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. []

Fate of the Nephilim

Fate of the Nephilim

Yesterday, in the middle of a busy work day, I saw a tweet that asked what RPG I loved but never got to play. My answer was pretty much instant: Nephilim: Occult Roleplaying from Chaosium Games1. I love the themes, the setting, the basic idea behind it all, the flavour of the magic, the emphasis on playing truly alien beings trapped amidst humanity… all of it.

What I don’t love about it is the system.

See, it uses BRP, which is fine. But I never found it a good fit. It became fairly complex in handling the three different types of magic in the game, and was just a little too crunchy for my taste in a game that dealt with so much magical thinking and arcane/hermetic symbolism. It always felt like a real break in mood to go from talking about the ritual for summoning Those Who Creep and Nibble to doing mechanical calculations of the various astrological influences to work out what bonuses and penalties you had on your percentile roll2.

Anyway.

As I said, I was in the middle of a busy work day, so I didn’t really respond to the tweet. But the idea of Nephilim kept rattling around in my head, pulling up the question, “If I were to run Nephilim3, what system would I use?”

There are a few core elements that whatever I used would have to handle, and the central one is the character generation. When you create you character in Nephilim, you do it by determining the string of different eras that they incarnated in, and what they learned in each one. What did you learn fighting in the Trojan War? How about in King Arthur’s Court? And leading a colonization attempt in the New World? That adds so much flavour to the game that I couldn’t ignore it.

But modes in Atomic Robo RPG do pretty much the same job: they allow you to pick a few categories with set skill lists, and the various skill choices accumulate. That idea got me excited enough that I tweeted about it, and got a little bit of interest online. Enough to let me know that it wasn’t a bonehead idea4. That told me that Fate Core would probably work. Which is handy, because I love that system5.

This evening, I’ve been gathering my Nephilim pdfs6, and then I’m going to start creating Fate of the Nephilim. It’s going to be a long-ish project, but I’m strangely excited to do it. My first step is going to be going through the Nephilim books and and making a list of all the things that I think are central enough to the heart of the game that I need to come up with a way to model them in Fate. Then, tackle character creation. That’ll make or break my initial ideas – if I can get character creation to feel right, I’ll know I’m on the right track.

I’ve decided that I’m going to do this out in the open, here on my blog. This is for a few reasons:

  • It’ll be extra motivation to keep at this and get it done.
  • It’ll be a record of the project that will be safe as long as nothing happens to my domain.
  • It’ll get me blogging again. I haven’t had much to say on the blog for a while7, but this is interesting to me and, hopefully, to others.

I hope you follow along my little experiment. I hope it’s interesting. I hope it works out. I’ll be back in a few days with that list I was mentioning.

  1. Yes, I know that the original version of the game was from French company Multisim. I can’t find any trace of them with a cursory Google search, though I do find French Nephilim pages. I don’t read French, though. Anyone know if they’re still around? []
  2. Did I mention that the way it handled magic got complicated? []
  3. “…which I would never do…” []
  4. Hey, if four Internet people agree with me about anything, I take it as divine revelation of truth. []
  5. Pure coincidence and no confirmation bias at all, I assure you. []
  6. The books are all very worn and beat up. E-book are what I need for this part. []
  7. For quite a while. []

ShotC Playtest – Bone Thugs

Shadow-of-the-Century-Playtest-Draft

I had planned to get this post done a lot sooner, but life1 got in the way. Our session was more than a week ago, and I had planned to do the post immediately2. But, as I say, things got in the way. What that means is that I am not as fresh from the game as I wanted to be, and I may be light on some details. If any of my players read this, and care to elaborate on or correct any of my stories, well, I’ve got a comment section down below. Go nuts.

Because only one of our players was familiar with Fate games, I spent the first part of the evening giving the group a primer on how the rules worked. We talked about aspects, skills, the ladder, fate points, invocations and compels. I also talked about three ways to make dice rolls: actual dice3, the Deck of Fate, and the Deck of Fate app. We settled4 on using the Deck of Fate.

I had also printed up cheat sheets for each character. On one side, I had the cheat sheet from the Evil Hat site5; on the other, I had the full text of each character’s stunts, and the rules for mini-montages. All in all, including the examples, the introduction to the rules took about an hour.

