Thursday, January 31, 2019

Realms of Chirak; The Black Kyanite of Theliad; a Boon and Curse of Immortality

Black Kyanite

   Though it is speculated by some that the immortals of Theliad might be descended from true Inadasir blood,  and others have suggested that they might be avatars of some sort, the reality is a bit stranger. Deep in the bowels of an ancient cavern in the Agardash Mountains there lies a special vein of arcane crystals called the Black Kyanite.  This particular source is almost utterly black unless under strong light, revealing a deep, dark blue quality to the stone. The Black Kyanite appears to have strange properties, not unlike the divine Zodiac Stones, in that those who even touch the stone are gifted with great boons as well as immortality. The ability of one to  make something of such a gift is highly dependent on the recipient of the  gift, and many fail to even survive the initial touch of the stone. Others are wracked with curses and disease worse than the gifts bestowed; the ones who are able to harness the power of the Black Kyanite are most likely those few immortals now known to be like demiurges to the Theliadics.

   Black Kyanite can be found in only a few locations. Some is known to have been stolen away and is kept in an ancient dungeon deep beneath the city of Zheranos by the Canerous King Azeros, who himself has been bestowed with immortality at a terrible price. The lost Cavern of of the Agardash Mountains is the source of the purest and most powerful Black Kyanite, and it is believed that each of the “true” immortals of the land visit this cavern, and possibly took a piece of the powerful stone with them. Other sources of the stone may exist, and one rumor is that the ground beneath the ruin of Afar is riddled with impure versions of the stone.

   If someone comes in to contact with the substance it will grant them a Boon, and also a Curse unless they succeed at a DC 21 Wisdom save, or sometimes a DC 21 Constitution save if the desire of the intended recipient of the boon seeks a great physical enhancement. Failure still grants a boon and immortality (no longer ages), but also a curse. Success, which happens rarely, leads to the boon and agelessness without a major curse, though debilitating side effects of the boon may still be evident.

   The stone can be touched once a year to gain further boons (and curses), though each subsequent effort to do increases new saves by 1. If the save is ever critically failed (natural 1) the subject is killed immediately and transforms into Black Kyanite with all the properties of the stone. On a natural 20 the subject always gains the boon with no curse.

   Characters who undergo this transformation gain the following perks from touching Black Kyanite:
1 Boon (see DMG for samples, or see more below)
Gain immortality (ageless; still can die of unnatural causes)
Gain one minor impairment as a side effect of boon (example: ability to cast burning hands at will also requires PC to sleep on nonflammable material at night or they catch on fire)
On Save Failure Gain Major Curse (see chart below)

Sample Curses from the stone include:

D20                  Curse
1                                            Lose immunity to disease and roll at disadvantage on disease saves
2                                            Lose eyesight
3                                            Lose hearing
4                                            Become hideously deformed (disadvantage on Charisma and Dexterity Saves)
5                                            Grow 1D3 extra eyes
6                                            Must concentrate or turn into a blob like mass
7                                            Animals attack on sight
8                                            Lose all sense of touch (disadvantage on tactile Dexterity checks)
9                                            Develop vulnerability to metal (any contact with metal deals double damage, or causes 1 damage per round for passive contact)
10                                        Lose ability to benefit from a short rest
11                                        Plagued by nightmares; Must make a DC 17 Wisdom save each night to benefit from a long rest
12                                        Lose half hit dice permanently
13                                        Reduce Int and Str to 3 permanently
14                                        Reduce Cha and Dex to 3 permanently
15                                        Gain Disadvantage on all magic saves
16                                        One limb transforms into living Black Kyanite; susceptible to spells like Shatter as if an inanimate object
17                                        Lose ability to eat, can only sustain life with blood
18                                        Develop incurable lycanthropy
19                                        Lose ability to speak (either lose voice, or all dialogue is babble)
20                                        Translucent skin reveals organs; gain disadvantage on Charisma checks but advantage in Intimidation

Examples of Additional Boons Granted by the Black Kyanite:

Flame Control: gain the ability to cast burning hands at will; cannot control while sleeping

Stone Skin: develop skin of pure stone, but unable to “feel” like normal again.

Invisibility: Become permanently invisible, but all clothing and objects remain visible.

Ability Enhancement: Gain +5 points in one ability of choice but lose 5 in another ability (to 20 max).

Flight: gain the ability to fly, but lose the ability to touch the ground (must always hover just above the ground). Falling becomes a non-issue, but sleeping becomes difficult, as does any other act that benefits from being grounded.

   Any boon from the DMG, accompanied by an appropriate minor curse of hindrance, is acceptable as well.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Return to Theliad - an Update and Revision to the Northwestern lands of Chirak

The History of Theliad

   Northwestern Chirak is a remote location, isolated from much of the central civilizations of the Sea of Chirak region, and only tenuously connected by trade and warfare with certain regions of the West and the North. Syrgian traders have been journeying to the eastern regions of Theliad for two centuries now, and on certain occasions the Madigar and Abraheilites have engaged in trade by way of the difficult sea and land routes to Theliad. Still, it is not as isolated as Far Therias, and its people know something of the wider world, though their insular cultural groups are not receptive to outside influence.

   Theliad is described by some as a land that has moved on. While the rest of the world still mourns the loss of old gods or eagerly awaits the rise of new avatars and demiurges, Theliad has dispensed with the old pantheon in disgust and created its own new ways. Chiefly, the earliest arbiters of civilization were several clans who claimed trueborn blood of the old Inadasir, and that this was divine blood, which asserted their ultimate destiny as ascended beings. The first true civilizations to rise in Theliad after the Apocalypse were driven by these early god-kings, and the concept prevailed. The notion of a leader being directly equivalent to a god is commonly accepted among the people of this land, and their belief that mortals can ascend to divinity is very strong.

