Monday, 26 January 2015

Ebon by Greg Porter uses a directed graph for the character... I'm not joking!

Ebon is rare. It's rare to find a character mechanic that is surprising, unique, woven into the system and described in two pages. Attributes, secondary attributes and skills now look so... well... pedestrian. I'm going to jump straight into the gorgeousness.

The heart of the graph

Aspects describe your character and flow from one to another like snaking rivulets on a rain sodden window. The river flow begins with Primary Aspects that describe raw talent, slither through Secondary (honed talents), slosh into tertiary aspects (broad life experiences) before sploshing into Reserves, which represent your ability to withstand hardships.

The Aspects are arranged for you in a lovely directed graph (see below), the three primary ones (Body, Mind, Spirit) being in the middle. These are filled out with a delightful point assign technique where you begin with choosing a tradeoff between the three primary and then flowing the numbers down across the others.

Familiar ground - ish

The system is a dice pool: target number is between 1 and 6, roll D6 equal to the Aspect, at least one of the die you've rolled must be larger or equal to target. Each die over the target improves how well you've succeeded, each 1 gives you a narrative drawback. The damage you take, be it meaty-stab, brainy-ache or some other, it is all managed using the subtleties of the Aspect graph. Brilliant!

The horror, the horror

Horror is neatly categories into your everyday, communal-garden mundane blood, gore, violence; and spooky Cthulhu-esque supernaturality. Each bounce of different parts of the Aspect tree. Magic and Piety is used to fight their respective horrors. Experience raises aspects and you recover lost reserve over time. There's also a gear table.


Ebon is micro and so you're going to have to work quite hard to run it. Some of the language could be simplified. I don't think Aspects gain anything from being called Aspects rather than attributes and defining Endeavours (types of action) isn't that useful. This would leave more room for examples or a slightly larger font. A not-too-arty type could make the most amazing character sheet out of the Aspects graph.

Fizzing thoughts

The core idea of attributes (Aspects) that feed other, less important, attributes is inspired. It made ideas and possibilities buzz around my head. The graph Greg has provided is excellent at horror but what about Sci Fi? A tweak here, a tweak there and it could be used for any genre. For the more crunch inclined, how about getting the players to lay out their own graphs? You could end up with less regular shapes.

I did a PhD in circles and arrows

When was the last time you read a system that made you feel like you wanted to write a whole new one? Ebon's directed graph of Aspects is beautiful thought out and I would love to use something like it. Graphs are not just for plotting, they're for characters too. Greg, thank you for sharing.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Homebrews are personal: Legends of Ryllia by Michael Morrison

Michael Morrison uses sticky globs of paint Legends of Ryllia to fill the canvas of Ryllia. A homebrew pulled from that fizzing place in all our minds where the campaign world really lives. Michael bravely states:
Ryllia is my home
The races and places are landmarks in both game and his life and I feel privileged to be a part of it for 108 pages. Ryllia isn't tight, the system isn't novel but it has something more precious: a soul.

It begins with the past

History informs Ryllia's current state. A creation myth scoops up lush lumps of antiquity to intertwine the fates of races. The loci of this rich history is The Curse. The old immortal races, jealous of the new mortal races (humans), got together to wipe them out. It backfired spectacularly and each old race suffered their own unique drawback, from hoarding to hedonism. These races exist in the modern day at odds with the effects of The Curse; powerful yet broken enough to retain balance.

The campaign world is rich and plump; brimming with wild jungles, dark unexplored forests, sunny archaepelagos, towering citadels and scarred mountains. The races are neatly describes and broadly humanoid. My favourite race is the Myrwinn, an intelligent race of flying rats whose culture differs in each nation. The Myrwinns below are from the Great Forest.


Split into world shattering Greater Elements of Wind, Water, Void, Deep and Fire and then the wear-flowers-in-your-hair powers of prayer, songs and hugs in front of a log fire (I made that last one up). You pick an element (called an Aspect) and stick with it. There are no spell lists to pour through but a good set of examples of the kind of things each element can do. Magic has sensible limitations and if you do quite a lot of magic, you're going to pick up quirks. In magic systems such as these, the player's imagination is key and I think Ryllia gives just enough to fire the imagination without snuffing it out by over-specification.

Creating a Legend

Not the title of Tom Cruise's autobiography but character creation. You don't actually create a legend, though; that will happen through the course of play but you do create a budding hero-to-be. The creation steps lead you through nicely, although I think picking race and nation is rather difficult because it requires that everyone reads the entirety of Chapter One.

Attributes and skills are point buy with a dash of D6 points too. Your Attributes are Sight (awareness/intelligence), Joy (charisma) and Life (strength/dexterity). Spark adds a player chosen ability, such as "Always makes a dramatic entrance". You can have as many Sparks are you can afford. Mystery is used to generate plot hooks for your character. The more you have of it, the more the referee can pull out of the blue. I am not sure I like this one as an attribute as I think that players should all be given their turn in the spotlight. Professional skills are decide-your-own and combat skills are choose-a-style.

Boons and banes are advantages and disadvantages and latch onto an attribute. A player decides a little description and a value (boons and banes must balance). Use these during play when appropriate.

Story Points are awarded for making the story more interesting and a Legendary rating charts your progress in the game. The higher your Legendary rating, the more difficult you are to kill. Both Story and Legendary points can be used to save yourself or bend the narrative.


Based on skill, attribute, modifiers, a D6 and a target number. Exploding die on a 6 and if your equipment is particularly nasty you can roll more than one D6 and pick the best. Combat has initiative and then you choose how much of a pool of points you assign to offence and defence. When you attack, use the attack number with a D6. When defending, use the defence. There's more but nothing startling here. The background is rife for reimplementing in your own favourite system.

