Archive for the ‘Cosmic Patrol’ Tag

Dandar Dexdrer, I Dresume?   1 comment

Can’t remember as much of it as I’d like, but I wanted to share this dream o’ mine.

I was looking for someone.  Dexdrer was his last name, eventually, but I can’t remember anything about the first name except it starter with D (Dander, as mentioned in the title, is as close to it as I remember.  I went to brush my teeth saying the name to myself so I wouldn’t forget it, but stopped saying it to myself somewhere along the way, so now I can’t recall.)  This person used to be in a military unit, and I was scouring over an old military base that, in dream fashion, had an interior comprised of some places I know (or reminiscent of them enough for a dream’s production values) in real life.  I had some people helping me to look for them, but rarely saw anyone else.

Everything around the base was grey and washed out, taking on the appearance of winter even though it wasn’t covered with snow.  Like, snow-covered greyness, but without the snow to justify it.  The clouds were grey enough, though, so maybe it was just overcast.  It was flat enough that I think it was in some sort of desert.

Here’s the odd part: I started playing two roles in the dream, one as an actor and one as an observer.  I knew in my head that members of this military unit secretly developed the ability to fly.  The “title” of the dream suggested that to me, though I couldn’t tell ya what the title was right now.  And then i found a long, black-feather in the dream that really puzzled actor me but seemed a little too obvious of a clue to observer me.  There was a room dedicated to a member of the military unit, with a little plaque set up saying that the room was dedicated to them.  It was suggested to observer me that this person was very overweight and that somehow this might have prevented him from flying with the rest of the group, or at least not as well.

I should’ve mentioned by now that this military base wasn’t in the United States, it was in another country.  I keep wanting to say Tunisia in my head, but that doesn’t work.  If Canada had a Tunisian/New Mexican desert, I think it would almost fit everything I saw and/or felt about this place.  Chilly salt flats surrounded the base.  Maybe Utah would be a better comparison than New Mexico.

Anyway, I received word from another person looking for this Dexdrer fellow saying that he thought he’d almost found him, and then I knew I had to hurry.  I made it to where he was and saw the person we were looking for cornering the person who’d radioed me, and holding his fingers to his mouth like it was supposed to be a secret.  Then he looked really annoyed that I’d found them and dropped the whole “cornering the person looking for him” thing.  I then said the line I put as the title, “Dandar(?) Dexdrer, I dresume?”  Then I apologized for messing up what I was saying, and said “presume” and things moved on.

(It’s worth noting that the two people here were people I know in real life.  Both people I mostly know from gaming, actually.  They definitely weren’t “themselves”, though, they were actors in the same sense that I wasn’t playing myself unless I was being the observer me.)

Then I followed the person I was looking for while he gruffly tried to ignore me or brush me off.  I kept accusing him of crimes that he could demonstrate weren’t actually crimes, like stealing his company’s… industrial vehicle? (sort of like a salt truck or something)… to get to the base, only to learn that he owned the vehicle anyway because the company was entirely paid for by him.  “Personal seed money” was close to a phrase he used.

Anyway… I woke up shortly after that.  In the dream, he hadn’t revealed that he could fly, that was still a revelation forthcoming from the narrative of the dream itself, even though I knew it was a thing.  I expected (I the observer, that is) for him to be calling all of his old army buddies out to take over/move into this abandoned military base so that they could… relive flying? I don’t know why they couldn’t just fly anywhere, but they were definitely going to try to recapture some element of the past, and the fact that they could secretly fly was probably involved.

I’m not entirely sure where this dream comes from.  The grey, washed-out aspect of the world outside might have come from my hatred of the ridiculous use of light in Zack Snyder’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice movie, and a conversation I had with a friend after the fact about lighting in movies.  The fact that the other two seen characters in the dream were “played” by friends in real life sorta reminded me of the games of Cosmic Patrol I’ve been playing lately, though only one of the two dream people is a real Cosmic Patrol player.

All in all, an interesting dream and I’d have liked to see how it turned out (isn’t that always the way?  Well, except for nightmares…), but all in all it wasn’t an “interesting” dream so much as it was a “weird” dream.


Magical Mondays: A Presence I’ve Not Felt Since…   Leave a comment

Vader Sensing A Presence

“You study the arcane symbols on the ground, careful not to enter the field of energy that’s caused the villagers to fall into their deep slumber. There’s something familiar about this magic. The handwriting that inscribed the runes may be different, but there’s no hiding the identity of one so foul, and so powerful…”

The modular approach to magic in most gaming systems is a wonderful thing, but it comes with certain concessions. Many standard fantasy tropes that have to do with magic fall by the wayside without any supporting rules. One of these tropes is the recognizability of magic from familiar casters. Often, magic of this sort is recognizable only if it relates to a particularly powerful or flavorful source, meaning that it can give the audience a taste of what might be coming. More importantly, it informs the audience about the history that a character has, even if it’s just “this person’s studied a lot.”

As a game master, if you make magic recognizable then there are many plot points and secrets that can become clear to your players. There are two basic approaches: magic from a person they’ve seen using magic before, and magic from a source that would be familiar to them. For the first of these approaches, recognizing magic would be similar to recognizing a person who’s disguised or recognizing familiar handwriting. For the latter of these approaches, it would tie in to what a character knows about magic, history, the occult, or certain magical creatures. The exact approaches would change based on the game you’re playing (a game of Mage: The Awakening handles this differently than Dungeons & Dragons which handles it differently from Cosmic Patrol, naturally) but understanding what you’re working with can inform your approach. Let’s look at some different kinds of recognizable magic.

The magic is innately tied to the caster. In this case, the magic is an extension of how a caster manipulates certain energies. Something like this would be most common in science fiction stories where psychic energies are a “scientifically acceptable magic” for most plot purposes. Darth Vader’s ability to feel the presence of Obi Wan Kenobi or Luke Skywalker in Star Wars is an example of this; their very presence affected the force enough for him to be aware. A game where magic comes from auras or other personal things could use this. A sorcerer in D&D’s third edition or a Mage from Mage: The Awakening is almost perfect. If you’re playing a Moon Man in Cosmic Patrol, you could probably also recognize the Dynamo Psychism of another Moon Man that you’re familiar with, if it comes up. This can be used to inform players that an old enemy, or perhaps an old friend, is again on the scene.

