RPG aids

These guys should never win!

These guys should never win!

Today I’ve been thinking about ways to remodel Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 2 (WFRP 2) to make it more user friendly and less punishing, and in the process of thinking through the system’s underlying probabilities I have run up against a problem with the reference frame for skill tests that I think is common for many systems. The problem is a simple one that afflicts opposed skill checks: depending on who is considered to be the active initiator of the skill check, the same skill check can give different probabilities of an outcome. This situation is particularly stark in WFRP 2, though I think it might afflict other systems too. Here is a brief explanation of the problem and how it can (and can’t be) solved. I wonder if this problem is part of the reason that people get so frustrated with the WFRP 2 system and always feel like they’re failing …

The WFRP 2 opposed skill system

WFRP 2 uses a stat-based skill system to resolve skill checks. Stats range from 0 to 100 and an unopposed skill check is resolved by rolling d100 and trying to get under your stat. So e.g. if your agility is 40 then you will succeed in a basic agility check 40% of the time. There are modifications of course (skill training, etc.) but this is the basic process. For an opposed skill check, each person involved in the skill check makes their roll, the person initiating the check starting and then their target rolling under the opposing skill. For example in combat the attacker rolls for Weapon Skill and then the defender rolls their Weapon Skill or Agility in order to parry or dodge. In an opposed skill check your chance of success is always lower than your base stat: it is stat * (1 – opposing stat). This creates a punishing probability curve, incidentally: a person with a stat of 50 up against a target with a stat of 50 has only a 25% chance of success, and perversely this is the best in the game. If you have stat 90 and you are up against someone with stat 90 your chance of success is 9%. But this is only part of the reason that WFRP 2 punishes players.

How reference frame affects outcome

Consider the following example. Bob the Hapless needs to sneak into a tavern to steal one last drink, so he first needs to get past the guard at the door. He has Agility 40 and the guard has Intelligence 40, so it’s an opposed skill check, Bob’s 40 vs. the guard’s 40. Bob rolls, the guard rolls, and fortunately Bob rolls a 01 and the guard a 41, so Bob gets through. His chance of success here was 40*60=24%, not so great; this means, note, that the guard’s chance of spotting him was 76%.

Now Bob the Hapless is near the bar, but he doesn’t realize that a skaven assassin is in the room, and is sneaking up on him. So now Bob the Hapless needs to do an observation check to notice the skaven assassin if he wants to avoid being ambushed. The assassin has a stealth of 40 and Bob has an intelligence of 40, so they roll. Now Bob’s chance of success is 40*60=24%; this means that the skaven had a 76% chance of sneaking up on him.

Unsurprisingly, Bob’s chance of continually beating 24% odds is not good, and he fails the second roll – he rolls a 39 but the skaven rolls a 7. Bob is ambushed and, as one might expect, soon becomes ratfood. This is because he got rat-fucked by the system. When he had to make a stealth check with agility 40 vs. intelligence 40, he had a 25% chance of success; but when the skaven had to make a stealth check with agility 40 vs. intelligence 40, it had a 76% chance of success. For the same check!

Why this happens

In WFRP 2 there is an initiator and a defender of any opposed skill check. The initiator needs a specific chain of outcomes: her own success and her opponent’s failure. But the defender doesn’t need a specific chain of outcomes: they only need either a failure or a success. Essentially once the initiator fails the defender doesn’t need to roll, but if the initiator succeeds the defender gets a second chance to dodge the outcome. Success for the initiator is a conditional probability (on the defender failing); whereas success for the defender is a marginal probability of either the defender succeeding or the initiator failing.

This might not be a problem except that GMs tend to try to make the player the active participant in a skill challenge: if the player is stalking, then the player makes a stealth check against which the GM defends; if the player is being stalked the player makes an observation check against which the GM defends. But this desire to make the player the active participant of their own adventure massively reduces their chance of success; and until they reach a stat of about 50 this effect is punishing – and becomes punishing again after stat 50!

Does this happen in other systems?

I think this doesn’t happen in systems with dice roll vs. DC systems, because usually if the skills/stats are balanced then they cancel each other out and only the probability distribution of a single die roll matters. Shadowrun has an opposed skill check system where each player rolls a dice pool, but in this case the outcome is determined slightly differently: the defender’s roll sets a target that the initiator has to beat, effectively ensuring that if the initiator rolls well above a threshold they’re likely to win (see below for how this can affect WFRP2). I remember playing Talislanta or Aria (not sure which) and finding the same problem, that you could never hit anyone in combat, and I think it had the same underlying mechanic. I think this mechanic is used in quite a few systems, though I haven’t played them all obviously. I don’t think WFRP 3 has it because the difficulty of skill checks is set by the opponent’s attribute and this is asymmetric: in the above example everyone would have the same dice pools in all situations.

I think this problem is merely particularly noticeable in WFRP 2 because all the PCs start off so terrible that you really feel the problem.

How to fix this problem

There are a couple of simple solutions to this problem. The first and most obvious is to design a better system. A partial solution would be to require the defending character to roll under the number obtained by the initiating character and under their own skill. So in the above example, when Bob rolled 01 for his stealth check there was no way the guard could see him; but when he rolled a 39 on the second check there was a big chance that the skaven could roll under his result (which it did). This only partially fixes the problem, since if the player rolls near their stat, the number the defender needs is effectively only constrained by the upper bound of their own attribute. It also doesn’t work when one player’s attribute is much lower than another’s. I think Dark Heresy (the Warhammer 40,000 game) has a modified version of the mechanic that uses a version of this system based on degrees of success that may partly solve the problem.

The best solution is to define active and passive skills, so that for example Observation is always a defender skill and stealth always an attacker skill. This solution has two problems though: attacker skills (like hitting people and sneaking past people) will always be much, much harder than defender skills, which will encourage people to develop characters and gameplay styles based around not doing these things; but more importantly, RPGs should put players at the heart of the action so that wherever possible they initiate skills rather than defending against them. Setting up a system of skills where some are always initiated and some are always defended will mean that some players will be very good at what they do, but will never be put in the active position in doing what they do. I think this doesn’t match the ethos of gaming that most players enjoy.

