If you’re like me, your news and social media feeds have been packed with stories about Mad Max: Fury Road for at least the past week. There are commentaries, reviews (here’s mine), and articles pointing out that THE DOOF WARRIOR IS THE AWESOMEST THING EVER!!!!! There are also a handful of misogynists whining that the movie includes a badass female protagonists and paints sex slavery in a negative light, but fuck those guys. Even though the movie wasn’t the non-stop high-speed murderchase I was hoping for, it was still really cool and it made me really want to play a game about post-apocalyptic freaks killing one another with crazy dieselpunk machinery. I had to turn in my games for OMGCon a couple days later, so needless to say I’ll be running a Fury Road inspired game there. That being the case, I figured I’d better start thinking about how to make it work.
A lot of the rules for Sword & Sorcery are appropriate to a Mad Max game, especially the ones about the characters being extremely competent and the stuff about world-building as you go, so I’m going to carry over the rule from there that every character has at least one Number at 15 and nothing less than an 11. These people live in a harsh and unforgiving world where the weak end up dead or enslaved, so every character is at least somewhat competent overall and really good at one thing. Since character design is a huge part of the Mad Max franchise, starting Yum Yums are based on how cool your character looks and how well his abilities fit into the character design. If you can describe how character design elements (clothing, haircuts, mutilations, whatever) fit into the mythology or culture of your tribe or social caste (and you’re not just swiping something from the movies), you’ll get even more bonus Yum Yums.
Stats for weapon and equipment are based entirely on cool factor. The more awesome it looks, the better it works. In a race between a normal-looking Dodge Charger and a Ford Pinto on monster truck wheels with a bunch of unnecessary smokestacks and roll bars and skulls and shit, the Pinto has the advantage. There are several different sets of car rules for QAGS (Spy Racers, Cops & Robbers, J.I.N.G.O.), but at least for the one shot I’ll probably just give cars a holistic Cool Factor bonus that adds to the driver’s Success Degree on car-related rolls, some Hit Points, and maybe an Armor Rating. Weapons and other stuff attached to the vehicle contribute to the car’s overall Cool Factor, but get their own stats or rules as needed. Demolition derbies will use regular combat rules, more or less.
As far as set-up, there are basically two ways to go: either the PCs are a roving band of murderhobos or they’re a raiding/scavenging/whatever party for their tribe (ie, murderhobos with a mission). Either variation works fine for a one-shot, but if I was running a Mad Max campaign I’d go with the tribal set-up. In addition to giving the characters a home base with lots of room for lots of colorful characters, it gives everyone a chance to develop the tribe’s culture and mythology and makes them have to worry about more than just their own survival (unless they want to be sent back to working in the Mines of Sorrow, that is). It also allows for a more mission-based game early on while you’re feeling out the characters and figuring out what else is out there in the wasteland.
I believe a good Mad Max game should play things pretty fast and loose, but there is one absolutely ironclad rule I would impose: No Doof Warrior PCs. The Doof Warrior is a wonderful, magical being whose main appeal is his mesmerizing oddness, so he must be allowed to simply exist on his own terms. Any attempt to explain, characterize, or contextualize a Doof Warrior would rob him of his Doof Warrior-ness. That would be unforgivable.
Last week I posted a new article on Hubpages called “Seven Rules Every Game Master Should Follow.” That explains why I didn’t post here last week, but I don’t have any excuse for the week or two before that beyond a combination of real life stuff and lack of ideas. I’ve written, co-written, or contributed to 20 or so RPG books, I’ve been writing gaming articles for around 15 years, and I’ve done more convention panels than I can count, so sometimes it’s hard to think of topics that don’t feel like retreads of old material. Since I was drawing a blank, I posted on the QAGS Facebook page a couple days ago asking for requests. An Alert Reader (as Dave Barry would say) named Max Traver asked for advice about doing super-heroes using the QAGS rules, so that’s what I’ll be covering this week.
First off, there are already two sets of superpowers rules for QAGS in existing products, one in Weird Times at Charles Fort High and one in All-Stars. Both are semi-crunchy and mostly pretend that game balance is a thing, because that’s what players seem want in a game supplement, but both are bare-bones because the super-powers are primarily for flavor in those games. If we ever decide to release a super-hero rules set for QAGS, it will be some combination of the rules found in those two books, only with more examples and ideas for handling specific powers and common situations, plus tons of advice about things like story structure and genre conventions. If you’re looking for mechanics, you should check out those supplements. This post is about how I actually run super-hero games using QAGS (at least outside of a convention setting).
Here’s the secret to running a QAGS supers game: Just use the basic QAGS rules. You’ll need to do a little bit of fine-tuning, but not much. The main hurdle is accepting that game balance is an RPG contrivance that has nothing to do with actual fiction, especially team super-hero fiction. If you can’t get over the nagging feeling that it’s unfair to Hawkeye’s player if his character isn’t equivalent to Thor on some arbitrary mathematical scale, this won’t work for you. If there’s not a reasonable level of trust between the members of your gaming group, this won’t work for you. If you want rules where strategy takes the form of manipulating the rules math to create powerful combos, this won’t work for you. You’ll probably be happier skipping the rest of this article and picking up one of the many excellent RPGs that facilitate that style of play. Different people like different things. Nothing wrong with that.
Character creation for supers is more about clearly understanding how to use the existing rules to define super-heroes than about tweaking mechanics, so I’ll start by outlining how I’d use the standard QAGS Words. During character creation, focus more on building a solid character than precisely defining powers numerically. Once the game starts, it’s a lot easier to fix broken mechanics than broken character concepts.
