Monday, January 21, 2019

Lone Wolf Fists: monsters, spirits and gods of the post-apocalypse

God I love monsters.

Nothing distinguishes a hero like fighting a big, horrible beast that nobody else can kill. I mean sure; you went with Shadow Vipers and you're technically a reprehensible bastard. But people's attitudes towards you soften considerably when you turn your killing expertise on Grendel or Smaug.

This is design space that Weapons of the Gods and Legends of the Wulin didn't explore, very intentionally. Wuxia as a genre concerns itself with humans or very human-like beings. It can edge out of that comfort zone a bit, but the core conceits all revolve around powerful human set in a dramatic web of obligations and passions.

Fighting dragons and demons is closer to the Xianxia; immortal warriors battling devils and gods and whathaveyou. There's mythical weight to this, but it does stretch the credibility of a setting in a way that having near-superpowers from martial arts doesn't. It's one of those little invisible boundaries that you can cross that defines an outer border of a genre.

Or so it surely seemed to the designers at the time. I'm a bit less convinced; take a show like Dragonball (which I've been watching on the recommendation of some of the wonderful Discordians). It's got a strong argument for being a training-centered adventure wuxia show; martial arts are a central focus, secret techniques are the key to power, there's strong master/student relationships, martial school rivalries, everything you'd expect from pure wuxia. But it's also got mythological DNA; Goku is clearly supposed to be our Monkey-King analog (down to the name even, "Songoku"). He fights giant monsters, trains with god, and yes, becomes a huge hairy were-ape during the full moon.

Berserk is similar; clearly not Wuxia at it's core, it's still a belted-down gritty low-fantasy romp. I mean, until the immortal demon shows up and the hellmotuh opens to usher in a hideous new devil-god.

Monsters are wonderful elements in these stories. They're essentially stand-ins for things that people can't fight; the monstrous savagery of nature, or the crushing inevitability of fate, the heinous power of tyranny, etc. What was Smaug if not greed personified?  We clothe these more existential horrors in weighty flesh to give the hero something to grapple with, and in so doing we tell ourselves a familiar story; it is the strength of a hero to overcome evil, no matter how powerful. The more dreadful the might of the adversary, the greater the heroics of the battle.

So I feel like there was a place for monsters in Wuxia; I'm unconvinced that their inclusion would have broken down it's genre-barrier. It's a more adaptable genre than its given credit for.

The powers of a martial hero in Wuxia need a standard to show off against; when they casually flip over a tree trunk or punch a boulder in half, we're given that standard. As cool as those feats are, they're not a martial challenge, so you're not seeing their full potential, just being given a visual yardstick.

The martial challenge of warrior VS warrior is spectacular, but again difficult to gauge; it's like when superman and darksied battle, you lose perspective and it's essentially just two burly guys wrestling.

But fire-punching a dragon combines both of these metrics into the same act. You measure the hero against a standard while exhibiting their fighting skill. This is the fundamental appeal of the monster over a natural disaster or rival hero; they combine the challenge of both man and nature, of adversary and disaster. They also allow you to punch a metaphysical concept in the nose, which has an appeal all its own.


Beasts and monsters

The Effort Pool is a comprehensive stat: it encompasses the entirety of the energies, skills and capabilities a character can bring to bear. This makes it appropriate for the superhuman characters that players play and encounter in the martial world, but what about animals, ghosts, demons, and all the other beings that a character might battle? An broad trait like Effort is inappropriate; a rampaging buffalo won’t be talking you into betraying your clan, a ghost generally won’t smash your head in with an i-beam.

The basic mechanic of rolling and matches sets, of using the dice themselves as a resource, is the foundational cornerstone of influencing actions. So, we keep the mechanics and break up the power of the dice.

Splitting them along their fault line, we can divide them into two varieties; Ferocity, which can be used to make Power, Agility, Endurance and Senses actions and Willpower, which allows Heart, Spirit, Intellect and Senses.

These splits reach all the way down to Rank 0 actions; a jaguar will never use human speech or reasoning, a bhut will never lift a dumpster over its head.

What does it mean to have Ferocity/ Willpower?
A being with Ferocity is a beast; they have animal intelligence and lack speech or higher thought. They can be docile or vicious, but their interaction with the world is purely physical, instinctual, and animal. They can not be swayed by any use of Heart, Spirit or Intellect outside of special circumstances.

A being of pure Willpower, however, has no tangible form whatsoever! They are wraithly, insubstantial, ghost-like, possibly holograms or mystical projections. They can argue, think, reason, and feel, but they cannot touch or interact with the world. Purely physical attacks and dangers pose no threat to them; they are less physical than smoke, or music, and are just as invincible to blade and flame.

They can be influenced by magic (including any Technique with a non-physical component, specifically Holy, Energy and Elemental strikes) as well as Heart, Intellect, and Spirit actions as normal.

Unlike humans whose Effect Chart caps at 6 unless magic is involved, creatures with Ferocity or Willpower have a cap based on their size, potential, or spiritual rank.
In the case of beings with a Willpower pool, this is generally an “encompassing cap”, similar to Effort’s cap; it applies to all of their skills as the same level.
For Ferocity, builds vary wildly between natural beasts; this has the effect of making the caps “specific”; they apply uniquely to the different skills. A Cheetah’s cap for Agility will be much higher than their cap for Endurance, where an Ox will have these trends reversed.

Monsters and spirits can have powers similar to Techniques. If they’re magical, they’ll have one or more Chakra and power them with Prana. But they may also power them with more mundane forces; this may take them form of a charge-up/cool-down.

These powers need to be “charged” for a number of rounds before they’ll function. Alternatively, they might begin powered-up and need to wait a number of rounds before they can be used again. Generally, a round’s worth of charge is the equivalent of about 5 Prana.

Powers, like Techniques, can break a being’s Effect chart caps, allowing extraordinary displays of prowess.

Some Techniques found their origin as powers. The Emerald Kirin are legendary for their style’s emulation of savage beasts like tyrannosaurs and wolverines.

Monstrous limbs
Creatures often have unique physical advantages that take the form of massive stingers, eyestalks, swarms of tentacles, or similar weird appendages. These beastial organs have their own health boxes, and take their own actions. These function like Techniques, and can combine with Ferocity to boost their efficacy.

They can be damaged, and if they lose all their Health they are destroyed or disabled at the attacker’s option. Obviously, such pulped appendages no longer offer their advantages and special abilities.

Size and shape
Creatures come in many sizes and shapes. These are often related to real-world creature to give you an idea of the dimensions, shape and mass of the creature in question.
Grasshopper (miniscule, pill-shaped, 0.54 grams)
House Cat (small, quadrupedal and tail, 8 lbs)
Cheetah (sizeable, quadrupedal and tail, 103 lbs)
Wolf (sizeable, quadrupedal and tail, 110 lbs)
Human (person-sized, bipedal, 137 lbs)
Brown Bear (Big, roughly quadrupedal, 740 lbs)
Rhinoceros (Huge, quadrupedal, 4000 lbs)
Blue Whale (Gigantic, shiplike bodies, 300,000 lbs)

Creatures of enormous size swing their inertia around like a wrecking ball. When a creature’s physical size impacts their actions, they’ll have Mass. This describes their weight and build and the kinetic force their size brings to bear.

The number next to this is the Rank of Power action added to every strike. It can be used to throw, break objects, or add dice of damage as though from a massive weapon.

Additionally, this is the minimum Rank of power action required to affect the creature with Power actions. To grab, throw, shove, lift, or otherwise move their tremendous bulk, you’ll have to clear their Rank in Mass with your raw physical might.

