Sunday 24 November 2019

The Kiasyd Bloodline for Vampire 5th Edition

This is all completely unofficial. I have no idea what WW plans to do with the Kiasyd for v5, or even if they'll make it into the game at all. However, they're one of my favourite bits of the VtM setting, so I thought I'd put together some homebrew for them.
The book detailing the discipline Oblivion has not yet been released from what I can tell, but you can find the discipline online with a little googling.
I don't think any of this is wildly unbalanced, but it's my first attempt brewing anything for v5. Feedback is useful.
I also have no idea what the actual legal situation with publishing 3rd party stuff for v5 is. I'd certainly be interested in making a zine-sized booklet for people who want to play my favourite weirdlings in v5, but I *also* don't want to get sued. If anybody knows what the situation is with selling fan stuff for v5 I'd be keen to hear from y'all.  

And with that preamble out of the way...

The Kiasyd
Also known as Maeghyr, Weirdlings, Broken Butterflies, Fair Folk, Moths, Greys 

The Kiasyd are an oddity among vampires. Not really a clan, but not clanless like the Caitiff or Thin-blooded. Something else. The vitae in their veins remains as potent as that as any kindred, but altered. They claim to be an offshoot of the shadowy clan Lasombra, to be fairies who were embraced, to be children of the abyss, to be the products of alchemy, to be a natural evolution of the vampiric form, to be nightmares crawled out into the waking world. They make all these claims at once, and say that all of them are equally true. 
What is known is that the bloodline are reclusive, scholarly and eccentric. They prefer their own company, but claim an old tradition prevents more than two - one master, one student - ever inhabiting a domain. They say that for the longest time, they were property of the Sabbat, but with that sect abandoning it's territorial struggles to pursue its own goals in the middle-east, the Kiasyd seem to have been left behind. And as vampire society falls apart, the weirdlings - now unhindered by sect or status - continue their strange studies. 

"You see, child, there's far more to the world than what they would have you believe. They tell you that our enemies are mortal inquisitors, but those are lies. Filthy lies! Things stir in the abyss, and the ripples move mortals like leaves on the surface of a pond."
"The abyss is our grandmother, you know. The grand maw, if you will. Lucien was in love with her, and he had Gratiano send him to her. He dwells within her still. Grandmaw and Lucien gave rise to the siblings Hrotsuitha and Marconius. And their union - incestuous though it might have been - is where we came from."
"Gratiano diablerized his sire, you say? Of course. What is Diablerie but an act of love? A uniting of souls. Again, the Camarilla will deny this, but they lie."
"Marconius was an alchemist. He took the blood of the things that crawl in the dark. Things whose nature defies categorising. We call them the Unseelie, the Neverborn, the Fomorians, the Thallain, the Nephwracks, the Lilim. Zeernebooch, too, whoever that is. He put all of that into an elixir, and his sister drank it, and in the dark of the grand maw, they gave birth to us."
"This is what the other vampires fail to understand. We aren't like them, not really. The resemblance is like that of cousins, not siblings. Wherever we came from, we sidestepped all this grand destiny of the Cainites nonsense. We have deeper mysteries to fathom." 
"Rest assured, things are changing. Marconius sits in Stratsbourg, vacant-eyed and gibbering. The shadows lengthen every night, and every dawn they creep back a little less. I spoke to a redcap, and he told me that the long winter is coming. I spoke to one of the Bahari, and she muttered prophecies of Gehenna. I spoke to a mortwight, and it said Grandmother stirs in her sleep. The name of Hrotsuitha is on everybody's lips. The inquisitors are just puppets, my child. They're clearing the way for what comes next."

Who Are The Kiasyd?
A few factors unite the weirdlings. All possess a connection to supernatural forces outside of vampire society, as well as an unhealthy curiosity and an eccentrically refined taste. They are antiquarians, gourmands, occultists and alchemists. They value those secrets that fall through the cracks of acceptable research. They collect - facts, artefacts, servants, texts, experiences - things that other vampires might overlook. 
Although no Kiasyd would embrace one with common taste, there is more to it than this. Something in their blood alters them, twisting their minds to become something weird and whimsical. They follow fairy-tale logic, abide by long-extinct superstitions, and are driven by odd fascinations. 
This effect is not purely psychological, either. The embrace alters a Kiasyd's form far more than that of most other Kindred, save perhaps the nosferatu. The precise changes vary from weirdling to weirdling, but there are common patterns. As a rule, the Kiasyd are tall, pale, delicate and androgynous. Some have their bodies stretched out to seven feet tall or more. Some find their skin becoming albino, or blue-tinted, or grey-violet. Their eyes often become pure black, or else oddly coloured. Their ears become subtly pointed, their fingers become spider-like, their skulls strangely narrow. Stranger features emerge sometimes, too. Extra digits, joints that don't bend the way they should, forked tongues, chicken claws.
A given Kiasyd's appearance falls somewhere on a scale between art-nouveau muse, elf, exsanguinated corpse and grey-alien. Some can pass themselves off as humans, if striking looking ones. Others must cover their particular alterations beneath concealing clothing, or wear heavy makeup in order to appear in public. The strangest of them would cause instant masquerade breaches, resembling the sort of creature rarely seen in the waking world.
This obvious strangeness, combined with the historical restrictions placed on their line, have led to the various traditions of their kind. They are highly reclusive, but unflinchingly polite and gracious hosts. They take pains to avoid gathering in greater numbers than a simple pair. The exception to this is their occasional conclaves - of which there have been less than a dozen in the line's entire history - at which they gather in great numbers to discuss academic and political matters.
Considering recent upheavals in vampire society, as well as the rumours that spread like wildfire among their kind that deeper, darker forces are at play, it seems that they will soon be meeting for another such conclave. 


