Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Betrayal at House on the Hill: Rerolled, pt.2

There are a lot of games out there with their own customised dice, which is fine for the game they are designed for, but what about using them in other ways? 'Rerolled' is all about re-purposing custom dice to get more game play out of them, focusing on dice included with board or card games rather than those designed for promotional purposes or for use with a specific role-playing game.

In the last Rerolled article, I used the unusual dice from Betrayal at House on the Hill to create a game about space marines with a variation of Otherkind dice. In this article, I'll show you an entirely different game using a different property of the same dice: their capacity to create a pool of points with a sharply controlled progression.

With most point pool systems, where you roll a handful of dice and add the results together, the growth of the pool can get rapidly out of hand unless you start adding modifiers to the system; it's also easy to get a large disparity of results between similar numbers of dice. For example, if you're rolling 4d6, the least you can get is 4, the most is 24 and the average is 14; add just two more dice though and your lowest score is 6, your highest is 30 and your average is 21. Even one or two dice difference between rolls can be a deciding factor, because the average added by each die is a relatively significant amount, e.g. if rolling 1d6 gives you a reasonable number of points to accomplish a task with, then each die added, on average, gives you 50% more points for that task.

Looking at standard pools another way, there is the wild range of difference in the results on a single die, so rolling very few dice produces very unpredictable results: if 3 points is enough to hit an opponent with your fist, then rolling 1d6 gives you a range from missing the target entirely to being able to hit them twice over. This issue, and the previous one, can both be addressed by using modifiers in conjunction with the roll, usually based on the character's skill or the circumstances of their action, but this risks making the modifiers the central part of the system, with the die roll just adding a few extra points here and there: it's difficult to balance this type of system so that the incompetent still have a chance but the super-competent don't just breeze through every situation without a hair out of place.

The advantage of using the unique dice from Betrayal at House on the Hill is that they only generate three results: 0, 1 and 2. That means, no matter how large your pool of dice, the minimum is always zero, the maximum is always twice the number of dice rolled and the average is always spot on the number of dice rolled. There's no problem with the point pool growing rapidly larger as dice are added to the roll and also, with so few points to manage, the system can handle lower costs for successful actions without also making higher totals redundant.

The Psirarchy

Conspiracy theorists like to tell us that a cabal of global masterminds are the puppeteers who pull the strings of global politics, that everything we see in the media is placed there by Them, that every politician who gets elected is Their choice. The conspiracy theorists have been wrong... up until now. Something is changing, a shift in the balance of power locally & globally, politically & commercially; you know it's true, because you're making the change.

In The Psirarchy, the players are members of secret global movement, connected not solely by their ideology, but by their ability: every member of the Psirarchy is an awakening psychic displaying strange powers of the mind. The Psirarchy is almost undetectable by the rest of the world: they don't need telecommunications when they have telepathy, they don't need guns & poisons when they can squeeze a target's heart from the other side of the room and they don't need to conduct surveillance when they can see what's going to happen in the future.


As a player in The Psirarchy, you take on the role of an agent within a cell: the cell plans missions that garner them more assets with which to covertly take-over society. First off, everyone should discuss the cell that all the agents are part of: where is it located and what is its agenda? A cell can operate within any city in the world and its agenda can range from accumulating wealth to creating a single global government.

The agents of the cell are drawn from all walks of life, as latent psychic abilities can emerge in any member of the population; once they do, the newly awakened psychic is like a beacon to other psychics in the area, so they are quickly located and recruited. An agent has three stats they are defined by: Telepathy (TP), Extra-Sensory Perception (ESP) and Psychokinesis (PK), which are rated as +1, =0 and -1, as assigned by the player.
  • Telepathy: any mind-to-mind communication, including mind-reading and deleting memories from a target.
  • Extra-Sensory Perception: any extraordinary sense, such as remote viewing, dowsing, precognition and so on.
  • Psychokinesis: any use of the mental to manipulate the physical, whether moving objects at a distance or squeezing a target's heart until it stops.
Agents may also have up to three Talents, which are specific uses of their psychic abilities, including but not limited to:
  • Mind Scan (TP): the ability to read what a target is currently thinking.
  • Mental Probe (TP): conducting a search through a target's memories.
  • Neuro-Location (TP): being able to detect & locate a specific target from their thoughts.
  • Memory Editing (TP): erasing a specific memory from a target or implanting a new one.
  • Remote Viewing (ESP): seeing locations and objects at distance or through barriers.
  • Precognition (ESP): getting a vision of future events.
  • Psychometry (ESP): picking up impressions of events in an objects past.
  • Dowsing (ESP): detecting the presence of elements or energies.
  • Psychic Strength (PK): moving objects at a distance.
  • Psychic Shield (PK): protecting yourself from physical harm.
  • Pyrokinesis (PK): raising the temperature of a target.
  • Remote Manipulation (PK): the fine control of objects which are obscured or out of sight.
A downloadable resource for the game.
Besides Psychic Talents, agents may also have Regular Talents that equate to their career or training, such as Pilot, Thief, Journalist, Assassin, Doctor, Hacker, etc.