Finally, when a creature is moving at its top speed, it’s Mass grants it inertia. This means that every object, structure, landscape terrain, person etc. in the path of its motion it trampled as by a (Degree=Mass) Hazard.

Related to size and shape, this is described in two terms: a tactical infinity element which describes the way in which the creature moves, and a mechanical element which relates the speed to the Effect chart for Agility. The brief description is on the left, while the Rank of Agility achievable within terms of the description is represented by a number on the right.  Again, some examples are helpful:
Grasshopper (hop/crawl, 0)
House Cat (walk/run/climb/jump, 1)
Cheetah (walk/run/jump, 3)
Wolf (walk/run, 2)
Human (walk/run/jump/climb/swim, 1 or 2 for olympians)
Brown Bear (shamble/lope, 2)
Rhinoceros (walk/swim/crash, 2)
Blue Whale (swim/dive, 2/0 if beached)

Note the example of the Blue Whale gives strict limitations to its movement; it’s mobile and speedy while submerged, but totally immobile on land. The shorthand of the Agility metric should always be reasonably interpreted within the framework and limitations of the Tactical Infinity; a Blue whale cannot climb a stepladder or perform gymnastics, no matter it’s top speed underwater.

Example monsters

Sand Manta
Living in roiling fevers of hundreds of rays, Sand Mantas are a hideous evolution of their unearthly breed. Twice the mass of their aquatic forebears, these terrestrial monstrosities spend the majority of their lives buried under radioactive sand. Generally as docile as cows, when roused, they take to the skies by a chemically-inflated gas bladder; they soar with the weight and grace of world war 2 bombers. Their bodies are plated in thick scales and their stings are surgery-sharp lances of bone. 

Ferocity 4 (Docile)
Frame: Power: 4 Agility: 2 Endurance: 8
Health 8
Armor 6
Size: Tremendous. Shiplike body, 7,200 lbs
Mass: 4
Locomotion: Soar, 2

Powers, Limbs and Organs
Left Pectoral Gasbladder:
Health: 3
Charge-up: 1 round
Powers: Inflates with a chemical gas; lifts as a Rank 3 Power action. In tandem with other gasbladder, this allows a Rank 6 lift, enabling the ray to soar. Both bladders are required to remain airborne.
Right Pectoral Gasbladder: As left pectoral gasbladder.
Lance Barb:
Health 4
Cooldown: 2 rounds
Powers: Rank 4 strike, deals an additional +2d10 Physical Aggravation because of its size and sharpness.

Apex predator in an era of monsters and titans; it’s name translates to tyrant-king of the lizards. It eats a cow per day to maintain its enormous size. Teeth like swords fill a mouth big enough to swallow a car: don’t fuck with the king, kiddos.

Ferocity 10
Frame: Power: 5  Agility: 1 Endurance: 4
Health 12
Size: Gigantic. Bipedal, Raptor-like body, 30,000 lbs
Mass: 5
Locomotion: Thunder/Charge, 1

Powers, Limbs and Organs
Terrible Jaw:
Health 4
Chargeup: 1 round
Powers: Rank 6 strike and grab. Characters held in the jaw are chewed every; this is equivalent to a Rank 5 attack dealing an additional 1d10 Physical Aggravation.

Colossal Tail:
Health: 5
Cooldown: 1 round
Powers: Rank 5 attack

Scorpion Man (Aqrabuamelu)
Guardians of once-sacred places; it’s no longer known whether Aqrabuamelu were genetic monstrosities engineered by warped science or divinely-appointed sentinels. Now it’s immaterial; they’re so perverted by aeons of mutating radiation that their original purpose is utterly corrupted. Twisted, mutant, monstrous in appetite and psyche, the scorpion-men still stand sentinel over sites of tremendous magical power. In this fallen time, most have also become horrifically corrupt; it takes a hero of magnificent caliber to slay the guardian of these fonts of evil and bring their cursed half-life to an end.

Ferocity: 10
Frame: Power: 6  Agility: 3 Endurance: 6
Health: 12
Size: Massive, arachnid legs and tail, humanoid torso; bilateral asymmetry (huge claw/humanoid arm), 12,000 lbs
Mass: 3
Locomotion: Scuttle 1 (too heavy and cumbersome to jump or climb)

Powers, Limbs and Organs
Humanoid Hand
Health 2
Powers: Technically as dextrous as a human hand, this tree trunk-thick limb has enough power and agility to lift a telephone pole and use it as a quarterstaff. May wield any reasonable object as a weapon of a given type; it is additionally a heavy weapon (+2d10)

Scorpion Claw
Health 3
Armor 3
Cooldown: 1 round
Powers: Rank 3 strike and grab; automatically sustains. Every round a foe is held, they suffer another Rank 3 crush attack which may be resisted with Endurance.

Scorpion Tail
Health 4
Armor 3
Chargeup: 2 rounds
Powers: Rank 4 strike; struck foes poisoned with Virulence 4 venom. If severed, contains 5 doses of venom.

Example Spirits

Atomic Jiangshi
The horrors that ripped apart the world did not stop their destruction at its body; they tore apart the very soul of the planet. The fallout from this act of spiritual violence left a lingering aura of atrocity, a half-life measured not in time but in destinies. The Atomic Jianshi are a symptom of this cursed fallout. Their ghostly bodies resemble stiff, irradiated corpses; palid, oozing with yellow pus, hair falling out in clumps. They stalk stiff-jointed across the cursed land, ghosts propelled by radioactive magic, hungering for the warm lifeforce of the living. When they drink Prana, they can magically form crude, corpselike bodies with frozen joints and weeping sores to rip apart their victims. They can also each cast a single spell, one note in the cacophonous song that unmade the old world.

Willpower: 7
Health: 7
Size: Size and shape of gaunt, long-limbed human corpses
Locomotion: Hop/launch, 1 or Float, 3

Powers, Limbs and Organs
Chakra Tumor
Health: 3
Possesses no Recovery of its own, but has a Pool of unlimited size. Can be filled with stolen Prana. A black, fleshy mass, residing where the Jianshi’s heart would be in a healthy body.

Hungering Ghost Bite
Mystical attack
Limit 1/round
Powers: Builds aggravation towards the Chakra Enervation Spiritual Imbalance. Drains an equal amount of Prana from the affected Chakra, filling the Chakra Tumor. If the target lacks enough Prana to be drained, the excess becomes damage.

(Element) Apocalypse Verse
Cost: Varies
Rank: Varies
Facing: 0-5
Effect: Creates a hazard of (element) type. The Rank of the technique determines the cost:
Rank 1: 3 Prana
Rank 2: 7 Prana
Rank 3: 13 Prana
Rank 4: 26 Prana
The elemental energy can be directed as the Jiangshi wills; if used to attack, it may create a lingering effect in the target (such as setting them on fire). If used to defend, it counts as 1 Rank higher for defending against the same or opposite element. If used neither to attack nor defend, the Jiangshi can simply create the hazard, which thereafter functions independently.
Keywords: Elemental control. Versatile.

Clothe in Flesh
This weird power allow the Jiangshi to transform it’s Willpower into Effort for 1 Scene. This allows it to attack and interact with the world as more than an insubstantial ghost. Costs 14 Prana.

Acid Vritra
Something between a salamander-hallucination and a dragon-hologram, Vritra are the corrupted remnants of living regulatory programs designed by science and magic. They went wrong when the earth turned sour. Once guardians of water, they’re now a stark example of just how fucked the cosmic order got: they’re living plagues, with acid rain for a heart and typhoid for a personality. Their destiny has shat itself inside-out; they befoul any water they find, ruining the hope of budding civilizations nearby. They’re malignant and sadistic, chuckling as grieving mothers cradle their dehydrated children’s corpses before dying of bloody flux. They pollute even the concept of water, turning it’s calm into stagnation and it’s passive beneficence into apathy. 

Willpower: 5
Health: 5
Size: Size of horses, with the awkward floppy shape of a water salamander
Locomotion: Slough 1, swim 3

Powers, Limbs and Organs
Corrupt Water Chakra Battery
Health: 3
Functions as a Chakra, but only in the presence of water. It must be in the same field; the amount determines the recovery and pool.
Full canteen: Recovery 1/ Pool 5
Flooded basement: Recovery 2/ Pool 10
Small lake: Recovery 3/ Pool 15
Big lake: Recovery 4/ Pool 20
Inland Sea or larger: Recovery 5 /Pool 25

Putrid Blessing Tantra
Cost: 4
Rank: 1
Facing: 0-4
Effect: You command a small volume of liquid (A barrel’s worth, about 200 litres/50 gallons). You can attack with it physically, defend, even use it as a fine manipulator; it hovers in the air and moves at your command while within the same field.
Unfortunately, this totally ruins it as a source of potable water. It is utterly corrupted into an acidic sludge (As potent as nitric acid, Hazard 3). It’s so potent that diluting it with an equal amount of water merely reduces it’s Hazard by 1; to make water corrupted by a single use of this ability potable again, you’d need to dilute it in over 600 litres/ 150 gallons of water.
Keywords: Elemental control (Water), Versatile

Stagnate Still Waters
Cost: 4
Rank: 1
Facing: 5-9
Effect: You excrete spiritual pollution into the Water Chakra of a living being. This is a social attack, building Aggravation towards a Guilt Imbalance.
The guilt is over a difficult but necessary change the character made in the course of their life; divorcing themselves from a toxic friendship, giving up on a bad dream to pursue self-actualization, letting go of a strongly held but evil belief, etc. They’re wracked by doubt over the rightness of their choice and plagued by the guilt of potentially having chosen wrong.
Although it offers the user no insight into the characters past, this Technique manifests as saying exactly the correct words to trigger this sort of second-guessing: “If only you’d stayed with her…” etc.
Keywords: Social

Dead God
The gods that maintained the world died alongside it. Like the scarred and hostile landscape, they still lurch along in a hideous half-life. Caught between living death and dreams of oblivion, they know not what horrors they bring to the world they once cherished.

Willpower: 12
Health: 10
Size: Size and rough shape of giant humans, about 15’ (4 ½ meters) tall
Locomotion: Shamble 1 (Bipedal and inelegant)

Powers, Limbs and Organs
Fallow Miracle
Heart-like organ, Health 5
Remembering it’s ancient purpose but distorted through a fever-dream lens, the divine corpse raises its hands and calls forth a hollow working of empty divinity.
This Mudra is an environmental conversion requiring 1 scene of unholy concentration as the rotting vocal chords of the zombie god intone a blasphemous koan.
At the conclusion of the ritual, the surrounding Tract becomes a cursed place. This has the following effects:
Opened Gates: The Physical and SPiritual no longer have a wall between them. Once per scene, every being on either side of the spiritual divide rolls 1d10: on a 6+, they accidentally shift to the other side. This converts Ferocity and Effort into Willpower, or vice-versa, until the divide is crossed once more.
Cursed Earth: Growing things become overtaken with  hideous toxic spores. Any resource based on growing things turns into a poisonous Hazard with a Degree equal to its former Productivity.
Toxic Bounty: The Tract ganes a new Node producing the corrupt Prana of Hell. It’s power output is equivalent to an active volcano, and just as destructive. Roll a d10 to determine its Productivity; spiritual workers can harvest this must Prana per scene with blasphemous rituals. It’s (Rank in Productivity-2) is the Hazard it poses those who approach without proper sanctification against the evils of hell. In lieu of damage, it causes mutations in body, mind and soul. 

The dead god does not consciously injure anything; passively, it shares it’s torment with those nearby. It emanates waves of melancholy as naturally as breathing.
Rank 2, 1/turn
Effect:  Social attack, builds Aggravation towards a Sorrow Imbalance.

Oblivion Caressing Fingers
Unrotted hand (only one) Health 6
Getting the attention of a dead god is a mistake. This is their sole remaining way to interact with the fleshy world of the living; there’s no malice in the act, it’s simply that their have become life’s antithesis.
This is a physical attack that crosses the spiritual barrier.
Rank 3 attack; corrodes physical matter it touches, dealing +1d10 Physical Aggravation.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Lone Wolf Fists: Playtest, part 2

We had some player churn between sessions, which I feel worked out in our favor. The leaving player was a veteran of the system and the new player, although a regular of mine, was totally new to it. That gave me some insight on how people approach the game for the first time, what questions they have, and which bits are intuitive or awkward to internalize. It also pushed the balance of the party from people comfortable with the system to people new to it, so our pacing needed to get slowed to accommodate questions.

This was fine by me; another busy week meant that I still hadn’t prepared much for the sessions (I was working on the Dharma and Gupt Kala rules, which are still largely on notebook paper). So we started where the last one left off, plus just a bit more: they were in the tunnels, a little further ahead, and they came across the new party member (a Golden Lion himself) battling a giant squid monster. Roll Initiative.

I got to try out the monster rules a bit here. I’ll summarize them in bullet-point format: greatest of all formats.
  • They have Ferocity rather than Effort. It works kind of the same, but they can’t use Heart, Spirit, or Intellect actions at all.
  • Their Rank Cap is based on their size/frame, rather than just being set to 6.
  • They have 0-cost Techniques, kind of, that take the form of extra limbs/maws/tentacles/whatever. These have their own health and can be destroyed.
So they’ve got some DNA in common with how tanks and such work; they’re more like groups of a given competence level than one big beast, which theoretically gives them a nuanced power curve instead of being too linear.

Man did it get smoked though; literally. Although the balance of the party took a long-term strategic approach to the battle, the Scorpion hit the water where it was hiding with so much nuclear fire that it was steamed alive, then exploded. A relatively satisfying two rounds nonetheless, so I’m counting it as a win for design.

Pictured: Victory

The war had already begun when the party arrived at the manhole ladder leading to the Sunset King’s palace. They blended the power-up option for Real-Time Scenes with their tactical approach to entering the fray in an Action Scene, so they got to begin the combat at full power: fine by me, it gave me an excuse to try out the Orthogonal Content rules and see which elements of the army showed up to murder them (since powering up sends out a very detectable shockwave of magical energy).

Gee, I wonder how they knew I was here?

I got lucky and rolled tank and two platoons of warriors, so it blasted the manhole from the courtyard and the players had to toss some bones to survive the tunnel’s collapse. They came up swinging though, the Scorpion again at the forefront of the offense.

She emerged into the Sunset King’s palace and set the terrain on fire as I was describing it because her player is a bit of a psycho. Gave me a chance to test out the hazard/disaster rules though. I also got to test out the vehicle combat rules as she pounced on the tank, took out it’s gunner, and set the inside on fire before pulling the boom lever and blowing up another chunk of the scenery.


Her party-mates leapt up into a maelstrom of fire and ruin and drove off the survivors into a courtyard, where their reinforcements were finishing off the last of the palace guard. The big boss was tardy to the party, but I set her up really well; I described her battle-roar and a huge pillar of magical fire lancing up behind the courtyard wall to telegraph her arrival.

The players were sufficiently intimidated to concoct an amazing asspull of a plan: Scorpion was going to ready an action to blast the courtyard as soon as Fire God leapt on it, then Lion wedged his sword on the trigger, reloaded the barrel, and used his blade-summoning technique to move the sword in such a way as to pull the trigger again, which hit the still-hot and warped barrel and exploded the tank on top of her.

It was rad, but since both a bursting tank shell and exploding tank were at least in part fire-based elemental attacks, Fire God totally no-sold them with her biggest sets boosted by, appropriately, Fire God’s Hunger. Not only did it totally tank the explosions, but it converted their energy to Prana, making the moves effectively free.

... Sure, we can take her

Not ones to be intimidated by an invincible fire queen of death, the party charged in guns and magical swords blazing: they all poured their full offensive might into dropping her in a single gigantic attack, and under their withering hail of blows she dropped to one knee, blinded and pummeled and thoroughly drained of Prana… But not dead (christ it’s hard to punch through a degree-3 character!)

Next round had another strong opening bid from the Scorpion, who proceeded to overcome the wounded and drained Fire God’s defenses by utterly committing to her final all-out offensive of the night. The furious offense ended with Scorpion driving her concrete melon-hammer/ripped-up signpost through Fire God’s skull.

It was a bit bloodier, but basically this

We called it there: I rewarded the players with some hefty Kharma handouts from vanquishing Fire God and the squid monster from earlier, and they’d been hitting their Dharma triggers pretty consistently throughout the sessions. A grateful Sunset King offered to become their mentor, and Scorpion found a manual teaching the Fire God’s Hunger Technique on Fire God’s corpse (naturally, it was fireproof). Our Five-Star Spirit realized that he’d have to do some questing to find any of his clan’s lost techniques, which filled my brain with all kinds of great ideas for prep.

This session ruled. It’s made me realize a few things though:
  1. I need to make it clear what actions can happen in what scenes, and which actions/circumstances change the scenes. Some of this is clarifying, and some is designing. Needs to happen though.
  2. You can predict a lot about a fight from the effort/prana/techniques that go into it. Good note for further design and GM tips.
  3. Higher-cost Techniques require a ton of set-up, and I’m dubious about their current payoff. I need bigger-scale fights with more Degree-having foes to make sure.

Finally, I’m going to need to prep a map and content for the players to stomp through for next session. Not sure where I’m gonna find the time for that, but at least theoretically it should be relatively quick and clean to do in the system (I worked hard enough on setting the content rules up to do that exact thing, at any rate!)

Catch you next time true believers!

Monday, January 7, 2019

Lone Wolf Fists: The playtest, part 1

It’s a good sign when a playtest turns into a campaign.

Last saturday I gathered some of my regulars (and one of my irregulars) and ran a test session for Lone Wolf Fists (hereafter referred to as “LWF”). I wrote up a a quick scenario based off of one of the examples I suggested in the How to Pitch this Game section I’d completed around the jolly Fistmas holiday.

This had a twofold purpose: first, I wanted to see if the advice I’d given in that section was accurate, and second, I wanted to see how difficult it was to run that scenario as a GM new to the system.

Let’s start by reading that section, shall we?

Getting your Friends to Play: How to Pitch this Game
So you’ve read this book, got a fistfull of d10s, and you’re aching to see your friends fight their way through the post-apocalypse. Great! Now you’ve just got to get them on-board so you can play.

That can be the trick, huh?

Thankfully, this game is pretty badass: “You play kung-fu heroes in a post-apocalyptic wasteland filled with monsters and demon” is essentially the perfect pitch.

Maybe your friends are tough to please though; they might be veteran gamers with very particular tastes, for example. No worries; If you really need to seal the deal, the best way is to play!

A lot of games make this a goddamn chore: not this one. Character generation should take you five minutes, if that. Then they’ll each have a driven, powerful character, already embroiled in the intrigues and destiny of the World of Ashes and Ghosts.

Keep nimble and answer questions as they’re putting their characters together. Keep them talking to one another; their characters should be friends, or train under the same master, or be rivals, or lovers, or siblings, or parent and child.

Silence is your foe in character generation! The quiet guy who makes his character in the corner without talking to anyone is always the one with no connection to anyone and totally incompatible goals. He bails the second he can get away with it and constantly asks why his character would care about what’s happening to the other players, like you’re just going to run a side-campaign for his character. Don’t let that happen; get him out of his shell and talking during character creation.

(Thankfully, these are your friends we’re talking about; just keep them talking to each other about the characters they’re making and why they want to kick ass together and it’ll generally come together)

Start playing right away, and make it kick ass. Set their first scene on a battlefield, or with a demon smashing in a fortress door, or in a battle on top of a rig speeding through the atomic wastes. Don’t pussyfoot around: their first actions need to be their Effort Dice hitting the table and some chainsaw-brandishing psycho making a strong bid for Initiative.

There are a few key ingredients here:
  • The player’s characters have to be in imminent danger. It’s not enough that some bigwig NPC is imperiled nearby; their characters need to be menaced. The army isn’t attacking some other army, it’s attacking you and your homeland. These barbarians have their shotguns leveled at your chest. “What do you do?” should feel like a threat.
  • More has to be going on than this fight. The players need to be in a burning factory with only a distant skylight as an escape. They need to be on a speeding train, rocketing across a rickety bridge over an irradiated sea. Their attacks need to be punctuated by shells exploding in a collapsing trench.
  • There has to be a reason for the action. This isn’t some random act of violence; this war has stakes that matter to the characters. The medicine on this train is the only thing that can stop the plague ravaging their clan’s territories. This bastard they’re fighting in the burning factory killed their family and it’s time for blood.
Fight it out. See where the actions guides the game’s events; do they win? Do they get their assesses kicked? Do the bad guys get away? Does the train derail and spill everybody into an unfamiliar, toxic wilderness?

Don’t have a conclusion planned out; the fight is going to conclude, trust me. Let whatever conclusion happens set the tone for what comes next.

Feeling nervous about your friend’s characters dying? Sure, that’s reasonable; they’re rookies to the system and you just tossed them into the deep end with sharks. Their characters are as weak as they’ll ever be, and they have zero experience with the system; so this fight? It’s the most dangerous one they’ll ever have.

You got an ace up your sleeve though, slick: the Death Token. Don’t put it on the table. Player gets konked senseless? They’ll be fine, they’re just unconscious. That killing blow becomes a near-miss that sends them sprawling into some head-trauma and they’re fine. It’ll be fine. Give the other players ample opportunities to heft their unconscious friend to safety and they’ll get out of the scene intact. A little wiser, probably.

Follow the aftermath of the fight to segue into some really kick-ass Vertical Content. We’ve got a few good ones for you in the Setting section, choose two of your favorites and have them happening concurrently, linked to Anchors in wherever this fight wound up. I strongly suggest linking the opening fight to either or both of them; that way, “Let’s go after these bastards!” launches them right into the thick of some intrigue.

Then just, y’know, run the game. This thing is stuffed with nuclear mutants and wasteland scavengers and kung-fu master driving tanks. About the only way things can get boring for players is if they stay completely still in a totally safe place.

Put those safe places far away from them. That way, getting to them feels like a welcome reprieve from the dangers they’ve got to punch through to find them.

End the session before players start getting tired. Especially long sessions can test the real-world stamina of your players; don’t get to that point. after a few hours of thrills, end on a scene with a few unresolved questions.

