Liminal Chapter 4 – Game Rules

I am sorry, this read-through is taking longer than I expected. Now however, I am laid up with my foot elevated after a really bad ankle twisting, so I have no excuse not to get on with it.

I am going to get tired of saying this, but chapter four begins with more gorgeous art:

Blows me away. Golden apples of the sun indeed*. Then we get into a core mechanic that will be familiar to Traveller grognards – 2d6+skill rating a target number that is usually eight. Thing that male it different from Traveller are your traits – potentially giving you some sort of supernatural bonus; and opposed rolls, where the target number is based on your opponent’s skill plus eight. Unskilled rolls are just 2d6, and the target number rises to ten. If you end up beating the target number by 5 (impossible if you are unskilled) you get a critical success, and there is a list of critical effects the player can choose from, including your team-mate getting an automatic success on a related action, succeeding in a way that impresses somebody, or infuriates someone, or in a way that no one notices. In combat, crits include gaining the initiative, doing extra damage, or interestingly, making yourself a target, thus protecting a crewmate from attack.

Failure isn’t just the absence of success. The GM might sayyou succeed, but taking damage, if such a thing is appropriate, or that your action succeeds but takes longer than you wanted, or attracts undue attention.

But you can avoid failure by spending will, point for point to add to your dice roll. Your will points power your magic though, so don’t spend them all. Will must also be used if you want to take actions when zero or less Endurance (effectively hit points). You can recover 1d6 points of will by invoking your drive.

In this game, I don’t think combat is really the thing, social conflict is the way I imagine most changes are made, but the combat rules seem … functional. They don’t inspire me, but I don’t think they are meant to. Things I like are the abstracted ranges, things I don’t like include target numbers to hit, based on the opponent’s athletics skill. I do like the rules for fighting mobs though, as turning innocent high street shoppers against you is exactly what some fae trickster might do. I especially like the rules for saving the lives of those shoppers in the aftermath of any conflict.

I do like the social challenges though. Unlike many systems where a decent persuade roll is more akin to mind control, this instead imposes a penalty on actions which contradict the persuader’s intentions. You can shake off that penalty at the cost of 1d6 will points, which is a potentially high cost. Maybe it’s better just to do what he fae king wants…

There are rules for experience here too, and two levels of advancement. PCs get five experience boxes. And they can check one for things like closing a case, learning something new about the hidden world, making a critical fail, or advancing the crew’s goal. When all five are checked, you can raise a skill by one, up to your skill cap, and check and advancement box. You have three of these, and when you have checked all three, you can do things like increase your skill cap by one, gain a new Trait, or get a new asset for the crew.

*https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/55687/the-song-of-wandering-aengus

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Liminal Chapter 3 – Crews and Factions

Continuing my read though of the Liminal PDF, I continue to be impressed by the art. Some of it is photographic, heavily digitally manipulated, but even that shows up the paucity of really great creativity in the third edition of Unknown Armies. While I love that game, and value the effort of crowdsource the art, there are few pieces in that large work that, to my mind evoke the spirit of the game and stand and interesting and memorable art in itself. In Liminal, every piece of art feels right.

This chapter introduces factions as well as the concept of the Crew (the adventuring party). But we are promised more detail on the factions in a later chapter. The factions get a mention here, because you might decide you want your crew to be part of one of the Factions. So, if your players are inspired by Rivers of London, their crew could be part of P Division, the magic cops. Or, if they really wanted to play Vampire, they could be politicking within the Sodality of the Crown, the “Camerilla” of this world.

The other factions are:

  • The Order of St. Bede – Anglican and catholic exorcists
  • The Mercury Collegium – magical crooks
  • The Council of Merlin – wizards
  • The Court of the Queen of Hyde Park or The Court of the Winter King – Fae, or
  • The Jaeger Family

But, unlike the old World of Darkness games, this one is built to mix and match the occult creatures, so your Crew can include Wizards and Vampires (actually I remember from chapter 2 that players can only be Dhampirs, which have retained their humanity – at least if the listed concepts are a hard limit).

So the rest of the chapter walks you through a session of crew creation. And I wonder if it might have been better coming before the character creation chapter, as it builds the world in which your game takes place. That said, I remember how frustrated I was that character creation is only detailed in the GMs book of UA3, so maybe I won’t go there. In the end, th s is a process that’s moderated by GMs, so if that say go away and make or characters, then we’ll stick them together, or come armed with an idea of who you won’t to be, but we we’ll flesh out characters as we build the world, it’s up to them.

So we start off with a concept. And here the crew concept is definitely freeform, the book only offers “some possibilities”, private investigators, deniable assets of a faction (though we’ll come back to “deniability” later, or people that have been forced together because they share a common enemy.

Just like Unknown Armies, this game recommends the Crew think of a common goal, such as the defeat of of that common enemy, or a; ongoing task like keeping the Hidden World hidden. In the first “box-out” I think have encountered in this game (though there is no box) the author recommends that a character’s drive should not be entire antithetical to the goal of the Crew. Author Paul Mitchener also recognises that the goal needs to force the crew to go out and investigate Cases – just hiding from your enemy does not an adventure make.

Then, each player in the crew chooses one asset that the crew share, with suggestions and including: a base of operations, connections, hangers-on, informants, an occult library, a patron or a hated enemy. All of these, and more , of course help create the world the player characters operate in

Continuing the world building, the GM then presents the players with a list of the factions he plans to use, and each other play in turn names one with with they have a good relationship, and one with whom they have a poor relationship. Only three players can name the same faction as good, at with point the faction becomes an ally to the Crew, or poor, at which point the faction becomes the crew’s enemy. Other names factions will end up with a score of positive or negative one or two, which abstracts the nature of the relationship (and I am sure) will modify dice rolls in play.

For the final bit of worldbuilding, each player comes up with a hook, which should be the springboard for a case, not the whole adventure. Like the pre-credits scene of a TV shoe. It’s up to play to reveal what’s behind that opening scene.

The chapter ends with four example crews, academic researchers, Free-Lance investigators, a Norfolk crime “family”, and, SCD9 – a “deniable” “undercover” unit affiliated to P Division. Though I would argue that, as the illustration features them wandering around in disposable paper SOC coveralls, bagged with the SCD9 logo, they don’t appear either undercover, or deniable 🙂

Liminal Chapter 2 – Character Creation

We are introduced to a crew with a group portrait. One of them is, I think, Ygraine from chapter one. There’s a tall lumberjack with glowing eyes who, I guess, will be a werewolf, and a wizard in training and a former police officer. I think we’ll meet all four in examples thoughout the book.

Character creation starts off with a concept and a drive. As I mentioned in my previous post I am coming to this reading pre-equipped with a character I want to build: William Palmer, the Pilgrim.

His concept is easy: cursed with eternal life by the faerie King, he has walked the border between the mundane world and the Hidden for almost 1000 years. His Drive, to end his curse and die.

But we must choose a focus, and here the choices are limited, not freeform + we must be tough, determined or magician. I would argue the William Palmer is determined, but he has used spells more than once, if I recall correctly. You pick up a secret or two in 1000 years. If I must choose between the two I will wait to later in the chapter (or the book) to see haw it works mechanically, but given how rarely he uses magic in the series, I tend towards Determined. (There’s a note here about how a werewolf’s transformation is like a spell, but a werewolf character is not a magician focus, because their shapechangeing is limited to just two forms.)

The player must spend seventeen points on skills, with no skill more than four. Two points in a skill makes you relatively proficient, apparently. There are 21 skills. Traits are supernatural abilities, training or innate advantages that cost one or two points. You have five points to spend. But you can get extra points to spend on traits if you also take supernatural limitations. So I guess you can get extra vampire traits if you also have an aversion to garlic.

You also have three attributes: Endurance, Will and Damage. In many games, your attributes add to, or apply a bonus/penalty to skills. But in this one it’s the other way around. your skills enhance your attribute. Your endurance in eight plus your athletics skill, and will, eight plus your conviction skill. Hmmm I am intrigued to see how these are used mechanically. Your damage is defined by your weapon, it’s d6 for unarmed combat, d6+1 for a knife etc up to d6+4 for a heavy firearm. Again I shall have to wait until I read about the mechanics before I pass judgement, but right now this feels like clashing philosophies – a desire to abstract (mundane) combat because it’s not the heart of the game, yet the need to differentiate between heavy and light weapons for … what? “Tactical” reasons? My touchpoint for abstracted, yet deadly combat is Unknown Armies. We’ll see later on how this compares.

