Category: Role Playing Games

Dangerous Games for Boys

The other night, I had a great time playing a home-brewed pick-up Role-Playing Game with my good friends’ two boyfull boys who have just started school who are full of energy, imagination, and derring-do. We actually started this game awhile ago and they had been aching to continue it.

The “game” is not in itself “complete” or well-defined and I have mostly been relying on my experience with such games to make snap situational judgments about how to conduct things. For those who don’t know in a role-playing game, players take the role of characters in a fictional setting and determine the actions of the characters as the fiction proceeds, deciding for them what their aims in the fictional world are. The world fiction is conducted by a referee, called the Game Master or GM. The GM provides the world setting, reports the results of the players’ characters actions in their environment, and sees to it that such interactions are fairly determined according to a set of rules agreed to by both players and GM. You might say the GM is the author of everything except the players characters. In this case, I am the GM and there was no mastered rule set. The kids are trusting me and I am winging it. But the most important responsibility of a GM is to see to it that his customers have a worthy time.

This game was built around my iPod, using the “Pocket Oracle” app. This app is like a “Magic 8 Ball” that you design yourself. The “ball in the Ball” is actually a dodecahedron – a twenty sided die. I designed the die using an imperfect FUDGE ladder, named from a famous open sourced RPG system. It looked like this.

1. Excellent!
2. Very Great!
3. Great.
4. Very Good
5. Very Good
6. Good
7. Good
8. Very Fair
9. Very Fair
10. Fair
11. Fair
12. Barely Fair
13. Barely Fair
14. Mediocre
15. Mediocre
16. Barely Mediocre
17. Barely Mediocre
18. Poor!
19. Barely Poor!
20. Terrible!

Whenever a charter attempts to do something that is important and risky, the player (or GM if the character is not controlled by a player) “rolls” (shakes the iPod in this case) and the resulting word tells how the Player’s character did. The GM then adds detail to this result to apply it to the specific situation the character was in. So if a character is disarming a trap and rolls “Terrible” not only dies he fail to disarm it but he sets it and all the nearby traps off. This roll can be modified if the GM or player thinks they face an unusual challenge or difficulty. If there is, the GM adds or subtracts a “level” to the roll result. When adding or subtracting levels, jeep the modifier (very, barely, or none) and change the value to next one up or down. So to level up very fair you get very good. To level down very fair you still get very mediocre even though that’s not on the die.

The modifiers really come into play in contests. If two people are arm wrestling for example, both roll and the highest roll wins. If one rolls “good” and the other rolls “very good” the second player wins. Contests may involve different types of actions. If one character is trying to sneak around a guard, he must pit his sneak attempt roll against the guard’s alertness roll. If it’s greater then the sneak attempt is successful. In contests, the description of results is determined not by the winning roll but by the degree of difference. “Fair” is the base from which you calculate and keep the modifier. So if the winner rolls “very good” and the loser rolls “good” the winner’s result is “very fair”. If the winner rolls “good” and the loser’s roll is “barely mediocre” the winner’s result is “great”. If the winner rolls “barely mediocre” and the loser rolls “terrible”, the winner’s result is “barely great”.

Combat is a special case of a contest roll. Before combat can begin it must be determined if one character surprises another. This is a contest like the sneak-guard case above. If a player fails an alertness contest, his character is surprised and cannot attack or defend in the first round. His opponent gets a free uncontested hit role which may be modified by the circumstances (magical weapons or dwarven craft armor, etc.).

After surprises are resolved all characters are aware of the combat. Each contestant rolls once and combat turns are determined from highest to lowest. This is the initiative contest and us based on the characters natural agility, training, and encumbrance. Significant factors here can modify the roll.

Once combat turns are assigned, on each Player’s turn, he can have his character move (change his location, ready a weapon, load a weapon, change his position, ready a spell, etc) or attack one opponent with one weapon if the opponent is in range of the weapon. In face to face melees the character must be next to his opponent.

If the character the character attacks with a melee weapon (sword, hammer, mace, roundhouse kick) the opponent may if he us able defend from the blow (parry with his own weapon, block with his shield, or dodge out of the way) if he can. If be can’t, then the attack is an uncontested modifiable roll. If he can, it’s a contested roll. If the attacker is successful use the quality of results to determine damage. If not, nothing happens. If the attacker does really badly (poor or terrible) he could lose or break his weapon or hurt himself.

If the attacker hits, he does damage according to the level of success.

