D20: Car vs. Zombie

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Hey, look, it’s another system for Dirge inspired by State of Decay. This one is probably reinventing the wheel a little bit, but I don’t have any other D20 systems for cars and I wanted to create something custom tailored to present the simplest possible way to resolve running over zombies. The system is tuned to make hitting enemies with your car both highly effective and highly dangerous to the car; anyone that’s hit a deer knows that the car does not roll away unscathed in a collision with a soft body, but you still might want to do it rather than risking your delicate human flesh against the claws and teeth of the undead.

I tried to build the systems to be at least not totally inconsistent with the realities of such collisions, but I am not an automotive safety engineer, and erred on the side of, “yes, you should totally swerve to hit that zombie.” Anyone that is more familiar with automotive impacts is welcome to let me know what my intuition got wrong.

Note that this system is designed for Dirge, where the vast majority of people and zombies have HP in the 10-20 range and exceeding 30 is extremely rare. The numbers might stop making sense pretty quickly if you’re using a more traditional D20 build where HP could hit well over 30 while still being expected to be within the human norm.

Building an Automobile

Each vehicle is a somewhat abstract collection of several statistics:

  • Core Statistics:
    • Str (Power): A car’s Power represents raw horsepower. It primarily controls how fast the car can accelerate, but would also be used to pull or push great weights.
    • Dex (Handling): A car’s Handling describes how agile it is. It assists most driving rolls, representing speed at turning and reacting immediately to gas and brakes.
    • Con (Structure): A car’s Structure describes how ruggedly built it is. It provides a vehicle’s base HP and is used to keep the vehicle running after major damage.
    • Weight: A car’s Weight describes its structural mass relative to other vehicles. It increases HP, DR, and damage, but is a major penalty to acceleration. For purposes of damage and acceleration only (not for HP or DR), increase the vehicle’s weight by +1 for every ton of cargo (rounded down); a bed full of bricks slows your truck considerably, but also increases the mass you can deliver to a target.
  • Derived Statistics: All these stats are adjusted any time a core statistic changes (even temporarily).
    • Hit Points: HP are equal to Con + (Weight x 5) (e.g., a Con 14, Weight 4 truck has 34 HP). This primarily represents the engine, suspension, and other components vital to keeping the car moving.
    • Damage Resistance: DR is equal to Con + Weight – 2 (e.g., the truck in the previous example has DR 16). Any damage that doesn’t bypass the vehicle’s DR may have cosmetic effects, but doesn’t impede the functioning of the vehicle. Called shots from guns might be able to hit the tires, driver, or undercarriage at the GM’s option, bypassing some or all DR.
    • Damage: Damage starts at d4 and increases by one step per point of Weight (e.g, the truck above has d12 damage). This represents the mass that the vehicle can put into a target, and is multiplied by current speed as described below. Beyond d12, increase dice steps by your preferred method.
    • Base Acceleration: A vehicle’s base acceleration is equal to Strength – (Weight x 2) (e.g., the example truck, at Str 14, has a base acceleration of 6, slower than a tiny Str 8, Weight 0 compact).

Like the scores they’re based on, Power, Handling, and Structure have a value and a modifier, using the same system as character ability scores (e.g., Power 14 has a modifier of +2). For ease of reference, they’re listed by their original scores in all examples below.

There are several basic types of automobile in common use:

  • Small Compact Car: Str 8, Dex 12, Con 8, Wt 0
  • Coupe/Small Sedan: Str 8, Dex 12, Con 10, Wt 1
  • Large Sedan/Wagon: Str 10, Dex 12, Con 10, Wt 2
  • Small SUV, Truck, or Van: Str 12, Dex 10, Con 12, Wt 3
  • Full Sized SUV, Truck, or Van: Str 14, Dex 8, Con 14, Wt 4

Apply the following modifiers based on the specific type of vehicle (generally representing pricier upgrades than the standard):

  • Sporty: +4 Str, +2 Dex
  • Rugged: +2 Str, +4 Con
  • American Performance: +2 Str
  • European Performance: +2 Dex
  • All Steel Construction: +2 Con, +1 Weight, No Crumple DR
  • Four Wheel Drive: Halve penalty to drive on uneven or slippery terrain
  • Launch Control: Driving +4 when accelerating from a stop
  • Carbon Fiber: Weight -1, Dex +2, Con -2

So, for example:

  • Expensive Small European Sports Car: Str 12, Dex 18, Con 8, Wt 0; Four Wheel Drive, Launch Control; HP 8, DR 6, Damage d4, Acceleration 12
  • Modern American Muscle Car: Str 16, Dex 14, Con 10, Wt 2; Launch Control; HP 20, DR 10, Damage d8, Acceleration 12
  • Big American Hemi-Powered Work Pickup: Str 18, Dex 8, Con 18, Wt 4; Four Wheel Drive; HP 38, DR 20, Damage d12, Acceleration 10
  • 1970s Wood-Paneled Station Wagon: Str 10, Dex 12, Con 12, Wt 3; No Crumple DR; HP 27, DR 13, Damage d10, Acceleration 4

