Thursday, December 30, 2010

Basic Resolution

When I set about putting together a system for this game of reluctant heroes, I knew I needed a choice between being heroically badass and staying home with the family at its core. More than that, I needed this choice to be one that you made mechanically as well as narratively, and you needed to do it as part of almost any action you took in the game. If you chose to be badass once in the beginning of the campaign and then proceeded along apace without any further consideration, it would be a failure of design. You can get a basic overview of how that worked out in this earlier post. It's sparse on details, and that's because when I first started working on the game, that was the first idea I had. It describes a mechanical representation of the narrative conflict, but has no further detail because I hadn't worked out the underpinnings of the basic mechanics yet.

So, with that general idea of hope vs. destiny in mind, I set about trying to create a basic resolution mechanic on which this other ruleset could rest. I really liked the complete simplicity of the Jedi Duels dueling mechanic in that you rolled a pool of dice, stripped out anything that rolled a 1, and then counted up the rest. No modifiers to complicate pool ratings or target numbers, just look for the single dots and do a quick count. That raw simplicity was something I wanted to replicate in this game, not because I anticipated hyper-frenetic action that needed lightning fast resolution, but because simpler is often easier, and I wanted this game to be easy for both players and GM. My thinking was that if there wan't much to learn and manage in terms of rules, everyone at the table, GM and player alike, could concentrate on their characters and build a more compelling story together.

I began by setting a single TN for all die rolls regardless of circumstance, as many die pool games do today, and screwed around with various ways of constructing the pools. As time went on, I wound up including or changing rules that marginalized the dice more and more in the favor of simplicity until I hit a wall and was left floundering. I stayed there, making no progress for about a week when an idea struck me that took away all my problems and dropped the complexity of the resolution through the floor.

Get rid of the dice entirely.

I've never played a diceless game. I've heard of a few, but I had no idea how any of them worked. All I knew was that they did in fact exist, and some people swore by them. So, I figured I'd give it a shot. It seemed to be where my process was headed. So, dice dropped out of the equation entirely and the basic resolution mechanic became one of blind bidding. Your pool is comprised of hope and of destiny (I'll talk about the differences between these two in a later post). If you want to do something, you bid points from your pool toward your action. When you're done bidding, the GM tells you if you succeed or fail. Simple as simple can be.

I'll talk more about using your effort pool next time.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Heroes of Destiny: The Requirements

Step with me into the way back machine as we return to a topic I touched on and then never mentioned again. I speak, of course, of Heroes of Destiny. As I mentioned when I first introduced this game, this project had its genesis in a friend's insistence that I design an RPG that was completely unfettered by concerns of intellectual property and copyright. No more creating mechanical systems for other people's worlds as I'd done with Jedi Duels and the two incarnations of Shadowrun I'd taken stabs at. It was time to do something 100% original in both mechanics and setting. Then I could sell it.

The problem was, I didn't need another game. I wasn't getting to play the two games I was already trying to run as it was. How was I going to work in time to test a completely new RPG, which promised lots of interruptions in play as we rejiggered the rules time and again, when I couldn't get people to show up for games run with stable rule sets?

So instead, I decided to put the project back on my friend, who was thinking of running something, and I told him I'd write him a game he could use. We had a series of conversations after that about what this game would be. I found great success in using the 3 question method when beginning Shadowitz, and I wanted to follow suit with this game.

For those unfamiliar with the three questions of RPG design, they are:

  1. What's the game about?
  2. How is it about that?
  3. How is that fun?
I felt pretty confident I could answer numbers 2 and 3 on my own, but I needed that first answer from him. We went back and forth about a bunch of stuff. He wanted a detailed world, something in the fantasy genre, and a game in which the opposition could be predominantly human (or demi-human). Monsters made poor drama, he thought. It was too easy to solve every problem with slaughter. Better to have an opponent who was more like you, where killing the opposition wasn't a clean moral decision or the easy fix. 

This, by the way, is why his games are awesome. 

Anyway, all of that was good information to have, and I noted it all down, but it still didn't say what the game was about, so I pressed. 

"Adventure." No, that's not what it's about. That's what they'll be doing. 
"Fantasy." No, that's the genre.
"I guess I've always liked stories about reluctant heroes who'd rather not be questing. You know, like in Gladiator." *record scratch*

He did that on purpose, I'm sure. Gladiator's my favorite film of all time, so of course that would resonate with me. I'm also a big fan of pathos whenever I get a chance to play rather than run. Happy is boring. You always strive for it, but there's a reason fairy tales stop the telling once the protagonists hit a happy point. There's nothing more worth saying. The way that Gladiator wrapped a heroic struggle around a core strive for simple happiness that ran counter to all that badassery was awesome. It's also something I'd never seen done in an RPG. That was what this game was going to be about. 

