Thursday, April 14, 2016

Danger: Unexploded Spell (Part II: On Play)
Last week I posted my backstory and sketches for Danger: Unexploded Spell (DUXS). In it players are bomb disposal technicians in a fantasy city showered with spellbombs. Each night enemy forces carry out aerial assaults. Some of the attacks don't detonate, leaving dangerous traps scattered around the capital. These aren't simple bombs, but complex arcane devices. The game's more London Blitz with spells than any modern analogue. I've written up what this might look like at the table and what I'd have to do to run it.

A DUXS campaign would deal with life and survival in in Crux. Characters would have to worry about resources: food shortages, lack of basic supplies, black markets, and low-grade equipment. They have an allowance and an allotment from the service, but this should just be enough to get by...unless they bunk down in the barrack's dank corners. PCs will have to horse-trade to get what they want. By contrast they may witness nobles, the wealthy, and the highly placed flaunting their access to fine foods and luxuries.

All of that will be underscored by the near-constant nightly bombardment and magical battles above the city. Their living quarters may be damaged or destroyed. Characters might be caught out on assignment during a raid, forcing them to take shelter. They may see bandits and thieves taking advantage of the situation, stealing from those who’ve left their homes. They'll have to balance personal safety, protecting others, and maintaining order.

We'll want to look at how these characters relax. How do they interact with the populace? This is a city under siege, with less stiff upper lip than London had. There’s suspicion throughout the streets of Crux: infiltrators, racial tensions, and general insanity. Some of the populace support the struggle, others have simply resigned themselves. But there’s probably an undercurrent of resentment- and perhaps even revolution. Players might clash with these cells or operations. 

Something I didn’t stress in the backstory document: is the conflict black and white? Are the players supporting the “good” side? Generally that should be the case, though with occasional ambiguity and incompetence. I can imagine some GMs would want to pull out a reveal that they’re actually supporting a corrupt regime. But that feels unfair, undercutting their successes for no real reason. A more complex campaign might revolve around the PCs dealing with bomb disposal while trying to bring about regime change. 

The PC's biggest challenge will be dealing with bombs. These will often (but not always) be the big bad of a session. The trick here will be to strike a balance between narrative, choice, and dicing for results. Disarming shouldn’t be simply be a roll or series of rolls; other elements should elevate that. That means it'll probably require the most work and tweaks. 

I played Ghost Lines again last week. In that game each character has a role, with distinct equipment, tied to rogue ghost removal. A team needs all members to function well. When I sketched out a team-based Monster Hunter game, I wanted to use something like that. It could work pretty well for DUXS. Off the top of my head, I can imagine four roles:
  • Excavator: When the spellbombs fall they smash through stone and earth, burying themselves in courtyards, temples, dungeons, and markets. Though they haven’t gone off, they remain a threat and any disturbance could trigger them. The Excavator has trained in clearing debris and getting the team to the bomb or lifting it into the open.
  • Analyst: They read the signs and magical signatures in the area. Analysts try to uncover what the spell might do, how potent it could be, and what might trigger it. They possess both arcane and practical knowledge. Through their study of previously disarmed spells they've learned spot physical signs and maker’s marks. Their advice and insight assists other team members.
  • Disarmer: They undertake the actual task of rendering the spell bomb inert. Usually that means isolating and clipping the triggering components in the spell. But they may also cut the bomb off from necessary elements, rewrite the way the device sees the world, or even wrestle with the bomb's animating spirits.
  • Stabilizer: The support member of the team. The Stabilizer keeps arcane energies even and tempered in an area. They can draw off elements to make the task easier. They hold wild energies in place to enhance the reading of signs. On the other hand they might focus on erecting protections in the area, reducing effects and damage should the team trigger the bomb.
As I mentioned in my other post this week, I used to love the Gamma World tech-use flow charts. I’m wondering if a similar and fun system could be developed for the disarming process. I like the idea of moving through and making choices throughout the challenge. If that’s combined with a roll, then maybe everyone’s support serves as a currency the Disarmer spends to get things right. There could be some additional results between “bomb disarmed” and “bomb goes off.” That's a rough idea and one that would probably mean a crunchier system. 

Bomb disposal scenes won't go easy. I can imagine a host of complications: the location has a set of unusual magic affinities affecting the bomb; part of the spell has gone off with an hidden effect; the bomb lands in a restricted or ritual area; thieves are on site robbing the place; scavengers have taken or are trying to take the bomb; the bomb has strange decoys; the bomb is sentient.

