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Sep 27, 2012

That's right, kids, take lots of drugs, leave the universe behind, and pilot Enlightenment Voltron out into the cosmos to meet Alien Jesus.

At some point I really should finish my Night's Black Agents writeup, but gently caress if there's not a ton of dry, fiddly rules stuff to work through before I get to the cool stuff. So in the meantime, let's take a look at a pretty neat and not very well known game from 2007. A game about weird Forteana, mysterious abilities, and all the ayahuasca tea you can drink.

If Walter Bishop ran the Planetary Foundation, the results might look a little bit like...

I'm not Daredevil!

Published by Abstract Nova Entertainment, creators of such high-concept RPGs as Heaven & Earth, Noumenon, and Exquisite Replicas, Aletheia describees itself as a game of big questions: how did the universe begin? Where do we come from? Where are we going? The title is a Greek word that variously translates as "unconcealedness," "disclosure," or "truth," so you know we're about to get all existential up in here.

Still, despite having a pitch rife with potential for sinking into pseudo-philosophical wankery, Aletheia by and large manages to sidestep the pitfalls of games like The Everlasting and Immortal: The Invisible war and present a pretty neat, pretty coherent world of modern "weird fiction" that unabashedly wears the influence of authors like Warren Ellis, Grant Morrison, and Arthur C. Clarke on its sleeve. Married to a solid if not hugely ground-breaking rules-lite engine that has shades of GUMSHOE and Over the Edge, it's easy to get into and does a great job of easing you from typical X-Files fare like alien abductions and spontaneous human combustion into full-on :catdrugs: territory.

It's also a very tightly-focused game: while you could use it to run a completely procedural "weird event of the week" type game with no overarching story, the entire setting is really built around telling one specific story of discovery and enlightenment... but we'll get to that.

All right, let's get this started. I'm going to try to cover two chapters per post for at least the first 3 or 4 chapters, but might end up going down to one per post when we get into the meatier setting stuff.

Albert Einstein posted:

All religions, arts, and sciences are branches of the same tree. All these aspirations are directed toward ennobling man’s life, lifting it from the sphere of mere physical existence and leading the individual towards freedom.

Between the image of the Tree of Life superimposed on a bunch of mathematical equations and that opening quote, Aletheia is pretty up front about its central themes. Expect a lot of Biblical apocrypha and quantum physics ahead.

In the meantime, we get a very brief summary of what the game is actually about : PCs are members of the "Seven Dogs Society," a group of scientists, philosophers, and investigators who look into strange, inexplicable events like hauntings, crop circles, and extraterrestrial incursions. The Society isn't a paramilitary group, they don't fight or hunt the bizarre. Rather, they believe that an underlying, fundamental truth explains and unifies all of these so-called paranormal events, and that by cataloguing and studying the extra-normal, they can bring themselves closer to that truth and to a greater understanding of the nature of reality itself. If you're getting a bit of a Fringe vibe... well, that's a coincidence, because that show didn't start airing till 2008, but you wouldn't be far off. We're not told much else about the Society for now; only that it's very wealthy thanks to "a generous benefactor" and that it's very small: as the name implies, the Seven Dogs Society always numbers exactly seven.

GMs get a brief discussion of the sorts of game Aletheia can be used to run. Its investigative focus makes it ideal for one-shots: just open with the Society receiving a report of an alien abduction and wrap up when the mystery is solved, just like a monster of the week episode of The X-Files. We're also assured that everything about Aletheia's setting is explained in this core book, which means the GM is in on all the game's secrets from the get-go and doesn't have to read a bunch of supplements to get the full story. That makes it easy to plan out a self-contained campaign beginning with the PCs' induction into the Seven Dogs Society and ending when they REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED. Finally, you can pull a Brian Michael Bendis and decompress the hell out of the storytelling, expanding the full reveal out over multiple campaigns, presumably featuring a succession of new Seven Dogs Societies--which I guess would look a bit like the various Leagues of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but the Introduction doesn't go into any more detail than that.

The Introduction wraps up with a quick overview of what's in the rest of the book, the obligatory What Is Roleplaying? sidebar, and a caveat that the game delves into sensitive topics like religion and drug use, and that players who are bothered by that sort of content should stop reading now. Apparently it's fine to play a game with content that might offend you, but for heaven's sake don't read it.

Forthcoming Chapters
  • Chapter Two: History discusses the origin of the Seven Dogs Society. Shockingly, it's not an ancient, vast conspiracy stretching back to the dawn of history.
  • Chapter Three: Hepta Sophistai is a detailed description of the Society's home base, an old Victorian mansion in the town of Seven Dogs, Alaska. Because every paranormal investigator should know where his butler sleeps.
  • Chapter Four: Characters continues the glorious RPG tradition of telling you how to make a character before telling you how to play the drat game.
  • Chapter Five: Mechanics tells us how many dice to roll when analyzing the meteorological effects of a rain of frogs.
  • Chapter Six: Anomalous Phenomena catalogues a wide cross-section of the types of cases the Society commonly investigates. Spoiler alert: Abduction, UFO cross-references with Birth, Virgin.
  • Chapter Seven: Revelations takes the GM up onto the mountain, doses her to the gills with peyote, and explains, like, the real truth of the universe, maaaaaan.
  • Chapter Eight: Gamemastering includes a picture of a kangaroo.
  • Finally, Chapter Nine: From the Heavens is a sample adventure about UFO abductions at Kansas State University. I don't really even have a joke for that.

A final note before we dive into the meat of the game: Since Aletheia is pretty light on images and walls of text can be tedious, I'll probably be supplementing these posts with photos and drawings pertinent* to the text of the review.

* "Pertinent" can sometimes mean "tangentially related at best."

The Seven Dogs Society was founded by Terrance Chastain in 1970, but the Societies' beginnings go back several decades before that. Yes, this is the first time we've heard the name Terrance Chastain, and yes, the book is just that matter of fact about it. Anyways, we're told that the legacy of the Seven Dogs Society begins with a man named Jericho Usher.

Wrong Jericho.

Usher was born in Boston on January 9, 1900, missing century baby status by eight lousy days but nevertheless demonstrating remarkable abilities by a young age. Violin virtuoso, polymath, and gifted athlete, Usher was hailed as a wünderkind, a 20th century Leonardo da Vinci. The world was at his feet--until, in 1922, he was diagnosed with Stargardt disease, an inherited form of macular degeneration that gradually destroyed his vision. Along with the Stardart's, Usher found himself suffering from Charles Bonnet syndrome, which left him suffering from visual hallucinations so vivid he feared he was going mad. (Spoiler alert: [spoiler]he wasn't.[/spoiler))

Shortly thereafter, Usher befriended Charles Fort, the paranormal researcher, and became an admirer of his work. This led to two decades of ostracism from the scientific community, during which time Usher read basically everything he could get his hands on, knowing that soon the written word would be lost to him. :smith:

In '46, Usher befriended Terrance Chastain, who we finally learn is an archaeologist specializing in Mesoamerican cultures. The two spent the next three years on various digs, "somehow" returning to the US fabulously wealthy. Indiana Jones would have been appalled. They bought land in the tiny Alaskan town of Seven Dogs and renovated an old Victorian mansion into a truly impressive research library. To further cement his Forrest Gump-like status, Usher struck up a correspondence with Einstein and talked a lot about the Unified Field Theory.

This will become relevant soon.

So, by the 1960s, Usher was completely blind and also in full on :2bong: mode. Experimenting with everything from DMT to psilocybin, he became convinced that his hallucinations were anything but. He believed he was actually seeing another level of reality he called the Otherverse, because drugs do not make you good at naming things. He would disappear for days or weeks on end, only to reappear walking out of a random room like nothing had happened. He talked a lot about how his Charles Bonnet syndrome, Forteana, and Einstein's Unified Field Theory were just pieces of a bigger picture, started making radical architectural modifications to the werstern annex of Seven Dogs House, and made Chastain promise never to go in there. Finally, in December of 1968, Usher left Chastain a single sheet of handwritten instructions, a ream of genealogical studies on looseleaf paper, and about 50 pages of ancient vellum covered in bizarre writing and drawings. Then he vanished without a trace, never to be seen again.

Now, as you might expect, Chastain was pretty much humoring his blind crazy friend for most of the 60s, and didn't really have any intention of following through on any of the crazy instructions Usher had left him. Then he decided to go and see exactly what Usher had been doing in the Annex. It was a simple enough bit of architecture: just a short hallway with nine doors off of it. Thing is, those nine doors didn't lead to rooms in the house. One led to an archaeological dig site in a desert. Another opened onto a jungle. Others opened onto strange libraries, Mayan ruins, and weirdly, a junkyard outside Taos, New Mexico. The portals were all one-way and led to places all over the world.

About then was when Chastain decided to follow Usher's instructions. Usher wanted Chastain to found a society to carry on his work: the society would always number seven, and prospective members had to come from the genealogies Usher had left behind. Said genealogies sometimes went as far back as 150 BCE--and as far forward as 2012 CE. In case that wasn't enough weirdness, radiocarbon dating confirmed that the vellum pages Usher left Chastain--the so-called Usher Codex--dated to the mid-15th century, but the handwriting and art style was unmistakably Jericho Usher's.

Nope. Still not the right one.

After two years of investigation and interviews, Chastain assembled the first incarnation of the Seven Dogs Society in 1971. Once they were all together, the purpose of Usher's genealogies became apparent: every one of the seven possessed a paranormal ability of some kind, from ESP to remote viewing to the ability to walk through solid objects. These seven spent almost 30 years together, investigating paranormal phenomena and working to decipher the Usher Codex. (At least, what they had of it: a fire in the early years of the society destroyed all but four pages, though a fifth was recovered from the Bibliothčque nationale de France in 1984. Nobody knows how it got there.) Finally, in 1999, they all disappeared, just like Usher had 31 years ago.

Displaying remarkable patience and forbearance for a man dealing with super-powered ghost chasers with a penchant for disappearing, Chastain assembled a second incarnation of the Seven Dogs Society in 2001. Less than a year later, while walking the Annex, Chastain discovered the bodies of all seven members, left to rot in the jungles of South America in plain view of the portal. The portal that, you'll remember, is only one-way and can't be seen from the other side. Once the bodies were recovered, the autopsies revealed that each had been shot in the head, execution style.

Which brings us to the present day (well, 2007, but "present" for the game). Chastain has finally assembled the third incarnation of the Seven Dogs Society. It's very likely this will be the last: Chastain is 83 years old and doesn't have it in him to go through the recruitment process again. The PCs make up some (maybe all, if you have a big table) of this incarnation of the Society. They've been members of the society for about a month, and their first case is coming up. It's time to learn the truth Jericho Usher found.

Thoughts so far: I really like this approach to opening a game book. It draws you in without bogging you down in world-building minutiae, presents a few really good, strong central mysteries to hook you into the setting, and actually tells you what the game is about without spoiling the big secrets of the setting. I also like that the History chapter includes a sidebar talking about the advantages of letting the players just read the whole chapter as a primer vs. giving them a brief outline (ostensibly in-character as Chastain). Personally, I'd probably go the latter route and ignore the "you've been a member for a month" caveat--the reveal of the Annex and its portals has a ton of potential, and I don't think I'd be able to resist holding back the second incarnation's fate until after somebody tries to kill the PCs during the first adventure.

Next Time: Twenty pages about a house. It actually manages to be kind of interesting.

GimpInBlack fucked around with this message at 20:14 on Jan 26, 2014


Sep 27, 2012

That's right, kids, take lots of drugs, leave the universe behind, and pilot Enlightenment Voltron out into the cosmos to meet Alien Jesus.

Spoilers Below posted:

Well, when you're 14 and already reading Plato thanks to a philosophy course at your high school, and the Illuminatus Trilogy and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and similar books thanks to the internet, and it turns out that there's a cool version of D&D set in the real world with vampires and werewolves and swearing and trenchcoats, and then it turns out that the game for playing wizards is based on the books you're reading and has, no poo poo, bibliographies in the front to check out! And then huh, a lot of this stuff doesn't follow at all. Why doesn't there...? No, no. It's published, it'll all make sense. Check their sources again. This RPG book was expensive, and written by professional writers. I must be the one making a mistake. :spergin::respek::pseudo:

Yeah, oMage is best played in one of three ways:

1) With actual philosophers, disregarding basically all the in-game fluff beyond the high concept.
2) gently caress it, wizards on spaceships.
3) Join the Technocracy.

pkfan2004 posted:

You had me at "Fringe-like RPG", I'm willing to pay five bucks to see how that plays out.

Speaking of playing out, it's time for more...

This week on Coast to Coast With Art Bell: I Was Photobombed By Elvis' Alien Love Child!

Only one chapter this update. It's not tremendously long, but I want to cover character creation and game machanics in one post and have a nice clean break between the player chapters and the GM chapters. So, without further ado, let's read 20 pages about a house.

As with the previous chapter, we're plunged right into the text with no introduction or overview whatsoever. In this case, we start with a brief description of the (fictional) town of Seven Dogs, Alaska. Seven Dogs sits on the eastern shore of the (also fictional, as far as I can tell) Maruak Lake, which in turn drains into the (real) North Fork of the Kuskokwim River. That puts it roughly smack in the middle of Alaska, geographically speaking.

Right about... here. Maybe.

Seven Dogs used to be a seasonal fishing camp for the Yupik people (the book calls them "Eskimo," but I'm not going to do that because it's an offensive term) until gold was discovered in them thar hills in the early 20th century. The town experienced a typical boom and bust when the gold dried out, and by the time Jericho Usher and Terrance Chastain arrived, the town had about 150 inhabitants, mostly Yupik, and both the hydroelectric plant and the dam on the Kuskokwim were falling apart. With the agreement of the Alaskan government (not the Yupik of course, because they were rich white dudes and it was 1949), Usher and Chastain bought up about 1800 acres across the lake from the town proper, including the dam and the power plant, and set about fixing the place up. They also built a dock and a floatplane base to make it easier to bring supplies into the town.

Today, the town has about 500 people, though we're told the generator is rated for a town "five times that size." Much of that power is diverted to the Society's manor house, which is funny for reasons we'll get to shortly.

Pictured: Aniak, AK. Another town of about 500 situated on the Kuskokwim River, probably a good model for Seven Dogs.

The Grounds
Most of the three square miles of land is virgin forest, "teeming with moose, elk, timber wolf, and the occasional grizzly bear." The manor house itself sits in a small clearing on the lakeshore, with unpaved roads suitable to snowmobiles or quads giving access to the docks and the floatplane base on the river, and to the hydro plant a couple miles away. Sounds pretty inconvenient, but the Society has other ways of moving around. The grounds also boast a Japanese garden with a lovely little tea pagoda and a heated pond stocked with koi, and a 12,000 square foot greenhouse that supplies the kitchen with fresh fruit and vegetables year round. Finally, we get a brief description of the three groundskeepers: Ichio Masuki, who tends the Japanese garden because of course he does, and Don and Mason Kitchuli, local boys and brothers who maintain the inner and outer grounds, respectively. Mason sometimes brings in moose, elk, or bear for the kitchens.

Hepta Sophistai
At long last, we start our (very detailed) look at the house that serves as the home base of the Seven Dogs Society. The original structure was a three-story Victorian monstrosity intended for the mayor of Seven Dogs. When the gold strike played out, the town's fortunes collapsed and construction never finished. Usher and Chastain bought the place, finished it out, and added two-story wings to the north and south sides and a single-story annex to the rear. A tower rises to three stories from each of the wings, and a four-story tower rises from the annex on the western side. They christened it Hepta Sophia after the seven sages of Greek myth, because naming houses is a thing you do when you're rich. You may recall talk in the history section of Usher going a bit nuts and insisting on some radical architectural changes--we'll be seeing the result of those here.

The central building, which is the original mayoral residence, has a weird Classical/Victorian mashup vibe going on. Gables and dormered windown abound, but the wraparound porch is surrounded by a Grecian collonade, with pillars carved in the likeness of "sagacious scholars watching inward" and "spiral work that could just as easily be Celtic as Mycenaean in design." The columns support balconies on the second and third floors.

Our first book art! Not pictured: Victorian influences.

The description of the house is split into the central building (which includes the two wings), the basement, and the annex. Rather than summarize all of them (and there's a lot of detail here), I'm just going to provide the floor plans and highlight some of the weird/cool/spooky features of the main house. We'll go into more detail when we get to the annex.

  • The wings are detached on the first floor, but directly connected on the second, which makes for plenty of odd nooks and tunnels running between the two. :shrug:
  • We're told that "entering from the west," we're likely to be met by the butler in the parlor. That's either a crazy space warp or a typo, because the parlor is on the east side of the house.
  • The butler insists that his name is "Jeffrey," despite being clearly and obviously a Russian expat.
  • The parlor floor is marble and features bas-relief carvings from the Iliad and the Odyssey, which strikes me as a tripping hazard but what do I know?
  • Also in the parlor: Works by Picasso, Braque, and Escher, plus a frieze described as "a variation of the Bayeaux Tapestry carved in full relief by the surrealist sculptor Marcel Duchamp." :psyboom:
  • The stairs up off the back of the kitchen go nowhere. They "rise 4 steps to a landing, turn left and climb 11 steps, turn left, and rise a final seven steps before ending at an empty wall. From the outside, this stairwell would appear to lead high up into the vaulted ceiling of the annex, but the original purpose or plan for the stairwell is unknown."

  • The second floor is primarily given over to the library and to living quarters for the society members. I imagine the campaign beginning with a fight over who gets the central apartment right off the library with the private bath.
  • The library is mostly stocked with texts on science, history, philosophy and the paranormal, but thanks to previous Society members' personal tastes "the library has collections from a variety of science fiction and fantasy authors, a large number of forties pulp magazines, and the largest collection of manga in Alaska." Just in case you had any doubt that this chapter is the authors building their nerd dream house.
  • Lots of windows and natural light for a place that stores a bunch of ancient books, don't you think?
  • No actual mention of where the five surviving pages of the Usher Codex are stored. You'd think they'd at least keep them in a fireproof safe after what happened last time. But hey, no reason we need to know where the one-of-a-kind, absolutely vital to enlightenment documents are. Tell me more about them animes.
  • Given that the house was purpose-built for the Seven Dogs Society, having two studies that can seat 10 people each seems like overkill.
  • Notes from 2007: All the workstations are explicitly described as "wired to the internal network." Also there are computer workstations. Nowadays I imagine you're issued a Seven Dogs Society official tablet with wi-fi access.

  • The third floor is mostly given over to Chastain's and Usher's living quarters. Chastain's are eternally cluttered with piles of books and ancient artifacts, but the old man always seems to know exactly where everything is.
  • Usher's rooms are kept locked up tight, but if the PCs break in (and you know they will), they'll find that it's impeccably organized and catalogued. Despite the fact that the thick layer of dust on everything shows no sign of having been disturbed in decades, perusing the shelves with reveal quite a few books published after Usher disappeared.
  • If the giant Orchestra Room in the south tower doesn't immediately make you want to run a story about a musical instrument that induces crazy visions, I don't know what to tell you.

The basement doesn't get a map, but we're told that it runs under the entire house from the annex to the front, and that it contains a gymnasium with a swimming pool and various squash/racquetball/multi-use courts, the pantry/wine cellar, and a game room with a two-lane bowling alley, a bunch of vintage pinball and arcade games, and both a fully stocked wet bar and espresso bar. Like I said, nerd dream house. We also get about half a column on how the basement was constructed to mitigate warming and thawing of the permafrost the house is built on. Aletheia, teaching you the mysteries of the universe and also cold-weather home improvement.

Now, before we move on to the annex, I want to point out one thing: for the headquarters of a society devoted to the study of the paranormal, weird alien physics, and bizarre cryptids, Hepta Sophistai has absolutely no laboratory space whatsoever. No physics labs, no morgue, no biological containment/study units, nothing. You get a library, and that's it. You want to autopsy that dead alien? Better get it on a plane and hope you can fast-talk your way into the Anchorage Coroner's office. Hell, the house doesn't even have a clinic, which, given that Society members have an alarming tendency to get shot at, seems like a huge oversight.

Right, now, the annex. We're told it was originally designed as laboratory space back in the early 50s, but as Usher's eyesight deteriorated/his crazy got bigger, he tore all that out and rebuilt it into its current configuration: nine doors leading off of a single, central hallway. If you were to go outside the house and walk around the annex, you'd see windows looking in on completely bare, empty rooms, each with a doorway leading out into the hall. You could even climb through the windows and go right out into the annex hallway if you wanted. From inside the hall, though, is where things get weird. Each doorway opens onto someplace hundreds or thousands of miles from Hepta Sophistai. The doors are one-way--people on the other side can't see into the house, and once you've gone through one there's no way back. The chapter rounds out with descriptions of each location and some notes on how they tie into the paranormal. (Some of the doors open onto seemingly-random places; the significance of these destinations are revealed in the GM's section.) Clockwise from the southeast, the portals' destinations are:

Khirbet Qumran
This door opens onto an archaeological site on a desert plateau, not far from the mouth of a cave. This is Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947. The scrolls were probably written by the Essenes, a strictly ascetic sect of Judaism around the 2nd century BCE. I say probably, because several details don't entirely fit: the settlement at Qumran features a scriptorium, which wasn't a common feature of Essene sites at the time, and the scrolls appear to have several hundred authors, far more than the settlement could have supported. Evidence suggests the scrolls in the cave were hidden there in a great hurry, possibly due to Roman encroachment.

Beinecke Library
This door opens into Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, the largest building in the world solely devoted to the preservation of rare books. No real paranormal mystery here, this is pretty obviously just a research tool.

Fort Raleigh
This door opens onto a public restroom at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, located on Roanoake Island in North Carolina. Here the book earns a million kudos points from me by not repeating the "mysterious lost colony" myth, but rather lays out the accepted theory that the colonists were absorbed into local Native populations. We learn a bit about the Lumbee people, a Native tribe not recognized as such until 1885 on account of they commonly had light skin and blue eyes, a language that resembles English and Highland Scots, and a religion with many similarities to Christianity. Still, the door must open here for a reason, right?

This door opens into the restroom (the text is silent on whether it's the men's or women's) of Hannah's Diner, a greasy spoon truck stop outside Hopkinsville, KY. The only unusual thing about the site seems to be that, in the last fifty years, the building has been host to twenty-three different establishments. Hannah's, going strong at three years, is the record-holder for longest tenant. I guess maybe Usher had a spastic colon and always needed a bathroom handy?

Tunguska Valley, Siberia
This door opens onto a forest near the Stony Tunguska River where, on June 30th, 1908, something exploded in the sky, flattening trees for miles around and setting fire to the forest. Witnesses reported a white cylindrical object trailing a plume of light, and a sound like artillery fire. The shockwave was strong enough to knock people to the ground forty miles away, but the trees at the epicenter were untouched. No one has been able to conclusively prove what caused the blast, but recently a Russian science team has claimed they found a large block of metal near the blast site--a block of metal they claim is both technological and highly advanced. The Russians haven't shared their find with the scientific community or allowed any photos of it to be published, which has led to most people dismissing it as a hoax.

This door opens onto a massive junkyard outside Taos, New Mexico that seems to have a bit of everything. The owner (whose name is actually Julius) claims that "if it isn't here, it wasn't made." Nobody's proved him wrong yet.

Bibliothéque Nationale de France
The seventh door takes you to the Bibliothéque Nationale de France (BnF), the repository of all works published in France. The modern site of the BnF is pretty controversial: It has huge floor-to-ceiling windows despite storing quite a lot of very old, very fragile texts, it's so sprawling you have to walk an absurd distance just to get basic amenities, and even though it has a beautiful central garden, you're not allowed in it--you can just look down on it from inside the library. Still, it's another great place to do research.

The next door opens to Lubaantun, the largest collection of Maya ruins in Belize. In paranormal circles, it's most famous as the site where Anna Mitchell-Hedges, daughter of the adventurer F.A. Mitchell-Hedges, reportedly discovered the Crystal Skull. Theories about the skull range from "Atlantean mystical tool" to "alien remains," but since the skull is in Anna Mitchell-Hedges' possession and she's retired from public life, speculation rages on.

Chambira River Basin
The final door opens onto remote jungle in the Loreto district of Peru. It's literally the middle of nowhere--the nearest city is Iquitos, 100 miles downriver. The only inhabitants of the area are the Urarina people, a seminomadic tribe of animistic hunters and horticulturalists. Their own name for themselves is "Kachá", which literally translates as "person." The book tells us that they're highly animistic and many of their religious rites involve ayahuasca-induced vision quests. This is also where Terrance Chastain found the bodies of the second incarnation of the Seven Dogs Society, each shot in the head and dumped in plain view of the portal.

Thoughts So Far: This is such a weird chapter to me. On the one hand, it's some nice world-building and gives a solid sense of reality to Hepta Sophistai. On the other, this game is heavily pitched as a "road game" like X-Files, where most of the action will be in the field, not at home. And for all that the detail's nice, it's all kind of... mundane. Apart from a few bits of weird decor and the post-disappearance books in Usher's room, half of the chapter is basically just a description of a fancy house in the woods. I would have liked to see more weirdness about the house itself. Maybe not full-on House of Leaves weird, but enough that you could hang a whole investigation on the house itself, apart from the annex and its teleportation doors. Hell, at least give us quirkier supporting cast than "Russian dude named Jeffrey."

Next time: Character creation, mechanics, and audience participation! Since the character creation system is really light, I don't think it'll be interesting to read about the character creation rules and then read a post of character creation, so I'm going to solicit character ideas from the thread now and use them as examples during the character creation review.

So give me your concepts for characters recruited into a weird, secretive, privately-wealthy paranormal investigation society. Remember that everybody recruited into the Society has a psychic power of some kind. Powers, like most of character creation, are pretty freeform, but to fit with the game's mythology they should generally be related to space and/or time (e.g. remote viewing or precognition moreso than telekinesis or mind control). Or you can leave your concept's power unknown and I'll pick something interesting. If I get enough concepts, I'll make an entire Seven Dogs Society!

GimpInBlack fucked around with this message at 04:58 on Jan 14, 2014

Sep 27, 2012

That's right, kids, take lots of drugs, leave the universe behind, and pilot Enlightenment Voltron out into the cosmos to meet Alien Jesus.

Bieeardo posted:

The first thing I'd do is something with those stairs to nowhere. I immediately flashed to the Winchester Mystery House, and with the portals there it seems like a gimme that it's weird too. Well, just as likely a red herring or something that kicks in during a dramatic end-of-season moment, but that seems unfair.

Yeah, this. For all that the last chapter made a big deal of "blind visionary spends his waning years making bizarre architectural modifications to the house," the only part that's really weird is the teleport doors in the annex--and even those aren't really "weird," it's a nice, orderly, symmetrical hallway whose doors just happen to take you thousands of miles away. I want the gradual realization that Becky's room shouldn't fit given the exterior dimensions of the house, back stairs that by all rights should cut right through sitting rooms, hallways where marbles roll uphill. Stuff like that.

Bieeardo posted:

I'm not surprised by the lack of lab equipment, since those doors are pointing at adventure thousands of miles away, one-way trips at that, so getting samples back to the house would be kind of difficult. Makes for bribing/sneaking/begging lab time RP too, I suppose.

Yeah, there's definitely the expectation that 90% of your investigations will be in the field, and I like that the Society has no official standing so it's not as simple as waving your badge and commandeering CSI, but it does raise the question of, like, what does the Society do with the dead aliens or time-travelling music boxes or whatever it finds in its investigations? It's not a huge, game-breaking thing, it just seems like an odd oversight, and it would be nice for techie investigators to have a dedicated research space that gives them bonuses the way the library does for bookworms. We'll see more of that in the next chapter, though.

When/if I run it, I'd probably just say there's a small but well-equipped science lab in the basement, along with a cold-storage facility and a fully stocked medical clinic.

GimpInBlack fucked around with this message at 22:27 on Jan 12, 2014

Sep 27, 2012

That's right, kids, take lots of drugs, leave the universe behind, and pilot Enlightenment Voltron out into the cosmos to meet Alien Jesus.

Count Chocula posted:

A young Scottish comic book writer who, after a mystical experiace in Thailand, can predict or influence events through incorporating Burroughs cut-up techniques into his comics.

Too meta?

No, that... that's pretty perfect. If I end up starting a PbP, I expect you to submit that as a character.

Sep 27, 2012

That's right, kids, take lots of drugs, leave the universe behind, and pilot Enlightenment Voltron out into the cosmos to meet Alien Jesus.

The wife's at rehearsal all evening and I've got nothing better to do than write some more about...

"No, Steve. I didn't see that. rear end in a top hat."

Before going into character creation, a short detour into Chapter Five. You see, Aletheia commits that layout sin so common to RPGs: telling you how to make a character before it tells you how to play the game. Since that's annoying as hell, we're going to take a minute to talk about the basic task resolution mechanic first.

Aletheia uses a straightforward d6-based dice pool system for task resolution: The GM sets a target number from 1 ("For actions routinely done with ease by mildly trained individuals.") to 7 ("For extraordinary actions rarely done by highly trained individuals.") and you roll some dice determined by your character's Attributes (usually between one and six). Any dice that come up 5s or 6s are considered victories. (The game text consistently italicizes all these terms, which I admit makes them pop on a quick skim better than just capitalization.) If your victories equal or exceed the target number, you succeed. If not, you don't. Other aspects of your character's stats can give you extra dice to roll or even free victories to help you hit those higher TNs.

And that's... it. We don't get any more detailed discussion of how to gauge appropriate TNs than that. No discussion of shifting TNs based on mitigating circumstances. We get two examples, but they literally only tell us that the target number of picking a lock is 2 and the TN for first aid is 1, with no justification at all. No critical success or failure systems. Not even a general rule for acting in opposition to another character. I like a rules-light system as much as the next guy, and granted a lot of this stuff is intuitive if you're an experienced GM, but it seems to me this section could have used a little more love. Maybe shave a few pages about the dinnerware hutches from the last chapter.

