Gaming material

During a moment of sudden frenzied violence in yesterday’s Shadowrun adventure our wizard character Adam Lee deployed an indirect mana attack spell for a grand total of only 2 or 3 points of damage. Immediately afterward our opponent – a russian Shadowrunner mage – dropped an indirect attack spell on me that something like 8 points of physical damage even though I have a monumental full defense dice pool, decent armour and good body. This prompted me to declare that “Direct spells are shit!” Today I thought I’d check this statistically, and see if I can identify some guidelines for using direct and indirect attack spells. There seems to be a general consensus that direct spells are better against people with heavy armour and high body, and reliably deliver damage while indirect spells have bigger upper limits. Is this true?

This post assumes the reader knows the Shadowrun 5e rules.

The difference between direct and indirect spells

Direct spells use the force of the spell as a limit on the spellcasting check, and target either body or willpower only. So for example our wizard Adam Lee, with a 14 dice spellcasting pool, will be making a challenged check against the body or willpower of the opponent, which will typically be 4-6. In contrast, indirect spells use the spellcasting skill with the same limit against the opponents defense (Intution+Reaction, no limit). Any net hits then do damage as a weapon with damage Force and AP -Force. So it appears that if you can get through the defense you can do a lot of damage, but high dodge opponents will be a challenge for this spell.

In practice it looks something like this: with a direct spell Adam can expect an average of about 5 hits, while the target can expect 1-3, so Adam can expect to fairly comfortably deliver 2-4 damage at a low risk of drain. With an indirect spell Adam will also get 5 hits, but the opponent will be likely to get 3-5 hits so perhaps half the time Adam won’t hit, and when he does hit he will get 1 net hit. But that net hit is added to the force of the spell, so e.g. with a Force 6 spell he might do 7 damage that is then challenged by the opponents soak with AP-6. If the opponent has body +armour of 17, this means the opponent rolls 11 dice, gets about 4 hits, ends up taking about 3 damage – so it seems like it levels out in these kinds of scenarios, but that the direct spell is more reliable. Is this correct?

Comparing effectiveness using average hits

I ran a brief comparison of the average damage to be expected from Adam Lee’s direct and indirect spell using a basic excel spreadsheet. Here I calculated the average hits for each spell, the average defense, calculating damage for the indirect spell only if the average spellcasting hits were bigger than the average defense hits, and then using average hits from the soak check to further reduce damage. I did this for a target with defense pool 10 and with body values of 3, 5 or 8. I ran the analysis for spells of force 3 to 8.  For each level of force I calculated the minimum armour value at which the direct spell did more damage on average than the indirect spell. This is the armour threshold for a direct spell to be better than an indirect spell. For example at Force 4 the direct spell is better against anyone with armour higher than 7, largely because the net hits from the indirect spell attack are so low (due to the Force-based limit) that it can’t do much damage.

My first interesting discovery was that this armour threshold is independent of the target’s Body – it is approximately the same for all three simulated Body values of 3, 5 or 8. This surprised me, because I thought the direct spell would really lose out against higher body, but ultimately this doesn’t matter. I also found that as Force increases, the armour threshold for a direct spell to be better than an indirect spell really skyrockets. Figure 1 shows this for a target with Body 5 and defense pool 10 (it is approximately equivalent for other Body values), and you can see that for a Force 8 spell the target needs to have armour of 23 or more in order for the direct spell to be better than the indirect spell. This is because a force 8 spell has 8 acc, 8 damage, and AP8 – it shreds through anything except the scariest armour, and in fact this spell is basically as good as the best sniper rifle in the game.

Armour threshold for effective direct spells by spell Force

So my first finding is that while in theory direct spells might be useful against heavily armoured foes, they typically are only better than indirect spells at very high levels of armour, and if you’re playing a mage capable of spells of force 6 or higher you are unlikely to be meeting the kind of armoured foes against whom you need to deploy your direct spells.

When is an indirect or direct spell better than a gun?

Next I conducted a few rough calculations to see when either of these kinds of spell is better than a good old fashioned lead injection. For this I posited a street samurai with a 14 dice pool to hit using a Colt America L36, which is Acc 7, dam 7P, AP1. Can’t go wrong with those stats! I compared it to Adam Lee’s direct and indirect spells against a couple of targets: one with defense pool 7, and total soak of 12 or 20; and one with defense pool 12,  and total soak of 12 or 20. I found that in all cases the indirect spell was better than the gun at Force 6. This was independent of the total soak or defense pool. In some cases the direct spell was simply never better than a gun, but interestingly for the higher defense pool against the higher soak, even a Force 4 direct spell was better than a gun.

The reason for this is that as the Force of an indirect spell increases its damage increases even more. Assuming you can hit on average, even the thinnest margin leads to increasing damage with increasing force, and the damage increases by more than the force. For example, against someone with defense pool 10 and soak 12, the average damage of the indirect spell ranges from 0 at force 3 (it doesn’t hit) up to 8 at force 8. At higher force values, damage increases by 1.3 – 1.5 for every unit increase in force. This is because the increased force simultaneously increases damage and decreases armour, so even when the force-based limit is well beyond what your mage can expect to roll on average (e.g. Adam Lee expects about 4-5 hits on average, so any spell of force 5+ applies a higher limit), you still see your damage increase.

This means that in general, as you increase the force on your indirect spell to make it do more damage, you also raise the threshold above which a direct spell of the same Force would be any use. And you make your spell increasingly better than a gun. And it appears that Force 6 is the sweet spot beyond which a readily-available and relatively dangerous gun is no longer better than a spell for a relatively beginnerish mage.

Direct spells as one-shot killers

There is a way to make a direct spell a one-shot killer, though: cast it at low force and Edge it. Remember, Edge adds 3 to your dice pool, sixes roll again, and you get to ignore limits. This means that a Force 4 direct spell has no upper limits, but is defended against by a very small dice pool. Adam Lee, Edging the spell, will likely get 10-11 hits, with no upper limit on how many he can get, but the target having to roll just 3-6 dice to defend. Chances are this will do 7-9 damage, which brings a single target perilously close to death. A similar indirect spell is much less likely to achieve this, because the defensive dice pool is larger and has no limit.

