Too-Modern Tuesday: All the AGEs

Hi folks! It’s Memorial Day, so Modern Monday is coming in a little late. In response to some online questions last week, I want to clarify what the Adventure Game Engine (AGE) roleplaying games are, how they’re connected, and who’s managing them. When I talked about plans for Modern AGE, a few of you were wondering why I didn’t talk about Fantasy AGE or The Expanse. So, here’s the explainer.

What is the Adventure Game Engine?

The AGE system powers several Green Ronin roleplaying games. Along with the Chronicle System and Mutants and Masterminds, it’s one of the three systems Green Ronin has designed which the company is actively developing through various lines. (Okay, there’s Ork! too, so let’s say, “the three systems not based on the whims of a sadistic ork god,” instead.) We also work on projects for open game systems like 5th Edition, but AGE, Chronicle and M&M are specifically ours.

AGE is not a “generic” system. Rather, it’s a set of common game mechanics and principles which we use as the basis for a number of separate games, each with additional rules designed to emphasize a certain type of play. Some cross-pollination occurs between the lines, of course, but each AGE game has its own emphasis, and is developed separately.

AGE’s foundations include rolling 3d6 plus bonuses versus a target number, selecting stunts by generating Stunt Points through matching dice, and trusting the GM to improvise and make the system their own. That’s not all it’s about, but those are the most notable elements.

The AGE Family of Roleplaying Games

So, now you know that each game is its own thing with its own development, proceeding from some common elements, let’s break that down into specific games.

Dragon Age

Based on Bioware’s computer RPG series and its world of Thedas, Dragon Age presented the first version of the AGE system.  Dragon Age was originally released in three box sets which brought adventurers from 1st level to the apex of their powers but is now available in one omnibus edition.

Developer: Jack Norris

Worth Noting: In Dragon Age, Strength improves ability in close combat, and Dexterity is used for ranged combat. Dragon Age also has many elements inspired by the world of Thedas, including detailed rules for traps, unique specializations, and character backgrounds unique to that world, such as the Dalish Elves and Ferelden people. Classes are Mage, Rogue and Warrior.

Fantasy AGE

Fantasy AGE is an implementation of AGE designed to support classic fantasy genre gaming. It’s designed to be easy to learn. The core rules aren’t tied to any specific setting, but Titansgrave: The Ashes of Valkana is a post-apocalyptic science fantasy adventure series designed for its use. Fantasy AGE is customization friendly, with the Fantasy AGE Companion providing a host of expanded and optional rules GMs can apply as they see fit.

Developer: Jack Norris

Worth Noting: Fantasy AGE introduces Fighting and Accuracy to govern heavy weapons and light or ranged weapons, respectively. Magic provides spells according to theme-based arcana. The Mage, Rogue and Warrior classes are present here, with mechanics designed to support heir respective niches.

Blue Rose: The AGE Roleplaying game of Romantic Fantasy

The current edition of Blue Rose is the successor to its first edition, which used the OGL-based True 20 system. Blue Rose emulates progressive and romantic fantasy, especially as it evolved from the 1980s onward. In its world of Aldea, truly just societies (and not just despotic regimes we accept as “good” because it’s part of a genre convention to be cool with kings) thrive, but not without challenges. The adventure compilation Six of Swords can get you started.

Developer: Joseph Carriker

Worth Noting: Blue Rose introduces Relationships and Conviction as core mechanics, giving characters extra resources to draw on in defense of the people and motivations which define them. Character backgrounds are tailored to Aldea, and include the mystical vata and the rhydan, sapient, psychic animals. Magic as an intuitive psychic gift is a strong part of the romantic fantasy genre, so Blue Rose’s arcana differ from those of Fantasy AGE to support that.

Upcoming: Modern AGE

Modern AGE’s preorders and advance PDFs will be available Very, Very Soon. I won’t go into detail because I’ve been doing that for weeks. Modern AGE has no default setting, but the World of Lazarus, following the core book shortly, will provide a possible setting based on Greg Rucka’s comics series.

Developer: Malcolm Sheppard

Upcoming: The Expanse Roleplaying Game

Coming to crowdfunding this year, The Expanse is based on the novel series by James S. A. Corey (which as many of you know, is Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck), which explores a future wracked with interplanetary rivalry. Earth and Mars compete for control of the Solar System while the peoples of the Belt struggle with their demands—at least, that’s how it starts. The Expanse tailors the AGE system for gritty hard SF stories, including new rules for technology and spacecraft.

Developer: Steve Kenson

Next Monday

Next time, I’ll go on and on about the genres I like, and how Modern AGE supports them. Until then, I’m working on the next couple of books for the game. Take care!

Modern Monday: What’s Coming?

So, after answering some questions last week, general chatter compels me to talk about what we have planned for Modern AGE. In most cases, I’m going to talk about the current state of each release. Then I’ll answer a common question about how Modern AGE compares to its sister, Fantasy AGE.

In Production

The following things are in various stages of production—that is, the creation of a book from developed and edited text files.

Modern AGE Quickstart: It’s out! Read about it and download here!

