Vampire: Alternate Degeneration

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Yes, I’m still on a V:tM kick. This week: an alternate system for managing “Humanity.” It, like the influence system, is heavily inspired by the Mind’s Eye Theater rules.

For this hack, I’ve collapsed the Virtues into the Attributes to create something more similar to the nWoD power/finesse/resistance breakdown. That is:

  • Physical attributes remain the same, though Stamina gets involved in degeneration as seen below.
  • Social attributes compress Manipulation and Appearance into “Poise,” the social finesse stat. Charisma remains and becomes the power stat. The Self-Control virtue becomes “Composure” and represents social combat resistance as well as ability to hold out against anger.
  • Mental attributes drop Wits (its effects are spread between the other attributes). Intelligence is the power stat and Perception is the finesse stat. The Courage virtue becomes the mental resistance stat.

I’ve also simplified the Attack>Dodge>Damage>Soak mechanic universally such that Dodge is pre-subtracted from attack dice before rolling and Soak is pre-subtracted from damage dice before rolling. This should work about about the same statistically and speed up the oWoD combat round a bit.

If you prefer to use the rest of V:tM as written, you can sub in the Virtues for defensive uses below and slightly change the combat order to allow for rolling defenses rather than pre-subtracting them.

Beast Traits

A character’s humanity is measured in control over the Beast. As you commit monstrous acts, your Beast grows stronger and your Humanity fades… eventually it becomes easier to relent before the urgings of the Beast than to risk Frenzy and total loss of control. Each character begins with a single Beast Trait in one of three categories; the number of traits in a category is a bonus to the Beast’s attempts to drive the character to Frenzy in those situations. The more Beast Traits you have, the later you wake up after sunset (generally a quarter of an hour for each trait).

  • Rage: Invoked when hurt or otherwise provoked; resisted with Composure
  • Hunger: Invoked when spurred by hunger or greed; resisted with Stamina
  • Fear: Invoked when afraid or faced with fire or sunlight: resisted with Courage

Gaining Beast Traits

Beast Traits represent the strength of the beast within a Cainite. Even the most noble and ethical heart means little against a failure to reign in the Beast, while a near sociopath can still lead a blameless unlife if her violent urgings are kept in check. Thus, there is no real concept of a morality or hierarchy of sins, merely actions that cause the Beast to grow and gain more power over its host. You can be as moral or immoral as you like, as long as you maintain a leash on your inner monster.

The easiest way to gain Beast Traits is killing. While there is no hierarchy of sins, there is one of murder:

  1. True accidental deaths, killing in self defense (no quarter offered or given), killing an antagonistic supernatural
  2. Careless deaths (could have been prevented with some foresight but it was an accident), killing out of expediency (dangerous, untrustworthy, but inactive opponent)
  3. Killing a non-innocent during a Frenzy, killing a violent opponent (who was only threatening injury, not death), killing out of a sense of justice (the target wasn’t deadly but was mounting up small horrors over the long term)
  4. Killing an innocent during a Frenzy, killing a non-innocent in the heat of the moment out of anger, hunger, or fear
  5. Killing an innocent in the heat of the moment, premeditated murder on a non-innocent
  6. Premeditated murder of an innocent, cruel/unusual/torturous death, mass murder or serial killing

When your character kills, determine whether the motivation is out of rage, hunger, or fear (if it’s not obvious, as in a frenzy, the player chooses what makes the most sense). Find the type of kill on the chart and reduce the number by the number of current Beast Traits you have in that category (even the Beast gets jaded after a while). If the number is 0, you don’t gain an additional Beast Trait this time (though repeatedly performing the action may bump it up). If it is 1 or more, you gain another Beast Trait in that category.

While the Beast is less interested in actions that don’t involve death, a history of cruelty or otherwise unnecessary harm short of killing someone may eventually catch its attention. In these cases, the player will be warned after such an action that the Beast is waking and her character can feel that it will grow if the actions continue to be repeated.

Frenzy

Rather than making a simple check to avoid Frenzy, it is a drawn out series of attacks against the character’s mental fortitude (represented by an additional mental damage track). It does not generally take place in rounds, but the Beast attacks when provoked, slowly wearing down the character.

The Beast attacks whenever the character faces a trigger event:

  • Rage: The character is provoked or threatened and Fight reflexes would kick in
  • Hunger: The character spends down to one or zero blood or is faced with an obvious chance to feed when low on blood
  • Fear: The character is faced with fire, sunlight, or something else that would trigger Flight reflexes

Actions

Characters can take an action to respond to attacks by the Beast. If a trigger comes in combat rounds, defending against the Beast uses an action similarly to Dodging (either the whole round’s action, or splitting dice pools between acting and defending).

When the Beast attacks, the sequence is as follows:

  1. The Beast declares a dice pool based on the significance of the trigger.
    1. A very minor stressor might only be 1 die, while a major event might be 4.
    2. The character’s Beast Traits for that stressor are added to the total.
  2. The character can decide to relent and do what the Beast wants (attack, feed, or flee). If this is chosen, the Beast deals no damage because it got what it wanted.
  3. The character decides whether to use an action to defend. If she does:
    1. Subtract Perception from the attacker’s dice pool. Willpower can be spent to reduce it further.
    2. If there are no dice left, the attack simply misses.
  4. If the attacker still has dice, roll them against difficulty 6. If there are any successes, the attack hit.
  5. Add the successes on the attack to the appropriate Beast Trait.
  6. The defender Soaks, subtracting Composure (Rage), Stamina (Hunger), or Courage (Fear).
  7. Roll the remaining dice against difficulty 6. The successes are the damage taken by the target.

