The Alexandrian

Technoir - System Cheat Sheet

(click for PDF)

I’ve done several of these cheat sheets now, but for those who haven’t seen them before: I frequently prep cheat sheets for the RPGs I run. These summarize all the rules for the game — from basic action resolution to advanced combat options. It’s a great way to get a grip on a new system and, of course, it also provides a valuable resource at the table for both the GMs and the players. (For more information on the procedure I follow when prepping these cheat sheets, click here.)

These cheat sheets for Technoir, a cyberpunk RPG with two incredibly clever mechanics:

First, instead of traditional ability scores, characters have Verbs. They use these Verbs to push Adjectives onto a target. So instead of making an attack roll and inflicting 15 points of damage, they’ll use Shoot to make their target Bloody. Or Winged. Or Lamed. Or Ruined. Or Shattered. Or…. well, anything that follows logically from the action they’re attempting. The beauty of the system is that it allows you to create very specific effects in the context of the game world, and it can do fluidly in any arena.

Second, an incredibly rich set of plot map mechanics which, when combined with the game’s Transmissions, allow an almost infinite amount of gameplay within a given setting with minimal or no prep.

I’ve written about Technoir a number of times here on the Alexandrian. Whether you’re familiar with the game or not, you may enjoy checking some of them out:

Technoir: Sequences vs. Skill Challenges
Technoir and the Three Clue Rule
Technoir and Smart Prep
Technoir and PvP
Technoir: The Untouched Core
Untested Technoir: Fleeting Relationships
Technoir + Vornheim Contacts

HOW I USE THEM

I keep a copy of the system cheat sheet for quick reference and I also provide copies for all of my players. Of course, I also keep at least one copy of the rulebook available, too. But my goal with the cheat sheets is to summarize all of the rules for the game. This consolidation of information eliminates book look-ups: Finding something in a half dozen or so pages is a much faster process than paging through hundreds of pages in the rulebook.

The sheets for Technoir are fairly straightforward:

PAGE 1: This page contains the entire action resolution mechanic of the game, including rules for sequences and examples of common attacks. You’ll be looking at this page about 95% of the time that you’re playing.

PAGE 2: This page plays clean-up. It includes the Recovery rules. It also includes a quick reference for the equipment tags relating to the Interface and Links. And a Favors reference.

PAGE 3: A GM-only page summarizing the plot map mechanics.

Although this cheat sheet replaces some of the functionality of the Technoir Player’s Guide, that booklet can still be useful (particularly during character creation) by listing the Training Programs, equipment, and relationship adjectives used during character creation. Alternatively, you can print, in booklet format, multiple copies of the core equipment guide (pages 40-49 of the core rulebook). I’ll also print off a single sheet with a list of all the relationship adjectives in a large font (which can be passed around during character creation so that entries can be crossed off as they’re used).

I’ll also print out a reference to all the connections (and the favors they offer) in the current transmission on a single sheet of paper. This, again, facilitates quick and easy character creation without having to swap books around.

MAKING A GM SCREEN

I don’t actually use a GM screen when I’m running Technoir, but these cheat sheets have been designed with the same format of all my cheat sheets so that they can be used in conjunction with a modular, landscape-oriented GM screen (like the ones you can buy here or here).

Technoir

 

Review: Ten Candles

May 19th, 2016

Ten Candles - Stephen Dewey

Ten days ago something, or someone, blotted out the sky. Now no stars can be seen, all communication with satellites has been lost, and the sun no longer lights up the sky. Five days ago, They came. No one knows who or what They are, but two very important things are clear:

They fear the light.

They’re coming for you.

Ten Candles is a masterful storytelling game by Stephen Dewey. The basic premise of the game remains the same every time you play: The sun and stars went out. They came. You and a handful of other survivors are clinging to flickering sources of light and trying to find a safe haven. But the mechanics of the game vary the identity, nature, and goals They possess, and this can be combined with an almost endless variety of starting conditions (which the book amply demonstrates by including twenty-five radically different modules) to create something unique and special every time you play.

Your characters will die. The story we’re going to tell today is not one of survival, but one of hope and loss. This is a story about what happens in the dark and the final few hours in the lives of a group of survivors fighting against it, losing themselves within it, and inevitably being consumed by it. Though their endeavor may be doomed to fail, it is our duty to make this story of their struggle as meaningful as possible.

During character creation, two major things will happen: First, your character will be defined by a Vice, a Virtue, a Hope (a moment which will give your character hope if it occurs during the game), and a Brink (the place to which your character can be pushed when things become desperate; and a place to which one of the other characters at the table has seen you go before). Second, ten candles are lit in the middle of the table.