Body, Brain, and Nerve
A QAGS super-hero’s Body, Brain, and Nerve Numbers can go up to 19, but keep in mind that since these scores are holistic, many super-powers are too narrow to merit a high Body, Brain, or Nerve Numbers. Captain America might have 17 or 18 Body since his powers cover basically all the physical aspects represented by Body (strength, agility, toughness, good looks, etc.) but are still more or less within the realm of human potential. Hulk would have a Body in the normal range, but his Body number would operate on a completely different scale for actions involving strength because of his super-powers. Hulk can pick up a tank without making a Body roll. Even if Cap rolled a Lucky Break on Body, he still couldn’t pick up a tank despite his higher Body Number. I’ll cover handling contests between characters operating on different power scales a little later.
A super-hero’s Job is basically “super-hero,” but players are encouraged to jazz up the name with a little bit of flavor. A Grim Vigilante, an All-American Hero, and an X-Man all have more or less the same job--fighting bad guys, saving people, solving crimes, looking good in spandex, etc.---but slightly different methods and skill sets. The super-hero Job is very broad and can be used for almost any super-hero-related action that doesn’t violate the basic character concept or require extensive training or specialized knowledge. Super-heroes rarely make default rolls.
If you’re running a game that will focus entirely on super-hero activity or something like Fantastic Four where super-hero and civilian identities are merged , you don’t need to worry about secret identities. If a player in that kind of game really wants a defined mechanical advantage for rolls related to his day job, he can take a Skill.
If you’ve got a character like Shazam or Hulk where the super-hero and the secret identities are essentially two distinct entities with limited or no shared consciousness, your best bet is probably to make two separate characters. If the same mind is driving both bodies, defining which powers and abilities are off-limits or have different Numbers in a particular form should suffice. However you do it, make sure the player and GM are on the same page about how the two sides of the character interact and what causes them to switch places.
Gimmicks & Weaknesses
Once you’ve thrown out the idea that Superman and Green Arrow need to have powers that add up to the same point value, creating a character becomes mostly a matter of definition, not mechanics. Deciding your Gimmick and Weakness is basically a matter of coming up with a good name for the character’s power(s) and vulnerability(ies). It’s perfectly fine for Superman to have a Gimmick/Weakness combo of “Last Son of Krypton” and Captain America to have the “Super Soldier” Gimmick and “Man Out of Time” Weakness as long as everyone understands the effects of Earth’s Yellow Sun™ on Kryptonian physiology and the benefits of Super Soldier Serum.
You’re probably thinking that this set-up works fine with established characters, but is a little tougher if you’re making original characters, and you’re right. If you’re using this system, the player and GM need a clear mutual understanding of the character’s powers. Fortunately, most super-heroes are built around an easily identifiable theme, so often it’s just a matter of clarifying whether “cat powers” means the character has cat-like abilities, the power to communicate with and control cats, or some combination of both. The two big exceptions are aliens (or at least ones that aren’t being swiped from an existing fictional work) and Marvel-style mutants (who sometimes lean toward the “random collection of kewl powers” school of character design). For Gimmicks with less obvious meanings, the GM and player will need to define things in more detail, usually by making a list of powers and vulnerabilities.
In addition to normal Skills, a super-powered character can take Skills for specific power uses. For example, Supes could take a Skill to give him an extra bonus on flying rolls or Spidey could take Web-Slinging +3. Skills can also be used to quantify minor powers (like keen hearing or stealth) or physical properties (like natural weapons) that work better as bonuses to other rolls than Gimmicks.
The other Words work the same as in regular QAGS.
Running the Game
Running a supers game with QAGS is all about understanding the dramatic rules of super-hero fiction and using that knowledge to know when and how to apply the game rules in ways that facilitate that style of storytelling. Since the best way to learn the dramatic rules of comic books is by actually reading comic books and watching super-hero movies, I’m going to assume you’re familiar with the genre conventions and focus on how I’d use the QAGS rules to model super-hero fiction.
When To Roll
Super-heroes are unbelievably competent in most situations, so the threshold for rolling is a lot higher than in most games. For most characters, leaping across gap between rooftops is a stunt. For Spider-Man, it’s a form of locomotion; Making Spidey roll to cross town without touching the ground would be like making J. Jonah Jameson roll to walk down the street. He’s not going to fail unless there are extenuating circumstances, so there’s no need for dice unless something unusual is going on. The best way to judge whether a roll is needed is to decide what would happen if the roll were to fail and then ask yourself if that would ever happen in a comic book or movie about the character. If the answer is no, put down the dice and back away slowly.
Since you’re going to be rolling a lot less, you can’t rely on the dice to create the story for you. That’s in keeping with the genre. Most super-hero stories aren’t about the characters doing things that are at the upper limits of their abilities, they’re about doing things for which they’re fully qualified amid an avalanche of complications and extenuating circumstances. The challenge isn’t breaking into the bad guy’s hideout, beating up the guards, and taking the McGuffin Ray. That’s a cakewalk for a gang of super-heroes. The challenge is figuring out who stole the McGuffin Ray in the first place, finding his secret hideout, breaking in, beating the guards, and stealing the McGuffin Ray, then escaping the burning hideout while also saving the roomful of orphans the bad guy was holding prisoner. During a blizzard. With an army of juggalos in power armor on your trail for reasons you haven’t quite worked out yet.
Since the real challenge of super-hero plots comes in the form of figuring out what’s really going on, coming up with a plan, and dealing with unexpected complications, resolving them requires a lot more initiative on the part of players than dungeon slogs where the players can just roll dice to overcome the problems that the GM puts in front of them. That being the case, you’ve got to structure your adventures so that there are a lot of different ways for the players to arrive at a resolution. You also need to be open to solutions you didn’t think of. If there’s only one way to complete the mission, either the players are going to find it immediately and be bored or they’re going to get frustrated (and feel railroaded) trying to find the One True Answer.
