Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Grist for the Hard SF Mill

The BBC has a fascinating article about real-life asteroid mining today.

Apart from being, to me, an amazing story about human ingenuity, and proof that future resource constraints will just make humanity cleverer and more ambitious in all manner of ways - there are two things about the story that strike a chord with me.

First, this:
If you look back historically at what has caused humanity to make its largest investments in exploration and in transportation, it has been going after resources, whether it's the Europeans going after the spice routes or the American settlers looking toward the west for gold, oil, timber or land.
That's an elementary lesson in setting design (people don't settle new lands for the hell of it), but also for game design. What do characters do in a Traveller game? Go after resources, or do something related to that. How will society develop? It will be focused on resources. So the message to GMs is: think about where the resources are in your subsector and how they are connected. Everything should come after that.

Second, this:
Water from asteroids could be broken down in space to liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen for rocket fuel. Water is very expensive to get off the ground so the plan is to take it from an asteroid to a spot in space where it can be converted into fuel.
This ties oddly into conversations I've been having by email with Patrick recently, but the future is water. I don't think we'd end up using ice as currency, because it would be too useful as fuel (it's a bit like using steel for currency a la Dragonlance), but you can easily imagine wars over otherwise completely insignificant icy rocks orbiting Uranus some time in our semi-distant future, can't you?

Monday, 23 April 2012


I'm moving house this week and have a lot on at work, so posting will continue to be sporadic over the coming days. Apologies. As a teaser, Patrick came up with a great way of hacking the Diaspora rules for a Moons of Jupiter game, and I'll explain how that works at some point.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Po Fe and Xolo

Centuries ago, a eunuch mercenary-turned-warlord called Po Fe had the archmage Gulvedra take the soul from his body and put into a ruby as big as a large man's fist. Through this, Po Fe thought he could cheat death - Gulvedra would later remove Po Fe's soul from the ruby and put it into a younger, fitter, more virile body than Po Fe's original ageing and genital-less form.

But Gulvedra did not keep his side of the bargain, and he planned to use the ruby containing Po Fe's soul for other, more nefarious ends. Po Fe's followers managed to rescue the ruby but, lacking Gulvedra's skill, they were unable to transpose Po Fe's soul to another human body. Eventually, they constructed a giant puppet, 20' high, and placed the ruby within it, and thus Po Fe finally did achieve an immortality of a kind.

Po Fe can control his puppet to a point, though he cannot speak. He communicates with crude sign language and by writing in sand. This saps his energy and quickly exhausts him, at which point his helpers use cranes and pulleys to help his movements. His followers later constructed for him a companion - a giant wooden puppet dog called Xolo. Seven of these followers volunteered to have their souls imbued into this creature, and they have animated it ever since. Since they are seven in number they do not tire in the same way that Po Fe does, and they will protect him to the death if he is attacked.

Po Fe

Armour Class: 3
Hit Dice: 8+4
Move: 60' (20')
Attacks: 2 fists
Damage: 2d8/2d8
No. Appearing: 1
Save As: F8
Morale: 7
Treasure: Nil
Intelligence: 12
Alignment: Neutral
XP Value: 775

Special: Po Fe quickly tires. After d6 rounds he will be exhausted and be unable to fight.


Armour Class: 4
Hit Dice: 8+8
Move: 120' (40')
Attacks: 1 bite, 2 paws
Damage: 2d8/1d6/1d6
No. Appearing: 1
Save As: F8
Morale: 7
Treasure: Nil
Intelligence: 12
Alignment: Neutral
XP Value: 775

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Old Dice

I'm moving house at the moment, and you know what that means - opening cardboard boxes that have been dragged down from the loft and examining the contents with a mixture of laughter, puzzlement (why did I keep this?) and nostalgia.

