The Inverse Barker Mechanic: d100 for Everything

'Dice' by James Bowe on Flickr

‘Dice’ by James Bowe on Flickr11-10-09: Dice

I’ve probably written about this on Google+ a few times, but I wanted to document it in full.

Apparently, M.A.R. Barker, creator of the early RPG Empire of the Petal Throne, after decades of role-playing settled on a very simple system:

The GM takes the PCs’ character description into account when describing NPC reactions, so if you’re very strong, you don’t need to roll to push open a stuck door. However, if a situation is in doubt, the GM rolls d100, where a lower roll is better. The GM still keeps the PCs’ character description in mind here; a low roll for a high-speed character will work out differently than one with low speed.

That’s it.

You’re not trying to roll over or under a number. You’re just…rolling the dice. Combat operates at a higher level than typical blow-by-blow D&D encounters; you roll to see who gets injured, knocked out, etc. It can be just as cinematic as you want; you just have to be more clear about what you’re doing.

Now, this puts a lot more pressure on the GM to build and run a fair, interesting session. But I feel like we have many of those tools already. Anyvay, it’s something to think about.

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Monster Monday: Painsoppers

Today’s monster is converted from the “hexmute” found in GURPS: Creatures of the Night by Scott Paul Maykrantz.

Painsoppers are strange humanoids who live on pain. Usually encountered in groups of 3 to 10, they are indistinguishable from normal humans except for their irises, which are pure black, and the fact that they never speak. They always wear nondescript clothes, and often hang around at public executions, hospitals, and car accidents, but disperse as soon as authorities arrive. Some do strange, depraved things while draining their victims, such as drool, smile widely, kiss each other, or even rub themselves.

However, painsoppers are natural bottom-feeders, and almost never engage in combat. If approached, they run. Moreover, they can magically merge with shadows and move invisibly to re-emerge up to 500 yards away, and can do this as often as they wish.

A painsopper will die if he or she does not spend at least one hour per week in the presence of a sapient humanoid who is in mortal or near-mortal pain. While a nearby humanoid is in serious pain, any painsopper nearby regains half as many Hit Points (or appropriate Health score) as the humanoid loses. However, every painsopper loses one tenth of his or her Hit Points per day. To increase its feeding times, it will magically stave off death in its victim; each victim reduced to 0 HP may make a Constitution check (or other appropriate roll) to stay conscious at 1 HP, and makes death saving throws at +2.

Painsoppers normally live as transients on the far outskirts of society. Thanks to their shadow step, they have no need to stay within civilization; instead, they will create the barest semblance of a homeless commune in an out-of-the-way spot and stay there between “feedings.” Nobody knows what they get up to there; anyone approaching will prompt the painsoppers to flee.

Legends say that anyone who spends inordinate amounts of time near a place of many deaths, like a battlefield or a hospital, eventually becomes a painsopper. Others claim it’s a curse, or even the effects of a drug. Nobody can say for sure.

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Faction Friday: The Gatekeepers

Image found without attribution

Every city attracts a wide variety of religious believers, from the established to the fringe. The Gatekeepers are a canonical example of the latter.

Using only heavy white caps as symbols of their fraternity, the Gatekeepers gather at various spots around the city which they’ve identified as “universal nexus points,” or “gates.” According to their texts, these gates connect this world to dangerous outer planes, but remain closed thanks to strange purification rituals that the Gatekeepers perform. Using an insanely complicated version of numerology, adherents identify new gates and abandon old ones every year or so, making them…difficult to ignore.

The Gatekeepers believe they are awaiting the arrival of the Key, an individual who will open the gates and fight an apocalyptic battle with the evil forces beyond them. The exact nature of the Key remains a hotly debated topic within the group.

As a friendly faction, the Gatekeepers are a harmless, goofy cult occasionally found on the odd street corner of any city. Their purification rituals involve silly walks, nonsensical chants, and burning unusual items like owlbear feathers and rare plants. Fortunately for the player-characters, this means the head of the local Gatekeepers–a doughty, pleasant, somewhat addled middle-aged woman named Rem–can keep a low-level party busy for months collecting unusual ritual components and negotiating with the owner of a building that contains a new gate.

As a foe faction, the Gatekeepers are a little more sinister. They insist on invading and “purifying” places they’ve identified as gates, and instead of burning feathers and spices they sometimes sacrifice small animals and offer human teeth, fingernails, and toenails. They often delve into dungeons beneath the city looking for gates, and will race against PCs to get to any treasure first (confiscating it for the Gatekeepers’ use, of course).

