Roleplaying Mental Illness

I’ve been thinking about this topic a bit recently (for no particular reason recognized by my conscious mind, and nothing decipherable from my dreams, at least), and I thought I’d contribute my personal thoughts and opinions on the matter. A few prefatory notes:

  1. If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you may remember that I’ve now lived with clinical depression for fully half of my life (thankfully well controlled so that its effects on me are minimum or none). I know what it’s like to struggle against mental illness, and I understand the stigma that still, unfortunately, exists in the minds of many. But this post isn’t about my experience. I believe that this is an important issue for all roleplayers, not simply on an awareness basis (though that, too), but also because mental illness, if handled well and by agreement of all involved, can add depth and drama to a story–but also runs a high likelihood of being offensive, misguided, and ridiculous when the topic is not handled with care.
  2. You’ll probably also note that my writing on gaming has been focused on Fate RPG at present. The Fate Accessibility Toolkit has been recently released, and my understanding is that it has a treatment of this topic as well. I have not read it, so I don’t know how my opinions fit with the approach therein. Regardless, I can’t imagine that reading multiple opinions and approaches on the topic would be harmful–likely it would be helpful.
  3. I am not a psychologist or psychiatrist; I’m a lawyer, gamer, writer and aspiring theologian. None of my comments here should be taken as an attempt at serious medical commentary: we’re not talking about the pathology of actual mental illness here; we’re talking about fictionalized mental illness portrayed for dramatic and narrative effect in games we play–and portraying said fictionalized diseases and disorders in a way respectful to and mindful of those who live with the reality every day.

Getting It Wrong
I don’t have any particular instances I can think of where I had a player roleplay a character with mental illness in a way that was anything other than cartoonish, and that’s perhaps part of my basis for writing this post.

Let’s take an example many of us will be familiar with–a character playing a Malkavian vampire (or Malkovian if NWoD) in Vampire: The Masquerade (or Requiem, if you prefer). I have only seen players portray such characters as a bundle of nonsensical nonsequiturs intended to justify chaotic randomness and the player making all decisions by whim or, even worse, a roll of the dice. This is painful to all involved, except perhaps the player of the character, which is bad RPG group dynamics.

Not to offer criticism without an alternative, here’s how I think a typical Malka/ovian character should appear at the table: entirely “normal” most of the time. Then, occasionally, the character says something off, but in a way that might be a miscommunication, a bad joke, or something else that’s weird but only disturbing or threatening according to a certain interpretation. It’s only occasionally that mental malady truly overtakes the character, triggered by elevated tension or specific events, when it becomes painfully obvious that the character is gripped by beliefs or motivations that simply do not match with reason or the facts of the world. That inability to let go of incorrect beliefs or to overcome unwanted and unreasonable compulsions is where the horror of mental illness is found–for sufferer and for those around him or her. Vampire is a horror game, however, so that’s the point of portraying mental illness or psychological conditions in such a game–whether as a vampire who inevitably suffers from such or as a different type of character who suffers from the same for reasons mirroring those in the real world–unfortunate genetics, after-effects of injury or physical illness, unhelpful thought patterns maintained over time, mental trauma, etc.

The Age of Diagnosis by Committee
With the availability of Google, Wikipedia, WebMD and the like, there’s a growing habit among we who lack any significant training in psychology, to attempt to diagnose personality disorders or pathological mental illness in others. Most often this is our political figures (there’s even a current research trend to analyze sociopathic traits in the types of people who run for or are successful in political office, even if otherwise seemingly mentally healthy) and our celebrities, but it just as easily infiltrates our gossip about the people with whom we work and live.

In some ways, this is nothing new. Since the birth of neuroscience and psychology/psychiatry as well-respected fields of academic and scientific inquiry, historians have jumped at the opportunity to diagnose major figures in our past (particularly those whose behavior was erratic or who had a reputation in their own time for being mentally ill) according to modern psychological theory. There’s George III of England, who likely suffered from porphyria, any historical figure who claimed to have visions from God, who are most often retroactively diagnosed with either temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE-X) or schizophrenia, and plenty of persons we’d like to think of as having a mental illness to explain their crimes against humanity.

Of course, except in limited circumstances where DNA testing might be available and a mental illness had a wholly or mostly genetic cause, we really can’t know what historical persons did or did not suffer from. This trend is less about those analyzed and more about us, about the human tendency to want to categorize things into neat boxes to avoid ambiguity and uncertainty.

There is also a tendency to use this tactic to elevate our historical milieu over the past. We can says things like, “There was so much violence in the middle ages, a sociopath wouldn’t just find it easier to survive, he’d find it easy to thrive!” i.e., thank God we’re so much less violent and so much more reasonable now than people used to be. I doubt that very much. In the case of the TLE-X explanation, the point is most typically to apply a materialist paradigm to the past so that we can laugh about how backward and superstitious people were then and how much better we are now for embracing “reason” over religion (despite the obvious logical, philosophical and epistemological flaws in such arguments, which I’ve addressed elsewhere on the blog).

It’s precisely in the uncertainty and ambiguity inherent to mental illness where we find narrative drama. For several reasons, I’m going to suggest that we put down our DSM VI’s and focus on narrative.

Why Diagnosis is Unhelpful For RPGs
(1) It causes us to use stereotypes.
It’s likely everyone reading this (or nearly everyone, at least) has read or played in an RPG with a sanity system. I’m not going to point out any offending games specifically, but these systems tend to play out in one of two ways: Most often, the system involves preset categories of mental illness (usually given the names of official categories that might be found in the DSM) and prescribed behaviors for each category as a mechanic for something that, by its very nature, defies easy mechanics and particular expectations. Alternatively, the system relies on discrete behaviors rather than full categories.

Here are some of the problems with these systems: First, if the result of the “insanity” (a problematic word for such systems anyway) doesn’t match the instigating events, the disconnect makes the system lack any verisimilitude, which most often causes players to lose any interest in believability and play the system and its effects for laughs. Second, these systems often focus on limited behaviors, which builds idiosyncrasy in a character, but not necessarily serious character development. When the behavior, rather than motive, is the issue, the risk of cartoonish roleplay becomes exponentially higher.

This kind of system further pushes us toward caricature rather than character because it operates as a shorthand to approximate mental illness without much care toward our actual proximity to the truth of experience. My players love to roleplay, but most of them are not interested in doing a lot of research to play their characters. I cast no aspersions on that; every roleplayer has different goals in approaching the game and I suspect that most gamers want to focus on the game without having to do “homework.” But it means sloppy roleplaying on issues that require great research or experience to do well, like mental illness.  This is poor form on its own, but when you have someone at the table who has experienced mental illness, personally or in close loved ones, and who potentially continues to struggle with those issues, such a lackluster approach shows a disrespect and lack of empathy destructive both to relationships and to a safe gaming environment.

(2) It makes us rules lawyers of character.
I’ve played with enough gamers who believe that the rules as written constitute the “physics” of the game and trump everything else–fun, good narrative, drama, efficient play, etc. My personal opinion is that the culture, if not the history, of D&D pushes people toward such a belief (I understand that Old School gamers will vehemently disagree; this is a debate for a different set of posts).

When we translate this approach to a set of rules describing a mental illness a character may have, then the rules of the mental illness become a permission for bad behavior by the player. This is not a result of roleplaying mental illness itself, rather it is a prioritization of discrete values and prescribed results (i.e. rules) over the reality of mental illness. “The player argues, ‘because I have…uh, kleptomania…I have to steal everything I can from the Baron. And because I have schizophrenia, I believe that the rest of the party members actually did it, so I blame them.'” Not fun for those other players, probably not relevant to the narrative, not a development of the player’s character in any meaningful way and not a cooperative approach to roleplaying in a group–in other words: annoying, unrealistic, and offensive.

Despite the categorizations of the DSM VI and its predecessors, every presentation of mental illness is different (it is, after all, an expression of a unique soul and psyche), so pigeonholing a disease into a set of rote behaviors is contrary to experience.

It is commonly said that naming a thing gives you power over it. This may be the exception that proves the rule, where naming the thing gives it power over you as you feel obligated to meet a culturally–not experientially–based expectation of the thing so named.

(3) Human behavior is based on a complex interaction of beliefs, the matrix of preferences and thought structures that constitute personality, and experience. Not on hard and fast rules.
Again, I’m not an expert in psychology or psychiatry. But my training as a foster parent has opened my eyes to the complexity of behavioral motivations in children, particularly those with traumatic backgrounds, and I can’t imagine that the same is not true of adults.

My point here has a common thread with my two points above, but I’d like to think that the first point focuses on our respect for others, the second focuses on our approach to gaming, and this one focuses on our approach to narrative.

When we put a name on a mental illness, there will be a temptation to judge every choice a player makes in consideration of his character’s condition against the rubric of our expectations on the disease or disorder specified. Where above I discussed the problem of a named mental illness providing an excuse for a player to dump on his fellows, the opposite is also true–the other players may feel compelled to weigh in every time the player whose character has a mental illness touches on the mental illness as a factor in the character’s behavior and choices.

Sometimes, limitations foster creativity. Here, they only stifle a player.

Psychosis Because of That Which Should Not Be
The descent into madness is a well-tested narrative trope as well as a key feature of the Cthulhu Mythos–and I’d dare say that it was Call of Cthulhu that first broached the issue of sanity systems in games (but I haven’t done the research to verify).

But that’s not the only place that we see such a theme; there are many narratives–often horror–that center on such an idea. Losing the ability to discern reality from fantasy is an existential terror. Perhaps, though, that’s actually something separate from what’s going on in the Cthulhu-verse. There, it’s an exposure to a hidden reality that fragments the psyche. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t treat the results in a similar way, because the source of drama is the inability to differentiate between real and unreal (or meaningful and meaningless).

And this result, this slippery slope, this descent into a darkness in our discernment, has nothing to do with using shorthand diagnoses to act out a caricature of mental illness, nor does it need any name to work its drama and tension upon narrative.

The key here is having the player feel the same ambiguity and terrifying uncertainty that his character does–this lies wholly in the realm of the gamemaster, without need for reference to rules and dice. It begins subtly at first, with the GM giving a certain detail of a scene one way at first and differently later. Maybe it was an honest mistake, but maybe the player can’t trust everything the GM tells him. With a proper basis of trust between players and GM, the player will quickly come to understand that this is part of the story unfolding upon his character, not the GM being absent-minded or a jerk. As more important details get changed on the character, as he acts to devastating effect based on misperceptions fed to him by the GM (as the arbiter of the character’s sensory input), as the chain of events from a mistaken perception or belief becomes longer and longer before the player is able to realize that something isn’t right, the deeper the descent, the direr the desperation, the more doubtful the decisions made. This captures the experience of an unraveling mind without the need to diagnose schizophrenia or some other illness and then feel hidebound to its definitions. Furthermore, by not diagnosing anything, you increase the ambiguity about the character’s plight.

If necessary or useful, you can associate this system with some mechanic for measuring the abstract and relative loss of reliability in a character’s beliefs and perceptions–this can be done with a Fate-style stress track (though a use of Consequences may run into diagnostic issues), with a PbtA “countdown clock,” with a pool of points, or any other method used in RPGs to track condition, so long as the mechanics are used as a guide to how the GM portrays the character’s interaction with “reality” rather than a strict codification of behaviors or named psychoses.

It is popular now to have as many of the elements of a tabletop RPG as possible be  “player-facing.” This should not be, because that knowledge allows for extended metagaming and undercuts the effect of the distrust of the GM’s communications by giving the player something to compare or judge from. As I mentioned above, this requires a relationship of trust between player and GM and an agreement that everyone wants this to be an element of the game. The player needs to be willing to accept the discomfort and frustration that naturally accompanies this type of situation as a worthwhile experience (because it’s interesting from a “what if” standpoint, allows a safe exploration of an experience dangerous and terrifying to have in reality, or satisfies some other goal of the gamers coming to the table).

When It’s Not Me; It’s You
The horror game need not be the only genre in which mental illness may play a meaningful role in the game; nor does a descent into irrationality need to be the game’s focus, as it must surely be when the system described above is employed. How then, can we represent mental illnesses in a more balanced way that benefits the story but does not consume it? Particularly if, as I’ve argued above, any diagnosis of a mental illness is a Thing-Which-Ought-Not-Be-Named?

The answer, I think, is a relatively simple one. We focus on character beliefs that do not match with reality (as reality is generally accepted, I suppose). This could be a debunked conspiracy theory that a character unrelentingly clings to in spite of the evidence. It could be a wrong belief about some fact in the world, an impossible expectation, a delusion of self, a magnified fear, or a perceived relationship between things that anyone else would see as causally unrelated. These beliefs may be small ones that only rarely come up in the game, or they may be so fundamental that they almost always have some effect upon the character’s decisions.

If we focus on beliefs instead of behaviors and let the behaviors flow from the mistaken beliefs and perceptions, the character behavior will have a higher verisimilitude, greater fidelity in both dramatic interpretation and depiction of realistic characters and events. The risk of caricature remains if the beliefs in play are not carefully considered and crafted by the player(s) and GM, but even if the portrayal of the belief devolves into parody, that parody is farther divorced from any particular person who has been labeled as having a particular mental illness, somewhat blunting its offensiveness, at least.

This provides better guidance for the player than a set of strict “rules” of behavior to follow, is likelier to result in behavior more related to and helpful to the overall narrative of the game (or at least not obstructive thereto), and matches more with our experience of mental illness in others (at least mine).

Unless someone gives us a label to use or we fall into the game of armchair diagnosis of people who annoy or offend us (dangerous on many levels), we don’t experience other people as exemplars of particular disorders or diseases. We might call someone “crazy,” but in the colloquial and lay use of the term we mean exactly that the person acts in a manner we believe to be contrary to common sense, rationality, and the facts as we understand them to be, not that the person exhibits particular quantifiable markers that seem to indicate a particular differential diagnosis. We are better equipped to name a mistaken belief someone seems to have than to diagnose them, particularly when the illness is one of conscious and interior experience, not something plainly writ upon the body.