Once character creation is completed, the first scene begins. The players receive a communal pool of 10 six-sided dice (equal to the number of lit dice). Whenever a conflict roll needs to be made, the character initiating the conflict rolls the communal dice pool:

  • As long as you roll at least one 6, the conflict is successful.
  • Any dice that roll 1 are lost and discarded for the rest of the scene.

If the roll results in failure, a candle is darkened and the scene comes to an end. At that point, the communal dice pool is restored to the now reduced number of lit candles, and the GM gets a pool of dice equal to the number of darkened candles which can be rolled in order to seize narrative control of successful conflict rolls away from the players.

The major wrinkle to this simple resolution mechanic is that players can choose to burn their character traits: Each trait is written on a card and placed in a stack when the game begins, allowing each player to burn the top card of their stack. Literally burn it: Light it on a candle’s flame and toss it into a burn pot in the middle of the table. (This doesn’t destroy the character trait in the sense that it still defines who your character is, but it does force each trait of your character to be placed in the spotlight as the game proceeds.) Vices and Virtues can be burned to reroll 1’s. You can attempt to achieve your Hope by staging the moment and making a conflict roll. And your Brink, which is always a character’s last card, can be used to reroll all dice in a check repeatedly… until a check ultimately fails, at which point the Brink card is lost.

Once only one candle remains, unsuccessful conflict rolls now result in the death of the character attempting them. When the last character dies or the last candle burns out, the game concludes.

PERFECT PACING

The atmospheric effect of playing Ten Candles in a darkened room is tremendously effective: The candles going out one by one. The ritualistic elements of burning the cards. It all greatly heightens the mood of horror, suspense, and fatal tragedy engendered by the game’s premise.

But what makes Ten Candles a great game is its perfect control over pacing: Each scene builds in tension as the dice pool dwindles… and dwindles… and dwindles until failure seems absolutely certain and a candle is darkened forever. The restoration of the dice pool relieves this tension, but now the path to desperation is shorter. And so each scene generally becomes shorter, more intense, and more desperate creating an ever-escalating cycle of tension and release.

This simple pacing pattern is expertly disrupted, however, by the Brink mechanics: As the game nears its end, more and more of the characters will be pushed to the edge. And because each Brink survives until a roll is failed, at the very end of the game — as things reach their most desperate level — there is a momentary suspension of hope.

All of this is then thematically colored by the GM’s growing dice pool, allowing the GM to seize narrative control more and more frequently and viscerally creating in the mechanics the loss of control being experienced by the characters.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

A few years back I talked about how the fundamental failure of Dread — despite the strength of its core novelty — was the fact that the mechanics of the game ultimately created pacing that was deeply and irrevocably flawed: The collapsing Jenga tower created a similar “rising tension” to the Ten Candles scene mechanics, but on a scale of time which combines poorly with early player elimination and which lacks a satisfying conclusion. Although Ten Candles uses a completely different set of mechanics, I’ve repeatedly found myself comparing the two games because of the similar pacing hard-coded into their mechanics.

And, at the end of the day, I feel like Ten Candles basically just kills Dread and takes its stuff.

The only limitation of Ten Candles is that it’s tied to the central conceit of the sun going out and Them appearing. But I don’t think the ties are particularly tight: Although you might lose the thematic connection which exists between the candles and the loss-of-light premise, there’s really only one step in the character creation process which would need to be adapted for other premises. (There’s one card during Brink phase on which a player writes the Brink for Them. You would need to shift the nature of that card to match whatever survival horror scenario you were running.)

In any case, Ten Candles is great. I’ve only had the game for a couple of weeks and it’s already hit my table multiple times, which is a strong testament to its quality. An even stronger testament, perhaps, is that multiple players have bought copies of their own and are either planning to run or have already run their own sessions. That only happens when a game is getting something very, very right.

In short, Ten Candles nails it.

THESE THINGS ARE TRUE.

THE WORLD IS DARK.

AND WE ARE ALIVE.

Style: 5
Substance: 5

Author: Stephen Dewey
Publisher: Cavalry Games
Print Cost: $28.00
PDF Cost: $10.00
Page Count: 90

Go to Part 1

Death on a Clock - BanksyNow that we’ve discussed the totality of making a ruling from beginning to end, I want to discuss a handful of advanced techniques – various tips and tricks I’ve picked up or created over the years.

We’ll start with fortune positioning. As we’ll discuss in detail in a moment, this is a really valuable concept revolving around the point at which you roll dice (the fortune) during the process of resolving an action, and what happens before and after you roll those dice. Before we begin, however, I need to briefly discuss the history of this terminology to clear up some difficulties.

