Friday 4 August 2023

Campaign Framework: Playing The Cops

Content warning: This post discusses playing as agents of a police force. In many countries around the world, police forces are primarily oppressive institutions dedicated to enforcing an authoritarian status quo.

Police and detectives are enormously common in media, but RPGs seem far more likely to lean into criminal activities and anti-social adventurers than to depict the players as police officers. 

This isn't a question of morality, but one of practicality. RPGs are at their best when they let players choose their own approach to situations and solutions to problems, rather than railroading them towards obvious goals and single solutions.

A police game lends itself towards railroading - PC are either fighting criminals or solving mysteries. The former lends itself towards one simple solutions - applying force to eliminate or detain criminals. The latter relies on the GM's ability to deliver clues effectively, and the player's ability to piece those clues together. Moreover, police officers are typically part of a strict hierarchy, where they're expected to follow orders rather than make their own decisions.

I've had some success running games with an alternate framework: the police taskforce.

The Taskforce Game

There are four elements to this framework: the mandate, the case boardoperations and entanglements.

In this framework, the PCs are members of a taskforce with a broad mandate to approach an issue in a specific region, city, or neighbourhood. They don't answer to the local cops - who are likely corrupt and part of the problem. Their superiors are distant, and they have wide-ranging authority to interpret their mandate and take action as they see fit. This approach places PCs in opposition to the local status quo, rather than as agents enforcing it.

The PCs will also have a case board. This serves as the combined campaign map and progress chart. Key figures are listed on the board, with low-level operators at the bottom at Tier 1 and ringleaders or powerful figures at the top on Tier 3. The question for the PCs in this game is not who committed the crime, but how they will take down the ringleaders to fulfil their mandate and stop their plans.

Opening case board

While the PCs have badges, they don't have unlimited legal authority. They cannot simply arrest the ringleader and have them jailed for life - they need to build a case against them using their case board. The legal process is simplified for the purposes of the game. Tier 1 figures only need a single witness piece of evidence linking them to a crime, while Tier 3 figures need three pieces of evidence before they can be sent to prison.

The PCs will have to undertake operations to build the case. They pick a target figure from the caseboard, and choose an approach: either trying to flip a witness against them, or gather some sort of evidence linking the target to a crime. These operations form the basic unit of play - an operation can take a whole session, or be as simple as resolving a single room in a dungeon.

Of course, the PCs do not exist in a vaccuum. After (or even during) each operation, the PCs will suffer entanglements - actions and reactions from other factions or their superiors that they are forced to deal with. These can be randomly rolled, determined by a clock or an accumulating heat mechanism, determined by NPC decision making, or some combination of the three.

Finished case board

Rulesets and Procedures

The game illustrated above was run in a Forged in the Dark system - but there's no reason the same approach couldn't be used for an OSR game, an Apocalypse game, or even a 5e game run by a particularly masochistic GM. 

The important thing is to incorporate procedures of play that facilitate the above elements. For the Forged in the Dark game set in Dogtown, we used the following procedures:

  • Engagement rolls to cut directly to the action when undertaking operations
  • Heat accumulation to determine the level of friction caused by the agents in operations.
  • Entanglement rolls influenced by the Heat system to determine what would occur after operations.

The full rules deck is available here.

This approach is directly inspired by the Flames Without Shadow supplement for Blades in the Dark written by John Harper, Andrew Gills, and Sean Nittner, and available here.

Sunday 5 March 2023

The Four-Fold King

The men of the Frostlands are no friends of giants, and have often warred with them. But they have always respected certain traditions. Certain prophecies. They have always held the life of the Giants' Jarl inviolate, until he has an heir.

Sadly, the adventurers either did not know of, or did not heed, the ancient tradition, and stumbling upon the latest young Jarl fishing in the wilderness, slew him for his crown. When they returned to town, they were not greeted with the adulation they expected, for the men of the Frostlands knew what would happen next...

