The Skip-Combat Dice

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I’ve subscribed to the Pathfinder Adventure Paths since the beginning, and run quite a few of them. One of the things I’ve come to dislike about the experience is the accountancy of combats involved in published modules of all stripes: especially since D&D 3.0 set forth the logic of shooting for four-to-five even-CR encounters per day and 13 such encounters to level, the traditional format of modules has been to pad the content with fights that aren’t particularly interesting. Sure, the module authors try to make them interesting, with all kinds of tricks, but at the end of the day there can only be so many encounters that are relevant to the story arc, and a bunch of things that are in the way.

This wouldn’t be such a problem if I were more willing to retune encounters to be a more interesting fit for my party, instead of speed bumps. Brandes does a lot of this kind of thing: his games feature fewer, more challenging fights. But, to me, the main virtue of purchasing an adventure path is that most of the crunchy work has been done for me, and if I’m going to adjust all the combats it’s not much of a stretch to just doing the whole thing myself.

A few years ago, a Bioware employee stirred up a controversy about her suggestion that story-focused players in CRPGs be able to skip combat as easily as combat-focused players skip through conversations. At the risk of creating the same flavor of offense, I think this kind of thing could work in D&D as easily as in a CRPG. I’ve actually made a stab at something similar before, aimed more at trash encounters, but it’s not exactly a total solution. This week’s system is simpler and thus easier to remember, but more encompassing. It steps away from trying to convert to resources directly, using modifiers that are optional to convert back into D&D stats.

Because, in general, this is for skipping combat all the time. The vast majority of module fights are foregone conclusions, designed to eat up time at the table and amuse a group that wants to shift between roleplay and tactical skirmish wargame. But my theory is that an adventure path could spend way more time on the things I and many of my players like—roleplay, strategy, and investigation—if combats, possibly all combats, were skippable in a way that seems fair.

Core System

Each player character can be in one of four states:

  • Rested: This is the beginning state, and the state to which most PCs return after plenty of rest. It represents a character with full heath, spells, and abilities.
  • Spent: This state indicates that the character has spent a significant portion of resources, in an abstract way. For a spellcaster or other character type with a lot of per-rest abilities, it indicates most of them have been used. For martial characters, it may actually indicate that health is starting to dwindle and the party’s healers are running low on healing. For certain encounters, it may indicate longer-term negative conditions.
  • Injured: By this point, the character has expended almost all rest-renewable options, and is getting low on health with no easy way to get it back.
  • Incapacitated: A character in this state is out of health or otherwise taken out. In a truly dire fight where the stakes were announced beforehand, the character might be dead.

For each combat, each player rolls a single Fudge/Fate die, and the party totals the results and adds it to their party level (e.g., if you’re 6th level and roll a net +2 on all the dice, you count as 8th level):

  • If the result is equal or greater than the encounter level, the party triumphed with no particular issues and only negligible expenditure of resources (these are the fights where everyone wins initiative and nukes the monster before it even gets to go, barely even using any spells).
  • If the result is less than the encounter level, the difference is resource drain, as described below.

If the fight used up resources:

  • In order of the players whose dice rolled lowest, assess a -1 to the state counter. Do this for one player per point of the difference. For example, if you had a -3 to the encounter level, three PCs expend resources, starting with the ones that rolled -1 (or the ones that rolled 0, if somehow nobody rolled negatives and it still went against you). For ties on the dice, impact the least injured characters first (e.g., if two players rolled -1 and only one needs to expend resources, the one that’s Rested will take the hit if the other one was Spent).
  • If the number is greater than the party size, wrap back around until it’s used up.

The GM, with input from the players, then narrates the results of the fight. If it went very well, describe a flawless victory with the players that rolled +1 doing particularly awesome things and the ones that rolled -1s squeaking by as their mistakes didn’t cost the party. For results of -1 to -4 total, describe a more brutal fight, with the players that lost resources getting the worse end of things and players that rolled +1 doing useful things that swung the fight their way. For results of -5 or worse, it might have actually been a loss, with the GM describing how the PCs had to cut and run to escape foes too mighty for them (this is the “it’s only 10 levels above us and we’re rested, the worst that could happen is a couple of us get incapacitated, but we still win” rule; mild negatives are usually a win, but this isn’t an excuse to take stupid risks).

Each character typically recovers by one state level when resting overnight.

Additional Options

If you want to model how much an extra PC or two helps out in modules tuned for four-member parties, ignore one -1 on the dice for each additional party member past four. For example, with five members a -1 -1 0 0 +1 result is read as a 0 instead of a -1 total, but a 0 0 0 +1 +1 is still just a +2.

If you want to create more of a death spiral, assess the following penalties at reduced states:

  • Spent: A rolled 0 counts as a -1.
  • Injured: A rolled +1 counts as a 0 (and the effects of Spent).
  • Incapacitated: Automatically contribute a -1 (don’t roll).

To simulate consumable magic items helping a fight, grant items that can be discharged or consumed to allow rerolls/best-of-two (for an individual player or the whole party) or flat out additional pluses to the party effective level.

To encourage strategic play, grant similar bonuses to magic items for advanced preparation that would make a big difference in the fight if you were actually to play it out.

Math Notes

I haven’t done a deep model of the stats on this, but my simple “lots of random results in a spreadsheet” check indicates that this should work fairly close to the four-to-five encounter math, particularly if you assess penalties for worse states. In particular, what should happen is that (assuming mostly even-level fights) there will be a couple of fights that cause no problems whatsoever, a couple with mild resource drain, and maybe one with a larger hit. After a few fights, even if only a couple of members of the party are Spent, they should start weighing the risk of the next fight rolling low enough to knock someone to Injured (which requires another day to recover), and thinking about camping. In situations where you’ve engineered time pressure, it should make the players very nervous about fighting things they don’t need to fight, and whether they should plow deeper into the state tracker to go ahead and get things done.

