Hacking Initiative, Part 3

Leave a comment

This final installment is an inventory of some of the commonly used initiative systems, at least in games I’ve played, and what I find to be their strengths and weaknesses.

The Modern D&D Standard

Since 3e, D&D has been using pretty similar variations on Declare and Act in Order-style: each character gets a unique imitative score once per combat that’s the sum of a d20 roll and modifiers (usually Dex modifier plus miscellaneous bonuses from feats). The GM then counts down from the highest to the lowest each round, with some ability to ready and/or hold to reset initiative. Your order seldom changes within a given battle.

Strengths: The main advantage of this style is that it allows you to use “until the [start/end] of your next turn” as a counter that means “this will give everyone else in the fight the chance to go before it ends. If it’s something defensive, it lasts through a full set of enemy actions. If it’s a group buff or debuff, it affects everyone else once. If it’s something that can be interrupted, all the enemies get a chance to interrupt it. There’s also low overhead after the first round: once you get everyone’s order worked out, you can just cycle through it until the fight ends without further delay from recalculation/reordering.

Weaknesses: This initiative system is so powerfully boring that the current lead designer is publicly trying to replace it. After the first round, you just get locked into the same cycle over and over again, and having a really good initiative bonus really only gets you one round of benefit due to the continuous cycle (e.g., if you go first and can’t get to an enemy, it’s almost like you’re going last). While subsequent rounds are easy enough to keep track of, the first round actually takes a non-trivial amount of work to figure out, as you have to write everyone’s name down with their initiative result and make sure you leave enough space to fit in the players that tell you a result that’s between two existing results. If you have enough actors, you can inculcate further delay as players forget when they’re going to go, get distracted, and don’t start planning their actions until called upon by the GM.

Beyond the Wall

The system used in Beyond the Wall is very similar to D&D, with a crucial difference: initiative score is fixed rather than rolled. All PCs have an initiative score equal to level + Dex mod + class bonus. Most NPCs just use level unmodified (so will often go last unless they outclass the PCs, and won’t go first unless they significantly outclass the PCs, due to PC rogues often getting a +4 or better to their level for this score).

Strengths: In addition to most of the strengths of the standard D&D mechanic, the crucial benefit is that you don’t have the first round calculation drain. It’s even recommended that you have the players sit around the table in the order of their PCs’ initiative scores, so you can just whip around the table, pausing for wherever the monsters are inserted.

Weaknesses: This has most of the same weaknesses as standard D&D, with the addition of losing any kind of variation at all. In practice, however, this isn’t much of a drawback. I don’t really feel like the variations due to rolling mean that much in the long run when you’re only randomizing once per combat (and characters with good bonuses are going to go first more often than not anyway), and the speed in this method is a big help. Additionally, by placing the players in order around the table, it’s much more obvious when your turn is about to happen, so it’s not a surprise when you get called on (and, thus, you’ve often started planning your action, further speeding things up).

Group Initiative

As mentioned previously, when running D&D/Pathfinder I actually tend to use group initiative for the reasons outlined by Ben Robbins. In my particular variation, I average out the NPCs’ initiative bonus, have everyone roll, and the players with a higher score than the enemies get a free turn, the enemies go, then all the PCs go, and so on, alternating between NPCs and PCs. Players are free to strategize and trade their order within the PC turn.

Strengths: This preserves most of the advantages of the standard D&D initiative, while encouraging much more tactical play as players coordinate. Particularly in 3.x/Pathfinder, when you could freely delay your action and lower your initiative score, players could choose to coordinate in this way if they wanted to anyway. Players tend to consider their overall strategy and cooperate much better, in my experience. It’s also a little faster than the standard, because the GM doesn’t have to write anything down, just figure out who gets a free turn before the NPCs.

Weaknesses: There could be some disruption in the timing of effects (players can decide to go before or after their allies, depending on whether stretching or shrinking the duration of an effect is helpful). If a lot is going on, you may need some kind of marker to remember to get to everyone (“Wait… did I go this round already? It’s been so long since I’ve gone…”). Pushier players can dominate play, always going first and/or puppeting the choices of less opinionated players (though, as discussed in the previous posts, this might not always be the worst thing).

Balsera/Popcorn

Used first in Marvel Heroic and later in various other projects including Atomic Robo, this system includes a few varying mechanics to decide who goes first and sometimes to break the order, but otherwise simply has the last player to act declare the next character to act (from a pool of characters that haven’t acted yet this round).

Strengths: This is extremely fast to set up, and has even stronger tactical play than group initiative: there’s a lot of strategy in picking an order that provides synergy to your team and disadvantages the choices of the enemies. It generally results in a natural shakeup of the action order each turn, without any randomization required.

Weaknesses: It’s very hard to do much with bonuses in this system (unless they’re constructed to allow you to seize the initiative somehow). You cannot reliably use “until your next turn” mechanics with it, as the length in between turns can be extremely variable.

Shadowrun

Superficially a Declare and Act in Order system similar to D&D, Shadowrun’s system features multiple turns within a single round as a core feature. Essentially, while basic characters will usually have an initiative result under 10, enhanced characters can easily exceed this limit (possibly getting initiatives in the 20s or even 30s). Once a full pass through in decreasing order of initiative has happened, everyone deducts 10 from their score, and those that still have a positive result get another pass for additional turns (e.g., if one character has a 22 initiative, and the rest have under 10, the 22 initiative character will go first, everyone else will go, and then the 22 initiative character will get to go twice again before the end of the round). Initiative is rerolled every round, and there are other actions that can cost initiative (making it less likely to get an additional turn).

Strengths: Shadowrun is the pinnacle of focus on how character speed grants a huge advantage due to the imitative system: it’s a really good system to advantage playing fast characters. Since each round can include multiple passes, effects that use your action but last for the remainder of the round can actually be hugely helpful if you’re going to get to go again while the effect is still active. Due to rolling each round, and the breakpoints in results that means a great initiative roll can get you an extra action beyond just a good roll, the order remains meaningful and interesting.