The “don’t roll if there’s no chance of failure rule” applies to a lot of super-hero combat as well. If Batman’s beating up a mugger, you can usually just let the player describe what happens without rolling. If you need a longer mook fight for pacing, use the combat rules but ignore the damage to the heroes. Most mook hits don’t hurt heroes, they just temporarily keep the heroes from pounding mooks. Depending on how well the mook succeeds, the hero might lose his next action, suffer a temporary penalty, drop his weapon, etc. If a mook scores an extremely lucky hit (a Lucky Break, for example), he might actually cause a problem that will affect the hero after the fight is over. This can take the form of (usually minor) damage if you don’t have any better ideas, but less abstract options usually work better. Specific wounds that incur penalties, loss of equipment, and (if appropriate) odd effects on super-powers (like a head injury that causes a character’s psychic powers to go wonky) are all possibilities. Obviously, this requires more descriptive combat than “I shoot it for 3 points of damage” and “He pokes you with a stick for 5 points of damage,” but you’re going to need to step up your descriptions for a super-hero game to work no matter what combat rules you use.
Even in fights against real threats, heroes shrug off a lot of damage, so the standard QAGS damage system only works if you give the players a lot of Yum Yums to spend on negating damage. If you want to avoid too much Yum Yum inflation, you can either make sure every character has something that functions as an Armor Rating (actual armor, a healing factor, super speed that makes it hard to land a solid punch--most comic heroes have something to explain why they’re harder to kill than civilians) or change the damage rules slightly (all damage is halved, all characters ignore the first 5 points of damage per hit by virtue of being super-heroes, etc). You can also change the amount of damage that each YY negates. The extent to which you need to tweak the damage rules depends on what kind of game you’re running. A street-level game will probably stick closer to the existing rules than a cosmic game.
If a character does manage to run out of Health Points, he’s still not dead, he’s just out of the fight. In most cases, a character with zero or fewer HP is still conscious and might even be able to take non-combat actions. He may even be able to get back into the fight if he can find a convincing explanation for his second wind. Super-heroes only die if they consciously decide to sacrifice themselves (which often means game mechanics aren’t even involved) or if they are in an earth-shattering “end of a major crossover event” type battle. In the latter case, the GM should make sure the players understand the stakes and the exact rules for death by die roll (HP reaching negative Body is a good rule of thumb).
Differing Power Scales
Since Batman has a 16 Body Number (on the human scale) and Superman has a 16 Body Number (on the Kryptonian on Earth scale), they’re evenly matched mechanically in an arm wrestling competition even though Supes can pick up oil tankers. This kind of scale difference isn’t usually a huge problem if you run your stories like a comic book because like tends to pair up with like. Tanks fight tanks, super-speedsters fight other super-speedsters, and blasters fight blasters. Even in the Batman vs. Superman example, comic writers always make sure Bats has some kind of power armor or something that puts him on the same power scale (more or less) as Superman. Still, you’ll occasionally run into uneven power match-ups, so you need a way to deal with it. I suggest dividing scale differences into four different levels depending on the circumstances:
- Minor Advantage: One character is clearly outclassed, but not by a huge margin. In the Batman/Superman version of Over the Top, Batman would be wearing a Hulkbuster suit he borrowed from Tony Stark. It makes him really strong, but probably not quite Kryptonian level. In this case, Superman’s roll automatically succeeds with a Success Degree equal to ¼ his “Last Son of Krypton” Number and adds his Body roll (if successful) to the total. He only fails the roll (Success Degree zero) on a Bad Break.
- Moderate Advantage: Middling power difference, like Batman in a standard power armor suit arm wrestling superman. The mechanics work the same, but Supes gets half his Gimmick Number automatically.
- Major Advantage: Batman’s trying to arm wrestle Superman while wearing just a light powered exoskeleton. In this case, Supes adds his Body roll to his full Gimmick Number.
- No Chance In Hell: If unenhanced Bruce Wayne arm wrestles Superman, Clark wins. Since there’s no chance of any other outcome, there’s no point in rolling.
For Super-Speedsters, just give them two actions (possibly with an advantage bonus for speed) when they’re acting against non-speedsters in anything other than a contest of speed (which is a “No Chance In Hell” situation). Yes, The Flash should technically be able to punch 100 people in the same time it takes Batman to punch one guy, but the game should flow like a comic book and Flash and Batman get roughly the same number of panels in a JLA fight. The bonus action allows Flash to do more between the panels. Just keep in mind that “run to a crime cave halfway across the globe to get a weapon to shoot at the bad guy” is a legitimate single action for Flash and he can use his second action to fire the missile.
