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!

Ronin Roundtable: Walking the Royal Road IV: Character Subplots

One of the pieces of advice many real-world Tarot readers give is to use the cards to tell a story. This is what makes the Royal Road such a fun tool to use in Narrating and playing Blue Rose: it’s a source to mine for inspiration when both planning and in play.

In playing a Blue Rose chronicle, each player character has a built-in subplot generator, in the form of their Calling. The Blue Rose core rulebook defines a character’s Calling as “their place in the world, their role in the grand story of life.”

To that end, while planning your story arcs, the Narrator should keep those Callings in mind to give player characters a place to “hook into” the narrative. That’s not just a stylistic thing, either: player characters recover Conviction by taking actions that are in accordance to their Calling, so part of the Narrator’s responsibility should include providing those opportunities.

We’re going to look at a way of using the Royal Road to define those opportunities. As with many of the previous “Walking the Royal Road” articles, you’ll want to make sure you have a Tarot deck (which can simply be any one of several online card randomizers), and a means of interpreting those cards to give you the maximum possibilities. The cards we use in these articles are the Shadowscapes Tarot, with art by the amazing Stephanie Pui-Mun Law, whose art has graced the covers of Blue Rose books throughout the game’s history. They also include booklets with summaries of card meanings, so we’ll be using those for our inspiration.

Method: The method for doing this involves drawing three cards, although you can use fewer or more cards if you want shorter or longer character-specific plot arcs. Essentially, each card is an “episode” in the subplot, and the character’s Calling defines the nature of the subplot.

Here’s an example.

 

 

Dame Emelynn Aros, Knight of the Blue Rose

Calling: The Sun (Championing the Everyday)

This calling is perfect for the earnest if somewhat naive Dame Emelynn, a newly-anointed Knight of the Blue Rose. She herself comes from a family of poor Jarzoni immigrants, who were nearly done in by the dangers of the Veran Marsh, but were saved by an itinerant Blue Rose Knight who was her inspiration. She is now a knight herself and wants to help the common folk whose problems are often overlooked by those with the power to do something about it.

 

First Card: Five of Swords

Interpretation: Discord and conflict of interests; feeling as though the world is against you, temptation to let everyone else be and just look to your own goals.

Plot: A somewhat dire card, the Five of Swords suggests a situation wherein it seems as if the good that the Calling wishes to accomplish has soured. The Narrator decides this means that some of Emelynn’s good deeds are soured by deed or circumstance. So she sets up an encounter with a bandit who is troubling local farmers, and Emelynn of course rides to help them. When she brings the bandit in to the local noble for justice, however, she discovers that the bandit is one of the Sovereign’s Finest, attempting to get his way into a nearby bandit gang. Not only is the envoy-bandit released, but Emelynn is expected to claim that he got away from her. While she is willing to do her duty, the farmers she was working to protect are bitter and upset with her for losing the bandit, and she has no way of defending herself.

 

Second Card: Knight of Wands

Interpretation: Change and progression toward a goal; daring and passion.

Plot: After a couple of game sessions where the locals treat her as a resented failure, the envoy contacts her psychically. He knows she took a blow to her reputation, and he’s grateful for her sacrifice, and wishes to know if he can count on her continued help. He asks if she and the other adventurers she spends time with would be willing to help him win the favor of the bandits. He’s met them, but they want him to prove himself first – the noble is going to provide a wagon of “tax money” and he wants Emelynn and her friends to act as the defenders for that wagon, fighting just enough to be believable, but then fleeing. A case full of coin is the sort of thing they’ll have to return to their lair with, so he’ll know the best place for the noble to send troops to take them all at once. They accomplish this, and the noble asks Emelynn and her friends to join in the attack on the bandit lair, which they agree to gladly.

 

Third Card: The Hanged Man

Interpretation: Letting go and surrendering to new perspectives.

