Thin Jim ushered the kid inside so he wouldn’t see the violence going on outside. Inside, Thin Jim finds the kid’s mother and recognizes her as the woman in the locket. He starts interrogating her about Devil John, but she denies involvement. According to her, she sent that evil sorcerer packing rather than endanger her soul. The other PCs filter in and argue with her some. As they are doing so, the window shutters slam shut (despite there being no wind) and weird poltergeist activity starts up around the house. Little Timmy becomes real excited, saying that his dad had finally returned! Just like the shadowy man had promised! It turned out that Timmy had made the deal with Devil John in his fever, to be cured of the sickness and reunited with his father again. (I didn’t decide that Timmy was the warlock in town until halfway through the session. I may make that the actual rule: you decide only partway through the game which NPC made the deal and why. Timmy was chosen because he had a decent enough reason but still was unexpected. The PCs initially thought that Perfectly Frank and later the mother had made the deal with Devil John.)

Now the ghost of Timmy’s dad decides that these intruders were dangerous (after all, one of them had eaten him and the rest spent a good long time threatening his kid.) Because of Timmy’s demonic wish, the dead dad grows in ghost strength from a quiet whisper to a storm of poltergeist activity.

Nobody knows how to fight a ghost, though. Guns won’t work on it, and reasoning certainly gets them nowhere. Andre the Bastard decides that Timmy is the key to this, and that his presence allows the ghost to manifest. So eliminating Timmy will get rid of the ghost.

There’s a moment where everyone stops and looks at each other and thinks “Is he really going to murder a small child, right in front of his widowed mother and the ghost of his cannibalized father?” Andre’s player shrugs and says “well, they don’t call him the Bastard for nothing” and fires.

This does not have the desired effect. I as GM had to decide whether this plan could work or not. I came down on the side of ‘I’m not going to reward the murder of a little kid, even if he *has* sold his soul to Satan.” So instead of dismissing the ghost of the father, it made him much angrier, and he began murdering every PC in the house.

PCs started to run, when Thin Jim looked at his sheet and said “Wait, I can turn back time! I totally forgot I could do that.” Thin Jim then rewinded the previous thirty seconds and tackled Andre to stop him from killing the kid.

The other PCs still decide to split, though, as they still don’t know what to do about the ghost. Thin Jim decides that he has to appease the ghost by repaying what he took from the ghost, and by leaving the father with his family. Jim decides that this means to leave a piece of himself behind, as the father’s flesh has been incorporated into Jim’s body. Jim slices his own ear off and sets it on the table. The ghost seems to be calmed by this and fades away. Timmy and his mother sits, huddled in a corner crying.

As the PCs exit the building, Timmy begins yelling curses and says that Devil John rode off towards a town south of Deadwater Gulch. (The PCs succeeded in a final roll against the ghost that I didn’t feel was necessary, what with the Vincent Van Gogh impression and all. So I let them have the piece of information they had come looking for as a reward for incrementally inching closer to death.)

Mechanically, 5 character creation cards meant that one PC was teetering on the edge of death after only a few rolls. Most were down a point or two in most traits. 5 might be the right number for a full length single session game. For character creation, rules explanation and a short session, maybe 3-4 cards? 9 or so for a more campaign length story, I think.

Most traits got rolled by themselves or in pairs. Never were three or more dice rolled together that I recall.

I totally forgot about a few bits that I intended to do, like having the PCs define rumors and facts about Devil John. Or having scars force rerolls (which I will likely abandon).

PCs were more explicitly evil than I predicted or hoped. That may be the issue that most requires attention and reworking. Or maybe I should accept that as an aspect of the game and design to facilitate that gameplay, which is slightly different than the gameplay I had imagined to begin with.

Overall, the game was really fun and interesting and cool in a way that doesn’t exactly match up with any other game I can think of. The players all seemed enthusiastic about the game.

Nameless Horror version 0.2

nameless horror

I made an update to my old nameless horror game. In the process, I expanded the rules several times over. But it plays much better now!

Nameless Horror 0.2 core rules
Nameless Horror Scenarios
Yes / No cards and Questioner card

I haven’t substantially changed the oracle deck, so that’s still cool to use.