Wednesday, July 28, 2010

What's Next?

If the rapid succession of playtest reports vs development posts hasn't clued you in, development for Shadowitz has slowed. Most of the heavy lifting's been done at this point, and we've run 5 sessions with it. We've done most the necessary tweaks and the game runs without many requests to change things at this point. I'll get the occasional question about how we might liberally interpret the rules for something, but that was the intent when I started out. A flexible system requires an ongoing series of judgement calls; if I codified them into specific rules the system wouldn't be flexible anymore.

I have some other things I could still do for the game. There's a loyalty mechanic that I toyed with early on that I found clever and useful for reinforcing the idea of being loyal to your Johnson even though you're a professional criminal. It rewards you for holding true to your employer, even when given opportunities to double-cross him, but then fuels righteous vengeance when you are screwed yourself. The thing is, I haven't had a single opportunity to use this rule or even develop it since we've begun playing under this system .The team's been remarkably on point about sticking with the job.

Another aspect I thought would be cool to develop was the idea of party resources. Things like making the group itself into a character of sorts, or adding the idea of group aspects (aspects that become more effective as more people in the party have them). But again, the call for such things isn't high right now.

Because at the end of the day we're a group of 30 something guys with a growing list of responsibilities, and Saturdays just aren't the open range of free time that they used to be. We play once a month. Sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less. It takes nearly a season to complete a single run. This isn't a campaign I see moving ahead at blistering speed. And because of that, I'm not compelled to dive into developing minutia mechanics that might see use a few years from now.

So, for the moment, development on this game is complete. What's that mean for the blog? It means that regular development posts are done; there's simply nothing more to say at the moment. However, give me a month. Check back here in September and I'll try to get the notes I wrote during the development of this game into an actual manual that I'll post here. You can download it and use it as you see fit. I just need to get it cleaned up and in some cases written in full sentences.

Until then, I hope you've found this interesting, and maybe even useful.

Game on!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Fifth Playtest

The fifth session running under Shadowitz was a combat intensive session, and the finale of the run. As in the real finale, not the faux finale that I gave them a couple of sessions ago. Last time we played, the team was hired to track down what happened to the simsense star they'd previously kidnapped. She'd gone missing again, and it was now their job to get her back.

Much investigation and negotiation later, the team stood outside a bug infested warehouse outfitted with security armor and heavy weapons looking all the world like the space marines from Aliens (one player even went so far as to find a clip of the movie and play it prior to getting underway).

I was a little nervous going into the fight for a couple of reasons.

This was supposed to be a claustrophobic modern day dungeon crawl, and the Aliens analogy was apt. The thing is, I suck at running horror games, and it became clear that this team would not be skittish. No matter how I described the alien looking bug men, they just wanted blood. Granted, this is a team of veterans and while this was their characters' first experience with a hive, they've all played Shadowrun long enough to have faced this kind of thing in other games before. So it quickly became "I shoot it!" with little emotional impact. Clearly I was missing something essential.

So after a few small skirmishes, I had the sound of gunfire awake the rest of the hive and the shaman directed them to assemble in one place to protect the queen. No more small encounters. Now every spirit, flesh and true, was assembled in one massive encounter. And here was the second point of doubt I had: would the mook rules work?

As it turns out, they worked out famously. All told, the party faced close to 30 opponents, all in a single combat. Most of these were low threat mook squads made up of ant worker spirits. I had a few higher threat level mooks made of soldiers, and then a few true villians (as in mechanically identical to PCs).

It was a long fight, nearly 2 hours, and at the end the party was severely chewed up. Most were staring at completely filled damage tracks, complete with injury slots, and more than once first aid treatments and magical healing were the only reasons someone made it through the fight. People screamed at one another for aid, some sacrificed themselves to buy others time to do something only someone else could do (banishment was a big one here), and it came down to a few critical moments toward the end to see which side would be victorious. Tension rode higher and higher as the fight went on. Really, I was happy with how it turned out.

How did the mooks fair? Poorly for the most part. But they were near useless in the fight by design. After all, they were worker spirits. Still, there were 20 of them, and they demanded attention, and it took a few grenades and some Vindicator minigun spray to wipe them all out (largely because the party didn't know how to throw grenades or fire a heavy weapon, so die pools were small). The thought of being swarmed by them terrified some members of the group, and even if they were low threat rating mooks, a squad of 20 brought pain enough.

The other thing I learned in this session is the value and appeal of tactical combat. Narrative combat is freer; you can do what you like as long as you and the GM agree on the details. Don't sweat movement rates, threatened areas, or terrain modifiers. Just do what you want, and roll with the descriptions. The problem is that it sounds all kinds of wonderful in theory, but can quickly fade to "I attack" over and over. I as GM tried to provide some extra detail for my NPCs, but I slipped away from that as the fight went on as well. And especially when you're using guns, there's only so much extra detail you can pack on round after round to shooting at someone.

Tactical combat provides an additional layer of detail without needing the description. It too can rapidly become "I attack" if you have two people standing in place and slugging it out (ranged or melee), but tactical combat systems usually introduce more combat considerations that can give the proceedings more detail and more substance.

