Speedy Dresden

My heroes over at Evil Hat Productions have just released Dresden Files Accelerated, fulfilling one of the stretch-goal promises of their incredibly successful Fate Core Kickstarter1. This is a version of The Dresden Files Roleplaying Game using the Fate Accelerated implementation of the Fate Core rules2. Now, some of you may know I’m a big fan of the original DFRPG, and of Fate in general, and I’ve already mentioned that the folks at Evil Hat are my heroes

What’s the Difference?

Back when it first came out, I wrote a post about FAE. In short, FAE is a rules-light, fast-play, simplified version of the Fate Core rules. DFRPG is one of the complex iterations of the Fate3 rules, notably because of the magic system4DFA is a simplified, fast-play version of DFRPG.

The Basic Mechanics

Like FAEDFA uses approaches instead of skills. The six approaches for DFA are Flair, Focus, Force, Guile, Haste, and Intellect5. There are the standard four action types – Create Advantage, Overcome, Attack, and Defend – and the four standard outcomes – Succeed, Succeed with Style, Tie, and Fail.

Actions and conflict work pretty much the same as in FAE: roll dF, add it to your approach rating, and compare it to a target number. Levels of success in combat turn into stress, or into free invokes on created aspects.

Of course, there are aspects. Can’t have Fate without aspects. They work the same as in other Fate games, giving a bonus or reroll when you invoke them and spend a Fate point, and earning a Fate point when compelled.

There are, however, some new bits of mechanics that do some really interesting things.

Mantles

DFRPG used a thing called a Template to define your character’s basic powers and abilities. DFA calls roughly the same thing a Mantle. There’s a total of 24 Mantles in the book, covering everything from a clued-in mortal to magical practitioner to Santa’s seneschal6.

Each Mantle has a set of core stunts, optional stunts, and unique conditions7 that provide the special abilities and flavour of each character type. Mostly, you pick a single Mantle for your character, but a few Mantles, like Changeling or Red Court Infected, act more as templates – you create a character using one of the mortal Mantles, then add the supernatural Mantle.

You start with all the core stunts of your Mantle, and with the unique conditions. You also get one free stunt from the list of optional stunts. And, as with standard Fate games, you can choose to take more stunts in exchange for giving up a point of Refresh per stunt.

Conditions and Stress

Conditions are a very cool new piece of mechanics. Functionally, they’re like stress tracks in Fate, or predetermined consequences. Really, they’re aspects with an On/Off switch8. Each condition has a series of checkboxes – some have as few as one checkbox – and, in given situations, you mark one of the boxes9. Once the boxes are ticked, the associated aspect is turned on, until you meet whatever requirement the condition has to clear it.

Example? Sure!

Magical Practioners10 have a condition called Exhausted. It’s got one box. With the Evocation stunt, you can boost the effect of your spell by marking the box, which gives you some bonuses on trying to, for example, blast a vampire with sunlight. While the condition is marked, you have the Exhausted aspect, and the GM can invoke that to mess with you. In addition, in any scene that Exhausted would be a factor, the GM gets one free boost against you. If you take the necessary time to rest up, you can clear the condition, and you are no longer exhausted.

So, really, conditions are the category to which stress and consequences belong – tick the boxes and get a temporary aspect. And stress in DFA is reshaped a bit to help it fit that model better. By default, characters have six boxes of stress, and the conditions In Peril and Doomed. Stress is not divided into the mental, physical, and social tracks of DFRPG – there is only stress11. In Peril and Doomed act as predefined consequences – you can tick one of those conditions to offset greater amounts of stress. If you can’t buy off all the successful shifts of whatever you’re dealing with – punch, shot, fireball, psychic blast, or anything else – you’re taken out.

Now, as I mentioned in a footnote, some conditions kind of work in reverse: they start out marked, and get cleared in certain situations, turning that conditional aspect off. These are basically aspects that give your character special abilities, like Police Powers or Medical License, but that can be revoked due to your actions.

Why do I think this is such a neat little piece of game design? Because it’s a simple, adaptable way to create great variety and model a lot of different powers without having to come up with entirely new sub-systems for them. It is incredibly flexible, there are a whole slew of worked examples in the book to help you come up with new implementations, and it doesn’t increase the complexity of the characters very much. I mean, there’s always some increase in complexity when you add a new thing to track for a character, but because it’s so very similar to stuff you’re already tracking, that increase is minimal.

So, yeah. Conditions are pretty cool12.

Stunts

I haven’t done an actual count, but my impression is that DFA has more actual stunts listed in the book than Fate Core does. It certainly has more than FAE does. This is because it takes everything that was a power in DFRPG and makes it a stunt. And also because the stunts integrate so closely with conditions that clear definitions of what some stunts do in relation to the conditions is pretty much required.

There’s also a discussion about how to create your own stunts, using the method from FAE.

Magic

This is the section I was most interested in13, when the game was announced. I was really curious to see how the flavourful-but-complex magic system from DRFPG was going to be implemented in the much-simpler FAE structure of DFA.

First, let’s talk evocation. Evocation is a stunt, and it lets you use elements to perform the four types of actions allowed in Fate Core. It’s got a couple of conditions tied to it – Exhausted and Burned Out – to model the way channeling that much raw energy can just tire you out. It’s just a standard action, tied to your approach, that you get to describe in a magical style; so, instead of a Forceful gun attack, it might be a Forceful fire attack. There’s none of the math that the DFRPG system required14, and a single roll instead of one roll to gather power and another roll to focus that power.

There’s also no need to track how good you are at the different elements. There are stunts that can give you a bonus using a certain element with a certain approach to accomplish a certain action, but that’s much simpler than the DFRPG method of calculating and tracking it15.

Overall, I like the new evocation. It’s cleaner and simpler and, though it may lack some of the risk and apprehension of the DFRPG method, it is loads faster and easier.

Now for thaumaturgy. While evocation gets about half a page of write-up in DFA, thaumaturgy gets its own chapter. Now, it’s a chapter of 13 digest-sized pages, compared to DFRPG‘s 26 full-sized pages, so it’s not really all that much. It is more complicated than evocation, of course – it’s more flexible and more powerful. In DFA, it’s only a single roll16 to use thaumaturgy, rather than the multiple rolls to prepare the spell and gather and focus the power in DFRPG.

There is some math in this type of magic. You really kind of need to do a little math to have the sort of flexibility that thaumaturgy has in the source material17. You build spells by determining what stunts and/or conditions the spell brings into being. So, if you want to, say, use magic to turn you and everything you’re carrying into a cat, that’s +4 for the Physical Transformation (lasting) condition, and +2 for the Shifting Adept stunt, giving the spell a difficulty of Fantastic (+6). See? Simple math.

Now, instead of having to make up a Lore deficit18, you add up the costs, based on the conditions and stunts in the spell. So, for our shapeshifting spell above, it requires four costs: one for the stunt, three for the lasting condition. Then you make the roll against the difficulty. How well you roll determines who gets to pick the costs; you, the GM, or both taking turns.

Costs are narrative complications or resources expended: time for completing the ritual, rare components you need, help that you need19, special circumstances like times or places, or the spell not quite working correctly. This basically replaces the before-the-roll spell preparation in DFRPG with an after-the-roll determination of the story of the spell. It also determines if you need to make any other rolls for the spell to work – maybe it takes a roll to get you hands on a bit of the target’s hair, for example.

Note that this method makes thaumaturgy much more reliable and safe than in DFRPG, though a bad roll may result in the GM picking costs that you can’t obtain or aren’t willing to accept. This means that, if your ritual spell fails, it’s usually because you choose for it to fail rather than expend the resources or accept the costs required. And that’s interesting to me.

One last note about thaumaturgy: there are four example spells in the chapter, each about a page long. Two of those examples don’t actually use the ritual magic rules, and are examples of when to use these specialized rules and when to use the standard FAE-style actions. This is incredibly useful in opening up the concept of only using these more complicated rules20 when they actually add something to play, and modeling things using the regular mechanics otherwise. Good advice, and good examples.

A few other notes about magic:

  • Sponsored magic is handled by stunts and conditions in the mantles. It really helps simplify the whole sponsored magic stuff, which was a weak part in DFRPG ((To be fair, it was really cleared up in The Paranet Papers, which I reviewed here.)).
  • The Sight is a condition called The Third Eye, and using it is risky to your sanity. Clear, simple guidance on it.
  • Soulgaze is a stunt, and again, there’s clear, simple guidance.
  • Enchanted Item is a stunt that lets you pull a useful magic item out of your pocket once per session. Individual, permanent magic items, like the Wardens’ silver swords, are singular stunts on their own.

All in all, the magic system in DFA does a really good job of simplifying the DFRPG magic system without sacrificing very much in the way of flavour or flexibility.

Scale

The Dresden Files novels have creatures of vastly different levels of power facing off against each other. Supernatural creatures vs. mortals, wizards vs. fey nobility, stuff like that. DFA has the concept of scale to address that. There are five different scales: Mundane, Supernatural, Otherworldly, Legendary, and Godlike. Going up against a force of a different scale provides the higher-scaled side a significant bonus, based on the difference in scales.

This bonus is a big deal, but there are ways around it, as demonstrated in pretty much every Dresden Files story out there. As DFA says:

Wizard Dresden is an expert at finding the Achilles’ [sic] heel of superior foes.

Other Stuff

Just a quick rundown of some other things I think you should know about the game:

  • It’s got all the customization stuff you’d expect from an FAE game: building your own setting, GMCs, stunts, Mantles, and so on.
  • It’s also got a complete prebuilt setting, with GMCs and playable characters.
  • The advancement system is very simple, but there’s some good advice on advancing the setting along with the players.
  • It’s great fun to read, with lots of useful examples and amusing marginalia.
  • The art is clean and evocative, and there’s lots of it.
  • It’s a digest-sized book, like all the other Fate Core books.
  • The background covers up to Skin Game in the Dreden Files books. So, y’know, spoilers.
  • It’s waaaaaay easier to carry than DFRPG.
  • Our Story and The Paranet Papers for DFRPG are useful sourcebooks for DFA, but aren’t required.

Conclusion

I really like this game. Really. Reading it has got me looking at my game schedule to see if I can fit a new game in21, because I want to gather a group to play.

It’s a nice version of Dresden Files, vastly simplifying the system without sacrificing the cool flavour and flexibility of the game. If your a fan of Harry Dresden in any of his incarnations, I recommend picking it up.

You know you want to.