Modern AGE Basic Rulebook (This is the core book!): This is currently going through last proof and art finalization. The advance PDF and preorders should be ready for June.

World of Lazarus: World of Lazarus is the first setting book for Modern AGE. It’s based on Lazarus, Greg Rucka’s dystopian-transhuman comic. Check the comic out (external link to Lazarus at Image Comics). This should be finished production shortly after the core. Note that project is a creation of Mutants and Masterminds developer Crystal Frasier, which is fitting, since she knows how comics and games intersect much better than I do.

Modern AGE Game Master’s Kit: This is the GM screen and reference card kit for Modern AGE. This is very close to finishing production and will be released hot on the heels of the Modern AGE Basic Rulebook and Lazarus.

Text Complete

The following thing happens to be text-complete, by which I mean writers have written it, and I’ve developed it, but it hasn’t entered production.

(Announcing the) Modern AGE Companion: This is currently in editing. I may add a short set of options we excised from the core book. The Modern AGE Companion includes expanded rules for powers, new talents and specializations, expanded stunts, campaign management, technology—lots of stuff. The Modern AGE Basic Rulebook is absolutely a complete game, but the Companion is anchored in the idea of customizing the rules for your campaigns.

Did I just announce a new book? Yes. I’ll probably give it a proper breakdown once we reach production. When is it coming out? That’s still to be determined.

Outlined and Approved

Okay, so my policy is the further something is from release, the sketchier I’m going to be about it. The following books have had their outlines approved, so I can start working with people to get them designed. They have cute code names for now.

Project Cranky (Real Name TBA): This is a utilitarian supplement for Modern AGE, not tied to any set campaign.

Project Crooked House (Real Name TBA): This is an original in-house setting.

Comparing Modern AGE and Fantasy AGE

How many shows have you seen where there’s always something weird going down in the “warehouse district?” We are not about to challenge that cliché. From the Modern AGE Quickstart, available now!

So, I’ve fielded a few questions about how Modern AGE relates to Fantasy AGE. Modern AGE isn’t just a case of copying and pasting guns over swords. I’ve already talked about how it’s a classless implementation of the AGE rules, but there are several other under the hood changes. These range from Resources, the system we use to manage in-game purchases without you roleplaying getting loans and doing taxes, to Breaching, the advanced test variant designed by Crystal Frasier to support heists and capers. These demand cooperation and dramatic reversals. Crystal originally designed these for World of Lazarus, but we all agreed they were so cool they should be in the core rules. Social systems and investigations are also part of Modern AGE’s core, as is appropriate for games where characters will be deeply embedded in complex societies.

Fantasy AGE features magic as a core assumption instead of an optional extra. Certain rules emphasize the special roles of each of its classes. It has several talents not present in Modern AGE, such as Armored Training and Horsemanship, which could be used for modern games, but represented cases rare enough for me to exclude them in favor of others. Fantasy AGE’s magical Arcana can expand the range of what’s available for Modern AGE characters, and Modern AGE’s new rules might be useful for many Fantasy AGE games, but in the end they’re separate lines, with differences that in some cases, cut right down to core systems. We trust you to perform whatever creative mashups you like. I for one would love to hear about any such “FrankenAGE” games.

Jump into the Action! Modern AGE Quickstart Is Out!

Modern AGE RPG Quickstart Cover Image: Three characters in modern-day garb strike dynamic poses on an urban rooftop, lit from below. Skyscrapers tower in the background.A disease with no Earthly origin strikes. A legendary monster stalks back streets. Refugees from another world hide in our own, afraid of secret authorities. Gates between worlds, a sly demigod and a conspiracy introduce the Modern AGE roleplaying game with its new quickstart!

The Modern AGE Quickstart contains streamlined rules for Modern AGE, a game of contemporary adventure which uses the Adventure Game Engine found in Fantasy AGE and Blue Rose: The Age Roleplaying Game of Romantic Fantasy. Pre-set to Modern AGE’s Cinematic rules mode, it includes everything you need to run your first game except six-sided dice, writing materials and your friends. Along with the rules, the Modern AGE Quickstart comes with ready to play characters and Burning Bright, a modern fantasy adventure in its own mini-setting.

Using the full rules in the Modern AGE Basic Rulebook, you can continue the quickstart adventure, or devise an entirely new campaign. Modern AGE is designed to support any modern era setting from the Age of Sail to near future action. Modern AGE releases this June, followed by the World of Lazarus campaign setting, based on Greg Rucka’s comic series of future feudalism.

Jump into the action and download the Modern AGE Quickstart!

Image from Modern AGE Quickstart: A cigar-chomping, bearded mercenary stands in the foreground, with a wicked knife strapped to his flak jacket. In the distance, a magical-seeming castle looms atop a wooded hill.

Modern Monday: Occasionally Asked Questions

For this Modern Monday I’ve harvested Modern AGE questions from the Ronin Army forums. Instead of just copying and pasting them, I’ve synthesized some repeated questions into stuff I can answer in one go. I also made up a couple of questions I figured you’d want answered.

Persistent detective work pays off. Or just asking.