In each session of play, the cell may carry out one or more missions; the players should agree on what their mission is, aiming it towards acquiring an Asset. The GM may present the cell with opportunities, but some of these should include threats to the cell's agenda: if left unchecked, these threats may endanger the cell's activities or even prevent them from fulfilling their agenda.

The more valuable the Asset the cell hopes to acquire, or the greater the threat to their agenda, the more operations the mission will require before it is complete: for example, if their mission is to cover up a story that reveals their existence, they might only require one operation to squash the story or silence the reporter who filed it; on the other hand, if they want to insure that their candidate is elected President, five or even more operations might be required.

An operation has a specific short term goal that leads towards the completion of the cell's mission: an operation can be anything from acquiring stock predictions from a broker's secure data base to inserting an agent into a target's household as a cook, nanny or security detail. The players and the GM should plot out the necessary steps in a mission together, but the greater the reward gained or threat neutralised, the more operations are needed for that mission to be a success.

At the start of each operation, the agents involved roll 4 dice each and count up the points they generate individually; this means that each agent might anywhere from 0 to 8 points at the start of any operation. During the operation, they can spend these points to achieve tasks using their psi-powers; every psi-power works off a simple base of measurements and spending points raises one of these measurements exponentially. The base measurements are:

  • Time = 10 seconds
  • Distance = 10 centimetres
  • Mass = 10 grams
  • Velocity = 10 cm/s
  • Temperature = 10 centigrade
  • Volume = 10 cm³
Any other measurements needed can be extrapolated from the above. Whenever an agent uses one of their psi-powers, spending one point on that power will mean it has all the base measurements given above, as needed, e.g. if you want to read someone's mind, then for 1 point, they need to be within 10 centimetres of you and you can read their mind for 10 seconds; if you want to move an object, 1 point lets you lift something with a mass of up to 10 grams for up to 10 seconds, moving it at a maximum velocity of 10 centimetres per second.

The more points you spend on a psi-power, the more potent is becomes, as each point spend lets you multiply one measurement by 10, e.g. 2 points spent on reading someone's mind lets you do it from 1 metre away; 3 points lets you do it from 10 metres, 4 points lets you do it from 100 metres and 5 points lets you do it from 1 kilometre. Each point spent only affects one measurement though, so to lift a mass of 100 grams for 100 seconds would cost 3 points: the first point lets you lift up to 10 grams for up to 10 seconds, so you need to spend 2 more points to change both those measurements.

The rating of an agent's psi stats indicates whether they get a bonus or suffer a penalty to using psi-powers within that category: if an agent has PK+1, then they can always activate their psychokinetic powers at their base level without spending any points, but an agent with PK-1 would have to spend 2 points just to activate the basic level of those powers. The same goes for any psi Talents they have, e.g. if an agent has Precognition as an ESP Talent, then they can always see at least 10 seconds into the future without spending any points; if they also have ESP+1, then they can see 100 seconds into the future without soending points; if they spend 1 point, then they can see 1000 seconds into the future and so on.

Psi Stress

Whenever an agent uses a psi-power, they can push themselves a little harder by picking up any number of dice and rolling them, adding up the total as usual. These additional points can only be spent by the agent on their current action, they aren't saved for subsequent actions, so any points not spent right now are lost.

Each time an agent pushes their psi-powers in this way, they can take psi stress: they mark a level of psi stress for every blank result in their roll to push their powers. For example, if an agent rolls 4 dice to push their psi-powers and gets results of 0, 0, 1 and 2, then they have 3 points to spend on their current action, but they also take 2 levels of psi stress.

Each agent can take up to 5 levels of psi stress before burning out; the penalty of burning out rises depending on how many times they have burned out in the past:

  • Each time an agent burns out, they are rendered inactive for the remainder of the current scene.
  • The second time they burn out, they take a permanent -1 penalty to all stats.
  • The third time they burn out, they cease to be an agent, either because they have died or lost the use of their psi powers.
After each mission, each agent who took part in it gets to choose one of the following options:

  • Gain a new psi Talent.
  • Gain a new non-psi Talent; no agent may have more than three non-psi Talents.
  • Remove a level of burn out, e.g. if an agent has burned out once, this option makes it as if they had no previous burn outs.

