Riggers: Meta-Humans in a Shattered World

It has been 70 years since the event. Earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis ravaged the globe. Continents heaved and buckled for three decades, re-shaping the world. Civilization shattered. There is very little left of what had come before. But people survived. People rebuilt.

And people changed.

They are the Riggers. More than human, but treated as less than people. You have come into this world in Elisus, a growing metropolis and a place of hope. Maybe you don’t belong here. Maybe nobody does. All you know is that you are a Rigger and you are being hunted.

Riggers is a meta-human RPG set in a post-apocalyptic world. This is a story-focused game with simple mechanics and characters based on descriptive qualities. The game will include a basic setting, explaining the Shattered World, how it came to be, and what adventures might be found in it.

Riggers is a possible project slated for a vote on my Patreon.

Why Does One Venture Into the Waste?

One of the new games I’m running with my local is a post-apocalyptic actioner that has the working titles Warlords of the Wastes.

Edge of Collapsed City by Tithi Luadthong

First: yes, I am aware it needs a better title.

But beyond that, I am running it with Riggers, the same engine that ran Dream Riggers and is also the system for Centre of the World (which also needs a better name . . . I have my failings).

Originally, as I prepared for WotW, I was looking at altering Riggers. I was going to include “gear” as well as a mechanic for consumables and for carrying capacities. It was starting to look dire, given my penchant for minimal mechanics and avoiding sub-systems.

I had my gear and carrying mechanics planned out and ready to go. I was looking at the very simple character sheet I was using and considered how to add in this new information. Two pages?

A two page character sheet? What the heck was I doing?

Yes, it gave me pause, and so I stopped and gave it some thought. Why did I want to run a post-apocalyptic game?

My touchstones for the genre are a movie series and a game series: Mad Max and Fallout. But if you look at the inspiration I previously provided (47 Ronin, the Anabasis, and Fallout), only one of those is actually post-apocalyptic.

So what was I trying to do?

As I had done with Sword Noir all those many years ago in an attempt to gain focus, I figured out what I wanted to deliver. What would this version of Riggers be about?

For Riggers in a “dead world” I wanted to explore those left behind when what we call civilization is lost. These characters are on the frontier of a new civilization, one in the midst of its own brutal birthing. This marks the return to the rule of the strong, but the grail of this game would be the imposition of justice rather than order. Strength can provide order, but from where will justice come.

Resource management is nowhere in there. And to be honest, while the shortage of consumables is a story point in both the Mad Max and Fallout series, that is not the focus. It is a narrative tool, and that is how I will use it.

So in the end, other than the list of available skills, there is no mechanical difference between my fantasy and post-apocalyptic games.

And so far, there has not needed to be.

Mission Creep, Mission Crawl

Last post, I shared with you my offers for the two groups that will continue the Riggers playtest. There were two games left on the floor: Mission Creep, Mission Crawl and the Vanguard.

From the Image comic the Activity

Which makes me sad, because I was quite excited to run Mission Creep, Mission Crawl.

I really enjoy running espionage or covert action campaigns. While in the past those have been mostly covert special operations force campaigns (military), Mission Creep, Mission Crawl was going to be closer in tone to Dark Horizons, the short novel I published for free. I’m not going to lie to you – Dark Horizons is not my best work as it lacked an editor and I was generally under pressure to deliver the chapters on time. However, I had a lot of fun with it.

I didn’t intend for MCMC to include psychic powers or magic. This was going to be very much a relatively grounded game. I got excited for the plot, which was pretty intricate. It’s something I’m still thinking about and might try to work through as a piece of fiction. Given that I’ll be developing two campaigns and am still in the middle of my Master’s program, I don’t know how much time I will have.

Also? It needs a better title.

Edge of Inspiration: Rigging for Running

As I mentioned in my last post, the Riggers playtest is going well, but Dream Riggers has woken. I have to admit that I was getting into the creation of the campaign, but the results at the table dulled that enthusiasm. I corrected that problem by splitting up my gaming group into two, but enthusiasm for the campaign had waned.

