Eyeless astronomers and screaming milkmen

We rolled up the core of our Call of Cthulhu-heeding superchums last night and they got rolling on their first investigation.

Moar like the Lost Their Minds Generation, amirite?

Noe rolled up Swoosie Staines, daughter of a murdered mother and outstanding-in-her-graveyard parapsychologist. A thoroughly modern gal, she knew the others from her time in Paris earlier in the decade and shared their love of music (she’s the violinist in the jam sessions they have during their meetups) .

Ben rolled up Tony “ Crazy Legs” Balta, a middling boxer on the Eastern Seaboard circuit. Tony was hosting the others in his apartment in Arkham, generous fella that he is, for one of their semi-regular long weekends of motorcycle touring, fascinatingly deep late night symposia and impromptu recitals (Tony contributes the harmonica).

Rolland came up with Pleasant Hannibal Clemens (Clements?) reporter for the Hartford Courant. He and Tony share an interest in Egyptology, motorcycles and trying to pay the bill faster than the other. Pleasant Hannibal (two first names) brought his Glockenspiel up from Hartford.

Tony provides the obvious brawn, while Swoosie is READY TO BELIEVE and has the machines that go widdley-wee and PH brings his journalistic shrewdness.

When their long-weekend retreat was disrupted by an escaped self-mutilating lunatic, they followed up and have uncovered a series of bizarre and increasingly dangerous events in Arkham’s squalid Southside. They’ve got a few leads to follow up on next session: a milkman who had a hysterical breakdown; the Sanitarium that holds the auto-enucleating madman; and a sneaking suspicion about recent improvements made by the town council to the street one which both of these events occurred.

I found this scenario online and for some reason chose this one rather than the normal starting point of haunted house-investigation-gone-wrong because it was unusual, and a good detective-y scenario with lots of pretty handouts. I’ve got to remember to print them out in colour… really helps the blood smears pop. So far it’s going pretty well; it’s a creepy start that hopefully carries through to a satisfyingly harrowing conclusion.

That is not dead which can eternally be reprinted in new editions.

Is Call of Cthulhu the best Roleplaying Game of all time?

Of course it is. Arguing whether or not some other game might be better is like arguing that cheese isn’t the best dairy product of all time. It definitely wasn’t the first and it might not be your favourite and it might not be scratching your itch right now. There have even been missteps, sure. But it brought something new and unexpected, it has inspired far-and-away the best games-writing in RPG’s short history, it still holds up after all these years and what it does, it does really really well.

The 7th edition is, I think, the farthest the rules have deviated from their original, but they don’t deviate far. Say what you will about Dungeons & Dragons, between the original game and the latest iteration is a pretty big stretch. Really only the subject matter stays the same, although much improved. CoC’s subject matter hasn’t strayed from the original formula.

There are spinoffs from core CoC – versions that incorporate more of a pulp adventure feel, Delta Green which is a modern take, medieval CoC etc.

The differences between 2nd and 5th edition CoC were minimal if they were even noticeable at all. 7th edition streamlines a few things and introduces a small sprinkling of new mechanics, so in that respect it’s a big change in CoC terms. But the subject matter remains completely the same: ordinary people discovering something in the backwoods of New England that makes their brains leak out their ears and then they have to roll new characters.

The epic journey that 7th edition took before it got to the shelves (a financially botched Kickstarter and long delays) sort of explains some of the failings of the new rules (the chase mechanic is… not good. And there seems to be a misunderstanding about whether or not the rulesbook is in two parts (Keeper’s Book and Player’s Book) when nothing necessary for play is found in the Player’s Guide.

Anyway: Call of Cthulhu is a cosmic horror roleplaying game set in the 1920s where the players play those whose investigations have brought them closer than is strictly healthy to Unknowable Horrors Too Powerful To Comprehend. What we know as reality and existence is just a thin facade that can be too easily stripped away once you know a little of what lies beyond. These Horrors are typically not villainous, their motivations aren’t usually that fathomable. Instead they are malign cosmic entities whose very presence in our universe is incompatible with our survival as a species, sanity, and reality as we understand it. And that’s a lot for an Antique Dealer or Librarian or Professor of Linguistics to deal with.

While there may be mundane dangers to contend with, there’s not much point in putting together a bunch of tough player characters, because they won’t last very long trying to be tough with a flying polyp from before time. Guns and tough guys are handy to have, but not too many are needed, just enough to keep the padlocks blowing open and the enraged cultists at bay. No, when you’re looking for a powerful, long lasting Call of Cthulhu character, you’re looking to create a very thorough researcher with a strong sense of self and a yellow streak a mile wide. On those narrow, quivering shoulders the fate of humanity may rest.

The basic mechanic for CoC has always been a percentile test; rolling under your Library Use skill’s percentage means you succeed at reading the weird old book. Its signature mechanic though is measuring your character’s sanity. You can lose damage/hit points, but you can also lose Sanity. Losing big chunks of sanity will cause breakdowns, flip-outs and unpleasant ‘episodes’. Losing all your sanity and the filter your brain applies to the universe to make it manageable and not constantly terrifying is torn away. Your character doesn’t die… the Keeper gets him/her. And he/she becomes one of the ravening nutcases intent on ending humanity’s brief anomalous existence.

The 7th edition adds a few welcome modern touches to this basic set up:

  • To make it easier all your stats/attributes are percentile based now too. Making a roll based on brute strength is no different than any other skill test.
  • Instead of having the percentile modified (-20% to hit) which is a fiddle and relies on you being told by the Keeper all the time, there are Hard and Extreme tests, with Hard being half your usual percentile chance and Extreme being 1/5th of your usual percentile chance. Fortunately space is made on the character sheet to have these noted down. There are some tests that may only require a simple success, but if you achieve a number so low that you’d qualify for an Extreme or Hard success, you can assume that it’s an extra kewl success or tiebreaker, in the case of opposed rolls.
  • If a player has an advantage in a situation (careful planning, beneficial environment etc) then they get to roll an extra d10 when calculating the 10s portion of their Percentile check and they choose the best result (I assume); whereas if the character is disadvantaged, they roll an extra d10 and take the worst.
  • Players can Push (Their Luck) and retry a failed test… on the understanding that if they fail the second time something really bad will happen.
  • The Luck mechanic and the Idea check mechanic have changed a bit, but they’re not huge factors. Idea is for when you as a player don’t know what the fuck is going on and shows how likely your Keeper is to give you a hint. It’s a crummy training wheel mechanic and always has been. Luck is more or less just floating points to help you out when you really need them/are tricked into thinking you really need them.

