Musings on rules

Once, at the dawn of my roleplaying career, I had convinced a friend to try DMing, letting me be a player for once. It was, naturally, D&D. We had ourselves a decent enough adventure, and fought some robotic wolves at some point. An enjoyable experience. Later, I asked him what stats he used for the monsters. He said he used regular wolves, but wanted to make them tougher, so he didn’t track their hit points. Instead, they died after a few rounds, when he felt like the fight had gone on long enough.

The fight was a lie. The fight was exactly the same. We still stabbed the wolves, were bit in return and prevailed in the end. What changed? While individual rolls were a waste of time, the decision to fight did matter: we could have, perhaps, found a way to sneak past them. The starting point (decision to fight) and the destination (wolves dead) stayed the same, it’s the actual journey in the middle that turned out to have been meaningless. Except even that is not quite true. We still enjoyed rolling the dice, and imagining the hits and misses.

Don’t get me wrong, that was a terrible thing to do, but mainly because it violated the rules of the game that we thought we understood. One can easily imagine a system where a fight (or any other scene) only goes on as long as it’s interesting. In fact, that’s a backup rule or suggestion in many games: wrap things up and move on if players start getting bored. And in systems without such rules, people have invented tools like Combat Out for D&D 4e, ways to end a combat once the victor is determined or a specific condition is met.

Generalizing, many if not most games have the so-called rule zero: ignore the rules if that makes your game better. And on the flip side of that is the illusionism approach: the belief that the GM cannot cheat, and should be free to lie about the dice rolls and other mechanical elements to make the game better. This may involve helping a recurring villain get away, saving the party from an unlucky TPK or engineering one.

Then why even have rules? Why do we bother with mechanics if they inevitably get in the way of the experience we wish to have? Some people quite happily play freeform, after all. Others avoid using any rules for the majority of their game time, e.g. playing a social intrigue D&D game. In no particular order, and not necessarily exhaustively, rules provide impartiality, surprise, structure, and fun.

The fun part is the easiest to explain: by most definitions, you can’t have a game without rules. And we like games. We like to roll dice, to demonstrate our mastery of the rules and be rewarded for it. Then again, I already mentioned freeform games here, and I’m not particularly interested in declaring something Not A Roleplaying Game. A different kind of enjoyment can undoubtedly be had even without rules.

Rules allow players and GM alike to anticipate likely outcomes of their actions. They make it harder for a GM to play favorites with their players, and make it easier to be consistent. Rules also take on the blame. It wasn’t the GM that killed you, it were the dice. Rules make sure the game is fair. This is where the desire for game balance comes from: it is a problem if the players perceive, whether correctly or not, the game itself to not be fair.

Then again, there are entire playstyles dedicated to the idea of GM knowing best, like the aforementioned illusionism. “Rulings, not rules.” Indeed, some players reject the idea of rules governing some of their activities, such as social interactions or exploration.

By and large, the impartiality of rules is an illusion anyway, though a useful one. In all but the most restrictive games, the GM has leeway to interpret an event in a variety of ways, and to decide whether to apply mechanics at all. Fate is particularly noteworthy here: its rules govern narrative circumstances rather than the in-game situation. Meaning the GM (hopefully with cooperation of the players) chooses which rules to apply. Not to mention the ability to set up any kind of situation in the first place. It’s not against the rules to throw a tarrasque against a 1st level party, just not advised. Declaring that Rocks Fall, Everyone Die is legit, too.

Related to impartiality is the capacity of a game to surprise us, to choose the outcome for us. More than that, true surprise comes from unexpected outcomes rules can provide. Not just path A or B, but an entirely unforeseen path C opened up by a (un)lucky critical hit. 13th Age’s owlbear exemplifies this: most of the time it’s just a monster to be fought, but it could rip your arm off, forcing the story in a new, bloody, direction. Then again, the GM can certainly surprise players without any rules, and players are notorious for doing the same to the GM.

So far, everything the rules do, we can achieve otherwise. The last element left is structure, and this is, I believe, the main benefit mechanics provide. Roleplaying games are an interactive medium. A group creates their own game every time they sit down to play. We breathe life into it, use our imagination to create and live out stories of our characters. And while we do so, we have the rules, the mechanics, to fall back on. Any time we don’t know what to do, what to choose, we can lean on them. If you’ll forgive me waxing metaphorical for a moment, if a roleplaying game is a plant, its rules are the structure around which it entwines as it grows, as we play it. And just as a structure can offer support, it can be stifling.

We don’t need the rules. But with them, we can reach higher, go to places we wouldn’t have imagined otherwise. Constraints breed creativity, being forced to grow in a certain direction gives the plant a shape. Just be sure you picked the right rules for the game you wish to play.

Especially Nasty – Trollflesh Golem

Flesh golems are stitched together from the bodies of many different creatures. They are disturbing in their own right, but what if it wasn’t made up of just any old dead creatures? What if the parts weren’t dead at all?

Trollflesh Golem

Huge 4th level wrecker

Initiative: +7

Sweeping claws +9 vs AC (2 attacks) – 21 damage

Patchwork regeneration 15: While a trollflesh golem is damaged, it heals 15 hit points at the start of the golem’s turn.

When the golem is hit by an attack that deals fire or acid damage, or suffers a critical hit, its regeneration is permanently reduced by 5 as stitches come undone and a large chunk of its body falls off. It grows rapidly if haphazardly, becoming a spasming trollflesh – roll initiative as it joins the fight.

Dropping a trollflesh golem to 0 hp doesn’t kill it.

Ignore this ability once the trollflesh golem’s patchwork regeneration is reduced to 0.

Stitched together: a trollflesh golem is vulnerable to weapon attacks.

Energy magnet: Whenever a spell that causes cold, fire, force, lightning, or negative energy damage targets one of the flesh golem’s nearby allies, the trollflesh golem has a 50% chance of becoming the main target instead. Therefore, spells that affect groups would spread out from the trollflesh golem.

Weakness of the flesh: Unlike other golems, troll flesh golems are not immune to effects and can be affected by the fears and madness of mortals.

AC 18

PD 17      HP 150

MD 13

Nastier specials:

Something had to keep the trolls from regenerating all this time. You’re about to find out what it was.

Exposed necrotic core: Whenever a creature engaged with a trollflesh golem makes a natural odd hit or miss against it, the attacker suffers necrotic damage equal to 15 minus the golem’s regeneration.

Spasming Trollflesh

It’s a jumble of claws and muscle trying desperately to regrow, but it’s forgotten what it used to be. It doesn’t even have a head. Unfortunately, attacking everything around it seems to be in muscle memory.

4th level wrecker

Initiative: +8

Frantic Spasms +9 vs AC – 7 damage.

Natural even hit or miss: The spasming trollflesh pops free, moves to a random nearby creature and repeats the attack against it.

Maddened regeneration: spasming trollflesh heals to full health at the start of its turn. Reducing it to 0 hp kills it. When the trollflesh is hit by an attack that deals fire or acid damage, it can’t regenerate during its next turn.

AC 18

PD 17       HP 28

MD 13

Why are narrative games so hard to grok?