  1. To be clear, the stretch goal was that they would develop DFA, not that you’d get DFA as part of your Fate Core Kickstarter. They were very clear that this was not going to happen right away. And it didn’t. But it did happen, just like they promised. []
  2. Think I’ve linked enough things in those two sentences? Feels like a lot of links. []
  3. Note that it predates Fate Core. []
  4. If you don’t believe me, I wrote a lengthy series of posts talking just about the DFRPG magic system. Take a look at the Spellcasting section here. []
  5. Only slightly different from FAE‘s Careful, Clever, Flashy, Forceful, Quick, and Sneaky. []
  6. Not even kidding about that last one. []
  7. I’ll talk more about conditions below. They’re cool. []
  8. Which I think is brilliant. []
  9. This is not entirely accurate. Some conditions start as ticked checkboxes, and you clear them in response to certain situations. []
  10. Like Wizards, for example. []
  11. This is the same in FAE, and I liked it there, too. []
  12. Forgot to mention another default condition everyone gets: Indebted. This lets you track favours that you owe to others. Nothing dangerous about that, right? []
  13. And the longest section of this review. Sorry. []
  14. Take a look here to see what I mean. []
  15. Which I discuss under Calculating Your Bonuses here. []
  16. Kind of. Keep reading to find out about costs. []
  17. That is, more powerful spells need more complex rituals, so you need some way to determine how powerful the spell is in order to decide how complex the ritual is. []
  18. What am I talking about? You can read about it here. []
  19. Remember that Indebted condition? []
  20. “More complicated” compared to the other DFA rules. Not compared to DFRPG. []
  21. Not quite yet, unfortunately. Maybe in a couple of months. []

Fate of the Nephilim: Magic in General

A quick note about the information presented below: I’m not going to be explaining all the ins and outs of the Nephilim game. If you’re really confused by stuff, I urge you to grab the pdf of the game to follow along. You can get it at the Chaosium site, and the entire line is available at RPGnow. It’s well worth the purchase. And Fate Core is available from Evil Hat Productions. Also very much worth it.

Now, we’re really getting into the heart of Nephilim. The game is all about non-human, magical creatures – beings made of magic, who perceive the world through magical senses, who interact with the world using magic, and generally use magical thinking because it works for them1. And so the game has no less than three different magic systems.

Elements

All of the systems revolve around manipulation of the elemental fields. The elements, referred to as Ka,  represent both physical and spiritual components of the world – the Nephilim tend to not differentiate between those two states as much as humans do. The divisions into the elements are basically just fluff2, so there’s not any call to make changes. That means we’ve got the five elements staying the same as in the Nephilim book:

  • Air Ka
  • Earth Ka
  • Fire Ka
  • Water Ka
  • Moon Ka3

In addition to these elements, there are three special elements that exist and affect the Nephilim, but that the Nephilim4 don’t interact directly with:

  • Black Moon Ka, created by the mad Tyrannosaur prophet-king Mu and still used by the exiled Selenim
  • Orichalka, the deadly, Ka-destroying power of Saturn
  • Solar Ka, which infuses humans

These three types of elemental energy are each going to require some special rules to handle in-game.

Astrological Modifiers

One of the main features of the Nephilim game is the effect of the celestial bodies on the elemental fields. There are elaborate rules for it, and even (if you bought the GM’s screen) a special wheel dial that you could use to calculate the appropriate modifiers and enthronements for the current game day, based on date and such. It was pretty cool.

It was also a pretty irritating amount of work.

So, I want to include the influence of the planets on the Ka fields, but I don’t want to have to do the math every game day to figure out which elements are enthroned, which are diminished, etc.

Fortunately, Fate Core has a structure in place for determining these things – aspects. Easy enough to let characters use the Create an Advantage action to declare or uncover the current astrological modifiers. And while that may prompt them to always try and place their most favourable element in ascendancy, you can offer compels to get them to pick a different aspect.

The modifiers in Nephilim vary in amount, but aspects all work the same way. This means that there should be a fairly limited variations in the range of aspects that can be placed. I’m thinking just stick to Enthronement, with the name of the enthroned element. So, Fire Enthronement, Moon Enthronement, Sun Enthronement, Orichalka Enthronement, etc.

Each elemental enthronement gives a bonus to can be invoked for a bonus to that element, and as a penalty to two other elements5. Here’s the list from the Nephilim rules:

  • Air opposes Earth and Moon
  • Earth opposes Air and Water
  • Fire opposes Water and Moon
  • Water opposes Earth and Fire
  • Moon opposes Fire and Air
  • Orichalka opposes all other elements

There are no Black Moon enthronements, by default, though I can see that being a cool story-based thing to throw in when dealing with the Selenim6. Sun enthronements in Nephilim are more complicated – they cause the Ka fields to fluctuate, meaning the bonus elements change randomly. So, it becomes a much more flexible aspect, though I’d also use it to give bonuses to any humans, and use it to cause the characters’ simulacra to assert themselves, causing problems.

Of course, you can just use the planetary days and planetary months tables in the Nephilim rulebook to actually calculate the proper enthronement. Without having to give it a numerical value, this is easy enough to do. It does, however, require you to track the days of the week and the zodiacal months of the year to be able to do this7.

There are also Grand Enthronements, when the elemental fields are supercharged. These happen when the planetary day and the planetary month match, both lending power to the dominant element. So, Tuesdays in Aries are Grand Enthronements of Fire, for example, and Saturdays in Capricorn are Grand Enthronments of Orichalka. I can see doing one of two things to model Grand Enthronements: either increase the bonus/penalty for invoking the aspect to +3/-38, or give the aspect a couple of free invokes.

I think the +3/-3 is the better choice, because the characters can get free invokes by rolling well on the Create Advantage action, and can replenish those free invokes by taking an action to Create Advantage again. So, the +3/-3 strikes me as more meaningful.

Ch’awe

Ch’awe in Nephilim is magic points, spent to power spells. As such, my initial thoughts have been to make a stress track for Ch’awe, and take hits there when casting spells – basically, the way that Mental stress is used in DFRPG. Lately, though, as I think about it, I’ve been wondering why I’m creating a new stress track, when the Mental stress track could serve just as well. See, I made the decision pretty much without thinking, initially, and all I can see in retrospect is that I maybe wanted to emphasize the magical nature of the Nephilim by giving them this battery.

And now I’m not sure it was the best idea.

In addition to this, I’ve been reading Dresden Files Accelerated9, and they add a neat little piece of Fate technology to the game: conditions. Conditions are sort-of predetermined, flavoured consequences10 that act as batteries for various powers. Thus, a magical practitioner gets the Exhausted and Burned Out conditions that they can mark to boost the power of Evocation.

Something like that might work well with Ch’awe, and it might make it easier to bring in concepts like Khaiba11 and Shouit12. I’m going to have to think about this some more, and do some deeper reading of DFA.

Types of Magic

In Nephilim, there are three broad types of magic available to the characters:

  • Sorcery is the oldest and most primitive, letting the Nephilim directly manipulate Ka fields to obtain results.
  • Summoning is contact and interaction with beings from higher realms of reality, composed of various Ka fields.
  • Alchemy is the manipulation of physical matter through magical ritual and the use of an athanor.

The differences between the magic types are mainly differences of tone and theme, rather than mechanics. There are little things – you need to create various alchemical powders in your athanor for Alchemy, you need to draw a summoning circle for summoning – that are in-game differences, but the actual mechanical process for the different types of magic is the same – know the spell, roll your skill, pay the cost.

I think that, in the Fate Core implementation, I’ll have to delineate some clear guidelines for what kinds of things each type of magic can do, and also convert a number of the spells in the Nephilim book to show how they work in the new systems. I’ll also have to check and see if there are more qualitative differences that I need to address.

I was thinking that cribbing from the DFRPG system for thaumaturgy would probably be the way to go13 – it’s a very flexible system that pretty much covers any magic working you care to imagine. The downside is that DFRPG thaumaturgy is somewhat complicated and math-heavy, and when I ran my DFRPG campaigns, play would inevitably slow when a ritual came up.

Now that I’m reading DFA, I’m liking their take on ritual magic. It’s still got a little math14, but the actual mechanics for building spells is much streamlined. It does a couple of interesting things with costs that, while they are great for the Dresdenverse, may not be quite what I want in Fate of the Nephilim, but that shouldn’t be too tough to fix.

Circles

In Nephilim, each type of magic is divided into three different levels, called Circles. Each type of magic has a different funky name for their circles – Sorcery has Lower Magic, Higher Magic, and Grand Secret; Summoning has Seals, Pentacles, and Keys; Alchemy has Black Stone, White Stone, and Philosopher’s Stone15. Each Circle is a different skill in the game, and you need to have 90% in a lower Circle before you can take the next one.

I want to avoid a glut of different skills in this conversion. Skill ranks in Fate Core are limited and pretty powerful, so diluting them among too many different skills is, in some ways, penalizing to the players. My solution is to have one magic skill for each of the three types of magic, and to place the Circles as thresholds within each skill. So, first Circle is at Average (+1), second Circle is at Good (+3), and third Circle is at Superb (+5).

I’m going back and forth on what that means, spell-wise. The Circles are only meaningful if there are some spells that are reserved for the higher Circles, so I’ll have to figure out exactly how I want to work that. Summoning has different groups of creatures summonable at different Circles, which is easy enough, and Alchemy is clear about the fact that Black Stone is about destruction and White Stone is about creation. But Sorcery is far muddier; I’m going to have to do some more reading of the Sorcery section in Nephilim and Liber Ka to sort out how to handle that.

Spells

This is another area that’s a little muddy. And it’s mainly muddy because of Liber Ka.

In the core rules for Nephilim, you need access to a physical focus for the spell to be able to cast it. This doesn’t vary for any of the three types of magic. Now, the copy of the spell can be written in a book, or inscribed on the Ka of an enchanted item, or whatever – you just need to have the copy available to you to be able to cast it. This means that the characters are often trying to recover their old toys, and occult libraries, and so on, so that they have the spells they need.

They can also have the spell tattooed on their own Ka, so that they always have access to that spell and don’t need the focus. This is a limited resource; you can’t have too many spells tattooed, because reasons.

I see no problem with this as it stands. There’s already a list of occult books and such in the Nephilim rules, and the tattooed spells16 work nicely as stunts, so I’m good.

The catch is, as I said, Liber Ka, which contains an alternate Sorcery system that allows for free-form spell creation on the fly. It provides a set of rules for coming up with custom rituals to achieve custom goals, not the very prescribed spells present in the core rules. It’s a good rule set, too; I had a lot of fun with it, back in the day, and it reminds me of the thaumaturgy rules in DFRPG and DFA.

But that kinda flies in the face of the “you need a physical focus” thing.

I seem to recall that there was a discussion of that issue in Liber Ka, so I’m going to have to reread it and see how they handle it.

Coming Up

Okay. When I started writing this post, I was going to provide a rough idea of each of the magic skills. But as I wrote about the underlying questions, decisions, and thoughts I had about magic in general, this thing somehow got long. And I still need to do some reading and thinking before I can write up each of the magical skills, including at least a few sample spells for each.

So, next up in Fate of the Nephilim17, I’m going to tackle Sorcery. After that, I’ll have another post for Summoning, and one for Alchemy.

Keep an eye out.

