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Emerging Threats Unit: Basic Action Mechanics

I mentioned a few days ago on Twitter that I have a goal to, for the first part of 2014, write every couple weeks something about the Emerging Threats Unit, my action-investigation horror RPG. For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, the quick blurb is:

Ryan throws Delta Green, Unknown Armies, Pandemic, Fringe, the Twenty Palaces series, and the Laundry series into a blender to make a roleplaying game about the CDC’s secret paramilitary groups whose mandate is to preserve humanity from the physical and memetic plagues of the unnatural.

The Emerging Threats Unit is about saving towns and cities from the “contagion” of corrupt and inhuman influence, not every-week-is-about-saving-the-whole-world sort of story (which might mean there’s also a little Global Frequency in the mix). And it’s about the Centers for Disease Control, not the classic FBI/law enforcement type of organization, because I find that to be far scarier.

That sounded awesome to me when I started playing with this idea in 2010. It still fires me up today. But life frequently gets in the way of serious for-me design efforts, hence the idea of writing pieces of it publicly.

Basic Action Mechanics

ETU is about competent characters in dangerous situations, which was hard for me to model in Fate, as an Otherkind Dice experiment, and as an Apocalypse World hack — the three prior incarnations a few friends saw. At least, it was hard to model it in the way I really wanted to (though I  learned something from trying it in those systems).

To that end, the game separates success on an objective with success at staying out of danger, and forces you to choose what’s more important. Whenever you act in a crisis or potential crisis situation, you gather up to three polyhedral dice — from d4s, d6s, or d8s, and rarely d10s. (How you determine what dice you gather comes from skills and other traits, which I’ll go into in a future post.) Then you split those dice into two pools: your action and your cover.

The GM tells you what he’s rolling for the threat, which is a single die between d4 and d10 — higher meaning the situation has escalated into something more threatening. ( You’ll see why shortly.) He says this as you’re assembling your pools, because ETU characters have a vague sense of how much peril they’re in in any given moment. Thus, you can choose traits and arrange your pool accordingly.

Rolling Dice

You roll both pools at the same time. From a UI standpoint, I imagine having one side of the character sheet say “ACTION” along the left side and “COVER” along the right, so you have a simple physical way to distinguish them built into the game’s design. (Or, you know, just remember which is which if you don’t want to use the character sheet method.)[1]

For each pool, the highest die is your result. If you get doubles in your pool, that result increases by 1. If you chose to roll no dice in that pool, it’s 0. Pretty simple.

  • Rolling a single d6 and getting a 3 means your result is 3.
  • Rolling d6+d4 and getting a 4 & 2 means your result is 4.
  • Rolling d6+d4 and getting a 3 & 3 means your result is 4 (due to doubles).
  • Rolling a d6+d6 and getting a 6 & 6 means your result is 7 (due to doubles).
  • Rolling a d6+d6+d4 and getting a 4, 1 & 1 means your result is 5 (due to the double 1s, even though the result die is 4).
  • Rolling a d6+d6+d4 and getting a 1, 1 & 1 means your result is 2. (Triples don’t mean anything special. I think that’s too fiddly, but three dice does at least mean a better chance of doubles.)

The doubles mechanic potentially raises the ceiling of numbers ( if the dice are the same type), but more importantly is raises the floor of that nuber range; you can’t get a result of 1 if you roll 2 dice. [Now that I’ve written this, I think I’m going to call it “matches” rather than “doubles,” but I’ll leave it as-is for the post. Shows language process.]

Action Results

Action results are rolled against a set, never-changing target. The results generate hits, which is a currency for how much effect your action has. (For example, getting two hits when shooting at a creature means that you can do damage and pin it down, or do double damage, or pin it down and do something else.) It depends on the skill/situation, which is something that I have revised over and over.

  • Getting a 10+ means getting three hits
  • Getting a 7-9 means getting two hits
  • Getting a 4-6 means getting one hit
  • Getting a 2-3 means a mitigating circumstance or sudden situation shift caused a weak success or failure, but it’s not due to incompetence
  • Getting a 1 means failure because of the character’s ability, talent, mind, or body let her down

This never changes, in order to highlight that characters are competent. There’s no shift in target number, and rolling two (or even three) dice in action means there’s never a failure due to incompetence.

[I’m also thinking about dropping the 2-hit and 3-hit thresholds down by 1, to 6-8 and 9+ respectively. Playtesting will see if that’s too much. Maybe even drop 1-hit to 3-5, if I do that.]

Cover Results

Cover is where things get unpredictable. Once the player has rolled their dice for action and cover, the GM rolls for threat, and the difference is compared.

  • Threat getting 4 or higher than the player’s cover means a major incident happens.
  • Threat getting 1 to 3 higher means a minor incident happens.
  • Threat tying cover means a near-incident happens.
  • Threat getting lower than cover means no incident happens.

