The Alexandrian

Better Angels - 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.)

This set of cheat sheets is for Better Angels, a One Roll Engine game from Greg Stolze and Arc Dream Publishing. The core concept of the game is that supeheroes and supervillains have their powers because they’re possessed by angels and demons, respectively.The conceit that makes this compelling, however, is that the supervillains are actually trying to mitigate the evil of the demon inside them: See, if a demon ends up inside of a goody two-shoes who refuses to do any evil in their name, the demon gets bored and leaves. That’s a problem, because every time a demon shifts to a new host there’s a chance they’ll end up inside of someone who is truly evil: A Jeffrey Dahmer or a Hannibal Lector with the powers of a demon is capable of truly despicable acts. So if you end up with a demon inside of you, the argument goes, the best course of action is to keep them entertained with evil acts that are big and splashy, but ultimately not all that harmful to the people around you.

In other words, you do all the wacky stuff that pulp era supervillains did: You kidnap the Statue of Liberty and hold her for ransom. You have whales swallow explosives. You burn down the mansion of Big Bank, Inc.

The problem, of course, is that demons are actually pretty good at that whole “corroding your soul” thing. So while you’re trying to do splashy-but-limited-damage evil, the demons are actively working to make you compromise just a little bit more; sacrifice morals you thought were sacrosanct; cross lines you promised to never cross.

And, mechanically speaking, what makes this concept really pop and turned the game into a must-play for me is that each player is responsible for both their Mortal character and for the Demon of the character to their right. This dual-role dynamic forces the conflict between Mortal and Demon into the open and the rules of the game expertly model the ethical battlefield / minefield that the characters are all trying to traverse on tightropes.

HOW I USE THEM

As I’ve described in the past, I keep a copy of the system cheat sheet behind my GM screen for quick reference and also provide copies for all of the players. Of course, I also keep at least one copy of the rulebook available, too. But my goal with the cheat sheets is to consolidate information and eliminate 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 organization of information onto each page of the cheat sheet should, hopefully, be fairly intuitive. The actual sequencing of pages is mostly arbitrary.

Page 1: I’ve adopted the green/purple distinction between Strategies and Tactics from the Better Angels rulebook. Understanding the explicit sinister/virtuous antithesis between each Strategy and Tactic is the core of the system and that’s headlined here along with an overview of the incredibly simple ORE mechanic.

Page 2: And here you’ve got pretty much every other mechanic in the game. (New players mostly just need to understand the “Damage” column here; everything else is relatively nonessential for launching your first session.)

Page 3 / Page 4: Demonic Prerogative and Domain of the Human cover everything you need to know about playing each of your characters. For Better Angels to really work, the players all need to understand the full dynamic of the game’s central conflict. (It’s particularly important to grok the methods a Demon has for mechanically corrupting their host and the methods a Mortal has to maintain or regain their moral equilibrium. Being clear on each side’s “end game” is also important.)

Pages 5-7: As I’ve discussed in the past, I generally don’t put “character option chunks” in the cheat sheet. The superpowers in Better Angels, however, are generally pretty streamlined. As a GM I also found it easier to parse NPC stat blocks with a power cheat sheet. And, last but not least, players found it useful because the effect of each power in Better Angels varies based on your current stats (and those change frequently and rapidly); so it’s not like other games where you can really familiarize yourself with your current powers.

Page 8: The ability to construct devilish devices (a.k.a. supervillain death-rays) is something I saw new players overlooking, so the full procedure gets highlighted here. (This isn’t “first session critical”, but it’s something I’d consider reviewing at the start of the second session.)

Page 9: This page has all the mechanics the GM needs in order to run angelic NPCs / superheroes.

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED

These cheat sheets are not designed to be a quick start packet: They’re really useful as a tool for an experienced player teaching the game to new players, but you’ll find it really difficult to learn the game from scratch by just reading through them. (They are an adjunct to the core rulebook, not a replacement.)

You also won’t find most of the optional rules for the game.

MAKING A GM SCREEN

These cheat sheets can also be used in conjunction with a modular, landscape-oriented GM screen (like the ones you can buy here or here).

