Monday, February 5, 2018

A skirmish at the Green Dragon pub

As has been noted elsewhere, at some of its most dramatic moments, the professor's curious mix of tale-telling and game can involve combats, about which the professor is remarkably clear-eyed.

Such encounters, be they skirmishes or pitched battles, arise from the scenario and choices made in play: they are never forced for their own sake, and the players' characters often (but not always) have a chance to avoid them. Rarely, if ever, do two equally matched opponents stand forth for a gentlemanly bout.

Sometimes, whatever playing pieces are at hand, from chess-men to checkers, may be first arranged to show the rough situation, but this is far from necessary, and short encounters may well be resolved without them.

Whoever chooses to act and move first, whatever the consequences, does so. If the characters are ambushed, then they must respond to the ambush. If they charge or strike, then they have the initiative. From then on, each move and counter-move is resolved as most makes sense. Every player may take some sort of action before the turn is ended.

Given the risk, dice are rolled to resolve each combat. Each player rolls, and the professor adjudicates the outcome based on their skills, tactics, armaments, and position. Usually, a roll of six or more is required for the character to hold their ground and at least keep up their guard. Depending on the foe, a higher roll may be required to strike and prevail. For example, we see in the notes that a "man-at-arms" or "greater goblin" may be slain with a roll of seven or more, but a fearsome troll is wounded only on a roll of nine or more, and a dragon struck on a twelve only. More formidable foes may withstand several hits before they are felled. Even so, when allocating hits, the higher the roll, the better.

A roll of less than 6 means that some sort of setback, a blow, hurt, or wound, is suffered. The lower the roll, the more severe the consequence. The professor is unsparing of both sides, and so a player who rolls low may be wounded, dazed, or even felled and left-for-dead. Some enemies wield dreadful weapons, which may leave a festering wound or even sickness of spirit.

Players look always for sixes – the "crown" on the dice they roll, and two crowns are unstoppable. A single crown indicates a minor boon or advantage. Perhaps the blade bites deep, hampering the foe, or an opponent can be daunted or forced to retreat. Ones, the "evil eye" are feared. A single one may show a disadvantage or complication, but double-ones indicate an evil turn. When ones and sixes appear at the same time, the roll is an alarming close call, with gains and losses for both sides!

Fights do not necessarily end in death. Stern opposition may indeed cause the enemy to falter, but they may flee, or regroup, or attempt to surround the adventurers or even split them. Many goblins could retreat from a single warrior, only to turn and launch arrows at his shield to weight it down. By this token, wise warriors know when to flee, and when a threat is beyond their powers. Recklessness and blood-lust are not rewarded in the Green Dragon game.

Against the most dreadful monsters, only a cunning strategy, knowing the fatal flaw in a dragon's hide or the means to pierce the spell that protects an ancient horror, has any real chance of succeeding. There is always a place for heroism, though, and even a common soldier may hope to defeat the old and strong and cruel if he or she is stout-hearted and battle-wise.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Too Many Hacks

After reading The Black Hack, reviews of Whitehack, and Sharp Swords and Sinister Spells (yet another "Hack" system hack)...

Hack a Character

Roll 3d6 for a series of stats, such as: STR(ength), DEX(terity), END(urance), INT(elligence), POW(er), PRE(sence)
  • Set HPs (Hit Points) from the average of STR & END
  • MPs from POW
In most cases, your character rolls equal or less than a stat on D20 to succeed in some effort they might reasonably attempt under pressure, given their background and inclinations. Modifiers apply to shift the stat target. A "1" always succeeds and usually grants a critical result.

Magic-using types might select two or three spell options (see Hack Magic), but lack battle experience.

When characters advance, they get a chance to raise their stats. Maybe another chance to raise a favoured stat.

Hack Combat

Generally, roll against STR to hack at things, and DEX to avoid being hacked, or shoot something.
  • Use 1d6 for lighter or improvised weapons, 1d8 for martial weapons, when you roll for damage to HP.
  • Deduct Armour Reduction (AR), 1-5 (leather, gambeson, maille, half-plate, plate), from any damage you take. 
Only a character with battle experience can attack and avoid in the same round (so green fighters have to choose to attack or dodge).