Wounds

As with physical damage, most characters have seven boxes of Frenzy Levels. Most damage is normal, but a mental wound might be counted as “Aggravated” if the Beast is somehow being stressed by an external supernatural force. As with physical damage, the wounds carry penalties (to mental actions related to thinking clearly and social actions to act like a human with other mortals).

When a character is “killed” mentally, she enters Frenzy and takes actions related to the last trigger (attacking until the provocation is destroyed, feeding until sated, or fleeing and fighting anything in the way). At that point, all mental damage is healed as the beast is quiescent (but the player probably has a new Beast Trait). If not “killed,” the mental damage heals slowly (similar to the mortal healing rate). On rising for the evening, a player can choose to heal one normal mental health level instead of receiving a point of Willpower (Aggravated damage can only be healed with time).

Making Friends and Influencing People, Part 2

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Part 1

Using Influence

While watching numbers on the character sheet go up and quantifying friendships with NPCs is probably a lot of fun for your players, eventually they’re going to want to actually use their Influence to accomplish something.

When the character wants to call in a favor, the player makes an Influence roll. This is a number of dice equal to dots in the appropriate Influence rating that can’t be modified by external factors (but might be modified by difficulty, see below).

The difficulty of the roll is based on how many people will notice and oppose the action:

  • The favor is completely under the radar and nobody cares about it. (oWoD Difficulty 6, nWoD +3 dice)
  • The favor would annoy a few important people if they found out. (oWoD Difficulty 7, nWoD +1 die)
  • It will be obvious to some important people if the favor is granted. (oWoD Difficulty 8, nWoD +0 dice)
  • Important people are actively involved and will try to stop the favor. (oWoD Difficulty 9, nWoD -1 die)
  • It will be very obvious and dangerous to grant the favor. (oWoD Difficulty 10, nWoD -3 dice)

A number of successes are required equal to the magnitude of the favor (see examples below).

If insufficient successes were gained to obtain the favor, the player can choose to Burn relationships to push it through. For each additional necessary success, add a — next to a number of relationships that have total effective control equal to the oWoD difficulty. This can immediately reduce the relationship (and possibly total Influence) if there was already a — next to it.

For example:

  • A PC with Police Influence 3 is trying to close an unsolved murder (4 successes). The murder is mostly under the radar but it’s known enough in the department that questions might eventually be asked (difficulty 7/+1 die).
  • The player rolls and gets 2 successes, which is 2 short of the required 4.
  • The player must put a — next to 14 points worth of relationships. She picks a 5 point Thrall, a 3 effective-point Friend, a 3 effective-point Contact, and a 3 point Thrall. If she doesn’t spend Favor points to repair those relationships (or needs to Burn more influence soon), they could be reduced.

Apply a 1 die penalty to an Influence for each time it is used (successfully or unsuccessfully) during a session. This penalty is removed at the beginning of the next session (unless the GM feels that not enough time has passed).

Suggested success thresholds for different favors are below. As noted originally, most of these are based on the Mind’s Eye LARP rules.

Bureaucracy

  1. Trace utility bills, fake a minor license or certificate
  2. Disconnect utilities to a location, fake a major license or certificate, close a road or park for a few hours
  3. Shut down a business on a violation or close a public building/operation for a day, alter someone’s records within the organization
  4. Fake a deed, initiate a departmental investigation, alter a city-wide program or policy
  5. Rezone an area, obliterate records of a person within the organization, start an audit of a person or business

Church

  1. Get identification as a member of the clergy, look through church records/identify church members
  2. Track or suspend congregation members, open or close a church
  3. Identify and track a church-associated hunter, access private records
  4. Track or suspend higher-level members, organize a protest
  5. Access ancient lore, borrow sacred items

Finance

  1. Get a report on major transactions, economic trends, or financial events; get a small loan (under $4k)
  2. Get a car or other loan (under $12k), manipulate minor bank policies
  3. Get a small business loan (under $50k), foreclose on a target, shut off certain bank services (e.g., ATMs) for a day
  4. Get a business or home loan (under $200k), ruin a business’ finances
  5. Get a huge loan (up to $1 million), change major bank policies

Health

  1. Get a report on public health records, access a patient’s private medical history
  2. Get private reports (e.g., coroner’s report), get a bag of blood, get minor lab work done (e.g., blood typing)
  3. Corrupt a particular test’s results, get major lab work done (e.g., DNA)
  4. Acquire a cadaver, rewrite someone’s medical records, get a large supply of blood
  5. Set up a quarantine, shut down a business for health code violations, have someone institutionalized

High Society

  1. Get a report on current trends, get early news about events, get tickets to a popular event
  2. Track celebrities or luminaries, establish a minor new trend, get a rich friend to buy something for you (under $5k)
  3. Crush or advance a local celebrity’s career, get an invitation to an elite event
  4. Create a local celebrity (yourself or someone else), get a rich friend to buy a huge present for you (under $50k)
  5. Crush or advance a local event venue or festival’s status, blacklist a target from all society gatherings and careers