The focus on beliefs over expected behaviors also gives us a fuller view of the experience of mental illness. If you’ve watched The United States of Tara, you’ve seen at least one successful narrative that captures both the heartbreak and suffering involved in mental illness and the times where its effects are more lighthearted–perhaps even amusing. Likewise, centering our systems of “(in)sanity” in games on beliefs may allow us to more safely laugh at absurdity without laughing directly at a condition suffered by real, living people. That is my hope.

Corruption Systems and Sanity Systems Are Not the Same
In fantasy or otherwise “grimdark” settings, there is a tendency to have a system that represents the idea of “corruption,” though the meaning of that term is often ambiguous at best.

The term, I think, has its basis in the sense of “moral corruption,” as with the corrupting influence of Tolkien’s One Ring as a vessel of the corrupted and evil will of Sauron. Other roleplaying games and settings have used that term, but not necessarily the meaning. The roleplaying games for the Warhammer settings, for instance, typically have corruption systems. But these systems amalgamate an idea of moral corruption (usually, though, through the eyes of themselves corrupt societal structures) with the body horror of unwanted mutation (perhaps problematic for its symbolic portents for ideas of “purity”) and with the Cthulhuverse idea of a degradation of sanity and moral fiber that results from seeking out those Things-Which-Should-Not-Be!

I have numerous problems with conflating ideas of sanity and judgments of morality. On the one hand, there is a tendency going back at least as far as the 19th century, to call immorality or criminal activity a form of “insanity.” This dehumanizes those who commit criminal offenses, simultaneously insinuating that they cannot be held fully accountable for their choices because of mental illness and yet classifying all antisocial behavior as abhorrent and inhuman and thus allowing us to ignore the possibility that, under the right (wrong) circumstances, we might engage in just the same kind of behavior. Neither aspect of the argument is logical, philosophically or theologically sustainable, or even useful in a societal sense.

Perhaps I’m overthinking here (although I reject the existence of such a thing altogether), and I understand that some will respond, “Get over it; it’s just a game! What are you making such a big deal about?”

Regardless, both the would-be game designer and the aspiring theologian in me must protest the conflation of these ideas. If you want your game to have a conceit that exposure to certain things is damaging to the psyche, great; that’s what sanity systems are for.

If you want to have a system for the degradation of a character’s morality, fine, although my personal preference is that such ideas are a matter of roleplaying more than mechanics (though there are excellent ways to manipulate changes in character Aspects in Fate if you want a middle-ground).

If you want a system for body horror resulting from exposure to dark magics, that’s cool, too, if it suits your game and your players are on board.

But aggregating all three into a single system dilutes the effects of all of them, not to mention the philosophical problem of determining what the numbers mean for each of the influencing factors. Suffice to say, while mental illness may lead to immoral behavior, that behavior should probably be viewed in light of the mental illness as a mitigating factor in determining the extent of culpability, so morality and sanity systems should probably remain separate, unless you intend to make the argument that sanity and morality are closely intertwined, which I reject.

Conclusion
Like good fiction, good roleplaying allows us to explore difficult existential or experiential issues in a safe place where we can imagine the consequences that flow from particular troubling situations and then leave them at the table when we’re ready–or need–to walk away. Like other difficult issues–racism, religiously-motivated extremism and hatred, poverty, violence and all other manner of social strife–has a place in roleplaying, at least for those groups who want to struggle with “serious issues” over the course of their play (and not every gaming group, player, or campaign needs to). But when we choose to dive into such difficult topics that are also very real experiences for people who may or may not be sitting at the table with us, we have some moral responsibility, I think, to do so in a respectful and at least semi-realistic way. Not only is this good ethical roleplaying (which term now makes me want to think and expound more on the morality and ethics of roleplaying games), but without it we’re missing the point of including tough issues in our games at all.

When properly addresses, dealing with those tough issues in a roleplaying game opens up our eyes to things we may not have thought before, deepens our understanding, and increases our empathy for others. And that, in my mind, is roleplaying at its finest–when it entertains us, teaches us, crafts meaningful narrative and helps us to become better humans.

I’ve got a friend who is a gamer and fellow writer and who works professionally in raising awareness of, compassion for, and competency in dealing with mental illness. I’m going to ask her to at least comment on this post, if not write a follow-up (or perhaps rebuttal!) with her own ideas which, given her training and experience, likely have more weight than mine on this topic.

The Fate of Piracy, Part IV: Statting Ships

For the previous post in this series, click here.

Deciding what “skills” to assign to ships is incumbent upon some understanding of how ships will be used in the narrative of the game. In pirate narratives, whether or not based in fact or fiction, there are some core things that pirate ships “do”: they give chase and flee, they fight (by dealing and taking damage), they weather storms, they carry cargo, they travel.

We’ll use these common situations to determine what stats we need for ships.

Since I like my games gritty, I’ll be using the One-Shift Boxes rule from the Fate Toolkit (this also helps speed fights along!). For ships, I’m going to track Hull damage and Sail damage on separate tracks; the crew will also have a damage (representing numbers/size really) track and a separate morale track.

Barring special rules (which I’ll include later), I’m going to allow the defending player to allocate stress boxes between their Hull, their Sails and their Crew. This will give some longevity to ships while still making every shift of damage received sorely felt, I think.

Ship Aspects
A ship will have three Aspects: a high concept, a trouble, and a crew aspect. For the historical 17th century, we might have a ship with Aspects that look like this:

Converted French Warship
Loose in Stays
Protestant Brethren of the Coast

 Scale
At the outset, I’m convinced that the Scale rules (p. 67 of the Fate Toolkit) need to be used for ships—a four-gun sloop and a 120-gun man-of-war are very different things, even if they both sail the seas.

In the 17th Century, First-Rate through Fourth-Rate ships were “Ships of the Line,” that is, ships that could participate in toe-to-toe battle with the enemy (where the prevailing tactics was to get all of your ships in a single-file bow-to-stern line and sail past the enemy’s similarly-arranged line of ships, trading broadsides until one side or the other became unable or unwilling to continue the fight. By the 18th Century, only ships of the third rate and above were “Ships of the Line;” increases in the number of guns carried and the size of ships meant that fourth-rate ships were too undergunned to participate directly in the battle line.

By that token, in the 17th Century a fifth-rate ship should not be able to stand up to a first-rate ship and have much chance of survival. Remember that a first-rate ship in the 1600’s would have between 90 and 100 cannons, while a fifth-rate would have less than half of that.

If we make unrated ships Scale: 0, and first-rate ships Scale: 6, then a fifth-rate ship attempting to fight a first-rate ship would, according to the Fate Toolkit, take 8 more shifts of damage and deal 8 shifts fewer.

With these things in place, let’s return to our First-Rate versus Fifth-Rate combat. A single successful volley from the First-Rate ship is almost certainly going to cause the Fifth-Rate ship to take at least one consequence, while the fire from the Fifth-Rate ship is likely only to dent the First-Rate ship (I’ll include a minimum of one shift of stress caused no matter the Scale discrepancy, I think).

That’s devastating, but I don’t think it’s unrealistic. Particularly if we’re looking at a Caribbean sort of setting. First, remember, there really weren’t many (if any) ships of Third-Rate or higher deployed to the Caribbean under most circumstances. Second, historically, pirates tended to favor smaller, faster ships for just this reason. Though pirates had to be willing to fight when it came to it, they weren’t soldiers first. They needed enough guns to scare or overpower merchant ships, to be sure, but they needed more speed to make sure that they could catch their prey and evade any military ship that represented a threat to them.

So, I’m going to use this port of the rating system for Scale.

Size
This isn’t the most glamorous of the Skills, nor will it be the most oft used, but there are several purposes for a Size Skill. First, it will determine the additional Stress Boxes for the Hull. Second, it can be used as an attack skill for ramming other ships (not an oft-used tactic in the Age of Sail, and one borne of desperation to be sure, but always an option).

Sailing
Sailing a ship is a complicated business, and certain rigging types are allow for faster sailing with the wind or better sailing against the wind (when “tacking”), but never both. Thus, we could, potentially, break down any sort of “Sailing” skill into a number of subskills that take into account the relative wind direction (and how close to the wind the ship can sail), the raw speed the ship can achieve, and the maneuverability of the ship. Ultimately, though, I don’t think that subdividing the skill is in line with the design philosophy of Fate or helpful to telling good stories—especially when we can handle some of these minor aspects with stunts or, well, Aspects.

Once I’ve got some systems in place, I’ll revisit this to work out details. For now, each ship will have a Sailing Skill.

Cannons
The running broadsides and, worse yet, the raking fire that passes straight from bow to stern, are staples of pirate fiction (and the historical reality that spawned them). In Fate, you’ve got to have a Skill to shoot the enemy with.

Like the Sailing skill, there are a number of components that could factor into the rating of the Cannons skill—the quality of the crew firing them, the size and power of the cannon carried (these could range from three and four pounders up to forty-two pounders) and, of course, the number of cannon carried.

The beauty of the Fate system (one of the beauties, at least) is that, at the end of the day, two ships could both have Cannons +2 for different reasons. Perhaps one has a few large-bore cannon and a crew very-skilled at using them, while the other has many smaller cannon that, together, make an equally-formidable volley. The mechanics only care about the end result or effect without us having to get bogged down in details.

In my mind, the Cannons rating is based primarily upon the number (for its size/Scale) and quality of the guns that it carries, the speed with which they can be fired, and the ability of the crew to effectively use the weapons. Thus, a sloop with Cannons +1 may have six six-pounders, while a brigantine with Cannons +3 may have sixteen eight-pounders—they’re ships of the same Scale (O/Unrated), but the brigantine has a definite advantage in both numbers and power.

Bear in mind the number of men needed to crew a gun: a thirty-six pounder needed 12 gunners, a chief gunner and a powder monkey (a boy to run powder from the ship’s magazine to the gun). Additionally, the heavier the gun, the lower in the ship it needed to be mounted to preserve the ship’s balance in the water.

One example of modifications that could enable faster firing was the gun carriage itself. Apparently, in the 16th century and even for a while into the 17th, the Spanish continued to use two-wheeled gun carriages (with a long wooden “tongue” extending behind them to stabilize them—think of an artillery piece) while the English used four-wheeled carriages. The Spanish guns recoiled less (because of the friction from the carriage), but the English guns could more easily be moved back and reloaded (and moved themselves back with their own recoil), allowing for faster firing.

 The Crew
The heart and soul of a ship is its crew. The Sailing and Cannons skills already incorporate crew skill as a factor in their rank. But, there are things that the crew will do that don’t necessarily involve the ship’s systems, so we need a skill to handle that.

I had first thought to separate out the crew’s abilities into separate skills, but I decided in the end that that kind of granularity was unnecessary, for two reasons: (1) the general competency of the crew is fine to cover most tasks and (2) we can rely on the PC’s skills in leading the crew when differentiation is necessary. This allows us both to keep things relatively simplified and to keep focus on the players.

Bear in mind that the crew’s size is also abstracted into the Crew skill rating, with Scale used to accentuate the difference in size of crews where it truly matters.

Stress and Consequences on board the Ship
I’ve mentioned the Morale Stress track for our ships, but we need several others.

Hull
This stress track will represent the integrity of the ship’s hull and its ability to stay afloat. Its number of stress boxes will be determined by the ship’s Size rating. A ship that takes more Hull damage than it has Stress boxes has been destroyed and is sinking.

Sails
This stress track will represent the integrity of the ship’s sails and rigging; its number of stress boxes will be determined by the ship’s Sailing rating. Being taken out by Sails stress indicates that the ship is adrift and without power.

Crew
This represents the remaining numbers and fighting strength of the men and women aboard the vessel. Its number of stress boxes will be determined by the Fighting rating. Being taken out by Crew stress means that the crew has been injured or killed to such an extent that it can no longer fight as a group or man the ship.

Morale
This stress track follows the general mood and discipline of the crew; it’s number of boxes is determined by the Ship’s Resolve skill. Being taken out by Morale stress means the crew has mutinied against the player characters.

Consequences
I think having the four separate stress tracks is necessary for differentiating the different types of threat (and injury) the ship and its crew will face. However, having separate Consequences for each stress track could quickly prove unwieldy and deleterious to play. So, A ship will have only three Consequence slots that will apply for all of its stress tracks. This means that the players will have to choose very carefully when to use their Consequences to avoid stress to their ship.

The Hold
The Hold is an oddball among the ship’s stats. It’s kind of a stress track, but not really. It’s a track. The Hold represents the amount of space available to the ship (after accounting for guns, crew and basic supplies) for cargo and plunder. A ship may not have more Hold boxes than its Size multiplied by its Scale (count Scale as 1 for Scale: 0 ships), but it may have fewer. I’ll explain how the Hold is used later.

In the next post in the series, I’ll give particular stats for types of ships as well as stunts to modify a ship.

My Favorite RPG Mechanics (That I’d Actually Use)

I’ve made a few attempts in the past to write my own roleplaying game rules, especially to suit my fantasy setting, Avar Narn. While that project is currently on hold while I work on others and I intend to rely mostly on the Fate and Cortex Prime/Plus systems for games in the near future, I’m sure I’ll return to the endeavor eventually.

In light of that, I thought it might be interesting to collate and describe some of my favorite mechanics from other rulesets I’ve played. Maybe this gives you some ideas to lift for your own design ambitions. Maybe it turns you on to same games you’ve never played before. Maybe it just gives you a chance to see some mechanics that make think, “oh yeah, that’s one of my favorites, too!”

