Lazarus: World of Lazarus as a Toolkit

Being a game designer means being a tinkerer, and even as you develop a new game, a part of you thinks “this would be perfect for this other game I want to run…” And so I think every AGE book, regardless of the line, is a stealth toolkit for Gamemasters. At least that’s how I went into designing World of Lazarus. While most of the new player backgrounds, for example, have in-world flavor, they are easily adapted to almost any Modern AGE campaign. Minor Family can be translated to “Scion of the 1%” while Herd Worker makes a dang good “Rust Belt Burnout.” Most of the talents are ready to pop over to any Modern AGE game as well (with GM permission, naturally). Except…

What to do with Minor Augmentation and the various Lazarus talents?

The four flavors of Minor Augmentation are built to balance with other talents, and you can always pop them into your otherwise mundane Modern AGE game as “Savant” or something similar: extraordinary but entirely natural abilities a character might be born with that set them apart. In this case, you might want to limit a character to only one Minor Augmentation talent and eliminate the story idea that minor augmentations need regular maintenance to keep functioning (or cause other occasional drawbacks).

The Lazarus augmentations don’t work quite as well as natural abilities. But man… do they work great for a variety of unnatural abilities! As we talked about a few weeks ago, the Lazarus talents represent a wide variety of improvements, from gene-splicing to drugs to cybernetics, and you can use them to reflect any of these options in your own home-spun campaigns! Want to do a gene-punk game where splicing is the new tattooing? Want an urban fantasy game where every PC starts with the blood of something unearthly in their veins? Lazarus talents can even represent temporary abilities PCs get from alien symbiotes, powered armor, or esoteric talismans.

Whatever use you find for Lazarus talents, remember that they offer players a power boost over mundane talents, and so they should come with an appropriate in-world drawback. In World of Lazarus, the setback is story-based: to possess a Lazarus talent, a PC must (theoretically) be a Lazarus. They are at the beck and call of their Family, and rely on their Family to maintain their extraordinary bodies. Loyalty is programmed into their DNA, and disobedience means death. Your own campaigns may impose similar constraints on PCs with Lazarus talents: they might need to remain loyal to a powerful figure to maintain their talents, or need expensive drugs or equipment that constantly push them to take dangerous jobs. They might instead have a more mechanical drawback, such as imposing a level of fatigue whenever the PC uses them in a scene, or requiring a PC to spend Power Points to activate it. It could open up weird new gameplay options: Lazarus talents might represent high-end cybernetics that need maintenance and can be hacked, introducing a minor story cost and a weird mechanical vulnerability.

There’s no perfect way to adapt new rules into your campaign, so play around and see what feels a little too good in play and what seems just right. Make sure your players know the rules might be in flux, and be willing to listen to their feedback as well. If they like the rules even if they seem a little much to you, always remember your NPCs can use them too!

OH! And my personal campaign idea? Roll Lazarus talents in with psychic powers and let my players go mind-diving into weird psy-scapes, Psychonauts-style!

World of Lazarus: Hazardous Contents

I am going to share something personal with all ya’ll here today:

I love hazards. They’re probably my favorite item in the AGE GM toolkit. They’re a quick, versatile little element that helps you balance out the TNs and damage to throw out when you need to slow your players down or make them think. But the Modern AGE core rulebook only gives you three examples: the Burning Building, the Killer Drone, and the Rushing River. There’s a lot of ways to hurt your PCs beyond these examples, and so World of Lazarus offers fifteen new hazards to drop into your game!

Some are pretty straightforward. The Auto-Turret is a fairly standard trap as you would expect it in the dystopian future of the Lazarus setting, and is easily adapted to other active dangers, while the Hock Flu details how to run a deadly, progressing disease. Other’s describe difficult environmental situations, like the Dust Storm and Superstorm, or help describe how arduous travel can be in a wasted world with the Crossing the Wastes hazard.