Now, something else I learned from Shadowitz is that the 3 questions are a fantastic starting place, but they're not the totality of useful basics. So, once I had that very cool answer to question #1, I looked back at the list of notes I had from our other conversations and put together a short list of goals that would serve as my objectives in this game's design.

So, here's what I'm after in designing Heroes of Destiny:
  • Make the choice to be heroic a hard one mechanically
  • Place an emphasis on character identity over powers/abilities/equipment
  • Keep magic rare and special; it should not become a utility
  • Make the game mechanics simple, quick to learn and quicker to use
  • Mechanics on the GM side should be minimalist, leaving him free to spend the bulk of his attention on the narrative at all times

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Role of Players

Last time I talked about the role of individual players in truly giving a game wings. However, as anyone who played any White Wolf or White Wolf inspired game of the 90s knows, individually compelling, proactive characters alone won't make a game go. Vampire and games of its ilk introduced a whole new level of character depth into role playing, but it did so in settings riven with conflict.

Now, that's great. Anyone who's read anything about fiction knows that conflict is what creates and drives a story. The thing is that the situations present in those earlier games set up deep intra-party animosity. Everyone hated one another, and while characters in those games were often proactive, rarely were they working toward the same goals.

That sounds really interesting in theory. Even as I wrote that last sentence, I got a little quiver in the imagination at the possibilities. However, in actual play I never saw it work well. More Storyteller games were spent screaming at and plotting against one another than actually doing anything. I even remember one game where the players were so worked up that they actually told the GM to shut up when he tried to move things along.

I remember once I ran a D&D game that I tried to make character oriented. There was plenty of questing and the like, but I tried hard to get it to ultimately be about who the characters were and who they became. It worked, to an extent. The characters mostly had well defined personalities and many of them routinely engaged the world at large. The problem was, they all did it individually.

One character decided he wanted to play an evil character, which I allowed as long as he would work with the rest of the party. He said that would be fine. And he did. He worked with them, helped them track down needed information, most certainly stood by their side in combat, all of it. He also, on his own, plotted how to kill all of them after the campaign ended so he could destroy the world and turn it into a massive necromantic planet. In fact, he spent 99% of his time plotting what he'd do after the game ended. One session, this bled into the ongoing campaign. He took some actions that would help him later, post game. It didn't really screw with the party, but it definitely wasn't something they were cool with.

Another character was a strict moralist. Any time the party did anything that he didn't personally agree with 100%, he'd refuse to participate. This party at one point decided they needed to break into a bank vault to recover some potent magical items. Said items belonged to people long dead (the party's prior incarnation, in fact), so it was only stealing in the technical sense, but this character wouldn't stand for it. When the heist went bad and magical security responded, he stood there and let the party deal with it without him. He wouldn't aid them in what he judged to be a crime. So, they lost.

Individually these were interesting characters. But they clearly didn't work together. In fact, no character in that game worked with any other. And as you might imagine, the campaign didn't go very far.

Now, the idea that players should work together is hardly new. But it does seem to be an unfortunate dichotomy that you either get a passive group, or a splintered party filled with individuals chasing their own agenda.

Back to that old storyteller setup for an example from the other side. I ran a game once where all the characters were elder vampires recently elevated to the status of archon and invited to a city to serve the prince directly. For those not familiar with the jargon, they were basically cops with a lot of authority and political pull. And because they were all functioning with the same mandate, the party as a whole had a unified goal. It was pretty general, and there wasn't much direction in how they were to go about it, which meant plenty of room to argue over procedure and proceedings, but everyone was on the same page as to what needed to get done. It was awesome.

Where all this rambling and piling of anecdotes is leading is this: everyone always talks about how hard it is being the GM. Read any book with a GM section, or any book on running a game, and you'll see a line somewhere in the introduction that states how much more difficult it is to be the GM than the player. After all, the player just needs to show up.

I've come to believe that's antiquated thinking. Being a mediocre player involves just showing up. Here's the real rub though: the GM absolutely cannot tell a tale without the help of his players. Can't be done. He can try; he might even get the illusion of a story, but it's almost certainly going to feel like a B-movie, full of missed potential and lacking much depth. Truly great stories in any medium is borne up and carried on the backs of vibrant, compelling characters. And those characters are the one thing that GM has no control over. That's in the players' hands.

Being a good player involves creating a compelling character, i.e. one worth telling a story about, and then actively telling that story using the tools the GM provides. Being a good player group means you do so collectively, working with a number of other people who also have compelling characters and story interests of their own. Ask anyone who's done it, collaborative writing is much more difficult than writing something on your own.

The GM's (falsely) assumed task is to write a story solo. The good player's task is to write a good story in cooperation with the others at the table. That's rough. It's really rough. But the payoff can be rich indeed.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Role of the Player

Many people tell me that as a GM it's my job to tell a story, and their job as players to experience it. Likewise, many of the books on my shelf define the GM's role as the storyteller as well as the judge and adjudicator. It is the GM who creates the plot, makes the individual scenarios and scenes, creates and plays all the NPCs, and pretty much puts everything together for the players to consume.

