Corruption in 13th Age

Corruption. Taint. Insanity. Mutation. Warping. The idea that some threats are so horrible, so alien, that dealing with them permanently changes the heroes is very compelling. It’s the cornerstone of Call of Cthulhu games. But whereas in CoC it is an inexorable march toward damnation, it was Heroes of Horror, an excellent D&D 3.5 book, that introduced the rules for taint that really gripped me. In it, taint was horrendous, but also a source of power. Heroes were still sliding towards damnation, but they were damn cool on their way there.

Since reading that book, corruption has been a staple in my D&D games, and the fight against it is one of the foundational concepts of my setting (and my as-yet unfinished novel set in it). Here, then, are my rules for corruption in 13th Age. I tried to capture the playfulness of the system, its unconventional uses of d20. While specific abilities presented utilize 13A concepts, the core mechanics can probably be ported to any other D&D game without any issue. Finally, this version of corruption is written with aberrations as its main source in mind. But it’s trivial to modify or extend it to demons, undead, or some other source of taint, too.


PCs have permanent corruption, which ranges from 0 to 20, and current corruption which starts off equal to the permanent corruption, can never go below it, but can go beyond 20. Unless desired otherwise, new characters start with 0 permanent corruption. 

Enemies and other threats that may cause corruption have a corruption rating: d6 for Adventurer-tier sources, d12 for Champion and d20 for Epic; one die for regular monsters, two for double-strength or Large monsters, and three for triple-strength or Huge monsters. Thus a Large Champion-tier monster would have a corruption rating of 2d12.

Whenever an effect causes a PC to risk corruption, they roll the corruption rating of the source of the effect. For each die higher than the PC’s current corruption they increase it by 1. Then, if rolling more than one die, add up all the dice rolled. If the sum is greater than their current corruption, increase it by 1 as well.

At the end of a full heal-up, current corruption becomes the new permanent corruption – heal it before that happens!

Corrupting Abilities

Following traits modify appropriate monsters or their abilities. They can be roughly broken into two categories: abilities that tempt PCs to risk corruption (always a choice), and abilities that hit you harder if you’re corrupted.

A Thing That Shouldn’t Be

(Apply to gibbering mouthers and the like – utterly aberrant)

To apply the escalation die to an attack against this creature, you must first risk corruption. Each. Time.

Insidious Violation

(Apply to attacks that inflict an effect with normal save, like mind flayer’s daze on mind blast)

Change the difficulty of the save to hard. Before making the save, a PC can choose to make the difficulty easy instead by risking corruption.

Maddening Visage

(Apply to boss-like monsters)

This creature gains a Fear Aura (no hp threshold), which can be ignored for a turn by risking corruption.

Unclean

(Apply to attacks that inflict a borderline unfair effect with a save. Give your boss a borderline unfair effect.)

Change the difficulty of the save to the target’s current corruption+.

Impossible Geometries

(Apply to attacks that are changed by the natural roll)

Change the natural roll trigger to “Natural roll equal or lower than the target’s corruption”.

Tainted Ground

(Environmental effect, think radioactive desert)

Spending an hour in this terrain causes a character to risk corruption. This check is repeated every 12 hours for as long as the character remains within the tainted ground. Corruption rating depends on the tier of the environment, and always uses 1 die.

Tear in Reality

(Environmental effect, an object on the battlefield: a ritual site, eldritch idol, etc)

Ending a turn nearby a tear in reality causes a character to risk corruption. Corruption rating depends on the tier of the source of corruption, and uses 1 die. Ending a turn engaged with the tear in reality (necessary to undo the ritual, study the eldritch idol, close the tear) increases the number of dice in the corruption rating to 2.

Effects of Corruption

Permanent corruption is broken up into several tiers:

0 – pure, good for you.

1-5 – mild corruption, cosmetic effects, can take corrupted feats.

6-11 – moderate corruption, this is really noticeable, but you get a free corrupted feat.

12-19 – severe corruption, really unpleasant effects. Have another corrupted feat as recompense.

20 – You’re an aberration now, time to make another character.

What are the actual effects of corruption? In a word, unsettling. Tentacles sprouting, eyes multiplying, transparent skin, shadow gaining a will of its own: all this and more. There are plenty of random mutation tables out there, and the boundary between gross and gross-yet-cool is very individual. You don’t want corruption to be so disgusting no one would ever wish to risk it. Damnation should be darkly alluring. All the mechanics have been written to tempt players into becoming corrupted, don’t let your description of its effects stop them. Work with the player to come up with a satisfactory description. It may be derived from the source of their corruption, or could manifest in entirely unexpected ways – corruption knows no rules (other than the ones written here).

Healing Corruption

Spend a recovery immediately after the scene where you became corrupted to reduce the current corruption by 1d4 points at the adventurer tier, 2d4 at the champion tier, and 3d4 at the epic tier, but never below the permanent corruption.

To reduce current corruption post factum, but before it becomes permanent, requires a costly ritual: material components cost 100gp if the target is Adventurer tier, 200gp if they are Champion, and 400gp if they are Epic. This ritual allows its target to heal current corruption as if they had just gained it. These components may not be readily available, however, especially in tainted ground.