I had spent some time building our movie’s general plot: I came up with three acts – one for each session – with the general outline for each. Then, I spent some time preparing a number of scenes and the connections for the first session, fleshing it out into something actually playable.

I found, after the game, that I had prepared a number of scenes that just didn’t come into play, because of decisions and choices made by the players, and also because of time. Still, I much prefer to be over-prepared than under-prepared. And, at the end of the playtest, with appropriate permission, I may post the entire scenario in the playtest samples. We’ll see.

So, we jumped in with a few of the characters6running into Anthony van der Waal7 being accosted by a trio of Bone Thugs. Our heroes made short work of them, rescuing Anthony, and bringing him back to Hank Fitzgerald‘s lab, where Deetz was able to interrogate the ghost possessing Anthony.

Okay, I messed up, here. I had been planning for Anthony to have been possessed by Billie Holiday, though I was planning to refer to her as Lady Day. But some of my friends went to see a Janis Joplin tribute show a few days before, and somehow, that made Janis Joplin stick in my mind. So, while Anthony called the possessing ghost Lady Day, when Deetz was interviewing her directly, I said her name was Janis Joplin.

Yup, I’m a dope.

When I realized that, I stopped referring to her as Lady Day. It didn’t correct the error, but it minimized it. And no one commented on it. I probably got away with it, but maybe not8.

Anyway, from the discussion with Janis Joplin’s ghost, the heroes learned that there had been more possessions lately, and that the Bone Thugs had been tracking down and… doing something to those who were possessed. They also learned that the situation with Anthony and Janis was a little different – Anthony was a somewhat limited fellow, and didn’t take very good care of himself, but Janis was actually looking after him and helping him improve his lot, earning some money with busking and reminding him to bathe and eat and such. It was a symbiotic relationship, so they decided not to Ghost-Punch Janis out of Anthony. At least, not yet.

This led Hank and Ia to head to the police station, where Hank’s uncle Liam was a detective sergeant. There, they got the lowdown on the Bone Thugs, as far as the police were concerned:

  • The Bone Thugs are a local gang of long standing.
  • They are working on expanding there territory.
  • In the past few months, they’ve suddenly turned from a group of undisciplined9 thugs into an effective army of biker criminals.
  • Their leader, Mandible, has rather unexpectedly turned into something of a strategic and tactical genius.
  • The Bone Thugs are causing problems by distributing a type of meth that seems to drive the people crazy when they take it. The description of the craziness made Hank and Ia deduce that the victims had been possessed by ghosts.
  • Hank took advantage of Ia and Liam chatting to copy as much as he could of the Bone Thugs’ police file.

So, with that information, the gang started investigating. Ike and Deetz interrogated a captive Bone Thug, playing good cop/bad cop10, and found out where the Bone Thugs hung out11, and who was cooking their ghost meth12. They thus formulated a… well, let’s be kind and call it a plan. Really, it was more a loose collection of aspirational ideas.

Ike decided to head off to Velma’s and see what he could find out. He went as his cover identity, Pierre Chambeau13, claiming to have been booked to perform at the bar. This seemed kind of impossible, but he, against all my expectations, made it worked. With the aid of Moog1415, who was working at the bar as a jukebox, he did an interpretive dance about the sorrow of the death of comrades. It won the gang – including Mandible – over so much that Paul wound up with the aspect Honorary Bone Thug.

The rest of the group, meanwhile, was kind of bogged down in figuring out how to set up a drug buy to get their hands on some of the ghost meth in order to… well, they weren’t quite sure about the next step. I had a scene involving some Bone Thug meth dealers written up, but the group was just talking about it.

It was getting late, so I had Liam call Ia16 and let her know that there were some police reports about a house party getting out of hand, and rumours of Bone Thug meth being involved. In most cases, I would have suggested a montage at this point, but our heroes had been clever and lucky enough to not have incurred any consequences. Instead, I suggested each character take advantage of the mini-montage to show how they individually geared up for the expedition to the crazy party.

I unleashed a swarm of partygoers under the influence of broken and insane ghosts on the four of the heroes who arrived at the party17, things got nuts:

  • Hank had a partial ghost tried to invade his mind18, and Deetz worked to shake him free of it.
  • Ia used her prana blast to supercharge Ike’s Ghost-Punch ability, and they managed to clear the possessing spirits out of the whole mob in record time.
  • Doctor Zero, lagging behind the others, followed a pair of retreating Bone Thugs down the stairs and into a trap set by Mandible to take care of some Tarantulas, the gang that currently controlled the area they were in. So, into the middle of a rumble.

