Thursday, September 18, 2014

Magic, INC: Mythic Office Politics

I'm working on a game called Magic, INC. It's an rpg about office workers in a magical corporation:
Your department is at the very, very bottom. You and your team have just managed to hang on- avoiding responsibility and blame. But to do so you have to work hard- carrying out desperate missions to alter budgets, undercut rival divisions, and mystically cloak your faked resumes. It's an episodic game. Think of a mix of Monday Begins on Saturday, Leverage, The Magicians, Office Space, Harry Potter, and The IT Crowd.

Funerary Wizard
Non-Human Executive
Storage Peon
Secret Coordinator
Conjectural Compositor
Social Craftsman
Accounts Exterminator
Conflict-Resolution Orchestrator
Implementation Soothsayer
Capital Adept
Sanitation Marketer
Freelance Tester
Supervising Associate
Technical Secretary
Branding Innovator
Conceptual Inventor
Paradigm Fear-Monger
In-House Accessory
Research Predictionist
Commercial Exorcist
Apprentice Obscurantist
Interactions Editor
Usability Eliminator
Principal Diabolist
Data Necromancer
Communications Assistant
Tactics Resourcer
Optimization Calculator
Attending Hireling
Vice Concierge

The concept comes from a pitch I wrote a few years ago (which I still like, though I wonder if it might be stronger if I flipped some of the genders):

The High Concept
Mundane computer geek mistakenly hired by secret magical corporation.
The Pitch
Sheridan Knock gets the job of a lifetime, but lying on his resume may get him more than fired. Now he must provide IT support for an arcane corporation while hiding his lack of magical knowledge.

Sheridan Knock: Computer tech and social throwback. Talented and hard-working- he believes that ought to be enough. He shouldn't have to remember the names of his co-workers' kids; he shouldn't have to attend company parties, he shouldn't have to shout to get noticed. But that hasn't been enough in his field.
The Stygian Level IT Support Crew: Talos, the bronze harassment machine; Beckoncall, the internet troll; Ishnarod Kant, the sorcerer of work avoidance; and Viorca Snode, the heterogeneous fairy.
Aisling Grome: A Pygmalion-like magical construct and Knock's angry ex-girlfriend.
Cricket Sulascu: A spirit medium, and Aisling's roommate. She rejects Knock primarily because of the spectre of death hovering over his shoulder.
Wainscot Weft: The old-school CEO, a for-profit version of Dumbeldore. He remembers when the company invested in people, not machines. Of course, that was back when the trade in people was more lucrative.

Out of work again, computer geek Sheridan Knock lands his corporate dream job using a joke resume. That dream shatters when he discovers his new office is staffed by monsters and magicians. Now Sheridan must fit in, keep his secret and avoid literal termination. In charge of a misfit mystical tech-support department, he struggles to survive and maintain his cubicle-anonymity. But when Knock's nerd instincts uncover a sorcerous conspiracy he becomes a target. Now he must emerge from the safety of the basement into the boardrooms' bright lights to protect himself, his co-workers and the company itself from a more demonic corporate “take-over.”

Sheridan Knock discovers his roommate's toyed with his resume- adding his experience as a 63rd level Warlock in an online game. When the new resume nets him a dream position as Database Administrator, the money offered makes him overlook some strange details. Relocated to a secret facility, Knock begins to suspect he made a mistake. On site, he discovers two horrible problems. One, corporate diversity here includes warlocks and vampires, mages and myths. Two, he has to handle tech support.

Quitting isn't an option- his ironclad contract suggests dire consequences for early termination. Knock must learn to navigate the shark-filled waters of his new workplace, balancing arcane office politics and the threat of supernatural mishap while concealing his ignorance of the magical arts. The lassitude and misanthropy of his support team make that job easier. Each member has been consigned to the basement offices of Stygian Level IT support for a reason.

Uninstalling cursed programs and rewiring tentacles takes Sheridan throughout the facility- crossing paths with a computer-illiterate CEO Wizard drowning in nostalgia; an angry ex-girlfriend who may be behind his hiring; her unfortunately attractive best friend, and many others. Doing his best to stay anonymous, he quietly chips away at the immense backlog of support requests- leading him to a strange abandoned workstation in a long--forgotten wing. Knock unfreezes a bizarre program and heads on, his small victory confirming that he's found a role when he can safely hide away.

...But when people start vanishing and turning up dead, Knock sees a pattern connected to the strange program. His investigations put him squarely in the path of Juliana Rath, the fiendish head of Marketing. With the looming threat of a “Performance Review” in the hellish bowels of HR, Knock realizes he has to act and not just hide if he hopes to survive. He pulls together his team through a mixture of threats, flattery and bargaining. With their help he discovers the threat leads to the heart of the company and endangers everyone. With Rath, the Hellhounds of HR, and angry clients all on their tail, Sheridan's team must locate the last terminal housing the rogue program and face the real enemy.

From Here
Knock's victory earns him leadership of a Cross-Functional Vision-Building Work-Team; same people, same office, different duties. Now he'll have to juggle IT support with product development, research, market analysis, and corporate espionage. With the introductory arc done the story opens up to explore a host of questions: What does the company actually make and why doesn't anyone know for sure? Who are their competitors? What goes on in the darkest parts of the facility? When will they pony up for actual certification training?

