Sunday, November 19, 2017

But WHY Does System Matter?

Deciding on what system to use in play defines what kind of experience you’ll have during a session. When it comes to choosing a game, there are three dials or settings that I always consider before deciding on a particular system. What are the resolution mechanics? How lethal is the game going to be? How are characters created? Those three questions help me decide if the system is what I’m looking for.

First, there are the resolution mechanics. Some games are binary: you pass or you fail. Personally, I don’t like those. While the GM can take inspiration from Dungeon World and use GM Moves to narrate why something fails, it’s still a yes or no kind of thing; allowing for “yes, but” and “no, and” results changes the system. Which subtly turns it into a different style of mechanic: you pass, you pass or fail with consequences or you fail. This is something that games like Dungeon World, Forthright Open Roleplay and Freeform Universal RPG already does. So it becomes a question of, “How much tweaking of the resolution mechanic does this system require vs. is there a system that already does what I want?” I almost always default to the latter and choose something non-binary for resolution.

Second, how lethal do I want the session to be? I’ve been gaming for almost 35 years. Sometimes, I want to recapture the feel of classic D&D where a character can simply die because that’s the way the dice happened to roll. For example, Vasilis made it all of four paragraphs into the session before a random trap just killed him, and I was alright with that. However, I went in knowing that’s the experience I was going to have. A system that allows for Stress and Consequences, such as Fate, will have a different expectation. In Visemar’s case, he eventually had all his Stress boxes checked but was still safe from dying. Whereas in Forthright Open Roleplay, death is something that needs to be implicitly implied by the Guide so the player understands that death is a viable option of failure. I set this dial in tandem with the last question, “How are characters created?”

How much time I invest in a character during creation guides my choice of system for lethality and system. I don’t mind when a character dies in Swords & Wizardry Continual Light because I can make a new one in less than five minutes. I don’t mind putting a character in stressful situations in Fate because, as demonstrated by Tiny Fate, character creation is just a name with a few Aspects. As much as I like Runequest, I probably won’t choose Mythras / Runequest 6 because I don’t want to invest the time to roll up a character, distribute up to 250 skill points then have the character randomly die in one sword thrust. Duration over creation crosses Runequest off my list of systems. Naturally, I can always tweak the lethality dial, but that goes right back to question one: Is there a system that already does what I want?

Once I’ve set the duration over creation dial, I know how lethal I want the experience to be. Part of that lethality implies resolution mechanic: D&D style combat and task resolution or something like Tiny Fate or Dungeon World resolution. After those three options are finalized, I know what type of system I’m looking for. I can use a game from my library pretty much as is or create my own experience by tuning a game system to better suit my needs. When it comes to choosing what you want to play, choose what type of experience you want to have. The system will start to fall into place as something already available or something you can create.

Solo Gaming Appreciation Month #9

The Chariot and finale…

Backup systems hum and a surge of power kicks in. Emergency lights dimly illuminate the hall, now a darker shade of grey. Wendy’s wrist buzzes with a notification; her display shows a timer gracefully counting down the seconds. The power behind the Incursion slowly dwindling to nothing.

Wendy races back to the elevator, choosing what she hopes is the fastest route out. There hadn’t been any stairs on this level that she noticed, and the exit marked “Deliveries” may take her even further away from the portal.

With the lack of sufficient power, the elevators are already returning to the lowest level, the basement. The doors stand open, but there isn’t enough power for either unit to take her one level up.

She uses the hand rails in the elevator to kick up into the air and strike open the access hatch. When the opening is large enough, Wendy kicks one last time and pulls herself through. It’s only a few feet to climb to the first floor and pry it open.

I chose not to make any roll for the above action because a Setback would not have served any real narrative purpose. Failure would have been: no, she can’t somehow climb up the elevator shaft and forcing her to backtrack. A Complication would have been believable, but with the chance of just having a “no” result, I’d rather play it in favor of the player.

The orange light from the Incursion point continues to glow against the darkness. The scene remains as it had been when she left. Wendy exits back to her own world with more than enough time to spare.

As the timer counts down the last few seconds, the portal flickers. Each flicker, the orange lightning animates. The pace quickens until the bolt moves from a slideshow pace to real time. Then, it vanishes with a crack of thunder. Wendy’s wrist comm glows with several green notifications: missed call, voicemail, link to her drone.