Fair – Fatigue damage
Good – Equipment or stunning damage
Great – Stunning or wounding damage
Excellent -wounding or fatal damage

Fatigue damage simply means you are getting tired. All damage does fatiguing damage but fair damage only fatigues. If you sustain enough fatigue you will not be able to stand up. You may want to retreat before then. Equipment damage means that the defender’s equipment was able to absorb much of the blow depending on the defense used (weapon in parrying, shield in blocking, armor in dodging). This cannot last though. Equipment becomes weaker sustaining blows and eventually either breaks or fails to protect the defender. When equipment fails the results shift up fir each level as the table shows. Stunning damage dazed the opponent off his balance. Enough will knock him unconscious. Wounding damage draws blood and could lead to the loss of a limb. Final lethal blows effect vital areas of the body and could be fatal. Damage is described and recorded on the player’s Character notes. Damage nay be healed through rest, equipment repair, first aid, and magical healing.

A long range weapon such as a crossbow, throwing axe, or flintlock is an uncontested roll (unless the target is aware of the shootist) open to modification based on skill, range, coverage of the target, and the target’s armor.

I won’t say much about magic except that spells have to be ready before combat only by wizards or others with the constitution, training and immediate required components for the spell. In combat, a wizard must take several rounds to get ready to cast a spell. When he does, the roll is a contested roll against his opponent’s natural magic resistance. If the roll is successful, the wizard makes a distinct roll for the effect of the magic. If the wizard makes a poor or terrible result, the wizard makes an effect roll and applies it to himself or his party.

In all of this, the results are determined “according to the draw of the narrative”. There are no real numerical calculations and some times dice results are massaged a bit fir the sake of plausibility and fun. It’s all at the GMs discretion but the players will be the final judge with their feet.

For this adventure, I had the boys tap into their picture of fantasy helped along by seeing TLOTR movies. I asked then to pick a race (dwarf, human, elf) and a medieval fantasy class (knight, wizard, thief) and tell a story about how someone of their race came to be in their class. I have found that if a person can come up with plausible answers to biographical puzzles then they have a clearer grasp of their character concept to predict what their character will do in novel situations. I had them write their stories down on sheets and keep them to update as the story progressed. That, plus the descriptive aspect of the die used, made it natural for them to imagine how things went.

That night, the boy’s dwarven knights had discovered an old abandoned castle (it mysteriously and gradually appeared as the sun set on a cliff by the seashore) and had discovered the remains of an open air market inside it’s outer Bailey. Searching, the found a map to the layout of the castle and discovered a secret passage to the interior.

Their first encounter in this passage was with a the ghost of of the former Prince of the castle, whom they defeated and dissipated in a battle but not before they hot some useful information from him. It turns out that his loss of the prince’s father and the condition of the castle was the work of an evil wizard.

They then discovered a well stocked armory and replaced their worn equipment. Then one discovered a specially crafted dwarven war-hammer (roll twice and take best roll when attacking). The other didn’t find anything at first but (after pleading with “uncle GM” with sincere outcries), he eventually found a cool matched set of throwing daggers.

They eventually found another stretch of secret passage that went up several stairs. After a good trap detect roll, they noticed that there were holes in the wall on each side of the stairs. But these holes were at the level of the head of a normal human, not a dwarf. One decided to brave a few of the stairs to see how the traps worked. Getting an excellent result, he climbed the entire flight of stars and set off the spear traps. At each set of holes, a spear automatically thrust out of one hole and into the opposite hole but too high to harm the keen dwarf.

His partner was not quite so fortunate. At one point, a spear thrust out of a hole in one if the stairs (not noticed by check for traps attempt). He dodged the spear but it caught the inside of his new shield from the armory and pinned it to the ceiling. disappointed, he retained his old wood shield to replace it.

The door at the top of the stairs turned out to be a secret passage into the main throne room. They had been warned by the ghost that the throne had been cursed but did not know how. It turned out there were four thrones at the other end of the great room from the main entrance doors.

They decided to inspect the main entrance for jewels or other things. But this put them in a position to see that they were not alone in the throne room. Hidden from their earlier vantage point, up amid the tops if the columns, was the castle guardian, a giant crawfish (or a really, really, really large lobster – we had crawfish for dinner, which the boys were both disgusted and fascinated by). The crawfish had noticed them before they saw him and was on the way down to the floor to engage them. (So no surprise.)

Each knight engaged one of the claws (each treated as an individual fighter) and won their initiative. One managed to get in some stunning damage (no real distinction to be made between equipment and bodily damage – a crawfish’s armor is its body). The other missed and both were bracing for the monster’s attack when the dad cane in and announced bed time.

