Sunday, 7 June 2020

Magic is a Heady Wine: unsorted ideas for a Regency letter-writing RPG

Had some ideas over quarantine for a letter-writing RPG in a Jonathan Strange + Mr Norrell-type setting. You play as Regency-era occultists. None of the play happens in meatspace, it's all play-by-post. Literal post, as in tree-corpses letters. Each turn takes a month. You can write multiple letters in a turn, to the GM and other players.

The world is split into three Realms:
  • Society. Regency England: glittering lights, letter-writing, fox hunting, political intrigue
  • The War. The battlefields of Europe: artillery, naval combat, mud and smoke and blood
  • The Other Side. Faerie: brambles, heady wine, summer madness and magic
Things that happen in one Realm affect the other two. New developments in the War will change Society gossip; happenings in Society affect the Other Side (because of meddling occultists, and also because Faerie is strangely fascinated by the human world); Faerie politics change the battlefields of the War in strange ways.

By default, players can only influence Society at the start of the game. It's a big deal to send letters to the other two Realms.

Maybe there's like a Gazette or something, written by the GM? All the players get the latest issue every three turns. It's full of updates on what's happened in the three Realms since the last dispatch.

Tuesday, 2 June 2020

Mothership After-Action Report: Something to Burn // 01

2656-series Companion Unit. (Source)

First session of my new Mothership campaign Something to Burn. The players -- a ragtag team of 'cowboys' -- are the crew of IMV The Machine, an old blockade runner from the Franchise Wars, mortgaged by Matsundai Heavy Industries. The crew:
  • Florence Vassey. Teamster. Has nightmares from a hyperspace accident six years ago.
  • Synthetic Humanoid Starlight Companion Unit 2656, model Alpha 1.3 ("Alfie"). Android. Owes a birth-debt to Matsundai Heavy Industries.
  • Zhi. Scientist. Pathologist turned natural remedy enthusiast.
  • Jeremiah. Marine. Veteran of the last Franchise War, on the run.
    Thirteen hours ago, the crew arrived at the space station Needle's Eye to look for work. As soon as they left the airlock, they knew they'd made a mistake. Last week, the station was "franchised" (annexed) by Matsundai. That means that there's nothing much there for them anymore. The station's full of cowboys competing over the few jobs still available and trying to hitch a ride out. (I used tables from A Pound of Flesh to flesh out the Eye.)

    After waking up in a capsule hotel, Jeremiah decides to join the others at a bar on the other side of the station. A grainy sun/moon animation on wall-mounted CRT screens are the Eye's equivalent to a day/night cycle. They tell him it's early evening. It's February 15th, the day after St. Valentine's Day, and old plastic roses and flabby helium balloons litter the streets. There are also "Pick-Me-Up" vending machines, recently installed by Matsundai, stocking various drugs: stimpacks, pain pills, adrenalin needles for ODs.

    The bar's a dive filled with cowboys looking for work; there's one like it in every backwater station. This is the place to go to hire mercs. Everyone's watching the TV. It's an interview with this guy Kovacs, a cowboy who became a huge celebrity after he killed a Warmind. He's promoting his new book.

    As the crew regroup over Bloody Maries made with imitation tomato juice, they're approached by a Sinneslöschen coolhunter called Erika. (Each player made up a megacorp at Session 0; Sinneslöschen are the system's entertainment conglomerate.) Erika's job is to hunt down hyper-specific local subcultures and trends for the company to exploit for the artificial fad cycle. (If the PCs want they can do this too, but they don't seem interested.) Erika wants to use the crew as a focus group -- apparently chaebol runners are going to be the next big thing -- and they answer her questions with varying degrees of enthusiasm. As thanks, she gives the team hammer and sickle t-shirts (Bolshwave was last month's fad). Alfie puts his on on the spot, then covers it up with his flight jacket and says he's going to visit the local Matsundai rep to discuss his life-debt.

    The rep's name is Allan Mtene. In every way he resembles a Zulu warrior, except he's wearing an exquisite suit. He seems honestly happy to see Alfie. Mtene tells Alfie there's only 36 hours of work to go on his birth-debt to Matsundai, and asks if he'll stay with the company on the Accelerated Placement Plan. With his exemplary service record, Alfie could be overseer on a mining rig within the week. Alfie says he hasn't come to a decision yet. (Androids are usually created owing a debt to the company which built them. After spending years or decades working for freedom, most 'choose' to stay with that company.) Then Mtene asks Alfie to describe the other crew members for Matsundai records, which Alfie is more than happy to do. He proceeds to snitch on his teammates in remarkable detail: Vassey is an addict probably self-medicating from a Pick-Me-Up machine right now, Zhi might not actually be a doctor, and Jeremiah's done some shady stuff in the past.

