Turn Based Combat

Something about traditional turn-based combat has always bugged me.

Here’s the standard: The character with the highest initiative goes first. They move their entire maximum movement (commonly 30 feet) and then make one or two actions, for example drinking a Potion of Might and then attacking the enemy archer with a battle axe. Damage is totalled, effects are distributed.

Then the next person goes.

Why didn’t that archer loose an arrow when he saw the barbarian charging at him from across the room, battle axe raised?

Because his Initiative was one point lower. It wasn’t his turn to act. In this simulated battle, where one entire round is only six seconds of in-game time, and everything is supposed to be happening at the same time…well, nothing is happening at the same time.

Look, I don’t care if you “have the initiative,” if you start running at me from 30 feet away, I’m gonna have time to react. And if it’s real life, I’m probably going to start running in the opposite direction. I ain’t waiting to see if you lower that axe on my skull because I’m polite and waiting my turn.

For Distant Earth I’ve been workshopping some combat options that represent action and reaction slightly better. Since it will more often be focused on ranged combat with powerful guns, things like bum-rushing a turret seems ridiculous. So I’d like to have a system that allows for more reaction to enemy movements and actions, without totally taking the advantage away from the character with the highest initiative. My idea?

Reverse Initiative.

The lowest initiative goes first and makes their intentions known. Then the next person goes and so on, having knowledge of what all characters before them are going to do, but before anything is resolved. I’m hoping it would make actions like taking cover and suppressing fire more common, and that groups would work strategically.

It’s probably a stupid idea. But I’m gonna give it a try. I want to encourage critical and strategic planning. In most pnps players don’t want to “waste” their turn on anything other than making their most powerful attack. If the “turn” becomes more of a round of simultaneous actions by two teams, working together will hopefully make non-attack actions feel like they are important contributions to success.

Thoughts? Experiences? Am I CRAZY?!


Echoes Of The Goblin King

It’s hard to quantify the impact that David Bowie has had over the sci-fi and fantasy landscape. He wasn’t a George Lucas, or a Jack Vance. Still, he was a creator of worlds, a writer of atmospheres, a portrayer of characters. He, in many ways, was a role-player.

His music was a soundscape that not only accompanied fantastic stories, it actually conjured them. The characters he became burrowed their way into the collective cultural ideal of fantasy-as-art, and perhaps no one did it with more conviction.

His music was nothing short of groundbreaking. While the airwaves were being dominated by the likes of R&B singers Al Green and Roberta Flack, Bowie was becoming Ziggy Stardust and releasing science fiction concept albums. Not many have done that, fewer still in 1972. While prepubescent Michael Jackson sang about Rockin’ Robins, Ziggy sang about pink monkey-birds and spiders from Mars.

The personas he created have flavored a generation of gamers, whether they realize it or not. When kids in the eighties watched Labyrinth for the first time, they fell in love with a feeling and a mood and an experience. It was a live-action dungeon crawl, full of mazes and puzzles and monsters and magic, and waiting in the center of it all was the boss fight with the Goblin King. This wasn’t a faceless unknown evil, it was a motivated, enviable, and most importantly, understandable foe. There was depth and intrigue to this Big Bad. It was a quest hook based on decision making and investigation of character; it was the best campaign you’ve ever hoped to play. David Bowie WAS Jareth. He role played the character like only the best GM can, with mountains of unseen information and backstory that makes the character real, even if the players never discover it.

Those manifestations have left fingerprints on many other mediums over the years, one of which is undoubtedly my love for fantasy and science fiction gaming. Gaming as an expression of art is a concept I’ve wrestled with for a long time. I know that gaming has made me a better actor, and acting has made me a better gamer. There is very little difference for me between the two: wearing another character’s skin to drive a leisure activity and doing so for art’s sake use the same muscles, and Bowie as Jareth is my reference point for that marriage. Perhaps if I would have pursued music with more intensity Ziggy Stardust would have been a musical analog. I have reflected the energy Bowie put into his art, and therefore onto the world, onto my own art. I’m willing to bet many others out there have too.

Cheers to a great performer, artist, creator, and role-player. Thanks for everything, Mr. Jones.

Level-less Role Playing

What if–and I’m totally just spit-balling here–when you played a tabletop rpg there was no leveling? What if the progress of your character was based more upon learning how to navigate the dangers around you more efficiently? Sure, gaining gold or credits or what-have-you would be an important part of that; equipping your character better for what they will face is a sort of progression.

All too often the mindset of a player is “Well, we COULD cause a distraction and sneak around this guard, creating a good opportunity for some interesting role play. But then we wouldn’t get the XP. So, nah, let’s just run up head on and kill him, who cares if we’re good guys.”

Players see XP as power-currency for their characters, and thus greedily accumulate it at whatever cost. And why shouldn’t they? Everyone wants to succeed, do amazing things, put the baddies in their place. Usually that means grinding some XP to unlock that new skill.