Without further ado:

Fate Core – Bell Curve Mechanics
I’ve written elsewhere about my fondness for Gaussian distributions in RPG results; it allows players more predictability when planning a course of action and less fickleness of luck. Since I like my games gritty and dangerous, this is almost a necessity.

Fate Core – Aspects
Perhaps the core of Fate Core, Aspects as narrative descriptors with mechanical effects are a great innovation. To a certain extent, this is what we were doing previously with all of our situational modifiers without understanding it–and while limiting them to various canned possibilities.

The true brilliance here is in combining aspects into narrative fact, signalling descriptor, and opportunity to influence outcomes. In other words, what Aspects do is translate mere mechanical modifiers into narrative gold.

Fate Core – The “Fate Fractal” or “Bronze Rule”
Intuitive and adaptable subsystems that use the same core mechanics as the base game? Yes, please! This ability, along with the easy adaptability of aspects and the small list of skills in Fate Core, is what makes Fate Core such a toolkit and endlessly-hackable system. As I wrote about in my advice on tabletop gaming as an adult, this proves maintaining a single rule system for all of your games.

As an added bonus, it allows players to intuitively use new subsystems without the need for learning lots of nuanced rules.

Fate Accelerated – Approaches
As I’ve written on other posts, I love the idea of Approaches over Attributes. When a player uses an approach, he or she is signaling to you the nature of the action and therefore possible consequences and side effects. I think this adds to both sides of the table: for the players, a character’s approaches define more than just aptitude, they include personality, style, perspective and preference; for the GM, the narrative cues provided by Approaches (especially if combined with something like Apocalypse World’s “Discrete Fail Forward” Mechanics, discussed below) take some of the load off of the GM while enriching the story itself.

Dungeons and Dragons 5e – Advantage and Disadvantage
A brilliant alternative to tabulating lots of modifiers to address situational nuance, the Advantage/Disadvantage system in D&D5 is a brilliant streamlining mechanic. I’d love to see it employed effectively in more games. Unfortunately, there’s not much else from D&D that I like in terms of its mechanics.

Gumshoe – Investigation Rules
It seems to me that the Gumshoe rules were designed almost entirely to address a common problem in roleplaying games–how to make sure that players get the clues they need to effectively pursue and complete an investigation without getting stalled (and bored). Simply put, the GM is instructed to allow the PCs to find the necessary clues without having to roll, because a roll where success is necessary to the advancement of plot is not a roll that should be made. This is not to say that a good GM can’t or shouldn’t allow failure to be a thing, or that there’s something wrong where the players’ failure provides an important plot point–both of those can make for great games. But if there’s no contingency plan for what happens if the characters aren’t successful and you give them a chance to be unsuccessful, you’re shooting yourself in the foot as a GM.

Gumshoe manages its task without making skills or character abilities useless. A character may spend points from relevant skills to gain additional clues, further allowing the development of a theory and providing new opportunities for investigation. From a design perspective, this provides baked-in opportunities for each character to shine.

Apocalypse World – Discrete Fail Forward Mechanics
The core mechanic of Apocalypse World strips down the dice roll to its very essence–did you succeed or fail, or (the most common result) did you succeed at a cost? If you’re unfamiliar, “Powered by the Apocalypse” games run like this:

Roll 2d6 + Stat (which is not going to be higher than +3, typically):
-On 6 or less, you fail (and the GM should make a “move”)
-On a 7 through 9, you succeed at a cost (the “move” you’re making may indicate
particular costs, or the GM may need to create one on the fly)
-On a 10+, you get what you want (usually without cost)

This efficiency allows for interesting and quick-running games that support the GM with cues for how the plot should develop. Bear in mind that this is not a degrees of success mechanic (though abilities that grant Hold or other effects on a 12+ could rightly be seen as such). I will say that this can put a lot of pressure on the GM to constantly invent new twists and consequences for the story, but that’s something you can get used to.

Now, I will admit some reluctance regarding the static nature of PbtA difficulty numbers. I have no logical argument for this preference (or lack thereof, I suppose)–the explanation that the moves made by the GM in response to failure or a cost can be adjusted to represent the difficulty of the task makes perfect sense to me. I really do think that’s a brilliant take on RPG difficulties. But, I’m a child of the 80’s and 90’s who cut his teeth on the second and third editions of Shadowrun–the need for scalable difficulty is embedded deep in my bones.

Apocalypse World – Free-Form Combat
Another innovation from the Apocalypse: willful ignorance of initiative and turns. I think the best RPG combats work this way–we jump from character to character like the camera in a film or TV show, spending time where the drama is highest and shifting before anyone gets bored rather than becoming a slave to turn and initiative tracking. The tracking of initiative itself is more drudgery than benefit anyway, and a gaming group with established trust can handle things like holding and triggering actions without the need to maintain a count and do a lot of housekeeping.

Although they’re not running a PbtA game on the show, the HarmonQuest GM uses this style with great effect.

Cypher System – Burning Points
I’m not a big fan of the way the Cypher system plays, but I do love the idea of “burning” points from a pool to gain advantage. In Cypher, points may be spent from a pool to reduce the Difficulty number before rolling the dice.

While I don’t generally like games where characters must “spend” their skill points to be effective (this goes for both Cypher and Gumshoe), I do very much like the idea of characters having resources that must be managed but that can be spent for bonuses. This kind of risk/reward mechanic reinforces the drama in games, while giving those gamist players another mechanical aspect to strategize over. I just think that pools used for this purpose should be separated from the character’s base abilities–health, fatigue, willpower (like the World of Darkness games)–all of these can make good candidates (as can other things) without the necessity of diminishing returns over time for characters being a core mechanic.

I’d also note that the Fate Toolkit has a mod allowing you to spend Stress to do just this. That, I think, is the sweet spot for this kind of mechanic. Blades in the Dark also allows you to spend Stress for similar effects.

Apocalypse World – Play to Find Out
I very much appreciate the idea that the GM is playing to find out what happens as well, rather than chaperoning the players through the branches of a pre-planned adventure. This is where tabletop RPGs excel as a form of entertainment, and especially beat video games–story can develop organically and move in unexpected–and often more satisfying–directions.

This, of course, requires a GM willing and able to extemporize. This is an intimidating prospect, and one that takes practice and thought to do well, I think. But it also removes (for me, at least), some of the stress of having to meticulously plan a game session (and then fearing running it when I inevitably haven’t had the time to do all the planning I intended).

The “narrative sandbox,” which I’ve teased quite a bit now without writing a full post on (I will, I swear!) meshes perfectly with this idea by scaffolding the game with ready-made narrative elements (characters, events, locations, background, etc.) the GM can draw from without having to make things up whole clothe on the spot while maintaining the “anything can happen and you’re character can try anything” magic of RPGs at their best.

Traveler, Burning Wheel, Artesia: Adventures in the Known World RPG (Fuzion), etc. – Lifepaths
A lot of players struggle with creating a detailed background for their characters. A lifepath system gives a player a framework for thinking about her character by detailing familial relationships and important events, the origins of certain skills and abilities, and other life details that bring a character to life narratively at the same time it builds the character mechanically.

There are caveats here. A system that is too simple (Rogue Trader, for instance) doesn’t really satisfy and feels restrictive. A system that will kill your character during chargen (Traveler) will be talked about for years to come, but that’s not a criterion for being good. A system that is too complex (Burning Wheel…maybe) tends to intimidate players more than guide and help them.

There is also the question of whether the lifepath system should be random or each stage and determination should be willingly selected by the player. For games with an “old school” feel, random generation may be a good option. On the other hand, that requires a shared philosophy of gaming between GM and players, and no good GM should hold a player to a character they don’t want to play (so long as not wanting to play that character has a reasonable explanation).

Personally, I’m a fan of splitting the difference, with rewards for selecting a randomly generated result but no penalty for choosing a result instead. Your mileage may vary.

Blades in the Dark – Downtime Systems
I love giving the players the chance to describe what their characters spend their time doing when not adventuring/investigating occult occurrences/engaging in planned criminal conduct/whathaveyou. I like it even more when those choices can have later effects on the narrative.

Blades in the Dark takes this a step further, with chances to indulge a character’s vice to relieve stress, try to acquire equipment for later use, work on a long-term project, train skills or reduce a crew’s Heat. There are enough choices to give variety and enough competing demands on players to make the choices mean something.

Blades in the Dark – Progress Clocks
This idea is adapted, but broadened, from Apocalypse World’s “countdown clocks,” used there to track damage. These allow for easy tracking of obstacles, damage, and, yes, timing to an event. They provide simple mechanism for damage tracking and a visual marker of impending doom. I love that.

Cortex Plus/Prime – the Doom Pool
Like Fate Core, Cortex is an eminently hackable system. The system is a hack of the “basic” system wherein, instead of buying and immediately deploying the consequence dice the GM purchases from player rolls they get added to an increasing opposition pool to all tasks undertaken. This is admittedly a pretty clever way of mechanically representing the increased tension and danger as a group moves deeper into a dungeon, fights farther behind enemy lines or ventures nearer to the summoning of that elder thing.

This idea really shines when used as a “Crisis” pool. Instead of a single Doom pool, it’s split up into several smaller pools that each represent a discrete obstacle or threat to the players that must be overcome over time. Using the core mechanics of the Cortex system, players can attempt actions (supported by narrative, of course) to reduce the dice in the Crisis pool until there’re none left, at which point the obstacle has been overcome. If the GM buys dice back from player rolls to continue to fortify and reinforce the various Crisis pools, we get a back-and-forth struggle that can provide the entire basis for a narrative.

13th Age has a related mechanic to the Doom pool in its “escalation die.” The longer a fight lasts, the deadlier it gets. I tend to think that that’s realistic–or at worst a great narrative conceit–that should be used in more games, and not just for its propensity to speed up combat.

Torchbearer – Explicit Rules for Conflicts and Combat Where the Goal Isn’t “Kill Everything”
Most RPGs view combat as the time when everything else has failed and it’s time to kill and destroy everything. Sometimes that is the point of a combat, but things are often a bit more nuanced than that. Sometimes, the goal is to drive the enemy away without necessarily killing him, or to hold ground and delay the enemy, or to complete some secondary objective before the enemy does, or simply to escape alive.

While you don’t need mechanics to tell you the above, or even necessarily to model the situations I’ve described specifically, mechanics are often a cue as to what a game as about. So, when Torchbearer includes rules for “Capture,” “Drive Off,” and “Flee/Pursue”  in addition to “Kill,” it’s a signal that this game might be harder on PCs than say, D&D. Sometimes you’ll have to settle for less than completely overrunning your enemy, and you might want to think about clever options before brute ones.

And, to be fair, a number of the things I’ve mentioned don’t need mechanics to implement them–fail forward is a philosophy that can be applied to any game, and the Gumshoe approach to investigations needs no mechanics to be applied to another rule system. But the point is that these systems make a point of these ideas, not just setting them apart from other games but also pushing the industry forward for future games.

The Burning Wheel – Bloody Versus
Luke Crane’s The Burning Wheel is a thing of art from a design perspective–but in my mind, it’s a work of art more than an accessible roleplaying game. I know, there are plenty of people who have run successful campaigns with the system, and I freely admit I’m jealous of Luke Crane’s design genius. But there’s just so much there that I know I couldn’t convince my gaming friends to learn the system, nor do I have confidence that I can hold in mind at once all of its various parts to successfully run it. Every part of The Burning Wheel is well designed; the gestalt is just too much for me.

Actually, I do have one gripe with the system–the mechanic of scripting melee combat under the “standard” rules. Under this mechanic (assuming I completely remember correctly), each participant in a combat privately scripts three actions in sequence. Then, the scripts are revealed and the results worked out. This is time consuming, kind of annoying, and not very realistic–hand-to-hand fighting is a back-and-forth of action and reaction, of judging and decoding cues from the opponent’s body position and stance. Nothing happens in a vacuum or blind.

One the other hand, The Burning Wheel also gives us the “Bloody Versus” option. Bloody Versus streamlines an attack round into two rolls. Each of the two combatants divides his dice pool into attack and defense and then each attack pool is rolled against the corresponding defense pool. Overall, there are three potential results–one side hits, both sides hit, neither side hits. We don’t worry overmuch about positioning, timing, etc.; this is all abstracted into the single roll. It’s fast and relatively decisive–especially given The Burning Wheel’s steep death spiral.

I think there’s a lot to be said for roleplaying games that, at least upon occasion, treat a combat like most other tasks: we make a single roll and determine the results. This isn’t always appropriate, of course, and we have to make some consequential determinations as to whether such a test can kill a PC or not (I’d strongly recommend against that), but it does help us to readjust focus so that combat as a game aspect is more on par with all of the other typical aspects–exploration, intrigue, clever plans, sneaking around, etc.

WFRP 3rd Edition
As Fantasy Flight Games’ first release using its custom dice system (which would be followed by their Star Wars offering and now channeled into their generic GeneSys System), the 3rd Edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay rubbed a lot of people the wrong way–it completely redesigned the system and moved away from the percentile-based combination of “old school” and 80’s gritty realism that people loved.

FFG dove in headfirst, though, doing some fascinating work in combining board game elements with the RPG basis (in a far more successful combination than D&D 4e’s combination of MMO-style mechanics with RPG elements, in my opinion). Although the many tokens and character cards ultimately proved annoying and and more fiddly than helpful. Still, I applaud the creative experimentation, and I liked a lot of the innovations it made, with the dice providing cues that helped me narrate some of the most frantic combat scenes I ever have.

By far my favorite of these innovations, however, was stances. You could take a neutral stance, using the dice your stats gave you, or you could move so many spaces into a “reckless” stance (with more successes marked on the dice along with more negative effects compared to the “standard” dice) or a “cautious” stance, converting attribute dice into green dice marked with more side benefits (“boons”) but also more symbols indicating that the action required more time.

