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?

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.