Busy busy busy


At last! I’ve finally polished off the text for the next version of Fatescape – it’s basically FATE Core with a few added skills and a new magic system and a whole load of Planescape bumf included – so all I need to do is sit down for a few hours and drop it into a pdf layout and we should be good to go!

It could do with a decent infusion of Planescape flavour, I think, and I need to transfer more of the custom stunts across from the previous version, and I should write up some sample adversaries, and the magic needs examination… but by and large it’s at the point now where I’m tinkering rather than creating from scratch.

Big Pulp: Catskin

My short story The Canau Deception has been published in Big Pulp magazine, in the Summer 2013 anthology entitled Catskin. I’ve got my author’s comp copies but I’m not sure if its available to the general public yet – but when it is, you should all get a copy! You’ll be able to find it formatted for your e-reader of choice here, eventually.

Also, they’ve agreed to publish another short story of mine – Won’t Be Missed, about a wizard and his super-strong ex-girlfriend and the fight they have – some time in 2014.

Low Life

Continuing my publishing credits: I entered the Low Life, High Adventure contest run by Andy Hopp over at Mutha Oith Creations and my story Not So Smart scored me a place in the anthology!

If you’re not familiar with Low Life as a setting for RPGs, I highly recommend it – I originally only spun by the contest page because Andy was giving away the setting book as a free pdf, and I love free stuff, but once I’d read it I knew I had to enter. Over on Something Awful, someone described Low Life as “Gamma World meets Fraggle Rock, plus butt jokes” which is entirely accurate and still undersells how cool it is.

It’s a shame the Kickstarter for a new rulebook didn’t hit the ‘FATE version’ level, since I’m not a huge fan of either Savage Worlds or Pathfinder, but I reckon I’ll get my money’s worth just reading the pdfs as they arrive in my inbox.


Speaking of ‘getting my money’s worth from just reading’, I finally got around to backing Chuubo’s Marvellous Wish-Granting Engine – the latest work from the superlatively gifted Jenna Moran – and I’m so glad I did!

I mean, the basic premise doesn’t really sit well with me: it’s pastoral-style gaming, slow-paced and gentle; the main protagonists are all teenagers; and the sample campaign strongly expects you to play pregens rather than original characters.

But the execution! The pastoral style works for the kind of stories the game wants to tell (and there are other options, which as far as I can tell no one has seriously looked at), the pregens are without exception bloody fantastic – my personal favourites being Nightmares’ Angel, the Troublemaker, and the Prodigy – and… I still don’t care for teenage PCs* but I’ll deal. I haven’t wanted to play a game so badly in a long time.

*Says the man playing a teenage PC in an online Monsterhearts game. I think the difference is that in Monsterhearts the game tends to focus on a spiral of failure and doom, and watching the in-crowd self-destruct because they’re all terrible people is always a good time.

Shadowrun Returns

And another Kickstarter I backed is released today! I’ve got plans for the campaign editor already, so we’ll see if I can find the time to actually finish a module for the first time ever.

…oh, and I got engaged too. =3

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Not Dead

I break the silence this blog has languished under to announce that I’ve knocked together a really quick and woolly hack for MHR, in order to help you play Exalted with it. You can see the link over to the right, or if you’re reading this far in the future when everything’s been rearranged, click here.

There’s other stuff in the pipeline too – a complete reworking of Fatescape is on the cards to take advantage of all the hard work Evil Hat put into FATE Core and the playtesting that my group did running through the Shackled City, I’m getting published later this month and just got accepted for another anthology in 2014, and a few other odds and ends.

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D&D 4e: How to Challenge Skills

There’s no shortage of articles on the internet about how to construct skill challenges in 4th edition D&D. I would know – I browsed a great many of them trying (and failing) to wrap my head around how the hell they were supposed to work. It doesn’t help that across the range of Wizards’ official 4e modules the way skill challenges are handled changes from author to author as they try to make sense of the same system.

But! Having played some 4e over the past few weekends, including a pretty good skill challenge involving the most idiotic magical construct ever*, I think I have at last got a sort of handle on how to structure them so they avoid most of the pitfalls of the basic system.