Clean Apprehensive Sprite
Flaxen Covetous Incubus
Bright-Eyed Harried Talking Animal
Sweaty Fretful Giant Insect
Mumbling Chaotic Wild Man
Shifty Clever "Frankenstein"
Haggard Queer Viking
Tainted Vain Werewolf
Exaggerated Secretive Sin Eater
Glowing Repressed Hologram
Senile Friendly Revenant
Stuttering Realistic Ancient Robot
Muscled Romantic Bunyip
Wrinkled Unlucky Angel
Crusty Self-Confident Gorgon
Lithe Sexist Borrower
Curvy Saintly Hallucination
Blind Garrulous Doppelganger
Graceful Sacrificing Yeti
Weak Apologetic Hedge Mage
Scratching Troublesome Krampus
Wig-Wearing Vengeful Minotaur
Short Keen Giant
Innocent Enthusiastic Talking Ape
Wiry Boring Succubus
Elite Inconsiderate Golem
Beefy Alcoholic Manticore
Transparent Soft Spoken Duplicate
Ravishing Passionate Luchadore
Flatulent Killjoy Centaur
Acned Illiterate Valkyrie
One-eyed Professional Redcap
Near-Sighted Content Medusa
Hard of Hearing Hyperactive Unicorn
Lame Ostentatious Sphinx
Middle-Aged Cocky Gremlin
Neat Sanctimonious Cyclops
Marked Altruistic Scissorman
Greyish Guilt Ridden Chupacabra
Downtrodden Frigid MiB
Fearsome Punctual Hopping Vampire
Unholy Hormonal Warlock
Thin-Lipped Indecisive Myrmidion
Local Grumpy Siren
Quiet Uncommitted Human
Stylish Clinical Disembodied Head
Hyper-Dimensional Brave Satyr
Pot-Bellied Dazzling Houri
Shaggy Phobic Clay Warrior
Olive Delusional Time-Traveler
Undead Hungry Mindwiped Celebrity
Humming Calculating Troll
Oddly-Attired Corrupt Sufi
Broad-Shouldered Defiant Clone
Fat Disloyal Bear
Weird-eyed Idealistic Dinosaur
Tattooed Lazy Yokai
Elderly Racist Fictionaut
Predatory Touchy 7th Daughter
Mousy Weak-Willed Possessed Corpse

The game's simple- with at-table character creation and easy mechanics. Play splits between planning/setting things up and actually taking direct actions to complete the objectives. PCs departments can grow through the accumulation of magic and non-magic office equipment. Episodes are designed as randomized playbooks so the GM can whip together everything, including NPCs, a relationship map, and places, in about an hour. I'll post more on this in the future.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Bloodlines: A Supers Campaign Seed (Part Six)

This series draws from supers campaign I put together almost ten years ago, "Bloodlines." That focused on inherited super-powers limited to certain bloodlines around the globe. This material sets up some of the groups in the setting. You can see the first post here which lays out the general concept. Once again you'll see a combination of new material and published ideas, primarily used to add color to the background.

Part Two: Bloodlines 1
Part Three: Bloodlines 2

Taken from a briefing prepared for the Untouchables just after they arrived in Chicago.
The following Anarch organizations have operated or been spotted in Chicago in the last six months. Note that this list is incomplete, but does provide a good idea of the kinds of adversaries you may be facing.

One of several smaller or lowered powered Anarch groups known to operate in Chicago. Like the others, they apparently paid a kind of Anarch protection to Ravage and/or the Sinistry. Their leader is Instinct, who possesses a broad range of powers including mental abilities. Known associates include: Ranger Dread, Tactica, Jade Willow, Disaster and Singularity.

Copernicus Dark
Mastermind. In the past he has employed a number of thugs whom he supplied with special equipment and devices, including blaster rays and power armor. These have a nasty habit of exploding if not removed carefully or if the thug in question disobeys orders. Still he is said to treat his minions well. He often find and recruits dissatisfied Anarchs to serve with him. Usually they last a few operations before moving on. Darks own powers seem to be matter manipulation to an intense degree. He usually works on carefully planned heists and has never actually struck in Chicago, but has been seen here. It is believed that the presence of other major Anarch groups, like Ravage, kept him relatively quiet.

Fairly recent, said to be a split off from Ravage. When Tacitus, the leader of Ravage, was captured several months ago and sent to Lockdown, there apparently was a split within the group. Shatterstar, the second-in-command, apparently began planning the operation that led to the Zero Moment. Abyss, another senior member of the team, decided to leave. It is unclear how that fell out. In the past such splits have been met with force. In this case, however, Abyss managed to leave with two others: Collision Course and Jack of Battles. They recruited a number of others, specifically drawing from those independent operators who have worked with Ravage once or twice in the past. Believed recruited are Chronophon, Helios Rex, and Electrocutioner. While Decimation has not been seen yet in Chicago, they have operated in the Midwest in the meantime.

A protection paying smaller Anarch group, they were known as particular opportunists. It is believed that they had finished a job in Canada and otherwise probably would have been involved with Ravage's attempted assault on Lockdown. Their leader is RatioZero, a woman with Inertia control abilities. Other members include: Blazewave, Soot, Praetor, Crasher and ElectroEel. Captured by the Untouchables. During transport by A-SWAT two members (Praetor and RatioZero) were killed and Crasher escaped.