Try to avoid ending the game in the middle of an Action scene; choose a nice Montage or Real-Time scene and wind it up with a nice Denouement. give ‘em an idea of what their characters lead off doing until next time and ask them if there’s something they want to start the next game doing.

After the session, get some feedback from everybody; your friends are never more honest than at the end of a gaming session. Take some notes on stuff they enjoyed or disliked. Poke them with some questions about the scenes you noticed them being especially active or quiet. Banter a little about the session; if a player did something cool, let them know about it! You’re their character’s number-one fan, after all.

That’s it! Run a tight session filled with thrill and adventure: if your players are talking about it afterward, they’re hooked.

It felt like solid advice while I was writing it; after all, I wrote the damn game, this is what I created it to do. But I’ve been at this long enough to know that actually playing a game is an entirely different beast.

I liked that train scenario so much I decided to develop it. Here are the spark notes I wrote for myself:

Off the Rails
Introduction to Lone Wolf Fists

The Premise

The party is guarding the vital shipment of supplies by train to a refugee outpost.

A band of desert raiders plans to ambush the train. They’ve been joined by a deadly and mysterious saboteur. Also, the Prana-engine powering the train is hideously unstable. Finally, most of the last stretch of track is over a toxic ocean of liquid waste. Good luck hero.

Starting position
The party places themselves in the engine room, or among the 4 boxcars filled with supplies (In order from front to rear: food, medicine, tools, fuel).

  • Start: A rocket impacts the engine, rocking the train. The engine room is aflame, the conductor is injured, the Prana engine goes berserk and shifts uncontrollably into high gear, throwing out lances of radioactive lightning. Two dune buggies pull alongside the train, with barbarians leaping off and using giant hooks to grapple onboard.
  • Round 1: Two groups of (7)Barbarians board the train, along with their Minor Hero, Chainhead (Effort 2, Fire Friend’s Attitude, Burning Piston Strike) and Poison Crow (Degree 1, Cunning,  Balanced/Unarmed, Summon the Hellish Armament, Thirsting Knife Satisfaction, Silent Spider Legwork, Opportunistic Carrion Lunge). The terrain rocketed over is flat red dirt. The damaged Prana engine begins to build an unstable charge this round (Intellect 4 to patch-job)
  • Round 2: The land abruptly ends, and the train is blasting over a rickety bridge, tottering over an inland sea of liquid garbage (Endurance 3 or acid). A bolt of toxic green prana fries the conductor if the engine hasn’t been repaired (Endurance 3, if somebody wants to take the bullet).
  • Round 3: Midway across the sea this round. If not repaired, the engine begins to shudder violently; Senses 2 reveals that it will explode next round. Stuff you can destroy: Pushing a train cart off the track (Power Rank 6), ripping up the metal (Power 4), punching through the wooden doors (Power 3).
  • Round 4: Nearly across now; the engine explodes and annihilates the track (Rank 6 disaster) spilling everyone and everything into the toxic lake if not repaired.
  • Round 5: Across the lake, into desert and scrubland. The town is hoving into view; somebody has to stop this fucking train right now (Int Rank 2) or it’ll impact hard enough to destroy it (Rank 5).
  • Round 6: Well I hope you stopped the train; otherwise it crashes with everybody involved into the town, destroying the train and a huge swathe of homes and people.

Two groups of (7) Barbarians

Chainhead Minor Hero: Effort 2, Fire Friend’s Attitude, Burning Piston Strike)

Poison Crow Degree 1, Cunning, (Balanced/Unarmed)
  • Summon the Hellish Armament
  • Thirsting Knife Satisfaction
  • Silent Spider Legwork
  • Opportunistic Carrion Lunge

If I rewrite this as a more thorough introduction scenario, there’s going to be more to it; it’ll intersect with the actual map so that as characters topple off the train (or are violently ejected as it explodes) the adventure can continue from their point of departure. Although it didn’t come up in the playtest, I’d also include a section on running the adventure with a separated party (you just continue adhering to the turn structure, basically).

How it went
It was pretty exciting!

Two of my players had previously tangled with the system, so they had a pretty intuitive sense of what the game was going to demand of them. They chose Radioactive Scorpion and Silver Phoenix, respectively. My third player was absolutely fresh to the system; he went with Five Star Spirit.

I printed out the clan lore write-ups, updated with the newest version of the kung-fu, for the players to peruse. Following my own advice, I kept them talking while they read the fluff, so everybody chose distinct Archetypes and Dharmas (we had one each of Enlightened/Strong/Cunning, and their Dharmas were Metal Fist, Ruthless Tiger, and Rising Sun). They chose different weapons too; Reflexive, Reach, and Heavy.

Character generation did indeed take around ten minutes, even going through a significant chunk of the literature for the game. The players had a good intuitive sense of what they wanted from the write-ups of the clans, so that clearly worked. They were excited about the Dharmas too; as suspected, they helped them get into character with a mechanical build choice, so that launched them right into the personalities of their dudes without needing a more elaborate backstory. Overall I was really pleased with chargen: I feel like I’m on the right track with my approach.

Next, it was time to start playing and kicking ass immediately. I really wanted to strike while the iron was hot, so directly off generation I started establishing the scene; they’re mercenaries hired to protect this train of supplies. The shippers slapped a barely-repaired Prana Engine on the thing, and it’s rocketing top-speed across the wastes.

Once I got everybody’s positions in the train; an explosion rocked the whole thing. Someone had fired a makeshift scud into the engine and it was horribly damaged. Two dune buggies filled with wasteland barbarians pulled along both sides and leapt onboard. Initiative.

Round One
The first round saw a lot of impressive offense from the players, with strong initiative bids and huge attacks as follow-throughs. Notably, the Scorpion player set fire to a dune buggy which she then leapt on to keep punching barbarians she had already set on fire. Wonderful.

Phoenix blew up the other buggy, almost completely wiping the other group of barbarians out single-handedly. The few survivors leapt aboard the train to seek revenge.

The lone degree-1 foe, Poison Crow, jumped onto the train and made his way to the engine room. His mission was to prevent the supplies from reaching their destination; what did he care about these heroes?

He was stopped just short by the psychic defenses of the Phoenix, so he ended his turn summoning a Reach weapon to help him seize initiative in the following round.

Round Two
The second round brought reality soberly back to the players. The ground vanished underneath the two dune buggies (which began to careen into a sea of toxic garbage below) and a bolt of raw prana skeletonized the conductor. The party, prana-poor and beset by a horde of barbarians and a deadly degree-1 foe, realized they had to get strategic if they were going to get off this train alive.

Thankfully, Phoenix was able to survive an impressive onslaught from Crow by turtling up into a defense. I also got to have my first“game designer moment” after the Five-Star Spirit hit him with a bodily paralysis imbalance and he wasn’t able to defend himself for the remainder of the round, since he couldn’t move. I made a note to revise the wording of that imbalance to allow defense in the future, so it didn’t shut you down as soon as it hit you.

Five Star Spirit put the hurt on Poison Crow; piled up a ton of damage and paralysis Aggravation on the poor bird, leaving him blinded and his effort pool crippled.  However, he did manage to sufficiently distract them from trying to repair the engine. I warned the party that round after next it was going to blow and they started to look nervous.

The Scorpion jumped back onto the top of the train, followed by Chainhead who was aching for a worthy foe. She blocked his chain-axe with Burning Piston Strike and drew him out into the next round.

Phoenix also de-coupled the leading car from the engine room, so it started pulling away… With Poison crow, the lone, blind passenger. Not going to lie, I hadn't considered decoupling the car. The player thought of a solution I hadn’t anticipated, and I absolutely loved it.

