Monthly Archives: April 2021

Game Design: First Thing on a Blank Page (Cultsmasher RPG)

So, I’m having trouble focusing on my tasks today. This idea for an entire RPG that would look a lot like a weird hybrid of Starfinder, AGE, PF2, 5e, 4e, and… like… Fudge beginning to form in my head.

It wants out, and I do NOT have time today. 😛

Historically, my best bet is to write down just enough of the idea that it feels like I won’t lose it over time, and I can convince my muse/subconscious it’s safe to move on. So, you get a peak behind the curtain at some of my design musings.

Often the hardest part for starting a whole new RPG, or a new subsystem, or even just something like a class, is to get the very first thing down on the blank page. I can expand, and build, and riff, and iterate MUCH more easily than I can craft from a starting point of absolutely nothing.

So, just to have a textual jumping-off point, I often create concept pieces that I know may have nothing to do with final text. These are visualizations of how rule interactions might be described eventually, starting life along–hanging in midair with no surrounding game infrastructure to connect to. But I have to start SOMEWHERE, and writing a new-ish idea as if it was final text linked to a whole game often helps spark potential opportunities, pitfalls, and complications in my head, often in real time as I write down the tiny seed of thought I started with.

So, here’s a game mechanic, currently with nothing else tied to it.

Focus: Your character’s focus represents making a concentrated effort. Doing so is physically, mentally, and even spiritually taxing. As a result, your character has a limited number of Focus Points, which fuel Focus Abilities. If a Focus Ability is tied to an Attribute which is a Primary Attribute for your character, using it costs 1 Focus Point. If it has no Attribute, using it costs 2 Focus Points. If it is tied to a Secondary Attribute, using it costs 3 points.

Every character begins with the Reroll power. If you fail an Attribute roll, you may expend Focus Points to reroll it. This decision must be made immediately after seeing the result of the roll. When you reroll, rather than roll 2d10 and add your bonuses, you roll 1d10 + 10, and add your bonuses.

Characters gain Focus Powers from their Descriptor Paths. Any character may take any Focus Power they qualify for, but some Focus Powers are more effective for certain types of characters. For example, a character with the Fighter path can take Mighty Blow, and since it is tied to Might, a Primary Attribute for the Fighter, it costs him only 1 Focus Point to use. A character with the Occultist path could also gain access to Mighty Blow, but since Might is a Secondary Attribute for that path, the Occultist would have to expend 3 Focus Points to use that power.

A character regains all their Focus Points when they Recuperate.”

(Art by 9’63 Creation)

I mean no, that’s not anything like a whole mechanic, it it already assumes this that very well might not be how any final game came together. But it’s a good verbal description of this vague IDEA I had in my head.

I also like to label these things as if they were part of an existing RPG framework. Again, these are placeholders, and mental tags to let me organize snippets and file them where I can find them again. So, and just for now, I’ll decide this is part of the CULTSMASHER RPG.

Now, maybe I can get back to working on today’s deadlines.

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Sigil Scions (for Pathfinder 1st Ed)

I’ve been meaning to finish this for more than two years, as I began it back when I worked at Paizo. I meant to put it up yesterday, but it took longer than the time I had allotted for blogging, so you get a triple-sized post today instead!

Tithain kept her eyes open and one hand resting easily on the longsword at her hip as she walked alongside Queen Aerigold, who was clearly keeping her attention on the crowds that had gathered to welcome their new monarch. The Queen had insisted she get a new tabard—a bright green silken thing with gold thread and the shining sun-and-tree symbol of the Queen’s Trusted on it—but beneath that Tithain had on the same utilitarian plate armor she’d worn at the Battle of Seven Crowns, all those years ago.

A glint caught Tithain’s eye, and she instinctive stepped between its source and her beloved lady. As a bolt shot out of the crowd, Tithain raised a gauntleted hand and felt the power of her family’s Sigil flow through her, its bright blue lines visible even through the steel protecting her. The arrow slammed into her and shattered, the majority of its force expended against her defensive ward.

A dozen pale-skinned men in the crowd threw off cloaks, reveling the red-and-black garb of Kakkain cultists, and drew weapons as the cityfolk began to cry out and flee from them.

One of the broadest of the men, his eyes glittering with the flickering light of a Fel Embraced, pointed a thorned mace at her and cried out in the echoing voice of those with one foot already firmly planted in Hell.