  1. Years ago, I did an article about magical thinking in Nephilim and casual divination using the structure of magical thinking in the game for a friend’s zine. I have no idea what became of that article, which is a shame, because I’d like to reread it and see if I had anything useful to say, or if it was all a bunch of pretentious crap. []
  2. In that they provide an in-game division and variety to the magic systems, but don’t really have a mechanical impact, beyond being descriptors to hang some bonuses and penalties from. []
  3. Weird thing I just noticed. I automatically alphabetized the four classical elements, then just appended Moon, out of alphabetical order. Some part of me rebels against putting Moon in before Water to maintain alphabetical order, because that would mean inserting it into the classical list of four. It seems I might be a geek. []
  4. Generally. []
  5. Mostly. Orichalka and Sun Ka are both different. []
  6. Or maybe a resurrected dinosaur sorcerer. Like you get. []
  7. This isn’t difficult, but it’s one more item of bookkeeping, and I like to minimize those. []
  8. With the fact that the standard +2/-2 from an aspect is a pretty big bonus or penalty in Fate Core, I’m hesitant to make the Grand Enthronement bonus/penalty any more than that. []
  9. Which is pretty awesome, and I’ll be doing a review of it soon. In the meantime you can buy it here. And you should buy it. []
  10. Also, some are benefits. They are a nicely flexible piece of game design kit. []
  11. The transformation into a raw, bestial form as the Nephilim loses control of it’s Ka fields. []
  12. The loss of control of the simulacrum as it’s soul overrides the Nephilim’s. []
  13. And I’m pretty familiar with those mechanics. []
  14. Adding so simple it’s really more accurate to call it counting. []
  15. Note that there are no spells listed for Philosopher’s Stone, because so few Nephilim have achieved this level, Alchemy being the newest type of magic. []
  16. I keep calling them “tattooed spells,” even though the actual game term is “inscribed spells.” But I used the word “inscribed” to describe something else in the last paragraph, so there it is. []
  17. There’s going to be a post or two about other stuff before that gets posted, though. []

Those REALLY Meddling Kids

EDIT: I got some feedback from Robert Bohl, the author of Misspent Youth, pointing out a couple of errors I made in talking about the game. I’ve added those inline, below. Thanks, Robert!

I found out about Misspent Youth from Tabletop1, and went and bought the game pretty much immediately after watching the episode. It’s an RPG that draws on the current ideals of YA dystopian science fiction – the world is messed up, and a group of plucky kids2 fight the system to claim their freedom. So, y’know, stuff like Hunger GamesDivergentReady Player One, and so on.

Mechanically, this falls more on the story game end of the RPG continuum, with a fairly light system and lots of authorial control in the hands of the players. Still, for all the light system and player control, the structure of each session is pretty tightly defined, and the whole of the game is focused on producing a very specific kind of story and play experience.

Focused and specific doesn’t have to mean narrow, though. While a lot of the modern dystopian stuff is pretty formulaic3, and Misspent Youth is really tweaked to run those kinds of stories, there are a couple of extended examples in the game that show how you can take other stories that don’t really fall into those patterns and shape them to work in the game. For copyright and IP concerns, the serial numbers are filed off, but there’s a breakdown of how you could run both Star Wars and ET as Misspent Youth games.

It’s all about how you choose to set up the game, and that starts with the Authority4.

The Authority

The Authority is the Man that is Keeping You Down. In keeping with the source material the game is inspired by, this can be a totalitarian state, with weird restrictions on large portions of the population, such as you see in Hunger Games. But it can also be something less monolithic, less ubiquitous, less pervasive, less public. So, you could put together a secret conspiracy that only controls one small area of society5, or set everything at a school where the folks in charge are pricks6, or whatever.

You design the Authority together as a group, GM and players, at the start of your first session. It starts with brainstorming about bullying – what bullying behaviours really get under everyone’s skin, and then using your brainstormed list to help you pick some defining characteristics for the Authority from a set of lists. At the end of the process, you have a Name, Description, Vice, Victim, Visage, and Need for the Authority. Everyone also gets to invent a System of Control: a thing about the Authority that gives it power over people.

The key idea is to make an antagonist that everyone really hates, embodying the worst bullying aspects that you’ve brainstormed. It’s got to be something that enrages you, not something where you can sit back and say, “Sure, they’re bad, but I can understand why they do the stuff they do.” You’re building an enemy. Don’t pull punches.

Of course, one of the group has to play the Authority, as the GM. That means that, while the Authority should be total Bad Guys, they also need to be comprehensible. The GM has to be able to make sense of what they do and what they want.

There’s also a bit of discussion about picking a rating for the game. Dealing with issues of authoritarianism, rebellion, oppression, and freedom means that there are themes and actions that come up that can be… unpleasant. Having a discussion early in the game about what sort of tone you’re going for, and what level of violence/profanity/whatever is acceptable really helps let everyone immerse themselves in the game, without having to worry too much that they’re going to be faced with something that spoils there fun in play.

The Young Offenders

So, player characters in this game are a group of teenagers, age 12-17, and are called YOs – Youthful Offenders.  You create these as a group, brainstorming and helping each other sort out concepts and convictions.

Convictions are the heart of the characters. They are a set of five descriptors about who your character is and what he or she believes. Three of these convictions are closed, meaning you choose them from a list, and two are open, meaning you get to pick anything for those. The closed convictions are Means, Motive, and Opportunity, while the open convictions are M.O. and Disorder.

These are not skills, although they – especially M.O. – can describe what you can do. They are more like aspects or approaches from Fate Core or Fate Accelerated Edition, in that they say more about who your character is than what he or she can do.

Each conviction starts free, and each can be sold out in play for a guaranteed success in a scene. So, if your Means conviction is Smart, you can sell it out, and it changes to Pedantic, but you then win that scene. This is powerful and tempting, but hazardous – selling out a conviction is permanent, it brings you closer in harmony to the Authority, and the entire game series ends when one YO has sold out all five convictions.

Yeah, this is a game, at its core, about selling out. About lost innocence, and capitulating to the powers that be. Your YO can’t really die in the game, but his or her soul can. Friendships, trust, hope, all of that can be lost, and those are the big threats.

Scenes

Each session of Misspent Youth is played out in a set of seven scenes, in a specific order:

  1. What’s Up
  2. Fighting Back
  3. Heating Up
  4. We Won
  5. We’re Fucked
  6. Who Wins7
  7. Dust Settles

This sequence of scenes gives a definite arc to the session, and mixes in a variety of different feels and moods. It helps keep the events of the game in a story-like structure, rather than being a series of events that a story is imposed upon. Each scene serves a specific function in play, and has a particular focus and intent.

Each scene also brings in elements of the world – either an Authority Figure or a Friendship Question. Authority Figures are pretty much what it says on the tin – a face of the Authority that is going to be important in this scene8. Friendship Questions are questions that were created when the players created their YOs, and can shift the focus from an external antagonist to internal strife as the secrets and truths that the characters have tried to hide are brought to light.

EDIT: Friendship questions aren’t created at the same time as the YOs. They are created at the start of each session. Thinking about it, this makes more sense to me; it allows players to reflect changes in the relationships between the YOs from session to session.

Everyone at the table takes turns setting a scene, including picking a where and when, picking an Authority Figure or Friendship Question to form the focal point of the scene, and saying what happens in the first five seconds of the scene. Then, the scene kicks off and the roleplaying begins.

I have to say that I really like the idea of the scene structure. It gives a strong focus to the game, keeping things moving forward and putting a bit of a clock on the story. It also drives towards conclusion, helping to keep things from just kind of trailing off. With each player taking a turn to set a scene, it helps to make sure that everyone gets input into the game, and shares the spotlight time around. And the choice of Authority Figure or Friendship Question really helps keep the scenes connected to the world and makes sure the stakes are compellingly high.

Struggles

Once each scene, and only once, there is a struggle. This is when the Authority wants something to happen, and the YOs oppose it, or vice versa. It can be physical combat, a chase, an escape, an argument, an infiltration, or any other event where one side is trying to do something and the other side is trying to stop it.

The Authority declares when a struggle starts, though it may be prompted by the actions of any player. So, the Authority may say something like, “Unkown to you, the cops have surrounded the restaurant you’re eating in, and are starting to move in. We’re starting a struggle.” Or, a player may say, “I’m not afraid of the gang. I pull my switchblade, flick it open, and tell them to back off,” and the Authority says, “Sounds like a struggle’s starting up!”

When a struggle starts, the Authority declares an objective – what the Authority wants to achieve in this scene. The YOs then collectively declare a hope – what they want to achieve. Now, whoever wins stops the other side from getting their objective or hope automatically, so you want to pick a proactive goal. If the Authority’s objective is to send the YOs to a juvenile detention facility, the YOs shouldn’t choose the hope of NOT getting sent to juvie; they get that if they win, automatically. They may want to choose something like embarrassing the officer who arrested them in front of his boss.

Struggles are when you use dice in this game. Well, the players do, anyway. The GM never rolls. It’s a fairly light system mechanically, involving claiming numbers and rolling 2d6, and trying to match numbers selected by the players and not the GM. If you roll a number that hasn’t been claimed, you claim it. If you roll a number that’s been claimed by you or another YO, the YOs win the struggle. If you roll a number that’s been claimed by the Authority, you lose the struggle. This is the point that you can sell out a conviction to claim a win, if you want. In amongst the rolling and claiming, you’re narrating what you’re doing, using your YO’s convictions. And the Authority narrates the Authority response, and claims another number.

This system is extremely adaptable to cover pretty much any kind of conflict, obstacle, or challenge you need in the game. It can represent a desperate fight lasting a few seconds, or it can model weeks of careful planning and politicking. The necessity of tying any YO action to a conviction really highlights the ideals and values of the characters, while the temptation of selling out for an easy win adds a nice dark side option.

Conclusion

There’s more to the game, of course. The author provides a lot of solid advice about how to run the game to really make it do what it’s designed for. He shows off some more advanced tools for getting the most out of the game. And there are a lot of good examples of everything, and some nice character sheets9, and other sheets. Everything, from the game’s terminology to it’s graphic design, is focused on driving home the idea of youthful rebellion, and it really works. I haven’t had time to actually try playing it, yet, but it’s on my list.

Right now, the game is only available in .pdf format, but Robert Bohl, the author10, let me know that, towards the end of June, he will be launching a Kickstarter for a new print edition of the game, plus a supplement. I’m definitely jumping onto that campaign for print copies of both, because this is something I want sitting on my shelf.

I urge you to check it out, and to keep an eye peeled for that Kickstarter.

EDIT: The Kickstarter campaign is scheduled to start Thursday, June 29. Now you know.

But I’m not the boss of you.

  1. At the time of writing this, the episode in question hasn’t made it to Youtube, yet. It’s only on Alpha. []
  2. Teens, by default. []
  3. No more so than any sub-genre, but there it is. []
  4. Not this Authority. []
  5. Like, maybe, the Pride in Marvel’s Runaways comic series, or the government agents in Repo Man. []
  6. TapsAnimal HouseToy Soldiers, etc. []
  7. I mistyped this as “Who Sins” at first. That could make for a cool game, too. []
  8. Usually as an adversary, if that was unclear. They’re bad guys. []
  9. They’re called Permanent Records. []
  10. Okay. When I bought the game in .pdf format, Robert Bohl reached out to me, asking where I’d heard about it, what made it interesting to me, etc. I answered him, and we had a little discussion, and he told me about the forthcoming Kickstarter. Why am I telling you this? Because it was a very nice, friendly thing for him to do, and it deserves to be noted. Not only did he write a great game, he’s the kind of guy who cares about his audience, and wants them to have fun. []

Those Meddling Kids

Last summer, my heroes over at Evil Hat Productions released Bubblegumshoe. Unusually for Evil Hat, the game is based on Pelgrane Press‘s GUMSHOE system, rather than on Evil Hat‘s own Fate Core system1. It is2 a teen detective story game, drawing heavily on stuff like the Veronica Mars TV show, Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys and Three Investigators book series, Scooby Doo cartoons, and so on. You play kids who are trying to solve mysteries.

