RPG aids


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.

These nets can't be replaced

These nets can’t be replaced

Next weekend I will be running another short adventure in my Flood campaign world, and the adventure trigger will be the arrival near the Hulks of one of the drowned earth’s most potent environmental threats: the Miasma.

The Miasma is a special type of jellyfish swarm that can only exist in the depopulated aquatic deserts of the world ocean. With almost all land sunk thousands of metres below the surface of the ocean there are very few areas where fish can spawn and thrive, and huge expanses of the earth’s surface are too far from these spawning areas for larger fish to be able to survive in them. These areas, too far from fish populations to support any biodiversity larger than plankton, have become a strange and top-heavy ecosystem. Aside from occasional large predators migrating through, these empty wilds have become the domain of the grazers: whales, basking sharks and jellyfish that thrive on the plankton in surface waters. But the most efficient and terrifying of these open ocean grazers are the jellyfish, which sometimes by happenstance gather together into huge swarms, sometimes tens of kilometres across, that dominate the open ocean wherever they drift, and leave a terrible path of destruction behind them, like enormous army ants of the open seas.

The survivors of human civilization live in terror of these jellyfish swarms, which they call miasma. These swarms, though composed primarily of plankton-eating drifters, are also usually heavily infested with giant, slow-moving grazers and a large number of deadly predatory jellyfish. They consume everything in the ocean around them, and are an existential threat to the fishing grounds that most human communities zealously nurture. They also transform the atmosphere and sea around the swarm, turning the ocean into a kind of limpid swamp that offends the sensibilities of drifting raft communities, and is deeply toxic.

Most raft communities float on oceans more than 1000 m deep, and are as vulnerable to the currents as a jellyfish swarm. To maintain a reliable ocean food supply, the rafters carefully and systematically build up local ecosystems, which in turn feed a network of wild distant ecosystems. In areas like the Gyre, where a relatively large number of human communities live in close proximity, this produces a wider network of ecosystems that spread beyond the immediate vicinity of the rafts and support wildlife somewhat akin to the offshore ecosystems of the old world. But these systems are fragile, and require careful stewarding by the rafters. Every human community that floats on the waves has some system of undersea support for local fish life, that may be as simple as a series of sub-surface floating breeding beds made of old tires, or a complex architecture of reed beds and corals under the hulls and keels of the rafts. In the Gyre, where human communities are structurally large and complex, there are a host of shallow underwater structures that are thriving with sea life that once would have only existed at the shoreline: lobsters in nooks and crannies of the rafts, oysters growing on the old submarine superstructure that gives the larger rafts stability, and small fish breeding amongst every chain link, tyre underside, and submerged rope knot in the entire archipelago of floating human life. There is even a small community of sea lions on the Hulks. Every underwater structure is covered in sea weeds, and kelp grows downward and outward from the edges of the rafts. Further out, larger fish prey on the smaller fish, moving nomadically between communities and eating the larger fish that live further out from the human settlements. The residents of the Hulks put a lot of time into the care of these undersea communities, enforcing strict waste disposal rules and carefully tending weedbeds and corals to ensure that the ecosystem is balanced and thriving.

A miasma can end 100 years of this careful management and stewarding in a few days of insensate gorging. When the miasma overwhelms a human community it will consume everything that floats free in the water. All plankton and feeder fish will be sucked up by the filter feeders, and the larger fish will be found and killed by the predatory jellies. Sea mammals in the open water when the miasma hits will be entangled and drowned, or slowly paralyzed by the accumulation of stingers. The water the miasma carries with it is devoid of oxygen and highly acidic, and if the miasma is moving too slowly on the currents the effect of this tide of pollution will be to destroy all corals and weeds in the raft and its vicinity. Lobsters, crabs, prawns and octopuses that might be untouched by predatory jellies will suffocate in the miasma, and once the swarm has passed all that remains will be dead and rotting sea life. Sometimes the miasma does not pass, and the weight of its central parts will drag the raft community with it, leading to starvation and death for all those onboard. If the rafters do not realize the danger, escape may be impossible: small sailing ships do not have the power to escape the weight of jellyfish in the water, and most smaller powered vessels will have their rudders and rotors entangled, stalling them in the water. Once trapped in the sea of deadly stingers, there is no way to swim out. There are many stories of miasmas that are haunted with the ghosts of lost rafts and ships, and many people claim that they are more dangerous for a small raft community than the ocean’s storms.

