Apr 24, 2018

Into the Depths: The Long-Awaited Magic Rules

I'm writing up some magic rules for Into the Depths finally. I'm drawing on a bunch of ideas that Beloch of Papers and Pencils (Magic Words), and Courtney Campbell of Hack & Slash and Benjamin Baugh (Spell power as trappings) have each developed, but using variations on those ideas within as simple a system as possible.

Here's the draft text of the Into the Depths magic rules. The list of magic words itself is forthcoming, I'm still deciding how fine a grain I want on the terms, and what selection will be most evocative and useful for referees and players thinking of coming up with their own.


1) Initiation: To cast spells a PC must be inducted into a mystery cult. A PC can only be a member of one mystery cult at a time but can abandon their old tradition and join a new one by undergoing a new induction. Levels don’t carry over from one cult to another. A PC learns two magic words (referee's choice) when they join a mystery cult.

2) Knowledge: PCs can know a number of magic words equal to their character’s level (not level of initiation). They can know a number of magic spells equal to their character’s level.

3) Creation: All spells are combinations of words. PCs can use as many words in a spell as they have levels of initiation into their mystery cult. Words cannot be used twice in the same spell. It takes one day of work to create a new spell, or to replace one a PC already knows with a new one.

4) Learning: PCs learn new words by finding them on adventures or experimenting on their own time. If a word is found on an adventure, only one PC can learn it. If a PC develops a magic word, they can teach it to others for whatever price they want.

5) Casting: You can cast as many spells per day as you have types of trappings at hand. If you get more types of trappings over the course of a day, the number of spells you can cast increases. Lose some, and it decreases (losing uncast spell slots first). Rare trappings may grant more slots than usual.

6) Effects: Negotiate with referee during spell creation. A typical spell targets one thing within 30m and either causes 1 instantaneous change or has effects that last 1 hr.

Magic Trappings

This is a selection of possible trappings, not an exhaustive list. Each type of trapping grants one additional spell per day.

Assistant / Apprentice Must also be initiated into same mystery cult. Can be another PC. Must spend an action helping cast.
Bric-a-Brac An accumulation of wizardly garbage: Stuffed alligators, jars of spider legs, etc.
Drugs / Mana One-use, usable only once per day. Save or hallucinate. Small item.
Familiar Counts as henchman who is of no combat value and full of sass. Unbuyable, must be recruited.
Grimoire A magical book full of cryptic suggestions, bizarre claims, and unsettling illustrations. Cost based on title.
Idol The creepier the better. Not normally portable.
Locus / Sanctum A sanctified and prepared location that focuses mystical energy. Not portable.
Obsession Unbuyable. Spell gained through obsession can only be cast to effect object of obsession.
Panoply / Regalia Priestly or wizardly robes, hat, etc. Cannot be worn with armour.
Sacrifice One-use, usable only once per day. Sacrifice a sentient being’s life. Usually unbuyable.
Staff / Athame Counts as two-handed weapon (staff) or small weapon (athame). Must be in hand when casting.
Talisman A cauldron, mirror, amulet, etc. that serves as a focus. Must be used to cast the spell.

And then, from the experience rules, because someone will ask if I don't mention it:

"3) PCs can be inducted into a mystery cult or magical tradition. This takes 3 months of training under a master, 10,000 SP, and completion of an initiatory task to be determined by your master. Gaining more levels of initiation requires a PC to complete more tasks and pay an additional 10,000 SP and spend three months training each time.

4) It takes one month and 2,000 SP to develop a new magic word of the PC’s choice, if a PC is capable of casting spells."

Apr 1, 2018

The Pack of Lies: Backstory as Equipment and Resource

I've been thinking a fair bit about backstories lately because I just started playing a D&D 3.5 campaign on a bimonthly basis with a group composed of two published authors (one is me), the former editor of a literary magazine, a librarian, and a video game writer, all people who as you might imagine have strong connections to literature. The game is strongly focused on narrative development, driven by proactive character decision making, and is in a way the best possible version of what something like AD&D 2nd edition and the whole "silver age" of RPGs aspired for.

