Archive for June, 2013


The Library – campaign idea for Sorcerer

June 27, 2013

2 Statements:

San Francisco – a facade of prosperity falling in on itself.

Endless shelves of books, doorways (physical and metaphorical), and sound of pages turning.


It began with something you had to do. A task that was important, and one that people said was impossible. But you were determined, and you wouldn’t stop looking. So you researched – libraries, online, anything. It took months and you found out about The Library. Maybe you found a website, or a piece of paper was folded up in one of the books you had looked at… it explained a very simple ritual.

Write down the name of someone you love. Slide it under a closed door. Knock once on each corner of the door. Open the door. It led to the Library, where you could find all of your answers.

A book on anything. “How to bring John Smith to ruin and steal his wife in 6 months.” “How to cure your brother’s cancer”, “How to transform yourself, Christine Jackson, into a millionaire in 3 years”. Anything for anyone. Check out a book and everytime you opened it and read, it would tell you what you would need to do, for your circumstances to do the thing you wanted to do.

There was a price though. The name you wrote on the slip of paper? You can’t remember it. Or the person. And neither can anyone else. I mean, the ring on your finger means you were probably married, and you start to cry if you try to think about it too much, but there’s no records, no memories, it’s as if in some alternate universe, you married the love of your life, and in this one… they’re somehow gone.

…maybe you’re better off not thinking about that. Go to the door, knock on the four corners and open your way to the Library. There’s probably a book you can get to overcome your sadness.


Modern supernatural – the players are people who have done the ritual and gotten access to the Library. Each player has checked out a book, which is effectively an “object demon” in Sorcerer rules- it provides information and powers to help the character achieve their goals in line with the book’s “topic”.

Thematically, the issue is one of addiction – the books are extremely useful, but they take you further and further from normal life – a life of learning how to do things on your own, of making mistakes, etc.

Humanity is: Connection & faith in humanity. Gains are when you choose to trust your own abilities or other people in difficult situations over the power the Books offer. Checks are when you go to the Books or the Library for normal, human tasks, or cut off human connections for such things.

For non-sorcerous types, consider gains or checks not to be about the Library or Books, but rather idols or magical thinking – which could equally apply to delusions, religious belief, get-rich-quick schemes, etc.

Humanity 0: You write your own name on a piece of paper, slide it under the door, knock 4 times and are never heard from again. You disappear from reality and everyone who cared about you takes an immediate Humanity Check. Yes, this might spawn a domino effect of disappearing people…

Non-sorcerous people who hit Humanity 0 basically give up on reality instead to live in their delusions. Think of the end of Requiem for a Dream…

Lore Descriptors

Naive – you’ve found the Library and this one Book. For whatever reason, you haven’t had a chance to explore it or learn more.

Initiated – Your first trip to the Library was because someone else brought you in. What happened to them? Are they still around? What are they doing and what’s your relationship to them?

Informed – At some point, you either asked the right questions, got info from another Sorcerer, from your Demon or spent some time in the Library finding out more about this Sorcery thing altogether.

Broken – You don’t remember how or why you know these things. You just seem to know


In this setting, all sorcerers share the same price – Lost One.

“You gave up someone you loved. They were written out of reality, imperfectly. No one remembers them, no one has records of them. But maybe there’s keepsakes left behind. A single photo of a person you don’t remember. You start crying when certain songs play on the radio. It hurts to think of the past.” -1 Die to dealing with your past in any way.


Sorcerers pick up a small, useful, but dead giveaway. They will always open a book to exactly the section or page they want, even if it’s a book they’ve never read before. It makes normal research and reference terribly convenient, but they can never choose NOT to do this – it happens anytime they open a book.


Contact – after the First Sacrifice described above, one can simply reach the Library by knocking on the 4 corners of a closed door then opening it. The Humanity check occurs when walking through the doorway – so non-sorcerers who may get involved may avoid or incur this depending on if they, too, go to the Library.

If someone chooses to do further sacrifices – writing down the name of a loved one, sliding it under the door before knocking, they get a bonus to all further Sorcery on this trip equal to their current Humanity. It also incurs yet another Humanity Check AND increases the penalty of the Price by another die, permanently. Writing out parts of reality and yourself is not a good practice.

Summoning  Walking the endless stacks of the Library, looking for a book that does exactly what you want. The more specific the title the more bonus dice you get. “How to become rich’ is no dice, “How to become rich by faking insurance fraud with my grandfather’s house and arson” is worth bonus dice.