As scholars of the weird and forgotten, Auspex is invaluable to the Kiasyd. Auspex allows a weirdling to investigate and experiment in ways they otherwise couldn't, and most value the insights it grants them. In particular, the Kiasyd make great use of Auspex in detecting and studying the various other supernatural denizens of the world, including ghosts, fairies and mortal psychics.

The Kiasyd are creatures of etiquette and tradition, even if those particular traditions are sometimes not recognised by those around them. The capacity to enforce their particular social mores is, therefore, rather useful to them. Furthermore, many Kiasyd are frankly bizarre looking or behave in ways that are distinctly inhuman. The capacity to adjust and alter the memories of mortals who encounter them allows them to preserve their privacy and avoid unwanted attention.

Every Kiasyd is, in some way, touched by inhuman forces. They characterise these things differently; some talk about the realm of nightmares, others the abyss, or the darkness from before creation, or the maw of oblivion. None the less, all know that there's something distinctly unnatural about them, even by the standards of vampires. Of course, being the unusual types they are, this connection to the weird is a point of pride for them, and many draw on Oblivion as an overt demonstration of their bizarre nature.

A Kiasyd's physique and psychology is odd, reflecting their unnatural origins. They must take two points of the flaws Folkloric Bane and Folkloric Block (either two banes, two blocks or one of each). Furthermore, they are affected more severely by these blocks & banes than other vampires. Increase the damage dealt by a Folkloric Bane by their Bane Severity. Likewise, they must spend extra Willpower (as many points as their Bane Severity) to overcome a Folkloric Block.
Their unusual physiology means that many Kiasyd also possess appearance-based merits and flaws, but like most things about the weirdlings, the specifics of a Kiasyd's appearance and how it's reflected mechanically vary wildly.

Clan Compulsion - Experimentation
Driven by the same strange forces that created them, the Kiasyd finds themselves with an urge to tinker, to take things apart to see how they work, to alter themselves or their subjects in weird and dramatic ways, to find new ways to do things. While driven by this compulsion, the Kiasyd takes a two dice penalty on any actions that are familiar, routine, or well understood. This penalty lasts until the Kiasyd's obsession with the novel and bizarre causes them to learn a new and better way of doing things, or to dramatically alter themselves or their surroundings.

Additional Options

New Predator Type - Cocktail Gourmet
You don't drink to live, but rather live to drink. Not for you, though, the crassness of glutting yourself on easy blood. No, your tastes are refined and exotic. You seek out new tastes, keep detailed notes on flavour, and combine them before imbibing. Where the common riff-raff are content to simply bite open a vein and drink directly from the vessel, that won't do for you. Rather, you extract the blood from multiple vessels, combine them carefully to balance the tastes, perhaps add seasoning or ice, and serve in a wineglass or silver goblet. It's rather an inconvenient, but the taste is exquisite. 
  • Add a Speciality: Craft (Bartending) or Medicine (Haematology) 
  • Gain one dot of Auspex of Dominate
  • Gain the feeding merit Bloodhound and the supernatural merit Eat Food
  • Gain 2 dots of herd.
  • Gain the feeding flaw Prey Exclusion (2 - unprepared blood) 
New Predator Type - Atrocity Host
You elevate feeding to an art-form. You are not satisfied by a careful sip here and there, nor do you let yourself be held back by ethical concerns. When you feed, it is an event. Your choice of location is carefully chosen, isolated and staked out ahead of time. The exits are secured, means of communication cut, and victims accounted for. Then, you and your guests feed. Perhaps your victims are flayed, so that you can lick the blood from their skinless bodies. Perhaps they're hung from the ceiling by hooks through their ankles, bled from the neck into silver chalices. Perhaps they're tied to chairs and have spigots driven into their chests, like tapping a keg. Every time, it's different, and you find new horrors to visit on your unfortunate victims before they die. Then, once the night's revelries are concluded, you clean up after yourselves, disguising the scene as a mundane tragedy, and move on, leaving nothing but corpses and grief behind.
  • Add a Speciality: Intimidate (torture) or Etiquette (parties)
  • Gain one dot of Dominate or Oblivion
  • Increase your Blood Potency by 1
  • Lose two dots of Humanity.
  • Gain the Dark Secret flaw (2 - committer of atrocities)
  • Gain the Enemy flaw (2 - escaped victim)
New Background - Marconian Alchemy
The Kiasyd are not like other vampires, and their blood is mutable. You've been trained by the elders of your line in the arts of blood alchemy, and have some ability to warp and mutate your own Vitae. Needless to say, this training gives you a great deal of prestige among your own kind, as well as unlocking the potential to evolve yourself even further. 
This background allows the Kiasyd to learn Thin-blood Alchemy despite not being thin-blooded themselves; the altered blood of the weirdlings is mutable enough to allow it. Your level of Thin-blood Alchemy is capped at your dots in Marconian Alchemy, and you must then buy Thin-blood Alchemy with experience points in the normal way. You can only use the Athanor Corporis distilation method for this.
Furthermore, the Kiasyd are not as adept at alchemy as the truly thin-blooded, and require further supernatural catalysts in order to make the process work. There is an additional cost of a blood sample from a non-vampiric supernatural being (or ichor, protoplasm, or whatever that being has in place of blood). It only needs to be a single drop, and it can come from all manner of beings (fairies, mortal psychics, werewolves, victims of possession, demons, zombies, or weirder creatures) but without it, the alchemy simply won't function.

