Project Cassandra: Inspiration and Origins

Project Cassandra: Psychics of the Cold War header with image of an ominous man smoking a cigar and stamped Classified

With the release of Playtest Packet 2 over on itch.io I wanted to take the chance to sit back and think about how far Project Cassandra has come since its inception. I first started working on it in 2013 with the intention of putting together a hack of the amazing Lady Blackbird RPG. That game is a masterclass in design, especially with how much depth it manages to convey in only a few pages. The characters are fully realised, the rules are elegant and the minimal description of the setting somehow flips a switch in your brain to fill in the gaps without you even realising that that is what you are doing. I’ve played Lady Blackbird numerous times and while the setup for the scenario is predefined the game always plays out in a unique way.

My aim with Project Cassandra was to replicate that, with a scenario that started the same way each time (a premonition of the President being assassinated) but that naturally spun off into its own, contained story.

But why Cold War psychics? The inspiration for that is, as it turns out, a little more disjointed. I’d reread the original Jason Bourne novels, which are set during the Cold War, not long before starting work on the game and had subsequently gone digging into some of the conspiracy theories from the era. It was a bit of a Wikipedia rabbit hole. Most, such as the Majestic 12, are just that – conspiracy theories with no actual evidence but as is often the case truth is stranger than fiction and I ended up reading about dozens of formerly classified projects.

The most famous is probably Project MKUltra – which explored extreme approaches to interrogation and mind control. That project was itself preceded by Project Artichoke – which sought to determine if a subject could be programmed to perform an assassination against their will. Then there was Project Stargate, which investigated remote viewing and psychic abilities as a method of gathering intelligence.

With all these real world examples to draw the only thing that I needed to introduce with Project Cassandra was the element of success. The secret project that had trained a group of psychics but then ignored their warnings, forcing them into direct action.

In the summer of 2013 the final piece of inspiration came into play – a video game. Specifically The Bureau: XCOM Declassified. The game was fun without being spectacular but two aspects stood out. Firstly, it was rooted in the aesthetics of the Cold War which helped reinforce my choice of backdrop. Secondly, the abilities of the characters struck me as something that would complement the system. I had already started to develop Project Cassandra, including the use of Powers (again inspired by the abilities in Lady Blackbird) but the way the game implemented them, and encouraged interaction, cemented my desire to make them a core feature of the game.

From there the game went down the usual route of alterations, tweaks and dead ends that I’m sure are familiar to any designer but looking back it’s comforting to see that many of the core elements were present early on and I can’t wait to finally release the game next year.

#RPGaDay2019 26th August: ‘Idea’

August has come around once again which means it’s time for RPGaDay 2019. In a shift from the questions format of previous years this year is characterised by a series of prompts, which I’ll be attempting to answer each day with a short post, with the prompt word highlighted in bold each day.

Day 26: Idea

Project Cassandra started life as a hack of Lady Blackbird but the idea for it actually came from The Bureau: XCOM Declassified. It’s a Cold War, third person tactical shooter and prequel to the typical XCOM games. It’s highly stylised and over the course of the game you gain access to a range of advanced technology that include things such as levitation, cloaking and even mind control. Playing the game it struck me that many of the abilities could easily be explained as psychic talents. It was a simple leap to go from that to secret government projects to develop psychics given they actually existed! MK-Ultra and the Stargate Project may have never yielded any results but what if they had?

The idea to focus on saving the life of the President was also inspired by Lady Blackbird. While you can play in the expanded setting of that game the published rules have a clearly defined and singular goal – escape the clutches of the Imperial forces and deliver the titular character to her secret lover. I wanted the same for Project Cassandra – a clear, single purpose adventure that could be run as a one-shot or mini-campaign. While the game could be expanded out into any number of ‘psychic operatives complete secret missions’ I felt that would spoil the central conceit. It’s worked well in playtesting and I’ve yet to feel the need to push out into a full blown campaign format.

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.

State of the Conspiracy: Project Cassandra Update

Its been too long since I did a Project Cassandra update (or any regular posts but on that one, ssshhh) for the simple reason that the game went back to the drawing board quite heavily after the first (and so far only) playtest. That session identified a fatal flaw in the system, simply put tasks were either impossible because characters lacked a given skill or too easy due to the combination of sufficient skills and the premonition abilities. Originally the system had been designed as a fork from that of Lady Blackbird, with players building a dice pool from their available skills. The major difference, however, is that each character in Lady Blackbird has a pool of dice they can draw from to add to rolls, thus even unskilled characters can potentially still roll a large number of dice. In replacing that with Premonitions, which allow rerolls of dice, I’d severely limited the potential of players to complete goals when they lacked the right skills.