Is it a standalone game?

Absolutely. You don’t need Fantasy AGE (or any other AGE RPG) for Modern AGE. The World of Lazarus, Modern AGE’s first supplement, does require the Modern AGE core. That said, there are many useful things you might port between various games. Modern AGE’s Breaching rules, which cover capers and other complex cooperative tasks, would be interesting to apply to other AGE games, and in a modern fantasy game Fantasy AGE and Blue Rose both have elements which can be ported to Modern AGE.

Does work on Modern AGE affect other Green Ronin projects, or vice versa?

Modern AGE is one member of the Adventure Game Engine family, so naturally some folks are curious about whether work on Modern AGE affected, or will affect, releases for other games. Nope! Each game has its own line developer and writers who know how to manage their time. I did some writing for the Fantasy AGE Companion and the Titansgrave setting, but this happened during draft cycles, while writers were working, so it didn’t delay anything else. The production schedule gives it its own space. It’s all good.

Will there be cross-genre support?

Yes. This is handled in a few different ways. First, campaign mode (Gritty, Pulpy, Cinematic) can be used to fine-tune how various things work, so you can decide how action-oriented your game is. Second, the Game Mastering section devotes significant space to various genres, on their own and by historical period. This kind of “soft” support can be found throughout the game, including in suggestions on how to adapt various systems for specific genres and periods. Third, the game does have a slate of powers you may or may not choose to add to your campaign. That brings us to the next question:

Are there powers?

Modern AGE provides detailed support for two types of powers: magical arcana and psychic disciplines. These are mechanically similar in their base treatment, but the rules include options for distinguishing them from one another. In addition, the game has a “rough draft” treatment of the sort of minor powers we often see in TV series. If you want full-on superpowers? Well we have this game you might have heard of, called Mutants and Masterminds.

How does classless AGE work?

In Modern AGE, characters are initially defined by a social class and its associated background, a profession, and a drive. These provide initial ability bonuses, talents and other traits. As you level up, you choose further ability and talent advances, along with a few other things such as specializations. You can’t improve the same ability twice in a row and will eventually incur the multiple advancement cost for peak improvements, so this prevents doubling down on Fighting, for instance. Your character’s special abilities are defined by talents and later, specializations.

How does Health work?

Your character’s initial Health is determined by profession, drive and Constitution. When you advance, further increases are based on the game’s mode. In Gritty mode, your Health doesn’t increase at all. In Pulpy mode, the increase is 1 + Constitution (minimum 1). Cinematic mode grants the full 1d6 + Constitution per level increase might know from other AGE games.

Where’s the book at?

Modern AGE has passed through initial layout, proofing and copyfitting stages (copyfitting is when we tweak the text to flow better in the layout). The advance PDF, which we release so you can get an early look (and point out typos) before we absolutely lock down the text for print, will be coming very soon indeed. After that it goes through processes to get things into print.

What About the Quickstart?

Even sooner. Days. The Quickstart gives you streamlined rules pre-set to Cinematic mode, ready to play characters, and a modern fantasy adventure, “Burning Bright.”

Other questions?

I read the forums at www.roninarmy.com regularly. I can’t guarantee I’ll answer all your questions but posting there is the best chance of putting them in front of my eyes.

Next Modern Monday?

I don’t know. Maybe I’ll announce a new book or something. See you then!

Rogues Gallery Pre-Order and PDF Now Available

Rogues Gallery (Pre-Order)We have activated our latest Mutants & Masterminds book, Rogues Gallery, for pre-order through our Green Ronin Online Store!

Rogues Gallery collects supervillains from Green Ronin’s popular PDF series of the same name, with the addition of new material and never-before-seen characters. It has dozens of fearsome foes for your Mutants & Masterminds series, enough to keep your heroes busy stopping schemes and saving the world for quite some time! In its pages you will find solo and loner villains, teams and alliances, organizations and outliers, and bad guys of many different power levels, backgrounds, and styles, suited for different M&M series, all with complete game information. Plus each villain comes with ready-made adventure hooks, making the book a collection of more than a hundred possible adventures as well!

Pre-order the print version of Rogues Gallery and you can download the PDF for just $5.

Pre-order here and you’ll be offered the discounted PDF at checkout.

-or-

Pre-order at your favorite store* and get a coupon code to redeem here.

*If your brick-and-mortar store is signed up with our (free) GR Pre-Order Plus program, you can pre-order directly from them and they’ll hook you up with a code.

Modern Mondays: Get Your Fight On

As we ramp up to Modern AGE’s release, let me tell you a little bit about how we handle contemporary-era combat. That means firearms, but I’m also going to talk about the ins and outs of combat in general.

Get Your Gun

A Modern AGE round lasts about 15 seconds, so we knew right away that a ranged attack roll wasn’t always going to represent one shot, even when characters aren’t spraying fully automatic weapons around. The assumption is that unless you’re using a firearm where you must reload after every shot, each attack roll represents several shots aimed at the same target (and other targets, provided you use stunts—but more of that in a bit). In most cases, you’re pulling the trigger as fast as you can. This raises two questions. First: Shouldn’t those extra bullets make a difference? Second: How do you track ammunition?

