Justin Achilli

Month: May, 2011

My PC Buys a Ferret Just Because He Can

Why on earth would low-level PCs care about finding 456 cp?

Low level PCs have already been through character creation, where they’ve spend a better quantity of resources on simple, worldly things that are going to help them in their adventurous exploits. Aside from that first of many magic items, there’s not a lot you can give a PCs that have a game-function value in an economic model. There’s tons of cool story stuff you can give them — “The orcs have manacles among their belongings. They must have been raiding for slaves!” or “Among the heretics’ belongings are alchemical substances. Perhaps they believe they can transmute common substances to gold.” — but unless those are followed up on or have weight in the game world, they’re not likely to be seen as rewards.

Has a PC ever bought a nice rocking horse for his kid, just in case the changelings show up?

The problem is, the money sinks in many modern tabletop games aren’t valid extensions of the larger activity. In Vampire, you either have the Resources to make your purchase or you don’t. There’s no mugging people at the bus stop to get money for a limo to take to the Prince’s mansion. Certainly, some Vampire stories center around finances, but those are usually MacGuffins — cripple the assets of a rival Kindred to lay him low and reduce his power, not heist a bunch of money to buy Aaron’s Feeding Razors for the whole coterie. In the rules and setting, collecting money just isn’t that big of a deal for vampires.

Many older games seemingly have a better grasp of the money-harvest mechanics by having sinks for the money gathered. Older versions of D&D, for example, assume that the character is socking away money for a stronghold, which is really expensive and which he’ll ultimately do endgamey (or at least property-ownery) type stuff once that stronghold is built: magical research, training fighters, fence loot, etc. that’s different from the core adventure-driven exercises

An element of personal style is great for a character money sink, but does it have an effect on the game, or is it a detail that's not really a player reward?

I don’t necessarily care about realism here, I care about the mechanics of a system with extrinsic rewards undermining the intrinsic fun of play. In D&D, fighting monsters and overcoming traps is the fun part (now; again, the economic model used to have a more focused assumed end goal). Now that the setting gives me my power-ups in the form of level achievement and the magical-item treasure I need to continue facing the scaling challenges, why should a player care about collecting GP at all? Especially at lower levels when the rewards are so meager as to literally not be worth the effort. Four hundred and fifty-six copper pieces isn’t even half a GP, and it weighs either 45 pounds or around 10 pounds, depending on your ruleset. Who in their right mind would encumber themselves for such a hardscrabble reward?

This works, I suppose, for settings in which life is hard, money is rare and thus more valuable, etc., but the common assumption is that money is easy to find for bold adventurers and even more so the higher your level rises. There’s no increasing cost of living for higher-level characters.

There’s some acknowledgement of value in the various “trade goods” tables that show up in game setting source material, but those rarely solve the problem. I’m a second-level cleric. What am I going to do with a cow, a goose, or a pound of salt? The implication is that I’m going to take it where I can get a premium for it, but:

  • That’s what NPC merchant caravans are for, and if they’re not,
  • “Ferry trade goods back and forth” is a fine campaign model, but not really one in the spirit of most adventure games, and
  • I’m a goddamned cleric, or sorcerer, or thief, or fighter. Why the hell am I trucking groceries back and forth?

At least in Traveller, when I cared about my cargo, I was either going to rip it off and spend the money on a better ship, or I was going to legitimately take it from A to B (probably get in some adventures along the way) and use the proceeds to buy a better ship. There’s the money sink model at work, and there’s a basis for a merchant-caravan campaign that’s more exciting than chasing a flock of geese from Swampton to Mucklesborough.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, both in terms of my recent Vampire work, and for the Pagan Lands project I’m working on. What’s a reasonable reward — one that fits into the intrinsic-fun play model rather than being an abstracted, extrinsic “score” like GP I can’t possibly spend all of? In Vampire, the goal is exceedingly rarely the resource I’m gathering. In Pagan Lands, I’m assuming the old-school D&D model of wanting to build a frontier stronghold somewhere. But for Pathfinder and 4E campaigns, seriously: What am I supposed to do with my money? Conan and Fafhrd and the Mouser used to spend a lot of their money on, um, “lifestyle,” and I’ve seen neat rules for that in various swords & sorcery themed games, but in general, where does my money go?

