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So…my daughter was playing “animal rescue” with me this morning and at one point we needed to leave the HQ in her cardboard box “jetski snowmobile…with wings that pop out…” to save the jaguars. We were going to find them at the jaguar temple.

So — the next adventure scenario for fate and Ubiquity will be Secrets of the Jaguar Temple. It will take place in Mexico, most likely, about 1937. There will be a temple. And jaguars. No word yet on the possibility of jetskis that turn into snowmobiles.

 

After running Hollow Earth Expedition for the last six months or so, I’ve started to note some issues with the game design. When the game came out in 2006, it was slick and quick compared to many game systems, but with the rise of Fate, Cortex, and other mechanics, it’s become downright clunky.

One of the biggest issues is dice modifiers, which I addressed in this post.

Where I’m finding consistent issues comes from the Secrets of the Surface World sourcebook, specifically the magic and invention rules. I suspect that Jeff Combos has a formula he uses to try and keep inventing gear and spells, etc. balanced. Other Ubiquity fans and designers have been reverse engineering the system to try and figure this formula out. I went another way with Sorcery.

First, why?

Simple. Sorcery is handled like weapons, for all intents and purposes. There are mods for range, for area or effect, for the number of people affected, for “basic rituals.” Other rituals have their own modifiers based on what they do and what they do it to. This is all in the name of balance, and it was why magic users in early editions of Dungoens & Dragons were, until they reached a certain level, utter useless. “I’m a fighter, I get these mods all the time!” “I’m a wizard, I can make a magic light appear for 10 minutes once a day!”

Magic in pulp games (I’m specifying this because Hollow Earth Expedition fits a genre, and should fit the tropes and expectations of that genre) should unbalance the game. That’s why the bad guys have magic, and rarely — if ever — do the good guys. They overcome through grit, luck, and in the case of Jack Burton, because it’s all in the reflexes.

Second reason — psychic powers are very well done in Secrets of the Surface World. Mentalists aren’t invulnerable, they’re not all-poweful, but they are powerful. Why was the Shadow so dangerous? He could cloud your mind; you didn’t see him coming. A guy who can control your mind is dangerous, but you still get a Will test. And they just do it.

Magic in HEX is hampered by table and table of modifiers to your dice pool which, in effect, render sorcerer less useful than a 1st level wizard in AD&D. Worse, they have to take five rounds — an eternity when your opponents have guns and harsh language — to launch…if you succeed. More worse, you only have a ritual per skill level. So your sorcerer with the 6 skill rating and 4 Intelligence only knows two spells. One is probably casting a light spell for 10 minutes once a day.

This isn’t Ming the Merciless, or David Lo Pan, or any number of magic using bad guys in pulp comics. So how to make magic feel more like the comics and movies?

First: Number of rituals known. The number of rituals a sorcerer can know is the skill rating, not the level. You have a rating of five, you can know five off the top of your head. If you have a book or scroll, etc. you can still use that spell, but it takes longer and you’re not as likely to succeed. (More in a moment.) Now, you have to gain access to learn those spells — you might not start with them. There’s your game balance.

Second: The Rank of the skill is the base difficulty (unless skill test is contested by another character…) So a Cast Light ritual might be Rank 1. A sorcerer with a skill rating of two could just take the average and bust this out. Oooh! Magic is cool! Now, maybe he’s using Drain Life on you. That’s a Rank 3, but it goes against your Body. Their difficulty is 3 minimum because that’s how hard it is to do, but if you have a Body 4, you get to roll eight dice (or take the average of 4.)

Three: The minimum number of round requires to cast a ritual is equal to the Rank of the ritual. However, in the name of balance, if there are modifiers to the difficulty, the GM could increase the time of the ritual. So a Bless would take one round, a quick muttering of incantation and some hand waving; opening a portal to Summon and ancient Horror would require 30 seconds (5 round) minimum, but other modifiers might lengthen that time.

