by Kevin Kulp

As mentioned when we looked at Conan, it’s fun to see how a hero you know translates into Swords of the Serpentine. Let’s take a look at two ways to play Michael Moorcock’s classic antihero Elric of Melniboné using the SotS rules.

You’ve probably heard of Elric or seen pictures of him even if you’ve never read Moorcock’s work: skinny with long white hair and red eyes, cloaked in black armor, wielding the soul-devouring blade Stormbringer. The naturally frail Elric uses Stormbringer’s power for health and strength, as the blade’s fell magic replaces the expensive alchemical potions Elric used to take to survive. Sure, Stormbringer tends to kill and drain the soul from anyone Elric likes or loves, but isn’t that a small price to pay?

(As a hero, Elric might be a tiny bit flawed. *cough*)

There are a few aspects of Elric that we want to capture when we recreate him as a Swords of the Serpentine hero.

  • Stormbringer eats souls and is hard or impossible to get rid of
  • Emperor Elric is a noble sorcerer who summons demons and gods to do his bidding, but is also manipulated by them (especially by his patron god of chaos, Arioch)
  • He’s weak and frail unless he consumes rare and expensive alchemical supplements, or unless his sword Stormbringer consumes souls to heal him

Option One: Elric, Sorcerer of Demons and Blades

In this option we create Elric as a sorcerer who has the spheres Blades, Chaos, and Demonology, all affecting health. We don’t give him a single rank of Warfare. “But Kevin,” you ask, “Elric spends all his time stabbing people with Stormbringer! What gives?”

Good question. If you want to play Elric your first inclination is probably to ask the GM for a magic sword like Stormbringer. Problems are that you haven’t done anything to earn it, SotS a game about your own personal capabilities and not those of your items, and you don’t want to risk so iconic an item being lost, destroyed, stolen, or taken away by the GM.

Stormbringer

There’s an easy solution. SotS is predicated on “your abilities define your capabilities, and you describe those capabilities however you want.” Use Sorcery instead of Warfare, select the Blades sphere, and describe your attacks as swinging Stormbringer. You decide the fate of anyone you defeat, so when you defeat someone announce “their souls are devoured by my sword.” Flavorful, tragic, and effective.

Narratively, Stormbringer is a pitch-black demon-sword with red runes; mechanically it’s just the form your Sorcery damage takes. You attack using Sorcery, your base attack does 1d6+1 damage to Health, and you can boost damage with Investigative spends as normal. This is very different from (say) D&D’s approach to magic items, but fits right into how Swords of the Serpentine handles player narrative control.

Elric’s Demon-Summoning

For this version of Elric, demon-summoning ancient gods is handled with the normal Sorcery rules alongside the Demonology sphere. You may choose to save your Corruption spends for particularly powerful demon-summoning to emulate Arioch or other gods laying waste to your enemies for you. You probably gain your sorcerous power from Elric’s patron Arioch, God of Chaos.

Frail Health

So how do we handle Elric’s frail Health? Here we may need to ask the GM for a house rule.

“How do you feel about me losing one point of Health every new scene (until I reach -5 Health), and to balance this I’m healed one point of Health for every Refresh token I create when killing enemies?”

Is it fair, balanced, and fun? The GM considers this and says yes (the effect is similar to the mace Lifedrinker on page 189 of Swords of the Serpentine’s Adventurer’s Edition) – and adds that you could also spend 2 Repute each adventure to procure rare alchemical drugs that would pause your Health loss for the adventure.