At this point, one of the players wanted to compel one of Doctor Zero’s aspects, but wasn’t certain how or which aspect to compel. I suggested to her that, if she compelled his Spirit of the Weird aspect, I had an idea. If Doctor Zero agreed, of course. He did, and so I had Mandible recognize Doctor Zero, and reveal that the ghost possessing him was an echo of Doctor Methuselah. They squared off in social combat in the middle of the rumble, and Ia, watching from six floors up, gathered up all her fate points and all the aspects on the board, and sniped Mandible with a prana blast that laid him out in the middle of the argument.

We wrapped things up quickly, after that, with Ike using the Honorary Bone Thug aspect to get the group into the lab where the ghost meth was made. There, they found a number of clues that UGen Medical, a biotech conglomerate and all-around evil corporation, was responsible for teaching the Bone Thugs how to harvest ghosts and grind them up to empower their meth.

That brought us to the Call to Action milestone, and I got each player to talk about how they were getting ready to take on UGen. The general tone of their statements sounded very heist-like, so the big advantage I’m giving them on the next session is Inside UGen Security.

And now I have to write up that session. Should be fun!

  1. And cheesemaking. []
  2. Well, the next day. []
  3. I have a lot of Fate dice. []
  4. After a strong recommendation from me; I find the little prompts on the Deck of Fate cards to be very helpful, especially for players new to Fate. []
  5. Listed as Fate Core Cheat Sheet and Veterans’ Guide on this page. []
  6. Doctor Zero, Ike Thermite, Ia Shakti. []
  7. Cannot read. Can talk to animals. Possessed by a ghost musician. []
  8. So, why do I bring it up? Because it bugs me that I made this dumb error, and because, if any of the players did catch it, now they understand what happened []
  9. Still dangerous. []
  10. And learning how to use the Create Advantage action to co-operate. []
  11. A bar called Velma’s. []
  12. Some dude named Hoke Mason. []
  13. Avant-Garde Performance Artist, Overbooked []
  14. Robot with a heart of gold. The ladies love him. []
  15. I’ll be honest – I was not all that hot on the existence of Moog on the cast list. It struck me as too silly. But then, thinking about it, I came around. After all, even one of the Rocky movies had a robot in it, right? []
  16. She had made a more favourable impression on Liam than his own nephew, Hank, had. []
  17. All five of the characters went to the apartment building, but Doctor Zero lagged behind because of an Old Coot compel. []
  18. To be fair, they had tried to invade everyone’s mind, but Hank was the one who made a bad, bad Will check. []

ShotC Playtest – Between Sessions

Shadow-of-the-Century-Playtest-Draft

Just a quick update to talk about some stuff we did with Shadow of the Century over the past couple of weeks.

One of our players was not able to make it to the pitch session ((It happens. Real life trumps games.)). She still wanted to be part of the playtest, so we created her character via e-mail this past week and the week before. She’s experienced with Fate games1, so coming up with the aspects went fairly quickly. The roles went easily, as well, and we created a role and stunt – both of them Gonzo – to reflect her history as a Prana Warrior.

All the other players pitched in via e-mail to do the Crossing Paths section, and we actually finished that in just a few days, which was faster than I expected.

I also decided to try doing the Cast section with the player, and take part myself, because I had neglected to during the pitch session. But you need three people to do it properly, so I enlisted another gamer friend to help out2. I also took a little extra care explaining what we were looking for in terms of the facts for the names – there were a number of facts in the characters that aren’t all that gameable3. So, we’ve got an extra nine characters in our cast pool.

And then I spent a few nights putting together stats for the villains, and writing up a notes for the scenario. I just finished, which is good; tomorrow is our first play session of the playtest.

So look for the post about that early in the next week.