While Amy wades into the fray, Brian’s about to demonstrate the violent benefits of teamwork.

The answer to both lies in the Stunt Die. We wanted to wring more information out of the rolls you’re already making. When it comes too hails of bullets, the Stunt Die represents this by adding to damage whenever you use a weapon capable of rapid fire, be it semi- or fully automatic. The Stunt Die also determines when you run out of ammunition in a way that needs to be addressed during the encounter. In most cases, characters are assumed to have as much ammunition as they need, and to reload during pauses in the action which aren’t necessarily measured in game terms. However, if you miss, check to see if the Stunt Die is equal to or greater than the firearm’s capacity rating, which varies from 2 to 6 (a Capacity of 1 is a single shot weapon, and simply noted as such instead of being given a number). If it is, you use the action specified by the weapon (a minor action for a typical magazine-loaded handgun) to reload. Gritty games modify this to make running low more likely and require characters to state they’re carrying spare ammo.

When it comes to the various tactical options available based on the firearm you choose, Modern AGE has an array of firearms stunts, some of which are keyed to specific weapon types. For example, Short Burst and Suppressive Fire require automatic weapons.

Get Trained

Except for Stunt Attacks (see last week), most of what you’ll see in Modern AGE’s combat rules will be familiar if you’ve played games like Dragon Age, Fantasy AGE, or Blue Rose. One of the main differences are stunts, which are curated into focused lists for various forms of combat. This means Melee Stunts are available if you’re attacking with fists or blades, and Grappling Stunts are on hand for when you want to restrain your opponent. Incidentally, to allow for some basic personalization in unarmed combat, Brawling and Grappling are separate Fighting focuses with distinct stunt groups, though both inflict damage with a basic attack roll. There’s no “grappling subsystem” in Modern AGE beyond that.

Where unarmed combat has been split up slightly, other aspects of combative character development have been streamlined compared to prior AGE iterations. With no classes, there are no niches to protect by penalizing characters for using weapons. Thus, there’s no non-proficiency penalty. You make a standard ability-based attack roll and if you have the focus, benefit from its bonus. Furthermore, since there’s no need to sequester certain light weapons for the use of a particular class, Fighting now applies to all melee attacks, and Accuracy applies to all ranged attacks. To develop a fighting style, pick the focuses you want and talents which support them, such as Pinpoint Attack (which has a name Fantasy AGE players may recognize) and Self-Defense Style. Top it off with specializations like Gunfighter, Martial Artist, or Sniper.

Get Tough

The other new character-centered factor in combat is the Toughness trait, which is equal to your Constitution. Like armor (which is less common in modern games), Toughness absorbs damage, but the type of damage depends on the game’s mode—that is, one of the three genre-based rules options which apply to your campaign. In Cinematic Mode, Toughness works on virtually any form of damage, while in Gritty Mode, it only applies to what we call stun damage: the kind of stuff you take from a punch in the face. Pulpy Mode lies in the middle, absorbing damage from close combat weapons but failing against ballistic damage, which most firearms inflict.

Get Ready

Next Modern Monday I’ll talk about the game’s social and investigation systems. Since most modern settings feature functioning governments and societies, even wandering trouble shooters must deal with more than ruins and woods filled with, let’s say, angry bears. (Or indifferent bears. Don’t go near bears.) How do you run interrogations, make friends and grab clues? I’ll tell you then.

Modern Monday: So. Many. Stunts.

Modern AGE is a couple of weeks from going to print. In this final stage, we’re refining the look of the game. One of the things we introduced late in the process was a system to color code the three campaign modes (Gritty, Pulpy, and Cinematic) so their rules options are easy to find. Plus, Modern AGE isn’t a one-and-done affair. We’re simultaneously fine-tuning the Modern AGE Quickstart and getting together a Modern AGE GM’s Kit featuring a screen and reference cards.

Oh yeah: There’s one other product in development that’s about 50% through final text development. But I won’t be talking about it until it’s been through a couple of other stages.

Anyway, back to those reference cards. They include a lot of stunts. Modern AGE uses stunts to represent exceptional success, but also for certain special moves which in other games, would involve a special subsystem. This changes how stunts are framed compared to other Adventure Game Engine RPGs like Fantasy AGE or Blue Rose.

Stunt Attacks

One new major action in Modern AGE is the Stunt Attack. In combat, you forego the standard result of an attack—inflicting damage—to automatically gain 1 stunt point. You still get stunt points from doubles. These and other sources of stunt points (usually Relationships) stack with your free SP. This is how you perform actions which in other games, would be resolved with a “grapple check” or something. In many cases it’s better to inflict damage, but when you gain talents and specializations which enhance your stunts (such as Modern AGE’s Martial Artist, who gains bonus stunt points for some stunt attacks) it can become a powerful option.

