Try Something New: Hacking

Try Something New is an occasional series of articles about new things… to try! New game mechanics, play styles, or food! 
In my recent CoC game I wanted players to be able to hack into websites and technology. To do so I hit upon a novel way to handle this. This mechanic is explained below:

Preparation:

  1. A skill in your game that can be used for using computers. In my game this is Computer Use, and being Call of Cthulhu this has a percentile number.
  2. A jenga Tower
  3. Cover three jenga blocks with a sticker of some kind, then separate the blocks.
  4. Choose a low number of blocks and write “Virus” on them.

Determine if hacking is possible:

If you are offering a game where a character can be a hacker consider that this will change how you need to play. Anything that is electronic might be hacked. Think about the consequences when you design locations and information. But keep in mind that you are promising at least one player the ability to hack into things and be useful while doing so. Don’t make every important location unhackable.

Break electronic devices into groups.

  1. Unconnected devices.
  2. Connected devices that do not have security.
  3. Connected devices that have static security.
  4. Connected devices that have active security. (ie. someone else is watching the network and protecting it.)

2-4 should all be hackable, and if possible connecting unconnected devices can be something a hacker might try to do.


Hack!

Once you have determined how secure a device is make the player pull from the jenga tower. For no security devices you may want to simply ask them to roll Computer Use, or if the information is useful and necessary simply let them describe the brilliant way they break in.

For static security ask the player to pull 1 jenga block.

For active security ask the player to pull 2-3 jenga blocks.

If a rival hacker or security expert is working to block a hacker from accessing a device you can take turns pulling pieces. But note that unless the tower is near collapse the player will likely always win. Instead ask for a harder number of pulls and make them roll as if they got a virus block.


Dangers

Viruses: The first danger while hacking is viruses. Data can pick up computer viruses and deposit them into the hackers own system.

When a random virus block is pulled the player can roll their Computer Use skill. If they succeed they can do what they want with the virus. They may remove the virus, store it, or even let it run. If they fail describe a potentially harmful virus for them. If the player has pulled more than one virus blocks make the virus more harmful.

Crashing: Most dangerous is a full crash. When the hacker pulls from the tower and the tower collapses their system has crashed. This means the system they were entering will be warned of the hack, and the computer of the hacker has been flagged and attacked by the hostile systems security. This might mean the hacker’s real world location is at risk, or that their own data has been stolen. This should reflect the danger and technological ability of whatever organization or person they are attacking.


Rewards

Data: Whenever the hacker successfully hacks something they should be able to see its data and potentially control the device. A computer or a network might contain emails, phone records, or a video feed. Whatever the hacker’s goal is should be completed.

Data Blocks: Furthermore there are three “data blocks” in the tower marked with a sticker. Let the players keep these blocks between sessions. Once they have found all three, they gain a great deal of important information. This should be a big reveal moment in the game, letting the hacker take the spot light as they discover the dirt on who ever they are attacking.

 

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Try Something New: A Really Depressing Game?

Excavated Dungeon.png

Try Something New is an occasional series of articles about new things… to try! New game mechanics, play styles, or food! 

Last night I finally ran Epic Adventure Tours III, which you can read for free. What I was not prepared for is the extreme existential questions the game poses and the problem that would pose. So… with out further ado, here’s my thoughts on the game.


Spoilers for EAT III ahead:

Epic Adventure Tours is my comedic take on a classic fantasy setting that has been connected to the real world by portals. The real world has quickly monopolized on this connection and commercialized it, using the fantasy races for tourism. However our real world has a lot of preconceptions about fantasy races and demanded it fit their vision. Dwarves and elves weren’t allowed to live with each other, orks, goblins, and other humanoids were deemed “evil” and are often killed during tours.

EAT III specifically deals with a small town and its neighboring dungeon. The village has been suffering without the influx of cash that the tours generate to other towns.  When illegal portal travelers appeared and offered money the villagers were quick to accept a deal. Desperate they turned to the near by Elven tomb. Breaking in they slaughtered the goblins who lived there and began excavating the tombs, stealing magic items and selling to the gun toting “Buyers.”

