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.

New Release – Slice of Life: A Demonic Fiasco

Gods. Demons. Magic. The supernatural. It’s all real and the only thing that stands between it and the end of the world is the Brotherhood of the Celestial Torch. That and paperwork, because do you know how difficult it is to get a permit for the end of the world? #@&%ing difficult and more than one apocalypse has been averted because the resurrected avatar of Death failed to file the forms in triplicate before commencing their rampage.

So while the lawyers file another round of injunctions against infernal interference we need you! We need you out there on the front line, protecting the mortal realm from more mundane evils. Horny teenage werewolves, vampires with questionable personal hygiene, lactomancers. Jims.

Fight the good fight. Who knows, you might even survive the day.

Slice of Life: A Demonic Fiasco is a playset for the Fiasco RPG inspired by the Demon Hunters: Slice of Life episode Clean Up Crew. This playset requires a copy of the Fiasco RPG by Bully Pulpit Games. Knowledge of the Demon Hunters franchise by Dead Gentlemen Productions is recommended.

Slice of Life: A Demonic Fiasco is available now as a Pay What You Want download from Itch.io or DriveThruRPG (link includes the LunarShadow Designs affiliate ID).

New Release: Talentless Hacks Adventure Starter for Demon Hunters RPG

Hollywood. People go missing all the time, it’s a big place and people don’t tend to announce when they’ve decided to give up the dream and head back home. So when a 3rd rate mystic was apparently possessed live on daytime TV the Brotherhood took notice and your team got the call. Track down the mystic and find out what’s really going on. They’re probably just another run of the mill fraud but if not we need to find the spirits and this group of talentless hacks before whatever they summoned gets loose.

Talentless Hacks is an adventure starter for the Demon Hunters: A Comedy of Terrors RPG by Dead Gentlemen Productions. Inspired by the Demon Hunters Slice of Life bonus episode Feed the Beast this adventure starter provides a framework for DMs to adapt and run an adventure for their home groups.

Within it you will find a mission overview, breakdown of important locations, intel, threats and a collection of NPCs to populate the adventure. With an open ended structure it is up to you and your group to decide how the adventure will unfold

Will the Chapter save the day? Possibly. 

Will they be lauded as heroes? Unlikely.

Will the chaos and destruction that follows them be captured on camera and risk exposing the entire Brotherhood? Almost certainly.

Talentless Hacks is available now from drivethruRPG and itch.io as a Pay What You Want release. Paid purchases, feedback or reviews are greatly appreciated and keep me motivated to produce more material.

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.

Revising the Badness Table

At the start of November I talked about my issues with the Badness Table in Demon Hunters and how, despite it being a central DM mechanic, I consistently underused it. In that post I included some of the new options that I have started adding to the generic table and after a little bit of work I now have that table written up as a one page release. The document isn’t final and I will likely update it in future when I start a new campaign in the new year. This release also includes a test of a new layout, rotating to a more traditional portrait orientation and incorporating a new background. It still needs some tweaks but for a first draft I think it looks good.

Download the alternative badness table.

Con report: Dragonmeet 2019

After attending a number of excellent events earlier this year I knew that my final convention of the year had to be something special. That really meant I had only one option, Dragonmeet this past Saturday (November 30th) in London. As I’m no longer based in the South East I went with the there and back again stupidly long day option, taking a 06:45 train down from Liverpool and then rushing off to catch a 18:07 train home again. Was the 16 hour round trip worth it? Absolutely.

The Convention

The last time I was at Dragonmeet (2015 I think) it had just relocated to its current venue, the Novotel West hotel near Hammersmith. In that time it has grown substantially, with the trade hall now spread over two floors and they have finally (!) replaced the game sign-up process with online booking that limits the sign-up scrum that the convention had become infamous for.

I spent the morning in the trade hall, saying hello to people and browsing the stalls and even conducting an impromptu interview for the Rolistes podcast. After working on the Crystal Heart kickstarter I also finally got the chance to say hello in person to Eran and Aviv from Up to Four Players and I can’t wait to see how that world progresses over the next year. I handed out business cards with free download links to a few people, so hopefully that will help with getting my work seen by a wider audience. (This is something that I find excruciatingly difficult so sorry to anybody that thought I was avoiding a conversation!)

