Elves & Espers: CybOrcs

CybOrcs are a cybernetically enhanced Orcs, linked together into a hive-mind.  They are the enemies of all other races, but most particularly the Elves; other races will be enslaved or eaten to sustain the organic parts of CybOrcs…Elves are converted into CybOrcs.  CybOrcs can no longer reproduce sexually, so capture and conversion of Elves is their highest priority.  CybOrcs are nomadic, living and traveling on gigantic self-propelled towns/gun-platforms (sometimes called Ogres).  The towns move slowly, barely at a walking pace, but where they pass nothing living remains.  The towns can never stop moving…once they do it is impossible for them to start again and the CybOrc organism will quickly exhaust its local supply of food and minerals and die… so it is sometimes possible to flee while the CybOrcs pass and return to try and rebuild from the wreckage.  The CybOrcs and Ogre form a single entity: what one knows, they all know.  CybOrcs scout and raiding parties range well in advance of the Ogre, finding prey and making sure the terrain is passable for the Ogre’s huge body and gigantic treads.   CybOrcs seldom speak, having little to say to other races, and when they do it is mostly to croak in a deadly monotone “Resistance is futile if it is less than 1 Ohm”, “Prepare to be incorporated”, or “Your biological and technical diversity will be ground to make our bread.”  Despite this, it is sometimes possible to bargain or negotiate with the CybOrcs if you can do so from a position of strength.  Unfortunately, since a direct hit by a nuke will only inconvenience a CybOrc/Ogre village, gaining an undeniable position of strength can be hard to achieve.  CybOrcs are ruthlessly utilitarian, however, and will never pursue prey out of vindictiveness, so they can often be turned aside or eluded if some richer prize presents itself.  When calculating benefit, capturing Elves is almost always top priority.


Attributes: Agility d6, Smarts d4, Strength d8, Spirit d6, Vigor d8

Skills: Shooting d6, Fighting d6, Throwing d4, Notice d6, Intimidation d8, Stealth d4

Pace:Parry: 5 Toughness: 11

Gear: Infantry Battlesuit (+4), Blaster 2d8+1, ROF3, 24/48/96, -2 Acc, Chainsaw Arm 2d6+4 (no botch on a 1)

Special Abilities: Size (+1), Hive-Mind (what one is aware of all are aware of), Fearless (immune to magical effects and intimidation)

The above is a typical CybOrc drone, though the weaponry carried often varies.  Other varieties are less often encountered, but include Heavy Weapons units (with full powered armor), Esper units (with AB: Psionics), etc.

Note that the Hive-Mind aspect can work as a disadvantage, in that if an Esper manages to influence one CybOrc, they are all influenced.  Physical damage from Esper powers is divided across all the CybOrcs bodies, which makes it pretty much impossible to actually harm them that way, but subtler Esper powers such as Puppet will work on them all at once.  There is a danger, however, for every turn the Esper remains in contact with the CybOrc hive-mind there is a chance that the Esper’s mind will be overwhelmed and incorporated into the CybOrc collection: roll a straight Spirit vs. Spirit contest.  The CybOrc hive-mind is treated as a Wild Card when Esper powers are involved even if all of its drones are Extras, so it gets a Wild Die.  If the CybOrcs ever win the contest, the Esper becomes one of them and her mind is lost forever.  CybOrcs cannot directly be forced to commit suicide via Puppetry, but can be tricked into actions that will spell their destruction, such as walking into lava.

Elves & Espers: Klangons

Klangons are a race of bumpy-headed cyborg warriors, fierce and proud.  Klangons are the name given to them by other races, for the way they borg themselves until they clang when they walk.  Their own name for themselves translates to “The People” (or literally, The Non-Wusses).


Tough – +1 Toughness
– +2 Armor (negated by AP weapons)
Warrior – Klangons start with a d6 in Fighting
Death Wish – For Klangons, today is always a good day to die.  Klangons seek to die in glorious battle, and while they won’t start unwinnable fights for no reason at all, if given a reason to fight overwhelming odds are considered yet another reason in favor of engaging in combat.
Arrogant – Klangons know they’re better than everybody else, and see no reason to keep it secret.

