Friday, October 29, 2010

Playtest Results: Aspects - General Guidelines

We've tackled aspects as contacts and aspects as a way of fleshing out your magical abilities, but that still leaves the broad expanse of everything else. That's a lot of ground to cover, and it contains a lot of possibilities. Thus, it's harder to break into neat little categories. Something I discovered as I began reviewing the aspects that one of my players sent me is that there's such a broad array of possibilities here that its best to provide a better idea of how aspects are supposed to work in broad terms and let the specifics fall out in a case by case basis.

Double Edged
Waaaaaay back in the beginning of this blog I listed some of the components I considered essential to this particular game. Among them were broken characters. In cyberpunk stories everyone's got personal problems, and deep ones. Eventually I decided that instead of creating some sort of disadvantage system, I'd roll the "broken" idea into aspects. Thus aspects give you some cool bonuses, but they also drag you down, and since the only way to power those bonuses is to compel those penalties, you get reason to play those flaws.

The key here is to make the advantage and the drawback revolve around the same theme. The two don't have to have anything in common mechanically, but they should derive from the same source.

Expand Your Character, Not His Abilities
Aspects give you mechanical bonuses, but their real purpose is to make portions of your character's, well, character pop in the game by attaching a mechanic to it, not to jack up your already boosted knacks to even higher levels. Thus you should draw your aspects from who your character is, not what he can do. Yes, a kickass hacker might have a customized commlink that he can really redline, but at that point it's just a bonus and it's boring. But if your hacker was a child prodigy who created a new kind of microprocessor for Renraku, and then fled with the prototype installed in his 'link, that's different. Now the aspect is about his genius and the trouble it caused him. The downside of the aspect could be that Renraku's again located him, either on the Matrix or in the physical world, and they'll be dispatching some Red Samurai shortly.

Be Flexible
In general, aspects give a +2 die bonus to a specific kind of die roll, but it doesn't have to be that way. These are narrative tools, so start with the rule-less description of the aspect. You're writing a mini-story about something to do with your character. From there you can extrapolate the rules as you need. You'll probably need to write some original rules material at some point following this approach. That's perfectly fine.

Something I noticed is that a lot of people assumed that since aspects typically add 2 dice to something when invoked, they must subtract 2 dice when compelled. Not necessarily true. In fact, in most of the aspects I provided to my playtest group didn't inflict any die penalties. They put the characters in difficult situations, either by the reactions of others or forcing destructive behavior on them (that whole "broken" thing again). These kinds of flaws impact the game much more than a simple die penalty, so don't be shy in keeping the drawbacks in the realm of role playing. Unlike traditional flaws which may never come up, the role playing difficulties of aspects have to come up if the player wants that edge point.

Since I work well with examples, here are a few from my game:

Drug "Expert"
You've got a monkey on your back, and his name is Morphine. Somewhere along the way you got hooked on the painkillers you administered to your patients and now you use a whole lot more on yourself than to assist those under your care. However, it's given you a lot of practice in how to best administer the stuff.

Invoke - +2 dice when using painkillers as part of a medical check
Compel - the craving calls and you get high. You'll function at reduced capacity for the remainder of the scene

Warbringer & Peacemaker
This customized pair of pistols was a gift from your fiancĂ©e, before the team got burned and possessed and you had to go on a manhunt to kill those infested. They're high quality and made specifically for you and your smartlink, meaning they just feel "right" when you fire. Unfortunately, you used them extensively when on your manhunt, and they're better known than you are. Someone sees those and they think "team killer."

Invoke - +2 dice when firing the guns
Compel - you've got an awful reputation, and these guns are tied up in that. When this aspect is compelled, someone recognizes the guns, and therefor you. That's the end of any negotiations right there.

You've got yourself a girlfriend. Not just any girlfriend though. She's a serious hottie. Oh yeah, and she's a porn star. She gets around, no, not like that. Well, yes, like that, but in other, more professionally useful ways as well. She knows lots and lots of people, many of whom would love to do things for her, and she's not only got access to money of her own, but can smile up dough out of many adoring men as well. Unfortunately, she knows she's queen of her world right now, and expects to be pampered and treated appropriately, which means you must be ready to drop everything at any time and attend to her.

Invoke - gain +2 on any spending roll. She may serve as a fixer, putting you in contact with others, especially those in the entertainment industry. Finally, if the risk isn't too great, she can do a little work herself, posing as the attractive girl who distracts the guard with flirtatious chatter while the team sneaks past.

Compel - Sasha wants attention in all its forms. Thus she tends to call at odd times, like when you're in the middle of a negotiation or a job. And if you don't respond to her demands right away, you're likely to pay for it, literally. She got all the access codes to your accounts from you a long while ago, and despite your promises to yourself that you'll change your passwords, she always gets the new ones out of you. If you don't give her what she wants when she wants it, you can expect to take a big financial hit as she engages in intensive retail therapy to sooth her hurt feelings. Credit injuries are not out of the question.

Automatic Jack
As the proud owner of a surplus Russian Federation SPk-23 "Stali Bagor" combat-ready human augment, you're used to getting admiring looks and confused stares.

