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Monday, 27 June 2022

Social skills in RPGs

I’ve recently been playing Fate Condensed, The Troubleshooters and ALIEN and noticed something odd about social skills.

While combat skills are usually straightforward—melee and shoot (or variants thereof), social skills are ridiculously complicated. 

Examples from some RPG rulebooks I have close to hand:

RPG Combat skills Social skills
Fate Core and Fate Condensed Fight, Shoot Deceive, Empathy, Provoke, Rapport
The Troubleshooters Melee, Ranged combat Charm, Subterfuge
ALIEN Close combat, Ranged combat Manipulate, Command
Liminal Melee, Shoot Charm, Conviction, Empathy, Rhetoric, Taunt
Traveller Gun Combat, Melee Carouse, Deception, Diplomat, Leadership, Persuade
Trail of Cthulhu Firearms, Scuffling, Weapons Assess Honesty, Bargain, Cop Talk, Flattery, Interrogation, Reassurance
Call of Cthulhu Fighting, Firearms Charm, Fast Talk, Intimidate, Persuade, Psychology
Tales from the Loop None – no fighting Charm, Lead, Empathise

Traveller also has Gunnery (for ship combat) and Heavy Weapons (for artillery). And when it comes to melee, Trail of Cthulhu separates armed (Weapons) and unarmed (Scuffling) melee combat. I’m not sure why it needs to do that.

So it feels like we know what we want with combat: hitting and shooting things.

With social skills, however, we’re all over the place. And while there are a lot of similarities (several examples of Charm/Rapport), systems often have their own peculiarities, such as Traveller’s Leadership (used during combat) and Trail of Cthulhu’s Cop Talk or Reassurance.

I want to think that the skills are chosen to reflect the way the designer expects the game to be played. I suspect that’s why something like “Assess Honesty” is in Trail of Cthulhu: it’s important to know when you’re being deceived.

However.

Thinking back to recent games, the social skills I’ve most often wanted are persuade, intimidate or deceive.

You can argue that charm and provoke/taunt are different styles of persuasion. (Do they need to be separate skills? I don’t know.) And intimidation is arguably just a type of persuasion (that’s how Traveller treats it).

But it feels to me that some games specialise too far—I’m not sure what the value of Rhetoric is in Liminal. And Call of Cthulhu has both Charm and Persuade. What did playtesting show? When was Rhetoric used? Were Charm and Persuade used equally and for different things?

Because characters have a limited pool of skill points, numerous social skills makes characters less effective: skills will be spread more thinly.

I’m not sure I have an answer or a conclusion. Other than were I designing a skills-based RPG, I’d have a good long look at my skills list.

As for me, I will pay more attention to my social dice rolls, record what skills I need, and revisit this subject.



Monday, 20 June 2022

More classic science fiction re-reads

I’ve been going through more of my old SF books lately. So here’s a roundup of the latest.

Spinneret

Spinneret by Timothy Zahn. I enjoy Timothy Zahn’s writing—I remember enjoying his Star Wars novels (before the expanded universe became unmanageable). And I enjoyed his Cobra series and others. Spinneret is from 1985, an era where SF authors still imagine music coming on cassettes. It’s full of aliens, scheming humans and mysterious alien artefacts--and a dead alien race who tried to camouflage their sun from predators. And failed.

But that’s about it. It’s okay, I’ve taken an idea from it for a freeform I’m writing, but I’m not going to keep it.

Three to Conquer

Three to Conquer by Eric Frank Russell is a 1950s science fiction tale of a telepath battling aliens from Venus. Our hero is a telepath—the only one on Earth. And he accidentally encounters three people with alien minds—the Venusian baddies. Half the book is about getting the authorities to believe him; the rest is tracking down the aliens. Still enjoyable, and I’m still going to keep it.

