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.

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Forward Planning: Practice makes perfect

Alongside the research angle, my second starting point for writing Ghosts of Iron is one of practice, by which I mean immersing myself in Savage Worlds. It’s a system that I have both run and played but that I haven’t given as much screen time as others such as Cortex. As a GM I know that I can run it but I also know that, at present, when it comes to the intricate rules details I’d be reaching for the rulebook to double check edge cases.

Fortunately, I’ve got an easy solution to this – run it. My ongoing series of Monthly OneShots is a perfect way to both dive back into the fast, furious, fun of Savage Worlds and to introduce more players to the Crystal Heart setting. There are already a number of short adventures available, released to promote the Kickstarter while the fact that I am comfortable running one-off games will allow me to playtest individual elements from Ghosts of Iron before I bring them all together into the complete adventure.

The final step will be updating everything to Savage Worlds Adventure Edition, which was only kickstartered last year and which is still in production. While a pre-release is already available the finalised rules aren’t due out until later this year. For consistency, I’ll work from the Deluxe edition and then update to the latest edition that has been properly released.

So if you’re in the Liverpool area and want to get your game on keep an eye on the Sugar & Dice RPG group for my Monthly OneShot announcements.

Forward Planning: Savage Worlds One Sheet Adventures

With the successful completion of the Crystal Heart Kickstarter in December, I find myself in the fortunate position of starting 2019 with a commission to write RPG material for somebody else. The brief for the adventure was broad – something that an Agent of Syn might face, including an NPC ability or hazard to demonstrate knowledge of what makes Savage Worlds fast, furious and fun! My pitch, as presented during the Kickstarter campaign was:

ghosts

So where do I start? How do I go from a pitch to a finished adventure? I’m aiming to cover that process through a series of blog posts as I develop Ghosts of Iron.

Right now, that answer is research. While this may be my first commission there are a wealth of resources I can draw on. Firstly, there are my own adventure starters which were designed around a similar framework to One Sheet adventures – streamlined overviews that outline the adventure but require additional GM input to fully flesh out. It also helps that Pinnacle, the company behind Savage Worlds have a treasure trove of One Sheets available as free downloads from their website. I’ve begun mining that to put together a framework – what should be included, how do I highlight sections, how much detail do I give locations vs NPCs vs plot. Once I have identified those I can start to take my existing notes and begin to fit them to the page.

Secondly, there is the Crystal Heart setting itself. While the book is still in development Eran and Aviv have already showcased the world through the webcomic and accompanying page notes. Over the coming months, I’ll be going back to that repeatedly, to pick up on details that I might have missed and to ensure that my adventure embodies the spirit of the setting.

Thoughts on Marvel Heroic

Alongside my Monthly OneShots, I’ve recently finished playing in a mini-campaign of another Cortex Plus system, the short-lived Marvel Heroic RPG. While I was fortunate enough to buy it while still in print it’s a system that has languished on my shelf for some time.

Unfortunately, with the campaign over, I feel like it may return to that position for some time as overall it just did not work for me.

First up was a personal issue – I prefer shades of grey in my games. Four colour heroics just don’t sit well with my style of play. Especially when trying to be a clean-cut hero such as Captain America. It’s something that I’ve struggled with during previous superhero games and it clearly remains something I need to work on.

As for the system, well something just failed to click. To a degree, it felt over-engineered, with too many moving parts. Rolls were typically built around a base of Affiliation + Distinction + Powerset + Speciality. That’s before considering any possible boosts or variations such as Sfx. Each of those had to be considered and actively chosen, there is no default combo so each action felt slow, though I will admit that they sped up as we became more familiar with the mechanics.

My other mechanical issue was one of focus. While I understand that the superhero genre is heavily combat orientated my non-combat options felt like they were lacking. Again, I appreciate that Captain America is pretty much the archetype for ‘super-soldier’ but it still put me off when I saw that my non-combat rolls were relatively limited.

captain-america-the-winter-soldier-movie-hd-wallpaper-my-top-10-of-2014This isn’t to say that my thoughts on the system entirely negative, as there was a lot that I did enjoy. The doom pool was central to this, allowing the GM to bank dice for later use rather than having to create complications in the moment (ala Firefly). It’s definitely a mechanic that I’ll be including in my future Prime games, likely alongside the Firefly type complications for when I want to immediately challenge the party.

Second, was the ability to counter actions on a successful defence, allowing the heroes to inflict stress even when it wasn’t their turn. This really felt like it played to the genre and made the heroes feel special, as with enough plot points it is (theoretically) possible to take out a mob of low-level antagonists without even taking an action!

Finally the idea of switching out power-sets between adventures to highlight different facets of a character really appeals. Demon Hunters, which blends some Cortex concepts onto a backbone of Fate, does similar by allowing you to spend milestones to rewrite Aspects. Over the course of a campaign, I could see a character building up a repository of options to pick from. Want to focus on mysterious backstory this adventure? Simply swap in that aspect. Want to highlight your stealth? Add in the power-set you acquired during the recent downtime.