Other hazards present more esoteric threats that hit the things PCs really care about. The Financial Collapse describes what to do when a rival targets a character’s assets and contacts. Biometric Recognition Systems threaten a character’s anonymity in the modern world. But I think my favorite addition to this book is the Devastating Compromise, a hazard a character brings on themselves when they have to betray their core values to save others or improve their own lot in life. Here’s the text:

THE DEVASTATING COMPROMISE

MINOR

Sometimes, in a harsh world, people do monstrous things in the name of survival, or loyalty, or desperation, but these choices can haunt them for weeks or years. When a character takes an action that lies far outside their normal morality or runs counter to their Virtue, they must attempt a TN 13 Willpower (Self-Awareness) test (or higher, for particularly heinous crimes) or be haunted by their choice for the next 24 hours, suffering a –2 penalty to all Communications, Perception, and Willpower tests due to distracting thoughts, anxiety, and depression. Each time a character fails this roll, make a note of it. Once a character has failed a number of tests against devastating compromises equal to their Willpower + 5, they gain a permanent –1 penalty to all Willpower checks as their convictions and compassion erode. Once a character has failed a number of tests against devastating compromises equal to their Willpower + 10, they lose the ability to regain Conviction by following their Virtue. Characters can reverse these eroding effects through therapy, introspection, and following their Virtue, generally erasing one failed test for every significant deed done or six months of mental health counseling. The Hock drugs (see page 34) known as Blues can temporarily negate the effects of a failed test or the long-term Willpower penalty from accumulated failures.

Morality and personal choice are important elements in the Lazarus comic books, and reflecting that in the game’s mechanics felt like an important goal in development. In a world where human decency is dying out, betraying yourself has long-lasting impacts on a character. Gamemasters may adapt this hazard—perhaps replacing Self-Awareness with another Willpower focus like Courage or Self-Discipline—to reflect other situations with mounting stress or dread, like esoteric horror or the agony of retail work in the holiday season.

Pick up a copy of World of Lazarus to check out the fifteen new hazards available, as well as a wealth of other GM options like adversaries, campaign models, adventure seeds, and a sample adventure.

The Expanse RPG In ENWorld’s 10 Most Anticipated Tabletop RPGs of 2019

The Expanse Roleplaying Game coverWe are pleased to find The Expanse RPG listed among ENWorld’s 10 Most Anticipated Tabletop RPGs of 2019. The game appears in some fine company on that list. The Expanse RPG core rulebook and Game Master’s Kit are on schedule for early 2019 release.

 

World of Lazarus: Handling Asymmetric Gameplay

A World of Lazarus campaign doesn’t need to include a Lazarus as a player character, and in fact much of the book assumes the players are ordinary people trying to survive in this extraordinary world. The gamemaster’s chapter includes four general campaign models: Family, Serf, Waste, and Resistance, with the first three focusing on the various tiers of society that define the Lazarus setting and the fourth focusing on organizations like The Free who work to upend that stratification and restore basic human dignity to everyone. Each campaign model has its own player-character suggestions, objectives, adversaries, and nuances that can make for very different campaigns, and none require a Lazarus among the PCs’ numbers. For three of these campaign models—Serf, Waste, and Resistance—Lazari serve more as adversaries and boogeymen than heroes.

But we all like a power fantasy now and then, and World of Lazarus delivers with all the information you need to make player-character Lazari. But if every Family is only supposed to have one of these champions, how do you handle that at the table? Most roleplaying games are built around symmetric gameplay—the idea that player characters should be roughly the same power level. Fighters and wizards play differently, but if they start to feel too different, it feels unfair. Making asymmetric gameplay—where one player is more powerful than the others—work can be challenging, because you run the risk of one player being able to solve every problem, leaving the other players feeling useless and bored.

World of Lazarus describes several options for incorporating a Lazarus into your game, but the key is to design your adventures and opponents mindfully, making sure the Lazarus can’t do everything themselves and that there are challenges that showcase other players’ abilities. You wouldn’t design a fantasy adventure where every puzzle and every opponent could only be overcome by divine magic, and likewise you need to make sure you don’t build your Lazarus adventures in a way that every challenge is overcome by a Lazarus’s superior combat abilities. You may build combat encounters with one or two high-level threats the Lazarus must focus on, with other opponents that the non-Lazari party members can take out, or build your entire campaign with the intention of the Lazarus handling combat scenarios, but the focus including many scientific, investigation, or social challenges that the human party members can solve.