Now to say the difficult bit

No-one will love your campaign world like you will. That accepted, you can move onto making it easier for others to play. Ryllia is a great campaign world and deserves its bolts tightened to improve its accessibility. I don't know if Michael intends to return to it but hopefully this little list might help others struggling to move from "the brain dump" to a work more easily consumed.
  • Organise your contents. Introduction passages should avoid.
  • Be consistent in your terms. If you have an ancient warrior race called the Gumbys then avoid using "that old Warrior Race".
  • In introductions, keep the number of made up names to a minimum. Use as much common English as you can. In the detail, use the common names
  • Split up races and locations.
  • The players won't ready all the background before building a character, so write short paragraphs for each nation/race choice.
  • Put all the chatting-to-the-reader in an appendix at the end.
  • If the relative locations of places are important, include a map. Could be a photo of a scribble on a napkin but it makes a big difference.


Campaign worlds that turn into games are full of charm and heart. Reading Ryllia stirred something up that peeled out a smile. Reading it is like reading a mirror on the campaign worlds of each and every one of us - personal, loved and inhabited as a time shared with cherished friends. I do hope Michael returns to it, to help it mature rather than leaving it to languish.

Thank you for sharing, Michael.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Punk AND Cyber in Always Never Now by Will Hindmarch

Always Never Now by Will Hindmarch successfully fuses cyber and punk, augmenting Lady Blackbird's system and adding twists. Split into player's handbook and scenario for the GM, it's deep, familiar and exceptionally well thought through. Good writing draws you into the dark world of mega-corporations that - worryingly - is starting to look like our own. Like it's inspiration, Always Never Now is billed as a single scenario but I think that plays down the huge amount of gaming it will spawn.

Choose a character

Always Never Now comes with six pre-made character that build a refreshingly interesting cyberpunk team: ex corporate security, counter-intelligence ninja, inter-corporation operative, spy infiltrator, engineer tank and paramedic surgeon. The balance is excellent between them; each are handy in a fight and there is enough separation and overlap to make a subset selection work as well as a whole team. Having spent years cajoling the misanthropes around my table to build a coherent team, I bow to the masterful balance.

The descriptions are excellent and character imagery (funded by successful Kickstarter) are apt and excellent. Players will have these character sheets on the table during the whole game, so making them evocatively beautiful is very important.

System of words

Always Never Now takes Lady Blackbird's rules and performs back street bionic augmentation. For those unacquainted with Lady Blackbird, it combines the semantics of words that describe your character and die rolls. Your character has a number of traits, broad descriptions of a skill area. Each trait has a number of tags, which are more specific things that character can do.

For example, the Trait Infiltrator has the tags Stealthy, Perceptive, Quick, Subtle, Agile etc. It is up to the player to negotiate for as many dice as possible.

When a player needs to perform an action, they begin with a single die (any will do) and add one extra die for the appropriate trait and then another for each appropriate tag. Each die has a 50/50 of being a success (use 4+ on a D6, or odds/evens or your choice!). Difficulty is set by the number of successes you need.

When you fail an action, the GM will assign you a condition, one of: Angry, Exhausted, Impaired, Hunted, Trapped, Recognized. These drive the narrative, adding flavour to the story. Each Character also has a Key, which is a facet that is particular to that character. When you use that Key during play, then you pick up experience points to spend later. An example key is Key of the Comedian, the character makes jokes and when they're funny - they get an XP. Finally, each character gets an Edge that they can use once per session to help die rolls in certain situations or steer the narrative.

The rules are well explained and the examples are both informative and setting-flavoured.

A story game, with a story

Story games that fail to incite story trigger an allergic reaction in me. Always Never Now requires no anti-histamine. The scenario file that accompanies the player file is a complete adventure that you can pick up and run straight away. This is the crux of Always Never Now - there is a lot to read but it's so well written that it is a joy. There is a little fat to trim in the player file but it never gets in the way.

The scenario is formalised and organised into a series of scenes. After each scene, the players can choose from a number of new scenes depending on the clues they uncover. They can also have a recovery scene where they plot, plan, rearm and get ready to punk it up some more. Coupled with a neat diagram that acts as an in-game aide-mémoire, it's a neat way of presenting a scenario to a GM. A simplified Choose Your Own Adventure.

The setting is luscious. Twisting and embellishing the familiar, regressing some aspects and progressing others (the secret of good cyberpunk). Technocracy are a ruling elite, driven by complex whims and power thirst. Megacorps and subsidiaries sprawl over a broken earth and a good balance of available technologies. The opening paragraph in the introduction is one of the best I've ever read.

Fine tuning

The cover of Always Never Now does not adequately represent the high quality of the insides and for me, that's a problem. After click download, it's the first thing that the a prospective GM is going to see and they really should be more WOW'd by it. I'd make a montage of the character art at the very least. The long form of writing is difficult to use as a reference; a contents/index would help, as would more sub headings and better marked examples. I wonder if some might not get the movie references, so I would hyperlink those to Wikipedia. There's a neat description of roleplay for newbies but as I imagine that 90% of the readers will have played before, a quick jump link to the story game specific stuff would be handy.

I like the descriptions of Details, Beats and Moments as a description of building a successful scene but the writing gets a little fluffy round there and I think tightening it up would make it easier to understand. On first read through, it feels like rules bloat when it isn't at all - just putting definitions on techniques to help those people who have not had much control over the narrative before.

Always Now, not Never

One-shots might put you off but Always Never Now is no ordinary one-shot. It's a self-contained cyberpunk campaign that is ready to print-and-run. The standard of writing is high, which is vital for a good story game and although it might need a little boiling down in places, the depth and breadth of setting is a delight. If you have a bubbling interest in running a story game, then Always Never Now is an excellent choice.

Thank you to Will for sharing.