Invoke - Among the savvy, this has a certain chic to it and to the posers, it just says badass milsurp. To say nothing of its vastly over-engineered robust qualities far beyond a modern namby-pamby unit, this thing takes abuse. It is the AK-47 of cyber-limb replacements. When you get hit, you can take an injury to the arm instead of to your meat. It costs 1 edge point per level of injury, and that injury will knock your arm offline, but it can be repaired with much more ease than your body can. 

Compel - Cutting edge? Sure…30 years ago. Its been well used, and its been known to have the occasional minor glitch in use, make the odd noise, etc. To say nothing of the fact of the matter of having an inelegant piece of Soviet technology grafted to your arm, in the wrong circles, it might be considered….gauche. Some call it retro, others call it ancient tech that only gutter runners would stoop to.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Playtest Results - Aspects in Magic

Once you delve into it, magic in Shadowrun has a lot of nuances and options to it. Aside from the two big areas of sorcery and conjuring, there are a ton of ways to customize your mage. There are traditions, gaes, and fetishes, each of which have a number of options within them. There's a good reason why every edition of Shadowrun has had to publish a separate book on magic, and it's not because they had a ton of spells they couldn't cram into the main book.

Rather than try to reproduce all of that material in Shadowitz, however, I'm attempting to recreate a lot of the feel these rules and options provide using existing rules, specifically the aspect rules. Since each of these tweaks, in broad terms, gives a bonus with an attached cost or limitation, with a little creativity we should be able to represent nearly all of this material using aspects.

Let's start with the biggie: magical traditions. In the beginning, there were two: hermetic magic and shamanism. Though the game has subsequently expanded this to many other areas, most players who have come up through the SR editions seem most comfortable sticking with these original two. In 15 years of playing this game, I think I played with one voodoo priest once. Every other time the party only had hermetics or shamans.

Hermetics don't need any aspects applied to them in terms of basic tradition. They are the well rounded mages who suffer no penalties and receive no bonuses. Their sorcery has always been a straight roll of the dice, no extra considerations needed.

Shamans, on the other hand, traditionally get a bonus to one kind of spell, a penalty to another kind of spell, and some other behavioral quirk. Wolves might frenzy, dogs can't change their actions once a plan is set, lions need to buy the finest goods, eagles suffer twice the essence loss from cyberware implants, etc. The drawbacks are many and varied, so you need to stay flexible in your mechanical implementation, but it can be done.

The most obvious way to apply the aspect is to make the invoke portion grant a bonus to one spell category and the compel to another, thus giving bonuses and penalties to certain kinds of magic. However, this turns the penalty into something that's optional, and the bonus and penalty granted by a totem can be kept as is (1-3 die bonus or penalty) and active all the time.

The behavioral penalty, however, is fertile ground indeed. Here's where you find material that guides a character's actions, and by extension his identity. A wolf shaman's tendency to frenzy when a member of his pack is hurt tells a lot more about who he is than the fact that he gets +2 dice on combat spells. Here, I think, is where you'll find the best stuff for making tradition-based aspects.

Let's take that wolf drawback: you must pass a willpower check or go into a frenzy when one of your friends is taken out. Reading the entire wolf entry, you find this is because wolf is a pack hunter who shows great loyalty to those he runs with. That attitude is is the thing from which we'll build the totem aspect:

You have been touched by Wolf. It is through him that you learned to talk to the spirits and work magic, and it is his eyes through which you peer when you look into the astral plane. Contact with such a powerful, primal force has left an impression on your own mind, making you aggressive, yet team oriented. Most times you can control the feral urges you carry, and can channel it especially well when working with others you are close with. But when one of your own is hurt the rage boils hot and you sometimes see red and lose control.

Invoke - Gain +2 dice whenever casting a spell that is specifically used in conjunction with a teammate's attack. A fireball might flush opposition out into a kill zone, a manabolt can fell a gunner who has a comrade pinned down, etc. Note that this must directly aid another member of your team; you cannot apply this bonus to every attack against an enemy and claim downed enemies help your side.

Compel - Wolves are pack hunters, but they are also savage in combat. You can remain cool under fire when taking the lead yourself, but when you see one of your own hurt (injured or taken out), you sometimes lose control. When this aspect is compelled you abandon all tactics and become mindlessly aggressive toward the force that felled your friend. You must use the most powerful spells you can cast at full force rating, your most powerful weapon, etc., and attack relentlessly (no hiding behind cover or being cagey) until either you defeat the opponent or spend edge to recover.

Geas are restrictions that mages take in order to preserve or gain magical power. When faced with magic loss, a mage can opt to take a geas instead, and mages seeking to initiate can take one as an ordeal to reduce the cost. I haven't dealt with ordeals in Shadowitz yet because our mage doesn't look like he'll be initiating anytime soon, and I didn't include rules for magic loss because in general I've felt mages have gotten the shaft mechanically speaking (especially because no sam ever had to track ammo in the games I played, but I took drain for every attack I made).

However, even though there's not been a lot of call for these in my games, turning them into aspects doesn't seem like something that would be too difficult. Like traditions above, not every geas need be turned into an aspect. Some, like not being able to cast spells when wearing green, don't need any further mechanics. Is your character in a green jumper? He can't cast spells. Done. No more is needed.