The boys ran all around and went to bed with visions and tactics for defeating a giant crawfish. “It’s like Lord of the Rings!” (with crawfish). Wait until they discover it’s breath weapon!

The great thing about GMing with kids is that you don’t need to worry about being short of ideas. Their excitement and imagination produces a virtual fountain of ideas. I just had to listen to the boys to pick out my adventure. It made for a great pick-up experience.


H. P. Lovecraft’s Cave

H. P. Lovecraft’s Cave

Oh, that I may never have taken that option that I might have remained comfortable in my naïveté – only thinking that I knew anything when in fact knew nothing. Oh to not know now what I didn’t know before.

I was content with my daily life. I was doing fine watching shadows on the wall. But some wise man unlocked the shackles that bound me. He told me that this world of appearances was a meager reflection of a more real and more perfect world, bathed in more pure and illuminating light. He seemed strange and queer – in fact, dangerous. I saw no reason to doubt the reality of my world, but he said that was only because I grew up bound to this world and simply knew of no other possibility. I decided that if it was possible there was greater truth to be found it was worth the risk.

So I stood up from my chains and saw that the world that appeared to me was indeed nothing but shadows reflecting on the wall of a cave. I was disoriented but turned around to find another area of the cave where the light came from. But as I examined this area, I discovered that there was nothing but a random hedge if briars and that the light of a fire was passing through it and casting the shadow from it on the wall. But the fire was but a dying glow from mere residual embers and there was no definite shape to the briars. The random flickering and crackling of glow created mere blots of shadow and the illusion of noise that I took to be animals and people and their voices speaking to me. But there were no other people here besides myself and no rhyme or reason to what was going on.

I noticed that behind the embers was indeed an exit from the cave. It was rough and meandering. But I went out looking forward to a more perfect world that I longed for even more. It was indeed a torturous journey but I pressed forward taking my perplexity as as a measure of the lack if understanding that would yet be more than overcome by that brighter light of reality. But it was just the darkness that ever increased as I moved further and further away from the weak light of the embers back behind me.

I had discovered that I had already exited the cave for a while before I realized it. I had wandered randomly and tripped at the edge of a lake. But the surface had frozen over and some silt had been mixed in with the ice. I saw nothing but an empty cipher when I tried to look at my reflection on the surface. There was nothing to see. All the lines on the ice were not natural to it but had been scratched into it by what must have been giant claws scratching across it over time.

As I looked up, I could see that the only light was from distant stars that defied being formed in any constellation. The empty spaces of the cosmos were underlined by the fading paleness of the eternal twilight. There was no sun, no moon.

In the pale cold darklight all I could see were obtuse formations of grey rock and crystal. There was nothing of any particular shape. All I heard was the mechanical drone of static from the icy wind blowing hollowly through rocks like so much feedback.

Suddenly, I realized that I had been deceived. Worse, that I allowed myself to be deceived. I turned, hoping to find my way back to the cave before it was too late, – and then I saw the Ancient One. And I knew that I would never go back to any semblance of sanity.

I could not look away from the Great Perversity, even though my mind was slipping away. I was despairing of any illusion of dignity and meaning, I was absolutely terrified and denial could not keep up with the fresh stinging realizations that this was the real world I was told about. Yet I was laughing, laughing hysterically in the midst of tears that drained my ducts dry. I had lost my mind.

Then I saw that there were others like me, all attached to the Thing, with several of It’s tentacles and antennas piercing there bodies brains. I saw tubules from It penetrating them draining their blood and body fluids and infusing them with disgusting phlegms of It’s own. There faces grimaced into awful grins, reflecting a gnosis other than what the must actually possess.

Then I saw the wise man who released me in my cave, tubes going in and out of his head and belly. “See him, master, I have brought him to you”, he gurgled. “Bring them,” they all began screaming, “Bring to the master all bodies, all brains, all blood!”

I bolted, but too late. It was upon me instantly, and I was suddenly swallowed in terror as the tubes went into me. I was overwhelmed with an orgy if pain as the last bit of my sense of humanity faded into ubiquitous flesh.

But now here I am going back to my cave and to my fellow cave citizens. But thus time I come with an alien host that has taken me over like a marionette. I want to warn you not to believe anything without evidence and do not act on mere theoretical hopes like I did. I want you to go with your natural instinct. I must sound crazy. Please lock me up. For your own sake and mine, PLEASE KILL ME!

