Straight-Up Premise Theft: The Almighty Johnsons

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So you know how video game designers who blog tend to have blogs that go dark suddenly and for extensive periods when their game is about to come out? Yeah, sorry about that. It’s been a pretty attention-distracting year. But I come out of it with a bunch of new games played and media consumed that should hopefully serve as posting fodder for a while. And if you don’t notice the year tick up mysteriously on the side, going back through the archives it might only look like I missed two weeks! I’ll try to keep posting weekly, but until I get a big buffer built up I’ll play it by ear, such that missing a week won’t necessarily be a precursor to another long hiatus.

This week starts a companion series to Serial Numbers Filed Off. Instead of coming up with a setting/genre shift but keeping the plot structure intact (as with SNFO), these will be more about highlighting media that you might not have seen that I think contains a  premise that is readily translated to a campaign of your own, whether or not you keep any of the plot structure. Each of these may contain mild spoilers for the media property in question, but I’ll try to keep it to only what you learn in the first episode and/or from the promotional material unless there’s something really key to making the premise into a game that isn’t obvious until later.

The Elevator Pitch

Axl Johnson is just your average Kiwi college kid about to turn 21, the youngest of four brothers. After an ominous series of events strike Auckland on the evening before his birthday, his brothers take him out to the woods to clue him in to the family secret: the Norse gods traveled to New Zealand centuries ago as their powers started to wane and Scandinavia was no longer safe for them, they died but their mantle passed on to individuals within the family tree, and when one of those individuals turns 21, he or she comes into a godly identity and (much diminished) powers. His brothers are actually Ullr, god of games (with the ability to win any game of chance every time, and to track unerringly), Bragi, god of poetry (who can convince any mortal of pretty much anything, if given enough time to speak), and Hodr, god of the dark and cold (who hates his power to manifest and resist cold, because of the crimp it puts in his love life). His “Cousin” is actually the brothers’ grandfather, whose powers as Baldr mean he doesn’t age. And who is Axl? He is Odin, and his reappearance means the beginning of a quest to find the new incarnation of Frigg. If Odin and Frigg are reunited, the much-weakened powers of the gods will be restored, but if he dies before completing the quest, a calamity will befall New Zealand, likely killing all the currently incarnated gods.

And there’s a secretive cabal doing everything they can to prevent this from coming to pass and the gods’ powers from being restored. No pressure.

(The show is currently available for streaming on Netflix.)

The Premise

The specifics of the pantheon in question, the location, the nature of the quest and antagonists, and how things got to how they are now are fully up to the group’s own interests. But the operative premise is simple: you are thrust into being a modern incarnation of a god with a small suite of abilities based on your former portfolio. They’re enough to give you a sizable advantage over mortals, but not enough to really be what most would consider “godlike.” So you’re still going to have to work at achieving your objectives. And these diminished powers come with a whole list of godly responsibilities and enemies that are very likely to fall upon you at the worst possible moments.

This is probably best handled with a game engine where PCs are expected to be threatened by the mundane (i.e., something not level based or too high-action pulpy). The Storyteller system, Unknown Armies, Unisystem, BRP, or Savage Worlds are probably good choices for modern games, and A Song of Ice and Fire, Pendragon, The One Ring, or even Ars Magica might be good choices if you want to go fantasy. The godly powers work less like superpowers than like a mechanic where you automatically succeed at certain things if uncontested, and gain a substantial (but not insurmountable) bonus in a contest. The trick during gameplay is to figure out how to move seemingly insurmountable problems into a realm where your portfolio lets you win: when all you have is a hammer…

The Rationale

There are a number of games that have tackled the idea of modern gods, either specifically like Nobilis or Scion or indirectly like Aberrant, Godlike, and really any supers system. But those generally focus on giving you a whole raft of powers that quickly boost you above mundane problems. The Almighty Johnsons suggests a potentially new avenue where getting to that level of power is actually the central goal of the game: most of the gameplay focuses on using the remnants of your godly heritage to try to bring about a transcendence into greater power.

As a mythology wonk, it also provides a fun ability to recontextualize the pantheistic religion of your choice into a new setting, translating the characters and drama of myths and epics into a game where characters relate as individuals but also as gods. American Gods is also a good inspiration for this kind of thing.

