In my recent post on principles for RPG systems I put dice pools near the top of the list, because I think they’re fun. Unfortunately, however, I think it’s hard to make a simple dice pool that doesn’t break several of the other principles in the list, and it’s difficult to make a dice pool mechanism that is satisfying. This is because of the way in which dice pools are related to skills and attributes.

Most dice pool systems are basically constructing a binomial probability distribution, with the probability of a single success determined by the success number on the dice in the pool, and the number of trials being the size of the pool. That is, in classic binomial distribution notation, if Y is the number of successes, n is the size of the dice pool and p is the probability of a success on one die (e.g. 5 or 6 on a d6=1/3 probability of success on one die), then

Y~Binomial(n,p)

The resulting number of successes is compared to some target number, that is either set by the GM or determined by the opponent’s attributes and skills. The problem here is that for every point of target number, you need more than one die to have a good chance of getting a success. For example in Shadowrun if the target number is 1 (the easiest non-trivial task) you have a 1/3 chance of hitting it with one die, just under 50% with two dice, and so on. Also you cannot get more successes than your pool, so if the target number is equal to n you can’t succeed.

The problem here is that typically your dice pool is constructed in a similar way to your defense target number when it comes to challenged skill checks. For example, if I construct an agility+melee dice pool and try to shoot someone, it will target a difficulty set by their agility+melee dice pool (or something similar). But because each point of target number requires more than a single die to have a chance of success, your attacking pool is not going to be enough to hit, in general. The systems I have played have several ways around this problem, none of which are satisfactory in my opinion. These are listed below.

Shadowrun

Shadowrun gets around the problem of equal target numbers by having both attacker and target roll their dice pool. Because the target pool will generate less successes than a target number based on the attribute/skill combination, this will always produce a lower target number than the attribute/skill combination itself. The problem here is that you have two players constructing then rolling and calculating a dice pool, and comparing results. This has the advantage of giving the player the chance to roll to avoid an attack (which gives them agency) but makes for a lot of rolls, which with large dice pools is trouble. It also introduces a lot of variation, especially at lower levels . You could simplify this by having everyone roll their defense alongside initiative, and then requiring them to keep it, but this would be unsatisfactory to many players, I think.

World of Darkness

World of Darkness (WoD) creates a whole range of problems for itself and then somehow gets around them in a bad way. In WoD your melee attack pool will be an attribute + skill, but your defense pool is just the lowest of two attributes, so it is usually much lower than the attacking pool. This solves the problem of overly-boosted target numbers, but it is deeply unsatisfactory. John Micksen, for example (my WoD Mage) has a defense of 2 (what can I say, he’s clumsy) but he has 3 dots in weaponry, specializing in swords, and he is carrying Excalibur. Excalibur! But his defense is 2! Excalibur is a +5 Holy Sword of Legend, FFS, but he gets no benefit. This is ridiculous: when magically boosted, wielding that sword, Micksen gets 21 dice to attack! But the same Micksen gets a defense of 2, three if he boosts his dexterity above his wits.

However, all is not lost! In WoD, your armour counts on your dice pool. John Micksen’s friend gives him Forces armour 5, so he gets 7 defense. Whew. The WoD rules get around the problem of unfair target numbers by having you subtract your defense from your opponent’s attack pool, and the opponent rolls the result. This seriously reduces the variance of the roll, but it also means that the imbalance of target numbers and attack pools is removed. However, what happens if your defense is greater than your opponent’s attacking pool? In this case, they have no dice left to roll! However, WoD has a rule for this: they roll a single d10 and hit on a 10. That’s right, they have a 10% chance of hitting you with a dice pool of zero.

So let’s imagine this scenario. John Micksen has a ritual casting on himself that gives him +4 strength and dexterity; another that gives him 8s again on his attack rolls; and his friend Andrew has given him Forces 5 armour. John decides he is sick of the paper boy making a noise at the gate of his mansion, so early one sunday morning he staggers out of his faerie-wine induced reverie and, leaving his lithe elven lover entangled in the bedclothes of the master bedroom of their faerie demesne, he wanders up the stairs and into mundane Ireland, picking up Excalibur along the way. He creeps up to the door unheard – this is not difficult, his Dexterity is 6, higher than most mortals (truly Faerie has changed him!), so the stupid paper boy won’t hear him. He hauls open the door[1] and springs forward, yelling obscenities, and takes a swing at the paper boy. “I am the Winter Fucking Knight[2], I do not get woken by paper boys!” he yells, rolling his 18 dice pool (he doesn’t bother wasting a point of willpower on a mere paper boy). The paper boy, however, is a cunning little yobbo and sneaky to boot, so he has a defense of 3,+1 for his woolen jacket, 4 defense for a mere villein! Now John rolls 14 dice, which with 8s again means he should get about 5 or 6 successes. This leaves the paper boy on 1 wound (that is a well-made Irish woolen jacket, not some crappy London fashion accessory!) So, the paper boy grabs his anti-dog club, and jabs it in John Micksen’s face. John Micksen has defense 3 and armour 5, for a total of 8, and the paper boy has a dice pool of 4. Result! The kid has 0 dice! He can’t hit. There stands the Winter Knight, resplendently bare-chested, but shimmering with the power of his friend’s enchanted armour, the snow-flake tattoo that betokens his position as Faerie Champion glittering cold blue light from beneath the silken radiance of the magical armour, armour that has been crafted for him in an arcane ritual by a wizard renowned throughout several planes of existence as a master of the elemental energies that bind the world together.

Oh but wait a minute, the paper boy has rolled a 10 on his one die. His anti-dog club slides through that armour like a hot knife through butter, and jabs John in the ribs, leaving a nasty bruise. The kid pulls a stupid face, yells “‘Ave ‘at, you fuckin’ pervo!” and scarpers up the path and away [well, scarpers as best he can for a kid who has just been stabbed in the face with an Ancient Sword Out of Legend by the Winter Fucking Knight, boosted to superhuman strength and speed].

