Friday, January 28, 2011

Adding the Monster

One of my absolute favorite tricks in Leverage is that there is no obligation to stat the opposition from the getgo. Structurally, there are certain questions you need to answer about the mark and such, but the mark isn't really the opposition. I'm thinking more about characters like Sterling, the ones who can really give the players a run for their money and who make for interesting challenges. While the GM _can_ write them up, the system doesn't require it, and in fact offers a much more elegant solution.

The trick to this revolves around the primary use for complications (situations where a player rolls a 1). Complications give the GM currency which can be most easily thought of as narrator plot points. The GM can use them to introduce twists and complications in the form of slapping new descriptors down on the table. So, for example, let's say the players are casing a joint and they produce some complications. The GM might use those to say "Ok, there's an Insurance Investigator checking the place out too, that might be a problem". And if that GM is me, then he picks up a sharpie and writes "Insurance Investigator d8"[1] on a post-it note and puts it down on the table. That's now in play, and the GM will pick up that d8 any time the Insurance Investigator comes up to mess with the players (and a clever player who finds a way to leverage the investigator might be able to pick it up too).

That's a good start, but where it gets fun is that the GM can add to it as he gets more complications. Let's say that this investigator is in a really good scene, and based on how it went (and the complications I have to spend) I add "Sees more than he let's on d10" to his post-it. Later on he ends up in a scrap on the player's side and one of the _players_ spends some plot points to add "Old Army Buddy d8" to the note.[2]

The net result is that if an NPC is interesting enough, he will develop stats over time that emerge organically from play. This is pretty cool, and to come around to the point of this post, it can be turned around as a fantastic way to handle monsters in an investigative game.

See, the thing about Supernatural's monsters is that a lot fo them are throwaways. There are certain recurring types (demons and vampires, for example) but a lot of them are just some familiar-sounding name out of the mythology of your choice. Now, it's totally possible to build a monster in advance based on an idea, but that's not the only way to do it. It's entirely possible to build a monster from it's _effects_.

To illustrate what I mean, imagine the monster's stats as a blank sheet. As you start the adventure, you describe the gruesomely mangled bodies of the victims. With this point, you have revealed something about the monster - whatever it is, it's capable of making injuries like this. So you note down "Monstrous Claws d8" or "Heavy Cleaver d10" or whatever caused the wounds. If you want to leave it uncertain, then "Monstrous Claws? d8", with the question mark indicating that you might refine the descriptor later.

Later on as they talk to the Sheriff about what he saw, the Sheriff talks about unloading his revolver into the thing's back and it not even flinching. Slap down "Bulletproof? d8" on the sheet, leaving your options open, Maybe it's a ghost, maybe it's heavily armored, maybe it just shrugs off gunfire. When you get a better idea, you can scratch out Bulletproof and write down something more precise.

Sometimes information might be wrong (bad witnesses or the like) so feel free to note that with extra question marks ("Can fly??? d8") so that you know which information you can ditch if it ends up contradictory.

Continuing this over time you'll find yourself creating a complete picture of the monster while your players are doing the same thing. In effect, their investigation is your monster creation process. At some point it will all fall into place (for you or them) and all you'll need to do is slap on a name (and for that I really recommend having a list of monster names on hand in advance).

Not every game will suit this approach, and it definitely is a better tool for the GM who likes to discover things while describing them, but if you need to pull a session out of the air, this lets you do so with only the barest outline of a plan, and build it as you go.

[↩]1 - In my house rules, complications are a tad more potent than they are in base Leverage rules, starting at d8 rather than d6, on the reasoning that since d6 is the default die (that is, the die you roll when there's no relevant descriptor) the GM has an infinite budget of those.

[↩]2 - Note that the player has just done two useful things there - created a connection to the character AND given him something useful in a fight that the player can add to his pool in the fight.


  1. I will note that if you're going to argue for d8s the way you do, players should get the d8s when they spend a PP and a d10 when their Talents would otherwise step the d6 default up to a d8.

    The Fixer shouldn't really have an infinite supply of d6s to add to things beyond the single difficulty/location/situation die he's rolling in for opposition to get to 2 dice. Frex, any Fixer who decides to roll twelve six-siders because he has an unlimited supply is a total hoser.

    I'm fine with the d8 coming from two 1s rolled by the player, of course.