Creatures get HP (the GM rolls a number of dice) and Ranks that apply to rolls in combat:
  • Threat Rank (TR) modifies STR and DEX
  • Power Rank (PR) modifies INT or POW (for spells and other eerie stuff)

Hack Magic

Spell casters burn MPs to launch magic. They roll against INT or POW when under pressure. 
  • Heal: 1 MP to heal 1d3 HP
  • Blast: 1 MP to deal 1d3 damage once
  • Protect: 1 MP to reduce all damage by 1 for the duration
  • Enchant: 1 MP to add 1 damage for the duration, or 1 to the chance to hit
  • Curse: 1 MP to reduce an enemy's TR or PR by 1 (POW roll required)
  • Uncanny Ability: 1 MP to add 1 to a stat, for the purpose of accomplishing a task (sneak, persuade, search, etc.) with preternatural skill

Monday, December 11, 2017

Stellar Adventures review

The author's bio note at the end of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain made mention of the "big three" roleplaying games of the time: Dungeons & Dragons, RuneQuest, and Traveller. With Stellar Adventures (Graham Bottley and Jonathan Hicks), the Advanced Fighting Fantasy (AFF) Second Edition rules makes the jump into science fiction, and just as AFF makes as good, or better, a fantasy game as D&D and RuneQuest, Stellar Adventures is an excellent, fast, flexible system in the mode of Traveller and other sci-fi systems.

Character generation is, if anything, slightly faster than in AFF. SKILL, STAMINA, LUCK, and PSI (the equivalent of magic) and TECH (the technology/engineering rating for android characters) are allocated from a pool of points. Then, the player selects special skills and skill levels from a list and a distinguishing Talent.

The rules of the game are the same as those for AFF, and very clearly explained. The small table on difficulty modifiers is a masterpiece of concise design. The basic system from AFF is simple and robust, it's just unfortunate that the "Roll over SKILL" option repeats an error from the original AFF book. The target number for a roll-over system for Skill tests should be 14, not 15, to duplicate the probabilities of the roll-under system.

Combat, of course, is a large section of the rules, and it's here that Stellar Adventures takes a subtle but radical step. In AFF, combat is resolved by opposed rolls, and this makes perfect sense because most combat is hand-to-hand, a series of sword blows, claw swipes, and so on. Stellar Adventures retains the opposed roll mechanic – but the majority of combats are firefights, with ranged weapons. To a Traveller player, this is strange indeed. Surely aiming and firing a weapon is a test of Skill rather than an opposed test? But, on reflection, Stellar Adventures really makes this work. The opposed attack total isn't about taking a single shot; it's an abstraction of dodging, taking cover, finding the nerve to aim and shoot accurately in a chaotic exchange of fire. It makes sense that the more skilled combatant gets the first hit out of all this action, and a single combat roll handles this. The opposed combat roll still introduces some oddities, however, and in particular there's no penalty to hit when attacking out of a weapon's range (the penalty applies to damage instead). Personally, I would apply a range penalty to attack totals, giving the edge to longer-ranged weapons, and stipulate that a ranged attack must total at least 14 to hit, so that it's possible to roll the higher attack total and yet miss due to lack of accuracy.

As befits a multi-genre sci-fi rulebook, there are sections on equipment (including cybergear), robots (with a player character option), vehicles, and starships. The sections for vehicle and starship design are remarkable for their scope and simplicity. Unlike more convoluted system (High Guard for Traveller for instance), one just selects basic vehicle options like size and speed, adds weapons and armor, and then options in the form of modules, and then calculates the total cost of all features. This is a fast system that allows you to design almost any kind of vehicle or starship. Of course, the GM will have to keep a close eye on the armaments and enhancements, lest the PCs quickly assemble an unbeatable vessel, but the system provides the ability to build anything appropriate to the setting, from a motorbike to an Imperial Titan to a free trader to the Liberator. And there's a somewhat free-form vehicle combat system that follows the same conventions as personal combat, making it easily scaled and interesting for all players.

Setting design is handled in a similarly descriptive fashion, with "place characteristics" such as Size, Tech, and Society given a 2-12 score (either by rolling or assigning directly), with the GM interpreting these scores depending on the context. There's also a dice-drop method for determining star maps and solar systems, which has a nice element of random inspiration.

Reading Stellar Adventures, the Classic Traveller system often sprang to mind, as Stellar Adventures shares many general ideas with Traveller. Indeed, Stellar Adventures would model Traveller's sprawling stellar empire, mercenary companies, meandering tramp traders, and morally dubious sci-fi adventure well. But with a little GM adjustment, I think Stellar Adventures could scale up to space-opera, and even grimdark science-fantasy, or down to hard sci-fi, and the nice part is that the rules permit, even encourage, this. The only genre it's less likely to accommodate is broadly speculative transhumanism, and since there are no rules for hacking, cyberpunk would be a stretch (though doable). Stellar Adventures isn't perfect – no game is – and there's certainly something in here that I would tweak or tinker with, but Bottley and Hicks have adapted the AFF framework with great success to provide an easy, highly adjustable system for science fiction gaming.