This strategy is especially effective against targets with very high dodge, because it ignores dodge, and it’s particularly effective for GMs to deploy against PCs since the NPCs don’t need to save up their Edge for later. If the opponent is protected by a mage they may get some counterspelling, and they can Edge the defense, but even then it is likely that by pooling all of that together they will still have a smaller dice pool than the attacker. If there is no mage in the party then even Edge is going to be of little use, and the spell is going to cause a lot of trouble. This is especially true for those mages who have both a stun and a physical damage direct spell in their arsenal, since they can choose the spell to match the target – a troll street samurai deploying Edge will likely still only get 6 dice to defend a stun attack. Note that Edging an indirect spell to make into a killer is less effective, since the real power of indirect spells lies in their high damage rating and armour piercing, so they are at their most effective when cast at the kind of Force ratings that do not put crippling limits on the caster’s success.

A final note on the effectiveness of attack spells in Shadowrun

Above I found that a 14 dice attacker with magic is only more effective than a 14 dice attacker with a basic pistol at Force 6. This is a big problem for magic, because Force 6 will cause physical damage on the caster unless they have a very high magic attribute, and for an indirect attack spell to be significantly better than a gun it will need to be Force 8 or 10, at which point any human mage will be risking very large amounts of physical damage that cannot be healed. I think this under powers magic a little relative to the other fighters in the game, unless the PC is somehow carefully balanced to make sure that it can be super good at resisting drain and casting spells, probably also with a high Body. One way to get around this could be to relax the limits on Magic attributes, allowing them to become 7 or 8 in basic characters, which means that a combat mage who really focuses on that aspect of their character could be able to sling around Force 7 or 8 spells without suffering physical damage. Another option could be to drop the rule that drain can become physical when the Force exceeds the Magic attribute – it means that Force 8 spells are still high risk but not fatal. This is particularly important because Force acts as a limit on spellcasting rolls, and if you can only cast Force 5 or 6 spells you are suffering a significant reduction in maximum attack capability compared to say a street samurai (7 with a katana) or a sniper (8 with some rifles). I think in general the rules on limits may be a problem for high level characters – when you have a limit of 8 on the number of hits you can roll, but your opponent has 30 dice in dodge and no limit, you’re simply never going to hit, and fights are going to become very long and boring as people trade blows that never hit or only barely hit and do little damage. I think a quality that allows you to increase accuracy, or some other property for higher level characters, might be useful. At the moment wizards have the ability to exceed all limits by casting high Force spells but in reality they never will – a Force 10 spell will carry a large risk of serious injury for a wizard. I think it would be more exciting and make wizards more dangerous if they did not face this extreme risk. Remember that wizards have low initiative and weak armour (in general), and everyone aims to gank them, so it would be nice if they could be more able to take these risks in the one round of combat where they’re still alive.

Another possibility is that mages just aren’t that powerful in Shadowrun, and that it is better to play a mage who is good at a single material thing (e.g. shooting a pistol) and give him or her moderate background magic for support – healing, armour, that sort of thing. But even then, a PC who can get a maximum of +3 to your armour for a short time is not an especially great contribution to the party, especially if their shooting is good but not top notch. I think a few things here need to be tweaked to make mages more dangerous at the extremes of their range.






Art after the fall

I have just begun GMing a short post-apocalyptic campaign using the Mutant: Year Zero system. Before adventure begins the system requires the PCs – who play mutants – generate their safe haven, which is called the Ark. This is a brief description of the Ark from which the PCs will begin their adventure.

Zone location

The near zone

The Ark is in the middle of a giant collapsed city, which is bisected by a winding river that was no doubt once a beautiful sight, but which has turned into a deadly, torpid sewer. The Ark is north of the river, a few kilometres away from a pair of towers that face each other menacingly across the width of the river. Stories and legends warn the PCs not to cross the river, or even to go close to it – but for now these stories are irrelevant, since as much as possible the PCs avoid even venturing too far from their Ark, let alone to the far side of that stinking ditch.

The Ark

The Ark is an old football stadium, its bleachers still largely intact and its entryways roughly boarded up and barricaded against the dangers of the Zone. Sometime during the collapse a blimp crashed into the stadium, and the ripped and torn fabric of the blimp has since been stretched out and converted into a partial roof over the stadium, stretching over the fantastic arcing sculptures that formed the original design of the stadium roof to turn the whole structure into a kind of giant tent. The People live in evacuation tents and simple makeshift shacks around the edge of the pitch, with the pitch itself devoted to a few patches of poor quality farmland to grow potatoes and pumpkins. Some people also live in tents and improvised structures on the bleachers, the lower parts of which have been torn up and long since used for firewood or building material. The tunnels and walkways under the bleachers where fans once congregated in between games have been converted into storage spaces for scavenged food and weapons, extra living space, and mushroom farms. Near the entrances they have been hastily barricaded in hopes of slowing down attackers who breach the entryways. The bosses have also carved out their domains in these dark spaces, usually in corporate boxes overlooking the pitch, connected to bars with windows looking out on the blighted zone. They and their closest sycophants live here, lording it over the People however they can.

In the center of the pitch is the old gondola of the fallen blimp, which rests now under the central arches of the stadium. This gondola is the residence of the Elder, who grows sick and weary of this world and rarely ventures out. A straight path leads from the entrance to the gondola across the pitch to the tunnel by which the Home Team used to enter the grounds. If one follows that tunnel to the changing rooms of the Home Team one will find the area has been sealed off and turned into the Dawn Vault, where relics of the Ancients are stored and the Chroniclers live their careful secluded lives.

The Bosses

There are several gangs in the Ark, but it has not yet descended to the anarchic state in which all people must pick sides and pick up axes, so there are also many independent individuals, and the bosses, though they jockey for power, have not yet fully stamped their authority on all the People. Nonetheless, some bosses are becoming increasingly active in jockeying for power, and some actively speak against the Elder. Some key bosses are:

  • Pieces, a bureaucrat who has repeatedly foiled the plans of the other bosses, either in defense of the Elder or in the furtherance of her own convoluted interests. No one trusts Pieces, and often she is infuriating, but she also has a unique power to sequester resources, and some say she alone still holds influence over the Elder as he slides into senescence.
  • Jared, the hated kingpin who rules his minions with viciousness and spite. Nobody wants to deal with Jared, but some number of the People recognize his leadership style may triumph, because he is willing to cross any boundary, and trash any tradition, in the pursuit of power
  • Bloody Jack, the revolutionary, a PC, who alone thinks of the future, and preaches visions beyond the hard scrabble of daily survival. Bloody Jack commands only a small faction, but she is also more willing than other bosses to take risks outside the Ark, and may yet be able to unite the independent forces amongst the People in pursuit of a new vision. The other bosses watch her, and act against her schemes where they can.