Core Stunts and Stunt Picks

Due to the expanded role of stunts, Modern AGE includes a whole bunch of them, bundled into specific categories, such as Grappling Stunts and Membership and Reputation Stunts (which support that game’s more robust social system. Two new “non-rules” enters the game to deal with the risk of decision paralysis. Every stunt list has labeled Core Stunts. These have low or variable costs, and are generally useful, so when you can’t decide on your stunts, these are your picks. Related to this non-rule is the next: is the book’s explicit advice to pick stunts you like and want to use ahead of time. Make your own menu and see how it plays out.

These are “non-rules” because they’re just ways to help you pick stunts. They never limit your selections. You can still pick any appropriate stunt you can afford! Eventually, you’ll find your favorites and use them to define your character’s personal style, but you can always switch them up. It’s a lens, not a locker.

Vehicular Stunts

As you might have predicted after seeing a similar system in the Fantasy AGE Companion, Modern AGE gives you the option to run vehicular combat without tracking a Health Point equivalent for cars and such. While the GM can assign Health values to vehicle parts and special effects for destroying them, affecting the vehicle as a whole involves Anti-Vehicle Stunts whose effects range from making the target vehicle harder to handle, to turning it into a twisted, flaming wreck. Some attacks, such as those with an anti-materiel rifle, can generate more powerful stunts against vehicles.

Chase Stunts are another new stunt group affecting vehicles, though they can also influence mounted or foot chases. These interact with Modern AGE’s chase rules. Again, if you’ve seen the Fantasy AGE Companion you’ve seen a version of these rules, though they’re not exactly the same as their modern counterparts.

More? Monday?

This isn’t everything you can do with stunts. In fact, I’m going to plug the Fantasy AGE Companion again and recommend its rules for stunt pools and stunt packages, which could easily be used with Modern AGE. Furthermore, we’re working on a few new options for stunts in that book I can’t talk about yet!

My evasive behavior will change soon—I promise! This is the first Modern Monday column, and as we ramp up to launching the game, and getting it to you in its “early bird” PDF medium, you’ll see more about Modern AGE, its principles, and our plans for the line. These include the World of Lazarus campaign setting, based on Greg Rucka’s comic of the feudal near future. See you next week!

Why call shotgun unless you really mean it? In case you’re wondering, Brian’s on the left side because this is Sean’s fancy British car.

 

 

Ronin Roundtable: Coming soon from Nisaba!

A whole year of Nisaba? It’s hard to believe, but it has indeed been a year since we announced Nisaba Press, Green Ronin Publishing’s fiction imprint. We’ve published some great fiction in that time, although we’re just now getting started.

If you’ve missed our previous offerings, don’t worry! They’re still available on our site: Brandon O’Brien’s witty, sweet Blue Rose tale of two thieves in an endless cycle of vendettas; Kid Robot’s first day of school, by Eytan Bernstein; and Clio Yun-Su Davis’s Blue Rose caper. You can even read Crystal Frasier’s Mutants & Masterminds story about Centuria, Lady Liberty, and robot dinosaurs…for free!

And while we’ve gotten off to a good start, Nisaba has a big year ahead, too.

Dylan Birtolo returns with a new Freeport adventure featuring Red Alice and a sinister amulet. Featuring fights through the Freeport sewers, chases over the high seas, and plenty of cult conspiracy, this series of three stories will release over the summer.

Rhiannon Louve continues her beautiful Blue Rose story of a grieving Rose Knight who finds a new lease on life and a new purpose in her courageous partner, a new Rose Knight with unusual talents.

Michael Matheson joins the Nisaba roster with a pair of tales, one for Blue Rose, and one for Mutants and Masterminds.

Richard Lee Byers tells another Mutants & Masterminds story about a woman fighting a terrible internal battle and the clairvoyant hero hunting her.

We’ll be debuting some new settings for our stories, too. Some will be stand-alone adventures to offer campaign ideas for our settings, while others will tease new settings we’re working on.

And if novels are more your thing, we have two novels coming this year! Joe Carriker’s Shadowtide is a sleek and sinister adventure through the political and cultural battlegrounds of the world of Blue Rose. Aaron Rosenberg brings in the first Mutants & Masterminds novel, featuring a disabled woman taking over her grandfather’s superhero cape while a bitter villain seeks vengeance.

Stay tuned for big news from the Nisaba world as we wrap up our first year and head into what we hope is a long and bright future, because we’ve just started on our plans.

Ronin Roundtable: MUTANTS & MASTERFUL STUNTS

 

I’ve used the past few Ronin Roundtables to preview products and plug some of our talented and ingenious third-party publishers, but this week I want to talk about a subject near and dear to my heart: Making the system work for you. I’m a great lover of homebrew—systems are there to work for you; you’re not there to work for them. If a rule doesn’t do what you want, then change it or toss it. No mercy.

But what if you find another rule you really like, and want to roll it into your Mutants & Masterminds experience? Or you want to add some of your favorite elements of Mutants & Masterminds to another system? For these tasks you need the hands of a surgeon, not the axe of an executioner (an axecutioner, if you will).

Let’s look at one of my favorite elements of Green Ronin’s Adventure Game Engine (AGE) system: Stunts. Stunts add a lot of cinematic fun to a game, with players able to show off and get creative in the moment. I like running a cinematic table for my superhero games, so I’m interesting in borrowing from AGE for my own M&M games.