That's wrong.

I'm at a point where that's not even an opinion. It's just wrong.

I've written plenty of stories. Those are my stories. I've also run a lot of games. Not a one of those are my stories. The difference is that when I'm writing, the protagonists are my characters. I control all of them. They say what I want them to say when I want them to say it. They only do the things I want them to do. Never do I have to deal with someone deciding not to deal with the problem at hand because he'd rather bed down with sexy young thing. But I've had that exact situation in RPGs lots of times.

That's not an indictment of my players, by the way, but a demonstration of my point: a game is about the PCs. Any GM who introduces his own PC tends to become unpopular right quick. Players want to be doing something, not watching the GM play his own characters. But if the camera is on the PCs all the time, how can they not be responsible for the story?

There is a way that it works, and it goes back to the roots of our hobby. When you're playing a dungeon hack, you need someone to tell you that there's a door in front of you, and that it opens to a 10 x 10 room with an orc standing in front of a chest, and if that chest is locked or trapped. Now, there is a way to put this in player hands, which John Wick described in his dirty dungeon, but that came out decades after the first adventurers trudged into multi-level subterranean death traps, and while what he suggests works, it's not necessary as long as your game is mostly about killing monsters, avoiding traps, and recovering treasures in a physically restricting environment, which is exactly what a dungeon crawl is.

Once you get out of the dungeon, however, things begin to break down. Now there's more to do, more directions to go. It's no longer a choice between two doors. Once out in the open, you can potentially go anywhere, talk to anyone, do any number of things. With this literal opening of horizons come the potential for different, more character involved adventures. Have a look at Shadowrun. Yes, you've got top down GM runs it all adventure design, but the situations and settings are far more open. Instead of working inside a restricted map, you've got a whole city of places you might go, not all of them relevant to the mission at hand. Players can talk to the "wrong" people, go to the "wrong" places, and wreck all kinds of holy hell with your pre-planned story.

That's not to say that you need to make every detail in your world germane to the mission at hand. Instead, I argue that it means the players need to be more involved in these kinds of scenarios. They can passively accept the plot crumbs you toss and dutifully try to find the end of the trail. They can decide to make their fun by messing around with the characters they meet. The can do these things, but the game will be flat, no matter how intricate and interesting you make the underlying plot.

The only way to make the game really come alive is for the players to tell the story. The GM is a facilitator to this, an assistant ghost writer who can help put the character in positions that make his story better. But it is the role of the player to create a character that has a personal agenda that synchs with the GM's campaign, and who can pick up and own the game after a time. Someone who will proactively get involved in the situations. Someone who will talk to NPCs. Someone who will go out into the world, who will take actions, who will help drive the game forward and not plant himself and dare to be moved by anything.

I'm not talking about "problem players" here. People who play these characters aren't looking to crash your game, and they're not taking their fun at others' expense. They make characters with histories that tie into your campaign, but once everything's up and running they don't really touch the big picture except when you make them.

For example, you have the strong silent warrior. He's basically a good guy, but he's gruff and tough. Think Batman. Scary, not approachable, but still a hero. This character wants to do the right thing, but he won't go to social events; he won't say more than what's necessary to NPCs; in short, he's going to stay insulated within himself and while he'll go on whatever quest the campaign asks, he'll only go when the plot demands. It's all up to the GM to make anything happen.

Then you've got the jester. He's the guy who is often good for a ton of laughs at the table. He likes the mood light, and his character doesn't take things any more seriously. He'll trip up NPCs and prank them for the laughs of the party. When the party needs to board an abandoned space hulk that might be home to dangerous xenos or rebels, he'll bring a tray with tea and cookies to make a good impression. When he takes a serious injury, he describes it as a stain on his silk shirt. Again, he's going to jump at your plot points and he's going to try his damndest to complete the adventure successfully, but his eye is looking for ways to introduce the silly wherever he goes, and that light touch means that he's never responsible for anything in the story.

I've run into many players who default to one of these character types in a game. All of them want to play, and want to do so constructively, but their default disposition puts the campaign at arms length from them. They are involved, but only so much, and getting the game to move can be difficult. Again, for something like a dungeon hack this isn't a problem. If you're looking for something more involved, more character oriented, as many games try to deliver these days, you need more involvement from your players.

This can be a scary thing for some. Graham Walmsley discusses some of this in this book Play Unsafe, specifically the idea that coming out of your shell in an RPG makes you as a player vulnerable, ergo the title. However, having looked over the games I've run and played, the best ones weren't the ones in which the characters were well developed, had histories, personalities, or any of that other stuff. They were the ones in which the players got involved at a story level. They invested in the campaign personally and worked to change the situations I gave them through the lens of their of characters.