This ridiculous scenario occurs because the lowest success probability in WoD is 10%, for people with an attacking pool less than their defender’s; followed by 30% for people with at least one die left in their pool. This scenario would have been the same even if John benefited from the +5 of his Ancient Sword that Unites Kingdoms. I think that’s a pretty crap rule. But it’s an inevitable consequence of trying to find a way to give some chance to people with zero pool.

Warhammer 3

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3 (WFRP3) gets around this problem by adapting the Shadowrun approach into a single roll, using a dice pool that is as complicated as possible. Basically, the target’s defense (which is calculated in an arcane and annoying way) is used to add challenge and misfortune dice to the attacker’s pool. These dice can roll failures, which are subtracted from the successes that are rolled by the good part of the pool. The challenge and misfortune dice have different probability distributions to the dice that the attacker puts in the pool (attribute and expertise dice). This system has the excellent property of giving the defender a highly variable target number, along with various side effects and it completely eliminates the problem of balancing defense target numbers against attack target numbers where both are derived from attributes and skills. It is also, as far as I know, the only RPG system I have played (except Rolemaster?) that actively incorporates training into defense (in a variety of overly complex ways, of course). It also only uses one roll. The downside is that constructing and evaluating the dice pool are both complex, requiring a lot of time and effort until you’re really familiar with the system.

Some possible simplifications

The Shadowrun system could be simplified to work in one roll by adding d6s of a different colour to the attacker’s dice roll, and having 5s and 6s on those rolls cancel the 5s or 6s on the attacker’s dice. This is basically the WFRP3 single roll, without the complex dice. Basically this is what WFRP3 needs: a simpler way of constructing and calculating dice pools. You could set up the game table with a large pool of white and red d6s in the middle of the table. The attacker grabs his or her number of whites; the defender grabs his or her number of reds and then passes them to the attacker; the dice pool is then rolled, and the result counted. Alternatively, dice pool construction in WFRP3 could be simplified by leaving the roll of challenge and misfortune dice for the GM; the player only sees the dice he or she rolled, and the GM then calculates the result.

Another possible simplification is to find a way to make attack rolls have more dice than defense targets. For example, if you could add your level to attack rolls, but not to defense target numbers; or if your defense target for any challenged skill check (including combat) was your attribute divided by 3 (round down) + skill, so that most attack pools are larger than target numbers; and also make sure there is a method for boosting attacks (e.g. Edge/Fate/Willpower) etc. Note that with larger dice pools these boosting methods tend to be a waste of time (see e.g. John Micksen), but if you are striving for more contained dice pools, then it probably would work. Of course, no one likes dividing numbers in play, but most character sheets have a place ot write defense; you could have a “defense” section after each attribute, which tells you the value it applies when being used for a defense target.

Another possible dice pool mechanism I thought of yesterday but haven’t done any calculations on, is one in which there is no target number, but the target’s skill+ attribute determine the minimum number required to hit. For example, if attributes start at 2 or 3 points, and skills at 1 or 2 points, then target numbers would range from 3-5. The attacker could then roll e.g. d10s, and get success on any die that rolls above this number. If the target were above 9, then success would only be possible on rolls of 10. So for example you have a dice pool of 5, and your opponent has a target of 5; you roll your five dice and need to get over 5, which basically means that your outcome will be Binomial(5,0.5), giving an “average” of 2.5 successes. Were your opponent’s difficulty 9, you would need to roll 10s, and the chance of getting 1 success would still be pretty good, but little chance of a big success.

I have also been thinking about a concept of what I call success pools, which incorporate post-attack damage values into a coherent framework for all skills and challenges, and could be used to fine tune some of these dice pool mechanisms. I will have more to say about that later.

I don’t think any of the systems I have described here, or their simplifications, are ideal, though the Shadowrun and WFRP3 mechanisms are pretty good (aside from their cumbersome aspects). Shadowrun is fine until you start calculating damage, I think; WFRP3 is fine if you make sure that the only complexity in it is the dice pool (i.e. you drop most of the rest of the game). But they show the difficulty of making a balanced dice pool mechanism, and how there always seems to be a compromise somewhere on the way when you try to introduce a decent random number generation system based on dice.

fn1: With his ritual on, John Micksen has strength 7, so he doesn’t so much haul the door open as launch it into orbit

fn2: John Micksen has some rage issues.

Fantasy Flight Games have announced the completion of the Warhamer Fantasy Role-playing Game 3rd Edition (WFRP 3) “line,” i.e. they’ve decided to stop producing any material for it and move on. I suspect this is at least partly because it was not very popular or successful – it’s a somewhat unusual form for a role-playing game, and also very expensive. I suspect a lot of people gave up trying to get the whole experience to work, and it didn’t sell as well as it needed to given its huge production requirements.

I played one and a half campaigns of WFRP 3, in English and Japanese, and from my experience I think that in many ways WFRP 3 was a revolutionary and exciting game. It imported a lot of ideas from board-gaming to provide improved ways to manage PC resources, skills and powers, and used a really interesting dice mechanic to generate rich and complex results for PC actions. Unfortunately, the mechanics are complex and fiddly in practice, requiring lots of space, huge amounts of tokens and a lot of fiddling. The dice mechanic is also just that little bit too complex for GMs to intuitively understand, making it hard for them to design and run adventures, and I don’t believe that Fantasy Flight Games ever came  up with a good way of handling monsters and providing GMs the proper resource- and system-management tools and tips they need to make the game work. I think this is likely a killer in a role-playing game – if you can’t make the complexity accessible and manageable to the GM, you alienate the central 20% of the gaming population that are essential to making the game sell (since players won’t bother buying books for games they can’t find GMs to play with!)