The custom dice made the ease of using stances possible, but the ability to incorporate a risk/reward dynamic into standard dice rolling by having a character adopt an aggressive or conservative stance is a really cool idea. In some of my own design experiments, I’ve come up with a few ways to implement the idea with standard core mechanics (dice pools in particular), but certainly not as smoothly as in WFRP3.

Conclusion
Okay, as usual, what I’d intended to be some brief notes turned into another verbose commentary, so let’s hang it up there for now. I hope some of you managed to stay with me all the way through, and I hope some of you found some mechanics and ideas you weren’t already familiar with.

Leave some comments–I’d love to hear what your favorite TTPRG mechanics are (and the games they’re from)!

 

 

 

The Fate of Piracy, Part III: About Ships in the Age of Sail

For the previous post in this series, click here.

We’ll begin our foray into rules for ships and sailing in Fate games by addressing some of the historical difficulties of easy classification of types of ships in the Age of Sail. Hopefully, this gives you a sense of just how hard it is to create easy categories or “classes” of ships to profile.

Let’s start with the understanding that ships in this Fate hack will make full use of the “Fate Fractal” or “Bronze Rule.” Ships will be statted as characters, with skills, stunts (representing upgrades or modifications) and aspects (representing unique qualities, history, reputation, etc.). Some stats will come from the ship design itself, others will come from the crew that (wo)mans it. I’m not sure exactly on the interplay between those two facets, but that’s a subject for a later post in the series.

The English Rating System
The English (and later British) Rating system for warships goes back to the reign of Henry VIII, where it was initially related to the number of guns on a ship (or, at times to the ship’s tonnage), though the categories were not the “rates” that would come into later being. Instead, ships were classified as Royal, Great, Middling or Small. By 1626, a ranking system came into being, though this seems to have been tied to the pay of the sailors on board rather than to the size or number of guns of the vessel.

By 1660, the word “rate” had replace the word “rank” and vessels began to be measured by the number of carriage guns (that is, excluding swivel guns) carried on board. The ratings vary over time, particularly as designers were able to cram more weapons onto ships, but a generalization goes as follows:

  •             First Rate: 100 guns, usually over 2,000 tons BM (see below about “Builder’s               Measure”)
  •            Second Rate: 90-98 guns, about 2,000 tons BM
  •            Third Rate: Ships with two gun-decks and 60-80 guns
  •            Fourth Rate: Ships with two gun-decks and 50-60 guns, about 1,000 tons BM
  •            Fifth Rate: Ships with single gun-decks sporting 32-40 guns, running 700 to                  1450 tons BM
  •            Sixth Rate: Ships with 22-28 guns, and 450-550 tons BM

The rating system was designed primarily, it seems, to determine which ships could stand “in the line” of battle under the naval tactics of the time and which could not.

Most of the ships in the Caribbean were unrated ships smaller than anything above. A few pirates, like Blackbeard and his Queen Anne’s Revenge (which, having been captured by Teach in 1717 is relatively late in the period) could have classified as fifth-rate ships, but I’m not aware of any privateering or pirate vessels that were larger. Bear in mind also that only military ships were given a true rating, so ships that could have been classified on this list wouldn’t necessarily have been.

This was partly a matter of expense—warships are expensive to build and staff (a First Rate ship could have 750 people aboard!) and the Caribbean is rough on ships—it purportedly has the highest concentration of wood-eating ship-worms in the world and the lifespan of a quality hull in Caribbean waters was only about 10 years!

Another factor was the need for versatility in ships for the Caribbean—trade was more often more important than fighting, so cargo space and speed were more desirable than lots of guns and men to crew them. The galleons of the late sixteenth century and seventeenth century could be relatively-easily adapted between trading roles and more confrontational ones. And, like “frigate” and “pinnace” below, “galleon” itself originally referred to a style of design, not a size, with small galleons of a few hundred tons to the Manila galleons of 2,000 tons or more. Even in the late 16th century, the Portuguese had a ship nicknamed Botafogo, which was at least 1,000 tons and carried a staggering 336 cannons.

Sizing Ships Up
Modern ships are measured by the tonnage of water they displace, but this was not so for ships of the seventeenth century, which were measured by tons burthen (or burden if you want to get out of Middle English and into modern), which represented the amount of cargo a ship could carry.

To make things more confusing, the burthen tonnage of a ship was calculated by a formula called the “Builder’s Measure” (hence the “BM” above) rather than the reality of the design of holds and space.

The Builder’s Measure in 1678 used the following formula:

Tonnage Formula

So, a ship like the Little Unicorn (captured by the British from the Dutch in 1665 or 1666), which had a length of 72 ft, a beam and a beam of 22 ft would, by the 1678 Builder’s Measure, have a tonnage burthen of 185.19 tons. This was classified as a fifth-rate ship of despite its size and small number of guns. The British converted it into a fireship.

Names and Classification
The naming of ship types in the seventeenth century is less than helpful. The word “pinnace” was used to describe both a “ship’s boat” powered by oars or a single small sail to tend the larger ships in a group by ferrying people, messages and goods between them and to describe ships around 100 tons burthen with two or three square-rigged masts.

Likewise, the word “frigate” first denoted a hull design (long, low and sleek for speed) rather than a specific ship type, resulting in “light frigates,” “frigates,” “heavy frigates” and “grand frigates” without clear distinctions (because, when important, reference was more likely to be made to tonnage or to rating).

This was not an age of mass production, and shipbuilders were constantly experimenting with designs to find an edge. The names for classifications of ships could rely as much on the arrangement of the sails and number of masts of the ship (the “sail-plan”) as its raw size or other factors. For instance:

A sloop was a single-masted, fore-and-aft rigged ship. Having a single mast limited the size, but you could still find a wide array of sloop sizes.

A ketch had two fore-and-aft rigged masts.

The brig had two square-rigged masts with headsails.

The brigantine, however, had one square-rigged mast and a hybrid-rigged main mast (also with headsails).

The snow had headsails, two square-rigged masts and a smaller “snow-mast.”

The barque had two or more square-rigged masts and headsails with a fore-and-aft-rigged aftmost (that’s “rearmost” for you landlubbers!) mast.

Fully-rigged ships had three (later they could have more) square-rigged sails.

So, what do you call a frigate-hulled ship with a brigantine sail-plan? Your guess is as good as mine, and the primary sources from the period don’t make it seem like much concern was given to precise appellations for ship categories (notice that the “galleon” and the “fluyt,” common ships for the period, are missing from the above category).

Remember the problem with the word “rapier” in the series on swordsmanship? Yep, it’s kind of like that.

Variance within a “Class”
If confusion among classifications isn’t bad enough, let’s talk about the variations within a particular “type” of ship.

For instance, the Spanish Armada of 1588 had 22 galleons in its fleet, with some as large as 1,000 tons and some as small as 250 tons. If proportions are maintained, that means some ships were four times as large as others—yet they were all galleons. In later periods, the Manila galleons could easily reach 2,000 tons.

As mentioned about, frigates are another example of wide variance. In the 17th century, frigates tended to denote full- (square-)rigged ships, because square rigging is the fastest sail plan (at least with the wind to your back). They could have one or two gun decks, likely meaning a range of 18 and about 300 tons to 40 guns and 750 or 1,000 tons.

Later, the “great” or “heavy” frigates would be created by taking a larger ship and cutting down the fore- and aftcastles to make a lighter, leaner, ship with a single monolithic topdeck instead of one having raised areas at the front and back. This was called razée, from the French “razed” or “shaved,” though you’ll sometimes see this described in English (particularly in the 16th century) as “race-decked.” I much prefer that styling than the sometimes used razéed, the orthography and pronunciation of which gives me fits (It should be pronounced like “rah-zayd,” which in turn would be more accurately spelled razé-ed or razée-d. Y’know, it’s a mess either way).

Conclusions about Ship Classifications
For a game, if we’re going to stat out various types of ships, it is very helpful if we create some categories that are a little less flexible than the seeming free-for-fall historically used. Yes, that’s arbitrary, but accuracy must sometimes give way to expedience. For those of you who, like me, grew up playing Sid Meier’s Pirates! before it was in color, you’ll remember that that game used fairly distinct categories for its ship types. I don’t know about you, but that never spoiled my fun.

What’s important, at the end of the day, is determining what kind of ship stats are necessary and useful.

Trivia: If you’re used to the image of the captain at the ship’s wheel, understand that that’s a relatively late addition to the period we’re looking at. Based on archeological finds, we know that the ship’s wheel was in used at least by 1703.

Before that, ships were sailed by a tiller. Some ships, particularly those intended for war, might have their tiller below decks where it was protected or even have two, one on the topdeck and one below decks.

For the next post in the series, click here.

The Fate of Piracy, Part II: About Piracy

For the first post in this series, click here.

I feel like it is necessary for me to talk generally (and hopefully briefly) about historical piracy.

Morality
Obviously, piracy is an immoral thing. At best, it’s bullying and theft. At worst, there’s torture, murder, betrayal, sexual assault and many other crimes. Modern media has given us a whitewashed version of piracy, with lovable ne’er-do-wells like Jack Sparrow and depictions of gentlemanly pirate captains who mind their manners while robbing you. Maybe there was some of that, but far more often, I think, the lines of moral behavior were crossed with abandon or simply ignored altogether. There’s a reason pirates were called hostis humani generis (enemies of mankind).

This is not to tell you how to run a pirate game. There’s no reason you can’t run a lighter-hearted sort of game a la Pirates of the Caribbean and, if you’ve got young people playing, that’s probably much safer fare. You know me, though—I’m much more interested in games with the feel of Black Sails, where even the “good guys” are morally questionable at best. This is a discussion to have as a group while deciding on then particulars of the setting your players will pirate in (is that a word? Can you “pirate?”). Along the same lines, circumscribing those aspects of pirate reality that are uncomfortable to treat and determining how to handle them or whether to leave them out altogether is, I think, an especially important consideration in a topic and setting so fraught with the worst humanity has to offer.

Pirates and Privateers
Though, as a practical matter, the distinction between pirates and privateers was often a legal technicality or a matter of perspective, it’s important to know the difference.

A privateer receives a “letter of marque and reprisal” from a sponsoring nation, essentially making the bearer a private soldier in service of his country (funny to think how “modern” an idea of military privatization seems to us despite our own history). With that letter, the privateer and his ships are authorized to attack the ships and ports of those nations with whom the sponsor is at war, taking prizes and plunder, which is split between sponsor and privateers. Bear in mind, that in the early modern period, standing professional armies were only slowly becoming a thing, so the engaging of privateers provided an avenue for governments to quickly deploy wartime assets at little or no cost to itself.

A pirate does not have authorization to engage in the seizure of ships or towns from any country—they are brigands and outlaws. Still, many pirates had some scruples about their selection of prey, refusing to attack ships of their own nationality (though that’s a fraught issue, as we’ll see below) even when they were not authorized by that nation to conduct operations.

As the history of piracy bears out, the line sometimes—maybe often—blurred between privateer and pirate. Those who might have been considered pirates were sometimes given letters of marque when they were viewed as useful to their home nation; this could even happen retroactively to the captain’s activities! On the other hand, privateers would turn pirate, for a number of reasons. Sometimes the prey was scarce and the crew grew desperate, electing to go after any ship they might take. Other times, the sponsoring nation would leave privateers in the lurch when political conditions changed and/or treaties were signed.

Wars of Religion
I don’t think it can be understated how important the conflict between Protestantism and Catholicism in the 16th and 17th centuries was in the rise of privateering and piracy. The war between England and Spain that included both the Spanish Armada of 1588 (and the other armada attempts) and the “singing of the king’s beard”—and really all of Sir Francis Drake’s roving—found its core cause in the conflict between a Protestant Queen Elizabeth and a Catholic Phillip II of Spain. This is also the time of the English Civil War (which one might argue was more political than religious, but the primary sources reveal a strong belief in the close association between Catholicism and absolute monarchy, to say nothing of the Puritan influence on the Roundheads), the time of the Eighty Years’ War between Catholic Spain and the Protestant Netherlands, the Thirty Years’ War and, at the beginning of the 18th century, the War of the Spanish Succession, itself about the balance of power between both rival royal houses and the Christianities to which they were aligned.

The Catholic faith of the Spanish gave cover enough for raiding their significant wealth in the Caribbean, and many of the sea rovers presented themselves as good Protestant soldiers raiding the ports and ships of the Spanish in support for the “One True Faith.” The most well-known privateers and pirates, at least in the 17th century, tended to be Protestant English or Dutch, from the Sea Beggars to Sir Henry Morgan. Whether the roving captains really believed themselves to be “good Protestant soldiers” or just found the idea to be a good excuse we’ll never truly know—the Christianity of the time, no matter the specific denomination, made easy room for slavery and violence, despite the core messages of the Gospels.

Freedom at Sea
The sea rovers came from many nationalities and walks of life, and the crews of the privateering and piratical vessels of the time were probably some of the most diverse collections of peoples anywhere in the world for the period.

One of the major draws to those who would become crew members was the difference from life at sea under a merchant captain or in naval military service. In the latter situation, the captain’s word was law and, knowing what I do about human nature, I believe it when both the primary sources and the secondary histories describe that tyrannical captaincy was somewhat common.

Things were different aboard a freebooting vessel. Yes, the captain had sole command in times of immediate danger—combat, the chasing of prey or evasion of the authorities, storms at sea, etc. But the captain himself was usually elected by the crew, and when there was no immediate threat, (most of) the crew got a vote in choosing their course of action. This simultaneously hindered some of the great expeditions from achieving much success, but also meant a type of democratic freedom unavailable elsewhere in the world, especially for those not born into the upper class.