Now, back to character creation. Assisting us in our character creation process are the following completely fictional and most assuredly not-at-all-real characters:


For once we get a chapter with some actual introductory text! It's a fairly standard three paragraphs about how roleplaying is interactive storytelling and the PCs are your way to interact with the world, PCs should be dynamic, interesting, and three-dimensional, and how in game terms they're defined by a series of traits, but still, it's an intro. We then get a reiteration of the basic high-concept pitch: PCs were recruited about a month ago to the Seven Dogs Society. Members can come from any background or walk of life, but backgrounds in religion, philosophy, science, or investigative work are especially valuable. Having been around for a month, the PCs are assumed to have met the other Society members, gotten familiar with Hepta Sophistai (including the Annex), and have access to the pages of the Usher Codex. However, they probably don't know a huge deal about each other. Oh, and they don't have to worry about anything as trivial as money--Chastain funds all their operations, provides room and board, and pays whatever stipend is required to keep them engaged and happy.

The first step to creating a character is to choose a motivation: What got you convinced to join the society and go off investigating the paranormal and the weird? We get a few pretty generic examples like "wants an explanation for her powers" and "on the run from a checkered past," but we're also told that they're just examples and you should flesh them out or come up with your own.

Our boy Brant was told to join the Society by the aliens who abducted him in Thailand. They told him that a secret intelligence called GALGOMETH was waiting for him on the far side of Jupiter, and that only by aligning his chakra with the wisdom of Usher could he meet it. Also, he was promised lots of drugs. Brant's player writes down "make contact with GALGOMETH" as his motivation.

Albert told Terrance Chastain to bugger off the first seven times he was offered the job. Then he learned that Brant Harriston was on the team and promptly agreed, just to piss him off. Brant's player writes down "take the piss out of Harriston" as his motivation.

Georgie Hicks has been trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together herself for years. She identified the original Seven Dogs Society members from a bunch of disparate accounts in fringe literature and just showed up on the front stoop one day. She joined as soon as Chastain showed her the Annex. Her player writes down "understand the big picture" as her motivation.

Lister Shroud's older sister was recruited to the ill-fated second incarnation of the Seven Dogs Society. Her ghost told him to pick up the phone when Chastain called him. His player writes down "find my sister's killer" as his motivation.

Father Delmont figured it was this or the bottle. His player writes down "make some kind of peace with my abilities" as his motivation.

Finally, the Custodian has just kinda... been there the whole time. All five of the others are at least considering the possibility that he's a figment of their imagination that only they can see. He writes down ":troll:" as his motivation, because he's an rear end in a top hat.

The book next presents a short section on "Agenda," which is kind of odd because it's just a list of some of the kinds of stories an Aletheia game might include: investigating anomalous phenomena, decoding the Usher Codex, stuff like that. It's not a part of character creation and there's no place to put it on the character sheet. It's useful for inspiration but it probably should have gone back with the overview and the high concept pitch earlier. :shrug:

Next up in actual character creation is Attributes. These, you'll remember, form the basis of all your dice pools, and all characters have four:
  • Fitness is your general physical capability, useful for all those running/jumping/climbing trees bits.
  • Awareness is your general perceptiveness, wits, and quick thinking. It's useful for CSI type stuff and making snap decisions under pressure.
  • Personality is how charming and likeable you are. Equally good for getting the eyewitnesses to talk and getting the local LEOs to let you talk to the eyewitnesses.
  • Reason dictates whether you have to label your shoes "lefty" and "righty."
Attributes range from 1 to 5, with human average being two. You get eight points to distribute among your Attributes, and you can't have a 0 rating. So effectively all four Attributes start at 1 and you have four points to distribute.

Each one of your Attributes also gets a Descriptor: A word or short phrase that describes how your character presents that Attribute to the world. For example, both an Olympic figure skater and an NFL linebacker probably have a Fitness in the 4 to 5 range, but the former is better described as nimble while the latter might be brawny. If you can work a Descriptor into your action, you get +1 die (e.g. the brawny linebacker gets +1 to smash down a door while the figure skater gets +1 to do a triple Salchow or whatever). We also get an actually kind of cool sidebar reminding us that, since Attributes are so broad in scope, you don't have to feel like having a 1 in an Attribute means you have to give it a negative Descriptor. You can have a Fitness of 1 and still be brawny, it just means you're also clumsy and uncoordinated and probably not in great health from all those steroids.

Brant's in pretty decent shape for a writer, he's charismatic as hell, and he's bright enough to wrap his mind around chaos magik and poo poo like that. Unfortunately, all his communing with the Godhead of John Lennon has left him not wholly connected to this reality. His player goes with Fitness 2 (wiry bastard), Awareness 1 (Zen-like), Personality 3 (magnetic), and Reason 2 (non-linear).

Albert has lived a life of largely sedentary wizardry and his personality is generously described as "cantankerous," but he's extraordinarily well-read in a variety of fields and has a keen mind. His player settles on Fitness 1 (Beard), Awareness 2 (Beeeeeeard), Personality 1 (BEEEAAAAARD!) and Reason 4 (Son of Beard).

Georgie is a leading young academic in her field, but all that time in the stacks means the only exercise she gets is fieldwork. Her brilliance means that she's often conversing at a much higher level than people around her, which can put others off. Her player chooses Fitness 1 (tough), Awareness 3 (detail-oriented), Personality 1 (dizzying), and Reason 3 (font of obscure knowledge).

Lister's a survivalist born and bred, and a tough bastard to boot. Trying to sneak up on him is a waste of time. Trying to outthink him? Not so much. His player settles on Fitness 3 (tireless), Awareness 3 (ears like a bat), Personality 1 (unfailingly polite), and Reason 1 (practical).

Father Del is a wreck of a man, barely holding on--but damned if he doesn't see everything. Going for extremes, his player picks Fitness 1 (portly), Awareness 5 (insightful), Reason 1 (erudite), and Personality 1 (comforting).

The Custodian is the everyman. In fact, he may be every man. He chooses Fitness 2 (fit), Awareness 2 (aware), Personality 2 (personal), and Reason 2 (reasonable).

Now that we've settled on Attributes, it's time to pick our occupation. Yes, despite being a game term, this one's neither italicized nor capitalized. Go figure. Anyway, your occupation represents what you did before joining the Society and how good you were at doing it. If the action you're undertaking is something your occupation would reasonably prepare you for, like a lawyer interviewing a witness or a doctor autopsying an alien, you get a number of automatic victories depending on your occupation level.

Occupations are rated on two characteristics: Star rating and expertise level. Star rating is just like on Netflix, with the star rating representing both the breadth of the occupation and its relevance to a typical Aletheia game. Five-star occupations include doctors, professors, and CSIs, while down at the one-star level we've got things like businessman, firefighter, and auto mechanic. Expertise level is Rookie, Professional, or Veteran, and gives you one, two, or three automatic successes on relevant rolls, respectively. The book gives us about 20 sample occupations, but stresses that they're only examples and benchmarks. Even then, we're reminded that the ratings in the book are for a typical Aletheia game. If the GM is running something more action oriented, for example, occupations like cop or soldier might replace professor and CSI at the top tier.

You get 5 points to spend on occupations. Rookie level costs one point per star rating, while buying up to Professional or Veteran costs one or two more points on top, respectively. You don't have to spend all your points right now; unspent points can be used to buy additional occupations (which may or may not have restrictions, it's unclear) or Extracurricular Skills (and we're back to italics). Extracurricular Skills are like occupations, except that they're all effectively one-star because they aren't package deals, just single discreet talents. That still means you're getting charged the same for Veterancy in Muay Thai or String Theory as you are for Underwater Basket Weaving, though. It's not directly stated, but it is implied, that your Extracurricular Skills can't "double up" on things covered by your occupation. No buying up "shooting" if you're a cop. Oh, and apparently Terrance Chastain runs a self-defense class at Hepta Sophistai, because everybody gets a free Rookie level of Fighting for free (or any Extracurricular Skill you want if your occupation covers fighting).

Brant's a writer of weird fantasy and cerebral comic books. Writing by itself is a pretty narrow skill, almost just an Extracurricular, but being an author also means knowing how to network, promote yourself, research stuff, and understand how people think (or at least convince yourself that Castle is an accurate representation of an author's usefulness to an investigation). That looks about on par with three-star occupations like Researcher or Private Eye, so we'll put it there. Naturally, Brant's a Veteran Weird Fiction Writer, which uses up all 5 of his points.

Never one to give the competition an edge, Albert's player buys the same occupation at the same level. Veteran Weird Fiction Writer ahoy!

While "Anthropologist" isn't on the list specifically, "Professor" is, and that's close enough. It's a five-star occupation, so becoming a Rookie Anthropologist eats up all her points.

"Survivalist" sounds pretty close to "Forest Ranger" in terms of scope and applicability, and the book tags that as a five-star occupation as well. Lister's player has to content himself with being a Rookie Survivalist.

Father Del's a priest, naturally, and Priest is a four-star occupation, which tells you a lot about where this game is going. The padre's been at this a while, so his player spends his fifth point to bump it up from Rookie to Professional Priest.

No matter how much he argues that janitorship is the true key to enlightenment and the full realization of the principle of mind/no mind, the Custodian is clearly a proud member of our only one-star occupation. Never one to do things half-assed, he spends three points on being a Veteran Janitor, and spends his last two points to learn Professional Stealth. He is the wind.

After all this point-spending, we're told to pick a few hobbies to flesh our characters out. These don't cost anything, but they don't do anything other than character-building either. These are things you enjoy, not things you're good enough at to make a living. We're going to skip this step because this post is getting so long I'm probably already going to have to split the meat of Chapter Five off. So lets move on to the final mechanical step: Supplemental Points! You get 15 of them, and you can use them to beef up the stats you've already picked.

We're told in this section that additional occupations beyond your first can't be higher than Rookie level at character creation. This rule was not mentioned earlier when we were told we could buy multiple occupations with our occupation points. We can also buy one (but only one) extra Descriptor per Attribute. Also, we have to have at least one Power, and unlike the example occupations I'm going to talk a little about these because they're cool. Powers are rated one to five stars like occupations, but they have no expertise levels. Powers cost three points per star rating. Oh, and though we aren't told this till next chapter, activating Powers is always an Awareness roll, and neither occupations nor Descriptors apply to activation roles.

One-Star Powers
  • Presque Vu: You can sense when events are related to the larger pattern of... whatever the hell it is the Society investigates. Basically a psychic clue-by-four.
  • Deja visite: Remember how Buckaroo Banzai said "No matter where you go, there you are?" That's deja visite. No matter where you are--strange city, trackless desert, middle of the goddamn Atlantic--you know your way around like you've lived there your whole life.
Two-Star Powers
  • Remote Viewing: You can spy on a person or place anywhere in the world, just by thinking about them.
  • X-ray Vision: Why see anything anywhere in the world when you could see through a wall for the same price?

Backscatter fetishism?

Three-Star Powers
  • Postcognition: You can see the past. With a modicum of effort, all of the past. Oh, and you can see the past anywhere in the world, so good job spending the extra three points to be flat-out better than Remote Viewing.
  • Precognition: Exactly the same as the above, but you see the future.
Four-Star Powers
  • Ghosting: Walk through walls. Or instead, for the same cost, you can get...
  • Teleportation: No range limit. We're told that the closer/more familiar the destination, the easier the jump. This is a filthy lie, as we will see next chapter.
Five-Star Powers
Only one, but it's a doozy. Motherfucking Time Travel. Like the book says:

Aletheia posted:

No timeframe is unreachable with this power, but there are risks in journeying too far into the past or future. Travelling seconds or minutes in either direction is likely to have few ramifications, but not so with deeper Time Travel – the further one journeys, the more likely the character is to alter the existing timeline.

And as an added bonus, Time Travel includes Teleportation.

We have one final step, and luckily it's an easy one: Recording your character's starting Will. Will is a slowly-recovering pool of points you can spend, one for one, to get extra dice on your rolls. Will is equal to the star rating of your highest-rated power.

We'll dig into the mechanics of the powers next chapter, but this is getting long as hell so let's come up with powers and spend our example characters' Supplemental Points and wrap this thing up.

Brant's power is the ability to influence reality by writing comic books. There's no clear analog there to the example powers in the book, but it sounds kind of similar to the way Time Travel can alter the course of events. It's not quite as versatile as Time Travel, though, so I'll call it a four-star power. That eats up 12 points, and with his last three points Brant's player buys Veteran Occult as an Extracurricular Skill.

Brant Harristown
Motivation: make contact with GALGOMETH
Attributes: Fitness 2 (wiry bastard), Awareness 1 (Zen-like), Personality 3 (magnetic), and Reason 2 (non-linear)
Occupation & Secondary Skills: Veteran Weird Fiction Writer, Veteran Occult, Rookie Fighting
Power: Comic book-based reality manipulation
Will: 4

Albert, being an antisocial recluse, is very hard to pin down for things like interviews. That's because he can Ghost through walls. Wanting to differentiate himself from Brant, his player opts to spend his last three points on a secondary occupation of "wizard." Sadly, it's only at Rookie level.

Albert Stoor
Motivation: take the piss out of Harriston
Attributes: Fitness 1 (Beard), Awareness 2 (Beeeeeeard), Personality 1 (BEEEAAAAARD!) and Reason 4 (Son of Beard)
Occupation & Secondary Skills: Veteran Weird Fiction Writer, Rookie Wizard, Rookie Fighting
Power: Ghosting
Will: 4

Georgie sees ghosts. She describes it as psychometry with an auditory-visual synesthetic component, and it's triggered by any strong emotional impression, but 'she sees ghosts' is less of a brain-ful. That sounds like a combination of Presque vu and Postcognition to me. That's ten points, and her last five will go toward buying up one more rank each of Fitness and Reason, and adding a Descriptor to her Reason.

Georgie Hicks
Motivation: understand the big picture
Attributes: Fitness 2 (tough), Awareness 3 (detail-oriented), Personality 1 (dizzying), and Reason 4 (analytical, font of obscure knowledge)
Occupation & Secondary Skills: Rookie Anthropologist, Rookie Fighting
Power: Presque vu, Postcognition
Will: 3

Lister also sees dead people. Except what he sees isn't ghosts or whatever, he sees people around him as they're going to look at the moment of their deaths. He's effectively precognitive, he just doesn't know how to fully harness it yet. That's nine points, and his remaining six will go toward Rookie Music as an Extracurricular Skill and bumping his Fitness and Awareness each to 4. Finally, since "Survivalist" covers fighting, his player swaps his free Rookie Fighting for Rookie Computer Use instead.

Lister Shroud
Motivation: find my sister's killer
Attributes: Fitness 4 (tireless), Awareness 4 (ears like a bat), Personality 1 (unfailingly polite), and Reason 1 (practical)
Occupation & Secondary Skills: Rookie Survivalist, Rookie Singing, Rookie Computer Use
Power: Precognition
Will: 3

Father Del's ability to see people's most recent sin is pretty clearly Postcognition. That leaves him another 6 points to spend, so his player chooses Professional Research as an Extracurricular Skill and a point of Reason.

Father Delmont Skirt
Motivation: make some kind of peace with my abilities
Attributes: Fitness 1 (portly), Awareness 5 (insightful), Reason 2 (erudite), and Personality 1 (comforting)
Occupation & Secondary Skills: Professional Priest, Professional Computer Use
Power: Postcognition
Will: 3

The Custodian is everywhere. He is allwhen. He is omnipresent, and he is watching you.

The Custodian
Motivation: :troll:
Attributes: Fitness 2 (fit), Awareness 2 (aware), Personality 2 (personal), and Reason 2 (reasonable)
Occupation & Secondary Skills: Veteran Janitor, Professional Stealth, Rookie Fighting
Power: Time Travel
Will: 5

Thoughts So Far: I like the speed and simplicity of character generation, but some of the power rules seem pretty rushed. Like "walk through walls" and "teleport anywhere" being the same level. And if you're thinking Ghosting can be used for other stuff like going intangible to avoid attacks and get into unknown places you can't teleport to, nope. It literally just lets you want through solid objects. And teleport has no "you must know your destination" rule either. After seeing the powers you goons came up with, I wish there was more support for devising new powers, or at least putting interesting limitations or twists on the powers that are in there.

The game also uses different costs for Supplemental Points than the base points for different traits, which can lead to one character getting more bang for her buck than another. It's not as pronounced as, say, WoD, but it's there. Overall, while there's not a ton wrong with it, this chapter (and the next one) I feel like could have used more polish.

Next Time: Smarty stuff, fighty stuff, and earning XP for reading the GM's mind.

GimpInBlack fucked around with this message at 05:21 on Jan 14, 2014

Sep 27, 2012

That's right, kids, take lots of drugs, leave the universe behind, and pilot Enlightenment Voltron out into the cosmos to meet Alien Jesus.

Bieeardo posted:

I just paged through Alethia a little earlier tonight (thanks for pointing out that it was on sale!) and... yeah. I think there's a line in there about 'sometimes' you 'might' get in a fight says something about the intent of the game. I think the automatic victories are supposed to cover for shifting target numbers, similar to the way the investigation system works: unless you're working completely at cross-purposes to the plot, you're probably going to succeed.

Yeah, it's definitely not a combat heavy game by intent. Which is fine, the game doesn't need Phoenix Command level tactical engagements, but what's there is pretty stingy. God help you if you piss off a moderately competent shootist.

Bieeardo posted:

The powers are bigger and more static than I expected. I can't really complain, because it REDACTED REDACTED fnord REDACTED but you know.

Yeah I can completely understand why the powers are the way they are. I'll probably talk more about them later once we've learned more about the secrets of t
he universe in Chapter Seven or so.

Bieeardo posted:

And speaking of without actually speaking of, god drat does this poo poo get late Seventies Disney, fast.


Sep 27, 2012

That's right, kids, take lots of drugs, leave the universe behind, and pilot Enlightenment Voltron out into the cosmos to meet Alien Jesus.

Robindaybird posted:

Wow that's pretty drat blatant. Capcom might want to have words if these guys still exist.

That's from Hunter: the Vigil. It was all handled a few years ago. Pretty sure that artist is blacklisted now.

Sep 27, 2012

That's right, kids, take lots of drugs, leave the universe behind, and pilot Enlightenment Voltron out into the cosmos to meet Alien Jesus.

Robindaybird posted:

Yeah - I would hope the artist was blacklisted after pulling that stunt - there's a world of difference between taking inspiration from DMC and basically copying and editing a sword into a gun. It's just stunning that a) no one editing noticed, and b) the artist thought that was okay.

It's stunning on the artist's part, sure, but that image was ripped off from a (at the time) three-year-old video game. A fairly popular one, granted, but if you're not really a big video gamer--which as I understand it the art director on the book wasn't) and you're assuming your artists are producing original works in good faith, it's an easy oversight to make.

Sep 27, 2012

That's right, kids, take lots of drugs, leave the universe behind, and pilot Enlightenment Voltron out into the cosmos to meet Alien Jesus.

Short update tonight, as Aletheia's actual rules are pretty basic and uncomplicated--but this is also where I'm going to get a little more reviewer-y about things. Stay tuned for some good ideas, some hilarity, and some advice on outside-the-box thinking from someone I'm pretty sure has never encountered an RPG player ever.

I covered the basics of Aletheia's mechanics in the last update, but here's a quick recap. When you want to do something, the GM sets a target number between 1 and 7. You roll a number of d6s equal to the Attribute that seems most pertinent to the action, possibly +1 die if you have an applicable Descriptor. Any dice that show 5 or 6 are victories, and if your victories equal or beat the TN, you succeed. If you have a relevant occupation or Extracurricular Skill, you get one, two, or three automatic victories. That's it for the basics, but we get some more detail on three categories of action: Fieldwork, Fighting, and Powers.

Fieldwork is the nitty-gritty, the meat of most Aletheia games: going out to someplace where weird poo poo went down and ascertaining the nature of said weird poo poo. The game breaks fieldwork into four different actions: Investigation, Interviewing, Research, and, once all else is said and done, the Hypothesis. This is where we really start to see the GUMSHOE influence on this game.

First up is investigation, the actual on-site observation. Whether it's poking around the field where a crop circle appeared or autopsying the dead guy whose face is on upside-down, you're out there poking at things, taking measurements, and doing montages set to The Crystal Method. Investigative scenes have a certain number of clues for the PCs to find, one of which is designated the vital clue. You roll Awareness for investigative actions.

Rather than resolving these scenes action-by-action, the GM sets a target number for the entire scene, equal to the number of clues to be found. Unlike other actions, you don't get to know the TN before you roll--but that's because, unlike other actions, failing to hit the TN doesn't mean failure. You just only find one clue per victory. Your first victory always gets you the vital clue, and since automatic victories apply to investigation rolls, as long as somebody has a relevant occupation or skill, you can't miss it. Other clues come in the order of whether or not your occupation/skill is relevant to the skill or not. An auto mechanic will notice spilled transmission fluid in the garage before lividity marks on a corpse, for instance. In a nice touch, the game spells out that anyone can find clues just by getting victories, but if your occupation or skill is relevant to a clue, you get some basic information about it. For instance, a paramedic who rolls two victories might find tire tracks leaving the scene or a scrap of cloth caught on a bush, but a CSI finding those same clues would have an idea of the weight and speed of the truck and what kind of fabric it is.

As a basic system, this is pretty solid and works just fine, but the game suffers from having no clear rules for having multiple characters investigating a scene. One would assume that each investigator would roll and then you'd total up their successes (after all, each one of them is going to be sharing the clues they find with each other), but with each scene typically having one to five clues, even a couple of moderately-trained investigators are going to descend on a scene like Holmesian locusts, stripping it of clues with a minimum of effort or research expenditure. Which is fine, I guess, if the meat of your game is meant to be putting the clues together more than finding them, but then why bother with all this "you might not find all the clues" rigamarole? GUMSHOE games solve the issue of group omniscence by making those extra clues things you have to buy with a finite resource pool, but here it seems like you might as well not bother with the investigation rules or else the GM needs to contrive scenarios where only one or two Society members investigate any given scene.

Interviews work almost exactly the same as investigations, except the stat you roll is Personality, and it's generally a bit easier to get the bonus from a Descriptor since you just have to play it up in the conversation. Crack jokes to set them at ease if you're funny, slap the table and make threats if you're scary, whatever. Here's where we also get our first glimpse of how we're probably supposed to handle opposed checks in this game: If the witness is hostile or uncooperative, you first have to roll a number of Victories equal to their Personality to get them to open up (or, presumably, do something in-game that makes them want to talk). Any victories beyond that give you your actual clues. Seems like that's a good way to handle other kinds of opposed actions like chase scenes or sneaking up on somebody, but it's only presented in the context of cracking stubborn witnesses.

Research is just straight-up information gathering. Sometimes it's used to give context to clues you find, sometimes it's used to figure out who to talk to or where to go next, but it's distinguished from investigation by being conducted away from the action, in a lab, library, or the like. Unsurprisingly, Reason is the key to research. Unlike investigation or interviewing, research is treated pretty much as a normal action, with the TN indicating the difficulty of finding the information at all. The only wrinkle is that you can drop the TN by 1 if you're conducting the research using a source that's especially appropriate to the information you're looking for. Researching a small town's history at the local newspaper archive, researching pretty much anything paranormal at the Hepta Sophistai library, etc. We're told in a sidebar that researching the pages of the Usher Codex is a bit of a special case; the GM gets more information on that in Chapter Eight.

Finally, once you've wrapped up an investigation and called it a day, it's time for the players sit around for a bit and kibitz about what happened, summarizing the events, collating all the evidence and developing as clear a picture of the phenomenon as they can. Once everybody's in agreement, they present it to the GM. If they got everything right, huzzah! Everybody gets 5 XP. If, however, the hypothesis is totally wrong or only partly correct, everybody rolls Reason. One, two, or three victories gets you 1, 2, or 3 XP, and the GM will correct some or all of the errors in your hypothesis depending on the victories rolled. If you fail the roll altogether, too bad, so sad, you get nothing. The GM is, however, encouraged to give out 1 XP regardless if the hypothesis is at least partially correct.

I kind of like the idea of the hypothesis round--it's a good way to keep players on the slow, steady track of discovery the game is aiming for and prevent them from getting too entrenched in their own (incorrect) ideas about the setting. In a looser game I'd prefer a rule about adapting the setting to the player's idea, but since Aletheia is so tightly married to its setting and metaphysics I think this works well. I'm far less sanguine about players getting different amounts of XP based on how lucky they are with a dice roll (especially since we're explicitly told that you can't spend Will on this roll). Without really strong advice on how much leeway to give players in ruling their hypothesis "correct" or not, it also has the potential to descend into pixel bitchy, mother-may-I bullshit. Unfortunately, there's no such advice in the book. Hope your GM's not the "well, actually the UFO was from Tau Ceti III, not Tau Ceti IV :smug:" type.

Anyway, on to Fighting. Aletheia is...not a combat focused game. The combat rules are very, very basic, but also have the potential to be hilariously lethal. First off, the basics: Initiative is 1d6 + Fitness (the only roll in the game that doesn't use the normal system), with some modifiers for catching people by surprise or having a Descriptor about being really fast.

Hand-to-hand combat is a Fitness roll, and has a TN of the other guy's Fitness. Damage is the total victories scored, plus a bit extra if you have a weapon. If you've got a Descriptor like brawny that might help with dishing out pain, roll a die: if you get a victory, deal one extra damage.

Shooting dudes is a little different. It's still a Fitness roll, but since "no human can dodge a bullet," the TN is 1. Adverse factors like range, darkness, movement, etc. can push that TN up. Firearms damage is the number of victories you rolled times 4 for pistols and single-shot rifles, x5 for shotguns or automatic weapons. Oh, and since it wasn't mentioned in Chapter Four, all characters have 20 hit points.

A couple things with this system: First off, occupations and skills work normally on combat rolls, which means even a moderately combat-built character (Professional occupation/skill, 3 Fitness and relevant Descriptor) has a pretty good chance of guaranteeing at least 3-4 successes per roll. In hand-to-hand that's not too bad, but when the guns come out it's really easy to get into absurd damage numbers. The game does provide a pressure valve for this situation: when somebody lands a hit on you, you can spend 1 Will to reduce the damage to only one point--which, really, should be your sign to get the hell out of Dodge.

Now, that's pretty nasty, but you can argue that in a game that's nominally about professorial types delving into the MYSTERIES OF THE UNKNOWN, a trained soldier with an automatic rifle should be terrifying, but the line between "moderate damage" and "OH GOD HOW CAN IT HURT THIS MUCH" is really thin. Oh, and add to that the fact that damage is based on total victories rolled, not victories in excess of the TN, and your damage becomes very spiky. Gunfights in adverse conditions especially turn into Marco Polo with bazookas--either you take no damage at all or you're pretty much down in one hit. Mercifully, 0 hp doesn't mean "dead," just "knocked out" or "in need of hospital care within the next half hour" depending on the lethality of the weapon.

That's about it for fighting. We get a brief sidebar about falling damage, another about called shots, and rules for healing damage that are nothing we haven't seen a million times before. Called shots let you trade a +1 to your TN for either an instant knockout in hand-to-hand fighting or +5 damage in a gunfight. As long as you've got at least one or two automatic victories you should pretty much always be called-shottin'.

Last up in this section is powers. You always roll Awareness for powers, and you never get to add Descriptos or occupations to the roll. We're told that target numbers work differently for all powers, which is... not really true. With the exception of the powers that deal with time, all the powers only require one victory to use. We're also told that the GM should make all power rolls and conceal the results from the players. Because apparently you might not know if your roll to teleport to Kathmandu succeeded or not? Seriously, presque vu and deja visite are the only ones of these powers where the difference between success and failure isn't immediately obvious. Presque vu just returns nothing (which could mean the power failed or just that the thing you're scanning isn't important), while deja visite lets the GM be a dick and lead you on a wild goose chase for a while.

I'm going to skip over most of the power descriptions because most of them boil down to "there are no practical limits to this power." A few specific exceptions:
  • Presque vu only reveals that an event or object is somehow significant, it doesn't tell you how.
  • If you fail to use any of the clairvoyant powers, you can't try again on the same subject until you spend 1 Will.
  • Remember how last chapter teleport said that the farther and less familiar the destination, the harder it is? Yeah, no. The target number of teleport is always 1, and all you have to do is think about a location. No direct experience or line of sight needed.
  • The time-based powers have a sliding TN based on how far you're aiming to go. TN 1 gets you up to a week forward or backward, TN 3 gets you up to a century, and at TN 5 the entire space-time continuum is open to you.
  • We get this really cool sidebar about dealing with the time-based powers:

Aletheia posted:

In quantum physics, if an event is unobserved, it exists in all possible states simultaneously. It is not until the event is observed that one state is chosen over another. Phrased more simply, the act of observation changes the phenomenon being observed. This has a very real application in Aletheia.

When a character uses Postcognition or Precognition, the act of observation changes the past or future. Most times, the changes are so subtle and minor that no one will ever notice them. However, the farther and longer one gazes across time, the more likely noticeable changes will occur. Therefore, characters should be cautious of how far and how long they look into the past or future. By doing so, they are actually altering what has occurred or will yet come to pass.


And we close out the chapter with a little section about "using powers creatively" that's just... oh God, it's just adorable.

Using Powers Creatively posted:

Beyond their basic applications, there are myriad ways for powers to be used creatively by players. The following examples are merely a sampling of what is possible.

The element of surprise can be valuable in certain situations, most notably during a fi ght (see page 56). With Postcognition, characters can know their opponents’ plans as they are formulating them. With Precognition, a character can see how events will unfold and alter them to his or her benefit. With Ghosting, Teleportation, and Time Travel, a character can appear from nowhere and get the jump on an unsuspecting foe.