Industry

  1. Get a report on industrial activities and projects, redirect/borrow minor industrial resources (e.g., one crew or a machine) for a day
  2. Have a minor construction project performed, embezzle petty cash (up to $2k)
  3. Organize a strike, borrow major machinery or a large crew for a week
  4. Have a major construction project performed, change corporate policies
  5. Close or revitalize a plant, cut off production of a locally produced resource

Legal

  1. Get “free” representation from a good lawyer, get minor charges dropped
  2. Access confidential legal records, get misdemeanor charges dropped
  3. Get “free” representation from one of the city’s best lawyers, get felony charges dropped
  4. Issue a subpoena, bog down a court case, cancel or arrange parole
  5. Have someone deported, close down a police investigation

Media

  1. Get early notification about breaking stories, get a small article or story run
  2. Suppress a story (moved to later in the paper or the news broadcast and given less length) or the opposite
  3. Get details on confidential sources, kill a story being run by only one news outlet, get a large article or story run
  4. Direct a thorough investigation at a topic or stop an ongoing investigation
  5. Kill a story being run by multiple news outlets

Occult

  1. Make contact with local occult groups, learn about local occult figures
  2. Purchase rare components, get an idea of other supernatural players in the area
  3. Learn basic rituals, identify the territory of a specific supernatural player
  4. Learn intermediate rituals, purchase minor magic items
  5. Learn advanced rituals, purchase extremely rare items

Police

  1. Hear police rumors, get a license checked, clear a minor ticket (speeding or parking)
  2. Get inside information/reports about a case, stop a minor investigation (misdemeanor or less)
  3. Get confiscated weapons or contraband, start an investigation, stop a major investigation (felony)
  4. Get evidence planted on a target, stop a murder investigation
  5. Have an officer fired, arrange a setup, start or stop a task force, stop an interdepartmental investigation

Politics

  1. Hear rumors from a politician or campaign’s staff, get a meeting with a small politician
  2. Learn about in-process laws and regulations, get access to a slush fund (up to $5k)
  3. Alter a political project (parks, renovations, etc.), minor law, or regulation
  4. Crush or advance a candidate with the establishment, alter a significant law, block a bill
  5. Create a new law, declare a state of emergency, call out the National Guard

Street/Underworld

  1. Hear rumors from the street, learn about a gang and its territory, protect a small area (haven) from most local criminals, hire a bodyguard
  2. Purchase clean weapons or other illegal goods, direct a gang to perform small crimes against a person or business within its territory
  3. Purchase rare illegal goods, declare a person or large building off limits to local criminals
  4. Direct a gang to attempt to kill or otherwise destroy a person or business within or near its territory/hire an assassin or arsonist
  5. Start a gang war, get gangs to mobilize fully to protect or harass a target in the face of serious opposition for a night

Transportation

  1. Travel across town quickly and for free, track an unwary target’s use of public transportation
  2. Arrange secret/safe travel (e.g., get a vampire moved safely during the day), cancel a target’s transit card
  3. Shut down a bus or train line for up to a day, alter a bus route for a day
  4. Establish a regular smuggling route, shut down a road for up to a day
  5. Keep all public transportation and cabs from entering/leaving an area

University

  1. Get and/or alter school records for a target, get access to labs or other facilities
  2. Fabricate school records for a target, cancel a class, change a target’s grades
  3. Get a student expelled, organize a protest or rally, steal lab supplies
  4. Get a professor/teacher fired, fabricate a degree for a target, cancel classes for the day
  5. Alter a curriculum/major, direct research toward a particular topic, close a school permanently

Making Friends and Influencing People, Part 1

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Last week’s post on a more downtime-friendly skill-based system got me thinking about the other thing you’d want in a heavy downtime WoD game: a way to use your downtime to grow your influence in the city. This is obviously most appropriate to a Vampire game, but could be relevant to Mage or non-White Wolf games as well. Everyone likes a system for quantifying favors owed and controlling events in the game world.

This system is largely based on the LARP rules for Influence, but with a lot more granularity. It requires a lot of bookkeeping because it’s meant to be a major subsystem: you could theoretically use it to run a game where the PCs spend most of their time garnering Influence and using it to solve problems without ever getting directly involved.

Categories of Influence

It’s up to the GM how granular influence is in a particular game. You might use the standard LARP categories (media, bureaucracy, finance, industry, etc.) or require it to target an actual contiguous organization (Channel 6, the DMV, Stonegate Bank, Excelsior Holdings, etc.). The latter will make more sense in a simulation-heavy game (as it becomes more clear how the character can turn favors into a result) while the former gives a much broader base of power to the PCs. If you want to have a more granular influence while giving the players city-spanning power, you may want to increase the downtime Favor points discussed later (as the system as designed makes it hard to maintain more than a handful of reasonably-effective influences).

Regardless, the minimum number of members of an influence organization is around 100: any smaller and the player could just control it directly rather than having to use favors. If you could conceive of a character having a Status background/merit in the organization, it’s probably big enough to support Influence.

Suggested broad areas of influence include:

  • Bureaucracy
  • Church
  • Finance
  • Health
  • High Society
  • Industry
  • Legal
  • Media
  • Occult
  • Police
  • Politics
  • Street/Underworld
  • Transportation
  • University

Influence is People

A character’s Influence rating in an area is the sum of individual contacts, friends, and thralls within the organization. The more people the character can ask for favors, the higher the Influence rating.