So overall, mixed thoughts. I won’t be rushing back to the system but on the other hand, I would like to play it again (or run it) to see if I can get a better feel for it.

Demon Hunters RPG – Stacking Aspects

One of the mechanics I love about Cortex Plus games is the way in which the way complications rise and fall with the narrative. With the right rolls your d6 mildly irritating can step up to d12 mortal enemy and back down again over the course of an adventure or sometimes even a scene. The same is true of physical complications, a flesh wound could be aggravated all the way to bleeding out without the need to introduce additional complications. Coupled to this is the dice pool mechanic, if an advantage or complication is relevant to your roll you can always add it to your dice pool before rolling.

Demon Hunters incorporates elements of Cortex Plus but, at its core, is a Fate derivative. Because of this aspects, while always true, have a single value (d6) and require either a free invocation or a faith point to incorporate into a roll. 

The below draft rules modification shifts the mechanics slightly more towards Cortex Plus by allowing for the creation of aspects with die values greater than d6.

Stacking aspects

Aspects that are narrative associated can be stacked together, creating a single combined aspect. Physically link the individual aspects together by drawing a line between them or stacking them atop one another. When invoking stacked aspects choose from the following

1. Invoke each aspect separately as per the standard rules at the cost of one faith point per aspect. Each aspect invoked adds 1d6 to your dice pool.

2. Invoke the entire stacked aspect for the cost of one faith point. For each individual aspect after the first increase the size of your bonus die by one step.

For example during a scene the following scene aspects may be in play

1. Stampede of people

2. Raging fire

3. Choking smoke

4. Demonic hieroglyphs 

The first three of these are narratively linked to one another, the fire that was accidentally started (because no Demon Hunter would ever start it on purpose) has built to an all encompassing maelstrom. These aspects can, if desired, be linked to one another. The fourth aspect stands alone and cannot be linked with the others.

Doyl, our demon Hunter, is trying to escape from the cultists chasing him but he’s not particularly sneaky or athletic so it’s going to be difficult. With plenty of faith points he could invoke the first three aspects to add a mighty 3d6 bonus to his roll. Unfortunately he’s only got one faith point, having relied on them rather heavily earlier in the scene. He invokes the stacked aspect to gain a bonus d10, hopefully enough to make his escape.

At this point astute readers will be noting that the standard 3d6 bonus will average a higher roll than the d10, so why bother with the stacked aspect? The answer is simple – cost, a single faith point rather than three while still making use of a wider range of the aspects in play. 

During the playtesting I’ve done with this rules modification I’ve also noticed a secondary bonus – it encourages greater player engagement with scene aspects. Knowing they can get a larger bonus for the same cost drives both the creation of aspects and their creative use. It is also intuitively balanced, there’s nothing to stop the DM from creating or invoking stacked aspects using demon dice.

As always I’d be interested in anybodies thoughts or comments on this.

RPGaDay August 22nd

22nd) Which RPGs are the easiest for you to run?

cortexplusThis again mostly comes down to familiarity for me, so once again I’m going with Cortex. More specifically Cortex Classic or Cortex Plus Action (such as Firefly) which are the two variants I’ve personally run. For both of them I could pick up the game and presuming I had a setting inspiration have characters ready to run in a few minutes. Especially Cortex Classic where I’d even be comfortable with characters being generated in play using the old ‘assign your stat when you first roll it’ approach.

The other reason for picking Cortex is that I know I can comfortably run it for players unfamiliar with the system. I’ve done so a number of times for both friends and at conventions. Having that level of system mastery means I can focus more on the game in front of me without getting tangled up by the mechanics.

RPGaDay August 15th

15th) Which RPG do you enjoy adapting the most?

Cortex in its various incarnations. It cortexwas the first system that I really grokked, not just in terms of how to play but in how the different aspects of the system clicked together. It helps that from a design standpoint it is relatively modular with elements that can be slotted in or out easily. I’m really looking forward to tinkering with Cam Banks’ new Prime version of the system when it comes out and hopefully will be able to put something interesting together with it.

As I’ve slowly started tinkering with game design it’s one of the systems that I keep coming back to and I’ve got notes for a few settings that I’d like to adapt to it. First and foremost would be one centered around stuffed toys and their adventures as they try to protect their sleeping owners. Nothing too original but something that could be fun. Second was the Powers campaign, think the TV series Heroes as a good example of where this was going. We tried a short campaign of it using Classic and a bodged together mechanic for the system (where you had to roll as close to the target number as possible). That didn’t get far due to issues with both the narrative and the mechanics but it’s one that I’ve always wanted to revisit and flesh out more.