System Building: Transformations (The Pressure Cooker)

After partaking in a Demon Hunters roundtable discussion last month (or was it the month before? Time is weird right now) one of the points that I’ve been pondering is how to model transformations more deeply in the system. Part of the complexity is that transformation covers a wide range of possibilities. From an at-will shapeshifter like DS9s Odo to a traditional, only at the full moon werewolf.

Rather than try and cover all of the options in a single post (or with a single rule) I’ve focused initially on what one of the attendees termed the Pressure Cooker, a transformation type where you have to build up a meter before you can transform into a powerful but focused alternate form. The Hulk would be a clear example, with Bruce Banner having a Rage track that must fill to a certain point before he can transform into the Hulk. Once transformed his ability to do anything more than smash things is severely curtailed.

I had initially intended to present these rules with an associated, rotating character sheet but that is taking longer to put together than I had anticipated (I decided to use it as a challenge to learn how to use Affinity Designer) so instead here is the current rules draft:

When you take harm you may redirect up to 5 hits to your Rage track – tick off 1 box per hit. If the track crosses the first boundary marker you may transform with a successful roll of Forceful + Fringe (werecreature), difficulty 10. If it crosses the secondary boundary marker you transform automatically and against your will.

After transforming rotate your character sheet 180 degrees.

While transformed you may only take actions actions that align with your reduced Approach + Discipline list. All other rolls are at 2d4 or impossible. While transformed you have 3 approaches rated at d10, d8 and d8 and 2 disciplines rated at d10 and d8. You may raise 2 of these by +d6 to represent the supernatural enhancements of your alternate form.

While in your Rage form you clear 2 boxes per turn (DM discretion out of combat). You may extend your rage by passing Demon Dice to the DM – tick off 1 rage box per die, up to a maximum of 3 per turn. Allies and antagonists may extend/shorten your Rage by invoking relative aspects – for each Faith/Demon die spent fill or clear a Rage box. Example aspects which could be invoked may include Scathing insult or Tranquiliser serum.

You may attempt to return to human form only after your Rage drops below the willing transformation boundary. Roll Forceful + Fringe from your human form, with a transformation difficulty equal to the number of filled Rage boxes. If the number of filled Rage boxes ever drops to 0 you automatically transform back.

Quick Review: Goblin Quest by Grant Howitt

Goblin Quest pitches itself as a game about slapstick violence and fatal ineptitude that will tell the story of your goblins greatest ever adventure (co-incidentally it is usually their only ever adventure before an untimely death). To say that it achieves this would be an understatement – Goblin Quest and its tales of comic incompetence is a consistently hilarious game that is perfect for pick up and play sessions or twisted takes on established genres.

The premise of the game, like many that have emerged from the mind of designer Grant Howitt, is simple but evocative. You are a group of Goblins out to complete a legendary quest. You are also hideously incompetent, so it is fortunate that each player has spare Goblins ready to step up after an untimely death. Complete the quest and become a legend (for a day) or fail spectacularly and become the laughing stock of the camp. Either way you’ll be famous. I first encountered the game at BurritoCon 4 last year and made a beeline to the Indie League stall to grab a physical copy when I was at Dragonmeet. Since then I’ve run the core version of the game, reskinned it to a Christmas theme (drunken Elves trying to give Santa a day off at Christmas) and I’m even writing my own Slasher movie hack (Party! Drink! Be eviscerated by a depraved killer!).

That hackability is one of the great points of the game and with a simple system the core game takes up only a small fraction of the rulebook. The remainder is a series of system hacks, including Sean Bean Quest (can he survive to the end of the film?), Space Interns (please ensure your redshirt is dry cleaned and returned after your death) and even Regency Ladies (Fall in love, made snide remarks and bluntly turn down yet another marriage proposal). Filling the space between the hacks are both a series of quest ideas from a range of writers and full colour art pieces that help reinforce the cartoony nature of the game.

But how does a game like this support so many hacks? Well it sticks to a simple system that rewards creativity and pushing your luck. Bonuses are as likely to kill you off as help you succeed while progress towards goals are tracked through the number of successes you achieve. Hit the threshold, narrate your victory and move on to the next challenge. Just try and do so before you run out of goblins. The game also encourages player input – while it is possible to run with a GM directing the flow of play it works just as well without one, with players building on each others ideas while being supported by a small number of random rolls.