And, note again, this is all very abstract. I don’t expect you to try to model this back out to the standard trait system. In fact, it’s possible that you could do this whole thing with extremely minimalist stats that gloss the D&D/Pathfinder tropes (“I am a level X Y of race Z”) without needing to fiddle with the math. Obviously, there are a lot of people for whom fiddling with the math is a huge part of the fun, but this isn’t really for them… all of D&D is normally for them.

Beyond the Wall: Ally Playbook

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Based on last week’s notes, this week it’s a playbook (similar to PC playbooks in provided stats and skills) that allows allies to transition from null-stat hirelings to fully fleshed out characters that could serve as replacement PCs if the existing PCs die. Apply these stat improvements when it’s appropriate to answer the questions (i.e., one per adventure completion with the party).

What are your native talents?

Pick two ability scores to start at 10, the rest start at 8.

What happened the first adventure after you became an ally?

  • You had to flee and/or get help. +2 Str, +1 Dex, +1 Con, Skill: Athletics or Riding
  • You had to help scout/stay on guard duty. +2 Dex, +1 Con, +1 Wis, Skill: Alertness or Stealth
  • You were deep in hostile wilderness. +2 Int, +1 Wis, +1 Con, Skill: Animal Lore or Survival
  • You mostly got to stay out of danger and help with the food. +2 Cha, +1 Wis, +1 Con, Skill: Cooking or Hunting
  • You had to help with the injured or sick. +2 Con, +1 Wis, +1 Str, Skill: Healing or Herbalism
  • You helped with terrifying ancient mysteries. +2 Int, +1 Str, +1 Cha, Skill: Ancient History or Forbidden Lore
  • You got deeply embroiled with the fae or other strange creatures. +2 Cha, +1 Dex, +1 Int, Skill: Faerie Lore or Folklore
  • You were involved in mystical or philosophical weirdness. +2 Wis, +1 Str, +1 Dex, Skill: Magic Lore or Religious Lore
  • You had to be on your best behavior among polite society. +2 Wis, +1 Int, +1 Cha, Skill: Etiquette or Politics

After your second adventure as an ally, what’s your favorite part of adventuring so far?

  • The fights! +2 Str, +1 Wis
  • Games and riddles. +2 Dex, +1 Int
  • Proving your toughness. +2 Con, +1 Cha
  • Learning lore and secrets. +2 Int, +1 Dex
  • Learning about strange new folks. +2 Wis, +1 Con
  • Making new friends. +2 Cha, +1 Str
  • Being generally helpful and needed. +1 Str, +1 Con, +1 Cha
  • Learning a little from everyone. +1 Dex, +1 Int, +1 Wis

Now that you’ve been on three adventures as an ally, which of the party members do you look up to the most?

  • The strongest warrior in the party. +2 Str, +1 Cha
  • The most nimble scout in the party. +2 Dex, +1 Wis
  • The most stalwart protector in the party. +2 Con, +1 Int
  • The smartest and cleverest person in the party. +2 Int, +1 Dex
  • The most patient and considerate person in the party. +2 Wis, +1 Str
  • The one that you have a crush on. +2 Cha, +1 Con
  • The one that’s lost without your help. +1 Str, +1 Int, +1 Cha
  • The one that doesn’t need you, but lets you help anyway. +1 Dex, +1 Con, +1 Wis

After four adventures as an ally, the party is clearly starting to expect you to fill a role. What do you see your purpose in the party as?

  • The muscle, standing firm on the front lines. +2 Str, +1 Con, Skill: Athletics or Intimidation
  • The scout, hanging back and looking for opportunities. +2 Dex, +1 Wis, Skill: Alertness or Stealth
  • The protector, taking hits so the weaker ones don’t have to. +2 Con, +1 Cha, Skill: Riding or Survival
  • The brains, knowing details and secrets. +2 Int, +1 Dex, Skill: [Any Lore]
  • The heart, keeping track of and coordinating the party. +2 Wis, +1 Str, Skill: Healing or Socialize
  • The soul, keeping everyone happy and helping with outsiders. +2 Cha, +1 Int, Skill: [Any Social]

After five adventures as an ally, some of your negative tendencies are starting to become apparent. What’s your biggest problem?

  • I’m lazy, and don’t like to do my fair share. -1 Str, +2 Dex, +1 Int
  • My clumsiness tends to get us all in trouble. -1 Dex, +2 Con, +1 Cha
  • I keep getting sick and injured. -1 Con, +2 Cha, +1 Dex
  • I can’t remember all the things I should have learned. -1 Int, +2 Wis, +1 Str
  • I just don’t pay much attention and break things. -1 Wis, +2 Str, +1 Con
  • I’m secretive and distrustful. -1 Cha, +2 Int, +1 Wis

After six adventures as an ally, you’re starting to seamlessly blend with the hero that serves as your leader, learning from her example and shoring up her weaknesses.

Add +2 to the ability that your leader has lowest, and add either +1 to the ability your leader has highest or add the skill your leader uses the most.

After seven adventures as an ally, you’ve learned almost as much as you can in a subordinate role and are getting ready to strike out on your own.

Add +1 to your highest ability and +1 to your lowest ability.

Example Hirelings

The following were the blurbs I presented to my players as their starting local options for hirelings.

