Before I get into the blog, a couple of notes. First off, we just released a new QAGS sourcebook called And One For All by Ian Engle. As you can probably guess from the title, it's a Three Musketeers sourcebook. Also, round 2 of the Thought Eater contest at Playing D&D With Porn Stars has begun. I can't tell you which essay is mine, or even whether mine has been posted yet, but I encourage you to give them a read and vote for the ones you like.
Since I like to focus on storytelling and character development in RPGs, the thing I like most about dice is their ability to send the story off into unexpected directions. I've always liked critical hits and fumbles, wild dice in the d6 version of Star Wars, and other rules where the die roll can result in more than just a number to compare to a stat or difficulty number. In QAGS, which as you probably know is a roll-under system, we have Lucky Breaks (critical successes, when you roll your target number exactly) and Bad Breaks (critical failures, when you roll a natural 20), and Quirky Successes (weird things that happen when you roll a "1").
Naturally, I wanted the same kind of thing in Cinemechanix. Since Cinemechanix is a roll-high rather than roll-under system, the good thing was that I could use the more traditional "1 bad, 20 good" standard, which just feels better. The tricky thing is the fact that Cinemechanix is a dice pool system where you use the best die from the pool for your roll. The "20 is good" part works fine, since you're always going to pick the 20, but unless you're only rolling 1 Die (PCs tend to have at least 2 for most rolls), you're never going to choose the 1. If you're left with a 1 and a 17 in your dice pool, you're going to take the 17 and probably succeed at whatever you were doing. One option would be to make a Bad Break happen when you roll mostly 1s or nothing but 1s, but that means critical successes and critical failures have different rules, and I want to keep exceptions to minimum.
The solution was ultimately to do something I'd already mostly done in the descriptions: divorce the Lucky Break or Bad Break from the action being attempted. Instead of the character succeeding really well or failing really hard at whatever he was trying to do, a Lucky or Bad break just means something good or bad happens to the character. It can be related to the action the roll was for (you roll a 20 on an attack roll and get an instant kill), it can be tangentially related (you take the 17 and chop the bad guy, but your axe breaks because of the 1), or unrelated (You roll a 20 and do regular damage, but the bad guy you hit flies into the wall and hits the trigger that opens the door to the secret treasure room).
So, if any 1 or 20 in the remaining dice pool causes a special effect, what if you get a mixture of 1s and 20s? Since the "1 bad, 20 good" scale doesn't leave room for the QAGS quirky success, let's put it there. A dice pool with a 20 and 1 means you get a Fluke, something weird and unexpected happens: innocent bystanders wander into the fight, a freak tornado hits the battlefield, whatever; the odder the better. Multiple 1/20 pairs means multiple Flukes, and any leftover 1s or 20s are Bad or Lucky Breaks. If your dice pool comes up 20,20,20,1,1, you get a Lucky Break and 2 Flukes.
But why stop the fun at just the Bad Breaks, Lucky Breaks, and Flukes? With dice pools, you can add all sorts of special effects. As the title of this blog suggests, in Cinemechanix they're called "Dice Effects," and the GM and players come up with them when they put the game together. You can have universal Dice Effects that apply to all rolls, Dice Effects that only apply to certain types of rolls or situations, or even Dice Effects for a particular character, monster, spell, ability, or whatever. Here are a few examples that I gave in the book or have used in the sample game set-ups I've written:
- If you're playing a Lovecraftian horror game (or any game with dark magic), rolling three 6's when using magic means you inadvertently unleash Dark Forces Beyond Your Control.
- When you're rolling to see how well your rock band performs, each "11" gives you a +1 bonus to the Effect.
- When The Human Lava Lamp rolls doubles on a superpower roll, his skin changes color.
- Discordian Saints are allowed to re-roll 5s, but aren't required to do so.
- If I was running a Scooby Doo game, Velma would have a character-specific Dice Effect (double 13s, maybe) that causes her to lose her glasses.
- In the Team Force Alpha 37 Dark Age Supers game, whenever a player rolls triples, his character is involved in a crossover with another comic between issues and begins the next session with some kind of baggage from the crossover. Some of the characters also have special Dice Effects for their powers. For example, when A.X.X.E. rolls doubles on a roll for his mech suit, the suit malfunctions and has to be rebooted.