Static, Implied, and “Discovered” Traits
I’m grouping these together because they’re kind of related. A static trait is something that doesn’t work well mechanically as a Gimmick or Weakness roll, so you need to define the mechanics separately. Unusual vulnerabilities are a good example. A super-heroic werewolf would take damage from silver, but trying to base the damage on a Weakness roll every time is wonky at best. It’s easier just to establish that touching silver causes X damage per round and that silver weapons get an additional damage bonus of +Y. Some static traits don’t need mechanics at all because they just work. You’re never going to need to roll to see whether or not an Superman takes damage from a punch to the face. Superman is invulnerable, so he doesn’t take damage from physical attacks. No mechanics necessary.*
A lot of static traits are implied by a character’s super-powers. Super strength is a good example. Being super strong doesn’t necessarily make a character a better fighter (so the power scale trick doesn’t work), but it should give the character a damage bonus when a punch connects. If the advantage is in the form of a bonus or penalty, you can probably derive it from the Word that implies the trait. A good rule of thumb is to use a bonus or penalty equal to ¼ the Gimmick, but that might change depending on the character details and power scales involved. For a characters like Thor and Iron man who have superhuman strength that’s not really central to the super-hero identity, ¼ Gimmick works fine. Hulk adds his “You Wouldn’t Like Me When I’m Angry” Gimmick Number as a Damage Bonus to all attacks against regular people, but the bonus decreases when fighting someone who can take damage as well as he can dish it out--maybe ½ against Thor, ¼ against Veronica, and no bonus against She-Hulk. Superman obviously pulls his punches (otherwise he’d kill most people with one punch), so the GM may rule that his Damage Bonus is ¼ Gimmick against normal opponents unless the player specifies otherwise before rolling. He can add up to his full Gimmick Number to damage if he wants, but that could result in a good roll ending with Lex Luthor’s head landing on the moon while his body’s still in Metropolis. Unless you’re going for Zak Snyder Superman, I wouldn’t recommend it.
The main difference between implied and “discovered” powers is a matter of obviousness. If a player suggests that his super-strong character should get a damage bonus, most people will agree that’s a no-brainer. The idea that “superior Kryptonian senses” includes X-Ray vision isn’t quite as readily apparent, but at some point it happened and now it’s accepted cannon. The truth is that super-hero powers are as fluid as the writers’ imaginations, so super-hero games have to give the players a chance to interpret their abilities in new and unexpected ways. Fortunately, Yum Yums offer a built-in way of doing that. Just make the cost dependent on how loosely the player is interpreting the power. In the case of extremely powerful “discovered” abilities, the GM will have to take a cue from comic writers and either come up with a convincing anomaly that explains why the power worked that way just that one time (with Superman, unusual solar activity is a go-to) or introduce an easy way to nullify the ability it it starts constantly short-circuiting plots (lead blocks X-Ray vision, and once Lex Luthor knows that he’s going to buy a bunch of lead). Worst case, you can always engineer a storyline that alters the character’s powers (preferably with input from the player) if there’s just no believable way to explain why the character isn’t using his new-found ability to end every story before it starts.
As I mentioned up front, running a super-hero game according to these concepts (especially that last bit) requires a gaming group where players trust one another, have similar play styles, and have common goals and sensibilities about what makes a good game. If you like crunch or need more structured mechanics, you should check out the supplements I mentioned earlier (if you still want to use the QAGS rules) or find a more rules intensive game that works for your group. If you and your players are comfortable playing fast and loose with the mechanics, you’ll have a lot of fun. One of the earliest QAGS games was a JLA game, and Gimmicks and Weaknesses like “Last Son of Krypton” and “Amazon” worked just fine because everybody understood and agreed about what they meant. I played Green Arrow (Job; World’s Greatest Archer; Gimmick: Trick Arrows; Weakness: Dames), in case you were wondering. If anyone else has questions (about QAGS or gaming in general) they want me to try to answer or topics they’d like to read my thoughts on, the request line is still open. Contact me in the comments, through the Hex web site, or one of our social media accounts.
*If you’re worried that this will give Supes an unfair advantage (which might be a sign that this style of play won’t work for your group) or want to account for villains sometimes taking Superman temporarily out of the fight without magic or Kryptonite, try this: Track damage normally. When Superman runs out of Health Points, something happens to take him out of the action. He’s buried under a pile of rubble, notices an innocent that needs saving, or whatever. Each round, he makes a Gimmick roll and adds the roll (if successful) to his HP. When he gets back to full HP, he’s done whatever he needs to do (dug his way out from under the collapsed building, saved the innocent, etc.) and can rejoin the fight next round.
Most gamers agree that players are responsible for creating the characters in a role-playing game, but the GM’s responsibilities are more nebulous. Usually we say that the GM is responsible for the world, or stories, or both. In QAGS, I think we said the GM was responsible for “everything else,” which is definitely overstating things. I think a better description of the GM’s job is creating and dealing with the aftermath of conflict. Before I explain why I think that’s a good description of the GM’s core responsibility, let’s talk about why thinking of the GM as a worldbuilder or storyteller doesn’t quite work.
Those of you familiar with the Hex Games party line already know the obvious problem with this one is that every player should be involved in creating the world. Sure, the GM does a lot of the heavy lifting creative and usually makes the final call about what fits, but everyone contributes something. Even in the early days of gaming, when each game world was a bold, revolutionary slightly variant configuration of the same fantasy tropes designed solely by a single visionary GM, the players still contributed to the world in some way,even if it was just a few NPCs from their character backgrounds. Unless the game focuses purely on murderhobos wandering around in dungeons (in which case there’s no need to bother with build a world), the players can’t help but contribute something sooner or later.
Even (“especially” may be more accurate) if you’re in a game where the GM exercises very tight control over the world, there’s another, less obvious problem. When somebody puts a lot of creative energy into building something, they tend to get attached to it and don’t want someone coming along and messing it up. That’s fine for a novel or a painting, but not so good for a game world. If the GM is too attached to the world she’s created, she’s not going to want to see the characters mess it up, and will probably go to lengths that stretch story credibility in order to maintain the status quo. Since the characters can’t really change the world in any meaningful way, the players end up feeling like their characters are visitors to a museum rather than protagonists of a story. There are some interactive exhibits they can play with, but most of the place is covered in “Please Do Not Touch” signs. This can get even more frustrating when the status quo makes life harder for the characters. For example, think of the number of monster-hunting games where the characters are expected to go to extraordinary lengths to keep the existence of monsters a secret despite the fact that keeping monsters a secret is really only beneficial to the monsters.
