GMing Tricks from the Defenders

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One of the first things I noticed about the new Defenders show on Netflix was that, by virtue of making an ensemble out of a bunch of established solo characters, it wound up feeling more like an RPG than many TV shows do. And that makes it an excellent example for some GMing techniques that I think it highlights. This post, obviously, may contain SPOILERS for the Defenders (though I’ll try to keep them to minor structural ones), so proceed at your own risk if you didn’t binge it over the weekend.

Splitting the Party

The first thing I noticed about Defenders was that it was using a technique I’ve really only seen in World of Darkness games (and mostly in a subset of WoD games where the GMs all learned it from one another). The group starts out split, doesn’t know one another, and gradually their solo experience compounds into winding up as a team. Importantly, this isn’t just a series of preludes that were all run individually and then the first full session has everyone meet up. Instead, like in Defenders, scenes alternate between PCs (often cutting on a cliffhanger), sometimes two PCs will briefly meet and then continue on separately, and only once the plot is well and truly laid out do they realize they need to work together. Sometimes, it can take multiple sessions. And the other players are all there while this is happening, waiting their turns for the spotlight.

This has several useful effects:

  • The other players get a better sense of your character by watching without being able to interfere when you have spotlight time. Though it’s an entirely metagame experience, it gives everyone a better sense of what you and the GM have agreed is cool about your character.
  • The metagame aspect is also important: it gets the players used to the idea of firewalling what they’ve experienced in and out of play. Inevitably, there’s some slippage as you eventually can’t remember whether you were there for a scene where a crucial detail happened, but the important thing is that you’re trying.
  • It also gets you used to allowing other players to have spotlight time without being disruptive. The social contract is that you’ll get a similar amount of spotlight time where the other players will also keep quiet and let you have your moment.
  • Finally, it establishes that splitting up is a thing that is safe to do.

The adage to never split the party often comes from the idea that you could, at any moment, run into a party-scaled encounter by yourself and lose. Letting the players run around solo for a while gets them used to going off solo or in pairs to do things when the situation demands it, and makes it apparent that this isn’t likely to get anyone killed. Sometimes you’ll run into something that you don’t want to tackle without the whole party, and rarely you’ll get in over your head and have to escape a threat that the party would trounce, but you’re not terrified of being alone.

This technique probably works best in a city-based game, rather than one spread out or in hostile territory.

Recurring Villains

One of the things a lot of games suffer from is insufficiently involved villains. Sure, you might have heard of the guy from his minions and former victims, but you don’t actually meet him until you get to the final room of the final dungeon in the module. Then it’s a fight, maybe after a brief monologue. Boring.

In order for your players to really feel connected to your villains—whether that be total hatred or conflicted aggravation—they need to meet them multiple times. The villains need to do things on screen that drive the players mad, take thing from them, or fail to do things and narrowly escape. The problem is that your players are likely to go nuclear if they’re allowed at all: if they identify the main villain, especially if it’s a combat encounter, all available resources go into putting her down quickly and completely.

The Defenders answer to this is that the bad guys are mostly very experienced ninjas. They go into every fight with the heroes with a cheater’s escape route planned (there are numerous scenes where the “taken out” result for the bad guy becomes “and you knock him offscreen and he’s just gone“). This is a trick you can use for ninjas and teleporting wizards, but it only works so long before the players start planning countermeasures. Other techniques from the Defenders prelude shows are that the bad guy is legally clean, and the law would take a dim view of assaulting him in public, so there can be confrontations in public spaces without either side feeling like it’s a kill-or-be-killed situation. Finally, never underestimate the villain having a conversation, the PCs thinking they have her right where they want her, and then she wanders out after summoning a horde of minions or environmental disaster that keeps the PCs away from her.

Ultimately, the real trick is making sure you’ve designed the villains’ motivations so they don’t necessarily want to commit themselves fully to a fight until the end game. Come up with reasons why they feel their goals can be met without endangering themselves. They should be willing to walk away several times rather than fighting to the death, even if they outclass the PCs.

Constrained Villains

One of the things that’s always in the back of my head as a player is whether it feels like the opposition’s resources are infinite until they’re suddenly not. Will taking out these minions have a measurable impact on the villains’ ability to operate? Is it worth it to strike at a target, or will they just have a similar resource later if we capture this one? Do the villains have to play by the same rules I do, even if they start with more resources?

Defenders does a really good job of constraining the villains (though it’s unclear if those constraints would be totally clear to the PCs if they weren’t seeing the internal bad guy discussion scenes that we’re privy to as the audience). They’ve gambled their most precious resource on obtaining a big payoff, and the time is running out for them to get that payoff.

This gives you a number of really useful plot levers to use as a GM:

  • There’s a natural time pressure: the villains need to do things soon, and aren’t going to wait on the PCs to be ready.
  • There are a number of things that the villains can do that are mistakes to give the PCs an advantage, because they’re out of options.
  • The PCs can capitalize on information to put the villains on the defensive, giving the players an enhanced sense of agency.
  • The PCs can ultimately realize that they have several methods of victory, including taking away a key villain resource and/or just running out the clock on their scheme.

Fighting a group of stressed, worried, and grasping bad guys is ultimately going to make your players feel a lot better about their own options and place in the game world than if every set of bad guys is powerful and secure until the PCs can finally work out a fait accompli to cut off the head.

Supporting Cast

Like a lot of GMs, I’m bad at remembering to use supporting cast. When you’ve got a short session, it can feel like a waste of time to take a minute to have a brief roleplay scene with one PC’s family and friends. But if your player gave you those NPCs in the first place, it was out of hopes that they’d get used for more than damselling or other pathos. Sometimes, you just have to do the groundwork to have them recur enough to feel like part of the fabric of the world, and to give the player an opportunity to express elements of her character that aren’t seen when in full adventurer mode.

This is certainly easier if you’ve started off with a split party, so it’s more usual that there are scenes with one PC off alone dealing with NPCs, playing out what she’s doing when not with the rest of the group.

Defenders does a good job of providing a use for most of the supporting cast. It helps if your system has rules for mental stress that your loved ones can help you remove. Even if it doesn’t, they can be hooked into resources that the PCs don’t have: reporters to get you information you’d missed, cops and lawyers to get you out of legal trouble, doctors and nurses to handle physical ailments, and even less-skilled adventurers that can take some minor threats off your plate so you can focus on the bigger problems.

Also, remember to have the players add their useful NPCs to their character sheets. NPCs immediately become more real to players when tracked as a resource.

Protagonist Plot Glue

The downside of several of these techniques is that it can sometimes be hard to hit the ground running with fully committed protagonists. When you do group character generation, it’s much easier to motivate everyone to follow the plot as a team, as their characters are intimately connected to one another and, usually, the story as a whole. But when the players have made independent, fully realized characters, they may have trouble finding proper motivation to engage. You’ll need to devise the plot to glue the PCs together and to the story.

Some of your players may be like Luke Cage and Jessica Jones: despite their outward complaining about being wrapped up in something that doesn’t truly concern them, they’re at the game to play and will figure out a motivation to dive in. At worst, the GM will need to have an aside with the player and ask what kind of thing would flip the PC from on-the-fence to fully-committed. It may just take a minor incident to convey that the bigger problem will have follow-on problems to things the PC cares about.

Some may be like Matt Murdock: he’s created a deep and robust character, and talked himself into doing less fun things because they’re more true to the character. Without the right motivations, he’ll sit on the sidelines playing lawyer, because he’s convinced himself that the character doesn’t want to risk his mundane life and supporting cast. At best, there are a number of contrived scenes where he gets to play legal counsel to the rest of the team, and maybe secretly help out a little. At worst, you’re spinning your wheels running repeated side scenes where he agonizes over not being able to help while going through the motions of his mundane life. For this type of character, you need to make sure that the plot leaves no escape: the things he cares about are in direct danger, the plot is directly relevant to his backstory, and, what the hell, his ex-girlfriend is back from the dead and deeply enmeshed. The player will thank you for making the decision to engage as easy in character as it is out of character.

Some may be the opposite problem, like Danny Rand: they’re gung ho to go after the plot, but the other players are going to have a really hard time justifying hanging out with this guy. There’s often a Danny Rand in the group, who made a character that just doesn’t fit. Maybe he didn’t understand the memo about, “we’re making down-on-their-luck, street-level heroes,” or maybe there was less direction and everyone else just settled on a theme by happenstance. Maybe he’s a new player who just doesn’t get the social norms of the group. Honestly, modern occult and superheroes games often make “one of us is super wealthy, and the rest of us are broke” an issue with how they price wealth in character creation, and nobody can figure out why they’d hang out with the rich guy as peers, and don’t want to be his de facto minions. This last problem can often be the toughest, and you pretty much have to do what Defenders does: make the odd PC out key to the whole plot, until the party settles into being used to having that guy around.

If you’re lucky, after the first major storyline, the PCs will have gelled well enough that you can be less heavy-handed for the second. But be prepared to keep tabs on where the players are at with their PCs’ emotional lives (possibly through supporting cast), and be ready to keep tuning the game until they’re ready to stick as a group to your satisfaction.

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Assorted Game Seeds

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I tend to have a bunch of adventure ideas that I’ll never get around to running. This post is me putting them down in writing to maybe get them out of my head (with an aside of having a place to link to if I later ask players what kind of campaign they want to play short notice). They’re mostly tuned for various flavors of D&D. Feel free to steal them.

We Inherited a Magic Shop

The PCs were all low-level retail staff at one of those mysterious old magic shops run by an elderly wizard of great power. Maybe it was one of those stores that appears suddenly in a dark alley when you least expect it, and sells you something that changes your life and then is gone when you look for it again. Regardless, the boss’ vaults of miscellaneous items were impossibly deep, and the shop seemed to be less about turning a profit than giving the old man something fun to do in his retirement.

Then some high level evil adventurers showed up and tried to roll the shopkeeper to rip the place off. Turns out, they weren’t quite prepared for him to be as formidable as he was, and he died driving them off… for the time being. Now you’ve got this whole shop full of items, a dead mentor to avenge, and some much more powerful enemies that will probably be after you for the contents of the shop.

But, hey, you’re outfitted in gear valued for the greatest heroes in the land. That ought to let you punch above your weight class, right?

(I would essentially stock a shop with a random assortment of gear with a value appropriate for a party of 20th level characters, as generated by my magic shop app.)

Pacifist Apocalypse

The end of days is happening, and the gates of the afterlife have closed. Any souled creature that dies soon rises again as an undead of potency based on its power in life, and attempting to preemptively dismember or restrain the corpse tends to just have it come back as an incorporeal spirit.

Unfortunately, most of the rest of the world doesn’t seem to have figured this out quite as readily as you have. Can you work your way through the usual high fantasy tropes to try to save the world while trying really, really hard not to kill any of your living opposition? Every slaughtered goblin is just a zombie you’ll have to deal with in a moment, so it’s worthwhile to see if you can just talk out your problems before the walking dead truly outnumber the living.

Former Unwitting Hosts of Heroes

None of you started as anything special; you were just peasants scattered throughout the domain with no hopes of bettering your place in the world. The only thing interesting about you was that you were about to die at the right moment. Some epic heroes from another world needed to get something done on this one, and the ritual they used to travel actually had them possess the bodies of those fated to die at about the moment of travel. One moment, you were about to die badly, surrounded by brigands or facing down a monster or other impossible hazard. The next, you were someone else, suddenly merely a passenger in your own body.

The heroes had a plan. Easily escaping the hazard that would have proved fatal to you, they began to travel. Their wizard teleported to their rendezvous point and began creating some rudimentary magic items that they’d need in their quest (for their raiment had not traveled with them). As the others traveled over land, they did odd jobs throughout the realm for coin and miscellaneous useful magical trinkets. Reconvened, they did what epic heroes do: they marshaled armies, knocked over villains with resources they needed, and then, ultimately, saved their world and yours. The quest accomplished, their spirits returned to their home dimension.

And the group of you were suddenly standing around with a completely undeserved reputation, a decent but not exceptional brace of gear useful to skilled heroes, a strange smattering of adventuring experiences from your dreamlike time as the host of a hero, and… perhaps most importantly… a whole legion of enemies that the heroes made in their haste to accomplish their quest in an expedient faction. There are going to be a ton of people that expect you to solve the next set of major problems they face… and a ton of really pissed off bad guys that would just love it if you split up and tried to go back to your pedestrian lives. Good luck.

(Play a short series of sessions with the PCs as 20th level badasses, using in medias res a lot to heighten the sense that the eventual PCs don’t really know the full scope of the intentions or capabilities of the heroes they’re hosting. Give them lots of no-good-answer choices to make enemies and upset the politics of the campaign setting. Then leave them drastically (but not completely; they did learn a little from watching after all) de-leveled in whatever state they were at the completion of the adventure.)

The Inevitable Sessility of High Level

This is more of a rules hack that implies a setting concept, but it’s been bouncing around my brain for a few days, so I’m including it.

Any XP awards gained from completing encounters are divided by your level. You can reduce this penalty (to a minimum of 1) by undergoing downtime equal to one day per Tier level per point of penalty. For example, an 11th level, Tier 3 character needs to spend 30 days of downtime to be back to no XP penalty (3 days per divisor point from 11 down to 1). After 15 days, the same character would be at a divisor of 6. (It’s left up to the math skills of the GM to rework the XP system so this is phrased as a rested bonus rather than an unrested penalty, because that’s often more palatable to players.)

At the GM’s option, having small one-off encounters does not reset this penalty, and a serious one-off encounter should bump it back up by a point. Normally, the penalty stays the same for the duration of an entire adventure (as long as there are not significant downtime breaks; travel to and from adventure sites doesn’t count). Basically, you spend some downtime, you go on an adventure, and then you’re ready for another vacation.