I turn the page, some more great illustration, and then something that catches me unawares – Character Concepts. I had imagined, earlier, that the Concept was entirely free-form. But here with a number of concepts, or archetypes, with suggested “builds”. The Concepts are:

  • Academic Wizard
  • Changeling
  • Clue-up Criminal
  • Dhampir
  • Eldrich Scholar
  • Face
  • Gutter Mage
  • Investigator
  • Knight
  • Man in Black
  • Warden, and
  • Werewolf

Are these just examples or are they the defined list of classes? The book doesn’t make it clear whether players must chose from this list or if they cane make one of their own. It seems freeform enough that making your own shouldn’t be a problem, but the lost seems comprehensive enough to suggest that you shouldn’t need to. I’d prefer some clarity in this matter, but right now I am opting for choosing a concept. If only because one of the Concepts, the Face, seems to work for our man Pilgrim.

Each concept comes with suggested skills (in the face’s case, Art, Business, Education, Charm, Empathy, High Society, Rhetoric – no increased Endurance or Will for us) and traits (Agent of Ravenstower, Graceful, Presence, Rich, Silver Tongue), plus a limitation (Obliged) and a focus (Determined).

Players get 17 points to spend on skills.You can start with no more than four in a skill. This is explained with reference to a Skill Cap which seems over complicated at this point, but other uses for the Skill Cap might become apparent later. Skills at three or higher can have specialities.”an area of focus within a Skill” which “grants a +2 bonus when using a Skill in that area.”

There are 21 skills, seven in each of three areas: physical, mental and social. I am giving my William Palmer Awareness, Melee, Stealth, Survival and Vehicles from the physical list. Five points spent, I could have five of each area, and two extra points, but maybe I should focus more. From mental skills, I’ll choose Art, Business, Education and Lore. I might come back for a point in Medicine. Socially, I’ll take Conviction, Empathy, Rhetoric and Streetwise. Again I am slightly tempted by Taunt – Palmer often solves issues by goading Fae into bad decisions, but I was thinking that’s how I would use rhetoric. Thirteen skills at one point. Four points left to spend. Let’s look at some of the skills in more detail.

William Palmer runs a rare books business, which he inheritable from a friend. He started a trust fund in the twelfth century, to maintain a chapel in which a roman centurion sleeps, but despite these example of business acumen, it’s the bit in the skill description about fae that tempts me to add some points to this skill “When dealing with the Hidden World, the business skill is relevant when it comes to making bargains, which can be a vital survival skill when dealing with the Fae.”

However, with only four points to spend, there are two other skills that deserve the points more. Palmer has picked up a lot of knowledge in his millennium of living on the earth, but it seems, all quite shallow, except for his knowledge of the hidden world, which marks him out from most “hotbloods”, so that deserves an extra point or two. The other one is conviction, Palmer is not the devout pilgrim he once was, but he is still a man of faith. I am tempted to put his conviction up to four, or to make it three but spend a point in the Religious Faith speciality, but in the end, I think I’ll leave it at three and make his Lore three too. All my points are spent.

When it comes to traits the choices are more difficult. But there is one obvious one. Palmer has been known to utter a spell, but isn’t a full fledged magician. There is a Countermagic trait (“You know defensive spells which protect you and others against magical attacks. You can use your Lore Skill as a defence against magic, and can make a Lore skill test to disperse a magical effect. In both cases, this will usually be an opposed roll”) which, if I recall correctly, is pretty much the only sort of magic I have heard him use in the drama.

I am struggling over Rapid Healing.

“You rapidly heal from any injury, recovering d6 points of Endurance every hour. This rapid healing even applies when you have negative Endurance. You even eventually come back from the dead unless decapitated or incinerated. You are resistant to poisons and all but immune to disease.”

Palmer is cursed with immortality, but I believe this doesn’t come with rapid healing. I am sure I have heard references to him taking “years” to recover from injury. That said, in a role-playing game, taking a year or two out to recover isn’t much fun for your fellow players, so were I playing for real, I think I would have to choose this. Except …

“Any character with rapid healing has a flaw—one source of injury from which they cannot regenerate damage. You will not come back from the dead when killed through your flaw.”

