Rules and World Information

It is 1845. One hundred years before the end of the world. Central Asia has become a chessboard for the British and Russian empires – the dominant powers of the globe. A tabletop RPG campaign set in Afghanistan, where a cold war heats to boiling point. The Great Game (Ætheric Dreams)

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Rules and World Information

Post by Bigby »

This thread contains introductions, information about the world and the rules.
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Post by Bigby »

The Great Game - Introduction.docx

This game is based on the “The Great Game" which can be downloaded for free at DriveThruRpg.

It is 1845. A period of history that is filled with a plethora of interesting people, science, technological advances, vying empires and clashes between disparate cultures. The game focuses on Afghanistan.
A fairy-tale country that has never emerged from medieval times. Ruins, hidden secrets and strange people lie scattered through country side.
A trapped country between two expanding empires; the British Empire’s “jewel in the crown” India to the east, Russia to the north and the minor powers circling for the scraps. It is the cold war between the British and Russian Empires that caused Rudyard Kipling to coin the phrase “The Great Game”.
A proud country filled with fierce and deeply religious warriors. A first invasion by the British has been repulsed in spectacular fashion. The entire army was wiped out. The empires worst ever defeat by non-industrial opposition.
If this was not enough, alien megaliths have been discovered in the Hindu Kush. They birth an invisible force – the aether. It permeates the country, defying the science of the times. Through esoteric study, some tap into the aether’s secrets, creating wondrous devices and unleashing strange powers upon the earth.
From the snow-covered mountains to the central deserts, from forest to city, the land of the Afghans will be fought over until one power gains control of the megaliths – the rarest and most powerful resource in history.

The Effects of Aether (So Far)
A great soothsayer has predicted the world will end in 100 years. It is a sign of the times that his pronouncements have gained a small measure of traction in polite society.
Aether has sparked a technological and medical revolution. Most people do not give the questions “what aether is” or “how it works” a second thought. They just take advantage of the wonderful things it can do. It is a very much like petrol will be in the early 1900s. Very few people know what petrol is, how it is obtained or how to make it do useful things.
But the aether is also very different to petrol. For a start the range of things that it can do does not seem to be limited by rhyme or reason. The aether four commonly documented effects and uses:
• Aether may be used as a much more effective and safer replacement for hydrogen in airships. Only a fraction of aether is required to replace the lifting potential of hydrogen. This has led to an explosion (no pun intended) in air travel across the globe. Large airships are beginning to regularly cross continents, bringing affordable long distance travel to the well-off middle classes. Small, fast fighter-airships and larger high-capacity bomber-airships are being developed by the military.
• The use of aether brings on strange hallucinations; the experience of radiant colours, surfaces appearing to ripple or “breath”, an altered sense of time (stretching or contracting - sometimes at the same time), geometric patterns overlaying surfaces and morphing objects. For many it is all about fantastical moments that are filled with wonder and amazement. For some few others it is the opposite. Many of those that have discovered the recent radical scientific and technological advances claim the use of aether in this way has been the source of their inspiration.
• The aether has birthed a new field of science and engineering - mechanical automatons. The aether, somehow, allows mechanical automatons to carry out complex tasks that would otherwise require humans and provides an almost unlimited energy source. All attempts to use aether as an energy source, except to power specifically designed mechanical automatons, has failed. Mechanical automatons (“mats” for short) have so far been used to replace missing limbs, create machines to do replace manual labour and of course the military has taken a keen interest in their battlefield potential. “Mats” are still far too expensive to replace manual labour, except in remote or dangerous locales. There is a growing trend for the affluent middle classes to own one for novelty value. Rumours that some “mats” have achieved a higher state of sentient being are just that.
• The aether has no healing or medical properties, except that it allows animal body parts to be successfully grafted onto the human body. Attempts to use the same techniques to graft human body parts to a different body have failed. Initially such experiments replaced lost limbs or other body parts (often war injuries). However, other more sinister experiments are rumoured to be taking place, especially in the less industrialised parts of eastern Europe and Russia. After a brief flirtation, the industrialised world has generally rejected these types of modifications to the human body in favour of mechanical alternatives. Still it is not unheard of to see a man with a horses’ leg walking down the street of London.
It is this seeming randomness that splits polite society and learned academics. Some say this randomness and its miraculous powers are like nothing on this earth. Its effects are beginning to shake the very foundations of the natural order. Others say that it is simply because we have not discovered all its potential, the unifying theory of how it works. Maybe the soothsayer is right. Whatever benefits it brings will be paid for in the future and the price will be terrible.