There is no herding these slow beasts

There is no herding these slow beasts

The miasma carries its own meteorological phenomena, that in large part are the reason for its name. On the edge of the swarm freely moving predatory jellyfish hunt anything that moves, but in the body of the swarm are primarily filter-feeding drifters, some of them larger than a small boat. Near the centre of this gelid mass the sea becomes so thick with packed-together jellyfish that it is almost solid, and devoid of any other life. When the jellyfish here become too densely packed or when the swarm becomes too large, they die and rot, creating a fetid and stinking swamp of rot. The largest swarms becalm the sea around them, changing its texture so that waves are dampened and currents stop; there in the middle of this becalmed and dense swamp-like realm, the sun beats down and the sea heats up, giving off a stinking and rotten cloud of steam and heat haze that obscures the surface of the water. Most swarms above a certain size carry with them a thick, swamp-like haze that is impenetrable on all but the stormiest of days. Rumour has it that the largest swarms break up under their own meteorological effects: the heat from the centre creates storm cells that scatter the swarm and cast it about into smaller swarmlets. Usually one can smell the swarm before one sees it, because tendrils of this rot drift ahead on the currents. If one is lucky the swarm will be large enough and dense enough that the rafts can be moved out of the currents, or some kind of defenses prepared. But for the larger swarms, or for rafts adrift on a strong current, there is no defense: only prayer.

The miasma leaves problems long after its passing. In addition to destroying all marine life attached to the rafts, it will leave polyps on every surface, and every part of the underside of the rafts needs to be scoured clean to ensure that the raft does not, a year later, become the centre of its own swarm. Jellyfish will also destroy nets and befoul important undersea structures, their weight breaking precious ropes and chains, blocking inlets for power and water desalinators, and poisoning the water as they die and rot. Delicate floating solar panels will be damaged or lost, and the acidic water may do irreparable damage to the oldest and most fragile parts of a long-lived raft community. Small boats may be carried away under the pressure of the swarm, or their propellors and other underwater components entangled and ruined. The raft will also find itself floating in an open sea devoid of life, and any community that is used to catching fish in the immediate vicinity of its decks will need to find a way to venture further afield for food until the ecosystem rights itself – if ever it does. Most likely, though, the local ecosystem will be destroyed, and the rafters will need to make a call on other human communities they know to obtain new stocks of coral, shellfish and weed to regrow their precious ecosystem. Usually such help comes with a high price, that many communities cannot pay: they will then break up, and individual rafts will be forced to brave the open ocean as they seek new fishing grounds or functioning communities to join.

The larger communities are the most vulnerable, because they cannot move. These communities have found ways to ride out the miasma, or even to divert it, but their efforts almost always come with a great cost, in equipment and often lives. Where once jellyfish were annoying pests at the beach, they have now become the greatest terror of the open ocean, and for a community like the Hulks the onset of a major miasma is a threat that most of its residents will only ever see once in their lifetimes – if they survive it …

Even sunlight is rationed down here ...

Even sunlight is rationed down here …

This is a kingdom I created entirely randomly for a one-off of Make You Kingdom, to be played in English this weekend.