The incident mechanic is akin to AW-style hard moves, and is something I’m pretty flexible on. Major incidents kill NPCs, do grievous physical or psychological harm, destroy evidence, and so on. Minor incidents do less than that. Near-incidents push the story forward regarding the threat, and may be enough to increase the threat die for the next action or some other cosmetic effect that might become an issue after the fight — such as getting scratched by the creature as you drive it off with your flamethrower, only to discover that that’s how it procreates.

Cover doesn’t just apply to you, though. If you’re fighting off a beast near civilians, I can just as easily as the GM apply the incident to those characters…which will have its own repercussions as one of the ETU objectives is a complete cover-up of evidence, including mutiliated bodies. It is not a nice job, but it’s a necessary one.

Thus, the decision of how to split your three dice is key. How badly do you want to dish out hits against threats? How badly do you want to keep bad shit from happening? Which do you want more?

No matter what, though, the incident cannot negate the effects of an action. Otherwise, I might as well just make it a single-roll system.

Order of Operations

Players declare hits (which further reinforces character agency and competence), then the GM declare incidents. Mechanically, it’s simultaneous — if you kill a creature, but still score an incident, killing the creature isn’t going to save you from the incident. (But it will keep the creature from creating further incidents.[2]

Other Modifiers

…is something I’ll cover later. I’m still playing with how I want to make information and advantages work in the game. I have some ideas, and they all involve slotting into the action system somehow.

What’s Next

This is the tip of the iceberg. The other dangerous actions take this action-cover form:

  • Performing Unnatural Sciences (what the ETU calls magic and other strange activities) holds keeping your body and mind intact as cover, and keeping your experiment (a.k.a. spell) under control as action.
  • Withstand Trauma and Withstand Horror used to be cover-only skills, and I’m using the damage system I wrote up 2012. I’m playing with what to do about them.

Investigation and Discovery situations use a completely different paradigm, one that reflects what I find fascinating in GUMSHOE as well as what I don’t care for it in. But, that’s for a later post, because that’s the crux of the “investigation” part of “action-investigation horror game.”

Spells are what people really dig about this concept, when I talk to them about it. But rather than gush, that also gets to be its own later post.

My thoughts on what it means to GM this game are complex, and…well, you’ll see.

And, of course, much more. This is my next white whale, after all.[3]

– Ryan

[1] I originally did this as selecting red action dice and blue cover dice, but that turned into a slowdown as people had to process what die types they could choose from and then figure out how to divide them up between red and blue without accidentally grabbing incorrect dice. The character sheet concept came from the ETU playtest I ran for Josh Roby and others.

[2] Well, maybe. Maybe the creature isn’t permanently dead or whatever. But the point stands enough.

[3] One that’ll see some smaller games produced in the meantime, because I want to get some of those out into the world rather than have them wait on another large (for me) game.

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15 Responses to Emerging Threats Unit: Basic Action Mechanics

  1. Kit says:

    “Destroy evidence” for an incident gets me excited. If I can, in a game like this, resolve the threat but never understand it, and leave no traces that I can follow up on later, that is perfect. It helps create some of the mystery that the best media of this type creates.

  2. Marc says:

    Super exciting!

  3. Alan says:

    I’m very intrigued. I find it the Action-Cover lens an interesting way to view actions. I have some thoughts about how you might be adding the Action component to the Withstand actions, and I’m interested in reading what you came up with. (In the meanwhile, is it okay to post guesses here, or would you rather I refrain?)

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      I generally like to keep comments strictly on-topic (per my comment policy), but I’m curious to hear what you think. Go for it!

      – Ryan

    • Alan says:

      My guess is that when you Withstand Trauma or Horror, you do you have an Action, something you want to accomplish. The exact action might vary depending on context, but in general it would be “I continue to stand in the face of the Trauma/Horror” or more simply, “I remain in control.”

      Withstand Horror’s Action might be “I don’t run screaming into the night,” or maybe, “I don’t faint.” It would create an interesting trade off: if you focus on Action, you’ll get to stay and hopefully accomplish your real goals, but at increased risk of permanent damage to your psyche. Conversely, focusing on Cover means you’ll be okay, but you’re probably out for the scene. Either way, it seems like a good match to some horror fiction: the survivor who stopped the horror at the cost of his own mind, or the sane survivor who fled.

      A Actions against Withstand Trauma might be “I don’t fall over from shock,” which presents a similar trade-off: what will you risk to keep moving forward?

      On the other hand, these do blur the lines of Action and Cover. A failed Action check essentially hits the character with a temporary incident. That seems to run contrary to what you’ve presented so far, but of course we’ve only seen a small bit of what you have.

      (I somehow missed “A New Horror Damage Idea” when you originally posted it. Also very awesome!)

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Ah, I see what you’re talking about. I’ll need to discuss the difference between suffering trauma or horror and acting under trauma or horror. What you’re talking about is more like collapsing those two together, but right now I have them separate.