High in the mountains, the Cairn of the Fourfold King crumbled, its occupant freed once more, to claim the crown that now falls to his undead hands. Lord of giants by birth, draugr by death, trolls by might and dragons by skill, he will raise an army the likes of which the world has not seen in many ages, and march on the lands of men...

Friday 28 May 2021

World of Dungeons - Life Paths

Roll 3d6 for stats in order.

When you are born, roll +nothing. On a 10+, you are born Noble. On a 7-9, choose: born peasant, born merchant, born barbarian.  On a miss, you're a peasant.

When you are born to a noble house, roll +CHA. On a hit, you can start a career at age 20+1d4, and start adventuring with 100 extra silver pieces. On a 7-9, also choose 1: you have a jealous rival, you are betrothed to a difficult spouse, you're fat (-1 to DEX). On a miss, you're thrown out of your family in disgrace and start a career at age 14+1d6.

When you are born a peasant, roll +CON. On a hit, you survive your childhood and can start a career at age 14+1d4. On a 10+, you also start with one extra Hit Dice because of your peasant toughness. On a 7-9, you still suffer from some disease that ravaged you in childhood, take -1 to any stat. On a miss, you die in childhood, roll up a new character.

When you are born to a merchant family, roll +INT. On a hit, you can start a career at age 16+1d6, and you gain a +1 on your roll to enter your chosen career. On a 10+, you also start adventuring with 100 extra silver pieces. On a miss, your family falls into destitute poverty, and you start adventuring with a major debt to a noble house.

When you are born into a barbarian tribe, roll +STR. On a hit, you pass the trials of adulthood and can start a career at age 16+1d6. On a 10+, you also prove yourself to the spirits and receive a Spirit Guide. On a miss, you are thrown out of your tribe and marked as an exile forever, start a career at age 14+1d4 and take -1 to any one stat from the scars of your failure.


When you seek out a mentor and try to learn the ways of magic, roll +INT. On a hit, you are brought into the mysteries of the magical world and start as an apprentice mage and gain Guild Membership. On a 10+, you also choose: you have a particularly Wise Mentor, you have a particular talent for Second Sight, or you gain a Familiar. On a miss, your attempts to toy with forces you don't understand unleash a torrent of magical energy, roll on the magical mishaps table and then roll for a random career.

Apprentice Mage

When you spend a term as an apprentice mage, roll +INT. On a hit, you learn one basic wizard move - Cantrips, Second Sight, Alchemy, or Rituals. On a 10+, you can also choose: gain a Familiar, gain +1 INT (max +3), advance to journeyman wizard next term (as long as you have the Rituals move). On a miss, you learn nothing and suffer a magical mishap.

Journeyman Mage

When you spend a term as a journeyman mage, roll +INT. On a hit, you learn one advanced wizard move - Evocation, Transmutation, or Conjuration - or up to two basic wizard moves. On a 10+, you can choose also to advance to master mage next term. On a 7-9, choose one: gain a powerful rival, suffer a magical mishap, or lose your Guild Membership. On a miss, you die in a particularly unfortunate spell backfire.

Master Mage

When you spend a term as a master mage, roll +INT. On a hit, you learn one master wizard move - Elemental Mastery, Divination, or Necromancy - or up to two basic or advanced wizard moves. On a 7-9, choose one: suffer a magical mishap, gain a Planar Power as an enemy. On a miss, you die - if you have the Necromancy move, you can choose to become a Lich and continue advancing without threat of death.


When you seek your fortune in the arena, roll +STR. On a hit, you become a gladiator.

Tuesday 16 October 2018

The Cantor System

In the calendar of the lost Earth, it is the thirty-second century. Six hundred years have passed since the psychic Scream destroyed the Terran Mandate.
Near the trailing edge of human space, the Cantor system is dragging itself out of six centuries of Silence. The techno-anarchist collectives of San Borea have ascended from the surface of their icy moon, reclaimed the secrets of the metadimensional spike drive, and are rapidly expanding their grasp across nearby systems. New Zion, in contrast, is a undeveloped desert world, riven by ethnic and religious strife. Asteroid mines, deep-space research stations, and gas-collection platforms dot the remainder of the system.
It is in the depths of this febrile environment that the Moondancer Collective seeks to make their fortune as troubleshooters and conflict resolution agents.