The Forge of God

For the second time, I struggled with The Forge of God by Greg Bear (1987). That’s both because while I like Bear’s ideas, I find his writing heavy-going. Anyway, aliens destroy the world in The Forge of God. However, the story doesn’t make that much sense—before they destroy the world (dropping neutronium bombs in the Earth’s core), they appear as three different alien groups, each with a different story. But I’m not sure why they would do this—we don’t have the technology to prevent the end of the world, so why waste effort creating confusion? What was the point? Towards the end, good aliens (metallic spiders) save some people for the sequel, which I haven’t (and won’t) read. Not a keeper.

The Mote in God’s Eye and sequels

The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. This was one of my all-time favourite SF novels, and it’s still excellent after all these years. The Moties are brilliant (still one of the best, detailed and truly alien aliens in SF), but the Empire of Man now feels very creaky and wrong. The Mote in God’s Eye was written in 1971; my observations from 2022:

  • Only one female character in the entire book. Yes, most characters are in the space navy, but I guess equality hadn’t landed in 1971.
  • The technology was mostly okay (and mostly in the background), but I spotted a photograph on a desk at one point. Oh, and a hilarious space telegram STOP. 
  • The Empire of Man is very aristocratic, with Dukes, Barons, and Lords in power. For science fiction, it feels like space in the 1800s.
  • The Alderson drive, whereby fixed jump points between stars facilitate star travel, still feels new and unusual. So physics determines where jump points form (and where they go to), and you can’t jump hither and thither like you can in most other SF universes. 

The Gripping Hand is the excellent 1993 sequel. (It would be more excellent if I had the UK edition which has the better title: The Moat Around Murchison’s Eye). I think I must have read this just the once before, as I remember it being rubbish—slow to start and not enough Moties. I have no idea where I got that from—I found it gripping this time. (Maybe last time I didn’t read it soon enough after reading the first one?)

Anyway, The Gripping Hand addresses many issues with the first book—there are female characters, the Empire of Man doesn’t feel quite so anachronistic, the technology isn’t so out of date (no space telegrams, thank goodness). Also, I liked how the sequel dovetailed into the original, despite being set 25 years later.

Unfortunately, I then tried to read Jennifer Pournelle’s follow-up, Outies. Outies’ writing style didn’t suit me. So that’s twice I’ve tried to read it, and twice I’ve given up. Ah well.


Monday, 13 June 2022

ALIEN: Perfect Organism design notes

 I have written a scenario for Free League’s ALIEN roleplaying game, called Perfect Organism

Knowing how my brain works, that probably means I’ve scratched that itch, and I may be done with ALIEN. If so it will join Achtung! Cthulhu, Liminal and The Dee Sanction in the pile of games I’ve enjoyed but am unlikely to run again. We’ll see.


Anyway, here’s how the scenario came about.

More investigative, less shooty

So far I’ve run Hope’s Last Day, Chariot of the Gods and Destroyer of Worlds. (The links go to my reviews and reflections.)

I found Destroyer of Worlds too heavy on combat for my liking and knew I wanted a more investigatory game.

But an investigation into what?

Tied to the movies

I wanted to do something tied to the movies—more than simply reusing the xenomorphs and Weyland-Yutani. And of the movies, only Alien and Aliens interest me—I was disappointed in all the films after that. I’ve seen them, of course, but they never caught my imagination the way Alien did. (And Aliens, to a lesser extent.)

I’ve often wondered what happened after Alien. My impression is that the company diverted the Nostromo to intercept the distress call. (I am unsatisfied by the explanation that every company ship contains special order 937, and encountering the beacon was just chance.) So how did they know, and what did they do when the Nostromo disappeared?

So there’s a scenario there. But I didn’t want to stray too far from the canon, and the ALIEN rpg is set after Aliens and Alien3

But what about the Sulaco?

What did the USCMC do when the Sulaco didn’t return from LV-426?

And that gave me the basis for the scenario.