  • Each named individual has a control rating within the organization from 1-10.
    • As a rule of thumb, a character’s control rating in an organization is equal to Status (1-5) plus an applicable skill (0-5) that would indicate ability to direct the organization (Politics is the most obvious, but others could be justified).
    • For example, a politically minded-rookie (Status 1, Politics 5) and a clueless commissioner (Status 5, Politics 1) would both be worth 6 control rating. The former has little power but is really adept at using it, while the latter theoretically has a lot of control but can’t use it off-the-books very easily for the influential character.
  • Each such individual also has a relationship multiplier to this rating (based on how much she likes the PC).
    • A Contact knows the character and is friendly, but is unlikely to stick her neck out. However, having several of them an an organization certainly increases the chance they’ll at least look the other way when a better friend pushes through a favor. The contact’s control rating is quartered and rounded up.
    • A Friend either genuinely likes the character or owes her some serious favors and is thus willing to take more of a risk. The friend’s control rating is halved and rounded up.
    • A Thrall is willing to risk an awful lot for the character, either due to major blackmail, supernatural compulsion, or a genuine love. The thrall’s control rating is used without modification.
  • This generates the Influence rating.
    • All of the character’s relationship-modified control ratings are added together.
    • For every ten points of this total, the character gets a dot of Influence in that organization.
    • The character’s dots cannot exceed the highest relationship-modified control rating of any individual in the organization (e.g., if the character’s highest relationship is an 8-point friend worth 4 points, the character cannot have Influence higher than 4 until she improves that relationship or finds a more influential friend).

If the character has Status or otherwise works legitimately within an organization, she can count herself as one of her Thralls. This relationship doesn’t need to be maintained but also can’t be Burned (both explained later).

For example:

  • A character has several points of influence within the police force:
    • Detective Smith (Status 2, Skill 3), a Friend worth 3 points.
    • Captain Graves (Status 4, Skill 3), a Contact worth 2 points.
    • Officer Carmichael (Status 1, Skill 2), a Thrall worth 3 points.
    • Officer Jones (Status 1, Skill 2), a Contact worth 1 point.
    • Detective O’Brian (Status 2, Skill 2), a Thrall worth 4 points.
  • The character has 13 effective points within the organization, so has Influence 1.
  • If the character added a lot more points of contact, her rating still couldn’t go above Influence 4 without upgrading at least one of the relationships to at least 5 points.

Gaining and Maintaining Influence

If a PC meets and befriends/controls a member of an organization during actual play, that character can immediately be added to the character’s appropriate Influence sheet. GMs are, however, encouraged to enforce the logical consequences of players trying to get too many “free” points of Influence this way: a Contact isn’t just someone that the PC met once and using powers to create a bunch of Thralls in a short period of time has its own repercussions. This is more for situations like a player asking, “Do you think ace reporter Rob Stetson counts as a friend now that we saved him from a pack of werewolves?” And, indeed, if all the PCs could jointly count the NPC a friend, she can be added to all their sheets (though some might spend more time maintaining the relationship than others).

Other than NPCs met in play, a character can make friends and maintain relationships by expending Favor points.

Each PC gains a certain number of favor points per week:

  • One point for each dot of each applicable Background/Merit that could be used to do favors for contacts. Resources is the obvious go-to, but Contacts, Fame, and other such traits might be convincingly argued to give the character an easy ability to improve the lives of her contacts (either through gifts/bribes or by throwing them leads or other career upgrades).
  • One point for each dot of each Influence. It’s rather easy to call in extremely minor favors to keep people happy.
  • One point for each dot in an applicable die pool if the PC spent most of her free time that week working on scraping up Favor. This could be virtually any die pool that the player can justify (social pools to wine and dine the contacts, investigation pools to turn up leads or blackmail, etc.).

No favor points are gained for the week if the PC was completely off the grid/out of town for most of the week. Making your rivals go on the lam is a good way to bleed them of control.

For example, a PC:

  • Has Resources 3, Contacts 2 (5 points)
  • Has Police 2, Media 2 (4 points)
  • Spends the week turning up leads on mundane crimes with Wits 3 + Investigation 3 (6 points)
  • Gains 15 Favor points for the week.

This will change infrequently, so the player can generally write a passive/active total of Favor points gained each week somewhere convenient on the sheet.

Making new friends uses these Favor points:

  • You can add a new Contact by paying her total control in Favor points. For example, a Status 2, Skill 3 individual costs 5 points to add as a Contact.
  • You cannot add a new Contact with Status higher than your Influence dots (as you’re effectively using your existing friends to get you into contact with their superiors). This does have a minimum of one: you can start out a new type of Influence by scraping up contacts from the bottom of the organization.

Each month, you can maintain and improve your relationships with Favor points:

  • You must pay an individual’s effective rating each month to Maintain that relationship (e.g., a control 6 Contact worth an effective 2 costs two Favor points to maintain).
    • If you do not pay to maintain that relationship for the month, put a — next to the character’s name.
    • If the character already had a —, reduce that relationship by one step (Thrall>Friend>Contact>No Value).
  • You can pay double an individual’s effective rating each month to Improve that relationship.
    • If you paid double for the month, put a + next to the character’s name.
    • If the character already  had a +, improve that relationship by one step.
  • A — cancels a + and vice versa. If you neglect a relationship, you’ll eventually have to pay double to remove the risk of it dropping.
  • If a relationship drops to No Value, you can always pay the initial Contact cost to regain that character, even if her Status is now higher than your Influence (but it would have typically been cheaper not to let the relationship drop).