The magic is from a historically significant source. If there was an invasion of fairies from another realm or aliens from another world fifty years ago, someone who’s studied that period of recent history might be able to recognize technology or magic if these forces are starting to encroach into the world again. This is more or less what happened when Gandalf realized that the Dark Lord was returning, and that Bilbo’s old ring was more than it seemed to be. This can alert players to the presence of some ancient magic or technology, both as a warning about upcoming events and as a feature of discovered ruins on archaeological digs. This can give your players the chance to shout “I’ve discovered Atlantis!” or “The Mordothermitites are returning from the ninth dimension?! I’ve got to warn someone!”

The magic is related to a certain tradition or history. This is related to the one before, but it generally requires more specialized knowledge. It would be like Indiana Jones realizing what ancient treasure he’s looking for and which secret societies or fascist militaries will be trying to stop him. Of all the methods that would be best for your traditional tabletop RPG wizard to use, this is the best. Use this one to give your players a quick run-down of the history of what you’re about to face. “Did you see the color of the fire from that wand? You only get that if you use a certain form of manganese in the casting… they must be learning their magic from the Fire Giants of Mishkala! Careful, guys, those people train dangerous canines to guard their homes…”

The magic is intentionally stylized and practiced in certain ways. This is similar to Voldemort developing certain signs and symbols to be associated with himself, and flavoring many of the dark arts that he practices in those ways. Often, a mage choosing to stylize his or her magic in this way will become very used to it, almost always performing magic in that fashion much like how serial bombers come to prefer certain methods of triggering their bombs (based on my in-depth knowledge of serial bombing from the movie Speed.) This method sort of combines all the previous methods into one. Recognizing magic this way is easy, largely because the force at work is so dangerous and self-confident that it *wants* to be recognized.

In my games, I treat all magic as being related to the first of these approaches, with a likelihood of the second two, but that’s because magic is always a very personal thing in my game worlds. If you prefer thinking of magical spells as being identical… every casting of magic missile being the same as every other regardless of caster or origin… then using one of these approaches to make magic recognizable might not be for you. Or if you just want a flavor of this, you can use the commonality of magic to make recognizing it more of a challenge… instead of recognizing it on sight, you might have to make it a challenge akin to a ballistics investigation, trying to match a single bullet to the gun that fired it. In that case, identifying the source of magic can become impractical, but possibly very rewarding. In fact, I just had an idea for an adventure while I wrote that, hang on… okay, I’m back.

It’s also worth noting that these four methods I’m suggesting are broad categories, not meant to be restrictive and, in fact, may confuse things if you try to apply them too strictly.  For instance: a fortune teller being able to recognize someone afflicted with Lycanthropy is one of those instantly recognizable moments from literature.  They can see the signs, or they can sense the aura, or they’ve studied werewolves, or something… it almost doesn’t matter.  For that kind of thing, you might want to make a “passive spellcraft check” to see if a player’s spellcraft check, on a roll of ten, might be enough to recognize cursed individuals or everyday magic (assuming you want your players to have a caster who’s always spotting things like that.  If it’s just for NPCs, I recommend not even worrying about the check, unless what they’re recognizing is something that the players are actively trying to hide.)  In some ways, doing it this way almost obviates the need for Detect Magic as a spell in D&D and turns it into a semi-reliable knack that casters have (which I’m fine with, personally, but I can understand why that might rub some people the wrong way.)

Here’s a few methods you can use to identify the presence of magic depending on games that you play.

In most editions of D&D or Pathfinder, this would usually be covered by something like a Spot/Perception check if it’s related to personal experience or a Knowledge check relating to Arcana or History (or Religion or the Planes or whatever) if it’s based on specialized knowledge. In third edition, or Pathfinder, preface this with a Spellcraft check to represent your studies of the magical presence that you’re dealing with. In fifth edition if you’re basing this on a personal history with something, just make it the standard check, but give advantage to that check so that the players can roll twice. If the caster being recognized tries to disguise their casting in some way, Disguise is probably the best roll to use on their part.

In the Storyteller System (World of Darkness, Adventure!, Mage: The Awakening and the like) there are a lot of different ways to make this work, and it really depends on the story you’re telling (and which of the myriad WoD sub-games you’re playing). A Wits roll would usually be called for, along with an appropriate check relating to knowledge, the Occult, or something.

If you’re playing a game like Cosmic Patrol or Valiant, this is almost entirely a Brains roll. We run into an interesting feature if the caster tries to disguise their presence; in this case, it becomes a Contest instead of a regular check, so the person identifying would roll their Brains die along with a d12, while the caster would roll their casting stat die (probably their special die, but it could be anything really) and a d12. Alternatively, if the Narrator for that scene just wants to make it a situational thing or something where there’s no attempt at discretion, the opposing roll should just be a d20.

Ultimately, if this is something you want to use in your gaming sessions, there’s no telling how many chances your players will take to investigate this kind of thing, especially since you’ll be going against the path of least resistance for most assumptions about Vancian-style magic. If you want the players to be aware of things this way, feel free to give them some extra checks after they’ve investigated something, and let them know that it feels familiar, or give them some information on what history they’re aware of.

They might not notice the change. But if they do? Well, then they’ll feel a presence that they’ve not felt since… possibly ever.

Magical Mondays: Spooky Stuff!   Leave a comment

Skeleton Dance Skulls

It’s October, and that means it’s time to start preparing your Halloween one-shots!  Whether you put the linguistically accurate apostrophe between the Es, or dismiss it as unnecessary pedantry, or only make the decision based upon whether or not spellcheck puts that horrible red line under it, this is the month where GMs have the excuse to add some undead creatures, horrible spells, and villains out for PC blood to their games!

Wait a second…

The fact of the matter is that most adventurers in D&D games face Halloween-appropriate monsters all the time.  It almost doesn’t matter what game you play.  Sci-fi games have their bug-eyed aliens and cyborg terrors, fantasy games have their sinister cults and pacts made with dark forces, and World of Darkness probably has something that’d be holiday appropriate if you really, really, really looked hard enough.  It’s a common occurrence.

The one possible exception? Roleplaying games set in the “real world”, where your character isn’t too different from a standard person that you’d meet in real life.  Games like that tend to focus more on surprising situations and dramatic confrontations.  They can be intensely interesting, even without supernatural elements (I’ve seen a few wonderful sessions of the game Adventure! that would fall into this category, and while I’ve heard that the game Fiasco can get supernatural I’ve never actually seen it myself.)  The thing is, though, real life has it’s own share of monsters, and the most common “real world” monster that would be appropriate would be the slasher killer.  I’m not a fan of the genre myself, but Jason Voorhees from Friday The 13th and Mike Myers from Halloween have both left a solid impression on the horror movie marketplace.

Wayne's World Party On

That’s… that’s the wrong Mike Myers.  That’s… actually, never mind.

Anyway, you might not want to go full-on slasher movie for a villain, and just adding pumpkins to your vampire lair might not be enough.  If you really want to create a Halloween one-shot and make it something other than a silly break from the norm (not that there’s anything wrong with silliness while celebrating a holiday, mind you) then you may want to step up your game.  It’s time to stop putting encounters together, and start telling a story and creating characters.  How do you do that, though?  I’ve got two ideas.

Rain Slick Precipice Of Darkness

1) A Versatile Vocabulary

Note that I’m not saying “Big Vocabulary.”  I’m sure you know all kinds of really nice words, and that’s great.  Your players probably know them, too!  That’s the fun thing about spoken languages: thanks to context clues, if you assume that your players are native speakers (or even fluent speakers) they can probably figure out what any given word means based on context cues alone.  And piling on more words doesn’t help; the monstrous, slavering, quivering fangbeast of doom is probably less scary than the slavering fangbeast.  And please, please avoid telling your players what emotions their characters are experiencing; there’s a time to do that, but it’s an incredibly rare thing.  What I’m telling you to do here is to learn how to make your descriptions do more than one thing.

The podcast Writing Excuses once did an episode on making descriptions do more than one thing, and I recommend listening to it (it’s less than twenty minutes long, you’ve got the time.)  The podcast as a whole has some great advice, and insightful comments, on how to use descriptions in ways that evoke emotions.  Dan Wells (author of a number of horror books such as I Am Not A Serial Killer, among other things) points out that in horror, a lot of the descriptions use words that impart an “environmental” effect on the characters.  Is the hallway narrow, or is it restraining?  Is the ooze on the ground slippery, or does it make a player’s feet stick on the ground for just a moment with every step?  Does the melting snow going down the back of your shirt slide down, or does it slither down?  You don’t want to overdo this, but seasoning your talk with these sorts of descriptions will make the environment feel like its reaching out to grab your players.

I used an image from Penny Arcade’s video game series up above, a game called On The Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness.  It’s a comedy game, and mostly an adventure story, but one of the surprises about it is that it’s actually a really well done Lovecraftian horror story.  You laugh while you play, fighting your way through hobos and mimes, but the descriptions used in a lot of the story’s locations manage to evoke great emotions.  I need to put a content warning on it for strong language and stronger violence (I’ve got all the overkills on all the characters on Insane mode in episodes one and two, there’s some definite violence there), but if you’re looking at a good example of how to use horrifying words, this is a prime candidate.  (Plus, the game is very silly, so it’s a good model for a one-shot adventure that can be a scary while also being good fun.)

Adding this to the magical effects of the game can be useful if you want to make one magician’s magic seem different than another’s.  Saying that a potent spell’s energy feels like it’s clinging to character’s clothing can make it seem menacing, as if there’s an additive effect to the magic (whether there is or not.)  If the players approach a haunted idol or psychic prisoner, they might feel like they’re stepping “through” something as they get closer to their target, as if stepping through ever-denser waves of ambient power in the air.  This kind of description needs no mechanical effect in your game… it truly is flavor text.  You’re flavoring things with the text.  The important thing is that the players feel like this is different (and through the magic of imagination, it *is* different.)

Amnesia Alexander of Brennenburg

2) Evocative Enemies

When you make your enemies, avoid calling them by a specific monster name even if they’re unquestionably that kind of monster.  Basically, figure out what makes this enemy monstrous before you even introduce them to the story.  A true monster is a plague on its location, not just a creature that the locals don’t like.  I use the image of Baron Alexander of Brennenburg from Amnesia: The Dark Descent because that game pulls off a clever trick with him: they make him a vampire.

Now, the game never calls him a vampire.  He’s also never warded off by crosses or garlic or rushing water, and he’s not able to turn into a bat or wolf or swarm of insects.  Instead, he seems to merely be a being who comes from… elsewhere.  He’s also lived a long life.  How does he do this? Well, he extracts a substance from the blood of his victims and alchemically uses it to prolong his life.  Oh, and he teaches a person on the verge of insanity how to do his dirty work, and might be able to create monsters (monsters who used to be people and might regret their current state of life.)

Seriously, try to tell me that this guy’s not a vampire.

The thing is, he’s never called “undead” and the phrase “vampire” is never used in conjunction with him.  Instead, the writers have him behave in a way that is definitely “vampiric”, literally and metaphorically draining the life of others to extend his own while transforming other people into lesser-monsters that do his bidding.  The game basically gives this person a suite of crimes in his history that bring to mind the horrors of vampirism without allowing the mental defenses that we as players have for the word “vampire.”

Another example, strangely enough, is almost the opposite: go watch The Mummy.  The one with Boris Karloff, not Brendan Fraser.  The Mummy in this film doesn’t really behave as a mummy might, at least not as we imagine mummies.  He’s not a slowly wandering zombie wrapped in rags.  Instead, he’s an intelligent, plotting mastermind who dresses like other people, learns English, and begins manipulating archaeologists in an effort to connect to his long-lost love.  In some ways, Boris Karloff manages to make The Mummy a frightening enemy by being so very human; like a vampire, he’s trying to steal another’s life, but he’s doing it to restore someone he loves, not to extend his own life.  His own life is, apparently, already well tended to.