Option One’s Elric

Name: Elric VIII, 428th Emperor of Melniboné

Mournful, Frail, Albino, Regal, Introspective

Drives: Blood and souls for my Lord Arioch!; All the books, ALL OF THEM; Balancing between Law and Chaos

Defenses – Health: Health Threshold 4, Armor 3, Health 10

Defenses – Morale: Morale Threshold 3, Morale 8

Offense – Sorcery: Sorcery 10 vs. Health; Damage Modifier +1 (Stormbringer/Blades, Chaos, Demonology)

Offense – Sway: Sway 3; Damage Modifier +1 (haughty)

Investigative Abilities: Command 1, Intimidation 1, Liar’s Tell 1, Nobility 3; Corruption 3, Forgotten Lore 1, Leechcraft 1

Allegiances: Ally: Outlanders 1; Ally: Sorcerous Cabals 1; Enemy: Outlanders 1

General Abilities: Athletics 5, Bind Wounds 6, Preparedness 3, Stealth 3, Sorcery 10 (Blast), Sway 3

Sorcerous Spheres: (Affects Health) Blades; Chaos; Demonology

Gear: Distaste for your degenerate culture; patron gods who manipulate you; a head full of powerful summonings; a black-bladed, rune-covered sword named Stormbringer; a frail body kept alive only by alchemy or magic; black plate armor; weighty responsibilities; far too many dead friends and lovers; a cousin who’s trying to overthrow you; red eyes, pale skin, and white hair

Special: You lose 1 Health at the start of every new scene, down to -5 Health; prevent this by spending 2 Repute per adventure on rare alchemical concoctions. When defeating adversaries with Stormbringer, you can drain their souls to heal 1 Health per Refresh token you earn.

Option Two: A Two-Hero Approach

Want to team up with a friend? One of you plays Elric… and one of you plays Stormbringer.

There’s no real reason why your Hero in Swords of the Serpentine can’t be a sentient sword. The main challenge to consider is “how does a sword exert its will on the world?”, and there are lots of way to show that. You might be able to fly, or have a human act for you, or possess others, or have limited nearby telekinesis. As long as you can still do the same sorts of things a human could, you aren’t bending any rules or creating a power imbalance. In this case, you settle on Stormbringer manipulating humans around it, or subconsciously communicating through its wielder.

If you and your friend want to play partners like Stormbringer and Elric, and your GM says okay, go for it. Maybe you even switch off every few games. Just make sure the player with Stormbringer feels like they are making a difference in the narrative.

Both Elric and Stormbringer are considered Heroes and each gets an attack during a round, making it look to enemies like Elric is an incredibly accomplished warrior. Delightfully, give Stormbringer ranks of Bind Wounds so that it can heal its wielder.

Option Two’s Elric

This Elric is almost the same as above, but with no Bind Wounds ability and 8 ranks of Warfare.

Name: Elric VIII, 428th Emperor of Melniboné

Mournful, Frail, Albino, Regal, Introspective

Drives: Blood and souls for my Lord Arioch!; All the books, ALL OF THEM; Balancing between Law and Chaos

Defenses – Health: Health Threshold 4, Armor 3, Health 10

Defenses – Morale: Morale Threshold 3, Grit 1 (duty), Morale 8

Offense – Sorcery: Sorcery 8 vs. Health; Damage Modifier +1 (Blades, Chaos, Demonology)

Offense – Sway: Sway 3; Damage Modifier +1 (haughty)

Offense – Warfare: Warfare 8; Damage Modifier +2 (Stormbringer)

Investigative Abilities: Command 1, Intimidation 1, Liar’s Tell 1, Nobility 3; Corruption 3, Forgotten Lore 1, Leechcraft 1

Allegiances: Ally: Outlanders 1; Ally: Sorcerous Cabals 1; Enemy: Outlanders 1

General Abilities: Athletics 5, Preparedness 3, Stealth 3, Sorcery 8 (Blast), Sway 3, Warfare 8 (Cleave)

Sorcerous Spheres: (Affects Health) Blades; Chaos; Demonology

Gear: Distaste for your degenerate culture; patron gods who manipulate you; a head full of powerful summonings; a black-bladed, rune-covered sword named Stormbringer; a frail body, kept alive only by alchemy or magic; black plate armor; weighty responsibilities; far too many dead friends and lovers; a cousin who’s trying to overthrow you; red eyes, pale skin, and white hair

Special: You lose 1 Health at the start of every new scene, down to -5 Health; prevent this by spending 2 Repute per adventure on rare alchemical concoctions. When defeating adversaries with Stormbringer, you can drain their souls to heal 1 Health per Refresh token you earn.