Overall I was really impressed by the range of products on offer and thanks to expanding onto the second floor it never felt too busy (unlike the chaos of Expo). Dragonmeet is built around RPGs and it was good to see that while it has grown there were still dozens of independents mixed in with established small studios and some of the larger publishers such as Modiphius, Cubicle 7 and Pelgrane Press.

I’ve posted a separate loot post but suffice to say I had no problem in spending more than I’d initially planned to and was happily over budget by half eleven. There were a few further products I did consider picking up – Carbon 2185, which looks really nice but from my perspective is a difficult ask given my apprehension towards 5E derivatives. There was also Broken Shield 2.0, a brand new iteration of an interesting dark future-noir setting. Unfortunately I’d bought the original game many years ago and got burned by the clunky, old-school system so was reluctant to jump straight in. I have, however, downloaded the quick-start so will give that a good look through.

Indie Games on the Hour

After playing in Games on Demand at UK Games Expo back in June I volunteered my services to run games in two slots at indie Games on the Hour (iGOTH), organised (primarily) by Josh Fox from Black Armada. I offered two games – Project Cassandra and Demon Hunters, which are probably the only systems I know well enough to comfortably run in under two hours for strangers.

During my first slot I had three players for Project Cassandra and we played the Ich bin ein Berliner scenario that is included in the minimal playtest packet (which will be receiving an update soon). The players seemed to really enjoy themselves and dived in to the game, with one player liberally spending premonitions to the point that they had run out with half an hour still remaining.

From a playtest perspective this session was extremely valuable. On the positive front it demonstrated that with a proper use of difficulties the switch back to using premonitions to re-roll dice that didn’t already add a success wasn’t game breaking. The players still failed an appropriate number of times and didn’t rely on the same small set of skills. It also reinforced my belief that the game is best with three players – that provides both a wide range of skills while ensuring that they are sufficient gaps to allow for challenges to arise naturally.

The session also picked up on two trends that I’ve spotted previously and that I’d now say form a pattern of potential issues. Those centre around powers and pacing. On the powers front they are generally underused and players tend to save them for big scenes. Not an issue but definitely something to take note of, especially during one shots. The pacing is a bigger issue – after reaching Berlin the first thing the players did was head to the site of the coming assassination attempt. Which is a perfectly logical approach but somewhat breaks the tension. I’ve got some ideas on how to go forward and will incorporate them into the next playtest.

By the time of the second slot the interest in iGOTH had seemingly exploded and all of a sudden we were swamped with players. Thankfully an additional GM was able to step up, ensuring that almost everybody got a game (I think a few late comers may have been unable to). At first count I had 11 people express an interest in Demon Hunters! While I’d have loved to accommodate them all that’s just not feasible and in the end I ran for a table of 6, which included two younger players (aged 10 and 7) and their dad plus 3 other adults who all stepped up to help make it a silly, family friendly game. To say it was chaotic would be an understatement and I found myself making numerous on the fly additions to the Missionary Opposition scenario, including a magically reanimated, vampire rabbit (inspired by a memorable scene from Dorkness Rising). I played fast and loose with the rules, knowing it was necessary to keep the kids interested and I hope that didn’t impact too much on the rest of the table. In the end the day was saved, pets were rescued and Albrecht even got to walk away with a big stick. I’m considering the possibility of simplifying the system as a way to offer it in a dedicated child friendly way without losing the flavour but that’s something for future me to think about.

Closing thoughts

It’s been a few years since I last attended Dragonmeet so it was great to see that in that time it has continued to grow but without sacrificing the welcoming feel it has always had. This isn’t a giant impersonal event like Expo – it still feels like a friendly, small convention despite being perhaps the biggest UK event focused primarily on RPGs. I don’t know the final numbers and didn’t explore the spaces dedicated to organised play or pre-booked games, I would guess in the 2-3000 over the course of the day, but it shows that the hobby is vibrant and alive. It was great to see an improved gender balance and increased visibility of queer creators but there are definitely still gains to be made, especially in drawing in non-white gamers but I also think that is (unfortunately) reflective of the UK RPG scene as a whole.

I’ve already answered the question of whether the excessively long day was worth it, which is a resounding yes. Dragonmeet remains a friendly convention that I will try and attend again next year. As I progress into this little adventure that is publishing I can see it becoming increasingly important for me as an opportunity to catch up with other indie developers. Even if that wasn’t the case the combination of gaming opportunities and chance to interact directly with traders in a relaxed space would make it worth it. In an ideal world I’d be able to make a full day of it rather than rushing off in the early evening but those sort of logistics are an issue for future me, right now I have loot to enjoy.