Basically, skill tests should always be resolved by a single, simple dice roll that is in the hands of the player as much as possible.

Can WFRP 2 be fixed?

I just completed a follow-up session to the Slaves of Destiny adventure I did a while back, again using WFRP 3. It was a lot of fun but this time around we had a large gang of skaven slavers to fight (report to come) and it was just impossible for me to properly follow the rules – or even anything like them – when GMing all those monsters. I didn’t even have table space for the cards! I like the system but in the absence of thoroughly stripping it down and making it much simpler, it’s a good way for PCs to operate but a terrible system for the GM. I would like to be able to use the WFRP 2 rules, because all the surrounding material is great and the game has such a strong feeling, but I just hate them. However, I think with a few tweaks to the central mechanic [well, a complete change] the stat blocks, career system and everything else could be retained in their entirety, and the game become an enjoyable and frustration-free romp through a really great world. In many ways WFRP 2 is an almost perfect combination of world-setting, atmosphere, writing, art and game system: except its fundamental mechanic is broken. I think that mechanic can be fixed by dividing all attributes by 10 and employing a 2d6, Traveler-like mechanic. I will come back to this soon I hope, to describe how to do it – and maybe also test it with some of my players.

If I could find a way to enjoy playing WFRP 2 I would be a very, very happy GM …

Extreme Farming

Extreme Farming

Niscorp 1743 is a small, frozen planet on the inner edge of the frontier. This small planet circles a small, dim orange star at the very edge of its habitable zone, running without a planar inclination in a stable orbit that takes 3.4 standard years to complete and is sufficiently circular that the planet does not have noticeable seasons. The atmosphere is thin and tainted, with the planet’s small size and low density making the gravity only just tolerable for unmodified humans. The planet spins slowly, on an approximately 5 day cycle, and has three small, distant moons. This combination of minimal seasonal change, slow spin and low temperatures give Niscorp 1743 a remarkably stable atmosphere, with limited storm activity, no significant cyclonic behavior, and long periods of unchanging weather. Niscorp 1743 is also located two standard jumps away from The Reach, a pirate planet deeper in frontier space that has consistently resisted Confederacy attempts to subjugate its population. The combination of pirate proximity, inhospitable climate and harsh atmosphere has made Niscorp 1743 a singularly undesirable location, but the stable weather and long day/night cycle makes it an ideal location for terraforming and agricultural research. For this reason Niscorp 1743 has been taken over by its eponymous owner, Niscorp, and is used as a research base. It is primarily used for research into extreme atmosphere farming techniques, but some kinds of weather control and terraforming technology are also tested. The lack of severe weather means that Niscorp 1743 is capable of supporting a high density of bioengineering experiments, since genetic material from one location is unlikely to travel far in the gelid air; the long periods of stable weather make it an ideal location to test weather control technologies. The planet is widely regarded as an unpleasant and lonely place to work, but not dangerous.


Many of the research projects on Niscorp 1743 are automated. Niscorp 1743 is old and has no long history of seismic activity, so its mountains are low and regular, making it an ideal place to trial glacial farming techniques, which are almost entirely automated. Large-scale ice-field algal scrounging technologies are also under development, and these also require little human input – indeed, the less human contact the better. Near the equator, where the ice-crusted seas are still liquid to some depth, human researchers are investigating new crops that use the tainted atmosphere to produce foods with unique textures and flavours, but these projects are few in number and require limited human input. As a result, the official terrestrial population of the planet is currently 57, mostly working in groups of 2-4 and widely scattered across the surface. The largest settlement, Radiance, is a cluster of luxury apartments looking over a small stretch of open water called the Behemoth Tides, occupied by 14 administrative staff and with space for about the same number of guests. There are usually an additional 20-30 travellers planet-side, either resident in the luxury apartments for tourist purposes, or on temporary research visits. The longest residence history is 21 years, being that of the planetary administrator, Jonah Trager, an ex Confederate Navy captain who seems to wish to live permanently on the frozen waste.

There is no record of any birth occurring on Niscorp 1743, and a handful of deaths due to accident have been recorded. There is no history of crime, except a single graffiti incident that has entered into popular local legend and is now largely blamed on “The Iceman,” even though everyone knows it was a frustrated and drunk student intern reacting to news that her favourite sport final on her home planet had been played a month earlier than usual, and the team she was supporting had won while she was working planetside.

No punishment is recorded for this crime. Besides a single semi-cyclonic storm that prevented all above-ground transport for a month, which occurred 31 years ago and is known as “the Mad Snows,” largely now a matter of legend, there is no other historical event of note on Niscorp 1743.

Flora and fauna

There are no flowers, trees or higher plants on Niscorp 1743. In the equatorial areas and in the few areas of noticable seismic activity lichen grows in abundance, and across much of the planet there is a complex range of algae that can sometimes grow in colonies that resemble moss or lichen. This algae is a subject of scientific interest due to its high photosynthetic efficiency. There are also some kinds of floating algae, a kind of living dust, that hang in the air in valleys sheltered from stronger winds, taking advantage of the low gravity. None of these plants and algae have any aesthetic properties at all, but some of the floating algae has mirror-like qualities, which produce beautiful kaleidoscopic patterns when gentle winds blow down the valley (locals call these the “Valley Fairies” and they are one of Niscorp 1743’s few tourist attractions).

Niscorp 1743 has some limited fauna, primarily grazers and a few kinds of venomous ambush hunters. Evolution has been very slow on Niscorp 1743, and almost all identified fauna can approximately be described as insectoid. There are many types of grazers, which are usually loners that wander the frozen wastes grazing on algae. Many of these grazers are also partially photosynthetic, and it is not yet clear whether they obtain energy from grazing or simply use it to replenish photosynthetic materials. Low gravity and long lives mean that these grazers, though insectoid, can be as  large as a human, though much lighter, with many legs and specially-developed tools for digging into and moving through the snow and ice ubiquitous to the planet surface.

