Angling Away from Saxon Britain

So, D&D happened last night (as I write this). We took up a lot of time getting characters ready. D&D is at its most complex with character choices, especially if you come at the game as a complete novice. Without preconceptions and assumptions, nothing is apparent and everything is mysterious. Two of the players had no exposure to D&D5E and had not had played D&D for ages – for at least one of them it was pre-3E.

But in the end, the delay in getting the game going wasn’t the biggest problem for me. The biggest problem for me were the setting assumptions hardwired into the system. I should have known this – I did know this at one time, but distance had made me forget. I had not run D&D for a decade and had not run anything even d20 adjacent since 2010 (save for a con game using D&D Next).

I knew how magic heavy D&D was. That was really the issue. The demihumans all became versions of the Fey, matters of belief to those around them, but very few actually interacting in society so figures of prejudice and suspicion. That’s cool. We could work with that. It could fit into early 6th century CE Britain. It was the flashy magic fired like bullets from an AK that gave me pause.

My intent had always been to address the system-setting clashes in the narrative. Give a narrative explanation for the spells. Address the prejudice to the Aelfar through role-playing. The latter works. The former?

And let me say that I very much believe system matters. That is to say that one’s play experience will degrade if one uses the wrong system. I knew this going in, but accepted it because – honestly – I wanted to play D&D again.

All of my games have very specific design goals. Even Sword’s Edge, a generic/genre-free system was built to deliver a specific kind of game, one in which the mechanics serve the narrative. Once again, I knew in my head the mistake I was making, but in my nostalgic heart, I thought I could paper over the cracks.

It just ain’t so. The narrative stretch to cover a cantrip like Fire Bolt in Anglo-Saxon Britain is extreme. And I don’t just mean historical Britain at that time. That kind of magic is not terribly apparent in the worldview and folklore of the time. The Ango-Saxons believed in magic, sure, but not like that. It might fit into the folklore of many places in Asia, but not Europe.

So, in the end, the setting will bend to the system. I am recompiling the setting as a second-world, a place inspired by early Anglo-Saxon Britain, but not tied to it. There will be names and places, cultures and events that are all based on early 6th century Britain, but it will not be that locale, because Fire Bolts and Flaming Strikes have no place there.

Thankfully, the other D&D game that I will be running is built specifically on the setting assumptions of the system. Let’s hope the narrative is strong.

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The Sword at the Edge of Wuxia

A good friend of mine (hey JJ!) asked about creating characters from a genre like wuxia using Sword’s Edge. Would one do it mechanically or narratively? Would one use SFX? I didn’t really give an answer, but I’d like to now.

For this example, I’m going to use the character of Li Mu Bai from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. This should provide a kind of objective target from which to draw Qualities.

Okay, so we have our character, but before I can create Li Mu Bai mechanically, I need to know the setting in which he exists, and this is why I would say the kind of qi powers seen in wire-fu and wuxia stories can be replicated both narratively and mechanically.

If we are playing in a setting similar to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, there is no need to mechanically represent Li Mu Bai’s more fantastical abilities, like walking along the top of a bamboo forest, flying, or bouncing off of water. These are all accepted parts of the genre, and so I would expect that I could relate how Li Mu Bai acts using those factors narratively rather than mechanically. If Li Mu Bai were instead to be part of a story in which such powers are not common, then I would need to create a Quality that could explain them.

In creating Li My Bai in a fantastic, wire-fu setting, I’d be looking more to his character than to his powers. To me, the key part of the character is his fight against injustice. He arrives, seeks out the wrong, and attempts to right it. So I would make his Concept “Knight Errant.” That touches on both his martial skills but also his questing nature. I think his training would be his Background, and so I would make that “Warrior Monk.” I’m tempted to make his Faculty “Martial Arts,” but in this setting, most characters would be martial artists, so I’m going to call his Faculty “Sword Mastery” – this reflects the style that we see him use through the movie.