Binding Declare out loud what you intend to do with the Book and what it provides, and walk out the door with it. Binding always works, so, it’s really about whether you really understand the book and what it does or not that the binding strength is looking at.

Punishment Deface the book.

Banish -Throw the book through an open door. If successful, the door will slam shut as it flies through and the Book will no longer be here.

Contain -Books can only be contained by older writing mediums – the most common method is to bind it in cloth or parchment strips with detailed information on a topic of which the Sorcerer knows a lot about on their own (You can use Cover vs. the Demon’s Power to get bonus dice before rolling).

Other methods, such as scrolls, or tying it between stone tablets could work as well and it mostly depends on how much time and effort you want to take and how secure you want the Book to be against outside tampering.

The Books

When you go to the Library, you can find a book that explains “how to” for nearly anything. They’re titled in ways that explain exactly what they’ll tell you to do. The books’ text will change according to the situation – it will always be the information that the Book is trying to give you to meet the situation’s needs.

Books count as Object Demons and can have a Power no greater than 6. The Books Need is to be read for 30 minutes or more at least once a week. Books confer powers onto the sorcerer, usually after the sorcerer completes some form of tasks or minor rituals. (“How to find out tomorrow’s stocks: First you must go to these 3 websites, pull the numbers from these 12 companies, then by calculating…” – because this requires action on the part of the sorcerer, it may produce bonus dice before using the power…). Often enough, the “task” is simply flipping a page of the Book before the power is conferred and activated.

All Books will have Cover (appropriate to their topic), Perception (usually a special sense tied to their topic – “Know what is wrong with broken machines” , “Read the emotions of another person” etc.) and often but not always – Boost. Books may additional abilities which are conferred upon the sorcerer.



What if I just spend time at the Library reading books and don’t take it home with me?

Pick a topic, spend a lot of time at the Library reading various books but don’t take any home. Great, you’ve now got the knowledge “in you”. That’s what you’re taking home, so that’s what you’ve Bound…
Knowledge counts as Possessor Demons and have Power of 7 or more. The Knowledge has Need for you to come to the Library once a week and do several hours of study. (Remember, entering the Library is automatically a Humanity check…) Knowledge simply takes over the character to do the thing you’ve been studying on… often obssessively, ruthlessly and without regard for society, social mores, or your relationships.


Random Encounter: Cancer

June 26, 2013

So.  Back in April I passed out walking down the street, went into the ER, found out that I had a fist sized tumor wrapped around the upper part of my heart.  Good times.

For the last 3 months, I’ve pretty much been spending a lot of time in and out of the hospital doing chemotherapy.  I’m fortunate the new research gives me awesome odds (97%) but it also means I haven’t been able to work since March and will be off my feet until probably October.

If you like the stuff I do here and would like to donate to help me cover living expenses and medical costs, I’d appreciate whatever you can drop in.


Sorcerer – Focus for running it

June 24, 2013

I picked up the Annotated Sorcerer – an expanded version of the core rules, with additional advice, clarifications and insights.

One of the things that struck me was a part that says when you create your character, you have to think about their life in 3 ways: 1. Who were they before they got into this sorcery business? 2. Who were they when they decided to break reality itself to commit to sorcery? (and how have they used it since?) 3. The Kicker – what has JUST HAPPENED to screw up that routine they had going?

Why would you do this?

I think a really interesting question that really defines the character is why they became a sorcerer.  Were the conditions that bad and were they that desperate?  And if so, where are they now and how does the past problems echo to the present?  Or, was the character just that determined to get power/get ahead/fulfill ambitions and what DID that cost or who else got stepped on along the way?  I’m also thinking about how Price becomes critical in this – more than simply a dice penalty, it’s what did it DO to you and that you were willing to pay it?

It’s not a Cover, it’s your life

In most modern supernatural games, the civilian lifestyle is pretty much a side mention and minor detail between doing the supernatural shit and living in whatever secret society drama usually takes up the game.  Here, though, the thing is it’s absolutely critical to understand that the PC is not just doing some side shit between sorcery – this stuff was either important enough that you’ve been using sorcery to achieve or protect it, OR at least, that you’ve spent this time keeping your sorcery AWAY from it to keep it safe.

The term used is “Cover”, but it’s not so much a cover for the sorcery as it’s YOUR LIFE and important to you.  More like how superhero comics when they focus on heroes attempting to keep a civilian life alongside heroics.  It’s not a show, it’s not a cover, it’s been important enough to build your life around.