I gave the groups choices, and these were what was on offer:

Centre of the World (fantasy)
The group are minor agents for the Urban Prefect in the city of Hadrapole – once an outpost of the dread Aeolean Empire, and now the most prosperous and powerful city in the world, trapped between its old masters and the Holy Kingdoms, a collection of squabbling states bent on exporting their messianic religion. In the middle of this powder keg, strange, ritualistic murders begin to occur. Think Lankhmar meets Constantinople meets Seven.
Lankhmar: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lankhmar
Constantinople: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constantinople
Seven: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven_(1995_film)

Warlords of the Wastes (post-apocalypse action)
Post-apocalyptic with a group seeking a way home from a foreign land after the assassination of their leader and destruction of the army of which they were a part or with which they had travelled. Think the 47 Ronin meets Anabasis meets Fallout.
47 Ronin: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forty-seven_Ronin
The Anabasis: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anabasis_(Xenophon)
Fallout series: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fallout_(series)

Mission Creep, Mission Crawl (espionage thriller)
You are the Contact Team of the Clandestine Activities Special Executive – CASE – sent to disrupt North Korea’s recruitment of a Russian physicist in Almaty, Kazahkstan. Think the Mission: Impossible films meets the Bourne move series meets The Activity.
Mission: Impossible films: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mission:_Impossible_(film_series)
the Bourne series: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bourne_(film_series)
The Activity: http://theweek.com/articles/466307/most-secret-secret-units

The Vanguard (fantasy)
You have been recruited into the Vanguard, a mercenary company that traces its roots back to the last legion of the lost Aeolean Empire. The company seeks the banner and eagle of its ancestor legion, two items of mythological power. Think the Black Company meets the legions (as portrayed in Centurion: Legionaries of Rome).
The Black Company: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Black_Company
Centurion: Legionaries of Rome: http://swordsedgepublishing.ca/tag/centurion/

One group chose Centre of the World and the other chose Warlords of the Waste.

More on those later.

Too Many Riggers to Dream

From out of the mists of too much work I have emerged. My two concurrent courses are done and I am down to one. I am hoping that I’ll have more time to write and game, so hopefully you will be seeing more of me.

That’s not a pledge, that’s an aspiration.

The playtest for the system that is going by the name Riggers has gone really well from a developmental standpoint, but the campaign itself fell down. This seems to have squarely been a factor of too many players.

I remember the days when I was straining to get three players together in the days of my Viking campaign. For Dream Riggers I had eight players. Eight. Now, granted, usually we had six or seven at the table, but that was way too many.

From the movie Mirrormask

There are those who regularly run with large numbers of players. I don’t. My sweet spot is between three and five – four preferred. With seven or eight, there is not enough time for everyone’s character to get the spotlight regularly. Fights – which the system allows to be pretty quick – lasted long periods because of the number of characters involved. People could not get very invested in their characters because their characters often weren’t involved in a third to a half of what was happening in any give game.

So I split the party. The players, that is.

I now have two groups of four. While the scheduling has become an issue – so many games, so little time! – I am excited to get back to intimate games in which I can really focus on the players and their characters instead of trying to manage a full table.

Though not all my problems have passed.

But that’s for another time.

You can read more about Dream Riggers here.

You can read about and listen to my Viking campaign here.

You can read more about my Viking campaign here.

Abstractions – When is a Bullet Like a Baby?

I was talking about damage and stress in the last post, and I wanted to continue to talk about the problem of abstraction and “damage” in a role-playing game.

I design games with pretty abstract mechanics. These mechanics generally model all type of conflict the same, whether one is hacking at another with a sword, trying to explain complex mathematics, or interrogating a prisoner, the mechanics are the same. And with a streamlined mechanic for “damage” – which I’m going to call Stress, the mechanic I am using in Dream Riggers – it doesn’t matter whether it is the sword, the mathematics, or the questioning, you top off Stress and you are removed from the scene – in D&D you would be dead, but I don’t kill off PCs in my game.

We all understand that a bullet can kill anyone, no matter how well-trained they are, so generally, people are okay with a system that accepts one-shot kills. What I think is difficult is accepting a melded Stress mechanic that allows a character to be removed from a scene due to mental or emotional fatigue as easily as that same character could be removed by a bullet.

How many people here have been frustrated to distraction by trying to assemble a piece of Ikea furniture or a new BBQ? Those of us with children, do you remember trying to get the kid to sleep or stop a baby from crying? I’m not saying it always affects you the same, but these do affect you. The crux is that without very good cause-and-effect modelling, it’s hard to say exactly HOW such failures will affect a character. Sometimes we can breeze through such situations, laughing off failures, sometimes you have to put the instructions down or leave the baby in the crib and just walk away for a bit – essentially, being removed from a scene.