Ambush hunters that prey on these beasts take advantage of the photosynthetic energy source to preserve their prey. Although the planet is cold the tainted atmosphere soon destroys any dead material, and there are many forms of scavenging bacteria, so any of the larger grazers would need to be eaten very soon after a full kill. Evolution has solved this problem – and the simultaneous problem of very low densities of prey animals – by gifting the local ambush killers with a highly potent paralytic poison, that enables them to immobilize their victim without killing it. They then take their time eating the still living prey, safe in the knowledge that its partial photosynthetic properties will keep it basically alive while the feast continues. The most common ambush killer is a kind of small spider called the Ice Wrack, which is about one eighth the size of a human being, perfectly camouflaged in snow and ice, and capable of moving rapidly beneath the surface of powdery snow. It has a set of four retractable 12cm long stingers that deliver its poison deep into the cavities of the largest grazer (called simply Grazer Spiders). These stingers are harder than steel and capable of penetrating most body armour if delivered from ambush. The venom is equally effective on humans, and Ice Wracks do not quibble about what they eat – experiments have shown that they can burrow through most grav suits within two hours, at which point they begin consuming their paralyzed prey from within. Fortunately Ice Wrack venom also causes seizures and blood clots, and most humans die within 6-8 hours of being bitten, so they only need to endure 4-6 hours of being eaten alive before their merciful release.

Most humans on Niscorp 1743 wear sturdy boots and carry anti-venom slap-packs at several locations on their grav suits. Ice Wracks are very rare but the presence of these beasts, the risk of occasional cataracts in the icy surface, and the cold are all good reasons that Niscorp residents never travel alone outside of their compounds, and have strict protocols for carrying homing beacons and regularly checking with their compound.

Planetary culture

Niscorp does not itself conduct research on its planet, but makes the surface available to others for independent research. This means that the people living on Niscorp tend to be independent, suspicious and guarded about strangers, with little communication between research groups and little bonhomie outside of occasional meetings for recreation on the starport or at Radiance. It is not unknown for groups to go for days or weeks without checking in with other organizations on the planet, and there is little interaction even virtually between the different research groups – indeed such communication is sometimes forbidden. Researchers can also be jealously protective of their research areas too, and although no violence has ever been committed in the defense of research facilities, Jonah Trager has recognized that risk and does warn newcomers about manners. There is a common culture of loudly hailing strangers, always greeting people upon sight, and never traveling to another compound bearing any weapons. The people are warm, but their first reaction to newcomers is as frozen as the planet itself.

Niscorp starport

Niscorp starport is a low grade facility, capable of basic ship repairs and maintenance only and primarily serving as a waypoint for researchers. Careful agreement with the pirates of The Reach ensures that the starport has no military facilities capable of space defense, though a small squad of marines is usually on hand in case of any incidents on the starport itself or planetside. These are Niscorp marines, not Confederate, and it appears that Niscorp has an agreement with the Confederacy that no military vessels will be based here, probably as part of a secret arrangement with the pirates. Pirate vessels often pass through Niscorp, and the fleeting nature of their stops suggests that their visits, too, are governed by some kind of arrangement with Niscorp. Niscorp, however, is not a military services corporation – it is purely a terraforming and research corporation – so it is unlikely that there is any sinister background to such a deal – it is likely merely one of convenience to both sides.

Niscorp starport is composed of three discs floating in space parallel to one another, spinning to maintain centripetal force and connected by semi-transparent tubes constructed entirely with field effectors. Cargo and heavy goods move through a central field effector spindle linking the three discs, while humans move through smaller tubes that connect the faster-spinning edges of the discs. One disc is primarily for docking, one is for residency, and one is for entertainment and services. The residential disc spins faster than the central services disk, which spins faster than the docking disc, which in turn produces centripetal force that approximately mimics the gravitational pull of the surface of Niscorp 1743. A couple of hundred people live and work on the starport, and usually another 100 or so will be passing through. At any time one can expect a couple of small ships to be docked at the starport, and traffic never exceeds 10. It is a quiet, sleepy backwater of no value to anyone.

Possible adventures on Niscorp

There are no adventures to be had on such a planet, unless one likes to eat frozen spider meat, or really enjoys skiing. Industrial espionage is a possibility, but the harsh nature of the planet and its remoteness – along with the low value of the research projects undertaken here in the frontier, in the shadow of The Reach – mean that industrial espionage will not produce rewards worth the effort. If you ever have the misfortune to stop off at Niscorp, best to spend a night refuelling and sampling the ice spider meat[1] and then head off to more interesting planets as soon as your maintenance schedule allows.

fn1: make sure the vendor is licensed, because improper removal of the venom glands can make this meal foul-tasting and lethal.

Tyrant, Lancer and captured Rev-heads en scene

Tyrant, Lancer and captured Rev-heads en scene

One of the members of my regular gaming group is thinking of running a one-off set in the world of Mad Max, probably hacking the Fate rules. I don’t know how the Fate rules work but I’m very excited to consider gaming in Mad Max’s crazed world. So here are a few ideas for character classes (or archetypes, if that’s too narrow a concept) that might make sense in that world. They’re designed in terms of what might be thier core attributes, skills and types of special powers or feats. The archetypes are all based on people you meet in Mad Max 2-4, and examples are given in square brackets after the archetype name.