   Theliad’s history has not been without conflict. The earliest god kings arose in three primary cultural groups, including the Atarthic kingdoms, the Shellas, and the Adenar. These three groups rose from the ashes of the Apocalypse within three or four centuries, and it was around seven centuries that the first self-proclaimed god kings manifested. The first such was the enigmatic being called Hakarthos. This man ruled Atarthis as a benevolent ruler, who claimed to have visited a cavern in the Agardash Mountains, where he was spoken to by a divine spirit some claim to be Pallath and others claim was Pornyphiros (and still others believe something else entirely happened; see Black Kyanite later on). The legends say that this variably named divine spirit passed on the essence of godhood to Hakarthos, who then went on to rule, as an immortal, for nine centuries before his fall during the Keterash Uprising.

   Two other divine beings manifested during this early period, including Nimrasa, the divine queen of Shellas, and Sulturian of Adenar, an amorphic being who, though starting as a man, eventually transformed in to a terrible entity. Like Hakarthos, Sulturian was eventually deposed, though his followers found they could not slay him, and instead entombed the terrifying being in the deepest levels of the catacombs of his great city, and then abandoned it. This city is known today as Afar, and it is said that the blood of the entombed god poisoned the land all around, turning Adenar in to a dead land.

   Nimrasa is the only one of these ancient ascended beings to remain alive to this day. Though her kingdom collapsed long ago, her loyal priesthood spirited her away to a place of safety during the time of the Keterash Uprisings and kept her safely hidden. A century after the collapse of the old empires she was revealed anew, though Nimrasa swore she would never again demand servitude of mortals. The goddess dwells to this day in her venerable mountain temple just south of the lake city of Typhonis.

   It was approximately eleven hundred years ago that the second pantheon arose. This time, the first scended mortal was a man known only as Agarthis, a warlord of the Ekarthask clans, he was a powerful figure, and in this era he conquered a great deal of territory. On one occasion, near the edge of the White Desert, he was visited by a seductive spirit, a woman who claimed to carry the blood of the god Ga’Thon in her veins named Ierata. As the tale goes, she seduced Agarthis, and gave him a taste of divine godflesh from her father’s own body. Agarthis was transformed, and rode forth to declare his status as risen god. He conquered much of the known world in that time, and his own troops were now prepared to venture across the burning sands of the White Desert to sack the fabled city of Eristantopolis, when he was confronted by a man named Pallath Eridanos, a chosen avatar of the sun god, who allegedly united the surviving foes of the risen god with the troops of Eristantopolis to at last stop the mad immortal. Agarthis was imprisoned, again found to be unkillable, beneath a massive stone monument, usually called a tomb, but known also as a temple by his followers to this day. Even imprisoned, his voice can be heard in the dreams of men of great desire and power, and it a common term to speak of one who has fallen to madness as having “received the dreams of Agarthis” as an explanation for his insane behavior.

   The mysterious Pallath Eridanos is still revered by the people of Theliad today, though little is known of this man. He is said to have studied for a time in Eristantopolis after saving his people, and then to have traveled to the western islands, where he founded the modern city and kingdom of Theliad before passing on in to time. His whereabouts to this day are unknown.

   The Demon Kings of old were feared and reviled by all, and Theliad, much like the rest of the world, was not spared their rampaging shortly after the Apocalypse ended with the death of the gods. In this region it is known that many such ancient demon kings settled, as they tired from their ceaseless rampaging or were at last captured, imprisoned, or sometimes even destroyed. Scholarly records suggest that eleven demon kings were left alive or imprisoned in the land, and to this day there are Cults of the Eleven in the region, which revere and seek dark power from these entities.

   The last thousand years of history in Theliad have revealed two more “ascended immortals.” One is a man named Krytias, a scholar and student of lore who discovered, some say, the very cavern in which Hakarthos gained his divinity. Krytias manifested his divinity two centuries ago, and has been a peaceful ascetic ever since, teaching others how to achieve spiritual unity based on his visions prompted by the visits he makes to the sacred caves. His temple is located in the isles of Nelindiros.

   The other immortal is a man of mixed infernal heritage, whose mother may have been taken by one of the Eleven, specifically the infernal king Naramaeos. This son, named Tyrios, rose to power by virtue of his wiles and charms in the city of Masar, where he has ruled with an iron fist now for four centuries. Masar is a decadent kingdom of dark delights and opiates, reveling in the slave trade and the exploitation of others. It serves as an unpleasant bridge between the westerlands of Abraheil and the rest of Theliad.

   Of the many lands in the region, Theliad and Ekarthask are unique in that they eschew all faith in magical teachings, and disdains sorcery in all forms. These people only nominally tolerate divine practitioners, and seek instead the guidance of men who are enlightened through conventional wisdom.

    In contrast to these two lands, Nuliria and Nelindiros venerate their divine practitioners, and keep a watchful eye out for others who might claim potential immortality. These lands believe that the old age of gods is gone, and the essence of the gods has been imbued in mortal flesh, to be revealed at a time of their choosing. As a result, there are perhaps two dozen cults to various “living gods” in these lands, as well as certifiable ones such as Krytias and Nimrasa. A short list of these more popular living gods include:

Katharios the Wise
Chelisana the Divine Mistress of Light
Traidoros the Living Spirit of Strength
Macharadan the Healer
Setrinara the Oracle
The twins Tython and Ulistrana, divine sparks of Pornyphiros.

   Further east, in Sytaris, the people are less prone to worshipping living gods, though it does happen, and they instead venerate the ancestral dead, where they believe that the immortal spirits of their kings are all descended from the first true god, Hakarthos. They believe that Hakarthos was a unifying god-spirit, and that all of his descendants carry his spark. This ancestral cult is not unlike those of Nubirion, although with the added belief that each reincarnation brings an ancestral spirit closer to divinity.