After WFRP 3 Fantasy Flight Games released the Star Wars system, which uses a stripped down and simplified version of both the action system and the dice system from WFRP 3. The Star Wars system seems to be much more accessible and easy to play, and has better introductory material, and may be more practical as a novel game system. I haven’t tried it yet but expect to soon. I have also simplified WFRP 3 and GMd a really cut-down system in a different world, and I found that once it is stripped down to just the dice and skill system it becomes a really neat little system. It is my hope that Fantasy Flight Games will use their experience of Star Wars to develop a simplified, stream-lined classic fantasy RPG based on the WFRP system without all the bells and whistles, using all their experience to date. If they do that, I think it could be a really good way to play fantasy.

In the meantime I hope to use the simplified version of WFRP 3 for more adventures in the Compromise and Conceit world, where I think it works as a system. I won’t be buying more WFRP 3 stuff, but I will be continuing to play around with what I think was a very promising and innovative way of gaming. Let’s hope for more reports in the future …

A coward and a traitor!

A coward and a traitor!

On the weekend I ran a one-shot set in my Compromise and Conceit world, using my improvised high-speed Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3 (WFRP3) rules. This adventure was set in North America in 1865, in the Red Empire. This setting is 100 years after the death of George Washington at the hands of my London group, and the subsequent collapse of the British colonial effort in America. In the aftermath the British controlled a narrow line of territories on the East coast, and over the subsequent 100 years repeated attempts to regain colonial ground had come largely to nothing. In 1865 the great land mass of North America now consisted of a huge native American Empire covering the centre of the land, and smaller nations on the eastern and south-western corners. Our group consisted of a mixed band of native Americans from these disparate nations, all gathered on a mission of revenge in a remote northern area of the Red Empire, some days’ ride south of the border with New France (Canada). Our party consists of:

  • Wachiwi: a Sioux scout, blessed with special powers to dance in shadows and summon the aid of her tribe’s ancient spirits
  • Weayaya: a Sioux skinwalker, capable of taking the form of other humans and animals, but also quite a strong fighter with a spear
  • Atha’halwe: a Navajo wiseman from the Empire of the Sun, the large empire in the south-west that was founded by the Navajo; this wiseman called on powers of sun and moon, and fought with a semi-magical curved sword he obtained from a demon-faced warrior from beyond the seas
  • Wickaninnish: an Iroquois brave (fighter) bristling with strange spiritual artifacts, whose name means “No one sits before him in the canoe.” The group’s warrior but also able to call on healing and support powers from his tribe’s gods

For these characters I introduced some new ideas to make the system more redolent of the type of adventuring I am most fond of in wild west epics, which I always imagine as being based on the movie version of Last of the Mohicans. This type of adventuring requires individual bravery and recklessness, with feats of physical prowess that are obviously magically based, and leavened with a heavy dose of purposeful savagery. I also, of course, needed to infuse it with magic (since this is the fundamental basis of the Compromise and Conceit alternative history), and include some famous people. To achieve this style of adventuring, I made some small additions to the fortune point rules:

  • I changed their name to “coup points”, and made them more powerful: in my hyper-lite version of WFRP 3 coup points can be used to reroll all dice of one colour in a dice pool. They can also be used to add an expertise die to a dice pool – not just two fortune dice as in standard WFRP
  • Coup points are regained through scalping! Each PC has a form of “counting coup” that they can use on an enemy they have killed themselves. This enemy must be killed in melee, and a PC can only count coup on their own victim. Each PC establishes their own specific style of counting coup – it doesn’t have to be scalping, but it has to be something that humiliates a dying enemy. When the PC delivers the killing blow their player declares that they will spend the next round counting coup: this means they lose their action for a full round, and spend it doing something horrible to their victim. They make a fellowship check, and if successful they gain a coup point – plus they may also recover damage, fatigue or stress. This mechanism ensured that the players would privilege melee combat over missile and stealth, and would have a powerful reason based in the rules for engaging in the kind of savagery that every western movie about native Americans naturally makes a centerpiece of the narrative.

I am aware that scalping was probably imported by the white colonists, and that this depiction of the “noble savage” is extremely contentious amongst modern native American activists (though I get the impression that Last of the Mohicans was well-received, and included a major role for a major native American activist), but I wanted to make this campaign fit the dramatic style of movies like Last of the Mohicans. Also, the Compromise and Conceit world is all about myths and ideological caricatures from western literature made real – Catholics in this world are demon-summoning hypocrites and everything in Dr. Faustus came true. Compromise and Conceit also involves confronting the colonial powers with their own stereotypes and mythical notions about the “uncivilized” lands they are colonizing – but making these myths and stereotypes real, and seeing how the colonial powers handle their enemies if even half the things they said about them were actually true. As a result of this, for example, the British lost any chance at colonizing New Zealand, and are trapped on the fringes of a hostile and inhospitable Australia where the land itself rises up against them. It seems natural that when trying to colonize America they should meet magical larger-than-life versions of all the fears they have about native Americans!

I also introduced a system of totems. Totems are objects that the PCs carry that they can deploy for blessings in battle: only one per battle, and totems are largely the province of non-magical characters – they are charms carried into battle by those who lack magic. The party have to make a decision when they enter battle as to what they will deploy, and this is the only benefit they obtain through the whole battle. They cannot be deployed outside of battle, but everyone benefits from them. These totems are a unique magic item for native American characters – there is no equivalent thing for the British, for example.

On this basis we prepared a one-shot set in the Red Empire. Stay tuned for the record of battle …

Clare and her Gyrfalcon

Clare and her Gyrfalcon

Clare de Lune is one of the characters I generated for the Compromise and Conceit one-shot. She is an ex-exotic dancer for the French troop known as the Cirque de Lune, probably kicked out for some kind of crime against the circus’s managers. Her magic uses nature, perception and deception. She has some combat skills, though she is a little fragile, and she also uses a large bird of prey as a familiar/battle ally, to make missile attacks and distract foes in combat.

This character description shows how simple and easy a character is to generate if you strip all the details out of the WFRP 3 system and just use the very basic dice, attribute and fatigue ideas. Note there are no skills – Clare de Lune is trained in four areas, and that is all. Also the spells I just made up – I didn’t aim for any sense of balance or usefulness, just designed spells to suit the character concept. I think this method works quite well, provide players are happy with a character that may have no use in some circumstances.