  2. Also, this create-a-monster-on-the-fly thing was originally something I wanted for the Supernatural RPG corebook, and THEN something I wanted for the Guide to the Hunted (it kind of shows up there, but not as fluid as this, on account of Classic Cortex not bending that far). So it's definitely a win for me.

  3. The thing about the infinite budget of d6's is that it can only get so bad: if the GM decided to really abuse it and give himself 20d6 to get a 12, then he'd still have a decent chance of losing against a strong roll (setting aside that I'm the GM, and I wouldn't do something that stupid).

    The rub is that the d8s have ended up feeling like the sweet spot in play, even though it's technically unfair. This is the case for three reasons:

    1. Keeps the level of difficulty challenging. Leverage characters can pretty easily dominate a d6.

    2. Makes the spends feel about the right level of significance.

    3. By extension, it allows d6s for things I don't care about, but which have been made important by play. That security guard? I don't care about him, but the players had some nice banter with him, so let's give him a D6 just so he's "on the table"

    #3 is pretty important for entirely non-mechanical reasons. A d6 that is on the table is more important to the game than one that is not.

    Of course, that's all theory. The real reason is that, man, it works -really- well at the table.

  4. This level of emergent gameplay is exactly what sells CortexPlus to me, and I think it is C+'s preeminent feature.

    The bounds of what can be developed organically in play as a result of the narrative astound and excite me. This part of Leverage is exactly what caused me to try an X-Com hack even thouhh many have tried previously, because finally the system would allow the aliens/monsters to be new and mysterious each game, thus maintaining their fear factor, and thus the tone essential to the genre/game.

    I'm pumped to see what else people come up with for this emergent gameplay mechanic to allow in wider RPG hacks. The level of instantaneous and progressive narrative power it gives to players and GMs is precisely what lets RPGs far outshine the best video or board game, which have to be either built or coded to some extent in advance.

  5. I so want to bring this kind of emergent opposition-generation into Nobilis 3 somehow. The problem defeats me so far - it's a place where the lack of randomizers does inhibit things. One less stream of facts to put to use.

  6. I've run into the same issue with when to add d6s and when not to, which dovetails into the idea of making up adversaries during play- it almost makes me want a budget of dice in order to construct the elements of a scenario. I haven't figured out what the balance goal is though, and what advantages that would have. The Leverage creation tables handle a lot of that for me, but when running a hack, it takes a bit more guesswork.

  7. Leverage has you create the mark as 2d12 for their strengths, 2d4 for the weaknesses and a d8 for a personal quirk. So what if you divide the mystery categories up into five similar categories.

    Reflavoring the categories means like What Can Kill It, What Does it Eat, Why is it Deadly, Why is it Scary and What is Unusual?

    Vampire Prince of Peoria
    Why is it Deadly? D12 Powerful blood. It can chuck you through walls and tear you to shreds.
    Why is it Scary? D12 Ancient Vampire. It can seep through walls, turn into a bat and erase your mind
    What is Unusual? d8 Poses as the owner of a meat-packing plant to get rid of his victims
    What does it eat? D4 Teenagers. It can't draw sustenance from the blood of anyone over 18.
    What can kill it? d4 Classic Vampire (all the folklore applies, running water, stake through the heart, etc.)

    You don’t have to have the categories correspond all the time, naturallt - the Unusual element could be a weakness or a strength if you want to do weird riffs on classic monsters, like a werewolf triggered by menstrual cycles instead of the lunar cycle.

    Or, another idea, if you really want to play up the mystery/no-prep villain aspect - once enough complications involving the monster have been set on the table, the Investigation phase of the episode is over. The Kill the Damn Thing phase begins and the monster starts coming after the hunters.

  8. Very cool. You could even go InSpectres style and rely on the players to build out the monster. With the more robust system of complications and dice size increases, you could even do something like:

    Complications build up in a pile. The next time the players make an investigative roll with free Complications, the active player has to declare a new advantage for the monster. The GM then spends Complications to give that feature a die.

    Conversely, players can spend plot points during investigative rolls to assign dice of weaknesses of their choice to the monster.

  9. @Stephen - I really dig the idea of the players getting to define the monster, either through research rolls or by being on the unfortunately end of a Complication. It would almost need to have a table of abilities, weakness, etc to define the scope of monsters without it getting out of hand.

  10. I have considered having a zero prep game of Leverage where the Crew get to define an aspect of the Mark each time they got a successful check for "research", and I would secret assign a new one any time that they failed.

  11. I may steal this whole cloth for Smallville.


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