Plot: This last card is the end of the subplot, where Emelynn and her friends ride with a troop of the Aldin Guard and the noble to attack the bandit camp. Upon their arrival, they find the envoy, stabbed and near death! Her adept friend heals the envoy while Emelynn herself leads the charge, fighting the leader of the bandits (with the blood of the envoy still on his blade). In the end, her heroism saves the day, and protects the valley’s residents from the depredations by the bandits. In an effort to preserve the envoy’s cover, the noble makes known the story of how Dame Emelynn’s bandit quarry escaped, and she took a noble vow to bring not only him but all of the bandits to justice, and the locals uplift her as their hero.

Ronin Roundtable: Back to Basics

I love to cook. I find the process of preparing a meal relaxing and love feeding family and friends wholesome and satisfying food. Still, there are plenty of times when I find I don’t have the time to cook something from scratch, and I’m happy to accept a little help from a meal-kit or some other prepared items. I also understand some people don’t care for cooking all that much, or have even less time to devote to it. It’s just a fact of modern life. Likewise, I love to tinker and build things in many of my roleplaying games, but the demands of day-to-day life are such that spending a lot of time learning and preparing a game isn’t realistic, or just isn’t a particular gamer’s style.

So, when discussing new products at Green Ronin’s annual planning summit, one of the ideas we talked about was what has become The Mutants & Masterminds Basic Hero’s Handbook: A simpler approach to the popular, long-running superhero RPG that looks to take some of the preparation out, while keeping all of the fun and the essence of the game rules in.

At its heart, M&M is not an overly complex game to play: Most everything is a d20 + ability or modifier check vs. a Difficulty, including dealing damage and other conditions. Where a fair amount of the complexity comes in is during the character design phase: M&M has a system of point-spending and power effects and modifiers that allows you to build almost anything, but that building process takes time and some knowledge of the system and how it works. Even with software tools like Hero Lab, it can be involved, and not everyone looking to play a superhero wants to put in that kind of work.

So, for M&M Basic, we offer a “meal kit” approach, where a lot of the prep work is done for you and you get an easy-to-follow “recipe.” Hero archetypes based on the Quickstart Character Generator from the Deluxe Hero’s Handbook offer you an easy series of descriptive choices: Is your Crimefighter brooding, cunning, or observant? Apply these ability modifiers. Are they confident, indomitable, relentless, tricky…? Apply these Advantages, and so forth. With just a few decisions, you can quickly put together dozens of different starter heroes based on classic types and be ready to play.

The book offers a few similar tools for the Gamemaster. There’s a sample adventure, and a “training wheels area” in the Doom Room, but also several “encounter archetypes” including different heists and crimes, rescues, and disasters, with all the game info to run them, which the GM can mix-and-match to create adventures with a minimum of prep, or use to supplement other adventure ideas. Likewise, while there are some sample villains (and plenty of minions), GMs can use the same tools for creating heroes to build opposing villains quickly and easily.

Best of all, the actual game play of M&M Basic is exactly the same as in the third edition Deluxe Hero’s Handbook. We simplify and explain things in a more step-by-step approach, and play down some of the more complex options, but players who learn from Basic can easily “step up” to the full-featured game whenever they want without having to re-learn how anything is done. We hope that M&M Basic offers long-time fans of the game a way to introduce eager new players as well as a means of making their own game prep a little easier from time to time, and an avenue for those who have always wanted to try Mutants & Masterminds, but who might have been scared off by the character building, a new opportunity.

Ronin Round Table: Fantasy AGE Campaign Builder’s Guide

Hey folks, Jack here. So with the release of the Fantasy AGE Companion I thought I’d tell you a bit more about the next book in the line.

Now I know some of you are probably thinking “Oh, man, the Companion took so long to come out so how long is this new book gonna take?”

Well, not nearly so long because its mostly written. Its not entirely written, there’s still some more to do on it, but the early drafts are in and looking good.