Character name:      Clare de Lune

Archetype-thingy:    Cirque du Lune bird dancer                        Feat Points: 3

Attributes

Strength 3 Intelligence 4
Toughness 3 Willpower 3
Agility 5 Fellowship 5

Trained in:

  1. Casting spells
  2. Animal handling
  3. Perception
  4. Spotting lies and tricks

Combat stuff

Defense Wounds Max/ Current
Melee 5 Fatigue       3 /
Missile 5 Stress       3 /
Surprised 5 Criticals (max:   )       3  /
Armour (  warm weather stuff ) 1 (4) Wounds       13 /

Weapons

Weapon Damage Critical Notes
Long knives 4+Str=7 2 Fast (+1 Initiative)
Crossbow 5+Ag=10 2  
Bird 3+Fellowship=8 3 Ranged Fellowship attack

Clare de Lune’s bird

Clare’s bird can be used to perform three tricks:

  • Attack (fellowship-based attack against opponents missile defense)
  • Hover over hidden targets (Clare de Lune can make missile attacks even if she can’t see the enemy, at +2 defense)
  • Distract (fellowship-based attack against opponent’s intelligence; success adds difficulty to enemy’s actions)

The bird can take 5 points of fatigue before it flies away; every failed attempt to do any trick causes 1 point of fatigue, as does any successful hit on the bird (defense 6). It recovers fatigue at 1 point per hour.

Clare de Lune’s spells

Name Difficulty Effect
Grace of Ages 4 Swap 1 blue die for green per success. Lasts WP rounds
Scarlet Pimpernel Highest Fellowship Assume a disguise, lasts 1 min/success (+1 hr/comet)
Riverdance 4 Walk on water for 1 rd/success.
Opium dream 4 Take opium, get a chance to do an overview perception check of all land within 1km / success. Boons/comets enhance the check
Soar with the eagles 4 Can see through the eyes of her bird for 1 min/success. Gain +1 training in perception

 

The morning after ...

The morning after …

The murderer was clearly in the volcano. Our heroes, having been asked to go and find him, set off up the mountainside to the location of his victim, from whence they hoped to track him. Now they were joined by Grunstein the wizard, who had travelled ahead to Steamline Spa on his own business. The slopes of the volcano loom over the northern side of Steamline Spa, and take some hours to climb to the misty summit; but all these slopes were smooth and perfect as an old Emperor’s burial mound, and a smooth path wound up the sides of the volcano, through fields scattered with sheep and dour shepherds. Brom Barca’s attempts to buy sheep having been rudely rebuffed, the group trudged on without incident until they reached the murder scene, a smear of blood and gore behind one of the volcano’s scattered basalt boulders. Rounding the rock, they found a scene of horror: the body of the dead shepherd had been torn apart and scattered across the land behind the boulder, disfigured so thoroughly and violently that it was almost impossible to say how the victim had died. Nonetheless, Leticia the elven swordmaster was able to piece together the clues; the attack had started with a sudden strike of the shepherd’s head against the boulder, and the shepherd had then been mercilessly mutilated while he yet lived. There was evidence that he had been drugged – perhaps with a soporific called Poggle’s Drakeboon – in order to ensure his unhappy compliance with his own dismal destruction. They could not find the head, though the ears were resting on a ledge of the boulder …

Having established they were most certainly dealing with a murder, the PCs set off up the mountainside to catch this evil Otto Mercads. Grunstein employed a new spell to transform himself into a wolf, and easily followed the scent of death and terror up the mountainside. They marched for another hour or so, into the mists that surrounded the top of the volcano. Here was a caldera, surrounded by high but broken walls of old volcanic stone. A narrow crevasse ran through the caldera wall, and they found themselves looking inside the volcano. The caldera was a rough bowl shape, filled with steam and a gentle rain from the higher steam as it emerged from the caldera to suddenly cool in the mountain air. A narrow path ran down from their crevasse to the bottom of the bowl, but it was impossible to see where it ended due to the steam billowing around the caldera. They reached the caldera a little after midday, so the bright mountain sunlight was streaming in great golden lances through the steam, but it was obvious that in just an hour or two this cloistered feature would be shrouded in clammy darkness as its walls cut out the sun. Realizing it best to do battle in the bright noon light, Azahi the dwarf marched forth down the narrow path. The others followed, and as they approached the bottom of the path they could hear the sounds of manic laughter echoing off the walls.

At the bottom of the path they found a small, neatly laid-out camp under a lean-to, with the shepherd’s severed head in pride of place in the middle. The steam parted for them as they fanned out in the caldera, revealing a large central pool of nearly-boiling water. A large stone jutted into the pool, and on this outcrop they could see Otto Mercad’s crouched and chuckling, painting pictures of blood with a loop of intestine and talking to himself. They approached carefully but he did not seem to care, and just laughed manically as they grabbed him, beat him a little, and tied him up.

Too easy. Just a few hours later they were leaving Steamline Spa with Otto chained in an empty wine barrel out of sight of prying eyes in their wagon …

The storm and the Drowning Well

That day’s travel was uneventful, but towards evening a vicious storm rolled in off the mountains, and they found themselves being pummeled by howling winds and heavy rain. Fortunately they had been told of an inn along the road, that most travelers a day out of Steamline Spa could expect to lodge at for the night. They redoubled their pace to this tavern, passing as they did a band of four road-wardens who had been called out in the inclement weather to attend a possible beastman raid. They were also surprised by a bounty hunter called Elizabeth, who emerged from the shadows of an old redgum to ask for their company on the final kilometre to the inn. She told them her horse had been lamed in the storm and, having killed it, she was walking to the inn to pick up the tail of her targets, two bandits who she had a mark on. A dour and tough-looking woman, she seemed more than capable of killing a horse and capturing two ruffians. All travellers on the road were focused now on the inn and respite from the rain, so few questions were asked; instead, they all slogged on through the gathering gloom, the howling winds and the mud.