Monday 7 December 2015

The Horus Supremacy

It is the 41st Millenium. For ten thousand years, the Emperor has led his grear war-fleets from the Silver Throne of Luna. He is the master of mankind by the will of the sword and the storm, and master of a million worlds by the might of his indestructible armies.  He is a deathless vampire, writhing visibly with the untold powers of the Red Age of Sorcery. He is the Wolf Khan of the Experium, for whom ten thousand souls are impaled every day, so that he may continue to ride out against the enemies of man.

Yet even in his deathless state, the Emperor's vigilance fades. Mighty battlefleets struggle through the demon-infested sargasso of the Immaterium, the only route between the bleeding stars, their way lit only by the baleful light of the Unblinking Eye. Vast armies battle in His name on uncounted worlds. Greatest amongst his scions are the Adeptus Cicatrix, the Scarred Marines, chaos-warped super-warriors. Their servitors and sometime foes include the Principalitans and their cults and armies, the inescapable Guild of Shadows, and the Tech-Sorcerers of the Arean Cult, to name but a few. But for all their multitudes, they can rarely hold together against the ever-present threat from aliens, traitors and marauders - or worse.

To be a man in such times is to be one amongst untold billions. It is to live in the midst of the cruelest and bloodiest war imaginable. These are the tales of those times. Forget the power of technology and science, for so much has been forgotten, never to be re-learned. Forget the promise of progress and understanding, for in the grim dark future there is only war. There is no peace amongst the stars, only an eternity of carnage and slaughter, and the laughter of thirsting gods.

Horus prevails.

being the unspeakably true & yet now forgotten tales of the
or, those who bested the firmament of the heavens

Sunday 4 January 2015

[Time Opera] Her Majesty Queen Victoria, Empress of Otherwhen

The discovery of Cavorite in 1855 sparked a wave of innovation across the world. With the miraculous gravity-defying properties of the mineral, it seemed that the last barriers separating Man from the Heavens had been struck down by Science. Aerostats and cavorite trains linked the far-flung corners of the globe.

There was still one last frontier to be struck through... the cruel mistress of Time. And in 1872, James Clark Maxwell did just that when he discovered the chronological ether...

Planarch Effect

Planarch Effect is a campaign setting I have dreamed of for some time. Drawing together Planescape with Mass Effect, along with a host of other influences, it has lately become the default world for my thoughts and feelings around Dungeon World.


The Great Wheel is the whirling mass of the many planes, consisting of worlds beyond counting, each suspended within its own crystalline sphere. Every plane has its own character - from hyperboreal ice planes, locked in the eternal grasp of an endless winter, to the bizarre spinning and colliding cubes of Acheron, home-plane of the Urukai.

Crystalline spheres are all that protect a plane from the roiling dream-currents of the Astral Sea, the void between worlds, where words can wound and thoughts can kill. Traveling between planes unguided is a dangerous art, practiced only by a few foolish mages known as planarchs who pilot their spelljammers between the worlds. Most choose instead to travel on more limited gatejammers, which utilise the ancient dragon-gate network that links the many planes together in an immense web of worlds.

The nexus of the dragon-gate network is the Spire, an impossibly tall tower-city perched on the edge of the whirling elemental vortex known as the Mouth of Pain. As the centre of the dragon-gate network, it serves as a gathering place and seat of government for the interplanar civilization known as the Sigillium.

The Sigillium

Established in the aftermath of the Draconic Crusade, the Sigil Council is, in theory, the ruling body of much the Great Wheel. The Sigil is the universal term for the sign that binds the Sigillium together - three small circles arranged equally around a larger circle. In one symbol, it represents a compact made millenia ago by the three Council Races - the Eldarin, the Myrmidons, and the Urukai - to preserve balance in the universe after the fall of Dragon-kind.