This seems like an obvious statement, but technically it’s not really true. A story, by definition, has a beginning, middle, and end. Unless the GM plans to railroad the players mercilessly, the only part he’s fully responsible for is the beginning. Creating the story is what the game is about (even if it’s a very simple story about heavily-armed orphans killing things and taking their stuff), and is therefore a back-and-forth between the players and the GM. Don’t get me wrong, GMs usually go into a game with a pretty good idea of what the plot will be, and often the only difference between a railroading monster and a great GM is that the great GM is good at giving players the illusion of free will (making them think that doing exactly what she want them to is their idea), but even the best GM can’t always predict how the players will react to a situation. A GM who thinks of the story in linear terms will have a harder time reacting when players don’t do what she expects them to, will resist unexpected actions more forcefully, will be more heavy-handed in getting the players back on track, and will probably end up getting accused of railroading.
Conflict is so integral to storytelling that we don’t usually think about it, but it’s really at the heart of the GM’s job. If someone (who presumably has uncanny undefined power over you for some reason) tells you that you have to run a game right now with no preparation, you’re not going to start the game by trying to introduce world elements or set up a plot, you’re going to start that game by giving the PCs a problem to deal with and hope that the initial scene gives you an idea for what to throw at them next. If the first conflict doesn’t lead anywhere, you’ll keep throwing problems at them until you get something you can hang a story on.
I think most of the Hex crew consciously realized the importance of conflict the first time we sat down to playtest Hobomancer. By that point, we’d figured out quite a bit about Hobomancers and the world they live in--the “big picture” mission of maintaining the songlines to keep reality from falling apart, big chunks of mythology, specific hobo powers--but as we were making characters, somebody asked “So what do Hobomancers actually do during a game?” Nobody really knew. We were all kind of thinking that Hobomancers would do “hobo stuff” and “songline stuff” without actually realizing that starving and working crappy jobs and dying of exposure doesn’t make for a very exciting RPG, even when you add occasionally stopping to do some vaguely-defined magic ritual. We’d created a nice world, but it wasn’t a game setting yet. Luckily, the fact that we knew the game was set in the same world as M-Force gave us some monsters to fight to get things rolling and after actually playing a game we had a pretty idea of what kinds of things we needed to focus on.
Part of the reason we’d never really noticed the importance of conflict before is that for previous games, the conflict had been implicit in either the genre or the premise: M-Forcers fought monsters, Qerth characters wandered around in dungeons committing armed robbery, Fort High students tried to get laid and made bets about whether they could turn the weird girl into prom queen, etc. For hobos, on the other hand, the obvious conflicts weren’t as easily gamable, especially for people who (at that point) didn’t know a lot about hobos. Even now that I know more about hobos than anyone living in 2015 probably should, creating a game about “hobo stuff” and making both interesting and accessible to the typical gaming audience would still be a challenge.
The Hobomancer example is more about game design than GMing, but I’ve seen a lot of GMs who claim to have an idea for a game when really they’ve just got some setting ideas. For a game, you need some conflicts and at least some vague ideas about how PCs interact with those conflicts. If dealing with those conflicts don't make for an interesting gaming experience, you’ve got to either find a way to make them gamable or rethink your premise.
Setting up your game in terms of conflict rather than world or story forces you to put the different elements of game into context. In order to identify the conflict, you have to identify the motivations behind the conflict, which makes you think about the characters or factions involved and what they stand to gain or lose. That leads to a better understanding of the personalities involved and their relationship to one another and the setting. It can also give you insight into how the different factions operate, what resources they have at their disposal, and other potentially useful information that you might not have thought about if you were designing “Save The Princess Adventure #47A.”
The other nice thing about conflict-based plotting is that it feeds on itself. As each element gets contextualized within the world, it generates a whole web of related factions, characters, MacGuffins, and conflicts. Determining what one character is up to suggests what some other group is doing, which gives them a stake in another scheme that puts them into conflict with a completely unrelated faction, and so on and so on. Eventually, you’re going to run into at least an indirect connection between whatever random princess kidnapper you’re designing and something at least some of the characters care about. If you can find a way to exploit that connection, the story will resonate more because the characters will have a stake in the outcome that’s more meaningful than the treasure they get from looting corpses.
Is this all just semantics? Definitely, but the way we define things can have an impact on how we approach them, and sometimes the key to breaking a bad habit or getting out of a rut is to find a new way of thinking. I’ve found that thinking of games in terms of conflict rather than world or story can bring things into better focus and make GMing easier and players happier. It’s still world building and storytelling, but you’re building an active world where the stories have their own momentum. You end up with a events that the PCs can get caught up in, not set pieces and railroad tracks for the PCs to stumble across and wander around in or follow because they don’t have anything better to do.
Last week, I talked about the need (or lack thereof) of special rules for magic in settings with flash-bang magic. The tl;dr version is that if everyone has a good understanding of how magic works in the world and and what a particular type of wizard can do and there are no setting conventions that require special rules, you can probably use the same rules you use to determine how well a bard recites a poem. If the definitions of “magic” and “wizard” aren’t quite so clear, you might need some rules to help define the wizard’s role and keep the story from breaking down due to the fact that one of the characters has reality-altering powers. Fantasy authors have come up with numerous solutions to the problem, so let’s look at a few that are easily adapted to RPGs.