Borrowing from Video Games: State of Decay’s Scheduling of Disaster

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The new DLC for State of DecayLifeline—adds a feature I haven’t seen often in video games, though it’s more common in sandbox games: regularly set time pressure to return to base. In this case, it’s a timer that grows until you have to defend against a massive zombie attack against the base. The time it takes is somewhat unpredictable, you can set up strategies that make it count down more slowly, and some missions pause it until complete, but eventually you have to drop what you’re doing and rush back home.

This is pretty profound difference from the core game, where the only times the base is attacked is when hordes of zombies happen upon in (and you can usually take steps to destroy them before that happens). In the DLC, the player controls a group of soldiers running search and rescue operations, rather than a collection of survivors. The tradeoff of having military weapons and of all unplayed characters being in fighting shape is that all that gunfire and helicopter-based resupply tends to draw in the zombies.

At its core, the mechanic seems like an ideal solution for games struggling under a lack of over-arching time pressure, particularly games of D&D that suffer from the fifteen-minute adventuring day.

The mechanic doesn’t have to be a horde of enemies, all it really takes is:

  • The PCs have a base that is important to them (even if only because that’s where they keep their stuff).
  • Something threatens that base on a regular and relatively predictable basis.
  • Without the PC’s presence during one of these problems, the base may be seriously damaged if not outright destroyed.

This problem can be as exciting as attack by a zombie horde (or other horde-based antagonist) or as dull as a gradual buildup of some kind of dangerous energy that for some reason only the PCs (or the items they collect on adventures) can bleed off. It could even just be that the rent is due, and adventuring is how they pay the bills. All that’s required is that it makes the players consider the tradeoff of taking adventures boringly slowly: if they take their time and proceed in complete safely, they’ll potentially have to leave halfway through to see to the problem at home and may not have collected enough resources to deal with the problem correctly.

A couple of unique challenges to using this idea crop up in a tabletop game as opposed to a video game:

  • The problem needs to be carefully engineered to prevent the PCs from trying to stop it permanently as their first and only goal, or from just moving their base, because tabletop allows them the creativity of trying those options. Even if the game is light on story, it essentially has to be built in as the core conceit that drives the play space of the game.
  • The problem needs to be something within the GM’s ability to manage at the table. You probably don’t want to run a hundred attackers against the PCs plus a base full of NPC helpers in tabletop without systems in place to manage a lot of it quickly and with a minimum of rolling.

But with those problems solved, you wind up with a pretty nice pacing device to keep your game moving even if it’s otherwise light on world events and story.

Hit Point Morale

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I don’t know if this has become standard in other modules, but a lot of the unique enemies in Pathfinder adventure paths include a tactics section that indicates at what HP threshold they’ll try to flee (e.g., “at 10 HP or less, he tries to escape”). I figure this could be generalized into a standard morale system as follows.

For each encounter, the enemy NPCs have a Morale rating (or, more accurately, a Morale Break Threshold) that usually starts at 0. It’s tracked for the whole encounter, not per individual combatant. Any enemy whose HP drop to or below this rating (including if it equals or exceeds that NPC’s maximum HP) attempts to flee (and counts as Demoralized if prevented from fleeing and forced to fight).

This rating increases in the following ways:

  • +1/HD of allies downed in the fight (e.g., an 8 HD enemy is dropped and the Morale rating goes up +8)
  • +1/2 HD of allies that successfully flee (after they, themselves, became demoralized)
  • Intimidate Check: PC makes an Intimidate check as a standard action, DC 10 + Current Morale, +1/2 Intimidating PC’s HD
  • Ad Hoc for other demoralizing events

This rating reduces in the following ways:

  • -2/HD of PCs and PC allies downed in the fight
  • Rally Check: NPC leader makes Leadership check (HD + Cha mod + misc mods) as a standard action, DC 10 + Current Morale, -1/2 rallying NPC’s HD
  • Ad Hoc for other morale-boosting events

Particularly brave or cowardly NPCs may treat the current rating as half or double (or more fine-grained distinctions if you’re willing to do more math).

The upshot of this system is that it allows the GM to throw in more mooks without overwhelming the PCs, as technically harder encounters of multiple NPCs will actually end earlier as the PCs manage to eliminate some foes.

