System Review: Nobilis 3e, Part 2

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Aspect and Mortal Actions

Aspect is the attribute that you use to do things that mortals can do, if only when translated through the most permissive of fairy tales. The lower levels let you turn in feats of Olympic athleticism, Nobel Prize intellect, or Hollywood charisma. The middle levels let you pull off wuxia-style physical performances, computer-level mental calculations, and mythical persuasiveness. The top levels let you do crazy things like drink whole rivers, deduce the future from a mountain of disconnected data, or persuade the sun to set at noon. But it won’t let you do outright magic, because it has to have a basis in things that mortals can actually do, if exaggerated to ridiculous levels.

In 2e, the problem was that the things that mortals could do were pretty nebulous. Especially since the first few levels of the attribute were on a mortal scale, you could get into situations of “he’s supposed to be really good at this… so I guess he’s good enough to beat a Noble using Aspect 1?” One of 3e’s major additions was a system for using mortal actions, so you could actually resolve those situations.

Characters tend to get 8 points worth of skills and passions, which can go up to 5 like miraculous attributes. Passions are more like Fate Aspects: things you care about enough to do well no matter what your actual skill is like. Skills are things you can do well no matter how you feel about them. They don’t stack (even though my players desperately wanted them to); if you have Passion: Protect the Innocent 3 and Skill: Fighting 1, you fight with 1 point unless an innocent is in danger, then you fight at 3. You can also spend your points on Inherent Superiority traits instead if you want to design a magical but not miraculous creature, and they work like Skills and Passions for the most part (though are a little better).

Like miraculous actions, you determine the effect of a mortal action by adding points of an expendable pool (Will) to your relevant skill or passion. Like miracles, there’s a 9-point difficulty chart that you compare your total against to figure out what you accomplished (at 1 point you just make yourself happy without accomplishing much, while at 6 points you do something really impressive that makes your life better). If you’re in conflict, you compare totals and there are similar ways to apply penalties like with miraculous conflict.

There are also a couple of special skills: Shine and Cool. Shine gets bonus points from the Persona attribute, and represents your skill at leadership. Anyone who’s helping you can use your Shine instead of their own skill. Cool gets bonus points from Aspect, and represents your general awesomeness. Anyone who’s trying to hurt you has to take your Cool as a penalty. I’m not totally happy with Shine, just because there’s probably someone in the group with it fairly high and everyone else starts to ask if they can claim their action is for that person to use the higher total. I do like Cool, because it’s one of the whimsical, interesting things about Nobilis; the natural consequence of Cool is that large-scale non-miraculous attacks on civilians are rarely successful because the more people you target, the higher your chances that there’s someone really cool in the bunch that reality won’t let you take out like a mook.

Low-level Aspect miracles now hook directly into the mortal actions system. An Aspect 2 miracle will now give you a mortal action as if you’d spent 5 Will, so it can potentially peg out the scale if you’re already highly skilled. You can also use your magical Treasures to always take mortal actions with them as if you’d spent 3 Will. Since the action economy allows Nobles to generally take an essentially free Mortal action every time they do something, characters will wind up bothering with these actions a lot more than they did in 2e, since there’s a quantitative result for doing so.

The strength of the system is that a highly skilled mortal now has a system for defeating a lightly-invested god. It also does some interesting things with classifying mortal actions as “intentions” that may or may not succeed depending on effort and conflict, to contrast miracles that by definition always change the world (though possibly mitigated by other Nobles). And it actually gets players thinking about mortal actions in an interesting way.

The weakness of the system is that it’s kinda confusing exactly how it interacts with miracles. It also may work better when framing pre-written examples than guiding players in actual play (“My Intention is to study and enjoy lunch” is great for an illustration, but not something I’d see people using). Finally, it’s unclear on scope (even more than the player-written elements in the rest of the system); since you’re writing your own skills and passions, it’s easy to have one guy spend spend for Skill: Pistol while another buys Skill: Combat, one picks Passion: I want to be the best singer in my town and another picks Passion: I always win! Some more guidance would have been appreciated.

It seems like it’s going to be the core of the systems for The Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine, so maybe without having to be a footnote to miraculous actions it will really shine there.

Domain, Persona, and Estates

One of the changes to the core of the game is that you’re now encouraged to make up several statements about your Estate (the noun around which most of your miraculous powers and duties revolve). This encourages you to give the GM ideas on exactly what about your Estate is important to you. One power of Fire focuses on the destructive qualities, one on the boon it is to civilization.