Having spent a fair amount of time considering the matter the system has been completely overhauled. All rolls are now made from a fixed pool of 5d6 with the number of skills available setting the range on the dice which count as successes. For example if they have only 1 applicable skill then only 1’s count as successes, 4 skills and 1-4 all count as successes.

probabilities-v2-mechanicsHaving already fallen foul of probabilities with the first version of the system I’ve made sure to do a bit of maths this time round and as is apparent from the figure the curves are much nicer this time. The difference though is that even with a low number of skills it’s still theoretically possible to achieve a high number of successes, even before accounting for the Premonition ability. There’s also the added bonus that with it being always being possible to succeed at hard tasks players will be encouraged to spend their premonitions more frequently.

With that major hurdle out of the way the second issue to resolve was that of the skill trees. In order to ensure a player always has something to roll each tree now starts as either MENTAL, PHYSICAL or SPECIALIST before breaking down into the specific skills. With those changes, plus some rewording of the skills themselves the game is pretty much ready for another playtest session which can be worked around the writing of character bio’s plus the rules pages.

Project Cassandra: The Questions

In writing Project Cassandra I’ve been heavily inspired by the rules and design philosophies of Lady Blackbird. One of the central tenets of that game is that the GM should be ‘listen and ask questions’ rather than planning everything out in advance. As each of the characters in Project Cassandra possess precognitive abilities the game provides an ideal mechanism to let not only the players define the events of the game but do so in a way that the characters are also aware of certain future events. The first piece of advice for the GM is therefore to start at the end, by defining the shared premonition (assassination of the President of the United States of America) that they are out to prevent. The game proper begins a few days after they have reported this premonition, as they awake to another premonition, that somebody is coming to silence them by burning down the unit.

Defining the end scene and the setting of the game as a whole is handled through a series of questions, at the moment I’m working with 6-8 being the right number. In preparation for the first playtest of the game I recently sat down with my players to run through the questions, the results of which are as follows:

  1. What era are we playing in?
    Early 1980’s.
  2. How will the President by killed?
    At close range, approach by the assassin, possibly using a small calibre silenced weapon.
  3. Where will the assassination attempt occur?
    At a public event, possibly a campaign rally as it’s an election year.
  4. Are the Russian’s really involved or are they just scapegoats?
    Scapegoats, being used in order to keep the cold war from fizzling out.
  5. Who betrayed you? (Referring here to who saw the report of their initial premonition and has decided to burn down the unit)
    A prior candidate who believes the premonitions are all lies being used to justify arresting / killing people who haven’t yet committed any crimes.
  6. Where will they catch up to you? (With they not being defined and could be the prior candidate, the secret service, the conspirators etc)
    At a truckstop diner with roller-skating waitresses.
  7. What are the consequences?
    Political opponents gets into power, uses the assassination as a reason to declare martial law, the cold war goes hot.
  8. Who is the President?
    Thomas J. Whitmore from Independence Day (and still played by Bill Pullman). Reimagined as a former Air Force pilot who served in Vietnam.

Through these questions the players have defined quite a large chunk of not only the final scenes (the assassination) but the rest of the game as the characters try to work out what is going on and how to stop it. As the GM the answers to these questions have already provided me a firm idea of what the players want to see while also forming a jumping point for the rest of the game. Why, for example, are the characters spending time at a diner? How does the assassin get close to the President? If the Russians are just scapegoats does that mean evidence has been planted to frame them?

Project Cassandra: Veteran Sarsin

sarsinSo progress continues on Project Cassandra, to the point that I’ve now got the basic rules pinned down and thus have been able to put together a draft of one of the five characters that I’m planing. Working on this has really made me appreciate the elegance of the Lady Blackbird characters, which manage to get both character stats and a rules summary on a single page. While I doubt I’ll manage to get it down that far due to the skill trees the layout definitely needs work.

Oh and obviously playtesting, which will require the rest of the characters.

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.

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.