Two Fisted Fate

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Today’s idea is a quick, somewhat silly one that I had when traveling without my 4dF and thinking about running a game. Fate is rules- and trait-light enough that it would be a good game to run places where dice and even character sheets are hard to manage: camping, road trip, etc. With a background in LARPing, my group’s natural fallback for resolution in a diceless situation is Paper-Rock-Scissors. I realized that if you’re playing it fairly randomly, it actually generates three results, just like dF. The problem is that you’d have to iterate it four times to generate 4dF. If you do, the distribution of results should be pretty identical to 4dF (barring unrandom choices of signs), but that might bog the game down more than getting all the results at once.

Thus, use two fists at once (do not do this if you are the driver in the road trip!). Compare each hand independently to each of your opponent’s hands, and add up to the total results like so:

PP PR PS RP RR RS SP SR SS
PP 0 2 -2 2 4 0 -2 0 -4
PR -2 0 -1 0 2 1 -1 1 0
PS 2 1 0 1 0 -1 0 -1 -2
RP -2 0 -1 0 2 1 -1 1 0
RR -4 -2 0 -2 0 2 0 2 4
RS 0 -1 1 -1 -2 0 1 0 2
SP 2 1 0 1 0 -1 0 -1 -2
SR 0 -1 1 -1 -2 0 1 0 2
SS 4 0 2 0 -4 -2 2 -2 0

So, for example, if I throw Rock and Paper, and the opponent throws Rock and Scissors, my Rock ties his and beats his Scissors, for a net +1, and my Paper beats his Rock but loses to his Scissors for a net 0, for a total +1 result.

The numbers are much more contingent than normal dice rolls, so the probabilities are a little skewed and notably lack +3/-3 results:

Result Standard RPS
-4 1.2% 3.7%
-3 4.9% 0.0%
-2 12.3% 14.8%
-1 19.8% 14.8%
0 23.5% 33.3%
1 19.8% 14.8%
2 12.3% 14.8%
3 4.9% 0.0%
4 1.2% 3.7%

But they’re close enough, I think, for the situations where you’re likely to use it. Also, the ranges of -4 to -2, -1 to 1, and 2-4 all add up to the same totals (so you’ll get a result of -1, 0, or 1 just as often, it will just be distributed differently).

Shadowrobo, Part 3

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Let’s Do Some Crime

I don’t like building facilities in Shadowrun. It’s a lot of work to map them out, there aren’t any good guidelines in the core book for what’s a reasonable level of expense and challenge, and my group tends to figure out how to skip to the end. Good on them (I encourage it), but it winds up meaning I do a lot of mapping and security layout work that never gets used. Atomic Robo‘s science systems suggest a way to lessen that work considerably.

Brainstorms

Use the brainstorm rules when you want to offload a lot of the security design to the players. This works pretty identically to the standard rules, except the players use any skills they can justify rather than Sciences, representing various steps of research and investigation into the situation they’re trying to overcome. Just like the standard rules, you run three cycles of the players competing to get to be the one that states a fact (and the GM naming one if all the players fail), with a final phase to decide on the hypothesis aspect. The facts and hypothesis become what’s true about the situation, giving the GM a lot of guidance for laying out the run (and some facility aspects).

Invention

Conversely, the invention system works well for when you’ve laid out a scenario and want to establish that there’s a profound blocker before it’s safe to proceed. That is, there’s a special layer of technological or magical security that is over and above what the team usually has to deal with. An invention, therefore, becomes just however the crew is going to bypass this unusual difficulty: a rare widget, secret codes, suborning someone with access, etc. With some catches involved, you can run a large part of the session around putting together materials for the run; once they have them, the run itself may be rather easy, with the drama being about creating the invention.

Resources and Organizations

The Tesladyne Industries organization rules in chapter 12 work very well for setting up corps and the PCs’ own resources. Rather than one overarching player-controlled org, under this system:

  • Whenever the PCs are hired by a corp or other large group, that entity has its own Resources mode. Antagonistic corps may also have a Resources mode (used as a gauge for what they can bring to bear and what their intel can determine about PC activities). For corps, AAA corps have a Great Resources, AA corps have Good, and A have Fair. They should usually have one focus and one specialty skill (often Armory or R&D for the major corps and Intel or Transport for the police agencies).
  • The PCs have their own organization that represents a much more loose collection of the crew’s pooled reputation, wealth, connections, etc. It should be named after whatever their team name is.