The Foundry
Approximately four months ago, the Foundry made a strike in Northern Chicago, breaking into research facilities at Northwestern and "braintaping" a number of researchers there. In response, the Sinistry attacked one of their operations in Detroit. Conflicts between the two have escalated. It may well be that the Foundry will attempt now to set up an operation here in Chicago.

This group is notable for having tangled with Ravage on a couple of occasions, though never coming out on the winning end of events. They lost at least three members to their rivals in battles over the last couple of years. Accordingly they have been rarely seen in Chicago, but that may change. It is believed they have a larger number of members than have been publicly identified. The four that are known are: Godwitch, Carrier, Albedo, and Lex Talonis.

Mad Dogs aka Kingdom Come
Another low level Anarch group, they came from England by way of Canada. Their goals are apparently lofty, but their crimes tend to be low level. There is some suggestion of a political agenda to their actions. Their leader is McGuffin, an emotion controlling anarch from the Kavanaugh-Doyle bloodline. Other members include: Bond, Transit, High Risk, Feng Shui, Archimedes, and Gargantuan. This last anarch is notable for the lethality of his methods. In the UK he remained on the field several times to finish off opponent superheroes. Most of team captured by the Untouchables. Feng Shui and Transit managed to escape.

Operation Threat
A group that has only been seen a couple of times in Chicago and is more known for operating in the South. One of their original members, Warhead, was recruited by Ravage, leaving a hole in their number. Two others, Killzone and Switch were identified among the dead at the Zero Moment. Their current status is unclear. Remaining members believed to be alive include: Solitary, Kim Reaper, Psychonaut, and Mad Alice.

The Rook
Supposedly an Anarch, his criminal operations in Chicago and the Midwest have been undeterred by the presence of other groups. It is said that he works quietly, behind the scenes, avoiding the interference of other groups. When he does operate publicly, he has lieutenants and troopers well equipped to carry out his plans. The Rook is legendary, having been a known Anarch for almost three decades. He matched wits with Dr. Cross before that hero's retirement in the mid-nineties. Note that this is not the same Rook as leads Chimera, an issue that has spawned a decades-long rivalry.

Mentioned in passing but looming large in the history of Anarchs in the US, it was revealed recently to the PCs that the notorious villain Firstborn is Shutdown's father.

From a briefing:
There was also some question about Firstborn and who he is. The short answer is that he is a Syzmanski version of Magneto, but with general energy control powers. He started out his career in the mid-seventies, but was almost immediately political in his actions, swiftly moving from hero to Anarch. The Syzmanski family disowned him and his activities quickly. By late in the decade he'd begun a group known as the Prometheans who had a central philosophy regarding Bloodliner supremacy. They became well known for taking on both hero and anarch groups, especially those who did not see eye to eye with their philosophy. A number of the Anarchs who had been prominent in the 50's and 60's were taken down and eliminated by the Prometheans. They also battled the Sentrymen on several occasions. Firstborn became one of the most known and feared Anarchs of that era, whispered in the same breath as Caliber Saint, Demise, the first Oblivion, and Dr. Waste- the other most feared Anarchs of the 20th century.

By the early 1990's, some of the polish had faded on Firstborn's reputation. He had seen many of his followers disillusioned with their progress. Some had become even more radical, demanding less planning and more assaults. Others had gone the other direction, discarding their identities and deciding to live normal lives. In 1993, the Prometheans clashed with the Storm Riders, at that time the single most powerful hero group in the world. The battle laid waste to miles of the Florida coast and is said to have sifted the weather patterns for the region for months. Only four people out of thirteen walked away from the battle alive: Tacticus (who went on to become a leader of Ravage), Willforce, Fair Warning, and Firstborn.

After that, he vanished out of sight for a number of years until the millennium when he reappeared, conducting small actions and starting to recruit from the young and disaffected among the Bloodliners. His charisma has drawn many to his side, including heroes. It is unclear what their plans are, but some estimates put his numbers at the dozens, including Acolmiztli, Sear, Lightbearer, and notably the former heroine, Transcendence, who, while twenty+ years his junior, is said to by Firstborn's lover.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Year in Horror RPGs 2013: Part One: Abandoned to Infinite Shadows

This list complements my chronology of Horror RPGs, offering a look at games released in 2013. This is part of my Patreon project (which you can see more about here- please share if you find it interesting or useful). 

This year continues several key trends in Horror gaming. First, Kickstarter (and other crowdfunding) remains strong. I’d like to track the % of publications by genre using these sources. Are there differences? Second, we’re down to two “big” horror rpg publishers, maybe three. Chaosium and its associated CoC lines remains strong by preparing a new edition and doubling down on Kickstarter. Onyx Path/White Wolf shifted primarily to Kickstarter projects and revising older products. It is notable that OP has moved almost entirely to direct to consumer and Chaosium has a similar model with their monograph line. These are the big two because no other horror rpg publisher has volume of releases and line support (though an argument might be made for Pelgrane). Third, the continuing new explosion of smaller, indie horror rpgs. The genre remains inviting for designers wanting to experiment with rules, rather than adapting existing big systems (OGL, etc). Fourth, more Zombies. We saw two completely new zombie rpgs plus a major zombie sourcebook for a generic system.

