In my last Page XX column I promised a rule for a rare instance of procedural resolution. This occurs when the caller of the scene wants to be surprised by the outcome of an external event. I admit to being surprised that people want this, but it turns out that a few groups do. It does fit certain genres where the group works together toward a common goal that regularly repeats itself. This might apply to series set in the worlds of sport, the arts, or around other occupations.

In the standard procedural system seen in Hillfolk, you fail more frequently than you would in a standard adventure-oriented RPG. Compelling drama arises from failure, from the tightening of the screws on the characters. So the system skews to that, just as action and investigation games like GUMSHOE and 13th Age favor success.

By contrast, the Surprise Outcome resolution option outlined below assumes a 50/50 shot of success, which you can calibrate in whichever direction you prefer to allow for the desired possibility of surprise.

Surprise Outcome Procedural Resolution

The caller poses a yes or no question about a possible procedural outcome:

“Will Chessboard win the race, beating Percival’s horse?”

“Will our band have a great gig?”

“Will this be the time when one of the firefighters gets hurt?”

The caller then draws a card from a freshly shuffled deck. If the result is an 8 or higher, the answer to the question is Yes. If not, the answer is No.

When the card is revealed, the scene caller narrates accordingly, then frames the dramatic interaction arising from it.

A surprise procedural outcome never counts as a scene unto itself. It is always a prelude to a scene.

Callers seeking additional complication can specify any card as the target to hit, allowing adjustment of the odds upwards or downwards from roughly even. (Well, 54%, but this is DramaSystem so who’s counting?) I’m not sure why you’d bother to call for a surprise and then skew the odds to lessen the chance of having one, but there you go. Each card represents a difference in odds of roughly 7%. So if you want a 21% chance of success, make the target a Queen or better. For a slim 21% chance of failure, make it a 5 or better.

DramaSystem doesn’t use dice or coins or spinners but if you’d rather substitute a randomizing method of your choice, it is unlikely that the Great Pelgrane will swoop from its perch in Clapham Common to devour you.

a column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

When characters in DramaSystem want to accomplish something practical, external to their emotional goals, the full procedural system seen in Hillfolk allows you to narrate a detailed scene around that. It determines not only what ultimately happens, but lays down a series of suspense beats along the way.

The system’s default assumption is that you will use this only rarely. Mostly when you want something practical to happen, the scene caller just describes it happening:

“The village is on fire and the Horseneck tribe are riding through, pillaging! I go to Tallbeard to urge him to renounce his vow of non-violence and lead the charge to drive them off!”

“Ann has altered the library into a vast black labyrinth and locked out all the students. Doc, who she did not see over by the study carrels when she wove the spell, comes over to complain.”

“Chessboard, Asim’s horse, wins the third race by a nose. Asim approaches Percival, hoping for congratulations.”

Only in two cases would you bother to treat these changes to the ongoing situation as anything other than a fait accompli:

  1. Not everyone in the group agrees that this should happen
  2. The caller wants to be surprised by the outcome (a rare case I’ll deal with in a later post)

The original procedural system as seen in Hillfolk serves as something of a Rorschach test for player group culture. Of the groups who’d rather use an alternate, some want the procedural system to behave even more like a traditional RPG resolution system. Others want to set aside the suspense of the current system in favor of the quickest possible answer to the question at hand.

Here are two options for those belonging to that second camp: one simpler, one way simpler. They let you dispense with the red, yellow and green procedural tokens entirely, stripping the game down to two resource types: drama tokens and bennies.

They also assume that there is no such thing as a scene consisting only of a procedural action. Here, the procedural only serves as a prelude changing the conditions before the real meat of the scene, a dramatic interaction.

This removes the option of calling a procedural as a way of ducking the commitment of placing your character in yet another emotional situation. As with so much else in the highly personal play experience DramaSystem provides, this might be a plus or minus, depending on the tastes of your particular players.

The GM checks to see how many players care about the outcome, and what they want to happen. The caller draws two cards from a freshly shuffled playing card deck; each other player who cares one way or the other draws a single card. The GM does not take part. Players may spend bennies to draw additional cards. Each card costs one bennie. After everyone has had a chance to draw as many cards as they wish to pay bennies for, the players begin turning them over.

You could:

  1. have all players whose characters are taking part in the action flip over all cards at once. The player with the highest card describes what happens.
  2. narrate the ups and downs of each card outcome.

The first choice, Quick Narration, cuts to the chase, giving you a speedy outcome so you can get right back to the drama.

The second, Suspense Narration, draws out the suspense, getting you a little closer to the set-piece action/thriller sequence feeling the established procedural system permits.