Hacking the Badness: New generic options for Demon Hunters

One of the most interesting mechanics in Demon Hunters from a GM perspective is the badness table, which allows the GM to trigger special effects by spending Demon Dice. It’s modelled after the Doom pool used by the Marvel Heroic iteration of Cortex Plus and, in my opinion, is one of the hardest parts of the game to use effectively. Pretty much every time I run the system I end up with a surplus of dice left at the end.

Why is it so hard to use? Firstly because it requires a shift in how a GM runs their game. In Demon Hunters you set up scenes like any traditional game but once the action starts any changes to that scene require spending Demon Dice. Want to introduce a complicating aspect? Demon Dice. Want to have a baddie suddenly appear? Demon Dice. No GM fiat of ‘it just happens’ like in most traditional games. Making that mental switch takes practice, hampered in my case by the fact I run the game intermittently between other sessions.

The second reason that I find the badness table hard to use effectively is because I don’t like the generic table, which I’ve posted below.

RollThe Badness
1+Create a new situation aspect and get a free invocation on it OR add another minion
4+The bad guy or one of their minions clears a condition OR one of the Demon Hunters must mark off a condition
8+Create a new situation aspect and get two free invocations on it OR add another bad guy to play
12+The bad guy and their minions clear all conditions OR the Demon Hunters must all mark off a condition

Let’s take a look at those numbers in closer detail.

1+ – This is your guaranteed result entry and is the easiest to use. It allows you to introduce a complication in the scene or a minor foe. The 8+ result is essentially a more powerful version of this and overall these two work for me. Add complications, add baddies.

4+ – Clear a condition or mark off a condition. Alongside the more powerful 12+ entries these don’t sit well with me. I struggle to find compelling narrative reasons to back up these options and generally don’t like the idea of baddies clearing conditions as it feels like I am cheating the players of their success. I would be okay with a werewolf being able to rapidly heal, but for most NPCs it doesn’t make sense. Likewise, just hitting a PC with unavoidable harm doesn’t feel fair.

The Amazing Velma’s custom table

For those reasons I tend to under use the badness table despite the fact that it is a central mechanic of the game. I am most comfortable using it when an adventure includes a mage as an antagonist. Why? Because I always include a custom badness table that highlights their magic (more on that some other time). For example The Amazing Velma’s table in Trick of the Light included a number of ways in which she might use illusions to confuse and waylay the Chapter.

During the recent playtest of Talentless Hacks I decided I wanted to go a step further by including some new options in the base table. I removed the 4+/12+ entries and added the following new entries:

4+ Interrupt the turn order. An NPC who has yet to act this round takes their action immediately.

6+ Zone attack (mobs only). A mob makes a single attack roll that targets everybody in the zone.

8+ Second action. A single NPC (no mobs) makes a second action at the end of the round. This option may be used multiple times in a round but increase the difficulty by 2 each time.

8+ Gain a discipline. An NPC or mob gains a new discipline at d8 (useful for when I realise I’ve underpowered them part way through an adventure!)

10+ Gain a stunt. An NPC or mob gains a new stunt for the duration of the scene (Again, this is useful for when I want to change up the opponents mid-scene)

16+ Escape! A major NPC escapes the scene and the Chapter are unable to prevent it.

Adapting the badness table is going to be an ongoing process, especially as I shift from running one-shots to a new campaign later this month. I’m aiming to introduce a direct replacement for the ‘PCs mark a condition’ that gives them a chance to defend but have yet to finalise the wording. The topic is also one that Don Early has been diving into recently as part of his Patreon, so give that a look if you want some insights from one of the creators of Demon Hunters.

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.

Con Report: BurritoCon4

It feels like it was only yesterday that I was reporting on BurritoCon 3 (was it really all the way back in July?) yet I find myself back from BurritoCon 4, held once again at FanBoy 3 in Manchester. Organised by @OldScouserRPing I had another amazing day of gaming that just highlights what small events can achieve. Games were once again split into two three-hour slots with five tables a piece (though one morning game was unfortunately cancelled due to GM illness) and a host of systems on offer (none of which were D&D!).