The mechanics of the game have never been the main draw though. It was set up to not be an overly complex system because the game must keep flowing and the tone – important maybe more than any other game’s tone – can’t be maintained if you’re monkeying around with excessively granular game mechanics.

More than anything else, it is a game of investigation. The plots and machinations are slowly revealed and if the players don’t stay on target and dig into the situation, they’re definitely boned. If they do diligently chase down leads, gather evidence and muster resources and put them all together in the right way…. they’re only maybe boned.

Our shared love of Mansions of Madness has, I think, a lot to do with how easy it is to put all that work in and fail, dramatically. I think we’re probably at a 70/30% win rate with MoM and even then some of the wins are pyrrhic and/or only relative victories rather than actual triumphs. Player character deaths will happen – not for cheap plot shocks, not even for yucks (Hey Paranoia!), but because their opponents are so monstrously more powerful than they are and also because the game is a meat grinder, slowly wearing down even the most fortunate and durable investigators. That’s as it should be, because against the malevolence beyond the veil of sanity there can be no great triumphs.

I’m not sure if this is for Call of Cthulhu, but it’s a cracking piece by Nacho Molina who has a Deviant Art account full of great paintings and I got lost for half an hour just admiring them.

Modiphius Star Trek Adventures Starter Set

We just got done running through A Star Beyond The Stars, the starter adventure (in three parts) from Modiphius for their Star Trek Adventures game. I like the idea of Starter Sets because I think they worked pretty well for Numenera and Pathfinder and at best they can provide players with sort of a tutorial and introduction to the game.

I think it was a qualified success, some of which was helped along by the Starter Set and some of which was actively hindered. During this we had the use of the Main Rulebook in hard copy and pdf, which I suppose technically you wouldn’t need to run the Starter Set. Since we were also playing with experienced, wily players in a relatively known universe, they were more apt to go “off-script” and do things more complicated than the Starter Set easily allowed. I mostly just rolled with these and then tidied up our collective understanding later. During the first few sessions I spent more time than I would have liked actively reminding players that they can’t commit war crimes or extra-judicial executions just because they face opposition. But by the end of the adventure they were arguing amongst themselves about whether or not their actions might count as a genocide. And they successfully navigated their way out of the situation in the best possible way (i.e. no genocide).

What sort of worked:

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  • Tests are made by combining one of your PC’s personal qualities (Attributes) with one of the appropriate Star Fleet Training packages (Disciplines): E.g. Daring and Security, or Reason and Science, etc. This in itself is a good idea and saves you from having a large list of skills to track. Buuuut, who the fuck can easily keep track of all the different standard permutations? Melee is always Daring & Security, shooting phasers is Control & Security, similarly, medical tasks and sciences stuff with your tricorder tends to be the same thing, but not a particularly easy to remember list. The Rulebook itself badly needs a cheat sheet for tasks and their appropriate combos. The Starter Set has (on the reverse of the character sheets, which is handy, but in practice not ideal) PC appropriate summaries, but still nothing close to exhaustive. Either the system should be flexible (allowing a thematically appropriate substitution of Attributes/Disciplines e.g. someone who melee attacks with Fitness and Security) or rigid and well supported.
  • The PC and NPC tokens were good quality with enough that they could be useful if a bunch of other tokens are available. There aren’t. So that’s that wad blown. The map sections are less necessary (and a bit small) but at least Modiphius is releasing more map tiles if you wanted to buy those.
  • The rules themselves. This kind of game dumps all the rules on you at first level and there’s no way that a Starter Set can reasonably slowly introduce the rules. This doesn’t seem to be a game that gets gradually more complicated like levelling-up games. Instead, you are hit with a wave of crunch and if you survive that, well, you might just enjoy yourself. The central mechanic – roll 2 or more d20s and try to roll under the combination of your stat and your skill – is sound and you can make the dice rolls explode into more successes if you roll 1s or roll low enough to trigger a focus. You can make things worse with rolls of 20 or succeed at cost. You can help buddies out or even better, have the powerful starship help you out. All this is good and easy to wrap one’s head around. But then there’s Momentum and Determination and Threat to make life more interesting – in and of themselves, not bad; then there are Values and Stress and Injuries, there are situational Advantages and Disadvantages to track and situational/environmental Traits, then Challenges and Extended Tasks. None of these are bad things, but there is A LOT of pretty good, but not great, working parts.

What didn’t work:

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    • The Rulebook, the Starter Set and even the reference sheets are formatted to seem like they’re being displayed on LCARS, and oh holy balls it makes things difficult to read. In general, I found the pages of the Starter set badly organized, with important information to a scene over a page or stat blocks for combat split over pages, necessitating page turning. None of this is unsurmountable, but it’s also completely avoidable and prevents on the fly or even quick reading by the GM. In this respect I’m spoiled by the Quick Adventure format by MCG, but it also seemed like a unnecessarily old-fashioned way of doing things, more like an 80s RPG than anything that might have benefitted from… decades of improvement.
    • The Index in the Rulebook is real bad. Like, Paragon of Sloppy Indexing bad. Want to look up what Transporters, one of Star Trek’s signature technologies, do? Good luck! Turns out that info about Transporters is on p224 and 225 of the main Rulebook under Internal Systems… which is also not in the index as its own entry. And is nowhere near an exhaustive description of what they can and can not do.

      And Transporters are one of those tricks that your players are going to want to try ALL THE FUCKING TIME like their ship is just a big vacuum-cleaner sucking up bad, guys, good guys, all their weapons and depositing them in appropriate places.