Dodging An Attack
If an opponent pulls out a gun, and there’s no available cover, a character can use Time Travel, Teleportation, or Ghosting to get out of the way before the shot is fired. To do so, the character must fi rst make an Awareness roll (TN of 1) to react quickly enough to the situation. If this roll is successful, the character rolls to activate the power as normal.

Changing The Past
Characters with Time Travel and Precognition have the ability to alter past or future events. If a friend is murdered, for example, a character with Time Travel can journey into the past and stop the crime. A character with Precognition might see the murder happening in advance and make sure it never comes to pass. Using powers in this manner is fine. However, players will need to keep in mind that there may be unforeseen ramifications to doing so.

Seriously, you just got through telling us that we can teleport anywhere in the universe at will, travel to the beginning of the cosmos with a modicum of difficulty, and/or see what's happening anywhere in the world whenever we want, and the most creative uses you can suggest are surprising people, dodging attacks, and the plot of every time travel movie ever? Go read Steven Jay Gould's Jumper to see some of the truly ridiculous stuff you can pull off when you can teleport at will. If you can get past the weird-rear end prose, read C°ntinuum: roleplaying in The Yet for a thousand and one clever time travel tricks. Hell, run two sessions of this game and I bet your players will come up with better stuff than this.

Anyways, that's it for Chapter Five. Nothing ridiculously broken, but it feels like the only people who really developed or proofread it were the people who designed the game and knew how it was "supposed" to work. Lots of places where you can infer rules that probably should have been clearly spelled out, some cases where the intent isn't that clear. It works pretty well for simple, basic actions, but I see lots of potential for edge cases and unclear situations cropping up in actual play.

Next time: A Child's Garden of Weird-rear end poo poo.

Sep 27, 2012

That's right, kids, take lots of drugs, leave the universe behind, and pilot Enlightenment Voltron out into the cosmos to meet Alien Jesus.

Down With People posted:

I've thought about doing a write-up before, but to do that I would have to get a copy, and I was afraid I'd have to give Darrick Dishaw actual money.

I don't want to give Darrick Dishaw money.

But it turns out it's free on Lulu so if people wanna see more, I'm down with it.

Then stop talking about it and start reviewing it.

Sep 27, 2012

That's right, kids, take lots of drugs, leave the universe behind, and pilot Enlightenment Voltron out into the cosmos to meet Alien Jesus.

In his dotage, Cyclops turns to--what? We've already made a joke about Marvel characters who wear red glasses? Well, poo poo.

Quick update tonight to clear the decks for the full-on insanity of Chapter Seven this weekend.

Chapter Six is the last of the player-centric chapters, and it's the first (and only) chapter in the book that has an in-character voice. The chapter opens with an e-mail from one Judith Seales to Judith is a member of the Society, and after telling Chastain that the Society is on the cusp of discovering Usher's ultimate truth, she says she's sending him all the Society's old case files, along with some general best-practices for the investigation of flying saucers and weird energy vortices. It wraps up with this rather mysterious statement:

Judith Seales posted:

I wish I could share more with you Terrance, as you’ve been a good friend these years, but we both know that is impossible. Like Jericho before us, only a select few can understand or undertake this voyage. However, we are optimistic that, one day, humanity will be able to make the pilgrimage as well.


Anyway, I'd make fun of Chastain for using a Yahoo address, but the e-mail is dated December 21, 1999, so I guess that's historical accuracy. (December 1999, you'll remember, is when the first incarnation of the Society vanished forever.)

What follows is some "babby's first investigative game" player advice: Take notes on everything, collect evidence, gather witnesses, and for God's sake document everything. All fairly obvious, but good for kicking players out of a "kick in the door and stab things" mindset. Nothing really crazy or noteworthy here.

Next, oddly tucked under its own heading between the investigation advice and the sample case files is a little section about "Vile Vortices." Coined by Ivan T. Sanderson, an early follower of Charles Fort, these vortices are natural places where air and water currents create odd zones of paranormal energy. Examples include the Bermuda Triangle and Lake Baikal in northern Mongolia. Vile Vortices can be places of healing or places of great violence, but they're also frequently linked to the phenomena the Society investigates.

Now we get a whole bunch of Sample Case Files. Actually, that's a bit of a misnomer, since almost all of them are more a broad classification of weird phenomena than specific adventure seeds. Each includes applicable cross-references to consult for more information, a location where the phenomenon has been observed, a number of verified occurrences, and typical numbers of witnesses.

If you're starting to think this feels as much like an adventure-building toolkit for GMs as a setting resource for players, you're not wrong. Some highlights:

  • Virgin births are incredibly rare and understandably hard to verify (since really the "virgin" part is a misnomer; we're talking here about human parthenogenesis, a pregnancy without male fertilization of the female egg). The only potentially valid claim the Society investigated happened in rural Indiana in 1982, in which a woman named Sarah Jessup gave birth to a son. Both Jessup and her daughter claim that the boy was born nine months after a mysterious alien encounter, and that Sarah was in fact post-menopausal at the time. I guess that's why it was considered potentially valid, but since medical records are spotty-to-nonexistent it's never been conclusively settled. It is noted that nearly all of the virgin birth stories featured in myth and religion involve a son, though.
  • "Unusual precipitation" is weird, varied, and usually bullshit, but small animals plummet from the sky often enough to warrant their own entry.
  • Spontaneous Human Combustion typically features "one witness, a handful of survivors." Get it? Because :ssj:
  • Agriglyphs, better known as crop circles, are usually the result of bored English kids.
  • This:

    I'm... not sure whether to be afraid of the falling rats or those horrifying nightmare children.
  • Back in the early 90s, a psychiatrist named John Mack commenced a decade-long study of people who reported alien abduction phenomena. He found that many reported a significant change in spiritual outlook and a general feeling of increased connection with the universe. He likened these changes to those experienced by ancient hunter-gatherers during "vision quests."
  • Likely drawing from a lot of the same inspirational sources as Changeling: The Lost, Aletheia posits that "alien abductions" are just a modern take on much, much older phenomena like faerie abduction or the Biblical tales of prophets taken up by the angels to speak with God.
  • The Society pays news collection agencies to follow reports of UFOs because there are so drat many of them. This usually works out about as well as you'd expect.
  • Just about every near-death experience the Society ever investigated turned up the same "peace and love, white light and dead relatives" reports. Except this one dude, Tom Vargt, who reported experiencing icy cold and intense terror, and conversed with a being of pure darkness. Vargt had no criminal record or history of antisocial behavior, and was in fact a devout churchgoer and frequent giver to charity. Spooooooky.
  • Ghosts are classified as Class A (full manifestation with environmental interaction) to Class M (sensory effects only). This deprives me of the ability to refer to ghosts as a Class 5 Full-Roaming Vapor and is therefore objectively wrong. :colbert:
  • The town of Taos, NM has a hum. Nobody seems to know what it is, and it doesn't seem to do anything, but any Society member who goes to Taos can hear it. Hmmm...

    GimpInBlack posted:

    This door opens onto a massive junkyard outside Taos, New Mexico that seems to have a bit of everything. The owner (whose name is actually Julius) claims that "if it isn't here, it wasn't made." Nobody's proved him wrong yet.

  • With 837 reported cases of psychic surgery, the Society's only witnessed three. Two were obvious hoaxes, the third cured a dude's cancer.
  • Phenomena included but not really interesting enough to pull a comment from: EVP, Automatic Writing[/url, [url=]Missing Time, and Folie ŕ Deux. All offer some variation on "a lot of these cases are easily faked, but some appear to be real!

The chapter concludes with an e-mail response from Terrance Chastain to Judith Seales. It seems he received the shipment that supposedly had all the Society's casefiles, but the boxes were empty! Dun dun DUN! Obviously in her excitement to trip the light fantastic, Judith forgot to actually fill the boxes before mailing them. Psychic vision-questers, amirite? Terrance is also getting a little frustrated at being kept in the dark about all this paranormal stuff and the details of the society's findings, but he "knows his place" in the scheme of things. Come on, 7DS, throw the poor guy an authenticated Patterson-Gimlin Film or something.

Thoughts so far: Not a ton to say here. It's a fine chapter for getting players into the mindset of the particular kinds of Forteana this game is going to feature, and I like that each entry addresses some of the common skeptical explanations for these phenomena and making it clear that yeah, a lot of them are bullshit. It's a nice change from the breathless "but it's all truuuuuuuuuuuuuuue!" you get from a lot of these games. It's a fairly diverse spread, but with three entries explicitly about aliens/UFOs and a few more strongly linked to UFO activity, it's pretty clear who the star players are. Or so we think, at least.

Next time: :catdrugs:

Sep 27, 2012

That's right, kids, take lots of drugs, leave the universe behind, and pilot Enlightenment Voltron out into the cosmos to meet Alien Jesus.

Does anybody else smell blue?

Strap yourselves in, boys and girls, because this train's about to pull into Crazy Town Station. It's time for....

In the penultimate chapter of the book (not counting the sample adventure), we finally learn what the hell is going on. All the weird poo poo going on in Aletheia--the psychic powers, the mysterious fates of Jericho Usher and the previous incarnations of the Seven Dogs Society, the doorways in the Annex, and of course the Usher Codex--are shadows of a much larger truth. That truth is what we're about to discuss. Bieerdo put it best back on page 5 of this thread:

Bieeardo posted:

And speaking of without actually speaking of, god drat does this poo poo get late Seventies Disney, fast.


:siren:Spoilers ahead! Everything past this point is going to spoil the central mystery of Aletheia. I'm not going to spoiler tag stuff because goddamn that would be annoying for all of us, so if you think you might want to play Aletheia and come at it fresh, now would be the time to stop reading this F&F.:siren:

So, let's talk about the universe. Human beings perceive a four-dimensional universe: three physical dimensions, plus time. We tend to think that's all there is to existence, but boy howdy are we wrong. See, our "reality" is just a thin, four dimensional membrans sitting within a much larger, multidimensional space, like the ribbon running through the middle of a marble. This higher-dimensional space is the reality Jericho Usher dubbed the "Otherverse," and it's not empty. Just as our universe exists entirely in a four-dimensional membrane suspended within the Otherverse, other membranes of varying dimensionality float somewhere out there, each another universe. Some of them are very like our own, others are wholly alien.

While we (and everything we perceive as being part of our "reality") are trapped within our own membrane, and the inhabitants of other universes are trapped in their own, a class of beings called "ultraterrestrials" live within the higher dimensions of the Otherverse itself. They can move freely through its substance, and sometimes a part of their manifold existence intersects with the membrane of our universe. Humans are naturally quite unable to understand these intersections, and have variously put them down to visitations from angels, demons, gods, or extraterrestrials.

The mingling of terrestrial and ultraterrestrial has, at various points throughout history, resulted in the creation of hybrid life forms, called the Nephilim. That's right, from advanced high-energy physics we're taking a hard left into Biblical apocrypha. These Nephilim are human, but they're only loosely bound to the four-dimensional universe. If you imagine four balls at the edge of a cliff our entire universe as the surface of the Earth, the Nephilim are like kites: still tethered to the ground, but able to reach into the sky. Given enough time and the proper enlightened thinking, Nephilim can cut their strings and explore the Otherverse freely, leaving behind their human limitations and becoming like unto the ultraterrestrials. This is, of course, the origin of the Seven Dogs Society's members and their powers, and the true meaning of Usher's compiled genealogies: he was tracking Nephilim blood.

We'll take a short break from magic space-people to talk about string theory and the music of the sheres. Briefly, string theory posits that the smallest building blocks of matter, rather than being point-like (i.e. our common conception of atoms), have a finite length and behave like the strings of a violin. That is to say, they have a specific vibrational frequency.

In order for the mathematical models of this theory to make sense, though, the universe has to have more than four dimensions: most models posit ten or eleven. Since we obviously don't experience that many dimensions in our day to day life, two different theories have arisen to explain the apparent inconsistency. Either the extra dimensions are so small as to be effectively imperceptible at our scale (much in the way a sheet of paper is technically a three-dimensional object, but its thickness is so minuscule that we tend to think of it as 2D), or the extra dimensions are inconceivably vast and our 4D universe is a subset of higher-dimensional space. That's the model Aletheia posits.

In this model, in addition to one-dimensional strings making up the basics of matter, the universe contains multi-dimensional surfaces called branes. Strings are classed as either "open" (strings with two distinct endpoints, like a length of thread) or "closed" (a self-contained loop, like a rubber band). Both can vibrate, but the open strings have to be anchored to something--i.e. the four-dimensional membrane of our universe. In other words, they can only move along that comparatively tiny surface, perceiving the universe as we know it as all that exists. Closed strings, on the other hand, are self-contained and thus can move freely throughout the higher-dimensional superstructure of the world.

Ultraterrestrials and their Nephilim offspring, then, are either composed entirely of closed strings or possess the psychic ability to close certain strings in certain ways. That's why, at their core, all the psychic powers are about perceiving or manipulating spacetime in some way.

Still with me? Good. Let's talk about God. Oh yeah, there's a God. Before the Big Bang introduced existence into things, the entire Otherverse was a perfect, perfectly symmetrical, perfectly uniform hypersphere of 11-dimesional... stuff. That hypersphere was also God. Being a hypersphere of 11-dimensional stuff was pretty boring, so God allowed differentiation to break up the symmetry of its form. Branes formed within the Otherverse, and with them came different forms of life, both those bound to the membranes of individual universes and those who could move freely through the whole structure. Then one day God noticed a couple of life forms stuck on one little three-dimensional planet stuck in one little four-dimensional membrane. These life forms were called humans, and God was fascinated by the fact that such limited beings had developed self-awareness. So he made them the Garden of Eden, and he made himself some ultraterrestrials: beings that were like humans, but not limited to traveling along the membrane.

Everything was cool for a while, but the humans, when they saw the ultraterrestrials, started to get worried that they wouldn't be God's favorite little children any more. After all, these guys were like them, but not restricted to four paltry dimensions of existence. They started to demand that the ultraterrestrials teach them to move in higher dimensional space and be like unto God. God's response, on realizing that humans would never grows or evolve as long as they were stuck in their perfect stasis of Eden, was to twist their perception of the fourth dimension: time. From then on, every human being would have no choice but to march endlessly forward in one direction of time. They would age and die, and would perceive the decay and death of everything around them. (Yes, the first time you learn that humanity hadn't been experiencing linear time up till now is when the book tells you God took it away. :shrug:) God then stepped away from the membrane and left the oversight of humanity to a group of ultraterrestrials called the Grigori.

Praise Blorgnax.

Well, freaky alien messiahs or not, I think everybody here knows what happened next. The Grigori got a little too friendly with the humans, ruled over them as god-kings, and commenced to boning. God talked to a human named Enoch, came to understand how much being a human ruled over by 11-dimensional monsters sucked, and created a huge flood to wipe the Grigori cults and the Nephilim out of the universe. Then he snatched up all the Grigori, split open their strings, and tied them to a one-dimensional prison-brane somewhere in the Otherverse. Problem is, it's pretty hard to wipe out beings who can unmoor themselves from time with a single flood, and so the Nephilim were able to use their powers to walk outside time until the floodwaters receded. Being part-human, though, they didn't have an easy time of it. Some of them reappeared just a few weeks after the flood, others trickled back into time years, centuries, even millennia later. Once they figured out that miraculous abilities were more likely to get them stoned to death than worshipped as god-kings, they blended into human society and started passing down their angelic genes. For all their power, Nephilim are still human, so eventually they all grew old and died, and their abilities were scattered across the generations.

Enter Jericho Usher. Remember all those crazy hallucinations and sensations of being on the cusp of something important? Yeah, that was Jericho developing his Nephilim powers. And when he took up drinking ayahuasca tea and vanishing for months at a time? He was exploring the Otherverse and conversing with a spaceman angel named Lam. From Lam he learned two things: that other human/ultraterrestrial hybrids existed in the world, and that Enoch, who was 100% pure homo sapiens, had learned from God how to unmoor himself from the membrane of the universe. Usher concluded that humanity's birthright was free, full-dimensional existence and oneness with God, and that the best people to lead the human race to that destiny would be the descendants of the Nephilim. He wrote the Usher Codex to serve as a road map to enlightenment, built the Annex to prove the multidimensionality of the Otherverse, and left Terrance Chastain the genealogies of those with Nephilim blood. The groundwork laid, Jericho Usher left the world to walk with God.

...Kay then.

So how do people disconnect themselves from the membrane? Turns out you need DMT. N, N-dimethyltryptamine, to use its full name, is produced in small quantities in the human brain by the pineal gland. Certain experiences like meditation, sensory deprivation, and death increase production. It can also be found in various entheogenic drugs, like ayahuasca. DMT closes some of the strings that make up our existence--the normal amounts produced by the pineal gland are just enough to give us self-awareness, a "soul" if you like. Larger doses can partly or wholly unmoor our perception from the membrane. If you're a Nephilim, it also helps you master the weird geometries of the Otherverse and, eventually, physically leave the membrane behind.

Oh yeah, and unbeknownst to modern posychiatric medicine (but knownst to us), all psychiatric problems are caused by DMT imbalances. Too much DMT leads to a soul that's not connected closely enough to the body, which leads to feelings of dissociation and otherness. Too little and the soul is too closely bound to the body; this leads to lack of empathy and psychopathy.

So, what's the Otherverse like? Frankly, it's loving weird, and even Nephilim are still four-dimensional beings at their core, so any attempt to really describe it is going to boil down to metaphors and vision quests. Between the membrane of our universe and the Otherverse proper is the Threshold: a multi-layered buffer that insulates our universe from the rest of creation. The nearest layer is dubbed the Glass Chrysanthemum: it appears as a vast, multilayered crystal dome that shines with light and hums with a music at once familiar and wholly unlike any human music. It blocks progress deeper into the Threshold until you can learn to orient yourself in six-dimensional space, at which point you can pass into the dome and discover the seven cities built on its inner surface. These cities are higher-dimensional reflections of the entirety of human civilization, and as your perspective shifts they might appear as anything from ancient Ur to modern Times Square. The cities are completely empty, but written in glowing, six-dimensional glyphs on their walls are the equations that underlie the entirety of our universe.

And that's just the first layer.

Once you've navigated through all seven cities, you become aware of a seventh direction of travel orthogonal to the Glass Chrysanthemum's six dimensions. Taking this route takes you to the glass shore of a vast, stormy sea, called the Labyrinth. You can walk on the surface of the sea, but no power in the Otherverse lets you dive beneath the surface, because that's the Way Out. Humans, even Nephilim, don't yet have the understanding to pass beyond of their own free will yet. Jericho Usher and the prophet Enoch are the only ones who've managed it. Fortunately, someone anticipated the problem: Standing on the shore of the Labyrinth are six enormous statues that appear to combine Egyptian and Mesoamerican styles, and... you know what, I'm just going to quote this part, because goddamn.

Aletheia posted:

Six stand a silent vigil, though travelers will sense that a seventh was at one time present. These statues can be entered through doors at the base of the legs, if oriented in the proper direction. Inside each colossus are seven rooms, each with a single chair and a set of baroque controls. The fi rst room is spherical, carved from a stone of coral red, with a raised platform to hold the chair and controls, and is located near the lowest point on the torso, at the base of the spine. The next one, further up, resides in the lower belly and is an icosahedral crystal of fi ery orange. Farther along, halfway near the solar plexus of the statue, is a radiant room of bright yellow and shaped as a dodecahedron. Above this, in the center of the chest is the fourth room, an emerald chamber with eight facets, with a dais in the center for controls. The fifth room is a simple cube of bright blue located in the throat of the statue. Centered in the middle of the forehead, forming a triangle with the solemn eyes of the colossus, is a tetrahedral crystal of deep indigo. This room allows the person inside to see through one of the facets to the exterior of the statue, and is the only such area where external observation is possible. The final room sits just beneath the crown of the head, and is another sphere of the richest purple.

Each room sits orthogonal in one direction to every other chamber, meaning the statues themselves are seven-dimensional structures. Although each room appears to be separated from another by vast internal differences, the rooms are actually superimposed on one another in a higher dimension. Traveling the path that runs the center of the statue and connects the rooms requires changing orientation as one moves further up. However, when seven are seated, one to each chamber, they can use the controls to cause the colossus to move. This requires the coordination of all seven pilots, which is simple once they realize the proximity they have in a higher dimension. These colossi were designed to be the vehicles for those humans who managed to penetrate the puzzles of the Threshold. As seven-dimensional structures, the colossi can permeate the fl uid of the maelstrom to descend in its depths – the sea being the surface skin of the Otherverse beyond. The original Seven Dogs Society mastered the secrets of the colossi and took control of the now missing statue. The remaining six sentinels await the coming of another set of seven to leave the membrane and to sail on to the Creator.

That's right, kids, take lots of drugs, leave the Universe behind, and pilot Enlightenment Voltron out into the cosmos to meet Alien Jesus. Where's my :xcom: for Aletheia?

And I'll form the chakra of Sahasrara, within which there is neither subject nor object!

After that particular bit of batshittery, we're going to bring it back down to earth a little. The next section revisits the anomalous phenomena from Chapter Six, this time with explanations for how they fit into the multi-dimensional reality of Aletheia. When they're legit, that is--the book flat out tells us that sometimes a UFO really is just swamp gas reflecting the light from Venus, and just because the Society investigates something weird doesn't mean it has to be paranormal. Highlight reel:

  • Agriglyphs are usually fakes, but sometimes they're the result of a higher-dimensional being or object either passing through our membrane or temporarily attaching itself to our universe.
  • Alien abduction, unsurprisingly, is typically ultraterrestrial contact. A lot of them, like Lam, are trying to help humanity achieve its destiny, but since understanding of the true nature of reality has to happen gradually, these abductions are gentle prods rather than expository infodumps. Humans tend to perceive this as bizarre medical experiments.
  • Automatic writing can be a weaker expression of DMT-induced higher-dimensional perception. Most of the time, though, it's just subconscious expression.
  • EVP is sometimes direct communication with ultraterrestrial beings. Other times it's related to "ghosts," which are really just the effects of massive DMT production at the moment of brain death. This extra DMT lets bits of the human consciousness become unstuck in time, radiating outward from the moment of death.
  • Folie a Deux can usually be blamed on Nephilim or on higher-dimensional perception.
  • The Hum is actually the multidimensional oscillations created when the first Seven Dogs Society left the universe behind. The "sound" rippled outward in time and space, and places like Taos are pockets in our four-dimensional geometry that amplify the vibration.
  • Psychic surgery is usually bullshit, but people with Ghosting can do the real thing.
  • Spontaneous combustion is often a messier example of the same phenomena that cause agriglyphs. Ditto some UFO sightings (but most of those are hoaxes or misattributions--ultraterrestrials don't need UFOs).
  • Remember the explanation for the Hum? That's pretty much what Vile Vortices are--places that naturally amplify higher-dimensional energy.
  • Virgin births are... well, thankfully most of them are hoaxes or mythology, but some ultraterrestrials are worried that the descendants of the Grigori are too tightly bound to the membrane thanks to generations of human DNA. So sometimes they take it on themselves to use Ghosting to impregnate women and make true Nephilim, who are much, much more powerful than those whose ultraterrestrial heritage is hundreds of generations back. It's sort of implied that Usher was one of these kids.

Next up we get some secrets behind the Annex and its destination. Usher built the Annex with Lam's help, primarily as a big neon "explain this, motherfucker" sign to help recruit skeptical members to the 7DS. The sites weren't chosen at random, of course: Lubaantun, for instance, was one of the sites Usher regularly pillaged to fund his operations. When you can see in 11 dimensions, it's real easy to find hidden tombs and treasure caches. Oh, and the crystal skull? It's an ultraterrestrial artifact that lets a Nephilim look directly onto the Labyrinth.

At Roanoake, the Croatoan Indians were mostly Nephilim. When the English colonists attacked these "Devil-worshipping witches," the Croatoan responded by snatching them out of the membrane and leaving them stranded in the Threshold, whereupon they went batshit crazy and mostly committed suicide. Some of them are still out there, though.

Julio's Junkyard is only significant because of the Taos Hum and its associated Vile Vortex. The junkyard owner is definitely not God.

One of the scrolls found at Qumran tells the history of how the Nephilim avoided the flood by stepping outside time, and goes on to talk about their integration into human society and their descendants. The scroll itself is believed to be stored in a secret annex under the Israel Museum.

Tunguska was the site of an escape attempt by the Grigori. They managed to create a link between their one-dimensional universe and ours, but it wasn't stable and sealed itself off quickly.

Hannah's Diner just happens to be pretty close to the site of the Sutton farm, site of the Kelly-Hopkinsville encounter in 1955.

Chambira, meanwhile, is just a convenient place to gather ayahuasca to fuel some righteous vision quests.

Next up is a quick piece on the Usher Codex. Nothing too bonkers here, you've probably figured most of it out by now: it's Usher's chronicle of how to attain enlightenment and leave the universe behind. It's all obfuscated and encoded because too much understanding too fast drives people bonkers. In fact, the mysterious fire that destroyed most of the Codex back in the 70s was caused by Lam, because the Society was figuring poo poo out faster than their minds would have been able to take. He also put the "lost" fifth page in the Bibliotheque National when they were ready to understand it.

Finally, we wrap up the chapter with a few supporting characters. First up is Sebastian de Villiers, a Nephilim-descendant who believes the Voice of God is telling him to hunt down other "demon spawn" and purge them from the earth. He's actually in psychic contact with the imprisoned Grigori, who think if the Nephilim are wiped out maybe they'll be forgiven and set free. Sebastian is obviously meant to be the setting's big bad--he's ruthless and insane and has a cadre of henchmen he's mentally broken by repeatedly rotating them through higher-dimensional space. Not only does the process drive them mad, it causes their bodies to become "mirrored." Open one up and his heart's on the left, for instance. Creepy. Sebastian has three new powers: Pierce the Veil, which lets him see extradimensional objects/creatures/energies, Sever The Cord of Reality, which lets him temporarily eject people into the Otherverse, and Orthogonal Rotation, which lets him rotate people on a higher dimensional axis and generally gently caress them up.

Ursula Thorndike owns Thorndike Enterprises, a big multinational conglomerate. In her mid-30s, she's one of the youngest multi-billionaires on the planet thanks to her Nephilim-derived precognition. Lately she's been having weird dreams about Mt. McKinley, the Colossus of Rhodes, and a bunch of people she's never met. She's thinking it might be time for an Alaskan cruise.

Raymond Halston III is the editor of Unified Field Operations magazine, a UFO/Forteana periodical. He used to be a legit paranormal investigator, but he got fed up with all the cranks and hoaxes and started the magazine instead. Unfortunately, as submissions have dried up he's been forced to resort to fabricating sensationalist stories just to keep the magazine operating.

Beverly Saunders is an alien abductee. Taken from her home in Arizona, she was missing for days before returning with no memory of her lost time. Her marriage fell apart under accusations of cheating and mutual resentment, and after a mental breakdown and a stay in a treatment center she remembered her ultraterrestrial encounter and the experiments that were done on her. Beverly, you see, is part of the ultraterrestrial plan to create a new strain of humanity that's better equipped to leave this universe behind than the Nephilim. Unfortunately, in Beverly's case the process inflicted not-inconsiderable psychological trauma. In addition to deja visite, remote viewing, and ghosting, Bev has a new power: Projected vision, which lets her impose her own clairsentient visions on other people.

Terrance Chastain and the staff at Hepta Sophistai get a brief writeup, which I'm going to quote from:

Aletheia posted:

Though ignorant of the details of any particular investigation, the staff is fully aware of the society’s purpose, to investigate odd anomalies; they simply do not comprehend the magnitude of the society’s work. In general, the hired help views the society as a collection of eclectics indulging Chastain’s fanciful interests. That said, the staff is dedicated to serving the Seven Dogs Society and count them as friends.

Although the staff is aware of the disappearances of the previous societies, Terrance has never spoken of their fates, always brushing aside such questions. This has created considerable speculation and rumor mongering among the staff. Adding to the gossip is the western annex. The staff is forbidden from entering that section of the house, and the door leading to the annex hallway is always locked; only Terrance and the society members have keys. Over the years, this and other curiosities have prompted inquiries from the staff, though none have ever successfully pried any answers from Terrance or the society. Those of lengthy tenure no longer even bother to ask questions.

Oh God I want to run this campaign. It's like Downton Abbey except Maggie Smith is tripping balls on peyote and babbling about seventh-dimensional omni-minds and sometimes Lady Mary turns people inside out for fun.

Madam takes her salvia promptly at nine.

Finally, a brief note on Societies Past doesn't really tell us anything new except to explicitly state that Sebastian de Villiers murdered the second incarnation of the Society.

And that's it for this chapter. drat, I'm glad to have all that out there. I've got to say, for all that it's pants-on-head crazy in places, the mythology is pretty self-consistent and well-suited to gradually peeling back the layers of the mystery. The example characters aren't the most inspiring, and the later sections of the chapter tend to over-repeat certain things (I think this chapter marks about the fourth time we're reminded that Chastain is old, in poor health, and haunted by the murder of the second Society), but overall it's probably the chapter that most makes me want to run this game.

Next time: Game Mastering, or, "How to take this insanity and turn it into a story."

Sep 27, 2012

That's right, kids, take lots of drugs, leave the universe behind, and pilot Enlightenment Voltron out into the cosmos to meet Alien Jesus.

AmiYumi posted:

Went back and edited the cover to Fairy Meat into my first post on the game, because why didn't I do that in the first place. I'll make a rules post later today, but instead of using the examples in the book, how about a little audience participation? Give me a couple of names and general ideas (along the lines of "Sparklepuff is the leader and likes to wrestle", "Jiggletwink is pretty and likes magic", or "Razzlewing is creepy and talks to spiders" - feel free to use the Fairy Name Generator for ideas) and I'll use those instead!

Perkykiss is tired. So goddamn tired. She just wants this damned war to end, to let the agonized screams be swallowed up by cool, balming night, to--

Ooh! Dibs on his duodenum!