Mytherceria - The Disciplines Powers Of The Kiasyd

Smelt Lies - Auspex 1
The Kiasyd has an ability to tell when they're being lied to, a sort of sixth sense that alerts them. How this manifests varies from Kiasyd to Kiasyd. Some find they taste lies as a bitterness in the air, others hear a hollow echo to the liars words or perceive a whispered correction in their ear. Needless to say, the ability to sift truth from deception in this way is invaluable to a line of scholars such as themselves.
Cost: One rouse check
System: When the Kiasyd suspects they're being lied to, they can rouse the blood in order to activate this power. The power succeeds automatically, with no rolls required. If whichever statement they're suspicious of was a lie, the Kiasyd senses it for certain; if they sense nothing, then the statement wasn't a lie.
This power detects deliberate lies. The Kiasyd can still be fooled by misleading (but technically accurate) wording, fast-talk or spin. Furthermore, if the speaker actually believes what they say to be true, then the Kiasyd doesn't sense anything. On the other hand, if the speaker doesn't know what's true, and just makes something up, the Kiasyd senses a lie.

Fey Sight - Auspex 2
The Kiasyd line has a connection to the stranger supernatural inhabitants of the world, and an ability to pinpoint weird magic and the beings that use it. With this ability, all the various creatures that hide in plain sight are laid bare to the Kiasyd, who instinctively senses their presence and feels when they use their magic.
Cost: Free
Pool: Intelligence plus Auspex
System: Whenever the Kiasyd encounters a supernatural being. they roll Intelligence plus Auspex reflexively, against a varying difficulty chosen by the ST - the more potent the being encountered, the lower the difficulty for a Kiasyd to sense it. If the roll fails, the Kiasyd only gets a sense that something is unusual, but no more.
If the roll succeeds, the Kiasyd knows instinctively that the creature it has encountered is supernatural, and gets a 'taste' for what sort of being it is. They might not know the name for what they've encountered, but they know if it tastes like similar creatures they've encountered previously. For example, all changelings the Kiasyd encounters share a common taste, however there are subtle distinctions between the taste of a redcap and a troll, and even subtler distinctions between the taste of of two different packs of redcaps.
Furthermore, if the creature encountered has a 'true' form that's hidden or shapeshifted out of, if the Kiasyd's roll succeeded, they percieve that true form superimposed on the being's normal appearance. For example, the Kiasyd would percieve a troll as both a normal mortal and an eight-foot hulking brute out of ancient mythology, simultaneously.
The power is likewise activated when the Kiasyd encounters a supernatural power in use, the after-effects of such a use, or when such a power is used in their presence. The roll is the same, and again if it fails the Kiasyd only gets a sense that something is unusual. If the roll succeeds, the Kiasyd tastes the sort of supernatural responsible, although they don't get any additional insight into what the power actually does.
This power has no capacity whatsoever to detect vampires, powers of vampiric blood, or vampire-created creatures such as ghouls and thinbloods.

Changeling Ward - Dominate 3
Amalgam with Oblivion 1
The Kiasyd can carve, paint, or tattoo warding patterns on things. Each such pattern is a densely-packed mess of symbols and marks that spiral in on themselves, exerting a dangerous hypnotic effect on anybody that observes it. Such victims find themselves caught in confused fascination, losing track of what they were doing before they encountered the ward. Most Kiasyd protect their havens heavily with such wards, creating overlapping layers of these defences that baffle and misdirect those not welcome. Some go so far as to inscribe such wards on their favourite possessions, thralls and even their own body; a Kiasyd who rips open her shirt to reveal such a ward carved into her chest can use the resulting confusion to great advantage.
Cost: One rouse check
Pool: Intelligence plus Dominate
System: When the Kiasyd creates their ward, they roll Intelligence plus Dominate to determine the potency of the ward.
Anybody who perceives the ward must then roll Resolve plus Awareness, with a difficulty of the number of successes achieved when the ward was created, to shake off the effect. If they get any successes, then they find themselves momentarily disoriented but otherwise able to continue acting as they intended; the more successes achieved, they more muted this disorientation.
If the roll is failed, then the ward takes full effect. The victim loses all track of what's going on for as many minutes as the full number of successes to create the ward. During this time, the victim's mind is totally overwhelmed, unable to process what's going on around them. They are only able to stare at the ward until the duration is completed. Direct and immediate danger (fire, violence, etc) snaps the victim out of this trance, and they instead flee the scene as if the trance duration had just ended.
Once this initial duration is complete, the victim stumbles or flees away from the ward in a state of bafflement, as if half-asleep. They have no memory of what they were doing, or why they were there, and seek only to return to somewhere familiar and safe. In this state, they are still able to defend themselves and talk, but their behaviour is extremely confused. After ten minutes per success to create the ward, or once the victim returns to wherever they consider home, then they come to their senses. They have no memory of seeing the ward, or events that occurred afterwards, but otherwise their memory is clear, and they're well aware of what they were doing right up until they encountered the ward.
If the victim encounters such a ward a second time (perhaps if they return to the same place again), they must roll to resist it as normal, whether or not they resisted it the first time.
If they victim is exposed to several wards all at once, then they will need to roll to resist each such ward individually. As soon as they fail to resist any ward, then they are affected as if by the most potent ward present only (even if it was one they'd already managed to resist); the effects of multiple wards don't stack.
A Kiasyd is totally immune to the effects of their own wards.