I’m going to use the stunt lists from pages 36 and 79 of the Fantasy AGE Basic Rulebook, but each book for the AGE system (Fantasy Age, Dragon AGE, Blue Rose, and the upcoming Modern AGE) have their own slightly-modified stunt lists to best suit their related genres.

What and Why?

Before we figure out how to import a rule, let’s take a look at what stunts do and why, and see if anything in Mutants & Masterminds is already doing the same thing. The stunt system fleshes out interaction and exploration scenes with new tactics, giving some heft and direction to what is otherwise just a mechanical skill check. It lets the player character do impressive or unexpected things, even with relatively low die rolls. Mutants & Masterminds largely relies on player creativity for that (which is fine) and freeform rulings from the GM. You get a little definition in success by measuring how many degrees of success you score on a check, but even that is largely abstract. So the exploration and roleplaying stunts could shift a little of the power and the burden of creativity from the gamemaster to the players for skill checks. Sounds good.

But the stunts also let PCs try out innovative attacks and strategies in combat, and Mutants & Masterminds already has a fairly robust combat system. Stunts are how the AGE system handles the actions—taunt, disarm, power attack—that M&M handles via actions and maneuvers and Advantages. The stunt lists from Fantasy AGE provide a few additional attack options, like punching through armor and attacking a second time, that aren’t generally options in M&M for balance reasons. Still, they could work if we wanted to drop the maneuvers as options for our heroes, or turn any remaining maneuvers into new stunt options.

So if we import the stunt rules, our easiest option would be to only adopt the roleplaying and exploration stunts. We can import the combat stunts, too, but that means tinkering with the core system a little more under the hood.

The Hookup: Dice

If we want the stunt system to work, then our PCs need to be able to generate stunt points. Obviously we don’t want them to generate stunt points on every roll—that would slow the game down and take away the semi-random element that makes stunts feel like cool stunts and not just a part of your character’s abilities. The AGE system handles this by rolling doubles on 3d6, and the Mutants & Masterminds Gamemaster’s Guide gives us some suggestions for using 3d6 for your games instead of a d20 and the benefits and drawbacks involved, so that could work. We could also use a page from the existing Mutants & Masterminds rules and say that PCs generate stunt points when they score an additional degree of success than they need; they could either roll a d6 to determine how many, or keep it a straight conversion: trade in one degree of success on a skill check for 3 stunt points, or two degrees for 6. This second option means PCs need to roll well to use stunts, losing that feel of doing cool things even with an average roll, but is more in line with how the Mutants & Masterminds rules already reward players.

There’s no one right answer, so weigh the pros and cons of both against your table’s play style.

The Overhaul: Rewriting

If you want to use new rules to replace what Mutants & Masterminds already does, that’s a little trickier. In the case of maneuvers, PCs can plan ahead and accept a penalty to their action to get a different effect. The AGE system reverses the order, letting players look at their dice results before narrating what the exact effects are. Using both AGE-style combat stunts and keeping the existing list of actions and maneuvers is probably the easiest, but then what happens when a PC scores stunt points on their disarm roll? Ignore it? Let them add a stunt? This method will slow combat down a bit, as if gives PCs more choices, but if your table is pretty quick with the rules already it might be the easiest.

If you want to replace certain rules in favor of stunts, you can drop the following actions and maneuvers: Defend, Disarm, Trip, Demoralize, Feint, and Power Attack. You might also want to turn the Grab, Recover, and Smash actions into stunts of their own (costing maybe 4, 3, and 2 stunt points, respectively). Once we do that, how do we handle Advantages like Improved Trip? Do they let you simply use the stunt without spending stunt points? Or is it more balanced to have them reduce the cost of their related stunt by 1 SP? Is that too weak for an Advantage? Should we just eliminate those Advantages? Or it might be cool if they let a player “bank” unused stunt points for that specific maneuver to use when they wanted to—sort of like “charging up” a special maneuver or leading their opponent to give them an opening—but what happens if the PC charges up several feats and unleashes all their special maneuvers in one big disarm-trip-power-attack?

That last option sounds pretty cool and in-theme for a superhero game, so let’s try that.

The Tweak: Rules Check

Finally, we take our vague idea and read through what exactly we’re doing, and tweak the specific rules where we need to. For the exploration stunts, The Object of Your Attention, The Upper Hand, and With a Flourish all provide a mechanical bonus to other checks, and Mutants & Masterminds using a different difficulty scale than the AGE system. A +3 initiative bonus seems fine, but let’s increase it to +4 to line it up with the Improved Initiative Advantage. But Object of Your Attention and With a Flourish bth seem like they’re adding a circumstance bonus, so let’s say they grant a +2 bonus, or increase a +2 bonus to +5.

The roleplaying stunts have a few more rules elements. For Sway the Crowd, we might say the extra influence in limited to anyone with an Awareness lower than your Presence. Jest seems like a ripe target for a Will resistance check, say with a DC equal to your Presence + 10. Flirt sounds like it would call for an opposed check of your Presence skill against someone’s Will defense or Insight skill. And finally, Tower of Will seems like it’s adding a circumstance bonus, so again we’ll bump that up to +2.

