Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Re-creating Stormbringer RPG

It is no surprise that I love the Stormbringer RPG.

I read all of Moorcock's books I could find at an early age.

I collected the comics, Thomas & Russel's Elric, Mignola's Corum, and the varying others.

Stormbringer 3e in the green cover was my first non-D&D RPG. It was stolen out from under me. I had Elric! and that too disappeared.

(If you have an old copy of any edition and want to support me, drop me a DM. I'm willing to trade or pay a fair price).

Now, I am into story games and modern game design.

I think I will try my hand at re-creating Stormbringer using the insights I have gleaned from games like Swords of the Serpentime, Powered by the Apocalypse, and Alien. 

Where to Start?

My first instinct is to look at the skills list, but this is a misstep. Stormbringer isn't about skills, it is about the conflict between Law and Chaos, one that has reverberated through roleplaying since the beginning of the hobby. Each edition of Stormbringer had its own incomplete and poorly implemented take on allegience to these powers.

This is where I will start. If I can untangle the concepts and how they were implemented, maybe I can find the way in to this maze.

Wish me luck!

The Tyranny of Backstory and the Freedom of Emergent Roleplaying

I HATE backstory.

Back in the day when I played GURPS, I spent a day making a PC with a great backstory. He was a delusional bard who thought he was a king, and was searching for the lost kingdom of Wallachia to reclaim his throne.

He was killed by another PC, an assassin minmax killing machine made by an A-hole friend of a friend, during the first session.

I played 5e once, and was given 4 pages of character sheet with a list of useless stuff and overblown backstory. None of it was used in the session.

Before either of these games, I had played OD&D, with zero backstory, just a half empty character sheet to start with. There was something liberating about rolling dice 6 times, adding one name, some gear, then jumping into the game. Backstory was something we made as we played, old adventures we told newbies who came to our table. 


Let's think about this through the lens of fiction.

What if, before you went to see the first Star Wars movie, you got this backstory:

"Luke Skywalker is a Tatooine farmboy who rose from humble beginnings to become one of the greatest Jedi the galaxy has ever known. Along with his friends Princess Leia, who is really his sister, and Han Solo, Luke battles the evil Empire, which is lead by his father Darth Vader, and fights to end the tyranny of the Sith, lead the Emperor Palpatine, who was a senator in the Old Republic."

If you read that first, would you want to go see the movie? Now you understand how I feel.


The way I see it, there are three issues with backstory in RPGs.

1 Backstory robs characters of mystery

Just as the mystery of Luke's family is an integral part to the appeal of Star Wars, leaving the mystery of your character's background is part of roleplaying's charm. The point is to fill in the blanks as you play, to let the GM suggest or surprise you, just as Luke was shocked at discovering his father and sister's identity.

2 Backstory makes it harder to kill PCs

There is a correlation and tension between the length of character generation and how much you want to keep the character alive. When I played 4e, it took over an hour to make a character, and every battle felt like a slog with an inevitable victory at the end. There was none of the challenge or risk of other games I had played. We were a party of Mary Sues, to all intents and purposes, with the GM afraid to kill us off lest we abandon the game after the time we had invested in it.

This is not unique to D&D. Traveler is an exception, generating a character history loose enough to let dots be connected interestingly.

3 Backstory is not earned

Back in the day, no one would ever think of starting at any level but 1. Now, I have been at tables where newbies start with multiple levels and randomly rolled magic items and other gear. To me, this feels like a cheap cheat, a subversion of the very sense of accomplishment leveling up in D&D had back in the day.


One solution is to embrace what I call emergent roleplaying. Beyond the most basic of information (first name, gear, profession), a character sheet should start blank, and be gradually filled in as play progresses.

What would emergent play look like? It would have to be a collaborative act between GM and players, who must always agree on details that arise. The surprise of some details would make the play as emergent and exciting for GMs as it would be for players.


Although different RPGs promote emergent play to different degrees, here are some suggested practices that can turn any game into an emergent play RPG.

1) Leave the character sheet blank. In OD&D, we started with the 6 stats, a name, and a kit of starting gear. This was all we needed. You might want to have players add a detail for every level gained, and make a list of suggestion as follows:

Hometown / Family / Phobias / Favorite weapon / Pet or steed / Best friend / Rival / Favorite drink

2) Don't decide everything at once. I am running Call of Cthulhu now, and players are using pregenerated characters. None of them have the Spanish language skill they need to decipher the tome they have found. I suggested that players change other language skills to Spanish, in other words, retcon their PC skills. Although they were reticent at first, two have already done so, and one has finished his reading (and Sanity loss from) the ancient book. Players can't foresee what they'll need in an adventure, so give them the leeway to change skill choices to ensure their success in pushing the adventure forward. Especially useful / necessary in investigative games.