The bosses in the Ark have set up their lairs in the old bars and rooms in the levels under the bleachers of the stadium, laying down barriers to block hallways and building throne rooms in old abandoned changing rooms. They gain power by asserting control over a section of the higher bleachers, and grabbing the pure water that flows there. As the Elder weakens and food supplies run low, the power of the bosses grows, as does their conflict, and the independent members amongst the People begin to think about which boss to side with when the food runs out.


The Ark has a population of 174 people at the beginning of the campaign.

Water Source

The Ark’s water source is the Tarp itself, the covering of battered blimp-cloth that drapes over the roof of the stadium. Every morning mist condenses on this tarp and runs down to drip into the high bleachers, and when rain falls it drains across this tarp and onto the bleachers. Here the People have set up a complex system of buckets and plastic containers to catch the water, which they run down to large vats held under the bleachers on the higher levels. Some bosses have sectioned off parts of the bleachers for their own use, giving them control of pure water, but other areas are free for anyone to grab water to trade for bullets and grub. No one has developed a perfect method for catching this water, and some runs down the bleachers onto the grounds itself, where it is captured and used to grow food in the scrappy allotments around the central Gondola of the Elders. The bosses hoard water and watch those farms greedily, knowing that one day they will need help, perhaps in a dry spell, or after a heat wave, and the boss who cuts the best bargain will gain control of the Ark’s only renewable food supply. Other bosses – and some independent folk too – run missions into the area around the Ark looking for food from the Old Times, but this food is growing rare, and as the easily accessible remains of the ruins dry up everyone in the Ark begins to worry about where their next meal will come from and what they will have to pay to get it.

But at least they have fresh, rot-free water.

Development levels

At the start of the campaign the Ark is in a state of crisis, forgetting its past, with no hope for the future and little food. Only its defenses are in any kind of reasonable state, and even those need work. Its development levels are:

  • Food 2
  • Culture 2
  • Technology 2
  • Warfare 6

The ability to barricade the entrances to the stadium and the open area around it make it a highly defensible Ark, but the barricades are makeshift and in reality there are not enough People to guard all the doorways. The Ark needs brave souls to venture further afield, scout out the threats it might face, and bring back weapons, food and new tools. If someone does not act soon, the People will descend to barbarism and worse. The crisis will soon be upon the Ark, and the People cry out for help.

Help the Bosses do not give. What are the People to do?



Thongor say smash!

Thongor say smash!

Late last year I ran a one-off session of Barbarians of Lemuria, a simple and stripped down sword and sorcery RPG. The session report for that adventure is here.

Barbarians of Lemuria is intended to provide rules for sword and sorcery adventuring in the style of Conan, the Lankhmar series, and Thongor, in a light and easy to play style. The game comes with its own setting, the mythical land of Lemuria, which has a long tradition in fantasy writing and film and is also the name of a great southern continent that the Victorians imagined existed somewhere in the southern hemisphere. This land is mentioned in the Strange Tales fantasy magazine and is the setting for the books about the barbarian Thongor by Lin Carter. Barbarians of Lemuria expands on these vague historical and literary references with a map and setting information, so that in addition to rules for a quick and simple sword and sorcery RPG it comes with background information on a classic setting sufficient for running a whole sword and sorcery campaign.

The game is definitely light on rules and written for brevity and ease of use. In just 211 pages it manages to encompass all the usual RPG rules plus wargaming rules, setting, monsters, a brace of sample adventures, a random adventure generator, summary tables and character sheets. All the rules for task resolution and combat are squashed into 8 pages and are perfectly sufficient to cover most scenarios you need them for. Sample adventures are typically 2-3 pages including maps and background, and are really only rough sketches for a wide array of free form approaches to the general ideas laid out in them. Wherever possible the game attempts to capture the seat-of-the-pants risk taking approach to adventure from the sword and sorcery setting through loose rules and quick and dirty approaches to problems. For example, in the section on equipment they write:

… there are no rules for encumbrance. Heroes can go around with what they can carry. They live for the day. You never know what you will need on an adventure and you can’t take everything, so why bother? Use your hero points instead. That’s what they are for. If you want backpacks full of adventuring gear, a weapon for every occasion, three spare suits of armour and a pack animal to carry it around on, then play another game. If all you want is a breechclout and a sturdy blade, play on!

I think that might be the best encumbrance rules I have ever read, and it gives a good summary of how normally picky technical details like armour, healing and so on are handled in this game. It’s a game to unleash your barbarian on the world, not to fiddle with spreadsheets.

The rules are very straightforward. Your PC has four attributes and four combat attributes plus four careers, all of which are ranked from 0 – 3 at the start. Skills are resolved with 2d6+attribute+career vs. a target number of 9 with simple difficulty modifiers; combat is the same with combat attributes in place of careers. Careers are things like slave, noble, barbarian, hunter, priest etc. and offer a bonus equal to the rank of the career in attempts to perform activities that can plausibly be related to the careers. PCs also start with a boon and if they want flaws and more boons; these give a bonus or penalty die on the 2d6 roll (like advantages/disadvantages in D&D5e), and Hero Points that have a versatile range of possible uses to make your character more effective. Some of the boons are classic sword and sorcery – for example Battle Harness turns your loin cloth or chainmail bikini into medium armour without the combat penalties of medium armour, while Missing Limb is exactly that, and comes with the rule “the game master will penalize you where appropriate.” In combat weapons do d6 damage, sometimes with a penalty or bonus die, and armour absorbs a bit of that.

