Monthly Archives: January 2013

The Æther Sea

So, I haven’t been RPGing in a while. Last game I played for any length of time was a Steamfitters playtest, and while I want to get back into that game again, I want to do something else for a while. I want to play around in a world which has been in my head for, oh, ages now, inspired in part by the old classic Spelljammer D&D setting, but made for Fate Core (as I played around with earlier). It’d be great to get a live game going, and I know a few local players who might be interested, but hell, even an online Google+ Hangout-equipped game would be keen, if there’s a smattering of interest.

The Æther Sea. It’s Firefly by way of Tolkien, built in Fate Core, which allows for no end of exciting big damn heroes moments. Or maybe it’s Star Trek, where interstellar politics is just another sort of firefight, and the Vulcans really are elves instead of just acting like it. Either way, it’s something I want to play with. Anyone else interested?

Oh, I wrote a bit of an introduction for it here, because I’m the sort of dude who likes introducing worlds in sweeping narratives.

Three hundred years ago, at the tail end of the Red Century, the general consensus was that the planet was too small for all the peoples on it. The great elven woods which once spanned from ocean to ocean had been penned in and chopped down to build and fuel thousands of huge human cities. The cities themselves were home to refugee elves, and soon dwarves who were forced to abandon their old tunnels, dying mines, and mad kings. And of course, the gnomes were ever underfoot.

With the forests dying, orcish hunting tribes grew ever more desperate, and raiding–always a problem–became an epidemic. Weak, cowardly goblins found unlikely allies in bulky, slow trolls, both weary of being subservient to the other species, and together forged an empire that rivaled the largest human kingdoms and dwarven clans, neither of whom appreciated the competition for dwindling resources. And of course, the gnomes were ever underfoot here, too.

The Red Century was so-called because it was a time of anger and bloodshed; humans stole land from each other and the elves, the dwarves would undermine and collapse constructions which they thought threatened their dominance, and elves would use their mastery of magic to lay siege to entire cities. No emperor was safe from goblin spies, no wall was immune to trollish attacks, and no traveler could breathe easy when orcish raiders were around every corner. Great empires were created and collapsed in less than a decade, and some cities changed hands more than a dozen times in a century. Ancient alliances were ground to dust in favor of pragmatic understandings… elf would turn on elf to side with orc and gnome and dwarf, all in exchange for a little space and a little safety, even though that safety would never last. The thrust of expansion pushed civilization into the coldest, darkest corners of the world, home to creatures, constructs, and dark enchantments best forgotten. And still, it wasn’t enough!

The æther hadn’t been a secret… it was common knowledge that the planet was surrounded by a great sea of luminiferous æther, the stuff of starlight. There were other suns and other planets, impossibly far and utterly unreachable. But desperation has a way of rendering the impossible inevitable, and in the search for resources, safety and elbow room it was the elves of the Silverleaf Preserve who developed the first æthership to take them free of the planet’s bounds. Once they had secured a new life in an untouched wilderness, they began leasing out ships at prices high enough to beggar all but the largest planetary governments. Almost overnight, a century of bloodshed gave way to a largely mutual decision to pick a direction and fly far, far away from one another into the far reaches of infinity, and the Red Century gave way to the Æther Age.

That was three hundred years ago. Now, humans are trying to put settlements on planets that elves have declared sacred, and dwarves are illicitly mining in restricted space, and orcish pirates lurk around every asteroid, and the goblins have allied with the trolls in a secret empire, expansion has pushed civilization into the darkest corners of the universe, home to creatures and creations best left undiscovered, and everywhere, everywhere, everywhere there are gnomes underfoot.

The general consensus is that the universe is too small for the peoples in it.

GMotW: Planescape: Torment and unique immersion.

Planescape: Torment. Great game, or the greatest game?

A loaded question to be sure, but darn if it isn’t an interesting bit of game, full of things to talk about. It has any number of interesting things to say about life, death, memory, and trust, and of course, the main character is immortal. So, that’s neat. It also does something fancy with a concept I’m reluctant to talk about sincerely, because, well, “immersion” in games is a sticky wicket. What does it mean, does it make sense, is it a valued commodity, so on and so forth, it’s a discussion worthy of a massive essay in it own right, which I’m not writing right now, because I’m focusing on one little thing:

“In most role-playing games,getting killed means that you need to go back to your last saved game and try again. Torment is different, you’re a different sort of hero, and you’re immortal. You’ll find that this is a handy trait.”