Goblin Quest was an instant add to my list of last minute, low prep games. It’s great as a spacer between serious campaigns or for those sessions where a few people can’t make it but you still want to play. You can purchase Goblin Quest at the following locations:
Direct from the publishers – Rowan, Rook & Decard
Itch.io
DrivethruRPG

Disclaimer: Links to driveThruRPG include the LunarShadow Designs affiliate ID. If you chose to purchase anything using these links I will earn a small commission from driveThruRPG at no cost to you.

All reviews are rated out of 10, with Natural 20s reserved for products that go above and beyond my expectations.

Future Projects

With Project Cassandra edging ever closer to completion I’ve been given some thoughts as to what I want to work on. The length of the list was rather surprising, I didn’t realise I had accumulated notes for so many ideas already.

Niska’s Race – A Firefly Adventure. Having run this at multiple conventions it’s about time that I wrote this up and put it online for others. I’ve got a partial draft of the adventure, what it really needs is some focus on the structuring and what information needs to be presented for others to run it.

Demon Hunters Adventures – Again adventures I’ve run in the past that I’d like to get out for others and again I’ve already got a partial draft to work from. For these I’d love to be able to get them released on drivethruRPG as some sort of semi-official / recognised adventure for the system. First step though is writing then I can worry about layout / publishing.

Neon Blades, cyberpunk reality TV – Aim is a lightweight system with a focus on the idea of looking good over all else, hence the idea of some sort of reality TV show focused on a team of operatives. I’ve got the initial outlines of a system but it’s lacking any details, so in keeping with the theme of style over substance for now.

The Fallen Mountains –  I’d still like to flesh out my Legend of the Five Rings setting  to the point of it being a resource for a future game. Likely to be a slow ongoing process as I detail characters, events and locations.

The Delve, Leverage / Cortex+ hack – The idea for this actually came from a series of images I got through JEShields stock art patreon. The idea is of a group of fantasy dwarves trying to break into a wizards vault. Thinking more along the lines of D&D style fantasy than Tolkien with magic being relatively common. At the moment just an idea, first step will be to go over the original game again and see how much can just be used as is.

Cortex+ hack based around the adventures of soft toys –  Another vague idea for the moment, could probably be achieved with just some custom distinctions  and renaming of a few elements. Originally inspired by a DoubleClicks song called Lullaby for Mr Bear.

Powers, PbtA followup to Project Cassandra. Again a vague idea for a thematic follow-up to Project Cassandra using a hack of the Apocalypse system  dealing more with the consequences of gaining powers in a world dominated by global conspiracies. Will hopefully incorporate some ideas from an old Cortex game  where powers regularly went out of control  with devastating and tragic consequences.

Demon Hunters / Faith Corps: Tonal Conditions

Just a quick post to highlight a hack over at Spirit of the Blank, where Mike Olson has been sharing some details about using the Faith Corps system (aka the Demon Hunters system) for running Star Wars. One of the aspects he’s tweaked is the way conditions work, introducing the idea of predefined, character specific mild conditions. It’s a hack that I really like, especially for convention games where it provides players further insight into their character. This is especially emphasised by the fact that Mike has eschewed from the approach of describing physical harm but instead favours emotional responses to stress. For Star Wars it really fits with the tone of the films, where characters tend towards taking only a small number of moderate (or greater) injuries while also being constantly stressed by the scene or antagonists.

All in all it’s a compelling tweak and one that I’m likely to incorporate in future, both when running Demon Hunters and when designing my own systems.

Lady Blackbird: A Dark Future

The system underlying Lady Blackbird is quick to learn and surprisingly robust. Some settings and genres however require a few tweaks however to make the game fit properly. This one is designed with the Warhammer 40,000 setting in mind, in particular that shown off in the Dark Heresy game where starting characters are low level initiates within the Inquisition. For me the 40K universe has always had two central themes, survival and corruption, which I’ve tried to emulate with these tweaks to the Lady Blackbird rules.

Rules changes

Keys – Renamed Temptations and are more focused on negative aspects of humanity in the 41st millennium.

Secrets – Secrets are either Corrupting or Pure. For the new members of the inquisition Corrupting is the default starting status, Pure secrets require buying with XP and a suitable series of events to explain their acquisition. Corrupting secrets increase the corruption level of an individual, Pure secrets reduce it.

New condition – Scared

New stat – Corruption. For now just an indicator of how much the character has fallen, further rules tweaks may alter that.