By the time they arrived it was not yet sunset, but the storm was so intense that it had blocked out most of the light, and they arrived at the gates of the inn feeling as if it were already late. Grunstein the wizard had transformed into a raven and flown ahead, so he missed the strange arcane markings daubed on the wall by the gate, and none of the other PCs were able to decode them. Against the backdrop of the raging storm they pushed their way through the rain-soaked doors of the inn compound, and found themselves lodging within.

The inn was a large complex, consisting of a central three-storey mansion surrounded by stables, outhouses and gardens. The whole was ringed by a wall just over 2m high, made of dressed stone and thick enough both to repel any serious attempt at battery and to enable defenders standing atop the wall to fight back from crenelations. This kind of travelers rest is a common sight in the wilder fringes of civilization in the Steamlands, where local farmers are used to the predations of greenskins and, occasionally, beastmen. When a band is spotted approaching the neighbouring farms they lock up and flee to the travelers rest, from where they join together to fight off any siege and wait for roadwardens from other towns to relieve them. Like fighting summer fires, community defense is something that all remote farming hamlets practice at, and the scattered houses around the Drowning Well were no different, so it was no surprise to the PCs to find such a staunchly defensible tavern so far from civilization.

So, the PCs ducked into the tavern and booked a night’s accomodation, and a cellar for Otto Mercads. The cellar was as safe as a prison cell, pre-fit with chains and a portcullis that locked only from the outside, as well as a staunch outer door that only a minotaur could smash through. The Drowning Well was obviously used to hosting its share of passing prisoners, because the landlord locked Mercads down in this hole without a single word of complaint, and the group were able to repair quickly to drinking and relaxing. The evening passed uneventfully, and after a few hours’ rest the PCs were able to retire for a long, relaxing sleep.

The murders begin

The PCS were woken by the maid’s screams during the dead of night. The storm was still raging outside, but the maid was so disturbed that her anguished cries could be heard over the racket of howling wind, driving rain and banging shutters. Of course our heroes ran into the hallway to see the problem, and found themselves facing a familiar scene of horror: one of the guest rooms was open, and the occupant had been murdered in a very familiar way – the same way as Otto Mercad’s victim. There was blood and body parts everywhere, and guests gathering in the darkened hall to retch and cry in horror at the sight. The PCs, along with Elizabeth the bounty hunter, took charge, shepherding the guests downstairs to the common room and rushing to check on Mercads. They found Mercads sitting comfortably in his cell, chuckling and grinning and with not a drop of blood on him. How had he done it?

Other murders soon followed, with the maid, the landlord and his wife quick to succumb to some kind of brutish and supernatural force. Every time the murder was so reminiscent of Mercads’ artwork that the PCs just had to return to his cell to watch him, but the third time they returned they found him, too, dead, torn apart in the same way as the others. However this time they were fast enough to see the killer – a grotesque, incorporeal ghost, 3m tall and shaped like a beastman with a single eye. They attacked the ghost but it fled too fast, disappearing through a wall and out into the wilds of the night. Shocked, they realized that Mercads must have been the channel or conduit for some darker creature. They remembered finding a necklace made of a fleck of old beastman’s tusk when they captured him, and wondered if he might have been somehow connected with this ghost. While some of the PCs rushed to protect the guests in the common room, Gregor dashed to their own room to check on the chaos artifacts they were transporting to Heavenbalm, lest that should prove to be this beastman ghost’s true focus.

The ghost wasn’t there though, it was gone … but the beastmen were coming.

Artuta rises ...

Artuta rises …

The beastmen come

Shortly after they saw the beastman ghost, the PCs heard yells and clamour from the front door. Residents from nearby farmhouses were gathering at the gate, telling urgent stories of a new horror: a horde of beastmen was gathering in the darkness to attack the inn. As they filed in, bedraggled and dishevelled from the storm, they and the residents began to prepare for a siege. The PCs, however, were distracted by a light in the corner of the compound. Approaching, they saw the vague outline of a ghostly form, glowing faintly and flickering in the onslaught of rain and wind. This was no beastman, but the remnant form of a witch hunter, obviously injured and looking desperate, and wearing clothes from a previous generation – the ghost of someone with something important to tell them? As they approached the ghost whispered to them with a voice that carried despite the snatching wind and rolling thunder:

The truth is beneath the words. The truth …

With these words he disappeared, revealing a slab of stone, scoured clean of earth by the rain and wind, on which a short passage was inscribed:

Here lies Artuta,

Most twisted of the changer’s brood,

Cleansed by Solkan’s hands.

He will not be the last.

The PCs dug up the stone quickly, and beneath it they found a waterproof scrollcase, laid carefully in a hollow beneath the stone. Dashing out of the rain, they opened the case to find a torn piece of parchment, on which someone’s story was written:

I do not know why I have written this but I feel death is close. Artuta stares up at me. His one eye is still, but maybe it watches. Foolish thoughts, but in the forest lurk the remains of his band, now led by the Shaman Grazzt. He has strange dark powers at his call. Who knows what he can do?

What has brought this disquiet upon me? I cannot say, although a strange dream came to me last night. I was guarding Artuta even though he lies dead. Even in death, he led them. Yet I could not escape from this task for a wall surrounded me on all sides, a tunnel above through which I could see the stars. It was difficult to move, for my limbs were heavy.

This vision fills me with fear.

May Solkan watch over me.

Were these the words of the ghostly witch hunter?

At this point the party fragmented. Gregor fled back to his room and began a frenzied effort to destroy the amulet of the beastman tooth; Leticia and Brom Barca headed to the walls to coordinate the defense of the inn against the gathering horde of beastmen, who could now be heard outside the walls howling and preparing their attack; and Azahi the dwarven Trollslayer ran with Grunstein the wizard to the well after which the inn was named. Azahi had interpreted the “tunnel above through which I could see the stars” as the well, and wished to explore it. As he and Grunstein lowered themselves into the well they heard behind them the first roars of beastmen preparing for battle…

Born under a subterranean star ...