- Hobo superstition has several lucky and unlucky numbers, but I decided to just use two of them (33 and 9) for Dice Effects in the Hobomancer write-up. 33 is a lucky number, so a dice pool with double 3s means a Lucky Break. 9 is unlucky, so if the dice pool has a third 3, you get a Bad Break (regular 9s don't have a special effect).
In the last one, I chose to use triple 3s for a Bad Break instead of 9s to keep the dice effect from happening too often, and also because I like the idea of using the same roll for both the good and bad effect. You can key Dice Effects to any number or combination of numbers and kind of use the number of dice required to control how common or uncommon the effects are, both because of the probability math and because of how the system works. Everybody gets 1 die for anything that's at least theoretically possible, so a Dice Effect that happens on a single number will come up most frequently. Most PCs will get a Concept bonus for the majority of things they do during a game, so Dice Effects that require 2 dice are possible for most rolls. For effects that require 3 or more dice, a character will need either appropriate Trademarks or a situation that grants him Bonus Dice. The more dice required, the rarer the effect will be and the fewer characters will even have a chance of rolling it.
That does it for this week. If you want to check out the full Cinemechanix rules and get a chance to earn or win fabulous prizes and bragging rights as a playtester, join the playtest group.
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Last week I describe the broad categories of character traits for Cinemechanix. This weeks I'm going to talk about the individual words in each of the 3 main sections of the character sheet.
Character Concept Traits
The Character Concept defines who the character is and what he can do. Character concept traits are less about how well a character does something than what the character can do. They're more about deciding whether a character needs to or can roll for an action than adding or subtracting dice from that roll. A character who's blind can't read a billboard no matter how well he rolls, and in most games characters can't fly unless they've got a special ability or gadget that gives them flight abilities, for example. Concept traits may also allow players to do things without rolling (a super strong character doesn't have to roll to pick up a couch) or require them to roll for actions that that would usually succeed automatically (Captain America may need to roll to see if he knows who shot Reagan, since he's was frozen in a block of ice during the 80s). When it comes to actual rolls, a player can get up to 1 Bonus Die and 1 Penalty Die for Concept traits, no matter how may concept traits potentially apply. If you have a Role of "Cop" and a Backstory of "Former Track Star," you still only get 1 Bonus Die for concept when you roll to chase down a bad guy. If you want more, you'll have to put some Trademark Dice into running fast.
Character Name, Tag Line, and Who Would Play Him/Her In The Movie? are identical to the QAGS Words of the same name and rarely affect game mechanics, so I'm going to assume they don't need any explanation.
Role is similar to Job in QAGS, but Cinemechanix Roles should give some insight into the character's personality as well as his abilities, resources, and other stuff covered by a QAGS Job. So where a QAGS character would have a Job of "Private Detective," a Cinemechanix character should have a Role of "Hard-Boiled Private Detective" or "Meticulous Private Detective" or "Perpetually Stoned Private Detective."
Backstory isn't a completely character background, just a short (1 or 2 sentence) description of where the character came from and (if necessary) how he got wherever he is at the beginning of the story. Examples include things like "Convicted felon who just got out of jail" and "last son of a dying planet rocketed to earth and raised by kindly farmers."
Fatal Flaw is sort of similar to Weakness in QAGS, but a lot more specific. Not just any disadvantage can be a Fatal Flaw. A Fatal Flaw is specifically a character failing. Any of the Deadly Sins, addiction, obsession, and pretty much anything that causes the character to habitually do things that aren't in his best interest can work. Unlike Weaknesses in QAGS, Fatal Flaws are governed by role-playing, not die rolls. It's always up to the player to decide whether or not the character gives in to his Fatal Flaw. Players who role-play their Fatal Flaw well can earn Acclaim and those who blatantly ignore their Fatal Flaw when it really should cause problems can lose Acclaim, but otherwise it's up to the player to decide how much control the Fatal Flaw has over the character's life.
Game-Specific Traits are additional concept traits specific to the game you're playing. For example, a game set at Hogwarts might have "House" as a Game-Specific Trait, a super-hero game might have a "Secret Identity" trait, etc.