Specialization doesn’t require any special rules other than the stipulation that the wizard’s Job has to be more narrowly defined than “guy who uses magic.” The character has to be a Druid or a Fire Mage or a Necromancer or something. This provides a basic theme that helps define what sorts of spells are and are not appropriate for the character. Since most magical job titles are used differently in different stories, cultures, and traditions, it’s important that the player and GM have a mutual understanding about what a particular magical Job means. For example, does “Witch” mean the character has a familiar and makes deals with The Devil, wears a pointy hat and rides a broomstick, or collects crystals and owns a bunch of cats?
These aren’t Isaac Bonewits-style magical laws like sympathy and contagion, but basic fundamental rules about how magic works in the world. For example, “wish magica almost always has unintended consequences,” “magic always has a price,” or “magic doesn’t work on reptiles.” Some magic laws will be explained (or rationalized) by the mythology and magical traditions of the world (reptiles are the magic god’s spies), others will just be accepted, like the law of gravity (The Force has a Light Side and a Dark Side). Magical laws are by definition heavy-handed and arbitrary, so it’s best to reserve them for universal truths that describe the limitations and basic principles of magic in your game world.
I put “laws” in quotes here because they’re often taboos, superstitions, union rules, or cultural values that forbid or restrict certain spells or forms of magic rather than actual statutes of the legal code. A wizard can use forbidden magic, but there will be consequences--possibly very severe ones--if anyone finds out. He may be kicked out of his coven, forced to do some sort of penance, or just treated like a pariah by anyone who’s heard about what he did. The Unforgivable Curses in the Harry Potter series are a good example: Using them won’t cause a character’s face to melt off, but if the Ministry of Magic will ship him off to Azkaban the minute they find out about it.
The idea that some things are more difficult than others, even if they use the same skill set, is both a basic fact of life and a core gaming concept. It’s easier to cast a detection spell than raise the dead, just like it’s easier to spam somebody’s email account than to hack into the Pentagon’s computer system. In stories where magical training is formalized, spell difficulty is often combined with academic standards to keep powerful magic out of the hands of those who aren’t ready to use it yet. Spell difficulty can also be used to help enforce the magical laws of the world. For example, if turning lead into gold is considered a nearly impossible feat that only the greatest wizards can master, it will have a high difficulty. In D&D, spell difficulty is accomplished by arranging pre-defined spells into different levels. For QAGS, you can just use Difficulty Numbers.
Human Limitations: Spell Points
In some stories, there’s only so much magic a human being can channel, usually because the author realizes he needs an excuse for limit the wizard’s power during particular scenes. Sometimes the wizard is like a battery, and once his magical “juice” is used up, he has to recharge before he can cast more spells. In RPGs, this idea is usually modelled using a spell point system.
QAGS seems to have a built-in mechanic for spell-points in the form of Yum Yums. Just make wizards spend Yum Yums to cast spells; When they run out, the battery’s dead. This seems like a good idea on the surface, but quickly runs into problems. For one thing, you’re going to have to give the wizard Yum Yums for routine actions like sleeping or meditating or whatever restores magical energy in your world, which kind of runs counter to the entire idea of Yum Yums. On top of that, you’re making the wizard spend Yum Yums to use his Job, which would be like making a fighter spend a Yum Yum every time he swings his sword. In most cases, this kind of system will either lead to the wizard having so few Yum Yums he’s useless or so many Yum Yums that he potentially has vast control over the game reality without even casting any spells (since he can just spend part of his giant pool of Yum Yums to alter reality and augment rolls).
If you’re going to use the player’s Yum Yum pool as a magic pool, I suggest making most basic spells “freebies” and only making the character pay for especially impressive or difficult displays of magic (just like a fighter can pay Yum Yums to do crazy action movie combat stunts). The easiest solution is probably to base whether or not Yum Yum expenditure is necessary on Difficulty Number--maybe a spell with a DN of 10 or more costs a Yum Yum. Whether running out of Yum Yums shuts down the wizard’s magical ability or just places difficult spells off limits is a matter of what works best for the setting and group preferences. As for “recharging” the magic pool, the wizard should only get Yum Yums for things that would normally earn Yum Yums (which could include coming up with cool ways to regain magical energy). If you want to give the wizard “freebie” Yum Yums to keep him from going too long without the ability to cast spells, give them to everybody. The idea that everybody’s more effective after a good night’s rest, and therefore should get a Yum Yum when they wake up, kind of makes sense. Unless your players have a tendency to hoard their Yum Yums, it shouldn’t cause any problems.
If you want to keep spell points separate from Yum Yums, you’ll need to decide how spell points are calculated, how they’re recharged, and whether different kinds of spells have different costs. I’d probably set the magic pool equal to the wizard’s Job Number and base the cost of a spell its DN: 0 Spell Points for 5 or less, 1 for 6-10, 2 for 11-15, and 3 for 15+. For regaining spell points, you can either have a set “recharge” rate for certain activities or make the player roll Job to see how many points he gets back whenever he does something that would restore his magical power.
Human Limitations: Drain
In some stories, the human capacity for magic is more like alcohol tolerance. There’s a certain amount you can handle, and if you keep going after you’ve reached your limit you’ll regret it in the morning. In RPGs, this concept is usually called Drain.
Drain happens when a character uses too much magic. If you want to use drain, the first thing you’ll have to do is decide the consequences of magical hangover: does it exhaust the wizard? Make him fall into a coma? Manifest as physical damage? Based on the answer to this question, you’ll need to decide the game effects of drain. Exhaustion would probably manifest as a penalty to rolls and physical damage would result in HP loss, for example.
Once you know the effects of too much magic, you need to figure out how to measure how much magic is “too much” and how each spell counts toward that limit. For QAGS, I’d base it on spell DN. You’ll also need to a way to determine the specific details of drain, like how many HP the character loses or how long the coma lasts. Assuming the drain doesn’t render the character completely helpless, you’ll also need to decide whether he can still cast spells and how to handle additional drain.