[This review is based on a reading of the PDF rulebook, and not actual play.]

Friday, October 13, 2017

Bullet Journal for scenarios - with a scenario

The Tinkerage has been experimenting with adapting the Bullet Journal concept to generating notes for gaming.

Bullets are a way of marking and arranging journal entries in a concise, logical fashion, and so they seem ideal for generating notes for RPG scenario planning and actual play.

These notes are not tied to any particular system, and can be used freeform as well. For example, a High difficulty (+) might read in a system as a high difficulty class (DC 15+ on d20), a Hard difficulty modifier (-30%), or even a difficulty adjustment (half skill rating).

Here are the (trial) bullets and entry formats for RPG scenario journaling.


Name, Type [Resilience]
The Name or Description of the character, type (optional), and Resilience (equivalent of hits, toughness, HD, CON, Stamina, Luck, and so on).
Shifty, Thief [2] - a moderately tough thief
Wolf [1] - a lone wolf

(Condition) - a temporary or ongoing state

| Equipment x/n uses
|Arrows 16/20 - a quiver of 20 arrows with 16 remaining

Level of Difficulty, Threat, or Quality 

! Very High
+ High
* Standard
- Low
? Very Low
* Stone door - requiring a standard roll to force open
+ Locked door - a high level of difficulty to pick
? Rusty gate - easy to break open
! Swordplay - the skill of a deadly master swordsman

Locations and Scenarios

:: Location
:: Ruined crypt

: Note/Story/Background
: The crypt roof has collapsed, and a wyvern lurks inside.

Events in Play, Actions

> Event/Action
> Wyvern hides in barrel vault

A Bullet-styled Scenario: Drowned Tower

: The laird of Orfyre needs retainers (or adventurers) to call at the toll-bridge at Nystie and enquire why the tolls have stopped flowing to his lordship's treasury.

:: Nystie Bridge
: Arched stone bridge, in full view of the tollhouse tower and the archers there

2 Archers [1]
! Concealed
* Archer

:: Downriver
: Shallow crossing. The bodies of the tollkeeper and his guards are washed up here
+ Strong rushing water

:: Tollhouse, a longhouse with square tower and gate, guarding the bridge
* Barred gate (recent damage)
- Makeshift bars across the rear windows
* Rough walls, climbable

: Keiraffen, a ne'er-do'well minor noble and cousin of the laird, attempted to rob the tollhouse, killed the tollkeeper and his men, but could not find the coffers, and is camped here with his gang of brigands drinking and making a desultory search. Because he's kin, his lordship will be less than pleased if Keiraffen is killed (unless it looks like an accident, or someone else's work).

Keiraffen, a ne'er-do'well nobleman
+ Swordplay
* Gambler
* Schemer
- Drunkard

4 Brigands [1]
* Brawl
* Skirmish
* Sneak
- Undisciplined

: The tollhouse coffers with more than a month's taking are cleverly +concealed under the bridge, not that Keiraffen would ever think to look there.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Narrative adventures at the Green Dragon pub

A speculative sketch, loosely inspired by the the (rumored?) gaming style of Prof. 
M. A. R Barker of Tekumel fame.

What if other great world-builders took this path?

A game and story at the Professor's table

Professor T--'s group meets at the Green Dragon pub at least once a week. They play a curious game, which resembles more a story or a piece of theatre, inspired by German "free" Kriegsspiel, and best described as a sort of guided adventure in an imaginary realm.

Materials required are: plentiful supplies of paper (exam booklets are common), pens, pencils, common dice, and occasionally chess pieces and chequers, to mark the places of all the participants in a combat.

Each of the players brings a notepad and a sheet of paper dedicated to their "character". On this sheet are many notes, including the character's name and particulars, their salient characteristics, story and lineage. There is also space for lore regarding the history of each kindred, intermixed with notes on quirks, such as the dwarfs' ability to light fires wherever needed, and snippets of common knowledge, including fragments of elvish legend. Room is set aside for lists of gear and other trinkets that the character carries. We have seen characters described as elves, dwarfs, burglars, woodsmen, rangers, knights, hunters, and wizards, among many others!