So, with all that mumping and griping: What Does Work?:

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  •  The setting, as presented in tone and text is absolutely spot on Star Trek. If you enjoyed the good seasons of Deep Space Nine and Next Generation, I really think you’d be hard pressed not to love this game and the way it is presented.  The writing (rather than the layout) of the adventures I’ve read so far has been excellent. It is the quality and obvious sincerity with which Modiphius has attempted to create an authentic Star Trek experience that overcomes all my other grumbles and will keep me playing this RPG for years to come. Even if you abandoned the rules system and used some other system for a Star Trek homebrew you’d still find value and direction in the bulk of the writing.
  • It’s really well supported. There is A LOT of extra material for this game and it hasn’t been out that long. You could play and play for quite a while without ever running out of material created by Modiphius. And with the standard set by the Rulebook and Starter Set, you can be assured that the stories and feel will have the same authentic feel.
  • While it creates rules for lots of things, some of the things it creates rules for are ambitious and awesome. For example, having the ship be its own kind of character is thematically appropriate and also mechanically means that even characters who aren’t physically present at a scene can participate in play. Either because their characters are working their stations on the bridge or just rolling for the participation of the ship. Similarly, having bridge stations with unique roles in starship combat and hazard navigation and characters assigned to those stations and those roles is pretty rad. It seems like a good way to do ship-to-ship combat when one player is deciding the approach, another is keeping the ship intact, another is maneuvering to advantage and another is planning attacks.
  • The GM takes a fairly active role in modifying the written storyline based on the PC’s actions. With reckless/lethal play or too much reliance on buying dice, the Threat pool grows and the GM can upgrade enemies or insert complications as a reaction to that.
  • It is a game in which you have a boss: not just one boss, lots of bosses. Or maybe you are a boss. From Starfleet High Command, to local Admirals, to your Captain, to your XO, to your section chief… there could be a lot of people above you. You could be a lowly Ensign. You could be a Captain. These people will tell you what they want done and to certain extent how they want it done, the PCs have to balance getting the job done, with getting the job done the way they should do it and being true to their own values. They’re a member of an organization that has prospered by coming in peace and their continued survival rests on walking that walk, not just talking the talk when it suits them. Their scientific prowess has meant that they have tremendously powerful weapons and incredible responsibilities to the UFP, but these are always a fringe-cost/benefit of their scientific advance, not their raison d’etre. Balancing these often competing pressures lets you decide who your character is loyal to: Their Captain? Their team-mates? Starfleet’s higher principles? Principles beyond Starfleet and the UFP?
  • You play hyper-competent, nerdy, good guys. And there’s nothing wrong with that at all. Doing things the right way almost always causes more conflict and turmoil than doing things the easy way – its just that you take that conflict and turmoil on yourself rather than foisting it off on someone else. The buck stops at the idealistic botanist, xenolinguist, particle physicist et al. Chaotic Neutral is always easier to play than Lawful Good, because it is mostly about avoiding repercussions. In Star Trek, you’ve got to boldly take it. That’s the inherent nobility in the Roddenberry vision  and the game does a great job of recognizing and facilitating that.

Verdict: Will happily play again, with a bit of work.

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Deadlands Homebrew Playtest Reflection

I thoroughly enjoyed playing Deadlands again and I’m looking forward to continuing the adventures of Mars, Callie, Bartimus and Lewis out on the frontier. There are enough loose ends and dangling plot hooks  that it should be easy to pick up the story again.

So of the rules I adapted or made up before we started, what worked and what didn’t? What about the Homebrew needs fixing?

What worked:

Character Creation: The Cypher system made it pretty easy to give people an expansive array of options and let the players build some instantly relatable characters. It seemed like everyone had a strong idea and got to follow through – or if they didn’t, that idea ended up fleshed out enough by the end of the first session. The character relations are a small part of character creation, but I really like them.

Read More

Deadlands Homebrew Playtest 3, 4, 5.

Having survived their night at the Sheep Station, they were keen to get going and as soon as they could get everything together, they did. It meant leading the coach and horses and was slow going, but they weren’t far from dawn, so their slow pace didn’t last long. Traveling at a decent pace they put the Sheep Station and its lifeless hill behind them and came to the turn off to get to Big Dan’s camp. Sitting in the back of the coach, nursing his injured foot, Rubber Dan recognized the area and leaned forward and casually pistol-whipped Mr Gaslin unconscious.

Curly and Rubber Dan had never taken a coach across the little ford that led to the trail they intended to take into the hills, so they were carefully navigate it now. As they did so, two riders appeared on the road from Laramie, saw the coach crossing the little river and passed on. The posse decided to do nothing against these looky-Lou’s.

The river forded, they continued on and before long the hill levelled out and they found themselves overlooking a wooded meadow, in which lay a dilapidated ranch. They spotted men among the near trees, keeping sentry on the comings and going. The ranch had obviously lain untended for a while, but now the cluster of buildings had an air of being inhabited and fixed up a little. They were met, before they got too close to the buildings and Curly debriefed the rough looking men who greeted them.

A few things were evident from this first conversation: Chicago, Sy, Bob and whoever else was supposed to meet up with Curly and Rubber Dan still were missing. Which meant the posse’s gear and horses were still missing. And the men Curly talked to were decidedly less excited to see these newcomers once they heard about their “amnesia” with regards to their bank robbery money.

Callie, Bartimus, Mars and Lewis were led in to see Big Dan, who was just getting some breakfast. Having eaten nothing in the past 24 hours and only stale bread for a week prior to their attempted execution, they were famished and slurped down all the sourdough biscuits, bacon, eggs and coffee on offer. Big Dan was a short, square-shaped old black guy, with big snow-white Wilford Brimley mustaches. He explained that he and his crew had previously had a ranch in what was now the Sioux Territories and after getting booted out they’d run afoul of the law. He seemed to regard this as a temporary set-back, as – he explained – law and outlaw tended to be differentiated rather subjectively this far west.  It was often a matter of how much money you had at hand.

Wait did I say mustaches? No he has big… whatever these are. Damn, Texas Cowboy, that’s a look.

