Brancalonia: D&D Meets a Lighter-Hearted Blades in the Dark

Those of you who’ve been with me for a while know that I’m not a big fan of the systems used for D&D. The older and wiser I get, and the more I come to understand game design, the more I see the justification for the choices the system makes. It seems that a lot of times, my upset with the design choices are amplified by traditional (mis-)interpretations of the intent of those systems. At the end of the day, D&D is a game people love, and there’s nothing wrong with preferring that system over others. For me, though, I prefer my games a little harsher and grittier, and while I think D&D should best be considered a toolkit along the lines of Fate or Cortex (certainly not marketed that way but treated that way by DMs by long tradition), I find that it would take as much or more work to kitbash D&D into something approximating what I want as to design a system particular to my tastes. In fact, a few weeks ago I got some of my gaming friends together in our first post-vaccination meet-up to discuss putting together a fantasy game using highly-modified D&D rules (for all my complaints about the system, I listen to actual play podcasts and get a desire to play all the same). Instead of spending a lot of time discussing changes and systems, as I’d expected, we relatively quickly came to the decision that they’d (and I don’t disagree) that I devote my time to setting and system for Avar Narn and that they help playtest rules.

That’s a long walk to the real beginning of this post, mostly to explain that I don’t usually review or spend a lot of time on D&D-related books or systems as part of the blog. Brancalonia, though, is just that captivating.

Brancalonia is a setting (with rules modules) for 5e D&D, taking place in a “spaghetti fantasy” version of late-medieval/early modern Italy. Those of you who know my background understand that my interest is immediately piqued. Even without my deep love for the Renaissance in Italy, a mashup of fantasy and the spaghetti western genres sounds like two great tastes that taste great together. In execution, the “western” influence gives way more to the Renaissance themes of misrule, the Commedia Dell’Arte, and the best parts of early-modern humor. The fantasy is low without being gritty (think of a greasier, sleazier, ne’er-do-well with a heart of gold sort of vibe).

The mechanics of the system accomplish this in several ways. First, the restriction of characters to level 6 (a common change to evoke “low” fantasy in D&D without much fuss), though there are character advances that may continue to occur after hitting maximum level. Second, the inclusion of subclasses that evoke the feel of the setting without requiring massive overhauls of the core D&D classes. Third, a bevy of rules additions (more than modifications) that reinforce the feeling of Brancalonia. Short rests are changed to a full night and long rests to a week in line with the suggested rules modification in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. The long rest is then incorporated into a downtime “Rollick” system.

Other rules include a system for Brawls (a non-lethal combat type indicative of both semi-good-natured contests between rivals and conflicts between criminals who know that drawing steel changes the context of the fight into something of interest to the authorities–to say nothing of lethality), methods for tracking characters’ bounties for their misdeeds (and the potential consequences thereof), the aforementioned “Rollick” system and rules for relationships to the characters’ band and company as well as an upgradable hideout. The standard D&D economy is changed not by complex changes to numbers in costs but by the vast lowering of the amount of gold characters are likely to have at any given time, limitations on magic items, a system for squandering winnings (reminiscent of Barbarians of Lemuria) and rules for “shoddy” equipment–what the characters will most often be using.

I make mention of Blades in the Dark in the title of this review not simply because it’s the previous game I reviewed, but because the systems in Brancalonia remind me of a (lighter) version of Blades in the Dark crew rules. Rather than managing the relationships between rival gangs as in BitD, the Knaves of Brancalonia are “Bounty Brothers” more often than deadly rivals. But the game does follow the same sort of job–downtime–job cycle as BitD, with a simple but perhaps more formalized system for managing the group’s hideout and its available amenities (described as Grandluxuries). The jobs set to a group of Knaves is implied to be a little more varied, both in context and geography, than the heists of Doskvol.

Also like BitD, characters regularly engage in their vices during downtime in Brancalonia, though the results in the latter are more often amusingly complicating than the self-destruction of the former. The best summary of the relationship between the two, I think is that Brancalonia takes itself less seriously, creating a picaresque tale of rowdy louts rather than a depressing story about desperate criminals.