The Karloff Gambit here is awesome, but I don’t recommend it for a one-shot.  That kind of build-up would likely take a few sessions to establish.  Still, if you’re okay with it being more than a one-shot and having your Halloween night stretch into November, the Karloff Gambit might well work out for you.

Mummy Ardeth Bey

Now that we’ve established my two concepts, don’t forget the most important one: have fun!  You’re not looking at all this dusty English-class info so that you can run a dull horror story.  Halloween is “about” a lot of things, but when people celebrate it they want to dress up and act a bit.  Your bad Transylvanian accent or maniacal cackle is primed to shine.  If you have to choose between imitating the Wicked Witch of the West and finding a good way to describe how the flickering torch-light is making the shadows reach across the floor toward the players… ignore the torches for now, and laugh like the crazy villain you are.  Say “Children of the Night” if you get the chance while playing a vampire.  Have your mad scientist monologue about how everything is being done in the name of SCIENCE!  Play it up, and make the characters wonder why the world doesn’t quite look this awesome every session.

And, hey, some pumpkin-spice flavored cookies and tootsie rolls handed out before, during, or after the session can help people to be in a good mood too.  That’s all for this week’s Magical Mondays!  I’ll try to have a more concrete example for the d20 enthusiasts next week.  Later!

Magical Mondays: I, Psy   2 comments

I psi, with my third eye,
Something… sentimental.
-Bill the Telepath?

For today’s Magical Mondays, we’ll be discussing psionics. The magic of psionics… if, in fact, psionics is magic at all… always works its way into a game system that allows magic if enough time passes. Players want it, game designers want to design it, and fans of lore can’t stop thinking about it. What is it that attracts us to this system? And more to the point, is it right for your game? This is a serious question, whether you’re just a player or a game master.

One of the key benefits to including psychics, telepaths and clairvoy…ants? Clairvoyers? Clairvoys… is the fact that you can justify it in a game world that has supernatural elements but seems to lack magic. If there are no witches or wizards, psychics fill the void easily. Like alchemy, there’s just enough of a touch of realism that lets players suspend their disbelief. And once disbelief is thoroughly suspended, you have a chance to wow your players.

In a game world that lacks magic, psychic powers can be justified through a number of ways that “aren’t magic” (heehee). In Cosmic Patrol, the Moon Men employ incredible feats of Dynamo Psychism through a combination of their highly developed brains (though this might have been modified by their Sufficiently Advanced Technology, a topic for another day.) The psychic powers of the Moon Men involve things like memory modifications, lifting objects (or other creatures, or even themselves) with their mind, or simply blasting other people’s thoughts with their own. The second of these is the unusual one; rather than using their mind to influence or measure another’s mind, it involves physically interacting with the world around them… but not by touching it. In this sense, psychic powers expand beyond material relating to the mind; as we can see in other games, the powers almost take the form of imagined effects translating into reality.

Psychic abilities outside of the spacefaring world of Cosmic Patrol, such as in superhero games like Aberrant, give a more down-to-Earth spin on the entire thing. Psychic powers in this case are (usually) the result of a mutation: something is simply different about this person. The way he or she thinks touches on the ability to manipulate one (or some or all) of the four basic forces of the universe. On the opposite end of the spectrum from idealistic superhero fantasy, a friend pointed out to me (shortly after suggesting this article, in fact) that the horror game Chill offered psychic powers to its players as the only form of magic for a while. Eventually, ritual magic existed as well, but psychic abilities were one of the only supernatural tools given to players instead of the otherworldly things that SAVE opposed.

D&D’s third edition used intellect and player level to determine a player’s brain power when they brought psychic abilities into the picture. Like a sorcerer, the player could learn a set number of powers and didn’t need to prepare them; instead, the player spent points to activate the known powers. It was effectively Vancian Magic in an intriguing new package; mechanically it wasn’t that different from arcane or divine magic, but the premise of using powers instead of practicing spells was appealing. Perhaps it was an inborn ability like the sorcerer’s, but the psion’s magic came not from the blood but from the mind. 4th Edition introduced power sources for each of the characters and demonstrated that The Monk was actually a psychic character, though possibly one built of concentration and training instead of a genetic mutation.

For the game designer or eager player who wants to buck tradition, a psychic character in a low-power game setting offers a lot of possibilities. Homebrew is tricky, but if the focus is on roleplaying instead of combat the following Five Minute Psychic might put you on the right track to finding something that works.

The Five Minute Psychic

1) Theme. It’s tempting to give your psychic “the whole package”, but that can be too powerful. Classic examples would include things like Telekinesis (moving or manipulating things with one’s mind), Telepathy (reading or manipulating the minds of others), and Pyrokinesis (creating or controlling fire with one’s mind). Feel free to create other options. Psychic control of the weather could be too powerful for some games but just right for others. Modeling an ability to control (or create?) water on Pyrokinesis offers some interesting options. A general knowledge of Telepathy could be swapped out for a more powerful amount of control over a specific emotion like love, anger, hatred, or euphoria with potentially terrifying results. And detecting the auras around people and objects to see what’s happened to them in the recent past (or will happen in the near future) is great for anyone who wants to be a psychic detective. Figure out what kind of psychic powers you’ll have and then run with them.

2) Power. What’s your limit? Consult with your Game Master to figure out how powerful you can be. If you’re playing D&D your power will be limited by your level (but then again, if you’re playing D&D you’ve got a number of psychic classes to choose from already and probably don’t need The Five Minute Psychic.) If you’re playing in a game of superheroics or something inspired by over-the-top Anime action, your powers might literally be Earth shattering (though that can end a game quickly). On the other hand, they might be barely sufficient to light a match (though remember that a match can do a lot of damage to a can of propane or gasoline.) In a Punk game (Steam or Cyber, specifically) your powers might be severely limited… but enhanceable by a mysterious invention of questionable origin or homemade mechanics. Your fortune telling ability might not amount to more than hunches about the near future for others… but your friend made this steam-powered Thinking Cap with material from the Atlantean ruins, and if you’re willing to risk second degree burns on your scalp you might be able to see into next month. When modelling your power, don’t think of it in terms of an upper limit alone; instead, figure it out based on something like D&D’s encumberance rules. How much can you do before you break a sweat or start getting headaches? When do the nosebleeds start? Are there abilities you can pull of theoretically but might put you into a coma? You might be able to tear down a building, but it could also make you forget the last year of your life.

