Dresdenville Example, Graveyard Shift

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Since I’ve still got a few days on my Gliffy trial, here’s a time-lapse series of flowcharts showing how Dresdenville might work. I used the PCs made for my previous Dresden Files demo as examples, but we didn’t actually use this system back when we played (i.e., all examples were generated as a proof of concept… if we’d done this for real, the flowchart might have been much less orderly and needed a way bigger piece of paper).

The game concept was an Atlanta where the events of Sherman’s march in the Civil War were at least partly designed to unseat the existing supernatural powers. Ever since, they had created an office of troubleshooters from various supernatural factions to basically maintain the masquerade and keep the city from ever again suffering such thorough mortal attention. Over the last century, however, it lost much of its initial prestige and became a dumping-ground for screwups with no real political power. It’s basically a ragtag bunch of troublemakers on their last chance charged with finding supernatural crimes that nobody wants to cop to, figuring out whose fault they are, and dealing with it if another authority doesn’t want to take responsibility for the cleanup. They’re the Graveyard Shift.

We set chargen around 2000, so the vampire-wizard war hadn’t started yet. The PCs are:

  • Samuel Bailey: A White Council research wizard suffering from being apprenticed to a politically toxic master who can’t keep his opinions to himself
  • Gertrudis Bautista-Powell: A mortal girl channeling her psychotic urges toward killing monsters (put on the team as a probation by said monsters because she’s good at killing ones they don’t approve of)
  • William North: A poor rural everyman whose Lycanthropy-donated impulse control problems are compounded by a vicious run of bad luck
  • Kevin Hamilton: A Malvora (fear-eating) White Court vampire who has displeased his family by having the gall to become a famous mystery novelist with minimal interest in the family business

Their Pathways are:

  1. High Concept
  2. Trouble
  3. Background
  4. Rising Conflict
  5. The Story
  6. Guest Starring
  7. Feet in the Water

The Themes and Threats are:

  • Theme: Poor Impulse Control (Donal Malvora)
  • Theme: Murders Most Strange (Marquesa Malena)
  • Threat: Sherman’s Curse (Halloween Jack)

The Faces and Locations are:

  • Marquesa Malena
    • High Concept: Red Court Influence Broker
    • Motivation Aspect: “Killing is so… Gauche”
    • Other Aspects: N/A
    • Relationships: Interested in suborning Samuel (and Gertie is trying to stop her), Frenemies with Veronica, gets blood from Emory
    • Face of: Five Points
      • Malena works out of it and controls a lot of its traffic
      • Aspect: The Five Points Curse
  • Donal Malvora
    • High Concept: Power-Hungry Malvora
    • Motivation Aspect: “Raithe will become my servants”
    • Other Aspects: “It will work itself out…”
    • Relationships: Father of Kevin, Visits Buckhead’s clubs, Secretly owns the New Faith megachurch
    • Face of: Landmark Center
      • Has his law offices there
      • Aspect: Even a berserk killer can find representation here
  • Halloween Jack
    • High Concept: Cursed Loup Garou
    • Motivation Aspect: The nightmare that haunts East Point
    • Other Aspects: It has one speed: Kill
    • Relationships: Kevin based his first novel on it (and inspired Gertie to try to kill it), Dominic met it and survived, for some reason it cannot enter Little Five Points
    • Face of: Roseland Cemetary
      • Its urban legend centers here
      • Aspect: Nexus of Urban Activity
  • Prester Sinclair
    • High Concept: White Council Political Outcast
    • Motivation Aspect: Sometimes We Sacrifice for Knowledge
    • Other Aspects: Once seduced by a Raithe
    • Relationships: Master of Samuel, research funded by Veronica
    • Face of: Emory University
      • Prester’s research offices are here
      • Aspect: “That’s a question of bioethics…”
  • Kelly Pierce
    • High Concept: Alpha Female Lycanthrope
    • Motivation Aspect: “If you can’t get respect, make sure you get fear”
    • Other Aspects: N/A
    • Relationships: Unsure whether to take William as a mate or an underling (and frequently gets into fights with Gertie about this behavior), Former lover of Pastor Macnamara, deals drugs at Roseland Cemetary
    • Face of: Buckhead
      • Kelly owns a club there
      • Aspect: Rowdy drunks
  • Veronica Cox
    • High Concept: Pyromantic Businesswoman
    • Motivation Aspect: “Want to owe me a favor?”
    • Other Aspects: Highly Ambitious
    • Relationships: Frenemies with Malena, FUnds Sinclair’s research, Trustee of Emory University
    • Face of: Cox Communications Complex
      • Has offices at
  • Dominic
    • High Concept: Mortal Occult Aficionado
    • Motivation Aspect: “I may have heard something about that…”
    • Other Aspects:N/A
    • Relationships: Met Halloween Jack and survived
    • Face of: Little Five Points
      • Usually found there
  • Pastor Macnamara
    • High Concept: Truth-Seeking Reverand
    • Motivation Aspect: Conviction vs. Realism
    • Other Aspects: “Isn’t this a little dangerous for a priest?”
    • Relationships: Former lover of Kelly
    • Face of: New Faith Megachurch
      • Pastor there
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System Review: Don’t Rest Your Head, Part 3