But how about those that involve things that are a little harder to adjudicate. I remember seeing an example once of a geas that restricted access to magic after the mage ate meat. On the surface that's simple. Don't eat meat. Let me ask you though, how many games have you played where the dietary composition of the team ever came up? Do your characters ever eat in game? Sure, the lifestyle guides give you an idea of what their daily fare looks like, but is it ever present? Outside of an ongoing joke that "purple is a terrible flavor" in one of my games where everyone was poor and had to buy flavoring in concentrate and apply it with an eye dropper, people tended to focus on running the shadows. You know, the namesake of the game.

The reason I bring this up is that if eating's not a part of the game, then the mage gets the geas for free. He gets a benefit without any consequence. And while you can put him in a position where he might struggle with it now and again, such as meeting a Johnson who takes offense if you don't eat the steak he bought you, you can only emply that method so many times before it gets ridiculous.

What to do? Make it an aspect. You compel it at some random point in the game after there's been enough down time to assume the mage ate something and when he next summons his magical power you toss the edge chip his way and say it's not working.

Wait, what? No, says the mage. I don't ever eat meat. Well, yes, that's what you think. But if you ask most people today, they'll swear they don't eat rat, but if they've ever eaten a hot dog or a Butterfinger, odds are they had a few rat parts in their past. In the days of processed food and lax production oversight (which is Shadowrun through and through) you can't really say with certainty what's in anything you're eating. Bummer. You ate something with enough animal byproducts that it messed up your mojo for a little bit.

Now stripping a mage of his magic is pretty severe, so giving the player an edge point and then relegating him to a crappy gun skill with a light pistol for the next 24 hours of game time isn't a good trade off. If you're going that route, I suggest making the compel worth more points, maybe even upwards of 4 or more.

Another way of doing it is reducing the penalty for violation. Instead of barring the mage from all sorcery and conjuring tasks for the duration, you could instead inflict an ongoing die penalty. In this case, you should still give a couple extra edge points for invoking the geas, but not as much as if you strip the mage of magic entirely. In this case he's hurt, but he's still functional.

Fetishes are objects that a mage uses to boost his spells. They're similar to foci, except that they're not overtly magical. Instead of tapping into the extra mana that foci bring to a magical process, mages instead learn to use the mundane fetishes to increase their own power. They are parts of the magical process, but are themselves not batteries of mana.

As aspects, fetishes are the opposite of geas. Where geas only have a compel portion, fetishes only have an invoke aspect. There's no downside to using fetishes outside of the fact that you can run out. (Yes, I know some editions have included non-expendable fetishes, but those always seems like cheap foci to me, so I kept fetishes to the expendable variety in my games).

Since fetishes get used up in the casting process, you need some kind of ammo counter. Or, really, you don't. After all, if a fetish aspect gets you a bonus when casting a particular spell, let's just say your edge pool represents your fetish supply. Spend the edge, get the bonus. When you run out of edge, you run out of your fetishes too. If you later get more edge, you've managed to find some more fetish material as well.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Playtest Results: Aspects as Contacts

Of the playtest feedback I've received to date, the most expansive request for more material and explanation was regarding aspects. They've really lit a fire under some of the players, but while the players are pretty clear on how to use them mechanically, they remain mystified as to how to make a good one for themselves, and in fact I received an email from a player who was trying to do just that and instead felt he was "just flailing."

So, clearly, aspects deserve their own chapter. Not only would a discussion on their creation and use benefit players, but as one of my own pointed out they're a narrative tool that has everything to do with defining a character even as they give a mechanical benefit. If I want deeper characters who have more to them than their ability to beat ass, I should be pushing the aspects pretty hard.

I'm going to spend this week on aspects. This post and the two that follow later in the week will go into more detail on how I envision aspects being used in Shadowitz, including eventually a sample run through of creating a couple aspects for a character.

Now, let me throw in this statement as a starter: because aspects are largely narrative, I don't think there's ever going to be a single set of hard rules that govern their creation in this game. You won't find point values by which you can guarantee that every aspect is 100% balanced against every other. Done right, they're not formulaic and resist such mechanical rigidity. If you approach them as ways to make the most important parts of your character matter in the game rather than a list of bonuses you can gain to boost your preferred knack rolls, the process becomes smoother.

That said, let's start with a relatively simple application of aspects: contacts. Shadowrun has had contact rules for as long as its existed. When I first started playing they were just a pair of names and roles that I slapped on my sheet as the last step in character creation. Later, as I got more into the game, I found levels of contact (associate, buddy, etc.), which even included some guidelines as to what it took to elevate a contact to higher devotion levels and keep them there. Finally, the latest edition of SR added yet more granularity by giving contacts a pair of scores, which quantified the raw capabilities of the contact, and how willing the person was to do anything for you (so you might know a CEO, but she's not interested in taking your calls very often).

The thing is, we almost never used our contacts. Usually someone would take a decker contact so that no one else would have to run the Matrix, and someone else would have a fixer so we could get jobs. Past that, no one bothered, and rarely did anyone look at the list of who they knew when presented with a tough situation.