We had a couple of months of prep between when we first sat down as a group to discuss potentially playing a campaign together and when we held our first session (a few weeks ago). Part of the prep included a questionnaire about our characters for us to fill out, and I basically ended up writing 5400 words of backstory for my character. I became the very "12-page backstory" guy that I've mocked in the past. While the referee of this campaign encouraged that and loved the backstory, as a referee I find the prospect of close reading, annotating and then summarising sixty-odd pages of half-complete amateur narrative dreadful.

In Necrocarcerus, PCs begin without backstories or histories, and they get them by finding and consuming "nepenthe", a distillate produced from brain juice that contains their memories from when they were alive. You can, of course, drink someone else's nepenthe and get their memories and thus their "backstory". On a related note, "experience points" from slaying monsters were also obtained by drinking their brain juice, which was essentially an undistilled version of the same fluid. I did this because Necrocarcerus is partially a parody of the tropes of Dungeons and Dragons, and I wanted to riff off the joke that PCs are often "murderhobos" lacking a backstory situating them in the world.

When we encounter "backstory" in narratives, it is almost always in the form of a narration delivered by a character during the actual story. It's backstory because it's a supplement to the narrative that precedes it and clarifies it, but the events of it are already completed. Authors have all sorts of clever tricks for introducing this material - characters in ancient epics brag about their past deeds as a prelude to boasting about their future accomplishments, while intellectuals in experimental novels cite one another's fake books, and detectives in noir novels muse about their past cases. In fact, the most derided way of presenting this material is probably the form most backstories actually take - supplementary, secondary documents that don't take into account the main narrative they're meant to be supplements for.

So getting away from that, I'm interested in a backstory system for use in my games that does a couple of things. I want backstories that are presented diegetically in the game, that are optional but that do reward players who come up with them, and that have different levels of player agency involved in generating them.

In Into the Depths, almost everything one can do is represented by a piece of gear, so here's some gear that ties into generating backstories.

Diary / Journal - Once per expedition you go on with a journal, you can choose to be Good At something. You must tell everyone an anecdote from your journal about why you're Good At this thing. This lasts for the rest of the expedition. If you lose your diary, leave it behind in town while you go on an expedition, etc. then an embarrassing anecdote gets out as someone takes the opportunity to peek inside. You lose your Good At and gain a permanent Bad At. If you make up the embarrassing anecdote, you get to pick the Bad At, if the referee has to, they get to pick what you're Bad At.

S'mores - When you camp with a fire and someone has s'mores in their gear, each PC who wishes may tell one anecdote about their character's life prior to play, and in exchange, they become Good At one thing related to the anecdote. Anecdotes need not be true. This effect lasts until they use the Good At once, at which time it fades. One can only receive a benefit from one s'mores at a time.

Self-Published Memoir - Cost to have it printed is calculated based on its actual title, which must include at least one colon and two adjectives. Carrying a copy of your self-published memoir allows you reroll a save whenever you can relate an anecdote about your past that explains your resilience. "Inspiring" anecdotes grant an additional +1 on the reroll.

Lucky Charm - You can only have one lucky charm active at a time. You must explain why it is lucky for your character. It grants a +1 to one kind of roll (same scope as Good Ats). If you ever lose it, you have -1 to that kind of roll until you recover or replace it.

Mar 6, 2018

Good RPGs for New Players

I'd like to suggest some good "starter" roleplaying games for new players who don't have a group of more experienced players to learn from. There's been huge growth in the number of people interested in playing RPGs thanks to streaming video of sessions and from mentions in popular media like Stranger Things and Community. Not all of those people will be able to find existing groups to join, and many will have to put together a group of people who've never played before to learn together. 27 years ago, when I first started playing RPGs, I was in the same boat, so I'm sympathetic to people facing the challenge of picking it all up on your own.

One, probably controversial assumption, that I'll be working from is that I think newer players tend to appreciate systems that provide lots of clear guidelines for how to do things, rather than rules-light systems that don't provide much guidance for what to do, especially when you have an inexperienced referee who isn't used to making judgement calls and house-ruling smoothly.

I'm also going to stick with systems that are currently in print, because I don't think sending people who have a casual interest in trying roleplaying thanks to a Youtube video on a bug-hunt through secondhand bookshops is a good introduction to the hobby. I'm also sticking to games I've actually played in some form. Also, with the exception of D&D, I'm going to try to stick to the cheaper end of the hobby, since asking someone to drop more than a hundred bucks for something they don't even know if they'll like doing is unfair.

