Monday, October 9, 2017

Character Backgrounds, the OSR Way

It was really hard for the me to sell any OSR or retroclone-style game to my current table. They were coming from heavier games (Pathfinder, Warhammer 3rd and 2d20) or from FATE. All their previous campaigns were strongly character-driven, with complex PC backgrounds and a certain degree of plot immunity against sudden death (usually through the use of Fate/Destiny/Hero points). Even when I tried Midnight with them, the table insisted on a character-driven game, which made me hack the 3.5 rules.

I guess that DCC RPG worked for them because of the Funnel*. It was fun and easy to run. I’m sure that at the time my table only accepted DCC because it was a good change of pace. Lots of characters died and lots of (otherwise) unoptimized character survived. That’s when the DCC magic kicked in. After three to six sessions playing with those survivors, the players started to get used to them, to plot goals and to imagine all kind of perks and… finally!... backgrounds.
*OK, I also used a little bit of Destiny Points, after the Funnel, but that is for another post.

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I still have nightmares with 4-8 pages PC backgrounds...

Character Backgrounds aren’t something you start with, but something you earn...

I can’t remember if I read it at Matthew Finch’s excellent Quick Primer for Old School Gaming, but one interesting aspect of OSR-style campaigns is that most PCs start without detailed background. Actually, most start without any background, having only a perk or two (boisterous, grim, lordly etc.) or basic concept (drunken dwarf, elf minstrel etc.). That’s because in older campaigns a PC’s background was a result of surviving long enough the campaign… each PC was a blank sheet until returning from the dungeon and spreading his tales of adventure. A character’s background was - basically - his campaign log. That is an awesome concept, very different from modern games, but hardly something that I could sell to my table.

So, at my DCC RPG campaign, I tried something slightly different. After all the gore and fun of the Funnel passed, when the party was reaching 2nd level I started to poke my players with questions: why you decided to go adventuring? Are you mad? Do you have a family? Enemies? Any tragic past?

For example: one of the PCs that survived our first Funnel was a lowly gongfarmer. During Sailors on the Starless Sea, his player made a really good argument at the table, telling us that his PC wasn’t just a gongfarmer - he was only pretending to be one. That PC was actually a chaotic cultists running from the Law Churches. He journeyed to the dungeons of the Starless Sea to find a Chaotic relic, restore his powers and get revenge! (all this just to roll a d20 in a Int check instead of a d10… those players...). In the end, it was so cool that the entire table (and me, the judge) bought it (I also believe a force him to roll a Will save or suffer Corruption).

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Go to a Funnel! Become a Badass!
Later, another PC that survived both Sailors on the Starless Sea and a homemade adventure was facing the deeps of The One Who Watches From Below. He was a squire or maybe even (another!) gongfarmer. I can’t remember. He became a mighty 3rd-level Warrior and his player proposed that his PC was actually the last scion of a fallen noble house, blamed unjustly with acts of witchcraft and black magic. We loved it and I already created a connection between that fallen noble house, a cult of Bobugbubilz (for The Croaking Fane) and the module Bride of the Black Manse.

The idea here is that a PC’s background is something that is built during the campaign as it progress, with a few bits of information provided by the player as a reward for surviving. Unlike “classic” Old School, a PC background isn’t just his adventures since 1st level, but also additional hooks crafted by the player as allowed by the game. The best of this “edited” background is that it allows a PC to play, for example, the (otherwise nigh unplayable) cliché of the Chosen One - the twist here is that it will make perfect sense only at higher levels. After all, if that PC survives to 7th or 8th level and only then reveals that he’s the Chosen One, that may sound true (after all, he survived this far). That way the Gamemaster avoids the classic problem of a 1st-level “Chosen One” that dies when facing his first orc.

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No Chosen Ones at 1st level.

An organic background, developed during the campaign, also allows the PC and the party to better declare what types of adventures they want, thus reinforcing agency. If, after surviving a battle against orcs, one of the PCs declare that his parents were taken by an orc chieftain with red skin, then the Gamemaster just got a free hook to insert in future adventures a tribe of “red orcs” (if your players are really open minded with their intents, you can work with them, offering background “revelations” that better suit your material).

A good start here is allow each player “one true fact” about his PC after surviving an entire module or two (not just one game session!). The entire table and Judge must accept the “new” fact about the PC and the revelation should not be used to gain free access to magic items or power, but to provide hooks for greater adventures (that, in the end, may grant the PC access to magic and political power).

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Fear for (and from) 13th Age

Last year I did a short post on using the Entropic Gaming System’s excellent Fear rules for Pathfinder (and technically for other, similar, d20 fantasy games). Here’s my attempt to expand it to 13th Age. The idea came from a good discussion at the Forge of the 13th Age Facebook group.

As mentioned in my older post, those rules create a FEAR POOL that the Gamemaster can use to trigger all sort of cool effects. In 13th Age, each PC that fall below the Fear Threshold automatically add +1 point to the FEAR POOL (add +1 if the monster is double-strength/large, +2 if triple-strength/huge and +1 if it is an elite). If the monster is of a different tier than the party, please add +2 points. Finally - and that’s the catch - the Fear source (i.e. the scary monster) gains automatically +1 point to the FEAR POOL every time the Escalation Die goes up (yes, they’re that nasty).