Hello, friend. Can you spare a moment to talk about St. Blorgnax?

Okay, the last couple of chapters are pretty long, but a lot of it is pretty typical GM advice and a sample adventure that probably doesn't warrant a really in-depth overview, so let's see if we can make good on that promise from way back in the first post and knock both out in one update before moving on to something more mechanically interesting.

Chapter Eight starts off with a basic overview of the dual roles of the GM, as both storyteller and referee. A small sidebar reminds us that, since the Society always has seven members and you probably don't have that many players in your group, you'll probably have some NPC society members. These NPCs should always fall into a supporting role: researchers/scientists who stay in the lab/library, medics to patch up the PCs, stuff like that. They should never overshadow PCs' abilities.

Next up we dive into the anatomy of an investigation, and how to plan one out in five basic steps. A running example takes us through the construction of a ghost story adventure, starting with the basic idea ("hey, I'm gonna do a ghost story adventure!"), brainstorming the story and individual scenes, figuring out how all the scenes link together, and finally figuring out what the end point is, and what constitutes a successful investigation. Special attention is paid to making sure you have a solid, memorable hook for the beginning and the end of the adventure, which seems mostly like an excuse to title a section "The Alpha and the Omega."

There's a chunk of text about the difference between story and plot, complete with the obligatory "describe the same scene two different ways to illustrate tone" example, and a whole bunch of suggested story types. Pretty standard stuff, but special attention deserves to be given to the section on "Researching the Usher Codex." This, I think, is where the book blew most of its art budget, because we get five full-color pages from the Usher Codex for handing out to players. I'm just going to let these speak for themselves, because they're gorgeous. If you want a higher-resolution version, you can download all five pages as a pdf from the official website here.

I love these. They're very Leonardo da Vinci/Voynich manuscript, and the symbolism is actually decipherable once you have a decent idea of what's really going on. In fact, you know what?

:siren:It's contest time!:siren:

First person to figure out the hidden meaning behind all the text and images on a page of the Usher Codex gets a pdf copy of Aletheia, delivered via DrivethruRPG. If you already have it, I'll buy you one of Abstract Nova's other weird-as-hell RPGs. Stick to one page per entry, and no duplicating pages--if a previous entrant gives up on completing a page, someone else can claim it. If it looks like fewer than five people are going to enter, I'll let people try for multiple pages. Good luck!

Okay, back to the writeup. Remember how Chapter Five assured us that the Gamemastering chapter would have rules for researching the Usher Codex?

Aletheia posted:

It is up to the Gamemaster to set target numbers for identifying the references on the manuscript pages. For example, the quotes by Einstein would have a TN of 1, while other more cryptic references would have higher target numbers.


Anyways, the next section is about how to structure an Aletheia campaign, and it's really good advice for how to structure out a story that follows an unfolding mystery. An Aletheia campaign is broken up into seven epiphanies, with each individual story leading gradually to the next epiphany.

The first epiphany is There exists another realm, distinct from normal reality. This is usually the easiest epiphany, and probably happens within the first story of the campaign, if not as part of the backstory. Increased understanding of this truth leads to the second epiphany: All the mysteries of the world are interactions with this unseen reality. Here is where the characters start to realize they aren't just investigating random paranormal phenomena, but that everything's connected. This is usually the first major twist in the campaign, coming after investigating a few seemingly-disparate cases and discovering more about the nature of the PCs' superhuman abilities.

Questioning the connection between their powers and the Otherverse leads characters to the third epiphany: Those individuals in the world who can access the Otherverse share a bond of blood and lineage. Not only are your powers connected to the Otherverse and its influences, they're connected to your heritage and (eventual) common ancestry. Stories during the third epiphany stage focus on investigating Usher's genealogies, meeting and dealing with other powered characters. Eventually, these genealogical investigations lead to the fourth epiphany: Those who can most freely access the Otherverse are those who trace their lineage to the Grigori, a race of creatures from the Otherverse sent to watch humanity. This is where you drop the alien Jesus twist. It's not as simple as just following the genealogies back: Usher's records are thorough, but not "antediluvian" thorough. This epiphany involves deep-diving into history, religious apocrypha, and direct contact with ultraterrestrials to begin to grasp the nature of reality.

Comprehending the closed/open string dichotomy and the higher dimensionality of the universe leads to the fifth epiphany: The Annex is a permanent construction that spans more than four-dimensional reality. Because of the bridges it has built through the Otherverse, it stands as proof to humanity of the higher dimensional nature of reality. By this point, the characters are more focused on the history and the true purpose of the Society itself than cataloguing external phenomena: Researching the Usher Codex (and possibly finding more pages), investigating the fates of the first two incarnations of the Society, and delving deeper into the Threshold are all good story beats to seed in here. Ultimately, this inward-looking focus reveals the sixth epiphany: By learning to tread through the Otherverse, humanity can begin to walk with God. The first incarnation learned this and its members were able to transcend the passage to the godhead. This is where things start to get interesting, as the ultraterrestrials start throwing up roadblocks lest you uncover the truth too quickly, agents of the Grigori start taking a more active interest in you, and trips into the Threshold become longer and more enlightening.

Questioning why, if this is humanity's birthright, most of the species is still stuck on the membrane leads to the seventh and final epiphany: The mission of the society is to guide humanity into an understanding of the deeper nature of reality, and assist humanity in learning to walk with God. This is where the campaign approaches its endgame, and eventually the Society will take one of the Colossi out into the Otherverse to become one with God. But wait--there are only seven Colossi, with seven pilots each, and they're the only way to descend the Labyrinth and leave the Threshold. Does that mean only a grand total of 49 people can ever achieve humanity's birthright? Not exactly. The Colossi are a means, not the end. To truly enlighten humanity and free us from the membrane, we must decipher and come to understand the seven equations that form the underpinnings of our universe. (These equations, you'll recall, are written on the walls of the six-dimensional cities of the Glass Chrysanthemum.) Each equation can only be solved within the godhead of the Otherverse, by seven minds working in concert. The first incarnation of the Society is working on one of the equations: the end of the game involves the PCs going off to decipher the second. Eventually, five more groups of seven will find their way out of the Labyrinth and will ultimately return to earth as divine teachers; though it will take generations, mankind will come to understand the true nature of reality and evolve into hyperdimensional beings, at one with the cosmos.

Wait, hang on a second....

Aletheia Chapter 1 posted:

The player characters are among the seven new recruits. In all likelihood, this is the last formation of the Seven Dogs Society. Chastain is too old and establishing the society yet again would be exceedingly difficult for him.


Any way you slice it, the moment when the Society climbs into a Colossus and descends the Labyrinth is the end of the game.

We also get a short discussion on alternative ways to structure a campaign, including a model that replaces the seven epiphanies with the ten sephiroth of Kabbalistic thought and the possibility of handing the players printouts of the Usher Codex and a bunch of Weekly World News headlines and letting them decide what to do with the game--a sandbox of the weird, if you will.

Finally, we round off with some advanced powers. These can be bought with XP as characters become more aware of the Otherverse and their place within it. Several are just reprints of the new powers possessed by some of the NPCs from the last chapter, but new ones include:
  • Orientation: Helps you orient and adjust your perspective in higher-dimensional space. Basically required for effective use of your (limited) time when tripping out on ayahuasca and travelling the Threshold.
  • Combust: By forcing hyper-dimensional objects to intersect with the membrane at a specified point in spacetime, you can release a tremendous amount of energy in the form of heat. Pyrokinesis, yeah!
  • Hyper-dimensional bridge: Basically wormhole creation. It's a teleportation bridge kind of like the Annex portals, but this power always makes two-way bridges. Only ultraterrestrials can make one-way bridges.

And that's it! A quick listing of XP costs for character advancement and some suggested reading rounds out the last page, and we are done with Aletheia!

Now lose yourself in the loving embrace of Blorgnax, your Lord and Savior.

Okay, not quite done. We have a very short sample adventure to wrap everything up, but those things are never particularly fun to read about so I'm going to give it a very, very brief overview.

It seems there's been a rash of reported UFO abductions at Kansas State University. One of the PCs has a cousin going to school there whose roommate purports to be one of the victims; she's the one who asks the Society to come investigate. Once they get there (the adventure text mentions a long, uncomfortable charter flight from Anchorage to Kansas City despite Hannah's Diner being just 600 miles and a short flight from the college), they can interview a bunch of students who claim to have been abducted. The stories are all pretty much what you'd expect: missing time, bright lights, strange beings performing bizarre, invasive medical experiments, etc. Thankfully, beyond mentioning that a couple of the female victims insisted on pregnancy tests after their experiences (which came back negative), the adventure doesn't play up the creepy similarities to being roofied and assaulted.

Anyway, investigation leads to the realization that most of the abductions happened around the Old Kensington, a bar/music venue near campus. Deeper investigation reveals that a lot of the "abductions" happened in front of witnesses, who reported that the victims just seemed to zone out for a few seconds or minutes. This despite the fact that abductees report experiences lasting hours or days. Hmmm...

The whole thing wraps up rather abruptly: Turns out one of the waitresses at the Ole K is Bevery Saunders, the abductee with the Shared Vision powers from Chapter Seven. In times of stress her power activates uncontrollably, and what's actually happening is the "abductees" are reliving her memories of the abduction. It's a decently cool twist, and with more than 10 pages to build it up it could have been pretty cool.

Final Thoughts: And that's it for Aletheia. Despite my poking fun at some of its more out-there concepts, I still really like the game. It could have used a bit more editing for clarity in places, and the mechanics have a couple of less-than-elegant parts, but the secret history is pretty cool and the advice on structuring a campaign is some of the best GMing advice I've seen for this type of game. If you've got a group that likes fringe science and New Age philosophy, you could do a lot worse than a campaign of Aletheia. I do feel like, despite its claims in the introduction, this is a game that's not well-served by a one-shot. All of its really cool ideas require digging into the setting pretty deeply, it doesn't have a particularly strong selection of antagonists to hook into immediately, and honestly plenty of other games do paranormal investigation as well or better. This is definitely a game that benefits from the slow burn.

Right, then. What game should I do next? Aletheia was really interesting setting-wise but pretty bland mechanically, so I want to do something with a bit more mechanical pizazz. Currently I'm debating between:

Hollowpoint, the game of bad people doing bad things for bad reasons. Think The Expendables or comics like 100 Bullets or The Losers.

TechNoir, hard-boiled detective fiction in a dystopian near-future. If Dashiell Hammett wrote Cyberpunk 2020 games, it might look a lot like this.

Amaranthine, a game about serially reincarnating immortals and the bastards that love them. Best described as "like Highlander, but good."

GimpInBlack fucked around with this message at 23:16 on Jan 26, 2014

Sep 27, 2012

That's right, kids, take lots of drugs, leave the universe behind, and pilot Enlightenment Voltron out into the cosmos to meet Alien Jesus.

Tasoth posted:

I'd take a crack at those pages because PUZZLES!!! but I'm not interested in a copy of Alethia.

Fair enough. Figure one out and I'll surprise you. :)

hectorgrey posted:

The first highlander movie was awesome. Pity the others sucked. The series wasn't too bad, at least until they started going into magic and other such stuff.

So colour me interested in Aramanthine.

If you weren't a fan of the magic and stuff, you might not be too fond of Amaranthine. It's definitely not your magic realism type of setting with only one supernatural conceit. I'd say it has a bit of a self-aware oWoD vibe to it, in that there's magic and secrecy aplenty in the shadows, but without the pretension that characterized a lot of the early White Wolf stuff.

GimpInBlack fucked around with this message at 21:06 on Jan 26, 2014

Sep 27, 2012

That's right, kids, take lots of drugs, leave the universe behind, and pilot Enlightenment Voltron out into the cosmos to meet Alien Jesus.

Tasoth posted:

Page four has to deal with the world past the ocean which shores has the psychogundams on it. It also has to deal with the rotation through whatever layer that is that mirrors you, as well as being able to displace oneself from space-time and the ability to travel across the world once one passes through the lakes surface. So, I'm guessing that making it beneath the waves lets you time travel, warp through space and that Lam may have been Jesus.

You really don't have to get me anything, I have a backlog of games to read. I just really like puzzles.

I assume you mean page three since you talked about the mirroring rotation and that's pretty prominent imagery on page 3. You've got most of the gist of it, but on all five pages each image and piece of text is a specific reference to something. Some are pieces of the game's fiction, some are drawn from real science, religion, or philosophy.

Midjack posted:

3 and 5 appear to be the same page.

EDIT: They don't all appear to be loading in this post but check the original post.

drat, I have no idea how that happened. Should be fixed now--page 5 has the picture of a kangaroo on it. EDIT: Oh, I see now. For some reason page 3 got uploaded to imgur twice and I grabbed the duplicate as the last image in the sequence instead of page 5. Weird.

Sep 27, 2012

That's right, kids, take lots of drugs, leave the universe behind, and pilot Enlightenment Voltron out into the cosmos to meet Alien Jesus.

dwarf74 posted:

You just totally gave me flashbacks to my family's collection of copied VHS movies from when I was growing up. All of a sudden I was sitting here and I was 8 years old.

You know what, I've been trying to figure out why I like Aletheia as much as I do, and goddammit this is it. I had all those movies on VHS as a kid, and The Black Hole especially scared the poo poo out of me.

Sep 27, 2012

That's right, kids, take lots of drugs, leave the universe behind, and pilot Enlightenment Voltron out into the cosmos to meet Alien Jesus.

Kai Tave posted:

Flip a coin between TechNoir and Hollowpoint, I'd be interested in hearing about either of them (or both).

You guys aren't making it very easy to break the Hollowpoint/TechNoir tie. :colbert:

All right, coin flipped, TechNoir is coming next. First post probably later this evening. I'll tackle Hollowpoint after. Both should be fairly short F&Fs.

Sep 27, 2012

That's right, kids, take lots of drugs, leave the universe behind, and pilot Enlightenment Voltron out into the cosmos to meet Alien Jesus.

By the way, looking at the TechNoir book, it looks like the first post of my review will cover character creation. So if anybody has a concept for a hard-boiled cyberpunk private eye or an avenging street samurai wandering the Sprawl with her deadly Hanzo steel, go ahead and post it now and I'll do up some example characters. Pics would be even better--TechNoir is even lighter on artwork than Aletheia was.

EDIT: Whoever got me the avatar and custom title, you rock.

Sep 27, 2012

That's right, kids, take lots of drugs, leave the universe behind, and pilot Enlightenment Voltron out into the cosmos to meet Alien Jesus.

Well, I've got the Tron: Legacy soundtrack queued up on Spotify, a plate of horrifyingly post-industrial processed cheese-like food substance, and a Canadian beer (the "Japanese corps rule the world" meme is so passe), so I guess it's time to talk about...

Playing it safe isn’t working anymore; you’re not going to get out of this clean. You have illicit tech and the talent to use it. Time to go shake the city and see what falls out. You’ll get hurt, sure, but what kind of pain will you deal out?

TechNoir is a high-tech, hard-boiled RPG designed and written by Jeremy Keller. The project was successfully Kickstarted in July 2011 with a respectable $24,255 pledged on an initial $2,500 goal. The extra money was supposed to unlock three stretch goals: MechNoir, adding rules for giant robots, HexNoir, adding rules for a Shadowrun-style "cyberpunk with magic" game, and MoreNoir, a toolkit guide to creating your own expansions in the vein of MechNoir and HexNoir. Unfortunately, while MechNoir was finally released in August 2012, HexNoir and MoreNoir never materialized, with the last update from the author back in June of last year, assuring us that work on HexNoir hadn't been abandoned, but :shrug:

However! We're not going to let that deter us from enjoying the hell out of a really very good game. We'll be covering the entire corebook, plus MechNoir and the bonus Transmissions (more on those later) released as part of the Kickstarter campaign.

The first thing I want to point out, before we start getting into any specifics, is that goddamn this book is gorgeous. Keller is a graphic artist and layout designer by trade--TradGames goons might know his layout work from Marvel Heroic Roleplaying--and it really shows in how cleanly the book is laid out. Every page is self-contained, all the rules interactions are well-diagrammed, and whenever it starts explaining game mechanics, each rule is presented on the left-hand page with examples of the rule in use on the facing page. This makes it really easy to quickly find any reference you might need during play, and unless you need reminding about, say, the entire action-resolution system, it means you won't have to flip for three or four pages to find the one relevant section under a sprawling subheader. It's just excellent visual design, and anybody thinking about publishing a game book would do well to check out TechNoir. (Spoiler alert: I'm going to gush similarly about layout when we get to Hollowpoint later on.)

The downside of this clean layout is that the book has very little art. Discounting diagrams of gameplay actions, the only art in TechNoir is the full-page chapter headers (which are very slick bits of urban photography processed and retouched to have a futuristic, augmented-reality look; I'll post a few of my favorites as we go), a couple of smaller cityscape images, and some simple orthographic line-art of various bits of equipment. Still, that's hardly a game-breaker, and in fact I'd say it makes a lot of sense given some of the game's design philosophies. So let's get started.

[] SPECS operating system v4.033.975 intiating.
[] Visual recognizers on-line.
[] Logging in to nearest link-point.
[] Constructing identity avatar.
[] Initiating overlay render.
[] Logging in to your bankco account.
[] Your account balance is 0.00325 Kreds.
[] Negotiating derma-link protocols.
[] Overlay render complete.
[] Welcome to the Interface...
Chapter One is simply titled "Exposition." I'm just going to quote the whole thing, because it's three paragraphs long:

TechNoir posted:

The city streets buzz with illusory neon lines, animated, playing out just over the grimy surface. The Internet’s gotten too big for any screen, so they feed it right to your eyeballs. You see it everywhere. It spills out onto the streets. It guides self-driving cars through automated intersections. It’s the cartoon some kid wears to school. It’s your personal shopper. We wear the hardware that runs it: in the glasses that let you see it, the chip sewn into your jeans, the electronics of your prosthetic leg. They’re all linked together in a living, thrumming network that spans the world. They call it the Interface. We call it the Big Lie.

Under all those pretty graphics, the city is dirtier than ever. Soot floats in from the deregulated coal plant; it cakes over everything. The weather is less predictable than ever. Wind and rain, then a drought, then a blizzard, then a hurricane. Hell is swelling up around us and we don’t seem to care. We’ll burn those carbon fuels as long as the corporate-sponsored wars keep winning what’s left of them. We’ll do it until we choke on the smog.

The rich are opulent. The poor are decrepit. There isn’t much left between. Record numbers of the city’s population are unemployed. When robotics do the blue-collar jobs and software handles the white-collar ones, what’s a flesh body to do? Join a corporate army and get shipped off overseas. Send the paycheck home so the family can buy useless, corporate crap or lose it to the rampant runs of criminals.

Criminals like you.

And that's the entirety of what we get as far as world-building or "setting info." The various Transmissions, which we'll talk about a little later on but are basically prepackaged settings and plot-development tools, put their own twists on these three core aspects of the setting, but other than that it's left entirely up to the table to define. Not only does this significantly reduce the required buy-in from everybody involved, it really lets you make a dystopian future that hits on all the things that make you uneasy. In the Acknowledgements at the end of the book, Keller talks about how his vision of the setting is "how horrible it could be if the political philosophies I disagree with strengthened their grip on society," which really is the hallmark of good, dystopian sci-fi. If your table is more freaked out by, say, the omnipresence of government surveillance than the global influence of megacorporations, you can play up that sense of paranoia and always being watched. If censorship and the suppression of journalism is your outrage, well, we have always been at war with EastAsia.

That's also why I'm not too bothered by the relative paucity of art in the book. Rather than forcing a "futuristic" aesthetic on us that will be dated as hell in a couple of years, TechNoir gives us some glimpses of the cities and the Interface, but leaves the day-to-day to our own aesthetics.

I love the idea that AR displays are so ubiquitous that even the crime scene tape is part of your Google Glass display.

So, to begin with, you'll need dice. Just regular six-sided dice, but you'll need them in three colors; about five per color per player should do. The book assumes you'll be using white, black, and red, and we'll stick with that convention for the writeup. Character sheets, Transmissions, and a Player's Guide that includes a summary of the player-centric rules, are obviously also helpful and can be found at You'll also need a blank piece of paper for your plot map, which we'll be digging into later. I recommend either a tablet with some sort of flowchart-making app, or if you're rolling old-school at least a legal-size sheet of paper. Unless your handwriting is really tiny, that is.

The entire book is written as though the game is talking to the GM--when the book says "you do X" or "you choose Y," it's always referring to the GM. As GM, it's your job to portray a cruel, uncaring world of powerful criminal syndicates, greedy megacorporations, and hopelessly corrupt governments, but populate it with NPCs who care about something, who have their own agendas and agency. Your job is also to beat the ever-loving gently caress out of your players. In the grand tradition of hard-boiled fiction, the protagonists aren't going to solve their ex-partner's murder and expose Senator Benslimane's connection to the DRMDMA cartel without being dragged into a back room and worked over with a tire iron. PCs are built to take punishment, so don't be afraid to dish it out. You're not their enemy, but it is your job to challenge them. Put NPCs in opposition to their goals, throw obstacles in their path--but then sit back and enjoy seeing how they overcome those obstacles and see where the story goes from there.

Characters in TechNoir are defined by four different types of traits: Verbs are your basic skills, the way you interact with the world. Everybody has the same 9 verbs, and they're rated from 1 to 5. These are what you'll be rolling when you try to do stuff. The verbs are Coax, Detect, Fight, Hack, Move,
Operate, Prowl, Shoot
, and Treat

Adjectives describe the character and tell you how she's unique. Maybe she's fast or brawny or goddamn terrifying. Adjectives aren't rated like Verbs; you either have one or you don't. They can, however, be positive or negative, and have various degrees of permanency. If Verbs are the engine that drives gameplay, adjectives are the work that engine puts out. Creating, manipulating, and removing adjectives is the entirety of the game system--and yes, dead counts as an adjective.

Objects are a character's stuff. TechNoir doesn't care about inventory-related minutia, but come on, it's the future. Everybody likes at least a little bit of high-tech stuff. Objects have one or more tags, which are kind of like adjectives in that they describe what the object can do and help you out on actions.

Finally, Connections are the characters, both PC and NPC, that a protagonist knows and can lean on for information and favors. Only PCs have connections, and they can be a game-changer--but rely on a contact too much and you might find out he sold you up the river a long time ago.

Technically, PCs have a fifth type of stat, training programs, but they're really just an artifact of character creation and all they really do is help you determine the character's verbs and adjectives.

Three illegal parking citations in under an hour? This is a bad neighborhood!

Hey now, what's this? do we actually get an overview of the game rules before we're thrown headlong into character creation? We do! Like we already learned, TechNoir uses three colors of dice: white dice are action dice. They represent training and innate skill--when you try to do something, you'll roll a number of action dice equal to your rating in the relevant verb: Coax to fast-talk somebody, Hack to infiltrate their network, etc.

Black dice are push dice. They represent extra effort or a technological edge. You've only got a limited pool of these, but you can add one to your roll for every relevant adjective, object, or tag you've got. After the roll, you can spend them to make the action more effective. Much like Fate Points in Fate games, push dice are the main driver of the economy of TechNoir, and we'll cover what a great system this is in a later post.

Red dice are hurt dice. They represent injuries, inconveniences, and all the other little distractions that make you less effective. For every negative adjective that might hinder your action, you add a hurt die to your roll.

Once you've got all your dice assembled, you roll them. First things first, look at your hurt dice. If any of them are showing the same number as any of your action or push dice, those dice go away. Gather up all your hurt dice, plus any matching action or push dice, and put them aside. Now look at your highest-showing die remaining: that's your action's result. If you have more than one die tied for highest, add ".1" to your result. So, for example, a single 5 gives you a result of 5, three 6s gives you 6.1. If your result is higher than your target's rating in the relevant verb, congratulations! You can put a new adjective, either positive or negative, on the target. If you have any push dice, you can spend them now to make that adjective more severe and/or stick around longer.

Obviously that's a very bare overview of the rules, and we'll get into more detail later, but I really like this system. By setting the difficulty as one of the target's verbs, it really reinforces one of the game's core tenets: you're acting against people, not the world. You don't roll to hack the corrupt senator's office computer, you roll to put all his dirty laundry out there on the net and make him scandalized. You don't roll to spot the spent shell casing at the murder scene, you roll when you show it to the Senator's wife to make her implicated. Also, having the extra dice upgrade your result from X to X.1 is just a lovely little sci-fi touch. :3:

I've already talked a little bit about Transmissions, but the game gives them a little more detail here. A Transmission is basically a bite-size chunk of setting and potential plot, each centered on a particular city. A Transmission has 36 "plot nodes" that can be used to drive a story, divided up into six categories: connections (NPCs who are "plugged in" to what's going on, they'll be the PCs' primary avenues of investigation), events, factions, locations, objects, and threats. As GM, you'll use these nodes to build your plot map and figure out what the hell is actually going on. Transmissions are designed to give you about 2-3 sessions worth of story apiece, and you can chain them together if, say, you want the mystery of who tried to blow up the Kilimanjaro Beanstalk to stretch all the way to Minneapolis. TechNoir includes three Transmissions in the book: the Los Angeles Sprawl (pretty much your standard Blade Runner/Snowcrash cyberpunk archetype), Singapore Sling (Singapore has built a huge rail gun to launch cargo into orbit; crime and corruption abounds), and the Kilimanjaro Ring (a city built around the circumference of Mt. Kilimanjaro and the site of a much-delayed and overbudget space elevator construction project). Also released as part of the Kickstarter campaign were Hong Kong (now so polluted that most of the populace lives underground; only the very rich with very expensive cyberorgans can spend more than a few minutes outside without protection) and the Twin Cities Metroplex (bleeding-edge cybertech with a dash of Coen Brothers-esque Midwestern crime). They're all cool, though I kind of wish either Singapore Sling or the Kilimanjaro Ring had been replaced by something else in the core book, as they hit some pretty similar notes.

The phrase "high-tech, hard-boiled RPG" is TechNoir's tagline, so we naturally close out Chapter Two with some discussion of what that means. The protagonists of hard-boiled fiction are active investigators: they have a finely-honed network of stoolies, snitches, and rat-bastard motherfuckers. Lean on the right people and they'll tell you everything you need to know. When a hard-boiled protagonist finds a mysterious shell casing at a murder scene, he doesn't take it to the ballistics lab and try to find a match in the NCIC database, he dangles a scumbag out the window until the rat spills that Johnny the Shiv carries a gun in that caliber. Then he goes and kicks in Johnny the Shiv's front door, because intimidating people makes them nervous, and nervous people slip up. Invisible cat-burglars and hackers so good they're ghosts in the machine are not good protagonists in this game: if nobody knows you're snooping around, nobody knows to panic and send a couple of meatheaded palookas around to your coffin apartment and teach you the error of your ways. And if no meatheaded palookas drop by to rough you up, you're never gonna find the matchbook in the dumb one's pocket that ties the whole case together. You've got to think laterally--the kind of poo poo you're up against you don't have a hope of taking down in a straight-up fight. You've got to come at them sideways, go for the joints and the nerve clusters, fight dirty and outwit the bastards. And for God's sake, when you find yourself between a rock and a hard place, have the good sense to play them against each other.

Of course, all that owes a great deal of debt to the classics of hard-boiled fiction: Your Chandler and Hammett. Their detectives were proactive because they had to be--DNA testing wasn't a thing yet, ballistic fingerprinting, while possible, didn't have the benefit of national databases, stuff like that. TechNoir protagonists have a lot more tools at their disposal, but you've got to take care not to let the tools become the story. Sci-fi doodads let our protagonists ply the techniques of hard-boiled fiction faster and along new vectors, but they're still the same techniques. Maybe instead of dangling the rat out a window you call him up on the Interface and tell him you're one click away from forwarding those photos on to Boss Meoki--you know, those ones of him and the boss's husband? Either way, you're leaning on a stoolie to get the info you need.

Tech is also very open-ended; it's largely up to you to interpret and extrapolate what tags mean and what objects can do. Like, a lot of cars have spheels. What's that? All the book tells you is it means the car has spherical wheels. So does that mean cars can drive in any direction? Yeah, probably. How are the spheels attached to the car? Are they maybe held in place but allowed to rotate freely by an electromagnetic field? Sounds plausible. So I can hack the car's on-board computer and cut the power to the magnet, right? Sounds like a hell of a way to end a chase scene to me. Sci-fi tech is a storytelling tool, not a way to shortcut stories.

Okay, that's a hell of a lot of words about tone and feel and basic mechanics. Let's start putting this into action and make a few characters. After the long-as-gently caress six example characters from the Aletheia write-up, I'm going to follow TechNoir's lead and make three sample characters, chosen by simple expedient of how long it takes me to find a piece of character art in GIS:

Image credit: Puppeteer Lee

Lemon Curdistan posted:

Sophie is a bicycle courier who moonlights as a grifter in Hitown nightclubs. She's good at talking and running/cycling, but not at fighting - what she can't solve by fast-talking she "solves" by getting the hell out of dodge.

Image credit: Alleged Neuromancer concept art found at

Mr. Maltose posted:

Oh man, make a Peter Riviera. An artist with a bad habit of theft and a tendency to hurt more than necessary. For the art, you understand.

Image credit:

GimpInBlack posted:

An avenging street samurai wandering the Sprawl with his deadly Hanzo steel.

You're goddamn right.

So, character creation is pretty straightforward. To start with, you pick three training programs that represent what you know how to do. Maybe you learned it at a trade school, maybe you learned it on THE STREETS, or hell, maybe it's just an educational memeplex software download you plugged into your headjack because you thought it would be cool to know how to fly a helicopter. Anyways, each training program has three verbs and three adjectives associated with it. Each time you pick a training program, increase your rating in all three verbs by one and pick one of the associated adjectives (or pick from the giant list of general adjectives in a few pages, or, hell, just make up your own). You can choose the same program twice if you want, which suggests you're not only trained but you've been doing that job for years. Oh, and everybody starts with one point in all nine verbs for free.