   In the distant east, the city states of Ghurthal tend toward the worship of their resident goddess, the ancient Nimrasa, but there are cults and factions to many other gods as well. In an alarming trend, there are those who worship the entombed gods, Sulturian and Agarthis, and feel that they must follow the “children of Ga’Thon.” Where such teachings begin is a mystery, though rumors of Ierata’s hand in the matter are troubling. This mysterious entity, branded a Thousandspawn by the Preservationists of Eristantopolis, is believed to have secret designs on Theliad at large, and that she is partly to blame for the enigma of the so called ascended immortals and living gods in the land.

   In recent years, through the determined scheming of many lifetimes Ierata has consipired to manipulate the Theliadic Emperor Tiraeus into mad schemes of grandeur. Emperor Tiraeus has initiated a plan to conquer all of Theliad, to assassinate all of the immortals, to clean the slate for his great empire. He will then establish himself as a new, living god. Even as Ierata uses the emperor to destroy her enemies, Tiraeus quietly conspires to destroy the witch as well, using the maddened creature that was once Agarthis, whom he freed from imprisonment to use as his guide in his new war against the world.

Next: Black Kyanite

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Numenera Humble Bundle $15 for 28 PDFs or $1 for core

I can't hide my love of Cypher System, and while I haven't directly run a Numenera game yet, I have mined deeply into its many sourcebooks to do my own weird SF/fantasy mashup through Cypher System. I definitely plan to run Numenera "as is" soon enough....but for now, if you'd like a cheap gateway into checking the system and setting out you can get the core books for the newest edition for $1 or get 28 PDFs (the whole kit and kaboodle) for only $15 over at Humble Bundle. This is well worth the price of entry! Yes, I am biased....but this is one of the best new game systems and settings to come out in the last decade, and frankly beats out a lot of competition for the last four decades.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Resource Pools and the D20 vs. D10 Idea of Cypher System

Mark Craddock of CrossPlanes asked a good question about two issues with Cypher System that sometimes bug people:

"Do your players mind sharing their hit points with resources in the Cypher System, and have you ever thought of switching from a D20 to a D10 and not multiplying by 3?"

I responded on G+ but since that's highly ephemeral and soon to stop existing a good response should be here, too.

So the D20 vs. D10 idea could work but I like the D20 because it provides a bit more nuance if needed. Some minor rules situations with the nuance include the fact that the D20 allows for a 17-20 escalating level of critical success, and a 1 is a forced GM Intrusion but only has a 5% chance of happening. On a D10 that would at minimum require either require a 1 to be a 10% chance of failure or prompting a second D10 roll to confirm it...and you'd have to revamp how crit ranges work since under this system you'd have crits on a 9-10 instead of 17-20. Not out of the question, but for me these are pretty important parts of the D20 range in play.

I think I'd be perfectly open to the concept of a D10-based value, but I think the intent of the system was to have a 1-30 range of difficulty, but to keep it in discreet "3 point increments" using the level mechanic so that there isn't a temptation for the game to get overly granular. You get a decent numerical spread, but lock down how much you can manipulate that range. That said....I'd take a D10 model over a version that let people spend single point increments to reduce task ranges on a 1-30 scale.

On the idea of health and stat pools being one and the same, my group is not bothered by it and accused me of metagame think when I brought it up (because it was something I had considered). My thought was: there will be on occasion attacks you know deal less damage than the cost to reduce risk, so it's sometimes more sensible to avoid spending points when the cost to spend is lower than the incoming damage risk. My players pointed out to me that it really isn't so evident on their end that these cases may happen, and that the system as written, with the level mechanic for foes, allows them to gauge risk from a more organic level, while insuring they don't need to worry about spending from the pool unless it really counts. So for example, when they know the foe is level 2, they rarely sink points in to it and in fact may find their raw assets and edge let them gain significant or even automatic advantage in those situations. I in turn tend not to throw level 1-3 encounters at the party to waste their time if these fights are going to be trivial.

A more interesting consideration on the resource pool as health is that it also is fatigue. The resource pool is your hard cap on what you can accomplish in a session, barring a change to do recoveries, and as a result this is the first RPG I have ever played in which players are by default tracking fatigue whether they realize it or not. I like that feature a lot.

I also like the fact that a player can try to play it safe if they want and have a character who does not engage in much risk....they roll against the flat numbers and avoid spending the points. It's basically a playstyle concession, and suggests that rather than a character's traits being "always on" like in other RPGs, in Cypher you don't get things done (with a measure of success) unless you put the effort in to it, and as a result, you can be a competent person who doesn't "try hard" essentially.

If there is one key issue with health as resource pools, it is that warriors don't make out as well in this regard. If you are a warrior, you might have might-based effects which cost points, but you also need those points in order to, you know, live. The good news is, most warrior talents seem to be low cost and you can still use Speed as your attack skill. The bad news is, most physical damage defaults to Might damage first.

Cypher could probably benefit from a hybrid system where it has a health pool, and when that pool hits certain points it costs extra effort for the resource pools, but that does lead to extra stat tracking. The current system works well in that it doesn't require anything extra outside of the core resource pool economy to track.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Watching Star Trek: Discovery - Through a Twisted Canon Darkly

At long last I have had a chance to watch Star Trek: Discovery (season 1), having snagged a copy on blu-ray during Christmas. We're only about halfway through the first season so this isn't a review but if you've seen the series (or read the many articles on its interesting changes) then you have an idea that it's hard not to comment on this new series if you're an old Trek fan.

A disclaimer: I used to be a hard Star Trek fan with a copious volume of ancient Trek lore, and a library to accompany it. I have never been quite the fan you'll find on certain websites these days, but in my day I was pretty well versed in Trek canon, the novels, and the games. I had run a lengthy couple of campaigns using the Last Unicorn version of Star Trek, too.