These are especially important because now there’s a new attribute, Persona, which lets you manipulate these individual qualities in a lot of ways, blessing or cursing various things with elements of your estate. This attribute now covers the more nebulous “cool things I should be able to do with my Estate” areas that aren’t directly related to Domain miracles to create, destroy, or move elements of it.

This is one area, unfortunately, where the game might need another revision cycle before the rules really feel robust and useful in all situations.

Writing Estate qualities becomes difficult. You’re not just trying to define how you conceive your Estate, but to do it in a way that gives you sentences that would be useful with the Persona attribute. The attribute can transform those sentences into Afflictions that benefit you or others.

Persona makes way more sense for tangible Estates than idea-based ones. It’s fairly easy to establish a difference between using Domain to create Fire and using Persona to curse someone with the metaphorical qualities of Fire. It’s much more nebulous what the difference is between using Domain to create Curiosity and using Persona to curse someone with the qualities of Curiosity.

Finally, the rules description itself seems to have run out of ideas past level 6; the rules text is just a single sentence for levels 7 and 8 that you can do things “more powerfully” or “on a larger scale” than the level 4 and 5 miracles. It’s hard to figure out exactly what cool things you could do with those levels they way you can with the high levels of the other attributes.

On the whole, Persona is a neat idea: it’s certainly more active than 2e’s Spirit attribute (which Persona largely replaced), and provides useful options that were previously missing to players that chose more tangible Estates. But I think it could do with a deeper look, or at least more robust examples, to make it as good a buy as the other attributes.

Great Conflicting Responsibilities

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This system was inspired rewatching Buffy: the Vampire Slayer. It’s intended primary for modern occult heroes or detective superheroes, but works for any game where the PCs have to balance a normal life (including school or a day job) with the need to investigate in order to find and stop opponents. Virtually all scenarios should involve enemies that grow in power and get further towards fruition of schemes as time passes, granting big rewards to the players for constantly working to curtail their activities, get wind of their plots, and quash their plans early.

The examples below are system-agnostic but assume something with difficulties on roughly a ten-point scale and low-granularity experience points (like oWoD). Adjust values accordingly for other systems.

Investigation

All investigation attempts take an hour or two and can include:

  • Patrolling: Both superheroes and monster-hunters tend to get their first leads by running or flying around the city looking for heads to crack and vampires to stake. In addition to keeping an eye of the streets for anything big or weird, this tends to reduce the number of minions available for bigger capers.
  • Research: Less formidable characters can keep an eye out for upcoming occult junctures or attractive targets of crime in order to get a clue that something might go down soon. Once someone has a name or description of a threat, research involves cracking books, trawling the internet, or hitting up periodicals looking for patterns, secrets, or weaknesses.
  • Forensics: Sometimes, the villains leave a crime scene that our heroes can get to (ahead of or with the blessing of the police). Going over the scene can yield clues, as can taking away any material or mystic traces left behind for evaluation in the lab.
  • Gathering Information: Sometimes, your more gregarious characters can get word that something is up by keeping up with contacts. Once a threat has presented itself, hitting up known informants can be the best way to find exactly what’s going on and where it’s going on at.

Depending on how you like to run mysteries, you can either give out fixed successes based on relevant skill totals every time a player takes an investigation phase or have players make rolls and track margin of success for relevancy. You can track accumulated successes toward a conclusion where they know everything they need to pursue the endgame or have various pieces of information available to various types of investigation with the players trusted to decide when to act upon them. The important thing is that investigation is a time-consuming process that feels like building up information toward a goal rather than just following pre-scripted encounters.

In the background, the villains should always have their own progress bar toward some goal. Patrol might set their progress back by defeating minions and capturing materials, but ultimately their plan is proceeding toward some hidden end in an unknown place, and the job of the players is to ascertain both in time to stop it.

Each day, every player character gains one free “investigation point” that can be spent to:

  • Make one attempt at patrolling, research, forensics, or gathering information
  • Train non-job/school skills (see below)
  • Lower either Stress or Delinquency/Dereliction by one point (see below)

This represents using free time to pursue the investigation, train, or catch up on relaxation or work.

Additional Points:

  • Each player can choose to gain one additional point per day by taking on either a point of Stress or Delinquency/Dereliction. This represents either staying up late for another round or cutting class/skipping work for a couple of hours.
  • Each player can choose to take up to two more points, but each point past the second represents majorly ditching out of school/work and the stress this entails, essentially spending all day on extracurricular activities.
  • On weekends, the GM may choose to just award three points for free (with the fourth point available for a single point of Stress or D/D, representing the stress of blowing off a whole day of free time or not doing homework).