Riddle Phantastique - Oblivion 3
Amalgam with Dominate 3
The Kiasyd have a knack with puzzles, both in interpreting them and creating them. This power allows the Kiasyd to create a riddle that exerts hypnotic power over the listener, a memetic vacuum that draws in and devours intellect. In truth, such riddles are not mere wordplay; all Kiasyd possess a blood-borne link to the abyss beyond the wall of sleep, and this power expresses a fragment of that abyss's paradoxical nature. Exposure to such alien concepts causes the rational mind to shut down in self-defence if left unaddressed; the only way out is to find a loophole in the puzzle and banish it from the mind.
Cost: One rouse check and one Stain
Pool: Intelligence plus Oblivion
System: When the Kiasyd utters their riddle, they roll Intelligence plus Oblivion. Each round, the victim has a choice. They can either resist thinking about the riddle, or attempt to find a solution.
Resisting thinking about the riddle allows the victim to act normally for a round. However, doing so allows the abyss's influence to fester in the victim's subconscious mind, and they suffer as many Stains to their humanity track as the successes used to activate the power.
Attempting to find a solution requires a round be spent in contemplation. The victim rolls Resolve plus Occult each round they do so; once they've accumulated twice as many successes as the riddle's potency, a solution is found and the riddle no longer has any hold on their mind.

New Loresheet - Disciple of Hrotsuitha
Many things are concealed in the depths of the abyss. Things that have been forgotten, things thought dead, things that never existed in this iteration of reality, things that should never exist but which want to anyway. Here, things are uncertain, mutable. Like a dark womb, the abyss of sleep allows things to heal, mutate and grow unfettered by the limits of the waking world.
It is known that Marconius and Hrotsuitha descended into the abyss to create the Kiasyd, but only Marconius resurfaced. What of Hrotsuitha? Was she sacrificed to create their great work? Diablerized by her brother-sire? Or did she merely choose to remain while Marconius fled back to the waking world?
In the abyss, all these things might be true at once.
Among the Kiasyd, the signs begin to multiply. The edge of the abyss, the divide between wakefulness and sleep, is like the surface of a deep, dark lake. The kiasyd see ripples on the water. They see, in the stygian depths, huge things move. Half-glimpsed, they see a shadowy form swimming for the surface.
The portents are uncertain. So much in these modern nights is. Bit by bit, though, the signs reveal themselves. Rumours spread like wildfire among the Kiasyd. Marconius, the idiot-prince, sits on his throne in Strasbourg and shifts uneasily. Illustrious members of the bloodline make preparations for another grand conclave to discuss the coming storm. On every weirdling's lips is the same name; Hrotsuitha, the mother of their kind, is returning. So they say.
This is, however, a lie. Hrotsuitha is returned already. Not in the flesh, she's moved beyond such things. She reveals herself in dreams, whispering to her disciples in their slumber. She has such beautiful plans.

• The Echoes and Reverberations 
You know the story of your bloodline's creation. Several such stories, in fact, some of them contradictory, all of them true. For a given value of true. You see underlying patterns, and how those patterns have propagated forward through time. You know what came before, and what is coming. Once per story, you can ask the storyteller a question about your bloodline's creation, history or likely future, and get an accurate and useful (if perhaps not totally literal) answer.

• Beyond the Wall of Sleep
Hrotsuitha murmurs to you. At least, you're fairly sure she does. Either way, some nights you wake from your slumber knowing things you didn't when you retired the previous morning. It's hard to be sure. Once per story, if you retire to day-sleep partway through an investigation, Hrotsuitha might mumbler something useful to you, and when you awaken you get plus two dice to your pool to complete the investigation.

• The Whisperer in the Darkness
You have the means to contact your patron, and she can speak directly back to you. To make contact with Hrotsuitha, you must be in absolute darkness, alone save for a sleeping mortal. Whisper your questions, and Hrotsuitha will use the sleeping mortal to whisper back. Count Hrotsuitha's patronage as a three point Mawla. You can also purchase Contacts among the various strange supernatural beings Hrotsuitha might introduce you to, ranging from ghosts, to dark fey, to creatures of the abyss.