My group seems perfectly happy with the combat system as it currently works and doesn't seem to need the full tactical array, so I doubt I'll be laying down a battlemat anytime soon, but it was an interesting thing to observe. In the meantime, I think looking into some mechanic to inspire more detail in combat actions is in order.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Fourth Playtest

By now people are getting pretty comfortable with the rules and how to use them. Aspects are seeing regular use, though while I've compelled a few myself the players still seem reticent to do so themselves. Someone did ask if they could spend their edge to activate someone else's aspect, and while I ruled no for the moment, it does have me thinking about developing some team mechanics that would allow them to contribute to and use some sort of shared resource.

I've got a couple of examples of this from other games I can draw on for inspiration. I really like the Warhammer 3e idea of giving the party as a whole its own sheet and resources, and during the brief time I ran Shadowrun using Feng Shui rules I threw group shticks into the mix, and they were pretty popular. It's something to think about, but I've got nothing solid yet.

Healing is humming along smoothly, and I'm very glad to see that while magical healing is quite potent at aiding in the recovery of acute injury, it's a poor substitute for medical treatment when you're dealing with a large number of wounds. And injuries give our resident medic something to do in providing acute care as well.

We saw use of vehicles, stunts, and sorcery. Combat chugged along with good speed and flexibility. Injuries are seeing more use now, especially when a heavy hit slams home, and they're holding up in the face of increased use. I tagged a number of injuries during the game and got myself a hefty serving of bonus dice, but this in turn gave my players more edge to burn on their aspects. The players are also getting comfortable with the idea of folding knacks into one another and using them to do far more than basic "I shoot" actions in combat, which has done wonders for the pacing of fights.

At one point the party had a midnight meeting with someone to receive some information. They pulled up alongside his car and began to exchange words through open windows when suddenly a massive bug spirit materialized in between the two vehicles and began to rend the informant's car. The sam and the mage jumped out of the car and leaped into combat, but the two adepts opted to try some acrobatic maneuvers through the combat and get into their informant's car to drive it, and him, away. Was there a rule for that? No, not specifically, but inside of a couple of seconds we got a knack combination that handled it, rolled some dice, and moved along.

That brings us to spirits, which saw their debut in this session. I was looking forward to this because so far human opposition was feeling a little light. Granted, I rarely put highly advanced opposition in front of the team in any significant numbers, but spirits offered the opportunity for uniquely resilient opponents without resorting to cybermancy or military armor (which the players would of course want to scrounge). How'd it work? Beautifully.

Spirit combat played out exactly as I'd hoped. Immunity to normal weapons put a real wrinkle in the team's standard battle tactics, and they'd burned several rounds of autofire and wrecked one car before they figured it out. Once the team resorted to melee, however, the system bore out just as well. Melee was a viable, if not optimal, option for some, while the mage continued to be the heavy hitter (and the one who drew a lot of the spirit's ire). In the end, they left the scene victorious by their own merit, but certainly bloody from the encounter (wounds all around and two deadly injuries). I'd call that a good fight.

Finally, we got another crack at hacking. For this session I made one more go at creating a character for the face/adept/rigger/hacker, which still proved difficult because he had so many areas of expertise, and I'd designed the system to promote specialization. What this meant was that some key knacks had to take a lower rating because there were only so many slots available. This turned out to be a silver lining, however, because a lower knack rating allowed us to explore the full implications of how program ratings work. For some of his hacking actions, the programs didn't modify his roll at all (he had high ranked programs and an equally high hacking knack). For other actions, however, the program roll gave him a boost, since his knack rating came in low. Seeing how the software could provide a boost if you're low, not just a penalty if you're high gave the player a bigger, more complete picture, and he signed off on the system as good and satisfactory. Finally, it looks like we can lay this to rest.

All in all, it looks like we're done with the gross issues now and have moved into fine tuning. The general satisfaction level remains high, which is a great place to be after only a handful of sessions. I anticipate a big battle next game (they're headed to the warehouse where Euphoria's being held), which should give us a lot of opportunities to test not only spirit combat some more, but also the chance to see how the combat system holds up with large numbers of opponents. Who knows, maybe they'll actually want to try defensive actions. Maybe.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Spirit Combat

Ah spirits. They're something of a running gag in my game. Our mage likes to summon them, though he's less clear on what to do with them once he's got them. So, more frequently than you'd think, there's a summoning, some awkward silence, and then "Oh, you might as well go."

I'm pretty sure he does it just to annoy the rigger at least half the time.

Regardless, because there's spirits about, I still need to know what they do on the rare occasion our mage decides to put them on a task. Or, more frequently, when I sick a spirit on the party. So, that's today's installment, in two parts.

When Spirits Attack
First, how spirits perform actions. This is a specialized set of rules that isn't likely to see as much use as other aspects of the game, so I'm inclined to keep both design and application simple. That means some of this might suffer from broad simplification, but if so we can always tweak it in play and revise as we go. In the meantime, let's hit some basics:

  • Method = force step
  • Die pool = force rating
  • Assign knacks as appropriate (Earth elementals probably have Might, Endurance, and Unarmed Combat, for example)
  • Damage = force rating, modified by power/attack
The latest edition of Shadowrun introduces the option of spending summoning successes on additional spirit abilities, giving you a little more flexibility beyond choosing the force of the spirit. I like that, and I'd be tempted to say that you can add knack dice to the summoned spirit in excess of the hits required to summon it. If you're the GM, you can add whatever knacks you want to opponent spirits, of course. 