And for those two challenges (Ikea furniture and baby) the actual level of the obstacle is minimal but can still inflict levels of Stress that can remove an average adult from a Scene (in game terms).

So how do we model this? The problem is that we are okay with a kid with a 9mm getting lucky and putting a bullet in the throat of a Navy SEAL but we are not okay with visualizing a crying baby defeating that same Navy SEAL unless it is in a situation in which lives are at stake or there is some other exceptional pressure.

I would argue that Navy SEALs and particle physicists, and super geniuses . . . genii . . . are sometimes defeated by their crying children or their new Ikea furniture. All the time? No. Sometimes? Absolutely. Further, I would strongly argue that after failing to get the baby to stop crying, if that Navy SEAL went to the gun range, the preceding failure would impact on the individual’s performance.

This is what the abstractions in my games model – not true cause-and-effect but the possibility of a catastrophic failure in even a simple task. What it asks in return is the ability to then narratively model the outcome.

I’ve seen really smart and capable people brought low by simple tasks at which they fail. There were almost certainly reasons for that failure, but I am not interested in perfectly modelling cause-and-effect inputs in my mechanics. Honestly, no matter how complex a system, you will fail to adequately model actual cause-and-effect in the real world, which has innumerable inputs into its system.

I’m pretty sure most RPGers could narrate a good scene in which you character is removed from a scene due to emotional or mental Stress. This is all that is really necessary. If you can conceive of how it might happen, than the resistance should subside. I think resistance may be because most people still equate removal from the scene with being physically beaten. The abstraction causes a disconnect – being shot by a 9mm and having to put a baby down in the crib and walk out of the room doesn’t equate in people’s minds. It’s a matter of wrapping one’s head around the abstraction and playing with it, just like many of the other mechanics we use to simplify replicating life with dice.

The difficulties of abstractions.

Damage and Stress – Blowing Up Your Mind

My group and I have had a lot of discussions recently about the abstraction used for Stress/Damage in my new game, Dream Riggers. It’s led to a few long emails to explain my intention and thoughts, and it’s something I’ve never really done before – I’ve never really tried to explain my take on abstraction and its use in RPGs. Specifically, the abstraction used for damage.

This was mostly initiated because a character received a ton of Stress – used as a measure of negative outcomes that can lead to a character being removed from a scene – after failing to hotwire a car while fearing the police would soon arrive. In Dream Riggers, physical, emotional, and mental stress are all put together into Stress, and enough Stress can remove a character from a scene (the game – like Nefertiti Overdrive – does not have PC death)

Let’s start with conflict resolution. If you’ve seen any of my games, you know that I reserve conflict resolution – when the dice hit the table to figure out the outcome of a task, called a Test in Dream Riggers – for significant actions. One does not undertake a Test to take out the trash. Tests are only for actions that have interesting consequences. Hot wiring a car in an alley when no one is around? No need to roll, unless that car is something special (a police car maybe, or a gang leader’s bullet-proof SUV). Trying to do the same after a major battle while the sound of police sirens approach? In that situation, it definitely needs a Test.

In the game, the character failed. The Stress inflicted by failure is determined randomly, and the character received a lot of Stress, enough that one more failure would likely remove him from the Scene. Recovery of Stress during the game is difficult and requires the use of Fortune Points, a scarce resource. The players wondered about the severe impact of a failed Test, especially when it was psychological rather than physical.

To me, it made sense. Think of giving a speech in front of a crowded auditorium. Will your head blow up? No. But if you flub it, you are generally stressed to the point where you have problems doing even simple tasks – your hands shake, you have difficulty focusing, your thoughts are all scattered. Depending on myriad other factors – lack of sleep, the person before you totally aced the presentation, you have a sick relative in the hospital about whom you are worried – the stress can be greater or lesser.

This is why I term it Stress rather than damage. Failure at a mental task, like trying to debug software or figure out a mathematical equation – can also have severe impacts, sometimes debilitating depending on the situation.

I am consciously trying to keep the system simple. Very simple. Because it is a simple system, it can’t factor in every possible modifier and influence, so it has a very random determination of the amount of Stress failure causes.

This places a separate and significant demand on the players: it is up to them – and the GM – to explain why the failure inflicted the amount of Stress it did. In a fight, that’s easy – low Stress equals a mere scratch while max Stress means a bullet in the chest or throat. It can be harder when it is mental or emotional. However, I believe with some thought and an understanding of one’s character, a good explanation is never that far away.