Perfect organism

The title came from Ash’s “Perfect organism” line in Alien (repeated by David in Alien: Covenant). For an android, the xenomorph really could be a perfect organism—it predates humans and leaves synthetics alone. And the line made me wonder if there was a secret android rebellion. (Is David recreating it to overthrow his human masters?)

And if there is a secret android rebellion, maybe that’s motivation for one character. (This is probably where I’ve gone furthest off-canon, certainly regarding the movies.)

(Perfect Organism is also the name of a wonderful podcast dedicated to the Alien saga. If you’re an Alien geek, it’s heaven.)

A room full of facehuggers

Back in 1979, before I saw Alien (I was too young to see it at the cinema the first time around), most of the pre-publicity photographs showed the facehugger, but nothing else. The facehugger is creepy—and elegant. It’s wrapped around Kane’s head, doing something. The camera dwells on it; we have plenty of time with the facehugger.

(Later movies don’t do the facehugger justice. Aliens showed them moving, yes, but we’ve not spent time with someone who has been facehugged since the first movie.)

As I was developing ideas for the scenario, I had a vision of a room full of bodies lined up on operating tables, each with a facehugger. While I didn’t use that exact vision, I kept the idea of bodies with facehuggers—only I put them in cryotubes instead.

Characters

I decided on five characters: two members of the investigation team (a USCMC major and an ICC lawyer), their company minder, the captain of the spaceship they’ve hired, and the scientist in charge of Kathar Station. 

(Oh yes, Kathar Station. I found Kathar Station in the ALIEN rpg book—although it is called Odobenus at one point.)

All the characters have conflicting agendas. While the published scenarios so far normally have one or two characters with very secret agendas, all my characters will rub up against each other. Hopefully, this will bring them into conflict. If I’ve done my job right, the players will proactively drive the action as they react to events.

(In many ways, this is almost a tiny freeform. A freeform-tabletop rpg hybrid?)

Events and Acts

Cinematic games have acts, so tension can’t only come from the PCs. It also needs external events—in this case, a combination of escaped xenomorphs and a hostile spaceship.

The acts in ALIEN drive characters’ agendas—as events unfold, the characters’ objectives can change. I found that in writing these, they were more focused versions of the original agenda—adjusted, given the new information.

The Coyote approaching LV-426 by Steffan Guldevall 

As for events, I realised that I needed to inject some outside interference to create the acts. So while I hope the players will create much of the drama, I’m adding tension in the form of a hostile ship on approach and a planetside facehugging operation that has gone wrong.

I find the events in the published scenarios somewhat overwritten and hard to improvise around. So the events in Perfect Organism are bullet points for the GM to expand as they see fit. (I know this isn’t for everyone—it’s already been suggested that I should flesh the bullet points out.)

Making it easy to run

I spend a lot of time on this blog talking about how published adventures aren’t easy to run (see here for the summary), so I’ve tried to make Perfect Organism easy to run. At least, easy for me to run. So I’ve repeated a few essential rules, such as:

  • The radiation rules (because of the radiation cloud created by the explosion at the end of Aliens)
  • Fire rules with the incinerator units
  • Synthetic rules for the secret android.
  • Story points and Stress for each player.

If you play a lot of ALIEN, you can ignore this. However, if you play a lot of systems as I do, it helps to have relevant rules to hand when you need them.

I also worked out the base to-hit rolls for anyone with a weapon to save me from working them out in the heat of battle.

Rules and layout changes

There are a few things about the standard ALIEN rules and layout I don’t like. So I made changes.

Stat blocks: The standard ALIEN stat blocks omit key information, and don’t make it clear which skill works with which attribute. I’ve talked about this before, and I’ve made it clearer in Perfect Organism. (Again, if you play ALIEN frequently, it’s not a problem. But I don’t understand why Free League penalises new players.

NPC stats: I haven’t given the NPCs the “proper” stats. Instead, I’ve given them “Scientist: 7 dice” or “Starship Captain: 8 dice”. So when the technician NPC does something technician-y, the GM just rolls their dice. All NPCs have an “Other” rating (usually three dice) for rolls outside of their speciality. I find that simpler and easier.