Some notes about the writing itself: the game was originally written in Italian, and I get the feeling (or make the assumption) that part of the mastery of the feel of the setting is the immersion of the writers in both Italian culture and European history in ways that a Yank like myself can only dream of. The translation into English leaves a text that is clear and easy-to-understand–as well as very well-written. The book could have used some more editing, but the issues I find are typically minor mispellings and particularly the omission of certain letters in words (including within chapter titles!). Still, I found nothing that endangered comprehension or that reasonably compared with the first released draft of the latest Shadowrun rules.

I really can’t over-emphasize how well-written the setting material is. Not only from the standpoint of well-constructed and stylistically-impressive sentences, but also of language that evokes the feel the setting aspires to. I imagine both the original writers (the team of Epic Party Games) and the translator (Sarah Jane Webb) are to be commended for this feat. To boot, the artwork is amazing and highly evocative. I daresay that it’s worth the price of admission alone.

I must admit a certain forlorn agreement with all of the “What our party thinks it is/What our party actually is” memes when I see them, and herein lies another strength of Brancalonia–its tone is that sort of light-hearted foolishness often achieved by players of fantasy RPGs to begin with, so what may be considered a falling-short of the transcendent heights of “great roleplaying” in other conditions is right in with the theme and style of the game in Brancalonia. This alone is a huge strength.

If you’re a less-experienced GM looking for the style of BitD in an easy-to-run system, or a group who couldn’t care less about roleplaying as “Art” so long as everyone is having fun (always the first principle of committing free time to an RPG, I think, even if you want to make “Art” as well), a group looking for a grittier but light-hearted D&D setting, a new gamer wanting to learn to play RPGs, an aspiring designer looking for an excellent example of setting writing (rather than excellent worldbuilding–it may be that, too, but there’s so much material to draw on to create the setting that I’m not sure that it deserves that categorization), or a veteran gamer looking to do something decidedly fun and different, Bracalonia is definitely worth checking out.

Is it just me, or are we in something of a golden age for Italian game designers? I think of The One Ring as well and expect we’ll see more games of note from this group of designers as well.

Blades in the Dark: A Different Kind of Fiddly

As I’d mentioned before, I’ve been, off and on, playing in a campaign of Blades in the Dark over the past few months. I’ve played or run several other iterations of the Powered by the Apocalypse system, but this has been my first foray into actual play of a Forged in the Dark Game. Rather than give a traditional review–as so many have already done this capably–I’m going to leave some remarks about specific “issues” with the game (read “nuances” rather than “deficiencies”). Most of the things I’ll talk about are really aspects of the same issue: BitD requires a very skilled GM to run well.

All Improv, All the Time

That may be an overstatement, but, as with PbtA games, the “freeform” and “narrative” focus of the BitD system puts a lot of pressure on the GM and requires a lot more from them. Every roll requires some level of interpretation, and there is less scaffolding for that interpretation or how to work out the consequences of certain actions as with other, rules-heavier games. There is, of course, an upside to this; otherwise, John Harper’s game would not have become such a successful system being adapted to so many other games.

The benefits mostly accrue to the players, however, at least in practice as I have experienced it. In D&D, for instance, the existence of certain feats and class abilities implies restrictions on characters who do not have those abilities. Not a rogue? You can’t Backstab, so you’re not as likely to choose to sneak up on someone and stab them in the back. Yes, BitD does have “classes” and “abilities” in the playbooks, but these tend to give added bonuses to certain actions without depriving others of meaningfully taking those actions that a more tactical game does not. I’m always telling players, “don’t look at the rules; tell me what you want to do and we’ll figure out how to use the rules to do it.” PbtA and BitD naturally push in that direction. But that also means that the GM has to be ready for anything and can’t be too committed to any particular expectations.

With the game’s mechanics focused on creating “success at cost” results, the GM is constantly forced to, on the fly, come up with reasonable costs and reasonable degrees of success under the circumstances. Likewise, the importance of “positioning” within the game, somehow both a rule and a complete abstraction, gives the GM a shove into the deep end of GMing. Clocks can make for excellent pacing tools and representations of certain obstacles, but if they’re not used regularly and with consistency between uses, they serve only as a doodle representing GM fiat.

