covenant dark

For a while now, I’ve noodled on designs for an RPG about powerful mages that combine forces for mutual benefit. This is inspired by Ars Magica, not to emulate its system or political game, but to explore the idea of a covenant (as an oath, a place, and magical protection) and troupe play, where games usually involve a mage sending out minions so they can stay home to further their magical studies.

I wrote an Undying hack that revolved around controlling sources of magical energy to power your magic and the internal power struggles of a Covenant at its prime.

I then developed an interesting hack of 14 days that used a calendar of seasons to focus on how a mage must juggle their responsibilities toward to their Covenant, solving crises that threaten to overwhelm the region where the Covenant is located, and the work they need to do to advance their magical power and experiments.

But what I have today is a hack of Cthulhu Dark. This aims to capture the danger and wonder of magic while using the protection of a Covenant to extend the durability of a Cthulhu Dark character beyond a single session.

covenant dark

This obviously leans heavily on the brilliant Graham Walmsley’s Cthulhu Dark and Nick Wedig’s crazy hack of it, So Now You’re A Time Traveller. It’s loosely inspired by Ars Magica.

your magician

Choose a name and an office within the Covenant. Your office should relate to an element or a school of magic. Describe them.

Take some six-sided dice: black for your Human die and Magician die, a brighter colour for your three Hubris dice and one more for the Covenant die, bigger in size if you have it.

magic is hubris

A magician reaches beyond their human grasp. This hubris takes many forms, but at its core, it is about curiosity, audacity and hunger.

Magicians start as Adepts with one Insight die to represent their curiosity, one Paradox die to represent their audacity, and one Taboo die to represent their hunger. As they gain experience, they can gain extra dice (Great and Arch) for each kind of hubris to represent their growing power and its terrible cost.

Adept magic is most akin to the work of human artisans, champions and experts; it relies on much of the same skills and abilities, refined and honed beyond comprehension. You are the best that people can ever hope to be.

Great magic is beyond what one human can achieve: in power, scale, and sheer daring. You reach beyond the limits of your human shell into a realm of greater being.

Arch-magic is stranger and more formidable. It is deeper, without precedent, and foolhardy to use. All the schools and elements of magic can be yours to control; if you will pay the price.

If Adept magic is a searing brand, Great magic is a burning forge, and Arch-magic is a volcano.

the covenant

The Covenant is a community of magicians that have agreed to work together for mutual protection and benefit. They are adepts, great magicians and arch-magicians.

The Covenant is an oath that each magician has made: a pledge of loyalty, support, and dedication to the furtherance of each other.

The Covenant is a magic spell. It is a ritual that protects the magicians from the worst of the world and other-worldly forces.

the covenant saves

If a magician’s Insight or other hubris ever reaches 6, they are undone. Or would be undone, except the Covenant magic triggers and saves them. Roll the Covenant die and return that hubris score to 5.

Your Covenant score starts at 1 and is shared by all magicians. Whenever you roll higher than your Covenant score, increase the Covenant score by 1 for all magicians. When the Covenant score reaches 6, it too distressed and collapses, never able to offer any protection again. The community, the oath, the magic must be rebuilt anew. Until then, should any magician’s Insight, Paradox or Corruption reach 6, they are undone.

strengthen the covenant

You can decrease the Covenant score by working on it to support and strengthen it. This requires supplies, people, artifacts, knowledge, and defences. This takes time and preparation. Gather resources proportionate to the Covenant score and use them up. Each time you do, roll the Covenant die. If you roll lower than the Covenant score, reduce it by 1 to a minimum of 1.

insight

Your Insight shows how far you can see into the horror behind reality. It starts at 1.

When you see something disturbing, roll a hubris die for your Insight (Insight roll).

On an Insight roll, if you roll higher than your Insight, add 1 to your Insight and describe a revelation you now have. Add that revelation to your Dread, something you know about the nature of reality.

investigating

When you investigate something, roll:

  • One die if what you’re doing is within human capabilities (Human die)
  • One die if you have at least one relevant Dread revelation and it’s not crossed-out  (Dread die)
  • If you will risk your mind by using magic to succeed:
    • One Insight die if you use Adept magic.
    • Two Insight dice if you use Great magic. Don’t roll your Human die.
    • Three Insight dice if you use Arch-magic. Don’t roll any other dice.

