Posted by: Jonathan Walton | June 27, 2009

The Darkness Between the Stars

I was reading the corruption rules in Blue Rose this morning and, while I still need to compare them to equivalent mechanics (such as “Taint”) from other potential sources, they look like they can pretty much be ported directly into Firmament. The only major change would be adjusting how they interact with the Light / Shadow Nature rules, which aren’t necessarily nuanced enough to support the kind of play I’m hoping Firmament supports. I’m expecting Firmament will have a set of personality mechanics that combine insights from Keys, Aspects, Nobilis‘ Restrictions, and Loresheets.

I was talking to Eric about my plans for the “big bad” of the setting, the Darkness Between the Stars, which is something like a mix between Azathoth, The Dark from Nighbane, and a psychological neurosis related to the fear of being alone in the dark forever. Leaving yourself open to the Darkness gains you points of corruption, which can be drawn on to do crazy corruption things but block you from absorbing as much stardust and aren’t easily gotten rid of.

Fully corrupted people are the only out-and-out antagonists, but my sense is that you don’t encounter them that frequently and normally deal with more mundane problems. There might be stories of lone travelers coming across mind-blowingly large dark cities floating through the void and only barely making it away, but I’m not 100% solid on that yet, since that moves a bit away from my original intentions. More likely, you just find a lone lost outpost containing one guy who’s long since been corrupted and is inscribing mad texts on the walls in his own blood, Cthulhu-style. It’s supposed to be like good Cthulhu play, not stupid Cthulhu play where you shoot at Cthulhuspawn with shotguns.

The Darkness itself is a force that talks to you when you’re alone in the dark, not in words, but in emotions. And it’s corrupted an unknown number of historical people, but nobody’s sure what happened to them. Maybe they’re out there. Maybe they dove into the heart of a star, to try to purge the Darkness from them. And each campaign explores it on their own terms. You could have a campaign that starts with your basecamp being scattered by the arrival of two ancient corrupted people, and then have your game be about stitching the remnants together, unsure whether those two are still out there, watching you. Or you could have a campaign where you see signs of ancient corrupted but never meet one, but fight against the corruption that tries to take control of you.

Posted by: Jonathan Walton | June 27, 2009

Being Lost

I’ve started trying to hack a playtest draft together from all of Steve Kenson’s OGL hacks (Mutants & Masterminds, Blue Rose, True20) and some insights from Mouse Guard, Continuum, and 4E.

One revelation I had while GMing my current 4E game is that being lost in space is effectively a Stealth roll that your allies have to overcome in order to find you. So, when you get lost, you make some sort of exponentially-increasing roll that establishes the difficulty of finding you. Then both the lost character and their allies cooperate to gradually diminish the difficulty and enable you to be recovered.

The die mechanic I’m thinking of goes like this: roll 1d20 and add a special “lost” modifier that is determined in this fashion… add 1d4… if you get a result bigger than 50% (3-4), set the die at 50% value (2) and add a die one size larger (d6)… rinse and repeat up to d12. If you roll bigger than 50% (7-12) on a d12, you’re “lost indefinitely” or something, which is a special condition with special rules. Seems like the highest possible modifier is going to be 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 + 6 = +20, so you’ll get a bonus between 1-20 with anything higher = really really lost.

Here’s the helpful Lostulator I made:

Eric’s helping me figure out what this curve looks like. Here’s his chart:
Progressing Exploding Odds v3

I’m not sure how the extended recovery conflict should work, but it’s possible that it could be scripted in the manner of Mouse Guard conflicts or time combat in Continuum, with the allies and lost character picking tactics secretly that are then revealed and may or may not be synchronous and mutually beneficial. For example, if one character expends all their stardust making a giant burst of light that acts as a beacon, they might have to spend the next turn recharging instead of searching, potentially missing a beacon or some other signal sent by another character.