• Herald of Nightmares
You are one of Hrotsuitha's vessels, a dark portal through which she extends her grasp into the waking world. Whenever you use the disciplines of Auspex, Dominate or Oblivion in absolute darkness, you can draw on Hrotsuitha's presence for strength. Take as many stains to your humanity track as you want, and get that many extra free successes to use the power.

 The Stygian Chrysalis
You know the truth of Hrotsuitha's plans for your bloodline, and gladly follow them. The Kiasyd are to become something more than vampiric, something less than real. A grand work of alchemy, creating beings that are equal parts blood and waking nightmare.
You can diablerize other supernatural beings beside vampires; fairies, werewolves, mortal magicians, even ghosts if you can work out how to get your fangs in them. While such beings don't have Blood Potency like a vampire, the Storyteller will assign them an equivalent value for your diablerie attempt. Likewise, the supernatural abilities of the being you're consuming will be reflected in the disciplines you're able to gain by diablerizing them. At the Storyteller's discretion, you may even be able to acquire abilities not found among existing disciplines. Your aura is permanently altered by this act, but not with black veins. Rather, it mutates to reflect your nature as something no longer wholly vampiric.

Monday 11 November 2019

Theory post - Why We Have Dice Rolls, Game Mechanics, and Stats

Note: some games don't work like I'm about to describe here, and you engage primarilly with the game as a mechanical construct. I have no interest in them, and they aren't covered by this little essay. Diegesis as a concept is explained here.
In this essay, I'm probably repeating a lot of points that have been said elsewhere. Often I can't remember where I first read an idea. This is me explaining all these ideas in one convenient place.

So. I will explain in this essay why we have dice resolution and stats, at least in the sorts of games I consider worth playing.

To begin with, RPGs work on what I've seen called 'the conversation loop'. Here's how it works:

  1. The GM explains the situation that the PCs are in. Players might ask questions for clarification on the situation at this stage.
  2. The players say how their characters respond to that situation.
  3. The GM adjudicates and explains the outcome of that response; what happens, and what the new situation is.
  4. We loop back to 1.
It's very simple. GM gives a situation, players respond, GM adjudicates the results, repeat. This covers the bulk of play in my experience, and is the basic activity of tabletop rpgs. Here's an example:
GM: You are in front of a closed door in the dungeon. You can hear running water on the other side of it.
Player: I want to kick that door open!
GM: Sure! It's not locked, so they door swings open. On the other side, there's a room with a fountain in it.  
Easy, right?
This method gets used for all sorts of things; handling exploration, encountering hazards, conversing with NPCs, all sorts.
At this stage the game is entirely about engaging with diegetic things. The situation is a description of diegetic facts about the world, the players response is a diegetic response to that, and the outcome is likewise more diegetic facts.

Now, let's zoom in on "3. The GM adjudicates". This is where things get tricky, and GM skill really comes into play. Here, the GM has to assess the situation, what the players are doing, what they want to achieve, the PC's capabilities, etc, and decide what they think the outcome of the PCs actions should be. Obviously, there's a few things the GM needs keep in mind here:
  • The results need to make sense based on the situation. IE the response shouldn't be a total non-sequitur. 
  • The results need to allow the players agency (IE not render their choices meaningless).
  • The results should seem fair, or the players will disengage.
  • The results can't always be 'the players get what they want' since that would rapidly render the game boring.
There might be factors at play that the players don't know about (because finding all the relevant info before making a big decision is a skill, and sometimes players mess up), and sometimes the players have put themselves in a situation where they're fucked (because their actions have consequences, and again, sometimes they make bad choices). But those four points are important.

So then. Some actions are easy to adjudicate ("You open the door, on the other side, there is...") but others less so. Often, an action will be difficult to handle well through considering the diegetic facts and making a conclusion based entirely on in-fiction factors. For example:
  • The action's outcome is uncertain but relies on factors hard to model through the conversation loop. 
  • The action is an area which the players and GM have little IRL experience of to draw on, making it harder to engage with in purely diegetic terms or make a good adjudication.
  • The action has potentially very serious consequences (such as death or major losses), and so simply making a (possibly arbitrary seeming) decision will easily seem unfair.
  • A combination of some or all of the above: violence, for example, hits all three conditions except when it's very one-sided.
In these situations, we use dice rolls and game mechanics to make a decision on the GM's behalf when the outcome is otherwise in doubt and hard to adjudicate. This results in a conversation loop like this:

  1. The GM explains the situation that the PCs are in. Players might ask questions for clarification on the situation at this stage.
  2. The players say how their characters respond to that situation.
  3. The GM decides to use dice to resolve this action (for one of the reasons above), and rolls dice, or asks the players to roll.
  4. The result of the dice roll is interpreted. The GM adjudicates and explains the outcome of that response; what happens, and what the new situation is.
  5. We loop back to 1.
As an example: 
GM: There's a closed door in front of you. You can hear running water on the other side.
Player: I kick the door open!
[GM thinks: this door is latched shut on the other side, and the player might not be able to kick it down easily: they decide to use dice to resolve this] 
GM: Roll me a d20, if it's under your Strength score, you'll succeed.
Player: [rolls] A 16, so no.
GM: Okay, so after several solid kicks, the door hasn't budged. However, you have made quite a loud noise, which might be attracting attention...
Again, this is pretty simple, right? Situation, response, input from the dice, adjudicate results, repeat. 
The point here is that you use dice to resolve things when adjudicating in the normal conversation loop becomes difficult. It's a tool to abstract difficult or complex things, and to offload some responsibility to chance (which makes the outcome feel more 'fair' than if the GM just declared a bad thing happened). 
Let me repeat that.
Rolling dice is a tool for when it's hard for the GM to adjudicate the results.
Although the example I gave has the players rolling dice, this isn't the best example of how this tool gets used in my view. Something like a random encounter chance (for 'does a monster find you') or a reaction roll (for 'are these monsters going to attack you') is probably a better 'pure' example of this; they're tools for the GM to use when it could be hard to make a fair, consistent snap decision.
The other good example of a dice mechanic is Saving Throws. A saving throw is basically "Oh shit, your character might die because of this". You give the player a roll to see if they're fucked, since it feels less arbitrary and unfair when the GM leaves it to chance than when the GM just declares that you're dead. The various procedures of combat likewise use this; making chance a factor means it doesn't feel like the GM has it in for you when you get splatted by an ogre; it's not the GM's fault, you just got unlucky.

The question then becomes; which dice do you roll, and what do the results mean? As a general rule, the more likely a thing is, the greater the chance that the dice will say 'this succeeds'. 
You also want to keep the dice rolls fairly consistent, with recognisable patterns. This means that:  

  1. your players won't be wildly confused whenever the dice get involved, speeding up the process of rolling and interpreting.
  2. your players can make informed decisions about their chance of success when dice get involved. 

IE: Consistently asking for roll-under-Strength (perhaps with a bonus or penalty) when the players try to break something will mean the players know it's best to let strong PCs do the vandalism, and you won't have to explain the dice roll afresh each time it comes up.

This, then, is why we have codified mechanics. They provide a rough framework that everybody is familiar with for when it's necessary to roll dice to adjudicate an action. They mean everybody is up to speed with how the rolls will work, and its easy to predict your rough odds of success.
It's worth noting here that, if you rely on dice adjudication too much, players will stop interacting with things diegetically, and start to think in terms of game mechanics. The same problem occurs, very much amplified, if your dice mechanics are too complex and prescriptive; you risk the mechanics taking over the game. The tail starts to wag the dog, as it were.
It's also worth remembering that dice adjudication is a tool for the GM. You don't have to invoke it, even if you did before in similar situations. You certainly don't have to use the exact same mechanic if it doesn't fit the situation; that would result in the game mechanics superseding the diegetic factors. For this reason, I (at least) prefer relatively streamlined and modular mechanics. Ones you can bolt-on as needed, hack on the fly, or even flat ignore, without the game coming apart.

This, then, is why we have dice rolls.
Why do we have character stats? There are three main reasons.
The first is that they define diegetic facts about the PCs. It defines in concrete terms things like 'Alice is a Thief and can do the sorts of things thieves do' or 'Carl can cope with injury much less than other PCs' or 'Dan is carrying this equipment' or 'Erica is not very clever'.
The second is that it gives a concrete framework for things that wouldn't have any real-world equivalent to draw on for adjudication purposes; typically magic. Magic could be capable of fucking anything (it's fucking magic), but character stats and mechanics give it limits. This ties in with the first point; it defines quite strictly the diegetic facts of what magic can do. You can cast this many spells and they can do this when you cast them.
The third is that character stats let you make more consistent rulings. If you know that Bob the Fighter has +1 Constitution, you can give him that +1 to rolls where his constitution is a factor, and it feels fair and consistent. If everybody has a numerical value for their armour, you can consistently give them the same chances to suffer a serious injury, and use that same value to assess things like how badly their armour weighs them down. 
If you aren't bothering with dice at all, points one and two matter; they still define facts about the PCs, that should be taken into account when adjudicating the results of PC actions. Sometimes, these diegetic facts are tight constraints (IE: "you cannot cast fireball, bob, you're a fucking fighter"). Other times, they'll just be descriptive (IE: "Well, Alice is a thief, so sure, it makes sense that she'd be able to sneak past the guards without being noticed.")
Point three is critical, though. Defining character traits lets you make more consistent rulings when you bring in the dice to adjudicate, letting your players make more informed choices about their chances of success at different actions. 

In summary, here are the three key points:
  • The game is about the conversation loop of 'situation, response, adjudicate result, repeat'.
  • The dice exist to allow you to adjudicate in situations where this would otherwise be hard.
  • Relatively consistent dice mechanics allow you to use dice rolls in a way that is fair, and lets players make informed choices about risk.
  • Character stats help inform the 'adjudicate' part of the conversation loop, and give you a framework for consistent dice mechanics.

Friday 1 November 2019

Esoteric Enterprises - actual play!

So I ran Esoteric Enterprises for my sweetie. Here's how it went down.