Nice clickbaity headline, well done. But it’s true – narrative, “modern” games like Fate or Dungeon World are seemingly much harder to run, or even play, correctly, as compared to the more “traditional” games like D&D. By “running the game correctly” I mean using the rules to their full potential and in a manner articulated by the game’s authors. Are the narrative games terrible at explaining themselves, are they inherently unintuitive, is there a problem at all?

The titular observation is based on personal experience (though backed by the prevalence of answers on Fate or DW questions on RPG.SE amounting to “you’re doing it wrong, no really”), so some discussion of said personal experience is warranted. I’d started running RPGs with the release of the preview of D&D 3.0, some sort of quickstart pdf with 1st level characters and a fight against skeletons. As is fairly common, I was the only person in the group dedicated enough to read all the rules, so I ended up running the games. We worked our way through the free adventures WotC had put up on ther website. They were straightforward hack-n-slash affairs, or maybe that was the best I could manage at the time. I wasn’t a good GM, far from it. That took years of practice, of very gradually expanding my range, of trying different approaches, of arguing on an Internet forum (hi, Rolemancer/GameForums), of learning from other GMs (it took moving to a different country to find them).

Through it all, I’ve never felt I was running D&D incorrectly. Sometimes I would misunderstand the way a rule worked – mistakes happened. Often I would not get the experience I expected. I didn’t necessarily have great mastery of D&D 3.5 – not on the level of character optimization boards. As mentioned, the games frequently wouldn’t be any good, just an unsatisfying sequence of fights. And of course I’d get mired in plenty of online arguments about superiority of particular playstyles – but that’s just what they were, playstyles. “Roleplaying vs rollplaying”. I never had a feeling that I’m just not getting how to run D&D, though, only that I wasn’t getting how to be a good GM.

With well over a decade of GMing experience (oh boy), I finally decided to get out of the comfort blanket that is D&D. The tag “First Impressions” documents the more noteworthy of my forays. There were a few smaller games which we tried to play and simply couldn’t get to work for us – they didn’t make it onto the blog. Even in the games that did, a common theme would emerge: I’d read the book, and be uncertain I could actually run the game well. I’d read it again. Then I’d go online and look for existing discussion, easily finding other people with same concerns, which hardly dissuaded my fears.

This was particularly notable with Fate: the entire first campaign I ran in it was essentially a learning experience, both for myself and my players – seasoned roleplayers, all. I still don’t use compels very well. I “cheat” in Apocalypse Engine games I run – I rarely think in terms of GM moves, simply running it as any other game. That’s, pretty explicitly, against the rules.

But weren’t narrative games meant to more naturally emulate the storytelling process we all grow up with? Dungeon World was once described as “D&D you always thought you were playing”. What gives? Why are narrative games so damn hard to grock?

A part of it is due to the “narrative game vocabulary” still being developed. Roleplaying itself is still a relatively new hobby. Within it, certain playstyles have had decades longer and a whole bunch more games to grow, to figure out how to articulate their concepts. Again, take Fate as an example: it’s gotten so much clearer over the years. It’s progressed both in weeding out the unnecessary clutter from its rules, and in how it explains these rules. This process will undoubtedly continue.

But the main reason narrative games are hard to run the way they’re meant to be is due to narrative games codifying how they’re meant to be run. Narrative games have Opinions. Unlike traditional games, which give you tools to resolve situations that come up in typical scenarios of the game, narrative games also give you tools for creating these scenarios. Fail to use those well, and you fail to play the game well.

Why are you fighting goblins in a dungeon in D&D? You have a quest to get a MacGuffin, who cares, roll Initiative. Why are you fighting goblins in a dungeon in Dungeon World? The party had rolled a 3 on their Carouse move, choosing to gain useful information but letting things get really out of hand and getting entangled in the process. GM offered them an opportunity: they can get out of jail if they promise to go deal with goblins who’ve been robbing caravans. They can even keep whatever’s already been stolen. Quest, MacGuffin, etc. But they flow directly from the game rules.

Naturally, you can, even should, have the exact same sequence of events in a traditional game. It’s not like narrative games invented cause and effect. You don’t need the rules to have a satisfying story. It is, however, telling how eager we are to adapt these narrative shaping structures to other games – e.g. Dungeon World Fronts in D&D by Sly Flourish.

And here’s where we get to the core of the issue. A traditional game doesn’t care if you have a satisfying story. It has some opinions on what stories should occur within it, and its mechanics do have an effect on these stories – even such seemingly minor rules elements as hit points matter. But, because D&D doesn’t exist, a sequence of fights in 5×5 rooms is just as much a proper D&D game as a game of courtly intrigue and noble duels. As long as you roll a d20 + attack bonus and compare it to the AC of the target, you’re good.

In contrast, narrative games have story bits and GMing practices “hardcoded” into their rules. Failure to compel PCs in Fate means failure to involve them in the plot. Failure to come up with an interesting consequence to a bad roll in DW calls into question the necessity of that roll in the first place. By making these narrative elements explicit, narrative games make our failures to implement them explicit.

And finally, if the group isn’t after the narrative elements the game wants them to employ, or if the mechanics are not well written or well explained, making it hard to reconcile the rules-mandated narrative element with the rest of the story, it comes off as clunky. A failure to use an unwieldy tool the purpose of which you don’t quite understand.

With mixed success (hah), narrative games describe tools, constraints, and practices they believe will lead to the game being played not just correctly, but well. Narrative games are hard to grok, because being a good GM is hard to grok. And it may be even harder to grok what the game considers to be a good GM.

Especially Nasty – Wereowlbear

Wereowlbear

Were. Owl. Bear.

Large level 6 troop [BEAST]

Initiative +10

Rip and Peck (hybrid form only) + 11 vs AC, 22 damage, and the target is hampered while engaged with the wereowlbear.

    Vicious hybrid: If the escalation die is even, make another rip and peck attack.

Owldropbear (one enemy below the wereowlbear) (owl form only). +11 vs PD, 33 damage and the target is grabbed and hampered while engaged with the werowlbear. The wereowlbear transforms into its hybrid form as it plummets from up high, pinning its unfortunate victim down. It’s very hard to intercept a plummeting wereowlbear.

Feed the cubs: An owlbear that scores a critical hit against a hampered enemy tears a piece of the creature off (GM chooses a limb) and will subsequently attempt to retreat with the prize to feed its cubs, likely in its owl form. The torn-up enemy is stunned until the end of its next turn. Does a wereowlbear have cubs? Are they werecubs? Does it just feed a den of bears in a misguided maternal instinct? We may never know.

Bestial fury (hybrid form only): Wereowlbears gain a bonus to damage equal to double the escalation die.

Resilient shifting (all three forms): As described in 13 True Ways, a werebeast can shift forms once per round as a quick action. When a werebeast shifts, it can roll a save against one save ends effect.

Silent hunter: Owlbears are nearly silent until they strike. Checks to hear them approaching take a -5 penalty. The penalty increases to -10 if it is in the owl form.

Nastier specials:

Moon bloodlust: Expand the wereowlbear’s critical range by the escalation die if it is fighting under the moonlight. E.g. if the escalation die is at 4, the wereowlbear crits on 16+. Note: very likely to result in loss of limb and life. Run.

Cursed bite (hybrid or bear form only): Unlike other werebeasts, wereowlbears do not spread their curse to humanoids, as they never were one to begin with. It’s not even clear if it’s a curse at all, or the true origin of owlbears, or the next stage in the evolution of the ferocious hybrid.