Actions in-play can also adjust relationships at the GM’s discretion. Players might want to direct resources gained during a scenario to favorite contacts, work to get their Thralls higher Status or train them to higher political skill, or otherwise improve a source of influence. If a target was made a Thrall by supernatural means, a reduction to Friend status either means the character was not maintaining the compulsion or, if it was permanent, the contact did something to make peers suspicious and cannot currently give the character full access to resources.

On-screen contacts might also get killed, removing them entirely. And, if you identify an enemy’s contacts, you can kill or suborn them yourself.

Next week’s post explains how to actually use Influence.

Skill Based: Scaling Exp into Scaling Time

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As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a fan of skill-based game systems that use a flat-cost system in character creation but a scaling-cost system for advancement. That is, something that costs 2 points per level in creation might cost current level x 2 with exp. It effectively penalizes players for not min-maxing at character creation, as it’s way cheaper in the long run if you start with several useful traits maxed out and neglect median ranks in traits.

What the scaling costs are meant to do is create a more simulationist curve to advancement: of course it’s harder to master a skill than to pick up the basics, so the first rank costs a small fraction of moving from the penultimate to ultimate rank. But even with that stated goal, in the latest White Wolf game I’ve been playing, we’ve started to notice flaws. We have a five-member party where everyone started out with a high degree of skill in at least a couple of areas that compliment one another, so we can usually field at least one person against any given challenge. Since there’s only the lowest pressure to shore up our weaker traits, it only makes sense to save up our exp until we can buy something really flashy (generally the next highest rank in our powers). The GM is stuck in a weird situation where our group can pretty easily roll over most of the opponents in his setting book, because even though those NPCs technically have tons more exp than us, they’ve diversified it across a bunch of traits. We’re magical idiot savants, fantastically skilled at a couple of meaningful areas and worthless at anything else. And the system makes that a great idea.

And, as a secondary concern (which is a problem with virtually every game that doesn’t require training time), we’ve gone from newly awakened nobodies to magical powerhouses in only a couple months of game time. There’s no reason for us to take a break longer than it takes us to heal up, recover mana, and refill willpower. So even though the GM would like us to spend some time in magical study, it doesn’t really make any sense for us to do so.

That’s a long intro to explain the background of the system below. It’s designed to:

  • Minimize the differences between buying something at chargen and during play
  • Encourage players to diversify spending rather than just buying the flashiest traits
  • Enforce a “realistic” time frame on learning skills

Fixed Costs

The following charts are tuned to new WoD (new level) and old WoD (current level), but should be applicable with minor modification to any game that uses a level multiplier for exp costs.

New WoD

New Level x 5 dots* 10 dots
1 3 6
2 5 11
3 8 17
4 10 22
5 13 28
6 15 33
7 18 39
8 20 44

* The fifth dot costs double as in character creation.

Old WoD

Current Level x* 5 dots 10 dots
1 2 5
2 5 9
3 7 14
4 9 19
5 12 23
6 14 28
7 16 33
8 18 37

* The costs are based on a fixed cost for the first dot equal to about 150% the cost of the second dot (e.g., skills cost 3 points for the first dot in oWoD and 2 for the second).

Examples

In oWoD, attributes cost current level x 4 for a five-dot progression. Looking at the chart above, they now costs 9 points per dot. Similarly, Willpower costs current level x 1 for a ten-dot progression. On the chart, that becomes 5 points per dot.

In nWoD, attributes cost new level x 5 for a five-dot progression, so they now cost 13 points per dot (and the fifth dot costs 26). Meanwhile, Willpower becomes a flat 8 points per dot, so that remains unchanged.

Enforced Time

Standard Method

Characters can spend one exp per week per trait. If they don’t have enough saved exp on hand at the end of the week for all the traits they want, they didn’t learn anything that week and don’t get to “buy the week back” when more exp is gained. But if they have lots of exp, they can be working on several traits at once. This is effectively paying for the trait on layaway: when the last point of exp goes into the trait, it is increased on the character sheet immediately.

The GM may additionally want to give out bonus training that is effectively extra exp that can ignore the time restrictions. This will generally be something the PCs were focused on during the adventure and could justify learning faster due to on-the-job training. For example, in an adventure where everyone learned a ton about the occult, instead of 4 general exp the GM might give out 2 general exp and 2 exp that went straight into the Occult skill (and the players could spend another point of exp into Occult for their regular weekly increases).

Players will likely either want a character sheet with room next to every trait to track exp spent, or a scratch sheet to keep track of which traits are being worked on. The GM will likely want to pick a day of the game week that’s exp day, and remember to call it out at the table (“It’s Sunday morning, spend your exp!”).

Slightly More Bookkeeping Method

The above method does make more expensive traits take longer to learn, but doesn’t capture the geometric feel of the multiplicative exp. That is, under this system, the fourth dot takes just as long to learn as the second. If you’d like to retain some of that feel, you can make lower point values take less time to pick up than higher.

The simplest way to do that is to let the players put two points of exp into a skill per week if they’re trying to buy rank 1 or 2 and only half a point in per week (or one every other week) if they’re trying to buy rank 5.