World of Lazarus details four ways of including a Lazarus as a prominent, permanent element in your own campaigns, which boil down to:

  • Lazarus Oversight, in which the Lazarus is an NPC the PCs report to directly every session, and who may occasionally join them on adventures as a plot device.
  • Rotating Lazarus, in which every player makes their own human-scale PC and collaborate to make a Lazarus as well, then take turns every session playing the Lazarus as an active party member.
  • Tip of the Spear, in which one player is the Family Lazarus, with the rest of the players playing various support elements. This suggestion is especially fitting for Family campaigns, considering that all Lazari receive special condition to enforce their loyalty, and so despite their power, the Lazarus PC is subservient to the other PCs.
  • The Phalanx, in which every PC creates either a Lazarus or a lesser version of a Lazarus, representing a coalition between families or an illegal attempt to circumvent the “one Lazarus per family” rule enforced by the Maccau Accords.

There are plenty of other ways to include a Lazarus in your game, from an occasional guest role to a cooperatively-played pseudo-PC to an NPCplot device the PCs can unleash as their secret weapon. The possibilities are limited by the deviousness of your own imagination. And you can always use the Lazarus talents to allow players to create half-measure Lazuri agents without applying the full Lazarus creation rules.

WORLD OF LAZARUS: MORE HUMAN THAN HUMAN

One of the major themes in the Lazarus comic books is humanity: What does it mean to be human and when do you stop being human? At the lowest end, the Waste of the world are treated as livestock to be used or discarded as needed and at worst as pests to be exterminated. The concept of human rights is a relic of the past, unknown to much of the world’s population, and so many Waste exist at the fringes of both civilization and humanity: They fight and hunt and scavenge to survive, even turning on one another. Are you still human when all the world—and maybe even you—regards you as an animal?

 

 

Of course, the comics address the other end of this chilling question: When are you so advanced you essentially graduate beyond humanity? Joacquim Morray is more steel than flesh. Li Jiaolong’s mind exists in the digital realm and operates a heartbeat away from singularity. Forever Carlyle cannot die. Are any of the world’s Lazari still human when their lives are so far removed from all the essential constraints that define mortal lives?

The World of Lazarus would be remiss if it didn’t allow players to tackle these same questions (and kick butt doing it), and so the book introduces the concept of Augmentation talents to the Modern AGE system. Augmentation talents are special categories of talents locked behind story-based walls and only permissible with Gamemaster permission, and grant characters an extra boost above and beyond what ordinary talents provide. Most player characters will have access to the four Minor Augmentation talents—Acuity, Adrenal, Resilience, and Strength—which represent minor upgrades to the human condition powerful entities can grant their favored agents. Minor Augmentation: Adrenal, for example, boosts a character’s speed and response times, allowing them to react faster in combat, evade enemy strikes, and push their accuracy beyond human potential by overstressing their body. While Minor Augmentation talents can provide a competitive edge, they pale next to Lazarus Talents—Armor, Awareness, Cognition, Endurance, Muscle, Prowess, Reflexes, and regeneration—which reflect the pinnacle of science wielded by the Families. While every Family doles out minor augmentations as rewards to loyal Serfs and useful agents, Lazarus talents are reserved and secretive, developed and possessed solely—in theory, at least—for a Family’s Lazarus and no one else. Lazarus talents can provide suites of unusual or unique abilities, such as Cognition’s ability to predict the future or Prowess’s ability to move at top speed without making a sound.

Because the Families in the world of X+65 command a variety of sciences and construct their Lazari in different ways, Augmentation talents focus on the results rather than defining how characters get there. A Carlyle agent and a Morray agent can both receive Minor Augmentation: Strength as a reward for their service, but the Morray talent represents implanting artificial muscle fiber or replacing whole limbs with cybernetic prostheses while the Carlyle reward reflects genetic engineering. While mechanically identical, the different applications of the talent will represent different changes in the characters’ lives: an inhuman appearance for the Morray cyborg and a lifetime dependency on maintenance drugs and hormone therapy for the Carlyle mutant.