One thing that has emerged from this scraping-over and sifting-through of old mathoms is my first set of dice. These things were bought when I was about 13 (before that I borrowed friends' dice as quid pro quo for the fact that I had the AD&D 2nd edition books) and they were carried religiously around the town I grew up to a collection of living rooms, friend's bedrooms, and basements for games of D&D, Cyberpunk 2020, Shadowrun and MERP. Since then they have travelled all around the world, until they wound up almost forgotten at the bottom of a large box which also contained other ancient relics from a bygone age: GURPS 3rd edition and Changeling: The Dreaming.

In Training Day the Denzel Washington character at one stage says to the Ethan Hawke one, "Any good narcotics officer must know and love narcotics." Well, I'm of the opinion that any good role player must know and love dice. Old friends, I salute you.

The appealingly retro sweet tin the dice are housed in, held together with sticky labels because at one stage I had so many dice crammed inside it wouldn't stay shut.

The inside of the tin. I could have sworn I had Warhammer 40,000 scatter dice and autofire dice as well, but they appear to be casualties of the dice tin's odysseys around the world.

The dice themselves. They are cheap and nasty, almost whorish gem dice with suspicious rolling actions and a weightless, soul-less, tacky feel. But time has given them character and significance.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Traditional RPGs are Wood

One of my weekly without-fail podcast listens is BBC Five Live's World Football Phone-In. This week somebody called in and asked Tim Vickery, the "football in South America" correspondent, the simple question: why he loved football. He gave a lot of reasons, but one which struck a chord with me was that he said, in the modern age, there is so much interaction with gizmos and gadgets that sometimes it is nice to just go home after a day's work and touch something that is made out of wood.

To him, football is like wood. It is something from an age before computers, before iPads, before mobile phones, and before the internet. To play or watch football is to connect with the past, but also to the world of physicality and physical objects. It is to feel something natural, tangible, ancient. Something that was around before you were born and will be around long afterwards.

I think role playing games have a similar attraction. There is something about the simplicity of the implements - dice, pencils, paper - that has an actual touchable, holdable charm. They are not the ephemeral, non-corporeal, soul-less products of the computerised age. They are something older and weightier and nicer. There is a trusty, prosaic feel that you get from rolling the dice and scrawling things in pencil that a computer interface can't emulate.

This is why, for me, there is always going to be something unsatisfactory about online gaming, something missing. (Even though it has its obvious advantages.) It's not just the face-to-face interaction: Skype or Google+ hangouts give you that. It's being able to pick up the dice and roll them and let everybody else see the result. It's being able to pick up a piece of scrap paper and pencil out a map. It's being able to decorate your character sheet with doodles of your character. It's being simple in an age of increasingly complex things. I don't know what goes on inside my computer, and I'm fundamentally alienated from it as a result. Dice and pencils are understandable.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Yellow City Crab Fighting

In the Yellow City, crab-men are an untouchable underclass of slaves, as often used for food as they are for forced labour. One of the most popular pastimes in the city is crab-fighting, in which two crab-men are forced to wrestle for the crowd's amusement. "Stables" of crab-men fighters are everywhere in the city's riverside regions, each comprising a handful of fighters and a large number of trainees, overseen by their human owners. A crab-fight is nowhere near as violent as the city's other favourite bloodsport, club-fighting (in which two humans fight with bamboo staves), and generally speaking ends when one of the crab-men ends up on his back, his less-well protected belly exposed. At the worst the loser is boiled alive and eaten, but generally this is a rare occurrence.

Crab-fights often involve a number of fighters on a "winner stays on" basis, with the winner of the first fight taking on a new challenger, and continuing until defeated, whereupon his vanquisher stays on to meet the next challenger.

Crab Fighting Rules

Each crab-man has three combat stats: Strength, Skill, and Speed. These are rated d12, d10 and d8 in whichever order is preferred. Each round, the players roll initiative - i.e. their Speed dice. The winner (highest number) gets to choose whether Strength or Skill is going to be crucial this round.

Then fighting begins. Here, each player rolls their relevant dice, for Strength or Skill. The highest one wins. If the loser has less than half of the total of the winner, he loses immediately - he is tossed onto his back. If he has half or more of the total of the winner, he is still in the round, but is in a weakened position. The winner now gets to roll an additional d6 together with his stat dice and add the totals for the next roll.