Here’s where I would deviate from the expected. To me, it is neither Li Mu Bai’s physical power nor his intelligence that drives his martial arts, but his force of will and sense of justice. I’m linking his “Sword Mastery” to Charisma. I’m also going to throw in an Element there, which is probably sub-optimal, but I think his “Arcane Medicine” is important, but that needs to be linked to his Cunning – I have a really hard time justifying it as a Charisma Quality, even though mechanically that would make sense.

As for Pivots, I believe his Goal would be “Justice for All,” his Quirk would be “Doomed Romantic,” and his Style would be “Contemplative Tornado of Violence.”

So Li Mu Bai in a fantastical, kung fu setting would be:
Concept: Knight Errant +4
Background: Warrior Monk +2
Faculty: Sword Mastery +4 (Charisma)
Phy +0; Cha +6; Cun +0
Arcane Medicine (Cun) +2
Pivots
Justice for All; Doomed Romantic; Contemplative Tornado of Violence.

Were Li Mu Bai in a more common setting, like a straight-up fantasy, or semi-historical adventure, I might need to add more mechanics to justify his more “magical” abilities. I think in such a case, his Qualities would be about his abilities while his core character is expressed in his Pivots. I would change his Concept to “Mystical Sword Master,” and his Background to “Warrior Monk.” To really hit this on the nose, I might go with “Supernatural Sword Master” for Concept and “Mystical Martial Arts Monk” for Background. For Faculty, I think I would use “Perfect Balance,” but would still link it to his Charisma for the same reason. I could mark this as an SFX Quality, as something that allows him to do actions outside of the laws of physics. I would also have the Element “Leap of Faith,” as he doesn’t really fly, more jumps really well. This time, I can link it to his Charisma since it is powered by his qi energy.

I think his Pivots all still work really well, but I would replace “Doomed Romantic,” with “Knight Errant.” I think it’s important that the GM understand that this is important to the character – and that’s the role of the Pivot. I would love to work the doomed romance in there, but I think that could be done through the level of narrative control a player has. I could insert it into the story and link it back to his Knight Errant, many of whom – in European lore – were part of tragic love affairs.

So to insert Li Mu Bai into a more conventional fantasy, the character would look like:
Concept: Mystical Sword Master +4
Background: Warrior Monk +4
Faculty: Perfect Balance, SFX +2 (Charisma)
Phy +0; Cha +6; Cun +0
Leap of Faith, SFX (Cha) +2
Pivots
Justice for All; Knight Errant; Contemplative Tornado of Violence.

So that’s how one could create a wire-fu, qi-powered warrior like Li Mu Bai both for a game that is specifically set in a wuxia environment or in a game that is in a Western-style fantasy. In the end, I prefer the former version, because it is much more about the character than his abilities. I think characters are more evocative when players can reveal their cores through their Qualities, but everyone enjoys something different. The beauty of light systems is they tend to be able to be flexible and hit a variety of targets.

At least, that was the plan with Sword’s Edge.

If this sounds cool, please check out my Patreon, for more adventures and games.

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The Patreon Is Live

The Patreon is now live. You can find it here. The first three releases are complete and ready to go. First, later this month, I’ll release “Lawless Heaven,” an adventure for Sword’s Edge based on Korean action cinema. In October, it’ll be “Face ‘Splosion,” a Sword’s Edge adventure sci-fi actioner that’s an homage to the Borderlands video games. November’s release will be “Judged,” an adventure for Nefertiti Overdrive that bridges the adventure in the Quickstart Rules and in the main book.

I hope this is something you can support. Have a look and decide.

 

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Building a Non-Combat Challenge in Sword’s Edge

In the last post, I shared with you some of the thoughts I had about building binary challenges. This and the other recent posts grew from discussions with a friend in the UK, Bruce. Much of this sprung from a question about representing a spaceship crash-landing and how to best represent that. And that’s what I want to share this time, how I would create a crash-landing scene as the mechanical component of a scene.

USS Vengeance Crash from Star Trek Into Darkness.

Now, it is possible to do this as a binary challenge, as discussed in the last post. If this isn’t supposed to be a major scene, more like a speedbump or a reminder how dangerous the adventure is, it could be created like a binary challenge, a minion Narrative Character (NC) – hit the emergency gravity compensator and the ship will right itself.