What qualifies as an “adventure” doesn’t necessarily change just because it’s trivial for you. If a high level party spends an afternoon clearing kobolds out of a mine, even though they’re in no real danger, it’s still an adventure. It resets their penalty.

The intention of this system on the setting is to create a natural explanation for why high-level characters spend so much time lurking in taverns trying to recruit newbs to do things (it’s a total waste of their time if they’ve been building up downtime for something worth their while). It should also encourage higher level characters to spend more time on domain play (spending a lot of time building strongholds, recruiting followers, and researching magic). Finally, it should introduce a system to slow down leveling to something that’s “reasonable:” one of my annoyances with D&D adventure paths is the tendency for PCs to rocket up to high level within a few months, which it’s heavily implied that most characters in the setting took years and years to become high level.

Ultimately, the setting that ought to emerge from this rule is one where up-and-coming adventurers are constantly on the road, building up their treasure base and taking the odd couple of days of downtime between adventures, receiving quests from semi-retired adventurers. Once they start hitting the mid-levels, they begin to need longer downtime, so start thinking about investing their earnings into residences that cut down on their costs (staying in inns every night is expensive) and sources of renewable income (like a tax or tithe base). At the higher levels, “adventures” mean dealing with threats to your domain (or your liege lord’s greater domain) no more than once a month that can’t be pawned off onto lower level adventurers, when what you really want to do is spend time getting that new tower built just right or that new spell researched.

Hacking Initiative, Part 3

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This final installment is an inventory of some of the commonly used initiative systems, at least in games I’ve played, and what I find to be their strengths and weaknesses.

The Modern D&D Standard

Since 3e, D&D has been using pretty similar variations on Declare and Act in Order-style: each character gets a unique imitative score once per combat that’s the sum of a d20 roll and modifiers (usually Dex modifier plus miscellaneous bonuses from feats). The GM then counts down from the highest to the lowest each round, with some ability to ready and/or hold to reset initiative. Your order seldom changes within a given battle.

Strengths: The main advantage of this style is that it allows you to use “until the [start/end] of your next turn” as a counter that means “this will give everyone else in the fight the chance to go before it ends. If it’s something defensive, it lasts through a full set of enemy actions. If it’s a group buff or debuff, it affects everyone else once. If it’s something that can be interrupted, all the enemies get a chance to interrupt it. There’s also low overhead after the first round: once you get everyone’s order worked out, you can just cycle through it until the fight ends without further delay from recalculation/reordering.

Weaknesses: This initiative system is so powerfully boring that the current lead designer is publicly trying to replace it. After the first round, you just get locked into the same cycle over and over again, and having a really good initiative bonus really only gets you one round of benefit due to the continuous cycle (e.g., if you go first and can’t get to an enemy, it’s almost like you’re going last). While subsequent rounds are easy enough to keep track of, the first round actually takes a non-trivial amount of work to figure out, as you have to write everyone’s name down with their initiative result and make sure you leave enough space to fit in the players that tell you a result that’s between two existing results. If you have enough actors, you can inculcate further delay as players forget when they’re going to go, get distracted, and don’t start planning their actions until called upon by the GM.

Beyond the Wall

The system used in Beyond the Wall is very similar to D&D, with a crucial difference: initiative score is fixed rather than rolled. All PCs have an initiative score equal to level + Dex mod + class bonus. Most NPCs just use level unmodified (so will often go last unless they outclass the PCs, and won’t go first unless they significantly outclass the PCs, due to PC rogues often getting a +4 or better to their level for this score).

Strengths: In addition to most of the strengths of the standard D&D mechanic, the crucial benefit is that you don’t have the first round calculation drain. It’s even recommended that you have the players sit around the table in the order of their PCs’ initiative scores, so you can just whip around the table, pausing for wherever the monsters are inserted.

Weaknesses: This has most of the same weaknesses as standard D&D, with the addition of losing any kind of variation at all. In practice, however, this isn’t much of a drawback. I don’t really feel like the variations due to rolling mean that much in the long run when you’re only randomizing once per combat (and characters with good bonuses are going to go first more often than not anyway), and the speed in this method is a big help. Additionally, by placing the players in order around the table, it’s much more obvious when your turn is about to happen, so it’s not a surprise when you get called on (and, thus, you’ve often started planning your action, further speeding things up).

Group Initiative

As mentioned previously, when running D&D/Pathfinder I actually tend to use group initiative for the reasons outlined by Ben Robbins. In my particular variation, I average out the NPCs’ initiative bonus, have everyone roll, and the players with a higher score than the enemies get a free turn, the enemies go, then all the PCs go, and so on, alternating between NPCs and PCs. Players are free to strategize and trade their order within the PC turn.

Strengths: This preserves most of the advantages of the standard D&D initiative, while encouraging much more tactical play as players coordinate. Particularly in 3.x/Pathfinder, when you could freely delay your action and lower your initiative score, players could choose to coordinate in this way if they wanted to anyway. Players tend to consider their overall strategy and cooperate much better, in my experience. It’s also a little faster than the standard, because the GM doesn’t have to write anything down, just figure out who gets a free turn before the NPCs.

Weaknesses: There could be some disruption in the timing of effects (players can decide to go before or after their allies, depending on whether stretching or shrinking the duration of an effect is helpful). If a lot is going on, you may need some kind of marker to remember to get to everyone (“Wait… did I go this round already? It’s been so long since I’ve gone…”). Pushier players can dominate play, always going first and/or puppeting the choices of less opinionated players (though, as discussed in the previous posts, this might not always be the worst thing).

Balsera/Popcorn

Used first in Marvel Heroic and later in various other projects including Atomic Robo, this system includes a few varying mechanics to decide who goes first and sometimes to break the order, but otherwise simply has the last player to act declare the next character to act (from a pool of characters that haven’t acted yet this round).

Strengths: This is extremely fast to set up, and has even stronger tactical play than group initiative: there’s a lot of strategy in picking an order that provides synergy to your team and disadvantages the choices of the enemies. It generally results in a natural shakeup of the action order each turn, without any randomization required.

Weaknesses: It’s very hard to do much with bonuses in this system (unless they’re constructed to allow you to seize the initiative somehow). You cannot reliably use “until your next turn” mechanics with it, as the length in between turns can be extremely variable.

Shadowrun

Superficially a Declare and Act in Order system similar to D&D, Shadowrun’s system features multiple turns within a single round as a core feature. Essentially, while basic characters will usually have an initiative result under 10, enhanced characters can easily exceed this limit (possibly getting initiatives in the 20s or even 30s). Once a full pass through in decreasing order of initiative has happened, everyone deducts 10 from their score, and those that still have a positive result get another pass for additional turns (e.g., if one character has a 22 initiative, and the rest have under 10, the 22 initiative character will go first, everyone else will go, and then the 22 initiative character will get to go twice again before the end of the round). Initiative is rerolled every round, and there are other actions that can cost initiative (making it less likely to get an additional turn).