Story points: I am more generous with Story Points—players can earn up to two by either having a refreshment scene with another character or by taking actions to further their agenda. (A refreshment scene is roleplaying—I took it from Lady Blackbird.) Players can spend story points to change the result of a single die they have thrown or reduce their Stress Level by two.

Rivals and buddies: I dropped rivals and buddies for Perfect Organism—the character backgrounds explain everything they need to know about the other characters.

Format and layout

I asked for feedback on Reddit, and as a result, Jonathan Pay helped me with the final layout—it looks much better now. In addition, Jonathan created the cover image using Wombo.art.

I used Steffan Guldevall’s Hepatica class deckplans for the Coyote, which I found on the ALIEN RPG Facebook group. I contacted him and he kindly allowed me to include them in the game—he also created an image of the Coyote approaching LV-426 that I’ve used.

And a playtest?

And at some point I will run it myself, possibly at Furnace.


Monday, 6 June 2022

Fate of Cthulhu #3: Episodes 5-8

Okay, back to Fate of Cthulhu. See here for my broad pre-game overview, and here for sessions #1-4. I had hoped to post this sooner, but we lost a few sessions due to real life.

Recap

So, the TL;DR from last time: Our heroes (Roman played by Terry and Kaspar played by Jon) are trying to prevent the rise of Great Cthulhu. They have stolen a key cult artifact but haven’t worked out how to destroy it yet.

#5 The thing in the idol

In Arkham, the PCs rented a storage locker where they could store their kit and experiment with ways to destroy the idol.

Terry had the bright idea of dissolving the idol in hydrofluoric acid. So they bought a plastic tank and some hydrofluoric acid and dropped the idol into it to see what happened. (I didn’t roleplay collecting all this—I may have asked for a Fate point for them to have it all conveniently available. I don’t know how easy it is to buy hydrofluoric acid in the US, but I imagine it’s a controlled substance.)

After a while, this appeared, completely unfazed by the acid.


And so now the players must deal with a Cthulhu skin parasite! (This is picture of a lobopodian I grabbed while the players were chatting.)

As well as working out what to do with the idol, the PCs investigated bytes and bodies. To draw out cultists they put the idol on Ebay (this was before they dissolved it in hydrofluoric acid). They also met, and befriended, Dr Agatha Manderley (Dean of the Miskatonic School of Occult Studies).

#6 The ritual

Finally, the PCs destroyed the idol and the thing in it. Dr Manderley found The Eye of Light and Darkness, a ritual that banished/warded evil things. (Thanks Masks of Nyarlathotep!) So the PCs cast that (spending quite a few Fate points in the process) and finally destroyed the idol/creature, finishing the first mission.

While the PCs survived the backlash from the spell, Dr Manderley wasn’t so lucky. When she recovered, she discovered that she now had a Yithian passenger in her mind…

We finished the session sorting out advancement and milestones, and I worked out what changes had been made to the timeline. There’s a process for this—it could be clearer, but I think I figured it out. Overall the PCs succeeded with two positive ripples and one negative ripple.

The way this works is you apply them to other missions, and a + means something is better than you thought (so I’ve decided Dr Manderley will be more helpful and survives longer than in the original timeline) and a - means something is worse.

#7 The junction box

The PCs made good progress on bytes and bodies and located the hacker’s lair by pretending to be an IT security company and approaching the New York financial institution mentioned in the briefing. They offered to recover the ransom for 50%. The institution said yes.

The PCs did this through a combination of Rapport and Deceive. I first made them spend a Fate point to have everything they needed to look like a business, then Jon used Rapport to create a good first impressions aspect that Terry invoked for his Deceive roll. With success with style, the PCs were rewarded with all the detail they needed—namely, the junction box that the IP address had been traced. From there, some legwork got them to the hacker’s lair.