Hooks is a catch-all category for any other traits that make you different or special. You don't need to worry about Hooks that are already implicit in other concept traits, just the thing that make you unusual. If you're a Hobbit, we already know you're short. You only need a "Short" Hook if you're a human of Dinklagian proportions. You also don't have to worry about Hooks that are implicit in the game premise (if the game is about outlaws, everybody's already wanted by the authorities--not having a price on your head would be the Hook). Common Hook types include:
- Unusual physical traits (missing an eye, covered in tattoos, has devil horns)
- Special powers or abilities (psychic, invulnerable, amphibious)
- Curses or unusual vulnerabilities (lycanthropy, Kryptonite allergy, magically compelled to always speak truth)
- Unusual or uncharacteristic resources or connections (wealthy family, childhood friend of the Mayor, has his own crime cave)
- Story hooks or plot complications that are relevant to the game (wanted by the police, homeless, out for revenge)
- Role-playing/characterization hooks (code of honor, hates elves, chain smoker, gravelly voice)
Tropes are things the character is known for or does on a regular basis. Actions the character is good at are called Trademarks. Things the character is bad at are called Drawbacks. Characters start with a number of Trademark Dice equal to their Hero Factor and can put multiple dice into a single Trademark. For each dice of Drawbacks a character takes, he gets an extra Trademark Die to assign. Unlike Concept Dice, Trope Dice stack, so if you've got 1 Die in "Puzzle Solving" and 2 Dice in "History," you get 3 Bonus Dice when you roll to solve a historical puzzle.
Trademarks are things the character is good at doing and does regularly to resolve plot points. As I said last week, it's important to remember that the character isn't an inventory, so we're not interested in a character's skill in areas that are unlikely to come up in the game. If the game takes place on a deserted island, your character's hacking abilities are irrelevant. Trademarks are somewhat aspirational: by taking a Trademark in something, you're letting the GM know that you want your character to regularly get to do it during the game.
Drawbacks are things the character is bad at doing: Bad Liar, Hard of Hearing, 90-pound Weakling, etc. It's important to understand that drawbacks are areas where the character lacks ability, not just unfortunate situations or disadvantages. Drawbacks penalize the character when he tries to make a specific kind of roll. If you can't clearly define what sorts of rolls are affected, the trait probably works better as a Hook. Character don't have to take any Drawbacks, and many characters in fiction don't have any. In most books and TV shows, Drawbacks are the kind of things that show up as running gags.
Stats are traits that only exist to make the game mechanics work.
Hero Factor is sort of like level and abstractly defines how badass the character is. Most characters start the game with a Hero Factor in the 3-5 range. Characters add Hero Factor to all rolls and it's used in numerous other ways.
Acclaim works more or less like Yum Yums in QAGS. The main difference is that it's awarded by group consensus (by means of a thumbs up or thumbs down) rather than GM fiat (though the GM's vote is always the tiebreaker).
Stamina starts out equal to Hero Factor x 5 and gets reduced when characters take damage. If a character reaches 0 Stamina he takes a Wound (which represents a significant injury). Characters can regain Stamina by taking a Recovery Round, which they're allowed to do a number of times per Scene equal to their Hero Factor. The character usually returns to full Stamina at the end of a Scene. Wounds take a lot longer to get rid of.
Special Effects are rules for any character traits (usually concept traits) that require them. For example, a character with the Hook of "Werewolf" might need rules for transforming, stats when in wolf form, and taking damage from silver weapons, each race in a fantasy setting might have its own static list of Special Effects, or a wizard character may need spell points or a list effects for the spells he knows.
I already discussed the last two items on the character sheet (Plot Developments and Trivia) last week. One thing that's come up in playtesting is confusion about which traits should be Tropes, which should be Trademarks, and which are just Trivia. In some cases it depends on he ability (something that's constant and never requires a roll shouldn't be a Trademark) and even more often it's a matter of player preference and game context, but here's an example that might help, using the "Comic Book Fan" trait:
- For Seeley Booth in Bones, it's trivia. The scene where he's reading Green Lantern in the bathtub with a beer helmet is amusing, but comic book fandom isn't a major facet of the character.
- For Xander in Buffy, it's probably a "Comic Book Geek" Hook. It's very unlikely to be relevant to any plot point that comes up, but it's important for characterization since it tell the player he should make lots of comic references.