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Mechanics

As discussed in part one, the game mechanics are pretty simple: highest number of successes wins the conflict, but the dominating die type has special effects.

The engine is pretty narrative. The GM has rough guidelines for how many Pain dice to roll for certain creature types, but the number of dice used is pretty arbitrary. The GM just determines where the PC’s opposition is on a scale between minor inconvenience and boss monster (i.e., 1 to 12 or so) and rolls accordingly. The GM also has lots of space to determine whether winning a challenge means total victory, a temporary reprieve, or just whittling away at the opponent’s resources prior to another roll. Similarly, failure might mean something terrible happening to the PC, but could just as easily mean that what the PC was trying to do is impossible without changing tactics but without further harm. In a lot of ways it relies on GM and PC either explicitly or implicitly agreeing on stakes before making a roll.

What’s interesting, however, is that any time it comes to a roll it’s generally not in the players’ best interests. Even if you’re rolling against 1 die of Pain, you could still see any dice you’re rolling dominate. Remember, only Discipline dominating is actually good, and that becomes increasingly less likely as the game goes on: even if you don’t personally have so many Exhaustion or Madness dice that they have an overwhelming chance to dominate over your 3 Discipline dice, the GM will be frequently rolling a similar number of Pain dice to your three colors. So if you’re rolling 3 Discipline, 2 Exhaustion, 2 Madness, the GM is likely to roll around 7 Pain dice for an actual challenge.

And that’s the behavior I saw in play. Once the players started to accumulate Exhaustion dice, they tended to be like a cancer, slowly growing against minimal difficulty rolls because the player has to roll them. Madness dominating didn’t happen very often at all: the player only has to roll it when using his or her Madness talent or when fighting a very powerful challenge (where Pain is more likely to dominate). This basically led to the cadence of the game being a slow build to increased Exhaustion, where at some point the players realize they’re close to crashing and begin throwing their now giant dice pools against the bigger problems facing them. At that point, they probably attract the biggest problems sufficient to require them to risk Madness dice (either because they need the bonus or because they need the superpower). This increases the probability that they’ll get led around by their fight or flight responses.

However, the biggest dice behavior I saw was Pain dominating. As soon as you’re up against difficulty 4 challenges, Pain dice will always outnumber any single color of player dice (except when you’re throwing in an overkill of Madness or it’s a lowball roll once Exhaustion has gotten really high). And this gets more and more pronounced the bigger the threats get: a maxed out character vs. a comparable challenge is 3 Discipline, 6 Exhaustion, and 6 Madness vs. 15 Pain… Pain is going to dominate in the vast majority of those rolls.

The special effect of Pain dominating, other than getting to describe even a success as a painful victory, is that the GM gets a Despair coin. Despair coins are spent to add more 6s (or remove them) from any pool on the table. Effectively, you get to pick which pool dominates (with only a coin or two spent, unless there are a lot of 6s showing). You can’t get another Despair coin if you spend in this way to ensure Pain dominates. So it’s often a means to ensure that Exhaustion or Madness dominates. And, by the time you’re racking up Despair coins, that tends to seem pretty arbitrary and mean spirited, because the players are getting close to crashing or snapping.

Ultimately, though, it’s zero-sum or worse: every time the GM spends a coin of Despair, the players get to keep it as a coin of Hope… which can be spent to reduce Exhausion dice or Madness checks. About all you can really do with a coin of Despair is force the players into a Madness response in the short term or maybe force one to crash if they’re rolling the full 6 Exhaustion (and that didn’t already dominate). And toward the end of the game, you’ll often have to spend multiple coins to ensure Exhaustion or Madness dominates (since you’re statistically likely to need to cancel out several 6s on your pile of Pain dice), so every time you exercise Despair you’re actually giving the players a bonus of several points of reduction. At the end of the session I ran, all spending Despair had done was allow players to help out one another by evening out the scores (e.g., a low-Exhaustion player gains a die and a high-Exhaustion one can buy down).