See, a few months ago I had an idea for a new book to round out the “core books” for Fantasy AGE and had some interested writers who either were not working on the Companion or had finished their work for it. So…I set them to work on this new book, the Campaign Builder’s Guide.

So what is it? Simply put, it’s a book about all the aspects of building your campaign. Each chapter covers a different topic, from encounter design to creating religions and pantheons to designing rewards and more. Each chapter is gives advice and a deep discussion of the process of designing and creating these aspects of a campaign. Then it finishes off each chapter with a detailed example of the campaign element using those guidelines and advice. So each section includes both ready to use campaign elements and guidance on how to make your own.

For example, one of our Fantasy AGE Bestiary contributors will be doing a chapter on adversary design. He’ll go through the process of creating a threat for your campaigns, the problems, pitfalls, and a few tricks you can use to really make your villains and monsters work well. Then at the end of the chapter he will present some all new monsters designed with that advice in mind.  Likewise, I’ll be writing on how to customize your game for various fantasy subgenres and then picking a genre and providing optional rules and adjustments to Fantasy AGE to make it better fit.  Each chapter will follow a similar format for different parts of a campaign. Also included will be a chapter of various random tables to help GMs generate locations, groups, and concepts on the fly.

This book is designed to be a GM’s guide in the sense it will guide GMs on how to do things for themselves more effectively and also present examples for their use.  The book will be released later this year and should round out our current lineup of core book, rules companion, and bestiary.

Ronin Roundtable: Whisper Networks and Internet Justice

Much has happened in the past several months with women speaking out on issues of sexual harassment and finally being heard. Prominent men in politics, business, media, even in children’s literature, have been called to account for behaviors ranging from inappropriate “jokes” to violent sexual assault. Here in Washington state, one of our women senators has proposed limits on the use of non-disclosure agreements to prevent victims of sexual harassment from speaking about their experiences. Seattle’s newly elected woman mayor wasted no time in ordering an extensive review of the city’s harassment and discrimination policies. Structures are being reviewed and put in place to more properly and fairly address issues in the workplace in particular, and I am glad to see it.

For some time now, especially since the rise of the internet and its ubiquitous place in our lives, women have worked at protecting themselves and each other through back channels and whisper networks, the now infamous “Shitty Media Men” list being one example. Unfortunately, whisper networks are of no use to women who don’t have the right connections to access them, nor are they immune from hearsay that can be difficult, if not impossible, to confirm. They are good for focusing attention on potentially dangerous or unpleasant people, good for self-preservation for those fortunate enough to have heard the right whispers at the right time, but they are far less effective at achieving justice. In a world where we literally have to worry that someone might call down a SWAT team on a person they dislike or begrudge, the threat of vigilantism sadly must be anticipated, addressed, and resisted in order to see systemic changes enacted and upheld.

Merely having a “harassment policy” does not guarantee that such a policy is fair, just, effective, or evenly applied. Policies stating some variation of “at our sole discretion” actions that may or may not be taken are barely more than legal language to shield a company, convention, or organization from liability. Even policies attempting to address the issue of harassment in a sensitive manner for victims can fail in providing even the most basic due diligence, leaving themselves open to unethical manipulation and becoming party to (and legally liable for) defamation and other legal jeopardies any business wishes to avoid. “Justice” can be swift and summary, focused more on making the matter go away than understanding the truth and then acting accordingly.

When the dam broke on harassment in social media, I detailed in a semi-public post, viewable by over 1700 people, my own experiences with sexual abuse, stalking, harassment, and assault, the reverberating impact those events had on my life, and how my involvement in both providing support for other women in the game industry and standing up to try to make real change for women through my own company and my volunteer work had been particularly difficult and sometimes re-traumatizing, especially in the last year or two. To say I was at a particularly vulnerable point is an understatement and as “discussion” of public accusations of harassment in my own industry became more heated, I responded little differently than an animal in pain. It clarified for me that people in pain and trauma cannot always do right by others in pain and trauma, even with the best of intentions and the most sincere concern. It is an experience I do not want to repeat and as such, I will not be engaging in any further public debate on the subject. Instead, I intend to follow up with actions, to continue to provide opportunities for women through my company and my volunteer efforts, and to work for structural changes to the tabletop industry.