  • Road Warrior [Mad Max, Furiosa, Warrior Woman]: The quintessential loner good at everything. A capable driver not great at stunts, the Road Warrior is also a capable melee fighter and shooter. The Road Warrior’s primary trait is her level of comfort on moving vehicles: for a Road Warrior the moving back of a car is as stable a platform for combat as the solid earth of the desert, and she suffers no penalties or disadvantages fighting atop a moving vehicle – the only way to shake her loose is to change the momentum of her car. Because the road warrior has to make it in a wild and dangerous world on his own, he has to be good at a lot of things and often isn’t the match of his opponents at any one of them. He makes up for this with a healthy reserve of cunning and luck, as if the world had a narrative that favoured him …
  • Rev-head [Warboys, Hedgehogs, the Rock Riders]:Rev-heads are the quintessential stunt drivers of the Fury Road. They aren’t great fighters or shooters, specializing in only one form of attack, but this is because their main job is delivery – they get the Road Warriors and Polecats where they need to be. Rev-heads are also technically adept, because they need to fix their rigs on the run.
  • Polecat [Polecats]: Masters of acrobatics and close-fighting, the Polecat forms the boarding party of the wasted future. There is no vehicle too hard for them to get a purchase on, no high-speed chase that can confound their acrobatics, and no height or speed that can scare them. They don’t shoot, drive, speak or think: they leap, they smash, they grab.
  • Lancers [Warboys, some of the hedgehogs, crew of the tanker in Mad Max 2]: Lancers are the stalwarts of the convoy, the men and women at front and back whose job is the gunnery and long-range attack. Masters of heavy weapons, rifles, crossbows and spears, they don’t aim to get in close and fight, but to lay down the heavier defenses of the convoy so that the Polecats can get in and get the prize. Although they aren’t great drivers or athletes, they have a remarkable talent for escaping car crashes, and when they have the enemy in their sights they don’t feel the rough and tumble of the road …
  • Fliers [The Gyro Captain]: Fliers are rare and valued heroes of the future, patrolling the skies rather than the road. They can’t fight but they can fly, they have no fear of heights, excellent perception and an acuity for technology and the weather. Those little gyro-copters aren’t particularly stable either, so Fliers tend to have a great deal of luck…
  • Scamp [The Feral Kid]: People grow up early in the wasteland, and they don’t all get ahead by fighting and killing. Some make it through luck, wits, stealth and cunning. Most of the wasteland’s thieves and spies don’t make it to adulthood, which is why the majority of the ones you see are feral, scuttling kids. They can’t fight, but good luck catching them, or even seeing them …
  • Breeders [The Wives]: Breeders are rare gems in the wasteland, humans of perfect purity and beauty who are somehow immune to the corrupting effects of the Collapse. Perfect in every way, their genetic advantage isn’t just reflected in exceptional beauty: they also have better senses, and their minds are unaffected by decay and deformity, giving them a rare insight into the true nature of the world. They are highly sought after by every community in the wasteland, and they know how to use their beauty to deceive, distract and confuse. Breeders can be male or female!
  • Tyrants [Toecutter, Humungus, Aunty Entity, Imortan Joe, the People Eater, the Bullet Farmer – my, there are quite a lot of these aren’t there!]: Tyrants are the leaders of the wasteland, so-named because there is no nice way to rule in a world without water, food or mercy. They know what makes men and women tick, and they know how to use it to their advantage. They may not be great in battle, or even able to to fight at all, but they have a remarkable ability for channeling others’ cruelty and ambitions to their own ends. Through intimidation, inspiration, cunning and plain old good luck they get everything they want every time … until their luck runs out.
  • Organic Mechanic [The Organic Mechanic]: The doctors of the future, though there is almost nothing in the future that they can prevent or treat, except physical injury. Lacking the bedside manner of modern physicians, they make up for it with a refined taste in cruelty and an ingenuity for the use and misuse of human frailties. In addition to rough and ready methods for preserving the injured, the halt and the lame, Organic Mechanics also have a remarkable talent for jury-rigging primitive cybernetics and bio-enhancements so that their charges can keep fighting and dying. Why waste good organics? Or any?
  • Tech-heads [Master, Mechanic]: They can’t fight, they’re probably physically deformed, and they aren’t usually very pleasant, but you can’t go anywhere without them, so there they are in every messed-up community and hole in the ground between here and the salt flats. Give a tyrant a mechanic and a pool of water, and she’ll have a “community” built on cruelty, pig-shit and petrol within a month.
  • Brutes [Blaster, Rictus Erectus]: Possessed of the two greatest physical attributes one can enjoy in the wasteland – excessive physical strength and dim wits – the Brute is the last line of defense of every tyrant and petty dictator ever to rule the sand. Once the warboys are done, the rev-heads are burning and scattered, and the forces of disaster are closing in, every corrupt has this final suicidal mutant giant to deploy as he or she scuttles out the back door. Slow, stupid, impossibly loyal and invincible – what’s not to like?

In this list I haven’t included Savants like the children in Beyond Thunderdome or mobile archers like the Vulvalini, either because they don’t seem to be playable or because they’re really just the name for a specific clan of other types of characters. But I think this makes for a fairly comprehensive list of mad archetypes for a mad world. Have I missed any …?

Kill them along the way, but count your bullets, for there are more worthy targets

– The Falcon, dialectical ephemeralist revolutionary, talking about lackeys

Our recent train heist involved a serious number of low-ranked enemies, the full complement of which hasn’t been described yet (Drew’s breathless reports take her a lot of time to write, even if they might seem like a rant she spat out over the phone to a friend in 10 minutes). During the latter part of this battle (after Bob Millet got naked) we had five PCs taking on 16 soldiers in a rather drawn out and exhausting gun battle, which was only a taster for the main event. We soon discovered that this makes battles slow and exhausting, and you spend a lot of time resolving rules for people who, though potentially fatal, are largely just going to serve to wear you down a bit. Cyberpunk doesn’t have any special rules for handling this, so you just have a huge number of different people making complex shots, rolling hit locations, doing damage, keeping track of armour, etc. Cyberpunk doesn’t really have a style that is suited for minions in the sense that e.g. Warhammer 3 or Iron Kingdoms have them, but we often find ourselves dealing with gangers, grunts or low-level cannon fodder who really should be treated as just that.

We have also begun to run up against the problem of the nihilistic arms race that I described a long time ago. We have good armour and we’re dangerous, so if our GM wants to put in enemies who can kill us – or even just hurt us – he needs to give them powerful weapons that he really doesn’t want our team to get. Not only does this really up the lethality of every adventure, but when we win we will get those weapons. Drew has been salivating over the possibility of getting a military-grade sniper’s rifle, that does 7d10 or 9d10 damage and gives her a +5 to hit – she can take down anything with that. Our GM obviously wants to stop us getting that, but if he wants to stop us he needs to deploy some serious grade stuff against us. So we also need to find a way to derail this arms race.

Rules for minions offer an opportunity to smooth down combat and slow down the arms race.

The basic principle of the lackey

The lackey is the Cyberpunk version of a minion or mook in fantasy RPGs. They turn up in groups, armed with the kind of military cast-off stuff that no PC wants, and they aren’t individually dangerous but if you don’t mow them down they’ll take a piece out of you. They serve to distract team members while the big boss is setting up the rocket launcher, or the real solos are mainlining their combat drugs and getting ready to wade in. You could probably ignore them because you can tell each of them is a scrawny boosterhead, but en masse they might just get a lucky hit.