If I run the game again, I may experiment with adding different flavors of GM dice with their own effects that can be used to keep Pain from becoming so overwhelmingly likely to dominate toward the end of a session.

One last thing to mention about the game mechanics is that there is an advancement system in the form of Scars, which are similar to Lines of Experience from MURPG. Once per session, you can add a situation from that session as a personal memory (e.g., “Totally beat up a Horror in his place of power.”). In future sessions, once per session, if that memory is justifiably applicable to a roll, you can check it off for a reroll. You can also spend it permanently to change your talents or gain 5 Hope coins (to basically instantly buy off Madness or Exhaustion when you’re about to crash or snap). So while character power is really self-contained within the growth of Exhaustion in a single session, long-term play should result in PCs becoming subtly better if they stick to subjects relevant to their Scars.

Conclusion

Dresdenville

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I finally got to run Smallville, and during the course of character creation I couldn’t help but notice the ease with which it could be used to combine Dresden Files city and character creation.

This system is based on the Pathways character creation in Smallville, but is designed to output standard Dresden Files characters and cities similar to those created in Dresden Files. To that end, several liberties are taken with the Pathways method to fit DF. Significant differences include:

  • Only a single line is drawn between map elements (rather than the possibility of a uni-directional relationship). This is primarily because half of the elements (locations and aspects) don’t particularly benefit from a one or two way dichotomy. This also means that the relationship between a Face and a PC is typically how the NPC feels, rather than indicating what the PC thinks (and the PC may not even be aware of the Face; it’s up to the player).
  • PCs may not have a relationship to every other PC; at the start of play some PCs might only know other PCs through shared connections. They are still indicated by squares on the map.
  • Extras and Features are replaced with Faces: NPCs that are significant to the city either because they have actual power or because they represent some important location or concept. They are still indicated with a circle on the map.
  • Locations are not necessarily places where a PC has power (though he or she might), but are simply the most significant areas in the town. They are still indicated with diamonds on the map.
  • Aspects are a new map element. Unlike the normal advice for Aspects, on the map an Aspect should be fairly generic (“tepid”). When it connects to other map elements, the connection is given an upgraded Aspect (“fuego!”). For example, a map Aspect might be “Strong,” leading to a PC connected to it getting “Regularly Wrestles Trolls,” a Face getting “Nothing is Stronger than Faith,” and a Location getting “Impenetrable Vault.” The idea is to get a lot of city elements with thematically related Aspects but without a bunch of duplication. Aspects are indicated with triangles on the map.

Follow the steps below in order at least through Feet in the Water (stopping at the character power stage desired for the game). Have each player complete each sub-step in order (e.g., everyone does step 1 before anyone does step 2). Alternate players to begin each sub-step. Remember that there can only be one connection between any two elements: once it’s been defined, you can’t create a second link between those elements.

High Concept

  1. Add your PC’s name to the map (as a square). Do not connect it to any other PC yet.
  2. Add an Aspect to the map (as a triangle). Link it to your PC and expand the Aspect into your High Concept*.
  3. Add a Face to the map (as a circle). Link it to any of the Aspects and expand the Aspect into the NPC’s motivating Aspect (not the NPC’s High Concept).

* Note that the Aspect used as a High Concept should generally be a creature type, profession, or key driving force that directly reflects your High Concept. Whichever variation you choose will have a big impact on other Aspects and plots in the city, so choose wisely. For example, a character with the High Concept “Woods-Wise Warden” might put “Wizard,” “White Council,” “Wilderness,” or “Warlock” on the map (detailing creature type, affiliation, profession, or motivation, respectively). The choice of what map Aspect to create will focus the other elements of the city toward any of these elements of the character’s core agenda.

Trouble

  1. Add an Aspect to the map. Link it to your PC and expand the Aspect as your Trouble.
  2. Choose a Face that only has one Aspect and link it to the Aspect you just added as your Trouble. Expand that Aspect into the NPC’s High Concept.
  3. Add a Location to the map. Link it to a Face that does not currently have a Location connected and describe the relationship.

Background

  1. Link your PC to any Aspect on the map. Expand that Aspect into your first “other” Aspect.
  2. Choose any non-PC map element and link it into any other non-PC element of a different type (i.e., Face to Location, Location to Aspect, or Aspect to Face). Expand that relationship or Aspect.
  3. Choose any Face or Location and connect it to any PC. Expand the relationship.