Needless to say, most villainous plots should proceed fast enough that the PCs won’t be able to stop it with just the one free investigation point each day. The point of the system is that stopping the bad guys involves having to make cuts to free time or slack off at school/work.

Training

Players have to spend investigation points (on a one-for-one basis) to spend experience points on any skills that can’t be justified being learned from normal school classes or on-the-job skills. If you want to get that 4 exp upgrade to Getting Medieval, you need to spend time on weapons training that you’re not spending on investigating. Training is a major downtime activity, ensuring that players may not totally zero out Stress and D/D between stories (but also see Long Downtimes, below).

Stress

Stress represents exhaustion, lack of concentration, and just general frustration at spending all one’s free time on the mission. Stress becomes the minimum difficulty for all rolls. In a system like Unisystem with a fixed DC, your stress total is similar to an opposing roll on every task (i.e., stress grants a success penalty equal to the margin of success it would achieve if it were a roll on that result). The intention with either version is that Stress shouldn’t become much of a problem until it gets fairly high. Players should be tempted to throw some points into it for extra investigation points because it’s not a big deal… until it is.

Stress has a practical cap at the maximum reasonable difficulty for the system (or the result of a really good roll, for fixed DCs). At this point, the character is so exhausted that even the simplest tasks are huge efforts.

Delinquency/Dereliction

Delinquency represents skipping classes at school, while Dereliction represents taking long breaks, getting in late, or leaving early at work. Both are the kind of thing that eventually get you in a lot of trouble. A student whose Delinquency reaches the same number as the practical cap for Stress is visited with whatever punishments seem warranted (suspension, detention, or even expulsion, plus likely grounding by parents). An adult whose Dereliction reaches this number is fired. Additionally, it works like Stress to set a minimum difficulty for all interactions with school officials and parents (for students) or employers (for adults); since Stress is a minimum difficulty for ALL rolls, it takes precedence if higher. Once it gets fairly high, the GM may initiate scenes with the PC having to talk officials, parents, or employers out of assigning more onerous tasks, with failure resulting in some responsibility that will gain an additional point of Delinquency/Dereliction if skipped.

Students can take a trait called “Honors” that represents being good at school and having easy access to school resources like the goodies in the science labs. Adults can take a trait called “Income” which works like wealth traits do in any system. Both of these traits are “free,” but essentially set a higher starting value for Delinquency or Dereliction (e.g., if you have Income 4, two points of Dereliction raises you to 6). The students with the brightest futures have more onus on them to live up to expectations, and the adults with the best jobs have more people that will notice if they skip out of work too much. These traits should scale so their maximum is about half the cap for Delinquency/Dereliction.

Players can purchase levels of “Gifted” or “Idle Rich” with character points as normal advantages, representing access to Honors or Income without the associated responsibilities. For example, if you have Gifted 3, you could choose to have a total Honors of 5 while only starting at 2 Delinquency.

Long Downtimes

This system assumes that there will be fairly limited downtimes. Stories represent an active few days or weeks, and then the next story starts only a week or two after the last one. In this case, there are no need for modifications; players will use the time to buy down Stress and D/D earned during the last story or spend points on Training, but will probably not have time to accomplish all their goals before the next story starts unless they ended the last one with very low totals.

If your game includes longer downtimes, simply allocate as many points as they spent on training minus 1d6 to their choice of Stress or D/D. This represents other life stuff coming up; either adventures too minor to note, or home events that made a nuisance of themselves.

System Review: Nobilis 3e, Part 1

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I’ve Got Them in My Garden Now

So way back in my second review series, I covered Nobilis 2nd Edition. The 3rd Edition came out early last year, and I finally got a copy and got to do a brief playtest. This review will build pretty heavily off of the previous edition, so catching up on that review might be worthwhile if you find yourself lacking total context.

Nobilis 2nd Edition seemed to have a very strong late-80s-modern-fantasy feel. It was a lot Sandman and a little Prophecy and Hellraiser. Or at least that was how my group interpreted it. Nobles couldn’t really affect one another directly, using any obvious miracles was a great way to drive all mortal onlookers insane (the Dementia Animus), and driving mortals insane was one of several very serious prohibitions (another of which was that all love was forbidden). The Excrucians, the major villains of the setting, were overwhelmingly powerful in physical conflict, but they’d mostly attack you with a philosophical trap where you had to discover and unravel a paradox or other corruption within your Estate via an exemplifying situation. Most of the art was stately and classical, depictions of modern gods. It all led to a more introspective style of play (and, anecdotally, a hard time for a lot of people that tried to run it).