The Kinseeker Witch

A kinseeker witch perceives connections between people borne by their blood, seeing them as faint crimson lines that can extend beyond her immediate sight. She may choose to focus on a single tether connecting an individual to any other living blood-relation, or she can observe all of the spokes emanating from an individual, connecting them to and identifying any and all living relations. This is a form of divination, a sussing-out of secrets via mystic talent.

This constant influx of supernal information has a tendency to make these witches eccentric, or even mad. Although they can control the specifics of their mystic perception, they can never wholly ignore its input. Some are even haunted by their uncanny gifts in their dreams. Many find themselves shunned by superstitious societies, while others proactively become hermits. Inexplicably, only human females become kinseeker witches, but the circumstances that cause their second sight aren’t understood.

Suggestions for using the Kinseeker Witch:

• A PC finds himself singled-out and sought by the kinseeker witch at a the behest of a distant relation seeking aid.

• The PCs need to find an individual who has gone into hiding, but they have access to her sibling.

• The kinseeker witch is dazzled by a PC, who moments ago displayed a nexus of connections, but the faded and vanished in the span of an instant mere moments ago.

The Goat of Mendes

He doesn't even have stats. He's just there in the encounter, doing stuff.

You probably know this illustration, even if you don’t know you know it. You know?

This is Eliphas Levi’s classic “Goat of Mendes” illustration, and I love it as one of the seminal occult images of the contemporary world. The illustration itself has a long and interesting story of being co-opted and turned into a piece of religious propaganda, but I’m not concerned with all of that. Right now I’m concerned with just its simple presentation.

Look at that thing, man. Look at the line quality and the simple but effective shading. This is a piece of art that would have been wonderfully at home in the original Monster Manual. Whatever its original intent, this is a magnificent example of that early not-satanic-but-spiced-by-the-occult phase of the hobby. Pure Dungeons & Danzig. It’s a shame that the piece itself is so fraught with subculture controversy because, on its own, it’s marvelously evocative. Imagine this creature, sphinx-like, guarding a bridge into the Underworld, or perhaps as an oracle testing postulants on the mysteries of gnosis as they seek riches or virtue. Hell, imagine him hanging out in Acererak’s room, lich bones all on the floor and the goat-man turning to the characters like, “What?” when they enter the tomb. Imagine him as a first-edition Vampire creature, something horrid conjured by Sabbat infernalists or something much less comprehensible, misunderstood against an urban night sky to be a particularly shocking gargoyle, pursuing its own chthonic purpose.


Do you like Assassin’s Creed? I like Assassin’s Creed. Huh, look at that. Ubisoft makes Assassin’s Creed.

What’s new with Assassin’s Creed Revelations?

NVP Masquerade Podcast

Just a quickie for the moment. There’s a podcast with me up over at Ninjas vs. Pirates, if’n you’d like to hear me yammer more about Vampire. Here’s your sweet, sweet linkage.

More from me soon, as I get things in order here in this French hotel room.

Up and Movin’

So, I’ve been wondering what to do with this blog again, as I do about every year and a half or so. My post frequency has fallen off a bit of late, because I had directed so much attention on working on (and blogging for) the 20th Anniversary Edition of Vampire. My work there is done now, and Eddy’s taken over the management and development of it. That will maybe let me get back in here and bang around with blogging more than once a week.

It's a prison.

I’ve also left White Wolf/ CCP again and have taken a position with Ubisoft that will be moving my family and I to France. The projects are under heavy NDA, so I can’t talk about them here or even say what they are, but I’m glad to be working on them. (I know, I hate the “Oooh, it’s under NDA” non-remark remark, but I don’t make the rules.)

For a while I was talking about the intersection of tabletop gaming with digital gaming, and I’m sure I’ll continue to have some amount of that sort of outwardly facing contemplation. With the conclusion of my Vampire work, I’m able to turn more attention back to my Pagan Lands setting work, which has received some good feedback over its course. I’ve also got a little darling game project that’s a sort of dinner-murder-mystery about Queen Victoria trying to raise Prince Albert from the dead that may see the light of day. And, of course, fiction writing, for the two or three projects that occupy my hobbyist’s attention in bursts. Maybe some more mixed music sets when I find the time. Probably change the general look of things here.