Rising Conflict

  1. Add an Aspect to the map.
  2. Link your PC to any Aspect on the map. Expand that Aspect into your second “other” Aspect.
  3. Add a new Face to the map. Link it to any of the Aspects and expand the Aspect into the NPC’s motivating Aspect (not the NPC’s High Concept).
  4. Choose any Face and connect it to any other Face. Expand the relationship.

The Story

  1. Connect your PC to another PC. Name the story in which you co-star.
  2. Link your PC to any Aspect on the map. Expand that Aspect into your third “other” Aspect.
  3. Add a new Location to the map. Link it to any of the Faces that does not currently have a Location connection and expand the relationship.
  4. Choose any Face that currently only links to one Aspect. Link it to any other Aspect and expand that Aspect into the NPC’s High Concept.
  5. Choose any non-PC map element and link it into any other non-PC element of a different type (i.e., Face to Location, Location to Aspect, or Aspect to Face). Expand that relationship or Aspect.

Guest Starring

  1. Link your PC to any Aspect on the map. Expand that Aspect into your fourth “other” Aspect.
  2. Choose any Face or Location and connect it to any PC (if there are PCs not currently linked to anything but Aspects, you must link to them first). Expand the relationship.
  3. Link one of the Faces or Locations linked to your PC and link it to another PC. Expand the relationship in a way that indicates you’ve crossed paths (e.g., you met at the Location or with the Face as a context).
  4. Choose any Face and connect it to any Location. Expand the relationship.

Feet in the Water

  1. Add an Aspect to the map.
  2. Link your PC to any Aspect on the map. Expand that Aspect into your fifth “other” Aspect.
  3. Choose any non-PC map element and link it into any other non-PC element of a different type (i.e., Face to Location, Location to Aspect, or Aspect to Face). Expand that relationship or Aspect.
  4. Make your character with 6 Refresh and 20 Skill points.

Up to Your Waist

  1. Choose any non-PC map element and link it into any other non-PC element of a different type (i.e., Face to Location, Location to Aspect, or Aspect to Face). Expand that relationship or Aspect.
  2. Link any Face or Location to any PC. Expand the relationship.
  3. Add a new Face to the map. Link it to any of the Aspects and expand the Aspect into the NPC’s motivating Aspect (not the NPC’s High Concept).
  4. Add 1 Refresh and 5 Skill points to your character.

Chest Deep

  1. Choose any Face that currently only links to one Aspect. Link it to any other Aspect and expand that Aspect into the NPC’s High Concept.
  2. Add a new Aspect to the map. Link it to any NPC or Location.
  3. Add a new Location to the map. Link it to any of the Faces that does not currently have a Location connection and expand the relationship.
  4. Add 1 Refresh and 5 Skill points to your character.

Submerged

  1. Choose any non-PC map element and link it into any other non-PC element of a different type (i.e., Face to Location, Location to Aspect, or Aspect to Face). Expand that relationship or Aspect.
  2. Link any Face or Location to any PC. Expand the relationship.
  3. Choose any Face and connect it to any other Face. Expand the relationship.
  4. Choose any Face and connect it to any Location. Expand the relationship.
  5. Add 2 Refresh and 5 Skill points to your character.

Finishing Touches: Themes and Threats

The GM should look at the status of the map and figure out which Aspects and Faces have the most links to other elements. Pick the top three most connected Faces. Find the Aspect that connects to each Face that has the most other connections. Expand each of those Aspects into a Theme or Threat with the Face as the representative of that Theme or Threat.

System Review: Don’t Rest Your Head, Part 2

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Character Creation

Don’t Rest Your Head has three mechanical decisions for character creation:

  • When Madness dominates, do you want to fight or flee? You have three boxes to distribute between these responses, and when you go mad you have to check one off and do that thing. If you put them all into Fight, you can’t ever flee from a conflict where Madness dominated, and, conversely, if you put them in Flight, you always have to run when you go crazy. Most players will opt to put two in one and one in the other.
  • What mundane thing are you excellent at? Your Exhaustion Talent is basically your core skill specialty that gets pushed into superhuman levels as you rack up Exhaustion dice. It sets a minimum number of successes equal to your current Exhaustion for related rolls, and if you’re willing to take on more Exhaustion you can add that total to whatever successes you roll. A character on the brink of crashing can expect around 10 successes without any Madness dice if using the Exhaustion Talent. Notably, this can be anything from being an amazing martial artist to a skilled gambler, and the GM is expected to get you opportunities to make it work in the story. Since each player only has one such talent, adjusting the story to make them applicable is easier than games where players might each have several skills to showcase.
  • What dreamlike or insane superpower do you have? Unlike the previous, the character’s Madness Talent isn’t just a mundane skill taken to ridiculous capacity, but a stunt that probably has a limited range of applications but a physics-defying potential. I like to think of them as the kind of things you take for granted in a dreamscape: complete immunity from harm, ability to fly or teleport, limited prescience, etc. The downside of using them is that you’re forced to roll Madness dice to activate them, often in sufficient number to risk an episode. Use your Madness Talent too much and you go crazy.