Personally, I use a four-panel screen and use reverse-duplex printing in order to create sheets that I can tape together and “flip up” to reveal additional information behind them. For Better Angels my screen looks like this:

  • Page 1: Basic Mechanics (with Demonic Prerogative & Domain of the Human behind it)
  • Page 2: Other Mechanics (nothing behind it)
  • Demonic Aspects (with both pages of Demonic Powers behind it)
  • Angels (with Devilish Devices and the logo sheet behind it)

I hope you find these useful!

When discussing roleplaying games I’ve tried to eliminate the term “immersion” from my vocabulary: It’s terminology with a horribly fractured etymology and never fails to create confusion whenever it’s used.

The problem has its primary roots in the ’90s: In the tabletop community, the Usenet groups picked the term “immersion” to refer to people deeply immersing themselves in the playing of their character. “Deep immersion” became the state in which roleplaying flowed naturally and you were able to make decisions as your character an portray your character without have to engage in logical analysis.

Almost simultaneously, however, the video game community created the concept of “immersion vs. interactivity”. In this construct, loosely speaking, interactivity refers to the player making decisions and immersion refers to the player becoming drawn into or convinced by the faux reality of the game world. (You’ll notice that, in this construction, the concept of “immersion” is effectively set up as being in a state of antithesis with the tabletop community’s use of the word “immersion”.) This video game concept of “immersion” then “jumped the pond” and got picked up by various tabletop communities.

Then you can take all of that confusion and stir in a healthy dose of people using the word according to its general dictionary definition: “Deep mental involvement.” That meant any time somebody said “no, immersion is about deep mental involvement in X” (whether X was “playing your character” or “the presentation of the game world”), somebody else could respond by saying “no, I experience immersion by having a deep mental involvement with Y”.

My personal use of the term was shaped in those old Usenet discussions. So if you ever do see me using the word “immersion” in the context of tabletop roleplaying, it’s a virtual certainty that I’m talking about immersion in the process of roleplaying a character; the sort of one-to-one flow of thought to action and the empathetic flow of thought that often characterizes our conception of the very best Method actors. But I’ve generally found that when I need to discuss that sort of thing it’s almost always more rewarding to find a way of talking about it which doesn’t use the word “immersion”.

Whatever your personal conception of the word “immersion” is, I recommend you do the same.

Well, in this case, mostly untested. Here’s a mechanic I improvised while running Trail of Cthulhu last night:

Mitigation Test:When making a mitigation test, instead of setting a difficulty number the Keeper sets a “worst case quantity”. The Investigator then resolves the test normally (spending points, adding them to their roll, and so forth), but the result of the test is subtracted from the worst case quantity to determine the actual outcome. (In some situations, you might choose to use multiples of the test of the result.)

Example: One of the investigators has been bitten by a Mythos creature and the creature’s poison is turning their flesh to turn to stone. The team’s doctor decides the only way to save their life is to cut away the “infection”. The Keeper calls for a mitigation test using Medicine to determine how much damage the doctor deals to the victim/patient and sets the “worst case quantity” to 12 points of damage. The doctor’s player spends two points, rolls a 4, and manages to perform the procedure while only inflicting 6 points of Health damage (12 – 4 – 2 = 6).

Example: An orphanage is beginning to collapse. An Investigator is trying to rescue as many kids as possible before the building comes down completely. The Keeper calls for an Athletics mitigation test to determine how many kids survive and sets the “worst case quantity” to 6 dead kids. The player asks if he can spend Architecture points to assist (by judging which sections of the building are in most jeopardy) and the Keeper agrees. He spends 3 points and rolls a 2… He’s just not able to find Timmy before it’s too late.

Example: The player is trying to carve a forged copy of a stone tablet, but is under something of a time crunch to get it done. The Keeper sets a “worst case quantity” of 48 hours and calls for a Craft test. The Investigator gets a result of 6, which the Keeper multiples by 5: It’ll take 48 – 30 = 18 hours to complete the duplicate tablet.

Thanks to Colleen Riley, Phil Henry, Tess Keen, and Sarah Holmberg for being my guinea pigs.

Half a decade ago, a fellow named FireLance posted a really interesting breakdown of non-combat challenges over at ENWorld in a post that got, apparently, no attention whatsoever. Which is unfortunate, because I think it’s actually a really interesting way of looking at non-combat encounters.