Reducing permanent corruption is extremely hard, and likely requires a quest on its own.

Corrupted Feats

Regular feats, such as Reach Trick, can be reflavored to fit the corruption theme.

Whenever corrupted feats cause you to risk corruption, the corruption rating is determined by the tier of your corruption: d6 if it is mild, d12 if moderate, and d20 if severe; while the number of dice is equal to the number of times you’ve used this ability since the last full heal-up.

Forbidden Lore

You gain a new aberrant-related background, with 1 point in it if you have mild corruption, 2 if it is moderate and 4 if it is severe.

Unnatural Toughness

Risk corruption to gain temporary hit points equal to your current corruption.

Out of Sync with Reality

Once per round, risk corruption to roll a special save against any condition, even one you cannot normally save against. You succeed on this save if you roll less than or equal to your current corruption.

Vile Devastation

Risk corruption to increase the damage of your attack by your corruption. The target is probably corrupted as the result, too, not that you care. You monster.

New Regular Feats

These abilities could easily be granted by magic items, too. That’s probably a better idea if corruption is not the focus of your campaign.

Pure Soul

When you heal corruption, roll d6s instead of d4s.

Azure Flame Halo

When you risk corruption, add the escalation die to your current corruption.

Nature’s Rage

Once per battle when you hit a creature with a corruption rating, you may add the corruption rating to the damage you deal.

Corruption is a Choice

This is crucial, the main thing I’ve learned from using corruption in one way or another for years. That’s what these rules were written to reinforce. Often, it is a desperate choice between survival and damnation. But that’s what makes it meaningful, an effective horror element in an otherwise heroic game. It’s a permanent, or at least very long-term, consequence of player choice. Take away the choice, though, and you may ruin your players’ characters. Not everyone wants to have tentacles coming out of their character’s eye sockets. But sometimes you have to damn yourself to save the world.

Götterdämmerung

You are great heroes, or even gods. Tonight you die.

Describe yourself and your greatest feat. Players on your left and right each name a power you have based on it. Name the third one.

Every player writes a prophecy of death. Be poetic. Draw one randomly. Accept it, reject it, rage against it, it is your doom.

Every player takes a token, called an omen.

Whatever you attempt, you succeed. To resolve a scene:

  1. For each of your powers used, take a d6.
  2. Each player starting with you can describe a different way in which the situation is like your doom and hand you one of their omens. If you agree, discard it and take a d20. Otherwise, keep it.
  3. Roll your dice. If any show ‘1’, or you take another omen, there are no nasty complications. Add 2 to the roll for each omen you have. If the total is 20 or greater, describe your death.
  4. Discard the dice.

Once dead, you have unlimited omens to give.

When you clash with other players, the greater total wins. Reroll ties.

This is your last tale. How do you end? Play until every character is dead.

Attached comment: d20s work great as omens, as long as you don’t get confused between them and dice to be rolled. Vaguely inspired by Don’t Rest Your Head and Mythender


This was my entry into the 200 Word RPG Challenge. While it didn’t get picked by the judges, I’m quite fond of it.

Originally, I wasn’t intending to participate. 200 word RPGs are a neat exercise, but hardly anyone, myself included, wishes to play them. Then I saw Grant Howitt’s MECHANICAL ORYX, which ended up being one of the three winners this year. It was brimming with flavor and had actual mechanics at the same time. It inspired me, and you can undoubtedly see traces of it in my game.

Götterdämmerung isn’t all it could have been. The character generation is bog-standard. The main/only game mechanic took up most of the wordcount, forcing me to discard the majority of the thematic fluff and all of the suggestions on what the game could be about or any kind of structure. 200 words is not a lot of words! Still, within those limits are doomed heroes, a reason for players to hasten the doom of others, massive risk taking, a choice to hasten your own doom to not ruin everything you hold dear, and an implied soundtrack by Amon Amarth. It’ll do.

Passages & Plunder – New Colonists

Version 0.92 is out! But first…

It’s been a bit over a month since I’ve put the game up for public playtesting. How is that going? Not great, to tell the truth.

I’ve shared the original post on a number of platforms – a couple of subreddits, Google+, a Facebook community, Twitter, BGG. Several people were kind enough to read the rules, or at least glance at them. Their feedback was quite positive. Looking at the click through numbers, 11 people at least looked at the print & play files. There’s 6 subscribers to the TTS mod on Steam, 2 of which are me and a friend I’ve playtested with previously. It’s unknown if any of them have actually played the game, but if they have, they haven’t told me.

This puts me in something of a bind. From what I’ve gathered, blind playtesting is essential. But getting people to try your 2-or-so-hours board game, on their own, after printing out a whole bunch of pages, is not easy. It would have undoubtedly helped if I had any kind of online presence in any of these communities or platforms, but I’m a lurker by nature. That’s the issue with treating the blog as a hobby: there’s no cutlivated audience here, either. I’d even come up with what I thought was a smart idea for an exchange playtest and review program*, but failed to find any takers as well. Maybe I just suck at selling “free” things to people.

While not a blind playtest, I did manage to play the game with two groups of people I didn’t know, found via meetup.com. Shout out to Jeff The Gamesplainer, who took immense delight in screwing over the colony.