A roving venture began with the adoption of a Code. This was viewed as a contractual agreement freely entered into by all who signed and could be both morally and ethically enforced against them if they broke it. The Code determined who would be leading (on ships or as admiral), what the split of plunder would be (and, while the shipowners—often the captains—received extra for the use of their vessel and specialists where given an extra partial share for their much-needed skills, the split tended toward equality more than disparity).

Now, all of this democracy is well and good in theory, but let’s also not think it was more idealistic and free from coercion than it was. The owner of a ship in an expedition had great leverage over his fellows—if they didn’t elect him captain, he might simply decide to take his toys and go home. Further, maintaining a captaincy was not simply about holding the justified admiration of the men; it was about getting results. A captain without the skill for finding and securing plunder, or simply with a bad run of luck, would quickly find himself at odds with his men.

Those are enough general points for now. If you want to delve into the details and specifics of piratical life, use the bibliography in the first post—to which I will soon add some primary sources for you, though in short look for the journals or publications of Alexander Esquemelin, William Dampier, Basil Ringrose, Bartholomew Sharp and Lionel Wafer. Take Esquemelin especially with a grain of salt—he seems to have hated Henry Morgan and his descriptions of events often conflict with other (more plausible) sources. I also highly recommend the Pirate History Podcast for distilling this information into entertaining and informative episodes.

Trivia: William Dampier, in addition to being a privateer, was an accomplished navigator and naturalist. He’s credited with bringing a slew of words into the English language, including “chopsticks,” “avocado,” and “barbecue.” His work describing the flora and fauna of the places he frequented, as well as the details of indigenous peoples he met (among them the Mosquito and Kuna peoples) proved extremely influential and valuable. His work on wind and water currents, especially, provided a foundation used by naval navigators for centuries.

The Fate of Piracy, Part I: Introduction

I love pirates. Maybe it’s because, every so often, I think I might just understand what H.L. Mencken meant when he said, “Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.”

More likely, there’s something about men ready to stick their middle finger up to the powers of the world and seek some form of independence on their own terms. American democracy owes more to Caribbean pirates than it does to the Greeks. Look it up.

Even more likely than that, there’s something about the constant challenge of “being on the account.” Pirates and privateers may have died by blade and shot and noose, but they more often lived by their wit and cunning. As you know, I love the complexity of swordplay. Though I have few opportunities at present to indulge, I also love sailing (or at least I think I do based on past experience!).

And, even more likely than that: I grew up playing with Lego Pirate Ships, reading about pirates, playing Sid Meier’s Pirates! on the computer, watching Pirates of Dark Water on Saturday mornings.

Regardless of the reason, I am fascinated by privateers, pirates, the Age of Sail and adventure at sea.

I’ve noted in several recent posts about the “narrative sandbox” idea I’ve been working on with regards to roleplaying settings. As my Shadowrun campaign is playing out, I’m getting to test and adjust some of what was previously only theory-crafting. In the meantime, I’ve recently played a little bit of the Greedfall video game and I’m currently listening to the excellent Pirate History Podcast. In my review of the Sixth Edition Shadowrun rules system, I noticed that, while I liked the idea of the rules in the latest edition of the 7th Sea RPG, I didn’t like them in practice, either.

All of these things have led me to start thinking about (1): sticking to Fate RPG as my ruleset of choice for games and (2) working on a fantastical age of sail setting of swashbuckling adventure. As if I don’t have enough simultaneously unfurling projects to bounce between…

Nevertheless, in combining three of my favorite things—historical research and general nerdity, roleplaying games and worldbuilding—I’ve started to toy with toolkitting the Fate rules for just such a game. Think an open-world sort of game like the Pirates! computer game with enough survival, political, exploration, combat and skullduggery components to please most players of RPGs. In a more fantastic setting than the historical Spanish Main (though, with a “realistic” starting place for systems, they should be equally at home in a historical campaign).

This series is going to track my progress at creating some rules I find useful for running just such a game. I’ll start on the historical analogue side with rules development and add some fantastical aspects (no pun intended) later on. So, in some ways, this series will track something like my series on swordplay for authors and gamers, but with some special Fate crunch added in.

Unlike that last series, I’m going to front-load some of the sources I’m using in preparing both the rules and this series of posts:

The Sea Rover’s Practice, by Benerson Little
Benerson Little is a former Navy SEAL, someone with intimate knowledge of maritime and amphibious warfare. On top of that, he’s a respected historian of piracy and privateering, particularly on the tactics and stratagems employed by those ne’er-do-wells in the search for plunder. He served as an historical consultant on the series Black Sails and for the miniatures game Blood and Plunder (which might, eventually, show up on the blog once I make more progress with Frostgrave), both of which I love. I’ll be resorting to this book primarily for building systems for interesting ship-based conflict.

Osprey Publishing Books
These works tend to be concise summaries of different types of soldiers in various historical contexts, always accompanied by great illustrations. Books I’m looking at here include: Pirate 1660-1730, Spanish Galleon 1530-1690, Buccaneers 1620-1700, Blackbeard’s Last Fight, Warships of the Anglo-Dutch Wars 1652-74, Pirate: The Golden Age, The Pirate Ship 1660-1730

Seamanship in the Age of Sail, by John Harland
War at Sea in the Age of Sail, 1650-1850, by Andrew Lambert

Both of these will be used to further inform my understanding of sailing techniques for creating satisfying (but not overly complex) systems for ship chases and maneuvering as well as ship-to-ship combat.

British Warships in the Age of Sail, 1603-1714, by Rif Winfield
British Warships in the Age of Sail, 1714-1792, by Rif Winfield
First-Rate: The Greatest Warships of the Age of Sail, by Rif Winfield
French Warships in the Age of Sail, 1626-1786, by Rif Winfield
The Arming and Fitting of English Ships of War, 1600-1815, by Brian Lavery

As you’ll see in the next post(s), there’s a lot of complexity to ship types and ship designs in the late 16th through early 18th Century period we’ll be examining here. As you can see, the books I’ve lined up here are entirely devoted to warships, most of which (as I’ll explain later) were unlikely to be seen in the Caribbean. If I can find some good references for the smaller and lighter-armed ships that would have been more frequently encountered in the Spanish Main, whether in the hands of the upstanding merchant or the most fiendish pirate, I’ll be adding those in.

In the next part, I’ll include some brief notes about pirates and piracy in general to inform our games.

For the next post in this series, click here.

Post-Run Thoughts on Shadowrun 6th Edition

A ways back, when I did my set of posts on Shadowrun characters, I promised that I’d be doing a system review in the near future. I’m not sure that this qualifies, formally speaking, as a review, but I am going to share what I think about the system after having run a few sessions now.

As you might have gathered, I was excited about the 6th Edition system when it first appeared. I like the idea of Edge as something more like Fate points and, in theory, that it supplants the need for the endless lists of modifiers in previous editions of Shadowrun. I was much more forgiving than most about other complaints about the system–and particularly the problems with the first printing of the rulebook. A lot of that, really, is likely due to the fact that I got my copy in PDF, which had already been updated with errata by the time I read it, coupled with the fact that my familiarity with Shadowrun lead me to naturally assume things that were not originally included in the rulebook–things like how much Essence you start with.

Character creation is more or less what you remember being from 3rd, 4th or 5th editions with the Priority System and some amount of Karma to round things out (IIRC, more Karma than was standard in previous editions. I have developed some gripes with character creation and advancement, though.

First, I’ve noticed what I think are some balance issues in the Priority Table. Because spells cheap in Karma cost and the Adjustment Points granted by the Metatype selection on the Priority can be used to increase your Magic reason, there’s actually very little reason to choose the higher-tier selections for Magic use compared to selecting a lower tier, using your adjustment points to increase Magic, your Karma to buy some extra spells, and having more Skill and Attribute Points.

Second, I personally think that there’s too much of a gap between the tiers for Skills and Attributes–I’m not sure that you can really create a viable character if you chose Priority E for skills or Attributes.

With the amount of Karma available at chargen, it also strikes me that Physical Adepts may be more powerful than characters augged for a similar role. As an Adept, you can take three levels of Initiation, take extra Power Points at each level, and start with nine Power Points.

These balance issues would likely be resolved by using an entirely Karma-based character creation system with some limits on how much Karma can be spent where and how.

But that leads to another issue–Attributes and Skills cost the same amount of Karma to increase, and the value of some Attributes over others doesn’t necessarily give parity. Agility, for instance, applies to a lot more skills than most of the other Attributes. And, given that raising an Attribute–any Attribute, I think–increases your effective rating in more than one skill, this is problematic.

Character generation is one thing, and the more I look at it, the more the shiny new facade falls away, revealing cracks in the plaster underneath. The more damning issue, though, is that while the new use of Edge is a great idea in theory, it doesn’t really simplify things in play very well.

Now, instead of tracking lots of little modifiers, I have to track different pools of Edge, make sure I’m distributing Edge (as appropriate, without sufficient guidance from the rulebook), make sure my players are tracking and spending Edge, and keep in mind all of the different basic Edge spends and special Edge actions available. The worst part though, is how unnatural the system feels in play. With Fate or Cortex Plus/Prime, the economy and use of points is relatively straightforward and intuitive after a short time playing. Here, though, I’m supposed to hand out Edge points when using a dice pool modifier feels more appropriate and then use those Edge points at a later time–when it may not really feel appropriate or connected. Worse, I’m not sure it really simplifies much. Sure, I don’t need to track how many rounds were fired in the last turn to calculate a recoil modifier for this turn, but a simplification of the amount and types of modifiers or the use of an advantage/disadvantage system would do much more with less.

There are other places where the attempt at a more narrative approach to Shadowrun feels less than fully-realized. Spells are a huge example here. SR6 attempts to simplify spells somewhat by adding some variables that can be applied to spells rather than required the choice of a Force Level (such as expanding AoE or adding additional damage). But that system could be used to require so many fewer spells and give sorcerers so much more flexibility and the opportunity is lost. A few examples: (1) allow the caster to modify the base spell to touch or area of effect and eliminate the need for different spells with the same general effect but different minor parameters; (2) allow the caster to modify Illusion spells to affect technology rather than having two separate spells; (3) Allow the caster to add on the additional Heal spell effects rather than making her use spell selections for six different minor variations.

This is the second time recently I’ve come across a system that I think I like on reading but don’t in practice–the previous being the new edition of 7th Sea, where I find the core mechanic more limiting and cumbersome than freeing. I guess that that means that designers are taking more risks to push mechanics in new directions than has perhaps been the case in the past, but with mixed results for major titles. I see some influence from Dogs in the Vineyard in 7th Sea, the former being a game I love from a design perspective but would probably never run. But, as a smaller title, the price of admission easily covers exposure to the innovative mechanic, whereas the greatly heightened production value of 7th Sea means a much higher buy-in. That’s a discussion for a different time.

In running the past few sessions of Shadowrun, I’ve admittedly been ignoring much of the RAW, using dice pool modifiers when it seems more appropriate, simplifying hacking rolls, etc. I don’t think that, as a GM and within the art of running a game, that there’s anything wrong with that so long as what’s being done is consistent and allows the character stats to have comparable effect on results as they would using RAW. But that’s not a good sign in terms of game design, and I’m finding myself sorely tempted to go back to Fate or Cortex to run the game. Alas, I can foresee the groans from my players at the lost time in learning and going through SR6 chargen only to change to a simpler system a few games in, so I’m not sure I’ll try to make that sale.

Without getting overly technical or formal in reviewing the system, what I’m finding is (for me personally, your style of running games may achieve a completely different result) that the system is encumbering my running of the game more than facilitating it, giving me too many mechanics when I want fewer, and not enough when I could use a little more. As much as I’d like to continue liking the SR6 system, at the end of the day, I’m not sure that there’s a worse conclusion I can come to.

As I’ve hinted at in other posts, I’m really not a fan of D&D, because it doesn’t lend itself to the types and styles of games I like to play. But it’s well-loved because, despite its relative complexity (and I think it’s fair to say it’s really middle of the road as far as that goes), it supports a certain type of gameplay and approach. I’d argue that the OSR has so much support for exactly the same reason, though that approach is somewhat different from D&D 5e and at least partially stoked by nostalgia.

Shadowrun remains one of my favorite RPG settings, so I’ll probably continue to buy the books to keep up with setting material, but that doesn’t mean I’ll feel great about doing so.

Can I make SR6 work for a long campaign? Yes; yes I can. Will I feel like I’m fighting with the system all the way through? Probably.

 

 

FFF’s Guide to 6th Edition Shadowrun Characters, Part V: Make Your GM Happy

For the previous post in this series, click here.

I’ve ferociously tapped out a lot of words on the subject of making characters in the sixth edition of Shadowrun, and I truly hope you’ve found them to be valuable. But so far, I’ve only tip-toed around what makes Shadowrun so great–the setting and the characters that inhabit it. In this last post in the series, I’ll talk a bit about the non-stat details of building characters.

It is very easy for the mish-mash of genres that Shadowrun is (not to mention some of the things that inhabit it) to give the impression that this is a gonzo or pulp-style setting. Certainly, you can treat it that way, and I’m not going to tell you your wrong if that’s your preference. But for me (which you’ve probably seen coming if you’ve read more than a handful of my posts), the excitement of Shadowrun (in addition to having some of my favorite things: magic and cyberpunk, in one setting) is the sheer what if? fun that can be had when the setting is approached with verisimilitude in mind.

There are a number of (uncomfortable) parallels that can be drawn between the real world in 2019 and the Shadowrun setting: governments that seem to care less and less about certain types of people, private companies and concerns with far too much power and far too little oversight, racism and divisiveness prevailing over unity and compassion, and an ever-increasing and deepening divide between the ultra-wealthy and everyone else. There’s plenty here to latch onto anchor the believability of a Shadowrun game.