Option Two’s Stormbringer

Name: Stormbringer, a greatsword of power

Demon-haunted, soul-devouring, deceitful, deadly, hungry

Drives: Blood and souls for Lord Arioch!; keep Elric safe and victorious; destroy everyone Elric loves or cares for

Defenses – Health: Health Threshold 4, Armor 3 (demon-forged steel), Health 10

Defenses – Morale: Morale Threshold 3, Grit 1 (deviousness), Morale 8

Offense – Sorcery: Sorcery 8 vs. Morale; Damage Modifier +1 (Fear)

Offense – Warfare: Warfare 8; Damage Modifier +2 (razor-sharp blade)

Investigative Abilities: Intimidation 3; Corruption 1, Spot Frailty 2, Tactics of Death 4

Allegiances: Ally: Mercenaries 1; Ally: Outlanders 1; Enemy: Church of Denari 1

General Abilities: Bind Wounds 6, Stealth 8 (Where’d It Go?), Sorcery 8 (Blast), Warfare 8 (Cleave)

Sorcerous Spheres: (Affects Morale) Fear

Gear: Growing impatience, mollified by blood; envy of anyone Elric seems to care for; a burning joy of chaos; faded memories of being a free demon; a body shaped like a night-black blade with glowing red runes; knowledge of Elric’s terrible need; a shameful desire for partnership

Special: You can’t walk or fly, but if left behind you can use Stealth to reappear wherever you would like, including within your scabbard. You must swallow the soul of any creature defeated by your blade. You can only apply your Bind Wounds to yourself or your wielder. You have a subtle mental link with your wielder that allows you to communicate.

 


Kevin Kulp (@kevinkulp) and Emily Dresner (@multiplexer) are the co-authors of Swords of the Serpentine, to be published in 2021. Kevin previously helped create TimeWatch and Owl Hoot Trail for Pelgrane Press. When he’s not writing games he’s either smoking BBQ or helping 24-hour companies with shiftwork, sleep, and alertness.

 

Fire Opal Media Inc. 13th Age Roleplaying Game Community Use Policy

Last updated April 21st, 2016

 

Applicable to Non-Commercial Activity

The 13th Age community is an intelligent, creative, dedicated, and enthusiastic group of people, and we at Fire Opal Media appreciate and value the contributions of our community members. This Community Use Policy is designed to encourage you to spread your enthusiasm and creativity while respecting ownership of our copyrights, trademarks, and other intellectual properties.

While copyright and trademark laws protect our property, they also prevent you from using our intellectual properties in most circumstances. That means that you are generally prohibited from using any of our logos, images, or other trademarks or copyrighted content without our consent. This policy grants you the consent to use some of our intellectual property under certain circumstances.

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This weekend, Metatopia, the game design festival, has moved online! Register here until Sunday, November 8th at 6:30PM EST if you’re interested in catching up with some of the content. Here’s where you can find the Pelgranes in the mix (all times are in EST):

Friday, November 6th

9:00PM – 10:00PM
D044: Translating Non-Game Intellectual Properties To Games
Presented by James Lowder, Darren Watts, Daryl Andrews, Scott Woodard, Robin Laws. Licensing an intellectual property for your game is potentially both artistically and financially satisfying. However, the process of actually melding your design with the specifics of the property is a creative challenge, to say nothing of the perils of disappointing the fans! Our band of experts have worked with a wide range of IPs and will share what they’ve learned.
Serious, All Ages
Location: Concord

 

Saturday, November 7th

9:00AM – 10:00AM
D054: Games, Gamefeel, Vocabulary and Umami
Presented by James Wallis, Cat Tobin, Kieron Gillen, Jacob Jaskov. We all know how certain games feel in play and how they make us feel, but as designers and critics we don’t have a set of words to describe it. Do we need an experiential vocabulary of play, and what would one look like?
Serious, All Ages
Location: Concord

 

6:00PM – 7:00PM
D073: The 100 GP Pearl: Economics and Trade as Design Elements

Presented by Jason Pitre, Rob Donoghue, Emily Dresner, Kenneth Hite. Economics and trade have long been foundational elements of game design, from the hyperinflation of dungeon pillaging to the free traders of Traveller. In this panel, we discuss how these aspects can be used as the foundation for game mechanics and procedures. Don’t make me quote the rules of acquisition at you.