Born under a subterranean star …

The well and the battle

In the well Azahi and Grunstein found a tunnel leading into the earth below the inn. They followed it inward, Grunstein lighting the way with a cantrip, and soon found a locked stone door, on which a clear warning was written:

Ye thatz enter here, beware

For liez here, Artuta

When he rizes

Come hiz brood

To spill the blood of all.

The door was locked, and neither Grunstein nor Azahi a thief, but Azahi managed to remember a few hints of technical trickery from his dwarven tribe and disabled the lock. They opened the door to find a crypt, rough-hewn from the earth. In the centre was a depression covered in brush and rubbish; leaning against the walls of the room were four skeletons of beastmen. The mark of Tzeentch was carved into the wall at the far side of the room, and it was obvious what this room was – the resting place of something called Artuta, probably an ancient and powerful beastman. Grunstein began breaking up the first beastman skeleton, but before he had done much damage the other three came to life and attacked Azahi. The dwarf braced himself, and battle was joined; but as he fought the ghost of Artuta arose from the central resting place and fled out of the door. Both he and Grunstein struck at it, but their attacks failed to kill it, though they seemed to wound it badly. The ghost was now obviously more corporeal, gaining in power from the murders it had managed to commit, but still able to shift to ghost form, in which shape it drifted rapidly down the tunnel and out of the well into the stormy night.

Upstairs, the beastmen had begun to gather together for battle. Their force was far larger than a normal beastman band, numbering perhaps 30 in all and with four beastman captains. Lurking at the rear near some kind of makeshift altar was a strange figure indeed – a smaller beastman similar in appearance to a Gor and lacking full horns, unarmed and dressed in tattered cloth but obviously in charge despite its small size. As Brom Barca and Leticia watched, this figure was joined by the ghost of Artuta the beastman, and the attack began.

The inn compound had two gates, and the beastmen attacked both at once. Their attack was artless and brutal. A beastman captain charged forward, and used his enormous strength to boost a couple of Gor onto the walls; these then hauled the massive captain on, and they attacked. Meanwhile a gang of larger Gors lined up and took turns charging at the main gate, trying to smash it in with their horns. By this means, should the captain fail to seize the wall itself, his minions would still eventually beat down the gates. Unfortunately for this beastman captain and his Gor minions, Leticia and Brom Barca guarded the gates; Brom himself almost the size of a Gor took on the three minions, and Leticia moved forward to engage the captain, fighting with delicate poise and grace despite the slippery stones, the howling wind and the beating rain. The battle was short but brutal, and within a few short exchanges Brom and Leticia had slain their enemies. Leticia hacked off the head of the slain captain, and as Brom Barca lifted it high for all the beastmen to see the captain at the other gate began a temporary retreat. At this point Gregor joined them on the wall, scattering the fragments of the beastman amulet before him into the wind. This seemed to have no effect – the distant shaman ignored it, and Artuta’s flickering form did not change except to howl in rage at the retreating beastmen. Now Azahi and Grunstein also trudged up onto the wall through the rain, and our heroes grouped together ready to receive the next charge.

As the beastmen milled about, preparing to make a new attack and being berated, beaten and enraged by their captains, Gregor remembered the Hochland long rifle he had looted from bandits on the journey to Steamline Spa. Though the ghost of Artuta was far from the walls and beyond easy range of a crossbow or longbow, it was not beyond the reach of a long rifle, and Artuta was obviously injured. Perhaps if Gregor were lucky … he carefully lined up the rifle, Brom Barca and Leticia holding their cloaks over him to try and prevent the worst of the rain from damping his powder. He fired as the beastmen formed their lines for another charge, and his bullet flew true … with a single howl of outrage and shock, Artuta’s ghost dissolved into the storm, vanquished by the witch hunter. The beastman shaman took one look back at the walls, screamed his rage to the uncaring tempest, and without further ado turned to flee into the distant woods. His followers, seeing the destruction of their plan, lost all their lust for battle and fled after him.

The battle was done. The beastmen had failed to break the gate, and Artuta had been killed before they could drag any prisoners back to sacrifice for his manifestation. Whatever sick plot had been laid to wait here in the courtyard of the drowning well, it was done now. Though the PCs had inadvertently brought about the invocation of Artuta’s ghost by bringing Otto Mercads to the inn, they had triumphed over Artuta and his whole tribe. They could rest, and enjoy the reward of heroes. And heroes they must be, for in the morning they must surely head off in pursuit of the shaman, to uncover the full story of how Otto Mercads had become the kingpin in a plot to bring back an undead beastman; and to slay the shaman before he could foment more mischief. Perhaps in those hills they could find more dark magic to take to Heavenbalm for destruction … or perhaps there they would find their doom …

Brom Barca at the docks

Brom Barca at the docks

There are secrets in Separation City, but our heroes cannot plumb their depths from the confines of that small town – they must at some point follow the clues they have toward Heavenbalm and Store. Though they could stay a little longer to explore Separation City for further clues, our heroes now find themselves in possession of items of deep evil – a fragment of warpstone and a vile book of darkness – that they must take to Heavenbalm soon, before the essences of chaos should corrupt someone anew. They must also find a powerful priest who has some special blessings, that their minds can be put at ease from the horrors they have seen in these past months. With this in mind they decided to temporarily take their leave of Separation City, and head northwest to Heavenbalm. There they would destroy the evil items they had gathered, find ease in Sigmar’s peace, and investigate – probably brutally – the associates of the wizard they just recently vanquished in the crypts of Separation City.