The list of combat stunts are where things start to get a little more challenging. We’ve already talked about replacing the rules for stunts like Knock prone and Disarm with their related action rules. The Rapid Reload stunt doesn’t really apply to Mutants & Masterminds, which doesn’t track ammunition. Stay Aware seems like an easy fix, giving a PC a free Perception check as a stunt. Mighty Blow and Lethal Blow seem like they’d raise the resistance check DC of your attack by +2 and +5, respectively. Pierce Armor could be trouble, as M&M doesn’t have specific armor rules; we could say it lowers the target’s toughness save by –2, but then it becomes mechanically identical to Might Blow, so maybe we can go with ignoring a target’s Impervious rank on the related defense—this will let smaller heroes still have some chance of affecting bricks from time to time and make their efforts feel less futile. Lightning Attack lets PCs unbalance the action economy, so my first instinct is to limit it to a single standard action rather than a full action, and increase the cost to 5 SP (this also lets us figure out about how many SP a Hero Point is worth, if we later want to let PCs trade a Hero Point to generate SP). For Mutants & Masterminds, Dual Strike actually seems less prone to abuse than Lightning Attack, so let’s reduce the SP cost to 3. The Seize Initiative stunt seems good as-is. That finishes out the basic combat stunts, but maybe we want to add stunts for the Grab, Recover, and Smash actions as well, more or less using the rules for the existing actions as-in, but assigning them an SP cost.

Make your own updated list of your stunts and their costs and print out a few spare copies for players so they have quick and easy access during play.

Test Run

Any time you want to test out new rules additions or changes, it’s best to test them out first with a few friends and quickstart characters. Rules that seem innocuous during the design phase might end up very unbalanced in actual play, and ideas that seemed fun might be confusing or drag things out. For example, in test play, giving PCs with the appropriate Advantages the ability to bank stunt points for later didn’t really see any use; my players felt like they weren’t getting any benefit for the Advantages, because when they generated stunt points, they wanted to use them now, not save them up for a later attack they may never even get.

So back to the drawing board for a tweak, and now let’s say the various combat Advantages give you a 1 SP reduction in a cost of their specific maneuvers. This might means a little tweaking on character sheets (for example, you might break up Power Attack into Improved Mighty Blow and Improved Lethal Blow), but it kept things buzzing along at the table, and even though the Advantage seems minor in its stock description, it let the players have a lot more fun slinging their stunt points around. One PC unleashing a Knock Prone, Mighty Blow, and Taunt for just 3SP sure felt a lot like reading a certain spider-themed masculine hero in my childhood comics.

Over all, they roleplaying and exploration stunts brought a lot to the game and I’d use them again.The combat stunts felt a little less necessary, but were still fun once we got used to them. We ultimately settled on trading in one degree of success for 2 SP, trading two degrees of success for 4 SP, three degrees for 6 SP, or trading in a Hero Point for 4 SP (5 SP let PCs stack a little too much into a single attack, and it meant PCs could spend a Hero Point to “buy up” the DC of their first attack by +5 with lethal Blow, which tended to shut down fights fast).I personally preferred adopting the 3d6 dice pool mechanic for all our M&M rolls, but my players like the swingy-ness of the d20 more, and ultimately it’s about what makes the game more fun for everyone.

House rules aren’t really any different than official rules; the intention either way is to have the best tools to tell the stories you want to tell. So go nuts; pick and choose what you like and makes things more fun for you and your players. Always be ready to adapt, though, and be consistent with changes you make—carrying them forward for the rest of the session and beyond until they prove to not be working or stop being fun.

Ronin Roundtable: How to Kill Everybody

I was lucky enough to be at Seattle’s Norwescon science fiction convention last week. I sat on a few panels, ran a few games, met some impressive writers and game designers, ate Hawaiian food for the first time (I’m Canadian, in Ontario; it isn’t common where I live) and picked up some terrible “con crud,” the diseases you get when you’re packed indoors with many, many people. And I killed everybody. In Ork! The Roleplaying Game that is. I ran “Hell Comes to Squishy Man Town!” one of the adventures that comes with the game. Orks are impatient about getting things started, and so is the game, so we included enough adventures to run what wargaming-descended sophisticates call a “campaign.” In killing the characters, I think I learned a little something about doing it well which might even translate to other games! Here goes.

Make Sure It’s Their Fault

Traditional adventures are usually inspired by situations or character motivations, but we can use a fine shorthand that brings them together: bad decisions. You want to encourage bad decisions as often as possible by bringing pressure to bear through the situation, and knowing the characters well enough to pluck their heart strings. You want them highly motivated but lacking the time and levelheadedness to make strategy-driven decisions. If they take the bait, you can kill ‘em.