That all ended around the time Star Trek: Nemesis came out. The sequence of events sort of works like this: DS9 was a good series, and in fact it may be the last TV show of old that I watched weekly as new episodes appeared. I was not a fan of Star Trek Voyager, which ever felt a bit "off" to me both tonally from what it had promised and also the finest example at that point of the "continuity problem" Trek has constantly faced: a growing body of canon with a zealous fandom protecting it. Voyager was the show's producers and writers of the time desperately trying to find a way to write Trek stories that didn't tread on the hundreds of episodes of other shows preceding it.

Star Trek: Nemesis was just so generally dark, unpleasant and brutal to its own subject (The TNG crew) that the movie all but killed my personal momentum of interest in Star Trek.

Enterprise was fun, and I did follow it, finding the show to be best when it tried to do its own thing and not wallow around in an effort to either adhere to or redefine Trek canon (The Xindi were a necessary addition, though too late to bring people back). And then we had the Kelvin Timeline movies, about which I have written more elsewhere and can say nothing other than that Star Trek Beyond was a pretty good movie, despite its two predecessors.

The thing though is that, for me, DS9's end was when I started to lose my tether (and interest) in keeping up with Star Trek canon. A lot of this growing dissatisfaction came from the byproduct of trying to run Star Trek RPGs with an effort at authenticity. It was possible, but honestly took more effort that it was worth. I played with a good crew who were not overly worried about the nuances of the Trek timeline and technology, but at the time it was something that bothered me enough to get it right, even if my players weren't that concerned about it. As a result, over time I grew increasingly irritated with this self obsession on the canon.

Between the end of DS9 and the inglorious fall of the movies with Nemesis in 2002 I eventually gave up on Star Trek  for RPGs and subsequently started to grow increasingly disinterested in keeping up with the books, and then even caring about the canon in general. I had better things to do with life, it turned out. Roll forward 18 years and I generally think of myself as someone who no longer worries too much about canon. Right? I'm above that.....right?

Well, here's the problem: Star Trek is a very complicated series, and there are a lot of ways you can find it fun and satisfying to watch in it's different incarnations, but there are as many (if not more) ways you can find to dislike it for those same reasons. Here's are a few examples of the ways you can enjoy Star Trek:

Enjoy it for the Timeline- It's a TV series like few others to attempt to create a timeline (and shared universe) over many decades. You can in theory line up and watch all Trek, ever, in consecutive historical order (barring any alternative universe stuff).

Enjoy it for the Science in the Science Fiction- Trek posits a future based on principles of science fiction roughly extended from the real science of each series' day, and then in later seasons tries to extend that continuity and update/expand on it. The show is known for its science advisors trying to get the jargon to sound plausible, to allow for a tether between actual science and the SF of the series.

Enjoy it for Roddenberry's Vision- for many, Gene Roddenberry defined a future universe in which a post-dystopian, post-war Federation rises up to bring its advanced society to space, and the conflicts which arise stem from the other alien races and interstellar powers that become parables and analogs for the contemporary issues of the real world. An interesting point of Roddenberry's future was the notion that human culture and civilization was "post-conflict," such that real conflict between the key characters was not the driver of the series; they were too civilized.

Enjoy it for the Universe Building- impossible not to, Star Trek has grown to represent centuries of future human history and a fictional galactic expanse in the quadrants of our galaxy. It's elaborate, deep, and sometimes contradictory....but part of the fun is seeing where those contradictions are eventually explained away and where they are not.

...There are, of course, plenty of other reasons one might like watching Trek, but the above four cover a majority of the elements people find most popular, especially those with insanely long Trek blogs and wikis.

Star Trek Discovery, to get this out of the way, is a good series to watch on its own merits. But it's contentious for a few reasons. Each of the reasons I outlined above run into issues with Star Trek Discovery, as follows:

The Timeline- least egregious, Discovery takes place 10 years before the first TOS episode, but posits a war with the klingons which for some fans is apparently annoying because they don't know why it wasn't mentioned in prior episodes from decades ago. There are also some other issues, not the least of which is the klingons, about which more below...

The Science in the SF- Discovery has instantaneous FTL drive which seems to stem from a galaxy-wide web of intergalactic subspace insects. It's a tricky gray area to argue that the SF physics behind Discovery's method of travel works within the established canon of the series, which had previously topped off FTL travel with the end of Voyager and an experimental ship which could dramatically travel faster than any other warp vessel. Also, the klingons (who seem to have changed species).

Roddenberry's Vision- ever since DS9 and the introduction of Section 31 there's been an assumption that the utopian future of Star Trek, even with the Federation, has a dark underbelly which of necessity must exist. Discovery is steeped in this core conceit, including an entire crew of has-beens and damaged goods who are all determined to win the war against the klingons at any cost. If you really dislike this part, you probably unhitched from post-Roddenberry Trek not long into DS9.

Universe Building- All Trek everywhere except for the Kelvin Timeline does this really well, and Discovery is no exception. The question of how the Discovery Trek universe fits in to the rest of Star Trek is the only question! For example: if this is the same universe as the rest of Trek, then Discovery must, in the course of upcoming seasons, reconcile the klingons it portrays with the klingons of every other Trek; it must explain why the instantaneous travel of Discovery is never again exploited (easy enough, to be fair; the "bugs" all die, or the Federation realizes the drive is exploiting an entire universe for its own gain); and there are "minor" continuity errors which will only bother you if you're an ardent, hardcore canonista to Trek (you may be one of these if you are bothered every time TOS is not reflected in its original 1960's glory in other more contemporary versions).