Situational Ethics

Session Summary for 12/7/08: Elves & Espers

When a typical Rambling Bumblers session starts up, there’s often quite a bit of dithering, and we try to find our feet in the scenario, and try to recapture exactly what it was that we were going to do next, which, after a break, doesn’t seem like such a good idea anymore. I used to think that was only natural, since often months or even years can pass between sessions of a particular campaign. As it turns out, even if we only have a week in between sessions, there’s still dithering.

Continue reading “Situational Ethics”

Elves & Espers: Drowleks

Drowleks are one of the most feared and hated races in the universe, committed to wiping out all non-Drowlek life everywhere.  Long ago they were a sub-species of Elf that lived underground, until the byproducts of their incessant warfare with the surface-dwellers poisoned their land and nearly killed off their species.  A mad genius constructed cyborg bodies for the remaining members of their species and they set out to cleanse the universe of non-Drowleks, uttering their piercing battle-cry of “Annihilate! Annihilate!”  Physically Drowleks resemble black and silver chess pawns, with eight spider-like legs sprouting from their underside, and a pair of pointed flanges that somewhat resemble Elven ears and have a Jacob’s-ladder electrical effect making a chilling drizzt-drizzt sound when active; these  are the primary ranged weapon of the Drowleks, and can fire tremendous bolts of lightning at enemies.  Their front two legs can extend scimitar-like blades for fighting in melee. Drowleks are nearly impervious to physical harm, but the magical Impermium metal of their outer casings is weakened by sunlight.


Attributes: Agil d4, Smarts d8, Spirit d6, Str d12, Vigor d10
Skills: Fighting d8, Shooting d10, Intimidation d10, Notice d6
Pace: 6 on any solid surface Parry: Toughness: 11
Gear: 2 Scimitars: Str+d8, Lightning Generator: 2d10 Cone attack, ignores metal armor (except self-powered armor, which is presumed to be shielded)

Special Abilities:
Ambidextrous – ignore off-hand penalty.
Armor – +4
Construct – +2 recover from Shaken; immune to disease, poison, aging; called shots do no extra damage; no wound modifiers.  Does not heal, must be repaired.
Fearless – Drowleks cannot be scared or Intimidated, even by magic, though they may proceed with caution if the situation warrants it.
Force Field – Drowleks cannot be harmed by non-Heavy weapons, and count as having Superior Magic Resistance
Sensors – Drowleks suffer no penalty for complete darkness, but are -1 in sunlight, and -2 in bright sunlight (but no penalties for equivalent artificial illumination).
Sphere of Annihilation – The orb on top of the “pawn” contains a Sphere of Annihilation, held in place magically. If it does nothing else during a turn, not even move, the Drowlek can unsheathe the sphere.  Anything that touches the sphere, other than Drowleks, is instantly completely annihilated.  A Drowlek with its sphere exposed is incapable of movement.  It requires another full turn to sheathe it once again.  The Drowlek can also cause the Sphere to expand: on the first turn, the Sphere encompasses the 1″ square the Drowlek occupies, on the second turn it occupies a Medium Burst Template; on the third turn is occupies a Large Burst Template, which is as large as it can get.  This does not harm the Drowlek, but it can not perform any other actions once the sphere has expanded, nor perceive what is going on outside the sphere or communicate with other Drowleks; it will remain blind and immobile until it shrinks the sphere back to its normal size.  While it is in the Sphere is cannot be perceived or targetted in any way, not even by magic or psionics.  Shrinking the Sphere takes the same amount of time as growing it.
Two-Fisted – no multi-action penalty for using both Scimitars at once.
Hated – by ancient tradition and pure self-interest all cultures and races will put aside their differences temporarily in order to fight Drowleks.
Weakness – Sunlight degrades Drowlek armor;  sunlight-based attacks are +2 AP (they must be defined as being sunlight-based, and not ordinary light…generally speaking this requires magical attacks, not lasers), and each turn of exposure to sunlight reduces the protection offered by the armor by 1.  Shade will stop the degredation, and darkness reverse it at the same rate.
Xenophobe – will never agree, even temporarily, to cooperate with a member of another race.