Wendy walks back to her bike, a Nihon Tech Valkyrie Export. The bike is designed for speed and getting around the city to Incursions as quickly as possible. She starts the Valkyrie and checks her voicemail.

Vincent Landry’s voice plays, “Hey, kid. Figured you were working since you didn’t pick up. Give me a call when you get back.”

Vince was her mentor. Ex-military. Old school in tech and philosophy. She opened a voice request.

He picks up before the second tone. “Hey.”

“What’s up?” she asks.

“Just left a Break a bit ago. Thought I’d check in. This one was different.”

“How so?”

“Seemed like there was a motive this time, like they had a plan. Support from a bunch of fanatics that research call Cogitators. Red robes. Implants. Wear cogs around their neck,” he explains.

The latter got her attention. “Mine didn’t have cogs, not that I noticed, but I just ran across a few of those. They said weird things like, ‘X is not One,’ and other nonsense.”

“Guessing you didn’t look over their bodies,” he chided, though the smile behind his tone came through via comms. “Kids run and gun but don’t look at the details. Don’t ask why.”

They’d covered this topic several times already. She rolled her eyes and smiled to herself, “Listen, Old Man, job got done. You’re right. I didn’t check. I run; you walk and take in the sights. So, what do you think?”

“Thinkin’ it might be nice to run together for a bit and figure this out. If these things are working together, these might not be random anymore. Still in Omaha?”

She sighed. He knew exactly where she was with the comms locator unless either of them masked it, but he asked out of courtesy. “Yeah, and I can get to Seattle in a couple days, maybe three. I’ll let Whiskey know and check with Ghost.”

“Running with a Ghost?” she could see Vince shaking his head, “Kids…”

“Hey, two heads and all.”

“Already got that, me and Napana.”

Fetu cut into her ear, “Napana? Sounds local. He from Hawaii or what?”

“Get off the line,” Wendy chides before returning to voice comms, “Running with spirits. Showing your age. I’ll see you in a few days.”

“See ya, kid.”

Wendy cuts the comms and heads up the road toward the Interstate. She could drive straight there, be there in just shy of 24 hours, but she’d rather not press the issue. It’s been a long, strange day. She sends a message to Whiskey Actual, notifying him about the journey to the Northwest.

She opens comms back to Fetu, “Looks like gaming is gonna have to wait a few days…”

Monday, November 13, 2017

Solo Gaming Appreciation Month #8

The Hanged Man: Sacrifice

Taylor Swift’s video, Ready For It? almost screams Shadowrun to me. I like the art and direction of the video, and the lightning scene really wanted to be put into a scene...

The co-location room is nestled in the far corner of the building, safely tucked away underground and climate controlled. A heavy metal door bars Wendy’s progress.

“This is it, D. Plug in, and I’ll get it open. Be ready,” Fetu says.

Wendy takes a breath and silently strides toward the door. The cable connects her and Fetu to the keypad. She wills herself to be still and calm. Whatever lies beyond the door, the only way to close an Incursion was to destroy whatever Anchor lay beyond the threshold. She mentally tallies her options: the NorAm Thunderbird comes to her hand, the lightning lies in wait, her wristcomm is ready to pair with the explosive charges at the small of her back.

“Let’s do it,” Wendy sends.

The door slides open to reveal a room limned in the pumpkin glow of the Incursion. A lone figure, robes more a dark sepia beneath the dim light, crosses to one side of the room, connecting a thick cable from the wall to another rising up from the floor.

Sheets of graphene are stacked against every available wall like hanging book shelves. Each sheet glows with white circuits tracing labyrinthine paths across the thin carbon. The room is large but cramped with all the hanging slate; behind each stack, a rack holds several computers which are fed by the graphene circuit boards. Each computer is daisy chained by cabling that collects into a trunk which in turn follows back to the center of the room.

What appears to be a mass of cables sinking into the floor is a large gelatinous mass. It’s tarry bulk heaves with a breath like rhythm. Cables connect to tendrils extending from the thing, connecting organic with synthetic. Each breath is highlighted with a sheet of white that pulses along the dark skin into the cables to the servers then back.