There's no mechanic to make this happen, but I'm absolutely convinced it's an essential element to running a truly top tier game.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Spontaneous Shadowruns

Back when I was putting together the FTD version of Shadowrun, I put forth a method of creating missions on the fly. This method borrowed heavily from Wilderness of Mirrors, a spy game by John Wick. I've both played Mirrors as written and used its mission generation method in Shadowrun, and in both cases it's worked out well. But there's one thing that didn't quite make the transition: the double-cross.

Now don't get me wrong, there's most definitely an intrigue mechanic in Mirrors, but it doesn't create the same kind of backstabbing that's so prevalent in Shadowrun. Mirrors is all about not being able to trust your fellow agents. Shadowrun is all about not being able to trust anybody except your fellow runners. The shadowrun universe doesn't count on your fellow players putting a slug in your back, but it most certainly does encourage the GM to stuff the world with sleazy Johnsons who refuse to deal straight with you.

The way this usually manifests is the mid-run twist. Something happens after you're in the thick of things that changes the whole scenario, and you've got to adjust on the fly, and maybe extract some vengeance in the process. Here are some examples I've run across, kept vague so as to keep the spoilers to a minimum:

  • The team is hired to kidnap someone. Later, the target's kidnapped again, and the heat all comes down on the runners. 
  • The team extracts someone from a high security area. Only after they have him do they learn his family is under guard in another location, and will be executed in short order unless he returns, or they're extracted as well.
  • The team is hired for an extraction, but it turns out that the entire thing is a publicity stunt so the Johnson can sell a client on better security. That upped security was not part of the plan, and they're looking to silence the intruders.
  • The team extracts a low level employee who is the unknowing recipient of experimental cyberware, complete with tracking chip. The security response is far out of proportion with what was expected, and giving him back isn't a simple fix.
  • Solving a murder case leads the team to a secret corp bioweapon, the key to which is embedded in the missing corpse. Of course, they don't find out about that until they've already handled the body and it's mysterious implant.
When I went over all the upsets that occurred in the scenarios I've run, I found that while a large number of them did in fact deal with the Johnson screwing over the party, that wasn't the defining element of them. It was a manifestation of it, for sure, but there were other possibilities.

I've taken to calling this element "the twist," and it amounts to this: runners almost never wind up doing the job they were hired to do. This might be because of deception. It might be because of misinformation. Regardless,  the twist changes their mission objective and gives them something else they need to do. This second thing might be for pay, or it might be for something less tangible, like vengeance, survival, or even simply moral compulsion (as rare as that seems to be in Shadowrun).

The problem I kept running into is that when using the Mirrors method of creating a scenario, everything's in the players' hands. You get to muck with it a little bit once underway, but really it's the players who do most the work. And if they're putting together the mission parameters and providing you the opposition, how does a twist work? At its most extreme, players in a Mirrors game even define the objective (I've done that a couple times, and it's surprisingly effective). It's pretty hard to create a twist if you don't even know what the purpose of the mission is.

The solution I came to is to break mission creation into two parts: the job they're hired to do and the actual job they need to complete. Use the Mirrors method for that first part completely unaltered. If you want to define the objective, knock yourself out. If you're comfortable giving it to the players, that works fine too. Play it out until the players have hit a good stopping point. This might be when they achieve their initial objective, or when they come to a particularly dramatic moment.

At that point, break. Everyone goes head down on their notes for a specific period of time. Could be 5 minutes, 10 minutes, or you could even break for dinner and think it over while you eat. During that time, everyone mulls over a possible twist to throw the mission as it stands into disarray. In effect, you're sharing your "muck it up" power with the players this one time. Anyone can suggest a twist. The person you're looking for isn't dead, but is a slave held by the Yakuza. The datafile is actually a budding AI that's going to have its code dissected. There's another team that's been hired to do the same job, and it's now a shooting war to determine who gets paid. Run wild.

The GM ultimately gets say over what the twist is, but once it's established you can either run the remainder of the scenario off the cuff, or you can have another planning session, done exactly like the prior one.

Incidentally, if you still want to keep the shocker element to the twist reveal, have all the players work on their ideas alone (no collusion), and submit them to you via secret ballot. You can then read through them all, pick the one you like (or maybe even combine a couple), and implement them when the time is right. In fact, if you do it secret ballot style, you can put twist planning right after the mission planning, and then introduce it when you feel it has the most impact.

There's one other element to this, and that's the reward. There should be a reward for getting screwed on a routine basis, and there most certainly should be a reward for screwing yourself. Trust me, if players aren't rewarded for it they become a cynical bunch indeed. However, that reward differs depending on if the twist comes from the GM or the players. I'm an ever bigger believer in the idea of player involvement in story creation, and I'll talk about that more in a later post, but because I want to encourage the players to generate the stories about their characters, I'm inclined to give a bigger reward for twists they create than ones I hand to them.