If an Insight die rolls higher than any other die, make an Insight roll. If you only roll Insight dice, then an Insight Die will automatically be the highest die, so you will make an Insight Roll immediately afterwards.

The highest die shows how much information you get. On a 1, you get the bare minimum: if you need information to proceed, you get it, but that’s all. On a 4, you get everything a competent investigator would discover. On a 5, you discover all that, plus something more. On a 6, you discover all of that, plus, in some way, you glimpse beyond human knowledge. This means you must make an Insight roll.

If an Insight die rolls a 6 and is higher than any other die, still only make one Insight roll.

Using magic will strengthen these results depending on the power of the magic you used. Using Adept magic, you easily discover information others struggle to obtain. You see through a person’s lies and artifice, understand their motives, and glimpse obscurities and secrets.

Once you have enough power and experience, you may use Great and even Arch-magic. Using Great magic, you discover things through incredible means. The range and breadth of your grasp are beyond the capabilities of one human. When focused, your understanding is detailed and in-depth. Using Arch-magic, you can track the untrackable, uncover the most intimate knowledge, and get practical knowledge of things far beyond the ken of most in this world.

doing other things

When you do something other than investigating, roll dice as above, except you cannot use Insight dice. Insight magic only works for investigations. Again, your highest die shows how well you do.

failing

If anyone thinks your failure interesting, each may describe how you might fail and roll a die. If any failure die rolls higher than your roll, you fail in the way they describe.

trying again

You may reroll as often as you want. But you must have one hubris die in the reroll. For a reroll with an Insight die, you have a sudden moment of clarity about previous dark revelations. Ask a question about what is happening and expect a brief disturbing answer. Add that revelation to your Dread.

suppressing knowledge

You can decrease your Insight scores by suppressing knowledge of what you have discovered. This takes time and preparation and perfect execution. Cross-off a revelation from your Dread and then remove all traces of it in the world. If you do, then roll an Insight die. If you roll lower than your Insight score, reduce it by 1 to a minimum of 1.

While you have a Dread revelation, you cannot be entirely deceived. When you would be deceived but aren’t, make an Insight roll as you see the truth through the lies.

the covenant saves

If your Insight reaches 6, you understand the full horror behind reality and leave everyday life behind. Or you would unless the Covenant protection magic triggers and recovers you. If it does, roll the Covenant die and return your Insight score to 5.

becoming a great and arch-magician of insight

When you have at least 6 Dread revelations and all are crossed-off, you have become a Great Magician of Insight and may use Great-level Insight magic. If you are already a Great Magician of Insight, have at least 12 Dread revelations and all are crossed-off, then you have become an Arch-Magician of Insight and may use Arch-Insight magic.

paradox

Your Paradox shows how far you break the rules of reality. It starts at 1.

When you dare something impossible, roll a hubris die for your Paradox (Paradox roll).

On a Paradox roll, if you roll higher than your Paradox, add 1 to your Paradox and describe something you must do. Add that action to your Future-past, something that you must have done in the future.

contest

When you contest something, roll:

  • One die if what you’re doing is within human capabilities (Human die)
  • One die if you have at least one relevant Future-past action and it’s not crossed-out  (Future-past die)
  • If you will risk your future to succeed:
    • One Paradox die if you use Adept magic.
    • Two Paradox dice if you use Great magic. Don’t roll your Human die.
    • Three Paradox dice if you use Arch-magic. Don’t roll any other dice.

If a Paradox die rolls higher than any other die, make a Paradox roll. If a Paradox die rolls higher than any other die, make a Paradox roll. If you only roll Paradox dice, then a Paradox Die will automatically be the highest die, so you will make a Paradox roll immediately afterwards.

Then your highest die shows how well you do. On a 1, you do the bare minimum: if you need to do something to proceed, you do it, but that’s all. On a 4, you do everything a competent specialist would achieve. On a 5, you achieve all that, plus something more. On a 6, you achieve all of that, plus, in some way, you reach beyond human possibility. This means you must make a Paradox roll.

