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Neuromancer - William GibsonA cyberpunk character concept I would dearly love to play some day is that of the uber-competent hacker: Case from Neuromancer. Batman’s Oracle. Edward from Cowboy Bebop. Boris Grishenko from GoldenEye. Luther Stickell from the Mission Impossible movies. Half the main characters from Ghost in the Shell.

In my ideal version of the character, I’m the guy who stays in the van three out of five times, providing overwatch and support for my teammates while they mount their raid.

So why haven’t I played this character?

Because what I’ve discovered is that a surprisingly vast number of GMs seem to consider the entire concept of using hacking to solve a problem to be some sort of anathema. So even when I’ve tried to play the character concept, I’ve ended up not actually being able to play the concept.

  • Hack the security cameras to scope out the interior of the building you’re raiding? Can’t do it.
  • Hack the security guard’s cellphone to track her movement? Impossible!
  • Play R2-D2 in a Star Wars game and hack an electronic lock? No way. Pull out your lockpicks!
  • Hack the rigging ports on the pursuit car to seize control of it? Obviously no one would want you to remotely seize control of a vehicle, so they would build a perfect security system that was completely unhackable, and therefore you can’t hack it.

(That last rationalization seems to crop up a lot. It’s like saying that obviously no one would want you to poke them with a sword; ergo it’s impossible to hit someone who’s wearing full plate.)

Quibble here and there with the plausibility of some of these scenarios in particular settings, but I’ve seen this behavior even in settings and games which include mechanics for handling these specific types of hacks! What I’m talking about is a systemic pattern of behavior in which the hacker basically can’t do their thing. It’s the equivalent of finding an antimagic field everywhere you go in a D&D game, except that I’ve found it to be a peculiarly ubiquitous attitude.

Of course, flat out denial isn’t the only way this manifests: Setting disproportionately high difficulty numbers or using roll to failure techniques are probably the most common versions, actually.

I’ve found this particularly pernicious in many convention scenarios: The designers of the game want to show off its breadth, so they include a hacker archetype pregen. But the volunteer GM running the scenario subscribes to the doctrine of Thou Shalt Not Hack, so the pregen is a trap and the person picking it finds themselves sidelined for four hours.

The worst case scenario is, sadly, one of my favorite games: Eclipse Phase. Wanting to show off everything that’s possible in this cool, kitchen sink transhuman setting, the designers regularly include an infomorph pregen: A character without a body who exists only as a digital construct and can only take actions through the Mesh network.

Combine that with a GM who doesn’t allow any meaningful action to take place through the Mesh network (which I’ve seen happen either first- or second-hand in no less than four convention scenarios) and you have a character who literally can’t do anything.

Many of these GMs don’t seem to be consciously aware of what they’re doing, so you’ll even find them saying things during character creation like, “Who wants to be hacker?” I used to hear that and think, “Okay! This guy is going to actually let me hack!” But, oddly, no. They recognize on a conscious level that a team of cyberpunk characters is supposed to have a hacker, but when it comes to actual play the hacker nevertheless finds themselves stymied at every turn.

EMBRACING THE HACK

Infinity the Roleplaying Game

I suspect part of the problem here is that a lot of GMs reflexively cling to the modes of play they learned running D&D dungeon crawls. Their expectation for how a facility raid is supposed to play out features people physically sneaking around and getting ambushed by security guards, and the hacker’s attempt to grab the security cameras disrupts that expectation. Their vision of the game world (inaccurately) doesn’t include hacking, so the hacker’s solution to any given problem comes out of left field, and the GM reflexively shuts it down.

This is, obviously, a form of railroading: A preconceived idea of not just how a specific problem is meant to be solved, but a broad preconception of how entire classes of problems are supposed to be solved.

So the solution to this problem is relatively simple: Don’t do that.

Conversely, however, hacking shouldn’t be a magic button that can trivially solve all problems. When that happens, it creates a spotlight problem where the hacker upstages every other character and flattens the challenges presented by the scenario.

To counteract this problem, there are a couple things the GM should do. First, check the potential consequences a hacker faces: They should be comparable to those faced by other types of action. (Just as the hacker should not find it impossible to hack an automated car; the hacker themselves should not benefit from a foolproof firewall.) Second, check your vectors: Make sure that “solving” the scenario requires a multi-step resolution and, importantly, make sure that hacking can’t be used to trivially solve all the vectors.

The most obvious example of this is, “I can’t hack that system until you plug in my remote router!” But it can become an easy trap to always design scenarios in which the team does a bunch of stuff and “unlocks” the hacker so that the hacker can then win the day. Look at ways in which hacks are invaluable at the beginning and in the middle of scenarios.