What's the reward? Well, that depends. If you've not noticed yet, I haven't mentioned a specific system outside of Wilderness of Mirrors, and that was to cite where the methodology of player-generated missions discussed here came from. This post isn't tagged with Shadowitz or FTD. You can use this method with any mechanical system you like, whether you run the game with one of my systems, and of the official games published by FASA or Catalyst, FATE, Sorcerer, Feng Shui, or anything else you like. So the specific mechanical benefits really depend based on your system of choice. This would be a poor post without some recommendations, however.

For GM twists, I'd give a bonus resource. Shadowrun 4e has a pool of Edge points. Wilderness of Mirrors has a control pool. FATE has fate points. Give them edge, control, fate, or whatever else the game's got. Almost everything has a mechanic that gives players an expendable resource. If it doesn't, give it to them anyway. This could be bonus dice or bonus points (the former more applicable to die pool systems, while the latter's more suited to single die systems, but of course each system needs to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis). This gives the players a little extra oomph. It's a nice thing to have, but it's not extraordinary.

For player twists, you can give a similar bonus, though it should be greater, since they did more work and are more involved in the game because of it. However, I think that something mechanically different might be better. Consider giving a pool to the whole party. You might call it a "screw pool." Drop a number of points into this pool equal to how badly the twist fubars the mission, and the PCs in particular.

Anyone in the party can spend a point from the screw pool, as long as what they're doing is directly related to the mission and getting out of whatever terrible situation got dumped on them. So using it to track down the dirty Johnson is cool. Using it to seduce a pretty face is not. No, I don't care how stressed out your character is and how a little relief will allow him to pursue his other goals more effectively (yes, I've had this particular discussion).

What can this pool do? Off the top of my head, I have a few ideas:

  • Lower the difficulty on a check by one level
  • Increase the level of success by one (assuming the check already succeeded)
  • Grant an automatic critical/max damage (assuming the attack landed)
  • Give limited narrative control for one outcome (or more if your game already grants this to players)
Obviously it's all very rough yet, but this moves mission planning more toward an at the table part of the game thing, and away from homework for the GM that's going to get scattered to the winds anyway, and it does so in a way that allows you to incorporate THE fundamental aspect of shadowrun gaming: getting screwed.

You thought I was going to say guns, weren't you?

Monday, December 13, 2010

Physical Mages

Long ago on this blog I said that physical adepts were my favorite character type to play in Shadowrun. That's only technically true. From the moment I read about them I've been fascinated by physical mages. The idea of a character who has the full understanding of mana manipulation and channels it though his body to physically augment it lit my mind on fire with possibilities.

But anyone who knows anything about Shadowrun knows that's not what physical mages are. Instead, a physical mage is a physical adept who can spend his power points to pick up one additional, special power: sorcery. His score in this power is his effective magic score when determining what spell force he can cast safely. In all other ways, he's a physical adept like any other.

Again, after all the whining I've done about the complexity and variety of mechanical systems in Shadowrun, I should be lauding the hell out of this. It introduces a new idea, but it does so in a mechanically minimalist way and makes heavy use of existing rules. Use standard sorcery rules for the physical mage when he casts spells. Use standard adept rules when he uses any of his other powers. Nothing new to learn outside of that one little note as to how he straddles the line. Really, as far as rules in any game go, it's pretty simple.

Unlike technomancers, I've gotten to see a physical mage in play. I myself was not allowed to play one in college (the GM outlawed the character type; I think he was sick of sourcebook material by then, since we had a werebear and otaku in the party already), but in a semi-recent game one of my players selected that as an option. My first thought was "awesome!" Awesome, unfortunately, didn't describe the final product.

That physical mage took 4 points of spellcasting and sunk the last two into astral perception. Totally by the rules, but I defy anyone to tell me that's the concept this archetype was really designed for. After a few sessions the player converted to a full mage and got the ability to summon and astrally project in exchange for giving up, well, nothing. Woo! Rad.

It's true, that's not the way the text implies physical mages will typically turn out, but it is true that they will most often be mediocre spellcasters and mediocre physical adepts. Oh, it's the power of generalization, Cliff! You want to do lots of stuff in a game of specialists, you need to suck at them! I disagree. No, you can't have a generalist who has the same level of ability in all his fields as a specialist has in one, but I maintain that a physical mage need not be a generalist. After all, an even more fundamental rule of the game should be that the options are fun, right? If an option doesn't add to the fun of the game, what's the point?

To that end, I propose the following redesign of physical mages: instead of making them adepts who can also cast mage spells, let's make them mages who can cast spells that boost their physical performance. There are some out there already. There's a small spate of attribute boosters, armor, increased reflexes, etc. Adepts have a few powers that function like spells also. Boost, for example, gives you a temporary pump in an attribute, but it wears off and inflicts drain afterward.