I got a couple of my friends3 to agree to giving it a try4, so over the winter, we played through a limited campaign. It was a single mystery spread over three sessions, with an intro session devoted to setting the game up. We had a lot of fun with it.

The Book

The physical book is a digest-sized volume, about the same size as the Fate Core rulebook. It’s 272 pages, on sturdy, glossy paper, with a lot of black-and-white art throughout, a clean and open layout, and wonderful little elements of marginalia5. There are the requisite chapters on the system mechanics, building characters, and such. There are also a few chapters on getting the right feel for a teen mystery game, and a number of different settings – with rules tweaks for many of them – allowing you to set your game in different environments.

One of the nicest features of the book is that it contains five example mystery spines – essentially outline examples of how to put together your own mystery. One of these then gets an in-depth write-up, showing you how to take a simple spine and flesh it out into an entire scenario. I found that looking at the spine and the fleshed-out version was really helpful in figuring out what kinds of things I needed to think about in building my own story.

The GUMSHOE Bits

If you’re not familiar with GUMSHOE6, it’s a system designed for investigatory games. It’s built to address the problem that running investigations in other games often encountered – a bad roll could derail the entire game, as they players then don’t get a clue that they need to solve the mystery. With GUMSHOE, you have a set of investigatory abilities and, if you say you’re using the right one in a situation where there’s a clue to be found, you find that clue7. For other things you try and do that aren’t directly gaining clues – running, jumping, climbing trees8 – there’s a very simple d6 system.

One of the big things with every GUMSHOE game is that the list of abilities is tweaked to match the setting and reinforce the themes. Bubblegumshoe‘s abilities are focused on the kinds of things that make sense for teenage sleuths. Some particular tweaks to the system that I liked:

  • Grownup Face replaces Cop Talk from a lot of other GUMSHOE games. It serves the same function – gives the character credibility and access with authority figures – but instead of letting you be taken seriously by police, it lets you be taken seriously by adults. Important for teenage detectives.
  • The Cool ability functions effectively as both Health and Stability in normal GUMSHOE games. You run out of Cool, you’re out for a while. This, along with some changes to the Fighting ability, does a great deal to minimize a potentially problematic element: it means that you don’t necessarily have to have teenagers beating each other to death in your game. It also reinforces teen drama tropes, by making embarrassment and social power plays effectively life-or-death9.
  • For investigative abilities, the list is very focused on what a teenager might reasonably have access to. So, you get a Photography ability, and you get a Reasearch ability, but you don’t get a Forensic Pathology ability. And to make sure that you can still have access to some of the more esoteric investigative abilities, the game gives you Relationships.

Relationships

Okay. So, your fifteen-year-old yearbook editor may be really good sussing out whether someone’s kind of out-of-place with the clique they’re hanging with, but not so much with running a license plate to see who a car is registered to. That makes sense. But it does impose some limits on the types of clues you can reasonably expect your players to be able to collect.

Well, similar to the Sources idea I talked about in Cthulhu ConfidentialBubblegumshoe gives each character a number of Relationships – people that they know and that are important in their lives. And these Relationships can have abilities that the characters don’t otherwise have access to. So, your character doesn’t have any hope of using forensic accounting to unravel the community centre’s finances, but her aunt is a CPA who can take a look at the books and give you some insight.

In Bubblegumshoe, though the Relationships serve the same mechanical function as Sources in Cthulhu Confidential, their roleplaying dimension tends to be more important. You need to spend time and effort10 maintaining your relationships. You need to keep your mom happy and not get kicked out of school. You need to diss your high school nemesis and back up your BFF.

This keeps things closer to the kinds of source material stories the game tries to emulate – real life11 often intrudes upon and complicates your cool mystery-solving efforts.

Combat

I mentioned earlier that Bubblegumshoe uses the Cool stat as both Health and Stability12. This alone does a fair amount to help turn combat non-lethal, which is, I think, a necessary element, both in modeling the source material and in making it more comfortable for adults to play this game13.

Now, there are ways to hurt other characters physically in the game. The Fighting stat lets you, well, fight. Note that, in keeping with most of the source material, most fights are bare-knuckle affairs, schoolyard scuffles. Pulling any kind of weapon is a huge deal, and is usually14 used as an intimidation tactic. Getting hurt is serious – there are four levels of health: fine, scuffed, injured, and dead. Without a weapon, it’s hard to get to injured, and really hard to get to dead. With a weapon, it’s a lot easier, but it takes some Cool and other ability spends to ramp up to being able to seriously imperil the life of another.

So, physical combat is fairly quick and dirty, with serious in-world penalties for doing it – suspension, grounding, criminal charges, law suits, etc. Social combat, on the other hand, gets it’s own mechanical subsystem.

Throwdowns

Social combat is the focus of most confrontations in this game. Shaming, frightening, or otherwise dominating your opponent15 is the equivalent to a big combat set piece in other games. Getting the quaterback to back down from a confrontation, or tricking the cheating popular girl into incriminating herself, or making the villain so angry he or she takes a swing at you – all of that comes down to a Throwdown.

The Throwdown system is a little bit involved, factoring in allies on both sides, who’s taking the lead, who’s on their home turf, and who has things to support their side of the combat. Taking hits reduces Cool, and running out means you lose – you get laughed at, or lose your temper, or say something stupid, or everyone just turns on you. There are techniques and strategies you can employ, just like in physical combat in most games16. It can turn pretty intense, which is what you’re looking for.

Settings

One thing I love about Fate Core is that it has good, structured methods for building your setting and game milieu at the start of play. Bubblegumshoe has incorporated that piece into the game, letting you and your players build the location and environment for your campaign, fully integrating the themes, places, and characters you want to see in play. The book leads you step-by-step through the things you need for your game, plus it gives you a lot of background discussion to help you make the decisions during play, and to understand what is and isn’t going to work.

And if you don’t want to do that, there’s a fully fleshed-out town already built and written up in the book: Drewsbury17. In addition to Drewsbury, the book has eight other settings, not as fully statted, but with enough background – and some rules tweaks – to show you how to use them with the basic setting building method to get a good start for the game. These include some paranormal elements, some science fiction elements18, dystopian societies, super heroes, and scouting. It gives you the tools to play everything from a Smallville-style game19 to a Lumberjanes scout troop to a Scooby Doo gang, complete with animal sidekick.

One last thing I want to point out about settings: there is an actual mechanic for modeling the bad part of town. Locations where your character isn’t supposed to go – because of age, because of gender, because of clique or social class or neighbourhood or whatever – get thresholds. This is a number of Cool points you have to pay to take part in a scene in that location. So, if you want to go into the Teacher Lounge at school, or the biker bar across the tracks, you need to pay a point or two of Cool, reflecting that you are out of your element and at risk. I just think this is a great little mechanic for getting players to worry about going places that their characters would worry about going.

Lester Bay

As I mentioned way back at the start of this post, I got a couple of friends together to try the game out. We wound up creating a small town on an island in the Queen Charlotte Strait of BC20 in the early 90s. My players decided they wanted to play younger characters – 13 years old – and that they wanted some supernatural elements in play.

Character and setting creation took a session, then I put all our notes into a setting bible21, and mapped out the mystery. The plan was for a three-session game, so I made a mystery that I thought we could get through in that time, revolving around the vandalism of a mural at the local community centre. Scheduling meant we needed to take a bit of an extended break over the Christmas season, but we got the three sessions in and finished the adventure. Everyone had fun.

That said, I learned some lessons that I think are useful, so I’m sharing them.

First, if you’re using some supernatural elements in the game, you need to be careful that they don’t overshadow the main mystery. My initial plan was that the mystery itself was mundane, but the created disharmony between the town folk and the nearby First Nations village caused some supernatural events. And the characters latched on to those elements as the focus of the investigation, because of course they did. They were far more interesting than somebody breaking a window and writing a slur on a mural. So, bad planning on my part. Distracting.

Second, make sure you and your players have a solid shared understanding of what it means to play kids. This was especially important because of playing such young characters. Teenagers just don’t have the freedom and agency that adults do, and are heavily constrained by society and parents and peers. That limits the ways the characters can deal with some standard RPG obstacles so, as a GM, you have to make sure there are ways for the characters to get clues that are appropriate for their age. And, as players, you have to remember just how frustrating it can be to have your options limited by your age, and how you used to get around that. So, a discussion of these types of expectations before we started playing would have been helpful.

Finally, and this applies to all investigative games, it’s easy to get caught up in the roleplaying but, as a GM, your focus must be on getting information to the characters. They can’t proceed without the information and, especially when their options are limited by the age of the characters, you need to make sure they always have something to do, some thread to follow.

Just my thoughts.

Conclusion

Bubblegumshoe rocks. It’s well-written, really evokes the source material, and is a great deal of fun to play. If you like teenage detectives and investigatory RPGs, this is a must-have. It gives you the flexibility to play light games or dark games, modern or historical or futuristic games, and to add in pretty much any element from YA media that interests you. The system is robust and simple, though the paradigm of GUMSHOE can take some getting used to if you’re coming from more traditional RPGs.

So, yeah. Get it. All the cool kids are already playing it.

 

  1. Though, to be honest, I think the niche of teen-hero-Fate-game is kind of already filled by The Young Centurions. []
  2. As it says on the cover. []
  3. Thanks, Chris and Sandy! []
  4. Talking my friends into playing games, even trying new ones, is not much of a challenge. What is more challenging is trying to fit another game into everyone’s schedules. []
  5. Not as dense and focused as the DFRPG marginalia, but it’s a nice visual touch to the design. []
  6. Shame on you! No, no. Sorry. No shaming here. But I think you should check it out. []
  7. That’s not a great explanation. It makes it sound like a guessing game, where the player just lists all his or her abilities, and when the right one comes up, the GM gives them a plot coupon. I talk in more detail about how the system works in general in this post. []
  8. As Eddie Izzard says. []
  9. Which is the way I remember them feeling in the long-ago time when I was a teenager. []
  10. That is, scene time during play. []
  11. You know what I mean. []
  12. Which is to say, as both HP and Sanity points. []
  13. The idea of running a game where having a modern teenage player character decide that the optimal strategy is to kill a rival is a little too close to some of the more horrific real-life news stories I’ve seen. I do not think I would play that game. []
  14. And most effectively. []
  15. Preferably, but not necessarily, in public. []
  16. In Bubblegumshoe, there are more techniques and strategies available in Throwdowns than in physical combat. []
  17. Drewsbury is good, but I found it to be a very American place. That’s not a bad thing, but keep it in mind if you’re planning to use it. []
  18. Gotta give a shout out to Veronica Base, Mars for the effort to use the name without violating IP law. []
  19. Though for that, I recommend digging up the Smallville RPGBut still. []
  20. That’s British Columbia, a province of Canada, for my non-Canadian readers. []
  21. I’m not sharing the setting bible. I thought about it, but I wrote up some stuff about one of the coastal First Nations groups that is the result of very light research, and I’m not comfortable sharing something that I, as a white dude, wrote about another racial/cultural group that I did that little research on. []

Hush! Hush! Cthulhu Fhtagn!