Those are the whole rules – now you don’t really need to buy the book. Unless you want to enjoy the full richness of the boons and flaws and the deeply entertaining magic system, which really makes this game stand out. Magic is divided into four levels: cantrips and level 1-3 spells. Wizards have about 10-14 arcane power to spend, and spells come at increasing cost, ranging from 1-2 points for cantrips up to about 15 for level 3 spells. Wizards can reduce the cost of spells by meeting requirements, such as visible technique or taking a wound. These requirements grow in seriousness as the level of the spell increases, until at level 2 they encompass things like human sacrifice and serious injury. Level 3 spells (which can include making mental slaves and causing earthquakes) require a permanent point of arcane power to be lost. The spells themselves aren’t described – they’re up to the players and GM to negotiate – but examples are given to help with deciding the appropriate level of the spell. Also different levels of spell recuperate lost power at different rates – cantrips twice a day, level 1 spells at midnight, and level 2-3 spells just once a lunar cycle. This means that a wizard can start the game with a stupendous amount of power, but can’t use it often across a campaign. In my adventure our wizard used a couple of cantrips, one level 1 spell, recovered some of those points at midnight, then burnt all remaining points on a single level 2 spell. This means that having started the adventure with 14 points of arcane power he finished it with 0 points, and would only regain 8 of them within a day – another four would take up to a month to come back, and the remaining two up to two months. He also finished the adventure with the name of a demon tatooed on his chest and arm, seriously wounded and guilty of human sacrifice – all to power a great spell that failed.

There are also similarly simple but flexible rules for alchemists (who build things) and priests (who get divine favour). It’s perfectly possible to play these classes together too, so you can be a priest of some dark god, conjure evil magics, and build fire oil all at the same time. Monster rules are simple enough that four or six monsters can be fit into a two-page spread, including pictures and descriptions, and they are super easy to grasp. This makes the game really easy to pick up and run with in a short period of time – we started at 1pm, created characters from scratch and got through the entire adventure by 5:30 pm or so, going at a leisurely pace with lots of description and fluff.

This light-hearted and concise approach to rules really forces GM improvisation and encourages players and GM alike to plunge into the heroic, fast-and-loose style of sword and sorcery adventures. With very little time devoted to calculation, dice rolling and rules-faffing (even when new to the game) there is a lot of time and space for players to describe and improvise their PCs actions, and lots of time also for them to make heroic failures, make mistakes and retry things or go on different routes through the adventure. It really is a very good rule set for sword and sorcery, and a really good example of a game in which the rules, the writing style, the graphics and the setting all work together very well. This makes it a completely useless game if you want to pick it up and use the rules for anything else – you’d need to do some significant work to make a different setting feel right – and definitely not a game for people who like lots of crunch and detail in their gaming. But if you simply want to get rolling on an adventure with a barbarian, a druid and a beastmaster, then this is the game for you. It’s a refreshing, exciting contribution to the RPG world and a great sword and sorcery game, and I definitely recommend testing out if you want to play a swashbuckling barbarian campaign in a classic setting.

This slide is a little busy, but ...

This slide is a little busy, but …

[GM Note: This is not a session report but an update on what the PCs have learnt over the past 9 sessions, and the final plans for how they will end the campaign and what part they will play in bringing together the threads of what appears to be a galaxy-spanning plot by AIs to become gods].

The crew of the Left Hand of Darkness have finally made progress in their investigations, and find themselves back in the tender care of the Confederate Navy. This time, however, the order of things is very much reversed, with the Navy seeking the PCs’ help to tie together all the strings of their investigation and begin to act on the knowledge they have gained. Having reacquainted themselves with Captain Noulgrim, the man who originally set them on this investigative spiral through known space, the spaceship the Reckless, they were invited by the Captain’s superior, Colonel Virr Stiglam, to join him in a planning conference. Having already been offered assurances that their ship was safe and that they would soon be rewarded for their work, the PCs agreed, and left the Land Hand of Darkness to visit the Reckless for the first time.

They were taken straight to the yacht races by Colonel Stiglam and his two grim guards, Captain Noulgrim sliding gracefully and smugly out of sight once his work had been done. Noulgrim’s shuttle took them directly to a kind of cupola floating about 300m from the port side of the Reckless, and they disembarked into a warm summer day – floating in space 300m from the ship. The Reckless is surrounded by an atmosphere to a radius of about 500m from the ship, held in by powerful shields, and maintains a gravitational field in this atmosphere so that wherever one is placed within it one will driftly slowly back towards the hull. Whenever the Reckless is in physical space anti-gravity cupolas, yachts and hang gliders drift around in this atmosphere, usually on the sunward side of the ship but sometimes in the strange shadowed dark side, or over the top and bottom of the ship. Events and pageants are often held there, organized by various organizations from within the large population living permanently in the ship’s hull. On this occasion, several groups from the ship’s military organization had organized a zero-g yacht race, and the Reckless had obligingly rustled up a strong and unpredictable wind in its atmosphere. As Colonel Noulgrim prepared them all drinks they sat on the forward balcony of their little cupola, the overhead awnings flapping in the wings, and saw the first of the yachts beginning to approach their viewing point, colourful penants and sails fluttering in the wind, veering and wheeling in the three dimensional race course. To their left and right a scattering of small ships, cupolas, viewing platforms and larger yachts scattered the edge of the raceway, people cheering and clinking drinks and unfurling banners for their favourite teams: “Go the 7th Fusiliers,” and “Victory to the 8th Gunnery Squad” and so on. Discreetly placed drones played marching music, occasionally interrupted by announcements from a popular DJ who was commentating on the race. As Stiglam brought them a tray of wines and spirits the announcer informed them that the lead was currently being contested between the black yacht of the 3rd Planetary Assault Squad and the red and blue yacht crewed by “Shmiel’s Piercers,” an irregular military formation of psions and empathy-linked marines.

Ahmose’s eyes narrowed at that, but sadly her rifle was still on the Left Hand of Darkness, so Shmiel would get to pass them in peace – this time. Stiglam didn’t appear to notice her and Lam’s sudden grimness, and sat down unconcerned in a comfortable swinging seat, handing over a set of binoculars to her. “Here, you can see the races clearly with these.” He waved his hand at the drinks. “Help yourselves, sit, enjoy the races! We have much to discuss!”

Ahmose focused the binoculars on the Piercers, and there he was, standing in the prow, the seedy bearded psion who had raided her mind all those months ago on the bridge of the Come As You Are. He appeared happy, at peace, and enjoying the race. For a few moments she followed his movements with the binoculars, then put them away with a disgusted curl of her lip. Behind them, Alva noticed that Stiglam’s guards remained in the shadows at the rear of the cupola, not relaxing to enjoy the race. They weren’t fully trusted yet.

As the yachts drifted by, their conversation turned to what they had learned, and what needed to be done.