However, they may be able to infect other animals they bite, such as ranger’s animal companion or a pack mule. Unless blessed, purged, or otherwise cured, the bitten creature will turn into a werebeast on the night of the next full moon.

If the beast was land-based, it becomes a wereowl. If it was aerial, it becomes a werebear. What that actually means is left up the GM and/or ranger.

AC 21

PD 20          HP 140

MD 15

Bear, Owl, and Hybrid forms

The wereowlbear is not likely to fight in the bear or owl form. It’s quite happy to start the fight in the owl form, though, and it’ll transform into an owl to reposition and perform the owldropbear attack whenever no one’s engaged with it. In the rare instance when PCs somehow manage to attack it in the owl form, decrease its AC and PD by 2 and call it a day.

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.

Running an RPG for kids

I ran a “Dungeons and Dragons” event at a public library last week, with six 10-or-so year old kids showing up to my table. It went well, but boy was it a challenge.

How do you prepare to run a game for kids you’ve never met? The system obviously needs to be both simple and quick to teach. And while “D&D” in the event name was used as a generic term for roleplaying games, having PCs be heroes fighting some evil threat seemed like a good idea. I picked Dungeon World, but even that turned out to be too much. Bonds, weight, deities, high level spells, it was all a bit overwhelming and either was ignored during the game, or distracted from it. The “legacy” aspects of DW, such as stats being two numbers only one of which actually mattered for most of the game, provided unnecessary confusion as well.

Next time I’d choose something even simpler. Maybe Roll For Shoes. FAE is another contender, though I’m not certain I could explain aspects well enough. Time is a big constraint: 3 hours for everything! And as it’s a one-off event, you can’t even build system mastery over several sessions. I’m aware of RPGs made specifically for kids, that’s obviously worth investigating as well.

But back to game preparation. Unambiguity of opposition’s evil seemed important. Leave challenging morality questions like “is it ok to kill goblins” to teenagers. Stick with robots, zombies and dinosaurs. Turns out, undead are cooler than robots. Who knew. I prepared a basic adventure: start at the entrance to the dungeon with a task to retrieve a macguffin from within. Inside await a fight or two, depending on how fast the game goes, a couple of opportunities to be smart and avoid traps, a guardian spirit to interact with and a choice at the end.

I was particularly fond of the first room, a dining hall of a mansion whose owner has seemingly perished, still staffed by robot butlers. They do their best to maintain it, while everything including themselves succumbs to rot. Very “There Will Come Soft Rains”. And if the adventurers decide to break things, or steal the silver cutlery, they get their first fight. That was the plan. Here’s how it went in practice: the fighter (named Darth Vader, naturally) went in first, saw creaking figures in the darkness, and attacked the closest one.

Lesson learned: don’t bother with subtlety. It’s not that kids can’t appreciate it, I’m sure some could. It’s just that one of them will inevitably smash it with a flail. For that matter, having a logical and consistent dungeon didn’t seem to matter to them much, either. Again, not surprising: they’re experiencing a sensory overload as it is.

Another lesson learned: placing a puzzle-like scene near the end of the adventure was a mistake. Kids get tired, their attention wanders, and placing them into a situation with no immediately obvious solution leads to them drifting away. An extra consideration for structuring the adventure.

The toughest part about running the game was managing the group. Six players was definitely too many. Rotating the spotlight and making sure loud players don’t dominate the session is tricky even with adults. With kids it’s an order of magnitude harder. Loud players literally jump up and down demanding attention, while quiet players are content to sit and not say a word unless directly drawn into the action. I had expected the flexible nature of DW to help out in this, but I suspect a rigid initiative system may have worked better. In part because it makes sure everyone has to participate, and knows roughly when it’ll be their turn. But also because putting a kid on the spot, one of the GM moves of DW and a great tool otherwise, has a risk of simply not working if the kid quietly says “I dunno”.

Another element of DW that didn’t always work was the fact that often enough PCs simply don’t trigger a move with their actions, leaving the GM to decide what happens. Normally, that’s fine. But when a kid tries to use a dagger to jimmy open a blast door that just slammed shut, saying “no, that just doesn’t work” leaves them stumped. The remedy to both of these problems, I think, would be to replace the traditional “what do you do?” with “do you do this, that, or something else?”

Something that surprised me a bit: most of the kids had simply shown up because it was a summer holiday activity, not because they were already interested in fantasy gaming. They hadn’t previously played anything remotely similar, digital or otherwise, and none of them had read or seen Lord of the Rings. Establishing common cultural tropes was tricky at times.

Despite these difficulties, I had fun, and so did the kids. A special shout out goes to the girl who played the cleric, and came up with an ingenious use for the light spell: cast it on the eyes of enemies to blind them.

Sunless Fate 3

Welcome to the final (at least for now) installment in the series converting Atomic Robo rules to run a Sunless Sea-inspired game. Previously, we covered character and ship generation, as well as ship combat, trading and zeafaring. This post will have little to do with rules, instead focusing on exploration and mystery of SS, and how to run such a game.

Mystery

FL and SS are games of mystery, of being submerged in a weird world and gradually piecing together how it works, what all those strange names mean, hint by hint. This approach is fascinating, but not quite replicable in a TRPG. Where written fiction can offer a tantalizing hint and leave you wanting more, an RPG character can always choose to push further, dig deeper, roll the dice. Indeed, given the overall ethos of “proactive, competent and dramatic” characters of Fate, you can expect them to do just that, often successfully.

And that’s not a bad thing! What might have taken you years to figure out in FL (no, seriously, years), they’ll discover in weeks. Or, perhaps, they already know all this as well. In fact, how well the GM and the players know the world of Fallen London will fundamentally alter the way your game plays out. There are three rough categories your group may fall under.

Scholar of Correspondence

The GM is the titular scholar, the one person who’s played the games and studied the lore. Everyone else just thought weird steampunk naval game with talking rats sounded neat. This is the situation in my gaming group. Rejoice, for you are about to introduce your players to the deep, dark, and marvelous world of Neath. It is a delight, watching comprehension slowly dawn on them, seeing theories form and be discarded, and finally observing them explain to one another how things work.

In this case, the Secrets skills are a major way by which you can feed information to your players. The Brainstorm mechanic of AR will likely be of limited use, only applicable when the mystery is “local”, not related to the lore.

This is the least Fate-like situation, with players constrained by their lack of knowledge from making declarations about the world. There are definitive answers you have that PCs can gradually uncover. In fact, you can have entire games revolving around learning a particular secret of Neath.

Masters of the Bazaar

The majority of the players are already familiar with the setting, perhaps they even know it better than the GM. Players and GM are co-conspirators, together delving into the familiar damp darkness. The players know where mirrors lead and how red honey is made. You won’t get a gripping plot out of simply revealing the deep truths of the Neath. On the other hand, you don’t need to lay out the groundwork for things to make sense. All it takes is a subtle implications for the wheels to start spinning.

The Secrets skills are mainly there to justify characters knowing what players already do. Brainstorms are more fitting, with players unlikely to propose something contradictory.