“She’s a Scion of the Shield Sigil! Kill her first, then the peace-lover queen will fall!”

Sometimes, you want to add something to a campaign that isn’t anchored in class, background, ancestry, or other standard game categories. Sometimes, you just want to be able to slap a whole new power source on characters, and see what fun evolves from it.

Sigil Scions are such a concept.

Sigil Scions have a powerful, mystic source of capability. That might be from their position within an organization, the mark of a god, the collective will of those they defend, an asteroid radiating them with runic power–whatever. The easiest way to add Sigil Scions to a game is to just decide on a narrative framework (anything from ancient heroes reincarnated or cheat codes given to modern characters when they are sent to a fantasy world), and let each player build their own sigil from there. Sigil scions are a pure power-up for characters (especially monks… ), but not as much as being gestalt characters.

(Art by warmtail)

Sigil Power

Select any one bloodrager bloodline, cleric domain, inquisitor inquisition, sorcerer bloodline, warpriest blessing, or wizard specialization. You cannot select a specific option you already have, nor later take the specific option you select here if you gain the appropriate class feature to do so (for example, if you select the cleric healing domain, and later gain cleric domains through some other class, you could not take the healing domain again.)

You gain the abilities of the selected class feature, using your total character level as your level in the relevant class. You do not gain any ability not expressly granted by the selection (so taking the abjuration wizard specialist schools does not give you the ability to prepare spells just because the resistance ability is tied to when you prepare spells). However, you can apply any option from the selected class feature to relevant options gained from other classes (so if you are a druid, and you select the healing domain, you can apply the healer’s blessing ability to your druidic cure spells).

When you first gain sigil power, select one ability modifier. Any time your sigil powers refer to an ability score or modifier (such as to determine save DCs or uses per day), you use the selected ability.

Sigil Spells

Sigil Scions gain spells as they grow in power.

At 1st level, you select three specific class spell lists, which you note down. When you gain Sigil Spells, they must come from these three spell lists. You cannot select spells lists from a prestige class, or a class that gains multiple spell lists (ie you cannot select the hunter class spell list, as it is made of the druid and ranger class spell lists). If a spell list comes from a class with requirements for alignment, background, or armor/equipment restrictions (such as druid or paladin), you must meet those restrictions.

Each Sigil Spell you select is noted as being from one of these three lists (even if it on multiple class lists, you must assign it to just one of your three), and follows the general rules for spellcasting from that class (such as Arcane Spell Failure), though you never need to prepare spells in advance (see below). When you cast these spells you do so as if you were a member of the selected class (Sigil Spells are normal spells, not spell-like abilities).

When you first choose Sigil Spells, You may choose to gain Eschew Materials as a bonus feat, and for all of your Sigil Spells to automatically be Still Spells (thus ignoring Arcane Spell Failure). If you do this, your Sigil Spell caster level is equal to half your character level (at 1st level, your CL is 0.5 – all CL-influenced values are halved, rounding down).

Sigil Spells can be used to meet prerequisites for feats and item creation, but not archetypes or prestige classes.

When you first gain Sigil Spells, you select three 0-level spells known. In addition to 0-level spells from your three class spell lists, you may also choose from the following 0-level spells: detect magic, guidance, light, mage hand, read magic, stabilize. You can assign these to any of your three class lists, even if they do not normally have these spell on that list.

At 2nd level, your total spells known increases to four, and the maximum spell level you can select from goes from 0-level to 1st level. You can select any one 1st level spell from the three spell lists you choose as your Sigil Spell lists to bring you spells known up to your new maximum. You also gain one spell slot you can use to cast any 1st-level or higher spell you know. Your spell slots are restored once per day at a set time (normally dawn) as long as you are not fatigued or exhausted.

As you gain in character level, you gain additional spells known and can select higher-level spells. You spell slots are used to cast any of your 1st-level or higher spells. Thus a 6th level Sigil Scion knows five spells (three of which are 0 level, one 1st-level, and one 1st or 2nd level) and has two spells slots (which can be used to cast any 1st or 2nd level spell the Scion knows). Each time you gain a new level, you can change one spell known to another spell of the same level from one of your three class lists.

