I’ve Got the (Ghost-Punching) Power!

gp_rpg_logoThe time has come. Yes, in today’s installment of “Designing the Ghost Punchers Roleplaying Game with Your Host Darrell,” it’s time to actually start writing up some new game mechanics. “About time!” you may say, and start rolling up your metaphorical shirt sleeves and preparing to get your metaphorical hands dirty. But where to start?

In our previous entry, we looked at what rules the game needs that Savage Worlds doesn’t automatically provide. The two most important of these key mechanics are Seeing Ghosts and Punching Ghosts, so let’s start there.

In Savage Worlds, characters can’t have powers unless they have what’s called an Arcane Background. In the core RPG, Arcane Backgrounds include things like “Magic” and “Psionics” and “Weird Science.” Our first task, then, is to create a new Arcane Background for our friendly neighborhood ghost punchers.

Arcane Background (Spirit Medium)
Arcane Skill: Spirit Medium (Spirit)
Starting Power Points: 10
Starting Powers: 2
Available Powers: Spirit Sight, Enchanted Fist

Yes, I called it “Spirit Medium” instead of “Ghost Puncher.” It’s just a label, but naming it thus makes it feel like it can be used for characters who have these abilities, but haven’t dedicated themselves to violence against the unquiet dead. In other words, it encourages character diversity, which I hear is a good thing to have in an RPG.

Next, let’s look at these two new powers:

Spirit Sight
Rank: Novice
Power Points: 1
Range: Self
Duration: 1 hour (1/hour)
On a success, the hero can see into the spirit world. He can see auras around the living and the horrific shapes of the ghostly dead. Seeing a particularly ghastly ghost when or where he isn’t expecting it may require the hero to make a Fear check.

This is your basic “see ghosts” power. As I expect players to use it all the time, it’s about as cheap as a power can be, at a cost of only one power point and the ability to maintain the power (without a roll) for the cost of one point per hour after that. The line about making a Fear check isn’t technically rules (“here’s how this works”) so much as it is a hook (“here’s something that can happen”), since I thought it might be fun for the GM to startle an unsuspecting character.

Enchanted Fist
Rank: Novice
Power Points: 2
Range: Self
Duration: 3 (1/hour)
On a success, the hero can harm ethereal entities (like, say, ghosts) with her bare hands as if the entity were not ethereal. On a raise, the hero does +1 damage to any ethereal targets she hits during the duration of the power.

And here’s the baseline “punch ghosts” power. I based the cost on the Savage Worlds power “Smite,” (which costs 2 to give +2 damage for the duration), figuring that it isn’t doing extra damage (usually) but does let the hero hurt a range of enemies she normally can’t touch… which seems about even. We’ll see how it tests out.

The last key mechanic on our list is “being attacked by ghosts.” That’s going to be interesting, and probably pretty complicated. So meet me back here next week and we’ll dive right into it.

A Ghost-Punching Companion

gp_rpg_logoAs I mentioned when I first brought up designing a Ghost Punchers roleplaying game, I really don’t want to spend time reinventing the wheel. That’s why I chose to base my game off Savage Worlds, rather than create a new system from scratch.

In the interests of avoiding reinvention, I’m taking a side trek today to check out the Savage Worlds Horror Companion. As the name would suggest, it’s a book of supplementary rules for dealing with horror tropes using the Savage Worlds system, and I suspect it might have some rules I’ll want to use.

Let’s take a look and find out…

First of all, I see that ghosts are still the same as they are in the main book: “ethereal” monsters that can only be hurt by magical weapons. Also, while there some cool new “character class” style Edges such as Exorcist and Monster Hunter, none of them come with the built-in ability to see or harm spirits, so that’s definitely still a niche I’m creating/filling.

The book does have some rules for stuff I can see using: rules for characters going insane, or using rituals to bind or ward off spirits. And while the “atomic ghost-hunting packs” refer to a very different and specific sort of violence against the supernatural, the rules covering how the weapons interact with the spirit world could be adapted for my purposes (he said while rubbing his hands together like a Bond villain).