The basic principles of fortune positioning were first laid out by Ron Edwards, who coined the terms fortune in the middle and fortune at the end to describe unexamined practices that had been hanging around the hobby for decades. They were useful terms and they caught on. A few years later, however, Ron Edwards decided to redefine the terms because he’d decided that it didn’t actually have anything to do with mechanics (despite the use of mechanics being in the damn name). Around this same time period, he also decided that fortune at the beginning didn’t exist (which, as we’ll see, is also wrong). The result was a complete muddle, but since Edwards had coined the terms his nonsense follow-up held a great deal of sway. People tried to solve the problems Edwards had created with various patches (you’ll see people using terms like “with teeth” if you go poking around), but this just sort of added to the confusion and debasing of the terminology.

With the terms being thoroughly mucked up, therefore, I had to make a decision about whether I should abandon them entirely (and try to come up with new terms to cover the same territory) or just clarify that people should ignore the later nonsense. After considerable thought, I decided that the concept of “fortune positioning” was too intuitively obvious to discard, so I’m sticking with it (and you get this preamble explaining why).

Final note here: Any time I talk about “fortune” or “rolling the dice”, that’s shorthand for any sort of action resolution. These concepts are generally most applicable to mechanical resolution (whether that involves rolling dice or not), but they have some applicability even on the spectrum of GM fiat.

FORTUNE AT THE END

Fortune at the end seems to be what most GMs and groups default to. (I’m not sure if that’s because it’s actually clearer and conceptually simpler, of it’s just a legacy of D&D’s wargame-derived mechanics and familiarity makes it seem more natural.) With fortune at the end you:

  • Establish method.
  • Check the fortune.
  • Describe the result.

You say, “I want to shoot the blade runner!” (Establish intention.) You make an attack roll. (Check the fortune.) And the mechanical result tells you whether the intention succeeded or failed. (You either hit the target or you miss them, which means you can now describe that end result.)

FORTUNE AT THE BEGINNING

Fortune at the beginning is a technique in which you ask the mechanics what happens and then you use the mechanical result to decide what you attempt. To put it another way, fortune at the beginning means putting the mechanical resolution between the statement of intention and the statement of method.

  • Indicate intention.
  • Check the fortune.
  • Determine method.
  • Describe the result.

Whereas fortune at the end has a player activate character expertise to determine whether or not the method they’ve proposed succeeds, fortune at the beginning has the player activate character expertise to tell them what method the character would use to achieve a general intention.

This can be useful when playing out a social situation: You state your intention (“I want to convince the Duke to give us troops”), then make your Diplomacy check, and then use the outcome of the Diplomacy check to inform how you roleplay the scene.

Fortune at the beginning is often used in personality mechanics: You make a madness check or you make a check to see if you can resist temptation, and if you can’t that determines how you play the next action (whether it’s running away screaming or turning away from Madame Shadow’s insistent kisses).

I also often see player do things like making an Intelligence check to see whether or not their character is smart enough to think of the idea they just had. (And if they fail, they won’t share it.)

FORTUNE IN THE MIDDLE

Fortune in the middle means that your first action check determines the initial momentum of the attempt, but then the player/character has another choice that can affect the ultimate outcome. So you might make a check to resolve a social encounter, discover that you’ve made a bad first impression, and then have an opportunity to recover from that. (Or just shoot the guy in the head. “It was a boring conversation any way.”)

Basically, fortune in the middle creates an additional decision point in the middle of resolution:

  • Establish method.
  • Check the fortune.
  • Make a secondary decision.
  • Check secondary fortune.
  • Describe the result.

Sometimes this decision point is actually baked into the mechanics. The use of Fate Points is a simple and common example. Apocalypse World uses a number of “moves” which are resolved with a 2d6 roll in which there is a failure range, a success range, and Apocalypse World - D. Vincent Baker(between the two) a range in which the PC has to make a secondary decision between consequences and/or partial successes.

Speaking of partial successes, a GM can often resolve a partial success by asking for a fortune in the middle response. They can also be used in other situations: For example, after a successful Dodge roll the GM might ask, “Do you want to duck through the door on your right or behind the wooden crate on your left?”

The resolution of the secondary decision may not require another action check; i.e., whether you duck through the door or behind the wooden crate success is automatic (the GM is defaulting to yes). Alternatively, the options could easily require additional mechanical resolution (and choosing between the form of mechanical resolution could be the primary difference between choices). It’s also possible that only some of the choices would require additional mechanical checks (you need to make a Strength check to bash through the closed door, but you can duck behind the crates automatically).