Strengths: Shadowrun is the pinnacle of focus on how character speed grants a huge advantage due to the imitative system: it’s a really good system to advantage playing fast characters. Since each round can include multiple passes, effects that use your action but last for the remainder of the round can actually be hugely helpful if you’re going to get to go again while the effect is still active. Due to rolling each round, and the breakpoints in results that means a great initiative roll can get you an extra action beyond just a good roll, the order remains meaningful and interesting.

Weaknesses: The system is hugely time consuming and fiddly. It has all the time delay drawbacks of D&D’s initiative, and beyond. There’s a tremendous amount of bookkeeping for the GM. Effects that last for the rest of the round can matter hugely, or not at all, depending on how many actions are left.

Classic Storyteller

The Storyteller initiative mechanic, which solidified in the Revised editions and seems to be more or less intact in the 20th anniversary editions, is a Declare First, Act in Order system with reverse declaration of actions and a general intention of rerolling each round. The roll is unusual for the system: in an attempt to speed up the slowness of it all, you roll a single d10 and add your relevant traits instead of rolling a dice pool. Multiple actions (very common in most of the games) work a lot like Shadowrun, in that everyone with additional actions takes them after the first normal pass through the initiative.

Strengths: Honestly, there aren’t really a lot of pluses to this system, unless you really, really like reverse action declaration and re-randomzing each round.

Weaknesses: It’s slow and cumbersome. It is key to the system’s defensive death spiral (in that you have to sacrifice your upcoming action to try to dodge or parry an attack, which still might do a little damage, and now you don’t have an action to fight back so you really just hope you go first next round to put the enemy on the defensive). It really only works at all because combat tends to be very rare in the World of Darkness compared to D&D. And, honestly, I don’t think anyone I’ve every played with remembered that you’re supposed to reverse declare, implicitly turning it into a Declare and Act in Order system.

Fading Suns

The initiative system in Fading Suns is clearly derived from the same 90s sensibilities as Storyteller’s, but takes it in a different direction (possibly because combat was supposed to happen a lot more in the setting). Initiative is a pure comparison of whatever primary skill you’re using for the round (e.g., if you’re shooting someone, your initiative is equal to your Shoot skill), with ties broken by speed-related traits. It’s technically then a Declare and Act in Order system, except that you’ve implicitly at least made something of a declaration by choosing which skill you’re using.

Strengths: It’s almost as fast as Beyond the Wall’s system, and easy to understand, with some interesting room for variation.

Weaknesses: Practically, it’s just Beyond the Wall’s fixed initiative system: you’re almost always just going to use your best combat skill in a fight, so your initiative is going to vary extremely rarely.

The One Ring

The latest Middle Earth-themed RPG has a very straightforward and interesting initiative system: your initiative order is purely based on what “stance” you take each round (which is basically your position + intention; in order to make a ranged attack, for example, you have to take a particular stance and have party members that are taking melee stances to screen you from the enemy). Each stance has its own mechanics, so you’re picking it for tactical reasons and your initiative order just falls out of those decisions.

Strengths: Unlike most other initiative systems, there’s an extremely strong tactical component: your turn order is intimately linked to your action choice, but in a way that’s faster than typical declarations or weapon speed rules.

Weaknesses: Practically, there’s a very limited range of initiative results, so there could be some annoyance breaking ties in big fights. I don’t have enough playtest experience with this to fully understand further limitations.

One Roll Engine

An interesting variation on a Declare First system, the One Roll Engine games (e.g., Wild Talents, Better Angels, etc.) get everyone to decide what they’re trying to do, everyone rolls their actions, and then the order is determined by the results of the roll (the system generates success results with both a “width” and a “height,” so one can be used for effect and one can be used for speed). Your intended action can be invalidated by your opponent getting a faster result (taking damage tends to also damage your success total if you  haven’t acted yet).

Strengths: As far as actually simulating the chaos of a “realistic” combat, ORE’s mechanic is probably a much better model than any other system where everyone takes discrete turns. It collides intention and execution in a way that nothing else does.

Weaknesses: ORE is confusing as hell. As discussed previously, we wound up converting my Better Angels game to Savage Worlds because everyone was so baffled by the system. I suspect that it all becomes very cool if you have a group dedicated to really learning the dice paradigm and using it effectively, but that was not my group. I may try it again at some point and hope for a better result.

Savage Worlds

Speaking of Savage Worlds, its initiative system is the one that’s pretty much completely divorced from in-game traits or decisions: you draw cards from a deck each round and Declare and Act in Order from the best card to the worst (with a Joker giving you a bonus and the ability to act at any point in the round).

Strengths: Since it’s so divorced from the rest of the system, it’s probably the fastest way to re-randomize each round if that’s your bliss. It’s extremely easy to mod further to your tastes, because it’s so detached from the rest of the mechanics.

Weaknesses: It’s very detached from the rest of the mechanics. You’re not really modeling anything more than, “It’s exciting when we go in a different order every round!” It’s ultimately the epitome of randomization equaling fairness: sometimes you go first, sometimes you go last, and you’ll probably get to do both within a fairly short collection of combats.

The Rest

Most of the other games I’ve played with any regularity are very similar to one of the ones above, or are games with such little relative space devoted to combat rules that the initiative system is basically “go in the order that makes sense; if you have a disagreement, break ties this way…” Clearly this isn’t an exhaustive list, and I’m interested in hearing from commenters about other games with interesting initiative mechanics.

Hacking Initiative, Part 2

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Last time, I laid out the components of common initiative systems. This time, I’m going to look deeper into the potential ramifications of hacking the initiative system in your own game.

Integrated Systems

The first step to take before tinkering with initiative in an existing game is to consider what other elements of the game system are integrated into initiative: if you make major changes, what other rules are you going to have to alter as well?

Since D&D is the inspiring example, the following are the major follow-on effects of changing initiative:

  • A number of effects in the game have their durations set to the activating player’s next turn. The intent with these is often that every other character in the combat will get to take a turn before the effect completes. How does changing the fixed initiative order affect these durations?
  • All characters normally get to add Dexterity and potentially other bonuses to initiative. Will you be changing the perceived value of Dexterity if you change how initiative works? Will you have to adjust feats or class abilities that previously gave a bonus to initiative to keep them worthwhile?
  • Some mechanics trigger based on permutations of the initiative round. For example, Assassin Rogues get a bonus to attack anyone that hasn’t acted yet; does this class feature become less valuable with a different initiative system?

You can also have these problems in reverse. For example, in Savage Worlds, by default initiative isn’t tied to any stats or other major mechanics (in core, a couple of powers make changes to the system). If you changed it to a more traditional initiative system, you’d be giving a new bonus effect to whatever traits enhanced your initiative result.

Especially if you’re tinkering with a game where your players have already made build choices, it’s important to get buy-in for any changes: your players might have made different purchases if your house rule had been in place from the start.