  1. She was in the DFRPG playtest as Sydney Rae and Gerhardt Rothman, and in my Feints & Gambits campaign as Rogan O’Herir. []
  2. I could have got one of the others of the playtest group, but I didn’t want to give one player more influence over the game than the others. []
  3. Silly is fine, and we’ve got some silly ones. But we’ve also got some that just don’t really come up in play without a lot of circumstances. This is my fault, not that of any of the players. []

ShotC Playtest – Pitch Session

Shadow-of-the-Century-Playtest-Draft

Last night, I got together my playtest group1 for our first session of the playtest. The first session in Shadow of the Century, as in most Fate Core games, is all about establishing the framework of the game and creating characters. Because it’s modeled on 80s-style action movies and TV shows, it’s called the Pitch Session2.

First step of the Pitch Session is determining the format of the game – series or movie. This a choice between a longer, more episodic game (the series), or a shorter, more focused game (the movie). After a fairly brief3 discussion, we settled on a movie. The reasons for this were the fact that we’ve only got 3-4 sessions of play, and the fact that, as a limited game, the movie format means we can really let go and embrace the wackiness and gonzo nature of the game.

Next step is setting the Gonzometer. This is a determination of how over-the-top the game elements and characters are allowed to be. On one end of the scale, you’ve got stuff like Miami Vice and Magnum P.I., on the other end, you’ve got things like Flash Gordon and Ghostbusters. In addition to setting the crazy level of the game, it also adjusts the skill points and skill cap for the characters.

This conversation took some time. While the Gonzometer has four settings, they’re not hard-and-fast, nor clearly defined. They can’t be, after all, as the subject material doesn’t conform to the Gonzometer settings4. After a lot of talk about what each level meant and what kind of stories we wanted to tell, we eventually settled on setting 3: Big Trouble. This is the default setting of the game, and allows a fair bit of craziness, but assumes it’s in the shadows, and most people don’t know about it.

Step three of the Pitch Session is coming up with the issues of the game. This is how the group decides what the game is about. With the movie format, you create two issues: one that tells you what the big problem is, and one that introduces a complication or subplot. Because most of the character concepts5 were focused on shadowy doings and secrecy, the players decided that they wanted an issue to address that. We came up with the issue Secret War Against… and then had to do some talking to come up with who the war was against. Eventually, we settled on Secret War Against the Ghostmasters. We didn’t bother defining the Ghostmasters at this point; there’s a whole step for that.

One thing we did decide about the Ghostmasters is that one tactic they use is summoning ghosts and implanting them in innocent vessels. They tend to keep the ghosts quiescent when they do this, but the personality of the ghost has some subconscious influence on the host, and indulging the urges and desires of the ghost can start to wake it up, until the ghost is in control. So, our second issue became Possessed Innocents.

Now, with the issues of the game decided, we start with the characters. Creating the characters in ShotC, unlike in other Fate Core games, takes place in two stages, separated by more steps fleshing out the setting. The first step involves creating the aspects for the characters, and the second step involves finishing off the more mechanical bits of character creation.

Only one of my players was familiar with Fate games6, so I gave a talk about aspects, and what to look for, cribbed mainly from here. This bit, as expected, took a fair bit of time. But we got through it, and everyone was pretty happy about the result.

Next step was building the cast – a collection of NPC character seeds that we can use to fill in various roles in the campaign. Each player gets three index cards, and writes the name on the top of each. Pass to the left, then each player adds a fact to each of the three cards they’ve received. Pass to the left again, and add a fact to the new set of cards. You wind up with three times the number of characters as there are players, each with a name and two facts. This pool of characters can be used to fill in for other characters that are needed in the game – a friend, a contact, a rival, a foe, whatever.

I made a mistake running this phase. I just had the players do it, rather than grabbing three cards myself and participating. This has two downsides: I’ve got three fewer characters in the pool than I might have had, and I didn’t get a chance to shape the game with my input7 by adding facts to six other characters. I’m trying to decide if I should do something to correct this, when I work with the player who missed the session to create her character. She didn’t get to do this part, either. The problem is that there are two of us, and you really need three to do this properly. Maybe I’ll rope in one of the other players to do this part again8, or maybe I’ll impose on one of my gamer friends who’s not in this playtest. Still thinking about it.

Anyway, we came up with twelve characters, each with two facts. Some of them are pretty wacky, and one deserves his own TV show, but I think we can make use of them.