This stuck out all the more when I read Neuromancer. That book has a scene early in the story in which one of the characters uses her contacts on a very Shadowrun-ish mission. During that mission the contacts don't just provide information and let the runners go on their way, but they instead become a critical part of the mission, creating a big distraction that allows the runners to slip deeper into a secure building. As soon as I read that scene, two things struck me:

  1. This is what contact use in SR should feel like. Maybe that's even what they intended when they included contacts as part of your character.
  2. There was no mechanical element in the game that supported this. 
Further reading showed exactly how much the street sam of the story relied not only on her own skill and cybernetic edge, but leveraged how many people she knew and how diverse her web of contacts was. More and more I was convinced that there needed to be something like this in my game.

That's where the Fixer method comes in. That rule allows characters to utilize their contacts as something more than information banks. They can get directly involved in the action, but by making it a stat on the character sheet, does so in a way that keeps the player involved in the scene instead of relegating everything to the GM rolling dice against himself behind his screen.

So what does this have to do with aspects? Aspects can be used to add color and depth to your contact base. While the Fixer method still has a lot to do with the number of hits you wind up rolling, you're still using the same method no matter the contact, since Fixer represents a mix of contact competence and the level of personal connection you have to them. Aspects, however, can make exceptions, and exceptional contacts.

Like any aspect, contact aspects have upside and drawbacks, which can be invoked or compelled respectively, and it is these qualities that can make a contact truly stand out.

For example, one of the characters in my game has a Vory boss as a contact. I've been urging him to make him an aspect, and recently we worked out the details. The two shared a prison cell for a while, and the character, a hacker, managed to do some creative accounting from his cell for the Vory, which prevented the boss from losing any ground during his incarceration. He's developed a soft spot for the character, and has done him the favor of making him an exclusive employee of the syndicate without the need to go through the standard ranks of promotion. The problem is that the character never wanted to be in the Vory, but he never cultivated any other fixer contacts upon being released, and has done nothing but Vory runs since hitting the streets again (something the player himself was unaware of until I brought it to his attention).

As an aspect, Mr. Ivonovich looks like this:

"Old Roommate"
You shared a cell with Ivonovich and did good work for him while incarcerated. He's paid you back, making your original agreement complete, but there's a genuine affection that remains between the two of you, and he's gone out of his way to help you whenever he can. Unfortunately, he seems incapable of understanding that you don't want to join the Vory, so his help has the tendency to get you ever more deeply involved in an organization you want to avoid.

Invoke: The Vory are excellent data miners. Given enough time and money, they can get the goods on almost anyone. They've also, in more recent years, developed a successful smuggling operation which specializes in weapons trafficking. Whenever you ask Ivonovich to provide either information or weapons, you can invoke this aspect.

Compel: Ivonovich is fine doing favors for you, but he does take heat for it. You have, after all, not gone through the normal ranks and don't technically deserve the treatment you get. Ivonovich is a big enough man to fend off most of the problems that come his way for the continual favor he shows you, but he does require you to show your loyalty to the Vory as a whole every now and again. Most of the time he calls with job offers like any other fixer. Sometimes he calls with Vory assignments. Those are not optional, and they are guaranteed to be heinous, even for a Shadowrunner.

As another example, the party as a whole has a contact named Icelady, who is a former Johnson of theirs. They did good work for her, and even went over and above the call of duty to help her out when the job became WAY bigger than what they signed on for. As a reward, I said they could automatically add her as a contact in addition to receiving pay.

She hired you to invalidate her dead boyfriend's will. Instead, you found he was still alive, was framed, rescued him, and even put their relationship on a better track, and this after you protected her store from looters and saved her from an assassination attempt. She might still be rough around the edges, but she's eternally grateful.

Invoke: Icelady is a store owner specializing in talismongering. If you need magical supplies, from fetishes to magical reagents to foci, she can either hook you up or knows someone who can. And she's willing to give you a big discount. Whenever purchasing magical gear, you can invoke Icelady for a bonus to your resource roll.

Compel: Since the run's conclusion, the heat's cooled on Icelady, but the woman has a knack for getting into trouble. Her store's still right across the tracks from Redmond, and she ruffles enough feathers on a regular basis that there seem to be no end of people who want to cause her trouble, either by ransacking her place or even roughing her up (it's possible the bassist from her boyfriend's band is still interested in giving her drek out of jealousy too). You've been there before, and you're kind of friends now, so when in trouble, guess who she calls? Wouldn't you know those calls happen to come in only when you're in the middle of trying to outrun a Lone Star HTR team or trying to sneak past a pair of sentry guns.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Playtest Results: Size

Size rules, which appear in the vehicles section of the main book, haven't had a whole lot of use in my game so far. Perhaps it's conditioning from other games, but my players never shoot at vehicles. They'll always take the higher threshold penalties to fire at the driver, or, at the very least, shoot out the tires. Called shots like that don't impact the vehicle's health meter, so we've had very little use for the size mechanic.

Be that as it may, there's plenty of description on how to use it, but none on how to derive it. I always intended it to be a quick and dirty evaluation, but for some reason that never made it into the text. So, here's my quick and dirty attempt to put that down.

A quick note: size isn't a reflection of the inherent toughness of a vehicle, that would be armor and the damage meter. Size instead reflects the difficulty in shooting something worthwhile on the vehicle. An 18 wheeler might be pretty easy to hit when you spray it down with automatic fire, but most those bullets are going to punch through the side and hit nothing but air. Even if you concentrate fire on the cab, you'll chew up upholstery and the like, but a whole lot of those bullets won't actually do anything more than cosmetic damage. Thus, size is exactly that: size. It's not toughness.