Speed and Coordination

The more often you make decisions and randomizations in your initiative system, the more time it’s going to eat up at the table. This can be entirely related to time to employ the system (e.g., rolling and adding each round is obviously more time than just doing it once at the start of combat). It can also have to do with the coordination overhead involved (if you’re using a system that allows players some discretion in who goes next, there’s much more impetus for table chatter to work out the optimal order).

Even beyond the speed involved, degree of player coordination is a major component of different initiative systems. In team initiative and Balsera/popcorn-style, almost the entire point is to get the players to figure out what order makes the most tactical sense. Conversely, in declare and act in order and tick-based styles, there’s not often a lot of control other players’ needs can have on when you get to go. In the middle, declare first systems can have some level of up-front coordination (e.g., “I’m almost certainly going to go first and kill that guy this round, so don’t declare your attack on him.”), but less than when the players have precise control over who goes before someone else.

Due to the level of coordination allowed, your group makeup can have a huge impact on what makes sense for your initiative house rule. If you have players that aren’t comfortable thinking tactically within the system, choosing a style with more coordination can help get players to work better as a team. Conversely, if you have players that are too comfortable thinking tactically, you might want to limit coordination out of worry that they’ll boss the other players around. Meanwhile, you should also consider how long your turns wind up taking. If your players are generally very fast to choose and resolve actions, you have space to change initiative to something that takes a little more time. But if your rounds already drag under a faster initiative system, it can create further slog in your combats to change to initiative that requires more time.

The Simulation Trap

Ultimately, a lot of initiative tinkering seems to me like it happens out of a desire to fix combat on a simulation level. Initiative, as mentioned in the last article, is a huge abstraction with results that are highly counterintuitive if you’re looking for something that simulates reality (or at least would make sense in a movie). In real fights (and even the “real” fights of popular entertainment), everyone acts at the same time, and the more people that are involved the more chaotic everything becomes. It can be very tempting to try to fix the obvious fakeness of RPG fights by coming up with an initiative system that’s a better simulation of reality.

However, the closer you get to something that feels genuine, the more complex your initiative system will become. It’s probably a Zeno’s paradox of systems design: something that gets halfway closer to perfection takes twice as much time and effort at the table. If you could create a system that perfectly matched your expectation of what can happen in a “real” fight, it would likely require minutes for every in-game second for each person in the fight. Given that so much of combat is a huge abstraction in the first place, when attempting to hack initiative, make sure you’re not turning your fights into a boring slog in pursuit of a level of simulation your players won’t really care about anyway. The end result of lovingly creating a voluminous rules engine that captures an element of the world in a thorough way is almost always to have your players avoid it as much as possible because it’s way too confusing and time consuming (see, also, D&D 3e‘s grappling rules).

Next time, I’ll do a lightweight review of initiative systems in various games I’ve played, and why I like or dislike them.

Hacking Initiative, Part 1

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I’ve been thinking about initiative systems lately, after an excellent article by Brandes and a video by Matt Colville (responding to Mike Mearls’ short initiative house rule). In this first post, I lay out the various components and styles of initiative I’m aware of, for hacking your own initiative system.

Initiative’s Goals

Why even have an initiative system in the first place?

The first (and probably most important) reason is simply to mechanically simplify the chaos of decisions in an action scene. In many video games, action happens in real-time, so there’s no need for an initiative system: the computer is fast enough to run all the math for making decisions without a discernible delay. But, obviously, tabletop games lag real time resolution by various factors such as the number of acting players, the complexity of the rules set, the assumed duration of the action round, and the math talent and rules memorization of the group. Initiative systems, at root, strive to ensure that everyone in the action scene gets to act at a cadence that makes sense. Without one, there’s much more pressure on the GM and players to use their best judgements to “play fair” with only taking actions that make simulation or narrative sense within a given time frame.

A secondary goal is to simulate quicker characters within the scene. Any system that attempts to prioritize characters based on Dexterity or other speed- and wits-related stats follows this goal, while several systems forego it almost entirely to simplify resolution. This goal becomes important if you subscribe to the idea that certain individuals (either depending on their innate capabilities or the choices they’re making) will tend to have an advantage in simulated action. Most games with initiative systems tend to resolve actions completely for one character before moving on to the next one, instead of having action resolution for each round be “simultaneous.” In the latter kinds of system, simulating speed is less important, because weakening, incapacitating, or otherwise hindering a character on an earlier initiative step doesn’t actually affect them for that round. But it’s far easier to fully resolve each action before moving on to the next, and in those cases going before your opponent is a big advantage that it’s common to award due to character traits or other important system elements.

Finally, an often overlooked goal is to firewall individual player decisions. When an initiative system presents a player with a straightforward question of “it’s your turn, what do you do?” it’s much easier to be certain that player has full agency over the outcome. Fuzzier systems that allow for more player-to-player collaboration can inadvertently create a hero-and-henchmen scenario where more invested players wind up overtly stage-managing other PCs as part of a group declaration of actions. When each player has a designated turn for his or her PC, it becomes much easier for the GM to prevent that player from losing agency, because the structure makes it more obvious whether the player is doing what he or she actually wants, or just what the group’s loudest member suggested. This may be more or less of a problem for different groups, and GMs should be on guard against someone having less fun because of lost action scene agency regardless of initiative mechanism. Some players with lower investment and/or rules knowledge may actually prefer being given orders by other players.

Initiative Styles

There are so many RPGs in existence at this point that the actual range of initiative styles is probably far beyond the capacity of a single article to enumerate. So I’m going to try to list the most popular styles of which I’m aware. If you think there’s a really cool style that I left out, feel free to note it in the comments.

  • Declare and Act in Order: Likely the most common style these days, in this style each character in the action scene gets a turn that is fully established and resolved when the initiative order reaches the character. The character’s action decisions must incorporate everything that was resolved on previous turns and all successive turns will include the resolution of this turn’s actions.
  • Declare First, Act in Order: Another fairly common method, in this style all players declare their general or specific intentions for the acting characters at the start of the round (possibly with faster characters getting to declare actions later after hearing what slower characters intend to do). Characters then take their turns in initiative order, but must attempt what they’d originally declared even if the results of earlier turns change the tactical value of the action (the system may involve some ability to change actions with a penalty when the situation changes).
  • Team-Based: In some ways a subset of the first option, in this style there is only one “turn” per side within the scene (typically PCs vs. NPCs). Each team can vary the individual order of each character’s actions within the turn to create the best synergy and coordination. The turn ends when everyone on that team has taken the granted number of actions.
  • Tick-Based: In this style there are no formal rounds once an action scene has begun. Instead, each possible action has a cost in units of time (often referred to as “ticks”); when the character acts, that character can then act again at a time equal to the starting value plus the action cost. Characters taking faster actions may wind up acting many times more than characters taking slower actions, and may even get to act multiple times between turns for the slower character. There is typically some kind of system for breaking ties at the start of a round or when characters land on the same tick.
  • Balsera/Popcorn: This style works similarly to the first style, in that actions are declared and resolved fully in a character’s turn. However, rather than having an overall order, after resolving a turn, the player of the character that just acted chooses another character that hasn’t yet acted this turn to act next. When there are no more characters that haven’t acted, the round resets and the person that ended the last round gets to decide who starts the next.