The death of the goblins quickly threw the dungeon’s environment into chaos, the mushrooms that the goblins ate began to grow at a rapid rate, filling many chambers with poisonous gas lethal to humans, and ogres living in the caverns near by couldn’t feed on goblins and began attacking the human village instead.

As the game begins the players come across a small remnant of the goblin tribe attacking a human, and here the existential problems began. After killing all but one goblin, my group realized they had just committed genocide on these poor creatures. As their captive sunk into a deep depression the band began to worry about what they would do. Next when they captured some of the human looters and heard that they were simply trying to feed their families, it got worse.

The table descended into discussing how to overcome the institutionalized colonialism and racism of the world. Suddenly it became apparent that the game was a no win scenario. They discussed whether they could train the ogres to herd sheep, whether giving the humans a legitimate license for excavating the tomb would help them work out a long term solution, or whether at this point it was better to just give up and not change things further.

As a game writer who often writes horror scenarios for Call of Cthulhu, this is perhaps the most horrific game I’ve ever written. The players truly felt the existential dread and helplessness of their position, trapped in their own preconceptions and overcome with an inability to help.


What Worked

This game hit upon the perfect moment where players genuinely care about something. I have to be honest, I think it’s this particular group of players and not any trick or technique of mine. But while the players left rather intrigued if a little depressed, the game was fun and they want to get back and try to see if they can solve this one way or another.


What Didn’t Work

Like I said above the game was pretty depressing. And in the end I wonder if there will be a good solution. It feels like this could be a game where the players have a very legitimate reason to give up.

It also meant that my pitch was… dishonest. I pitched the game as comedic and a dungeon crawl. But immediately after the goblin fight everyone wished they had made charismatic characters instead of fighters. I don’t know if I would change my description of the game, since telling players to focus on talking and persuasion would give it away a little, I could see the group might get frustrated if they fail to convince people because of a few rubbish CHA rolls. While the game was… funny, in that dark way where you have to laugh at this sort of thing, it was still not really “comedic” and next time I might not mention that.


Next Time

I can only hope that next time there is a happy solution. I think I know how I would like to see this solved, but the players have so far come up with several ingenious fixes and I’m sure they’ll land on a combination that will surprise me.

In future perhaps I’ll try to adapt some of this game’s conflicts to appropriately horrific stories, while keeping my fantasy games light and fluffy. But you never know!

 

 

Try Something New: Magic System

Try Something New is an occasional series of articles about new things… to try! New game mechanics, play styles, or food! 

The Flames Engulf was a mix of new ideas and techniques, some worked other did not. One of the major ones was creating a new magic system for Call of Cthulhu that fit the in game ideas about the Cthulhu Mythos. If you go read the Book of Excruciating Knowledge (Friday Game Notes 20) you can read more about that. Read Friday Game Notes 21 to read about the magic system in full.

The main mechanic of the magic is descriptive. Battling magicians simultaneously reveal how many magic points they are spending on their attack or defense. If the attacker spends more than the defender they do damage equal to a number of 1d6s equal to the number of magic points spent. Both parties can also describe their magical attack adding extra dice to the attack through narrative descriptions.


What Worked

This system was fairly effective for a pretty pulpy magical feel. The back and forth worked best on one on one combat or in small groups. The mechanics fell apart a little as more people got involved.

The players were infinitely creative with magical descriptions. Since magic was consigned to three categories, Power, Matter, and Interaction the players had varied camps to pull from. All being scientists of various sorts they ran circles around me describing the way they would melt bones or brainwash their victims.


What Didn’t

The dreaded words of “power creep” entered Flames with the magic system. Early on, before the magic system was completely added into the game, it had been established that magicians could remove power from other living creatures. Before I knew it players were murdering poor animals, and in a couple of cases humans and stealing their power. Soon their POW scores were through the roof and I had to boost the villains in response. The players without magic started to feel like they were falling behind.

The idea that players could so drastically improve their power both left non-magic using players in the lurch and ruined the theme of helplessness in Call of Cthulhu.