Here’s Eric’s chart on your cumulative likelihood of being indefinitely lost:
Cumulative Survival

This emphasizes the fact that any given character doesn’t want to be lost more than a handful of times. Though, as Eric pointed out, you can get lost 22 times and still have a 50% chance of being recoverable, much better than making 22 saves vs. death in D&D. I think once characters are irrevocably lost, they either leave the game or split the party indefinitely, so you start rolling to see if they encounter other people who aren’t the original party members, and they basically start their own party. And maybe, once you establish a second basecamp, there are things you can do to try to regain contact. Characters could also be “effectively lost” if their Stealth is so high, like 30, that their low-level allies can’t find them until they gain a couple levels or chip away at the difficulty by doing some things that make contact more likely.

Posted by: Jonathan Walton | March 19, 2009

The Three Sciences

So… I’m waffling a bit on which classes are best to replicate the Three Sciences. I’ve now done a bit more research on the classes that have been released outside the PHB and it looks like the best fits are probably.

Astronomy: Warlock (Striker/Controller)
Cartography: Warden (Defender/Controller)
Anthropology: Artificer (Leader/Controller)

The main problem being that the Artificer is only released in a playtest version and won’t see the light of day until the Eberron Player’s Guide comes out in July. Also, neither the Warden or Artificer are included in the GSL and there’s no way of knowing if they are likely to be. I suppose I could create entirely new classes that resemble existing classes in some ways, but that seems like a lot of unnecessary work. Hmm…

Posted by: Jonathan Walton | March 17, 2009

The Premise in 4E

So this is how I see the premise of Firmament, viewed through the lens of 4E.

The PCs are some contemporary people who accidentally reach up one night and grab a star, pulling themselves adrift in the void of space. After wandering alone for a while, they are eventually recovered by a small settlement of other people who had similar accidents. Theirs is the only active human settlement among the stars, but there is archaeological evidence of one or more historical human civilizations in the distant past.

There are three classes, based on three modern interpretations of lost arts once known to the ancients.

One class focuses on gathering and channeling the mystic (well, primal, really) power of the stars, the power that enables humans to live in the void of space and travel between the stars. This class is basically a laser cleric.

Another class focuses on body movements, the ancient and contemporary dances that map travel between stars, a combination of choreography and cartography. This class marks opponents like a fighter, flits about the battlefield like a ranger, and shifts opponents and allies around like a warlord.

The final class is composed of people who’ve been exposed to the Cthuloid dark forces that exist in the void of space, between the stars, and have been corrupted by it. They are both sneaky like a rogue and have dark, mystic abilities like a star-pact warlock. You can also gain levels in this one if you’re lost out in space too long, but I think they replace your existing levels of whatever other class you are.

The enemies most commonly encountered are shadows, which are the lesser minions of the dark Cthuloid forces and are most likely the ancients themselves and other more recent human travelers who have been corrupted by them until they are alien, ephemeral beings. There are also bigger shadows that were most likely never human at all. Most of them are re-skinned undead. Shadows can only be directly harmed by radiant damage, something that all three classes (especially the laser cleric) can do, but all radiant attacks draw on a precious resource: characters’ hit points, which represents the amount of star energy they have absorbed. Run out of hit points and you’re mostly likely going to be captured by the shadows and corrupted until you become one of them.

Consequently, encounters involve a lot of things that aren’t direct assaults on shadow creatures (though there’s some of that as well). Running away is a common goal, which usually involves getting everyone to a place where you can see the night sky clearly. Also, since players are often sneaking around the ruins of the ancients, looking to unravel their secrets, there are a lot of skill rolls that will happen on the battle map, activating ancient defenses or quickly trying to find secret exits. Of course, as contemporary people, PCs begin with the wrong skill sets for this kind of work, being farmers or computer programmers or what have you. But there is a system by which the skill sets the characters begin with are gradually converted to skills that are actually useful out here in space.

Unlike most 4E stuff I’ve seen, the difference between being on the battle map and just rolling skills and skill challenges will be less dramatic, or at least there will be more middle ground between them where interesting stuff happens.