The new edition, even before the system, makes some very serious stylistic changes to the way the setting is framed. Nobles can now target one another directly. Dementia Animus is still a thing, but seems like it’s only meant for the most outrageous breaks in reality. Lord Entropy is framed more as a bully whose laws are nearly impossible to follow; it’s all about remembering to cover your tracks, not actually trying to follow the rules. The Flower Rite that the Excrucians used to unweave Estates is no longer explained in the core book; they seem like they’re just as likely to be foils as major antagonists. The art is manga-style and full of aggressive, active, smiling characters. It feels a lot more like modern fantasy anime (and the followup game in the same setting is a Miyazaki-inspired pastoral fantasy Kickstarting right now).

This is no longer primarily a setting of lonely gods trying to unravel metaphysical machinations while avoiding the lure of love. It’s now also a place where sometimes you might totally ninja kick a guy into the sun. And if nothing else, that might make it an easier sell to a people who couldn’t really figure out what to do with 2nd edition.

But does the system fulfill these goals?

Core Mechanics

The root mechanic hasn’t changed much since 2nd edition:

  • It’s still diceless.
  • You still have pools of Miracle Points locked to four attributes with a lossy conversion between them.
  • You still spend MPs (in stacks of 1, 2, 4, or 8) to add to your attribute level to achieve a difficulty level.
  • You can still do anything with a difficulty equal or lower than your attribute for free.

The major change to the system is an addition of concepts that make conflict more deliberately fiddly. In 2nd edition, conflict was basically just a game of cosmic chicken: will you bid enough MPs to have the higher total this exchange, and if you spend them will that wipe you out for minimal gains in the long run? In 3rd, there are more levers on a conflict so you have more options than to outspend your opponent. The three major additional levers are Edge, Auctoritas, and Strike.

Edge is the simplest and weakest of the three. You can get it from a variety of things as a one-off, and if you have a high Domain you can spend MPs to get several points of it that last a whole scene. When you’re in contention with someone, you can subtract your Edge from their Miracle total before comparing totals. For example, if you have 3 Edge on a level 5 Miracle, you can beat someone with a level 7 Miracle but no Edge. Edge is, thus, really useful, but it’s also fairly weak because penalties don’t stack; if you’re reducing someone’s Miracle level for other reasons, your Edge might replace the penalty, but won’t add to it.

Auctoritas used to be a persistent benefit from the Spirit attribute (which no longer exists). It still works mostly the same way: if a target you’re opposing with a Miracle has Auctoritas, you fail to affect it unless you can totally overcome its Auctoritas total. Against a guy with as low as 1 Auctoritas, even a level 9 miracle will just roll off if you didn’t work in a way to get past it. The new edition’s take on it is more interesting than the persistent, unvarying level you used to get. Now, while you can spend on Persona (one of the new attributes) for Auctoritas (similarly to getting Edge from Domain), you primarily get it from Afflictions. Afflictions (which are not always bad, despite the name) are basically truths about your character than the GM enforces, and if anyone tries to contradict them miraculously, they have to overcome the Affliction’s level. This means that you can’t just zero in on someone’s defense level, because it varies, which makes fights more interesting. However, since Strike is also pretty easy to come by, Auctoritas serves mostly to make fighters change tactics rather than being a universally strong defense.

Strike is how you get through Auctoritas. It used to be called Penetration in 2nd edition. It still works pretty much the same way: if you equal or exceed the Auctoritas rating with your Strike rating, your Miracle has its full effect; if you don’t, it doesn’t affect the target at all. However, Strike now also comes with equal points of Edge, so it is probably the most powerful of the three; if you have 5 points of Strike, you ignore nearly any Auctoritas and also reduce the opponent’s Miracle level by 5 for comparison. Like in 2nd edition, you can spend extra MP for Strike on a per-Miracle basis, but the best way to get it is through Bonds. Bonds are the counterparts to Afflictions, in that they’re negative or positive statements about the character; unlike Afflictions, the player generally chooses whether or not they apply. When they seem to indicate that you should be awesome at something, they give you Strike equal to their level.

Afflictions and Bonds ultimately work a lot like Fate‘s Aspects, and there were several comments in the playtest about Nobilis 3e feeling a lot like “Fate Diceless.” The traits are, like Aspects, player-written blurbs about the character that serve to constrain you to actions that support your stated characterization intentions: you get MPs when they inconvenience you, and can use them to gain Auctoritas and Strike when it’s in character for you to be awesome. Their interactions are a little complicated and mathy, particularly when you have a lot of players trying to decide what they want to do in a fight, but I feel like they’re a valuable addition of variability into an otherwise totally deterministic system.