Elves & Espers: The Broken Spire

The Broken Spire is the Westernmost of the spires that comprise the New (upper) part of New Ark City.  It is called Broken not because the physical structure has been compromised, but because all the systems have failed and cannot be repaired.  When queried, Gax–the Giant Thaumaturgic Brain in charge of the city–always replies that repairs are underway as he has done for at least the past millennium.  No broadcast power reaches the Broken Spire, and all equipment that hasn’t been modified to be self-sustaining, including but not limited to all standard models of air-car and beam weaponry, cease to function well before they get to the edge of any of the Broken Spire’s discs.

Visual inspection with image amplification shows that the discs and tower itself are mostly intact, with some signs of wear, but the Web connecting them is in tatters, and all the cables that ordinarily connect the spires to each other have fallen.  Most of the visible buildings are at least partially ruined, and appear to have been damaged by some combination of fire, weather, weaponry, and neglect.  High levels of thaumaturgic radiation prevents a closer inspection with any scrying gear, though at night the naked eye can see the glimmer of campfires.  The spire is dark and brooding, and most inhabitants of the other spires prefer not to regard it too closely, to the extent that the regions of the discs closest to it (save for the Eastern disc on the far side of the Spire of Ark, and the Spire of Ark itself, which lacks all discs) are the “low-rent” areas of the city.

Adventurers occasionally mount expeditions to the Broken Spire, and those that return tell tales of primitive tribes, cut off for so long from the rest of the city that even the descendants of the Elves have forgotten their common heritage and speak a language unknown to modern ears.  The pervasive thaumaturgic radiation has given rise to horrible mutations, and the primitives of the Spire are barely recognizable as the descendants of the species that inhabit the rest of the city if indeed that they are, and not some other races that once lived in New Ark and have now been forgotten, or invaders from outside the Arcology altogether.  Monsters and abominations abound, again whether the mutant offspring of domesticated creatures such as the beasts of burden that pull the bulette-trains or the various helpful oozes that keep the city clean, or invasive species from elsewhere that have colonized in the absence of the city’s normal security systems, none can say.

Wondrous treasures are said to be found there, relics of an almost forgotten era when New Ark City was in full flower, and all the city’s functions were efficiently carried out by Gax, while the college of the Tower of Ark turned out marvels and miracles of modern thaumatology, the design, construction and operation of which have since been lost, or the parts having been cannibalized to patch the increasingly creaking and overburdened systems of the aging arcology and the vast spires, once teeming with more millions of inhabitants than now seems conceivable, now a shadow of their former glory.


The Broken Spire is intended to be the “Gamma World” part of the city, and a suitable place for wild-and-woolly mutant-filled adventures without leaving the arcology entirely for adventures in the Badlands.  Stuff powered by the characters Power Points will still function, but ordinary gear (such as laser pistols, communicators, blasters and the like) won’t work unless the characters spend extra money to equip themselves with (bulkier) self-powered gear.

Elves & Espers: COBOLds

COBOLds are biological constructs left over from a previous era, designed as workers to do all the dirty and dangerous infrastructure jobs. Although looked down on and widely regarded as obsolete compared to the shiny new droids, they still do most of the grunt-work that keeps the arcology running because they still work and it would be too expensive to replace them.  They are short, stocky humanoids, completely bald, with blue skins and big noses.  They are persistent, but not very creative, and have little sense of self-preservation. When they do appear in the upper city, they are looked upon with a mixture of disdain and pity.


Construct – +2 to recover from being shaken, immune to poison, disease, radiation, and aging
Hardy – A second Shaken result doesn’t amount to a wound.
Small – -1 Vigor
Outsider – -2 Cha

Because of their backgrounds, in New Ark City COBOLds are forbidden to take AB:Esper, AB:Trooper, or AB: Roguechemist.

Skill Challenges: Threat or Menace?

This has been bugging me a while, so I’m finally going to rant about it and get it out of my system.

