Tag Archive for 2014

[Actual Play] Keeping on the Borderlands

There are several play by forum games of my Fiasco playset, Keeping on the Borderlands, though I don’t think any actually finished playing. Play by forum is a slow process, prone to failure.

[Actual Play] Deathtrap Dungeon

Some folks on Facebook tried (and eventually failed) to complete my Parsely game, Deathtrap Dungeon

[13th Age] More monsters

These were more things I created for my _13th Age_ campaign but never got a chance to use them. Maybe someone else will find some use for them.

1st level kenku necromancer
Initiative +3

AC 12 PD 11 MD 14.
Hollow Bones: Critical threat range for attacks against Contarius is expanded by 2.
HP: 12

Black dagger Melee basic. +3 vs. AC; 1d4+2 negative energy damage and Contarius gains temp HP equal to the escalation die.

Ghostly Swarm: Ranged spell, at-will. +5 vs MD; 1d4+4 ongoing negative energy damage. The subject has to take a standard action to swat away the spirits, allowing them to roll a normal save (11+). Miss: 1 damage.

Summon Undead: Daily, creates 1d3+1 crumbling skeletons

Deathknell: Enemies nearby Contarius die if they have 5 hp or fewer, and Contarius or a nearby ally heals 1d6 HP.

Flock Together: Allies attacking an enemy engaged with Contarius add 1 to their critical threat range.

Sorta Dead: Contarius chooses whether to count as undead or not for spells and effects. Contarius gets one ‘get out of death free’ card per PC level.

Missing Leg: Is stuck unless the escalation die is even.

Ritual Caster

Cantrips: Contarius can cast most basic wizard cantrips, but not mending or light.

Death Priest: Contarius can spend his Icon relationship dice to speak with the dead. He has two points in the Lich King (ie, any dead person) and one in The Emperor (anyone associated with the Empire)

Find shiny things +7
Reluctant necromancer +7
Trickery and mimicry +6

Dunstan, badly wounded commander
1st level leader
Initiative +1 (but allies gain a +2 to initiative when following his advice)

Longspear +5 vs. AC; 1d8+4. Miss: 1 damage. Even hit or miss: One ally adds the escalation die to their next attack (an additional time if they already gain it.)

Shortbow (ranged) +4 vs. AC; 1d6+2 damage. Even hit or miss: One nearby ally gains temporary HP equal to 4+escalation die.

Try Again! Interrupt action when an ally misses with an attack while the escalation die is even. Reroll the attack die.

Never Say Die: Once per battle when an enemy scores a critical hit against an ally, increase the escalation die by 1.

Missing Leg Dunstan is considered stuck unless the escalation die is even.

AC 15 PD 13 MD 13
HP 27
8Recoveries (1d8+2)

Seen too many wars +7
The Emperor’s Investigator +7

Demon bred hydra body
Level 3 Wrecker
Initiative +3

AC 19 PD 17 MD 13
HP: 45

The body of the hydra stays in its pool of brackish, disgusting water. Enemies in the demon tainted water take 5 necrotic damage if they end their turn in the water. And probably have to roll a background check (DC 15) to stay swimming and still fight. If they fail, they they spend their standard action simply staying afloat. Most of the time, you’ll have to get in the water to engage the hydra body, but you might swing on ropes or float on wooden rafts or come up with some other clever plan.

Crushing Claw +8 vs AC. Hit: 10 necrotic damage. Any even hit: The target is knocked into the brackish, disgusting water. Miss: 2 damage

Hold Under Water: If a target is in the water at the start of the hydra’s turn, it will hold the target under water as its standard action. The target takes 6 damage per turn and has to make last gasp saves to keep from drowning. (Ie, the target only gets one action per round, and the have to roll a hard save to keep from getting worse. On a success, you shake off the condition. On a failure, you are unconscious and have to start making death saves (16+). 16+ means spend a recovery and regain consciousness, 20 means you do that and can take your turn as normal. After four failures, you die.)

All One Being: When the Hydra Body is hit by a status effect, it can transfer that effect to one surviving Hydra Head.

Regrow Heads: Each round, roll a d4. If the result is equal to or lower than the escalation die, the hydra grows a new Hydra Head. After the hydra has grown a new head through this ability, use a d6 from there on, then a d8 and so forth.

Resist energy 12+. Attacks with an energy type that roll a 11 or lower do only half damage to the hydra body. (The heads are normally vulnerable.) For necrotic and poison damage, resistance is 16+.

Hydra Heads
Level 2 mooks (blockers)

AC 18 PD 15 MD 13
HP: 9 each

Clamping Bite +8 vs AC. Hit: 3+escalation die damage and the jaw clamps down on you. Until you disengage (at a -4 penalty), you cannot move away from the hydra head, you cannot make opportunity attacks and a -4 to hit any enemy that is not a Hydra Head biting you. Hydra Heads biting you get a +2 to hit you.

Tear Apart: If two Hydra Heads are biting you, they can both work together to try to tear you apart. This is the attack for both Heads. +8 vs. PD (+10 with the bonus from Clamping Bite); 6 damage and 5 ongoing damage (normal save ends).