As of this writing, I am attending the GAMA Trade Show in Reno, where I will be bringing a proposal to the board for the adoption of guidelines and procedures called S.T.O.P. Harassment (Standards, Terms, and Other Practices). The intent is to create common and agreed upon set of policies for reporting issues of discrimination and harassment, setting up mechanisms for prompt, thorough, and impartial investigation into any such reports, and establishing protocols for taking corrective action. Green Ronin has paid for this document to undergo a legal review and we hope that GAMA can provide the impartial vehicle through which issues of inappropriate behavior can be properly addressed. The initial language we’re proposing can be found here: S.T.O.P. Harassment (Standards, Terms and Other Practices)

Ronin Roundtable: Driven and Motivated

One of the new elements in Modern AGE is Drive, a trait which sets your character’s emotional motivation. You pick Drive at character creation, where it provides a small capstone benefit. If you use the Conviction rules (you’ll recognize these from Blue Rose: The AGE RPG of Romantic Fantasy, though they’re optional in Modern AGE) Drive also influences how it works.

But I’ll let you in on a secret: The best thing about Drive isn’t mechanical. It’s the principle of the thing.

I think virtually everyone has played a game where getting the characters involved in the story is a challenge. Roleplaying games have taken several stabs at pushing characters to act. The first tactic is no tactic at all. The game sort of assumes the GM’s job to convince the characters unfolding events are worth their time. When I was playing games as a teenager, this was virtually the only method. Combined with teenage defiance, this led to a lot of glaring and nonsense until everyone settled down. Another tactic is to weave characters into the setting, with responsibilities and problems which force them to get things done. More recent games have suggested ways to signal the GM about a thing your character might go for due to an obsession, goal or personality trait. This is a more focused version of the first, GM-as-salesperson method. Then we have background-driven motivations, ranging in length from one-liners to long backstories which are supposed to kick characters into action.

Drive is similar to all of these but isn’t quite the same. It’s a lot like “alignment” in some ways, and it absolutely is a personality trait, but its function is more than a description of the character’s psyche. Now when you get the book, this will probably read as overselling it, since Drive is not a mechanic designed to dazzle with innovation, and in nuts-and-bolts fashion, is fairly conventional. Here’s a Drive from the upcoming Modern AGE Basic Rulebook. It’ll look totally familiar to folks who’ve played a lot of RPGs.

Protector

There are a lot of threats out in the world, and you guard against them. Exactly what you consider a threat, and who or what you are protecting from it might vary, but the most important thing is you are not going to stand idly by when you could act.

Your quality is devotion to those under your protection and to your ideals, no matter what challenges lie in your path. Your downfall is recklessness when it comes to putting yourself (and others) in harm’s way to protect your charges.

Talent: Misdirection or Protect

Improvement: Health, Membership, or Reputation

What’s her motivation?

So why am I going on like this? I want to make its purpose clear. Drive is a personality trait that always answers the question: “Why are you getting involved?” Always. Because in Modern AGE, character creation assumes the question, “Are you getting involved?” is always answered in the affirmative. This is a subtle but important difference from games where the GM is supposed to sell you something, and games where the facts of the world (“I’m in the Secret Service,” or “They killed my master and I want revenge?”) dictate involvement. Drive is a personality trait which explains why your character is emotionally invested in the story.

Is this rhetorical sleight of hand? Absolutely. But it has a fine pedigree. Drive has a precedent in improv, where performers are urged not to block ideas that come out of the on-stage, brainstorming-while-acting process. So, when you crack the book open and pick a Drive, keep in mind that this isn’t a general blueprint of your attitude as much as the part of you that compels your commitment.