Wendy goes into action and steps confidently into the room, levelling her Thunderbird at the lone figure and pulling the trigger.

Cogitator: +0 Combat, +0 Talk, +1 Skill, 1d6 Harm, 10 Luck

Neural Network: +0 Combat, +0 Talk, +0 Skill, no Harm, 10 Luck

Player rolls for combat: 4, Setback. Expends 1 Boon, Exchange. 1 Harm (9 remain). Cogitator chooses Counterattack, 6 Harm (24 remain).

Cogitator rolls for combat: 3, Setback. Player chooses Counterattack, 12 Harm.

Her bullets sail past the robed man and shatters a stack of graphene behind him. The Cogitator buzzes and turns from his almost priestly duties and returns fire, which Wendy is deftly able to dodge by rolling toward her attacker. As she comes to her feet, the Cogitator coldly glances down and continues firing his implanted pistol to be met with dead air; the slide jammed with a piece of greyscale brass.

Wendy seizes the opportunity and presses the Thunderbird against its forehead. The Thunderbird roars once again and shatters the cultist’s head with a .50 caliber bullet.

In the background, the giant mass continues to breathe and the air is filled with a slow groan. Nonsense emanates from the dark neuron.

“Vhu’ath. Othr’uth. I’ath’eth.”

Wendy cautiously approaches the thing in the floor, pistol waiting.

The thing continues, “Q’yth’ll. I’ath’eth. Q’yth’ll.”

Wendy stares down at the heaving mass, “I don’t understand.”

“Kill. Me.”

Wendy sends a communication to Fetu, “I’ve never heard of these things asking to die.”

Fetu comes back over comms, “Me neither. Jus’ do it, and we can ask yo’ friend lata.”

The thing continues in its slow ponderous voice, “Kill. Pll’uth’ss’uth. Q’yth’ll.”

Once the anchor was destroyed, the Incursion would retreat back to the Place Between Worlds. She closed her eyes and considered options; the room was filled with servers which connected to this amorphous thing. The course of action became clear.

Wendy reached in and touched the thread of lightning that was contained within her. A single white line that connected her to a raging tempest. The static built, her near white hair in a grey world floated. Wendy’s hands rose to her waist and lightning played along her fingers and jumped from one to the other.

The raging storm built and brushed against the inside of her skin; ethereal wind gently lifted her until her toes barely touched the floor. Within the eye of the storm inside, everything grew still.

A burst of lightning erupts from the elf and gracefully touches the graphene plates around her. Each white circuit turns azure as a surge of electricity merges with the carbon plates. A pair of sheets bursts into shards beneath the concussive pulse that stems from her.

Her heart beats and another pulse emanates from Wendy, sending another set of bolts through more graphene sheets. Each one overloads and explodes into dark shards that hangs in the air. The exposed servers suffer a similar fate with her next heartbeat; electricity entering the racks and overloading circuit boards with barely audible pops as capacitors overload.

Another wave sends tendrils of energy through the machines and down the cables that connect to the massive neuron waiting in the floor. Blue arcs dance along the sticky mass, playing with the sheets of pulsing white of its panicked respiration. Then, everything goes dark…

“Thank. You,” a voice whispers as it fades away.

Next: The Chariot and final scene.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Solo Gaming Appreciation Month #7

“So, I been thinking. You know that one game where you play as a Shepard? Was thinking of making a VIU module about that, but this time, instead of sending some ship out for 600 hundred years, the people research a new FTL drive. I’m thinking it’s called the Probability Skip Engine, like that one show with that one guy that was Hercules.”

“Fetu, is this really the time?” Wendy asks.

“Sorry, eh? Jus’ playin’ shotgun inside your head. All I got is time ta think ‘til something comes up.”

Wendy chuckles in spite of herself, “It’s alright. I’ll playtest it once we’re done here.”

Previously, I mentioned using The Nightmares Underneath and World of Dungeons Turbo to generate themes for a dungeon. Another free resource that helps keep it more guided is the Planarch Codex which builds the dungeon like a Dungeon World monster. Using Forthright Open Roleplay’s resolution mechanic, I have a Dungeon World like result table to use with the Planarch Codex.