So the results of my side trek look like this:

  • I’ll still need to design the ghost-punching rules myself.
  • The Companion has some great rules for rituals, sanity, and ghost-fighting equipment I can work from.
  • After seeing all these cool new rules, I want to run a “Buffy the Cthulhu-Slayer” game. Ah, Savage Worlds. You just get me sometimes.

Now that I’ve seen what’s out there, it’s time to start focusing on what’s new. In the next entry, we’ll look at creating the actual rules for ghost-punching.

The (Game) Mechanics of Ghost Punching

gp_rpg_logoBefore diving back into creating the Ghost Punchers roleplaying game, I’d like to take a moment to talk about two different types of RPG game mechanics: core mechanics and key mechanics.

Core mechanics are the engine of the game: the rule or rules that drive everything else. In Savage Worlds, for example, the core mechanic is “Roll a die. If you roll a 4 or more, you succeed.” There are other rules covering what type of die to roll, and what bonuses or penalties to apply to the number you roll, but they’re all there to support the core mechanic.

Key mechanics are the rules that fulfill the value proposition of the game’s premise. Or, to put it into English, key mechanics let you do the stuff that the game is about. For instance, if you’re playing Dungeons and Dragons, you’d expect rules for exploring dungeons and fighting dragons (and you’d find them).

Other examples of key mechanics would include rules for…

  • sailing ships (in a pirate RPG),
  • finding clues (in a detective RPG),
  • drinking blood (in a vampire RPG), or
  • lurking outside children’s windows (in a clown RPG).

Without key mechanics, it’s hard to have a satisfying experience. After all, playing an RPG is, at some level, creating your own story within the game’s storyworld. The mechanics should make it fun and easy to create that story; if they don’t, it’s a flaw in the game design.

Which leads to some questions regarding the Ghost Punchers RPG…

What’s our Core Mechanic?

Because we’re running with the Savage Worlds RPG system, that answer is easy: a die roll against a target of 4.

What are our Key Mechanics?

Obviously, we need rules for punching ghosts. The punching part is easy (Savage Worlds has a combat system), but it’s the ghost part that’s tricky, since ghosts are traditionally intangible, which makes punching difficult.

Savage Worlds touches on these things (it has rules for “ethereal” monsters that can only be hurt with magical weapons) but not with the depth that we need. It doesn’t, for instance, have rules for seeing invisible spirits, or cover the other metaphysics of ghost-punching.

So it appears that the list of key mechanics we need to introduce looks something like this:

  • Seeing ghosts
  • Attacking ghosts (without magical weapons)
  • Being attacked by ghosts
  • Ghost punchers’ other “Kewl Powerz” alluded to here

I’m sure I’ll come up with more stuff, or realize I’ve forgotten a key component somewhere, but for now, it seems like something I can get done in time for the convention at the end of August… And I might have a shortcut, which I’ll go over in the next post.

Ghost Punchers: the RPG

gp_rpg_logoSeveral weeks ago on Facebook, I off-handedly mused about running a Ghost Punchers roleplaying game at an upcoming game convention. The Fine People of Facebook thought this was a grand idea, even though the game doesn’t technically exist. If I were to run it, I’d have to write it.

Always a sucker for such things, I accepted the challenge and committed to running the game on August 30 — which means the clock is ticking. I’d better get to designing this RPG. And lucky you, I’m bringing you along for the ride.

Where to Begin?

The first question to ask myself about the project is whether to use an existing system or to roll my own. I’m no stranger to creating RPG systems from scratch (most recently for Anointed), but it’s a lot of work, much of which is reinventing wheels that have been around since 1982: systems for combat, stealth, persuasion, picking locks, weaving baskets, juggling puppies… the list goes on, and it’s all been done before.

No, I’d rather focus my energies on what’s unique and exciting about Ghost Punchers rather than trying to find a new and innovative systems for bending bars and lifting gates. I’d rather build off an existing game system.

I’d rather use Savage Worlds.

Savage What Now?

Savage Worlds, for the uninitiated, is an RPG rules system that’s universal (that is, it’s not tied to any one setting) and explicitly designed to be “fast, furious, and fun.” It’s robust enough to handle all the usual RPG systems, as well as whatever ghost-punching silliness I want to hang off of it.