    Meanwhile, the rest of the team heads over the bounty office on the Needle's Eye. There's an office everywhere there are cowboys, and they're all interlinked: you can pick up a job from one office, do the job, and collect pay from an office on another planet. Most of the jobs on offer are low-paying and booked-out; only one hasn't been claimed, because applicants need their own spaceship. It's a salvage-and-destroy mission: a research vessel called the Alexis has dropped out of hyperspace near the Eye with no signs of life aboard. It's drifting towards the space station, and Matsundai wants someone to destroy it to prevent a collision. Payment is whatever salvage you can take before blowing it up. The team sign for the job and take off.

    The Machine isn't jump-capable, so it takes a day to reach the Alexis. Vassey is in their cabin taking methadone they bought from a vending machine on the Eye. Zhi checks on them occasionally. The rest of the crew is in the common room teaching Alfie to play poker. Once Alfie learns the rules of the game, he's frighteningly good at bluffing. The humans are unsettled at how convincingly he lies.

    Eventually, Vassey wakes up screaming from their nightmare (Zhi: "Captain's up"), and the Alexis comes into view. Scans indicate dangerous and regular power fluctuations aboard ship. After some debate, the crew come up with a plan: they're going to try and board the Alexis.

    To be continued...


    • Like most first sessions, this one went slowly at first. I could have sped things up by skipping the preamble and starting with everyone on the Alexis, but I wanted players to get a sense of what 'normal' life is like for their characters.
    • I'm keeping the exact year vague, but I'm being specific about dates. Something something meaningful campaign, time records.
    • First impressions of Mothership as a system: it looks like a solid basis for a campaign, not too focussed on one-shots. The layout and information design are as good as everyone says. The playtest ship rules are much better than what's in the book. The Debt mechanic gets rid of fiddly bookkeeping and really captures that grimy Cowboy Bebop flavour.

      Sunday, 31 May 2020

      D10 poker minigame for Mothership

      Cowboy Bebop

      The first session of my new Mothership campaign featured a game of poker between three humans and an android. One of my players came up with this system. I predict it'll keep coming up in this campaign, the players seem to like it.
      • The higher your dice pool total the better your hand
      • Each player starts by rolling 2d10
      • Place bets (call/raise/fold) each round (clockwise around table from dealer)
      • Roll another d10 each round
      • Everyone shows their hand after 5 rounds
      • Highest number wins
      There are probably lots of ways to adapt these rules for sci-fi settings. Some ideas:
      • Telepathy. Definitely counts as cheating. You can peek at one other player's hand.
      • Uncanny valley. Your face is inhuman and unreadable. You can announce your bet last in the turn, no matter where you sit.
      • Marked cards. You'll absolutely get beaten up if you're caught using them. You get to peek at anyone's hand at any point in the game, but you'll need to pass a skill check to get away with it.

      Wednesday, 27 May 2020

      Mothership Campaign Pitch: SOMETHING TO BURN

      As soon as I read the Mothership rulebook, I wanted to run a game. Then I watched Cowboy Bebop and Alien in the same day and it all clicked.

      I want to capture the feeling of players being "cowboys", desperate outsiders on the margins of society, in crushing debt and struggling to survive through loopholes and dirty tricks. The group starts with a ship and a huge amount of debt. Things get worse from there.

      I also want to get the aesthetic right: stale beer, recycled air, cramped quarters which smell like cigarette smoke and sweat. Cassette futurism with a healthy dose of '90s anime. I made a pinterest board.

      Campaign uses published Mothership rules, some playtest stuff from the discord, houserules from around the web. First game's later this week. I meant to have a pamphlet to hand out to players, an in-universe guide to the solar system. It won't be ready for S1, but I'll get to it eventually.

