On Starfinder

Today, I’m going to talk about Starfinder – not because I have any more insight than anyone else, but because I want to talk about what I hope. It’s heroic fantasy space opera, of course I’m interested in it – not so much the setting, but the hope for a swashbuckling-capable sci-fi setting that isn’t burdened by the weight of things that choke a lot of other systems that have tried to do this.

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On Starfinder

Campaign Settings – An Octopus Talks Settings

So today I’m going to talk a little about the settings of D&D that I’m familiar with and why, despite my familiarity and the depth of material, I’ve discovered I’m not much interested in playing in the settings that other people write anymore.

Continue reading “Campaign Settings – An Octopus Talks Settings”

Campaign Settings – An Octopus Talks Settings

Player-Crafted Cyphers

In the Cypher System, there are one-shot items that can provide any number of magnificent effects; these are the cyphers for which the system is named. Players can only carry a limited number of them at any given time, and GMs are encouraged to provide a steady supply of them so that players don’t feel that they need to cling to them in case they really need them.

Typically they’re the sort of thing you scavenge as treasure or get as a reward for a task, but today I’m going to look at the option of allowing crafting-minded players create cyphers of their own. There are two primary ways to do this – the first, most in keeping with the rules, is for the player to declare that they’re going to make a cypher using a particular skill, and then you generate the cypher within the constraints of what they’ve done; the other is to allow them to specific what they’re crafting and the potency they’re going for, and then see how well their attempt goes.

Method One – Generating A Cypher On Demand

This is the method best used for settings where the players are dealing with technologies and powers they don’t really understand; if I were allowing someone to craft a cypher in Numenera, this would be the method I’d choose, as they’re effectively hooking random bits of ancient technology together to see if they can get something to happen. I wouldn’t use it for most sci-fi, modern, or fantasy games, however.

The randomness can certainly be part of the fun, but it also takes away some of the player’s agency. If they’re skilled in creating the kind of item they’d like to make, it doesn’t make much sense for them to risk creating something completely different. A person skilled in brewing potions isn’t going to accidentally cook up a dimensional rift bomb when they were going for a healing potion unless something went seriously awry (as in a GM Intrusion). On the other hand, a person whose skill is in improvising or jury-rigging devices can and should have this method used.

Method Two – Constructing A Cypher To Order

This method is a good one for players whose characters are skilled in crafting a particular kind of item. Someone with a good deal of skill and knowledge of how something works should have little trouble cobbling together simple cyphers with a little time and funding; an example would be a character skilled in crafting potions in a fantasy setting, or one skilled in chemistry making explosives in a modern one. The advantage here is that the player can specify what effect they’re going for, and aim for a particular level of effect. ‘White willow bark tea’ is a lower level painkiller than synthesizing acetylsalicylic acid (aspirin), which is in turn a lower level than, say, morphine.

On the other hand, this often can diminish the variety of cyphers the characters have and the ingenuity they need to put into using them, making it less exciting and less of a thrill to overcome challenges with those creative uses. While this certainly benefits the kind of players who appreciate the ability to get what they need to make their plans work and provides an extra dose of personal agency to the players, it can leave the more spontaneous type of player feeling a bit less enthusiastic.

In Between – A Mix Of Methods

The Cypher System being what it is, there’s nothing to stop a GM from mixing and matching aspects of the two methods I’ve described; this is the way I’m mostly like to run with the idea of player-created cyphers, in fact.

In this, while the player can specify the effect they’re going for and the rough power they want for it, if they fail they don’t simply fail; they produce something unexpected, a cypher of unknown power and strength. This is where a potion-maker brewing a healing draught might unexpectedly discover themselves with a Draught of Brute Strength that gives them an asset on all Might checks for an hour, or where the chemist might accidentally synthesize an acid that eats metal but not organics when aiming to make an explosive.

The biggest advantage here is that it encourages players to let go of the fear of failure that other games have trained into them, as well as helping the GM think outside of succeed/fail options. Failure in the Cypher System should always continue to make things interesting and exciting, and this is a perfect opportunity to showcase that feature. It may cause some player bickering – one person wanting a reroll to get the planned-for item, another wanting to see what weird and exotic item is produced instead – but overall it’s a way to have the best of both worlds.

So, to recap:

Method One

Always randomly generate the cypher within the confines of the skill being used.