Between his efforts, another player who found out she could get lots of points if a bunch of colonists died, and my own machinations, it was a quick game. Whenever I playtest P&P, I tend to stay relatively quiet, only reminding other players of potential dangers, not pushing my own agendas. I don’t want to be seen as the authority on the game, to skew the inevitably fatal results. Still, I find it interesting how I get sucked into the mentality of quietly grabbing points and hoping others will protect the colony. I know it’s a failing strategy, but do it anyway.

I’m gonna try and find other groups to test the game on. Other than that, I’ve signed up for the Sydney Protospiel event happening in July (haven’t heard back from them yet). July is far away, though, and it feels like I’m spinning my wheels. I’m not sure what to actually do next, how to contact publishers. The ones I’ve found accepting submissions so far weren’t looking for a game like P&P. I’ve been writing these design diaries, mostly for myself, to stay motivated. Barely anyone reads them: I haven’t posted the link anywhere other than my personal accounts, as I doubt they’ll be of much use to anyone not already interested in my game. I will publicise this post, though, this is probably an experience other designers have faced or will face.

Passages & Plunder 0.92 update

As mentioned in the previous post, sponsors are now randomized. After a few games, it became apparent that keeping track of 4 sponsors’ agendas at once was a bit much. To that end, there are now only 3 sponsors per game, out of a total of 8. In addition, rules now encourage players to volunteer to track one sponsor of their choice. We’ll see how this plays out.

Expedition decks have been updated to remove iconic reminders of sponsors, as sponsor icons are no longer tied to sponsors themselves – you can still play with old decks just fine as long as you ignore those bits.

I’ve removed 4 of the calamities (Green Mists Rising, Heat Wave, Iron-Eating Locusts, Chanting in Darkness) that formed a mini cycle – reducing a specific skill for each colonist for a turn. I like their theme, but their mechanics just made playing harder, not more interesting. That’s the only change to the calamities deck.

You can find the print & play files here, and the Tabletop Simulator mod here. The rulebook is here. If you do give it a try, please let me know, and respond to the questionnaire in this post.

Passages & Plunder – Underworldbuilding

Passages & Plunder is a board game of exploration and greed I’m working on. There’s a playtest version available, try it! This post is a (somewhat retroactive) design diary that won’t make much sense unless you’ve played it, so there.

As this blog will readily attest, I play a lot of roleplaying games. And I like some roleplaying in my board games, too. It’s no surprise I’ve made a game about dungeoncrawl management with very subtle allusions to D&D that encourages players to talk to one another. Not only that, it encourages players to sometimes do so from the in-world perspective. The very first thing players have to do as they set up the game is come up with the name for their colony – this determines the first player. There’s a space on the central board to write it down, and ideally in the final published version there’ll be a gloss “panel” there fit for an erasable marker. Furthermore, whenever players do something that would earn them the favor of one of the sponsors, they’re supposed to loudly proclaim they did it in the sponsor’s name.

Beyond the prescribed in-character moments, there’re the actual interactions players have with one another. The most common ones are arguing about who should be helping the colony, or why what you did was actually not that bad. These are mechanical concepts being discussed: how many colonists you’ve spent on the colony last turn, how protected the colony is, how likely an attack is. Still, some amount of in-character banter sneaks in. The trick, I think, is in having simple mechanics and evocative setting.

The social deduction genre is a great example of the former. Take Resistance, or its (IMO) superior version Secret Hitler, or Sheriff of Nottingham. The actual mechanics are trivial. You are either a fascist or you’re not. You either have contraband, or you don’t. And yet players frequently argue about not just the mechanical bits, but the story of the game as well. “You say there’re only apples in the bag, where’d you get them? It’s not apple season.” (In-character accusations of fascism are somewhat rarer, I’ll admit.) When we’re not too busy calculating the probabilities and figuring out the next move, we naturally pay more attention to the flavor. Which is not to say you’re doing it wrong if you’ve never bothered with the (paper-thin) flavor, of course. It all depends on the group.

While P&P is more complex than these games, I did try to keep the actual gameplay simple. You only have a few options at a time, a few colonists to send out each turn. And everything you do, absolutely everything, is visibly either selfish or cooperative, or both. So any time someone is being selfish, it is obvious. And therefore open to challenge by the other players. Why did you do this? In-character spin comes naturally at this point. Another major element is the mayor. Not just the first player, it’s a moving spotlight that grants extra powers and extra scrutiny to those it highlights. I’ve even witnessed newly minted mayors do a little speech, promising how their rule will be better for everyone.

And then there’s the setting. There’s no detailed backstory. No lore as such. Fantasy settings are a dime a dozen, and a board game is hardly the place to develop another one. Instead, there are evocative (I hope) bits and pieces scattered throughout. There’re the diary entries below each calamity. Had to come up with lots of different ways of saying “it’s dark and spooky” for those, lots of different kinds of darkness. Not everyone reads the flavor text, but it’s nice to have it there. Then there are the titles of all the cards, and some day the art. You meet Giant Furry Slugs in the Underworld. Empress Elect can be one of your sponsors. They provoke questions. Tiny lights in a dark cave, that your imagination composes into a picture more terrifying than whatever I could describe in detail. More entertaining, I mean. Certainly.