3) Drawbacks. This is an ugly one, but for the terms of game balance you probably need to define some. In D&D’s third edition, once you run out of power points you’re simply done for the day (though there are some ways to spend your physical health in an emergency.) A game like Chill or World Of Darkness might have severe social limitations… your psychic powers are great, but you need to keep them a secret from other people (and the darker things you face). On the other hand, if your psychic power is just an ability to blast telepathic energy at other people’s minds, see if it’s comparable to a regular attack that another character might make. The first Moon Man in Cosmic Patrol, for instance, had a powerful attack that was just as usable as every other character’s.

4) Details. Depending on the player, this part might be the easiest or the hardest (or anywhere inbetween.) Character name, history, and things of this matter. Also figure out how your character feels about its psychic powers. Does she revel in pushing her limits and seeing what she’s capable of? Does he fear the abilities being discovered, or their possible risks to himself or his friends? Is it a robot that has a human brain in it, programmed to use these powers exactly when needed? This look at history will help to inform when the character decides that it’s appropriate to use the powers.

5) Finalize. Show these details to your GM, and work out just what works and what doesn’t. If your GM is the sort who approves homebrew characters anyway, you probably have a good idea already about what to expect. If not, be prepared to change some things. (Note: this step may take longer than a minute.)

Following these five steps, you’ll have an admittedly rushed but potentially well fleshed out psychic character. These suggestions assume a homebrew game or a game that gives you a lot of freedom when defining character abilities (such as Xd20 or Cosmic Patrol.) In other games it pays to looks at any pre-existing systems; usually an official psionic system will exist, and even when it doesn’t there might be fan-made psionic systems that have had the benefit of playtesting.

That’s all for this week’s Magical Mondays. See you next time!


Cosmic Patrol: The Moon Must Begin To Be Ours!   Leave a comment


It’s a game I’ve wanted to play a lot more often for the last two years.  Cosmic Patrol manages to stylistically capture the spirit of classic pulp sci-fi in all its bombastic glory.  The hard part is that it does it without being tongue in cheek about it.  Most other things that emulate classic science fiction like this do it in a way that stays focused on how silly those types of story are.  And, yes, there’s a lot of humor that can be found in that mine.  But personally?  I really like how deceptively serious the game takes itself.  Like the plot of Little Shop Of Horrors, trying to make it silly in addition to the already outrageous stories would just be too much.

I’ve wanted to play The Moon Must Be Ours since Gen-Con back in August.  Most of the rest of my gaming group has humored this opinion.  They didn’t see anything objectively wrong with the idea of the game being played, of course, and playing Cosmic Patrol sort of turned into this idealistic secondary option when compared to all the other games that we wanted to play. And oh boy did we have games we wanted to play.  A couple weeks ago, we realized that we’d been putting Cosmic Patrol off for over six months and so they finally relented and agreed to play three rooms of The Moon Must Be Ours before the main game of the evening.

Some of the players didn’t quite seem to get it, of course, and there were others who had difficulty understanding why on Earth you’d play something like it without going for the tongue-in-cheek option, but once we settled in it was quite the experience.  It’s hard to describe the evening without revealing spoilers, and part of the joy of the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style of play was not knowing what would happen next.  So with that in mind, it’s probably best to focus on the rules and playstyle aspects of things.

One of the difficult parts of establishing a scene in Cosmic Patrol… especially in this campaign… is the question of handling the Opening Narration and the orders from Patrol HQ.  It generally feels like we can get one of those off without it feeling awkward, but not necessarily the other.  I tried doing both when we started in the first room, but it didn’t seem to flow well.  (And besides, who was saying the opening narration?  My character? My Martian axe-wielder wouldn’t ever speak like that.)

There was one point of the game where I used one of my Plot Points to actively make a scenario more difficult for everyone involved.  I don’t think most of the players appreciated that, although the Lead Narrator of the scene seemed to.  Saying “We’ve encountered a new subspecies of them at this point… these ones secrete an acid that will harm our spacesuits!” wasn’t really in the spirit of “winning”.  I think the players eventually figured out that the goal of Cosmic Patrol isn’t supposed to be winning so much as it’s supposed to be telling a fun story, so perhaps they’ll forgive that plot point expenditure in time.  If not, well, they’ll have a lot more to be angry about in the future since I’ll likely do things like that again.

Another thing we realize was that we were doing Plot Points wrong when we were about two-thirds of the way through the session.  We only did three rooms… the mandatory initial room, and then two more of the rooms as we explored the lunar mines and cave system… so there wasn’t much time to fix it.  However, we decided that it worked a little bit better the way we wound up doing it.  Instead of everyone using the full number of Plot Points, we limited each player to just a single Plot Point per room.  They could still be regained (in theory, anyway, we never actually awarded any), but we’re still playing with a mentality of “how do we win this?” instead of “what’s the best story we can tell?”  Until we switch that mentality, we agreed it’d be better to limit each player to one ace in the hole.

Besides, by virtue of only having one plot point I wasn’t able to further endanger the lives of everyone.  Next time, John… next time.

I look forward to the next time we play.  Ideally, it’ll be pretty soon.  Otherwise… I guess my next post’ll be six months from now on this subject? Time will tell.

Magical Mondays: Living Off The Magical Land   Leave a comment

Magical Locations play a big part in fantasy stories.  Magical grottos may have pools of water that confer special capabilities, groves of sacred trees may provide a stronger link to the magical power sources of druids and wizards, graveyards may carry a long-lasting residue of darkness and death that boosts magic related to them and so forth.  To a lesser extent, this isn’t limited to fantasy stories; calling on the magic of science fiction like I discussed last week, space traveler may discover a nebula where they grow a year younger every hour they spend inside the ambient radiation of its cloud; initially a boon but eventually a very serious problem when they can’t figure out how to repair their engines.