If I wanted it to be a bigger scene, something that has impact on the characters and their narrative, I’d likely set up multiple NCs, one for each PC and probably create them all as regulars. So, for example, you might have the piloting challenge of keeping the ship on course, an engineering NC of the engines overheating, and a navigation challenge of finding a soft landing spot. Depending on the situation, maybe there are enemy fighters on the ship’s tail and another character is gunning for them (in this case, maybe three enemy fighters, an easy explanation for a Regular).

Let’s take piloting as an example. It might look like:

Keep Her On Course (good regular) TN 17
Concept: Rough re-entry +2
Phy +0, Cun -2, Cha +2

You’ll notice that Charisma is an option as a Trait to use against this NC. To be honest, the only way one could really use Charisma in such a way is if there is a crew one is commanding. If this were Star Trek, that would fit. The PC needn’t be the captain, it might be the helmsman working with other crewmates to get the ship levelled out and under control. If it were something like Serenity and the PC is Wash, it might look like:

Keep Her On Course (good regular) TN 17
Concept: Rough re-entry +2
Phy +2, Cun +0, Cha
Note: Charisma cannot be used for this NC

So, why is Physique +2 and Cunning +0? Because in my mind, wrestling the ship’s control to keep her flying isn’t as good as the knowledge and alertness to choose the best options and methods to keep the ship on the course the navigator provides, when the navigator provides it.

This NC is a regular, so the PC needs three successes to overcome it and remove it from the scene. In creating it, I would imagine what each success might mean. I think for piloting, that’s pretty easy. First success gets the ship basically under control. She’s bucking and not flying straight, but the pilot is wrestling to get her on course rather than lacking any control at all. The second success has her pointed in the right direction, but she’s bucking and the controls are sluggish. The pilot feels like they could lose it at any moment. That third success is what finally bring the pilot relief. The ship is going where she should go, with some bumps and shimmy, but that’s normal for a rough re-entry. The pilot has done it!

Then I would do something similar for each other challenge, keeping all the PCs busy, because if it is one NC, they can work as a group to beat it, and unless it’s a great hero, they’ll likely do that without much effort. These NCs should be tailored to the PCs – these should provide spotlights for each PC and showcase how each has a role in the team and on the ship.

That’s how I would approach building a non-combat challenge that is supposed to be an important scene providing character’s spotlight and moving the story forward in an exciting fashion.

In case you were wondering, I would estimate that with four players (and therefore four PCs) this scene would likely last between ten and twenty minutes. Some groups are all business, working through the scene mechanically with some narrative but not a lot of extraneous discussions. Other groups like to discuss possible responses, what would look best, often bringing in character personality and backstory. But if you are running this at a convention, a scene like this would likely take about fifteen minutes.

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The Binary Challenge in Sword’s Edge

In the last couple of posts, I’ve written about some of the perceptions and ideas that helped design Sword’s Edge, how I view failure and the purpose of Momentum. Let’s now look at an example of a binary challenge and how SE replicates it . . . or fails to do so.

By a binary challenge I mean something that is generally seen as a “do it or don’t.” The example I want to use is jumping over a chasm. In general, when viewing this, it looks binary – one gets over the chasm or one does not. How does a binary action work with Momentum and then Action.

To be honest, when I run a game, this isn’t something I would make a mechanical challenge. There would need to be something significant about it to justify making it a mechanical challenge – a Narrative Character (NC). Does a PC have fear of heights? Is there something about the challenge that touches on a PC’s pivots or other qualities? Generally, things like climbing trees (or buildings), jumping, or smashing through doors are part of a scene, but aren’t the heart of a scene (the goal or purpose of the scene), so I don’t really bother with them.

Let’s say we do. Let’s say there is a good reason to make this an NC, I would then ask myself: “Is this a prelude to something?” For example, to see the sniper before the sniper takes the shot or notice the warriors waiting in ambush. If it is, I would give the NCs a Quality (generally an Element) specific for Momentum that reflects this. The success or failure of Momentum then tells us if the PCs succeeded or failed.

