Monday, April 15, 2013

Dead Company

(Wrote this post a looong time ago and never got round to publishing it, but Gus L's latest post got me thinking about it again.)

One day, while arguing about different editions of D&D, somebody told me that frequent character death was antithetical to roleplaying or character development. The premise being that if characters don't have time to develop, they won't be interesting, and if characters are at constant risk of death then players won't get attached to them.

I figured this was bunk, because a) there is plenty of character development in "highly lethal" works of fiction like Game of Thrones or The Wire, and b) it's easy to roleplay and get attached to a character in, say, Fiasco, or any other one-shot for that matter, despite the fact that the character is certain to "die" (i.e. cease to be played) at the end of the session. While it's true that most old-school D&D games don't have a lot of character depth, that's more because killing monsters in a cave is a premise inherently lacking in opportunities for roleplaying*.

So I began to think about an RPG which revolves around an ensemble cast of characters with a high turnover rate - often, but not always, because of death. You could probably do this already with a collaborative story engine like Smallville or DramaSystem, but I'm aiming for something a little more traditional.

This is a game about the Dead Company - a renowned mercenary company in the midst of a brutal war. Individuals come and go, but the company remains. I'd say that it's like the Black Company, but I haven't actually read those books yet :( Of course that's just the default, and you could run a variety of different groups: revolutionaries, pirates, dungeon delvers, colonists, Jomsvikings, etc. However, the assumption is that the company will get mixed up in ongoing plots, deal with different factions, and influence the world around them. Fifteen guys crawling through a dungeon full of hostile, mute undead is not the goal here.

The game goes like this:
- All players generate three PCs at the start of the game. These PCs then go into the pool of playable characters. They are not 'your' PCs because you made them; anyone can play any PC and the roles can change from session to session.
- PCs don't have stats, at least not to begin with. They are primarily defined by their class and by their relationships. Each PC must have at least one relationship to another, which will be something like the relationships in Fiasco. All the PCs must be connected to each other at least indirectly. You will draw a chart of the relationships to make sure everyone is linked up to the 'web'.
- Each session consists of a mission in which one PC will be selected for each player, while the other PCs stay at home or act off-screen.
- The turnover rate is up to the group to decide, but by default you should expect 1-3 fatalities per session. There might also be rules for characters burning out and quitting the company.
- New PCs can be brought in naturally through play, or through a mechanical device that generates them with new relationships to the existing PCs. It's possible to have relationships with deceased/retired PCs as well, e.g. a son who joins up after his father was killed.
- PCs don't advance in the sense of growing stronger, but they do grow more complex. Each time a PC survives a mission, they get an extra bit of nuance added to their character, based off something they did that session. This might be an Attribute (e.g. Strong, Weak, Clever, Stupid - equivalent of D&D stats) a Trait (personality, unusual skill, etc.) a Background (think 13th Age) a Secret (flashback to past, possible plot hook) or a Link (gained an enemy, impressed the king, downloaded the crystal memories of an alien civilisation into your brain, etc.)
- The Company as a whole advances by gaining money and renown. However, the major form of advancement in the game is simply the development of the plot towards a satisfying conclusion.
- The core resolution system needs to be simple and easy to use. I would probably use the chassis of Basic D&D since that's something that many players are already familiar with.
- By default, the classes would not include spellcasters, since I'm going for a more down to earth sword & sorcery tone. Also, there would be no 'fighter' class since everyone in the Dead Company is expected to be a fighter. So you might have healers, minstrels, assassins, etc. but all of that goes on top of a basic proficiency in combat.

*hurdy dur, not real roleplaying, etc., what I here mean by roleplaying is acting and thinking as your character and developing a story about the characters. Much as I love old-school D&D, it doesn't make it easy to play the role of anything but a psychopathic murderer.

More inspirational imagery:

 & and meanwhile, in anime:

Sunday, April 14, 2013

DCC Fimbulwinter, Session 3

They finally got to level 1 and picked character classes.
- One PC is an absolute monster with 18hp and +5+d3 attack bonus. But to get his full attack bonus he must wield a pitchfork.
- A wizard PC rolled 98 for mercurial magic - can cast Choking Cloud with a d30 instead of d20.
- Party was hired to carry out a blood feud assassination. Reminded not to kill too many people or the feud would only be perpetuated further.
- Attack on the longhouse ended with the aforementioned wizard casting Choking Cloud, rolling a 30 on the d30 and slaughtering everyone in the building, men women children and slaves (but sparing the goat). No save - or rather, the save DC is equal to the spell check, so nobody short of a deity could have passed it.
- Then they burned down the longhouse to 'hide the evidence'. Now they have to leave town in a hurry, but they did get paid.

The group seems to love DCC. One player who started on 4th edition said he preferred this because he felt like he had "earned" the right to be 1st level (and have 18hp and a game-breaking perfect storm of attack bonuses.)

Sunday, April 7, 2013

DCC Fimbulwinter Session 2

- Reskinned 'Portal Under the Stars' as a buried longship
- A more balanced slaughterfest than last week: seven died and nine survived to reach level 1
- four PCs killed by the shitty sub-zero-level skull monsters; the giant snake miniboss was killed before he got a chance to act. Teamwork and planning made all the difference.
- The final fight is kind of a joke if the PCs do all the stuff that mitigates the threat: the clay soldiers all melted, the generals all turned to dust, so it was just the PCs against one lone warlord. A crit reduced his movement speed to 0 and they kicked him into the pool.
- When tallying up treasure I always think "I gave them way too much" and after it's divided between the party I always think "I gave them too little"

Also, though this may be of limited interest to those outside the game: a high score board for all characters living and dead: