Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Nuts & Bolts #137 - Hacking the Cypher System - Mental Damage Track

So you're playing a horror game and want to have a better way to show character mental trauma. Or maybe you are playing a game with a lot of social "combat," people arguing, vying for control, political deception, and such and you want a way to track a person's demeanor. As designed the Cypher System isn't terribly granular in this regard, but that's not something that cannot be fixed. The damage track does a great job of tracking physical damage and stress, and in games of exploration and combat the loss of a damage level from mental assault and/or fatigue works well but when focusing heavily on those more social times it starts to work a bit less well.

Social and mental damage is certainly easy to integrate as damage to Intellect pool. Instead of going to Impaired however these kinds of "attacks" could go to a new type of damage level: Provoked, Disturbed, and Unhinged.
  • Provoked - The character is saddened, angered, or off put. They are still in control but on edge and starting to lose control. While a character is Provoked they count as having one less armor for the purposes of mental and social attacks (this may mean having a -1 armor and therefore taking 1 extra damage from such attacks). 
  • Disturbed - The character is now on the verge of breakdown. They are furious, grief stricken, or offended. Their control is beginning to slip and they are prone to making poor choices and taking reactionary actions without considering the consequences. While a character is Disturbed they gain an Inability in Intellect defense tasks, and must also make a level 4 Intellect task to act counter to their emotional state (e.g. a roll to not act in anger but instead stay one's hand). 
  • Unhinged - The character has now fallen into a an uncontrolled state of wrath, anguish, outrage, or the like. At this stage the character's actions are dictated by their mental state as advised by the GM with player input. Should the character try not act as dictated by their mental state they must succeed on a level 5 Intellect task. 
Unlike the traditional physical damage track these damage conditions are tied to the character's Intellect pool only. They act as a way to track a character's mental state. When a character takes Intellect damage from a social or mental attack that puts their pool below half they also take the next available level of Mental/Social damage. When their Intellect pool falls to zero, they then take then next level of Mental damage. Should they suffer further social or mental attacks while their pool is at zero they suffer an additional level of mental damage. A GM can of course use a GM Intrusion to directly inflict a level of mental damage in appropriate situations.

Recovery on the mental damage track can be done by taking a recovery roll and succeeding on a level 3 Intellect Defense task. Success means they recover a level, failure means they do not. Taking a 10 hour rest always recovers 1 level of Mental Damage. 

As usual, these rules are not tested, so if you use them for a horror game or a Game of Thrones style political game I'd love to hear about it. 

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Nuts & Bolts #135 - Review: Blade Runner 2049

Thirty-five years is a long time to wait for a sequel. Some would say that Blade Runner didn't need a sequel at all. That it was a perfectly fine film that didn't need a Hollywood ending that tied every loose end into a bow. I was one of that group. I like the original, I have no problem with the questions left unanswered. I'd have been far more indignant if not for another beloved cyberpunk film that got a sequel that added to the original: Ghost in the Shell. Ghost in the Shell: Innocence was somehow equal to the original. It answered some questions and raised others. It worked.

Granted, GitS:I wasn't a thirty five year wait, and it came out of Japan, out from the thumb of the Hollywood machine that churns out bad sequels to bad movies in the name of making a buck. The Hollywood system is why I (we?) groan when people mention Pirates of the Caribbean instead of remembering fondly how fun the first one was. It's why I (we?) cringe when yet another Transformers movie comes out. Somehow Blade Runner 2049 avoided the fate of some many sequels and reboots. It honors the original without diminishing it in our memories, and it adds to the legacy and world in positive ways.

It's not perfect. A friend rated it an 8.5/10 and I'd agree. I'm a little tired of the "bwaa" soundtrack, and this movie leaned on that dissonance as auditory clue in certain ways that had me wondering at times why it was a thing in the first place. The pacing is a bit  uneven, with a few moments around half way through that made me contemplate a trip to the restroom. That said, for a movie with a ~2:45 running time it goes by amazingly well for much of that time. The cold open is pretty great, and dovetails into a blooming flower of plot that proves really well constructed. There's stuff early on that you don't realize facilitates plot points until well later in the film.