These three decisions comprise the core of what would be considered character creation in most systems. However, DRYH takes the additional step of actually moving the “answer a few questions about your character” section onto the character sheet proper. Effectively, you have to answer five questions to play the game:

  • Why can’t you sleep?
  • What image do you present to people?
  • What are you really like?
  • Where do you see your character going?
  • What just happened to you?

The first four questions are really useful for a GM throwing together a long-term plot, as they let you get a bead on the character and force the player to explicitly tell you where the character’s arc started and where he or she would like to see it go. The last question is the important one for a one-shot or introductory session, however. It effectively asks the player to write the kicker for his or her introductory scene and make up something really weird and awful. This serves as immediate fuel for the GM to figure out the structure of the first session based on what crazy things the players asked for. When you’ve been handed a father being consumed by demons in a tech heist gone wrong, a gang of thugs stealing a courier’s mysterious package, a hot date suddenly transforming into a terrible monster, and a missing girlfriend, the game almost literally writes itself.

In the session I ran, the players actually barely used the mechanical elements on their sheets. They were terrified of risking Madness dice, so basically only used their Madness Talents at the climax (and only one character went crazy to suffer consequences described in more detail here). They used their Exhaustion Talents more often, but really didn’t want to take the guaranteed Exhaustion increase for the full version of the talent very often, so the passive (minimum success) benefit was the primary benefit.

But the five question defined the entire play experience from beginning to end.

A lot of games have a list of questions you’re supposed to answer about your character. In my experience, it’s very rare for anyone to actually answer them verbatim and write them down, slightly less rare for a player to think about them and maybe share those thoughts with the GM, and most common for them to get mostly ignored. We’re experienced roleplayers, obviously we know how to make a character more robust than just a list of stats.

But in those cases, even if the player has built up a robust character in his or her head, it might take the GM several sessions to get a handle on what the player actually wants out of the game. DRYH forces you to put the most significant answers on the sheet, and players hate an empty area on a character sheet that they can fill in. Then all those details are there for the GM to use in planning. Most importantly, it forces them to actually tell you exactly what kind of grief they want you to visit upon their characters. And that’s huge.

The character creation in DRYH is superficially lighter than a lot of the more freeform indie systems out there. But it forces each player to collaborate in generating the kind of game they want to play from the outset, and that’s something even the most mechanically complex systems rarely do.

Part 3

Mage: the Ascension Short Paradigms

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Some friends have been badgering me to run Mage, not that I have the time. But it did remind me that I’ve never been totally happy with some of the Traditions’ paradigms. Or, rather, that some traditions are long on “stuff they do” and short on “why they think that works.” Dreamspeakers, Euthanatos, and Virtual Adepts have always been major offenders. Even the excellent Ascension Campaign 2000 got trapped into explaining more about why Euthanatos kill people than why they think magic works. So, here are my ideas in as short a form as possible. I think all of these are generally in line with the canon splats, but may err on the side of boiling complex mystical beliefs down to something that can be explained to a new player.

Akashic Brotherhood

Do is the way and the way is Do. The world is full of chi and your body is the richest source of it. Knowing ourselves, we can order our minds. Ordering our minds, we can direct our chi. Directing our chi, we can command our form. Commanding our form, we can control our environment. Controlling our environment, we can change our world.

The smallest thought, from the mind of a being in harmony with himself and the world can change everything. By practicing the forms of Do, we bring mind, soul, body, and chi into the harmony required to make our own reality.

Celestial Chorus

Reality is the symphony of the creator. Everything is a note in its song. Some of those notes can make music of their own, creating an infinitely varied score of the cosmos itself. Yet infinite variety brings the risk of discord and dissonance. Some of the notes are wrong, and they infect the rest of the symphony with their flaws.