Player characters may want to custom modify their long-term cars for the apocalypse. Options include:

  • Armor Plating: Add +1 Weight (and all HP, DR, and Damage mods that entails), Add Weight in additional DR vs. guns and explosions, Crumple DR -6
  • Disabled Airbags: Lose Airbag DR, but also don’t worry about them deploying when you’re mowing down zombies
  • Reinforced Windows: +3 Hardness to windows, but you can’t effectively get through the grating to reach things, escape the car, or shoot any direction but perpendicular to the car
  • Reinforced Bumper: +2 DR when hitting something with the front of the car, Crumple DR -4

High-Speed Impacts

When you’re driving along and you see something you’d like to swerve to hit, follow these steps:

  1. Establish how fast you’re going in Miles Per Hour (using the acceleration rules, below, if you aren’t at cruising speed but see the target some distance away).
  2. Divide speed by 10 (minimum 1); roll that many damage dice (e.g., 40 MPH in a Weight 4 vehicle does 4d12 damage).
  3. All targets make Reflex/Acrobatics checks for half damage vs. a DC of the driver’s Driving (including car’s Dex modifier) + 10. This save might be for zero damage if there is an immobile structure within arm’s reach that the driver won’t plow through to get you. Zombies are usually too stupid to bother to save.
  4. If the target saved, deal damage representing being clipped by the car and/or bouncing hard off the ground. If the target did not save, the target takes full damage and, if living, must make a Fortitude/Stamina check, DC equal to the damage taken, to avoid becoming Fatigued*.
  5. Deal damage to the vehicle equal to the damage dealt to the target**. If there are multiple targets, apply the car’s DR separately against each hit. Apply damage to the vehicle equal to whatever gets past (see below).
  6. Total the damage that the car just took and apply it to the passengers. Apply up to three times the car’s DR for each passenger (once for the car’s Crumple DR, once if the car has airbags, and once if the passenger is wearing a seatbelt). If the Crumple DR reduces the damage to zero, the airbags do not deploy (so armor plating and a reinforced bumper can make this more likely). A deployed airbag provides a -6 penalty to Driving for the next two rounds if you want to keep going after the collision, and -2 ongoing until you can detach the deflated bag.
  7. Make a Driving check (including the car’s Dex modifier as an additional bonus to your roll). The DC is equal to the damage multiplier you used (e.g., 2 for 20 MPH) + terrain modifier (0 for open interstate or empty flat ground, 5 for open highway or other wide street, 10 if the street is cluttered or if it’s clear but narrow, 15 if it’s a cluttered narrow street or an alley, and up to an additional +6 for slippery or uneven terrain).
    1. If you succeed, you can keep going (assuming the car’s still intact) with no loss in speed or direction.
    2. If you failed by less than five, you have to brake to avoid spinning out or crashing into an obstacle, and come to a dead stop.
    3. If you failed by five or more, you collided with something, the target got caught in the undercarriage, or something else destructive. Come to a dead stop and take additional damage as if you had hit something stationary (see below).

* This is a nod to the ongoing trauma of being hit by an automobile. You can go grittier with this if desired, imposing long-term breaks or internal bleeding, but only if your game is meant to be incredibly lethal (survivors are unlikely to have access to a hospital to fix such trauma).
** At extremely high damage points, the max damage a target can do to a vehicle is its maximum HP plus size modifier (0 Fine, 5 Tiny, 10 Small, 20 Medium, 30 Large); hitting a possum, even at highway speeds, is probably not going to do much to most vehicles, but hitting a deer certainly will.

If something you’d rather not hit appears in front of you at full speed, make a Driving check (+ car’s Dex modifier) at the same DC as step 7 above (Speed/10 + Modifiers).

  • If you succeed, you missed the target.
  • If you fail, you couldn’t quite turn in time.
    • A mobile target’s Reflex/Acrobatics DC is only 10, but it’s otherwise treated as a normal hit.
    • If the structure was immobile:
      • Deal damage normally, tracking the target’s hardness and HP if there’s any chance at all you could knock it down or break through.
      • Deal twice the damage the target took to break (or all the damage you dealt if it didn’t break) to the vehicle.
      • For example, a truck slams into a thin wooden wall at 60 MPH deals 6d12 to the wall for 40 damage; the GM rules it has Hardness 5 and 20 HP to break enough to let the truck through. The truck spent 25 damage on the wall so takes 50 damage itself as it plows through the wall. If the passengers were wearing their seatbelts and haven’t disabled the airbags, they’re probably fine… if not, things might have just started to go very badly for them.