The way this works in cyberpunk is simple. Lackeys come with base stats for attacks, damage and armour, but they get a +1 to hit and +1 die of damage (up to the number of dice their weapon delivers) for every additional member of the group. To further simplify things, they don’t have hit locations – their bodies are a single routine armour type. They also don’t have a Body Type Modifier (BTM) or hit points: for every four points of damage you do over armour, one lackey gets it in the neck. They don’t roll skill checks for e.g. awareness/notice, dodge/escape or other challenged actions, but have a simple single difficulty level for all actions against them. Thus, hitting them involves a single attack roll followed by a single damage roll, and then a count. They also don’t vary their attack type except for narrative fun – you don’t worry about giving them three shot bursts or single shots or whatever, because they just make a single attack each round. The sole exception to this is if the GM decides to give them grenades or have them lay down suppressive fire – in the former case the standard to hit  rule for weapons applies, while in the latter case anyone who fails to avoid the suppressive fire simply takes damage equal to the level of the lackey multiplied by the number of them firing, minus BTM (armour doesn’t apply). This damage doesn’t hit any particular location – the lackeys are firing huge numbers of bullets so it is spread evenly over many areas. High level lackeys in large groups might deliver enough damage to knock a solo down, but they won’t take out any of her limbs because they delivered it through a wall of low-grade lead.

Stats for the four levels of lackey are given below.

  • Level 1 (shit kickers): Armour 0, attack 5, dmg 3d6, basic difficulty 12, initiative 7
  • Level 2 (gangbangers): Armour 12, attack 7, dmg 4d6, basic difficulty 15, initiative 12
  • Level 3 (basic security): Armour 18, attack 10, dmg 5d6, basic difficulty 18, initiative 15
  • Level 4 (corporate dogs): Armour 24, attack 12, dmg 6d6, basic difficulty 20, initiative 15

Key points about handling lackeys

Because no weapon can be boosted beyond the number of dice it rolls, there is no benefit to increasing lackey groups beyond a certain size: shit kickers don’t benefit from having more than 4 in a group, since they can’t do more than 3 extra dice with their weapon. This reflects the fact that people this useless can’t coordinate actions in large numbers; while corporate dogs can be up to 7 in number, which is a truly terrifying squad. Lackey squads can be larger than this (if some arsehole down in the docks can dose up 100 losers on enough ghostshock and set them loose then yes, you will find yourself having to gun them down by the dozen), but they won’t do more damage than twice the original damage of their weapon, because of reasons.

When a PC does damage on a squad of lackeys, they can’t kill more than the number of bullets they have fired. So Drew’s beautiful blue pastel rifle, damage 9d6+3, is a waste of time against lackeys because it only fires one bullet. However, if she switches to her FN-FAL, she can fire 3 shot bursts and take down three guys at a time.

When using multiple shots against a gang of lackeys, don’t waste time rolling multiple damage. Just add one die to your weapon damage for every bullet after the first. This applies to full auto, where every point of success above the target number indicates one bullet hits. Usually you would roll each of these bullets separately, but with lackeys you don’t bother; instead you just add one die per success. This rule doesn’t exist to benefit the lackeys or make them more dangerous, it is just intended to speed up combat.

When a leader is standing amongst his or her lackeys, area effect attacks do not harm the leader – the lackeys soak it up first. So if someone drops a grenade on such a squad, it might kill all the lackeys but it won’t harm the leader.

Grenades have no frag limit. If you drop a grenade on a group of lackeys, and you roll enough damage, it kills all of them. Don’t be a lackey!

Note lackeys have a fixed initiative. Shit kickers will probably react after your hacker, and you can rely on the higher level lackeys to act fast but not fast enough. You wanna kill corporate dogs, you gotta have at least a little bit of combat sense.


Pops, Drew and Coyote need to kill a man because of reasons. The man has holed up in an abandoned warehouse down in the docks. It’s some oil age shitheap, so they go in the easy way – Coyote attaches a strip of explosive to a wall and they walk through once the dust is cleared. Inside the warehouse there are a bunch of crates that they immediately take cover behind, but not before they come under fire from a squad of five gangbangers. Because the gangbangers were lying in wait they get the drop, and lay down a curtain of suppressing fire on the huge hole Coyote made. The difficulty to avoid this suppression fire is 15 (the target difficulty for all actions against gangbangers), and Coyote and Drew make it but Pops just misses it. He takes 2 points of damage multiplied by the number of gangbangers (5), so 10 points of damage, or 7 after BTM. He is injured but not badly.

Now they are through the curtain of suppressive fire they are able to roll initiative. The ‘bangers don’t roll, they get an automatic 12. Pops rolls 14, Coyote 11, Drew 19. Drew switches weapons to her FN-FAL, pops up and takes a three shot burst at the gang, but it’s dark and this is her second action so she just misses. Pops throws a grenade at the squad, rolling a 15, so it lands, but it’s only a 5d6 damage frag, one of the crappy ones that Coyote picks up cheap from his “friend” Twitch. Pops rolls 18, which is 6 more than the gangers’ armour, so he manages to kill one. Four remain. These four now have a chance to shoot at Drew, who had popped out; they roll 15 but with four gangers they get a +3, so hit her with an 18. Their weapons do 4d6 damage but with +3 dice, so 7d6. The GM rolls 34 on the right leg, which after Drew’s armour of 28 and BTM of 3 leaves just 3 points of damage. She shrugs it off. Finally Coyote rises up and fires two shots at the gangers from his pistol. His first shot hits and the second misses. The first shot does 6d6+2 damage, and Coyote rolls a mighty 33, enough to go through 5 gangers (33-12 armour =21), but he only has a single shot pistol, so he can only kill one. Three remain.

The round ends. Drew doesn’t bother dropping under cover; she squeezes off two three-shot bursts, hitting with the first. She rolls d3 for the number of bullets, and gets three hits! However, rather than wasting time rolling multiple damage rolls, she simply adds 2d6 to her weapon damage, for a total of 8d6+2. Damage total is not so great, just 30, but that’s 18 above the gangers’ armour, enough to kill four gangers. Having fired only three bullets she can only kill three, but there are only three left, so down they go.