The key to constructing a good skill challenge is to divide it up into stages: a series of possible hazards and difficulties that the characters might face in pursuit of a greater goal. Ideally you want one stage for every required success + 2 (because the maximum number of die rolls in a skill challenge is a victory while remaining only one step away from failure) but a few less than this is okay**. Every stage should be conquerable in one or two die rolls.

Note: If you can’t divide your skill challenge into stages then it’s not a skill challenge. It’s either a stage in a larger challenge or it’s a simple skill check.

Example: The journey to a distant ruin is going to require overland navigation, contention with difficult weather, booking passage on various forms of travel, and dealing with a border patrol. That’s only four stages, but I reckon each of those is good for 1-2 skill rolls so it should be okay for a complexity 2 skill challenge.

Then flesh out each stage, noting the problems that will appear and how the characters will have to handle them. Try to include a wide variety of skills and hazards which force all the characters to make checks, not just the ones who are exceptionally good at what they do. Also note if any checks are required (the challenge can’t succeed without at least one success in that skill), support (rolling the skill doesn’t count as success or failure in the challenge, but modifies other rolls), group (have to be made by everyone; if more people succeed than fail, then it counts as a success), have a maximum utility (i.e. “you can only get one success from this skill in this challenge”) or have other special effects. To flesh out the example:

The Journey to the Tomb of Gorthag (Complexity 2 Skill Challenge)

  • Navigation: Nature (Medium) is the skill which you navigate with, and one Nature success is required for this skill challenge. There is no limit to how many successes you can rack up with Nature. Navigation is supported by History (Medium) and Religion (Medium) to know more about where the tomb is – success on a check in either of those skills grants a +2 bonus to Nature, while failure adds a -2 penalty. Religion and History can only be rolled once for this stage.
  • Terrible Storm: This is a group Nature (Hard) check to find shelter. Characters can cover additional people with a single Nature check by increasing the DC by 5 per person. Everyone who fails the check (or is not covered) loses two healing surges.
  • Forced March: This is a group Endurance (Medium) check. Everyone who fails loses a healing surge, regardless of whether or not the check succeeds or fails as a whole.
  • Finding Passage: This is a Diplomacy (Easy) or Streetwise (Easy) check to locate transport. On a success every character must either buy passage ([suitable amount] gp) or work. Working requires an Athletics (Hard) or Endurance (Medium) check; success or failure does not affect the skill challenge but failing costs two healing surges. If characters do not pay or work for their passage this check counts as a failure for the challenge instead of a success. The party can gain a maximum of two successes by finding passage.
  • Border Patrol: The patrol can be avoided using a group Stealth check (Medium), deceived using Bluff (Hard) or bribed using Diplomacy (Easy) and [suitable amount] gp. Failure not only counts towards a failure in the skill challenge but also costs a healing surge for everyone in the group in the ensuing struggle. [Note: You could play out the fight, but that would get tedious fast and the net result – lose one healing surge – is about the same.]

Pass/Fail: If the characters succeed at the skill challenge they arrive at the Tomb of Gorthag in good time. If they fail, then they still get to the tomb but have taken such a circuitous route that Gorthag the Undying has had time to reinforce his undead legion with [suitable penalty, like extra undead minions in every encounter].

And then all that’s left is to run the challenge – the best way is to pick and choose which events to hit the characters with based on what they do and let the skill checks flow organically from the story.***

With a group that strikes out into the wilderness I might run this challenge as a navigation roll followed by the storm, then another navigation roll as they push on across the hills. As they cross the border they meet a patrol, then they have to make a forced march check because they’ve been travelling for days, then they encounter another patrol in the hinterlands, and then one more navigation and forced march roll if they’re still 1-2 successes short of victory.

A different group might open by seeking passage to the approximate area, travelling first by ship and then inland by barge. They encounter a patrol as they cross the border. Then they must locate the tomb with a navigation roll and head cross-country to it (navigation or forced march, depending on approach). En route I’d hit them with the storm to get that final sixth check they need for success.