For me: I am not that worried about any of the above. This is a new, interesting Star Trek, and I want to see where Discovery goes, and I do not care if it ends up being an "alternate universe" or somehow is forced to shoehorn itself into some sort of mold to sate the wrath of the Trek canon police. If I have only one issue with the show, it is that the character of Michael Bernham is very messed up and in all honesty not the most sympathetic or relatable. I'm not done watching the series, but when I am I'll talk more about it....and whether I warm up to her. For me, my cypher within the show currently is Suru, who voices my concerns (and even when he apologizes to her --spoilers-- for not listening to her advice during his brief captaincy) that she's very carefully set up as a liability to the Discovery.

Maybe it's just that she had exactly the first two episodes to establish herself as the traitor and first mutineer in Starfleet. I guess I'll keep watching before I say more.

Anyway: as someone who was once a Trek canon cop, and then burned out badly on it, then got disenchanted with Trek during the Voyager era, then thought Nemesis staked in the heart, then hated the first two Abrams movies, I kinda like Star Trek Discovery so far, but I also like that I can think of this as a "new Trek" and not worry too much about whether it's supposed to fit in or not. It could technically "fit" but still be another parallel universe....don't care. This is a fun series, and doing something different and interesting.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Fantasy AGE Session Three

This weekend we tackled session three of Fantasy AGE. I toyed with the idea of shifting to a different system, but as luck would have it we had a smaller group and I decided what the heck, let's just stick with it for a while. I've found that after decades of gaming it's hard to really get a sense of a game's overall pace and potential until about five sessions. Sure, sometimes glaring errors pop out right away, but for me as a GM I usually know if a game's going to "do it" for me after about five sessions.

This is session three of the current game (not counting my prior attempt ages ago) and this time around I specifically approached it from the following angles, answering the following questions and getting the following results:

1. Combat seemed tedious and overly long in session two. How does that get fixed in this session, and do I have to engage in a houserule or optional rule from the Companion to do so?

2. My preferred style of play is more free-range and I like the ability to move in directions unanticipated in prep. If the players head out yonder on the map and explore the strange dig site that was supposed to be a minor stop over, will Fantasy AGE let me flex with the rules and cover some ad hoc content if I need to?

The combat solution worked out as follows: with fewer players making it to the game we decided to keep with the default rules, so no special combat or health reductions. I also want to read up on Modern AGE a bit and see how they developed that element in those rules. The net result was the following bits which I observed.

Perhaps due to its origins as a game system for Dragon Age, Fantasy AGE seems to work exceedingly well when there is only one or maybe a handful of opponents for the players to battle. My session two mistake might have been making the mistake of keeping the orcs at full health, when I should have treated them like half-health minions. Either way, combat against a single tough enemy or maybe 2-3 average enemies plays out very comfortably. Large groups work much, much better with a lot of minions.

The free-range flexibility question really boiled down to, "does this system push me to frame the scenario within its defined limits (mechanically), or does it act as a spring point for what I need for the game/story/scenario?" And of course, "When we get off track, is ad hoc play too difficult due to the mechanics?"

The answer to both is: absolutely yes, just fine. I ran the game Saturday night like I was running Cypher System, and it worked just fine. The group encountered multiple monstrous beings (two of which were distinct foes) but the ability to reskin content or fill out unanticipated stat blocks from a reasonable expectation of what was needed. Aside from one stat block in the Bestiary that I used with a distinct reskin, the other encounters were very easy to fill in on the fly.

Issues that I continue to mull over, but which will become more evident with time, include the fact that the game still feels a bit underwheming and low key when it comes to the magic, but I am curious if we will notice it that much over time. Compared to Cypher System or D&D, though, it feels like most magic in Fantasy AGE is very "low level" in effect and design. I am fine with this myself, but it does mean that the overall tone of the campaign will be less fantastical, at least from the angle of player ability over time. We'll see if that's an issue for the players.

There remain some oddities, but these feel to me like bits and pieces of a game system that maybe needed a bit more playtesting, and possibly a decent second edition to fix things down the road. Time will tell if Fantasy AGE has been popular enough for Green Ronin to take on such a task, though. With The Expanse, Modern Age and Lazarus in the works, the idea of a "Fantasy AGE Definitive Edition" would be a nice future surprise, and that edition could take advantage of the development to the system from Modern AGE and onward.

Still, we had fun, and I did enjoy the feel of the system. I'm looking forward to doing more.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

The Slow and Subtle Cypher System Take Over

Last night we revamped (yet again) the Wednesday night game to introduce a Cypher System SF setting I had worked on.* The new setting's opening session was a bait-and-switch; I told everyone to build hard SF characters for an elaborate post-dystopian, post-cyberpunk future Los Angeles in 2231, an era when the world has recovered from World War III and a lengthy period of social and political decay to suddenly emerge as a more united, focused front for the future. The plot revolved around the player characters being participants in a well funded institute/think-tank on the cusp of developing the first superluminal warp drive system. The risk seems to manifest with possible espionage from competition interested in stealing the technology, or possibly terrorists destroying it.

Except....that wasn't it at all. Some of the PCs had disturbing dreams, or throughout the day of the momentous reveal see strange, ghostly images. Something odd is going on....but what?

The reveal came that night because despite sinking a lot of time into the verisimilitude of this 2231 Los Angeles setting the real setting is a transhuman distant future blend of space opera and Hard SF....the big reveal was that the PCs were all part of a strange simulation using nanotechnology and temporal "readings" that allowed a species of synthetic artificial beings to study the ancient history of the dead world of Earth which they had come to research. But it turns out humans do exist in this future, too.....but they had risen to a great interstellar power, and then collapsed for unknown reasons back to the stone age. The conflict between the humans of the Orion Alliance and the synthetics and their strange interests in the past is one facet of the game going forward, but by session's end all the players were left with lots of mysteries and direction (as well as freedom) to explore a completely enigmatic universe.

