Posts Tagged ‘emerging threats unit’
As part of May of the Dead blog carnival put on by the Going Last Gaming Podcast, I’m going to wax about some horror thoughts. Long-time readers know that I loves me some horror gaming and have a lot of thoughts on it. Today, I want to dive into some thoughts on a hypothetical game system: what separates lowly monsters from truly horrible beings.
What notion I’ve come to is: the scariest of monsters are those that don’t miss.
Part of horror comes from a discrepancy between the protagonists’ competency and the Threat’s. Whether that Threat is Dracula, Azathoth, a Terminator, or other sight that causes nightmares in those whom encounter it, the core is that the Threat will win in a stand-up fight.
Oh, and yes, I so want to run a horror game that is about the first Terminator movie.
But many of our games don’t reflect that, at least not strictly speaking. Games often have the Threat roll to see if it hits, and there’s a good chance that it won’t. It’s reflected in our language: “the vampire attacks!”
Let’s fold, spindle and mutilate that. This means trying some experimental stuff with our games, namely (as the title says): Don’t Roll for the Horror. Start it off not with something as wishy-washy as “attacking,” but something more concrete:
The vampire jumps on you and rips your neck open with its fangs!
Now, the reason we tend to say “attack” is because we’re inviting the potential victim to respond, in no small part because the game system gives them that privilege. But by jumping right to what the Threat seeks to do with no softening, we’re doing two things:
- We’re changing the language used to respond. Horror as a theme is partly about rebelling against that which is more powerful than you. So instead of just saying “I defend” in response,” you’re saying “No! You don’t just rip my neck open!”
- We’re saying that if the Threat doesn’t succeed, it is entirely because of the protagonist’s action.
Those are both awesome things to me. So let’s look at how to rock that structure:
- The Threat does something. Something big. It doesn’t ask. It doesn’t try. It just plain does.
- A protagonist responds to push back, drawing the line in the sand and fighting the good fight.
- The protagonist rolls for that action. And just the protagonist. Not an opposed roll setup. You know how strong or dangerous this specific moment is, so set the difficulty accordingly.
Depending on the result (and the numbers involved will vary from game to game), the following happens:
- Fail by bad enough: the Threat fully succeeds. Someone is probably dead.
- Fail by some amount: the Threat doesn’t get what it wants, but you’re hurt in the process.
- Succeed by a small amount: give-and-take. You’re hurt, but so is the Threat.
- Succeed by a large amount: a moment of reversal, when the Threat is the one hurt or driven off.
Each of these is important. If we’re saying that a Threat might just straight up kill someone, the roll has to reflect that chance. Otherwise, we’re just lying in our descriptions, and everyone at the table will see through it. Tension is dropped. And the middle two reflects the notion of partial failure & success — horror thrives not on absolute moments but on small victories and setbacks. Finally, you need to give hope in the moment, which is where the last result lives.
If we’re doing away with rolling, this means we throw out the idea that the Threat might act slower than protagonists — you know, initiative. Horrific competence means Threats push first. The only time when that might be different is if the protagonists are aware of the current situation and somehow make themselves able to get the jump on the Threat, and even then that’s about chance rather than certainty.
After all, that’s how it often works in horror fiction.
Finally, since I bought up “getting hurt”…my favorite system for damage in any horror game comes from Unknown Armies. It’s easy to die, and you never know how many hit points you or anyone else has left. The GM rolls & keeps track of stuff in secret. While normally I hate secret rolls, I like it for damage in horror. It has two things going for it: one, you don’t have absolute certainty of how far you can push your character; two, and frankly far more important, it causes the table to rely on the hurt described rather than numbers. That’s very powerful mojo, because it’s language that makes a horror game really pop.
Again, this is about an idea of a new game system, but it wouldn’t take much to try some of these ideas in an existing one, as long as the game can support horror beats.
A word of note: this setup doesn’t do action-horror — at least, if it’s the sort of “action-horror” that is more action than horror. Which most are; it’s a fun subversion of classic horror construction, where competency is more at parity even if vulnerability is still vastly not.
To be fair, it’s not entirely hypothetical to me. I have notes about using this idea for a game system that uses my Emerging Threats Unit campaign frame, but it’s far from primetime.
Diaspora introduced the idea of scopes in aspects, at least with some meaning. You have Character aspects, Scene aspects, Planet aspects, etc. That’s not new, but what was is the idea that you can only invoke one aspect from each scope.
I asked Brad Murray about why they all chose that on Twitter. Here’s the convo:
RyanMacklin: Hey, do you talk anywhere on the blogosphere about why you scoped aspects & limit invocation in Diaspora?