Or maybe a group would fail their navigation roll, fail to weather the storm, then seek passage on more sheltered transport – except they fail the roll to bribe the guards at the border and by the time they’ve sorted out all that they’ll be late to the tomb.

Or perhaps they pick up a teleport ritual and zap there overnight. These things happen to the best of us.

*As judged by my character R-12, who as a warforged considers himself in a good position to judge the quality of intelligent magical constructs.

**Yes, this means that the higher-difficulty skill challenges should have about 20 separate bits. No, I still have no idea how to make that work.

***If you ask me, this is the problem with most skill challenges as written: because 4e specifically removes causal power from the narrative fiction of the game, skill challenges can often feel very disjointed unless you break them right down and take steps to control the pacing.

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Fiction and Mechanics

Roleplaying games can be divided into two pieces: the fiction of the game (the story that everyone at the table is telling) and the mechanics of the game (the bit where you roll dice and find out what happens). The relationship between the two can be quite interesting when you dig into it, and can also explain the reaction of some people when faced with games which play with the relationship in unfamiliar ways – if you’re not used to thinking of the game as two separate threads it can be jarring to play a game which has that as its baseline assumption. (See also every blog post about ‘immersion’ and ‘dissociative mechanics’ ever.)

D&D 3.x

In D&D 3.x and other ‘trad’ roleplaying games most* mechanical elements are linked to a specific element of the fiction. The mechanics generate the fiction – when you make a trip attack, for example, your character is actually trying to knock down their opponent – but the fiction also generates mechanics to go with it. Creatures with extra legs have a mechanical advantage when defending against being tripped, and creatures with no legs (oozes) cannot be tripped at all. When the fiction seems like it should provide an effect but doesn’t – like enlarge person failing to provide an increase in movement speed – people find it incongruous.

You can also make the case that this is part of why games like this tend to get so rules-heavy: when you introduce new fictional elements, every element has to have a rule that goes with it and that rule has to interact with the rest of the system – if the system breaks, the fictional elements attached to that part of the system also break and the game suddenly becomes very surreal. You can see an example of this in core D&D with elementals: water elementals are made of water, yet have no special resistance to fire damage. This means that in the fiction of the game a spell like inferno can cause a water elemental to catch fire and burn to death. Which is a little odd.

*Hit points, of course, have never been linked to anything in the fiction except in the most handwavy way.

D&D 4e

The fourth edition of D&D takes a different approach: the mechanics still generate the fiction, but the fiction does not drive anything mechanical. When 4e was first released a lot of people took umbrage at the warlord’s healing word power (I forget what it’s called) because they could see no way to tie the fiction – the warlord says something – to the mechanical healing effect. How does a warlord shouting close wounds generated by an axe to the head?

The answer according to 4e is ‘however it makes sense’. Perhaps that axe to the head was just stunning rather than wounding, or perhaps the loss of hit points was panic and not a direct physical hit – in either case, having a drill sergeant get on your case can get you back in the fight. You’re expected to tailor the fiction of the game to reflect what the mechanics tell you has happened, but the fiction has no reciprocal effect on the mechanics.

For another example, consider a 4e character’s ability to knock a gelatinous cube prone**. The fiction – that a gelly cube has no legs and no real facing – does not create a mechanical imperative that the cube cannot be knocked prone. Rather, when you bash the cube with a prone-making power you are expected to justify the mechanical effects (-2 on attacks, grants CA, can’t move) with some other fictional explanation, like “I’ve disrupted its membrane!” or something.

**I have vague memories of this being fixed in the Monster Vault – but you can still grab swarms, so the basic point remains.


FATE doesn’t veer too far from the trad games setup in that mechanical elements and fictional elements are specifically tied together, but it does offer the interesting ability to translate the fiction into mechanics just by writing it on your character sheet. Is the dungeon collapsing? Well, now there’s a Collapsing aspect on the scene. Get hit by a hammer and suffer a broken arm? Well, now you’ve got a Broken Arm that affects how you act.