It's also really pretty. Even the dingy parts are really well shot and blocked. It's dark in places, but well lit in others, and where the original delved deep into the darkness of the setting this film seems set on showing that there is brightness in the world still.

I agree with the 8.5/10 or maybe a 4.5/5. It's good. It's damn good. It's not perfect, but then again, what movie is?

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Nuts & Bolts #134 - Abstraction

I've been reading Blades in the Dark lately. A little here and a little there. I don't see myself ever running it as GM, and I doubt I'll ever get to play it, not that I'd want to; I'm just not that into "evil campaigns." That said, I think there's some great ideas in the book. Some really nice ways to run aspects of games that just aren't fun to grind out the hard way. Blades in the Dark does this by abstraction.

It abstracts threats, and renders them into bite sized pieces that the GM and the group can narrate as they see fit. It likewise does this with building resources and allies. It even does do with equipment in a way, with the characters having a carrying capacity that is only occupied as they use equipment, thus making the planning of the PC's criminal exploits into an abstract system that allows them the freedom to be capable.

There's something to value in these ideas. That some things in games don't need to be rigidly defined at all, or do not need to be rigidly defined initially, and that freedom to define things when they are needed, or not at all, can help tell a better story without backing oneself into a corner.

Let's go back to that idea of equipment. Specifically it's the character's loadout that is abstracted. Initially they have a certain load they decide on based on how much they want to be able to carry in total. This is left undefined, instead just indicating that the current job has the character carrying light (and being easier to remain undetected) or laden down for the operation (and being slower and easier to discern). As the players go through the mission they need a set of tools. Tools take up 2 slots and, of course they remembered to bring such an important item; they mark off two slots of gear in their inventory, noting that they are a bag of tools, and they proceed in the story.

Initially the was no entry for "bag of tools" on the character sheet, instead their inventory was abstract, they had a heavy load of gear they needed to break into this vault. By allowing the gear to be conceptualized as an abstract the group didn't have to spend time debating what to bring, the players just decide how much, while the characters, the experts that the players often cannot be, as assumed to be bringing the gear they need.


It just will not. Hell, it won't even satisfy some gamers all of the time. Depending on the game I'm playing this could be a great thing or a terrible thing. There are times when I don't want to micromanage things. Games like Cypher System tend to be very good at operating with more loosely defined terms than games intended for a more "old school" feel. Shadowrun run with Blades in the Dark's rules could either be really great, or really terrible, in part because it may be great fun, but it probably wouldn't really feel like Shadowrun if you always have the right piece of decking gear or magical focus just a check box away.

Threats are another great opportunity for abstraction. Instead of going through the minutiae of sneaking past the six guards on duty at the weapons lab the GM can decide that getting past the guards is a task needing a certain difficulty (in Cypher parlance), or a certain number of successes, or perhaps a certain DC task with four passed checks. With each roll of the dice the character overcome some fraction of the task. One quarter, or maybe more or perhaps less. They progress in increments that the GM can narrate with the help of the players telling them how they succeed. Maybe a DC of 15 was needed but a 20 was rolled, the GM says that gets them an extra increment. Instead of 1/4 complete they are now 1/2 completed. The players then narrate how they managed such a feat so easily.


Find what works for you, as both GM and player. Maybe you play a military heavy game of giant mecha versus alien invaders and tracking each missile and rail gun round appeals for such a game. Maybe you have a game of superheroes and mostly avoid rolling dice because these characters are meant to be able to be awesome first, and challenged second. Maybe, like me, you like to play in both worlds, and enjoy both sides of the coin, the abstract and the simulationist. There's nothing wrong with that. Fun is fun. 

The big take away, at least for my money, is that abstraction often facilitates characters to be more capable. If you want success to be something hard fought and the struggle to get ahead is part of your game you probably want to avoid using abstract rules in favor of strict simulation of the real world. If, on the other hand, you want characters who probably know how to be awesome in a way that their player's do not, abstraction is a great way to allow them to be more capable without loading them down with more and more abilities.

As always, your mileage may vary.