SPEAKING OF WHICH… Big Dan was led to believe that they did NOT in fact have the money he thought they would. He showed them the note he had received: a bribed deputy had brought the note to Maria while she was in town buying supplies. She had brought it to Big Dan and Big Dan had sprung into action. The note was in Lewis’s handwriting and written on a piece of paper torn from the back of a book – Bartimus’s copy of Hoyle’s Book of Games. It requested a jailbreak and promised $500, which Big Dan assumed they could pay because they presumably had the stolen bank loot stashed somewhere… right?

Dan wasn’t expecting them to arrive in camp laden with bonds and bullion, but he didn’t expect them to deny any part in the robbery. It turns out he’d spent a bunch of money on bribing Deputies, and he would find out later that day that he’s lost three men – Jeff, shot as they fled in the cart; Bob and Sy killed as they caused distractions and retrieved the horses and gear. Dan had an idea of how they could pay up though – a job had come up in Laramie that he and his folk weren’t able to take on account of their temporary outlaw status. But it paid well and would go some way to paying off their debt.

The new arrivals to Big Dan’s camp were fed and baths were drawn for them, temporary clothes laid out while their filthy laundry was washed. Theodore Gaslin was sequestered in an unused shed. Chicago eventually arrived, horses well run and tired. He’d had to circle way wide to avoid the Marshalls who came back to town. He let them know that Sy and Bob hadn’t made it. But all their meager possessions were returned to them (Bartimus’s copy of Hoyles did indeed have a page torn out of the back). Our amnesiac-outlaws interviewed Maria and her husband Angel who were in town during the 4th and tried to get a picture of what happened.

In short, they were enjoying the festivities in Cheyenne and the small amount of fireworks when there was an almighty boom. They discovered that the corners of two neighboring banks had been blasted open and their vaults raided. The Marshalls who were gathered in town (for some reason) were hot on the trail and by morning, they’d hauled four out-of-towers out of the boarding house they’d been staying in and dragged them of to the hoosegow. There was a quick trial and within a week they were climbing the scaffolding. The money (various different amounts have been floated, but they are all astronomical) has never been found. They were known as the Centennial Bandits.

The posse agreed that they should take the job (Big Dan has given them a small line of credit at the general store that Angel uses in Laramie) but were pretty suspicious of Big Dan, beyond him being an outlaw. They seemed to think he may have a hand in their bank-robbing-blackout. Bartimus, no stranger to messing with people’s memories had a creepy feeling about their amnesia – that they should all recover their wits just before their hanging suggested a very powerful and precise cruelty.

Chicago suggested not working the horses overly hard over the next few days – they’d recover from their tough two days. So they rode into Laramie at a sedate pace. Theodore Gaslin had been set free, bewildered, a little concussed and with no story to tell of the high level presidential summit that is supposed to have taken place.

In Laramie they rode directly to the place Big Dan had told them needed help – the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. They were shown into the small exclusive clubhouse/hotel that served as the headquarters of the Association by a smartly dressed butler named Carberry. He took their hats (Bowler for Bartimus, fetish-bedecked Western hat for Callie, Topper for Mars and a nice wide brimmed Montana Peak Stetson for  Lewis) and fixed them refreshments while he alerted the members as to their arrival. They met with Carter Johns, president of the association, Stephen O’Neill, member and Dirk Van Houten, a cattle detective on the Association’s payroll.

Oh! Oh that’s a real thing? I… er… I did not know that and I’m very sorry about all the slander that I’m about to turn into libel.

Johns, a tall, powerful and elegant man, gave them the job’s brief: someone was attempting to ruin the Association’s reputation and he wanted to know who and why, he wanted an end to it and he wanted it done quickly and with discretion. He explained that one of the Association’s members Mrs Brill, had approached him over a week ago, livid. She claimed he had sold her some heifers that had literally fallen apart within 24 hours of their purchase. He, he said, had done no such thing; but Mrs Brill could not be persuaded. She left in a fury. Within a few days Mr O’Neill came to him, furious that a fellow member Edward Bailey had sold him cattle that had also fallen apart within a day. Both Mr O’Neill and Mrs Brill had been adamant that they had met with their co-member, formalized what seemed to be a good deal and taken the cattle back to their ranch, only for the cattle to dissolve into heaping piles of garbage.

The WSGA is one of  the town’s greatest assets while almost all the rest of the West is afflicted by the twin blights of Prairie Tick infestation and Texas Fever, the WSGA’s carefully exclusive stock management has kept their little part of the world free from both plagues. This allows the WSGA to supply the railroad from Laramie (the current railhead) all the way down to Denver (its home) and they are making a FORTUNE doing it. But this has a cost – the eternal defense of their stock lines, and vigilance against disease as well as co-operation between ranches that would typically be rivals. It takes a lot of organization and this attack against WSGA members seems designed to split the WSGA asunder – Mrs Brill has already intimated that she will withdraw from the eight ranch axis. If it wasn’t for Mr O’Neill coming to Johns first, chances are he’d have done the same. Other than jealousy, Johns claims there is no reason why anyone would have it in for the WSGA; the town’s wealth relies on it.

The party left the meeting and walked in to a surly bunch of ranch hands massed outside the WSGA – disgruntled Brill hands flaunting the WSGA quarantine that had been placed on the Brill and O’Neill ranches since the unpleasantness. The cowpunchers looked like they were spoiling for a fight, but Mars reached out with his winning personality and persuaded them that what they really wanted was to mosey on along to the saloon and baptize their tonsils with the smooth taste of Grandad Turkey, whisky of choice in these parts. They did, to the silent and unacknowledged surprise of Carberry.

“Folks around here… etc. etc, you know the drill.”

Their first port of call was to go see Dr Lester Callings, large animal veterinarian. It became evident that he had never been called out to investigate the dead/dissolved cattle, even though the WSGA believed he had.

They rode with Dr Callings to the O’Neill ranch, a professional, small ranch an hour’s ride out of town. There they were met by ranch hands who were maintaining the quarantine, but let them through when they saw they were on WSGA business. They were led to the barn that the O’Neills had cordoned off – and shown a disgusting heap of trash. Oh, sure, it had rotting cow hides and bones, but they weren’t looking at the skeletal remains of the heifers they had heard of. Nope, this was a pile of garbage; they dug out cloth fragments, wooden, fragments, disintegrating paper and even a rusting can lid from tinned peaches. The O’Neill cowboys reiterated the story that they’d heard from O’Neill: a good looking group of heifers was brought in, and by morning they’d dissolved into this pile of detritus.