This neatly avoids the problem of D&D 4e where the fiction seems to demand something that the mechanics don’t support*** – the fiction simply becomes the mechanics – and also the excessive rules pile-up of D&D 3.x by allowing the mechanics to interact with plain English phrases rather than requiring the translation of those phrases into mechanical code that can be plugged into the rules engine.

***Just why are mindless undead still susceptible to psychic damage?

Dungeon World

Dungeon World also follows the trad games method of tying specific fiction actions to specific mechanical effects, but explicitly gives primacy to the fiction. It’s not quite an inversion of the 4e model, but it does create a situation where the results of mechanical dice rolls have to fall in line with the fictional paradigm already established – and if the fiction disallows a certain action, such as the frequent example of a dragon which is just too mighty to be fought with regular weapons, then the mechanical action cannot take place.

To be honest, I think this is what gives DW its ‘old-school feel’, since your Labyrinth Lords and your Swords and Wizardrys operate along very similar lines: declare fictional intent to stab goblin, roll to stab goblin, translate roll and damage back into fictional wounding of goblin; declare fictional attempt to climb wall, GM tells you wall is too slick, find another way around or break out some equipment; etc. etc.

So What?

Well, nothing really. But I have a post on D&D 4e skill challenges in the pipeline and I didn’t want to digress in the middle of that in order to a) explain what I mean when I say that the fiction in 4e is an epiphenomenon of the mechanics and b) defend that opinion when the post is about something else entirely.

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Dungeon World

I’ve been reading a lot of Dungeon World recently, and playing a bit of it on the internet. It purports to be a new-school system which generates an old-school experience, which I think is a pretty fair assessment. It’s definitely really good.

The other day I had an idea for a ‘tattooed monk’ sort of class and wrote it up – it became something very different in the writing, but I like how it panned out. So here! Have some content:

Compendium Class: Painted Brother

When you go through the initiation rites of the Painted Brotherhood, you may take this move when you level up:

Implacable Strength of the Earth

When you touch your initiation tattoo and call upon your inner strength, roll +Wis. On a 10+ hold 3, on a 7-9 hold 1. Spend hold 1-for-1 to:

  • Enchant your body for one hour to fight unarmed as if wielding a powerful magic weapon.
  • Enchant your body for one hour to gain an armour of 2.
  • Enhance one unarmed attack to do +1d4 damage.
  • Recharge one of your other magic tattoos.

When the sun rises or sets, all your magic tattoos recharge.

Once you’ve taken “Implacable Strength of the Earth”, the following moves count as class moves for you. In addition to your normal list of moves, you may choose from this list when you level up:

Burning Hatred of the Flame

When you touch your fiery tattoo and shout your hatred for your enemy, roll +Wis. On a 7-9 choose 1; on a 10+ choose 2.

  • Your shouting does not attract unwanted attention.
  • Your next unarmed attack against your hated enemy gains Piercing 2.
  • Something precious to your hated enemy bursts into flames.

Ever-changing Nature of Water

When you touch your oceanic tattoo and seek insight, roll +Wis. On a 10+ you take +1 forward to your next Spout Lore or Discern Realities roll. On a 7-9 you take +1 forward to one and -1 forward to the other.

Favour of the Air

When you touch your winged tattoo and take a leap that no normal person could make, roll +Wis. On a 10+ you make it. On a 7-9 you make it, but lose something on the way.

Perfect Bastion of the Self

When your mind is assaulted, touch your enchained tattoo and roll +Wis. On a 10+ you remain untouched by the mental attack. On a 7-9 you still resist the attack but it takes a moment of concentration: an enemy can make an attack against you while you’re distracted.

Empty Heart of the Void

When you touch your silhouette tattoo and tell the world that there is no one here, roll +Wis. On a 10+ you cease to exist for a few moments, returning to the world close to where you left it. On a 7-9 you still cease to exist but when you return a creature of the void returns with you: it may not be immediately obvious, but its instinct is to return you to the nonexistence you flaunted.

Bonus Content! The map so far for the DW PbP game I’m running:

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Whoops, haven’t updated this in some time.

I’ve noticed that the more actual gaming I seem to be doing, the less writing about gaming I do. Now I’m well into running Fatescape (and writing other material for Pathfinder) I find myself less inclined to post theoretical musings here.