Magical locations don’t often figure into many D&D games I’ve played in or run.  Why?  It’s hard work to create unique magical effects centralized to locations, and if the location isn’t one the players will be in for a while then it generally amounts to little more than flavor text.  Two or three years ago I played a game to introduce a friend to D&D (a game that we’re on the verge of beginning to wrap up now, I’m happy to say) and it contained two magical items that were unique to the location they were found within.  The first was a massive crystal growing from the ceiling, called a glowstone.  The dwarves who dug that cavern discovered the glowstone and built the room around it, keeping it embedded in the ceiling like a massive chandelier.  It was, effectively, flavortext.  Similarly, there was a large tree in one room with a number of fruits on it that conferred useful, though minor, magical effects.  (Effectively an early version of the tree I mentioned a month or two back).  I’ve always enjoyed those kinds of things in stories, and the idea of them appeals to me both as a game player and a game runner, but incorporating them into a game is tricky.

More recently I introduced a non-natural magical location into a game (the most recent session of the game I started two or three years ago, coincidentally enough.)  The dwarves at an outpost have been waiting a long time, and one of the dwarves used a combination of his knowledge or runic magic, ley lines and bardic mysteries to create a chair in their interrogation room that can be used to first make a person forget or disbelieve the last half hour of their life (through the use of Bluff checks against the person’s Will save, the number of successful bluff checks required depending on the severity of the thing to be forgotten) followed by an attempt to make them remember something different (Diplomacy against Will saves that, again, are dependent upon the magnitude of the thing of which you’re trying to convince them, though this is generally easier if all you want to say is “You just walked your rounds as a guard and didn’t notice anything special today.”)  I put the chair in for the purpose of making the infiltration job easier on the part of the players if they mess up; unfortunately, this also means that the dwarves may have a nasty tool at their disposal if the players mess up to an even greater degree.

I don’t know if the players will use the chair the next time we play, or even remember three years from now that I put the chair in, but I’m glad that it’s there.  Hopefully it’ll make the world seem more, well, magical.  It doesn’t exactly follow the effects of any spell, though the Bardic Modify Memory spell is pretty close.  Ideally, it’s the kind of thing that I’ll be putting into more adventures in the future.

As a side note, this is one of those areas where I prefer the suggested rules for D&D 3.5 or the d20 SRD to the rules for Pathfinder.  The Spellcraft skill in D&D specifically has a usage that allows a spell caster to determine the unique effects of a magical location or peculiarity with a DC of 30; Pathfinder lacks this use of the skill, likely considering unique magical effects of locations to fall under the realm of identifying magical items.  This is similar to my complaint about how they changed Bardic Knowledge to just be a boost to other Knowledge skill checks instead of making it its own unique ability, but that’s a topic for another day.

I have an idea for a prestige class that I might like to give to some NPCs in the future, a class dedicated to the knowledge of ley lines and magical locations in a similar fashion.  With prerequisites that would include things like Knowledge (Geography) and the Mobility feat, the caster would be able to use Knowledge (Geography) to determine a path that could be run (over a number of 1d20 spaces, mapped out by the GM) to run along local ley lines to grant a bonus to very particular uses of magic.  I’m not sure what those bonuses could be; one option would be simply allowing it to reduce the effects of metamagic feats, but that feels boring, especially if it’s the only option.  I have other ideas in the works, and will likely make a post about it if I get the class up to a point where I use it in a game.

In conclusion, I’ve included a few possible unique magical effects that would allow players to Live Off The Land, magically speaking.  Feel free to drop these, or things like them, into future game sessions.

-In a magical cave, a powerful monster or magic user related to cold died centuries ago.  Its power was great, and the entire cave remains a frigid environment to this day.  While the monsters populating the cave are not immune to the effects of the cold, they have gotten used to it.  Players may even see a monster ripping some icicles off of a particular bookshelf where frosty imprints of books long gone remain.  One of these icicles can allow a wielder (with a Use Magic Device check of 21) to shoot a ranged touch attack at an enemy that, if it hits, is treated as a ray that deals 2d6 points of cold damage.  The icicle can be used 7 times, and each time it is used there is a 10% chance that it shatters outright.  If it comes up, treat this as a first level spell as cast by a third level caster.  For purposes of treasure management (if you worry about that) treat it as if it costs 160 gold; if there aren’t many monsters in the area that will be affected by cold damage and if you decide that the ice will melt within hours of it being taken out of the cave, reduce that cost down to about 40 or 50.

-A group of druidic wizards built a circle of henges (pillar-like rocks; if you’re thinking of Stonehenge you’re on the right track) in ancient times for the purpose of analyzing the stars and using their movements to, it was hoped, predict the future.  Their results succeeded in small ways, but few (if any) alive today understand how to use the device as they did then.  However, at times the henge seems to be able to collect the ambient prophetic energy from the stars, and strange crystals grow from the surface of some of them.  A character succeeding on a DC 30 Spellcraft check can determine that these crystals have an unusual effect, as if through an arcane version of the Augury spell; if one of the crystals is shattered immediately after being asked about performing a certain action in the near future, there is a 75% chance that it will show a blue star (to indicate good results), a red star (to indicate bad results), a blue and red star (to indicate that the act will have both good and bad results), or nothing at all (as if the results of the action will have no results that can be called good or bad.)  Like the Augury spell, the crystals can see about half an hour into the future.  A curious difference between this crystal andthe Auguray spell is that multiple castings of Augury always produce the same result even if you suspect that it failed the first time; however, using one of these crystals after casting Augury can reset the predictions (but using multiple crystals or casting Augury after the crystal is used will produce the same result.)  Each of these crystals acts as a second level spell cast by a fifth level caster, and has a value of approximately 530 gold.