The World of Lazarus campaign setting even provides additional rules for creating a Lazarus of your very own (either as a player character, or as an NPC for your own campaign), as well as several options for including Lazari in your campaigns and full statblocks for four Lazari appearing in the comics: Forever Carlyle, Sonja Bittner, Joacquim Morray, and Li Jiaolong. But to show how easy it is to make a Lazarus of your own, I’ll run through the process here to create a Lazarus we didn’t include: The Zmey, the barely-controlled engine of destruction that serves as the Vassalovka Family’s Lazarus! We very deliberately omitted this ultimate physical antagonist’s statistics from the book itself so each Gamemaster could custom-build their own version to always be a potent threat regardless of their group’s experience and makeup, but for this blog we’ll benchmark the Zmey to be the equivalent of a 12th-level character—slightly higher than Forever Carlyle’s listed benchmark.

Here’s what you need to know to build a Lazarus for your own World of Lazarus Game:

  • Build a Character: Lazari start like normal characters, except they always have the option to select a Family background to represent superior training. We’ll build him by buying Ability scores, giving him Accuracy 1, Communication -1, Constitution 2, Dexterity 1, Fighting 3, Intelligence 0, Perception 1, Strength 3, Willpower His background is deliberately obscured in-world (but check out last February’s issue of the Lazarus X+66 miniseries if you want the inside scoop), and while it’s not canonically perfect, I’m giving him the Minor Family Background, the Soldier Profession, and the Survivor Drive.
  • Add a Bonus Profession: To reflect their extra training, a Lazarus selects a second Profession from a list, gains the Focus and Talent provided, and selects the better starting Health and Resources scores from between their two professions. Because the Zmey is a big, terrifying guy, Brawler for his second Profession.
  • Add Bonuses: A Lazarus gains additional bonuses to health and their choice of Abilitity scores. In the Zmey’s case, we’ll add the bigger bonuses to Strength and Constitution, and the smaller bonuses to Fighting, Perception, and Willpower.
  • Add Lazari Talents: A starting Lazarus begins with Novice rank in two Lazari talents, and can acquire additional ranks in place of their usual talent selection as they level up, with the limitation that they can’t improve Lazarus talent ranks two levels in a row. The Zmey’s fearsome strength and resilience make Endurance and Strength the obvious choices here.

This gives us an impressive statblock, but remember this is the equivalent of a starting Lazarus and we want the equivalent of a 12th level Lazarus! So we have an additional 11 Ability advancements, 11 new Ability Focuses, and 11 Talent improvements! You don’t have to create your NPCs as if they were player characters—and in fact you’ll get much more focused, less cluttered character sheets if you just select Ability ranks, Focuses, and Talents that feel appropriate—but I like this method personally and so we’ll stick with it for now.

After adjusting for additional levels, here’s the version of the Zmey that will haunt my players’ nightmares:


The Zmey

Accuracy 2 (Assault Rifles)

Communication 0

Constitution 6 (Stamina)

Dexterity 2 (Initiative)

Fighting 5 (Brawling, Flexible Weapons+, Grappling, Short-Hafted)

Intelligence 0 (Families)

Perception 3 (Hearing)

Strength 7 (Intimidate+, Might)

Willpower 4 (Courage)

 

Speed: 12         Health: 81/165/210        Defense: 12/14/15         AR + Toughness: 4I/4B/2P + 6/7/9

 

Attacks

Unarmed+71d3+2d6+7 S
Axe+74d6+7 W + 1d6 P
Flail+83d6+10 W + 1d6 P

 

Favored Stunts: Lightning Attack

Talents: Clearance* (Novice), Dual Weapon Style (Master), Elite Soldier (Expert), Grappling Style (Novice), Overwhelm (Novice)

Lazarus Talents: Armor (Expert); Endurance (Master; Meningeal Reinforcement, Thermoregulation, Tireless), Prowess (Novice; Weapon Mastery [Flexible]) Strength (Expert; Crushing Grip, Muscularity)

Equipment: Axe, Heavy Flail, Skull Belt

Threat: Dire