Fighting Styles in WFRP 4e

If you’re a follower of this blog, you know that I am fascinated by swordmanship and historical European martial arts (HEMA), and that I very much enjoy roleplaying games that demonstrate some knowledge, however abstracted, of the actual practicalities of melee combat. In that vein, I’m going to discuss in this article melee combat and fighting styles in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, 4th Edition.

Whether by intent or happenstance, the designers of WFRP 4e managed to capture some of the feel (and advantages) of certain fighting styles in their mechanics. This article will be partly a review of those design choices and their effectiveness, but a good deal of space will also be devoted to some character build advice in light of various fighting styles.

Generalities

The various incarnations of WFRP (for now, we’ll leave 3rd edition out–I very much liked what FFG was doing there, but it’s its own creature) have long erred toward deadly combat. The grittier feel, the pastiche of early 16th century Europe, and the incorporation of some of the less pleasant aspects of late medieval/Northern Renaissance life (treated, of course, with some humor) have always attracted me to this setting and ruleset over something like D&D (which has it’s own advantages and attractions, don’t get me wrong).

With regards to combat, there’s just enough of the feel of HEMA to sate desire, without something as complex and specifically focused on medieval combat as The Riddle of Steel. I have, years back, run a WFRP game using TRoS, with good result, and while that system will always have a fond place in my heart, my current mood does not need the full complexity (and time consumption) of that combat system in my already-tight gaming time.

The first thing that WFRP 4e gets right, I think, is opposed melee tests. Earlier editions first had the attacker make an attack test and, if successful, the defender could make a parry or dodge test to deflect. Omitting the additional step eases things along and captures more of the feel of HEMA, where combatants are not taking turns pounding on one another but involved in a complex and fast-paced set of test attacks, maneuvering, feints, parries, moves and countermoves. While it might be more “realistic” to have melee combat resolved by a single opposed test, winner scoring the hit, the attack roll vs. defense roll allows for additional mechanics (like certain Talents and weapon Qualities) that further deepen the choices available in the system.

The second point is the (optional) rule for bonuses and penalties for relative weapon length and In-fighting (WFRP 4e p. 297, hidden in the Consumer’s Guide and not the Combat section). These rules are simple enough not to slow combat while providing a greater significance for choice of weapon in particular circumstances. In fact, the In-Fighter and Enclosed Fighter Talents really aren’t of much use if the GM is not taking bonuses and/or penalties for weapon length into account. In my opinion, these rules should always be used.

Hit locations, critical hits by location, and piecemeal armor likewise add to verisimilitudinous combat. Wounds are visceral and specific, the choice of how much armor to wear–and where to wear it–matters. Again, this really only works to full advantage if the GM and players are paying attention to the Encumbrance rules. I realize that many GMs and players hate using all but the most abstracted of Encumbrance rules, but these really aren’t that bad and are worthwhile in the end.

Some players don’t like their characters to be permanently injured and/or disfigured, and I understand that, but the roleplaying opportunities that are opened up by these systems should also not be overlooked (the Physician career is an extremely valuable one in WFRP!). If necessary, allow means of reversing permanent injuries (Shallyan blessings or Jade magic) some additional prevalence and accessibility–give your players a few scenes or sessions to grapple with lasting injuries with the hope of undoing them in the long-run. Some groups, of course, are happy to retire characters who sustain significant injuries (and content with a high character death-rate to boot), and there’s nothing wrong with that either. Further methods of keeping visceral injury while softening the long-term effects would be to adopt a troupe-style play system (where each player has several different characters to choose from in each session) or to allow a greater carry-over of XP between characters than the rules-as-written provide for.

The Advantage system in the core book, though perhaps more narrative than realistic, does provide a method for mechanically mapping the fact that, once a fight hits a crucial turning point, it becomes more and more difficult for the underdog to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. The Group Advantage system in the Up in Arms supplement provides a system more in line with Wrath in Wrath and Glory, which is mechanically satisfying and promotes teamwork amongst players (both in themselves admirable goals) but provides less verisimilitude than the core system. On the other hand, no one wants to watch their character get hit right out of the gate and then be locked into a long pummeling as the opponent gains ever more Advantage, so opinions may vary.

The last thing I’d like to point out here before moving to specifics is the use of weapon and armor Qualities. I don’t always agree with specific choices made by designers from a “realism” standpoint, but I find that they are well-written to provide for actually-different styles of fighting. I’ll mention some of these minor criticism and some ideas for “correcting” them below.

Fighting Styles and Builds

Combat Skills and Characters

Note that the Endeavors rules (WFRP 4e p. 195) make it relatively easy to learn the various Melee skills outside of a character’s career, but much more difficult to learn Talents from outside of one’s career. Therefore, if your character is not in the Warrior class, or one of the careers in other classes that contain combat Talents, err on the side of combat styles that require few or no Talents.

If your table has altered the way you treat the Unusual Learning endeavor for purposes of Talents, then the above may not apply. You may also plan to move between careers (and classes) to collect the skills and Talents you want for your character. Personally, though, I could drive myself mad in consideration of all the different possible career combinations focused on acquiring specific Skills and Talents, so I would also consider letting the narrative dictate your career choices and taking the below into account as a separate consideration.

Sword and Shield: The Go-To Style

The sword and shield (or buckler) fighting-style should be the go-to fighting-style for most characters, and particularly those without much skill in combat. This style offers good advantages without having any Talents dedicated to it and can become even more effective with just a few Talents.

Characters who do not intend to fight unless absolutely necessary should carry a sword and buckler. The first advantage of this is that a sword has only 1 Encumbrance and the buckler has no Encumbrance. The buckler provides both an armor bonus to all areas (with the Shield 1 Quality) and a bonus to defense (with the Defensive Quality) and they are, relatively speaking, easy to acquire and inexpensive. As a bonus, this follows historical precedent: in 16th century England, the sword and buckler were known as “the servingman’s weapons.” They were easy for retainers to carry (where weapons were allowed) and also allowed for shows of bravado in fighting the retainers of other nobles houses while minimizing (to the extend possible while swinging sharpened steel) of significant injury. (On the other hand, the earliest fighting manual of which I’m aware, the Royal Armouries Ms. I.33, a German sword-and-buckler manual from around the 1320’s, also demonstrates the complexity of sword-and-buckler fighting and its usefulness for skilled combatants).

Shields fall under the Melee (Basic) skill, meaning that your character may start with some skill in the style even in a non-combatant career, and the Unusual Learning Endeavor allows easy training in the skill even if it is not a career skill. Regardless of Talents, this weapon combination is strong one. As a side note, my read of the rules (particularly those regarding off-hand parrying weapons) leaves the possibility that defending with a shield in the off-hand (without the Ambidextrous Talent) imposes a -20 penalty on rolls. However, I believe that that would be a misreading of the rules as intended and that using a shield imposes no penalties to defense.

As a point of strategy, I would recommend that the sword-and-buckler fighter use the Fighting Defensively rules (WFRP 4e p. 158, upper sidebar) to first generate Advantage. If you’re using the Advantage rules from the core book, this allows you to potentially generate a significant bonus to your tests before going on the offensive. If using the Group Advantage rules from Up in Arms (p. 132-136), you don’t gain Advantage for winning defensive opposed rolls (the test must be one you initiated to gain Advantage). Still, for a character not intended for fighting, use of defensive fighting until you can get help from a more-skilled ally must be considered.

There are two Talents that may be of particular benefit to the sword-and-shield fighter: Reversal and Shieldsman. Both are somewhat contingent on which Advantage system you are using (Core or Up in Arms Group Advantage), so I’ll address them under each system:

Under the core Advantage system, Reversal allows you to take all of an opponent’s Advantage on a successful opposed melee test (including defense). That could potentially be a tide-changer. On the other hand, it’s usefulness is limited by the fact that, under the basic rules, your opponent would lose all Advantage and you would gain one Advantage anyway. Shieldsman is also of somewhat dubious use; the core description of the Talent gives you Advantage when you lose one the defensive side of opposed melee test. The cost for gaining the benefit of the Talent is high; I’d rank “don’t get hit” among the top rules of combat, so maybe pass on this one. The good news is that, under the core Advantage system, there’s not a strong reason to devote XP (or career choices) to specific combat Talents at all.

Both Talents become much more useful under the Group Advantage system: Reversal as revised in Up in Arms retains the benefit of gaining Advantage on successful opposed tests while defending with a shield. Shieldsman allows you to spend Advantage to deal damage when successfully defending (or to push your opponent). Since those careers that include Shieldsman do so at level two, this is one of the easiest Talents to achieve to increase damage output (through a pesudo-extra-attack)–but contrast with Two-Weapon fighting below.

The concepts above are equally applicable to sword and shield as to sword and buckler. The advantages of the larger shields are additional armor points and the ability to oppose ranged attack tests at the cost of increased Encumbrance. If you’re character is going to be at the forefront of the fighting, a larger shield makes more sense than the buckler.

As a last consideration in this style: the bonus armor points from shields are especially helpful if you are wearing light or no armor. But what about heavier armor? The Knight, Knight of the Blazing Sun, and Knight of the Panther careers all assume you’ll be donning heavy armor (see below) but also contain the Shieldsman Talent. I think that a shield is less useful when wearing heavier armors for several reasons: (1) you’re much likelier to be over your basic Encumbrance allotment, (2) there are better weapons to use when you already have high armor (such as polearms and two-handed weapons, see below), and (3) you hit somewhat diminishing returns on armor points by stacking in this way.

Fencing: The Masterclass

By “fencing” I mean the use of the rapier and parrying dagger (“main gauche”). This style offers some excellent benefits but requires a character who is devoting the majority of their XP to fighting. In fact, my personal view is that this method of fighting is too costly outside of the Duellist career. Some benefit may be seen by fighting with rapier and buckler for those outside of the Duellist career who do not want to spend too many resources on combat.

I’ll address the latter situation first: WFRP’s description of the rapier doesn’t actually fit the typical description of the mid-to-late 16th-century and early 17th-century rapier (which would have been a long thrusting weapon with a blade cross-section that doesn’t allow for strong cutting, if any at all). Instead, it describes the “cut-and-thrust” swords that began to focus on the thrust but retain strong cutting ability (the “espada ropera”). These begin to show up in the early 16th-century and continue alongside the development of the rapier. The confusion of terms is entirely forgivable, as the distinction is really a modern one and the contemporary terms used to describe sword types lacked hard categorizations that would be satisfactory to the 21st-century scholar. For ease, I’m going to follow the WFRP naming convention and use “rapier” generally.

The buckler was used with both types of weapons (the “cut-and-thrust” swords and the “true” rapier). In WFRP, you only need the Melee (Fencing) skill to gain the benefits of the rapier–you get the defensive benefits from the buckler without having to acquire the Melee (Parry) skill (see below). What are those benefits? The rapier has three potential advantages over the basic sword: the Fast and Impale Qualities and a long length rather than average (despite the description of the sword given, the mechanics of the weapon do seem to lean toward the “true” rapier intended particularly for thrusting). Again, with the weapon length rules, this can be a good additional advantage (though context matters, and tight spaces or in-fighting will make the weapon a liability, as was historically the case). Fast and Impale are the real attraction. Fast allows you to make attacks outside of the Initiative order and imposes a -10 penalty to defend for weapons that do not also have the Fast quality. Impale increases the likelihood of Critical Hits. If you want to spend some of your character resources on combat skill, but not too many, rapier and buckler is a strong choice, requiring only a single Melee skill and no Talents to get solid benefits.

The “true” fencer is the one who devotes great resources to combat with rapier and an off-hand weapon (cloak or parrying dagger, primarily). In such a case, both the Melee (Fencing) and Melee (Parrying) skills are required (the Parrying skill, not the Fencing skill is used for defending with the off-hand weapon, otherwise a -20 penalty is suffered, so the Defensive quality of the parrying weapon is useless without the proper skill). What are the benefits of the parrying dagger over the buckler? There are a few: first, the dagger gives you a backup weapon in the case of in-fighting, hedging some of the liability of the rapier. Second, the off-hand dagger does not have the Undamaging Quality (which shields do) in the case of dual-wielding attacks. The cloak offers the Entangling Quality rather than a significant attack, which may be a worthwhile exchange when fighting in a group.

I’ll also pick out the “hidden” advantage. As discussed below, the Ambidextrous and Dual Wielder Talents are requirements for the successful use of rapier-and-dagger in making two attacks per turn. Both Talents apply equally to ranged weapons and melee weapons, meaning a character can carry a brace of pistols, fire them both in the first round of combat (before others have a chance to react if you have the Fast Shot Talent), switching to sword-and-dagger to follow. That gives two high-damage attacks that may cause the Broken condition right out of the gate, an impressive opening move.

The rapier-and-off-hand fighting style needs several Talents to reach full potential. As mentioned above, Ambidextrous (two levels, for 300 XP in-career) and Dual Wielder remove all penalties to making attacks with both weapons in a turn. Levels in Riposte allow a character to deal damage while successfully defending with a Fast weapon (a number of times in a turn equal to the levels in Riposte). Combined with the two-weapon-fighting talents, a character using this style can put out a lot of damage in a turn, against multiple targets.

This combination of Talents is only found in the Duellist career, meaning only characters in that career are especially well-suited to this style of combat. Fortunately, that class is also full of other useful Talents: Combat Reflexes is of only some use given the Fast quality of the Rapier, but Beat Blade, Distract, Feint, Step Aside, Combat Master, Reaction Strike and Strike to Injure are all strong combat Talents (if somewhat contextual). Disarm seem to me to be a niche Talent; most of the time it will be a better choice to deal damage.

Two-Handed Fighting: The Damage-Dealer

The downside of the Two-Handed fighting style is that it requires a skill only a few careers have access to (though far more than the Fencing and Parrying skills). The upside is the Qualities available on two-handed weapons. I believe that this is a fighting-style worth considering even for characters outside of careers particularly suited to it (such as the Up in Arms Greatsword career.

I’m going to focus on swords here, as they have fewer downsides when compared to the Great Axe, Pick and Warhammer (which can be great weapons for tough and heavily-armored characters). The Zweihander gives you the Damaging and Hack abilities, which are both excellent. Damaging allows you to use the one’s place of the attack roll rather than the Success Level to calculate additional damage. That could mean up to 9 additional damage on a roll that barely hits–combine this with an already-high damage rating (SB+5), and you have the potential to drop many combatants in a single blow. Hack deals damage to armor, helping you win fights by attrition against heavily-armored opponents. Additionally, the high damage output can be an extremely efficient way to secure multiple attacks in a turn if using the Deathblow! optional rule (

The Bastard Sword trades out Hack for Defensive but retains Damaging; this is a very worthwhile trade in my mind.

Two-handed fighting lends itself to heavy armor, which I’ll address separately below. Aside from those Talents generally useful for combat, I find the Berserk Charge, Strike Mighty Blow, Strike to Injure, Very Strong, and Resolute Talents particularly useful for the two-handed fighter.

The knightly careers and Greatsword career are most suited to two-handed weapons as a style, though the basic Soldier career can be used, and, if willing not to worry too much about the Talents, any career could acquire the skill through the Unusual Learning Endeavor.

A brief aside for some rules modification changes: the Zweihander is a very specific Renaissance weapon, one designed for fighting pike formations and not general combat. It averages six feet in length, up to eight pounds or so (extremely heavy for a melee weapon), has a long grip, often hooks on the blade and a leather-wrapped ricasso (the portion of the blade that is not sharpened, closest to the hilt). The purpose was to swing the weapon like a big sword to knock long pikes out of the way (or potentially chop them up) and then to shift to holding the weapon like a spear (with one hand on the hilt and the other on the ricasso) upon closing with the enemy. The first technique allowed you to close in without being stabbed; the second shortened your weapon for closer combat while pikemen were struggle to drop their pikes and draw their swords. Outside of this situation, other two-handed swords were faster and more effective.