So here's my list:

For science fiction games:

Stars Without Number Revised - Quick character creation and simple rules, while the adventure creation system is easy to use for new referees, and teaches them how to construct stories with minimal fuss. New referees are most likely to have trouble figuring out the experience and wealth subsystems, which are at least clearer than they were in the previous version of the game.

Cepheus - Character creation is a fun minigame, and the premise (you're petty-bourgeois speculators trying to stay ahead of debt in the far future) is easy to get. The text doesn't always explain itself super well, so expect a few delays on your first attempts at creating characters or vehicles, but the rest of the system is fairly easy to figure out. Go with Cepheus over Stars Without Number if you've got a lot of players with STEM backgrounds who want harder SF.

Diaspora - A great system for teaching people how to collaboratively build worlds and stories, with lots of minigames and mechanics that repeat in various ways across them. A great choice if you've got some players with really strong ideas either about the world or their characters going into the game. Some people can't wrap their head around FATE or the mapping components of this game, so if you're going to run into trouble, it'll be there.

For fantasy games:

Beyond the Wall - Get the Further Afield supplement and all the free playbooks as well. The game setup is a fantastic example of collaborative world- and party-building. The fronts and scenario packs are really good for new referees trying to figure out how to link together a bunch of sessions into a story. The simple premise is easy for new PCs to understand. I wrote a review praising it, and I stand by my conclusions there.

Labyrinth Lord + Yoon-Suin - I narrowly favoured this over Labyrinth Lord + Red Tide, but either would be good options. Yoon-Suin gives you a lot of different settings with generators and rules for running each one that differ slightly. While the weirdness might take some getting used to, the system for generating adventures based off of the PCs' social circles is really good, and I'm surprised more game writers don't adapt it. It also gives a new referee a fairly clear idea of how to generate and run the various campaign options it contains.

Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition - This one's fairly obvious. The part most likely to trip up a new referee is getting a handle on how the encounter-building process works, and learning what the magic and powers let PCs do. Mostly important, Dungeons and Dragons' core books tend to be written with the default assumption that the person picking them up doesn't know anything about RPGs, and while it won't give anyone masterful insights into how to play, the game covers the essentials well.

Assorted other genres:

Other Dust - if space opera isn't your thing, Other Dust is basically the original edition of Stars Without Number (mentioned above), but with mechanics to run it as a postapocalytpic game instead of as a space opera. Same strengths, same weaknesses.

Rifts - Rifts is simultaneously a western game, a fantasy game, a science fiction game, and a horror game all rolled up into one gonzo mess. It's fiddly and complicated. It's also great, and an incredibly popular introductory RPG. I started playing RPGs myself nearly thirty years ago using a derivative of it called "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness" back during the Ninja Turtles craze of the early 1990s.

Further suggestions are welcome in the comments / on G+ as always.

Feb 21, 2018

Into the Depths: Your Feedback

So I'm soliciting your feedback, internet community, on Into the Depths (link is to pdf download). For those just tuning in, Into the Depths is a classless, attributeless retroclone that I wrote at the end of 2016 that incorporates most of my favourite houserules from years in OSR games. It should be compatible with almost any d20-lite ruleset (Swords and Wizardry, Microlite20, etc.). I spent 2017 playtesting it, and I have some ideas for new material for an upcoming revision, but I thought I'd ask you, the wider old-school D&D community, to take a look at it and collect your feedback.

I'm particularly interested in any parts you think need clarification, expansion, or simplification in the rules as written.

Here's a link to some of the changes I'm planning to make based on my own playtest of it. I'm also planning to condense the experience milestones into a smaller list, add some overland travel rules, and a magic system of some sort. This will eventually become the core system of Necrocarcerus if I ever publish that setting, and it's creative commons so you can use or adapt it for your own ends as well.

Feb 19, 2018

Science Fiction Skills for Openquest

Following up on these changes to Openquest's skill system, here's a list of possible skills that should be added to the skill list for science fiction games. Many of them are drawn from the Mythras science fiction skill list. I'm mainly interested in moderately-hard science fiction stuff, so there's no "Psionics" or the like. Obviously, I'd recommend removing Sorcery Casting as a skill in a sci-fi game.