Fourth: Modifiers. Geez, the number of modifiers! Here’s a good rule of thumb — ranges are simple in pulp movies, shows, and books: you can touch them (no mods) , you can see them (+1 or a +2, maybe), you can’t see them (+4). A villainess doing sympathetic magic on an unsuspecting target on the other side of town has a +4 to their Curse (Rank 2) because they are across town. To do the spell in the first place requires a piece of something from the victim (blood or hair, say) — so that counts as touch range. Ignore the modifier. They have a skill of six; taking the average, they can levee a -2 die curse on the target.

Area effect v. specific targets: Use Size here. Up to human size is Size 0 — no mods. Size 1 gives a +1 to the base difficulty. Size 2 is up to 14-15 feet: +2 to the difficulty. But say trying to effect two particular targets in a Size 2 area that has a crows of people — each person adds a +1 to the difficulty because the caster has to be discriminate.

On other skills, simplify the modifiers. Animating the dead? That’s Rank 4, but the corpse is badly decayed — +2 difficulty; he’s a skeleton +4. Is it big? Size 2, say? Add +2. Simple. Levitating something? That’s a Rank 4, so it’s damned hard to start with. So instead of worrying about the size of the object, go with “size matters not” — or if there you want a modifier, it’s the size of the thing. Size 2 — +2.

Keep it simple It still makes success hard for a sorcerer, but they are more likely to kick ass this way than it you nickel and dime them on their dice. Magic should be big, flashy, and powerful in a pulp game — something to be feared and hard to overcome.

So, working on adventure scenarios for Hollow Earth Expedition and Ubiquity in general has illustrated (for me) one of the flaws in its design…adding and subtracting to the dice pool. Over the last year, I’ve noticed that adding to a pool feels natural for most players and is easy enough to do, but subtracting — while still easy — is less intuitive. And this is something that Ubiquity relies on — modifiers to the number of dice in your pool.

What this can quickly do is render a competent character completely ineffective. You have a six dice in something, but with the range, other difficulty you are reduced to, say, two. You are, effectively, able to complete a task with a one difficulty. (Yes, you can roll a two, but essentially, your average is one.)

Here’s my suggestion for GMs. Cut the dice modifiers entirely. If something is at twice the range, don’t chop the player’s dice pool by -2; add a +1 modifier to the defense of the target. No one die, a one. It’s taking the average, but it’s quicker to pull one off  or add it to a total. And alway apply it to the difficulty, not the players roll. It puts more on the GM, but I’ve found it speeds play quickly.

The other benefit is environmental effects don’t get stupidly powerful. Oh, it’s dark and a bit misty — that’s -4 dice! So that could be an effect of 0-4; or take the average of two. Add it to the difficulty and press on. It becomes pretty intuitive for the GM to hand-wave some things quickly.

“Oh, you are trying to run across a snow covered field in the dark. That’s a +2 to a normal Difficulty of two, so roll your Athletics v. a 4.” Done. Easy. You don’t even need a chart.

For style chips, we’ve been using something similar. It always seemed a rip-off to make a player pay a style point for an extra die; we’ve always just given them a +1 to their total. (Making style points useful…)

The impetus to this idea came when I started working with the Sorcery rules. Which are, to my eye, a hot mess. But more on that next post…

One issue that crops up from time to time with Hollow Earth Expedition is the vehicular rules. For small craft like cars, or even smaller boats up to a tramp steamer, they work well, with the size and mass of the vehicle roughly doubling for each size doubling. The issue is once the scales start to outstrip the clean doubling rules at about size eight.

In Secrets of the Surface World, Exile Games, gave us a few very large ships — all size 16. Most of these bigger vehicles had a length of 600-800′ and often in the 15-30,000 ton range, or much more that the doubling that Hollow Earth Expedition was initially settling into. This gives you a couple of issues when it comes to combat vs. massive ships and aircraft: either they are so weak that a good roll with a machine gun might incapacitate them (something as unlikely for the airship Graf Zeppelin as for the mighty Arizona…), or you have to find some fudge factor like adding defense/structure points to model armor or size.