Before delving into it, though, I should note that this is a lot like the “36 Dramatic Situations” or “7 Basic Plots” or “20 Master Plots” lists that periodically go floating through the meme-verse: These are useful as conceptual tools, but you shouldn’t get too wrapped up in believing the reductivist perception of the creative process they maintain. If you believe that The Terminator and Hamlet are both the same story because they can boiled down to “Man vs. Man”, then you’re making the same categorical error as believing that the Grand Canyon and your garden are the same thing because they can both be categorized as “earth”.

Tossing that proviso aside, however, I’m going to briefly restructure and revisit FireLance’s basic work.

DISCOVERY CHALLENGES

Discovery challenges involve seeing, finding, or becoming aware of something that was previously lost or unknown.

TYPES OF DISCOVERY CHALLENGES

Knowledge: Determining whether or not a PC already knows a piece of information.

Invention: The creation or revelation of new knowledge. (This can also include the creation or repair of physical objects.)

Observation: Determining whether or not a PC notices something hidden (an object, a person, an intent, a clue, a pattern).

Research: Exploring existing sources of knowledge to discover the information (databases, libraries, warehouses).

Tracking: Discovering the location of a creature or object by following a trail of observations.

DISCOVERY CHALLENGE COMBINATIONS

Movement challenges contribute to Discovery challenges if being in a particular location makes its easier (or necessary) for the PCs to observe or discover something.

Persuasion challenges contribute to Discovery challenges if the knowledge sought by a PC is possessed by an NPC.

Survival challenges may contribute to a Discovery challenge if some information can only be found or pursued in a dangerous location.

MOVEMENT CHALLENGES

Movement challenges involve reaching a particular location. Such challenges can be broadened by including additional characters, creatures, or objects that must be moved along with the PC (e.g., clearing a pile of stones, guiding a group of pilgrims, helping someone climb a wall).

TYPES OF MOVEMENT CHALLENGES

Chase: The PC must arrive at a location before a certain time or before someone/something else does. (Or, alternatively, they must stay ahead of a pursuer.)

Obstacle Course: The PC must traverse some form of physical obstacle in order to reach their destination (e.g., climbing, jumping, swimming, balancing, opening locks, moving heavy boulders).

Sneak: The PC must evade discovery.

MOVEMENT CHALLENGE COMBINATIONS

Discovery challenges contribute to Movement challenges if the discovery makes the movement easier (e.g., providing a short cut, an easier method of travel, or the like).

Persuasion challenges contribute to Movement challenges if the journey requires the PCs to handle mounts, convince NPCs to allow them passage, or if they have to bring NPCs with them.

Survival challenges contribute to Movement challenges if the PCs have to travel through a dangerous area.

PERSUASION CHALLENGES

Persuasion challenges are focused on convincing another person (or group of people) to take a particular course of action.

TYPES OF PERSUADE CHALLENGES

The full gamut of potential social situations allows for a wide variety of potential goals for Persuasion challenges (literally anything a person could know or do for you) and also a wide variety of potential tactics (seducation, coercion, intimidation, flattery, bribery, etc.), but ultimately they are all challenges of the same type despite this vast panoply of possible variations.

PERSUADE CHALLENGE COMBINATIONS

Discovery challenges can contribute to Persuasion challenges by providing leverage over someone (or, perhaps, removing the leverage that someone else has over them).

Movement challenges contribute to Persuasion challenges by giving access to the person you need to persuade.

Survival challenges contribute to Persuasion challenges by keeping people alive until they can do what you want them to do.

Any challenge type can contribute to a Persuasion challenge if it’s being carried out in exchange for a person’s cooperation.

SURVIVAL CHALLENGES

Survival challenges involve characters escaping or enduring physical danger (or helping others escape or endure physical danger). They could also feature the prevention of potentially dangerous situations (like negating a ritual that would summon a demon).

TYPES OF SURVIVAL CHALLENGES

Environmental: Dangerous weather, natural disasters, extreme temperatures, poisonous gases, inimical energies, or any other pervasive hazard.

Health: Recovering from diseases, long-term poisons, curses, or other afflictions. Also enduring shortages in the essentials of life (food, water, oxygen, etc.).