And, of course, the GM doesn’t have to be the one to come up with the options. “Okay, you succeeded on your Dodge roll. Where do you want to seek cover from the hail of machine gun fire?”

MULTI-STAGE RESOLUTION

The principles of fortune in the middle resolution can be extended to include multiple decision points, opening up the potential for a variety of multi-stage resolution methods.

In my experience, this is a poorly explored region of mechanical design. Probably the most prominent example are the skill challenges from 4th Edition D&D, and those were absolutely terrible to the point where the designers had to completely rewrite the mechanics multiple times within mere weeks of the game being released… and still didn’t fix it.

Dice pool systems have fared a little better because the ability to count a variable number of successes in each dice pool allows for a simple complex skill check mechanic (continue making checks until you’ve achieved X number of successes).

But much like Apocalypse World and other games have begun making specific mechanics which exploit fortune in the middle resolution principles, I think there’s a real potential for more specific multi-stage resolution mechanics (particularly if you start allowing for decision points by those opposing the character or characters carrying out the multi-stage resolution).

But I digress.

What distinguished multi-stage resolution from simply being a series of discrete actions? Because there’s a single intention and each stage of resolution carries you towards discovering the ultimate outcome of that intention, either through a variety of methods or by the progression of a single method through discrete steps.

USING FORTUNE POSITIONING

Over the years I’ve seen a surprising amount of one-true-wayism when it comes to fortune positioning. This makes little sense to me: The ideal fortune positioning varies by both type of action and the situation in which the action is taken. And even people who aren’t familiar with the terminology will often freely flow from one to the next depending purely on the instinct of the moment

Fortune at the end has simplicity to its advantage: You ask a question of the system, the system provides a yes-no answer.

Fortune at the beginning allows the mechanics to provide you with an improv seed that you can then flesh out accordingly. (This makes it particularly good for determining the outcome of larger actions: The more specific the action the more awkward it can become to resolve with fortune at the beginning. For example, if your mechanics resolve a single attack, fortune at the beginning generally isn’t useful. If they’re resolving an entire fight – or, say, a jousting pass – then they become more useful.)

Fortune in the middle is more complicated, but allows for a richer interplay between the player and the mechanic along with a greater range of potential outcome. It can also focus your attention on the action being resolved, signaling that this particular action is more significant than others.

Each of these has its place. And, as I implied before, trying to rigidly define that place is not always the best answer. (Maybe this time you roll the dice to see how your negotiations with the Duke will proceed before roleplaying it, but next time you’ve got a “surefire” idea for how to seduce the Duchess.) But they’re incredibly useful tools for expanding and varying the experience at the game table, and if you find that your rulings are generally limited to only a single fortuning position, you may find it useful to practice using others until you become comfortable and familiar with them (whether that involves playing games with explicit fortune positioning in their mechanics or simply challenging yourself to explore a particular type of fortune positioning for the next few sessions).

Go to Part 11

Go to Part 1

One of the great things about a well-executed location-based scenario is that each keyed area is effectively “firewalled” from the other areas: The GM generally only needs to process and manage a single chunk of material (the current area) until the PCs move on to the next area (at which point the GM can simply look at the new chunk of material). This makes a location-based scenario very easy to run, particularly if the key is well-organized, because everything you need is right there at your fingertips.

The drawback of this approach, however, is that it results in static scenarios. The firewall works both ways: It limits the amount of information the GM needs to process at any given time, but it also isolates each chunk of content. Furthermore, because the PCs generally control when they decide to move into a new area, this approach also grants the players near-perfect control over the pace of the scenario (which not only results in monotony, but can also create all kinds of tack-on problems like the fifteen minute adventuring day).

What’s needed is a dynamic element. Sometimes you can accomplish that with some sort of gimmick (moving chambers or the like). Random encounters, particularly those on a regular and aggressive schedule, also work. Ideally, though, we’d like to have the location come alive in an organic way that can allow for strategic depth. We want the ogre in Area 20 to call out for help and have the goblins in Area 21 to hear it and come running.

That seems easy enough. You can just slide your eyes down from Area 20 and notice that there are goblins in Area 21. It gets complicated, though, when you’ve got, say, seven or eight locations within earshot. And it gets even more complicated if you hit those sections of the map were non-sequential numbers bump up against each other:

Sample Map - Temple of Elemental Evil (Gary Gygax)

This area from the Temple of Elemental Evil, for example, would involve flipping back and forth between 8 different pages in the published module. At this point you’re trying to juggle a lot of different information, and you’ve probably lost almost all of the advantages normally offered by the “firewall” of the location key.