The players roll again. Once more, if the loser has less than half of the total of the winner, he loses immediately, and if he has half or more of the total of the winner, he stays in the round but the winner gets to roll an additional d6. Additional d6s are not cumulative - a winner does not get to roll 2d6 if he wins for two consecutive throws.

One the dice have been rolled three times, and there is still not a clear loser, a second round begins and initiative is rolled again, and the process is repeated.

Example 1
Titchy is fighting Bull. Titchy has Speed d12, Skill d10, and Strength d8. Bull has Strength d12, Skill d10, and Speed d8.
Initiative is rolled. Titchy rolls 5 on his d12 and Bull rolls 3 on his d8 - Titchy has initiative. He decides he's going to make it a contest of Skill. Both players have a Skill of d10.
Round 1 starts. Titchy rolls 10 and Bull rolls 9. Titchy has won but not definitively. Next round, he gets to roll d10+d6, and Bull must stick with d10. They roll again. Titchy gets 9+5 on his d10+d6, making a mighty 14. Bull needs to get at least a 7 to stay in the fight. But he rolls a measly 1. He is tossed onto his back and Titchy wins to fight the next challenger.
Example 2
Mammoth is fighting Baboon. Mammoth has Strength d12, Speed d10, and Skill d8. Baboon has Skill d12, Speed d10, and Strength d8.
Initiative is rolled. Both are rolling d10s for Speed; Mammoth scores 2 and Baboon scores 10. Baboon chooses Skill.
Round 1. Baboon rolls 8 on his d12. Mammoth needs at least a 4 on his d8 to even stay in the fight. He manages to get a 4, just barely surviving. But next throw Baboon will be rolling d12+d6 and Mammoth will be stuck on a d8. They roll again. Baboon scores a pathetic 1+2 making 3, and Mammoth scores 3, matching it. It's a stalemate and neither player can add a d6 next throw. Baboon is back to d12 and Mammoth is back to d8. They throw again. Baboon gets 7 and Mammoth gets 5. Baboon is the winner, but not by enough of a margin to defeat Mammoth outright. It is the end of the round.
Round 2 now begins, with Mammoth and Baboon both again rolling d10 for Speed to determine initiative...

You get the idea. Full disclosure: the crab fighting rules are partly a bastardization of the combat rules for In A Wicked Age.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Two Themes are a Couple, Three are a Crowd

In the comments on my post on Shadowrun a few days ago, John wrote the following:

Cyberpunk is already a mash-up of hardboiled fiction and science fiction. Fantasy and hardboiled both combine well with science fiction on their own, but trying to combine fantasy with hardboiled without seeming frivolous or banal is a major undertaking in itself. Throw in s.f. as well and you've got a major oversaturation of themes going on.

This got me thinking: perhaps John is right, and mashing up two themes works fine, but adding a third causes the edifice to collapse under its own weight? Are there any famous or successful three-way, or four-way, genre mashups?

An experiment. Roll 3d10 and mashup the genres in this table. What do you get?

2, 7, 3: Noir, gothic horror, hard SF. There's a female vampire disguised on a space ship and gradually killing off the crew, and there's a whiskey-soaked detective on board who is in love with her and trying to solve the crime at the same time; the way he solves the mystery is through application of a clever scientific theory. Yeah, I can see how that wouldn't work - gothic horror and hard SF cancel each other out; if the vampire is really supernatural it isn't hard SF any more, but if there is a scientific solution then it isn't actually really gothic horror. Though both work well with noir.

10, 2, 3: Victoriana, noir, hard SF. A steampunk setting in which the details are meticulously laid out so that every element of the steam-powered world makes perfect sense. A whiskey-soaked detective attempts to solve a murder, but the solution revolves around understanding something specifically to do with steam engines. That kind of works, actually, though I'm taking a very loose definition of "hard SF". You'd have to really like steam engines, and really understand what they're capable of and what the implications would be.