Jonan Macarg, former Imperial Guardsman

Traits

Guardsman – Tactics, Imperial regulations, Soldiers, Imperial equipment, seasoned veteran

Survivor – Stealth, notice, run, tough, endurance, hide

Marksman – accurate, rapid fire, sniper, rifle

Temptations (Keys)

Temptation of humanity: Humanities downfall will be their inability to resist the temptations of the ruinous powers. Hit this key when you make use of a corrupting secret. Buyoff: Sacrifice a corrupting secret.

Temptation of the coward: Your survival is your primary concern, key to which is avoiding perilous situations. Hit this key when you convince your team to avoid or retreat from perilous confrontations. Buyoff: Volunteer for an apparently suicidal fight.

Temptation of the xenophobe: The enemies of the Imperium and humanity are liars and monsters. Hit this key when you ignore or abuse the advice, trust or aid of a non-human species. Buyoff: Place your trust and life in the hands of an alien.

Secrets

Secret of the survivor (Corrupting) – Once per session you may feign death during combat, during which time enemies will ignore you. If your allies survive you are capable of making them believe that you were stunned or knocked out during the fight. Increase your corruption level by 1.

Secret of the brutal (Corrupting) – If Angry, Scared, Hunted or Trapped and faced with a single enemy you may kill them without rolling. While quick the kill is neither clean nor quiet. Increase your corruption level by 1.

L5R: System bugbears

We’re now a couple of sessions in to the L5R campaign ‘A Gaijin’s Guide to Rokugan’ and while I’m enjoying the game so far reading over the system has already thrown up a few aspects which, on a personal level, annoy me. The biggest of these is the calculation of the armour TN (defence scores), which form the target number to hit in combat. While they may be modified by certain actions the base score is calculated as 5 + (Agility x 5) + Armour bonus. So for an average (agility 2) unarmed and unarmoured individual their base armour TN is 15, this doesn’t change at all if they are later armed with a weapon.

Yup, this is a system where the primary mode of combat is melee but where an unarmed character is as easy to hit as one wielding a katana. Supposedly (if anybody know better please correct me) this is down to the style of combat employed in Rokugan, with parries being avoided in order to prevent damage to blades which have been passed down multiple generations of a family. Even if this is the case for katana’s there are a whole host of weapons where it would be reasonable to assume that the blade isn’t as sacred and parries or blocks would be acceptable. Chief amongst those would be polearms and spears. Using these weapons provides a major advantage in their ability to keep opponents at a distance, which is most easily represented by making the wielder harder to hit (though if this were me I’d give them an additional bonus on top of the one given for being armed) however nothing like this is present in the system. Likewise there are a few examples of where the weapon does affect defence (dual wielding and the war fan come to mind), which seems rather inconsistent.

It gets better (well worse actually, damn semantics) however when you consider the defence stance, which provides a boost to defence with the only restriction being that the character may not attack. In order to cast a spell a shugenja is required to maintain their concentration for a number of rounds dependent on the difficulty level of the spell and they are required to roll to maintain that concentration if sufficiently distracted. Despite this they are able to maintain the defence stance while casting, which somehow doesn’t affect their ability to concentrate but does make them harder to hit. Yeah, I’m not sure I quite get how that is meant to work either, essentially the system is saying that somebody reading from a scroll and trying to maintain their concentration is also able to move about in a way sufficient to make them harder to hit.

I’ve not played enough of the game to fully work out how I would prefer to see the armour TN calculated but as a start it would definitely factor in whether a character is armed or not. My initial idea would probably be (Agility x 5) + (Skill with melee weapon being used) + 5 with the role of armour shifted solely to reducing damage. I’d then also include bonuses for certain weapons through the mastery abilities (for example Polearms 3 – You gain a +3 to your armour TN while wielding a readied polearm). Under that system the basic armour TN of my current character Doji Soshin in the attack stance (no bonuses or penalties) would be 20 when unarmed, 23 when wielding a polearm or 26 if the mastery ability was also included. This is compared to a score of 25 when using the system as written, so the scores are fairly comparable while also making unarmed targets easier to hit but without entirely crippling their defence. To my mind though that still makes put the unarmed TN too high, simply because an average unskilled person would not be able to reliably hit him (average roll of 11 vs TN 20) and assuming he had only an average agility (so TN 15) over half of the attacks would still miss.