Worlds that accept the Sigil are granted the protection of the Council Races, at the cost of buying into an arcane and ancient series of laws, trade restrictions, and commandments that the Sigil Council has established over the centuries. To enforce these laws and the balance of peace across the Great Wheel, the Sigil Council appoints Wardens of the Sigil, elite agents entrusted with extraordinary authority to take any action necessary to preserve balance in the name of the Sigil. Wardens are generally considered to be above any law or sanction beyond that of the Sigil Council themselves.

Most races within the Sigillium have no representation on the Sigil Council themselves. An arcane system of patronage governs the interrelationship between races within the Sigillium - races that have not developed planejamming arts themselves must serve as clients to one of the Council Races. Humans of the world of Urtha, the first race since the Council Races to have developed planejamming arts without the intervention of others, serve as a challenge to the whole structure of the Sigillium as it stands today.

Locales of Note

The Mechanus Veil is a blanket across the edge of the Sigillium where the dragon-gate network has been disrupted by the actions of modrons, ancient machine-beings of unknown origin that once marched across the stars and were only pushed back by the combined efforts of the Council Races. There are rumours that they have grown in activity

Arrathoom is a desert plane near Urtha, peopled by insectoid nomads known as the Tharkeen. In the distant past, it was a lush and pleasant world, but the Dragon-empire defiled it with horrific magical experiments. Now, it is a priceless source of the magical residue known as irradium, an addictive substance which can empower its users with incredible supernatural powers.

The Urukai home plane of Acheron is not a single world - within its sphere, a thousand thousand spinning cubes of metal and iron clash endlessly in the eternal dusk. Within Acheron itself, the Sigil is partially broken - even as they present a united front to the rest of the Sigillium, the five Great Hordes of the Urukai war amongst themselves for honor and a chance to win glory in the next life.

Resting within a lake of fire on the hell-plane of Ignos, the City of Brass is the greatest city in the Great Wheel beyond the reach of the Sigillium. You will not find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy anywhere in the universe. Within its brass walls, slave-traders, pirates, necromancers, raiders and criminals of every description come to meet and trade under the watchful eye of Al-Jabbar, the Efreeti lord of the city.


Theme: Rivalry

Mood: bustlin'

Littleheim: dwarven quarter

Imperial Opera House:

The University of Waldorf: archeology!

Friday 7 September 2012

Jonathan Walton's Guide To Writing AW Hacks

Jonathan Walton wrote here:

If you are designing a game with a GM-like role...

1. Start with AW, but with no PC moves. Just the MC stuff.

2. Alter MC Agendas/Principles/AlwaysSays/MCMoves to reflect the style of play you have in mind.

3. Recognise that this is a completely functional game. Consider playing it. Maybe the game is done now.

4. Distill categories of player actions into principled freeform moves ("when you do x, it turns out like y"), no dice and no mechanics, just descriptions ("when you inflict violence, it's messy, complicated, and unproductive").

5. Recognise that this is a completely functional game. Consider playing it. Maybe the game is done now.

6. Begin turning principled freeform moves into other types of moves if the moves are not fully satisfying. Probably only do this a few moves at a time so that you can...

7. Test the moves in small batches by continuing to actually play the game. Sometimes one new move may render previously "finished" moves to be less perfect. Game design is hard. But the simpler and fewer your moves are (and the better thought-out they are) the easier it is to avoid these kinds of upsets. Sometimes it's necessary to shake the foundation, though. Or replace an established move with a principled freeform move and start over.

8. Eventually you can declare the game "done" or stop working on it. But your players and fans will probably continue the above process without you, either way.

Notice that at no point in the design process is the game not completely playable. This is critical. My advice: keep releasing playable drafts so other folks can enjoy your game while you continue to work on it. 

Also: you now have no excuse not to be playing your game, if that's what you really want to be doing (and, really, why else design a game?). "It's not done yet" doesn't cut it anymore. If you don't like some things and can't think of anything better yet, just replace those portions with principled freeform moves until you get a new brainwave.