Kingdom name: The socialist republic of disasters [yes I really rolled this randomly]

Map Position: E3

Kingdom level: 2

Lifestyle level: 1

Culture level: 1

Order level: 2

Military level: 1

Total population: 70

Consisting of …

  • 63 citizens
  • 4 Court members (PCs)
  • 3 Hurryfoxes

People’s voice (Maximum): 10

Facilities:

  • Royal Palace
  • Ranch
  • Staple [steel]

Background details

The Socialist Republic of Disasters is located in map square E3 of a random part of the labyrinth, and is ruled by Comintern President Mario, who is untroubled by the Ephemeral God. The kingdom is remarkably stable and fortunate given its circumstances: though it only covers three squares of a standard 9×9 labyrinth map, its population is surprisingly large and it is allied with a distant kingdom, the United Dungeon Empire, that supplies it with steel. It is also home to three Hurryfoxes (Gonkitsune). Due to a loan that the wise Comintern President Mario took from the Subterranean One, the Republic is also in debt, owing a mighty 15 MG.

The Hurryfoxes live in the kingdom because it has a special property of being able to coexist with monsters: under the wise and benevolent rule of the Comintern President, a ranch was established, and people from all over the kingdom are happy to receive monsters and live alongside them, provided they offer some of their souls and material for use in the ranch, where any new monsters who join the kingdom can be cloned to produce more of their kind. The ranch is an ancient heritage, from a time before the enlightened rule of the Comintern President, when the kingdom was under a sorcerer’s curse that caused all its citizens to be undead. This time is long past, but out of respect for history the Comintern President has kindly allowed the cultural memory of this special lineage to linger, enabling all adventurers to learn any undead skill when they gain a level or a new skill.

Since the demise of the sorcerer and the end of his curse the nation has lived a long and peaceful life under the principled, firm but loving guidance of the comintern; as a result it has a larger population than many similarly-sized kingdoms (+13 population) and has a strong sense of discipline and order (+1 order level).

The ranch: From each monster according to his means

The ranch: From each monster according to his means

How it looks

This is ultimately up to the players, but given the name, the sense of order, and the sinister-sounding nation they are allied to, I can’t help feeling it has a slightly tatty-grandiose soviet-era feeling to it. I imagine it is not a particularly large kingdom, and is composed primarily of wide, spacious, well-lit tunnels similar to the tunnels in some of the Moscow metro, with the same sense of grandeur. These tunnels form a complex network connecting the living spaces, markets and royal palace (the Comintern Palace, I guess!) together in a soviet-styled warren. I even imagine there is an actual train, a rickety old coal-burner that connects the Socialist Republic of Disasters (SRD) with the distant Unified Dungeon Empire. Perhaps it takes a month to chug along on complex paths through the labyrinthine fallen world, eventually returning two months after it set out with a cargo of iron scrap – rubbish, basically – from the Unified Dungeon Empire.

I imagine the ranch as a somewhat sinister place, not a happy sunlit farm at all. The rules state that if you have a ranch, when you manage to bring a monster back to your kingdom as a citizen you can make a check to produce another one of them in the ranch. Given the speed this happens at, I see it as some kind of sinister magical cloning process, not a game of happy-monster-families. Sometimes, obviously, it goes wrong (which would be why the SRD has 3 hurryfoxes, not 2 or 4). I imagine this is some relic of the time before, and though the citizens know how to operate it, they don’t know how it works.

From each according to their means, to each according to their needs

From each according to their means, to each according to their needs

The court

The court consists of four PCs, described briefly here.

Comintern President Mario, who is untroubled by the Ephemeral God

The President’s Job is Daedalist (迷宮職人, see the second from right in the illustration above), his/her sex is undecided, and his/her primary attributes are quest and warfare. He owes 15MG to the Subterranean one, and it is his mission to escape from the Subterranean One’s debt. Mario likes foppery and storytellers, and hates liars and apologizing.

Cocoa “Wise ears” Scarlet

A Knight with the job of Hunter, who came to SRD from the distant kingdom of Autonomic Dark Gotanda [square F1] as an apprentice and has the mission of becoming Mario’s lover. Cocoa’s primary attribute is warfare, and Cocoa has a horse, armour, weapons and a living drill (a stick with a mole on the end). Cocoa likes the countryside and smart people, and hates Citizens and elderly people.