Mages

  • The Ostra-Goth (Witch): A weird guy in his late twenties that likes to wear all black and who doesn’t have many friends. He badgered the Witch for some training a few years ago, but she quickly got tired of him. He has the Hexing cantrip, the Call the Swarm spell, and no rituals.
  • The Chamber Maid (Order): A teen serving girl at the manor who was around the room a lot when the Apprentice Court Sorcerer was being taught by the Court Sorcerer, and seems to have picked up a few things. She has the Second Sight cantrip, the Abjuration spell, and the Sorcerer’s Steed ritual.
  • The Fae-Struck Boy (Fae): A touched young man in his late teens that barely responds to stimuli but is mostly biddable, he’s been like this ever since he wandered out of town as a child. Many think he was bewitched by the fae, as he has strange powers. He has the Glamour Weaving cantrip, the Obscurement spell, and no rituals.
  • The Imperial Novice (New Sun): An overly-cheerful young Imperial girl who came to town with the imperial priest and serves as his altar girl and gofer. She doesn’t seem to have any understanding of why people are so distrustful of her. She has the Blessing cantrip, the Inspiration and Word of Courage spells, and no rituals.
  • Horse Girl (Witch): This girl LOVES HORSES. She is really, really annoying about it. The innkeepers started paying her a small wage because they couldn’t stop her from helping out in the inn’s stables. She’s picked up some things from doggedly following the Assistant Beast Keeper on her rounds with the Witch’s menagerie. She has the Beast Ken cantrip, the Wild Call spell, and no rituals.
  • Mr. Helpful (Pagan): This guy is possibly in his forties. He has a polite smile for people, helps them get to their homes at night, and is just on the good side of being creepy about it. Most suspect he worships some weird old god of hospitality. He has the Mage Light cantrip, the Phantom Skill spell, and the Goodberry ritual.

Fighters

  • The Huntress: A woman in her thirties, she’s remained happily unmarried and spends her time out with the other hunters. The villagers joke that she’s married to her bow. She’s specialized in longbow and has the Great Strike knack.
  • Sword Guy: He’s slender, getting older, he’s not nearly as sexy as he thinks, and, yes, he does a weird dance where he balances his sword on various body parts to try to impress people. He’s specialized in longsword and has the Defensive Fighter knack.
  • The Ol’ Battleaxe: She probably shouldn’t have gotten married to a guy that thinks he’s as funny as her husband does, because the kind of woman that works as a woodcutter has a particular nickname that’s appropriate. She’s specialized in greataxe and has the Resilience knack.
  • Big Mouth: Big guy, big mouth, won’t shut up about how much he’s going to kick your ass, never really does, has about the reputation you’d expect because of it. Nice enough guy, when he’s not drinking. He’s specialized in battle axe and has the Great Strike knack.
  • That Weird Flippy Kicky Girl: She’s your age, just kind of washed up in Heimbach with traders a few years ago, barely seems to speak the local language or any other anyone knows, and wakes up every morning at dawn to practice her martial arts forms. She’s specialized in unarmed combat (and seems to have the Unarmed Combat trait) and has the Fleet knack.
  • Infantry!: He’s been in the wars, man. He won’t stop telling people about it. And they’re like, yeah, man, a lot of people have seen war, what makes you so special? And he’s all, I was part of an elite polearm fighting team, man, you wouldn’t understand the camaraderie of the training. He’s specialized in halberd and has the Defensive Fighter knack.

Rogues

  • Comrade Stinky: This guy has an imperial accent, lives like a hermit out in the woods, and doesn’t bathe, but seems to know what he’s about. He has the Animal Lore and Survival skills.
  • The Gumshoe: This young teen is an extremely middle child, and Nancy Drews her way around the village solving “mysteries” and would love to go solve a real one. She has the Alertness and Investigation skills.
  • The Freerun Artist: Heimbach has just enough architecture that some kid was going to invent Parkour, to the great chagrin of business owners across town. He has the Athletics and Stealth skills.
  • The Oldest Professional: Sliding gracefully into middle age, but cognizant that her future employment prospects are waning, she might be amenable to some adventuring to try to lay in a nest egg for her retirement. She has the Pickpocketing and Seduction skills.
  • Major Bored-o: One of the heralds at the manor is pushing thirty and has heard about a lot of great people, but seems to wonder if there’s something more than this provincial life. He has the Ancient History and Etiquette skills.
  • Ms. Science!: One of the town’s schoolteachers is a whip-smart young woman in her early twenties that has learned some surprising things about machinery through unknown methods of experimentation. She has the Engineering and Trapping skills.

Beyond the Wall: Expanded Hireling and Ally Rules

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After five total sessions (three of which were spent miraculously avoiding harm and two of which they got cocky and got seriously injured both times), my Beyond the Wall players have finally begun to look into embracing the old school ethos of bringing along hirelings. So I finally really looked at the rules for them, and realized they were a little too vague for my liking. Thus, I proceeded to create the following house rules, which should be pretty compatible with the existing material.

Hirelings

While your player characters represent some of the most dynamic youths in your town, there are others that don’t have your lust for adventure but might be persuaded to help out for cold, hard coin. Given time, they might become secure in the lifestyle, and more interested in the long term, revealing their own talents.

Recruiting Hirelings

Your home town and other settlements will have a selection of individuals that can potentially be recruited to adventure with you (see Hireling Growth, below). In order to recruit a hireling, you must make a Charisma check with a penalty equal to the number of hirelings and allies that are known to have died or gone missing on your adventures (for you personally) and a bonus equal to the number of hirelings known to have been promoted to allies (for you personally). (This known status is obviously a touchy subject; if you eventually make it impossible to recruit hirelings at home, be very careful how much information reaches the distant towns you try to recruit at.)