The nine training programs are Bodyguard, Courier, Criminal, Doctor, Engineer, Escort, Investigator, Pilot, and Soldier.

Example Characters

Courier is an obvious choice for Sophie, giving her Fight, Move, and Prowl. She bumps each of those ratings up to 2 and settles on fast as her adjective. Lemon wants her to be good at the bike-riding, not so much the fighting, so for her second program she takes Pilot which gives her a point each of Detect, Operate, and Shoot. Operate, if you were wondering, covers driving/flying as well as piloting drones or using other kinds of remote equipment. Anyways, we want Sophie to be the classic "nobody can touch me behind the wheel" type, so ace seems like a good fit for her second adjective. Finally, looking at our options for a final program, we'll go with Doctor. Seems like crazy stunt-riding bike messengers would get bashed up a lot, so some first aid training makes sense. Doctor also gives her another point each of Detect and Operate in addition to Treat, bringing her rating in driving and noticing stuff up to a respectable 3 each. Diving through crosstown traffic all day means Sophie needs nerves of steel, and steady from the Doctor's suggested adjectives seems to fit.

Peter's definitely a career Criminal, so straight away we're going for that one twice. That gives him two points, for a total of 3, in Hack, Prowl, and Shoot. Criminal's suggested adjectives don't really fit, but artistic is on the big list of general adjectives later in the chapter, and we'll go homegrown with psychotic as our second choice. We want Peter to be something of a computer genius, so we'll go with Engineer for his final program, giving him Coax, Hack, and Operate. Obsessive seems like a good adjective.

Hattori (real name: Prescott J. Flannigan) grew up watching an Assamese dub of Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai and reading Atlanta Cutlery catalogues. His mighty Hanzo steel is ever in service to his daimyo. Despite the fact that he's an insufferable twit, he's quite good at his job, taking Bodyguard twice (for two points of Coax, Fight, and Treat, plus the adjectives alert and honorable as adjectives) and Soldier once for a point each of Fight, Move, and Shoot and the adjective geeky.

Now, while the players were doing all that, the GM should have been picking out a Transmission, because at this point it's time for each player to pick three connections from the Transmission. These will be the character's main sources of information once the game starts, and they can also provide various favors, like fencing stolen goods or selling you drugs. The available favors are:

  • Chop (buy or sell a vehicle at an 8 Kred discount, but it has the Stolen tag)
  • Date (Get you access to a function or event as long as you go with them)
  • Deal (sell you drugs that get you high and let you treat all your pain dice as action dice for one roll)
  • Fence (buy any kind of bulk stolen merchandise for 5 Kreds)
  • Fix (sell you up to three objects at a 2 Kred discount, but adds the stolen tag to all of them)
  • Ride (transport you and/or some friends and/or illicit goods anywhere within or just outside the city)
  • Shark (loan you 10 Kreds)
  • Splice (install one piece of cybergear at no charge).

Multiple characters can have the same connection, but each connection can only provide two favors total during character creation. Favors will come into play when we start gearing up our characters, notably chop, deal, fix, shark, and splice. For our example, we'll use the Twin Cities Metroplex Transmission, because why not?

Example Characters

Looking over the six available connections in the Metroplex, we decide that Sophie probably does some... less-than-legal jobs when the rent money's not quite there, so she picks Arma Winn, owner of a dodgy pawn shop in East St. Paul. Arma can provide the favors fence, ride, or shark. She also knows Kallico North, a local singer on the verge of a big break (date, ride), and since bike couriers get lovely health insurance she knows Dok Petrov, a cybersurgeon with a body shop in the Minneapolis Skyway (fix [cybernetics only], splice).

Peter is a bad, bad man. He's close buddies with Adrienne Chao, heiress of the Siamese Syndicate (date, shark), January Jade, a smuggler and gun runner in Lowertown St. Paul (deal, fix [armor, guns, and weapons only]), and Sophie's pawnshop buddy Arma Winn.

Hattori, naturally, must swear fealty to a daimyo, so he knows Adrienne Chao. He also knows Pen Re, a cyberengineer working on a top-secret project (date, splice) and as Adrienne's chief enforcer has had dealings with January Jade as well.

Once connections are established (you can write down other PCs' names too, if you want to say you know them), it's time to pick relationship adjectives. Relationship adjectives are a special case: if you're acting against the relationship, they count as negative (and thus contribute pain dice). If you're supporting or helping the relationship, they count as positive (and thus can contribute push dice). These you don't get to make up; you draw them from a list of nine defined adjectives. Also, once an adjective is chosen, mark it off--nobody else can take it. Yes, that means if you have more than 3 players some will end up without relationship adjectives, and if players write down other PCs they won't have an adjective for all their connections. That's fine, it just means the relationship is strictly professional. Relationship adjectives can be created or even replaced by events during play.

Example Characters

Sophie settles on dependent for her relationship with Arma Winn--we're almost certainly going to call on that shark favor in a few minutes. She's trusting toward Kallico North--they've been dating for a few months now. Finally, she's affectionate toward Dok Petrov--the surly old coot reminds her of her uncle.

Peter is lustful toward Adrienne Chao. Not in a creepy sexual way. In a creepy "I want to make your face into an artful collage" way. He's obsessive with January Jade, on account of he gets his fixes from her. Oddly, he's very protective toward Arma Winn. Nobody's quite sure why.

Hattori is, of course, loyal toward his daimyo Adrienne Chao. He's respectful toward Pen Re, the man who turned his body into a killing tool. He's sympathetic toward January Jade--their work puts them at loggerheads more often than not, but he understands how hard it is to be ronin in this world.

We're almost done! Last real step is to buy equipment. Everybody gets 10 Kreds to buy stuff. Since most equipment costs one Kred per tag and cybernetics cost an extra 5 Kreds to implant, 10 Kreds doesn't go super far. That's where those favors come in. Each contact can provide a maximum of two favors during this step--but doing so makes them more closely tied to the plot and thus more likely to double-cross you later. But we'll talk about that next update.

I'm not going to go into a lot of detail on equipment or tags--it's a pretty sparse list gear-wise and most tags are purely flavor. A couple of things worth noting, though: if you want to be able to access the Interface, you need bare minimum something with the linked (to connect to it), display (to see it), and gesture input (to control it) tags. Luckily, there's a doodad called SPECS that's basically Google Glass that covers all that.

Networked devices have one of three tags: linked (connected to the Interface), derma-linked (a personal network carried by skin conduction), and nerve-linked (pretty much cybernetics). For two devices to connect, they have to share a tag, and you can make "routers" by giving objects two different network tags.

Some tags trump other tags, meaning you can't use the trumped tag to defend against the trumping one. If you're still using gesture-input to connect to the Interface, you're just not fast enough to mount a defense against a dude who controls the Internet with his brain.

Example Characters

Bare minimum, Sophie needs a bike. A Switchblade is a fast little uni-spheeled motorbike, but it costs 14 Kreds. Sophie calls in her shark favor from Alma Winn, and after buying the bike she's got 6 Kreds left and a 10 Kred debt to a shady loan shark. A pair of SPECS costs her 4, leaving her just enough for an armored jumpsuit and a small Stinger pistol at 1 Kred each.

Peter is going to need a whole bunch of cybernetics. Bare minimum he needs a headjack--an in-brain computer that plugs his senses directly into the Interface. We also want his crazy illusionm-making cybernetics, which we have to invent ourselves. Figure it's got nerve-linked, gesture input, and we'll invent an illusions tag, for a total cost of 3. With the headjack he's up to 7, but cybernetics add an extra 5 Kreds for the surgery. Since he doesn't have any splice favors, he'll have to pony up. A shark favor from Adrienne Chao lets him cover the whopping 17 Kred cost of his implants. Rather than spend the last three Kreds himself, he pulls a fix favor from January Jade to get himself a knife, a Duster shotgun, and a Kevlar vest. With the 2 Kred discount, those are all free, but stolen. He pockets his remaining 3 Kreds.

Hattori also takes a shark from Adrienne Chao to give himself an operating budget. We want him to be cybered out the rear end, so we'll call in a fix from Pen Re and buy a matched pair of strong cyberarms (1 Kred and stolen with the discount), some reflex stimulators (1 Kred, stolen), and a linked, thermal-imaging cybereye (3 Kreds, stolen). Pen Re's second favor, a splice, takes care of the install cost of the arms, but all told he's spent 15 of his Kreds. His last five Kreds go, as they must, to his mighty Hanzo steel: a nerve-linked, gestural input, Hanzo steel katana. The nerve-linked and gestural input tags mean that he can surf the Interface by doing katas. He thinks that's awesome. He could, however, use some backup firepower, so he uses a fix favor from January Jade to get himself an all-weave armored trenchcoat that protects against bullets and blades alike, a nerve-linked Jaguar submachine gun, and a knife.

And that's it! The only thing left to do is give each player three push dice and then put all your remaining black dice aside--TechNoir has a closed economy, and barring new players joining your game these are the only push dice you'll be moving around.

...Goddamn that was a long post. Next time: Constructing plot maps and building sinister conspiracies from nothing.

GimpInBlack fucked around with this message at 18:09 on Feb 1, 2014

Sep 27, 2012

That's right, kids, take lots of drugs, leave the universe behind, and pilot Enlightenment Voltron out into the cosmos to meet Alien Jesus.

Lemon Curdistan posted:

It's not, actually - it's the setting from Altered Carbon.

poo poo, you're right. Don't know how I missed that.

Lemon Curdistan posted:

Which brings me to the very important thing to know about Technoir: this is not William Gibson's cyberpunk. If you're expecting a game that lets you put together a crew of miscreants and organise a run on a corporate arcology to steal an AI mainframe, that's not what Technoir is written to do.

I'd argue that you absolutely can run that game with TechNoir, you just have to keep in mind the hard-boiled philosophy I talked about in the update, and thinking about the plot map a little bit differently. You're less Ocean's 11 and more the Overnight Bandits.

Lemon Curdistan posted:

What Technoir is written to do is hard-boiled fiction that happens to be in a cyberpunk setting - it's LA Confidential 20 minutes into the future, it's the Marîd Audran or Takeshi Kovacs novels. It's not about hacking corporate servers; it's about going out, asking questions, getting kidnapped, beaten up and nearly killed, and discovering that the serial killer who's been terrorising Lotown is actually a corporate hitman harvesting brains for a new AI project, on the orders of the man who owns half the city, and what are you going to do about it?

Yep. This exactly. We'll be seeing more of this in the next update when we start talking about the plot map.

Sep 27, 2012

That's right, kids, take lots of drugs, leave the universe behind, and pilot Enlightenment Voltron out into the cosmos to meet Alien Jesus.

The realist in murder writes of a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities, in which hotels and apartment houses and celebrated restaurants are owned by men who made their money out of brothels, in which a screen star can be the fingerman for a mob, and the nice man down the hall is a boss of the numbers racket... It is not a very fragrant world, but it is the world you live in, and certain writers with tough minds and a cool spirit of detachment can make very interesting and even amusing patterns out of it.

Now that we've covered the basics of the hard-boiled story, the high-tech dystopian setting, and the process of creating characters, it's time to move on to building a story. It's an unusual organizational move--most games would start with character creation and move straight into the rules of the game, relegating GMing advice and story structure to the back of the book. TechNoir, though, realizes that "how to play" encompasses more than just what dice to roll when and how to interpret the results. I really like this approach--by focusing on how to use the game to tell hard-boiled detective stories first, before telling you in detail how the mechanics work, it helps break you out of the typical RPG mindset of "roll to pick the lock, roll to find the clue."

So, our first chapter to look at today is called Composition, and it's going to delve deeper into Transmissions. We covered the basics last update--a little bit of setting flavor and a collection of 36 people, places, events and objects that will form the core of our story. We're not going to plot out a vast criminal conspiracy before the game even starts, we're going to start with a very simple seed and see what things build toward during play. Or at least, we can if we want to--the entire first page of this chapter is devoted to telling us that all these rules are here to facilitate and help out. If we're brimming with inspiration or if something just seems to click and make sense, we should freely ignore the rules and go with what feels right. "Tools, not rules" is the mantra of this chapter.

I, however, am not brimming with inspiration right now, so I'm going to be illustrating the plot map mechanics using the Twin Cities Metroplex Transmission, the same one we used for character creation last update. If anyone wants to follow along, the Transmission is available for free download here. But first, a little more information about the six different kinds of plot nodes and what they do.
  • Connections we've already gone over. They're NPCs the protagonists know well--friends, lovers, reliable snitches, bosses, mentors. It's possible (and indeed highly likely) that one or more of them will turn out to be antagonists. Every connection has a table with 12 other plot nodes on it--when PCs lean on them for info, we'll use those tables to make new connections in our story.
  • Events are big, significant paradigm shifts that have a wide impact on the world. We're talking riots, terrorist attacks, world trade summits--the stuff that will be talked about for years to come and dominate the newsfeeds for weeks.
  • Factions are big, powerful, mostly-faceless groups with big agendas. They move other plot nodes (and sometimes PCs) around like pieces on a checkerboard, set things in motion, and create complications. When a black van screeches up and two PrivMil gorillas throw you into the back and take you for a long drive to an abandoned plastic factory, it's probably because you pissed off a faction.
  • Locations are cool places--maybe a connection's hangout or a cool place for a gunfight or a clandestine meeting. Of all the nodes, these are the ones most likely to be reused a lot.
  • Objects are the sorts of MacGuffins that give some kind of focus to your classic hard-boiled plot. Whether it's the gun that can tie a corporate hitman to an assassination or a statue of a black bird worth a small fortune, it's usually the kind of thing people in the setting will kill for.
  • Finally, threats are smaller-scale groups (or sometimes lone individuals) that other nodes--usually connections or factions--use to implement their agendas. Gangs, private security forces, mob hitmen, that sort of thing. Threats are split between heavies (the serious players and major NPCs) and henchmen (mooks and extras who double as convenient sources of stat block theft when necessary).

Right. Plot map time. A plot map is just a bunch of plot nodes on a piece of paper, some with connections drawn between them and some floating on their own. Every time you connect a plot node to another plot node, you're inventing a link between them: she killed him, he stole that, they want this to happen, etc. The links might be reciprocal (these two groups hate each other) or one way (this group needs that object, this character is being hunted by that threat). Eventually you'll have enough pieces to say "oh, I know what's going on here!" and you can start shifting the story into high gear.

For now, though, we need something to start with, something to hook players in. While the players are making their characters and choosing connections, our job is to start making the plot map. The first thing we do is make three rolls on the master table for our Transmission and put the three plot nodes we end up with on the map. Each one connects to the other two, making a nice little triangle and (hopefully) giving us something to kickstart our inspiration. We don't have to fully understand the "why" or the "how" of the connections right now--that's what later additions are for. For now, we just focus on what links these three things and how we might start hooking players into the plot.

Example Plot
We're using the Twin Cities Metroplex Transmission, so while our fictional players are busy creating Sophie, Peter, and Hattori we take a look at the Transmission and start rolling some dice.

Twin Cities Metroplex posted:

It wasn’t much of a leap for the Minnesota to go from the forefront of medical devices—heartvalves, pacemakers, stents—to become the leading pioneer of cybertechnology in the United States. The twin cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul are now the primary destinations for those who want to get spliced into some new hardware. Daedalus Innovation was the new megacorporate entity that emerged from the explosion.

The upper midwest has seen some of the harshest winters over the past several years. It all but killed the independent and organic farms in the state. Daedalus built an arcology to keep their employees and facilities protected from the elements in one massive, self-contained monolith in Minneapolis. Those left outside have become tougher, harder.

Last year, Daedalus Innovation laid off 80% of its workforce. Its completely robotic manufacturing facility and proprietary software do the work now. The sparsely populated arcology is being rennovated as a giant pleasure palace for the obscenely rich. Meanwhile the jobless masses out in the streets are growing fearful and getting desperate.

For our plot seed, I roll three times on the master table and I get Syndicate Assassins ("A deadly team of covert killers," threat), the Siamese Syndicate ("Organized crime family prevalent throughout the Midwest," faction), and Arma Winn ("Owner of AllPawn in East St. Paul," connection).

Okay, this is pretty obviously a mob-heavy story--about the only way it could be more about the Syndicate is if that third roll was Adrienne Chao. So right away I'm thinking Arma has something the Syndicate wants in her pawnshop, and the Syndicate has sent assassins to kill her and retrieve it. But that's pretty straightforward, not a whole lot of mystery there, so instead I think the Syndicate Assassins have gone rogue. Maybe they're working for someone within the organization who's trying to start an internal faction war, maybe they're being blackmailed by somebody totally different, I don't know yet. But that's okay. And I think that must mean Arma Winn is paying protection money to the Syndicate; when the Assassins come for her, she's going to be rightly pissed. For now, the first stage of the plot map looks like this:

That gives us a really basic story: Arma Winn pays her protection money on the regular, but Syndicate Assassins are coming after her anyways. Plenty of ways to get PCs hooked into this story via connections or, hell, maybe having one or more PCs there for the first hit attempt. We could even take a lead from the plot map example in the book and have Arma already dead as the story starts. Personally, I wish the book spent a little more time unpacking the idea of killing a connection offscreen before the game starts and what that means for characters linked to that connection, but oh well.

Now it's time to start getting the rest of the connections involved. Remember how during character creation players could hit up their connections for a total of two favors each? This is where that potentially comes back to bite people in the rear end. The first time a player calls on a connection for a favor, we put their name on the plot map--not connected to anything, just on there, waiting to be linked into the whole sordid mess. The second time a connection does a favor, we draw a connection between their name and another node on the plot map. It doesn't have to be a node that's part of the larger conspiracy--you could, for example, link two connections together and wait to see how they hook into the plot later. Here we want to be looking for ways to get some personal stakes in for the characters. Look at their relationship adjectives with connections and each other. Look for instances of two PCs having the same connection, and look for ways to make that connection not okay with the status quo (what Apocalypse World terms "PC-NPC-PC triangles"). We want reasons for the protagonists to not just get involved, but to get angry.

(The rules are silent on what happens when a connection is already on the map as part of a plot seed; I'm going to assume they're connected enough and not start adding more links for now.)

Example Plot
Looking back at our character creation example and the favors called in for gear, we've got the following:

  • One shark favor from Arma Winn
  • Two shark favors from Adrienne Chao
  • Two fix favors from January Jade
  • One fix and one splice favor from Pen Re

Arma's already on the map, so we'll skip her for now--but if we had a different node in our plot map we'd add her name floating out there on the plot map somewhere. Adrienne, January, and Pen Re are all getting added to the map and connected to other nodes. This is clearly a pretty involved conspiracy! We can do these in any order, really--I usually wait till all the favors are called in to start adding new nodes, just to give myself more options.

The first thing I'm thinking is that these Syndicate Assassins are all cybered up, so somebody had to install those modifications. With only one connection on the board who can do that, I decide that Pen Re installed the Assassins' cybergear--and moreover, it's the same experimental tech he put in Hattori years ago. I don't know who he's taking his orders from, but I feel like this could be a great character beat for Hattori and his respectful relationship with Pen Re.

Now I'm going to put January Jade and Adrienne Chao on the map together, but not yet connected. January runs the smuggling and gun running trade in Lowertown, and I'm betting the Syndicate isn't too thrilled about that. I could make the connection there, but given that both Peter and Hattori have relationships with both of them, I think this should be more personal. I connect January to Adrienne and say they're currently embroiled in a low-grade turf war. Nothing openly violent yet, but pressure's being put on both sides.

Finally, Adrienne needs her own connection, and this time we'll go with the obvious and say the Syndicate is pressuring her to deal with the January problem. So, after character creation, our plot map looks like this:

And with that we're ready to start playing. We know a fair bit about what's going on--a schism within the Syndicate, something important Arma Winn has, a turf war in Lowertown--but we don't see the forces moving behind it all. That's fine. In fact, it's good--it gives our characters plenty of avenues to pursue.

Once the game actually starts, the plot map really starts to come alive. As the PCs try to figure out the mystery, they're going to go to their contacts for information. What does Dok Petrov know about advanced black-market cybernetics? Can Adrienne tell them anything about the Syndicate hit squad? Somebody out there knows what's going on, and if you shake the right trees hard enough, something interesting is bound to happen.

Remember how connections have tables with links to other plot nodes? That's where this comes into play. During gameplay, when a PC goes to a connection with a question, you roll on that table. (The table has two columns--one for unconnected characters who aren't yet attached to anything else on the plot map and one for characters with at least one connections. In other words, connections have different leads the deeper they get enmeshed in the plot.) Add that new plot node to the map and connect it to another node--usually the one the PC was asking about--then roleplay the connection spilling rumours or information or whatever. Again, if the nature of the question obviously implies a certain answer, you can just pick a node rather than rolling. Tools not rules. The plot map works for you, not the other way around.

The one exception is if the node that came up is already on the plot map. Then you draw a link from that node to the connection. Now the PCs have stumbled onto a part of the plan their connection is directly involved in. It's totally cool for connections to lie to and mislead PCs, as long as every lead actually gives some new information (even if it's just the connection acting suspicious).

These connection-based scenes will usually make up the first half or so of the game, but eventually the plot's going to congeal and poo poo's going to start happening--the PCs shift from "what's going on" to "what do we do about it?" The next chapter is going to be chock full of advice on that, but for now let's wrap up with one final example plot map.

Example Plot
Let's say that the game has started and Arma Winn has just narrowly survived an attempted hit. She shows up at Peter's coffin apartment in the middle of the night, bleeding and seriously freaked out, and tells him what happened. She shows him a knife one of them threw at her, and Peter immediately recognizes it. It's a traditional knife used in awud mied, a Thai knife-fighting style. Arma swears up and down that she's paid up on her protection money, so Peter sets out to ask Adrienne Chao why a Syndicate kill squad came after Arma. I have no real strong idea for why, so I roll on Adrienne's connection table and I get a 6, which on her Connected table indicates a SecTec Complex Team ("Private security hired to guard and patrol corporate facilities," threat. Huh. Wasn't expecting that. Well, Peter's kind of asking about both Arma and the Assassins--might be cool if there's more to Arma's story than meets the eye. I connect the SecTec team to Arma Winn with the note "guarding AllPawn." Adrienne deflects Peter's question about the rogue assassins--she doesn't want him to know how out of control things are--and says "The real question you should be asking is why a SecTec Complex Team is guarding a grubby little pawnshop in East St. Paul." The plot thickens.

Once Peter leaves her office, Adrienne pings Hattori over the Interface. She's got surveillance cam feed of the hit attempt (don't ask how), and she wants his opinion. Scrubbing through the VR holographic projection, his onboard systems note reaction times, accuracy, coordination--these guys were a heavily-linked cyber unit, basically almost one mind operating four bodies. That's very emphatically not Syndicate style--the family looks down on cybermods more invasive than a headjack as debasing. Good for the hired help, maybe (no offense, Hattori), but not for the family's elite. (This BTW is a bunch of bullshit I'm spinning purely on the basis of Adrienne not having any implants except a headjack.) Hattori calls up Pen Re and asks him who's moving that kind of heavy-duty illegal cybergear these days. I roll a 3, which nets me "Project Rejuvenation," an ecological activist group that monitors and protests corporate action. It's a stretch, but they sound like the kind of people who might be into a "one world consciousness" kind of ethos, and since the Metroplex is on the bleeding edge of cyberinnovation we'll say that Project Rejuvenation is a bunch of activist engineers, and they pioneered the idea of shared-consciousness implants. Pen seems nervous, distracted--he's sure as hell not going to admit he doctored these guys up, but he's got to reveal something as a contact, so he points Hattori at the green freaks and hopes it doesn't come back on him.

Meanwhile, Sophie's heard about what happened and, since she's dependent on Arma Winn, decides she can't risk losing her meal ticket. She doesn't really know anything about the mob or underworld turf wars, but she knows Dok Petrov dabbles in less than legal activities, so she calls him up on the Interface and asks if he knows who'd want to hit AllPawn with that kind of firepower. I roll a 1, which gives us January Jade. Normally I'd put her on the map and link her to Alma, but since she's already linked to the plot, we have instead stumbled across Dok Petrov's connection to January. We add him to the plot map and connect him to January. We'll say he's been selling her illegal cybertech to cover his crippling gambling debts. He's not about to admit what he knows, and he gives her the brush off. It's obvious he's hiding something, but just before he drops the call, he gets a page from his secretary informing him that "Ms. Jade is on the other line." Tres suspicious.

Anyway, after a few rounds of investigations, our plot map looks like this:

Probably needs a few more investigation scenes to really get a handle on what's going on and what's a red herring, but in the meantime we probably want to consider what our still-faceless antagonists are up to and have them take some action in response. But we'll cover that in the next chapter....

Pacing a plot map's development is key to keeping the game engaging. Typically you'll want to let the players add a few of their connections, plus maybe one node apiece on top of that, in the first session, then start forcing them into actions rather than investigations. Also, these plot maps are really geared toward roughly stand-alone novel sized plots--maybe three to four sessions worth of investigation. More than that and it starts to get too crowded. Usually if that happens, you've got two options: expand to a new Transmission, or pick three "loose end" nodes that didn't really get wrapped up during the story and link them together to create a new plot seed. You could also just update the Transmission, maybe inventing new connections, threats, and factions as old ones serve their purpose and die or change.

When you want to add a new Transmission to your story, the first thing you do is roll a single node from the new Transmission's master table and connect it to a node on your plot map. That'll yell you how the new city's involved. Now, since PCs from the Twin Cities probably don't know many lowlifes from the LA Sprawl, they're gonna need some introductions. That's where connections come in. Each connection knows one connection in the new city--when a PC asks for an introduction, you roll a die on the "Connections" column of the new Transmission's master table. The player adds the new connection to his sheet, and we add the connection to the map.

And that's it for plot maps. I've got to say, it's one of my favorite story-generation mechanics in a game like this--sure, if you go purely by the dice you might end up with some weird connections, and sometimes you can end up with plot holes or weird red herrings, but hey, even Raymond Chandler never figured out who killed the chauffeur in The Big Sleep. The connection mechanic is especially brilliant--I love that the more screen time you give to a connection by calling on them for information and favors, the more likely they are to have been the bad guy all along. It's a wonderfully noir conceit, and modelled brilliantly.

Next time: Instigating poo poo.

GimpInBlack fucked around with this message at 20:40 on Feb 1, 2014

Sep 27, 2012

That's right, kids, take lots of drugs, leave the universe behind, and pilot Enlightenment Voltron out into the cosmos to meet Alien Jesus.

Lemon Curdistan posted:

There's always a bit of creative interpretation needed to hook up what you roll into the plot of your game - that's the case for basically every random table in history.

Oh, absolutely, but at the same time the nature of the spontaneous story generation leads to certain plot threads being missed by players or not always resolving in a way that makes perfect sense. But hey, that's fine. Plenty of classics of the genre have those little cheats.

What I love about the plot map is how flexible it is if you think about it from the right angle--like in my example, we sort of ended up with a plot that was about (at least for now) advanced cybernetics prototypes, even though that was never a node on the plot map.

That's also why I said after the last update that I feel like you could easily run a Shadowrun-style cyberheist with TechNoir--it's just that the nodes and connections on the plot map have to be interpreted as the keys to overcoming insurmountable obstacles on the heist rather than leads in a deepening mystery. It becomes a very hard-boiled crime story where you need the one guy who can write the spoofing software for the corporate antivirals and you've got to dangle a junior VP out a window till he gives you his keycard.

Lemon Curdistan posted:

The plot map is another example of Technoir's greatest strength, which is that all of its mechanics drive its theme. The plot map creates a kind of all-consuming conspiracy right out of a novel, and characters only advance by taking damage. :allears:

Yeah, thematically it's one of the tightest games I've ever played. Everything, from the large-scale story mechanics down to the specific list of relationship adjectives is purpose-built to reinforce the theme. It's a thing of beauty.

Sep 27, 2012

That's right, kids, take lots of drugs, leave the universe behind, and pilot Enlightenment Voltron out into the cosmos to meet Alien Jesus.

Evil Mastermind posted:

So what you're saying is that you're looking for guests? :v:

That's what I heard.

Sep 27, 2012

That's right, kids, take lots of drugs, leave the universe behind, and pilot Enlightenment Voltron out into the cosmos to meet Alien Jesus.

Are you guys ready for more TechNoir? I'm ready for some more TechNoir!

When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.

Now that we've learned how to create characters and plot maps, Instigation is chock full of GM advice on how to bring the two together. It's pretty straightforward, so we're just going to hit the high points.

The GM's job is to facilitate play. That means all the things you'd expect in a tabletop RPG: Setting scenes, playing NPCs, all that jazz, but a big part of the TechNoir GM's job is to push toward contention. Remember, if the PCs aren't regularly getting beaten bloody, suspended from the force, and/or wrongfully framed for heinous crimes, they can't improve their stats and they lose effectiveness in the game. Now, plenty of times they'll follow up on leads like a terrier with a bone, but the GM needs to always be thinking about what this tangled net of factions, connections, and threats are doing and how they're reacting to the PCs' meddling. It's okay for the GM to interrupt statements of player intent with surprising new developments--encouraged, even. Also listed among the GM's duties is one of the most important pieces of advice in any tabletop RPG ever:

TechNoir posted:

End the scene. As soon as the characters have done what is most important at this time in this place, cut to the next scene.

gently caress yeah, pacing.

All through this chapter we get a running example of a GM running a game for three PCs in the LA Sprawl Transmission. The first example is one I really wish the book would unpack more, because it shows drawing a PC into the mystery by having one of her contacts murdered before the game even starts. Which, I mean, yeah, it's a classic hard-boiled plot opener, but given that connections are supposed to be major sources of help and information it would have been nice to have a bit of discussion about how something like this can kickstart the plot without screwing players over. Something like autopsy reports or CSI work counting as leaning on him for information, at least.