As for modifying damage, I've noticed that certain kinds of spirits have something more than a basic attack. Insect spirits often get a higher damage because of claws, and other spirits might gain bonus elemental effects. However, given that most serious weapons have a damage rating somewhere between 6 - 10, making the damage equal the spirit's force as a base is the only way to make them at all competitive. Even this makes a lot of their basic hits a little weak (without considering those bonuses mentioned above), but this is balanced by one big factor:

Spirits are immune to all ranged and technological attacks. Guns, bombs, grenades, missiles, all of them do a flat 0 amount of damage. They will never harm a spirit, at all, ever. This means if you want to take a spirit out and you've got no magic, you've got to close to hand to hand combat range and beat the thing to death. And no, ramming it with a car doesn't work either. 

Finally, casting a spell on a spirit has a difficulty equal to the force of the spirit. Thus, if you generate 5 hits to cast a spell on a rating 4 spirit, you have to spend 4 of those hits just to make the difficulty, leaving you with only a single hit to apply toward the effect. 

Attacking Spirits
As mentioned above, weapons tend to fail abysmally when fighting spirits, and spellcasting is a little rough. That means that you've got only two options when attacking a spirit: banishing and melee. Assuming you're not a mage, that means mixing it up close and personal.

Attacking a spirit in melee is a standard test. You roll whatever knack is appropriate and you even get to add in any weapon modifiers you might have, like reach (that goes for the spirit too, by the way). Use yin dice for defense and apply yang dice to your attack. 

Here's where things change though. When you hit a spirit, you're damaging it with your force of will; the weapon itself is irrelevant. Thus the damage code you modify isn't based on the weapon, but on your will, represented by your Resolve knack. 

Otherwise, combat proceeds as normal. Simple, eh?

Monday, July 19, 2010

Money Note

We completed our mission last session, and I'd handed out advancement rules at the end, so people turned to buying things. In addition to buying increases with karma, there was ever the gear discussion. I described earlier how I changed money to get rid of some of the accounting that takes place in game, and we faced the first real test of this about a week after the session described in the last post.

"Hey Cliff, I got a question about Icelady."
This is a contact they made in the process of a run. "Yes?"
"Do we still get the 50% discount when we buy from her?"

Huh. Players remember the craziest things. Icelady hasn't been mentioned in months. As in a lot of months. But now, after we stop tracking nuyen, they invoke the discount.

How to deal with this? They wanted to just half the cost of anything they bought from her before determining if they needed to make a roll, but that struck me as far too generous. After all, without making a roll, you can walk away with a ton of stuff for free. Now maybe that means that the system's broken, but I wanted to try something different.

So instead I made Icelady an aspect for the characters that can be invoked to gain a bonus on resources rolls when buying through her. This got a "I LIKE that!" response, and got them talking about how specific contacts they'd tried to cultivate in the past could be made into aspects for all sorts of things.

2 games in and it's starting to all come together. They're picking up the system and beginning to play with it on their own. This is where the real fun begins.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Third Playtest

The first session went well, but it's when the honeymoon phase ends and you need to get down to work when problems start to crop up. So I've been looking forward to picking up with my group again for some time (we don't play nearly as often as we'd like, being adults with weekend responsibilities and all that). Last time we left off mid-run, so I figured we'd be on pace to finish things this time. In anticipation of putting a few more parts of the system into testing, I tried to guide the session to certain situations, and for good measure added a milk run to the end of it to ensure I'd be able to test vehicle combat.

As is ever true in gaming, it didn't go as planned.

Most of the session was pure role-playing. This is excellent. As in, really, really excellent. It did mean that I didn't get nearly as much testing as I anticipated though. So while I anticipated action in the Matrix, in gun and sorcery battles, and maybe a car chase at the end, what I got instead was the team arguing with itself over whether it was okay to try to seduce the simsense star they were currently holding, with one gun/sorcery battle, and a little Matrix work in there. They did do a little bit to earn their money, eventually.

So how'd it go? Well, the rules stuck with everyone, which is nice. No one asked any "how do I roll" questions. Spellcasting and drain continues to be quick. Combat was a tad slow, but I'm hoping that was due to my lack of sleep and disorganization than any breakdown of the system. Once I got myself together, things were flowing well enough.

I have some concerns about how much the system seems to favor offense, given that a sam with a flechette firing shotgun seems to be the end of anyone he shoots at. One shot, one kill. On the other hand, the opposition had a low threat level, so right now it looks like it's doing what I want it to. Low threat level opposition should drop quickly. It's what they're there for.

Matrix is working great now. Maybe not perfectly; there's a little talk about tweaking programs, but overall I'm very happy with it. Adding System dice to your pool regardless of interface level seems to really shore things up, and I see a significant difference between hacking on the fly and probing the target. Previously, my hacker would never bother probing because he'd be able to barge into anything on the fly reprecussion free, even when the system security was tight. Now, he prefers to probe when possible, and is selective and smart about picking his on the fly hacks. I really like that.

Counterspelling works. It actually works very well. It's a powerful option, and I'd be tempted to say that it's a bit too good, except that it's a holding action that prevented the mage from doing much else aside from waiting for the enemy spellcaster to strike. For a long number of phases, he had nothing to do but wait. When it was his time to shine, however, he hit hard. I don't know that it will be a regular go to action, but it's a viable one.