Initiative Permutations

The overall styles also have specific permutations that change their exact implementations:

  • Fixed vs. Random: Any of the styles that sort characters into an initial order can do this via a fixed or random mechanism. In a fixed permutation, given the same choices, characters will always go in the same order (this might be truly fixed by a stat that changes infrequently, or based on some kind of decision like active skill/weapon or action type/stance). In a random one, players must use dice or other randomizer (likely plus a trait) to determine order each time initiative is determined.
  • Frequency of Ordering: It has become increasingly common to decide an initiative order only once, at the beginning of combat (with each subsequent round of combat featuring a repeating order unless there are actions or events that can change the order). However, many games expect initiative to be re-determined anew each round, changing the order of actions within each round of the fight.
  • Multiple Segments: There are certain systems (like Shadowrun and Feng Shui for all characters, and Storyteller for characters with bonus actions from speed powers) that allow characters the possibility of getting multiple turns in a single round. This can work similarly to the tick-based style, with an action’s time cost deducted from total initiative (so characters with high initiative and fast actions can go multiple times before slower characters), or resolve everyone’s first turns once in order before then resolving second turns in order (and so on until no one else has a bonus turn).
  • Source of Advantage: The choice of what traits add to initiative make a big difference in how players prioritize choices within the system. Many games simply give a fixed advantage based on some combination of quickness-related attributes and modifiers from bonus traits and gear/magic. Others make the decision based on action/skill type, action/weapon speed, stance, or other element that is a much more tactical choice (and is, thus, frequently combined with reordering each round).
  • Ally-Swappable Slots: Common to Fantasy Flight Games RPGs, in this permutation a turn may be traded to any ally that hasn’t acted yet that round. Fast characters may choose to go later in the round if slower allies can make better advantage of an earlier turn.
  • Delaying, Holding, and Reacting/Defaulting: Most initiative systems have some concept of ways to break the turn order. Commonly in Declare and Act in Order, faster characters can choose to skip some or all of their turns to interrupt an enemy’s action once declared (or just to better coordinate with a slower ally). There is often also some concept of reactive action choices, either as essentially an extra action when needed or as a way for slower characters to give up an active turn to defend against a faster attacker.
  • Resolve at End: Very uncommon these days, virtually any initiative style can choose to have any changes in status not take effect until the end of the round (as if everything happened simultaneously even though the system handled it in a fixed order). This method reduces the advantage of going faster and in-round coordination: trait changes (including being incapacitated/killed) won’t actually affect the current action, but will only take effect starting the next round.

Next time, I’ll look more at the potential effects of altering styles or permutations of existing games.

Alternate Changeling: Lucidity

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Independent of the setting changes I’d made for my update, the major rules change was the introduction of Lucidity. I’ve always thought Banality is a very strange decision for the Changeling system: AFAIK, it’s the only character sheet trait in the WoD that you don’t want to go up. So my goal was to revise and replace the systems related to Banality to introduce a mechanic that could be much more analogous to Glamour and Willpower.

This has follow-on effects on several other systems.

Lucidity and Glamour

Changelings are two-fold entities, belonging to both the lands of dreams and of waking. As such, their abilities are determined by two contradictory traits. Glamour measures the power of their dreams: the amount of Dreaming energy that can be brought to bear to fuel the magic of the fae. Lucidity measures the strength of their waking minds: the amount of focus that can be brought to mortal pursuits. Without Glamour, a changeling would lose her fae self and become fully awake and mortal. Without Lucidity, a changeling would lose her mortal side, and her fae soul would spiral off into the Dreaming with no anchor on the mortal world. Yet changelings bring synergy to their two halves, the whole becoming greater than its parts.

By being partially wakeful, changelings possess a focus that cannot be achieved by creatures purely of the Dreaming. They can give the necessary attention to learning things, they can resist faerie magicks at need, and, perhaps most importantly, they can use mortal logic to transcend fae stereotypes and the force of narrative. True fae and chimera tend to act according to a theme and a script that drives their actions. A changeling is lucid enough to recognize this trend and to make plans to work around its limits.

By being partially asleep, changelings can reach a creativity that is not often seen among mortals. Overflowing with imagination, they can create beyond points where normal mortals would be burned out. This imagination gives them a spark of greatness that many mortals don’t understand, and which some fear, but which allows them to surpass mortals of great ability. A changeling is a composite being, half awake and half asleep, and made stronger for this fact.

Lucidity

Lucidity can be spent for the following tasks:

  • Fighting off Bedlam: One or more points of temporary Lucidity can be spent to restore sanity being chipped away by the Dreaming.
  • Resisting Fae Magic: A character can spend a point of Lucidity to subtract a success from an attacker’s arts roll, or to add a success to her resistance roll. Doing this too often might gain the character Banality.
  • Attention to Detail: A character can spend Lucidity like Willpower for a bonus success on any Perception-based roll because the waking mind is adept at noticing details that a dreamer might miss.

Lucidity can be recovered in the following ways

  • Natural Renewal: The character regains a point of Lucidity for every night of sleep in the waking world. This renewal does not happen in freeholds or the Dreaming.
  • Sobering Company: A character in the company of mundane but insightful individuals recovers one or more points of Lucidity per hour spent in conversation.
  • Force of Logic: A character at 0 temporary Lucidity can be talked back to reality by friends. Effectively, they must roll their Lucidity against her permanent Glamour, success restoring a point of Lucidity. Most mortals are assumed to have five Lucidity.

A character cannot use any abilities higher than her permanent Lucidity. Abilities can be bought as high as the character’s Lucidity rating (optionally, for more powerful changelings, characters with more than 5 Lucidity can transcend mortal limits to their abilities as another benefit of the hybrid souls).

A character that runs out of temporary Lucidity must roll permanent Lucidity against permanent Glamour (+1 to +4 difficulty in the Dreaming, depending on the depth). Failure on the roll indicates that the character has fallen fully asleep. She loses all access to abilities, forgets mortal commitments, and tends to act out stereotypical behavior for her kith as well as losing many inhibitions about proper behavior. She may slip into the Dreaming the first time the Mists become very low, and is in a lot of trouble should she already be in the Dreaming. This condition persists until at least one point of Lucidity is regained, possibly requiring the intervention of friends, at which point she returns to being half-awake. When in a lost one’s hold or when dealing with individuals already in Bedlam, the difficulty of the roll to resist this state may be increased.

Most mortals can be assumed to have Lucidity 5.

Other Uses for Glamour

Glamour can be spent to Inspire Creativity: The character may spend a point of Glamour to get an idea for an artistic creation (essentially +1 success to artistic rolls for each Glamour spent) or to get an idea/clue based on her current information as to where the plot of the story is headed, due to treating reality like a narrative.

