Friday, September 3, 2010

Six-Level Steampunk, part 3

The first two parts of this post dealt with all of the game mechanics necessary to run a “six-level” Engines & Empires campaign, i.e. a game where characters essentially cannot progress beyond normal mortal capabilities (represented by 6th level in the game). What follows here are a few addenda which may be useful when actually running such games. In particular, I would strongly recommend using the Wound Level rules presented here. In a campaign which ordinarily lacks all kinds of raising and resurrection magic, character death ought not to be a trivial occurrence.

Wound Levels

This house rule is predicated on the idea that hit points represent stamina and combat skill only—damage to hit points is not the same thing as a physical wound. Under these rules, a character who falls to 0 HP is winded, but not wounded. The character is only on the brink of exhaustion—almost but not quite out of fight. There are no negative hit points, so a character with even 1 HP remaining, who then takes a blow for 10 damage, is merely reduced to 0 HP. Even one hit point is a sufficient buffer between “able to fight normally” and “on the brink of fatigue”.

Once a character is at 0 HP, the situation becomes dangerous. A character at zero hit points can still act normally—he can fight, move, run, use magic, whatever—except that he now moves at half speed (as if encumbered), and he must rest every third turn (instead of every sixth turn like normal) or else total exhaustion will set in. Furthermore, any damage that a character with 0 HP takes, whether from a trap or a weapon or a spell, will result in a Wound. How much damage gets taken is immaterial—it’s just as bad to be stabbed by a knife or a sword, or to be shot by an arrow or a bullet. Any hit, even for 1 point of damage, will cause a Wound.

The severity of a Wound is determined randomly:

Wound Levels are cumulative. A character with penalties up to -4 has a Light Wound; -5 to -7, a Serious Wound; -8 to -10, a Critical Wound; and at -11 or greater, death is immediate. Wound levels are removed by healing.

Complete bed-rest allows a character to heal naturally. With normal care, a character recovers wound penalties at a rate of one point of penalty per 1d12 days. In the care of a competent surgeon, natural healing is accelerated to one penalty point being lifted every 1d6 days.

Magical or technological healing lifts one penalty point for every (four- or six- sided) die of hit points normally cured.

A character cannot begin to recover hit points until all wound penalties are removed. Hit points can be cured normally with magic or technology. Otherwise, since HP represent stamina, they are recovered completely with one night’s rest. During the adventure, if the characters can manage to grab a short rest (half an hour), they can recover 1d3 HP from rest alone or 1d6 HP if in the care of a healer.

Mass Combat
This is more of a sketch than a complete set of house rules, but lately I’ve been pondering how to improve and simplify unit-based mass combat. In the E&E rulebook, mass combat treats units just like characters, except with HP that vary according to the unit’s size, up to 100 troops. Units with spell-casting or technological abilities essentially retain those abilities on a mass-combat scale. Player characters generally participate in unit combat only as the leader of a particular unit, to which the character then imparts a small level-based bonus to all combat statistics. I’m starting to think that it might be better to abstract these features further. Also, I’d like to re-think unit combat to fit the “six-level campaign” scale, where a character of 1st to 3rd level is a normal adventuring mercenary, while a character of 4th to 6th level is a big-time Hero™. Likewise, any monster with 4 HD or more is Large Size—the monstrous equivalent of a Hero.

Unit Combat for Six-Level Campaigns
As before, unit combat takes place on a larger scale than ordinary battles. One square or hex represents 100’, and units take actions by the (ten-minute) turn rather than by the round.

A unit is a group of similar soldiers, all acting in concert to fight as one. It has five statistics: Health, Attack, Defense, Movement, and Morale.

A unit’s Health is a function of its size. A unit has 1 point of Health for approximately every twenty soldiers in the unit, up to a maximum of 5 health. Damage reduces a unit’s Health (by killing or wounding soldiers, by causing ranks to break and soldiers to flee or desert), such that when a unit reaches 0 health, it disbands and can no longer function as a unit or affect the outcome of the mass battle. Health is an important statistic, since it modifies most of a unit’s other statistics.