Assets & Adversaries

The goal of each mission is to acquire a new Asset for the cell, with more powerful Assets requiring longer, more complex missions to achieve. Each Asset the cell owns gives them some leverage in working around or removing obstacles that stand in their way; write each Asset on it's own card, detailing what it is and how it can help the cell. Some sample Assets include:

  • Travel Agency: move an agent from one operation to another that is taking place at the same time or immediately after.
  • Police Informant: a low-level street cop lets enables an agent to make their getaway; a mid-level detective gives the cell access to criminal records; a high-level captain can call off or divert a police operation.
  • Investment Firm: a small firm gives the cell the resources to buy basic equipment; a medium firm gives them access to enough money to buy vehicles; a large firm means they have the cash to bribe politicians or buy a controlling interest in a smaller firm.
  • Criminal Contact: a low-level contact can fence goods for the cell; a mid-level contact can acquire illegal weapons; a high-level contact can arrange a hit.
  • Security Agency: provides protection to agents or even their assets, protecting them from direct, hostile action.
Assets and non-psi Talents can be used during an operation to overcome one obstacle that stands in the cell's way; each Asset can only be used once per operation (though you can have an Asset, like an Investment Firm, that refreshes another Asset, allowing it to be used again) and each non-psi Talent can be used once per mission. When an Asset or Talent is used to overcome an obstacle, or even to create an opportunity, the player must narrate how it does so.

There are those who are opposed to the Psirarchy and are fighting back as best they can; they can deploy ordinary espionage & counter-insurgency tactics, but they also have two special weapons up their sleeves.
  • Stalkers are psychics who have been recruited by conventional security agencies, using a combination of drugs and mental conditioning to assure their loyalty. They can deploy psi-powers in much the same way as an agent of the Psirarchy can, so whenever a Stalker is working against the cell on an operation, all agents assigned to that operation take a -1 penalty to all their psi stats.
  • Nulls are anti-psychics who are immune to any direct use of psi-powers that involves them; their minds cannot be read or affected, their bodies cannot be moved or crushed by PK and they cannot be detected at all by an form of ESP. Nulls can only be dealt with using Assets and non-psi Talents.

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Betrayal at House on the Hill: Rerolled, pt.1

There are a lot of games out there with their own customised dice, which is fine for the game they are designed for, but what about using them in other ways? 'Rerolled' is all about re-purposing custom dice to get more game play out of them, focusing on dice included with board or card games rather than those designed for promotional purposes or for use with a specific role-playing game.

Betrayal at House on the Hill is a board game that casts the players in the roles of a mismatched group of teenage rebels, small children and dabblers in the occult, who all get drawn towards an old abandoned house one dark night, only for one of them to turn against the others... It's a great, fun emulator of haunted house stories, with the added twist that there are 50 stories to tell, each of which has one of the players turning against the rest in the second act of the game, as well as adding new rules & goals for both the traitor and the other players after the dramatic reveal occurs.

The dice that come with the game are quite unusual, effectively being d3-1s: they're d6s but with two blank sides that have nothing on, two 1-sides and two 2-sides, effectively giving you a range of 0 to 2 on each die, with equal probability. This creates two useful effects that can be exploited, which the game does very well:

  1. It's possible to generate points in small increments: with any regular die, even a d4, the proportionate increase across their range is quite extreme (a 300% increment across the range of a d4), especially when you are rolling more than one die and adding the results together. The d3-1 style of these dice means that you're never adding more than 2 points to your total per die and the average amount added is only 1, so you can keep that progression tightly controlled.
  2. Dice Picture Courtesy of Boardgamegeek
  3. Failure is always a possibility: the zeroes mean that, no matter how many dice you roll, it is still always possible to get a total of zero, so no character is ever so skilled that they are safe from failure.
These dice have so much potential that I've actually got enough material for two game systems that utilise them, hence why this Rerolled is part 1 of 2. The first hack uses a variation of Vincent Baker's Otherkind dice, married with some ideas generated through a discussion on the Storygames forum.

Lumen De Tenebris

That's the motto of the Frontier Tactical Response Corps, Lumen de tenebris: it means bringing light out of darkness, because that's their job. When the call goes out from one of the frontier colonies or outposts, the Corps responds quickly, sending a ship full of trained soldiers & specialists to the trouble-spot faster than the speed of light; they arrive out of the darkness, bringing the light of hope and salvation to the beleaguered. Also popularly known as the Lightbringers, and more colloquially as the Lucies, they're the ones who'll hunt down space pirates, clear out hostile alien creatures and rescue VIPs from a world in the grip of fanatical revolution.

In this game, the players are part of a crack team of military insertion specialists who go into dangerous situations taking place on the fringes of human colonised space and make things safe again, often by shooting the bad guys until they stop. Characters are defined by their Skills, whilst the GM uses the mission's Objectives to make their lives harder.

Skills are printed on cards and every character gets a common set of three to start with, these being Close Combat, Ranged Combat and Movement; on top of that, each character gets four more Skills and/or Tactics to reflect the individual, specialised training their character has received. Tactics are more refined and specific versions of Skills; you need the appropriate Skill to also learn the Tactic, so anyone can learn the Sniper Tactic, because everyone has the required Ranged Combat, but you need the Engineering Skill before you can learn the Overhaul Tactic. There are two sample sheets of Skill cards you can download  here and here, plus a set of sample Tactics: permission is given to copy & print these, but also feel free to create your own, using these templates or making new ones from scratch.