Finally, I tried to tell a story with the mechanics of individual cards. Take Dragon’s Lair, for instance. When there are multiple Task block present on a card, you can choose which one to do. So in order to plunder the dragon’s lair, you can either fight lots; or investigate a bit, but increase menace in the process. Kill the dragon, or just steal its treasure and piss it off.

The end result, I hope, is a game that enables you, every now and then, to create a memorable story. Likely about yelling at your friends.

Passages & Plunder – Vision (or lack thereof)

Because it’s dark in the Underworld, you see. Or maybe you don’t.

Passages & Plunder is a board game of exploration and greed I’m working on. There’s a playtest version available, try it! This post is a (somewhat retroactive) design diary that won’t make much sense unless you’ve played it, so there.

There’s a certain way the game has played out within several groups of people I’d tried it on. The first game starts nice and cooperative as everyone’s learning how the mechanics work, then, about half way through, players realise they don’t have to be the ones to contribute to the colony’s wellbeing, so long as someone does. One person goes selfish. Seeing them gain points off the back of their labor, others go fully selfish, too. If someone holds out and tries to keep the colony alive, the selfish players win easily. Otherwise the colony is overcome in a couple of turns and everyone loses. Either way, afterwards the losers will explain, in great detail, why it’s my fault they lost. They didn’t have a reason to cooperate, they say. I can’t help but grin.

In the second game, people are selfish from the start. It’s a quick game. Eventually, gradually, an understanding comes. You have to find a balance between selfishness and cooperation. And to do that you have to talk. You have to convince your fellow players that what you’re doing is for everyone’s good. Or at least that you promise to help out on the next turn. Talking is easily half the game, that’s it’s purpose. That’s why it requires at least 3 players, to allow for these bald-faced lies and accusations.

There is, theoretically, an even deeper level of strategy. P&P is somewhat unique in that players can choose to end the game by evacuating at any point. But doing so early results in a crapshoot – someone will have grabbed more points than others, but will that be you? No, a better way is to let the game run for longer. To sneak ahead on favor with sponsors. If a player visibly gets ahead too much, others will become selfish, too, putting the burden of maintaining the colony on the nominally successful player. The player ahead still hopes to win, so they make sure everyone survives. The players behind hope to catch up. It’s a catch-up mechanism without any actual mechanics.

The longer the game goes, the more favors players will accumulate. The more uncertainty in the outcome there will be. The more willing everyone will be to help out, secretly thinking they are the ones who’s going to win. If everyone thinks they’re losing, the colony will be overrun. Therefore the aforementioned deeper level of strategy is to convince others they’re doing well. To let them catch up on points. To manage the group. To talk.

This is my hope for the game. My vision. This is why I’ve resisted putting in rewards for cooperative behavior – something playtesters always thought was missing. No, in my eyes, the reward for helping the colony is being able to say you did so. There is no “good standing” track. If you can convince others you’ve been useful it doesn’t matter if you actually have been.

But. But, but, but. This does mean that the first game or three can result in frustration, until players understand how the seemingly simple game is supposed to work. And that’s dangerous. It’s too easy to have a “meh” experience with a game and never put it on the table again. To combat this, I try to emphasize the nature of the game in the rules. Some sponsors favoring cooperative behavior is as much of a compromise as I’m currently willing to entertain, though. Vision, or lack thereof.

Variable sponsors

Enough with the retrospective, though. The last several playtests I ran focused on fine-tuning the new addition, the sponsors. While doing so it became apparent how much they shape the game. Players significantly change their behavior to gain their favor and advance their agendas – it would be a useless feature otherwise. So what if the sponsors were variable, drawn from a deck? That’d non-trivially vary up playthroughs. Right now, sponsors cover the basic actions required to run the colony: scouting, supplying, and defending. Removing any one of these sponsors could result in hobbling the colony – but maybe that’s alright, too. The current set can still be a recommended setup for the first game.

Current sponsors

Adding extra sponsors would allow me to do some bonkers things that didn’t fit into the “core” set, e.g. a sponsor whose favor is gained when another player wants you to gain it, and whose agenda is advanced when all the players agree it should be advanced (both probably limited to 1/turn).

The main concern I have is the amount of effort it’ll take to balance these extra sponsors and their combinations – it took some effort to get the first 4 right. Still, that’s what playtesting is for. I’ll try this change myself before putting it out there.

Another issue is technical. Right now, sponsor symbols are tied to their nature. If there were, for instance, 8 sponsors to choose from, though, it’d be something of an overkill to have 20+ favor tokens of each, only using 4 at a time. I guess generic sponsor emblems will have to do, with players assigning them during set up.

Passages & Plunder – Safety of the Surface

Passages & Plunder is a board game of exploration and greed I’m working on. There’s a playtest version available, try it! This post is a design diary that won’t make much sense unless you’ve played it, so there.