Round Three
There were two big events this round: the first was Chainhead versus Scorpion on top of the train, and the second was Crow’s last stand in the engine room.

Scorpion won initiative over Chainhead and boosted her attack with a Power action to launch the fool like Wile E. Coyote into the sludge below. A pretty conclusive victory, to be certain.

Phoenix took out two thugs with his psychic attacks and decided to use Heart to scare one of the remaining guys off the train. After painting the car with his buddy’s intestines, he turns to the dope and says “It’s time for you to leave”

“It’s time for me to leave!” he agrees, and leaps out the door. We all had a good laugh.

Crow continued to make himself troublesome this round; he hooked his magical spear into the leading car’s coupling and held the engine to it. Spirit was having none of it, though, and beat him to death with a flurry of punches. Finally, he kicked the wedgeded spear after Crow’s body into the garbage sea below.

Round three crystalized something for me: there are always at least three things you’re doing with your resources. You’re putting the pressure onto a foe with offense, leaving something back for defense, and pursuing your battle strategy with the remainder.

Round Four
The engine rushed ahead of the train by just below the explosion radius, plus a touch more track, and detonated. It took out a huge swathe of track, which the remaining cars were hurtling towards on momentum. Phoenix used his psychic strength to arrest some of the momentum, and Scorpion hopped down and pulled a spider-man in front of the train, the planks shattering under her boots as she applied her body as emergency breaks to keep the train from going over.

And that’s the first combat. Pretty great, all things considered. Surprisingly safe too; the players took like, four damage between the three of them.

After the intro combat, the players were super-invested in the game, so we decided to keep going. What was I gonna do, waste that kind of enthusiasm? Screw that, I had to freestyle something.

If you have to do this, here’s a trick I suggest: make the players deal with the problem right in front of them to buy yourself some time. In this case, they had a train to get across a missing stretch of track before they could continue their mission. While they discussed their plans, I had a few minutes to prep something.

Since I’m super-creative, I just did a spin on Barter Town from Beyond Thunderdome. I liberally mish-mashed it with the Fire Nation from Avatar: the Last Airbender and the Flame Cult from Legends of the Wulin.

They did some pretty creative stuff to get the train across the gap: Phoenix levitated some track from the drink and Scorpion welded it with her fire powers; I ad-hoc’d this using the long-term project rules. They pushed the train with a combination of Phoenix’s psychic pull and Spirit’s power-boosted shove. They managed to haul the entire load into the station at barter town, to the cheers of the mohawked soldiery waiting there.

Since I’d just written this in a notebook in a matter of minutes, I didn’t have a lot of content, so it was regrettably a bit linear. The town had been taken over by a warlord named Fire God (sound familiar?) and the supplies were being commandeered by her army. On the other hand, they honored the contract and the characters got paid a hefty reward in gold coins. They were rare minted coins, something only done by the Golden Lions… Who had been the previous leaders of the town.

The party did some digging; they found a surviving group of Lion scouts who were being forced to fight in the town thunderdome. Pulling that thread revealed that Fire God had her sights set on conquering their leader’s domain, and the players concocted a brilliant and only slightly insane plan to blow up the fuel rendering plant to cause a distraction and smuggle the scouts out of town.

The plan went swimmingly, with the Scorpion blowing up the factory at ground zero but getting out without so much as singed eyebrows because of a Rank 5 Endurance action. Unfortunately, robbed of the ability to stockpile fuel and with a clear act of sabotage, Fire God fired up her tanks and mobilized for a blitzkrieg.

The players were able to exploit the Lion’s ability to move earth to get into a subterranean tunnel network, and that’s where we called it for session 1.

The players loved the session so much that they demanded I run the next one, so that’s a good sign. There were a few other signs that the game captured them; the asked a lot of strategy questions and as soon as the session wrapped they started looking at advancement options.

This is the stuff I did when I first encountered Exalted many moons ago, and it was a sure sign that the game had totally grabbed me. It’s also the stuff they always do at the start of a big, deep campaign (last time we ran for over a year this was how the first session looked).

There’s certainly a learning curve; I found that I had to clarify the skill/attack divide, as well as the “number of 1-die actions per round” rule a lot (it’s one attack or skill, and as many initiative bids/defenses as you want). Because I combined the description of techniques in the body of their rules description, there was some confusion from the totally new player as to where the fluff ended and where the mechanics began (I should have known better than to do this, Exalted has always gotten really negative feedback for this exact thing).

The biggest lesson from this session was the tactical one: even I hadn’t realized how big of a bombshell round 2 was going to be. Try it yourself, if you’re feeling adventuresome. That second round really teaches players a lot about planning their strategy before spending all their prana and effort.

What’s next?
We just wrapped another session where I had a bit more time to prep. I’ll write that one up next, so stay tuned for that.

Design-wise I’m finishing both the Minor Dharmas and Zui consequences for the clans and the Gupt Kala rules. Those are going to hit the complete playtest document on the patreon first, then I’ll be blogging them up for ya’ll’s critique after.

Since I’m also prepping a small-scale campaign for the next month or so of playtest sessions, I’ll post that after everything else. If it plays well, I figure I’ll use it as the basis for the setting stuff I put in the book.

After all of that, there are still three important pieces of work to get done before I update the Eyebleed into a proper playtest:
  • I need to complete my “readability and consistency” re-write of the current playtest document. This is pure, unadulterated pain, but important.
  • I need to write the rules for poison, monsters, spirits, and a few other things so the rules referenced in the kung-fu don’t refer to handwritten notes in a binder alone
  • I need to write a bunch of examples of vehicles, weapons, bad guys, mutations, imbalances, monsters, etc. so that GMs have a lot of stuff to throw into their playtests
It’s still a ways to go, but the end of this playtest re-write is finally hoving into view, so I’m feeling hopeful.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Lone Wolf Fists: a FISTMAS miracle, the Content rules!

Merry Fistmas everybody! Let's hope super-ripped Santa-Ken smashes his way through your free-standing brick walls and stuffs your stocking with VIOLENCE on this jolliest of all occasions/attacks!

A Merry Fistmas to all, and to all a good fight!

To start the festivities, I've got a special treat for you all; this little elf has been busily completing the Lone Wolf Fists playtest! As one of our capstone pieces of writing, I present the long-awaited Content rules, so you can prep and run stuff for your very own post-apocalypse!

Horizontal Content

When players go someplace new, what’s there? Who’s there? What are they doing? Horizontal Content answers this question. When players kick down a door, it tells them what’s in the room.

Elements of Horizontal Content

The Map
As the GM, you’ll need to keep in mind the spatial relationship of different places to one another: that’s where a map comes in handy! This map is only a rough approximation of your game’s world; it shows direction and relative size of areas, for your quick and convenient consultation.

As with your other notes, this map generally isn’t shared with players; the exploration that happens in their imaginations, from your description of the environment, will always be superior to even the most detailed map.

The Key
The descriptions, inhabitants, and other things present in the areas of the of map are all described under the numbered Key. It’s a lot easier to show than tell you how this works:

  1. Mountain Pass
  2. Narrow Defile
  3. Stone Wall
  4. Stone Fort
  5. Training Ground
  6. Wider Pass
  7. Hidden Caves
  8. Jungle Entrance

The picture on the left is the map, showing the rough shape, relative size, and spatial relationship of the areas. The Key on the right names the numbered areas of the map. In the full key, these names would additionally contain descriptions of those areas and their inhabitants, contents, and any special notes that you need to remember.