For the particular situation – the failure to hotwire a car while the police are approaching – and the outcome – a huge amount of Stress – made sense in the context of the character. The player had presented to the character as arrogant and the character’s power (these are superhumans) was that he was a super-genius. In failing at such a mundane task, I could see the character having a bit of a meltdown, unable to grasp how he could possibly have failed. “I’m the fucking smartest man in the world, you stupid piece of shit!”

I like having the threat of removal from a scene implicit to any Test, so to me, this worked out perfect. Of course, your mileage may vary.

Dream Riggers Are Go

First run of Dream Riggers went okay. On the story side, I did the silly thing of trying to begin a game with a social encounter. For me, that never works. Every single one-shot I’ve written for Nefertiti Overdrive starts with a fight. Dream Riggers is definitely not Nefertiti Overdrive, but my home group just came of a series of action games, and I think they were in that mindset. I was even mean enough to threaten real and absolute character death in the opening scene – in the Dreamtime. Again, players were not used to this and thought it was an empty threat until one player pushed a little too far.

I finally did relent and let him keep his character. It luckily showcased the actual threat to the rest of the players. Suddenly it was a social encounter based on hard choices rather than an obstacle to punch the heck out of.

The second encounter was an action encounter as the players met the dreaded Scanners – looking like Matrix agents but with the brain ‘sploding powers from the David Cronenberg movie.

In “cameo of the session,” I had Michelle Forbes from her Miranda Zero appearance in the failed pilot for Warren Ellis’ Global Frequency. She played Valentine the Muse in the Dreamtime. I’ve always dug Michelle Forbes and I think Miranda Zero was her best character – bad ass but not criminal or psychotic.

Mechanics wise, there were a few clusterfucks that need to be taken out behind the chemical sheds. Since finishing Nefertiti Overdrive, I’ve been aiming for games in which the GM doesn’t roll the dice – just like Sword Noir. I tried it with Dream Riggers, but it didn’t work, and all of the problems stemmed from that.

Dream Riggers includes Complications linked to NPCs and Settings that players and GM can activate. Without the GM rolling, those Complications needed to act as penalties against the character. It started getting a little too complex. I had to decide whether to keep Complications or make it an opposed roll system.

It’s an opposed roll system now.

I’ve already made a bunch of changes to some of the core mechanics, and I’ll continue to tweak until the next game.

My poor players. Never the same rules twice.

You can find out more about Global Frequency at Wikipedia

I’ll be writing more about Dream Riggers as the game progresses.

Dream Riggers

The new game I’m working on has the working title of Riggers, more specifically – for the playtest – Dream Riggers. The system came first and exists to test out a mechanic that interests me. If it works out, the game will likely evolve to better fit the setting.

The setting was created using the scenario creation rules from Nefertiti Overdrive (which is now in layout). There is a bidding mechanism, and players provide the “Features” which describe the setting and campaign.

From the movie Mirrormask

The first is Inspiration, which has the greatest amount of influence on the feel of the game. This is stuff like genre, time period, or even an existing intellectual property. For Dream Riggers, the Inspiration is superhumans (the other term is copyrighted, doncha know) and the movie Mirrormask (which I haven’t seen).

Setting describes the physical space in which the campaign happens. For Dream Riggers, that’s waterworld, slums of South Africa, and orbital refuges.

Plot describes things that are happening in the world in which the PCs might get involved. For Dream Riggers, they were “super powers are against the law,” “war between supers and normal,” and “global ecological collapse.”

Goals relate to what the PCs are doing, what their purpose is in the game world. In Dream Riggers, that’s “find a device to resurrect the eco-system,” “defeat evil super villains,” and “become normal.”

Then there are Themes. Themes are specific scenes, events, activities, or characters that will appear at some point in the game. We have “trickster guide,” “psionic mental powers like in Scanners,” and “Planet X.”

Finally, the players decided on the Attributes that would provide dice for conflict resolution in the game. I actually shouldn’t have done this, because the system already had everything set, but luckily what the players provided works pretty much perfectly for the system. We have Handicap (which I’m changing to Flaws), Powers, Skills, and Hope (which I am changing to Drivers).

There you have it. The basis for the Dream Riggers playtest. It should be interesting.