If a Paradox die rolls a 6 and is higher than any other die, still only make one Paradox roll.

Using magic will strengthen these results depending on the power of the magic you used. Using Adept magic, you easily overcome challenges others struggle with. You verge on the superhuman: instantly master a skill, withstand fire, tackle a horse, leap shocking distances, slip away unnoticed.

With enough experience and audacity, you may use Great and even Arch-magic. Using Great magic, you perform the superhuman, beyond the human limits. You outpace anyone, traverse any surface, disappear from plain sight. When focused, you can form matter to use as you will and project across distances. Using Arch-magic, you can travel far, command storms, survive the heart of a maelstrom.

doing other things

When you do something other than contesting something, roll dice as above, except you cannot use Paradox dice. Paradox magic only works for contests. Again, your highest die shows how well you do.

failing

If anyone thinks your failure interesting, each may describe how you might fail and roll a die. If any failure die rolls higher than your roll, you fail in the way they describe.

trying again

You may reroll as often as you want. But you must have one hubris die in the reroll. For a reroll with a Paradox die, your future-self masters a power or leaves an item or warning nearby to find. Look for it and it will be there. Add that action to your Future-past.

acting in the past

You can decrease your Paradox scores by doing what you need to have already done. This takes time and preparation and perfect execution. Cross-off an action from your Future-past and do what you’ve done. Roll a Paradox die. If you roll lower than your Paradox score, reduce it by 1 to a minimum of 1.

While you have a Future-past action, you cannot die. When you would die but don’t, make a Paradox roll as you must have done more in the future.

the covenant saves

If your Paradox reaches 6, you are entrapped in an impossible knot of cause and effect and leave everyday life behind. Or you would unless the Covenant protection magic triggers and rescues you. If it does, roll the Covenant die and return your Paradox score to 5.

becoming a great and arch-magician of paradox

When you have at least 6 Future-past actions and all are crossed-off, you have become an Great Magician of Paradox and may use Great-level Paradox magic. If you are already a Great Magician of Paradox, have at least 12 Future-past actions and they are all crossed-off, then you have become an Arch-Magician of Paradox and may use Arch-Paradox magic.

corruption

Your Corruption shows how far you have lost your humanity. It starts at 1.

When you commit to something heartless, only considering others as means to an end, roll a hubris die for your Corruption (Corruption roll).

On a Corruption roll, if you roll higher than your Corruption, add 1 to your Corruption and describe something you now hunger for. Add that hunger to your Taboo, something you must indulge.

influence

When you influence someone, roll:

  • One die if what you’re doing is within human capabilities (Human die)
  • One die if you have at least one relevant Taboo hunger and it’s not crossed-out  (Taboo die)
  • If you will risk your humanity to succeed:
    • One Corruption die if you use Adept magic.
    • Two Corruption dice if you use Great magic. Don’t roll your Human die.
    • Three Corruption dice if you use Arch-magic. Don’t roll any other dice.

If a Corruption die rolls higher than any other die, make a Corruption roll. If you only roll Corruption dice, then a Corruption Die will automatically be the highest die, so you will make a Corruption roll immediately afterwards.

Then your highest die shows how much influence you have. On a 1, you influence the bare minimum: if you need to someone to do something to proceed, they do, but that’s all. On a 4, you get everything a competent negotiator would secure. On a 5, you secure all that, plus something more. On a 6, you secure all of that, plus, in some way, you reach beyond human grasp. This means you must make a Corruption Roll.

If a Corruption die rolls a 6 and is higher than any other die, still only make one Corruption roll.

Using magic will strengthen these results depending on the power of the magic you used. Using Adept magic, you easily have the influence that others struggle to achieve. You can confront a person and charm, bamboozle, command, or convince them to do things that are not their best interests, at least for a little while.