Elements of the Key
The key is designed to tell you what’s in a place, how it looks, who’s there, and what they’re doing. It does this with the following entries:

Description: A brief rundown of everything a character sees when they’re looking around the area.  
Elements and Hazards: Things that are present; buildings, flows of lava, trees, radioactive graveyards; whatever’s there.
Inhabitants: The people and creatures in the area.
Status Quo: The typical state of affairs in the area.
Notes: Anything else you need to know.

Let’s go through each in turn.

This entry gives you, the GM, a quick rundown of what’s in an area and why. If there’s something you need to know about this entry, you’ll find it here. The writing blends a description of the area with that of its inhabitants, their motivations, and anything else routinely present and why.

This sometimes includes what a character’s senses immediately tell them about an area. What characters see (or don’t in the case of inky blackness) is always listed; otherwise only the most notable elements are are described. Sometimes these act as a clue to draw a player to further investigate. “Smells sepulchral, like an hot slaughterhouse” is a shocking statement about a temple filled with smiling priests!

The descriptions  are deliberately brief: you’ll be reading them in-play a lot of times, so they’ve got to be punchy! These aren’t meant to be read aloud: they’re just quick notes for your to skim to inform your own descriptions.

And besides, you know what “A dirty kitchen” or “A patch of shimmering desert sand” looks like, and if you’re spouting a small novel’s worth of tedious narration every time players turn a corner, they’ll swiftly begin to tune it out.

Elements and Hazards
Since this is a game about acrobatic combat, any notable pieces of scenery are described in game-terms as Elements or Hazards under this entry. Sometimes their placement is very specific, but other times this is closer to a shopping-list of stuff you can use to create ad-hoc battlefields if a fight breaks out here.

Although they’re described under the Description entry first, notable inhabitants often need a deeper dive to describe both their rules and their motivations for being present. This is where you’ll find all of that lovely information.

Status Quo
The world of your game is always in motion; its inhabitants don’t stand still, waiting for the player’s characters to show up. They live their lives, scavenging and fighting, making allies and enemies, raising children, gathering food, and everything else you imagine they might do in the post-apocalypse.

If the area is safe and relatively stable, people tend to fall into patterns of behavior; they’re not frozen in time, just generally involved in the same activities on a day-to-day basis. This state of repeating stability is called a Status Quo (“The state in which”), essentially the expected state of affairs in a given place.

Areas are generally in their Status Quo: when players go there, whatever activities are described under the entry is going on. This isn’t universal; a weapon shop’s Status Quo might be to be open for business and bustling with patrons, but if the characters arrive after-hours it’ll be empty. The Status Quo describes the most common and most iconic activities of a location.

Even if shaken up, things tend to return to the status quo. Having a fight in a marketplace certainly disrupts business during the conflict, but after the excitement dies down, the shops open up and customers flood back in.

Really big disruptions can change this; we’ll talk about that in a little bit.

All the information you’ll need as a GM sometimes doesn’t fit completely in the neat categories we have here; if we need to cram just a little more info in, you’ll find it here. Among other things, you’ll often find bad-guy battle tactics and treasures listed under this heading.

Vertical Content

When players start asking questions about a new place they’ve encountered, how do you answer them? How do you know what motivates an NPC? Or how people react when confronted with the players (or the inevitable violence that trails in their wake)? What situation have the players stumbled into, and how can they turn it to their advantage?

Vertical Content answers this question. When they players ask “Why?”, this gets them an answer.

Elements of Vertical Content

The Elephant Board: A map of an abstract situation, plot, or intrigue.

Phases: The steps a plot goes through as it resolves

The Elephant Board: Mapping intrigue, conspiracies, and situations
Players explore courtly intrigue alongside the courts; they go “deeper” or “higher” into plots and dramas, hence “Vertical”. Although situations aren’t concretely and permanently linked to a physical space, we can still map them after a fashion.

Much like the physical map, the Elephant Board is a rough approximation. But rather than mapping locations, it’s a map of the world’s situations.

Elements of the Elephant Board

Anchors: Clues, places, and characters present in Horizontal Content that act as doorways to an Elephant Board
Squares: Scenes on the Elephant Board, arranged in space and time
Connections: The characters and clues that relate the plot together, allowing movement between the Squares of the Elephant board
Dynamic Content: The movement of content from the Status Quo to a different set of events.
Resolution: The number of Montage Scenes that a Square’s events require before they resolve. Once every Square in a Phase resolves, the plot advances to the next Phase.
Consequences: What events come to pass if the players don’t interfere

The Elephant Board is a somewhat more malleable and less concrete set-up than our more traditional map; it’s useful in that it allows you a lot of flexibility to create dynamic, unique situations, but also an obstacle, because it’s difficult to intuit exactly what each part represents.

To give you a brief rundown: it has boxes, called Squares (like squares on a game board) that represent situations with Connections that represent clues that allow “movement” between them. The Squares are linked to Horizontal Content by Anchors in the game world. The events in the Squares are Dynamic Content and resolve if players don’t interfere; the amount of time this takes is determined by its Resolution. If an entire plot resolves, then it’s Consequences manifest in the game’s world to bedevil the players.

Here’s an example, so you can get the gist of the thing:

Here we see an example Elephant Board plot; a nefarious plan by a trusted but evil-hearted member of the Golden Lion faction, orchestrating a scheme to slay a rival by betraying them in a war with the Shadow Vipers.

Each of these Squares is a Scene; the Anchors tell you where it takes place, what characters are involved with it, and what they’re trying to accomplish. Since scenes aren’t static places on a map, they take place within the conceptual map of an Elephant board. Because of this, they have time dimension lacking in Horizontal Content.

Dynamic Content
A powerful difference between maps and the Elephant Board; the points of a map remain essentially forever (Iron Skin Mountain isn’t likely to pick itself up and go anywhere!) but the points of the Elephant Board are in motion, constantly moving to seek a conclusion. This makes them Dynamic Content.

Think of Dynamic Content as the opposite of the Status Quo. Where the Status Quo makes activities return to a pattern, Dynamic Content forces activities to change.

The Squares of the Elephant Board amend the Status Quo of a location; instead of, or in addition to, the activities detailed in the Status Quo, the activities described on the Square transpire as well.

How long do these activities last? Each Square describes the number of scenes that it lasts in it’s Resolution entry; these may be experienced by players, but might pass while they spend scenes traveling, training, or or otherwise occupied. The type of scene defaults to Montage when players aren’t interacting with them, but is of an appropriate type when they are.

Note the Phases of this Elephant Board are arranged in a rough chronological order (the “steps” to the left of the boxes). Every event detailed within a Square must transpire before the scheme “moves” to the next Phase.

What links the points on the Elephant Board to the world the player’s characters inhabit? The answer is simpler than you’d think; Squares are connected to Horizontal Content by clues and characters called Anchors.

Anchors are things already keyed to Horizontal Content: If the players go to Turtle Providence, they will see Golden Lion soldiers recruiting the populace. If they find themselves in Garbage Town, the munitions plant will be running. If they go snooping around Iron Heart Riku’s home, they’ll likely find an incriminating letter from the mastermind behind this plot.

The recruiting soldiers, factory workers, and letter are all Anchors; they’re things keyed to a patch of Horizontal Content that act as clues to get the players investigating the Betrayer’s Plot.

Connections: Moving on the Elephant Board
What connects the Squares of an Elephant Board to one another? And how can players move between them to investigate and thwart it’s plot?

To answer this, let’s return to Garbage Town; the smoke rising from the formerly dormant factory is an Anchor, a clue that some event is transpiring there; following that clue by going to investigate is similar to entering a room by going through a doorway. It “lets you into” the Square: you enter the factory, where scavengers are being press-ganged into workers, creating weapons.