In nWoD, that means a character completely untrained in a skill (and with ample exp to spend every week but no bonus exp) gains rank 1 in four weeks, rank 2 after 8 weeks total, rank 3 after 16 weeks total, rank 4 after 24 weeks total, and rank 5 after 56 weeks total. Meanwhile, a x6 power gains rank 1 in 8 weeks, rank 2 in 15 weeks total, rank 3 in 30 weeks total, rank 4 in 45 weeks total, and rank 5 after 105 weeks.

If you have enough downtime that a year still seems too fast to go from untrained to mastery in a skill, you can slow the progression down even more. Do keep in mind that doing so will make learning more expensive traits than skills (i.e., attributes and powers) take even more time. Make sure that your time progression leaves enough room for players to bother getting the last rank in a power if it takes over a year to go from 4 to 5.

And if, as a GM, you want to keep track of all the bookkeeping yourself, you can simply ask the players what they’re trying to learn and then tell them when they can level it up. Just one day you’ll be like, “all that time you spent learning X has paid off, you may increase it by one dot.” Your players might even be amazed at the way their characters grow along with their intentions but without their direct involvement.

System Review: Mage: the Awakening, Conclusion

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And I Say It’ll Be Alright

I wonder if my issues with Mage: the Awakening aren’t my issues with the new World of Darkness in general.

In the 90s, the game lines were almost explicitly about taking everything resembling a horror or occult mythos and tossing it into a big melting pot. Original Vampire had pretty obvious influences from every major piece of Vampire genre fiction out there, and you could conceivably run a game where Near Dark collided head first with Necroscope by way of the Lost Boys if you had such a mind. Changeling made splats out of any kind of humanoid creature that could remotely be associated with a myth or faerie tale. And Mage was built from a lot of genuine occult beliefs attached to a substructure of the 1990s zeitgeist. The old WoD was, in many ways, set up so that you could just roll in with whatever mythology, horror, and pop culture background you had and find something relatable to build a character around.

Because of this, though, the old WoD lines could be considered a little immature. Drawing from every source imaginable for your setting introduces thematic dissonance, and it was hard to tell a player that she wasn’t matching the intended feel of the game line when she was clearly basing her roleplay on the obvious source material for her splat. The new WoD games, in addition to trying to clean up some of the metaplot bloat of the old lines, seem to have had a less explicit goal of homogenizing the character types so they could actually be directed at a specific story and theme, rather than being a strange amalgam of pop culture. The new WoD games are much more consistent in tone and intended direction.

Unfortunately, though, to my mind that makes them a little boring. While there’s a lot of stuff in these games, it’s all uniform enough that none of it pops out. Old Mage was all like “whoa, crazy kung fu monks and weird shaman guys and mad scientists and magical hackers!” New Mage is more nuanced, and asks you to have a strong idea for a character or game to impose on the setting, rather than those ideas popping out at you. There may actually be a lot more things you can do in the new setting without all the cruft from a few dozen other media properties fighting with you on what you want to do, but the text itself isn’t very exciting.

The rules are the same way.

New Mage has rules for magic that are all about minor bonuses and gradual upgrades in power. There’s much more consistency across different power types, and they’ve gone out of their way to make each arcana useful in as many typical game situations as possible. There’s less of a sense of odd imbalance like Life 3 giving you a huge bag of tricks from healing, to the best attack in the game, to shapeshifting, to stat boosting while Time 3 mostly just lets you get a few extra actions. There are clear and gradual paths to improvement, and a lot of fun to be had in figuring out how to get a few more dice for a useful effect.

But they’re lacking in the excitement of old Mage. That was a game that really wanted you to figure out the handful of incredibly unbalanced things you could do and make use of them as often as you were willing to soak up the Paradox. The first time I ever saw old Mage in action was a con game that ended with the macguffin pile of deadly toxic waste getting transmuted to water like it was nothing. I’ve had players cover themselves in frictionless force fields to escape at high velocity down a skyscraper’s stairwell. I’ve used that same one-trick Time speed power to take out enemies by accelerating just their heads so the blood rushed out of their brains faster than it could rush in. You could probably do some of these wacky, immature, exciting things in new Mage, but the rules are tuned to support a much more sedate and serious setting, so they’d be fighting you at every turn.

Ultimately, new Mage is a perfectly workable rules set. It’s got a lot of warts, but there aren’t any really glaring flaws to make it unplayable. Its only real sin is probably just being based on an updated but still aging 1990s rules set while dumping the idiosyncratic charm that made that rules set fun. That is, there are a lot of modern game engines in which one could more easily run a consistently toned and subtle modern occult game, and it’s weird to have dropped the gonzo 1990s tone of the setting while keeping all the cruft of a 1990s rules engine. New Mage is completely serviceable, but that’s not really high praise for a successor to a game that still stirs the imagination a decade later.

But I have to admit I could easily be succumbing to nostalgia, and, if Mage: the Awakening was the game I had played first, maybe I’d be just as excited about that.

System Review: Mage: the Awakening, Part 3

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Miscellaneous Rules

Welcome to Paradox

Earlier, I described this game as “Mages in Trenchcoats” with the intention that this game has a far lower gonzoness cap than old Mage. Superficially, it’s set up so starting characters don’t have access to the really exciting spells until quite a while into progression, and Paradox is easier to come by. The tone indicates that you’re meant to really try to keep all this stuff secret.

