"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."

THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017


EVEN THOUGH I AM currently running The Dracula Dossier, Monte Cook Game's Cypher System remains my current favorite RPG.  Despite all the things I love about it--the simple "on a scale of 1 to 10" resolution mechanic, the "hands free" approach to game mastering, the experience system, etc--after a lengthy Numenera campaign some of my players had concerns.  Well, perhaps "concerns" is the wrong word, but "complaints" isn't right either.  Let's just say they expressed a preference, and not exactly a new one.  As the perennial GM, I think it is crucial to listen to your players, and since the preferences they expressed exist throughout gaming circles, I thought I would share their feedback and my response to it here.

It's the d20.

Cypher works--as you may already know--by assigning a Difficulty of 1 to 10, with 1 being ridiculously easy and 10 being nearly impossible.  Applying character assets--skills, abilities, equipment, favorable conditions--lowers this Difficulty. The final Difficulty level is then multiplied by 3, giving the number you must roll equal to or higher on a d20.  It works beautifully.  

But...the d20 is a flat roll.  There is no bell curve there.  You have the same chance (5%) of rolling a 1 and triggering a free GM intrusion as you do a 20 and earning a major effect (think fumble and critical if you are an old grognard like me).  Technically you have the same chance of rolling your target number as well.  Imagine the frustration of tackling a massive, Level 6 Difficulty; you apply your skill specialization and drop it two levels to 4, and splurge on a massive three levels of effort to lower that to 1.  All you need to do is beat a 3.  Aaaaaaand then you roll a 1.

Sure, "them's the breaks" in a dice-based system.  It's been an (in)famous aspect of d20 systems for a while (and the source of innumerable D&D memes).  On the other hand I can well appreciate the player frustration of exerting such massive skill and effort to a task and still failing disastrously.  Not only that, but it tends to make games more extreme with disasters and amazing successes cropping up equally often.   

Now you may well see this as a feature rather than a flaw, and to be honest so do I.  I've heard similar complaints over the last thirty years running Call of Cthulhu with Chaosium's equally flat percentile roll, in which far too many detectives miss vital clues and expert scientists botch the most basic analyses.  Heck, that's where Trail of Cthulhu came from.  To my mind Cypher has greatly mitigated the frustrations of the old Basic Roleplaying system with ideas like assets and effort.  But for groups who dislike the flatness of the d20, there are a couple of easy fixes.


Peering back through the ages to West End Game's TORG, we find one possible solution.  TORG had an experience point/hero point combination called "Possibilities."  While used to advance characters with new skills and higher stats, they could also be spent for in-game goodies.  Like Cypher, TORG used a d20, and one of the things a player could do was spend a Possibility to ensure a roll of 10 or higher.  After spending that point, any roll of 1-9 effectively counted as a 10, while 10 or higher remained the same.

This works just as well for Cypher.  Spend an XP and guarantee a roll of 10 or higher.  This is a perfect solution for more cinematic games, where players usually succeed at the critical moment.  At the same time, experience is experience, and not something players want to spend willy nilly.  

If you really want to go over the top--and this works very well for four-color supers and cinematic secret agents--allow a player to spend two experience points for an automatic 20.


Trade in the d20 for 2d10.

This was the way Steve Jackson went with his GURPS, built around 3d6 for all die resolutions.  By making the switch, you are installing a built-in bell curve.  Behold the following graph, shamelessly borrowed Scott Boehmer's excellent discussion on 2d10 in D&D

Click me to enlarge

Making this switch, you have roughly the same chance of rolling a 10 or less, about 50% in both cases, but the likelihood of extreme rolls greatly decreases.  The odds of rolling a 1 or a 20 drops from 5% to 1%.  This has the effect of really making a character's assets and effort more important; in the example above, after dropping the Difficulty from 6 to 1 the player has a 1% chance of failing, down from 10%.  In essence, it shines the spotlight on a character's training and determination, reducing the whims of chance and fate.  On the other hand, you are greatly reducing the odds of triggering the special effects and bonuses that come with high rolls.  


Wednesday, August 2, 2017


For a full summary of sessions one to three, see here.