We used non-random character creation. The character she ended up making was a bit odd. She went for a ghostly spook, with very high charisma, good intelligence and wisdom, and completely shit physical stats. Inhuman Beauty as her starting power (improving her Charm skill even more, and shifting reaction rolls in her favour). For gear, she basically put everything into social advantages; among other things, all the wealth-based advantages meant she came in with a ridiculous starting Resources of 7, as well as being bilingual and some other stuff.
The character's backstory was where the weirdness came in. Effectively, Katarina was the soul of a wizard from a parallel world who, upon dying in weird circumstances, found herself thrown into this world, taking over the life of one of her parallel selves. 

The game is set in Kuersberg, a little industrial town in Northern Russia, where they mine uranium and make weapons. Major factors in the town include various shamanic cults reflecting indigenous arctic beliefs, lots of Dero, a hospital where occult weirdos experiment on the patients, and a brood of mosquito-vampires.

So, the session began with a little narration about the experience of dying, her soul falling helpless into the maw of oblivion, reality falling apart, and then being spat out into a new reality.
She wakes up in bed in an unfamiliar apartment. Realises very quickly that she can't physically touch anything, as she passes through the blankets on getting up. A little investigation of the flat reveals that it seems like she lives here; there's a doctorate certificate framed on the wall with her name on it, and a few pictures of her and her family. Putting everything together, she concludes that this person must be some sort of neurosurgeon, probably doing OK for herself.
She finds an envelope on the counter. Written on it is her emergency code-word for any situations where she might have had her memory altered. This is intriguing; whoever wrote this knows her secret code-words and contingencies. Unfortunately, she's a ghost, and can't touch the envelope to open it.
Exploring the apartment fully revealed a 'space' between rooms which no door led to. Concluding that there was a hidden room there, she promptly walks straight through the wall, and finds herself in a pitch black space. Groping around, she gets a feel for the boundries of the room and where the furniture is, before locating a coil of rope that's fully physical to her and which she can pick up. (In EE, magical things are completely tangible to ghosts, so they can hold/be hurt by magic weapons, etc. She's just found an enchanted rope). Wrapping the rope around her hand, she switches the light on and finds herself in a hidden laboratory/surgery theatre. As well as the magic rope, there's a few occult tomes here, and a big ominous surgical slab with restraints to hold down a victim.
Leaving the hidden room via its secret door, she reads the letter to herself; it details whose flat this is (a parallel version of Katarina who became a surgeon rather than a wizard), the assets available to her, and a brief overview of occult activity in town. In particular, it mentions that she was an employee at the local hospital, where there are a few other supernatural workers.
This being done, she goes and reads those occult books. They are: The Vivinomicon, Madotsuki's Dream Diary, and The Engines Of The Gods. In quick succession, these cause her to re-roll her physical stats (she gets lucky here, and her dump-statted str/dex/con re-roll to be pretty good. Still useless when she can't touch things, though), allow her to astrally project while dreaming (giving her all the properties of a ghost while she does so; basically useless), and lastly to rip holes in reality (spend a HP, roll on the table And Hell Shall Follow for what happens). Her nature warped by the horrible things she knows, she settles in to get used to her new ghostly form.
She also concludes that, since she can physically touch her magic rope, this will let her touch things, and so unravels its fibres to make a glove woven around one ghostly hand, letting her actually hold stuff. Smart.

Her next step, then, is to travel to the hospital and meet with these occult hospital-workers.
She introduces herself to them, and makes contact with Petra (a latant psychic), Ivan (a cultist of the Coyote), and Ilsa (a banshee). She learns that this world's Katarina has put herself into a medically-induced coma while doing experiments with Dero blood, in an attempt to astrally project into the Dero hive-mind. It seems this world's Katarina was a franken-fran tier mad scientist. Since it seems this world's actual Katarina isn't coming back from her coma any time soon, she's told she can basically take over the comatose woman's life for the time being. She is, at this point, on pretty friendly terms with the Hospital, and I alter her reputation score with them to reflect that.

The next week is spent laying low and insinuating herself back into the occult underworld here. She makes some contacts, picks up some rumours. Learns about an entrance to the buried undercity that's just been found. Learns that an irritatingly persistant detective has been investigating the hospital for crimes they didn't commit, but is coming close to uncovering the ones they DID commit.