WFRP and Games Workshop seem to use the terms “Zweihander” and “Greatsword” interchangeably. A greatsword unlike a zweihander, was of a more modest length (closer to four feet, with plenty of variation either way in a matter of inches) and weight (three to four pounds). The greatsword was differentiated (or at least is now) from the longsword (a two-handed sword, despite what D&D tries to tell you) by its focus on the cut rather than having a blade shape more versatile between cutting and thrusting.

I believe that the weapon in WFRP really represents the greatsword rather than a zweihander. A zweihander write-up should have two entries: one for using the weapon like a huge sword, one for using it in a more spear-like manner.

While I’m nitpicking, I think WFRP’s “bastard sword” really represents a more traditional longsword. I’d changing that naming and I’d use the following for a true bastard sword (which often had a blade shorter than a longsword but could be wielded in one or two hands): I’d make damage SB+4, length Average, and give it the Defensive and Fast Qualities when used in two hands and no Qualities when used in one hand. Set cost and availability by reference to the two-handed weapons and the basic sword, leaning toward the former.

Polearm Fighting: The Versatile Choice

At face value, polearms are very similar to two-handed weapons. They have a dedicated skill (Melee (Polearms)), the weapons take two hands to use, seem to favor a heavier choice of armor, and even have similar stats (with polearms generally doing less damage than two-handed weapons).

The difference is that polearms offer versatility in a single weapon. For this article, I’m going to focus on the Bill, Halberd, Partizan/Glaive, and Pollaxe. Each of these weapons has the Defensive quality–if eschewing a shield in favor of a two-handed weapon, this offers some parity between the styles. Each then, based on the specific design of the weapon, offers some combination of Hack, Impale, Pummel, Slash (2A) and Trip. The specific choice of weapon should perhaps depend on your character’s Talents: Pummel is especially useful with Strike to Stun, but of limited use otherwise. Hack, Slash, Impale and Trip need no particular Talents. All but the partizan have Hack, making them useful for those times you need to wear down an armored foe. Impale is generally useful for increasing Critical Hits. Because Slash requires a Critical Hit, and the partizan gives you the choice between Impale and Slash, the combination is perhaps less effective than others. Trip can be an excellent Quality, particularly if used to set up strikes by teammates (or if using Group Advantage and spending for immediate follow-on attacks).

I would be comfortable saying that the choice between two-handed weapons and polearms is a toss-up and depends on your character’s (and your group’s) needs. I personally lean towards the two-handers.

Since I’ve made some suggestions for weapon changes in the categories above, I’ll do so here as well. Historically, there were two major styles of using a spear and/or quarterstaff (and these correspond somewhat with the use of other polearms). In the English style, the focus was on the thrust, making the weapon fast to strike and useful for maintaining distance. The German style wielded the weapon much like a longsword, focusing on strikes rather than thrusts and better able to defend against incoming attack. Switching between methods is not terribly difficult on the fly. That being the case, I would add Defensive or Fast to the spear (I’d also allow players to choose between Long and Very Long lengths) and change the quarterstaff’s Defensive to Defensive or Fast.

Cavalry: I’ll Take Swords for Five-Hundred

The lance and demi-lance are useful weapons…once. The Impact Quality makes them truly devastating, but outside of the battlefield, how often are you really going to use one? That leaves the Cavalry Hammer and the Sabre. Both use Melee (Cavalry) from horseback but a different skill (Melee (Two-Handed) and Melee (Basic), respectively) when on foot. The hammer has Pummel so, if your character also has the Two-handed skill (and Strike to Stun, preferably) it might be preferred. However, none of the Knight careers have the Talent (I might have thought the Knight of the White Wolf would), nor does Cavalryman or Light Cavalryman. Less than useful, then. On the other hand, the sabre uses a widely-available skill (all of the careers mentioned above get Melee (Basic), though Freelancer and Knight do not until Level 2). The sabre can be used in one-hand, allowing for the use of a shield and retains the Slash Quality (though it changes from 1A to 2A unless you use it with the Melee (Fencing) skill, but why bother), making it better than a basic sword.

The choice here is clear.

Armored Combat: Do You Even Lift, Bro?

Given the danger of combat in WFRP, armoring up as early and often as possible can be a useful choice. But it’s not necessarily an easy one. First, you need to look at the inherent penalties that accompany certain pieces of armor (particularly helmets and plate leggings, but bear in mind you suffer -10 to stealth if wearing any chain or plate). Then, you need to consider the Encumbrance penalties from lots of armor: you’re very likely to suffer -1 Movement and -10 Agility from your armor (And that’s before you consider your weapons and any traveling gear. Also, don’t travel in your heavy armor unless you’re expecting a fight).

A full suit of Plate Armor will give you 10-11 Encumbrance points from the get-go. You may want to wear some chain or leather under it (you can choose either or combine them). The relatively low ratings of armor (even plate) means that you either need to double up or accept that there’s a high cost and quickly diminishing returns for wearing lots of armor. But armor rating isn’t the only consideration: plate armor allows you to ignore half of Critical Hits, and that’s no small thing.

A fairly well-rounded set-up with some “oomph” to it would be a leather jack, leggings and skullcap under a breastplate and open helm. That gives you three points of armor on head and torso with one point on arms and legs and six points of Encumbrance. Add a shield and you get another one (buckler, no encumbrance) or two (shield, one additional Encumbrance). Even that, though, will put you into Encumbrance penalties unless you’ve specifically built your character in expectation of wearing armor.

Your basic Encumbrance level is Strength Bonus plus Toughness Bonus. You’ll want to get these stats into the forties as soon as possible. Very Strong and Very Resilient will be of significant benefit, if you can get them. Strong Back and Sturdy should also be acquired if you can. With the exception of the Knight of the Blazing Sun, all knight careers offer Sturdy at Level 1. Sturdy increases your Encumbrance rating by 2 x level, so picking up several levels before advancing would go a long way.

Bear in mind diminishing returns: assuming you get your Strength and Toughness up to at least forty and take four levels of Sturdy (a whopping 1,000XP), your Encumbrance maximum would be fourteen. You’ll have two to three points of Encumbrance for your weapon (assuming you’re not carrying several), leaving you eleven points for that full suit of plate with nothing underneath.

A durable set-up would be full plate (closed helm) with a mail shirt, a leather jack, leggings and skull cap. That’s fifteen encumbrance, plus three for your weapon. So, if you can get your Strength and Toughness into the forties and take one level of Sturdy, and tolerate the first level of Encumbrance penalties, you’re good to go. Take two levels of Sturdy and you can add a medium shield for even more protection. Without the shield, you’d have five AP on your torso and three AP everywhere else (while ignoring half of Critical Hits). With the shield and a Toughness bonus of four, you’re ignoring the first nine points of damage–that’s not too shabby.

Bear in mind, though, that the Robust Talent adds damage reduction per level of the Talent in a manner similar to Armor Points. You should strongly consider (if available to your character), adding this to the list of your character’s Talents if pursuing a front-line fighter, armored or not.

The Knifefighter: Close and Personal

This is not a mainline fighting style; it should be reserved for those characters who never intend to fight fair but may need to do some dirt from time to time–particularly when the victim–erm, opponent–is unawares.

Knives and daggers don’t do a whole lot of damage to begin with (and knives have the Undamaging Quality), so a high Melee skill and Strength bonus will be helpful. On the same lines, the Strike Mighty Blow Talent would be useful, as would the Stealth skill. The Combat Reflexes, In-Fighter, Enclosed Fighter and Disarm Talents would all be useful if you are unable to take down your target in the first strike.

There may also be times when a dagger or knife is all you have on you–the social or legal formalities may prevent the carrying of serious weapons in certain areas, or you may simply be caught traveling light. All of the above would help in such situations; as the goal when outgunned should be to break off the engagement and survive, the Flee! Talent may prove useful in such situations.

The Brawler: Back to Basics

The Brancalonia Roleplaying Game emphasizes as part of its genre that the law is unlikely to take much notice of the occasional bar brawl or streetfight where no weapons are produced and no “serious” injuries are inflicted (though unarmed combat can, of course, prove deadly). The same idea fits in WFRP: there are plenty of times when the Powers that Be simply have too much else going on (or simply don’t care) to deal with petty conflicts that do not involve anyone of importance. Further, there are some times when violence is a means to an end and not the end itself–the Protagonist and Racketeer careers are plenty evidence of this. You’ve always got your fists (almost always, anyway), and sometimes a knuckleduster is easier to carry into a restricted area than even a knife.

Then there’s the historical fact that all combatants were expected to have some skill in unarmed combat. Learning to brawl was a part of childhood, a fundamental that ought to be established before teaching skill in any weapon, and a common feature of melee combat even when weapons were involved. For all of these reasons, a character whose identity (read: career) involves combat ought to have some proficiency in the Melee (Brawling) skill. Most of the Talents applicable to knifefighting above, as well as the Dirty Fighter talent, make for good supplements. But, unless the character expects to do a lot of roughing people up without permanently injuring them, the Brawling skill is secondary to the armed-combat skills.

Conclusion

I hope this article has given some ideas of how the WFRP system captures the “feel” (to the extent that we can honestly reconstruct it) of medieval/early-modern combat without adhering to intricate and byzantine complexities. I hope also that it’s given you some solid build advice on choosing what kind of fighting techniques and equipment will best suit your character. On the other hand, there were a number of “masters of the art of defence” in the period, and a character whose ambitions lie in becoming one among them could be interesting to play and an effective member of a party. There are a number of ways such a character could go, moving between careers as necessary to represent different courses of study.

If I’ve missed something you see in the WFRP system, or if you’ve got other thoughts to contribute to mine above, I look forward to hearing from you!

Alternative Combat Systems in Cortex Prime, Part III: Holding the Line and Coordinated Actions

For the previous part of this series, click here.

In this part of the series, I’m going offer two (sub)systems for handling particular types of combat situations; the first riffs off of the “Bloody Versus” while the second utilizes a nuanced form of “Narrative Combat.” Let’s get to it:

Timed Defensive Actions

“Mal: Zoe…are you here?
Zoe: Do the job, sir.
Mal: You hold. Hold till I’m back.”

Serenity, 2004

This system can be used for situations where the characters are fighting a defensive battle against waves of attackers while keeping mechanics streamlined compared to character-by-character combat.

The GM needs two things at the start of the engagement (which can be set in adventure prep). The first is the dice pool used to represent the attacking force. Create this as you would any opposition, starting with a pair of difficulty dice representing the base quality of the attackers and adding dice for a Distinction and other applicable Traits. If the size of the attacking force warrants it, consider using the Scale rules, but bear in mind genre as well as the close narrative—if you’re playing a game involving special operations forces in an 80’s-style action movie, they’re probably expected to absolutely wade through the enemy and Scale would not be appropriate.

The second preparatory item is a mechanism for tracking the enemy’s fighting ability or the amount of time the PCs must hold out before help arrives. Depending on your damage system, the enemy force may have a die step that is whittled down, may have a Stress or Trauma die that is stepped up, or may have a damage track. If the conflict is a matter of holding out for time, you can set up a track or a “clock” in the style of Powered by the Apocalypse games.

Variant: Random Timing: If you want to add additional drama (and stress to your players), you can take a cue from miniature wargaming and have the conflict last for a random number of turns. To do this, decide upon a definite number of turns the conflict will last (e.g. “at least 3”). After the predetermined amount of time has run, roll a die at the end of each turn to determine if the event that would end the conflict (air support or reinforcements arrive, another team manages to destroy the attackers’ path to the characters, etc.) occurs. Use whatever die size you’d like and start with a chance of occurrence you feel comfortable with given the difficulty of the engagement for the characters. For example, you could start with a D6 and the conflict ends on a result of 6. For each time this die is rolled and does not meet the threshold, reduce the threshold by one. In the example above (d6 vs. 6), if the conflict doesn’t end on the first post-turn roll, in the second turn you roll d6 vs. 5, and so on.

In each turn, each player character rolls the appropriate pool against the Opposition Pool. For each PC who fails, that PC takes stress, trauma or injury depending on the damage system you’re using and how deadly your game is overall (I’d personally not recommend immediately applying damage that takes significant time to heal unless your setting has ways to circumvent that—magic or tech—or this defensive action takes place as part of the climax of the story where the stakes need to be turned all the way up.)

Assign the PCs their own track that represents their ability to hold their position. For each failure against the Opposition, mark a box along the track. When the track is full, the PCs are overrun by the enemy.

Variant: King of the Hill: With a slight modification, this system can be used to simulate a “king of the hill” scenario where both sides of the conflict are attempting to take and hold the same location. In this case, build a track with a center point, and have the character’s net successes or failure move the track in their favor or against their favor. When the track has filled on one group’s side, they have managed to seize the terrain with a strong enough position that the other group may not immediately attempt to take it back. If you want to limit the amount of time the conflict can last, remove a box from either side of the track every so many rounds as attrition and exhaustion take their tolls. Of course, one side or the other may take injuries enough that they abandon the field, and that’s okay, too.

One potential issue with this system is that it does not necessarily spotlight the actions of any particular PC, but this is relatively easy to overcome. You can plan certain events between the collective rolls in certain turns and give a particular player a chance to address that particular event before it affects the overall situation.

As an example: say you’re running a modern military campaign with special forces operators holding their position until requested air support is able to decisively end the confrontation. Between the collective rolls representing the characters’ defensive actions, let’s say a tank rolls up and begins to train its main gun on the characters’ position. The player character with the anti-tank weapon gets to take a shot to eliminate the newcomer before it becomes a problem. If this character’s attack roll is successful, the tank is destroyed and does not factor into the opposition in the next collective test. If the attack fails, add another die to the opposition pool representing the need to take cover from tank shells in addition to the rest of the assault. Obviously, the specifics of such opportunities should be drawn from the various abilities and foci of the characters to give each a time to shine, if not in the same engagement then over the course of the adventure.

If the characters have time to prepare for a this kind of defensive action, allow them to create Assets or Resources (i.e. expendable assets) for the conflict. Instead of applying damage to a character who fails an opposition test, the opposition pool’s success die could be used to eliminate or step down an Asset or Resource. In this way, not only do these Assets and Resources provide some benefit to the characters’ rolls, but some additional “armor” to keep characters in fighting shape for future conflicts. Whether an Asset or Resource applies to all PCs’ rolls in a turn or to only some is a judgment call for the GM to make based on context.

Variant: Defend Actor: This system can also be used to simulate situations in which some of the PCs are providing cover and defense for others to complete a non-combat action. Perhaps one or more of the characters needs to complete an ancient ritual while the rest of the party defends from attacking orcs. In this case, rather than keeping a track for the timing of the defensive action, create a track for the number of successes needed for the necessary task to be completed. For each character addressing the non-combat task, a success checks one box on the track and a heroic success checks two. If multiple characters could reasonably be assigned to either defense or the non-combat action, modify the defensive opposition pool (in conversation with the characters so that they can collectively decide where they want to put everyone) based on the number of defenders. You can use scale to do this, but the addition or removal of a die will probably be best for most situations.

If the characters are overrun, they must retreat from their position without completing the appointed task. If the task is successful, it should have ending the onslaught as a narrative consequence (in addition to the story-moving effects).

Coordinated Actions

“Either you’re part of the problem, or you’re part of the solution, or you’re just part of the landscape.”