All of this is probably over thinking the situation and maybe my opinion might change once I’ve played the system for longer, for the time being it is a bugbear as opposed to a mechanic that ruins the game for me. So I can live with it, though I suspect it’ll be something I look into houseruling if I ever run a game in the future.

Technoir: Upping the Tempo

One of the central aspects of the Technoir system is that of the Push dice economy, which are passed back and forth between players and GM in order to apply adjectives which last beyond the length of the current scene. For a full adventure, run over multiple sessions this works well. Unfortunately for a single session one shot adventure it leaves the pacing on the slow side, especially as many NPCs are unlikely to feature in more than a couple of scenes.

Upping the tempo is relatively simple, achieved through the addition of a new type of adjective, that of Instantaneous. Here’s the new rule in full:

  • Instantaneous adjectives slot in as the new default result of an action and do not require the spending of any Push die. The chain therefore now consists of Instantaneous – Fleeting – Sticky – Locked.
  • Instantaneous adjectives last until the character has taken their next action.
  • The cost to apply all other adjectives increases by 1. So Fleeting now costs 1 Push die, Sticky 2 and Locked 3.
  • Apart from the change in cost all types of adjective continue to function as before.

By introducing this rule players are thus encouraged to spend Push dice more freely in order to apply adjectives which last the length of the scene. In turn this provides a greater supply of dice to the GM who should spend them regularly in order to apply Fleeting adjectives on the PCs. This relatively simple change therefore not only ups the tempo of the game but increases the frequency with which players are handed a physical object, a technique which I’ve found does wonders in getting their attention and drawing them further into the narrative.

DresNoir 05: Connection Favours

Each connection in a transmission comes can confer one or more types of favours to a PC. These are the suggested favours for using with DresNoir connections.

  • Shark – Can provide the PC with 10RP, which must be repaid at somepoint in the future.
  • Brew – Can sell the PC up to 3 potions, each at a 2RP discount.
  • Date – The connection can attend a function with the PC as their +1, gaining the PC access to events otherwise out of their reach.
  • Traverse – The connection knows the ins and the outs of the Nevernever, they can provide passage there and back again to a few relatively safe locations
  • Imbue – Skilled in the manipulation of magical energies this connection is capable of creating a single focus or charm item. The focus or charm tag is provided for free, any other tags must be applied and paid for as usual at the time of creation.
  • Bail – The connection has some influence with the police, or maybe they just have cash to spare. Either way they can get a PC bailed and out of custody, though they probably can’t get the charges dropped altogether.
  • Backup – Can provide physical assistance in the form of 2 henchmen level characters who will assist in one or two relevant scenes

DresNoir – 04: Objects & resources

Purchasing equipment in DresNoir follows the same basic system as described in the core TechNoir book, each PC begins with 10 Resource Points (RP) (replacing the Kreds of TechNoir) which they are free to spend on objects, adding tags as required. Of course this now being an urban fantasy setting the tags of each object need to reflect the world and genre, tags relating to the Interface are, quite obviously, out.

But what about items of a magical nature?

Glad you ask. Items strongly related to magic require their own special tags, specifically Charm, Focus or Potion. By having these tags present additional tags, which bestow unusual or magical properties may then be stacked onto the item. During play these tags may not be employed when it comes to using push dice, they merely provide the foundation onto which additional tags may be attached. Charm and Focus tags cost an 5RP in order to apply to an object. Potion tags cost 2RP to apply but are single use items.

Charm – Charm tags are applied to objects onto which have been imbued with medium to long term magical properties. An individual charm should have a single central function which is reflected by each magical tag. For example a compass with embedded with location / tracking spells may have tags of charm and locate in addition to the mundae tag of navigation, which give it a final value of 7RP (5 for the charm, 1 each for locate and navigation). Charmed objects may be utilised by any individual, regardless of their magic rating.

Focus – Where charm tags are applied to objects with a predetermined purpose Focus tags are applied to objects utilised in casting magic on the fly, providing a boost to the concentration and discipline of a practictioner. Subsequent tags then describe what the focus has been designed to boost. For example, an individual specialising in earth magic may have a pair of boots which are central to their spells by forming the link between them and the ground. They may then have tags of focus, earth, lift attached however as a focus item the lift tag could be employed in lifting people as opposed to rocks.

The focus tag, and those associated with it may only be emplyed by those with a magic rating of X or higher as they require a willful expenditure of magical energy. This however comes with its own highs and lows, or Boost and Feedback.