The basics of colony management and Underworld exploration worked from the start. They’ve been refined a lot, different approaches tried and discarded, sure, but they worked. The ending didn’t. It’s a game where only one person can win, and with an open score there was no doubt as to who was winning. Which almost inevitably meant everyone else would not contribute to surviving, instead focusing on getting as many points as possible. While it was the intended behavior, it meant the games would end in everyone’s defeat. Lose due to score, by helping someone else win, or lose together due to the colony being overrun – not a great choice. The problem, I realised, was in players knowing who was ahead.

I’d considered obfuscating the score. What if the plundered resources (printed on expedition cards) sent to the Surface were not tallied on the track, but kept in a pile, to be counted at the end? But that would turn the game into a giant memorization exercise. And besides, there isn’t a lot variance in the amount of resources on each expedition, just knowing the number of cards in the pile would tell you enough. This didn’t seem worthwhile.

The approach I had actually tried was to have secret objectives revealed at the end of the game. “Gain 2 points for each dead colonist”, “Gain 3 points for each building”, that sort of thing. It was… okay. Along with identities that gave bonus points for specific actions (“Priest: gain 1 point each time you donate a card to the warehouse”), it also addressed another issue: single path to victory. If all that matters in the end is the score, and the score is gained by completing expeditions and nothing else, everyone behaves the same way. Moreover, it doesn’t matter how we get to the end, what state the colony is. Only the score matters.

With goals and identities, things got better. Goals introduced some uncertainty and a bit of long-term strategy. Identities varied turn-to-turn tactics. But it was 2 extra decks, 2 extra cards each player would get. It was extra bits, not an extra system. And I like systems. It didn’t feel right.

Enter Sponsors. Sponsors are an amalgamation of both goals and identities. Flavor-wise, they are the powerful organizations that are paying for the colony and expecting a return on their investment. Each sponsor has an action that earns their favor (donating a card to the warehouse earns you the favor of the Empress), and an event that advances their agenda on a separate track (the Pledge gains points each time a colonist dies). You can see how the previous ideas have been folded into this one. In addition to specific events, each sponsor likes two out of four resources in the game, and selling them to the sponsor advances that sponsor’s agenda as well.

At the end of the game, players earn bonus points based on their relative standing with sponsors and the sponsors’ agenda score. Uncertainty comes from a simple rule: at the end of each turn, players take the favor tokens they earned that turn, and secretly choose only one to keep, discarding the rest for a point each.

Finally, a dynamic system. Have you invested heavily into a particular sponsor by choosing to keep their favors? Perhaps you’ll try and advance their agenda. Is another sponsor getting ahead? Now may be the time to do them a favor or two.

It took several games to get the numbers right. It also quickly became apparent that not enough favor tokens were entering the game, with players mostly ending the turn with only one. That failed the uncertainty requirement, so I added quests: every time a sponsor’s agenda advances past a certain point on the track, the mayor takes their favor token and places it on one of the expeditions, to be claimed by whoever completes it. If a sponsor is doing well, more people have a chance to get into their good graces. More dynamic, more system!

As sponsors are a new addition, I expect they’ll still undergo some change. For instance, right now it may in fact be better to go for the second place in each sponsor rather than vying for the first. I’m not sure if that’s the way I want it to be. More playtesting is required, clearly. And I may still add secret goals back into the game, now that they have sponsors as a foundation.

Passages & Plunder – Lost in the Dark

It’s been a while since I wrote here. It’s been much longer since I wrote about the game I was working on, Passages & Plunder. Years. The good news is that it’s close to being finished, and I’m opening it up for a public playtest. If that’s what you’re here for, skip to the State of the Game section, below. Otherwise, read the cautionary tale of how things can stall.

What is Passages & Plunder? The post linked above goes into some detail, but here’s the revelant bit: “…a game of exploration and greed. In it, players are in charge of a colony recently established in the newly discovered Underworld. Their task is to protect the colony, explore the dark tunnels and obtain as much treasure as they can. All the players lose if the colony gets overrun. But only the player who has brought back the most treasure will win!”

Almost Done

Ideas are easy. First 50% of the game can get cobbled together over a weekend. Then, through iteration and effort, you reach 80%. And then it gets really hard. I doubt this is a revelation to any game designer out there. I suspect that’s the stage where most projects that actually got started die.

That’s where I was when I wrote the first post, all the way back in 2013. Major mechanics were in place. Cards were written. The game was fully playable, with almost no issues as such. But it didn’t click. There was something missing, or maybe something was getting in the way. It felt clunky at times, and plain at others. I kept refining it, but not fixing it. As frustration grew, enthusiasm vaned. Apathy set in.

I stopped trying to playtest iterated versions: it didn’t feel right to ask my friends to play a game I knew was flawed, still, just as it was the last few times we played it. I kept meaning to finish it. Just… Not right now. I’d come up with other projects. Other fantasies. Hell, I started writing a novel. And I swear I’ll finish it. Eventually.

And so weeks turned into months, and months into years. My room was still cluttered with printed out cards. I’d still occasionally pick them up and flip through them. It’d feel almost unreal, like someone else had made them.

Then I became unemployed. This was seemingly the perfect time to work on the game, or any other projects I had. Instead, I settled on the vicious cycle of feeling guilty about not working on any of them so procrastinating for days. Guilt, procrastination, more guilt. Depression. A snug little hole. But that’s not what this post is about.