Hairan Blademagnet

An Oracle with the job of thief, who came down to SRD from heaven in an elevator when he was a child, and whose nemesis is a deep sea monster called the Forneus, that it is his mission to thwart. Hairan’s primary attribute is charisma, followed by quest. He is a belly-god, so can consume food and drink without running out of supplies, so he’ll probably end up obese by the end of the first adventure. He likes receiving weapons, and the labyrinth itself; he hates beards and ogrekin.

Cookie the Involuntarily Anointed

Cookie is a ninja, who came to the SRD as a spy for the neo-superhero federation [map square B6], and has the mission of becoming Cocoa’s rival. Cookie’s job is Doctor, so Cookie has the skills of Monsterology and Anti-magic Formula. Cookie is powerful in quest and wit. Unfortunately for a resident of the SRD, Cookie hates narrow places and hospitals; but she likes stars and princes; Cookie herself carries a Blade of Star, a bomb and a trap collection. Really, she’s a perfect spy!

The adventure

This week’s adventure will start when an old associate of the kingdom, a kind of fence and all-round sleazy guy, arrives to tell Comintern President Mario that a debt collector [a type of monster] has turned up in a nearby kingdom, possibly looking to call in the debt that Mario owes to the Subterranean One. The characters will then set off to find this debt collector and … er … deal with him. Their oily friend knows the way to the neighbouring kingdom, though he doesn’t know the kingdom layout or the nature of the creatures that live there. Is everything as it seems, or is their oily little friend causing trouble …?

Background to our new 13th Age Campaign, written by the GM …

Empires are born, empires grow, and empires fade away. This is an undeniable fact. You can ask any library-dwelling scholar mage and they will tell you that history dictates this so.

An empire begins with the dream of a better world, and is forged with the sweat and the blood of the countless. Under the guidance of wise leaders, chaos is given order, the people become organized, and peace, and prosperity follow. Yet, power and wealth inevitably leads to hubris, to the belief that now is the time when the forces of history can be brought to heel, that this is the eternal empire. This hubris makes us blind to unavoidable urges such greed, lust for power, insecurity, pride, jealousy as they strengthen across the empire. They begin as a small stream, but they soon grow to a mighty river, sweeping across the land eroding the empire away. When the erosion is complete, all that remains are vague memories of a once all-powerful empire and some crumbled ruins hidden deep a distant jungle.

The land in our story has seen an empire crumble twelve times, but twelve times it has also seen a new empire rise again from the ashes, each time heralding a new Age.

The empire in the 13th Age is known as the Dragon Empire. It is a place of order, and a time of prosperity. A benevolent Emperor sits on the throne in Axis, overseeing the government that works to maintain the order across the Dragon Empire. A kind and just Emperor, he has born the burden of the Dragon Empire for many years and has had to make many sacrifices for her.

However, maintaining peace and prosperity across the Dragon Empire is not a burden that the Emperor carries alone. The Archmage and his Order Magus work tirelessly to tame the forces of nature and harness the power of magic to make the Dragon Empire a safer and more pleasant place to live in. The High Priestess and her Church have devoted their lives to the spiritual protection and spiritual development of the citizens of the Dragon Empire. And the Great Gold Wyrm’s selfless sacrifice and the efforts of the Ordo Aurum keep the forces of Chaos at bay.

Will these four pillars be able to resist the forces of history and make the Dragon Empire the eternal empire? Or are the forces of history already at work, eroding the empire from within and from without? That is our story to tell.

Recent conflicts in Iron Kingdoms (which culminated in my character’s necessary death) have introduced me to the fascinating problem of feat point budgets, and methods for estimating the optimal use of feat points. Basically in Iron Kingdoms every PC has three feat points (in Warhammer 3rd Edition these would be fortune points; I think many games have this system). Feat points can be used to boost attacks or damage (or for various other tasks), and in the case of trollkin for regeneration. They are regained through rolling criticals or killing enemies or through GM fiat. Thus expending a feat point to kill someone can be cost free. But you only have three, so expending them too early or in an inefficient way can be catastrophic (as my party discovered, to Carlass’s great cost!) So it’s important to decide where to spend them.

