Posts Tagged ‘ A to Z 2013 ’

Z Is for Zowie!

And here we are, my last post for the 2013 A to Z Challenge. I finish up with some last rules-tweaks for my upcoming Stars Without Number campaign (which you can check out here).

The Natural 20

Any roll on a d20 that ends up showing 20 on the die face is a natural 20, and a natural 20 lets the rolling player bring the zowie.

The Natural 12

Any roll on 2d6 that ends up showing 6 on both dice is a natural 12, and a natural 12 lets the rolling player bring the zowie.

The Zowie

Many games have critical hits and/or critical success rules. Often, these rules magnify the success in some predetermined way. For example, a critical hit may do double damage or permit a roll on some table of grisly results. The ordinary sorts of critical success rules are fine, but they aren’t zowie. I want zowie. Preferably with an exclamation point. Zowie!

On a natural 20 or natural 12, the player gets almost total narrative control over the effects of his zowie success.

For example, Terry’s character Ebenezer is in a desperate fight with a Sarxian howling tiger. This isn’t a beast any sane person wants to face armed with only a synthalloy knife. Terry rolls a d20 for hack and slash, and he rolls a natural 20. Terry narrates the result: “I fall back as the Sarxian howling tiger leaps, its claws and fangs slashing the air, and I bring the synthalloy knife up in a desperate strike. The blade slips between the xenobeast’s ribs and punctures its heart, killing it almost instantly!”

For another example, Wes’s character Rob is piloting a lightly armed spaceskiff while being pursued by four pirate fighter crafts. He veers into a dense asteroid field, and must make a Vehicle/Space check. He rolls 2d6 and gets two sixes. Wes narrates the result: “I swoop into the asteroid field, putting more distance between me and the pirates. Then, I dive at a large asteroid, flying mere yards above its tumbling, unyielding surface, luring the four pirate fighter crafts into dangerous territory just as I rocket away from the asteroid’s crushing weight. Not all of the pirates manage to do likewise.”

April 29th, 2013  in RPG 1 Comment »

Y Is for Yanking Time’s Leash

In my ongoing quest to give my players more narrative control over the game, I’ve been researching RPGs that include more story-based mechanics, rules, et cetera. I’ve bought, read, and played a bit with Ben Robbins’s Microscope (the link goes to a playtest report). I also recently played InSpectres, during which I got to show off my occult Tibetan dancing skills (see yesterday’s post for video of me in all my terpsichorean glory). In both Microscope and InSpectres, players have wide-ranging ability to determine the narrative of the game, to include metaphorically going back in time to modify the current reality via flashbacks.

I like this idea, and I want to use it with my upcoming Stars Without Number campaign. I read a brief explanation from Cam Banks about how the Leverage RPG handles flashbacks, and it sounds like what I’m looking for. Mr. Banks noted that there are two types of flashbacks: establishment flashbacks and wrap-up flashbacks. Let’s quote Mr. Banks:

“Establishment flashbacks, by which you establish some part of the story that up until then hasn’t really been revealed (good for back stories, recollections of childhood, etc) and which create Assets you can use in a future scene, and…

“Wrap-up flashbacks, which are coordinated by the Mastermind and allow all the players to introduce some unrevealed retroactive story element from the Job itself and provide the Mastermind with his necessary dice for the final resolution against the Mark.”

Now, let’s take these descriptions, and expand/modify them for Stars Without Number:

Establishment Flashbacks

Once per game session, each player can involve a character in an establishment flashback. This lets the player narrate in first person a brief event from an earlier time and explain how that event affects the game’s current action.

For example, a pack of vicious xenobeasts pursue the characters through the rugged jungle. Kurt realizes they cannot hope to outrun the ravening predators. Kurt’s player Eric invokes a flashback. “I, Kurt, am very familiar with this particular stretch of jungle. I’ve often retreated from the work-a-day world of our research facility. Just up ahead, there’s a well-hidden cave in a low hill, the entrance obscured by flowering trillian orchids. If we duck into the cave, the xenobeasts won’t be able to track us by scent anymore.”

Or another animal-related flashback as the characters ponder how avoid the well-trained guard dogs patrolling the grounds around a building they must access. Christopher has an idea, and invokes a flashback: “Before we came here, while we were getting our gear ready and what not, Chuck and Rob bought some Yummee Treets dog snacks and laced them with tranquilizers from the infirmary. We figured there’d be guard dogs, and that the drugged Yummee Treets would make avoiding them easier.”

Wrap-Up Flashback

A wrap-up flashback can be invoked once per adventure. In a wrap-up flashback, the players collectively decide on one modification to the current situation that each of their characters could have performed. Each modification is intended to give the group an advantage in the current situation. The threat or obstacle must still be dealt with, but the cumulative effects of the characters’ preparations make the outcome in the characters’ favor much more certain.