Next, they headed over to the Brill Ranch. As they approached the ramshackle and disorganized shanty at the heart of the ranch, they saw men pouring lamp oil over a low pile in the middle of a cobbled together corral. Despite their attempts to get there faster, none of them could coax their horses into action – with Mars being catapulted over his horses head when she balked at the fence. Callie attempted to get their attention by firing into the air, which caused a general hubbub amongst the ornery and tetchy Brill clan.

Eventually they were able to speak to the furious Ma Brill, who told much the same story as the O’Neill crew – heifers brought back from town, dissolved within 24 hours. By suggesting to Ma Brill that their testimony would be able to bring the quarantine to an end and restore the goodwill of the WSGA, they were able to get her cooperation.

Riding back to town, someone sniped at them – putting a hole in Lewis’s nice hat and grazing his scalp, but no more damage than that. They gave chase, with Lewis attempting to shoot the man’s horse, LIKE A MONSTER. Their horse karma was not with them, perhaps deservedly so and they could not catch the black-clad villain as he fled in the direction of town.

It was getting late when they returned and they went back and forward with Dr Callings as to his safety (he thought he was safe) and what he should do (he thought he should wait at the WSGA). They stopped in at the livery to speak with the hostler, Gustaf. His livery shared space with the WSGA’s corrals in town and he was generally present during daylight hours. He recalled the cattle deals, occurring precisely as described by Mr O’Neill and Johns’ recollection of Mrs Brill’s accusations. He also let them know that the horse he had stabled, which they recognized from the brief chase on the way back from Brill’s belonged to a relative newcomer called Berkshire, who worked for someone Gustaf didn’t know. He and his employer had one of the new houses, but he couldn’t help them with which one.

They retired to MacDaniel’s Saloon as it grew dark and were briefly taken aback by the selection of animatronic taxidermied animals, including a bear that seemed to menace newcomers. They were allowed in with their irons, despite a close look by the mountainous woman who served as the bouncer.

They’d pretty much just got settled when in walked Berkshire and another man who locked eyes with them and advanced as Lewis stepped towards them…

…if time didn’t exactly stand still, it did a real good job of seeming that way… everything was stuck – including the posse. The only movement was out of the corner of their eyes, over by the poker table: the jerky movement of the dealer slowly, dramatically slapping down cards in front of the players. There was an air of menace about the sound. Bartimus tried to tear his head around to see the dealer and was certain that whoever it was in his peripheral vision, it wasn’t that man who had been there a split second before. It was a turbaned figure in bright clothing, with stilted, mechanical movements. As they waited, dozen in time but horribly aware, they heard skirling wild music far off, a steam organ that seemed slightly out of tune or discordant.

When the eighth card had been dealt, time snapped back to its normal flow; Lewis and Berkshire strode towards each other, and Bartimus’ head whipped around painfully. The dealer – a completely regular guy, not wearing a turban or bright clothing – looked confused and lost for a moment before his players began an outcry.

Meanwhile, Lewis confronted Berkshire about his ruined hat. Berkshire attempted to sneer it off (warning Lewis to stay out of matters than don’t concern him), but Lewis, while showing him the holey hat sucker punched him, real hard. Berkshire fell back, the bouncer amazon left her stool and looked ready to pounce. Bartimus riffled his cards and cast some penny ante magic, displacing a greasy wad of tobacco juice from one corner of the floor to right under Berkshire’s boot heel as he tried to rise. He slipped and fell again to a scatter of sniggers from the onlookers.

Stormy-expression on his face, Berkshire left, forthwith. The other man who had come in with him with the cheaply flamboyant clothing was buttonholed and Lewis made him sit at the closest table while he ordered up some whisky. A tiny – TINY – saloon gal brought a bottle and a pair of glasses for the two.

Meanwhile, over at the poker table the players were loudly remonstrating with the confused dealer. They had been dealt two tarot cards, Mars and Callie saw, each receiving the Hanged Man and the Fool. The backs of the cards were identical to the regular cards they were playing with but the dealer swore he hadn’t dealt them in and accused someone of playing a trick on him. MacDaniel arrived with free drinks to calm everyone down and the dealer shakily dealt everyone new cards to start a new round of play. They managed to secure one pair of the cards – either Bartimus or Mars , I can’t remember, probably Bartimus decided the others were of no consequence and scrunched them up and threw them away. But the Hanged Man they secured sure seemed to have a familiar face…

That was the end of their interest in the tarot cards… although to be fair, they had other stuff going on. Their chat with Amos, the fancy clothed feller didn’t go anywhere unusual: he wasn’t sure why they were digging around at the behest of the WSGA, but he sure wished they’d quit it, move on to greener, maybe more profitable and certainly less dangerous pastures. There was a definite hint of “You Are Meddling In Things That You Do Not Understand”. He did mention that he worked for Alphonse  Ogone before proving himself to be a bad pickpocket – unless that was a distraction and he was actually a great pickpocket.

Asking around, Alphonse Ogone was a bit of a mystery, except that he attended a weekly poker game at MacDaniels, the high stakes one that most folks couldn’t get in. Players tended to be the town’s great and good. In particular Philpott and O’Neill of the WSGA, but also Dr Callings. Callie went off to follow Berkshire to see if she could track him back to his house, but he took a deliberately circuitous route, probably out of habit and she lost him. She found Amos though… or rather he appeared behind her and creeped her out some. They turned in for the night, Bartimus getting a room at MacDaniels saloon and Lewis getting accommodation at the railroad camp.

The following morning they checked at the railroad camp, enquiring whether or not they had Berkshire or Amos. This led them to discover that Berkshire and Amos had raided their midden heap – which no-one stopped them from doing, obviously. And yes, they had taken on a batch of tinned peaches recently. This was pretty much enough for the posse to put together what they thought had happened: For whatever reason, Alphonse Ogone had directed his henchmen to bring him a bunch of mostly organic trash. He had turned that trash (through means unknown to them as yet) into illusory cattle, passed himself off as WSGA members and swindled the real WSGA members.

