Some “World of Stars Without Number” moves

Like I said some days ago, I’m prepping a sandbox game with Stars Without Number, but will use the Apocalypse engine instead. To make sure my worload is manageable, I’ll use Dungeon World and tweak it a bit. One of the important part is the classes. So here is a couple of moves for an Academic type of character, built with both the excellent Class Warfare and Uncharted Worlds playtest documents in hand.

Academic

Fount of knowledge (based on Bardic Lore, CW p. 42)

Choose an area of expertise:

  • Technology
  • Criminal underworld
  • Interstellar cultures and customs
  • Unusual creatures
  • Politics

When you first encounter an important creature, location, or item (your call) covered by your area of expertise, you can ask the GM any one question about it; the GM will answer truthfully. The GM may then ask how you came by that information.

Chemistry (UW; Ritual, DW Wizard; Mother of Invention, CW p. 50)

When creating an antidote, vaccine, drug, poison or pathogen in a lab, state the effect you want it to have and its method of transmission (spray, injector, pill, etc.) The GM will tell you one to four requirements :

  • It will take days/weeks/months.
  • You need someone else’s expertise.
  • You need special tools/technology.
  • You need special strain/molecules/ingredients.
  • The best you can do is a lesser version, unreliable and limited.

Once you meet the requirements, roll +INT. *** On a 10+, you successfully create it. *** On a 7-9, it will have unintended side effects.

Surgery (UW)

When using a medical facility, you can use the Patch Up move to cure debilities, install prosthetics and do anything else that could be accomplished by a skilled surgeon.

 

Advertisements

Stars Without Number psionic power translated into moves

I am reading Stars Without Number and preparing a sandbox campaign with it. Go read this book : it’s free, and absolutely great. I won’t use SWN system, though; I’ll probably go with a Powered by the Apocalypse game, probably a mix of reskinned Dungeon World and Uncharted Worlds. It’s really nothing more than a first draft, but here are some SWN psionics powers translated into moves :

  • Precognition
    • Intuit the future. Ongoing. Your unconscious takes into account subtle cues in your surroundings and in people’s demeanor that would take place a second or two in the future, and steer you away from danger. Get +1 armor.
    • Reflect on the future. Ongoing. When you take time to meditate, your conscious mind can understand how a future event could unfold in and against your favor. Once that event happens (your call), you can change the result of a dice roll into a 10+.
  • Telekinesis
    • Remote manipulation. Ongoing. You can use the power of your mind to manifest physical force thats is as strong as a human child, lasts about five seconds, is as nimble as a paw and no larger than the size of a regular plate. Roll +INT. On a 10+, choose three. On a 7-9, choose two. On a 6-, choose one, and the GM will tell you how things go wrong :
      • The force you exert can be as strong as an athletic human could exert.
      • You can sustain the effect up to a minute.
      • The force can be applied as precisely as human hands could.
      • The force is the twice the size of a human.
  • Telepathy
    • Communication. Ongoing. You create a mental connexion among people you can touch so that they can communicate with each other just like they would normally, but through thought instead of sound. Once the connexion is made, it’s maintained as long as you want, regardless of distance, but anyone can cut itself from it at any time.

I wrote “Ongoing”, but I think that the mechanics will be different. Psi powers will probably cost HP, and maintaining an ongoing power will probably not impose a -1 penalty, but only one power would be possible to maintain at once.

Quick, milk-run “adventures”

Just a small idea I had : what if some adventures the PCs have were not actually played, because they were, in hinsdigh, quite unremarkable? After all, we play games to do play the fun stuff, not to roleplay every forgetable encounter, so we use narrative devices like ellipses to move on to a more intresting part of the unfolding story. Why not push it a bit and put actual adventures there?

Here is how I see it : there are “adventures hook” in the game world, like an abandonned vessel, a mysterious cave, whatever. Not every one of those things will turn out interesting : sometimes, an old barn is just a sad old empty and boring barn, after all. So when the PCs encounter one such hook, they can decide to explore it (or not, moving on). If they do, a roll decides what happens. It could go like that :

Roll d12 :

  • 1-2 : Nothing interesting.
  • 3-4 : Something of small value was found.
  • 5-6 : Something of small value was found, but there were some complications. Some ressources was used to deal with it.
  • 7-8 : Nothing was found, and there were some complications. Some ressources was used to deal with it.
  • 9-10 : Something of small value was found, but there were bad complications. Some ressources was used to deal with it, and some or all PCs suffered mild injuries.
  • 11 : Something of great value was found, but there were bad complications. Some ressources was used to deal with it, and some or all PCs suffered mild injuries.
  • 12 : That was quite an adventure! (Play it normally.)