So, with that out of the way, here are my previously unwritten thoughts on size:

Size 0 is the baseline. This means there's no modifications to the attack and damage rolls in combat. Characters, even trolls, are size 0, and by extension so are most small vehicles. By small I mean mostly motorcycles. Even if a bike is significantly heavier than a character, there's not a lot of empty space on these vehicles, so a hit probably means a real hit.

Size 1 are vehicles with just a little storage capacity and empty space around their shells. I'm thinking something like the Jackrabbit here.

Size 2 is getting into car territory. 2 door, 4 door, compact, sedan, all of that. At this point there's a fair bit of air enclosed in that body, and there's probably nothing but a bench seat behind the driver. You can tag the people on a called shot, but there's nothing back there worth hitting otherwise. This category also covers 2 seater helicopters and speedboats. This is going to be the most common size players encounter unless they're in exotic settings.

Size 3 vehicles are really big. We're talking limousines and other extended body vehicles like citymasters. Anything this big tends to stand out; people don't commute using these conveyances.

Size 4 is a category reserved for cargo vehicles. These things have a ton of open space, usually with the intention of filling said space. Cargo trucks, hovercraft, and larger troop carriers all fall into this category.

Size 5 is the biggest it gets. If you look at it and need to swivel your head side to side to take it all in, it probably belongs here, assuming most of that space isn't filled with vital components.

Now, that covers big things. What about small things? I don't have much need for that, since my rigger is dead set against ever using a drone, but I did give it a little thought at one point regardless. While it's entirely untested, I think that you can reverse the size rule and apply it to smaller vehicles such as drones. Negative size modifies an attacker's roll as follows:

  • Add the absolute value of the size to the threshold required to hit
  • Increase the method by 1 when determining damage for every 2 points of negative size 
For example, lets say a rigger's using a rotor-drone (they were popular in my group until a crazy travel schedule forced our then-rigger to drop out of the game). They're decent sized drones, but still smaller than a person, so we'll give it a size of -2.

A shooter with a Razor of 3 fires at the drone. He must score at least 3 yang on his roll, since the drone's size adds 2 to the base threshold of the attack check. If the drone also engages in defensive actions, the attacker needs to beat the drone's yin +3 (because +2 will yield a net of 0 yang, which is a miss).

The shooter hits, scoring just one yang. Normally this would mean he does base weapon damage, but the drone's negative size means he gets to treat his Razor as a 4 when looking to code up his damage score. He couldn't apply any 4s to his attack roll, but he's free to roll them into his damage now that he's scored a hit.

This means that small drones are much harder to tag, but don't take punishment as well. Now, you could just make damage meters on these things small, but this lets you have drones that can still take more than a single hit, provided it's not a big one. Plus, you could use this on a much broader scale than an ever decreasing damage track. After all, you can't shrink something past a 1 box damage track, but size could drop infinitely, theoretically.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Playtest Results: Essence to Magic

This is an easy one. A playtester asked about essence loss as it applies to magic. He knew the Shadowrun rules, but he didn't see any mention of how it works in Shadowitz, and since the adept rules are different in the two games, he wasn't sure how it worked.

So, here's the explanation, and I'll put it in the book too:

Your magic equals the whole number of your essence. A magically active character with an essence of 6 has a 6 magic. If his essence dips to 5.75, his magic drops to a 5. 3.42 essence = 3 magic.

Now, as to what a dip in magic does to your awakened abilities, that too is a straight equation. Mages need do no further adjustments; sorcery and conjuring mechanics already use a mage's magic score, so the ramifications of the score adjustment are already taken care of. Adepts, on the other hand, must do one more little adjustment. They purchase powers in whole points now, so for each magic point lost, they lose one power, or level of a power. It doesn't have to be the most recently attained one; a player can drop whatever power he likes.

Any awakened character who drops below a 1 essence loses all magical abilities, regardless of how much he's boosted his magic through initiation.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Playtest Results: Negotiation

One of the first things on the list of feedback I received from a playtester was that there was no negotiation knack. Now, that's not entirely true, since negotiation is on the knack list, but he's right in that it doesn't receive the same extensive treatment that some of the others do, with specialization options and in-depth descriptions and uses. So I sat down and started to sketch things out.

Except that everything I came up with wound up being really close to Rapport except for the one reason everyone I've ever played with has ever taken negotiation: haggling for pay with the Johnson pre-run.

This needs its own knack? My initial thought was to make a whole subset of mechanics to handle negotiations, turn the back and forth into its own little mini-game that made the process more interesting than the only kind exchange that has ever shown up at my table:

"The job pays 40k per head."
"Make it 80."
"I'll give you 50k."

Here it either stops, or someone decides to push just a little more:

"... 65!"

And if the Johnson just ever flat out says no? That's when things get really suave. And yes, this is a quote from a former party face:

"Aw, come on."

Now, a good system could put some more meat and variety to these exchanges, no question. So if I'm complaining that the contract negotiation exchanges are bland and boring, I as a good game designer should take it upon myself to create a system that adds all the spice and color I think is missing, right? That's what I set out to do.

And then I put it away.