On this occasion, skills worked better than approaches as Rapport and Deceive worked well in tandem. This wouldn’t have been so intuitive with Fate Accelerated’s approaches. Sneaky probably replaces Deceive, but what would Rapport be replaced by? Clever? Flashy? Sneaky again? It’s not so clear. 

We ended with the PCs staking out the hacker’s lair—we should finish this mission next time.

#8 The hackers

We end bytes and bodies with a fight in the hackers’ lair. There’s more of them, and they have a Ghoul, but they’re only NPCs and it isn’t long before the PCs have vanquished the bad guys and destroyed all the servers.

As we started the session I realised I needed a picture of the hackers. I had just been watching The Big Bang Theory, so that’s who I based the hackers on: Sheldon, Leonard, Howard, Raj and Penny. Sheldon was the lead hacker, obviously.

This session was mostly combat—and it turns out that Fate of Cthulhu uses popcorn initiative. We’d decided to use popcorn initiative before checking what the rules said, so it was nice to be playing run-as-written for a change.

Jon really leant into the murder-hobo aspect of Fate of Cthulhu. His character put a bullet through the brain of the lead hacker (Sheldon), and once the others had been dealt with and helped wreck their IT kit, he executed them. As part of the major milestone that happens after a mission is completed, we added murderous to his key concept.

I’m happy with how combat went—it felt like Fate, with aspects and burning Fate points to get results.

One hacker (Penny) got away, disappearing down a Ghoul tunnel. I have no idea if we will see her again.

We ended that session with the hackers dealt with, their lair and IT destroyed, and a copy of the Necronomicon in the PC’s possession. I’ve updated the timeline (a positive ripple for the resistance, this time) and next time we start a new mission.

So what do I really think of Fate of Cthulhu?


We’ll take a break now to return to a previous game and pick Fate of Cthulhu back up later in the year. So here’s what I think of Fate of Cthulhu so far.

Core concept: While the idea of Terminator v Cthulhu sounds great, it turns out to be much more murder-hobo-y than any of us had expected. When I think of The Terminator I think of Reece and Sarah Connor battling the Terminator—I don’t think of it from the Terminator’s viewpoint. But that’s exactly what we have.

This may be the nature of the Cthulhu apocalypse, but in every case you’re stopping something, or killing someone or blowing something up. And given how big the stakes are (preventing the end of the world), the PCs shouldn’t lose sleep over killing a few people to avoid the apocalypse. (Quantum Leap, this isn’t.) That’s a challenge for us, as we’re all in our fifties, and our murder hobo days are long behind us. So it’s taking some getting used to.

The missions: The missions themselves are fine. They would be better if they were a little clearer, but there’s just enough detail to work with (and they’re loose enough to improvise with). They need to be flexible because as the campaign progresses and the players change things, ripples in the timeline mean that things will change. I expect the final mission could be very different, depending on how the earlier missions fare.

One thing I appreciate about the missions is that they make it clear what the players have to do (although there is often a twist). That means we can skip the initial what-is-going-on part that you get in a lot of investigations and focus on the solution instead. That feels like a win to me.

Fate Condensed: As is probably clear, I struggled with Fate Condensed’s list of skills. (I have concluded that I’m not a fan of skill-based systems). The rest of Fate Condensed is fine, although sometimes I think we’re too old-school to play Fate ‘properly’. But we enjoy it, so that’s fine. And, of course, there’s no wrong way to play.

Am I going to run Fate of Cthulhu ever again?

I want to finish this short campaign to prevent Cthulhu from rising (or at least make it less-worse). But after that, I doubt I’ll run it again.

While I enjoy running it, it’s too murder hobo-y for my liking. We’ll get to the end, but once we’re done that will be it. I have so many other games I want to try.