What’s more, I’m already rather competent in designing for Savage Worlds, since it’s the system for which I wrote the Karthador RPG. When working under a six-week deadline, “already rather competent” is a big selling point.

And Then…?

Since I’m using Savage Worlds, I can skip over 90% of the standard RPG mechanics and dive straight into the rules I need to create or modify in order to bring the Ghost Punchers experience to life…. Which I’ll be glad to go over in my next blog post.

Deer Crossed

van_deadI didn’t get a good look at the deer that tried to kill itself by running into the front of our van in the middle of the night on our way back from Minnesota.

I like to think its eyes were teary, yet hard with resolve. The deer had regrets, but had made up its mind. Life had no joy for it anymore. There was nothing left for it but to leap in front of a steel box hurtling down the highway at 75 miles an hour and end it all.

No one was hurt in the impact. I’m not sure Baby Jax even woke up for it. But smoke was pouring from beneath the crumpled hood, and the smell of radiator fluid filled the passenger compartment as my lovely wife pulled the van to the side of the road. There was no sign of the deer.

“Where are we?”

“Somewhere in South Dakota.”

We were able to limp the van to a rest stop we’d passed a mile back. The last quarter mile, the dash board flashed and dinged at us that we were dangerously low on radiator fluid. Once safely situated beneath the mosquito-swarmed lights of the rest area, we pulled out our phones and (eventually) got a tow to the nearest town with a garage and a hotel, some 30 miles away. I asked the tow truck driver if he could recommend a good service garage. He just laughed.

“We only got three in town, and they’re booked up for the next two weeks!”

How about car rental in town?

“The Ford garage rents cars. You can give them a call.”

It turned out the Ford garage only rented cars locally, since they were the same cars they sold. “I can rent it to you,” said the Ford man, “but you’ll have to bring it back here, which would defeat the purpose.”

After speaking with the Ford man, I spent the rest of the morning on the phone with the insurance company. They sent another tow truck to take the van (and us) to Pierre, where they had a garage that could do an official assessment, and we could find a rental car that could get us home. The tow truck driver said his employer, Wegner Auto, actually rented cars, so they’d be glad to help us out.

When we arrived in Pierre, we learned that Wegner didn’t have any cars available to rent. The good news was that Vicki, who was in charge of the rental service, was on a first-name basis with the Avis and Budget rental agencies in town.

“They mostly just do local,” she said. “But sometimes they rent one-way if they have a car they need delivered. Let me make some calls.”

After an hour of phone calls and wheeling and dealing, we realized our best bet was to get a rental car delivered from Rapid City — three hours away. Unfortunately, it was too late in the day for that plan, and we’d be stuck in South Dakota another night.

“You’ll need a room,” said Vicki. “Let me make some calls.”

She found us an affordable place to stay and had one of the garage employees haul us down there, complete with a stop at another garage where the van was being looked at, in order to grab our luggage.

The van, to no one’s surprise, turned out to be a complete loss. We said goodbye to it the next morning as we transferred the last of our road trip supplies into the rental van and headed west.

Overall, we were lucky. The incident could have been a disaster. The suicidal deer could have taken us with it. The airbags could have deployed, making us lose control and head into the ditch. But in the end, it only cost us an extra day in South Dakota, and in return gave us a great story — and a friendly place to buy a car if you’re ever auto-shopping in Pierre.

News From the Smoking Woods

A wise man once said, “It’s difficult to see the forest when the tree directly in front of you is on fire.” It’s not even 8:00 AM, but I already smell the smoke from today’s burning tree, so I’ll make this brief. I’ve got two biggish announcements this week…

karthador_logo_squareKarthador is Here… Sort Of

I’ve mentioned it on the various social media over the weekend, but Karthador, my swashbuckling sci-fi RPG setting for Savage Worlds, is now available for pre-order from Reality Blurs. Yes, it’s a PRE-order but those who order it now get the PDF of the book immediately, and are first in line to receive the dead tree version when it comes out.