Anyway, that said I’m about to muse about Fatescape and the various issues that have come up. In some ways this is also so that I’ve got a record of what needs fixing, since I’m working on other projects at the moment.

  • Archery sucks. It needs beefing up, since most D&D-style combat takes place at ranges short enough that ‘two zones’ is overkill.
  • The stunts need rebalancing. This is most obvious in the case of Weapons, which has basically terrible stunts, but they really do need to be adjusted so that an equal ‘investment’ into a tree brings more-or-less equal results. I’ve written some new Weapons stunts, somewhere, but not presented them yet.
  • The presentation’s not great. Some of this is unavoidable (page xx) but I think the skill rules should all be rolled together under each skill, since right now people are having trouble finding things like the first aid rules. This is probably going to require an extensive rewrite, which I’m not looking forward to, so we’ll see how it goes.
  • Character design is A Thing. I was helping my girlfriend (non-roleplayer) build a character so she could play, and I discovered that FATE pretty much requires you to have a concept before you begin. One of the strengths of D&D’s class/race system is that you can get going after making only a few decisions – fewer if you’re playing 4e and content to go with one of the recommended packages. My plan for this is to re-organise the writing so that the stunts are tied not to skills but more to archetypes: here’s a tree for bard-type stunts, here’s one for wizard-type stunts, here’s one for fighter-type stunts, etc. I’ll do that at the same time as stunt re-balancing, but it’s another big slice of project that’s going to take serious time.
  • Racial aspects. A friend of mine (also playtesting) suggested that if someone wants to be a non-human race then they should get a free aspect to that effect, as spending one of your aspects on it feels like a bad deal. I’m in two minds about this one, but I’m inclined to include it. Aspects aren’t really an unbalancing factor between characters, so having one more or less is unlikely to be problematic.
  • Psionic power points. I’m wondering about lowering the costs of using psychic powers.
  • Monster rules. After a moment when a beholder was nearly killed by a bunch of 2nd-level characters, I’ve abandoned the idea that monsters should use the same (or similar) build rules as PCs; I’ll give them skills, aspects, and whatever health and special abilities they need to be a credible threat. I’ll probably keep making humanoid NPCs using PC rules, though.
  • The chase rules are non-functional. They just fail to produce an ending to the chase. They need a total rewrite, which is probably my top priority before another chase happens.

It can be a little demoralising to watch your system fall apart in front of you, but this is what playtesting’s all about.

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PbP 4e D&D now An Actual Possibility

I’ve been looking for software that does exactly this for a while:

An intuitive, detailed map-making program that works right in your web browser and allows export to jpg and png. It’s got a built-in grid for D&D goodness, and – although I haven’t tried it – a “scene-builder” designed specifically for PbP games.

I’m so pleased! PbP 4e D&D is now a possibility! 😀

I mean, it was before, but what with my workplace blocking all known image-hosting sites and Google Docs, my ‘post-from-work’ habit would have been untenable.

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Further Fatescape/Shackled City Thought

It occured to me this morning that part of the problem with Jzadirune in the Shackled City is that it exists purely to give the PCs the XP and equipment they’ll need to face the Malachite Hold, where the interesting challenges are – I could have cut it out of the Fatescape version entirely without affecting anything in the greater plot.

Welp, too late now.

I’ve also got an excellent idea for a very-slightly-tongue-in-cheek 4e D&D game, which can join the ridiculous queue of games I would run if I had the time. Inspired by a throwaway comment on RPGnet about “the design space for a ‘dark lord of the storms’ is huge” I find myself driven to create a game where half a dozen dark lords of the storms have chosen the prime material plane for a giant storm-waving contest – to the detriment of the local peasants, of course, and requiring the intervention of low-paragon level heroes.

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More MHR House Rule Thoughts

Well, the Area house rule in my older post didn’t work so well – we’re going back to using Area as written until further notice.