Vehicles need a little work, and on two fronts. First, everyone always wants to shoot the driver. Always. They want to cap that poor bastard as soon as they see him, or don't for that matter. This time I had the driver stay inside the vehicle. He drove. He didn't drive and shoot. He didn't drive and throw spells. He drove, with the ballistically rated window up and his seat belt on. It took the party two shots to kill him, even when he was wearing armor, the vehicle had armor, and the damage got downgraded because he was in a vehicle. And you know what? Capping the driver is a really quick way of ending a chase. That'll need some looking into.

There's also an ongoing debate over how methods and vehicular actions should relate. I'm flexible on this, and our rigger seems to have given things a lot of thought, so it looks like we'll see some changes soon. What they are yet, however, is hard to say. Our rigger is making a case that vehicles should intersect with knacks more like non-combat knacks rather than knacks like firearms or unarmed combat. Early discussions seem to be leading us somewhere good.

On the plus side, aspects and vehicles are awesome. Aspects are a fantastic way of dealing with the bane of vehicular combat: the called shot. Anyone who's played any game with vehicles has fielded calls to shoot out the tire, the windshield, the mirrors, etc. Short of putting a separate hit location and damage meter for all this stuff, you're left with handwaving it, or just saying it has no mechanical effect. Aspects proved to be a fantastically rules lite way of giving the players what they want without creating a massive mechanical headache.

Yes, they shot out the tire. Took less than a round for that declaration. So I had them make a combat roll as normal, and then let them tag the vehicle with the "blown tire" aspect. Later, when someone else killed the driver and another person inside tried to wrestle control of the van before it crashed, they invoked that tag and ruined the driver's roll.

Everyone liked this idea. They can cause all kinds of structural mayhem on their enemies' cars, and it causes damage they can exploit. No more detail required.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


It's funny, we start playing Shadowrun under this new system, and the very first question I get asked after people figure out the dice is "how much does it cost to advance?" Mind you, we still haven't completed our first run (scheduling and some screwing around means that we don't play that frequently and don't get a ton done per session). But everyone wanted to know, game after game, and even in the fallow weeks in between, how much did it cost to advance?

Clearly this wasn't something I could put off for long, even though the rules weren't likely to get used for a while. Luckily, one of the advantages of having broad mechanics is that there wasn't that much to work out. However, because characters only have a few things to spend their experience on., I needed to make sure that the costs both gave them accessible advancement while at the same time prevented them from maxing out everything on their sheet quickly. Yes, I've read plenty of articles that say handing power over to PCs is okay if you manage them right, but the fact is that my players like to advance. If they can't advance anymore, even if it's because they're mechanically tops, they'll get bored. So I need an extended advancement scheme.

That said, here's what I got:

Methods do a lot of heavy lifting in this game. While they can't make up for a low knack rating, a single method will influence many different knack rolls. This means they're big, and increasing one will have major repercussions in regards to character performance. That earns them a high price tag. So 10x the new rating it is. Nice and simple and pricey.

Here's where I expect the majority of experience will be paid. Now, while the generation mechanics encouraged specialization, I also want to make being a true master of something that's difficult to achieve. Knacks can't be nearly as expensive as methods, since they're so much more specialized. Plus, increasing a knack by 1 means you've got another die in your pool, but that alone doesn't have nearly the statistical impact that increasing the odds of success on each die by almost 17%.

When I started looking at the costs, I quickly decided that a straight multiplier wasn't going to cut it. I want it easy to pick up new knacks and get a passing rating in them, but I want high scores to be something that requires dedication, meaning you've got to sacrifice putting points into other things for a while.

What I cam up with was the following formula: Knack Rating Cost = New Rating x New Step.
Thus to increase a knack of 2 (the default for all knacks) to 3, you look at the step for rank 3 and find it is 2. 3x2 = 6. To increase from 5 to 6, multiply the new rank (6), by the new rank’s step (3); it costs 18 karma. This formula does exactly what I set out to reproduce: makes lower level and new knacks easily accessible while putting the lofty ratings in ever harder to attain price brackets. Using this system, a knack 10 would cost 50 karma. That's a lot, but having 10 dice to sling is also nice, especially when paired with a good method.

When I mentioned I was getting hit with a lot of cost questions, what I really should have said is I was getting hit with the question "how much does it cost to initiate?" I thought about this for a long time, and it gave me a lot of trouble. See, initiation does a lot for mages, but not nearly as much for adepts, especially in this system. The way I looked at it, adepts would gain access to more powers, but none of the powers themselves would increase in potency with initiation. Mages, on the other hand, would be increasing their magic attribute, which grants them greater sorcerous firepower and access to harder hitting spirits. 

Then it hit me: if mages and adepts advanced so differently in terms of their magic, why not cost them differently? So now, initiation is only for spellcasters, and adept powers get covered elsewhere (as in later in this post).
For initiation, I have the same concerns as I did for knacks. I want initiation to be accessible, my mage obviously wants to do this. At the same time, initiation can get insanely powerful just by virtue of opening up that magic attribute. So, like knacks, I wanted it to become much more expensive as it rose in rank. 

So, why not use the same formula as knacks? Well, it mostly works, except that it's really cheap in the beginning. After all, you're starting at 0, so your first grade of initiation would be your new rank (1) multiplied by your new step (1). That means to initiate to a grade 1 initiate, you'd pay 1 karma. That's not enough.

In the end, I've added 6 to the final cost of all grades. At the higher end the +6 kicker isn't much, but in the beginning it makes initiate grades something that requires a respectable amount of karma. Going to grade 1 is now 7 karma, for example. Better.