Every now and then, I’d return to the game. And one day I had a breakthrough – I came up with the sponsors (I’ll ramble about what they do and why they were needed in an upcoming post). I wish I could offer any insight on how I got the idea. It’s been germinating for ages, I’d considered and rejected similar approaches before. But this one seemed to work. I poked and prodded at the idea, it changed, grew, but didn’t break. And maybe, just maybe, if the idea worked so would the game.

This reinvigorated me. I redid the card layout, moving them all under a different program, something I’d been meaning to do for a long while. I settled on Squib, which was good… But maybe not really meant to do what I needed. I can’t escape the feeling I did unnatural things to it, but I got the cards I wanted, and that’s what counts. I even wrote down the updated rules. An excrutiating task, to push the ideas, a cloud of associated concepts, into the limiting, binding words. Clear, unambiguous, but still humanly readable phrases. The rulebook is something I’ll have to keep working on, no doubt.

This was the time I got Tabletop Simulator on Steam, and turned the game into a mod for it, a relatively painless process. A couple of games later, I refined the sponsors to their current state, and made other adjustments. And finally, I was happy with the way the game played. This is where you come in.

State of the Game

It’s nearly done! I don’t anticipate any major changes or new systems being added. Some wording still no doubt requires tightening, some values still need tweaking. The rulebook definitely needs work. And as you’ll immediately notice, graphic design isn’t my forte. There’s no art, either. But it’s functional. Do let me know if something was hard to read or understand.

You can download the print-and-play files here, or find the Tabletop Simulator mod here. The rulebook is here. Go, play the game. Please! Your feedback will be very valuable. And, hopefully, you’ll enjoy the experience.

Print-and-play

You are in for a lot of cutting. A cutting board, a utility knife and a metal ruler are recommended. I ended up getting a paper guillotine for the multiple prototypes I went through, but that’s probably overkill for most. There’s multiple files in the dropbox directory, to make updating them easier. Print everything as-is, without fitting it to the page. The decks are made for double-sided printing, flip on the short edge. Except I’ve had issues with one of the printers I’ve used, resulting in a pretty significant offset of the card backs. Not critical, but not great either – maybe do a test page first.

TTS mod

Barebones but, again, functional. You’ll probably want to “lock” the region tiles once you’ve placed them, otherwise placing an expedition card (or any other card for that matter) in their middle would cause them to resize and stack. You’ll probably also want each player to draw a hidden zone to keep their favor tokens in.

Questionnaire

If nothing else, please let me know you’ve played the game. At the end of the day, that’s why I made it. But if you’ve got an extra minute or three, here are a few questions for you.

  1. The most important one: did you have fun? Would you play it again?
  2. Which version did you try, PnP or the TTS mod? Any technical difficulties?
  3. How did the game end? How many players did you have and how long did it take?
  4. Were the rules unclear at any point? What did you have to double-check in the rulebook? Did you have to interpret or house rule anything?
  5. What’s the one thing you liked best about it?
  6. What’s the one thing you hated most?

Boss Decay

We’ve all been there. You unleash an awesome boss monster on the party, expecting it to last good solid 5-6 rounds, only for it to suffer from premature evisceration. So what do you when your dracolich drops on round 3? You can leave the players unsatisfied, or cheat and pump up its hp, or use this one weird trick.

This idea only applies to D&D and D&D-like games. And it doesn’t mess with any of the math of the system, either!

Double the hit points of your boss. Decide how many rounds you want it to last, the aforementioned 5 or 6 is fairly standard. Divide the original hp by this number to find the boss’ decay, then round it to something easy to use. Finally, give the boss a trait: the first time it is hit in a round, it takes extra damage equal to the decay number. That’s it. 

So if you have, say, a Tarrasque with 1200 hp that you want to last at least 6 rounds (a setup with nice, round numbers), give it 2400 hp instead, with decay of 200. If the party is doing as well as you expect them to do, on round six all the extra hit points will be gone, and they will be facing the original 1200 hp Tarrasque, hopefully about to defeat it. If they have unleashed crazy synergies or maybe simply 5 crits in 3 rounds, they’ll kill it on round 5 or maybe 4 instead, the undecayed bonus hp acting as padding. Importantly, good tactics or plain luck will still have mattered.

Once the decay is done and all the bonus hp are gone, you’ll probably want to “switch off” the decay trait – everything is back to normal. Or maybe the boss turned out to be tougher than you thought, and the party actually needs the help decay provides to finish it off.

A possible tweak involves dividing the decay number by 2 or 3, and having the decay trait trigger corresponding number of times per round, but only once per player. This removes the emphasis from landing one attack each round, instead bringing it back to fighting the boss, though I don’t expect this to be an actual issue in play.

This idea is, in a way, a reverse of 13th Age’s escalation die. Whereas the ED guarantees the battle will eventually swing in PC’s favor, boss decay guarantees the swing will not be too abrupt.

Musings on the Apocalypse

Catchy title, if not entirely accurate. You see, I want to ramble about Apocalypse World Engine games, but I haven’t actually played AW itself, only tremulus, its lovecraftian horror offspring. Still, I’m under the impression the games are mechanically similar enough (sharing the engine and whatnot) that this is a reasonable basis.