For example, if two of your allies and four of your hirelings have died during your adventures, and you have two allies left, you probably have a net -2 to your attempts to recruit new hirelings (-6 for deaths, +4 for allies).

Failing to recruit a hireling marks that one as unavailable until you level up or do something else impressive for the hireling’s town that changes his or her opinion of you, and that hireling will be unwilling to go with the group for this adventure (even if another hero attempts recruitment). Getting just the highly Charismatic heroes to attempt recruitment has its own problems: that individual must manage all the hirelings attached to her, and is on the hook if they die.

You can technically have an unlimited number of followers at any one time.

Hireling Management

Hirelings deduct a half share of XP from the party for each hireling, but do not actually accrue XP (e.g., if you have five PCs and two hirelings, group XP awards are divided by six).

Hirelings generally expect a half-silver (five copper) per day per character level for non-dangerous days, and double that on each day they were in physical danger (e.g., a day with a fight, every day in the Hedge, etc.). They also expect a 20-silver-per-level death benefit paid to their families if they don’t return from an adventure, in addition to their monies owed. For example, if you spend 10 days in the Hedge with a second level hireling, and that hireling dies, you owe 50 silver to his family on your return.

Hirelings will generally try to hang back in a fight, and minimize their risk of actually getting attacked. They often prefer to use ranged attacks, and, particularly for melee fighters, to not engage until the second round of the fight once enemies have started beating on someone else. Getting them to take greater risks requires their manager to make a Charisma (Command) check, with penalties based on how risky the action seems. If the party starts taking serious injuries, managers must also make Charisma (Command) checks to keep their hirelings from having morale failures and fleeing.

Hireling Traits

Hirelings are treated as if they have perfectly generic ability scores, either through actually being mediocre or just through not putting in that much effort. They make most ability tests/skill checks at 10 (though rogues generally will have at least two skills defined). They do not gain ability bonuses or penalties to combat stats.

Hirelings have average HP for their levels, rounded down, like monsters do.

Hirelings rarely have particularly good gear or training:

  • Fighters generally have leather armor and either a two-handed weapon or a one-handed weapon and simple shield (d10 damage and 12 AC or d8 damage and 13 AC). They represent people in town with more athleticism than cleverness.
  • Rogues generally have a good weapon or leather armor, but rarely both, and track their Fortune’s Favor as an AC bonus (d8 damage and 12 AC or d6 damage and 14 AC). They represent people in town with more cleverness than athletic potential.
  • Mages generally have a fractional complement of spells and rituals, a minor weapon, and no armor (0-2 spells, 0-1 rituals, d4 damage, 10 AC). They represent people in town that seemed like promising apprentices to the local mages, but who were rejected for being ill-suited before they learned much. They can attempt to learn new spells and rituals from available books (testing as if they had a score of 10, for a 50/50 shot of learning most spells and rituals).

Hirelings gain their class abilities, hit die, base attack, and saving throws. They do not have Fortune Points.

Hireling Growth

Before their first adventures, hirelings generally just have a nickname and short descriptive blurb. You don’t particularly care about their names, and they likely won’t tell you much about their backstory.

After surviving his or her first adventure, you generally learn a bit more of a sketch about the hireling’s backstory and talents (and additional skills may become apparent).

After surviving his or her second adventure, you generally learn a hireling’s name and may choose to promote him or her to an ally (for the hero that has been serving as manager most often).

Allies

Allies are either hirelings that you’ve bonded with enough to learn their names and general personality, or named NPCs you meet in the world and form a bond with.

Recruiting Allies

You may have a number of allies equal to four plus your Charisma modifier. This represents total allies you’re maintaining ongoing relationships with, not just allies on the current adventure. If you want to replace an ally without him or her dying, you either have to figure out a way to trade with another hero or allow that ally to return to counting as a hireling (which may reset that ally’s growth if later returned to ally status). Allies are generally available to go on adventures as needed, and may not count against your total if they are often doing their own things.

Ally Management

Allies continue to deduct a half share of XP, but actually gain it and can level up.

Allies expect the same pay rate as hirelings, though may be willing to negotiate for a share of potential treasure instead based on their experience with how much the party has earned in the past. They generally expect any of their gear upgrades to be provided by the party, rather than out of their own income.

Allies are generally much more willing than hirelings to put themselves in danger for the party, but still may require a Charisma (Command) check to get them to do something very dangerous or to maintain their morale.

Ally Traits

Allies have tracked ability scores (see below) and calculate their HP in the same way as player characters.

They can have and use better gear (if the party provides it, see above).

They do not track Fortune Points, but can fortune bond magic items if provided and can mirror their manager’s use of Fortune Points on the same turn, if appropriate. Rogues continue to reflect their Fortune’s Favor class ability as +2 AC.

Ally Growth

Allies slowly gain ability scores over the course of several adventures, until they are similar in power to heroes. They may do this ad hoc, or through an ally playbook (see next week’s post).

GM Tricks: Arbitrary Links as Imagination Seed

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regionalmapnearbynotes

My Beyond the Wall game is a Westmarches-style hexcrawl, for the most part. The players are from a small village situated on the edge of a deadly wilderness, but the “settled” lands are also filled with adventure locations (largely safer ones for low-level characters not yet ready to venture into a forest of razor-sharp thorns). I’ve been thwarted for years by attempts to make a hexcrawl, due to the sheer amount of creation involved, until, finally, for this campaign, I hit upon the following idea.