But then one might look more closely at the rules and realize that Highlander was big on trenchcoats, too: gonzo swordfights in trenchcoats. In particular, Paradox isn’t nearly as bad in this game as it was in old Mage. There are several ways to mitigate it outright (from magical tools to spending mana), and when you do take it you still have options. The first is to take it as backlash and soak up a couple of points of bashing damage; it can’t be healed with magic, but it will be gone on its own pretty quickly. IIRC, Paradox damage in old Mage lasted a lot longer. Even if you choose to let the Paradox flow into the world and cause havoc, it’s more on the order of cool special effects like electrical storms, temporary insanity to roleplay, and scary eyes than real drawbacks. For most characters, they only last for a scene. Eventually you start summoning antagonistic spirits, but the lower order effects aren’t actually that terrible.

So behind the surface caveat to avoid going vulgar whenever you can, because it will cause Paradox, there’s an actual realization that it probably won’t be too bad until you do it a lot. I’m not sure whether this is a case of the rules not supporting the intended feel of the game, or just the intended feel of the game being unclear from a superficial reading.

One Permanent Willpower

One thing the game does, just as an aside, that really bugs me is rely on “spend a permanent dot of Willpower” for anything that needs to be lasting. In particular, making a spell permanent or creating a magic item is based on this cost, as are other things like inducting apprentices into your magical legacy. This reminds me of the old joke from 2nd Edition D&D about the poor foolish wizard that used up all his permanent Constitution to make a bag of +1 sling stones: the enchant an item spell consumed a permanent resource there as well. Since restoring an expended Willpower is a fixed and fairly expensive experience cost, this system pretty much implicitly makes permanent items or effects not worth it unless they’re incredibly powerful. Cool little magical doo dads that perform one minor function can’t cost less to make than world-shaking items of power, so PCs are unlikely to fiddle with them. Which makes me sad.

Rituals, Durations, and Spell Limits

An area where new Mage has a pretty significant leg up on old is structure for non-instant casting. Old Mage likes to talk a lot about rituals, but I can’t recall much support for them since there wasn’t a real limitation against making an extended casting in regular combat rounds rather than over hours. The newer game has a fixed divide: if you want to make more than one roll toward a spell, you have to go to a ritual casting mode with some fixed timing (hours rather than seconds).

Even with the greater focus on the difficulty of a ritual, you could still build up a lot of successes with an extended casting. In particular, it’s not hard to make any spell with a base duration of a scene last a long time. To counter this, the game makes a big deal about how many active spells you can have at all, and how many buffs you can have on yourself before taking major penalties. To be fair, old Mage didn’t make having a lot of buffs nearly as attractive as new, but it was pretty easy to stack stuff up if you had a mind to, and that could have been troublesome. I still remember a rote concept of mine that I think would have been legal that would have allowed ritually building up a pretty obnoxious pool of aggravated damage blasts to be used at will. New Mage at least puts some structure on that kind of game breakage.

Organization

On reading back though the rulebook for these reviews, I have to admit that part of my problem with the game is just that there’s a lot of cool stuff that you may never notice if you don’t make a concentrated effort to read the book cover to cover again once you have a firm grasp on the basics. Old Mage, as I’ve noted before, had some teething pains for new players, particularly with grokking paradigms, but once you got over a few conceptual hurdles you’d have players operating at a pretty high effectiveness as far as being able to make full use of the available rules options. New Mage has a lot of cool stuff that’s just buried in the text. You can chant in the language of magic to make spells more potent. You can bind spells to sigils to make them last longer. You can weave spells together to cast a multi-purpose effect or have multiple minor buffs only count as one for spell limits. All of these are cool things that will probably drastically change how I interface with the game system now that I’ve found them, and they’re all mixed arbitrarily throughout a pretty dense rules chapter.

A large part of the problem is that the headings are in a hard-to-read cursive font in reflective bronze ink (and the sidebars are often in the same ink). But even were the text easy to read, the information is not at all organized well. There are several pages of charts for modifications to spells that are mostly a complete reprint (one’s for fast cast spells and one’s for rituals, but the only difference is that “drop 2 more dice” is replaced with “spend 1 more success” all the way across). Some things are called out in sidebars that break weirdly across pages. The spell effects listings are in three columns with minimal column breaks (the text wraps as it will for the most part).

If this game had been given to an editor and/or layout designer more focused on making a whole raft of fiddly but interesting rules easily accessible, rather than going for graphical style and dense prose, this could have been a better game. Even if it would have been technically the same game… layout is more important than a lot of people seem to realize.

Conclusion

System Review: Mage: the Awakening, Part 2

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Magic Basics

For those that haven’t played old or new Mage, a brief primer: all spellcasting revolves around a collection of nine or ten conceptual groupings of magic (“Spheres” in old, “Arcana” in new). You raise these elements in a similar fashion to any other power group in WoD: by spending character points to fill in dots. The groupings are:

  • Correspondence/Space: Teleportation, scrying, and more strange manipulations of positions
  • Entropy/Fate & Death: Manipulating probability and decay (this is two arcana in new Mage, splitting Entropy in half and each gaining a few new tricks)
  • Forces: Manipulation of physics, particularly fire, cold, light, sound, and electricity
  • Life: Manipulation of biology, including transformations and healing
  • Mind: Anything having to do with mind reading or control
  • Matter: Manipulation of chemistry, letting you affect basically any non-living matter
  • Prime: Tricks to let you get more mileage out of the quintessence/mana resource of the game
  • Time: Speeding up time, precognition, postcognition, and trying to time travel if you’re really powerful
  • Spirit: Interacting with and summoning the spirit world (both nature spirits and ghosts in old Mage, but ghosts moved to Death in new)

These are conceptually sound, and basically survived intact through two revisions of old Mage and into the new edition. The important thing to consider is that they do strongly define how mages break down in specialization. The guy with Correspondence is going to scry and teleport all the time. The girl with Life is going to focus on buffing herself physically and healing. In typical WoD style, it will be a long time before you have a broad base of competency, so often the game breaks down to using your “hammer” of specialized magic type to turn your problems into nails.