Okay, this isn’t QUITE a mechanic, not the way its worded here in the manual on page 26, so let me rephrase: when the Nameless One loses his last hit point he will die, after which he will wake up some time later in a safe location (often the nearby mortuary) with all his goods intact.

To put it another way, you can die, but that never ends the game for you (notwithstanding the few limited occasions for which it does, which are pretty unique situations). Interesting. Interesting not because of the discussion on immortality and how that affect’s the Nameless One’s worldview (and indeed, he’s a fellow who’s willing to break his own neck just to prove a point) but because it’s making a part of the universe something that would be a part of the game anyway: the need to continue after the death of the main character.

Games need some sort of challenge or they aren’t games… they don’t need to be punishingly hard, but there must be some obstacle between the player and the goal, even if it’s as simple as pressing the walk button until the scene plays out. Often that challenge is expressed as combat, and for that combat to be entertaining to most players there must be a chance of failure, of dying to being beaten. When that happens, the game generally ends, as the player character is Dead or a Failure. THE END.

… except no, it isn’t! Players keep playing the game, because they want to win the game. They try again, or re-load from the last save, or (more recently) start again from the last checkpoint, continuing the game with the benefit of experience, the knowledge of where the bad guys are, how they’re going to act and what strategy isn’t going to work. If you suck enough, the game might even opt to make the baddies less of a challenge for you.

Torment opts to just put this into the game itself. When you die, you wake up at a nearby safe area, none the worse for wear. Everything else about the Nameless One’s nature, his powers, much of his personality (that which isn’t determined by the player’s actions at any rate) stems from this: his immortality is the immortality of the player of almost any game.

What does this do for the player? It makes the game strange without changing its ebb and flow. It reduces the temptation to save scum, because it save scums for you. It justifies… well, so much. It justifies heroism that borders on idiocy, and the tendancy to do things just to see what happens, and the fact that he’s basically godlike in terms of his power and potential, and all of little facts about the Nameless One which are true of all video game protagonists because, whatever, he can just reload. It allows a strange level of immersion, where there is no mental disconnect based on the player’s accessing information unavailable to the character: to a level which was at the time quite unique, the viewpoint of the protagonist and the player were one and the same. And of course, the Nameless One is an amnesiac as well, learning about the world at the exact same time as the player, something which is not unique, but does mesh really quite well with this particular narrative style.

It opens a number of unique narrative doors, reduces the reliance on pointless repetition, and fosters a sort of immersion. That’s pretty keen.

Goblin Magic: a FATE Core magic system hack

So, I like Fate Core quite a bit thus far. I like the Magic System Toolkit as well, but of course, the magic systems it proposes are never going to be EXACTLY what I want, because that’s the nature of reality, isn’t it?

So, uh, I made my own. As a part of… well. Not as a part of a larger project at the moment, because my plate has stuff on it. But as a Thing to Do in the event that I’m able to get a proper Fate Core game together, one which has a setting very well defined in my head, and which features, among other things, goblins and spaceships, and lich kings, and orcs. But right now, goblins, and their creation: 

Goblin Magic

Goblins are close cousins to the orcs; anthropologists suggest that they shared a reptilian ancestor some 3.5 million years ago. But while the latter group took over the plains and became the dominant predator of the grasslands, goblins remained close to their ancestral caves, where food was scarce, and scraped by through pluck and desperation. Goblins are natural scavengers, and though they no longer practice midnight raids of human towns, they are the biggest traders in scavenged goods in the Æther Sea: ship salvage and repair is dominated by the goblins, as is the trade of information between people, governments, and every level in between. Perhaps the ultimate expression of this is the Shadow Fleet: hundreds of junked and hastily repaired ships, manned by thousands of goblins flitting in and out of Royal space, absorbing information and rumors. To what end, nobody knows, or is willing to say.

Their foraging spirit lives on in their magic, which exhibits the same pragmatism and craftiness as the goblins themselves are known to. Goblin magic as all about the adaptive re-use of what already exists–moving attributes between objects, rather than creating anything new. Goblins who are truly skilled in magic are shamans, and just as likely to dedicate their craft to healing those in need as to excel at thievery and assassination.

Goblin Magic: The 30-Second Version

  • Requirement: Be a goblin.
  • Take the “Magic User” stunt.
  • Buy the Magic skill.
  • Use the Magic skill to Create an Advantage by removing an aspect from one item, character, or scene and adding it to another; a success with style allows both objects to retain the advantage. The effect lasts for as long as the character can focus on it.