Wednesday, 25 May 2022

Kumospace for freeform larps

Recently I ran our Reunion with Death murder mystery freeform larp online using Kumospace. I called for players from the uk-freeforms mailing list and Facebook page and the Remote Larps Facebook group. I got nine players, including four people I’d not met before.

So, Kumospace.

Kumospace is a spacial chat—a virtual space where people can form groups for conversations. As a user, you are presented with a floorplan and you move towards someone to talk to them. Then, when you are close to them, you can chat.

Kumospace is (currently) free for up to 30 participants, so it’s ideal for gaming.

Kumospace for larping

So how was Kumospace for larping? Well, it was pretty good. I created a simple floor representing a hotel function space. I had different chairs, a piano playing in the corner, and some (virtual) drinks and snacks.

The game in full flow - I've got the map open which shows the whole floor

I also created a separate out-of-character floor where everyone met at the start so we could get used to the interface.

The video and sound worked well for almost everyone—one player struggled with video and sound, but we don’t know why that was.

Video itself can be a little small (especially if you are used to Discord). You can create a pop-out which shows a larger video if that helps (but still smaller than you get on Discord).

The virtual space gave a real physical sense of space—much more so than different channels in Discord. Other characters were definitely “over there” rather than “in that channel” which added to the ambience.

Changing layout

I found changing the layout is straightforward—it’s all drag and drop. Several templates can easily be modified, which saves some work. Creating a standard hotel/workspace/bar/convention setting is easy; if you want something more outré, that will be harder.

You can add images from the web to customise to your virtual space. (I didn’t need to do that.)

Some objects are (slightly) interactive—such as a tray of drinks that adds a drink icon to your avatar if you click on it. The glass or cup slowly empties, representing you drinking it. However, it would be nice if there were more game-y icons—so things where you could add some descriptive text.

I didn’t use rooms in Kumospace, as they introduced the feature only a few days before I was due to run Reunion with Death and I didn’t have time to figure them out. Rooms work slightly differently—in a room, everyone can hear everyone else. So that means you need not be close to someone to hear them properly, which would have been better for the debrief when everyone was crowded on top of each other.

What sort of larp?

Kumospace best suits conversational freeforms/larps. Games with items and money and complicated abilities won’t work so well. Of the recent larps I’ve played, Brest or Bust and Smoke and Mirrors (both at Peaky 2022) would have been fine on Kumospace.

As Reunion with Death was designed to be run online, it worked fine with Kumospace. The only complication is abilities, but none require the GM and the players managed them themselves.

I don’t think I could have run a more complex freeform with Kumospace. For my recent SF games (The Roswell Incident and All Flesh is Grass I used Discord with LARPPorterBot; I’m not sure how I would have done that with Kumospace.




It would be great to have a standalone app to manage items/abilities/contingencies that we could use alongside Kumospace or Zoom. Maybe one day.

Feedback from players

I asked for some feedback from the players on using Kumospace. Here are some of their thoughts:

  • I didn’t think I’d like it, but I was wrong. I was impressed!
  • Kumospace was the perfect online platform for this. Having the visuals of moving made for a wayyyy more natural experience of joining and leaving conversations—much more like real life—compared with the breakout rooms in Discord, where you are either ‘in’ or ‘out’ and nothing in between.
  • One thing worth flagging before start of play is that people might be able to hear everyone in a crowd if some people are outside the range, so piling up is a good idea. (NB—rooms, which I didn’t use, can overcome this.)
  • I struggled with Kumospace—you would think they’d show you the rooms you had invitations for.  (Once I got into it, it was great.)
  • Pleasantly surprised. I’d like to see it work in a way where players’ icons bounce off one another, rather than superimposing on each other.
  • I liked it. The flexibility of moving around in a room (instead of changing between channels) made the game more dynamic.
  • The video pictures of the other players were rather small, so you couldn’t see their faces as easily as on a regular video chat.
  • I liked wandering around and finding separate spaces for a private chat. It seemed nice to have the visual “room” compared to Discord. However, in practice it ate up wifi and I found it slow to respond. I couldn’t hear or be heard until I was top of other avatars, so it got in the way of roleplaying for me.
  • I suspect Kumospace changes the dynamics of games, resulting in more group interaction than two-person interaction. Not sure if this is a good thing or not.