All organizations get a Mission Statement aspect, and that’s immediately known to the PCs (and they should come up with their own for their team org). All plot-important orgs also get Pressure aspects, but the players likely only know their own team’s pressures to start. The pressures on other orgs go a lot way to explaining their agendas and why they keep hiring runners or having runners sent against them, and figuring them out will go a lot way to moving the PCs from reactive to proactive. Only the player’s org accumulates Title aspects, but does not have an innately refilling Supply (see below).

When the PCs are on a mission for a corp, they can often use its Resources rather than their own as “expenses” for the run. This may only be available if they know who they’re working for so they know what kind of stuff to ask the Johnson for (even if it’s in a plausibly deniable way). For every point using these items increases the GM’s fate point reserve, also make a note that they have a point of debt that they have to pay off if they don’t return the items at the end of the run. (The reason to keep the items is that they may be better than what the PCs can get through their team org.)

The PCs’ team org starts at Fair Resources with no focused or specialized skills. The players can advance individual skills per the normal rules (paying their own character points to increase them). To upgrade the whole Resources level, the players need to accumulate rewards.

At the end of a run, come up with a rough reward level:

  • 1-3 points for the wealth of the employer (3 is for a AAA corp)
  • 1-5 points for the overall danger of the run
  • 0-3 points for mission success and secrecy (3 is for ghosting the run with all objectives completed)
  • Subtract up to five points for failing to meet secondary objectives, collateral damage, and generally making a mess
  • Subtract the debt rating for any items the PCs requisitioned from their employer and lost or kept

Whatever’s left is the payment for the run. Add this to the fate point Supply on the team org’s sheet. This is the only way to add Supply (the org doesn’t refill it naturally based on total aspects like in the rules). Like normal Supply, these points can be spent as fate points for anything that can be justified as spending money or using team resources. Once they’re spent, they’re gone until new rewards are earned.

At 10 points in Supply, the team’s Resources becomes Good. At 30 points, it becomes Great. Spending Supply below these thresholds drops the team’s Resources back down to the appropriate level.

Shadowrobo, Part 2

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Weird Modes

Within the frame of Shadowrun, these modes aren’t really that weird. Most PCs will have at least one of them, with some oddball Concepts allowing you to take more than one.

Adept

An adept, or physical adept, has innate magical control over her body, allowing a wide range of seemingly impossible stunts. Some such individuals are “mystic adepts” and can also take the Mage mode with this one.

Associated Skills: Athletics, Combat, Notice, Physique, Stealth, Will (this is essentially the Martial Artist mode from AR and represents a standard adept; for adepts with social powers, feel free to pick different skills)

Improvements: None

Sample Stunts: The Martial Artist mode’s stunts work great as examples.

Decker

A decker is the most elite of the hackers, totally at home in virtual reality. He uses an incredibly powerful and incredibly illegal computer “deck” to accomplish his hacks, and has built in cybernetics to seamlessly connect to the Matrix.

Associated Skills: Burglary, Contacts, Deceive, Notice, Provoke, Stealth, Will

Improvements: None

Sample Stunts: Most stunts for a decker will be gear stunts, representing the deck itself and specialized programs running on it.

Rigger

Riggers are to vehicles and drones what deckers are to the Matrix: a combination of mental cyberware and advanced computer “rig” designed to help control vehicles like extensions of their own bodies.

Associated Skills: Burglary, Combat, Notice, Stealth, Vehicles, Will

Improvements: None

Sample Stunts: Most stunts for a rigger will be gear stunts, representing various vehicles and drones.

Cyborg

There are a wide variety of ways to install tech into and improve your body in the Sixth World. While just about anyone might have a few pieces installed, a full-on cyborg has given up a substantial part of her essence to become more than human.

In addition to compels to the Concept aspect about this loss of essence, a character with this mode cannot take the Adept or Mage modes.