The posse was satisfied with taking this story (weird bits excised) to the sheriff Samuel Meyers. They stopped in at Verdad Photography, a place everyone mentioned as being a locus of weird and supernatural stuff. They got their photos taken and left Consuela to develop them later. They went to get the Sheriff, they just wanted to talk to Ogone and Meyers was deferential to anyone doing the bidding of the WSGA. Oh boy, would he regret that. Walking from the Sheriff’s office to Ogone’s house (the Sheriff knew where it was), they walked up the hill to the newly built houses, and Sheriff Meyers confidently walked up and knocked on the door… and someone inside blew his kneecaps off through the door.

police squad GIF

A gunfight ensued, Lewis scrambling to haul the Sheriff to safety, Mars fleeing to the WSGA to raise the hue and cry and Bartimus and Callie circling the house as Berkshire and Amos fired out of the windows. Bartimus ran into Li Po, the as-yet-unmet henchman, who brought two of his closest hatchet friends and set upon the huckster. Bartimus’ cards flew into his hands as he was hacked, and he reached out and scrambled the Chinese henchman’s memories… this bought him enough time to get away. After killing off Amos as he shot at them from the top floor windows, they entered the house, Callie and Berkshire battering each other with rifle butts before Callie eventually came out on top. Li Po surrendered eventually, only just before Callie and Bartimus fell over.

Mars arrived, having secured the townsfolk’s assistance and Carberry and his shotguns. The shooting of the sheriff more or less sealed the deal as far as the righteousness of the posse’s cause went in most people’s eyes. The posse was slow in racing upstairs, but eventually made it up there just as a vibration that made the upper floor shudder ended. It seemed to come from a closet space, but when they investigated, there was nothing in there at all. Amos’s body and the top of his head (no longer attached) lay in a shared bedroom, they searched that before moving on to the next room; that was a much more fancy and well appointed room, evidently Mr Ogone’s room.

The evidence they collected (along with a stash of cash, ghost rock and a few useful objects) suggested that Ogone and WSGA Hector Philpott had collaborated to ruin the WSGA’s reputation. They had the deal in writing and could take this to Mr Johns.

But that wasn’t all they found. On Ogone’s dressing table they found a picture, relatively new, of a sturdily built small man with a look of real… solidity.. to him. He had short dark hair and dark eyes and a slight smirk. He held his hands out, palms up, with what looked like hemped rope strands draped over them, drooping down out of frame.

They found what seemed to be a big wad of paper money, but when they unfolded it, they faint strains of the whirling steam organ music could be heard in the far distance and instead of bank notes, it unfolded into a thick paper poster. It read, in flamboyant eye catching text “Roll up! Roll up! We are coming!”. And under the house, they found a lockbox full of photographs and new-fangled ‘post-cards’. Each showed a small town, or a Main Street labeled with the name of a town.

They presented the evidence against Philpott to Johns and O’Neill who considered their task complete and paid them the agreed price. In terms of discreet… well discretion was a little lacking as the affair ended in a gunfight in town, but at least the townsfolk did not know of the WSGA’s involvement. Johns intimated to them that Philpott had been on the losing end of the recent election for WSGA president, so his actions made sense, although obviously Johns was aghast at the depths of Philpott’s bitterness.

Job done, all they had to do now was to decide how much of their hard earned cash to give Big Dan Garrad, collect their photographs and try to figure out the significance of a lockbox full of postcards and photos of small towns. That last mystery wasn’t solved, but they did discover that each of the towns pictured in the collection had suffered some sort of catastrophe within the past decade – devastating floods, mass deaths from smallpox, conflagration, tornado – turning them into ghost towns.

Despite her best efforts, Consuela can’t get ghosts to stop showing up in her photographs.

Well, that’s creepy, but picking up their photographs turned out to be worse. Consuela warned them that the outcome wasn’t pretty. While each of them had given a characteristic pose for their session the result was different. Each of them was pictured suspended by a thick rope around their neck, face blackened, eyes and swollen tongues bulging from their faces. With horrible certainty, they took out Ogone’s photograph, and found that the ropes he held in his hands lined up with the ropes that strangled each of them. Furthermore, the smirk on Ogone’s face had widened into a broad, rictus grin. And for a moment they heard the wild discordance of the distant steam organ again.

 

Deadlands Homebrew Playtest 2

There are a few homebrew rules I made that deviate from the Cypher System rulebook: they’re setting specific stuff like the various magic systems, doin’ stuff on horseback, which is a big part of the genre and reloadin’ guns which we tested in session 2. While they fit the feel of the ol’ Deadlands game, they’re a bit granular for Cypher – Cypher System is more of a broad strokes and low rules kind of a game.

But Shootouts are central to a Western game and in a prolonged gun battle there should be a sense of urgency, which I hope the Reloadin’ rules add to. Players have unlimited ammo, functionally, bookkeeping is for other games. So ammo tension has to come from the limited magazines and not your total fund.

Recap: you declare how many rounds you want to load, that’s your target number (I.e multiply it by three and try to roll under that on a d20). Pass, you succeed, fail you only get one in. It’s a simple mechanic, so it isn’t injecting a whole bunch to remember. The gamble and the all-or-just-about-nothing aspect favours tension over realism, but this ain’t Twilight 2000 compadres.

Rolland tested this out last night as he was working an over-under shotgun during a zombie attack. Unfortunately his rolling was on brand and he fucked up two reloads… OF A DOUBLE BARREL SHOTGUN. This meant he got one shell in and had to decide whether to forgo shooting next turn to load another or just blast away. As it turned out he alternated between pistol shots and shotgun blasts in a way that was thematically EXACTLY WHAT I WAS GOING FOR. I think the idea will get a bit more of a test when someone is trying to stuff their six-shooter in the heat of the moment so we’ll see how it goes then.

There wasn’t much chance to see Hexes or Horse-ridin’ at work last night as they don’t have their horses yet and Bartimus’ Hexes aren’t combat oriented.