-Pros-

  • The randomness can be exciting for players.
  • The variety of available cyphers will be increased by the random factor.
  • A wide range of cyphers encourages players to come up with creative uses for the cyphers available to them.
  • Thematically appropriate for Numenera, certain recursions of The Strange, and characters with a skill that amounts to jury-rigging devices from random parts.

-Cons-

  • This method removes some agency from the player using the skill, by essentially turning them into randomized device generators.
  • Players with a tendency toward planning and scheming will find it less appealing, because they’ll need to build their plans around what they end up with, rather than getting what their ideal plan calls for.
  • The randomness may discourage players from trying to generate cyphers at all, essentially rendering those skill investments worthless.

Method Two

Allowing the player to create what they’re going for, with the GM determining the specific cypher and level range that results.

-Pros-

  • Players who choose to craft cyphers have additional control and agency, making them feel more powerful and central to the story being told.
  • It encourages the kind of players who enjoy coming up with plans and plots, letting them ask for cyphers made to order for their schemes.
  • It encourages the more enthusiastic kind of player that enjoys pushing the boundaries of what’s possible, letting them see what kind of exotic cyphers they can think up and create.

-Cons-

  • This method will tend to produce less variety of cyphers, as people will go for things that work most effectively for their plans.
  • Discourages the inventive methods of using cyphers in unusual ways, since players can get ones to order for what they expect to meet.
  • Can diminish the enthusiasm of the players that are more spontaneous, relying on being able to concoct unusual ways of using cyphers to get them in and out of trouble.

Hybrid Method

Players can define what kind of cypher they’re aiming for; the GM determines the specific cypher, level range, and if the player fails their check the GM can produce a randomized cypher instead of what they expected.

-Pros-

  • Failure on the crafting check is still an exciting outcome, as the players still get a cypher despite it not being what they were hoping for.
  • Retains a level of variety by way of those failed creation checks
  • Encourages players not to fear failure, since failure adds to their options rather than being a roadblock.
  • Encourages risk-taking; the players can aim for a more powerful cypher, knowing that they’ll still get a useful result even if they don’t get what they want.

-Cons-

  • This method can end up completely supplanting cyphers that originate as loot, somewhat undermining the free flow of cyphers during gameplay.
  • If your group contains both a Mastermind and a Freeform player, they may end up bickering over whether or not to reroll the creation checks.
  • Requires a greater deal of investment by the GM and the players, but if that’s a problem the Cypher System may not be right for you.

 

All in all? I plan to use the hybrid method in my Cypher Fantasy game tomorrow, where one player will be a Mad Explorer who Crafts Unique Objects; her training in crafting potions should leave the players reasonably ready for whatever challenges they face.

See you next time!

Player-Crafted Cyphers

Lifestyles and Rep Networks

So today I’ll brainstorm on how the Rep networks interact with the various levels of lifestyle you can pay for and the way they manifest on Gerlach Station. Depending on which networking skill you rely on to get things done, be it with actually currency or via a rep network, the accomodations could be quite… Different.

  • Lifestyle (Free)

Let’s face it, free is free, no matter what rep network you use, and on Gerlach free means you’d best be heavily modded for living in the void of space or be a synth, because you get to live on the station’s hull. In exchange for looking after a reasonably large area, doing maintenance work to make sure the people inside it are safe. You get to camp out there and get access to the basics you need to live, plus whatever Mesh access you can leech through the hull. Infomorphs with ‘Free’ lifestyle live in the servers that do things like record spime data, maintaining and sorting it to get the server cycles needed to exist.

  • Lifestyle (Trivial)

@-Rep: The argonauts keep a few places on the station for research and meetings; you get to sleep in whatever ones aren’t in use and have access to their meeting-room Makers to get some decent-tasting nutrient goo and coffee. You might not have a place to call your own, but at least it’s roomier than others get.