Now in Ork!, character motivations are easy. Orks have individual personalities, but pretty basic drives. One of these is the need for a gunk—that’s an adolescent ork—to eat and win a name. Gunks compete for food, and get ignored until they get names, and with it, better opportunities for food and loot. In my case, we started the adventure with the gunks fighting over food. That drove an in media res scene where the gunks were trying to eat each other in the gunk pit (where they live: A pit. For gunks.) before the warlock, ruler of the orks, sent them on their terrifying mission, offering to give them names. This inspired all manner of bad decisions along the way.

Almost Kill Them, Then Kill Them

So once the players are making hasty, awful decisions, you may be tempted to waste them right away. No! Initially, you should reward their impulsiveness. Throw enemies at them they can defeat through simple decisiveness. Start with appetizers: minor foes that give them a sense of power. But don’t stop there. You want to make sure they believe their distorted thinking is truly battle-tested. That means a serious encounter that brings one of more of them a hair’s width from death. After that they’ll stand proud, covered, in unclearly-sourced gore, and take pride in rushing in.

In the Ork! session, I did just this. The gunks went into the woods, in search of the squishy man village, and when one of them wandered away, I waylaid them with squirrels. Lots and lots of squirrels. And they were victorious! One of them made a hat and some pants! Stylish. That’s when I dropped the fire breathing Pteranodon on them (all dinosaurs in Ork! also breathe fire, incidentally). The gunks decided they’d tame the thing, and after getting a little crispy, they succeeded! Time to fly a lizard to squishy man town!

(Note: The adventure actually has it down as a dimetrodon, but in the excitement I forgot, and used a Pteranodon. As GM, I don’t have to pay for my mistakes!)

Foreshadow Their Doom, Inconsistently

Now you must suggest, ever so lightly, that the characters might get into trouble by rushing headlong into danger. That bad decisions might reap terrible consequences. The trick here is to bring this thread in without undoing all the work you put into convincing the players that rash behavior’s awesome. This means signalling the warning in such a way as to create conflict, usually between the advantages of rushing in headlong and the rewards of patience.

In the Ork! game, a player was kind enough to do this for me by casting a whole bunch of spells. Yes, orks can use magic—but Krom, the ork god, hates that. Every spell attracted Krom’s Curse, which is . . . a lot of bad stuff. In this case, the ork sprouted a pointy hat, beard, and loathsome human appearance. Also, his equipment turned to ham. This made the casting ork a bit nervous, but his companion went, “You am covered in meat. Now we eat!” And they were all happy again, if nervous that there was now some Ian McKellan type fancy-talking at them. They were suspicious, but the wizard had ham.

Death Should Be Earned

Now that you’ve provided a subtle warning but overall, let them huff from the bag of ill-considered tactics, you can kill them. But don’t let it come down to a random knife in the eye, unless it would really amuse you. You must kill characters in ways that represent the sum of their bad decisions. Pull in NPCs from earlier events who’ve come back, eager for revenge. Explore the consequences of every dumb idea—every poorly guarded camp, every decision to save identifying a creepy mystic tome or enticing pie for later—in one character-wrecking conclusion.

In my Ork! game, this happened once the characters got to the squishy man village on their magically tamed, flying, fire breathing lizard. Their goal was to find the squishy men’s secret weapon. So, they got off the lizard and stormed into the barn that housed it, waylaying squishy men.

And of course, the flying lizard started setting everything on fire. The village, the adorable villagers (“squishy men” are called halflings in other games) and the barn—a barn filled with volatile chemicals. Naturally, there was an explosion. They were sent into the air, on fire. The wizard-who-was-once-an-ork tried to magically summon their lizard to catch them! And lo, Krom’s Curse manifested as a giant green foot. “There’s a trademark symbol branded onto its heel,” I said. It came down. DOOM. And it was made of all their bad decisions. Except the squirrels. They got away with that one.

Uh, Applications Beyond Humorous Death

“But what if I’m playing a serious game?” you ask? Ork! is a comedy game that rewards impulsiveness, but the same guidelines apply when it comes to ratcheting up the danger on stuffy games where you’re saving people or looking at Cthulhu and gibbering or whatever. Your job is to provide pressure through the scenario which interacts with the characters’ motivations, to encourage decisions which are emotional, not coldly tactical. Allowing characters to initially succeed with less than optimal choices is important as well. Convincing settings should be forgiving about character choices, most of the time. It not only relaxes and immerses the players but allows for characters’ common sense. Common sense is often tough to do, because the game world is a fiction, and gives us much less information than the real world. We have less to go on, and it may make us over-cautious. But as danger and weirdness increase, it’s time to be less forgiving. And when a reversal of fortune occurs, it should point back to past mistakes, grudges and things left undone. This is true even when the consequence isn’t death, but imprisonment, mission failure, whatever. Failure should feel earned and owned by players, so they feel as involved in it as they would in their successes.

Hey, What’s Up With Ork!, Anyway?

Ork! The Roleplaying Game, Second Edition is currently in layout and production. Artist Dan Houser is finishing illustrations and the whole thing should be coming out later this Spring. Soon, you too will be able to explore the meaning of violence in a refined, mature fashion, though it’s probably better if you use the game as intended, which is for . . . not that. Soon, you am ork!