The professor also arrives with several notebooks, closely filled with extensive notes, glossaries, and background materials, and many maps and sketches.

When play begins, the professor outlines an intriguing situation, continuing an adventure that clearly started some time ago. Each player replies with their preferred course of action, and the professor then responds with whatever happens next, prompting another player to reply, and so on. Journeys, skirmishes, traps, discoveries, and many curious encounters are all resolved by discussion, plain common sense, and the turns of the story. If the players are wise and attentive, they will usually overcome such difficulties. If they are foolhardy or proud, then their situation will deteriorate.

From time to time the outcome of some action is at issue or more than reasonably uncertain, and then the professor will call for a roll of the dice, and perhaps consult one or more of the many small tables scattered among his notes. One table, labelled "Luck or Craft", is often referred to, thus:

2-3... Horrible
4-5... Poor
6-9... Tolerable -- well
10-12... Marvel. elvish! [sic]

When the dice roll, ones are to be feared, and called "the evil eye". Sixes are highly prized, and sometimes called "the crown".

A thoughtful player who demonstrates the great resolve (or skill) of their character, is sometimes permitted to roll three dice and tally the best two.

Brief and intense fights take place from time to time. Such skirmishes rarely continue for more than a few "turns", with the rare exception of protracted battles. The professor is not sentimental about armed combat, and such scenes are short and deadly. The players will usually prevail (although combat always involves rolls, and so an element of risk), but if they misjudge their position, challenge dreadful foes, press their luck too far, or succumb to blood-lust, even the strongest will fall, memorably.

Another curious table, much used, is kept at hand during such battles:
5... goblin, spider, wolf
6... orc or grt. goblin
7... man-at-arms, grt. orc
9... troll, giant, fell beast
10... capt., wyrm, wraith
12... drake, horror

Now and then, the professor will make a "secret roll" of his own design, to judge how things go by chance, or to see if the characters blunder into, or across, something unseen, or are taken by surprise, or put in an interesting situation by happenstance.

Character may indeed be dazed, poisoned, wounded, enchanted, wearied, and so forth, and must make note of these effects and bear the consequences until the matter is resolved.

When the adventure (or chapter) is concluded, it is time to rest, tend to wounds, and divide any treasures found.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Reviews - Tiny Dungeon and Dungeonpunk

Two low-cost games show the potential, and limits, of rules-lite and free-form RPGs.

Tiny Dungeons

Tiny Dungeon, by Brandon McFadden, Smoking Salamander Games, is a rules-lite, well-produced fantasy RPG that relies on an extremely simple dice mechanic. In fact, there are only three kinds of test, a standard test, a test with advantage, and a test with disadvantage, and consequently exactly three probabilities to roll for. Adventurer characters are also simple, having a race, a short list of Traits, a Weapon Proficiency, and a fixed number of Hit Points. Weapon Proficiencies and Traits confer advantage on tests, neither armor nor weapon type have any effect in combat (a hit is one Hit Point), and that's pretty much the game.

The Traits list is interesting and well-chosen, and would offer a variety of ways to make a character, although the race list is close to what you might expect of a generic fantasy. The low-key magic is interesting and essentially freeform. The Spell-Touched trait confers the ability to cast a variety of minor magics at the GM's discretion, while a Spell Reader can read spell scrolls to greater effect (though the scroll contents are also up to the GM).

Since there are only three probabilities, it's fair to ask why the system doesn't use the same dice roll with an "easy, standard, hard" target number, rather than adding or subtracting a die to generate advantage or disadvantage, but in such a simple system, this hardly seems difficult. One consequence of this system is that a standard test has a reasonable chance of success, which makes it harder for characters to hide effectively (since creatures have a fair chance of spotting them), and also more likely that combats will be decided not by skill but the higher Hit Points.

The PDF is well-designed, with engaging, somewhat cartoon-style artwork, and there's room in the short document for a scenario, as well as some GM advice. Given the scope of the rules, the system might not carry you through a long campaign, but there's certainly enough there for a few adventures, with few barriers to engagement or fun.


Dungeonpunk, by Eric C. Medders, is a free-form system that presents itself as fun and easy, but lacks coherence when it comes to figuring out how you actually play. The tone and approach are intriguing, but sometimes the details matter.