-On Old Gallows Hill, an executioner has discovered that the gallows tree that the town has used for centuries has developed an unusual property; anyone killed by the gallows on this tree rises in 1d3 nights as a zombie.  The town hasn’t yet realized that all the zombie sightings of the last few decades have involved people killed by the gallows, as zombies are usually put down pretty quickly when created.  The executioner has also discovered the shocking fact that the zombies are following his instructions.  He has no caster level, but the number of zombies seems to stop at twice his hit dice (so, six zombies for now with him being a third level Expert).  He hasn’t decided what, if any, use he wishes to put this mysterious effect; he could create zombie waves to take over the village, or he could use the zombies to do good work in the background (as long as the zombies remain unnoticed.)  For now, he keeps his zombies in a cave near the graveyard, using them to perform menial labor to speed up his regular work.  Players who succeed at a DC 30 Spellcraft check can determine that this gallows tree creates zombies as if through the spell Animate Dead, but the zombies do not seem to count against the usual limit of twice a caster’s hit dice, seeming to be their own seperate pool of hit dice.  They also seem to be removed from standard types of undead, as other methods of increasing the amount of undead that an individual can control don’t generally seem to work against it; a Mystic Theurge using this tree could have six times its HD worth of undead controlled, not eight.  The gallows tree itself appears twisted and gnarled, but is otherwise healthy.  The value of a magical item like this would be approximately 32,500 gold pieces, and it’s unlikely that players would want to have regular access to this item unless the entire campaign is located in this one city.  Still, if included in a campaign for use by players who enjoy necromancy, weigh its cost carefully both against its usability and its fixed location.

Can’t Spell Invisibility   Leave a comment

I’m going to talk a bit about non-magical magic today on Magical Mondays.  But I’m also going to talk about magic in brief.  The magic I’m going to talk about is the age-old art of making yourself disappear!  Grab your cloak of invisibility and invisibility potions and join me on this ride.  More than invisibility, though, I’m going to talk about non-magical magic.

The reason why I’ll be focusing on Invisibility is convenience.  It’s one of the most recognizable “magic effects” in any number of games and stories.  Harry Potter had his invisibility cloak, Bilbo and Frodo had the One Ring, and the Invisible Man had his invisibility serum.  If we focus on the last one there, you may begin to see why I call this non-magical.  The Invisible Man, a scientist gradually driven mad by the toxic effects of his miraculous, though tragically incurable, invisibility serum, used no magic in his procedures.  How do we know he used no magic? Why, the story tells us he didn’t, that’s how.

There’s a certain element of power that story tellers and GMs have when adjudicating magic and its abilities, and whether or not it exists.  “Magic” is a word that we use to say that something supernatural happens, something outside the reaches of scientific understanding.  For much of our recorded history, “Magic” was an element of stories that suggested power that was simply beyond the capabilities of your regular mortal, requiring anything from the gift of a dark power to the involvement of fairies to knowledge of a simple magical word that no one else was likely to use.  This allowed story tellers to include all sorts of things that never happened in the real world.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when it happened, but advances in scientific understanding opened a new and exciting (and some would say frightening) advance in literature through SCIENCE!.  SCIENCE! is a form of Magic that is distinct from Science.  Scientists didn’t necessarily replace the mad wizards who lived in shacks in the middle of forests, but they did sidle up alongside them.  Unlike the wizards, though, these (often mad) scientists didn’t seem to have an understanding of the true nature of the forces with which they tampered.  They were more like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice; while the golem’s creator knew the secret to making his clay creation go lifeless, mad scientists are often caught in a moment where they’re far over their heads.  Just as the animated brooms filled the well to the point where it might Ruin Everything, so did Frankenstein’s monster live with a desire to destroy his creator’s life.

Fast forward a bit, and the use of science stops being the realm of fantasy and horror.  Science Fiction exists both as a genre and a setting, forecasting the impact of science on society (or individuals) in one and providing a glimpse of possible worlds that may be made possible in the other (even if these possible worlds are often products of high fantasy themselves.)  It’s not really fair to “science fiction” that we use that term to describe both types of story, but they overlap enough that we accept it.  Flash Gordon gave us improbably functioning science that was effectively just the same old magic with the serial numbers filed off in many cases, and by the time Superman, Star Trek and The Twilight Zone hit their respective scenes, it was generally understood that outer space was, in a way, magic.

Stories of invisibility and other magical effects flourished in these environments.  Invisibility has benefited from the application of real-life science as well, making this a place where science fiction enthusiasts are slowly making headway in turning their beloved fantasy into reality.  Stage magicians have known how to use mirrors to bend light in a way that makes objects truly invisible (or at least hidden) to anyone sitting in their audience, and many have told the tale of the college professor who surprised his class by taking off his invisibility cloak after walking into the room.

What does this mean for gaming?  That depends on your game.  The first thing to remember is that “magic” doesn’t have to rely on magic.  When you put your story first, coming up with a supernatural effect before you have rules to work with can help you to find those rules.  Let’s look at three types of non-magical invisibility for three different games: Adventure!, Cosmic Patrol, and D&D.

Adventure! is just one of three games set in the Trinity Universe, originally created by White Wolf but now in another company’s hands (please oh please oh please publish more material for Adventure!, guys, I’m beggin’ ya.)  The three games were called Adventure!, Aberrant and Trinity, and each used a similar rules system to examine three different types of adventuring characters at different stages of history.  Trinity focused on the far future, with space travel and psychic powers; Aberrant focused on what was more or less the modern day, but populated by super heroes (or Novas, as they called them); Adventure!, meanwhile, was set in the 1920s with adventures that ranged from jungle exploration to chasing rum-running gangsters to murder mysteries to mad scientists with insane inventions.  I focus on Adventure! because it’s the most familiar of the series to me, and because the focus on mad science was a bit more pronounced.  I apologize to the Trinity Universe purists out there, because my preferred version of the setting used the d20 versions of the rules.

For a standard Invisibility Serum in the world of Adventure!, I would expect a character to have the Craft Compound feat.  Such an item would be an Innovation rather than an Advancement, and as such only the Stalwarts (superhumans and Novas) and the Mesmerists (psychics) can create it with much chance of success; sorry Daredevils, your mundane command of Inspiration simply will not do.  This is a compound that will affect living creatures, and the basic effect is one of obscuring the individual; as such the creator should have a minimum of 1 rank in Heal, and 1 other rank in either Disguise or Hide (depending on the precise nature of how the serum obscures the individual.)