Monday 20 August 2012

Healing Potions

There's a reason why not every man and his dog uses these things. Besides the fact that the ingredients are rather expensive, they're magic, and most folks know just how dangerous swallowing something magical can be. It will heal what ails you, but at what cost?

Roll 2d6+number of potions drank in the last (day? week?).

you heal now, but in a few days you take [damage]
lose control of a limb. Is it inactive, or does it do things you don't want it to.
become intoxicated or start hallucinating.
weird mutations. They'll go away, but not before they inconvenience you.
Blinded for a while
Excruciating pain - you go down to 1 hp for [a little while]. Afterwards, you go back to whatever you were on before, plus the healing.
Vomit frogs or slugs
You're perfectly healthy. You're also a mouse.
Comatose. Your mind is opened to the howling void while you're under, too.
Gain a debility.
Vomit liquid fire. It can't hurt you, but is quite capable of harming your friends and destroying your possessions.
You're fine... except you occasionally turn to stone for a few seconds. This is very random and inconvenient.

Or maybe it's a +CON roll?
7-9 has some vaguely unpleasant side effect. A miss means the GM gets to make a move. It's probably not even related to the drinking - the universe doesn't like you cheating.

Tuesday 7 August 2012

[Dungeon World] Martial Arts Styles, Part 2

Black Swan Style

Emphasizing the unexpected movement and putting your opponent off-balance, this secretive school was developed by members of the Black Swan Triad. Using the techniques of this school will instantly mark you as someone with deep and close ties to the Jade City's youngest criminal organisation.
Basic Techniques:
  • Swooping Hawk Strike: Suddenly move across a distance and attack an enemy before they expect it.
  • Solo Swan Sweep: Trip your foe, either putting them on the floor or off-balance.
  • Unbalanced Equilibrium Stance: When an enemy attacks you, redirect their attack against something else.
Preferred Weapons: Butterfly knives, chains.
Weakness: Unpredictability

Falling Leaf Style

The Falling Leaf school is one of the less common martial arts practised on Chennai. Once popular in the old Empire of the Many Heavens, it has lost traction over the centuries as its practitioners have died off or associated themselves with unsuccessful regimes. Built on the principles of balance and subtlety, it is not an easy style to learn, but those who master it can still be highly effective in battle.
Basic Techniques:
  • Subtle Breeze Movement: Defy gravity for a few moments.
  • Gentle Inertia Tap: Knock an enemy off-balance and force them into a position where you have the advantage.
  • Balanced Awareness Technique: Avoid being surprised and instead act before your opponent.
Preferred Weapons: Staves, swords.
Weakness: Lack of fortitude

Flying Horse Style

The ghazi-warriors of Shatranji are masters of the martial sphere, and have developed several different schools of combat. Flying Horse Style emphasizes the bravery of the charge, the sheer courage it takes for someone to throw themselves into battle and risk death for their beliefs.
Basic Techniques:
  • Headstrong Stallion Charge: Leap at an opponent, ignoring any obstacles, and strike them with terrible force.
  • Implacable Courage Spirit: Ignore fear, terror, or a supernatural assault on your mind.
  • Terrifying Hooves of Destruction: Make an attack against your opponent that is particularly terrifying or awe-inspiring - lesser foes may flee in terror.
Preferred Weapons: Spears, maces.
Weakness: Unsubtle

Shifting Crab Style

Another technique wielded by the warriors of Shatranji, this school emphasizes being where your opponent is not and moving around their defenses, rather than attempting to strike them head-on.
Basic Techniques:
  • Devious Sideways Step: Suddenly move to where your opponent would not expect you to be.
  • Penetrating Pincer Attack: When you have an advantageous position, strike at your foe's weak points and inflict terrible damage.
  • Unorthodox Motion Defence: Avoid an attack or danger by moving in a surprising way. 
Preferred Weapons: Nunchaku, fans, claws.
Weakness: Arrogance