There could be multiple tables (one for the reward, one for the costs for example), maybe also the time it took to complete. Of course, the DM and players should come up with more specific and colorful outcomes. Maybe each such adventures could be written down as a sentence or two, like “We explored a frozen cave. Lazar slipped and lost one boot, but we found some gold nuggets down a shaft.”

Confession of a rule-lawyer

You are probably aware of the dichotomy “rules vs ruling” in rpg. Simply put, a rule is a specific way to adjudicate a situation in play that is meant to be enforced every time (usually written in an official rulebook) while a ruling is a decision a GM make to adjudicate a specific situation. A good ruling take into account the rules, the specifics of the situation and common sense.  Both can adjudicate a situation through a dice roll or give a definitive answer. For example, in D&D 3.5, there is a rule saying that being prone gives you +4 to AC against ranged attack. In another game, a GM could decide that (say) the kobolds are not very proficient with their bows, so that a prone PC would be hit by their arrows only 50% of the time. Per the rule, every time a PC is prone, they should get +4 AC, but the ruling may be different next time against other foes (altough a GM may use it a bit like jurisprudence).

I’m pretty sure that I’m a “rule lawyer” : if we play a game and there exist a rule, I like to know about it and I want to make sure the table knows about it when it should be used in the situation at hand. As a player, I don’t like it if the GM break it without very good reasons (even if it’s in my advantage) : it often feels cheap and unless it’s clear the rule should not apply in the situation, it also feels like cheating. As a GM, I hate making a ruling superseding a rule. I used to be the guy at the table that could quote most rules in D&D 3.x, and that could find it in seconds because I knew the rulebook so well, so it was not that bad, but every time I was unsure, I would double-check. I’m all for house-rules and dropping rules that don’t work. But dropping a rule means that the rule is not in play, not now, not ever; it does not mean it’s not in play right now, but may be next time a similar situation arise. Bottom line : if there is a rule in play, I want to use it consistently, and not using it when it’s more convenient (for the sake of the story or book-keeping or whatever) makes the game less fun for me.

Sounds like fun to you? Me neither. That’s why I don’t master rules-heavy games anymore. Learning the rules in the first place, halt the flow of the game to flip through a book to know what modifier to apply in the situation, prepping NPCs and monsters that needs lots of stats, running a combat encounter with different creatures and spellcasters (using different spells that each have a specific entry)… That’s way too much work for me, and it makes improvisation at the table very difficult. And improvisation is essential to run a good rpg session : that’s where all the magic happens.

But rulings can devolve into pure GM fiat, where the players are never sure of their odds of success. So a robust ruleset is very important to give structure and references for rulings. I think DW does that very well, but the d20 system can be perfectly suited to that. Remove all the specific modifiers, strip everything down to the ladder of DC difficulty (I don’t have my books near, but something like 10 is routine, 15 is challenging, 20 is hard, etc.) and some general modifiers (+2 for a big advantage, +5 for a huge one or something like that), then roll with it. Solid ruleset that a DM can use to make rulings in seconds that will still be overall pretty consistent, all without needing to check the book over and over again.

For a rule-lawyer like me, it’s the dream : following the rule is simple, so there’s rarely a reason to not follow it.

Dungeon World alternate monster creation

I am a big fan of Dungeon World. One of its greatest strenght is the way it connects the fiction to the mechanics : in DW, the mechanical rules will fight you if you think about the game in an abstract instead of narrative way, not the other way around.

But the way monsters’ HP and damage are calculated goes directly against this. The official method makes base HP and damage a function of the “social organization”, so a lone monster gets more HP and a bigger damage die than a monster usually found in large group. I understand how that makes sense in a “gamey” way, but that does not reflect what the PCs are seeing. If I see a Salamander (a 10 feet high creature with the torso of a man and a big snake tail instead of legs wielding a flaming spear), I expect a mightier opponent than a Halfling Thief. Yet, the thief has 12 HP while the salamander gets 7, because salamanders are usually in large group while the thief is usually working alone. A Dragon Whelp (a dog-sized dragon) gets 16 HP, because it’s also usually alone (but less puny than a halfling.) The problem is similar with damage. That’s unfortunate, because everything else works perfectly fine to model the fiction : more HP if it’s really tough or big, less damage if it’s tiny or hates violence, etc.

To make the monster stats model the fiction better, I think that basing the monster’s stats on its size and would be the quickest and easiest way to go. To keep the conversion simple, I would do it like this :

  • Tiny : 3 HP, d6-2 damage
  • Small and Medium : 3 HP, d6 damage
  • Large : 6 HP, d8 damage+1
  • Huge : 12 HP, d10 damage+3 (I already talked about this, but I also would also play those monsters in a way where dealing any kind of damage to them require something special, like getting to a weak spot or using siege weapon; think “Shadow of the Colossus”. Every fight with a Huge monster is a puzzle first. That’s already encouraged in different places through the rulebook, but I would make it explicit in the tag description. So I leave HP here for the sake of completeness, but I would probably not use it in game.)