Ties between cards of the same value, as always, resolve using this suit order, from best to worst: Spades, Hearts, Diamonds, Clubs.

In either case, the outcome a player wants might be the opposite of their character’s desires. This happens when your plans as author and the motivations of the character contradict each other. Ava the player might want to see the situation shaken up by a successful enemy raid on the village, even though her character, Ashwind, doesn’t want any such thing. When you’re rooting for the group to get into more trouble, you might well narrate bad stuff happening that your character either fails to stop or is not directly involved in.

In both of the following examples, Ava, Bob and Carla think it’s more interesting to let the Horsenecks successfully raid the village, with Darius, Emily and Fran hoping to see them driven off. Ava is the caller.

Quick Narration Example

Ava draws two cards. Darius, who plays Tallbeard and doesn’t want to be put in this position, pays a bennie to draw an extra card. Everyone turns their cards over at once. The highest card is the King of Spades, drawn by Emily. She narrates:

“The village may be on fire, but we rally and send the Horsenecks packing without Tallbeard’s having to draw his sword. His vow remains intact.”

This requires Ava, who is still the caller, to revise her intention of the scene. Her character, Ashwind, still goes to Tallbeard. Now, however, she uses a bit of tribal reverse psychology, congratulating him on training the others so that his own hands don’t get bloody any more.

Suspense Narration Steps and Example

In Suspense narration, the caller reveals the first card and describes a step in the action that goes her way. Then you go around the room from the caller’s left with each other player who wants to influence the outcome revealing his cards in turn. With each card reveal the player turning a card over describes:

  • a step toward his desired outcome (if this card is the highest so far, or if the highest card so far has already been drawn by a player driving the story toward the same outcome)
  • a step away from the desired outcome (if this card does not beat the highest so far, which is held by the other side)

Keep going around the room until you get back to the caller, who reveals her remaining card(s).

With all cards drawn and narrated, the player with the high card concludes the description by describing the final outcome.

(As the King of Spades is the highest card and can’t be beaten, its appearance prompts an exception to the rules. A player revealing it narrates an immediate end to the action sequence, in her favor.)

Example: Ava, the caller, reveals a 4 of Diamonds. The first card is always the high card when drawn, so she says: “The village is on fire! The Horseheads come riding in.”

Darius, on her left, wants the village to repel the attack and has paid a bennie for an extra card. He reveals the 8 of Clubs. That’s better than Ava’s card, so he describes events turning the village’s way: “Using Tallbeard’s training, the people spring into action, flinging sling bullets at the hated foe.” He turns over his second card, an 8 of Diamonds: “The Horsenecks break formation, and the people cheer!” (Suit order tells us that this is the new high card.)

Bob, on his left, reveals the 6 of Clubs, worse than the highest card so far. He has to describe events going against his desires, which favor of the invasion: “Even our smallest children join in the defense, pelting the invaders with well-aimed stones.”

Carla, on his left, reveals the 9 of Clubs, the best card so far. She favors the invasion: “Then their mightiest warriors regroup, sending our hurlers fleeing with terrifying swings of their great bronze war clubs.”

Emily turns over the Jack of Spades, now the best card. Opposing the invasion, she says: “Our best fighters, Tallbeard excepted, clash with theirs, sending them toppling from their mounts.”

Fran shows her card, the 7 of Diamonds. That’s not the best card but she’s with Emily in wanting the invasion to fail, so she gets to describe a positive result. “Seeing this, the Horseneck auxiliaries flee.”

That takes us around the room back to the caller, Ava. If she draws a Queen or King, she can turn this back to her original intent. But she only gets a 10 of Clubs, and must describe an opposite step: “Still on horseback, our war leaders herd the downed Horsenecks past our fortifications.”

As owner of the high card, Emily gets the final narrative touch: “We jeer them, hurling dung and insults, as they limp back toward their dry and wretched lands.”

As in the quick narration example, Ava, the caller, then revises her intention of the ensuing scene. Her character, Ashwind, still goes to Tallbeard. Now, however, she uses a bit of tribal reverse psychology, congratulating him on training the others so that his own hands don’t get bloody any more.

Mutant_City_Blues_Cover01Continuing Ken’s theme of looting 13th Age for GUMSHOE twists, let’s talk about monsters. In 13th Age, monsters have a sort of rudimentary AI – instead of the GM deciding to use their special abilities in advance, they’re triggered by the result of the attack roll. So, for example, if a ghoul gets a natural even hit, it gets to make its target vulnerable. If a frost giant rolls a 16 or higher when attacking, it also gets to freeze its foe.