When you first gain sigil power, select one ability modifier. Any time your sigil powers refer to an ability score or modifier (such as to determine save DCs or uses per day), you use the selected ability. If a spell references an ability score of yours to determine how it works (such as spiritual weapon allowing you to add your Wisdom bonus to attack rolls with it), you can also switch that to your selected ability.

As you gain levels, your total spells known and the maximum level of the spells you know increase, as shown on Table: Sigil Spells, below.

Table: Sigil Spells

1st           Three spells known (max level 0), Zero slots

2nd-3rd      Four spells known (max level 1), One slot

4th-5th      Four spells known (max level 1), Two slots

6th-7th      Five spells known (max level 2), Two slots

8th-9th      Five spells known (max level 2), Three slots

10th-11th                       Six spells known (max level 3), Three slots

12th-13th                       Six spells known (max level 3), Four slots

14th-15th                       Seven spells known (max level 3), Four slots

16th-17th                       Eight spells known (max level 3), Four slots

18th-19th                       Nine spells known (max level 4), Five slots

20th             Ten spells known (max level 4), Five slots

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Starfinder HyperMall: GoTo

The HyperMall is an InfoSphere Commerce company that sells extremely cheap, but modestly useful, items in bulk to vending companies on worlds with Hyperspace travel. The HyperMall has literally hundreds of millions of items available for order, so many travelers enjoy downloading their virtual catalog and clicking through it on long, dull hyperspace trips.

HyperMall items are all Level 0 minor items that cost 1 credit (or you can buy 120 of them for 100 credits), and have negligible bulk unless noted otherwise. However, crafting any HyperMall item takes 10 UPBs… a fact that frustrates armchair economists and bespoke crafters. HyperMall items are not robust enough to have a major effect on gameplay. Essentially, none of these items have any Strength, damage, hardness, HP, or game-mechanical effect.

(Art by artbase)

GoTo (Technological item): A GoTo is among the most popular brand-name of Smart Data Compilers. By itself, it largely does nothing (though many come with games and basic local InfoSphere access). However, a GoTo can be synced to a theoretically-infinite number of other devices you own and have on your person, so compile and organize the data they offer. Most users begin by syncing their comm links, and then add more and more items as they enjoy the convenience.
Syncing an item to a GoTo takes 10 minutes, root access to the device to be added, and requires a Computers check with a DC equal to 5 + double the number of items already synced. If you fail this check by 5 or more, the new item IS synced, but a randomly selected previously synced item is removed from sync without any notification. Generally you don’t realize an item is removed from sync until you try to use it.
A GoTo can be placed in an armor upgrade slot, be added to any head/eye system cybernetic, or be held. Either way, it allows you to use all items on your person that give you information (such as scanners, comm links, computers, and so on), though you cannot access any function that requires an attack roll or skill check other than Perception, or that forces a target to make a saving throw. However, whenever you use it to make Perception check that you cannot take 10 on, a natural 1 on the die is both an automatic failure, and randomly removes a device from sync.
Despite the glitchiness of GoTos, they remain extremely popular among the techneratti. Indeed there are advanced models that can cost hundreds or even thousands of credits more… and function exactly the same way (but with better style and branding). Some social scientists fear the constant use of GoTo devices is eroding person-to-person relationships on a number of worlds.

Adventure Seed: A new GoTo program, free-to-download, claims to fix de-syncing issues. It is actually a hybrid curse, that causes anyone who uses their GoTo for more than 8 hours in a row to become a borai, and after 8 more hours a ghoul.
Within a few days, entire cities may fall to this necromantic viral app.

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Starfinder HyperMall: Chromat

The HyperMall is an InfoSphere Commerce company that sells extremely cheap, but modestly useful, items in bulk to vending companies on worlds with Hyperspace travel. The HyperMall has literally hundreds of millions of items available for order, so many travelers enjoy downloading their virtual catalog and clicking through it on long, dull hyperspace trips.

HyperMall items are all Level 0 minor items that cost 1 credit (or you can buy 120 of them for 100 credits), and have negligible bulk unless noted otherwise. However, crafting any HyperMall item takes 10 UPBs… a fact that frustrates armchair economists and bespoke crafters. HyperMall items are not robust enough to have a major effect on gameplay. Essentially, none of these items have any Strength, damage, hardness, HP, or game-mechanical effect.

