Dresden Files: Alternate Lawbreaker Rules

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I’m thinking about running a warden-focused Dresden Files game in the not-too-distant future, and I was thinking about adding a simple change to the way the Lawbreaker stunt works. For those unfamiliar with the universe of the game, there are seven laws of magic (don’t kill with magic, don’t mind control, etc.) that are formalized by the wizards’ ruling body but enforced somewhat by reality: since you have to believe fully in your magic to get it to work, doing terrible things with it (even for initially noble ends) warps you. You gradually become the kind of person that does those horrible things as a matter of habit, which is why the council generally has a zero-tolerance stance on breaking the laws. It’s a lot like going to the dark side.

The game rules model this descent as a power you have to buy the first time you break a law, and you have to buy it to a second rank if you keep breaking the law. If you break the law even further, it begins changing your Aspects to twisted versions that mention the lawbreaking. The power gives you a +1 (+2 at rank two) to any further magic rolls to create effects that break the law.

The problem I’ve found with the standard implementation is that my players are outright allergic to suboptimal character build choices. They’ll refuse to break magical laws not because they’re not tempted, or because they’re worried about the wardens, but because that +1 for a power isn’t mechanically optimal. Particularly for wizard characters, who are pretty strapped for powers after buying their standard package, there’s practically zero temptation to do anything that will force them to spend character build currency on a power they don’t want (and which is mechanically very weak, compared to the other power and stunt options).

So the tweak is simply to make the power “free” up front, but, when the character is compelled to break a law, the cost to buy out of the compel is increased by the rank of the power. For example, if you have rank two of Lawbreaker: First (i.e., don’t murder with magic), when the GM offers a fate point to murder someone with magic, it costs three fate points to choose not to. And, if you continue to sin and sin, those twists to your aspects will make you much easier to compel in a variety of circumstances.

(A slightly less downward spirally version of this change suggests that players cannot be compelled to break laws until they have Lawbreaker rank one and that doesn’t change the cost to buy out, and rank one just increases the cost to two fate points. This would prevent the GM from straight up engineering falls: you have to make that first choice yourself.)

A character trying to redeem him or herself could reverse the process, cleansing aspects and eventually removing rank two with an unbroken sequence of buy outs of the compel to sin further (up to the GM how many buy outs in a row are required to recover). But you can’t ever get rid of rank one; per the source material, once you’ve broken a law, it changes you, and you have to resist the urge to keep doing it for the rest of your life.

I think this tweak should preserve the intent of the system, while making it much more attractive to character optimizers.

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Straight-Up Premise Theft: Sense8

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The Elevator Pitch

Eight unrelated individuals from around the world share a dream one night: a woman commits suicide to keep herself and her friends from a creepy old man and his conspiracy. Each in the midst of his or her own problems, they begin to see and feel strange things. They find people they don’t know watching them in moments of crisis, and find themselves seeing others from across the world in their own troubling moments. Soon, they haltingly learn to do more than project as “holograms” that only the others can see, and to actually share sensory impressions and skills with one another when one member is more suited to dealing with problems. And problems they have, for these new tendencies to space out and see things begin to exacerbate their own issues, as well as putting them on the radar of the conspiracy that killed their “mother” to these strange gifts.

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

The Premise

The reason for the powers, the setting, and the nature of problems and conspiracies can vary vastly, but the powerset is specific:

  • Player characters can project at will to experience what any other member of the group can experience (manifesting as an observer that only the others can see).
  • While projected, the character is vulnerable, but not unconscious: when you’re visiting someone else, your body continues on in an autopilot that can handle most things that don’t require a skill check (you’ll continue walking, even driving if it’s not too complicated, and space out but not immediately obviously abandon a conversation, etc.). If you’re just having a conversation with another PC, you can flip back and forth between locations, each taking turns being the one projected, with minimal loss of concentration toward what you’re doing.
  • With permission of another member, you can take over that member’s body, using your traits to handle his or her problems (you basically take over the PC using your PC’s skills; it’s up to the GM and system in question whether it makes sense to also give him or her your attributes). Any negative effects suffered while puppeting another character are suffered by the puppet.