So I see two options to fixing vehicles for Ubiquity:

The First: Keep the scales consistent. A Size 16 would be roughly 101-200′ in length and 100-200 tons or so in size. Size 32 200-400′, Size 64 400-600, and 128 600-1200.

Under this option, USS Arizona would be Size 128, with a Defense of six for metal and and extra, say, 2 for armor giving her an 8. But her structure would be 136. Even with some great bombing runs, it would take dozens of bomb runs to kill the ship.

This is more accurately modeled, when you consider that a similar sized ship, the IJN Yamato, took 11-13 torpedo and 6-8 bomb hits — somewhere around 120 points of damage for just the weapons, if you took the average.

Option 2: Create steps between Size 8 and 16 to keep the scaling from Secrets of the Surface World consistent. Here, you would add a Size 10, 12, and 14 — with a size of 100-200 for Size 10, a 200-400 for Size 12, a 400-600 for Size 14, and-600-800 for size 16. You would add the size to the material to get the Defense and Structure as usual, but ignore the negative modifier given for the lack of Dexterity. In other words, normally, the Size modifier for defense cancels itself out — Body bonuses lost to Dexterity — so that you are trying to beat the material. A wood vehicle of size 8 would have a Defense and Structure of 12. this would, in practice, make it nearly impossible for someone with a .45 Colt  to damage a 50-100′ yacht, say, but a Tommy gun on full auto might make a bit of a mess. That’s mostly accurate. A decent pilot with a medium-sized torpedo could do a few points to Arizona, but it would take a remarkably good hit to sink her with one shot.

Personally, I rather like the first option, but your mileage may vary…

Smash open with the characters — Dr. Gould, Hunter, and Olga — facing a tyrannosaurus rex just as they were hoping for a rescue from the flying saucer Aruna. With it’s guns damaged from the crash a few sessions ago, the saucer still aids them by presenting a shiny distraction for the beast, giving them time to find cover. From there, Hunter lives up to his name, using the .452 Wesley-Richards they’d nabbed after Gus Hassenfeldt was lost in the last session.

Finally picked up by the saucer, they fly back to the damaged flying wing the curmudgeonly “Uncle” Zek and his young daughter Erha used to help everyone escape the pirate attack on the Sanctuary. They land and proceed to try and find the body of Lady Zara, who had been thrown from Ivora the Magnificent’s airship Sela…but it’s nowhere to be found: no drag marks, no blood, nothing. While reconnoitering Hunter nearly gets eaten by a massive Venus mantrap, but cuts his way out with his sword. Lord Amon posits that she was taken by a pterosaur, but they just can’t be sure. (This is my back door for having the character return, if and when her player can/does come back.)

They manage to fix the cannons on Aruna and after some debate, head for Amon’s home city, Ultima Thule! Four hours of flying over ocean get them to the city on a large island. The city is Atlantis-like, with radial and circular canals, high walls and buildings, and it is surrounded by massive farms with animals that are more modern and recognizable. Landing at the royal palace, they can see a massive war saucer with the Hindu-style swastika — it’s Durga, the war saucer of General Inanna, Emperor Mot’s most trusted tactician! Amon and Shria are worried, and they have cause to be: his men arrest them immediately, and they are taken to face Captain Thoth — the head of the emperor’s secret police (all attired in basic black with gold swastikas.)

Thoth is here because the emperor knew about his mission to collect Gould, the Atlantean, and that he encountered some “issues.” He informs Shria she is to be returned to her father for “discipline” for her art in his efforts to subvert the emperor with the aid of this man (whom he thought would be taller…) He also discovers that Olga is something special — not Atlantean, but something much, much more valuable. He takes from Zek his “mind machine” — the remains of an Atlantean robot, which has been acting as interpreter and technology expert. (One of the reasons Zek is so good with machines…)

Gould, Olga, Shria, and Hunter (whom Gould rescued from a dungeon stay like the rest) are cleaned, dressed in appropriately Greco-Flash Gordon clothing, then given medical attention. For the first time in four days, they get a good meal and don’t smell like animals! Thoth questions them about the surface world, their adventures, all seeming like polite table conversation, but he is gathering intelligence.