-Sam, Ronin, 1998

This system is suited for those perfectly choreographed operations that depend on everyone completing their individual tasks at the right time so that the entire operation goes off without a hitch. These are your Mission Impossible montage ops, your small-unit actions to waylay a traveling vehicle and extract a VIP before making a getaway, your high-intensity but short action scenes where everyone has a particular role to play.

I used to love RPG sessions (particularly in Shadowrun) where the players would sort through maps and security schedules, lists of equipment and mission objectives to come up with an elaborate plan. But two things would either happen: (1) the plan needed so much detail that one of the players got tired of it all and decided to kick down a door and start shooting, or (2) playing out the elaborate plan took us three more sessions and everyone got tired of it. These rules are designed to condense the planning to the most exciting parts and play it out with the kind of speed and intensity usually reserved for film.

And really, it’s just an adaptation of the Narrative Combat rules from the previous post, with an added cue from the “Engagement Roll” of Blades in the Dark.

Here’s how we do it: the player characters have their objective. They’ve gathered the necessary intel and the equipment necessary to achieve the objective (perhaps setting up Assets for their various rolls). Then, the PC team plans the op, assigning discrete actions to each PC, like so:

It’s a snatch and grab on a moving vehicle with a target guarded by professionals. PC #1 is the driver, both approach and getaway. Number 2 is the bag man, tasked with extracting the target. Numbers 3 and 4 are shooters to provide cover for the extraction. PC #5 is a hacker whose task is to change streetlights to the advantage of the group, to jam any communications from the target and bodyguards, and to wipe any surveillance footage from city cameras. So, each character’s actions might be described by the following:

  • PC 5 modifies the street lights to box the target vehicle in.
  • PC 1 drives at high speed to block the target vehicle from escape.
  • PC 5 jams communications.
  • PCs 3 and 4 engage the bodyguards, suppressing them or eliminating them as necessary.
  • PC 2 engages the target and pacifies him.
  • PC 2 puts restraints on the target and gets him into the PC vehicle.
  • PCs 3 and 4 make a fighting retreat to the vehicle and get inside.
  • PC 1 drives off at high speed and uses evasive driving to lose any tails.
  • PC 5 wipes security footage to ensure that the PCs aren’t followed by the authorities.

As with Narrative Combat, each individual PC’s various actions are given sequential difficulty thresholds, and then each player rolls against their opposition (I think the best way to do this is for the opposition pools to be created in dialogue with the players, but the opposition roll results to be withheld until the GM narrates the results).

If all players meet all thresholds, the operation goes off without a hitch—the PCs have nabbed their target and taken him to their hideout without anyone being able to identify or follow them.

If any of the players fail, however, there are consequences. If there are only some minor failures—perhaps Player 3 fails his final threshold to return to the vehicle, then you can assign a Complication or injury and the operation remains successful as a whole. If a major threshold is missed (say PC 2 fails to pacify the target), or if there are multiple missed thresholds, then we use the collective rolls in the style of Blades in the Dark’s “engagement roll.”

If you’re not familiar with that mechanic, the engagement roll is a single roll intended to move past the boring bits of a heist and straight onto the excitement, its result sets the narrative positioning of the players as we jump in media res into their action by establishing whether things are going very well, very poorly, or middling at the time play of the heist begins.

In our situation, there’s a bit more complexity for the GM as she’s interpreting separate roles to create a cohesive narrative position for the transition into another type of mechanic to continue the action—this may be turn-by-turn combat, another alternative combat, or some sort of contest or conflict to represent the characters’ escape after things go wrong.

In the example above, with PC 2 failing to subdue the target, the GM might determine that the situation is thus as play moves out of the narrative combat system and into the alternative format: The target, though groggy from a blow to the head, is escaping on foot through a crowd of innocent bystanders. PC 2 is giving chase. PC 3 and 4’s successes mean that at least none of the bodyguards are following after PC 2, but now the rest of the group needs to get out of the middle of the road, evade detection, re-establish communications with PC 2 and find a way to meet up before the local authorities or reinforcements find PC 2 and/or the target first. Had the other PCs missed significant thresholds as well, additional complications would be added to the narrative as we “zoom in” to the aftermath of the botched operation.

Unlike the “generic” Narrative Combat system from the last post, there’s no need to establish consequences for each threshold of each roll in this particular use of the mechanic. The GM can wait until seeing all the rolls to weave together the results, assigning consequences only where necessary.

This system can be used for all sorts of character actions that are planned and prepared in advance. In addition to examples above, generic heists, ambushes, coordinated cons and other exploits can use this alternative to turn-by-turn resolution.

Conclusion

Two more tools for the toolkit in the bag. I think that both ideas are flexible and adaptable enough to accommodate a wide variety of narrative needs. Still, I’ll be adding to this series as I think of additional systems to streamline various types of action sequences or combats.

Again, I can’t stress enough that these are tools to be used alongside the conventional methods for resolving combats and conflicts based on what best fits any particular situation and the play style of the table.

Alternative Combat Systems in Cortex Prime, Part II: Bloody Versus and Narrative Combat

For the first post in this series, click here.

As I mentioned in the first post in this series, we’re going to look at my adaptation of two systems borrowed from other writers: Luke Crane’s “Bloody Versus” from The Burning Wheel RPG and Peter Rudin-Burgess’ “One Roll Combat,” appearing in Lowborn: an Independent Grim & Perilous Fanzine for Zweihander RPG’s first issue.

Both systems intend to use a single roll to determine the end result of a combat, though the Bloody Versus (by my read, at least) is more focused than One Roll Combat. Let’s take a look at some adaptations for Cortex Prime based on the two.

Bloody Versus

Like most aspects of The Burning Wheel RPG, the core combat system in that game is relatively complex. I’m personally also not a fan of the “scripting” system for close combat, the conceit of which ignores the fact that a fighter makes choices about actions in combat based on cues from the other fighter(s), and not completely blind. But that’s besides the point since we’re looking at Bloody Versus.

Bloody Versus distills combat into a single opposed roll between the fighters. At first blush, a player may complain that this gives too little control over the outcome of a fight, but I’m not sure that this isn’t just a variation of the gambler’s fallacy; whether the statistics are compressed into a single roll or several, they’re still statistics about likelihood of winning, and it’s arguable that any Assets or other things set up for a single-roll combat have greater value than in a turn-by-turn combat, so it may all be a wash. Again, this is just one tool for your toolbox, and it may or may not work to the satisfaction of your table. But I’d judge it based on its narrative usefulness and whether you’ve got players who really want the nitty-gritty details of combat rather than on comparative statistics.

Here’s the issue with a Cortex Prime Bloody Versus: how do you set the stakes? How do you determine if a fight is a lethal one or just a good, old-fashioned donnybrook that results only in bruised faces and egos? Partially, this depends on how you’re handling damage and injury in your game—if it’s a light-hearted game then scaling should look different than if you’re playing gritty dark fantasy.

It should also be noted that the basic rules for Conflict and being Taken Out in a scene are essentially a Bloody Versus (or maybe a Bloodless Versus) depending on circumstances. There’s nothing to say that you can’t just bounce between those rules and turn-by-turn combat. But I’d like to offer something a little more substantial—that doesn’t necessarily preclude the occasional use of the “core” Taken Out rules.

We’ll do that by a bidding system. If you’re using the “Stress/Trauma” system from the Cortex Prime Handbook or some variations I’d described in the series on making Cortex Prime gritty, you’ll need to first determine whether the conflict is a lethal or non-lethal one.

With that determined, we’ll turn to the “Risk” die. Each character chooses a step for their Risk die—this is added to their Pool, but also becomes the Stress/Trauma received if they are on the losing end of the conflict, giving characters some added agency even in a one-roll combat.

Bear in mind that the use of the “Risk” die inverts the normal scheme for Effect Dice—each character is essentially setting what the Effect Die against them will be if they fail, while the selection by the opposing character sets the same. This focuses player agency on the risk rather than looking for the best possible Effect Die after the roll. For me, this seems narratively appropriate, with the added bonus that you won’t spend time looking for Effect Dice after the fact.

As a consequence, though, you’ll need to decide whether the ability to spend a PP to add a second Effect Die is available. For my own games, I’d rule that this expenditure may be used against any “average” opponent but not a PC, an Elite fighter or a prominent NPC. It’s plot armor, yes, but in a relatively unobstrusive way. If you want to go all out, by all means—so long as your players are all in agreement.

It should be noted, also, that this system, as written (and barring the use of PP for additional Effect Dice as described above), does not allow for a character to be killed outright by a Bloody Versus test. If you want to step up the relative danger, you can rule that a character automatically receives a Plot Point if any 1’s are rolled, but that each 1 rolled steps up the Stress/Trauma received by 1 step. This, of course, adds additional risk and unpredictability a part of a Bloody Versus test. And it reflects reality—even the best of warriors can make a mistake that leads to his demise, even against a less-skilled opponent. This rule also means that the winner may take some damage from the test, even if victorious. As with the above, this also matches reality and deepens the risk (and therefore drama and meaning) of even a Bloody Versus roll. On the other hand, you’re playing a game where a death necessarily means a particular part of the story (probably a part of the story important to at least one person) also dies. If you’re using a damage track (as in my posts on making Cortex Plus grittier), you might actually get some additional protection here, depending on the length of the track compared to the “six steps to death” you get under the “Stress and Trauma” rules of the Cortex Prime Handbook. Don’t forget that your system for Armor may effect the overall balance as well.

The Group Bloody Versus

The rule above works well for one-on-one combat, but perhaps less so for larger-scale engagements. Let’s look at some ways we can scale up.

The easiest method is to pair PCs with combatant NPCs. This is cleanest, of course, with an even number of PCs and enemies, but you can also use Mob rules (if appropriate based on the enemies) to further condense the fight.

Bloody Groups

If a one-to-one match-up isn’t possible, then we need to get a little more creative. As I mentioned in my series on swordplay for writers and gamers, it’s really only practical for about three combatants to face a single opponent at once; add more people in and the likelihood that allies injure one another increases exponentially.  This does not mean that you can’t put a group of five enemies on one PC, but you should bear in mind that such an arrangement probably means that two of those enemies are hanging back until there’s an opening for them to switch out with one of their fellows.

To use this method (which I’m calling Bloody Groups): first, group fights as you would for one-on-one fights, assigning additional combatants to each PC as necessary and as matches the positioning of the characters. Then, select a primary actor for the group. To that character’s pool, add the highest dice from two of his allies pools. Roll this against the PC’s pool. From the PC’s perspective: (1) on a failure, the PC takes damage per Bloody Versus; (2) on a success, the primary opponent takes damage per Bloody Versus; (3) on a heroic success, the primary opponent and his two allies all take damage per Bloody Versus. Here’s the kicker: any opponent fighting a PC, whether the primary actor or his two allies, adds any injury/Complication die to the PC’s pool, as any injured party gets in the way of his fellows, and it’s likely that, if there are additional troops standing by, they’ll switch out to allow the uninjured to continue the fight. For ease (and additional realism), establish the injury level at which enemies flee or are no longer combat effective; once they reach this level of injury, remove them from the fight (or, if it’s that kind of game, potentially allow the PC’s the opportunity to kill the fleeing combatant as he attempts to withdraw).

Bloody Skirmish

We can zoom out even further, as necessary, keeping the core of the Bloody Versus system. For an all-out melee where we don’t necessarily need to track each exchange individually, we can use what I’m going to call the Bloody Skirmish system.

To begin, establish a base difficulty for the group opposing the characters—this should be based on the skill of the combatants, not their number. Add dice to the pool for group Distinctions, Assets or other Traits in play as you see fit. Add a Risk die to determine how aggressively the group fights. Lastly, if you’re using a track for damage rather than the Stress/Trauma system, determine the length of the track for this group and when the group suffers a Consequence die due to losses.

Each PC rolls a Bloody Versus against the single opposition pool, applying damage to the opposition as a group or to PCs individually.

If the group greatly outnumbers the PCs (and your genre and narrative fit with this approach), use the Scale rules (Cortex Prime Handbook, pp. 99-100). This should make players reconsider plunging headlong into overwhelming odds (but there’s no accounting for what certain players will do, never tell them the odds, damn the torpedoes and all that).

Narrative Combat

And now we come to my adaptation of Peter Rudin-Burgess’ “One Roll Combat” system, which I’m going to call “Narrative Combat.”

Where Bloody Versus handles conflicts that are focused on the violence itself, the Narrative Combat system is better suited for quickly handling situations where combat is incidental (supplemental?) to the PC’s goals.

The system works like this: after the situation is defined and everyone understands who and what is in play, each player sets out a set of three to five actions (the GM should specify the exact number) that the player wants to accomplish. These actions must be in logical order and in the order in which the player wants to accomplish them. Players and GM should converse to clarify intent, methodology and likely effects for each action individually and as a whole.

Once there’s agreement on these points for a player and PC, the GM establishes difficulty thresholds, with the lowest threshold representing success in the first action, the second threshold set a certain distance from the first and representing success or failure in the second action, etc. As Rudin-Burgess is writing for a d100 system, these thresholds are linear and fixed; making for an easy port if you’re using Static Difficulty (Cortex Prime Handbook, p. 25). The first action might be at difficulty 8, the second at 10 and the third at 13 depending on the nature and difficulty of each action.

Alongside each threshold, the GM establishes a consequence for failure. This may be Stress or Trauma (or some other damage inflicted depending on your system), a Complication, an unintended consequence or change in the scene, etc.

Then the player rolls his assembled pool (again the GM and player should collaborate to determine the most applicable Traits to include in the pool based on the overall sweep of the actions declared). For each threshold met or exceeded, that declared action is successful. For each failed, the associated consequence is applied.

When all players have rolled, the combination of successes and failures is used by the GM to narrate the overall result of the conflict scene. It’s an efficient and creative system.

If you’re using opposition dice pools as per the usual in Cortex Prime, then some modification of Rudin-Burgess’ system is necessary over a simple scaling of difficulty thresholds. As this is true for the majority of my Cortex games, I’m doing the following for my Narrative Combat System:

We start with a base difficulty of two dice for the first action. If there are any other applicable Traits for the pool, those are added in. This initial pool is rolled and establishes the first difficulty threshold (per the usual of taking the two highest rolling results and adding them together). For each additional action, a die of an appropriate step is assigned; it’s result is added to the total from the initial roll, so three dice are totaled for the threshold of the second action, four are totaled for the third, etc.

For this to work, the opposition pool should stick to lower-stepped dice at each step: unless there’s significant justification for doing so, I’d stick mostly to d6s and the occasional d8. If this is feels too imprecise for you, add some techniques from Powered by the Apocalypse games: instead of modifying the difficulty itself to suit narrative positioning, scale the consequences to suit the difficulty (your GM “moves” as it were).

If you want to make things even more efficient, have all players roll against the same opposition pool. If their plans are more divergent, it may be more appropriate to use different opposition pools.

Conclusion

So, there you have it: a system (and variations on a theme) for condensed handling of conflicts in which violence is the focus and a system for conflicts in which violence is much more of a means to an end than an end in itself. You could, in theory, stop reading this series now and have two tools that could cover the vast majority of situations for your game (tweaked only slightly for genre and power level) without having to resort to man-to-man, turn-by-turn combat except where you want to.

But I hope you won’t stop here. In the next post, I’m going to provide some systems tailored to specific types of conflicts/combats, starting with a system for holding your ground against assault.

For the next post in the series, click here.