Next Time

I think they had a lot of fun with the magic and I would use it again in a pulpy game. I would even use it in a classic Call of Cthulhu game but I would seriously enforce the horrible consequences from using such power.

Players in future would also not be able to increase their POW scores by more than a few points.

Try Something New: Bangs!

Try Something New is an occasional series of articles about new things… to try! New game mechanics, play styles, or food! 

When planning for sessions of The Flames Engulf I wanted to keep it a more freeform style, especially since I wanted players to call scenes. This meant that I had to be able to throw complications into any scene at any time. The answer came from the Alexandrian, “Bangs.”

Bangs are moments that will suddenly throw the players into a decision making moment. New information, a sudden entrance of an enemy, all sudden moments that will change a scene.


What Worked

When I used them Bangs worked pretty well. For some characters it was great to be able to throw added drama into a flat scene. This worked especially well with the less interesting investigation scenes. Being able to have something to add when a character is in the library was very useful. It also was useful for adding twists to more tense scenes. A sudden entrance from an enemy, or information that suddenly twists the players plans could add a lot to the game.


What Didn’t

Of course the Alexandrian ends his article with a warning, using bangs can lead to railroads. The article describes it as using bangs to dictate what the players have to do. If found there is a different sort of railroad that can result. When planned too far ahead the bangs can make it seem that the players are having little to no impact on what bad things happen to them.

A player might decide to go to the library to research the history of the town, or they might go to interview a suspect, but either way the Bang “Aldrich the wizard attacks” happens either way. Soon it seems like no matter what they do there is no rest.

The other problem I found was that it was difficult to write bangs. Perhaps only because of my own personal folly, but I found that the investigative style and the thick background meant bangs were either nonexistent or too inevitable. I had written so much background detail that the game was too inflexible. If a player decided to go do a scene somewhere I wasn’t expecting and I couldn’t reasonably add in a real threat the bangs I had created were useless. If they wanted to do some simple risk free exploring of somewhere I knew there was plenty of risk I couldn’t not use the bangs even if the plot really called for a rest period.


Next Time

I want to still use bangs, but I need to practice with them. In the current game the players are much more free agents, not trying to save the world or solve deep mystery, this lets them make their own trouble. However as I plan to move to a more antagonistic plot I will probably use bangs to slowly up the stakes of the game.

Try Something New: Scene Calling

After three more traditional games where each in game morning would start with a “what do you do now?” I decided I would borrow from Dramasystem and Fiasco and create a way for players to move action through scene calling.

Each session each player would take turns to set a scene, describing where, when, and who was in each scene. Session would be broken into about two scenes for each player and they had full control over who would be in that scene or what was happening there.

I was particularly inspired to use this after two other campaigns I played in and the GM predetermined how all of the characters would be introduced. I had a clear idea how I wanted to make first impressions on the party but that was cut off at the ankles straight away. Instead in my game I wanted the players to be able to control what the action was and where it happened.

 


What Worked

It kept action fast paced and continual. One player declared they wanted a scene of their character exploring a cemetery and getting into trouble. It naturally turned into a classic horror scene as the grey statues disappeared behind him to suddenly appear as a horrible ghoul. He barely escaped with his life and loved every minute.

Scene calling let players draw on the action they wanted, dealing with conflicts when they wanted, skipping the boring bits of library research or the city gritty of getting to locations.

What Didn’t

The biggest hurdle seemed to be that the traditional style was so ingrained in the players they couldn’t shake it. “What’s your scene?” just changed back into “what do you do next?” While some players would be moving forwards the others would feel they were falling behind and didn’t have time to do what they wanted because they thought each scene had to be immediately after the last.

Instead of focusing on setting a scene where the thing they wanted happened they got caught up on the build up, waiting for me to create the pay off I didn’t know they wanted. While a reactive character might have worked well if the player was creating scenes for their Investigator to react to often they would call scenes with nothing happening and then get frustrated that they weren’t changing anything.


Next Time

I think practice makes perfect in this case. With more experience players should be able to use this sort of gameplay to rip into the plots and scenes they want, something I sorely miss in others games.