The other major similarity across both editions is the idea of Paradox. Effectively, reality thinks magic is wrong, and punishes mages in various ways for using it in an obvious fashion. If you throw a fireball or teleport across town, you’re going to take Paradox as either damage or other nasty results. So you can’t go all out very often. Instead, magic is meant to be subtle (“coincidental” in old, “covert” in new): magic that would either go completely unnoticed or could be justified easily as something weird but possible.

While I’ll probably talk later about how there’s actually a pretty big difference in how the two editions handle this, the takeaway is that it sets a pretty strong limitation on player character behavior. Mages will spend a lot of their time doing research (sensory magic is usually totally fine) and building up subtle buffs, and may never get to flinging around fireballs unless things have gotten very dangerous. In either edition, a player that attempts to walk in and play a classic fantasy mage is going to quickly be beaten down by Paradox.

Rote Learning

Perhaps the biggest surprise transitioning to new Mage from old is the rotes. Old Mage always toyed around with the idea of a rote—a predefined “spell” that you could use more easily than making it up as you went—but the mechanical support for them was always somewhat incomplete. The thing was, the rules at their base level really wanted you to be coming up with crazy things to do with your magic on the fly, so you weren’t really punished in any way for doing so. You could say, “Hey, can I combine Life and Time to lock onto that guy and rewind to see where he’s been?” and if your GM bought it, you could do it. If you wound up doing that a lot, you might buy it as a rote and get a small bonus for using it, but the watchword was experimentation.

New Mage still allows this, but there are much more extensive breakdowns of what can be done at each level of each arcana, and they’re pre-packaged as rotes. Each of these often has a special case rule: this effect gives you armor equal to X for Y duration, that effect allows you to generate strength equal to X and dexterity equal to Y for concentration duration. In old Mage, the spheres would often give you several big ideas of what you could do, but they weren’t broken down with as much granularity and, more importantly, they generally referred you back to a single chart for things you could do with a given result (as far as damage, duration, range, targets, etc.).

It used to be a big learning curve for players to figure out how to interface with the system. Old Mage was daunting. The inclusion of extensive lists of predefined cool things you can do and exactly how you do them is almost certainly a boon to new players. I do wonder if it’s ultimately a limitation to experienced players, however: in old Mage, you could very quickly memorize the conceptual space available to your spheres and then you only needed the two page global chart to basically figure out the results for anything you wanted to do (and even that was pretty easy to remember for simple things). Nearly twenty sessions in with new Mage and we’re still having to look up the particular effect description to figure out how it works.

But what really bothers me about these rotes is that they’re very arbitrary. The proudest nail on that front is mana costs. Some rotes require you to spend mana to use them or allow you to spend mana for a special effect. Others are completely free. In almost every case, this seems to be purely a game balance decision without any real justification in the world fiction. Armor spells let you spend mana to raise the duration to a day so they can be fire and forget and you don’t have to work out the successes to duration chart. Invisibility requires you to spend mana to use it, even though every other effect at that level is free to use, probably because GMs don’t want their PCs to be invisible all the time. Fireballs are free (at least as often as you want to suck up the Paradox), even though in that case you’re actually creating energy such that spending mana might be justified.

Further, the rotes listed in the book use the arbitrary skill combinations that I disliked so much in Fading Suns and original Changeling: when you don’t have a rote written on your sheet, you just roll your arcana rating plus your Gnosis (your central magical “level” stat), but when you do have a rote you replace the Gnosis with an attribute plus ability. This attribute plus ability is usually very arbitrary: though they do try to make the ability one of the ones that is the specialty of the mystical order that invented the rote, each effect is seemingly randomly assigned to an order. Manipulating light has a rote combo used by group X, but manipulating sound (at the same level of Forces) uses group Y’s justification. And even if the ability is germane to the order, the attribute is almost completely arbitrary: one of the players in our group was annoyed that his magical archetype told him not to worry about mental attributes, but then all of the effects for that archetype’s favored arcana used mental attributes in their rotes.

Even if you happen to find a rote where the combo is something you’re decent at (or the GM is nice enough to let you find a custom rote that deliberately plays to your strength), the benefit is often marginal. Given that characters start with fairly limited points and spend the same experience pool on arcana, attributes, abilities, and rotes, but have a secondary experience pool that’s used to raise Gnosis, replacing Gnosis for an effect with an attribute plus ability is often going to be a fairly minor improvement unless it happens to be something you’ve focused on. With similar rates of increase between my normal and Gnosis exp, my character is very close to getting four dice from Gnosis, but still has only a small handful of attribute plus ability combinations that are better than four dice. So there’s a huge part of the game that I’m unlikely to interact with very much beyond the rotes I got as a bonus at character creation unless the GM keeps ignoring the book and letting us learn rotes tailored to our focus traits. Which isn’t really ideal.

Part 3

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