BradJMurray: Hmm, maybe. I think it all pre-dates my blog though. So it might pre-date my thinking altogether.
At the root it’s simple, though: if a task is hard, it forces you to look outside the character for help.
RyanMacklin: I ask because I’m blogging about it, and that’s one place in Diaspora where you don’t explain why. (Unless I missed it.)
BradJMurray: So it’s an anti-super-hero technology.
The fact that we had invented something with scopes wasn’t clear to us until well after publication. It was a reflexive rule.
So my knowledge of its purpose is mostly deconstruction.
Which was enlightening. See, I don’t care for the limitations on scope, though I get why they chose that. I feel like the Fate point economy is the fix for that in and of itself, and I want people to be able to drain all the Fate points they want in a moment. Not saying Brad and company are wrong, just I want something different out of the economy.
Then I started introducing Research Aspects, and there was a crapton of stuff the players could free tag. Crapton. So I stole from Diaspora and said “you can only free tag one aspect of each type per roll.” That prompted me to come up with types.
- Character aspects: the core aspects on the characters; Drive, Hope, Personal Demon, Relationship.
- Consequence aspects: the aspects generated from consequences. (I may go back to making this an except)
- Threat aspects: the core aspects on monsters and the like — many Unnatural Sciences aspects fall here.
- Mission aspects: the aspects on the mission available to all members of ETU. In prior games, “Falsified credentials” and “Spy satellites” were available.
- Scene aspects: what we’ve all come to buy as scene aspects. You can declare them with Survival rolls.
- Situation aspects: maneuvers you place on another character
- Gear aspects: what you invent with Tech rolls
The idea is to not over-privilege Unnatural Sciences. That’ll generate a lot of aspects, but to get the most free tags available, you need to generate Threat aspects (Unnatural Sciences), Gear aspects (Tech), Scene aspects (Survival), Mission aspects (created at the start of the game), Situation aspects (maneuvers), and Consequence aspects (created as a result of combat).
That’s a lot of freebies, and generally you won’t free tag something from each. But it does mean you won’t blow two free tags at once generated from one good Unnatural Sciences roll that makes multiple Threat aspects.
It’s also worth noting that since there aren’t many “I’m totally competent” type of aspects on characters, there is a strong drive to create aspects in play. That’s worked well so far.
Finally, you can invoke those other aspects by spending Fate points, even if the haven’t be free-tagged yet. The free tag still exists for someone else, or for you on a future roll.
 I wish I could do something in WordPress where I could just quickly markup with “link to this tag” without having to open another browser tab and finding out what that URL is.
 I’m sorry, ENnie Award-winning, Golden Geek shortlist Diapsora
As promised, I’m talking about Research Aspects. Or, really, Research Assessments.
I’ve now run Emerging Threats Unit twice, and the second time I solidified some thoughts about how research works in this game, specifically field research. The opening for both games so far has been finding the leg of a first-line responder chewed up, and to set the tone for the, I ask the player playing Tome, “Would you like to roll Unnatural Sciences to research this?”
The roll is against Good, with the base time at 15 minutes. Both times, Superb or better was rolled, which meant that Tome’s player got to “assess” two aspects about the Threat.
The first time, there was a blank. So I said:
Okay, here’s what you do. Write down “(Research: leg in the park)”. It’s an undefined aspect right now. Later, at a dramatically-appropriate moment, you can reveal what you’ve “found” by turning this into an aspect, as long as it’s something you could have pieced together thanks to whatever you discovered in the park.
He got two such aspects. And suddenly the game started to sing. People could do “research” beats without having to declare exactly what’s found, if that would impede play. If I were to take a stab at writing up rules for it, I would say:
Often (and especially with the Unnatural Sciences skill), characters will want to research clues about the Threat they’re facing. Great! Those take the form of assessments. The skill roll against that depends on the quality of the clue. Starting at Average, increase the difficulty by at least one for each of the following situations:
- If the clue is stale or not well-preserved
- If the lighting is bad or other situations where researching here is rather non-optimal
- If there’s an external pressure, like a monster stalking you
When you succeed on the roll, you get to assess an aspect against the Threat, the Mission, or on whatever scope is appropriate. The GM chooses:
- Reveal an aspect about the Threat, Mission, or whatever is relevant.
- Ask the player to declare an aspect about the Threat, Mission, or whatever is relevant.
- Allow the player to hold a research declaration for the future. Write down the details of this research assessment. At an appropriate moment, that player can turn the hold into an aspect.