A unit’s Attack value is equivalent to the Fighting Ability of one soldier in that unit, plus the unit’s current health. Normal humans (as a unit, they’d be called “conscripts”, or, less kindly, “cannon fodder”) have a base FA 1. Most 1 HD soldiers, from men to elves to orcs, have FA 2. So a unit of 100 conscripts would have Attack 6 (FA 1 + Health 5), as would a unit of 80 trained soldiers (FA 2 + Health 4).

Defense works just like ascending Defense Class, i.e. a unit attacks by rolling 1d20 + its Attack, and it hits if the total equals or beats the target unit’s Defense. A unit’s base Defense, though, is simply equal to 10 + its Attack value, i.e. 10 + FA + Health.

A unit’s Morale is equal to one individual soldier’s ordinary ML score, plus one-half the unit’s Health rounded down. A unit with Health 4 or 5 thus gets a +2 ML bonus, while a unit with Health 2 or 3 has a +1 ML bonus. Morale is very important, because it essentially functions like a unit-scale saving throw.

Finally, there is Movement, which is just like ordinary Movement multiplied by ten. A soldier might normally move at, 120’ (40’), so on unit combat scale, the unit can move 1200’ (400’), which is to say that it can march 12 squares and do nothing, or 4 squares and then attack.

The basic rule of unit combat is that a successful hit (Attack vs. Defense) causes the target unit check Morale. On a successful ML check, the unit loses 1 Health. On a failed ML check, the unit loses 2 Health. A unit is destroyed/disbanded when it falls to 0 Health. In order for an infantry or cavalry unit to make a mêlée attack, it must usually move to occupy the same 100’ square/hex as its target. A unit capable of missile-fire (or artillery-fire) can throw a volley out to the maximum range of the unit’s type of missile weapons (i.e. there are no range penalties, so 5 squares for short bows, 7 squares for long bows, 9 squares for muskets or machine guns, 12 squares for heavy cannon).

Spells and technology are abstracted under these rules; they become ordinary missile attacks with a range equal to the highest spell level, or one-half the highest tech degree, available to all the troops in the unit. That is to say, for example, a unit of 3rd level mages (best spell level = 2nd) can make a missile attack with a range of 2 squares.

Furthermore, for the purposes of unit combat, characters are treated as monsters when finding their unit-scale Attack value. Ordinarily, a 3rd level mage would have a Fighting Ability of 2, but on the battlefield, 3rd level mages are counted as 3 HD monsters and thus have FA 4 (an abstraction which accounts for their spell-casting abilities).

Equipment has a nominal impact on unit statistics. A unit primarily armed with primitive or poor-quality weapons suffers a -2 penalty to Attack. A unit mostly clad in metal armor enjoys a +2 bonus to Defense but suffers a -3 (-1) square penalty to its Movement.

Player Characters and Large Monsters generally do not form units. It’s certainly possible to imagine a Dark Overlord fielding a unit of ogres or trolls, but usually it would be impossible to gather sufficient numbers of them. In any case, Large Monsters and Heroes are usually more effective acting singly on the battlefield. In order to fight apart from a unit, a creature or character must have at least 4 hit dice. Large Monsters and Heroes are effectively one-man units with 1 point of Health. Attack and Defense are determined normally (i.e. find the creature or character’s Fighting Ability as if it were a monster with so many hit dice; Attack equals FA + Health, Defense equals 10 + FA + Health), Movement is ten times normal for the character, and Morale is ignored.

Special Hero or Large Monster units can attack or be attacked as normal. A monster that loses its sole point of Health is slain. A Hero under the same circumstances merely rolls on the Wound table (see above) and might be knocked out, wounded, or slain, but is in any event removed from the rest of the battle.