- If you're playing a game where the PCs get transported from our world to Gotham City, "Comic Book Fan" would be a Trademark because it's an area of character knowledge that's likely to become relevant to the plot of the story.
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Earlier this week I posted the Hobomancer sample game for Cinemechanix to the playtest group (as well as the second playtester survey). It turns out that condensing the background from a 150 page book into a few paragraphs is not an easy task, and the sample games in general require more work than I expected. I originally thought the sample games would be in the 5-10 page range, but Team Alpha Force 37 came in at 27 and Hobomancer is 34. Some of the page count is due to big fonts and inefficient layout (especially of stat blocks), so they'll shrink down in the actual PDF/book, but there's still a lot of content (the Hobomancer sample game is just under 13,000 words). It's tempting to cut down the number of sample games (I originally planned on 10) to keep the page count down, but I think I'll stick to the plan. I want plenty of examples in the book to illustrate how you can adapt the basic rules concepts to different kinds of games. The next one I'm working on (working title Summer Camp Monster Mash) is a game about a summer camp for monsters. It's sort of Hotel Transylvania meets Wet Hot American Summer.
A few weeks ago I posted a sample Cinemechanix character, but didn't really offer much explanation for those who haven't read the rules. I originally planned to do it the next week, but got sidetracked, so I'm going to start on that today. Before we start get into the stats, there are a two things to understand:
- Cinemechanix is a storytelling game, so players "win" by helping to tell a good story, not by exploiting the game rules. Since I'm not writing a strategy game where all players need to start at roughly the same power level, I'm not worried about game balance. As long as the story includes obstacles that require Kryptonian powers as well as obstacles that require trick arrows, Superman and Green Arrow are both viable characters despite the fact that Clark has a ton of flashy super-powers and Ollie just has a bow. GMs need to keep players from making characters who are so powerful that they overshadow the other characters (in order to keep everyone else from quitting the game) or so versatile that it's impossible to challenge them (because stories where characters don't overcome any meaningful challenges are bad stories), but that's better accomplished through good judgement than through some arbitrary point system.
- The character sheet for a Cinemechanix character isn't a resume or inventory, so it's not meant to describe everything about the character. It describes the character at a certain time within a certain context, namely the time and context of the story. Players don't need game mechanics for things that are outside the scope of the story. We don't care about Carl Winslow's ability to chase down a bad guy or shoot a gun because "Family Matters" is a sit-com, not a cop show. On the off chance Carl has to do cop stuff, the GM will probably give him a bonus and the player can always spend Acclaim (Cinemechanix Yum Yums) if he wants to nail the roll. If the inevitable Netflix reboot is a cop show called "Winslow on Patrol," Reginald VelJohnson will have to make a new character sheet that describes Carl in the new context.
A Cinemechanix character sheet is broken down into three main sections (plus two other sections that are basically notes):
The Character Concept consists of Role, Backstory, Fatal Flaw, Game-Specific Traits (like Race or Hogwart's House or Secret Identity), Hooks (things that make the character special or unusual), Tag Line, and Who Would Play Him/Her In The Movie?. The Character Concept describes who the character is. You can think of this information as what the people in charge of a movie or TV show use to build the character. It helps decide what kind of things the character says and does, what kind of make-up, wardrobe, props, and special effects are required, and what actors or actresses to consider for the role.
Tropes describe things a character is good at (Trademarks) or bad at (Drawbacks). They're often based on things established in the character concept (a character with a "Cop" Role may have a "Shoot Bad Guys" Trademark), but don't necessarily have to be. If you think of Concept as adjectives, Tropes are verbs; they're things the character does (or does badly). Continuing the TV/movie analogy, these are the things that the actor has to convince the audience he's doing (often with help from stunt doubles, special effects people, etc.).
Stats are traits that are purely necessary to make the game work. In the movie analogy, they're kind of like the wires and harnesses used for a stunt in an action movie. You have to have them, but don't want the audience to see them. Stats include Hero Factor (an abstract measure of badassitude), Acclaim (more or less Yum Yums), Stamina (for measuring damage), and Special Effects (other special rules, like how much damage a Werewolf character takes from silver weapons).