When you fail a research assessment roll, the GM chooses:
- To create a new aspect on the Threat that can be used to its advantage.
- To offer a concession, akin to Taking Extra Time (DFRPG YS316)
- To give you the temporary aspect “Busy and Distracted” or something similar. And then compel that immediately.
If you have a surplus of shifts, you can use them to reduce the time spent or to gain more aspects. For additioanl aspects, the first takes three additional shifts to assess. Each after that takes two more to assess. The GM has the same options for these has he has for the initial assessed aspect. (See Assessments, DFRPG YS314.)
If the GM or player creates an aspect that is focused against the Threat, such as some sort of weakness or vulnerability, the GM gets a Fate point in the Threat’s pool. This is effectively a future compel. (It also encourages players to come up with aspects that aren’t always one-sided in their favor.)
 I don’t do straight Assessments normally. That would involve me knowing what aspects stuff I run actually has. This plays out closer to something like InSpectres with more player declaration in the guise of narrative assessments. So, I’m in the “stealth Declarations” camp, which won’t surprise anyone who plays Fate with me.
 Like most everything else on this blog, this is a rough draft.
 Inspired by the fail-forward concepts in InSpectres.
Last night, I ran an action horror game. It’s a thing I do: if I talk about how I hate something, I start wondering why, and try to come into contact with it. I proposed running a game for some friends, and giving the timing, it was just billed as a “spooky” game.
I decided on action horror because I forgot what action horror does well: it’s good for a lighthearted game. And it turns out that I actually like running those. It’s more than I’m desiring psychological thrillers in my gaming these days, because I don’t get that enough, and so I don’t really want to play action horror.
Once everyone was there, I pitched the following (edited, of course):
There are three lines of defense the United States has against paranormal threats. You’re who they send in when the first line fails. Welcome to the secret paramilitary wing of the Centers for Disease Control — the Emerging Threats Unit.
This will be a standard ETU-CDC operation. The Secret Service has failed to contain the problem. You’ll be going in under the guise of quarantining an outbreak, of course. If you do not report back within 48 hours, we will have no choice but to consider you as sacrificed. FEMA is waiting with a Ripley team to neutralize the local population, and I for one don’t want to see them cause another Katrina because we failed.
With that, I explained how this Fate game different from the Diaspora game they had played. In addition to playing this as a one-shot with abbreviated character setup, I tried some new tricks.
First of all, I only used eight skills:
Chase is used for most physical activity. It’s a measure of your athletic ability and twitch nervous responses. Use it for athletics, chasing to/from monsters that want to eat you, initiative, etc.
Drive is used for doing anything high-stress in a moving vehicle. Along with the obvious, driving in a stressful situation, it can also limit other activities in a vehicle (like, say, shooting at a monster that wants to eat you).
Subterfuge is used for dealing with people. Intimidation, charm, empathy, deceit, all that emotional and social manipulation jazz. It’s also useful for resisting such manipulation.
Special note: You can use this skill against another PC. In that case, if you succeed, they have a temporary aspect on them like “[Your name] is manipulating me” that’s being instantly compelled. If they go along with what you want, they get a Fate point. If not, they have to pay one. Thank you, Apocalypse World.
Survival is used for not fucking dying. In addition to being great for dealing with urban and wild environments for knowing what’s safe and what isn’t (which translates into scene aspect declaration), it’s what you use to notice things that are about to eat your face. Yes, it’s your Alertness skill.
The ETU has some advanced technology, but not much. They get by more with tech on the ground. When you’re up against a Class II Vvak Tunnel Vampire, being able to modify local firearms to fire plasmashot is handy as hell. It’s also needed for following the ETU mandate: utter signal discipline. No information about the supernatural is to leak out.
This skill is dangerous. People who have studied Unnatural Sciences (which is everyone in ETU, to some degree) are able to tell the difference between a quantum projection and an actual rift in spacetime. Importantly, that translates into knowing which isn’t a waste of ammunition (in 75% of cases, actual rifts). Unnatural Sciences is used mostly to declare either monster or research aspects. (Also, research aspects are AWESOME. That’s for next week, though.)
ETU does not fuck around. Your mission is the sterilize the local paranormal threat. Violence is how that’s achieved. Fists. Knives. Guns. Rocket-propelled grenades. That’s what Violence is about. It can also be used to defend against Violence (which Chase also covers, if physically dodging and the like).