3) Discuss filling in the blanks together. When I played Ironsworn a few weeks back, the first session was spent filling in the gameworld together. This made us invested in the world from the get go, and as we played, we interpreted Oracle and other rolls in ways that accorded with this interest in the gameworld, and prized the emergence of the character in it. GMs could tell players that flashbacks are allowed to explain new details, so long as it fits the spirit of the game and the emergence of the character. In the Swords of the Serpentine game I ran last year, there was a power that let PCs relate a flashback showing how they had prepared for the situation at hand. This is seen often in heist or adventure movies, so is a good fit for RPGs as well.

Try emergent roleplaying. The only thing you have to lose is the baggage of backstory.

Friday, January 15, 2021

Call of Cthulhu play report - Eyes of Nyarlotep S1


In which the PCs get a telegram from their acquaintance, renowned southwestern archaeologist Llewelyn Stanley, informing them of a find he has made, the danger he is in, and fixing a time to meet in El Paso.





However, Dr Stanley does not appear, and so the newly acquainted PCs make their way to the Hilton to search for him. Their entreaties to the reception fall on deaf ears, but they learn from an elevator boy that he is on the floor below the penthouse, and has complained of the noise coming from a party there.


Artie makes his way up the stairs alone, slips into the penthouse party, and meets a mysterious transportation expert.


Lady Jane, Shirly, and Dr Bedford go to the floor, only to be rebuffed by two burly Azteca Films workers guarding Dr Stanley’s door. They retreat to the lobby, where Shirley contacts the police.


Dr Bedford keeps watch in the bar, while the ladies of the party makes their way to the 11th floor again with two policemen. A firefight ensues just as Artie arrives, and one policeman is killed while the two door guards are dispatched. The policeman sends Lady Jane for backup. Two more assailants are in the room threatening to kill Dr Stanley, so Artie sprays the room with toxic fire retardant from the hall. The assailants rush out, felling the remaining policeman, but being dispatched by Artie, who is also heavily wounded.


Shirly electrocuted herself and aided Artie with her sawed off shotgun.


While all this is happening on the 11th floor, a half dozen members of the Crucias gang storm the lobby and rob several safe boxes. They drive off into the El Paso night, while Dr Bedford precures a cab and follows them from a prudent distance. He finds out the location of the hacienda where they hole up.


Artie – In hospital with a serious but not life-threatening gunshot wound

Shirly – Lightly toasted

All others – Hale and hearty, somewhat tipsy

Monday, November 23, 2020

On the Feel of the Dice part 1

Polyhedral dice are the essential physical components of our hobby, as well as the symbols of the RPG. Do a Google image search for 'roleplaying games' and you'll get hundreds of images with dice like this one:

Sure, there are some diceless RPGs, but they feel like anomalies, like a step back to scissors, paper, rock. Dice make the game an adult hobby, like shooting craps in Vegas or dice in a back alley. 

Today, I'd like to channel my inner Roland Barthes / de Saussure and do some (tongue in cheek) semiotic analysis of the symbols and associations of the dice we use, the dice we love or hate, and the dice some of us hoard as totems of the games we seldom have time or opportunity to play.

Feel free to read out loud in your best Herzog voice.


Dice themselves are randomizers, the element of chance, the opportunity to win or lose that adds spice to the twin game of sitting around creating a narrative with strangers, and playing a character in that narrative. Ultimately, players are subject to the whims of the dice, and the GM is literally the master of the dice, who decides when and how they are used, and who has the right to throw them. Players who constantly nag the GM with "Can I roll for...?" are attempting to prize power back for their character.

Dice are thus signifiers of the chance element of RPGs, as well as the sign for the practice of playing the game itself. "Did you bring your dice?" is often the first question asked when one enters a roleplaying session, signifying your agreement to enter into the game of chance, as well as your readiness to enter into its praxis.