Skill Challenges are what D&D 4e has in place of roleplaying.  And no, I’m not really kidding.  As a method of injecting some pseudo-RP in a tabletop miniatures skirmish game, they make perfect sense: a series of discrete, finite dice rolls so you can get quickly get past the RP and on with the real business of pushing minis around, and to provide some meta-game tension to the “boring” process of thinking of solutions to problems and playing them out.  As an aid to actual RP, they discourage what you want to encourage (creativity, experimentation, thinking as the character), and encourage what you want to discourage (meta-gaming and thinking inside the box).  I think it’s particularly telling that as originally released, even after all the playtesting 4e got, the Skill Challenge numbers were utterly broken and had to be rewritten and released as errata.

The basic mechanism is that you take something that would otherwise be RPed out and replace it with a Skill Challenge of a particular difficulty: you need to score N successes before M failures (N >M in most of the examples I’ve seen) or you fail.  N and M, and the difficulty of the skill rolls (DC in D&D terms) are determined by the difficulty of the Skill Challenge.  The Challenge will then list the Skills that can be applied and their DCs (at least in terms of easy, moderate, and hard), as well as how many successes (or failures) a check is worth towards completing the Skill Challenge (default 1).  Typically the list of allowed Skill checks, or even whether they can undertake a Skill Challenge, won’t be shared with the players, which is where people get fooled into thinking that this is somehow a form of RP instead of a replacement for it.  The process of discovering whether there’s a Skill Challenge and what Skills are allowed is superficially similar to the discussion you might have around the table of plans and approaches to try, but there’s a world of difference under the hood.

What’s wrong with that?

  • The biggest thing is the “Before M failures” rule.  That changes it from an abstraction to a mini-game.  The difference is that an abstraction simplifies things by ignoring irrelevant (hopefully) features to focus on getting reasonable outcomes, mini-games introduce features that have no counterpart in what you’re modeling and no purpose other than to make the mechanics of what you’re doing game-able.  In D&D hit points are an abstraction…they ignore things like exactly how or where you were hit (or even whether you were hit and actually wounded or just battered, bruised and tuckered out) to focus on the potential outcomes after a certain amount of battle: defeated, unharmed, victorious but weakened and less likely to win the next battle.  The fact that they’re a very high-level abstraction has caused a lot of complaint over the years, and prompted countless attempts to fix them or replace them with a different abstraction, but at least they don’t introduce extra new complications in the form of how do you massage your hit-points to use them most efficiently.  The Skill Check failures rule doesn’t represent anything in the game world (if you’re trying to track goblins through the woods, it doesn’t suddenly become impossible because your companion back in town failed to remember some detail about local politics), it’s just an artificial mechanism to introduce tension and limit the number of things the players can try. Arbitrarily limiting the number of things the players can try is bad. If they’re not expending resources or up against a deadline, cutting off their creativity is the last thing you want to be doing in an RPG, even if it makes perfect sense in a board game.
  • The fact that it’s a mini-game encourages/requires meta-gaming.  The order in which you try the tests is crucial, so rather than leading off with the skills that are the most relevant to the task you’re trying to accomplish you have to lead off with the skills you’re best at.  It’s the codification of the old joke Q: If your keys are over there, why are you looking here?  A: Because the light’s better here.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s something your character would attempt, what matters is how good the character is at it and the fact that if he fails he can screw up the Challenge for the entire party.
  • It discourages improvisation.   Dividing the world into things for which there are Skill Challenges and things for which there aren’t pushes the players towards the courses of action for which there are Skill Challenges and discourages them from trying things for which there aren’t (this is true even if the GM is willing and able to generate Skill Challenges on the fly).   Also, because Skill Challenges are defined in terms of making skill rolls you’re discouraged from thinking outside the box and substituting a non-skill roll approach to the same task (e.g. if you can make a Climbing roll to gain a success by getting to the top of a tree and spotting something, you ought to be able to do the same thing with an innate or spell-given ability to fly, or to send your flying familiar aloft.  The GM could just rule those as successes, but that doesn’t seem to be the way Challenges are designed.  The point isn’t the tasks you need to accomplish, it’s whether you make the required rolls).  Finally, by providing a list of approved skills and their uses to count towards the Challenge, it discourages using substitutes (e.g. if the Challenge calls for intimidating someone, what about persuading, bribing or seducing them instead?) or trying oddball or long-shot things.
  • By reducing everything to a series of die-rolls it eliminates any of the back-and-forth and progressive discovery and reasoning that are the essence of role playing.  This is an old complaint along the lines of if characters can just roll Diplomacy, then what’s the point of playing out conversations?  But it’s as valid now as it was then…if your game allows you to substitute skill rolls for interacting with NPCs and making actual deductions based on your knowledge instead of using them as a supplement or a fall-back if you get stuck, then you’re devaluing roleplaying.  Now 4e has made devaluing roleplaying one of its key components.