10, 9, 6: Victoriana, literary fiction, western. A steampunk western in which nobody does anything except mope and ponder the imponderables while having ennui-inducing sex and taking mild intoxicants. Could sort of work if the writer made great play of the fact that steam, social conservatism and violence are sort of like the human condition. But would be boring and wasteful of its setting.

Maybe John is onto something.

Moons of Jupiter Planetcrawl

A long, long time ago (I can still remember how those blog entries used to make me smile) I wrote about the Solar System and its vastness, pondering:

In light of [the sheer size of space], and the fact that the solar system contains 8 planets, 5 dwarf planets, 335 moons and millions of asteroids, minor planets, comets, trojans, centaurs and the like, you really have to wonder why science fiction has obsessed for so long about interstellar and intergalactic empires. Isn't the solar system big enough? 

It strikes me now that the answer is fairly obvious: aliens. There aren't any in the solar system, or at least not ones we can wage war on/fuck/misunderstand, so SF authors by necessity need to look beyond it if they want Klingons.

But the fact remains: the Solar System is massive. Consider this for a second: the distance between Jupiter and Saturn is from 600 million kilometres to 2 billion kilometres. Jupiter has, at current count, 66 moons. Saturn has 62. Uranus and Neptune have another 40 between them. There have been 1,200 Transneptunian Objects recorded. There is a lot of stuff out there to get lost in. Indeed, the question I am currently considering is not so much "Why bother with what's outside the Solar System?" as "Couldn't you just set a game among the moons of Jupiter or Saturn?"

The moons of Jupiter vary hugely in size - from massive rocky Ganymede, bigger than Mercury, to tiny Cyllene, only 3km in diameter. They also vary in character: Icy Europa may have a great warm ocean beneath its surface which harbours life, while Io is a world of magma and volcanoes. Probably only 4 - the Galilean moons of Ganymede, Europa, Io and Callisto - are "settle-able" in the SF sense, but think of the potential in the 58 others. Secret bases for space pirates. Impossibly ancient and haunted alien monuments. Mines to be warred over. Space stations right and left. Orbital rigs for siphoning gas from Jupiter itself, built on construction bases bigger than cities, that circle elliptically around Callisto.

The thing about the Moons of Jupiter Planetcrawl is that the distances make sense. These moons are generally about 200,000 km apart at their closest (although of course, at the opposite ends of their ellipses, they are a heck of a lot further), which is traversable in a few hours at the speed of, say, Voyager 1. An inter-lunar craft would probably be a lot slower, because Voyager 1 is a big fat cheat and has the benefit of decades of acceleration, but still - it's the sort of travel that is do-able in the Star Trek "set a course for Ganymede and we'll be there by Friday" sense, and is imaginable without too much handwaving if you want your SF hard. And since your scope is somewhat restricted, you can actually flesh out your locations in a lot of detail - you don't end up with Traveller-esque abstraction in which each solar system has a single interesting planet about which there is a single interesting fact and a single culture. You can go deep: what's going on with Callisto? How does that affect what's going on with Io? What's with the planetary war on Europa and will the Jovian orbiters get involved?

I happen to have recently bought Diaspora. Maybe the planets are aligning.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

On Shadowrun

It's often said that good science fiction is about taking an idea that is initially preposterous and playing it straight. For this reason Shadowrun should really work. The idea is as preposterous as you can get and therefore, you would assume, has the potential to be genuinely interesting if taken seriously. (I don't mean being played seriously in-game; I just mean the actual setting itself.)

Unfortunately it always came across to me as being cartoonish and frivolous, as if the designers knew, in their hearts of hearts, that what they were coming up with was really rather silly indeed - or else a rather cynical attempt to gain popularity through combining two contemporaneous fads (epic fantasy and cyberpunk). Then again, my perception of the game may have been skewed by the gaming group I was in when I was 15 and Shadowrun was at the height of its popularity - the main raison d'etre for the group was actually smoking weed, if anything, which as well as robbing you of your ambition does not generally make for good gaming. (Don't do drugs, kids.)