With a list like this, I’ve made some choices about what to cut and what to keep. Some of these choices are practical. Smaller pdf-only supplements I’ve generally avoided. I’ve also focused on professionally (or pseudo-professionally) published books. That means I often skip free/online or purely self-published products. I've consolidated products under an umbrella if a publisher has released 3+ items in that year.

Some of these choices are more subjective. For example, I’ve left off anthology items, primarily because the list is already packed. But books like Fate Worlds, Volume Two: Worlds in Shadow, Hillfolk, and Blood on the Snow all have interesting horror frames. I’ve also left off a number of “weird fantasy” products. They blur the line between fantasy and horror and I’ve talked about these in the past. The growth of games like Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Numenera, and others has resulted in supplements and adventures which in some hands can be truly horrific. Skipping these here may reflect my own biases. I love horror games- and the best I CoC game I played embraced nihilism. But I’m not attracted to the idea of the “Negadungeon.” But I've left these off because I believe these products put the fantasy front and center, with the horror elements as trappings and color. In many cases they're fantasy supplements which add horror as only one ingredient of a creative explosion. There’s room for reasonable debate on that.

As always, if I’ve missed something important, please give me a heads up. I may have it on the other list, or perhaps I’ve glossed over it.

In Dark Alleys came out in 2006. In that game PCs see 'something' and can no longer escape visions of a new reality. That original sighting creates an obsession, leading them to hunt that down. Seven years later Vajra Enterprises returns with the first major sourcebook for IDA (beside a couple of smaller adventures/backdrops). Abandoned looks at the concept of haunted places in that game world. It presents a general discussion of the concept plus some new mechanics. As well it reveals seven fully-fleshed abandoned sites, plus several dozen new monsters. In a unique approach, the mechanics in Abandoned can be used as a the basis of a complete and slightly different game. That's a neat approach and smart given the gap between publications.

We'd seen some consideration of World War 2 and Call of Cthulhu before this recent explosion of interest in the genre. Games with a more pulpish bent often added Nazis, Trail of Cthulhu touches on the start of the war with its shift to the 1930s, and Pagan's excellent The Realm of Shadows uses the war as a significant backdrop. But nothing has quite matched the recent level of interest. Achtung! Cthulhu (one of two competing WW2 Lovecraftian lines for the year), release preliminary products in 2012 and ramped up in 2013, releasing the core products for their line. Investigator's Guide to the Secret War and Keeper's Guideto the Secret War set up the hidden history of the war. Modiphius offers these as dual-statted books, covering both CoC 6th and Savage Worlds. They also released The Trellborg Monstrosities adventure, in distinct versions. The mix of WW2 and COC doesn't really appeal to me- but Modiphuis has done and outstanding job with these. The Guides won the Silver ENnies for Best Writing and Best Cover Art. They've doubled down on the line with several key products in 2014 deepening the setting, as well as a Fate Core version of the main rules.

OK I had to call this one out from the collected Call of Cthulhu materials below. At first I assumed it was a complete new reskinning (ala Cthulhu by Gaslight) with a drive-in sensibility. But alas it is instead simply a collection of adventures set in the 1950's (with some tongue in cheek elements). There's a weird distortion here for me. When I was growing up, I watched the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies Sundays on WGN out of Chicago. I loved those- and they formed my sense of the character. So I was thrown when I went to actually read the stories and found out that they were set in the Victorian era, rather than WW2 with German spies as a threat. In the same way, for the longest time I pictured the whole Lovecraftian mythos as set in the 1950s. That's in part because I began with Derleth's Trail of Cthulhu, and it has an atomic bomb being dropped on R'leyh. So there's that.

We've seen couple of other horror games approach World War Two- Weird War II and GURPS WWII: Weird War II, but 2013 seems to be the year of revisiting the concept between this and two distinct CoC WW2 games. Band of Zombies is the first new All Flesh Must Be Eaten sourcebook in several years. BoZ gives an alternate WW2 with the undead at the beck and call of every major national force, albeit each with a slightly different approach. Rather than offering a set of distinct "deadworlds" this sourcebook breaks up chapters into different sections of this setting. The book includes most of the mechanics necessary for running a military campaign- some elements reprinted from other AEMBE books and some new.

d20 Hentai Horror. That's what I said about the 2007 edition. Now revised. 

I really don't know what else I can say beyond that. Except I'm not sure I'd want to be at a table where that's the game everyone wants to play. No, actually I'm certain I wouldn't want to be at that table. It isn't my cup of tea. I'll give the publisher credit for restraint in the lack of tentacles on the front cover. There's a significant number of supporting supplements for this game including Black Tokyo Unlimited: The Races of Black Japan and *ugh* Busty Extreme! released the same year.

This might be a corner case, but IIRC I've already presented one or two feline-centered horror games on earlier lists. This slim volume has secret cat investigators battling against Mythos forces with names like Mutt’thra the Monster Dog and Hastpurr of Catcosa. This game manages to be one I simultaneously absolutely admire and don't see the appeal of. I actually feel even more humorless than usual saying that. While it doesn't click for me, I love that someone's dug the concept enough to produce a beautiful book and garner a significant audience. This line has been well supported. Perhaps the weirdest moment of synchronicity about this is the release of Katzulhu in 2013 as well. That German CoC supplement reworked and expanded the authors' Cathulhu (Worlds of Cthulhu (Issue 4)). So there's a richer vein of animal-centered, Lovecraftian horror than I would have expected.