Associated Skills (Street Samurai): Athletics, Combat, Contacts, Notice, Physique, Vehicles

Associated Skills (Bioware-Augmented Face): Athletics, Deceive, Empathy, Physique, Rapport

Improvements: None

Sample Stunts: A wide variety of stunts can be justified with various pieces of cyberware and bioware; look at the Robot and Mutant modes for ideas. For more fiddly cyberware, you can bolt on the Cyberware rules from the Fate System Toolkit.

Mage

A mage is an individual born with the ability to channel mana and affect the spirit world. This is accomplished by spiritual awareness and the use of spells and rituals.

Associated Skills: Conjuring, Notice, Will, Every spell as its own skill (i.e., spells work like Science skills for the Science! mode, see below)

Weird Skill: Conjuring

Overcome: Use as a Lore skill for spirits
Create an Advantage: Summoning a spirit is a specific kind of advantage creation
Attack: Banish summoned spirits
Defend: Defend against summoned spirits

Essentially, use the conjuring rules for Storm Summoners in the Fate System Toolkit, with Shadowrun flavor.

Weird Skills: Spells

Each spell has up to two applications around its theme. You technically have access to all spells at your mode rating, but you should probably work with your GM to come up with a few of them that you’ve pre-agreed upon. Remember that, like Science, you have to individually focus and specialize each spell if you want it to have a higher rating than the mode.

For using these skills, use the Channeling rules from the Fate System Toolkit, with the individual spells replacing the “Channeling” skill.

Improvements: Specialize one trained skill, Focus one trained skill

Sample Stunts:

  • Astral Perception: Use Notice to perceive on the Astral Plane.
  • Astral Projection: (Requires Astral Perception) Enter a trance to generate an astral body that can move extremely quickly and interact with things on the astral plane (using your normal skills). Spend a Fate point to use magic on the physical world when projected.
  • Signature Spell: Add a weapon or armor rating to one of your spells, or make it one that you can “fast-cast” without having to tag an aspect or take damage.

Shadowrobo, Part 1

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Do you have the Fate-powered Atomic Robo RPG yet? This will make much more sense if you do. If you preorder, you get the PDF right away.

I’m probably running Shadowrun wrong. I get the vibe that the normal way to run it is a gritty, simulation-heavy crime drama where you can’t buy much for a nuyen but lives are cheap. I tend to run it much more like Leverage: as a pulpy tale of quirky master criminals that are rare enough in their awesomeness that the system they’re robbing has a hard time adapting to the threat they present. So keep that in mind.

With that style of running, the Atomic Robo rules immediately jumped out at me on reading as highly in-tune with my style of GMing Shadowrun. So we’ll see if there’s anyone else in the intersection of “Runs Shadowrun,” “Has Atomic Robo,” and “Loves Leverage.” In general, I’m erring on the side of trying to keep the rules drift from AR minimal, so there’s a good bit of “give the rules descriptions a Shadowrun flavor” rather than thorough hacks to make the game more like the normal SR rules. If you have Fate but not Atomic Robo, some of this will make a little bit of sense, but I recommend going ahead and getting AR. It’s good.

This will be a multi-part series.

Picking Aspects

Shadowrobo inherits AR’s lack of a Resources skill. Unlike AR, the assumption is that you’ll be doing runs to make money, rather than having a permanent job with relatively easy gear requisitions, and I’ll hopefully get to some systems about that later. But it does mean that your wealth is not specifically expressed as a skill, and the various members of the team are more or less in the same boat (of needing to do runs to make money). If you want a character who’s better at managing money or has a trust fund and just does runs for the fun of it, by all means represent what would be a Lifestyle in SR with your Omega Aspect or tailored stunts. And if you live on the streets and fritter away every nuyen you earn, that’s an excellent use for a compel-happy Omega Aspect as well.

Similarly, so much of the effects of race in SR can be modeled by just using it to justify particular skill choices, so there’s no specific rules for that. You should probably include it in your Concept Aspect, as that will let you make a custom weird mode if you want it to be really important, or just use invokes and take compels when it’s relevant to the story. But if you want to play, say, a troll whose massive physical stature doesn’t mean much except when fate points are in play (e.g., you didn’t buy much Physique), that’s perfectly fine and right in keeping with how the Fate system works in general.