In addition to your seven Skill & Tactic cards, you also get to specialise in one thing: pick any of your cards and mark on it that you are a specialist. Being a specialist gives you an advantage when you use that card in action.

Action Under Fire

When the GM sets up a tense or urgent situation, that's when you need to use the resolution system to find out what happens; everyone gets one chance to act per turn, which they do by choosing the Skills & Tactics that represent what they want to achieve in that round. You can choose 1, 2 or 3 cards per turn, which you lay down in front of yourself in order of priority from left to right.
Captain Spencer is trying to get some civilians to safety, but a squad of armed insurgents has just entered the other end of the street, so he lays down his priorities as Leadership (to get the civilians to move in the right direction), Movement (so that he can follow them safely) and Ranged Combat (as he takes a few pot-shots at the insurgents to discourage any pursuit.)

After laying out your cards, you then roll the same number of dice, e.g. if you laid out 3 cards, then you roll 3 dice; assign the dice in priority order from left to right, with the highest result being assigned to the leftmost card and so on.
Captain Spencer rolls 2, 1 and 0, so the 2 goes to his Leadership card (the civilians follow his orders perfectly), the 1 to his Movement (he moves with the civilians but has to choose between losing his gun or being Injured) and the 0 goes to his Ranged Combat (his shots go wide of the mark, having no affect.)

If you using a specialist Skill or Tactic in action, you can reroll the die assigned to it before resolving your action, thus potentially turning a zero into a one or two; you can even do this when you rolled a one, if you really want to try for a two, but this risks making things worse.
Actually, Captain Spencer has a specialisation in Ranged Combat, so he chooses to roll the zero again: this time he gets a 1, so he at least manages to pin down the insurgents for a moment while the civilians get clear.

Tactics can only be used in conjunction with their required Skills; the Skill must always take priority over the Tactic though and you may only assign a die to a Tactic if the Skill gets a result of 2. You can assign a lower result to a Skill, then use your specialisation in it to try to turn that result into a 2, in order to use a Tactic, but if you fail to do so, the Tactic automatically rates a zero, no matter what die is assigned to it.
As he herds the civilians away from danger, Captain Spencer decides it's time to rejoin his squad, but unfortunately their position is on the other side of the new enemy lines; he opts for Movement, with his Tactic of Maneuver and laying both cards down he gets two 1s on his roll. Luckily, as an experienced officer, he also has a specialisation in Movement, so he can assign a 1 to it then reroll; if he gets a 2 this time, not only does he reach his squad in one piece, he also gets a free extra re-roll on his next action. 

Injury & Other Setbacks

If an action results in your character getting Injured, then the GM will hand you an Injured status card; this technically counts as an Objective (see the GM's section for more), since you must use it on every action for as long as you have it. The Injured status counts as one of your three allowed cards on your action, so if you have one injury, you can only play up to 2 Skill or Tactic cards; if you have 2 injuries, you can only play 1 Skill or Tactic; and if you have 3 injuries, you cannot play any Skills or Tactics. If you reach 4 injuries, you're dead, but each Injured status gives you the chance to remove it; however, they can also produce further injuries. You can only gain 1 Injured status per action, no matter what is going on or how many results state that you get Injured, but you can lose more than 1 per turn if you get lucky.

There are some other common results on the Skill cards that can deprive you of vital equipment; anything that is damaged won't function until it is fixed, so you can't Drive a broken-down truck until the Engineer in your group has fixed it. Anything that gets scrapped though is done for: no amount of tinkering will get it working again, you just have to acquire a replacement.

Enemy Action

It's not just the Lucies who get to fight, their opponents do to: most of this is represented by results of zero or one on the players' dice rolls, but once per round, the GM can advocate for the bad guys, seeing if they can achieve their aims.  Enemy action is broken down into stages, with each plan having several stages of progress: a typical plan, such as Board the Ship or Abduct the President, might have three stages. As GM, write a short synopsis of the plan and the stages required to complete it. e.g. Board the Ship might require stages of Match Velocities, Disable the Target and Force Docking. On your action as GM, roll one die:
  • 0: No progress is made; the enemy are vulnerable.
  • 1: A partial success: the PCs are disadvantaged.
  • 2: Success: move onto the next stage of the enemies' plan.
If the enemy are vulnerable, narrate a weakness that can be exploited by the PCs on their next round or leave it open: the first player who narrates a clever ploy that exploits whatever enemy weakness they come up with gets to carry through with their strategy.

If the PCs are disadvantaged, add a complication to the mix: their equipment breaks down, civilians enter the scene or the enemy receive reinforcements, anything that deprives the PCs of some freedom when choosing their next actions.


Due to either environmental conditions, standing orders or the enemy getting the upper hand, any PC action can be complicated by adding special Objectives to it: when a player is choosing their Skills & Tactics, you can add an Objective to the mix. An Objective is an extra card, it doesn't count towards the player's limit of 3, so they could have up to 4 cards in front of them, which they would have to roll 4 dice for, but they still choose the priority of all cards before rolling.