Once you have enough power and experience, you may use Great and even Arch-magic. Using Great magic, you can influence more folks to do things they never would or thought they could. When focused, you can even influence someone from a distance, they need merely hearing your name and see the effect of your actions. Using Arch-magic, you can influence a whole people in ways no one person should, reaching deep within their hearts, spurring them to shift their fundamental beliefs, dreams or desires.

doing other things

When you do something other than influencing, roll dice as above, except you cannot use Corruption dice. Corruption magic only works for influence. Again, your highest die shows how well you do.

failing

If anyone thinks your failure interesting, each may describe how you might fail and roll a die. If any failure die rolls higher than your roll, you fail in the way they describe.

trying again

For a reroll with a Corruption die, someone nearby gets through to you and your hunger for more burns hot. Add that hunger to your Taboo.

indulging taboo

You can decrease your Corruption score by indulging a taboo to excess. This takes time and preparation and perfect execution. Cross-off a hunger from your Taboo and satisfy it so completely it never returns. Roll a Corruption die. If you roll lower than your Corruption score, reduce it by 1 to a minimum of 1.

While you have a Taboo hunger, your Will cannot be dominated. When your Will would be dominated but isn’t, make a Corruption roll as your dark hunger prevails.

the Covenant saves

If your Corruption reaches 6, you lose the last flicker of your humanity and leave everyday life behind. Or you would unless the Covenant protection magic triggers and revives you. If it does, roll the Covenant die and return your Corruption score to 5.

becoming a great and arch-magician of corruption

When you have at least 6 Taboo hungers and all are crossed-off, you have become an Great Magician of Corruption and may use Great-level Corruption magic. If you are already a Great Magician of Corruption, have at least 12 Taboo hungers and all are crossed-off, then you have become an Arch-Magician of Corruption and may use Arch-Corruption magic.

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poison triggers

I often feel game rules for poisons fall short. Super niche I know. I’ve been examining some old ideas for the poisonous fog region I’m developing for Torchbearer called Abyssal Flames.

RPGs have rules for different poison types, effects, delivery methods, duration, antidotes, immunities, crafting rules, decay… you name it. Critically though, once a poison is delivered it’s only matter of time till it takes full effect. Sometimes instantly, others over minutes or hours; nevertheless, the poison is delivered and it’s effect triggered in the same moment.

This makes some sense of course. Generally, animal venoms and real poisons work like this. And delivery is challenge enough; why complicate matters further. But in fantastic tales and adventures, it’s a missed opportunity.

Rather than simply waiting for a poison to take hold, it’s effect can be triggered by something. Perhaps the most realistic trigger is the poisoned person doing something, for example moving, staying still, or sleeping. In the film Crank, Chev will die if his adrenaline drops too low. A solid excuse for an action movie, but also an example of a poison being triggered by a character doing something, in this case calming down.

We could describe this as an internal change. But I’m less interested in the wizardry of biochemistry and more in what’s makes interesting gameplay. So it’s more useful to think about what a person does, not what their parts do.

For even more fantastic triggers, the poison could be triggered by emotions or intentions. This moves poisons closer to magical gheas or curses, but I think there are interesting ideas to explore without going full gonzo.

personal triggers

# Action Emotion Intention
1 Moving/stilling Hope To keep/give
2 Slowing/accelerating Fear To want/ignore
3 Walking/running Pain To attack/protect
4 Falling/climbing Anger To pursue/flee
5 Waking/sleeping Greed To show/hide
6 Sinking/swimming Pride To love/hate
7 Talking/silent Lust To argue/negotiate
8 Quiet/loud Envy To remember/forget
9 Reading/writing Love To stop/start
10 Sitting/standing Joy To help/hinder

So we can have a poison triggered by time or action/inaction. Another option is interacting with something in the environment. Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame explores this idea beautifully. It follows a series of deaths where people unexpectedly burst into flame. Of course, they were poisoned and the trigger was the touch of sunlight.

This kind of environmental trigger has two parts:

  1. what a person interacts with and
  2. how they interact with it.