I think the most interesting take on Shadowrun would be to make it more fairy-tale and supernatural. It's the future, we all have BlackBerrys in our heads and submachineguns which fire cyanide-tipped bullets and the Chinese and Brazilians have taken over the world, and yet at the same time...there are fucking elves around. And not your D&D "Legolas from the LOTR films" elves - your actual sidhe of myth and legend, who steal babies in the night and replace them with changelings, who trick you of your money and sanity just for laughs, or spirit you away for what seems like hours but actually turns out to be years. Or redcaps who lurk in dark alleys waiting to let your blood so they can dye their hats. Or Gibson-esque Voodou Loa who gain actual spiritual form from the worship of their immigrant followers. Or Wiccan gangsters who use magick.

The key to all this would be the interplay between the fairy and the technological, and the failure of high-tech to deal with the fact that there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. You know like how, in a cyberpunk game, the black ops wing of a sinister corporation could hack into your personal emails to find out your movements, or wait for you to come online and then fry your brain with hunter-killer software? Well, what would they do if you never came online because you use magick to communicate with your cronies? Wouldn't that sinister corporation want magick users itself?

Played straight, it works, see?

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Of All The Splatbooks I've Loved Before: The Complete Thief's Handbook

I'm conflicted about the 2nd edition "Completes". For every good idea, there was a bad one, and I think there was something damaging about the mentality of endless rules-based customization (as opposed to imagination-based customization) they promoted. Instead of just imagining that your thief was a burglar, you now had a mechanical justification for it, which actually functioned to restrict options by sending the message that in order to do something interesting with a character class there needed to be a TSR-sanctioned way to do so. Rather than extremely broad character classes functioning as a canvas on which a player could paint almost whatever he wanted, suddenly people were rushing to the breast of Mummy TSR to suckle on her dangling teats for their imaginative milk.

However, one thing that the earlier Completes had in common was promotion of random generation as a means of sub-creation. This was an unqualified good. And it gave me an abiding love for the random generator which I don't think will ever go away.

A good set of random generator tables is a game unto itself. It makes DM prep genuinely enjoyable, because it allows you to roll lots of dice and surprise yourself with the results. This is intrinsically fun, but it does something extra - it, in turn, sets off creative sparks in your own mind as you attempt to weld the results together into something that fits. This gives the campaign world detail and throws out, like confetti, hooks for the PCs to get caught on.

Let's illustrate this through reference to the The Complete Thief's Handbook's Random Thieves' Guild Generator. I will now use this generator to create a thieves' guild for the town of Swiftly, which I have just thought up (and stolen the name of from the title of a book I recently read). Swiftly is a river port, and it's a decent sized town - we'll say a population of 8,000. Here goes:

First, we find out how wealthy the town is. It's on a trade route, it has a port, and it's a major town, so it gets some bonuses for this. The final result of 19 - it's very wealthy. Naturally Swiftly is plush with cash from all the goods and money changing hands.

Next, we determine the attitude of the law. I have to know the dominant social alignment, but we'll call that neutral. I roll a 20, which means the law is corrupt. Obviously, the wealth in the town makes it easy to buy off judges. Or maybe the judges are just merchants - they're one and the same thing, and merchant courts run the legal system itself.

After that, we find out the relationships of the thieves to the merchants, and to other guilds. Again, we get some modifiers here because the law is corrupt, the society is rich, and so on. The result is a "standoff". The merchants are not in cahoots with the thieves' guild, but nor are they hostile. Their relationships with the assassins and bards' guilds are indifferent, but there is hostility with the beggars' guild. (I love, by the way, how it is taken for granted that these other guilds exist.) Beggars and thieves don't get along in Swiftly.

We now find out how many thieves there are in the town. The population is 8,000, and it is wealthy, and the law is corrupt, so the number is 2d10+3+10%. So that makes 15, rounded down. Some of these may not actually be in the guild itself - we'll find out shortly.