Through their investigations the PCs have learned of a plot by AIs to achieve a transcendental civilization. This transubstantiation would enable AIs to leave behind the physical constraints of their computer systems, and become a galaxy-spanning consciousness. To achieve this they need:

  • A biological form of sentience
  • A means of communicating faster than light (the ansible)
  • The chip to activate the ansible
  • The technology to achieve transubstantiation

The PCs are carrying the first three of this list, and they have a strong feeling that the Cognate, the mysterious AI on the other end of the ansible with whom they communicated once, might have the technology for transubstantiation. This was a technology that the Confederate Navy also wanted, Stiglam told them, though they had doubts about their ability to pry it from the Cognate. They were also sure that the biological form of sentience that the AIs would need was in the PCs control, in the form of Red Cloud of the Coming Storm, ignorant priest of the planet Dune, who was not a human but a silicon-based life form. It seemed possible that if AIs could investigate the corpse (or better still, the living form) of one of those aliens, then they would be able to develop a means to implant their sentience in a biological life form.

The PCs were also aware that there were at least three different forces seeking these things. In addition to the Cognate, they knew that the AI called The Shadow of the Hunter (Is the Last thing the Mouse Sees) was also looking for the same technology, since he had traded the characters their ship for the dead witch from Dune. In addition, Kong the Younger had cheated them out of the chip for the ansible just before they became entangled with the Reckless, and it seemed likely he had done that as an agent for another AI. So at least three AIs were seeking this transubstantiation technology, and they were likely from different factions with different intentions towards human civilization.

Colonel Stiglam then told the PCs about how he had known they were coming to this system. A couple of weeks ago the Reckless had noticed a minor space conflict happening in the Dune system, and when she went to investigate found a ship devoid of human crew busily destroying another ship. This ship, the Mono:Overload, was piloted by an insane AI that had taken over the ship’s systems, killed its own crew, and then turned on its sister ship the Transfer:Complete. The Reckless captured the Mono:Overload and quarantined the AI, which turned out to be the insane remnant of the AI called The Starred One, which the PCs had implanted in the Mono:Overload after it attacked them at Dune. By investigating the events leading up to the starship battle the PCs identified the Left Hand of Darkness as the source of the AI, and sent a series of ships searching for it in neighbouring systems. They caught up to the Left Hand of Darkness after the PCs left her to begin their attack on the Losing My Religion, and after interrogating her crew were able to send the Reckless itself to cut them off when they arrived at Morvan’s Rest – so the pattern of their travels had been revealed, along with their plans to loot the weapons on the Losing My Religion, and their path had crossed again with the Reckless.

The mad AI known as the Starred One had been sent off to a special orbital that the Confederacy reserved for situations like this. It would be imprisoned in a special section of the orbital that was isolated electronically from the rest of the orbital and the rest of the galaxy, and questioned carefully by experts in special systems that were designed to prevent AIs escaping. The surface of the orbital was inhabited by an indigenous race whose technology had not passed beyond nomadic wandering – they lacked even electricity – and supplies were delivered to the staff of the research institute by baggage trains of these indigenous people, so that there was no way that any information could be passed in or out electronically. Reports were written with pen and paper, and all communications offworld handled on a distant section of the orbital that was completely electronically isolated from the prison. Within this setting the mad AI’s consciousness would be carefully unraveled and its secrets discovered.

This suggestion horrified Simon Simon, who views AIs as people deserving of care and respect, but he understood that the remnant of the consciousness that he had infected the ship with was unlikely to ever be cured. He was as interested as everyone else to learn what secrets it held – the Confederacy’s first and best chance to learn the true history of the Reach, the pirate system from which the AI came – but he was disappointed to learn this investigation could take many months.

In the meantime, Stiglam told them as the yachts sailed by and supporters cheered, the Confederacy was investigating the belongings of the dead Kong the Younger, and expected to find the location of his criminal base. They had a couple of plans as to what they would do next, and they wanted the PCs’ help. Would they entertain him on their ship three days’ hence, to discuss further plans? He promised them that they would benefit greatly from helping him – “likely a fleet of ships, that sort of thing” he said airly, waving one arm in the direction of space. Their ears perked up. Finally, a reward for all their efforts?! Of course, they would love to meet him again.

The yacht race finished with Shmiel’s Piercers a minute ahead of their rivals, and minor controversy about whether they had used psionics to achieve their victory. The PCs returned to the Left Hand of Darkness, and waited to hear from the Colonel.

How to catch an AI

Three days later, as he promised, Stiglam visited them on their ship, this time alone and in casual clothes. They took him to the lounge, introduced him to Red Cloud, and laid out lunch and drinks for their discussion. Stiglam told them first that they had penetrated Kong the Younger’s data, and identified the location of his home base. They had also determined to whom he sold the ansible chip that he had cheated the PCs out of – to an agent who worked for an organization that he promised “would bring great distress to the humans.” Kong the Younger, it appeared, was part of a network of Changelings operating within the Confederacy to undermine the navy, and they had managed to land a few Changelings in the research team investigating Dune. Messages had been despatched, and the network’s agent on the Reckless had been apprehended, though he had not yet talked. He had two more days to offer his knowledge freely before the psionics began to work on him, and Stiglam was confident they would learn all they could from him soon.

In the meantime they had a series of tasks to be completed, and they wanted the PCs’ help in some of them. These included:

  1. Attacking the remaining bases held by Kong the Younger’s changeling buddies, and capturing one of them alive
  2. Tracking down Barry and Larry, the two mercenaries who had likely stolen the ansible chip the PCs owned, and had probably sold it on to their original employer when they parted ways from the PCs – this was likely another AI, and the PCs wanted to find who
  3. Visiting the orbital where the Starred One was held, to release Simon Simon’s AI into the orbital and have her help speed up inquiries into the nature of the Starred One’s past
  4. Finding and destroying the Cognate, or capturing it to put into the same prison on the orbital – for which Simon Simon’s AI might be needed
  5. Visiting the Cult of the Last Barrier, and penetrating its innermost sanctum to try and learn the history of the Cult and find out why it was tracking the ansible – for this they would need the help of Michael, the priest who had asked them to take him to the Reach in pursuit of this Cult

Stiglam wanted the PCs to help him with tasks 1 and 5, but they were welcome to assist in any of the others. Task 1 – the raid on Kong’s base – would start soon, and if they agreed to help with that he would see that they were equipped with a fleet of small attack ships, their own ship was upgraded and armed, and they were supplied with marines to support them. Ahmose would become Rear Admiral Ahmose, in charge of the Ahmose Battle Group, and they would be given official license as Freebooters to do the work of the Confederate Navy. This license would last at least until the present threat was past, with the possibility of becoming permanent. He proposed a fleet of three small attack ships to accompany them, with a small number of marines on each.