WE ARE USED TO GENRE MIXING, we role players.  Shadowrun has been mixing cyberpunk and high fantasy for nearly thirty years.  We've seen steampunk fantasy (Castle Falkenstein), horror westerns (Deadlands), superhero war dramas (Godlike), and multi-genre free-for-alls (TORG, Rifts).  Even the original 1974 Dungeons & Dragons was a bit of a gumbo, a mix of weird fiction, high fantasy, and sci fi.  Yet despite having run horror espionage before (Delta Green and Conspiracy X), something about The Dracula Dossier daunted me when I first sat down to sketch out the campaign.  As an obsessive fan of the novel, it was essential to me that the game feel "Stoker," but I didn't want to neglect the crucial other half of it.  I feel that four sessions in, my gaming group and I finally got the balance right.

Session four of Days of Dishonorable Peace opens with a bang.  Well.  Almost.

Having broken into the tomb of Laura Wexford (our Lucy Westenra) to examine her remains (or to see if the casket is empty), the team instead discovers the opposition has left a nasty surprise for them.  The coffin contains neither a vampire nor human remains but a bomb, a combination of ball-bearings and C-4.  Fortunately for the team, CIA operative William McPherson has eight points in Explosive Devices, saving their lives in a daring rapid defusing.

These leaves questions; who was behind this?  Edom?  Dracula?  How did the opposition know the team was coming?  The agents suspect their Internet searches for the identities of the 1894 network must have triggered red flags, while the players know Dracula has nightly been interrogating CIA agent Lacey Mickelson.  Lacey's player has decided to keep these nightmares to herself, and to play the slow erosion of the character's stability.  This was completely true to the spirit of Stoker, giving us a "Mina" in the group.

While McPherson and Mickelson investigate the bomb design, Douglas Reid and Luna Richter scout the grounds outside the Highgate tomb, and there discover the remains of Laura Wexford.  Whoever planted the bomb simply dumped her skeleton, still in the decayed wedding gown, in the underbrush.  Mickelson, an expert in forensic pathology, decides she needs to examine the remains.  McPherson examines the door, taking samples in the hopes of figuring out exactly what the "red liquid" Van Helsing used a century earlier to seal it.  In claiming the remains, the group finds something else pinned to the decaying gown...the silver and jet "Westenra Brooch."

Lacey has a London contact, a coroner named Parsev Singh.  She convinces him to let her use an examining room and takes the remains there with McPherson.  Reid and Richter head back to their London base of operations to catch up on some rest and pursue another lead; they have managed to make initial contact with Oliver Prenger, the husband of the dossier's last custodian, "Hopkins."  They came across each other as both parties were investigating the same leads.  Reid and Richter decide to set up a meeting.

In the lab, parallel discoveries are made.  The stake driven through Laura's chest was not wood, but iron.  The red liquid used to seal the tomb was also iron.  Further analysis shows this isn't just any iron, this is extremely rare telluric iron.  Given the weird electrical phenomena the team saw in Berlin, it gets them thinking about Faraday cages.

Reid and Richter, meanwhile, meet with Prenger at a cafe near the British Museum.  Prenger is a special secretary to House of Lords MP Philip Douglas, descendent of "Arthur Holmwood" and the current Lord Drumlanrig.  "Hopkins" was really Andrew Miller, an MI6 analyst and Russia specialist.  Prenger is convinced the Russians have something to do with his husband's disappearance.

The conversation opens all sorts of questions; how did "Hopkins" get the dossier?  What is the Russian connection?  Is this recent, or does it go back to "Cushing" and the 1977 fiasco?  More to the point...which came first; did "Hopkins" get the dossier first and then seek out and seduce a man who just happened to be secretary to one of the 1894 legacies, or was it an innocent coincidence?  They discretely don't share this later bit with Prenger.

After regrouping, the team splits again.  The two CIA agents decide to construct a Faraday cage while Reid and Richter set up a second meeting with Prenger, this time at a pub.  While Mickelson and McPherson construct the cage, Lacey starts to confide in him her disturbing dreams and the growing fear she has that Dracula is invading her mind.  When the cage is finished, they try an experiment and put Lacey inside it.  After a flash of blinding headache pain, her connection with Dracula is severed by the cage and complete free of influence, gushes out all that has been happening to her and pleads for help.

Across town at the pub, a second meeting with Prenger is cut short when Reid and Richter realize Prenger has been followed.  In the middle of the bar one of the suspects slides a knife into Prenger's side to silence him.  Richter opens fire and takes down both, but before the surviving assailant can be questioned he kills himself with cyanide.  As they fled the club, they notice a black limousine parked across the street.  Watching them from the back is a beautiful blonde woman in white, wearing dark sunglasses.  The car drives off as things heat up...