However I think I tried too much at once with The Flames Engulf. Playing both NPCs and having a scene calling mechanic meant players had too much to think about and struggled. It became a juggling act of trying to predict player actions to brief the players on what their NPCs might be doing, while they were making their own decisions.

I may use scene calling with my GUMSHOE driven game Goliard as an experiment. Goliard is a heist game set in 13th century France. The GUMSHOE system fits this better, with Ability Spends acting as reasons for scenes as they prepare their plans. Then when the heist happens it can act as a more traditional stream of scenes.

Try Something New: CoC Without Death

Try Something New is an occasional series of articles about new things… to try! New game mechanics, play styles, or food! 

This one was a big one and the whole basis for running Flames Engulf. After running a very deadly Masks of Nyarlathotep and playing in a quasi-sequel Horror on the Orient Express where my characters in particular seemed to die just before there was any interesting character development I wanted to play a horror filled game where the main characters weren’t in danger of dropping dead before the dread kicked in.

So before the game, in fact nearly six months before the game, I sat down with each player and told them to make the most complex character they could, with family, friends, goals, and passions and that they didn’t have to worry about them dying.


What Worked

The game was brutal! But brutal in a very new way. Some characters like Ben Vogel got themselves into trouble in ways that were mind-blowingly bad to the point at the end of the game he had sworn himself so thoroughly over to Nyarlathotep that he was forced to do his bidding right up to the end.

Other characters had different sort of pressure as the bad guys they were stirring up started to get revenge. Horror was no longer because their characters were going to die, but because their actions were causing bad things to happen to their loved ones and the city.


What Didn’t

The complete absence of death did strain credulity a bit. Malcolm, a gangster who’s gang was facing off against a ghoul pack seemed to find himself in situations where he was brought to death’s door over and over again to the point we nicknamed him Rasputin.

While some of this was growing pains from Call of Cthulhu’s new (and improved) damage and death rules other times it simply became too hard to believe that he could survive yet another attack. If death had been on the table perhaps he would have run away.


Next Time

I think I would do this again, if only because my favorite types of horror are the ones where you have to stop and consider if you are crazy or not. However I want to strike a balance, a game where the horror is not in rolling up a new character but the dread of the monsters that are out there, but those monsters are dangerous for the players or everyone else.

Try Something New: Let Players play NPCs

Try Something New is an occasional series of articles about new things… to try! New game mechanics, play styles, or food! 

My last Call of Cthulhu campaign Flames Engulf was a place for Keeper and Players alike to try new things. I encouraged my players to try new things and challenge themselves with challenging characters and I challenged myself to finally practice what I preach and run a very different game.

One of the first things I realized after writing my many and many game notes (Found in my Friday Game Notes articles.) was that I had hundreds of NPCs to play. That was stupid of me. To make matters worse I had encouraged most of my players to make large families or groups of dependents so I had plenty of cannon fodder for my horror game.

My first step was to find as many characters I could combine, crushing them into pulpy mashes of two or more characters. Still I had too many NPCs for me to play. So I outsourced.


Letting Players play NPCs

Really when it came to the game it was easy. I would give each player a stable of NPCs to play. I already knew most of the Investigators were fairly independent of each other so this would make it more fun for whoever didn’t have an Investigator in any particular scene. But I had to make sure the player playing the NPC knew enough about them to play them. Call of Cthulhu is an investigative game after all so giving them too much could have spoiled the game (or so I thought.)

What I did was create simple “character cards” a slip of paper, three to an 8.5×11. Each was split into two sections, the top had the NPCs name and a short description and the bottom half had a stat block and a section for locations where the NPC would normally be found. I ended up never using the locations at all since the Players didn’t find them useful.

The stat black was simplified from Call of Cthulhu’s normal characteristics and skills. Instead I gave every NPC: Brains, Brawn, and Power, as well as an HP amount, Sanity if applicable, and sometimes magic points or damage bonus if I felt it was needed. I didn’t bother adding combat skills or weapon damage until I knew an NPC would be fighting.