The squad is gone. Pops pulls out his grenade launcher and pumps a couple of frag grenades up to the higher level. Drew returns to her beautiful blue pastel Nomad rifle, and takes cover in a corner facing up the stairs. Pops and Coyote head up the stairs to the upper level, moving fast and low. The man they have come to kill is out of lackeys, and out of luck …

Drew contemplating the value of bad combat rules after a headshot

Drew contemplating the value of bad combat rules after taking a headshot

The original Cyberpunk rulebook has a simple and nasty system of armour, which is completely broken. In this system your gun does a handful of dice of damage, between 3d6+1 for a good submachine gun to 7d10 for a high quality sniper rifle, and your armour has a stopping power (SP) that ranges from 4 for a leather jacket to about 24 or 30 for full-grade military armour. If the damage you roll exceeds the SP of your armour, you take damage, from which you can subtract your body type modifier (BTM) before you take any actual damage to your body. BTM is usually between 2 and 4, and you can take about 30 hits before you die, but you can only take 8 hits before you start having to make shock checks to stay conscious, and 12 hits before you start making death checks. These checks become progressively harder, and these wound states (in blocks of 4) come with increasing penalties to activity. This means that taking damage is a rapid death spiral, and as soon as you can you buy one of the basic, easily-accessible armour types that makes you immune to low level damage. See the example at the bottom of this post for more details.

The result of this rule is the exact kind of nihilism I decried in a post on cyberpunk some time back, which attracted a lot of negative attention. It also drains out a lot of the sense of tactical battle skills and planning that seems like it should be the essence of a fight in cyberpunk, because highly-protective armour is much more easily accessible than highly-destructive guns: for example, “Motocross Armour” (SP 24) is easy to get, but the most easily accessible gun is the FN-RAL assault rifle (Drew is a proud owner of one of these) which does 6d6+2 damage, not enough to get through the Motocross Armour + BTM, and definitely not enough to penetrate Drew’s Motocross armour + body-weave + BTM (total target: 31). So instead of dashing from cover to cover, worrying about getting hit, Drew can just stand in the middle of the room gunning people down. If she’s up against people with SMGs she can use the same tactic naked (SP12+BTM=target of 15). Under this rule system you don’t need cover, tactics or planning, you just need a good set of motocross armour and a spine of steel (or, in Drew’s case, a complete lack of any sense of self-preservation and a COOL of 9). This rule is also, I suspect, unrealistic: although this blog says that armour has outpaced guns, this highly entertaining youtube video suggests that even a normal pistol firing certain kinds of normal ammunition can go through very effective armour and still do a lot of damage (the hole from the Hungarian bullet at the end looks to me like it must be at least a Mortal-2 category of damage!) Obviously we don’t want to play in a world where the first shot kills us, but as players we want to keep at least some sense of that furtiveness and care that we assume real soldiers must engage in, especially in close-range firefights of the kind we’re regularly caught in, and we don’t want the game to degenerate to a slugfest between heavily-armoured foes at 10m.

Our house rule, that bullets that don’t penetrate armour still do one point of stun damage, completely changes the dynamic of combat. When someone lays down suppressive fire on a small area you suddenly value cover very highly, because if your dodge/escape check fails you’re looking at 1d6 points of shock damage; you can only sustain this for a few rounds before you’re out for the count. And finding cover makes fights tougher, because moving around and ducking in and out of cover reduces the number of shots you can take and increases your activity penalties. This is why Drew bought her armour-cracking gun …

Drew’s Beautiful New Gun

Realizing that we are usually outnumbered in combat, and with this new rule making force of numbers a dangerous foe, Drew decided to invest in a weapon that can even the odds rapidly. Our street dealer, Coyote, can’t buy really good guns easily (probably because he is so ugly), and so Drew hasn’t been able to get the sniper rifle she keeps asking him for, but he is also very good at modifying existing weapons. So Drew bought herself a cheap, easily-available Nomad 7.62 bolt action rifle, and Coyote modified it to fire electro-thermal (ET) shot. Neither Drew nor I know what this means, but we don’t care: it adds 50% to her damage. This mod can only be applied to non-automatic weapons with caseless ammunition[1], but it means that Drew now has a 9d6+3 damage rifle with an accuracy of +2 and a six-shot cartridge. The accuracy bonus for this gun means that if she is not moving and focuses on just the one shot she hits the head with a roll of 2 or more on a d10; if she has to perform a second action she hits on a 4 or more. Head shots do double damage after SP and BTM modifiers, which is why in our last session Drew killed 3 men with 5 shots.

This gun is also in a tasteful pastel blue. Drew tries to avoid pink when she is working with other combat teams, because she wants to be taken seriously as a riflewoman.

Tactics for breaking armour

In our last session we ended up facing off against five guys with power armour, which has an SP of at least 28, carrying fairly heavy automatic rifles (probably FN-RALs, like Drew’s) and at least one shotgun (scary!). We lucked on a very effective method for breaking down armour within the revised rules, however. This was pretty simple: Coyote used a high-rate-of-fire Kalashnikov to lay down suppressive fire when they first arrived in combat, forcing them back through the door they were entering by, and Pops dropped burner grenades on them. Burner grenades don’t do huge amounts of damage but anyone who is hit by them has to make a COOL check to stay in combat and not put out the flames, and the flames themselves continue for a few rounds, causing additional stun damage under the revised rules. Drew, of course, was laying out head shots, because a single headshot with her beautiful new gun will probably kill someone even if they have SP 30 and BTM 4, especially if it has armour piercing ammo. Once Coyote and Pops had expended their initial ammunition, Coyote switched to throwing fragmentation grenades and Pops switched to three-shot bursts with his FN-RAL, which don’t do heavy damage but are likely to wear down single opponents fast with stun damage. Meanwhile Drew continued with the head shots, aiming at individual opponents who posed the most threat.