You can also up the anté by actually having the Key show up. Turns out, the Gatekeepers were right all along, and a naïve teenager appears who actually does have the power to open the gates, which in turn causes eldritch horrors to pour into the world. Whether the Key can actually fight them off is your call.

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You cannot build a perfectly challenging puzzle for D&D

PragmaticFix_PuzzleBroken02 by Monica Fischer on Flickr

PragmaticFix_PuzzleBroken02 by Monica Fischer on Flickr

In most traditional RPG campaigns, PCs face broadly three kinds of challenges: physical combat, social conflict, and intellectual puzzles.

The rules of the game usually cover physical combat in plenty of depth, and most groups can navigate difficult conversations without complex rule systems.

Puzzles, meanwhile, beguile us. We imagine an ingeniously interconnected set of traps or a complex mechanism that fires the players’ imaginations and challenges their minds. We imagine our players hashing out different solutions among themselves before finally arriving at the solution.

The reality rarely matches this dream. Players get frustrated after only a few minutes, mis-understand basic aspects of the puzzle, chase false leads for far too long, and often just route around it as much as possible.

Why? Two reasons:

1) People are different. Work with me on this obvious fact. People are very bad at understanding just how different other people are from them. Others may come at a puzzle from a very different perspective than you will, making it very hard for you to find a puzzle that works for others.

2) A person who can solve a particular puzzle trivially over lunch is not in the same mental state three hours into an RPG session. After a few hours of mental gymnastics, it can be very hard to both marshal the mental resources and direct them appropriately for puzzle solving. Not only are you tired; you’re in a different mental state, thinking more about your character and the ongoing plot and what your character will do in the next room than about how to spin a set of discs so that the letters all align.

As such, you can’t build a puzzle that will perfectly challenge all your players in whatever mental state they are when they encounter it.

Does this mean you shouldn’t use puzzles in your game? Certainly not!

The key is to keep them simple. It’s better to challenge your players with three simple puzzles than one longer, complex one. You can always up the ante after your players have shown themselves ready to handle it.

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Monster Monday: Whip Vines

Assassin Vine Hangman by ProdigyDuck on DeviantArt

Assassin Vine Hangman by ProdigyDuck on DeviantArt

Whip vines drink blood. They look simply like long, very thorny green vines, but they conceal a round sac, buried deep in the ground or kept high in the air, that acts as a simple “brain” for the organism.

Whip vines sense movement with great accuracy. Any movement nearby causes the whip vines to animate, whipping back and forth, whereupon the vines do two things: open fresh wounds in the victim, and stick to said victim, leeching the blood from its wounds.

Whip sacs germinate by generating dandelion-like seeds in a separate sac that grows out of the plant once per year, growing high in the air, then bursts and distributes the seeds on the wind.

Intelligent monsters often harvest whip vine seeds and plant them around their lairs, leaving a few open spots for their own entry and exit.

Don’t worry about statting up whip vines; just steal stats from another monster of appropriate level for your party, along with a standard attack. The danger of whip vines don’t lie in their damage; it lies in the facts that they slow movement (half speed) and that the noise they cause alerts nearby monsters to the presence of enemies. Those monsters can then fire ranged weapons at the intruders who are still fighting through the whip vines, making them very effective at whittling down a group of adventurers.

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Monster Monday: Flesh-Eating Darkshade

This carnivorous plant (about 3 meters/yards tall at full height) disguises itself as a normal tuberous plant, typically growing in the wilderness and occasionally in overgrown dungeon environments. When prey nears, it reaches out with its “arms,” which secretes a numbing poison (and can swallow tiny creatures whole). Then its large, serrated mouth lowers onto its prey. With no digestive system, it instead dissolves and digests the creature while it lies semi-conscious in its mouth, usually for several days.

Darkshades rarely pose a significant danger on their own, but they are often encountered in areas that are already danger: trap rooms in a dungeon, near an animal’s lair, etc. In other words, you probably won’t face these things alone….

Homebrewery stats:

___
> ## Flesh-Eating Darkshade
>*Medium plant, neutral*
> ___
> – **Armor Class** 14
> – **Hit Points** 80 (8d8 + 16)
> – **Speed** 30 ft.
>___
>|STR|DEX|CON|INT|WIS|CHA|
>|:—:|:—:|:—:|:—:|:—:|:—:|
>|12 (+1)|8 (-1)|10 (+0)|10 (+0)|6 (-2)|8 (-1)|
>___
> – **Damage Vulnerabilities** fire
> – **Condition Immunities** blinded, deafened
> – **Senses** passive Perception 8
> – **Languages** None
> ___
> ***False Appearance.*** While the plant remains motionless, it is indistinguishable from a normal plant.
> ### Actions
> ***Grab.*** *Melee Weapon Attack:* +3 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. *Hit* 5 (1d6 + 2) poison damage and creature makes a DC 12 Constitution check or is *poisoned*.