All the other modifiers would stay the same. That gives us a quick and easy way to modify monsters in the core rulebook (and any monster made with the official rules) :

  • Tiny, Small and Medium monsters : reduce the damage dice 1 step for Group and 2 steps for Solitary (no lower than d4); decrease HP by 3 for Group and by 9 for Solitary (minimum 2 HP).
  • Large monsters : increase the damage dice 1 step for Horde, reduce it 1 step for Solitary; increase HP by 3 for Horde and decrease it by 6 for Solitary (minimum 5 HP).
  • Huge monsters : increase the damage dice 2 steps for Horde and 1 step for Group; increase HP by 9 for Horde and by 6 for Group (minimum 10). There are no Huge Horde monster in the core rulebook, by the way.

The result is that all non-Huge Solitary monsters are going to be weaker and that fighting a Large Horde is going to be basically suicide. I think it’s totally reasonable.

Railroad, disguised

Suppose an NPC approach the PCs and tell them that some bandits stole a trinket precious to him. He would be very eternally grateful to have it back, but have nothing to offer as a reward. Is it railroading? Of course not : the players can decide to do it or not. Let’s call that a free choice : the only thing that matters is the PCs own motivation to act (be it altruism, love of adventure, or even, why not, boredom).

Now suppose instead that this NPC ask the same thing, but offer a substantial reward for it (money, magic, influence, whatever). Does it becomes railroading? Sure, one choice looks more appealing than the other, but there is still a choice. So no railroading. Let’s call that a rewarded choice : at least one choice comes with a reward that the PCs want, so it nudges them toward it.

Now suppose the same situation, but this time, the NPC comes with a small party of mean-looking and dangerous allies. It’s clear that if the PCs still refuse, blood will be shed. It’s also quite clear that the PCs will have a hard time fighting this one : death is very possible. Does that becomes railroading? The choice is still there, and just like the second time around, one of the choice seems much more interesting. Is it railroading? The cost of one choice is quite high, but a choice can be made. So, no railroading…? Let’s call that a costly choice : at least one choice comes with a price that the PCs would prefer not want to pay (possessions, blood, reputation, etc.), so it nudges them to avoid it.

Now suppose one last time the same situation, but this time, the NPC comes with a powerful magical device that, at least with the means the PCs have, makes him impossible to harm and able to deal extremely high damage. It’s clear that if the PCs refuse to help him, they will die. Again, the choice is there : help him, or die. So, no railroading… That can’t be right. Let’s call that a do-or-die choice : at least one choice comes with a price so high that paying it would mean the end of some PCs (death, but also class powers, maybe will to live), so it almost force them to avoid it.

I sometimes am under the impression that for some DMs, giving the PCs choices affecting the narrative to make amounts to not railroading (for the purpose of this article, “choice” means specifically that, and not, say, tactical ones). But I think the examples just presented show that having a choice may be necessary, but is clearly not enough. Clearly, if all the choices are “do-or-die” ones, you have a (thinly-disguised) railroad. It’s like saying that the first Mario Bros. is open-ended because you can always choose to jump in a hole. On the other hand, sometimes, the fiction demands a “do-or-die” choice to be coherent and feel reasonably “real”, so presenting them is not automatically railroading your players. Actually, not presenting them could sometimes feel like railroading. For example, suppose you insult the king to his face in front of the court. “Apologize and quit or be sentenced to death” is perfectly fine, even if not apologizing clearly means the PCs death (because the exgremely deadly king’s guards are in great number); anything less and it feels like the DM refuse to let the PCs be in bad terms with the king. That becomes very clear when we think about classic dungeoncrawling or hexcrawling games where a world of adventures awaits, but one that does not guarantees that the stuff you’ll encounter will be suited for your power level.

But the type of choice does not stop there. There is also the element of optimality to take into account. A choice where there is an optimal choice is not really a choice; it’s more a question of calculation. So a game that presents choices with one predetermined optimal decision veers more into the railroad territory. An open-ended game DM make sure that a decision is not “punished” just because it’s not the one that was planned as the optimal one. For example, if the DM planed on the PCs paying fisherman to cross the sea, but they decide to steal the boat instead, the DM should offer a reasonable fight there, but not send the kingdom’s armada after them or punishing them with very dangerous weather.