We will not be using the system in “The Great Game” pdf (shudder). Instead we will be using Cortex+ (used in Leverage and Firefly). It is a solid system that is covered in the rules summary.

What to Expect
This game will feature Victorian subjects exploring the deserts, jungles, mountains and lush valleys of Afghanistan. The game will be filled with adventure, weirdness brought on by the aether (and not) and intrigue born of the “The Great Game”.
The game will be a blend of HEX (adventure!), Cthulhu (weirdness without that entity itself of course) and Space 1889 (steam punk or more correctly aether-punk).
I plan to run this game for about 10 sessions. Call this season 1. There will be an option to renew for season 2 at the end or move onto something else.
There will be a season 1 story arc, uber-plot and side stories.

Character Creation
I am not going to mandate or structure this. Everyone has a different way of doing things. I would like to encourage inter-character relationships before the game starts (i.e. character can and are encouraged to know each other in some capacity). It is not necessary for characters to have been to Afghanistan or neighbouring areas. Neither is it precluded. A few characters with local experience and contacts will make things more interesting.
What I think will help beyond the mechanical details is the following:
• I like the 13th Age one unique thing. Feel free to start with this as a seed. This can always be converted into a Distinction.
• A background. Something littered with things I can use to weave into the game. People and experiences that may form story seeds.
• A clear understanding of what the character would be doing if the game did not occur. This might be a daily routine, short term goals or a grand adventure in the works.

Additional Reading
Although not compulsory by any means reading the following will give you a lot of the flavour of the period:
• The Great Game pdf (not everything in the pdf holds true, but then again not all the reports coming out of Afghanistan are true as well).
• Watching the BBC documentary “The Great Game” (I have a copy from Ross that can be distributed for viewing).

Personal Goals
I am planning on stretching myself as a GM with this game. I plan to use a few techniques I have not used before. Why bother telling you? Well there are two reasons:
• You may wish to consider your gaming style and challenge yourself to try one or two new things as a player. This is entirely optional of course and I have no intentions of making suggestions.
• When you first start out trying something new, you suck at it and self-consciously too - better you know why I am acting so weird at the table at times.
So what am I thinking of doing differently:
• Choice. Offer the players a choice of games. Not something I have done before. Normally I control everything. This is not the game I would have run myself (which would have been HEX). This game is taking me out of my comfort zone, which is definitely a good thing, evening if I am taking longer to get the prep done than I would otherwise.
• Listen and Ask Questions. Comes from Lady Blackbird (via Neil) and is a nod to HotB without going the whole hog. In essence when something happens to your character I will ask you what you think as a player. We will take the best idea (other players and I can contribute) and go with that. The theory here is 5 people coming up with ideas is better than 1 GM. And it gives the player a chance to weave in elements that a GMs would otherwise miss because their heads are full of plot.
• Flashbacks. I want to use flashbacks to explore different aspects of the game. More of this when I figure it out.
• Exposition. I want the players to tell me what their characters are thinking as they take actions. This is especially useful for quiet characters. They need this to shine as much as the outgoing characters. Just because a character is quiet does not mean they shouldn't get as much of the limelight as others. It will also help define emotional context, allow other players to get involved with that character and generally provide a more interesting game.
• Outline. I am not going to run until I have an outline for season 1 and the uber-plot in good order. Too many of my games have petered out as I have lot interest.

House and Table Rules
I will want to discuss these beforehand and get agreement (or at least no objections) from all the players:
• When one person leaves the table (for whatever reason) I will pause the game until they return. I don’t want anyone missing anything. This is a good time for everyone to deal with anything that might interrupt the game.
• If you don’t pay attention to the game then the game will not pay attention to you. Happy for people to use computers, phones and do anything else they like at the table. This is good feedback for me that the game is not holding your attention and I will try to improve the game so it does. There is the danger that we enter the death spiral of inattention – we all need to work against this.
• We need to figure out how to track Complications and Assets. Post-it notes, whiteboard or something else.
• Anything else anyone wants to bring to the way we play the game!
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Languages, Religion and Currency

Post by Bigby »

On Languages and Religion:

Hindi, Urdu, and Hindustani are all deemed somewhat synonymous as far as the Brits are concerned. There's no official division between Hindi and Urdu/Hindustani, just a matter of how much Persian vocabulary has been thrown in - more in the Urdu side of things - due to Mughal influence in past centuries. Should be mutually intelligible for the most part.

Persian is a court language in places, as high class Muslims own most of the land and rule the roost in many areas - Dost Muhammed Khan and Shah Shujah both being fine examples of this. Hindus and lower class Muslims make up the bulk of the rest, most likely speaking Pashto or Persian.