First off, I didn’t try to fill every single hex with content. Instead, I used BtW‘s conception of distance bands (near hexes are those within a close radius, moderate hexes are the next band of that distance, and far hexes are the band after that), and decided that I’d use an alphabet key for each band. Basically, of the 37 “near” hexes, only 26 have significant content, as do 26 of the “moderate” hexes. Other than the players’ home town being A1 right in the center, the hexes that got a letter were determined randomly.

This still leaves space for things I might decide to add later, but coming up with 52 locations across a 7-hex radius was much less daunting than filling in every single one of them. I had a pool of general ideas for locations I might want to have in the game (like a haunted farmhouse, a crossroads, a giant inn, and the old watchtower required by one of the threat packs I’m using), and then filled in the rest with the random location generator from BtW.

But none of that is the trick.

The trick is that, at this point, all I had were some vaguely atmospheric locations and a few ideas for how some of them hooked into the overall campaign themes and threats. So next, I made a spreadsheet*. In addition to salient data about the location’s key letter, name/description, and overall position within the world, it got a couple of useful columns: clue to near, and clue to moderate. Each location would hold some kind of clue to how to find one other location in the near band, and one in the far band, and some kind of useful details about those other locations. And each location would get used the same number of times (so each location essentially has two out clues and two in clues).

Some of the locations were easy. Obviously the haunted farmhouse (which was secretly the home base of goblins trying to scare people away) would be a good place to put a clue to the goblin market location. But most of the connections wound up being fairly arbitrary: when you only have one location without a clue, and one location that can take a clue, you match them up.

And this became the trick to filling in these locations with interesting details. On the spreadsheet, I could now see that each vague location had some kind of clue to two other vague locations. And that clue would inform both sides.

Why is the estate of rival nobles getting a clue from the old battlefield and sending a clue to ancient ruins? I already know they’re nobles that are good at farming, but maybe they have an inferiority complex about it. Maybe they’re trying to find proof that they’re actually an extremely old noble house in order to raise their prestige among the other nobles. Boom. The old battlefield now has a roleplay encounter with archaeologists hired by the family to dig for relics of the family’s armies, and if the players follow it up they can get hired by the noble family to hunt for further proof in the ancient ruins.

Not only is every location now findable without just having to go hex-by-hex, but each location has four data points to spur imagination about why it’s interesting and how it fits into the larger world.

And the GraphViz of the connections is pretty neat too:

locationgraph

* My next step is almost always to make a spreadsheet.

Savage Angels, Conversion Rules

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I’ve been running the No Soul Left Behind campaign for Better Angels for several months now. While the campaign is great and the setting of the core RPG is awesome, we couldn’t really wrap our heads around using the trait system effectively. I’ll probably get around to doing a system review one of these days, but the upshot is that the translation of abstract vices and virtues into concrete rolls to accomplish something never gelled, and my players finally asked me to convert to a system with a more traditional trait system.

I wound up choosing Savage Worlds, for a few reasons: it seems pretty resilient to hacking, I already have the Super Powers Companion for a game that never wound up happening, and it’s pretty easy to grok (plus one of the players already has a lot of Deadlands experience and was one of my review playtesters when I originally tried Savage Worlds).

My goal was to keep the central struggle of Better Angels, which is that the more powerful you become, the closer you are to getting dragged to hell. So the main change to Savage Worlds supers proper is the bolting on of a translation of Better Angels‘ vices and how they relate to powers, sinning, and damnation. This conversion also takes a lot of inspiration from Smallville, insofar as the vice you pick to roll is based on your agenda for the conflict.

The below assumes familiarity with Better Angels and Savage Worlds (and its Super Powers Companion).

Vices

Your wild die (a d6 in standard Savage Worlds) is replaced by a die for whatever vice is your primary motivation for the conflict/scene (e.g., if you have Greed d8, Espionage d10, and Breaking and Entering d6, you’d roll d8+d6 if you’re trying to break into a building to steal something but d10+d6 if you’re trying to break into a building to get information).

  • Greed: Your motivation in the conflict is to gain something for yourself (typically of permanent value): this is generally something that you feel will be useful to you, particularly in the long term (short-term gains may actually be another motivation). If no other value seems appropriate, Greed can also be used for crime- and economics-related challenges.
  • Espionage (with elements of Gluttony): Your motivation in the conflict is to sate your physical needs (anything that makes you feel good physically, including getting into a fight not because you’re angry, but just because you enjoy the thrill) or to discover something secret. If no other value seems appropriate, Espionage can also be used for academics- and perception-related challenges.
  • Cruelty (with elements of Wrath): Your motivation in the conflict is anger: you are pissed off in general and that’s driving your behavior or you specifically hate the opponent. If no other value seems appropriate, Cruelty can also be used for violence-related challenges.
  • Cowardice (with elements of Sloth): Your motivation in the conflict is to not be involved in the conflict: you have no other agenda beyond not submitting to the opponent’s agenda or not being bothered in the first place. If no other value seems appropriate, Cowardice can also be used for athletics-related challenges.
  • Corruption (with elements of Lust): Your motivation in the conflict is to sate your psychological needs: generally this is an urge to be loved or otherwise appreciated, but it may involve going after something that will make you feel good emotionally in the short term. If no other value seems appropriate, Corruption can also be used for seduction- and impression-related challenges.
  • Deceit (with elements of Envy): Your motivation in the conflict is to try to exceed the qualities of someone you feel is better then you, to spite someone who has something you don’t have, or to pull one over on a sucker. If no other value seems appropriate, Deceit can also be used for stealth- and deception-related challenges.
  • Pride (Special, See Below): Your motivation in the conflict is to prove your superiority over someone else and prove that you’re the better person (or villain); since this could theoretically apply to almost anything for prideful characters, any other appropriate value should be considered as motivation first before pure pride is the dominant value. If no other value seems appropriate, Pride can also be used for diplomacy- and leadership-related challenges.