Weaknesses: The system is hugely time consuming and fiddly. It has all the time delay drawbacks of D&D’s initiative, and beyond. There’s a tremendous amount of bookkeeping for the GM. Effects that last for the rest of the round can matter hugely, or not at all, depending on how many actions are left.

Classic Storyteller

The Storyteller initiative mechanic, which solidified in the Revised editions and seems to be more or less intact in the 20th anniversary editions, is a Declare First, Act in Order system with reverse declaration of actions and a general intention of rerolling each round. The roll is unusual for the system: in an attempt to speed up the slowness of it all, you roll a single d10 and add your relevant traits instead of rolling a dice pool. Multiple actions (very common in most of the games) work a lot like Shadowrun, in that everyone with additional actions takes them after the first normal pass through the initiative.

Strengths: Honestly, there aren’t really a lot of pluses to this system, unless you really, really like reverse action declaration and re-randomzing each round.

Weaknesses: It’s slow and cumbersome. It is key to the system’s defensive death spiral (in that you have to sacrifice your upcoming action to try to dodge or parry an attack, which still might do a little damage, and now you don’t have an action to fight back so you really just hope you go first next round to put the enemy on the defensive). It really only works at all because combat tends to be very rare in the World of Darkness compared to D&D. And, honestly, I don’t think anyone I’ve every played with remembered that you’re supposed to reverse declare, implicitly turning it into a Declare and Act in Order system.

Fading Suns

The initiative system in Fading Suns is clearly derived from the same 90s sensibilities as Storyteller’s, but takes it in a different direction (possibly because combat was supposed to happen a lot more in the setting). Initiative is a pure comparison of whatever primary skill you’re using for the round (e.g., if you’re shooting someone, your initiative is equal to your Shoot skill), with ties broken by speed-related traits. It’s technically then a Declare and Act in Order system, except that you’ve implicitly at least made something of a declaration by choosing which skill you’re using.

Strengths: It’s almost as fast as Beyond the Wall’s system, and easy to understand, with some interesting room for variation.

Weaknesses: Practically, it’s just Beyond the Wall’s fixed initiative system: you’re almost always just going to use your best combat skill in a fight, so your initiative is going to vary extremely rarely.

The One Ring

The latest Middle Earth-themed RPG has a very straightforward and interesting initiative system: your initiative order is purely based on what “stance” you take each round (which is basically your position + intention; in order to make a ranged attack, for example, you have to take a particular stance and have party members that are taking melee stances to screen you from the enemy). Each stance has its own mechanics, so you’re picking it for tactical reasons and your initiative order just falls out of those decisions.

Strengths: Unlike most other initiative systems, there’s an extremely strong tactical component: your turn order is intimately linked to your action choice, but in a way that’s faster than typical declarations or weapon speed rules.

Weaknesses: Practically, there’s a very limited range of initiative results, so there could be some annoyance breaking ties in big fights. I don’t have enough playtest experience with this to fully understand further limitations.

One Roll Engine

An interesting variation on a Declare First system, the One Roll Engine games (e.g., Wild Talents, Better Angels, etc.) get everyone to decide what they’re trying to do, everyone rolls their actions, and then the order is determined by the results of the roll (the system generates success results with both a “width” and a “height,” so one can be used for effect and one can be used for speed). Your intended action can be invalidated by your opponent getting a faster result (taking damage tends to also damage your success total if you  haven’t acted yet).

Strengths: As far as actually simulating the chaos of a “realistic” combat, ORE’s mechanic is probably a much better model than any other system where everyone takes discrete turns. It collides intention and execution in a way that nothing else does.

Weaknesses: ORE is confusing as hell. As discussed previously, we wound up converting my Better Angels game to Savage Worlds because everyone was so baffled by the system. I suspect that it all becomes very cool if you have a group dedicated to really learning the dice paradigm and using it effectively, but that was not my group. I may try it again at some point and hope for a better result.

Savage Worlds

Speaking of Savage Worlds, its initiative system is the one that’s pretty much completely divorced from in-game traits or decisions: you draw cards from a deck each round and Declare and Act in Order from the best card to the worst (with a Joker giving you a bonus and the ability to act at any point in the round).

Strengths: Since it’s so divorced from the rest of the system, it’s probably the fastest way to re-randomize each round if that’s your bliss. It’s extremely easy to mod further to your tastes, because it’s so detached from the rest of the mechanics.

Weaknesses: It’s very detached from the rest of the mechanics. You’re not really modeling anything more than, “It’s exciting when we go in a different order every round!” It’s ultimately the epitome of randomization equaling fairness: sometimes you go first, sometimes you go last, and you’ll probably get to do both within a fairly short collection of combats.

The Rest

Most of the other games I’ve played with any regularity are very similar to one of the ones above, or are games with such little relative space devoted to combat rules that the initiative system is basically “go in the order that makes sense; if you have a disagreement, break ties this way…” Clearly this isn’t an exhaustive list, and I’m interested in hearing from commenters about other games with interesting initiative mechanics.

Hacking Initiative, Part 2

Leave a comment

Last time, I laid out the components of common initiative systems. This time, I’m going to look deeper into the potential ramifications of hacking the initiative system in your own game.

Integrated Systems

The first step to take before tinkering with initiative in an existing game is to consider what other elements of the game system are integrated into initiative: if you make major changes, what other rules are you going to have to alter as well?

Since D&D is the inspiring example, the following are the major follow-on effects of changing initiative:

  • A number of effects in the game have their durations set to the activating player’s next turn. The intent with these is often that every other character in the combat will get to take a turn before the effect completes. How does changing the fixed initiative order affect these durations?
  • All characters normally get to add Dexterity and potentially other bonuses to initiative. Will you be changing the perceived value of Dexterity if you change how initiative works? Will you have to adjust feats or class abilities that previously gave a bonus to initiative to keep them worthwhile?
  • Some mechanics trigger based on permutations of the initiative round. For example, Assassin Rogues get a bonus to attack anyone that hasn’t acted yet; does this class feature become less valuable with a different initiative system?

