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.

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Blog Carnival: Summer is Coming

This month’s RPG Blog Alliance Carnival topic is Summer is Coming, hosted over at Dice Monkey. Here in the UK I can say, with some certainty, that Summer is most definitely here (we’ve just had our hottest day so far this year). Having gotten into RPGs while at university, and still being friends with a number of university students summer is also a period I associate with less gaming as campaigns always tended to wrap up just prior to the exam period. So with that in mind I thought I’d present a few suggestions for games that can be run in a fairly adhoc manner, without the need for a regular group meeting each week for a continuing story.

  1. Quickstart rules – Ever had that system you always wanted to try but never got around to? Summer is the perfect time, aided by the fact that many systems these days release a set of quickstart rules that come with a prewritten adventure and sample characters. Best of all is that they’re usually free. So go ahead, give something new a try, if you like it then hey presto, option for a new campaign and if you don’t then it hasn’t cost you anything to give it a try.
  2. Hell 4 Leather by Prince of Darkness Games. A game of supernatural revenger, which sees a murdered ganger (one player) given 24 hours to seek revenge on their former friends (everybody else). The game requires no prep, is focused tightly on the group narrative and can be run in around 2 hours. It’s one of my favourite pickup games and I’ve played in sessions where the setting has ranged from the relatively mundane wild west or 30’s mobsters through to D&D fantasy or dystopian cyberpunk. Highly recommended.
  3. Fiasco by Bully Pulpuit Games. Fiasco is probably the most well known indie games, helped by its appearance on Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop. The game is all about setting up a group of relationships and making plans, then seeing how they all go horribly wrong with the introduction of the tilt. The game itself is setting agnostic, which is instead chosen through the use of playsets that contains all the relationships, needs, locations and items. There are, literally, hundreds of playsets available covering pretty much every possible setting you could want.
  4. Lady Blackbird by One.Seven Design. Lady Blackbird is a steampunk / pulp adventure game and system that follows the attempt of the noble Lady to escape from her arranged marriage and rendezvous with her secret love, the pirate king Uriah Flint. Think steampunk crossed with equal parts Flash Gordon and Firefly. The game (which is free to download) contains a complete system and set of PCs plus the outlines of an adventure chronicles Lady Blackbird’s journey. While the adventure, as provided, requires either a quick thinking GM or some extra preparation there is a surprising depth to what is provided, making it easy to flesh out as required. As such the game can be run as a one shot or just as easily expanded into a short campaign.
  5. Remember Tomorrow by Box Ninja. A near future cyberpunk game that focuses not on the gadgets and implants a character may possess but the more basic fundamentals that underlie the classic works of Gibson et al. Namely what do they want and are they Ready, Willing and Able to obtain it. Like Fiasco and Hell 4 Leather the game is narrative based and runs without a GM, with players cycling between PCs and the NPCs of the various factions. One of the most unique features is that while a single session may complete a PCs story everybody else (PCs, NPCs, factions) form an ever evolving pool that can be drawn upon next time the game is played. Thus while two characters may never actually meet in the narrative their actions may have significant impacts on one another through the world with which they interact.

So there you have it, a few options for your summer gaming. If anybody has any additional recommendations then I’d be eager to hear them as it looks like my summer is once again going to be dominated by one offs and irregular games.

Rant: On Railroads (or Plot != Railroad)

Between blogs, twitter, forums and podcasts I consume, on an average week, a considerable quantity of RPG material (it’s one of the few bonuses of having two hours of commuting per day). One of the topics that keeps coming up time and time again is that of railroading and how it is a bad thing under most circumstances. Which I agree with. It’s just the definition of railroad that gets to me, as I regularly see posts (or hear episodes) that insinuate if the GM comes to a session with any plot / plans then they are railroading the game. So let me just get my opinion out there,

Having plot is NOT railroading.

Simple as. It’s only a railroad when the GM forces the players onto that plot and forces them to follow it in the manner the GM expects. If I, as GM, come to the table with plans for the game then unless it’s the start of a new game it will be based on the actions of the previous session. I might have expectations on where the game will go and will plan accordingly, that doesn’t mean I am railroading the players, merely that I am planning ahead based on the direction the game has already taken. No, it may not be a truly sandbox game but even if I were planning a sandbox game I would still expect to come to the table with some plans on where the session might go, the only difference is that the initial plot hook would have come from the PCs as opposed to me dangling it in front of them as an option. They’re free to ignore that hook, go off and do something else instead. Hell one of the most enjoyable Demon Hunters adventures I’ve ever run was triggered by one of the players seeing a plot hook in what I’d intended as a mere background description. That was five minutes into the session and resulted in me throwing out my entire plot, calling a beer break so I could come up with a new plot (based around the aspect that had grabbed the players attention) then continuing in the new direction.

So I still had a plot. And I still wasn’t railroading. What I’m saying is that it’s only a railroad if I force the players onto a particular path and shut down their options when they deviate from my plan. Having a plot, that’s just saying to the players that “hey, there’s something interesting over here if you want to take a look.”

Zooooooom… zoom zoom zoom

This story over on the BBC News site (and various over technology sites) pipped my attention recently, as it points once again how we simultaneously move closer and further from a traditional cyberpunk future.

Wait what? Close and further?

Yup, both at the same time. Basically the report is on the development of contact lenses that include a telescopic zoom function. At present they require a set of polarising glasses in order to switch between regular and zoomed view, as developing both variable lenses which function on that scale and a (probably wireless) control unit are both still a long way off. In and of itself the concept is pretty cyberpunk, a technology that boosts human function on a scale that is small enough to be, in essence, a part of you.