In 2e, your Miraculous conflicts could wind up feeling a lot like unstoppable force vs. immovable object. In 3e, with the addition of these three new options, the trick is to convince one of the sides that they’re not really so unstoppable or immovable after all before they even collide.

In the coming weeks, I’ll talk about the attributes that let you generate said unstoppable forces and immovable objects, and the mundane actions system where sometimes you can skate under unstoppable and immovable things altogether.

Nobilis 3e Chancel: The School

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Might this be a hint at the return of system reviews? Stay tuned!

Locus Aphrodite

Chancel of Desire, Discord, Fear, Retribution, and Youth

High school is a dangerous place. It seems like tragedies and lost lives are becoming more and more frequent. Sign of the times, maybe, but also cover for the hundred deaths necessary to create a Chancel.

Across the world, schools are missing hallways, rooms, and exterior spaces. The connections are still there, though they’re hard to find. But if you take a wrong turn on the way to class, you may find your way into Locus Aphrodite.

Most visitors don’t pay much attention to its sheer sprawling size: a high school a big as a city. If you’re just in a rush to get to and from your class, you might never notice the endless corridors. After all, there are no improbably long stretches. Instead, the halls bend and twist, hundreds of missing wings spliced together. Everywhere there are nooks and corners. During the day, they’re perfect places for hormonal teens to hide for a romantic interlude. At night, they’re shadowy hazards where any kind of monster could dwell…

There are fields and quads and all the other kinds of outdoor areas you’d expect a school to feature. But if you really look around, you’ll realize they’re all courtyards: no matter how big the playing field, if you walk a little ways past it in any direction, you’ll hit another section of school building. If you could fly high enough, you’d realize that the “sky” is essentially a fancifully-painted auditorium ceiling; the “sun” is just a row of stadium lights, turning on and off in sequence throughout the “day.” Nobody knows what you’d find if you could punch through; maybe just more school.

Most of the daytime inhabitants are unwitting visitors. If you take a wrong turn looking for an unknown classroom at any high school on Earth, you might just find your way into the Chancel. Maybe it’s an honest mistake from a freshman or transfer student, or maybe the school’s class scheduling system hasn’t quite forgotten the now-missing rooms. Thousands of these visitors bustle in and out of the Chancel every period; they take their class and then find their way back to the real world. Maybe they see a window and briefly wonder why it was a cloudy morning out the window of their last period, but now it’s a clear afternoon. Maybe they notice that all the teachers in this hall look so young they must be just out of teaching school themselves. Maybe they stop to note that their mono-ethnic school gets weirdly diverse during this one period. But they will usually live out the semester and then never find their way here again… as long as they don’t get detention.

The Vice Principals roam the halls at all times, looking for troublemakers. There aren’t nearly enough of them for the thousands upon thousands of students cramming the halls between periods, and you might not even notice them since none of the authority figures here appear much older than the students themselves. But they have little tolerance for horseplay, and can appear with a frightening alacrity behind troublemakers. Sometimes, it seems like trophy cases and other golden adornments are left out precisely to tempt clowns to become vandals and call down the swift retribution of the enforcers. They’ll hand you a detention slip, and this room you won’t have any trouble finding.

Detention is the path to full citizenship in the Chancel. Over a mind-numbing few hours staring at the walls of the library or empty classroom, your recollections of life in the real world become fuzzy. Over the next few days, there may be some confusion as you vaguely remember that you were attending other classes, sometimes left the school grounds, and, most likely, weren’t at a boarding school. But you quickly start to make all new relationships with your culturally diverse schoolmates (it really is weird that they all speak your language, you might consider once or twice before it becomes just part of the background). Some of them will become terrifying bullies, but there seems to be a string of torrid high school romances for everyone (not that all coed boarding schools aren’t supposed to be like that). After a few years, you’ll probably forget that you were meant to grow up and get a job some day, or that it’s weird at all that “Freshman” is just something that can happen to Seniors who fall from the top of the social pecking order.

Of the potentially hundreds of thousands of students that pass through the Chancel every day, perhaps ten-thousand make up the true citizenry. More are, of course, added every day, mysteriously finding a bed in a bunkroom that they don’t precisely recall but which clearly has their name on the tag and desk and chest full of their favorite things. The numbers would certainly swell, except for the attrition rate. During the day, students safely walk the halls, but, at night, it’s unsafe to venture far from your room. Some students sleepwalk, or on a dare travel into the darkened corridors (on the opposite side of the school from where the Eastern visitors are having their morning classes). In the dark, there are terrible, fearsome things that no two students ever describe the same way twice. Those that even return to describe them are the lucky ones; few return to their beds at all, and their possessions will be quietly claimed by new students a few days later (who will insist they’re prized belongings brought from home).