At its most basic, the mechanics of AWE can be described as “when you do something you may not succeed at, roll 2d6 plus an appropriate stat; on 10+ you do it, on 7-9 you’re going to have to compromise with the GM, and on 6- something interesting, usually bad, happens.” Player moves provide some constraints and mechanics for specific outcomes, and GM moves provide a slate of options to choose from. It’s not entirely accurate either, but we’ll keep this definition for now.

The issue many critics of the system have is that there’s no mechanical connection between what the PC do and what the GM can spring on them as the result of their failure. Something interesting happens. If a PC is trying to lock-pick a door into a seemingly abandoned mansion without being detected and rolls 6- on an Act Under Pressure roll, anything could occur. The lock could get jammed. A groundskeeper could come round a corner. Or a maniac swinging an axe. Or a distant wolf howl could send shivers down their spine. Or a bullet could hit them. Or… You get the idea. It should make sense, naturally, but that’s left entirely up to GM.

That’s not the way a straightforward game like D&D would handle it. In it, you fail – you do nothing. Maybe you get to try again, maybe something occurs to prevent you – but not because you made the roll. The same groundskeeper could show up. The same maniac, the same bullet. But not because of the roll. Even in games which embrace the “fail forward” ethos like Fate (and 7-9 is failing forward in AWE), the outcome of a failed Overcome roll like trying to open a door could be either simply failing or succeeding at a major cost. Such as “if you stick around long enough to get it right, you will be spotted by the groundskeeper whose footsteps you now hear.” It would be quite odd for a Fate GM to offer an axe-swinging maniac as the cost for success.

And this trips people up. Sometimes, it trips me up. I’m quite happy to see an axe-swinging maniac appear in a horror game, but why should my Reason stat impact the probability of it happening? How does failing to open a lock make the maniac come out? It’s entirely possible to avoid making such moves, to only have events occur that logically follow from the action itself, but the system doesn’t demand you do so, and I believe that’s purposeful.

That’s because AWE doesn’t have a task resolution system. It has a narrative rhythm system that masquerades as a task resolution system. It doesn’t tell you whether you succeed or fail, it tells you whether a good or a bad thing happens.

There are no difficulties in AWE, you always roll the same dice against the same numbers. There’s close to nothing players can do to stack the odds in their favor, they can only try and make some outcomes narratively inappropriate. Whatever PCs do, whatever happens, roughly the same proportion of good and bad/interesting outcomes will occur across every game.

But what about stats, you may ask, wouldn’t they affect this? And indeed they do. But once you start to consider AWE from this point of view, stats take on a different role too. Rather than helping or hindering characters in their tasks, they encourage players to match their actions to their characters’ capabilities. It’s not that having a low Reason score means you’re more likely to meet an axe maniac while you pick locks. It’s that you shouldn’t be trying to pick locks if you have low Reason. And if you’re desperate enough to try, the tension is already high and bad things will be happening to you. It’s narrative logic of tension and drama, not of skill and consequences.

We’ve started with a definition of the core mechanic of AWE, and I warned you it wasn’t quite right. That’s because you don’t roll dice when something may go wrong. You roll them when a move is triggered. The rules encourage you to not think of the moves or mechanics at all, until you need them. To never go “I use Act Under Pressure to pick the lock,” but “I pick the lock and, oh, looks like I’m Acting Under Pressure.” The rules act like an impartial observer, sometimes interfering to introduce a new direction in the story. In a way, AWE may work better if the players didn’t know the rules at all. Without the tangible link between lock-picking and axe-swinging maniacs, there’s no contradiction.

Is this the intended interpretation of the way the mechanics are meant to function? Probably not. But that’s what I get after squinting, turning my head just so, and staring at AWE for a while. The deeper, almost subconscious workings of the system. The narrative truth behind the mechanical lie. But perhaps we need the lie of actions and consequences to get us to follow along, to fool us into thinking we’re in control while the narrative rhythm does its thing behind the scenes.

Passages & Plunder 1 – Welcome to the Underworld

And now for something completely different. Not a roleplaying game at all. A board game. A board game that I’ve been working on for the last year and a bit, and that’s approaching the public playtesting stage. Slowly. Inexorably. There’s been a lot of private playtesting done with various groups of friends, and the game is in the late stage of its development, but it’s been stuck in that stage for a while. This post, and any follow-ups, are my attempts at self-motivation masquerading as a design diary. By making it public, I’m committing to seeing it through to the end.

Sales pitch

What is the game about? To borrow from the rules it took me a month to write: “Welcome to Passages & Plunder, a game of exploration and greed. In it, players are in charge of a colony recently established in the newly discovered underworld. Their task is to protect the colony, explore the dark tunnels and obtain as much treasure as they can. All the players lose if the colony gets overrun. But only the player who has brought back the most treasure will win!”

Okay, but what does this actually mean? First of all, it means I’m easily amused. But it’s not a coincidence the name is evocative of D&D. I wanted to convey that old-school spirit of dungeon crawling. Each expedition your colonists go on is an adventure for them. The players act as quest givers, the movers and shakers of their little underground city. Which is not to say it is yet another emulator of D&D, I’ve tried to create a distinct, somewhat weird world.