Such simple stats worked out great, it made for really easy rolling. Whatever skills they might have could just be rolled into those stats and the Players could get a good idea of whether their NPC was the brains or the brawn. It also meant I could occasionally hide certain stats from the players so they wouldn’t know certain details about their own NPCs. Many of them had fake Sanity scores for one.

Finally to let the players know what the NPC was up to in each separate session I would write notes on the slips in pencil in between sessions. During a session the notes would often inform the players what they had to do, what information or clues they could drop, or how they should lie to the Investigators.


How it Worked in Practice

It actually worked out really well with some small drawbacks. First of all it did free me from the burden of having to run huge quantities of NPCs and trying to bring them to life. Instead I could hand NPCs to players I knew fit their disposition. The Player who often plays crazy Investigators could play many of the insane NPCs. The joker of our group could play the comedic characters. Our player who is good at emotional characters did a wonderful job playing as family members of other PCs.

Where it Worked the Best

The best moments with Player controlled NPCs where the characters who the Players got the most control of and engaged with the most. Since Flames was set during the war I introduced a random “draft” roll and some of the NPCs disappeared to fight overseas. By the luck of the roll Justine Vogel, the daughter of Ben Vogel, one of the Investigators, became Police Commissioner. The player playing Justine brought life to Justine as the new Commissioner struggled to prove her worth in the Police Force while dealing with the insanity encroaching on her father and the rest of her family.

A trip to the brothel the “Stiff Lawyer” became unforgettable when the police charged in to search for the Investigator and mobster Malcolm Warrel and his partner in crime Liam. Liam, obviously missing his arm, was nabbed as the “One Armed Bandit” involved in a bank heist. But Malcolm managed to keep his head down and hadn’t been spotted. Liam, a little drunk was getting dragged out the door when he turns and calls to his friend in a friendly slurred voice, “Bye Malcolm!” The ensuing chase was nearly the end of poor Malcolm and to this day Liam hasn’t been sprung from jail.

It also facilitated broader personal stories for the Investigators who could split up the party without fear that all the other players would be growing bored around them. By having NPCs to play all the players were engaged with the game the whole time.

Where it Failed

By now it should be obvious that I had too many characters. Even with cutting back and combining characters there were too many, each Player was expected to keep track of at least five NPCs and up to eleven at times. Many became rarely used or would have one or two scenes before they never showed up again.

Of course with so many characters many of them just weren’t that interesting. Some of the Players came to me with ideas to make their NPCs more interesting and I hardly ever said no. However other NPCs languished, one ended up in a coma because the Player didn’t want to play her. One Player had mostly passive information giver NPCs and didn’t get to play them very often.

I also kept too much control of the NPCs. While some of the players had good fun being the agents of my twisted plans for the torment of the Investigators other NPCs would end up in weird unnatural positions where my concept for them didn’t mesh with what the Player thought was going on. Cohen, a mad and undead wizard had “Attack a PC when they are alone” on their sheet for three sessions without him doing a thing because the player never saw a moment where he felt comfortable attacking while I would have had the wizard attack at any time. The best incidents were where I gave the Players free reign to decide the actions of their NPCs or had a very clear goal to work towards as that NPC.

The investigative side of the NPCs withered a bit too. Only a few Players were very good at making the information or clues interesting. A couple Players would just read out my bullet list I wrote for them making those NPCs and those scenes incredibly dull.

Next Time

It was fantastic to see many of the NPCs come to life in ways I never expected or could have done myself. But next time I use this technique I will make some modifications.

First of all I would choose less NPCs for the Players to handle limiting them to the main instigators of the game. Big-bads, Investigator family members, and central characters make the best Player run NPCs, the more colorful the better.

Second I would take a hand off approach to the NPCs. While I would set up the characters at the beginning of the game and give them a list of goals I wouldn’t dictate their actions in any given scene.

Finally I would keep a lot of the information dump, quest giving, and background characters to myself. If the NPC doesn’t have a whole lot of agency in the story they won’t be interesting for the Players to play.

Try it for yourself!