This kind of setting is hard to do with certain other generic games. The mechanical simplicity and elegance of Cypher System allowed me to focus on the plot, story, encounters and other details without stopping to spend hours meticulously statting out NPCs. Need a stat for the security guard? Level 3 dude with a  gun. This is hard to do in games like GURPS or Hero. BRP is a bit easier, and Savage Worlds the easiest, but ultimately they still require a bit of time to either find a pregenerated stat block or work out some mechanical details. Some GMs could argue that this can be done on the fly, and that even if you're winging it that's not an issue so long as it's not visible to the players....but if that's the case, then why not look to a system which actively provides you, the GM, with a core conceit in the mechanics designed to let you provide an actual on-the-fly stat assignment? That's what Cypher System does.

Moreover, Cypher System's toolbox approach to multigenre gaming, combined with its total cross-compatibility with the other games in the genre (Numenera, The Strange, Vurt, Predation, Gods of the Fall, etc.) means you can borrow and lift pieces from other Cypher settings to suit to taste. You can do this with other systems, sure....but the very design of each setting for Cypher allows for cross-pollination of content and ideas. Only Savage Worlds, in my experience, handles this approach with equal efficiency.

The need for players to have more mechanical interest and depth is also satisfied by Cypher System without causing any issues for the GM; it's like two different game systems that provide input back and forth through a little black box; the GM experience is decidedly different from the player experience, and somehow it all works beautifully. Players who want mechanical depth can find enough in Cypher System. If you're the kind who wants lots of choices, Cypher has it. If you want to experiment with your own thing, there are plenty of rules for going your own path. The core variation in character options is sufficiently exotic that you can choose from a wide array of unique concepts that are defined through the focus/type/descriptor options. For what I (and my players) need, this game is quiet genius.

This is a long, roundabout way of saying that the biggest problem I face today is playing another game (like Fantasy AGE) and realizing that Cypher could do what I want, better....or even D&D for that matter (I have come to the conclusion that Fantasy AGE is a lot like playing a very badly balanced, underwhelming D&D variant). Sometimes I want a game to let me explore what it has to offer, sure....but rare is the game that simultaneously lets me explore what it has to offer while robustly supporting my own vision of weirdness with a complete toolset. Cypher is all about that, and frankly just what I need in 2019.

I've ordered more cards from Monte Cook Games (I like the cards the game offers), specifically the Ruin Deck which uses content from the Jade Colossus book, one of my favorite "dungeon design" books for weird fantasy-SF mashups now (and who knows, maybe I'll actually use it for Numenera this year, too). With three active Cypher Games going now (superhero, far future SF/interstellar collapse and fantasy/SF hybrid settings) I think the only other games I really feel the need to spend time with right now are Call of Cthulhu and eventually D&D after I am satisfied with my break from the old grand daddy of gaming.

*Wednesdays have been in flux due to work, and as a result I've thrown out attempts to do Starfinder, D&D 5E, Swords & Wizardry, and probably others I can't remember, but none of them have grabbed my interest like I wanted, chiefly because all three are firmly rooted in well-trod territory that I am frankly burned out on. And Starfinder is cool, but trapped in Pathfinder rules, even if they are streamlined a bit....playing Starfinder just makes me think of ways to use the setting with Cypher System, a game that could actually let that universe open up to its possibilities, rather than the procedurally dull Pathfinder rules.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

On The Masks of Nyarlathotep and other Gigantic Campaigns

I am just now diving in to this, having picked it up --like-- an hour ago, but just wanted to comment that this is a monster of a tome. Like...huge. Two massive volumes of campaign plus a folio of what looks like more than a hundred glossy, full color hand outs and a custom Keeper's Screen.

I dream of running this campaign, but I also dream of having lots of free time, a prerequisite for the former, so who knows if I'll ever get to do more than read through it. Still, this is a really impressive looking tome, and some serious effort went in to making this the definitive edition of Masks of Nyarlathotep.

This seems to be a book that is part of a trend, it just me, or is this an increasingly common thing? By thing, I mean the periodic and distinct manifestation of gigantic, immense, almost overwhelimgly large scenario books, featuring campaigns that test the memory of the GM, the attention span of the players, and the will of humanity to survive an experience longer than a Steven Erikson or Robert Jordan epic novel series.

Examples I have on my shelf include:

D&D's Waterdeep (Dragon Heist and Dungeon of the Mad Mage)

13th Age's Eyes of the Stone Thief

Traveller's Pirates of Drinax and The Great Rift

And now Call of Cthulhu's Masks of Nyarlathotep

I have others, but these all stand out by volume, weight, and sheer audacity.

So one thought I have is that some of this is a throwback to the old days of boxed campaign sets, but with the modern disposition toward excessive word count and minutiae in design. Where once a boxed set might have some handouts, maps, and three books usually of 32, 64 and maybe 96 or so pages, now we have multiple hard cover tomes and accessories, often totalling hundreds of dollars in cost. See Invisible Sun for a fine example.

Maybe some of this is spinning off from the dominion of board games? Board games often command significantly more money for a boxed set, then yet more for supplements....or maybe it's the manifestation of the Kickstarter, which often heaps a metric ton of additional goodies into the mix, leading to an escalation of content. Never mind that the books I list above were not purchased from Kickstarters, and I'm not even sure if they were Kickstarted....but it certainly could make sense.

In the end, I'm not really bitching (um, much), there remain plenty of shorter campaigns and modules for all such games.'s interesting seeing this trend toward expansive, elaborate and lengthy campaign scenario books, designed to take a great deal of time. I could argue that I wish I had the time to read and run these, but then I am reminded of an important fact: I have never really had this time to run such a monster of a module. Indeed, the last time I attempted (and even succeeded in doing so) was the much smaller and more focused (relatively speaking) Return to the Tomb of Horrors for AD&D 2nd edition, many many years ago.

The irony of this rant sounding like an old gamer complaining about new trends is not lost on me...ah well, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Observations about Fantasy AGE in Actual Play

We've played a couple sessions of Fantasy AGE now, and as you know there's nothing like actual play to spot some rules oddities!

Here's what we've noticed so far:

No Unarmed or Martial Arts Rules

Yes, it turns out Basic and Companion rules don't really provide a set of rules for unarmed combat, grappling, or anything else. You can houserule (as I did) but apparently this is not something that went unrecognized as an issue, since I see martial artists are a thing in Modern AGE.

The good news is, you can probably port the Modern Age martial arts rules over to Fantasy AGE easily.

(EDIT: there is an unarmed skill that plays off Accuracy, and a damage value for it's not bereft entirely, but that's it. So when in game session one player wanted to throw down and disarm a foe it was entirely improv at that point.)

Health Point Inflation is Still A Thing (but...the Companion)

Okay, the problem here is dependent on subjective notions of what sort of damage you are dealing against a target, and what that target can soak. It also depends on what the GM's expectation is on how to build an encounter. Fantasy AGE provides loose rules on this, but after yet another game where I threw a batch of average difficulty monsters against the players I (yet again) felt that weird sensation that combat was going on too long.

Admittedly, we had 8 players against 18 orcs, so you might say, "what did you expect!?!?" but hear me out. I'd expect a combat like this to take a long time (and prove lethal) in Mythras. It would reasonably take an hour or so for D&D 5E, and I am sure it would take a similar amount of time in Cypher System. But Fantasy AGE's session ran about 3.5 hours for one combat, and that's not even with much downtime from people refreshing or learning the rules. Most of it was with the fact that the system, as currently designed, defaults to health points which are definitely inflated beyond "normal" limits. By this I mean: there's an expectation that if a sword strikes you for a lot of damge, you should have a reasonable chance of being killed in one hit. Mythras does this as the core conceit. D&D does this as levels 1-3 for most battles, and then escalates damage (and hit points) as you advance. Fantasy AGE? It seems impossible even with a 6 on the stunt die to do enough damage to take out a foe in one hit at starter levels and health without the GM deliberately reducing health. You either use a minions rule to cut health in half, or use the Companions book to modify how health and/or damage works.

For this test campaign I wanted to run the system straight up, first, to see how it felt in default mode. The experience has been that the only way to assume orcs and other 30+ health point monsters function is that they are really, really tough.

Whether this is a problem or not depends on what you expect a game to run like when a fight like this pops up. For some, this is fine. For's a tedious length of time for what is supposed to be a shorter fight. I guess that's why the Companion offers up a bevy of alternative rules to make health or combat shorter and deadlier.

Given the Health Totals Magic Seems Really Weak

This impression may change with time, but right now, given most arcana don't have more than four spells in Basic (and maybe a few more in the Companion), the spell progression feels like a system built around the equivalent of 1st to 2nd level magic in D&D. There are insanely few examples of what I would call "role play" or non combat spells, but very few spells that are frankly all that impressive. Except penetration spells. Those are badass, even if they do minimal damage, because armor points are a bitch in this game!

Try buying an animal or a horse

Just try! You can do it in Dragon Age RPG, but somehow despite having a very comprehensive equipment list, and even having mounted and flying combat rules, Fantasy AGE is still missing purchasing costs for mounts and animals. Given that the equipment section in the book is clearly derived from the one in Dragon Age, it feels like more of a glitch and omission in error and less choice or oversight.

....Okay, my observations for now. I plan to run this at least 1-3 more sessions but I am debating pausing the game and just accepting Cypher System as my God of Games forevermore. ALso, maybe, tempted to talk everyone into trying Symbaroum next....!

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Deathbat's Computer Gaming Predictions for 2019

This list falls in to two categories: the first is "industry changes" I want to predict (for fun). The second is "my own habits" I want to predict (also for fun). Here goes!

Industry Predictions for 2019:

1. Epic Games will get some legs

Steam has been dominating the PC marketplace online for a decade and a half. It has in the last five or six years become well known for being an immense pit of despair when it comes to shopping for games, thanks to a series of increasingly poor policies on what games they would allow on their platform; short version is; too much garbage, and too hard to sort through to find the gems. They have in recent months gone to great lengths to try and refine their store....but I suspect for many it is too little, too late.

So with that in mind, Epic Games now has its own game store, and while it a bit anemic it does have some gems. More importantly, it has Fortnite for PC, and is therefore essentially already installed on millions of PCs. I've already grabbed the free copy of Subnautica and will likely look to future purchases depending on how things develop. Epic is poised to conveniently be a major contender to Steam right out the gate, all thanks to Fortnite. Remember when Steam ended up on all PCs thanks to Half Life 2? Yep.

2. The Next Call of Duty will have a Campaign 

The rationale is that Activision wouldn't have more than one of its three studios developing CoD games try a Battle Royale mode, and that they also would be suspicious that this isn't just a fad right now, or possibly that they are too late to market. Therefore, based on their traditional design schedule, I predict that the next Call of Duty from Infinity Ward will probably be a conventional offering with a campaign, and also I bet it's either a sequel to Modern Warfare or Ghosts (shudder). Probably the former.

3. Bioware will announce a new Mass Effect or Dragon Age game this year.

This doesn't seem far-fetched, but I bet when they announce it the reveal will include a lot of apologetic marketing to appease the disenfranchised fans and also that the actual release date will coincide with the next generation release of game consoles.

4. Fortnite will be replaced by some new 2020

We'll see the manifestations of this sometime in 2019, and Fortnite will continue to do fine, having captured it's market share, but I have a seven year old in the house and I can see how this sort of thing works; the millions of kids playing Fortnite will eventually get tired of it and force their parents to find some other video game to babysit them. You'll know Fortnite has descended to the realm of "popular has-been" when the twitch streamers start playing As Yet Unreleased Hotness X.