The combat system in Iron Kingdoms is very simple:

  • Attack: roll 2d6 + attack value, you hit if you beat the target’s defense
  • Damage: roll 2d6 + weapon power, all points greater than the target’s armour do damage

That is, you have a threshold for success followed by a threshold for damage, with results above the latter threshold being more important if they are higher. Typically an enemy will have between 5 and 15 hps you can knock down, so a good result on the damage roll can be fatal. However, the attack roll is 2d6 so small improvements in bonuses are very important when attacking high-defense enemies.

Feat points can be spent to add 1d6 to either of these rolls. Adding a feat point to the attack roll increases the chance of hitting, but can be wasted if your target has high armour; adding a feat point to the damage roll can do a lot of extra damage but only works if you actually hit.

This scenario has an equivalent in epidemiology: it’s called a double-hurdle model, and is commonly used for estimating models of health-care expenditure in situations without health insurance. The first step (the first “hurdle”) is the decision to spend money on healthcare – this is often voluntary and poor people won’t always make it. The second step is the amount spent, which is inherently random. Amounts spent above a threshold lead to financial catastrophe (this threshold is defined by various means depending on how you spend income) and the intensity of expenditure is determined by the threshold. In the double hurdle model the decision to spend may be assigned a distribution, and the amount spent is often Gamma-distributed with a high probability of low cost and a small probability of extremely high cost.

In both cases (Iron Kingdoms or out-of-pocket expenditure analysis) the problem is made more complex by the fact that we don’t usually know the thresholds. Usually in the double hurdle model we’re interested in identify risk factors for exceeding the threshold. Typically in Iron Kingdoms we want to know which decision to boost to get over the second threshold – should we boost the consumption (attack) or expenditure (damage) decisions? We’re also often interested in guessing the threshold values – the GM knows them but we don’t, and we may for example roll a 9 and fail to hit, or hit on an 8 but do no damage on a 9, and then someone else boosts and hits on a 9 but does damage on a roll of 15, so the question is – what is the armour threshold?

In my last Iron Kingdoms session this came up in a beautiful way: our opponent was going to finish off the entire group if it lasted another round, and Alyvia had one feat point left. Unboosted, she was guaranteed to achieve nothing. We knew our enemy was hard to hit and hard to damage, but we didn’t know the exact values. What should she spend her last feat point on? Naturally, since I’m a statistician in my day job, all eyes turned to me. What to do? This sparked a new interest for me: I think there are methods that can be used to answer these questions. So, over the next few weeks I aim to do a few analyses to present some answers to the following questions:

  • Under assumed thresholds and attack/damage values, what are the best ways to spend your feat point budget?
  • Are there guidelines for these decisions when you don’t know the thresholds but have a rough idea of what they might be?
  • If you don’t know the thresholds, are there simple formulas you can use to guess what they are, or to assign probabilities to given thresholds, given that you know the results of other players’ rolls?
  • Can these ideas be extended beyond Iron Kingdoms to other games?

The first question can be answered easily using basic probability theory. The second and third problems are actually a slightly challenging problem in estimating boundary values of a distribution using Bayesian statistical analysis, and I’m going to have a crack at it. The fourth question is related to the third, and is most easily explored through d20/Pathfinder: in this case my naive guess is that you can set a uniform distribution on the prior probability of any threshold value, and because the observed values (the likelihood) are also uniform, get a uniformly distributed posterior distribution for the threshold given the observed data (other players’ rolls). I think I will work from this example back to the Iron Kingdoms example (which may require simulation). If the fourth question has an analytical solution it will lead to a formula I can post on the Pathfinder forums that will allow players to second-guess their GMs’ monsters, and my guess is that a party of 3+ PCs can work out the most likely threshold required to hit within a round of combat. That’s a convenient little trick right there!

Finally, it’s possible that this information may be actually informative for the out-of-pocket spending problem, which I occasionally study at work. I doubt it, but wouldn’t it be great if random ponderings on gaming helped to improve our understanding of health insurance issues in Bangladesh?!

Stay tuned for some Bayesian nastiness, if I can find the time over the next few weeks …

Look here for that which you do not seek...