C-Rep: Sleeping in the public areas is generally frowned on, since it takes up public space, but there are a few microparks where they don’t mind campers as long as you don’t stick around for more than a couple nights before moving on. You’ve got access to public Makers for food, which come in hypercorp-approved nutritional standards and tastes. Occasionally someone who feels “charitable” will give you a hotbox from one of the more expensive Makers.

e-Rep: Your contacts get you a passcard to let you into the low-end utility corridors where the cleaner bots store themselves; the bots will nudge you awake before jamming into the niche you’re sleeping in. Public Makers provide for food, and your contacts occasionally send you a care package on a cleaner bot with a genuine cookie or one-serving thermos of coffee. Just look into that knocking sound in the sanitation system while you’re down there, will you?

f-Rep: You’re pretty sure this was intended to be a broom closet. There’s no way anyone in anything other than a neotenic morph or a spare could be remotely comfortable. Still, it’s a private space to sleep, which is better than most can say at this level, even if you probably spend enough on the rent that you have to go hungry every few days.

g-Rep: It was definitely a broom closet, before someone installed restraints and then later on scrubbed it so thoroughly that it still stinks of bleach. It’s in the back of some legitimate front organization run by the group you chose to go through, and while they let you have access to their Makers – a step up from public fare – they also expect you to ‘lend a hand’ if something happens.

r-Rep: You know the joke about the research assistant who spent all night in the lab keeping an eye on the experiments while the rest of the staff went home and slept in real beds? You’re that joke; you live in the lab of a research group of microcorp that can use an extra hand on the experiments, without the overhead of actually paying anyone. The coffee’s good, but the Maker is a vending machine model and the head of the department empties it of the best-tasting stuff every morning.

  • Lifestyle (Low)

@-Rep: The groups on this network pay to keep a few living pods tethered to the habitat’s exterior; as long as you don’t mind the higher G from being further out from the axis of rotation, you’re welcome to claim one of the coffin-beds in one as your own. You even get access to a Maker that knows how to fab food-shaped products, and someone hacked it to make coffee that tastes like it was actually just brewed.

C-Rep: You’ve got a coffin to call your own in one of the hotel-appartment complexes owned by the local hypercorps. They’re discounted for employees, but you wrangled a deal by way of knowing a lower middle manager in need of a favor. The building’s private and has dedicated Mesh access, and the Maker inside is keylocked so only residents can access the tasty branded food it makes. Sometimes it really is tasty, rather than adequate.

e-Rep: The microparks need someone to keep an eye on them, and so you’ve managed to nab a spot doing so, complete with a little two-meter box to call your own, hidden out of sight of people passing through. Not only do you get access to some decent Makers, you get a weekly voucher to one of the places that serves genuine food, grown in the same hydroponic tanks that service the parks.

f-Rep: This is a bit better than the broom closet; you’ve got space to stretch out, as long as you’re the size of an average transhuman. You’ve got access to a basic simulspace with all the freeware versions of the software you need to be an aspiring artist or media star, and the Maker you share access to gets new and interesting culinary options every week as taste test trials. Of course, ‘new and interesting’ isn’t always the same as ‘good’ but at least it’s healthy.

g-Rep: You get a small box of a room above some front operation; it still smells vaguely of cleaning agents, but nothing you can’t filter out. The panicky screaming in the room next door is harder to filter out, but hey – the rent’s cheap and the Maker is programmed to mimic authentic cuisine from the relevant culture to a decent degree of accuracy.

r-Rep: You get a coffin-sized box adjacent to the lab, outfitted with a simulspace for modeling experiments and reviewing information. It comes with a built-in Maker that only dispenses coffee and tea, but the one in the communal area makes nutritionally optimized if bland meals. They’ll even sell you extra flavoring packs for cheap to make the food better.

  • Lifestyle (Moderate)

@-Rep: You get your own little apartment inside the hab, outfitted with a personal Maker that can even brew up a passable beer. It’s outfitted with a n-cast receiver, so you can catch Radio Argosy if you feel like it, and the Mesh access is pretty good. It even comes with subscriber-level access to a few popular simulspace games.

C-Rep: Your own apartment, big enough to stretch out in, with full paid access to the Mesh and your own private Maker with a modest variety of specialized food menus. It even comes with a dedicated caretaker AI to help your Muse manage your daily schedule and interface with the local businesses, if you want to order an actual meal from elsewhere in the habitat and have it delivered.

e-Rep: You get your own modest room hooked up to a communal space where other people in the same e-rep faction live; odds are at least one of them has figured out how to coax the group Maker into making convincing ‘raw ingredients’ that they cook on a heating coil. As long as you don’t mind their taste in preparation and tip them, they’re happy to share.