I want to be clear here: BitD doesn’t make it hard to run a game. Quite the opposite. It does, however, put a lot of extra responsibility on the GM to make the game go well, and if the GM doesn’t either have a virtuoso intuition for such things, or a good deal of experience with games that have more support for interpreting results, things can go sideways very quickly. When things go well, though, the player freedom and the pace of the narrative created by the system makes for excellent gaming.

So Many Rulings

This is, perhaps, only a specific instance of the general issue of the above, but here it is: There needs to be a discussion of what “success at a cost” means and consistency in the application of that very common result. Starting characters in BitD start with only a few dice in a smattering of skills. While there are very well-designed resources that allow characters to push past their normal limits, the resource-management of which underscores the desperate feel of the setting, the skewing of results toward success at a cost means that the GM has great power (and, thus, of course, great responsibility) for how capable the characters seem to their players. If costs for successes are relatively low, the characters feel capable, triumphing in the face of overwhelming odds. If costs are always made significant, the characters feel like imbeciles, way out of their element and having no business trying to pull heists in Doskvol. This quickly becomes frustrating to the players, and not much fun.

This is, I think where “positioning” comes in. A “properly” paced heist in BitD begins with small costs for success but allows those costs to add up over time until new and significant complications arise. Likewise, there should be an “aim small, miss small,” mentality, where cost is directly proportional to the risk of the action undertaken. The rules explain this, and do a pretty good job of doing so, but the devil is in the details, and when the GM is worried about coming up with a new cost for that unexpected action, keeping track of all this pacing, tension-building, and consistent rulings begins to feel like juggling chainsaws (at least, if you feel that your players are as volatile as chainsaws).

There are a few techniques that may help here. First, of course, is practice. Second is maintaining the “conversation” of the game with the players–it’s completely okay for there to be some back-and-forth between GM and players to establish consequences and costs of an action before the player makes the final decision to take it. This is a game about calculated risks more than overwhelming surprises; so using the “conversational” form of narrative roleplaying is, I think, exactly what is intended here. For bonus points, get the players to make suggestions about results. “I want my character to try to climb the building. I know its raining and dangerous, but the storm also masks his movements. How about a clear success is climbing without issue, the cost is knocking free a loose brick that makes the guards that much more suspicious, and failure means a fall?” If everyone is participating like this, the game becomes (a) much easier to run and (b) more interesting in the telling.

I’ll admit that, even as someone very interested in narrative style games, my background in more “traditional” GM roles sometimes makes it difficult to switch into that other style.

Seduction by Mechanics

Here’s something that hit me quite unexpectedly in playing BitD. The rules for managing your crew, its relationships, holdings, and lackeys is very cool. But there’s an issue with having mechanics for these systems that seems more defined than those for playing through character scenes: it’s easy to fall into the trap that the rules are the sum total of Crew management. Go on a heist, calculate results, make decisions according to the rules, plan next heist. That’s clearly not what’s intended; the crew rules are there to facilitate story, to bring to mind more plotlines and character arcs aside from playing heist after heist after heist. BitD should have a fair amount of Gangs of New York or Peaky Blinders in it–dealing with the shit your lackeys get into and the beef you start with rivals should form a substantial part of play of the game beyond the processes, mechanics and selections that facilitate the crew section. While BitD does have an innovative approach to running heists (or at least a very cogent and elegant iteration cobbled together from the ideas of previous games), it’s not just about the heist. This is evident in the fiction and examples interspersed with the rules, but leaving many of the details of Doskvol to mere implication may subconsciously reinforce the tendency toward a focus on heists rather than other interactions with the world. Again, added weight on the GM. Maybe not unlooked for; worldbuilding (even fleshing out the framework of a provided world) can be an extremely satisfying aspect of GMing in the first place.

Conclusion

All of this is to say that BitD is probably not the sort of game to cut your chops as a GM on. Unless you’re very confident in your ability to run the game well, it wouldn’t be at the top of my list to introduce new players with, either. Running the game well requires a working knowledge of the GM’s narrative and practical toolbox; some familiarity with story structure, tension-building and drama; good improvisational skills and adaptability; and more theorycraft of roleplaying games than most competitors require. But, for some thing, you only get what you give.