I’ve listed a bunch below. Some combinations will be more mundane: drinking wine, being cut, being in complete darkness. Others will be stranger and more magical: seeing a symbol, hearing a bell ring, being far from a certain river.

environmental triggers

# Interaction Energy Liquid Gas Solid Thing
1 Inhaled, smelt Sound Fresh/salt water Breath Salt Shape
2 Ingested, drunk, tasted Vibration River/sea Flammable Sand Colour
3 Contact, touched Electricity Oil Wind Food Symbol
4 Injected, bitten, stung Heat Sweat Stagnant Meat People
5 Immersed, surrounded Cold Blood Smoke Plant Animal
6 Perceived, seen, heard Light Wine Steam Metal Weapon
7 Felt, experienced Darkness Rain Bubbles Earth God
8 Near, far Magic Tears Fog Fabric Element

antidotes

Personal and environmental triggers are also useful for designing antidotes. Rather than just a mundane substance, an antidote can be a secret ritual or process that neutralises a poison. Essentially, antidotes can be triggers that turn a poison off, rather than on.

Mundane antidotes could be the smell of fresh rain, not blinking for several minutes, or running underwater. Fantastic antidotes could be hearing a certain melody, feeling the outline of a special symbol, or hiding from someone who seeks you for three days.

the right tool for the job

This can turn poisons into tools useful for more than just murder. Rather than blunt drugs of intoxication, stupor, or death; a well-designed poison can be precise and surgical.

For example, a shipment could be guaranteed to have an armed escort if all the ship guards cannot walk on land for more than a few steps without terrible nausea. This condition (poison) could be neutralised at once when they complete delivery and see the receiver’s seal stamped on the cargo.

I mean, many poisons already essentially have magical effects; they are magical potions with a bad reputation. Fine tuning when they are triggered, both on and off, is no great leap and the added flexibility can make them a more useful and interesting tool. Depending on how far you take it, this can go from merely intensifying and extending the dangers of poisons to turning poison-craft into another school of magic.

code black hack: deception

Deception plans

This rejigs the Code Black Hack for deception scores, particularly longer cons. A deception is about getting someone to do something. It uses trickery but that’s merely the means, not the end. A con differs from a simple deception mainly by who you target and the payoff. Tricking a guard to get into the royal treasury might be a deception, but tricking the king to gift you the treasury is a con. And if that con goes smoothly, the king will thank you for the trouble to haul it away.

A lot of this is inspired by The Long Con by The Walking Mind. I’ve used this approach regularly in a Blades game I run, particularly memorable was when the Butcher Birds decided to flip Baszo Baz.

Action roll

Cool replaces Hidden/Controlled, Suspect remains the same (but deception has reduced effect), and Opposed replaces Hunted/Desperate (deception has reduced effect and requires set up action). Noticed becomes Questioned. Exposed becomes Honest.

You can act to improve Suspect to Cool, but only if no characters or cohorts are Questioned or Honest. You can only improve Opposed to Suspect by minimising or bypassing the preparations the mark has brought against you.

Consequences and harm

Questioned

Questioned replaces Noticed. When you are Questioned, you may have the mark in a web of deceit, but they are asking difficult questions and testing you. At Cool or Suspect, if you fail to remove Questioned promptly, the position worsens. At Opposed, if you fail to remove Questioned promptly, the mark will put into play something they’ve prepared to counter your well-laid plans. They’ll prioritise countering characters and cohorts that are Questioned and Honest, then those just Questioned, then those just Honest. They won’t counter those who are neither Questioned nor Honest.

Honest

Honest replaces Exposed. When you are Honest, you use truth to ground your lies and allay suspicion. While the mark does not cross-examine you, they may learn something to use against you later.

The Score

A con relies on finding a hook, something to leverage the mark into doing what you want. Think of the hook as a vice: pleasure, luxury, obligation, faith, etc. It can be an ambition for revenge, a thirst for oblivion, or something weirder. Good info-gathering work.

Pacing

In an infiltration, you don’t start at cracking the safe. First, you get past the perimeter guard, break in through the roof, bypass the inner security, and only then get in front of the safe. Likewise, there’s a way to pace a con. Get the mark’s:

  • attention: Try fitting a mould of people they expect to meet.
  • interest: Find or create a problem or solution related to their hook.
  • confidence: Convince them you offer an actual opportunity to solve a real problem.
  • decision: Push them to do what you’re conning them to do, to seize the opportunity while it lasts.