A Sea More Sunless

None of you know what’s going on. You just got out of New Newgate, or said goodbye to your first captain. It’s all so exciting and a little bit intimidating. Worry not, for you are about to embark on an adventure. You are in the same position as your characters in the computer games. Much like in the Masters of the Bazaar case, you are co-conspirators. But instead of treading familiar waters, you are staring at a blank map. What you discover will be largely up to you. This game will be inspired by FL and SS, rather than based on them.

For you, the Secrets skills are there to make declarations. What is a lorne-fluke, why do devils even want souls, are blemmigans a hive-mind? You decide. Similarly, Brainstorms become a way to establish potentially far-reaching truths about the world.

The lore

Whatever your situation, you will want to check the existing lore every now and then. The best way to obtain it, unsurprisingly, is to play FL and SS. It may be a good idea to revisit a location the party is about to enter to refresh your memory before the game. In addition, both games have fan-made wikis, though the text in them is quite limited. There’s also Saint Arthur and Saint Beau blogs, extensively covering both lore and gameplay of FL and SS respectively. The blogs are incredibly spoiler-heavy, so peruse at your own peril.

It’s easy to be trapped in the official lore, there’s so much of it. It’s tempting to simply replicate the characters and mysteries you so enjoyed, and that’s fine. But don’t feel constrained by them. You may not always know the answers. Some of the questions are yet unanswered. You may get things wrong. And that’s fine, too. This is your game, your own Neath – that’s very important to establish from the outset.

Preserving the mystery

Running a mystery game in Fate is not exactly a new problem. Here are a couple of ideas you may wish to adopt for running Sunless Fate, mostly applicable to a Scholar of Correspondence group. If your group falls under Masters of the Bazaar or A Sea More Sunless, there aren’t many grand lore-related secrets that players don’t already know (or don’t know along with you). Unless, of course, the GM adds more.

If you don’t want to reveal the true nature of something, don’t make the adventure about it. This may seem obvious, but is still worth discussing. The mystery of the adventure will be solved, one way or another. The mysteries of the Neath don’t have to be. You can have an adventure set in Parabola, with adventure-specific secrets to uncover and problems to overcome, without the adventure being about Parabola. Let the players draw their own conclusions, hazard their own guesses, feel their way through the shadows.

The openness of Fate may seem like a problem. How can you keep something hidden, if players are supposed to know or be able to discover the aspects of everything and everyone? Here, we can learn from FL. In it, you are informed when your situation changes, when you have gained or changed a quality… but not necessarily what that means. You become a Scholar of Correspondence long before you know what Correspondence is. So throw weird names and concepts at your players. They may use Empathy to find out the Weary-Eyed Captain they’ve met is a Pawn of Dawn, but what that actually means will have to be revealed in-game as the aspect is invoked.

Exploration

The map of the Zee is a mystery in its own right, with much of SS revolving around uncovering it, island by island. Here are a few options on how to handle it.

The known Zee

The simplest option is to use an existing map, be it an official print, a screenshot from your favorite SS run, or the one you can find on the SS wiki. You trade some of the exploration aspect of the game for the convenience and prettiness. Unless your group are Masters of the Bazaar, though, there’s still exploration to be had. Just because the party knows names and locations of every island, doesn’t mean they know what goes on there. Isle of Cats sounds delightful, does it not?

Geographical drift

To imitate the ever-shifting Zee and allow for discovery of the map, you can prepare a deck of square index cards, with one island, reef, whirlpool or just empty water per card. It would make sense to have cards’ size be equal to a unit of distance on your map (see Zeafaring in the previous post). Whether you use the existing islands and names or make up your own is up to you. If you wish to be more faithful to SS, you may want to make individual decks for different regions of the Zee – the SS wiki explains how it is broken down.

Start with a sheet of paper large enough to fit your cards arrayed as a complete map. Putting a grid on it may help. Normally, the edges of the map remain static: Venderbight is always to the north of London, Irem is in the north-west corner, etc., so you may wish to put them down first. When the party begins their journeys and reaches a blank spot on the map, simply draw a card and glue it into place. Or copy the image of the island on the map, or use a digital tool and avoid the messy paper business entirely, whatever is the most convenient and produces the desired result. Ideally, you’ll have another artifact at the end of the game, a map of your journeys. Trace the path you take over it, too. Note where be dragons. Own it.

The blank canvas

An approach even more random than the previous one, best suited for A Sea More Sunless group. Again, start with a blank gridded sheet of paper, with the size of a cell equal to the unit of distance you chose. When the party reaches a blank square, roll fate dice. Each ‘+’ is a potentially inhabited island, a single landmass if the dice are close, individual islands if they’re far or separated by other dice. Each blank face is simply water. Each ‘-‘ is an uninhabited rock, a reef, a whirlpool or something else not terribly useful and potentially dangerous. The actual position of dice relative to one another matters – the features they represent are arrayed in the same way. Let the players draw and name the resulting island(s) on the map.

The sheer weirdness of the Neath can’t really be inferred from a random roll a three, but perhaps a randomly determined faction that runs the place will start you thinking. Again, roll fate dice. Start in the top left corner, “Seekers of the Name”. For each ‘+’ on the dice, move right one column. For each ‘-‘, move down one row.

+
+
+
+
Seekers of the NameAdmiraltyTomb ColonistsRubbery MenSpider cultists
-
KhanateLondonersPiratesChelonate
-
Clay MenPiratesLondoners
-
DevilsRats
-
Fingerkings’ puppets

Running Sunless Fate

This is still Fate, naturally. All the advice on running Fate games applies here. At the same time, the world of FL is so unique, the games set in it can’t help but be different, too.

In the deepest matters of the Bazaar, always look to love

This is what many FL stories come down to: love. A great motivation, but one often overlooked in games. We’re used to greed, hate, madness, lust for power at the center of our conflicts. No one cares why a necromancer raises a zombie horde, or a mad scientist builds giant robots, or a cult leader summons eldritch horrors. That’s what they *do*. Their purpose in the story is to be villains. This game often doesn’t have a villain.

What it has is classic story fuel: people who want something, but can’t get it. People lived on the islands of the Zee before the PCs ever set their foot there, and they may still live there even after the PCs leave. Likely as not, there’s no catastrophe for PCs to prevent, everything is in a state of equilibrium. Unhappy, perhaps, tense, definitely, but equilibrium. PCs abhor equilibrium. They are a new element, proactive, competent and dramatic. Maybe they are just what a local desperately needs to change things. Or maybe they just blunder into it like all PCs do.

And at the center of it all, the cause of desperate needs and tensions, the one thing left in the ruins of the equilibrium, is love. In the broadest sense of the word.

A reckoning is not to be postponed indefinitely

Neath is a grim place, if you look past all the quirkiness and humor. Which is why it’s crucial not to look past them. Still. While death may not be final here (and that’s very important to remember!) there are many ways one can lose oneself. The stories of the Neath are stories of love, yes, but they’re also stories of what people give up and how they change in the name of their love.

It’s this change that Fate conveys better than most systems: changing a character’s aspects is a powerful statement. Since we got rid of collateral consequences of AR, it would make sense to re-introduce the extreme consequence of Fate Core. The usual aspect adjustment that comes with milestones fits the less traumatic occurrences.

And speaking of consequences, being haunted by strange dreams works great as one. If a character struggles to overcome their nightmares, suggest a success at major cost: a trip into the Mirror-Marshes.