Alternative Combat Systems in Cortex Prime Part I: The Rationale

Combat can be the most exciting—or the most excruciating—part of a gaming session. It’s easy to get bogged down in the minutiae: checking particular rules (and exceptions), contemplating the potential results of every available action like you’re Deep Blue, clarifying who’s where, what conditions are in effect and what happened on previous actions.

We’ve all been there. The active player is taking minutes to determine his turn while everyone else is playing on their phone. The combat itself is necessarily a matter of slow attrition punctuated only rarely by decisive blows. Rinse and repeat, potentially for hours. I don’t want to say that the conventional style of RPG combat, with its sequential individual turns and actions for each character involved doesn’t work; it can result in exciting and enjoyable combats. But if we take the example of D&D in particular, as the originator and exemplar of this system, the smorgasbord of titles both amateur and professional available on DriveThruRPG.com to “make combat more exciting” indicates that there are many cases where the system doesn’t work as well as we’d like.

And this figures, given that D&D (and therefore RPGs in general) developed out of wargaming. The turn-by-turn system is an artifact of, and beholden to, the miniatures wargame.

Some Alternatives

There are a number of ways that games or homebrews have tried to address this, with varying degrees of success. Making a game deadlier necessarily condenses combat and makes clever tactics (and/or use of rules) even more important.

The Riddle of Steel is one of my favorite examples of this. Its visceral combat system attempts to closely model the actual mechanics demonstrated in the fight manuals of the medieval and Renaissance periods. It does so quite successfully. When I ran games in this system I was simultaneously a study group leader for the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts (ARMA); I’d spend hours as a “Session -1” with wooden weapons showing those players who weren’t in ARMA with me what the techniques in TROS actually looked like. But the system is not without its faults, either: it had no significant guidance for an overall initiative system, leaving players to judgment calls for a number of situations commonly addressed in other games. To me, it’s a prime example that no RPG combat system can do everything, even if it does some things exceptionally well.

Knowing that, why do we expect a single system to effectively cover all combat situations equally well? The result, as with D&D, is that we have a combat system on top of which we add the occasional non-combat goal for flavor and variety. But shouldn’t it be the other way around? Shouldn’t we have systems, plural, each focused on different types of situation. Some combats are about injuring or killing the enemy, yes, but many resort to violence in service of a goal that is, ultimately separate from the injuries inflicted on the opposition. This is true even of military operations. As commonly as they are deployed simply to destroy the enemy, they are directed to capture and hold valuable locations, to destroy enemy resources, to drive the enemy from a particular area, to infiltrate an area to perform reconnaissance and surveillance—or to provide forward observation for targeting airborne or artillery-based weapons. In many of these cases, the enemy will be engaged only to the extent necessary to accomplish the mission, because simple attrition is not a great way to win a war (as the American Civil War and, especially, World War I demonstrated).

The Torchbearer RPG keeps this in mind, at least on an abstract level, where the various “intents” (such as Capture, Drive Off, Kill) in a conflict determine the character traits used for rolls.

“Powered by the Apocalypse” systems ultimately treat combat no differently from the rest of the rules, except that consequences and GM “moves” may more frequently cause Harm to the characters. There is no set initiative system, and each “combat test” remains more about the development of the narrative than a tactical mini-game. It leaves much flexibility for how the GM interprets player cleverness, creativity and innovation without needing rules to explicitly do this. On the other hand, for those who are more Gamer-oriented (if you subscribe to Ron Edwards GNS Theory) may find this less than satisfactory.

This Series

This series will present a set of systems for Cortex Prime for particular types of combats, not as an obviation of or replacement for the standard “man-to-man” general RPG combat approach, which has its appropriate uses, but to work together with that system based on the narrative needs of a particular game and the desires for depth of tactics for players.

Elsewhere on the blog, I’ve provided some rules for streamlined military/modern combat engagements. Those will not be repeated in this series, but could be added to the list of options provided here if so desired.

Some of these systems will be taken from the ideas and creations of other writers (and credit will be given where due) and adapted to Cortex Prime, but most of them will be my own creations.

But let us begin with some theory about the role and nature of combat in RPGs.

What is War For? What is it Made of?

Combat is an essential feature of most (but certainly not all) RPGs, whether or not they fall into the “traditional” camp. There are, I think, a few reasons that this is the case. Let’s look:

First, there is the simple fact that many people play roleplaying games because they are a way to experience adventure and danger in a safe way. Most people do not want to be punched in the face, much less risk their lives without extreme need. But they do want the thrill of such stakes, which is why video games, combat sports (whether martial arts, paintball and airsoft or competition shooting), action movies and combat in RPGs are popular.

Second, satisfying narrative requires conflict. Armed (or otherwise) violent confrontation is conflict in its barest sense; it necessarily poses questions to drive a story: Will the characters prevail? Will they survive?

Third, as Louis XIV had cast on his canons (albeit in Latin) and as Joe Abercrombie used as the title of one of his novels, violence is “the last argument of kings.” Or, if we’d rather resort to Heinlein, who has his Mr. Dubois the teacher of “moral” philosophy in Starship Troopers remark to a student who tells him the “violence doesn’t solve anything,”

“I’m sure the city fathers of Carthage would be glad to know that….Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst.”

When two sides refuse to compromise, and a situation must be resolved, violence may sometimes be the only available course of action. I don’t think I enjoy that fact as much as Heinlein did, but I agree that it is sometimes an existential truth we must face. In the adventures of our heroes in particular, violence may be the logical (narrative) result when all other means fail.

Fourth, some gamers really enjoy the challenge of combat, of making tactical decisions and outmaneuvering the enemy. And that’s as good a reason as any.

By way of transition from what combat is for into what it should do, the astute GM should bear in mind that that means that combat should be actually challenging—otherwise you’re depriving your players of the satisfaction of victory. The good GM should be a student of war in all its forms (this does not require one to be a practitioner of war, which is perhaps another matter altogether, discussed on other portions of the blog). So, number one—combat is another type of puzzle, problem and challenge for the players to address, and one with stakes higher than many others they’ll face.

As Apocalypse games make plain, combat should drive the story forward. This does not mean that every combat need be decisive; a battle in which the two sides fight to a standstill and must withdraw heightens the conflict and must necessarily make the players question whether they are powerful enough to prevail by force and whether another approach might be preferred.

Combat, when done well and used well, at least, provides options for high drama. What will the character’s fight for? What won’t they fight for? What is significant enough to a character that she is willing to kill (or die) for it? The cliché that you truly learn who a person is by seeing them in a fight is true when it comes to crafted (even when collaborative) narrative—combat need not be just a matter of mechanics; it can become an opportunity for deep roleplaying.

As much, combat is a useful tool for pacing a Roleplaying Game. There is, of course, the old gaming adage that if things slow down too much, have the bad guys suddenly show up to kick things back into gear. But it goes far beyond that. There’s not room to go into the full details of this subject (which can easily be a blog series—or book—in its own right), but good narrative swings back and forth between high-intensity scenes and low intensity scenes. This gives the audience both excitement and pauses to reflect on what the occurrences of the “high points” mean for the narrative moving forward. Think about the Fellowship in Khazad-Dȗm—they flee from goblins and Gandalf confronts the Balrog in a high-intensity scene. The scene that follows the rest of the Fellowship’s escape slows down so that the characters can reflect on the loss of their erstwhile leader and what it means for their quest.

Here’s the issue, though: when combat slows to a crawl as you play out each second by second, it fails to provide the high-intensity sort of scene that it should. When a low-intensity scene follows, as it naturally should, the energy at the table remains low and everyone loses immersion and attention. This is fine if the players enjoy intricate combat for its own sake, but it’s been my experience that I only have one or two of the players in my group for whom the gaming or simulationist approaches to combat are a particular draw.

Conclusion

I think all of this gives us a rubric by which to judge the utility and value of some alternative combat systems. Any system that replaces turn-by-turn combat must: (1) make at least enough logical sense to be acceptable to gamers and simulationists, given the caveat that they must necessarily be more abstract than turn-by-turn systems, (2) following the first point, be at least somewhat satisfying to use, (3) move the story forward in a meaningful way, regardless of specific outcome, (4) allow for meaningful choices, which in turn allows for drama and character development, (5) have stakes high enough to match a “standard” combat system, sometimes softened to account for less control on the part of the players as to outcome, (6) must provide a useful tool for maintaining pacing.

The flexibility of the Cortex Prime system allows us to create a number of different approaches to combat, as you’ll see.

What’s Next?

In the first substantive post in the series, we’ll look at two general systems I’m adapting from other games: Luke Crane’s “Bloody Versus” from The Burning Wheel RPG and Peter Rudin-Burgess’ “One Roll Combat,” a brilliant article written for the Zweihander roleplaying game and appearing in Lowborn: an Independent Grim & Perilous Fanzine for Zweihander RPG’s first issue.

After that, we’ll look at some systems for particular types of engagements created by yours truly.

For the next post in this series, click here.

Augmentation in Cortex Prime

The following is a system for handling (para)human augmentation, primarily for cyberpunk and other sci-fi settings, but adaptable to steampunk, fantasy settings or any other setting aspect involving implantation and supplementation of natural body systems to achieve spectacular effects.

While the base Cortex Prime Abilities or Powers systems could be skinned to cover the same material, this system attempts to unify this mechanical aspect of Cortex Prime under its own subsystem to both accentuate this component of setting and to provide for a more narratively cogent method of addressing (para)human augmentation.

Using Talents for Augmentation

Rather than using a Trait Set, as the mod below does, to represent Augmentations, you could simply create a list of Talent SFX, with each Talent representing a particular system. This might be the preferred system where augmentations are present in the setting but not a central feature (for instance, Star Wars has cybernetics, but they are typically background dressing).

Grit and Power Levels

At the simplest, these systems can be made a Trait set available to all characters, with a set number of dice to assign between specific traits. This works especially well with cyberpunk settings that have no mystical or magical aspects to balance against.

The relative power of each augmentation system can be adjusted narratively. For instance, does a d8 in Strength systems mean that a character can punch through concrete? Throw a car? Or simply that the character has a level of strength on par with world-class body-builders? Does a character with Cognition d8 have intellectual skills on par with natural geniuses (perhaps a more complex designation than once thought given developing neuroscience) or superhuman skills of calculation and analysis? Of course, the step of the system’s die can be factored in as well—dice at steps d10 or lower may be within the realm of natural human ability, while dice at d12 represent augmentation beyond natural human potential.

These narrative factors can be combined with mechanical effects to further define the relative power of available augmentations. If you are using rules like a Limited Dice Pool, you could have an Augmentation die not apply toward the limit—this will accentuate that augmentation really does allow someone to achieve beyond normal standards. If you’re also using a track for Stress and/or Trauma, you could also allow a player to voluntarily take a point of Stress or Trauma to add a third die (perhaps specifically the Augmentation die) to the result rather than spending a Plot Point to do so. For a middle road, allow the expenditure of a Stress/Trauma “point” to have the Augmentation die not count toward the Dice Pool Limit. I’d map this as an SFX that automatically applies to each System, much like the “Use a d4” mechanic for Distinctions.

These options may work especially well in settings where human augmentation is an important aspect of genre—such as cyberpunk or certain science-fiction. As a more specific example, this might work especially well in a setting like Eclipse Phase, where characters can “resleeve” into different bodies and you want to accentuate the importance of body selection.

The System Itself

The system itself is relatively simple. Rather than seemingly infinitesimally granular selections of particular upgrades and augments, this mod looks at the sum total, classifying the Traits in the Augmentation category as “systems” that represent the overall effect of upgrades. The systems I would recommend using are: Athletics, Charisma, Cognition, Perception, Reflex, Resilience, Stealth.

Whether you use the categories I’ve designated or substitute your own, you should give a general description of the system that explains what sorts of capabilities a person with that System has as a guide to when the die from the System might apply (or when possession of the system grants narrative “permissions” that may not be reflected in mechanics but in the sorts of things the character can do.

Specialized systems providing more discrete and specialized functions can be mapped as SFX. You may consider giving characters a certain number of SFX for free at each dice step or provide that certain SFX are automatically gained at certain dice steps.

If you’re using other Traits that have SFX, or if you’re using Talents, you’ll want to carefully consider whether your choices will lead to “SFX bloat” that will complicate gameplay inordinately over the value they provide. Additionally, you’ll want to think about just how much you want to accentuate Augmentations versus other Trait sets.

If you choose not to use SFX, then you might provide short narrative descriptions of the kinds of capabilities a System has at each die step.

I’ve provided sample write-ups and SFX for my Systems below. Given the length of the article (and constraints on my time), I’ve only included a few sample SFX in each System. When I am able, I’ll supplement those SFX in a subsequent post.

Systems Descriptions

Athletics: Athletics Augs enhance the strength, flexibility and endurance of a character (but not their reaction times, which are enhanced by Reflex Systems). These are the most-commonly thought-of augs for the average person, because they are at once those most obvious in action and those with the most directly frightening consequences.

  • Oh Yeah!: Spend a PP to smash through a wall, even if made of brick or stone.
  • Optimized Cardiovascular System: Spend 1PP to step up or double any Endurance Augs when taking an action. If the action fails, shutdown Athletics Augs. Recover by activating an opportunity in a Bridge scene.
  • Hyper-oxygenated Blood: The die step of any Complication of Difficulty die accounting for fatigue from physical exertion must exceed the Perception Augs die or the character disregards it. For any such Complication that does apply to the character, step it down by one step.

Charisma: Charisma Augs enhance a person’s social capabilities through a number of means. This may include pheromones or other chemical signals, analytical systems providing feedback on observed body language, voice modification for a more mellifluous sound, etc.

  • Empathic Analysis: When including Charisma Augs in a social Reaction, double or step up Charisma Augs. Pay 1 PP to do both.
  • Mood Stabilizer: Spend 1PP to ignore penalties from social or mental Stress or Trauma, or Complications, for a Test.
  • Halo Effect: Spend 1 PP to step up or double Charisma Augs on a test to persuade others. If the action fails, shut down Charisma Augs and recover by activating an Opportunity in a Bridge scene.

Cognition: This System covers augmentations that enhance the computing or analytical power of the human brain. Subsystems tend to enhance object identification, pattern analysis, sensory interpretation, creativity and intellect: human methodologies for competing with the power of artificial intelligence (whether or not that means “sentient and conscious” artificial intelligence or the complicated computing algorithms already in use today).

  • Multitasking: Split Cognition Augs into two dice at one step down or into three dice at two steps down.
  • Flow State: Step up or double Cognition Augs for one action, then step back to two dice at one step down. Recover by activating an Opportunity during a Bridge scene.
  • Probability Analyzer: Spend 1 PP to add Cognition Augs (or step up by one if already in your pool) and reroll all dice on a Reaction.
  • Efficiency Optimizer: Use two or more Systems dice in a single dice pool, reduce each System die for one step for each Systems die added beyond the first.
  • Overclock: Step up or double Cognition Augs for a scene, or spend 1PP to do both. While active, take Mental stress equal to the step up the second-highest-rolling die.

Perception: This System represents augmentations that heighten or expand the sensory perceptions of the individual—the ability to see in other parts of the light spectrum, to filter certain sounds and focus on others, or even the addition of senses that (para)humans don’t normally have—a snake’s heat-sensing pits or a bat’s sonar.

Depending upon the nature of the System, a character with a Perception die may have an image link that can display a sort of Heads-Up Display (HUD), along with video, text and images, directly into the view of the character. They may also have the ability to record photos or videos.