Whenever a vehicle takes damage:

  • Make a check using the vehicle’s Con modifier against a DC equal to the damage that the car just took.
    • If the roll succeeds, the damage is structural but hasn’t broken anything vital yet.
    • If the roll fails, the car has a bent wheel well, misaligned suspension, cracked hose, or some other minor problem. Reduce Str or Dex by 2 until repaired (this can be temporarily patched in a few minutes once stopped, and is fully repaired once the car is restored to full HP).
  • If the vehicle is reduced to half HP or less (and then every additional time it takes damage under half HP), make a check using the vehicle’s Con modifier against DC 12.
    • If the roll succeeds, the car is obviously messed up but somehow still functioning.
    • If the roll fails, something major has happened to the engine and it ceases functioning. A Mechanic check at DC 20 (roll once per half hour), DC 25 (roll once per minute), or DC 30 (roll once per round) can get it going again until it takes more damage or is turned off.
  • If the vehicle is reduce to 0 HP, it is totaled.

Each mechanic working on a vehicle can restore the Mechanic skill total in HP per day to a damaged vehicle. This rate is halved without a fully stocked and powered body shop (and may be reduced to 0 without any level of sufficient tools). If the vehicle stopped working due to falling below half HP, it will likely require several replacement parts before it can be fixed. If the vehicle was totaled, it will require extensive new parts if it can be fixed at all (GM’s option).

Other Driving Challenges


From a dead stop, the driver of the car makes a Driving check (adding the car’s Dex modifier and the bonus from if it has Launch Control). Divide the result by five and multiply by the car’s base acceleration to see how fast it got to in MPH this round (e.g., A roll of 16 on a car with Acceleration 8 means the car is going 24 MPH at the end of the first round).

When already moving, a vehicle can accelerate up to four times its base acceleration in MPH each round (to the maximum of its top speed). For example, on the second round, the car above can add up to 32 more MPH, so could be going 56 MPH by the end of the second round.

The space in feet that took up is [MPH at the end of round 1] x 4.5* (e.g., if you make it to 60 from a dead stop, that took 270 feet). If you don’t care to do the math, really most of the time it will only matter for post-apocalyptic drag races and seeing if one car can catch another on an open stretch of road.

Going Backwards

Driving backwards, if Burn Notice is to be believed, prevents airbags from going off on an impact. There’s also usually less vital structure in the back. So when you’re going backwards:

  • Increase the car’s DR for impacts by 4.
  • The airbags won’t trigger.
  • Acceleration is halved and the car probably has a much lower top speed.
  • All Driving checks are made at -6.

A Bootlegger’s Reverse (switch from reverse to forward without losing significant speed) is DC 10 + 1 per 10 MPH (don’t forget the -6 driving backwards penalty).

Mapping and Short Accelerations

For every 10 MPH, a car goes 90 feet in a typical six second combat round. This makes using cars on a tactical map largely impractical, and so the rules don’t pay much attention to maneuvering on a grid.

If you want to just quickly start a car and run it into someone in a tactical situation, assume that the car can get up to enough speed to do one die of damage within about 20 feet and two dice within 30 feet. It’s left up to GM’s discretion what happens if that means a zombie is now pinned to a wall.

If you absolutely need to know how fast you’re going within a fixed distance to accelerate, the (simplified as well as my retained algebra allows) formula is: MPH = [MPH at the end of round 1] x 1/6 x square root of ([feet available to accelerate] x 8 / [MPH at the end of round 1])*.


Unless modified with a reinforced grill, a standard car window has Hardness 3, Break HP 6, and windshields have twice that many HP. Essentially, unarmed zombies dealing 1d4 should beat on it for a while, slowly cracking it as the survivors inside frantically try to figure out how to get out of this situation, while someone armed with any kind of weapon should have no difficulty breaking through.


In a pure straightaway, chases come down to distance, acceleration, and top speed. But how many uncluttered roads are there in the zombie apocalypse? If you’re trying to chase down a rival band of survivors in a car (or get away from a horde of cheater zombies that can go over obstacles you have to drive around), use your chase mechanic of choice. Something simple with the lead driver setting a DC with a Driving check and the pursuers trying to beat it (failure on either part closing or opening the lead or, if by five or more, resulting in a dramatic spinout into a horde of zombies) should also suffice.

*All conversions from MPH to FPS are using an approximate 1.5 multiplier instead of the more accurate 1.4667.