You can also have these problems in reverse. For example, in Savage Worlds, by default initiative isn’t tied to any stats or other major mechanics (in core, a couple of powers make changes to the system). If you changed it to a more traditional initiative system, you’d be giving a new bonus effect to whatever traits enhanced your initiative result.

Especially if you’re tinkering with a game where your players have already made build choices, it’s important to get buy-in for any changes: your players might have made different purchases if your house rule had been in place from the start.

Speed and Coordination

The more often you make decisions and randomizations in your initiative system, the more time it’s going to eat up at the table. This can be entirely related to time to employ the system (e.g., rolling and adding each round is obviously more time than just doing it once at the start of combat). It can also have to do with the coordination overhead involved (if you’re using a system that allows players some discretion in who goes next, there’s much more impetus for table chatter to work out the optimal order).

Even beyond the speed involved, degree of player coordination is a major component of different initiative systems. In team initiative and Balsera/popcorn-style, almost the entire point is to get the players to figure out what order makes the most tactical sense. Conversely, in declare and act in order and tick-based styles, there’s not often a lot of control other players’ needs can have on when you get to go. In the middle, declare first systems can have some level of up-front coordination (e.g., “I’m almost certainly going to go first and kill that guy this round, so don’t declare your attack on him.”), but less than when the players have precise control over who goes before someone else.

Due to the level of coordination allowed, your group makeup can have a huge impact on what makes sense for your initiative house rule. If you have players that aren’t comfortable thinking tactically within the system, choosing a style with more coordination can help get players to work better as a team. Conversely, if you have players that are too comfortable thinking tactically, you might want to limit coordination out of worry that they’ll boss the other players around. Meanwhile, you should also consider how long your turns wind up taking. If your players are generally very fast to choose and resolve actions, you have space to change initiative to something that takes a little more time. But if your rounds already drag under a faster initiative system, it can create further slog in your combats to change to initiative that requires more time.

The Simulation Trap

Ultimately, a lot of initiative tinkering seems to me like it happens out of a desire to fix combat on a simulation level. Initiative, as mentioned in the last article, is a huge abstraction with results that are highly counterintuitive if you’re looking for something that simulates reality (or at least would make sense in a movie). In real fights (and even the “real” fights of popular entertainment), everyone acts at the same time, and the more people that are involved the more chaotic everything becomes. It can be very tempting to try to fix the obvious fakeness of RPG fights by coming up with an initiative system that’s a better simulation of reality.

However, the closer you get to something that feels genuine, the more complex your initiative system will become. It’s probably a Zeno’s paradox of systems design: something that gets halfway closer to perfection takes twice as much time and effort at the table. If you could create a system that perfectly matched your expectation of what can happen in a “real” fight, it would likely require minutes for every in-game second for each person in the fight. Given that so much of combat is a huge abstraction in the first place, when attempting to hack initiative, make sure you’re not turning your fights into a boring slog in pursuit of a level of simulation your players won’t really care about anyway. The end result of lovingly creating a voluminous rules engine that captures an element of the world in a thorough way is almost always to have your players avoid it as much as possible because it’s way too confusing and time consuming (see, also, D&D 3e‘s grappling rules).

Next time, I’ll do a lightweight review of initiative systems in various games I’ve played, and why I like or dislike them.

Hacking Initiative, Part 1

Leave a comment

I’ve been thinking about initiative systems lately, after an excellent article by Brandes and a video by Matt Colville (responding to Mike Mearls’ short initiative house rule). In this first post, I lay out the various components and styles of initiative I’m aware of, for hacking your own initiative system.

Initiative’s Goals

Why even have an initiative system in the first place?

The first (and probably most important) reason is simply to mechanically simplify the chaos of decisions in an action scene. In many video games, action happens in real-time, so there’s no need for an initiative system: the computer is fast enough to run all the math for making decisions without a discernible delay. But, obviously, tabletop games lag real time resolution by various factors such as the number of acting players, the complexity of the rules set, the assumed duration of the action round, and the math talent and rules memorization of the group. Initiative systems, at root, strive to ensure that everyone in the action scene gets to act at a cadence that makes sense. Without one, there’s much more pressure on the GM and players to use their best judgements to “play fair” with only taking actions that make simulation or narrative sense within a given time frame.

A secondary goal is to simulate quicker characters within the scene. Any system that attempts to prioritize characters based on Dexterity or other speed- and wits-related stats follows this goal, while several systems forego it almost entirely to simplify resolution. This goal becomes important if you subscribe to the idea that certain individuals (either depending on their innate capabilities or the choices they’re making) will tend to have an advantage in simulated action. Most games with initiative systems tend to resolve actions completely for one character before moving on to the next one, instead of having action resolution for each round be “simultaneous.” In the latter kinds of system, simulating speed is less important, because weakening, incapacitating, or otherwise hindering a character on an earlier initiative step doesn’t actually affect them for that round. But it’s far easier to fully resolve each action before moving on to the next, and in those cases going before your opponent is a big advantage that it’s common to award due to character traits or other important system elements.

Finally, an often overlooked goal is to firewall individual player decisions. When an initiative system presents a player with a straightforward question of “it’s your turn, what do you do?” it’s much easier to be certain that player has full agency over the outcome. Fuzzier systems that allow for more player-to-player collaboration can inadvertently create a hero-and-henchmen scenario where more invested players wind up overtly stage-managing other PCs as part of a group declaration of actions. When each player has a designated turn for his or her PC, it becomes much easier for the GM to prevent that player from losing agency, because the structure makes it more obvious whether the player is doing what he or she actually wants, or just what the group’s loudest member suggested. This may be more or less of a problem for different groups, and GMs should be on guard against someone having less fun because of lost action scene agency regardless of initiative mechanism. Some players with lower investment and/or rules knowledge may actually prefer being given orders by other players.