New Skill Additions

Communications (INT x2)
Computers (INT + CON)
Explosives (DEX + INT)
Gunnery (DEX + INT)
Piloting (DEX + INT)
Scanning (INT x 2)
Science (INT x 2)
Social Engineering (CHA + INT)

Skills Changed for a Science Fiction Setting

Locale (Region)

New Skill Descriptions

Communications covers using complex communications mechanisms like encrypted radio transmissions, tight-beam lasers or entangled photonic systems. Communications also covers encryption/decryption, using ECM / ECCM suites, and is the skill used for issuing orders to autonomous drones, vehicles, and robots.

covers programming, hacking, data retrieval, and performing other tasks involve a computer's software systems. It's also used for setting up behaviour trees for autonomous systems (e.g. security systems, autonomous drones, etc.). Computers uses CON as one of its relevant stats because almost anything you'd want to do with it is an extended task requiring focus and concentration over long periods.

covers deploying, detonating, and defusing explosive devices. Rocket launchers and other guns that shoot explosive rounds are covered by Ranged Combat or Gunnery. Grenades, IEDs and demolition-charges are Explosives. The skill also covers analysing or identifying explosives and their aftermaths.

Gunnery covers using, reloading, and repairing weapons systems that don't use direct sights to aim, ranging from artillery to air-to-air missiles to ICBMs and installation-based rail guns. It is used by drones and other autonomous vehicles and robots to fire, and is used in most vehicular combat.

covers operating vehicles in three dimensions, whereas Driving covers vehicles that operate in two dimensions. Piloting is used for manoeuvring during vehicle combat, for astrogation and for space travel. Piloting is also used to remotely operate drones.

Scanning is the use and interpretation of complex scanning equipment whether these devices are hand-held or vehicle-mounted. Any device that returns results more complicated than a false-colour picture (e.g. thermal vision or low-light amplification) uses Scanning instead of Perception. Scanning is now also the skill used for surveying, replacing Engineering's role.

Science covers scientific knowledge, versus Lore which covers other kinds of knowledge (the humanities). Science uses specialities, so each 20% or fraction thereof in the skill grants another speciality.

Social Engineering allows a PC to engage in politics on a mass level. It deals with analysing and changing belief systems and ideologies through the use of propaganda and other means of mass communication. Influence covers changing an individual or small group's beliefs, Oratory covers a larger group, and Social Engineering works on the level of entire societies.

Changed Skill Descriptions

Athletics now also includes all zero-g / EVA manoeuvring in space.

Driving now explicitly covers all vehicles that operate in two dimensions, ranging from chariots to cars, trucks, and buses. Hovering vehicles with relatively fixed altitudes (skimmers, etc.) and humanoid robots are handled with Driving as well.

Engineering is now a speciality skill, and covers constructing or repairing any machine larger than a person, from groundcars and security systems to fusion plants and FTL drives. It also includes architectural analysis (Is the floor sloped? What's the gravity in this station? Are there secret doors here? etc.) and design. Surveying is now part of Scanning.

Locale (Region)
has only a minor change, in that "region" should be interpreted broadly to include larger areas than a medieval person would mean by that term. A space explorer might have Locale (Mars) or in a game of sufficiently grand scale, Locale (Sol System).

Mechanisms now includes the ability to build, repair, and subvert electronic and electrical systems as well as mechanical ones.

Feb 8, 2018

Into the Depths: Knowledge as Gear

In Feuerberg, I got rid of knowledge skills and added books to the gear list instead. If you carried a book (one of six to nine gear slots you might have), you could read it as you went and ask questions about the topic, and there was a chance (usually on a 4+ or 5+ 6) that it would answer the question. If you wanted to play a smart character who knew a lot of stuff it was easy enough - just carry a lot of books around with you. In theory it took a turn of reading to answer any question, though I was sometimes a bit flexible about this.

I liked this system a lot because it turned knowledge into a scarce commodity by tying it into two of the existing subsystems that govern scarcity (the marketplace of gear, and encumbrance). It also allowed encouraged PCs to plan ahead about what topics they thought might be relevant, while giving them flexibility about what they could know, instead of investing a ton of skill points or training into knowledges that might not turn out to be useful. I think most of its faults in practice (which were few) were the result of me not being consistent or investing enough time in producing possible book suggestions on my end.