Serious, All Ages
Location: Concord

 

9:00PM – 11:00PM
D079: RPG Points of View

Presented by Darren Watts, Nicole Lindroos, Kenneth Hite, James Crocker. Explain This Lingo: Trad. OSR. Story Game. Lyric Games. And Indie, which shouldn’t be about design at all. OK, folks from the Forge. We know this gave you the vapors. It’s okay to go make yourself a cup of tea and skip this one. There are a lot of folks coming in who have missed a whole lot of RPG chatter, and we get questions about what the lingo means fairly regularly. We’re going to dip into what these mean and what each category brings to the table that can be stolen and repurposed elsewhere.

Serious, All Ages
Location: Concord

 

Sunday, November 8th

9:00AM – 10:00AM
D085: Building Better Character Connections
Presented by Cat Tobin, Becky Annison, Sharang Biswas. How to Design !More! !Drama! into your RPG! Some of the most satisfying role playing experiences come from the dramatic outcomes of emotional connections between player characters. We look at ways for tabletop and LARP writers to design for deeper character relationships and dynamics, to provide a structure for GMs to bring more of the good kind of drama to their RPGs.
Serious, All Ages
Location: Concord

 

12:00PM – 1:00PM
D091: Grow Your RPG Brand

Presented by Cat Tobin, Will Sobel, JR Blackwell, Christopher McGlothlin, Maz Hamilton. You’re an RPG designer now! That’s great, but now how do you get your awesome game in front of players who will appreciate it? How do you position yourself for future projects? Basically, how do you get your name on a game to mean something? Our panelists grapple with this sticky problem!

Serious, All Ages
Location: Concord

A flapper, an astronaut, a ghoul, a weird scientist, and an empress of evil walk into a Halloween party… and mind-bending reality horror ensues!

Join us on the Pelgrane Press Twitch channel on October 31st at 8 PM EDT / 5PM PDT for a very This is Normal Now Pumpkin Spice session of The Yellow King Roleplaying Game.

Starring Sharang Biswas, Misha Bushyager, Wade Rockett, Ruth Tillman, and Cat Tobin and GMed by YKRPG designer Robin D. Laws.

Produced by Noah Lloyd; flyer by Dean Engelhardt.

Bring your own spoo-oo-o-ooky shooters.

WRISTBAND REQUIRED FOR READMITTANCE.

Watch part 1 now on our YouTube channel!

Page XX logo (2015_04_01 16_53_09 UTC)As we enter our ninety-sixth year of lockdown, we’ve lost all concept of space, time, and externality. If you’re looking for an introductory session to get your group into the Dracula Dossier, pick up this month’s PDF release The Dracula Vector.

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Current News: The Dracula Dossier in the Bundle of Holding

Long-term readers of See Page XX will know about my very personal connection with the Dracula Dossier, and it still remains one of the Pelgrane projects I’m most proud of. The two-book core set (The Dracula Dossier Director’s Handbook, and Dracula Unredacted) together form a complex and ambitious sandbox campaign for Night’s Black Agents, wherein the events of Dracula the novel are the redacted after-action report of a real incident when the British Naval Intelligence Division decided to recruit a vampire. Needless to say, it went badly; so they hunted him down, and killed him with extreme prejudice. Or so they thought…

Decades later, Dracula resurfaced in Eastern Europe; he’s the brilliant handler of a mole in (what has in the meantime become) MI6 in the 1970s; and now, in the modern day, your players must hunt down and kill Dracula – for good, this time.

As well as the core set, Bundle of Holding purchasers also get the Night’s Black Agents core book; introductory adventure The Van Helsing Letter; the adventure collection The Edom Files; Dracula Dossier cards, with instructions on how to use them; the Edom Field Manual, revealing the best and brightest of MI6’s secret vampire-recruiters; heartbreaking work of staggering genius The Hawkins Papers (digital only!), and Ken’s The Thrill of Dracula, a whirlwind tour of the myth, legend and media of the legendary vampire himself. Get this extensive high-octane thriller collection for a limited time only in the Bundle of Holding.

