Doppelganger!

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I’ve been watching a lot of Fringe lately, and one of the things that is so weird about the show is how nonchalant they are about infiltration by doppelgangers. Despite (SPOILERS) an antagonistic parallel universe with perfect duplicates and a whole bunch of shapeshifting assassins (/SPOILERS) they never really adopt any reasonable level of paranoia about checking important people to make sure they are who they say they are. Players in an RPG where they knew there were doppelgangers trying to infiltrate their organization would be much more paranoid.

So this is a simple idea for mind games to play on PCs in a one-shot or otherwise short-term campaign. The idea presupposes the following:

  • The PCs are important agents of the same organization, and an enemy is employing doppelgangers to infiltrate the organization.
  • There is no easy way to differentiate doppelgangers (either because they’re true alternates or highly effective shapeshifters): physical checks, scans, mental probes, and so on are unable to differentiate the fake from the genuine article. There might be something obvious on an autopsy, but then you have to kill a suspected doppelganger. The organization may be working on a better test on a live suspect, but it’s still some ways out from being viable (i.e., not within the scope of the campaign or not until the climax).
  • Doppelgangers can gain a significant portion of the memories of those they replicate, either through extremely careful research or some kind of memory leeching. Thus, only the most careful questioning of a suspect by someone very close is likely to turn up discrepancies. And doing so will probably waste valuable time and turn up false positives.

Essentially, the goal is to create a climate of distrust between the PCs like in the board games for Battlestar Galactica or The Resistance: if you want to catch the traitor before he or she ruins everything, you have to second guess everything your allies are doing.

Make cards similar to the ones below (with details changed to fit what’s actually going on in your plot). Either hand one out to everyone at the start of the game, or stagger their handout until PCs are away from the group (e.g., going home to sleep for the night).

You’ve been replaced by a doppelganger. Continue to play your character normally.

The body of your original is dead from [standard method of killing] where you duplicated it. You’ve stashed the body in the most secure area, but you’ll need a whole evening without anyone paying too much attention to properly dispose of it. Until then, its presence could give you away.

Your mission is [primary mission]. Your secondary mission is to protect other agents of the conspiracy, particularly [leader]. Attempt to help other agents escape, but only if it will not compromise your cover and your primary mission. If [leader] is in danger, you should risk your cover and mission to ensure [his/her] escape and survival.

You know everything that your original did at the time of replacement, with some limitations. You can answer correctly any question put to you, unless it begins with “How” or “Why.” In those cases, attempt to deflect or get the questioner to rephrase; otherwise any answer you give must be wrong.

Hand this card back when you have privacy and want to call in to the conspiracy to report everything you’ve learned so far.

You were almost replaced by a doppelganger! A perfect duplicate of you jumped you, and you just barely won the fight and killed it.

There’s a dead body where you were jumped that looks just like you, but wearing simple black clothing. It’s up to you what you want to do with this body.

It’s possible that the conspiracy thinks you’ve been replaced, but you don’t know any protocols for pretending to be your doppelganger.

Before dying, your double said, “[something mysterious that will be relevant to the plot later].”

Whenever you think you understand the significance of that phrase, hand this card back. If you are correct, you’ll automatically gain [significant bonus based on system] to your next roll dealing with the conspiracy.

Your boss, [NPC boss name], met with you away from your teammates. [He/She] thinks that the department is being infiltrated by doppelgangers, and has vetted you as trustworthy.

Your job is to keep an eye out for infiltrators within the group.

Hand this card back when you think you’ve identified a doppelganger and want to call in a team to capture him or her. Keep in mind that they may attack to kill if there’s any doubt, so you may be signing the death warrant of a genuine teammate if you’re not certain.

You feel like you’re being watched.

Whenever you’re alone, you’re seeing pursuers out of the corner of your eye. They disappear when you turn to look.

Maybe you’re just going mad from the paranoia? Or maybe you’re not paranoid enough.

Hand this card back to get a [significant bonus based on system] to initiative and to automatically avoid being surprised as soon as you are jumped by agents of the conspiracy.

You get an excellent night’s sleep and wake up well rested.

Hand this card back to get a [minor bonus based on system] to any roll the following day for being so sharp and focused.