Part 2: Hot Coach to the Sheep Station.

The posse found themselves trying to make a fast getaway with a slow cart, with a US Marshall-led posse presumably forming up behind them and their relief horses nowhere in sight. As Curly and Rubber Dan discussed their desperate options, a fast moving four-horse stage came into view.

Curly wasn’t one to usher these folks into a life of crime… but he also believed that they were bank robbers… so… Rubber Dan thought robbing the stagecoach was their best bet of getting quickly away from a vigilante posse likely to come in guns blazing. But the not-actually-desperadoes, um… never actually robbed those banks. Probably. Read More

Deadlands Homebrew Playtest

Ooh, boy, it’s 2am, but I wanted to try to get this down before I hit the hay. Forgive me if I am hazy on anything, I wasn’t particularly well organised while I was saying it, and I’m not much better now. I’ll get to updatin’ the world background before we play again.

We got through Character Generation tonight and had a little time left over to get playing. Even though it’s the Numenera crew playing another Cypher system game, it takes a bit of adjustment even to go back to such low powered characters as a lowly Tier 1. Tier 1s are still, compared to other RPG starting characters, really capable, bit still, these guys are used to the abilitypalooza that is Tier 5 and 6 in Numenera, so starting over takes some doing.

I gave a bit of background from Deadlands and explained the two new rules bits – Ridin’ effect on actions (the faster, the harder), and Reloadin’ (the more you try to stuff in, the harder it gets) and managed to do it without making any double entendres.

Then pretty much just let everyone take the Type, Descriptor and Focus they wanted and let them work it out themselves. The only thing that got us stuck a bit was that you get Skills by choosing the Skill buying Ability as one of your starting Abilities. It’s strange to start a character with so few skills  – you might conceivably start the game with only one Skill and a bunch of Abilities.

And in the end, we had our four characters, correct me if I’m wrong on any of this guys:

Calpurnia ‘Callie’ Georges – A Lucky Fightin’ Sort who Never Says Die. You might be forgiven for thinkin’ Callie was a young feller at first glance, but this is one tough gal who knows who to navigate a fight better than most men, in an age of fightin’ men. She might have Hired Gun written all over her, but there’s more to her past than that.

Bartimus E. Tarnsworth… maybe Tarnsworthy – An Exiled Huckster who Operates Undercover. Formerly Professor of Mythology At Brown University, Bartimus comes West to start a new life. Maybe as a tutor or something else COMPLETELY ABOVE BOARD AS FAR AS ANYONE KNOWS.

Mars Johnston – An Empathic Spinner Who Sees Beyond. Gifted – he says – with an ability to see so much more than everyone else, he’s seen plenty already. A Veteran on the right side of the Civil War, Johnston got himself a bit o’ education, before decidin’ that wasn’t his thing. After his stint in the Army was up, he decided to head out West to really get to know people, you know?

Lewis Colman – A Sharp Eyed Drifter who Calculates the Incalculable. Lewis lost his family to Dakota raiders and so heads west to Wyoming, a land he visited before and loves, to start anew. He was a commissioned officer in the US army and after that, a railroad surveyor, putting to good use his ability to calculate outcomes. Colman and Johnston knew each other in the army, although it was purely by chance that they met on the stage out to Wyoming. Lewis could  tell you what the odds of that chance encounter was.

Part 1 – Invitation to a Necktie Party Read More

Cypher System Deadlands Homebrew Progress 4

Ugh, slow progress. Between work being nightmarish and Red Dead Redemption 2 being dreamy, I’ve had little energy to devote to getting Foci done, so it has taken a while. But it’s done! There wasn’t too much real change to be made: a little more horse, a little less computers and a few word changes to the Foci in the Cypher System Rulebook and we’re good.

Some of these might seem familiar to Numenera players, but there are some fascinating new ones thrown in there too allowing you to make characters who…