They pull apart

So the square Lore/Cover/Price/Kicker chart?  It’s basically there to help the GM organize the tension that is pulling between each PC – their normal life stuff and sorcery and the kicker that basically unbalances the space between the two.  Sorcery pulls you away from living a normal life, and normal life gets in the way of you doing sorcery.

The Rule of Secrecy means you basically are always stuck with a choice – running around trying to hide and cover up all the sorcery you’re dealing with and how you manage those lies which eventually become a problem OR letting some loved ones onto the secret.   The problem with the latter is that Rule of Secrecy is what keeps demons from getting too wild – they also don’t want to be caught.   Once you let someone in on the secret, though, well, they’re now open for the demon to mess with.  (Depending on the demon and the binding, you might have ALREADY had a hard time keeping the demon from spilling over and wrecking your life, so…)

And this is what basically makes the intensity of Sorcerer – you play people whose lives are literally falling apart and they have to figure out if they can hold this double life, give up important parts, or simply fall apart themselves in the process.



Big List of Combat Stakes

June 23, 2013

“If the villain did the smart thing the movie would be over in the first 15 minutes.”

There’s a pretty big divide between make makes good drama and what makes tactical sense in a game, and a lot of rpgs which focus on both a) a long term campaign, and b) lots and lots of combat, end up having to work overtime to bridge that space. Mostly it comes down to making death for protagonists, not so common, whether by magical healing/resurrection, fudging dice rolls, or NPCs whose primary function is to rescue PCs.

The key to this problem is that a lot of these fight-y games put death on the table in every encounter. Eventually the odds add up. But most adventure fiction doesn’t have death as a real threat most of the time – there’s other things at stake.  So why not a list of other stakes/goals to use when you’re either encounter building or having to improvise in the moment?

Encounters, goals and stakes

Assume you can flip any of these around – each goal works equally as well for the players as it does for NPCs – in which case, the players’ goal switches to “Stop the other side from…” as the prefix.

Use this list either to improvise in the moment or plan a big set piece. (“We rolled a random encounter… let’s see, the Owlbear is actually just trying to drive you out of her territory…”)

Don’t forget that players may have their characters take action which can create encounters without your prompting and this list is a great way to meet that in the moment. (“Forget this.  If we kidnap the Baroness, we don’t have to negotiate!” “Ok, gimme a second… yeah, she travels to her estate by coach once a week…this will be a chase scene…”)

Holding Action/Take Territory

Time limit can be fiction based (“until the 3rd dawn”), mechanics based (“12 combat rounds”), or triggered upon an action (“One of you has to go unstick the chain for the gate”). The last option is often fun to play with, but can be very swingy – clever solutions can get the win condition quickly, bad luck or not having appropriate skills can make it nigh impossible.

– Hold off the opposition until allies come
– Hold off the opposition until allies can escape
– Hold off the opposition until the gates can be closed / the river floods/ the bridge is destroyed
– Hold off the opposition until the supplies/treasure/Macguffin can be loaded
– Hold off the opposition until a machine can be fixed (drawbridge, shield generator, etc.)
– Hold off the opposition until a message can be relayed
– Hold off the opposition until a trap can be sprung / superweapon readied / magic spell completed
– Hold off the opposition until information can be destroyed/erased/falsified
– Hold off the opposition until information can be found/deduced in time
– Hold off the opposition until pathway/gate can be opened/bridge lowered/fixed, etc.
– Hold off the opposition until a critical person is captured/killed
– Hold off the opposition until a critical object/supply is captured/destroyed
– Hold off the opposition until a weakness in the enemy can be found


These tend to focus on speed and stealth. These can be played in two ways – either with lots of detail and research and planning, or “Wahoo! Let’s swing across the reactor shaft!” kind of action. This should be clear with the group so no one is surprised or trying to play things the other way.

– Get in, see what you need to see, get out
– Get in, take a crucial item (map, magic item, royal seal, damning evidence), get out
– Get in, get as much of thing/resource as possible (cattle, starship fuel, ammo), get out
– Get in, kill a single target, get out
– Get in, abduct or rescue a single target, or a group of people, get out
– Get in, sabotage a single object/location (bridge, dam, warp drive, etc.) get out
– Get in, leave false evidence, get out
– (optional – you can use many of the goals listed under “Holding Action” if they make sense)


Few games do good chase scenes. Fiction focused games tend to do well at this, but everything else tends to flop, especially map & movement focused games. You will need to think hard before putting these into a lot of games as you will either have no rules support, or the rules will not make for a good chase. Good chase scenes are all about hazards- landscapes, other people/vehicles, etc., things to dodge around, climb over, fly under, etc.