Initiative Styles

There are so many RPGs in existence at this point that the actual range of initiative styles is probably far beyond the capacity of a single article to enumerate. So I’m going to try to list the most popular styles of which I’m aware. If you think there’s a really cool style that I left out, feel free to note it in the comments.

  • Declare and Act in Order: Likely the most common style these days, in this style each character in the action scene gets a turn that is fully established and resolved when the initiative order reaches the character. The character’s action decisions must incorporate everything that was resolved on previous turns and all successive turns will include the resolution of this turn’s actions.
  • Declare First, Act in Order: Another fairly common method, in this style all players declare their general or specific intentions for the acting characters at the start of the round (possibly with faster characters getting to declare actions later after hearing what slower characters intend to do). Characters then take their turns in initiative order, but must attempt what they’d originally declared even if the results of earlier turns change the tactical value of the action (the system may involve some ability to change actions with a penalty when the situation changes).
  • Team-Based: In some ways a subset of the first option, in this style there is only one “turn” per side within the scene (typically PCs vs. NPCs). Each team can vary the individual order of each character’s actions within the turn to create the best synergy and coordination. The turn ends when everyone on that team has taken the granted number of actions.
  • Tick-Based: In this style there are no formal rounds once an action scene has begun. Instead, each possible action has a cost in units of time (often referred to as “ticks”); when the character acts, that character can then act again at a time equal to the starting value plus the action cost. Characters taking faster actions may wind up acting many times more than characters taking slower actions, and may even get to act multiple times between turns for the slower character. There is typically some kind of system for breaking ties at the start of a round or when characters land on the same tick.
  • Balsera/Popcorn: This style works similarly to the first style, in that actions are declared and resolved fully in a character’s turn. However, rather than having an overall order, after resolving a turn, the player of the character that just acted chooses another character that hasn’t yet acted this turn to act next. When there are no more characters that haven’t acted, the round resets and the person that ended the last round gets to decide who starts the next.

Initiative Permutations

The overall styles also have specific permutations that change their exact implementations:

  • Fixed vs. Random: Any of the styles that sort characters into an initial order can do this via a fixed or random mechanism. In a fixed permutation, given the same choices, characters will always go in the same order (this might be truly fixed by a stat that changes infrequently, or based on some kind of decision like active skill/weapon or action type/stance). In a random one, players must use dice or other randomizer (likely plus a trait) to determine order each time initiative is determined.
  • Frequency of Ordering: It has become increasingly common to decide an initiative order only once, at the beginning of combat (with each subsequent round of combat featuring a repeating order unless there are actions or events that can change the order). However, many games expect initiative to be re-determined anew each round, changing the order of actions within each round of the fight.
  • Multiple Segments: There are certain systems (like Shadowrun and Feng Shui for all characters, and Storyteller for characters with bonus actions from speed powers) that allow characters the possibility of getting multiple turns in a single round. This can work similarly to the tick-based style, with an action’s time cost deducted from total initiative (so characters with high initiative and fast actions can go multiple times before slower characters), or resolve everyone’s first turns once in order before then resolving second turns in order (and so on until no one else has a bonus turn).
  • Source of Advantage: The choice of what traits add to initiative make a big difference in how players prioritize choices within the system. Many games simply give a fixed advantage based on some combination of quickness-related attributes and modifiers from bonus traits and gear/magic. Others make the decision based on action/skill type, action/weapon speed, stance, or other element that is a much more tactical choice (and is, thus, frequently combined with reordering each round).
  • Ally-Swappable Slots: Common to Fantasy Flight Games RPGs, in this permutation a turn may be traded to any ally that hasn’t acted yet that round. Fast characters may choose to go later in the round if slower allies can make better advantage of an earlier turn.
  • Delaying, Holding, and Reacting/Defaulting: Most initiative systems have some concept of ways to break the turn order. Commonly in Declare and Act in Order, faster characters can choose to skip some or all of their turns to interrupt an enemy’s action once declared (or just to better coordinate with a slower ally). There is often also some concept of reactive action choices, either as essentially an extra action when needed or as a way for slower characters to give up an active turn to defend against a faster attacker.
  • Resolve at End: Very uncommon these days, virtually any initiative style can choose to have any changes in status not take effect until the end of the round (as if everything happened simultaneously even though the system handled it in a fixed order). This method reduces the advantage of going faster and in-round coordination: trait changes (including being incapacitated/killed) won’t actually affect the current action, but will only take effect starting the next round.

Next time, I’ll look more at the potential effects of altering styles or permutations of existing games.

Alternate Changeling: Lucidity

Leave a comment

Independent of the setting changes I’d made for my update, the major rules change was the introduction of Lucidity. I’ve always thought Banality is a very strange decision for the Changeling system: AFAIK, it’s the only character sheet trait in the WoD that you don’t want to go up. So my goal was to revise and replace the systems related to Banality to introduce a mechanic that could be much more analogous to Glamour and Willpower.

This has follow-on effects on several other systems.

Lucidity and Glamour

Changelings are two-fold entities, belonging to both the lands of dreams and of waking. As such, their abilities are determined by two contradictory traits. Glamour measures the power of their dreams: the amount of Dreaming energy that can be brought to bear to fuel the magic of the fae. Lucidity measures the strength of their waking minds: the amount of focus that can be brought to mortal pursuits. Without Glamour, a changeling would lose her fae self and become fully awake and mortal. Without Lucidity, a changeling would lose her mortal side, and her fae soul would spiral off into the Dreaming with no anchor on the mortal world. Yet changelings bring synergy to their two halves, the whole becoming greater than its parts.

By being partially wakeful, changelings possess a focus that cannot be achieved by creatures purely of the Dreaming. They can give the necessary attention to learning things, they can resist faerie magicks at need, and, perhaps most importantly, they can use mortal logic to transcend fae stereotypes and the force of narrative. True fae and chimera tend to act according to a theme and a script that drives their actions. A changeling is lucid enough to recognize this trend and to make plans to work around its limits.