Something else worth paying attention to when starting up a game of MHR is character generation. Without any concrete guidance, you tend to get characters who have a lot of d10s and d12s in their abilities, which I can say from experience leads to very rapid victory in almost anything they attempt: it’s not so much that d10s and d12s roll higher than d8s as that having a d10 or a d12 for your base effect means you only need to land 2-3 hits to take an opponent out.

Digression: It also occurs to me that a complaint I have with the MHR system is that while there are a bajillion ways to engage in and defend yourself from physical stress, inflicting mental stress is limited to Mind Control as an offensive power and mystic/psychic resistance as a defence. It’s an easy fix, thanks to the descriptive nature of the game – just make sure people know they can add things like Superhuman Willpower d10 to their power sets if it’s appropriate – it just annoys me a bit that the game offers options for non-violent problem resolution but then doesn’t support that as a choice.

Anyway, character generation. There are several point-based systems floating about, but I don’t really want that; part of what makes MHR work is that you can put Daredevil up against (or next to) Thor and not worry too much about their absolute power levels – whoever has the greatest narrative weight is likely to get their way, which is exactly how comic books work. So instead, here are some guidelines I’ve just pulled out of thin air:

Affiliations: As usual. d10/d8/d6 allocated as you see fit.

Distinctions: As usual. Three things you like.

Power Sets: The biggest differentiator in terms of raw power in MHR is whether someone has one or two power sets*, because extra dice are king of getting your way. So take two. If your concept only lends itself to one, throw in Multipower or Versatile as an SFX so you can multiply your dice.

Then write down the various powers each set covers. Whatever seems right. The real trick comes in assigning die sizes:

  • If the power just offers you access to something that normal people can’t do – usually some form of Enhanced Sense that covers normally-unsensable phenomena – it’s a d6.
  • If you have the power, it’s a d8.
  • If you’re really good at the power, or it’s a strong focus of what the character does, it’s a d10.
  • If you’re one of the top five most powerful users of your power in the world, it’s a d12.

d12s among characters should be rare, with most powers clocking in at d8s and d10s.

Any given power set should have 2-3 SFX and at least one Limit. Having 4 SFX is acceptable if the concept requires it, and up to 5 is acceptable if you’ve only got one power set (although one of those should be Multipower or Versatile, as noted above).

Having more Limits doesn’t really change things much, and as far as I can tell neither does having no Limit at all on a power set – all it’s really doing is depriving you of PP. If in doubt, slap Limit: Exhaustion on there and move on.

Specialties: Like with powers, people love to make their characters Masters of everything. As a general rule of thumb: if your character is notably good at something, they’re an Expert (d8). If they’re one of the top five in the world, they’re a Master (d10).

If a character only has one power set, be more generous with the specialties. They’re going to need the extra dice they can get by splitting specialties down, which means they’re going to need correspondingly huger specialty dice.

* Assuming you’re not using the house rule which says “take two dice from your power sets in any combination” instead of “take one dice from each power set”.

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Fatescape Under Way

Well, the first session in my new Fatescape test game was last night: it didn’t go too badly, all told, although there are a few places where the mechanics need shoring up. I’ve gone with The Shackled City as the module I’m going to run for them.

Translating the dungeon crawls into FATE is tricky, since I’m caught between several conflicting objectives:

  • Presenting the players with meaningful choices between routes through the dungeon.
  • Making sure key scenes get played out.
  • Cutting out as much of the pointless rubbish as possible.

The problem I’ve found is that if I cut all the pointless stuff and focus only on the key scenes, the dungeons become entirely linear. A lot of the meaningful choices in D&D seem to spring not from ‘do I go from A to B or A to C?’ but rather from ‘do I go from A to B via route X or route Y?’

I’m not sure yet how to convert that into FATE terms. The player choice of route from scene to scene should have consequences… hmm. I think there’s something in that, somewhere. I’m thinking some sort of flowchart-based dungeon design, where you map out which paths lead to and from which scenes (since in a site-based dungeon scenes and locations cross over to a great extent) and just make notes regarding the pros and cons of each path.

Yes, I’ll try that for the dungeons in Chapters 2 and 3. The second part of Chapter 1 offers enough interesting choices on its own that I don’t think it needs embellishment, but the following dungeons could do with some brevity.

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