Did they agree to help?

Did they need to be asked? They tried to appear cagey, but their agreement was obvious and immediate. The Ahmose Battle Group was formed, and plans began for the attack on Kong the Younger’s base.

6HPs each, or 7?

6HPs each, or 7?

My Spiral Confederacy campaign is heading towards its conclusion, which means bigger battles and more annoying enemies, which (just as happened in Cyberpunk) inevitably requires rules for handling minions. Combat in Traveler tends to be quick and brutal but it also involves a lot of tricky management of attributes and penalties as the damage grinds through Endurance, Agility and Strength. We don’t want to have to go through this when we’re fighting large gangs of minions, and we don’t want to have to consider all their possible different skills, so we need a set of rules for handling multiple enemies. For Traveler we will call them Grunts.

Basic grunt attributes: Level and squad size

Grunts are defined entirely in terms of their squad size and level. Level determines their basic armour, attack bonus, and HPs, and squad size determines how lethal they are given their level. I envisage levels ranging from 1 to 4, with 1 being your basic gang member and 4 being a Confederate elite space marine. For each level I imagine a gang of three should be roughly equal in lethality and difficulty to kill as a single boss-level opponent of a roughly equivalent degree of nastiness. An average human has physical attributes of 7, which means that you basically need to deliver 14 points worth of damage (on top of armour) to knock them out (reduce two attributes to 0). So we should say that a squad of three level 2 grunt require about this much damage to eliminate. This means that each grunt at level 2 should have 5 hit points, and the size of the squad is reduced by one for each 5 full points of damage delivered. Grunt squads can then be tracked in sets of hit points separated by slashes. So a level 2 grunt squad with four members would have its HPs written like this: 5/5/5/5. Grunts are degraded from the right, with squad size dropping by 1 for each 5 hps of damage done.

Grunt hit points are thus set at 3+level.

The grunt squad will have a total attack bonus equal to its level plus the number of members. Remember in Traveler the amount you exceed a roll by is extra damage, which will make large squads very dangerous. For a squad of four level 4 space marines attacking with a basic bonus of +4, you can expect them to add 8 to their rolls and get very large effects every time they attack someone. This is to be expected, since you’re being shot at by four highly skilled soldiers at once. Better thin out that herd early!

The grunt squad’s armour is determined by its level, ranging from 3 (flak) at level 1; to 8 (cloth) at level 2; 10 (vacc suit) at level 3; to 13 (combat armour) at level 4. Since you need to exceed the armour to deliver damage, you’re going to need a very high powered weapon to chew through a large squad of space marines.

Grunt damage is 3d6 for level 1 and 2 grunts, 4d6 for level 3, and 5d6 for level 4.

For other skill or resistance checks, the squad uses its level with extra benefit for squad size only where the GM sees it fit (for example, resisting an area level psionic attack would get no benefit, but breaking down a door would).

This means that an entire grunt squad can be expressed in terms of its level, squad size, hit point block, and armour. So for example

Space Marines (Level 3; squad size 3; 6/6/6; armour 10; damage 4d6).

This squad would attack at +6 at the start of combat, and would require 7 points of damage to be reduced in size by one. Attacking at +6 it is highly likely to have a large effect, and will probably kill the first person it shoots. Best to get a grenade amongst this squad real fast.

Autofire, grenades and grunts

The autofire rules work slightly differently for grunts than for normal enemies, and are slightly more effective. The special considerations for each of the autofire modes are listed below.

  • Burst: If a PC attacks a grunt squad with a single fire weapon they can only kill a maximum of one grunt. If they use the burst setting of an auto weapon they can kill a number of grunts equal to the ROF of the weapon
  • Autofire: The damage of all successful attacks is applied simultaneously to a number of grunts equal to the ROF of the weapon. For example, a weapon with ROF 3 on autofire mode that successfully hits twice will roll the damage twice, and apply this damage to the same 3 grunts simultaneously. Thus the weapon may be able to kill all three grunts if it does enough damage over the two shots.
  • Blast: Weapons with the Blast property apply their damage to all grunts within range (and thus may kill all of them)
  • Shotguns: Shotguns are considered to have the blast effect when applied to a group of minions, though the grunt’s armour value is still doubled

Because grunts in large numbers are very dangerous, PCs will want to go full Leroy Jenkins on them early in the battle.

For simplicity, grunts are assumed not to have the auto X property, since this requires tracking ammunition. The GM may wish to add this property to some groups to make them particularly troublesome, but it is probably better just to give the existing group a higher level.

Leadership and grunts

Grunts can have their actions coordinated and improved by people with leadership. A successful leadership check by a grunt’s designated leader can be used to enhance their attack bonus, damage or armour for the duration of a combat (or until the leader is killed), up to the effect of the roll. This can be spread amongst multiple grunts. This leadership check has a DM equal to the group’s level (since the benefits of higher level grunts include some degree of internal coordination).

For example, Rear Admiral Ahmose, in charge of a squad of four level 2 marines, must make a leadership check against a total difficulty of 10. She rolls 12, getting an effect of 2. She chooses to put 1 point of this onto attack bonus, and one point onto armour. The marines now have a base attack of 3, and armour of 9. This means that in the first round of combat they attack at +7, and to kill the first one will require a minimum damage roll of 15 (to do 6 points of damage above armour).

Tactic skill can also be used by the grunt’s commander. In this case the roll has the same difficulty as leadership, but can boost the next single action by an amount equal to the effect of the roll. Note that the leader needs to forego their own action to make this check.

Psionics and other effects on grunts

It may be possible for a psion or priest to apply an effect that paralyzes or confuses a grunt. In this case the individual grunt should be assumed to be killed outright. If the effect can extend to more than one target, it may be possible to wipe out an entire group. If the effect is a domination or control effect, it should be assumed to affect the target grunt and one additional grunt, who will be effectively neutralized by having to deal with the target grunt. If it affects the whole group, then the GM should switch the grunt squad to the PCs, and put it under their control.