You stumbled across a strange [radio/computer program/phone/etc] within the office that may be a method someone is using to communicate with the conspiracy. You’ve already gotten one message from it: [something mysterious that will be relevant to the plot later].

You can either turn it over, or hang onto it and hope that it presents other information (hoping that they don’t know you have it).

Whenever you think you understand the significance of that phrase, hand this card back. If you are correct, you’ll automatically gain [significant bonus based on system] to your next roll dealing with the conspiracy.

You’ve been replaced by a doppelganger. Continue to play your character normally.

The body of your original is dead from [standard method of killing] where you duplicated it. You’ve stashed the body in the most secure area, but you’ll need a whole evening without anyone paying too much attention to properly dispose of it. Until then, its presence could give you away.

Your mission is [primary mission]. Your secondary mission is to protect other agents of the conspiracy, particularly [leader]. Attempt to help other agents escape, but only if it will not compromise your cover and your primary mission. If [leader] is in danger, you should risk your cover and mission to ensure [his/her] escape and survival.

However, you’re having second thoughts because [reason doppelganger might want to abandon the conspiracy]. You’re just a grunt and were deliberately not told much information about the conspiracy, and they’d try to kill you if you revealed yourself. And who knows what the organization might do?

You know everything that your original did at the time of replacement, with some limitations. You can answer correctly any question put to you, unless it begins with “How” or “Why.” In those cases, attempt to deflect or get the questioner to rephrase; otherwise any answer you give must be wrong.

Hand this card back when you decide to go directly against your mission (expect quick reprisal from the conspiracy’s agents).

D20: Yet Another Wounds System

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Harbinger’s post about his system, his inclusion of wounds similar to A Song of Ice and Fire, and the discussion therein got me thinking about wound systems. I’m generally not a fan of them as a player, but I recognize their use in making a game grittier, and I’ve come up with a version before. This version is a little more based on my dislike of having to choose whether or not to take a wound to reduce damage, but still liking the idea of wounds reducing damage (thus making them less terrible for players than taking full damage and a wound). It’s also got some elements from critical hit tables. This probably works best for grittier games with relatively low HP totals, particularly something like D20 Modern.

Taking Wounds

A character takes a wound whenever hit points would be reduced to 0 or less by incoming damage. Optionally, a wound threshold might exist where any damage over a certain amount (e.g., half hit points or Con total) automatically results in a wound.

When you take a wound, halve the damage that triggered it. For example, if you take 19 points of damage and you have 12 HP remaining, take 9 damage and a wound (leaving you with 3 HP).

If the halved damage is still enough to reduce you to 0 or negative HP, you take the damage (and fall unconscious if you go under 0). However, there is no innate bleed out when at negative HP: if you don’t get a wound that causes bleeding, you are automatically stable at the negative HP total. You’ll still take wounds on any subsequent damage, and die at the normal negative total.

Effects of Wounds

Wounds are rolled on a chart based on damage type as described below. Each entry on the chart has four factors:

  • The descriptive name of the wound
  • The DC for treating and recovering from the wound
  • The effect the wound has until it is treated
  • The effect the wound has until it is fully healed (which stacks with the untreated effect on a fresh wound)

Wounds can have several types of effects:

  • A penalty to one or more traits
  • Bleeding
  • Shock
  • Standard effects (such as Staggered or Nauseated)
  • Instant death

Most of those are self explanatory, but the two new or modified effects are Bleeding and Shock.

Bleeding is additional HP damage per round (which can never trigger additional wounds). Make a Heal check as a Standard action to slow the bleeding (DC at the DC of the wound; +5 for healing yourself) to per minute instead of per round. This is essentially just putting pressure on the wound, and it will resume bleeding at full speed if the character doesn’t Concentrate (giving up a move action to maintain pressure). See below for truly treating the wound. It is up to the GM (and based on how common magic is) to decide whether magical healing ends Bleeding.

Shock means that the character is Staggered and at -4 to all actions. The character takes one Con damage per minute until the condition is treated.

Treating and Recovering from Wounds

Treating a wound is a Heal check that requires an uninterrupted minute of work (the DC is the standard DC of the wound). The character also gets a Fort save against the same DC once every ten minutes if it remains untreated (which may be way too long for Bleeding and Shock, but is allowed if the character makes it ten minutes) to recover naturally.