Raising Vices

In any scene in which you used a vice (or a power keyed to a vice) and your demon is active, the rating of your vice can go up by one die step. You must have both used the vice and accomplished one of the following things (as argued by the Screwtape):

  • Greed: Stole something you didn’t need (double bump for something priceless you didn’t even want)
  • Espionage: Gloated in victory or consumed something bigger than your head (double bump for totally suborning someone with illicit knowledge or consuming something so big you shouldn’t be able to do so)
  • Cruelty: Killed or permanently maimed a person/lovable animal or destroyed something of real value (double bump for a massacre or mass property damage)
  • Cowardice: Humiliated someone or sat by idly while something awful happened that you could have easily stopped (double bump for killing someone with a death trap or permanently maiming someone through torture)
  • Corruption: Made someone your minion or seduced someone that should know better (double bump for getting lots of minions all at once or completely suborning a hero’s ally through your charm and wiles)
  • Deceit: Betrayed and mocked someone that trusted you or seriously hurt someone because you were jealous of them (double bump for killing an ally or ruining someone out of jealousy)
  • Pride: Claimed that you were invincible and proved to your enemies that you were right; also special:
    • Whenever a vice would be raised over d12, it resets to d8 and your Pride goes up by one die step. (If you get a double bump while at d12, your Pride goes up by one die step and your vice resets to d10.)
    • If your Pride would exceed d12, this begins the process of dragging you to hell (it goeth before a fall… needless to say, don’t claim you’re invincible unless you’re planning to job it and get beaten).

Repenting

In order to lower a vice, you must forego a wild die for the whole scene (rather than using a vice-based wild die), succeed on at least one test where the outcome matters, and accomplish something opposed to the vice you want to lower:

  • Greed: Help someone with no expected gain or give away something of high value to yourself
  • Espionage: Learn something new and important through above-board means or deny yourself something physical you really want but you know is bad for you
  • Cruelty: Demonstrate mercy when it would be much safer and more expedient not to or protect someone at actual risk to yourself
  • Cowardice: Lose a conflict that costs you substantially (rather than running away) or go out of your way to accomplish something the right way when there was a much easier way to do it wrong
  • Corruption: Admit that you did something wrong and work to make up for it or deny yourself something emotional you really want but you know is bad for you
  • Deceit: Tell a truth that is injurious to you or your interests or help out someone you hate at cost to yourself because you know your hatred is irrational

In order to lower Pride by one step:

  • You must lower a vice below d4 (it resets to d8).
  • You must simultaneously humiliate yourself in a lasting way that will have huge consequences for your reputation.
  • If Pride would go below d4, instead reduce another vice by one step (the dominant vice still resets to d8).
  • If all of your vices are d4, you can attempt Exorcism.

Skills

The normal Savage Worlds skills are replaced with:

  • Pretending to Be What You Ain’t (Acting/Deception)*
  • Playing Sports and Shit (Athletics)
  • Hacking, Cracking, and Social Media (Computers)
  • Grand Theft Auto (Driving/Piloting/Boating)
  • The Old Ultraviolence (Fighting)
  • Taking Slugs Out of Your Buddy (Healing)
  • Scaring the Hell out of Someone (Intimidation)*
  • Digging up Dirt, Looking for Clues (Investigation/Tracking)
  • That Shit You Learned in School (Knowledge)**
  • Breaking and Entering (Lockpicking/Security)
  • Good Looking Out (Notice)
  • Getting People to Do What You Want (Persuasion)*
  • Making Shit and Fixing It (Repair/Crafts)
  • Downrange Violence (Shooting/Throwing)
  • Lurking, Prowling, and Generally Skulking (Stealth)
  • Being Down With the Street (Streetwise/Gambling)*
  • Camping and Outdoorsy Shit (Survival/Riding)
  • Being a Mean Girl (Taunt)*

* Uses Charisma bonus
** Not required to be bought as individual skills (unlike normal Savage Worlds)

Powers and Aspects

Powers and Aspects are rebuilt using the rules from the Super Powers Companion as a guideline. In general:

  • Powers scale in effect pegged to the associated vice die (roughly equal to the value of the die; e.g., at a d6, it’s got 6 power points worth of effect, and at d12 it’s got 12 points worth of effect).
  • Aspects scale in effect pegged the higher of the two associated vice dice (roughly equal to twice the value of the die; e.g., Darkness-Shrouded was Devious, so it’s now pegged to Corruption + Deceit, and if your Deceit is d10, it’s got 20 points worth of effect).
  • I’ll give you little summary blocks to show where the power is at at each rating.

For how they work:

  • You can always use powers, but if you use them your demon is active and raising the associated vice is on the table for the scene (even if you didn’t roll that sin’s die at all).
  • To turn on an aspect, roll the dice for the two vices associated with the aspect:
    • If the demon is activating it, on a failure it doesn’t turn on (and you step down the higher of the two vices), on a success it turns on (and you step down the higher of the two vices), and on a raise it turns on (without having to step down the value of the vice).
    • If the mortal is activating it, on a failure it doesn’t turn on (and you step up the lower of the two vices), on a success it turns on (and you step up the lower of the two vices), and on a raise it turns on (without having to step up the value of the vice).

