Thursday, August 21, 2014

K34 - and thus died the Kraken

This session is the conclusion of a side adventure with alternate characters that pitched the Kraken against Gandalf, Quickbeam, Elphir, Beorn and Gwaihir the Eagle-Lord. 

The setup

Time 0 for session 3
It all resumed with the Eagle-Lord lying face up under a yard worth of water, grappled by the Kraken. The Kraken had been lured in really shallow water after the lake was partially drained and Gandalf lured it from the depth using a blue sphere of light. The blow from the diving Eagle was harsh, but the Kraken was still a serious threat.

Quickbeam was then carrying Elphir of Dol Amroth on his shoulder while Gandalf was slinging anemic fireballs to the beast. 

Felling the beast

If you laugh at the GM's artwork, you won't be invited anymore.
While Quickbeam and Elphir were wading to the Kraken, Gandalf propelled Beorn (in bear form) halfway to the beast.  Gandalf then offered a reprieve to the Eagle-Lord by casting a spell to push away water around both creatures' head. This beached the Kraken which was embroiled with the Eagle. By then, Beorn caused much damage with its claws and disabled a basal tentacle. Quickbeam put Elphir on the ground so the knight let out a power-blow that tore a large gash in the beast's side. Beyond the gash, a void full of stars was sucking in air. Elphir was struck by horror at this sight and failed to prevent tipping over into the emptiness. 

By his side, Quickbeam tore an even bigger hole in the Kraken's side while Beorn knocked one of the large eye off its socket. The beast had absorbed by then well over 100 HP of damage to its head and became unresponsive. 

Quickbeam used a tentacle as a rope to climb down into the oblivion while Beorn simply jumped straight in to follow the listless Elphir. When Gandalf arrived, all that he could see was Quickbeam hanging over a bottomless void. His intuition told him to Jump!, and so he did. Quickbeam let go and all fell into a maelstrom.

Underneath Middle-Earth

An underwater cave.

Down they fell for something like a minute until their bodies entered a gigantic underground cave. They fell in a lake. Only Elphir had a hard time to reach the island in the middle, but made it without harm. 

Overhead, there was a terror of tentacles wrapped around a colossal stalagmite hung some 80 yds over they heads. A beating organ was contained into a sack high up in the dark. Quickbeam grew a few of his spears and threw them at the hanging sack. Gandalf shaped a spire out of limestone such that everyone could climb and catch a hanging tentacle. They proceeded up, except for the wizard who lost his nerve and headed back down. 

Elphir attempted a strike which failed to penetrate the membrane. Beorn lost his grip and fell back down in the water. Quickbeam stabbed the heart and was followed by Elphir. A trickle of blood turned into a flood. The tentacles twitched, then let go of the stalagmite which began to free fall. 

The Kraken was in fact holding the massive cylinder of stone. Gandalf saw the mass coming down and shatter the island as it touch the ground. The island sunk, which triggered an earthquake. High above, the others were hanging from the sack, looking down in disbelief as a crack in the bottom of the lake drained the water. Gandalf and Beorn held on to dear life until the water was gone. 

The crack started to widen and ran along the lake bed until it hit the cave's wall. Then, a huge snapping sound deafened everyone as the crust of middle earth fractured. Gandalf stood there, listening as the fissure ran in multiple directions for hundred of kilometers. 

He didn't see this one coming, from the fissure, noises could be heard. Some peril bigger than the Kraken had been awaken. 


And thus ended the side adventure. What happened to the slaying crew is unknown. On that day, Bain was writing at his desk when he felt a dull earthquake running from West to East. Khazek was sleeping under a tree in the Eastern forests. Thordar was drunk under a table. Gror was sparring with his battle-guard. How about Lathmelen? Lathmelen was reading a book. Ngai, her cousin now Queen of elves looked at her and said: "I think that destiny is knocking at your door."

Monster/Adventure design notes

I didn't want to model the Kraken as a simple monster.  It was instead a sequence of challenges to overcome. 