In the case of jumping the chasm, is it to get into a fight? To rescue an individual? Is it in pursuit of a villain? In some of these cases, I would build it into the NC as above. In the case of pursuit, I would represent it as an Element for special use – something like “Using ground for advantage (Physical) +4.” This provides a mechanical replication of the chasm to be jumped over which remains binary for that round, but then does not follow through to the next – the PC either overcomes it or is delayed by it.

What if there is a good reason to create this NC all on its own. It doesn’t matter then reason, but let’s say there is a good story or character reason to create a binary challenge – a do it or not kind of challenge.

In this case, I would definitely make it a minion – one success is all that is needed. I would make sure its rank represented the difficulty of accomplishing the task, and give it a fitting Concept. Still, looking at something like jumping over a chasm and considering how I have described Momentum, one might wonder how it fits together. What happens when the PC has Momentum but fails in the Action Test? What happens when the PC fails Momentum? What happens if the PC fails both Momentum and Action?

Okay, in general I allow the players to narrate the results of their Test. Leading up to the Test, I ask, what they are trying to do, and when we have a result I ask what happened. Sometimes, the player asks for input, so this would be my input.

What happens when the PC has Momentum but fails in the Action Test? The PC makes it across but doesn’t land well on the other side. They barely made it and are hanging over the edge. Think of Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, at the beginning when Alfred Molina leaves the whip on the other side of the chasm. Indy jumps, doesn’t quite make it and is hanging there. Another failure? Starts losing handholds. Another failure? Falls for a bit but catches a root or outstretched rock. Etc.

What happens if the player fails Momentum but succeeds in Action? The PC thought they were ready to make the jump but realizes, as they reach the edge, that they aren’t going to make and skid to a halt before going over. Catching their breath, the PC can try again – they can try to Seize Momentum – or maybe they realize there’s no way they can simply leap over this chasm, and they stop to consider alternatives.

Failing Momentum and the Test? I would use a narrative similar to the one above about landing badly and scrambling for handholds, but in this case, the bad landing knocks the wind out of them – or worse. Since this would likely be Physical Stress and therefore Penalty Ranks to Physical, I would continue to represent failures as things that would hurt, like a the slipping down the side and grabbing something wrenches out the character’s arm, and then fall they lose their grip and fall, only to land hard on an outcropping of rock or protruding root.

To be honest, SE doesn’t work great for binary challenges. It’s not really designed for that. As with any generic system, it has its weaknesses, and this is one of them. SE was designed to run the kind of games I like to run, and in those kinds of games, most binary challenges are part of a greater action scene and so rarely stand alone as an NC.

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Representing Momentum in Sword’s Edge

In my last post, I tried to illustrate some of the thinking regarding success and failure in Sword’s Edge, and specifically with Momentum. This time, I want to talk about how one can represent that in the narrative.

To reiterate, Momentum is about who controls the conflict – who is in the driver’s seat. The winner of the Momentum Test is considered “active” and the loser “passive,” but this is only because the terms “attacker” and “defender” have the context of combat whereas Tests in Sword’s Edge can be about anything. In this article, let’s agree that the active character is attempting to change the status quo in a manner that benefits them and the passive character is attempting to stop that change. Both might be active, but only one is acting on the status quo – the passive character is instead acting on the active character.

How does this relate to the narrative of the game? What does this look like? Consider a fight scene in a movie: while the protagonist might generally be shown succeeding – especially when facing mooks – there is often a point at which there is some kind of setback (especially in a Jackie Chan movie!). The character is momentarily thwarted, but this generally leads to a new and different attempt that succeeds in some way. The character in this case did not lose Momentum – they really still controlled the fight – but they did not succeed in that particular action.

Now, this is different from the big fight scenes when the protagonist is fighting a boss or mini-boss, as this is much more like a fight against a regular or hero – a success doesn’t result in an outright win, merely progression towards a win. Sometimes, in such a scene, you can actually see where the opponent Seizes the Momentum. This usually leads to another moment where the protagonist steals it back, but there is often a moment when the tables turn on the protagonist until they can reassert control of the fight.