Before they left though, our group of adventurers decided who would stay in Separation City, and who would venture forth. The journey to Heavenbalm is some 7 days in good weather, and knowing our party’s penchant for getting side-tracked in the war against evil, it seemed wise to expect the same band of adventurers would be together for some time. The newly-formed band included two new adventurers, once again introduced to the party by their patron, Baroness von Jungfreud. Four stalwart souls elected to leave the dubious sanctuary of Separation City:

  • Gregor Thornton, the witch-hunter who carried the evil items
  • Azahi, the dwarven troll-slayer, who would set out with the party in a covered wagon, so great was the affliction of his insanity
  • Brom Barca, human pit-fighter, a veritable giant of a man on a quest to find the only pit-fighter who ever beat him (and that through treachery)
  • Leticia, elven sword-master, of mysterious purpose as are all of her kind

Brom and Leticia were introduced to the party by von Jungfreud, and it was at this final meeting that the PCs were able to learn some things about her and her husband’s past that might in future help them to understand the importance of Separation City.

Meeting with Baroness von Jungfreud

With the spring weather becoming finer and warmer after the closing of the wattle-viewing season, Baroness von Jungfreud invited our heroes for a small party on her private yacht, perhaps also to do a little whale watching. With the sun glinting on the still waters of Separation Bay, a gentle breeze blowing through the canopied deck of her pretty little yacht, Baroness von Jungfreud treated our heroes to a fine repast of roasted meats, raw fish eaten fresh-landed and still dancing on the plate, bowls of preserved lilly-pillies, and rice wine in capacious quantities. As they ate and drank she freely answered all their questions, and the PCs learnt many things about her and her dead husband Mattix’s past:

  • Mattix was heir to a farming demesne in the sunlit highlands between Store and Heavenbalm. It was inland, on the slopes of Realmsight Mountain, in an area of rich forests and rice farms, and he stood to live a long, boring and healthy life taxing the local farmers
  • He never gave a clear reason for the move, except that he thought there were better prospects in Separation City – to do with trade between Dwarves, the Palace Cape and also opening up the inland
  • It was Mattix who set about establishing the Dwarven trading post and community. He employed a Dwarven architect, Archaex, to help build the ship spire and the associated underground storage and power source. He may still have the plans to it, and certainly still has the communications with the Dwarf amongst his personal possessions
  • Mattix had contacts in Store and Heavenbalm
  • Occasionally Mattix visited Store, always without the Baroness, and she thinks that he maybe had a lover there.

By the end of the meal they had come to understand that Mattix von Jungfreud had some plans involving the dwarves, and to know more about his past they would need to find this Dwarven architect Archaex. Baroness von Jungfreud, the dutiful wife and society socialite, gave no indication that she had any knowledge of whatever secrets his plans contained. They would need to investigate his lover, and his contact Archaex, to learn more.

But first, they needed to find solace and redemption at Heavenbalm, so they took their leave of Baroness von Jungfreud and headed into the hills

Bushrangers!

Springing the trap

Springing the trap

Their journey would take them through Steamline Spa – about two days’ journey from Separation City – and then on to Heavenbalm, another three days’ journey beyond that. The roads in spring were easily passable and smooth, so they took with them a wagon, holding their travel supplies and their dwarf, inchoate with crawling terrors after the undead near feasted on him. The first day of their journey was uneventful, but on the second day they came upon a strange and sinister tableaux. At this point the road parted around a small satoyama, with the main road continuing to the northwest but a small, disused trail cutting left from the road to ascend the satoyama in switchbacks. A crumbling and fading shrine gate on this smaller road pointed to a disused shrine in the heart of the satoyama, but the switchbacks were overgrown and obviously unused. To the left of the road and behind them were loose and scrubby eucalypt forest; to their right, open land leading to a small stream, which was surrounded by reeds and thick grasses. In the junction of the road, where the smaller path split from the main road, lay a fallen horse and rider, both clearly dead. The PCs stopped their wagon and horses and approached the bodies to investigate, leaving their dwarf rambling to himself in the wagon. They tried to see where the body had come from, how long it was dead, and what killed it, but none of them had any facility with medicine, and perhaps the bright sun had already begun its hideous work on the corpse. Brom Barca noticed, however, that the horse’s saddlebags seemed full of coin, and all three of our heroes descended with glee upon the corpse.

It was as they began to tear open these saddlebags that the bushrangers sprung their trap. Small squads of archers appeared simultaneously from the streamside, the forest behind the wagon, and the switchbacks on the satoyama. Each squad had three archers and a leader: a wizard on the hillside, some thug with a long rifle in the trees, and a sword-armed maniac in the stream. Caught on all sides in a hail of gunfire, our party had to act fast. Gregor moved to the edge of the path and opened fire upon those attacking from the stream; Brom Barca hauled his huge body up the switchbacks of the satoyama, charging through loose scrub and undergrowth with roaring, frenzied abandon; Leticia moved to engage the archers from the forest as they dropped their crossbows and charged to close combat.

Things did not go well at first, though. Brom Barca was caught in entangling vines by the wizard’s magic; Leticia was forced to cut and run in the face of superior numbers; and Gregor found himself sorely pressed and beaten back by the force of his enemies. As Leticia ran she was cut down with arrows, but the archers left her to deal with Brom Barca, who soon hauled himself from his entanglement and slew the offending wizard, spattering his fellows with gore and causing them to flee. Gregor, it seemed, would be surrounded and cut down like a dog, but the sounds of battle roused Azahi from his insanity and, stumbling from the wagon, he engaged Leticia’s foes before they could reach Gregor. This gave Brom Barca time to return to the fray, and soon the tide turned: all the bushrangers died like pigs at a slaughterhouse, Brom Barca laughing with joy as their blood spattered his apron and smeared his face, and Gregor pale-faced and grim with the dark job of stabbing, smashing and shooting. Then the job was done, Leticia rescued from a bad fate, the dwarf Azahi regaining enough poise to return to future battles, and Brom Barca bloodied, joyous with the thrill of murder done righteously.