I just got a message from Pelgrane Press to confirm my shipping address for my Cthulhu Confidential preorder, the premiere book in Pelgrane’s GUMSHOE One-2-One line. I figure that means I should probably tell some people about the game.

The premise behind the line is pretty simple – adapt Pelgrane’s GUMSHOE line to make it really sing if you’re playing with just one GM and one player. I’m not going to talk too much about GUMSHOE itself1, but I do want to talk about the new system2 and some of the choices made.

What’s In The Book?

The book itself is 315 pages, so it’s a big, meaty volume. It’s got the same look and design as the Trail of Cthulhu line, with the greenish overall colour and the wonderful and evocative Jérôme Huguenin cover art. The authors are Robin D. Laws, Chris Spivey, and Ruth Tillman.

The actual game rules take up about 60 pages, and a lot of that is advice about how to run the game effectively – as is pointed out, running for one player is decidedly different that running for more than one. Even two players really lessens the intensity of focus that the GM and player require. Without a larger group for brainstorming and kibitzing, there’s no real downtime for the two folks sitting down to play this game. Both player and GM are always on.

After the rules come three sections, each focused on a different city, different PC, and different scenario. So, you’ve got Dex Raymond, the hardboiled L.A. detective; Vivian Sinclair, the determined N.Y.C. investigative reporter; and Langston Wright, the war veteran and scholar in Washington, D.C.

Wrapping up the book are the appendices, with reference material and hand-outs for playing and running GUMSHOE One-2-One.

Cards Everywhere

One of the conceits in the core GUMSHOE system is that you find the clues you need for the story to advance. That carries over into GUMSHOE One-2-One, as expected. What I hadn’t considered before reading this book is that, without the buffer of other players and characters, it gets much easier to stall the story3 through non-investigative things. Sure, if you search the garden, you find the strange footprints by the pond, but if you can’t climb over the wall into the garden, you can’t search the garden, right? In standard play, this is handled by the resilience of the group – if you can’t climb the wall, surely someone in the group has some points left in Athletics to get to the other side.

Same thing, but even more so, with combat. TPKs are a threat in any game, especially when combat is as deadly as it can be in GUMSHOE. But when there’s only one PC, it gets that much riskier – a single bad die roll, and everything is just done. Over.

On the other hand, if you just let the character succeed at everything, there’s no sense of risk and no sense of accomplishment in play. The chance of failure is what makes success mean something.

GUMSHOE One-2-One has completely redesigned the way General Abilities work to address this issue. While it still uses a d6 resolution, like GUMSHOE, it allows you to roll multiple dice4. There are two target numbers, representing two types of successful outcome: a Hold, which is  an okay or middling result, and an Advance, which is the best result. You need to roll higher to get an Advance than to get a Hold.

If you don’t roll at least high enough to get a Hold, you get a Setback5 – a problem that arises from whatever it was you just attempted.

And this is where the cards come in6. When you roll an Advantage, you often receive an Edge, which is a little bonus that you gain from being awesome. When you roll a Setback, you often receive a Problem, which is a little complication that you gain from not expressing you awesomeness through die rolls. Both these things are tracked using cards, telling you what type of Edge or Problem you now have, and how it affects the game. Sometimes, these things go away, like spending an Edge for the bonus it gives you or fixing the Problem narratively, but sometimes they stick around for a while.

Here’s the coolest thing about this system: most challenges have Edge and Problem cards specific to that challenge. There are some generic ones7, but mostly, the Edge or Problem you get is directly related to the challenge you just faced. And it’s a perfect way to keep the story advancing even if the challenge was too much for the character. Here’s an example:

Note that this is a combat challenge. If the character gets a Setback, he or she winds up not dead, but chained to an altar, which directs you to another scene. Also, if the character gains an extra problem (by rolling an extra die), he or she can wind up Clawed by Deep Ones, with that problem card.

So, as a case progresses, the player will have a shifting array of cards, tracking different Edges and Problems. Each chapter has a few pages of the collected cards for that scenario, ready for you to print out8 and cut up. That lets you get set-up and ready for the game pretty quickly.

The Sources

Another issue you have to deal with in converting GUMSHOE to a single player and single character system is the fact that it becomes problematic to make sure all the investigative abilities are covered. In normal GUMSHOE, each character can take a few, with a focus on a few specialties, to make sure you’ve got someone on the team with the ability find pretty much every clue. In the games I’ve run, it generally means that, at most, there are one or two investigative abilities that no one has put any points into.

With only a single character, you have the choice of either letting them have all the investigative abilities, so that each character is largely the same, mechanically speaking; of making sure that there are only clues for the investigative abilities that the character has; or giving the character access to investigative abilities that he or she doesn’t have through some other means.

Enter the sources.

Each character has a list of sources, with notes about what investigative abilities they provide, their personalities, and their relationship with the character. So, like a detective novel, part of play is the investigator going to talk to an interesting person who can help them with information or analysis. It turns finding a clue into an interactive roleplaying scene.

The Characters

The Cthulhu Confidential core book gives you three fully fleshed out characters to play, and the free download The Red Mist on the Pelgrane site gives you another one, along with a scenario for her. In addition, the appendices include the basic ability lists for ten more characters for other GUMSHOE genres, including Trail of Cthulhu, The Esoterrorists, Fear Itself, Night’s Black Agents, Mutant City Blues, Ashen Stars, The Gaean Reach, TimeWatch, and Bubblegumshoe.

There’s a short section on creating investigators so that players can play a non-pregen character, but it stresses that the pregens are specifically tuned for their scenarios9, so making big changes from the pregens may cause problems in play. Still, it’s got all the information you need to build a character from scratch.

The included characters are a more diverse lot than you see in most historical period gaming. You have Dex Raymond, who is a Sam Spade/Phillip Chandler type, the tough, white, male detective of the noir pulps. Then, you get Vivian Sinclair, who is a female investigative reporter. Third is Langston Wright, an African-American war veteran and scholar. In The Red Mist, you get Phyllis Oakley10, a female dealer in rare books.

Vivian and Langston also have information about how women and minorities were treated, both historically and in the pulps that inform this game. There is a discussion with each about scaling the types of treatments facing non-white, non-male11 characters, allowing the player and GM to set the level of horribleness of humanity that both are comfortable dealing with.

The Cities

Each of the three character chapters includes a write-up of the character’s home city. For Dex, that’s Los Angeles; for Viv, that’s New York; and for Langston, that’s Washington, D.C. These write-ups include the historical context – the 1930s for New York and LA, the 1940s for Washington. Also included are some maps, important locations, and important people.

And a fairly rich sprinkling of story hooks to build new scenarios.

More than a lot of game books, the cities in Cthulhu Confidential work almost like characters in and of themselves. I think this is a product of the tight focus on a single character for play in each of the cities, which lets the city write-up focus on a more coherent theme and presentation, rather than being written for wider appeal and purpose. Anyway, the result is a real feeling of immediacy for each of the cities.

The Scenarios

The Cthulhu Confidential core book comes with three scenarios, one for each of the three characters:

  • The Fathomless Sleep: How did fast-living society girl Helen Deakin come down with a case of catatonia? Her sultry sister pays you to find out. As Dex Raymond, you’ll explore a web of blackmail, dirty money, and weird mysticism in the city of fallen angels.
  • Fatal Frequencies: In the offices of the New York Herald, Sadie Cane seeks reporter Vivian Sinclair‘s help. Sadie’s fiancé, George Preston, disappeared three days after a murder in his apartment block. Can Viv uncover the truth about George, and will Sadie like what she finds?
  • Capitol Colour: Lynette Miller was a riveter. A few weeks ago, she got a new job: hush-hush, and highly paid. She’s a clever and resourceful young woman, and now she’s missing, and her father is heartbroken. Can Langston Wright unweave a web of deceit, face down racist cops and uncover the deeper conspiracy which endangers the war effort?

In addition, there’s a free downloadable adventure, The Red Mist, available on the Pelgrane site.

Each of these scenarios is focused specifically on the character for whom it was written. Though they can probably be run for the other characters12, I would want to go through them in detail, and make a number of changes to the Edges, Problems, and challenges to make sure they all still make sense for a different character.

Because of the way the new challenge system works with the cards, and because of the fact that there’s no real downtime for the GM to think about stuff will the players are talking to each other, I think it would be very difficult to run Cthulhu Confidential as an improvised investigation, the way The Armitage Files worked13. I also think that prepping a scenario is probably a bigger job for the GM than in Trail of Cthulhu, because of the need to more carefully design each challenge, especially coming up with Setbacks that don’t derail the game.

That’s why I think it’s so valuable to get these four14 complete scenarios with the game. Not only do they give you ready-to-play scenarios, but they also serve as solid models to pattern your own scenarios after.

Conclusions

I haven’t had a chance to try actually playing15Cthulhu Confidential scenario, so I don’t really know how all this works in play.

That said, I really like the way the game is built. The main changes to the system address problems that I didn’t know were problems until I saw the solutions, so that gives me confidence in the thinking and playtesting behind the game.

The characters, cities, and scenarios are all meaty, and look like a lot of fun. The book is well-written and physically attractive.

I say it’s a winner. I just need a guinea pig to help me try it out.

  1. I’ve already talked about Trail of Cthulhu here, and chronicled my Armitage Files campaign here. []
  2. Yeah, it really is a new system, though heavily based on the original GUMSHOE stuff. []
  3. And thus the game. []
  4. Assuming you have multiple dice in the ability you’re using. []
  5. I am very pleased that it’s called a Setback and not a Failure. []
  6. You were wondering, weren’t you? []
  7. And a whole host of generic Edge and Problem cards in the appendices. []
  8. Or photocopy, if you’re working with just the physical book and not the pdf. []
  9. Or vice-versa, I guess. []
  10. Who can be renamed Phillip Oakley. []
  11. And non-straight. []
  12. Or for an original character. []
  13. Though there’s an interesting article about running The Armitage Files using Cthulhu Confidential here. Still, the article says it’s not easy. []
  14. Actually five: with my preorder of Cthulhu Confidential, I got a pre-layout version of The House Up In The Hills, another Dex Raymond scenario. []
  15. Or running. []

Mage: Discovered, Defined, Denied

It was announced recently that, after an 18-year gap, Matt Wagner is going to be doing the third volume of his Mage trilogy, Mage: The Hero Denied.

If you’re not familiar with the comics1Mage is a modern fantasy series, featuring Kevin Matchstick, a man who gets caught up in a mystical war between good and evil. Guided by the World-Mage Mirth, he reluctantly squares off against the Umbra Sprite and his five sons, the Grackleflints. The whole battle centres around the Umbra Sprite’s quest to find the Fisher King and sacrifice him, bringing about a new dark age on earth.

Well, that’s the first series, Mage: The Hero Discovered. I’m not going to go into much more detail about the series for fear of spoilers – you’ll find enough of those in the Wikipedia article and interviews I linked2. Suffice to say that the books are great, and I’m rereading them in preparation for the beginning of the third series, this summer.