I started with that idea, but eventually drifted a little farther afield from this. I like the idea of a physical mage's powers being temporary, invoked boosts, I'm just not sure I want there to be a success test for every single one of them. See, when a mage casts a spell, he's often using his magic to accomplish an action. If a physical mage casts a spell, it's going to be to boost his own capabilities. He'll then roll a skill or an attribute to accomplish his task. A mechanic that doubles the number of rolls a player will make to accomplish something isn't one I want to introduce into the game. But that temporary, invoked boost, that's spot on. That makes all a physical mage's powers feel more like spells to me. The adept subconsciously channels magic through his body, turning it into a sort of supernatural talent. The physical mage, on the other hand, sculpts the magic into whatever he needs it to be, using his own body as the lens. He's the master of somatic sorcery.

My mind wandered to some of the other incarnations of Shadowrun I've run in the past. One of them used the Feng Shui system. Now, I like Feng Shui; I think it's approach to things actually fits my current group very well, but they insisted that it didn't feel much like Shadowrun using those rules. And, well, I can see their point. You know what though? The fu powers of that game use exactly the mold I'm talking about here. Those who are properly trained get a chi pool, which they can use to fuel a variety of fu shticks. Pay the points, activate the power. No roll required.

How do you get that pool? Excellent question. Let's base it on your Magic score to start with, and then throw in a power that adds to your pool instead of giving you a new ability. Speaking of which, these will advance like physical adepts. While they are mages, they're not really throwing around spells the way sorcerers are, nor are they peeking into the astral plane, binding spirits, enchanting talismans, or anything else like that. The more involved rules of initiation are there specifically to put the brakes on the rampant power growth of full mages. Physical mages, as described here, aren't mechanically primed for that kind of power leap, so let's advance them the way we do physical adepts.

Now, in Feng Shui, you get your chi back every round. This being Shadowrun, and sorcery being something that comes with a price, I think that creating some other kind of recovery mechanism is in order, probably something keyed off a character's Resolve knack. Maybe you get your Resolve step rating back in magic every round. That's right, round. Not action. You've got to make it all the way around the shot clock before you get some mana back.

You want more? I think there should be a way for you to get it. Let's call it a centering roll (which would normally mean that only initiates can use this, but let's make centering available to them without making them initiate like mages, since they're not using sorcery) that uses the following procedure:

  1. Select the number of mana points you want to get back.
  2. Roll centering with that number as the threshold.
  3. Divide your pool between yang (which go toward your threshold) and yin (which counteract drain)
  4. Success restores the mana to your pool instantly. Failure means you recover nothing.
  5. Succeed or fail, you now take drain equal to the amount of mana you attempted to restore.
  6. Resist drain as normal. 
  7. You may choose to take injuries instead of marking wounds after the drain check, just like a normal wound.
While I haven't done it, I'd seriously consider modelling physical mage powers off Feng Shui's fu and gun shticks. Many of these abilities have a structure like: "Hit x mooks with your attack, where x is the amount of chi spent on this action." Others have a flat cost associated with them, but that needs to be paid every time you want to use them.

Creating a separate list of powers for physical mages serves to not only tailor them to their specific mechanics, but makes them mechanically distinct from physical adepts. Much like the new rules for adepts set them apart from street samurai without either hobbling the adept or overshadowing the samurai, the rules for physical mages provide another avenue in which a player can play a physically powerful character who is distinct from those who follow other paths. That's the hope anyway. Obviously I've tested none of this.

Thursday, December 9, 2010


Technomancers are a relatively new phenomenon in the Shadowrun universe. The idea of people so gifted they could interact with the electronic world of the Matrix without a cyberdeck first appeared in the Sixth World over a decade ago in the form of pre-teen super-deckers called otaku. Technomancers are what happens when both the kids and the technology grow up.

Technomancers are the grown up version of otaku. They can interface with the Matrix without electronic assistance interface devices, and they're old enough to drive and buy beer. Also, since the world's gone wireless, so have the Technomancers, who all have the biological equivalent of a wireless ethernet card buried in their gray matter somewhere.

Mechanically they're extremely similar to mages. Where mages cast spells, technomancers manipulate code. Where mages can perceive and project into astral space, technomancers can interact with the Matrix in augmented reality or full immersion virtual reality. Mages summon spirits; technomancers summon sprites.

Truth be told, it helps a lot to flatten out the learning curve. After all, didn't I just spend last post lamenting about the nightmare that was trying to learn a series of unrelated game systems all to run a single session with a diverse group? Yeah, I still don't miss that.

However, I'll also admit I'm torn on this one. From a straight game rule perspective it makes whole tons of sense. But from a setting perspective, there's a cognitive disconnect. Shadowrun has, from the very start, drawn a stark line between magic and technology. You can't establish line of sight on a target for purposes of spellcasting using electronic surveillance. Cybernetic implants detract from your ability to perform magic. Etc. Technology and magic have been at odds and utterly incompatible from day one. You could dip into both worlds; I've known many a character who did. But there was always a fine art to pulling that balancing act off. The system didn't support the idea that such a decision was easy.