Chromat (Hybrid Item): A chromat is a short penlike object that functions as a 1-shot fashion redesign device. Using a chromat takes 10 minutes, and requires you have sole control of the item to be affected. The item selected must be something you could wear or carry. It’s style, symbology, and color scheme are altered to match your general style, in much the way weapons with weapon fusions are altered. You do not have precise control over the new style and coloration (though it generally matches your preferred style, or if you prefer any 1 item you already have personalized and is present). You cannot duplicate any specific uniform, symbol or gear using a chromat. Once used, a chromat is expended, and the purely-cosmetic changes to made to the item you used it on are permanent.

Adventure Seed: Someone is breaking into clothing stores and textile cleaning businesses, and using handfuls of chromats to alter items to look like they belong to a crazed nihilist cult. Local authorities are convinced this is a marketing stunt for a new holovid series or void-rock band, but regardless the businesses in question want the fashion-vandalism stopped.

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Starfinder HyperMall: Brimmerfloat

The HyperMall is an InfoSphere Commerce company that sells extremely cheap, but modestly useful, items in bulk to vending companies on worlds with Hyperspace travel. The HyperMall has literally hundreds of millions of items available for order, so many travelers enjoy downloading their virtual catalog and clicking through it on long, dull hyperspace trips.

HyperMall items are all Level 0 minor items that cost 1 credit (or you can buy 120 of them for 100 credits), and have negligible bulk unless noted otherwise. However, crafting any HyperMall item takes 10 UPBs… a fact that frustrates armchair economists and bespoke crafters. HyperMall items are not robust enough to have a major effect on gameplay. Essentially, none of these items have any Strength, damage, hardness, HP, or game-mechanical effect.

Brimmerfloat (Hybrid Item): A brimmerfloat is peaked circle of cloth with an enchantment giving it a very, very slight negative gravity and a tiny gyro in it’s wire outer circumference, causing it to float gently upwards using a built-in, nonchargeable microbattery. It can be tethered to the top of your head, turning into a hands-free umbrella. It’s not string enough to float upward when being hit by rain, but will remain level in typical rain, sitting atop wherever you clipped its tether. The process that allows it to resist gravity has only 8 hours of effectiveness, though its not used up when the cloth is folded up. After 8 hours of use, it’s just a thin piece of cloth. Brimmerfloats are most often sold by vending-drones at posts and travel terminals during rainy weather, for people arriving from less wet locations who didn’t think to bring a more permanent umbrella options.
Catalog Code: H01Br@!67F22P[p]678413YSK

Adventure Seed: One bimmerfloat has no game mechanical effect. But a fight in a warehouse with crates of tens of thousands of them could cause any missed attack to break open a crate to form clouds of slowly expanding, spinning, lifting umbrella-tops that may give concealment between different altitudes.

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My Early Animation Fandoms

I find it fascinating when I talk to other game creators, about what they do and don’t consider strongly influential to their love of speculative fiction and their foundational fandoms. For me, fandom and animation have always gone hand-in-hand, and while there are numerous fandoms I am part of that are primarily consumed in other formats, I can trace easy throughlines from the earliest animation I consumed to a lot of my current preferences. I’m especially bemused when I mentions something I think of as iconic and core to the geek zeitgeist, and discover some of the people I am talking to have never heard of it.

Like a lot of Gen x-ers, I grew up with cartoons that were strongly tied to toy lines — G.I. Joe, Transformers, Masters of the Universe, and so on. But before those, I got exposed to a lot of content that drew from varied sources and traditions. It’s impossible to understand my creative influences and impulses without knowing where it started, which had two primary sources — pulp novels, and animated tv shows. I’ll look at pulps later, so for today it’s a quick rundown of some of my earliest animation fandoms.

Astro Boy: My first anime, in the super-early 1970s. I can’t remember any specific episode from that time, and I vaguely recall it was broadcast locally at like 6am weekday mornings.

Battle of the Planets: I encountered this before Star Blazers, and as a youth was a huge fan (though even a a child I knew there was something odd about the animation quality difference in the 7-Zark-7 sequences). As I grew, this fandom did not grow with me. I have seen the original Gatchaman and later iterations of it, and despite how much I loved many of the elements as a child, it just doesn’t speak to me anymore.