Here’s a simple drain system for QAGS: Each wizard keeps a running tab, which we’ll call his Drain Rating, which starts at 0. Each time the character casts a spell, his Drain Rating increases by the spell’s DN. As long as the Drain Rating is less than the wizard’s Job Number, he doesn’t suffer any negative effects. When the Drain Rating exceeds the character’s Job Number, he must make a Job check. If the roll fails, the magic frazzles him, giving him a penalty to all rolls equal to his Failure Degree plus the difference between his Drain Rating and Job Number. If the character continues casting spells, he must make an additional Drain Check for each spell. The penalties for multiple failed drain checks are cumulative. If the character’s penalty ever exceeds his Job Number, he falls into a coma for 12 - (Body + Penalty) hours. Additionally, if the character ever rolls a Bad Break on a Drain Check, the damage manifests physically, causing HP loss equal to the penalty incurred.
Limits On Freeform Magic
So far, we’ve mostly been assuming that casting a spell is kind of like painting a picture: once you know the basic techniques, you can use it to paint whatever you want. That’s freeform magic. Many fictons treat magic more like music: just because you know how to sing doesn’t necessarily mean you know how to sing “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” If you want to do that, you’re going to have to figure out what the hell Kurt Cobain was saying, memorize it, and probably introduce some variations so it works better with your own voice. Sure, you could write your own original songs, but that’s a lot more work and most of the shitty bars you’ll be playing at only want cover bands anyway. We’ll call this formulaic magic. In a world with formulaic magic, wizards learn each spell just like cover bands have to learn each song. Presumably it is (or at least once was) possible for wizards to create original spells--the spells everybody uses had to come from somewhere--but it’s a lost art, it’s dangerous, it’s unreliable, it’s time-consuming or whatever. While you can definitely define the reason nobody creates original spells anymore in your game setting, and even create mechanics for it, you don’t have to. Many fictons with formulaic magic just assume all wizards stick to existing spells and never mention the possibility of creating original spells on the fly.
In a world where most magic is formulaic, spells become a commodity. While there will be certain spells everybody learns at wizard schools, there will also be gatekeepers who try to control which wizards have access to certain spells, spell trading and even collecting among wizards, profiteers who earn their living giving wizards access to new spells, and probably a few legendary spells that are presumed lost. The idea of spells as a commodity could lead to some interesting storylines in world with a modern legal system. Are spells subject to intellectual property laws, allowing the legal owner of the spell to sue people who use it without paying royalties? That kind of thing could be a lot of fun in a game like Shadowrun where evil corporations exist in a world with magic.
The implementation of a formulaic spell system really depends on how much control the GM wants over what kind of magic a wizard can perform. For tight control, make the player keep a list of the spells he knows how to cast, kind of like an equipment list for mystical powers. If the GM wants to give wizards a little more room for improvisation, he can let players make up typical (generally low-mid power) spells on the fly but make them seek out, find, or trade favors for more powerful magic during the game. Spell Difficulty is a handy metric for deciding which spells can be assumed. For example, maybe wizards don’t have to keep track of specific spells with a DN of 8 or less, but anything more powerful can only be used if the wizard has it on his spell list.
If you want to try something a little different, it might be fun to let the wizard player to come up with spells on the fly, but he has to give them a setting-appropriate name and maybe some history or other flavor, but no mechanics or other specific details of how the spell works. The GM then determines what the spell actually does based on the information the player provided. I’ve never tried this (because I just thought of it), but I plan to as soon as I get a chance.
The Price of Magic: Ritual Requirements
As Spike observed in Buffy The Vampire Slayer, magic always has a price. The simplest variation is to make the “price” of magic something that’s required or consumed when the spell is cast. There are a few variations on this theme:
- Magical Crutch: The wizard can only cast spells if he has the proper tools. If he doesn’t have access to them, he’s out of luck (or at least at a distinct disadvantage). Wands in the Harry Potter universe are a good example of this.
- Spell Components: I’m going to use Gygax’s term here because the only other phrase that works is “ritual requirements” and making it a subcategory of itself would just be weird. D&D has verbal (things you say), somatic (little dances you do), and material components (physical items/substances required by the spell). Since verbal and somatic components are only an issue when the wizard can’t talk or move freely, you’ll probably want to focus on material components if you’re more concerned with limiting the wizard’s power than instilling magic with some flavor. Basically, you’re keeping track of ammo. When the wizard runs out of bat poop, he can’t cast any more spells that require bat poop. If you’re doing a spell list, you can come up with specific components for each spell. If you’re doing more freeform magic, you can let the player name the component the first time he uses the spell and stick to it from there on out. Bigger (higher DN) spells will likely require more precious components and it’s best if components are somehow symbolic of the spell being attempted.
- Magic Fuel: This is basically a generic version of material components: in order to cast any spell, the caster has to power it with some kind of magic rock or drug or whatever. It’s kind of like the currency used in social media games that you can only get by annoying your friends or paying the creator money (but unless your players are used to playing certain miniatures games, charging them real money to use basic character abilities probably won’t be appreciated). If you’re also using spell difficulty, the amount of Arbitrarium it takes to cast a spell can be tied to the spell’s DN.