Drives are emotional, not factual, for a simple reason: Campaigns feature ever-changing conditions. Modern AGE also tells you to write down character Goals. Goals transform over time, but your Drive usually doesn’t. (Here’s an optional rule: If you want to change your Drive later, that’s fine, but you don’t get the benefits that come at character creation, except for how your new Drive affects Conviction, if you use it.)

Drive is primarily a way for you to develop your character’s emotional connection to the story. We can map it as a Mad Lib, as follows:

My inclination to be a [DRIVE] makes me want to get involved with [SITUATION] because [MOTIVATION], so I’ll [ACTION].

[DRIVE] is the Drive trait on your sheet.

[SITUATION] is what’s happening in the story.

[MOTIVATION] is an account of how your feelings about the situation inform your actions.

[ACTION] is what you will do.

To demonstrate how this works, I’m going to take the sample Drive, Protector, and hit the “Situation” random generator button at http://writingexercises.co.uk/plotgenerator.php. I get

A political demonstration turns into chaos.

Therefore:

My inclination to be a Protector makes me want to get involved with a political demonstration which has turned into chaos because I’m afraid of my friends getting hurt, so I’ll find them and lead them to safety.

In this model, a character goal is a situation that’s always happening—at least until you completely accomplish it.

Breaking this down makes it seem more complicated than it really is. The process is intuitive. As long as you exclude blocking the situation (by refusing to deal with it in an interesting fashion) it comes down to: “This is how my emotions push me to deal with what’s ahead.”

Drive is really a principle with an incidental game mechanic, adaptable to pretty much any game. It’s an attitude shift where getting into the story is your character’s premise, not their problem. In a fantasy game, instead of saying, “As a True Neutral character, I don’t care about this battle between good and evil,” say “As a True Neutral character, I need to accompany my friends to this struggle between the Moral Powers to test the strength of my convictions. Can I maintain detachment amidst all this struggle and suffering?”

Awkward Segue to Factual Update!

So, what’s going on with Modern AGE? The Basic Rulebook text is going through the production cycle right now. Its first setting, Lazarus (based on Greg Rucka’s comic of the same name, developed for Modern AGE by Crystal Frasier) has also entered production. The text for two small pieces of support for the game (to be announced) are also finished, and first drafts of an upcoming book are coming in.

I can’t wait to share it all with you. I’m driven—and I’ll say more about it all another time.

Ronin Roundtable: ROGUES, INDIVIDUALLY

Mothers, lock up your sons: Rogues Gallery is coming. This hardback collects the 40+ Rogues Gallery PDFs in one collection, along with a dozen new villains and antiheroes to terrorize your campaign. Your heroes could fight one a week and still not finish by New Year!

Villain books are a classic installment in superhero RPGs, going back to classics like Champion’s Enemies supplements or Heroes Unlimited’s Villains Unlimited. They provide opponents to fight, sure, but they also flesh out a side of the setting that heroes rarely get to see, and that hero-facing books rarely delve into. If superhero games, at their core, are about optimism and what one determined individual can do to help others, then villain books show the pessimism of those same worlds: What happens when someone, despite all their power, can’t or won’t use it to help others, or even themselves. Mutants & Masterminds has always been about nuance and complexity—every bit as much it tries to be about being your best self—and I think the incredible diversity of characters presented in Rogues Gallery showcases some of the best that Earth-Prime has to offer: Classic throwbacks to the Silver Age like Amalgam, Elzaya, and Tun; villains that seem to painfully mirror our real world like Drive-By and the newly returned House of Usher; cold professionals like Chakram and IGT-92; off-the-wall weirdos like the Candy Crew, Newt, and Explodo, and more than a few characters who came so close to being one of the good guys like Arctic Fox, Eminence, Freestyle, and Red Mist. This last category are probably the most vital, holding a mirror up to reflect the ugly failings of the world, and all the things the heroes, through luck or perseverance, have escaped. “There, but for the grace of God,” is a popular and heart wrenching theme in a lot of comic books; it provides a moment of introspection in a medium that is all too often about jumping between spectacular fight scenes.