Anyway, a good, strong opening scene is critical to a game like this, and GMs are encouraged to pull out all the stops. Drop your best hard-boiled description, layer on that grimy dystopian cyberpunk aesthetic, really make them feel it. Give them one or two plot nodes they don't know about yet--and not in a vague, rumor-has-it kind of way. Shove it in their faces. If you've got an event like an assassination or a catastrophic accident on your plot map, have it happen right in front of them. If you've got an object, have someone drop it in their lap--ideally right before uttering a cryptic warning and keeling over dead. Feel free to give the spotlight to one or two characters here--mutual connections should get them all involved pretty quickly.

Subsequent scenes are easier to set, since usually you'll be responding to player actions. Still though, don't be afraid to respond to "I want to go check out that Pai Gow parlor" with "Cool, but while you're en route, an armored limo pulls up and a cybered-up gorilla in a tuxedo tells you to get in if you know what's good for you."

Unlike dungeon-crawling murderhobos, hard-boiled investigators typically work alone. That's all cool, just keep the scenes snappy and alternate a lot. We get some pretty standard advice on motivating characters via money and relationships, but it's the section on "Evidence as Motivator" that's most relevant. Basically, if the discovery of a new plot node doesn't introduce new drama and shift the playing field in some meaningful way, you're doing it wrong. We'll spend the rest of the chapter breaking down all the different kinds of plot nodes and finding interesting ways for them to be connected, but you should always be looking for ways to introduce drama and conflicting agendas.

The flip side of that is: don't introduce unnecessary friction to these reveals. This goes back to the "you only roll against other people" rule, and correlates to the rules in systems like GUMSHOE that say "if not finding this information leads to nothing interesting happening, just give them the information." When they search a crime scene, they don't have to roll Notice; if they're conducting an autopsy don't make them roll Treat, etc. This is especially true of connections: a PC's connections will always give her something. It may not be the unvarnished truth, but it's always something to move the story forward. (The flip side of that is that if you're trying to get the real truth out of a connection or you're leaning on a connection other than your own, that's contention and it's time to break out the dice.)

The rest of the chapter devotes a page to each type of plot node, how to use them in the story, and some questions to ask yourself between scenes to prompt drama. Each page also cross-references with all six plot node types, giving you two or three questions you might ask yourself to help figure out a connection between the nodes. For example:

TechNoir posted:

Factions are just the kind of faceless institutions that independent-minded
protagonists are likely to get on the bad side of. Given time, one party is
going to do something the other party is absolutely opposed to.

  • Have factions be up to something. They’re run by people with agendas.
    Agendas at odds with protagonists, connections, and other factions.
  • Of course factions involve a lot of people. There can be more than one
    agenda within any one institution. Create some infighting.
  • Factions have resources at their disposal. They can hire connections,
    threats, smaller factions, and even protagonists to further their cause.

Does the faction employ this connection? Or is he the one that got away? Do they have dirt on him they can use for blackmail?

Has the faction planned this event? If not, were they still aware it was going to take place or has it taken them by surprise?

Is this faction in alliance with another? Is one a false front or a sleeping backer for the other? Or do they wage shadow wars against each other?

Is the faction headquartered at this location? The site of future expansion? Is it where they’ve buried some secret they’d rather not let anyone find out?

Did the faction produce this object? Is it a technological innovation of their own design? If it gets in the wrong hands, does it reveal their secrets?

Has the faction assembled this threat? Are they a sanctioned arm of the faction’s authority? Did they escape the faction, taking inside secrets with them?

And that's it for Instigation. Short, sweet, and to the point. So let's follow some of that GM advice and move toward Contention.

Contention is the game's term for characters acting against other characters--your fistfights, interrogations under hot lights, and what have you. It's not quite a task-oriented resolution system or a goal-oriented one; the best I can describe it as is a drama-oriented system. The game doesn't care about picking locks, searching for hidden doors, or staking out a nightclub. In fact, it gives us three very simple rules for stuff like that:

Will the action lead toward contention? Are there guards behind the door? Will their suspect actually turn up at the nightclub tonight? If yes, then the action happens. Easy peasy.

Will the action lead away from contention? Does the door lead to an empty room? Is their suspect currently in Singapore? f yes, the action still happens, but you gloss over it quickly and move on.

Will the action avoid a contention? If they get through the door, will they avoid the security patrol? If they stake out the building, will they miss the goon squad that's going to their office to toss the joint? In that case, yeah, you can deny the action. Don't be a dick about it or anything, just say "so yeah, you're about to do that when suddenly..." and grab the dice. I call this the "Men With Guns" rule.

So, rolling dice. We've covered the basics in the first update, but I'll re-post them here as a refresher:

TechNoir uses three colors of dice: white dice are action dice. They represent training and innate skill--when you try to do something, you'll roll a number of action dice equal to your rating in the relevant verb: Coax to fast-talk somebody, Hack to infiltrate their network, etc.

Black dice are push dice. They represent extra effort or a technological edge. You've only got a limited pool of these, but you can add one to your roll for every relevant adjective, object, or tag you've got. After the roll, you can spend them to make the action more effective. Much like Fate Points in Fate games, push dice are the main driver of the economy of TechNoir, and we'll cover what a great system this is in a later post.

Red dice are hurt dice. They represent injuries, inconveniences, and all the other little distractions that make you less effective. For every negative adjective that might hinder your action, you add a hurt die to your roll.

Once you've got all your dice assembled, you roll them. First things first, look at your hurt dice. If any of them are showing the same number as any of your action or push dice, those dice go away. Gather up all your hurt dice, plus any matching action or push dice, and put them aside. Now look at your highest-showing die remaining: that's your action's result. If you have more than one die tied for highest, add ".1" to your result. So, for example, a single 5 gives you a result of 5, three 6s gives you 6.1. If your result is higher than your target's rating in the relevant verb, congratulations! You can put a new adjective, either positive or negative, on the target. If you have any push dice, you can spend them now to make that adjective more severe and/or stick around longer.

So, adjectives. We already know they can be positive or negative; they can also be fleeting, sticky, or locked. Fleeting adjectives are the default for an action; if you don't spend a push die that's what you get. They only last as long as whatever's creating them does, and you can try to get rid of one in the same scene you got it. Otherwise they go away at the end of the scene. Exampled might be grabbed or intrigued.

Spend one push die and you can make an adjective sticky. These are more serious--actual injuries and lasting consequences. They don't go away until they get some kind of treatment--maybe some time with the RoboDoc, maybe a nice long advice session with your favorite bartender, or maybe a corporate PR campaign to clean up that image. Maybe busted (leg) or infatuated.

Two push dice makes the adjective locked. For the most part, these guys are permanent. You can get rid of negative ones with advanced cybernetics or similar serious personal alterations, and positive/relationship adjectives can be overwritten (for example, when you find out your partner's been working for GeneCorp all along). Examples might be severed (leg) or obsessed.

Unlike a lot of storygames, or even more traditional games with narrative elements like Fate, TechNoir doesn't pre-build stakes into conflicts or have a fixed "win/lose" condition. All parties involved should state what their desired outcome is so there's no miscommunication, but goals can shift and evolve as the scene does, and the scene's over when everybody agrees it's over. For example, grabbing a suspect and tossing him in the back of a van might require that you first lay hands on him (putting grabbed as an adjective), then pick him up (carried), then finally toss him in the van (contained as a sticky adjective, maybe). On the other hand, flirting that same suspect into taking you back to his flat might just require a single sticky infatuated adjective--if you're his type.

The game calls this common-sense approach your "vector," which is just a fancy sci-fi way of saying "your actions and adjectives have to make sense." If you don't have any kind of computer, you can't very well Hack things, and unless you're fighting John Carpenter's The Thing you probably can't apply severed as a fleeting adjective, etc. This can also influence the fiction of the scene: To continue that example of black-bagging some mook, maybe if you had strong cyberarms you could make a case for just grabbing the guy being enough. Likewise, sometimes you won't get what you want in one scene--sometimes you'll tag somebody with a sticky adjective and that'll carry you through to the next scene (the example in the book is getting a gang punk pissed off enough that he beats the crap out of you and takes you to his boss).

So, some additional rules: If an action's not being opposed (usually you're putting a positive adjective on a friend), you can skip the rolling and just spend your push dice. If it is being opposed, the target can discharge push dice to invoke adjectives or tags to increase the target number of the action.

(Here I should digress to explain spending vs. discharging push dice. See, push dice are kind of like mana cards in Magic: The Gathering. When your turn starts, you have all your push dice available. Using them in your roll, or using them to increase the target number when somebody comes at you, discharges them. At the end of the action you set them aside, but you keep them and when your turn comes around again they refresh. Spending means you actually hand your push dice over--players to the GM, the GM to the player an NPCs is acting against.)

Removing or replacing adjectives works basically the same way--with the caveat that a lot of fleeting attributes can be cleared with an unopposed action. If you're prone, for example, all you have to do is spend an action getting to your feet.

You can also target multiple characters if you have an adjective or equipment tag that makes sense. A gun with burst fire lets you shoot multiple dudes, being fast lets you outrun a whole bunch of people, etc. Just discharge a push die and roll--but if you want to make the adjective you apply sticky or locked, you have to spend push dice for each target separately.

If there are more than two people involved in a contention, you just alternate "sides," but there's no initiative system to speak of. As long as it's a good give and take between PCs and NPCs, you can take turns in any order. Once everybody's acted, the next round begins and you keep going until the scene is resolved.

Finally, let's talk about lethal consequences. At the end of any scene where PCs got hurt (after any fleeting adjectives are cleared), each player totals up the number of negative adjectives that describe physical injuries and rolls that many hurt dice. If one die shows a 6, the character is dying. She still has agency and can take actions, but she has dying as a sticky negative attribute until she gets treatment. If two or more dice show 6s, she's dead. Kind of. See, dead is a locked negative adjective, but there's still time to rush the character to a cyberdoc and get her borged up, just like with any other locked negative adjective. It's only if the roll to implant that stuff fails that the character is for realsies dead.

Hey, speaking of healing, let's wrap up the rules by talking about Restoration. We've talked a little bit about removing adjectives in the sense of getting rid of fleeting ones, but sticky and locked adjectives generally require a scene to themselves to get rid of. The rules are pretty much the same, with one exception: The person rolling to remove the adjective totals up her own negative adjectives and her patient's when assembling her dice pool. If you're operating on yourself, you count your adjectives twice. See a doctor, son, goddamn.

Healing is also how you improve your Verbs. See, whenever you take an action with a verb and you fail, you mark a check box next to that verb. When you try to get rid of an adjective, first you pick a Verb you want to try to improve. If one of the hurt dice comes up higher than your rating in that Verb, increase it by one. Doesn't matter whether you heal up or not, hard-boiled protagonists learn from pain.

And that's it for TechNoir, mechanically speaking! Next time we'll review some Transmissions, then we'll finish off with MechNoir.

Sep 27, 2012

That's right, kids, take lots of drugs, leave the universe behind, and pilot Enlightenment Voltron out into the cosmos to meet Alien Jesus.

The sky above the port was the color of a television, tuned to a dead channel.

Okay, one last post and we should be set to wrap up Technoir. First we'll close out the core rulebook by talking a little bit about each of the three Transmissions included, then we'll talk about the Kickstarter-unlocked Transmissions, and finally we'll talk a little bit about MechNoir. Let's do this.

The Los Angeles Sprawl
It's big, it's smoggy, and it covers a knife-edged city of broken dreams and lost souls with a shiny veneer of glitz and glamour. It's the Los Angeles Sprawl, and after decades of being Vancouver's poor cousin, it's back on top of the entertainment industry. The hot thing these days is Immatrix Experiences--total sensory immersion streamed directly into your nervous system, letting you be the heroes of your favorite stories. And if you don't think there's a seamy side to Immatrix filmmaking... well, you haven't read much hard-boiled fiction. Or interacted with human beings all that often.

In the L.A. Sprawl, you might find yourself mired in a mystery involving:

  • Pi Larson, Beverly Hills' cybersurgeon to the stars
  • A High-Speed Pursuit, when a fugitive on a Switchblade is chased by Starlight Watch through the freeways of L.A. (Maybe it's you!)
  • The Church of Astroogy, an :siren:entirely fictional:siren: secretive celebrity cult
  • Saito Arena, the proving ground for the recently-legalized blood derby :black101:
  • The Needle, a syringe in a leather case containing several milliliters of the Orion Pathogen.
  • Tom and Dick, a pair of hitmen. Where's Harry? :iiam:

Singapore Sling
Boiling hot and humid as a slap in the face with a wet towel, Singapore is a city of sharp divides. The upper class flaunt neo-Victorian fashion and live in towering arcologies, while the rest struggle and scrape to make enough money to pay the annual "don't get deported forever" tax. The Port of Singapore is its whole own thing, a massive, mostly-automated facility that handles millions of tons of shipping every day. The people who live dockside are treated as nonentities--even entering the walled city without a Citiplant or a temporary visa will get you killed. The "Sling" part of the name comes from the 50 kilometer railgun built by the Zenith Group to cheaply and efficiently launch cargo into orbit.

In the Singapore Sling, you might have to deal with:

  • Suey Chow, brash smuggler and captain of the Flynn's Revenge, barely drinking age
  • The Anatomist, a serial killer who records and posts live dissections on the Interface
  •, an interface hub for nativist hooligans where recordings of refugee beatings are popular
  • The 10% Club, a scummy dockside bar where having a Citiplant gets you rumbled and tossed in the harbor
  • DRMDMA, a brain implant that directly stimulates the pleasure centers, but only when activated with single-use DRM codes
  • 10th Horse, a company of elite chauffeurs and bodyguards for the upper crust

Kilimanjaro Ring
It rhymes with Singapore Sling, and it's also about an earth-to-orbit construction project! In this case, Steiner Technology is building an earth-to-orbit "beanstalk" on the peak of Mt. Kilimanjaro, while a mile below the peak a sealed ring city provides all the comforts of sea-level living. Local governments are keeping a tight hold on land rights and other permissions, and while nobody much likes to admit it, the Beanstalk is behind schedule and massively overbudget. Throw in extremist groups, media sensationalism, and the inevitable exploitation of workers on a project like this, and you've got a volcano ready to blow.

At Kilimanjaro, you never know what's going to happen next, but it might involve:

  • Liesbeth Van Otterloo, a street doctor in Lower South Bend
  • Beanstalk Bombing, where a terrorist act kills a bunch of people and sets construction back by months
  • The Union of Summit Workers, a newly-formed union for the Beanstalk construction crew.
  • The Exchange, a global marketplace both physical and virtual, made famous by the Immatrix thriller Ring of Woe
  • A severed cyberhand, once attached to a cartel middleman
  • A Frequency Assault Team, child hackers hidden all around the city who perform coordinated strikes

Hong Kong Special Administrative Region
Home of the fastest Interface connections on earth, Hong Kong is a polluted nightmare of airborne toxins and poison rain. Climate-change driven typhoons and pollution from mainland factories has rendered the city pretty close to uninhabitable--at least, above ground. The rich and powerful, referred to as the Clean, can afford the genetic and cybermods to live above ground, but everybody else lives underground and makes due with filter masks and coated rain-gear. Used to be that when the Air Pollution Index dropped low enough, the whole city would erupt into spontaneous festivals, but there hasn't been a safe day in years.

Hong Kong stories might feature:

  • Woo Fat, a retired Triad enforcer who now produces Immatrix movies. He's fond of light-hearted comedies.
  • Exposure, when five Clean athletes die after a hacker disables their implants during a cricket match
  • The Bank of China, a financial institution whose "investments" are the main way the mainland influences local affairs.
  • Bottoms Up, a hip cantopop club in Kowloon
  • Baba Yaga, a Russian-produced derivative of meth used as a sensation heightener by Immatrix performers
  • The Outstanding Five, street urchin pickpockets led by a ruthless, elderly crook.

Twin Cities Metroplex
We've already seen a bunch of this Transmission during our character creation and plot-map building phases. It's at the cutting edge of cybertech, but it's suffering from a combination of the harshest winters in decades and a sudden, massive spike in unemployment. Daedalus Innovation, the main employer in the area, just laid off 80% of its workforce and replaced them with robots. The huge arcology they built to house those employees is being renovated into a pleasure palace for the obscenely rich as homelessness rates soar, and all the while the air is getting chillier.

What's going on in the Twin Cities? Well, you might want to look into:

  • January Jade, a smuggler and gun dealer in Lowertown St. Paul
  • The Big Blizzard, an overnight storm with record-low temperatures and record-high snowfall
  • Cybertronic Systems, an upstart corp looking to challenge Daedalus' market dominance
  • The Pig's Eye Tavern, a seedy bar in St. Paul
  • The Bag, a suitcase full of cash
  • The Bleeding Razors, a biker gang out of North Minneapolis.

MechNoir posted:

Life on Mars...
Massive walking machines called “rigs” were engineered to carve into the red husk of Mars and construct new colonial structures for those who fled an Earth that didn’t want them anymore. Only practical in low-gravity environments, these mechanized giants are piloted by specialized riggers who use cerebral inputs to command the rigs as extensions of their own body. But when the colonies turned against each other, these rigs were retrofitted with weapons and utilized for their destructive capabilities in a war that spans the red planet.

Mars has a toxic atmosphere, horrific sandstorms, and less than half of Earth’s gravity. It’s not exactly easy for anyone to live here. This forces colonists to huddle together in the sealed domes and underground structures the rigs built. Even inside, farming is less than sustainable and pollution is a growing danger as the ability to recycle or replenish Earth’s imported resources is limited.

The various communites that live on Mars came to escape religious and political pursecution on Earth. Now far from their oppressors, it didn’t take them long to turn their disdain towards each other. War has broken out between the planet’s three primary factions: the personality cult of the Shiat al-Raj’a, the Martian Autonomist Union, and the cloned zealots of “The Chosen.” Now the working-class riggers, once responsible for building the colonies, have been called on to be the warrior class that might bring society’s destruction.

MechNoir, you may recall, was one of three extra add-ons promised by the TechNoir kickstarter, and sadly the only one ever released. It consists of a 16-page player's guide containing new rules, and three Transmissions focused on the giant-robot theme.

The Player's Guide is laid out just like the one for basic TechNoir, with summaries of character generation, connection favors, gear, and rules. Unfortunately, for the most part it doesn't call out the new, MechNoir-specific rules anywhere, which means it's very easy to skim a section you know from the basic TechNoir rules and miss a new wrinkle.

First up we get mech-focused summaries of the nine verbs. Nothing here you don't expect--you use the same verbs as normal when you're driving a mech as when you're running around on the ground.

Next there's a new favor connections can grant: stable. This completely covers the cost of one mech (or "rig," as they're called) or transport ship, including any upgrade you put on it. Just like a shark favor, though, you owe your connection for the loan, and until it's paid off they can compel you to do work for them. With rigs ranging in cost from 19-22 Kreds, this is a pretty vital favor if you want to drive a rig and have, oh, anything else at all to your name.

Dancer 38: A high-speed rig designed to get in and out of dangerous territory.

We next get stats and costs for six different rigs, two transports, and a couple of varieties of flight suits. The rigs range from fast-moving, ostrich-legged scouts to mobile drilling rigs converted for combat. We also get a small Aliens-style dropship and a huge cargo hauler for transports. Like vehicles, rigs and transports cost 10 Kreds + the number of tags.

Rigs and transports have some new tags, including armor (which gets special rules a little later), huge (massive and crewed by multiple characters; each crewmember gets an action every round during a contention, but each tag on the vvehicle can only be used once per round, and articulated arms (exactly what it sounds like, your robot suit has arms and hands).

Tucked away in the summary of the contention rules, we find a new option when attacking a vehicle. Instead of creating a sticky or locked adjective, you can spend one push die to disable one of the target's tags, or spend two push dice to destroy it. Either way, that tag can't be used until the rig is repaired. Armor tags give the defending player another option: In lieu of accepting a sticky adjective or disabled tag, she can disable an armor tag instead. Likewise, to avoid a locked adjective or destroyed tag, she can destroy an armor tag. Unlike a lot of tags, vehicles can have the armor tag more than once.

Affecting a giant robot or a huge dropship isn't too easy for one person! Likewise, it's hard for giant robots to focus on one person, so generally the two scales don't interact. Certain vectors can change that, though--inflict a fleeting adjective like boarded on a rig and now you're inside, ripe for some sabotage. Hack their comm system and force the pilot to listen to you and you can make Coax rolls. And, of course, giant robots always have a vector to target multiple person-scale opponents with one action.

Coyote 5F: A light rig used for stealth and mobility.

Finally, Restoration still works as normal, with Operate or Hack subbing in for Treat when you're repairing a rig's hardware or software. Repairing a disabled tag works just like treating a sticky adjective. To replace a destroyed tag, you have to pay 1 Kred for the parts to downgrade "destroyed" to "disabled," and then you can fix it normally.

(Unfortunately, the Mechnoir transmissions don't have the cool little skyline silhouettes the regular ones do. So have some pictures of robots instead.)

Martian Autonomist Union, Local 10-6
Welcome to glorious Soviet Mars, comrade! The Sixers are a bunch of union boys and girls who overthrew their corporate bosses and, with the help of some genius prodigies in the union, they built an AI called TALLY to distribute the work equally and fairly. TALLY loves to keep people busy, whether that's putting in a fair day's work or blowing off steam at the weekend fights (both bare-knuckle and rigged up). The Sixers live deep underground, and every member's expected to do her share. Loafers don't tend to last long.

Among the Sixers, you might find:

  • Cass Ali, an undefeated rig fighter with a stunningly original name
  • Patch Day, where a software update on TALLY goes live and the AI promptly crashes
  • The Hollers, rumble truck drivers who carry vital supplies and gossip between Sixer communes
  • The Tsar, a defunct orbital cargo launcher shut down by the revolution
  • The Gusev Doozy, a flawless diamond a meter across, in a crater three days from the nearest commune
  • The Kimes, an extended family of gamblers, thieves, scammers, and cannibals. Wait, what?

Shiat al-Raj'a
Fleeing persecution and assassination attempts on earth, Raj'a (Peace be upon her) brought her followers to Mars. They've settled in the deepest part of the Valles Marinaras rift, with Qutb Alcazar, Raj'a's fortress, perched above at the canyon lip. But the colony is still dependent on supply drops from the faithful remaining on earth, and a series of purges have left them without enough technicians to keep the colony running. When religious fanaticism and severe deprivation meet, it's gonna be about as safe as when a match meets a can of gasoline.

In Shiat al-Raj'a, you'll contend with:

  • Kay, Ishiwara, chain-smoking chief engineer, armorer, and inventor, and also a former(?) Sixer
  • Redline! Reactor One narrowly avoids a containment breach, but was it an accident or sabotage?
  • The Stargazers, a former UN science outpost forcibly annexed when the Shiat arrived on Mars
  • The Broadcast Studio, a fortified production suite atop Qutb Alcazar's tallest minaret
  • Hadith 2.0, a brooch that records the Mahdi Raj'a's every word for posterity
  • The Coffins, inexperienced shock troops motivated with Sama-soma inhalers

The Chosen
The Earth is irredeemably under Satan's control, brothers and sisters. His scaly hands control every megacorp, every country, every person on the planet. Naturally, the only thing for the faithful to do was to start anew on Mars! With God's grace, the Chosen will remake the Red planet into a new Eden. Already their terraforming projects are bearing fruit, and advanced cloning techniques that cut gestation time down to 5 months have ensured them a booming population. From their main compound of Zion on Olympus Mons, they claim stewardship of the whole planet and preach that everyone born on earth is damned. Not that anyone else pays much attention.

If they don't shoot you on sight, the Chosen might get you tangled up with:

  • Founder Gabriel Cody, the last surviving member of the 144 Founders who led the faithful to Mars
  • Disfellowshipment, in which an entire community is expelled from the faith for "depraved worship"
  • The Deirdres, a controversial community of clones of Dierdra Sterling, who was a stowaway on the Founders' ship
  • Satan's Alley, a desolate canyon home to dust devils that can dismantle a rig in seconds. Not, surprisingly, your butthole.
  • The 8th Seal, a slang term for the chemical sterility treatments all Chosen receive on their 12th birthday. It has the fallible tag.
  • The Seraphim, an elite airborne strike team

And that's it for TechNoir and MechNoir! i've got to say I'm not a huge fan of MechNoir. It's not bad by any means, and I really like all three Transmissions, but the "giant robots" aspects feel kind of... tacked on, I guess? Partly I think that's because "giant robots fighting" isn't as natural a fit for hard-boiled detective fiction as "cyberpunk" is. Really, for the most part you could pull the rigs out of all three of those Transmissions and 99% of it would be exactly the same. Still, the Transmissions are really cool, and whether or not you're down with the giant robots they make great opportunities to push a TechNoir game into a bigger sci-fi arena than the typical cyberpunk story. I just kind of wish we'd gotten HexNoir.

Next Time: We continue my streak of reviewing d6 dice pool based games by taking a look at Hollowpoint, VSCA Publishing's game of "bad people killing bad people for bad reasons."

Sep 27, 2012

That's right, kids, take lots of drugs, leave the universe behind, and pilot Enlightenment Voltron out into the cosmos to meet Alien Jesus.

I should be doing real work today, but at least while I wait for the coffee to kick in, let's talk a bit about...

Minimalism. We has it.

Hollowpoint is the second game by VSCA Publishing, after their Traveller-inspired FATE sci-fi game, Diaspora. For Hollowpoint, they ditched the FATE system and came up with an original d6-based dice pool system, which we'll see more of later. For now, I'll just say that it creates some interesting tactical decision-making and that the math isn't nearly as transparent as you might expect from a dice pool system. According to the Special Thanks section, the system was developed with the aid of probability software provided by someone known only as "A Terrible Idea." So let's get started, shall we?

Chapter 1: Introduction
Hollowpoint is a game about a (reluctant) team of hyper-competent, hyper-violent individuals absolutely wrecking poo poo in pursuit of their goals. PCs are called Agents, because they all work for some shadowy Agency that brings them together to accomplish difficult missions--even if they'd all rather be badass lone wolves gazing broodingly off into the middle distance. The GM is called the ref, and her job really is just to set up the missions and play the bad guys (well, okay, the antagonists--odds are the Agents are pretty bad guys themselves). Most of the authority to actually adjudicate rules and poo poo is handed to the table as a whole.

The emphasis in Hollowpoint's mechanics is on teamwork, group dynamics, and accomplishing large-scale objectives rather than what the book refers to as "guy vs. guy" action. The example given uses the bank robbery and subsequent shootout in Michael Mann's Heat, and it's pretty good on its own so I'm just going to quote it:

Hollowpoint posted:

There’s a bank robbery scene in Michael Mann’s movie Heat (1995): the crew has robbed a bank and in the course of exiting they are bounced by the police. The crew has automatic weapons, great training, and willingness to cause harm and hurt others, but they are also professionals: their objective is to escape with the money.

Now in most guy-versus-guy gaming, this would be a really hard scene to model, because the system will focus on which cop your character is trying to kill each time-slice. The player is focused on the wrong thing with distinctly uncomfortable effects:
  • First, I (the player) have to plan how most effectively to kill police officers because what the system primarily lets me do with my assault rifle is kill people. I am not enjoying that in this context.
  • Second, I (the character) am not explicitly interested in killing police officers. I am interested in escaping with the money and don’t care if I kill police officers. But the system only models me defeating police officers with my rifle.
  • Finally I (both player and character) have sophisticated, staged objectives that involve violence against a large opposing force with full knowledge that I cannot just kill all of them.

For me, at least, it's that second point that's key to getting Hollowpoint as a game. You have an objective, and the question is what you're willing to do to accomplish it, not how you actually do those things. You're going to be utilizing violence, fear, good intel, and sheer badassery to bring you closer to your goals, not calculating your to-hit bonus with an AK-47 and comparing it to a cop's AC.

The setting in the game is deliberately left light and vague, and really to be honest you could graft the game onto pretty much any setting you want as long as it supports telling stories of violent, competent bastards on a mission. However, any setting you build is going to have three common points:
  • The Agency the PCs work for. It's a very hands-off agency; they don't have desks or office hours or anything like that. Periodically, Agents get a call or a text or an e-mail telling them where to show up to receive a mission briefing. When the mission is over, a very large sum of money is deposited in the Agent's bank account. they provide any kind of materiel you might need for the mission, but otherwise stay out of your way. And that's about the extent of your interaction with the Agency. Maybe you don't even know who they are; that's cool too.
  • The Mission is what gives the game structure. The Agency almost never dictates tactics or strategy to its employees, it just tells them what has to be done and leaves them to it. They might be tasked with an assassination, a kidnapping, or shutting down a terrorist operation--or maybe just robbing a very large, very secure bank.
  • Agents are the PCs. They are the ultimate in badass cool. They drive the finest cars, wear the finest suits, and kill people with the finest in German precision-engineered murder tools. They sip single malt Scotch and shoot tequila, walk among the masses with impunity, and generally live their entire lives at 48 frames per second. They are the deadliest people on the planet--Hollowpoint has no mook rules, we're told, because basically the entire planet is made up of mooks compared to these guys. For reference, Agent skills range from 0-5; supremely competent "normal" people, like SEAL Team 6 or professional mob killers, generally have a skill rating of 1 or maybe 2. Even still, Agents aren't immortal. Stand in front of thirty cops with SMGs and you'll go down bleeding like anyone else.

How about with some examples from fiction to put you in the right frame of mind? The biggest inspiration is Brian Azzarello's 100 Bullets, but you're in the right ballpark if you're thinking James Bond or Jason Bourne if they worked with a team. Kill Bill's Deadly Viper Assassination Squad is a perfect fit, as are The Expendables (even though that's not mentioned in the book). If Quentin Tarantino had directed Ocean's 11, or if the crew on Leverage didn't care who got hurt on their jobs, they'd fit too. Of course, it's really easy to reskin the skills in this game into something less violent, if you'd rather be modern-day Robin Hoods or "gentleman thieves." Then of course you can look at sci-fi or fantasy for inspiration: Highlander is mentioned as an example, as is The Terminator.