That trolls and orks are the focus of racism rather than members of specific ethnicities or religions is an easy translation (and perhaps a safer space for exploring some of those problems than a strictly real-world equivalent, which can, of course, still be found in the Shadowrun world).

The technology of Shadowrun seems to be a relatively realistic progression of our current technologies, provided that full-immersion VR and DNIs are possible.

Magic and all that goes with it is perhaps the hardest point of verisimilitude, but given our culture’s fascination with “real world plus magic” stories (Harry PotterThe MagiciansThe Umbrella Academy, just to name a few), there’s no reason to suspect this constitutes a special hurdle.

So, creating characters who live and breathe in this world, for whom this is everyday reality, should not be so difficult. And that’s why I’ve titled this post as I have–developed, nuanced and believable characters are a GM’s dream.

It is more narratively interesting, for all involved, I think, for characters to be threatened in ways that are not simply based in the stats of the enemies they must physically confront, or the difficulties of the obstacles in the way of their success. The more interesting challenges are those that force moral questions, require the characters to choose between the lesser of two evils or between self-interest and altruism. The more interesting threats are those that challenge a character’s worldview or that act against those (non-material) things the character holds dear.

While the shadowrun may be at the core of the game, and it can certainly be played such that the overarching world plots and the revelation thereof are the campaign’s focus (this is the way the game line has been developed in many ways), the best drama for me comes from plots in how the characters relate to each other and those around them while living the life of a shadowrunner. When the players take the position that they do runs for money but have character goals (whether or not internal or external) that they have their characters regularly and doggedly pursue, then they have three-dimensional characters who really live into the conceit of the shadowrunner lifestyle.

This height of roleplaying intensity and drama requires both a dedicated GM who can respond and improvise on the spot to player-character driven plot developments and then look forward to incorporate those developments into the overall plot of a campaign and players who are willing to put in the time to develop their characters enough to drive the action of the plot with the psychological needs and global desires their characters have. Since this is a series on building characters (and a not-so-subtle opportunity for me to explain to my own players what I’d like to see from them), it’s that latter part we’re focused on.

To begin, the SR6 rulebook devotes some space (perhaps not as much as I’d really like, but some) to developing a character history and idea before starting with the Priority Table. Previous editions have jumped straight into the mechanics, so this is a step in the right direction and, again in line with the edition’s move in a more narrative direction while not abandoning fully the detail and grit of its (historical) system.

Additionally, the rulebook asks the player to think about how their character feels about (and, by extension to what extent they’re comfortable handling) the darker and seedier sides of the Shadowrun setting. For a setting where prostitution and human trafficking has progressed to forcing sex workers to use personality chips to override their natural personas with personas designed to fulfill the sexual fantasies of their clients (see Bunraku Parlors), this is an absolutely necessary conversation if you’re going to play into both verisimilitude and the grit (and existential horror) of a cyberpunk setting.

I’m sure that there will be comments about “special snowflakes who need trigger warnings” and “catering to social justice warriors,” but people who make those comments are not people I want at my table. As a game, everybody needs to be able to have fun. As an art or literary form, everyone at the table needs to be comfortable enough with the subject matter to engage in it, and forcing discomfort on participants is not a way in which this medium can be successful (though I acknowledge that forcing the observer into a state of reflective discomfort may be a worthy goal of art in general).

GMs should not leave the book to do the heavy lifting on having these conversations–this is a Session 0 concern of importance.

But back to characters. What can the player do to create both a character that is more interesting to play (because s/he/they are more than the sum of their numbers) and that gives the GM more to work with in developing the campaign?

Let’s start with the basics. Your character needs a name, and if you tell me is Dr. Murderhobo McStuffins, you’re dead out of the gate in my game–and in the most embarrassing and ignoble way I can devise. But bring me a believable name–even a strange or exotic one–and you’re on the right path. Give me a street name with a story behind it, even a simple one, and you’re starting to find some favor.

On of the best examples of a really interesting street name comes not from Shadowrun but from Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series. We meet the Named Man called “Shivers” as a hardcase who has it out for Logen Ninefingers, and we find out just what a hardcase he is in his “adventures” with Monza Murcatto in Styria. We assume that his name has an equally hard origin until he reveals that he’s called Shivers because he went to take a piss in a river before his first raid, fell in, was dragged a good ways and came out without his clothes and shivering. That’s how you get a street name!

A good backstory can give your GM great hooks to involve you in stories that go beyond, “you meet Mr. Johnson in a trendy club.” And knowing the life-changing events in your character’s past can give your GM the ability to pull at your character’s (and your) heartstrings, adding drama and interest to the campaign. It can also help your GM to give your character chances to shine in both action and drama.

It’s tempting to think that this requires a long written backstory, and then that you need to give it stylistic treatment. I can assure you that bullet-points that get the gist across will suffice, and that’s something you might realistically spend the time doing (this isn’t a judgment, just a statement of reality; everyone is busy).

Your character’s background can help to reinforce the genre (high tech, low life; systematic oppression and inequality of power and resources; the mysteries of the Awakened world; the constant shadow games and betrayals of the megacorporations; the commoditization of all aspects of life; the descent of the planet’s ecologies as it they are indiscriminately stripped of resources for short-term gain). If your GM has some campaign themes in mind, your character’s background can reinforce these as well.

Ideologies are important, too. Does your character have a faith? Does your character go to mass every Sunday, but spend his time there playing AR or VR games? Bear in mind that you don’t have to be religious yourself to play a religious character; Joss Whedon (who I like to call my favorite atheist theologian) has written or said a lot about his fascination with the narrative of characters of faith, particularly when they’re struggling with that faith. Roleplaying a character of faith doesn’t require an admission of truth in what the character believes, and we could probably all stand a little more empathy with people of faiths that don’t match our own.

Of course, ideology and faith are not necessarily the same thing, though they’ll certainly influence one another. Is your character an anarchist? A collectivist anarchist or and individualist anarchist? Even the punk philosophy has its points of contention; no ideology can be roleplayed with integrity without some nuance to it. And that makes for interest in-game situations–what if your anarchist character is approached to do a run for an anarchist collective, but you don’t agree about end goal or means? That’s interesting.

Everyone alive has goals for their future–the ability to set a future goal and plan for it is an important distinction made between animal and (meta)human intelligence. Even if your character doesn’t think often about what her goals are, she has them. The more important they are and the more conscious she is of them, the more they can be used to drive the plot. Sure, your character is a runner right now, but does she want to save up enough nuyen to eventually open a bar for other runners to hang out and share intel in? Is she looking for that one big score that will allow her to spend the rest of her life on some beach in the Caribbean League? Does she want to kill the Mafia don who she sees as responsible for her sister’s death? Does she want to be known as the best decker in her city? All of these goals might influence both character and plot.

Contacts are a great way to flesh out your character and give the GM hooks as well. How do you know your contacts? Do you like them? Do they like you? Loyalty and liking each other aren’t the same thing.

All those fake SINs I recommended your character have? They all have (fake) personal details attached. You should come up with at least the very basics for each one. Think of driver’s license information: what’s the name on it? how old does it say you are? what does it say your profession is? where does it say you live (general area should suffice)? what does any associated picture look like (clean shaven, long hair, different colored hair)?

The more details you have about who your character is, the more opportunities the GM has to tailor events, situations and plots to involve your character in more than the mere “this is the mission we’re currently playing through.” I want to reiterate here that the focus on character development should not be coming up with a well-written, in character semi-memoir to date or a short story representative of the character. Yes, you can do those things if you have time and will, and they might be helpful. But if you start them and don’t finish, that’s not going to help you and your GM very much. Start with easy stuff: bullet-point descriptions, a small collection of pictures that exemplify aspects of your character, and other small stuff provides plenty to begin with–you can work on your own (and, as necessary, with your GM, to build and add-on details as you go).

One of five-point Edge expenditures allows you to intrude somewhat on the GMs prerogatives and to add a detail to the story–this is a great way to insert something into the plot when you have an idea related to your character details.

Even if you don’t often (or ever) resort to that assertive method, the more you give your GM to work with, the more interesting and custom-tailored he can make your campaign, whether he’s creating it from scratch or using premade adventures.

Don’t skimp on this aspect of character creation, but be efficient, too!

FFF’s Guide to 6th Edition Shadowrun Characters, Part IV: Specific Build Advice

For the previous post in this series, click here.

Mystic Adepts

After being overpowered in the previous edition, mystic adepts have been returned to the role that suits them (and the rest of the rules) best—jacks of (many) trades, masters of none.

If you fall into the trap of trying to match the physical adept on one side or the full mage on the other (or, God forbid, both!), you’re going to spend a lot of time pouring over minute build details and never be satisfied. Don’t do it!

There are a few ways to build very effective mystic adepts, in my opinion, but the focus will always be on flexibility of approach rather than raw power. Right off the bat, don’t spend many resources on combat spells—with a Magic below 6, your damage output isn’t going to be worth the Drain. Stick to old-fashioned (or, more likely, new-fangled) firearms for dealing your damage.

Some sample character ideas:

  • The Stealthy Face – Particularly if you’re able to work with your GM to port over some of the adept abilities from 5th edition (Facial Sculpt, Melanin Control, Etc.) and you focus your spells on the Illusion and Detection categories (again, even more helpful if you’re able to port over the broader range of spells from previous editions), you can build a very solid character with a primary focus on social interaction or stealth and the other role in a secondary position. In my mind, this is the best role for a mystic adept, because good tradecraft is as much about unpredictability of approach and strong improvisational skills as anything else. The mystic adept gives you options, and that’s what a good spy needs.
  • The Arcane Defender – I’m not convinced that the mystic adept is better suited to this role than a full mage or physical adept, but this approach does seem fun to play. Take a specialization in Counterspelling, a high Conjuring skill, the Astral Perception power and other Adept Powers that will help you to bring the pain to enemy spirits.
  • The Asymmetrical Warrior – Again, perhaps not as powerful, straight-up, as a street samurai or physical adept, but if you can play cleverly, you can achieve things that neither of those archetypes can touch. For this approach, I would take only the Sorcery skill of the magical skills, with a specialization in Illusion. Take your spells from the illusion category and focus your Adept powers on combat-related powers. I’m of the opinion that you’re better off enhancing firearms abilities than hand-to-hand ones, but you can do just fine with either (or both, if you don’t mind the long haul of initiation to fully realize your character). Your focus here is on misdirection, ambushes, hit-and-runs and keeping your enemy off-balance. This is a great build if you’re new to a group that already has one or more pure-combat characters, or if you’re starting a new campaign with other players who want to focus their characters on combat—you can tee up a lot of things for them to knock out of the park.
  • The Wheelman – This one’s perhaps a little of a stretch, but follow me here. You use your Adept powers for Increased Reflexes and improving your Reaction and Piloting skill. You choose spells that constitute “dirty tricks” to use against other drivers. As always, you won’t have the raw power of the dedicated Rigger, but a Rigger can’t suddenly blind another driver or throw up a Physical Barrier behind himself!

Physical Adept

There are a lot of ways to build an interesting and effective Physical Adept, particularly once you port over the old adept abilities from SR5 (or wait for the new expansion books to come out). If you’re wondering, it took me less than 2 hours to sufficiently modify the adept powers from the old Street Grimoire to be used with SR6.

When you’re looking at the full gamut of abilities available to adepts, it can be a little daunting. If your GM will let you port over the Adept Ways into SR6 Qualities (also easy to do), then that can help you to think about your build.

The easiest thing to do, though (and which may always be the case), is to think about the two or three roles you want your character to be able to serve in and pick your abilities accordingly. Earlier, I talked about a Face needing some good defensive skills since he’s usually at the forefront of an ambush or sideways negotiation. The PhysAd is a great way to accomplish this, taking some socially-oriented powers (Voice Control, etc.) and supplementing with Mystic Armor and Improved Reflexes.

In modern close-combat doctrine using small-unit tactics, the SOP when confronted by an enemy at hand-to-hand range is not to engage him in hand-to-hand combat if avoidable—it’s to drop out of the way so your teammates can engage the target with their firearms. The PhysAd powers mentioned above take that approach—you’re focusing on surviving and getting out of the way so your supporting team members can fill the air with lead rather than trying to take out the targets single-handedly. You’re likely going to be outnumbered as well as being the primary target; unless you’ve got a mass of Edge ready to go, lay off the heroics.

As a former competitive shooter in tactical pistol, I love the idea of the Gunslinger Adept, especially since the John Wick films give us an excellent idea of what a Gunslinger Adept in action would be. Augmented characters may be able to scrape in more abilities for this role at character creation, but the PhsyAd arguably has more staying power in the long term. The other thing to bear in mind is that the PhysAd’s abilities are harder to detect before they’re used—no cyberware to be detected by a scanner, and abilities that make it possible to kill three men with a pencil. A pencil!

But it’s easy to fall into the belief that PhysAds should all be Wuxia kung-fu masters or action-hero gunslingers. With the full range of adept abilities from previous editions ported in, you can play a natural savant whose intelligence and insight makes him the consummate mastermind for the rest of the team, or many, many other options.

I’ve spent a lot of time on ways to build a PhysAd without a whole lot of practical advice, so let me shift gears a little. There is no reason not to have a Magic of 6 with a Physical Adept. In fact, you should strongly consider spending your Karma for the first level of initiation (11 Karma) and increasing your Magic to 7 from the get-go (35 Karma). That extra point of powers is probably the best expenditure of your “freeform” character creation points.

I recommend the following Priority array for Adepts: A- Skills, B – Attributes, C – Metatype, D – Magic, E – Resources. If you don’t spend any of your Metatype points on “standard” attributes, you still end up with Magic 6 and Edge 5. You’ll be pressed for equipment, but you won’t need augmentations, so the most expensive aspect is out of the way anyhow, and you can focus the rewards from your first few runs on correcting this deficiency with better Fake SINs, more weapons, and a vehicle, if desired. If it works with your Qualities, I highly recommend the Aptitude Positive Quality with this arrangement, for reasons previously discussed.