But if you can resist the urge to explore the darker reaches of the school and find a group of friends that will protect you from the abuses of your peers, citizenship can be an exciting time. Eternal youth in a school boiling over with teen romance is clearly something that many adults in the real world would sell their souls to obtain.

Some say that the teachers and staff already have.

Properties of Locus Aphrodite

  • Don’t trust anyone over thirty;
  • Rulebreakers are punished;
  • It’s dangerous to walk the halls at night;
  • Apparent age is simple hierarchy;
  • Kids will be (and remain) kids;
  • Of course it’s dreamlike or nightmarish: it’s high school

Many entrances and exits; Auctoritas varies based on maturity (0 for kids and teens, 1 for young adults, 2 for adults, 3 for middle aged, 4 for old, 5 for ancient)

Fantasy Human Resources, Part 2

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This system complements last week’s idea. It’s heavily influenced by the various unit-based battle systems designed over the years, the most recent of which I can remember are from Ultimate Campaign, A Song of Ice and Fire RPG, and a (now-apparently-missing) post Squaremans did about D&D battles.

Unlike all of those systems, however, this system isn’t really meant to be a strategic/tactical simulator. It uses very simple numbers that you just add up, with a few minor tactical choices just to give a small level of fun, kinesthetic interactivity. What it’s really meant to do is to put numbers to a story-based war story. The focus is on following quest goals to accumulate as many squads and heroes as possible to form a bulwark against an oncoming enemy horde. When the armies actually meet, your only real questions are whether you have enough units to defeat them, whether you can hold them off until reinforcements arrive, and whether you’ll manage to keep enough of your army through the casualties to face the next threat.

Units

A squad is a unit of soldiers of similar level, class, gear, and other fighting capabilities. The basic understanding is that they’re of a typical size for a squad: around a dozen individuals. If the squad is made of monsters, it might instead be 3-4 large creatures, 1-2 huge creatures, or 1 even bigger creature.

Past a skirmish of a few hundred combatants, the system could get inundated with cards and adding. If you want to simulate larger battles on a regular basis, have your units represent larger groups of troops to taste. The trick is just making sure all groups are basically equally sized; the system won’t make sense if you have a squad on one side matched to a century on the other.

A unit has five elements:

  • Name is just to distinguish it more easily. If you have multiple units of the same type, give them each individual designations.
  • Type is Infantry, Cavalry, or Ranged. Those designations are explained in more detail below.
  • CR is a direct link to the individual CRs of the squad members. A squad of typical Ogres is CR 3, because that’s the CR of Ogres. Count a CR under 1 as 0: levies of NPC classes or just very low level characters can have a CR 0.
  • Morale is equal to its CR plus a bonus of 0-20 depending on how well its members are treated and how naturally engaged they are. This number may change often over the course of a war. Morale is CR + 10 for most troops that are not especially well or poorly treated.
  • Power is equal to its CR plus a gear bonus of 0-7 (which may represent natural offensive advantages for monsters):
    • 0 – Unit is using whatever odds and ends it can get ahold of
    • 1 – Unit is equipped with a bare minimum of functional gear
    • 2 – Unit is equipped with good gear, possibly including masterwork gear
    • 3 – Unit has all masterwork gear with some magical or special materials gear
    • 4 – Unit has all magical or special gear, with some +2 equivalent or better
    • 5 – Unit has mostly +3-equivalent gear
    • 6 – Unit has mostly +4-equivalent gear
    • 7 – Unit has mostly +5-equivalent gear

An example card might look like these links for Knights or Peasants.

You can attach one of your heroes (see last week) to command/support a unit. Simply place the hero card on the unit card like this. When a hero is attached:

  • Add the hero’s Cha bonus to the unit’s Morale for all purposes.
  • Add the hero’s Level to the unit’s Power for all purposes.

Effectively, a theoretical CR 20 unit with maxed gear and morale attached to a high-Charisma 20th level hero would have Morale and Power 47 or so.

Battles

Battles happen in turns that often take an hour or two. These are heavily story driven, and may take longer in different conditions. Additionally, civilized armies may only fight a few turns a day before retreating for the night. All these factors are important because, after the initial meeting, it may become quickly obvious that one side needs to consider retreating or trying to hold out for reinforcements, and the longer time frame makes that more reasonable.