And this is still a relatively simple example: What happens when the alarm goes up and the entire compound begins mobilizing to hunt the PCs down?

For example, here’s the map from Secret of the Slavers Stockade:

Secret of the Slavers Stockade (David Cook)

(click for larger version)

This is a fortified facility with a well-trained guard and a clear chain of command. If someone mounted an assault on the stockade, you would expect a well-coordinated response. But in order to run that response, a GM would need to smoothly manage information from basically all thirty-five keyed locations. It’s impossible.

ADVERSARY ROSTERS

The solution is to separate the occupants of a location from the location key: If they can move from one area to another, then they don’t belong in the key for any specific area.

This can be achieved through the use of an adversary roster (with a map from Dyson Logos for reference):

2 Orc GuardsArea 1(disguised as humans)
4 Common OrcsArea 2(playing dice at well)
4 Orc GuardsArea 3

6 Orc Guards

Area 4*

2 Goblin Stableboys

Area 8

4 Common Orcs + 4 Orc Guards

Area 9(drunk)
Captain GnarltoothArea 9 or Area 16
Lieutenant UggtuskArea 11 (day) or Area 15 (night)
2 Orc Guards + 8 Common OrcsArea 14
Eyegrasper (Orc Wizard)Area 19 (80%) or Area 6 (20%)
Eyegrasper's Coterie: 3 orc apprentices(with Eyegrasper)

Fingerwaggler (Orc Wizard)

Area 20*
4 Caravanserai GuardsArea 21
Lady StarhuoArea 23
Brother JamestonArea 25

4 Caravanserai Guards

Area 25(injured)

The Caravanserai - Dyson Logos

(click for larger version)

This does increase the complexity of running the scenario, but it’s not an exponential increase like the one seen in trying to run the Slavers Stockade. The GM is no longer looking strictly at the current location key, but rather than trying to cross-reference thirty-five location keys all at once they can generally limit themselves to looking at just the current location key and the adversary roster. Two discrete chunks of organized information instead of a multitude.

The fundamental building block of the adversary roster is the ACTION GROUP. Generally speaking, you don’t want to track every single goblin individually, so you group them together for easy management. (Although some of your action groups will probably consist of a single individual.) Most of the time, an action group will consist of all the adversaries in a single location. In some cases, however, you may want to split a large group up into smaller units. You can think about this purely in utilitarian terms: Do you think that the group is likely to split up and take independent action? Then it should be two action groups. (For example, if you’ve got twenty orcs bunking in a barracks, you might split them up into four action groups with five orcs each so that they can split up or be sent as guards to different areas of the compound.)

For ease of use and reference, you can also LABEL and/or NUMBER each group. A label is mostly useful as a keyword and reminder: If you see a “Death Squad” and a “Perimeter Guard” on your adversary roster, it’ll be a helpful reminder of how each group will behave and respond. You might also find it useful to prep a Death Squad stat sheet and a Perimeter Guard stat sheet: When the PCs run into one of these action groups, simply grab the matching stat sheet.

Numbering the action groups can make it easier to keep track of where they’re at during play:

  1. Lay the adventure map out as a tablemat in front of you.
  2. Take numbered counters and place them on the map in the “starting location” for each action group.

You are now ready to manage your adversaries in real time. Just move them around the map as the situation demands.

(Note: Numbered counters are easy to find on the cheap. It’s also pretty easy to make your own by printing out the numbers and then affixing them to washers or quarters or something of the like.)

ADVANCED ROSTER OPTIONS

In addition to that basic functionality of the adversary roster, there are a few additional embellishments you can use to enhance it.

VARIABLE AREAS: Characters on the roster don’t need to be limited to a single area. The club owner might be in his office, or he might be out on the floor. A wizard might be studying in the library or working in his laboratory. An orc sergeant might rotate through the barracks of his minions. There are a few different ways to handle this:

  • Area 21 or Area 40: This approach simply states the options and lets the GM interpolate the result. (Or maybe they’ll just be in whichever area the PCs affect or explore first.)
  • Area 21 (40%) or Area 40 (60%): Percentile chances can be used to randomize the group’s location.
  • Area 21 (day) or Area 40 (night): The group’s location may be dependent on the present circumstances (and those conditions can be listed in parentheses). A night/day division is one I’ll commonly use.

One thing to keep in mind is that you can often simulate the activities of a compound without complicating the roster. For example, if the bouncers at a club might work eight hour shifts and then get relieved you probably don’t need to include all three shifts of bouncers on your roster. Functionally speaking, the club has one bouncer (although the name of that bouncer might be different depending on what time of day the PCs show up).