For example, here’s a basic human thug:

13th Age Human Thug 

1st Level troop [Humanoid]

Initiative: +3

Heavy Mace +5 vs AC – 4 damage

Natural even hit or miss: The thug deals +6 damage with its next attack this battle. (GM, be sure to let the PCs know this is coming; it’s not a secret.)

AC17

PD14    HP 27

MD12

Automating monsters like that makes the GM’s life easier. Instead of having to make decisions before rolling the dice, the GM can just attack and let the triggered abilities make the fight more interesting and complex. The thugs, for example, encourage the player characters to focus their fire or dodge away from the ones who have extra damage lined up for next round. Some of the work of making the monster cool gets shifted from the actual play part of the game to pre-game preparation, leaving the GM free to concentrate on evocative descriptions. tactics and other immediate concerns. (Triggered powers can also surprise the GM, which is always fun.)

GUMSHOE monsters and foes have a limited number of points to spend on their attacks, possibly mediated by an attack pattern. While the attack pattern does take some of the heavy lifting away, the GM still has to make decisions about when to spend the bad guy’s ability pools. Let’s try taking away as much resource management as possible from the GM. For general abilities, for every 4 points a creature has in its pool, give it a +1 bonus, to a maximum of +3, and modelling special abilities as special-case rules or powers triggered by a dice roll instead of the GM having to make a choice. Health, obviously, is unchanged.

Obviously, GUMSHOE’s smaller range of random results means that you’ll have to be a little more restrained when it comes to special powers – there’s a big difference between a power that triggers on a natural 20 in 13th Age and a natural 6 in GUMSHOE. Possible triggers for powers include:

  • Natural even or odd rolls – good for alternate attacks or special effects
  • Natural 1s or 6s
  • 5s & 6s – generically ‘good rolls’, useful for foes that have a chance of doing extra damage or inflicting some special condition, like stunning or knocking prone
  • Health reaches a certain threshold – perfect for countdown mechanics, where the fie gets nastier towards the end of the fight
  • The attacking player character has no points left in a pool – if you’re out of Shooting, the alien monster breaks from cover and rushes towards yo

You can also have a power be limited to a certain number of uses – a ghoul in Night’s Black Agents might get an extra attack on the first three times it rolls a natural 6, but no more.

All these rules are just for monsters and NPCs – player characters still get to juggle points and manage their resources as per the standard GUMSHOE rules.

 

Esoterrorist Security Guard

General Abilities: Scuffling +1, Shooting +2,

Health 4

Hit Threshold: 3

Alertness Modifier: +1

Stealth Modifier: +0

Damage Modifier: +0 (Pistol), -1 (nightstick)

Freeze!: +2 bonus to Shooting in the first round of combat if the security guard isn’t surprised.

Natural 1: The guard calls for backup. If help’s available, it’ll arrive in the next few minutes. The guard misses his next attack. Treat further natural 1s as simple misses.

 

Night’s Black Agents Thug (pg. 70)

General abilities: Athletics +2, Driving +1, Hand to Hand +2, Shooting +1, Weapons +2

Health 6

Hit Threshold: 3

Alertness Modifier: +0

Stealth Modifier: -1

Damage Modifier: -2 (fist), +0 (club), +1 (9mm pistol)

Wall of Fire: If three or more thugs shoot at the same target, the last thug gets +1 Shooting

Gang Assault: If three or more thugs attack the same target with Hand to Hand or Weapons, they all get +1 damage.

 

Night’s Black Agents Bodyguard (pg. 69)

General abilities: Athletics +3, Driving +2, Hand to Hand +3, Medic +1, Shooting +2, Weapons +2

Health 8

Hit Threshold: 3

Alertness Modifier: +2

Stealth Modifier: -0

Damage Modifier: -2 (fist), -1 (flexible baton), +1 (9mm pistol)

Armor: -1 vs bullets

Protect the Principal: On a natural 5 or 6 when making an Athletics, Driving or Shooting test, the Hit Threshold of whoever the bodyguard’s guarding increases by +2 for the rest of the round.

Stunning Blow: On a natural 6 when making a Hand to Hand attack, the target loses their next action unless they spend 3 Health or Athletics.

 

Ashen Stars All-Shredder Klorn

General abilities: Athletics +3, Scuffling +3

Health 30

Hit Threshold: 3

Alertness Modifier: +2

Stealth Modifier: -3

Damage Modifier: +6

Armor: -3

Natural Even Roll: +2 bonus to Scuffling

Natural Odd Roll: Smash! The klorn destroys some obstacle or object nearby – it breaks through a wall, kicks over a computer console, smashes its spiked tail through the engine coolant tanks, knocks over a nearby ground car or something equally cinematic.