  • Awakens Dreams; pretty rad dream powers, putting people into dreams, pulling stuff out of dreams and into the real world.
  • Bears a Halo of Fire; one of the “Covered in _” foci, bursting into flames as a way of life, with a few cool burning shit up abilities.
  • Blazes with Radiance; another “Covered in _” foci, this has only a little overlap with Bears a Halo of Fire and focuses more on light manipulation.
  • Builds Robots; I kept this even though we have a Weird Science Flavour, for people who want to double down on tinkerin’ with gadgets. Doesn’t mean you couldn’t play a gadgeteer or the like, even if you don’t take Weird Science. Maybe you’re a Mormon Drifter and you just like a little company. I’m not going to judge.
  • Calculates the Incalculable; a mathematics savant who uses predictive models to make life easier for themselves.
  • Carries a Quiver; archery specialist, obviously. Can use Intellect or Speed to aim arrows, which is kinda cool.
  • Channels Divine Blessings; almost didn’t keep this because of overlap with Blessed Type, but who am I to deprive anyone of making a Holy Roller Fightin’ Sort? You get to choose your God’s portfolio, which is nice.
  • Commands Mental Powers; all sorts of telepathic shenanigans.
  • Consorts with the Dead; Necromancy by any other name would smell as – augh, good god, what is that stench? Speaking to the dead has its advantages though. Unlike Shepherds Spirits below, you get to animate corpses to do your bidding.
  • Controls Beasts; Beast buddies, beast mounts, beast allies.
  • Crafts Illusions; Illusionist, pretty simple looking. At least that’s what they want you to see.
  • Crafts Unique Objects; Craftsman who can increase the utility of his own gear and also eventually craft artifacts.
  • Defends the Weak; bonuses for being the party Tank with some crowd control.
  • Doesn’t Do Much; a boost to combat abilities and non-combat skills
  • Employs Magnetism; seems pretty overpowered, this is a powerful array of metal-manipulation abilities. And at 6, you get to treat a non-magnetic thing as though it is magnetic… so… Fortunately the Intellect cost is high.
  • Entertains; BARD.
  • Exists in Two Places at Once; Creepy mirror twin follower who will go do stuff for you.
  • Exists Partially out of Phase; Meef’s ability from our Numenera game, he isn’t entirely all there.
  • Explores Dark Places; getting into and out of places abilities.
  • Fights Dirty; an array of dastardly abilities to help you out in combat.
  • Fights with Panache; an array of swashbuckling abilities to help you out in combat.
  • Focuses Mind over Matter; Telekinetic abilities, as displayed by Giana in Numenera.
  • Howls at the Moon; Lycanthrope abilities
  • Hunts Outcasts; Primed with skills for taking on the humanoid abominations of the Weird West.
  • Hunts with Great Skill; Trackin’ and Sneakin’ with extra abilities for use against your quarry.
  • Infiltrates; a lot of overlap with the Stealth Flavour.
  • Interprets the Law; finally fulfill your dream of being a simple country lawyer! Also, you get to shout Objection! as a stunning attack on people. True.
  • Leads; as seen in Numenera exemplified by Sharad who bosses people around and what-not.
  • Lives by the Gun; firearm expertise.
  • Lives in the Wilderness; lots of wilderness survival skills
  • Looks for Trouble; a mix of fightin’ and healin’ abilities.
  • Masters the Swarm; creepy-ass swarm abilities.
  • Masters Weaponry; since archery and gunplay are covered in other Foci this one covers melee weapons (pretty much). “Throws with -” below covers throwing weapons.
  • Metes Out Justice; you get to decide who is innocent and who is guilty and then you get abilities to treat them accordingly.
  • Moves Like a Cat; knock things off shelves. But also, a big boost for Speed users.
  • Moves Like the Wind; even more goodies for Speed users, this one lets you move real fast. Like, real fast. SO fast people can’t identify you as you run past them.
  • Murder; focus on ambush and sudden, overwhelming strikes.
  • Needs No Weapon; one of a few ways of building a Kung Fu-Western character.
  • Never Says Die; an impressive array of damage mitigation abilities, to help you build a very durable tank.
  • Operates Undercover; bunch of spy abilities.
  • Performs Feats of Strength; big boosts to Might and abilities related to that.
  • Rages; another Might boosting and utilizing Foci, this focussing on temporary surges.
  • Rides the Lightning; another “Covered in _” Foci that mixes damage dealing with movement abilities.
  • Sees Beyond; A Foci that lets you see way more than other folks experience and makes visible (to you) the invisible and hidden.
  • Separates Mind from Body; give your mortal coil a rest for a bit and send your soul out wanderin’, doin’ stuff.
  • Shepherds Spirits; similiar to Consorts with the Dead in that it has communication skills, but this time you get assistance from spirits. These characters are so au fait with the spirit world that they get to choose whether or not to come back as Harrowed when they die.
  • Siphons Power; be an energy vampire! Why not?!
  • Slays Monsters; the monster equivalent Hunts Outcasts, this is primed with skills for taking on the monsters of the Weird West.
  • Solves Mysteries; lets you spend Might and Speed to Intellect tasks, so it lets you turn a non-Intellect heavy Types into a bit of a thinker. Other generally useful spread of abilities.
  • Throws with Deadly Accuracy; the last of the weapon specialization Foci.
  • Wears a Sheen of Ice; a “Covered In _” Foci with a greater emphasis on crowd control and protection.
  • Wields Two Weapons at Once; As modelled by Red Pepper, this lets you hit with two weapons, with increasing effect.
  • Works Miracles; different to the Channel Divine Blessings because it focuses almost entirely on healing.
  • Works the Back Alleys; The Urban Ranger, a spread of abilities to help out.
  • Works  the System; more con-man than thief, lots of ways of during people especially those that rely on bureaucratic systems. I edited a lot of this because it originally had a lot to do with computers.
  • Would Rather be Reading; Boosts to Intellect with some non-combat skill benefits.

Alright, Descriptors shouldn’t take too long as they’re pretty short.

Then we’re good to make characters!

 

Cypher System Deadlands Homebrew Progress 3

Okay! Making Decent progress. Types and Flavours are done, and they’re the most setting-reliant and take the most work. Foci and Descriptors should be easier and faster to incorporate, with probably no changes for the vast majority of stuff. So I’m already figuring out a introductory scenario and should get that written up soon. The bunch of old White Dwarf back issues from the mid-80s have been great for idea stealing.

Types:

Got yer Fightin’ Sort, Spinner, Drifter, Huckster, Blessed and Shaman types figured out. The last three are just variations of a template, with a couple of different rules.

  • Fightin’ Sort: Combat specialists. They’re real good at the hurtin’ business.
  • Spinner: Social Interaction specialists, but it goes a bit beyond that. They’re able to fiddle with memories, supernaturally intimidate, it is (potentially) more than just a silver tongue.
  • Drifter: is your Jack of All Trades, with things that don’t quite fit in other Types. But there are a few things that no one else can do. The Drifter isn’t just hedged bets between other Types, it has a lot of its own stuff going on.
  • Huckster: Magic flinging, it’s the most offensive of the three magic classes for sure. As well as the spell type abilities, there are a few added abilities relating to how they cast their spells and rules regarding their dealings with the Manitous. I put in a skill called Blood Magic that allows an advanced Huckster to spend Might rather than Intellect to cast spells – a kind of desperate ploy – but once they start that they have to keep spending Might until they are successful.
  • Blessed: Blessed spells tend not to be offensive (although there are a few) but they are all simple Intellect point buys like regular Cypher System/Numenera spells.
  • Shaman: Shaman have a mix of offensive and useful spells – the deal with Shamans is that a lot of their spells are rituals – they can do some amazing things, but it takes time. Their spell durations are a bit better though. This frees up the Shaman to bit a bit more free with his chips than other magic users – which seems suitable for a more physical role.

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Cypher System Deadlands: Homebrew progress 2

You seem unsure about where Duluth and Chicago are, map, but this is by far the least inaccurate Deadlands map I could find. The rest appear to have been drawn from memory, one putting Bismarck, Fargo and Minneapolis all in the same state…

So after hammering out Fightin’ Sort, Spinner and Drifter as Character Types, I came up with a simple equipment list, thought about bullets, and fleshed out the Stealth Flavour and the Weird Science Flavour.

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