Let’s take a look at actual play, by someone wildly enthusiastic about Skill Challenges (note, I’m not criticizing Emptythreat15 or his GM at all; they had a lot of fun, which is what counts, but I’m arguing that they could have just as much fun and more often with a system that doesn’t get in the way of what they’re trying to do):

    • My male dwarf normally gets decent initiative; however, my female is cursed to having initiative rolls of less than 10. So my dwarf waded into combat with the hideous dogs and I thought to myself, ‘I wonder if we could improve the attitude of that boar and have it help us out…we don’t have Handle Animal anymore…but hell, maybe the DM will think of something suitable’.

      So my turn came around, and I explain to the DM that I want to undergo a skill challenge to improve the attitude of the boar, and what do you know, the skill challenge “Taming The Beast” was listed in the rules for the adventure. Sweet.

That right there is enough to make a grown man weep.  The player comes up with a really neat idea, and what’s he excited about?  The module gives him permission to try it.

This was turning out to be no easy task though. 4 successes before 2 failures? This thing was just built for failure. Fortunately for me though, I was allowed to use the better of my Heal or Nature checks. Asking a cleric to make a Heal check is like asking a clown to make a balloon giraffe, so I was pretty excited. Much to my chagrin, my clerics +11 Heal modifier does very little when you roll a 2 on a d20. One failure already. Not good.

The next two rounds, a 15 and 16 consecutively, making 26 and 27 Heal checks, and successful ones at that. The next turn, two have a bit of a safety net, her brother, the paladin, came over and aided her on her checks, giving her a +2. She made the next check with a roll of 10, and spent an action point for her last skill check, rolling a 10 once again. The boar was calm, and finally, so was I.

So what’s wrong with this picture?  Practically everything, though at least this is a situation where it’s conceivable that botched attempts could make the plan impossible to carry out (fiddle with the wounds unsuccessfully long enough and the boar could be too enraged to befriend even if you eventually get it right) .  Note the way the player meta-games which skills to apply, and when to get the second character involved.  Note also how the player was channeled into a solution that involved making skill rolls, even with two characters that have magical healing abilities that would have made perfect sense in terms of game-world and genre logic to use at that point.  I’d also be inclined to hold it against the system that what seems to drive the tension is the roles themselves, rather than, say, the fact that a fight is raging all around them and they’re spending time fiddling around with the caged animal while their companions are fighting for their lives.

Now imagine playing out the same scene without being anchored down by the Skill Challenge system.  There’s nothing they accomplished that couldn’t have been done by straight role-playing, unless you just don’t trust the GM.  The only difference (besides the fact that the player might have made different choices about whether to involve the second character or use magical healing without the meta-game considerations) is that the task would be open-ended…the player would have an additional decision to make if the first two turns didn’t succeed about whether to continue (and perhaps up the stakes by using special abilities) or give it up and help with the fight.  All the Skill Challenge system does here is dumb it down.

Let’s look at another example, this one a bit more elaborate, and told from the point of view of a GM designing a Skill Challenge.  Again, I’m not meaning to disparage what At Will wrote, on the contrary I’m using this as an example because I think it’s a good Skill Challenge, that would be better if you dumped the whole Skill Challenge mechanic.

You have to go read it, because otherwise I’d end up quoting the whole thing.