Dice can also be a burden on the praxis of RPGs - the game is supposed to be about ROLEplaying, and all the free wheeling that implies. Instead, the dice focus on ROLLplaying, nixing social interaction and dramatizing in favour of gaming and its focus on comparative advantage. Roleplayers are there to immerse into the gameworld through their backstory, rollplayers are there to win at the gaming table through their minmaxing, hence the use of dice lies at the heart of the tension in the game, between the shared narrative of actors and the competitive game of players. One of the duties of the GM is to balance the role playing with the rolls for playing, and as the now defunct Japanese RPG trade magazine Role and Roll's title implied, it is the roleplaying which should come first.

Due to the different range of probabilities in dice, coupled with their difference in shape, different dice thus have different feels in use. Today, I'd like to delve into these feels.

First, let's look at each of the dice in the traditional RPG 'dice tube'.

The d4

This dice is a let down, an anti-climax. Whether you are hitting with a dagger of choosing a cardinal direction, this alluring pyramid flows gracelessly through the air and lands with an unsatisfying thud. It is also read from the bottom whereas others are read from the top, making it an unsettling outlier. Also holds an aura of physical dread from the fear of trodding on a d4 hidden under the gaming table.

The d6

Familiar to all from its place in the boardgames of youth, available at a plethora of stores, the d6 radiates comfort and reliability. This is the reason why it was used for ALL damages and hit points in old D&D, and why it has seen a resurgence in modern story games from FATE and FUDGE to Free League and Gumshoe games. Modern designers try to make the dice exciting by deviating from the 6 numbered sides to the plus / minus d6 of FATE or the facehugger dice of Alien, but these are unnecessary attempts to make us love more the dice that is already a party of our gaming souls.

The d8

A step up from the d6, rolling damage or hit points with one of these feels slightly superior. Also, their utility in rolling direction, from an errant grenade to a compass point, makes having at least one per table seem a necessity. 

The d10

This seems at first glance a step up from the d8, but due to its larger range of probable outcomes, is viewed with distrust or disappointment when a 1 is rolled and potential thus squandered. Thus the d10 feels more useful when used as a d100% (see part two).

In fact, so far as I know, this is the dice most experimented with, the most given alternate uses. There is the original invention of using two d10s for generating ranges from 1 to 100, then the handfuls of d10s used against difficulty numbers seen in World of Darkness games, and now in Ironsworn and other Powered By The Apocalypse games, two d10s are used as Challenge Dice to generate degrees of success or failure for comparison against the player's d6 roll.

Is it because our mathematics is based on ten, as is our biology in fingers and toes, that the d10 seems like second nature to us, that we can adapt and evolve it so freely?

The d12

Clunky and unsatisfying like the d4, this still has a promise of higher results like the d8 or d10. I have seen a few RPGs and boardgames use this, but the long wait for this to stop trundling about the game table (and often on the floor) hardly seems worth it, and thus accounts for its relative obscurity.

The d20

THIS is a dice, a true symbol of the hobby, thanks in no small part to the hegemonic grasp of the corporate d20 system that bills itself the greatest RPG in the world. Make no wonder it features prominently on the RPGA logo - it is THE symbol of the hobby and the industry that feeds off it.

But there is also a latent potency in the dice itself, due to the inherent drama of the huge range of outcomes it offers, as well as the nail-biting wait for it to stop rolling and deliver one of these. There is a reason why the critical hit and the fumble feel more earned on the d20 then on just about any other dice, except for the d100 if you played a Chaosium game.

To Be Continued


Dice Conglomerations




The Dice Tube vs The Bag of Dice

Design Ramifications


Sunday, September 20, 2020

Ironsworn RPG Session 0 Report

 So anyway, I am in a Facebook group called I'm Begging You To Play Another RPG. Basically, it is for people with 5E or general D&D fatigue, spurred on by the difficulty of finding groups to play indie or other games, as well as the despair of seeing 5E versions of IPs not really suited for it. If you feel the same at times, give it a look.

One of the other Beggars offered to get an online group of Ironsworn up and running. Ironsworn is a Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) game inspired by Norse myths, where the PCs are either wardens or other travelers adventuring in the Ironlands, trying to fulfill various oaths they have sworn. There is a defined progression and endgame, and how well characters fulfill their promises determines how they live out their days, in honor or ignominy.

The pre-session our GM ran on ZOOM and Roll20 involved world building by choosing the different of the setting, then starting character generation. 

I have never had more fun in my life in a pre-game session.