Borrowing from Video Games: State of Decay’s Sanction of Death

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State of Decay came out on Steam on Friday, and it’s eaten a substantial amount of my time this weekend. While the superficial play experience might be summarized as “Grand Theft Auto with Zombies,” the real stickiness is that the zombie killing action is layered on top of a hybrid of The Sims and social games. All your actions are feeding a central structure of your band of survivors, and time passes while you’re not playing (or, more accurately, time is updated once you play again); each play session has a number of changes when you first sign in, some of them good (your survivors healed, rested, finished building projects, and might have gathered resources on their own initiative) and some of them bad (your survivors used up resources and had fights with one another, which lowered morale without you there to repair it). You’re encouraged to check in fairly frequently, lest your base be in total disarray when you get back.

All of this sits on something pretty unusual for a single player game: one save and permadeath. If, say, your starting character (whom you’ve leveled into a one-man army from his very humble beginnings) is ambushed by a boss zombie and a bunch of minions in the middle of the woods, slowly whittled of health as he exhaustedly runs back toward the base, and dies thirty feet from safety… that’s it. He’s dead. You’d have to restart the whole game to get him back.

The designers are very sanguine about things like this happening. Their stance is that no matter how powerful your guy, no matter how skillful your play, eventually you’ll get overconfident or just get unlucky and one of your cherished characters will die.

When it happens, you’ll be frustrated. You’ll maybe go through the stages of grief, denial taking a very interesting form of trying to figure out if you can hack the save system. A character that you just put a few hours into playing is gone, slaughtered by zombies with no one to save him. The more you played the game like a standard action RPG, the worse it will be; if you focused on your starting character, all the other options will be extremely far behind him in skills. It’ll momentarily feel like starting over.

But it’s not, really. Everything you did before you died was saved: the resources you gathered, the outposts you set up, the survivors you rescued and befriended, and the missions you completed. The community of survivors moves on, and that first death really makes you understand that it’s the community you’re playing. You start swapping characters more, and come to realize that your first loss was only as powerful as he was because the advancement system is deliberately fast: it knows you’ll rocket to power and die in a ditch covered by zombies. Pretty soon, you’ll have a whole stable of skilled survivors, and be wondering if you can keep the rest of them alive…

I went over a lot of the utility of this system for tabletop in my XCOM post: an OD&D-esque collection of PCs per player that are switched out as they become unavailable or unoptimized for any particular scenario, with some kind of centralized organization to explain how all the PCs switch out from game to game. But a State of Decay-inspired game adds a few things:

  • The central organization receives more mechanical support than individual PCs: your accomplishments and failures are reflected systematically by this entity. The better your success, the more your group advances and can bestow better rewards on any member.
  • Additional potential PCs are rewards: new members for the organization that become available for play. They may be well-developed as NPCs before the player touches them, or may be left as mostly a blank slate for the player to fill in upon becoming a PC, but you are picking in some way from the stable. When your PCs dies, if the only remaining available group member is Bob the Janitor, then Bob the Janitor you will play; you can’t make a new guy with exactly the stats and background you want that joins out of nowhere.
  • Character options are randomized, and sometimes a new recruit has something that nobody else can get. Maybe it was actually a fight over who got to play Bob the Janitor, because he has nascent psychic powers that nobody else has, or just a really high Strength that lends itself to a career as melee badass.
  • Character advancement is fast, less advanced characters can hold their own in normal circumstances, and abnormal circumstances can kill even the most advanced character. The game world hates you and wants you to die, and rapid accumulation of additional character elements is the prize you get by putting it off for even a little while.
  • You can and should swap PCs regularly from your stable. Not only do PCs get worn out from adventuring and need to heal or just rest, but there’s benefit in having several characters at more than their minimal power. When the horde of zombies attacks the base, and everyone has to pitch in for a giant combat scene, you’ll hope even the least of them has been on a few easy missions to accumulate some degree of competence.

Interestingly, I expect that this style would be both an interesting roleplaying challenge for those that like that sort of thing, as you have to swap characters frequently, and equally fun for those that don’t really get that deep into character and see their PCs simply as the device by which they access the story.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go play some more State of Decay before bed.

D20 Zombies for Dirge

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It’s an interesting golden age of zombie-themed video games. While I haven’t gotten into DayZ, I’ve been playing a lot of The Walking Dead adventure game. I was able to get a long look at both Dead State (coming out next year) and State of Decay (already out on XBox arcade and coming to Steam soon), and both of them look extremely cool. Thus, I think back to how much I’d like to find time to run a game of the Dirge zombie apocalypse hack I put together last year. So here are some zombies as threats for that hack (and would probably work fine with any D20 modern game).