One of the meta-game structures of Into the Depths is that instead of a ton of powers from magic, or your species and class, or some other intrinsic aspect of you, most of your "powers" are either obtained or enhanced by gear. The idea is that you explore a dungeon or wilderness area using your gear until you reach a set of obstacles that you can't overcome with your current gear, then go back to your home base, change out your gear load, rest up, and go on with the expedition until you hit another set of obstacles you needed new gear for, etc. I tried in Feuerberg, not always successfully, to often have treasure apparent but requiring special gear to extract. e.g. a fossil embedded in a boulder that would be extremely valuable but requiring you to bring along special tools to cut it out without damaging it.

Books as gear are meant to play into this cycle. You encounter some incomprehensible gibberish in a long dead language no one speaks - get a book on the subject and decipher it. You want to know what kinds of monsters are roaming around (i.e. are on the wandering monster tables)? Get a book on the subject and read it. You want to build a fortress? Better read a book or two on architecture.

To enhance this in future games of Into the Depths, there are three changes I'd make to the initial idea. The first is to simply add more books covering doing more stuff. Cracking codes, deciphering languages, explaining how to build complex mechanical devices like traps or certain machines, etc. This is in addition to books that just straight up answer questions on archaeology or geology or whatever.

The second change is to introduce expendability to books. I like the idea of a usage die but I think it'll be complicated to track, so I'm just going to have each book capable of answering 1d6 questions on a given topic before it's exhausted. Once it's gone, you have to buy a different book, even if you want more information on the same topic. This helps prevent PCs from sitting around asking infinite questions while they're on the expedition and have the book in their possession, as well as effectively dealing with the question of what they can do with the books during their downtime (they can exhaust all of the questions a given book can answer, which is what they were going to try to do anyhow). Rare books you get as treasure might allow for more questions.

The third change is to introduce differences in quality. This will take two forms. The first is whether the books allow you to a 5+ or a 4+ on a d6, with better books (more expensive or harder to find) allowing success on the lower rolls. The second is that basic books cover one topic, but better books can cover multiple topics. This means you can haul along more knowledge without more encumbrance.

Some book ideas (all work on a result of 5+ on 1d6):

Cryptography manual -  Decipher codes you encounter
Phrasebook - Speak a language you don't know
Grimtooth's Traps - Design and build an overly elaborate trap
Farmer's Almanac - Predict the next day's weather
Code of Law - Bullshit your way out of legal troubles
Bestiary - Fill in boxes on the wandering monster table ahead of time
Collector's Catalogue - Appraise the value of non-monetary treasures
Herbarium - Identify helpful and dangerous plants you encounter

Jan 26, 2018

Literacy Specialties in Mythras

I want to apply the specialities concept to the Literacy skill in the Dawnlands (my Mythras iron-age central Asian-inflected setting), but without simply having it be a repeat of the specialities of the Language skill. A simple repeat of the same specialities would just turn Literacy into a skill tax imposed on PCs. I also think it's pretty boring.

I also think we need to avoid the obvious extension of it, which is to separate the ability to interpret and decipher writing in a particular form into speech. I initially made this error and had five different alphabets, syllabaries, abugidas and pictograms, which Literacy would let you turn into something you then needed a Language skill to make sense of. I think this would increase referee cognitive load in planning and preparation, without adding much to the game.

You, my well-educated audience, may have already encountered the idea of "literacies" in contemporary educational theory. This is often used in the context of explaining various digital media competencies, but I think elements of this can be projected backwards in time, and laterally, for our purpose, to make the Literacy skill interesting and fun. To tip my hand, I want to expand the Literacy to cover a variety of hermeneutic practices, of which reading plain text on a page is only one example. Literacy now becomes the skill of interpreting symbol sets other than speech. I do want to be careful not to step too far into the domains of other skills and replacing the need for Customs, Culture, Lore or Art, but I think there are a few pieces that could fall under Literacy or one of these skills that we ought to bring under the Literacy skill.

NB: Along with allowing you to decipher the types of texts below, I think that in many cases Literacy should also cover producing examples of them.