The two remaining areas of the sheet are Plot Developments and Trivia. In Cinemechanix, story arcs are equated with seasons of a TV show and characters "level up" at the end of the season. In television, nothing is permanent until it survives into the new season, so Plot Developments is a place for recording temporary rules changes until the season ends and the player and GM decide whether or not they hang around. In Buffy, for example, Xander would probably get the "Missing An Eye" Drawback as a Plot Development when his eye gets destroyed in Season 7. When Season 8 starts (in the comic), he's adjusted well enough that the Drawback goes away and the fact he's missing an eye becomes a Hook. Trivia is a place for the player to write down dumb facts and other notes about the character.
Next week, I'll go into more detail about what the different traits mean and how they work.
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Kind of a slow week on Cinemechanix playtest. I've got the Hobomancer sample game almost finished and will hopefully be posting it next week, but otherwise there's not much going on right now, so I'm going to take a break from the design journal this week and talk about cyberpunk vampires. I've been watching True Blood, because apparently I want to be reminded of every World of Darkness game ever played, so I know why I've got vampires on the brain. Not sure where the cyberpunk part of it came from.
As you probably know, your classic cyberpunk stories usually have different subcultures who add hardware and get genetic modifications as a fashion statement. There's usually a vampire subculture of people who get retractable fangs and dress up like rejects form a Cure video. Those people are posers. If you really want to be cyberpunk vampire, you need to do some internal work so you can actually sustain yourself on blood. Depending on how many liberties the game takes with science, a vamp who's had the right mods may be able to live off of any old blood or might have to drink from well-paid blood dolls whose blood has been enhanced so it's got all the necessary vitamins and minerals and shit. If you want to really sell your vampirism, you can also get some subdermal hologram projectors that make it look like you're on fire when sunlight hits (without causing any actual damage, of course). It may also be possible to tweak cloaking tech to make you not show up in a mirror without actually making you invisible. Tech that emits a subliminal signal of some kind or drugs in your own blood can mimic vampire mind control (though in the latter case it only works if the person you want to hypnotize drinks your blood first).
Since a stake through the heart will take out normal humans, you can condition yourself to hate garlic, and goths are already put off by most religious symbols, you've just got two traditional vampire traits to figure out. Shapeshifting isn't going to happen without allowing for really crazy technology (though retractable bat wings for that Santanico Pandemonium look might be doable), so let's focus on the ability to create progeny. All that requires is some very genre-appropriate exploitation of the less fortunate. Just use daddy's money to dangle some cool mods in the faces of people who can't afford them but want to be part of the vampire crowd. The progeny probably don't get the full vamp package of course, but they get enough to get past the bouncer. The fine print in the agreement also provides for something to keep them in line. The cheap version is just a brain bomb that the sire can set off, but depending on the tech it could as complicated as something that allows the sire to remotely access the progeny's sensory organs and override their brain, basically turning the progeny into a puppet.
When the sires get a little older, most of them probably outgrow wallowing in the unbearable angst of their privileged lives, just like goths in the real world. They reverse and remove all the mods and get day jobs, take over the family business, start their own fashion line, or whatever respectable young elites do in the dystopian future. The progeny, meanwhile, still have their fangs and technological leashes and can be called upon by their now-upright citizen masters whenever they're needed. There are probably some who never outgrow their vampire stage and start their own vampiric conspiracy, secret society, or corporation, complete with Byzantine organizational structures, political intrigue, and terrible accents. If they can stop LARPing long enough, they might evolve into a potential employer or enemy of the PC group.
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Last week I posted Captain Deity, a character from Team Force Alpha 37, which is the first of a series of sample game set-ups we'll be including in the Cinemechanix core rule book. The full sample game is posted in the playtest group if you want to see the rest of the characters and all the other info about Team Force Alpha. I'm really happy that I finally got to do something with these characters because they're an important part of QAGS history that we've never gotten around to using. The Team Force Alpha 37 characters were the PCs in what was (kind of) the first QAGS game ever.