By being partially asleep, changelings can reach a creativity that is not often seen among mortals. Overflowing with imagination, they can create beyond points where normal mortals would be burned out. This imagination gives them a spark of greatness that many mortals don’t understand, and which some fear, but which allows them to surpass mortals of great ability. A changeling is a composite being, half awake and half asleep, and made stronger for this fact.

Lucidity

Lucidity can be spent for the following tasks:

  • Fighting off Bedlam: One or more points of temporary Lucidity can be spent to restore sanity being chipped away by the Dreaming.
  • Resisting Fae Magic: A character can spend a point of Lucidity to subtract a success from an attacker’s arts roll, or to add a success to her resistance roll. Doing this too often might gain the character Banality.
  • Attention to Detail: A character can spend Lucidity like Willpower for a bonus success on any Perception-based roll because the waking mind is adept at noticing details that a dreamer might miss.

Lucidity can be recovered in the following ways

  • Natural Renewal: The character regains a point of Lucidity for every night of sleep in the waking world. This renewal does not happen in freeholds or the Dreaming.
  • Sobering Company: A character in the company of mundane but insightful individuals recovers one or more points of Lucidity per hour spent in conversation.
  • Force of Logic: A character at 0 temporary Lucidity can be talked back to reality by friends. Effectively, they must roll their Lucidity against her permanent Glamour, success restoring a point of Lucidity. Most mortals are assumed to have five Lucidity.

A character cannot use any abilities higher than her permanent Lucidity. Abilities can be bought as high as the character’s Lucidity rating (optionally, for more powerful changelings, characters with more than 5 Lucidity can transcend mortal limits to their abilities as another benefit of the hybrid souls).

A character that runs out of temporary Lucidity must roll permanent Lucidity against permanent Glamour (+1 to +4 difficulty in the Dreaming, depending on the depth). Failure on the roll indicates that the character has fallen fully asleep. She loses all access to abilities, forgets mortal commitments, and tends to act out stereotypical behavior for her kith as well as losing many inhibitions about proper behavior. She may slip into the Dreaming the first time the Mists become very low, and is in a lot of trouble should she already be in the Dreaming. This condition persists until at least one point of Lucidity is regained, possibly requiring the intervention of friends, at which point she returns to being half-awake. When in a lost one’s hold or when dealing with individuals already in Bedlam, the difficulty of the roll to resist this state may be increased.

Most mortals can be assumed to have Lucidity 5.

Other Uses for Glamour

Glamour can be spent to Inspire Creativity: The character may spend a point of Glamour to get an idea for an artistic creation (essentially +1 success to artistic rolls for each Glamour spent) or to get an idea/clue based on her current information as to where the plot of the story is headed, due to treating reality like a narrative.

A character cannot buy any fae Arts, Realms, or Redes to a level higher than her Glamour, though they are still normally capped at five.

Banality

Banality is the antithesis of dreams, representing the complete absence of creativity, hope, imagination, and fear. While it is not unusual for many mortals to build up a small amount of Banality when burned out, it is incredibly rare for anyone to have high levels of Banality for long periods.

Banality replaces temporary Lucidity, filling the Lucidity track from the bottom up. Points of Lucidity turned into Banality cannot be spent until the Banality fades. A changeling whose Banality exceeds Lucidity immediately loses all temporary Glamour, waking fully, and cannot recover Glamour until all Banality fades. Typically, one level of Banality is lost for every week in which the character got plenty of dream-filled sleep. Fae gain Banality by denial of dreams, permanently killing fae, dealings with very Banal individuals, and other methods (as per Changeling 20th).

All fae magicks have the target’s Banality in successes subtracted from their effect or are added as automatic successes to the target’s resistance roll (if applicable). They are automatic successes for the Mists to wipe the mortal’s mind.

(Any game systems that currently reference Banality can either use the revised Banality total, which will usually be lower, or some other dice pool as the storyteller thinks is appropriate.)

Bedlam

A less dangerous, but more prevalent, counterpart to Banality, Bedlam represents a changeling’s tendency to slide towards madness when not spending enough time in the real world.

Bedlam fills the Glamour track exactly as Banality fills the Lucidity track, and also makes these points unusable. Bedlam is a penalty for all of a changeling’s social and mental dice pools when dealing with mundane situations. It is acquired when a character spends extensive amounts of time in a freehold or the Dreaming without dealing with anything in the mundane world, usually at one level per week. In the Deep Dreaming or a lost one’s freehold, this increases to one point per day. Characters that have sworn the Oath of the Long Road typically do not gain Bedlam if they spend their time in pursuit of that quest.

One point of Lucidity turns a point of Bedlam back into a point of Glamour. A character whose Bedlam exceeds her permanent Glamour must spend any remaining Lucidity to buy it back down to her Glamour or less. If the character has more Bedlam than permanent Glamour and no temporary Lucidity, the character goes completely insane, driven by her court and kith, and is controlled by the storyteller until other characters can rescue her and return her to the Waking world.

FATE of the Furious

1 Comment

It’s not the car. It’s the driver.
-Dominic Toretto

In this fairly simple hack for playing a Fast and the Furious-style game using Fate, the major change to the normal rules is that automobiles are not really independent items, they’re just a template that allows characters to increase the scale of their actions.

The Drive Skill

You cannot purchase the Drive skill directly, only as part of a skill-replacement stunt (see below). The skill loses most of its normal trappings, even when purchased through a stunt. You can use it to:

  • Overcome: Use Drive to defeat someone in a straight-up race. This is often a simple challenge for a quarter mile drag race, but might become an extended challenge for longer and more complex races (with maneuvers as described below).
  • Defend: Use Drive to defend against attacks and maneuvers made against you while you are driving (assuming they come from outside the car).