For example: The characters face a band of ruthless kidnappers. The victims are tied up and rigged with explosives. The villainous leader holds a dead-man’s switch. His henchvillains have their weapons trained on the characters. The situation looks grim. The players decide to invoke a wrap-up flashback.

Wes: “I figured the cad might rig up some remote-detonated explosives. That’s why I rigged up a small but powerful transmitter that blankets an area with electronic ‘white noise’, temporarily stopping radio signals and what not.”

Terry: “That’s good. Earlier, when the scarred thug got the drop on us and shoved me, I managed to lift his elevator control key without him realizing it.”

Christopher: “Wow, I was nowhere near the foresightful. Before we left headquarters, I called a cop buddy of mine. He gave me a small radioisotope pellet that I inserted into the weave of my belt. The police have been tracking the pellet all this while, and probably have this so-called secret location surrounded by now.”

Eric: “Impressive, Chuck. I too engaged in a bit of sleight of hand on one of the guards when we were being escorted in here. I placed a small but potent psitech grenade in the cargo pouch of his pants. I can detonate the grenade with a telepathic signal. It’s not a large explosion, but it’ll probably take his legs off.”

Needless to say, the villains are quite surprised by how the tables end up being turned!


A flashback cannot outright contradict something that is already established as a fact in the game. In the wrap-up flashback example, Wes couldn’t simply declare that he had grabbed the dead-man’s switch. The device is right there in the bad guy’s hand. A flashback also can’t be used to simply solve a major plot point. Christopher, for example, couldn’t claim he had snuck in and freed the hostags with no one noticing.

Also, a flashback doesn’t necessarily result in automatic success. In Christopher’s establishment flashback example, the GM could require a skill check to ensure the proper dosage of tranquilizers are used. The dogs could also get some sort of saving throw against the drug’s effects.

A player can involve another player’s character in a flashback, but the character’s actual player can veto or modify details as they relate to his character specifically.

And, of course, the GM remains the final arbiter of what these caveats look like in the game. This isn’t to say a GM can simply

Undefined Bits

You might be wondering, “Um, where did that radioisotope come from? Where did Kurt get that psitech grenade? How about those tranquilizers, and did Chuck even have any medical training?”

Flashbacks may require that certain character assets be undefined until they are used. It’s perhaps difficult to come up with a hard-fast rule for how this should work. Can a character use a flashback to call in a warship strike against an enemy stronghold? Probably not. This sort of asset is unlikely to be within the reach of most characters. As a general rule, a character cannot use a flashback to create any asset that the character cannot afford with his available resources. Thus, a character can have a pool of credits, for example, that he can define on-the-fly as having been spent to the purchase assets used in a flashback.

Likewise, a character may leave a skill undefined. This permits a character to reveal via flashback that he has always knew a particular skill, but that he hasn’t revealed this hidden talent until the appropriate time. For example, a 1st-level character may have Vehicle/Any as both a background and a training package skill. As such, the character could start with Vehicle/Space +1 at 1st-level. Instead, the player could decide to leave his Vehicle/Any choices undefined. Then, during an adventure, when the need to pilot a gravcar pops up, the player can use a flashback to explain that his character was once a delivery specialist in a busy urban center who used his gravcar to get packages to his clients.

April 29th, 2013  in RPG 1 Comment »

X Is for “Xenomorphs Ate My Father!”

A large number of character customization options attracts many players to the d20 System and its variants, such as Pathfinder. All of the feats, traits, and alternative class and race features make it seem as if players are wide-eyed kids clutching hands full of dollars in some gonzo candy store.

Compared to everything available to d20 System characters, the classes in an Old School Roleplaying game, such as Swords & Wizardry, might seem spartan and uninspiring. Consider the fighter class in Pathfinder. It offers the player 10 class skills, three class-specific features that improve with level, and 11 bonus combat feats over 20 levels. In contrast, the Stars Without Number warrior has one class feature that doesn’t change or improve, and a smaller, more variable list of skills. The Swords & Wizardry fighter has three class-specific features and no class skills at all.

This apparent paucity can create a bit of shock for players not used to the Old School’s desire to not have a rule for everything, to avoid creating the impression that the game is about what’s on the character’s sheet moreso than it’s about what’s in the player’s mind. (That doesn’t mean, however, that the d20 System discourages imaginative play. It doesn’t. It also doesn’t mean that Old School gamers are more imaginative. They aren’t.)

I grew up as a gamer on Old School games back when the Old School was the only school. Back in the day, we frequently customized our characters with special abilities, quirks, et cetera. For example, my longest running 1E character had the ability to talk with wolves. He couldn’t control them or summon them. He just spoke Wolf. Why? Because it was cool.

I want to give my players some Old School customization options, and I also want to increase the players’ narrative control over the game. So, I’m dusting off my treatment of a story-telling RPG idea.