Each of these may be a clock depending on: the crew’s history with the mark; the mark’s Tier, savviness, or connections; and circumstances that make a problem more immediate, a solution more complex, or the mark more desperate. Filling these clocks completes the con and the mark does what you want. Taking advantage of their decision and action can be another score in itself.

The GM should also keep a clock to track the mark’s Suspicions or similar. If that fills, then the score’s bust and the mark sees the con for what it is.

Preparations and counterplans

A con can be one protracted scene but often works better as a series of connected meetings, places and people. Often you’ll run this is kind of score against a powerful person or group, so scenes can involve meeting advisors and experts that the mark relies on and trusts. Answering their questions and soothing their suspicions can be a great way to win over the mark.

Such advisors and experts are part of the mark’s preparations to protect themselves. These will be a mix of defences in place as well as new ones set up to counter the crew should you prove troublesome. The higher Tier the mark, the better prepared they should be. This prep may be as a simple as a handy blade and a ferocious temper (harm), a few brutes as bodyguards (harm), a well-connected information broker (ticks on Suspicion clock), or even bluecoats bribed to waylay characters or cohorts (harm or reduced effect). More elaborate preparations might be having false witnesses ready to frame the crew to gain leverage (complication), snoops collecting evidence to uncover the crew’s true agenda (ticks on Suspicion clock), or even actual leverage they have unearthed to keep a character or cohort inline (blackmailed, extorted, seduced which can mean harm, heat, danger clocks, etc.).

Flashbacks can be a great way to deal with these preparations when they jump out to bite you. Otherwise, part of the score is discovering these preparations and neutralising them. This can be a good way to involve characters and cohorts with a diverse range of skills.

End

If the score ends with the mark highly suspicious, that leads to problems as the mark later realises they’ve been conned, usually -2 with factions hurt by the con. Ending with little or no suspicion might mean the mark never realises what actually happened, perhaps they feel they dodged a much worse situation and just want to forget the whole thing.

code black hack

Black Seven by Zero Point Information

This is a hack of Blades in the Dark, inspired by the RPG Black 7. In Black 7, you play black operatives infiltrating facilities and doing Bad Things. It’s a game laser-focused on stealth action, where you make rolls to get to mission targets and take conditions depending how much attention you draw (Noticed) or how much cover you find (Exposed).

The Code Black Hack changes how to set the position of action rolls on scores in Blades in the Dark. Position reflects the alert level of nearby hostiles and has rules for how the scoundrels’ actions worsen or improve their position.

This hack gives the GM more tools to reliably telegraph trouble, follow through on threats, and covey dangers inherent in what the scoundrels do. It’s entirely possible you could get the same gameplay using the standard rules, mainly by how the GM judges position and effect. In a way, that is all the Code Black Hack is: guidance for the GM on how to set the position and the effect level of actions in a consistent way.

It is meant for when the crew faces hostile resistance that they want to avoid. Black 7 is all about stealth plans, so this is the most direct port into Blades. Think breaking into the HQ of a gang of thugs, rather than mugging a couple in an alley. The standard rules already work well for smaller scale confrontations.

I want to explain the Code Black Hack for stealth plans today. I’m some way along rejigging these rules for other kinds of scores, particularly deception plans, but I’ll talk about them another time.

Stealth plans

When to use

These rules assume that most scores occur in a single defined area, which can be quite large; for example, a building, an underground lair, a prison, a city block, a ship. The idea is the crew’s position and conditions will carry across their activities during the score as they move around within the larger area, whether it’s between rooms, buildings or streets.

However, some scores involve linked plans. Where there is a significant shift in the area of the score, like ‘sneaking around a noble’s estate’ to ‘smuggling stolen goods across the city’, then a new engagement roll may be called for to see how well the next plan starts.

Stop tracking the crew’s position and Noticed and Exposed conditions if there are no longer any hostiles in the area, the crew leaves unpursued, or the score otherwise ends.

Action roll

The action roll is essentially the same. The major differences are that:

  • on a 5 or less, a scoundrel always gets the noticed condition and possibly further consequences
  • riskier positions reduce the effect of stealth actions and don’t allow certain consequences to be resisted
  • all scoundrels and their cohorts share the same position while they are in the same area.
Hidden
Hostiles are not alerted that you’re nearby. You act on your terms.