A character cannot buy any fae Arts, Realms, or Redes to a level higher than her Glamour, though they are still normally capped at five.

Banality

Banality is the antithesis of dreams, representing the complete absence of creativity, hope, imagination, and fear. While it is not unusual for many mortals to build up a small amount of Banality when burned out, it is incredibly rare for anyone to have high levels of Banality for long periods.

Banality replaces temporary Lucidity, filling the Lucidity track from the bottom up. Points of Lucidity turned into Banality cannot be spent until the Banality fades. A changeling whose Banality exceeds Lucidity immediately loses all temporary Glamour, waking fully, and cannot recover Glamour until all Banality fades. Typically, one level of Banality is lost for every week in which the character got plenty of dream-filled sleep. Fae gain Banality by denial of dreams, permanently killing fae, dealings with very Banal individuals, and other methods (as per Changeling 20th).

All fae magicks have the target’s Banality in successes subtracted from their effect or are added as automatic successes to the target’s resistance roll (if applicable). They are automatic successes for the Mists to wipe the mortal’s mind.

(Any game systems that currently reference Banality can either use the revised Banality total, which will usually be lower, or some other dice pool as the storyteller thinks is appropriate.)

Bedlam

A less dangerous, but more prevalent, counterpart to Banality, Bedlam represents a changeling’s tendency to slide towards madness when not spending enough time in the real world.

Bedlam fills the Glamour track exactly as Banality fills the Lucidity track, and also makes these points unusable. Bedlam is a penalty for all of a changeling’s social and mental dice pools when dealing with mundane situations. It is acquired when a character spends extensive amounts of time in a freehold or the Dreaming without dealing with anything in the mundane world, usually at one level per week. In the Deep Dreaming or a lost one’s freehold, this increases to one point per day. Characters that have sworn the Oath of the Long Road typically do not gain Bedlam if they spend their time in pursuit of that quest.

One point of Lucidity turns a point of Bedlam back into a point of Glamour. A character whose Bedlam exceeds her permanent Glamour must spend any remaining Lucidity to buy it back down to her Glamour or less. If the character has more Bedlam than permanent Glamour and no temporary Lucidity, the character goes completely insane, driven by her court and kith, and is controlled by the storyteller until other characters can rescue her and return her to the Waking world.

Alternate Changeling: The Fae Experience

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(See the previous two posts for background on this series.) This section is a little more rulesy, and describes the experience and perks of being a changeling.

Chimera

The entirety of the Dreaming is composed of chimera, though most is inanimate. Rocks, trees, metals, water, and more all seem entirely real when in the Dreaming but are simply figments of the imagination to the waking world. Animate chimera represent dreams of living things, and may resemble animals, people, or mythic creatures of all kinds. These animate chimera typically come into being for a brief period of time and disappear after the dreamers that created them move on to other dreams.

Some learn to manipulate their dreamers for continued existence while others learn, eventually, to tap the essence of the Dreaming itself. They can exist until slain by some other chimera or fae. Chimera typically form in the Waking world, soon fade into the Near Dreaming, and eventually migrate deeper into the Dreaming, finding areas and realms that best suit their temperaments.

Chimera are deeply based in the dream that created them. Even the sentient ones have a kind of tunnel vision. While they can think, discuss, and plan within the scope of their personal theme, they are easily outwitted and confused by taking actions that are not part of their existence. Spider chimera are baffled by prey that watches carefully to avoid their webs, hunting chimera will never think to burn a settlement’s crops, and so on.

Chimerical creatures also tend towards chaos, even when they are dreams of order, and lack the ability to devote genuine focus to things not “programmed into” their natures. As such, they are unable to learn abilities. Many learn the Dreamer’s Skill rede to compensate for this weakness, while others build their attributes to mythic levels.

Most chimera that are slain die just as a mundane creature would die, and leave behind a corpse that can be used as materials or which rots into the Dreaming. Sentient chimera, when slain, can expend a permanent Willpower to reform elsewhere in the Dreaming, which may or may not leave behind some of their corpse (depending on the chimera in question). Potent fae rituals can sometimes trap these chimera before they reform.

Chimera cannot buy Arts and Realms, but many old chimera, especially dragons, tend to develop unique redes that can simulate the magicks of the fae.

True Fae

The difference between true fae and sentient chimera is a hard one to judge. All true fae are at least partially humanoid in appearance, and all seem to have a somewhat broader focus than most chimera. Many point out the difference as one of creation, claiming that the Tuathans and Fomorians gave the first of the true fae some crucial spark of divinity that has been passed through their lines since the War of Trees.

Technically, the real difference is that true fae have two distinct advantages. The first is that they can develop Arts and Realms to enact magicks that chimera cannot perform without very unique Redes. The other is that they are intimately tied to humans. True fae worshiped by humans can regain Glamour, and they may become changelings to protect themselves from the detrimental effects of the Waking world. Some specialized Arts exist to possess a mortal without becoming a changeling, but these are very rare and little used.

True fae, like chimera, cannot buy Abilities and rarely have a Banality score, but can buy redes. If a true fae possesses and adult mortal, subsuming her identity, re-spend points spent on redes to buy abilities (likely ones known by the original mortal) and add a starting Banality score appropriate to seeming.

Possessing an unwilling or unaware mortal to become a changeling requires an extended, contested roll of the fae’s Glamour against a difficulty of the target’s Willpower. Each roll is a day of game time, requires the expenditure of a point of Glamour, and the fae needs one to ten successes (depending on how compatible the mortal’s personality is with her own) plus additional successes equal to the target’s Banality. The fae cannot recover Glamour or leave the presence of the mortal while this process is ongoing, and will fade back into the dreaming upon running out of Glamour. A fae trying to possess a differently temperamented, strong willed, and Banal mortal might wind up discorporating before achieving enough successes, and the process might be detected by clued-in individuals who might try to exorcise the fae.

Changelings

Changelings are true fae incarnated in mortal bodies, gaining strength and weakness from both. Changelings, protected by their mortal forms, are ideally suited to living in the Waking world, resisting many of the detrimental effects thereof.

Changelings that have not undergone the Changeling Way ritual eject their body’s soul on incarnation, possibly sending it deep into the Dreaming or onto reincarnation, keeping only mind and body. On death, their souls are lost into the Dreaming. Those that have undergone the Way bond to mortal souls and reincarnate on their body’s death. They do not roll to possess a body, but must bond with a soul that is either an infant or already similar in temperament. Typically, their soul remains dormant for a period, until their fae nature reasserts itself in the Chrysalis.

The Chrysalis

After incarnating in a new mortal, a changeling soul under the Way typically enters a period of dormancy similar to that experienced due to waking up due to chimerical death. This period can last many years as the fae and mortal souls integrate more fully with one another. Much of the fae’s old knowledge from previous lives is transferred in some intuitive way, which tends make children with fae souls extremely precocious. The mortal will typically understand that something is strange about her from the bonding onward, but will not usually realize exactly what it is.