It is possible for your characters to become monsters. Cannibalism is always on the table. Whether or not that’s something you want to explore, is for your group to decide. No, a reckoning will not be postponed indefinitely. The longer you postpone it, the more you deserve one.

Seven is the number

Sunless Fate lends itself well to an episodic game. The islands are isolated, individual. In a typical scenario, the party arrives on one; gets into all sorts of trouble as they try to replenish their dwindling supplies, repair their ship or simply gawk at the locals; discover the weirdness of the place and maybe even solve it; then move on to the next island. The journeys between them are a connective tissue, but rarely the focus of the adventure.

Such structure presents a unique challenge: most NPCs your party encounters will only be present for a session or two. While that’s true for most campaigns, the dark waters of the zee separating the islands make departing more final. It may be hard to care all that much about the strange locals and their troubles if you’re not going to be seeing them ever again. Therefore it becomes even more important to tie the NPCs and their stories to the PCs via their aspects.

And if the players like (or like to hate) a particular NPC, consider having them come along as a zailor or a passenger, or finding other ways for them to travel. The PCs aren’t the only ones with a ship, after all.

Searing enigma

If you do adopt the episodic structure, consider naming each episode with a Correspondence word, one you’ve seen mentioned or made up on the spot. As long as it’s cryptic, strangely specific and vaguely inhuman, you can’t go wrong. So far we’ve had Hurtling Forever Towards the Earth, The Disgrace of Dying at the Place of Birth and Tracks in the Illimitable Void, to name a few.

As an optional rule, you can award a Searing Enigma to the PC who went out of their way to uncover a secret in a session, and reveal the name of the episode as you do. Yes, this mixes up Correspondence with Searing Enigmas a bit, but the thematic similarities make it work. Only reckless pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge should result in a Searing Enigma.

What is a Searing Enigma in this context? An aspect with a free invoke, much like any other trade good. Being as they are flashes of insight into the deeper workings of the universe, it can be used in any context. Their baseline price would depend entirely on how frequent they are. Seven is the number, but perhaps four will do if they “drop” every game. Regardless, not many merchants would be willing to trade in them. Instead, perhaps a few of enigmas can be used to buy or construct an exotic ship part.

It’s worth pointing out that my players have unanimously decided the only acceptable use for Searing Enigmas is on the last roll of the campaign.

All shall be well and all manner of things shall be well

Despite all the madness and fates worse than death, there is an undercurrent of hope in FL, a veneer of levity. The balance between the two, the horror and the flimsy, is what makes this world so special. It is Lovecraftian, yes, but the rats talk. You can lose your soul, but you can wear a sentient mushroom as a hat, too. Whatever else you do, keep this tone.

And do let me know how your game goes.

Sunless Fate 2

Welcome to the second part of the conversion of Atomic Robo rules to run a Sunless Sea-inspired game. The first installment dealt with character and ship generation, a mostly straightforward matter of applying existing rules. This post will cover ship combat, trading, and zeafaring, all of which required invention of new sub-systems, some of them a departure from what Fate normally does. But one thing at a time.

Ship combat & massive entities

Illustration by Oinkfrog

Illustration by Oinkfrog

The idea of different scales of combatants is not new to Fate. In this implementation, some entities, tasks, and obstacles, notably ships and giant monsters, are designated as massive. A massive creature cannot be harmed by a non-massive one. A massive obstacle cannot be removed by non-massive characters, though it can be overcome. A massive task cannot be completed. In short, regular non-massive characters can interact with massive entities, but not defeat them. You can dodge a giant crab’s claws just fine, just don’t expect to be able to punch it out.

There is one exception to this rule: by invoking an aspect, likely created specifically for this purpose, a character can directly attack or otherwise deal with a massive entity. Inflicted consequences are great for this. Expending trade goods such as gunpowder barrels (see Trade) works, too. Narrative as always trumps all, so if it makes sense for a character to deal directly with something massive, even if there aren’t any relevant aspects, go for it.

Normally, however, you will want to have a massive thing to deal with another massive thing. Your ship will fight giant zee creatures, not your characters personally. Which is not to say your characters won’t be crucial to actually winning the fight. Majority of the time, the PCs will be creating advantages for their massive ship to use. The captain will make sure the crew’s Disciplined, the engineer will keep the Engines Roaring, the gunnery officer’s will maintain the Cannons Aimed.

In addition to improving the skill checks of your ship, the aspects created by its officers can be invoked to let the ship take extra actions, as long as they use a skill the ship hasn’t used this round. For instance, your ship may fire upon the pirates with Iron, create advantage of Evasive Maneuvers with Veils because the navigator has invoked Frantically Spinning Wheel, then have her crew repel the boarders with Hearts due to the captain’s invocation of Patriotic Speech.

If the PCs could just keep doing the same thing over and over, it would quickly get repetitive, lots of dice rolled for little effect on the story. (Un)fortunately, when massive entities clash, everything is endangered. Whenever a massive entity attacks, it causes Calamity in one of the zones of its target, such as one of the decks of the ship slammed by a lifeberg. If the massive entity actually inflicts stress or worse, it causes Calamity in two different zones. What sort of Calamity? Anything and everything. It can be a negative aspect (Rolling Cannonballs, Spreading Fire) increasing the passive opposition of tasks in that zone and ready to be compelled, an attack against everyone present in the zone (shrapnel, lorn-fluke yelling in Correspondence), an enemy that got on board (a guinea pig shot over from a pirate ship, a drownie there to drag someone away in the confusion), valuable cargo that got knocked loose in the hold, etc. The purpose of Calamity, other than driving home just how chaotic and disruptive such conflicts tend to be, is to give PCs something to do that isn’t just giving Patriotic Speeches repeatedly.

While this chapter mostly discusses conflicts, and conflicts involving ships at that, the same idea applies to other situations. The crew of your ship is massive, too, and can be used in various ways – that’s what the Hearts skill is for. Chopping down enormous mushrooms for fuel is a massive task, made all the more difficult by stalking panthers and hallucinogenic spores. In that particular scenario, the mushroom forest itself could be a massive opponent – don’t you just love the Bronze rule of Fate?

Massive rules summary

  • Regular non-massive characters cannot defeat massive entities, unless an aspect is invoked for permission.
  • When a massive entity attacks, it causes Calamity in one of the target zones. It causes Calamity in two target zones if it inflicts stress.
  • Aspects placed on the ship can be invoked to allow it to take multiple actions, as long as each action uses a different skill.

Rightsizing the massive opposition – a bit of math

So how does this actually work? You can expect the PCs to use their best skills while helping the ship. The gunnery officer is probably decent at Combat, otherwise they wouldn’t have been hired for that position. Which is to say, their skill will be +4 or +5, potentially as high as +7 with a stunt. I would suggest the passive opposition to acting in somewhat adverse conditions out in the Zee should be Good (+3) or so, though circumstances may vary. This means the PCs will succeed at creating advantages for their ship or their crew most of the time, even without spending fate points, and successes with style will be frequent. However, Calamities will soon keep some of them occupied, and some of the invokes will be spent on extra actions. This translates to a bit under 1 free invoke per PC each round. In a party of 4, this means they’ll have 3 or so free invokes to spend on their ship’s action and defense against the massive opposition. Which is to say that the opposition’s skills should be about 3 points higher than the PC’s ship’s (or crew’s) for this to be something of a challenge.