Do I really want haggling for money to be a big part of my game? I set out to create a game about competent specialists in a cyberpunk-fantasy setting. What part of dickering over money is that? When I look at it like that, it's not. Is negotiation really vital to the game? My current player base doesn't even bother negotiating their contracts at all anymore. They trust I won't lowball them, and most of them aren't hungry for money anymore anyway. Their lifestyle is taken care of, the sam has the ware he wants, and the rigger already has two vehicles at this point, and hates drones. And really, contract negotiation could  be more interesting, if people ever thought to ask for something other than more money. Medical care, some special gear, stock options, etc. But if the players aren't interested enough to ask for things, I don't see the need for a special set of rules covering this. A straight up opposed roll using negotiation could handle things just fine.

Maybe it's sounds like a little bit of a cop out, but I think the first playtest revision is going to be to leave things as they are. Adding a whole sub-set of rules to cover something that no one at my table does seems superfluous. Not to mention that this decision staves off rules bloat. I'm sure everyone's played a game that started out perfectly fine but got out of hand as more material piled on. I'm all for having rules for stuff, but only when they're necessary. In this case, I don't see the need.

Friday, October 15, 2010

At Long Last

My gaming group has been using the Shadowitz rule system for a while now. Play's been a little intermittent, but we've been at this long enough that most people know what they're doing, and since I distributed the book to them, there's even been some more questions about how they might flex methods in situations. But at the close of last session, someone said something to me that I hadn't expected.

"If it's cool with you, I want to read through the book and redesign my character."

It's about time. I put that offer out there a month ago. Now, finally, it looks like there will be some ground up character building from scratch by someone other than me. Until now, everyone's played with the characters I gave them. It worked out that way because Shadowitz was still a system in development and I didn't have any rules material to distribute to people. Thus I was the only one equipped to create a character. So I took their characters from prior systems and remade them in this one so they'd have something to use while we put the other mechanics to the test.

This also means, however, that their character sheets are a little out of date when compared to the present day rule book. Some of the adept powers on their sheets don't work the same way they used to, some of the terminology is old (killer as opposed to razor, for example), and I included some small cosmetic upgrades to the sheets like numbering the wound boxes on the damage track, which their sheets lack.

I'm breaking out the headache meds even as I look forward to seeing what comes of this. When I made characters, I worked within the frameworks I created because, well, I created them. Now, with others toying with, pushing, and even trying to break the system, there's going to be a lot of wrangling, I'm sure. Overall though, I look forward to this. As long as most the requests aren't too ridiculous (and some will be, so it's a question of keeping them in proportion with the more reasonable stuff) this should be an excellent test of the chargen rules. Who knows? Maybe another revision for the better will come of it. We'll see.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

New Version of Shadowitz

An updated version of the Shadowitz manual, which incorporates the changes to healing and an expanded threshold success table is now on the bookshelf. Same link, different doc.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Combat/Wounding Revision?

We've gotten a few more games under our belt, and had a chance to flex the Shadowitz system more. It still continues to move the game forward in a more or less smooth fashion. Lack of a printed book hangs us up when it comes to looking things up, but that's more a function of me being too cheap/poor to buy more ink for the printer than anything else. Besides, with the majority of players running all sorts of wireless devices at the table, we've managed with pdfs. Hey, might as well put those things to more use than surfing for porn during the game (which does happen).

I noted a while ago that no one ever takes defensive actions in combat. Having played for several more months, this continues to be the case. It's a very small group, so it's not much of a sampling, and this makes it difficult to know if this particular behavior is because of a problem with the system or if it's because of individual play style.

For example, my group currently has 3 members. One doesn't really care about the rules and wants the simplest solutions possible, so in combat he's not concerned about diving for cover, timing his shots, etc. He shoots and moves on. Another has very few combat skills to speak of and considers himself useful if he can goad the opposition into shooting him instead of someone more useful, so he spends all his resources jumping around and waving his hands while screaming "Here! Shoot here!"

And then there's our sam. Said sam doesn't care at all if he takes lead. He's a naked blade that stabs into the deep of combat and twists until all opposition falls. Once his dermal plating's soaked all the damage it can, he tends to rack up injuries fast, then fills in his wounds and eventually drops, condition monitor totally full up (until the medic gets him on his feet again; then it's lather, rinse, repeat). For him, it's clearly a matter of style. He's not a savvy fighter, and entirely too aggressive to bother with dodging incoming fire.

Still, I'm wondering if there's something askew with the combat rules in general if this is the default, and indeed only, behavior exhibited in combat every single time weapons come out. In analyzing a lot of the fights we've had in recent months, characters can stay on their feet for a good long time without any action to preserve themselves. The one shot kill (or take down, really) is possible, but the attacker needs to deal 11 + armor points of damage, not accounting for possible mitigation through injuries.

I've said in the past that the group hasn't faced much skilled opposition, and when they do numbers are usually on their side (one prime runner and a team of mooks, for example). We did have one massive battle royal in an ant hive, and that certainly taxed the team to their utmost. At the end of that fight I said that everyone was laid up in the hospital (as employees of Mega Media, since medical care was provided for in their contract) for nearly four months. Not a single person disagreed with me. Still, for the most part the fighting has been against people not as good as they are.