Magic-Users

The first thing I’ll say about building a Magic-using character is: expect to be frustrated by how much you’ll feel like you need to stretch your character resources. That’s normal and part of the cost of playing a wizkid—full mages and shamans are supposed to be relatively rare, remember.

If you’re going to play an aspected mage, I recommend focusing on Conjuring over Sorcery. My natural inclination (for no discernible reason, mind you) is Sorcery, but Conjuring gives you much more flexibility with how you use your magic and requires fewer starting resources. And, I’ve seen far more memorable things done in-game with conjuration than with sorcery. In my upcoming game, I’ve added additional spell modifications and collapsed spells with multiple versions into a single, modifiable spell to bring Sorcery into better parity with Conjuring, but your GM might not do this.

If you’re playing a full mage, bear in mind that spells are one of the cheapest things to purchase with Karma. I recommend you prioritize your skills, attributes and metatype over your beginning magic rating. Again, with Priority C in metatype and Priority D in Magic, you can still have a full mage with a starting Magic of 6. You’ll only start with 2 spells before spending Karma, but if you devote all of your Karma to additional spells, that’s the best bang-for-your-nuyen you can get for Karma expenditures at character creation and you can still come out with 14 spells. If your GM has ported over spells from previous additions and collapsed spells in the same manner I have, you’ll end up with a lot of flexible mojo options. Even if they haven’t, 14 spells and Conjuring will give you a lot of options.

As your character progresses, Karma will be the thing you need most and, typically at least, Nuyen will be the thing you need least (though you’ll still need a fair amount). You’ll have foci to bond, initiation to…initiate, more spells to buy, etc. In terms of cash, you’ll need to maintain and improve your lodge, buy reagents and pay for your focus habit (whether creating yourself or purchasing).

If you are using the rules-as-written, I would avoid devoting too many resources to Artificing—the rules make it possible to lose Essence on an Artificing test that does not allow the expenditure of Edge! That’s not a risk worth taking for the average magic user and, if taken to be a fact about how magic works in the Sixth World, most Artificers should, statistically speaking, burn out after a while at their profession. That means two things: (1) only aspected magic-users unfortunate enough to only have skill in Enchanting are likely to be Artificers and, (2) under basic economic theory, this rarity and the risk of focus creation means foci should be extremely expensive. But, if using RAW without thinking too hard about the logic behind it, just buy your damn foci and be done with it.

I’m either going to ignore this rule altogether or at least allow Edge expenditure on this test for purposes of avoiding critical glitches. Even then, only high Edge characters should engage in Artificing.

An aside: As it stands, the Karma cost to increase Attributes is the same as it is to increase Skills. I think that this is likely an intentional design decision related to the consolidation of Skills that happened in this edition. Part of me, though, wonders if it is a typo or design mistake. Particularly with Agility being linked to so many different Skills, you’d think the cost to raise it would be higher, though if you make the cost to raise each Attribute different, you open up a whole can of worms in conflict with the design approach of the whole ruleset. It would take some statistical analysis far more complex than I am able (or care) to do to make a real determination of whether the benefits from each Attribute (and the benefits of Attributes compared to Skills) really supports the Karma costs given in the core rules. I imagine that this will be a point of contention for some gamers looking for reasons not to like the new edition (and, if that’s how they feel, I won’t begrudge them sticking to 5th edition, but my gameplay approach finds a lot more desirable in the new edition, thank you very much). Regardless, having made a lot of 6th edition characters in preparation for writing this guide (and because I’m the kind of nerd who finds that to be a fun exercise in and of itself), I don’t see a drastic effect on play from the Karma distribution.

It does mean, however, that you’re generally better off with higher Skills than higher Attributes at character creation, though the many demands for character resources at chargen will not always allow you to take this approach. To get the fullest use of your magical ability, there are four skills you need: Astral, Sorcery, Conjuring and Enchanting. If you’re strapped for points, I recommend dropping or reducing Enchanting first. You’ve probably gathered that I prefer characters (both mine and my players’) to have some basic competency in most aspects of being human (like social skills—I am loathe to play a street samurai with a Charisma of 2 and no social skills, leaving your only option in conflict the most instinctive of human reactions: fight, flight or freeze). So, think about having some points to spend on skills like Con, Influence, Stealth, Athletics or defensive skills as well as your magical skills.

It is harder, though far from impossible, for full mojo-makers to cover beyond their primary role because of the many resources that must be devoted to magical ability. I recommend one of two approaches here: pick one backup role and focus on it or use those character resources available as a backstop, not focusing on excelling in a secondary role but trying to limit your vulnerability when caught in situations outside your forte by having two or three points in a number of non-magical skills. As I mentioned before, specializations can be used to stretch points as necessary.

The Focused Concentration Quality was powerful in the previous edition, as it helped to resist Drain. The 6th edition version, allowing spell maintenance without penalty, is even moreso. It’s not a cheap Quality—technically you could achieve a similar (and actually more powerful but more expensive and less flexible) effect by spending Karma on Level 1 Initiation and taking the Quickening metamagic for one less Karma, but a Sustaining Focus will cost you almost twice as much Karma (between paying for the purchase of it and the Karma to bond it).

You’ve got a lot to spend your Karma on already, but if you can afford a level or two of initiation, I think that’s well worth it.

Riggers and Deckers

I must admit that I don’t build or play these types of characters as often as I do others, so take my thoughts here with a little more suspicion than in the other categories—and accept my apologies that my thoughts are not as deep and detailed as they are elsewhere.

Even more, perhaps, than Street Samurai and other highly-augged characters (and for similar reasons) Riggers and Deckers need a lot of Nuyen to be viable and the “buy once, cry once” axiom especially applies.

My opinion, if you’re running a Decker, is to take Priority A for Resources and buy the best cyberdeck and cyberjack you possibly can, making all other expenditures secondary. Who cares if you have to sleep on the street, VR is comfortable everywhere, amiright? Of course there’s the strong possibility of being shanked for your gear while you’re zoned out, but what’s the cyberpunk lifestyle without a little risk?

You’ll need a fair amount of skills, so that’s the best candidate for Priority B. Priority E, obvs, should be Mundane, with your choice of how you assign C and D. Karma will likely need to be spent on shoring up both Skills and Attributes.

Riggers have it just as tough, or tougher. You may not need a cyberdeck, but you probably still need a cyberjack for its protective qualities, and you’re not a Rigger without a control rig. You’ll need Piloting (duh), Engineering and Electronics, so you’ve already got a few important skills to think about. On the other hand, the Rigger is the character most insulated from other types of interactions, so your need to put lots of points into other skills for contingencies is somewhat reduced. But, if you have a GM like me, who’s read and taken John Wick’s (the 7th Sea John Wick, not the “bang bang” John Wick—unless they’re actually the same person) Play Dirty books to heart and who’s going to make sure you at least occasionally have to deal in meatspace, better to be safe than sorry.

A variety of drones will allow you to fulfill combat roles as well as surveillance and operational security with some ease, and your various viewpoints to the area of operations may put you in a good position to advise and direct team tactics.

Again, you’ll probably need Priority A to go to Resources, with Priority E at Mundane. I’d recommend prioritizing Attributes over Skills on this build for the secondary effects that you’ll get from your Attributes (Initiative, resisting biofeedback, Condition Monitor boxes, etc.)—with the understanding that a lot of your Karma is going to go to shoring up your skills (and some may still go to Resources!).

A few practical notes for your Rigger character:

  1. Your team will expect you to be the driver, so you should probably have a ground vehicle large enough to transport them all.
  2. Your team will expect you to be the mechanic and tech guy/girl for non-Matrix stuff (and maybe even for Matrix stuff!). You’ll have the Engineering skill by default (at least you should), but think about putting resources into kits and facilities as possible.
  3. Your role as driver and drone-manager will often mean your teammates see you as an overall logistics person. You might choose your Contacts accordingly.

Technomancers

This will be short and sweet: I haven’t yet read the 6th edition rules for Technomancers and I haven’t tried to build a Technomancer character yet. Those of you who want to play one are on your own for the time being.

Street Samurai

First, if you’re going to play this kind of character, a true Street Sam, do the character justice. Read some books about Bushido (A Book of Five Rings, Hagakure, etc.), watch Ghost Dog, etc. Don’t play a stereotype of a modern samurai, play a nuanced, believable warrior of the cyberpunk streets who believes that, while the technology and context of warfare has changed somewhat, the morality and ethics of the warrior should not have.

With that out of the way, there are several ways to build Street Sams, and none of them is wrong. You can play a generalist, buying those augs that seem interesting to you and hopefully constructing an augmentation gestalt that is more than its individual parts.

Or, you can specialize. Here, I tend to think of the old D20 Modern classes as a rough guide—you can be Tough, Fast, or Strong. You could focus on Smart or Charismatic, but they don’t so much fall into this category.

There are some augmentations I think are givens (for any augged character, really). Platelet Factories are cheap, both in Essence and Nuyen, and provide what is essentially three points of Body in resisting Physical damage. Second is the Sleep Regulator—this may not have a hugely obvious mechanical effect, but shadowrunners work odd hours and jobs that don’t exactly allow for regular sleep breaks. It’s also cheap in terms of Essence and Nuyen. As a third, I usually recommend cybereyes and cyberears before other augmentations. If your GM understands small-unit tactics and you expect to be up against trained security/law-enforcement/military forces, you should expect to see (and perhaps use) a lot of Stun (i.e. flashbang) grenades, making Damper and Flare-Compensation almost essential.

As a side note, it’s always bugged me that Damper isn’t included in the Audio Enhancements for earbuds and other non-aug audio devices—I’ve added it in as an option for my game.

If you’re going to do much shooting (and, if you’re a Street Sam, odds are good) then a Smartlink, and Vision Magnification are almost essential as well—as are low-light and thermographic vision for target identification. I imagine the spatial recognizer performing much like those red flashes at the corner of your screen when someone off-screen is shooting at you in a video game, giving you cues as to which way to turn to locate an attacking enemy. That’s not its only use, but being able to pinpoint the location of a sniper after he fires a few shots is a tactical gamechanger.

It’s tempting to take cyberlimbs for the “cool” factor; I get that. But I honestly thing they’re too expensive for the return in most cases and should be taken mostly under two circumstances—(1) it makes narrative sense for the character (she lost a limb sometime in the past), or (2) you’re going to install a cyberweapon. Just bear in mind that it’s not always an advantage to have a weapon you can’t leave behind in certain situations. Yes, it may be concealed, but corporations and shadow-actors are typically smart enough to keep scanners. Also, at least in my take on the Shadowrun world, expect for opponents to get Edge against you in high-society social situations if you’re rocking obvious cyberlimbs, you poor SoB who couldn’t afford to make his hand look like normal. I tend to think that there are far better augs before cyberlimbs to give you bang for buck. As a counterargument, though, Kristin Ortega’s cyberarm in the Netflix Altered Carbon is pretty badass. A Sam considering a focus on raw strength should consider muscle enhancers first, but paired cyberlimbs may be a viable option.

If you’re going to focus on close-combat, wired reflexes and other Reaction enhancers are a must. You need to avoid being shot while closing for that katana strike, after all. Other augs should focus on increasing strength and hand-to-hand damage.

Sams focusing on toughness (and I think you get a lot of bang-for-your-buck here, though its not as flashy as other approaches) can take Orthoskin, Bone Density or Bone Lacing enhancements, the Quick Healing Quality, Damage Compensators (and perhaps be a troll—actually, though the super-tough combatant who just refuses to go down is also a sort of metaphorical troll, I suppose).

Sams who want to truly focus on speed above all else are going to spend the majority of their resources (Nuyen and Essence) on the highest end of Wired Reflexes and Reaction Enhancers (compatible while wireless-enabled).

If your Street Samurai is going to be your team’s main combatant, then I would take a more generalist approach to your Skills (and therefore available fighting styles). Based on my experience in both martial arts and firearms training (with no combat experience to speak of, for which I’m thankful), I’m a believer that anyone who is going to carry or use a firearm also needs to be skilled in close-combat (unarmed at least) to deal with in-your-face situations and weapon retention.

If you’ve got multiple combat-focused characters in your team, you may want to think about specializing a little bit. Specialize in pistols and unarmed combat for a sort of John Wick combatant, or think about a focus in long-range weapons for a support-sniper role (which, honestly may be better suited to a non-Street Sam character who won’t need as many augs).

Note that the Specializations under Firearms in SR6 are extremely confused, having edges rougher than a mole that needs a biopsy—what’s the difference between “Rifles” and “Longarms” for instance? I recommend changing the specializations to match weapon types specifically—Pistols, SMGs, Shotguns, Assault Rifles, Semi-Auto Rifles (or something similar). Just check with your GM when choosing specializations here.

You’ll also want to take a thoughtful approach to your arsenal. It’s common for Street Sams to spend a lot of Nuyen on guns (and hand-to-hand weapons), and there’s nothing wrong with that, but do it with a purpose. You can only carry and use so many guns at once, and various permissive/non-permissive environments and run objectives are going to call for different approaches.

One of the main foci (in my mind) is having a set of weapons for covert work and a different set for overt combat. With covert weapons, suppressors are a must and concealment should be a concern. With overt weapons, you want mods that are not compatible with your covert weapons (like gas vent) to increase weapon effectiveness when you can maximize it without having to worry about balancing other concerns. The Ares Light Fire 75 has the best suppressor (at -3 to detection over the usual -2), but the Ares Viper Slivergun is a more powerful pistol with an integrated suppressor for improved concealment. The Ares Predator VI (which now competes with the Savalette Guardian for when you need a pistol that just does work) is an excellent choice for an overt weapon—especially when you add gas vent and a quick-draw holster.