      – Ryan

  4. blackcoat says:

    Without knowing what modifiers to the rolls there are, it feels to me like the upper tier for Action should be 11+, not 10+. So that there is a tier where you either need to be very lucky as well as competent, or that this is more than a competency, it’s your specialty AND luck fell your way. (Not only are you the shooty guy and shooting at the problem, but you’re using Vera [which is your very favorite gun in the world] AND boy, was that a good shot, even by your standards).

    Or those could be like the advanced moves and 12+ or something.

    But yeah, I like this. I like the fact that as a player, you’re deciding how much oomph you’re putting in.
    I like the d6+d4+d4 3, 1, 1 example, because it would allow for a character built on a wider range of skills (having a couple of d4 Action skills, for example) to have a good chance of getting that +1 luck boost to a d6 or d8 Action roll if they absolutely need to kill the thing (“Well, I’m not that great a shot, but if I spray bullets at it while jumping over the tables to get close enough maybe I can distract it enough that it won’t notice the grenade I’m lobbing underneath. Anyone got a better plan?”)

    So here’s what I don’t get. Does threat roll once and each PC rolls cover, or does each PC roll cover and then there’s a threat roll against each one?

    I like the idea that it’s basically a two stage scene, wherein the PCs say “I do this” some rolls happen, and the GM say “and this is what happens”

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      There’s much more I need to talk about: what a whole conflict looks like, what skills and other stuff look like, and so on. (Which I will, since I’m doing this post series.)

      The paradigm I’m working with right now is that the GM rolls the same terror once per action beat and situation. If you and your partner are trying to magically trap an incorporeal creature, you’re working against the same threat roll. You all roll and figure it out. (Incidentally, that’s how teamwork works at the moment: you pool your hits together on an action, and everyone gets the +1 for matches if even one person gets a match.) If another agent is doing something else in the same scene, like trying to fend off some cultists while you’re working on this creature problem, that’s its own threat. Even if it’s the same die size, it’s not the same situation, so it’s rolled anew.

      – Ryan

  5. blackcoat says:

    I guess I’ll wait to see the ‘building dice pools’ section, but another thing that concerns me is the ‘Actions depend on skill and situation”. If I have two skills that give me d8 in action, and I roll them both, one is a 2, one is a 7, how do I know which gave me the 7?

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      The misunderstanding will be cleared up when I talk about the skills themselves. It’s less nebulous that your question assumes. And as far as an individual roll is concerned, it’ll never want to know which situation gave you a given number — so you don’t need to know where you got that 7 from (using your example).

      Which is to say: be patient. :)

      – Ryan

  6. David Gallo says:

    So there’s a static number for Actions and Cover gets an opposed roll from Threat dice. We were talking about how that pushes the players towards a place of competence, and it gives a spotlight to consequences instead of the deflated balloon that is straight failure.

    ETU doesn’t guarantee a happy ending. It guarantees hard choices. You have to decide what dice to use for pools, how to split your pool, and all of those choices lead to a springboard for the next part. It creates a feedback loop to keep things moving instead of the letdown of dice failure.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Totally. The key part is that it’s asymmetric. it’s not trying to weigh two sets of unknowns from the GM, but a known and an unknown. The unknown of threat is highlighted, and that’s where the fearful emotional beat from the mechanics come from.

      It also means I don’t care about how “hard” an action is, and won’t be arbitrary in that regard. But the threat should feel arbitrary at times, because otherwise it starts to be trustworthy. And that’s counter to horror. (Well, some trustworthiness is crucial to it, so that you can break it. But that’s GM execution, one possible with this system but still requires skill.)

      – Ryan

    • David Gallo says:

      Re: Trustworthy threats –

      It also means that you have to shift your thinking away from monster stat blocks (threat number) and towards situation and escalation. Which is good for everyone because you don’t have to fight the battle of player knowledge vs. character knowledge.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Indeed! Threats (which is what I call them, because they aren’t just monsters) are…uh…their stat blocks are weird. They have been in every incarnation, and when I sit down to write it for a blog post, they’ll certainly be weird. But, that’s later, because there’s no sense of “skill” with them. That’s all covered by what the characters do. It’s more about what they can do and what affects (or doesn’t affect) them.

      In essence, all the stuff you discover about the threat are its stats.

      – Ryan

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      And when I say “not all monsters,” I really mean that. A metamorphic plague and a memetic signal that hacks human minds all use the same system that a monster would. Hell, a straightforward monster is what ETU agents pray for when they get the call — those are less likely to require calling FEMA’s ETD in to destroy a city.

      (The CDC’s ETU fights to save a city and its people. FEMA’s ETD — the Emerged Threats Directorate — burns a city and its people to save the world. And that’s why it’s always at the city level, because if you lose and die, it leaves a permanent scar on the world that you can still play in. Which, I think, is more emotionally powerful than “WORLD OVER NOW!”

      Also, that’s one of the setting’s tensions. Not only do you have to content with horrors, but with superiors who are nervous about the other agency pushing the Big Red Button…which will look like just a massive natural disaster to the rest of the world. So if you need more time, you need to fight for it.)

      – Ryan