The first "QAGS" game actually happened before Leighton and I had any idea that there was such a thing as QAGS. Have you ever seen the Creator's Universe Card Set? If not, you're missing out. Leighton and I found this little gem at Red Rock, the comic shop where I worked, one day. It's a set of maybe 80 cards featuring various characters from creator-owned worlds. Some of these were actual comic book characters, like Kid Death and Fluffy and a few characters from Sin City. Others were really bad Liefield-esque characters with names like "Nitemaere" and "Weezul" (who was accompanied by rocket-powered ninja squirrels). By the way, all of them were spelled in the most wrong way possible, in the classic Image mold. After looking through a few of the cards, Leighton and I knew what we must do: We had to run a game with these horrible characters, and equally horrible ones of our own.
Thus was born Mega Hyper M Force X7 (we changed the name of the team every time we said it). With characters like A.X.X.E., Captain Deity, Tonguelash (this was before Dark Horse published a comic of the same name; she's now Tongue Twister), Psy-Chick, Hoz, Zippo, the gritty loner Hotpantz, and an alien named Oriface, what could go wrong? Leighton and I set a date for the big game, hung up some signs at Red Rock, told all of our friends, and got ready for hours of wacky fun.
Cut to 7p.m. the following Monday. Leighton and I have made up our cast of characters and are waiting for people to arrive. Then we realize something: We don't have a plot...or a game system. That was okay, though. I'd recently been tossing the idea that would eventually become QAGS around, so we wrote a few vague stats and numbers from 1 to 20 on some sheets of paper (the real character sheets were the drawings Leighton had prepared earlier, after all) and figured we'd wing it from there.
Then, in what would become the first of many five-minute planning sessions, Leighton and I came up with a plot. It was a superhero game, so we figured we'd have the characters fight something. It needed to be lame, and luckily Mr. Connor had just the thing: The HUMORALS! You're probably wondering what the hell a humoral is. Well, you know how the Greeks had four elements, which led to the concept of elementals? There were also four bodily humors. You can guess the rest. Their names were, of course, Bloodbath, Bilestrike, Phlegmstorm, and Melankillia!
So, there we were with everything all ready to go. We were missing only one thing: players. Well, not entirely. A couple of people did show up. They were commonly known as "Hatboy" and "Greaseball" and were not the type of player we really wanted. Leighton and I spent the next hour or so trying to find somebody else to join us--sadly, to no avail. However, Hatboy and Greaseball really wanted to play our "Superhero game" and we were wired to run it, so we bit the bullet and ran for these putzes.
We decided that each of these morons would play two characters, and they would have to decide based entirely on our brief descriptions. They ended up with Captain Deity, Hotpantz, Tonguelash, and I believe A.X.X.E. The other PCs were run alternately by Leighton and me as NPCs.
At first, the "system" we were using required high rolls. Later in the evening, it required low rolls. Later still, Leighton and I threw out any pretense of a system and just made shit up. We enjoyed ourselves immensely. We had millions of cut scenes to things that had nothing to do with the game. We randomly pulled out cards from the Creators Universe set and had those characters make cameos. At some point, we pulled out a character named Morganna and decided that she was really Morgan LeFay. This obviously meant that team's mentor, The Mysterious Dr. M (a really old and senile bald guy) was secretly Merlin, so we introduced this as a subplot. As some of you may know, Leighton and I can communicate vast amounts of information with a simple note. I think the entirety of this subplot was based on the scribble 'Morganna=Morgan L' to which Mr. Connor scribbled 'Revenge Merlin (Dr)' or something equally arcane.
Like I said, it was fun. Dr. M recited grocery list instead of mission briefings; humorals attacked; roket-powered ninja squirrels flew into wood chippers; Captain Deity was thrown through walls, causing buildings to collapse and civilians to die; Oriface tried to eat things (or mate with them, nobody was quite sure). There was only one scary thing: the players never seemed to catch on. They never figured out that the game was a parody of bad Image comics. They played the whole thing as a serious, gritty, superhero adventure. And they never figured out that we had no plot or system, even though it was VERY obvious. After an hour or so the "player characters" became little more than foils in our own epically bad Image comic. Once we started ignoring Hatboy and Greaseball (except for a token "roll your superpower" every now and then), things just got better.
And that was the first game of QAGS ever, even though we didn't know it at the time. While it wasn't the best beginning, it was the first game where we fully embraced the idea of just making things up and telling a fun story without worrying too much about the rules.
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