Objectives make life harder for the PCs, by requiring them to count their ammo, save civilian bystanders, maintain operational silence or whatever other restrictions you as GM can come up with: there is a sheet of sample Objectives here, which also includes Injured statuses.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Liar's Dice: Rerolled

There are a lot of games out there with their own customised dice, which is fine for the game they are designed for, but what about using them in other ways? 'Rerolled' is all about re-purposing custom dice to get more game play out of them, focusing on dice included with board or card games rather than those designed for promotional purposes or for use with a specific role-playing game.

Liar's Dice is a well-known, globally popular game that you can play with any set of d6s, but some of the commercial sets have a special feature: they use a symbol in place of the 6-face, to enable the 'wild face' rules, where the wild symbol adds to the number of any face bid, e.g. if you bid "Five 4s", then all the 4s and all the wild faces count as part of that bid. There are also a lot of promotional dice produced by game companies, role-playing groups and game conventions that have the organisation's symbol take the place of either the 1-face or the 6-face. All these work as regular dice and you can use them in any game that uses d6s, but you do have to remember which number is indicated by the symbol or just check the die every time it's rolled.

A Custom Chessex Die
What can be done to exploit the wild face on these dice? It's disadvantageous to use them as ordinary numbered dice, since they require extra attention to read the results properly, but the symbol enables you to do something special: you can step outside the realm of numbers entirely. Instead of being a mere random number generator, which it still is, this type of dice also becomes a random outcome generator, with a 1 in 6 chance of getting a result that doesn't exist on any numerical scale of success or failure.

Another unique quirk of any die with a wild face is that it has an odd range of numerical outcomes; that is, it's literally an odd number. All regular dice generate outcomes in an even range, starting at 1 and ending at 4, 6, 8, 10, 12 or 20: there's no middle result and the average of rolling them always includes a fraction, e.g. the average result on a d4 is 2.5; the average on a d6 is 3.5 and so on. If we can treat a wild-faced d6 as a d5+symbol, then the average result is 3, which is also the exact middle number of the range.

To really exploit wild-faced d6s, we want a game that makes use of both these features, something that makes use of the unusual, odd scale of results and the existence of a result that lies outside the scale of numbers entirely.


In a world of fairy folk and familiars, size really matters: in fact, Size is the only stat you'll ever need. When you create a character for this game, you're also creating their entire species, by stating what their average Size is: very small pixies might have an average Size of 1, goblins and cats might lie in the middle of the spectrum at Size 3, whilst dwarves and dogs are the biggest at Size 5. There are bigger things in the world, including humans, but the point of this game is that you live below human society and you survive by serving them or stealing from them. Whatever Size you are, when it comes time to do something, you roll one or more d6s.

Big & Strong
When you want to do something that requires strength, toughness, endurance or just reaching a high shelf, you succeed if your result is less than or equal to your Size: the bigger you are, the stronger and tougher you are too.

Small & Quick
When you want to do something that requires speed, stealth, dexterity or just slipping through a narrow gap, you succeed if your result is greater than or equal to your Size: the smaller you are, the faster and less noticeable you are too.

Charm & Fate
The wild-face always means you fail, so the odds remain balanced for all types of characters, no matter what their Size; a burly kobold is just as good at armed combat as a tricksy sprite is at escaping from it's pursuers, because a roll that is exactly equal to your Size is always a success, no matter what you are trying to do.

The wild-side, known as the charm, exists off the numerical scale and indicates the presence of magical forces in the situation: you fail when you roll a charm, but you're compensated by accruing a little charge of magic that you can use to pull off a trick later on.

Customising Characters

All members of your chosen species might share the same Size, but that doesn't make them all the same and there are ways to customise your character; even if all the players are fairies, ravens or whatever, you're not all identical to each other.

First off, each species is allowed one ability, which is shared by all characters of that species: typically, the ability is something straightforward and obvious, so ravens and pixies can all Fly, dwarves and cats have Night Vision and so on. The shared ability of any species is a narrative effect as much as anything else, but when it comes into play in a significant way, you get a bonus die as if you had a point of skill in it. Note that this doesn't apply in all situations, only where it gives the character some advantage, so ravens don't get a bonus die to Fly through a small gap, but they would if they were flying rings around an opponent who was on foot.

You can opt to lose the bonus die associated with this ability, however, in return for which you can be 1 Size larger or smaller than the average for your species; for example, goblins might have a Size of 3 and an ability of Shape Changing, which lets them appear as other creatures or things of about the same Size, but you could play a goblin of Size 2 or Size 4 who retains the Shape Changing ability, but gets no bonus die from it when it gives them the advantage.

If you want to be a little pixie who is nevertheless a fearsome warrior or a stocky dwarf who can still outrun most pursuers, then you need some skills to personalise your character. Everyone gets 5 skill points with which to customise and refine their role: a skill can be pretty much anything you can imagine, as long as it a subset of a 'Big & Strong' or 'Small & Fast' check, so Carrying, Lifting, Pushing and Holding Fast might all be skills, but not Strength itself as that would be too broad.