I’ve written about Karthador on the blog a few times, which you can read about here if you’re interested. Or if you want to be one of the first brave souls to check out the teetering, over-ambitious mess of HTML that is Karthador.com, you can get up to speed on the world in a more structured fashion over there.


tracon_9_logoFinland Calling

I have been announced as a guest of honor at Tracon, a gaming convention in Finland. The fine folks of Tracon are flying me out to speak on the subject of creating storyworlds — a topic that’s clearly dear to me. I’ve never been to Finland, but I hear their gamers are amazing. The convention’s in September, so I’ll have plenty of time to forget the things I need to pack before then.


Speaking of Cons…

I should mention that I’ll be at GenCon this August, sailing beneath the pastel flag of the My Little Pony CCG, where I’ll be doing demos and helping run the world championship (“helping” being defined as “fetching food and throwing smoke bombs for the tournament judges who are doing the real work.”) And over Labor Day weekend, I’ll be at Tacticon in Denver, running Karthador and the inaugural session of the Ghost Punchers RPG. (Which reminds me, I should really start designing that game.)


And now I’m off to put out some fires using nothing more than a spoon, a can of Sprite, and my well-honed sense of comedic timing. Wish me luck!

Storyworld Overview: Teslanauts

It’s Friday! And you know that means! It means I’ve almost broken my streak of posting a new storyworld each week!

Almost, but not quite. While the clock on this week ticks down, I present TESLANAUTS, an alternate history storyworld of high adventure, mad science, and galactic exploration. (Steampunk goggles recommended but not included.)
The TESLANAUTS storyworld is set in the Victorian era of an alternate history in which rival nations use interplanetary teleportation to explore and battle for control of alien planets.

When Nikola Tesla introduced his long-range matter transmitter device in the late 1800s, he dreamed that by opening the doors to the stars, humanity could move beyond the petty national feuds and rampant colonialism that had defined so much of the century. Instead of moving beyond these things, however, the European powers expanded their empire-building efforts to include dozens of habitable planets. Now, instead of continents, they had entire worlds to claim, conquer, and plunder.

By the turn of the century, the nations of Earth have established permanent colonies on several planets and built outposts on dozens more. These settlements regularly teleport raw materials and exotic local goods back to Earth in exchange for supplies and a steady stream of laborers. While the regions surrounding such settlements are typically controlled by a single nation or corporation, more distant area on those planets are wide open frontiers, where anyone can stake a claim — so long as they can defend it.

At the forefront of these interstellar “expeditionary” efforts are men and women commonly known as “teslanauts.” They are popularly thought of as brave explorers who seek new planets, new territories, and new life forms either for profit or for the sheer thrill of discovery. Some teslanauts do match this description, but others are practical colonists, old-world bureaucrats, hired guns, or highly-trained agents tasked with undermining the operations of rival nations.

Life in the colonies can be a challenge. Explorers discover new dangers each time they venture into the unknown. Colonists may find themselves fighting off the local wildlife, struggling to grow enough crops, navigating the social order, or taking up arms against a rival’s invading colony. Regional governors must strike a balance between protecting their own people and placating their masters back on Earth. Border skirmishes between rival colonies aren’t uncommon, and are always followed by rumors of all-out war.

Here are a few of the stories to be found in the world of TESLANAUTS:

  • While establishing a new colony, a team of teslanauts discovers ruins that suggest the planet was inhabited, then abandoned, and still hold secrets of alien life.

  • The French and German colonies on a jungle planet are starting to amass troops and weapons along their common border, but their common enemy remains in hiding.

  • An isolated farm colony specializing in exotic spices is being threatened by an interplanetary crime syndicate and turns for help to a most unlikely source.

  • When the English spy infiltrated the Russian factory on Ares IV, he realized it wasn’t a factory at all, and that he would never see Earth again.

  • When an alien form of gold is discovered, it triggers a mass immigration that turns a sleepy mining colony into a deadly boomtown.

  • While the natives of New Paris seem friendly, the authorities grow suspicious when a second survey team disappears in the blue forest.