Mass of Whipping Heads: Once per round when an attack targets the hydra body and the attack roll is odd, a hydra head gets in the way and takes the attack instead.

Mooks. As mooks, they share a pool of HPs. Kill a head for every 9 damage the heads take.

The Hydra’s Secret Weapon: When you kill a hydra head and the attack die result is odd, the hydra heads regrows two new heads.

Death Frenzy If the Hydra Body dies, then all remaining Hydra Heads get a +2 to hit for the rest of the battle.

Interstellar Diplomacy

Interstellar Diplomacy is a freeform-ish game I wrote as an entrant into the Golden Cobra Challenge. You play alien diplomats, meeting on earth to decide whether or not war will destroy the galaxy. I’m voting against it, but you might have other concerns.

The formatting for the game is just whatever raw text output that Google Drive created, because Scribus crapped out on me several hours into working on the game. Stupid Scribus, I’m beginning to really hate you. Juan Manuel Avila was kind enough to make some nice looking cards that should be helpful if you choose to play.

[13th Age] A couple monsters

Here are a few monsters I made for my 13th Age campaign, which may or may not be of use to other people out there. The PCs had recruited a group of dwarven sailors to fight a necromancer dragon, so I needed some monsters for that fight.

Probably I made all of these overly complicated. You could probably use one or two and a few simpler creatures and have a good encounter, though.

Zombie Accordionist
2nd level Spoiler

Initiative +1

C: Music of the Damned With its first standard action, the Zombie Accordionist begins to play its musical instrument. Any creatures that can hear it have to reroll any die that rolls it maximum result (just the first roll is rerolled. If it comes up maximum again you can keep it.) In addition, any enemy with 12 HP or less are affected by its Fear aura (-4 to attack, no escalation die.) These effects all last as long as the zombie accordionist continues to play its instrument.

C: Maddening Chord (all enemies that can hear it play) +9 vs. MD. Hit: 5 psychic damage.

Empty Husk The Zombie Accordionist does not move, take Opportunity Attacks or basic attacks.

Vulnerable: Holy

AC 15
PD 9
MD 13
HP 35

Skeleton Archer
3rd level archers
Initiative +7

Rusty Scimitar +10 vs. AC. Hit: 10 damage. Miss: The Skeleton Archer takes 1d6 damage.

Wicked Longbow +11 vs. AC. Hit: 9+escalation die damage and attacks against the target add the escalation die to their crit range (normal save ends).

Resist weapons 16+
Vulnerable: Holy

AC 19
PD 17
MD 13
HP 32

2nd level dwarven mercenary
Initiative +4

Heavy Axe +6 vs. AC. Hit: 4 damage. Natural Even Hit: +1d6 damage per point of escalation die.

Escalator: Thoradin adds the escalation die to his attacks.

Dwarven Defenses: Thoradin adds the escalation die to his AC and PD.

AC 18+
PD 16+
MD 12
HP 38

1st level gnome lookout

Initiative +6

Dagger +5 vs AC. Hit: 3 damage and one ally gets a +2 to attack the target on their next attack before Flugel’s next turn.

Crossbow +7 vs. AC. Hit: 5 damage and Vulnerable (easy save ends).

Warning Cry Once per battle, Flugel can interrupt an enemy attack. Make a Crossbow or Dagger attack. If it hits, the target is also Dazed until the end of its next turn.

Delayed Healing Something is odd about Flugel. Any healing he receives does not take effect until the round after it normally would.

Small Flugel has +2 to defenses against Opportunity Attacks.

AC 17
PD 11
MD 15
HP 25

1st level Dwarven hedge wizard

Shocking Grasp +6 vs. PD. Hit: 5 lightning damage and the target pops free from Helja. Miss: Helja takes 3 damage.

Gain Mystic Focus Helja takes a standard action to gain her mystic focus. If Helja still has mystic focus on the start of he turn, she deals 5 damage to a random enemy. Helja loses her focus if she moves or takes any damage.

Illusory Image While the escalation die is odd, Helja can lose focus to redirect an enemy attack on a nearby ally onto a different target that the attack could have hit. Make the attack roll against the new target instead of the original.

Dwarven Defenses Helja adds the escalation die to her MD, but not to her attacks.

AC 17
PD 14
MD 12+
HP 30

Dwarven Sailors
1st level Dwarven mooks
Initiative +3

Improvised Axes +6 vs. AC. Hit: 5 damage.

Each dwarf also has a special ability:

Zahig is Strong Add the escalation die to his damage.

Orsik is Distracting Enemies engaged with Orsik are Hampered.

Snurri is Tricky Enemies engaged with Snurri subtract the escalation die from their disengage results.

Adrik is Helpful Attacks on an enemy Adrik has engaged add +1 to their critical range. (so most attack will crit on 19 or 20.)

Dwarven Defenses All dwarf sailors add the escalation die to their PD but not to attacks.

Mooks For each 7 damage the dwarven sailors take, one mook is taken out of the fight.

AC 17
PD 15+
MD 11
HP 7 each (28 total)

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 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.