Example Power, That Hideous Strength (Cruelty):

  • d4: Super Strength (p. 43) +2
  • d6: Super Strength (p. 43) +2, Attack, Melee (p. 22) rank 1
  • d8: Super Strength (p. 43) +3, Attack, Melee (p. 22) rank 1
  • d10: Super Strength (p. 43) +3, Attack, Melee (p. 22) rank 1 (Stackable upgrade)
  • d12: Super Strength (p. 43) +4, Attack, Melee (p. 22) rank 1 (Stackable upgrade)

(For example, if your Cruelty is currently rated d8, you have the Super Strength power from page 43 of the SPC at +3 steps, and the Attack, Melee power from page 22 at the first rank.)

Other Demonic Abilities

  • Sinful Perfection: Step down the vice the player is rolling before the roll is made, but add +4 to the roll’s result.
  • Demonic Endurance: Death is not usually on the table for a hellbinder when Incapacitated. If there’s an easy way for you to escape, when Incapacitated you escape (possibly in a no-body, no-kill kind of way). If your opponents have you in a situation where that’s impossible, they’ll find themselves compelled to arrest/capture you rather than killing you. You’re only in danger of dying past Incapacitated when dark magic is on the table in the hands of someone at the end of her rope (i.e., usually, only other hellbinders can actually kill you, or a mortal that’s been pushed way too far).
  • Devilish Creativity: Use the system in the book and replace the virtue costs with Resource units. You can break one big money unit from crimes into 4 Resources. You also accumulate 1 Resource each per scenario to represent your legitimate income. When you want to make a device/improve the lair, spend Resources equal to the book’s costs (in Generosity and Knowledge) and step up a meaningfully related Vice by one. Boom, you have the device.

Advantages

Secrets and surprises from Better Angels work as special-use Bennies: you can expend them to reroll a test for which they’re specifically relevant.

Character Conversion

  • Make characters normally for Savage Worlds. You don’t have to take an arcane background to get your powers (as per SPC). Edges that don’t make sense may be off the table (most of the supernatural ones, anything that makes you rich, etc.).
  • Award Savage Worlds XP based on how far you are into the campaign.
  • Convert your current Generosity to spare Resources, and your various vice ratings to the new vice rating (1 dot is a d4 up to 5 dots is a d12; if you’ve zeroed out a vice, it’s at an X and no powers associated with it function).

Disaster as Random Chargen Filter

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One of the problems with holding onto a love of random character generation is that it originally went hand in hand with another major facet of D&D: if you rolled poorly on your character, that character would probably die quickly and you’d get to try again. Conversely, it’s probably likely that players that rolled really exceptional characters had a decent chance of getting overconfident and losing them. Ultimately, that meant that the dungeon was serving as a filter: weak characters tended to die (or be lucky enough to be very interesting to roleplay), and, in the long term, it was hard to get stuck with a character meaningfully weaker than other PCs for the campaign.

Meanwhile, in modern games, most tables that I’m aware of don’t really have a high PC body count. If you use random chargen and roll poorly, you could be stuck as the effective sidekick to the more powerful characters in the party for the whole campaign.

I had an idea while attending the Horror in Gaming panel at Dragon*Con this year that would allow you to reintroduce the filter in a specific circumstance. My original idea was for something I’ve seen in modern action horror movies like Freddy vs. Jason and House of the Dead: dozens of teens at a rave in a dangerous location, suddenly fleeing when monsters attack. It also works for disaster-movie scenarios. But the idea possibly best in that old D&D trope: survivors of the big bad wiping out a village.

I may expand this idea to a loose module in the future, but the basic idea is:

  • The GM (with the help of the players, if they’re interested) generates a bunch of extremely rough character descriptions and puts them on notecards. This would be the kind of details you’d notice in a crowd scene of a disaster or horror movie: race, sex, hair color, age, and a significant item of clothing (possibly just using something like the Pathfinder Face Cards instead). It’s enough to give the players some idea of whether they’d like to play the character long term.
  • The players take turns claiming cards (or get them randomly) until they have an equal number of characters.
  • The GM sets the stage for what’s going on. Players used to games where they improvisationally portray characters with no stats might pick a character or two to do a bit of ad libbling.
  • Something awful starts killing everyone, and the crowd scatters to escape. The PC cards might represent the whole crowd, or be surrounded by NPCs also getting slaughtered.
  • The GM puts obstacles in the way of escaping: dodging monsters and explosions, having to scale walls and fences, stumbling lost in the dark, remembering how to bypass something, soldiering on through choking smoke or light injuries, and begging others for help.
  • Each of these obstacles is an attribute challenge (e.g., in D&D 5e, an ability check for skill or save). When characters get to it, roll up their applicable stat and make the test. Characters that make it through might, if the context makes sense, help those that failed (but not all of them). The goal is to have pretty heavy carnage of characters that fail challenges.
  • After every such obstacle, give the survivors a new character trait (possibly also randomly chosen) like name and other personality highlights (e.g., again for 5e, background, then personality, ideal, flaw, and bond). Allow a little time for roleplaying if the players want to: they should be figuring out which characters they might want to play.
  • Also after every obstacle (or round of obstacles, if the characters split up into different mobs), have the players hang on to one or two characters they like the most right now, put the rest back in the middle, and then redraw until everyone has an even number. This is just in case players have a different rate of attrition.
  • You might also give the players a small set of rerolls to use across all their characters, to get characters they’re growing attached to through a poor roll or two.
  • Repeat obstacles until the character pool has been whittled down to one PC per player (possibly with a few left over to be backup characters/friendly NPCs). If attrition was high enough that not all the necessary attributes and personality traits are chosen, roll those now.
  • Narrate the last of the PCs escaping to a moment of safety long enough to catch their breaths… and worry what they’re going to do about the thing that just wiped out everyone around them. Finish generating the characters (such as picking a class and everything that goes with it).