Boost – Magic is frequently fueled by strong emotions, be they positive or negative in form. Following a roll utilising an item with the focus tag a player may choose to boost the result by taking the lowest harm die and rerolling it as a temporary push die before retotalling their result. In order to do so the character must have an existing strong emotional adjective avaiable, which can be positive or negative. If the scene resolves around a connection then the relationship may be relevant. Good examples would be lust, angry, enraged, hopeful.

Boosting however comes at a cost, as immediately following the roll the character gains a new, negative adjective, regardless of whether the roll was successful or not. The first time a boost is utilised in a scene they gain Tired as a fleeting negative adjective. If they boost again it is upgraded to a sticky Exhausted adjective and the character gains a push die from the GM if available.

Feedback – Feedback is the expression used to describe when spells go completely out of control due to a character pushing themselves past their limit or being just plain unlucky. Mechanically feedback occurs when the hurt dice cancel out ALL of the action and push dice which have been rolled. If the GM has push dice available the the GM may choose to apply an immediate negative sticky adjective related to the action they just spectacularly failed at. If the no push dice are available, or the GM decides not to spend them then the character gains a fleeting negative adjective instead. A player may choose to boost a roll in which they have suffered feedback however they will then be subject to the negative effects of both, even if the new result is not a zero. If the boosted result is still zero the player suffers only a single instance of feedback, not two.

Potions – Potions are single use magical mixtures presented in the form of a drink. They typically have one or two, well defined effects in order to keep their resource cost down. While potent mixtures this is achieved by concentrating the magical effect into a shorter time frame. Characters must declare they are drinking the potion and for the remainder of the scene the character has access to the positive adjectives that were attached to the potion during its creation. Attaching an extended duration tag to a potion does exactly that, carrying the effects over to the next scene if appropriate. Potions may be consumed by any individual, regardless of their magic rating.

When used to apply negative adjectives potions function as before however for the scene the adjective manifests as negative hurt dice. In order to do so the target character must first be convinced (or forced) to drink the potion via an appropriate roll. On a success the target character recieves each of the adjectives associated with the potion. Push dice may not be spent to upgrade these adjectives from fleeting to sticky.

As always the trick to tags is finding the right level of specificity. A tag such as shield is probably too broad as it could be applied to pretty much any situation. Ballistic shield, fire shield, ice shield would be more appropriate tags and there is nothing to stop them being stacked upon one another, in this example in order to provide defences against a greater range of attacks. When it comes to magically infused items adding additional tags to existing items is labourious and resource heavy. Should a character wish to add additional magic related tags to an existing item the cost is equal to half the current value of the item, including those related to the mundane function of the item.

Rather than listing an extensive number of magical infused items I’m going to stat out just a few in order to provide examples, with the magical attributes denoted with an (m)

Charms

Compass
Tags: Navigation, charm (m), locate (m)
Cost: 7RP

Warded door
Tags: Reinforced, sturdy, charm (m), threshold (m), explosive runes (m)
Cost: 9RP

Foci

Earth Boots
Tags: Focus (m), earth (m), lift (m), sturdy
Cost: 8RP

Wizards staff
Tags: Focus (m), detect (m), throw (m), fire (m), rapid fire (m)
Cost: 9RP

Potions

Invisibility potion
Tags: Potion (m), visual concealment (m), silent movement (m)
Cost: 4RP

Love potion
Tags: Potion (m), lustful (m)
Cost: 3RP

DresNoir 03 – More training

The previous post covered the introduction of four new training programs, Cop, Wizard, Being and Spirit. It also alluded to a restructuring of the remaining trainings in order to associate each with different Verbs from those found in the core Technoir setting. Below is the new verb tables, grouped first by training and then secondly by verb.

Training Verb Verb Verb
Being Fight Prowl See
Bodyguard Fight Operate Treat
Cop Fight Operate Shoot
Criminal Move Prowl Shoot
Doctor Detect Operate Treat
Escort Coax Move Treat
Investigator Coax Detect Prowl
Spirit Coax Move See
Practitioner Detect See Shoot

and ordered by Verb

Verb Training Training Training
Coax Escort Investigator Spirit
Detect Doctor Investigator Practitioner
Fight Being Bodyguard Cop
Move Criminal Escort Spirit
Operate Bodyguard Cop Doctor
Prowl Being Criminal Investigator
See Being Spirit Practitioner
Shoot Criminal Cop Practitioner
Treat Bodyguard Doctor Escort