The Price of Magic: Backlash
This is similar to Drain, but every spell a wizard attempts to cast has a chance of bringing the pain. Whenever a wizard fails or rolls a Quirky Success for a spellcasting roll, he has to immediately make a Job roll against the spell’s DN. If the roll fails, he takes damage equal to the DN minus his roll (treat failed rolls as 0) from the magical current shooting through his body. If magic physically frying the character doesn’t fit the flavor of magic in your world, you can apply the damage directly to Brain or Nerve, depending on whether the backlash makes the character lose his mind or lose his shit. If a character gets a Bad Break on a backlash roll, the backlash leaves a permanent mark of some kind--a scar, his hair turns white, he grows horns, whatever.
The Price of Magic: Consequences
Spells have consequences. If you’re using formulaic magic, these consequences may be defined as part of a spell, like the way some spell age D&D Magic-Users. You can also make consequences more vague and tie them to specific magical traditions, like the idea that magic used to hurt others comes back on the caster threefold. Finally, you can go completely freeform with the consequences and base them on the situation. These sorts of consequences work kind of like conservation of energy or the laws of motion, but are usually more literary and symbolic. Basically, every spell has some kind of repercussion, but it’s usually so minor and removed from the caster that it isn’t even noticed. For example, maybe a wizard’s light spell causes one of the street lights in town to stop working. The bigger the spell, the more likely the repercussions are to be felt by the caster. Such repercussions don’t have to be predictable or as direct as “light created by a spell destroys light elsewhere,” but the potential trouble caused by them should be consistent with and symbolically related to the benefits gained from casting the spell. A spell that lets the caster pull a rabbit out of hat shouldn’t destroy an entire ecosystem because of some kind of butterfly effect caused by the rabbit not being there for a wolf to eat, but it might cause some Easter eggs to go bad. If you need a mechanic, make a d20 roll every time a wizard casts a spell and use the difference between it and the player’s roll (treat failures as zero) as a guide for how close to home the repercussions hit. With the exception of very powerful spells or very irresponsible uses of magic, most repercussions shouldn’t be clearly identifiable for what they are.
If you want Vancian magic, just play D&D or one of the hundreds of D&D clones. If there’s one magic-related thing that D&D does well, it’s turning the weird magic system from Dying Earth into game mechanics.
Conducted by Carter Newton
Jeffrey Johnson is a talented artist who has done a great deal of work for Hex Games. He may be best known for illustrating the cover of the ENnie Award-winning RPG Hobomancer and the Hobomancer Companion. Recently Jeffrey illustrated my novel Suicide Run: A Tale of the Hobomancers. I had some questions for him, and he was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to answer them.
Carter Newton: Jeffrey, you've worked on several Hex products, including Hobomancer, in the past. Was your process different for this project than it would have been for a gaming supplement?
Jeffrey Johnson: Usually on the game supplements, there is no particular story that needs to be told. Both covers and interiors simply need to evoke the feel of the game setting and hopefully entice people into looking at and ultimately buying the books. Generally I’ve been really lucky when working with the folks at Hex because the brief goes something like this: “We have this game, it’s about such and such, here’s a copy of the text, make something cool.” So I read as much of the content as I have time for, jot some notes down, work out some ideas in my sketchbook, and maybe look for bits and pieces of reference on the internet. Speaking of internet reference, one of my friends told me that they always try to guess what kind of project I’m working on based on what I pin on Pinterest. It’s not just for girls planning their weddings, you know.
The process for this project WAS a little bit different, though. First off, I couldn’t put the book down—even that first (or second) draft was amazing! So I read through the book and some of the characters jumped out at me from the beginning, so they immediately landed in the sketchbook. The second read through was chapter by chapter, talking with you and picking out key scenes that hopefully wouldn’t give anything away, but that also showed some of the terrific action and character in the text. The book is Bo Suicide’s story, so mostly I wanted to focus on him.
CN: You had extremely clear visions of several of the characters - better than even my own! What did you see in the story that gave you such a clear image of the characters? Were any of them clearer or stronger than others? Were you especially drawn to any of them?
JJ: Montana Handle was the first drawing I sent you. I think he was inspired by a mix of Sam Elliot and watching a lot of “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind” with my daughters. That’s become part of the pattern for drawing characters in the worlds Hex designs. The Who Would Play Them In The Movie? (WWPTITM?) mechanic of QAGS always gives a handy jumping off point. I always loved Montana Handle though, and he’s the most “out of my head” of all of the characters.
Bo Suicide didn’t really become a person to me until about two thirds of the way through the book. In the scene at the section house he gelled as a young Dick Van Dyke. Looking for scenes to illustrate and keeping that look in mind and the feeling I got from that initial illustration really helped make him a likable character for me. It’s really hard to do several drawings of someone you don’t like.
The general Store owner could’ve been any number of people I’ve known in small towns in Missouri, Alabama or West Virginia.
One of my friends posted a recent photo of Star Trek’s Lieutenant Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) and she was just so calm, and in command, and refined. She was George Porter, no doubt about it. Then later, talking to you about some trouble with the drawing, you said something like “less serene, more Bruce Lee,” which really fleshed out the idea a lot.
CN: Your image of the monsters in this story is gripping. I actually rewrote sections of the story to more closely reflect the picture you'd drawn because it totally gave me the creeps. Where did that come from?
JJ: There were a few iterations in my sketch book. At first I was thinking something more spidery with long spindly legs, like the war walkers from War of the Worlds. Those sketches gave way to something more like a horseshoe crab…Often as I’m sketching I tell myself stories about what things look like, how they’re connected to the world, and what purpose different parts serve.
Many of my monsters, especially the ones for the Hobomancer world, are based on fish. I guess part of that is a Lovecraft influence, but let’s be honest here…fish are terrifying. I remember thinking that it should definitely have little, beady eyes, and it should seem nearly unbeatable, all teeth and fire, grabbing arms and claws. Its only real purpose in the universe is to hunt and to eat.