f-Rep: This is more like it; you have a pair of adjoining large-size ‘coffins’ that you live in; one serves as your bedroom, complete with a decent smart-material mattress and all kinds of AR functions to help you get an optimal night’s rest. The other might be your physical studio, or an office where you do XP/AR meetings with prospective clients. You’ve got access to paid versions of your necessary software, and your personal Maker can make a decent whiskey if you don’t mind paying for the extra ingredients to fabricate it.

g-Rep: This is much like the Low lifestyle, save that the smell of cleaning agents is gone and the walls are thick enough that you don’t have to listen to any incidents in the other rooms nearby. There’s also a sliding smart-material wall you can use to section the space off, if you want to meet with people without letting them into your bedroom, and you occasionally get samples delivered from a nearby restaurant to see if it might make a good thing to offer to the contact that got you the place.

r-Rep: It might be a fairly sterile 2.5 meter box on the inside at first glance, but it comes with smart materials to let you shape a bed, chair, table, or other furniture as necessary, and the inbuilt AR facilities are top-notch, letting you make it as cozy as you like. The Maker has some very interesting recipes programmed in, although a few seem to be for exotic biologies. The coffee is excellent.

  • Lifestyle (High)

@-Rep: You get your own living space with dedicated support facilities; it has a bedroom, dining area with a fairly high-end Maker and a section that can be activated to form a kitchen for preparing actual meals, a small office space, and a recreation room and gym just large enough for a single person to exercise. It comes with a solidly built n-cast receiver and access to open-source clones of the most popular simulspaces and games.

C-Rep: Your very own apartment! It comes with a nice bed with memory foam everything, a high-end Maker with a wide range of highly rated meals programmed in, access to the best simulspaces and XP casts, and a programmable office space that can be set to sleek and ultramodern with sharp lines and gleaming surfaces, classical with faux wood panels, or cozy with a wall screen and AR function to give it a cheery firelight glow.

e-Rep: A sleek ultra-modern minimal-impact living space; everything can be configured to taste, so the three small rooms you have as your own can function as bedroom, kitchen, restroom, office, gym, AR immersion chamber, or whatever else you need. It even has a couple of live plants and programmed AR scenarios to let you feel like you’re in an expansive natural landscape.

f-Rep: This is more like it; while it certainly isn’t a penthouse, you get a few rooms that have the latest and trendiest of furnishings, with a genuine Earth relic as the centerpiece in your office/dining room area to impress visitors. Subscriptions to all the best XP casts and simulspaces, and a top-notch room for your workspace along with an equally high-quality array of simulspaces to work with, and the most cutting-edge tools of the trade are yours for the asking.

g-Rep: It’s a seedy part of the hab, but nice furnishings. The Earth artifacts are probably replicas and the XP casts are probably pirated, but that doesn’t matter too much; depending on which specific group you went through, the decor reflects their cultural values. You’re pretty sure the closet-sized office has actual authentic wood panels, which makes it an excellent place to work out of, even if you do have just enough space for two chairs and that’s it.

r-Rep: As moderate, but the in-apartment systems include a dedicated high-bandwidth line directly to your chosen lab, plus there’s a closet-sized lab of your own behind a well-built door. Telepresence is at the highest level possible, since you can AR-cast the lab into your living space or operate any remote systems in full sensory overlay from the comfort of your own home.

  • Lifestyle (Expensive)

@-Rep: The entire place is furnished smart materials and you get an entire floor of the place to yourself, with dedicated rooms for pretty much any daily activity you could want; and if you’ve got something unusual, the smart materials make the rooms easy to reconfigure to match. The Maker has everything you can think of and some that are completely surprising, all open source, and it’s unlocked in case you’re sufficiently skilled to program your own meals.

C-Rep: You’ve got a penthouse that overlooks one of the larger green spaces in the station, access to high-end designers for your Maker, AR, and simulspaces, and you have a couple of indentures in cases who serve as your personal staff. You eat real food relatively often, although you tend to shy away from any of the particularly outrageous cuisine on offer. CivicNet isn’t likely to have good reviews for someplace like the Humanitarian, after all.

e-Rep: You have a nice little place surrounded by your own private mini-preserve, designed in a way that, rotating reference frame aside, allows you to pretend you’re on the surface of a planet, complete with Earthlike day/night cycles and a virtual sun that crawls across overhead. The food is still mostly fabricated, but you can afford to order from some of the better-sourced restaurants across the station, and some of the plants in your preserve even produce edible fruit.