  • Digital Zoom: The die step of any Complication or Difficulty die accounting for distance from the visual must exceed the Perception Augs die or the character disregards it. For any such Complication that does apply to the character, step it down by one step.
  • Enhanced Resolution: In a pool containing Perception Augs, replace two dice of equal steps with one die of +1 step.
  • Flash Suppression: The die step of any Complication of Difficulty die accounting for blinding lights must exceed the Perception Augs die or the character disregards it. For any such Complication that does apply to the character, step it down by one step.
  • Enhanced Spectrum Targeting: Add a d6 to your dice pool for an attack against an opponent at near range you cannot see and step back your highest die by one step.
  • Threat Identification: Spend 1PP to add Perception Augs to your pool (or step up by 1 if already in your pool) and reroll all dice on a Reaction.
  • Multispectrum Vision: The die step of any Complication or Difficulty die accounting for poor visibility must exceed the Perception Augs die or the character disregards it. For any such Complication that does apply to the character, step it down by one step.

Reflex: Reflex augs reduce reaction times through increased sensory-processing speed, reduced muscle-response times, and added speed and power for transmissions through the nervous system.

  • Enhanced Fine Motor Control: Spend 1PP to ignore Complication dice applicable to a test involving dexterity.
  • Reaction Enhancement: Step up or double Reflex Augs for a test involving Initiative. Spend 1 PP to do both.
  • Synaptic Acceleration: If a pool includes Reflex Augs, you may replace two dice of an equal size with one die one step higher.

Resilience: Where Athletics Augs cover enhancements to physical endurance, Resilience Augs models systems intended to protect the body from harm, whether from toxins, disease, environmental hazards, or direct physical injury.

  • Subdermal Nanoweave: Your Resilience Aug die (or its equivalent step depending on your damage system) functions as armor against physical attacks.
  • Toxin Filters: In a test to resist toxins, whether airborne, injected, consumed, or otherwise, double or step up Resilience Augs. Spend 1 PP to do both.

Stealth: Stealth systems conceal the user from detection or from identification. This may range from lubrication of joints and the strengthening of muscles and tendons to allow for quieter movement to complex augmentations that allow the user to change the color of their skin, the length of their hair and the shape of their facial features, with various specialized components to provide various kinds of stealth.

Because of the wide variety of possible stealth functions, use of SFX or a solid description of capabilities at various dice steps is essential for this System. For example, if not using SFX: at d6, the System’s focus should be on the avoidance of detection by the senses. At d8, this expands into defenses against sensor detection and perhaps “active camouflage.” At d10, shaping of physical features and appearance becomes possible.

  • Active Camouflage: Spend 1PP to double Stealth Augs against an attempt to detect you visually or by light-spectrum-based sensors.
  • Impersonation Protocols: Step up double Stealth Augs for one scene to mimic a person for whom you have detail information about appearance, physical attributes, habits, vital signs and behaviors. Then, step down Stealth Augs by 1 step. Recover after a scene in which you do not use Stealth Augs.

The Limits of Ascension

You may want to put Limits on these Systems, either to reinforce how Augmentations work in your setting or as a sort of mechanical balance against the SFX (especially if some or all are free) attached to various systems.

Some RPGs separate out different types of augmentation—genetic engineering from cyberware or organic augmentations, for instance. If that is the case in your setting, you may want to use different Limits to represent the specific nature of the augmentations that comprise a particular System. For additional complexity, you could restrict certain SFX to certain classes of augmentation, ruling that a character must choose one Limit when first selecting that System and that, if the character wants to add an SFX that has a Limit related to a different class of augmentation, the character must have both applicable Limits added to the System. So for instance, if a character started with a “wetware”-based System, they would have the corresponding Limit. If that character’s player wanted to add a “cyberware”-based SFX, the Limit related to cyberware would have to be added to the System as well.

For a simpler approach, you could simply assign set Limits to each System, potentially using one or more Limits to offset the automatically-granted SFX associated with the System.

Digression 1
Again, the more complexity you put in this system, the more you need to think about whether the benefit of the added complexity is really worth it. As a concrete example, I started a Cortex Plus/Prime conversion for Shadowrun some time back on this blog (to which I’ll likely return). To capture the feel of Shadowrun, at least the way I’ve approached it, adds a good deal of complexity to the Cortex Prime system, taking it somewhat away from what it was intended to be. Does it end up as complex as Shadowrun? No, but it is substantially more complex than Cortex Prime, and, at that point, it may be worth thinking about whether this is the right system for a conversion, or whether so much of the complexity needs be converted into your Cortex version. With Shadowrun in particular, there already exists a simplified version of the ruleset (called Shadowrun Anarchy) that may fit the bill for you. For me, that system swung the pendulum far too far and ended up with a system that feels inadequate to account for enough complexity to capture the feel of the Shadowrun setting in a streamlined manner.

Digression 2
As best I can tell, in reality, it looks like, by the time human augmentation because truly available, augments will combine both biological and technological aspects of design into a unified whole, making the sorts of distinctions Shadowrun cares about in its treatment of Augmentation a mostly moot point. Of course, there’s a good argument that humans will resort to wearable devices for augmentation rather than surgical intervention (except in the case of prosthetics, injury or lack of natural function, of course), but that’s not quite as fun to imagine, is it? If that suits, though, this mod could be adapted to different Signature Assets to represent that reality.

With those (admittedly characteristic) digressions taken care of, here are some discussions of potential Limits to use with this mod.

Essence
Since I’ve already opened the Shadowrun can of worms, let’s start here. There are a few ways to handle Essence as a Limit. The simplest is to add the highest System die to the opposition pool of someone trying to use beneficial magic on the augmented character. For a harsher scenario, add each Augmentation die, or, like Dehumanization below, create a single Complication die based on the steps of the System dice.

Dehumanization
If you want to incorporate the idea of lost humanity as well (something I’m personally not a fan of in RPG treatments of augmentation—lookin’ at you Cyberpunk and Shadowrun), then use one of the following: (1) When the first System die reaches d10, the character gains a permanent Complication die at d6 that is added to social tests. For each additional System at D10 or increase to a d12, step up the Complication die. If the Complication die exceeds d12, the character becomes a cyberzombie. Adjust the die step at which the Complication comes into play or is stepped up to suit; or (2) Simply add any System die at d12 to the opposition on social tests.

Hackable
A few options here:

  • A character with this Limit may have Stress or Trauma to both physical and mental tracks caused by hacking attack;
  • Hacking may be used against this character to create Complications or Conditions;
  • A System with this Limit may be stepped down like an Asset or Complication through the use of hacking. You’ll need to choose a method by which the die is recovered;
  • If you have a specific Stress/Trauma track for Augmentations or being hacked, you could tie steps down or shutdown of Systems dice to that; or
  • Some combination of the above.

Complex Biology
Add the highest System die to the opposition against tests to recover or heal from damage through medical intervention.

EMP Vulnerability
This could likewise be modeled several ways:

  • EMP devices that affect this character can apply Complications or Conditions;
  • A System with this Limit may be stepped down like an Asset or Complication through exposure to electromagnetic interference. You’ll need to choose a method by which the die is recovered;
  • When exposed to electromagnetic interference, shut down this System to gain 1 PP;
  • Some combination of the above.

Conscious Activation
As written.

Glitchy/Prototype/Bleeding Edge
Convert the System die to a Complication for a roll to gain 1 PP.

Systems Stress

You may want to consider giving characters a Systems Stress Track, particularly if using rules for Stress/Trauma Tracks like those I mentioned in my series on adding grit to Cortex Prime. If you do, a few additional options may open up to you. For one, you get a way to track the condition of Systems, whether they’re affected by overuse, by hacking, by electromagnetic interference, or some other factor. If the Systems Stress Track is filled, you lose access to Systems dice. You can set up Complication/Condition dice for various stages along the Track and/or step down all Systems dice at various points along the Track, depending on the effects you want to achieve. As an additional benefit, you can allow characters to “push” their augmentations, activating associated SFX, by adding a point of Stress to the Systems Stress Track in lieu of paying a PP. In such a case, you can allow a PP to be spent as usual, or, if you want a “push your luck” sort of system with augmentations, you can require Systems Stress to be used to activate augmentation SFX. If you choose this path, you’ll have to determine how Systems Stress is recovered.

Conclusion

So there you have it, a system for handling (para)human augmentation in the Cortex System without resorting to the Powers/Abilities given in the core game. I’ve tried to include enough options in my write-up to let you fine-tune this system to suit your particular setting. I’d love to hear your thoughts on all of this, see the additional SFX you add to your lists, and generally hear about how the system works out for you if you use it!

Back to the Mud: Putting some Grit in Cortex Prime, Part II: General Difficulties

In Part I of this series, I offered some methods for modifying the core rules options in the Cortex Prime Handbook for damage and injuries to get a grittier feel. In this follow-up, I’m going to talk about some hacks for difficulty in general, because “grit” is about far more than death and dying.

As I mentioned before, Cortex Prime favors generally capable characters from the get-go and that I believe that making characters inept is the wrong way to add grit to mechanics. So we’re not going to change characters; we’re going to look at some alternative approaches to assembling pools, calculating results, and determining effects.

As a note of acknowledgment, the ideas about limiting the dice pool and the use of “Forced Dice” came from a friend of mine during a conversation we were having about adapting Cortex Prime to serve as a ruleset for my Avar Narn setting. If he gives permission, I’ll update this article to give him credit by name.

No Effect Dice, Expanded
The Cortex Prime Handbook offers a mod that removes Effect Dice from the mechanics. Unfortunately, the mod as described gives no replacement method for full degrees of effect, simply replacing all Effect Dice (where they would be used) with a d6, stepped up for a heroic success. There are plenty of games that offer varied degrees of success based on a single roll, and we could also point back to Rob Donoghue’s note about five steps stacking with the five die sizes of Cortex Prime to fill in the gap.

Rather than dividing results into “normal” successes and “heroic” successes, we can simply establish four or five sections for a granular map to convert a roll total to an Effect Die where it’s useful or necessary to do so. If you want to skip d4 Effect Dice, then you’ll have four success categories, five if you include them. I think there’s a good argument to be made for starting with d6 as the “basic” success level for mechanical ease of use, as d4’s are only supposed to be used once and then removed. On the other hand, including more d4s in dice pools increases the likelihood of Complications and Opportunities (and may further reinforce the gritty nature of a system when basic results provide only fleeting advantages).

An additional benefit for mapping mechanics to grit is that higher Effect Dice are reached less often, but this can cut both ways. It might turn many conflicts into more attrition-based slogs than the faster-moving action of the core system. A statistical analysis of the core rules for Effect Dice against the “Degree of Success” conversion described herein would need to account for many variables–average pool sizes, relative frequency of the various dice types being in pools, etc. I have neither the training nor inclination to perform such analysis for my own end systems in Cortex, much less those you might formulate for your own games. There may need to be some trial and error here.

If you’re using one of the “Damage Track” mods from Part I of this series, you can address some of this with the length of the damage track. If using weapons that add to damage inflicted, you can further tune whether weapon selection or skill rolls are most important in determining the damage of an attack. Of course, if you’re willing to make things another step of fiddly, you could have particular weapons set the thresholds between Effect Dice results (or damage inflicted) for an interesting combination of weapon and skill as factor in end result.

Personally, I’d likely skip the d4 result, starting a “basic” result at the equivalent to a d6 Effect Die, with the step of the die increased according to the following degrees: “beating” the other roll by 1 or 2 is a d6 equivalent, by 3 or 4 is a d8 equivalent, by 5 or 6 is a d10 equivalent, and by 7+ is a d12 equivalent. If you don’t mind more complexity (and more “average” results on the whole), you could increase the range of each successive step (i.e. 1 or 2 would be d6, 3-5 would be d8, 6-9 would be d10, and 10+ would be d12).

In the core rules for Conflict (or the Action-Based Resolution mod), the advantage goes to the acting character, because the reacting character must beat the acting character’s result to be successful. Many “gritty” roleplaying systems (or at least RPG systems attempting to fall into the amorphous category of “gritty”), have ties go to the defender. It’s worth considering whether to use that approach or to keep the core Cortex approach that the acting character has the advantage. I don’t think there’s a right answer here, but because this ruling applies when things are down to the wire, I expect your players will recognize the difference, even if only intuitively.

Another effect of this system is that certain “dice tricks” available with the use of Plot Points or SFX collapse into one another. For instance, the ability the add a third die to your total would now both increase your chance of success and your degree of success (whereas, under the normal rules, adding a third die to your total would make that die unavailable to be used as an Effect Die).

Limited Dice Pools
Under the core Cortex Prime rules, a character may add one die to their pool from each applicable Trait category (with some additional judgment necessary for Signature Assets and similar Traits, where having a rating within that general Trait category does not mean that it will be universally applicable). But what if they can’t? What if a character can only use a maximum of four dice in a dice pool, even if there are five Traits that might contribute a die? If this only applies to characters (players or NPCs) but not opposition rolls from other sources, this allows a great deal more fine tuning of difficulties (again, with the complexity of statistics for the Cortex Prime system, the exact steps of granularity added by such a measure is not exactly known, but we can generally surmise the difference between adding an additional d10 versus adding 2d6 to the pool–assuming we’re still only talking about using the two highest-rolling dice for the result).

To best jibe with the way the Cortex Prime system works, dice that fall outside of the character’s innate Traits should not apply to the limit–essentially, an Asset (other than a Signature Asset), an opposing character’s Complication or Condition, etc.–don’t count.

This idea also creates a new space for Traits, SFX, or Plot Point expenditures that break the rule. The ability to spend a Plot Point to add a die to the pool over the normal limit of dice should, of course, be added. Certain Trait sets, if they apply, may not count toward the dice limit for the pool–this is a great way to put added emphasis on a particular Trait set–accentuating Signature Assets, Powers, or Abilities, for instance. For a more limited version of the preceding, consider an SFX with a non-Plot-Point cost as permission to add the die to the pool regardless of the limit. I’ll be working on a post with an approach to modeling human augmentation in Cortex Prime in the near future; it will include some examples of employing these ideas for breaking the Limited Pool Rule.

This mod, I believe, also adds additional power to having higher-stepped dice in a rating. Not only does a d12 increase the total result you might reach, but it brings up the average result as well–something that you can do by adding multiple dice of a lower step when there is no limit on the pool.

“Forced Dice”
This mod works only with the Limited Pool mod above, and it’s something that I’m still wrapping my head around, so it will likely be expanded in a future post. For now, I’m just going to mention it. The idea, in general, is to create situations in which a character must accept a d4 in their (limited) dice pool. Part of determining the ultimate usefulness of this approach is finding a reason to use this method rather than the normal methods for adding disadvantages and negative conditions to the opposing pool.

Where I’m currently thinking through using this idea is where certain conditions precedent must be satisfied to undertake a particular action at full effectiveness–a character can still take the action without having first (or simultaneously) satisfied those conditions, but they must accept a “Forced Die,” a d4 added to the pool that counts toward their Pool Limit, to do so. This could be employed for taking simultaneous actions during conflict (the “multiple-action” penalty used in other games) if relevant to the way you track initiative and your action economy. It may also be used to accentuate certain conditions from the “run-of-the-mill” conditions represented by Complications.

As I mentioned at the top, I’m working on a full set of mods for Cortex Prime to run games set in Avar Narn. I’m sure there will be additional posts on this subject and others related to that ruleset on the blog soon (with the referenced post about human augmentations first among them).

Back to the Mud: Putting some Grit in Cortex Prime, Part I: Damage and Injury

Readers who’ve followed the blog for some time have likely picked up two things with regards to my favored approaches to roleplaying games. First, I prefer narratively-structured games, like Fate and Cortex Plus/Prime. Second, I like my settings gritty.