A beholder in 13th Age?! FLY YOU FOOLS!
The Gamemaster can use the FEAR POOL in 13th Age to trigger the following effects:
- inflict the Shocked condition on a PC (i.e. roll twice and pick the worst result, check the amazing 13th Age’s Bestiary 2). A PC can roll a save to remove this condition, but see below about “Facing your Fears”.
- force a PC to go last in the round, or to go after the scary monster (Gamemaster’s choice).
- weaken the PC’s resolve against the monster (treat all the PC’s attacks as if the Fear source had Resistance 21; if the Fear source has Resistance against the attack, roll it normally and if it is successful the PC deals only ¼ damage).
- cancel a PC’s Rallying action (the PC still get his turn normally, but he must change his Rallying attempt to another action).
- if a PC’s attack miss, spend 1 Fear point to automatically inflict normal impromptu damage against him (for example, if the Fear Source is an Adventure-tier monster, deal 2d6/3d6 damage). This damage reflects the PC’s desperation or the monster’s powers.
- spend 3 Fear points to force the party to spend 1 Recovery for each PC. If they can’t spend that number of Recoveries, they must retreat and accept a Campaign Loss (OK, this is a Nastier Special).

Facing your Fears

13th Age is all about heroism, action and risk (and doing all that looking cool). But facing any creature that has Fear should be a tough call. When facing a Fear-inducing monster, the Escalation Die isn’t a gift. It must be earned. Every PC can declare that he’s “facing his fears”. If the PC wants the Escalation Die bonus he must roll a d6 at the beginning of his turn. If he rolls equal or above the current Escalation Die bonus, everything is fine. If he rolls below, the Fear source gains +1 point for the FEAR POOL (the PC can still use the ED’s bonus).

Finally, any PC inflicted with the Shocked condition by the Fear source can try to get rid of it at the end of his round by rolling a save (11+ if the monster is of the same tier, 16+ if the monster if of a higher tier). If the PC fails his rolls, the monster gains +1 point to the FEAR POOL.

Yup, these rules give a clear advantage to the monster and maybe are better suited to horror campaigns. But let’s give the party a bonus: if the monster is of a lower tier (i.e. an Adventurer-tier creature facing Champion-level PCs), than the Facing your Fears rules don’t apply.

Those damn Paladins...

What?! You have a Fearless Paladin in your party? Congratulations! The Paladin don’t count as a PC and don’t grant points to the FEAR POOL. Also, he can’t be affected by the FEAR POOL. Please, dear Gamemaster, concentrate fire on those holier-than-thou bastards.

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I'm Old School... Paladins MUST have Char 17+

Enough with proselytizing about the awesomeness of 13th Age.

I don’t play 13th Age

Now, for those of you who don’t know 13th Age (are you mad?!), I talk about it at this post and you can check their official page (and the Archmage SRD). 13th Age, in a nutshell, is an awesome toolkit of ideas for d20 (and non-d20) fantasy. For example, their Fear rules.

Fear in 13th Age don’t make the PCs run away screaming in the night (which is cool in fiction or movies, but absurdly boring in RPGs). PCs affected by Fear in 13th Age can’t use the Escalation Die, which (again, in a nutshell), is a progressive bonus granted to the party during combats to simulate the action-driven heroism of that RPG. In other words, frightened PCs in 13th Age lose their edge and have a harder time facing monsters, which is a great way of simulating - mechanically - a Fear-effect (the dramatic part, including running away, can be perfectly roleplayed by the party, especially considering that 13th Age has other rules, like Campaign Loss, that work just fine for those horror encounters). The second aspect of 13th Age’s Fear rule is that it is triggered not by a failed save or attack, but when a PC falls before a certain HP threshold. The HP threshold is based on the monster’s level, which on 13th Age go up to 14th (that would be CR 20+ for most other d20 games I guess). When a PC drops below that mark, he’s instantly affected by Fear and can’t use the Escalation Die bonus on his attack rolls (until healed above the HP threshold).

That's the Fear Threshold Table

That’s a damn cool rule that could be adapted to other d20 games like Pathfinder, D&D and various retroclones. You just have to create a HP threshold. Because 13th Age’s PCs are really over-the-top heroes (Wizard or Rogue easily starts at 1st level with anything from 18 to 24 HPS), you have to adjust the threshold totals. In Pathfinder, for example, I would suggest the awesome (and unfortunately underused) Monster Statistics by CR table, available in every Bestiary. Just use half the table’s recommended Hit Points as a threshold. For example, a ½ CR critter usually has 10 hit points, so it provokes Fear when an PC has 5 or fewer hit points.

What happen when you’re affected by Fear? Well, if you don’t want to use my FEAR POOL rules, the there’s a simpler solution: PCs below the Fear HP threshold suffer Disadvantage (i.e. roll twice any check and pick the worst). If you’re playing DCC RPG, instead of Disadvantage, inflict upon the PC a -1 Die penalty (i.e. instead of a d20 for attack rolls, he now rolls a d16).

Cthulhu have stats! So it can be beated!