How do they hold up?

Well, honestly, the first series feels a little dated. Part of that is that it is dated – it’s over 30 years old. And while I love Matt Wagner’s work, both as a writer and as an artist, he has grown and matured as both in the time in between. By the time the second series starts, in 1997, his skills are greater, and the execution is better. The second series also feels a little less tied to a specific time and place than the first3.

But the stories are good. Pure. Solid. They deal with mythology and archetypes and humanity and choices. With belief and doubt. With sacrifice. And there are a couple of scenes in each series that always give me a lump in my throat.

The stories are very much tied to Kevin Matchstick’s age. Discovered is a young man’s story, about finding his place in the world, and figuring out how things work. Defined is a mature man’s story, about growing into responsibility and self-awareness. After 18 years, I’m very curious to see what Denied chooses as its themes.

Gameable Bits

Anyway, as I’m reading through Mage: The Hero Defined, I keep coming back to the thought that it would make a great setting for a game. Here’s the basic setup elements:

  • A number of archetypical heroes from the past, and from various cultures all over the world, have manifestations in the modern world. These make great PCs.
  • In addition, there are other beings of power – witches, giants, ghosts, mages, possible Olympian gods, young women with magic baseball bats and classic cars – who make great PCs for players who don’t want to pick a heroic avatar.
  • Nasty creatures – trolls, bogarts, harpies, kelpies, red caps, succubi, etc. – are preying on mortals.
  • Due to the machinations of the Big Bad, these nasty creatures and the heroes and the heroes’ companions are all drawn to a city where an evil plan is coming to fruition.
  • Hilarity4 ensues.

One of the key bits from the comics that made me keep thinking about it as a game setting is that each of the heroes has a tag, relating to which heroic archetype they represent. So, you’ve got the Coyote, the Ulster Hound, the Hornblower, the Olympian, the Monkey King, the Sun Twins, the Dragonslayer, and so on. That just sounded so much like the high concept from a Fate Core character that I couldn’t get it out of my head.

Even the non-heroes – characters like Mirth, Edsel, Sean Knight, Gretch, Isis, Magda, Ishtar – are drawn from archetypical sources, giving them fairly prominent high concept aspects, as well: The World-Mage, Bearer of the Weapon, Ghost Defender, Head-Baning Giant, Weird Sisters, etc.

Throw in a little bit of power using extras and stunts, and it becomes pretty easy to build pretty much any character that appears in the comics, and to extrapolate to your own characters in the same setting.

And, in Fate Core, building antagonists is easy5. So, not much of a problem to build monster-of-the-week-style challenges for your characters. A little more time investment required for bad guys that are gonna stick around for a bit, but still pretty quick. And since a lot of the nasties are drawn from world mythology6, you’ve got a rich vein of source material to mine for it.

So, yeah. I figure a couple of hours of prep work, tops, and then you’re ready to have the greatest heroes of the ages drawn to Montreal to thwart the Pale Incanter’s scheme.

Go ahead. Read the comics. Give it a try. Let me know how it goes.

  1. And can’t be bothered to follow any of the links above. []
  2. After 30 years, are spoilers still a concern? Best to be safe, I guess. []
  3. Okay, that last bit is just my feel. Objectively speaking, the second series hits the time and place even harder than the first, but has more of a mythic overlay to it. Somehow, it doesn’t feel as dated to me. []
  4. And by “hilarity,” I mean chaos and carnage. []
  5. And will get even easier and better, I’m betting, with the publication of the Fate Adversary Toolkit coming this summer. []
  6. Maybe leaning a little heavily on the Celtic and Greek. []

Fate of the Nephilim: Skills

A quick note about the information presented below: I’m not going to be explaining all the ins and outs of the Nephilim game. If you’re really confused by stuff, I urge you to grab the pdf of the game to follow along. You can get it at the Chaosium site, and the entire line is available at RPGnow. It’s well worth the purchase. And Fate Core is available from Evil Hat Productions. Also very much worth it.

 

The next big piece of heavy lifting for the Nephilim conversion is solidifying the skill list. It also involves deciding which skills are available for which eras and for which types of past lives. And that requires looking at which types of past lives are available for which era. So, in this post, I’m going to take a look at all of that, and hopefully get the skills sorted for this conversion.

Past Lives

I’ve already decided1 to use a variant of the mode method of character creation that I had first seen done in the Atomic Robo RPG, and later saw discussed in more detail in the Fate System Toolkit.  The basic idea is that you choose a couple pre-defined sets of skills and add together the ranks in overlapping skills. I thought that would work very well to reflect things learned over a series of incarnations in different time periods.

The standard number of skills in a mode in ARRPG is three2, and that seems a good number of skills for one mode or lifetime. But to keep from having to create a whole bunch of different modes in order to give some variety to the characters and choices3, I decided that I should give each lifetime four or five skills4, and allow the player to choose three of them for the character.

One of the other things I’ve decided about skill numbers is that, in addition to the three skills from the main list for each lifetime, the characters will get to make one pick from the magic skills list available in that era. This is partially because it kind of mirrors the way magic skills are handled in Nephilim – each lifetime grants a certain number of points that you can spend on occult development – and partially because it emphasizes5 the idea that Nephilim are creatures of magic, and even the most mundane among them is still quite magically powerful. At least, compared to a mortal.

Now, some types of lifetime – scholars, for instance – may also have a magic skill as one of the skills on their main skill list, allowing the character to essentially double-dip. Again, this is by design, and I think the fact that the character is giving up a different6 skill to embrace magic is just a fine trade-off. That said, it’s one of the things I’ll have to keep thinking about and will watch carefully if I ever get to try the game out.

The Skill List

If you’ve taken a look at the work-in-progress manual I posted last time, you’ve already seen the overall skill list I came up with. If you haven’t, here it is:

  • Alchemy
  • Athletics
  • Burglary
  • Contacts
  • Crafts
  • Deceive
  • Drive
  • Empathy
  • Fight
  • Investigate
  • Ka Vision
  • Lore
  • Notice
  • Physique
  • Provoke
  • Rapport
  • Resources
  • Shoot
  • Sorcery
  • Solar Ka
  • Stealth
  • Summoning
  • Will

You’ll probably notice that there are a few new skills on that list. Here’s the basics on those:

  • Athletics, Sorcery, Summoning: These are the three magical styles of Nephilim. I’ve only got a rudimentary idea of exactly how I’m going to implement them, so right now, they’re pretty much placeholders. When I get to the post where I sort out the magic, I’ll talk more about them7.
  • Ka Vision: This is how the Nephilim view the magical flow of elements and the other occult aspects of the world. I figure it works just like the Investigate skill, except for magical things instead of mundane things.
  • Solar Ka: In Nephilim, Solar Ka is a measure of the power of humans. It mainly works as an obstacle that Nephilim have to deal with when trying to possess someone, or use magic on them, or something similar. So, I figure that there has to be some representation of it in the game, though I’m not entirely sure how it’s going to work, yet.

Eras

As mentioned back here, I’m dividing the past lives into four broad eras: Ancient, Medieval, Renaissance, Modern.

  • Ancient is era 1 (Predynastic Egypt c. 5000 BCE) to era 10 (Rome, Italy c. 350 CE).
  • Medieval is era 11 (Aachen, Germania c. 750 CE) to era 16 (Avignon, France c. 1378 CE).
  • Renaissance is era 17 (Florence, Italy c. 1480 CE) to era 22 (The Scottish Rebellion c. 1745 CE).
  • Modern is era 23 (Paris, France c. 1789 CE) to era 27 (Berlin, Germany c. 1933 CE).

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: these are simple benchmarks. A good argument from a player is all that’s required to switch a given incarnation period from Ancient to Medieval or vice versa. And, of course, the edge cases – periods that are right on the border of switching to a different era – could go either way.

The main point is that it allows me to not have to create new modes for each incarnation period. I can just create Ancient modes, and Medieval modes, etc. It also means that the modes are more generally useful if a player decides to create their own time period for incarnation: I can just look at which of the four eras it falls into.

And, of course, location is a big determining factor. Some areas may be in one era and some in another during the same time. For example, England in 1600 CE is Renaissance, but northern Canada8 probably counts as Ancient during the same year. So, yeah, benchmarks.

Types of Life

Each time period that’s written up in Nephilim or Chronicle of the Awakenings includes a list of who your simulacrum could be. Again, in order to make my life simpler, I’ve created five broad categories of mode for each era. So, if you decide that you were incarnated as a Paladin of Charlemagne, you’d take the Medieval Warrior mode for that incarnation. If you were a galley slave in a Greek trireme during the Trojan war, you’d take Ancient Farmer/Labourer.

I also think that deciding which category your character falls into based on your incarnation is a judgment call. Some9 will be pretty obvious, while others10 will require discussion to determine. That is, in my mind, a feature, not a bug; it lets the player and GM sort things out and flesh out some of the back story for the character, as the player answers questions or makes claims to justify their choice. All good stuff.

So, here are the categories:

  • Ancient: Farmer/Labourer, Craftsman, Warrior, Priest, Ruler
  • Medieval: Farmer/Labourer, Merchant/Craftsman, Warrior, Priest, Ruler
  • Renaissance: Farmer/Labourer, Merchant/Artist, Soldier, Priest/Scholar, Ruler
  • Modern: Farmer/Labourer, Businessman/Artist, Soldier, Priest/Scientist, Politician

Modes

And now we come to the meat. Here’s my preliminary list of skills for each of the modes. These are obviously subject to change as I keep working on the project. But it’s a start.