Essentially, any PC can be present in any scene with another PC as an observer that only the other PCs can detect. If a PC doesn’t have the right skills for a problem, he or she can temporarily cede control of his or her body to another PC that does. The only limitation to the ability of a diversely skilled group is that they’re often only bringing one person to bear on a problem (albeit a person with any skills necessary for the task).

The Rationale

I’m not sure how common it is at other tables, but groups I’ve played in have never followed the “don’t split the party” mandate. A common way to run games is, in fact, for the GM to introduce everyone as unrelated characters, cut between scenes where one player character is active and the other players just watch and wait their turns, and slowly create a situation that naturally draws the characters together (but it might take several sessions). Even after meeting, the PCs might have built up unrelated sidequests and problems that don’t really demand that the group tackle them as a unit.

The Sense8 powerset fully enables this type of play. PCs start out unrelated, and can be distributed across the world if the GM’s got enough locations prepared, but they can each be present in one anothers’ scenes. There’s no time spent having to catch the others up when you do happen to synch back, explaining how much of what their players witnessed that you actually remember to tell them (one of the worst things in this style of play is when you, as a player, spot something that your character would want the other PC to notice or drill down on, but you can’t actually do anything about it until you get back together and hope the other player considers it relevant to mention passing on; with these powers, you can just tell the other PC to ask about it or look at it). And you can participate fully in a scene that you’re not in, even beyond being the peanut gallery: when the active PC needs to make a check that he or she isn’t great at, you can lend your skills.

Essentially, this powerset means that the party cannot be split, and the GM is free to run lots of simultaneous scenes where nobody feels like they need to sit, be quiet, and observe but not metagame.

Borrowing from Video Games: The Witcher’s Tally War

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Each Witcher game introduces several minigames to divert from the main gameplay. The Witcher 3‘s addition is Gwent: a deck-building card game that is structured to resemble warfare. In the context of the game’s world, there has just been a long war that engulfed the nations that your character calls home, and the cards in the game reflect the factions and characters involved in the war. (Not germane to the use of the system herein, but it does a really good job of reminding you of characters you’ll be encountering in the main plot: if you’ve seen their cards in the game, you know who they fought for and what their general role was.)

A good overview of the game can be found here. But for the highlights:

  • Each player must have a deck of at least 22 cards, and ten are pulled for the match.
  • Each card has a value associated with it.
  • You alternate turns playing cards. Either player can pass instead of taking a turn (but then the other player gets as many turns as desired until she also decides to pass).
  • The goal is to have the highest score at the end of a round (after both players pass), and win two rounds out of three.
  • You don’t normally draw more cards during a match, so the basic strategy involves tricking the other player into using up all of her good cards for an easy first win, leaving you with enough cards to win two rounds. Or just having a much more powerful deck with more high-value cards than the other player (cards are collected during play of the larger RPG, rather than any kind of balance being involved in forming the decks at the time of a match).

When you first start playing, the highlights are all you really need, but as you gain more cards and face opponents with better decks, you start to notice deeper functions:

  • Cards are siege, ranged, or melee. Different special effects modify cards based on what type they are.
  • Many cards have special abilities such as being spies (lets you give the card to your opponent’s tally, but draw more cards from your deck), medics (lets you instantly play a card from your discard pile), morale boosters (increases every ally card of the same type by +1), mustering (lets you play every card with the same name instantly even from your main deck), tight bonders (doubles the point value of identical ally cards), or agile (lets you treat the card as ranged or melee when you play it, whichever works better for your strategy and available cards).
  • Special cards can be weather effects that reduce all cards of a certain type to base value 1 (for both players), warhorns that let you double all ally cards of a particular type, scorch cards that take out all the cards with the currently highest value (possibly including your own if you aren’t careful), and decoys that let you pull a card back into your hand (to take back a high-value card after forcing your opponent to waste cards to counter it, or to pick up a spy that your opponent has just used so you can turnabout and turn it into a triple agent, drawing more cards yourself).
  • The most notable characters in the game are hero cards. Heroes are generally very high value, and are immune to negative effects (they can’t be reduced by weather or scorched). Unfortunately, they’re also immune to positive effects (they can’t benefit from warhorns or morale boosts, be restored by medics, or be picked back up with a decoy).
  • Each faction has a special ability and can have one version of a commander card (with an additional once-per-match special ability).