We decided the following about our version of the Ironlands:

1) THE TRUTH - Strange metal pillars litter the land

2) BEASTS - Monsters stalk the wastelands

3) COMMUNITIES - The Havens is a central hub, connected by caravan trails to smaller settlements

4) DEFENSE - Wardens range the countryside slaying beasts and saving folk

5) CREATURES - The ancient firstborn races live in isolation, protecting their lands fiercely

6) HORRORS - Undead stalk the night

7) LEADERS - The chiefs of the Havens squabble incessantly, factions vying for control

8) LEGACIES - Antediluvian ruins pepper the land

9) MYSTICISM - Rare and dangerous, magic is wielded by a gifted few at great cost

10) RELIGION - Prayers to gods old and new comfort the folk

11) OLD WORLD - A sickness drove us from there

As someone who HATES canon and dreads the droning info dump of most pre-sessions, the convivial atmosphere of cooperation, where we all discussed and decided on the outlines of the imaginary world we would share, was a great relief and loads of fun. Each choice also came with story hooks which we could hang our PCs' hats on.

We only dipped out toes in character generation before calling it a day, but so far we have the following characters sketched out:

A skald (bard) searching for a lost city!

His companion, a merchant always looking for trinkets!

A monster hunter searching for his disappeared mentor!

A warden haunted by dreams of apocalypse, looking to find the truth behind her nightmares!

In short, the mechanics lead to evocative characters, while the choice of Assets (basically gear or talents) is both rich and devilishly difficult.

I can't wait to see what we all bring to the table next session.

Also, as Beggars with a shared desire to try new game systems, everyone was very open and supportive of each other. The GM was patient, knowledgeable, and flexible, all of which bodes well for the campaign.

The only downside is that I have a new rule set to read just as the new semester and funding application season starts.

Sigh. I guess change is as good as a rest and I'll sleep when I'm dead.

The game is available as a free download HERE. There is also a dungeon-exploration variant called DELVE. If you're looking for an alternative to D&D with emergent world building and character generation, give it some love.

Friday, July 10, 2020

About That Princess In The Tower... Random Table

I'm watching Doc McStuffins with little man.
There is a princess who doesn't want to be rescued, who wants to do everything a knight can.

I love it. Good for her!

It has inspired the following Random Table (staple of the old OSR)

About that princess in the tower, she's actually... (roll d10)

1 A hag, transformed into a princess but looking for a meal. Claw claw bite while looking gorgeous!
2 A wizardess just wanting to be left alone to research spells. Bug off or its magic missile time...
3 Seven dwarves, the princess is long gone. They could use some help clearing out their diamond mines, though.
4 Six petrified knights, the princess is long gone with lucky number seven. Find a way to unfreeze them and there might be a great reward, or big adventure.
5 A giant mimic in the shape of a tower, eats anyone who tries to enter. Use the stats of a big monster (purple worm?) and start rolling dice...
6 A real princess, but there's a one in a million chance one of you murder hoboes can wake her. Roll 7d10 ONCE, if they are all 1 then one of you is the lucky stiff. Wake her up and marry her and you're a king!
7 A hag, but with a heart of gold and looking for love. She'll play along until the wedding night, then confess her true form. She'll be a loyal NPC if loved, an adversary if scorned.
8 A princess, but she just wants to adventure and rescue people. Could she tag along and learn the ropes?
9 A prince, but wouldn't mind one of you handsome adventurers putting him over your shoulder!
10 An alien princess in silvery dress. When awoken, the exits shut, the tower rocks, spews smoke outside, then blasts off. Next stop, her planet! Time to start Googling Spelljammer...

Two more weeks of online teaching then I suppose I'll be shooting out at a decent speed again.


Saturday, June 27, 2020

What Constitutes A Move?

So I read this post about hating story games because Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) uses playbooks and moves HERE. I gotta say, although I don't know PbtA well, I think there is a lot to unpack in this post and the argument it makes.

Basically, the OP was appalled that a PbtA gamemaster defused a player's stated intent to 'Kick Ass' by making them choose between fighting a monster OR getting to their vehicle. The cited problematic exchange is as follows:

Alan, the Keeper: “The flayed one is racing you to the car,and it looks like it’s going to get to you before you can close the door. So Mark, what do you do now?”Mary, playing her hunter Mark: “I kick some ass*!”Alan: “What are you doing?”Mary: “I’m going to smash it out the way with my baseballbat so I can get in the car.”Alan: “That sounds like you’re not really getting into afight: what’s most important? Killing the flayed one or gettingto the car?”Mary: “Oh, yeah, killing it I guess. I’ll stop running andjust start smashing it on the head.”