– Get a person or object to another person/place/thing, safely
– Get yourselves to a person/place/thing
– Force the opposition to a particular place through trickery/violence
– Lose your pursuers, either by straight outrunning them, clever maneuvers & traps, or combat

Optional additional complications:

– Within a certain time period (see stakes under “Hold Off” for ideas)
– Before the opposition gets there
– Secretly, without being detected
– Without direct violence
– Target person/place/thing is also moving/in transport

Dominance/Social Show

Social stakes work very different than the previous stakes listed. They tend to be non-lethal with very minor injuries, many rpgs have no rules to determine when you’ve “impressed the king” or such, and these conflicts tend to be short. You may need to use judgment or house-rules to determine some of these – “Ok, uh, let’s use a fear check to see if you break under the pressure and look scared in front of everyone.”

A lot of these goals may overlap or become part of the situation as you play out the encounter – repaying an insult almost always goes hand in hand with humiliating the opposition, for example.

– Show your superiority in front of the public/a leader/a key person
– Put fear into the opposition & possibly humiliate them
– To make a threat that you can and will do worse unless they do X thing
– To simply be a bully – proving to yourself you’re dominant
– Abusive control – to KEEP dominating a person to keep their will broken
– To repay an insult (upon you, upon another, etc.)
– To win a public contest/combat sport/wager

Consequences of Failure

The best failure consequences are not all-or-nothing… they’re ways in which things get worse that the players care about.   “You all die” might be something they care about, but there’s no real way to engage with it in play – it’s an end condition.

It should be clear to the players how things WILL turn out worse for failure – “We lost the West Gate.  This means no one can get to the wells in the city anymore.”   Each failure leads to more problems – a lack of resources, another threat, a loss of opportunities, etc.

(A pitfall to avoid – if you run an Illusionist/railroady game, players will detach and not care about the consequences, and often the encounters themselves.  Buy-in in games is based on having meaningful input, and telling people, “You should care about THIS” doesn’t work well.)


Pregen Characters for your home games

June 6, 2013

Most folks are familiar with using pregen characters for conventions, but I’m becoming more convinced that they have a value in home games as well.

First off, I think pregens are valuable if you’re playing any game where character generation is going to take more than 10-15 minutes for a new player. Second, you use them for a short run of 1-6 sessions, not for a 6 month campaign – the point is to get players playing right away AND give them a chance to see HOW the mechanics work for the character stats, etc. This way when they do go to build their characters they’re not stuck having to blindly guess what stats mean what, or how it will look in play, they’ll have had a chance to see it and mess with it first hand.

What this does is:

a) lets players experiment without having to be overly attached/protective of the characters
b) avoids players having to experience “character build regret” where they’re stuck with bad choices for a whole campaign because they didn’t know how the mechanics actually worked
c) lets everyone get to playing right away.
d) makes sure the group of characters are appropriately built stat-wise for the scenario – no character is left missing vital skills or powers

While I’ve seen several games include pregens (or 90% done pregens) (Feng Shui, Legend of the Five Rings, Shadowrun, Mouse Guard, D&D4E) it never seems to catch on other than “Oh Joe showed up late and he’s not good with mechanics, give him one of these” kind of thing.

Pregen Considerations

1. Archetypes are good

While it can be tempting to try to make some tricked out mechanical build, or an “against the grain” fiction type, it’s easier to do pregens with clear archetypes and situations. Assuming this is a new game for the players, you want to reduce the amount of things which require questions – there’s going to be enough questions to answer as it is.

2. Good builds not perfect builds

Aside from the fact that you reach a point of diminishing returns in terms of time spent vs. value in play, the other fact is that some of the players have fun in tweaking character stats – when they make their own characters they’ll want to find the optimal builds. If you’ve already built it, it cuts out their sense of discovery.

Of course, if you’re not that crunch inclined and your players are they’ll come up with something better no matter your best attempt. Just focus on making something solid that reliably does what it’s supposed to do.

3. Avoid Bunk choices

Unfortunately, most mechanically crunchy games have bunk choices included – powers no one uses, etc. Avoid these because all they serve to do is clutter the player’s character sheet and act as a “trap” – one that keeps punishing the player for using it until they figure it out. And since you picked it for them instead of picking it themselves it feels cheap.

Also try to avoid overly specific power types. If a player has a power they never use because the situations where it’d be useful are so rare, it’s a waste of space.