At first, these things may seem contradictory; both Fate and Cortex involve capable characters from the get-go with fairly high chances of success in their actions. They give players Fate or Plot Points to shift the narrative in their favor from time to time. I’m of the mind that this is a false dichotomy. To me, having low-powered characters with correspondingly-low chances of success is not gritty; it’s either frustrating or comical. This has been my experience with low-level characters in D&D and especially in the Warhammer (both Fantasy and 40K) percentile systems (especially when the GM thinks of unmodified roles as “easy” ones instead of following the rules guidelines that “easy” rolls should give bonuses–this is easy to forget in the thick of the game). To me, a gritty setting is one in which the characters are capable, but even skilled characters can get unlucky and suffer extreme consequences. It doesn’t happen often, but even an untrained peasant with a pitchfork can kill an armored knight when the chips fall just so. This is where, as with real life, skill alone is not always enough to prevail.

Philosophy of gaming (were that an established academic field!) aside, this post is going to be about adding some mechanical elements to Cortex Prime to increase the grittiness of the system. As one last note within this preamble, I want to point out that no mechanical changes are strictly necessary to run a gritty game of Cortex Prime–simply narrating the action to fit the feel of the game can accomplish this. But, for those who want to go further, to adapt Cortex Prime from a “generic” system to one that can be tailored to genre and tone, here we go.

In this post, we’ll talk about some ways to use the rules mods given in the Cortex Prime Handbook (sometimes with small changes) to adjust grittiness. In the next, I’ll offer some ideas that diverge more significantly from the mods contained in the Cortex Prime Handbook.

Being Taken Out
On my first readthrough of the rulebook, it struck me that the Stress and Trauma system suits a gritty setting best. Subsequent thought revealed that I may just be partial to that system because it feels a little more like “traditional” RPGs without going fully to the “Ablative Hit Points” mod. Reflection has led me to the thought that the basic rules for being taken out (spend a Plot Point to not be taken out of the scene) may be used to bring heightened tension to conflict that matches with a gritty feel. The key here is in addressing the consequence here suffered upon being taken out. For more cinematic games, the Consequence suffered for avoiding being taken out can be narratively (but not mechanically) lower–getting winded, winged by a bullet or otherwise put in a position that complicates things without being in real physical jeopardy. Conversely, these Consequences can be made more narratively significant without modifying the mechanics: if the character suffers a Consequence because of a gunshot, then the Consequence could be Sucking Chest Wound d10 or Gutshot d8. Even if no mechanics are altered, this will certainly put players on edge more than Flesh Wound d8. Of course, I’m not just going to suggest narrative changes here. My main point here is that, with regard to the base system for conflict, staying in the fight creates an additional pull on resources (in the form of Plot Points). Tough choices regarding resources is a core of mechanically-gritty systems–this naturally increases the dramatic and tactical strain on both characters and their players. Consider using the “core” system for being taken out with other rules systems to drive home risk and a need for resource conservation.

Stress and Trauma to Lethal and Non-lethal Damage
One alternative to the core system for being taken out of a conflict presented in Cortex Prime is the system for Stress and Trauma. Under that system, a character first takes Stress as a Complication to an attribute when losing a test in a confrontation. If the character has d12 Stress, this is converted into Trauma, which has the same mechanical complication as a Stress Complication but which is more slowly recovered. A character who takes “damage” that would push Trauma beyond d12 is removed from the game, probably because the character dies in the case of Physical Trauma (or is mortally wounded, put in a coma, etc.).

One simple shift in thinking here is to draw upon the World of Darkness/Storyteller damage system, thinking not in terms of Stress and Trauma but lethal and non-lethal damage. To be specific, replace Stress with Non-Lethal Damage and Trauma with Lethal Damage as with the original system, once Non-Lethal Damage is at d12, further Non-Lethal steps of damage are added to Lethal Damage. But where circumstances indicate the damage received would be life-threatening (the use of weapons, a fall from a height, fire, electricity, etc.), apply the damage to the Lethal Damage die, skipping over the Non-Lethal Damage die altogether. This would work well in systems where brawls (fisticuffs being treated as Non-Lethal Damage under the logic that punches and kicks can be deadly, but it usually takes more than, say, hitting someone with a hammer, to push from bruises to serious injury) are more common than deadly fights, or where the consequence of producing a weapon should be dramatically significant. This can easily be combined with the core Being Taken Out system to make conflict (especially physical conflict) an extremely serious event rather than a common and expected aspect of the game, suiting this especially to investigative or political genres.

A further question to be answered if using this system is how to apply the Complications of Non-lethal and Lethal damage. Do you apply both dice to the opposition test, only the higher of the two, or use some other method to determine effect on rolls?

For an additional complexity, you can allow appropriate armor to convert Lethal damage into Non-Lethal damage based on the armor’s step/rating. This gives characters some added protection without armor having the ability to completely nullify the effects of an injury.

Recovery Times
As the Dungeon Master’s Guide attempts to do in D&D, making things feel gritter may be a matter of increasing recovery times. As the various implementations of extended rest rules in D&D indicate, however, extending recovery times fails if it is the sole method of making a game “gritty.” If injured characters can still meaningfully participate in the style of game being played as they recover, then extended recovery rules may work well. If they only make it necessary to “fast forward” for weeks or months as characters recover, this doesn’t really provide you with any benefit.

If it fits–say one of the features of your particular game is that the characters’ situation gradually worsens until they manage to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat at the very last moment (which, if you believe the gaming philosophy espoused by John Wick in his Play Dirty books–controversies about his behavior as a person and RPG developer aside–is what players really want), then you might be served by extending recovery times. Unless truly necessary, though, it’s probably best to continue keeping recovery abstract without adding too many additional recovery rules. Consider having Stress (or its equivalent) recover between each session and Trauma (again, or its equivalent) recover between adventures. This provides dramatic increase in the tolls taken on characters as a story progresses without bogging things down. Combine with a Doom or Crisis Pool mechanic and you end up with a serious spiral of stakes.

To my mind, as a matter of game design, the best place for extended (or “realistic”) recovery times is in settings where some form of “miraculous” healing exists to circumvent normal recovery times, whether magical or technological. This bears in mind the realism of injuries while allowing characters to return to full status in a more player-satisfactory time frame. The only time the rule really matters, then, is when the players do not have access to such super-healing, allowing for an occasional point of higher stakes and drama if used sparingly.

“Ablative Hit Points” and the Condition Monitor
Above, I mentioned drawing inspiration from the WoD/Storyteller system for rethinking Stress and Trauma. Here, I’ll make reference to Shadowrun‘s “Condition Monitor” as a way for modifying the “Ablative Hit Points” system given in Cortex Prime.

Shadowrun calculates damage in “boxes” inflicted on a character’s “Condition Monitor.” A character has two Condition Monitors, really–one for “Stun” damage and one for “Lethal” damage. Each track typically has ten boxes, but this may be modified by a characters attributes, cyberware and other traits. As with Stress and Trauma in Cortex, “Stun” spills into Trauma when the Stun track is full. Where the Condition Monitor approach provides inspiration for Cortex is that it spaces out the mechanical penalties suffered for injury along the track (in more recent editions, cyberware or other factors can modify exactly where on the tracks these penalties are situated).

We can add a similar idea to Ablative Hit Points, assigning Consequence Dice to various segments of the Ablative Hit Points total. If you start with 10 “Hit Points,” perhaps a d6 Consequence is suffered when your remaining total reaches 7 Hit Points. This combines the “pacing” mechanic of Hit Points with more discrete and immediate effects. As with Shadowrun, and the Lethal/Non-Lethal damage system above, you could maintain two tracks, with excess “Stun” or non-lethal damage spilling into the Lethal category as it does in Shadowrun. If you use two tracks, you again need to decide whether penalties from the two tracks stack (or if only the Lethal track has penalties at all, which might allow a middle-ground between the cinematic and realistic).

To combine ideas from Shadowrun and World of Darkness, you could use a single track for both Non-Lethal and Lethal damage. To do this, Non-Lethal and Lethal damage are notated differently on the track (WoD used “/” and “X” to fill boxes). If the track is full and additional Non-Lethal damage is received, any Non-Lethal damage marked on the track is converted to Lethal damage before any points “overflow” into the condition that occurs (whatever that may be) when damage is received beyond a full track.

The number of Hit Points a character has is an important consideration. Thinking in terms of Dice Steps to numbers (see Rob Donoghue’s post on Evil Hat Games) mapping onto a 1-5 system (as in Fate), if you’re using an Effect Die, a maximum of 5 Hit Points of damage may be done with a single attack, perhaps one or two more if you use heroic successes for stepping up. The major consideration here is whether you want the possibility that a (player) character can be killed in one attack (depending on what having 0 Hit Points means). Additional considerations include how much damage can characters suffer overall and what is the hit point recovery rate.

If you want the additional mechanics, or a shift more toward the “traditional” RPG feel, you can add damage values for weapons (which should be a factor in determining the length of your damage tracks). Likewise, you can have armor prevent damage altogether, convert lethal damage to non-lethal damage, or some combination thereof. This shifts away from the core philosophy of Cortex Prime by moving toward a stricter accounting for gear and equipment, but if such a move suits your game, why worry about that at all?

Let’s Talk About Midnight Mass

[THERE ARE SPOILERS BELOW! IF YOU CARE ABOUT THAT SORT OF THING, STOP NOW. YOU’VE BEEN WARNED!]

K and I recently finished Midnight Mass on Netflix. I enjoyed it–this time of year I’m always in the mood for some horror fiction and there’s a lot out there that just isn’t good (I also recently watched Gretel & Hansel, which was mildly interesting but really just doesn’t merit a post).

Much has already been said about the series’ approach to religion, but rather than respond to the thoughts of others (many of which I’ve found cogent and insightful even where I may not agree with them), I thought I’d write my own instead.

Communion and Vampirism

Let’s first address the elephant in the room, shall we? Midnight Mass is certainly not the only piece of fiction to have made an association between vampirism and Communion. The Vampire: The Masquerade roleplaying game played with this idea and Biblical legend has perhaps always played a part in the various cultural ideas of vampirism–after all, if you have a Christian worldview and also believe in the existence of vampires (as was somewhat broadly the case almost to the 20th century and still has its holdouts) you have to figure out how the two ideas mesh. Various possibilities have been put forth in religious folklore–Cain, Lilith, etc.

The accusation that the “love feasts” of early Christians involved the literal eating of flesh was made by the Romans (probably either in cynical propaganda or credulous misunderstandings of the new religion’s rites), but Christianity doesn’t stand alone in this regard–the “blood libel” against the Jews throughout the medieval period represents a much more serious and lasting accusation than that against Christians. If you’re unfamiliar, the “blood libel” is a long-running tradition of belief that Jews were actually eating Christian babies and children, or at least killing them and using their blood. It shouldn’t need to be said but: this was an outright anti-Semitic lie perpetuated out of a cultural need for a culpable “other” and justification for pogroms against and the exile of Jews that had financial motivations as much as socio-religious ones.

For purposes of this post, though, I’m less interested in historical beliefs and more interested in the seemingly-natural association humans seem to draw between Communion and vampirism. In other words: what does it mean to “eat the body of Christ” and “drink the blood of Christ?” This will not be a thorough discussion of the theologies of Communion, but rather some general thoughts on the matter.

The first question raised, of course, is whether the terms are intended to be literal or figurative. The Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation takes the meaning literally–and this, of course, is part of the reason that Midnight Mass works with Catholic liturgy and theology in a way that just wouldn’t track the same for a Protestant theology holding that the meaning of Communion is symbolic and commemorative.

The doctrine of transubstantiation is a difficult one at best. On the one hand, that means a direct confrontation with the belief that you are literally eating your Savior (and the necessary follow-up question of “why?”). On the other, this creates the additional problem of what happens to the body of Christ once you’ve ingested it, requiring a doctrine of “untransubstantiation,” because it would be improper to defecate your Lord and Savior. Yes, that’s funny, and I giggle, too, but it’s the sort of corner that theology can back itself into sometimes. I am less inclined to believe that this is a matter of the foolishness of early theologians and more inclined to believe that it simply a matter of the limitations of the human mind as it struggles with divine mystery. There’s just really no way to definitively determine the question of transubstantiation, so doctrine on the subject must be based on other theological assumptions rather than logic applied to the question itself.

As a Methodist, I belong to a tradition that denies transubstantiation and views it as a sacrament, but one that serves as reminder for grace and divine action rather than a regular miracle. Maybe that sits well with me because of my own skepticism (where, of course, skepticism is the exercise of intellectual analysis before coming to a conclusion rather than taking an answer entirely on faith–or, conversely, denying a possibility outright). This is because I think that the metaphor of Communion is two-fold: on the side of the supplicant, the metaphor is one of spiritual sustenance embodied in reference to literal sustenance. Jesus states in the Gospels that he is the source of the living water, and that he is the bread of life, but we do not take these statements to mean, literally, that Jesus was made of water or of bread. Nevertheless, the meaning is clear–God is sustainer of all things, whether that’s the coherence of reality itself or the strength of the individual soul.

The metaphor on Christ’s side–body and blood–serves as a metaphor for sacrifice. “No greater love has a man than this: that he lay down his life for his friends.”

Does that qualify as a mixed metaphor? Maybe, but I’d chalk it up to Chesterton’s argument that Christianity overcomes “problems” of contradiction by “combining furious opposites, keeping them both, and keeping them furious.” Hence, perhaps, the love of some Christian theologians for “both/and” as the answer to apparent contradictions.

If we view Communion in this light, the comparison to vampirism breaks down immediately. There is no predation or consumption on or of one party by the other, but two different ways of looking at the meaning of the same event, both of which are simultaneously true if not directly compatible. For me, personally, this is where I find the argument for a commemorative Communion more convincing than the argument for transubstantiation; not in the rejection of the possibility of miracle but in preference of the meaning that most fits with my understanding of Christianity as a whole.

None of this is to discount the possibility of a personal, existential and mystical encounter with God through the act and ritual of Communion, regardless of your theological view of the sacrament.

Critique of Religion

Much has been made of the character of Bev Keane as vehicle for much critique of religion in general and Christianity in particular. Rightly so, she is the main villain and a truly horrible person. But, I’d argue (as others have done) that the critique demonstrated by her character is not a critique of religion itself, but of the use of religion–and equally applicable to the misuse of any philosophy or system of belief adhered to without any doubt or humility. That could just as easily be aggressive atheism, materialist science, the social-Darwinism tenets of neo-capitalism, political beliefs or, in a slightly less dangerous and much more amusing version, fandom.

It is not the substantive belief (i.e. Christianity) that makes Bev Keane evil. The story provides Christian characters antithetical to such a reading. Think in particular of Annie Flynn, who first offers a verbal rebuke (from the lens of Christianity) to Bev Keane and then lays down her life for the benefit of others in that ultimate expression of love meant to counterbalance the evil Keane has worked. If you want to argue that the fact that Annie doesn’t actually die undercuts her sacrifice, I have two responses. First, there are some consequences that are worse than death–especially to a Christian who believes in the promise of eternal life. Becoming whatever she became after she transitioned into undeath would not have been a welcome prospect. Second, that does not undo the terror that must be overcome to willingly slit one’s own throat and experience what followed.

Instead, there are two possibilities for explaining Bev Keane’s evil, and both are both infuriating and ubiquitous in humanity. The first possibility is that her position and the use of her faith serves only to fulfill those petty desires of the small-minded: something to control, something to feel superior to, something to set you apart for special praise. The second is that she has allowed her convictions to stand in the way of her compassion. This is the behavior that causes Jesus to rebuke the Pharisees so many times in the Gospels, to call them “white-washed sepulchers.”