But what will I say? “Don’t you think that we will be better people if we assume a brighter world even if we cannot find it, then becoming lax and give up inquiring?”

Campaign Notes from ARCON

Shaolin Samurai

Here is the story from our Shadows of Syracuse adventure held at ARCON XI by the StoryTellers’ Guild at SUNY Oswego the last weekend of April, 2012. It was based on my home brewed noir urban fantasy hero setting “Shadows of Syracuse: Wonder Tales from the distant Present”. This year, I used the rediscovered hero system “Villains & Vigilantes” to create some of the old school feel to the game.

Syracuse is an old upstate city struggling with expanding crime and a poor economy, with strong ethnic neighborhoods. Unaware to most of it’s citizens, it is also at the intersection of the Five Mystical Circles of Power, the resident base of the estranged members of the Imperial Family of the Galactic Empire, and Ground Zero of the coming Apocalypse – the true center of the Universe. Several citizens have in various ways been touched by these forces and have received hyper-natural or supernatural powers. But this has cast them from the full light of day and made them targets of even greater forces they do not fully understand. They must try to carve their own way in the hidden recesses of the enchanted city.

This often means privateering for the various factions working to manipulate the direction of these forces. Our touched characters, natural born citizens who have received powers, have been recruited by Catholic Charities: Special Lichtensteinian Refugee Services Branch: (LRS) has contacted and called a meeting with them to help them with a serious internal matter. The archbishop in charge of the local organization cannot be it’s recognized authority unless he possesses the original charter document. But during the last transition of power, an agent of Destiny Corps. and one of it’s Corporate Ninjas (not a metaphor) has stolen the document and hid, to gain control over the LRS “assets”. The intended successor has been de facto regent secretary but cannot rule fully. Only recently, by recovering one of the other victims of the Villain, have they been able to find where he is. However, he has picked a particularly reinforced place to protect himself – the Hotel Syracuse. A landmark of the city, the Great Hotel has seen hard times in recent years. Guests who stayed during the NCAA tournament complained of yellowing sheets and “a strange smell”. Businesses in the ground floor have closed their shops and the property has been purchased by an Israeli interest. But the word in the Shadows is that some dark force has claimed hold of the building and scared away all the normal customers and that these other interests are seeking to contain the dark.

The only person to come out from that darkness is this recovered hostage. But she seems to have “Stockholm Syndrome”. She is desperate to return to her former captor. So the plan is for our heroes to follow her lead back to the Ninja, defeat him, and recover the charter.

In late evening, she directs the group to enter the service entrance on the far side of the hotel front. Showing them a secret stairway, they descend steps to a sub- sub- sub- basement. This chamber seems more like a natural cave formation than a human structure, except the walls are covered of a strange crystalline material, “Watch your step. This is very slippery” the hostage says. Exploring reveals a few passages away from the main chamber but they arc dangerously down into deeper caves. The heroes decide not to go further. In the center of the chamber is an elevator shaft with an old elevator car from the early years of the hotel. After debating various strategies, the heroes decide to just take the car up. The hostage reveals a secret key which she inserts in a hidden keyhole which activates the car.

The heroes get the distinct impression that the car is going up higher than the actual height of the building. The car stops in the service corridor in he center of what looks like a typical floor of the hotel. The heroes have maps of standard floor plans from the public library. The other elevator shafts are sealed in concrete and useless. The hostage warns that some areas have been damaged by collapsed structure and some have been sealed off. But the way to her “dear one” should be accessible. The elevator does not go all the way up. They have to find the stairs to the upper level.

There are only three stairwells and the one in the service area is completely sealed up. The heroes then step into the elevator lobby. One of them. Using his magnetic power, opens all the room doors to insect the rooms. Contrary to the map, it appears that the hallways extend indefinitely long in opposite directions. Looking for an open stairwell, the heroes go in one direction and discover that this appearance is an illusion created by mirrors that block the way to the stairs. Using incorporeality, one hero passes through the mirror and peels off strips of the backing so all can see through the glass. He also discovers that the second stairwell is completely caved in.

He and another hero, looking through the glass, sense danger and see something at the end of the corridor – a pair of children in nightshirts. Suddenly, the group discovers that they are surrounded by the Hungry Dead – former guests of the hotel who died there but have come alive as hungry ghosts. First the group tries to fight them. At this time, one hero reveals her pet – an invisible “phase ape” – she named him “Fluffles” – that came with the cache of alien tech that she discovered in her uncle’s pawn shop. The ape allows her to attack remotely and gain a facing advantage. Another, using magnetism, is hitting the ghosts with hotel doorknobs. However, more ghosts keep coming. Making agility saves, the group evades the ghosts and runs to the opposite side of the floor. One hero grabs the hostage and swings her onto his shoulder, taking out another of the Dead in the process. They find a similar mirror but this time with a secret door. Blasting a hole with a disintergrating ray through the mob of the Dead, they make it to the one maintained stairwell.