  1. Interference by a swarm of Huorns: That got neutralized fairly well because it turned out that one of the PC was a bloody Ent (Quickbeam).
  2. A deep lake: It got overcome by draining part of it, which was anticipated. Using magic to find the weakness in the wall, then enlisting an Engineer from Tharbad was a good idea (Credit to Gandalf and Elphir).
  3. Drawing the Kraken out: In shallow water, Gandalf used a light to bait it. The Kraken bit the bait and ended up in a dangerous position. Gandalf removing the water around its head to beach it was a great idea (Gandalf). The Eagle-lord helped pinning it down as well by making it an attractive morsel to grapple (Gwaihir).
  4. Getting to the portal (See design notes underneath) and triggering something that matters to the main arc of the campaign.
The physiology of the Kraken was undefined. If had nearly infinite tentacles and couldn't be completely killed by striking the head. Here is how the Kraken worked at the surface of the lake:
  1. Three ranges for tentacles attacks (ST 40):
    1. 20 yds radius: small tentacles, severed at 10 HP (DR12), SM -1
    2. 10 yds radius: medium tentacles, severed at 20 HP, (DR12), SM 0
    3. 5 yds radius: large tentacles, severed at 40 HP, DR12, SM 1
    4. The head could take 80 HP before compulsory withdrawal, which it didn't manage to do because of a massive major wound knocking it down (Beorn's). SM 2
  2. Attacking tentacles was random:
    1. A successful Tactics placed a tentacle in range of an attack.
    2. The odds of a tentacle in each respective rings were: CR8, CR10 and CR14
      1. The bulk of the damage was done by armed parry against unarmed tentacle attacks.
  3. The Kraken has Per-8 in the air, and Per-12 for movement in the water. It could make as many attacks as its margin of success. 
    1. Wrestling-21 (bent on obnoxious deceptive attacks)
    2. Brawling-19
More importantly, the Kraken wasn't the guardian of some dinky door but rather a bait placed by the dark lord. The Kraken existed in two places, connected by a gate. Morogth knew that such a beast would be an attractive target for heroes. So he cursed the beast to hold on to a huge rock which threatened to shatter the crust of the world. The prophecy was fullfilled. What it did to Middle-Earth is material for the next chapter of Reclaiming Khazad-dum.

My regrets as a GM

  1. The Kraken didn't have enough punch: it should have struck more and harder. I don't know if I scared my players at all with it. 
  2. Many PCs were awesome strikers and somewhat redundant. I wish that I had designed a challenge where each player was more of a distinct asset. 
  3. I wanted to wrap up by the end of this session, so I made the last bit easier and thus a bit anticlimactic. 
  4. Syntactic magic is cool, but i'd be curious to hear from the players on how it worked out in practice: too strong? 
  5. High-powered campaigns are difficult for me to wrap my head around. However, I think that the spirit of the side-adventure was pulpy-fun so we rolled dice and giggled through the session.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Social Academy: Reward structure for social-based GURPS campaigns

This post is part of a the GURPS Social Academy in support of my new campaigns The Empress of India and Tsukumogami.

The earlier posts are the following:
  1. The Reaction Roll
  2. The Unassisted Influence Check 
  3. PCs as targets of Influence Checks
  4. A non-fantasy model for religions
  5. Mitigating the reaction Roll
  6. Reward structure in social-oriented campaigns.


On a small enough scale, advancement isn't the same as inflation

I think that we tend to think of character advancement as a fundamental component of a RPG. I'd like to suspend this assumption for a moment, and hopefully for a lot longer. One of the many gems that I found in FATE is the principle that characters change without necessarily becoming more super. A good player will foresee the trouble ahead and shift skills in the Pyramid, or add/remove stunts such that the character can face better the challenges ahead. A bad player will miss the boat and deal with the mismatch.

Of course, some campaigns need characters to inflate, and that's cool. I just can't imagine a context where Fast-Talk-22 is exciting.  Ok, everyone gets to put their pants down for a moment every time that the character snaps his/her fingers, which can be funny.

My take on character points

Let's consider character points as a quantity of narrative potency.

In a system like GURPS, traits that constrain play are counted as negative point. Conversely, assets that opens possibilities and solutions to problems are traits that are positively priced. A character with a large and positive CP tally has lots of potent options, which are often blunted by counterbalancing disadvantages. We play positively priced characters because we want to be play actors rather than drifting story elements. Having the ability to control the story is important: let's call it narrative potency.  This is the reason why D&D (or whatever one may call it these days) characters are levelling up. Unfortunately, in a class/level system, the wheel keeps on spinning just the same as monsters and challenges simply scale with the characters. 

Earning points

Earning point happens when a character does something, or goes through an event that will leave him/her more capable to steer his/her own story. You make a new contact, take on a new patron somehow, get a lot richer and move uptown.  You learn a skill, get better or get trained by a master. 

Losing points

Hey, this happens too and this is not such a big deal. You make an enemy that will keep on preventing a character from moving forward. The same can be said for duties. A character becoming alcoholic loses narrative potency as he/she is too busy being drunk. A kleptomaniac is compelled to the something else than the best possible action.