Ultimately, this method should wind up with PCs that are above average and more-or-less on par with one another, but that still feel random. And you’ve also got a nice baked-in traumatic experience and plot hook to motivate roleplay from there on out.

Dynamically Static Initiative

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I’ve never been a tremendous fan of the “roll initiative at the start of combat and then just cycle that order until combat is over” school of initiative that has existed in a lot of games, but most notably D&D from 3e on. In my experience, it makes everything feel very static, and can lead to problems with players getting distracted while they just wait for a turn. In the past, I’ve worked on other solutions to the problem, with my most common being group initiative (based on this Ars Ludi post).

A friend recently linked me to this joke monster:

from http://imgur.com/r/dndnext/H4BrSMH

from here

The Percolating Haste mechanic struck me immediately as a potential solution to the boringness of cyclic initiative; you can just apply it to everyone, to get a much more dynamic combat where high initiative bonus matters past the first round of combat. I’d implement it in the following way:

D&D (All varieties post 3e)

Roll initiative for the first round of combat normally. Each time you end your turn, if subtracting 20 from your initiative total would not reduce your score below 0, subtract 20 and go again on that initiative tick. If this would reduce you below 0, instead add your initiative bonus to your current initiative score upon ending your turn (unless you have an initiative penalty, in which case just stay where you are).

Haste-type effects might reduce the subtraction amount (making it easier to go twice in one turn).

Beyond the Wall

Determine initiative for the first round normally (in BtW, this is a fixed initiative total equal to level plus Dex bonus plus 0-2 from class choice). Each time you end your turn, if subtracting (Your Level + 10) from your initiative total would not reduce your score below 0, subtract (Your Level + 10) and go again on that initiative tick. If this would reduce you below 0, instead add your initiative total to your current initiative score upon ending your turn. (Very few BtW characters should have an initiative that’s negative, particularly past the first couple of levels even with a very low Dex.)

This method has the subtraction amount scale by level since your initiative bonus scales drastically by level; it should result in high-init characters getting similar amounts of extra actions as they level.

Benefits of the System

To my mind, this system has a couple of major benefits:

  • Due to different initiative bonuses, characters are likely to change order through the course of a fight. You can’t guarantee that you’ll get a turn in the same position every round; that skeleton that went after you this round—but has a higher initiative—might go before you next round. This in itself should make the fight a lot more dynamic-feeling.
  • High-initiative characters, over a long combat, will get to go more often (making up for the fact that the benefits of high initiative tend to become less and less after many rounds in a fixed initiative order, and also compensating for a high initiative but bad roll).

Of course, the system is a little fiddly for a GM to keep track of round to round. One solution is to ask players to track their current initiative score and just do a countdown initiative call, but another is to use the program I threw together to work as an initiative tracker.

Initiative Tracker App

Here is the app.

As usual, this is a simple Windows form app (someday I’m going to get around to learning to make web and mobile apps) that I solemnly promise is not going to do anything bad to your computer. Just put it in a directory and run it.

The Main tab is where most of the functions lie:

  • Once you’ve added characters, you can select them from the combo box and click Add to add them to the current initiative list.
  • Click New to add a new, default character to the current initiative list (and the combo box).
  • Click Remove to remove a character from the initiative list (it remains in the combo box to be added back later).
  • Select a character in the initiative list to see its stats in the text boxes underneath. You can change them and they’ll update on the fly (if you put something that’s not an integer in the non-name boxes, it will default to 0):
    • Name: The character name that will appear in the lists
    • Increase: The amount that will be added to the character’s initiative count after every turn that didn’t result in a second turn (i.e., initiative bonus)
    • Decrease: The amount that will be subtracted from the initiative total to determine if the character goes again
    • Current Init: The character’s current initiative total (overwrite this every combat if the players hand-roll their scores)
  • The Current Character label indicates which character is currently up once you’ve started combat (and stays the same even if you select another character for editing).
  • Click Next Character to move to the next character in the initiative order (and modify the scores of the last character to act). This replaces the Current Character label and selects the character in the list (so you can easily edit it if necessary). If no one has gone yet after starting a new encounter, this selects the first character in the initiative order.
  • Click New Encounter to reset the initiative count to the top of the order (and possibly reset current initiative scores based on Settings).

This doesn’t currently support delaying/holding actions. I’d suggest just moving on and remembering that the character has a floating ability to act; for a delay, you can hand overwrite the character’s current initiative).

The Settings tab allows you to change a few things:

  • Use the radio buttons to select what you want to have happen to everyone’s current initiative scores when you click New Encounter. By default, leaving them unchanged is selected. The first two options reset them to a generic value (either Increase or Increase + 10; the first option is for Beyond the Wall). The third option rolls a d20 and adds Increase (essentially a normal first-round initiative roll if you’re using Increase equal to init bonus).
  • Change the New Character defaults to whatever you want a new character to begin with when you click New on the Main tab.
  • Uncheck Modify Initiative on Advance to turn off all the fancy changing and use this as a normal cyclic initiative tracker.
  • Click Save All Characters to File to create “InitiativeTrackerCharacters.txt” in the same directory as your app executable. This writes all the characters currently in the combo box to the file, and the next time you open the app it will load them all back in from that file.

There isn’t currently an in-app way to delete characters. You can manually remove them by editing the text file.

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