ACTION GROUP TYPES: I’ve found that there are four different categories of action groups, defined by their behavior.

  • Patrols: Patrols make regular circuits through a location. They’re indicated by keying their route (Patrol Areas 1, 5, 7, 8, 9, 2, 1). In some cases I find it useful to create a separate “Patrol Roster” (if there are multiple patrols or if their routes are particularly complicated for some reason).
  • Mobile: The default action group type. These are keyed to a specific location, but are generally willing and able to respond to the activities of the PCs.
  • Mostly Stationary: Some action groups are unlikely to leave the area they’re keyed to. This might be a choice on their part (they won’t respond when the alarm is raised for whatever reason) or it may not (they’re dire wolves locked in a cell). Adveraries waiting in an ambush are another common variety. However, there is a possibility that these action groups might become active (most commonly because someone has gone to specifically fetch them). Therefore I include them on the adversary roster, but indent their entries to clearly distinguish them from the more active elements.
  • Stationary: These adversaries will never leave the location they’re in. As a result, these adversaries are NOT included on the roster and instead appear in the location key. (Because they will only be encountered in that location, there’s no reason to clutter up the roster with them.) This might include literally immobile creatures, those simply uninterested in the rest of the complex, or creatures who are sealed away until the PCs disturb them (at which point, if they aren’t immediately destroyed, you might add them to the roster).

These distinctions – particularly those between Mostly Stationary and Stationary – are entirely utilitarian in nature. They don’t represent some deep or universal truth about the game world. Think about how you want to use a particular group of adversaries during actual play and then classify them appropriately. (If it turns out you were wrong, it’s easy enough to simply ignore the indentation, right?)

NOTES / FOOTNOTES: You can either includes notes as a third column on the roster or you can use footnotes to include additional information or cross-referencing. This can include:

  • Adversaries carrying a specific item or piece of equipment. (This is useful when you’ve got a bunch of different bad guys all using the same stat block but only some of them – or one of them – is carrying X, Y, or Z. Otherwise, of course, you’d just list the item(s) in their stat block.)
  • Brief tactical notes. (Stuff like “can be telepathically summoned by the mind flayer” or “will generally wait to launch prepared ambush” or “can see through walls”.)
  • If they’ve been classified as Mostly Stationary, why they’ve been classified that way (sleeping, in ambush, indifferent, etc.).
  • Other notes regarding their activities (polymorphed to look like prisoners, playing poker, torturing Sebastian, etc.)

I generally use a notes column if the notes are brief enough to fit on one line. I use footnotes for longer stuff.

MULTIPLE ROSTERS

It’s also possible to prep multiple rosters for a single location. I often find having one roster for Day and another for Night is useful. Normal and Alert statuses are also common, but any similar division that’s logical for the location can be used.

Multiple rosters are usually only worth the effort if the location radically shifts. If the differences are minor or isolated to a handful of characters, then you can use conditionals for individual action groups. It’s only once the conditionals get sufficiently complex that you need to switch to multiple rosters.

ROSTER UPDATES

Another great advantage of using an adversary roster is that you can trivially update a location as bad guys are killed, replaced, or retasked without needing to revisit the entire key. (This separation of NPC from location is why I’ll use a roster even if there are only a handful of characters present.)

This can also be massively useful in an open table campaign (or any other campaign) where you want to be able to revisit locations: With little or no change to a location’s key, you can completely restock it with new adversaries. For examples of this in play, see (Re-)Running the Megadungeon, Juggling Scenario Hooks in a Sandbox, and Prepping Scenario Timelines. (Reading along with the adversary roster technique in mind, you should be able to immediately see how simply the updates become.)

SIMPLE ROSTER

Sometimes you don’t need a roster with all the bells and whistles. For small, highly active complexes with a limited number of inhabitants (a half dozen or so) you may be able to just list the inhabitants and then improvise where they are and what they’re doing when the PCs show up.

(I label this simple, but it actually requires slightly more skill with improvisation when you’re running it.)

I most often use this technique if there’s a mansion (or similar living space) occupied by a number of different people. Trying to program out their ordinary, day-to-day living usually means a lot of complexity for a result that still isn’t realistic.

A hybrid approach can also work here: For example, each character might have a default location where they’re often found (their bedroom? office?) and then a percentage chance that they’re instead just “somewhere else in the house” (and you can figure that out in the moment).