Here's a brief list of ideas of interpretive practices that might be important to someone in a fantastical pseudo-ancient or pseudo-medieval setting.

1) Reading out loud
2) Codes and ciphers
3) Dreams, omens, oracles
4) Technical, mathematical, and scientific jargon and diagrams
5) Financial and legal records and accounts
6) Reading silently
7) Magical writing (or this may be a subset of #4)
8) Maps & calendars

A brief justification for each of these as ideas:

Reading out loud and reading silently are separate developments historically, as weird as it may seem to a modern person trained in doing both from a relatively young age. It seems like in the Western world, reading silently emerges shortly after monasticism, as part of the contemplative practices of monks. Until that point, so far as we can tell, people mostly read things aloud, even when they were reading for themselves. Breaking them up as specialties is a minor but fun idea with the effect of estranging the setting in a subtle way for players.

Codes and ciphers represents the ability to encipher and decipher texts written in codes and ciphers. It's handy and it doesn't cleanly fall under any other skill unless you make up a Lore speciality covering it. If you have "thieves guilds" or the like, you might want to make up a separate speciality for their specific codes, but I think the narrower this speciality, the less useful it is.

Dreams, omens, and oracles are in the representations we have from the ancient world almost always vague, riddle-like things that require expert interpretation, and dramatically much can turn on the ambiguous possibilities of an oracle or omen. I think this should also cover things like astrological charts, hexagrams from the I Ching, and the markings on the intestines of sheep. I think this is, like literacy in codes and ciphers, rapidly becomes less important or useful the more narrow it is (i.e. just interpreting dreams or just interpreting sheep intestines or just looking at chickens pecking grain out of a grid).

If you've ever tried to read an old mathematical or technical manuscript, you probably understand why this is distinct from one's familiarity with the scientific concept under discussion, or one's ability to read the plain text of the manuscript. For that matter, if you've ever seen two people quibble over what a blueprint means, you've probably had the same experience. Diagrams can be surprisingly ambiguous, especially if it's stylised so that particular design choices are intended to cover specific information rather than serve as a picture. It's also less relevant in an ancient or medieval setting, but I think reading graphs probably falls at least partly under this speciality as well. Whether you want to make a "high-falutin' writin'" speciality that combines this with the no doubt extremely similar problems of interpreting magical writings is your preference. I would separate them into two specialities mainly as a matter of personal taste.

Financial records and accounts remain a specialised form of literacy with entire certified professions dedicated to them (accountants, stockbrokers, etc.). Understanding them is distinct from mathematical knowledge per se (which I think is properly one or more Lore specialities). Historically, this type of writing precedes the others - records of debts and receipts are the oldest writing we can find evidence of. Legal records and documents, which are often tax records of some sort historically, are similarly obtuse and impenetrable even if one has a rough and ready sense of what the actual law applying to a situation is. You may want to roll these under the Commerce and Bureaucracy skill, respectively. Mythras doesn't have a forgery skill, and allowing this as a speciality allows you to make a forger, which I think is something PCs want to do often enough that it's worth having a special skill covering.

Maps and calendars are really two different types of literacy in real life (interpreting abstract spatial representations and abstract temporal relations), and understanding them were specialised skills historically. Thucydides found calendars in contemporary Athens so confusing that he simply invented his own method of tracking time in his historical work. How to calculate the exact date of Easter is a perennial dispute amongst the Christian sects even now. I'm not sure either kind of literacy is quite useful enough to be worth a speciality on its own, but together they're fairly handy, especially since having them as a Literacy speciality should allow a PC to produce them.

NB: I considering reading maps quite different than the Navigation skill, since the later covers going to places, and maps do all sorts of things other than guide you somewhere (here's a neat one that's useless for navigation).

Some of these might reasonably be Lore specialities instead of Literacy specialities. But, I think one thing to bear in mind if one is using the specialities system is that getting more than 5 specialities in a particular skill is a challenge because of the difficulty of acquiring skill ratings above 100%. So loading some potential Lore capabilities onto Literacy means that characters don't have to sacrifice one of their Lore specialities to get ahold of them, and can instead raise their Literacy skill (which is often surprisingly low).

Other than the ones listed above, I'm open to suggestions for other Literacy specialities.