Character death

It doesn't begins when the heart stops beating. It begins when a character can no longer influence a story. Dying, yeah, is likely to do that. However, I had planned to let my players keep on acting on the story as wraith in the Palantir Commission (at least until the story left the frozen North). The death of a character is when its narrative potency falls under a threshold. An good example is how a character becoming a single mother/father gets a spanking -30 dependent (baby). It probably means that either the character gets rid of the dependent through adoption, or retire for the next 18 years. 

I think that it is up to a character to decide what is the death of a character in this story. And not take it too hard: it is a big world out there with lots more to play with.

How I do it in The Empress of India

Character points will be awarded to character contributing to the advancement of one or more story arcs. The size of the point package will depend on the scope of the contribution. The gold standard to evaluate the narrative is to imagine what the Wikipedia entry on the subject would look like in 2014.

cp value
Something done that would change the course of the arc and would be known to contemporary.
Something done that would change the course of the arc such that the Wikipedia entry later on would mention or imply it.
Appearance of the character’s name in the official records. Citation issued by a NPC of rank 5+
Key role in a central event. Or citation issued by a Queen Victoria or the Governor of India.

Achievement points are free to be allocated as the player sees fit. This includes allocating into skills that are capped. 

These are pure rewards, always positive but difficult to obtain. It inspires the players to do great things. Isn't this why we play heroic characters in stories anyway?

GURPS analog to FATE character advancement

Points.  They are fun to play with: I love them and I'm far from being a munchkin (ask my poor fellow player's in +Jason GURPS 's Mystara campaign).  I see points as the currency that can be shifted:

  • Upgrade the frequency, reliability of a contact by increasing the frequency of an enemy, duty.
  • Drop a contact, an enemy and buy a level of talent or an attribute. 
  • Acquire an advantage, buy of a disad, etc.

Of course, these should make sense lest the story suffer in the name of gaming.  However, shifting points around with some narrative explanation is the closest thing to advancement without equating it to inflation.

You want inflation? Sure, become bigger, do something that will make you more of a story driver: do something that will put your name into Wikipedia by the year 2014!

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Evaluate(Opening) - Results from playtesting

This post is in part a repost of an earlier blog entry introducing the concept. I repost the key bits here for convenience, and add to this my observations after playtesting. 

You will find more on Evaluate on +Douglas Cole 's Melee Academy 301 - Evaluate.

The Serendipity Engine

Screen Shot of the alpha version on May 21st 2013


Simulate how combats are made of serendipitous opening that perceptive and skilled fighter take advantage of. One can fight according to a plan, or be nimble and go with the flow. This option provides the "flow". It is based on a web-based app, requiring nothing but a browser.


A skill contest between the Per-based melee combat skill of the attacker against the DX-based melee combat skill of the defender. In case of a success by the attacker, the attacker spot a combat opening with a benefit that is a function of the margin of success. If the margin is negative, but the Per-based skill check was successful, the bonus is applied to the next active defense.

To generate interesting openings, the random "table" is implemented as a web application. This has the potential to generate over a few hundreds different combinations of opening and conditions, and this number of permutations blows up into the thousands if we take into account the range of possible attack bonuses and defense penalties.


The phasing player may call an Evaluate(combat opening) as a melee combat move. The skill contest is resolved by the app, determine the success and generate an opening. In case of failure, the phasing player my be compelled to take a Do nothing action. In other cases, the phasing player is free to take advantage of the opening by converting the evaluate into a new action and immediately resolving it to exploit the opening, or take instead a Do Nothing or All-out defense action. The gamble here is that if the opening isn't desirable, the turn will be spent looking  for an opening and deciding not to take it.

  1. Declare an Evaluate (combat Opening)
  2. Per-skill vs DX-skill (handled by app)
  3. Pick Either of:
    1. Immediately convert to attack to exploit opening.
    2. Do Nothing

A critical fail on the Per-based skill check is narrated to the player like a critical success, but is converted instead into a bonus for the opponent as a bonus to any form of counter attacks.


This is not a new idea, if you want a low-tech table instead, try Sean Punch's post of SJG's forum, or +Douglas Cole 's post on Gaming Ballistic. Here follows some questions that I was looking for in playtesting this combat option:

Are players using the the Evaluate (opening)?