TESLANAUTS is an epic storyworld, with conflicts and drama that span entire planets. It’s a realm of adventure, steeped in the breathless proto-pulp sensibilities of the fiction of the time, and wearing the more over-the-top trappings of the steampunk genre. It isn’t intended to be a Serious Examination of alternate history, but an excuse to send Victorian adventures on interplanetary adventures outfitted with Tesla-designed lightning guns and anti-gravity carriages.

Storyworld Overview: Submerged

Imagine the pressure at bottom of the ocean. The claustrophobia, the isolation, the darkness. The cold. And then imagine the sudden and absolute knowledge that there’s something near you in the dark, something ancient, alien and malevolent. Imagine your heart racing as you feel something bristly glide past your legs…

The latest stop on our tour of storyworld overviews is SUBMERGED. It’s a bit creepier than our previous destination (or the one before that) but I think you’ll find it an exciting place to visit, even if you wouldn’t want to live there.

In the horror sci-fi storyworld of SUBMERGED, rugged undersea explorers seek their fortunes amidst the sunken ruins of a former mining colony on alien planet.

No one knows what happened to the Deltax mining colony. What is known is that it stopped sending shipments of ore, then stopped responding to communications. When the authorities investigated, they found that the planet had suffered some sort of seismic event: the sea level had risen, shorelines had collapsed, and the colony’s settlements and outposts were now hundreds of feet below the ocean’s surface.

But there were no signs of the colonists. No bodies. No frantic recordings. No indication that they’d tried to get off-world before the disaster struck. The people were simply gone.

It was a mystery, the authorities agreed, but not one worth solving when there was salvage to be had and still ore to be mined. Unfortunately, both were now buried beneath the waves. In order to reach them, they needed a new breed of laborer who was capable of working underwater for extended periods of time.

Now the word’s gone out that the mining companies are paying top dollar to anyone willing to spend 12 hours in a dive suit. Underwater salvage operations are in full swing — both for authorized recovery crews and unlicensed scavengers in patched-up submarines. Teams of independent prospectors slip between the big mining companies to stake their own claims on the ocean floor, hoping to strike it rich. Deltax is booming again, and bursting with more opportunities than ever before.

Working beneath the waves has always been dangerous, but on Deltax, it’s riskier than usual. The planet hosts a wide variety of undersea predators, many of which have taken up residence in the halls of the sunken colony buildings and the drowned mine shafts. The ruins themselves hide any number of hazards, from unseen blades of twisted steel to unsecured explosives to deadly automated security systems that remain miraculously intact. And with law enforcement lightyears away, claim-jumping, robbery, and murder are all too common on this frontier world.

But more insidious than any of these threats are the ever-present “Watchers.” No one knows where the name came from, or claims to have seen whatever is allegedly watching them. But anyone who’s spent more than a few weeks working wet-side knows the feeling of being watched — watched, and silently hated. Veterans know they aren’t alone down here, and that there are some places to avoid. Workers vanish occasionally — especially those who go deeper than most, or swim alone. Officials chalk the disappearances up to accidents, but everyone know what really happened: the watchers took them… just like they took the original colonists.

The world of SUBMERGED is full of possible stories. Here are few that have bobbed to the surface:

  • While exploring a water-logged mine shaft, a team of miners accidentally collapses the tunnel behind them, trapping themselves in the shaft with a school of shark-like predators while their air supply slowly runs out.

  • A team of mercenary soldiers is hired to clear out the sunken ruins of a company’s former headquarters, but what they find inside makes them question everything.

  • When the mining exec’s husband swam into the trench that the miners have learned to avoid, no one was surprised when he didn’t come back up. But now his wife’s offered a reward for his retrieval, and greed may overcome common sense.

  • Prospectors have found a vein of ore, but must hold off a sub full of claim-jumpers long enough for their friend to return with the authorities to authenticate their find.

  • A salvage team claimed to have discovered a clue as to what happend to the original colony, but died in a mysterious accident, and now everyone they’ve talked to is in danger.

  • When a miner vanished weeks ago, he was presumed dead, but now he’s back and ranting about the secret truths of the watchers.

While SUBMERGED is just as suitable for fiction or movies as any storyworld, I think it’s particularly well-suited for games of subaquatic exploration and violence, i.e., underwater dungeon-crawls. It would make a great rogue-like, or even a table-top RPG. I can definitely see it working as a setting for Savage Worlds, for example.