Trap: Hidden hazards unleashed by specific triggering conditions. Traps can generally be disabled so that they no longer pose a threat. (They are usually contrivances created by an intelligent creature with the intention of snaring the unwary, but certain natural hazards may also possess some or all the characteristics of a trap.)

SURVIVAL CHALLENGE COMBINATIONS

Discovery challenges contribute to Survival challenges by giving advance warning of danger or methods of surviving or bypassing the danger.

Movement challenges contribute to Survival challenges by allowing a character to reach a safe area.

Persuasion challenges contribute to Survival challenges if someone is convinced to help the PC survive.

USING THE ABSTRACTION

As a GM, what I generally find these types of categorical analyses most useful for is self-diagnostics: Am I defaulting to a particular type of challenge too often? Is there a type of challenge that I’m usually not including in my scenarios? Are there ways that I could be combining multiple challenge types in interesting ways?

What I don’t recommend doing, however, is designing directly from the abstraction: Thinking something like “OK, I need a Survival challenge of the Trap variety here” is, ironically, a trap itself. As anything other than a creative exercise, that sort of thinking will throttle your creativity and is also likely to artificially restrict you into thinking there’s a “right” way to resolve a given challenge.

On the other hand, that’s a good self-diagnostic exercise to perform: Look at an obstacle you’ve created in your current scenario and think about all the way different ways that someone could overcome or avoid or subvert that obstacle.

For example: Duke Leonardo has ordered the arrest of the PCs for a murder they didn’t commit. The obvious solution is a Movement challenge with the PCs trying to evade the guards or escape the city. But the PCs could also resolve it as a Persuade challenge (bribing guards or even convincing the Duke of their innocence). Or as a Discovery challenge (where they discover the true identity of the killer).

(Which isn’t to say that every challenge needs to be designed with liberal solutions in mind. Sometimes a trap is just a trap… unless, of course, the PCs find the architect who built the dungeon and convince him to give them the construction blueprints.)

John Rogers (the creator of Leverage and author of a bunch of a nifty stuff) wrote a really great essay on “3-Point Plotting” over at Thrillbent. I recommend checking out the whole thing, but I also want to pull out a couple of concepts from it and talk about them in the context of roleplaying games.

I’ve said in the past that you Don’t Prep Plots when you’re game mastering, but a lot of what Rogers talking about is still applicable. His basic conceit is that the plot of any given story consists of three points: DISRUPTION, REVERSAL, and CONCLUSION. (By “plot” he’s specifically talking about the causal chain of events that make up the narrative.)

Let’s start with the DISRUPTION:

THE DISRUPTION is readily apparent in episodic structure. It’s the inciting incident, the problem, the change which the characters in the show MUST deal with. (…) “Some problems can wait twenty minutes. Sometimes you gotta solve a problem in the next five minutes or unpleasantness shall occur. And sometimes there’s a guy in the room with a fuckin’ knife. Deal with the guy with the fuckin’ knife, and move on from there.”

The Disruption, ideally, is the guy in the room with the fuckin’ knife. Now, it’s not necessarily that. As you move the intensity of the Disruption back in the timeline, the tone of the piece changes. “Guy in the room with a knife” gives you danger, pulp plotting. A “five minutes from now” problem gives you urgency, but control. Part of the fun is in watching the ad hoc planning your characters throw together to deal with the “five minutes from now” problem. Competence porn lives in the world of the “five minutes from now” problem.  A “twenty minutes from now” problem gives you dread.

In general terms, the DISRUPTION is the scenario hook. And if we’re talking in terms of the Art of Pacing, it’s also the Bang that you use to launch a scene. (Rogers is primarily talking about the plotting of serialized drama, but a lot of the stuff he’s talking about can also be seen fractally throughout a narrative.)

I find that conceptual distinction between knife problem/five minute problem/twenty minute problem in the second paragraph very useful (particularly when it comes to the emotional implication of each type of disruption). A lot of GMs (including myself) find it easy to fall into a rut with the way we handle our disruptions: If the PCs are exploring a dungeon, every disruption takes the form of a “knife problem” (i.e., the goblins jump out and attack the players.) But given the exact same goblins, you can also frame that in terms of a “five minute problem” (i.e., you can hear a large group of goblins coming towards you from the west, what do you do?) or a “twenty minute problem” (i.e., the ogre told you there was a large encampment of goblins on the second level of the dungeon).

Similarly, if you’re running a Shadowrun campaign and every scenario starts with Mr. Johnson calling one of the PCs and asking them for a meeting, see what happens if you start the next scenario by having Mr. Johnson come jumping through the window of the PC’s apartment with a bullet in his shoulder and assassins on his tail! (In other words, reframe your twenty minute problem as a knife problem.)

Next up:

THE REVERSAL is best described by my friend DJ McCarthey: “It’s the moment, when the movie … becomes an entirely different movie.” Too many scripts I’m submitted have a bunch of mini-reversals, the dreaded “and then” syndrome. Stuff happens, and then other stuff happens … Even in a well-plotted story when all the plot developments occur primarily because of the actions of the characters or logical but unexpected complications of the setting (the much loved SOUTH PARK creators advice “replace all moments in the outline  of ‘and then’ with ‘therefore’ or ‘but’) the story feels flat.

It’s a subtle distinction, but a good central reversal — and the middle of the story is the right place for it — always seems to elevate even a straight-ahead episodic-style story.

Because the GM isn’t in control of how a scenario actually plays out, REVERSALS can be a lot more difficult to pull off in roleplaying games than in other mediums. However, I would point out that the lack of control can actually make for some really fantastic reversals as long as the GM remains open to them: Allow the actions of the PCs to radically reframe events.

For example, in my Ptolus campaign there was a scenario I introduced where the order of knights that one of the PCs belonged to was experiencing a religious schism. I had the leaders of both factions send messages to the PC urging them to meet with them ASAP to discuss the schism. The intended scenario was that the PC knight would choose which of the factions he wanted to join. The PC, however, decided that one of the messages had to be a honeytrap: His loyalty was being tested. So he responded by reporting the message to the leader of the other faction. FIRST REVERSAL: This is now a story about the PC accidentally betraying their friend. This was followed shortly thereafter by the SECOND REVERSAL when the PC discovered their mistake and was now faced with the need to somehow warn and save their friend.

(Simpler example: You think is the story of Noble Hero A. But then Noble Hero A is arrested and, instead of being rescued or staging a daring escape, he’s summarily executed by the Evil Overlord. What the fuck? Of course, this sort of thing happens all the time when you’re determining the outcome of combat randomly and don’t give your PCs or NPCs script immunity.)

The other thing to keep in mind about REVERSALS is that they’re frequently based on incomplete or inaccurate information: You think one thing is happening and then the story suddenly reveals that the reality is something completely different. A lot of GMs make the mistake of having the official or unofficial mission briefing for the current scenario accurately report exactly what the scenario is going to be.

For example, the scenario the GM wants to run is a ruined castle full of soul-sucking undead. So he has the local villagers tell the PCs: “Hey, there’s a castle full of soul-sucking undead.” Nothing wrong with that, of course, but the GM could very easily stage the scenario for a major reversal by simply making the villager mistaken: “There’s something weird going on up at the old castle ruins. We think another band of gutter goblins have moved in there.” That way, when it turns out to be soul-sucking undead, the PCs will be totally surprised.

(An example of this that always sticks out in my memory: John Givler, who used to frequent the AD&D FidoNet Echo, once ran an adventure featuring an albino red dragon. The players, who heard reports of a “white dragon”, bought supplies to protect themselves from cold. “Imagine the looks on their faces when it breathed fire.”)

And finally:

… THE CONCLUSION. The end. The new status quo. Not the return of the status quo, but the new one. Whatever new equilibrium has been reached. “Equilibrium” because it’s a situation, in serialized storytelling, which should be able to be easily disrupted. The status quo is always a delicately balanced thing, little stepping stones of resolution as you leap across the river of your season-long Stories.

Effective conclusions can be one of the hardest things for a GM to pull off when they leave the broken training wheels of railroading behind them. But a lot of RPGs are essentially serial storytelling and, as a result, Rogers’ advice regarding conclusions is particularly useful: When the status quo or equilibrium returns, try to focus the group’s attention on how the events they’ve just experienced have altered that status quo. (This change can be either internal or external in relation to the characters or the group.)

You can emphasize this alteration by using it to frame the next Agenda that will disrupt the equilibrium and drive the action forward.

 

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