Connections let you keep following that trail: the clues and characters within the Squares act as directions and doorways between them.

One Connections is where the weapons are going: following the weapons along to the army being raised in Turtle Providence connects the players to the Turtle Providence Square ( a lateral move).

Another is who ordered the weapons made in the first place: the players might move downward to the next phase, following the chain of command back to the plots of the scheming warrior and find out what else he’s up to.

Note, this also means that characters can get ahead of the plot; if they investigate this scheme before it comes to fruition, they can trounce the mastermind behind it before it even gets to Phase 2!

Refusing the call
What if the players find the whole affair below their notice? Players are notorious for ignoring the schemes of nefarious NPCs.

The world needs the intervention of heroes; if the players do nothing, then the scenes they choose not to engage with pass, and the villain’s plan continues creeping closer to completion.

When all the scenes called for in the Conclusion of a Square come to pass, it’s described event comes to pass.  If all the Squares in a Phase (one of the tiers of the Elephant Board) resolve, the next Phase begins.

If all of the Phases resolve, then the Consequence comes to pass. This is what happens when the players fail to stop the machinations of evil men; armies and heroes are slain, civilizations burn to the ground, and the forces of destruction grow ever stronger.

Sequential and Concurrent Events
Squares on the same Phase with nothing in common can resolve simultaneously; The factories in Garbage Town can run as soldiers recruit in Iron Turtle, while an enticing offer is sent to Iron-Heart Riku. A sufficiently organized plotter can resolve all these schemes Concurrently and move up to the next Phase of their plot.

However, if any places, characters or other elements are shared between points, they must resolve Sequentially, one after the other. This makes sense; Iron-Heart Riku can’t simultaneously be tempted to lead an army and lead it into battle; he’s got to be swayed first, then he can show up on the battlefield.

Kicking off, moving and stalling plots
When do you put an Elephant Board’s plot into motion? The best time is when players start interacting with it; once they go to Garbage Town and see smoke rising from it’s long-dormant factory, it’s fair game to assume the plot is afoot and starting counting down scenes until it advances.

Players might investigate and get clues that lead them around the plot; as they spend scenes digging into the wicked plans, simply track any full Montage scenes that pass and move the plot along with the players. This gives the impression of a dynamic situation, and puts a time limit on their investigation.

The default assumption is that the clock starts ticking on a piece of Vertical Content as soon as the players interact with any of it’s Anchors.  Of course, you’re under no obligation to further the plot immediately: even the best-laid plans have snags, and it’s completely reasonable to choose not to advance a plot that doesn’t hold any immediate relevance to players.

If the players don’t take the bait and you want to let it wait, you have the right to stall it out until they come back to it.

With such “”stalled content”, it’s fair to simply leave it the way the players found it until (or if!) they ever return to investigating it. It’s also reasonable to advance it a step or more if they take a long time in getting back to it.

You can even declare the whole thing a wash and simply re-cast the whole thing with fresh characters and whatever changes you like. The goal of Vertical Content is to give the players a way to get involved with the ongoing events of the world; if they abandon that chance, you can alter things however you see fit to uphold this goal.

Orthogonal Content

The world isn’t as static as our nice, clean maps would indicate; it’s a basket of snakes, squirming and moving ceaselessly as the players interact with it.

To simulate a living, breathing world of adventure, this game mixes up the elements from the other two varieties of content and delivers it randomly to the players by way of Orthogonal Content.

Elements of Orthogonal Content

Encounter Chart: a list consisting of the most interesting inhabitants and events transpiring in an area. Typically keyed to a Domain.

Threshold: The number of turns the players can take within a scene before Orthogonal Content is triggered

Activity: A number between 1-10 representing how busy a place is. Typically keyed to Tracts.

Triggering Orthogonal Content

Characters travel, events spill out of their borders, and monstrous creatures hunt far from their dens. To simulate these complicated patterns of behavior, when players explore and investigate the Content within a Domain, they risk encountering some of it wandering away from where it’s keyed. 

Every time players:
  • Power Up
  • Begin a Montage scene
  • Move between areas of Horizontal Content
  • Enter a new Square of Vertical Content or
  • Take an area’s Threshold of turns during a scene

They risk triggering Orthogonal Content.

The Triggering roll: Activity

How likely is it that characters encounter something? That depends on a lot of factors which would be a migraine to track:  patterns of movement, urges, opportunities, traffic density, etc. etc.

Rather than create a detailed map of that mess, we assign a number between 1-10 to the overall density of movement and population called Activity. A low number represents sparse movement and few inhabitants, while a high number represent a large population or high volume of traffic.

When Orthogonal Content is triggered, secretly roll a single d10 and compare it to the Activity score of the area the players currently inhabit: if it is equal to or lower than the score, then something is encountered!


Another dimension of encounter density is the Threshold. When players are taking actions in a Real-Time scene, check for an encounter every time this number of rounds of activity conclude. Busier, fuller areas have a lower Threshold, while sparsely populated places have a higher one.

Encounter Charts
But what is encountered? That depends on what’s populating the Encounter Chart of that Domain. Roll a d100 (two d10s; the leftmost is the “tens” and the rightmost is the “ones”, 000 is one-hundred) in secret and consult the Domain’s Encounter Chart: cross-reference your roll’s result with the chart to determine what the players run into.

 An example chart is listed below:

1-20 Waste Mutants
21-40 Hunting outland Barbarians
41-50 Escaped genetic experiments
51-60 Traveling fortune teller
61-75 Corpses of any of the above
76-90 Eerie blue-skinned dwarf (Black Talon)
90-100 Broken-down vehicle

Building the Encounter Charts

Creatures don’t apparate out of thin air; they come from somewhere and there’s a reason they’re moving around.

A Domain’s Encounter Chart is built out of it’s Horizontal and Vertical Content.

Every character, group or other mobile element present in the Horizontal or Vertical Content has an entry on the Encounter Chart. The range which encounters them roughly corresponds to how active or populous the entries are compared with one another.

Note: there’s no formula for this. Just eyeball it when making your own.

What happens in an encounter?
Bumping into a wandering villain doesn’t have to result in a fight; it’s sometimes more interesting if it doesn’t!  There are a few ways you can resolve Orthogonal encounters:

  • If you’ve got a great idea for why this person/creature is in this place, go with your instinct! These encounters are an outstanding opportunity to show off your spontaneous creativity.
  • If you’re less certain or don’t have any ideas that really grab you, consider linking the purpose of the encounter to the Status Quo or Dynamic element of the Content that spawned it; this gives it a mission, and a reason to be in the scene.
  • Finally, if you have no idea what they’re doing, assume that they’re lost, seperated, confused, having a moment of introspection/doubt, or otherwise behaving radically out of character

For that last point, it’s sometimes useful to have a chart of reasons for out-of-character behavior, like this one right here:

Why is this person here?
Roll a d10

  1. They’re meeting a friend or lover
  2. They’re blowing off steam; something about their situation got under their skin
  3. They’re on vacation
  4. They’re dunk, on drugs, or having a psychotic episode
  5. They’re following a prophecy that they’ll meet the PCs in this place, around this time
  6. They’ve trying to collect a bounty on the PC’s heads
  7. They’ve got a bounty on their head, and they’re desperate for some help
  8. They’ve been disowned, and are on the hunt for allies to help them take vengeance/give them a new life
  9. They’ve heard a rumor the PCs are in the area, and they’re huge fans/foes of theirs
  10. They’re looking for a new kung-fu master to teach them