Rules for Piracy in Fate

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been running an RPG campaign of fantasy piracy in a nascent setting I’m calling “The Innumerable Isles.” I ended up doing a lot of work (drawing upon my The Fate of Piracy series from the not-too-distant past), to come up with some rules for pirate games in Fate.

You’ll find attached below a PDF with the rules as I currently have them. Within those pages, I’ve included a system for using Professions as Skills, rules for Ships as characters (as well as assembling and customizing a ship), general guidelines for character creation, rules for handling piratical particulars (a ship-to-ship combat system and some easy ways to run the ruses used by pirates to tempt unwary prey), and even some fantastical elements (including a magic system).

The ruleset should be easy to employ for either historical games or in fantasy games set in an age of sail analogue.

I’ll follow on soon with some background on the Innumerable Isles setting (although I am turning my main focus to writing down more of my Avar Narn material in preparation for my Patreon launch with the start of the new year) and with some additional tools for the rules included here (including some random encounter charts!)

Infinite Recursions

I think it was Stephen King who wrote or said that, if one wants to be successful as a writer, one needs to writing like a (second) job. I’m not one for taking people’s advice on reputation alone, especially on something so deeply personal and resistant to generalization as writing. Nevertheless, I think (maybe “worry” is a better word) that he’s right.

In light of that, I’m considering starting a Patreon. Through that medium, I’d add some focused posts on my personal worldbuilding endeavors, including fiction and roleplaying rules for those settings. Avar Narn would, of course, be a particular focus, but I also have a handful of additional settings I want to develop—especially for roleplaying (mine and others’). Posts would be at least weekly, with deep dives into aspects of setting, maps, and much more for the enjoyment and use of patrons. I don’t know if I really have a critical mass for something like that to work, but I think it would be useful to me in several ways. First, the deadlines and accountability this could bring me would, I think, help my productivity.

I’m also reminded of a story about a Russian agent working for CIA case officers at the height of the Cold War. He’d regularly ask his handlers for money in exchange for his services, increasing the amount that he wanted every time he asked. Eventually, the Soviets found him out and did what they always did to suspected spies. The CIA officers rushed to his apartment to strip out anything that could link him to others before the KGB could recover it. As they did so, they found all of the money they’d paid him. He had never been the mercenary they’d expected; the money was his way of ensuring that the information he passed to American spies was worthwhile and valuable.

I’d like to think that that’s how Patreon would work for me—as a tangible indication that people are actually interested in my creative work. It would be nice to have some associated income—either to allow me to devote more time to writing and other creative endeavors or to invest in the settings themselves—for artwork and other needs that could allow me to produce professional-grade works—but I don’t expect the income derived therefrom to be a life-changer.

One of my reservations about taking the leap, other than the possibility that a lack of response becomes a de-motivator, is some release of creative control over my productions. Which leads me to the title of this post.

As I was thinking about the prospect of a Patreon, of what it would practically look like, I realized the fallacy of thinking about absolute creative control. Once a piece of art or writing is shared with others, it irrecoverably shatters into a number of pieces equal to the number of participants in the setting.

There is no single Middle Earth, no one Marvel Universe, no absolute Star Wars (just ask Disney). And this goes well beyond fanboy-ism and head cannon—the “feel” of a setting is going to be unique in some inexplicable way to each experiencer, even before we talk about fan fiction or roleplaying games set in that world.

And that’s not a bad thing—it’s a really fascinating one to think that every fictional world becomes infinite worlds, recursions of varying degrees all riffing in some core ideas.

Like all things, that makes the creative act both deeply personal and necessarily communal if it is to be enjoyed. That dialectic speaks to my soul, if I’m going to be honest, and all my worries about whether other peoples’ ideas creep into my own creations seems stupid, honestly, in the light of our corporate relationship between a setting with all of its idiosyncrasies created by our own idiosyncrasies, and the relationship that creates between each of us.

Frankly, it makes me want to create more, write more, give others more setting to make their own in their various ways and enjoy.

I think I’ll give Patreon a shot. We’ll see what happens.

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 use 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.

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.