That changed last game, a little. In that game, the team raided a militant policlub looking to neutralize the leadership. No, it wasn't Humanis, though these guys were just as bad. Anyway, since the group was a paramilitary organization, I built their core membership with a good degree of competency. None of them were as individually good as the team sam, who can chuck close to 13 dice when he really gets going burning his edge for aspects, but they were by no means chumps. In game terms, they were all threat rating 4 with varying levels of dermal armor and reflex augmentation. They also were all armed with submachine guns and wore body armor. The fight involved 4 of these guys, since they'd managed to remove one of the others from the fight through role playing without even knowing it. None of them went down easy, and the sam dropped twice.

But that's the thing: harder opposition doesn't seem to mean anything in terms of team reaction. It just seems to determine whether or not someone drops at all. And this is the thing that has me wondering if there needs to be something more. I've taken to tagging injuries rather often, usually in one big bunch. So I'll pass over a small stack of edge chips and then scoop up a massive handfull of extra dice; injuries are no laughing matter to be ignored in this game. The players know by now that I'll use them often and hard. Still, there's no thought to avoiding damage.

Shadowrun used to have permanent injury rules. Whenever you suffered a deadly wound, you risked some sort of lasting effect. It might cost you a body part (which you could get replaced, but it cost money, and possibly essence), or it could remove an attribute point. That always struck me as nasty, especially given how easy it was to reach deadly; it was a rare game I played where I wasn't at deadly, and I didn't play crazy. I can't recall of such a rule remained in SR4; I'd stopped using those rules back in the 2e days, but I'm starting to see the reason behind that rule. I don't want to create some byzantine system of rolls to determine how screwed you are because you took some damage, but something more substantial might be in order.

Hmm... quick idea flash. Shadowitz rules currently state you cannot heal an injury until all of the wound boxes of a specific level clear out. So if you took a serious injury, you can't heal it until your serious wound boxes (boxes 8 and 9) are cleared. With a good Endurance rating, however, you can clean out your entire condition track in a couple of days. If you're in a crappy place with a low Lifestyle, you pay for some extended care under a halfway good physician and you'll be fine. I saw this happen in the last game.

So rather than bolt on yet more rules, why not just change that balance? You can't heal wounds until your injury of that level is cleared out? Current healing rules put injuries on a much longer timetable for recovery, and even a low level injury can clog up the works for healing higher level wound boxes, since healing wounds roll down your condition track, and if all the low boxes are filled up and stuck because of an injury, those high boxes won't have anywhere to go.

It's a simple rules adjustment, but one with some big consequences. I think we're going to give that a go next time we play.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Revamping Target Thresholds

When I first designed Shadowitz, I made it with a mechanical push toward specialization in methodology as well as skill training. I wanted something that promoted a particular style. The aggressive runner did well with straightforward combat tactics, but also with straightforward social interaction, while the sneak made a better sniper than infantryman. As we've played more, that's becoming evident to the players, and one of them in particular (the one who actually read the rulebook when I finished it), has really embraced this idea of describing what he's doing in ways that let him leverage his strengths. I encourage that kind of flexibility, because it gets the players really thinking about their characters and situations; it's harder to say "I just roll" when you're figuring out how to make said roll the best possible, and doing so requires engaging the game narratively.

With the players more carefully considering the how of their actions, and me still making suggestions along the way to show how I envisioned it working, the players very rarely find themselves rolling pools with a method lower than 3. The hacker/rigger/face/adept still gets stuck with 2s sometimes, but he's spread very thinly, so sometimes he's just got no choice. Most of the time, however, players are rolling for 3s or lower, and shooting for less than 5 a large part of the time. Combined with the fact that they like to roll the knacks that they're good at more often than not (and who doesn't), it means they're coming up with a high number of hits every roll.

That's good. I want to reward them for playing to their strengths. But it also means that the current hit thresholds I have for the game are kind of ridiculous. For an average person, they're fair, but they make my team near superhuman. For example, I have hard at 5 hits. Between gear, cyberware, adept powers, and aspects, any member of my crew can score 8 hits in his area of expertise without even trying. Easy is 1 hit, hard is 5, and they're clean off the charts nearly every time.

My kneejerk reaction is to simply double all thresholds, making easy 2 all the way up to making hard 10, but that makes hard rolls nearly impossible to pull off. Even someone trained all the way to 10 in a knack with a 5 method won't make it most the time (though with aspects and gear he probably will, since those can push the pool over 10). So, rather than do that and leave it that way, I think what's really called for is the creation of a more robust difficulty table, that defines difficulties for a larger range of results. This lets me keep easy in the range of the possible for those times when the runners need to roll something outside their area of expertise, while making the difficult things difficult for them. It'll take some tinkering to get the balance right, but the first order of business is to jack that high end way up. No more 10 impossible things before breakfast anymore.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Team Templates in Action

My group has played three sessions with the template rules so far. To date, outside of giving me some flak for calling the team "Street Trash," there's not been a lot of activity with it. Our erstwhile team leader pushes for everyone to make a contribution to the team edge pool at the beginning of every session, but until this last game, it just sat there unused. In fact, at the beginning of this session that little factoid caused our sam to refuse to put in more than a couple points, because he uses his aspects in every single combat and wanted to keep his edge for himself. If I were a bigger nerd, I'd go on about how this conflict of the character vs the team is great and that it happened with a street trash team seemed particularly appropriate.