Assign your points to your chosen skills: when you make a test that uses that skill, you roll extra dice, one for each skill point, e.g. if your skill is Climbing: 2, then you roll a total of 3 dice to climb. Note that the skill would apply whether you were climbing up a long way, requiring a 'Big & Strong' check or climbing quickly away from pursuers, requiring a 'Small & Fast' check. As long as any one of your dice succeeds on the roll, then your action succeeds; if you roll any charms, you record the charm points earned but it doesn't mean you automatically fail the task, as some of the other results could still indicate a success.

Some talents require magic, knowledge, luck or pure cunning: every character gets one such trick, but they can have more if they want, with each additional trick requiring 1 skill point, e.g. you can spend 3 skill points and have a total of 4 tricks but only 2 points total in your skills.

Tricks are like abilities, with the effect being mostly narrative, but unlike abilities, it costs you to use them, whether that's a cost in fatigue, forethought or magic power: all these costs are represented by charm points, which you gain for each charm you roll when acting. You start with 1 charm point and earn 1 for each charm you roll but you must spend 1 point each time you use a trick; tricks don't automatically give you bonus dice the way abilities do, but you can spend more charm points in order to buy bonus dice. The GM might also require a test from you if there's resistance to you using your trick.

For example, Serina the Pixie has Sleep Dust as one of her tricks: she can spend 1 charm point to put any creature to sleep by sprinkling the dust in their eyes. She wants to sneak past the guard on a gold vault, so she spends 1 charm point to make use of the trick, but the GM says that she'll still need to make a 'Small & Fast' check to sneak up to the guard in the first place. Serina is Size 1, so she's got a good chance of success here, but she has no skills for this, so she's only rolling 1 die; it's important to her that she achieves this however, as it's only step one of her plan, so she spends an extra charm point on the trick and rolls 2 dice, just to make sure.

You can even take your own ability as a trick, enabling you to spend charm points on it whenever you use it; in this way, characters who are above or below the average size of their species can still get bonus dice for their ability, but they have to spend charm points to do so.


GMing the game means two things:
  1. Enabling the kind of story the players want to tell.
  2. Challenging the actions the characters try to take.
Note that it says 'enable', not 'roll over': you're there to help the players colour in the details of their world, but also to make your own contributions to it and not just echo them. Also, the other key-word is 'challenge', not 'frustrate', so make them roll, but don't always make them roll; say yes to good ideas that can lead to bad situations, e.g. don't make them roll to follow a mark to their secret stash, save the rolls for when they get lead into the trap the mark has laid for any pursuers.

What kind of story is this? Well, the characters are living on the fringes of a robust & expanding human civilisation: the wilds might still be there, but, like urban foxes, the characters are seeking new opportunities in the big city. Some of them might offer their services to the humans, such as being the familiar to a powerful wizard or the servant to a wealthy family; some might turn to a life of crime, using their diminutive stature to rob & cheat the bigjobs; and of course, some might do both.

When the characters succeed, they get what they want; when they fail though, it should still lead to something interesting, not just, "That didn't work; now what?" A regular failure should provoke a reaction from the bigjobs or lead to a loss by the acting character: they might get imprisoned, injured, chased off, lose the trust of others, lose their tools & treasures or anything else that represents a setback.

When they roll a charm though, it's not necessarily a failure, it just means that fate has squatted over their lives and dropped a big one on them: this could be a truly epic failure of legendary proportions, so they're not just chased, they're hunted by a mob, or they don't just get bruised, they are bleeding and about to die. On the other hand, a charmed failure is a good time to offer them a hard choice: say, "That could succeed, but..." and then tell them what they'll have to do to achieve their goal. They might have to abandon their friends, spend all their hard-earned cash, trust a stranger, cut through the darkest & most dangerous part of town or whatever else it is that hits the character's triggers. As the GM, it's always your job to lead the characters into temptation and, if they're not already between a rock & a hard place, start building a rockery.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Diagnostic Ward

This is a short game that could make a great ice-breaker or filler for 4-6 players; it's partly inspired by the mechanics of Bring It but rather than being a high-octane action-adventures, this is a game of pseudo-medical mysteries taking place in a very unusual hospital.

The Ward

This is a storygame taking place in a realm of myth, fantasy and legend, where all our fairy tales are true: in this realm, there is a place that treats those who are sorely afflicted by magic and cannot turn to any mundane healer or physician for the help they need. In this story, you the players will take on the role of the patients and doctors confronted with hexes, curses and bad mojo, seeking a cure within the magically-protected environs of The Ward.

"Next patient please."