The Introduction wraps up with a section on reference material: in a nice touch, all the references are textbooks and scholarly texts on things like the psychological impact of killing, homicide investigation, and poisons. Never hurts to have some extra verisimilitude.

Chapter 2: Agency
The first thing to do when you're prepping a game of Hollowpoint is to create your Agency. This is a table decision, and it consists of three very simple steps:

  • The Charge is what the Agency exists to do. Maybe it's "advance the foreign policy goals of the US government" or "defend the world against COBRA, a ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world!" Maybe it's something more neutral, like "provide solutions to anyone who can pay." This is what gives context to the missions Agents will be going on.
  • The Enemy is who the Agency opposes. It might be a concrete group (SPECTRE), a broad class of enemy (terrorists and rogue states) or something more nebulous (strife between powerful crime families). This is what gives definition to the people Agents will be shooting in the face.
  • Finally, The Era is when and where the game is set, as well as the general aesthetic of the game. It might be "modern gritty crime drama" or "50s retro-cool" or "cyberpunk," or maybe something even more outlandish like "a cabal of demon hunters tracking infernal influence in the modern world." This provides context for the look and feel of Agents and the world they move through.

And that's it; it really shouldn't take more than a half-hour to hash this out. Remember the Agency is there for background and context only, it's not supposed to be a major, active part of the plot. Questions of agent loyalty or "are we working for the right people?" should be sidestepped for now--if at any point the Agents turn on their employers, they effectively become a new Agency whose Enemy is "our former employers." If you're spending even half as much time dealing with the Agency as you are with going on missions, you're giving the Agency too much spotlight time.

For quick pickup games or convention sessions or the like, you can always go with the default Agency:

  • Charge: Keep the balance of power between the East and West Coast criminal families stable.
  • Enemy: Any threat, internal or external, to the cartel.
  • Era: Modern, gritty and realistic.

Chapter 3: Characters
Normally I'd break here to solicit example characters from the thread, but honestly, characters in Hollowpoint are designed to be simple, quick to create, and ultimately disposable. For all that Agents are incredible badasses, it's assumed that over the course of a game Agents will die off, sacrifice themselves, or just retire to go raise their little girl in the Bahamas. In fact, having an Agent "move on" is one of the only ways to "level up" a character. It takes about 10 minutes or so to make one, and there's nothing particularly interesting about the process, so I don't see a lot of point in doing a bunch of examples.

Character creation has five steps, and if this is the first session of the game (or if any player has to create a new character), it's during this process that the ref should be explaining the Mission.

Step One is to note your Agent's rank. Starting characters are always Agent rank, but if you're creating a replacement character you may be eligible to be an Operative or a Handler. Each rank has a special ability, but since we've literally seen nothing about the game rules so far (:sigh:) we'll save those for later. For now, just know that they exist.

Step Two is Skills. Agents have six Skills, and by default they are:

  • KILL: Exactly what it says on the tin.
  • TAKE: Stealin' poo poo.
  • TERROR: Making people pee their pants in fear of you.
  • CON: Trickin' fools.
  • DIG: Figurin' poo poo out (as in, "Can you dig it?")
  • COOL: Being just that loving awesome. Coordinating and leading a team. Obective awesomeness.

Excuse me a minute while my inner grammar nerd twitches at having verbs, nouns, and adjectives all on the same skill list. Anyway, you can replace or add skills to this list really easily. Maybe your fantasy badasses need skills like MAGIC or your 007-inspired game is better served by SEDUCE than TERROR. If you're modelling a Liam Neesons character, you might replace CON with HURT and beat the information out of fools. All that's totally kosher, and really you could probably swap out skills on characters in the same game if you want to enforce a more specialized team.

Assigning skills is really easy: You get one skill at 5, one at 4, one at 3, one at 2, one at 1, and any remaining skills are at 0. Remember, 0 just means "about as competent as a normal human being." By default you'll just have one skill at 0, but if you've added to the list you might have more.

Step Three is just naming your character, and if you really want to writing a paragraph or so of description about personality or appearance, but that stuff's better brought out in descriptions during play.

Step Four is where you pick some traits. Traits are kind of like Aspects in FATE, in that you can use them to get a temporary bonus on a roll and use them to declare things about the game world. The difference is that traits are burned when you use them: if the trait is a physical object, it's lost or destroyed, and if it's something intrinsic like a scar or a memory, you tell the story and then shut the gently caress up about it, because who wants to hear that goddamn story about the time you got shanked in Belarus twice?

Traits can be generated in one of three ways, and everybody should use the same one: You can either answer five questions about your character (things like "You wear a black suit over a clean white shirt and a skinny black tie. No hat and well groomed. Nothing to make you stand out, except this.").

Or you can pick five "company traits" from these categories: gimmicks are things that aren't skills, but you're really good at like "driving" or "demolitions;" gadgets are, obviously, James Bond style super-gizmos like "laser watch" or "exploding toothpaste;" sidekicks are NPCs who can lend you their expertise. Needless to say, when sidekicks get burned, it's often literal.

Finally, you can go in completely blank, and when it comes about that you need a boost on a roll, you retroactively declare a trait and tell the table a story. If they like it, you get the bonus.

The last step is easily the coolest: Your complication. At this point the ref should have given you a mission briefing, so you (and any other player who wants one; complications are optional) write down something on an index card that makes this mission unexpectedly personal for you. Maybe the assassination target is your ex-wife, or you are the traitor the mission is trying to root out, or maybe the mission is taking you back to the prison where you did ten years' hard time. You don't have to take a complication, but complications are required to win. Yeah, that's right: this is an RPG you can win. We'll get to what that means later.

Next Time: We'll start looking at how this game actually plays. this is where the game really starts to sing.

Sep 27, 2012

That's right, kids, take lots of drugs, leave the universe behind, and pilot Enlightenment Voltron out into the cosmos to meet Alien Jesus.

Baofu posted:

Is it wrong that I kind of want to run a game of Hollow Point where the players are the members of Gatchaman?

I'm not super familiar with Gatchaman, but a quick Wikipedia skim suggests it would fit pretty well.

Baofu posted:

Also, did Hollow Point actually reference GARO or was that you?

I have no idea what that is, so if it came from Hollowpoint I missed the reference and if it came from me it was unintentional. What is GARO and how did I reference it?

Sep 27, 2012

That's right, kids, take lots of drugs, leave the universe behind, and pilot Enlightenment Voltron out into the cosmos to meet Alien Jesus.

The Leper Colon V posted:

...that really describes a lot of series, you realize. I'm a toku fan, too, but that was far from the first thing I thought when I saw that description.

Yeah, if I was referencing anything beyond "generic urban fantasy concept," it was GvsE or Brimstone. Maybe Reaper for the comedy option.

Hollowpoint's included urban fantasy setting involves badass angels fighting enemies of Heaven on the mortal plane. It's got a kind of "fifth season of Supernatural" vibe. Mainly I was just riffing on that.

Sep 27, 2012

That's right, kids, take lots of drugs, leave the universe behind, and pilot Enlightenment Voltron out into the cosmos to meet Alien Jesus.

Evil Mastermind posted:

Also how has nobody done Scion for these threads?

Too busy playing the same basic concept but better in Marvel Heroic Roleplaying.

Bieeardo posted:

The most horrible thing about Scion for me were the write-ups on the gods. Not only was Artemis a 'skirt-chasing lesbian', but most of the potential divine mothers were described more as divine MILFs.

Ugh, this. I pretty much rage quit when the description of Athena started with the phrase "honey-haired and voluptuous."

Bieeardo posted:

I think it was someone around here who pointed out that the 'jotunblut' power of the Norse group as written up was shockingly insulting to Norse culture-- blood was something you shared with a man that you felt confident calling 'brother', not lesser bodies who might qualify as minions, and certainly not animals.

"Shockingly insulting" covers a lot of Scion's execution, honestly. Some great basic concepts, but drat some of the choices they made.

Sep 27, 2012

That's right, kids, take lots of drugs, leave the universe behind, and pilot Enlightenment Voltron out into the cosmos to meet Alien Jesus.

Hey, I owe you guys some more Hollowpoint, huh?

Chapter 4: Conflict
We've seen how to build our stone-cold badasses and the world they live in. Let's talk about how they kill the crap out of people.

Like most story games, Hollowpoint breaks its play down into scenes. Scenes can be totally freeform, like planning a bank robbery or casing the joint, but when it's time to execute the plan, we go to the dice for a conflict. Conflicts are played out in a series of rounds that alternate between dice rolling and narration, and each conflict is a little harder than the one before it.

Simple, right? Again we're reminded that, when the dice come out, there's a decent chance an Agent ends up dead or otherwise "moved on," so don't break out the dice for anything that's not important. We don't roll to pick the lock, we roll for the whole burglary, and that's the scene.

So, dice pools. Each round, players declare what skill they're using this round to effect their goals ("I'm spraying lead over the hostages' heads to keep them from running" would be TERROR, "I'm hacking their security system and setting off false alarms all over the place" might be CON.) and roll dice equal to their rating. You're looking for sets, dice showing the same face number. Group all your dice into sets (you can't split sets; five 3s is always five 3s, you can't make it three 3s and two 3s) and rank them from largest, highest value to smallest, lowest value. Don't toss your single dice yet, you might be able to match them if you burn a trait. You can do that an any point during the round; you just roll the bonus dice and look for new matches.

The ref assembles her dice pool a little differently. NPCs don't have individual stats, rather, the entire opposition is represented by the ref's dice pool. The ref's pool starts at two dice for everyone playing, including the ref herself, and increases by two dice every conflict. The ref still describes what skill the opposition is using for purposes of effects, but that doesn't impact the dice she rolls.

Once everybody's rolled and ranked their sets, we start resolving. The largest, highest set goes first--the player (or ref) describes who the set is targeting and what they're doing to accomplish their goal. That target takes a hit ("target" for a player is always just "the opposition"). If the target has any sets, he loses a die from the smallest, highest set he has. If that knocks a pair down to a single die, it can't be used in the conflict. No matter how big a set is, it only knocks out one die, then it goes away. This is what the game meant earlier when it said the math isn't transparent, and that more dice isn't necessarily better. More dice increase the odds of big sets, which are fast as hell but can leave you vulnerable if you have one 6-die set and your opponent has three 2-die sets. Basically, it's like jumping one guard, only to realize he's got 15 buddies behind him and they beat the poo poo out of you.

(This, incidentally, is the main advantage players have in Hollowpoint. Since the ref is rolling one dice pool, no matter how many dice are in it she's only ever going to have six sets, max. Players can each theoretically get up to six sets.)

If the target is all out of sets, he takes an effect. Every skill can inflict two effects: the first-stage effect is something superficial--Shot for KILL, Exposed for DIG, etc. First-stage effects don't actually matter, but if you take a second-stage effect, you're out of the conflict and might move on at the end of the round. If the opposition takes a second-stage effect, the conflict's over and the agents won. If all the agents are taken out, it's a failure for them.

Moving On is an option for anybody with a second-stage effect. At the end of a round, your character leaves the game--killed, arrested, fed up with the whole ugly business and retires to Borneo, whatever. Next scene you get to bring in a new character sent by the Agency and, in my favorite rule of the entire game, you get to lecture the other agents about how bad they hosed up and how you're here to fix everything. No, seriously, the game stops for a minute while you dress them down. Your new character is the boss now, and if the ref is cool with it, you can even change one of the mission's objectives.

If you moved on during a conflict that's somehow relevant to the complication you came up with for the mission, congratulations, you win! Your next character levels up, from agent to operative, operative to handler. If your character was a handler already, you've won the entire loving game. Tell everybody else to buy you a drink.

Now, that's the basics of conflict action, but of course we've got some wrinkles to keep things interesting.

First of all, players have teamwork. Once per conflict, you can ask another agent for help. If they agree, you get all their skill dice for this round, they sit it out. However, the other agent has the option to say "gently caress that!" (Again, that's not me being colorful, that's the rule.) If they do, they instead get to steal two dice from your hand. On the plus side, you can supplement your reduced pool by taking dice from the teamwork pool. This is a special pool of five dice per player, but once you pull a die from the pool, it's gone. The only way to replenish it is when a new character joins the team.

At the end of each round of conflict, check to see whether anyone took an effect or if anyone burned a trait. If the answer to both questions is "no," the round is a wash. Something goes wrong, and every player takes an effect from the skill they used this round. This keeps the pressure up and eliminates the risk of a long, slogging conflict where everybody gets just enough sets to cancel everybody else out.

Refs have a couple of tricks up their sleeves, too. If she wants, the ref can introduce a principal. Principals are those rarest of beasts, NPCs who can compete with agents on their own level. They're not necessarily the targets of mission objectives--if your job is to whack the ambassador from Turkmenistan, the diplomat probably isn't a principal--but maybe his ex-Spetznatz nightmare of a security chief is.

Principals are usually defined as part of mission creation. When one's on the scene, the ref adds two dice to her pool for the conflict and splits her pool in two. Effectively, she's now two characters--the principal and the rest of the opposition. They track sets separately (so now the ref can have up to twelve) and can use two different skills every round. Players have to take out both to win the conflict.

The ref can also introduce a catch, something the agents have to do before the conflict ends. Maybe they have to jam the bad guy's dead-man switch before they shoot him, or maybe they have to plant the incriminating evidence before they set fire to the factory. To set a catch, the ref takes three dice out of her opposition pool and rolls them. These dice get set aside; a player can knock out a catch die by using one of their own sets, as long as the set is at least as high as the catch die. So if the catch has a 1, a 3, and a 6, the players need to use one set of 6s, one set of 3, 4, 5, or 6, and one set of any value. If all the catch dice aren't removed before the conflict ends, the conflict is a failure for the players, even if they took out the opposition.

And that's Hollowpoint's dice mechanic. It comes across as a bit opaque on the screen, but once you see it in action it's a slick, tense little bastard full of unpredictability and nasty surprises. I did a fair bit of chopping and moving to (hopefully) make it a little more comprehensible--the text slaps things like principals and teamwork in the middle of the rules, before it's even explained sets and how resolution works--the first time I read it I didn't get it at all. Hollowpoint in general isn't as well laid out as TechNoir was, IMHO, but once you've given it a few reads it sinks in well enough.

Next time: Mission creation and wrap-up. Hollowpoint is a pretty short game.

Sep 27, 2012

That's right, kids, take lots of drugs, leave the universe behind, and pilot Enlightenment Voltron out into the cosmos to meet Alien Jesus.

Forums Barber posted:

I have a buddy who keeps getting super psyched about getting in a Scion group and then for some odd reason things fall apart one or two sessions later, rinse, repeat. i'm curious where the fail point is, personally.

Not running the game in Cortex+ Heroic.

Sep 27, 2012

That's right, kids, take lots of drugs, leave the universe behind, and pilot Enlightenment Voltron out into the cosmos to meet Alien Jesus.

All right, let's put Hollowpoint to bed. It's had a few too many shots of straight tequila and smoked too many Red Apple Cigarettes and needs to sleep it off.

Chapter 5: Mission
Hollowpoint's final chapter (like I said, it's a pretty short game) covers building missions and pacing out a game session. It's basically the GMing advice chapter. So let's look at how we keep this pack of murderous bastards occupied, shall we?

Missions always start with two objectives. A two-stage mission gives the team more flexibility in its approach and makes it easier to set up unexpected twists and reversals and the like. Objectives always need to be stated in such a way that it's crystal clear when they're accomplished. "Stop the Tattaglia Family from killing the Don during the peace talks" is a good objective: if the peace conference ends abd the Don's still sucking oxygen, good job. "Bodyguard the Don" is too open-ended--when can you call that "accomplished?"

Objectives are always conveyed to the Agents before the session starts. As we've seen, though, the arrival of a replacement Agent during a mission can change the objectives of the mission. This might be because one has straight up failed ("the Don's dead, so now you have to take revenge") or maybe it's just no longer applicable ("the peace conference was a setup, now fight your way out!"). Players use the mission objectives to come up with their complications for the mission--unfortunately, we get no advice on what to do if players choose mutually-contradictory or identical complications beyond a vague "the ref might want to adjust her plans once she sees the complications, but maybe not."

The part of the mission you don't tell the players to start with is the principals. Every mission has at least one, and it's usually a good idea to have two. You save these guys for nasty surprises during the mission.

Again we're reminded not to bother rolling dice for every little thing, but as soon as 1) the Agents are doing something active and badass that seems to fit the skills and 2) there's some kind of meaningful opposition present, it's time to explode into action and start a conflict. It's also totally okay for the ref to be the one that initiates conflicts--if the Agents seem to be getting complacent or falling into a pattern of "go here, get intel start fight," you should shake things up. Have all the windows of their safehouse explode as a SWAT team crashes in, put their faces on the front page of the New York Times, whatever. Principals are good for this--in fact, every scene that involves a principal should be followed up with a retaliation scene like this.

Actually building a mission is pretty simple and starts with the Agency we created way back in Chapter 2: Once you know the Agency's Charge and Enemy, you should start to see plenty of potential missions. The stock "criminal cartel peacekeepers" Agency probably isn't going to be putting out a hit on Kuth'tul'tuk the Ever-Dying, and the Ancient and Venerable Masonic Lodge of the Stars probably doesn't give two shits about whether or not Vinnie the Cripple is skimming a few keys off the shipment to sell on the side. (But hey, you never know, smetimes going cross-genre is fun.) Another trick that can help you fill in the details is to think of a single, indelible image you want to present the players with, something that will really stick with them: The alien bursting out of John Hurt's chest in Alien or those shots of a completely empty London in 28 Days Later maybe. Between all those, it shouldn't be too hard to come up with two objectives and a few principals--and from there you can sit back and let the players tackle things however they like.

Next up we get three sample adventures to illustrate the thought process behind creating missions. The first, called Arena, has the Agency as super-black US or UN operatives tasked to find the missing Vice President of the United States--who, it turns out, has been snatched by a criminal cartel that snatches celebrities and forces them to fight to the death in a gladiatorial arena. The "indelible image" for this one is the Vice President being stabbed to death by teen pop sensation Alana Alabama while a bunch of jaded multibillionaires cheer her on from the stands.

The second, Magnificent, is pretty much just a straight-up Magnificent Seven ripoff. Nothing too special here.

The third and final, Callisto, has the Agentrs as the genetically-enhanced clone security force on a science station on Jupiter's moon. The latest supply ship from Earth is two months overdue, tensions are running high... and scientists are starting to die. Violently. This one's actually got some pretty cool ideas and a few examples of rules tweaks: Agents add HURT to their skill list, because the clones are programmed to be unable to use KILL on humans. We also get an alternate list of questions to determine Agent traits:

Hollowpoint posted:

  • How do people looking at you know you are a clone?
  • What human object do you keep secretly?
  • What childhood event do you remember even though it never happened?
  • What special equipment do you have to help you do your job?
  • With what enhanced skills have you been programmed?

After the sample adventures there's a short section on pacing advice, which is mostly pretty bog-standard: keep the group together if you can and regularly shift focus between them if you can't, motivate your players to want to advance the story, and-okay, actually, I have to stop here and share this "motivate your players" advice:

Hollowpoint posted:

What motivates players is not always obvious, but part of the ref’s responsibility in terms of maintaining the pace of the session is to push the players into interesting areas. Sometimes player choices appear irrational in terms of game mechanics: they should move on, but want to persist doggedly with their character, even though it means repeated failures.

Offer incentives within the story. Gushing praise from an attractive NPC can have a surprisingly positive effect. Inventing someone just to say how badass the agent is and buy them a drink can offer psychological reinforcement for the player. Conversely, presenting the need for the character to wear adult diapers as an undesired alternative can push some players towards actions they otherwise might not consider, simply because the phrase “adult diapers” has been established as the worst that can happen to a poo poo-hot ultra-cool killing action hero.


The one kind of novel idea (well, besides suggesting "yes, but you'll have to wear Depends to do it" as a tool for player motivation) here is the coda--basically, if the game ends a little early and everyone still wants to play, but you don't have time to whip up a new mission, you can stick one last scene onto the current mission that ties up a loose end or introduces an unexpected twist for next time. The example the book gives is the end of On Her Majesty's Secret Service: The mission is accomplished, James Bond is about to move on by getting married and it seems like everything's over, but then Blofeld makes one last attack and kills Bond's fiancée. Suddenly everything's different, and of course James Bond Will Return.

And that's effectively it. We get an Appendix with actual play write-ups of two different playtest games of Hollowpoint, which are useful examples of how a game might play out but kind of redundant given how many examples are scattered throughout the book. One is a bog-standard 100 Bullets-esque tale of Agents as the peacekeepers of an international criminal consortium, the other is a story about angels sent to earth to hunt down and destroy the Fallen. It's a nice example of how easily Hollowpoint adapts to other genres and styles, but I wish it, like Callisto in the sample adventures, had a little discussion of rules tweaks for such a setting. Finally there's a pseudo in-character "Field Guide" which is just a brief primer on various weapons and tactics to help you spout off suitably gun-porny dialogue and loving descriptions of the carnage you inflict.

So yeah, that's Hollowpoint. Great game, really slick system, but especially coming right off of TechNoir the layout and organization feels pretty scattershot. It's one of those games that's pretty easy to reference in play, but hard to read cover-to-cover and get an easy sense of how things work.

Next Time: My weird fixation with reviewing d6-based dice pool systems continues with a review that pretty much defines the "obscure" side of "obscure and mockable." We're talking about a game that's been described as one of the only real collector's items in the tabletop RPG hobby outside of the earliest printings of D&D. A game that was only sold for four days in the summer of 2000. That's right, folks, strap on your shield belts, brush up on the articles of kanly, and always remember that killing with the point lacks artistry, because we're going to be taking a look at Last Unicorn Games' Dune: Chronicles of the Imperium.

Sep 27, 2012

That's right, kids, take lots of drugs, leave the universe behind, and pilot Enlightenment Voltron out into the cosmos to meet Alien Jesus.

Halloween Jack posted:

Urgh. I polled the thread and planned to do Dune after I finish Everlasting (just one chapter left) and was really looking forward to it. :cry: :krakentoot:

Oh poo poo, sorry. I missed that. If you called dibs it's all yours.

Sep 27, 2012

That's right, kids, take lots of drugs, leave the universe behind, and pilot Enlightenment Voltron out into the cosmos to meet Alien Jesus.

So I've been playing a fair bit of The Banner Saga lately, and the giant, horned Viking-ness of it all has got me thinking about :

Trollbabe is Ron Edwards' game of... err... trollbabes wandering around, having cool adventures, and making new friends and enemies. The first edition was published in 2002, with a revised version in English in 2009 that--okay, look, I know the title's kind of goofy and the premise hits some people about as well as the phrase "Apocalypse World has sex moves," but goofy title and Ron Edwards' sometimes difficult prose aside, there's a really neat little game here.

Right. Sorry. Where was I? Ah, yes, the revised version in 2009. Funnily enough the revision was, I believe, prompted by the translators of the Italian edition of the game, who asked so many questions about the rules and added so many clarifications and examples that Edwards put the answers into the English version too. For reference, the original Trollbabe was about 47 pages long, the revised pdf is 110 pages. We'll be looking at the revised version here. (The Italian version also has some gorgeous illustrations I'll be peppering through this review.)

So just what the hell is a Trollbabe?

This is.

Well, they're big, for starters. 6'6" on the short end, and solidly built and--

Ron Edwards posted:

a trollbabe is a big woman, no little aerobicized butts allowed.

Goddammit Ron you are not helping my case here. Anyways, trollbabes are big, and moreover they're strong--even the weakest is a match for the strongest human out there. We're told they have mostly-human features and lack the "characteristic trollish body hair and posture." They do have horns, though--big curly sheepy horns, or little pointy goaty horns, or broad heavy cow-y horns, whatever. Not antlers, though. Antlers aren't horns. Trollbabes have horns.

It doesn't really matter where trollbabes come from; sure, maybe they're troll/human hybrids, but maybe they're not. Maybe they're just born into one or the other races sometimes, or they're the product of magic, or hell, don't even bother explaining where they come from. All that matters is that they stand outside both societies but are bound to each of them, and that the PC trollbabes are the only ones in the world.

As for that world, it's presented in similarly broad strokes. Geographically, it's Norse-pastiche: lots of deep-cut fjords, low mountains covered with pine trees, frozen rivers and harsh winters. There's magic and monsters, but it only exists as an external reflection of real-life, personal conflict. The villagers aren't stalked by a hungry draugr because an evil overlord summoned the hungry dead from their graves to rule the world, but because the dead warrior's best friend left him to die on the battlefield and lied about what happened to conceal his cowardice.

The humans in this world are likewise Norse-alikes (albeit with a flavoring of Celtic, Baltic, or Icelandic influences): Mostly Iron Age farmers, fishermen, and herders, they tend to live in small fortified communities or lonely homesteads.


Trolls, on the other hand, are massive, shaggy, horned beings that walk on their toes, work powerful natural magic, and occasionally eat people. They tend to live in bleak, gloomy places far from human habitation, but we all know how well that tends to work out.

Aside from Norse mythology, the Icelandic Sagas, and related fantasy literature, Trollbabe is heavily indebted to the underground comix scene of the 1970s. In particular, the aesthetic of Vaughn Bode seems to have had a big impact. Link NSFW for lots of cartoon nudity, but unlike a lot of fantasy art from the same period, there's a sort of... I dunno, innocence to a lot of it? The art in Trollbabe definitely reflects this, being all black-and-white line art.

And that's all we get as far as a setting, barring a few small maps that could be used to kickstart the story. Even those maps just have a few placenames written on them--it's on us as players to fill in the blanks. Trollbabe is very much a showcase for Ron Edwards' "Story Now" design philosophy, and the influence it has on later games like Dogs in the Vineyard is apparent here. (In fact, Vincent Baker is credited as an interior artist on this book, though I'm not sure which pieces are his.)

We round out the chapter with a discussion of scale. Scale is the level on which the story operates, both in terms of the dramatic stakes and in terms of what kind of things a trollbabe character can do. Games always start at the personal scale, so the stakes of the story will be the well-being of one or two people and the trollbabes' actions can only directly affect one or two people at a time. After each story, a player (any player) can step the scale up by one level, escalating the larger story of the game. After a few sessions, the PCs might be fighting for the fate of an entire kingdom, fighting an army single-handedly, or casting spells that bring nourishing rain to a whole valley. The stakes never go back down, though, so increase with care; you might find yourself outgrowing the things you care about.

Next Time: We'll learn how a single number is all we need to make a trollbabe and talk about the (minimal) adventure prep a game of Trollbabe needs.

Sep 27, 2012

That's right, kids, take lots of drugs, leave the universe behind, and pilot Enlightenment Voltron out into the cosmos to meet Alien Jesus.

Covok posted:

You have my attention. After all, even if the subject matter is not my style, a system that simple could be easily hacked to any setting.

It's definitely easy to hack. For the narrative framework of the game to work, you really need protagonists who sit on the border between two groups that exist in a state of perpetual tension, but as long as you have that and can break down the protagonists' approaches to problem-solving into three broad categories, you're all set. I've seen a Blade Runner hack, a hack where you play wandering shamans, even an Exalted hack that seems like it would work pretty well. Maybe I'll do a wrap-up post highlighting some of them.

Me personally, though I give Ron Edwards crap for that weird "no little aerobicized butts allowed" comment and a couple of other bits of prose later on, I like the default premise a lot. It's not the best attempt at deconstructing the typical portrayal of women in a fantasy RPG, but it's a fairly good subversion as such things go. Which makes the whole Circle of Hands thing all the more surprising to me.

Ettin posted:

Okay, now that's done, let's talk future posts.

First: I'm gonna try and do more of this poo poo, but I don't know what. There are two books left, take your votes:

Ancient Enemies: A Tager/Dhohanoid sourcebook, and the one I skipped already. It goes into a lot of detail, so there's some pretty goofy poo poo! Optional rules for Tagers upgrading Guyver-style that badly need houserules, new kinds of Tagers that weren't thought through very well, surprisingly boring new Dhohanoids, and more!

Burning Horizon: The 2013 release, a metaplot sourcebook for 2087. As in, sequel to Damnation View. There's no rape furries in this one, but if hearing about ridiculous metaplot that makes no loving sense if you think about it for two seconds and way better new Tagers is your thing, this book is absolutely for you.

Ancient Enemies gets my vote.

Sep 27, 2012

That's right, kids, take lots of drugs, leave the universe behind, and pilot Enlightenment Voltron out into the cosmos to meet Alien Jesus.

Halloween Jack posted:

The thing is, when Moebius and company started Metal Hurlant and guys like Bode were doing their thing, they were having fun and taking the piss. Maybe their work reflected the meatheaded side of the 60s sexual revolution, but they never intended to create this cottage industry that caters to companionless geeks the way muscle magazines catered to closeted gay men, nor the grotesque entitlement that came with it.

All very true, but I think lack of awareness of this is one of the main reasons a lot of people assume the worst about the game.
Trollbabe's art is actually quite good about not being skeevy. There's some nudity, sure (moreso in the Italian version), but the characters are all reasonably-proportioned with plausible anatomy, and none of the pieces I can recall suffer from porn posing. Hell, there's a straight up sex scene in the Italian version, and even that's not overly cheesecake-y. Most of the art shows trollbabes being active, badass heroes.

Later on in my review, I'll talk a little bit more about this when I cover the Trollbabe webcomics Ron Edwards and some of the artists did back around the release of the first edition, but yeah. A lot of people were put off by assumptions based on the name of the game without really looking at it, I think.

Sep 27, 2012

That's right, kids, take lots of drugs, leave the universe behind, and pilot Enlightenment Voltron out into the cosmos to meet Alien Jesus.