Once per week, the character gets to try to recover from the lowest DC wound he or she currently has. This is a Fort save against the wound’s DC. If the character is under bed rest with healing, the attending physician can make a Heal check in place of the Fort save. If the character has multiple wounds, only one can be healed per week.

Spells like Restoration essentially give an instant Heal check or Fortitude save to the target (in addition to natural healing), and this overcomes the one-per-week rule (but usually only allows one per spell).

Example Wound Charts

To generate a result, roll 2d10, keep the lowest die, and add the total number of other wounds the character has (i.e., wounds get nastier the more wounded you already are).

Slashing Damage

Result Wound DC Untreated Effect Unrecovered Effect
1-2 Shallow Cut 10 Bleeding 1 -1 Fort vs. infections and contact poisons
3-5 Leg Wound 15 Bleeding 1, -5 ft. Movement -5 ft. Movement (stacks with Untreated)
6-10 Bleeding Wound 20 Bleeding 2 -2 all actions (from pain)
11+ Severed Arm 25 Bleeding 3 -4 all actions; even when recovered, the character is still missing the arm

Piercing Damage

Result Wound DC Untreated Effect Unrecovered Effect
1-2 Flesh Wound 10 Bleeding 1 -1 Fort vs. infections and contact poisons
3-5 Deep Gouge 15 Bleeding 2 -2 all actions (from pain)
6-10 Torso Puncture 20 Bleeding 2, Shock -3 all actions (from pain)
11+ Heart or Head 25 Bleeding 3, Shock, Instant Death without Fort save at the DC -4 all actions

Bludgeoning Damage

Result Wound DC Untreated Effect Unrecovered Effect
1-2 Bruised 10 -1 all actions (from pain) None (just serves as a wound to recover before more serious wounds)
3-5 Broken Arm 15 -4 all actions (from pain) -2 all actions with broken arm
6-10 Maimed 20 Bleeding 2 -2 all actions (from pain)
11+ Crushed Skull 25 Unconscious until treated, Instant Death without Fort save at the DC -4 all actions

Blood Mandate

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This isn’t so much a full system as an interesting bit of math that popped into my head on reading Harbinger’s post about Birthright. It’s essentially an averaging function for settings like Birthright where certain characters (hopefully PCs) have some potency of blood that sets them above others. Maybe the high fantasy world’s rulers really do have a divine inheritance. Maybe the modern occult world’s sorcerers are carefully protecting a flickering fire in the blood from ancient Atlantis. Maybe the supers world’s mutants breed true, and everyone wants to be descended from the really potent heroes.

It’s an exercise for the GM to make sure to avoid the obvious pitfalls in this kind of idea that would make it come off as really racist 🙂 .

The Math

The math is very simple: when two individuals have a child, average the magical power stat appropriate to your setting.

  • If your setting expects power to be something that can be maintained for generation after generation (at the cost of a little inbreeding), round fractions up. That is, in slightly uneven pairings, the kid will tend to maintain the stronger parent’s power.
  • If your setting wants a really, really inbred nobility and power that fades as soon as a dynasty is broken, round fractions down. In even slightly uneven pairings, this will mean a permanent decrease in the power of the next generation that can never be repaired.

The bigger your power stat gets, the more generations you can have before simple rounding math tends to cause dalliances to weaken the line down to nothing. That is, if your power stat only goes up to 10, rounding down is often much more detrimental than if it goes up to 1000.

But, honestly, the math is probably something that happens in the background when you’re setting up NPC family lines, and maybe a roleplaying pressure on powered PCs to choose between their One True Peasant Loves and those unlikeable but well-bred marriages their parents arranged for them. The idea is to mathematically back up a culture of inbreeding and insular nobility. It’s not just superstition: that family that can’t clot can move mountains with its powers.