All you need to play are lots of six-sided dice and a good imagination, along with some familiarity with popular fantasy tropes; also, if you've seen at least one episode of House in your life, that really helps a lot too. Everyone who wants to gets a turn to play a patient while everybody else takes on the roles of the doctors who are trying to treat them. There are two types of case The Ward deals with:
  • Ordinary patients with extraordinary symptoms
  • Extraordinary patients with ordinary symptoms
In each three act story, someone plays the patient who presents with symptoms: when you're playing the patient, you stage the story by narrating a teaser scene that depicts your character and their affliction, such as:
  • A swarthy barbarian draws his mighty sword to fend off an ambush by trolls... when suddenly, the steel blade in his hands droops and sags. All parties gaze in bewilderment at the impotent weapon and the barbarian says, "This has never happened to me before..."
  • A forest nymph skips daintily through the glade, picking flowers as she goes... whereupon a mighty sneezing fit takes hold of her, as the pollen from the flowers hit's her nasal passage.
  • A despicable landlord is busily evicting the residents of an orphanage for late payment of their rent, when he notices his clothes no longer fit him, hanging loosely from his body; he's shrinking... or is he getting younger, rapidly?
  • The devout cleric of a benevolent god is laying hands upon the sick to cure them of their disease... but her touch sets them on fire!


"Wait, are you sure this is the MRI?"
After the teaser, the doctor players hold a diagnostic conference where they may each put forward their idea for what might be causing the patient's symptoms. How will you know what the cause is, you may ask? You make it up, that's how; here are some ideas to get you started.
  • Curse: the patient triggered a latent curse, something tied to a place, an object or their bloodline; the curse was always there, waiting for someone to transgress against the terms of it. The patient might have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, broken a pact, oath or promise made by themselves or their ancestors or just angered the wrong demi-god or spirit.
  • Backlash: the patient is suffering from the unintended consequences of misused magic, either directly (they were dabbling with a scroll or ritual) or indirectly (they paid for someone else to cast a spell for them or they used a flawed magic item.) There is not necessarily any malicious intent behind this, it's the equivalent of food poisoning.
  • Possession: something has hitched a ride in the patient's body or soul; it could be a demon, a ghost or a magical compulsion, but whatever it is, it's making them act out of character, doing things they don't remember doing or simply acting through them to carry out its goals, using the patient as its meat puppet.
  • Heritage: the patient isn't what they appear to be, with the blood of elves, dwarves, fairies or dragons in their veins; this wasn't a problem until some change in their environment caused a common reaction that is uncommon for their true kind... or vice versa. They've been brought up all their life as a dwarf or gnome, but actually they're just a short human who was adopted as a foundling, but what is normal for a dwarf isn't always good for a human being.
One of the doctor players starts the ball rolling by suggesting a diagnosis; they take 1d6, roll it and place it in front of themselves. Any other doctor can now agree or disagree with that diagnosis.
  • Agree: Say "That fits with their..." and name another symptom the patient has, making it up if you have to, but don't make it more extraordinary than the first symptom they presented with, keep it simple and even medical if you like, so rash, elevated heart rate, low oxygen saturation, whatever you like. Take 1d6 and roll it, then place it alongside the die rolled by the doctor you are agreeing with.
  • Disagree:  Say "That doesn't explain..." and, as above, name another symptom the patient presents, then suggest an alternative diagnosis. Pick up as many dice as the doctor you are disagreeing with has in front of them and roll them; if your total is higher than the total in front of them, you're right, so take all the dice on the table, roll them and put them in front of you. Otherwise, you're wrong: the doctor you disagreed with gets to belittle you and explain something obvious that you've overlooked or ignored (really, you need to watch House to get this.)
When you disagree and are right, then it's up to the remaining doctors to agree or disagree with you; this continues until every doctor has had one chance to agree or disagree, at which point whoever has the dice pool in front of them moves on to Treatment.


Once consensus has been reached (i.e. the doctors have completed a Diagnosis phase by all having agreed or disagreed with the current diagnosis), then the doctor whose diagnosis won through goes to treat the patient, along with any doctors who agreed with them. They now play out a scene where they interact with the patient, attempting to treat them, or at least run tests on them to confirm the diagnosis. Tests or treatments can take any of the following forms, or whatever else you can imagine that fits the magical theme & setting of the game:

  • Divination: casting the runes, dealing the cards, looking at tea leaves, peering into a crystal ball or even opening up the patient to read their entrails then put them back again.
  • Witch Trials: sticking the patient with a pin, examining them for the mark of evil, putting a holy book or symbol on their bare skin or just sitting them in the ducking stool.
  • Superstition: throwing salt over the patient's shoulder, nailing a horseshoe to the end of their bed, getting them to pick up a penny or pin from the floor, having a chimney-sweep or sailor visit them or bringing them a gift of salt & bread.
  • Folk Remedies: lining their socks with sulphur, giving them a mercury-based potion to drink, sprinkling them with salt, putting leeches on them or popping a toad under their tongue.
  • Divine Intervention: blessing them in the name of a deity, sprinkling them with salt, lighting a candle for them or holding a full on exorcism (name the right demon or it's bad as administering the wrong anti-biotics or anti-toxins!)
  • "Another 5,000,000ccs of saline solution, stat!"
  • Ritual Magic: go the whole hog by drawing a magic circle around the patient and enacting a full ritual with summonings, bindings, drawing blood, dropping powders into a burning brazier and so on.