ADAPTING PUBLISHED MODULES

It’s incredibly easy to use the adversary roster technique with published scenarios: Simply skim through the module and list where each occupant is keyed. Ta-da! You’re done. Simply ignore the rostered adversaries when you see them in the key.

Tip: Since all monsters will appear in the published key, you may find it useful to include a separate list of Stationary monsters on the same sheet as your adversary roster in order to quickly discern when you should still be using the monster listed in the encounter.

FOG OF WAR

One pitfall that a GM can easily fall into when using an adversary roster is having everybody in the dungeon immediately swarm the PCs. Sometimes that’s the logical outcome of the PCs’ actions and that’s fine (they’ll quickly learn to take approaches that don’t result in that outcome and to retreat and regroup if it does happen). But you should bear the fog of war in mind: Even if the PCs attack one action group, it doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone in the location will immediately know it’s happening. And even if the alarm does go up, some action groups may be assigned to guard other areas or simply have no idea exactly where the crisis is happening.

The adversary roster gives you the opportunity to roleplay the entire compound. So take advantage of it.

Since we’re discussing adversaries swarming the PCs, however, you may also want to take a moment to review Revisiting Encounter Design: If you’re using an active adversary roster, you need to keep in mind that multiple action groups can end up joining a single encounter.  If you’ve been building your encounters to exist on a razor’s edge of survival-or-death, then you’ll need to revise that approach. (How To Use Published 3rd Edition Modules may also be useful.)

ROSTER LIMITS

There is, however, a practical limit to an adversary roster: Once you get a sufficiently large enough number of action groups, it becomes difficult to manage them. Generally, I find that number to be around 15-20 (and by the time I’m pushing it to 25, I’ve reached my limit). Your mileage may vary.

Larger complexes can sometimes be broken down into smaller sections to make them manageable. (The different levels of a dungeon are an obvious example of this if there’s limited movement between them by the denizens. You might also choose to model that limited inter-level traffic as a random encounter check.) But if that doesn’t work, then that’s the point where I’ll swap from a “living complex” (with an adversary roster where I’m managing the actions of the NPCs in real time) and start using random encounter tables to simulate the compound’s life.

It should also be noted that the adversary roster is a technique for locations with active bad guys. Not every dungeon needs a roster. Sometimes you really are cracking open dusty tombs which have lain undisturbed for centuries and you have only yourself to blame when you awaken the eldritch horrors which lie within. Variety is the spice of life.

(Another example from my own table was the Bloodpool Labyrinth: There were a limited number of monstrous patrols in the labyrinth, but the focus of the scenario was on navigating the labyrinth and its many non-mobile hazards. As a result, I chose to run the patrols using a random encounter table instead of trying to track them in real time.)

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

I consider adversary rosters to be my greatest “secret weapon” as a GM. They allow me to run dynamic scenarios of considerable complexity on battlefields that can easily sprawl across a dozen areas with a relative simplicity which still leaves me with enough brainpower to manage varied stat blocks and clever tactics.

You’ll also find that, as the players warm up to the greater depth offered by these scenarios, they’ll rise to the challenge and respond with remarkable strategic creativity both in combat and outside of it.

And all of this will feed back on itself, permanently disrupting the staid rhythms of “kick in the door” dungeoncrawling in your campaign. Adversary rosters are also a great way for running stealth missions, heists, and covert ops.

The life and motion of a living compound will unlock a rich variety of new gameplay, keep your players on their toes, and invest them deeply into the fabric of the campaign world.

FURTHER READING
The Art of Rulings
The Art of Pacing
Jaquaying the Dungeon
Gamemastery 101

I was horribly ill back in December when Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released. I dragged myself to the theater multiple times to see it through a sequence of flu, strep, and pneumonia, but I wasn’t able to devote the time necessary to write-up my thoughts on it immediately. (And after only a short while, it seemed somewhat redundant.) However, with the film’s recent release to home video and in celebration of the week of May 4th, there are a couple of things I’d like to say.

First, and by way of context: I love the film. I think it’s great. The new characters are fabulous. J.J. Abrams, by and large, is remarkably successful in capturing Lucas’ directorial style while still being true to his own.

There’s really only one thing I don’t like. And it probably won’t be terribly surprising:

STARKILLER BASE

Star Wars: The Force Awakens - Starkiller Base

When Starkiller Base first appeared on screen my immediate reaction was, like many people, “Really? We’re doing the Death Star again?”

The most remarkable thing about the Starkiller Base stuff is how utterly irrelevant it is. If you removed it from the movie entirely, virtually nothing would change for the main characters. (Han, Chewie, and Finn still go to the First Order’s base to rescue Rey. Han and Kylo Ren still confront each other. Et cetera.)