> ***Devour.*** *Melee Weapon Attack:* +3 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target who has taken poison damage from a darkshade today. *Hit* 7 (2d6 + 2) piercing damage and target is *grappled*.

 

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Faction Friday: The Wild Ones (Sasquatch)

(Image found online without attribution)

Deep in the woods live a reclusive race of humanoids. Large and very hairy, they wear no clothes and live simple, peaceful hunter/gatherer lives.

But these are not simple creatures. They are as intelligent as any human, and just as capable of speech and thought. They deliberately live “in harmony with nature,” as they put it, regarding all forms of tool use beyond sticks and stones as abominations that interfere with the pure flow of emotion and thought. They love poetry and music, but their first love is the natural world, and many a Wild One will spend many hours sitting contentedly, staring at a beautiful sunset or stream.

While a Wild One can chat happily for hours and are usually good companions, they live mostly solitary existences deep in woods or swamps, pairing just long enough to mate and raise children (they invariably give birth to twins), which grow rapidly. Wild Ones grow to adulthood in about 10 years, and often live past 150. In times of crisis, Wild Ones will gather together in a “howl” to discuss the problem and work together to solve it, often formulating and executing plans with amazing speed.

While they much prefer to keep to themselves, if a person threatens either a natural landmark or a Wild One’s child within a Wild One’s sight or smell, the perpetrator should arm themselves well or flee as quickly as possible! Wild Ones attack with unmitigated ferocity in an animal rage, with enough strength to tear a creature’s arm out of its socket.

Because they spend so much time deep in natural areas, most Wild Ones develop an affinity for magic, though they never study it per se. Most Wild Ones can cast a spell or three, though they are almost always utility spells.

As a friendly faction, while the party camps in or near a large forest, a lone Wild One approaches the party. She is polite, if skittish; her prior experiences with adventurers have mostly erupted into violence. She explains that a group of “robed humans” has established a permanent camp next to a beautiful tree deep in the forest, and have carved strange symbols in the tree, which would be bad enough if they weren’t also tearing up all the land around it foraging for food. She will offer two valuable rewards: she will immediately cast a useful spell or two (choose spells that would be useful for your particular party), and upon success, the party will gain the favor of the Wild Ones, who can guide them safely through any natural, wooded environment in the world.

As a foe faction, the party runs across a rogue group of territorial, tribal Wild Ones who are on a crusade against any tool use within their domain. Upon entering this section of the woods or swamp, a single Wild One approaches the party and informs them that any use of their weapons, lighting fires, or otherwise use of tools is forbidden. The Wild One may answer a question or two but will leave quickly. If the party disregards this warning, a group of Wild Ones will appear and attack the party. Once any Wild One is reduced to less than half Hit Points, the entire group will escape, only to return later all healed up (though they will attack at most twice per 24-hour period).

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Star Wars Risus Post-Mortem

Cover from West End Games' "Wretched Hive of Scum and Villainy" book by Chris Trevas

Cover from West End Games’ “Wretched Hive of Scum and Villainy” book by Chris Trevas

This week, only 2 of my players showed up, so we ran a Star Wars one-shot using the Risus rules. We had a blast, and these are a few recommendations if you want to do something similar.

(For those not familiar with Risus, in brief: your character is made up of a few short, descriptive phrases called “clichés.” You distribute 10 6-sided dice among them. In a difficult situation, choose an appropriate cliché and roll all those dice, adding them up. If you’re rolling against an enemy in some sort of conflict, whoever rolls lowest loses one die in that cliché. Lose all the dice in one cliché and you’re temporarily sidelined; regain dice at intervals determined by the GM.)

Find an adventure; websites like Star Wars RPG Adventures & Modules or Fantasy Flight’s Compiled Resource List have quite a few. Don’t worry about which system the adventure uses.

Especially for a one-shot using a system that’s new to your players, choose a simple adventure with only 1-2 required combat encounters. It can be great to end your session in the middle of the story during a longer-running campaign, but if you stop just as players begin to grok the adventure, they can feel more frustrated than engaged.

Read through the module and adapt the NPCs to Risus. Basically, look at their most important attributes, descriptors, and phrases, and turns those into clichés. A nameless assistant might only have a single 2-die cliché of “mook,” while a big bad guy might have several clichés like “Bounty Hunter (4),” “Cunning (3),” “Brutal (2),” “I’m Da Leader a’ Dis Outfit! (3),” “Force Sensitive (2),” etc. In general, give simpler adversaries just a couple of dice, but give bigger bad guys lots of dice.