Running the massive opposition

While we’re interested in what the PCs are doing during a ship battle, we probably don’t care all that much about what the officers on the opposing ship do (and albino eels don’t have officers to start with, unless you count the ones they’ve swallowed). So while the PCs will be doing all sorts of things, GM’s turns will be quite brief. To cover for a lack of officer actions, massive NPCs get another skill, Mirrors, which acts like Notice. If the NPC is meant to be a serious threat, consider letting them act twice in a round, following the same restrictions the PCs have.

Sample massive opponents

Giant Crab

Tiny Brain, Huge Claws

Iron +4, Veils +3, Mirrors +3

Armor:1 (physical), Weapon 1.

Pirate Ship

So Drunk They’re Flammable

Iron +4, Hearts +4, Veils +6, Mirrors +3

Ramming Speed. The pirate ship can attack with Veils, as long as she is in the same zone as her target.

Boarding party. Once per scene when the pirate ship rams an enemy or is otherwise in their vicinity, she may immediately make a Hearts check to have her crew board the enemy as a free action.

Hallucinogenic Mushroom Forest

Wet Mushy Darkness

Spores +3, Lurking Predators +5

Deeper into the ‘Shrooms. For each unit of fuel PCs log, the forest’s Spores skill increases by 1.

Too much?

These rules are quite detailed, and you may not wish to use them all the time (or ever!). Fortunately, Fate lets us zoom in and out of the action as we deem fit. Often, an encounter on the zee can be handled as a contest or a challenge instead. In that case, consider letting players roll the ship’s skills that they’re responsible for, instead of their own skills. In this variant, the PCs either give a Teamwork bonus to the skill check, or allow the ship to take an extra action. This slightly simplified approach works for conflicts, too.

Trading & goods

This is a tricky topic. Carting goods around the Zee is a major part of SS, as well as running out of fuel, food, and money, especially in the early game. It’s very granular: if you have 50 echoes and spend 30 of them on fuel, you’ll only have 20 leftover for food. Which sounds like a basic arithmetic problem, but that’s not how Fate works. Fate doesn’t do running out of resources. It does the story of running out of resources. In it, you don’t have 50 echoes, or 5 units of fuel you could spend them on. Money is typically represented by a skill, perhaps with its own stress track. For an example of such a system, see what Diaspora does.

You’ll have to make a choice as a group. If you’re fine with such abstract system, great. Borrow it from Diaspora, or another Fate version of choice. If there’s interest, I may take a crack at writing up my own version. However, it’s my opinion that SF needs to work with actual numbers. Here, then, are simple trade rules.

Goods

The amount of stuff you have is measured in numbers: 5 fuel, 3 casks of mushroom wine. So is money, which includes echoes as well as jade, glim, moon pearls, nevercold brass slivers, all traded and exchanged as currency across the Neath. Some of the goods take up space in the cargo hold, some don’t, much like in SS. The amount of available cargo space is determined by the weight class of your ship: light ships have 10, medium 20, and heavy 30. Note also a sample stunt in the previous post that increases these limits.

Goods as aspects

Those 5 units of fuel? They’re 5 invocations stacked on the Fuel aspect. In a situation where burning extra fuel would be beneficial, like when you’re trying to outrun another ship, you can spend those invokes in the regular manner. Bribing someone is a matter of spending a Money invoke for permission, then perhaps one or two more to improve your skill roll. Similarly, an attempt to acquire (rather than buy)  something is a Create Advantage action. Consequently, a success with style would mean two invocations of the thing are acquired. The item’s baseline price (see below) serves as a good starting point for the difficulty of such action.

To use our favorite mushroom forest as an example, the crew ordered to harvest the mushrooms for fuel would be rolling Hearts to Create Advantage, opposed by the forest’s Spores, potentially getting 2 invokes/cartloads of fuel with a single check.

The only limit to the goods-as-aspects approach is that you can’t spend fate points to invoke them.

Prices

We start with a list of goods and prices that are given for them, on average. The one presented in the table below is not quite the same as SS, and frankly, it is not authoritative. It is merely an example which you will no doubt build upon and modify to suit your game.

For each port the PCs visit, you’ll have to decide which of the goods are bought and sold there, and how the prices vary from the baseline. Sometimes it will be apparent: food and fuel are cheap in London, red honey is cheap on the Isle of Cats, etc. Often, though, you won’t have much of a clue. In that case, for each good you decided is available, roll 2 fate dice and adjust the price according to the result. When dealing with a particularly pricey item, roll 4 fate dice. This will allow for some variation of prices integral to trade.

Money and their replacements are always worth 1, and buying or selling goods is usually a simple arithmetic operation.

Trade GoodBaselineLondon
Food42
Fuel21
Bale of Parabola-Linen66
Cask of Mushroom Wine22
Crate of Human Souls44
Firkin of Prisoner's Honey22
Firkin of Red Honey46
Empty Mirrorcatch Box1010
Sunlight-filled Mirrorcatch Box2025

None of this is binding. Circumstances change, and prices follow. If there’s a very profitable route PCs discover, consider: why is it that way, who else is using it, what happens if it’s overused, who are the sellers and buyers, what’s their story? Much like SS, the game isn’t really about trading. It could be about amassing a fortune, sure, but the act of shipping around stuff is mostly there to provide a reason to travel from place to place and engage in stories of those places.

Zeafaring

It’s a new topic, and that means it’s time for a new discussion with your group. Just how large is the Zee? First thing you’ll need to decide is how far 1 unit of food and 1 unit of fuel will get you. If you happen to be using the wonderful print of the map, the distance between the meridian lines is a natural choice. SS itself has slightly wider meridians, breaking the map into 6 columns, if that is your preference. This choice determines how hard it is to get around, and how often PCs will have to make stops along the way to replenish their supplies.

With that figured out, how long does it actually take to travel that distance? A day, a week? My personal preference is 4 days, as it echoes a mechanic we’ll discuss in a bit. On the one hand, the exact amount of time spent probably doesn’t matter all that much. On the other, it’s these details that give substance to the game.

As already mentioned, a ship expends 1 unit of food (a barrel?) and 1 unit of fuel (a cartload of coal?) per unit of distance traveled, with each journey costing at least 1 of each. If the ship makes a few closely placed stops along the way, an argument can be made to count that as a single trip. Should you wish to reflect a fuel-efficient engine in the mechanics, a stunt to modify fuel consumption would be entirely appropriate.

Every journey starts with the navigator plotting a course. In this case, an Overcome check with the Navigation skill. The opposition would likely start at 3 and be influenced by the length of the trip as well as whatever hazards are in the way. Success means the navigator does their job well and the ship goes where you wished to go. Success with style means you round down when counting the units of distance traveled, to a minimum of one. Through a cunning use of currents, freak gusts of wind and plain fortune, you shave off precious days of travel. If there is no rounding to be had, the ship gains a boost for the journey instead. Failure means the trip is going to be more erratic – see below. If none of the players elected to play a navigator, it would be a good idea to hire an NPC.