But what if you gained trainings just by playing a session or two? What if you got paid the same no matter how you completed the job? What if gametime was just about running your character and enjoying it, without worrying about how many XP you are away from the next level?  “Level 4 is when I get such-and-such ability, that’s when it gets fun.”

Maybe you start with all those abilities you want to use. Maybe they get more powerful the more you use them. Isn’t that what the XP system is supposed to represent anyhow? What if you gain experience by experiencing?

Maybe you’re trained in bazookas from day one, but you just have to raise the 40,000 credits to buy one. Maybe your character starts with the ability to cast the most devastating fireball in the spellbook, but it consumes a diamond each time, and you only start with one?

I’m not saying that character progression should be eliminated, far from it. I just think there might be a different way to approach it that doesn’t “force” the player to make certain decisions just so XP can keep rolling in. That’s not role playing, that’s following a  strategy guide.

I’m curious to hear what others think about this, especially those that have tried something similar, and whether or not it works.

Law and Order [Distant Earth]

For a long time an idealistic one-world government allowed for widespread prosperity and peace. Technology and quality-of-life took enormous steps forward, and eventually permanent space station colonies were established, as well as settlements on neighboring moons and planets within the system.

It wasn’t without its opposition, however.

Resistance cells kept the world government on constant watch, and many remote areas became warzones. By the time the Droog showed up looking for asylum (and introducing their alien mutagens to an unsuspecting population) the world was on the verge of change. And change came quickly.

Chaos erupted from the moment the first human mutated. A terrified and angry population demanded the Droog be exiled from the planet, and they likely would have succeeded if the government hadn’t stepped in to protect the visitors. After all, there was technology that these creatures had that humans hadn’t come close to developing yet.

The resistance forces took the opportunity to strike hard at the government while it was busy dealing with the new crisis, and out of the chaos came a sort of compromise. The government would release control of a handful of locations–mostly underdeveloped or barren lands–to be ruled locally as the people saw fit. They became known as Free Cities, but freedom came at a price. Warlords claimed power over these settlements more often than not, and a lack of government aid left the rest at best dangerous and poverty-stricken. Soon after came a wave of mutations.

Sixty years of war, disease, and climate change forced a new landscape. The government gave way to private businesses and security forces. Pharmaceutical companies rose to power, curing both humans and Droog alike of their diseases and mutations–at least those that could afford it. Entire cities put up walls to protect their citizens from the terrors of the outlands. Soon they became nearly independent; civilized centers of commerce and technology amidst wild and decrepit wastelands. Governing bodies and laws varied from city to city, usually driven by Credits and a need for safety. Urban populations forgot about the Outlands. Space colonies were cut off. This was the new frontier.

Roll Charts: The Intimidation Method

There seems to be one in every group. Your party of adventurers are searching for information about such-and-such, and instead of following clues and leads, some brute in the party grabs the first random NPC he can find and threatens them with violence if they don’t tell him where the evil wizard is hiding. Sure, the warrior may succeed at his Intimidation check against this poor defenseless farmer that has never even HEARD about the evil wizard, but what does a success mean? “He doesn’t know” is a common answer. Let’s add a little flair to this random strong arming.

If the Intimidation check succeeds, roll 1d6 to see how the NPC responds:

1. Terrified. Soils clothing. Cannot respond.

2. Confused. Answers incoherently, or gives incorrect information.

3. Stonewall. Refuses to answer.

4. Flees. Drops 1d20 silver at your feet and runs away.

5. Apologetic. Has no specific answer, but may provide some other type of information or service.

6. Lucky. Somehow, this stranger has the exact information you are looking for. Celebrate your good fortune.


If the Intimidation check fails, roll 1d6 to see how the NPC responds:

1. Short Fuse. The NPC immediately attacks the player that tried to intimidate them.

2. Reports. The NPC alerts the local authorities that a stranger in town is starting fights with innocent townspeople.

3-5. Nothing happens, other than the NPC is not impressed.

6. Misdirection. The NPC gives false information, purposely misleading the party.

Roll Charts: Holidays and Observations

While tending to my holiday obligations this year, I began contemplating the conception of holidays and celebrations within a given culture, and how vital they are in providing a cultural identity. Observed holidays can speak volumes about the values, history, and priorities of a group of people. Therefore, providing such “window dressing” when introducing a new culture to your players in a home game can help an unknown city of mindless NPCs take that leap into a living breathing community of believable people. Perhaps the townspeople are busily preparing for upcoming festivities, or maybe they are already in full swing. What is the feeling in the town? Is it pulsing with excitement, or are the people somber and reflective? Holidays can help you set a mood, quickly provide narrative exposition, or give an interesting backdrop for quest hooks. Of course, sometimes a party of adventurers steamroll their way off-script into one of these locations, so having a roll-chart ready to pull up can help an unprepared GM look like a clairvoyant. So for those that want some extra details about their towns, here’s a randomized chart.