Also remember that you don’t always need to lock these things in: Players hot-swapping in vectors you’d never thought of to solve their problems is what makes the game fun. Generally speaking, the rest of the group will find ways to advocate for plans which feature the strengths of their own characters if you give them the chance. You can encourage that by creating scenarios which require multiple problems to be resolved simultaneously. Also experiment with using hard scene framing techniques to move the action “onsite”, which will discourage the players from lingering in remote “planning” sequences where the hacker (and only the hacker) is capable of taking direction action.

Infinity the Roleplaying Game

Mist Shrouded Road

A couple rules of thumb I use for crafting evocative descriptions as a GM:

THREE OF FIVE: Think about your five senses. Try to include three of them in each description. Sight is a gimme and a Taste will rarely apply, so that means picking a couple out of Hearing, Smell, and Touch. Remember that you don’t actually have to touch something in order to intuit what it might feel like if you did. Touch can also include things like wind and temperature.

TWO COOL DETAILS: Try to include two irrelevant-but-cool details. These are details that aren’t necessary for the encounter/room to function, but are still cool. It’s the broken cuckoo clock in the corner; the slightly noxious odor with no identifiable source; the graffiti scrawled on the wall; the bio-luminescent fungus; etc.

THREE-BY-THREE: Delta’s 1-2-(3)-Infinity talks about psychological research demonstrating that repeating something three times takes up the same space in our brains as repeating something infinitely. Thus, once you’ve hit the third item in a sequence, any additional items in that sequence are redundant.

Extrapolating from this, for minor scenes you can describe three things each with a single detail. At that point, you’ve filled up the “infinity queue” in your players’ brains and their imaginations, predicting the pattern, will impulsively fill in the finer details of the scene you’ve evoked. For “epic” descriptions, use the full three-by-three: Describe three different elements with three details each.

KEEP IT PITHY: On a similar note, lengthy descriptions are not how you achieve immersion. What you want are a handful of evocative images that the players can perform an act of closure upon to realize the scene in their own minds. This not only prevents them from “tuning out” a long description, the act of closure itself will draw them into and immerse them in the game world — they become, as Scott McCloud described under different circumstances in Understanding Comics, silent partners in the creation of the world, and thus become both invested in it and captured by it.

Understanding Comics - Scott McCloud

DESCRIPTION DOESN’T END: The legacy of boxed text indoctrinates a lot of GMs with the idea that you describe the environment up front and then, from that point forward, the players are just taking actions within the pre-established environment. But that’s an artificial dynamic. Instead, details of the setting can continue flowing through the description of that action: The crunch of broken glass beneath their feet as they move across the room. The coppery smell of blood as they draw near the corpse. The sudden chill from the wind whipping in through the shattered window.

Like most rules of thumb, of course, none of these should be treated like straitjackets.

This is an updated and expanded version of a tip that originally appeared in 2011.

Call of Cthulhu (5th Edition Revised) - System Cheat Sheet

(click here for PDF)

Although this cheat sheet has been specifically designed for the Revised 5th Edition of Call of Cthulhu (because that is the version which I use), it should serve just as well with the original 5th Edition and 6th Edition because the changes between those editions are essentially inconsequential. (The only reason I don’t use 6th Edition is because (a) I already own 5th Edition, (b) I like the cover painting for the revised 5th Edition better, and (c) I find the 6th Edition rulebook virtually illegible because of the fonts used.) It can also probably be used nigh-seamlessly with 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Editions, as the mechanical changes from those editions to 5th Edition are limited, if I recall correctly, to a very minor revision of the skill list and some changes to character creation mechanics (which don’t affect these cheat sheets). The change from 1st Edition (which I do not own) to 2nd Edition reputedly includes a rather major change to the magic system, so this cheat sheet will probably be of less worth to anyone still running a 1st Edition campaign.

It is quite likely that I will end up producing a version of this cheat sheet for 7th Edition (which contains a greater number of mechanical changes), especially as I have recently won a complete set of the 7th Edition rulebooks as a prize for a Novus Ordo Seclorum advancement event at Gen Con this year. However, I believe that this cheat sheet will nevertheless have an enduring value because I know that here are a great number of Keepers who are continuing their pre-7th Edition campaigns with no intention of shifting to the new edition.

If you’re not familiar with these system cheat sheets, you should know that the goal is to summarize all the rules of the game – from basic resolution to the spot rules for actions, combat, firearms, injury, and the like. It’s a great way to get a grip on a new system, introducing new players to the game, and providing a long-term resource for both GM and players. (For more information on the methods I use for prepping these sheets, click here.)