Drive Stunts

Each skill in the game features a stunt that allows you to use that skill to accomplish the actions under Drive, above. Additionally, this stunt grants you a once-per-session free tag on an aspect of your choice, as long as you’re in an automobile that makes sense for the skill you’re using in order to make use of that skill. For example:

  • Dom uses Provoke to drive. When he’s in a classic intimidating muscle car, he gains a free tag to use for Provoke-related rolls, such as scaring someone out of the chase.
  • Hobbes uses Physique to drive. When he’s in a big, burly truck, he gains a free tag to use for Physique-related rolls, such as bursting through a wall.
  • The Shaw brothers use Athletics to drive. When they’re in agile, lightweight cars, they gain a free tag to use for Athletics-related rolls, such as ramping their cars off of things.
  • Tej uses Crafts to drive. When he’s in a high-tech car, he gains a free tag to use for Crafts-related rolls, such as explaining the features of everyone else’s cars to create an advantage.
  • Roman uses Rapport to drive. When he’s in a flashy car, he gains a free tag to use for Rapport-related rolls, such as boosting his friends’ moods to create an advantage.

The intention for this system is two-fold:

  • By using what is likely to be your top skill for driving, all of the protagonists tend to be fairly close to one another in ability to keep up with an ongoing chase, differentiating their driving styles by what types of maneuvers they make during the chase.
  • By granting a bonus when in the right style of car, it encourages players to pick vehicles that are evocative of their characters’ styles.

Other Skills in a Chase

A car chase is pretty much just treated as a moving battle. The GM can automatically force it into a new zone every exchange (as the chase moves into a different part of the city with different aspects), and the drivers in the lead can use a driving Overcome check to try to move ahead and into a zone of their choice (forcing pursuers to drive to keep up). Any normal skills you could use to maneuver and attack in a fight are used normally here, only described as affecting the other car. Using the general assumption that it’s stopping that’s unusual, the GM might introduce hazards that must be Overcome or Defended against which would be non-issues in a foot combat (such as an obstacle).

Unless specifically doing something that injures the driver (e.g., sniper on the route), all consequences (and Taken Out results) for the chase stay with the car and are lost upon exiting the car. Stress resets normally at the end of the scene (so exiting a car and finding a new one or continuing the fight on foot preserves any accrued stress, but just exiting the scene upon being taken out usually allows you to return the next scene none the worse for wear).

If you simply want to escape pursuers without making each of them Taken Out, this can be resolved as an extremely hard Overcome challenge with a difficulty based on the visibility distance, terrain, and suggested means of escape. Essentially, the difficulty should be hard enough that it will require a meaningful number of maneuvers to set up free tags in order to soundly out-drive the pursuers.

Differentiating Cars

Cars are mostly described as a set of bonus aspects you can use while in the vehicle. A terrible car might be a “Rusty Old Beater” while a high-end sports car might be “New Hotness,” “Twin-Turbo V10 Engine,” and “Computerized Traction Control.” This allows compels and tags to generate the small differences between a skilled racer in a bad car and a good one.

At the very high end, extremely nice cars may come with one or more free tags on their aspects available to the driver. These don’t generally reset: like our later-movie protagonists, you get the really cool sports car, you drive it for a scene or two, then you shed a brief tear when it’s blown up and you move onto the next one without regret.

As a stunt line, characters with a very signature car (like Dom’s main ride) might purchase a high-end car with free tags that actually reset between sessions.

Outcasts, Part 2: The Exodus

1 Comment

You can do a lot with a supers setting featuring aliens, as described in the last article, but the real inspiration for these series was an episode of Supergirl from this season
(MILD SUPERGIRL SEASON 2 SPOILERS FROM THIS POINT FORWARD)
where Cadmus attempts to round up most of the Earthbound aliens, cram them on an old spaceship, and send them so far away that they’ll have a hard time getting back to Earth. I watched the episode kind of hoping they’d succeed, because watching our heroes try to shepherd a bunch of aliens through the galaxy while they searched for a way home seemed like a good time.

So this post describes a ship-based campaign organization for something in the vein of Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek: Voyager, Stargate: Atlantis, and such. A bunch of disparate aliens have been forcibly placed on a ship that’s designed less as a means of travel and more as a means of getting rid of them, jumped to an unfamiliar side of the galaxy, and left with as much difficulty as possible to get home. There’s a diverse set of competencies in the ship, if you can balance the social issues, traumas, and politics and get people to work together. Rather than just drop people off at the first inhabitable world, you could try to get everyone to stick together, accrue resources by space exploration, slowly repair the ship, and figure out what you actually want to do rather than being unwanted refugees forever.

And the central campaign organization mechanic is making sure that the ship you’re on has a lot of potential, but needs a lot of work and customization to become a home instead of a prison. There are a lot of granular and obvious steps that can be made to improve it, so adventures can often hang on getting the resources to perform a particular upgrade.

This is based on the starship rules from the Savage Worlds Science Fiction Companion, though I’ve made a few changes in assumptions (primarily in how the engines and life support work; I’m also not 100% sure the math is perfect for the starship rules, but it’s close).

Ship Overview

Initially, the ship is a Huge cargo cruiser that was somehow salvaged and retrofitted by [the Conspiracy]. It has (cramped) quarters and life support for approximately 1,000 individuals. It can maintain basic life support and in-system travel more or less indefinitely, but expends fuel for travel between systems using the FTL/jump drive (and begins the campaign mostly depleted after jaunting across the galaxy). As part of life support, it includes a hydroponics and recycling system that can maintain minimal rations needs for an extended period, but which will be gradually depleted if not supplemented with additional resources (and which are not the most attractive foodstuffs). Rightly afraid of the ship being controlled by alien computers that the outcasts might understand better than [the Conspiracy]’s programmers, as much as possible of its original systems were ripped out and replaced with kitbashed Earth computers and control systems that are heavily locked down and provide the minimum inputs necessary to pilot the ship. The ship has no weapons, and a very small number of short-range landing shuttles

Quarters

  • Cramped quarters for 1,000 individuals (~60 of them required to act as crew; the rest are part of a passenger superstructure designed for maximum residence and lacking the typical passenger structure amenities)
  • Survivalist furnishings (cots, hammocks, surplus sleeping bags and pillows, suitcases)

Current furnishings and arrangements provide -# morale. Allocating more space and providing better furnishings can provide a morale bonus to individuals with enhanced accommodations.