NEW: The Dracula Vector

And if you’re looking for a way to introduce your players to the Dracula Dossier, but worried about jumping in too quick, check out our PDF adventure, The Dracula Vector. Set in London, an old contact gets in touch with the PCs, concerned there’s a supernatural cause to his daughter’s illness. Designed by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan as an introduction to the fast-paced and cut-throat world of modern espionage in Night’s Black Agents, this one- or maybe two-shot adventure does double-duty as an entry point into a longer Dracula Dossier campaign. It includes the usual shady bunch of pregenerated characters, but works just as well with your own PCs.

NEW: Elven Towers PDF

Pre-orderers of the print book of this champion tier 13th Age adventure by Cal Moore can now download the final PDF, and Aileen’s colour map folio, from their bookshelves. For those already possessed of groaning bookshelves, who are more interested in the digital version, that is now available, and also includes the map folio.

Work in progress: The Borellus Connection

This globe-spanning campaign for The Fall of DELTA GREEN features eight linked operations, each one playable as a standalone investigation, or as part of an epic hunt for an infamous enemy, using the heroin trade and the BNDD as a narrative spine.

The final manuscript is so massive that we’ve had to hack chunks out of it just to fit it all into one book! (For Handlers only: find a wealth of articles cleaved from the final under the “FINEST EFFECTS” tag).

It’s now finally finished its sensitivity read, and Shao’s delivered an extensive, and really insightful, report from a Southeast Asian perspective. Ken and Gareth are going through her notes now and writing up the edits; once they’re done, I’ll make the changes to the master manuscript, and pass it over to the incredibly talented Jen McCleary, who’s going to do the interior art and layout. We’re hoping to release this on pre-order next month, and have the final to pre-orderers in March 2021.

Work in progress update: Saigon ’68

This ideal companion to The Borellus Connection, this Looking Glass-style writeup of the Vietnamese “Pearl of the Orient” has also finished its sensitivity read, and Ken’s currently going through the edits, at which point it’ll pass it over to the incredibly talented Jen McCleary, who’s going to do the interior art and layout. We’re hoping to release this on pre-order next month with Borellus.

Work in progress update: Even Death Can Die

I’m delighted to report that Christian has finished the final PDF for the printer, and pre-orderers can now download this from their bookshelves. He’s currently working on the cover, and once that’s finished, it’ll be off to the printer. We’re hoping to get this out to pre-orderers in January.

Work in progress update: Swords of the Serpentine

Due to the massive size, I put out a call for artists and got more than 400 responses! Which is a good problem to have, but going through so many portfolios really slows down the art process, so we haven’t made as much progress on this as I’d have liked. We’re now looking at 2021 to have this to pre-orderers. Rich Longmore’s belting through the art he’s doing, though – here’s his Buzzing Acolyte:

Work in playtesting update: The Paragon Blade

Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan’s fantasy setting for the GUMSHOE One-2-One system, currently-but-still-provisionally titled The Paragon Blade, is currently in playtesting until the end of October. Play heroes barbarian Conn the Unslain, Aletheia the Scholar, or mysterious thief Puc, in a fantastical land still scarred by the evil of the fallen Hellbound Empire. Full details on how to take part in the playtest are here.

Work in progress update: The Yellow King Bestiary

Only recently announced, Robin and the other writers have been hard at work on this compendium of Carcosan creatures, and have submitted the final manuscript now. This is nearly finished copyediting, and we’ll shortly be starting art direction on it. Expect a pre-order for it either late this year or early 2021.

13th Age work in progress update:  Elven TowersCrown of Axis, and Drakkenhall: City of Monsters

Rob Heinsoo’s very kindly already written this bit for me, and you can read it here.

And finally, a request.

Wherever you live in the world, but most especially if you live in the USA, please vote.