Power Points
What about adepts then? For them, advancement is all about the accumulation of powers, none of which have ratings. Since none of these increase in power, I think a flat cost would work best. After considering the costs of knacks at various ranks, I decided on 15 points. 15 karma points gets an adept a new power, whether he's got 6 or 60. 

That leaves aspects. After giving this some thought and running the idea past my players, I've decided that there is no way to buy new aspects with karma. In fact karma doesn't interact with aspects at all. They're used to define your character's identity and story. When either of these change because of events in the game, the player can talk to me and ask to make the appropriate aspect change. This might involve adding another aspect, removing an existing once, or swapping an old one for a new one.

As for edge, I thought about allowing people to buy up the pool, but instead I'd rather keep it at 5, always. This means that in order to get more, they'll need to compel their negative qualities. Allowing them to buy up a big edge pool would make that less likely, and what fun would that be?

Monday, July 12, 2010


My group loves 7th Sea. As in really loves it. Really really loves it. In fact, outside of Shadowrun, it's the only game that I can consistently get everyone together to play. I range outside of those two, and I immediately start losing people.

One of the things everyone loves about this game of swashbuckling action is the inclusion of different levels of adversaries. In short, brutes. A brief primer for those unfamiliar with them, brutes are low threat NPCs that exist to get mowed down in large numbers. A hero can drop them with a single hit (no damage roll needed), and can usually drop more than one in a single attack. They are the faceless mob that falls apart when confronted with the awesomeness of the hero.

When I ran Shadowrun using Feng Shui rules, we had mooks, its own version of 7th Sea brutes. It was a slightly different way or representing the mob mechanically, but mook rules served the same purpose. However, after one player emptied a room of 15 mooks with a machine pistol, people began complaining to me that things were a little too easy.

Looking over the cyberpunk fiction, as I began writing this game, I decided they were right. I love mook/brute rules too, if for no other reason that they make running large numbers of adversaries easier for me as a GM, but if they're completely ineffective, then there's no point in putting them into the game at all. So I set out to create a system of rules that allowed me to stock an encounter with large numbers of enemies in a way that balanced the threat level.

Shadowrun has always had ways of categorizing the enemy, using a pair of scales: professional level and threat level. These provided a rough gauge of how dangerous the opponent was, and when it would leave a fight based on how much damage it took. However, even threat level 1 opponents still used the standard character rules for combat; every opponent needed to have its actions resolved individually. This meant that even if threat level 1 opponents would flee after taking a light wound, making it easy to defeat them, using large numbers of them still requires a lot of die rolling.

However, I liked the idea of threat ratings, and so I incorporated them into the concept of mooks to come up with the following:

Mooks are groups of enemies that, individually post little threat to a team of runners. However, in hordes, they can collectively challenge even skilled opponents. These rules can be used to represent a rioting mob, an army of gangers, a squad of low rent security officers, or swarms of flesh form spirits. Mooks use special rules for resolving their actions and taking damage, both of which use their threat rating. All mooks have a threat rating from 1 - 5.

Resolving Actions
Mooks have a rating 2 in all knacks, just like PCs do. When designing them, you may choose knacks from the list that you think are particularly appropriate for the group. When rolling these knacks, the mooks add their threat rating to their pool.

For example, you design a group of security officers as a mook squad with a threat rating of 3. You assign them the knacks of Firearms, Dodge, and Armed Combat. When rolling these knacks, any of the mooks have a base pool of 5 dice (default rating of 2 + threat rating of 3).

However, mooks are best when they work together. Therefore, mooks add +1 die to their pools for each additional member of the squad. Thus if the squad above consisted of 5 officers, they would gain +4 dice to all actions. When rolling Firearms, Dodge, and Armed Combat they roll 9 dice. When rolling any other knack they roll 6.

There is no cap to the number of dice a mook squad can have in a pool, and this can lead to some very large pools, but there's a catch. This pool is used to determine the actions of the entire squad. If the squad is shooting at more than one target, it needs to split its yin dice among them, for example. If some of the squad runs to get the car while others lay down suppressing fire, it needs to split its yin dice up. Judgement and fairness are required to make this work. While you can still abuse this rule by making every single member of a squad concentrate fire on a single PC, it's more likely that the squad as a whole will attack several targets (a few shoot at the mage while a few others try to drop the marauding sam, for example).

A mook squad uses its threat rating as its method for all rolls.

Taking Damage
Track damage to mooks on an individual level. This means that if a mook squad has 5 members in it, you have 5 health meters to track. However, mooks only have a single condition line; do not track stun and physical damage separately.

Mook condition monitors have 5 boxes, plus their threat level. They may not take injuries to reduce damage. Remember, as individual members of a mook squad drop, the squad's overall die pool will also diminish, making it less effective.

Wound Penalties
This might seem a little tricky, given that you're tracking damage to individual members of a mook squad, but rolling dice collectively. Really though, it isn't. Really. Here, I'll show you:

Mooks suffer no wound penalties. None at all.

Why not? Because for every single mook that drops, the squad loses a die out of its pool, and you'll be surprised at how quickly these guys drop. Mook squads will rapidly lose dice from their pools, which cuts down on their effectiveness. And really, isn't that what wound penalties are all about? Besides, you as the GM have enough to keep track of already.