This skill is a passive one. ETU agents must confront the horrors they face. The GM will call for Withstand Horror rolls in two cases: either when being assaulted by a sight or when an entity is actually using psychic violence against them. If the roll is made, nothing happens! (And if you get spin on the roll, instead of getting a +1 to the next roll, you get a free declaration or assessment based on what you’ve just learned dealing with this threat.)
If you fail, you have a temporary aspect of Fleeing, Frozen or Fighting, your choice. And the GM is going to compel that for bad fun times! If failed against a psychic attack, it may instead be stress against Sanity.
…And those are my eight skills. Anything not covered in them is rolled at +0 or can be added to an existing skill as a new trapping via a stunt.
There are no generic aspects in ETU. For character aspects, there are:
- Drive Aspects — these are what motivate your character on the mission
- Hope Aspects — these are something your character hopes for, above and beyond just surviving
- Personal Demon Aspects — these are the tragic flaw your character has
- Relationship Aspects — these are one-sided feelings or opinions you have about another character
Drive aspects are simple, similar to High Concept aspects in Dresden Files RPG.
Personal Demon aspects are likely similar to Trouble aspects in DFRPG, but typically focused on being an internal problem.
Hope aspects are fun. I gave people the option of not filling it in before play, and finding something they wanted to hope for by the first hour of play. And I told them their Hope aspects were free to invoke.
The first time someone did, I dropped a fate point into a bowl for me. And again, and again. The more they used their hope for free, the more points I had for the Threat later to invoke its own aspects. But it was sort of safe to use those aspects, because I might use that Fate point to hurt someone else.
Relationship Aspects were awesome. I asked everyone to come up with relationship aspects for different people, asking what they think of another character are writing them down as their aspect. “Butler is a danger to herself and others.” or “Forty-Five is my hero.” It’s important that it doesn’t have to be true. But if you’re helping or being helped by this aspect, either of your can invoke it — though if you’re invoking someone’s opinion about you, you have to show why that opinion might be true.
There’s a killer non-character aspect type called Research Aspects. Someone should remind me to blog about them next week. It’s the thing that made me suddenly be able to run an investigation game on the fly that didn’t suck.
The last thing I sketched up were the character skeletons, to be fleshed out at the table. I made six characters, which only consist of a Codename, team role, Drive aspect, High skill, Low skill.
Briefly, about skills: since I had eight, I decided the distribution would be: One at Great [+4], two at Good [+3], two at Fair [+2], two at Average [+2], and one at Poor [-1]. Anything not covered by one of those skills that is important enough to roll (and I haven’t encountered that yet) is rolled at Average [+0]. Thus, I prescribed the Great and Poor skill, and left the others for filling in either right away or in play.
“Butler” – the leader
Drive: No one on my team will be left behind.
Great [+4] Withstand Horror — been on a lot of missions
Poor [-1] Chase — lamed by an earlier mission
“Forty-Five” – the sterilizer
Drive: I am here to sterilize the environment.
Great [+4] Violence — people and things will die
Poor [-1] Tech — that’s for other people, I’m busy shooting things
“Mute” – the information disciplinarian (a.k.a. hacker)
Drive: Containing Information is more important than anything else.
Great [+4] Tech — with enough gear, I’ll own the environment
Poor [-1] Subterfuge — people are choatic and make no sense
“Tome” – the scientist
Drive: The unknown must be explored.
Great [+4] Unnatural Sciences — non-euclidian genius
Poor [-1] Drive — I’m more comfortable in my lab back home
“Network” – the face
Drive: People are my playthings.
Great [+4] Subterfuge — Like I said, people are my playthings
Poor [-1] Survival — I am most likely to be eaten by a grue
(Yes, I intentionally named the not-hacker “Network.”)
“Park” – the sixth character I realized I had to make and kinda phoned in
Drive: People need protecting, sometimes at their own expense.
Great [+4] Chase — I will catch anything, no matter the terrain
Poor [-1] Violence — But I’m shell-shocked, so violence doesn’t come easy.
I think that’s enough for now, since I’m at 1500 words. Probably enough for Fate-heads to play with, but I’ll follow up with more as I keep playing this out. The scenario is either called “Emerging Threats Unit” or “Paranormal Containment,” as the idea of the game is a bit Hellboy-ish: monsters are on the loose in a dense urban environment, the first line responders failed, and if you fail FEMA is going to call in a hurricane, tornado, earthquake, or whatever to take out the city.
Because they don’t fuck around, neither can you, agents. Briefing dismissed.
 A bias that’s frankly shown in my post the other day
 Which they were in my game. And named that. That’s canonical now.