On the way

Illustration by Oinkfrog

Illustration by Oinkfrog

There you are, course plotted, engine purring, hold full of supplies. Time to zail! If only things were so easy. The Zee is unpredictable, and the crew is not to be trusted either. Following is a simple system designed to give the GM some ideas as to what might happen along the way. It is entirely up to them when and how to use it.

For each unit of distance traveled, roll 4 fate dice. If the Navigator failed to plot the course, reroll one die showing a blank face – the journey takes just a bit longer, with more opportunities for things to go wrong. This isn’t a skill check, instead the values on the dice suggest the nature of the occurrences to be had on the way. Minuses rolled indicate an internal event, while pluses hint at something external happening to the ship. The more of a symbol present, the more significant the event. One or two mean a brief scene, three might take some time to resolve, while four could take over a session.

The following list is merely suggestions, largely lifted from SS and FL. Once the game is underway, there will no doubt be plenty of plot lines that can come up during these journeys. It is also a great time to compel aspects: a bunch of proactive and dramatic people are stuck in a tiny ship for days or weeks on end, with nothing to do but be proactively dramatic at each other.

  • A bad omen disturbs the crew
  • Crew asks to tell them of the Surface
  • Nightmares among the crew
  • A game of cards, betting secrets
  • You’re out of candles. Again.

– –

  • A fight has broken out among the crew
  • Spoiled supplies
  • Stowaway discovered
  • A zailor becomes violent, ranting about Storm
  • A zailor is not who they claim to be. Undercover admiralty agent? A snuffer??
  • A spontaneous game of Stabbin’ Jack

– – –

  • Engine breaks down
  • Fire!

– – – –

  • Sorrow-spiders infestation
  • Mutiny!

+

  • False-stars shift. Could their new arrangement be fortuitous?
  • Man overboard
  • Fog
  • Passing a buoy. Is that a note?

+ +

  • Monsters: Auroral Megalops (young giant crab), bat swarm
  • Clinging coral threatens to crack the ship
  • Large rocks fall from the ceiling, threatening to damage the ship
  • Sudden whirlpool
  • Castaway on driftwood

+ + +

  • Drownies singing
  • Sinking island – what treasures might it hold?
  • Drifting ship ahead
  • Pirates!
  • Monsters: jillyfleur, bound shark, albino eel
  • Volcano rises: “Stone pigs cough”.
  • Killing wind
  • Off course

+ + + +

  • Monsters: Lifeberg, Mt. Nomad
  • Lost!

Ship log

ship log

Illustration by Cybele Wong

These events may come off as disjointed, a series of random encounters along the way – because they are. A log of the journeys, recording such occurrences would go a long way towards tying them into a more cohesive narrative. You could have one player responsible for keeping the log, or pass it around. If you choose to do this with an actual notebook as opposed to a digital doc, you’ll have a cool artifact at the end of the campaign.

Coming next

Exploring the Zee and its mysteries, GMing advice. A much smaller post (I hope!), we’re almost done. EDIT: I was wrong.

 

Sunless Fate

Have you ever wanted to play a roleplaying game based on Sunless Sea? With a tagline like “lose your mind, eat your crew”, how could you not. It’s a game of zailing (yes, zailing) a steamship in the weird underworld of the Victorian Gothic universe originating in Fallen London, a free narrative browser game and now an iTunes app. Try them if you haven’t, this post can wait.

Back already? That was quick, you must have run out of fuel. This is a first post of several, discussing a conversion of Fate, specifically Atomic Robo, to run a Sunless Sea game. If you don’t have the Atomic Robo rules, you should be able to get away with just Fate SRD, but I’ll be writing with the assumption that you have ARRPG in front of you.

Lastly, FL and SS are mystery games, rarely stating things upfront. That mystique is hard to preserve when writing about character options. There may be very minor spoilers ahead!

Oh, and I’m in no way associated with either Evil Hat or Failbetter Games, this is a fan work, etc., etc.

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Like an insatiable glove

In many ways, Fate is just about a perfect system for SS, with only a renaming of some elements required to make it more “sunless”. Not everything fits, though, so here’s a brief overview of things that stay the same and things that change. Since Fate is a giant toolbox of a ruleset, it’s entirely possible that you’ll choose to implement some of the discussed elements differently. To make this easier for you, throughout these posts I’ll offer commentary on why I made the choices presented and discuss alternatives.

Terminology

Basic modes of AR are renamed to their FL counterparts (see Character generation, below). Issues and volumes become zee stories (or tales of terror, if you prefer) and uncanny incunabulums, respectively. There are so many flavorful terms and names in FL and SS, use them! And speaking of names, the naming scheme of Adjective Noun used by both games can double as NPCs’ concept aspects. Given that you’ll likely be moving from island to island, I suggest you retain it. “Affable Factor” is so much easier to remember than “John Smith”.

Fewer explosions

AR regularly features giant robots and walking pyramids. In order to face them, AR PCs are some of the most powerful Fate characters out there. SF characters aren’t quite as ostentatious, or at least not as prone to blowing things up while inside them. With that in mind, the PCs in SF start each zee story with only 3 fate points, their ship (Tesladyne replacement) doesn’t have its own fate points, and there are no collateral consequences.

Making your home in the Neath

Zee is your home. Zee is your enemy. A fickle mistress, a mysterious bastard. Before everything else, decide together what zee is for you. Give it two aspects that will be almost always present in the game. Is it Deep, Dark, Marvelous? Vast and Perilous? Is it filled with Suffocating Darkness? Are there Unfathomable Depths below your tiny ship? All these descriptions and more are true, but you have to settle on the ones that matter the most in your game.

Ship generation

The ship you’ll be zailing in is essentially a shared character, just as much a part of the game as any regular PC. She even has her own mode and stress tracks. The rules for ships are a cross of Tesladyne and equipment rules of AR, with some key differences.

Ship mode

Depending on the size of your ship, her mode rating will be +1 (light, think starting SS ship), +2 (medium) or +3 (heavy). It’s up to you which ship you have, what kind of game you want to play. No matter what weight class you choose for your ship, to distinguish her further you collectively decide which of her skills you’ll focus (increase by +1).

Iron

Combined firepower of your ship.

  • Overcome: Clear the path!
  • Attack: Fire all cannons!

 Hearts

How well trained, equipped and loyal is your crew.

  • Overcome: Crew, do thing!
  • CA: Stand firm!
  • Attack: Charge!
  • Defend: Brace for impact!

Veils

A dual skill, responsible for both your ability to sneak and speed around the Zee.

  • Overcome: Full speed ahead!
  • Create Advantage: Silent run!
  • Defend: Evasive Maneuvers!

SS players may notice Pages and Mirrors are missing from the list. Both of these skills are covered by individual skills of officers such as Secrets and Notice.

Ship aspects

These work much like Tesaldyne aspects do, i.e. the ship has a Mission Statement and two Pressures, with Pressures re-evaluated at the start of each uncanny incunabulum along with a new Title aspect. However, since there’re no collateral consequences (unless of course there are), it’s entirely up to you how these get changed.

While those aspects describe what the ship and her crew are after and how the world around them may resist, they don’t say much about the ship itself. That’s what the ship’s Concept and Trouble aspects are for.

