Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Dawn of a Glorious new Era of Wuxia Roleplaying

Finally time folks. Time to get serious about this game publishing business:

What's in this thing?

  • A complete introduction to the universe of Tian Shang, written by the brilliant David Ramirez
  • An introductory adventure for new and experienced RPGers
  • A shakedown of Tian Shang's fantastic kung-fu action system
  • Breathtaking art from Christof Grobelski and Frederick Davis
  • Prebuilt characters: Tripitaka, synthetic son of Heaven, and the terrifying genetic immortal Sun Wukong, the Monkey King

The best part? You can pick it up for as much or little as you care to donate, true believers. Even after all the art, editing, layout, etc., we pass zero cost on to you. Let the fire of heaven burn brightly in your souls! A new, glorious era of Wuxia Roleplaying dawns!

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Character sheet

Projects projects everywhere.

As I'm completing the writing on the Lone Wolf Fists playtest, Vic and the rest of the team are hard at work as ever on All Above Heaven Act 1.

As proof of that, behold this glorious new character sheet:

Look at that beauty! Now, don't you playtesters be shy either: We need to figure out of my intuition on the usability of this sheet is accurate.

Soon you should all have an opportunity to playtest both Act 1 and Lone Wolf Fists in it's glorious new playtest draft.

God we're so close I can taste it. Now, to chug just a few more gallons of coffee...

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Staggering back from the latest disaster (also a fresh take on scene mechanics)

Sorry about that bump in service; had a minor life-altering catastrophe. But nothing says "healing and moving on" like returning to the exact same self-destructive habits you always plague yourself with. In the spirit of a lifetime of bad decisions, here's some more design for ya'll to enjoy.

The scene rules suck

Well, not to be too on-the-nose about it, but I'm not happy with the way scenes work right now. I've been running my in-house playtest alongside the out-of-house playtest and it's become very apparent that the rules leave you adrift in a lot of critical circumstances.

But one of the upswings of your life turning upside down is that it gives you pause to reflect on your current course of action in every endeavor, and Tian Shang was no exception. So after pondering what I needed to run the game at my own table, I realized that I needed something that my old idol Justin Alexander always stumped for in games: I needed clean processes!

Cleaner Processes for a Better Game

The rules are supposed to do a few critical things:

  1. Allow the transformation of description into game mechanics and vice versa
  2. Give players and GMs multiple viable approaches to interacting with the game world
  3. Allow the game play to flow naturally at the table
All of the design orients itself to doing those three things. But all of the best-intentioned design in the world falls apart at the table if you can't cleanly shift between the disparate mechanics. It's like a perfectly design car without a drive train; you just can't make it do what it's capable of doing, because your ability to tell it to do those things is missing.

Justin calls the gears that we use to shift between game systems game processes, and that's an outstanding term because it recognizes the game as an ongoing but structured activity. Clear, clean processes inform GMs of how to approach the game on three fronts:

  1. Mechanically, they tell us what systems and rules to use to resolve actions, and what those actions cost in terms of time, effort, and resources
  2. Descriptively, they tell us how to describe the in-game action by telling us what "speed" the game is running at (a deliberate nail-biter of a dungeon crawl has a different "speed" than a bloody and chaotic melee)
  3. Conversationally, they tell us how to interact with the players by clarifying what challenges they're facing (Picking a trapped lock or methodically searching a room for hidden treasure is a different variety of challenge from escaping a horde of rampaging Gnolls)
Many games have sloppy, ill-defined or missing processes, but great games pay very close attention to them. Clearly, I want this to be a great game. 

Process-based scene rules

What would the current rules look like if they were fused together, streamlined towards this playtest-informed "process-direction"? They might look something like this:

Let's break down what this is and what it does.

First, the Effect Charts for all of the skills are referenced here, fixing some of the vagaries of the timing mechanics on those. How does one go about changing the taboos of a society? Well clearly you take a Heart action during a Montage scene: you can't just spout off to Joe Nobody during a Real-Time scene and expect that to alter the civil order. This stuff takes some campaigning!

This has the knock-on effect of broadening skills which are too narrow, while staggering those that are too broad. F'rex, Power isn't well-defined in terms of long-term projects, but with this chart it becomes more clear that Power is used similarly to heavy construction equipment during these longer scenes. 

Ditto with Heart, again; it's restricted in faster scenes to generating Imbalances on single targets, quantifying the powerful skill in more immediate terms.

Second, it gives some context to what actions are appropriate in different kinds of scenes, which helps GMs to determine when to transition between them. If you're in a Real-Time scene, and your attack isn't being used to either show off or beat somebody in a nonviolent contest, then you're probably pushing the game into an Action scene. 

Finally, it contextualizes the mechanics around the player's approach to solving in-game challenges. Do they want to personally sneak into the enemy base and cause havoc, or do they want to engage in a longer-term campaign of low-risk sabotage? Their answer determines what rules they use, and how quickly time passes in the game as a result of their strategic approach.

Bringing all the scattered pieces together

Currently there are lots of "dangling" chunks of design (the long-term project rules spring to mind). This approach unifies all of those back into the Effect Charts where they belong.

It also re-contextualizes attacks/defenses in terms of different scenes. I like "launching an offensive" as a contextual action you can just, like, take during a war. That's neat.

It straightens out and cleans up all those weird things like the travel mechanics so they work a bit better. Probably going to delve back into those and re-do the Agility movement actions with difficulties along with speeds and distances, to give you an idea.

It creates opportunities for new design: I noticed, for example, a lack of "listen for rumors" rules in a system where that oversight is really painful. It's easy as pie to add a new function to Heart mechanics in Real-time scenes to fix that up.

It gives me a template to approach the Content rules more thoroughly and specifically. They're currently not quite what they need to be; this is going to help me focus them immensely.

It gives me a way of approaching the Gupt Kala in terms of larger setting-impact and overall strategic approach. They've been crying out for the clarity provided by this new approach, so I'll want to have a go at a first draft for them in the near.

It's just so much more elegant. Like seriously, this talk should lead off the rules section to get players and GMs into the mindset of running and structuring the game. It's a deep impact, this approach, and one I'm excited about.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Other Legends of the Wulin project

Well well, looks like some marvelous people have been hard at work making an updated version of our beloved Legends of the Wulin. They were kind enough to give us a shout-out, so we're going to return the favor!

Keep up the hard work you glorious sages of the Wulin!

EDIT: Oh yeah, some of our wonderful patrons did a playtest! Come on and check it out right here!

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.