Look here for that which you do not seek…

When Japanese people want to succeed at life’s challenges, they will often visit a shrine and pray to the God therein for aid and succor. Most shrines have a designated purpose, with the God ensconced there tasked with aiding childbirth, or the accumulation of wealth, knowledge, or success in love, for example. Those who live in Japan are familiar with the culture of the shrine visit: washing our hands at the little water trough near the front, passing into the silence and calm of the shrine precinct, the sound of supplicants clapping and ringing the shrine bell, and then one’s own pause for contemplation as one bows one’s head before the God. Shrines are everywhere in Japan, from the huge rambling complexes of Fushimi inari jinja in Kyoto to tiny shrines at roadsides and car parks throughout the nation. There is even one on the edge of Shinjuku’s Kabukicho night life district, surrounded on all sides by skyscrapers and major roads, a little oasis of silence in one of the busiest places in the world – its only concession to the underworld it is situated amidst being the wire cage over the water trough. Most of us who live here come to appreciate these calm moments of contemplation in the midst of the urban bustle, and also understand the importance of countryside shrines as central markers of a traditional way of Japanese life that, despite the frenetic pace of urban existence, refuses to fade away.

But there is another side to the challenges of Japanese life that is draining and exhausting, and that those little prayers at the shrine serve to support and perpetuate: the constant obligations of a life lived communally. Foreigners in Japan can escape many of them, but Japanese people face a constant stream of obligations great and small. From the demands of everyday good manners to the struggle of working as a corporate samurai, from the scourge of wedding parties that afflicts people in their mid-20s to the tedium of workplace drinking parties and even the obligation to visit a shrine on New Year’s Day, Japanese social life is full of  obligations. Most of these obligations can be embarked upon in spirit of good will and reciprocity: for example, when one finds oneself working back yet again to make things go smoothly, one can also understand that the reason the postal system is so wonderful is that someone there is also working back to make things go smoothly. People are also mutually understanding of the burden of these obligations, and do all they can to lighten the load and to be understanding of the burden of mutuality. And, of course, one can always visit a shrine, throw in 5 yen and pray for a bit of strength in the hard times.

But sometimes, those obligations carry with them a weight that cannot be wished away at a shrine, and sometimes they come with an additional, crushing challenge: the challenge of having to succeed at them even when one does not want to. The culture of ganbaru, of struggling to do one’s best no matter the difficulty, is an important part of Japanese social and work life, and worse still is the need to show that one is fighting on, even where one wants to fail. This raises the terrible prospect that one can be saddled with an obligation one does not want to carry out, but also forced to do one’s utmost to achieve it, lest one be seen to be shirking or – worse still – embarrass one’s family and colleagues by being openly seen not to want to succeed in a great goal.

It is easy to imagine these onerous tasks, because they arise often. Perhaps a man is forced to apply for a job he knows will come with a huge workload and boring tasks, that he needs to take for reasons of prestige and money but really doesn’t want: in Australia he would simply fluff the interview, but here in Japan if he was recommended to the job by his superior then he will humiliate his superior if he does anything less than try his best to get the job. Perhaps a woman has been arranged an introduction with a rich and handsome future husband, and is required to do her utmost to please him and his family, but she is secretly conducting a love affair with the Korean migrant son of a pachinko parlour owner – she needs to appear as if she wants the marriage and is trying hard, to avoid embarrassing her family and the introduction agent and to keep the peace, but she really needs this introduction to fail. Perhaps a soldier has been tasked with fabricating an international incident at the Marco Polo bridge, and failure to do his utmost to carry out the incident will lead to his punishment and possibly execution – but he knows that if he succeeds his nation will be dragged into a war that will destroy it.

It is at times like these that no amount of prayers at any shrine will save you. You need to appear to be doing your best, but you need to fail. And you know that if you do your best, you won’t fail. You are trapped.