Moreover, choices exist even when the DM did not present one. A railroad can offer some predetermined choices at predetermined points, but an open-ended game is always open to the creative input of the players. That does not mean that everything tried will work, but this at least means that those choices will not always be brushed aside or heavily penalized.

Lastly, I think that hooks to adventure (or plot-hooks) should never be do-or-die ones (at least, not unless the players are fine with it). An open-ended game lets the players decide what they want to do, and a hook is meant as a way to let the players (and PCs) know that there is something to do. A hook that forces one choice is the very definition of putting the players on a set of rails. In the same vein, hooks should generally avoid being costly choices where the cost is paid when refusing to take the hook. It can sometimes make sense and can even underscore important facts about the people in the game world (will you help this person or lose its friendship?), but it quickly starts to feel like the DM just don’t want the players to choose their adventures if used regularly. Other kind of choices make great hooks.

So presenting choices to players does not make a game open-ended; it takes more than that. Every choice presented should let multiple decisions have a reasonable chance of success; nudges should not always clearly tip the scale; and these choices should be implicitely given all the time, even when the DMs thinks that there is nothing to choose. All of this is part of an open-ended game : these are meaningful choices.

Our ineffective solution to bad descriptions in RPGs

In my gaming group where we play D&D (3.5e, now 5e), the DM identified a problem : very little description happened during combat. So he suggested that we all step up our game and put some effrot to make combat scenes more vivid, and thus, more exciting to play. We started full of good intentions, describing how that sword cut through the mail of this enemy or how that blow bounced off a shield, but then, as time minutes, then hours passes, we realize we’re all back to pure abstract mechanical talk, players and DM alike (18, do I hit? Yes. I deal 12 damage. Next?) After a couple of sessions doing this kind of dance, I guess he just dropped it.

But why is that? Why, even with good intentions, could we not consitently keep even basic descriptions flowing? I think it’s because the way we played, and still do today : what is important is the stuff codified in the rule while the description is pure decoration. Whether we do it well or not or even at all does not affect the capacity or success of the characters in play (PCs or NPCs). If you describe hitting the shoulder, will it have a different impact than decribing a hit on the head? Will the way you describe the axe swing have an impact on the success or failure of your hit? Will losing 12 HP from fire differ from losing 12 HP from cold? At least in our game, the aswer is always the same : nope.

But I think the problem is actually deeper : the fiction is mostly useless when we have take decisions in combat. So not only the output of our actions need no description, the input can do mostly without it, too. When I look at a monster, the important stuff is his stats : movement speed, AC, HP, special attacks and defenses, position on the grid, etc. Once I know where the monster is in the grid, I know what is within it’s reach, I know which spaces to avoid moving through; describing how the monster slides or run or limp slowly from place to place adds color, but does not change how I interact with it. Same goes with it’s attacks : once I know it deals 3d6+5 bludgeoning damage, describing a tail whip or a hammer swing or a body slam adds color but does not change how I interract with it.

Sure, in D&D, the appearance of lower level monsters can usually hint at those stats (and even then, the possibility of class level breaks this). But pretty quick, those hints are not very reliable : a 25 feet tall mean looking monster can be much less of a threat than a human with a sword, and two similarly looking elves can pose radically different threats. So describing the monsters becomes less and useful, more and more “decoration only”, especially if the PCs have access to mechanics letting them understand the stats a bit more directly (knowledge checks, for example) or if the players can associate a description with a monster entry (“ok, that’s a Ogre, so about 16 AC and 25 HP, guys”).

Basically, in our D&D games at least, what drives the fiction is the abstract mechanics, and those mechanics are mostly unaffected by the fiction. No wonder the players and DM have a hard time making vivid and interesting descriptions : they are a diversion. It’s a bit like playing chess or Magic or a boardgame and roleplaying the interactions : it may be nice and maybe even make your game more fun, but the game takes place with the mechanics, not the descriptions. So unless we remind ourselves to add color, we naturally play directly with the abstract mechanics since that’s the level where the important decisions are taken.

Another things that makes matters worse : a lot of mechanics do not make much sense when you think of them in a less abstract way. I already talked about HP, but that’s not all. Take the iconic fireball, which let you reduce damage by half by succeding a Dexterity save… which does not move you out of the area of effect. Some characters even reduce damage to 0 by the same logic. I once played a Fighter that could do a whirlwind attack, striking only foes, all the while having it’s back was against a wall; but he could not for the life of him trip an opponent with a stick.

So I guess that to solve the problem, we would have to think seriously about the interface of the game, by which I mean the way the (real life) player have an impact on the fictional world. We can expect that a player that is invested in a game will (at least try) to get better at playing with the interface. If we want players (and DM) to describe more vivid scenes, we need to make sure that those description are at least part of the interface.