Remember that the Sixth World has a lot more “weird” modes that are actually pretty common, unlike the standard assumption for AR, so if you want access to ‘ware- or magic-based modes, don’t forget to mention it in your Concept aspect. This is particularly important because that allows the GM to model things like essence loss and drain (which don’t have very deep systems in this conversion) with compels if it makes a better story.

Adapting the Standard Skills

Shadowrobo uses the same standard skill list from AR.

Some of the weird modes will get weird skills to fully flesh out what you can do in Shadowrun, but, in particular, hacking falls mostly under the purview of standard skills. That is, you use Burglary to break through data security, Contacts to track down information online, Deceive to trick a system, and Stealth to get through it unnoticed.

The idea behind this is twofold. On the one hand, there’s very little security that isn’t electronic and networked, and even human observers have all kinds of electronic aids, so there are limited options for a burglary- or stealth-expert that can only get past purely physical security. On the other, there have been several generations growing up in the information age at this point in the setting, so it doesn’t really even make sense to think of “computers” as a separate discipline that some people are completely ignorant of. That is, your decker is probably well trained (as represented with focuses, specialties, aspects, and stunts) to be the best at solving computer problems, but any runner can do some basic computing in a pinch. If you want to make an old-school thief who’s hopeless at computers or a hacker that’s unprepared for a physical lock, represent that with an aspect and prepare to soak up the compels.

Other than computer-related skills, a lot of the skills are also used without much modification to represent magic and ‘ware. Since Fate is a results-based system, if you really want to differentiate the troll with a natural Physique, the adept with mystically augmented strength, and the samurai with built-in servos, do it with Stunts and Mega-Stunts.

Standard Modes

The standard modes in Shadowrobo are Soldier, Face, Thief, and Operator.

Soldier

Maybe you were actually part of the military before retiring to the shadows. Maybe you were a “soldier” in a gang, learning your trade on the streets. Maybe you moved to a martial-arts monastery and studied real hard for ten years or your family was wiped out by drug dealers and you swore yourself to revenge. Whatever the case, you have a strong baseline of physical and combat skills.

This has the same skills as AR’s Action mode (Athletics, Combat, Notice, Physique, Provoke, and Vehicles), and similar stunts are probably appropriate. It’s a good mode for anyone to grab some facility in combat, and often serves as an additional mode for samurais and adepts that want to be real badasses.

Face

There comes a time in the formation of every group of runners where they realize they’re going to have to find some burned corporate marketer or salesman or hit up their fixers for contact info for a quality grifter, because none of them can con their way out of a paper bag or talk a Johnson into paying a living wage. You’re the one they make talk to people.

This has the same skills as AR’s Banter mode (Contacts, Deceive, Empathy, Provoke, Rapport, and Will), and supports similar stunts. It’s the kind of mode where, if you have it, you’re probably going to put it pretty high, hoping that some of the other party members will at least have it as their Average mode. But they all left it off the sheet entirely because now they have you to do all the talking… so they can get better at shooting people.

Thief

Most crews pay lip service to getting in and out without it requiring a storm of bullets, a suitcase of explosives, and a busy day for the local coroner. In order to actually achieve those lofty goals, it helps to have members trained in the arts of thievery. Your skills are partly physical training, partly computer hacking, and all about getting paid without requiring a body count.

This has the same skills as AR’s Intrigue mode (Athletics, Burglary, Contacts, Deceive, Notice, and Stealth), and supports similar stunts. It’s the chassis on which to build a decker that actually goes into the building and most other flavors of ninja.

Operator

The more organized crews often realize that it’s worthwhile to have a member that stays in the van, providing surveillance and support from a more objective perspective (i.e., not getting shot at while making decisions). This individual often also fulfills the role of getaway driver, even without a control rig. Since the other members of the team tend to expect some kind of above-and-beyond for the greater safety, the operator also tends to be the one to do a lot of the initial footwork and setup for a job.

This mode is not reflected in AR, and has skills that cover a range of support options (Burglary, Contacts, Notice, Provoke, Rapport, Stealth, and Vehicles). Invent stunts in that vein. It’s often paired with Decker for a hacker that doesn’t come inside, with Rigger for obvious reasons, and for anyone else that wants to round out their support skills.

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