4. Build with your scenario in mind

You’re doing a short run, so you know what kind of conflicts you’re looking at – both in the fiction and in mechanics. Build the characters to be able to competently meet those challenges. If the heroes will have to talk to the king, you probably shouldn’t make them homeless vagabonds. If the game calls for political negotiation, you better make sure they all have some skill or influence to deal with it.

5. Include a short description and advice

For each character, give a paragraph of who they are and what they’re good at, then include some specific advice about general strategies for using their abilities/skills/powers.

Remember, if the players are new to the game, they have no ideas what a power does necessarily, what stats mean, etc. So including, “The knight class gives this character really good defense, and you work best as a blocker, getting in the face of the enemies and holding them off.” gives a player a sense of what to do and whether they want to pick this pregen or not.


D&D and the size of the party

June 2, 2013

I had a conversation with a friend of my roommate who’s from another country after finding out he was into D&D. We ended up talking about the game, and the game design of it, and I brought up the fact that most of the issues D&D has wrestled with mostly come out of the shift from very early D&D where each player had multiple characters to the idea of each player controlling just one.

I remember really considering this idea first after reading “Races of War”

In its origins, D&D was a wargame like Warmachine or Warhammer. You had a field filled with tiny men, and they fought each other with swords and bows. Eventually, someone got really lazy, and wanted to replace a large number of fighting men with heroic fighting men who would be easier to paint because there were much less of them. And that, right there, is the origins of DnD. The smaller number of better Fighting Men would be your “army” and eventually people started playing magical teaparty with their fighting men, and it turned into a roleplaying game. So it isn’t surprising that at first you “roleplayed” a small group of heroic fighting men.

When the new classes (such as “Magic User” and eventually “Thief” and “Cleric”) were introduced, they were intended to be better than the Fighting Men. And, well, they totally were. Indeed, players still controlled lots of characters, and it was deemed impractical for more than one or two of those characters to be any good or in any fashion important. So you rolled up stats for each guy, and if you rolled well enough on a guy he could be something other than a Fighting Man, and the rest of your guys were basically just speed bumps whose lot in life was to stand between the monsters and the Magic Users so that the real characters could survive to another day.

What you’ll notice happens when players have multiple characters the problems that people often have talked about with D&D over the years disappears instantly:

– High lethality? If you’ve got 10-20 characters, you can lose some and you’re not left out of play
– Class balancing? Every player is going to have a few of most types – so it’s not like one player is going to overshadow the others with their awesome wizard at high levels – everyone is going to have their own awesome wizard or two.
– Charisma as a dump stat? You’ve got a war band of several folks and you can also get hirelings to help. Those extra hands are going to be real useful because someone’s got to carry the food and torches…
– Random stats? – Everyone is going to have a good selection of character stats by averages – no one is going to be stuck only playing the character with low wack stats for the whole campaign.
– Out of spells? You’ve got several other characters who aren’t spell casters, so you’re not left being useless and not able to do anything in play.

You’ll also start to see other artifacts like the random number of monsters encountered and the pretty high numbers or the vast treasure pulls you get sometimes. All of this makes perfect sense when you have basically a company of adventurers going into the dungeon and not a band of 4-6.

Anyway, I figured I’d toss this here for later referral for folks on D&D stuff.


Mekton Zero Kickstarter

June 1, 2013

I’ve always found R. Talsorian games to be amongst the best games of their time – they usually found a good balance between the the cruft of point building of the 80’s and simplified mechanics with at least having been one of the companies that typically went with unified mechanics of the time. Plus, they really did the anime thing long before anyone else.

Mekton was the giant mecha game, which I followed through it’s various editions. Now it’s getting a kickstarter for a new version and it sounds like Mike Pondsmith isn’t just doing a simple update, but rather taking good lessons from actual play and revamping based on that:

Mekton takes a lot to set up. I mean, I like making giant robots, but I wasn’t seriously expecting a bunch of preteens to get off on juggling calculus to create the optimal mecha suit. So I knew some adaptations were in order….

I started out by just making the mecha for them. Seems like a plan, right? But pretty soon, I realized that keeping track of the bookkeeping needed in a full-on mecha fight was putting a bunch of hyperactive preteens off in a big way. In fact, it was putting ME off after a while (since I had to do all the math). So I ended up simplifying the Mekton combat systems so that they reflected the intricacies of the core game, but in an easier to use way (like using hit location dice instead of tables). I also structured the combat system to better reflect the kind of combat they were used to seeing on the small screen; a style that was less about who hit whom, but rather how they hit each other (while screaming out the name of the attack no less).

Anyway, one of my favorite designers, a creator of color and someone who GETS anime. Go check it out!