They chased the remaining few bandits to the abandoned shrine, where they found them taking cover behind a wagon at the entrance, firing down the path at the party. Brom Barca cared not for the sting of bolts, though, and charged forward, his huge bulk hitting the wagon with such force that it overturned, splintering, and crushed the last three men beneath it. Then it was a simple job of jumping on the wagon, driving its splintered axle and wheel-frames into the pinned and desperate bandits until they writhed no more, and their blood consecrated the entry of the shrine: a bloody and frenzied chozubachi this. Once Brom Barca had spilt the blood on his hands and face, he entered the shrine to see if anyone else dared worship at the altar of death; but none were there. So they looted the bandits temple, and continued on their way to Steamline Spa.

The murderer of the caldera

When they reached Steamline Spa they handed in evidence of the dead bandits, and found accomodation in a fine hotel near the central lake. They were soon approached by an elder of the town, Merschak the steward, who asked them to attend to a delicate matter: a murderer called Otto Mercads, last son of a noble house, had returned to Steamline Spa and begun his horrific killings again. So far no one in the town knew except Merschak and the local lord, and they wanted some out-of-towners with a good reputation to go and find Mercads, and bring him back alive. Once caught, Merschak wanted the PCs to escort Otto to Heavenbalm, where he would again be locked up in a secure place far from harm – being a scion of a wealthy family, he could not be subjected to the rough justice of commoners, but would be locked away from the rest of the world for good. For finding him and taking him to Heavenbalm, the PCs would be paid 5 gold each.

The PCs agreed, and said they would seek out Otto the next morning. His victim had been found on the slopes of Mount Steamline, and it seemed likely he was hiding in the caldera; they must travel up the mountain the next day and find him. So bid, they agreed to the deal, and settled down for a pleasant and restful sleep, free of dreams and worries …

(Picture credit: the image of Brom Barca is by Guilherme Formenti)

Yesterday I GM’d a session of Warhammer 3rd Edition (WFRP 3), the next instalment in the Steamlands Campaign, but this time due to a lack of space and the ongoing fragmentation of my card collection I decided to implement some of the ideas I’ve been working on to simplify WFRP 3. Today we used the following:

  • Drop all active defenses and basic melee combat cards
  • Drop all more complex action cards that don’t involve a unique benefit: so e.g. Thunderous Blow is out, but Riposte is kept (since it gives a second attack)
  • Calculate combat difficulty from attributes, instead of using “one challenge die plus defense” rules
  • Allow players to use all their talent cards, not just the slotted ones
  • Make exhaustable talents a once-per-encounter phenomenon (most encounters being less than 5 rounds anyway)
  • Enhance fortune points: they now add expertise rather than fortune dice
  • Allow the expenditure of fatigue to gain bonus fortune dice
  • Fortune and misfortune dice cancel before rolling, to simplify dice pools
  • Number of successes on a melee attack acts as a damage bonus
  • Critical cards are for fluff only: all criticals are simply a +1 difficulty (i.e. one misfortune die) per critical suffered
  • Enemies also suffer criticals

Two players made new PCs for this session, so they selected only action cards that give an identifiable non-attack effect in combat. Cards selected were:

  • Riposte, which enables a free melee attack in response to a missed attack
  • Counterblow, which does the same for someone blocking
  • Twin pistols, which I now treat as a special ability (it has no recharge): add one challenge die to the dice pool to attack with two pistols
  • Who’s next? Which gives allies additional attacks or enables a cleave-like attack after killing someone
  • Berzerker Rage, which should be fairly obvious
  • Combat focus, which gives the user a bonus on attack rolls (not damage)

These cards enable the players to have more freedom to act and special benefits in combat, rather than simply making them do more damage or adding conditions as after-effects of successful attacks.

The result of this was a faster, more dynamic combat scene. The revised rules encouraged use of fortune points and fatigue, and made managing fatigue more crucial; big dice pools enable greater damage (there is no 3-success limit to damage as occurs on the cards), so in one case I think the biggest warrior did 17 points of damage (and one enemy bandit nearly did the same). The combat was over in four rounds but was just as dangerous: all three PCs were critically injured, one was unconscious and one incurred a temporary insanity. The whole battle – between three PCs and 12 enemies in an ambush from three directions, with one group fleeing and having to be chased – took just one hour (or maybe less) and everyone was able to stay focused through the whole thing. Managing enemies was much easier for me, since I didn’t have to worry about cards and the like. There was no faffing at the end of rounds, as I think only two cards (Berzerker Rage and Combat Focus) needed to have recharge tokens removed, and there was no fussing with talent cards or active defenses. Calculating hit targets was easy – players just tell me their attribute and defense score – and converting misfortune dice into challenge dice (at two-for-one rates) reduced dice pool sizes. The increased numbers of challenge dice also increased the number of chaos stars, so at last someone’s black powder weapon blew up[1].

I think the revised rules will also make enemies slightly more dangerous if they have attributes much bigger than the PCs, which means forces will be more evenly matched. For example, one bandit had a strength of 5 that he could use to defend with, which in the revised rules means 2 challenge dice and one misfortune die added to the dice pool. For an attacker with strength less than 5 this is going to be a tough target, and in fact in order to kill this guy the players had to use fatigue and fortune points to bolster attacks. Under the standard rules this guy would have been no more difficult to hit than any of his minions, and making him harder to hit would require me faffing with a variety of action cards.

Although I’m not fully assured of its effect on game balance, I like the effect of simplification on combat flow. I’m thinking of dropping armour-based defense scores too (making armour provide only soak values) to further simplify the combat resolution task. I’m also watching the revised collection of action cards to see if they’re worth the effort. But as a first attempt at speeding up and streamlining WFRP 3, the changes seem to have worked, and rescued the game from being crushed under the weight of its own innovations.

fn1: actually now I think about it, in the standard rules it is almost impossible for a black powder weapon to blow up. Most are Unreliable 2, which means you need two chaos stars to blow them, but chaos stars only occur on challenge dice and in most ranged combat situations you will only ever throw one challenge die. The standard rules make the difficulty of a ranged combat attack 1 challenge die + 1 misfortune per point of defense, so unless you’re using a card with additional challenge dice (of which there are few) you will never bow up your weapon.

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