Phase six is the villains. This is were we flesh out the opposition a little more. We already knew that the main antagonists are the Ghostmasters, and we knew about one of their tactics. So, I wrote the name Ghostmasters on the top of an index card, and passed it around the group for each player to add an idea about who they are and what they do. We wound up with this9:

Ghostmasters

  • Each member of the Ghostmasters comes from a different culture or tradition (Taoist, Voodoo, etc.)
  • There’s lots infighting and conflicting priorities among the members
  • They love to gamble and place bets, which is how they compete for primacy in the group
  • They are all terrified of non-existence, the worst fate they can imagine for anyone

In further discussions, we decided that the Ghostmasters have gangs of ghostly ninjas10 that they use for enforcement. They also have the previously mentioned tendency to store ghosts in innocent vessels11, and this led us to another idea for a lesser threat – the Bone Thugs12, a street gang whose leader has suffered a severe personality change once the ghost stored in him woke up and took control. That strikes me as a nice, introductory problem to start the game with, leading to more confrontations with Ghostmaster minions leading to the final confrontation with actual Ghostmasters.

The final step was finishing off the characters. First, we worked out how all the characters had crossed each others’ paths. Then, they all picked their three roles. This is when we started incorporating some of the gonzo/spirit character elements, as one character was a Centurion, one had the ability to see and speak to ghosts, and one had learned ancient Kung Fu techniques for fighting ghosts13. Three out of the four players also created their own roles for their characters, and came up with gonzo – or spirit – stunts.

Yes, after the roles, and the skill calculations, they picked stunts. There’s a list of six stunts with each role, and you can pick from those, or you can build a stunt using the Fate Core rules. If you’re playing a Centurion or a gonzo character, you also start with an extra-good stunt (that you have to make up), and one less Refresh.

Then it was just some calculations for determining Stress and Consequences. Then done.

I asked the players to leave their character sheets with me so I could post their characters and the other stuff we came up with here on my blog. One player said his was too messy for me to read, and that he’d send me a typed version by e-mail, so I’ve got only three of them posted so far.

I also have to flesh out the villains a little before I can post more about them. But I’ll do that in the next couple of days.

Last thing we did was come up with the name of the movie we’re playing. Using that, I’ve done a quick pitch for the game below:

Ghostpuncher I: Legacy of the Voicless Dragon

The last disciple of the Voiceless Dragon hunts the Ghostmasters, a group of necromancers who slaughtered his sifu for teaching ancient Kung Fu exorcism techniques. Now, he is drawn to a city in turmoil, for the Ghostmasters are here, playing their strange and wicked games. His only help is a small group of outcasts and freaks: an old friend of his sifu, with many secrets hidden in his past; a young woman who can see and speak to ghosts; and a half-crazy inventor trying to repair a broken world. Together, they must stand against the chaos and madness the Ghostmasters are unleashing on an unsuspecting populace.

So, that sounds pretty fun to me.

  1. Well, 80% of it. One player couldn’t make it. []
  2. As in, a TV or Movie pitch. []
  3. Brief for us, anyway. []
  4. The Gonzometer, after all, was developed a quarter century after the 80s. []
  5. Note that, in the prescribed Pitch Session sequence, you don’t start making characters just yet. But the sequence is a suggestion, and coming up with character concepts is one way that players get excited and start thinking about the game. So, all the players had at least a rough starting idea of what kind of character they wanted to play. []
  6. The player who couldn’t make it last night is also familiar with Fate, having played in my Feints & Gambits DFRPG campaign. I’m going to see about getting her character built over e-mail, with the other players participating. []
  7. I want to be clear here that, by “shape the game,” I’m not saying to steer it in the direction I want at the expense of the players’ ideas. But the GM is a participant in the game, and discounting input by a participant – even the GM – is not the way to do collaborative setting creation. In other words, I get to have my say along with the players, but my opinion does not override theirs. Nor do theirs override mine. Same team. []
  8. Though that means one player will have had twice the input. []
  9. I’ve edited it a bit from the raw ideas the players gave me in order to link things together a little bit. []
  10. They’re not actual Japanese ninjas. They are multi-cultural spectral spies and assassins. But ninja is good shorthand. []
  11. We talked mainly about this being people, but I’ve been having ideas about other types of vessels since last night. []
  12. I know. []
  13. His sifu, the Voiceless Dragon, was another Centurion, killed by the Ghostmasters because he was teaching people how to fight ghosts. That old chestnut. []

Into the Shadows

Shadow-of-the-Century-Playtest-Draft

Kinda coming full circle here.