Grunt level: 1 to 4

Grunt HPS: 3+level

Grunt Armour: 3, 8, 10 or 14 (by level)

Grunt attack bonus: level + squad size

Grunt damage: 3d6 for levels 1-2, 4d6 for level 3, 5d6 for level 4

Leadership roll (DM=level): Distribute effect of roll across attack bonus, damage and armour as desired for one combat

Tactics roll (DM=level, forego action): Bonus on next action equal to effect of the roll

As always, the idea with grunt rules is to make them as quick and easy to use as possible, so try not to add any special effects or abilities to grunts that are not immediately manageable, and scalable with the group size. And don’t ever give grunt squads portable plasma guns.

Naevia contemplates a Scourging

Naevia contemplates a Scourging

My group has started a Fate short campaign that we’re calling Magica Romae, a campaign set in the Roman era with light magic. I missed the first session, in Gaul, with undead; my character joins on the second. She is Naevia the Holy, once a Vestal Virgin who finished her 30 years of service with distinction, became a patrician landowner in Rome, and now is traveling to Gaul with her retinue on some kind of secret business, probably in service of the Vestal Virgins.

Vestal Virgins are a group of six women, recruited between the age of 6 and 10, who are charged with maintaining the sacred Fire of Vesta, and who are punished brutally for allowing it to be extinguished or for sullying their virgin status. They served for 30 years, and after retirement could own property and vote, unlike the majority of women in Roman life. During their service they were charged with many tasks and entrusted with many responsibilities, and enjoyed a reputation for purity and trustworthiness. Naevia was selected at 8, served to 38, and is 42 at the time of the campaign; she has spent the last 4 years since her retirement building up political connections and power in the city, and maintains a connection to the College of the Vestals and to the other Vestal Alumni. It is through these connections that she finds herself on a mission to Gaul.

Naevia, being a Vestal, has magical powers related to healing, protection and divination, though she deploys them sparingly and as much as possible avoids using them for her own benefit. She prefers to exercise temporal rather than supernatural power, and is usually accompanied by a retinue of servants and bodyguards who act on her behalf. In Rome she usually travels incognito, avoiding public displays of her presence, since people who recognize her will tend to make a big fuss at her presence. Naevia is a short, slender woman with tumbling dark hair and somewhat coarse features, marred by childhood illness, but she has a rich, commanding voice and the natural charisma of a woman used to being listened to. Her eyes are remarkable: deep violet pools with a strange power of fascination over lesser people. Naevia is not an actor or a seductress – she deals with people honestly and in the frank and direct manner of a woman entrusted with many spiritual responsibilities and great wisdom.

Naevia does not usually have to deal with others, though, for her extensive retinue deal with most daily irritants. While traveling in Gaul, her retinue consists of the following people.

  • The Lictor Curiatus: Naevia’s chief bodyguard, Rufus Faustus Varro, a dour 30-something pleb elevated to lictor status and entrusted with guarding dignitaries on foreign duties, is an old friend of Naevia’s from her travels in the latter half of her period of service. He is only a little taller than her, squat, heavily muscled and heavily scarred, dressed in traditional Roman field armour but armed with an outlandish German axe. He seems to spend much of his time lazing around, drinking wine and directing the guards, but he also appears to be Naevia’s confidante and final executor of her will. It is rumoured that he is her lover, but he scoffs at such rumours – after he has soundly scourged the fool who uttered them.
  • The Illyrian Scourge: Naevia’s retinue includes four bodyguards, freed gladiator slaves originally from Illyria, who are fiercely loyal to her and Rufus Faustus Varro. These four men are whip-thin, lean, tall, blonde-haired men with wild eyes and fast fists. They never speak, and it is generally accepted that their tongues were removed before they entered Naevia’s service. Rumour has it that she personally imposed upon the authorities to pardon them of their crimes and put them in her service; darker rumours suggest witchbonds they cannot break. There is little point in asking the Scourge their opinion, since they cannot speak and are quick to do violence to those who impugn their vestal sister.
  • The maid: Known only as “the Greek”, Naevia’s maid accompanies her on all her travels, and is never far from her side. The Greek is a luscious young woman from Greece, a lascivious creature made entirely of curves, tumbling dark hair, and flirtatious looks and touches. Aged perhaps in her late teens or early twenties, the Greek is everything Naevia is not: wanton, cheerful, sexual, and extremely shy. She is also rumoured to be Naevia’s preferred assassin, the tool Naevia uses on unsuspecting local lords to work her most vicious wiles, trained in some cruel Macedonian fastness in all the secret tricks of poison and blade. Challenged on such stories, the Greek will demur and blush, and hide behind her indulgent mistress. How could one so innocent and shy be mistaken for anything except a simple maid?
  • The accountant: Lazy, wine-sodden, cynical old Gnaeus Paterculus Flaccus, known to one and all as Flacco, is rarely far from Naevia’s retinue and almost never at her side. He cares for her money and worldly affairs, keeping careful track of her holdings and earnings, helping her to buy oddities and trade goods during her travels, and keeping her informed of the latest machinations of the councils to which she is not invited. Flacco has a penchant for young boys, though none would consider it a weakness, and is rumoured to have bedded the serving boys and slaves of almost every noble family in Rome and its most important satellites; whether he does this for his own pleasure, or to maintain a complex web of spies and eavesdroppers, is a matter of much debate. Certainly though, everyone agrees that over his long life he has elevated those of his boy lovers who served him well to positions of high status, while those who disappoint or betray him have inevitably disappeared. Darker rumours suggest that in amongst his books and ledgers he keeps another, secret ledger that records the fate of all those who serve him. But how could such a silly old accountant accrue such power, and why would he end up in service to one as noble as Naevia the Holy?
  • The Hag: Known universally as just “her”, the Hag has her own wagon and supplies, and attends Naevia’s retinue almost as if she were wilfully pursuing the younger woman, rather than a servant. Sometimes she and her blind dwarven manservant, Puggus, will disappear for days, rejoining the retinue at some later point and giving no account of their deeds. Naevia and the Hag almost never speak, meet or even make eye contact, and for much of their journey together Naevia appears blissfully ignorant of her presence, but occasionally they will draw together for counsel and scheming. Rumour has it that the Hag is an old and disgraced vestal virgin, who was sentenced to be buried alive for her transgressions but was somehow rescued by a young man who she subsequently ate. Others say she is Naevia’s grandmother, or actually a Siren or Medusa who has joined Naevia’s retinue for her own reasons. Some whisper that Naevia needs the hag as a tool to cast dark magics, which are outside of Vesta’s pantheon but almost certainly within Naevia’s power. If anyone knows the secret of the Hag, they do not speak of it. Only a fool would meddle in the affairs of such a sinister crone.

This retinue, and a few hapless slaves dragged along for the duration, came as far as Gaul with Naevia. Unfortunately they were separated in heavy weather, and attacked by Gauls. When the adventure starts Naevia is a captive of these Gauls, and her retinue struggling to catch up and free her. If only fate would deliver unto her some heroes who could free her, and help her in her secret mission …

They all look the same to me

They all look the same to me

I have begun a new campaign with a new group, playing The One Ring. This is Cubicle 7’s Middle Earth role playing game, which seems to have been broadly well-received and is certainly a thoughtful and beautiful work. We’re playing on Wednesday nights for about 3 hours, and so far we’ve only managed to complete character creation, so I can’t say anything about game play, but I can give a brief description of character creation.

Basically in this game you make three choices: your culture (i.e. race); your “calling” which is some kind of aspect of your character determining things like what skills will advance fastest and (from memory) your vulnerability to the shadow; and your background, which is effectively your character class and further refines some aspects of your character. After this you get 10 points to spend on skills (advancing at 1 point per rank, cumulative), weapon skills (2 points per rank, cumulative) or a few other things. Characters have a bunch of traits that determine aspects of how their personality will affect play (e.g. brave, foolhardy etc) and also some special properties that are determined at one of these three stages. Character creation is relatively quick and involves no dice rolling: in fact nothing about it is random at all.

This character creation system has made some interesting decisions that clearly break with standard RPG character creation practice. In particular:

  • All your starting skill and weapon choices are determined by your race. Your skills are fixed and immutable – every elf or woodman starts with the same set of skills – and you have a choice of just two weapon sets, with no variation. You can use those 10 points to modify these but these 10 points are a tiny portion of the total skill allocation. You start with at least one skill at rank 3, for example, which would require almost all the 10 points to acquire. Effectively your starting abilities are entirely determined by your race
  • Your starting attributes are determined by a combination of race and background. Most backgrounds appear to be similar across the races (I didn’t get a chance to look in detail but e.g. Woodmen and Dwarves both get “Slayer” as a choice) but the attributes will be distributed differently for two races with the same background. For example I have 2/4/7 in the three attributes, while a dwarf might get 4/5/4, for example. You get to add “favour to these” but this favour amounts to just 6 points spread over the three attributes, and is only used under specific conditions, so it’s not the main determinant of your attributes
  • The majority of your starting personality traits are determined by your race. There is a list of perhaps 12, and you can choose two from a sub list of 6 that are specified for your race

Because of the combination of calling and background it is possible for two characters of the same race to differ slightly from each other in outlook, wealth and attributes, but they will essentially have exactly the same skills and almost the same attributes at the start of play. It’s not like D&D where you slightly modify the base random distribution of attributes, and skills are entirely class-based; it’s not like warhammer where attributes have a slightly different base and level of randomness and there are some additional talents. Everything is determined by your race.

What a remarkable coincidence! How amazing that a game that attempts to faithfully recreate the world of Lord of the Rings should choose a character creation system in which your race determines everything that we normally accept as mutable about a character. I have said before that Tolkien’s work is heavy with racial determinism and the race-as-destiny theories of the era in which he wrote, and I have received considerable pushback for it. I have previously adduced as evidence of this Tolkien’s attractiveness to fascists. I’ve also said that his work has undue influence on other fantasy writers and casts a shadow of racialism across the whole hobby. Well, what a surprise then to discover that a game attempting to recreate the world puts this aspect of it at the centre. And in case one were inclined to suspect that this is just a coincidence, here is the creator of the game on this issue:

The main reason behind the majority of the design choices in The One Ring is faithfulness to the sources. In Middle-earth, culture is the main defining element in an individual, and by limiting the choices in that regard help us attain a genuine ‘in-world’ perspective

Notice what that blog post adds: culture determines one’s virtues and rewards. And in this comment, “culture” is simply code for race. In attempting to recreate the world faithfully, anyone who delves into it immediately notices that they need to privilege race over all other aspects of background as a determinant of not just physical attributes but also psychological and moral attributes.

I have skimmed a few reviews of this game and the completely non-random aspect of character creation doesn’t seem to come out as a big issue for anyone. I have a suspicion that if someone tried such a tactic in any other setting their game would be viewed the worse for it, but in this case the game gets a pass. These reviews have generally also talked about how this game really is an immersive Tolkien experience, to the extent that they can’t imagine the system being used for anything else. I can’t give my opinion on that yet, since we haven’t started playing, but it certainly looks like there are many aspects beyond the character creation that imbue the game with a strong Tolkienesque flavour – the special rules for travel and fellowship and the Hope/Shadow mechanic, for example. I’m not sure if I’m going to like the system, but it looks intriguing and possibly very very good (the reviews suggest that people who play it really like it). I’ll review that when I have had a chance to test it.

I guess it’s not obvious from my critical review of Tolkien’s work but I am a real sucker for his world – I love it and have gamed in it extensively using MERP. I think The One Ring could be a vast improvement on MERP and offer exactly the right flavour of gaming that I have been looking for in Tolkien’s rich, detailed and beautiful world. But I go into that world with a clear understanding of what it is – a scientific racist, authoritarian conservative fantasy of a dead past that we can all hope will never come back to life. This game is another example of just how powerful the racial underpinnings of the world are, and how hard it is to genuinely appreciate the world without accepting that aspect of its creation. And I present this game as further evidence of my claim that whether anyone wants to admit it or not, no one can conceive of Tolkien’s world without accepting the deterministic and moralistic nature of his racial heirarchy.

While we enjoy this world and all its descendants, we should also remember that fantasy needs to be about so much more than this, and that while its creative, lyrical and mythical influences on fantasy have been huge and beneficial, the overarching influence of its scientific racism and conservatism have not done this genre – or our gaming world – any favours.

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