Posted by: Jonathan Walton | March 15, 2009

Hacking It Together in 4E

So I think I might run Fingers on the Firmament in a few weeks, after I finish with Mouse Guard. I know that might sound a bit crazy, because the game isn’t really “together” in any form, but I feel like I have most of the tool necessary to make it work in 4E and can hack the rest together over the course of trying to play it. I’m going to use this post to try to record some of the thoughts I’ve been having about how to make this happen.

1. I’m hoping I can hack together the first few levels of the three core classes — astronomer, cartographer, and anthropologist (or whatever we end up calling them) — from the basic classes in the PHB. The astronomer needs to be a hybrid starlight warlock / laser cleric / wizard, while the cartographer needs to be more warlord / thief (tagging people as partners and then running away), and the anthropologist… is the hardest one to think about and still needs a clear role.

2. I need to come up with rules for skill challenges that don’t suck and allows encounters to easily switch between being a series of independent rolls, a skill challenge, or a combat.

3. The game starts with character creation and the character’s being trained into some medium-sized human outpost where a community has gathered.

4. Play proper begins when that community is attacked and the PCs are forced to run away, starting their own outpost somewhere and working to reconnect the scattered fragments of the old community or create a new community.

5. The commercial dungeon tiles actually work pretty well to set up the kind of small encounters I’m thinking of. The PCs might stumble on an ancient human shrine built into an asteroid and try to uncover its secrets — artifacts, maps to human settlements — only to find that some of the people who built it are still there, but are monstrous creatures corrupted by the darkness between the stars.

6. The monstrous corrupted humans can probably be hacked or just re-skinned from various undead creatures. Picking up the Open Grave supplement might make sense, in that case.

7. The freedom to travel between the stars doesn’t necessarily making planning encounters harder. I could just make a few different encounters and parse them out depending on where the players travel. Basically, the players would inevitably meet the encounters I planned, but the players would determine where they took place and, potentially, how they were connected narratively by choosing where to travel.

Posted by: Jonathan Walton | December 20, 2008

A Little Night Music

I had a dream last night that led me to search the internet for particular phrases, which in turn led me to this:

“Go now—the casement is open and the stars await outside… Steer for Vega through the night, but turn when the singing sounds. Forget not this warning, lest horrors unthinkable suck you into the gulf of shrieking and ululant madness. Remember the Other Gods; they are great and mindless and terrible, and lurk in the outer voids. They are good gods to shun.”

And Randolph Carter, gasping and dizzy… shot screamingly into space toward the cold blue glare of boreal Vega; looking but once behind him at the clustered and chaotic turrets of the onyx nightmare wherein still glowed the lone lurid light of that window above the air and the clouds of earth’s dreamland. Great polypous horrors slid darkly past, and unseen bat wings beat multitudinous around him… The stars danced mockingly, almost shifting now and then to form pale signs of doom that one might wonder one had not seen and feared before; and ever the winds of nether howled of vague blackness and loneliness beyond the cosmos.

Then through the glittering vault ahead there fell a hush of portent, and all the winds and horrors slunk away as night things slink away before the dawn. Trembling in waves that golden wisps of nebula made weirdly visible, there rose a timid hint of far-off melody, droning in faint chords that our own universe of stars knows not. And as that music grew… Carter likewise bent to catch each lovely strain. It was a song, but not the song of any voice. Night and the spheres sang it, and it was old when space and Nyarlathotep and the Other Gods were born.

– H.P. Lovecraft, “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”

Posted by: Jonathan Walton | November 17, 2008

The Things They Carry

I’ve been thinking about signaling in the context of this game, since play generally occurs in the vacuum of space where speech isn’t really possible. Instead, I’ve been imagining that folks read lips but also use a series of hand gestures to emphasize certain points and prevent misunderstandings about critical issues such as travel. During play of the game, the use of certain hand gestures will probably mark when characters are speaking in character, to simulate this in a minor way. There could also be some emergant gestural play in the mode of Primitive.