General RPG consideration, video game consideration, and just plain design talk have always been fun for me, so I’m sure that’ll remain here, too.

I think the biggest change is that this blog might actually become more personal again. Not personal as in things that I don’t want people to see, but personal in that I may end up showing a more holistic approach to games design than I had previously. A designer doesn’t exist in a vacuum: A designer is the sum of the games he plays, the life he lives, and the external influences on him.

I’m about to have a lot of external influences. I’m moving into a different culture, learning a new language, and still being a parent while continuing to design and play games amid it all. At the very least, I hope to have nifty photos of cool European surroundings. Hopefully you remain interested.

Magical Aptitude

One of the things I like about GURPS and, to a certain degree, Mage in the World of Darkness is that it has a magic system that gauges a character’s potential for magic as opposed to simply defining the effects the spellcaster can create. While this latter effect is certainly a function of potential, there’s also a great deal of concept and setting that comes out of characters with different magic potentials.

In GURPS, the game stat is called Magical Aptitiude or Magery, and it defines just how “magical” the character is. A character with Magery 0 can sense magic but isn’t adept at wielding it herself, while a character with Magery 4 has a great potential to turn natural law to her will. In Mage, the character has a Trait called Arete which is a loose amalgamation of the character’s understanding of how magic works as well as how generally “enlightened” she is.

Now, I’m not much a player of the spellcasting classes. I absolutely loved Mage, but more because of its weirdness and Vampire-like politics than any desire to warp reality itself. I’m typically too stupid and foolish to play classes or archetypes whose forte is their high Intelligence or Wisdom. So what I like about the GURPS and Mage approach is that magical aptitude is divorced from being smart or knowing what to do in a situation. Sure, these things can help, but they’re not the driver of the system itself.

You might think I'm the spellcaster here, but in reality, it's Trashcan Magicface. (Wizard. Hobo. Patriot.)

I like that this makes it posisble to have a brutish spellcaster, an ambitious neophyte, or a country bumpkin who fell off the turnip wagon but still has a great reserve of magical potential. Magic can be a practice best left untouched but that still has its adherents. It can be an innately unwholesome force “infecting” a spellcaster or otherwise corrupting her into its use. I like that this separate mechanic helps explain a world in which bizarre magic has created events or locations that are inherently dangerous — the guy who invoked the magic obviously could do it, even if he wasn’t smart or wise enough to recognize it as a bad thing. In D&D, so much bad shit generally falls into the camp of “a mad wizard did it” that it’s preposterous D&D societies don’t stone their wizards to death at birth in the interests of preventing whatever godawful horrors “a mad wizard” has the potential to stir up, so let’s just kill them all and not ever give them a chance to go mad after puberty.

That digression aside, what I like about a separate game stat being called “magic” as opposed to having magic tied to a conceptually unrelated statistic is that it opens up some much room for interpretation and use. I don’t have to be Intelligent to use magic. It will probably help me to be so, but there’s lots of room for uneducated, ignorant, or short-sighted spellcasters, and that helps create a more customizable experience.

Awake In a Grave

Yaros… Yaros…

The sound of someone plaintively calling your name — distant, no louder than a whisper — interrupts your mortal sleep. A moment of panic strikes you. You know that voice! It is your cousin and betrothed, Aysel, the Lady of Winters and heiress to Castle Marchemoor. Where is she? And why does she sound like she’s in distress?

What is this place? It is a tomb — your tomb! Deep beneath the lonely halls of the Castle of Ash and Shadow, this is your family mausoleum. You come here from time to time to think about your future, to write poems and touch the family crests. The gray marble of the sepulchers and the cold flame of the tallow candles offer you a dolorous peace…

…It’s coming back to you. Dinner with Aysel and Lord Eliphas. Too much hypokras. The three of you kept drinking into the night. A nacreous moon. Eliphas’s eyes became orbs of deepest black and he bared his teeth. Aysel screamed. Your hand went to your rapier, but something came in from the window although the window was closed. From then, you don’t remember.


The first thing to do is get out of here, to flee your grave.


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