This takes them to a floor which hosts many dining rooms, meeting rooms, and a grand ball room. “That’s where he will be”, the hostage says. This floor is more damaged than the other. Caved in areas create a functioning maze trap. Eventually, in the master kitchen, one of heroes found materials to use as weapons with his magnetic power. Unfortunately, the also found a string tall figure with pale white skin and hair, black outfit, obsidian eyes, pointed ears and a broadswords the he welded as easily as a throwing knife – a genuine Drow Elf from the Unseali Courts of the Underdark. The only possible form of communication with him is through telepathy – which he invites since he is willing to parley. The hero who links with him is filled with dreadful images of the Underdark realm, including visions of caverns covered with a crystalline material like the basement. The heroes realize that the hotel has become touched from beneath by the Dark Fey realm and the taint of it has corrupted the building, bringing back the dead as hungry ghosts and who knows what else. The Drow sees the hotel as an extension of the Drow domain and demands tribute or he will not allow them to leave alive. The heroes shiver as it us clear to them that “tribute” means offering a human life to him. The elf allows them to contemplate their choice and leaves.

Moving this to the back of their minds, the heroes go next to the grand ball room. When the hostage sees her beloved she runs to him. He us also a powerful experience character with robes and a polearm. He is serene looking and glad to see them. He returns the expression of love from the hostage but in a more brotherly family way and not as a lover.

In response to questions, he explains that the former archbishop was murdered – not by him, a faithful disciple – but by the so-called successor who was the real agent from Destiny who disguised himself as a member of LRS from HQ to take over the organization. The former archbishop, before he died, entrusted him with the charter to prevent the complete transition of authority to the usurper. He has been holding on to the charter pending an appeal to HQ to rule on the matter and take care of it internally. The “hostage” was never her prisoner but was a member of a family that helped him hide from the usurper – which cost them dearly as many were killed helping him escape. She only survived. It was then he decided to take the risky measure of hiding in the “fortress” of the Hotel Syracuse, only letting her know how to find him in an emergency. He shows them the charter document. The heroes come to believe that they might have been used. He is, in fact, though Catholic, a very very eastern rite version. He us the Shaolin Samurai.

This gets confirmed when the “phase ape” appears to everyone, and then transforms into the usurper himself. Unknown to the hero, she was picked for this assignment to open the way for the usurper to face the Shaolin Samurai himself. The usurper, using his powers, killed and replaced Fluffles, to hide among the heroes. He then calls out. The windows of the great ball room smash as four gargoyles become animated from the roof of the hotel and come at the command of the usurper. Combat ensues.

The Shaolin Samurai and the incorporeal powered hero attack the usurper himself, while the others go after the gargoyles. The magnetic hero gets a lucky shot using the kitchen utensils like a billing ball picking up first strike like a seven ten split. one hero uses psychic force to pin two gargoyles to the wall while another blasts them with disintegration (getting a facing advantage from the pinning effect). Shaolin Samurai finds himself equally matched by his opponent getting no experience bonus to hit with his chi enhanced polearm attacks. Meanwhile, the incorporeal hero is able to take advantage of facing and incorporeality – which was a good thing because it prevented the usurper from using Touch of Death on him.

Eventually, the players succeed at their goal to kill all the gargoyles and wind and restrain the usurper using paralysis ray. Shaolin Samurai still holds the charter and is allowed to leave the hotel freely. The true usurper has been caught and given over to the Drow Elf as tribute – although no one can say if this “justice” was proportionate. The Shaolin Samurai promises the LRS will reward the heroes for their great service.

On the other hand, the loser is the “hostage” who finally realizes that the Shaolin Samurai is bound to an oath of chastity. He could never be hers. Also, mourned is Fluffles, the loss of whom will embitter her owner against Destiny Corp forever. And finally, there remains the yet unknown effect of the taint if the Dark Empire on our heroes.

GM notes: Total truth. V&V has “open powers” during character creation which simply ask the player or GM to come up with something under the general category. When this happened, I used the “Unlimited Powers” handbook from “Mutants & Masterminds” 2.0 for inspiration.

RIP, Fluffles. We hardly saw thee!