Friday, July 9, 2010


Ah money. It's the point of shadowrunning, isn't it? After all, this is a game in which people are willing to risk life and limb, routinely get shot at, parts blown off them, suffer soul burns, and get sent in for trauma surgery on a routine basis, and it sure as hell ain't because they believe in the cause. At least not in a single game I've ever played or run. Which means they do it for the payday. At first glance, money doesn't need an overhaul. In fact, that's absolutely correct. Money doesn't need an overhaul. It works just fine. There's a fully priced out catalog of gear, and my runners love to haggle for their payout on every run. It's a great motivator, because money is the gateway to stuff, and everybody loves stuff.

Except that I'm planning this game for the long term, and there's a small problem with money: it loses value for some. Once you get a decent amount of magical gear, you don't need money as an awakened character. You need karma. Meanwhile, as a mundane (samurai, rigger, hacker), you need ever increasing amounts of money because the cooler stuff costs more. Eventually you wind up with a character who's got a lot of something he doesn't need, be it karma or cash. Characters can trade cash around, but karma doesn't flow that way.
So when I set out to build a system for Shadowrun that addressed all the issues we'd run into before, I looked at this as well. I wanted one reward system that was universally applicable, which meant I needed to reconcile the cash/karma divide.

Remember way back when I decided that knacks would have to be called knacks because I wanted them to include more than a character's skills? This is one of the reasons why. I've decided to turn money into an abstract concept rather than a hard number. It actually makes purchasing something a little more involved because you can't just subtract the cost from your holdings and leave it at that, but in the end I'm hoping the payoff is worth it. See, by turning cash into a knack, it means karma is closer to a universal award. Want more money? Well, increase your Resources knack. Oh, that costs karma, by the way. See? Brilliant!

How's this work? Well, like I said, it's a little involved. So here it is:

The Basics
Resources have a health meter similar to the stun/physical condition monitors, and yes, this includes the injuries slots as well. Now, instead of tracking individual amounts of money, a player rolls some dice every time he wants to buy something. Multiple purchases eventually erode this financial health meter, which can only be replenished by getting paid. This gives characters a reason to continue running even though money isn't tracked to the same degree anymore.

Buying Things
Each point of resources in the health meter is equivalent to roughly Y1,000. Thus the first box is worth Y1,000, the second is worth Y2,000, etc. For the small stuff, I'm not sweating the details. So players can buy reasonable quantities of anything of a value less than the money granted by this knack without worrying about it. For items greater than or equal to this amount, they'll need to roll against the cost of the thing. The threshold is the difference between their Resources rank and the cost of the item, with each point of shortfall representing Y1,000. So, if someone wants to buy something that's Y4,000 more than what they have in their Resources, they need to make a roll and come up with 4 hits.

If successful, the character can afford the item; if not, he still buys it, but suffers a hit on his resources condition monitor equal to the roll’s shortfall. Thus if that roll before came up with only 1 hit, the character suffers a rating 3 hit on his resources condition monitor.

Money Woes
Resource wounds cause wound penalties in the same way that physical wounds do, but these penalties only apply to resource rolls, and represent the cash flow problems that heavy expenses cause, such as declined credit accounts and temporarily low balances.

As with combat wounds, a character can mitigate this damage by accepting injuries, in this case financial ones such as borrowing from loansharks, getting a part time job at Stuffer Shack, or tanking their credit score.

Climbing Out of the Hole
Unlike physical damage, resource damage doesn’t automatically heal on its own. In order to shore up his finances, a character needs to generate income. This probably means going on a shadowrun (since that is the point of the game). He may apply money earned on a run to his financial condition monitor. A box costs Y1,000 nuyen per point to heal. Thus, a rating 3 hit costs Y3,000 to heal. 

Note that this means you can heal your finances after a run, but only if you get paid. Getting screwed by a Johnson still hurts even if money's gone abstract. Financial injuries cost Y,2000 points per level to remove.

Starting Cash
A character's resources health meter is equal to his Resources knack rating. This means that he'll have a 2 box health meter by default, and can begin with as many as 7 boxes.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010


Summoning spirits is something of a joke in our game. Not the act itself, mind you; our mage summons lots of spirits. In fact, that's part of the joke. He's very quick on the draw when it comes to summoning, even before he knows what's going on. The team needs to find someone? Summon a spirit and ask it to locate the person. Where to look? Um, the whole city and surrounding Salish-Sidhe territory. The spirit does, but it's time to success is dependent on the search area, so the party routinely finds their target before the spirit does, who often then appears on scene, right in front of the person, and says "He's right there!"

Still, conjuring is a go to move for our mage, so it's an aspect of magic I can't ignore. So, here's my go at it attempting to make it feel like Shadowrun's metaphysics while using the backbone I've created for dice in general and sorcery in particular.

Conjuring has several subsets of skills, meaning the conjuring knack covers summoning, binding, and banishing, each of which can be a concentration of Conjuring.


A summoning test is handled much like casting a spell.
  1. Select the force of the spirit
  2. Make a Conjuring (Data Rat) test
  3. Split your hits into yin and yang dice
  4. Apply yang dice to the success threshold
  5. Apply yin dice to resist drain
The threshold for a summoning test is the spirit’s force step minus your initiate grade step. This is the number of hits required to successfully summon the spirit, with a minimum of 1. Success gives you one service, and each hit over the threshold gains an additional service. 

Summoning a spirit causes drain equal to the spirit’s force step. 