I tend to recommend that you have both covert and overt pistols and one weapon in every other category; when building my own characters I tend to take a suppressed SMG like the HK-227, an overt assault rifle and shotgun (don’t get me started on silencing shotguns) and a covert long rifle.

Don’t forget less-lethal options—particularly if you’re focused on close-combat, your character is going to take point on those “Capture” missions. Tasers, stick-n-shock, the Super-squirt and other options should be considered.

It’s a Shadowrun trope for a Troll to lug around an assault cannon or minigun, but this honestly doesn’t make much sense to me. For one, this is a good way to make sure your opponents send an attack helicopter and a tank to respond to you. Two, collateral damage is a thing, guys. Unless you have a mission that specifically needs a launcher or autocannon, leave it at home.

Also, don’t forget grenades.

Other Characters
This is a very broad category that will include a lot of characters (in some ways, characters who don’t fall into a category above automatically fall into this category), so I’m going to treat it fairly generally.

If you’re not falling into one of the other categories, I recommend you prioritize Skills and Attributes above all else. Set Priority E to mundane and use C and D for Resources and Metatype, depending on how augged you’d like to be. See above under the Street Samurai heading for my personal “must-have augs.” Your mileage may vary.

The best thing about making this kind of character is that it becomes about the character’s background and narrative more than the mechanical or meta-game concerns. This is where you find some of the most interesting characters: those whom circumstances have recently forced into the shadowrunning life and who will struggle to turn their previous experiences into effective skills and knowledge for the professional criminal. Betrayed sararimen, disgruntled Lone Star officers, bored trust-fund kids, people who’ve never known a legitimate SIN and more can all be found in this category; when they’re played well, they’re a joy both to the player and to the GM—they truly fit into the “play to find out” approach of modern narrative games. Desperation and being ground down by oppressive and unjust societal systems is far more cyberpunk than any amount of chrome.

Honestly, the best advice I have for these kinds of characters is just to build them based on who they were before they became a shadowrunner, and have fun turning the narrative details into Attributes, Skills and Qualities. With VR games and instructional options, every character really has an excuse to have any Skill, so don’t be afraid to put some points into those skills that are necessary to shadowrunning at character creation, even if the character has never fired a gun in real life before. But if that’s the case, roleplay through the drama of that first firefight where life is actually on the line—there’s so much good stuff there, and an appreciative GM may throw some Karma your way for adding so much to the story. I sure would.

Conclusion

This post has not covered, and cannot cover, the very many types of characters you could build (which is a feature of the system, not a bug). Thinking back, the Shadowrun character creation system is probably a very large part against my bias against class-based and leveled systems (though I intellectually understand their great value for establishing genre tropes and significantly easing the character creation and leveling systems).

In the next post, we’ll look at the most important part of character creation: the character that isn’t represented by numbers on a page.

 

 

FFF’s Guide to 6th Edition Shadowrun Characters, Part III: General Advice

For the previous post in this series, click here.

Minimum Standards
An established (not necessarily starting) team of shadowrunners ought to make sure every member has at least a minimum competency in a few areas: at least one combat skill for self-defense, some ability in the Stealth skill (with a specialization in Sneaking if you want to go farther with a few points), and some ability in the Biotech skill (with a specialization in First Aid to stretch points). If your GM is going to enforce the rules (on Page 247) that you need the Electronics skill to figure out how to turn the Wireless effects of your gear on and off (I certainly won’t be enforcing it—that’s too important a thing to do to require a skill point for it!), then a character ought to have at least one point in that as well.

Essential Gear
Even the core Shadowrun book has enough equipment in it to make one’s head spin, and purchasing equipment is often the longest phase of character creation. The Sixth Edition is no different.

For new players especially, it’s easy to lose track of (or to never find) a good explanation of what gear is absolutely necessary for a person to function. Here’s what you need:

Fake System Identification Number(s) (SINs)

Every Runner should have at least one fake SIN (System Identification Number). A SIN is required to use public services—like riding the bus—and in nicer parts of town, corporate security or local law enforcement will make a beeline for anyone who doesn’t have a SIN when scanned.

Your runner may have been born with a SIN (which I’d assume her to adequately have distanced herself from aside from tissue matches or fingerprinting, unless the SINner Quality is taken), but remember that anonymity, privacy and security are essential for a runner to survive long enough to make it big.

If you want to carry a gun, drive a car, or not be arrested for having restricted cyberware (or being Awakened), you need to make sure that you have the proper fake licenses attached to your Fake SINs.

The lowest Resources rating on the Priority Chart gives you 8,000¥ (before you spend any Karma). The least expensive Fake SIN (Rating 1 with no licenses) costs 2,500¥ and will stand up to only the most cursory examination (automated public transportation scans, etc.). Plan accordingly.

Commlink

The commlink is your phone, personal digital assistant, tablet and computer all rolled into one. You need to have one to survive in the modern age of the Sixth World. If all you can afford is a cheapie, by all means—but have one.

Lifestyle

Because it’s found earlier in the book and not in the Gear section, it’s easy to forget that you need to have a Lifestyle, which represents your monthly payments for food, shelter and basic services. Under most circumstances, a runner probably wants to maintain a Low Lifestyle—saving money for those things that will keep her alive or for that magical future day when she can retire from the life and live comfortably ever after. Remember, it’s cyberpunk: high tech and low life. But don’t be a Squatter.

If your character is the paranoid type, comes from a background in tradecraft, or has the resources and understanding of the risks of shadowrunning such that he or she would have at least one bolthole somewhere that no-one knows about, purchase multiple Lifestyles. Just remember that they have to be maintained, too.

Image Link, Sound Link and Micro-Transceiver

If your character doesn’t have cybereyes and/or cyberears, you need to shell out for at least a visual device with image link (Rating 1 Contacts with just this feature are 75¥) and an aural device (which automatically has sound link—Rating 1 earbuds are 50¥). You need a micro-transceiver, too. This equipment allows you to keep in constant contact with the rest of your team and to share valuable information. Communication and information sharing can be more valuable than wired reflexes and a Panther assault cannon if you’re clever.

Trauma Patch

Every character should probably carry one of these. They’re expensive (500¥), but necessary in a desperate situation to prevent loss of life. A shadowrunner team is many things, but they’re sometimes a team of covert(-ish) combat operators—and they should think like it. Every soldier carries at a bare minimum an IFAK (individual first aid kit) to treat the commonest types of injuries. A trauma patch isn’t a substitute for all of the devices, materials and life-saving techniques your team should have access to, but it’ll do in a pinch.

The Mechanics of the Build

What follows is my personal advice (along with my personal biases) on creating Shadowrun characters in the Sixth Edition after spending several hours with the character creation system.

What Do You Need to Know?

Before you make a character, you should get a feel for the world of Shadowrun in 2080 (Page 14 on) and the basics of the game mechanics (“Game Concepts” Chapter starting on Page 34). If you’re going to play an Awakened character, I recommend also reading the Magic Chapter (at least the basics, starting on Page 127)

Lay of the Land

For ease of navigation, some “bookmarks” for you:

  • The Description of Attributes is on Page 37
  • The Priority Table is on Page 63
  • The Skills Chapter Starts on Page 92
  • Qualities Begin on Page 66
  • Adept Powers Start on Page 156
  • Spells Start on Page 130
  • Mentor Spirits on Page 162
  • The Gear Listing Starts on Page 244
  • Advancement Costs (for spending Karma) on Page 68
  • Rules for Contacts on Page 66-67

Min/Max

Yes, I complained about the Archetypes being min/max-ed, but there’s actually a distinction here. The Archetypes are min/max-ed as to their final ability ratings and all of that, with very specific foci and almost no character resources spent outside of that focus.

The min/max-ing I’m referring to is in the expenditure of the 50 Karma points you get at character creation. Choose the upgrades that you’ll spend on and allocate your attribute points, skill points, etc. from the Priority Table with that in mind so that you maximize the value you get from that beginning Karma.

An example: Going from Firearm’s 5 to Firearms 6 is worth thirty Karma. Purchasing Electronics at 2 requires 15 Karma. Where should you allocate your Priority-Table-Given Skill Points? To your higher-rated skills, spending Karma to fill in gaps for basic necessities. Likewise with Attribute Point distributions.

As a matter of good gaming etiquette, I’d check with your GM about his or her stance on this behavior. As hard as I intend to be on my players, though, I’m happy to let them have this benefit.

As a side note, the discrepancy/ambiguity created by loose design in the use of Karma points to round things out might be viewed as a problem, and I would agree that it is while I’m looking at Shadowrun from a designer’s perspective. As a practical matter, though, just decide on an approach and keep running.

Specializations Are Your Friends

Specializations are cheap to purchase with Karma. So, don’t use Priority Table Skill Points to buy Specializations unless you really need to spend the Karma elsewhere. That said, use Specializations to push your character resources farther at character generation. Most characters are only going to need Pilot (Ground Vehicle) for instance, or Biotech (First Aid). If your character does not have combat as a primary focus, consider using specializations (say in Pistols and/or Unarmed Combat) to get some basic competency without devoting a lot of Skill Points.

Augmentation: Buy Once, Cry Once

It used to be that you could only purchase base-grade cyberware and bioware at character generation, but this was further back in the timeline; by 2080, apparently, even Delta-grade cyberware isn’t too hard to find.

According to the rules as written, you cannot purchase Illegal gear with an Availability of 7 or higher. Check with your GM to see if they’re going to modify this (frankly, it probably should be). If used as written, at least some of the cyberware you want to get your grubby hands on can be purchased at Delta-grade, or at least Alpha or Beta.

Contrary to the Archetypes in the book, you’re better off buying the best grade of hardware you can reasonably afford rather than dumping in base-grade. Why?

First, the higher the grade of cyberware, the harder it is to detect. That’s definitely to your benefit. As or more important, the higher the grade of cyberware, the less Essence it costs. Yes, you could have more bonuses and benefits if you just pack in basic cyberware and bioware, but you never get more Essence.

You can remove old cyberware and replace it with a higher grade, which will never raise your Essence back to what it was, but will leave a “gap” to be taken up before it drops further.

Example: You’ve got an Essence of .4 after putting in all your (basic-grade) cyber. You’ve scraped together some nuyen and if you want to take on more cyber, you need to make some room, you you’re going to buy a Beta-grade version of something you already have to replace it. The basic version cost you 1 Essence point, so the Beta-version will cost you .7 Essence. Your Essence stays at .4 after the replacement, but your total Essence cost on your Cyber is now 5.3 instead of 5.6, so you have an extra .3 worth of Essence to use up before your Essence drops below .4.

If you follow the example above, you’ve now paid 2.5 times the value of that piece of cyberware (1 time when you first bought it, and another 1.5 times when you bought the Betaware version). That adds up to a massive drain on your character’s lifetime nuyen.

Don’t Skimp on Edge

Edge is central to the new edition of Shadowrun in ways it has never been. You start each session with an amount of Edge equal to your Attribute rating and, if you have more Edge at the end of an encounter than your Attribute, you lose the excess. An Edge of 5 means that you can hold enough Edge at once for an alpha-strike use of the highest level of Edge expenditure when you need the boost.

That doesn’t mean that you need to have an Edge of 5, but I certainly wouldn’t want to run a character with less than 3. If you have to, spend Karma to boost it. Even if you have no points from the Priority Table to allocate to Edge, it would only cost 25 Karma to get it up to 3.

My initial feeling is that Edge is the new Initiative Augmentation in Shadowrun—don’t leave home without it.

Understand Attack Value and Defensive Value

Particularly if you’ve come from a previous version of Shadowrun, there’s a learning curve to grokking how AV and DV work in awarding Edge during a fight. As you pick your weapons, armor and augmentations, pay attention to AV and DV—they are, along with the fundamental overhaul of Edge, the New Big Thing. Choosing between a weapon with a one-point damage bonus and a higher AV is something to carefully consider.

Consider Initiative Augmentations Carefully

It used to be that characters with initiative augmentations vastly outclassed those that didn’t in combat. This is no longer the case—it now takes a Level 3 initiative augmentation to gain a second attack (or second Major Action of any type) in combat, and that’s the most you’ll ever get.

This is a very welcome rebalance, in my opinion, and it makes it worth considering whether you need such an augmentation—despite the change in the rules, these augs remain very expensive in terms of Essence and Nuyen (in Cyber-/Bioware) or Power Points (for Adepts).

The Archetypes have overused initiative augs, with half of them having one, even when the assets spend on those augs would be much better spent elsewhere.

If you look at the NPCs section of the book, you don’t see any initiative augs until Professional Tier 4 and above. My advice is only to consider an initiative aug if your primary role in the group is combat. Even then, I wouldn’t say that wired reflexes or a synaptic booster are a necessary piece of kit.

The Aptitude Quality

The Aptitude Quality, for 12 Karma, lets you start with a skill at Rating 7 (rather than the usual max of 6) and level it up to 10 (instead of 9). This is not necessarily a Quality every player should take for their character, but it does have the potential to save you a lot of Karma (if your GM doesn’t have a problem with this, if you are not committing the sin of overspecialization, and if your end character is adaptable enough to survive long enough that it matters).

It would cost you 35 Karma to raise a skill from 6 to 7. You’ll pay 12 Karma for the Quality, but this still nets you 23 Karma in the long run (not accounting for paying the skill point).

Where this really makes a difference is that you can then have other skills at Rating 6, rather than only being able to have one at Rating 6 and the rest at 5. This opens up a lot (a lot!) of additional potential Karma.

To make real use of this Quality, though, I think you need to take Priority A in skills. If that doesn’t mesh with your character idea, look for more suitable Qualities.

In the next post, look for my advice on specific types of characters.