We have been given the gift of singing in a voice that resonates with the symphony. We can use our powers to try to fix the discord and elevate the song back to the beautiful state envisioned by its first singer.

Cult of Ecstasy

Reality has a heartbeat. We call it Ananda, the pulse of the world, but you could call it Bliss. If you can hear it and you can feel it, you can change it. We have heartbeats of our own. If you can match your own pulse to the world’s, you can impose your intentions on your reality.

If you know how to look for the pulse, there are a number of ways to meet it. The best are found in ecstasy: moments of perfect intimacy, altered and elevated states, and strains of pure music. Or, if you’re bound to be glib, sex, drugs, and rock and roll.

Dreamspeakers

What we call reality is the dream of spirits. There are many worlds that border ours. This is fact. Many believe that our world is what is real, and those others are our reflection. This is wrong. These worlds are full not just of waking spirits, but of sleeping ones. Their dreams blend together and make this world.

Many know that a spirit may be roused to use its abilities in our world, and it can accomplish many things. But the wisest of men learns to subtly speak to the sleeping ones, changing their dreams and, thus, changing our perception of “real.”

Euthanatos

Reality is a wheel. Everything turns, powered by the rush of new creation being purified and flowing into Oblivion. Entropy is progress: things that are destroyed merely have their potential released to flow up or down according to their accomplishment while extant. The only bad death is stasis; if things never change, the wheel ceases to turn.

The awake can harness the flow of change. The nearer and greater the change, the easier its motion can be used to turn our own workings. And so we make things happen, and liberate what we can from the flow to ensure that we can remove its obstructions.

Order of Hermes

The cosmos is built on rules. They are not simple to understand. They are the politics of gods and spirits, the correspondences between things that were once one, and the contagion of changes propagating throughout their spheres. Everything we think of as real is the consequence of aeons of accretion from this beautiful morass.

Any can learn some of these rules and to bend them, but only the awake have the intuition to perceive them and the will to force them to change. We are the legates of reality: first you learn the law, then you learn to use it, and then you learn to break it.

Sons of Ether

Reality is weird. Through Science! we can learn how it works. That’s not science, with the lowercase, mind you. Ours still uses the real scientific method, the one you were taught in school but not the one the Technocracy imposes (where they quietly keep sleeper scientists from asking the really interesting questions).

An awakened scientist gains an intuition for staying just inside the line between genius and madness. We discover truths that your secret masters have deemed too difficult. And then we use those theories to make tech that you couldn’t even dream of. But you will.

Verbena

Reality is alive. There is a good reason why many great religions come back to a tree: everything that is has grown from what was. If left alone, reality would be a vast and amazing forest, full of wonders. But it has not been left alone, and the best parts of it have been wounded and left to die to make way for the desires of the few.

Those who awake to the nature of the world can learn to prune reality’s growth, direct it into new shapes, and even change it on a fundamental level. Blood calls to blood as life calls to life, and we use these truths to tend the garden.

Virtual Adepts

The first thing you need to know about reality is that it’s a lie. There is no space, there is no time, and what we perceive as matter is nothing but tiny charges floating in a cosmic void. Everything about it is in flux, at all times, and, if you can figure out the math and where to apply a little quantum pressure, everything is true.

Used to be by the time you’d done the calculations, you had a room full of paper and reality had moved on. But we’ve got computers, now, and they just keep getting faster. If you can intuit the right inputs and run the right program, anything’s possible.

System Review: Don’t Rest Your Head, Part 1

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She Leaves this Nightmare Far Behind

Back in my teens, going to gaming conventions was a bit of a hassle. We couldn’t afford to stay at the hotel, so we’d drive in every day even if it was an hour plus commute. Of course, the coolest things at the con happened late, but we didn’t want to miss any early event either, so sleep deprivation became the order of the day. The last night was always the most exciting, and we didn’t want to miss the last morning of dealer room “we don’t want to pack all this back up” sales, so we’d tend to push all the way though. At a certain point in the wee hours of the morning pushing toward 24 hours awake after three days of limited sleep in the first place, I remember always entering a state where I believed I had powers. In this state of deprivation, where my brain was probably trying its best to shove moments of REM into casual conversation, I would believe for a moment that reality was mine to control. I could use my powers to do things… terrible things… if only I weren’t too sleepy to bother.