7. Call of Cthulhu: Chaosium
What counted as big news for Chaosium's fans depended on how much they anticipated/feared the new edition. 2013 saw the release of the Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition Quickstart which previewed changes to the game. They also released Missed Dues and Other Adventures, originally to backers of the Kickstarter and then as a special item at Gen Con. On the other hand fans of existing editions had a Kickstarter for the legendary Horror on the Orient Express campaign, as well as the massive Masks of Nyarlathotep Companion. The latter's a crazy huge book. It gives additional information for running all six chapters of the original campaign, two extra scenarios, as well as 28 pre-gen characters. It's a template for revisiting older and beloved products I hope we might see repeated elsewhere.

Chaosium published several other striking CoC books. The House of R'lyeh ties itself closely to original Lovecraftian stories, rather than simply modelling ideas. Presented loosely, these could be placed easily into existing campaign cycles. Canis Mysterium offers a shorter scenario set near Arkham. Horror Stories from the Red Room collects several short scenarios with the shared theme of All Hallows Eve from vastly different times and places. Dark Crusades supports Cthulhu Dark Ages and gives a tour of the Holly Land in the setting. Secrets of Tibet follows the pattern of earlier "Secrets" books, exploring this remote land in the context of the Mythos and especially the Dreamlands.

8. Call of Cthulhu: Other Publishers
I haven't caught everything in my net, but I can point to a number of interesting non-Chaosium Call of Cthulhu. Delta Green: PX Poker Night is a d20 short scenario. Tales of the Sleepless City has six independent scenarios, set in classic New York. Golden Goblin Press released Island of Ignorance, which it describes as the third CoC companion. That includes a diverse range of artifacts, items, and scenarios. Legs is for Cthulhu Now, giving a short scenario for Keepers. Lost in the Lights, also for Cthulhu Now, gives a longer adventure, set in Las Vegas, and intended as the start of a sequence.

It's amazing the solid and independent products developed for CoC in other countries. Pegasus Spiele's German products cover a wide-range of topics and areas not addressed by Chaosium. (I assume they're an official licensee). For example, Die Janus-Gesellschaft is a huge Renaissance era sourcebook (1690). Regionalia Cthuliana - Deutsche Städte, Regionalia Cthuliana - Deutsche Regionen, Regionalia Cthuliana - Mexiko gather together previously published city guides into handy volumes. Der Sänger von Dhol und andere Abenteuer reprints earlier adventures as does Abwärts und andere Abenteuer, but for Cthulhu Now. Todbringende Artefakte assembles winners from a scenario contest, based on an earlier Egypt product. Die Bestie1: Präludium is part of an American campaign, building and expanding on earlier material. Reisen: Passagen in den Tod considers travel as a pivotal element of the period. On the lighter side, Stirb aufrecht, Kultist! gives a German take on Cthulhu meets the Wild West. Outside of Germany, I should also mention Sciences Forensiques & Psychologies Criminelles. This massive (400+ page) tome from French publisher Éditions Sans-Détour covers everything you'd want to know about criminal science and forensics from the classic to modern periods.

Eden has been slowly supporting Conspiracy X 2.0, and there's a surprisingly small gap between this sourcebook and the last (only a year). And this one is huge- a massive and comprehensive book covering the histories of major players, rules and systems for working with conspiracies, and suggestions of new developments in the world of ConX. This remains one of my favorite modern games. It's perhaps more action thriller than horror, but I love the mish-mash backdrop and the way they embrace players' connections to government agencies and their experience.

10.  Cryptworld
It isn't Chill, but it is? Cryptworld uses the classic Pacesetter system and has players investigating the strange and horrific. But it lacks elements of classic Chill, especially the S.A.V.E. agency. There's no specific setting built in this time. Instead this is a generic horror game. I'm not sure that's a great thing. On the one hand it allows it to be used for many more things, but on the other it puts it in direct competition with many, many modern generic horror games. And entering that battle with a fairly old-school system. Ditching S.A.V.E. also means cutting out a major element players remember fondly. We haven't seen anything else for this line yet, so whether it will survive and thrive remains an open question.

11. Daemoni
Vampire: Undeath is an rpg line with a controversial and troubled history. It reads like either a love-letter to of a rip-off of Vampire the Masquerade. However the designers have distanced themselves from any comparison- to the point of parody (through sock-puppets and the like). I don't want to go down that rabbit hole too far- instead I recommend Google'ng the system and checking out reviews (and if you can bear it the forum threads). It illustrate my own bias, I've followed this situation primarily via the lens of Wil Hutton's articles on Aggregate Cognizance.