  • Ancient Farmer/Labourer: Crafts, Drive, Empathy, Notice, Stealth Will. Magic: Sorcery, Ka Vision.
  • Ancient Craftsman: Contacts, Crafts, Empathy, Lore, Notice, Rapport. Magic: Sorcery, Ka Vision.
  • Ancient Warrior: Fight, Ka Vision11, Notice, Provoke, Shoot, Stealth. Magic: Sorcery, Ka Vision.
  • Ancient Priest: Deceive, Empathy, Lore, Rapport, Sorcery, Will. Magic: Sorcery, Ka Vision.
  • Ancient Ruler: Contacts, Empathy, Fight, Notice, Provoke, Rapport. Magic: Sorcery, Ka Vision.
  • Medieval Farmer/Labourer: Crafts, Drive, Empathy, Notice, Stealth, Will. Magic: Sorcery, Ka Vision12.
  • Medieval Merchant/Craftsman: Burglary, Contacts, Crafts, Empathy, Notice, Rapport. Magic: Sorcery, Summoning13, Ka Vision.
  • Medieval Warrior: Fight, Notice, Provoke, Shoot, Stealth, Will. Magic: Sorcery, Summoning, Ka Vision.
  • Medieval Priest: Empathy, Investigate, Lore, Rapport, Summoning14, Will. Magic: Sorcery, Summoning, Ka Vision.
  • Medieval Ruler: Contacts, Empathy, Fight, Ka Vision15, Provoke, Rapport. Magic: Sorcery, Summoning, Ka Vision.
  • Renaissance Farmer/Labourer: Contacts, Drive, Empathy, Notice, Stealth, Will. Magic: Sorcery, Ka Vision.
  • Renaissance Merchant/Artist: Burglary, Contacts, Crafts, Deceive, Notice, Rapport. Magic: Sorcery, Summoning, Alchemy, Ka Vision.
  • Renaissance Soldier: Fight, Notice, Provoke, Shoot, Stealth, Will. Magic: Sorcery, Ka Vision.
  • Renaissance Priest/Scholar: Alchemy, Investigate, Lore, Notice, Rapport, Will. Magic: Sorcery, Summoning, Alchemy, Ka Vision.
  • Renaissance Ruler: Contacts, Deceive, Empathy, Fight, Provoke, Rapport. Magic: Sorcery, Summoning, Alchemy, Ka Vision.
  • Modern Farmer/Labourer: Burglary, Contacts, Drive, Empathy, Notice, Stealth. Magic: Sorcery, Ka Vision.
  • Modern Businessman/Artist: Contacts, Crafts, Deceive, Empathy, Notice, Rapport. Magic: Sorcery, Alchemy, Ka Vision.
  • Modern Soldier: Drive, Fight, Notice, Provoke, Shoot, Stealth. Magic: Sorcery, Ka Vision.
  • Modern Priest/Scientist: Investigate, Empathy, Lore, Notice, Rapport, Will. Magic: Sorcery, Summoning, Alchemy, Ka Vision.
  • Modern Politician: Contacts, Deceive, Empathy, Provoke, Rapport, Will. Magic: Sorcery, Summoning, Alchemy, Ka Vision.

I’m thinking that I may need to allow characters to swap out one skill for another, based on the concept of their incarnation. For example, someone who incarnates as a police officer in 1900 CE may take the Modern Soldier mode, but want to swap out Stealth for Investigate. I think that would be okay, though I’m a little worried I’m making the modes a little too loose. I’m going to have to think about it, and reread the modes stuff in the Fate System Toolkit.

Simulacrum Skills

There are certain other skills that the Nephilim don’t get, because they’re based on the abilities of the simulacrum. These include Athletics and Physique, because they’re purely physical; Resources, because that’s purely social; and Solar Ka, because that’s purely human.

What that means is that I need to add a character creation step: creating the current simulacrum. In addition to those skills, I figure it would be good to give the simulacrum an aspect to identify it16. This could, in some cases, act almost like a second Trouble aspect, reflecting how the history, role, or submerged personality of the simulacrum makes things difficult.

Updated Manual

And here‘s the work-in-progress manual, updated with the material from above.

  1. In fact, it was the seminal idea for this hack. []
  2. Though the Science mode is different. []
  3. Well, I still have to create a number of different modes, but not such an overwhelming number, I think. []
  4. When I sat down to actually do this, I wound up giving each mode six skills. I may need to change that. []
  5. Like the Nephilim system does. []
  6. More mundane, more mortal, more human. []
  7. Hopefully, I’ll have figured out something cool with them by that time. []
  8. Well, it wouldn’t be Canada, yet, but you get the idea. []
  9. Like the Paladin of Charlemagne. []
  10. Like the galley slave – maybe that’s an Ancient Warrior? []
  11. Why? Because stories of ancient warriors with preternatural senses are not uncommon. And I liked the idea. []
  12. This list makes some magic skills unavailable, based on the mode. So, Medieval Farmer/Labourers don’t get access to Summoning. Not sure if this is a good idea, yet. []
  13. So, there are canon dates when the more advanced magical skills (Summoning and Alchemy) are discovered. I’m roughing them in by period. When I get to the magic conversion, I may change that. []
  14. Why? Because of the prevalence of saints and their almost-cults during the middle ages. Sure, that’s pretty Christian-centric, but there ya go. []
  15. Why? Because it fits with medieval ideas of kingship for the ruler to be touched by the mystical world. []
  16. Could wind up with a total of eight aspects, in that case, which is a lot. []

Fate of the Nephilim: Documentation

A quick note about the information presented below: I’m not going to be explaining all the ins and outs of the Nephilim game. If you’re really confused by stuff, I urge you to grab the pdf of the game to follow along. You can get it at the Chaosium site, and the entire line is available at RPGnow. It’s well worth the purchase. And Fate Core is available from Evil Hat Productions. Also very much worth it.

Well, I’ve spent the last couple of days trying to get my head around where I left off on this project of converting Nephilim to a Fate Core game. It became readily apparent to me that I had lost a lot of momentum due to my long blogging hiatus, and had a fair bit of trouble remembering what I had planned to do next.

And so I fell back on my old stand-bys.

I’m a technical writer by day, and that means I’ve got a fair bit of practice with organizing and planning documentation. So, I decided to start actually writing the Fate of the Nephilim manual. That would document some of my ideas, show me what I had already done, cement some of the decisions, and give me a plan for what needs to come next.

The current version of the document doesn’t really advance things over the blog posts, but it does codify my thinking and planning. There are one or two new bits, decisions made either as I was putting the document together or sometime since the last post as the ideas have been brewing in my brain. But really, it just covers the basics of the character creation phases.

There’s still a lot to do.

It’s not a super-pretty document, either. I’ve given it a very simple cover page, a table of contents, and am using a pretty standard Word them to help with the organization. There are lots of pages that are blank except for the headings I’ve dropped in to use as an outline. And then, because I decided that I would share it with folks online, I spent an hour or so this evening tracking down the proper copyright and licensing notices for Fate Core and Nephilim1.

Yeah, I’m going to share the incomplete document with you folks.

If you find it interesting, let me know. If you spot any typos2, let me know. If you have any suggestions, comments, or complaints3, let me know.

Next step will be coming up with the skill lists for the various eras. You’ll see what I mean when you look at the document.

Okay, so here’s the link.

 

  1. Pro tip: always take the time to do this. If you like something enough to want to use it like I am, you should like it enough to give the proper credit to the folks who worked to make it in the first place. And not doing it just makes you look… unprofessional. []
  2. I haven’t given it a real editing pass. And one of the rules I live by is that everything always needs another editing pass. []
  3. Though, to be honest, I will probably ignore complaints. Constructive criticism – now, that’s the way to get me to pay attention. []

Fate of the Nephilim: Phases and Aspects

Fate of the NephilimA quick note about the information presented below: I’m not going to be explaining all the ins and outs of the Nephilim game. If you’re really confused by stuff, I urge you to grab the pdf of the game to follow along. You can get it at the Chaosium site, and the entire line is available at RPGnow. It’s well worth the purchase. And Fate Core is available from Evil Hat Productions. Also very much worth it.

After my last post, I got a couple of comments that made me think I had better put some thought into the actual process of character creation, rather than just mapping them mechanical elements. Fair enough; my plan had been to do all the mechanical mapping of all the systems I wanted, then to use that to tell me what the process should be, but the comments made me reconsider that1.

So, let’s start talking about the phases of character creation, and the number and type of aspects the characters will have.

High Concept and Trouble Aspects

Obviously, the core of any Fate character is the aspect duo of High Concept and Trouble. Thus, the Nephilim will start with a High Concept and a Trouble.

For High Concept, I think it might be good to make the metamorphosis name required as part of the aspect, but also to require some modifiers. So, instead of a High Concept aspect of Djinn, or even Fiery Djinn2, I’d ask for something like Ageless Warrior Djinn, or Angel Esoteric Dancer, or Snake Astrologer to Alexander the Great or something. Use the metamorphosis name, but add some detail and colour.

For the Trouble aspect, I can’t think of any constraints I’d put on things. So, just the normal rules for choosing a Trouble aspect. Of course, the backstory and world of the Nephilim give some rich material for cool trouble aspects: Orichalka Scars, Hunted by the Holy Vehm, Touched by the Black Moon, etc.

One of the catches, though, is that I don’t think I would make picking High Concept and Trouble the first steps. I think I would save that until after the past lives are done. That’ll give a stronger foundation, and more shape to the character.

Past Lives

I’ve made a list of the past life periods from the Nephilim rulebook and Chronicle of the Awakenings. Here’s what I’ve got:

  1. Predynastic Egypt, c. 5000 BCE – The Great Compromise: What God Were You?
  2. Memphis, Egypt,  c. 3000 BCE – The Pact: Menes Creates Empire
  3. Uruk, Sumeria, c. 2700 BCE – The Epic of Gilgamesh
  4. Thebes, Egypt, c. 1350 BCE – Akhenaton: The Arcana Rebellion
  5. Mycenae, Greece, c. 1200 BCE – The Age of Discord
  6. Babylon, Persia, c. 600 BCE – Zoroaster and Ethical Religion
  7. Alexandria, Egypt, c. 350 BCE – Alexander and the Great Philosophers3
  8. The Kingdom of Carthage, c. 200 BCE – The Destruction of Carthage
  9. Jerusalem, Judea, c. 30 CE – The Jesus Incident: Birth of the Piscean Age
  10. Rome, Italy, c. 350 CE – Constantine and the New Church
  11. Aachen, Germania, c. 750 CE – Charlemagne Destroys Paganism
  12. Rome, Italy, c. 1000 CE – The Millennium
  13. Jerusalem, c. 1120 CE – The Crusader States
  14. Las Navas de Tolosa, Spain, c. 1212 CE – The Reconquista
  15. Montsegur, Toulouse, c. 1243 CE – The Cathars
  16. Avignon, France, c. 1378 CE – The Great Papal Schism
  17. Florence, Italy, c. 1480 CE – The Rennaissance
  18. London, England, c. 1590 CE – The New Camelot?
  19. Paris, France, c. 1630 CE – The Birth of the Age of Reason
  20. The Americas, New England, c. 1650 CE – For Fear of the Devil
  21. London, England, c. 1730 CE – The Mechanization of the Universe
  22. The Scottish Rebellion, c. 1745 CE – Bonnie Prince Charlie Wars for His Throne
  23. Paris, France, c. 1789 CE – The Best of Times; The Worst of Times
  24. The Siege of Paris, c. 1873 CE – The Insurgent Uprising
  25. London, England, c. 1900 CE – Return of the Magicians
  26. The Great War, c. 1916 CE – Anathema to Live, and Bane of Lovers
  27. Berlin, Germany, c. 1933 CE – The Spear and the Swastika

That gives a very broad range of periods for the players to choose from4. That said, I don’t think that it needs to be a restrictive list – it’s handy to have a list for folks to choose from, but the periods here also provide templates for building other periods.

This list also gives me a nice chronological arrangement, and shows that I can probably get away with just four batches of skills, if I do it right:

  • Ancient – eras 1-10
  • Medieval – eras 11-16
  • Rennaissance – eras 17-22
  • Modern – eras 23-27

Yeah, the divisions are a little fuzzier than that, but close enough for our purposes, considering the broad skills in Fate Core. I’ve got some ideas about how to do the skills, but they’re not really solidified, yet, so I’m going to save them for their own post.

Past Life Phases

Character creation phases seem to fit nicely with past lives in Nephilim. I’m thinking give each character three “free” past lives, and let them buy more using fate (Ka) points. With the default starting refresh of 3, that means that characters can have from three to five past lives.