On that last point, I remember observing that we typically had three groups of players at any one time. It was usually two small groups (two or three players together), and everyone else (so four or five players). So the players did bunch up—but I also see this in live games and on Discord.

Feedback as a GM

I found running the game was quiet)—although that may have been as much to do with Reunion with Death as Kumospace.

For Reunion with Death’s various announcements, I copied them from the pdf and pasted them into the global chat. I then made a short announcement to everyone (using the host’s broadcast function) telling them that the announcement was there—I didn’t read it out. That meant that players could look at the announcements at their leisure. (Unfortunately, you can’t post images to the chat.)

Towards the end of the game, I found it hard to read the room to judge when to stop the game. While I used the timetable that comes with Reunion with Death, I’d normally monitor the room towards the end of the game to work out when to bring the game to an end. However, this was much harder (also hard on Discord), so I used the game timetable.

Overall?

Kumospace was my first experience with spacial chat. It works for larps—especially simple larps without complicated mechanics. I intend to use it again—and I’d like to try it as a player.


Monday, 16 May 2022

Idiosyncratic RPG systems

So here’s a brief interlude for me to chunter about roleplaying systems and what feels like the constant (and unnecessary) drive for innovation.

So as well as running Fate of Cthulhu on Thursdays, I’m also playing in The Troubleshooters on Mondays. The Troubleshooters is a roleplaying game about action, adventure and mystery in a fictional European 1960s–1970s setting in the style of mainly Belgian and French comics, also known as bande dessinée or bédé.


We’re running around Europe trying to foil the sinister plans of the evil Octopus. It’s all very light-hearted fun.

The system is skill-based and seems ridiculously crunchy for such a light-hearted game. It also has some peculiar rules. Two examples follow.

Initiative

Initiative is based on your Alertness skill. So when you need to work out who goes first in combat, you roll Alertness. If you succeed, you add your tens and ones. (So if I roll 27, my initiative is 9.) Highest goes first. 

So at first blush, all well and good. Except that someone who rolls really well on their Alertness check (03 say) is unlikely to have the best initiative.

And if you fail your Alertness roll, you just take the ones. So if you roll 99, you have a better initiative score than someone rolling 01. Bizarre.

My simpler alternative to Initiative: Roll 1d100 and add your Alertness. Highest goes first. Job done—and those with high Alertness get the result they expect.

Skill check bonuses and penalties

Troubleshooters uses percentile dice for skills. However, bonuses and penalties (representing advantages or disadvantages, or particularly easy or difficult rolls) are awarded as positive or negative pips. Two pips for an easy/difficult task, five for a very easy/very difficult task.

A bonus of two pips means that any roll ending in 1 or 2 is an automatic access. Yay! That’s like plus 20%, right? Well, no. If your skill is 60%, it’s actually an 8% improvement—you now succeed on 01-60, 71, 72, 81, 82, 91, 92. So pips are worth less the more skilled you are.

It gets worse if the pips are negative. With negative two pips, any roll ending in 1 or 2 automatically fails. So, your 60% skill drops to 48% (as you are now failing on 01, 02, 11, 12, 21, 22 and so on).

So instead of just adding or subtracting 10% or 25%, we have these weird hard-to-grok pips.

(That’s actually an optional rule (known as task value)—just add 5% per pip. According to the rules, “The benefit of the task value is that it is more intuitive.” If it’s more intuitive, why isn’t it the core system?)

The play’s the thing

While I find myself amused at the system’s quirks, it’s not affecting play and we should wrap it all up in a couple of sessions. I don’t know what we’re playing then. Hopefully something with more straightforward rules.