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED

These cheat sheets are not designed to be a quick start packet: They’re designed to be a comprehensive reference for someone who has read the rulebook and will probably prove woefully inadequate if you try to learn the game from them. (On the other hand, they can definitely assist experienced players who are teaching the game to new players.)

The cheat sheets also don’t include what I refer to as “character option chunks” (for reasons discussed here). In other words, you won’t find the rules for character creation here.

HOW I USE THEM

I generally keep a copy of my system cheat sheets behind my GM screen for quick reference and I also place a half dozen copies in the center of the table for the players to grab as needed. The information included is meant to be as comprehensive as possible; although rulebooks are also available, my goal is to minimize the amount of time people spend referencing the rulebook: Finding something in 6 pages of cheat sheet is a much faster process than paging through a 400 page rulebook. And, once you’ve found it, processing the streamlined information on the cheat sheet will (hopefully) also be quicker.

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 – Basic Mechanics: Because Call of Cthulhu is, at its heart, a pretty simplistic game (roll percentile dice and compare to a skill), this core reference sheet also includes the basic mechanics for Combat (including Injury).

Page 2 – Spot Rules for Combat: I find that a lot of Call of Cthulhu Keepers and players tend to forget that the system actually does have quite a few advanced options (which it refers to as spot rules, such as Spot Rules for Firearms). There’s a lot more gritty mechanical options that can be leveraged than you might realize if you’ve primarily experienced the game at the fairly ubiquitous tables which use a more casual approach to things.

Page 3 – Spot Rules for Skills: All the niggling little guidelines hidden away in the skill chapter are pulled out here for quick reference.

Page 4 – Sanity Rules: I find it interesting that these are always referred to as Sanity mechanics when it would seem more appropriate to refer to them as the Insanity mechanics.

Page 5 – Mythos Tomes and Magic: Pretty much what it says on the tin.

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).

I usually 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. In this case, however, I have not actually used these cheat sheets in conjunction with a GM screen (as the sessions I’ve been running have been conducive to a more intimate space), so I’ve only used the stapled packets. However, I’d recommend placing the Spot Rules for Skills behind the Spot Rules for Combat, as I feel they’re the rules least likely to be used frequently and also least likely to benefit from being taken in at a glance.

Call of Cthulhu (5.6 Edition)

The Strange: Strange Revelations - Bruce R. CordellA couple years ago I reviewed Weird Discoveries, a collection of ten “Instant Adventures” for Numenera using an innovative scenario format featuring:

  • Two page description of the scenario’s background and initial hook.
  • Two page spread that has “everything you need to run the adventure”.
  • Two pages of additional details that can be used to flesh out the scenario.

The general idea being that the GM will be able to pick up one of these scenarios, rapidly familiarize themselves with it, and be able to run it with confidence in roughly the same amount of time that it takes for the players to familiarize themselves with some pregenerated characters (which are also included in the book). Basically, you lower the threshold for spending the evening playing an RPG to that of a board game: You can propose it off-the-cuff and be playing it 15 minutes later. And since I’ve been preaching the virtues of open tables and the importance of getting RPGs back to memetically viral and easily shared experience they were in the early days of D&D, that’s obviously right up my alley.

Last year, Monte Cook Games released Strange Revelations, which basically took the exact same concept and applied it to The Strange, their other major game line. I did not immediately read through it because, at the time, there was a plan in place for me to actually play in a campaign where the GM was going to use these scenarios. Those plans fell through, unfortunately, but now I’m in a position where I’m running a campaign of The Strange and I’m naturally tapping Strange Revelations as a resource for scenarios.

INSTANT ADVENTURES: THE VERDICT

Since 2015, I’ve actually spent a considerable amount of time interacting with MCG’s Instant Adventure format under a variety of use-types: Using them as one-shots, incorporating them into ongoing campaigns, running them at conventions, using them with and without prep, etc.

Unfortunately, the more time I spend with them, the less I like them.

Part of the problem, I think, is that the basic structure of the format is a limitation: It only really works with certain kinds of adventures. Unfortunately, it’s become a one-size-fits-all format for Monte Cook Games, and so they end up trying to cram every type of adventure into the format. (This is something I talk about in the Art of the Key: When you become a slave to your format instead of using the format and structure that’s appropriate for the specific content you’re creating it never ends well.)