Any Monster with 8+ HD, or any 6th level character with a promotion title (Lord, Sorcerer, Sage, etc.) is capable of two additional actions in place of attacking, the ability to Rally Friends and Intimidate Foes. To Rally, the character targets an adjacent unit of friendly soldiers and rolls a special Charisma check (1d20 vs. Charisma if the character is trained in Diplomacy, 1d20 vs. one-half Charisma if not), and if successful, the friendly unit regains 1 point of Health as soldiers pick themselves back up and re-form ranks. To Intimidate, the character again rolls Charisma, this time targeting an adjacent unit of enemy soldiers. If successful, the enemy unit must check Morale or lose a point of Health, as troops quaver and flee before the mighty Hero or fierce Monster. (Since monsters have neither a Charisma score nor a Diplomacy skill, simply check 1d20 against their hit dice.)

Heroes and Large Monsters can also encounter each other in single combat, which would be resolved by an ordinary small-scale battle (set within a single 100’ square and taking place over the course of only one turn).

Heroes and Large Monsters might join up with or take command of a unit of ordinary soldiers, but all this does is impart a small (+2) Morale bonus which overlaps, but does not stack, with a unit’s Morale bonus from Health.

Finally, a group of adventurers, regardless of their level, can band together to form a special unit called an Adventuring Party. An Adventuring Party is a unit with 1 point of Health per two members, up to a maximum of 5 Health. Its base Attack and Defense are determined by taking the character in the party with the highest level, treating that level as monster hit dice to find unit Attack and Defense values, and then modifying for Health as normal. The slowest character in the party determines the unit’s Movement. Like a single Hero, an Adventuring Party has no Morale score and is immune to effects requiring a Morale Check.

Magic and the Paranormal
Maybe I’ve been watching too much Real Ghostbusters lately, but it occurred to me not long ago that in a six-level campaign, the assumption is that most of the world is populated by relatively ordinary people. That makes monsters exceptional and rare, and even the commonest kobold might be regarded as a supernatural horror. The idea of player characters as paranormal investigators is already enshrined in games like Call of Cthulhu, but it also fits the conceit of Victorian steampunk very well.

Then I got to thinking about the nature of magic in the original role-playing game, and about how I portray it in E&E, and I’ve noticed a few fun connections. First, look at the magic-user’s level titles. They start out as mediums, then become seers, and so on. The idea that a low-level arcane mage is a spirit medium or some kind of psychic channeler is very appealing to me. It fits the idea of the Victorian spiritualist (or stage swami), and helps to explain why arcane magic and psychic ability are one and the same thing (rather than having some separate discipline in the game-world called “psionics”, which is like magic but for some reason actually is not magic).

Then I thought, okay, if a mage is primarily concerned with calling out to the spirits of the great beyond, and acting as a medium, what if that’s the source of magic? What if all spell-craft is really spirit-channeling? That would mean that every spell memorized by a mage is actually a spirit from some anomalous other realm, pulled onto the material plane and bound within the mage’s mind. Casting the spell releases the spirit, and in its eagerness to return to its own plane, the spirit briefly opens a door between worlds and the magical effect leaks into physical reality.

That has groovy implications. It means that a simple spell, like read magic, is the mage calling upon and binding a small or weak spirit, releasing it for the price of knowledge gained. Memorizing fire ball, though, is the dangerous business of binding a fire elemental or maybe even a lesser ifrit. What if something goes wrong? What if a mage dies with memorized spells, i.e. trapped spirits, still rattling around in his brain? Do they burst out and manifest in the world? Do they possess corpses and become the undead? (1st level spells become skeletons/zombies/ghouls, 2nd level spells become wights/banshees/wraiths, 3rd level spells become mummies/spectres/vampires…)

Speaking of the undead, they’re kind of spirit-ish too. Wraiths and spectres, especially, are “ectoplasmic entities” in the classic sense. A technologist who invents a proton stream could have a field day, trapping spectres and maybe even containing them indefinitely. Assuming, of course, the rate of ionization is constant for all such vaporous apparitions. Insert raspberry emoticon (=P) here.


Can't forget the Farscape quote.

JOHN (learning to pilot the transport pod): Slicker'n snot.
AERYN: My microbes had to have translated that one wrongly.
JOHN: Southern metaphors, darlin'. You ain't heard the half of 'em.
—Episode 1.12, "The Flax"

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