 

Saigon, 1968: Vietnam’s “Paris of the East” is a hotbed of conflict and intrigue, from the CIA and the Viet Cong to Buddhist monks and Western media. Looking Glass: Saigon ’68 gives you a view into all this, as well as the city’s shadowy underworld of vampires, conspiracies, and the Mythos. This tight city supplement equips GUMSHOE GMs with just enough evocative detail and intriguing possibilities to bring Saigon to life for their players.

A foundation and framework, Looking Glass: Saigon ’68 can launch you into immediate play or provide pointers for your own researches. With these ingredients, you can begin cooking Saigon as a “Low and Slow” 1968 city setting for your GUMSHOE game—not just The Fall of DELTA GREEN, but also Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, TimeWatch, and others.

Looking Glass: Saigon ’68 features:

  • The lay of the land, where crowds gather and how your heroes arrive.
  • Three unique backdrops: the Rex Hotel, the Saigon Zoo, and the Le Van Duyet Tomb
  • Seven Saigon story seeds and hooks.
  • The Mythos in Saigon.

Status: In development

For some weeks now, you’ve been on the trail of a vampire in London.

Call him Dracula.

He may or may not be the no-kidding Count Dracula, but he’s definitely cut from the same burial shroud.

You’ve hunted him across London, destroying his refuges and hiding places, denying him his coffins. Maybe tonight will be the night you catch him, and come face to face with your enemy.

Time is running short. Unless you kill him, he’ll spread his curse like a disease. Think of the vampire as a pathogen, a plague – the Dracula Vector.

The Dracula Vector is a short (1-2 session) adventure, designed as an introduction to the Night’s Black Agents RPG, and giving a taste of how a larger mission plays out.

It can also serve as a jumping-off point for a longer Dracula Dossier campaign.

Stock #: PELGN16D Author: Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan
Artist: Phil Stone Type: 29-page PDF

Buy now

In 1893 a visionary spymaster in the British Naval Intelligence Department tried to recruit the perfect asset: a vampire.

Operation Edom contacted Count Dracula in Transylvania, set up a safe house and headquarters in England, and arranged transit. Then it all went wrong. Dracula betrayed his minder and double-crossed NID. British intelligence hunted him down on his home ground and terminated him with two knives and extreme prejudice — or so they thought.

Dracula lives. Now it’s up to you to finish the job.

Funded by a spectacular November 2014 Kickstarter campaign, the Dracula Dossier campaign for Night’s Black Agents follows in the fully improvisational path of the award-winning The Armitage Files campaign for Trail of Cthulhu.

Players follow leads in the margins of Dracula Unredacted, a rare edition of Bram Stoker’s masterpiece that reveals the terrifying truth behind the fiction. Players choose which leads to track, which scarlet trail to follow. The Director improvises a suitably blood-soaked thriller in response to their choices. Together you create your own unique story — and you learn why Ben Riggs at Geek & Sundry called The Dracula Dossier the greatest RPG campaign of all time.

The Bundle of Holding once again brings you the entire Dracula Dossier line. For just US$19.95 you get all three titles in this revived offer’s Agent Collection:

And if you pay more than the threshold price, you’ll level up and also get this revival’s entire Director Collection with six more titles worth an additional $80:

Get the complete Dracula Dossier collection at the Bundle of Holding now!

by Joshua Kronengold and Catherine Ramen

One of the most interesting features of GUMSHOE is that failure is frequently not an important part of the gameplay. Whether by finding a clue with an Investigative Ability, or spending enough points on a General Ability test to ensure success, GUMSHOE games focus more on the what (which Ability do you use, what do you do to invoke it, what you do with information after finding it) the why (Drives, at minimum), and how much (do you spend points now or hold them in reserve for a future effort? How many?)