I would argue that all genuine faith (regardless of creed or theology) must begin from a place of humility and an acceptance of love for others as the deciding factor in all moral questions. It is humility that keeps us from the surety and pride in our own ideas that allows them to justify hurting others in the interests of “purity of doctrine.” It is love that guides us not to hurt others for our own gain. That Jesus demonstrates these points time and time again is one of the most convincing aspects of Christianity to me, personally. At the same time, regardless of doctrine, I cannot conceive of a good God who would not appreciate a person who follows these practices, regardless of the specifics of their theology.

Erin Greene’s Speech

Here’s the problem that I have with the narrative and the arguments it makes: Erin Greene’s “I am that I am” death speech. Now, to be complete forthright and honest, I’m biased against the argument made by this speech in the first place, so take it as you will (which may be not at all). Here’s a transcript of the monologue so that it is fresh before you:

“Speaking for myself? Myself. My self. That’s the problem. That’s the whole problem with the whole thing. That word: self. That’s not the word, that’s not right, that isn’t — that isn’t. How did I forget that? When did I forget that? The body stops a cell at a time, but the brain keeps firing those neurons. Little lightning bolts, like fireworks inside, and I thought I’d despair or feel afraid, but I don’t feel any of that. None of it. Because I’m too busy. I’m too busy in this moment. Remembering. Of course. I remember that every atom in my body was forged in a star. This matter, this body, is mostly just empty space after all, and solid matter?

It’s just energy vibrating very slowly and there is no me. There never was. The electrons of my body mingle and dance with the electrons of the ground below me and the air I’m no longer breathing. And I remember there is no point where any of that ends and I begin. I remember I am energy. Not memory. Not self. My name, my personality, my choices, all came after me. I was before them and I will be after, and everything else is pictures picked up along the way. Fleeting little dreamlets printed on the tissue of my dying brain.

And I am the lightning that jumps between. I am the energy fighting the neurons. And I’m returning. Just by remembering, I’m returning home. It’s like a drop of water falling back into the ocean, of which it’s always been a part. All things, a part. All of us, a part. You, me, and my little girl, and my mother, and my father, everyone who’s ever been. Every plant, every animal, every atom, every star, every galaxy, all of it. More galaxies in the universe than grains of sand on the beach.

That’s what we’re talking about when we say God. The one. The cosmos, and its infinite dreams. We are the cosmos dreaming of itself. It’s simply a dream that I think is my life, every time. But I’ll forget this. I always do. I always forget my dreams. But now, in this split second, in the moment I remember, the instant I remember, I comprehend everything at once. There is no time. There is no death. Life is a dream. It’s a wish. Made again and again and again and again and again and again and on into eternity. And I am all of it. I am everything. I am all. I am that I am.”

The first thing I take issue with is that the speech exists at all. If you’re going to spend an entire series deconstructing religion and the problems that arise within it, I find it disingenuous to substitute your own argument for cosmological truth in the final act–it just makes everything that came before a strawman for knocking down, a rhetorical sleight-of-hand to lend strength to a belief about fundamental reality just as unprovable as the ones you’ve spent the rest of the story questioning. Given that the rest of the narrative raises questions about how we judge the leaps of faith we willingly make–or are called to make by others–trying to answer the question only cheapens it. The more honest approach is to leave the question open: we don’t know for sure what ultimate reality is or what happens when we die, no matter how deeply we believe in the answer provided by one faith or another, so let’s start from a place of compassion towards others and humility in our understanding of self.

For this same reason, this speech is entirely unnecessary and overreaches. The only satisfying answer that we find in the questions raised by the story lie within our lived lives, not our expectations of the afterlife. How our faith causes is to treat people in the here and now is the primary focus of any theological argument made by the show, so why suddenly go beyond that?

[Aside: I’d also note that this is the same focus that Jesus takes in the Gospels–he spends much less time (but not none) discussing the nature of the afterlife or resurrection, because (I think) however God has (or has not) structured any life to come, anything more than the hope of it is a distraction from the lives we lead now. Jesus has much more to say on how we ought to conduct ourselves in our present lives; I’d argue the central theme of his teachings is a revelation of how creation operates (or should operate) so that we can use that knowledge now.]

Here’s where, if the approach taken by Erin’s speech appeals to you, you may really want to leave off. I think it’s only fair to deconstruct that argument about the nature of reality in the same way the show does for other religious ideas. Here we go.

The speech begins with a denial that the self exists, but continues to speak in the first person. This is a problem that I have with any theological argument that asserts that denial of the self and re-assimilation to an undifferentiated whole is the purpose or end of existence. First, because this is, effectively, death. If you do not believe in an afterlife, that’s fine, this concept will work for you. But it is incompatible with the idea that we continue to exist after the assimilating event, you are, by necessity, a self.

More important, if you are arguing that the self is only an illusion (as does Greene in her monologue, as do some forms of Buddhism), who is making the argument? You have no internal consistency when you argue that there is no true thing as self and then make a bunch of statements as assertions made by yourself. This is the same problem with the materialist arguments that “there is no self, there is only the illusion of self because consciousness is an unfunctioning byproduct of firing neurons” (something that Green alludes to herself) or that we lack free will because “we’re just bags of chemicals.”

Erin’s cosmology leads to nothing morally superior to Christianity or any other philosophy or theology–it is not exempt from being misused. If I am everything and everything is me, I can justify doing whatever I want for my own power, because it’s all me anyway. If my actions only hurt myself, there is no one but me who can truly complain about anything I do, even if it seems to hurt part of me–I have the right to hurt myself as an autonomous being. Bev Keane could find ways to work with this kind of solipsism with no more difficulty than she justifies herself through Christianity.

I’m going to sidestep the hubris of decided that one is God, not to mention the absurdity of denying the existence self and then claiming such an expansive definition of self.

That said, I do believe that this philosophy is particularly apt for a horror story…if the point of the philosophy is existential terror. Really think about what Erin is arguing about her existence–she continually “forgets” and believes that she’s a self, has experiences, comes to find out she’s not a self and it has only been a “dream,” then forgets that dream and goes through the process ad infinitum. This is a cycle of believing that there is meaning in existence and then finding that there is none. It is a masturbatory universe playing with itself because there’s nothing else to do. Without variety, without self, without memory, without relationship, where can meaning be found?

Between Riley Flynn and Erin, what I really see motivating their beliefs is a desire for oblivion, a desire for the end of suffering. That’s understandable from a certain perspective; given enough suffering, the will to continue to exist in the face of pain and despair will eventually abate. I’d like to say I think of the Book of Job when I think of this, but really I think of the narrator in Fight Club: “On a long enough time line, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.” This is a desire for escape, a desire simply to stop suffering. Given Riley and Erin’s experiences in life, I see why such a belief would be appealing. And maybe that’s all we get at the end of life, a ceasing to exist that alleviates all pain–but that also denies any of the joys of existence. I have only my faith to say otherwise.

But that is, in fact, part of why I have faith. I want to believe that there is an ultimate meaning to existence, that we exist in the creation of an omnipotent and beneficent God who wants the highest joy for each of us when all is said and done in this world. No joy that ends can be the highest joy, so it stands to reason that eternal life is necessary (though not sufficient) to the abundant life Jesus promises us. Instead of having a hope to one day escape the bad, I would rather have something more–a hope for being complete in the good.

That faith and hope makes me a better person. Yes, it helps me to suffer more patiently. Yes, it helps me to be generally happier. But it also helps me to strive to create meaning, in both life and art. It helps me to love others and to push for that abundant life here and now (what, after all, is eternity but an unending “now?”). It helps me to do good. This kind of faith isn’t a crutch; it’s a ladder.

It’s possible that Erin’s explanation of reality is the correct one; I lack the knowledge and experience to say anything conclusive on the matter. But I also see no reason, theological or practical, to live one’s life with such a belief. I, for one, will continue to set my faith on something higher.

Conclusions

If you watched this show and felt that it singled out Christianity for special treatment (I think there’s an argument that it went softer on Islam, but it’s also true that that may only be a matter of space in the story and the fact that it is Monsignor Pruitt and his church that is the focus), I’d ask you to ask why you think that is. There is, as I’ve mentioned above, the strange relationship between Communion and vampirism. But I’d argue that that’s not it. Instead, I’d argue that this is a matter of the times in which we find ourselves and of the nature of American Christianity (painted unfairly in the broadest possible brush, of course).

In the past few years, we’ve had conservative Christians call Obama the antichrist, act as if Trump were the Second Coming (a thought so antithetical to me that I have a physical reaction upon writing it), call the Covid-19 vaccine a sign of the End Times, use their faith as an excuse for not showing compassion to their fellow man (again with the vaccine, and I’ve written previously about the use of faith as an excuse given by child placing agencies to discriminate within the Texas foster and adoptive care systems) to support fascism undercurrents and spread lies about our government, to make arguments against equality, and so on and so on. The litany of offenses would be a long one indeed, and this is nothing new.

Given these stances and their affect on believers and non-believers alike, they should be subject to scrutiny and criticism. It should be a matter for every honest believer, regardless of their specific beliefs, to introspectively question the rightness of their theological positions as a matter of a desire to truly live faithfully–entrenched tradition and interpretations of doctrine originating in very different historical contexts should be especially subject to this process. Not because we have changed for the better, necessarily, but because the interpretations that arose in one context may be influenced by that context just as ours affects our interpretation. The argument that progressive Christians are trying to “change the Bible” because of changes in culture is a willful ignorance that all interpretation is subject to human limitation and the influence of culture on the mind. By having a greater diversity of interpretations, we may be able to make comparisons and weigh arguments to find something closer to the truth.

Those who’ve read my blog for a while know that one of the primary focuses in my religious writing is to argue against the fundamentalist and conservative interpretations of Christianity that I believe grossly miss the meaning of the faith–and create barriers to others in considering what true Christianity is about by creating an image of the faith that is repulsive to those who feel that compassion and love, not fear and hatred, is the message of a good God, regardless of the specific faith. In that sense, Midnight Mass makes a strong and valuable point–we have a moral obligation to consider whether our religious beliefs lead to good things or bad, lead us to make the world better or to make it worse. When it’s the latter, is it really fair to resort to divine mandate theory–that because God said it it’s true and moral? Or should we believe in a God that does not ask us to hurt others for vainglory?

UbiWorld (a “kind-of” Far Cry 6 Review)

In the midst of some (sporadic) writing, running a Brancalonia/D&D game, and preparing to open back up for another foster placement, I’ve been playing Far Cry 6. I have completed the main story and done most, but not all, of the side missions.

I’m a fan of the series, having played them since 2. But it’s a guilty pleasure, really–I don’t particularly see the setting or story of the games as particularly enthralling (despite Giancarlo Esposito playing his signature bad-guy role in 6, I think the story of 5 was more compelling–probably because it played upon personal interests (the morbid fascination with cults) and fears (the increasingly dangerous idea of what constitutes “patriotism” in the U.S.). For Far Cry 6, I’ve mostly been enjoying the mindless fun of the gameplay, the beauty of the environments, and the exploration element.

As I’ve done so, a realization has started to sink in–Ubisoft’s really only been making one game for a while. Far Cry 6 is most similar (I’d argue) to Ghost Recon: Wildlands (which I loved), but the latest Ghost Recon entries, Far Cry games, and Assassin’s Creed games are basically the same thing with some minor gameplay differences and some reskins for setting.

I understand that that’s a good business move–all of these franchises perform well financially, consumers pretty much know exactly what they’re going to get with a new version in any of those franchises, and going back to the same well of systems and mechanics certainly lowers production costs (or at least so I’d assume).

Being a person who loves RPGs (which there is some of in these games), tactical shooters (in the non-Assassin’s Creed lines), and game-world exploration (at the core of all of them), I do look forward to new entries in each genre. But I think that the narrative efforts in each new game come out much like any copy of a copy of a copy: always a little less clear, always a little less useful, always just “less” than the one before. Ghost Recon: Breakpoint, while a really interesting idea for a setting, was simply less compelling than Wildlands, Far Cry 6’s narrative certainly pulls less emotional weight than 5’s.

Something else both Breakpoint and Far Cry 6 have in common is their use of famous actors for the main villains (Jon Bernthal and the aforementioned Giancarlo Esposito, respectively, both actors I really like). The problem has nothing to do with the actors themselves–it’s that the use of the actors seems to have been an excuse for not creating more interesting and vibrant villains in the first place.

This has me on two tangent thoughts. First, what would an Ubisoft game that drew on the best elements of each of these related games look like? From Ghost Recon, I’d take the realistic weapons (in designs and performance), the plausible tech (drones, NVGs, thermals). From Far Cry, capturing bases and strategic points, side missions about fleshing out characters and narrative rather than mechanics, treasure hunts, takedown systems (for both people and vehicles). I think I’d rather keep a skill-based character development over a gear-based one like Far Cry 6. If I remember correctly, Far Cry 2 had weapon jams–I’d bring that back. Suppressor overheating is a cool idea for a game, but the way it’s treated by Far Cry 6 is really only as realistic as the “Hollywood quiet” suppressors in just about any video game.

On this note, there was some very interesting commentary (way back) on video game weapon design from on of the developers of Rainbow 6: Vegas (also an Ubisoft game). The designer giving the commentary explained that they first developed the weapons to be as realistic as possible, but then modified them from that starting place to conform more with popular conceptions of weapons–the knockdown of a shotgun blast, the quiet of a suppressor, etc.

But the second, more important thought, is about what the next evolution of these types of games should be. The gameplay is fun; I’m partial to shooters and to open worlds. While there could be some additional improvements to gameplay (as described above), the place we need some real improvement on this games to feel like they’re not just reskinned rehashes of the same old, same old, is the narrative.

Here, I have two subpoints. The first is that we need more interesting narratives. Far Cry 6, like the other games, has its moments of emotional pull. It is a revolution after all, and the true cost of a revolution, so far as I can tell (never having been part of one) is in the lives it takes or otherwise changes irrevocably. We need more personal stories. I’ve grown bored with the weird and quirky, but ultimately shallow, characters. Mr. Esposito does a fine job with his role until the very end, but the writers could have given him so much more to work with. And, while some may care for the crazy companions in Far Cry 6, I do not. As is my want in just about all of my fiction, I want more nuance, more complexity. And along with that complexity, I want some agency.

What the UbiWorld games really need is to be removed from a “playground” experience where you merely ride the rides and placed into a participatory narrative. You should have to make choices that have tough consequences, should have multiple opportunities to change the story in a major way (what if Dani joined with Castillo?), and the way that missions are approached should have a consequence as well. Getting extra resources for taking over a base without setting off an alarm just doesn’t cut it anymore.

While we’re at it, let’s through in some random events in each playthrough and some systems that combine to make for emergent gameplay. I am convinced that a great part of the success of Sea of Thieves is the emergent nature of its gameplay. My friends with whom I play that game don’t talk about the Tall Tale missions, they talk about that time where something incredible and unexpected happened through a combination of interactions with other human beings and the (random) procedural generation of the game.

I’m not saying that UbiWorld games should be massively multiplayer (though it’s a thought worth experimenting with, I suppose), but the ability of a game to generate unique (or at least particularlized) experiences for different players should become a regular aspect of electronic games.

My overall experience with Far Cry 6 is that, if you like Far Cry games specifically, or UbiWorld games in general, you’re probably going to enjoy the time you spend with it. But for me, what it left me with was a desire for something more, for true evolution in the style of games that are coming out that builds upon this strong foundation and makes it into something truly amazing.