Making the newest, super high end hackers feel almost exactly the same as mages flies in the face of that. It just doesn't feel right. You want to begin moving them closer together as the 6th world grinds on? I'm okay with that. Really, I find mixed genre worlds fascinating more often than not. So sure, let's do it. But maybe we can start the integration with something a little more granular.

My idea for a technomancer rewrite is pretty simple: pattern the new hacker after an adept, not a mage. In essence, a technomancer under this system is a near supernaturally gifted hacker. He still needs a commlink to get online, and he still uses programs (though he can opt not to, like anyone). However, he's so talented that he can make Matrix constructs roll over and beg. He's the wunderkind who's going to debug his utilities and tweak his firewall all while disarming the databomb on your target paydata and crashing the black IC protecting the node. And yeah, he might have a kick ass agent program loaded up with custom software, but it's still a modified agent program, not a sprite summoned from the depths of the Deep Resonance like an elemental spirit.

Again, let me state that I'm not opposed to technomancers who are so attuned to the wireless world that they work it like magic. However, it feels like an awfully big step to take given the decades of stark divide set up in the cannon literature.

So, mechanically, how does this technomancer work? He gets access to special skill booster powers, all of which key off Matrix skills, or have to do with Matrix only actions. I've got nothing more than sketchy notes on this, but I can provide some examples:

  • Hardware - this category encompasses all the custom Matrix surfing 'ware that the technomancer made or modified himself. A few of the powers I began to write for this category included things like Overclocking, which gave a boost to Matrix initiative at the cost of program load capacity, and Networking, which let him link multiple links together in order to get a performance boost.
  • Software - the programmatic version of hardware. Rather than just provide bonuses to existing programs (because while the whole +1, +2 thing is useful, it's also kind of boring), I tried to introduce new options here. File Compression added to a link's program capacity, but increased the load time to bring something online, for example.
  • eSocial - this category didn't have anything to do with using computerized tools. Instead, technomancers who dipped into this power pool were masters of interpersonal relations, as long as they occurred online. They could utterly burn someone in a Flame War (allowing them to accomplish the nearly impossible: win an argument on the Internet), charm someone via chat window, etc. None of this worked face to face though. It needed to be the kind of anonymous interaction you can only find online. 
  • Hacking - like software, I tried hard to stay away from simple bonuses to mundane actions, and instead tried to make this category one that emphasized how amazing the character was at infiltrating secure systems in other ways. Mostly I did this by finding more ways the character could use Hacking. For example, once per session per level of the power, the character could roll his Hacking knack instead of Resources when buying something, representing the spare cash he managed to pick up on an incidental, on-the-fly hack.
Under this system of rules, technomancers would still lose resonance, or whatever else you want to call it, for cybernetic implants with one important exception: any cyberware that is primarily used to perform or augment Matrix tasks does not cause this loss. Cranial commlinks are kosher, as would be the math CPU and encephalon implants. You want a datajack? Perfectly cool. You want a cyberarm with internal shotgun and integrated smartlink? Go right ahead, but it's going to knock points off your resonance and cost you some natural edge you've got when running in the wireless world.

Yes, this begins to blur the line between magic and technology. I'm fully aware of that. Truth be told, I think that's an interesting way to go, and I applaud Catalyst for taking that step. It's been more than 60 years since the first UGE births, and the Great Ghost Dance didn't follow all that much later. Moving these two setting elements into closer alignment is a good thing. I'd just prefer it took a few baby steps in between first.

Monday, December 6, 2010

New Character Archetypes for Shadowitz

In one of my last mentions of Shadowitz, I made mention of a new take on physical mages and technomancers, and promptly said no more about them. Oops.

Now, I don't have hard rules for either of these, because my group is pretty happy with the characters they have and no one wants to play one of these, but I've kicked around the ideas anyway. While both would require more development to flesh out the specifics and turn these into character packages that offer the same robust options that other character types have, I think there's a lot of work done in the system to support them already.

See, while I've read endless pages of posts on various Shadowrun forums about how it was a feature, not a bug, that the game was actually a 4 in 1 kind of system, with rules for running the Matrix having nothing in common with rigging, which was entirely different from physical combat, which only had some minor similarities to magical and astral tasks, I claim from nothing more authoritative than my own personal experience that it didn't come off as much of a feature. I didn't like it. In fact, the last by-the-book Shadowrun game I ran ended not because the story ended, and not because of some irreconcilable intra-party conflict (a historical favorite), but simply because I couldn't stay on top of the rules anymore. The decker had bought the advanced Matrix books, the mage was looking into metamagic options, and then the rigger bought a drone and wanted to start getting into electronic warfare. When a physical adept killed a dragon with nothing more than a knife and some externally sustained spells, I knew I was clearly missing some very important stuff in the flow of the game, and no matter how much more I studied, I was going to get buried in the details, so I called the campaign to a close. Besides, that intra-party conflict was coming soon.