The thing is, as much as automatic successes make PCs seem (and players feel) like badasses, in games where the characters have broad ranges of skills and large amounts of points to spend, the die rolls on General Ability tests become less interesting. Varying the difficulty can add some drama to rolls, but it has to be done carefully, especially if the Difficulty is not revealed to the players. Unknown Difficulties that run higher than the expected 4 can discourage point spends as players become conservative, or cause frustration as too many tests fail because of underspends or running out of points. Keeping Difficulties to a narrower and more predictable range lets players make more strategic choices about when to spend points–but also tends to make any rolls a foregone conclusion and the die roll a pro forma task. In this article, we look at several ways to give die rolls drama and keep the results interesting. At their best, dice do more than moderate between players; they provide interesting and surprising results that nobody in the session would have chosen, while still staying within the bounds of what people consider an acceptable result.

So, then, how do we open up die rolls?

The first method, which appears in a rough form in Night’s Black Agents and TimeWatch, is to add another possible result to the roll: you get a Critical success if you roll a 6 and beat the Difficulty by 5. (Note that this will encourage some overspending by players, but both TimeWatch and NBA make it relatively easy to refresh pools or find extra points when needed, and that mathematically it encourages what we consider optimal play–usually spending just enough to guarantee success) However, this tends to still produce only two possible results for a roll. If you didn’t spend enough to guarantee success, the possibilities are failure and success. If you did, it’s success and critical. But either way, it’s a pure binary result: yes or no; crit or normal. There are three possibilities, but only two of them are possible on any given roll.

Catherine has designed a system that opens the results even more, by creating a system of “Benefits” that can be accessed with a high enough roll. In her system, for every four points that you exceed a Test’s Difficulty by, you can choose a Benefit (you can choose the same benefit more than once). In her last campaign, the list looked like this:

  • Terrible Harm: + 4 damage
  • Armor Piercing: you negate the target’s armor
  • Speed: You succeed very quickly
  • Unnoticed: No one sees what you do
  • No Traces: No obvious signs of what you did
  • Safe: You don’t expose yourself to danger
  • Disable: You break or damage an object
  • Disarm: You knock a weapon (or other held object) free
  • Suppress: You stun, force under cover, or otherwise prevent someone from acting
  • Opportunity: The PC may immediately take a second, related task
  • Missing Materials: You can succeed even without the proper tools

The system also allows you to take a Benefit if you are willing to take a consequence; one of the implicit Benefits is “You Succeed,” and several skills (like Intrusion or Filch in NBA) include Unnoticed or some other benefit by default) so a player willing to let their character suffer a consequence or lose one of the benefits of success could succeed even on a failed roll. When deciding on a consequence, often the easiest thing to do is simply reverse one of the Benefits: so instead of being safe, a character might take damage; their effort might take a great deal of time, or be unable to conceal. Note that the Benefits list can also function as a quick way to reward an Investigative spend, for example a Library Use spend that finds the results in only a half a day’s search. A GM might even allow a player to purchase a Benefit using an appropriate Investigative spend if it fit the situation–using Intimidate during a fight to keep other characters from joining the fight, for example (using the Suppress Benefit).

This “Margin of Success” method makes the rolls more interesting, since any roll might result in a valuable Benefit, as well as rewarding players who overspend on a Test since they will probably receive a Benefit rather that effectively wasting any points beyond the amount needed to guarantee success. (This is the reason why the margin to receive a benefit was set at 4–it gives a 50% chance of receiving a Benefit on most tasks, provided the player spends at least 3 points. For a grittier feel you could raise the required margin to 5 points or even 6; lowering the margin will tend to produce very competent characters.)

The Benefits list has to be customized for the GUMSHOE game you’re using, the particular style of your group, and the skills that are available.

That said, there are limits to this approach. While the variable benefits allow for players to make many more choices about how to customize successes and failures, die results have gone from being binary to sometimes-ternary–depending on how much someone spent. At best, the possibilities are failure or success, or success with a benefit — or success, success with a benefit, or success with two benefits (etc). While player choices can customize this result after the roll, the results are still going to be strictly bounded.

To really make sure we don’t know what will happen, we have to make die rolls truly open ended. That way, you’ll never know exactly what result you’re going to get–and can let yourselves get a little excited every time the dice hit the table. There’s a simple and well tested way to do this — use the same system that quite a number of other games have used and have a 6 or 1 result in another die getting rolled (repeating this as necessary). The problem with that is that most of us (and the authors are certainly in this set) are attached to the way that GUMSHOE’s results are more predictable than those in most others, while the “exploding six and one” system is incredibly, unalterably random.