Now, if William Palmer had one thing that could definitely kill him, he’d have jumped in a pool of it/stabbed himself with it/swallowed it, or whatever, years ago. He wants to die. I think if I was playing this for real, I’d negotiate with the GM that something can kill Palmer, but only the GM knows what it is.

So, if I took fast healing, despite my doubts, I would have two points left for traits. Palmer isn’t an Agent of Ravenstower (though reading the description, he might have been) or Always Prepared. Despite running a rare books business, he was snot a Bookworm, or a least, he does not exhibit the mechanics of this trait. He is neither Brawny nor Forgettable., Frightening nor Graceful. Oh, but he is an Investigator. Not a policeman or a detective, but a man who can “tell when someone is lying or hiding something, […] and […] find contacts and witnesses.” That trait is worth two points, so that’s all I can have.

I could get more points to spend, if I took on a limitation. And Obliged is the one that is closest to the Pilgrim stories, but Palmer has categorically not given his service to the Fae.

I feel though that this is a game that suits “session zero” style character creation in a group, William might have to choose a different trait if someone else had set their heart on being a policeman.

We finish with four sample characters, the group we met at the front of the chapter, and yes, I had them right.

Where I read: Liminal – Chapter 1

It’s time for another “where I read…” series. I have a a number of books, games I am unlikely to find the opportunity to play anytime soon, that I need to discipline myself to read and absorb. In the coming months, look forward to read-throughs of Vampire V and Phoenix Dawn Command, among others. Right now though, I am going to tackle the slimmest column in my book pile, not just because it will be the quickest, but it’s also the one I know least about and the one I am most interested in.

Among the unfinished draft posts that litter the unpublished area of this blog are more than a few about turning Ben Aaronovitch’s PC Peter Grant series of novels (otherwise known as the Rivers of London series) into a Role Playing Game. The posts are unfinished, and indeed the game is hardly started – just a few scribbled notes about Cortex, Fate and now, of course, the Year Zero Engine.

While I have been timewasting, Paul Mitchener has just got on with with it, producing a book that was Kickstarted a year ago. I did not kick in at the time, as my KS budget was spent, but the PDF just came out on Drive-thru, and being curious, even though I still didn’t really have the budget, I splashed out. To be honest I didn’t really look too deeply into the Kickstarter, as I worried I might be tempted to overspend. So I come to this book with as close to zero knowledge as you can get.

And colour me impressed. The art on the KS looked attractive, but seriously doesn’t do justice to the quality of art throughout the book. There one or two pieces that aren’t quite as good as the others but, by god, this is pretty, very pretty indeed. If I recall, the KS only has print on demand options available, quite rightly for a game with a limited print run, but … it’s so beautiful, this book deserves a proper printing.

Design and layout aren’t bad either, marred (for me) only by one thing: I am a typography snob and while, generally, type choices are excellent (I particularly like the use of Senator) , I am disappointed by the use of Mason for chapters and sub headings. Mason’s gothic stylings became a bit of a clichĂ© on the covers of unlicensed Buffy encyclopaedias, trashy urban fantasy, and second rate witchcraft TV. And it’s use here let’s the quality and imagination of the rest of the book down.

Mason. Ugh!

I think that’s about as rude as I will get on this book though. ‘Cause the rest of the book is gorgeous. And if I am feeling charitable, I guess … I guess you could say that for a game designed to emulate that sort of 90s urban fantasy fiction, it’s at least … appropriate … I suppose.

Anyhow, rant over, let’s look at the content of chapter one. We get a little intro from the changing, Ygraine Green, depicted in one of the lovely portraits that litter this book. Then there is a handy list of the sort of people who are Liminals, though who stand on the boundary between mundane and Hidden worlds, the sort of people your character will be. This list includes werewolves but no vampires (though vampires do exist in this world). The usual “What is roleplaying?” Section includes a dice turn of phrase about the GM:

there is one distinguished player, the Game Master

This firmly classes the GM as a player, which I strongly agree with. A very short note on dice suggests the mechanics are close to Traveller, the example says roll 2d6 and add for a total. But it’s also suggests it might be more than two dice sometimes.