Taken together, what initially seems like a slightly more complicated version of War actually proves to have tremendous strategic and tactical depth.

And it might be a really good system for doing mass combat for D&D/Pathfinder.

In particular, things it does by default that work well for d20 include:

  • There’s a built in understanding that one protagonist is worth a whole unit of basic NPCs: cards with a named character are generally worth more points than cards that represent whole units. This tends to jibe with actual D&D play in a way that most mass combat systems don’t: clearly, a single PC with good defenses and AoEs is able to mow unharmed through a whole squad of lower level soldiers.
  • The heroes system seems purpose-built to represent PCs and major NPCs.
  • The point value of cards maps pretty directly to level, while special abilities can represent specific training boosts.
  • It’s much faster and more fun to play than traditional mass combat systems.

Specific changes I’d make to the game to fit it specifically into a campaign include:

  • Decide early on how many soldiers are needed to create a unit card. This can be many or few, as the drawing system will wind up balancing them. Larger creatures might need fewer for a unit (e.g., a unit of archers might represent 40 characters, but a unit of Ogres only 10). Also decide whether non-hero NPCs are just the face of a unit (e.g., is that NPC card just representing him, or him and a support staff?). This will influence how much you need to force the PCs to care about paying for their units during downtime, and should ultimately reflect how many mooks you think a single PC could take out during a battle.
  • Figure out what the bar is for gaining a special ability. The standard game features cards that don’t have specials and ones that do, and if you’re using level as the card’s value number it’s harder to balance the card by reducing that level when you add a special. Instead, having a special ability should usually be the sign of an elite unit (possibly one that has better gear, PC class levels, or just some expensive form of training).
  • Figure out whether there are certain bonuses and penalties for setting up a battle. For example, having a stronger battlefield position may let you start the game by drawing more cards than your opponent, or, assuming neither side has a caster with Control Weather, weather cards might be completely up to the GM to play based on the conditions during the battle.

I’d suggest using the normal single-match method of play only for minor sorties with nothing really on the line. For campaign-deciding wars, I’d suggest a version that’s iterated:

  • Each match represents approximately a day of fighting.
  • Each deck represents all available units. If units are moving from distant places to join the war, cards that were not available on day one can be added to your deck for subsequent matches once they arrive as reinforcements.
  • The first match is played normally.
  • At the end of the first match, the loser removes all non-hero cards from his discard pile (they were killed or otherwise totally disbanded), and sets aside the hero cards (they were injured enough that they won’t help in subsequent matches). The winner shuffles her discarded hero cards back into the main deck, and moves the remaining discards to an “infirmary pile” (they’re not dead, and can be pulled from by Medic cards, but will otherwise not be available until the end of the war. Cards remaining in hand (because you passed and won or lost with cards remaining) are shuffled back into the deck.
  • Subsequent matches use the same deck (with modifications for reinforcements and non-injured heroes). If you have multiple players that are interested in having a go, you can trade out which player is in the hot seat from match to match. (On a round that a player is in control, you might consider having her pull her PC from the deck as an automatic add, if not already injured, because playing your own character card is fun.)
  • The war ends when one side gets totally run out of cards or forfeits completely.
  • In addition to deciding who won the war, the end of the game should provide a tally of units that are dead/disbanded, just injured, or still in fighting shape for later wars or just for the general story purpose of describing what happened. You might also consider giving surviving units a chance to level up based on how well everything went.

Ultimately, this should wind up playing similarly to my previously posted card-based battle system (which was fun, but time-consuming to set up), but likely with more feeling of fun and agency for the players (since there are a number of more interesting tactics you can pursue beyond just trying to assemble the biggest army).

Straight-Up Premise Theft: The Almighty Johnsons

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

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

The Elevator Pitch

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

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

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

The Premise

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

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

The Rationale

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

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