The deviation though is one that has become common with technology, in that while technology is becoming smaller and more powerful we’re shifting towards wearable gadgets rather than implanted. Now obviously one of the main factors in this is that we’re still not at a point where we can easily send signals into the central nervous system. We’re getting pretty good at detecting signals being sent out from the brain which can then be used to control prosthetics but routing signals back in is still a long way off and that’s before we even start thinking about adding non-natural sensory inputs.

With that in mind where does it leave a modern vision of cyberpunk? If we keep the inclusion of augmented humanity then there is obviously the need to include wireless technology. The biggest example of this in gaming is probably Shadowrun, which, with its 4th and (upcoming) 5th editions has worked to incorporate wireless technology into the world. But what if the use of neural augmentation never becomes commonplace? Arguably the baseline then shifts, with devices such as smartphones and tablets taking a more central focus. Watch Dogs, due to be released later this year, takes this approach, with the central character seemingly reliant on his smartphone and it’s ability to hack the many wireless objects dotted around Boston. Going one step further though we’d probably add in wearable technology, such as the contact lenses that prompted this or the recently released (in a limited fashion) Google Glass.

The final shift that may be required for a modern version of cyberpunk is that of Corporate power. While corporations arguably know more about us than ever before (if they didn’t then the US government would have never bothered with PRISM) they still lack the ability to dictate the law in the way that classic cyberpunk envisioned. There are no corporate military forces tied to software firms (though there are of course numerous military contractors aka mercenaries) nor are there runners there to break into facilities or abduct VIPs.

Or are there?

Cyberpunk has always focused around those on the edge of society, those who see and experience what most people would rather keep quiet. With that in mind it would be easy to imagine that, for most people, a cyberpunk world appears much the same as our own, with espionage and corporate wars kept quiet from the masses.

After all ignorance is bliss.

It’s also control.

The Seven Virtues of Bushido

(This is here as a quick reference for my L5R players)

The Seven Virtues of Bushido are:

  • Gi (Honesty and Justice) – Set lies aside. A samurai does not make honesty or justice a matter for debate; he knows that there is only truth and falsehood, justice and injustice.
  • Rei (Polite Courtesy) – A samurai is neither a bully nor a brute killer. He must treat his enemies with courtesy.
  • Yu (Courage) – Only fear of death can destroy life; the samurai replaces it with an understanding of danger.
  • Meyo (Honor) – Praises and curses are not what defines honor; the samurai reserves his judgement for himself.
  • Jin (Compassion) – Just as the farmer does not grow crops merely to fill his own belly, the warrior does not fight for himself alone. A samurai must be constantly aware of the duty to protect others.
  • Makoto (Complete Sincerity) – A samurai’s words and his actions are one and the same. To ‘promise’ would be redundant.
  • Chugo (Duty and Loyalty) – Actions and their consequences define those who take them. The samurai’s loyalty to those that he guards for is unshakeable.

More info: http://l5r.wikia.com/wiki/Bushido

Savage Problems

Savage Worlds is currently one of the most popular systems available, having seen a rapid rise in popularity since its release. Partially that’s down to the cost (the explorer’s edition of the core rulebook comes in at under £10), the wide range of available settings (central to which is the rebooted Deadlands setting) and the ease with which the system can be picked up.

All in all it’s a good system but having now had a chance to play it I’m slowly coming to the conclusion that it’s not a system for me.

Before I continue I will point out that I’ve played the game extensively, to date I’ve run it once,  played in a couple of one shots and most recently just finished playing in the first part of a Deadlands Noir campaign (which will be shifting to Cortex Classic when we resume it). It took all of that for me to get a proper feel for the system, and then work out what bugged me about it and in the end it came down to two interconnected issues.

Target number of four

One of the central tenets of Savage Worlds is that the basic target number for any action is 4. Apart, that is, from when it isn’t. Rather than having suggested difficulties Savage Worlds relies heavily on situational modifiers that can greatly raise or reduce the difficulty. On it’s own this isn’t a massive issue, the problem is that the numbers seem to vary so significantly that I just can’t get a handle on working out what I need to roll. Now part of this could be alleviated by the GM stating in advance what the difficulty is but even having that knowledge would only partially help. The reason it would only partially help is that once target numbers get above 8 (which seems to happen fairly regularly) most characters can only succeed with the aid of an exploding die.

And once explosions become a requirement rather than a bonus I (personally) just can’t keep track of my chances.

Combat

My issues with combat in Savage Worlds are mostly a continuation of of the target number four problem, complicated by the Shaken mechanic. The target number issue is as before, however, in combat target numbers seem to soar even higher. Parry, the “to hit” target number typically ranges from 4-8 (the highest in the Deluxe rulebook bestiary is 9) before inclusion of any modifiers but it’s toughness where the numbers get silly, with values often into double figures. That this can then be boosted by armour and that initially you need to get 4 higher again in order to cause a wound rather than a shaken result just takes the piss.

As a gamer with an interest in game design I suspect that this was a deliberate choice, meant to emulate pulp action scenes. For example take Indiana Jones, when he gets into a brawl with a tough opponent he lands plenty of blows that do nothing (hitting but failing to beat the toughness) before landing a few spectacular punches that floor the opponent. In a movie this works, in a game it’s just frustrating to land the attack then be told you’ve not done any damage.

I mentioned shaken being another bugbear of combat in Savage Worlds. This is a much simpler issue, being shaken takes reduces player involvement by preventing them from taking actions and players who can’t do anything get bored. Once again I understand the desire to emulate the genre but it just doesn’t translate into a workable mechanic. I suspect next time I run Savage Worlds I’ll house rule Shaken, turning it instead into a -1 or -2 penalty, that way players still have a chance to do something useful on their turn.

So there it is, my issues with Savage Worlds. They’re not big issues and certainly not ones that would prevent me from ever playing the system again but for the moment I’ll be heading back to Cortex, simply because it’s a system I grok.