Danger: The Shadows Between (corruption)
Countdown: [ ] [ ] [ ] [ ]

Danger: Cogitator Cultists (assimilate)
Countdown: [ ] [ ] [ ]

Anchor: Co-location servers

The result table:
1-7: The Danger is not present
8-13: The Danger is present with +1 Strength, mark one box
14-19: The Danger is present with +2 Strength, mark two boxes
20: The Danger is present with +3 Strength, mark three boxes.

That’s it. Five lines describe the dungeon or environment; five lines describe the results. Everything else comes from the GM side of things or an oracle of some sort.

And on to Fortune: Destiny and cycles. Kind of coincidental with the last scene…

The incursion is a two dimensional pane of dull pumpkin, emitting a glow that bleeds across the lobby floor. Emerging through the other side, Wendy is met with a landscape painted in shades of grey. A large pearl hangs in the sky, shedding light on a charcoal city scape. The only sign of color is the orange portal behind her.

GM rolls for Dangers: Shadows, 17 (2 boxes checked on countdown); Cogitators, 4.

The lobby remains vacant and absolutely silent, not even a sign of the fight that just took place. The shatterproof glass to either side house couches for waiting clients. Ahead, a receptionist’s desk in white streaked marble lies vacant. A dim glow comes from an inactive display; two elevators are positioned behind the desk.

“D, plug in so I can see what’s in there,” Fetu says.

“Only if you promise not to get me stuck again.”

“Hey, I learn from my mistakes.”

Wendy glides over to the reception area and unspools the cable to connect her neural implant to the computer.

Player rolls for hacking: 9, Exchange

Fetu uses his connection from the communicator to the neural interface and gains access to the corporate directory.

“Hey, D, I think I found what we looking for. The basement is getting a lot of powe… Uh, hold on.”

“That doesn’t sound promising.”

Wet, sticky noises come from the hall to the left. Wendy’s NAT implants amplify the ambient light. A shadow black rottweiler pulls itself across the floor; its paws seem to stick and cling to the tiled floor. Heavy tendrils drag behind it.

Corrupted Guard Dog: +2 Combat, +0 Talk, +0 Skill, 1d6 Harm, 20 Luck

“Have what you need?” Wendy whispers.

“Yeah, I think I know where ta go nex’.”

The dog lifts its head and scents the air; the tendrils lift like hackles and wave back and forth. The methodical plodding, sticking steps come closer.

“I don’t think we’re hiding from this one,” Wendy says, channeling electricity into her limbs.

Within the Incursion, channeling what some would consider magic is easier and not prone to Reinforcement, a by-product of the real world exerting natural laws on a practitioner. As the dog moves closer, Wendy eases a shard of trapped blue white energy into her hand, a long blade just shy of two feet composed of electricity.

Player rolls for combat: 12, Exchange. 4 Harm (16 remain). Dog Counterattacks for 6 Harm (24 remain).

Dog rolls for combat: 14, Win. 5 Harm (19 remain).

Wendy leaps from the reception desk and comes down on the dog. Her lightning dagger stabs into the floor.

The dog twists and retaliates, snapping its strong jaws at Wendy’s arm.

A ring of electricity springs to life and forms a parma Wendy uses for defense.

The dog’s face gnashes at the shield; it redoubles its efforts and jumps onto her, attempting to pin her beneath its mass.

Player rolls for combat: 22, Boon. 3 Harm (13 remain) and Team Boons raise to 2.

Dog rolls for combat: 5, Setback. Player chooses Counterattack, 10 Harm (3 remain).

Beneath the dog, Wendy thrashes and strikes at it with her dagger.

The dog rolls to the side and hunches down, growling. It jumps at her again, a thick, oily tendril swinging at her face. Wendy’s counter is severe; she sidesteps away and slashes the tendril cleanly off the rottweiler. It lands with a heavy wet smack and coils futilely along the floor.

Player rolls for combat: 12, Exchange. 7 Harm. Dog chooses Knockdown.

Wendy’s lightning blade slices down through the air and carves into its back.

The dog twists with a final yelp, using the last of its animating force to bowl her down and stare into her eyes. Drool falls from its jaws as the tendrils flail in its death throes. Its eyes burn with an orange sentient light as it glares defiantly at her.

“Soooo, the basement, then,” Wendy whispers with a resigned sigh, shoving the dog off to the side. “That thing. I think… I think it was intelligent.”