General Notes on Zombies

  • For the purposes of this hack, there are no effects that particularly care about mental stats, and zombies are mindless anyway. Therefore, we only care about Strength and Dexterity for zombies: assume all other stats are functionally — or 10, whichever is necessary.
  • Standard zombies don’t have skills or feats, though mutants might, and the Dirge hack uses skills instead of saves. Use a non-mutant zombie’s Dex modifier for Initiative and to defend against area attacks (i.e., Acrobatics/Reflex), the zombie automatically succeeds against anything like toxins (e.g., Stamina/Fortitude), and is immune to anything mental.
  • The DR of the zombies is tuned to use the (Buffy-style) headshot mechanic in Dirge (-4 penalty to deal double damage, but if double damage isn’t enough to reduce the target to 0, it does regular damage instead). That is, zombies will soak up a lot of non-headshot hits for many weapons, but if you go for the headshot the doubled damage will often one-shot the target with an average or higher roll. Tougher zombies may require you to soften them up a little before going for the headshot.
  • Zombies are defeated at 0 HP, even if you manage to destroy one without taking a headshot. It’s probably worth describing that the final hit managed to functionally decapitate the zombie through major structural damage.
  • Zombies use the stances described in the Dirge document and in this post. The default bonus is built into the stats, and they’re intended to get the +2 to attack, damage, and AC against the relevant stances (and the PCs are meant to get the relevant bonuses against them).
  • Unless otherwise noted, the zombie’s default attack is flailing at the target. That is, living characters shouldn’t fear infection from the zombie’s default attack. Instead, the only damage that should represent a bite should be damage dealt during a grapple; this should give the PCs a chance to avoid getting bitten, since the zombie has to grapple one round and then deal damage the next. All zombies’ grapple bonus/CMB is functionally equal to their attack bonus (plus Improved Grapple, if they have it), and their defense to grappling/CMD is AC + Str mod.

Zombie Types

  • Runners are cheater zombies. They are not in any way slow, but fortunately their pristine, springy muscles don’t resist damage as much as slower versions. If all of your zombies act like these, your PCs probably won’t make it. “Realistically,” they represent fresh zombies who died with minor injuries, and after a few days (a few weeks at the most), they atrophy into Rotters. So you’ll see a lot of these early in a campaign, but they should become very rare (coming from infected former survivors) once you’ve settled into the long survival game.
  • Rotters are still relatively fresh, but were either eaten to death or were former Runners that have started to lose coherency. They’re a little tougher and slower than Runners. Depending on how zombies work in your world, they might be common long term or all might become Shamblers after a few weeks or months.
  • Shamblers are the really leathery zombies who have reached a state where anything that was going to rot off, has, and they’re now pretty stable unless unusually exposed to the elements (in which case they become Carcasses). They have high DR but move extremely slowly (they always count as Staggered, getting only a Standard Action each round).
  • Carcasses are the zombies that require really inventive makeup techniques in the movies and shows: they’re missing major appendages, and have probably been left to erode in the weather. Extremely slow (probably dragging themselves along without functional legs) and not particularly tough, they’re really only a threat if they got stuck somewhere the PCs happen to stumble without noticing them.
  • Specials are mutants of a Left 4 Dead or Resident Evil style. Depending on how your zombies work, they may not be a possibility, or there may be a lot of variation. Unlike the other types, they may have some level of animal intelligence, allowing them to have feats and skills in addition to their weird powers.

Basic Zombie Stats

All basic zombies have Threat ratings from 0-3 for purposes of the Morale system. This is generally a Threat of 1 for non-Carcass zombies, +1 if the zombie is particularly threatening (e.g., Fast Runners and Tough for most categories), and +1 if the zombie is wearing armor (Armored Runner and SWAT Rotter) or has some other situational advantage.

Name Speed Str Dex AC HP DR Att. Dmg.
Runner (Determined) 30 ft. 10 12 (+1) 11 11 3/- +2 1d4
Extra-Cheatery Runner (Fast) 40 ft. 8 (-1) 14 (+2) 13 11 3/- -1 1d4-1
Big Runner (Tough) 25 ft. 12 (+1) 10 10 16 4/- +1 1d4+3
“Feral” Child (Vulnerable*) 30 ft. 10 12 (+1) 11 11 3/- +0 1d4
Armored Runner (Determined) 30 ft. 10 12 (+1) 13 11 3/- +2 1d4
Rotter (Determined) 20 ft. 10 10 10 10 4/- +2 1d4
Quick Rotter (Fast) 30 ft. 8 (-1) 12 (+1) 12 10 4/- -1 1d4-1
Big Rotter (Tough) 15 ft. 12 (+1) 8 (-1) 9 15 5/- +1 1d4+3
SWAT Rotter (Tough) 5 ft. 12 (+1) 8 (-1) 15 15 5/- +1 1d4+3
Shambler (Determined) 20 ft.** 10 8 (-1) 9 9 5/- +2 1d4
Big Shambler (Tough) 15 ft.** 12 (+1) 6 (-2) 8 14 6/- +1 1d4+3
Carcass (Determined) 10 ft.** 8 (-1) 6 (-2) 8 8 4/- +1 1d4-1
“Dead Body” (Vulnerable*) 10 ft.** 8 (-1) 6 (-2) 8 8 4/- -1 1d4-1

* Attackers take -6 to hit a Vulnerable zombie unless that zombie has injured the attacker or is the only available target.
** Always Staggered (can only take a Standard OR Move action each round).