On the Origins of Geekery

origins_monsterThis week I’m heading off to the Origins Game Fair for the first time in… oh, let’s say five years. It might be more. I lose track. But I know that I’ve always enjoyed the show, and kept meaning to find a way back, but it just wasn’t in the cards.

Well, it’s totally in the cards this year. Specifically, it’s in the My Little Pony CCG cards, since I’m working the show in my role as the lead designer on that game, doing demos and helping run tournament events. If you want to get a demo, shake my hand, or mock my haircut, you can probably find me hovering around the CCG play area, soaking up all the pony vibes.

Mmm…. pony vibes.

Storyworld Overview: Battle Bound

Last week, I kicked off what I hope to be a series of storyworld overviews — each a one-page summary of a larger world suitable for books, movies, games, and other media. Last week’s entry was sci-fi, so this week I’m pulling out a fantasy world without elves, dwarves, or Sean Bean. In a nutshell, I’d describe the storyworld as the obvious result of Robert E. Howard and Michael Moorcock getting drunk and writing the script for Fist of the North Star. That’s a bit long, so let’s just call it…


In the monster-infested, post-apocalyptic fantasy storyworld of BATTLE BOUND, warriors cursed with immortality stalk and slay horrific beasts, both to protect the people of the wastelands and to save their own souls.

When a magic-rich world of decadent city-states ruled by sorcerer-kings was overrun by demonic brutes from another world, desperate wizards used their magic to create monster-slayers: warriors with the ability to feed on the spiritual essence the monsters they they fought, then use that essence to fuel their own supernatural abilities such as instant healing and superhuman strength. As long as the slayers kept killing, they could make themselves virtually immortal. But if they stopped, their stores of essence would soon deplete and they would die.

The monster-slayers were civilization’s last line of defense. They held back the monstrous hordes as long as they could, but they were eventually overwhelmed. Rather than let the beasts inherit the land, the frantic sorcerer-kings cast one final spell.

The deathknell, as it was called, created a magical blast that destroyed most living creatures in the world — human and monstrous alike. Some humans survived by seeking shelter or escaping to the edges of the blast. Many of them did not. Those who came through the event faced a new struggle for survival in a post-apocalyptic wasteland populated by the monsters strong enough to endure the deathknell.

A generation later, monster-slayers still haunt the blasted lands in search of the next monster to kill. Some appoint themselves as defenders of a given village or tribe. Others set themselves up as immortal warlords and use their powers to rule with an iron fist. Still others embrace the life of the wanderer, accepting whatever adventures may come as they seek new monsters to kill in order to stave off their own eventual extinction.

Survivors and slayers alike face a daily battle for life in a world ravaged by magic. Aside from the monsters that still roam the land, they must deal with shortages of unpolluted food and water, mystical storms, weird mutations, and violent raider gangs. And now rumors are spreading of life stirring once more in ruins of the old city-states — horrible, inhuman life full of unspeakable hunger.

Here are a few of the stories to be found in the world of BATTLE BOUND:

  • When threatened by a pack of monsters, a village sends scouts to find a slayer rumored to live nearby, only to find him depleted of essence and lying in a death-like coma. They need to revive him before the village is destroyed!

  • While on a scavenging in the ruins of a once-great city, a slayer discovers a mystic artifact that multiplies her strength, but at a terrible cost.

  • The boy has been bitten. Monster venom will kill him unless the slayer can find and capture the beast that bit him and bring it, still living, to the village wise woman.

  • When a swarm of monsters moves into the area, two warring tribes must put aside their differences and work together or be destroyed.

  • When she tracks a monster back to its lair, a slayer discovers that it’s part of a new horde under the control of an ancient wizard who is as powerful as he is insane.

  • Descendants of former nobility work to defend their city from the horrors outside while maintaining their ancient family feuds.

BATTLE BOUND is a storyworld of grim heroes, powerful fighting for survival. It takes the usual tropes from post-apocalyptic settings, but mixes them with monsters and magi to give them its own unique twist on the genre.