Afterward, once they’ve had sleep and a storm has passed, they are preparing to go aboard Durga when a report that Amon and the others have escape is delivered. Assuming that they will use the secret tunnels, Thoth is about to dispatch troops when they hear the flying wing roar to life. Moments later, the plane strafes the guards and the audience room, and the characters take the chance to beat feet.

Chased by dozens of guardsmen, they manage to get to one of the Thule saucers, and take off, strafing the others and destroying them. Only the massive Durga remains, but they quickly effect their escape, catching up to the flying wing and having them follow to an island far out to sea, Avarda — Shria’s secret pleasure island.

Here they find a tropical paradise with jutting mountains, white sandy beaches, and a massive treehouse complex in the jungles. Shria’s attendants include nymph-like “greenmen” who assure them that they will know if Thoth and his forces approach. Rested, healed, and fed, the group has to make a tough choice — head for Argatha and abandon the Inner World, or take up arms against the emperor…but where to start?

As we’ve played in the Hollow Earth, I’ve more and more moved away from the Land of the Lost quality toward a Flash Gordon-esque one. We needed a good bad guy, so “the emperor.” Is it Ming the Merciless? Due to international copyright laws, no. But it sounds like Max von Sydow’s Ming! But its not… This gives the characters a purpose beyond adventuring from one sandbox to the next, and provides a force of bad guys whenever needed. The Hollow Earth’s Nazis, if you will.

A few things we know — the Inner World, based off the curvature, is far too small to be just under the surface of the Earth. In fact, the circumference would only be about half that Earth… The creatures they’ve seen include things of myth, ancient dinosaurs, modern animals and people, and access to and from the surface was, at one time, more easy. One person has described the Inner World as “a prison”, a place created by ancient gods to protect people from the things here. Could the Atlanteans have been their servants? And what is the relationship to the Vril, who are Atlantean, but cannot work some of their technology as Gould can? Olga, they seem to think, is related to something even older than the Atlanteans, and dangerous; she has an effect of orichalcum (finally worked it in),  an element that is part of the crystals that power so much of the Atlantean technology.

I finally got a few moments to work on converting some more of the ships from the old Space: 1889 game to the new Ubiquity version. We’ve already had a guest poster give his rules and reasoning behind his work, and now it’s my turn. The old Space: 1889 and the connected Sky Galleons of Mars boardgame were directed more at the old school minis and wargaming crowd. In fact, while I occasionally use minis to clarify certain battle scenes, Space: 1889 was the last game in which I would shift from roleplaying game to wargame when it was time for a fight.

Ubiquity really isn’t set up this style of play — not that you couldn’t find a way to combine the old school wargame with the more narrative-oriented play of the new game. To that end, my stats on the cloudships and aerial flyers of the Space: 1889 world will be more Ubiquity-directed, and may not satisfy the person looking for more “crunch” in their aerial antics over the sands of Mars; I direct those players to the link above.

So why are the stats what they are? Some are going to have similar complaints about the lack of uniqueness between the vessels. (Similar complaints were levied at Cortex, which could be made crunchy PDQ.) Here’s why the stats are what they are. Size — in Ubiquity, animals were lumped into size categories that were exponential. If you were a certain weight or size, you might jump to the next category, and at a certain point, it was assumed the Defense of the thing would be too great for you to do much harm. The ships are lumped into those size categories. Defense is usually just cribbed from similar vessels in the Secrets of the Surface World sourcebook, but a good rule of thumb would be assume the material (4 for wood, 6 for metal) and if armored, add half again (6 for wood, 9 for metal). The size of the vehicle is going to make it very easy to be hit, so Defense here is going to be based off the physical material.