There also seem to be some systemic problems with the specific execution of the format. These prominently include:

Keys. As discussed at length in my original review of Weird Discoveries, the Instant Adventure format uses Keys to highlight essential elements for the scenario — either some crucial item or clue without which the scenario cannot be resolved. But rather than simply include these Keys in the scenario, they are optionally coded into different scenes or locations using an icon which refers back to a table on a different page that describes what the Keys are.

The most immediate problem is that by putting literally the most crucial information on a different page, MCG fundamentally sabotages the entire concept of the central two page spread being the only thing you need to look at during play.

But the more insidious problem, as I’ve discovered, is that good scenario design is not in the generic; it is in the specific. Figuring out how information flows to the players during a mystery, for example, is a key difference between a good mystery scenario and a mediocre one. By genericizing the core elements of the scenario, the Instant Adventures format lends itself to mushy, generic scenarios that are, as a result, largely forgettable.

Bad Cartography: Inexplicably, many of the two-page spreads consist of sketchy, vague maps that have keyed content “associated” with them by having arrows pointing at semi-random locations on them. Strange Revelations is slightly better in this regard than Weird Discoveries, but it’s still frequently problematic. For example, here’s the map from one adventure paired with the graphical handout depicting what it’s supposedly mapping:

The Strange: Strange Revelations - Alien Spaceship Map

Confusing Graphical Handouts: This ties into another problem with the book. It includes 10 pages of pictorial handouts — referred to as “Show ‘Ems” — that are designed for the GM to hand to the players. I absolutely love pictorial handouts. The problem is that I would classify the majority of these as being functionally unusable. They do things like:

  • Depict things which don’t match the text of the adventure (like the spaceship above).
  • Include random characters who don’t appear in the text of the adventure. (Are they meant to be the PCs?)
  • Spoil surprises. (For example, there’s one scenario where the PCs are supposed to get attacked by bad guys after arriving onsite… except the Show ‘Em depicting the site shows the bad guys standing there waiting for the PCs. I ended up photoshopping them out in order to use the picture.)

To be fair, many of these problems have afflicted pictorial handouts since The Tomb of Horrors first pioneered the form. But I nevertheless remain disappointed every time I see these get fumbled (partly because I always get so excited at the prospect of it being done right).

GM Intrusion Misuse: For some reason, MCG’s Instant Adventures frequently describe scenario-crucial event as “GM Intrusions”. (Possibly because the format doesn’t include any other way to key this content in some cases?) The problem is that, in the Cypher System, players can use XP to negate GM Intrusions. (See The Art of GM Instrusions.) So what these scenarios basically end up saying is, “Offer your players the opportunity to spend 1 XP to NOT receive the clue they need to solve the mystery.”

Too Short: Probably the most significant problem, however, is when the struggle to cram material into the two page spread causes a scenario to come up short. Literally. There are simply too many examples of Instant Adventures that are supposed to fill an evening of gaming or a 4 hour convention slot which consist of only 3-4 brief scenes. For example, there’s a scenario in Strange Revelations which consists of:

  • Seeing a wall with a symbol spray-painted on it.
  • Talking to an NPC.
  • Talking to a second NPC.
  • Being ambushed by a single NPC.
  • A final fight vs. a single NPC.

Maybe your mileage varies. But for me, that might fill a couple hours of game play.

WHY YOU MIGHT STILL BUY IT

… if you’re a big fan of The Strange.

I’m not sure whether Strange Revelations suffers more regularly from these systemic failures than the scenarios in Weird Discoveries, or if I’ve just gotten more sensitive to these problems as a result of running face-first into them so many times. If it’s the former, I suspect it’s because Strange Revelations is so often struggling to force material that’s not really appropriate for the format into the format. Cordell does some very clever things trying to make the format work, but it’s clear that he’s got some really cool ideas for scenarios that are just being hamstrung by the necessity of making them work (or sort-of work) as Instant Adventures.

And it’s that “cool idea” factor that is why, ultimately, I found value in this book and suspect that you might find value, too: Above all else, Strange Revelations gives you 10 separate scenarios for $24.99 (or $10 in PDF). At as little as $1 per scenario, it can have a lot of rough edges and still be worth the effort sanding down the edges. At the moment it looks as if, with near certainty, I’ll be using at least 8-9 of these scenarios at my gaming table (with various amounts of tender loving care), and in my experience that’s a pretty good hit rate for a scenario anthology.

It’s just incredibly frustrating to see an idea with so much potential greatness as the Instant Adventures so consistently come up just short of achieving that greatness. It’s also frustrating to see that MCG has apparently decided to produce ALL of its scenario content in the form of Instant Adventures, which severely limits the scope of the scenario support they’re capable of offering for some absolutely fantastic games.