In my Face-to-Face game, yes. At first for novelty but then again because I think that my players enjoyed the unpredictability that it brought. As a disclosure, I tend to limit combat to a few very important once which tend to revolve themselves fairly quickly: the first strike often sets the tone for the rest of the combat.

When presented with an opening, are the players deciding to exploit the opening?

Usually yes. If the random opening generator suggested something that didn't make sense, there is a button to generate another opening without re-rolling the skill contest. 
  1. If not,
    1. Sometime, ending in the kneeled position isn't outweigh by the bonus conferred by the opening (especially for contest won by a small margin). 
  2. If so,
    1. I think that my players like how it sends the combat into unforeseen directions. It comes down to a gamble: waste a turn looking or get something more substantial than a plain Evaluate
In summary, I like this option and we find it fun. Rolling against this option gives an edge for perceptive characters and bring laughters all around.  I can't recall a single instance of a player getting a smile out of using the base Evaluate maneuver (let alone the whole table). It works really only against an anthropomorphic foe.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

K33 - An unlikely patch of green

This session is part of a mini-side adventure for the campaign "Reclaiming Khazad-dum". We transport ourselves in the 12th year of the fourth age, some 2-3 years before the start of the campaign itself. The PCs are here a collection of high-powered, A-list Tolkien characters. The outcome of this side quest will determine what Army Group West will run into. 

The Characters

Each players was given complete creative license and 500 cps to create high-profile characters from the Middle-Earth lore. +Paul Stefko decided to play Elphir of Dol Amroth, the heir of Dol Amroth and a damn great Numenorean knight. Paul has posted some design notes on his blog.  +Jason Woollard  create his version of Bregalad (Quickbeam) the hasty Ent. +Arne Jamtgaard traded Bain the Viceroy for Gandalf the White. He modeled Gandalf's magic using effect shaping syntactic magic using the verb and noun variant. Finally, +Alex J. has crafted Beorn. In the next session, +Alex Safatli will be joining the fray with Gwaihir, the Eagle-Lord.

That, friends and fellow gamers, is a 2500 cp worth of protagonists, soon to swell to 3000 cps. 

Friday, June 27, 2014

GURPS Social Academy: Reaction rolls with irresistible PCs.

This post is part of a the GURPS Social Academy in support of my new campaign The Empress of India.

The later posts are the following:
  1. The Reaction Roll
  2. The Unassisted Influence Check 
  3. PCs as targets of Influence Checks
  4. A non-fantasy model for religions
  5. Mitigating the reaction Roll

This post is the outcome of extensive playing with reaction rolls in a Social-Engineering centered campaign. I discuss here things that came up in play.

It naturally follows that... a campaign based on social interactions that the PC are going to grow very good at manipulating everyone. In a way, this is fine: they spend the points and the natural reward is to be able to pull off crazy stunts. Otherwise, someone else would be the main character to that story. 

There is a situation where I feel less certain that kickass-charming PCs are always awesome. This is the case of the reaction roll, which is a non-skill based, non-opposed 3d6. 

In actual play, you'll get Reiko walking into a room and meet a man. She is pretty, has high birth and some charisma thrown into the mix. All in all, she gets a +6 to reaction. On average, she will get a very good reaction. Is this a problem? 

Everyone giggles every time so, not really at first glance. However, being like by everyone will cramp the GM's style after a while so here I propose a few ways to mitigate that:

  1. Make the outcome a mystery -- You tell the PC whether it is positive or not and force them to use their social skills to figure out what is really going on. You'd be surprised how a critical fail lead to funny situations (The hard part is keeping a straight face). Sometimes, awkwardness will affect the reaction as well in the process. Get the PCs to be detailed on how they approach the NPC and select the skill that match the description rather than the best skills to read others
  2. Immediate reactions are capped --  Anything better than good at first glance makes little sense. If the reaction gets higher to very good or excellent, grant +1 or +2 to the next influence check instead. 
  3. Don't be afraid to make it hard on the PCs -- If a NPC has a good reason to be pissed, give a stiff negative penalty and cap the lower bound on reaction levels. For example, Reiko may have +6, but the average Joe in the same situation would be bad (5). This implies a -5 narrative penalty which could be capped at bad because going too low immediately doesn't make sense in this situation. The final reaction roll is modified by +1, which means an expected neutral reaction. A more extreme case: The NPC has a -12 to reaction for a final modifier of -6 but with a minimum cap to poor. This means that only a bit of luck will give something better than poor, but without Reiko's charms and other attributes, it would be nearly impossible to do better than this. The overflow translates into a penalty for a future Influence check as described in point 2. 
  4. Olden school GMs would argue against using dice to decide the outcome... where is the sport in that as a GM? It isn't because that I GM that I don't want to play as well. Main event in my campaign have been decided by a die roll, live: I call this fun to deal with.