      Something to Burn

      He turns off the techno-shit in his goggles. All it does is confuse him; he stands there reading statistics about his own death even as it's happening to him. Very post-modern.
      —Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash
      It is the 22nd century, and the singularity has failed. Millions of deactivated nanobots float dead in the air, and humanity has spread across the solar system, much of the Earth uninhabitable. Since the Franchise Wars ended eight years ago, the system has been dominated by zaibatsu, immense megacorporations in an uneasy peace. Androids, required by law not to have an inner monologue, have begun to integrate into human society—despite rumours they can “trip the wire” and become conscious. And now comes something nobody expected: the return of the Warminds, superintelligent AI whose self-improvement was mysteriously interrupted. They are powerful; they are strange. Most people live slowly suffocating lives in franchised territory. But some make a living on the margins, doing the dirty work: bounty hunting, space-hulk salvage, search-and-rescue, search-and-destroy. That’s where you come in. See you, space cowboy…
      System: Mothership
      Influences: Cowboy Bebop, Alien, Snow Crash, Blade Runner, Neuromancer, Prey
      Player buy-in: You're drifters who live under constant and crushing pressure, always half-a-step away from disaster. That's the trade-off you made for freedom. You lead dangerous, violent, and unstable lives under the shadows of crushing monoliths of power. You want to get rich; you'll probably die trying. But, hey, being a space cowboy beats corporate dronehood any day.

      Friday, 24 April 2020

      Pitch your campaign to your players (feat. my pitch for a Klondike OSR setting)

      Somehow I expected to be blogging a lot more during quarantine. Anyway.

      There are as many ways to play RPGs as there are people playing them, so it's worth making sure GM and players are on the same page before you start a whole campaign. No reason to assume that the game you want to run is the game your friends want to play.

      The trick (assuming you're the GM) is to make sure your prospective players have an good idea of what your game is going to look like, and what the tone's going to be. Then you either convince your friends to try out your game, or go find a group which actually wants to play it. Nothing wrong with that! Just don't run a game you're not enthusiastic about for the benefit of your friends. That's how we ended up with Peter Jackson half-heartedly directing The Hobbit.

      The Campaign Pitch Doc

      My way of managing expectations is my Campaign Pitch Doc. It's a document which describes all the campaigns I'm interested in running. (I got the idea from a Matt Colville video.) I try to make each pitch interesting to read and short. My friends have a high tolerance for my bullshit by now, but nobody wants to do RPG homework. If nobody can be bothered reading your campaign pitches, there's no point in writing them.

      Whenever I'm ready to start a new campaign, I either pick one from the list and send it to some friends who might be interested, or I send the whole thing to a group chat and let people choose what they want to play. It's worked well so far. (I think part of the trick is that I try to keep my campaigns short, done within a year. If everyone likes a game, we can do a sequel in the same setting.)

      Each campaign pitch in the Doc follows a set structure, based on what I think's important in a game and what's relevant to prospective players. Some things worth noting are: what are some pop-culture reference points for the setting? Will we need any safety tools? And just why the hell would people want to play in it, anyway?

      MIDNIGHT SUN: a Klondike dungeon crawl

      Here's an example of how I lay out a pitch: Midnight Sun, a game of dungeon-running "canaries" during the Klondike Gold Rush.

      Chilkoot Pass

      Midnight Sun

      There are strange things done in the midnight sun / By the men who moil for gold; / The Arctic trails have their secret tales / That would make your blood run cold...
      —Robert W. Service, The Cremation of Sam McGee
      It is 1898, and gold has been discovered in the Yukon. Thousands of prospectors are making their way northwards to make their fortunes. They don't know what they're in for. The terrible things which spill out from the World Below have left dozens of mines abandoned and boarded shut. But there's something about the thought of all that gold which plays on a man's mind. There are those desperate enough, mad enough, to venture deep underground in search of abandoned gold. The miners have a word for you: CANARIES. Get rich or die trying.
      System: Hacked Knave
      Influences: Jack London's stories, especially The Call of the Wild and To Build a Fire (and the short film); Dominion Creek; Songs of a Sourdough by Robert W. Service
      Player buy-in: You get to play as Snow Cowboys! This is my attempt to put a dungeon crawl/underdark/Veins of the Earth campaign in a more modern setting.