Bottom line for me: If Bruce R. Cordell offered another collection of 10 scenarios for The Strange, I would scarcely hesitate before dropping $10 on them.

Style: 4
Substance: 3

Author: Bruce R. Cordell
Publisher: Monte Cook Games
Print Cost: $24.99
PDF Cost: $9.99
Page Count: 96
ISBN: 978-1939979439

The Strange - Bruce R. Cordell

In Bruce R. Cordell’s The Strange, Earth is surrounded by a miasma of dark energy which, according to the best guess of Carter Morrison (who most prominently discovered it), is the broken remnant of an ancient interstellar transportation network created by some vast alien civilization. In its current state, the dark energy network — which Morrison dubbed the Strange and others refer to as the Chaosphere — is drawn to sentient life. Where there are large concentrations of sentient life (like, say, a planet with 7 billion people living on it), the dark matter clumps thickly.

Once gathered in sufficient quantity, the Strange will begin to manifest “recursions” or “limited worlds”. (Whether this was an original, intended function of the dark energy network or an emergent property of its current state is unclear.) Each recursion is a tiny universe, operating according to its own rules of reality. They are something like a computer simulation, but it appears that the data network of the Strange actually manifests them as a physical reality. Most recursions are “seeded” through a process referred to as “fictional leakage”: The Strange manifests the collective subconscious of humanity as physical realities within its matrix. This means that, within the recursions clustered around Earth, you can find worlds based on historical mythology, pop culture, conspiracy theories, television shows, massive multiplayer online roleplaying games, and basically any other memetic clustering of ideas.

FICTIONAL LINKAGE

Not to be confused with fictional leakage is the concept of fictional linkage. Fictional linkage occurs when the Strange’s manifestation of the collective subconscious causes multiple recursions to spontaneously interact with each other.

Perhaps the most basic (and common) form of fictional linkage is the crossover. For example, there is known to be at least one recursion based on the Marvel superheroes and several recursions based on the DC superheroes. It is not unusual at all for inapposite gates to manifest as part of the recursive reality in those limited worlds, linking them together and allowing for crossover team-up scenarios to play out.

JLA/Avengers - Kurt Busiek, George Perez

A slightly more unusual form of fictional linkage is the visitation. Take, for example, the recursion of the USS Enterprise. This recursion is actually limited almost entirely to the ship itself. (In fact, its internal architecture is, as a result of non-Euclidean geometry, mostly dominated by the major sets that were built for the TV show.) The rules of the recursion frequently generate planets for the ship to “stop” at, but in some cases the ship is actually reaching planets through fictional linkage — it arrives in “orbit” around a science fiction planet that’s actually a separate recursion.

The Enterprise is also a good example of context collision, which occurs when fictional linkage results in one or both recursions involved in the linkage having its reality shifted to Sherlock Holmes - Leonard Nimoybecome consistent with the context of the other. For example, the Enterprise might appear in “orbit” above the 221B Baker Street recursion (see pg. 253 of The Strange). For the duration of the linkage, 221B Baker Street would “become” an alien planet where the natives worship the Holy Books of Doyle. (One of them Arthur Conan, the other a book of card game rules.)

That particular context collision is likely to occur with the Enterprise because that sort of thing is part of the fictional consciousness of Star Trek (see “Piece of the Action”). But you would be unlikely to see a Star Destroyer from Star Wars appear in orbit around 221B Baker Street, because that’s not the sort of thing that happens in Star Wars. (On the other hand, you might see a pair of Jedi show up on the relatively new recursion of Pandora because that world is potentially more consistent with Star Wars-derived recursions.)

LINKAGE FALLOUT

For the residents of a recursion, a fictional linkage is often unremarkable: The inapposite gate that allows Spider-Man and Superman to meet is contextualized within the reality of their existence.

Context collisions, on the other hand, can often trigger sparks (granting full sentience and consciousness to a recursion’s resident as their worlds no longer make sense and they aren’t sure why, but are compelled to figure it out) and even quicken existing sparks.

In some cases, fictional linkages become permanent realignments with the two formerly separate recursions becoming a single recursion. The Estate has noticed that this is most common among “micro-melange” recursions; i.e., smaller recursions that are based around a melange of fictional tropes and beliefs on Earth (as opposed to mimicking a specific piece of fiction or mythology). One theory is that some of the larger “mature melange” recursions (those which have grown to become complete worlds as opposed to smaller “shard” recursions which only contain a single city or region) are actually the accretion of multiple micro-recursions which have become joined through fictional linkage.

The Strange - Monte Cook Games

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