For the morning slot I gravitated straight to Goblin Quest, a comedy, semi-narrative game of incompetent Goblins attempting to complete tasks that are beyond their feeble capabilities. It was an utter blast and I’ll be keeping an eye out for a copy of it in the future. Somehow, despite our many deaths (each player has a small contingent of goblins at their disposal) we completed our simple task of putting on a play and even avoided being fireballed by evil Wizards at the end.

The well-seasoned clutch of Yark, N’Gargh and Mesk. None of whom survived their mission.

For the afternoon slot I had volunteered to run a game and keeping with the comedy theme I went with Demon Hunters: A Comedy of Terrors. I’ve been working on Talentless Hacks, the latest Slice of Life adventure starter, so this provided an excellent field test of the material.

With only 3 hours I chose to cut a number of the investigative elements, to the extent that I was worried about finishing early but we came in almost exactly on time. The game was great fun and all of the players really got into the characters and setting, culminating with the fight against REDACTED. There were definitely elements that could be improved and I don’t think the PCs were ever in any real danger (it is one of my consistent weaknesses as a GM) so I’ll be upping some of the threats during editing. Overall though the adventure works so it’ll be my priority once The Synth Convergence is released.

One of the nice touches of Fanboy 3 is their approach to supporting GMs, players pay £3 per session while the GM not only gets to run for free but receives £1 store credit per player! I’ve been consuming snippets of Cthulhu inspired material recently so my credit went towards the Mother’s Love hardback for The Cthulhu Hack, an excellent lightweight take on the genre. I don’t tend to run much in the way of prewritten material but flicking through the adventures in the book they grabbed my attention so hopefully I’ll get a chance to run some players through them soon.

While there are no immediate plans for the next BurritoCon I can say for sure that I’ll be keeping an eye out for the next one as the event and venue have been excellent each time. My next and final convention attendance of the year will be DragonMeet at the end of November, an event I’ve not been to since moving away from the South East. If you’re going to be there give me a shout.

Supporting Faith Corps: The system that powers Demon Hunters

Since I started blogging about RPGs the one game that I have come back to time after time is Demon Hunters. From the over the top setting through to rules that support both the supernatural and the comedy elements the game has pretty much everything that I’m after. Unfortunately, following the Kickstarter there was quite a lag between release of the game and of the two supplements. There was also (to my knowledge) no plans for any future material beyond that. It’s one of the reasons that I chose to publish my own material – I wanted to help support the game as it’s all to easy for a Kickstarter success to slip under the radar after fulfilment.

That should be set to change now as Don Early has started both a Patreon and blog to further develop Faith Corps, the system developed in collaboration with Cam Banks for the second edition of the game. He’s aiming to release material on a regular basis, with Patreon backers getting early access and a chance to contribute suggestions and feedback.

While Demon Hunters will be a core focus Don is also looking to tap into the raw potential of the Faith Corps system by adapting it in new ways, with the aim of emulating a range of 80’s blockbuster and TV settings. As I’d also like to push the system into a new genre (space opera) seeing how he approaches the task is going to be invaluable in guiding my own efforts.

You can find Don’s posts at https://faithcorps.blogspot.com/ or back him on Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/donearly

As always you can find links to everything I’ve released for Demon Hunters here.

New Release: Trick of the Light Adventure Starter

Recruitment drives. When you go through Agents at the rate the Brotherhood does they’re a necessary evil. Normally we’d send somebody from personnel but they’re on an away day. Again. So pack your bags, you’re off to Vegas and the Convention of Magical Americans. We need you to scout the show for any potential recruits, every year there’s at least one true student of the arcane arts mixed in amongst the stage magicians. Not that you should discount the illusionists, misdirection and sleight of hand are just as valuable in our line of work.

We’ve nabbed some press passes for you. Well, we told them you were influencers… whatever that means. So look the part and try not to go too viral, your health insurance doesn’t cover that.

Trick of the Light is an adventure starter for the Demon Hunters: A Comedy of Terrors RPG by Dead Gentlemen Productions. Inspired by the Demon Hunters: Slice of Life episode The Amazing Velma this adventure starter provides an open framework for GMs to adapt and run the adventure for their own groups. Can the Chapter find and recruit mystical talents without blowing their cover? Was the death of famous magician Griff McCarn really an accident and how on earth do we get Nicky to leave us alone?