Ship stress & consequences

The ship has two stress tracks, Crew and Hull, starting with 2 boxes each. If her Hearts is at least +2, she gets a third Crew stress box, and a fourth one if her Hearts is +3. Veils similarly affects the Hull track. Just like a regular character, the ship has a mild, moderate and severe consequence slot. Unlike a regular character, clearing her stress boxes is not just a matter of ending a zee story. You simply can’t do it at the zee, shore leave is required. Of course, all sorts of things can happen to the crew on the shore.

Ship stunts

A ship starts with two stunts, representing superior equipment, training or construction. How and when she replaces them or gains new ones depends entirely on the events of your story. The ship doesn’t “level up”, but you might build a unique engine for her. How often should that happen? As usual, up to you.

Sample stunts

Iron plating. Armor: 1 (physical).

Cannons! Weapon: 2.

Fishing vessel. When you roll three blank faces while zailing (see Zeafaring in the follow-up post), gain 1 food.

Merchant vessel. Gain extra 5, 10 or 15 cargo slots, depending on the weight class of your ship (see Trading in the follow-up post).

Fastest ship in the Neath. Absolutely faster than other ships (always succeed at Overcome checks with Veils when racing other ships), but at a cost.

Seasoned crew. If you run out of food, you can gain a mild consequence to gain 2 food. You can still do this without the stunt, but the chosen zailors wouldn’t go without a fight and the resulting consequence may be moderate or severe. Also, seasoning.

Alternatively…

There are many other Fate games focusing on ships out there. If you dislike the rules presented here (bearing in mind that it’s only half the picture without the follow-up post), maybe you’ll find something to your liking in one of the following games: Aether Sea, Sails Full of Stars, Deep Dark Blue, and no doubt others. All the games listed are Pay What You Want, so you can check them out for free and pay the creators if you like what you see.

Character generation

The standard modes of AR, Action, Banter, Intrigue, and Science transform seamlessly into FL’s Dangerous, Persuasive, Shadowy, and Watchful. The skill Vehicles becomes Zailing, while Science becomes Secrets. Possible sub-skills of Secrets include Secrets of the Zee, Seeking, Rubbery, Correspondence, Elder Continent, and many others.

Weird modes is where this gets interesting. The player characters are likely to be the officers and captain of a ship, as that allows them the most agency. Following are weird modes they may wish to take. Some have sample stunts, some don’t, for no particular reason other than what I found amusing to write. In addition, there’s a few weird modes covering some of the more colorful Neath denizens. These and more are all present in the Sunless Fate Skill Calculator which works just like the Atomic Robo Skill Calculator I made earlier, but, y’know, for Sunless Fate.

Engineer

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Illustration by Cybele Wong

(costs 6 character points)

  • Contacts
  • Engineering
  • Notice
  • Physique
  • Zailing

Weird skill: Engineering

  • Overcome: Make mechanisms work or stop working.
  • Overcome: Remove mechanical consequences from the ship, provided you have sufficient spare parts.
  • Create Advantage: Overcharge mechanisms. Figure out existing aspects of machinery.

Surgeon

(costs 9 character points)

  • Contacts
  • Deceive
  • Empathy
  • Notice
  • Surgery
  • Rapport
  • Will

Weird skill: Surgery

  • Overcome: Treat ailments, natural and bizarre.
  • Overcome: Assist in overcoming physical consequences. Treating crew’s consequences requires shore leave.

Sample stunts

Off-Label Prescription. So long as you have free access to your medical kit, you can use Surgery to defend against hostile mental actions.

Walk it off you big baby. You can overcome a physical consequence in the middle of a conflict by examining it and declaring it Not A Big Deal. It still occupies the slot and comes back after the conflict is done.

They should get that looked at! At the beginning of a conflict, roll to create advantage with Surgery for free to declare a physical weakness in an important NPC opponent.

Tsk-tsk. When you inflict a physical consequence you gain two free invocations on it instead of one.

Chop job. You can overcome crew’s physical consequences while at zee. Limb loss may occur.

Leeches. You have +2 to create advantages with Provoke targeting anyone you’ve treated before.

Gunnery Officer

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Illustration by oinkfrog

(costs 7 character points)

  • Athletics
  • Combat
  • Engineering
  • Notice
  • Physique

Navigator

(costs 5 character points)

  • Athletics
  • Navigation
  • Notice
  • Secrets (Zee)
  • Zailing

Weird skill: Navigation

  • Overcome: Avoid zee dangers such as reefs by using a chart. Navigate by the false stars. Create a chart of zee dangers. No, covering an entire page with ink doesn’t count.
  • Overcome: plot an optimal course (see Zeafaring in the follow-up post).

Cook

(costs 6 character points)

  • Combat
  • Contacts
  • Notice
  • Physique
  • Rapport

Sample stunts

Combat Chef. When you enter a conflict with a creature similar to something you’ve cooked before, gain a boost based on your prior experience. Be prepared for raised eyebrows if you declare “pirate” to be such creature.

A Crew Fights on Its Stomach. You have +2 when using Rapport to create advantage by talking about the meals you’ll cook later.

Rattus Faber

(costs 8 character points)

  • Burglary
  • Combat
  • Engineering
  • Notice
  • Provoke
  • Stealth

Sample stunts

I asked the wonderful RPG.SE community for help with rat pun stunts. Not at all sorry.

Rattle. +2 to Attack with Provoke when you really get into someone’s face.

Ratificate. +1 to Create Advantage and Overcome with Engineering when dealing with rat-made items.

Karate. +2 to Defend with Combat when your opponent is larger than you.

Brodents. You get +3 instead of +2 when invoking aspects created by other rats.

Curator. You can use Burglary instead of Secrets to learn about (Create Advantage) valuable old objects.

Gratuitous Puns. get +2 to Create Advantage with Provoke if you incorporate a rat pun in your insult.

Wrath. You get +2 to attack with Combat if you’ve crossed off at least one stress box this scene.

Migration. You can move two zones instead of one as a free action on your turn.

Cheese it! Once per zee story you can concede a fight after rolling to defend against an attack.

Penetrate. +2 when using Burglary to break into places (Overcome). (This does not help you get out.)

Clay Man

(costs 9 character points)

  • Athletics
  • Combat
  • Empathy
  • Physique
  • Will

Sample Stunts

I AM CLAY. Weapon 2 with fists, Armor 2 against physical attacks (3 benefits).

MOVE ASIDE. Absolutely stronger than a human, but at a cost.

I OBEY. +1 to Physique and Will to Overcome whatever prevents you from doing what you were told to do.

Rubbery Man

(costs 7 character points)

  • Burglary
  • Empathy
  • Notice
  • Secrets(Rubbery)
  • Stealth

Sample Stunts

Pathetic. +2 to Overcome with Deception when you excuse your actions with an incomprehensible blubber.

Do You Recall How We Came To This Place. +2 to Create Advantage with Empathy when interacting with all things rubbery. 

Tomb Colonist

(costs 6 character points)

  • Athletics
  • Combat
  • Contacts
  • Physique

Sample Stunts

90% Scar Tissue. Armor 1 (physical).

Friends with the Boatman. Once per zee story when you’re dead, spend a fate point to declare you come alive. 

Seen It All, Done It Twice. +2 to Will when Defending against fear or accusations of impropriety. 

Coming Next

Trading, zeafaring, giant monsters, mysteries, exploration, and GMing.