Characters who wish to be shamans must do the following:

  • Be a goblin. Only goblins are able to feel the utility of objects in the necessary fashion to manipulate the fabric of reality around themselves.
  • Take the “Magic User” stunt.
  • Optionally, purchase the “Magic” skill. A magic-user who is untrained in magic is still able to cast, though they gain none of the additional benefits of having purchased the Magic skill.

This system adds one new skill: Magic. Its general description follows.

Magic is a poorly-understood force, despite what the elves would have you believe. It might be a force permeating the universe, or it might be the power of a sentient mind made manifest, or it might be the invisible strings of fate between all things, which can be tugged by those with the know-how; most cultures see it differently, and nobody has a claim to “the Right Answer” about magic. Still, just because the force isn’t understood doesn’t mean it can’t be USED. This skill covers a character’s understanding of magic, their ability to recognize its use and predict its effects; rather like Lore for purely arcane ends. Additionally, if a character is a magic-user, this skill will determine their efficacy.

Overcome: For most, magic rarely overcomes obstacles directly. The primary use of the Magic skill, in that case, is to recognize the effects of magic in the area and understand how a spell, object, or other magical artifact might operate. In this case it works rather like Investigation or Lore, depending on the specific application.

Create an Advantage: Much like Lore, Magic is used to Create an Advantage by revealing information about spells and other magical effects. It is fairly flexible, used to provide story details and potential aspects, if you’re able to take the time to research the spell in question.

Attack: Most people cannot use magic to attack.

Defend: Magic is rarely used to defend; its only common use as a defense is to recognize an illusory attack as such before it can deal mental stress.

Special: Characters who are trained in Magic at +1 or better are able to read spells and operate magic items.

Goblin magic-users gain an additional use for Create an Advantage.

A goblin shaman my use their Magic skill to add an aspect to an object, individual, or even scene, provided that the aspect comes from somewhere nearby (in game terms, the two objects much be within one zone of each other and the magic-user). It its most basic, this can be used to move aspects between objects; given a sword with the aspect “Wickedly sharp” and a dagger with no such aspect, a goblin who makes a successful Magic roll will come away with a “Wickedly sharp” dagger and a sword which is comparatively dull.

Other uses for this technique may be somewhat more esoteric; a timepiece with the aspect “Unerringly accurate” may be used, for instance, to bestow unerring accuracy on a pistol or crossbow. Yes, even though the nature of that accuracy is different, the essence of “Accuracy” remains.

If there is no item with the desired aspect, the shaman may use his Magic skill to create the aspect in one item while creating an inverse (and therefore easily compelled) aspect in another item: in the example above, the dagger may become “Wickedly sharp” while the sword gains the aspect “Dulled, chipped, and worn.”

A goblin who ties on an attempt may trade the aspects but only as a boost. A goblin who succeeds with style is able to leave the original aspect or remove an aspect temporarily without placing it somewhere new (if desired), or, if creating an aspect, not create the inverse version.

The nature of all things is to return to the status quo, so this exchange of aspects is not permanent: the shaman must keep it in mind at all times. The objects return to normal if he or she attempts to Create an Advantage in the same way again, falls unconscious, takes a consequence due to mental stress, or if either of the involved objects are moved more than a zone away from one another or the goblin.

As a guideline for difficulties: start at Good, and increase by one one for each of the following:

  • The giving object is living or moving (with the exception of the caster).
  • The receiving object is living or moving (with the exception of the caster).
  • The goblin cannot physically touch both objects.
  • The goblin cannot physically touch either object.
  • The traded aspect requires some creative interpretation (such as the “Accuracy” example above).

Increase by two for each of the following:

  • The traded aspect is magical in nature.
  • The receiving object is a zone or scene.
  • The giving object is a zone or scene.
  • The aspect is not pre-existing (e.i.: it must be created, along with an inverse aspect).
  • The aspect is especially broad or far-reaching.

Possible esoteric uses

Healing: Goblin shamans are able to use their power to promote well-being in themselves and others; Consequences may be temporarily transferred (however, if a character takes another consequence in that slot, when their original consequence returns it will be bumped up to the next highest slot, potentially fatally). Less dangerously, any character who can come up with a memory that is, say, “Soothing” or “Makes me feel good” can have than aspect transferred to an injury to promote healing, as if the injury were receiving good medical care. Transferring aspects in this way is tricky, and can only be done with the patient’s own memories–they will be inaccessible until the shaman releases the spell, though they will return as normal.