Trick of the Light is available at drivethruRPG & Itchio as a Pay What You Want PDF download. Paid purchases, feedback or reviews are greatly appreciated and keep me motivated to produce more material.

Download it now from drivethruRPG or Itchio

My Top 6 Influencial RPGs

This is another quick topic that is doing the rounds on Twitter at the moment, but I wanted to elaborate a little on why I picked each of them.

1) Torg – My very first tabletop RPG with an amazing GM that quickly inspired me to run my own games. Yes, the early 90s system is clunky by modern standards (and was so even when I first played it in 2006) but it was Torg that made me fall in love with this hobby. It’s also the game that taught me how much went on unseen behind the screen or in the GMs head, the GM of that campaign made it flow so smoothly that as a newbie I naively assumed it was easy. My subsequent first forays into GMing taught me otherwise.

2) Cortex (Classic, Plus, Prime) – I could easily fill four of the 6 spots here with Cortex games (Serenity, Demon Hunters, Smallville, Firefly) thanks to the impact the line has had on me over the years. Instead, I’m going to list it once, with a separate entry for Demon Hunters for reasons that will become apparent. For this entry, I’m focusing specifically on the system. Cortex was the first game that I discovered for myself, back with the original Serenity. At that point, I’d played only a handful of systems but mostly Torg. Mechanically and thematically the two were so different it was almost overwhelming. I dove into it, roped players into a game… and then ran a disaster of a session as a rookie GM. It was an experience that somehow didn’t put me off GMing.

Since then Cortex has continued to influence me thanks to its continued iteration. Demon Hunters gave me the first glimpse of how a game could be adapted to a new setting with only a few small tweaks. Then along came Cortex Plus, which demonstrated how to take the central DNA of a system and heavily adapt it to mesh with radically different genres. Smallville introduced me to the potential for constant player vs player conflict actively supported by the mechanics while Firefly introduced me to a smooth rules set that is pretty much perfect (in my opinion) for convention play. The in-development Cortex Prime is set to take it even further, providing a full toolkit to build future games on and I can’t wait to see where the system goes next.

3) Demon Hunters (1st/2nd editions) – What can I say about Demon Hunters that I haven’t already said before? It’s a setting that I love for so many reasons, see my recent self-interview for the long list. But the biggest way that it has influenced me? By providing an open world that allows for me to publish my own material. I’ve released two adventure starters (Missionary Opposition and Lockdown) for the most recent edition inspired by the Slice of Life web series and Channel Surfing, an adventure starter drawn from one of my own campaigns and that Dead Gentlemen made available to their GenCon GMs. How cool is that.

4) Hell 4 Leather – One of my first introductions to indie games, Hell 4 Leather bills itself as a Role-Playing Game of Vengeance inspired by tales such as Hamlet and Kill Bill. It’s an inspired game with minimal yet tight mechanics that come together to tell of the repercussions of making a deal with the devil. I’ve played it across a variety of genres, Westerns, Sci-fi, Urban Fantasy and it hasn’t let me down. As influences go it opened my eyes to the possibilities afforded by non-traditional mechanics and tales, supported by the flourishing indie scene in Scotland at the time. While I still tend towards traditional games it was this game that sparked my continued interest in the wider aspects of TTRPGs.

5) Lady Blackbird – This was, in many respects, a turning point for me as it was one of the original inspirations behind Project Cassandra. While the two bear little resemblance thematically the underlying system once did. Yup, Project Cassandra started off as a hack of Lady Blackbird. The system used is, in my opinion, extremely elegant and the whole idea of being able to wield powers in the same way as any other skill (and with few limits) really spoke to me. As I worked on the concept the systems diverged but that was where my interest in game design began.

6) Legend of the Five Rings (4th Edition) – A game that has influenced me in many ways but the biggest was providing me with the chance to join a long term, online campaign. My introduction to playing in the setting came via an online campaign run by Sir Guido and organised through the Happy Jacks Podcast community. It was the first time I’d really played an online campaign and the first where I was gaming with people across the world (we had people from Alaska through to Turkey). While I no longer regularly game online the experience was great and allowed me to step outside of the relatively small bubble that I was gaming in up to that point. It’s something that I’d like to do more of, especially when I get to the point of restarting playtests of Project Cassandra.