Revitalizing the Line

Even in an averaging up system, unless the setting is about how far the mighty have fallen since the golden age when the blood was still strong and men had not faded, you’ll need a way to put high numbers back into the system. Possibilities include:

  • Boink with Greatness: Sometimes the gods (or inexplicable beings of similar import) walk the world, and they have the highest possible power stat. The kids they leave behind would average out half the highest possible stat even if they’re from some powerless peasant, and they’re even more powerful if someone from the nobility can arrange a liaison.
  • Throwbacks and Wellsprings: Sometimes, inexplicably, a normal person is born with an abnormally high power stat, or gains one from an event that can’t be reproduced. Maybe it’s because the magic genetics aren’t fully understood, and a high power can become dormant only to rise up, or maybe it’s just that magic is weird and can sometimes supercharge someone with no particular lineage. Suddenly, a seeming nobody is likely to be elevated to prominence, and may drag friends and family along.
  • New King, New Mandate: Sometimes, power is not something that is husbanded, but claimed by conquest. The royalty of the world doesn’t really like to make it obvious that inheriting rulership allows the blood to thin, but taking it by force inevitably results in a new surge of power for the conqueror. History is full of lines that bred their power for as long as they could but inevitably waned until a distant cousin or total nobody raised an army, sat the throne, and started a new dynasty to start the cycle all over.

Blood Magic Weirdness

  • The story of the Countess of Blood is an oddity for most, but a cautionary tale for the nobility. Of course you can maintain your youth and beauty by bathing in the blood of the young and beautiful. You can take all kinds of useful traits in a similar fashion, if it strikes your fancy. But each time you do, it’s like you’re born again as child of your former power and the power of your victim; if you bathe in the blood of peasants, each bath halves your power. The only way to perform the ritual without loss of power would be to murder someone of equal or greater station, and anything you could get from a peasant isn’t worth the permanent cost in power.
  • They say that in the early days, potent blood led to a form of immortality. The first kings never truly died, they simply slept in their tombs and mystic isles. If those stories are true, in these days of weakening blood, we must fear that someday the ancient royalty will wake, find us wanting, and reclaim their birthrights. The early days were not nearly so enlightened as our current age, so pray that these ancient warlords do not rise up.
  • You think I don’t want you to be happy. That I’m just trying to protect our family’s power, and that’s why I don’t want you to marry your peasant love. It’s true, your child would be half as powerful as you are. But it’s worse. That level of drop in power is much harder on the parent that doesn’t have power to bring to the tryst. I’ve heard stories of noblewomen that sucked the life out of their strapping peasant lads to conceive, and noblemen whose peasant brides couldn’t survive the birth of a powered child. It doesn’t happen every time, mind you, but it happens much more than you’d think, and much more than normal breeding. Do you want to risk that your lover will be lucky? Or do you want to do the right thing, breed within your station, and allow your low-born love a long life with a spouse that’s equally bereft of power?

Don’t Forget Your Aspects

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Pretty simple idea today, brought on by the cryonic heads episode of Fringe. This campaign premise is intended as something of a bait-and-switch, so you should inform your players that it’s a mystery and that they should hopefully trust you and roll with it.

What the players don’t know initially (but will piece together through the course of the scenario) is that they were cryogenically frozen after death. The initial scenario takes place in a computer simulation designed to repair the characters’ brains before releasing them into the high-tech future. That is, the entire game is an elaborate prologue for a “modern characters awake in a sci-fi setting” game. Nova Praxis is probably perfect for this, and the text below assumes a build of Fate, but really anything works. You can subtly adjust the questions to change up the scenario (e.g., maybe it’s a fantasy/horror setting and this is all a prelude to them getting resurrected after being long dead).

Why bother? Because it’s often easier to introduce a setting with vastly different and complex background details with fish-out-of-water modern characters that aren’t expected to know anything the audience doesn’t, and that’s generally hard to do with sci-fi settings. Further, it’s often hard for you to get certain players to give you deep insight into their character psychology without running them through a system that’s all about their psychology.

Also, every time we entertain in fiction that all those frozen rich geeks are getting resurrected in the future, it justifies it just a little bit for them 🙂 .

The System

This uses a standard build of Don’t Rest Your Head. Obviously, the circumstances of the City will be different. This isn’t a place that’s exactly out to get the characters, so much as trying to get them to remember. But they’re suffering major brain damage/freezer burn being slowly repaired, so a little horror may be a natural result of them trying to come to terms with their deaths and science-augmented rebirths.