The good folks at Evil Hat Productions have started beta playtesting of Shadow of the Century, a new Fate Core game. As they usually do, the Hat folks had me sign a Disclosure agreement when they accepted my playtest application – I’m supposed to talk about my experience playtesting the game in public.

Long-time readers of this blog may recall that’s how this blog got started, when I was playtesting The Dresden Files RPG.

So, I’m going to be talking about Shadow of the Century playtest here. And I’m starting today with an overview of the game based on my reading of the playtest document.

A Fate Core Game

First things first: Shadows of the Century is not a stand-alone game. It requires Fate Core rules to play the game – that’s where you’ll find all the mechanics for rolling dice, the four actions you can take, how fate points work, how conflict works, etc.

Fate Core rules are available on a pay-what-you-want deal1, so you’ve got no excuse for not having them2.

What’s Shadow of the Century About?

The first Evil Hat game I ever saw, read, and played was Spirit of the Century. It’s a pulp game, featuring the remarkable members of the Century Club having adventures and fighting foes like Gorilla Khan, Der Blitzermann, and Dr. Methuselah.

Shadow of the Century takes place in the same world, a half-century later. The members of the Century  club are dead, disgraced, imprisoned, in hiding, on the run. The hope has been drained from the world, and the Man3 is keeping everyone down. It’s a dark time for the world. Heroes are needed.

Thankfully, a new generation of heroes is rising up. They aren’t the innocent idealists of the Century Club4 – they are streetwise, rough-and-tumble folks who sometimes blur the lines in their attempt to help people.

Well, not all of them. Some are kids who belong to the Hu-Dunnit mystery club. Or engineering students at the Cross School. Or selfless paramedics and drivers with Phoenix Rescue. Or…

This game is set up to emulate the action movies, TV shows, and cartoons of the 80s, the same way that Spirit emulated the pulp and noire of the 20s and 30s. So, when you think of things like The A-Team, Miami Vice, The Greatest American Hero, Big Trouble in Little China, this is the game to do it.

Gonzo and Spirit

Now, there’s a real difference in the craziness that is acceptable in Miami Vice versus, say, Big Trouble in Little China. You set that craziness level withe Gonzometer, which helps determine what kinds of characters and story elements are acceptable. At the low end, you get bad-ass-but-mundane folks like Thomas Magnum and his friends standing up to corrupt organizations and crime cartels. At the high end, you get Flash Gordon and his ilk fending off interdimensional invasions and time-traveling robots.

Heroes can, depending on the Gonzometer setting, have varying degrees of special abilities. These usually cost a little more, and don’t so much increase the power of the characters as give them a few more options and add narrative colour to the descriptions of the character’s actions.

That’s for the New Wave Heroes – the heroes of the 80s. There is an option to play a Spirit; one of the original members of the Century Club, born in 1900 and embodying a universal idea about the world. For example, Jet Black is the Spirit of Today, and Mack Silver was the Spirit of Trade. Where as New Wave Heroes’ abilities are “powered”5 by Gonzo, Spirits’ abilities are powered by Spirit.

This means that one of the first choices players make is whether they are playing New Wave Heroes6 or a Spirit. If playing a New Wave Hero, the player then needs to decide is whether the character has any Gonzo abilities.

Roles

Building characters uses Roles. I first saw this idea in The Atomic Robo RPG, another Fate Core game7. The Shadow implementation of the idea is a little simpler and cleaner, and leads to what I expect to be pretty quick character creation.

The idea behind roles is that you pick three, which give you a boost to certain skills and a list of potential stunts. There’s a list of 16 roles in the book, and easy instructions for creating more. Each role gives you a +1 to four skills, so if you’ve got a skill in two roles, it starts at Fair (+2). If it’s listed in all three roles, you start at Good (+3).

After the roles are picked and the skill boosts noted, you get to pick a total of three stunts from the lists in each of your roles. And you get a few more skill points to spread around your skills8.

Aspects

This is a Fate Core game, so of course aspects are central. Your character has five aspects, only two of which – High Concept and Trouble – you need to define before play begins. There are the standard9 phases of character creation coming up with ideas for your aspects and brainstorming with the whole group.

Other Cool Stuff

There are a number of other things in the game that deserve a brief mention.