Unallocated Space

  • Much of the ship’s non-quarter space is empty cargo area and completely unfurnished smaller bays
  • [The Conspiracy] clearly intended to build these out to fit even more exiles, but did not finish the construction (and balked at crowding in refugees; these areas are not currently fitted to be safe during FTL)

Vital capabilities could be installed as rooms in these spaces, or it could be easily fitted to haul cargo. It is a mild difficulty to fit it for safe quarter space, either increasing the maximum crew capacity or increasing morale by giving residents more personal space. The ship can take ~40 mods worth of improvements, per the Science Fiction Companion.

Life Support

  • Basic air and water recycling; most areas of the ship smell bad, and the water retains faint bad tastes
  • The system is currently at 90% efficiency, and has a 100 day reserve for 1000 residents (essentially 1 day of reserve are lost for every 10 days); damage to the ship could threaten these reserves
  • Basic artificial gravity provides a relatively stable 0.8g

Current life support provides a -# morale. Improving the filtering systems can provide a general morale bonus. Taking on more reserve water and air can provide insurance against leakage and catastrophe. Storing more than 100 days of reserve would require additional tanks to be installed.

Nourishment

  • The ship has an extremely basic galley (capable of heating food and boiling water) suitable to serve the residents with some difficulty
  • The ship’s recycling and hydroponics systems generate 500 hominid-days of basic organic foodstuffs per day (mostly reclaimed nutrients processed by bacteria and algae into cardboard-tasting food pellets); with current number of residents, it can maintain indefinitely on half rations
  • The galley is stocked with 100,000 hominid-days of cheap canned goods and MREs; with current number of residents, supplemented by the recycling, this is enough for 200 total days on full rations

Current food options provide a -# morale. Improving the galley’s cooking capabilities (including by identifying skilled chefs), upgrading the recycling/hydroponics systems to provide tastier output, and taking on better nourishment can improve morale. Taking on more nourishment may be required to extend the mission without going on reduced rations.

Comforts

  • The ship has no alcohol, drugs, snacks, or other ingested comforts beyond what was smuggled in luggage
  • The ship has no comfortable furnishings
  • The ship has no entertainment options beyond what was smuggled in luggage

Current comfort options provide a -# morale. Improving these options can raise morale.

In-System Engines

  • The ship currently has basic fusion propulsion that is largely self-sustaining (with solar power when deep inside a solar system and magnetic ramscoop assist when traveling)
  • The ship has essentially no maneuverability for a crisis; depending on current relative velocity, it needs seconds or even minutes to evade dangers
  • The ship’s acceleration is limited to 1g (both due to output and the life support’s artificial gravity compensation)

Current engines could be improved to make the ship much better at reacting to danger quickly. The engines and artificial gravity would have to be improved to increase travel speed within a system (going any faster without improving the artificial gravity would result in an increasing sensation of the floor being slanted in the direction of travel).

You can use this website to calculate non-FTL travel times, or the formula that Total Time in Days = 4 × √(midpoint distance in AU/acceleration in gs).

FTL/Jump Engines

  • The ship currently has FTL engines capable of extremely long-range jumps
  • The engines must be given extremely complicated and specific data to plot a jump
  • The engines require a massive amount of high-energy exotic fuel (and start with enough for # light years of additional jumps)

Improving the navigation computer systems could make FTL travel somewhat more efficient and much less finicky. Improving the engine guts could improve fuel efficiency. The engines could be switched to a hybrid or full-electric system by replacing the fuel tanks with batteries and capacitors; this would drastically lower the jump capabilities at one time, and require the system to slowly recharge off of the in-system engines, but would lower the fuel costs.

Controls

  • The ship currently has legacy consoles for in-system maneuvering, with much of their digital assistance stripped
  • The ship’s FTL engines are currently plotted by kitbashed Earth computer systems

Improving the consoles and reattaching digital assistance systems would improve piloting checks and require fewer units of manpower to be on the bridge to drive the ship. Improving the computer systems would decrease time to plot an FTL jump and jump targeting precision.

Computers

  • The ship currently has non-VI Earth computers patched into most control systems
  • Most systems have their native controllers at the various interface points (Earth systems handle coordination, but the technicians left any systems in place that they were confident would not retain data on Earth’s location)
  • There are no entertainment systems
  • All computer interfaces are *nix command line or extremely rough GUI; no voice control
  • There are limited voice alerts and other alarms

Improving the computers would make it far easier to command ship systems and get useful feedback and warnings. Installing a competent virtual intelligence (VI) would reduce crew requirements for many tasks. Increased terminals and entertainment software would raise morale.

Sensors

  • The ship has extremely short-range radar, cameras, and radio transmission
  • Slow software rendering data from passive radio telescopes can build a basic map of the nearby system over time (but cannot resolve small or fast-moving threats until they are very close)

Improving the ship’s sensor suite (including integrated computers) would make it much faster to get an accurate map of the current system and identify threats and opportunities at a much greater range. It could also improve range and quality of communications.

Armaments

  • The ship currently has no weaponry
  • Unallocated space could be used to mount weapons

Adding weapons would make it possible to fight in the ship, or at least repel attackers. Computer systems supporting the weapons would be necessary as well.

Defenses

  • The ship has a large hull standard to a cargo ship of its size
  • It has extremely basic magnetic shielding (mostly designed to deflect micrometeorites and other space detritus)

Adding additional physical or energy defenses would provide enhanced protection from attackers and other dangers.