Rather than walk through each characters first, second, and third5 past lives in order, it will work better to get the characters to discuss which eras they’re interested in, and create a list for each character. This is mainly so that, if two or more characters are manifest in the same era, we can take the opportunity to talk about how those characters interacted, kind of like the Crossing Paths phases of Fate Core.

So, here’s a rough outline of how I see the Past Life Phases working:

  1. Players discuss and pick the desired eras for their characters.
  2. Starting with the earliest era:
    1. Pick simulacrum.
    2. Pick skills.
    3. For first incarnation, choose Arcanum and Stasis item.
    4. If other characters are incarnated here, discuss and note interaction between the characters.
    5. Determine death circumstances.
    6. Choose an aspect for this era.
  3. Repeat step 2 for each era wherein a character has chosen to incarnate.
  4. Total up skill ranks for all incarnations.

There may be something added to step 2, depending on how I finally sort out the magic system and where stunts fit in.

Past Life Aspects

So, the idea is that each character gets an aspect for each past life. That’s my default plan. With the High Concept and Trouble aspects, and the variable number of past lives, that gives each character 5-7 aspects. Now, I’m not completely convinced that allowing characters to have different numbers of aspects is a good idea – I don’t think it’s a game-breaker, but it does give that character a couple more options for using the fate point economy. On the other hand, those with more aspects will have fewer starting fate points, so that might balance out. I’ll have to think more about this. It’s eminently doable to just have the players come up with aspects for any three of the character’s past lives, but I think that undermines some of the cool flavour of the long-lived Nephilim, so I’m reluctant to go that way.

Anyway, there was some discussion on a previous post about the kind of aspects characters should have for past lives. The most obvious one is an aspect that denotes their role in that period – a sort of period-specific High Concept. I can see that as a simple, usable kind of aspect, but I worry that a) it will undermine/conflict with the actual High Concept, and b) it’ll make for a list of aspects like the character classes on a multiclass D&D character sheet.

Thus I have come up with a short list of ideas for Past Life aspects:

  • An aspect related to your Arcanum, especially if this is when you joined your Arcanum: Eminence Grise of the EmperorRight Hand of StrengthJustice Investigator
  • An aspect related to an important event in that era: Taught the First Farmers to Brew BeerFought Against the Reconquista, Cathar Perfect
  • An aspect related to an important person in that era: The Fourteenth Apostle, Paladin of Charlemagne, Confidant of Robespierre
  • An aspect related to interaction with a secret society in that era: Master MasonI HATE the Holy Vehm!, Hunted by Templars
  • An aspect related to a personal event in that era that left a mark: Hung as a Witch, Twelve Years a Homonculus, I Have Known True Love
  • Any other aspect, unrelated to the era, that shows off your character, goals, habits, or values: No Such Thing as Overprepared, I Will Unlock the Secrets of Solar Ka, The Selenim Are Abomination

 

Those are my thoughts on the phases and aspects for Fate of the Nephilim. Let me know what you think. Next time, I think I’ll talk about the skill packages for the various eras, and how they will fit together and work6

  1. So, thanks for that, Rob Rendell and Michael Duxbury! []
  2. Why not Fiery Djinn? Because all Djinn are fiery by definition. If you want to emphasize that you’re really fiery, maybe something like Djinn Inferno would work. []
  3. Sounds like a university band, doesn’t it? []
  4. Though I note that they are heavily weighted to Western European ideas of what’s important history. []
  5. …and possibly fourth and fifth. []
  6. I hope they’ll do both, anyway. []

Fate of the Nephilim: Character Creation

Fate of the Nephilim

A quick note about the information presented below: I’m not going to be explaining all the ins and outs of the Nephilim game. If you’re really confused by stuff, I urge you to grab the pdf of the game to follow along. You can get it at the Chaosium site, and the entire line is available at RPGnow. It’s well worth the purchase. And Fate Core is available from Evil Hat Productions. Also very much worth it.

I sat down with my Nephilim pdf the other night, and looked through it, making a list of things that I would have to address in converting the game to Fate Core 1. Below is my list, along with my initial thoughts on how I might convert that element. This is early days, yet; I expect that I will find the list changing, as I find things to add or decide that items on the list really don’t need special attention, and definitely I expect my approach to individual elements to change.

Past Lives

As mentioned, I think that the past lives can be addressed as modes, as seen in Atomic Robo RPG. Between Nephilim and Chronicle of the Awakenings, there are 27 different eras for the characters to pick for their previous lives, each of which has five or six different classes of person. Creating an individual mode for each of these potential incarnations is not only a lot of work, but many of the modes would be very similar.

I think that a simpler approach would be to create a basic mode for each general type of person in each broad category of eras: Ancient Warrior, Medieval Aristocrat, Modern Serf2, etc. Maybe give each mode a set of five skills, of which the player must pick three – that’ll allow some customization of each mode.

There are some great random tables with each life that I think are useful/interesting enough to keep: class of the simulacrum, stasis item for the first incarnation, and stasis event. Now, I think it’s important that the players have the option to choose those things themselves during character creation, but I also think that having the random options available is useful for those who don’t have a really good idea or just want to let part of the character creation rest in the hands of chance. Using those tables straight from the Nephilim books works fine, as there are no mechanical trappings to them.

An important consideration is how many past lives each character has access to, which brings us to Ka.

Ka

Ka is the central mechanical definer of the Nephilim character. During character creation, you spend Ka to buy past lives, meaning you are making a determination between the skills available to your character and your character’s raw power. In that respect, Ka maps nicely to Refresh. I’ll have to so some thinking and juggling to come up with the right number of starting Refresh – how many incarnations do I expect the characters to start with? What does each incarnation cost? How about stunts? I may go with the standard 3 Refresh, a few free incarnations, and a few free stunts3. Or, maybe giving everyone a big stack of Refresh but making them pay for everything is the way to go. Have to think about that.

The catch is that Ka is more than just the power currency of the game. It also has different flavours – the elemental affinities of the characters that do a lot to define identity, outlook, and abilities.

Elemental Affinities

Each character has their base Ka, as noted above, plus five types of elemental Ka: Air, Earth, Fire, Water, and Moon4. These different Ka ratings govern magical ability with those elements, as well as the Metamorphosis of the character. Your dominant Ka, the element that you most identify with, then you have the neutral-favourable element, the neutral-unfavourable element, the minor opposite element, and the major opposite element.

I think it may be my best bet to divorce this from the overall Ka rating above, maybe turning it into a simple set of bonuses and penalties ranging from +2 to -25. This allows the ability to apply the Ka element modifiers to anything having to do with that element, including the symbolic associations with physical and mental abilities, where Fire Ka adds to feats of strength, and Water Ka adds to agility stunts, etc.

That’s sounds pretty powerful, though. Especially if I allow any stunts to boost the bonuses or ameliorate the penalties. If I do go that way, I think it would have to be a static thing.

Which means that basic method of Metamorphosis won’t work.

Metamorphosis

Metamorphosis is the way in which the spiritual and magical growth of the character changes the physicality of the host body. In the main rulebook, this change is tied to the elemental Ka increase. Chronicle of the Awakenings offers a different system, based on emotions. Thus, instead of the Djinn getting hotter as its Fire Ka grows, it becomes hotter the more energetic it is.

So, I’m thinking the emotional system works best. Especially if each of the emotions is an aspect, with maybe a track of three boxes. Each time the emotional aspect is invoked or compelled, the player gets to mark a box. When all three for a given emotion are marked, that part of the metamorphosis is fulfilled, granting whatever benefit that gives6.

There’s also the possibility of pairing the emotional aspect with its opposite, and unmarking a box whenever that opposite aspect is compelled or invoked. Or maybe just unmarking a box when the character acts according to the opposite emotional aspect. That starts to look a little fiddly to me; maybe best if I increase the number of boxes in the track to five. I guess it depends on whether I want the up-and-down of the Metamorphoses, and how awesome the benefits are.

Skill List

I may need to make some era-specific skills: Fighting (Ancient), Fighting (Modern), etc. Not sure, though; have to think about the benefit of such things versus the dilution of the skill point pool. Also, I don’t necessarily want a miles-long skill list on each character sheet.

There also need to be skills for the three magic types: Sorcery, Summoning, and Alchemy. Of course, I’ll have to figure out how those systems are working in Fate Core, as well.

There definitely needs to be a Ka Vision skill.

Now, one of the mainstays of the Nephilim skill list is Life Experience, where each incarnation grants a separate skill to know about stuff in the incarnation era. I think this may be better in Fate Core as just a list of incarnation eras on the character sheet, showing which eras the character can apply their skills to. That would also mean I don’t have to create era-specific skills, so I like that idea. Let the character use skill points to buy familiarity with the modern era after a few sessions, when it starts to get boring that they don’t understand cars and cell phones.

Stress

Physical stress is good as it is. Mental stress is fine, but for flavour, I think renaming it as Spiritual stress works better in this setting.

I’m toying with the idea of adding a Ch’awe track to model the magic point system from Nephilim. On the other hand, it might be better to adopt the stress costs of magic from DFRPG, applying the cost of casting to Spiritual and Physical stress tracks. I think I’ll have to take a look and see what other things in the game would impact Spiritual stress before deciding if I need a third stress track, or if that means that Spiritual stress is kind of redundant and useless.

Possession

I will need to figure out what kind of character stat block I use for the possessed body, including what kind of skill list it has. And then I’ll need to create several of them7. This is where I’ll have to do some thinking about Solar Ka, and how it affects the possession attempt. And what skill8 the character will use to attempt possession, and what skill9 the target will resist with.

Actually, if I decide that Solar Ka is the fate point pool that the target has, that makes it useful in resisting possession, but also more flexible than that. That may be the way to go.

Using the simulacrum’s skills should be slightly problematic, as it is in Nephilim. Don’t know how to model that: Spiritual stress hit, maybe? And incorporating those skills into the Nephilim from the simulacrum can probably be done with skill points received through milestones. One of those skills, maybe, is the general knowledge of the modern world, which would allow the Nephilim to add the modern era to the list of familiar eras. That could work.

Obviously, Shouit should occur when the Nephilim takes too much Spiritual stress. Should it be a consequence, or the result of being taken out? Have to think about that.

 

That covers most of the character creation issues. I’m gonna keep thinking about them. I’ll be back in a few days to take a look at the other stuff in the game that needs to be converted. It’s mostly to do with the wonderful, flavourful10 magic system.

  1. No idea what I’m talking about? You should read the first post in this series. []
  2. Yeah, that’s not the right name, but you get the idea. []
  3. Three, three, and three? The UA fan in me likes that set-up, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. []
  4. There’s also Solar Ka, Black Moon Ka, and Black Solar Ka, but those are all NPC concerns, so I can pretty much ignore them. At least, for now. []
  5. +2 dominant, +1 neutral-favourable, +0 neutral-unfavourable, -1 minor opposite, -2 major opposite. []
  6. I’ll have to work out some examples, of course. And maybe three is the wrong number of boxes. []
  7. Or come up with a system where players can quickly and easily build their own. []
  8. I’m thinking Will. []
  9. Again, probably Will, possibly with a Solar Ka bonus. []
  10. But very complex. []