There’s also the fact that literally everything to do with the Starkiller Base is poorly done: They fail to establish the stakes for the first time it’s fired (it’s a planet that’s scarcely been mentioned and you see a bunch of people die that you have no reason to care about). The entire thing is a giant plot hole (it needs to consume the system’s sun in order to fire at the end of the film, but doesn’t do that the first time it fires). The off-hand reference to the entire New Republic navy being stationed on the surface of Hosnian Prime doesn’t make any goddamn sense. (It’s as if someone told the story of Pearl Harbour, but for some reason the entire American navy was drydocked in Iowa.) The plan for destroying it is literally the characters saying, “Fuck it. You saw the first film and ROTJ, right?” The attack fleet sent to destroy it doesn’t make any sense. (Why would you only send some of your ships on this mission?) For some reason, after being briefly spied so that Han can suggest bombing the regulator, the X-wing fight is never seen nor heard again by anyone on the ground. And the film couldn’t even be bothered to correctly track the number of ships which had been destroyed during the battle. (Count the number of X-wings that arrive; the number of X-wings destroyed just on screen; and then count the number of X-Wings that leave.)

So, when I’m given the godlike powers to fix stuff that doesn’t make sense in movies, I would probably just eliminate the whole thing. (Because, honestly, we don’t need to go back to the “duplicate of the Death Star” well again. It was already a mistake in ROTJ. The Star Wars universe is big enough that we can explore other cool sci-fi ideas.)

But let’s say that you wanted to keep it. (There’s some cool thematic elements to the whole “light going out” thing with parallels between the sun and Kylo Ren. Plus, I’m guessing the whole “blowing up the government of the New Republic” is probably going to be significant going foward.) Here’s what you’d do:

  1. Starkiller Base doesn’t fire at the midpoint of the film. Instead, the Resistance would learn of its existence through some other means. (For example, Finn reveals the location of the base when debriefed about Rey’s capture. The Resistance sends scout ships — which is something they do in the film anyway — and have the “oh shit” moment of discovering what it is.)
  2. The mission to destroy Starkiller Base at the end of the film is to stop it from firing on the New Republic capital planet. This eliminates most of the grievous continuity errors.
  3. It also gives you the narrative space to add several scenes involving coordination between Leia and her contacts within the New Republic government. These scenes would nicely clarify some of the details on how the modern political landscape actually works in this film; it would also give you an opportunity to learn enough about the Republic and Leia’s allies in the Hosnian System so that its destruction is meaningful to the audience. (This doesn’t take a lot. The first film made the destruction of Alderaan relevant with just a handful of lines.)
  4. Finally, and this is the key thing, the mission fails. You hit basically all the same beats you do during the film as it was released (although with a few tweaks to improve the execution and eliminate the continuity errors), but with the key distinction that they don’t destroy it fast enough. You know how Luke destroys the first Death Star just before it can fire on Yavin 4? You have basically the same moment, except Po Dameron doesn’t manage to destroy the regulator until just after it’s fired.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens - Destruction of Hosnian Prime

This last point is important not just because it conserves the presumed narrative necessity of destroying the New Republic government, but because it single-handedly justifies the entire presence of Starkiller Base in the movie.

One of the great things about Star Wars is its use of narrative leitmotifs. (Something which is echoed in John Williams’ leitmotif-based scoring.) George Lucas, whatever his flaws as a filmmaker may be, was ingenious at taking common moments and, in mythic fashion, changing the perspective of them so that they commented on each other. (For example, despite the myriad flaws of the prequel films, the telling of Anakin’s fall and its parallels with Luke’s story radically transform the ending of ROTJ: In the context of the original trilogy, you really don’t believe there’s any risk of Luke falling. He’s the Hero. He’s going to be the Hero, right? But once you’ve seen Anakin — who was also the Hero — fall, that tells you something about Luke and adds tremendous depth to that final confrontation in ROTJ which is otherwise absent.)

But when you use a leitmotif you can’t just do the exact same thing again (only bigger!). You have to transform the moment. And I think transforming the destruction of the Death Star into the failure to stop Starkiller Base would definitely have a deeper thematic resonance here. (A lot of The Force Awakens reminds me a Shakespeare quote: “The time it out of joint. O cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right.” And nothing would feel more out of joint than this twisted mirror of A New Hope.)

Star Wars: The Force Awakens - Destruction of Starkiller Base

STAR WARS – FURTHER READING
The Plan of Palpatine
Star Wars: Episodes VII, VIII, and IX

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