So, now that you’ve read it, here’s what’s wrong.   There is, as I believe is typical, no justification whatsoever for the mechanism itself.  There’s just no earthly reason that failing to remember something about the history of the area, or to have a flash of insight, should have any bearing at all on whether you can intimidate a child into telling you what you want to know.  But if you try and fail at those two things as well as using Diplomacy on the villagers, you’ve got no reason to talk to the child…it becomes impossible for you to get information out of him.  The fact that Intimidate is the only skill usable on the child is another failing, in my book…it doesn’t matter if one of the characters is the motherly sort with oodles of Charisma and Persuasion or a spell like Charm Person (or whatever the 4e equivalent is)…that approach is something you can’t even attempt.  In the comments At Will makes it clearer that he’d allow you to use appropriate magic to bypass some or all of the Challenge or to roleplay some of the encounters (but he’d make whether that accomplishes anything contingent on the die-roll…all the talk is just window-dressing), but what advantage is there to even using the Challenge mechanic then?

Here’s how the Old School would do it (in this case, Old School refers to all the way back to 3.5):

Kobolds have kidnapped a group of children from the village the PCs are currently in.  The players must gather information to find out who did it, and find their way to the location in order to rescue the children before the kobolds can sacrifice them to a dragon.

If you talk to the villagers, they don’t know much, but they know that they miss their children and when they went missing.  They were out in the fields…; Someone does report that they thought they saw more children than normal playing for a while…

One child who is still in the village seems to know something. The child doesn’t want to confess because he’s afraid they might come after him if he tells someone, but if the adventurers can persuade or intimidate him somehow he saw some creatures that look like small dragon-people.

Somebody who knows this area and its history will know that this area has not seen too many hard times, but goblins and kobolds can always be a menace. Goblins haven’t been seen around this area for some time…

Examining the tracks in the field, and near some of the houses,  reveals that fairly small creatures kidnapped these children, and they headed North out of the forest.  Appropriate knowledge will further reveal that  creatures are most likely kobolds judging by the tracks.  Appropriate knowledge recalls that kobolds favor mountainous terrain.

Gaining a good overview of the territory (by climbing up to a advantageous spot high among the trees, flight, clairvoyance) grants a good view of the terrain, and suggests three areas that the kidnappers might have gone: a mountain slope, a ravine to the South, or into the dense center of the forest.

And so forth.  Essentially, all the work that went into devising the Skill Challenge is valuable, and can indicate the kinds of information that you can get by talking to the various people and examining the scene.   What’s the matter with Skill Challenges is the mechanism itself, not the putting extra thought and care into how various skills and abilities can be used in the scenario.  You want to strip out extraneous requirements that only specific skills be used (except perhaps noting things that could give a particular approach an advantage, such as so-and-so being a coward and easily intimidated), and beef it up with additional information so that they players themselves can reason about the information they uncovered (the combination of the tracks heading North out of the forest and the overview of the area showing only one likely place to the North, or the overview revealing the mountain and the knowledge check revealing that kobolds like mountains).  You don’t want to artificially prolong it, by requiring a certain number of dice rolls before they can proceed–if they think they’ve figured out that it was kobolds and they’re likely to be in the mountains, by all means let them head for the mountains to take a look around.  You also don’t want to cut them short by saying, oops, you’ve failed, no point in trying to gather more information or recall anything further.  You most emphatically do not want to discourage them trying oddball or long-shot approaches by penalizing them if they fail.  If you want to put them under time pressure, then attach amounts of time that it takes to try different things, and let them decide which they are willing to spend time on and whether they can split the tasks up more efficiently, don’t just arbitrarily rule that failing to recall a fact about kobolds chews up just as much of the day (moves them closer to failure) as canvassing the neighborhood and talking to all the farmers.   For role-playing purposes you can easily get everything that is good about them, and avoid most of the bad, by dropping the Skill Challenge mechanic altogether and just using the list as a guideline to the kinds of things the players can roleplay out.