Critical: You do it with increased effect.
6: You do it.
4/5: You hesitate. Avoid being noticed and try a different approach. Or else do it and you are noticed, and may also suffer lesser harm, a minor complication, have reduced effect.
1–3: You falter. Press on and you are noticed or avoid being noticed and try a different approach.

May resist being noticed, if not currently exposed.
Suspect
Hostiles are alerted you’re about. You act under fire. You take a chance.

Critical: You do it with increased effect.
6: You do it.
4/5: You do it, but there’s a consequence: you are noticed. You may also suffer harm, a complication, have reduced effect.
1–3: Things go badly. You are noticed. You may also suffer harm, a complication, lose this opportunity.

Stealth attacks have reduced effect. Cannot resist being noticed.
Hunted
Hostiles are closing in to attack you, alarms wailing. You go head-to-head. You’re in serious trouble.

Critical: You do it with increased effect.
6: You do it.
4/5: You do it, but there’s a consequence: you are noticed and hostiles attack. You may also suffer severe harm, a serious complication, have reduced effect.
1–3: It’s the worst outcome. You are noticed and hostiles attack. You may also suffer severe harm, a serious complication, lose this opportunity for action.

Stealth actions have reduced effect. Stealth attacks must be set up by another stealth action. Cannot resist being noticed.

Improving position

You can act to reduce Suspect to Hidden, but only if no characters or cohorts are Noticed or Exposed. You can only reduce Hunted to Suspect by eliminating all hunters present.

Consequences and Harm

Noticed

If a character or cohort is Noticed, they’re still in or near cover but have drawn the attention of hostiles in the area. Usually, you become Noticed as a consequence of an action roll. You may also be Noticed if hostiles take the initiative and find you, or simply because they see or know where you are. You are Noticed if you act without regard to stealth—like sword fighting, shooting, exploding shit, ramming things, intimidating people—and the position also goes straight to Hunted.

While Noticed, you can’t stealth attack; for example, you can’t ambush, snipe from hiding, lay a trap, or trick a guard. Essentially, Noticed is a dominant factor and overshadows the situation, so you always have zero effect, no matter what effort or fine items you bring to bear.

At Hidden or Suspect, if you fail to remove Noticed promptly, the position worsens. At Hunted, if you fail to remove Noticed promptly, you may suffer severe harm from hostiles attacking you. This harm may be a consequence of a roll, including on the same roll when you get Noticed, or simply because hostiles take the initiative and see or know where you are. Hostiles prioritise attacking those Noticed and Exposed, then those just Noticed, and then those just Exposed. Hostiles can’t attack you if you’re neither Noticed nor Exposed.

Exposed

If a character or cohort is Exposed, they haven’t been seen by hostiles, but they’re not in or near cover. You choose to become Exposed for increased effect. This increased effect remains while Exposed. You can’t resist or otherwise remove Noticed while Exposed, you must remove Exposed first.

Removing conditions

Noticed and Exposed are sticky conditions. Once you’ve gained one, you must act to remove it. Generally, that means making an action roll to evade or obfuscate. The player describes what the character does and what action rating they use, the GM sets the effect level. At Hidden, you may also resist being Noticed. At Suspect or Hunted, you may not resist: hostiles are too alert for you to easily recover from a mistake; instead, you may act to remove it. If you’re both Noticed and Exposed, you can’t resist or otherwise remove Noticed, you must remove Exposed first.

A cohort can’t resist consequences but may act to remove Noticed or Exposed. A character can use the teamwork move Protect to suffer being Noticed instead of a teammate or cohort. The protecting character may then roll to resist (if Hidden) or act to remove Noticed.

Harm

Harm can still be a minor consequence at Hidden and a consequence at Suspect. Not harm from hostiles, just harm following the fiction. For example, cutting through an electrified fence while Hidden is still dangerous. Because hostiles only attack you when you’re Hunted (and Noticed and/or Exposed), hostiles do severe harm (Level 3). Severe harm may also come from other sources, following the fiction. Harm may be resisted as normal, no matter the position.

The Score

Engagement roll

On 6, the starting position is Hidden.