Dungeonpunk, much like Sword & Backpack, takes a freeform approach to the rules. Characters have a class and a brief description, and are backed by 5 all-purpose Destiny Points. The essence of the system is: roll high good, roll low bad, 1 fumbles and 20 crits. There's a lot to like in a system with no modifiers, ever, where the roll is considered "'outside' the game itself." But what is a "high roll" or a "low roll"? There are no guidelines, not even something like the rough chances, to help eyeball the probabilities. Furthermore, some rolls are against a Difficulty Class (DC), a target number, whereas in other situations you simply look at the number on the D20 and take it from there. So when do these apply? In combat, there's mention of an attack and defense roll, but then the result seems to be a matter of comparison: highest roll wins. In which case, why does the scenario at the end use a system by which the players score so many hits per points rolled on the D20?

Now, in line with the punk aesthetic, the Game Master section advises you to "Make the game up as you go", but although punk is brash and anarchic, it's also tight and fast, and this approach comes close to getting bogged down in a mix of GM say-so and uncertainty. On the one hand, it's liberating to be able to write instead of roll a character, but what we're looking for with freeform is a set of clean procedures and mechanics that can serve the moment and also provide a flexible frame for resolution, and Dungeonpunk isn't quite there yet.

Unlike Tiny Dungeon, the Dungeonpunk PDF is a simple text document with a handful of stock-art images, and its clarity further suffers from a lack of proof-reading and consistency (at one point, for example, the text mentions a "Plot Roll", which sounds fine, except the term is never explained). Nevertheless, if Dungeonpunk was tighter and clearer, it could potentially offer a lot more depth of play over time, because freeform provides space for elaboration and development from a simple set of rules.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Excursion - framework for light, multi-genre gaming

Excursion: a short journey or trip, especially one engaged in as a leisure activity.

This contains nothing really new in terms of options that other rules posts have tinkered with, but it's based on the idea of a set of rules that abstract most aspects of a specific RPG into generic qualities (position for task resolution, impact for measuring effect, character strengths and weaknesses). In theory, this means you could pick up any interesting scenario for another system, abstract the relevant aspects, and play through: an excursion.

The Characters

For each player character, list:
  • Type: the highest level of class, profession, or calling.
  • Brief: a short description, the kind of character you're playing ("A better swordsman than poet"), with a few lines of history.
  • Strengths: mechanically, the character's significant skills and attributes/characteristics (about five).
  • Weakness: if your idea of a character encompasses weaknesses or flaws, add one.
Seasoned, or simply lucky, player characters have 10 "STAT" (current status) points.


When characters take action, the referee will assess the relative position, in terms of strengths and weaknesses, the chosen approach, tactics, and other advantages and disadvantages:
  • Firm (3) - slight risk.
  • Strong (5) - an element of risk, but with sound skills, preparation, and tactics. A well-armed warrior attacking a goblin skirmisher; a competent engineer completing an emergency repair.
  • Balanced (7) - a substantial risk or danger that tests the character's abilities. A challenging combat; piloting an aircraft in a storm.
  • Weak (9) - a considerable disadvantage or danger. Attacking a strong monster head-on; tampering with a complex mechanism with makeshift tools.
  • Desperate (11) - relying on sheer luck or chance for success. Leaping across the chasm as the bridge falls; charging the dragon.
Roll the given number or greater on 2d6 to avert failure (a miss, loss or damage).

In combat, allow a minor move or adjustment, and a major action or attack (a charge is both, but it takes the initiative). The character that seizes initiative through action or planning goes first.

Other kinds of action, like magic or supernatural gifts, are also handled by position and the scope and type of powers the setting and scenario permits.

[Note: position here refers to a combination of readiness, situation, and approaches. As such, position matters more for resolution than character type or ability scores. A warrior wielding a great-sword is at a disadvantage in a narrow passageway, but strongly positioned on open ground, regardless of sword skill and STAT. And if you happen to have a d20 around, there's no reason you can't use that to set target numbers using the rough chances.]

Handling Impact

In many situations, such as combat, actions also have impact, which may affect a character's STAT.

Opposing NPCs have variable STAT points: rabble have 6; toughs 8; worthy antagonists 10; and monsters have 14, or more.

A character with exhausted (0) STAT is incapacitated at least, and minor opponents will be removed from play.

Damage, from weapons or other impact, reduces STAT based on relative impact, which takes both the weapon type and armor or other protection into account:
  • Superficial: 1 - feet and hands; a handgun against power armor
  • Light: 1d3 - knives; shots against ballistic armor
  • Solid:1d6 - sword blows and bullets against unarmored
  • Heavy: 1d6+1d3, etc. - heavy weapons

Healing STAT follows as a short rest (1), first aid (1d3), and skilled medical attention (1d6).