Exploration

  • The ship has three basic six-hominid shuttles that are able to reach a planet from low orbit; they have no armaments or defenses, and are not particularly fast to re-achieve orbit, especially under load, but they do recharge off of the ship’s engines
  • There is an extremely minimal repair bay with only the most basic of emergency tools and materials to handle a hull breach or other catastrophe
  • There are only a dozen EVA suits which are aging NASA castoffs

The ship has space for additional and/or better shuttles or other vehicles. Improving the repair bay would make the ship much safer and quicker to respond to damage. More and better EVA suits would be extremely helpful in a vacuum.

Savage Worlds Stat Block

Huge Starship: Size 16, Acc/TS 35/400, Climb 0, Toughness 44 (10), Crew 60, Cost $88M, Remaining Mods 38

Notes: Crew Reduction x4, FTL Drive, Superstructure (Passenger)

Weapons: None

Outcasts, Part 1: Alien Superheroes

Leave a comment

I’m a big fan of the Supergirl TV show, and I’m particularly intrigued by the fact that its particular licensing limitation* implies a world where most of the superpowers are possessed by alien refugees. What follows is a setting take on how to justify this, followed by some design musings. The next part adds on an additional option for this type of campaign.

* Most of the non-alien DC characters were already in use on other shows or otherwise not available to the TV shows.

In God’s Image

A strange truism of sapient life throughout the known universe is that it seems bound to very similar forms. Through countless channels on countless worlds, evolution eventually settles on a bipedal hominid form for its pinnacle. Many look nearly identical to humans with minor cosmetic variations, the vast majority of the remainder are superficially different but structurally the same, and only the smallest fraction are truly alien in form. Nearly all of them drink water, breathe oxygen, are comfortable in a single G of gravity, and can derive nourishment from the same kind of foods.

Many religions throughout inhabited space seek to explain this truism, and the cutting edge of xenoscience can only postulate some constants of physics and chemistry that cause life to converge in this way.

Perhaps stranger, mental acuity is similarly constrained. Few sapients are much smarter than humanity, and nearly all have understandable emotions and drives. This is also true of their machine creations. There is no such thing as a true general artificial intelligence that any sapient will admit, though many races have come up with quite sophisticated virtual intelligences that lack their own motives and creativity.

All these factors mean that cosmic society plateaus technologically and culturally. The development void between 21st century humans and any given alien species is much smaller than many scientists would expect, even for civilizations much older than those on Earth. Bright humans exposed to starfaring technology can often figure out how to work it, and even partially reverse engineer it: it turns out that very little technology is sufficiently advanced to become magic. While this technological wall is no doubt depressing to futurists, it means that humanity is poised to enter intergalactic society at far less of a deficit than might otherwise be expected.

Of course, scientific competence and cosmopolitan leanings are very different things. Exposure to the vast profusion of alien culture just waiting to embrace earthling neighbors may set off many of the worst isolationist tendencies of humanity…

Design

This uses Savage Worlds as a basis, but you could easily use your supers engine of choice (though the follow up post explains in more detail why I went with Savage Worlds).

  • Use the science fiction companion to build basic alien race traits (with humans keeping the free edge as their racial advantage).
  • Each race also gets a handful of power permissions from the super powers companion, and are built as supers (i.e., they don’t have to take the arcane background edge).
  • Characters receive a variable number of points to purchase these powers.

All characters, even the weakest NPCs, should typically get around 10 points for buying powers, to allow certain powers to be standard for the alien race (e.g., you can always assume Kryptonians can fly a little, and are stronger and tougher than humans, but they might not all be as powerful as Supergirl). Wild Cards and other important characters should receive more, at the power band you want for your game. They’re, for whatever reason, the exemplars of their race’s powers.

In general, unless you’re using an established setting, players can essentially make superheroes as they would for any other supers game, then reverse-justify their power picks to a race of which they’re an exemplar.

Example Races

Kryptonian:

  • Kryptonians have the Gimmick hindrance (require regular access to sunlight from a yellow sun) and the Power Negation hindrance (Kryptonite). They gain six additional Power Points to buy super powers beyond what is standard for the campaign.
  • Kryptonians are incredibly strong, and can buy Super Attribute (Strength).
  • Kryptonians are incredibly hard to hurt, and can buy Toughness.
  • Kryptonians have preternatural flight with no apparent means of locomotion, and can buy Flight.
  • Kryptonians can fly into space and survive for short periods, so may purchase the Resistance package required to survive in space and Doesn’t Breathe (with the minor Limitation of a finite duration).
  • Kryptonians can use heat vision and cold breath as expressions of Attack, Ranged.
  • Kryptonians have enhanced vision and hearing, and can buy Heightened Senses.

Green Martian:

  • Martians have the Weakness (Major) hindrance (Fire) and the Racial Enemy (White Martian) racial drawback. They gain +2 ranks of Strength and +1 Toughness.
  • Martians are psychic, and can buy Mind Reading and Telepathy.
  • Martians are shapeshifters, and can buy Chameleon.
  • Martians have preternatural flight with no apparent means of locomotion, and can buy Flight.
  • Martians can alter their densities to pass through solid matter, and can buy Intangibility.

Human:

  • Humans gain a bonus Edge (per the normal Savage Worlds rules).
  • Humans are stubborn, and can buy Resistance (Mental). With the lack of psychics on the planet, few even realize they are so gifted. As a whole, Earth goes mostly unknown on the galactic stage because long-range psychic probes for sapience are so globally resisted.
  • Humans breed faster than most other races, and form strong groups, such that many humans functionally have the Minions power. Aliens are often overwhelmed by human numbers and tendency to coordinate.
  • Humans are sociable, resistant to fear, and quick to overcome hardship and shock. They can buy Super Attribute (Spirit).
  • Humans tend to have an outsized share of prodigies, and can buy Super Skill (any).

Design Note: Humans needed to be designed to account for their stats being the Savage Worlds baseline, so power choices were made around things that the majority of humans could plausibly have to some extent without it being strange/noticeable.

Older Entries