Special Zombies

Sneaky Climber (Determined); Threat 5

  • Speed 30 ft., Climb 20 ft.
  • Str 14 (+2), Dex 16 (+3) (Initiative +8)
  • AC 14, DR 3/-, HP 17
  • Attack +5 (1d4+2)
  • Skills Athletics +6, Stealth +7
  • Feats Improved Grapple, Improved Initiative, Sneak Attack (+1d6), Weapon Focus (Unarmed)

Clawed Parkour Hooligan (Fast); Threat 6

  • Speed 40 ft.
  • Str 12 (+1), Dex 18 (+4)
  • AC 16, DR 3/-, HP 15
  • Attack +5 (1d6+1)
  • Skills Acrobatics +8, Athletics +5
  • Feats Dodge, Mobility, Spring Attack, Weapon Finesse, Weapon Focus (Claw)

Bloated Stinking Rotter (Tough); Threat 5

  • Speed 15 ft.
  • Str 16 (+3), Dex 10
  • AC 14, DR 5/-, HP 20
  • Attack +3 (1d4+3); Noxious Spit +0 (10 ft. Range)
  • Skills Athletics +7
  • Feats Power Attack (-2 attack, +4 damage), Improved Bull Rush
  • Powers:
    • Noxious Spit: Target takes -6 Stealth until cleaned off and must make Stamina/Fortitude roll (DC 14) to avoid being Nauseated for one Round.
    • Distracting Miasma: All living characters within 10 ft. (or a large room indoors if given time for the stench to build up) must make Stamina/Fortitude rolls (DC 14) to avoid being Sickened. If failed, the character is Sickened whenever within range of this zombie for the next 24 hours. If successful, the character is not affected again by this zombie’s stench for the next 24 hours.
    • Death Explosion: When reduced to 0 HP, the zombie explodes in a fountain of filth. All living targets within 10 ft. must make an Acrobatics/Reflex roll (DC 14) to avoid suffering Noxious Spit.

Seemingly Sentient Innocent (Vulnerable); Threat 6

  • Speed 30 ft.
  • Str 12 (+1), Dex 14 (+2)
  • AC 12, DR 3/-, HP 15
  • Attack +3 (1d6+3)
  • Skills Acrobatics +6, Perception +4
  • Feats Blind-Fight, Run, Sneak Attack (+1d6), Uncanny Dodge, Weapon Finesse, Weapon Focus (Claw), Weapon Specialization (Claw)
  • Powers:
    • Crocodile Tears: This zombie is intelligent enough to mimic crying, screams, or other non-language verbalizations to try to lure survivors in, and will hide its hands and face from view to make it hard to see the claws, blood, and mad eyes. It generally only attacks when targets are in range of a surprise round partial charge.
    • Exquisitely Vulnerable: All attackers take the Vulnerable penalty (-6 to attack the zombie) even if it is the last viable target; only dealing damage to a survivor breaks this effect.


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Prepping for an actual Shadowrun playtest/potential ongoing campaign, here’s a procedure for developing a plot and character web in the style of Smallville. It’s similar to Dresdenville and Heroville, but with even fewer direct hooks into the character sheet. Even though the process doesn’t demand additions to the character sheet, players should attempt to buy anything they link to with a positive relationship in a way that makes sense for the system (as a contact, safehouse via lifestyle, quality, etc.).

Each player should assign priorities (A-E to Race, Magic, Attributes, Skills, and Resources) and decide on character generalities before proceeding, but shouldn’t do too much actual point spending (to leave room to tweak based on the chart results).

As usual, go around the table for each step and sub-step before proceeding on to later steps. Whenever you draw an arrow, define the relationship. There can’t be more than two arrows between the same two nodes (and those have to be reciprocal).

The possible nodes for this process are:

  • PC (Square): These are the player characters. Start by adding each of these to the map but don’t connect them until later.
  • NPC (Circle): These are contacts, antagonists, and other known quantities. The players shouldn’t feel obliged to make all these friendly: it may be better to define your own principle antagonists and have a general idea of their capabilities rather than letting the GM make them in secret.
  • Location (Rectangle): These are locations where the players expect to spend a lot of time when they’re not on ‘runs. They may be clubs, places of business, whole neighborhoods, interesting landmarks, etc. They’ll tend to be important for meeting clients, investigating, planning, and laying low.
  • Macguffin (Pentagon): These are items that are likely to come up as objectives for ‘runs. The players will really only know their names and the relationship of groups or NPCs to them, but giving them an interesting name makes it more likely they’ll come up in an interesting way. In general, their style should match the Priority that placed it: magic (something magical), resources (some kind of tech), or attributes (some kind of information).
  • Canon Group (Triangle): This is an official corporation, gang, cult, etc. from canon setting material. This is how you vote for which groups you’d like to see heavily invested in the campaign, and establish some idea of what their initial goals are and who they’re connected to.