My wife describes the atmosphere of games like Diablo III as "Dudebro Horror": over the top trappings, deep-voiced rantings from bad guys, blood & guts sprayed on with a hose, and skulls everywhere. Over-the-top becomes wallpaper. But more importantly the horror's undercut by the game's nature itself: personal power and big weapons kicking ass. That's still a distance from Dark Hersey, but it reminds me of the how much some games straddle the line between Action/Adventure and Horror. Sometimes, as in the case of Diablo, they realize they've leaned too far on the action side and desperately compensate with more "oooooh scary" gore. I've read some descriptions of 40K RPG campaigns that sound suitably threatening and dangerous- full of mystery and corruption. But others sound more like Duke Nukem. That aside Dark Heresy has done well enough for Fantasy Flight to begin work on a new edition, resulting in this beta product for it. By all rights, DH ought to be the scariest, with the PCs coming face to face with the darkest things threatening the Imperium. 2013 also saw FFG release a major sourcebook for the parallel Black Crusade line: The Tome of Excess. This one covers the chaos god Slaanesh, probably the most M for Mature of the baddies.

I'm seriously tempted by Deadlands Noir. More than the other Deadlands genre reskin (Deadlands: Hell on Earth for example) this has the fun and playful feel of the original game. DL: Noir's set in a version of New Orleans. This companion adds new rules, roles, and mechanics. But more importantly it expands the setting by detailing Chicago, Shan Fan, Lost Angels, and the City of Gloom. There's a lot to love there for Deadlands fans. Beyond that Pinnacle has supported the line with smaller supplements including maps, character flats, Kickstarter rewards, and an adventure, The Case of the Jumbo Shrimp.

Core Deadlands: Reloaded product slowed and finally ran out from Pinnacle. The largest release Trail Guides: Volume 1 simply repackaged the first three guides in the series into a single volume. On the other hand Grim Prairie Trails appears to be a new volume. It collects adversaries, scenarios to accompany them, and some new mechanics. The final new product, The Inheritors, is a short adventure. Pinnacle hasn't released anything for Deadlands Reloaded yet in 2014, so they may have wound down the line. Or they may simply be focusing on the above-mentioned Deadlands Noir.

Night's Black Agents remains #1 on my list of rpgs I've read through, talked about, and love but still haven't played. It has enough crunch that I want to see it in action from someone who has a handle on the moving parts. Despite not getting it to the table, I picked up Double Tap as soon as I heard about it. It brings a ton more material to the 'Spies vs. Vampiric Conspiracy' game. One third considers the game's abilities (investigative and general), expanding them and offering refinements. Another third gives more space to ideas of tradecraft and how to model that at the table. The final third gives more monster types and solid advice to GMs. This is a must-buy for NBA fans. While the original game is useful to both horror and spy GMs in, this supplement's more focused. Its less useful for generic horror games, but offers more ideas for anyone running 'monster-hunting' games like Hunter: The Vigil or Monster of the Week.

This wins, hands down for the best new premise for a horror game. To quote the publisher, "Prove nothing, be awesome, and inflate your ego all in the name of pseudo-science! Dude, Run! is a competitive storytelling game of reality TV paranormal investigation." Holy cow is that amazeballs. I like the concept of a desperate scramble to offer pseudo-paranormal explanations while not getting tangled up in your own BS. I don't know how the game plays, but I have to buy a copy now.

EPOCH's a striking and unique horror rpg system which uses scenario-tailored cards to steer the game. I'm a fan of card-driven games (since we use them for our 10+ year old house system). It's a smart design move as well, given the accessibility of easy to print full-color cards. EPOCH released four supplements in 2013. One of these, War Stories, took home an ENnie nomination for best adventure as well as runner up for Indie supplement of the year. That thematic collection offers five survival-horror tales, all set during wartime- from the Russian Invasion of Finland to massacres in the Congo. A separate one-shot, Shadows of Yesterday, also covers WWI survivor experiences. Frontier of Fear collect four new adventures, all with a sci-fi theme. Finally The Cold Shore and Road Trip are both scenarios with quick start rules for the system, making them great entry points for anyone curious about it.

The original Esoterrorists offered an interesting setting premise, but one often lost in the focus on the new Gumshoe mechanics. I glossed over it the first couple of times I read through. The concept isn't a simple group fighting the supernatural (ala Delta Green or S.A.V.E.). Instead it takes the title concept seriously: these enemy forces are terrorists. Fear, panic, and misinformation empower them and allow them to weaken the membrane between this world and the other side. Then bad, bad things come through. It's a dark set up- and allowed Pelgrane to create really challenging adventures and supplements. The 2nd Edition of Esoterroists dramatically increases the page count, brings the setting front and center, integrates previous material, and expands it with a host of new stuff. If you're looking for a dark & dangerous, truly modern, investigators vs. supernatural conspiracy game, consider this book.

GURPS has a solid track record with horror supplements. GURPS Zombies is a massive sourcebook on the concept. It isn't a survival horror sourcebook, though it does touch on that. Instead it covers all the Zombie bases (fast to slow, infectious to supernatural, dumb to hive mind). While it obviously has the GURPS penchant for mechanics and numbers, the book's solid enough to be useful to any horror GM.