Eventually, the character will experience some kind of traumatic circumstance that starts the Chrysalis. Possible events are: seeing another fae Wyrded, being Enchanted, puberty, the death of a family member, losing one’s virginity, or any other emotionally charged experience. Over the next few days or weeks, the fae soul will begin to assert itself and gather Glamour. Every night, the mortal will have very strange dreams. The character will typically accrue Glamour at the rate of one every number of days equal to the area’s average Banality (e.g., if local Banality is 7, the character gains one Glamour per week), but may absorb Glamour from other areas if it makes sense.

When the fae soul manages to gather enough Glamour to equal the mortal’s Banality, the sleeping mortal is surrounded by a corona of chimerical special effects, her fae mien develops, and her unconscious mind quickly replays all the former lives of her fae self (only some of which she will consciously remember). On waking, the character will now be a full changeling, and her personality and identity will be a composite of the two souls. If she had her dormant soul since birth the change will usually be incredibly minimal, while characters who acquired their soul more recently may be greatly changed. She is now in possession of all the traits bought by the fae soul on incarnation, and can begin to learn more.

The Chrysalis can be sensed by other fae creatures with a Perception + Kenning roll, at the difficulty of the local average Banality, up to [new changeling’s Glamour dots] miles away. This usually means that the new changeling will be surrounded by local curious chimera and possibly other changelings as well. Many changelings consider it their duty to track down and protect new changelings in dangerous areas and to bring them up to speed on any aspects of fae society they may have forgotten. Potent Soothsayers can often track down pre-Chrysalis mortals, and may take it upon themselves to accelerate their Chrysalis while they are in a safe location.

The amount of information the new changeling actually remembers about fae society depends on the Remembrance background. Most newly Chrysalised changelings will at least need some kind of basic refresher course from another changeling on various aspects of changeling existence, but will typically know intuitively when the tutor is being misleading about these facts.

Being a Changeling

The experience of being a changeling is very much like having just awakened from a dream. Changelings are fully in possession of rational mental faculties, but are also credulous and accepting of things learned and seen. Changelings are prone to following good ideas, no matter how nonsensical, and have a muted edge on their inhibitions. Many have dreamed of something that seemed like an excellent idea on first waking only to have its interest fade through the day. Many have dreamed interactions with friends and family that made them especially mean or friendly after waking. This is how a changeling exists all the time. The world at once makes perfect sense and is completely confusing. Ideas that are irrational are nevertheless the best course. Actions that would never be taken by a fully conscious and sane human are one step removed and thus can be pursued from a safe vantage point.

To outsiders, a changeling seems at once both insane and yet strangely in touch with the world. The following are other important factors of being a changeling and living in fae society:

Sense of Time

Each changeling is at least a little bit unstuck from the typical progression of time, the nobles even more so. While events occurring in the current time are easily followed, looking back on the past is confusing. Events precede causes, and linear narratives reshuffle themselves in the memory. It is hard to remember if the dream you dreamed last night was a continuation of another dream, or if the entire dream saga happened in one period of sleep. This is how fae feel about nearly everything in the past, having to really focus on the order of events. Characters with Glamour higher than Banality + Willpower are impossible to trust on the exactitudes of time, while those with higher Banality or Willpower are more able to put cause before effect.

However, since they are constantly confused about the progression of time anyway, fae are very hard to manipulate with temporal magicks. Altering a changeling’s sense of time requires extra successes equal to her Glamour, and a character can spend a point of temporary Glamour to ignore time acceleration or deceleration.

Aging’s Grip

Changelings age at the normal rate for mortals, but typically seem far more youthful than they actually are. Time spent in a freehold or in the Dreaming does not count for changelings or for mortals, and thus changelings active in the fae courts or in Dreaming quests may live far longer than they normally should.

Supernatural effects to divine the age of a changeling automatically fail. A careful changeling can live to be as physically old as any mortal, but many reincarnate before that time due to death on adventures or in order to avoid waking fully for extended periods.

Death’s Embrace

In general, full changelings do not really fear death. From the point of view of the dream, it is only partially real. From the logical point of view, it is only temporarily inconveniencing. Changelings may fear the abandonment of friends, family, and goals but they have no reason to fear the loss of their own life to anything but iron, for they will simply reincarnate. Those that have not undergone the Changeling Way are typically much more protective of their existence, but still often forget their mortality after centuries of living and due to the oddities of dreaming.

A changeling that is killed chimerically in the Waking world, a freehold, or the Near Dreaming loses all temporary Glamour, falls into a deep sleep, and fades into the Waking world if not there already. The sleeper cannot be awakened for at least a number of hours equal to her permanent Glamour, and will sleep a number of days equal to Glamour if not wakened by outside events. The fae soul becomes dormant, and she will not remember her fae nature until temporary Glamour is once more at full. The stronger the fae side, the worse a chimerical death. After this period, no further penalties apply.

The Bane of Iron

Many fae seem to think that Cold Iron is their bane because it represents the onslaught of Banality. This is only partly the truth. In most cases, iron harms changelings because mortals believe iron harms changelings. In all the tales of the fae for hundreds of years, iron has been their undoing, and so it is. This refers to any iron forged in the old way, cold or not, and excludes any alloys, such as steel. There are very rare creations of so-called “Cold Iron,” implements made by those without any creativity or joy in the craft whatsoever. These must be forged by a mortal with high Banality, and are especially harmful to the fae. Iron, cold or not, has several effects on changelings and other fae creatures.

Attempting to enter a location warded with iron, be it a wrought-iron fence or a horseshoe over the door, requires the expenditure of a point of Willpower (to force through) or taking on a point of Banality (to realize that there is no barrier). Cold Iron wards require two points spent or taken. This expenditure must be paid no matter how the character enters (even magically or by being thrown over the barrier) unless there are other unwarded entrances.  For example, a house with a horseshoe over the door could be entered by another door or by hacking through the wall, but a property surrounded by an iron fence would require the expenditure no matter how a fae creature tried to enter. A character that refuses to make the expenditure bounces off the entryway as if off of an invisible wall.

Touching an item of iron causes intense pain to fae creatures, imposing a -1 to a -5 penalty to all rolls (depending on how much of the character’s skin is touching the iron). Additionally, a character touching Cold Iron loses a point of temporary Glamour every turn of contact.

Being damaged by iron is terrible for the fae. All wounds dealt with iron weapons do an equal amount of chimerical aggravated damage. If the wielder of the iron weapon is attacking a chimera or true fae with no physical presence in the Waking world, the successes on the attack is the amount of damage dealt. A character hit with Cold Iron also loses a point of temporary Glamour. Any changeling, true fae, or chimera that dies chimerically from Cold Iron damage has her soul destroyed utterly. This effect does not occur from normal iron. Chimerical iron is incredibly rare, but has the same effects as normal iron except for the fact that it only does non-chimerical damage when Wyrded and is never Cold. Some believe that the rarity of Dreaming iron is because agents of the Fomorians have long been gathering and hoarding it.

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