Stealth: While a goblin cannot easily become invisible, it is rather simple to find an area with a “Shadowy” or “Hard to notice” aspect which he can place upon himself for short-term use.

Alchemy: The qualities of any potions and herbs can be manipulated as if they were aspects (albeit magical ones), allowing for crafty applications of tinctures or poisons. Note that once a potion’s aspect is used, even if it’s attached to something else at the time, it disappears.

Repair: While something like “Functional” is too broad an aspect to transfer whole cloth, goblins can use their magic to alter the functionality of equipment; the artificial gravity rig takes the aspect “Weak and Spotty” in order to give the oxygen scrubbers the aspect “Operating at peak efficiency“.

Oh man, that was, like, twice as long as I intended it to be. Still, it feels good to have it out of my head.

GMotW: Shoot the Moon, baby.

Let’s talk about Hearts. The game, not the chest-thumpers.

I know, I know, it’s an utterly abstract game, and my bailiwick is usually the high-narrative stuff, and I don’t even like Hearts–for no good reason I really find trick-taking games of all sorts to be loathsome–but I need a mechanic to dissect and Hearts is home to a big one: the ability to “Shoot the Moon”.

We’re taking this rule straight from the source: the Wikipedia page for the game of Hearts.

“If one player takes all the penalty cards on one deal, that player’s score remains unchanged while 26 penalty points are added to the scores of each of the other players.”

For those not in the know, the general structure of the game is as such: you try to get rid of all the damn hearts in your hand. It’s trick-taking at its most basic, except inasmuch as rather than counting the tricks you took, you count how many hearts you have acquired (as well as the Queen of Spades, known variously as the Black Maria, Calamity Jane, Cursed Athena,, the Bitch, and Muhammad Hamza Zubaydi, among others). One point per heart, thirteen for the queen of spades, and by the way, whomever has the fewest points when the game ends is the winner.

Obviously Hearts, like any card game worth its salt, has more variant rules than it does actual rules by, like, an order of magnitude, and depending on who you ask, the very act of moon-shooting IS a variant, but it’s common enough that most folks take if for granted as being an actual part of play, like getting free money for landing on “Free Parking” or rolling a natural 1 meaning that your character automatically screws up so bad that she injured herself. Unlike those rules however, this one is a good thing which makes the game measurably more interesting.

Why can the moon be shot? Why reward behavior that is elsewhere punished? To be honest, the answer is right there in the question: it means that behaviors which are punished by the game normally are now rewarded! It upends that most basic rule of all games everywhere, the ur-rule if you will:

If you want to win, you must do the sorts of things which will allow you to win.

It’s so basic as to be a tautology: to win is to win, in short. And yet, shooting the moon, and similar strategies in any number of other games, inverse it. Take action which harms you, take action which makes you all the closer to losing, and only then shall you win. It’s backwards.

  • It means that you can never quite be sure whether a player that sucks actually sucks, or if he has a strategy that you don’t want to accidentally allow him to achieve.
  • It means that a really terrible hand might, under certain circumstances, be a really great hand. (Aside. A friend of mine was playing hearts with another friend; he had played before many times, but this was her first game. He played the 2 of clubs to lead the trick, and she played a heart. “No,” he said, “you have to play a club, to follow suit.” “I don’t have any clubs,” she told him. “Okay, but then you need to play a spade or diamond; you can’t play hearts on the first round.” “Um,” she said, “um, I can’t.” Lo and behold, she had been dealt the entire suit of hearts, a one in six hundred billion (or so) event. Needless to say, they gave her credit for shooting the moon without bothering to play out the rest of the hand.)
  • It means that a really great hand isn’t something you can rely on if there are clever and brave opponents about.
  • It means, more than anything else, that a middling hand becomes an exercise in the cruel math of risk and reward. Oh, you want to shoot that moon but oh, oh, it’s so far away and oh, if you don’t do it quite right then suddenly instead of penalizing everyone else by 26 points you wind up TAKING 25 of them because one bastard saw through your plan too early, before you could cement the round, and he has one measly point now and you’re booched.

That’s good. That’s a lot of emotions. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I hate Hearts and never play it, but I like this, in theory at least, in part because of what it is: a house rule that takes advantage of a player’s love for uncertainty and risky tricks, and in so doing has become timeless and time-honored. Shoot the moon, baby.