Last update we got a brief overview of Trollbabe, its world, and the influences that inspired it. This time we're going to start learning how to actually play the game. Now, a lot of RPGs frontload you with rules and character creation and whatnot, only to relegate "how to run this game" to a chapter somewhere near the back. Trollbabe is organized a little bit differently: the chapters are presented roughly in the order that you might encounter their topics during an actual game, and each chapter covers the players and the GM equally. So the next chapter covers not only character creation, but also how to prepare a Trollbabe adventure. It's a good layout for a book as small and rules-light as Trollbabe, and it makes it pretty easy to learn the whole game as you go.

Chapter 2: Getting Started
Trollbabe is a pretty prep-light game. It's not full-on no prep, like Apocalypse World, but I'd say it's lighter than, say, Dogs in the Vineyard. Maybe about as prep-heavy as TechNoir. We're told it should take about 40 minutes, total, between all the players creating trollbabes and the GM creating one or more adventures, and my limited experience is that that number feels about right.

(Yes, I said one or more adventures. We'll get to that.)

Remember how last update I said that you only need a single number to create a Trollbabe character? Here's how that works. All conflicts in Trollbabe boil down to one of three categories: Fighting, Magic, or Social. A trollbabe has a Number, ranging from 2 to 9, that determines how good she is at each thing. To Fight, you have to roll under the number (on a d10). To do Magic, you have to roll over the number. To be Social, you have to roll whichever range is smaller, but including the number. So if, for example, our trollbabe character's number is 4, she successfully Fights on a roll of 1-3, Magics on a roll of 5-10, and Socializes on a roll of 1-4.

There are a few more permutations that we'll get into in the Conflicts chapter, but this right here is the hot-rod engine at the heart of Trollbabe. It's fast, it's simple, and it reminds you just how much trollbabes are caught between two extremes. It also reinforces the fact that trollbabes are outsiders--with one exception, no matter what her Number is, her Social ability is always going to be her second-best resort for solving problems. (The exception, of course, is if her Number is 5, and we aren't told whether to roll over or under for Social actions in that case, so... I guess it's player's choice.)

This is also, incidentally, the first place where you really start to see the hacking potential of Trollbabe. As long as you can break the actions in your setting down into three strong, iconic types, Trollbabe will work beautifully.

So, on to creating a trollbabe. It's a simple, five-step process, and to illustrate it I'm going to be creating this trollbabe, who I found on the deviantart gallery of one of the Trollbabe artists:

I'm going to call her Hrefna, I think.

Step One
Choose the character's Number. Pretty straightforward, right? Any number between 2 and 9 is perfectly valid. This is the first and last mechanical choice you'll be making.

Hrefna looks like a fairly physical type, so I'm thinking her Number is 7. That means she successfully fights on a 1-6, Magics on 8-10, and Socializes on 7-10.

Step Two
Next we get a list of "impressions" for each of the three action types. These are roleplaying aids and character focus; they don't have any mechanical impact or determine what your trollbabe can or can't do, but they give you a guide on how to play your character and how NPCs might react to her. Just like Apocalypse World's Look options, we pick one from each list. No ad-libbing here.

Looking over the lists, I think Hrefna gives the impressions of "hand-held weapons" (for Fighting), "human magic" (for Magic; we'll learn more about the differences between troll and human magic later), and "feisty" (for Social--just look at that smirk).

Step Three
Here we get a little more freedom of description, as we're instructed to describe our trollbabe's hairstyle and color and the size and shape of her horns. It might seem like a small detail, but Trollbabe is designed to feel very visual, and these two aspects of the character's appearance are key.

Hrefna has straight red hair swept back from her face, a little longer than shoulder-length. Her horns project out sideways from her skull and are curved like a buffalo's.

Step Four
Now we describe two small items she carries, one human and one trollish. These aren't necessarily valuable or useful, but they're important to her in some way. This is also where we describe her clothes, again based on either human custom, trollish custom, or some combination of the two.

Hrefna carries a smooth stone with a hole through the middle; trollish lore says you can see spirits through it. She also wears a golden cloak-pin in the shape of the sun, a gift of thanks for saving the life of the thane's eldest son. She dresses in human clothing: buckskin leggings and a long-sleeved tunic, with fur-lined mittens and a heavy green cloak in bad weather.

Step Five
Finally, my personal favorite step: Take a look at the map your GM has prepared for you and point at a cool-sounding spot. Your trollbabe's adventure begins with her, hiking through the wilderness, toward that spot. It's totally okay to pick a spot nowhere near the other PCs if you want. Either way, it makes sure every game kicks off with a strong, iconic image. You can also detail out any other equipment your trollbabe carries at this stage if you really want to, but it's not terribly important. Just remember that the game begins with your trollbabe traveling somewhere on foot.

Because I'm a lazy SOB, I'm stealing a piece of the map from The Banner Saga for this demonstration. 

Looking it over, I think "Kingsbarrow" sounds like a cool place to be headed, so that's where Hrefna's story will begin.

And that's how you make a trollbabe. It's a really simple, easy process that should give you a pretty decent sketch of a character torn between the two halves of her nature. In keeping with Ron Edwards' "Story Now!" philosophy, we'll discover a lot more about who the character is in play, rather than writing out a long, detailed backstory and personality profile.

Stakes: four sheep.

Next up is the GM's section of Getting Started. Once all of your players have created trollbabes and decided where they're headed, it's your job to prepare an adventure at each location. Depending on how many PCs you have and how much they think like a traditional RPG "adventuring party," that might be anywhere from one to three or four adventures. Luckily, adventure prep boils down to answering a few simple questions to set up the stakes of the story, then turning the trollbabes loose to see what happens. No detailed synopses or plot maps; just an untenable situation the trollbabe is about to barge into and set on a collision course with drama.

First up is the "where" of the adventure. The players have done the basics of this part for you, so all you have to do is put a little detail onto the name on the map. Brainstorm some visuals, some sounds and smells, and think about what sorts of scenarios the trollbabe might encounter there.

Switching hats, I'm now prepping Hrefna's first adventure. I already know she's headed to Kingsbarrow, which looks like a pretty desolate place to me. I figure it was the site of a great battle long ago, and ever since the King of Grofheim was buried on the battlefield, it's been traditional to build royal tombs in that haunted place. I'm thinking blasted moorland, incessant wind that seems to carry voices from beyond the grave, and a haze in the air that cuts visibility to almost nothing.

Once we've got the where, we need to look at the "who." For a Trollbabe adventure, no matter how desolate the place, no matter how much the trollbabe just wants to be left alone, there's always someone there. Might be humans, might be trolls (but a mix is usually best), might be a whole kingdom or just one guy, but somebody's there and doing something.

I think there's a funeral procession from Skyhorn, bringing the body of their king to be laid in his barrow. I think about trolls, but decide instead that the ghosts of the warriors who died in the battle decades ago roam these hills, denied entry to the afterlife for some reason.

Next up comes the "what." This is where we start to get formal and nail down the Stakes of the adventure. There's someone, or something, that one or more characters want. That's going to be the fulcrum for the drama of the adventure, so it needs to be significant: life or death, victory or defeat, salvation or exile, that kind of thing. Stakes are always set at the same Scale as the adventure--remember we talked about Scale in the last update? Stakes are always a concrete thing, not a goal. "To save the troll's life" isn't a Stake, the troll himself is. Stakes likewise never say anything about the trollbabes themselves--how they react to the stakes is up to the players.

The real secret here, though, is that exactly what the stakes are don't matter. As long as you pick something that can reasonably be pulled in two (or more, but two is best for ease of understanding) mutually-exclusive directions and fill the adventure with people who won't rest until the stakes go their way, you're golden. Like Ron says, if you're still stuck thinking about this after five minutes, you're taking too long.

An obvious Stake that presents itself is "the ghost-warriors;" will they make it to Valhalla or be trapped forever on earth? Since this is Hrefna's first adventure, though, the Stakes are "personal." One, maybe two people at most. I mentally revise the time frame of the battle that was fought here and decide that the Stakes are one old man in the King's funeral procession, a veteran of the battle. Will he survive or be slain by the angry ghosts?

Lastly, we revisit the "who" and nail down a few specific characters. Likely we've already done a lot of this just by figuring out our Stakes, but now we can formalize that and jot down a few (very brief) notes about who's involved. It's also a good idea to jot down a list of names that we can pull from as new characters are introduced, and maybe sketch out a map of the immediate area.

Obviously we have the old veteran, who I'll call Asbjorn. I think he was a craven and his cowardice got a lot of his battle-brothers killed. Those ghosts now want him dead for his crimes. I figure we need at least one other member of the procession to voice support for throwing the old man to the ghosts once it comes out what he did. I'll call him Dagr, and say he's the King's son and heir-presumptive, but he hasn't been approved by the council of thanes yet. Finally, the ghosts get a "face character" in the form of Grimalf, the ghost of Asbjorn's closest friend. For added injury, I think Asbjorn ended up marrying his widow when he returned home. I'll call her Torleiva, and say that maybe she's with the funeral party as well. With that, and a handy list of names culled from Kate Monk's Onomastikon, I'm ready to see how Hrefna deals with this boiling pot of drama.


And that's it. I'll let Ron himself sum it up:

Trollbabe posted:

Consider what you’ve prepared so far and think about what might happen when characters get desperate. Typically, that means various permutations of property, family, and romance, which in practice become issues of theft, fraud, feud, and murder.

Therefore, Trollbabe adventures often take place in seething cauldrons of social tension. If they haven’t exploded already, then they’re about to.

All that said, however, I can’t overemphasize: do not prepare a “story.” No climax, no planned confrontation at the end, no “mission,” no nothing. When I say “no more” for prep, beyond the list of material presented here and only to the sketchy extent presented here, I really mean it.

Next Time: We'll look at how scenes are structured and how conflicts work.

GimpInBlack fucked around with this message at 18:50 on May 9, 2014

Sep 27, 2012

That's right, kids, take lots of drugs, leave the universe behind, and pilot Enlightenment Voltron out into the cosmos to meet Alien Jesus.

Bieeardo posted:

The two point version has the Bene Gesserit writing 'for a good time, call trigger-word' on every dive bathroom in the known universe.

Ahh yes, the little-known Missionaria Pranktectiva.

Sep 27, 2012

That's right, kids, take lots of drugs, leave the universe behind, and pilot Enlightenment Voltron out into the cosmos to meet Alien Jesus.

Davin Valkri posted:

Funny you should mention that, because at least one other vampire game being reviewed here calls out the Yugoslav Wars by name. Where's GimpinBlack with regards to Nights' Black Agents?

I am a bad reviewer and I should feel bad. I still need to finish Trollbabe, too.

Unfortunately, I doubt I'll have time for either before Christmas.


Sep 27, 2012

That's right, kids, take lots of drugs, leave the universe behind, and pilot Enlightenment Voltron out into the cosmos to meet Alien Jesus.

Doresh posted:

No game system is perfect (though some are significantly more non-perfect than others). What matters is the fun you have with it.

And there has been way too little F&F in here. Let's fix that!

Great idea! And to counterbalance the hilarious awfulness that is Changing Breeds, I'd like to talk a little bit about a game I'm really excited by. Strap on your mother's sword, kiss your father goodbye, and gather your friends behind the stables, because it's time to go

Beyond the Wall, from Flatland Games, is a quick, rules-light OSR-style game of fantasy adventure. The first edition was published as a free game back in 2013, with a full-color, expanded second edition last year. To date, Flatland has released several free updates, including new character options and a new scenario, and the game's first full supplement, Further Afield, just came out. It covers expanding and adapting the systems in Beyond the Wall to long-form campaign play.

Now, since there are roughly a million OSR-style games of fantasy adventure out there, I wouldn't be wasting your time with an F&F unless something set this one apart. What really makes Beyond the Wall special is twofold: first, while the system supports traditional campaign-style play, it's designed first and foremost for low-prep to no-prep one shots and short games. Taking a page from Apocalypse World and its ilk, the game provides players with Playbooks that serve as backstory generator, relationship engine, and character creation all in one go. Roll on a few tables, add up some attribute modifiers, and write down a few skills and not only does your Village Hero or Witch's Prentice* have a complete character sheet, she's got a history, some NPCs who are important to her, and a bond with the other PCs. GMs, meanwhile, have Scenario Packs, which include a threat, its motivation, and enough random events and connections to the players and their relationships to kick off an adventure and provide some satisfying twists and emotional gravitas. All told, with a group of 3-5 players, you should be able to go from zero to playtime in 30-45 minutes.

* Oh my god you guys, the Witch's Prentice is the best playbook. We'll get to why later.

The second thing that sets Beyond the Wall apart is its theme and inspirational material. Lots of OSR games try to take things back to the pulp fantasy of Howard, Leiber, Smith, et al: mighty-thewed warriors and wicked sorcerers, yadda yadda yadda. Not that that stuff isn't fun, but we've seen it all before. Beyond the Wall embraces older children's and young adult fantasy, with the three primary inspirations being the first three Earthsea novels by Ursula K. Leguin, LLloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles, and Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising series. This is a game about kids on the cusp of adulthood, in over their heads despite their great potential, leaving the comfort and safety of their little village to explore the wide world outside. The Wall in the title, then, is metaphorical. There might be a literal wall, like a palisade around the village or an old wall to the north that keeps the barbarians at bay, but really we're talking about the line between safety and danger, childhood and adulthood, and all that coming of age story stuff. In fact, while I adore the full-color second edition cover at the top of this post, I think the first edition's pencil-sketch cover is wonderfully evocative of this motif:

Just look at that picture and tell me you don't want to go exploring.

God, I love that. The wall stretching off into the hills, the three tiny figures in the middle distance, those crows... it really gives you a sense of the atmosphere of the game. So, let's dive in, shall we?

After a quick introduction that lays out the points I just talked about and breaks down the contents of the book (Core Rules, How to Play, Spells and Magic, and finally the Bestiary), we're off into the core rules. The core mechanics of Beyond the Wall are pretty simple; the book devotes about 30 pages to them, but you can condense the essentials down to a page and still have enough room for your class progression chart and the attribute bonus chart to boot.

What the Numbers Mean
The first "chapter," if you can call a 4-page glossary a chapter, is devoted to explaining the various numbers on a character sheet and what they mean. For all that the Introduction told us that Beyond the Wall is written for people who are experienced with RPGs, this section is still a good primer. I'm just going to hit the highlights here since I'm pretty sure goons reading this thread are at least passing familiar with D&D.

Beyond the Wall has three classes: warrior, rogue, and mage. There are no subclasses or kits or anything like that, although some of the Playbooks we'll see later combine two classes in interesting ways (and the Appendix gives guidelines for making your own "multiclass" characters). Level ranges from one to ten, with even level one representing characters a cut above normal folk--your naturally-gifted young swordswomen, clever tricksters, and hell-raising witch's prentices (seriously you guys, the best playbook). Level 5 is about where you hit fame and fortune, while level 10 is "hero of song and story" territory. In true old-school fashion, the classes are partly "balanced" by having different XP rates: the rogue levels up fastest, followed by the warrior and then the mage. Normally that's not a system I'm a huge fan of, and level matters a bit more in Beyond the Wall than it does in old-school D&D, but it does give the system one more lever to pull in terms of tiering class abilities. We'll talk a bit more about that when we get to the class writeups in a bit.

Ability scores are the same six we all know and love, but Beyond the Wall wisely eschews the pages and pages of tables old D&D was so enamored of and goes for a simple universal attribute modifier like later editions. It's not quite the same table as 3e, with 9-12 being the +0 modifier range and the cap being +3 at 18, but since the game uses a roll-under mechanic for attribute checks rather than a "roll, add modifier, and compare to DC" mechanic, modifiers come up a lot less. Most attribute modifiers only apply to one or two things, and mostly they're what you'd expect: Strength to melee attack and damage, Constitution to hit points per level, etc. The only two that stick out as a bit weird are Wisdom and Charisma: Wisdom adds to saving throws vs. mind control (only vs. mind control, and this is the only place an attribute modifier alters a saving throw), and Charisma adds to the number of NPC followers you can have. That one is mostly weird because hiring a bunch of sellswords to follow you into a dungeon feels more like a D&D trope specifically, not something you see much in the source fiction. Both kind of feel like nobody could think of particularly good uses for either attribute that weren't checks, so these were just sort of thrown in there.

Beyond the Wall's alignments are downright Moorcockian: Lawful, Chaotic, and Neutral. Again, feels a bit out of synch with what I remember of the inspirational fiction, but at least the text makes a point of saying that Lawful and Chaotic aren't just synonyms for Good and Evil: Lawful characters can be iron-fisted tyrants, and Chaotic characters can be freedom fighters. Although:

Beyond the Wall posted:

A brave warrior who wanders the land, righting wrongs which bother him and ignoring those in which he has no interest, is a chaotic character

This guy still kinda sounds like a dick to me.

Combat-related stats are pretty straightforward: Initiative is a static value equal to your level + Dex bonus + a class bonus; you don't roll, you just go in initiative order. Hit points are exactly what you'd expect, and the game uses Base Attack Bonus and ascending Armor Class as all right-thinking d20 games should. It does, however, hew to tradition with saving throws: Poison (also used for paralyzing effects and anything that attacks your physical toughness), Breath Weapon (also used for anything you need to get the hell out of the way of), Polymorph (oddly enough, only used for forced shapechanging), Spell (just spells), and Magic Item (also just magic items). Supposedly this is so it's easier to plug-and-play your favorite classic D&D modules, but ehhhh... five saves is too many and remembering that you roll vs. breath weapon to dodge a collapsing wall is weird and counterintuitive, to say nothing of the old "which save do I roll if a spell gives the wizard a paralyzing breath weapon?" debate. Fortunately, the Appendix has rules for replacing the saves with Fortitude, Reflex, and Will, which I highly recommend using.

Finally, the last thing in this chapter is Fortune Points. All we're told here, though, is that only PCs have them and they can be spent to give you rerolls, help out a friend, or cheat death. Despite Skills being A Thing that we'll talk about soon, they aren't mentioned anywhere in this chapter.

Most of the art in the book is in this pencil-sketch style, with little hints of the supernatural lurking just out of sight. I love the surprise bridge troll.

Making a Character
Despite the fact that the game's designed to kick things off with Playbooks, we get a simple "quick character creation" option for if we're not using Playbooks because we hate fun. (No, the book doesn't say that, but come on.) Character creation fits on a single page with room for that lovely little bridge troll illustration. Each of the three classes fits on a single page after that. Have I mentioned that I really like how concise and slick this game is? Anyways, it's about what you'd expect: 4d6 drop lowest six times, assign to attributes as you like, then pick a class and alignment. This is the first time we hear mention of Skills, and we'll get into them more later, but basically, when you have a relevant skill, you get a bonus to attribute checks. Skills are freeform, and you can either have two skills at +2 or one skill at +4. If languages are important in your game, you can pick a few based on your Int modifier (since the setting is at best an implied one, you'll want to kibbitz with the rest of the table to figure out what languages there are and if they matter). Finally, every character starts out with some basic adventuring/survival equipment, any tools they need to practice their skills (though not necessarily a full workshop--an apprentice blacksmith probably has his hammer and tongs, but he doesn't own a forge or anvil), and 4d6 silver coins to buy other stuff with. 4d6 isn't a lot of money, but it'll probably buy you some leathers and a light weapon at least.

Character creation forgets to tell us how many Fortune Points we get, but spoiler alert, it's three unless we're a rogue.

Warriors are exactly what you'd expect from an OSR game: d10 hit dice, +1/level BAB, no weapon or armor restrictions (actually, no class has weapon restrictions, which is nice). At first level they get Weapon Specialization (+1 to hit, +2 to damage with a chosen weapon, and they start with that weapon for free), and a choice of one of five Knacks. Knacks are small combat boosts like +1 to AC or +1 to all damage, or picking up another Weapon Specialization. They get additional Knacks at 3rd, 6th, and 9th level, and they can take the same Knack more than once.

Rogues aren't actually the traditional "thief" class. They can be, but really they're there to model any hero who gets by on wits, talent, and blind stupid luck more than skill at arms or mystical acumen. They get a d8 hit die, and a +2/3 per level BAB--but unlike the "medium" BAB progression in 3rd Edition D&D, the bonuses round down instead of up. In other words, the rogue's BAB goes +0/+1/+1/+2/+3 and caps out at +6 instead of +0/+1/+2/+3/+3 and capping out at +7. It's a small change, but one I'm kind of baffled by: rogues are supposed to be halfway between warriors and mages in terms of fighting ability, but by raw BAB the rogue doesn't pull ahead of the mage until level 5. The faster XP rate does make up for that somewhat, but still. Anyways, rogues can wear any armor lighter than plate (though it's not clear whether this means "full plate" or "chain and breastplate"), and their chief advantages are extra skills and fortune points: rogues start with four skills, and automatically learn another one every odd level. They also start with 5 Fortune Points instead of 3.

Mages do magic stuff. The magic in Beyond the Wall is more folksy and subtle than a lot of D&D-style games, but in a pinch they can still do some pretty flashy stuff. Mages get a d6 hit die, 1/2 their level for BAB, and can't wear any armor. Sorry, mages. Unsurprisingly their big advantage is magic, which comes in three flavors: cantrips, spells, and rituals. The magic system in Beyond the Wall is fantastic, and we'll talk about it in a lot more detail in a later update. Mages can also sense magic in a person, place, or thing, but it requires a few minutes and intense concentration unless we're talking about seriously big magic.

Next up we get a very short equipment list. Mostly pretty standard fantasy adventuring stuff; worth noting is that weapons are grouped by damage die and cost, so you can flavor your weapon as pretty much whatever. Personally, I would have just given each class a damage rating and had done with it, but this is a good compromise for old-school type gaming. Armor is similarly simple: an AC bonus and a price. Beyond the Wall doesn't worry about encumbrance or armor check penalties or anything like that, and rightly so. Also worth mentioning is that if you're using the quick character creation rules above, it's very likely that only the warrior will start with a d8 or d10 damage weapon, since they start with their specialization weapon for free. And nobody starts with better than leather armor and a shield for armor: the next step up from your 5 sp leather is 75 sp chain mail. Hope that Dex bonus works for you. It's subtle, but a nice way of reinforcing why warriors are still likely to have the best gear.

Normally at this point I'd pause to create a sample character, but that'll be way more fun to do in the next section, with the Playbooks, so lets press on!

Hirelings and Allies
Like I mentioned earlier, this feels kind of like a holdover D&Dism that doesn't really need to be in Beyond the Wall. Still, it's short and simple enough: hirelings are people you pay to do stuff for you, and they usually don't need stats or anything. Allies are more potent NPCs who are your trusted friends; they're usually about two levels lower than you are, and usually you and the GM will share the job of playing them. They also make handy potential replacement PCs if necessary. The rest of this chapter is just guidelines on things like price and availability of hirelings. Nothing super interesting.

Rolling the Dice
Finally we get to the rules! Normally I'd give a game crap for not putting the rules up front, but they're simple enough (and familiar enough to the target audience) that I'll give it a pass this time. Anyways, with the exception of combat and saving throws, pretty much every action you'd attempt is a simple d20 roll, trying to equal or roll under a relevant attribute. Beyond the Wall takes a very simple approach that pretty much anybody can try pretty much anything; actions being contingent on having a Skill is very rare. Penalties usually come in -2, -5,and -10 flavors, but if a task is easy enough to grant a bonus, you should probably just let it happen. Skills, of course, give a bonus of +2 or +4, depending. Given how much story game influence the game shows elsewhere in its DNA I would have liked to see some word count devoted to concepts like failing forward or succeeding at cost, but all we really get is the old "only roll for stuff that's dramatically important" chestnut.

Friends helping each other is a big part of the stories Beyond the Wall emulates, and the game has a simple system for modelling it. Basically, if you have a relevant skill for a task another PC is attempting, and you can describe how your character is helping, your friend can borrow your skill bonus for the action. Simple, flavorful, and cool. In the event that the whole group is collectively trying to do something, Beyond the Wall credits Luke Crane and Burning Wheel for its "loudest and slowest" rule. If a bunch of characters need to, say, notice the sleeping troll before they stumble into its camp, sneak through the troll's campsite without waking the beast, or run away from the recently-woken and very angry troll, have the character with the lowest attribute roll for the whole group. The more-gifted PCs can (and probably should) assist.

Pictured: group activities. Look at the little guys!

Finally, Fortune Points: you can spend a Fortune Point to reroll any failed roll, help a friend out even if you don't have a relevant skill, or stabilize at 1 hp if you're dying. They generally only come back between adventures.

Combat is about as simple as it gets in a D&D clone: no positioning or movement rules, just attack rolls vs. BAB and damage, with attribute checks covering everything else. PCs heal very slowly: 1 hp per night of rest, but it has to be a full night's rest, you can't stay up to keep watch. If someone has a Healing skill or the like that can go up to 2 hp, but otherwise it's "hope you find a magic well that heals the wounded."

True Names
This is the first place where the game mechanics really speak to the fairy tale vibe of the source material. Demons, spirits, faeries, and the like have true names they guard closely and which give power over them. If you speak a creature's true name, you get a +5 bonus on all actions against it and all saves against its powers. Mages with the right cantrip can also bind and command them, and some rituals require true names to be effective. If you know an ally's true name, you can call it out to improve the result of any magical healing or give them a bigger bonus when you help them out--but you have to actually call it out, so better hope nobody's listening.

So how do you find out something's true name? Well, nobody really just knows true names--at least not PCs--so any roll (usually Int or Wis) to figure them out actually gives you a clue for where you might find someone or something that can tell you. So you're not going to just happen to recall the true name of the Queen of Air and Darkness, but you might remember your Nana telling you stories of Old Myrrdwyn who lived beyond the Flying Falls and knew the name of everything that set foot in his woods, and then you're off to the races to find the Flying Falls and the grumpy old hermit.

Finally, most of the time human beings don't have true names, but if you want (and why wouldn't you?) you can say that human children receive a true name, usually at a coming of age ceremony. If you go that route, it's up to the individual players to decide if their characters have received true names or not. And if there's a plot hook more "YA fantasy" than "worried about my upcoming coming of age rite," I don't know what it is.

The Sorcerous Arts
The last section of the core rules before the optional Appendix gives us rules for the three types of magic. Actual spell lists are later, but here's how they work.

Cantrips are minor, freeform spells, like the ability to see the unseen, conjure lights or sounds, or being preternaturally friendly with animals. Casting a cantrip requires either an Int or a Wis check, possibly with a penalty if you're pushing the bounds of the spell or trying to do something very specific. It's easy to summon a light on the end of your staff; it's less easy to create a dozen bobbing, flickering witch-candles to lead your enemies down the wrong path. If you botch the roll, you have a choice: either you're magically exhausted and can't do any more magic until tomorrow (that also means any active spells you had going immediately end) or the magic goes awry in some inconvenient fashion. Maybe your mage light flares up and blinds you for a minute, or those now-friendly animals won't leave you alone. Mages start out knowing two and very rarely learn more.

Spells are most like what you know as D&D magic. In Beyond the Wall, though, spells have no levels. They're all of a piece in terms of power level, and mages can cast a number of spells per day equal to their level. Spells don't have any activation rolls or components, they just happen. Mages start knowing two and can learn more by studying from books or with a teacher.

Rituals are big, powerful, and slow. Rituals do have levels, from 1 to 10, and you have to be at least that level to cast one. Rituals take one hour per level to cast and have pretty steep material component requirements, which can form the seed of a mini-adventure. Like cantrips, rituals require either an Int or a Wis check to cast, but a failure here means you get the result you wanted (more or less) but something goes wrong and creates a new problem you have to solve. Mages start with one ritual and can learn more through study. They can also cast rituals they don't know from a book or a scroll, but at a -10 penalty. In other words, "apprentice grabs a spellbook he shouldn't have and wreaks havoc" is a viable plot hook. Personally, I'd be inclined to waive the level requirement for casting from a book/scroll, but that's just me.

I really, really love this magic system. It feels true to the source material while still giving the mage a limited arsenal of "holy poo poo" effects, and every single ritual has enough inspiration for at least two sessions' worth of story. The spell lists, which we'll get to in about two updates' time, are really evocative and actually feel magical, rather than feeling like a grab bag of super powers. A few D&D staples like burning hands, magic missile, and web are still in there, but just the nature of spells makes casting them feel more like a last-ditch effort, like Gandalf making exploding pine cones in The Hobbit, than like a fantasy artillery turret. I've never been much for playing casters in D&D type games, but in Beyond the Wall I'm really tempted.

Appendix: Optional Rules
The last couple pages of the Core Rules section cover some optional rules, including the aforementioned Fortitude, Reflex, Will save option, brief rules for playing elves, dwarves, or halflings if you want the classic fantasy races, and creating multiclass characters. Multiclass characters are basically constructed by mishmashing features of two classes together, trying to keep a balance between picking the best options and the worse option for things like BAB, hit die, and armor restriction. It's simple enough and mostly "eyeball it until it feels right;" we'll see more examples in some of the Playbooks. Here we get one example multiclass character:

The Elven Highborn is a combination of warrior and mage. She gets the warrior's BAB and saves, a d8 hit die, and can wear any armor lighter than plate. She loses the warrior's Knacks, but instead gets the ability to cast cantrips and rituals, but not spells. She also gets the elven racial abilities: the ability to see in all but pitch blackness, a +2 bonus to command or impress faeries, and immunity to nonmagical disease and poison. As an elf, though, she starts with one fewer Fortune Point than other characters.

And that's the core rules for Beyond the Wall in a nutshell. This post went on a little longer than I meant it to, but the individual chapters are all so short it was kind of easier to just plow through in one go. Overall, despite a couple of quirks, I really like the mechanics at work here. It doesn't do anything really revolutionary, but it knows exactly what to keep and what to jettison to make the game play the way it's meant to. The really cool stuff, though, will come next update.

Next time: How to play, playbooks, scenario packs, and creating the village.

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