More importantly, it means the game is a cooperative one, that gradually transitions into competitive. I’m trying to have my cake and eat it, too: one of the main issues any cooperative game faces is an experienced player taking over and telling everyone what to do. This doesn’t happen here, as everyone is in it for themselves, even if they’re forced to work together. And work together they do. Another common pitfall many games face is solitary gameplay, where players barely have any way to influence or interact with others, and therefore might as well be playing separately. While players in P&P have little ways to actively affect each other, short of exiling someone particularly uncooperative, they must rely on each other to survive. The rules and moves are kept purposefully simple and transparent, so that each action players take, they may have to justify to others. At its core, Passages & Plunder is about how much others will let you get away with, and how much you can rely on them to do their part.

This is what board games are best at, what distinguishes them from other forms of entertainment in my opinion: the social aspect. You play with your friends through the medium that the game provides. I’ve tried to maintain the balance between the fun of just solving the puzzle of the game and exploring the underworld, and letting players interact. Everything in the game serves one or both of those goals.

Does it succeed? In the very first playtest of the very first raw version, two of my good friends, somewhat drunk at the time, ended up yelling at each other about who should feed the colony. I knew I had something good right then. And yes, it is that kind of game, that tests friendships. Not everyone’s cup of tea, I know, but that’s the way it ended up.

Major Elements

Now that you know what the game is about, here’s what the game is, what major elements it has, and why it has them.

The underworld

It is out to get you. Each turn, its menace grows, which makes it harder to defend the colony. It is a timer of sorts, an ever-increasing pressure. There is no set amount of turns the players get; rather, they evacuate when they feel like they won’t be able to hold out another turn. And if they’re doing well and really pushing into the depths, the underworld will push back, increasing menace. It is a self-adjusting difficulty. Eventually, it gets so high that the players have no choice but to evacuate, signalling the end of the game.

Each turn, a calamity strikes, presenting another challenge to overcome or survive. The severity of the calamity scales with menace. This makes the underworld less passive, not just waiting for players to come and plunder it, but fighting back.

The board itself is a map of passages, with expedition cards placed on them at the start. They are the places and locals you’ll plunder. At the edges of the board are deep expeditions, with greater challenges and greater rewards. I’ve tried to create a sense of place, of delving further and further into the hostile tunnels. This is one of the areas that needs some extra work, I feel, but I’ll get to that in a future post.

The colony

The game starts with players collectively coming up with a name for the colony. Again, a sense of place, of ownership. There are buildings to be constructed, spells to be cast, and colonists to be sent out on expeditions. The colony aspect of the game is entirely cooperative. Spells benefit the colony. Buildings benefit the colony. Colonists don’t belong to any one player, but are recruited by them each turn.

The main way players accomplish things is by assigning these colonists to various tasks. It’s not really a worker placement game, though: the colonists differ from one another in their skills. This is the main mechanic of the game: a given task may require 3 “points” of labor, and to accomplish it enough colonists must be sent that, together, have these 3 points. There are 4 skills, and each colonist has 1-3 in all of them. This means that even if a colonist is ill-suited to a task, they still can contribute. And so it becomes an uncomfortable choice, and another way to argue about not “wasting” your colonists on a crucial task, because they could do so much more elsewhere. It’s all about the temptation, and the justification.

Another important part of the design is the “chunkiness” of choices. You can’t make symbolic gestures, can’t donate 10% of your income to the colony. If you only have 3 colonists in a turn, what you do with each of them matters.

No Randomness

There are no dice rolls involved. There is hidden information represented by cards (oh, so many cards), but most of those cards can be revealed with a bit of effort. You can plot out your turn from the start, but can you trust others to do their part? You can scout out an expedition before embarking on it, but what if others beat you to the punch? Whatever happens, you only have yourself to blame.

Dynamics

The colony being cooperative means players don’t build up a power base. Instead, each turn they start on a sort-of equal footing. Again, it’s not about having the best strategy, it’s about manipulating your friends. Which is not to say you can’t have a strategy. You can scout ahead and learn which colonists to recruit this turn. You can make a show of being useful, and demand allowances for future transgressions.

This still felt like it wasn’t enough, like the game only really mattered in the second half, when the colony was decently established and competition could begin in earnest. To remedy that, I’ve recently added secret agendas, fulfillment of which grants bonus points at the end. These are long-term goals dependent on the overall state of the colony, such as how many colonists there were, or how high the menace has risen. They introduce something to strive for over the entire game. Agendas are yet to be tested, but I have high hopes.

Wrapping Up

The game starts cooperative. But everyone knows that at some point, all pretense will fly out of the window. At some point, the temptation of profit will get too high. Will you be guilted into saving the colony while your friends stuff their coffers? Will you be stuck with an impossible choice between losing because you’re dead and losing because someone else won? There are quite a lot of interesting dynamics that crop up, but I’ll save them for another post, this one’s gotten too long as it is. Hopefully, it’s given you a good idea of the game, and, even more hopefully, some of you are now interested enough to give it a try when the public playtest is ready.