That experience has led me to design rules with a particular methodology. All aspects of play don't have to be identical. In fact I think mechanical differentiation is necessary in order to emphasize character differences. That's my big complaint about technomancers as written in 4e, in fact. While I haven't given the rules a thorough playing, on the page they look and feel an awful lot like sorcery, just in a different setting. Anyway, there should be mechanical differences, but, and here's where I break from many prior versions of Shadowrun and a whole lot of other games too, those differences should be on the character side. On the GM's side of the screen, I'm shooting to make everything pretty close to uniform.

From my own experience, I know that I'm not going to use a ton of fancy mechanics in a fight. I might trick out a couple of NPCs to try something in a scene, but if I go into a combat with 6 NPCs each loaded up with options as richly as my PCs, 90% of that's not getting used. Either I'm going to forget about them, or, more likely, they'll get mowed down before they get to most the fancy stuff.

And to be completely honest with you, my "to do" list for my campaigns does have NPC creation at the top, but it's to create interesting, recurring characters. Yeah, I do prep for my adventures, but often I'm scribbling down combat stats an hour before game time. It's much more important for me to get the personalities of play in place, and maybe review whatever notes I had on ongoing PC plot threads and the like. That sort of thing will see more use in the game, and will make the game better than any number of mechanically intricate combat opponents will.

So what's any of this got to do with technomancers and physical mages? Truth be told, not much. However, the above explained stance informs my design ideas for these two concepts in that any additional options will all be on the player side to manage. If one of my players does wind up playing a physical mage or technomancer, my job in engaging him will not change. I'll still be rolling the same dice in the same way for the situations. The same basic system runs all character types now, and will continue to.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Madness Made Real

I had a chance to put the madness rules discussed earlier into play, starting with explaining them to the players. The good news there was that they were easily absorbed, and the player most likely to use them most heavily liked them right away. Score!

We got down to the business of play, and things chugged along without a hitch. The group was in a pirate town trying to keep their heads down while making repairs to their ship before heading out in search of a lost relic when the group scholar, and budding madman, was singled out by a scoundrel for a high stakes game of chance in a tavern. All proceeded normally until a wager went sour and a fight broke out.

C'mon. It's a swashbuckling game, there was an inn, and it was in a pirate port. Who didn't see that coming?

At this point there are two party members in the bar. There's Mr. Suave, the budding madman who prides himself on fabulous hair and is even better known for his relative frailty and aversion to melee combat (though he's rectifying that), and then Dr. Destroyer, who's a little bit of a scholar and much more of an ass beater. Everyone knew what Dr. Destroyer was going to do, but Mr. Suave had a plan. We rolled initiative and he began to describe in cool, confident tones exactly how he was going to twist this situation.

That's when I tossed him a madness point, and, like a scene from Jacob's Ladder, he begins to see... things among the press of violent human flesh. Vile, loathsome things. And not just any things, but things. You know. Them.

I invoked Mr. Suave's fear insanity, and instead of whatever "I'm so cool I don't need to fight" thing he was going to do, he spent the round curled up in the fetal position under the table screaming.

Next round comes, and Mr. Suave asks me if he can act if the action is based on fear. That sounds fine by me, so I let him declare. In his panic-addled mind, he fixates on the scoundrel who started the fight. Clearly he summoned them, and thus needs to be put down. So he draws a pair of knives and proceeds to tackle the man and cut him to ribbons. He even throws in his madness point in order to emulate insane strength. He does so much damage he kills the scoundrel. That even came with a "Sorry, Clifford. I know you don't like these games to go killer, but I'm kind of crazy right now." As it turned out, I completely agreed with him.

The following round I let him recover his senses, and the rest of the brawl just realized someone had been killed. Mr. Suave beat a hasty retreat (burning a drama die, and thus getting rid of the madness point in the grip), while Dr. Destructor held the door long enough for him to get away. Or, that was the plan anyway. Instead, Destructor decided to brawl the whole bar himself, 1 on 20, and won. He's like that. He got himself a drink before heading out to find Mr. Suave.

This has been the only time we've used madness so far, but the initial impressions are good. All of the mechanics associated with this little rules bundle seem easy enough to use at the table, and parallel rules everyone's already familiar with, which means almost no learning curve. The one thing that's different, the grip of madness, has so far presented no difficulties. Mr. Suave asked once for a refresher and from then on seemed to have it well in hand. I anticipate getting an opportunity to use these a lot more in the future, and we'll see how they stand the test of time. For a maiden voyage though, so far so good.