However, I’ve also been pondering the things characters take with them: clothing, jewelry, items, weapons, and the like. Craftsmanship is going to be really important to the nascent stellar civilization and items themselves serve as markers that people can read, signaling who a person is, which people they know, where they’ve been, what they’ve accomplished and the like. As in Final Fantasy, you can probably tell from a character’s equipment where they’ve been, what treasures they have earned, what level and class they are, etc. Interestingly, this might enable us to boil down the character sheet into a series of markers (items, scarves, bracelets, etc.) that serve to summarize a character’s abilities and traits.

I’ve even wondered about having “dress-up doll” style character images, with reusable stickers printed with various items and such that characters can accumulate in the game. So when you discover a certain lost temple of early human stellar civilization, you can peel off the sticker for the Iron Rod of Adam, a giant hunk of smelt iron that you discover there, and stick it in your character’s hand.

That might be a bit extreme for what we ultimately end up going with, but I’m definitely pondering a way for the things you carry to actually mean something.

Posted by: Jonathan Walton | November 17, 2008

Dance Fighting in Space

Stardust — the very force that protects people from the hazards of space — also prevents them from inflicting any real harm on each other. This is good for you, but also makes it nearly impossible to kill any void-mad crazy hermits that may come after you. You basically have these options:

1) Run away somewhere they can’t find you.
2) Make sure they get lost, perhaps even permanently lost.
3) Trap them somewhere and hope they never escape.

Most experienced folks will recommend attempting them in that order.

Stunning, distracting, and disorienting your opponent is a great way to go. It buys you the valuable seconds you need to get far away and also prevents them from watching carefully so that they might follow your trail. Plus, if you disorient them significantly enough, they might even make the costly mistakes and misjudgments that results in them becoming very lost. If you see other travelers carrying weapons or other defensive equipment, it’s all there to create disorientation, not to hurt anyone.

All fancy maneuvers in “dance combat” are built using a standard stunt system. Specific characters will often standardize particular stunts, practicing them over and over to get better at them than they would if they just attempted them on the fly, but anyone can potentially attempt any kind of stunt at any time. Some well-known ones include distracting opponents with handfuls of dust (which create fast-moving clouds when thrown) or pebbles, reaching for stars behind one’s back or another screen, grabbing stars behind an opponent (which makes it harder for them to see your target), knocking your opponent head over heels, feinting at one star when really grabbing something else, etc.

Posted by: Jonathan Walton | November 15, 2008

Getting a Bit Final Fantasy

Imagine this.

The game presents players with a fixed cast of characters, let’s say about 10-12, all statted out as they should be when the game begins, with a bunch of story hooks and links to various locations, etc. The players pick at least 3 to play from the start, forming their initial crew. The different character’s starting locations are linked together, forming the initial area of space that the crew is familiar with.

Thereafter, other characters can be encountered during the course of play — as you travel around — and, if you fulfill the right conditions, these other characters can potentially join your crew, Final Fantasy style. Since some of the characters will occasionally get lost or be doing other things, far away from the rest of the original crew, this enables players to take over new characters for certain arcs of play. Additionally, since all the characters grow and change greatly over the course of play, what’s happen with a character in my game will be dramatically different from what’s happening to the same character in Justin’s game down in Florida.

Inevitably, just through the mechanics of the game, one or more of the characters will be lost for a long period of time and probably reemerge as a major antagonist, crazy and powerful from being alone in the void for a long period of time. But just who those antagonists or anti-heroes are will be determined in each individual game.

Posted by: Jonathan Walton | July 19, 2008

Star Map Generation Methods

1) Create the map as the players move, with stars not existing until players grab them (and, by grabbing them, generate their traits). Probably makes the most sense and is really elegant.

2) Drop a handful of random dice on the table, seeing where they land. The size of the die indicates the mass of the star but the number rolled is their actual magnitude (brightness) and shows how far away they are visible. If you roll a 1 on a d20, for example, that’s probably a massive black hole, big but really dim. This seems a lot more fun, but a pain in the ass to record, once you want to move the dice.

Perhaps there’s a way to combine these together?

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