Pashto is the closest to a national language you'll get for Afghanistan - Pashtun (or Pathan, in the Punjab) people make up around half the populace I think, mostly south of the Hindu Kush around Kabul and the Afghan/Punjab border, and are what are referred to as 'Afghans' by British writings of the time. Pashtunwali dictates they take hospitality very seriously and is a generally sensible code, but also note that "Revenge is a dish best served cold" as a saying could easily have originated here, because they also take that very seriously too.

Virtually all of Afghanistan's rulers have been Pashtun Muslims to date, so far as I've read.

Contrary to Pashto being a national language though, Persian is spoken by several other ethnic groups, and others still have their own languages. Plenty of room for things to get confusing/interesting.

As Bruce has mentioned, there are animist religions about too, and plenty of fuzzy interpretations of major ones. Tolerance goes some way in the more populous regions, but Burnes' writings seem to indicate Hindus (being considered godless infidels) aren't well respected by many Muslims, for example getting charged twice as many rupees for safe conduct across borders as Christians (viewed by as fellow 'people of the book').


Burnes got by using rupees as far as Kabul, deemed acceptable currency despite some regional variations, though doubtless plenty of barter goes on still too. In Kabul he changed his Indian letters of credit for golden ducats for the journey onward through the Hindu Kush; merchants hailing from Shikapur have agencies there and many other cities besides, lending money to the governments in exchange for protection, and it was from them he secured the change of monies.
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Post by Bigby »

The Great Game - Rules Summary.docx
Traits are pretty much everything that is meaningful in Cortex+ is a Trait; Attributes, Roles, Specialities, Distinctions, Assets, Complications, minor NPCs and relevant Circumstantial Factors.
Each Trait has a description and a die rating. The description should be a short phrase or single word that is descriptive and as interesting as possible. The die rating ranges from d4 through to d12, and is rolled when the Trait comes into play.
Major NPCs will have a full set of Traits just like PCs. Stepping up a Trait means raising the die to the next level and stepping down lowering to the next level.

Attributes describe a character’s innate abilities. Every PC has five core Attributes:
• Alertness is perception, notice, speed of thought.
• Determination is self-esteem, grit, willpower.
• Force is physical presence, power, strength.
• Grace is balance, agility and poise.
• Intelligence is cognitive function, memory, logic.
Overlap between Attributes is deliberate. This allows the GM to be more generous when determining applicability during Taking Action.
A PC has all Attributes at d8 and may step up so long as an equivalent number of step downs are taken.

Skills are amalgamated into five broad Roles:
• Adventurer covers planning, getting about and surviving hostile natural environments.
• Boffin covers knowledge, theory and academia.
• Shadow covers the gathering of information, purloining of objects and countering these.
• Persuader covers social interactions and confrontations.
• Warrior covers all forms of physical confrontation.
For the same reasons as Attributes there is some overlap between Roles.
A character starts with Roles at d10, d8, d6, d6, d4.

Roles can be enhanced with specific narrow fields of expertise.
A character starts with two d8 Specialities that are attached to a specific Role. Specialities do not have to be attached to highest die Role a character has – in fact it is often more interesting to do the opposite!

A Distinction describes how your character is set apart from other characters. Distinctions can come from any part of a character’s makeup; background, personality, physical features etc. They must be dual-purpose though and have both a positive and negative side. When used as a positive Trait it is d8 and when used negatively is it d4 (and you get a Plot Point).
A character has 3 Distinctions, although only one has to be defined at the start of the game. The first Distinction should be the most important in defining the character.

Assets can be pretty much anything physical or mental that could help the character. An Asset is often assigned to a specific character but not always. An Asset is created at d6 by spending a Plot Point or through Taking Action to prepare in advance. An Asset lasts for a scene and can be extended to last for the session by spending a Plot Point.

Complications can be pretty much anything physical or mental that could hinder a character. A Complication is commonly created or stepped up when a player rolls one or more 1s during Taking Action or when spending a Plot Point to avoid being Taken Out. Complications are stepped down or removed when the scene changes, the GM rolls one or more 1s during Taken Action (and the player spends a Plot Point) or a PC specifically addresses a Complication by Taking Action.
Complications cannot be stepped up beyond d12 and when stepped down below d4 are removed.