Monday, 9 May 2022

Fate of Cthulhu #2: Sessions 1-4

Last time I gave my overall thoughts about Fate of Cthulhu. This time I will talk about what happened (for the first few sessions at least).

#1 Session Zero

We started with session zero: character creation. Although FoC suggests you can play either someone from the present or a time-traveller, it’s obvious that time travelling is more fun. So we created our two travellers: Roman Valeyard, historian, and Kasper Ausritten, anarchist manipulator.

Time travellers start with a corrupted aspect (using magic is dangerous), so Roman started as a living corpse, while one of Kaspar’s eyes was replaced by one from a Hound of Tindalos. (So we’re already some way from our traditional Call of Cthulhu investigators.)

Jon and Terry reviewed their briefing and decided that of the four missions, they would start with the stuff that dreams are made of. So we started there.

#2 The stuff that dreams are made of

For this mission, the PCs must steal a corrupted idol that contains a flake of Cthulhu’s skin (or something). The idol is being auctioned, and the GM notes provide ideas for running the assault on the auction house.

My Trello card for the idol

With all of time to play with, Jon and Terry decided to arrive eight months before the auction and steal the idol from its original owner. So we’d barely started and we were already off-script.

(I didn’t mind improvising—Fate of Cthulhu’s GM notes aren’t great and I was happy to run something different.)

So I invented Angus McBride, 43rd Earl of Sutherland and his private castle on Eigg. I decided that the earl controls a small cult worshipping Cthulhu (with his housekeeper Mrs Cartilage as high priestess).

Before we finished, the PCs had time for a quick reconnoitre (they booked themselves on a castle tour).

One thing that surprises me with skills in RPGs is how often I encounter situations where a skill would be useful, but it’s not in the game. I find Fate of Cthulhu social skills a little weird. We have Deceive, Empathy, Provoke and Rapport. What we don’t have is Persuade (although Rapport is an okay substitute) or Intimidate. And I’m not sure I’ve ever needed Provoke.

Anyway, both Jon and Terry took Provoke, and we realised our error when they wanted to charm the tour guide and learn more about the earl and the castle. Provoke didn’t really work—so Jon swapped Provoke for Rapport and got the information they needed.

#3 Stealing Cthulhu

In our third session, we leapt straight into the action, and the PCs broke into McBride’s castle, interrupted a sinister ritual, killed the bad guys and grabbed the statue.

I was pleased how I ran this. I grabbed a floor plan from the internet (search for stately home floor plans) and ran the session using that.



I remembered to use my Fate points (which I often forget to use) and compelled both PCs, so it felt more like Fate than many of our sessions. The fight was perilous—Kaspar was wounded badly as the fight with Mrs Cartilage didn’t go well. (It turned out the players hadn’t taken any fighting skills!) But they succeeded in the end and now have the idol—but don’t know how to deal with destroy.

I should say right now that I have done so little planning for this. I grabbed a floorplan during the session, and I decided where the secret temple would be there and then. It helps that the missions are not well detailed in the book—they’re so vague they are easy to improvise around.

#4 Planning planning planning

The stuff that dreams are made of ends when the PCs destroy the idol. But how do they do that? Even the scenario in the book isn’t clear on the subject. So the PCs weren’t sure what to do next. So this session was one of those discussion sessions where the players tried to work out what to do next.

We had a few “proper” scenes of roleplaying (I had fun as the voice of the creepy idol), but most of the time, we discussed what to do next. I don’t mind this—it’s easy to GM, and the players seemed to enjoy exploring their options.

So the players travelled to Arkham and started the next mission, bytes and bodies, before finishing this one. Perhaps they’ll figure out how to deal with the idol in Arkham.

(This session’s gripe about skills concerned the lack of anything related to computers or programming—particularly as the next episode is all about the internet.)

Next time

Next time we’ll look at the next couple of sessions—and find out what happens when the PCs drop the idol into some hydrofluoric acid.