To me, 'Kick Ass' just means attack, and I wouldn't have asked 'What are you doing?,' which prompts the player to split their intent between 'smashing' the monster and 'get into the car'. 

The OP states their problem with the exchange as follows:

"Why can't the PC try to bash the monster out of his way and get into the car? Is their some in-story reason for this? Doesn't sound like it - it just sounds like the game master is forcing the player into an action to keep to the structure of the rules. This is what I mean when I refer to structure getting in the way of story."

A few things here.

First, the very idea of 'moves' in RPGs is problematic. On the one hand, the use of conjunctions by the player (smash SO I can get to my car) and the OP (bash the monster AND get to their car) imply that TWO moves are happening here, so the GM's response by making the player choose has its own logic. On the other hand, as a person who did karate in Japan for years, there is no such thing as 'clean' one for one moves in combat. Fighting for your life is messy, and you can end up on the winning (or losing) side and have little recollection of the flurry of moments that got you there.

Second, I don't see much difference between PbtA's moves and D&D Feats. Both use pseudo-narrative set moves to simulate and create a vibe at the expense of player choice.  

The OP continues, "So, in the name of abiding by the simplification of player action down to a set of "moves" (as they're called in Powered by the Apocalypse games) the rules - through the above text, if nowhere else - advise the game master to force a player to change his character's action?"

I dunno, this sounds exactly like 3e on D&D Feats in the few 4e games I played, which were a limited selection of 'kewl powers' that did the same amount of damage as everyone else's powers, but stifled how I could use my character. This stood in big contrast to the D&D and CoC games I played in the 80's and 90's, where the sky was the limit for action choice, but you had to abide by how much you could reasonably do in a round, and also accept the chance of failure if your intended action was complex.

This difference implies that the way a game system structures combat shows different ways of managing a move, a difference reflected in the OP's suggested solution to the problem, which is as follows:

"In Call of Cthulhu for example, the Keeper could just tell the player: "You'll have to make an attack with the baseball bat - if it hits, it won't do any damage but the path to get into your car will be clear. If not, you'll be stopped and stuck fighting the creature." The decisions are all up to the player at this point - instead of forcing her into a situation where she had to revise her action to stick to the structure of the rules, the game (by way of the Keeper) has given her the options and let her decide on the course of action."

This solution simply exchanges the unfavored choice (fight OR get to car) their own favored choice (hit to escape OR failing that have to fight), but doesn't do away for the logical necessity for choice. The fact that the OP has switched to a system (CoC) that has neither moves like PbtA or Feats like D&D also implies that system is not the problem.

This brings us to the real issue here: the different way games are designed to handle action, and how this impacts on player and GM expectations for combat.
This difference in expectation (as inculcated by the system you're used to) was brought to my attention when I GMed Swords of the Serpentine, a Gumshoe fantasy RPG and story game last year. One player was an inveterate D&D DM, and had made a bog standard D&D thief in a game that doesn't reward that type of character (ie there is no money in the system, or link between XP and gold). The PC was hanging over the side of a boat sneaking up on pirates,when the player stated "I want to swing up, land on deck, throw a few shrikes, draw my sword and jump into battle."

"Ummm, no" I replied. Half the players were incensed I was blocking the player's (very D&D) kewl moves in a supposedly empowering story game, while the other (older) half were on my side that the chain of actions was preposterous considering the situation.

First, we have the 'Pathetic aesthetic' of old school games vs the rule of cool of newer games. When I played OD&D back in the 80's and 90's, it was one move a round, a very literary way to represent action, and understandable considering the literary inspiration (Tolkien, Moorcock, etc) most of us based our imaginings on.

Later D&D editions switched to cinematic mode of action, with multiple actions and feats, which I surmise reflected the growing popularity of and exposure to video games. My little 4e experience was like playing a CRPG on paper, and as frustrating for a grognard like me as it was fun for the twenty somethings sitting at the table with me.

So just as both story games like PbtA and traditional RPGs like D&D can have shorthand moves or feats that limit choice, both new and old games can either allow multiple cool actions or limit to one based on whether they are emulating modern sources such as video games, or older inspirations such as pulp fantasy novels.

Regardless of system, players and GMs need to agree on the mode of action (literary or cinematic) and either choose systems to match this or tweak their system to do what they feel is right.