As with sorcery, you may safely summon a spirit up to your Magic in force and only suffer stun drain, and can go as high as double your Magic if you are willing to risk physical drain. 

Binding uses the same procedure as summoning with one change: use the spirit’s force rank instead of its force step when determining the success threshold. The mage still uses his initiate grade step.

Banishing works much like summoning, but in reverse. You derive your threshold the same way, but your hits subtract from the services the spirit owes. If it is brought to 0 services, it departs on its next action.

Bound spirits are harder to dismiss. When attempting to banish bound spirits, fold the summoner’s Magic rating into the spirit’s force before determining its step rating. Because this is a complimentary adjustment, it adds a minimum of +1.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Second Playtest

It's been a while since my group's first playtest, in which they made a daring raid against a castle in India after recovering the portions of a secret password from a Seattle drug addict, a member of the British House of Lords, and a Spanish ninja living in France (named Pepe). They landed a helicopter gunship in the courtyard after taking out the ground troops by dropping a bass boat (complete with trolling motor) on them, and then made their way to the secret datastore hidden in the back room of the castle brothel that was filled with 100 ugly women and one beautiful one who only had one arm. The goal of this mission? The Jade Dragon, which they decided was the flavor formula for Stuffer Shack's new soyshake.

They promised that they'd take the next playtest more seriously.

For that next playtest, I didn't let them define all the parameters of the run as I did last time. This wasn't because I didn't trust my group, but because they'd said that while the Wilderness of Mirrors style of creating the run mission themselves was a lot of fun, it wasn't something they'd want to do all the time. So I decided to present the next playtest session as a cannon continuity run in our campaign, picking up from where we'd last left off but replacing the mechanics.

Instead of asking everyone to make their characters, I made them up myself, trying to represent them in concept as closely as I could with the new system. Outside of aspects, I was done with all their numbers inside of 30 minutes. 4 characters in a half hour. Not bad at all. I spent a couple of days coming up with aspects for each of them, but I chalk that up to being new to the concept and wanting to really nail these, as they were the portion of the system I wanted to push the hardest.

My party consists of the following:
  • James - a street sam
  • Cinder - a wolf shaman
  • Sickboy - an elven hacker/rigger/face/physical adept
  • Dr. Rush - a physical adept with a concentration on medical skills
The basic character sheet took up half a page of paper. The hacker and mage required an additional half sheet for their specific information, and the adepts got a sheet describing their powers. Everyone had a sheet describing their aspects.

The run started as a straightforward job (don't they all?): grab a celebrity and hold her until she misses her scheduled appearances, then release her unharmed. (For those of you familiar with the adventure, this is the Queen Euphoria run.) This involved some planning, some combat, and a good amount of role playing.

How'd it go?

People loved the basic die mechanics. They got the hang of methods almost instantly, and were calculating their pools lightning quick. This followed in combat as well. The division of yin and yang dice took no time at all to figure out. However, I did notice that those who favored guns rarely bothered combining dodge into their pool and were content to blaze away without any defensive option. This resulted in high offensive punch, but the sam in particular took a severe mauling. He walked out of that fight with a deadly injury and almost his entire condition monitor filled.

As for wounding itself, as soon as people figured it out how it worked, and especially when they understood the role of injuries, it was a big hit. The sam, who took the worst beating of all, seemed really taken with the idea of injuries, especially because they were defined by the players, not by me.

Healing was something that didn't come across as nearly as intuitive, and the hacker pointed out why: I've avoided formulas for almost everything in this game. That makes most the concepts very easy to pick up and use because there is almost nothing to calculate. Healing, however, is formula reliant. There are comparisons between environmental factors and knack ratings modified by doctor skill rolls. This is both harder to grasp and slower to implement. However, given that these rules are for extended care and not field medicine the group asked that we try them again before changing anything, this time making the rolls at the end of the game day instead of in the middle of things. They seem to think that when not cluttered with a lot of other activity these rules will work fine. Here's hoping.

Our sam renamed the battle wheel the shot clock, and people like it a lot. People seem happy with how reflexes make the augmented go faster, but those without the implants feel like they still have a prayer in combat. An unexpected benefit I found was that by representing everyone on the wheel with a miniature, it makes tracking who's left very easy. As enemies go down, I'd pluck their mini off the clock. This gave the benefit of minis combat without all the tactical elements that slow down play. 

Sorcery seemed to work perfectly. The player playing the mage got the workings of the spellcasting process quickly, and managed both effects and drain rapidly. More than once I saw him weighing the implications of how to split his pool between effect and drain resistance.

Hacking works, sort of. That needs a little more work. Currently the system favors VR a little too much, and my hacker likes AR because he doesn't want to separate from the party. I prefer that too, so I need to boost that a little bit while still making the two different enough that there's a real choice to make between the two. For the moment I'm going to say you can access your System dice in any interface mode, including VR, and retool Matrix initiative to rely more heavily on interface. Thus you can be just as good in AR as VR, but you'll be faster in VR. That was the original goal anyway. As long as I make speed an issue when performing hacking actions, this should work out.

To that end, I'm also adding a Response rating to commlinks (there's my 4 that I was looking for) to deal specifically with initiative boosts. This brings Matrix initiative in line with meat body initiative in terms of options available for augmentation.