There is no Knack that exactly produces the effect that we’re looking for, though some of the Mesmerist abilities to cloud the mind and remain unobserved are in the right ballpark.  It’s reasonable to treat the ability of this Invisibility Serum as if it comes from a second level Knack.  Depending on the difficulty of accessing super science and the whims of the GM, I would set the R&D DC of the Invisibility Serum somewhere between 25 and 30 with a heightened risk of accident, and 35 to work flawlessly.  Naturally, the GM should roll this in secret.  If the result is under 35, have the Invisibility Serum work for 10 minutes per hit die of the inventor.  Any attack has a ten percent chance of ending the Serum’s effect instantly.  In addition, there’s a chance that the user will go crazy, as if under the effect of Confusion.  The first attack has a twenty percent chance of this happening, and each attack after that increases the odds by five percent (so twenty-five percent the second time, thirty percent the third time, etc.)  There is no other way to prematurely end the invisibility effect, unless an antiserum is developed.  If the inventor rolls a 35 or higher, then there is no risk that the Serum’s effect will end on an attack, and no risk that the user will go crazy (though the user won’t know that this is the case initially if the GM is rolling secretly, and making unnecessary rolls.)  If an inventor rolls a natural 1 on the R&D check, then the duration of the invisibility is permanent until cured; until the invisibility is cured (likely through a combination of Craft Compound and Craft Organism R&D checks), the Serum’s imbiber must make a DC 25 Will save once an hour while awake and once while asleep.  If the check fails, the imbiber is under the effect of a Confusion effect for an hour (with no penalties on the next required Will save).  Every three failed Will saves makes the imbiber’s alignment slide one step toward Chaotic Evil (an effect that is totally cured after one day if the invisibility is cured, unless the character was Chaotic Evil to begin with.)  Finally, every failed Will save gains the character an “Insanity Point”; when the character’s Insanity Points are equal to its Wisdom modifier, it goes into a coma and, 1d4 feverish days later it dies if not cured.

Adventure! has a lot of complicated steps at times, though most of these can be glossed over in the name of the story (and this is recommended).  A Botch is a worst case scenario, of course, but it’s fun to be prepared.

The game of Cosmic Patrol has a much simpler approach to character creation and item use.  When creating a character, you simply pick whatever fun-sounding sci-fi gadgetry pops into your head (there is no official list of items or gear, though there are some fun props suggested in the game’s backstory, rules and sample characters.)  If I wanted a character to go invisible in Cosmic Patrol, I would simply create an item at the time of character creation.  Something like a Corvandium-Powered Hyperphasic Spectro-Shift Belt.  It’s highly experimental, of course, so it’s wonderful that the Cosmic Patrol entrusted my character with the task of field testing the device.  Lucky me.

This Belt… an Invisibility Belt, if you will… works however I describe it as working, which is fantastic for me.  Unfortunately, it also works however the other players and Lead Narrator describe it as working, which is a little risky but in the spirit of the game.  Another player (or even I myself if I want the scene to be more interesting) might use a Plot Point and decree that all Corvandium-Powered technology is based on quantum fields that are known to collapse when in the presence of Jovian Crystal-based energy, and the space pirates we’re dealing with have guns that are fueled in this manner.  I may be invisible for a round or two, but as soon as a pirate shoots a weapon anywhere near me at all my quantum field will collapse and the Spectro-Shift Belt will fizzle out.  My overpowered invisibility belt is suddenly nullified by the bad luck of facing enemies with EXACTLY the kind of weapon that my superiors told me to avoid.  CURSES!  How will I ever escape when I suddenly become visible again?

Part of the fun of Cosmic Patrol, and one of the things that makes it different from many other forms of roleplaying game, is the fact that it’s not a game you’re necessarily trying to win.  With the exception of campaigns like The Moon Must Be Ours (and even then) the goal of Cosmic Patrol is to tell an awesome story, not to “win” in some fashion.  If my character is gunned down by space pirates just when my experimental belt goes on the fritz, that becomes an incredible story I can tell in the future.  While I certainly won’t go out of my way to get my character killed just for a fun death scene, it’s never a bad idea to have your sci-fi gadgetry fail at the worst (or best) possible moment.

From the Rules-Heavy focus of Adventure! to the Rules-Light focus of Cosmic Patrol, the fallibility of the non-magical invisibility has been a selling point.  As we check on D&D (or Pathfinder or d20 or whatever you wish to call it) one fun way to make Invisibility more powerful might be to remove its limitations as a magical effect.  As mentioned above, stage magicians have long known about the very real science behind making objects vanish through the careful placement of mirrors.  A secret door hidden in a gap between two mirrors is intriguing, as is the assassin who might place two mirrors to hide in plain sight during the grand ball.  The lack of magical auras might confound any adventurers or investigators all the more.

This placement is clearly meant for the GM, of course, but players need not be without such methods of obfuscation.  A DC 25 Knowledge (History) or Profession (Stage Magician) can let a player’s character know of this method of hiding items (or a DC 20 Bardic Knowledge check).  With this information in hand, a character can attempt a Hide or Disguise check using mirrors (each at least as tall as the object itself) with a +4 circumstance bonus.  The object is suddenly invisible and safe from antimagic fields.  However, never discount the high search checks of Rogues, they seem capable of finding just about anything if they have a hunch about where to look.

Ultimately, none of these methods of Invisibility rely on magic by the strictest understanding of the term.  Ironically, the examples used for the fantasy games are the least magical of all, though possibly the most mysterious in terms of tone.  A lack of officially sanctioned magic shouldn’t keep us, as gamers and story tellers, from getting our hands on the crazy effects that we want.  While it’s handy to follow the rules most of the time, magic is about doing something unnatural after all, and it’s hard to be a bigger rule breaker than that.  So just because “magic can’t do that”, don’t think that it can’t be done.