Plot Points
Plot Points are earned when you:
• Use a Distinction as a d4 instead of a d8.
• The GM buys or increases a Complication after you've rolled one or more 1s Taking Action.
• The GM spends a Plot Point during Taking Action.
• You deserve one for being awesome.
Plot Points are spent to:
• Add an additional die from your gathered dice into the total after your roll.
• Create an Asset rated at d6 that lasts until the end of the scene.
• Extend an existing Asset to last for the session.
• Resist being Taken Out.
• Do cool stuff not covered specifically by the rules.
A character gets 1 Plot Point at the start of each session. Don’t worry, you’ll get more.
The GM does not have a pool of Plot Points like players. Whenever the GM spends a Plot Point it is given to the player involved.

Taking Action
Whenever a character (or opponent) wants to achieve something and GM can think of some worthwhile Complications that could occur if things don’t go well then a dice roll is used.
• The player describes the character’s intentions and the GM determines if Taking Action could lead to the character being Taken Out by a failure.
• The GM gathers and rolls dice to set the target.
• The player gathers and rolls dice to set the result.
• The result and target are compared and the outcome is narrated.
Dice are gathered in two different ways
• PCs and major NPCs get one dice for the most appropriate Attribute, Role, Speciality and Distinction they use and any number of dice from appropriate Assets, Complications and Circumstantial Factors. A Speciality must be attached to the Role being used. A Distinction may be used as a d4 (earning a Plot Point) or a d8. Complications are those affecting the opposition.
• For any other case, the GM gathers one dice for difficulty, one minor NPC or inanimate objects Trait dice plus any number of dice from appropriate Complications and Circumstantial Factors. Difficulty is rated as d4 easy, d6 average, d8 hard, d10 difficult, d12 nearly impossible.
A total is calculated by rolling all gathered dice, setting aside 1s and adding the two highest dice together. Remaining dice (not 1s) may be added to the total spending a Plot Point for each die added.
Outcomes are determined by the results of the rolls.
• If the player’s result exceeds the GM’s target then the character is successful.
• If the player’s result exceeds the GM’s target by 5 or more then is an extraordinary success. The GM may throw something extra your way; maybe a free Asset, step up an existing Asset, step down a Complication or something else.
• For each 1 set aside by a PC, the GM may introduce a d6 Complication and/or step up the new or existing Complications. This earns the PC one Plot Point per Complication (not per step up).
• For each 1 set aside by the GM, the PC may step down an existing a Complication. This costs a Plot Point per Complication.
The outcome is narrated by the player (regardless of outcome) in consultation with the GM.
Plot Points spent by the GM during a Taking Action are given to the player involved after the Taking Action is completely resolved. They cannot be spent during the Taking Action.

Circumstantial Factors
Circumstantial Factors are used by the GM on the fly when they become relevant to the game and appropriate to the situation.

Ganging Up
For each additional person involved in Taking Action they can add their most appropriate Trait dice to the gathered dice (players roll their own dice and risk receiving a Complication if they roll a 1).
When confronting groups a successful outcome for a Taking Action will only affect one opponent.

Taken Out
A character is Taken Out when they have a Complication that is stepped up beyond d12 or if they lose an appropriate Taking Action roll.
A player may prevent their character being Taken Out by spending a Plot Point and receiving a new Complication equal to the highest die rolled by the GM.
A Taken Out character is temporarily unable of Taking Action and recovers when they are freed by external parties (other players or the GM relents).

This game uses a slightly tweaked version of Cortex+. Thanks to Ross for his invaluable input and tweak suggestions.

It is not necessary to define languages. Afghanistan, and the whole world for that matter, is full of different languages and dialects. A wide variety of different languages is important to enrich the flavour of the game. Having those languages intrude on the gameplay is only necessary when it is important to the story. At which point the GM will define one or more appropriate Complications. At all other times it is assumed that players are able to communicate effectively. Specialities and Distinctions can be used to offset such Complications.

d8 in everything is boring. It brings no flavour to the game. The rules allow this but it should be avoided at all costs. Minor NPCs have all Traits at a single dice value. That is because they are not important or as interesting as major NPCs or PCs. A wide variability in Attributes makes for a more interesting character.

Assets and Planning Ahead
Creating Assets on the fly helps reduce the need for lengthy planning ahead sessions. It is perfectly acceptable (and desirable) to justify Assets by saying the character thought ahead to bring the Asset as it would obviously be useful.
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House Rules

Post by Bigby »

  • Game Stops. When someone leaves the table. Regular breaks.
  • Pay Attention. To the game and the game will pay attention to you.
  • Player Input. Players have a lot of input into the game. Look to put into the game even when your character is not in the limelight.
  • Ask Players. I am going to ask the players for their input into every aspect of the game while guiding the bigger picture.
  • Exposition. Not just what a character is doing but what is going through their heads at the time.
  • Environmental Traits. Define more environmental and circumstantial Traits to make things more difficult.