Skill Challenges take what was a reasonable idea, of examining a situation and making note of all the obvious (and some less obvious) ways that you could use certain skills to obtain information, advance your agenda, or solve a problem and formalizes it into a mini-game that basically piths all that was good and fun about roleplaying to fit it within the framework of a board-game.  The entire Skill Challenge system of collective accomplishment and punishment pushes the players more strongly than ever before into treating the party as a Borg collective of drones with various specializations controlled by a hive-mind, rather than a group of individuals with their own psychologies and approaches to life.  Think about it. There is simply nothing in-character that could be said by one character to another as to why he shouldn’t attempt to recall what he learned about kobolds until some other character elsewhere has either succeeded or failed in picking a lock or climbing a tree (or vice-versa).  Skill Challenges make ordinary role-play harmful to the party, and for no reason at all other than it to satisfy the arbitrary strictures imposed by the mechanics.  If nothing else, keeping the Skill Challenges and dropping the “before M failures” clause would be a step back towards making them at least compatible with role-playing.

Bait and Switch

This month, the RPG Blog Carnival topic is “Transitions and Transformations,” so I’d like to talk a little about Baiting and Switching campaign premises in RPGs.  The basic idea, seductive in its simplicity, is that you emulate a common staple of fantastic fiction where the protagonists find themselves in a setting or situation that is a radical change from their everyday lives and for which they are unprepared (as when a group of children find a strange world in the back of the wardrobe in the house they’re staying in, or a dying prospector is astrally transported to Mars) by having the players prepare characters as if they were going to play in a particular setting (e.g. the Old West), and part-way through the first session plop them in a new one (Barsoom).  In one swell foop you short-circuit any temptation to meta-gaming in the character build process, eliminating any difficulty over professors, reporters and nurses curiously well-versed in the handling of shotguns and dynamite in your Call of Cthulhu game, and you present the players with the exact psychological experience that the characters have of being gobsmacked when their plans for their lives are turned upside-down.  That’s a pretty rare thing to be able to accomplish in an RPG, so it’s quite tempting.

I know what you’re thinking.  You’re thinking that I’m going to warn you against doing it, because the risks are too great.  The players might not like the new premise that they didn’t buy into; they may have built characters that have rich connections with the original premise and are reduced to hollow shells in the new one or may have an obsessive motivation to return to the original; if the characters aren’t built with the setting in mind they may be ineffective to the point of not being fun to play; if any characters are lost the switch in premise might make it impossible to neatly add new ones, etc.  In essence you’re playing a trick on the players, and what they might have cheerfully agreed to if you’d presented it openly they may end up resenting when it’s forced upon them, ruining a perfectly good campaign for a brief moment of epiphany when they realize what the game is really about.

Let me tell you, though, that when it works, it’s beautiful, and can cause great awe and glee around the table.  To me, that’s worth the risk.

That’s not to say that there aren’t things you can do to minimize the risk.  Take, for example, the Escape From Tartarus game I ran.  You might want to read the recaps of Part 1 and Part 2 before going further.

I knew going into it that the bait and switch I was planning was tricky, so there were some things that I did  specifically to address that:

  • The game was planned as a one-shot, instead of a full campaign.  If things had gone badly the number of sessions ruined would be minimal (it ended up taking two sessions, but it was also apparent by the end of the first session that it was going to work).
  • The players were all given pre-gens.  This reduced their investment in the initial character concept (nobody spent two weeks working on a back-story that would be completely discarded), and allowed me to make sure that everybody had something they could do once the switch occurred.
  • Because I know my players well, I was able to tailor the pre-gens to their preferences, to the extent of having them be reminiscent of characters that they’d already played and enjoyed.
  • It was presented as “Here’s what I’m running this week.”  Slightly high-handed, but again reduced the players investment in the initial premise and eliminated any hint of breaking a promise to deliver them a game based on what had been previously agreed to.
  • The switch granted the characters a step up (in this case a big one) in importance and ability to exert an influence on the course of events.  It’s much better for player buy-in for the alleged madman to find out he’s Corwin, Prince of Amber than for Corwin, Prince of Amber to find out he’s actually a madman hallucinating in the loony-bin.
  • The shift left a goodly amount of continuity between pre and post.  In this case, the literal setting remained the same, while the power-level and style underwent a radical change (from gritty prison drama to super-agent adventure).  I think continuity helps: change the setting, keep the style; change the style, keep the setting; change both, at least keep the themes.  If you change everything, the players may feel that you’ve just switched games in the middle.