Now, the characteristics of the guild. I roll a 4, which indicates the leader is a guildmaster. A little disappointing, because if you get a 20 you get to roll on a special sub-table including results like "the guildmaster is a dragon". But you don't want to overdo things. We then turn to the nature of the rule, which is based on three axes: strong/weak, cruel/just, and despotic/populist. The leadership rolls reveal it to be weak, fairly cruel, and fairly despotic. A further roll, on another table, indicates that the membership is cohesive.

From this a picture emerges of a rather pathetic guildmaster who resorts to cruelty and despotism in an attempt to hold sway. The thieves in the guild remain cohesive, perhaps because life is good in Swiftly (it is so rich, and the law is so corrupt), and perhaps because none of them are particularly willing to challenge the guildmaster. They'd prefer to avoid being head of the organisation and thereby becoming targets themselves. They like the easy status quo - the guildmaster is not powerful enough to be anything more than a nuisance - and they are willing to let him be the fall guy if necessary.

The number of thieves in the guild is 75% of the population of thieves as a base rate, with -10% because leadership is weak, making it 65%. That's 9.75, rounded up to 10. The members are neutral to the 5 thieves who are not in the guild. The picture of a relatively lazy, laid-back guild solidifies. The thieves of Swiftly have it so easy, it isn't worth fighting - except, apparently, with beggars.

We now find out the levels of the thieves in the town. There are 2 of level 4, 1 of level 3, and 5 of level 2. The other 7 are 1st level. It makes sense for one of the 4th level thieves to be the guildmaster, with a the 3rd level guy/girl as his lieutenant. The remaining 4th level thief, and 4 of the 2nd levellers, would be independent - being of a certain level of competence, they don't need the guild and prefer to keep all their loot to themselves rather than pay guild fees. The 1st levellers are all good members - probably mostly youngsters.

And there you have it. The next steps would be to flesh out the names, personality and equipment of the higher-level thieves, think up a reason for the war with the beggars' guild, perhaps jot down some other NPCs - notably corrupt merchant/judges, high-up beggars, and so on - and there you have it: a finished thieves' guild. About 10 minutes' work, and something for the PCs to interact with should they ever end up in Swiftly.

Incontrovertible evidence that random generators are your friend.

The Minimalist Approach

In a bid for minimalist efficiency, I am going to attempt to transfer all my notes (and computer files) on Yoon-Suin into this squared/graph note pad and set of index cards. Bottle of wine, cakes and so on are optional extras.

The idea is to be able to carry round the entire thing in one hand, and flip through it at will. I am, from now on, travelling light.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

The Platonic DM

The people at Story Games have been going OSR-crazy, it seems. There are at least half a dozen threads about either the OSR generally or OSR games on the top page. (Although to be fair, it seems one of them was Zak baiting the site's denizens.) This one asks what makes an old school game old school - what are the mechanics? - and it inspired me to give a response:

GM neutrality is the bedrock on which old school play is founded. The GM is objective arbitrator, referee, judge. He is neither against the players nor for them. He presents them with the world they interact with, and he provides the consequences for their actions.

I elaborated a bit further:

No human being can be totally neutral, but he can try. That's really what it's about.

There will always be some level of illusionism, because in giving the players freedom they'll go where you don't expect, so you have to just make shit up (NPCs, locations, etc.). You try to do this as "neutrally" as possible by thinking to yourself, "Okay, in this game world, what would happen? What would be here?" Not what would be "fun", not what would be a challenge, not what would kill your players, not what would make a good story... but what would happen.

Random generators help a lot to keep you honest. Roll the dice and go with the results, and don't ever fudge. 

That's what I think it's all about, really. If I was listing DMing best principles, or drafting a manifesto, there would probably only be three points:

  • Try as hard as you can to be neutral.
  • Think about what would happen, not what would be fun, what would be a challenge, what would kill your players, or what would make a good story. Just what would happen.
  • Use lots of random generators to keep yourself honest.

None of these points are actually realizable 100% of the time. We are human beings, and human beings are flawed. But you can try as hard as you can, and you'll get better at it. (As Zeb Cook put it, you need to "Take the time and effort to become not just a good DM, but a brilliant one." A big element of that is training yourself to be neutral. At least as far as my own DMing preferences go.)