Based on the terrain and other advantages, the GM can assess either side a global bonus to the Power total (e.g., +20 to the final Power tally) or individual unit Morale (e.g., +2 to each unit’s Morale).

A battle turn follows a number of steps:

  1. Each side places all ranged units in the back, away from the front lines.
  2. Each side takes all infantry units into hand. (Usually one side will be the GM and the other will be whatever player the PCs are letting act as general.)
  3. Surprise and flanking are decided: if one side starts the turn at such a disadvantage, its general has to place down a card first (and may have to place down more than one card before the other side places any).
  4. After the initial infantry unit(s) is placed, the other general places an infantry unit faced against one of the unoccupied infantry cards on the other side (basically, you have to match card to card and cannot have two cards to one card unless you have a major numbers advantage).
  5. Each side takes turns placing infantry in a “snake draft” style. For example, GM – Player – Player – GM – GM – etc. Getting to choose which card to match with one of yours is a big advantage, so this method spreads out the advantage.
  6. If one side still has infantry cards while the other side has all infantry cards faced, that side can either double-up cards on the infantry line (i.e., reinforce one infantry unit with another so an enemy unit has two-on-one) or place an infantry unit against an unoccupied enemy ranged unit.
  7. Once all infantry cards are placed, the sides take all cavalry cards into hand.
  8. Take turns (in the same snake draft order) replacing your side’s infantry units with cavalry units or placing cavalry against unoccupied ranged units. Essentially, the cavalry is fast enough to hit the enemy at weak points. Put all replaced infantry units to the side.
  9. Finally, repeat steps 2-6 with the displaced infantry units.

Now compare all units that are facing an enemy unit. If the enemy unit’s Power is greater than your unit’s Morale, put a counter on the card to show that it has Broken (both units can break simultaneously if they have high Power but low Morale). This indicates that the unit has taken enough casualties to turn tale and flee after this turn. You’ll still use that unit’s Power for this turn, but will set it to the side after the turn. If a unit has two-on-one, treat the two units as a single unit (i.e., add its Morale and Power together for purposes of Breaking). Ranged units treat their Morale as half for purposes of Breaking.

Total up the Power on both sides. Whichever side has the higher total is winning the battle for the turn. The loser has to Rout a number of units based on the difference in Power totals. You can’t Rout units that have Broken. Remove units of your choice until the total Morale of Routed units equals or exceeds the difference. For example, if you had a total Power of 300 and the enemy had a total Power of 340, you’d have to Rout 40 Morale worth of units.

After a turn, each side should have one pile of Broken units and one pile of Routed units. At this point, your options are:

  • Continue Fighting: If you’re still relatively evenly matched, you might decide to go to another turn of battle.
  • Sue for Peace: If you took heavy losses against a civilized foe, you might offer terms to the opponent rather than risk a massacre.
  • Retreat: You can choose to retreat after any turn, to buy time or lure the enemy into a stronger battlefield.
  • Realize You’re Destroyed: If all your units are Broken or Routed, you have lost.

Once you’ve picked an option other than Continue Fighting:

  • If you won or sued for peace successfully: Recover all Broken units, Broken heroes, and Routed heroes. Recover half (your choice) of the Routed units (the rest took too many losses to continue to meaningfully contribute).
  • If you retreated or were destroyed: Recover all Broken heroes and half (your choice) Broken units and Routed heroes. All Routed units are lost. Some of the broken units scattered never to return and your routed units weren’t able to be saved.

The GM may choose to award advancement to units and heroes that survived, increasing their level/CR. Morale of each unit is also highly likely to be affected by anything other than a narrow win/loss.

Fantasy Human Resources, Part 1

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This is a further development of the ideas from this post, with a lot of inspiration from the Assassin’s Creed 2: Brotherhood assassin trainee mini-game. It’s about letting players manage a much larger force of heroes to set the context around a game of D&D. It’s intended for warfare epics, or just situations where there’s an awful lot going on in the world and the PCs are part of a larger organization all splitting up to deal with it (rather than just a small band of adventurers).

Offscreen Heroism

In this system, players accumulate ally heroes. Some of these can come from the normal campaign sources like Leadership cohorts. Most should be story rewards for hard-won challenges, and many of them should require extra effort to acquire. The more ally heroes the players collect, the more capable they’ll be in the offscreen challenges. For the most part, you’ll only need the hero’s ability scores, class, level, and name. Ideally, you’ll print them out on cards that the players can handle (like this or this). The goal is to give them something tactile to arrange visually around the table.