On 4–5, the starting position is Hidden and each character and cohort starts either Noticed or Exposed, GM picks one for each.

On 1–3, the starting position is Suspect and each character and cohort starts either Noticed or Exposed, GM picks one for each.

Flashbacks

Flashbacks are just another way to get to a mission target and you may still gain Noticed as a consequence. For example, you might have successfully bribed the guard, but he’s so oafish about his new wealth that he tips off other hostiles that something’s awry and they notice you (at the same time as getting you closer to a mission target).

Teamwork

Everyone who wants to benefit from a group action must roll. If the leader decides to boost the roll’s result, then everyone who rolled gains Exposed. If the roll results in a consequence of gaining Noticed, then everyone who rolls is Noticed. If the current position is Hidden, each character may resist that consequence individually.

A setup move can be used to temporarily improve position. If a character is currently Hunted and under attack by hostiles, a setup action could improve their position (and only their position) to Suspect for their next action, which means they’d avoid consequences from being attacked for that action.

End

Stop using these position rules and tracking Noticed and Exposed conditions if there are no longer any hostiles in the area, the crew leaves unpursued, or the score otherwise ends.

fathoming the unfathomable

Torchbearer, like many old-styled RPGs, leaves open why the player characters came together as an adventure party. Why do they keep trusting and depending on each other? Why do they risk their lives for each other?

By Jeremy Weate from Abuja, Nigeria – Swords of Qādisīyah, CC BY 2.0, Link

Obviously in games like Torchbearer, the metagame reason is if they don’t, they die. But I feel it’s important for play to have an in-fiction touchstone. Not just for verisimilitude; I think it helps us care about the characters and gives players more to grab on to in play.

I made the list below a few years back. My idea was the players first agree on a shared background, a history or purpose that glues them together through thick or thin. Then they build characters to fit and support that concept. Not as a straitjacket or a wish list of power-ups, more a solid foundation to fall back on should things get existential.

There’s no reason for the PCs to have identical motivations, but sharing some will make sense of why they work together at all.

I put these motivations into four groups for convenience: desperation, money, ambition, and duty. Maybe they survived a disaster together, are paid by the same patron, or hunt the same enemy. Or all of the above: when you’re desperate, you often need money, which leads to ambitious plans…

This is similar to Into the Dark’s Adventuring Parties in the Twilight Empire, but higher level, more abstract. In many ways, I prefer Into the Dark’s approach. It has the benefit of providing depth to the setting, gives the players natural antagonists in the setting, and seems a little more gameable. It also reminds me a little of Blades in the Dark crews. Something like it might be useful for the Abyss, the adventure region I’m developing for Torchbearer. I’ll add to the list.

Nevertheless, a benefit of my motivational approach is it’s also useful for GM characters and people who aren’t adventurers. For example, the Abyss is such a terrible place, why does anyone live there at all? What drove them there in the first place, what keeps them there still?

This list may inspire some answers.  

desperation

  • Disaster – fleeing to find refuge, e.g. village destroyed, ongoing war, famine,…
  • Escape – fleeing persecution: slaves, gladiators, prisoners, criminals, soldiers…
  • Coerced – bullied into furthering goals of or entertaining <blackmailer/faction/god>
  • Conscripted – hoping for a pardon, citizenship,…

money

  • Poverty – climb out of the gutter any way they can
  • Indebted – owe money, fealty or favour to person/organisation
  • Heist – working on a really big con/theft/deception
  • Mercenary – Patron pays for bounty hunt, field research, discovery, mapping,…

ambition

  • Enemy – Bring down the <something or one>, revenge, assassination
  • Rescue – loved one, prince, persecuted people
  • Raiding – love of pillage and raiding
  • Pilgrimage – holy journey
  • Knowledge – Uncover ancient mystery, dangerous secret, personal history, wonder

duty

  • Diplomacy – foment strife, weaken powerful, incite unrest; or prevent such
  • Religious – recover holy relics/artefacts, rever divinity, save souls
  • Crusaders – Crusade against <distant threat or monster>
  • Vision – myths about fate, ancestor, lands, ascendance, downfall, demons
  • Family – this is your family’s place and all they have ever known