But what about other situations in which the visual of controlling a situation is not so obvious. Let’s take the example of a starship crash-landing on an alien planet. In such a situation, what does failing to control the situation look like? To me, that would be the PC unable to concentrate, unable to focus, forgetting the processes or lacking a real solution to the problem. Failing Momentum means that the situation is out of the PC’s control. She’s flailing about, maybe doing something, but not doing anything right.

And then a failure when the PC is the passive party – on the defensive – means that the PC has done exactly the wrong thing due to this lack of confidence or confusion. I’d likely narrate this as the PC having a crisis of confidence, questioning her ability and knowledge (a Penalty Rank to Cunning).

I think we can all think of examples in our own lives in which we did not have control of a situation. We were faced with a problem and lacked a way forward. We did not have Momentum. But then we took a chance, took a stab at a solution – uncertain if it would work but unwilling to allow the situation to persist or even degrade. That was us Seizing Momentum. Get it right, you have control of the situation and can now influence the status quo in your favour. Get it wrong? Yeah, really bad things can happen.

So that’s how I think about representing Momentum and failure in the game. It can be more clear when one is representing combat, but the same dynamics carry over into all resolutions.

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Failure in Sword’s Edge: A Consideration

My buddy Bruce in the UK asks the best questions, questions that make me really think about my game and why it does what it does. From those conversations, I’m cribbing some thoughts to share in order to help give people a better idea of the philosophy behind Sword’s Edge design.

I want to start off by discussing failure. A component of the philosophy of failure in Sword’s Edge is if a player character (PC) is unable to succeed, it generally means the narrative character (NC) can Seize Momentum, which is what the NC should do. This is not the case if the player is simply getting bad die rolls. That’s frustrating but it doesn’t highlight a power disparity on which the NC can capitalize. Bad runs of dice rolling can be frustrating, but there are no real ill effects for the PC. In the case where the PC and NC are pretty evenly matched, it’s kind of up to the GM if they want to risk a Seize Momentum which could end the scene very quick.

I generally have NCs attempt to Seize Momentum whenever it appears at all likely to succeed.

So that’s the idea behind Momentum, but how does one narrate failure on a Momentum Test?

Here’s the thing with Momentum – it’s controlling the situation. That’s kind of easy to see in a fight, especially something like fencing or martial arts. In both of these cases, once that kind of control is established, the controlling party generally ends up winning the exchange. That’s the idea of Momentum.

While I tend to use the terms “passive” and “active” actors, Momentum and Action in SE is really about attacker and defender, if we define attackers as the character attempting to change the status quo and the defender as the character attempting to counter the attacker. Both are active, but one is attempting to change the status quo to gain an advantage (attacker) and the other is attempting to obstruct or redefine that change (defender). The defender is not affecting the status quo, only affecting the attacker.

So, a Momentum failure means that the character does not have control of the situation and is trying to counter the actions of the attacker. In the Action Test that follows, a success by the defender means that the character has foiled the attacker somehow. The character does effect the action, but not in a way that moves the character toward completion of a goal. The character’s success in this case is directly related to the actions of the attacker.

The case of a Momentum win followed by an Action failure is the reverse of this, where the PC is the one attempting to redefine the status quo to their benefit and the NC foils this attempt somehow. The PC may even succeed at their action, but the outcome does not benefit them in the way they had hoped and this is due to the interference or other action of the NC.

That’s a kind of dive into how Sword’s Edge envisions success and failure, and how Momentum is intended to feed into that. It is somewhat different than many other games, so I hope this helps give players and GMs a better idea of the mechanics and narratives of Tests.

 

 

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All Quiet On The . . Wait, No It Isn’t!

It may have been quiet in the internet-facing portion of Sword’s Edge Publishing, but there’s been lots of work behind the scenes. The files for the Sword’s Edge books are with the printers and I’m awaiting a proof. Once that has been approved, the final PDF will be available to Kickstarter backers and I’ll be in contact with Magpie Games to take care of the shipments.