I think that we should never penalize a PC for being good: this means that the difficulty of a situation shouldn't scale with skills/attributes levels. Great social characters should breeze through simple situations and it is probably better to simply not bother with the dice. Scaling up like it is done in video games, and pretty much disregards character advancement. 

I think that these three strategies will be at the top of my list from now on to make sure that failure a source of fun happens while respecting the PCs' awesomeness. 

Friday, June 13, 2014

K32 - Insanity and Hatchets

The royal party has freed a mysterious bride from a sarcophagus and pulled her our of her own crypt despite the protest of kleptomaniac wraiths and a hungry hungry black pudding. 

Bain's dream sequence

Bain fell asleep with his body straddling a narrow hallway. They found a safe haven in a side crypt that wasn't defiled like every others that they had run into so far. As Bain drifted to sleep, an aura built around the viceroy. He slipped out of body in the glow if the Eye of Irmo hanging around his neck.  On the other side, he could make out the shapes of his companions. He headed for the Bride, and zoomed into her inner sanctum as he was sucked into a slow vortex. 

He found himself attending a wedding. A large hall, the bride was standing there but there was no groom. She was walking to a sarcophagus. Bain probed the dream, wondering what he could find. He heard the name of the bride uttered: Denma. Bain was wondering whether he could find out whether Denma liked Khazek. His answer came from behind a curtain where Khazek, as a groom, moved forward with a smug smile on his face, and the head of the Balrog in his hand (a tiny version). Bain wondered whether the bride knew about the Balrog. A drop of black shadow dripped from the Balrog's head. The shadow crept along the floor, passing between legs in the crowd and slithering at a dazzling pace until it reached a deep well. Bain felt himself falling and woke up suddenly. 

The conspirators

Khazek was half asleep when he heard the muttering coming from Helg. Helg was on guard duty. He slipped towards the sleeping body of Lathmelen. The elf was, awkwardly enough, wearing on the dowery dress of the bride. By the time Khazek smashed Helg's knee with Oin's staff, Helg had the time to lodge his hatchet between Lathmelen's shoulderblades. 

A lot of dwarves into a small area
Gror was also on guard duty. He ran over his father to wake him up and rammed his forehead into Helg's shoulder. Helg rolled sideways and turned just on time for Gror to smash again through the bridge of his nose. Lathmelen utters an elven word and Helg dropped his hatchet then dropped to the ground. 

In Gror's wake, Nalik followed with his axe over his head. he was responding to the call by Helg to do away with the elf. Bain tripped him. Nalik fell over the bridge and grappled her body. Bain kicked him hard enough to make him snap from his compromising position. 

Rogi moved into the fray, responding to the renewed calls to eliminate the elf. By then, Gror was in a scuffle with Nordan who was trying to save Helg from further harm. Bain let out a loud yell which paralyzed everyone where they stood.

The dwarves of the battleguard were driven nearly mad by the curse by then. Some had convinced themselves that their predicament was the fault of Lathmelen the elf. Many blamed their commanders for associating with her. Thordar, drew a line with his smallsword in the air, Lathmelen said something obnoxious inadvertantly, but in the end Bain explained in no subtle terms that the elf was a mean to an end and was to be used to complete their mission. This seemed to appease the dwarves, but left Lathmelen perplexed. They set out for the known exit of the 4th level before more insanity would set in. 

And thus concludes another Chapter of "Reclaiming Khazad-dum"

The dwarves returned to the towers and made their way back to the Rising hall on the second level. The dwarves of the Bronze Attack had repelled the hunters once without too much trouble. They covered the bride with Thordar's cloak to avoid her curse to ensnare yet more dwarves.  They settled in the dwelling of the Hatchet farmers. 

Gesdrek conjectured that the Balrog's repose must be the seat of the curse. They decided to delve deep into the underdeep to find what is there and deal with it. The little folks won't do: the curse is too powerful. However, the most heroic elements were eager to get going. 

Let's return to Arda's hell: the bowels of middle-earth opened up by those who delved too deep.

Friday, May 30, 2014

K31 - Dear Diary...

This session continues on the dungeon delve involving all PCs deep into the 4th level. They left to find out more about the curse of the Balrog. They found it. The following is the narrative as recounted by the mysterious bride that just got rescued.