During play, the players will send these heroes on missions: generally things the PCs don’t have the time, inclination, or talents to take care of themselves. These missions have six factors:

  • Often, a mission will have a distant Destination that will take the group time to reach before they can work on the mission proper and to return from when the mission is complete. This travel time is tracked toward when the heroes become available again (or when other events happen while they’re unavailable), and can be circumvented normally by access to different travel methods and spells.
  • All missions have a Frequency, which indicates how fast the heroes can make progress. Generally, this is on a similar scale for all the current missions (a series of diplomatic and information-gathering missions may take days, while spreading out to prepare a city on the eve of battle may be in hours).
  • The mission’s Goal Number is a total that the heroes are trying to meet to make the mission a success.
  • A mission’s Ability Score indicates which of the hero’s scores is added to her level to generate progress toward the goal number (e.g., if Valeros and Seoni were both assigned to a Dex-based mission, they’d add 19 toward the goal number once per Frequency, due to adding their Dex bonuses of +2 and +3 to their level 7).
  • A mission might have a Threshold of another ability score and a number that must be met to begin the mission. This totals only the heroes’ ability score bonuses, not their levels. For example, an attempt to sneak into a walled city and gather information is a Charisma mission, but might have a Dexterity Threshold. In that case, Seoni might take Valeros along mostly for his high Dex, even though he’s not very charismatic. If the mission had a Threshold of Dexterity 7, they’d need at least one more hero with a Dex bonus (and someone with a Dex penalty would set the Threshold back).
  • Finally, a mission might have a Danger Rating, which means that combat is likely to occur in the mission, and someone could die. For each hero whose level is lower than the Danger Rating, roll a d20 once per frequency; if the result is equal or lower than the difference in level and Danger Rating, the hero is killed on the mission (and doesn’t contribute further to the Goal Number past that point). If Seoni and Valeros went on a mission with Danger Rating 9, they’d each have a 2 in 20 chance of dying each time they checked the Frequency. Sometimes, it’s better to let a mission wait than to spread one’s heroes too thin.

If the GM wants to track it, record the Danger Ratings of all successful missions on the hero’s card, and level the hero up after the total equals five times the NPC’s level (i.e., five equal-level missions, more lower-level missions, or fewer missions with a risk of death).

Structuring Missions

When setting up missions, there are a few major points to keep in mind:

  • All missions should give some useful reward for completing them. That may be in the form of treasure that the heroes share with the party, information that provides a real benefit, another heroic ally, or an asset for the battle system (see next week’s post).
  • There should generally be enough going on that the players can’t accomplish everything unless they’re very good at matching their allies to missions and/or have worked hard to have a lot of spare allies. Just make sure that a lot of the missions are optional, simply making things easier rather than screwing the players if they can’t accomplish them.
  • Missions should often have a window of time in which they’re available; careful planning can let a hero do two missions before the second one’s window closes, but taking a mission’s availability for granted makes it go away.

Ability Scores for missions can break down according to the following:

  • Strength missions might be heavy labor, training troops, or physical competition.
  • Dexterity missions generally involve stealth, acrobatics, or other roguish activities.
  • Constitution missions might be ordeals or anything else where simply enduring leads to victory.
  • Intelligence missions involve research, puzzle-solving, or intellectual competition.
  • Wisdom missions are often about scouting, discerning truth from falsehood, or religious activities.
  • Charisma missions cover any kind of social information gathering, diplomatic envoys, or distractions.
  • For missions with a Danger Rating, the GM may choose to allow the mission’s Ability Score to just be “Prime Requisite;” the hero uses the ability score bonus most appropriate to his or her class.

A Game of Generals

The typical way to use this system is to allow the player characters to send allies to take care of stuff that’s useful but not something you’d want to run all the way through. Another option is that all of the heroes in play are potential PCs, and when the players are assigning the heroes to different missions, they’re effectively portraying whatever non-adventuring leaders organize the group.

In this style, the players can pick up and play any of the heroes when the GM decides the situation calls for it. This might be a single, largely-descriptive scene to conclude a mission, or may be a full series of encounters (particularly in a mission with a Danger Rating; this moves the chance of death from a die roll to the results of the actual encounters). The players may not know which missions will lead to opportunities to zoom in on the action, so may take to splitting up characters they enjoy playing onto any missions that are remotely appropriate rather than what’s most tactically sound, so this style probably works best if your players enjoy the roleplaying challenge of spontaneous playing different characters. It also means that you’ll need full stats for most of the heroes, rather than just the ones on the card.