Plans continue apace for the Patreon which will go live in September. Both “Lawless Heaven” and “Face ‘Splosion” are ready to go. The third release looks like it will be an adventure for Nefertiti Overdrive which bridges the period between “Rumours of War,” presented in the Nefertiti Overdrive Quickstart Rules and “Get Netiqret,” which was presented in Nefertiti Overdrive. December will see “Swords & Searchers,” a revision of “the Nor’Westers” as I believe a sword & sorcery setting will work better than early 19th century Canada. Swords & Searchers” will be a mini-campaign and depending on how many pages it encompasses, it might end up being two releases. It uses the Sword’s Edge rules.

At that point, I’ll be taking stock of the Patreon. I have two stories in the sword noir genre ready to go, and I may also be releasing the Wall RPG, depending on the backers and their preferences. I also have “Gang War,” a take on the Warriors – which was itself an update on Anabasis by Xenophon – using Sword’s Edge. I’m going to keep working on possible releases as I want to make sure the Patreon is stacked for at least a year. Once that first year is done, I’ll review and adjust accordingly.

So rest assured, I am busy working. I want to make sure I have a buffer of product for the Patreon just in case real life happens, as it always does.

Until the Patreon launches, if you haven’t picked up Sword’s Edge, the pre-order is open but will close once the books start shipping, so this is your chance to get it at Canadian rather than US prices.

You can find the Sword’s Edge pre-order page here.

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Sword’s Edge Pre-Orders

In case you didn’t back Sword’s Edge through Kickstarter, the PDF is now available on pre-order. It is not exactly the final PDF and is considered an advanced preview. I won’t be sending anything to print for another week or so, and some changes might still be made. Once the print version is finalized around mid-August, a finalized PDF will be available and will be delivered through the pre-order site at Backerkit.

The PDF won’t be available anywhere else until well after print copies have shipped – hoping that most of the backers will have their print copies before non-backers have a chance to purchase – so the only way to get the PDF before October if you didn’t back the Kickstarter will be through pre-order.

It’s also important to note that the price for a PDF is in Canadian dollars while the final product will be sold in US dollars, and since the Canadian dollar is only about 80 cents US, you can save some money by buying early.

And I didn’t even mention the work being done for my Patreon. That’ll be coming in September.

Save up your pennies!

You can pre-order here.

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Studio Firebase Oats Rakka

Neill Blomkamp isn’t resting on his laurels but is creating some amazing speculative fiction shorts. Both Rakka and Firebase are out now, and each of these provides tons of inspiration for both writers and RPGers. I’m only going to look at it from an RPG perspective.

Rakka is kind of an apocalyptic/bodyhorror/alien invasion short which looks at the way humans try to fight back. There are shades of the backstory for Terminator – which became a frontstory(?) with the imperfect Terminator SalvationAliens, eXistenZ, and District 9 while still remaining briskly original. For inspiration, there is the enemy itself – one that has both technological superiority but also psionic superiority – those humans that survive the aliens’ experimentation (maybe the super-powered PCs?), and the hinted-at saviours of the world. Is the Earth caught in the middle of an interstellar war, useful because of its strategic location? Does one side view Humans only as an irritating pest while the other recognizes sentience? Or do our saviours merely seek to use us as proxies, to avoid their own casualties while still hitting at their opponents?

I actually enjoyed Firebase more than Rakka. Neither one is really complete, although Rakka feels like its complete, just ambiguously so. Firebase teases more to come. It has many elements similar to Rakka, but this time it’s in Vietnam during the war and the force being faced seems more supernatural than interstellar. What could be interesting is taking the premise of Firebase and transporting it to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, trapped in decades of fighting and insecurity, and use it along with a riff on “Heart of Darkness” – itself the inspiration for Apocalypse Now. As the team gets closer and closer to the River God substitute, things get weirder and weirder. Reality is breaking down, but the characters/PCs are able to stand outside this decay for some reason – maybe for reasons they also don’t understand. I think the premise is very cool, and it is ripe for use in an RPG.

I can’t wait to see what else comes out of Oats Studios, because I will bet it will be as pregnant with inspiration as these two pieces have been.

You can see both Rakka and Firebase at Oats Studios.

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