Step 1: Priority A

  1. If your Priority A is:
    1. Race or Attribute: add an NPC
    2. Skill or Resource: add a Location
    3. Magic: add a Macguffin.
  2. Add a Canon Group.
  3. Draw an arrow from one of the NPCs or Canon Groups to a PC.
  4. If your Priority A is
    1. Race: add a Location
    2. Magic or Skill: add an NPC
    3. Attribute or Resource: add a Macguffin.
  5. Draw an arrow from one of the Canon Groups to an NPC or Location.
  6. Tag one of the NPCs based on your Priority A (see Tags, below).

Step 2: Priority B

  1. If your Priority B is:
    1. Race or Attribute: add an NPC
    2. Skill or Resource: add a Location
    3. Magic: add a Macguffin.
  2. Draw an arrow from your PC to an NPC.
  3. Draw an arrow from your PC to a Location.
  4. Draw an arrow from an NPC to a Canon Group or Location.
  5. Tag one of the NPCs based on your Priority B.

Step 3: Priority C

  1. If your Priority C is
    1. Race: add a Location
    2. Magic or Skill: add an NPC
    3. Attribute or Resource: add a Macguffin.
  2. Draw an arrow from your PC to another PC.
  3. Draw an arrow from your PC to an NPC, Location, or Canon Group.
  4. Draw an arrow from an NPC to another NPC.
  5. Tag one of the NPCs based on your Priority C.

Step 4: Priority D

  1. If your Priority D is:
    1. Race or Attribute: add an NPC
    2. Skill or Resource: add a Location
    3. Magic: add a Macguffin.
  2. Draw an arrow from your PC to another PC.
  3. Draw an arrow from any non-PC element to any other non-PC element.
  4. Tag one of the NPCs based on your Priority D.

Step 5: Priority E

  1. Draw an arrow from one of the NPCs or Canon Groups to a PC.
  2. Draw an arrow from an NPC to a Canon Group or Location.
  3. Tag one of the NPCs based on your Priority E.


For the current Priority, if you chose:

  • Race: Assign a race to the NPC. This can be any of the standard PC races, including human; NPCs that end the process without one default to human.
  • Magic: Assign a magic praxis to the NPC (Mage, Physical Adept, Shaman, Mystic Adept, Technomancer, etc.) or declare that the NPC is non-magical. NPCs without such an assignment default to no magic.
  • Attributes: Assign a method to the NPC (Agent, Operator, Conspirator, or Bystander; see below).
  • Skills: Assign a signature Skill Group to the NPC. The NPC is guaranteed to be good at the chosen Skill Group; other skill choices for the NPC are up to the GM.
  • Resources: Draw an arrow from one of the NPCs or Canon Groups to a Macguffin.


A method outlines an NPC’s general method of interaction with the world (colored by other tags and relationships decided for the NPC):

  • Agent: This NPC tends to be active in the world, and in the thick of things. The character is usually a ‘runner, guard, detective, or someone else used to face-to-face confrontation.
  • Conspirator: This character tends to be a social string puller who tries not to have anything directly traceable. The NPC is usually a face or Mr. Johnson.
  • Operator: This NPC tends to be active but at once step or more removed. The character is usually a mage, hacker, or rigger, or someone else that works directly but remotely.
  • Bystander: This character tries not to get directly involved. The NPC is usually a merchant, fixer, or other contact.

Contact’s Rating

Optionally, you can assign a fixed Connection Rating to each NPC that the PCs must spend to buy that NPC as a Contact. This keeps characters defined as movers and shakers from being purchased at low Connection Rating levels, and allows players that both want to have the same NPC as a Contact to know which Rating to take.

  • If the NPC seems like he or she should be very highly connected from the way the chart lays out (e.g., it’s implied that an NPC is high up in a corp or nationally recognized), the GM can simply assign a Rating over 6 that makes sense. This character will not be valid as a starting Contact, but might be befriended officially later. This shouldn’t be done for NPCs on the map that clearly have a relationship with a PC that implies that the player planned to buy the NPC as a Contact.
  • Otherwise, count the number of non-PC lines attached to the Contact (i.e., either to or from other NPCs, Groups, Locations, and Macguffins). That’s the Contact’s Rating; it should generally be between 1 and 6 and, thus, valid as a starting Contact.