There’s another monologue from a former police officer which illustrates the matter-of-factness which which Liminals regard the Hidden World. Then some facts for us players: magic, vampires, werewolves, the fae, and ghosts are real in this world. Though firmly set in Britain, “the myths and beings of the world of Liminal are often international in origin, sometimes due to the metaphorical (rather than literal) ghost of the British Empire.” There are “factions” organising the activities of magicians, vampires etc, and at least two mundane factions “in the know”, one in the church (which interestingly works across both Protestant and catholic branches) and one in the police. Most mundanes dinky think to looks for signs of the supernatural, but they are easy enough to find if you do choose to look for them.

Then there is a summary of the other chapters in the book. The next chapter deals with character creation, the third is about forming the characters into a crew (will I find I prefer doing it the other way round I wonder?). The rules are in chapter four and magic in five. Chapter six describes the various factions in more detail, seven is a bit of a gazetteer. GM advice is in chapter eight, and chapter nine is a “bestiary”. There are two adventures in the last chaper. Called “cases” they reveal the influence of PC Peter Grant, and the police procedural in general, on the game.

And indeed, over the page, the Grant series tops the list of “Inspirational Media”. Others include Neverwhere, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Hellblazer, Being Human, and Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales. I am slightly disappointed not to see some classics of children’s fiction, Alan Garner’s books, including The Owl Service, and American author Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence, in the list. A somewhat less disappointing omission, or less surprising at least, because hardly anyone listens to the radio nowadays it seems, is the excellent BBC Radio 4 series Pilgrim, by Sebastian Baczkiewicz. Cursed to eternal life by the fairy king, the pilgrim, William Palmer is a true Liminal, walking the boundaries of the mundane and Hidden worlds. I might see how easy he is to create when I read chapter two.

Tales from the Floodplain

Dave’s kind words in our #RPGaDay podcast on the 22nd about the card based game I ran a few years ago, made me go to the the darkest depths of my hard drive to see if I could find the files. I’d remembered I had laid them out in Pages, back when it was good. I thought that might be able to convert them to PDF and put them online here.

I found them, and more than that I found I had already made a PDF file that put the system, the adventure and all the cards together. Dave insisted I had made it ten years ago. I said five, and it turns out to have been seven, the file is dated 2011. And therein lies my shame…

I remembered the circumstances of the games creation. On a whim, I decided to participate in a thing called GameChef. Turns out it’s happening again right now, you have a week (two weekends, so actually, nine days) to write and submit a game with a limited word count. Well, YOU don’t because it’s almost finished for this year. But I did, back in 2011. I wrote it, Dave, Andy and I played it, and finding it worked well enough (with me GMing at least), I made it look vaguely pretty and submitted it.

And then went off for a holiday, without properly reading how the judging happens. I came home to find and inbox full of messages chasing my options on the (five?) games I should have judged. It was over. I had missed the deadline. I felt really bad. And put the whole thing out of my mind, until Dave reminded me.

Yeah, thanks Dave.

But there was the PDF, sitting on my hard drive. So I might as well share it, here.

Illimat

This isn’t an RPG. So why am I covering it on my RPG blog?

Well, I can think of two reasons: firstly, it’s MY blog, so I can post whatever I like (and I like this); secondly, it’s a wonderful game that might well have come from, or be found in, your RPG world. Check out the components in this Unboxing video I made:

The cards are familiar but strange: five suits – named for spring, summer, autumn, winter and stars; a fool for each suit instead of an ace; and the “luminaries”, a sort of major arcana, all combine to offer something other-worldly, alien even. The quality of production means that once the plastic bags and wrapping is removed, the game itself feels old, timeless, and could become a great prop for RPGs

It was inspired by the The Decemberists’ The Hazards of Love, a modern English-folk style concept album, which tells the story of changelings, murder, ghosts and forest queens, which lends itself to fantasy or horror themed games, but I’d arguable the game could even work in sci-fi settings. In fact, shortly after the album came out I ran a Serenity RPG scenario inspired by one of the songs. And given that us Kickstarter backers get nine “luminaries” (its normally eight), I think I can map them to the nine Icons of Coriolis‘ Third Horizon.

Anyhow it’s lovely. It plays well too, and it’s quick to learn the basics within a couple of hands, but (I think) it rewards working towards a deeper tactical understanding over time.

If you want a copy you can order it here: https://www.illimat.com