The Escape From Tartarus was one of the most succesful games I’ve run, and everybody had a really good time.  In fact, it’s one of the settings my players have indicated an interest in returning to some day.

I’ve run other Bait and Switch games, some wildly successful (The Midnight Special), some failures (The Irvine Effect) and I think the above hits upon the key points to make it work:  Minimize the Bait, by not letting the players get too invested in or put too much work into the initial set-up, and carefully target the switch so that the players can experience some sense of continuity and the switch leaves them in their comfort zone as to the kind of characters and situations they like to play, or places them there if that’s not where they started.  Done right, and it’ll be a game to remember.

Elves & Espers: G-nomes

G-nomes are the descendants of pre-Apocalypse gnomes, and embrace genetic engineering with the same enthusiasm (and sometimes explosive results) as their ancestors embraced mechanisms and before that alchemy.  They use magical viruses to rewrite their own genetic codes to cosmetically alter their appearances and give themselves interesting and unusual animal parts and abilities. They are the size of gnomes (about the size of a human child) and are always humanoid, with large eyes, but sport a wide variety of fur, scales, feathers, or brightly colored skins, as well as accouterments like horns, claws, fangs, and so forth.

In New Ark City they’re often found as Web Runners, using their rocket-skates to traverse the cables that make up the web delivering messages hither and yon, or in similar professions where regard for one’s personal safety is regarded as a handicap.


Small (-1 Toughness)
Natural Weapons (Str+d6 with one, or Str+d4 with two) – G-Nomes may choose what natural weapons they have, and may choose to shed them and grow different ones, though the process takes a week during which they will have no usable natural weapon.
Attractive +2 CHA. G-Nomes may look bizarre, but they see no reason to be unattractive, and whatever look they adopt will be designed to be aesthetically pleasing
Low Light Vision.  Their large eyes give them low-light vision.

Elves & Espers: Zombots

Zombots are corpses that have been infested with nanite colonies that grow mechanical linkages to make them lurch around in an unholy resemblance to life.   Zombots are hideous travesties, with wires and rods piercing their flesh, writhing under their skin and snaking around their bloody and decaying bodies, manipulating them like grotesque marionettes.  In settings where the Guts skill is used, encountering a Zombot requires a Guts check.

Zombots have no other drive than to create more Zombots and consume flesh and circuitry to sustain themselves, though forbidden Necrotech can be used to command them.  In its inactive form, the nanites are a grey dust (Zombot Dust) that is harmless unless it comes in contact with a corpse or an open wound.  A corpse will become a functioning zombot in 1d6 rounds; a living being will have to make a Vig roll every hour or suffer a Wound and once it becomes Incapacitated will rise as a zombot.  Zombots require flesh to function (it’s part of the programming of the nanites), so although fire won’t destroy the mechanical parts, if you burn away all the flesh, the Zombot is destroyed.  Zombots require a steady infusion of new flesh and circuitry to sustain their activity, and will always be on the prowl trying to consume; once a Zombot has killed a victim it will spend 1d4 rounds feasting, ignoring what else is going on unless it comes under attack. If it spends more than a day without being able to consume anything, it will go into hibernate mode, remaining motionless and emitting no energy readings until a victim gets within movement range (Pace).

When deciding what to attack, the Zombot will go first for the closest person who attacked it, next for the closest victim (choose randomly for equally distant targets); count all robots, computers, and sophisticated machinery as potential victims. Zombots will only employ ranged attacks (if the form has them) if it is not possible to close to melee.  Zombots will incorporate whatever weapons the victim was carrying into itself and use them.  Zombot infection, however, is only carried by natural weapons, not incorporated ones.

Trafficking in Zombot dust (and all forms of Necrotech) is punishable by death in New Ark City.


Zombots have stats as their living counterpart with the following exceptions:

Str: +2d Smt: Unintelligent Pace: -2.

Undead: +2 Toughness, +2 to recover from Shaken, No Called Shots, No Wound Penalties
: creatures bitten/clawed by Zombots must make a Vig roll every hour or suffer a wound, and will become Zombots after they’ve been Incapacitated
none while active, Fast once killed
Weakness Fire, double damage, prevents regeneration