Fat Albert: This fandom did not last, and in fact became painful for me. But my conceptual love of protagonists working out of junkyards starts here. I was always obese, even as a pre-teen child, and Fat Albert was the only obese hero on TV who was shown as part of a powerful physicality rather than Nero Wolfe-like sitting genius, and was never mocked or belittled for his size, which he could use to his advantage.

The Herculoids: I think this is my earliest science-fantasy fandom — before Thundaar the Barbarian or He-Man, there were the Herculoids. I didn’t get to see them on first run, and their syndication schedule wasn’t something I ever managed to sync up with, but whenever I caught an episode, I was enrapt. This, of course, is another example of me loving pulp concepts in multiple formats.

Johnny Quest: Did I mention I love pulps?! Well, the original 1960s series is a big part of why. And while the show absolutely has flaws worthy of criticism, it was also formative in my love of action adventurers who face a weird world of hidden threats without superpowers, and while trying to make the world a better place. Also, dinosaurs and hurky robots.

Looney Tunes/Merry Melodies: Originally shorts shown before movies, these classic Bugs Bunny et al cartoons were staples on TV as I grew up… and were my introduction to classical music. The run from 1944 to 1969 still amuses me when i see them today, and I was enrapt when they came on TV in the 1970s and early 80s. I very much never had the same reaction to similar cartoons of the era, such as Tom and Jerry, Woody Woodpecker, Yogi Bear, Droopy, or Mickey Mouse (though I would watch them when nothing else was on).

The Marvel Super Heroes: This was the first TV show based on Marvel comics characters, made in the 1960s. In a series of 7-minute segments, it told stories about Captain America, Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk, the Mighty Thor, and the Sub-Mariner. My love of powered armor, which was bolstered by the Lensman and Starship Troopers novels, was absolutely influenced by the Iron Man segments of this show. At the time I also dug Thor and Hulk super-hard, but those faded as a grew to be more in keeping with my generic like of superheroes. For whatever reason, the Sub-Mariner never interested me. While I would watch the better-known SuperFriends later in life, it never held the same appeal for me.

Popeye: As a child, the B&W Popeye cartoons were something I looked forward to every afternoon, after school. Popeye felt like a modern Aladdin to me, and a pulp adventurer who could stand next to Tarzan, Thuvia, and Sherlock Holmes. I grew out of this fandom, with the 1980 live-action movie (which I did enjoy) pretty much serving as the capstone on my interest in the character, though i do still have a fondness for the squinty hero.

Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?: This is the original Scooby-Doo, in 1969 and 1970, and then in reruns forever. My first procedural fandom. Despite having a talking dog, there mystery in this was never, ever supernatural. This show literally taught me to be skeptical, and also got me interested in horror concepts (though it was not itself truly a horror show). It also taught me that the villain is often driven by pure greed, and evil can be pretty unimpressive, while trying to build its own reputation. these lessons have remained relevant my entire life.

Speed Racer: My first vehicle crush was the Mach 5, and I was watching this basically as soon as I could turn on the TV by myself. My love of Speed Racer lead directly to my love for the Car Wars line of games, and while I adored the US live-action movie, and have a huge nostalgia for the original anime, it’s not an active fandom for me these days.

Star Blazers: I watched this in the early 1980s, and was exposed to it just before I encountered ttRPGs. I became, and remain, a lifelong fan of nearly all versions of this. The Yamato/Argo was an obsession of mine for much of my life, and I can still be made to cry by watching some sequences from any of its iterations. More than Star Trek, more than Star Wars, equaled only by my Lensman fandom, this was my biggest early scifi mania.

Star Trek: The Animated Series: I watched these, either first-run or super-early syndication. I remember liking them better than TOS, which was in reruns, which is likely because I was stunningly young, and they were shorter–but maybe also because they could do more visually odd characters and creatures.

Thundaar the Barbarian: My first post-apocalypse fandom, and one of my earliest science-fantasy fandoms. I watched these first-run, and loved them. Yes, it’s a pretty obvious mash-up of Conan and Star Wars with nonsensical backgrounds of a ruined civilization, but what’s wrong with that? Thundarr is why I got into Gamma World, and it remains something I would love to see a good reboot of (and would hate to see a bad reboot of…). You can trace and interesting line from Thundaar to Blackstar to He-Man… and I liked each of those a bit less than the one before it. 😛

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