To round out the collected edition of Rogues Gallery and the setting of Earth-Prime, we collected a dozen new antagonists from some of the brightest Mutants & Masterminds writers. With the book following on the heels of Freedom City, 3rd Edition, most of these new villains operate out of Freedom City, or at least mention it briefly, but the ultimate goal was to round out the villain list for several of our newest books, including the Cosmic Handbook and Hero High. Some are classics, many are brand new, but we tried to tie all the new villains into the advancing timeline of Earth-Prime, and the recent changes described in Freedom City. Here’s what’s in store:

  • Alien-Gator II: This time, it’s personal! An alien from the alligator-like race known as the Jereid, Ssellessk’thaa was trapped on Earth as part of Freedom City’s recent refugee crisis. More aggressive than her 60s-era counterpart, and in full possession of her wits, she sees humanity as the corrupt, selfish, and brutal creatures they are, and has turned to crime against this unjust system in order to acquire what she needs to escape Earth and return home.
  • Empress Sola: One of the many Dark Lords held in check by the now-deposed Una, Sola rules a dimension deprived of its magical core, forever cursed to siphon the life force from other worlds to survive. Now Sola has set her eyes upon the magic-rich world of Earth-Prime.
  • Johnny Frostbite & Ice Princess: This daddy-daughter duo share the same ice powers, but radically different instincts for using it. Johnny hopes to shield his beloved daughter from the life of crime he fell into, but they remain on the run from a vindictive ex-wife.
  • Lady Guillotine: The new Lady Liberty has her own arch-nemesis after only a few months on the job, and her rival wants more than just Sonia’s powers: She wants her head!
  • Maestro II: With the original Maestro vanished, a handsome young inheritor has claimed the Master of Music’s legacy and wields similar powers.
  • MegaStar: Included by popular demand! Christopher Beck was a member of the original Next-Gen some 15 years ago, but never seemed to find his place in Freedom City’s hero community after graduation. A disillusioned man desperate to find something to belong to, he has a whole new team as one of the Argents!
  • Mother Moonlight: Heroism isn’t without its casualties, and loss drives people to terrible ends. When so-called heroes slaughtered her children, Anna-Marie Delgado gave herself over the goddess of rebirth in order to gain the power to take the children—literal and metaphorical—from every monster who wears the mantle of hero.
  • The Orphean: Trevor Cushing led his ideal life once upon a time. Studying music and magic alongside his wife, the pair could easily have shared the role of Earth’s next Master Mage as readily as they shared a life and soul. Now that his wife has been maliciously ripped away, though, the Orphean focuses on nothing but tearing down the boundaries between life and death to restore her to his side, no matter who else must suffer.
  • Prince Rokkar: The Star Khan’s campaign of conquest rolls over other stellar empires large and small, and when it conquered the Kash’rodan Empire, Khanate governors banished the juvenile prince to the backwater planet Earth. Though young, Rokkar wields the strength, fury, and firepower of a true Kash’rodan warrior, thanks to a little support from his loyal nanny-boy, MC-1.
  • Princess Silverwing: Power don’t make someone a hero, as Alison Middleton insists on demonstrating. Afraid of being mundane, she convinced herself that her mutant ability to generate gravitons is actually “fey magic,” proving her “true” heritage as an exiled princess from a magical world. Now Princess Silverwing is hellbent on returning to a time and place that doesn’t exist, or else making her life on Earth-Prime a little more magical.
  • The Starblights: Magical girls gone bad, the Starblights wield their magical power from another dimension to defend their turf and rumble with other supers.
  • Vathek the Appeaser: One of history’s greatest scholars and romantics, Caliph Vathek of the Abassides’s ego doomed him when he thought to get the better of the infamous strange he summoned to grant his every wish. Instead the scholar found himself bound as the devil’s apprentice, doomed to servitude until he sends his master enough souls to buy off his own cosmic debt.