Write a Statement

It might seem like there’s not much variety among Stars Without Number characters. One warrior seems pretty much like every other warrior. Oh, sure, ability score modifers will be a little different and background packages adjust skills, but warriors end up on paper looking a lot like each other. Thus: Enter statements.

Statements are a tool for making a character unique. A statement is a short description about a character. Statements define a character’s special strengths, beliefs, and talents. During gameplay, a hero’s statements may provide a bonus to certain rolls. At 1st level, every character has two statements.

What Makes a Good Statement

The best statements are written as simple sentences or short phrases focused on some sort of action, belief, or quality important to a character. A statement should strike a balance between too narrow and too broad, even if these parameters are hard to define. If a statement is too narrow, it will seldom (if ever) affect a character’s success. If it is too broad, the statement turns into a blanket bonus to pretty much everything.

In general, statements fall into three categories: physical, mental, and social. Due to the nature of statements, however, there is some overlap. When writing a statement, focus on one of the three categories to start with. Here are some examples:

Physical: Trained by the Space Marines. Healthy as a horse. Swimming is the best way to travel.
Mental: Stubborn as a mule. Secrets deserve to be revealed. Logic always finds a way.
Social: A silver tongue opens many doors. Daughter of an aristocrat. Child of the streets.

Example – Writing a Statement: Christopher is making up an expert. He thinks about his character. What is he like? Does he have any special talent, noteworthy strength, or important belief? Christopher decides his character suffered a horrible tragedy that changed his life. He writes a statement about this tragedy: “Xenomorphs ate my father!”

During gameplay, Christopher watches for times when his character’s statement would affect his hero’s actions. During those times, Christopher can narrate how the statement affects his character. If he does so in a way that makes sense within the game’s story, then Christopher’s charactergets a die-roll bonus.

How Statements Work

During the game, the player should be on the look out for situations in which his character’s statements can affect gameplay. When such a situation arises, he narrates his character’s actions appropriately. If he narrates appropriately, his character enjoys a +1 bonus to a single roll.

In general, statements are meant to be widely applicable and flexible enough to let players be creative. Keep this in mind when narrating actions: The die roll determines success or failure. The narration earns a bonus, but not automatic success. Thus, narration must be modest enough to account for the possibility of failure.

Example – Narrating a Statement: Let’s look at two different ways the statement “Xenomorphs ate my father!” can affect gameplay. First, in combat: “Chuck swings the flamethrower toward the monster, remembering all of those nightmare-haunted days he studied xenomorph biology and habits.” This is worth a +1 bonus on an attack roll to simulate Chuck’s intimate knowledge of xenomorphs. Next, in a social situation in a xenomorph-ravaged facility: “Chuck gently takes the kid’s hands in his own and looks into her eyes. He says, ‘I dunno how you managed to stay alive, but you’re one brave kid, and you’re safe now. I will never leave you. That’s a promise.” This is worth a +1 bonus on a Persuade skill check to calm the kid down.

April 27th, 2013  in RPG 1 Comment »

W Is for “White Lightning” & Farewell

George Jones is dead.

Yes, I know, this has nothing to do with gaming, but George Jones is dead. There are few people who could ever qualify as living legends, and George Jones was one of them.

Requiescat in pace, No Show.

Russell D. Moore, President-elect of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, wrote an insightful eulogy for George Jones. Here’s the link: George Jones: Troubadour of the Christ-Haunted Bible Belt.

Video of George Jones performing “White Lightning”:

And, of course, the greatest country song of all time:

April 26th, 2013  in RPG No Comments »

V Is for the Vengeance of the Puk-Wud-Jies

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m finally getting to teach Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha to my 5th graders. We’re having loads of fun reading and studying this great story, which is also chock full of inspiration for gaming. Here’s my second The Song of Hiawatha monster. (Here’s the first.)

Hit Dice: 1d6 hit points
Armor Class: 4 [15]
Attacks: spear (1d4) or 2 darts (1d3)
Saving Throw: 18 (14 against effects that can be dodged)
Special: Invisible when moving, surprise opponents on 1-5
Move: 18
Alignment: Neutrality
Challenge Level/XP: 2/30

The Puk-Wud-Jies live in unspoilt forests, dwelling in small and well-hidden communities. These fey people stand slightly shorter than the average halfling, and they are lithe and long of limb. Despite their diminutive size, Puk-Wud-Jies move with great speed and agility. Any round that a Puk-Wud-Jie moves at least 30 feet, it becomes invisible until the start of its next turn. Between this ability and their stealth, Puk-Wud-Jies almost always surprise foes (1-5 on 1d6).

Those who would despoil nature had best tread carefully in Puk-Wud-Jie territory. The Puk-Wud-Jies stalk hunters and others trespassers, monitoring their behavior carefully. Bands of Puk-Wud-Jies harrass and/or attack those who do not show proper respect for the natural world and the treasures she provides.

Puk-Wud-Jies speak the fey language and the secret tongue of true neutral Druids.

April 25th, 2013  in RPG No Comments »