The Ecstasy of Gold

I’ve been struggling for some time to understand how conservative Christians are able to maintain such dogged adherence to the ideas of ultra-capitalism without seeing a conflict with their faith. Ultimately, I think the only way to hold the two beliefs together is by not asking too many questions or examining very closely the assumptions required by the beliefs (either ultra-capitalism or their brand of Christian theology). This is my criticism of most conservative theologies–they start from incorrect assumptions and hold incorrect goals, resulting in theology that is doomed from the start, having never really grasped what God is about in the first place.

Still, I think I have discovered some of the unspoken underpinnings that allow for ultra-capitalism to thrive within the ideologies of (political) conservatives, and that an examination of these ideas compared to theological ones may be instructive.

Ultra-Capitalism

We should start with a definition. By “ultra-capitalism” I mean a modern approach to capitalism that: sees market competition as social Darwinism; this social Darwinism as the natural (and thus best) arbiter of success and social standing; self-interest and the profit motive as the defining characteristics of the human individual (and as moral prerogatives); as a corollary, associates economic poverty with moral weakness; assumes that those who have become rich have proven themselves both intellectually and morally fit to rule; holds personal property rights sacred over all other things; and bears a fear of and revulsion to social programs as allowing weakness to thrive, thus undermining the moral and social fabric of a society–and this in particular at the expense of those who have “rightfully acquired” their wealth through natural and all-encompassing superiority. It is in many ways Nietzschean and nihilistic, eschewing compassion for power. It is, in short, the economic version of “might makes right.”

First and foremost, it is the dogmatic belief in the “profit-motive” as the most defining characteristic of humanity. Thus, all people are seen as acting for selfish reasons to acquire money as best they can, with a division between moral methods of acquisition of wealth based upon ideas of “work” and “dessert,” and those methods of acquiring wealth that do not result from an adequate amount of work as immoral. Thus, the thief acquires money immorally, because he takes something earned by “honest labor” through the employment of “easier” means of acquisition. That the Ten Commandments dictate that “thou shalt not steal” coincides with this moral tenet, we need not look at the analysis that brings God (and us) to this conclusion, even if the rationale is different from the capitalist one. There is, then, the added result that the idea of thievery under the capitalist’s definition then extends to those who are on social welfare programs. Those who need food stamps, or Social Security Disability, or who would benefit from socialized medicine are getting material benefits for less work than is morally required of them to deserve economic gain, making social programs nothing more than government-sanctioned thievery. I imagine that, if you’ve read this far, you already understand that social welfare programs (like socialized medicine, even) is not the same as socialism. As an economic system, socialism means the collective ownership by the workers of the means of production, not the provision by the government of safety nets for all of its people–a method of providing for the “general welfare” that is a core element of the legitimacy of a government under “social contract” theory–though admittedly so is the protection of property rights, so we are left here with a dispute over what exactly the social contract is, how competing priorities under the social contract should be balanced, and, ultimately, who gets to set the contract’s terms.

From this starting place, the sovereignty of the profit-motive goes further. If there are those who leech of the system through providing the least amount of work possible, then my pursuit of self-interest and the selfish accumulation of wealth cannot be blamed, because no one is acting outside of self-interest and I am earning my wealth. This rationale justifies a moral insistence that my property rights are sacrosanct, that taking from me (through taxes, perhaps) for the basic needs of others who will not (cannot is seldom considered) earn for themselves is a fundamental injustice, both a moral failing and an insidious idea that will cause a nation to lose its overarching economic power and thus its place in the world. The belief here is that America is the best nation in the world because of its capitalism. Both the cause and the effect should be questioned.

Let’s look now at some objections typically raised by ultra-capitalists against criticisms:

One of the statements I often hear is: “I believe that the needy should be taken care of, but I believe that that’s the church’s role, not the government’s.”

This statement greatly amuses me as a student of history. Until the Christian reformation, the church did fulfill this function in western European society–but it did so by requiring tithes, indulgences, beneficences, the donation of land to save one’s soul and other forms of coerced re-allocation of property. In other words: taxes. At the time the Reformation occurred, the early modern economy was also developing. Guilds were transitioning into private corporations and “venture companies” designed to share risk between multiple investors (the predecessor of modern business entities), the obligations of traditional feudalism had already been replaced by a system of payments rather than personal service (so-called “bastard feudalism,” which, by the time of the Reformation, was converting even more to a system where wealth and nobility had been divested from one another instead of being tightly bound, because land ownership continually lost footing to new ways of generating wealth), and “middle class” (including the “New Men” of Tudor England) was rising. The modern idea of nations, centralized enough, organized enough to actually provide for the general welfare, was nascent, and though they remained mired at the time in arguments over the divine right of kings, the power was shifting from those with hereditary right to those with wealth earned by the sweat of their brow and the cleverness of their business designs, those who could afford to send their sons to the universities and the courts of law, not to become churchmen, but to become bureaucrats and wielders of political power in the name of those whose only entitlement was the fortune of birth

The misuse by the Catholic Church of its wealth provided an impetus to the Reformation (the extravagant lifestyles of those higher in church hierarchy coupled with a general negligence toward their spiritual duties and the reduction of penance to an economic transaction through the sale of indulgences), it also resulted in a diverse approach to economics by Protestant groups. By the 17th century, you had in England on the one hand the Diggers, who attempted to set up settlements with communal property and a focus on the ecologic interrelationship between humans and the earth; on the other, you had the Puritans: Calvinists (particularly of the Reformed tradition) who largely believed that the demonstration of a good “work ethic” and the accumulation of wealth were signs of status among the Elect, those whom God had predestined for salvation. There is much, I believe, in the Puritan legacy in the United States that resulted in the modern theologies that allow the marriage of ultra-capitalism with Christianity.

While religious organizations would conduct the majority of charitable works for centuries to come, religious ideas of the time intermingled with the rise of new economic realities to create a heritage we largely follow today–even for those who have forgotten the origin of such beliefs in post-Reformation theologies.

To step back into the present, the major problem with the assertion above about the “role of the Church” in social programs is that it really represents a desire of control over one’s wealth: “I don’t want the government to make me help just anyone; I want to get to decide who is worthy of helping.” This idea both maintains the ego-driven idea of comparative dessert while maintaining social power in the hands of those with money.

The second objection is that “no one will ever accomplish anything for society unless rewarded with wealth for doing so.” In other words, the ambition for economic gain is the only instigating factor for innovation, growth or achievement in human society. This idea is flawed for two reasons:

First, the pursuit of wealth in exchange for achievement does not promote the common good. The pharmaceutical and medical research industries (again, particularly in America) are a prime example of this. If we want to look at an egregious case, we need only read the history of OxyContin and Perdue Pharma, where the pursuit of profit led to the opioid epidemic. But there are many more examples to examine, because the very premise of allowing the profit-motive to control pharmaceutical development results in intentional harm to individuals. This is codified through the system of patents that protects new drugs. The argument goes that, if the developing pharmaceutical company is unable to make a profit on a new drug, they’ll never develop it, so we need to protect their discovery by giving them a temporary (but long-lived) monopoly on their discovery so that they can profit from it. This in turn results in life-saving medications that only some can afford, while we let the rest suffer or die. If we adhere to the ideas of social Darwinism and wealth means worth and morality that are endemic to ultra-capitalism, then we should have no moral qualms about this.

Take the Covid vaccines as an example. If those vaccines had been made “open source” so that they could be synthesized by any lab with the ability to do so without having to pay Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson for the privilege of doing so, would more people be vaccinated right now (particularly in places where people are not prey to misinformation about them but, for economic reasons, cannot procure them)? I think so.

The more insidious–but perhaps equally reprehensible–aspect of this system is that research projects are selected only with profit in mind. If there aren’t enough sufferers of a condition to make the development of therapeutic techniques or medications profitable, no research will be conducted into the condition, and doctors remain forced to tell patients, “we just don’t know enough about this disease/disorder to have an effective treatment plan.” While I’m not absolutely sure that the pharmaceutical industry actively pursues the development of treatments of symptoms over ways to cure disease, the aspects of the industry I am sure about make that a likely prospect.

The second problem with this argument is that it reduces human beings to economic units by assuming profit is the only human motivation. We can but look around and see that this is not true–we all know someone who has taken a lower-paying job to work in the non-profit sector because they believe in doing good, and many of us know people who have left one job for another that pays less because it allows them to have a better quality of life. Some of us ourselves have turned down good-paying jobs out of a distaste for the effect the particular company or type of industry has on the world at large. The profit motive is, in fact, a social construct rather than an inherent human quality, pervasive as it may be.

It is a curious thing that Puritan ideas (in general, there was theological diversity even within Puritanical groups) seem to have some coincidence with the ultra-capitalist approach to economics and politics, and not just because of the “Puritan Work Ethic.” The “five essential points” of Calvinism are often summarized with the TULIP acronym (for: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace and the Perseverance of the Saints). The idea of Total Depravity pairs well with the idea of the profit-motive being the natural state of man, and the idea that those who achieve their wealth through hard work are likely the Elect (and thus inherently more moral) and those who do not are not. The ideas of justification by faith alone and irresistible grace, in theory and perhaps in an antinomian way, take some responsibility off of the choices of humans, because humans cannot affect their salvation.

I should note that my own United Methodist Church doctrine also espouses the belief in justification by faith alone as a matter of salvation. As I’ve argued elsewhere, it’s my own belief that God has made salvation easy but sanctification difficult and, having heard a sermon by K this morning discussing the role of action in our faith (reconciling the ideas of the Letter of James with the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith) I ought to admit in fairness that the belief in justification by faith alone does not, in and of itself, result in antinomianism or a rejection of the need for moral action. There are plenty of people of Calvinist doctrine (as there are of any religious faith or no religious faith at all) who are committed to moral ideals we’d likely all agree upon.

A Note About Happiness

As a quick aside, a few comments about the relationship of money and happiness. There is a study by Nobel Prize winners Angus Deaton and Daniel Kahneman that is often cited for the precept that “happiness does not increase for people making over $75,000 dollars a year.” That’s not what the study says. Deaton and Kahneman measured two things in their study, neither of which was happiness. They measured “emotional well-being,” referring to day-to-day feelings and experience, and “life evaluation,” whether people thought positively or negatively about their life as a whole. They found that emotional well-being did not increase for people making more than $75,000 a year, but life evaluation did increase with higher incomes. So, increased income resulted in fewer negative (and more positive) feelings day-to-day to a cap of $75,000 a year, but life evaluation continued to increase beyond that. To nuance this, subjective experience related to life and money seems to cap at $75,000, but people continued to more positively rate the achievements in their life if they made more. In a nation where we see income as directly related to achievement and worth, the latter is not at all surprising–but I also wouldn’t equate it with happiness. Emotional well-being, on the other hand, seems to be a more valuable thing (though I’m sure many scholars and psychologists have investigated or are investigating how life evaluation relates to emotional well-being). We should be weary of using this study (or any other single study) to make categorical statements about reality, but I think that, anecdotally, at least, we’d agree that money and happiness don’t necessary corollate directly. Certainly, Scripture tells us that repeatedly.

On the other hand, rankings of the “happiest countries” in the world tend to perennially place Northern European (particularly Scandinavian) countries at the top of the list. These are countries with high taxes, many social programs, and smaller wealth disparities between those with the most and those with the least. To my mind, they are a strong argument that taxation and social support do not result in the degradation of a society. On the other hand, these nations are also strongly secular, so an argument might be made on that front.

At the end of the day, while we should be striving to find emotional stability and contentment, and should be treasuring and seeking out those things that make us happy, the scope of our lives is much larger than that. We must consider what makes us happy and why, and whether that explanation is a moral one. We must also consider the value of our lives apart from our own personal happiness. If we are called to self-sacrifice for the good of others, as Christ beckons us, then we must believe that personal happiness is not the prime metric by which to consider our success in life.

A Note on Privilege

I came from a background of privilege. Less than some, but more than most. My parents were both highly educated, driven and upwardly mobile. We lived in large houses in the suburbs and I wanted for nothing. I attended public schools, but I went to the best public schools available. I was encouraged to be curious and academically curious from a young age, with frequent trips to the library, tons of books at home, and a number of trips abroad when I was young to broaden my experience of the world. There was never a discussion about whether I would go to college; it was a given, and my parents ensured that it cost me nothing to earn my bachelor’s degree. Though I choose a more precarious path out of law school by immediately establishing a practice of my own, I was able to do so with somewhat less fear than I might have had because I knew I had a safety net in my family should I fail. Indeed, the expected disappointment of family if I failed wore heavier on me than any worry about where I would live or how I’d get by if my business failed.

And so, I realize that the achievements I’ve had in my life, whatever they may be, are not simply a result of my own intelligence and personal will. I had parents who paved a way for me through their own hard work, but, perhaps more important, I had the fortune to be born into a family that had enjoyed some amount of wealth and opportunity for generations. It would be foolish of me to consider my success to this point in my life to be only a matter of what I “deserve” or have “earned.”

And so it is with many of those who currently enjoy wealth, power, status and privilege. To endorse ultra-capitalism and asset one’s dessert of property as a matter only of hard work and dedication lacks introspection, a view of the interconnectedness of all things, and short-sightedness. How can one say in a worship service that “all good things are gifts from God,” while secretly believing that every good things one has has been earned by individual effort alone?

Scripture (in Constrast)

Jesus gives us many warnings and hard sayings about money. “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24). “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (Luke 16:13; see also Matthew 6:24).

I have argued elsewhere in this blog that participation in the “kingdom of God” is an existential matter of sanctification, of coming to understand the way that God sees things, to see the rightful relationships between all things (see, for example, the post “Salvation and Sanctification“). Read this way, Jesus’s statement in Matthew 19:24 is not to be a statement about salvation, but about sanctification–those who love money above all else are that much less likely to bring themselves to adopt the priorities God has created for the world. The second statement is like the first (for another look at material wealth as an obstacle to spiritual freedom, see “Dukkha in Christianity.”) Even so, the warning is dire, and there are more like it.

But the point goes far beyond the effect of wealth on personal spiritual growth. It’s the reason that is that case. Put simply, worrying more about protecting what’s yours than helping others is antithetical to the Christian ethic. The second-greatest commandment is to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:39). To allow the exploitation of others to amass personal wealth, as is the status quo in American business, is not loving others as oneself. To believe in the justice of a system that protects one’s own wealth at the expense of leaving others without access to healthcare, an economic safety net, or other basic aspects of the moral good and human dignity, is foolish at best, but more likely: it’s sin.

We are repeatedly called to protect the poor, the infirm, the widow, the orphan: the least and the lost. The exhortations to do so are not subjected to caveats or exceptions–especially not those that involve cost to those called to provide for them.

This is not to say that there is something inherently wrong with personal property rights, with owning property, or with gaining wealth (though the early church described in Acts did hold everything in common, we’re told). It is the prioritization of one’s own status and wealth at the expense of others that we are most warned against. It is the amassing of wealth through unjust means–which includes exploitative economic systems–that is suspect. As Chaucer’s Pardoner ironically recites from St. Jerome’s Vulgate version of 1 Timothy 6:10: radix malorum cupiditas est.

For the Christian, this should not be a political question. Christ requires us to make sacrifices of our own as we are able to care for those without the resources and privileges that we have. The only argument for Christians to have on the subject is how to best fulfill the obligations to which we are called. Maybe social programs run by the government are not the best way to accomplish this but, if not, we ought to be stepping up to fill in the gaps without judging who is “deserving” of help. First and foremost, we must oppose a society so mired in the ultra-capitalist ideal as to continue to increase wealth disparity and economic injustice in the world.