A companion volume to last year's curse the darkness. To paraphrase my original summary, it's supernatural post-apocalypse horror setting. A figure of absolute altruism demands everyone aid one another with no compensation- spiritual or otherwise. Those who refuse are taken by creatures from The Between. The game takes place ten years later with players forced to choose between submission or struggling to retake the world. Infinite Shadows is even larger than the original book. It offers some new rules and ideas for the base game. But strikingly it gives complete setting versions for Savage Worlds, Storytelling, Apocalypse World, Fate Accelerated, and even a playset for Last Best Hope. And that, my friends, is why I love gaming. Some might resent the proliferation of different game systems, but I think that's great. There's the opportunity here to consider how system shapes play- and look at what different games bring to the table. Very cool.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Powers of the Titan's Age: New Icons for 13th Age

Last Wednesday we used Microscope to do world-building for our new 13th Age campaign. You can see my write-up of that here. In the process I had the players design some of the Icons. The rest I came up with the next day. In play we sketched out four of the thirteen (and referenced three others in the history). Below you'll see the fleshed out versions of Icons for this campaign (which I'm calling Shadow of the Titan). All of them can act as patrons, enemies, or antagonists. Each one has a network of followers or agents across the realm.

In the descriptions below I've used alignment terminology to generally position these Icons. These are rough determinations, just to give a general sense of what they're like. With rare exceptions, they aren't locked into that. The text in red indicates material straight from the world-building session. At the end I've added an alignment chart showing the Icon's general positions. I'll probably add arrows later showing movement. The images below come from and all come from Lorc's amazing work.

Most Icons are Undying, strange immortal figures, or Mantle-bearers, suggesting a role that arises or is passed down. What an Icon looks like or does shifts from era to era, depending on the philosophies or events. As with the gods themselves, the Icons have been known to vanish or completely transform over the ages. No one speaks of The Shipwright or the Skinner of Souls in these present times.


THE CROWSWORN PIRATE: Leader and patriarch of the many bands of pirates across the waters. He is a patron of rogues, scoundrels, and those who value freedom over order and rules. The Pirate vacillates between being a vicious bully and a noble force for freedom. He despises rules and order- except those he imposes. Personal ambition and greatness, done in a flashy or loud manner matter to him. He values service and loyalty. When the new Crowsworn Pirate serves rough justice, he’s welcomed in The Unconquered Port. But when he embraces plunder and pillage, he’s banned from their docks. The present Pirate suffers under such a ban, and she seethes at it. (CN/NE)

THE SEWER RAT: Hope and change for the dispossessed, the poor, refugees, victims, the oppressed and all others with low power or status.   Also known as the Orphan and the Scrounger. The Sewer Rat appears to be one of the Undying, seen across the islands offering support and aid to the fallen. While he’s generally referred to as “he,” the Sewer Rat is equally likely to appear as a young woman. He has eyes and ears among the Beggar Ships, city urchin networks, and travelling drifters. Many of the Rom are said to act as his agents, but this may be more rumor about these mysterious people. The Sewer Rat is generally considered a force for good, but has been known to support and plan acts of retribution and revenge against exploiters, abusers, and the wicked among the wealthy. Hence this Icon is avoided by those in a position of nobility. The exception comes from those few who have managed to make it good and turn their fortune back to aiding others. (CG)

SURGEON PENITENT: This miserable creature roams the earth, giving comfort to all manner of the wretched. The myriad of infections and afflictions, boils and bloating, parasites and symbiotes, has rendered it completely androgynous and almost inhuman to behold. Through time spent ministering in leper colonies and plague zones, it has gained the ability to gather all disease into itself and away from the sufferer. Supplicants can take on the scars and gain the ability to heal others. The Surgeon tends to any in need of care, regardless of race, beliefs, or past. This often brings agents of the Surgeon into conflict with authorities. It is unclear whether the Surgeon is an Undying figure or if there have been many over the ages. The hideous visage of this Icon makes any determination uncertain. (NG)

THE SPIRIT KING: A strange ageless hermit who often lives on one of the mammoth sea-turtles. He guides those who come to eat the proper fruit to enhance and commune with their spirit. The Spirit King focuses on personal power and self-empowerment. He dismisses worship of divine figures and, at his most radical, service to any authority figure. Sometimes he is more ascetic, teaching people how to gain greater understanding of their soul spirit through mediation and Lotus consumption. But he can also be hedonistic, pushing students to indulge in all forms of intoxicants and sensory-expanding herbs. Despite being such an odd figure of the wilderness, the Spirit King is respected as a mystical figure, often looked to by Druids. Those who wish to learn to better harness their magic items will make pilgrimages to study under the Spirit King or one of his disciples. (CN/TN)

THE EMPRESS: The Empress of Humanity has long stood for preservation, defense, and the solidity of Empire. Her ritual murder by agents of the Siren set off this dark century. The shattering of her magics released forces which slew the vast majority of humanity, leaving cities, islands, and nations stripped and emptied. In the wake of her death, several tried to assume her Mantle and failed. Notably other races have attempted to find a way to understand and seize that role, but none have succeeded. Connections to this Icon still exist in two ways. The Crown Wardens remain as an order devoted to hiding and preserving relics of the Empress. They work to stabilize the pocket of human empire still remaining. On the other hand, rumors exist of a Child Empress born not long ago who gave the Five Signs of Recognition and may be the first legitimate heir to the Empress’ power. (LG)