      Thursday, 30 January 2020

      1d12 other forms potions can take

       New look, same great taste
      1. Drink. The classic. Easy to make, but they usually expire in a month or so.
      2. Tablet. Crunchy. Tastes bad and not as effective as a liquid potion, but they don't come in smashable glass bottles or expire.
      3. Bubblegum. Slow-release of the potion over twenty minutes or so. Don't pop the bubble.
      4. Aerosol spray/gas. Usually come in a glass tube (snap + inhale) or sometimes in bellows. Difficult to carry, but very useful. Can be piped through tubes, under doorways, etc.
      5. Syringe. Very effective, but the comedown is usually horrible.
      6. Powder. Can be snorted, dusted on the body, poured into an open wound. Cheap and easy to carry in an envelope. Unscrupulous alchemists might "cut" it with cheaper potions, with interesting effects.
      7. Unguent. Grease is the word. Soaks through the skin. Useful for smearing on door handles and so on. Slippery.
      8. Incense. Affects those who smell it. The stronger the smell, the stronger the effect. Useful for setting traps.
      9. Tattoo ink. Allows you to store a potion in your skin for as long as you need it. Impossible to break or remove (at least without removing the skin), but anything able to detect magic will notice it. Becomes a normal non-magical tattoo after one use.
      10. Basilisk. Delivers magic to the brain via the visual cortex. Looks like a tremendously complicated pattern or sigil. The potion takes effect the instant you see it. Defacing the pattern or wearing cut-glass goggles renders it useless.
      11. Organ. Ask an alchemist to open you up and pop a new potion-release organ inside. Like an insulin pump. 2-in-6 chance your body will reject it.
      12. Glass globe full of spiders. When the globe is broken, they try to clamber inside the nearest person's mouth to administer the potion.
      I thought it'd be easier to think of these than it was, so they got weird fast.

      Thursday, 17 October 2019

      MALL RATS: unsorted ideas for a Maze Rats campaign set in an INFINITE DEAD MALL

      You're dragging yourself away from Security, leaving a trail of blood dark on spotless linoleum tiles. Tinny music plays through hidden speakers as you reach behind you -- only to find you're out of arrows. Security comes closer, scales silently sliding against one another. You're exhausted. You don't know how long it's been since you slept; there's no day or night here. Security opens its mouth wide. Breath hot on your face. And then! A can of Pepsi sails through the air, catching it on the head! Snarling, Security whips around, hackles raised. "Over here, buzzkill!" The emos have come to save you!

      This is clearly one of those ideas where the name came first and then everything else. It was 3 a.m. and I was looking at my copy of Ben Milton's excellent Maze Rats and for a second it looked like it said Mall Rats. Then I realised I had to make this and so I made a blog and here I am.

      Against the Wicked City has commented on how fascinated old-school RPG writers are by the æsthetics of ruin. Dead malls, left abandoned after they stopped being profitable, seem like a prime example of modern-day ruins. There's something I find really eerie about these pictures of totally deserted shopping centres.

      Basically, it's a game set in a dead mall that goes on forever. My thinking is that the project would combine a slight hack/reskin of Maze Rats with a much larger section of resources for procedural-generating an infinite, hostile, dead mall complex. Gardens of Ynn, but with Hot Topics instead of topiary.

      Don't know where this one's from, let me know if you have a source

      The Infinite Mall is:
      • Infinite. Obviously. The Mall is everything. There is no "outside". The Mall goes on forever. This is all there is. (There are places which you might briefly think are outside, but they're just huge rooms, still inside the Mall complex. Look closely, and you'll see the "sun" is just a bright light and the "wind" comes from hidden air vents.) Furthermore, it's unmappable. The Mall shifts and changes whenever you're not looking, rearranging itself. Different shops vanish and appear at different times.
      • Artificial. Nothing grows in the Mall. Everything is fake here. There's no sunlight, only buzzing fluorescent lights which sting to look at. There are no real flowers, only plastic imitations. Even the air is stale. Food is all processed: scavenged frozen tacos and slushies. Everything is artificial, tacky, stagnant.
      • Hostile. The Mall is inherently hostile to human existence. It's not sentient, as such, but it has a horrible cunning. Think of it as a very very clever virus. The Mall does not want humans to exist in it. (Perhaps it needed us once, but our usefulness to it is finished.) There's no day/night cycle. The lights hurt your vision. The tinny music slowly drives you crazy. The Mall hates you, and so it manifests Mall Security, to kill the infection like white blood cells. (The real monster was capitalism all along! Do you get the metaphor. Do you get th)
      Update 31/01/20: The reddit thread for this post made the "Best of 2019 in r/osr" list! Mallsoft is the new gothic. Thanks, everyone!