“Maybe it was, D, but I don’t think it was gonna talk.”

GM rolls for Dangers: Shadows, 11 (1 box remains); Cogitators, 17 (1 box remains).

Mob of 3 Cogitators: +2 Combat, +0 Talk, +1 Skill, talon implant (1d6 harm, close), pistol implant (1d6 harm, long), 30 Luck

Corrupting Serpent: +0 Combat, +0 Talk, +0 Skill, 1d6 Harm, 10 Luck

The elevator reaches the basement, and the doors open to reveal a dim hallway lit by flickering light. The corridor stretches away, broken by a cage on one side marked with by a warning sign. Black cables connect equipment to each other and the outside world.

Player rolls for stealth: 18, Win.

Wendy walks down the hallway, weapon drawn, and reaches a junction. The black and white sign marked with an arrow: deliveries to the right. Coming down the right hand hallway are three individuals in muted crimson robes with what appears to be a snake trailing behind. The snake is an oily length of tarry black, eyes illuminated within by the pumpkin orange glow.

Player rolls for lockpicking: 18, Win.

Wendy retreats swiftly down the corridor and brings out her lockpicks; she unlocks the cage where the routers are and crouches in the shadows behind them.

Footsteps approach along with muttered monotone computational small talk.

“X is One,” one of the robed figures says as it passes by.

“X is One,” another agrees.

“Analysis: Processing increased by e,” says the third.

Clicks and whirrs respond in unison after the third statement. The cultists continue on, the serpent slithering behind with raspy, sticky tears as it pulls itself along the concrete floor. The elevator doors close and Wendy is left alone in the black and white world.

Next: The Hanged Man

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Solo Gaming Appreciation Month #6

The Tower: Destruction but not quite as expected.

In addition to The Nightmares Underneath, which has a really nice mechanic for making a dungeon’s theme, I was reminded of another free role playing game, World of Dungeons: Turbo. Putting both together keeps the dungeon just separate enough from the real world but still offer some overarching theme that I can use next.

The tunnels lead deeper into The City center, turning and twisting back on itself in a squared spiral. With each revolution, the ceiling recedes and the floor sinks further away. When Wendy reaches five street levels below, an immense pit has revealed itself, leaving just a thin strip of walkway to follow.

A couple of levels lower, Wendy sees the collected water form a pool within a square concrete basin. A small girl plods through the water in a slow circle, singing wordlessly, swinging a stuffed animal.

Wendy taps her wrist comm and tries to contact Whiskey.

The response is immediate, “Go ahead, Fox Three.”

“You didn’t tell me it was a kid,” Wendy hisses. “I don’t kill kids. No problem shooting the fucking monkey, though.”

“Ghost, I think she’s ready.”

Whiskey’s voice is distant, not addressing Wendy but some other unseen presence. A familiar voice comes over comms.

“Ay, Foxy,” says Fetu.

The girl below flashes with static, a thin scan line slowly refreshes her image. The singing stops. The world goes mute.

“I bought us a couple cycles, ‘k? You gotta listen good, yeah?”

“Got it.”

“You’re in a loop. We were cracking a door, and I musta triggered it. Been injecting code to keep you awake. I think I can get you out.”

“How?” Wendy asks.

“You already knew something was wrong, yeah? Playin’ the games to figure out how they work? What was the theme behind Kyriel, Visemar and Raven?”

Wendy blinks. “Cycles. Loops.”

“You got it. You just needed some pushing. I told you I was making you a module, yeah? That’s how we gonna get you out.”

“Ok. Where am I? Really?”

“You been stuck for a couple minutes-”

“Minutes?!” Wendy interjects. “I’ve been here-”

“CPU cycles are way faster than real life. Believe me, it’s only been two, maybe three minutes. Anyways, you’re outside the target area, ‘k? The door is gonna open. You gotta be ready in case trouble comes, ‘k?”

This makes very little sense to Wendy right now. She closes her eyes and takes a deep breath. Why not? This world resets itself every 24 hours. How much stranger could this get?

“Alright, Ghost. Let’s do it.”

A mirror image of Wendy splits away and walks down to the next corner of the square spiral, watching the child.