Okay, chip truth, I am that big a nerd, but I'm still going to move along. Oh, on a related note, I renamed the template "Street Level;" the players appreciated that gesture immensely.

Anyway, things were chugging along as normal, with the group planning a raid against a policlub but trying to make it an elaborate confidence job that ended with gunfire but still involved a large number of rubes. The planning got so complex that they lost track of their own scheme and wound up implementing something of a hodgepodge of elements from multiple drafts of the plan. It was a gigantic logistical nightmare.

It did, however, still end with gunfire.

And this is where the team plot editing power started to come in. After a massive firefight with a side of rioting, Lone Star had locked down the area and were doing weapons checks (there were too many people for mass arrests, so they were just nabbing those most likely involved in the violence). The party was physically trashed; combat had been hard and they paid for victory with an awful lot of blood and die penalties. The rigger refused to let anyone else drive his car because it was his car and no one else is ever allowed to drive it. Unfortunately, his Sleaze isn't so hot, and they really wanted to just slip away rather than risk a road chase in a mob scene with more Lone Star forces showing up any minute and Red Samurai lined up nearby (they were right on the border of Renraku territory, close to the archology). So, drive and Sleaze it was, or it would have been.

Instead, the player picked up a chip out of the team edge and invoked their dumb luck power. For no good reason outside of pity from the spirits, they waltzed out of the situation with a bare minimum success level, which was good enough for them.

I expect they'll be contributing more eagerly to the team edge pool in the future.

Seeing this in action makes me eager to see some of the other templates in play, though I can't really see this team ever shifting away from this team type. They're not the sort to sign on with a corp, and while a syndicate has hooks into them, it's not a voluntary thing. And quite frankly, the players don't take the game seriously enough to ever get the professional freelancer template; they revel in being screw ups far too much. Ergo, street level it is, and likely will remain for a good long time. At least that template should get a workout.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Team Condition

Last time I talked about the plot editing powers of teams, and in so doing mentioned spending edge. Each team has its own edge pool independent of individual character edge, and it's that team edge that powers plot editing powers. You can get team edge in two ways:

Buy It
The simplest method is to buy team edge with your own personal edge. For every point of edge that every single member of the team invests, you get one point of team edge. Like spending experience to increase team abilities, this cost must be paid by everyone on the team in order for you to get the benefit; it's a collective resource.

Compel the Condition
Don't feel like giving away your edge? That's okay. There's another method, but it's going to hurt. Every team has a condition monitor of sorts. Teams don't take damage like characters do, but they can get banged up and frayed around the edges. A team's condition monitor is a 5 step ladder, with each rung hitting all members with harsher operating penalties. As a team, you can voluntarily take a hit and move one step down this ladder. For each step you take, you gain one point of team edge, but then you're saddled with the penalties until you can resolve the situation that comes with it.

Let's return to our lovable Street Trash team. Street Trash runners tend to be in trouble, so much so that when something goes wrong, people look at them as probable suspects. As the team's condition worsens, those around them pull away, not wanting to be associated with the team while the heat is high. Team members find themselves being grabbed by security forces for questioning in events they had nothing to do with, syndicate enforcers begin looking at the team members and making veiled threats, and eventually all the team's contacts dry up as people hide from the trouble that follows the team around.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Plot Editing

Group knacks are neat, but what I think will interest more people are the plot editing powers granted by teams. These abilities are ways for the players to collectively rewrite the circumstances of a scene to represent their team's behind the scenes actions.

For example, the team type Professional Freelancers are collections of stone cold professionals, the sort of team you see represented in much Shadowrun fiction and what I think a lot of players want to play, but don't. These teams attack their runs with precision and have well designed and executed plans based on meticulous legwork. This team's plot power is 1 Step Ahead of You. Spend an edge point and place the team in an advantageous position based on a secret plan detail.

In play, it might manifest like this: the team in performing an extraction of an unwilling target. They storm the target's office building, but he gets away and manages to make it to the garage, where he has a corporate limo ready to speed him out of there. The team spends an edge and invokes their power. Suddenly the driver of that limo is the team rigger, who brings the target to the team safehouse. As it turns out, they knew the target would run to that car, and their plan was to flush him out, right into their trap.

The Street Trash power is a little less flashy (I did the most work on Street Trash, because that's what my group selected; they said they had to be honest). They simply get Blind Luck. There's no good reason for teams like this to succeed as often as they do, outside of GM sympathy (that last bit added by one of my players). Yet somehow they manage to complete their jobs time and again. When this team spends edge, it can make any roll of any sort come up in their favor, barely (as in with the minimum success level).

Just like each team has its own special knack, each team also has its own plot editing power, representing its personality and flavor. I'm not done with even half the team types yet, but the idea has been met with great enthusiasm so far, even if my group hasn't had need to invoke any of it yet. Who knows, they continue to operate this well, and they might manage to trade up from Street Trash to Professional Freelancer. It could happen.

They'll probably need to stop arguing about what the team name is in front of Johnsons first though. Going back and forth over whether you're "Exploding Monkey Fists," or "Omega Sanction," kind of knocks you right out of the professional category, you know?