THE AGELESS HAG: The Ageless Hag is a maker, a creator, and a figure of unbridled change and birth. She shows this by crafting monsters. Most of the time she dwells at the edge of the Known World, close to the Rainwalls. But from time to time she makes pilgrimages across the waters. Where she finds an empty place- like an island scoured by storms, she sets new life upon it. This can be a problem, especially since her definition of untended and empty may differ from those of natives. The Ageless Hag swept through in the wake of humanity’s decimation, filling now empty cities, castles, and realms with new monstrous inhabitants. Her magic is wild, making her the patron of some Sorcerers and Chaos Magi. Generally she takes a neutral position on affairs, standing only in opposition to those who worship death itself. She maintains a strong network across the lands via messenger beasts. (TN)

THE PRINCE OF SHADOWS: This figure is much as presented in the main 13th Age material. The interesting difference here lies in his weird mirror image of the Crowsworn Pirate. Both value a kind of radical individual freedom, but the Prince of Shadows works quietly and in the shadows. (CN)

LEVIATHAN: Beneath the waves lies the great beast, Leviathan, representing the dark and dangerous forces of nature itself. He is the bringer of thunderous power against those who do not grant him the proper respect and invocations. Leviathan is said to gnaw at the foot of the Titan, desiring his demise and collapse to bring the Sea of the Sky together with the Sea of the World. Leviathan often has greater concerns than the affairs of common mortals or at least it keeps up the appearance that it does. Leviathan acts and interferes with them at will, striking down ships, shifting currents, and gifting them with dangerous powers. Leviathan is the patron of Necromancers and Sorcerers, who strike deadly bargains for his talents. Leviathan’s fleet of soul-haunted Ivory Ships often herald the great beast’s attention in worldly affairs. (NE)

THE SIREN: Where there is order, the Siren wishes chaos. Where there is the rule of law, the Siren wishes anarchy. Where there is hope, the Siren wishes despair. The Siren wishes to overturn all established ways- among both the forces of light and dark. She does this through corruption, seduction, promises of power, and simply unleashing pent-up furies. Why she does this remains uncertain? Sometimes when she arises she comes as a burning warlord, sometimes as a calculating vizier, and others simply as a crazed murderess content with haunting lost fleets. The Siren orchestrated the ritual killing of Empress at the beginning of this century, leading to the decimation of humanity. Some have suggested her current incarnation is behind the dark turn of Fathrist and his use of demons, pointing to her own skilled infernal powers. (CE)

THE OPAL HAND: The Hand may or may not exist, or rather they exist but no one knows for certain who or what they are. Or rather, they have a certainty but no one can prove it. If we take rumor as fact then the Opal Hand is led by a secret hereditary council, made up of leaders from many different races. They worked behind the scenes, carefully combining rumor-weaving, magics, espionage and sabotage to serve their ends. They worked to ensure that the human majority would never come to dominate over all of the seas and lands. To that end they carefully undermined rules and eliminated those who might unite humanity. They sought not conquest or dominion, but instead to maintain balance and parity. Then the Empress died, taking with her four-fifths of humanity. Now the role and purpose of the Opal Hand is in flux. Will they maintain their neutrality or instead move to finish what the Siren began? (LN)

THE WARSINGER: Where there are rumblings and rumors of war, there stands the Warsinger. He sees glory, progress, and profit in it. War tempers and crushes the weak underfoot. But more importantly it forges legends. The Warsinger brings together those who desire and profit from bloodshed- turning mercenaries into pillaging hordes and exiles into pretender kings. He is potent and deadly, a banner-bearer at the frontlines. But more importantly he whispers in the ears of those who feel they could seize control, could lead an army, could cast their brother from the throne. He preaches war and speaks of the beauty and grandeur of it. The Warsinger has agents among both warrior clans and bards who’ve made terrible bargains. It is said that he currently holds the fallen city-state of Vos-Landok, but moves around the seas carried on an enslaved dragon. The Warsigner has been defeated in the past, but each time the song empowering him finds another to take his place in the cycle. (LE)

THE BRASS MAN: Ruling from the City-State of Crux, The Brass Man presents a mysterious figure. Seven feet tall, he could be a person clad in ornamental armor, an automaton, or something from the Ancients. His markings and designs have changed over time, suggesting to some that there have been man Brass Men. Despite shifts and reconfigurations, he always appears as a somewhat stylized version of the Sky Titan. The Brass Man commissions adventurers, gifts the worthy, and aids the oppressed. In that, he occupies a role close to the Empress- but without the ideas of empire and management. In fact the Brass Man’s good works can often be interrupted when the opportunity comes for him to pitch a campaign against legendary monsters or great beasts. He has been known to leave campaigns in mid-battle to take up his role as a relentless huntsman wielding strange magics. (LG/NG)

GRANDFATHER TURTLE: Teacher, mentor, advisor, oracle, and master of the high arcana, Grandfather Turtle safeguards magic in the realm. One of the massive island-like sea-turtles, he trains students in new arts and spells if he believes they use those tools to aid the world. While he appears sedentary and silent, few doubt his power. Even Leviathan avoids confronting him directly, preferring to carry out their clashes via agents. Grandfather Turtle plays a long game. While it might not seem that he wishes to interfere, instead he carefully maneuvers persons and players into position. He is a patron to all those who use magic for good ends. While he does not teach chaos magic or necromancy, he and his closest will educate those who follow the path of the Sorcerer. (LG)