Then build a big list of clichés, catchphrases, and professions, and on game night, hand those out to your players. Give each player a piece of paper, and tell them to choose 3-5 clichés (or make up their own). Once they’re done, have them assign their 10 dice to their clichés.

And you’re off to the races!

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200 Word RPG of the Week: Go On Without Me

Some games are silly. Some games have hidden depths. Some games do both.

Such is the case with Wyrdsmith‘s 200 Word RPG Go On Without Me. Three or more players play characters in a stereotypical action/horror movie who are trying to sacrifice themselves. Each player identifies his/her character’s strengths and weaknesses (plus a dark secret, of course). A GM describes a scene, and each character tries to nobly sacrifice him/herself using a weakness, while other characters try to use one of their strengths to save that character. The first character to sacrifice him/herself “wins.”

Importantly, each player’s driven both to attempt a sacrifice, but also to prevent anyone else from successfully sacrificing his/her character. This means each player has to make up a creative sacrifice that can’t be handled by any other character’s strengths.

While you’re probably not going to play this game often, it will push your creative muscles collaboratively with the other players. And isn’t that a great outcome from a game?

Go On Without Me by Wyrdsmith:

The game of (ig)noble sacrifice

In this game, 3+ players portray a ragtag band of heroes in a stereotypical action/horror movie, each attempting to be the first to say, “Go on without me!” Players choose 2 Strengths, 2 Weaknesses and 1 Dark Secret. One player is the Director and begins play by describing a scene.

Players take turns (randomly or Director’s discretion) declaring their action and rolling a d6. On a 5 or 6, the action is successful. In order to Nobly Sacrifice themselves, their action must use a Weakness (something that prevents their character from carrying on). Other players may try to save them by reacting using a Strength (something they excel at). This reaction does not take up their action for the scene. For example, Jane rolled to stumble because of her weak ankles. Mark rescues her with his strong muscles and carries her. When all players have acted, the scene ends and a new scene begins. This is repeated until a hero finally sacrifices themselves.

If your Dark Secret is discovered you can only win by rescuing another hero in a scene, and then succeed on your own (Ig)Noble Sacrifice.

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200 Word RPG of the Week: Laughter or a Lit Flame

Jonathan Cook’s Laughter or a Lit Flame is a haiku game. Apparently, games centered on writing haikus are relatively common within the microgame scene, but whenever I’d come across the concept in the past, the game basically just told you to write haiku.

Laughter or a Lit Flame provides structure to those haiku, but in an intriguingly non-competitive way. Three players alternately write haiku (three lines, five/seven/five syllables) and waki (two lines, seven syllables each). The haiku describes the protagonist, while the waki describes events befalling that protagonist. Because three individuals play, everyone gets to write some haiku and some waki.

Importantly, past haiku and waki are hidden from players’ sight. This keeps players “in the moment,” focusing on what just happened.

Cook even recommends that the players also chat normally while writing their poems. This addresses one significant problem with haiku-based games: haiku are hard to write. With an encouragement to weave the game in with normal conversation, the pressure’s lifted. The poems don’t even have to be good, though I suspect that focusing them in the way that this game does will ease the burden.

It’s a fascinating, easy to play game, that can be quickly memorized and pulled out on a vacation, at a coffee shop, or pretty much anywhere.

Laughter or a Lit Flame: A Hack of Renga by Jonathan Cook:

Here I have a game:
Paper, pens, and three players.
It’s simple to play.

First Player writes a haiku
That describes a character.

Inspire love or hate.
Make us laugh. Or nod, silent.
Good haiku delights.

Player Two writes a waki,
(Two lines, both of seven beats).

Describe there events
That befall the character.
Tragic? Exciting?

Hide the haiku from our sight.
Fold it back or cover it.

The third player’s turn?
Haiku of a character,
Waki-affected.

Now hide the waki from view.
It’s player one’s turn again.

On each turn, you write.
First respond to what you see,
Then hide what you saw.

Alternate. Haiku. Waki.
Maintain silence as you write.

Or else, talk of things
Unrelated to the game
TV shows, your day.

Haikus invent the people:
Lives impacted by events.

Wakis are events
That change everything for
Our small poem-folk.

When you’ve written five times each,
Reveal all and read aloud.

Whoever read then
Sits in silence. And so
Must the other two.

The silence can be broken
By laughter- or a lit flame.

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