Exhaustion represents the brain exerting itself to be repaired, having a harder and harder time staying cogent in this electrically-stimulated half-life. The Exhaustion Talent should ultimately map to the character’s top skill when built in Fate.

Madness represents the character rebelling against what is in many ways a cross between the Matrix and a lucid dream, making things happen not really intended by the scenario, and the Madness Talent represents an especially powerful glitch that the character can use. The talent may or may not map to a stunt when built in Fate.

Crashing or Snapping may be temporary setbacks, or may indicate that the character’s brain cannot be saved, depending on whether you’re really just running a prelude and you want them all to move on, or whether you want them to work for it.

Pain and all its attendant problems represents the characters’ own subconscious nihilism: the monsters are almost entirely their own reasons for thinking they don’t deserve to come back from the dead. It should probably be rather like Silent Hill, a lot of the time.

The Questions

  • How’d you make your money? (Even if they don’t remember it, all the characters were rich enough to pay to be cryogenically preserved. If someone chooses to answer this in a way that negates the question, then you get to invent the weird circumstances for why someone else decided to pay to put them on ice.)
  • Why do you want to live? (This should hopefully tease out why the characters paid to be preserved without giving the game totally away.)
  • Why are you afraid you deserve to die? (This gives you fuel for designing the Pain creatures the characters will face.)
  • What’s your biggest secret? (Another issue to be resolved by Pain.)
  • What’s the last thing you remember? (A twist on the standard What Just Happened question, this actually indicates a moment before the character died, but which will be built upon by the simulation. You should encourage the players to be somewhat stressful or sinister, but less weird and horrible than normal for DRYH.)

The Scenario

Depending on how they answered the questions, the easiest way to go is probably The Game through Silent Hill through The Matrix/Dark City.

That is, start to build up an initial wrong impression that they were kidnapped for something related to their money. The final memory in reality was a significant memory not too long before the character died, but probably didn’t actually mean anything sinister. But here, it suddenly is full of portent and gets spun out into a different logical path. Especially if you have the characters all start out together in a locked room, it probably won’t be long before they decide that they’re all rich and must have been kidnapped.

Before too long, they should start to see cracks showing in the belief that this is a simple kidnapping. Set the nightmare nob to the level you’re comfortable with, and all the dark entities they run into should gradually resolve into being elements from each of the characters’ fractured psyches. They should probably get the impression that they’re in a Purgatory of their own sins and psychodramas.

But they have superpowers, taxing though they are. As they deal with threats, the seams of the simulation should become more and more apparent. This is a scenario constructed of advanced but still limited technology: the AI isn’t as smart as they are and the playspace isn’t infinite; monsters can be tricked, NPCs are strangely lacking in complexity, and doors can’t be opened or loop back around. Towards the end, they have probably figured out they’re in a box and are just trying to figure out the key.

They key is defining their Aspects. Whichever build of Fate you’re using, figure out the number and categories of the Aspects that are needed (e.g., High Concept and Trouble plus others or the Aspect alphabet in Strands of Fate/Nova Praxis). Try to herd the players into situations where they might exemplify something about their natures. When someone does something dramatic and personal that might fit into an Aspect category, break the fourth wall and ask them a question (possibly including the simplified adjective that you think might make a good Aspect, e.g., “Are you always this Strong?”).

The goal is to get the player to respond with a full sentence that becomes an Aspect (rather than just a yes or no; e.g., “When I need to, I can move mountains!”). When that happens, very visibly write down what the player just said, while just nodding and moving on if you get a simple affirmation or negation. The players should pretty quickly pick up that they’re meant to be answering the questions with style.

Try to make sure the scenario targets players in a way that keeps the questions answered with Aspects even, so they can basically all get their total number of Aspects at the same time (possibly with one final set of questions before the walls come down). Once they all have their full allotment of Aspects, the simulation has successfully rebuilt their personalities, and they can be decanted into new bodies (or just a virtual lobby as the scientists explain what actually happened and give them a full range of output options) and make their characters in Fate.

Then, shortly afterwards, they can have an exciting scene of bitching at a bunch of resurrection techs for what they were just put through.