  • Montages. As the song from Team America: World Police says, “Even Rocky had a montage.” 80s action shows loved them, and there are rules for putting four different kinds of montages into play to add advantageous10 aspects to a scene.
  • Mobs. Groups of mooks treated like a single combatant. This was a feature in Spirit, and I loved it so much I ported the idea to every Fate game I’ve run. The rules for mobs in Shadow are the first form I’ve seen updated for Fate Core, and they take care of some of the problems I’ve seen porting the old rule to the new system, so that’s good.
  • Milestones. Milestones are the points at which characters can be advanced. The Shadow rules for milestones are carefully tuned to represent the source material – the more an adventure runs like an 80s action show, and the closer the characters cleave to the tropes, the better they’ll hit their milestones.
  • Organizations. Some of the big bads in the game are the criminal and corrupt organizations of the world. Shadow shows very clearly how to use the Fate Fractal11 to stat up these organizations quickly and easily, each one taking about an index card of space to completely detail what they can do and what they want.
  • Campaign Frames. The game also has three campaign frames, for groups that want to start playing right away and don’t mind using pregenerated characters. They all look fun, though my favourite has to be Team Black, an A-Team kind of campaign with Jet Black12 cast as Hannibal Smith.
  • VHS. It’s a clever abbreviation for variable hyperdimensional simultanaeity. See, the mathemagician, Dr. Methuselah13, has rewritten and overwritten the timeline often enough that it’s kind of worn and tattered. There are holes – into other times, other dimensions, other realities – that can cause problems. Now, how prevalent VHS is is tied to your Gonzometer setting, but it gives you some cool ways to add in strangeness and otherworldly danger.
  • The Backstory. The game gives a fair bit of detail on how the world has changed since Spirit, and what’s happened to a lot of the big players. I’m not going to give too much away, but I think they’ve done a great job on showing how the shining, hopeful early part of the century turned into the dark, despairing 80s. It’s a good read.

What’s the Plan?

Well, we’ve got until May 20 to run our playtests and get our reports in. I’ve got a group of five players signed up for this little romp, and we’re planning our Pitch Session for next week. I want to get three or four more play sessions in before the deadline.

I plan to post a report on this blog after each session. I may also post some other stuff on things I think about the new system during play.

I’m not going to be posting a lot of specifics, though. I’ll talk about how the sessions went, and the cool stuff we did, and the cool things the game allows, but I’m not going to drill down into the actual mechanics and such. Evil Hat will be getting those reports from me, but not the public. This is a beta playtest document, and subject to change – there’s no point in talking about details that aren’t final. Take a look at the DFRPG playtest stuff for examples of the kind of stuff I’ll be posting.

 

I hope you follow along on our little adventure. Feel free to ask questions but, again, I’m not gonna get too specific. I will answer what I can, though.

It’ll be rad!

  1. Yeah, that means that you can download it free and pay nothing. But a lot of work goes into game books – show them a little monetary love. The game’s totally worth it. []
  2. Are they good rules? I certainly think so. I wrote about it here. []
  3. Not a specific man. Just the Man, as in, “The Man is keeping me down!” []
  4. Now disbanded and outlawed. []
  5. Not really powered – there’s different nomenclature for the origin of the abilities to show that New Wave Heroes and Spirits are qualitatively different. []
  6. Though this is the default assumption. []
  7. They call them Modes there. You can read my review of ARRPG here, if you’re interested. []
  8. There is no Skill Pyramid, or Skill Columns. The roles make sure you have a good rating in the skills important to your character concept, and there’s a skill cap so you can’t dump 8 skill points on Shoot to only know how to use guns. []
  9. Or almost standard, any way. []
  10. And alliterative! []
  11. The Fate Fractal is the idea that ANYTHING in the game can be statted up just like a character, using a couple of aspects and a couple of skill ratings. It’s a powerful idea that really opens up the idea of quantifying things like storms, cities, police departments, diseases, etc. Anything. You can read more about it here. []
  12. Jet Black is a Centurion who flies with a jet pack. He, Sally Slick, Mack Silver, Benjamin Hu, Professor Khan, and Amelia Stone feature in the fiction line from Evil Hat. []
  13. At least a thousand years old, and able to twist reality to his whim using strange and mystical mathematical equations. []