Structure is pretty basic — what’s the material plus the size modifier. For instance a wood (4) ship of size 8 has a Structure of 12 as it’s base; a metal (6) one would be 14. To give a bit of variability, you could factor in armor, but what I’ve wound up doing is going with that base, then looking at the damage a vessel could take in Sky Galleons. An Aphid-class, for instance, has a total of 10 points for its hull, and 2 armor. I assumed the 14 and added 2 for the armor to get the Ubiquity version. A more massive ship that was still in the Size 8 category for physical size I rounded up a few points in the initial write-ups; Now I look at the armor and total structure. If it’s lower in the old rules, it gets boosted in the new; if it’s higher in the old rules, it gets that structure in the new rules (although a few places I’ve ignored that — like with the Warm Winds, which would have been stronger than an Iowa-class battleship.) I err on the weaker numbers in general on the assumption that liftwood vessels, as with all aircraft, have an inherent flaw…they lack support against gravity. Hit in the right place, do enough damage in the wrong place, and the superstructure can come apart, regardless of the overall damage taken. As any WWII combat pilot that got a wing shot off — the rest of plane might’ve looked great as it went into the ground like a f#$%ing dart.

I would suggest adding in the very low to very high altitude ceilings in your game. Divide the structure by the number of altitude zones, and assume that once that amount of structure is removed, the ship loses an altitude zone.

So here’s a few more Martian cloudships:

Sky Runner Medium Screw Galley

Wth five decks and a crew of 32, these screw galleys are usually out of the shipyards at Karkarham, but are found in service all over the Red Planet.

SIZE: 16   DEF: 4   STR: 20   SPD: 20   CEIL: VH   HAN: -2   CREW: ~32   COST: £25,600; WEAPONRY: 3 heavy guns (fore and wing mounted): Dmg: 8L   Rng: 250′   Rate: 1/2   Spd: S   Size: 2

Endtime Medium War Galley

This is the mainstay of the Oenotrian sky navy, and has been turned out in large numbers. It is the smallest vessel to mount a lob gun, and the heavier weight gives it limited ceiling and a sluggish speed, and the focus on firepower disadvantages these ships with shorter range of fire than the human gunboats.

SIZE: 16   DEF: 4   STR: 20   SPD: 15   CEIL: H   HAN: -2   CREW: 45   COST: £31,500: WEAPONRY: Rod gun (fore) — Dmg: 8L   Rng: 500′   Rate: 1/2   Spd: S   Size: 2; Lob Gun (amidships) — Dmg: 10L   Rng: 250′   Rate: 1/2   Spd: S   Size: 2; 2 heavy guns (wing-mounted) — Dmg: 8L   Rng: 250′   Rate: 1/2   Spd: S   Size: 2.

Skyfire Heavy War Galley

The Oenotrian Sky Navy has two of these brutes in service. The design is conservative — a typical double deck forecastle, a thin spine to the five decked aft hull. The screw requires 42 people just to operate at full efficiency, and it is heavily armed and has a ram-prow (see below.)

SIZE: 16   DEF: 6   STR: 22   SPD: 15   CEIL: H   HAN: -4   CREW: ~95   COST: £105,400; WEAPONRY: 4 Rod gun (2 fore, 2 aft, behind bulkhead) — Dmg: 8L   Rng: 500′   Rate: 1/2   Spd: S   Size: 2; 2 Rouge gun (broadside, behind bulkheads) — Dmg: 8L   Rng: 250′ Rate: 1/2   Spd: S   Size: 1; 8 heavy guns (broadside, behind bulkheads) — Dmg: 8L   Rng: 250′   Rate: 1/2   Spd: S   Size: 2; 10 tether mines — Dam: 12L   Rng: up to 500′   Rate: 1/2   Spd: S   Size: 1

Prow Ram: With a successful Pilot test, the Skyfire can do up to it’s DEF in damage to an opponent ship. With +1 success, the ship is stuck into the target and boarding can commence through a hatch in the ram, or from the main deck.