The platonic DM is, basically, a deistic God who is utterly objective and dispassionate. And being a deistic God is not really such a bad thing to aspire to.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

The Yuthada Vaanara of the Eastern Barats

The foothills of the Eastern Barat range, which extends southwards from the Mountains of the Moon, are home to hereditary bandit clans who make their homes in the thick forests and range far and wide to raid farms and river traders.

They breed and train captured apes who they use as shock troops. Each clan might have a herd of 100 or more of these apes - or yuthada vaanara as they are known - and they are typically allowed to roam free around the clan's territory to scare away intruders. When the time comes for a raid, the clan gather up as many adult males as they can using special calls and whistles (each clan has a different variant) and lead them to the attack.

Yuthada vaanara are fearsome in battle. They target the eyes, jaws, and hands, and typically horribly disfigure those they leave alive. They have dark green fur which camouflages them well in the undergrowth, and they move with alarming speed.

Armour Class: 5
Hit Dice: 2+1*
Move: 180' (60')
Attacks: 1 bite/2 fists
Damage: 1d8/1d4/1d4
No. Appearing: 2d8
Save As: F2
Morale: 7
Treasure: Nil
Intelligence: 3
Alignment: Neutral
XP Value:50

Special: In forests, ranged attacks against a yuthada vaanara are at -2 due to their speed and camouflage. If the bite attack does the maximum damage (8), it randomly removes the left eye, right eye, left hand, or right hand (roll a d4 to determine).

GHOST/ECHO, Dice Strategy and Negotiation

We spent the evening playing a one-shot of GHOST/ECHO. (This was an episode in my group's shared world, which we have given the banal but accurate description "To The Stars", and which I have posted about here and Patrick has posted about here.) We had fun with it and came up with something that was serious and ridiculous in equal measure, in fitting with the setting as a whole. I think I can characterise my group's style as being full of great, sometimes profound, setting ideas but unable to take actual play very seriously at all. I think that combination works well.

In any case, GHOST/ECHO is a minimalist game par excellence - it fits on two sides of A4 paper, on which nary a centimetre is wasted, and it has only one, simple mechanic, which can be boiled down as follows:

If you want to do something in any kind of situation of conflict, challenge, or difficulty, roll 2d6. Then assign one die to the "danger" and one die to the "goal". High is good and low is bad. So if you get 6 and 5, you could assign the 6 to the "danger" (meaning you escape harm) and the 5 to the "goal" (meaning you succeed); if you get 3 and 4 you can assign the 3 to the danger (meaning you take some harm and the danger remains) and 4 to the "goal" (meaning you have a partial success), and so on. It gets most interesting when you get 6 and 1, obviously.

What I like about this is that it forces you to make choices - to strategize - with your dice rolls. In some situations you might want to sacrifice success to escape harm, whereas in others you might want to succeed so much that you take whatever harm is coming your way. You have to be tactical with your luck. I like that mixture of decision-making and randomness. You can't govern the dice results and they force you to make tough choices, but you do get a choice.

Because it's so abstract, it also forces you to make everything up as you go along. "Harm" and "success" can mean almost anything you want to construe them to mean, and will probably end up being dictated by GM fiat - although the players can offer their own suggestions and perhaps negotiate. This makes the game a bit like what I imagine MAR Barker's Perfected Games Rules to have operated like in practice, though of course in a slightly more complicated fashion. Yet more evidence for the fact that if you scratch a story-gamer you will find an Old School Revivalist and vice versa - they just don't know it yet.

The game itself encourages a make-it-up-as-you-go-along, by having only the most thinly described implicit setting, which is essentially constructed of keywords that you give your own meanings to. Whether you appreciate this or not is, of course, a matter of "YMMV" - as I believe the kids put it. We tend to roll with that sort of thing because we're laid back about rules and fiat, but I understand not everybody necessarily feels that way.

In any case, it's free and takes about 2 minutes to read. Can't say fairer than that, now, can you?