As they are conducting the above, each doctor presents engages in a conversation with the patient, learning more about them but also opening up about their own life as well; each player needs to pick some personal issue they are having, but if possible, the patient's issue should tie into or challenge the doctor's issues, like so:

  • The patient is a half-orc cleric, challenging a doctor's prejudices towards the orcs who work as service staff in The Ward.
  • The patient is trans-racial: though born as a human, they are transitioning into being an elf, or vice versa. A doctor facing big changes in their life or that of their family can ask the patient how they knew that they were doing the right thing.
  • The patient is Chaotic Evil, doing whatever they like to make other people's lives miserable: maybe the doctor will question why they hurt the ones they care about and lash out at those trying to help them with their problems.
  • The patient is an ethereal presence who only makes themselves know through moving objects in the room; a doctor might question their own distance & detachment from the things that are important to them.
  • The patient is an eternally youthful and cheerful fairy being, who makes the doctor an offer to come to the land of eternal bliss with them after this is over; what's keeping the doctor here and is it worth giving up the chance to live happily ever after? 

Once each player has established one personal issue that will be at stake during this scene, the patient starts choosing players who will take one die. The patient can choose from the players present in the scene in any order and they include themselves in this choice, but they can't pick the same player again until every other player has had the same number of chances. For example, in a scene with just one doctor, the patient could pick themselves, then the doctor, then the doctor again followed by themselves, but they can't just pick the doctor over and over again.

When a player is picked, they choose one die from the pool; if they are a doctor, they either take if for themselves or give it to the patient; if they are the patient, then they always take it for themselves.
  • When a player takes a die for themselves, they use it to further elaborate on their personal issue; if the die is a 1-3, then the issue is getting worse, by becoming more complicated or more urgent. If the die is a 4-6, then the issue gets better, with some of their load being taken from them or new opportunities opening up. During this, any doctors who are not in the scene can play other roles, such as nurses, friends, colleagues, relatives or visitors for the patient: these characters can help to illustrate the changes in the characters' personal issues.
  • When a doctor gives a die to the patient, their condition either improves (on a 4-6) or worsens (on a 1-3): narrate this change as appropriate, adding or subtracting symptoms if need be.
The Treatment scene continues until all the dice have been used up; each player should note down how much their personal issue improved and worsened by; the patient should also note down any changes in their condition.

Three Act Structure

It'd be a rather dull, not to mention short, story if the doctors were right first time, so here's the thing: they never are. No matter what happens in the first round of Diagnosis & Treatment, the patient is still afflicted at the end of it; the point is actually to explore the personal issues of the characters involved and possibly advance their goals, whether that's getting the promotion they're after, reconciling with estranged family members, beating their addiction or beginning a new romance with someone they're secretly attracted to. So, even if everything went right and the patient seemed to be improving, was even discharged from The Ward, they must narrate a relapse, complication or new symptom at the end of the first act.

After the first act, repeat the Diagnosis & Treatment phases again; at the end of the second act, the patient has one more setback, but the third act is also the final act of the game. Once the third round of Treatment is complete, the patient gets to narrate their final fate, whilst the doctors get to reflect on their personal issues.

  • If the patient's condition improved more than it worsened (i.e. it had more 4-6 results than 1-3), then their final Diagnosis was correct and their Treatment was successful; they return to full health, possibly after some recovery time.
  • If the patient's condition worsened more than it improved (i.e. it had more 1-3 results than 4-6), then their final Diagnosis was incorrect, therefore their Treatment was unsuccessful; the patient player narrates how their condition worsens and they pass away.
  • "I've got a good feeling about this!"
  • If the patient's condition improved and worsened equally (i.e. the same number of 1-3 and 4-6 results), then they were Diagnosed correctly, but there is no Treatment; the patient player decides whether their condition is manageable with continued care or is a chronic terminal condition.
Finally, everyone checks their personal issues; these resolve independently of whether the patient lives or dies, but they are related to the patient's condition.
  • If you got more 4-6s than 1-3s for your issue, it works out for you; if you got less than or equal to the number of 4-6s the patient's condition had, then it's complicated but ok; if you got more, then it works out fine for you. In both cases, you narrate how your issue resolves, but if it's complicated, then the patient player narrates that complication, including their own complication if they had one.
  • If you got more 1-3s than 4-6s for your issue, it doesn't work out for you; if you got less than or equal to the number of 1-3s the patient's condition had, then it's not all bad; if you got more, then it is all bad, In both cases, you narrate how your issue resolves, but if it's not all bad, then the patient player narrates something good that comes out of it, including their own good if they got any.
  • If you took no dice for yourself during the game, roll 1 die at the end: this single result determines your fate as above, so if it's a 1-3, then your issue doesn't work out for you, but if it's a 4-6, then it does.