Sessions might also  deal with spells after they've gone off. How do you contain a magical fire? How to you deal with a contagious transformation spell? How do you catch a spell effect on the run? This might use the role talents in a different way or require the group to fall back on other means.

The question is how defined to make this procedure. To go back to Ghost Lines, that game has roles with only a modest definition of what they do: sketchily defined equipment, one or two sentences description of the role, some logical inferences from the bonuses. But the actual process of dispensing a ghost relies on players narratively using these elements, rather than any set process.

Another detail to consider: I'll need to establish a series of basic principles for dealing with bomb disposal. Physical movement and contact obviously risks detonation. But magical interactions and movement should as well. Make sure that’s clear in the fiction.

Characters also deal with life in the service. This will be tangential and not the center of stories at the table. But peppering sessions with these elements will enrich the setting. That could include questions of competing divisions and departments; conflicting orders; rival branches of the service; reductions in pay or supplies; bad officers; supply officers adulterating goods; changing HQs; issues of honor and behavior; NPCs getting transferred; questions of loyalty.

In the Danger: UXB TV series the demolition team also deals with technological change. The Germans develop new trigger methods, explosive types, and booby traps. The same can happen in DUXS to ratchet up difficulty and add twists. Over the course of the war The Enemy develops new magics and recruits wizards with different skills. Perhaps they hadn't had access to Necromancy, but finally break into an obscure Mage’s Tower (or Lich’s Tomb) and drafts them into service. These less-than-willing spellbomb-creating wizards might include information, warnings, or backdoors in their spells. On the other side, the Demolition Disposal Corps will develop new approaches: spells, relics, procedures. PCs will have to test these in the field. The crazy old hermit sorcerer has created a fool-proof bomb-teleporter, but does it actually work?

Just like CSI's investigators crazily go into the field to track down and interview criminals, the PCs could have investigation story lines. Perhaps they trace back evidence of saboteurs in the city when no one will listen to them. Or maybe there’s a conspiracy at the highest level to force a change in city leadership. Or maybe someone’s slowly assembling a bigger bomb, but the PCs aren’t given the resources to follow up. Or perhaps they could discover something about the basic nature of magic itself and the threat this war poses to the world.

System-wise, I don’t think the game needs to call out anything special for this. The same skills or moves used for daily life and disarming should work here.

To run this face-to-face, I’d probably go with Action Cards. The latest AC version simplifies a few things, adds a clearer success with cost mechanic, and moves a couple of elements away from Fate. But it’s still abstract and relatively easy to reskin. If I wanted to run online, I’d have to use something else (at least until I learn enough computer-y stuff to figure out how to program character decks for something like Roll20).

For that, the easiest approach would be reskinning Ghost Lines. Most of the work would be in redoing the payout & experience mechanics and those could be easily tweaked. I’d probably need to add in one or two more moves as well, but maybe not. Steel tests could represent stress, rather than terror. Alternately I could use Fate, probably Fate Core, with a streamlined skill list (though FAE’s a possibility). Disarming could be a multistage contest versus the trigger. I need to reread Ryan Macklin’s pdf on Fate Contests.

The Magic Question
Magic in DUXS feels mechanical: techniques and regular principles exist for working with magic. Some (many?) interactions happen, but no one knows why. We can tell that if we do this, that happens. Exactly why we're less sure about. The rules change when you deal with sentient magical creatures like caged demons or bound elementals. All of that leads to some questions I have to consider. Is there one form? One source with several different approaches (Evocation, Illusion, etc)? Or is each branch distinct and unique. Are we talking Vancian, Ars Magica, Master of the Five Magics, Face in the Frost or something else? I need to figure out what’s most interesting.

  • Figure out the system as I mention above.
  • Sketch out the war's backstory a little bit, to offer some reasons for the struggle and the circumstances. Put in lots of names and concepts without spelling them out.
  • Come up with details about city neighborhoods- very quick so players can define some of that in play.
  • Do the same for factions. Probably ought to look at the latest version of BitD to see how it handles city presentation & factions now.
  • Define magic a little more.
  • Make a list of military NPCs and gather images.
  • Create plot hooks, magical effects, bomb complications- maybe a random chart for generating situations. 
Other suggestions or ideas?

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