Ghost explains, “The module should duplicate you fo’ a couple cycles. Enough that the AI won’t notice you’re gone ‘til it’s too late. Sorry, Fox, but this is gonna burn.”

Behind Wendy’s ear, the neural jack burns as if it’s overheating. The heat sears beneath her scalp and the world turns white. Her vision clears, and she’s crouched against a wall, a cable connecting her neural implant to the keypad on the door.

She’s outside an office building. An elaborate downtown business area where holographic signs brightly light the streets beneath in orange, blue and red. The streets are wet from rain just recently stopped. At this early morning hour, there’s little traffic in the area.

The solid metal door slides open, and her sharp ears are assaulted with the sound of a rolling rumble. Thunder moving too slow. Orange light spills out through the doorway, and Wendy sees an orange angular fissure stabbing upward from the floor.

Three men robed in red turn, the dim light and deep cowls making their expressions unreadable. Three arms lifted and pointed at Wendy in unison with metal gleaming dull under the orange lightning.

“I don’t like the look o’ this, D,” Fetu whispered inside her skull.

“X is not One,” three voices chant tonelessly.

For the Cogitators, I build them as a Mob but use two of the free Boosts to give them a ranged weapon as well. The +1 Skill refers to their cult training.

Mob of 3 Cogitators: +2 Combat, +0 Talk, +1 Skill, talon implant (1d6 harm, close), pistol implant (1d6 harm, long), 30 Luck

Player rolls for combat: 13, Exchange. 2 Harm (28 remaining). Cogitators choose Expose.

Cogitators roll for combat: 7, Setback Raised to Exchange. 3 Harm (27 remaining). Player chooses Unhinder.

Wendy rushes forward, her Thunderbird leaps into her hand. A pair of .50 caliber bullets erupt from the pistol and tears into their robes.

The cultists respond, and the trio move to catch her in a triangle of pistol fire. One steps in with a cut to her neck, but Wendy ducks under the attack and emerges from the other side.

Player rolls for combat: 7, Setback. Uses Team Boon to Raise to Exchange. 6 Harm (22 remaining). Cogitators Counterattack for 3 Harm (24 remaining).

Cogitators roll for combat: 20, Win. 3 Harm (21 remaining).

Wendy presses the attack on the one in front of her, pistol firing twice more.

The Cogitator sidesteps, bullets flying past his head. He steps in and slashes with a metallic spike attached to his right hand, stopped by the ballistic plating in her jacket.

Player rolls for combat: 10, Exchange. 8 Harm (14 remaining). Cogitators choose Expose.

Cogitators roll for combat: 16, Win Raised to Boon. 3 Harm, expend Boon to increase harm to 8 (13 remaining).
It’s a close fight. Her Thunderbird echoes loudly in the empty lobby, another pair of bullets pierce the robed man in front of her.

The man jerks upright as one bullet enters his chest, “System shutting do-,” but is cut short as the muzzle of the pistol levels with his forehead. The second bullet rips a hole through the man’s skull. The remaining Cogitators take advantage of the situation and flank Wendy; a talon reaches forward and strikes heavily into her back, knocking her forward.

Player rolls for combat: 18, Win. 9 Harm (5 remaining).

Cogitator rolls for combat: 18, Win. 1 Harm (12 remaining).

Wendy flows with the momentum and comes up against the cultist in front of her. Her left hand presses against the body to steady herself. Energy courses down her cybernetic arm as lightning strikes from her palm.

The second cultist glances down at her palm just as the lightning emerges. His body flies back against a shatter proof window; the cultist’s heart stops from the surge of electricity, and he slumps to the floor. The remaining cultist’s bullets knock Wendy to a crouch from the impact against her back.

Player rolls for combat: 21, Boon. 11 Harm and Team Boon increases by 1.

Wendy grunts and looks up from her position. She kicks out with her foot and brings him down to join her on the floor. The muzzle catches his fall under his chin as she pulls the trigger; the top of his head erupts.

“An’ this is why you do the wet works, and I stay home,” Fetu comments.

Wendy remains on the floor, slowing her breathing. The air still roars with the slow motion thunder.

The lobby is deserted save for three moderately human corpses on the floor. Just Wendy, her Ghost and a yawning portal to another world. Some called it an Incursion, her mentor referred to it as The Shadowlands. She was going to have to shut this down...