Unfortunately Pops and Coyote are really shit at delivering grenades, so most missed, but two of our support team managed to do that job. With this tactic, Drew cleaned up the riskiest guy in the first round, a lot of damage was laid down on the enemy in the second round, and in the third round the burner grenades caused two of the remaining guys to expire; the last two went down from another fragmentation grenade after that. None of these guys were dead (except Drew’s first target), just shocked and exhausted; but Drew soon fixed that.

This tactic works because it maintains a heavy pressure of stun damage on the whole group, because no one can stand in the blast zone of three grenades while they’re on fire and being shot at without eventually giving up the ghost. Under the previous rules, everything we had thrown at them except Drew’s ET round would have done nothing. If Pops now improves his heavy weapons skill so his grenade launcher is actually effective, and we find Coyote a better suppression weapon (e.g. a mini-gun) then this tactic will be even more effective. Even power armour won’t stop us now!

Example: The original rules

Ghost has come out of his hidey-hole in our first adventure, and finds himself facing off against a squad of three gangers armed with SMGs, who are there to kill him. He has warning, and has donned a set of full combat armour that he spent much of his starting money on. He needs to get down the hallway to the lift. The three gangers fire 3-shot bursts at him, hitting him twice and delivering 1d3 shots per successful burst, for a total of 3 hits. They roll damage, but their SMGs are crumby, doing 3d6 damage, and his SP is 24, so there’s no risk he will take any damage. He walks down the hallway towards them, shooting them down one by one as the rest of the group catch up and start gunning them down with assault rifles. Ghost is a hacker.

Example: The revised rules

Drew is lying on the ground unable to move, in plain sight, after a lunatic ganger tried to wrestle her and get her helmet off in our sixth adventure. Two men at the end of the hallway armed with assault rifles let rip on her with suppressive fire, and unable to dodge properly she takes 5 bullets. The men are using kalashnikovs, which do 5d6 damage, but Drew is wearing full combat armour plus SP12 sub-dermal armour (she’s a sensible girl!) so she has a total SP of 28. All five bullets hit her for less than 28 damage each, and she takes nothing. The GM, in a fit of rage, makes up the new rules, and so Drew takes one point of stun damage from each bullet that hit her. The GM, who is a complete bastard, also degrades her armour slightly. Drew is now in the lightly wounded category (-2 on everything) and if she takes 3 more bullets, even if they don’t penetrate, she will need to start making stun checks to stay functional.

fn1: One amusing thing about this game is that, since I’m not a gun nut at all, with no experience of any form of projectile weapons (I have never touched one, and have only even seen one in someone’s hand once), I have no clue what any of the language means, I just treat it as categories of stuff like magic items. One of our players was a conscript in his national army, and has a lot of familiarity with the various barbaric instruments of death that Drew deploys; I leave the details to him.

One of the PCs in my Flood campaign, Quark, has gained a level (even though they don’t exist in Cyberpunk rules), so he has access to a new set of abilities – the ability to make and deploy poison. He has two types of poison: poison darts and gas canisters, which he can deploy from his drone or throw. This post describes some Cyberpunk house rules for poisons.

Quark takes the shot

Quark takes the shot

Poison darts Quark can deliver two types of debilitating poison through poison darts. He needs to make an attack roll using athletics against a target number of 15 or the armour value of his target, whichever   is higher (for targets with multiple armour values use the torso value unless Quark declares a called shot). If he hits this target number he does no damage but the poison is delivered, with either of the following effects. Debilitating pain: The target suffers from debilitating pain and weakness, which makes existing injuries worse. As soon as the target is injured in any way, he or she suffers the full effects of the next highest level of injury. This means that the affected person needs to make death checks at the critically wounded level rather than at Mortal 1, and will start suffering additional penalties as soon as they suffer any wound of any kind. The effects last for the remainder of the battle, and for several hours afterwards. Paralysis: The target does not suffer any pain or distress, but is at risk of paralysis. Every time the target acts he or she needs to make a successful BODY check (with current penalties) in order to act; otherwise he or she is forced to remain still. The effect lasts 1d6 rounds. The target is able to perform basic movements and other similar actions (e.g. drinking an antidote) but nothing more severe, so only walking movement and no combat actions, controlling vehicles, etc. Targets still think clearly and are allowed to drag themselves into cover. They can attempt to evade attacks but this counts as an action, requiring a BODY check. LUCK can be used to reroll BODY checks forced due to this poison. Poison gas Poison gas is delivered by a canister that Quark can throw or drop from his drone. The canister affects an area of 5m radius, but people can attempt to get out of the area before inhaling the gas if  Quark’s timing is off, or if he throws/drops the canister wide and it needs to bounce and spray. To reflect this, delivering the canister requires Quark to roll an athletics attack against the Dodge/Evade skill of everyone in the area of effect. Anyone who fails this check takes the full effect of the gas for 1 round per point of failure. Note that getting out of the area of effect uses up one of the target’s next actions. Note also that they need to make a Combat Sense check against Quark’s same athletics roll in order to be able to choose the direction of escape. If they fail this check, they are required to leave by the quickest, most direct method forward from where they are (or sideways if forward is blocked by someone else faster than them). This means that they may emerge from the gas into an area with no cover, and will need to use the second action in their round to take cover. This may also mean that people who can act before them (but after Quark) will have an opportunity to change actions and take shots at these people. The effects of the gas are described below. CS Gas: The target must immediately make a BODY check and suffer 1 point of (stun) damage per point of failure. Regardless of the result of this check, they suffer a -2 penalty on all actions for one round per point of failure of the original attack roll.

Quark rolls a 1 (again)

Quark rolls a 1 (again)

Crafting poisons Quark can also use his Tech attribute and Chemistry skills to craft these poisons. For the poison darts he needs access to certain reagents, and a laboratory. Making a single dose takes 3-6 hours and requires a target number of 15. A fumble means he poisons himself. For the poison gas he needs access to certain reagents, a laboratory and certain mechanical materials to make the canister. A single canister takes about 12 hours to make and requires a target number of 20. Again, a fumble means he poisons himself. If he rolls below 20 and above 15 he can choose to make a successful canister with a bad action, which has effectively an accuracy penalty = (20-roll). Any failed check means that the reagents are destroyed. The canister materials are only destroyed on a fumble. The necessary reagents are listed below. Debilitating pain: A certain type of deep water shark, which is caught in most areas of the Gyre and preserved for food. By draining the blood, fermenting it and mixing it with certain chemical reagents  the poison can be stabilized. Paralysis: Any stinging jellyfish, which needs to be carefully milked for its poison, which is then mixed with certain chemical reagents and formed into a kind of unguent using whale oil. CS Gas: A large quantity of chilli powder or, alternatively, a lot of fresh chillies. Some chemical ingredients, a flask and a certain type of stopper which requires precision crafting that Quark cannot do.