(Yeah this might contradict prediction #1 above but I say no! The new hotness could after all manifest on Epic's own platform).

5. There will be a new Alien Game announcement (and possible release) this year

The official channels are hinting at it, but unlikely we will see a movie release until Disney finishes carving up Fox's corpse, so I bet the hints are about new tie-in material, including a game. A game has been mentioned in 2018 titled Alien Blackout, but I bet thanks to CoDBlops4's mode they will have a different title when it is properly announced.

6. Ubisoft may actually give Assassin's Creed a break this year

This actually seems unlikely to me, but if Odyssey didn't sell well then I get they give a two year hiatus to the franchise again to let it rejuvinate a bit....and with any luck they fill that gap with a new Watch Dogs game (but I predict that won't happen....maybe by March 2020?)

7. Another obscure corner of gaming from around 1998-2005 will come back in style

Here's the rationale: as computer and video gamers move into their early thirties they tend to start pining nostalgically for the games they loved in their formative years. This is a similar phenomenon to what happens in tabletop, but I don't think tabletop gamers start doing this until their forties or fifties (when the kids are off to college, usually)....but video games ellicit a different response, especially for thirty-somethings who suddenly find that their dexterity, time, and ability to dedicate dozens of hours a week to gaming are all on the wane. Usually, a baby is in the mix and the desperation is for a game, some game --any game-- to play between diaper changes. The Switch understands this!

But the current crop of thirty-somethings in 2019 were around age 10-15 during their formative period, which was dominated by PS1, Dreamcast, early Xbox and Nintendo64. At least part of the current trend is to pop out retro consoles, usually in miniature (easy to hide/store in apartment) filled with memory-laden titles. Sony recently released and semi-botched their own effort, but not really; this is the generation that started with polygon-based gaming that looked amazing for its time, but has aged incredibly poorly (and quickly). As a result, they want to play games like they remember......but they will also want it to look better.

Most subgenres and types of gaming from 20 years ago are still what game type is due for a revival? My suggestion: Myst and Riven style games! We've had a lull in pixel bitchers for a while, and the current trend is for very user friendly titles ala the late Telltale Games' titles. I bet we start to see a new crop of "Souls Like" Myst-inspired titles soon.

(Out there, but if there's one trend you can always predict in gaming it's that diehard subculture that needs games to punish them or they can't tell if they are having fun!)

Consider that last one my "really weird prediction."

Now for Deathbat's Personal Predictions:

1. I will finally catch up on Assassin's Creed games. I will complete Syndicate, Odyssey and Origins in some order at last. Unity's sour taste is at last out of my mouth.

2. I will enjoy The Divison 2 for a bit but will find it less endearing than the first if Ubisoft doesn't up the ante on the story component (which I bet it instead focuses on multiplayer).

3. I will buy the next Call of Duty because it adds the campaign back in, but then fails to innovate (so far only Infinite Warfare made any headway in innovation) and I will again feel had.

4. I'll be sick to death of Fortnite by March but will still play it with my son out of paternal duty.

5. I will finish The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, sometime this year. Possibly in the last week of December 2019....knowing how I roll....!

Maybe some movie predictions next!

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Deathbat's New Years Gaming Resolutions for 2019

Here's my list!

1. Focus on putting a more serious tone in my games. And game maybe a bit less often, but aim for higher quality.

By this, I mean that I have finally determined that the reason I have enjoyed gaming less than I could in the last year or two is that I have less time to prep for it, and also my burn out manifested in the form of what I might call "too many tropes, and too much meta." If I am seeing too many tropes, and feeling the meta within my games, it means I am not finding the time to make them more interesting, and less "trope-y" or less meta.

You might ask what I mean by that, and I could devote a whole post to such, but in the short version:
Too Many Tropes - I find myself leaning on the same cliched and tired content to fill in gaps when I have not had enough time to prep for the week. Another wandering monster encounter with "insert here" or yet another classic dungeon delve designed to soak up the evening without enough care and consideration into the plot = tired, old tropes being used in place of good content.
Too Meta - this is harder to work on, but in theory if I am working on better story content with fewer tropes then meta elements become less prevalent, too. Meta means I am GMing from the context of the game as an experience in itself, and less from the story or "character" arc of the tale; this could be to being too familiar with the content, or finding the rules to be too "in the way" of the experience. This is when I get that sense of ironic familiarity with a situation and can't resist reflecting on it, leading to a less serious effort at game tale telling. By focusing on a more serious, interesting tale I may be able to overcome this. I want games that feel like they used to: actual adventures, and less like they have: people killing time at the table with well worn and familiar cliches. To do this, I must focus on the narrative seriously, avoid the tropes, and commit to quality over quantity. Also, game systems which encourage new and interesting content are helpful, too.

2. Focus on games with I have found to be reliable time and again. For me this list is pretty simple:
BRP and Call of Cthulhu
Dungeons & Dragons (despite it being a hotbed of potential tropes and metagaming)
Cypher System

Likewise, newer games on the rise may well contribute to this process. I expect to get a lot out of Over the Edge 3rd edition and Kult this year, for example. Fantasy AGE and Modern AGE continue to strike me as the kind of systems that move in the direction I want.

3. Focus less on games that do not prove so reliable, or which feed in to the tropes and metagaming.
Games such as Starfinder are awesome, but I concede that I never get far with it because it is the very definition of a setting and system that calls attention to itself and its own absurdity/mechanical contrivance. And I LIKE it! But fails for me anyway, because I can't quite reconcile what it offers with what I really want deep down inside, which is something more akin to Traveller or the Elite Dangerous RPG. Real SF, in other words. With limited time, I need to choose carefully, and not go for the tasty eye candy.

4. More family gaming.
This one is a no brainer! Gaming with my son and wife is proving more fun than ever.

....Okay, those are my gaming resolutions for 2019. We'll see if I stick to them!