With not much else going on, she decides to go explore the undercity. Going to an old abandoned mining-site, she finds a shaft leading down to a now-abandonned uranium mine, and explores down there. It's mostly abandoned, although she does meet an urban shaman in the mines offering a little tribute to the uranium-spirits. Contact is brief and wary, but not hostile. A little later she meets the various undead bits of a miner who died in a cave in (a torso and two hands), which crawl after her. Walking away at a brisk pace, she finds a crack in the rock leading to a natural cave system, and flees into it.
This leads her deeper into the undercity, and eventually she clambers from this now-dry underground river into a buried tomb complex. The first room she finds contains various skeletons laid out on slabs, and as she investigates their bones, their rest is disturbed and all 20 of them reanimate to punish her for her trespass! The fight is brief; they can't hurt her (she's a ghost) but they can snatch the torch she's been carrying (in her magic-rope-glove). She wriggles free of their grasp and flees the room, slamming the door behind her, and finding herself alone in the dark.
This is a problem. Re-opening the door, she quickly snatches her torch back and slams it shut again, fleeing and hoping the angry skelingtons won't come after her.
A little further exploring in these tombs brings her to a room where a single huge book stands on a lectern. Katarina concludes it's probably magic, maybe cursed, and decides not to poke it yet but instead to come back to it.
Deeper into the tombs, she finds another room, with sarcophagi lining the walls, and feels a looming spiritual presence here. Searching the place, she picks up a few scattered coins, before hearing the voices of people approaching!
It turns out, the voices approaching are Sergai (a cultist of Dionysus) and Ida (a fairy slaugh). She greets them cheerfully, and the pair seem friendly. A chat is had - it seems the two are new to town and not really affiliated with anybody - and the three of them decide that it would be a great idea to get drunk and make out in this OBVIOUSLY HAUNTED tomb (it turns out Ida has some Fairy Wine that can even get ghosts drunk! lucky!). Sergai's shirt is just coming off as the gestalt ghost haunting the chamber notices what's going on, and is PISSED.
Combat begins with a howl of "WHO DARES DEFILE MY RESTING PLACE?" as the gestalt-spirit gets a surprise round to act in, lifting a stone slab poltergeist-style and hurling it at the trio. It passes harmlessly through Katarina, but Sergain and Ida are both hit; Sergai is knocked unconcious and crumples to the floor, while the slab catches Ida in the gut, and she collapses, coughing up massive amounts of blood and starting to bleed out from internal damage.
Ida Sergai's unconcious body from the room, and Katarina follows, slamming the door behind them. At this point, Ida has maybe a minute to live unless something can be done to slow her bleeding; luckily, Katarina has her magic-rope-glove so she can at least touch Ida enough to try staunching the bleeding, albeit at a penalty. She rolls, gets VERY LUCKY, and Ida's bleeding slows down, giving her maybe 20 minutes before death claims her. Sergai wakes, and the trio flee back to the surface (it turns out Sergai and Ida have an exit to the surface not far from here, which they lead Katarina to). A taxi is called, and Kat brings the pair to the hospital so her buddies can treat their wounds.
In the end, the hospital ends up recruiting Sergai and Ida to join their little coven. Katarina's reputation with the hospital is raised again, and she's now closely allied with them.

At this point, she turns her attention to the other problems facing her allies, namely the cop investigating the hospital. Meeting with him - still drunk on fairy wine - she pretends she's a potentially useful witness, and works out what the guy's up to. Turns out, he's been finding the exsanguinated and mutilated bodies of the mosquito-vampire's victims, and thinks the hospital is to blame, concocting a theory that the hospital is involved with organ harvesting.
A few Contacts skill rolls later, and she makes contact with the Mosquito Vampires, and explains what's going on. The mosquitos thank her for her information, give her a big wad of cash so everybody is square, and promise to deal with the issue. A few days later, the cop is infected with Mosquito Vampirism, and joins the vampire brood as a plant in the police force. Her reputation with the vampires improves from this little service.

Katarina lies low for a few days; after all, she's been seen getting a taxi with two people COVERED IN BLOOD, and been talking to the cops, so she doesn't want to attract too much more attention.
During this time, she witnesses a traffic accident, where the victim just sorta snaps, and starts lashing out with telekinetic power. Kat decides not to intervene, and watches as the latant psychic is eventually shot down by police marksmen.
A little later, she sees some kids fleeing from an abandonned building, and goes to investigate. Within, she finds a Collector of Eyeballs, one of the weirder creatures inhabiting the undercity, and establishes friendly contact! The two have a chat, and decide that they have a lot in common (Katarina also collects eyeballs, as it turns out). They arrange a meeting between Katarina, the Collector of Eyeballs, and the Collector's friend, a Lurking Lamp.
Three days later, not expecting an ambush, Katarina goes back down to the abandonned uranium mines, to meet the eyeball collector and the Lurking Lamp. And, surprise, it's NOT an ambush! The three discuss eyeballs and trinkets, to some trade, and chat about the state of the undercity. Katarina learns about the Dero, as well as hearing about various subteranean monsters such as the lithic courts, the morlocks, and so on. Overall, this is a productive meeting.

This is where I end the session.

The meat of the game came down to the various factions in the underworld, with Katarina's actions mostly being attempts to curry favour with the Hospital and potential allies. She's engaging nicely with the reputation & police attention systems, which is good, and really exploiting her good Contacts skill. The undercity's there to provide diversions with dungeon-crawling, although she's not found the most interesting and dangerous spaces down there yet.
It's going pretty well. Kat's half way to level 2 already, and making friends and allies. Apparently, she wants to find somewhere safe in the undercity to make her subterranean lair, and find some way to start clawing back magical power, as not being a wizard anymore is a pain in the neck. At some point, she'd like to work out where this world's Kat has astral-projected to, or to go back to her home reality, but those are a long way off.

But yeah. That's how the game tends to play. It's going how I hoped, and seems to produce a good mix of weird and grittiness.

I will leave you with some page-shots of the PDF, to show off my fancy graphic design. These pages can be quite busy, so the PDF will come bundled with a bonus art-free version that's more dyslexia-friendly and won't bankrupt you if you try to print it.