Natural 6: The klorn’s target is impaled on its spear-teeth; +4 bonus damage

Frenzy: When the klorn’s reduced to 10 or less Health, it immediately makes a free Scuffling attack on the nearest foe.

Special: Refreshes health pool when struck by non-lethal disruption fire

 

 

 

Forgery ColourHave you ever noticed that having one really beautiful set of mechanics next to another really beautiful set of mechanics leads to lots and lots of friction and unforeseen attraction between them? It’s like the set of a CW show up in this Pelgrane design space, sometimes.

Here’s how to take the wonderful Relationship rules from 13th Age (pp. 35-37, 179-183) and use them to add still more behind-the-scenes action and maneuvering to your Night’s Black Agents game.

Relationship Points

At the beginning of the game, each player may spend up to 3 build points (total) on Relationships with … not Icons, exactly, but mighty powers with their own agenda and overweening ego. You know, like the CIA. The Relationships need to be with entities capable of operating at a distance most places in the world, and capable of low-profile, high-power maneuvering: intelligence agencies, multinationals, major NGOs, the Vatican, non-vampire conspiracies, etc. (All right, Icons it is.) All Icons are Ambiguous or Villainous, except in Stakes-mode games, where agencies of the good guys (defined however) can be Heroic. Likewise, the game group’s politics likely determines which are which.

You can put all 3 points in one Relationship, split them up, whatever. (In Mirror mode, you can save them to be “revealed” later.) You then characterize each Relationship, as in 13th Age, as Positive, Conflicted, or Negative. So you might have: CIA (Positive) 1, Mossad (Negative) 1, Royal Dutch Shell Oil 1 (Conflicted). This doesn’t outweigh your Network contacts (or any other spends) with individuals in those agencies; this is a “default” based on your dossier, past, and general rep with the Icon. But a Positive agency asset NPC might be open to Reassurance in a way a Negative agency operator wouldn’t.

Relationship build points come out of the General build point pool.

In Burn-mode games, no Icon Relationship can be Positive.

In Mirror-mode games, starting with a Positive Relationship gives that Icon 2 Trust points from your agent. Each time you get a 6 on a Relationship roll for that Icon, it gets 1 more Trust point from you.

Relationship Rolls

Just like in 13th Age, at the beginning of each session (or if the Director suspects this will introduce too much chaos, at the beginning of each operation), roll one die per Relationship point. 6s and 5s are just like it says in 13th Age: positive boons from the Relationship, or favors with strings very much attached.

However, in the darker world of espionage, you also need to look at 1s. Those mean someone will screw you over — maybe send a wet-worker after you, maybe just rat you out to the locals and raise your Heat (by +1 per 1 rolled), maybe anything the Director’s cruel heart can surmise. And yes, the Director can absolutely save up those 1s for a less propitious time. Who, exactly, is gunning for you depends on your Relationship: If it’s Negative, it’s the Icon or one of its cut-outs; if Conflicted, it might just be extra Heat or unwanted interference; if it’s Positive, it’s not the Icon but its enemies who are griefing you — your CIA (Positive) earns you the enmity of the Chinese MSS or al-Qaeda. (And vice-versa for 6s from Negative Relationships, of course.)

If your Relationship is part of (or has been infiltrated by) the Conspiracy — if, in our example above, Shell Oil is vampire-riddled — that should get some story juice (blood) flowing for sure. Clever players may even be able to guess at such vampiric subversion when a few too many of their Shell favors come with a side of Renfield attacks.

Relationship Spends

You can also spend Relationship points as a dedicated Investigative ability pool for finding things out involving that Icon. You can also spend 1 Relationship pool point to get a +2 on a related General test; e.g., spending 1 pool point of FSB for +2 on an Infiltration test to break into an FSB facility, or on a Surveillance test to shed FSB watchers. Relationship pool points refresh like Investigative pool points, at the end of an operation.

You can also spend Relationship pool points (1 for only +1) on Network contact tests if the contact is either part of that Icon or actively opposing the Icon in that test.

Relationship rolls are based on ratings, not pools, so “spending yourself invisible” is impossible.

Relationship Shifts

While at Heat 6+ your Relationship automatically shifts to Conflicted or stays Negative; it shifts back one session after the Heat dies back down.

The Director may also shift your Relationship negatively if she senses you’ve abused it too much; conversely, she may just have the Icon demand a favor right now at the most inconvenient possible time in order to “balance the books.”

If you are the sort of teacher’s pet agents who go around doing favors for globally powerful entities (or if in a Stakes-mode game you do something unimpeachably heroic) you might be able to shift a Relationship from Conflicted to Positive. Only in the sunniest possible game can you shift a Negative Relationship to Conflicted, much less to Positive.