Don’t Rest Your Head is a game pretty much specifically about this feeling. It supposes a setting where you eventually reach a sleep deprivation quota and flip a mental switch where, in fact, you do have powers, you can see the strange dreamlike reality that you ignore when well rested, and you’re in imminent danger of going mad. You can use these insomnia-derived powers to try to improve your lot in life, but just reaching this state means that there are nightmarish things that can come after you… and they won’t stop once you’ve had a chance to catch up on your sleep debt. The life of a protagonist in the game is a constant struggle to fight off the terrible things that are suddenly happening, fighting off the urge to rest your head and become vulnerable, and staving off the growing tendency toward madness the longer you remain awake.

But are you sure you aren’t just mad in the first place?

As far as gameplay goes, the core game is a small book about the same size as InSpectres, with a similar level of rules. That is, the system is minimalist and purpose-built specifically to play protagonists granted insomnia-fueled superpowers in a world that’s at least half dream or madness. It is pretty much there to get out of the way and let your players chew the scenery with their delirious antics. My players had a great time with it, but I’m not sure how much of that was just that the setting is really cool and that we could have done fine with rules-free narration. This review may focus more on how these rules support the setting than how they stand alone, because they’re clearly designed to only work with this setting (or one with tightly transposed concepts).

Core Mechanics

The dice system for the game is superficially a pretty simple d6 dice pool system: grab a bunch of dice based on various factors, roll them, and count the ones that read 1, 2, or 3 as a success. The more successes, the better.

Where you get that pile of dice is the actual core mechanic, however. At all times, players will be rolling dice of up to three different colors, and all of the GM’s dice (serving as an opponent) will be of a fourth color. While you consider all your dice for counting successes (and try to beat the GM’s), you also want to figure out which color of dice (between all four of the colors) rolled the highest. So you’re looking for low rolls to get successes, but high rolls to see which “dominates.” This generally means that your character succeeds at a task but something bad can happen during victory, or you can fail at a task but with a beneficial (or less terrible) outcome.

The other interesting thing about it is that all PCs pretty much have the same dice potentials; they’re only differentiated by a couple of special abilities and how you describe what’s going on. Effectively, every PC gets a core of 3 “Discipline” dice that represent actual skill and control, a growing number of “Fatigue” dice that indicate that you’re getting more powerful as you get more exhausted, and can also always draw on a variable number of “Madness” dice that have potentially the worst consequences. Meanwhile, everything the GM does is given a simple threat level in “Pain” dice (which can vary slightly with tactics and fiat; for example, one monster may normally roll 3 dice, but roll 5 dice when using its special ability).

Discipline dominating is good for you (it lets you lower your fatigue), Fatigue dominating isn’t good but isn’t terrible (it makes you more tired), Madness dominating is bad (it locks you into a fight or flight behavior for the rest of the scene, and drives you closer to true insanity), and Pain dominating means something goes wrong even if you win (and gives the GM more resources to make life even worse for you).

Both of these facts together mean that the game naturally follows an escalation curve: PCs start out with only their 3 Discipline dice and maybe risk a small amount of Madness dice, but as they start adding Fatigue their dice pools rise and rise, making it pretty easy to blow through minor opposition and incentivizing going after the bigger threats before Fatigue hits its limit and the PC falls unconscious. Games that start with a bit of difficulty escaping a police chase in the dark before dawn can end with fighting through a horde of horrors to smash out of a skyrise’s penthouse and escape on the wings of demons.

You know, just as an example.

Part 2

Challenging Superman

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I finished the new Discworld novel, Snuff, this weekend.

(Possible mild spoilers to follow.)

It’s a story that is basically a solo adventure for Vimes, the police commander for the focal city of the setting. Starring in more Discworld novels than any other character (particularly if you count cameos), Vimes has basically undergone a D&D character arc over the years: he started out as the drunken leader of a discredited squad of less than a dozen cops and is now a Duke, one of the most politically powerful men in the world, and recently almost singlehandedly stopped a race war while defeating a primordial demon with sheer willpower.

Interestingly, his latest novel is a set up precisely to see how far he’s come: after years of straining his hardest to overcome unfair odds at every turn, suddenly he’s a high level character and finally gets to show off. Political machinations are sardonically brushed off, physical conflicts are often Vimes basically playing with his opponents, and there’s a general sense that while he may be out of his element (he’s on vacation away from the city and most of his support network), it’s everyone else that’s out of their league.

And yet, the story doesn’t lose pacing or feel phoned in, because there are still issues for Vimes to deal with. He’s never really in much personal danger, but he has family and friends to worry about. Moreso, he has his own crucial and sometimes conflicting personal drives to support the law and also to see justice done without becoming a vigilante. The question isn’t whether he will come through alive, but whether he will succeed in time and still able to look at himself in the mirror.