f-Rep: This is where it’s at, and you’re where it is. A penthouse with access to cutting-edge everything, a personalized AI to help your Muse manage your schedule for social events and trips elsewhere, and not only is your Maker programmed with exotic cuisine and a wide range of liquor and legal drugs, you have an extensive listing of places that deliver to your door, including the truly outrageous ones like Humanitarian and Calamari Me.

g-Rep: It’s a nice place, with a nice view of an open area, and the internal decor is fashionable enough, with subtle hints as to your wealth. That’s a genuine Earth artifact in the reinforced glass there by the door, and that’s a carefully decommissioned headhunter drone in the heavy-duty cage next to the window; it’s still hovering because the AI core was replaced with a simple control computer and all the external inputs were sabotaged to keep it from ever doing anything but look menacing. You might not be in charge of a syndicate, but you certainly look like you might be with a place like this.

r-Rep: While the actual dwelling isn’t much more impressive internally than at the previous level, you live at the end of a spire that juts inward over a park area, giving you a majestic overview of the area; the floor can turn transparent or opaque as you see fit. You’ve also got your own personal and private lab, outfitted to your specialties of choice, just an easy private tram ride away.

And that sums it up, hopefully giving a feel for how the different NEtworking skills might land you a place to live in Gerlach, and perhaps feeding a bit more flavor into the station for the campaign to come.

Lifestyles and Rep Networks

Unexpected Beginnings

So, with one of my regular players unavailable sometimes because she has a new job and it can handily devour her spoons, leaving our group without the full crew. Given that they’re moving into the endgame of the campaign, this means it comes down to two choices – don’t play at all, or start up a campaign to play when the Pathfinder game can’t happen. We chose to start up a new campaign – one using the Eclipse Phase system and setting.

Given that the campaign will only involve two players, I expect it to be somewhat cozier than most other campaigns, and I’m starting to lay plans accordingly. There’s only so far I can go without knowing the characters, of course, but I do know the game will take place on Venus, at least at the beginning, and there will not be any interaction with Firewall. Whether or not Firewall actually exists is something that may or may not be learned, depending on how the campaign goes.

Things that will be involved beyond any doubt will be the conflicts between the liberal-wing supporters of the Aerial Terraforming Initiative and the anarchist-leaning backers of the plan, the moderate-liberal members of the Constellation proper, and the catspaws of the Planetary Consortium who support the Solid Ground Initiative. Likewise, while Firewall won’t be part of the story, there will be conspiracies, intrigue, and a fair helping of the kind of horror that marks Eclipse Phase.

One character already exists as a concept; a former member of the glitterati who crossed the wrong people and had to go on the run; in a fitting fashion, they decided to do so by abandoning their old identity and sleeving into an octomorph, creating a new self as an outrageously over-the-top ‘shock jock’ kind of persona, complete with ridiculous XP casts doing outlandish and unbelievable stunts. The player plans to have a rather versatile character, buying skillsofts to fit the character to the needs of the day.

As such, I’m currently planning to have the characters caught in a power struggle between unseen forces, with their XP casting capturing events that are being directed by people several times removed from them who have little concern for a couple hapless people caught in the middle of their conflict. At the same time, they have the chance to influence eents on their level, angle to make a profit in both wealth and power, and perhaps even cause some of the powers that be to notice them, in a distant pebble-in-the-shoe sense.

Or, given the proponesity of these players to come up with over-the-top “Let’s go fight champions on Ilum”* style plans, they might even manage to carve out power niches for themselves and stand a real chance of disrupting the plans of those in absolute authority.

There will, of course, be a healthy** sampling of horror of both the mundane and exsurgent varities, because 1) this is Eclipse Phase, and 2) this is me GMing; if I don’t include some small measure of creepy weird shit the players may wonder if I was replaced by a confused doppelganger.

* A phrase my wife and I use as a result of our escapades in Star Wars: the Old Republic, referencing plans that are horribly badly thought out and enacted without too much forethought, often followed by running madly away after killing the champion in question so the rest of the champions and elites get bored and stop chasing us.

** Not very healthy for the characters, I expect. More superstitious characters might consider it a sign of some kind of curse on the players that Horrible Things keep happening in their vicinity, be it a case of Shit We Stumbled Into A Secret Lab, Is There Something Following Us, and/or Why Did We Dock With This Abandoned Station Anyway And Is That A Headhunter Drone Coming At Us.

Unexpected Beginnings