Fascinating to anyone who is not near it.

Fascinating to anyone who is not near it.

After the Flood the oceans’ depth doubled. Where before humanity had understood some tiny proportion of that zone at the top they called pelagic, but now it had grown so vast, encompassing the world in a shroud of sun-dappled blue mystery that no one could ever hope to understand, let alone conquer. As the scientists of the old world watched this fickle, fluid world rise up to conquer their own they supposed that its surface would be an angry maelstrom, believing that only the land had tamed the sea where it stood in the path of currents and broke up the ocean’s mercurial tempers. But this was not to be. With the land finally vanquished and submerged the ocean became a tranquil and placid conqueror, its great depths too solid and stable to sustain the tempests of old. Where once the land had broken up currents, and continents had impinged on the ocean’s majesty, there was nowhere for heat and cold to go. Large gradients of temperature formed between the shallows and the deeps, unmolested by circumnavigating currents. From these gradients grew winds and storms, as if the ocean flung its anger at the irritations of land and people. But now, with the ocean free to move where it willed, heat dissipated from the tropics in every direction, unconcerned by the petty barriers of continents and undersea mountain ranges. Its reign uncontested by the earth, the sea grew complacent. With this change in fluid dynamics the nature of the earth’s storms changed. Storms still rose up, and winds could travel for thousands of kms across the ocean unstopped, driving waves before them; but these winds were not usually very strong, and for much of the earth’s turn the sea was still and quiet. Cyclones still formed in the tropics, and when they did they could travel long distances across huge stretches of warm ocean; but the well-mixed waters of the world ocean ensure that heat cannot gather on the surface, sinking instead to the frozen darkness of the abyss. As a result these cyclones, though long-lasting, tended to be weak, and they never crossed the current barrier of the gyre, where the waters mixed too much to allow heat to gather. But sometimes … Sometimes, in summer, the ocean would still. Perhaps a circumnavigating current would deviate from its usual path, or break for a time. Perhaps the deep churn of water would change under some gravitational, tectonic or tidal influence, and for a short time the surface would be becalmed. Not becalmed so as human communities could notice, but becalmed in such a way that the heat gathered under the tropical sun, over a continent-sized expanse of water. Such confluences of currents are rare, and this becalming might only occur once in a generation. But when the pulse beneath the sea stops like this, a pulse stirs on the surface. The storms gather on this great sheet of hot water, and a storm forms whose power was unheralded before the Flood: a world storm. World storms grow beyond anything humans have ever experienced, covering areas much larger than even the strongest cyclone and moving slowly over the ocean. Whichever direction they head, the vast size of the heated ocean will sustain their power, and they can last for weeks before they finally exhaust their generating power. As they travel, smaller cyclones – mere category 3-5 babies – break off from their flanks, spinning away in random directions to cause havoc of their own, or reforming into secondary monster cyclones in the wake of the main one. The world storm has a power well beyond the traditional system of categorizing cyclones, and usually it invokes its own unique fluid dynamic properties that make a taxonomy of such storms impossible. While such storms rage the weather across much of the hemisphere will change, as they distort the whole atmosphere. In their wake will come an unusual calm, as the ocean temperature equalizes across the range of the storm: winds stop, the sea calms, and the world heaves a sigh of relief. Nothing human can stand in the way of a world storm. Raft communities will be shattered and their inhabitants lost to the tempest. Larger structures too large to capsize will be simply broken apart, smashed by waves no human has ever seen or simply consumed whole if they are close enough to the centre of the whirlwind. Around the edges of the world storm, sometimes thousands of kms from its middle, powerful waterspouts and smaller storms will form, or lightning storms that will destroy anything floating. Communities in the path of the storm, even hundreds of kms away, cannot escape, because the winds being draw towards the world storm will prevent any sailing vessel from escaping. Only the largest, most seaworthy vessels with their own power can hope to leave the storm, and indeed this is the only way a community can survive: pack as many people as possible onto a large, powered vessel while the storm is still spinning up, and flee before it can open its maw and suck in everything living on the surface of the ocean. When a world storm forms, communities in its path will face horrible choices, because they are unlikely to possess enough vessels to liberate everyone. The privileged or the most violent few will rise up and grab what they can, fleeing with the colony’s most precious effects (and maybe their loved ones) to take their chances on the open ocean, knowing that everyone they leave behind them is doomed. Such are the dilemmas of an ocean-going life… World storms have never touched the gyre, though one or two have passed near it. They usually veer northward before they reach it, but if they do come too close they will usually lose their strength as they approach the broken and mixed zone of water around the gyre. History records that one particularly strong world storm managed to partially cross the gyre and spawned a minor cyclone inside, but fortunately the Hulks was at the opposite side of the Gyre at that time, and the Arc weathered the cyclone’s passing without loss of life. Outside the gyre, however, there are few people alive who can say they have weathered such a storm. Rumours abound of structures large enough to weather even this monstrosity, but no one has ever found evidence of such a community… until Captain Dilver of the Gyre discovered and captured the Ziggurat he named Mount Arashi. — Picture credit: I took this picture from the homepage of a fluid dynamics researcher called Gary Davies. He has a blog on fluid dynamics – cool! Check it out! A note on the science of the Flood: I’d originally assumed, like Stephen Baxter’s books, that the world after the Flood would be warmer and more tropical, with all that extra moisture floating around (water vapour is a powerful greenhouse gas). But the extra vast amounts of water should act as a huge heat sink, and I think that this means that the world would actually be meterologically very stable. In the book Baxter talks of a permanent storm like the Eye of Jupiter, but I think that wouldn’t happen because the uninterrupted undersea currents plus huge heat sink effect would prevent the storm conditions required, except in occasional instances when the currents deviate.

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