It is at times like this that you need to visit one of the shrines of the God that Failed. You take with you a rotten mandarin, a cup of the cheapest, nastiest sake you can find, and the letter offering you an interview for the job you don’t like. Place the offerings at the shrine, burn the letter, and promise the God that Failed that you will do your utmost to succeed in this honourable task.

Then, failure is guaranteed.

The shrines to the God that Failed are not the usual calm, cheerful devotional spots, established long ago and broadcast to the world through their red torii gates and colourful roof. Rather, they are themselves monuments to failure, hidden in plain sight, just as is the failure that their supplicants seek. There are many such shrines, but they can be very difficult to find: the dirty toilet of the convenience store in Japan’s poorest and most crime-ridden suburb, perhaps; or an abandoned shrine just around the corner from Japan’s lowest-ranked and lowest-achieving community college; or a little waving cat statue in a broken self-storage unit, owned by a failed spam-forwarding start up company. These shrines are never far from anyone, but finding them is in itself something of a pilgrimage, a combination of internet searching, rumour-hunting, and then following one’s own innate spiritual sense for discerning failure and sadness. Also, perhaps, one has to be careful in one’s observances to ensure one is not discovered or seen: not only do prayer’s to the God that Failed have to be conducted in the strictest secrecy, but the shrine must be known only to those that seek it – discovery of religious observance by those who do not seek failure can bring down a terrible curse upon the supplicant.

Many argue that the God that Failed is Japan’s weakest and most aberrant god, but it is possible that actually it is the most powerful. Not only are its shrines everywhere, but it has many followers. While supplication of the God that Failed is always difficult, ordinary daily worship is easy, in a way that the other Gods of Japan do not allow. Ordinary Japanese Gods do not allow one to pray to them from home, or just anywhere, but the God that Failed is aware that many of its best worshippers do not seek anything in life, and it takes their devotion where it can. To worship the God that Failed it is enough to drop out of work and school, and stay home all day on the internet in chat rooms and on 2-channel. It is sufficient to waste one’s money and time in a pachinko parlour, where the whir of the machines serves as a devotional hymn to the God that Failed, your soul slowly leaking through the storm of pinballs into its possession. Worshippers of the God that Failed may not even realize they are in its thrall, but they are everywhere: pachinko junkies, NEETs, that ageing Host who has to work just that little bit longer every morning to make ends meet, that English teacher in the second-rate company who works nights doing skype lessons for sad shift workers … all the silent failures in life who struggle to succeed in a task that everyone else knows is already a lost cause. They flock to the God that Fails, though they don’t realize they are its worshippers, and through the repetitive daily rituals of failure they slowly lose their souls to it. And with the power of these lost souls, it grants the wish of failure to those who are otherwise successful, guaranteeing continued happiness to the successful by robbing the souls of the already-lost.

If the God that Fails has a grand design outside of the ordinary spiritual precincts of Shintoism, no one knows it. It seems reasonable that the very nature of this God would preclude any greater purpose than to leech on second-rate souls. But it is possible that in its army of followers and its calm, epochal dedication to the cultivation of failure, it actually has a deeper and more evil purpose. Who is to say what grand movements in Japanese history and culture are due to its meddling? Who is to say that it does not have power in the halls of the high and mighty as well as the low and feeble? Were the spiritually aware to notice its designs, perhaps they would uncover a great and evil pattern, that only the very brave and courageous would dare to unravel …

This deity would be suitable as an adversary or an ally in a Shadowrun- or Feng Shui-style campaign, or perhaps a far Eastern version of a Cthulhuesque horror. It might be a subtle adversary, its influence underlying more obvious criminal and spiritual cliques that use less subtle techniques. Its efforts might manifest through hacking, accidents, suicides and economic ruin, and establishing the pattern of its attacks would thus be very difficult. It is also a perfect excuse for that GM who needs to destroy the plans of an overly powerful group, but hasn’t figured out a detailed storyline for why they came apart. Missed money transfers, transport plans that fail, contacts who don’t show, NPCs who commit suicide just when you most need them – look in those plot moments for the sinister movements of the God that Failed. Should you be afraid, or scornful? Only time will tell …

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