Here’s a potential web created by the above system, using data I threw together to test it (click to enlarge):


D&D: The Magic of the Skilled Crafter

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I stopped allowing PC crafting of permanent magic items in my last few campaigns. In general, I found that the system made it very easy to sell off quirky, interesting items and use the proceeds to craft laser-focused upgrades of doom. That is, why keep an item that’s not exactly what you wanted when you can sell it for half value and craft for half value, essentially transforming anything into a more desirable item of the same value? Sure, you can patch the problem from a different angle by just making it much harder to sell magic items, but creating was the fix that I found more interesting.

But one solid consequence is the inability to get the bare minimum magic that the system expects. Being able to get a +1 weapon/armor or +2 stat booster in what you actually wanted was never really at issue, it was items completely, blandly optimized to be useful against the widest variety of situations for the lowest possible cost (e.g., a Composite Shocking, Holy, Longbow +1… you know what you did). In my current campaign, I feel very sad every time the mighty, heavily armored paladin whips out his fancy rapier because he hasn’t actually found a magic longsword yet.

I’ve also always liked the cultural assumptions of magic item creation. That is, wouldn’t it be cool if Cloaks and Boots of Elvenkind were the natural output of the great elven artisans rather than something any Wizard could knock out when the Rogue wants an upgrade?

All of that leads to the following system (for 3.5/Pathfinder):

Exceptional Craft Skill is Magical

A character can use the Craft skill to make permanent magic items without needing an item creation feat. These items must be:

  • Relevant to the particular crafting discipline (e.g., magic weapons for a Weaponsmith, magic cloaks and clothing for a Tailor, etc.)
  • Of the minimum value for the Minor examples of that class of item (e.g., you can only make +1 weapons or armor, +2 ability bonus items, +5 skill bonus items, etc.)
  • From a single type appropriate to the character’s culture/race (e.g., elves make Boots of Elvenkind while an arctic culture makes Boots of the Winterlands)

That last point may cause the GM to need to invent some new variations of similar value for different cultures, or just declare that a culture can’t make magic items of that type (e.g., dwarves have no particular interest in magical footware). In general, the goal is to make sure that PCs that want to craft items have some cool things they can make with any given Craft skill type, and that items from the core item lists have clear places or peoples you have to visit to reliably acquire them. If you want an Efficient Quiver, you have to visit the elves, but a Handy Haversack can only be purchased from the dwarves.

Once you’ve determined the item you’re making, use the Craft rules normally, except that the output per roll is in GP instead of SP. The DC is 30 for all such items.

To unpack that a bit, it means that technically you could get a magic item by paying only 1/3 of the value instead of 1/2, but until you have a +24 bonus to your skill there’s always a chance that you’ll fail a roll by 5 or more and ruin half the raw materials (which should push the average cost of creation back up toward 1/2). The change to GP does have some weird cases where the Masterwork component of an item would take longer than the magic component, but in general it keeps the system from taking months of downtime to output an item (you’re welcome to switch it back to SP if you want magic creation to take months).

Not-So-Minor Magic Items

Now the new Craft system has output some minor items. What if you’d like to have a method for determining whether and how more powerful items enter the world? I’d suggest one of the following options:

Ancient Remnants

All of the powerful items in the world are leftover from fallen societies whose secrets are lost to time. Adventurers sometimes find them in ruins, and they tend to pass from owner to owner once found (until they are destroyed or once again entombed).

Very rarely, adventurers happen upon strange items of power that can improve an existing magic item, granting it new functions (of the GM’s devising).

Magical Forges

Items of greater power are still created in the modern world, but to do so requires immense artifacts, which can only be found in the greatest of palaces, cathedrals, or academies. Their creation is an expense that could pauper empires, and the realm’s greatest powers are quite likely to wage war to claim any they think they can capture and hold.

These forges can only produce a single item at a time, and only the most powerful and most trusted crafters are allowed to work them, so the number of powerful items in the world remains small. Sometimes, as a rare honor for great service, adventurers may be allowed to use the forge for a particular project (using the above Craft rules, a time limit set by the owner, and whatever other limits on what types of items are available to make that the GM thinks is reasonable).

World’s Greatest Artisans

Just as great artisans can make items so well that they are magical, the greatest artisans can turn out even more awesome feats of craft. (Medium items can be made at DC 40 and Major items can be made at DC 50. The GM is encouraged to come up with cultural limits on which options are available just as with Minor items.)

Heroic Deeds

All powerful items are named regalia of former heroes. When an item is integral to the deeds of a hero, it sometimes takes on new powers or changes them entirely in accordance with the role it now plays in that hero’s legend. This can happen at any time a great deed is accomplished, and is especially likely if the hero dies in the course of the deed (i.e., the GM can upgrade items whenever desired and with whatever powers make sense to the deed in question; existing non-minor items that enter the world should have a name and history to explain how they came to be so potent).