Combining knacks needs a little refinement. It's not so much that the rules themselves don't work, but there needs to be a little more nuance in how it's done. Sometimes having another knack, no matter its rating, should only help another knack roll, for example. I'm going to work on something for that and we'll try it again.

People also asked for some kind of delay on grenades. After thrown, they wanted time to try to pick it up and throw it back. Yeah, I've got a lot of Modern Warfare players in my group.

The adept/sam divide was received well. The hacker/adept immediately understood the difference, both thematically and mechanically and gave it a big thumbs up. It was one run, and we haven't had a lot chances to delve into these implications, but so far this is working out exactly as I'd hoped.

Oddly enough, there were complaints about the wound penalties. The idea of swapping to different dice seemed pretty neat, but the players didn't think shifting from a d6 to a d8 was severe enough. Most of them are more mathmatically inclined than I, and after running through a quick probability scenario they asked that we change it to a d9, which would be a d10 where you reroll 0s. Seems an easy enough fix, so next time we'll try that.

But without question the big stars of the game were aspects. As the players sat down and I explained how everything worked, people began reading their aspect lists. After looking them over, they asked to trade and read each other's. Everyone agreed these were great, and everyone used them in the game (mostly for the bonuses), and they really enjoyed how they worked, conceptually and mechanically.

All in all, everyone said this was something they'd want to continue with. Refinement was necessary, for sure, but the general consensus was that this was worth pursuing, and people looked forward to continuing.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Physical Adepts

Physads were always my character archetype of choice when I got to play Shadowrun. For the style of game I was in I was much better going for the modded out street sam, since they were more powerful, but I always liked the aesthetic of somatically channeled magic. So I took the hit in performance and had my style.

That thought rose again when it came time to deal with adept powers. Naturally, my first inclination was to look at the powers offered by Shadowrun to get an idea of what adepts could do. The problem was, I didn't like the answer, which appeared to be "most of what street sam's can do, without cyberware." Throw in the additional rider of "and not as well," for good measure.

I get why that is. Street sams are limited by their essence score. Each piece of ware chips away at it, and when they zero out, they're done. They can't augment themselves further. Adepts, on the other hand, can continue to pile on the powers as long as they earn experience. So they've got to start at a lower level or they'll leave sams in the dust almost out of the gates.

The thing is, I don't like that solution for several reasons. It's no fun playing in someone's shadow, and the promise that one day, maybe, if the game lasts that long, you'll be able to step into the limelight doesn't salvage the situation. Not only does that mean you're enduring a situation instead of enjoying it, but when the switch finally does come, you're now leaving someone else in the shadow.

To top it off, if magic and technology are so different, which Shadowrun's flavor text and mechanics scream, then being physically augmented by one rather than the other should also be different.

This lead me to consider the first radical departure from Shadowrun definitions since beginning this project. All along, even when I altered the mechanics, I did so in order to represent by-the-book flavor. I've yet to consider rewriting any aspect of the story or world. Now I am.

We have street sams, and they do their thing. Do we need another group who does the same thing the same way, just with different advancement mechanics? Seems redundant. And a quick query to my group got me the same answer. "Adepts are a poor man's samurai," someone said.

So why not have adepts do something different? Sams are king of the die pool in Shadowitz. Their implants usually give them bonus dice, and can even push their pools over the normal maximum of 10. But in the end they follow the same rules as everyone else. Their knacks work the same way as anyone else's, they just roll more dice to do it.

Instead of piling dice on adept knacks, I'm thinking of giving them powers that expand or enhance them in some other way. Adepts receive a cap of 10 dice like everyone else, but they can use their knacks to do things that other people can't. For example:

  • A gun adept that's so good at suppressing fire that he can generate yin dice from his Firearms knack
  • A martial artist that's mastered such a brutal style of combat that he can negate two of his opponent's yin dice for one yang die
  • A driver that's so accomplished behind the wheel that he can ignore certain terrain penalties
Bonuses such as these provide real mechanical benefits to being a physical adept, but give the adept a niche and feel complete apart from that of the street sam. Both can bring heavy muscle to a fight, but they manifest it differently. Now, when you want to play a physically superior character, you have a real choice to make.

As a trial, I'm going to take the stunts from Fate and translate them to work under my mechanical system. This has several big ramifications for powers.

First, Fate's stunts are all tied to skills. There are no freestanding powers like magic armor or increased reflexes. Now, an adept is something of the skill king. All of his powers enhance his knacks. He's a master of action, with very few passive powers (there are a few tied to Resolve and Endurance that are exceptions). This means that your power selection interacts with your knack picks more closely, and in my mind that makes them feel more personal somehow.

Second, Fate's stunts have no rating. You either have a stunt or you don't. For the moment anyway, we bid farewell to purchasing powers in levels. This is especially important given that I want to keep adept powers from adding to die pools whenever possible in order to keep them thematically separate from cyberware. For now, anytime a power is supposed to enhance a die roll, I'm going to use the general guideline that it lets you subtract 2 from a single die, or 1 from a pair of dice. This should grant an adept a higher success threshold without increasing the die pool.

As for cost, adept powers used to have the same style of magic cost that cyberware did for essence. Minor powers were fractions of a point, while the heavy hitters cost you several at a clip. For this new array of powers, I'm going to simplify it: 1:1. That'll again make picking adept powers feel less like gear shopping. Seeing a cost like .25/level feels very cold and scientific to me. That belongs in cyberware, where it's a perfect fit. Magic needs something different.