So Josh suggests that we tone it down a bit. Whenever you roll a 6, it explodes, but to keep it slightly flatter, use a d3 instead of a d6 (if, like us, you don’t have a d3, just halve the results on a d6 and round up). And if you roll a 3, keep going.

Similarly, we can have rolls of 1 implode (if you like surprise failures–If you don’t like it as GM, or the group doesn’t want it, don’t use it). If you’re using this rule, you should also allow players to “take one,” setting the die to 1 (and not risking it imploding) rather than rolling if they want; this means that, if they’ve successfully gauged the difficulty, they get an automatic success. As an optional rule, only allow taking 1 if they did, in fact, spend enough to guarantee success; if they declare this and it’s not enough, tell them to roll anyway, but only after they’re committed. This avoids players being unfairly punished for “taking 1” in a situation where the difficulty is unknown. Imploding is less fun for players than exploding, so add one to the d6 roll before subtracting, but otherwise it’s the same in reverse–roll a d3 and subtract the result, but keep going if a 3 is rolled.

We’d be fine with stopping there, but we know some people are going to want a fumble system (and some people are going to really, really, really NOT want a fumble system). One option is to invert the Benefits system so that for every 4 points you fail the test’s Difficulty by, the GM assigns a consequence which is the reverse of one of the Benefits. If you want fumbles to be more rare, you should make them only happen if a 1 was rolled — and that should probably be the default for defensive rolls, particularly when target numbers are unknown, so that players don’t roll flat against a difficulty of, say, 15 and suddenly — surprise! — they take multiple consequences just for playing. After all, it should generally be better to roll than not to roll, even if the odds are long. Even if you don’t want to lock yourself into a fumble system, this can be a good guide to estimating the consequences of failing a high stakes active roll. The PC doesn’t get the benefits of a success, and may (particularly if they miss the difficulty by 4 or more) end up exposed to danger or notice, drop or damage something important, or an opponent might gain an opportunity. Gumshoe is often about pretty competent protagonists, so you can do all of this without having to make the PCs look incompetent or foolish.

And that’s it — several modular, open-ended, still very GUMSHOE-Y systems that should add a bit of anticipation to every roll you make — and provide a few entertaining surprises. Try it out, and let us know what you think!

Postscript (by Joshua Kronengold):
Since we drafted this article, Robin published an article talking about how one can embrace failure in Gumshoe general tests (as well as another on automatic successes).  Our article, on embracing and shaping exceptional success and softening failures, could be seen to act as a complement to Robin’s thoughts on the subject.

On the one hand, we have automatic successes (or failures).  Those are the points where you don’t a particular result as interesting — so you don’t allow for it at all, instead simply ruling success to be automatic or impossible.

Then we have rolls where failure is acceptable.  There (as with the addition of my highly caveated fumble system), Catherine’s system allows for a  failure to be a negotiation, not a catastrophe, shaping the narrative rather than cutting it off.  Perhaps you fail at your overall goal, but salvage one particular element from it that was more important than the goal itself.  Or perhaps you succeed at that goal, but at the cost of excessive time, damage, or some other mischance–either way, the dice steer you into a result that falls short of your character’s goal–and instead steers you into a different avenue that might end up being more narratively satisfying rather than a wall that you feel compelled to
bang against until it falls.

 


Catherine Ramen has been playing role-playing games for almost four decades. She is the designer of the upcoming Red Carnations on a Black Grave, a story game about the Paris Commune, Rovers, a customizable space-opera rpg about loveable anti-heroes, and edited the English edition of Nerves of Steel, a film noir story game.

Joshua Kronengold lives in Queens, New York with Lisa Padol, surrounded by books, games, and musical instruments.  He is a decades-long contributor to Alarums & Excursions, and has contributed to Over the Edge (in Edgeworks #3), Reign, and Unknown Armies.

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