And because you’ve all been waiting so patiently for this volume, here’s one of the new heroes to get you started: Princess Silverwing!

RG_PrincessSilverwing

Ronin Roundtable: Back Issue Gaps

Some three years ago in “Back Issues” I talked about some of the planned additions to the forthcoming third edition of the Freedom City setting sourcebook for Mutants & Masterminds. With the latest look at Freedom City now available, I wanted to devote some space here on Ronin Roundtable to talk about some of the “back issue gaps,” or the characters from previous editions of Freedom City (or other Earth-Prime sourcebooks) not included in the new edition.

 

I got my start in RPGs working on “living” settings: Even before I was a regular freelancer for FASA Corporation, their BattleTech and Shadowrun settings were “activated” worlds where time passed at more or less the same rate as it did in the real world, and the same was later true of their Earthdawn setting. I was an active GM and player for West End Games’ Torg, which also moved its Infiniverse setting and the associated Possibility War, forward month by month, year by year. One of Freedom City’s major inspirations—Kurt Busiek’s Astro City comic book—likewise follows the progress of real time, such that Astra, the “little girl lost” in one of the first issues of the series, recently celebrated her college graduation!

Back when Green Ronin was looking to publish a second edition of Mutants & Masterminds and Freedom City, there was a desire to expand upon and change up some things, and the passage of time seemed as good a reason as any for that to happen, so we shifted the setting forward a few years to match the difference between the first edition in 2003 and the second in 2006. That approach largely continued throughout the second edition line, although we were more often filling out parts of Earth-Prime’s past or more distant future than its present.

Of course, the space between the second edition of Freedom City and the third is a good deal more substantial, eleven years, just over a decade, and nearly fifteen years since the setting first appeared. It was clear that a lot more was going to change over that time than between the first two editions. Some of Freedom City’s heroes and villains are immortal and unchanging, but others have aged and gone through transitions in life, from the second Raven retiring from crime-fighting to go into politics (passing on her mantle to a young man who was just a teenager in our first Hero High sourcebook) to Johnny Rocket, who was barely out of his teens in the first edition, who is now a mature man, married, and raising a foster daughter with his husband.

While we were able to include well over a hundred different characters in Freedom City, third edition, we couldn’t include everyone, and we’re sorry if anybody’s favorite character happened to not make the cut. A few show up in various places in Atlas of Earth-Prime, The Cosmic Handbook, and the forthcoming Rogues Gallery, but even those books don’t cover everyone. Freedom City and Earth-Prime grew a lot over the years, and in some cases it was best to let certain characters fade into the back issue bins of history, the “Whatever Happened To…?” files. That’s not to say we might not revisit some of those characters in future M&M products but, for now, the spotlight has shifted.

Of course, that’s not to say you can’t include your favorite characters in your own Earth-Prime series. One of the great things about tabletop roleplaying games is that the world is literally what you make of it, and it is yours to do with as you wish. You might decide, rather than time marching onward, that the “present day” of Freedom City remains largely frozen at your favorite point, with its back-story slowly shifting forward in time, much like how the major comic book universes are always set in the present day, with modern histories that extend “10-15 years ago” in spite of focusing on major characters who have existed for more than 70 years!

Likewise, you might decide to include your own “Whatever Happened To…?” story and update the fate of your favorite character, or recapture their essence by creating a new “legacy” character who shared the original’s name, and possibly their motif, powers, and some of their history, but is a new version for the modern world. Freedom City is rich with such characters, and the third edition offers more than a few examples, including new heroes like Centuria, Thunderbolt, and the current Lady Liberty.

Whichever era of Freedom City you choose to play in (and whichever edition of M&M you choose to play it with), I hope you enjoy your time visiting a city that has come to mean a lot to me over the years, and that you truly “make yourself at home” and enjoy the “freedom” of Freedom City to create your own heroic tales of adventure!