* NOTE: This is designed for a fantasy setting, but a couple tweaks could make it work for other genres.

What kind of holiday is it? (Roll 1d12)


1. A seasonal festival. Spring planting, Summer or Winter solstice, or Fall harvest.

2. Birthday of a local leader (king, governor, tribal chief, mayor’s eldest daughter)

3: Anniversary of the death of a local hero, king, or town founder.

4. Religious high holiday, marking the adoption of a specific Deity as the town’s patron.

5. A public wedding celebration, perhaps of a notable person or persons.

6. Observed day of remembrance for a great battle, end of a war, or liberation of the town or realm from foreign control.

7. Local election, perhaps for mayor, sheriff, or judge. Public debates or voting may occur.

8. A great tournament, contest, or other organized leisure event.

9. Anniversary of some mystical or magical event that helped shape the town, such as a portal to another realm opening up , or the sudden appearance of a magical object or creature.

10. Anniversary of some natural or catastrophic event that helped shape the town, such as a great earthquake, tidal wave, or meteor that fell from the sky.

11. Strange custom. Perhaps completely superstitious, or based in religion or cultist beliefs. A day where everyone wears buckets on their heads to keep the corn-eating spirits away, for example.

12. Apocalypse celebration. According to legend, an Oracle, or the local calendar, this is the day that the world is supposed to end.


How is it celebrated? (Roll 1d20)

1. Traditional feasting.

2. Dancing, singing, and live music.

3. Courting and the admission of love for a secret object of affection. All remaining singles are randomly and forcibly coupled.

4. The granting of a boon upon the townspeople. Perhaps extra food rations, gold and treasure, or practical items.

5. With a day of silent meditation, where no business may be conducted and nobody may verbally communicate.

6. A public execution of the town’s most hated criminal.

7. With the sacrifice of an animal, where each townsperson is required to drink the beast’s blood.

8. With the sacrifice of an innocent person, virgin, or elder, in order to appease the gods or devils.

9. By exchanging gifts with strangers in the street.

10. With a huge bonfire where everyone brings an equal amount of fuel to signify unity.

11. With the juggling of geese.

12. With the choreographed mass suicide of each and every member of the town.

13. With a battle to the death between two armed combatants.

14. With the personal blessing of the town clergyman upon every citizen, including a fortune reading or prayer for luck and prosperity.

15. By sacrificing an object of personal value or importance.

16. By throwing food and excrement at all outsiders until the sun sets.

17. By participating in a seven-hour chant while holding hands in town square.

18. With the release of 1000 chickens into the village, which must be collected alive in the highest amount in order to crown the Festival Champion.

19. By marching to war on a neighboring city.

20. With a 24 Hour “purge-style” day of lawlessness with no legal ramifications.


Enjoy, and happy holidays!

This Is Madness / Oh The Humanity [Distant Earth]

Characters in Distant Earth must keep track of two additional ratings that can affect their actions and outcomes: Madness and Humanity. Although they can affect each other, or both be affected simultaneously by the same actions, the two ratings are independent from each other.

Humanity represents how closely you resemble/act/identify as a Clean Human (which is a Human that has no mutations or cybernetics, and follows the commonly accepted social rules of the Human Race.) It is both a representation of how others perceive you and how you relate to fellow Humans. Your Humanity rating affects how certain groups treat you. Clean Humans may not deal with you if your Humanity rating is too low. Mutant gangs may decide to kill you on sight instead of talk if your Humanity is too high. It is not meant to represent good/evil or right/wrong, only how you “fit in” to the many diverse populations of Distant Earth.  A very human-like android may have a higher Humanity rating than an actual human with tons of cybernetics, and on the other hand the alien-yet-humanoid-looking Droog may seem more relatable to a Clean Human than a metal Utilibot with no appendages.

Madness on the other hand represents a character’s sanity and control over their actions. The world can often be a desperate and horrifying place, and maintaining a balanced outlook and a grip on reality can be a challenge. Cybernetics or mutations have the possibility of creating a sort of body-horror in the character, even if obtaining them was a conscious choice. Spending days without food or sleep will push you to the brink of your emotional capabilities. Killing innocent people for no reason can cripple you with guilt. Witnessing the slaughter of an entire village by renegade robots can spiral you into depression. These things can all increase your Madness rating, which may affect how well certain abilities and skills are performed, as well as affect outcomes and responses by others that encounter you. It’s hard to focus on hacking that computer when you’re laughing maniacally and desperately wanting to attack the console with a steel pipe instead.

Humanity is tied to Charisma, but may also affect Willpower, Wisdom or Luck. Madness is tied to Wisdom, but may affect Awareness, Stamina, or Charisma.