(/end spoilers)

In the show Burn Notice, most of the plot revolves around the fact that Michael Westen is quite likely one of the best spies in the world and he’s stuck solving small crimes in Miami. He completely outclasses almost everyone he faces, and being without any governmental support or funding is only a minor inconvenience. Instead, his troubles tend to come from splitting his attention between an A plot where he solves a small crime and a B plot that continues from episode to episode where he’s trying to uncover a massive conspiracy. The show generally gives the sense that he’d have a much easier time with the A plot if he wasn’t totally distracted by being focused on his own personal crusade. And, when he does focus on the A plot, it’s often time to bring in the fact that being stuck in his home town means that his family can be put in danger.

Though I can’t figure out which one it was, I have it on good authority that at one point there was a Superman video game where Superman didn’t have hit points, Metropolis did. This is the essential solution to the problem of challenging Superman: unless you’re a global annihilation threat or at least an obsessed genius with time to learn his flaws, you’re never going to be able to hurt Superman, but you don’t have to hurt him to get what you want. For the cannier criminals of Metropolis, Superman is a force of nature to be planned for. As a mere mortal, you can’t stop a natural disaster, but you can try to build and manage risk to account for it. The trick is to accomplish your goals quietly, quickly, and decisively enough that Superman is just a bit too late.

But while I can obviously think of three examples, there aren’t a lot more that I’m aware of. Superman is notoriously difficult to write for, Burn Notice is a rare exception to the normal one hour drama, and Snuff is the culmination of over eight novels written in over twenty years of Vimes earning high level the hard way. By far, most action-oriented media relies on danger to the protagonist being a major source of drama. The dominant meme is that progressively more talented characters get to deal with progressively more dangerous threats.

Writers of non-interactive media get to cheat. Heroes can be impossibly awesome while still being subject to mundane threats. Not many writers come up with characters so powerful that they can ignore the concept of a lucky shot or stab doing them in; even superheroes that aren’t explicitly invulnerable still theoretically worry about being shot. But nearly every roleplaying system has a breakpoint where PCs can legitimately discount certain threats and there’s a profound motivation to shift the goal posts to keep introducing bigger and bigger problems. D&D is perhaps the worst offender in this regard because levels scale so widely; it’s very easy to run into a dissonance of wondering where the hell all these high level minions came from who could have been living the high life as villains in their own right against lower level heroes.

In my experience, players of powerful PCs don’t necessarily want to experience the kind of drama that comes from going up against threats that are lethal because they’re of a similar power level. Particularly if they’ve “earned” the powerful PCs through extended play, it’s not particularly enjoyable to feel like the world is leveling up with them. They want cool lairs, massive social engineering projects, the respect of the rich, and the fear of the villainous. Sure, sometimes they deal with threats on their scale, but Superman can’t fight Doomsday every issue. Instead, I believe, in their souls they crave challenges that respect the fact that they’ve assembled unholy engines of destruction before whom the world should shake in awe.

How do you give them that? You take a page from Sam Vimes, Michael Westen, and Kal El:

  • Time is of the essence. Figure out how long it would take for something to be easy and give them way less. Sure, you could chew through the dungeon without breaking a sweat if you had a week… but the ritual goes off at midnight tonight.
  • When it rains, it pours. Two or more problems happen at once, and both hate waiting. There’s a serial killer striking at least once every night, the evil robot factory churns out more androids every day, and your alter ego has finals next week and hasn’t studied.
  • Temporal ties are the ones that bind. Hopefully your system and setting haven’t resulted in your PCs getting powerful without family, friends, investments, or influence to threaten. Your sister keeps digging into your secret activities, your control of the mayor’s office is being threatened by another operator, a trendy night club just opened next to your secret base, and your dog ran off down the street while you were getting the paper this morning.
  • With great power comes great responsibility. Most importantly, powerful characters should come with powerful ethics, drivers, and agendas that can be put into conflict and rule out the easy solution. The cyborg assassin is right in your sights. Do you let your need for poetic justice overcome your disgust at resorting to his methods? How do you deal with one PC that has a pathological hatred for cyborgs and another that wants to suborn him for her own purposes?

Ultimately, there’s a lot of player good will to be earned by acknowledging that their characters are badass. You know it, they know it, and the NPCs know it. If they could bring their full power to bear on a problem, it would go away. The challenge shifts to figuring out how to bring that hammer down instead of continuing to look for a bigger hammer.

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